'We have an acquaintance in common, mam'selle,' said the chef. 'M'sieur le Comte d'Aguillon.'
'Ah, yes,' said Phryne. Count d'Aguillon was an aged, exceptionally respectable member of the Alliance Française. Phryne had met him when helping to find the Spanish Ambassador's son's kitten. She had beguiled an hour discussing now what was it? Modern art? Matisse? Something artistic.
'It was to him that I confided my problem, and he suggested that, for such a delicate matter '
'That a feminine touch might be useful?' asked Phryne.
People were concluding their lunch and getting up. Jean-Paul rushed to the door to bow the clientele out. The chef leaned forward. Phryne could hardly hear him and she was unused to speaking this much French. She strained to hear.
'I came here from Paris after the war. It was hard then for a cook, though we rose to the challenge. Nothing to cook! No ingredients! It is said that during the siege of Paris the great Escoffier cooked elephant and even sea-lion as the animals in the zoo were killed. I would have welcomed a sea-lion entrecôte! Grey, sad city, my Paris after the war, and a ruined countryside. And my only son, lost. So I came here, as far as I could get from war. A barbarous country, but strangely innocent. In time the rest of my family followed me. My sister Berthe and her sons and my cousins Louis and Henri.'
M'sieur Anatole swallowed his cognac in one gulp and poured another.
Phryne murmured encouragement. Close to the chef, she could smell such a cocktail of scents, spices and herbs, which had obviously soaked into his very bones, that she was afraid she might sneeze.
'All went well. My little café has been successful with the French people here and with such of the Australians who appreciate fine food. We live well. My cousins found themselves Australian wivesthey work hard, those Australian girls! That is my cousin Henri's wife behind the counter. A jolly girl, eh?'
'Very jolly,' agreed Phryne, wondering where this was leading and what, if any, connection this had to the gentleman who had exited so abruptly. The dark-haired young woman behind the counter caught Phryne's eye, winked, and hitched up her considerable bosom. The chef sighed.
'Such breasts! They are fortunate men.'
'M'sieur Anatole,' said Phryne gently, putting one hand on the white sleeve, 'what is this delicate matter? You may confide in me.'
'It began three months ago,' said the chef, looking more like a dispirited vulture than ever. Even his moustache drooped. 'Three men. They came to demand that I pay them, or some accident would happen to my café. Such things are common in the milieu, are they not? But this is not Paris. I was outraged and bade them begone.'
'And then,' Phryne guessed, trying to hurry the conversation along, 'accidents began to happen.'
'Yes. A fire was started in one of the rubbish bins. Jean-Paul found it and put it out before it spread. Then a brick through the window. Thenand this is where I became concerneda whole block of butter was ruined with paint thinner. In my own kitchen! Someone must have come in to the kitchen when the door was open and well. I called a council. We sat in here after the café was closed; Jean-Paul and Jean-Jacques, my sister's sons, my sister Berthe, my cousins and their wives. What were we to do? The criminals were not asking very much, we could afford to pay it, and that might preserve us from further sabotage. But they were all against this. So we bade them begone. There was peace for a week, then they came back today and we rejected their offer again.'
'Rather forcefully?' asked Phryne. 'And through the window?'
'Yes,' said M'sieur Anatole, gulping another cognac. 'Henri was enraged and he is very strong. Now there will be revenge.'
Excerpted from Murder in Montparnasse by Kerry Greenwood, pages 1-12. Copyright© 2002 by Kerry Greenwood. Excerpted by permission of the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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