The Red Brick Cellars – Preview Chapters
Buy the book now: The Red Brick Cellars: A Tolosa Mystery (affiliate link)
The moment Louis set foot in that corridor he would be back in the spotlight. He would be “the mayor’s son,” expected to mirror his father’s opinions and back up whatever policies had recently been passed. He’d no longer be an engineer flitting from one contract and city to the next without a worry in the world; he’d be heir to the Saint-Blancat legacy. He’d be dragged back into politics. Which was why he was standing among tables of food instead of going in to view his father’s casket.
The caterers had prepared a feast: everything from shrimp and salmon toasts to sandwiches with duck liver, foie gras, and onion jam. On Louis’s right, three tables full of sweets and desserts were refilled by waiters every fifteen minutes. People hadn’t come here to eat, but would take a sweet on the way out.
A steady stream of mourners and well-wishers moved up the grand staircase and filed down the hallway to the Salle des Illustres where the casket was displayed.
Louis had been standing there for two hours, working up the courage to go through that procession.
The line of reporters and photographers in the hallway wasn’t helping. They weren’t allowed inside with the casket, but it was impossible to get in there without passing them. When new mayor Jean-Paul Bousquets arrived half an hour earlier, the cameras had gone off at full speed for a good ten minutes.
How would they treat the deceased mayor’s son?
And what would it be like to actually see his father’s casket?
Louis still suffered jet-lag from the trip across the Atlantic and felt out of place being back in France after so long in the United States. He hadn’t talked much with his mother yet, having arrived late the night before. She had been busy organizing the public wake and the funeral, and was in there right now standing vigil for her husband.
The line of people halted for a moment—someone notable must have stopped to talk to the journalists. A woman stood looking around the room from one step inside the Salle Gervais. Her loose-knit green dress allowed the black t-shirt and leggings underneath to show through. With a wide white belt at the waist, she looked like a cheap synthetic soccer field; an unnaturally bright green with a chalk-white stripe in the middle. Her purple boots were folded down over open laces and long, curly blond hair fell down across a black leather jacket. She must have been melting in that thing; it was supposed to reach 32°C that afternoon.
As the line started moving again, the woman closed her eyes and swayed slightly. When her eyes opened, they turned in Louis’s direction. Or rather, in the direction of the food. Taking a deep breath, she eyed the line going into the Salle des Illustres, then her gaze returned to the food.
Once she made her decision, she was systematic and efficient. She made a beeline for the starters and popped three toasts into her mouth while filling a small plate with a variety of delicacies. She grabbed a glass of orange juice and sipped between bites.
Louis smiled. He always enjoyed watching people with a good appetite who took an obvious pleasure in food. Not that this woman looked like she spent all her time eating. She had curves only in the right places.
While she ate what qualified as the main course at this banquet, the strange woman eyed the paintings on the wall behind Louis. Between bites, she found the time to glower at them.
When she passed in front of Louis to attack the desserts, he said, “Bonjour, Madame.” He brought his hand up to touch his scarf, but of course it wasn’t there since he couldn’t wear a scarf with a suit.
She frowned at him too—he was apparently no better than Rachou’s paintings—but replied, “Bonjour.” Picking up the last piece from a dessert platter, she mumbled, “Mmm, pain au chocolat.”
Her English accent was strong, apparent even in those three short words. Come to think of it, her being English would explain the strange clothes. Louis enjoyed the distraction she offered and decided to try making it last a little longer.
“Actually,” he said, “since we’re in Toulouse, that should be chocolatines.” The Toulousains had their own word for the classic French treat.
Without turning her head from the food, the woman looked at him out of the corner of her eyes. They were a clear gray-blue and could have been, under other circumstances, very beautiful. But right now, Louis received only ice-cold arrogance. “What’s it to you?” they said.
Louis shrugged and suppressed a smile. “You don’t approve of the paintings?”
Again, she glanced at him, though continuing to devour pastries from a newly arrived serving tray. After ten years in the States, Louis hadn’t lost his accent. It was such an asset for breaking the ice at parties or picking up girls. However, it didn’t seem to have much effect on this woman. Of course, if she lived in France, the accent wouldn’t be a novelty for her.
The woman wrinkled her nose. “They’re a little too…romantic for my tastes.”
Louis smiled for the first time in three days. “Well.” He bent down as if to tell her a secret. “This is where the weddings used to be performed.” He waved a hand toward the three paintings behind him, gloriously illuminated on such a sunny day. “In his paintings, Rachou has depicted love at twenty, forty, and sixty. Eternal love and all that.”
The woman finished off her glass of orange juice while she eyed the paintings, then shook her head. “That girl”—she pointed to the Love at Twenty painting—“is clinging half-naked to an idiot going off to war. If she loved him, she would let him do what he needs to do and stop whining. If he loved her, he wouldn’t be going off in the first place.” Those ice-blue eyes darted to meet Louis’s gaze, daring him to challenge her assessment. “That woman”—she pointed at the forty-year-old—“is sitting at home doing nothing while I assume her husband is off fighting a war. We’re not getting better. And that one—”
How was she going to insult the sixty-year-old?
“—the husband is finally back from war, but this time she’s fully dressed and doesn’t really look like she cares whether he’s there or not. He looks like a statue.”
A barrage of flashes going off in the hallway reminded Louis of why he was there, and his smile dropped away. “Well,” he said to his English companion, “perhaps we should go into the Salle des Illustres so you can tell me if that is at least more adequate for wedding ceremonies?” And if he could go past the journalists with this strange creature at his side, perhaps she could divert some of their attention.
