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Authors: Michelle St. James

Covenant (Paris Mob Book 1)

BOOK: Covenant (Paris Mob Book 1)
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Covenant
Paris Mob Book One
Covenant
Paris Mob Book One
Michelle St. James
Blackthorn Press
Covenant

Paris Mob Book One

Michelle St. James

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Copyright 2016 by Michelle St. James aka Michelle Zink

All rights reserved.

Cover design by Isabel Robalo

ISBN 978-0-9975464-4-6

1

C
hristophe Marchand drummed
his fingers as he studied the invoice. It was a distraction of course. The overdue delivery of the sixteenth century desk was small in the grand scheme of things, one item in a long list of minutiae that threatened to overtake the hours of every day. Normally he would delegate the responsibility to someone on his staff. Marie-Therese, who ran the Paris household. Even Julien would have taken the item off Christophe’s plate if he’d asked, although imagining his deadly second-in-command attending to a domestic task was difficult.

Then again the acquisition of new pieces had always been personal. It was a product of his upbringing, a way of rebuilding the finery that had been a hallmark of his childhood before his father had bankrupted the family legacy with a lifetime of unemployment and a long line of greedy women eager to marry a man with an outdated title. The women never stayed long. Just long enough to realize the title was meaningless in the twenty-first century, the money long since dried up.

When Christophe had first come to Paris, the house had been as bereft of finery as the chateau on Corsica. He had made it his mission to restore both to their previous glory. The fact that he’d done it with the ill-gotten gains of his position as head of the Paris mob mattered little. It was no more corrupt than the system of royalty that had given the Marchand’s a storied place in the annals of French history. No more corrupt than the policies that kept politicians in power, the laws that protected investment bankers even as they got rich at the expense of the poor. Christophe would put the morality of his work against theirs any day of the week.

He sighed, his eyes coming to rest on his calendar and the desk’s expected delivery date.

It was a full week late.

He was a man of his word. If he said he would do something, it would be done. If he promised to arrive at a specific time, he would be there promptly. Tardiness and ineffectualness of any kind was unacceptable. The desk’s delayed delivery was enough to make him consider looking for another dealer in spite of Edgar Duval’s reputation and their long business relationship.

He picked up the phone and dialed. It was answered on the sixth ring, another breach of etiquette that he wouldn’t have tolerated in his staff.

“Bonjour, Galerie Duval.”

He pressed his lips into a thin line, imagining Joelle Masson, the woman who had been Edgar Duval’s assistant for the past two years. She was young and abrasive, with short spiky hair that alternated between an array of colors that made it difficult to concentrate in her presence and a too-casual manner that he found uncouth.

“Christophe Marchand calling for Monsieur Duval.” He spoke in English out of habit. His mother had been British, and she’d insisted he and Bruno be as fluent in her tongue as they were in French. Using her language was a way of remembering her. Of remembering the part of himself not ruined by her absence.

A hesitation. “Monsieur Duval is unavailable. How may I help you?”

“You may not help me at all,” he said through his teeth. “I deal directly with Monsieur Duval.”

Another pause, followed by a soft sigh. “I’m afraid Monsieur Duval passed away two weeks ago,” Joelle said. “You didn’t know?”

Christophe was rarely thrown off guard. The older man had helped him unearth many of the antiques and much of the artwork his father had sold over the years, slowly emptying out the estate that was Christophe and Bruno’s inheritance in the name of appeasing the ever-growing list of alimony requirements. Duval had been a small man with kind eyes and a gentle, refined manner. Christophe didn’t have affection for many people, but he’d felt a genuine kinship with Duval.

“I didn't know,” he said. “I’m very sorry to hear that.”

“Thank you,” the woman said. “I’m happy to help you, Monsieur Marchand.”

“Of course.” He couldn’t help feeling contrite. “I was calling about the desk that was due to be delivered last week. I haven’t received it.”

“Hold on.” Her English was accented but casual, like the rest of her, and she put him on hold without further comment. He tamped down his annoyance. He was only thirty, and yet he often felt this new generation of young people would be the downfall of polite society.

