By Michel Bussi
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Just after midnight on December 23, 1980, a night flight bound for Paris plummets toward the Swiss Alps, crashing into a snowy mountainside. Within seconds flames engulf the plane, which is filled with holiday travelers. Of the 169 passengers, all but one perish.
The sole survivor is a three-month-old girl–thrown from the airliner before fire consumes the cabin. But two infants were on board. Is “the Miracle Child of Mont Terri” Lyse-Rose or Emilie? The families of both girls step forward to claim the child. Dogged by bad luck, the Vitrals live a simple life, selling snacks from a van on the beaches of northern France. In contrast, the de Carvilles, who amassed a fortune in the oil business, are powerful-and dangerous.
Eighteen years later, a private detective tasked with solving the mystery of the girl known as “Lylie” is on the verge of giving up. As he contemplates taking his own life, Crédule Grand-Duc suddenly discovers a secret hidden in plain view. Will he live to tell it?
Meanwhile, Lylie, now a beautiful university student, entrusts a secret notebook into the hands of Marc, the brooding young man who loves her, and then vanishes. After Marc reads the notebook’s contents, he embarks on a frantic search for Lylie.
But he is not the only one looking for her.
Table of Contents
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December 23, 1980, 12:33 a.m.
The Airbus 5403, flying from Istanbul to Paris, suddenly plummeted. In a dive lasting less than ten seconds, the plane sank over three thousand feet, before stabilizing once again. Most of the passengers had been asleep. They woke abruptly, with the terrifying sensation that they had nodded off while strapped to a rollercoaster.
Izel was woken not by the turbulence, but by the screaming. After nearly three years spent traveling the world with Turkish Airlines, she was used to a few jolts. She had been on a break, asleep for less than twenty minutes, and had scarcely opened her eyes when her colleague Meliha thrust her aged, fleshy bosom toward her.
"Izel? Izel? Hurry up! This is serious. There's a big storm outside. Zero visibility, according to the captain. You take one aisle and I'll take the other."
Izel's face bore the weary expression of an experienced flight attendant who wasn't about to panic over such a small thing. She got up from her seat, adjusted her suit, pulling slightly at the hem of her skirt, then moved toward the right-hand aisle.
The passengers were no longer screaming, and they looked more surprised than worried as the airplane continued to pitch. Izel went from one person to the next, calmly reassuring them: "Everything's fine. Don't worry. We're just going through a little snowstorm over the Jura Mountains. We'll be in Paris in less than an hour."
Izel's smile wasn't forced. Her mind was already wandering toward Paris. She would stay there for three days, until Christmas, and she was giddy with excitement at the prospect.
She addressed her words of comfort in turn to a ten-year-old boy holding tightly to his grandmother's hand, a handsome young businessman with a rumpled shirt, a Turkish woman wearing a veil, and an old man curled up fearfully with his hands between his knees. He shot her an imploring look.
"Everything's fine, honestly."
Izel was calmly proceeding down the aisle when the Airbus lurched sideways again. A few people screamed. "When do we start doing the loop-de-loop?" shouted a young man sitting to her right, who was holding a Walkman, his voice full of false cheer.
A trickle of nervous laughter was drowned out almost immediately by the screams of a young baby. The child was lying in a baby carrier just a few feet in front of Izel—a little girl, only a few months old, wearing a white dress with orange flowers under a knitted beige sweater.
"No, madame," Izel called out. "No!"
The mother, sitting next to the baby, was unbuckling her belt so she could lean over to her daughter.
"No, madame," Izel insisted. "You must keep your seat belt on. It's very important…"
The woman did not even bother turning around, never mind replying to the flight attendant. Her long hair fell over the baby carrier. The baby screamed even louder. Izel, unsure what to do, moved toward them.
The plane plunged again. Three seconds, maybe another 3,000 feet.
There were a few brief screams, but most of the passengers were silent. Dumbstruck. They knew now that the airplane's movements were not merely due to bad weather. Jolted by the dive, Izel fell sideways. Her elbow hit the Walkman, smashing it into the young guy's chest. She straightened up again immediately, not even taking the time to apologize. In front of her, the three-month-old girl was still crying. Her mother was leaning over her again, unbuckling the child's seat belt.
