The Least of These by BV Lawson

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“Diplomacy is to do and say / the nastiest thing in the nicest way.”—Isaac Goldberg

She was a single mother from a micro-town in southwest Virginia who’d never had a single lucky break until she landed a job as secretary at the French Embassy in D.C. At least, she believed it was her lucky break. That was Leanne Coonts’s greatest mistake.

Now, her little daughter was an orphan and Leanne’s body was lying in a morgue awaiting an autopsy, while the Embassy staff remained tight-lipped, waving their diplomatic passports in the faces of police. It had only been two days since Leanne’s death, but the show—or the party—apparently must go on. Scott Drayco surveyed the room full of Armani tuxes and designer evening gowns, as the Château Lafite Rothschild flowed as freely as the fountains of Versailles.

Drayco hadn’t promised his clients he’d be able to uncover anything useful about the murder, but they thought a discreet civilian might be their best bet, and so here he was, in his own hated tux, minus the red cummerbund. The last time he’d worn the thing, it had been at a party much like this one, only the guest of honor had been shot. Maybe Drayco should have gone out and rented something else. Not that he was superstitious.

What he also hadn’t told the clients was this was the type of case he’d be willing to do pro bono after talking with Leanne’s ten-year-old daughter, Heather. Her brave little soldier act hadn’t fooled him. As she’d told him the travel plans she and her mother began making only hours before her mother was killed, there was no light in her hazel eyes. Now, there was no place she could travel to escape, because Heather had lost her entire world.

Drayco flipped his mental folder of principal suspects, bios, and photos and grabbed a flute of red wine off a passing tray—when in Paris, n’est-ce pas? He’d chatted up some of the lesser possibles for the past hour, working his way up to the big fish. Tackle the bottom feeders first, the ones who were happy to nibble on crudités, with a side helping of fresh gossip.

But what had he learned so far, other than the fact he was developing a headache from the clash of colognes—jasmine, grapefruit, cedarwood, musk, sage—radiating off warm skin? There was the usual litany of employee affairs, drug use, and shrinks. The only interesting tidbits were hints of conflict between the French government and the Russian Embassy one mile up on Wisconsin Avenue. But then, who didn’t have conflicts with the Russians these days?

He headed toward his first major target, the Press Liaison, Pierre Lamenteau, who sported a diamond-studded earring matching his sparkling tie pin. He was a foot shorter than Drayco, which made it harder to look him in the eye. But look Drayco did, with the realization that the man’s picture should be added to the dictionary beside the definition for “shifty eyes.” After a minute or so of banal chatter, Drayco learned one thing fairly quickly. For a man who was ostensibly a press expert, Lamenteau was remarkably unguarded. Drayco silently cheered, “Vive le vin.”

Lamenteau prefaced his comments with a belch. “So there I was, que c’est embêtant, in the middle of this press conference, when someone shouted, ‘What about the woman who was murdered?’ An appalling lack of manners and protocol. Americans can be such boors.” He looked at Drayco. “Present company excepted, of course. Er, what did you say you do, Monsieur Drayco?”

“I’m a consultant.”

“Oh.” Lamenteau stifled a hiccup. “Who do you consult for?”

“Anyone who will pay me.”

“Ha ha, très bon. As I was saying, there I was in the thick of the press and this lout has the gall to throw me off balance. What did he expect me to do, yell out the murderer’s name, address, phone number? Perhaps his favorite color?”

If that lout had been an FBI plant, quite possibly. Drayco took a tiny sip from his own glass of wine. “That young woman’s death must have caused a stir around here. Such an inconvenience.”

Oui, oui, that was my point exactly. She was a mousy little nobody and yet in swarm the police and ! We cannot get a bit of work done.” Lamenteau leaned forward and lowered his voice. “And I think I was followed home.”

“Is that a fact? Zut alors.” Drayco took a sip of his wine, hoping it would encourage Lamenteau to do the same, and he was happily rewarded. The man’s eyes were beginning to match his ruddy cheeks. Red cheeks, white shirt and blue tux—a walking, or stumbling—human French flag.

