The Book Supremacy
Chapter 1 continued
I continued to make my way toward Derek, pretending to check out the books in the stalls as I went so I could keep a surreptitious eye on the hooded man. He stayed in the same spot, still staring at Derek and the other man. I began to question whether I was right about him. Maybe he was gazing at something on the other side of the river. But then Derek glanced my way and waved. The hooded man quickly bent down to tie his shoe, almost as though he didn’t want Derek to see him.
Definitely suspicious, I thought. But I was diverted when I noticed a small hardcover book resting against the back wall of the stall I was just passing. It caught my eye because of its unusual size and style. It was about the size of a small photo album with Chinese writing and characters brushed onto the cover. I reached for the book, opened it, and saw that it was written in French, but there were Chinese characters on each page. I thought it might be a book of medicinal herbs because there were pretty paintings of flowers and herbs on every page as well.
It was the Coptic binding that mainly appealed to me because I’d never seen anything like it in any of the bookstalls I’d visited. The Coptic binding style was named for the Copts, the early Christians living in Egypt who were known for binding books by knotting thread or twine on the outside of the spine. The technique allowed the book to lie flat and required no glue in its construction.
I had promised to bring something back from Paris for Inspector Janice Lee, SFPD homicide detective and my good friend. She was a beautiful Chinese-American woman with great hair, a fabulous wardrobe, and a no-nonsense attitude. But it was her mother who would really love this book, I thought, and that meant that Janice would love it, too. And thinking of Janice Lee, I was reminded of my wedding day.
“What would you like from Paris?” I’d asked Inspector Lee that afternoon. It was a short time after the wedding ceremony, and Derek and I were finally able to relax and enjoy our guests—along with a glass of champagne.
“Bring me something interesting,” she’d said.
Now as I gazed at the odd little French-Chinese book of herbs, I was pretty sure that this would qualify.
I held the book up for the clerk to see. “Qu’est-ce que ça veut dire?” I said, and repeated the question in English, just to cover my bases. “What does this mean?”
She gazed at the book cover and smiled. “Le Langage des Fleurs. How you say, Language of Fleurs?”
“Flowers,” I guessed.
We both grinned at our bumbling method of communication. Feeling emboldened, I stumbled through another question. “Il est ècrit en francais mais il y a aussi des caractères chinois?” Once again I repeated the same thing in English. “It is written in French, but there are Chinese characters as well?”
“Oui,” she exclaimed. “C’est un livre sur les herbes chinoises, mais bien sûr pour un lecteur français.”
“Ah.” If I was understanding her correctly, she’d said something like, “The book is about Chinese herbs, but of course it is written for a French reader.”
“I see,” I said. “I will take it.”
“Très bon! Quatorze euros.”
Fourteen euros? I frowned at her and glanced at the book. The cover was ready to fall off, and while the pages were fine linen, they were old and dirty. But was I really going to haggle in bad French? And did it matter how much it cost? No, it did not. I started to reach for my wallet.
But Madame had noticed my hesitation and immediately spoke up. “Douze euros.” She gave a short, brusque chop with her hand, as if to say, And that’s my final offer.
“Okay,” I said quickly. “I mean, oui. Merci.” I hadn’t expected her to lower the price, so I smiled broadly as I handed her a ten-euro note and a two-euro coin.
She pocketed the money, slid the book into a small plastic bag and handed it to me. “Merci, madame.”
“Très bien,” I said with a short nod. “Merci, madame.” Ridiculously pleased with my purchases, I glanced down the row of stalls to find Derek.
The man in the olive green hoodie was still standing on the curb, still staring in Derek’s direction.
Maybe he was waiting for the bus, or a ride, but I didn’t think so. He was staring too keenly at Derek and his friend and not giving the traffic a second thought. The hooded observer wore a pair of baggy denim jeans and white sneakers. He was average height, maybe an inch or two less than six feet tall, and slim.
Not sure exactly what to do, I stopped at the nearest bookstall and pretended to browse, but I was watching the hooded man’s every move. His shoulders were tense and his hands were fisted in his pockets. The guy was freaking me out. Maybe he was just hanging out on the sidewalk, minding his own business. Or maybe he was only gazing at the stately buildings on the other side of the Seine. The beautiful trees lining the river. Those silvery leaves shimmering in the breeze. Anyone could be mesmerized by all that beauty. But I didn’t think the hooded man was one of them.
