This is how I ended up flat on my back, mewing in agony, reaching for the white light in the distance.
We had gotten Fran?ois his new trial, now it was time to devise some devious way to win it. The best route, I figured, was to ride Fran?ois’s Gallic charm as if it were a surfboard on a six-foot swell. But to do that he’d have to testify, so it was time for him to finally answer our questions. It was hot in the prison interview room, Beth was quiet, I was sweating, and all the time Fran?ois was answering, his eyes were saying,
“Tell us where you met your wife,” I said.
“There is a place called Marrakech owned by Geoffrey Sunshine.”
“The guy whose name is always in the papers?”
“That is him, yes,” said Fran?ois. “The second floor of the building was a club. It was fun, this club, a spectacle. There was a restaurant, too, and Geoffrey was a friend of sorts. He was always trying to get me to cook for his restaurant, which was why I was often there. He would invite me to the club, introduce me to the girls. Quite nice. One of the girls he introduced me to was Leesa. She had a bit of a reputation, but there was something in her that I admired. A spark of freedom, I think, and a sweetness. At first it was just, you know, playing around. But after a while it became something else, if you understand.”
“Why did you marry her?”
“Why else? I loved her.”
“So what happened to the marriage?”
“It is hard to say.”
“Things change with a child. Amber was a beautiful baby, yes, but things changed. It was a difficult delivery, and Leesa was in quite a bit of pain for a long time afterward. The baby was crying, shrieking, always seemed hungry, and Leesa was depressed. The doctor said it was a normal thing, the depression, but that did not make it easier. And I had my new restaurant. I was obsessed with starting it right and so could not be around as much as maybe I should have been. With Leesa’s pain and the depression getting worse, the doctor finally prescribed some medicine.”
“What medication?” I said.
“Something about an ox, I do not know. It fixed the pain, yes, but it had a bad effect on Leesa. She became moody, manic, or depressed, depending on the hour. She did not seem to bond with the baby. And we began to fight. She said she felt smothered, chained, and abandoned all at once. And it was not only her, I was feeling a little trapped, too. After a while we were like strangers. And then she accused me of cheating.”
“Is that important?”
“Maybe then I did, yes. Nothing extraordinary.”
“None of your business.”
“Believe me when we tell you this, Fran?ois, everything in your life has become our business. Whom?”
“There was a customer. There was a girl on a bicycle. What do you want, Victor? I’m French.”
“I’ll need names,” I said.
“Who can remember? Katherine? Lorraine? Yes, Lorraine.” A smile followed by a dismissive wave. “And then there was someone from work. Darcy. Darcy DeAngelo. That was maybe a bit more serious. But it was not the affairs that caused the end of us. They were just… affairs.”
“What was it, then?”
“We were both unhappy. That was it. We began to make each other miserable. Therefore, I left. I thought that was best, but Leesa evidently disagreed.”
“The divorce proceeding wasn’t amicable, I presume.”
He gave a French snort of derision. “I wanted it to be. I was worried about Leesa and concerned about Amber, but Leesa decided nothing would be easy. She went crazy with revenge, she showed no concern for Amber. It was the drug still, I thought. I tried to get her off the pills, but the only way to talk to her now was through the judge. So that is what I did. For some reason, me bringing the drugs into the court case only made the situation worse.”
“Funny how that works,” I said. “Where were you the night of the murder?”
“In my apartment. I had worked lunch and then the dinner shift also. We had a drink or two after closing, but I was too tired to stay long. I was exhausted. I still had my chef’s coat on as I walked home. I collapsed into the bed. I was asleep when the police woke me up with the news. I let them search my apartment. I had nothing to hide. That is when they found the gun and the blood.”
“How did it get there?”
“I do not know. I still do not know. It was the fat detective that found it.”
“Yes. Maybe he brought it over in his briefcase to frame me. It is always the husband, right? He wanted to be sure.”
“I wouldn’t put it past him.”
“He did not seem to me, that detective, to be so bright.”
“Bright enough to put you in here. Did he arrest you right then?”
“Yes, of course. That very morning. I have not been out of jail since. I would have had another drink that night if I had known.”
“What happened to all the stuff in the apartment?”
“I stopped paying the rent when I was in jail. I do not know where everything is. My clothes, my books and pans. Who knows? Who cares? I have not lately had much use for a copper salmon poacher.”
