Also by Alexander Campion
THE GRAVE GOURMET
Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation
DEATH OF A CHEF
All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.
Per T., duo da capo per sempre
For my daughter Jessica without whose help this volume would not have blossomed.
Many thanks to my editor Martin Biro who masterfully took charge of a very difficult situation when I was flat on my back in the hospital.
“Lifelong enemies are, I think, as hard to make and as
important to one’s well-being as lifelong friends. ”
Shit! What’s in this goddamn thing? More sodding gold ingots for their collection?”
The stocky man in blue workers’ overalls let his end of the trunk drop on the stair tread with a loud thud. Panting, he mopped his brow with his sleeve, shook his head in disgust, took the dead Gauloise out of the corner of his mouth, spat, replaced the cigarette. “It’s going to come, Jean,” he said to his partner, “the day we put all these fatassed bourgeois that live off our sweat up against a wall and take care of them for good. You’ll see.”
Cécile smiled down at them sweetly. The men had just started up the third flight of gently sweeping oak stairs. The trunk, a pre–World War I Vuitton portmanteau, was absolutely precious. True, it had cost a small fortune, but transformed into a bar, it was going to absolutely make her new sitting room. As the two men lifted their burden with a grunt and renewed their climb, she smiled blissfully. It was going to be too, too darling.
Grumbling, the deliverymen wrestled the trunk into the apartment. Cécile led them into the sitting room, hesitated, and finally elected to have them set it up vertically in a corner by the window. Théophile, her husband, stared myopically through wire-rim glasses and wrinkled his nose.
“Is that what you bought?”
“Yes, dear. I told you. It’s going to be a bar. You’ll be able to serve our guests cocktails, and that way they won’t drink your precious wines before dinner. You remember, don’t you? We discussed it.”
Théophile seemed mollified. “Of course. Drinking wine without food is an egregious solecism. Yet another thing we have to thank the Americans for—”
The man called Jean glowered at them as he mopped his face with a grubby handkerchief. “Listen, pal. We’re not all members of the leisure classes. Some of us have a day’s work to do, so sign the goddamn receipt and let us get out of here.”
Théophile ignored him and looked quizzically at his wife. “But if it’s just an empty steamer trunk, why is it so heavy? Did you buy something else at the flea market?”
“Nothing. Just this fabulous piece. Don’t you just love it?” Cécile said, scribbling her signature on the form.
The deliveryman tore off the strip that bound the three copies, handed the bottom copy to Cécile, hovered for a few seconds, demanding a tip with surly glances, and then lumbered out of the apartment with his partner, shaking his head in disgust at the stinginess of the rich.
The trunk was chest high. Over the century it had been in existence, the famous Vuitton-monogrammed brown oilcloth had mellowed to sepia, and the leather trim and strengthening wood battens had darkened to mahogany. The piece radiated the gravitas of a serious antique. It was so going to be the pièce de résistance of the room.
“Wait ’til you see the inside,” Cécile said. “It doesn’t have any of the usual drawers, just a wooden rod and those wonderful wood hangers. Wouldn’t it have been sublime to find all your clothes waiting for you, hanging up in your own private little closet when you arrived in your stateroom?”
Cécile snapped open the two brass hasps and struggled to open the trunk. The thick pile of the carpet resisted. Théophile stepped in to help and, with a sharp wrench, opened it wide. His hand went to his mouth, and he gagged. By his side, Cécile leaned in for a closer look.
As Théophile ran to the bathroom, retching, Cécile picked up the phone and punched in a number.
“Police Judiciaire,” a voice answered crisply.
“Commissaire Le Tellier, please. Could you tell her that Madame de Rougemont is on the line and that it’s urgent, extremely urgent?”
After a very short pause a new voice came on the line.
“Urgent?” There was amused sarcasm in the tone.
“Absolutely. I really need you to see something I bought at the Biron flea market yesterday.”
