Left to Lapse – Blake Pierce

Lea Dubot reclined in the padded chesterfield, her head resting against the embroidered seams of swirling blue and white. Above her, a miniature chandelier dangled in the first-class compartment of the Normandie Express. She inhaled the soft odor of bourbon whose glass rested in the cup holder built into the tea table’s frame at her elbow. Every so often, her gaze flitted from the glass baubles of the chandeliers hung throughout the lounging compartment and darted toward the dining car of the train, visible just through the glass partition at the end of the long compartment. The train itself moved with a surprising quiet—top of the line soundproofing and muffled gear mechanics, according to the mechanical engineering student who was in the room next to Lea’s. Normandie Express boasted a perfect blend of traditional comfort and modern amenities. On the inside of the car, it felt like something out of an old-fashioned movie, with a historic flair from the maps in the dining hall framed on the walls, to the tasseled throw pillows of pure cotton in the lounging area. Across from Lea, an obviously wealthy lady was sipping from a steaming mug of some sort, muttering about the weather and causing the pearls encircling her neck to clack and shift as she fluffed her fur collar. “Bonjour,” Lea said, nodding and smiling. The woman had to be three times her age, but it didn’t hurt to make conversation. The rich older lady didn’t reply. Instead, she turned slowly, her features moving like molasses finally settling in a pan. She inched a nearly nonexistent eyebrow up over a well-wrinkled eye, and then turned once again to peer out the window displaying French countryside to the north—mostly soft hills, green flatland, and a coastal vision of the English channel. “It’s a new train, you know,” Lea said, quoting the engineering student again if only to make an impression. “It just looks old.

” The woman sighed as if she couldn’t quite be bothered to spare words, but managed to eke out, “Quite,” in a creaking voice like an old chestnut cabinet. Then she turned away again and Lea was left sitting in silence. Lea sighed, but tried not to take it too personally. She had known it would take a day or two to make friends on the cross-country trip along Northern France into West Germany, then through Poland and Romania. Perhaps the engineering student was still back in the sleeping compartment. She got to her feet, again surprised at how steady her stance was beneath her. She’d been on trains before, but never one this smooth. The floor itself was even carpeted with a Turkish rug. She sent a forced little smile toward the standoffish older woman, then began to move toward the dining car, which would lead to the sleeping compartment. She pushed a hand against the door, but before she could press through, it swung inward, toward her, nearly knocking her from her feet.

“Sorry,” came the flustered, muttered voice of a man in a black raincoat. He dipped his head apologetically, and she couldn’t quite meet his eyes as he hurried past her. She caught her balance against an ornamental trim circling the windows, and then, adjusting her sweater and shooting a reproachful glance back toward the woman who’d ignored her and the man who’d nearly bowled her over, she marched, chin high, through the compartment into the dining hall. The ornate, hand-carved oak furniture alone would have been spectacle enough, but what really did it was the row after row of immaculate china—now set in a locked glass cabinet pressed to the far wall, but brought out for every mealtime. Lea smiled as she moved along, nodding to a young Swedish couple from business class who were sitting in the dining car with one of their college-age friends. As she maneuvered through the dining car, though, Lea froze, barely resisting the urge to curse. Her hand darted toward her elbow on instinct, feeling for the strap of her small clutch purse. Nothing. She glanced down and confirmed. “Merde,” she muttered, quiet enough so the others couldn’t hear.

She did an about-face, then marched back toward the compartment she’d just left to retrieve her forgotten belongings. As she moved along, pushing back through the glass partition into the lounging area, she frowned. The old woman was still sitting in her pearls and silks on the chesterfield facing the largest window. But the man in the black raincoat had somehow vanished. She peered past the woman toward one of the windows, now open and letting a breeze through, accompanied by the chugging sound of the train. Leah shook her head and moved to where she spotted her small brown purse resting against the arm of one of the recliners. She winced apologetically at the older woman, as if expecting her to sigh in frustration at the return of a nuisance. But as Lea neared, the woman in question looked anything but annoyed. The older woman’s eyes were bugged; in one hand she gripped the coffee mug she’d been sipping. A second later, the mug fell, smashing on the ground and sending steaming liquid and fragments of porcelain every which way.