She eyed the queue inching past and nodded. She set her empty glass on a table and rubbed her hands down each side of her skirt to dry them. “You’re allowed to move around?”
“What?” Why should I be restricted to stay here with the food?
She frowned. “You’re not security?”
A bark of laughter escaped Louis. A few people in the queue looked their way, but nobody seemed to recognize him. Laughing out loud at his father’s wake might not be quite the thing to do. Though his father would most likely have approved. He had requested in his will that they hold a party and dine at his wake.
“You think I look like security?” He smiled at the Englishwoman. “I guess the suit I bought for graduation ten years ago doesn’t quite cut it anymore.” Louis owned several suits, of course, but they were all in storage back in the States. In his rush to get home, he hadn’t spent much time thinking about what type of clothing he’d need.
A blush started high on her round cheeks, but she fought it down quickly as she flipped her mass of blond, curly hair back over her shoulder.
Together they squeezed into the queue in front of an elderly lady leaning on a cane. She didn’t seem to mind them cutting into the line. As they started down the hall leading to the Salle des Illustres, Louis offered the Englishwoman his arm and an ironic smile. A sardonic smile of her own graced her full lips and she slipped her hand around his elbow. She emanated a faint scent of lavender, reminding Louis of childhood vacations in Provence.
With only a few meters to go, a journalist recognized Louis. “Monsieur Saint-Blancat! Quand êtes-vous rentré à Toulouse?” When did you get back to Toulouse? “What do you know about the mayor’s death?” They all turned toward him and flashes went off as though they were the Beckhams at a charity match.
Louis’s companion gave him an accusing look, but she kept her head turned away from the photographers, letting her hair cover most of her face. Good, it would give them a mystery woman to look into. Louis curtly shook his head at the journalists, and then they put the paparazzi behind them.
The line of mourners hugged the wall all around the majestic room. The casket stood in the middle, covered in a French flag and the region’s Occitan flag. The yellow twelve-pointed cross on red background covered the lower half of his father’s casket. A brilliant ray of sunlight slanted in through one of the many tall windows making the cross almost golden.
Before Louis could take in more of the details, a tall police officer blocked his view. Stooping down slightly to look Louis in the eye, he murmured, “Bonjour, Monsieur Saint-Blancat. Can I ask you to come with me for a moment? I have some information pertaining to your father’s death that I would like to discuss with you.”
Catherine talked to one man at the wake, and it was the son of the deceased mayor. Nervous, she let her hair hide most of her face. How close had those photographers gotten? Would anyone from work recognize her? If she had known who the handsome man she’d taken for security was, she would never have approached the journalists while on his arm. She was here against the express orders of her boss.
The dress she wore—her favorite—hadn’t been out of the closet since her first day in Toulouse. She’d been dressing in drab, matching clothing like everybody else in this place. Her choice of outfit was fueled by the idea that people would see the outfit and not the woman underneath. But how well would that work if her picture was in the paper tomorrow?
Her stomach growled with appreciation. She might have eaten too much of the buffet, but after going almost twenty-four hours without a real meal, hadn’t been able to resist. It was her reason for being here today—the invitation sent out to all citizens of Toulouse advertised free food.
She felt the man next to her tense when a police officer approached and asked if he could step aside to discuss something.
“Can’t we do this at another time?” His strong jaw was set and thick black eyebrows drew together above deep-set dark eyes. He had what Catherine liked to call a French nose: a little above average in size and slightly hooked. She had always felt a strong nose reflected a strong personality. His hair was short, dark brown, and fashionably ruffled. On top, it was long enough to show the beginnings of a curl or two.
What was his name again? He was less talked about than his sister since he had lived abroad for the last decade. However, he had ended up in the newspapers regularly while he was a student in Toulouse, and the mayor mentioned him from time to time. It was the name of a French king, but which one? Henry? François? No, Louis. Louis Saint-Blancat.
The police officer shook his head with a sad mien. “I’m quite sorry to impose on you now, Monsieur Saint-Blancat. We have not been able to reach you since you arrived in Toulouse yesterday, and we have some important subjects to discuss.” The man was working way too hard at looking understanding and apologetic. He probably learned it in a class. Catherine pitied the people who drew this clown to give them bad news. Which might be what was happening here—though the old mayor was already dead, so how much worse could it get?—if the man ever got to the point.
Louis squared off against the police officer, clearly ignoring the fact that the other man was about a head taller. “I’m here to pay my respects to my father, Monsieur. If you wish, we can talk after the funeral.” He took a step to the right to resume a place in the queue, and Catherine moved to follow.
The police officer placed his hand on Louis’s shoulder, holding him back. “I really am sorry, Monsieur Saint-Blancat.” Annoyance didn’t mix well with humility; he looked like he was constipated and blamed it all on the man in front of him. “We do not wish to be seen by the journalists at your house for fear it would cast suspicion on your father, Monsieur le Maire.”
Catherine leaned a fraction closer to Louis. They wanted to keep something from the journalists? Well. If they wanted to keep information from her, she was all the more keen to hear it. She let her eyes wander to the open windows and the glorious place du Capitole outside, hoping her feigned indifference was credible.
Neither of the men paid her any heed. Louis shrugged off the hand on his shoulder and said in hard tones, “Suspicion? What exactly are you suspecting him of? He was the victim here, surely? He is the one lying dead in that casket over there, isn’t he?” He pointed toward the covered casket at the center of the room.
Catherine felt a slight tremble in the arm she was still holding on to. All the faces in the room were turned in their direction instead of looking at the casket. The reporters had taken notice as well, and she stepped slightly back to hide behind Louis’s profile.
