Clementina was clearly offended.
Offended by my apparently uncouth utterance. Offended that I was not paying due reverence. Offended that I was thinking money, when I should be appreciating the art. Offended in the way that only a seventeen-year-old can be offended.
She was able simultaneously to be both a child and a world-weary adult. Neither of whom was accepting of my situation; both of whom were deeply saddened by my obvious circumstances.
She was saddened that I could live in a world like this.
Some people are saddened about famine in Africa. Some are saddened about wars or religious fundamentalists imposing their unyielding doctrines on populations, killing and mutilating children and innocent adults. Clementina was saddened and offended—on my behalf—that the world of jewelry and the exquisite pleasure of fine gems set in delicate pieces of lovingly shaped precious metal had been withheld from me.
She knew—as only one who had been indoctrinated into the secret society knew—that if I had been exposed to the world of bijouterie, then I would appreciate the treat that was waiting for me.
What she didn’t know was that I hated being patronized by seventeen-year-olds. Even if their father was paying me. Not that we had actually done anything as tedious as agreeing a fee.
Or talking. Even on the phone.
Instead, a few hours earlier—before I had been introduced to Clementina—Reece, our chauffeur, had met me at the designated location at the top corner of Place de la Concorde. During the revolution, it was called Place de la Révolution and was the location where many nobles were guillotined, including Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. After the revolution, it was renamed as a gesture of reconciliation.
I had arrived on the Eurostar from Brussels an hour before that, having received a call the previous evening. Once I was in Paris, the largest public square in the city seemed like a convenient place to meet. It wasn’t as if I had any luggage to lug—I had what I wore and as I waited, I pulled my leather jacket against the biting chill as the weather turned from late autumn into early winter.
As the Maybach—in truth, a Mercedes with a posh frock—pulled in, I hoped my newfound temporary employment with the current aristocracy—that heady mix of money and business—wouldn’t see me lose my head.
I approached the driver—the man who I now knew as Reece—and introduced myself. He seemed delighted to meet me. He was like a kid who had been made to play on his own for months but who had now been given a friend. A friend who couldn’t run away.
While Reece drove me back to what he called the apartment, but which was more of a mansion set several floors above street level and which just happened to have other people living below, I grew to understand the driver’s priorities.
His first priority was food. Apparently, the cook was sick at the moment. This greatly disappointed Reece—although his disappointment was nowhere near the level of disappointment that Clementina encountered when I muttered that if you need to ask the price, you can’t afford it. With the cook being sick, food preparation duties had fallen to the housekeeper. The housekeeper, according to Reece, was a good cook, but nowhere near as good as the cook, hence, this morning’s breakfast had not been up to Reece’s usual expectations.
“But they can make coffee?” I asked.
“The coffee is good,” said Reece before telling me about his second priority: his quarters. The apartment where the family lived came with two service apartments—he took one and the housekeeper, and current purveyor of disappointing food, took the other. Cook lived out; she was a local. Reece’s apartment was small—which he liked—and comfortable. He declared himself delighted with his accommodations and thrilled that it took less than 90 seconds to reach the family’s apartment.
Having two parking spaces under the block was also a boon for Reece, although my guess was that this was a requirement by the family and wasn’t a choice to ease the life of their chauffeur. He continued: “Two storerooms.” I wasn’t sure what the advantage of two storerooms was—wouldn’t one big room be better, I wondered silently. Still, Reece thought it was good.
Reaching the apartment, I met Angeline Bautista, a pleasant Filipino woman who was working as the housekeeper for the apartment and currently performing cooking duties, much to Reece’s disappointment. She had taken the other service apartment, but unlike Reece, who accompanied the family from the UK, she came with the apartment—or at least had been provided by the agency handling the apartment as part of the deal.
Reece guided me to one of the barstools along the counter demarcating the edge of the kitchen area. From the side, it looked like a small kitchen with a big counter. Viewed from the other angle, it was a huge kitchen with a comparatively small counter that was wide enough for four or five seats.
I sat without viewing the apartment further, without being introduced to anyone apart from Angeline, but was aware that behind me there was an aircraft hangar’s worth of space that was sparsely furnished. And somewhere beyond the leather-covered floor that stretched in all directions, I was sure there were other rooms—bedrooms, bathrooms, dressing rooms—hidden from view.