I decided to ignore the man and concentrate on the views. Pulling my phone from my pocket, I took a few photos of the trees and the bridge over the river. And then I aimed the lens at the hooded man and snapped a few more shots, just in case Derek recognized the guy. Not that he would see his face, but it couldn’t hurt to capture the moment. And if the guy was harmless, I would have a silly story to tell when I showed off my photos of our honeymoon.
I continued walking toward Derek, and when I got within the hooded man’s line of sight, I didn’t make eye contact, but kept walking with a casual air, ruffling my hair and letting it be tossed by the breeze. And then, from the corner of my eye, I saw the guy turn and notice me—and quickly walk away.
Why? Did he know me? Did he know I was with Derek? Had he been watching us before? Now I was completely paranoid. I wanted to chase after him and insist that he tell me what he was doing. But that was crazy. Wasn’t it?
“Derek,” I called from a half block away, and waved.
“Darling,” he said jovially. As I approached, he added, “Come meet Ned Davies.”
I walked a little faster, pasted a smile on my face, and when I got close enough, extended my hand. “Hello, Ned.”
“So this is the girl who stole your heart,” Ned said, grinning as he gave me a hearty handshake.
“This is she,” Derek said.
“Aren’t you a lucky man?” he said fondly, gazing with interest from Derek to me. With a wink at me, he said, “This bloke here has the luck of the devil. He’s pretended to be my friend for years, but has actually been the bane of my existence.”
I gave Derek a quizzical look. “How’s that?”
Derek grinned as Ned clarified. “We had a weekly poker game going for years. And I couldn’t beat him. Not once. Bugger it. He’s a shark, I tell you.”
“He’s pretty good,” I admitted with a weak smile. I’d seen him play cards with my brothers. He might’ve been a shark, but he was a really good-looking shark.
“And now he’s managed to meet and marry this beauty.” Ned slapped his heart dramatically, causing Derek to laugh merrily.
I wasn’t quite ready to be merry, but I managed to keep smiling.
“In case it wasn’t clear,” Derek explained, “Ned and I used to work together.” But then he briskly changed the subject, asking, “Did you buy something special?”
“Oh.” I held up the bag. “Yes, wait till you see it. It’s kind of perfect.”
“Well, let’s have a look then,” Derek said.
“Um.” I flashed him an awkward smile. “Actually, it’s a gift. For you.”
“For me?” His voice softened and he smoothed his hand over my hair. “You got me something?”
“Well, now we must see it,” Ned said.
“Okay.” I glanced around, checking up and down the sidewalk. “By the way, did either of you see that guy in the green hoodie? He was standing about a block away and he kept staring at you. When I got close, he turned and hurried off in the opposite direction.”
Derek’s eyes narrowed and he shot Ned a cautionary look before both men scanned the street.
“Don’t see him,” Ned said with a casual shrug. But I noticed that his shoulders were rigid and his gaze had sharpened. Did he know the guy?
“Probably nothing,” I said quietly, but I frowned as I looked back at the spot where I’d last seen the hooded man. Shaking off the weird vibe, I handed Derek the little bag. “Anyway, here’s what I found.”
Derek took the bag and slid the book out.
“Well, now,” Ned said, and started to laugh. “Isn’t that interesting?”
Derek stared at the cover and chuckled as well. He glanced at me and sobered. “Darling Brooklyn, it’s perfect. But what made you buy this for me?”
“Well.” I was suddenly unsure of myself and began waving my hands as I spoke. “Because, you know. You worked at MI6 and you do all that security stuff. And you know the way Inspector Lee always calls you Commander.”
“I’m not exactly a spy, darling,” he said lightly.
“The rest could apply, though,” Ned said, still grinning.
“Thank you,” I said to Ned. I wasn’t about to start arguing with Derek in front of his friend, but come on, I wasn’t born yesterday. Derek had worked for Britain’s MI6 for ten years. Now his own company handled security for exceedingly wealthy clients and extremely valuable artwork. So maybe his job description at MI6 had been something other than “spy,” but he still qualified as an international man of mystery.
