About the Author

Michelle Wan

Michelle Wan is the author of the Death in the Dordogne murder mystery series set in southwestern France: Deadly Slipper, The Orchid Shroud, A Twist of Orchids and Kill for an Orchid. She loves all kinds of things—good food; dogs; orchids; people, wherever and however they come into her life; and especially a good mystery. She and her husband Tim live in Guelph, Ontario. Visit www.orchidsaremurder.com for more information.

Books by this Author
A Twist of Orchids

A Twist of Orchids

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Excerpt

prologue

In the pre-dawn light, the ruin of the Temple of Vesunna rose as a shadowy hulk. Relic of a time when France was an outpost of the Roman Empire, it stood in a circle of parkland in the middle of Périgueux, departmental capital of the Dordogne. An empty pop can, wind-driven, skittered along its base. The can bounced and clattered down an incline to land on a walkway where it went careening off again, singing its hollow, tinny song. Tumbling and spinning, it eventually came to rest against a pair of boots.

The boots, badly scuffed, pointed toe-down into the ground. Bare expanses of ankle above the boots showed that their wearer, a man, was without socks. Perhaps he owned no socks, or perhaps he had dressed in a hurry. He wore jeans and a denim jacket and lay on his stomach on the walkway, legs at a slightly higher level than his head. His arms were bent at the elbows, hands cupping, as if protectively, the sides of his face. A careful observer would have noted that the man’s clothes were frozen, that water had leaked from his mouth as he lay in this position, and that a small, icy pool of it had collected in a stony depression beneath his chin. An even more careful observer would have seen that the man’s nostrils were filled with dark vegetative matter, like soil, as if the very earth had risen up to stop his breath.

At this early hour, the parkland surrounding the temple was still. Pigeons, roosting high in the broken masonry, slept. The pop can remained, rocking gently against the obstacle against which it had come to lodge. Until another violent gust of wind sent it dancing on its way.

• 1 •

The young man was an exoticism, a flamboyant figure against the ­mid-­March backdrop of a small-­town street market in southwestern France. He was dressed in an elaborately embroidered saffron-­yellow vest worn open over a long white cotton robe. His hips were draped in a wide, ­colorfully striped sash, his feet clad in bright red shoes with pompoms at the toes. A length of green silk was twisted around his neck and knotted fancifully at the front. A red cap sat like an overturned flowerpot on his black, curly ­head.

As if his outfit were not remarkable enough, the young man was strapped to a large, chased brass and silver urn. Or rather, in the manner of traditional Turkish salep sellers, it was strapped to him, secured to his back by way of a diagonal sling that passed over his right shoulder and under his left armpit. The urn narrowed at the neck before swelling out again into an oriental cupola that rose behind him like a second head. The spout of the urn, long and curved, was hooked under his right arm. A faint swirl of steam escaped from its ornate beak. A circular metal tray attached to the young man’s waist held Styrofoam ­cups.

Hadi og˘lum daha canlı¯ bag˘ir, Kazı¯m. Orda korkuluk gibi duruyorsun . . .” urged a large, ­middle-­aged, mustachioed man in Turkish. He stood nearby before a bulwark of spices and foodstuffs from Anatolia, homemade baklava and glistening dolmas at two euros fifty each. These articles were equally out of place among the stands filled with the usual offerings: root vegetables, bread, baskets of eggs, loops of sausages, walnuts, ­farm-­cured hams, cheeses, fish, tubs of honey, and bottles of dark fruit wine. Flattened duck carcasses, picturesquely called “overcoats,” shared display space with plucked chickens that lay heads dangling, feet crossed. What the man, Osman Ismet, said was: “Put some life into it, Kazim. You’re standing there like a scarecrow. How do you expect to get their attention like that? Drum up business, can’t you? Do your spiel. A real salepar’s got to have a spiel,” and so on. The Turk’s mustache flowed magnificent as a stallion’s mane on his upper lip. Kazim shot Osman, who was his father, a bitter look and muttered something, also in Turkish, the general import of which was: “This was your stupid idea. You do the spiel. I’m freezing my ass off.”

It was true. Kazim’s face was pinched with cold, despite the fact that under his getup he wore a second set of clothing. The skirt and sleeves of his robe snapped and fluttered in the wind, exposing banal glimpses of frayed sweater cuffs, faded blue jeans, and gray wool ­socks.

“Watch your tongue,” the father reprimanded, prodding the son forward into the path of shoppers who filled the central square of the town. “Show some respect.”

It was getting on for noon, and the market was beginning to wind down. People, loaded with purchases, were drifting away. Some of the vendors were already closing up their stalls. Business for the Turks had been slow all morning. Soon it would be time for them to pack up as ­well.

Sullenly, ironically, and in French, Kazim began to call out: “Okay, folks! Here it is! All the way from Istanbul, the Aphrodisiac of Sultans!” He said it, emphasizing each syllable: ­“Aff-­ro-­dee-­zee-­ack of ­Sul-­taaaans!” His dark eyes flicked glumly over the slowly moving throng, focused momentarily on the buildings on the side of the square opposite his family’s stall, took in the steep stairway leading up to the porch of the Two Sisters Restaurant, and swept ­on.

“Good, good,” encouraged Osman Ismet. “Aphrodisiac. That always gets their attention.”

And indeed, some shoppers, attracted by the young man’s cry, were stopping, willing to be momentarily amused, because street markets in the Dordogne, indeed everywhere in France, were always a form of entertainment as well as commerce. Kazim’s eyes continued to roam while his mouth formed a version of the prescribed salepar’s ­pitch:

“Got the wilts? A slurp of Elan will perk you up. Do wonders for the little woman, too. Made with a secret ingredient from a ­centuries-­old formula. You don’t think Scheherazade’s old man kept it up for a thousand and one nights without a little help, do you? Here it is, folks. Elan, the drink of drinks. Three euros a cup, or buy a pack of powder mix for twelve, make it at home, the Viagra of Sultans . . .”