I had been pacing back and forth, sucking on my wound, as I asked my questions. Now I sat down right across from him, looked at him carefully as I said, “Why is Velma Takahashi paying for your defense?”
“I do not know.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“But you must, Victor. I do not know. Truly. She came to visit me. I knew her, she was a friend of Leesa’s from her days at Marrakech, and we maybe played a bit, if you understand, but we were never really friends. In fact, I always thought she resented me.”
“I broke up the team. They were quite the team, and a team after our separation, too, if you listened to the rumors. So I was surprised that she came to visit. She said she only wanted to see how I was getting along. I lied to her and said I was fine. But I was not fine. Who is fine in this place? And I think she could see that. And somehow it affected her, I do not know. She looked at me, I had a bruise on my face from something that happened in the shower, and I could see tears in her eyes. Like somehow the bruise, it was her fault. And then she told me she would help me any way she could, that she would pay for a new lawyer if I needed.”
“How did you light on us?”
“I saw your name in the paper, Victor. I asked around. When I thought you were the one, I decided to write. I have done some fishing in my life. You catch nothing with an empty hook. From what I heard about you, I knew what I needed to get your interest. I called Velma and asked for a check.”
“Yes, of course. Dangling on a hook. And here I am with another chance at life.” He grinned, like a cat with a fish tail sticking out of its teeth. “And it worked, did it not?”
“I guess it did.”
I thought a bit. “There is one thing more that has been bothering me. Why do you chef guys always undercook my steak?”
“You must be careful with the meat,” said Fran?ois. “There is a point where the taste and texture are perfect. You go beyond that point, the muscle it clenches and everything is ruined. It is like eating leather.”
“But what if I like it well done?”
“Then you, Victor, are a barbarian.”
At least he wasn’t lying about that.
“He’ll make an awesome witness,” said Beth after they had taken Fran?ois Dub? back to his cell. We were still in the room, both of us standing now, waiting for someone to lead us out.
“Sure he will,” I said.
“The jury will eat him up like a cr?me br?l?e.”
“Maybe, if they go for that French thing. Personally, I find it annoying, like a cat in the corner coughing up hair balls and meowing orders.”
“Don’t the French remind you of cats? Insufferably superior, willfully independent. And they lick themselves clean after they eat.”
“No, I’ve seen it, really.”
“He’ll do great,” said Beth. “If he’s telling the truth.”
“The big if.”
“He admitted the affairs,” she said.
“With a great amount of pride, I might add.”
“And if he had really used the gun, why would he bring it back to his apartment, and why would he consent to the search?”
“I don’t know.”
“Maybe he is telling the truth. What do you think, Victor?”
I felt the scab in my mouth with my tongue. I had worried it so hard during the interview the edges had come loose. I had been playing with my scab because the whole interview had made me itch all over. Every answer only raised more questions. Like his alibi on the night of the murder, which was no alibi at all. Like his story about how he met his wife, and his relationship with Velma Takahashi, both of which seemed to contradict what Mrs. Cullen had told me outside the courtroom. And his side of the separation seemed a little too pat, didn’t it? But then again the strange sadness he had seen in Velma’s eyes matched what I had seen there, too.
“He’s lying,” I said. “He’s hiding something, I just don’t know what.”
“Always the skeptic.”
“Come on, Beth. You’ve heard it enough from me. What’s the first precept of the legal profession?”
“Very good. There are some things I’m going to want to check out.”
“Like the records of the divorce proceeding. And I’ll need to visit that club he talked about, Marrakech.”
“You think you might find something there?”
“No,” I said, “but it sounded like a pretty good place to pick up women.”
Beth laughed as I fiddled with the scab.
“But first,” I said, “what we need to do is to talk to Mia Dalton about… arrgh.”
“Victor? What is it, Victor?”
I gagged on something and searched around futilely for a tissue. In desperation, I spit whatever had come loose into my hand. I couldn’t help but give it a look.
An uneven circle of blotchy scab, about the size of a tooth.
“Victor, are you okay?”
I gagged again before gaining enough control to say, “I think so.” I took a deep breath and a pure, scorching pain buckled my knees.
“Victor,” said Beth, rushing over to me. “What is it?”
I grabbed hold of her arm and felt the blood rush from my head as a great white wooziness overtook me.
Next thing I knew, there was music, lush and ethereal, and a white light lay an arm’s length before me, like a vision of another and better world.
And strangest of all, it shone into my mouth.