“Tell me, Monsieur Lamenteau, what exactly did that mousy little nobody do around here, anyway? It couldn’t have been all that important.”

“The usual things I suppose. Letters, manning the phone.”

“And files? There are always files.”

“Ah oui, files.”

Drayco goaded him. “In the movies, they’d say she saw something she shouldn’t have. Or perhaps slept with her boss. Not a Truffaut movie, of course.”

Mais non, that would be beneath Truffaut, such clichés. As for sleeping with the boss? Her face was too plain. And what she should have had here,” Lamenteau patted his chest. “She had here instead,” he patted his ass. “Not like Geneviève.”

Drayco followed Lamenteau’s leering gaze to a woman with flaxen hair in a purple dress sculpted on her body. From the name, Drayco guessed the object of Lamenteau’s lust must be Geneviève L’Abbée, cultural liaison. Another name from his mental folder and another Big Fish.

“Okay, so no sleeping with the boss for our mousy little nobody, Monsieur Lamenteau. But the files—now there’s a cliché that might fly. Perhaps she saw something she shouldn’t.”

“No one would have trusted her with anything important. But all embassies do have their dirty little secrets.” When Lamenteau smiled, he almost looked human. “Perhaps Babin’s secrets. He’s the political attaché. That Coonts woman did a project for him last week.”

Lamenteau held his wine glass up to the light.”You must excuse me, Monsieur Drayco, as my glass is empty and that will never do.”

From his research on the staff, Drayco knew a lot about Raymond Babin. In his mid-50s, formerly French intelligence followed by foreign service. And now, a glorified diplomatic sycophant. At least he was well-paid—the blinding necklace on his wife Marie’s neck must have emptied out a few ruby and emerald mines.

Perhaps the necklace was marital bribery? Drayco’s research also discovered Babin had a stable of mistresses around the globe. A messy divorce would cost him at least half his estate. As Drayco approached the pair, Marie’s thin nasal voice cut through the din of wounded civility around her with surgical precision. “I did not agree to change the draperies from mauve to puce and I will simply not pay for them. They’re ghastly, like something out of Better Homes and Garden.”

Drayco began to understand why Babin had strayed from his wedding vows. Marie’s face might not be enough to sink a thousand ships, but that voice had a fighting chance.

“Ah, Monsieur Babin, Pierre Lamenteau was singing your praises and I must meet the man who single-handedly keeps the Embassy together.” Drayco could play sycophant, too. He reached out to shake the man’s hand, then turned to Marie. “And this must be your lovely wife. Enchantée,” Drayco also wasn’t above kissing the woman’s hand—whatever it took to bring a spark of light back into the pair of empty young hazel eyes that had been haunting him all evening.

Babin shook Drayco’s hand, then used his same hand to rub through his thin, unnaturally black hair. Rather unfortunate, since Babin’s comb-over had now moved a little too far to the right. “I don’t believe I caught your name, Monsieur—“

“Drayco. Scott Drayco. Consultant.” Drayco looked around the room. “It’s a surprisingly dull party, wouldn’t you say?”

Marie beamed up at Drayco. “I said the very same thing to Raymond, did I not? But surely you are not here by yourself, Monsieur Drayco—do you mind if I call you Scott? Such a handsome young stallion all alone? Surely not.”

Her husband shifted his feet, although Drayco didn’t think the man was jealous. More like embarrassed. “That’s very kind of you, Madame Babin, but yes, I’m alone.”

“Please. It’s Marie. Quel dommage, Scott. I’m sure there is someone around here we can fix you up with.” She glanced half-heartedly at a group of twenty-somethings in a corner, all texting on their phones. “But with a such a dull party, it probably wouldn’t be worth it. I suppose it’s all that woman’s fault. The one who was murdered.”

“Yes, I did hear something about that. A secretary or clerk of some sort?”

“Secretary. Raymond worked with her, didn’t you, dear? I think I met her once. Rather forgettable, but pleasant enough. For that type of job.”