“Please do not excite yourself, Monsieur Saint-Blancat.” The tall officer grasped Louis’s shoulder again, which didn’t do a thing to calm him down. “Of course your father was the victim. But there were some”—he wobbled his free hand in the air—“let’s say, strange circumstances around the position in which he was found.”
A middle-aged lady across the room pointed at Louis as she whispered something to her husband.
Catherine wished she could take notes. Were the police really hoping to keep this kind of information from the press? She was already composing the article in her head.
The police officer nodded toward her. “Perhaps you would like to let your friend move along?” He gave what was surely meant to be a meaningful look to Louis.
“My friend,” Louis replied in a tone that clearly said he was nearing the end of his tether, “would like to pay her respects to Monsieur le Maire, as would I.” He grabbed hold of her hand on his arm, probably to make sure she didn’t take off in fright.
As if that tall idiot could scare her away from this story.
With an exasperated look at Catherine, the police officer turned back to Louis and whispered, “Your father may have been taking bribes, Monsieur. His body was set up in a scene making it very easy to interpret in this manner. Out of respect for our boss, we would like to keep that fact quiet while we investigate his murder.”
Louis squeezed Catherine’s hand so hard it hurt, but she didn’t say anything or so much as move a muscle to make sure she wouldn’t be sent away. There had always been rumors of the extravagant and charismatic mayor taking bribes, but nothing was ever proven. Everybody liked the man. Catherine suspected no one particularly wanted to look into these accusations. What would Toulouse be like without Pierre Saint-Blancat? They were about to find out.
“What exactly do you want from me?” Louis said through clenched teeth.
“We only want to talk to you about your father,” the police officer said. “To see if you have any information that could help in the investigation. So far, we only have the statement of the highly unreliable witness who discovered the bodies.”
Bodies? Plural? There really was a story here, and the police had managed to keep it from leaking to the press for two whole days.
Louis’s eyebrows shot up toward his hairline. “And you want to do that here? Now?”
“No, of course not here,” the tall man replied with a fake, placating smile. “We only wish to ensure your cooperation.”
Boy, were they going about that the wrong way.
Louis’s lips hardly moved as he spoke. “So I can go pay my respect to my father, your boss, now?”
The clown finally caught on that he was only making matters worse and signaled that yes, they could move along.
Louis mumbled “idiot” under his breath as they moved toward the casket.
To live with a truly magnificent view of Toulouse, one had to be dead. Severe gray tombs vied for space and attention among tall dark cypress and cedar trees in the Terre Cabade Cemetery where Pierre Saint-Blancat was about to be buried. The late morning sun blazed down on the living and the dead alike.
Louis glanced toward the Toulouse city center spread out below him. Except for a short period in the 1960s, buildings had been limited to a maximum of six floors. A few sixteen-floor buildings were scattered throughout the city center, but mostly the city was flat, mirroring the gently rolling hills stretching in all directions. It allowed old buildings like the Jacobins Bell Tower and the Dôme de la Grâve, the old hospital, to show off the city’s rich history. Sunlight reflected off windows and made the red bricks glow, letting the city shine red and golden.
A thin white blanket covered the blue sky, giving some respite from the blasting heat of the last few days, but the heavy and humid air still stifled. Sweat soaked through Louis’s shirt hours ago; it was currently working its way through the suit jacket. His shirt chafed around the neck. He smelled and felt as if he’d played a complete soccer match in his suit. He wouldn’t remove the jacket. He needed to dress properly when his father’s ashes were deposited into the top left spot in the family tomb. There was room for his mother’s urn in the same slot—someday far in the future, hopefully—and the top right-hand one was for the rest of the family. Louis felt uncomfortable standing in front of what would one day be his final resting place.
His mother stood strong at the head of the group of twenty close friends and family. Sunglasses covered dark smudges under her eyes. So far she was holding up well, but Louis saw the façade starting to crack. He had no idea what he was supposed to do if the dam broke. She was the one he could always go to when he had problems and he wasn’t ready for the roles to be reversed yet. He didn’t know how to be strong for this.
Thankfully, the journalists were absent. The Saint-Blancats could pretend to be just another family putting a loved one to rest.
After the priest and cemetery workers slid the urn into its slot, the mourners broke into small groups, some meandering back to their cars, some staying back to chat. Louis’s mother stood alone at the crypt with a hand resting on the stone wall.
Louis’s sister seized the opportunity to pull him a few meters away from the group. Audrey was five years his senior, married with two children, and following the family tradition of dedicating her life to the city of Toulouse and the Republican Party their family had belonged to for several generations.
“I can’t believe Papa opted for cremation,” she said in low tones. “He never even talked to us about it.” She was almost a head shorter than Louis and had the same slim build. Two pregnancies had left some marks, but she was still a very pretty, dark-haired Toulousaine with an accent even more pronounced than Louis’s.
“Why would he?” Louis said. “It’s his funeral.”
“Yes, but he’s not the one who has to visit a heap of ashes. Besides, it’s so final.”
Louis eyed his sister. It wasn’t the place to be witty, but he couldn’t resist. “Yes, death tends to be that.”
Audrey swatted at him. “What if science comes up with a way to bring people back from the dead or something? There isn’t much you can do with a bunch of ashes.”
“There isn’t much you can do with a rotting body.” Louis tried but failed not to think about the dead body or ashes belonging to his father. “You’d want to be brought back from the dead two hundred years from now?”
“No, of course not.” Audrey shook her head and waved a hand like she always did when searching for words. “It feels weird to visit ashes in the cemetery. A body in a coffin would have suited me better. Funerals are for the living, after all. The dead don’t care.”