I lifted my shoulders and gave Derek a little smile. “I just thought it would make you happy.”
“It does, and so do you,” he murmured, and proved it by leaning in to give me a soft kiss. “I love it, and I love you.”
I breathed a sigh of relief. “Back at you.”
“Well, I know you two have big plans for the rest of the day.” Ned gave Derek a manly slap on the back. “It was marvelous running into you, Derek. And lovely to meet you, Brooklyn.”
“Nice to meet you, too.”
“Next time you must tell me you’re coming,” he added. “I know Patsy would love to meet you. She’s an excellent cook and would insist on treating you to a home-cooked meal.”
“That sounds wonderful,” I said.
“Good to see you, Ned,” Derek said. “Take good care. And give me a call sometime. Let me know how you’re doing.”
“I will. And go see Owen.” Ned gripped Derek’s arm. “Tell him I send my best. Will you tell him that for me?”
“Très bon!” She clapped a few times, sharing my happiness. “It is a good find.”
“Of course,” Derek said.
The two men shook hands enthusiastically and then Ned took my hand and gave it an affectionate squeeze. He waved to us and walked away, up the Rue Bonaparte toward the Luxembourg Gardens.
Derek watched him go, then turned to me. “Well, are you ready for a bit of lunch? Or would you rather make our way back to the hotel?”
“After that huge breakfast, I think I’d like to save myself for dinner.”
He squeezed my hand. “Our last meal in Paris.”
“I hate to see it all end.” I glanced around. “But I guess I’m just about ready to go home.”
“I feel the same, love.” He tucked the book under his arm, held onto my hand, and we headed back to the hotel.
We had become used to dining later in the evening as the French do, but that night we took the earliest reservation we could get, knowing that we still had to finish packing and wake up early the next day to catch a plane. We arrived at the little bistro in the heart of Saint-Germain-des-Prés just as they were opening the doors at seven o’clock, and our promptness was rewarded when they led us to a round corner table that allowed us to observe the entire room as waiters bustled by and the place slowly filled with other guests.
While we waited for the waiter to bring us the half bottle of champagne we’d ordered, I took the opportunity to tell Derek a little more about the hooded man. “I wasn’t sure he was watching you until you turned and looked his way and he instantly bent down to tie his shoe.”
“You have excellent instincts, darling,” Derek said. “That does sound suspicious.”
“Thank you.” I reached for my purse. “And I took some photos.”
The waiter arrived just then and poured us each a glass of champagne. When he walked away, Derek said, “In honor of our honeymoon, let’s put this mysterious man out of our minds and simply enjoy our last evening in Paris.”
“Good idea.” I put my purse away and we clinked our glasses, then took our first sips of the delectable golden liquid.
“Darling,” Derek said, after setting his glass down. “I found a little something for you while browsing the bookstalls.”
“You did? How? I thought you were talking to Ned the whole time.”
“Not quite,” he said. Smiling, he pulled a small wrapped package from his jacket pocket and set it on the table in front of me.
“What is this?” I asked, shocked that he had found a book for me.
“You’ll be surprised to learn it’s a book.”
I laughed. “Yes, I figured out that much.” I opened the package and found a darling little book with a pink-and-white slipcover. There was a brushed painting in pink of a stylish young lady from an earlier era. I had to open the book to find the title.
“Oh, it’s Gigi.” I was blown away with delight. I looked at Derek and beamed. “It’s so sweet. Thank you.”
“A small token to remind you of our time in France.”
“I’ll never forget our time in France,” I assured him, and gave him a kiss. Then we lifted our glasses once more and toasted to a wonderful honeymoon.
Although the food was fabulous, Allard was not a fancy Michelin-starred restaurant like some of the others we’d enjoyed on our trip. I didn’t care. It was obvious that diners came here to experience comfort, tradition, and a touch of romance, but not fireworks. The old-world bistro furnishings were subtle to the point of being demure: dark wood wainscoting, tiny-flowered wallpaper liberally dotted with eclectic, wood-framed artwork, red cloth banquettes, crisp white tablecloths. In one corner, a zinc-topped service bar held bottles of wine and glassware, ready to be dispatched to the tables.