He sat in silence, the phone still pressed to his ear, his eyes scanning the perfectly appointed room. He’d taken great pains in choosing each piece of furniture, each work of art. Many of them were pieces he remembered from his childhood, pieces that had quietly disappeared over the years. Others were replacements for those he remembered but had been unable to locate. It had been a painstaking process, locating those that had been found, a process that had bordered on the foolish. He knew intellectually that the golden era of his childhood — a childhood marked by his mother’s warm laughter, the light in his father’s eyes that blinked out with her death — wouldn’t be returned to him because of the Picasso that hung over the console table in the living room, the Baroque sideboard that occupied the dining room. Still, he couldn’t help himself. He wasn’t sure he’d been happy since, and he seemed forever to be searching for the way back.

“Monsieur Marchand?”

Joelle Masson’s voice brought him to the present.

“Yes?”

“We have been running behind due to the… unfortunate circumstances. I’ll have Charlie oversee the delivery to you tomorrow morning at ten a.m.” He opened his mouth to inquire about Charlie — he wasn’t in the habit of dealing with Duval’s underlings — when she signed off. “Au revoir.”

He looked at the phone in his hand. Monsieur Duval had been one of the best antique dealers in Paris. He should have hired more professional help.

2


Y
ou should be more polite
,” Charlotte Duval said, inspecting the finish on the desk bound for Monsieur Marchand.

Joelle turned away from the wall phone and slid onto the old worktable where Charlotte had set up her supplies.

She waved away the comment. “Marchand has a stick so far up his ass I couldn’t remove it with a tow truck.”

“Exactly,” Charlotte said. “Which is why you shouldn’t be baiting him.”

She ran her fingers along one of the tiny drawers. It was still sticking. She wanted to make sure it was operating smoothly before she had it delivered to Marchand. He was her father’s most important client, and notoriously finicky in his standards, as he had every right to be; he’d spent millions of dollars at Galerie Duval. Her father had prided himself on his professionalism. She had no idea how Joelle had managed to hang onto her job for the past two years.

“I’m not baiting him,” Joelle said. “Just refusing to cater to him.”

Charlotte straightened, then took off her glasses and set them on the table. She pulled her dark hair into a loose knot at the back of her head and stretched, working the kinks out of her muscles. Her job at the Getty museum in Los Angeles required long hours and a fine attention to detail, but it was much less hands on than the work left behind by her father at Galerie Duval.

“He’s our client,” she said with a laugh. “Catering to him is our job.”

She swallowed the lump that rose in her throat. It hadn’t been her job. Not for a long time anyway. In fact, the only time she’d spend in the shop had been during the summers when she’d been out of school. Then her mother would put her on a plane, only too happy to play the part of young, single actress for three whole months. Of course, she wasn’t young anymore. Not truly. But that didn’t stop her from pretending, both with herself and with the long line of young men she entertained in her bed. Charlotte couldn’t blame them. The men were hoping for introductions to the good life, and maybe a director or two. Debra Hughes was just looking for permission to pretend she was still one of Hollywood’s hottest young actresses.

It was a mutually beneficial arrangement.

“No,” Joelle said. “It’s not. Providing him with the products he orders is our job. And we’re doing that.”

“Maybe,” Charlotte said. “But it doesn’t hurt to be nice along the way.”

Joelle shrugged. “What can I say? I’m not a nice person, Charlie. You know that.”

Charlotte smiled. Her father had hated it the first time Joelle had used the nickname. He was as old school as they came, a quiet man more at home amid the ghosts of his shop than among living, breathing human beings. Charlotte included. But the name had stuck. Charlotte had even grown to like it a bit.

“Liar.”

Joelle lifted her eyebrows in an exaggerated wiggle. “So you’ll accompany the piece to Marchand’s tomorrow morning?”

“I don’t have much of a choice since you’ve volunteered me for the job, now do I?” Charlotte asked.

“You could say no.”

Charlotte sighed. “You know I won’t do that.” She hesitated. It won’t work, you know.”

“What won’t work?” The question was too innocent.

“This.” Charlotte waved at the desk. “Trying to involve me in the business.”

“As long as you’re here…”

Charlotte slid onto the worktable next to Joelle, looked into the other woman’s gray eyes. “I wish I could stay. I just… can’t.”

