Margaret Browning strolled along the Rue des Écoles, enjoying a holiday in Paris which her husband Phillip had been promising her for the past two years. Usually Dr. Phillip Browning’s academic commitments as ranking professor of literature at King’s College London in Westminster took precedence in their lives, leaving little time for holiday. However, a hastily convened conference in Paris on a newly discovered written work by nineteenth century French author Guy de Maupassant, and his wife’s persistence had finally won out. Today Phillip was somewhere inside the Institut de France, giddy over the possibility that a de Maupassant story had gone undetected for over one hundred thirty years and reeling with the opportunity to be one of the first to study it. Such a once in a lifetime happenstance overwhelmed and absorbed the professor completely, dimming the rest of the world and leaving his wife Margaret free to shop on her own. The day before, a small antique shop had drawn her interest, but a scheduled dinner with her husband’s colleagues had delayed her chance to explore it until now. As she neared the shop, she phoned Phillip, catching him waiting for the museum preservation room to finish preparing the next batch of documents he was to study.
“Margaret, I trust you have found something to entertain you,” said Phillip. He well knew how excited his wife was to be in Paris.
She was about to launch into an animated rundown of the places she had visited, when she spotted his wry humor. Without missing a beat, she said, “Why, yes, Phillip, although I may have to hire an extra cab to carry all the expensive antiques I have purchased.”
Phillip smiled. He and Margaret knew each other too well. “Where are you now?” he said.
“I’ve just arrived at that shop you pulled me away from yesterday. They will surely have some bargains … oh dear.” The shop had all the curtains drawn together and the sign on the door read FERMÉ. Margaret looked at her watch, hoping it might be a short dinner break. Then she cupped her hands and peeked in through a gap in the window curtain. “Oh, dear Lord,” she said.
“What is it, Margaret?” asked her husband, hearing the alarm in her voice.
Margaret never heard him. Her phone had already dropped to the sidewalk. Inside the shop, she saw a man strapped to a wooden chair. Two men held him roughly by the shoulders. Another man with a horrific tattoo on his neck stood in front of the victim, alternately firing questions at him in French and pistol whipping his face.
Margaret could do nothing but stare like a passerby at an accident, frozen by the sheer brutality of the scene. Her husband continued to call her name from the phone lying at her feet, but it was a faraway dream.
Finally, the man with the tattoo forced the barrel of his gun into the other man’s mouth and pulled the trigger, splattering blood and brains on the men holding him.
The loud blast snapped Margaret from her trance. She backed up into the street. A small blue car screeched its tires, barely avoiding her, and the driver laid heavily on the horn. Margaret turned toward the car and watched the driver’s mouth move angrily as he passed by. Then Margaret remembered what she had just witnessed and she looked back to the shop, hoping that no one inside had noticed her.
An arm yanked aside the window curtain and she was face to face with the tattooed man. The evil in his gaze cut her to the bone. As adrenalin took over, Margaret turned and ran headlong across the busy boulevard, careening off the hoods of several cars before reaching the other side. She looked back and saw two men dart out of the shop across the way, guns drawn. She knew they were coming for her. With nowhere to run, she stood helplessly, resigned to a certain death.
Suddenly a blue and white police van she had not noticed swerved over to the curb in front of her and stopped. The side door opened.
“Montez! Montez!” said the officer in the van.
Needing no translation, she darted inside. The door slammed shut and the van sped away into the flow of traffic.
“Thank you so much,” said Margaret, to the two uniformed police officers who were in the back of the van with her. “You saved my life. Those men…” Her voice trailed off.
“You are safe now. What did you see?”
“I don’t know. A man with a tattoo.”
“Could you recognize him?”
“I will never forget his face. He shot a man. He killed him.”
The policemen spoke to each other rapidly in French.
There was an explosively loud crunch, and Margaret was thrown violently into the wall of the van. The van rocked and spun around, skidding to a stop. Woozy from a bump on the head, Margaret slumped to the floor. She tasted blood. One of the policemen was lying next to her, his head twisted at an odd angle. She heard shouting from the front, then gunshots. The other policeman opened the side door and stepped out, disappearing to the rear. More gunshots, then nothing.
A long ten seconds later, a man in a black ski mask appeared in the side door opening and climbed into the van. When he reached down toward her, Margaret passed out.
Chapter 1: The Panicked Professor
Sitting at his desk, the police inspector gazed wistfully at a picture of a woman holding a small boy in her arms. It was a picture from a happier time. His son was now twelve, and he had not seen him for six months. Not since his wife had gone to “visit” her family in Alsace Lorraine and taken Lucien with her. The note she left had seemed innocent enough at the time, but had turned out to be a prelude to a full divorce. Personnel cutbacks in the police force had made his caseload so heavy he barely had time to call, much less attempt any sort of reconciliation. Of course, that was the problem, according to his wife Claudia. He saw it another way. Her late evenings spent with a certain young assistant curator at the Louvre were not about art appreciation. Did she not think he had earned his inspector’s badge?