Yet, apparently, their father had cared while he was alive. Louis was relieved that everything had been taken care of beforehand. He would not have wanted to make the decisions on cremation or burial, flowers, or the wake at the Capitole. At least this way, his father’s wake had been in his image: big and with lots of food for the attendees.
“I’m giving a press conference in two days,” Audrey said. “I want you to come, to show everyone that the Saint-Blancat family is standing together and that we are still working for the Republicans and Toulouse.”
Louis sighed. He’d been back for two days and already they were starting in on him. This was why he had jumped at the occasion to work abroad ten years ago. He got tired of saying no to his family and being put down if he expressed an opinion different from theirs. He didn’t want to fall into that old routine again.
“You’ll have to do the press conference without me,” he replied in a soft voice. “I’m not even sure if I’ll still be in Toulouse in two days.” He glanced at the family tomb. Thin and tall, it had eight slots; four pairs. A few meters behind it, at the entrance to a path leading to smaller graves farther back, sat a decapitated angel with clipped wings. Instead of a head, it had three rusting steel rods sticking out of its neck as if the blood pulsing out of the body had frozen in place. It was about time the municipality finalized the cemetery maintenance budget before it all went to waste.
Audrey poked him in the shoulder. “You can’t leave after only two days. Maman will kill you.” She looked to where her husband sat on the steps of a neighboring tomb with their children on his lap. “And so will I. You hardly know your niece and nephew. You’re not leaving until you’ve spent some time with them.”
Chloé would soon turn five. Benjamin was two and that was about the extent of Louis’s knowledge of the boy. They all talked on Skype from time to time, but little Ben was too shy to talk to his uncle on the computer. Louis had been home during vacations, but spent most of his time catching up with friends. His sister would apparently not let him do that this time around.
“Besides,” Audrey added in a whisper, “you have to wait until they find out who killed him.” She folded her arms across her chest. “I can’t believe it possible that the mayor of Toulouse was killed on place du Capitole—the very navel of the Toulouse city center—and nobody saw anything. I don’t think the police have a clue about who did it.”
“Wasn’t there a witness?” Louis’s throat constricted in frustration when he thought about that annoying police officer from the wake.
Audrey let out an ironic laugh. “The body was found by a prostitute on her way back to work by the Canal du Midi. She was clearly dead drunk or just plain crazy, seeing the story she told the police.”
“And what was that story?” Louis had wondered since talking to the policeman, but there hadn’t been an opportunity to ask anyone yet. Not someone who wouldn’t start a landslide of rumors, anyway.
Audrey turned so her back was to their mother and the group of mourners talking among themselves. She stood face-to-face with Louis. “You know they found his body with the skeleton of a woman, right?”
Louis hadn’t known that, but nodded affirmatively anyway. That would be the plural bodies that the annoying officer mentioned.
“Well,” his sister continued with some color rising high on her cheeks, “the prostitute claims that when she found the bodies, they were just that. Two bodies. Not one body and a skeleton. She was apparently a beautiful woman with a horrible expression on her face, but when the prostitute touched her to check if she was alive, everything but the bones turned to dust.”
Louis studied his sister’s face. She had never been big on making jokes and this would be a strange time and place to start, but the story really was very…out there. No wonder the police said the witness was unreliable. “So they have nothing?”
Audrey rolled her eyes, then fixed her gaze on the city below them. “Basically, yes. They’re trying to identify the bones of the dead woman, and will look into the people Papa met with over the last weeks. But I’d say they’re clueless. They don’t even know when he died; nobody had seen him for two days.” She turned her chocolate-brown eyes on Louis. “So will you be there for my press conference? Back me up? Show the Toulousains that the Saint-Blancat family is still here for them?”
Exasperated, Louis raised a hand toward the family tomb. “Papa has been in there for less than five minutes and you’re already scheming to get ahead in your political career.”
She didn’t even flinch. “Of course I am. Papa would be proud and you know it. You’re running away from your responsibilities—again. That he would be less enthusiastic about.”
He shouldn’t have been surprised by this type of jibe having weathered them for years growing up, but something had been gnawing at him since he’d heard of his father’s death. His latest contract had ended in June, and he chose to stay in California instead of coming home to Toulouse and France for a spell. He had procrastinated, trying—but not too hard—to figure out what to do next. He supposed he had all the time in the world. So his father passed away without having seen his son for nine months, and without them having the chance to resolve their political differences. In a way, he should have been happy he didn’t have to continue that fight. Instead, a sinking feeling that there was something he needed to do played at the back of Louis’s mind. But he didn’t want to figure out what; he wanted to run away again.
However, his sister was right. He had to stay. To figure out what happened to his father and to spend time with his family. His mother shouldn’t be alone right now. He’d step up, be the man of the family. Though his sister had always been much better at that than him.
A picture of Louis Saint-Blancat covered almost half the front page of that morning’s newspaper. On his arm, of course, a mystery woman. Catherine shoved the paper into her handbag. As she stepped up to the huge oak door of a building halfway down the narrow, none-too-straight rue Gambetta, she shook her head at her colleagues. Some covered the mayor’s death in what she considered a normal way—meaning they talked about how he died and the implications this would have on the city. But others were much more fascinated with the son, Louis Saint-Blancat, who was finally back home.
With the exception of one term, Pierre Saint-Blancat had been mayor for the last twenty years. His popularity had more to do with his natural charisma than his actual policies. Most inhabitants wouldn’t be able to say what his program was centered around, though they knew he belonged to the Republican Party. They also knew that if they wanted to chat with him, they only needed to go to the Marché du Cristal on Thursdays. The fruit and vegetables market on the boulevard de Strasbourg did business six days a week, but the mayor strolled through on Thursdays. He didn’t do any shopping, just stopped to talk to shoppers and vendors alike. Everybody loved him and loved reading about him.
