Following the armistice, Mary Kiten, a volunteer nurse in northern France, is ready to return home to England when she receives a surprise telegram requesting that she report to Paris. The call comes from her Uncle Arthur, a security chief at the Peace Conference.
Within minutes of arriving at the Majestic Hotel in Paris, Mary hears a commotion in the street outside. A man has been shot and killed. She is horrified to earn that the victim is her uncle. The police report the attack as a chance robbery by a known thief, who is tracked down and killed resisting arrest.
Mary is not convinced. Circumstances and the gunshot wound do not indicate theft as a motive. A scribbled address on Arthur’s notepad leads to her discovery of another body, a Russian Bolshevik. She suspects her uncle, and the Russian, were murdered by the same hand.
To investigate further, Mary takes a position working for the British Treasury, headed by J M Keynes.
But Mary soon finds herself in the backstreets of Paris and the criminal underworld.
What she discovers will threaten the foundations of the congress.
Roussel was a small, clean-shaven man with a pasty face and thinning dark hair combed forward to a sharp arrowhead in the centre of his forehead. He reminded me of a portrait of Napoleon hanging in the National Gallery. Parkes had a hard time keeping up in his broken French, with Roussel making no effort to slow down for an easier understanding of his sharp, clipped speech. The hint of a smile played at the corner of Roussel’s mouth. He was toying with the British major, who was becoming more confused and exasperated in an attempt to win the argument. It had gone on long enough. I stepped forward and proceeded to recount the story of my excitement at the prospect of meeting my favourite uncle in a wonderful city and utter despair at his cruel ending, minutes before our planned reunion. All this spoken with a wringing of hands and dabbing of eyes with a handkerchief. I bowed my head in meek resignation and waited for a response.
A keen silence hung in the air for a few moments before the scraping of a chair signalled Roussel had risen from his desk. He left the office and returned to deposit a small bag in front of me. The name ‘Burgess’ was written on an attached label. I opened the bag and took out a wallet, matches, an unopened pack of cigarettes, two handkerchiefs, a handful of coins and a penknife. The unfolded leather wallet exposed a photograph of Arthur’s late wife, Diana, seated and their son, Mark, standing at her side with a hand resting on her shoulder. The photograph lifted to reveal a wad of new banknotes, perhaps eighty francs; nothing else – no letter or written note. Disappointed, I looked at Roussel.
‘Has the killer been caught?’
‘Yes, Mademoiselle, he was wanted for other serious crimes in this arrondissement.’
‘He was identified at the scene and later located at an apartment in Auteuil. The arraignment was bloody, and he died of his wounds.’
‘What were his other crimes?’
‘He was a well-known thief and suspected of a grievous wounding in a bar brawl.’
I held the handkerchief to my eyes to give me a few seconds to consider my next question. ‘May we see his body – the killer?’
‘No Mademoiselle, that is not possible.’
I suppose I should have expected a denial. ‘You say he was well-known. Was he… a big man? How tall?’
Roussel puffed his cheeks and answered, ‘He was neither big nor small.’ He inclined his head and continued, ‘No bigger than me, and perhaps a little shorter. Why do you ask?’
‘It’s just that… No, I’m confused.’ I struggled to find words that wouldn’t offend. ‘Do you believe robbery was the intention? There is money in the wallet.’
Roussel shook his head and spread his hands. ‘The victim – your uncle – resisted; he was seen and stopped before… enough! I have complied with your request.’ He rose from his chair and took a deep breath through his nose. ‘The matter is closed. You have seen the contents. They will be shipped back to England with the body.’ He slapped a hand on the desk. ‘Good day, Major and Mademoiselle.’
‘Just one more question, Inspector – was a gun found at the apartment in Auteuil?’
Roussel glared and growled his displeasure. Parkes held up his hands in a gesture of peace, declared our satisfaction, offered congratulations on solving the case, then guided me to the exit. Outside, everywhere was draped in a hushed covering of white. Parkes wanted to talk, but I needed emotions to settle and think clearly. I turned my back to avoid his questioning gaze and marched off but slipped on the snow and almost fell. He caught up and crooked his arm for me to hold.
‘Why?’ he asked.
‘Why what?’ I retorted, more sharply than intended.
‘Why the interrogation of Roussel? I could follow most of your conversation. They have their man, he got what he deserved, and we need cooperation from the local police. I only hope he…’
‘I don’t believe Arthur was murdered by a petty criminal in a bungled robbery. It doesn’t feel right.’ We stopped, and before he could say more, I added, ‘Eighty francs was still in the wallet. And the gun. I’ll wager they didn’t find a gun to match the calibre of the bullet in Arthur’s head.’
He stared in disbelief. ‘You talk as if… as if…’ His voice trailed away. ‘What other motive do you have in mind? And the gun. Masses of guns from the war have found their way into unsafe hands in this city. What am I missing, Mary?’
‘I’m sorry for upsetting your Inspector chum and I’m no expert, but to my mind it doesn’t add up.’ I tugged at his arm. ‘Come on, let’s get back to the hotel. I need to speak to Sir Basil.’
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Meet Paul Walker
Paul lives in a village 30 miles north of London where he is a full-time writer of fiction and part-time director of an education trust. His writing in a posh garden shed is regularly disrupted by children, a growing number of grandchildren and several dogs.
Paul writes historical fiction. The William Constable series of historical thrillers is based around real characters and events in the late sixteenth century. The first two books in the series – “State of Treason” and “A Necessary Killing”, were published in 2019. The third book, titled “The Queen’s Devil”, was published in the summer of 2020.
Travel forward a few hundred years from Tudor England to January 1919 in Paris and the setting for Paul’s latest book, “A Turbulent Peace”. The focus of the World is on the Peace Conference after WW1 armistice. Add a dash of Spanish Flu, the fallout from the Russian Revolution, and you have a background primed for intrigue as nations strive for territory, power and money.
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