THE CRITICS LOVE ZOE !!!
Zoe Barlow knows the pain of loss. By the age of 18, she'd already lost her father to suicide and her reputation to an ill-fated love affair, not to mention other losses too devastating for words. Exiled from her home and her beloved younger sister by their stepmother, Zoe has been dumped in Paris without a friend to help her make her way.
Now, four years, later Zoe has forged a new life as a painter amidst fellow artists, expats, and revolutionaries who are all struggling to make sense of the world in the aftermath of the Great War. Zoe has adopted this Lost Generation as her new family, so when her dear friend Hadley Hemingway loses a valise containing her husband Ernest's writings, Zoe happily volunteers to track it down. But she doesn't realize that her hunt has put her in the crosshairs of a merciless killer.
The Scent of Murder
A Zoe Barlow Short Story
October 5, 1923
It's never a good day when someone you dislike asks you for help.
I was having my usual breakfast of croissant and café au lait at La Rotonde when Mitzi Rockefeller entered, sneezed, then plopped herself down at my table.
"I need a favor, Zoe," she said, sniffling.
"Who doesn't?" I replied, hoping she'd get up and leave. I didn't need to catch whatever it was she had.
Mitzi was also a bit overdressed for a weekday morning, in a purple shantung chemise trimmed with bright yellow. The gaudy thing was topped off by a lavender cloche and pumps that just missed matching her Easter-egg chemise. But who was I to judge? I was still wearing my painter's smock, having been up all night working in my studio. So it was no wonder Jacques, my waiter, had hidden me in a corner.
When Jacques approached, she ordered a Chablis (Mitzi never drank red, claiming it stained her teeth). As soon as he left, she leaned forward and whispered, "I have to dispose of a body, and I thought you could help." Sniffle.
I took another sip of my coffee. "Dump it in the Seine. That's the usual procedure with your crowd, isn't it?"
My old adversary ignored my insult. "The dead man is Thierry Auberteau. I think he had a heart attack sometime last night. In my bed."
My jaw dropped. "You mean Thierry Auberteau, husband of Francine Auberteau-nee-Pennier?"
Mitzi nodded. "Thierry told Francine he'd be in Marseille overnight picking up a shipment of…."
"Oh, Jesus, don't tell me!" I covered my ears with my hands. In Paris these days, the less you knew about the ruthless Pennier family, the better off you were. Jules Pennier, pushing sixty, was to Paris what Al Capone was to Chicago. He was also famous for loving his spoiled daughter almost as much as he loved hijacking gold shipments or killing his rivals. Rumor had it that when Francine was seventeen and another girl stole away her boyfriend, both the girl and Francine's ex-boyfriend were found floating down the Seine.
Without their heads.
Ignoring my alarm, Mitzi kept talking and sniffling until I interrupted. "Pennier will kill you if he finds out you've been sleeping with his daughter's husband."
"That's why I can't call an undertaker. Or the police. You've got to help me get rid of it. Uh, him."
I took a deep breath. "You mean his body is in your flat?"
Her wine arrived promptly. Jacques had kindly brought a wine glass for me, so I pushed my cooling café au lait away, slurped down the cheap Chablis, and ordered another round.
"Why should I concern myself your mess?" I asked Mitzi.
"Because if you don't, I'll tell everyone about your involvement in the Grant Richardson affair."
Merde! "I'm not the one who killed that bastard!"
For once I was telling the truth. I hadn't laid a hand on Grant Richardson. I'd just let it be known in a certain quarter what he'd done to that poor little boy. Then I sat back and watched nature take its course. I didn't have long to wait, because within a week, the police found Richardson floating down the Seine. At least his killer had let him keep his head.
I forced a smile. "Ah, yes. The Richardson case. So sad. I didn't really have anything to do with that, you understand, but after giving your matter some thought, I may be able to help you after all."
How Mitzi had found out about my involvement in the Richardson affair was a mystery, but then most of her life was a mystery. She was no more a Rockefeller than I, having arrived in Paris after the end of the Great War with a bit of money and a fictious name. After several lucrative "romances," she'd set up a private gambling den in the Latin Quarter, offering roulette, poker, and baccarat. Unlike my own staid Poker Fridays in Montparnasse, which were attended by only my closest friends, Mitzi catered to a shadier clientele, including members of Le Milieu, Paris's sleazy underworld. I'd heard that on one night alone, her illegal casino had played host to two murderers, one bank robber, and two extortionists. Not to mention six naked prostitutes.