Her boss at le Midi Républicain, the local newspaper, made sure to include at least one article on one of the members of the Saint-Blancat family every day. Catherine only very recently managed to extricate herself from writing those articles. She was finally allowed to concentrate on the actual politics of the city, to possibly make a difference for once. Then she went and made one little mistake and her boss told her to stay away from the story around the mayor’s death. The most interesting story since Mohammed Merah, at the very least, and she was banned.
Catherine was about to do something about that situation. She decided that the topmost label on the intercom might possibly say “Diatta” and pressed the button. The night before, Catherine had spent three hours trawling the Canal du Midi and talking to all the prostitutes. She was determined to talk to the woman who discovered the mayor’s body, no matter how unreliable that clown police officer considered her. An African girl of about twenty finally said she knew the woman. Mademoiselle Diatta hadn’t been feeling well since the discovery of the bodies and was not working that night. After some prodding and pleading, Catherine had obtained her address.
Static sounded through the intercom, then the door buzzed open. Catherine pushed inside and took a relieved breath of the cool air as her eyes adjusted to the long, dark corridor she found herself in. Toward the back of the house, another door opened to a back yard, and before that, a staircase with stone steps so used there were indentations in the center led up to the left. Assuming the top spot on the intercom meant an apartment on the top floor, Catherine started climbing. Most of these old houses in the city center didn’t have an elevator—there was no room for it.
The staircase turned up to the next floor, then another one took her yet farther up. The sun streaming in through windows at the end of the corridor on each landing was enough to see by. She had the impression it was cooler in the dark, which was always a godsend at the end of a long, hot summer in South-Western France.
The second floor appeared to be the last one. There were four doors, and none of them had a name-tag. As Catherine considered the possibility of knocking on the first one, it opened. A stunning African girl peeked out. One of the prostitutes Catherine talked to had said the girl was from Senegal. “Qui êtes vous?” she said in a honeyed voice.
Catherine put on a reassuring smile and answered the question. “My name is Catherine Marty. I work at le Midi Républicain. I’m working on an article about the mayor’s death and would very much like to talk to you about what you saw.”
Mademoiselle Diatta studied Catherine for several seconds before replying. “I already said everything to the police. They didn’t believe me. You any better?” Her stance gave away her fatigue. Bloodshot eyes stared out. They weren’t openly hostile. Simply…resigned.
Catherine looked the woman in the eyes. “I won’t know if I believe you until I hear your story,” she said. “If you don’t want your name in the paper, that’s not an issue. You can be a nameless witness.”
Mademoiselle Diatta huffed a mirthless laugh. “I’m the only witness. It won’t take a genius to figure out who you talked to.” She looked Catherine up and down once, then turned and walked back into her apartment, leaving the door open.
Catherine stepped inside and closed the door behind her.
The young woman had apparently not cleaned or tidied much over the last few days by the look of the clothes and empty pizza-boxes strewn about on all surfaces. It was probably due to stress, Catherine thought, for underneath, the place was squeaky clean. And beautiful. A short hallway with three doors opened on a living room with a smart red and white kitchen in the corner. The left-hand wall was covered with books and three floor-to-ceiling windows opened up on the crown of the oak tree growing in the back yard. The white leather couch was definitely not from IKEA, and the wooden dinner table and matching chairs glowed in the sunlight. Hardly how Catherine had imagined the home of a prostitute.
Gathering her wits, Catherine sat down at the table across from Mademoiselle Diatta and took out a pen and a block note. “Tell me in your own words what happened that night, please.”
The prostitute kept her eyes on the tree outside while she talked. The leaves were starting to turn yellow. “I went home for a spell around two o’clock.” She glanced at Catherine. “I needed to take a quick shower before going back out there.” Catherine suppressed a shudder at the thought of what could make a woman in her line of business want to get cleaned up. Pretty much everything.
“I was on my way back out. It was probably around two thirty when I found them.” She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “I checked if they were dead. Then I called the police.” Her big, black eyes challenged Catherine. They were coming to the part the police didn’t believe.
“Go on,” Catherine urged. “Can you describe what you saw?” She was scribbling down verbatim what was being said and kept writing nonsense even when the woman wasn’t talking. People often found it easier to confide in someone who didn’t appear to be paying one hundred percent attention. She had trained her peripheral vision, as best she could, to still be able to take in visual impressions of her interviewees.
The woman’s voice was stronger now. She accepted the challenge and would give her story, no matter how Catherine judged her. Good for her. “When I got there, I saw two bodies. They were both naked. And though it’s been a hot summer this year and I know you white people can’t handle heat very well, you don’t usually go about naked.”
Catherine smiled and looked directly at the girl. Deliberately, she pulled a handkerchief out of her purse and dabbed her forehead with it. This apartment was relatively cool, but she had been sweating non-stop for the last three months. It was the one thing she couldn’t get used to in Toulouse. Then she set her pen back to her notebook and nodded to her interviewee.
“Anyway. The man was bent down like a Muslim during prayer—except he was facing the wrong way—and the woman was sitting there like some sort of Cleopatra. When I got closer, I got a look at her expression.” She shuddered. “I’ve seen a lot of horrible things in my life, but nothing has put a look like that on my face yet.” She mimicked what she had seen: open mouth, wide open eyes, all teeth showing. This woman still managed to look beautiful, but Catherine got the general idea. “So I touched her shoulder. To make sure she was dead?”
Catherine understood her question meant she was still working out the whys in her own mind, and nodded. The prostitute wouldn’t be judged by her.
