A Small Shop near the Seine
“Something about the store yellowed the light, antiqued the world and made it turn more slowly.”
Murder On The Rue Cassette is Serafina’s fourth book. Like all the others, it’s a standalone. She and most of her children have moved to Paris where she investigates the death of a friend’s wife. In the scene below, she and the friend, Dr. Loffredo, call on the proprietor of a small shop near the Seine. The owner has little light to shed on the missing woman, other than a picture of her in good health.
Paris, April 1874
They walked into the late afternoon sun, the shadows growing, the streets and sidewalks thick with people, most smartly attired and purposeful, probably heading home. They passed the Place St. Sulpice and the bells sounded the hour. They kept walking through the student quarter to St. Germain des Prés where Serafina stopped in front of the façade and said a prayer to the Virgin to help her see the truth. They walked to the Quai Voltaire and whispered to the Seine, Loffredo planting a chaste kiss on her forehead. Happy to be in each other’s company, she and Loffredo walked the many side streets, looking into shop windows, occasionally pointing to something that piqued their curiosity or pleased them.
“Here’s one. She knew the proprietor and bought art books and prints from him.” They entered a small shop near the Seine, cheek by jowl with antique stores and book sellers, the building one of the old ones still standing after Haussmann’s scalpel felled the warrens and crumbled blocks, the redesign capturing the minds and hearts of the people who forgot about the devastation left in its wake, disremembered the thousands uprooted from homes owned by the same family for centuries. The result was breathtaking.
The wooden façade gleamed with a new coat of paint and shellac in the blue color Serafina associated with Paris. Perhaps the French were the only ones capable of creating it, an ultramarine so deep there were purple overtones. The gold script proclaimed Thomas d’Automne et Fils depuis 1836 and in the window were displayed thick tomes containing plates of paintings by David, Jean Auguste Ingres, Delacroix, Gérome, Poussin, Fragonard, and surprisingly Édouard Manet, but none of the other new painters. Strange that Elena would frequent such a traditional shop, but then Serafina remembered the prints she’d seen in Elena’s ladies’ parlor, reproductions of paintings by David.
As they entered, she noticed that the shop had a few tourists paging through reproductions. The walls held floor to ceiling books and behind the counter, she saw hundreds of small drawers with brass pulls, no dust, but the exquisite odor of finely crafted paper and books and binding, the scent lingering and high pitched, along with the unmistakable smell of sandalwood and old leather. Something about the store yellowed the light, antiqued the world and made it turn more slowly.
A short round man with a mustache, white hair, and bushy black eyebrows emerged from the back. As he looked at him, the emotions on Loffredo’s face were unreadable.
“Now let me see,” the man said, combing his mustache with a thumb, “I recognize you, young man, but not this woman.” Serafina detected a wry smile.
“Forgive my appearance,” she said.
“An encounter with some Parisian ruffians,” Loffredo explained.
The man was somewhat solicitous. Also wary.
“We’ve come to ask you about one of your customers, Elena Loffredo.”
The proprietor furrowed his brows. “Give me a moment.”
They were silent until the man remembered.
“The countess, no?”
The man cocked his head. “Now when was the last time she was in the store? Hmm.” He thought for a moment. “I could look it up, but if you bear with me …” He stared into the space beyond his customers. “Could have been March. Yes. Wasn’t yet spring, but a hint of spring. Students still puffing their breath, I remember. The light, silvery.” He closed his eyes. “And she came into the store, drawn by the David plates. I had them in the window at the time. Impeccably attired, I might say, as always. Yes. She bought three prints, portraits, the Comtesse Vilain and her daughter, the portrait of Madame Récamier, and the portrait of Emilie Sériziat and her son. Said they were for her ladies’ parlor. She wanted them framed, she trusted my taste. They were to be hung on a small vertical wall adjacent to her desk. She said she was particularly haunted by the portraits of the women with their children.”