As he stared at the picture, he wondered how much taller Lucien had gotten since he had last seen him. Now that his caseload had lightened, he would have to take a few days off to go see his son.
The inspector’s assistant rang the intercom, breaking his reverie.
“There is a professor on the phone—he says something has happened to his wife.”
“What has happened?”
“He doesn’t know. But he is quite panicked. He’s here from London over at the Institut de France where he is studying something—an old book.”
The inspector knew that the professor’s wife had probably gotten lost in the city. Foreigners always had difficulty with the Parisian streets. Most likely her phone had gone dead. Simple. However, he also knew that a British citizen could create a lot of trouble for him if the misunderstanding wasn’t handled quickly. The French and the British were never more than one or two incidents from a full blown diplomatic war. He didn’t need such trouble, especially now. “All right, Claude. I will see to it. Where is the professor?”
“He’s in the security offices of the institute. They are having difficulty calming him down. He’s still on hold.”
“Put him through.” The inspector sighed. Perhaps his wife was right about his being too absorbed in his job. But, all that was going to change. He had a plan. He would show her.
“Hello, hello?” said a distressed voice.
“Professor Browning? This is Inspector Gilliard of the Paris police.”
“Inspector, you must help me. My wife. She has gone missing.”
“When did you last see her?”
“Paris is a big city. It has been less than a day, perhaps—”
“She is not just lost. Something awful has happened.”
“Have you tried calling her?”
“Of course. Do you take me for an idiot?”
The inspector refrained from any comment. “I ask only whether you have tried every means to reach her.”
“Yes, I am sorry. I am terrifically fearful that something has happened to Margaret. She was on the phone. Then suddenly she was gone.”
“Perhaps her phone went dead.”
“You are missing the point. Something happened while she was on the Rue des Écoles. I could hear it in her voice.”
“What is that?”
The inspector sat up in his chair, immediately interested. There had been several calls about gunshots on Rue des Écoles. He had two officers checking it out, but had not gotten a report yet. “Where did you say?”
“The Rue des Écoles. Margaret was at an antique shop—gold antiques—Les Antiquités D’or. I think it was near the College of France.”
“Just a minute, s’il vous plaît,” said Gilliard, switching to the assistant. “Claude, where was the report of gunshots?”
“Rue des Écoles, near Rue de Beauvais.”
“Close enough. Have we gotten an update?”
“Nothing yet from the detail you sent to check it out.”
“Send them to Les Antiquités D’or.”
The inspector switched back to the professor. “Excusez-moi. You say she was near the antique shop on Rue des Écoles?”
“She was right there at the shop. We had seen it the day before and—it doesn’t matter. Please help me.”
“I think you had better come to the police station.”
“Oh no. Has something happened? Is Margaret all right?”
“I don’t yet have any information. Should I send one of our cars to pick you up?”
“That will not be necessary. The security director here at the museum said he will arrange a ride.”
“Very good. I will see you soon. Don’t worry, we will find your wife.” After the call the inspector winced. He hated to make promises he wasn’t sure he could keep.
As soon as Dr. Browning stepped into the reception area of the police station, he started right in. “My wife Margaret. She is gone.” Although he stood in front of the officer at the reception desk, he spoke to no one in particular. He didn’t care if anyone understood English. “She is always very careful. Something terrible must have happened. I never should have left her alone in this terrible city.” He rubbed his face, desperate to brush away the fear and panic that choked him.
“Monsieur, s’il vous plaît,” said the officer, pointing to a long wooden bench across from his desk.
The professor had no intention of sitting down. “Is anyone going to help me find my wife?” he said loudly.
“Professor Browning,” said a new voice from behind him. Intimate knowledge of how upset a man could be over losing his wife tempered Inspector Gilliard’s voice. “I will help you. Please come with me.”
Professor Browning whirled toward the voice, eyes wild and desperate. Seeing kindness and calm in the inspector’s eyes gave him hope. “Yes, yes, whatever you need,” he said, and obediently followed Gilliard down a hallway and into another office.
After sitting in the plain wooden chair in front of the inspector’s desk, Professor Browning took a deep breath and asked, “What have you found out? Where is my Margaret?”
Inspector Gilliard paused, knowing he must choose his words carefully. “We do have witnesses who confirm her whereabouts on Rue des Écoles at the time you spoke with her.” Gilliard did not want to give any details of the brutal triple murder inside the very antique shop where Margaret Browning was shopping. “We have not yet located her, but I’m confident we will. We did find her cell phone.” He placed a black smart phone on the desk.
Phillip Browning recognized the phone. Margaret kept it with her at all times. It was a running joke between the two of them that she would leave him before she would leave that phone. His heart pounded in his chest. “Witnesses? To what?”
“There is no need to panic. We are investigating every possibility. It is standard police procedure.”
“You haven’t seen panic. I may be merely an academic with no sense of your police work, but I’m an intelligent man, Inspector. And I know you are keeping something from me. This is my wife we are talking about, please.”
“There has been a murder in the vicinity. Not your wife,” the inspector quickly added. “There is likely no connection at all.”