"No, madame! No…"
Cursing, Izel tugged her skirt back down over her ripped tights. What a nightmare. She would have earned those three days of pleasure in Paris…
Everything happened very fast after that.
For a brief moment, Izel thought she could hear another baby crying, like an echo, somewhere else on the airplane, farther off to her left. The Walkman guy's hand brushed her nylon-covered thighs. The old Turkish man had put one arm around his veiled wife's shoulder and was holding the other one up, as if begging Izel to do something. The baby's mother had stood up and was reaching over to pick up her daughter, freed now from the straps of the baby carrier.
These were the last things Izel saw before the Airbus smashed into the mountainside.
The collision propelled Izel thirty feet across the floor, into the emergency exit. Her two shapely legs were twisted like those of a plastic doll in the hands of a sadistic child; her slender chest was crushed against metal; her left temple exploded against the corner of the door.
Izel was killed instantly. In that sense, she was luckier than most.
She did not see the lights go out. She did not see the airplane being mangled and squashed like a tin can as it crashed into the forest, the trees sacrificing themselves one by one as the Airbus gradually slowed.
And, when everything had finally stopped, she did not detect the spreading smell of kerosene. She felt no pain when the explosion ripped apart her body, along with those of the other twenty-three passengers who were closest to the blast.
She did not scream when flames filled the cabin, trapping the one hundred and forty-five survivors.
Eighteen Years Later
September 29, 1998, 11:40 p.m.
Now you know everything.
Crédule Grand-Duc lifted his pen and stared into the clear water at the base of the large vivarium just in front of him. For a few moments, his eyes followed the despairing flight of the Harlequin dragonfly that had cost him almost 2,500 francs less than three weeks ago. A rare species, one of the world's largest dragonflies, an exact replica of its prehistoric ancestor. The huge insect flew from one glass wall to another, through a frenzied swarm of dozens of other dragonflies. Prisoners. Trapped.
They all sensed they were dying.
Pen touched paper once again. Crédule Grand-Duc's hand shook nervously as he wrote.
In this notebook, I have reviewed all the clues, all the leads, all the theories I have found in eighteen years of investigation. It is all here, in these hundred or so pages. If you have read them carefully, you will now know as much as I do. Perhaps you will be more perceptive than I. Perhaps you will find something I have missed. The key to the mystery, if one exists. Perhaps…
For me, it's over.
The pen hesitated again, and was held trembling just an inch above the paper. Crédule Grand-Duc's blue eyes stared emptily into the still waters of the vivarium, then turned their gaze toward the fireplace, where large flames were devouring a tangle of newspapers, files, and cardboard storage boxes. Finally, he looked down again and continued.
It would be an exaggeration to say that I have no regrets, but I have done my best.
Crédule Grand-Duc stared at this last line for a long time, then slowly closed the pale green notebook.
He placed the pen in a pot on the desk, and stuck a yellow Post-it note to the cover of the notebook. Then he picked up a felt-tip pen and wrote on the Post-it, in large letters, for Lylie. He pushed the notebook to the edge of the desk and stood up.
Grand-Duc's gaze lingered for a few moments on the copper plaque in front of him: CRÉDULE GRAND-DUC, PRIVATE DETECTIVE. He smiled ironically. Everybody called him Grand-Duc nowadays, and they had done for some time. Nobody—apart from Emilie and Marc Vitral—used his ludicrous first name. Anyway, that was before, when they were younger. An eternity ago.
Grand-Duc walked toward the kitchen. He took one last look at the gray, stainless-steel sink, the white octagonal tiles on the floor, and the pale wood cabinets, their doors closed. Everything was in perfect order, clean and tidy; every trace of his previous life had been carefully wiped away, as if this were a rented house that had to be returned to its owner. Grand-Duc was a meticulous man and always would be, until his dying breath. He knew that. That explained many things. Everything, in fact.
He turned and walked back toward the fireplace until he could feel the heat on his hands. He leaned down and threw two storage boxes into the flames, then stepped back to avoid the shower of sparks.