“Cécile, you’re sweet. But I’m completely up to my eyeballs today. Why don’t Alexandre and I drop by on Saturday to see your treasure? We could take you out to lunch after.”
we can do that, too, of course. But I’m afraid you really
need to come right away, and with some of your police people, or whatever they’re called. My treasure was delivered with something absolutely horrible inside.”
alf an hour later Commissaire Capucine Le Tellier rose, swayed back and forth in the rattling, glass-paneled, coffin-sized elevator of Cécile’s building with one of her detectives, Brigadier-Chef Isabelle Lemercier, a close-cropped, muscular blond woman whose face was heavily studded with piercings. Capucine knew the elevator well. One tenth of it belonged to her best friend, and she had been in it countless times. The building refused to modernize the ancient unit, still equipped with a folding wooden seat to ease the journey for the aged and infirm and a RENVOI button to send the elevator back to the ground floor once the passenger had alighted. Through the glass panels they could see two other detectives. One, svelte, elegantly dressed in a linen suit, with long, glossy auburn locks—Brigadier David Martineau—raced up the circular staircase wrapped around the elevated shaft two by two, a small boy trying to beat the elevator. The other, a huge olive-skinned North African—Brigadier Mohammed Benarouche, known to everyone as Momo—lumbered up slowly, nearly a flight behind.
A pale and tight-lipped Cécile waited for them on the landing. Mechanically, she kissed Capucine on both cheeks.
“It’s in here,” Cécile said, ushering the four detectives into the sitting room, hesitating nervously, then disappearing into the back of the apartment.
Inside the trunk, a male cadaver, completely naked, huddled in a tight fetal position. The body was stringy and muscular, no longer in the flush of youth but not advanced into middle age, either. It was impossible to be more precise since he had no face. A double-barreled shotgun rose from between his naked legs like an overlong phallus. The right hand hung limply, fingers grazing the bottom of the trunk as if they had fallen away from the trigger.
As the detectives examined the body without touching, a dull metallic aluminum clatter behind them announced the arrival of the PTS forensic squad—the
Police Technique et Scientifique
—clamorously pushing a clattering foldable aluminum gurney.
A young man energetically approached Capucine. “Commissaire Le Tellier?”
“Ajudant Challoneau, PTS.” He shook her hand with the vigorous one-two pump of the business world.
Snapping on latex gloves with the exaggerated joy of a TV-comedy proctologist, he poked, prodded, and fiddled with the limbs of the body, then finally reaching up, grasped the morning-after-pizza remains of the face and turned it toward the room.
“A perfect Janus,” he murmured. “The other side is intact, Commissaire. Have a look.”
The entire blast of the shotgun had hit the right side of the face. The other side, untouched, presented the countenance of a Roman senator, aquiline nose, slim lips, receding hair line accenting a high, intellectual forehead.
“Of course, you can never be sure before the autopsy, Commissaire, but it certainly looks like a suicide. The wound certainly could have come from the shotgun in that position. Look. Here’s the hole where the shot exited—”
“Yeah,” interrupted Isabelle. “When the trunk was tipped on its side, the hole would have been on the bottom. That’s why the delivery guys never saw it.”
Capucine noticed that the brass corner reinforcements of the trunk were deeply scored with bright scratches, as if the trunk had been recently dragged over a rough surface.
“And he managed to snap the latches shut before he shot himself?” David asked.
“No, dummy,” Isabelle said with curled lips. “Obviously, the delivery guys did that. They’re not going to try to haul a trunk that pops open at every step, now are they, asshole?”
As the two detectives bickered, the PTS
took photographs, then extracted the body from the trunk and laid it on an open black plastic body bag on top of the now fully deployed gurney.
During the maneuver, Challoneau commented, “The problem with cases like this is that it takes forever to get an identification of the body. Unless someone reports someone missing, we have nothing to go on. Unlike the rest of the civilized world, we have yet to create a centralized computer database for dental work. Sure, we can get a guy’s dentist to identify a stiff, but we have to know who he is first.”
Now that the body was stretched out, Capucine noticed a
a signet ring with a well-worn coat of arms, on the ring finger of the left hand.
“Ajudant, what if you printed that and let me have it for a day? I know an expert on heraldry who might be able to identify it and give us the name of the deceased.”
One of the agents techniques dusted the ring with dull gray aluminum fingerprint powder, found no prints, pulled the ring off, dropped it into a plastic bag, and handed it to Capucine.
Two of the agents rolled the body out onto the landing and prepared for the difficult descent down the circular stairway. Two others closed the portmanteau trunk, flipped it over on its side, and grabbed the handles, ready to follow the gurney.
Cécile, revivified now that the apartment was hers once again, followed them out onto the landing.
“Don’t forget I’m going to need that back. It was irresistible before, but now it’s going to be the best conversation piece ever.”