A quartet of teenage girls gathered around him, giggling. A ­middle-­aged couple, trundling a wire shopping cart laden with vegetables, baguettes, and a ­spit-­roasted chicken, paused. Moving toward him through the thinning crowd, like a galleon in full sail, came a big man in a ­green-­and-­brown checked overcoat. He was accompanied by a thin man dressed in black. The thin man’s face was as narrow and gleaming as the blade of a knife. A pair of gendarmes strolled up from the opposite direction. Kazim took in the man in the overcoat and his companion as well as the approaching gendarmes. He bent forward swiftly, causing the spout of his urn to give forth a stream of hot, creamy liquid that he caught somewhat inexpertly in a Styrofoam ­cup.

Voilà, monsieur.” He shoved the cup into the hands of a fat fellow in a black beret and a bulky ­zip-­up sweater who happened to be passing. “Free to you. Special promotional offer.”

The fellow, a pig farmer from ­Saint-­Avit-­Sénieur, sniffed it suspiciously. “What is it?”

“Something you’ll thank me for. Old fart like you could use a ­stand-­up-­and-­salute,” said Kazim the salepar very loudly, to the laughter of some bystanders. Jeeringly, he addressed them at large: “You French are all alike. Don’t know what you keep in your pants.”

“What the hell–” objected the old fart at the same moment that the father, mustache leaping, hissed in Turkish, “Are you crazy? That’s no way to talk to customers. What’s gotten into you?”

“Watch your mouth, shithead Arab,” yelled a ­tough-­looking, acned ­youth.

“Yeah,” yelled a couple of his ­mates.

Kazim’s dark eyes singled out the pockmarked face. “You call me a shithead, you come and talk to me. Or don’t you have the guts?”

“I’ll send you back where you came from, minus something, sale bougne,” offered Pockmarks, surging forward. The crowd, interested in a fight, surged with him. More people hurried over to catch the action. Vendors left their ­stalls.

Kazim, the erstwhile salepar, slipped swiftly out of his harness. The heavy urn dropped with a clang to the ground, rolled, trailing a sudsy stream of Elan, and came to a stop against one of the wooden legs of the table bearing the family’s ­wares.

“Filthy terrorist!” another voice ­shrilled.

The gendarmes, alerted by the hubbub, pushed through the growing crowd of ­people.
“Please! Please!” shouted the father, switching to heavily accented French. He stood arms and legs akimbo before his minor international enterprise. “Stop. I beg you. Is no way to talk. We are people of peace–”

At that point, his son crashed into him, propelled by the acned tough and his two mates. The Turk himself was driven backwards onto his stand. It collapsed beneath the combined weight of the five men in a rain of spices, olives, baklava, dolmas, stuffed peppers, and paper packets containing the Aphrodisiac
of ­Sultans.

“Break it up!” yelled the gendarmes, wading in to quell the ­brawl.

On his back, piled atop his father, Kazim planted a pompommed shoe in the stomach of the first ­gendarme.

Because he was the only one looking up, Kazim alone saw the woman fall from the restaurant porch. She came flying at a slant down the diagonal of the stairway, arms outstretched, mouth straining open like an avenging ­djinn.

• 2 •

Madame Chapoulie, hurrying out of her flower shop to see what the commotion in the square was all about, nearly tripped over the body of the old woman lying at the bottom of the Two Sisters’ ­stairs.

Mon Dieu!” screamed the florist, terrified by the thin sound that came from the woman’s gaping mouth, by the staring eyes that already seemed to be taking on an awful vacancy. “Au secours!

Her cries drew people from the fight. By then the gendarmes had things more or less under control anyway. The crowd flowed out of the square toward the hysterical florist. The gendarme who had been kicked came, dragging Kazim with him; the other followed with the ­pimply-­faced youth in tow. The youth’s mates had seized the opportunity to run for it. The first gendarme let go of Kazim to check for a pulse in the fallen woman’s neck. Kazim obliged the officer by sticking close. The other gendarme held on to his captive. He took in the position of the body, the steepness of the flight of eighteen stone steps that rose above it, and observed: “Must have missed her footing.”

It was the general consensus. The restaurant spanned the upper stories of a pair of houses that in former times had been owned by two English sisters, the reason that the restaurant’s name was rendered in English rather than French. The houses were separated by a narrow alley and bridged at the top by an elevated porch. In summertime, the porch was a pleasant spot for a meal or a drink. In winter, except for waiters hurrying from one house to the ­other–­that is, one part of the restaurant to the ­other–­or customers crossing to use the toilets located on the ­right-­hand side, it was ­deserted.

“It’s those damned steps,” a man muttered, and there were murmurs of agreement. “She must have been distracted by the fight at the Turkish stall and tripped.”

“Should have used the cage,” someone else said, referring to an ­old-­fashioned elevator that crawled up and down the back exterior of the restaurant. It doubled as a goods lift and a means of conveying those not inclined to use the stairs, which was the majority of customers, since parking was also around the ­back.

Kazim’s gendarme stood up. He looked grave. “I’m afraid she’s had it.” He pulled out his cellphone and began punching ­numbers.

The death was reported on the eight o’clock news that night: Amélie Gaillard, ­eighty-­five years old, wife of Joseph, resident of the hamlet of ­Ecoute-­la-­Pluie. Cause of death: a massive cerebral hemorrhage caused by an accidental fall. There was some discussion of the condition of the Two Sisters’ stairs, which were in fact sound and equipped with a sturdy handrail. The restaurant owner was interviewed. “We absolutely urge patrons to use the elevator,” he ­declared.

Amélie’s death, however, was overshadowed by the evening’s main story. In the early hours of the morning, Périgueux municipal workers had discovered the body of an unidentified male near the Temple of Vesunna. The man was described as of European type, brown hair, blue eyes, 180 centimeters tall, weighing 78 kilograms, and between ­thirty-­five and forty years of age. Needle marks in his arm tagged him as an intravenous drug user and possibly a petty pusher.

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Deadly Slipper

Deadly Slipper

A Novel
edition:Paperback
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Excerpt

1

MARCH 2003

"Maradonne," repeated the telephone voice. "I've been referred to you by someone who knows you, or knows of you--Monsieur La Pouge."

The accent was what he called straight-up American. Not a laid-back southern drawl. Not in-your-face New Yorkese, where "talk" rhymed with "squawk." But neutral, the tone slightly urgent.
"Ah," said Julian Wood, pushing his glasses up onto his forehead. He did not know any Maradonne. Or any La Pouge person, either.