“Oh, dear God,” said the professor.
The inspector had the same sentiment. He did not mention that a witness had seen a woman fitting Margaret Browning’s description getting into a police van near the scene. Or that the van had been found several blocks away, along with three dead policemen and no sign of the woman. The Director-general was already raining fire on the police department to find the killer. He couldn’t let the professor find out the connection.
“Do you know of any reason your wife would be in trouble?”
“No, of course not.”
“Has she been to Paris before?”
“How were the two of you getting along?”
“What are you getting at?”
“I am looking for a reason for her disappearance. Sometimes with a spouse the cause is, how shall I say it, closer to home.”
“I assure you that our marital relationship had nothing to do with her disappearance. Moreover, it is none of your business. I demand you do something to find my wife. Otherwise, I shall be forced to go to the British Embassy.”
The inspector’s attempt to sidetrack the professor had blown up in his face. He said stiffly, “I have a half dozen men tracking down every lead. We will find her. Let us do our job. You should go to your hotel in the event that she shows up there.” Gilliard called the front desk and arranged for a car to take the professor home. When an officer came to escort the professor, Gilliard said, “I will personally contact you as soon as we know anything. I have your cell number.”
Once outside, Professor Browning refused to go to back to the hotel. “Take me to the British Embassy or I march right back inside.”
The officer decided bringing the professor back into the station would be worse for his career. Ten minutes later he dropped the professor at the front gate to the embassy.
Using the intercom, the professor gained entry into the embassy compound by briefly explaining his predicament. The main hall of the building was decorated with intricate gold leaf that was at least one hundred fifty years old and the walls displayed portraits of English kings going back even further. On another day he might have felt compelled to study them more closely. Today he barely noticed.
A pleasant young woman hustled out to meet him. “Professor Browning, I presume,” she said, offering her hand. “Please, follow me. The deputy ambassador is eager to see you.”
The expressed urgency gave the professor hope. He followed the woman into an office no less ornate than the hall. The queen looked down from the wall behind a small man seated at a desk that seemed too large for his petite stature.
“Deputy Ambassador, this is Professor Phillip Browning,” said the woman. “Professor—the Deputy Ambassador, Reginald Hamm.” As the men shook hands, the woman left the room, closing the heavy carved wooden door behind her.
“Please be seated. I have received word from the police that you think your wife has been the victim of foul play.”
“Not think. I know.” Browning told his story to the ambassador who listened intently.
The ambassador nodded frequently until the professor paused for a breath. “I have been assured that the local police are searching city wide for her as we speak,” said the ambassador, continuing to nod. “I’m sure she will turn up soon.”
The professor knew patronizing when he heard it. “Look—Deputy Ambassador, is it? The police are hiding something from me. They mentioned a murder. I want you to force them to cooperate. I demand it,” he said, raising his voice to a volume he was not comfortable using.
“I can understand your frustration. But you must keep in mind it has only been a few hours. There is a matter of police protocol. I will check into the investigation.” The ambassador kept nodding, like one of those bobble-head dolls. “I will stay in close contact with the inspector who is handling the case. Otherwise, there is nothing I can do. My driver can take you to your hotel.”
Just like that Professor Browning found himself walking back down the hallway to the front of the building. Only hours ago he had been passionately engaged in his research while his wife Margaret enjoyed Paris. Now she was missing, maybe dead and being referred to as “the case.” Staggered by the realization no one was going to help him, he steadied himself against the wall beneath a portrait of Prince Charles. He remembered a news story about a man who, after being refused insurance, went berserk and shot up the company offices. Maybe it was a good thing he didn’t own a gun.
The pleasant woman greeted him in the entry hall and walked him to the door. Just outside, she grabbed his arm gently. “Here. Call this number. My brother met him at Oxford. He can help.” She slipped a card into his jacket pocket. “I’m so sorry. I hope your wife turns up safe.”
Before he could say anything she turned and went back inside.
The diplomatic car pulled up in front of the steps. “Sir, where are you staying?” said the driver as he opened the rear door.
“The Hotel Regina.”
“Very good, sir.”
The rage had passed, and the professor sank into the car’s soft leather seat, finally giving in to the hopelessness he had been resisting. He idly fingered the business card in his side pocket. What could this one man, a stranger at that, do for his Margaret? He let the card go. He would have to do something himself.
When the driver drove off after dropping him in front of his hotel, Professor Browning lingered near the door, waiting for the car to disappear from sight. Then he asked the doorman to hail a taxi.
“Rue des Écoles—Les Antiquités D’or shop, s’il vous plaît,” said Browning, as he climbed into the vehicle.
“Yes, sir,” said the cabby, recognizing the professor’s English accent. When the taxi drove past the antique shop there were two policemen posted outside. Barricades and crime scene tape blocked the sidewalk on both sides.
