I wrote the following short story in the late 1980s or early 1990s and after at first publishing it by myself in a very limited run of a chapbook, I sold the story for publication to a mystery writing magazine called Murderous Intent, which published the story in 1996. In 1997 the story was nominated for an Arthur Ellis Award as the best short story of the year by the Crime Writers of Canada association, but it failed to win. The bookstore, the Abbey Bookshop, still exists in the same form today as it was at the time of writing the story, but all characters in the story – with the exception of the one named as Sherri Aldis – were a creation of fiction.
“It couldn’t be suicide. He would never do that. Never.”
It was the way she kept saying the same thing over again with that look of fear on her face that led me to think her words were just a result of the same shock I felt about the death of our mutual friend Firmin Duclos. But she was the one who discovered the body, I was spared the horror of seeing Firmin dead.
I decided just to keep talking, to say anything, to not let her collapse into herself: “Maybe we should call the cops again,” I said. The cops had already come and gone from The Abbey Bookshop, taking the body with them, before Marie Lavigne called me over to tell me the news.
“No,” she said. “They decided it was suicide. And I don’t trust French cops anyway.”
It wasn’t the first antiFrench comment I’d heard from the Quebecker. I used to think there was more sisterhood than that between the Quebecois and the French in France. But I was learning. I’d met Marie in Toronto a couple years before I came to Paris, but back then I didn’t speak French and she spoke English without an accent. Her Frenchness seemed to me about as close to her true self as my Britishness. I was second generation Canadian with English ancestors. It was in meeting her again in France after so many years, and after I learned French, that I discovered the French Marie. I’d been surprised by the dichotomy of her personality. There were two people living in that beautiful blonde-haired tan-skinned Marie Lavigne; the Toronto dancer I had momentarily been infatuated with and this Quebec personality I was infatuated with again.
She turned to the stairs that rose up the pale brown bricks of the cellar. I watched her go up slowly, one beautiful leg after another. She was wearing black stockings that fitted over her skin like nylons, but were more like pants, cut off at the bottom to show the ankles. She wore cherry coloured leather flat-soled shoes and no socks.
I followed her and she stopped at the top of the stairs and looked out the window into the narrow Rue de la Parcheminerie, and said, “Dan, not only am I certain Firmin was murdered, but whoever did it will be after you too.”
The rare sunlight of a Paris early summer sent a flash of gold from her earring to the shoulder of her baggy red shirt.
As I tried to absorb her words, I looked into the street. In the Middle Ages it was the home of manuscript copiers and parchment sellers and the like. Today the bookstore was kind of the last echo of that tradition. It belonged to the owner of a bookstore of the same name in Toronto that I used to go to before I came to Paris.The Abbey was just around the corner in the Latin Quarter from the Dionysos wine bar, where I worked to support my budding career as a food and wine critic for a French food magazine. (Where I was known as Dan Bacchus, a corruption of my real name which I abhorred: Backhouse.) My visits to the bookstore to read the Canadian press they kept on file by the coffee table were a soothing way of maintaining some small grain of that Canadianness that I felt slipping away as the years passed. And now with Marie’s last words I started to feel as if my little refuge was turning into some kind of a trap.
I sat at a chair at the table and shook one of the coffee thermoses. It was empty. Probably the cops drank it.
Marie sat in the next chair and said, “Firmin came this morning with a suitcase full of books. Among them was something for the auction tomorrow at Drouot. Something worth a quarter of a million dollars. You know what it was.”
The auction was the sale of a Belgian’s private collection of books on gastronomy. He died and left the thousands of books to his buyer to sell as he pleased. The buyer decided the books ought to be made accessible to private collectors and he entrusted them to the Drouot auction house. There were not only French books on gastronomy, but manuscripts and books from around the world, dating back to Roman times. But the central object, the highlight of the auction, was a manuscript basically unknown until the publication of the auction catalogue.
“The Brillat-Savarin manuscript,” I said.
