“No, it’s Aisling.”
“Aisling. It’s Irish.”
The Orly passport control man glared suspiciously at me over the top of my passport. “Your passport, it says you are American.”
I rallied a smile when I really wanted to scream with frustration. “I am. My mother was Irish, hence the name Aisling.”
He transferred his glare to the passport. “A-sling.”
I tried not to sigh too obviously. I might be brand- spanking-new to the courier business, but instinctively I knew that if I showed the least sign of impatience with being grilled as to the pronunciation of my name, Antoine the passport man would drag out his interrogation. I sweetened my smile, pushed down the worry that something would go wrong with the job, and said very slowly, “It’s pronounced ash-ling.”
“Ash-leen,” Antoine said, his eyes narrowing in concentration.
I nodded. It was close enough.
“Bon, we march forward,” he said, flipping through my passport. “You are five feet and nine inches tall, have grey eyes, are thirty-one years of age, unmarried, and you live in Seattle, state of Washington, America. This is all correct, yes?”
“Yes, except I think of my eyes as being a bit more hazel than grey, but the passport guy said to put grey down. Hazel sounds more exotic, don’t you think?”
Antoine cocked an eyebrow at me, briefly examining the visa that allowed me to act as a courier for Bell & Sons before moving on to the documents for the aquamanile.
I quickly glanced around, Uncle Damian’s strictures on perimeter security echoing in my head. Security is your personal responsibility; your security is not the responsibility of the police, or of the government, or any officials—your first and last line of security is yourself. Be alert and aware of your surroundings. Radiate confidence. Never do anything to indicate you are prey.
Easier said than done, I mused as I eyed the large number of people passing through the airport. Happily, no one was paying any attention to me or the case I held. I breathed a silent sigh of relief and raised my chin, trying to look confident and in control, not at all like a courier in charge of a six-hundred-year-old small golden statue in the shape of a dragon that was worth more than what I had made in the last ten years put together.
Antoine’s gaze flickered to the small black heavy-duty plastic case I clutched tightly in my right hand. “Do you have the Inventaire Detaillé?”
“Of course.” I passed over the sheets of paper describing in French the gold aquamanile. The document was stamped by the San Francisco French consulate, and included an appraiser’s certificate, as well as a copy of the bill of sale to Madame Aurora Deauxville, citizen of France and resident of Paris.
Antoine’s finger tapped on the top document. “What is this…aquamanile?”
I shifted the case to my left hand, flexing my right fingers, being careful to keep the case out of sight, held between me and the examination table. “An aquamanile is a form of ewer, usually made of metal, used for the ritual washing of hands by a priest or other liturgical person. They were very common in medieval times.”
Antoine’s eyes widened as he stared at the black case. “It is a religious artifact you have?”
I gave him a crooked smile. “Not really. Rumor has it that aquamaniles were sometimes used in…er…dark practices.”
He stared. “Dark practices?”
I took in his raised eyebrows and smiled sympathetically. “Demons,” I said succinctly. “Aquamaniles such as this are said to have been used by powerful mages to raise the demon princes.”
I didn’t think his eyes could open any wider, but at the word demon, they all but popped out of his head. “Demon princes?” he asked, his voice a hoarse whisper.
I shifted the case again and leaned forward, speaking quickly, aware that a faint note of desperation had tinged my voice. “You know, Satan’s big guns. The head honchos of Hell. The demon lords. Anyone can raise a demon, but it takes a special person with special powers to raise a demon lord.”
“Yeah, I know, I think it’s a bit out there, too, but you’d be surprised what people believe. Even so, it’s a fascinating subject. I’ve made quite a study of demons—not that I believe they really exist outside of man’s imagination—and found there are whole cults revolving around the idea of demons and the power they wield over mortals. I heard there’s a group in San Francisco who is trying to get a demon elected into public office. Ha ha, like anyone would notice?”
The blinking stopped. Antoine stared at me with a blank look in his eyes. I decided my little foray into joke-land was probably pushing the Anglo-Franco boundaries. Not to mention that the minutes were ticking by at an alarming rate. “Yeah, well, I don’t guarantee the usefulness of the items, I just deliver them. So, if everything is in order, do you think I could go? I’m supposed to get this aquamanile to its owner at five, and it’s already past three. This is my first job as a courier, you see, and my uncle—he’s my boss—told me that if I screw up this delivery, I’m off the payroll, and since a very stupid judge in California ordered me to pay my ex-husband alimony just because Alan, my ex, is a lazy slob who likes to hang around the beach and ogle the fake-boobed girls rather than get off his surfer ass and work for a living like the rest of us, it’s kind of important that I keep this job, and to keep it means that I have to get the aquamanile to the woman who bought it from Uncle Damian.”