"Because of your knowledge of wildflowers."

Julian thought hard. A fellow member of the Societe Jeannette--Daffodil Society--the local wildflower amateurs' club? Or an enthusiast who had come across his book, Wildflowers of the Dordogne/Fleurs sauvages de la Dordogne, what he liked to think of as the bilingual bible on local flora?

He was standing in his slippers on the stone floor of his kitchen, which, since it was the best-lit and largest room of his ancient cottage, also served as his workshop. He fiddled with a sprig of dry-pressed pepperwort that he had been in the process of framing. He wanted to get back to it.

"I have a problem," continued the voice, "and I need your advice. That is, your expertise. I wonder if I could ask for an hour of your time? On a consulting basis, of course."

Consulting? Well, he could consult with the best of them, but what on earth was this woman on about?

"I'm afraid--what--um--exactly is it that you want?"

There was a pause. "I just need a little botanical information. Look," she insisted, "can I come out to see you now? You live in Grissac?"

"Just outside, actually," he admitted weakly. He belonged to that species of middle-aged Englishman made nervous by pushy females.

"I can be there by--shall we say four?"

Turning his head, he looked out the window at rain, a cold March rain slanting out of an ugly sky that had hung for weeks over this region of southwestern France. A sudden gust rattled his windowpanes (in need of recaulking). He wondered, not for the first time, where Edith had got to.

"All right," he heard himself say, and told this Maradonne person how to find him.

Julian took one look at her and had a premonition of trouble. She was small, coming below his shoulder, with straight, black brows, a pointed chin, and an air of determination. Her face brought on a rush of uneasy associations with other determined women, dimly remembered, whom he had known. She was also soaking wet. That was because she had run through the downpour from the road, where she had been obliged to leave her car. She stood, hair plastered to her head, water coursing off her onto the flagstones of his gloomy vestibule.

"Mara," she seized his hand damply but firmly. "Mara Dunn."

"Julian Wood."

Reluctantly, he helped her out of her raincoat and hung it on his wobbly tripod rack. She scrubbed vigorously at her short, dark hair, flicking water everywhere. The action left it upstanding and spiky, making her look oddly like a hedgehog and younger than she probably was. Forty? Forty-five? He wasn't good with women's ages.

"Well," he said with a stab at heartiness, "may as well come through. Awful day. Tea? Coffee?"

"Oh, tea, thanks, if it's not too much trouble." Her brisk voice grated already on his nerves.

She ignored his invitation to be seated in his front room. Just as well. Since he lived with no one but Edith, whose habits were bohemian at best, housekeeping was not a strong point with Julian. He had tried to make a fire, which was smoking unpleasantly on the hearth.

Instead, she followed him right into his kitchen where her attention was immediately seized by a contraption standing at one end of the room:

"What is that?" she laughed, waving at a series of bulky, rectangular frames fastened together with immense wooden screws. "Some kind of medieval instrument of torture?"

"Floral press, actually," he replied stiffly and slapped an aluminum kettle on the burner. "Nineteenth-century. I still use it. For preparing herbarium samples."

"Herb--what?" Her eyebrows arched.

"Dry-pressed flora. Once the only means of providing type specimens for horticultural classification and botanical study." The hedgehog had asked for his expertise--by god, she was going to get it.

She looked perplexed. He relented a little. "For drying plant material. In fact a microwave does just as well for most things, but I find the old-fashioned method gives a more antique finish. It's a simple process, really. Clamp the plants in the press. It's lined with blotting paper to take up the moisture. Tighten the screws from time to time. Whole thing takes about six weeks. Thick bits like stalks and flower heads have to be pressed separately from petals and leaves and reassembled later. Then I mount and frame everything for sale."

He waved at an arrangement of flattened flowers and leaves laid out on a sheet of corkboard on his kitchen table. "It's my off-season trade. In summer"--he rinsed out a couple of mugs--"I'm a landscape gardener."

He eyed her warily as she approached his worktable to pick up a stiff cluster of pale-yellow blossoms.

"Cowslips," he told her. "What the locals call coucous. An early-spring bloomer found along hedgerows and shady footpaths."

"Oh!" Dark eyes swiveled to fix him intently. "Can you identify it like that? Where certain kinds of flowers grow, I mean?"

He cocked an eyebrow. "Well, yes and no. Most plants are habitat-specific. However, there are lots of hedgerows and footpaths around here. What do you have in mind?"

She took a deep breath, a diver about to plunge.

"Mr. Wood--"

"Julian."

"Julian. I'll get right to the point. If I showed you some photos of flowers, could you tell me--would you have any idea where they were taken?"

For a moment he entertained a suspicion that this was some crazy kind of test.

Quickly, she dug into her handbag and pulled out a thick brown envelope. "Please." She held it out to him.

With a sigh he slid his glasses down onto his nose and took it from her. It contained colored prints.

"But this is Beynac Castle," he objected, as the first shot revealed a fortified hulk perched on a cliff. It was a well-known local tourist site. "A few years ago, from the look of the cars."

"Yes. I left that in because it comes at the beginning of the roll. I thought it might give a general indication. There's also a pigeonnier." She fingered through to a print of a tall stone dovecote standing like a gaunt tower in the middle of a field. "But the rest of the photos are all flowers."

He frowned and flipped through them.

"Well," he said finally, "they're field orchids."

She waited, watching him tensely.

He shrugged. "Temperate species. Cousins to the more dramatic tropical varieties most people think of when you mention orchids. These are more modest plants, but every bit as beautiful, in a smaller way. And damned easy to miss unless you know how to spot them. But look here, these photos are in terrible condition. Some are almost impossible to make out. You want me to tell you where these things grow?"

"If you can." She had moved close enough for him to feel the dampness rising out of her hair and clothing, to catch a faint scent of sandalwood. He found the proximity slightly disturbing. He cleared his throat.

"Well, I can't. That is, not specifically. I mean, most of these, from what I can make out, are pretty widespread throughout the region. Beyond the fact that some like shade, others sun, and most grow in calcareous soils, it would be hard for anyone to tell you exactly where."

"But," she insisted, "you just said a certain kind of soil. Couldn't that be a clue?" She was not going to be put off.

