A Ride on the Petite Ceinture
In 1874 when Serafina was sent to Paris to investigate the death of a countess, it was a good way to get around Paris, especially during high traffic times.
In this scene from Murder on the Rue Cassette, Serafina and Rosa take a ride from a stop near their hotel to an apartment in Sixteenth Arrondissement, pretty much across town. As usual, Serafina and Rosa have conflicting views of what happened to Elena, the victim of the story—who, in the end, victimizes.
“Are you mad? Why travel again to the place where you were shot?” Rosa asked.
“I need to sit and think.”
“Do that in your room.” Rosa looked at her as if she were wild. Perhaps she was. But there was something in the address book, something she was reading and rereading and still missing because she hadn’t yet fathomed the mind of Elena. The best way to do that was to sit in the woman’s apartment, breathe the air she’d once breathed, touch her desk, her chair. After all, they weren’t friends, not really, and she needed to get to know Elena in order to ferret out the cryptic notes in her address book. It wouldn’t take long, she explained to Rosa.
This time they took the petite ceinture. It was a much faster way to the sixteenth arrondissement during the day because they avoided traffic.
More important, Serafina saw the people of Paris, listened to them speak in low tones to one another, the words nasal and clipped yet somehow sonorous, especially because she didn’t understand the sense and could therefore concentrate on the sound.
The French loved to talk. Most of the women on the train wore aprons and long cotton dresses, the men, thick corduroy trousers, many with long faces, tired. Maybe they were going home, having worked most of the night and much of the morning as well. Women carried baguettes, clutched in hands cracked and blistering from harsh soap, callused from work. They were women who worked as laundresses, the sleeves of their blouses rolled up, exposing powerful arms. Serafina remembered what the young sergent de ville had said about the calluses on the dead woman’s hands. The men wore berets on their head, leather aprons over their bleu de travail, and their handlebar mustaches were neatly trimmed. Some had linen kerchiefs rolled and tied around their necks. Their eyes were bloodshot from drink, their hands thick and bruised from work.
They got off at Station de Passy, a quieter section of the city new to Rosa. Serafina marveled at the rows of apartment buildings interspersed with large homes, the noise muffled by the great trees of the Bois de Boulogne. When they arrived at Elena’s apartment, Serafina was struck by two men wearing bleu de travail who pruned the shrubbery near the entrance. They shoveled clippings into a wheelbarrow, their pace slow, pausing to look around, saying a few words to each other, then gazing out at the scene, cigarette butts dangling from their lips.
She smiled. “Do you recognize anyone?” she asked Rosa.
“What are you talking about?”
“The two workers in blue uniforms. Look familiar?”
Rosa smiled. “One’s pulling his sleeve, the other licking his lips, both hardly working—how could I not recognize them?”
They rang the bell.
Instead of the concierge reading Le Figaro, a policeman sat at the desk, polishing the visor of his kepi.
“Inspector Valois is expecting us.”
He nodded and pointed to the elevator down the hall. “Eighth floor, mesdames.”
“Liar,” Rosa said under her breath as they ascended in the slow, creaky lift. “The stairs would have been faster. If we fall and die, it’s all your fault.”
Serafina was surprised to find so many men in the apartment. Several detectives were assigned to each room, some lifting the carpets, some with magnifying glasses, others carefully putting what they’d found in small envelopes and marking them. The French investigators were impressive, she had to admit.
“Carmela and Tessa went to talk to artists at the exhibit,” Valois told them after greeting them.
Serafina explained why she was here. Any room would do for her purposes, so she sat in a chair in the glassed-in sunroom at the back of the apartment. It faced the center of Paris. At first Serafina was enthralled with the view until she settled into a meditative arrangement with herself, unmoving.
Rosa sat for a while and then became bored. She decided to help the inspector in whatever way she could, but found he was occupied in a corner of the ladies’ parlor, talking in low tones to one of his men. Drifting through the kitchen, she opened each drawer, uncertain as to why she did, other than for something to do. As she opened a cupboard full of cut glass, she saw what looked like a pile of notes rolled and stuffed into a small vase in the rear. After spreading the papers out on the table she read one, shook her head, scooped them up, and stashed them in her pocket. She went through all the other drawers, climbing the ladder to root through the high cabinets, but found nothing else of interest.
Slowly she made her way back to the sunroom where Serafina sat. She hadn’t moved, so Rosa sat down opposite her, instinctively opting for the most comfortable chair in the room. She put her head back and dozed, waiting for Serafina to finish. When Rosa opened her eyes, the wizard had disappeared. Ω
Photo: cover, Murder on the Rue Cassette. Design, Avalon Graphics.
Photo: A Syndicate Ceinture train at what looks to be the Boulevard Ornano station around 1900. Public Domain.