Sneak Preview! “Murder in the Rue Dumas” Chapter One; release date Sept. 25th, 2012.
by M. L. Longworth
Murder in the Rue Dumas
Hoping to Impress
The friendship between Yann Falquerho and Thierry Marchive had surprised everyone at the university. Not only were they competing for the same doctoral fellowship, they were also physically and socially different in every way. Yann was tall and blond, the son of a television producer from Paris now divorced from Yann’s mother, an interior designer. Thierry was dark, short, and stocky, and came from more humble origins: his father was a French teacher in a Marseille high school, and his mother—still married to his father—an underpaid dietitian at the Hôpital du Nord.
The two students walked quickly, speaking loudly and with few pauses, for they were both the youngest of three children—here was something they shared—and were well versed in the effort required to be heard at the dinner table. “Hurry up,” Yann said over his shoulder to his friend. “All of the choice food will be gone by the time we get there.”
“I can’t help it if I don’t have your giraffe legs,” his friend replied, skipping in order to keep up. “We would have left on time if you hadn’t answered the telephone and had that long conversation with what’s-her-name.”
“Suzanne,” Yann said slowly. “Suzanne, she was named after the song.”
“Right . . . your childhood sweetheart . . . her father the town doctor in Carnac, where your bourgeois family spent their idyllic summers.” Thierry stopped to mimic playing a guitar and did a very acceptable imitation of Leonard Cohen.
“And she feeds you tea and oranges That come all the way from China . . .”
he sang, until he slipped off of the narrow sidewalk and onto the street.
“Shut up, you imbecile,” Yann laughed. “Yeah, idyllic summers, all right. So idyllic that my parents divorced. Maybe it was all that rain in August . . . they were stuck together inside our impeccably designed beach house.” That was one of the things that Yann liked about Thierry: the fact that he wouldn’t recognize, nor care about, an impeccably designed interior even if it hit him in the face. Yann walked on ahead, frowning, as he thought of his mother and father with their respective new partners, neither of whom he cared for.
The two young men reached an elaborately carved wooden door on the place des Quatre Dauphins and rang the buzzer that was set into a polished brass plaque, marked Professeur Moutte. The door buzzed back and clicked open with a thud, Thierry holding it open for his friend and saying, “After you!” Thierry saw that Yann had suddenly become quiet, as he often did when the subject of his parents came up—they had divorced two years previously—and Thierry thought he should try changing the subject. He pictured the Falquerho family sitting in a living room with furnishings that were impractical for a vacation house—white, for example— watching in silence the gray waves crash onto the shore. He spoke, trying to remind Yann of other, happier things. “All you think of is food. And Suzanne, naturally.” Yann laughed and walked into the apartment building’s cold, damp foyer, looking forward to this evening’s free dinner, and Suzanne, whom he would see at Christmas break.
Weight gain had been a problem for Thierry ever since junior high, and he had never had a girlfriend in high school. His first romance with a female had been in his second year of university. But what an encounter it was. Ulla had been a Swedish exchange student—a cliché that even Thierry, who had never left France, could recognize. He smiled to himself as they mounted the wide stone stairs to Professor Moutte’s third-floor apartment, but the image of Ulla naked in his bed faded as he looked around the seventeenth-century mansion. Thierry marveled at the building’s entrance hall—so different from the apartment where he was raised and the one he now shared with Yann, whose steep red-tiled steps were so narrow that getting an armchair or even a bicycle up to their apartment was next to impossible. He purposely set his foot into the dip in each step, worn away by centuries of wealthy Aixois—and their servants—coming and going out of this aristocratic mansion, now divided into three elegant apartments.
“I can smell the hors d’oeuvres,” Yann commented, taking two steps at a time. “Puff pastries, little bits of pizza, perhaps a tray of cold cuts and a wheel of brie or two—supermarket cheese, I bet. Why do the well-off often serve such cheap food?” He stopped on a step and looked down at his friend, who had been awakened out of his daydream. “Are you listening? I’ll bet the wine will be bag-in-box.” He watched his friend place his small, wide foot in a groove in one of the stone steps.
“Beggars can’t be choosers,” Thierry replied. “Besides, I am a connoisseur . . . of bulk wines.”
Yann laughed and knocked on the door. He turned to his Marseillais friend, who was now panting, and quickly said, “I promise, when I am fully employed, hopefully in the near future, never to buy supermarket cheese or cheap wine.”