During our Metro ride to the Latin Quarter, my mind busied itself with the different ways one could dispose of a body. Woodland burial. Acid bath. Dismemberment. And, of course, that old standby—a midnight dunk in the Seine. One of the most popular launching places for the illegally deceased was the wharf at Quai d'Issy, where the corpse would bypass the heart of Paris on its way to the English Channel. But to access the d'Issy wharf, you needed some method of transport. One couldn't exactly climb onto the Metro with a corpse draped over one's shoulder pretending it was a rug. Since neither Mitzi nor I owned an auto, the problem of transportation would have to be solved first. I needed to take a look at the dearly departed to see what condition he was in. After a certain amount of time, dead bodies tended to stiffen up, making cross-town transportation difficult.
Now that November had arrived, most of the tourists had fled, except for a few Americans who'd decided to remain in a country where they could be their whisky without fear of arrest. Our Metro car was half empty, save for two Americans who looked drunk. As we all emerged back into daylight at the Gare du Luxembourg station, one of them leaned over and, with a groan, deposited last night's Burgundy on the cobblestones. A moment later, his friend did likewise.
Other than that, the day was a fine one, with a cloudless sky and a crisp breeze. Mitzi's flat was only a block from the station, an easy walk even with my bum leg. Unfortunately, upon arriving at Chez Rockefeller, I found Thierry Auberteau in full rigor.
Puzzled, I turned to Mitzi. "When did you say he died? He's stiff as a board!"
"Sometime during the night, I guess."
"I'm a sound sleeper."
I didn't know whether to believe her or not. "Drunk, eh?"
"On one glass of Chardonnay? Hardly. But I did take some of those sleeping powders a friend gave me. They're pretty strong."
I pointed to the empty bottle of Chateau Gruaud-Larose sitting on the night table next to an almost full bottle of Jean-Baptiste Boudier Chardonnay. "He drank all that by himself?"
"Just the Gruaud. You know I never touch reds, because they…"
"Stain your teeth," I finished for her. She'd always been vain about her smile.
"He usually brought over a couple of bottles of good Chardonnay, but he said last night that he wanted to celebrate with something special."
I inspected the body more closely. Although Thierry Auberteau had once been a handsome man, his olive skin had paled in death, and his fine Roman nose bore a scratch. From passion or from hate? His most unsettling feature was his mouth, set in a rictus grin. The red Chateau Gruaud-Larose had stained his teeth, but only slightly. If more alert and more suitably dressed, he could have passed for a dentist's advertisement. The man was naked, his clothes draped carefully across a gaudy gilt-and-brocade chair. A well-used handkerchief rested on top of his slacks.
"I'm not sure it was a heart attack," I told Mitzi.
"Well, it wasn't anything I did!"
"Are you certain?"
No answer. Despite her red nose, her eyes weren't the least bit teary, but that might have been because they were so fearful. I guessed she was telling the truth, because if she had murdered the man, she'd be on the run, not hanging around the Latin Quarter. But if Mitzi wasn't Auberteau's killer, who was? And how and why?
"You two had sex last night, right?"
"Just the once." she said, dabbing at her dry eyes with a trembling finger. "Not that my sex life is any of your business."
"It became my business the minute you asked me for help. Did he show distress at any point during the ah, romantic encounter?"
"Absolutely not. I'm known for my bedroom skills."
"Yet he wound up dead."
A huff. "We can stand here until Christmas discussing what may or may not have killed him, but that's immaterial. I need to get his body out of my flat in a way that won't attract attention."
"Or Papa Pennier will have his revenge for making his precious Francine a widow, right?"
The fear in her eyes sparked into anger. "Right, damn you!"
While my heart held no love for Mitzi Rockefeller, I didn't relish the idea of Papa Pennier taking his revenge on her. It wouldn't be a merciful bullet to the brain; it would be a drawn-out torture via sharp, metallic instruments. No one deserved that, not even Papa Pennier himself.
I studied Thierry Auberteau's face again. His eyes were slightly open, and so filmed over, they displayed no emotion, not even surprise. His sore-looking nose and scrunched up handkerchief hinted at a possible cold, but Mitzi had a cold, didn't she, and she was still walking around. Then I noticed a bit of pink froth at the corner of Auberteau's mouth.
After checking the empty bottle of Chateau Gruaud-Larose again, I picked up the wineglass and sniffed at the half-inch of residue. A hint of bitter almonds marred the bouquet. Surely, being a noted wine connoisseur—his wine cellar was legendary—Auberteau must have noticed such an oddity before drinking. But… That scratched nose. The crumpled handkerchief.
