Anne Swardson, author of Family Reunion, is an American author who has lived in Paris for 25 years. She has previously published short fiction in the 2012 anthology of the Mystery Writers of America, Noir Nation magazine (co-winner, Golden Fedora Award), and Mystery Weekly among others.
I’d never expected to hear that voice again.
“I need your help.”
Strange. My ex-father-in-law, a Paris police commander, never asked for help from anyone. Least of all me.
“There’s been a murder at a homeless shelter in the 17th arrondissement. The suspect is American and doesn’t speak French. I need you to interpret during the interrogation.”
Even stranger. “Why?”
He sighed with impatience. “The victim is the son of Madame de Beaupuy, the Defense Minister. And my best interpreter is on holiday.” Of course. It was August. “Meet me at the shelter immediately. Then we will go to the office, where the suspect is being detained.”
“I haven’t said yes yet.” I had helped him once before. He’d barely brought himself to thank me for solving the case.
He was silent.
“OK.” My curiosity was piqued.
“It’s at the Emmaüs Center on the boulevard Pereire. Meet me there immediately.”
The sun hit me as soon as I got off the Métro, at the northwestern edge of Paris. The city was in the midst of a heat wave. But everyone else at the office—I was an English-language coach—had put in for vacation before me so I’d missed my chance to get out of town.
The neighborhood looked posh. The usual cream-colored stone buildings with iron-grill balconies, a smattering of modern apartments interspersed. Though it was only Thursday morning, people were already loading up their cars for the weekend trip to the country house.
From a distance, I could see Jacques on the sidewalk. He was standing ramrod-straight, swiveling his head from one side to another. Despite the heat, he wore a crisp, double-breasted navy-blue suit and tie. He used to dress just like that at family dinners, and sit just that straight.
“Hello Jacques.” No way was I going to call him Commander Bassin.
He used to dress just like that at family dinners, and sit just that straight.
Barely glancing at me, he muttered “Bonjour” and held out a piece of paper. “This is the form to request your pay for one day of work. Do not lose it.” He turned and buzzed at the imposing grilled gate of the shelter, a brick-and-stone four-story building.
A pale, disheveled man in a flannel shirt and baggy jeans shuffled to the door, entered a code and pushed the button to slide it open. “I Bogdan,” he said in broken French, revealing his discolored teeth when he smiled. “I help you today.”
Jacques reared back. “I need to speak to the director,” he said crisply. “Please bring him immediately.” Bogdan didn’t have to: From a reception area on the left emerged a short gray-haired man. He seemed to look everywhere but at us.
“Pierre Connan,” he said quietly. “You can go, Bogdan, thank you.” Jacques showed his badge and Pierre waved us into a carpeted sitting room with bookshelves and a couple of game tables. Pointing to two leatherette chairs, he sat on a third with a sigh.
“How long had the victim lived here?” Jacques asked.
Barely glancing at me, he muttered “Bonjour” and held out a piece of paper.
“Claude arrived only a few months ago. He often said his mother, Madame la ministre, would soon take him home.”
“Did he ever say why he came here?” I asked. “It doesn’t fit his background.”
Jacques gave me a cold look and turned to Pierre. “Madame Bassin is only here as an interpreter.”
“Yes, um, Commander Bassin.” Pierre looked confused, and with good reason. “We take anyone who needs us, no questions asked. We host about 130 men, and we do it on a shoestring.”
“And the suspect?” Jacques checked his notes. “Roland Chester. Claude de Beaupuy’s roommate?”
“Yes. They were both young, so we put them together. Roland came to our door about six months ago, with papers showing he’d completed substance-abuse treatment.”
“How could he have gone through a treatment program here if he didn’t speak French?” I asked. I could hear Jacques shifting in his seat.
Pierre shrugged. “All I can tell you is that he almost never said a word. Sometimes the others tried to speak to him in English but he rarely responded.”
“What’s his immigration status?” A lot of Americans who tried to stay in Paris were forced to leave when they couldn’t get papers.
“He had a short-term visa and had applied for a long-term card.”