Anthelme Brillat-Savarin was a lawyer and government official who escaped France during the Terror, and lived in exile in America where he played his Stradivarius in the New York Opera. In the last year of his life, back in France in 1825, he wrote his great work, the PHYSIOLOGIE DU GOUT. Reflections on the art and science of taste by one of the finest sensibilities of his era, the book’s importance equalled that of the gastronomic writings of the ancient Roman named Apicius, and of Escoffier.
The manuscript was a collection by Brillat-Savarin of preliminary notes for his book. One hundred and three pages – according to the catalogue – that constituted almost a new volume of the PHYSIOLOGIE, or that could act as a kind of Prelude to the great work. I knew its value because I was one of the three people who were permitted to borrow parts of it before it went up for auction. Done under conditions of the highest secrecy, I was forbidden to tell anyone, even friends, that I had part of it. But I showed Marie my 50 pages, since they were too wonderful to keep to myself and she loved old books.
She said, “It was only after the cops left I remembered the suitcase. He showed me the manuscript like you did.”
Firmin ran a small press that published mostly literary fiction, but also books about his passion for gastronomy. After Marie’s career as a dancer in Toronto never panned out, and after trying a few other things, she came to France to be a writer. She befriended Firmin with, I felt, the desire that he publish her fiction. But maybe I suspected the ulterior motive because of the jealousy I felt at the attention Marie was showing Firmin, and vice versa.
Marie said, “He said he was supposed to give it back to Drouot today for the sale. But he was going to make photocopies first, which he wasn’t supposed to do either, because of the brittleness of the old paper”
“And to not lower its value by increasing the number of copies, which is only one.”
She said, “I had to take the cash from the till to the bank and instead of closing the store, I asked Firmin to cover for me. I wanted to do a good job while Sherri was in Canada.” – Marie was given complete responsibility for running the store while the manager, Sherri Aldis, was away. – “So the last thing Firmin did before I left was take his suitcase down to the storage room.”
The cellar was divided in two, one part for customers and where Firmin was hanged, the other a storage room with books not accessible to the public.
“Firmin was afraid of someone grabbing it up here while he was working. So after the police left I went back to look at it and it was opened and the manuscript gone.”
“You check everywhere to see if he’d taken it out and put it somewhere else in the meantime?”
“Maybe one of the cops took it for evidence?”
“No one went into the storage room. There was no reason to.”
“Then I’m not the only one in danger. There’s the third person who has a part of the manuscript, and there’s Georges LePage. We’re all in danger if someone’s going around killing for this thing.”
The selection of who was to borrow the manuscript was made by the aforementioned buyer of the Belgian’s books, Georges LePage. He was also my buyer of rare books, and the new books I needed to keep up with what was going on in the French gastronomical world. Since I wasn’t really part of the culinary clique, wasn’t rich, and was dabbling with the idea of writing an informal history of French gastronomy, Georges chose me as one of the three borrowers of the manuscript.
I guess Firmin was chosen because his small press was outside the mainstream and he was contemplating fighting for the rights to publish the manuscript. He probably wanted a first look to see if it was all it was made out to be.
“I only care about you,” said Marie, “not this Georges or any third person.”
Some cruel part of me was thinking of the repercussions of the demise of Firmin on our affectionate triangle.
I said, “But maybe the third person is the murderer. If Georges can tell me who the third one is, we can either catch the guy, or warn him of the danger. But I’m worried for Georges too. What if the third guy forced the other names out of him? I’m going to see if he’s okay. Do you want to come?”
She shook her head and said, “I still have to call Sherri. I’m really afraid to tell her what’s happened.”
“Tell her it was suicide. For the moment.”
Marie smiled crookedly.
I said, “I wonder why the police were so easily convinced it was suicide? I mean, if there was no note or anything.”
“They see suicides every day. There was no evidence of a struggle. And no apparent reason for murder. I hadn’t yet seen that the 53 pages of the manuscript had been stolen.”
“But why would anyone have to kill Firmin for it? Couldn’t they just steal it?”
“I guess if they didn’t kill him he’d be able to identify them.”
“True.” I stood up and said, “Are you going to be okay?”
“You’re the one I’m worried about Dan. Maybe you should forget about this Georges guy and just get your part of the thing back to Drouot.”