“Pull over here,” said Browning, once they had passed by the shop. He handed the driver too many euros and scanned the crime scene. The driver folded the money and quickly drove away. A closer approach revealed a yellow evidence marker on the ground outside the window of the shop. Browning recalled the moment when he lost contact with his wife, and imagined the phone landing where the marker now stood. “Unrelated murder,” he said out loud, but under his breath. That is what the inspector had said. He was lying. When one of the policemen guarding the shop took notice of him, the professor turned and walked away from the scene. He stopped half a block away and sat down at a small outside cafe. Realizing he had no plan and no clue what to do next, he pulled the business card from his pocket.
The card featured an embossed gold crown over a falcon holding a sword in the upper left corner. The name Raja Williams was printed across the middle of the card. Beneath was a phone number. As a scholar of literature, the professor couldn’t help noting that the font was 14 point Baskerville Bold. He had no idea who this Raja Williams was, but he needed help. He pulled out his phone and punched in the number.
Chapter 2: Prayer for an Angel
For a long month after the Randall Hope case in Los Angeles had ended, Raja stayed close to his home on the north end of Clearwater Beach in the Tampa Bay area of Florida. The fallout from that case was still raining down, including the resignation of the California governor, and a number of congressional investigations into fraud and misuse of government monies. It was a long month because his beloved Tampa Bay Rays were in a slump, dropping from first to last in the American League East. Raja dutifully attended the home games, yelling encouragement from his box seats behind the home dugout. However, lately he could barely stand to see the hangdog faces on the players as they trudged back from home plate after what were all too frequent strikeouts.
Raja loved the underdog status his Rays held due to being in the small-market town. As a private detective, he appreciated the challenges someone small could face in a world of mega-corporations and heavily armed governments. For that reason, he spent his time and fortune leveling the playing field for those who needed a hand.
Raja was walking out of Tropicana Field after a satisfying come-from-behind win over the Yankees when Gloria called.
“Well?” she asked.
“A rally in the ninth gave us a win in a squeaker,” said Raja.
“Irie, irie, bwoy. Glad to hear dat. Maybe you not so happy after I tell you about da call you got today.” Gloria was the one person who sat between Raja and the requests that came in for his help. Although starting out as a housekeeper and house sitter of sorts that Raja needed because he was a bachelor who traveled frequently, Gloria had become a trusted confidante and adviser. As word of Raja’s role as an investigator in the fiasco last month involving the governor of California spread, the volume of calls coming in made it necessary for Raja to use Gloria as a filter. She was a Jamaican woman who reminded him of his childhood roots in the Caribbean and kept him grounded.
“I promise I won’t hold it against you, Gloria.”
“Don’t be foolish, bwoy. I just be warning you. A man called from overseas. Says he can’t find ’is wife.”
“Did you ask him the obvious question?”
“Why he still looking? Don’t be no smart ass, bwoy. He sounds real bad. I think you should talk wit ’im. Real bad.” If there was one thing Gloria could sense, it was true human suffering. There was a legend among the Jamaican people about their first ancestor Loka, an angel who had the task of painting the heavens. When the gods had criticized his work, he cast himself down to earth in a fit of suffering and self-pity. Although the gods refused to bring him back to heaven, they gave him the gift of empathy so that he could better understand his own fate and also help others. Legend or not, Gloria had the gift. No one could fake being troubled. She always knew.
Raja trusted her judgment and asked for the phone number.
“Yes, Mr. Williams. I do so appreciate your returning my call.”
“Call me Raja. And you?”
“I beg your pardon. The dire circumstances have apparently compromised my manners. My name is Browning. Dr. Phillip Browning. I have a desperate situation that needs resolving. I was given your name and number. Excuse my presumption, but I was told you could help.”
“It has been known to happen. Where are you and what exactly is the situation?”
“I am in Paris, France working with the museum here on—well, that isn’t important. My wife Margaret has been here with me on holiday and she has disappeared. There must have been witnesses, but the local police claim to know nothing. Apparently there was a murder nearby no one wants to talk about. I am getting no cooperation despite going to the British Embassy here in Paris. I’m afraid I had nearly given up when a kind woman at the embassy gave me your card. She said that one of her relatives knew of you from Oxford University. You attended?”
“I teach at King’s College London.”
“About your wife. Was there any reason for you to expect trouble?”
“No, no. Nothing.”
“Perhaps your work. What do you do?”
“It is rather unlikely to be my work. You see, I am a professor with a PhD in literature. I came to Paris to study a newly discovered text from the nineteenth century. I’m afraid it isn’t very interesting to anyone outside of a small group of highly specialized academics, and certainly without any controversy I am aware of that would endanger either myself or my wife. I brought Margaret along for a holiday. She went out shopping for antiques. Then she was gone. Please, Mr. Williams, I need your help. I am far from being a wealthy man, but I assure you, I will arrange to pay you whatever is required. On my honor.”
Raja already knew he was going to help Dr. Browning. The back of his head had been buzzing long before he called the professor. He had an ability for reading people and an internal sense for trouble that served him well in his chosen profession. However, it came with a price. The bigger the trouble, the more his head would ache. Right now there was a full percussion section pounding in the back of his skull. He would be taking this case. “Payment won’t be necessary,” said Raja. “You can cover some expenses if you would like, and provided I can help you, you will agree to return that help at some future time should I call on your services. Is that agreeable?”