‘Pleasant enough’ was equivalent to a compliment for the likes of a Marie Babin. Drayco guessed that meant Marie didn’t suspect Leanne Coonts of being one of the fillies in her husband’s stable.

Babin tilted his head in a brief nod, looking uncomfortable expressing even that much emotion, and Drayco looked around for a wine tray. This man was far too sober.

“My wife is correct, Monsieur Drayco. I did work with that unfortunate woman. She was … competent.”

“Yes, that’s what Lamenteau said. She’d done some project for you last week, I believe. Competently. As your personal secretary, you must feel her loss deeply.”

“She wasn’t my personal secretary, Drayco. She worked for all the staff. But yes, we feel her loss. She will be … missed.”

That was certainly diplomatic. But even a diplomat skilled at word choices wasn’t always aware how much his body language was giving away. Babin’s body was saying he couldn’t care less about the secretary’s demise. Drayco was beginning to wonder if anyone in the embassy cared for Leanne Coonts. Of the dozen or so staff he’d chatted up earlier, not a one seemed to know anything about Leanne except her name.

Drayco tried to rein in his anger at the disregard for a human life. These people were far more worried about their jobs than justice. Typical inside-the-Beltway pissing contests without which the city would implode. Maybe it was hard to care about one life when faced with global struggles of survival. But it was individuals, one by one, who made up that globe. Individuals like Leanne Coonts, lover of turquoise, hummingbird figurines and strawberry shortcake.

Feeling the need for a quick breath of fresh air, he excused himself from the Babins and beelined it toward an exit door, but paused just shy of the door, catching sight of a room that was surprisingly empty. It was the auditorium, doing its impression of a mausoleum as his footsteps echoed on the wooden floor. He sat down at the piano, tried a few keys and grimaced. Out of tune.

But he started playing anyway, feeling more alive than at any point since he’d set foot inside the building. He saw a flash of something out of the corner of his eye and took his hands from the keyboard as a woman entered the room.

She said, “You don’t have to stop. It sounded like you were calling me.”

Drayco raised an eyebrow. “I was?”

“The song you were playing. Debussy’s ‘Girl with the Flaxen Hair.’” She pointed to her golden tresses, elegantly pulled back with curls falling onto her forehead.

He smiled. “I’m not sure why I picked that tune.”

“I was hoping it was because you were trying to seduce me. I’ve been watching you all evening. Quite the socialite, flitting from one person to another. But no partner.” She looked at his hands. “And no ring.”

“I’m not sure I’d want to subject anyone I like to death-by-party.”

She laughed. “It is deadly dull, isn’t it?”

“Marie Babin blames it on the secretary who was murdered. I guess the deceased showed poor manners with her timing. It’s so much more thoughtful to get oneself murdered when there’s nothing on the calendar.”

Geneviève leaned on the piano. “It does seem no one cares. Rather heartless.”

“Can you really care about someone when you don’t bother to get to know them?”

“It’s not that the French staff don’t socialize with the locals, but these are temporary jobs, mostly. And that secretary was a little hard to understand at times.”

“How so??”

“I believe it’s called a southern accent.”

Drayco started playing the Debussy again. “Did you get to know her, Leanne Coonts?”

“A little. I know she had a daughter, although I never met her.”

Geneviève sat down beside him on the bench as the last notes of the song faded away. “Do you do that for a living? Play the piano?”

“I dabble.”

“That is more than dabbling. You are very good. Sviatoslav Richter good.”

“Coming from a cultural attaché, that’s a compliment.”

“I really have been watching you, you know. You’ve got the most amazing eyes. I can see that they’re an intense blue, but in certain light, they look purple.”

Drayco scooted down to make more room for her on the bench, all the while gazing approvingly at the movement of her tight purple dress. “Is that the only reason you’ve been watching me, Mademoiselle L’Abbée?”

“Please—call me Gennie. But no, I helped put together the guest list and I couldn’t put a name with your face.”

“Scott Drayco, at your service.”

“Still doesn’t ring any bells. When I realized I didn’t know you, I wondered if you were one of those alphabet-soup people.”