The black woman looked down at her hands fidgeting with the seam of her shirt and continued in low tones. “When I touched her skin, I could feel it contracting. Then there was something like a hiss of air, and all of a sudden, I was touching bone.” Her voice firm again, she fixed Catherine with her gaze. “The skin of the entire woman just turned to dust.”
Right. Catherine could see why the police didn’t want to buy this story. Could the woman be making this up in order to gain attention? Had she been drunk? It wouldn’t be surprising with the job she had if she drank a glass or two before going to work. The apartment spoke in her favor, but for all Catherine knew, she could be renting it furnished.
An ironic smile graced Mademoiselle Diatta’s wide and generous lips. “You don’t believe me.”
Catherine sighed. “I want to,” she said. And she did. Her article would have been momentous if this had been true. “But you have to admit it’s a very…fantastic story. I can’t put it in print if I can’t double-check it anywhere.”
The girl barked a throaty laughter. “Double-check! As if you people ever do that. You find something you like on the net and print it right up.”
Catherine’s need to show goodwill toward her interviewee diminished. “Well, that’s how I do my job, Mademoiselle Diatta. There were no other witnesses there that night?”
A perfectly manicured hand flicked an imaginary crumb from the table top. “Nobody who saw the woman before she turned to dust, no.”
Abandoning that venue, Catherine asked, “Where exactly were the bodies?”
The prostitute stood up and went to lean against one of the windowsills. “They were in the Galerue.” The covered walk was under the arcades facing the Capitole and had a great number of paintings on the ceiling, depicting various themes or persons important in Toulouse’s history. “They were underneath the painting of the two women. You know, almost at the center?”
Catherine didn’t know exactly which painting that was, but nodded anyway. She’d check it out on her way home. She couldn’t think of anything else to ask, so she thanked the woman for her time and left. She hadn’t learned much, but no matter. With what she heard at the mayor’s wake, her article was sure to get attention. But first she had to convince her boss to print it.
Catherine planted her feet next to her boss’s chair and folded her hands loosely in front of her. Mathieu Lambert was giving his heavily worn leather chair quite a challenge with his ex-rugby-player body. His gaze switched back and forth between the two screens on his desk before looking at Catherine over the rims of his black glasses, wordlessly asking her why she was bothering him.
Catherine pointed at her boss’s screen and looked him straight in the eyes. “I just sent you an article by email. You’ll want to print that in tomorrow’s paper.”
Mathieu pursed his lips, but made no move to open his emails. “Will I.”
“I know you’re still angry with me”—Catherine folded her arms—“but I discovered something big on the mayor’s death. You really will want to print it.”
He leaned back in his chair and pushed his glasses up his nose. “You wrote an article on the mayor?” he said so low it was almost a whisper.
Catherine put her hands out in a placating gesture. “I didn’t set out to go against your orders, Mathieu. Really. But I came across information I couldn’t ignore.”
“You went against my express orders by accident?” Mathieu’s eyes bored into Catherine. “Or were you forced? Was your French suddenly not good enough to simply give this information to Arnaud who is supposed to cover the mayor’s death?” His voice still low and calm, spots of color appeared on Mathieu’s cheeks and his nostrils flared.
Catherine was certain the reason she hadn’t managed to make more headway in her career was her inability to communicate with her boss. They simply didn’t understand each other. She put some ice into her voice to remind him she was not without a temper of her own. “You would not expect any other journalist to give away a hot lead, no matter the case. Why should I?”
“Because you are unfit to cover this subject.” The sharp riposte made Catherine flinch, but she made a conscious effort not to take a step back.
Hands on hips, Catherine kept her voice calm. “I made one joke you blew out of all proportions—”
“You said, ‘Rather extreme way to get out of campaign promises, don’t you think?’”
“That was a joke!” Catherine drew a deep breath and counted to three. She didn’t have the patience to go all the way to ten. “His motto when getting elected was ‘Nothing can stop us.’ I commented that death had stopped him. It’s a play on words.” At first, she’d been so proud to manage a joke in French, but soon realized it wasn’t even funny. So she’d made the worst joke of the year, all her colleagues were bound to remember it for years to come, and she’d tripped herself up big time career-wise.
Mathieu pointed a meaty finger at her. “You made a grossly inappropriate joke about a beloved mayor who’d been murdered the day before. A mayor who was considered a good friend of le Midi Républicain.” He turned to one of the articles he’d been reading when she entered. “I can’t take the risk that you would say something similar again.”
Catherine had imagined this meeting going a lot better. “Monsieur Saint-Blancat wasn’t the only dead body at the scene.”
Mathieu looked at her for several seconds before enunciating every syllable as he said, “What are you talking about?”
Catherine waved at the computer. “It’s all in there. Won’t you at least have a look?”
Her boss still hadn’t moved a single of his impressive muscles. “Where did you get this information? Why haven’t I heard this anywhere else?” He leveled his finger at her again. “You better not be making this up, Madame Marty.”
Catherine winced, but there was no turning back now. “I overheard a police officer telling the mayor’s son at the wake.”
Mathieu banged his fist on his desk so hard three piles of paper fell to the floor. Catherine jumped. “You went to the wake?” he bellowed.
Catherine flinched, but set her jaw to show she would fight for this article. In three years, she hadn’t known the man to use his physical strength on co-workers, and hoped he wouldn’t start today. His rugby-field voice was approaching ear-damage level. “I forbid you to go and you go anyway? Is this another one of your English idiocies? I told you no, so you went behind my back?” He drew a deep breath and shook his head.
Catherine glanced out at the open space where her colleagues were all watching, mouths agape. She gave them a smile and a wave and closed the door, thinking she should have had the foresight to do that on arrival.