"Calcareous?" He gave a harsh laugh. "Chalk. Pretty well describes the entire Dordogne Valley, certainly all of the middle reach, which is entirely underlain by chalky limestone."

The look of determination drained from her face, to be replaced by something like desperation. "You're absolutely sure there's no way?"

"Look," he said dryly, "I'm not a psychic." He returned the photographs. Her insistence was becoming irritating.

"No. Of course not." She slumped heavily into a chair.

Julian saw that, whatever her reasons, his visitor had placed a lot of hope in him. Now she was disappointed. More than disappointed. Crushed.

The kettle rattled on the burner. He turned away to make the tea, feeling mystified and thrown off by their exchange.

"Milk? Sugar?"

She did not answer. He put the teapot down and eyed her again. "Or something stronger?"

She stirred, looked up dully. "No. Thanks. Look, if you don't mind, I think I'll pass on tea. Anyway, I'm interrupting your work." She rose jerkily, dropped her bag, picked it up, and fumbled in it. "Can I--can I pay you something for your time?"

"Good god, no." He felt insulted.

"Well, if you're sure . . . “" She regarded him uncertainly. "Then I'll be on my way."
She did not wait for him to help her with her coat. He stood by as she struggled into it, feeling somehow that he had failed this odd, impulsive woman with her unreasonable expectations. She shook his hand stiffly.

"Thank you. You've been very kind."

Through the bull's-eye window in the vestibule Julian could see rain sheeting off the overhanging roof.

"Er--do you want an umbrella?"

She forced a brittle smile. "I'll sprint."

He opened the door for her. She pulled up her collar and stepped out. In the next instant something struck her full in the chest. With a scream, she skidded backward, threw up her arms. Her handbag flew, hitting the ground for the second time. Before Julian could catch her, she landed hard on the wet flagstones. A large, writhing form straddled her while a vigorous lash repeatedly struck the rickety coatrack, knocking it from side to side until it, too, went over with a splintering crash.

Julian waded in, lunging and grabbing.

"Dammit Edith," roared Julian Wood, finally getting a hand on the collar of a large, very wet, exuberant dog. "Get off, you bloody beast! Get off!"

She had twisted her right ankle and had to be helped, carried by him really, back into his front room. It was an awkward, bumpy trip, and Mara was intimately aware of Julian's long, angular body, his thick pullover smelling slightly of damp wool, his rough, badly trimmed facial hair. She recalled his look of dismay--or was it shock?--when she had first entered his house, dripping water, mascara undoubtedly running down her face, and acknowledged with embarrassment that her attempted exit was even less graceful.

He deposited her on the sofa. Edith, a black-and-white short-haired pointer, was dragged away and shut up. Mara could hear her barks, whines, and frantic scrabbling from the back of the cottage.

"Better get that up." Julian swept away several days' accumulation of newspapers from the sofa so that she could raise her leg. Then he was gone again, retrieving her bag, placing it beside her, darting away into the kitchen, calling as he went, "Sorry about the dog. She just wanted to get inside. She hates the rain. I was wondering when she'd turn up."

He reappeared moments later with ice cubes wrapped lumpily in a tea towel. "Here. Get the swelling down. Nothing broken? Do you want a doctor?"

"No, no, I'm fine," Mara lied. Her ankle throbbed. Edith's howls were making the pain worse. "You ought to do something about her, you know."

"What? Let her out?"

"I meant, get her under control," Mara told him severely. "She's a liability."

He grinned, a sudden, attractive, boyish grin that illuminated his saturnine features. "Not guilty. Not my dog. Belongs to a farmer down the road, old Hilaire. Lets her run loose. She lives with me when she feels like it, and when she doesn't she buggers off somewhere else."

He shot away again. Mara closed her eyes. His comings and goings were making her dizzy.

However, the improvised cold pack was dulling the sharpness of the pain. She adjusted it around her ankle and looked about her: a low, small room full of mismatched furniture, threadbare carpets, and lots of litter. Pots of flowering plants crammed the window ledges. The walls were entirely taken up with books. Their worn spines suggested that all were well read.

He was back with a mug of tea and a couple of aspirins. "Here. Take these. When you feel better, if you can't drive, I'll run you back wherever you want to go."

Mara managed a smile. "Thanks. I'll be okay."

"No problem, really. Where are you staying?"

"Ecoute-la-Pluie." She opened her bag and gave him her card: Mara Dunn--Interior Designer/Decoratrice ensembliare.

Julian looked surprised. "You're not a tourist?"

She shook her head. "I'm sorry. I should have made that clear. I'm Canadian, but I live here."

"Ah," he said, as if that explained something. "Of course." He lowered himself into a leather easy chair--obviously his favorite since the arms and seat were badly worn. "And the photographs? Look," he said, against his better judgment, "don't you think you'd better tell me what this is all about?"

Wearily Mara let her head fall against the sofa back so that she gazed past him at an indeterminate spot on the ceiling. "Yes," she said at last. "The photos." Briefly she closed her eyes. "You see, nineteen years ago, my sister Bedie--Beatrice Dunn--I think my sister may have taken those pictures."

He stared at her blankly, waiting for her to go on.

"In 1984, my sister, Bedie, disappeared in the Dordogne." Mara had told this story many times. With each telling, the recital became bleaker, more mechanical, reducing the people in it to mere essential facts. "She'd come over with her boyfriend, Scott Barrow, for a hiking holiday. They were camping not too far from here at a place called Les Gabarres. It was early May, and they'd had a lot of rain. Scott wanted to push on. Bedie wanted to stay. They had a fight about it, and Scott packed up and took off." Mara was silent for a moment. "When he came back to the campsite a couple of days later, Bedie was gone. Scott waited around for a few more days. He was sure she'd be back because, although she'd taken her backpack and camera, a Michelin guide, and a book on flowers, the rest of her things were still in the tent. We--none of us--ever saw her again."

Her eyes wandered to the windows. Darkness, the early darkness of remnant winter days, was closing in, but the rain was letting up. "The police launched a massive search. It was in all the papers. They questioned everyone in the area and followed up with campers who'd left during the critical period, anyone who might have seen her or given her a ride. A German family said they saw her go out of the campsite the morning after Scott left. Alone and on foot. No one else knew anything."

From the Hardcover edition.