“Alphabet soup? Like Campbells?”

She smiled and shook her head. “FBI. CIA. TSA. ATF. I can’t keep track of them all.”

“No, not alphabet soup.” That wasn’t entirely a lie. He wasn’t currently an alphabet-soup man. “It’s a shame about the secretary’s daughter. It’s hard to lose a mother at that age.”

“At any age. I’m sorry they won’t be able to take that trip they’d planned.”

“Yes, so am I.” Drayco started playing Debussy’s “Reverie,” as Geneviève leaned in closer. Drayco found it easy to play and talk at the same time, one reason a former teacher called him schizophrenic. “So, Gennie. Who do you think’s the most likely candidate for the murderer of Mrs. Coonts? Babin, perhaps? Lamenteau?”

Geneviève had a musical laugh, almost bird-like, less like one of Leanne’s hummingbirds, more like a nightingale. “Lamenteau could have done it. If Mrs. Coonts had stolen something valuable from him. Like his prized bottle of 1990 Château Petrus Bordeaux.”

“And Babin?”

“I can see him as a murderer, if Mrs. Coonts pointed out what other women have been afraid to.”

“And that is?”

“His manhood resembles what you Americans might call an inchworm.” She smiled and Drayco couldn’t help smiling back. Geneviève was the kind of woman he could fall hard for, if he wasn’t careful.

He played several more measures of the Debussy, trying to ignore the out-of-tune notes. “I am curious about one thing, Gennie.”

“Just one? Do tell.”

She was so close now he could smell the tiniest hints of something lilac-ish. Without missing a beat of the Debussy, he said, “I’m wondering why you killed Leanne Coonts. My guess is, she found out something you wanted kept hidden. Being a Russian spy, for instance.”

Drayco stopped playing as Geneviève pulled back and stared at him with wide eyes he now noticed were also hazel. Coincidence, yes, but it gave him much-needed resolve.

“What makes you think I killed her?”

“You said you’ve never met Leanne’s daughter and yet you knew of the travel plans she and her mother started making only a few hours before Leanne’s death. Which was on a Saturday, when ordinarily you wouldn’t have been around to hear her talk of such plans.”

Drayco started playing again. He loved this piece, one of his favorites. “As for the Russian spy part—a wild guess. You said I reminded you of Richter. Odd comparison for a French cultural ambassador, to name a Russian pianist. And one who’s not even a contemporary. I’d have expected Thibaudet, perhaps. Or Lortie.”

“So you are in the alphabet soup.”

“Just trying to help a little girl find justice. And closure.”

Geneviève sat very still, listening or thinking—or scheming, Drayco couldn’t tell. Finally she said, “If I am a murderer and spy, like you say, what’s to keep me from killing you right here and now?”

“The hidden microphone I’m wearing, probably.” He stopped talking long enough to finish the song, then turned to her. “I find it fascinating the person responsible for taking Leanne’s life seems to have cared more about her than anyone else here.”

Genevieve scooted toward him, and he didn’t stop her. She gently pushed aside a lock of his hair that was falling over his forehead, and to his surprise, leaned over to kiss him. “That’s to give your microphone friends some entertainment. And because you really do have amazing eyes.”

She put her head onto his shoulder, and he decided to start playing again while they waited for his “microphone friends” to make their way inside. But nothing French or Russian this time. Neutral territory. Perhaps Edvard Grieg, the piece called “Little Bird.” Grieg, the diplomat—Drayco liked the sound of that. And if you listened to the piece carefully, you could almost hear the flapping of a hummingbird’s wings.

BV Lawson is an award-winning freelance writer whose stories, poems and articles have appeared in over two dozen national publications and several anthologies, including Cantaraville, ESC! Magazine, Mouth Full of Bullets, Static Movement, Powder Burn Flash, Plots With Guns, Cynic Online, Rose and Thorn, Fringe Magazine, Grimm Tales, Needle, Pulp Ink 2, Beat to a Pulp: Hardboiled 2, and When the Veil Drops.

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