"He had a cold, right?"
She sneezed. "Yeah. He kept blowing his nose, but what does that matter? Colds don't kill people. I'm proof of that."
But poisons do. And when a person has a cold, they can't smell much of anything, which also means their taste buds don't work all that well. Still, there remained another possibility. Auberteau might have committed suicide. But why would he do it in his lover's bed?
Turning to Mitzi, I said, "You'd been quarreling, hadn't you?"
"We never quarreled."
Never in the history of lovers has there been a bigger lie. Being in love—if that's what the two felt for each other—gives your lover the power to get under your skin in more ways than one. Arguments arise, sometimes rarely, sometimes often.
In fairness, I considered my own relationship with Henri, the married Sûreté police inspector I'd bedded last night. He'd left angry this morning because, as he claimed, my attention was waning, and I'd been thinking about things other than him. He'd been half right, because I was having trouble with a painting and couldn't figure out how it'd gone wrong. As he slammed the door behind him, the answer came to me. The painting needed more Alizarin crimson in the lower left-hand corner.
But that was my problem, not Mitzi's. "If you want me to help, you'd better start telling the truth. What were you two arguing about last night?"
She looked down at the floor. There was nothing much to see down there other than a wine cork. As if buying time, she bent down, picked it up, placed it next to the twin-pronged cork puller, then cleared her throat. "Um, well, he told me he was going to leave his wife."
"For you?" That had to be another lie. Men like Auberteau didn't leave their wives for mistresses when their fathers-in-law ran criminal gangs.
"He was crazy about me." She started to say something else, then stopped, thought about it, and sniffed. "Too crazy, if you want to know the truth. It was getting stifling. But you probably don't know anything about that sort of thing, what with your limp and all."
Oh, but I did. I once had a lover who kept "accidentally" running into me at cafes, music halls, even at the boulangerie. Ridding myself of him hadn't been easy, but unlike Auberteau, the pest remains alive.
Giving myself time to think, I looked around Mitzi's boudoir. Like her clothing, the room was overdone, even for a woman who ran an illegal gambling joint. The brocaded four-poster sat in the middle of the room, flanked by two gilt night tables. Across from the bed hunkered a cream-and-gilt chest the size of a Belgian horse, and the floor was covered with so many oriental rugs, you could barely see the parquet underneath. The pieces de resistance were the red brocaded walls, each playing host to paintings of lovers en flagrante in unlikely positions. The whole set-up reminded me of the rumors floating around Paris that besides her gambling facility, she also owned a brothel or two. Or three.
"Had he already told his wife he was leaving her?" I asked.
A shudder rippled her shoulders was real. "I'd forbidden him to."
"That didn't really answer my question. Had he told Francine what he planned to do?"
Mitzi sneezed. Had she caught her dead lover's cold, or was she the one who'd infected him? Wiping her nose with the back of her hand, she said, "He was crazy. I told him the whole thing was impossible, and as much as he wanted his 'freedom' from her—as he termed it—I didn't want to get shot or worse. But then he said he'd already told her, and that's what the little celebration with that rotten red wine was all about."
Another sneeze. Unable to stand it any longer, I pulled a handkerchief out of my purse and handed it to her. Unlike Thierry Auberteau's, mine was clean.
"When had he told her?"
"A couple of days ago. He'd already started packing."
"Yet you stuck around? Sound to me like he wasn't the only crazy one."
"The hell you say! I didn't know he'd done it until last night, so we had one hell of a fight. But I swear I did nothing to him. Nothing! Yeah, it got pretty heated when I told him I'd have to go back to the States for however long it took for the situation to cool down. Well, maybe that part was a fib, because a few years ago I ran into a little problem in Ohio, so Morocco would actually be a smarter choice. Or Greece, maybe one of the isles. They say Crete's nice this time of year." She paused, probably picturing herself in the arms of a Greek Adonis and free of a clingy man. "Now what are we going to do with that… that stupid fool?" She waved her hand towards the lump on the bed.
I picked up the wine cork she'd placed on the nightstand. Because of the gentleness of the twin prong opener, the cork was relatively undamaged But after a closer look, I saw something that made me put the cork in my clutch bag.
"What are you doing?" Mitzi asked, seeing me head toward the door.
"I have an idea."
Newcomers to Paris don't realize this, but La Cité is like a small town in that everyone knows everyone, if not personally, then by rumor. After limping back to the Gare du Luxembourg—my bum leg was bothering me—I took the Metro to the fancy-dancy 8th arrondissment, where Jules Pennier, leader of the notorious Pennier Gang, held court. There was only a slim chance he'd consent to see me, but after identifying myself to two hulking doormen, they escorted me straight to Jules Pennier's study, where I found him reading a copy of Le Figaro.