“Yes. You have my word, and my deepest gratitude.”
“We shall see. I will make arrangements to be in Paris by tomorrow. I can reach you at this number?”
“Yes. Should I arrange to pick you up at the airport?”
“No need. I will see you day after tomorrow. I’ll call you once I’m on the ground in France. Meanwhile, stay in your hotel in case Margaret contacts you there.”
“I’m getting quite tired of hearing that, but I will do as you say.”
Raja called Gloria to make preparations for his trip to France. That included notifying Mickey, his pilot. Mickey O’Toole had been flying food and medicine to the needy in Africa when Raja first met him. Now he worked full-time for Raja flying his custom Hawker 1000 wherever a case required. When Mickey wasn’t taking Raja somewhere he ran paid charter flights on the side and maintained the jet.
“Gloria, can you find out where Mickey is? I’m going to need him.”
“Already spoke to ’im, bwoy. He just got back from a charter to British Columbia. He will have the plane serviced and fueled for a flight to France by early morning.”
Raja laughed. “So you knew I would take the case.”
“What me see, you see,” said Gloria, which was her way of saying they think alike.
Next Raja called the one person he wanted with him on all his cases. That is, if she wasn’t off on some crazy adventure of her own.
She answered right away. “Yo.”
“Vinny, it’s Raja. You busy?”
“Always, boss, you know that.”
“We have a case.”
“Tell me it’s in London. The Olympics are happening there as we speak.” Vinny was partial to athletes, having dated a few, and having a martial arts black belt herself.
“Sorry. Paris, France. You ready?”
“Born ready, you know that, Raj. When do we go?”
“Daybreak if the plane’s ready. But, I do have some research you can start on tonight, if you are willing.” Vinny had amazing computer skills, and was a top hacker who had once worked for the U.S. government until she purposely made herself more trouble than they could handle so they would cut her loose. Now she was a valued partner on all Raja’s cases.
“You know I can go all night if you need,” said Vinny. She also had the good fortune of being one of those rare individuals who only need two or three hours of sleep a night to regenerate completely.
“Come by the house,” said Raja. “I’ll give you what you need.”
“That’s what she said.” Vinny loved to push Raja’s buttons with the hipster lingo she was constantly picking up on the internet.
“Let me rephrase that. Come by and I’ll have the information you’ll need for your research.” With his Oxford education, Raja’s language sensibilities were an easy target. Despite her teasing, Vinny was his best friend.
Later at his home on the north end of Clearwater Beach, Raja outlined what they knew. “Professor Browning has lost his wife Margaret. There was a murder coincident with her disappearance. My contact in Paris also says there is a manhunt underway for a cop killer.” He handed Vinny his notes.
“I’m on it, boss.” Vinny insisted on calling Raja boss, despite the fact he saw them as equals. She pulled out her iPad. Despite its small size, it gave her access to everything she needed, including the customized cloud computing programs she had designed.
Raja could still not get his wits around the revolutionary nature of cloud computing. Although he had purchased a state of the art computer setup for Vinny, including a huge interactive screen with all the bells and whistles, she preferred her iPad.
Raja made one more call. He left a message, as always, saying he would be in Paris on a case within twenty-four hours.
Gloria came in to report that Mickey would have the jet ready an hour before dawn. “You gonna take care a dat man, okay bwoy?”
“We will do our best,” said Raja.
“Make sure your best be good enough.”
Chapter 3: Rude American
Raja, needing more sleep than Vinny, had gone to bed at midnight. Vinny worked through the night on her computer, researching everything she could find on the scene in Paris. She woke Raja well before daybreak and they drove to the St. Petersburg – Clearwater Airport where Mickey was waiting with the jet.
A sling shot takeoff got them airborne. The grueling twelve-hour non-stop flight gave Vinny time to brief Raja on what she had discovered.
“What did you find out about the Brownings?” asked Raja.
“They seem like a nice couple, and I found no reason for either to be involved in anything illegal. Financials are clean, no skeletons I could find. Whoever grabbed Mrs. Browning had their own fish to fry.”
“But why her?”
“WPWT. Wrong place, wrong time. I think she was completely non sequitur to whatever is going on. She’s a red herring, boss.”
“Okay, what else?”
“The murdered shopkeeper and his two employees could be a robbery gone bad. Margaret Browning was in the vicinity and may have witnessed something. However, I think the cop killer is our best lead.”
“How does that tie in?”
“That’s just it. I don’t know yet, but a report mentioned a woman fitting Margaret Browning’s description at the scene where the policemen were killed. I pulled that off a local media interview, but the police are keeping the report under wraps.”
“Good work, Vinny.”
“True dat, boss.” Vinny explored more of the data she had gathered and began modifying the Venn diagram program she used during their investigations. Afterward she and Raja both grabbed a nap.