I had always been open to trying new foods, but after three weeks in France, where food was revered like nowhere else on earth, I was frankly ready for a good old American burger and fries. Despite that, when I saw “tender ox cheek” on the menu, I knew I had to order it. It turned out to be a generous hunk of meat as large as my fist and truly so tender, it melted in my mouth.
Tastes like short ribs, I thought with relief. Our server brought it to the table in a mini-pot, drenched in its own dark, rich gravy and served with wonderful chunks of buttery carrots. Derek ordered the famous roasted Challans duck served with dozens of rich, slightly tart green Sicilian olives. The combination was incongruous to me, but it looked delicious.
We didn’t speak for several long minutes while we both stuffed ourselves with indescribably yummy tastes and textures.
We had started the meal by sharing two appetizers—escargot and a curly endive salad with huge chucks of lardons (bacon) and freshly made croutons—and a crisp white wine. With our entrées we had an excellent Saint-Émilion Grand Cru in honor of our quick visit to the charming village of Saint-Émilion the week before.
For my very last dessert in Paris, how could I not order the puffy profiteroles stuffed with vanilla ice cream, accompanied by a quart-size serving of warm, thick chocolate syrup? C’est impossible.
After dinner we strolled along the narrow Rue Saint-André des Arts and down to Rue de Buci to enjoy the lively crowds still dining at the many outdoor cafés and bistros that lined the pretty market street. Then we walked a few blocks up to the fashionable Boulevard Saint-Germain, window-shopping along the way, and finally reached the taxi stand, where we caught a cab back to the Hotel George V. Once we’d greeted the hotel doorman and the concierge, we crossed the lobby and took the elevator up to our suite.
I was looking forward to spending the rest of the evening in our rooms with their pale blue walls and softly lit coffered ceilings. There were beautiful antique furnishings and lovely paintings, and the bathroom was a luxurious marble palace. I had never felt more pampered in my life.
As soon as we walked into our room, Derek grabbed my arm and whispered, “Stay out here.”
“What is it?” But I didn’t hesitate to do exactly what he’d advised. I watched him bend over and pull a mean-looking pistol from a holster strapped to his calf.
Oh. My. God. I didn’t say it out loud. I couldn’t speak. I had no more breath left in me. I stood as still as a statue as he prowled across the living area. Then leaning against the doorjamb, he took a quick peek left and right and crept silently into the bedroom.
Several excruciatingly long moments later, he came back into the living room. Crossing the room, he wrapped his arms around me. “Everything is fine,” he whispered. “I’m sorry I frightened you.”
“That’s okay.” Frankly, I’d seen him carry a gun before. Through no fault of our own, we had the kind of lifestyle that demanded it once in a while. You know how sometimes you just might stumble across the occasional dead body? And then follow it up with your basic showdown with a vicious killer? Yeah, that was the lifestyle I was talking about.
“What made you think someone was in here?” I asked, leaning against him.
“I took precautions before we left for dinner,” he said cryptically.
“Okay.” I breathed in and exhaled slowly. “Well, maybe it was Housekeeping.”
“But no one is here now, right?”
“That’s right. But just to be certain, let’s check to make sure nothing is missing.”
“Good idea.” Since we were leaving in the morning, our suitcases were almost completely packed. Still, we searched the entire suite to make sure everything was just as we’d left it. I even emptied my suitcase, then repacked, just in case, and double-checked that the James Bond book, the Chinese herb book, and the pretty little copy of Gigi were securely tucked away.
And then I remembered one more thing.
“Oh no!” I ran to the closet safe, opened it, and was relieved to find my jewelry still locked inside. It wasn’t that I had anything particularly precious or rare, but there were a few sentimental pieces that I would’ve hated to lose. “It’s all here.”
“Good.” He nodded, then smiled tightly. “So it must’ve been a false alarm. Everything is fine.”
“Everything is fine,” I echoed quietly. But I recognized that edgy tone in his voice. And I knew that everything was definitely not fine.