Leah blinked, her heart jarred, and she stammered, “Are you okay?” And then, as if jolted by electricity, the older woman catapulted forward, lunging, as if spasming from the seat. She didn’t make it far as her frail legs didn’t have the strength, but one hand reached out, grasping desperately toward Leah. The older woman’s fingers scrambled against Leah’s arm, desperately trying to grip her, and Leah let out a soft scream. The woman’s mouth was half open, her eyes gaping like those of a fish. “Oh,” the older woman said. And then her hand, which had been pressing against Leah’s, fell and pushed to her chest. “Oh,” she repeated. And then she keeled over, collapsing to the ground, foaming from the mouth, and after shaking another couple of times, the older woman fell still, her circlet of pearls stained by strands of vomit. Leah stared for a moment longer, and then, as if suddenly plunged into icy water, the reality of the situation struck her. She raised her voice, and at the top of her lungs, screamed in the old-fashioned train car, her clutch purse momentarily forgotten where it sat against the armrest.

CHAPTER TWO “So what did you want to tell me?” said the Sergeant, raising a thick eyebrow and running a finger through his walrus mustache. Adele’s father was wearing his trademark white T-shirt instead of a proper sweater. At least this time they weren’t in the Alps, testing his ability to stave off the nip of cold on willpower alone. Now, though, a familiar frown had crossed the Sergeant’s countenance. Adele wasn’t sure if her father was more frustrated with returning to France, or because he’d traveled overnight at her insistent request. Now, in Adele’s apartment, standing next to the large floor-to-ceiling window that led onto the small terrace and overlooked the city of Paris, Adele wasn’t sure where to start. Her own mind whirred, spinning in frustration at how she might broach the news. He wouldn’t take it well. One way or another, she knew her father, and he wasn’t going to like what she had to say. But what else was there to do except tell him? “We came across Mom’s killer,” Adele murmured, slowly.

Her father’s single carry-on item of luggage rested by his feet. He hadn’t even had time to take a shower since arriving from the airport as he’d only been in her apartment for about ten minutes. But that was the way of things in the Sharp household. Straight to the point. Without much room for undertakings of affection or connection. For a moment, Adele’s mind wandered to her old mentor, Robert Henry. He’d been sick—very sick—but recently had shown some signs of mild improvement. The thought alone weighed heavy on her heart, but she shook her head, focusing for the moment and trying to gauge her father’s response to her words. His face remained blank. “What do you mean?” he probed.

“I mean what I said,” she replied. “Agent John Renee—do you remember him? He was working the case while I was…” Adele hesitated and trailed off. “Taking a break,” her father said. Adele knew the danger of allowing her father to fill in her sentences. There had been a time, not long ago, when given the opportunity, he might have said something like, “running away from your problems.” Or, “having a mental breakdown.” Her father hadn’t been one to mince words. But they were beginning to see eye to eye more and more. What they saw neither much agreed with, but at the very least, they were beginning to understand how to relate. Or so she hoped.

Then again, the Sergeant had withheld evidence in her mother’s case, and Adele was still having a hard time looking at him the same way she had before. Still, he had loved Elise once upon a time and despite how things had ended between them, Adele knew he’d taken her murder very poorly. He deserved to know. “He saw the killer? And did he catch the killer?” Still no expression. “He tried, but failed to snag the bastard.” “Adele,” her father said, sharply. “Language.” She rolled her eyes. Some things never changed. “Fine.

He failed to catch the killer. John had to save a victim.” She said this part with pursed lips, her voice tight. She had already been over it with Renee, and didn’t feel like getting into it with her father as well. For his part, the Sergeant’s calm façade was cracking a bit. His eyebrows bunched lower, but even more so, a quiet storm brewed in his gaze. They were darker than she remembered, and his pupils almost seemed dilated. He was breathing in shallow puffs, and she noticed one of his hands had clutched the edge of his shirt, pulling on the white fabric. “He saw his face, briefly, and got a look at his physique. He’s going to try to work with a composite artist,” Adele said, speaking as matter-of-factly as she could muster.

Inwardly, her own stomach twisted and turned. She remembered her conversation with Renee, the flash of anger. Then the subsequent regret at how poorly she’d treated him. Clouding it all, though, had been the cold certainty: the killer was still out there, laughing in the dark. She cleared her throat, closing her eyes to steady herself for a moment, then continued, “It doesn’t look promising. And either way, I think the killer was spooked. Whatever he was up to, ducking out of cover, he’s going to stay in hiding for a lot longer this time.” The Sergeant crossed his arms and growled, “Why did he let him get away?” “Like I said, he had to choose between saving a victim and catching the killer.” A sudden jolt of rage displayed across the Sergeant’s face, twisting his expression and causing a growling, barking sound to explode from his lips as he snarled, “Catching the killer would save lives.” Adele shrugged sympathetically.