Landing in Paris required clearance through the customs service and the Gendarmerie, the French military police. The Le Bourget Airport was small and served private jets and planes almost exclusively. However, even with Raja’s connections it took two hours, thanks to the new international bogeyman, terrorism. It was already after three in the morning Paris time when they got to the parking garage where Raja kept one of the many sports cars he owned. He never met a classic sports car he didn’t like, and kept them in many cities. No one else knew how many he owned, and he had lost count at twenty-five. He and Vinny climbed into the burnt orange 1969 Porsche 911S that he called Napoleon and headed to Paris. The car’s throaty hum eased the headache that told Raja they were heading straight for trouble on this case. Vinny shook her hair out of the Rays baseball cap she often wore, letting the wind blow through. Certainly pretty enough to be a runway model, she preferred hacking computers to haute couture.
They arrived at 33 Quai Voltaire where Raja maintained a flat on the top floor. Simply decorated, it provided a base of operations. A wide bay window looked out over the Seine River and the Louvre Museum stood visible to the right across the river. After settling in, they talked about the case.
“I’ve got a line on the inspector who is handling the investigation, if you can call it that,” said Vinny. “Most of the police and media attention is on finding whoever killed three French policemen. Mrs. Browning has been lost in the shuffle.”
“We will change that,” said Raja. “What’s the inspector’s name?”
The next morning Raja called the British Embassy to grease the wheels with the Paris police. Although no police force likes outside interference with their business, the French were particularly insular. Raja had earned a little sway with the British Royal family, having pulled one princely ass out of a nasty fire a couple of years back. It was a story he had sworn not to repeat, but one which got him a direct order from London into the British Embassy in Paris instructing them to use their pull to open the door to the French police, a notoriously tight-lipped bunch. God save the Queen. While giving the British Embassy time to push the message through proper channels and down the chain of command, Raja called the professor at his hotel.
“Hello,” said Professor Browning.
The dull lack of expectation in Browning’s voice told Raja he was rapidly losing hope. “It’s Raja Williams. I’m in Paris. I’m already working on finding your wife and I wanted to meet with you.” Raja didn’t think the professor had any more pertinent information, but it would certainly raise the professor’s spirits if he felt useful. There is nothing like the feeling of helplessness to drive a man into apathy.
“Yes, yes. Where should I meet you?” said Browning. He sounded better already.
“I’ll pick you up at your hotel. Wait out front. Bring any pictures you have of Margaret. Give me about fifteen minutes.”
“I’ll be waiting.”
Waiting was another thing that could sink a man emotionally. After hanging up, Raja made a mental note to leave promptly. “Vinny, I’m heading to Professor Browning’s hotel. Then to the antique shop. After that I’ll go to the police station. Get me the addresses, would you?”
Vinny knew that going to see the professor was an unnecessary side trip, but she said nothing. No matter how intent Raja was on solving a case, and he could be very intent, he never lost sight of the client’s feelings. It was a characteristic Vinny admired.
“I’ll download the addresses to your GPS,” she said.
“Next we need to find some sign of Margaret Browning. Right now she is a ghost.”
“Don’t use that word with the professor,” said Vinny.
Professor Browning stood at the curb when Raja pulled up. He climbed into the Porsche and presented Raja with a folder.
“What’s this?” asked Raja, looking at the thick folder.
“It’s every picture of Margaret that I could find on the computer. I had to get them printed in the hotel office, so the quality could be better.”
Raja flipped through the pictures. The professor had gone overboard, which Raja knew he would in his frazzled state. There were at least thirty pictures of Margaret Browning, enough to make a whole picture album.
“If you need more I could have someone back home email them.”
“I think these will do. Good work. You should pick out three recent shots we can use for identification.” He handed the folder back to Browning. There was nothing like purpose and contribution to raise a man’s spirits. “Now I want you to show me the spot where you last spoke to your wife.”
“In front of the antique shop?”
“Yes. I’ve got it in my GPS. Hang on.” They drove to Rue des Écoles and parked. The crime scene tape no longer blocked the sidewalk, allowing Professor Browning to lead Raja directly to the entrance of the shop.
“There was a marker right there. I think it was where Margaret dropped her phone when she was talking to me. I know it was.”
Raja looked up the street in both directions, noting which way the police van must have been heading to arrive at the location where the three policemen were killed. He noted the packed rows of vehicles parked on both sides of the narrow street. He looked at his watch.
“What exactly did your wife say?” asked Raja.
“I’ve been going over that in my mind. She said only, ‘Oh, dear Lord.’ That’s it, nothing else. Like she had been startled by something bad. Something shocking. It’s the only circumstance that would cause her to take the Lord’s name in such a way. She is an extremely pious woman.” Tears welled in the professor’s eyes.
“I understand. Anything else?” asked Raja.
“No, that’s all.” After a long pause Browning said, “She didn’t deserve this.” Now he sounded angry.
“You are right,” said Raja. “Okay, that will help. Next I will be going to see the inspector.”
“Let’s go,” said Browning.