“Oh, it’s safe. I was paranoid and I hid it in this place in the kitchen where I hide my best wine. My building is really old, and so easy to break into from the fire escape in the courtyard, I didn’t want to take any chances with that fortune on my hands.”
I left the store and told her to keep the door locked and to wait for my call after I spoke with Georges.
The Ventre de Paris was a rickety old bookstore on the Rue de la Montagne-Sainte-Genevieve, a steep road that was a part of the ancient Roman road that extended from the street where I lived to behind the Pantheon and the Rue Mouffetard.
Fat Georges spent most of his days sitting in the chair at the back of the grungy shop, losing only a little weight each year when he went on his book-hunting forays through Europe in search of first editions.
“The thinnest food critic in Paris,” he said in greeting. Georges always had some snide comment to say about my physique. “Never trust a thin food writer,” he added.
I said, “It’s my metabolism. I probably eat twice as much as you do, but I just can’t put on weight.”
“Some day you’ll be revenged. Have you returned the manuscript to that auction house yet?”
Speak of the devil. “I was going to after I came here. Do you think the rest of the manuscript has been taken back yet?”
He let out one of his wheezy laughs and poured some Ricard, that he kept in a cabinet by his desk, into two shallow glasses. I took them to the sink in the back room and added water.
I handed him his drink and said, “I was wondering if passing around such a valuable manuscript was really such a good idea.”
“Can’t I do anything to please you?”
“It really was taking a big risk. I mean, imagine if a thief got a part of the thing?”
“No thief would take just a part of the manuscript. And he couldn’t have it all because I would rather die than give away the names of the others who have it. I wouldn’t want to be remembered as the person who lost the Brillat-Savarin manuscript! You’re not trying to get that information out of me now are you?”
“Georges, there’s a problem.”
His double chin rolled up in his neck as he squinted at me.
I said, “Someone has stolen part of the manuscript.”
“You lost the manuscript?”
“No Georges, not my part.”
He did a double take and I said, “Firmin Duclos’s part.”
“How could you know that Firmin Duclos…?”
I explained what happened at the Abbey.
“Now Georges, I don’t know quite what to make of all this, but…I realized, well, there was no third person, was there? Firmin and I had the entire manuscript between us, didn’t we?”
Georges was sweating profusely now.
“I figured it out,” I continued, “because Marie turns out to be the only person who has seen both Firmin’s part and my part and she knows the whole is only 103 pages long. And that I had 50 pages, and Firmin 53.”
“How does she know all this?”
I told him how Firmin and I had both coincidentally shown Marie our parts of the manuscript.
“Is there no such thing as trust anymore? But what makes you think she knew the size of the complete thing?”
“I showed her the auction catalogue.”
Georges’ eyes dilated.
He said, “Good god. This Quebecoise is our thief and murderer.”
I turned away from the desk, said, “Not Marie.”
“Why not? How well do you know this woman?”
“Never Marie,” I said. And I felt in the same position as Marie had been when she told me that Firmin would never commit suicide, never.
“You’re infatuated with the woman.”
I paced in front of the desk and the full horror of my thoughts about her dual personality came to me. Did she suffer from Multiple Personality Disorder? Had she murdered Firmin for the manuscript because she failed not only as a dancer but as a writer, because Firmin didn’t publish her fiction?
“Where is she now?” said Georges.
“Does she know you still have your half of the manuscript?”
Then it hit me, and I said, “Georges…I told her where I hid it.”
“You did what?!”
“I told her I hid it in this place in my kitchen where I put my wine.”
“Does she know you’re not there now?”
I barely heard him, and I said, “I practically told her how to break into my apartment…up the fire escape.”
Georges picked up his phone and called the operator.
“Get me the police,” he said.
One part of me wanted to stop him. She couldn’t have done such a thing. Murder Firmin Duclos. And then, even if she had murdered him, would I want to see her suffer the consequences?
“I would like to report a break-in,” said Georges.
But there was Firmin to think about too. My friend had been killed.
“What’s that address of yours again?” I heard Georges’ voice but I did not respond.
I had not known her long enough, but I had tempted her.