Without speaking French? Someone must have helped him, I thought. But said nothing.
Jacques jumped in. “Tell me about Monsieur Chester’s movements this morning and please ignore any future questions from Madame Bassin.”
Pierre explained that Roland had been seen at breakfast. After that, Roland said, he’d sat in the building’s courtyard for a while. He’d returned to his room and found the body, then alerted the staff.
Jacques stood up and said he needed to go to the murder scene, to talk to the officers stationed there. Pierre gestured at both of us to show the way, but Jacques directed me to the courtyard with a tilt of his head.
I obediently headed into the garden, again wondering why I was here, and sat on a bench. The rectangle of parched-looking grass, trees and flowerbeds was enclosed by the interior walls of the building.
Looking even more disheveled, Bogdan sat down next to me. His vacant gaze made me wonder if his mind was all there.
“Where do you come from?” I asked.
“Bulgaria. Too poor there. Many leave. You are detective?”
“No, I just help. Did you know Claude and Roland?” He nodded. “What were they like?”
“Claude no good. He….”—Bogdan searched for the word—“took things.” He reached into his pocket to demonstrate. “My phone,” he said as his hand came out empty.
“Claude took your phone? Did he do that to other people too?”
“Yes, many not like.”
Bogdan shrugged. “No talk, not even English. Africa guys try to make friend, he not want.”
“Oui, he dark like they.”
Jacques hadn’t mentioned that Roland was Black. Did that play into the assumption of guilt the police seemed to have made already?
I looked across the garden and saw Jacques beckoning. Too bad. Bogdan sounded like he knew his way around this place. Bidding goodbye, I joined Jacques and we took the stairs up one flight.
Two cops were at the door of the room. They stepped aside to let us in, Jacques going first. He walked in and beckoned me to enter.
The space was dominated by the body on the right-side bed. Claude de Beaupuy looked to be in his 20s. Pudgy and fairly tall, he was lying half-on, half-off the mattress. His arms were at his side, his legs hung down to the floor. There was no blood, but a deep, dark red indentation encircled his neck. Two large blotches of the same red were on either side of his throat.
I closed my eyes for a second. I hadn’t seen a lot of bodies, but I wasn’t going to show my ex-father-in-law that the sight bothered me.
“How was he strangled?” I asked Jacques.
“By hand, I would say, though the forensics team will have to confirm that.”
Clothes, mostly dirty, littered Claude’s side of the room, and shoes were piled on the floor. The desk and the chair were both covered with junk—toiletries, dirty glasses, plastic bags.
Roland’s side was much neater. Only one item that could be called personal was visible: an acoustic guitar, lying squarely on the neatly made-up bed. If there had been a struggle, it had happened in the other half of the room.
“What time did Claude die?” I asked.
“Roland himself sounded the alert about 9 a.m. The autopsy should determine the time of death more precisely. It’s time to interview the suspect.” We walked out of the room, me wondering if Jacques had wanted to test me with this grisly scene.
I had been once before to the historic headquarters of the Brigade Criminelle at 36, quai des Orfèvres. Henri, my ex-husband, and I had stopped by to say hello to Jacques after shopping at the bookstores across the Seine. I had been thrilled to see the office of Georges Simenon’s fictional detective, Inspector Maigret, dingy though they were.
But that’s not where we headed when we got into the police car. We stopped in front of an imposing blue-glass office building no more than a mile from the shelter. The address was 36, rue du Bastion.
I gave Jacques a curious look.
“We moved,” he shrugged. “They let us keep the street number. You must be the only person in Paris who doesn’t know that.”
He waved his badge at the entrance desk and was handed a security pass for me. We took the elevators to the third floor. In front of a heavy metal door, Jacques stopped.
“Remember, translate exactly what I ask, and his answers,” he said. “Police procedure requires a very strict protocol in interviews.”
I crisply reminded him that I wasn’t a professional interpreter. Without a response, he ushered me into an interrogation room with bleach-white walls, a table and black metal chairs on either side.