“No. I’m going alone once I drop you off.” Raja knew that bringing the professor along would put too much pressure on the police inspector. “I have other work for you.” On the way back to the hotel, Raja had to come up with something to keep Browning busy. He called Vinny at the flat.
“Do you have that list of television stations covering all the investigations?”
“I can put one together.”
“Good. I’m going to need that for the professor. He’s going to help us.”
Vinny understood. “I’ll have it in three minutes. You should also have him map out his wife’s possible routes on the day she disappeared. That will keep him busy.”
“I’ll send the data on the media to your phone.”
“You’re the best.”
Vinny smiled. She knew she was.
When his phone trilled, indicating a message, Raja had the professor copy the list of TV stations.
“I need you to watch the news and note any details on your wife’s case or the case of the three murdered policemen.”
“Do you think they are linked?”
“Perhaps. That’s what we will determine. I also want you to draw a map of all the possible routes your wife could have taken the day she went missing, including any possible stops along the way.” Raja gave him an email address and asked him to send the map when he was finished. That would keep him busy, at least for a little while.
After dropping off the professor Raja drove to the police station alone, parking in front of a massive stone building that housed the Paris police and other government offices. The building oozed government authority and red tape. Raja hoped he could find a good guy to work with inside. In any government bureaucracy there are always a high proportion of stoppers—people who see their primary job as getting in the way and preventing action. The trick is to find a helper—someone who has not lost sight of the true government function of helping people to get on with their lives. Raja called them “good guys.”
Once inside Raja informed the officer at the front desk who he was. After two phone calls and a lot of chatter back and forth, the officer sent him through to the next layer of bureaucrats. He was about to repeat his story when a tough looking man in plain clothes interrupted him.
“This way.” The man turned with no further communication and walked toward a hallway expecting Raja to follow.
Raja followed down the hall and into a small office containing an old wooden desk that was cluttered with stacks of folders and a small, very old computer monitor. The policeman pointed to the solid wooden chair in front of the desk and Raja sat down. They exchanged a few awkward sentences in French about Mrs. Browning and the antique shop murders.
Then the French policeman said, “It would be better for both of us, I think, if we spoke in English. I am Inspector Gilliard.” Knowing the American custom, he extended his hand for a handshake. Like many Frenchmen, the inspector had been raised to think of Americans as arrogant, vulgar and uneducated. However, experience as a police inspector gave him the opportunity to meet a wide variety of people. He had learned not to be too quick to judge a person and found that doing so often dulls one’s perceptions. “No offense to your French. You speak it well—for an American.”
Raja shook his hand and said, “I learned from a Haitian girl in my youth. Granted, it is certainly not Parisian French.”
“Perhaps language is not all you learned from her, no?” said the inspector, hoping to throw Raja off balance.
“What about the shopkeeper?” asked Raja, ignoring the innuendo.
The two eyed each other like fighters circling in the ring.
“As I said,” continued Gilliard, “no one seems to know what the shopkeeper had in the safe. The two other employees who worked there and also might have known are both dead. Whatever it was, it must have been valuable enough to kill three people over.”
“Perhaps. Perhaps not.” Raja was not going to assume anything.
“They are dead, are they not?”
“Provided your coroner is competent, I would have to agree. That they are dead appears to be all that you know.”
Seeing that Raja would not be easily deflected, Gilliard changed tactics. “I can give you all the reports on the antique shop murders, if that would help.”
“I would appreciate that, Inspector. As you know, I am most interested in recovering Professor Browning’s wife—preferably unharmed. And I will do everything I can to assist you. What I would like to understand is why a simple shopkeeper was tortured to obtain what would have to be a meager amount in his safe.”
The inspector was running short on patience. “You are here only as a courtesy to the British ambassador. If you intend to insult our police work, I’m sure he will understand my cutting your visit short.”
“I don’t think he will. One of his citizens who was in police custody is now missing, possibly dead, and the French police refuse to cooperate. No, he will certainly not understand. Comprenez vous?”
Now the inspector turned an ugly shade of red, but somehow he held his tongue. He did not like being baited, but the Director-general himself had ordered him to cooperate with the American.
Seeing no disagreement with his statement, Raja continued. “I’m more interested in the woman who was observed at the scene where your three officers were shot. It was Margaret Browning, was it not?”
The inspector had the look of a cornered animal. Raja would not have been surprised had Gilliard leaped at him and bitten his throat.
Instead, Gilliard sighed and said, “Yes, I believe it was.”
Raja only nodded, waiting for more. He made a mental note to have Vinny look into the inspector.
“The whole sequence of events has me puzzled,” said Gilliard, shaking his head. It was an obvious attempt at obfuscation.
“Then you can imagine how puzzled Professor Browning must be. And distraught.”
“We are looking into a number of things, including the professor. I did not see the point in upsetting him any further.”
“Or alerting him. You are considering him a suspect, are you not?” Raja knew the compulsion police everywhere had for investigating the victim of the crime.
Gilliard had other reasons for trying to keep the details under wraps, but said, “We are looking into the professor’s background and his reasons for coming to France.”
