A Sneak Peek into the next Bennett Sisters Mystery
Just for you…
a taste of the next mystery in France, featuring those lawyer girls, the Bennett Sisters
A BOLT FROM THE BLUE
The village was not really that— there was no town square, no post office, no store. Not much of anything but overgrown lots and sparse stands of trees. It was approached carefully, with forethought, through the backwoods and down narrow roads, winding around hummocks and along streams. The place was on no maps, if you can get a map detailed enough to show these dusty two-tracks. A hamlet, something Francie somehow associated with small ham sandwiches— ridiculous, yes— that’s what it was. A mere hamlet: a collection of a few houses of varying sizes, on acreages with falling-down barns and grass up to your knees.
Francie wound her way to the hamlet on the ever-smaller roads, following the GPS directions from her phone. Otherwise she’d have been lost for days, driving in circles down shaded lanes, far from civilization. She’d once marveled that cosmopolitan France, land of manners and fashion and cuisine and sophistication, could have such neglected backwaters. Where were the house-flippers and Brits on the prowl? These places seemed untouched by modernization, although she did spot electrical poles along the way and hoped for at least minimal lighting inside the mansion she’d been assigned to open.
The duty had sounded delicious and mysterious, evoking a girlish curiosity that Francie was glad to find she hadn’t outgrown. To outlive curiosity, to be jaded about the unknown and undiscovered, would be tragic. So here she was, deep in the Dordogne, far from vineyards and goats, far from, well, people. To open an old woman’s manse, a family house no one had cared about for nearly forty years.
Putting aside visions of rats and pigeons, she stood outside the stone house, dangling the keys. Of course she was curious. She’d read about apartments in Paris that had been boarded up after the Great War and never touched for sixty years, museums of a long-gone time. Would this old house be so fabulous? Or simply disgusting? Merle’s cottage had been more filthy than delightful at first.
She tried to stay upbeat, searching for then finding the key to the rusty padlock on the door shutters. She had to put her weight on it to get it to budge, but finally it gave way, turning and springing open. Double doors with small glass panes and lace curtains stood inside the shutters. Another key. She rummaged through the tags for the right one.
The house was much larger than Merle’s cottage, although, as the crow flies they weren’t far apart. Francie hadn’t known what to expect. The old lady came from a family of aristocrats, what was left of them in secular, socialist, post-Revolution, post-Napoleonic, post-war France. Deposed dukes, landed gentry, they remained today, living amongst us, although their wealth was often tied up in land and houses no one wanted, or their fortunes gone forever along with their heads.
Two stories high, the mansion’s roof sported fancy gables with odd-shaped windows indicating a third floor under the slate roof. All shuttered and smothered by vines. The wooden shutters were a soft, peeling rose color. Maybe once they’d been burgundy but many summers had faded them. The yard was a flat, dry driveway overrun with weeds. Dry, prickly thistles scratched those who dared to enter. A half-dead tree stood guard, its leaves yellow and black.
Key in the lock, she wiggled it for two minutes before she felt it give. The house didn’t want to give up its secrets, that was obvious. Then it turned, a loud, metallic click. Her cell phone rang.
It was Dylan. “Did you find it?”
“I think so. This must be it.”
He read off the address again, which didn’t help. “There are no street signs. No signs of any kind.”
“Well, if the key works, there’s your answer.”
“I’m unlocking the door right now. The first padlock opened.”
“What’s it like?”
“On the outside, about what you’d expect, dirty and weedy. In the middle of serious French nowhere. All the shutters look intact though, and the roof looks good from the front at least.”
“Okay, call me once you look around inside.”
She slipped her phone back in her pocket and pushed open the double doors. The stale stench of dust, mold, and animal droppings swept past her as if glad to be free. But there was something else, flowery, powdery. What was it? Her eyes blinked against the darkness.
She paused, listening, pulled out a small flashlight, and stepped inside.
Two Weeks Earlier
The day the letter arrived, Axelle Fourcier was preparing for what she hoped was the last move of her life. She sighed, feeling the ache in her back. She was old, she couldn’t move at the drop of a hat anymore. She’d retired two years before from the university and found herself bored to tears at least once a week. She wished she could go back to teaching. That was impossible. The dean had said as much, a glassy horror in his eyes at the thought. So she now had all the time she wanted to read history and keep up on her native French. That was excellent, she tried to persuade herself. Keep the brain active. She did read for hours each day, but mostly in English. For the French she watched France 24 news on their website, and found it dry as toast.