Roland sat facing the window. Short and thin, he looked like a teenager. His hands were placed on the table, delicate fingers splayed out; he was gazing at his lap. A sallow-faced lawyer sat next to him.
We sat down. Jacques introduced himself coldly and called me “Madame l’interprète.” He began the questioning with routine details of Roland’s identity: his address, his age and so on. I wrote down the questions, a few at a time so I could ask them in groups.
As soon as Roland heard my voice, speaking not just English but American-accented English, he raised his head. His skin was the color of coffee and his short hair was gently wavy. His right cheekbone displayed a reddish bruise that looked new. He wore a white shirt open at the collar and torn across his right shoulder.
“Where did you get that bruise?” I couldn’t help myself.
He put his head back down and answered in a voice so soft I could barely hear him.
“I fell in the dark and hit my desk.”
“What about your shirt?” He just shook his head.
I told Jacques what I had asked and what Roland had said. He didn’t look at me or miss a beat, just started the questioning.
“Please describe in detail, exactly what you did this morning.” I translated, and we went into the timeline. Roland told the same version that he had to Pierre at the shelter, saying he’d gone to breakfast around 7 a.m. As far as he could tell, Claude was still in bed, asleep. He often overslept. When he returned from the courtyard and saw the body, he backed out of the door and ran down the hall, shouting until a staff member showed up.
Roland’s nervousness didn’t ease as we went on. On the rare occasions when he took his hands off the table, they trembled. Occasionally his eyes watered up, and his voice shook.
Jacques ended the interview after about half an hour and signaled to me to get up.
But I had one more question.
“You play the guitar?”
Roland nodded. “I’m trying to learn.”
Jacques had his hand on my elbow.
“So you got up, made your bed, put the guitar on it, left for breakfast—and didn’t see there was a body in the other bed?”
Roland looked puzzled. “I didn’t put the guitar on my bed. I keep it in the wardrobe. Otherwise that Bulgarian guy, Bogdan, always tries to play it. But you have to understand: I didn’t do it. I didn’t kill Claude. Tell them I’m innocent. Please!”
“Madame Bassin!” Jacques voice was a hiss. I followed him out of the room. Before he could tear into me for going script, I told him what I’d asked and what Roland had said.
“Don’t you think that’s a strange discrepancy, about the guitar?”
“Whether it is or it isn’t, it can’t be part of the record, since the question wasn’t asked by a police officer. In any case, your work here is done. The payroll office is downstairs, you can turn in your form there.”
“But Jacques! This is significant information!” He just stood there. As I turned to leave, he spoke again: “Do not, under any circumstances, do your own investigation of this case. You were lucky once before, but you violated procedure. I don’t want to see a repeat performance.”
On my way back down the hall, I passed an open door that had been closed when we entered. The sign said Bureau des Interprètes. I could see dozens of people typing busily, carrying piles of pages around or conferring in clusters. Was there really no one in there who spoke English?
One wouldn’t want to interfere with a police investigation. Even if the order to butt out came from someone I detested. Even if the French police often target Black suspects. Even if the haunted look in Roland’s eyes made me think he had to be innocent.
So it must have been coincidence that my way back to the Métro took me past the shelter, where Bogdan was hanging around in front.
“Do you think Roland killed Claude?” I began.
“I not.” He shook his head. “Roland very happy. He say things changing.”
“You speak English?”
“He know some French. No tell people because not like to speak.”
“Did he say how things were going to change?”
“Man come and stand in front of Emmaüs. Roland go out and they talk English. Roland say man is from his country, will change his life. Told me not to tell no one.”
“What did the man look like?”
Bogdan raised his hand above his head.
“Oui. And old. Gray hairs. Wears clothes like….” he stepped back and put his hand over his eyes.
“Yes. Pants….” He pointed across the street, where a mother and young boy were walking. “Like that.”
The mother, despite the heat, sported fashionable black. The boy, however, wore a bright red T-shirt.
“Red pants?” Bogdan nodded.
“He play.…” —Bogdan did a very precise air-guitar movement with his hands.
“Guitar. Like Roland’s, the one you always try to play? Did you play it the morning Claude was killed?”