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I.O.U. Dead

I.O.U. Dead

A Keno Kalder Mystery
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tagged : crime, urban life
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Kill for an Orchid

Kill for an Orchid

edition:Paperback
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Excerpt

1
 
It was spring in the glorious Dordogne.
 
God’s country, Julian Wood called it. He paused in his labours to raise his eyes to a sweep of wooded uplands and high blue sky, then threw his weight onto the spade, turning and lifting soil oozing with life. Mid-fifties, tall and lanky with a salt-and-pepper thatch, a long jaw framed by facial hair in need of trimming, he was a man at peace. A man who had long ago fled the damp cold of England to put down roots in this sunny, rugged corner of southwest France. He loved this place, its fields, its woods, its rumpled hills, its robust earthy wines and especially its hardy, good-humoured farming folk. Sadly, they were giving way to paler generations removed from the land and anxiously trying to squeeze out precarious livings in a département where good jobs were hard to find. A chronically underemployed landscape gardener himself, Julian was sure he contributed to the regional unemployment statistics.
 
But that was not a problem for today. Today the wisteria dripped like purple rain from the eaves of the houses, irises raised elegant flags against old stone walls, the air was heady with smells. Today was a day to set the old-fashioned annuals that he favoured—wallflowers and pansies—into the warm bosom of the earth.
 
Until Mara came out of the house with the morning’s post.
 
“Mostly bills,” she called. “Yours, I’m afraid.”
 
Julian sighed, relinquishing his spade and his view of sky and forest. Nothing was perfect.
 
 
“Can we talk?” said Mara Dunn.
 
They were seated at the terrace table. He had his glasses on and was sorting through his mail.
 
“Fire away.” He glanced at a notice from his bank. “Merde.”
 
“Well,” said Mara, leaning forward on her elbows. “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking.” And when he did not respond, she added, “About us.”
 
“Eh?”
 
Mara sighed. She was a small, slim French Canadian with a determined chin and large, intelligent eyes that were at the moment darkly serious.
 
“You and me. Life together. Do we stay as we are?” She paused, giving him time to absorb the question. “Or do we move on to something—well—more permanent?”
 
It was risky, where she was going. They were such different people. She, an interior designer, was accustomed to moving space and objects around, shaping everything to a timetable, a budget and a plan. Julian was happiest out of doors, planting and pruning, or rambling through woods and meadows looking for orchids, going nowhere in particular. They had come to the Dordogne by different paths, had met four years ago under peculiar circumstances, and had gone on to live together just as peculiarly in her house in Ecoute-la-Pluie with two dogs and no clear notion of where this would take them. And therein lay the difficulty. Mara needed to know where they were going. Julian did not seem to care.
 
Now he looked up. Stay as they were? More permanent? Was there a difference?Well, yes, Julian had to conclude, it was a bit awkward, this living out of two places. His cottage in Grissac, twenty minutes down the road (for sale; no buyers, not even any prospects to date), was where he still kept most of his belongings and where he dropped in occasionally to check on things, to pick up the odd phone message (he still kept his land line going; he refused to get a portable) and to collect mail that had not been forwarded to him at Mara’s. These were his Times Out, when he wandered through his poky darkened rooms, touching his books (of which he had a great number), when he gave in to a secret desire to sit idly in his tattered leather armchair (it did not match Mara’s decor), savouring with a sense of poignancy the remembrance of a time when he had actually lived there. But what exactly did she mean? For starters, could he bring his books? And his armchair? His eyes fell on a letter bearing a Canadian stamp. For a moment he thought it must be for her, but no, it had been addressed to him, care of his publisher, his name clearly typed, and redirected to him.
 
“Sure.” His melancholy features broke into a boyish, lopsided grin. Life was good. He had no objection whatever to things continuing as they were for as long as she liked. “I’m open to that.”
 
“You are?”
 
“Of course.” Curious, he tore the envelope open. The letter it contained, postmarked March 25, 2007, had taken thirteen days to reach him.
 
Dear Mr. Wood,
I don’t know how to contact you directly, so I am asking your publisher, Éditions Arobas, to forward this letter. I have just seen your book on wild orchids of the Dordogne. In it you show a drawing of an unknown Slipper orchid that you call Cypripedium incognitum and that you believe grows locally. I happen to be writing a book on the life of my great-great-great-grandfather, the 19th-century plant hunter, Horatio Kneebone, whose expedition diaries I possess. Amazingly, one of them includes a sketch and description of an orchid that closely resembles your artist’s drawing of C. incognitum!
 
Mara watched in bemusement as Julian’s jaw went suddenly slack.
 
Since Horatio had ties to the Dordogne, I think my ancestor might just hold the secret to the origin of this incredible flower. I plan to spend some time in your part of France researching Horatio’s “Dordogne Period,” and I would greatly appreciate a chance to meet you and talk further about what I’m sure is an area of mutual interest. If this suits you, please reply to the address or e-mail shown below.
Sincerely,
Charles K. Perry
 
“Julian,” she burst out, “you do understand I’m talking about marriage!” Immediately she said it she was sorry. It had come out all wrong, sounding like a threat.
 
“My God!” shouted Julian, whose heart had made a sudden leap.
 
“Don’t sound so appalled.”
 
“Appalled?” Julian’s eyes were starry. “I think it’s absolutely brilliant!”
 
“You do?” said Mara, quite surprised.
 
 
Mara said a little sourly after she had read the letter—she had just proposed, hadn’t she? And all he could think of was his orchid—“I don’t suppose he realizes you’ve never seen this flower of yours and that your only proof it exists is an old, very bad photograph and an even older embroidery?”
 
“Who cares?” Julian snatched the letter back from her and kissed it. “You read what Charles Beautiful K. Perry wrote: his ancestor’s orchid matches mine. There are diary entries on it. That means Cypripedium incognitum is not a phantom, Mara. It has a documented provenance.”
 