Antoine looked a bit stunned until I nudged the hand that held my documents, then he pursed his lips as he shot me a quelling glare. He nodded toward my case. “You will open it. I must examine the object and ensure it matches the pictures presented.”
I stifled yet another sigh of frustration as I fished the keys out of my neck pouch before unlocking the case. Antoine’s glare turned to an open-mouthed look of wonder as I peeled back the protective foam padding and laid open the soft linen cloth that was wrapped around the aquamanile. “Sacre futur du bordel de Dieu!”
“Yeah, it’s pretty impressive isn’t it?” I looked fondly at the dragon. It was about six inches high, all coiled tail, gleaming scales, and glittering emerald eyes. It was one of the few dragons I’d ever seen depicted without wings.
Antoine reached out to touch the golden dragon, but I quickly wrapped the linen back over it. “Sorry, look but don’t touch. ” His nostrils flared dramatically. I hurried to sooth his ruffled feathers. “Not even the X-ray guys got to touch it. If you’ll take a peek at the appraiser’s valuation of the piece, I think you’ll see why it’s better not to.”
He glanced at the appraiser’s sheet and swore under his breath before brandishing his stamp on my passport and the dragon’s documents. “All is in order. You may continue.”
I closed up the case, locked it, and tucked the keys back into my neck pouch, giving Antoine a cheery smile as I slung the bag containing my clothing onto my shoulder. “Thanks.”
“One moment—” he said, stopping me with an upraised hand. I held my breath, worried he was going to insist on something that would keep me from making my appointment with Madame Deauxville. It would be just my luck that Antoine would decide I needed a full body search.
I tried to look innocent and friendly and not in the least like someone who would smuggle something into the country in a convenient body cavity. “Hmm?”
He glanced around quickly, then stepped closer to me, his voice dropping. “You are an expert in demons but you do not believe in them?”
I shook my head, not wishing to get into a philosophical conversation while the clock was ticking. “I’m not really an expert, I’ve just studied a few medieval texts about them.”
“Demons are very bad.”
I shrugged, and edged sideways. “Not really. According to the texts I’ve read, they’re actually rather stupid. I think people fear the thought of them because they don’t know how to control them.”
He leaned closer, the stale odor of cigarette smoke clinging to him, making my nose wrinkle. “And you don’t fear them?”
I shook my head again, edging even further away.
His dark eyes lit for a moment with a deep red light, making him suddenly look a whole lot more ominous than a simple customs inspector. “You should,” he said, then turned away, gesturing the next person in line to his table.
“Hoo, I guess there’re weirdoes all over the world,” I mumbled to myself as I pushed my way through the crowd toward the exit, careful to keep both hands on the handle of the black case. My clothing and personal items I could afford to lose, but this job was last chance—my only chance of getting ahead since the dot.com I owned went belly up. If I messed this up, I’d be jobless again. With no unemployment benefits left, and a beach bum to support, I had to have work, something that would allow me to live while paying Alan the huge wad of money the court decided I owed him.
It took me another fifteen minutes to figure out the signs in the airport concourses and find where the taxis were. Beth, Uncle Damian’s secretary, said Orly had signs in English, but Beth lied—not only was there no English, nothing I saw written on the signs matched the handy little phrases in the French for Francophobes book I had bought to get me through the next day and a half.
“Um…bonjour,” I said to a bored-looking taxi driver who stood leaning on his car, picking at his teeth. “Parlez-vous Anglais?”
“Non,” he said without stopping the teeth picking.
“Oh. Um. Do you know if any of the other taxi drivers parlez Anglais? Knowez-vous if le taxi drivers parlez Anglais?”
He gave me a look that should have shamed me, but I was beyond being ashamed of going to France without knowing a single word of French except what I found in the guidebook. I had a job to do, I just wanted it done.