Bogdan jumped in surprise. “I no.…must go now.” He swiftly punched the code and shot back inside the gate. What had scared him?
I called the office and said I would work at home for the rest of the afternoon. I was only on standby in case a client called anyway.
My first stab at Internet research was to find out more about Roland. But “Roland Chester Paris” yielded no responses at all. Not even when I took out Paris. Where had he grown up? Gone to school? Worked? It was as if he had been created when he walked into the doors of the shelter, at least to the Googleable world.
I had better luck with Claude. A little older than Roland, he grew up with every possible advantage. He’d graduated from a top high school as his parents rose among the French elite: In addition to his mother’s political success, his father was a well-known television journalist. He had studied at Sciences Po, the prestigious political-science school.
But after that, the trail ran cold. Had Claude even graduated from Sciences Po? I could find remnants of a Facebook page bearing his name, but when I clicked on the links they went nowhere.
His parents generated a lot of hits. His father was about to start hosting a talk show; his mother was visiting French troops in Mali at the moment. Publicly, there was no sign they even had a son.
Next, I looked for an American musician in red pants. All the Paris street-guitar players who came up in my image search were at least 30 years younger than anyone who could have had gray hair. None wore red pants, or anything resembling a bright color.
It was time to crowdsource my research. I pulled out my phone, opened a WhatsApp group called Dog, and started typing.
One thing you can say about my friends: They don’t make plans ahead of time. Almost everyone was free for a drink that evening at our regular hangout, Au Chien Qui Fume—the Smoking Dog—on a busy corner in the 14th arrondissement.
I was late. Crowds of Black demonstrators had blocked the rue du Cherche-Midi between the Métro stop and my destination. They were standing in front of a building displaying a green, yellow and red flag. Many were carrying signs saying, “France Get Out!” or “Down with France!” Though they seemed peaceful, ranks of armor-clad cops surrounded the men, as they do almost every demonstration in Paris, especially if it’s minorities who are protesting.
I asked a man what was going on and he said they were opposing France’s military intervention in Mali. The demonstration was timed to the defense minister’s visit there. Claude’s mother. I’d just seen photos of her in my search. Perfectly clad, perfectly coiffed. She had a reputation for being tough. But losing a son had to hurt, had to dent that armor. I bet she’s flying back to Paris right now, I thought as I continued down the sidewalk.
Marthe, Anneke, Fergal and Inez were already seated. We’d been going for years to the Dog, a century-old institution that attracted everyone from red-faced, portly long-timers drinking milky white Ricards at the bar to young, wine-and-beer-sipping professionals at the tables.
I kissed everyone’s cheeks and ordered my usual Jose Cuervo Gold on the rocks. I’d had to persuade the proprietor to stock it, but even he now pronounced tequila assez bien—good enough. Then I told my friends about the case. They already knew of Jacques: They had lived my divorce with me. They were astonished that he had called me in—and were eager to help with the case.
“It has to be Roland,” Fergal said. “How else can you explain it? He was in the room, no one else was, the guy was dead. It’s only on TV shows that the killer is the least likely person.”
“Mais Fergal, why would he want to kill Claude?” Marthe interjected.
“Why would anyone?” asked Anneke. “He’s the son of a powerful politician. That’s usually a reason NOT to kill someone. Kidnap, maybe.”
“I agree,” Inez jumped in. “I read an article about police interviewing once. They can scare suspects so much that they look and act guilty even when they’re not. Especially if the suspect is a minority, like Roland.”
The waitress brought another round of drinks.
I told them there was little information on social media about either the victim or the suspect. “Where do I look next? What about the American man in the red pants?” Chortles around the table. “Is that like ‘The Red Balloon’?” Marthe laughed. “Or ‘The Red Shoes’?”
“I know an Irish saxophonist here,” Fergal said. “He says it’s so hard to make money with music in Paris that anglophone musicians often teach at the English-language schools. He works at the British School in Croissy. There’s an International School in Paris, and of course the American School.”