His sense of décor couldn't have been farther away from Mitzi's. No gilt, just oceans of dark leather and gleaming wood. A Cezanne hung on one wall, a Monet on another. The room's true focus was the carved mahogany desk he set behind, covered with pictures of his family. Formal photos of his wife, his much-young sister, and Francine, his only child. But the photo I focused on was that of a darling little boy. His name, I remembered, was Guillaume, Pennier's great-nephew.
"How is Guillaume," I asked.
A big smile. "The boy is doing very well, thanks to you," he answered, rising to kiss my hand. "What brings the brave Mademoiselle Barlow to my 'den of iniquity,' as I've heard you describe it."
Like most scoundrels, Papa Pennier looked harmless. Cadaverously slim, with threads of silver in his dark hair, he dressed like any successful businessman. His somber three-piece wool suit surely cost more than my entire wardrobe, and his diamond tie-tack probably cost about the same as my house.
"Oh, Monsieur, for me to say such a terrible thing, I must have been drunk." I hoped my smile looked as genuine as his, but inside I was quaking.
Pennier chuckled. "Oh, you artists. So rash! Don't worry yourself, Zoe. I hear you have a new show opening up soon. I have a blank wall in my country chateau that cries out for a pretty landscape."
I don't do landscapes. Furthermore, none of my paintings could be described as pretty. "Thank you for considering my work worthy of your lovely home, but right now there is a heavy matter I need to discuss with you."
Eyebrows raised, he asked, "Could it be as heavy a matter as the last time we spoke?"
"I'm afraid so, just in a different way."
He gestured me to a nearby chair. "Who's dead this time?"
I sat. "A man you know."
I soldiered on, careful not to name names at this point. "But a frien… ah, an acquaintance of mine cares for him. Uh, cared." Past tense.
"You see, the gentleman in question died in my acquaintance's bed last night and he needs to be removed."
Pennier finally spoke. "Why should this unpleasantness matter to me?"
"Because the dead man is your son-in-law."
The ensuing silence was more terrifying than words could ever be, so I hurried to fill it. Carefully, very carefully, and still without naming Mitzi, I described the empty wine bottle, the scent of bitter almonds in the dregs, the crumpled handkerchief. Then I took the cork out of my clutch bag and showed him the tiny hole someone—his daughter, no doubt—had filled a hypo with cyanide, and plunged the contents into the bottle of Chateau Gruaud-Larose. In a way, I had to admire Francine's creativity, because it was a neat way to kill not only your cheating husband, but your rival, too. She just hadn't known about Mitzi's aversion to red wine.
After another long pause, Pennier rose and plucked the cork from my hand. He went to the door, opened it, and murmured something to the two men standing outside. When he returned to his chair, he said, "Tell me why I shouldn't have your acquaintance killed. And you."
"Because you owe me." I looked pointedly at the photo of little Guillaume,
The clock in the corner chimed eleven. I'd been here for less than a half-hour, but it seemed long enough for glaciers to melt.
Just as I began wondering how many minutes I had left to live, he said, "You are referring, I imagine, to the Grant Richardson affair and your part in having it taken care of."
"Something like that, yes."
There was no expression on his face at all, so I was surprised when he said, "You are more courageous than wise, Zoe Barlow, but I am a man of my word. Give me the address. I promise your acquaintance, as you call her, will not be harmed." Then those harsh eyes briefly twinkled. "Nor will you."
The next morning, I was inside La Rotonde enjoying my café au lait when Mitzi Rockefeller approached me holding up a copy of the morning's newspaper. The headline read: THIERRY AUBERTEAU KILLED IN MARSEILLE ROAD ACCIDENT. FAMILY IN MOURNING.
As soon as Jacques seated Mitzi, she ordered a bottle of Chateau Gruaud-Larose. Given her usual distain for reds, I found that surprising. "You no longer care if it stains your teeth?" I asked her.
She flashed those famous pearly whites. "It's not every day you can celebrate just being alive. Will you join me?"
I thought about that for a moment, thought about cheating husbands, vengeful wives, and phonied-up car crashes. Shaking my head, I said, "Thanks, but I think I'll stick with coffee."
If you enjoyed this free story, follow Zoe's Paris adventures in LOST IN PARIS, the first book in a new series. LOST IN PARIS is available now at fine bookstores everywhere,
in download, and on audio.