When she turned back to face her boss, he popped two Tic Tacs into his mouth and leveled Catherine a hard stare. “I should fire you, you know.”
Catherine’s heart sped up. She had known he would be angry, but not that he’d go so far as threatening to fire her. It was just a threat, right? Praying her voice was steady, she said, “You might want to take a look at the article first.” She stood meekly by the door, eyes pleading.
Mathieu sighed and mumbled, “Too much of a bother. All that paperwork, and it’s bound to come back to bite me in the ass one day.” Then the fire was back in his eyes. “Why are you still standing there? Don’t you have enough common sense to know when to retreat?”
“We English aren’t in the habit of retreating,” she quipped. “Living on an island rules that possibility out.”
Mathieu stared at her.
Shit, now he wouldn’t want to retreat either.
“Please, Mathieu,” Catherine said. “Have a look at the article. I promise you it’ll be worth it.”
“If I read it, will you leave?”
“Yes.” Catherine allowed herself to relax when her boss opened the email she’d sent. That was the first time he’d ever mentioned firing her over a disagreement. Given the state of her bank account, she felt like she’d just had a near-death experience.
She waited the few seconds it took Mathieu to scan over the article. The guy was some sort of skimming god. When he looked up, his eyes were wide with a mix of surprise, horror, and excitement and his mouth hung open.
“You got this directly from the police?” He popped his Tic Tac box open and didn’t seem to register that it was empty. He kept shaking the holder over his upturned hand. “They were planning to keep it from the press and the public?”
Catherine nodded. The article would print, but she kept the smile off her face. No more faux-pas from her today.
“And you’ve double-checked everything?” After throwing the empty box in the trash, Mathieu read the article again, stopping to ponder certain paragraphs. “You’ve misspelled compromettante,” he mumbled.
Catherine huffed. “I’ll double-check my spelling. And yes, I contacted the witness for corroboration. Unfortunately, she’s just as unreliable as the police said, so it’s not worth much. But I’m confident there really was a second body—or rather skeleton—at the scene.”
Mathieu nodded. The movement looked painful on the man. With no neck to speak of, or rather too much of it like so many first-line rugby players, it seemed to take an effort to loosen up the muscles. “Fine,” he said. “I’ll print the article.” He drag-and-dropped Catherine’s email into the folder containing the articles for the next day’s paper.
Catherine did an internal happy dance.
Mathieu’s finger was back to pointing at Catherine’s face. “But you’re still off the case. Arnaud covers the mayor’s death and everything that goes with it. Not another word from you.”
Louis had trouble meeting his mother’s gaze. Michelle Saint-Blancat wore no makeup and no vivid colors this morning. Louis felt like he was looking at his mother naked. Other than the lack of her usual face paint and colorful clothing, his mother appeared to be doing fine. She hummed what Louis thought was the soundtrack of the old movie Le Gendarme de Saint-Tropez as she prepared breakfast: a bowl of hot chocolate for him, a cup of coffee for her, and a shared baguette with Nutella. Louis briefly considered telling his mother he had been drinking coffee for four years now, but the nostalgia of eating his childhood breakfast was winning. He didn’t need caffeine anyway, since all he had planned for the day was to mope around at home.
As his mother sat down on the second barstool, Louis glanced at the newspaper in front of him. A huge picture of his father’s casket in the Salle des Illustres at the Capitole covered the top half of the first page with an aggressive headline screaming out at Louis. Looked like the cat was out of the bag for the second body. Louis didn’t like the implication that his father had the police in his pocket.
At first he didn’t pay attention to the article’s author, but his face heated up as he read almost word for word what that idiot police officer had told him at the wake. He studied the thumbnail photo: hair in a tight braid instead of long, flowing curls and wearing a lot less makeup than what she sported at the wake—not to mention much more conventional clothing—but it was the same gray-blue eyes, the same slightly upturned nose, and the same wide, generous mouth. The credit line read Catherine Marty. That English vixen was a journalist and had used him to get a story.
To top it all off, like everybody else, she assumed he would go straight into politics. His intuition had been duped by living in an English-speaking country for ten years. He had forgotten the basics. Never trust the English.
Louis’s mother glanced at the article taking up all of Louis’s attention. “Someone’s moving upward. That girl used to cover the gossip section.” She nodded to Louis’s bowl. “Your chocolate is going cold, chéri.”
Louis obediently took a sip of his chocolate. Childhood memories flooded back. Of him fighting his sister for the Nutella. Of his parents having two different discussions with each other—him something to do with the city council and her with some association—but still coming to an agreement in the end. What was it with mothers that made them always know what their kids needed at any given time?
The doorbell rang.
“Here we go.” His mother sighed. She put her empty cup in the kitchen sink, straightened her white short-sleeved blouse, and went to open the door. “Please clean up your bowl before you join us,” she said as she exited the kitchen.
Louis glanced out the window. Two police cars were double-parked on the sidewalk in front of their house. Old Madame Sutra from number fifteen was going to have a fit when she saw the sidewalk blocked once again. The fact that it was the police would make no difference to her. She already had trouble walking down the two steps to get out of her house and was not happy when she had to step off the curb as well to go buy her daily pack of cigarettes at the tabac down the street.
Louis put his empty bowl next to his mother’s cup in the sink, then ambled into the hallway to see what the police wanted.
Three officers crowded the doorstep, talking in low, reverent tones to his mother. “Excusez-nous de vous déranger, Madame Saint-Blancat,” the tallest one said. We apologize for interrupting. It was the one with the horrible empathy skills from the wake. “On behalf of the juge d’instruction, we find ourselves with the obligation to search your house.” The man glanced at Louis as he stepped up behind his mother, and gave a small nod of greeting. His look was filled to the rim with the accusation that Louis had called the press.