“Great idea!” I said. The subject exhausted, our discussion turned to whether the transit strike scheduled for next week would actually take place.
The next morning, I found my guitar player at the second school I Googled, the American School of Paris. A photo on the music page showed about 10 students seated in a half-circle on a stage, playing guitars. Standing in front of them and directing them was a tall man in orange pants. The caption said his name was Mike Peterson.
A little more searching showed me that all faculty would be on site today until noon, to start planning the coming academic year. Orange was close enough to red for me. The school was in the wealthy suburb of Saint-Cloud. Forty-five minutes after I clicked on my target, I was standing outside the security fence around the main building.
My target was easy to spot, even though he was wearing green pants: He was carrying two guitar cases. As soon as he stepped through the gate I pounced.
“Excuse me, are you Mike Peterson?’
“Yes, and you are….?” He looked puzzled but didn’t walk away.
“I want to talk to you about Roland Chester.”
He put the cases down and stared at me. “Who are you?”
“I’m helping the French police investigate the murder. But I don’t think Roland did it.”
“MURDER? Roland? What on earth are you saying?” He looked aghast.
“I can fill you in. I think he’s innocent, but I have some questions, Please, let me ride with you. I can explain.”
He hesitated. “OK.” He led me to a minuscule Renault parked nearby. As we drove along the southern loop of the Seine on the way into the city, I told him about Claude’s killing and Jacques’ focus on Roland.
“But Roland is the gentlest of souls, he could never do something like that.” Mike sounded like he was about to cry.
“How do you know him?” I asked. We were turning into Paris from the river; I could see the Eiffel Tower ahead.
He said nothing for a long time as he maneuvered the car through the side streets and parked. We both got out. He spoke across the hood.
“Roland is my son.” He said it with finality, but it didn’t come out easily. “I only learned about him last year. Come on upstairs and I’ll explain.”
He took me into a tidy apartment, one room of which was outfitted with a piano, speakers, amplifiers, a giant Apple computer and shelves of sheet music and record albums. A row of six guitars, from electric to classical, hung on the wall.
Mike said that Roland was the child of a relationship he’d had 20 years before, with a jazz singer in New York, just before he’d moved to Paris. She died of a drug overdose when Roland was 19 and he’d come to Paris to find his father.
Mike had wanted to pay for French lessons for Roland, to send him to music school and find him a place to live. But the young man had a drug habit, perhaps picked up from his mother. He refused help even from the father he had sought out. For a while, he slept on the streets. Mike was able to get him into a treatment program and then to the shelter. But Roland, wracked with guilt, turned down all contact.
Then one day, Mike took his guitar, went to the shelter and started playing out front, under Roland’s window. Roland listened, at first from his room, then from the door, and eventually on the sidewalk. They started talking again. Mike gave him the guitar and said he’d find Roland a place to live as soon as he was ready.
“Why would he kill someone? Ever, but especially now?” Mike asked in a strangled voice. “He was just starting to get his life back.”
“When was the last time you saw him?”
“Just yesterday, Thursday. That’s partly why I’m so surprised. I drove up there before leaving for school to tell him his visa application had been accepted. I’m sponsoring him.”
“What time was that?”
“Maybe about 8:30 a.m.? We talked outside on the sidewalk for a bit; a guy with bad teeth opened the door for him when he went back in.”
My phone rang as I was walking to the Métro from Mike’s apartment. It was Jacques.
“I wanted to see if your reimbursement had arrived.”
“Jacques, you only gave me the paperwork yesterday! I haven’t even turned it in yet.”
“See that you do.” Pause. Why didn’t he hang up?
I figured I may as well ask if there was anything new on the case.
“The autopsy report came back. Claude died no more than two hours before the body was found.”
“So it could have been while Roland was out of the room, right?”
“Only if he is telling the truth about where he was. He remains the primary suspect and we are going to extend his detention for another 24 hours.” He hung up before I could say anything else.
Claude must have been killed while Roland was outside talking to Mike. But it wasn’t the airtight alibi that I’d need to convince Jacques.