A dead end.
He had devoted thousands of hours to this case, examining each clue in the most minute detail. All those clues, those notes, all that research was now going up in smoke. Every trace of this investigation would disappear in the space of a few hours.
Eighteen years of work for nothing. His whole life was summarized in this auto-da-fé, to which he was the only witness.
In fourteen minutes, Lylie would be eighteen years old, officially at least… Who was she? Even now, he still couldn't be certain. It was a one-in-two chance, just as it had been on that very first day. Heads or tails.
Lyse-Rose or Emilie?
He had failed. Mathilde de Carville had spent a fortune—eighteen years' worth of salary—for nothing.
Grand-Duc returned to the desk and poured himself another glass of Vin Jaune. From the special reserve of Monique Genevez, aged for fifteen years: this was, perhaps, the single good memory he had retained from this investigation. He smiled as he brought the glass of wine to his lips. A far cry from the caricature of the aging alcoholic detective, Grand-Duc was more the type of man to dip sparingly into his wine cellar, and only on special occasions. Lylie's birthday, tonight, was a very special occasion. It also marked the final minutes of his life.
The detective drained the glass of wine in a single mouthful.
This was one of the few sensations he would miss: the inimitable taste of this distinctive yellow wine burning deliciously as it moved through his body, allowing him to forget for a moment this obsession, the unsolvable mystery to which he had devoted his life.
Grand-Duc put the glass back on the desk and picked up the pale green notebook, wondering whether to open it one last time. He looked at the yellow Post-it: for Lylie.
This was what would remain: this notebook, these pages, written over the last few days… For Lylie, for Marc, for Mathilde de Carville, for Nicole Vitral, for the police and the lawyers, and whoever else wished to explore this endless hall of mirrors.
It was a spellbinding read, without a doubt. A masterpiece. A thrilling mystery to take your breath away. And it was all there… except for the end.
He had written a thriller that was missing its final page, a whodunit in which the last five lines had been erased.
Future readers would probably think themselves cleverer than he. They would undoubtedly believe that they could succeed where he had failed, that they could find the solution.
For many years he had believed the same thing. He had always felt certain that proof must exist somewhere, that the equation could be resolved. It was a feeling, only a feeling, but it wouldn't go away… That certainty had been what had driven him on until this deadline: today, Lylie's eighteenth birthday. But perhaps it was only his subconscious that had kept this illusion alive, to prevent him from falling into utter despair. It would have been so cruel to have spent all those years searching for the key to a problem that had no solution.
The detective reread his final words: I have done my best.
Grand-Duc decided not to tidy up the empty bottle and the used glass. The police and the forensics people examining his body a few hours from now would not be worried about an unwashed glass. His blood and his brains would be splashed in a thick puddle across this mahogany desk and these polished floorboards. And should his disappearance not be noticed for a while, which seemed highly likely (who would miss him, after all?), it would be the stench of his corpse that would alert the neighbors.
In the hearth, he noticed a scrap of cardboard that had escaped the flames. He bent down and threw it into the fire.
Slowly, Grand-Duc moved toward the mahogany writing desk that occupied the corner of the room facing the fireplace. He opened the middle drawer and took his revolver from its leather holster. It was a Mateba, in mint condition, its gray metal barrel glimmering in the firelight. The detective's hand probed more deeply inside the desk and brought out three 38mm bullets. With a practiced movement he spun the cylinder and gently inserted the bullets.
One would be enough, even given his relatively inebriated state, even though he would probably tremble and hesitate. Because he would undoubtedly manage to press the gun to his temple, hold it firmly, and squeeze the trigger. He couldn't miss, even with the contents of a bottle of wine in his bloodstream.
He placed the revolver on the desk, opened the left-hand drawer, and took out a newspaper: a very old and yellowed copy of Est Républicain. This macabre set piece had been in his mind for months, a symbolic ritual that would help him to end it all, to rise above the labyrinth forever.
The detective glanced over at the vivarium, where the dragonflies were making their dirgelike rattles and hums. The power supply had been off for the last thirty minutes. Deprived of oxygen and food, the dragonflies would not survive the week. And he had spent so much money buying the rarest and oldest species; he had spent hours, years of his life, looking after the vivarium, feeding them, breeding them, even employing someone to look after them when he was away.