When the officer turned back to Louis’s mother, his gaze didn’t stay focused on her face long. It wandered to the door, to the street, to his colleagues. Louis wasn’t the only one finding Madame Saint-Blancat without makeup a disturbing sight. It’s not that she was ugly without it, it was just so different. Like seeing someone without glasses for the first time.
“Obligation?” his mother asked politely. “Who is forcing you, Monsieur Petit?”
A muscle in the officer’s jaw worked as he ground his teeth. He had apparently been expecting a more cooperative widow. His mouth opened into something that was more rictus than smile. “As you know, Madame Saint-Blancat,” he said, “we were hoping to perform our inquiries in private, without the involvement of the press.” Now he looked straight at her. “Out of respect for Monsieur le Maire, we did not wish for any unnecessary rumors to spread.”
Louis folded his arms over his chest and frowned at Officer Petit. “What kind of rumors?”
Was that pity he saw in the man’s eyes? Louis didn’t want any pity, especially not from this guy.
“There have always been rumors of bribes and corruption surrounding your father,” the officer said. “But there was never any proof, so we apply the presumption of innocence. Now, with that article in today’s Midi Républicain, we have to be seen looking into it. Or the police will lose credibility.”
Finished with Louis, Officer Petit focused on Louis’s mother again. “So, I am afraid we have with us a search warrant. We’ll need to search the house to see if anyone was buying off Monsieur le Maire. Which we hope may lead us in the direction of his murderer.”
“Fine,” Madame Saint-Blancat said as she stepped back to let the officers in. “But please try not to make a mess. And dry off your shoes.”
All three police officers obediently dried off their shoes on the doormat, though what kind of dirt they could have accumulated in the dry streets of Toulouse, Louis didn’t know. Each of the three officers nodded a reverential greeting to Louis’s mother on their way past. “Where is the study, please?” the last one, a balding man with a few days of stubble on his cheeks, asked.
Louis’s mother pointed up the stairs. “One floor up, last door on the right.”
“Merci, Madame,” he replied. And up they went.
His mother slid the door shut and walked back to the kitchen. She rinsed the bowl and cup, then put them in the dishwasher. Leaning against the window frame, she looked at Louis perched on a barstool at the kitchen counter.
“You’re going to let them rummage around up there?” he asked.
His mother cocked her head. “If they have a search warrant, there really isn’t much I can do about it.” She continued looking at him. Waiting.
Louis moved to look up the stairs, then sat back down. He narrowed his eyes at his mother. “You knew they were coming, didn’t you?”
“After that?” She nodded at the article displayed in front of Louis. “Of course I did. They can’t let something like that slip by unnoticed. At least they were nice enough not to show up at six in the morning.”
“They’re not going to find anything, are they?” Louis said.
“Of course not,” his mother replied with a quick eye-roll. Then her chocolate-brown eyes sharpened. She carefully pronounced her every next word as she would when helping him learn a difficult lesson for school. “They’re not going to find anything because your father never took any bribes.”
Louis frowned. “Right.”
His mother’s eyes didn’t let him go yet. “They will not find anything because that would hurt the reputation of the Saint-Blancat family, not to mention the reputation of the city of Toulouse. How many people think of corruption as soon as you say the name Bordeaux because of that idiot Alain Juppé? Toulouse will not have that same stamp.” The core of steel that made up his mother’s backbone was on clear display. This woman was not bowed down by the death of her husband; she would keep fighting for the causes dear to her.
After a few more seconds of scrutiny, his mother appeared satisfied and grabbed the newspaper. She opened it to the crossword puzzles and sat down to work.
Through the window, Louis saw the door to number fifteen open up and the voluminous hair of Madame Sutra appear. Her heavily painted eyebrows drew down to a deep V on her forehead when she saw the police cars. “I’ll go out and say hello to Madame Sutra.”
When he reached the old lady, she was banging her closed umbrella on the tire of the closest car. “Bande de racaille,” she croaked in her smoker’s voice.
Louis smiled. Racaille was the word President Sarkozy used to describe the youngsters revolting against the police in 2006, which had brought him such bad press. Louis couldn’t help but love his neighbor for using the expression on the police for parking on her curb.
“It’s the police,” he yelled to Madame Sutra. “I’m sure they’ll leave soon.” He offered his arm to the old lady. “Can I perhaps walk around the cars with you?” He had learned years ago that offering to buy her cigarettes was not a good idea. She considered this outing her daily exercise—and given her advanced age despite being a chain smoker, there might be some truth to that.
Madame Sutra squinted at the offending police car, then at Louis. She appeared to recognize him. A pinching of her lips, which was her equivalent of smiling, accompanied a nod. “Yes, thank you, young Louis. That sounds lovely.” She grabbed his arm with a strong hand and leaned heavily on him to get down from the curb. Then she advanced with tiny shuffling steps along the two cars and again used Louis’s assistance to get back up on the sidewalk. After a few rattling coughs, she let go of Louis. “I’m glad you’re back, young Louis. The city needs you. Start with getting rid of the cars on the sidewalks.”
Shaking his head, Louis watched a moment longer as she shuffled away toward the tobacco store, then ambled back to his parents’ house. His mother’s now, he mentally corrected.
He was as annoyed by the police parked in front of his house as Madame Sutra, though not for the same reason. Perhaps he should do as she suggested and make sure the cars were no longer there when she came back.
He ran up the steps and in through the front door.
Buy the book now: The Red Brick Cellars: A Tolosa Mystery (affiliate link)