It was true that Julian had never seen, never touched, his mystery orchid. It was totally unknown to him and to the botanical world, for his considerable research had turned up nothing like it. That was what made it so special. It was the bad photograph, brought to him by Mara at their first meeting, that had started it all. The antique embroidery, which had turned up later, showed a clearer representation—a stunning if structurally anomalous flower with a bright pink pouch flanked by blackish-purple, extraordinarily long, twisted lateral petals, and three sepals—not the two normally characteristic of Cypripediums—of the same hue. Since then he had been driven to find it, if truth be known, had lusted for it with all the desperation of an addict. Was it an extremely rare, indigenous species that grew only in an isolated spot in the Dordogne? An import that had managed to survive and propagate? If so, from where, and what was the history of this amazing flower’s journey to his corner of southwest France? Now, out of the blue, he was actually on the verge of having his answer. All that remained was to find the flower itself.
 
So what was he doing sitting here? It was already April, things were blooming. He lurched involuntarily from his chair, propelled by the same old fear that always swamped him around this time, that a careless hiker or a bulldozer would wipe it out of existence. Worse, that someone else would find the orchid first. His unopened mail fell to the ground.
 
“You’re worried about Géraud, aren’t you,” Mara observed with perfect comprehension. Living with an orchid freak had taught her to read his moods according to the seasons—spring was always a fraught time—although she had yet to understand his passion. She often wished more of it would find its way to her.
 
“That poacher!” Géraud Laval was Julian’s arch botanical rival and, after Julian, the Dordogne’s next best orchidologist. A retired pharmacist, he was a temperamental old goat with hairy ears and a habit of shouting. He also had a nasty reputation for acquiring orchids any way he could, which included the unthinkable crime of digging them up in the wild. “He’s an outright menace.” Julian paced restlessly to the edge of the terrace.
 
“Quite a dilemma,” said Mara with a touch of sarcasm. “Which to do first? Answer Beautiful Charles Perry’s letter, or rush out to find your flower before Géraud does?”
 
 
6 April 2007
> Dear Charles,
I’m astounded, intrigued, fascinated, gobsmacked—what can I say? Frankly, the search for C. incognitum has taken over my life since I first found traces of it here in the Dordogne four years ago. Your news is an immense break in the mystery surrounding this incredible flower and I can hardly wait to learn more. Can you send me a copy of your sketch? I’m using a friend’s e-mail, so you can reply to me care of her, Mara Dunn. She informs me you can send me a scan of the drawing. By all means, let’s meet. I can’t tell you how much I welcome ANY information you can give me on C. incognitum.
Yours in anticipation,
Julian Wood  
“A friend’s e-mail?” Mara felt hurt as she read his reply. It was an hour later, and they were in her studio, a converted building behind the house. Julian was at her computer. An initiate to the mysteries of electronic communication, he had to be coached through the process. “What’s wrong with fiancée?” She assumed that’s what they now were.
 
“For heaven’s sake, Mara,” said Julian, looking alarmed. “That’s personal. I hardly know the man.”
 
 
“Delighted,” was Charles Perry’s e-mail response the following day, although he made it clear that he preferred to defer any further exchange on Cypripedium incognitum “until their happy meeting.” He gave an arrival date in a week’s time, said he was in need of a self-catering short-term rental while he carried out his research in the region, and could Julian suggest anything? Absolutely, Julian fired back. His own cottage at a knock-down price. The offer was accepted. Perry insisted on paying a deposit.
 
“That’s settled then,” Julian said.
 
“He likes playing hard-to-get, don’t you think?” Mara sniffed. Until their happy meeting indeed.
 
“Oh, I expect he’s just being careful. After all, he doesn’t know what he’s getting into.”
 
Mara forbore to comment, eyes wandering to the windows. Outside, a wind was building up, forerunner of those spring storms that blew in so quickly over the land. Once again, they were at her computer. Around them lay the detritus of her trade: architectural bits and pieces, old doors, a chimney hook, a collection of fanciful épis—the finials that decorated the roof ends of old houses—remnants she had salvaged from wrecking sites, junk shops and flea markets. The clutter, however, had its purpose. Everything would one day find its way into her many clients’ re-remodelled environments.
 
A flash of lightning split the sky with an electrifying crack. Bismuth, Julian’s rangy grey-speckled mutt, offspring of Edith the local pointer bitch, gave a howl of anguish and shot under the desk. He was terrified of thunder. Another dog, Jazz, Mara’s tan-and-white pit bull and also Bismuth’s sire, snored windily beside a roll of salvaged carpet.
 
“I wonder what you’ll do,” she mused.
 
“Court him, of course. Coax, screw, squeeze out of him everything and anything he can give me on Cypripedium incognitum.”
 
“I mean, what you’ll do if you ever find your orchid.”
 
“You mean when I find it!” Julian declared. “Stand the botanical world on its ear, what do you think. Then throw the biggest blowout this side of Brives. You do realize that the discovery of an unknown orchid ranks up there with finding a new solar system?”
 
“Oh sure. But after that?” She paused, dark, straight brows drawing together in a velvet line of frustration. Rain was beginning to slash against the windowpanes. “This flower has ruled your life for as long as I’ve known you. It makes me wonder. Once you find it, once the mystery is solved, what then? Will it be over?”
 
“Will what be over?”
 
“I mean, will you be able to let it go? Or will you just look for something else to fill the gap?”
 
He said a little anxiously, “This isn’t about how much time I spend looking for it, is it?” She had complained about that. She had complained about a lot of things.
 
“No.” Mara pulled her cardigan a little tighter around her. The studio was inadequately heated. “It’s about the lure of the unattainable.” Which I’m not, she thought ruefully. I’m Mara, available, on the downhill slide of forty-five, irrationally in love with an orchid maniac who thinks more about botany than he does me. “And the fact that you’re impossibly romantic. Where orchids are concerned, at least.”
 
“Hey,” he teased, seeing where she was coming from, “not jealous of a flower, are you?” And when she did not respond, he said earnestly, “Oh, come on, Mara. Surely you understand what a break like this means to me.” He threw his head back gloatingly. “God, I can’t wait to get my hands on Kneebone’s diary. I can’t wait to meet Charles Perry. I wonder what he’s like.”
 
She gazed at him sadly. “You sound like a man waiting for a mail-order bride. Maybe I should be jealous.”
 
“Not a chance.” He rose from the desk, drew her to him and kissed her on the nose. His face broke into its crooked, heart-tugging smile. “But if he brings me information on Cypripedium incognitum, I’ll have to love him, won’t I? Just a little bit?”

From the Hardcover edition.