All that effort, just to let them die.
It's actually quite an agreeable feeling, Grand-Duc thought, to sit in judgment on the life and death of another: to protect only in order to condemn, to give hope in order to sacrifice. To play with fate, like a cunning, capricious god. After all, he, too, had been the victim of just such a sadistic deity.
Crédule Grand-Duc sat on the chair behind the desk and unfolded the copy of the Est Républicain, dated December 23, 1980. Once again, he read the front page: "The Miracle of Mont Terrible."
Beneath the banner headline was a rather blurred photograph showing the carcass of a crashed airplane, uprooted trees, snow muddied by rescue workers. Under the photograph, the disaster was described in a few lines:
The Airbus 5403, flying from Istanbul to Paris, crashed into Mont Terri, on the Franco-Swiss border, last night. Of the 169 passengers and flight crew on board, 168 were killed upon impact or perished in the flames. The sole survivor was a baby, three months old, thrown from the plane when it collided with the mountainside, before the cabin was consumed by fire.
When Grand-Duc died, he would fall forward onto the front page of this newspaper. His blood would redden the photograph of the tragedy that had taken place eighteen years earlier; it would mingle with the blood of those one hundred and sixty-eight victims. He would be found this way, a few days or a few weeks later. No one would mourn him. Certainly not the de Carvilles. Perhaps the Vitrals would feel sad at his passing. Emilie, Marc… Nicole in particular.
He would be found, and the notebook would be given to Lylie: the story of her short life. His testament.
Grand-Duc looked at his reflection one more time in the copper plaque, and felt almost proud. It was a good ending: much better than what had gone before.
It was time.
He carefully positioned the newspaper in front of him, moved his chair forward, and took a firm grip of the revolver. His palms were sweaty. Slowly he lifted his arm.
He shivered, in spite of himself, when the cold metal of the gun barrel touched his temple. But he was ready.
He tried to empty his mind, not to think about the bullet, an inch or two from his brain, that would smash through his skull and kill him…
His index finger bent around the trigger. All he had to do now was squeeze and it would all be over.
Eyes open or closed?
A bead of sweat rolled down his forehead and fell onto the newspaper.
Eyes open. Now do it.
He leaned forward. For the final time, his gaze rested on the photograph of the burned-out cabin, and the other photograph of the fireman standing in front of the hospital in Montbéliard, carefully holding that bluish body. The miracle baby.
His index finger tightened around the trigger.
His eyes were lost in the black ink of the newspaper's front page. Everything blurred. The bullet would perforate his temple, without the slightest resistance. All he had to do was squeeze a little harder, just a fraction of an inch. He stared into eternity. The black ink below him came into focus again, as if he were playing with the lens of a camera. This would be his final view of the world, before everything went dark forever.
His finger. The trigger.
His eyes wide open.
Grand-Duc felt an electric shock run through him. Something unimaginable had just happened.
Because what he was looking at was impossible. He knew that perfectly well.
His finger relaxed its pressure slightly.
To begin with, Grand-Duc thought it must be an illusion, a hallucination provoked by his imminent death, some kind of defense mechanism dreamed up by his brain…
But no. What he had seen, what he read in that newspaper, was real. The paper was yellowed by age, the ink somewhat smeared, and yet there could be no doubt whatsoever.
It was all there.
The detective's mind started working frantically. He had come up with so many theories over the years of the investigation, hundreds of them. But now he knew where to begin, which thread to pull, and the whole tangled web came apart with disconcerting simplicity.
It was all so obvious.
He lowered his pistol and laughed like a madman.
He had done it!
The solution to the mystery had been here, on the front page of this newspaper, from the very beginning. And yet it had been absolutely impossible to discover this solution at the time, eighteen years ago. Everyone had read this newspaper, pored over it, analyzed it thousands of times, but no one could possibly have guessed the truth, back in 1980, or during the years that followed.
The solution was so obvious: it jumped out at you… but on one condition.
The newspaper had to be looked at eighteen years later.