“We have found nothing suspicious,” said Gilliard.
“Then it seems we are on the same page.”
“Look, Monsieur Williams, we have three dead police officers and a missing British citizen. As you can imagine, there is a great deal of pressure to find the killer. We can overlook no one.”
“I would like to see the autopsy and ballistics reports.”
“I’m afraid that is information I cannot release at this time.”
“Can not or will not?”
“The terrorist division of the Gendarmerie has taken control of the investigation and has locked down the reports until they complete their review. There is nothing more I can give you.”
Raja wasn’t going to get anything more. “You have already helped more than you know,” he said. Then he promptly turned and left the room.
Once Raja was gone, the inspector dialed his phone. “Yes. His name is Raja Williams. He is pushing hard on the woman’s case … No, he’s going to be trouble. Make sure you keep her out of sight.” He ended the call.
Raja knew it wasn’t unusual for the police to stonewall his intrusion into their turf. They were very territorial. As a private investigator, it came with the job. Besides, no one likes a johnny-come-lately outsider marching in the front door and making trouble. He would have to find another way in. Once he was outside the police station he called Vinny.
“Did the inspector appreciate your helping him with his investigation?” asked Vinny, always the optimist.
“Like a kick to the groin. I had to threaten an international incident to get any information. All in all, it went better than I expected.”
“Always the master of gentle persuasion,” said Vinny, knowing Raja’s penchant for the boots first, storm trooper approach.
“He’s hiding something, but I don’t know what—yet. You find out anything?”
“The shopkeeper’s funeral is on Sunday. So far I’ve found no witnesses to the antique shop shooting. I’m not sure where we go with that one.”
“We go to the funeral. Margaret Browning’s disappearance has to be connected. Besides, funerals are always a good place to meet people. What about the cop shootings?”
“The reports are not accessible anywhere online. The Paris police need a serious tech upgrade. I had to download some ancient programs just to access their main system. Did you get any hard copy forensics reports from the inspector?”
“Not a chance. They are deliberately keeping that data under wraps.”
“CYA?” asked Vinny.
“That’s what I’m thinking, but I don’t know who’s covering for whom. I’m coming back to the flat. We are going to need to gather more intel before we make our next move. Keep digging.”
Raja got into his Porsche and drove off, never noticing the blue Peugeot sedan that pulled out and followed, staying several cars back.
What Readers Are Saying About C’est la Vie
“C’est La Vie is captivating story that draws you in right from the start only letting go at the very end. Like the first book it’s an action packed adventure full of suspenseful twists and turns that keep you guessing till the very end. Raja is a unique character he’s wealthy but he doesn’t do his P.I. work for the money he does it because he really wants to help people. He’s the kind of guy that goes over above and beyond the line of duty, risking his own life. The author has created another fantastic book that ranks as one of my top mysteries of all time. The story-line is smooth so it flows easily start to finish with a great concept. I don’t tend to connect with main characters that are male often but for me Raja was easy to connect with and very likable I kept hoping to see him in a yellow trench since he reminds me of a modern day Dick Tracy. In addition to Raja he also has a partner who helps out on his cases, a super hacker named Vinny who looks like a Victoria secret model but is the ultimate hacker. She’s a great asset to Raja’s character she’s just adds to the fun. Both characters have evolved from the first book which I feel is important. I can’t wait to read the next one in the series I just really love this duo.” Mandy, The Reading Diaries
“Move over Hammett!! Your rival is here!! … I love Raja and all of his friends, especially the new ones he acquires while in France. He and Vinny meet with the unusual and the unspeakable while they try to decipher the suspicious disappearance of Margaret Browning. Vinny, yet again, astounds the reader with her brash bravery in a role you wouldn’t expect her to jump into eyes wide open, but she does. My favorite line from this book is, ‘Claus made a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma look like a clear glass of water.’ I eagerly await the third installment of the Raja Williams series!” Fiber Mage
“I was hooked on Raja and his exploits in the Color of Greed. Sometimes an author will just stir and shake the first episode of a character, not true with this writer. Loved all the background of life in France. I am really anxious to read the third sequel for this character” S. Reese
“I love the subtle humour of Jack Thompson’s series of mystery-suspense starring Raja Williams, a very unexpected but highly efficient, and adorable, private investigator. Raja is not the ordinary routine P.I. He gets bad headaches when approaching the presence of evil (as when beginning a new case), he works for the underdog in need of justice, and he owns a private jet, so many classic autos even he can’t count, and homes in many varied locales. But Raja is a down-to-earth individual who doesn’t push his way using his wealth or expertise. In fact, he approaches everybody with civility and respect, from the people he employs, to clients, even to small-bit drug dealers.” Mallory Anne-Marie Haws, Top 1000 Reviewer
“Author Jack Thompson writes this detective, crime-solving mystery with great style and humor….There is more than one crime involved in this fast-paced story. This is the second Raja Williams story I have read and it’s as great and entertaining a read as the first one.” NancyofUtah