Thierry nodded in mock sincerity and replied, “Noted.” With his father’s teacher’s salary, Thierry had been raised on industrially produced cheese, but thanks to his Parisian friend he now knew what artisanal cheese tasted like and secretly hoped that he too would be able to buy quality food—quality everything—someday. The Easter week he had spent at M. Falquerho’s penthouse over- looking Les Invalides had been one of the highlights of his twenty-four years. He had never eaten in so many fine restaurants, and in each one the Falquerho father and son were given the best table and chatted happily with the owners, staff, and chefs. Thierry admired M. Falquerho, for despite the hoards of money and famous friends, Yann was given the same meager student budget as his peers.
The apartment door was opened by a tall, handsome woman in her midforties with thick black hair and large brown eyes. Thierry was happy to see that she was wearing the scoop-neck black wool dress that he particularly liked on her—it showed off not only her perfect olive skin but also her ample chest. “The gruesome twosome,” she said, laughing. “Come in! You’re just in time!” she whispered, winking. “The table has just been laid!”
“Thanks, Professor Leonetti!” they replied in unison. While both Thierry and Yann appreciated the scholarship of their host, Dr. Georges Moutte, they preferred the dynamic, often humorous lectures of the younger Dr. Annie Leonetti. But it was Dr. Moutte who had the last say on the Dumas Fellowship, and so here they were, giving up their traditional Friday night of trying to charm the American girls who hung out in Aix-en-Provence’s pubs, to hobnob with their professors. Thierry’s stomach tightened as he saw the sea of heads—many of them gray—and was relieved that Dr. Leonetti was there. Yann was more comfortable in large groups, and although he usually watched Yann in order to follow his cues, tonight Thierry vowed to be more independent.
Dr. Leonetti led the students to their host and then disap- peared. “Try not to gawk around at the apartment,” Yann warned his friend under his breath.
Thierry didn’t miss a beat. “As long as you don’t say ‘indeed’ in that phony tone of voice you always use when speaking with the doyen.” *
“Professor Moutte, bonsoir,” Yann said, politely shaking the hand of the elderly, white-haired gentleman.
“Good evening, Doctor,” Thierry said, taking his turn at shaking the age-spotted, frail hand. “Thank you for the invitation.” “Not at all. Not at all,” stammered Dr. Moutte. “My professors did the same thing for us when I was your age. Besides, you both had good reason to come, no?” He chuckled at his own joke. Thierry smiled meekly, knowing that Dr. Moutte was making a reference to the Dumas Fellowship. Yann quickly decided that he didn’t care what Moutte thought. He wanted the fellowship (which he hoped would be a quick ticket into an MBA program) and didn’t see any reason why he should hide the fact.
“Mmmm . . . indeed,” replied Yann, chuckling, causing Thierry to roll his eyes toward the ceiling, where they froze on the brightly colored frescoes depicting mythological figures. The floating gods and goddesses were enclosed by an elaborate white plaster framework molded into the shapes of flora and fauna—gypseries, he was fairly certain it was called. He turned to see if Yann had noticed the ceiling—Yann not only came from money, but he loved art and was eager to pass on his knowledge at any given opportunity—but Yann was looking over Dr. Moutte’s shoulder toward the long wooden table laden with food. Thierry saw that his friend had been correct in his estimations: pizza, cut into little squares; wheels of brie; bread and cold cuts. But the wine was in bottles. Yann then abruptly excused himself and inched his way over to the table, where Dr. Leonetti was pouring herself a glass of wine. She had been watching the young men with a smile forming at each end of her broad mouth—she liked both students but was puzzled as to why they were studying theology. She had a feeling that Yann Falquerho had chosen theology because the funding was better—and admissions easier—than in history, for the simple reason that there were fewer students in the subject. He would probably go into law or business. She had a friend who worked for a financial company in London, who told her that they were now wooing theology and history graduates into the world of stocks and bonds. The shorter one, from Marseille, was more of a mystery. Perhaps she would ask him his future plans this evening, if she could get him to stop looking up at the ceiling.
“Would you like some?” she asked, raising the bottle up to Yann, who now stood at her side with his head tilted toward her at almost a ninety-degree angle. She followed his eyes—worried that perhaps her dress was a little too décolleté—and then noticed that his awkwardness was not because of perversity but because he was trying to read the bottle’s label.
“A Bandol red!” he finally exclaimed. “Why yes, thank you! Dr. Moutte has gone all out this evening!”
Annie Leonetti smiled. “The wine is my contribution. Life’s too short for bad wine, non? Get your cohort over here and I’ll pour him a glass too.” But Thierry was already at their side—he had seen Professor Leonetti with the wine bottle in her hand and had weaved his way through the professors and graduate students toward his friend. He had just picked up a used wine glass off of the table—no time to search for a clean one when the bottled wine might be finished any minute—when Dr. Moutte’s voice was heard above the chattering of theologians.