The letter at least added a minor frisson to her thrilling day of packing boxes. She gave them a stare, piled haphazardly in the hallway. Who knew if she’d be happier, healthier, more engaged in life in North Carolina than Oklahoma? She certainly didn’t, although she’d decided she’d rather be blown off the Earth by a hurricane than die a mouldering death in the flatlands of America. The little beach house had called to her. At least hurricanes weren’t boring.
The letter was from an attorney’s office. In Paris. That gave her a slight chill. Paris. Flashbacks of her youth, burning cars in the streets, sitting arm-in-arm with thousands of classmates under the Arc de Triomphe, then marching, chanting: “Adieu, de Gaulle!” So long ago and yet she could still smell the asphalt of the streets and the melting rubber tires of the cars.
She walked out onto the porch of her house, just blocks from the university campus, carrying the unopened letter and shaking the images from her head. The past still haunted her. She thought she’d put it to bed years ago but it was obvious she had not.
She stared at the ornate handwriting on the envelope, in blue ink and very French, with her name and address. She sighed, squared her shoulders, and tore open the flap. A single sheet of fine stationery was folded inside.
The name of the law firm rang a distant bell in her mind. Where had she heard it? The letter was in French, which seemed presumptuous after all these years.
It is with the greatest sympathy and sadness that we must inform you that your great-aunt, Mathilde Fourcier, has died. Her long life must be a consolation to you and all her relatives. She died without issue so leaves her estate to you and your cousin, Lucien Daucourt, of Paris.
Monsieur Daucourt has personally examined the estate papers and informed us of your address. This took some time, as apparently you have not recently corresponded. The elder Madame Fourcier passed away on May 3 of this year, four months ago. M. Daucourt took charge of arranging her effects and has placed the urn with her remains in the family crypt in — cemetery, in —. We pray that this is satisfactory with you.
It is imperative that we meet with you at the earlier possible time to discuss the disposition of the estate. Madame Fourcier did not deplete her estate, despite being 104 years of age. There is much to examine. Therefore, we request your presence in Paris at your soonest convenience. Please call us at the number above.
Axelle sat down on a dusty porch chair and re-read the letter. Several of the French legal terms made her squint into the dry lawn, trying to dredge up their meanings. The main message was clear: Tante Mathilde was dead, at 104. She blinked hard. She’d last seen her aunt in 1969, when they were both young. Feisty and independent, her aunt had hair like Brigitte Bardot and a string of high society boyfriends, none of whom she liked well enough to marry. She was so charming and exciting, a light in the stratosphere to the teenage girl. Axelle could hear her laugh now, head thrown back, crimson lipstick, full-throated as a lark.
Axelle closed her eyes, a sadness for the past washing over her. The French curse, this pitiful nostalgia for things that will never be again. This melancholy for “temps perdu,” as Proust called it. He couldn’t find his lost time, and the search for it crippled him. She would not let nostalgia cripple her. She was as American, as modern, as optimistic, as anyone. She’d worked so hard to cleanse herself from the eroding pessimism she saw in her countrymen.
But it was still with her. Her curse, because, try as she might, she was still French.
She took a deep breath and stared at the letter in her lap. Her tantine had not forgotten her. And also this cousin. Who was he? She had no memory of any cousin named Lucien. Their correspondence was nonexistent. There couldn’t be much left of the estate, despite what the attorneys said, not after 104 years of extravagance as only a woman who was rich, wild, and French could live. The question was, was there enough left to warrant a trip back to the past?
She would call the lawyers. It might be nothing. Surely it was nothing.
Going back to France was, after all, against everything she stood for, as she’d told everyone who’d listen all these years. Never! she crowed when they asked if she would return. The looks in their eyes, the confusion over her adamant statements. No one understood, because of course she never explained.
And yet. A twinge of regret stung her. She had missed seeing her aunt one last time, kissing her dusty cheeks, catching her orange-vanilla scent. Missed easing her into her last comforts. Missed feeding her pink macarons and jasmine tea from Mariage Frères, tucking a cashmere shawl around her shoulders.
Axelle sighed deeply, frustrated and tired. Her stubborn pride was a burden. Did she still despise la republique? She felt every day of her age. Did she care anymore?