She didn’t know how to explain it to Joelle. The strange pull of Galerie Duval, both joyful and painful. It was the only place she’d felt a connection to her father, the only place it had seemed she knew him. He hadn’t been a warm man; she could count on one hand the number of times he’d said he loved her. But it had been different in the shop. Here he’d spoken gently, explaining the attributes of the different pieces, the curve of the Queen Anne leg, the simple, elegant line of a Sheraton dining chair. When she’d gotten old enough to work on the pieces herself, he would place his hand over hers, showing her how to tighten a joint without damaging the structural integrity, how to clean a piece without rubbing off the original finish. It was only then she’d felt that they were really speaking to each other, their movements bridging the gap that had never been bridgeable with words.

Joelle’s smile was a little sad. “I understand. You have to do the right thing for you. He would understand that, too.”

“Do you think so?” she asked. She’d been unable to shake the feeling of guilt that sunk its teeth into her bones when she contemplated selling the shop.

“I know so,” Joelle said. “He loved you, Charlie.”

Charlotte envied Joelle’s certainty. “I loved him, too.”

Joelle leaned over to embrace her. “Of course you did.” She slid off the table. “Do you want me to stay? I have a dinner date with that guy from Rex, but I can reschedule.”

Charlotte shook her head. “I’m going to work on the piece for Marchand a bit more, make sure it’s up to his high standards.”

Joelle laughed. “Good luck with that.”

“Thanks a lot. Just don’t forget that you’re the one who got me into this.”

“Ten o’ clock tomorrow morning.” She wiggled her fingers over her shoulder on her way out of the room.

Charlotte let her eyes travel around the empty room, fighting the pull of melancholy. She didn’t have time for it. Didn’t have the energy to fully feel her father’s death, the death of everything she’d once hoped they might have. Better to channel her energy into delivering the remaining pieces to their new owners, finding a buyer for the shop, getting back to L.A. before Paris sunk its sad, beautiful teeth into her soul for good.

She hopped off the table and went back to work.

3

T
he desk was lovely
. Constructed by hand, it looked like a simple rectangular case piece set atop straight, elegant legs. It was only when the front of the desk was lowered that its magic was revealed — not the small surface area that would have been used for writing letters, but multiple compartments in the hutch, diminutive drawers fitted with slots that once would have held handwritten labels to convey their contents.

It was rare to find a piece of this age in such good condition. Completing the rehabilitation her father had started before his death had been cathartic. A way of prolonging their limited connection. He’d done the heavy lifting on the piece, restoring the patina on the warm mahogany without a total refinish that would have devalued it, tightening the joints and the tiny metal label holders that had remained with the piece, sourcing period replacements for the ones that had been missing. It was a prize for any serious collector, and from what Joelle had told her, Christophe Marchand was more selective than most. Charlotte wasn’t thrilled to play delivery girl, but if it would help soothe the ruffled feathers of her father’s best client, she would do it. Now if she could get the last drawer on the bottom right to sit correctly in its slot…

She pulled it out, running her hands along the edge of the back, closing her eyes as she felt for the piece that must be protruding. The blackness behind her eyelids caused the scent of the room to stand out in sharp relief — turpentine, lemon oil, wax, old metal and wood, the faint scent of dust. It was the smell of her childhood. The smell of her father and her failure to reach him.

She might have been ten or twelve or sixteen or twenty. This was the only place she’d ever been able to find him. Was she ready to let it go? To clear out the inventory and sell the storefront or pass the business onto someone new? Would she be able to come to Paris and not see the front gallery lined with items chosen by her father, step through the glass door surrounded by the midnight blue paint her father had painstakingly reapplied every spring?

Then again, what choice did she have? It wasn’t as if she was going to pack up and move to Paris. Her job was in L.A. Her mother too, as annoying as she often was. And yet now that the catalog of her life had come to mind, it seemed frighteningly small. Was that all she could think of to keep her in the States — her job and her mother? It didn’t seem like much to show for her twenty-eight years.

She opened her eyes. The back and sides of the little drawer were completely smooth. She fitted it back into the slot and pushed it in as far as it would go, then leaned back to make sure she hadn’t been mistaken. But no. It definitely wasn’t sitting right. The left side of the drawer stuck out just a millimeter too far.