“Oh never mind,” said Georges. “It’s the apartment right above the Dionysos wine bar on the Rue Galande. Yes, get there as fast as possible, there’s a manusc… how do I know it’s being broken into? Why…can’t you just…dear…please just believe me. Get there.”
Georges slammed down the phone.
“We’ve got to get over to your place right now,” he said. “Those damned cops. What a bureaucracy.”
We hailed a cab and inside I barely heard Georges as he talked to himself: “The idea was flawless. I thought of it myself. The third person was in order to ensure that any thief who found out about the first two would be dissuaded from stealing after being discouraged about not finding the third.”
I grunted some Ouis and Nons.
“But that auction house insisted on publishing a catalogue that gave away every detail of the whole damned manuscript weeks before the auction. Who would have thought? Who would have thought!”
It was only as we arrived at the Rue Galande and the cab came to a stop that I finally heard Georges say, “Poor Firmin. Oh, poor Firmin.”
We walked up the middle of the narrow cobblestone street under the flashing blue lights of the cop vehicles ahead.
“They came,” said Georges. “They actually came.”
The full realization of the horror that might be about to fall on Marie was thrown from my mind when as we approached the oak facade of the Dionysos three cops came guiding a familiar human form, and one that was not recognizable as that of a beautiful but multiple personality named Marie Lavigne.
Georges stopped and said to me, “What kind of game have you been playing with me?”
Because the person in handcuffs was a very much alive Firmin Duclos. He was in his usual dirty grey suit, with his messy brown-grey hair and steel rim glasses, his stomach hanging over the thin belt of his poorly-fitting brown cords.
I ran up to the cop van and held eyes with him as he was seated in the prisoner’s chair.
“I would drink up the 1977s if I were you,” he said, referring to the wine in the hiding place in my kitchen.
An officer approached with a bundle of papers that looked like the entire manuscript, my portion and Firmin’s, and he said, “Are you the owner of this?”
I nodded, then said, “No, him,” gesturing Georges, who grabbed it and immediately started to examine it.
When he was satisfied it was all there, he said to the policeman, “You have reenforced my confidence in the police system. I thank you for taking my call seriously and coming here to save this great manuscript.”
The cop said, “Oh, you’re the man who called. In fact we didn’t take you seriously. We get break-in warnings all the time that turn out to be false alarms. It was when we got another call minutes later from a Quebecoise who gave us the same information about the break-in that we decided to come and check it out.”
I said, “Marie Lavigne?”
The officer nodded. “And she gave us more information than you did. She told us the thief’s name was Firmin Duclos and that he’d been threatening her life all day with a gun in the bookstore where she worked. We got here just as this Duclos broke into the wall in the kitchen and pulled out some old bottles of wine followed by that manuscript.”
I went back to the Abbey to find Marie sitting at the coffee table looking depressed. I told her what happened and she looked better, but still haunted.
She said, “I didn’t want to do any of it Dan. I didn’t.”
“Where was he?” I asked. “I didn’t hear a thing.”
“I tried to let you know, but what could you do against him? He was in the storage room when we were downstairs, then he followed us up and stood behind the bookcase at the top of the stairs. I had no choice.”
I said, “I can’t believe Firmin thought he could get away with it. He must have gone crazy.”
“I was so afraid of him with that gun, and I thought, what if you went home after all? So I called the cops when he left. The whole story about his being murdered and the noose, it was all his idea.”
“You did the only thing you could.”
“But it was all my fault from the beginning. I was so surprised when he showed me his manuscript that I slipped out that you had some of it too. He asked me how many pages you had. Like a fool I told him, and he went berserk, saying that between the two of you, you had the whole thing. Which I realized was true.”
“We put you in such a terrible position,” I said. “But who would have thought the guy’d go that far?”
“I was so scared. I wasn’t sure if I could let you know or not. That’s why I said there were 53 pages in his manuscript.”
“What’s to worry? No one was murdered, and nothing was stolen. And Firmin just, well, showed us how infirm he is.”
My anagram broke her tension and Marie hugged me. And I hated myself for thinking bad things about her just because she spoke two different languages so well that she sounded like two different people, when she was really one very full person.