October 2, 1998, 8:27 a.m.
Were they lovers, or brother and sister?
The question had been nagging at Mariam for almost a month. She ran the Lenin Bar, at the crossroads of Avenue de Stalingrad and Rue de la Liberté, a few yards from the forecourt of the University of Paris VIII in Saint-Denis. At this hour of the morning, the bar was still mostly empty, and Mariam took advantage of the quiet to clean tabletops and arrange chairs.
The couple in question were sitting at the back of the café, as they usually did, near the window, at a tiny table for two, holding hands and looking deep into each other's blue eyes.
Mariam sighed. The lack of certainty bothered her. She generally had a keen instinct when it came to her students' love lives. She snapped out of it: she still had to wipe down the tables and sweep the floor; in a few minutes, thousands of stressed students would rush from the metro station Saint-Denis–Université, the terminus of Line 13. The station had only been open for four months, but already it had transformed the local area.
Mariam had seen the University of Paris VIII slowly change from its rebellious beginnings as the great university of humanities, society, and culture into a banal, well-behaved suburban learning center. Nowadays, most professors sulked when they were assigned to Paris VIII. They would rather be at the Sorbonne, or even Jussieu. Before the metro station opened, the professors had had to cross through Saint-Denis, to see a little of the surrounding area, but now, with the metro, that, too, was over. The professors boarded the metro on Line 13 and were whisked off toward the libraries, laboratories, ministries, and grand institutions of Parisian culture.
Mariam turned toward the counter to fetch a sponge, casting a furtive glance at the intriguing young couple: the pretty blond girl and the strapping, spellbound boy. She felt almost haunted by them.
Who were they?
Mariam had never understood the workings of higher education, with its modules and examinations and strikes, but no one knew better than she what the students did during their break time. She had never read Robert Castel, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, or Jacques Lacan, the star professors of Paris VIII—at most, she might have seen them once or twice, in her bar or in the campus forecourt—but nevertheless she considered herself an expert in the analysis, sociology, and philosophy of student love affairs. She was like a mother hen to some of her regulars and an advice columnist to others, helping them through their heartaches with professional skill.
But despite her experience, her famous intuition, she could not fathom the relationship between the couple at the window.
Emilie and Marc.
Shy lovers or affectionate relatives?
The uncertainty was maddening. Something about them didn't fit. They looked so alike, yet they were so different. Mariam knew their first names: she knew the first names of all her regulars.
Marc, the boy, had been studying at Paris VIII for two years now, and he came to the Lenin almost every day. A tall boy, good-looking, but a little too nice, like a disheveled "Little Prince." Daydreamy, and somewhat gauche: the kind of provincial student who still didn't know how things worked in Paris, and who lacked the money to look cool. As for his studies, he wasn't a fanatic. As far as she understood, he was studying European law, but for the past two years, he had seemed very calm and thoughtful. Now Mariam understood why.
He had been waiting for her. His Emilie.
She had arrived this year, in September, so she must be two or three years younger than he.
They shared certain traits. That slightly low-class accent, which Mariam could not locate, but which was indisputably the same. And yet, in Emilie's case, the accent somehow seemed wrong; it did not fit her personality. The same could be said of her name: Emilie was too ordinary, too bland for a girl like that. Emilie, like Marc, was blond and, like Marc, she had blue eyes. But while Marc's gestures and expressions were clumsy, simple, unoriginal, there was a je-ne-sais-quoi about Emilie, a strikingly different way of moving, a kind of nobility in the way she held her head, a purebred elegance and grace that seemed to suggest aristocratic genes, a privileged education.
And that was not the only mystery. In terms of money, Emilie's standard of living appeared to be the very opposite of Marc's. Mariam had a knack for evaluating, in an instant, the quality and cost of the clothing worn by her students, from H&M and Zara to Yves Saint Laurent.
Emilie did not wear Yves Saint Laurent, but she wasn't far off. What she was wearing today—a simple, elegant orange silk blouse and a black, asymmetrical skirt—had undoubtedly cost a small fortune. Emilie and Marc might be from the same place, but they did not belong to the same world.
And yet they were inseparable.