“Look, I’m doing the best I can, OK? I want to go to the Rue…oh, just a sec, let me look in the book…” I hugged the black case to my chest with one arm while I rooted around in my bag for the French guide. “Je veux aller à la Rue Sang d’Innocents.”
The taxi driver stopped picking his teeth to grimace. “That is the worst French I have ever heard, and I have heard much bad French.”
“You do speak English!” I said, slamming my guide shut. “You said you didn’t! And I can’t help it if what I said was wrong, that’s what the book said.”
“It wasn’t much wrong, but your accent…” he shuddered delicately, then with a sweeping bow, opened the door to his taxi. “Very well, I will take you to the Rue Sang d’Innocents, but it will cost you.”
“How much?” I asked as I slid into the back seat, still clutching my case. I had the euros Uncle Damian had given me, but I knew they were only enough to cover my hotel bill for the night, two meals, and minor incidentals like the taxi rides.
The taxi driver tossed my bag into the other side and got into the front seat. “The journey will cost you thirty-six euros, but the ride will cost you more.”
He smiled at me in his rear view mirror. “By the time we arrive at the Rue Sang d’Innocents, you will know how to say three things in French. With those three things, you will be able to go anywhere in Paris.”
I agreed to his terms, and since I was early for my appointment with Madame Deauxville, had him wait for me while I ran into the hotel where Beth had booked me. I checked in, dropped my bag on the bed, pulled a comb through my curls so I looked less like a crazed woman and more like a professional courier, and dashed back downstairs to where Rene and his taxi were waiting for me.
At five minutes to five the taxi pulled up next to a six story cream-colored building with high arched doorways and windows graced by intricate black metal grills.
“Wow,” I breathed as I leaned out of the window to peer up at the house. “What a gorgeous building. It looks so…French!”
Rene reached backwards through his window and opened my door. I grabbed my things and got out onto the cobblestone street, my mouth still hanging open as I stared up at the house.
“You see that all the houses here are old mansions. It is a very exclusive neighborhood. Ile Saint-Louis itself is only six blocks long and two blocks wide. And now, you will pay me exactly thirty-six euros, and recite for me please the phrases I have taught you.”
I dragged my eyes off the house and smiled as I handed Rene his money. “If someone annoys me, I say voulez-vous cesser de me cracher dessus pendant que vous parlez.”
“Will you stop spitting on me while you are speaking,” Rene translated with a nod.
“And if I need help with anything, I say j’ai une grenouille dans mon bidet.”
“I have a frog in my bidet. Yes, very good. And the last one?”
“The last I should reserve for any guy who hits on me when I don’t want him to—t’as une tête a faire sauter les plaques d’egouts.”
“You have a face that would blow off the cover of a manhole. Oui, tres bon. You will do. And for your meeting with the important lady, bon chance, eh?”
“Thanks, Rene. I appreciate the lessons. You just never know when you need to tell someone there’s an amphibian in your bidet.”
“One moment, I have something for you.” He rustled around in a small brown bag for a moment, then pulled out a battered card and handed it to me with the air of someone presenting an object of great value. “I am available for hire as a driver. You pay me, I drive you around Paris, show you all of the sites you must see. You can call me on my mobile number anytime.”
“Thanks. I don’t know that I’ll be in Paris long enough for a chauffeur to drive me around, but if I ever need a driver, you’ll be the one I call.” I saluted him with the card, then tucked it away in my neck pouch.
He drove off with a friendly wave and a faint puff of black exhaust. I turned back to the impressive building, squared my shoulders, and after a quick look around to make sure no one was watching me, stepped into the doorway to press the buzzer labeled Deauxville.
“I am confident,” I muttered to myself. “I am a professional. I know exactly what I am doing. I am not at all freaked out by being in a different country where the only thing I know how to do is complain about frogs and insult people. I am a cool, calm, and collected. I am…not being answered.”
I buzzed again. Nothing happened. A quick glance at my watch confirmed that I was two minutes early. Surely Madame Deauxville was in?
I buzzed once more, leaning on the buzzer this time. I tried putting my ear to the door, but couldn’t hear anything. A glance at the window showed me why—the walls of the building looked to be at least three feet thick.