She removed the drawer again and reached for the headlamp on the work table, fitting it to her head and turning on the light. She bent down, peering into the empty cavity, looking for the obstruction. Nothing seemed amiss, and she stuck her hand inside and felt around, turning it as she felt the top, sides, and bottom of the slot. She was about to remove her hand when she felt something cold touch the tip of her ring finger. Hesitating, she closed her eyes, letting her fingers feel for the change in texture from the warmth of the wood to the hard smoothness that had touched her fingers for a split second.

There it was again, something that definitely didn’t belong.

She removed her hand and bent down, letting the light from the headlamp shine into the narrow channel, searching the shadowed space. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust. When they did, she saw it: the barely visible glint of something sticking out of the back of the case.

Crossing the room, she dug through one of the small metal bins on one of the shelves until she found the long tweezers. They were old and oxidizing, but they still worked, and she carried them to the desk and slipped her hand back into the slot. Whatever it was was embedded in the old wood. The tweezers slipped off the surface several times before she finally got a good grip on the object. She pulled hard and fast, not wanting to give it time to slip out of her grasp yet again. She felt the resistance, then a release as it finally pulled free of the wood. When the tweezers emerged from the cavity, a tiny object rested between their points.

A ring.

She dropped it into the palm of her other hand. It was old, although she couldn’t place its exact age on sight. She set the tweezers down and rubbed the ring between her fingers, slowly revealing its gold finish and an elaborate pattern that looked to be late Renaissance in style. A giant ruby — authentic from the looks of it — sat at its center, dull with dust and grime.

She removed a polishing cloth from the stack on one of the shelves, then took the ring to the desk against the wall. She tried not to think of her father as she sat in the chair in front of the computer, of all the hours he’d logged at the desk, researching the provenance of pieces, calling his contacts at museums around the world to get more information. She focused on the ring instead, carefully rubbing it clean with the polishing cloth used specifically for gold.

Its shine was revealed with each layer of grime she removed. When she was done, she knew instinctively that it was solid gold, and that the ruby at its center — now winking in the light from the desk lamp — was the real deal. She was careful not to remove too much of the patina, even though it meant leaving the layer of brown dust that had settled into the cracks of the filigree in the band.

She studied the details under a loupe, noting the slightly rough edges indicating the piece had been fashioned by hand, the thick scrolls that ran from one side of the stone to the other. Something caught her eye, and she turned the ring toward the light, slowly making out the script etched on the inside of the band.

Ducunt volentem fata.

The words pulled at the corners of her memory. She couldn’t place them, although they were obviously Latin, and she turned to the computer and entered them into the search engine.

The fates lead the willing.

A phrase she’d learned at the private school in Bel Air that had been insisted upon — and paid for — by her father.

She sat back in her chair, turning the ring over between her fingers, wondering if her father had known the ring was hidden inside the desk. Had he planned to remove it? Or had it remained a secret even from him? She knew from his scrupulously maintained records that the desk had come in with a shipment of pieces from his picker in Vienna, but the invoice hadn’t detailed anything specific about its provenance. It was a beautiful piece, and a valuable one, but trying to track it based on those merits alone would be next to impossible.

She set the ring on the desk and turned back to the computer.

R
ENAISSANCE RUBY RING
DUCUNT VOLENTEM FATA

S
he typed
the words into the search box of the browser, then half-heartedly scrolled through the images on the screen. It was a long shot, but not as long as she’d thought. Halfway down the second page, she caught sight of the ring.

Clicking on it, she magnified the image, comparing it to the ring she’d pulled from the back of the desk. It was the same one. It had to be.

She clicked through and found herself on a page detailing items sold at a private auction in Berlin nearly twenty years earlier. There were no pictures — just a long list of art, antiquities, and jewelry that had been sold. She skimmed the list, her eyes coming to rest on an entry near the bottom of the page.

F
ILIGREE RING - RENAISSANCE
- GOLD - FILIGREE - INSCRIPTION READING DUCUNT VOLENTEM FATA

N
o buyer's name
. She wasn’t surprised. High end auctions were often private, bids offered and accepted by phone or through surrogates who attended the auctions on behalf of clients. Few collectors were eager to advertise that they’d acquired an expensive piece of art or furniture.

Fortunately for her, she didn’t have to rely on public manifests. She reached for her cell phone and began scrolling through her contacts in Germany.

BOOK: Covenant (Paris Mob Book 1)
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