Angeline Bautista’s English and French were both labored and heavily accented. My Filipino was limited to three or four words, so we conversed in French. Not that there was much to talk about—she asked me if I wanted a coffee, and after that Reece took the opportunity to talk to me, his new best friend forever. And it felt like forever—I had no escape.
“Is the boss around?” I asked. Angeline and Reece looked at me blankly, as if I was describing an incomprehensible new idea.
Reece looked as if to ask: “Why?”
“I thought I was going to chat with him,” I said weakly.
The driver frowned. “Is something unclear?”
“I thought he was going to explain what I’m meant to be doing.” My tone was apologetic.
“Keep the paparazzi away from Clementina,” said Reece. Angeline nodded her affirmation. “They’ll explain later.”
“The lawyer and the media relations guy,” said Reece. “I guess they’ll explain.”
“So we wait for them?” I asked.
Reece shook his head, the disenchantment evident. “If only.”
Somewhere in a passageway leading to an area I couldn’t see, there was the sound of movement. Footsteps. Lazy footsteps. Soft shoes being dragged over the leather floor covering. To the right, a figure appeared.
Female. Slim. Five eight. Long blond hair, styled with a just-got-out-of-bed look, which may have been due to her just getting out of bed. Her age could be anything between early teens and late twenties. She was wearing fluffy white slippers, which she was dragging across the floor without picking up her feet; light, but slightly elasticated cotton pants, cream with brown patterns; and a sweatshirt emblazoned with intricate embroidery and diamanté swirls. Her clothes were not so much as clean, but rather they looked brand new.
Reece placed a hand on my arm and gently shook his head. He released my arm and lifted a finger to his lips.
The female continued into the kitchen and opened the fridge, which was taller than her. She stepped toward the appliance and was hidden behind the door, apart from her fluffy feet, which remained visible below the stainless steel door. After a few moments she appeared again with a one-liter smoothie bottle from which she poured herself a glass before returning the bottle.
She picked up the glass, then shuffled in the direction she had come before stopping. She turned to Angeline. “Have you seen my… with the…?” She pointed absentmindedly to her chest as if outlining a pattern. The housekeeper nodded and half walked, half ran out of the kitchen.
“I’ll just…” she said to Reece. “Five minutes.”
“I’ll be ready,” said the driver. “This is Leathan, by the way.”
“Hi.” She turned to face me and confidently made eye contact, a broad smile spreading across her face, which had the makeup-free perfection that is granted only to teenagers, and then only the lucky few teenagers.
“Hi,” I said. She broke the gaze and shuffled off.
As she left the room, Reece said: “And now you’ve met Clementina. She’s in quite a chatty mood this morning.” He paused, then continued. “Do you want another coffee?”
“I thought she said five minutes.”
“She did,” said Reece. “But you don’t start counting those five minutes until she’s actually in the car and ready to go. It usually takes less than five minutes for whatever she’s forgotten to be retrieved. It’ll be another forty-five minutes before she’s ready.”
Fifty minutes later she was back with us. The hair no longer had that just-got-out-of-bed look, mutating to some sort of perfect straightness, and her face was now hidden behind a mask of makeup. It took another fifteen minutes until she was ready and then gave her instruction: “Rue de la Paix.”
I knew Rue de la Paix. Or rather, I knew of the street and had been there many years ago. But it’s not what you would call my thing. The guidebooks will tell you why. Two words are prevalent in any description: fashionable and jewelry.
And as we sat in the car—Reece driving, Clementina and me in the back; she had pulled me in with her before realizing that I was staff—I made my comment. I said the only thing I knew about jewelry in Rue de la Paix: There are no price tags. European legislation mandates that every item for sale has a visible price tag showing the full price, including any sales tax, but jewelry in Rue de la Paix has a special dispensation.
“Of course!” said Clementina, “It’s art! You can’t put a price on such beauty.”