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The Orchid Shroud
Excerpt

1

WEDNESDAY, 28 APRIL 2004

The first shattering blow echoed down the line of empty rooms. The big man stepped back, raised the iron mallet again. It struck home with another sickening thud.

Christophe de Bonfond recoiled at the first hit, turned away at the second. His normally cheerful face was pale.

"Je ne peux pas . . ." he murmured to his companion. "I can't. It really is too much."

"Then don't," Mara Dunn responded in French, drawing him away by the arm. She was a small, slim woman, forty-something, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt that read in English: Outside of a dog a man's best friend is a book. Inside of a dog it is very dark. This was attributed to Groucho Marx. Her head was topped with short-cropped hair. She had dark eyes, straight brows, and a decisive chin. Her expression, normally vivid, was at the moment tightly composed. Why had he insisted on being there? She said in an even tone that belied her exasperation, "We'll leave them to it, shall we?"

The little man nodded, shuddering as the steady, awful cadence of blows continued. In his haste to be gone, he pulled free of her and scuttled through a doorway leading into a small antechamber that gave access to the stairs.

"Smokey," Mara called over her shoulder, "I'll be down on the terrace with Monsieur de Bonfond if you and Theo need anything."

Aristophanes Serafim, otherwise known as Smokey the Greek because he was from Thessalonika and a chain smoker, paused in the middle of his swing. A limp Gitane clung like a tubular growth to his lower lip. His sweat-stained T-shirt was stretched over a barrel chest and a large belly.

"What would we need?" He spoke French with an accent as thick as feta cheese. The blunt head of the mallet completed its arc. A large sheet of plaster crashed down around him in a cloud of dust, exposing roughly dressed stone that had not seen the light of day for more than a hundred years. Smokey's younger brother, Theo, equally big, sledgehammer in hand, stepped up to inspect the damage.

"Well, just in case." Mara's eyes lingered anxiously on the pair. She had not worked with the brothers before and was not reassured by what she had seen so far. Their setup had been casual at best; the necessary precision of the task they were undertaking seemed beyond their comprehension. "Please try to take things down as carefully as possible." She glanced up. "You're sure of the bracing?" Her greatest fear was the roof collapsing.

Both men regarded her with indifference. The Serafims were good at demolishing walls but didn't seem to care much what else came down with them.

***

The terrace ran across the back of the main part of the house, overlooking an expanse of geometrically clipped yews and boxwood: an eighteenth-century garden done in the Italian manner, for all that this was twenty-first-century southwestern France. In fact, everything about Aurillac Manor placed it more in the past than in the present. It was a large U-shaped structure, consisting of an original central block with wings, added on at later times, extending backward to enclose part of the garden. Built of local stone and along traditional lines, with Early Renaissance and Baroque touches, the overall effect was charming if slightly quirky.

She stood beside Christophe at the terrace's edge. Below them played an eighteenth-century stone fountain in the shape of a leaping dolphin. Its nose, chipped off at the tip by some past violence, pointed like a crooked finger at a door giving access to the south wing. Water dribbled from the dolphin's mouth into a handsome but rather scummy pool. Aurillac's grounds staff was down to one old man and a girl. If asked, Christophe would have complained of the difficulty of getting good help.

"Silly of me, I know." His brown eyes were unhappy. He was a small, round person in his early sixties, immaculately dressed in fawn-colored trousers and a summer jacket of slightly darker hue. His sparse, graying hair was neatly slicked back; his features were soft and rosy. He resembled, Mara thought, one of those nice pink marzipan pigs displayed in the windows of the better confectionary shops. Except for his expression. Confectionary pigs smiled.

"It--it's too much like living flesh . . ." Christophe managed to sound both apologetic and petulant at the same time. The flesh of the de Bonfonds was what he meant, overlying the brittle bones of old money, the stiffened sinews of class and privilege dating back centuries, embodied in a house.

"You wanted a gallery," Mara reasoned with him. "You can't have it without knocking out walls." A naturally quick, impatient person, she had learned the necessity of coaxing clients along. The demolition stage was never easy. People had a hard time seeing past the rubble.

It had been Christophe's idea to convert the entire upper floor of the north wing into an elevated gallery. The galérie was a popular feature of grand French country residences in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Initially a broad corridor linking parts of a house, it had evolved its own specialized function as an elegant walkway, a place for meditation and indoor exercise, a showcase for displaying family treasures and works of art. According to Christophe, the fact that Aurillac Manor lacked a galerie was not because it wasn't grand enough but simply owing to pure bad planning.

"You see," he had explained when Julian had brought Mara out three months earlier, "Aurillac, or at least the central block, will be five hundred years old next year. The galérie is my birthday present to the house, you might say, and the perfect architectural complement to a little book I'm writing on the history of my family." One had to take his use of "little" as an intended understatement, for the draft was said to run to over four hundred pages. "The de Bonfonds were ennobled, you know, by King Louis XV in recognition of invaluable services rendered to the crown. In fact, our family motto, 'Blood And My Right,' was suggested by the King himself, who intended it to refer to the rights and privileges conferred by our ancient bloodline. Rather like the British Royal Family's 'God And My Right,' except that the Brits"--here he had giggled--"recognize a higher power."

The book, in turn, was intended to mark the quarter-century anniversary of Christophe's small, elite publishing house, Editions Arobas. It was great fun, he said, everything coming together all at once like that. Christophe, who seemed to have pots of money, had glowed with excitement.

"Can you do it?" he had asked Mara earnestly as they strolled through the series of gloomy rooms making up the north wing. "Julian told me how good you are. I did talk to an architect, you know, but I didn't like him. A dreadful man with dirty fingernails, pas sympathique du tout."

"I expect he mentioned these are all load-bearing walls?" Mara, a French Canadian interior designer with an eye for old houses, had seen many misguided renovations since setting up shop in the Dordogne eight years ago. "You can't just knock them out. They hold up your roof." She had spoken coolly, but excitement had surged through her like a drug. The wing, built before communicating corridors came into fashion, consisted of three large rooms, one giving onto another by way of smaller, interspersing antechambers. That meant breaking down five dividing walls in addition to the portion of the old exterior east wall where the wing had been joined on, thereby extending the gallery all the way to the front of the house. The creative use of space was her metier, and her mind leaped ahead to all the possibilities.