Another visit to the homeless shelter was in order. In French it was called centre d’hebergement—shelter center. Much better than the American terminology. Roland and Claude hadn’t been homeless. The Emmaüs building was their home. Now, one man was dead and the other had been taken away.
Bogdan was out in front. The heat wave had broken, and rain began to fall just as I arrived.
“Come with me,” he said. He tapped in the code and I followed him into the covered passage between the gate and the garden courtyard.
“Why is it you can come and go here and no one else ever seems to?” I asked.
He smiled, again displaying those filthy teeth. “I know everyone. I know everything. Eleven years I am here.”
“Why don’t you leave?”
He looked back at the garden, where cooler weather had perked up the shrubbery and the flowers. “Nice here. Mostly.”
“Are you the only one who can go in and out by yourself?”
“Me and workers, yes. People outside”—he gestured out at the sidewalk—“not like see us. So we must stay near.”
I had an idea.
“Bogdan, did you see any strange people come in here the day Claude was killed? Not guests or workers. People you don’t know.”
He started backing away.
“Bogdan, please. I promise you won’t get into trouble. This is important. If the police need to know, I’ll tell them. You said Roland was your friend. This is how you can help him.”
He thought for a minute, then spoke.
“OK. Some outside people come the morning Claude dies.”
“What did they look like?”
“Noir, but not like Roland. Very black, very big. Two.”
“When? Where did they go? How did they get in?”
He tilted his head toward the reception area, where Pierre could be seen tapping on a computer. “They come at breakfast time, early. Pierre lets them in. He give me extra dessert not to tell.”
“Thank you, Bogdan. You’ve done something very important. What’s your favorite dessert, the one Pierre let you have more of?”
“Pear tarte with crème fraiche!” His eyes lit up.
“I promise I’ll bring you one. Thanks and goodbye.’
I stepped outside and pulled out my phone. Scrolling through calls received, I pushed a button.
“Jacques, I think I know who did killed Claude and how it happened.”
“Come to the shelter and ask for the director. Ask if he opened the gate for two large men from Mali on Thursday morning between about 7:30 and 8:00a.m., and how much money he got to do it. And when you find the Malian men, ask them if they were trying to send a warning to the Defense Minister to make her remove French troops from their country, by killing her son.”
More silence. Then Jacques said: “I’m on my way.”
A few months later, Jacques and I walked out of the courtroom where the Malians had just been convicted and sentenced to life. Pierre had gotten off easier because he’d persuaded the court that he didn’t know they’d come to kill Claude and was desperate for money for the shelter. Roland hadn’t attended, saying he’d rather spend the time in his French classes and learning guitar with Mike.
I’d watched the proceedings sitting next to my former father-in-law, who had a very satisfied look on his face.
But it wasn’t until we left that I had a flash that made me understand everything.
I caught Jacques by the arm and stopped him.
“You brought me into the case to investigate, not to translate, didn’t you? Because you thought Roland was innocent. And you moved the guitar to his bed so I would notice something was odd. And you didn’t call about the paperwork, you called to tell me the time of death. Right?”
He didn’t even look at me, just stared straight ahead. But he didn’t walk away. He spoke into the distance.
“The Paris police don’t ‘think’ anyone is innocent or guilty. They follow procedure. To move something like a guitar is disrupting a crime scene, which is in itself a crime. Even if the only purpose is to create interest, to raise suspicions, to look abnormal.”
“You had plenty of interpreters. Why me?”
He finally turned his head in my direction. “We would have arrived at the correct solution eventually, but perhaps after M. Chester had been subject to more violence at the hands of some of my misguided colleagues. Properly motivated, an outside person can sometimes accomplish what we cannot, at least not as quickly.”
“Properly motivated? You told me I should keep my nose out of it!”
“Precisely. I’ve known you a long time, after all. Merci, Julie.”
He actually smiled as he turned and walked toward his office.
I almost skipped down the sidewalk the other way, toward the shelter. There was a bakery on the way where I could pick up a couple of pear tarts with cream and take them to Bogdan. Then I needed to hustle down to the Smoking Dog. My friends were starting the celebration.
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