“I know.” Her father seemed to lose some steam now, and he collapsed in the couch facing the window, leaning back, his walrus mustache facing the ceiling fan. “What do you mean you think he’s gone?” “I mean, John saw him. Not well, and in the dark, but the bast—er, killer would be stupid to try anything else.” “If you caught him once, you can do it again, can’t you?” Adele winced and shrugged. “I don’t know if it’s going to be that easy. Look how long we’ve been searching so far, and only now did we stumble upon anything at all.” Her father exhaled through his nose. “Well, he will have to remember then, won’t he. Whatever he saw.

Your friend—this John. He has to remember.” “It was dark. He only caught a glimpse. I don’t know what’s going to come of it.” The Sergeant shook his head, frowning. “Anything else I should know?” Adele sighed. “Nothing I can think of. Things got a little bit quiet after that. It was only a week or so ago.

I had to see if I could follow up on any leads, but nothing came of it.” Adele paused, then said, “One of the cafeteria workers on the first floor at DGSI vanished about a week and a half ago. But her family says it’s not uncommon for her to go off traveling with some out of town boyfriend for the fun of it. We’re looking into it, but other than that, things have been calm.” “A cafeteria worker vanished? Not retaliation for seeing his face, is it?” “No body,” Adele said, wincing. “Like I said, they’re keeping an eye out.” “Dammit,” said the Sergeant. He sat in silence for a moment, his head still reclined, still pressed into the couch. Through the window, Adele watched as traffic moved through the streets of Paris. She breathed slowly through her nose, steadying her nerves by focusing on the exhalation.

She wasn’t sure what else to do. “I have a spare pillow and some blankets in the cupboard in the hall. You’re welcome to it. Stay as long as you like,” she said, not because she really meant it—but because she knew her father, like her, would want to spend as little time as possible in the same cramped space as they could manage. It wasn’t that she didn’t love her father. It was that she didn’t know how to express it. And either he suffered the same difficulty, or had never learned how to kindle affection in the first place. Either way, now that she’d said it, she wasn’t sure what to add. “I have some cereal in the cupboards,” she continued, hesitantly. “And I also—” Before she could finish, her phone began to ring, chirping from her pocket with quick, punctuated sounds like a twittering bird.

“Sorry,” she said with a wince. Quickly, she answered, turning a shoulder to her father’s seated form. “Yeah?” The voice on the other end replied, “Adele…” It was John, and Adele went suddenly stiff. She hadn’t left things with her old partner in a particularly healthy place. “Yeah?” she said; the word had worked the first time, and she saw no reason to change it. “Foucault wants us both in. A new case.” Adele swallowed, trying to compose herself. For a moment, she had hoped John was calling for personal reasons. “All right,” she said, “when?” “Right now.

Urgent.” “I’m with—with my dad.” “Germany?” “No, he’s here. He just got in.” “You want me to tell the Executive—?” “No, no,” she said, quickly. “I’m on my way.” She hung up and glanced at her father, flinching. If he’d been listening at all, he didn’t show it. His head was still tilted, his eyes fixed on the ceiling, his arms splayed out across the top of the couch, his chest rising and falling slowly beneath the thin fabric of his white T-shirt. “Work,” she said, hesitantly.

At first, he didn’t seem to be aware he was being addressed. “Dad, I’ve gotta go in to work.” He looked over now, his eyes cloudy, some of the darkness she’d seen before having faded, as if to be replaced by a sudden stupor. He murmured something softly, then shook his head. “I’ll try to get back as soon as possible,” she said, wincing. “Feel free to order food or raid the fridge. Whatever you want.” Her father looked at her for a moment, his eyes sad in a way she wasn’t accustomed to. The normally rigid and rough man before her looked raw, exposed, as if a veneer had suddenly been stripped away. She saw a naked look of grief in his eyes, for a moment, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to stay near it.

At last though, he shook his head and sighed. “You know… you got closer than I ever could,” he said, and for a faint moment a smile even crossed his normally dour expression. “As Yogi Berra said, ‘It ain’t over till it’s over.’” Adele blinked. She wasn’t sure what a cartoon bear had to do with it… Was she remembering that name right? No matter. But despite her father’s words, his eyes still held another trait… something deeper, darker, lurking behind his gaze. “Go,” he said. “I’ll be fine. I’ll see you tonight.” “You sure?” “I’m sure.

Duty calls.” She shook her head hesitantly, then muttered another apology, hating that she was leaving her father only a half hour after he’d arrived. She sighed, waited to see if he’d say anything else, and when no words were forthcoming, she quickly marched to where she’d left her keys and wallet, snagged them, gave one last, “See you in a bit,” and then, grateful for the excuse, she hurried out the apartment door, shutting and locking it behind her. A new case would provide a distraction. And right now that’s exactly what she needed.


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