There was a complicity between them that could not be created in only a few months at the university. It was as if they had lived together all their lives, perceptible in the countless protective gestures that Marc made toward Emilie: a hand on her shoulder, a chair pulled out for her, a door held open, a glass filled without asking. It was the way a big brother would behave toward a little sister.
Mariam wiped down a chair and put it back in position, her mind still churning over the enigma of Marc and Emilie.
It was as if Marc had spent the previous two years preparing the ground for Emilie's arrival, keeping her seat warm in the lecture hall, a table near the window in the Lenin. Mariam sensed that Emilie was a brilliant student, quick-witted, ambitious and determined. Artistic. Literary. She could see that determination whenever the girl took out a book or a folder, in the way she would skim confidently over notes that Marc would take hours to master.
So, could they be brother and sister, in spite of their social differences?
Well, yes. Except that Marc was in love with Emilie!
That, too, was blindingly obvious.
He did not love her like a brother, but like a devoted lover. It was clear to Mariam from the first moment she saw them together. A fever, a passion, completely unmistakable.
Mariam did not have a clue what this could mean.
She had been shamelessly spying on them for a month now. She had glanced furtively at the names on files, essays, placed on the table. She knew their surname.
But ultimately, that did not help. The logical supposition was that they were brother and sister. But then what about those incestuous gestures? The way Marc touched Emilie's lower back… Or perhaps they were married. She was only eighteen: very young for a student to marry, but not impossible. And, of course, it was technically possible that they just happened to have the same name, but Mariam could not believe in such a coincidence, unless they were cousins or belonged to a more complicated kind of family, with stepparents or half siblings…
Emilie seemed very fond of Marc. But her expression was more complex, difficult to read. She often seemed to stare into space, particularly when she was alone, as if she were hiding something, a deep sadness… It was that melancholy that gave Emilie a subtle distance, a different kind of charm from that of all the other girls on campus. All of the boys in the Lenin stared hungrily at her, but—probably because of that reserve—none of them dared to approach her.
None except Marc.
Emilie was his. That was why he was here. Not for his courses. Not for the university. He was here purely so he could be with her, so he could protect her.
But what about the rest? Mariam had often tried talking with Emilie and Marc, chatting about any old subject, but she had never learned anything intimate. But one day, she was determined she would find out their secret…
She was cleaning the last tables when Marc raised his hand.
"Mariam, could you bring us two coffees, please, and a glass of water for Emilie?"
Mariam smiled to herself. Marc never drank coffee when he was alone, but always ordered one when he was with Emilie.
"No problem, lovebirds!" Mariam replied.
Testing the water.
- "Riveting! Bussi spins psychological suspense at its finest with this consuming tale of one child, two families, and the dark secrets that define us all. Clear your schedule; this book is worth it!"—Lisa Gardner, #1 New York Times-bestselling author of Crash & Burn and Find Her
- "After the Crash is a jolt to the senses and a jolt to the heart--both rollicking and labyrinthine, both wildly propulsive and yet rich with grand drama, and with a cast of characters--particularly its sumptuously powerful women--you won't forget."—Megan Abbott, author of The Fever and the forthcoming You Will Know Me
- "Wonderfully ingenious and altogether satisfying."—Marilyn Stasio, New York Times Book Review
- "This fascinating tale of intrigue and murder delves into complicated family bonds as it builds to a surprising and shocking conclusion."—Publishers Weekly
- "Fast-paced and action-packed, this thriller is adrenaline pumping. Bussi offers a smart, complex mystery with plenty of plausible twists and surprises ... An engrossing story that's almost impossible to put down."—Shelf Awareness
- "A novel so extraordinary that it reminded me of reading Stieg Larsson for the very first time...I doubt I'll read a more brilliant crime novel this year."—Sunday Times (UK)
- "You find yourself quite frantic to know the truth, before this cleverly constructed, smart mystery concludes by delivering a delicious sting in the tail."—Sunday Express (UK)
- "A richly satisfying story...a hugely enjoyable ride."—Irish Independent
- On Sale
- Jan 5, 2016
- Page Count
- 400 pages
- Hachette Books