“And yet somehow the stores manage to find a price to charge you,” I muttered, sparking Clementina’s offense. She was offended by my comment and by my obvious ignorance. She then decided she was offended that she was sitting with staff. Then she was offended that they—whoever they were—had deemed that she needed a babysitter.
The offense lasted until we drew near, when the childlike excitement about sparkly things took over. As the Maybach slipped into Place Vendôme, the square that meets Rue de la Paix, she was barely able to contain her excitement and was happy to forget her offense if I could somehow be persuaded to acknowledge the beauty of what we were about to see.
As we walked into the store, superficially she and I were dressed the same: We were both wearing jeans and a leather jacket.
But there was no way you would say we were dressed the same. My jeans had an American brand. Hers were a high-fashion label—at least, I assumed that was high fashion. My definition of high fashion was anything I hadn’t heard of and looked expensive. The leather of her jacket was a different grade than mine—it had a fine grain and looked to be softer than a baby’s skin. Under her jacket she seemed to be wearing a white T-shirt where I was wearing a light blue Oxford shirt. I was sure her T-shirt cost more than my jeans, jacket, and shirt together.
And whatever that unspoken difference between us was, the shop assistants could smell the difference. As far as they were concerned, I was a piece of glass to be looked through. Clementina was their target, and they all cooed around her like pigeons fighting over a lump of bread.
The trays were out. Necklaces were draped around her. Bangles and bracelets laid over her arms. Earrings—some small, some with gems, and some dangling monstrosities—were all held up to her earlobes. And any number of brooches and other attachable sparkly adornments were laid out in front of Clementina.
There was silver, gold, platinum, and metal of different shades that I would have thought was cheap rubbish, except the lack of price tags told me otherwise. The stones were all colors of the spectrum and more. Greens, reds, blues, in various hues, shades, and darknesses—set on their own and in clusters with other gems, their colors setting off one another.
Politely, and in rudimentary but passable French, Clementina had cleared away all of the staff with the exception of one fastidious and highly attentive man, and had sent away most of the jewels. She was now busy painstakingly assessing each piece, checking her look in the mirror as she held up an earring or laid a necklace. She slipped off her baby-soft jacket, placed it on the carpet next to her bag, and continued trying the jewels. When she saw something she thought she liked, her phone would appear and she would snap a selfie.
Within five minutes, her phone was pinging with alerts. She tapped out a few swift messages, took more selfies, and sent the attentive little man to find more for her to try and to photograph. There was another peal of pings, and she returned her attention to her phone, checking for the responses.
“What do you think of this?” she asked, holding up a very delicate necklace. To me it looked silver, but I guessed it was platinum.
“Looks good,” I said, not knowing what to say. As I’ve said, jewelry isn’t my thing.
“Say more than that,” said Clementina, clearly disappointed in my response.
She exaggerated a shrug back.
I held out my hands, letting her see both sides. Then I pushed back my sleeves to show there was nothing around my wrists before I indicated my earlobes, each lacking any adornment. Finally, I tugged down my collar to show I wasn’t wearing a necklace. “Do you see something missing? Something I don’t display?”
She paused, letting the expression on her face fall before talking. “Oh God, I’m sorry!” she said, throwing her hands over her mouth. “Leathan, I am so, so, sooo sorry. Now you mention it, it’s obvious: You’re missing any sense of style. Oh, you poor thing. I am so, so sorry.”
I should have been upset, but she managed to carry off the put-down with a certain aplomb.
I was about to say something when a camera flash lit the window, then another, and a third. The staff moved quickly and adjusted something in the windows. The room became fractionally darker, and the flashes diminished.
My phone rang. “It’s Reece. This is only the first course; the second wave is just pulling up on their bikes now. They know you’re in there, and they seem ready to sit it out.”
I cursed under my breath. “Have they twigged you’re with us?”
“Nah,” said the chauffeur.
“Good,” I said. “Then drive around the corner before they do. I’ll figure a way out and give you a call.”
“Right,” he said, and hung up.
“Is there a back exit?” I asked the woman behind the counter.
“No,” said the assistant, barely able to force herself to acknowledge that I—an obvious nothing—had fallen through the door to her exalted store.
“What do you do if there’s a fire?” I asked.
She shrugged and looked behind her.