“No, Bernard! It will be as I told you in my office today . . . and my decision will be final!”
Professor Bernard Rodier, a middle-aged man whom many colleagues thought too handsome to be in theology, turned on his heels and walked toward the front door. Annie Leonetti could never understand why people thought that Bernard was too handsome— did that mean that one had to be ugly to teach theology? Certainly there were some eyesores in the Philosophy Department; but Law compensated with some very fine, if not beautiful, specimens. And where did she stand in all of this?
Thierry and Yann exchanged worried looks, assuming that the professors had been arguing about the fellowship, and Annie smiled and poured them more wine. “Don’t worry,” she said. “It’s nothing to do with the Dumas.” She had rightly guessed that Bernard had unwisely asked about Moutte’s retirement, announced the previous week at a faculty meeting. Three names had been put forward to take on the directorship—a post that came with a generous salary, many sabbaticals, and the historic two- thousand-square-foot apartment they were now standing in, located on the square that many Aixois believed held the most beautiful fountain—les Quatre Dauphins. In addition to the frescoes that watched over the apartment’s occupants, the walled garden contained a rarity that was, in summer, sometimes heard by Aixois, but never seen, as it was hidden by a ten-foot-high stone wall: a swimming pool.
Such a post was unusual in Provence, but the Theology De- partment had always managed to distance itself from the rest of the university. In the late 1920s, Father Jules Dumas, a priest as well as a former head of the department, bequeathed his family’s mansion and fortune to the university, stating that the new head would live in the antiques-filled third-floor apartment, while the bottom two apartments would be rented out by the university to help pay for the fellowship in his name. A building—now housing offices and classrooms—and a street were named after him. It had been his way of paying back the world. He had lost two brothers in World War I; ironically, his family had made their fortune fab- ricating machine parts for the tanks that were tested on the muddy fields of Picardie and Belgium in 1917.
As she had hoped, Annie Leonetti’s name was one of the three contenders. Although she was younger than her colleagues, and known as a modernist in the department, her PhD from Yale and frequent publications were realities that could not be disputed. Working against her, more than her being a minor radical, was the fact that she came from Corsica. Where she had spent the first eighteen years of her life had a greater impact on her career than she could ever have imagined, and at times she regretted not staying in the United States—where, as a Corsican, she wouldn’t have been labeled as either a “peasant” or “terrorist.” The irony was that both she and her husband adored the island, and they had moved back to France after Annie was awarded her doctorate so that they could return to Corsica every holiday.
The second name was Bernard Rodier’s, a solid if dull Cistercian scholar, and the third, when announced, was met with cackles and hollers: Giuseppe Rocchia—“everyman’s theologian,” as he liked to call himself—who taught in the Theology De- partment at the university in their sister city, Perugia, and earned tenfold his university salary by writing books and theology-based articles in fashion magazines and appearing on Italian television, explaining his version of world religions to the masses. For this reason Annie defended him—Rocchia put in plain words what many people believed to be a complicated, overwrought subject—and for his contribution to Italian television, which desperately needed improving. She had read his books—best sellers across the world—and found some value in many of the things he said. On a recent trip to Perugia she had asked one of her colleagues why Rocchia continued to teach, given how much money he made from his books and talk-show appearances. “It gives him respect- ability,” Dario had told her, sipping his Campari in one of Perugia’s many stunning squares. “Plus, we Italians love to be called Dottore.”
Bernard Rodier set his empty glass down on an Empire-era console made from exotic woods extracted from one of France’s former colonies and left the room. Stormed out of the room, Annie would tell her husband later that evening. She smiled slightly at the gaffe that Bernard had just made, damaging his chances at the directorship. Annie looked at Yann and Thierry and thought of her own student days—the weeklong celebrations her family had hosted in their Corsican village when she had been accepted into a grande école in Paris; the effort and time she had put in to learn English; and her doctoral years in Connecticut—paying part of her tuition by waitressing at a French restaurant in New Haven. And the late hours continued—when she should have been reading to her two young children, or in bed with her husband, she had stayed up late in her study, researching. But the reward would soon be worth it. She could—should—be the next doyen of the Theology Department, able to move her family from their charmless 1970s boxlike apartment into one of the most sought- after buildings in Aix. She felt no pity for Bernard, who hadn’t published as much as she had, nor studied at a prestigious foreign university. “Pauvre Bernard,” she whispered, grinning.