The old antiquarian bookstore was a sliver amongst the larger pastel-coloured shops on the leafy Parisian street of Rue Cardinet. It was called Librairie d’antiquités de Géroux but was, nonetheless, as much a part of the Batignolles village as the Saturday farmers’ market, the square, or the tourists retracing the steps of impressionist painter Alfred Sisley.
The only other building that seemed as much a part of the furniture was the abandoned restaurant on the corner, like one of those unfortunate heirloom pieces that tends to clash with everything. Most people believed it to be cursed or haunted as a result of what had happened there during the Occupation, when the former owner had poisoned all of her customers one night. A fact that had turned to legend over the intervening years.
For instance, some swore that when the wind changed or a new season approached you could still smell cooking. When the leaves from the plane trees turned gold, rumours swelled of cream and port and roast chicken. Delicious at first, then as the day grows, turning acrid and sour. And when the wisteria bloomed, whispers flew of apricots and butter and clafoutis, similarly mouth-watering in the beginning, but then growing sickly sweeter by the evening, till you needed to breathe through your mouth to escape the decaying scent of rotten fruit.
Nonetheless, this, too, brought the tourists.
The idea of lingering phantom scents annoyed Monsieur Géroux, the owner of the antiquarian bookshop, on good days, and made him spitting mad on others. Now in his mid-sixties, and with hair tending more to salt than pepper, he despaired at how events that were monstrous enough in their cold, hard facts, turned, over time, to myth, like in some gothic romance.
It had been over forty years and Monsieur Géroux still got nightmares about it. And now, that infernal restaurant was still nding a way to cast a shadow over him.
The bell tinkled as he slipped into his store, pulling the door closed behind him with a sigh. Usually, when the familiar scent of old books, wood and nostalgia enveloped him, he felt a sense of relief, of home.
Today he felt dread. Thanks to that letter.
It had arrived the day before, seemingly innocent in its smart white envelope and o cious-looking typescript, until it revealed itself to be an invitation from a law rm to speak about that night. The worst of his life, when his brother, Henri, was poisoned and killed. For an awful moment, after he read the letter’s request, he thought he might burst into tears. He’d ed his shop, heart pounding in his ears, needing to be anywhere but there.
He’d spent the evening walking along the river Seine, trying and failing to get the contents of the letter out of his mind, taking in none of the sights that usually offered calm. The narrowboats with their potted rooftop gardens and their canine sailors, keeping an eye out from the bow. Lovers walking arm-in-arm, perhaps to place a lock on one of the bridges. Shop vendors displaying their wares along the banks, their stalls full of bric-a-brac, records, or books – the latter he could never resist perusing, perhaps with a hot crêpe wrapped up in wax paper in one hand, dripping hot sugar and lemon down his chin, while he browsed, forever hopeful that he might find that rare gem that he might be able to sell on in his own store.
But the calm hadn’t arrived nor the joy and he hadn’t been in the mood for crêpes…