“Well, hell,” I swore, stepping back so I could look up at the building. I knew from the instructions Uncle Damian had given me that Madame Deauxville was on the second floor. The red and cream drapes visible through the slightly opened windows didn’t move at all. Nothing moved anywhere on the second floor…or on any of the floors, for that matter. Since it was a pleasant June evening, I expected people to be arriving home, bustling around doing their evening shopping, strolling down the street, gazing upon the Seine, etc., but there was no movement at all in the house.
I looked down the street, the hairs on the back of my neck slowly standing on end. There was no movement on the street either. No people, no cars, no birds…nothing. Not even a flower bobbed in the slight breeze from the river. I looked behind me. The cross street was the Rue Saint-Louis en l’Ile, a busy street with stores and restaurants, and lots of shops. It had taken Rene ten minutes to navigate a couple of blocks because the traffic and shoppers were so dense, but where I stood the noise of said traffic and shoppers was oddly filtered, as if the whole of Rue Sang d’Innocents was swathed in cotton wool, leaving it an oasis of stillness and silence in a city known for its liveliness.
“The word creepy doesn’t even begin to cover the situation,” I said aloud, just to hear something. Unease rippled through me as I held my case tightly, giving Madame Deauxville’s bell one more long ring. The skin on the back of my neck tightened even more as I noticed that the door to the building wasn’t shut properly.
“Someone must have been in a rush to leave this morning,” I told the door, trying to tamp down on the major case of the willies the silent street was giving me. “Someone was just late for work, and they didn’t quite close the door. That’s all. There’s nothing foreboding in a door that hasn’t been shut all the way. There’s nothing eerie in that at all. There’s nothing creepy about a street…oh, blast. Hello?” I pushed the door open and took a step into a tiny hall. The entrance narrowed into a dark passage beyond a brown-paneled stairway that led upwards. “Anyone here? I’m looking for Madame Deauxville. Hellooooooo?”
I expected the last notes of my hello to echo up the stairwell, but strangely, my words were muffled, as if they had been absorbed into the walls, filtered by the same strange effect that kept the street outside as quiet as a tomb.
“I would have to think of a tomb,” I grumbled to myself as I carefully closed the door behind me, turning to start up the stairs to the second floor. “There are times when it absolutely does not pay to have a good imagination.”
There were two doors in the tiny hall stretching the length of the second-floor stairs. One bore a silver plate with the word Deauxville written on it in a fancy script that screamed expensive. The other door, I assumed, was a second entrance to the apartment. I stepped up to the main door, one arm holding the case tight to my chest, the other upraised to knock. Just as my knuckles were about to touch the glossy oak of the door, a wave of dread and foreboding, a sense of something being very, very wrong swept over me. The sensation was so strong I stepped backwards until the coolness of the paneling seeped through the thin cotton of my dress. I clutched the case and struggled to breathe, my chest tight with dread. The feeling of unease that had set in as soon as Rene left swelled into something much more frightening, leaving me with goose bumps on my arms, and a warning voice in my head shrieking at me to leave the building that very second, if not sooner.
Something horrible had been in that apartment. Something…unnatural.
“I am confident,” I ground out through my teeth, and forced my feet forward to the door. “It’s just an eccentric collector, nothing evil. There is nothing to be afraid of. I am a professional. I can do this.”
The door swung open at the first brush of my hand against it.
I stood frozen in the doorway, the skin on my back crawling with horror as I looked down the short hall into what must be the living room of the apartment. Tiny little motes of dust danced lazily in the late afternoon sunshine that streamed through the tall floor-to-ceiling arched windows, spilling in a ruby pool on a carpet of deeper red. A bouquet of fresh flowers sat on an antique table between two of the windows, the sharp scent of them detectable even from where I stood. The ceilings were high, cream-colored to compliment the robin’s egg blue walls, the edges scalloped with intricate molding. Along one wall I could see a highly polished antique desk, with a red upholstered matching chair sitting before it at an angle, as if its occupant had arisen just a moment before.
Everything was lovely, beautiful, expensive, just exactly what I expected in the apartment of a rich woman who lived in an exclusive area of Paris.
Everything except the body, that is. Suspended from a chandelier, a woman’s body was doubled over, hanging from her hands tied behind her back, her body swinging slightly above a black circle of ash that had been drawn on the lovely red carpet, a circle inscribed with twelve symbols. The dead woman was Madame Deauxville, of that I was sure.
“J’ai une grenouille dans mon bidet,” I said, and wished fervently that the worst of my problems were frogs.