In the end Mara had worked out a plan (with another architect, who had clean nails and who was more sympathique) for converting the internal walls into a series of weight-bearing arches. The structural integrity would be ensured, and Christophe would have the sense and functionality of continuous space. She also planned to cut away the window embrasures at forty-five-degree angles to increase the illumination. It was Mara's most important commission ever and a challenging project. Christophe was proving to be a grit-your-teeth client. Changing his mind. Fretting. (What if the structure was damaged? What if the gallery was not, after all, to his liking?) And now not being able to stomach the violence of the hammer's blow.

"Look." Once again she took him by the arm, turning him firmly from the dribbling fountain that was beginning to wear on her nerves. "Stop worrying. This is just the messy part. Think about the finished product. You'll love it. Family portraits on the walls, statues in the alcoves. The private space of a gentleman, for pleasure and contemplation." She threw out the line like a sop.

Christophe brightened. "Of course. You're right, as ever. I'm so glad Julian introduced me to you. I simply could not have entrusted the work to someone who didn't understand my feelings." He allowed himself to be led away. A moment later he glanced slyly at Mara and shook his head. "Although what l'Adoree will say to all of this I really dread to think."

"Who"--Mara's back went rigid as she braced herself for another complication--"is l'Adoree?"

"The Adored One, my great-grandmother, so named because my great-grandfather loved her passionately. Theirs was the romance of the century." He gave her an impish grin. "Her spirit still walks, did you know?"

"Formidable." Mara laughed gustily. A ghost she could deal with, and Christophe's sense of humor seemed to have returned. In a good mood, the man was tremendously likable, which made his sulks and moments of unhappiness all the more affecting.

"Her name was Henriette Bertillon," he went on. "She was a great beauty and a wonderful soprano. Apparently she was plucked out of a convent school where her pure voice soared over the cloister"--Christophe's hand spiraled up in a simulation of soaring--"and thrust onto the stage of the Paris Opera. My great-grandfather Hugo heard her sing and fell madly in love with her. They married, and when she became ill with tuberculosis, he brought her here to the family country estate to recuperate. Come. I'll show you her room."

He steered Mara toward a door at the south end of the terrace. It opened directly into a lovely chamber, the walls of which were covered in cream-colored boiserie inset with lozenges of painted fruit and flowers. True, the paint was chipped and faded, but the effect was charming all the same. In an alcove, Mara spotted a bonheur-du-jour, a delicate lady's writing desk with a raised back, that she would have given an arm to acquire.

"As you can see," said Christophe, "it's been converted from a bedroom to a sitting room--le petit salon, my parents called it. I'm told l'Adoree loved this room because it opened right onto the terrace and garden. I always thought she died young. However, the fellow I hired to do the background research for my book tells me she lived well into old age."

"And her spirit?"

"Temperamental. Dear me. My housekeeper, whose parents worked in the house in my parents' and grandparents' time, claims she once caused dinner plates to fly--"

"Arrh," a voice grated hoarsely behind them.

They turned. It was Theo Serafim, standing in the open doorway. He was covered in a fine layer of plaster dust. He carried his mallet as nonchalantly as a tack hammer. Dark runnels of sweat scored his cheeks.

"Oui?" Mara drew straight, black brows together, the knot in her stomach that she was coming to associate with the Serafims pulling tight.

"Smokey says you want the stones numbered." Theo's accent was even thicker than his brother's.

"Exactly." She let her breath out slowly. "Left to right, top to bottom, while they're still in place. Monsieur de Bonfond wants to keep the stones, and he wants them ordered. I explained everything to Smokey yesterday. You have a problem?"

"Arrh. It's just that it's a double wall, and we're working at it on both sides, like."

She waited distrustfully.

He scratched his head, releasing a cloud of particles into the air. "So how do you want them numbered? The side he's on, or the side I'm on? Left to right his side is right to left my--"

"Christophe," said Mara in as even a tone as she could manage, "will you excuse me a moment?"

2

SEPTEMBER 1870

The object that Henriette de Bonfond, nee Bertillon, had caused to fly was not a dinner plate but a goodly-sized crystal ball. She had two strong arms, and the orb she had flung from the terrace had crashed into the nose of a fishlike creature that rose out of the fountain below her, carrying away with it a large chip of stone before disappearing with a satisfying splash into the murky depths of the basin. She had chosen the crystal ball because it appeared to be a valued family possession, occupying pride of place on a plinth in the main reception room. She had intended simply to hurl it into the pool. That it had damaged the fountain en route was better still.
Henriette's fury was occasioned by her impossible situation. She had given up the lively salons of Paris for a promised life of ease and comfort. Not that she had expected Hugo's family to receive her well. At least, not at first. She brought neither money nor property into the match. Beauty, wit, and intelligence were her entire dowry. However, at Aurillac she had found a penny-pinching austerity beyond imagining and a degree of ill-will that chilled her to the bone. Hugo, now that he had bedded her, did nothing to defend her. Instead, he went hunting every day, returning in the evening smelling of horses and wet leaves and stained with the blood of his kill. She was left to the company of his odious mother, his great lump of a sister, and his gouty father, who leered horribly at her from the fireside armchair to which he was confined.
A survivor, Henriette had instantly picked out Hugo's mother as her principal adversary. Odile de Bonfond was a thin, grim woman with a mouth like an iron trap. Henriette astutely sized her up as harder and more grasping than a bordel keeper and more preposterously puffed up about her station in life than the most arrogant Parisian lackey. Odile was also cruel and clever. Henriette found herself the target of daily acts of malice. The fare at Aurillac consisted mainly of game brought down by Hugo, who had a bloodlust for the hunt. When they had a civet of hare, it was Henriette who was somehow and inexplicably served the head. She was kept short of candles, perhaps in the hope that she would trip on the stairs and break her neck. She was sure that the servants had been instructed to ignore her orders. Only one, a new girl named Marie, showed herself kindly toward the newcomer. Between mistress and maid a certain sympathy had sprung up.
As Henriette watched the ripples in the pond die away, she knew it would be a fight to the finish. She was confident enough of her skills to feel that in time she would more than better her new sister and father-in-law. She was not so sure about Odile.

From the Hardcover edition.

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When I Kill You

When I Kill You

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