Series: Model Under Cover
By Carina Axelsson
An Editor’s Exit
Surprisingly, since landing in Milan, Italy, I’ve had nothing but fun.
If you’re wondering why I say surprisingly…well, that’s because I’m here working as a fashion model…and modelling is something I definitely do not consider fun. In fact, as far as I’m concerned, the words fun and fashion are about as mismatched as Kate Moss and the Queen’s wardrobe.
And yet here I am in this sophisticated, bustling fashion capital, with a day of Italian Vogue behind me, and a week of castings, go-sees and bookings ahead of me and, remarkably, that relentless, gnawing frustration I normally feel when I wish I had a case to solve (which is basically always) isn’t eating away at me…at least not too much.
“I told you that at some point you’d start loving fashion and forget all about being the next Sherlock Holmes,” my modelling BFF, Ellie B, teased as we prepared to step out of our model flat. Our modelling agency, Calypso Model Management, had organized it for us for the duration of our stay in Milan.
“Yeah, right,” I said as I rolled my eyes and quickly looked through my black quilted leather Mulberry rucksack, making sure I had the supplies I’d need for a day of modelling in the studio:
My modelling book (or portfolio). A model never leaves home without it!
Zed cards – or comp cards – in the pocket of the book.
Seamless skin-tone coloured underwear, just in case the white stuff I was wearing showed through the clothes I’d be modelling later.
A small cosmetics bag filled with make-up remover, cotton discs, moisturizer and a hairbrush – so I could leave the studio without looking as made up as an ancient Egyptian queen.
My phone. For research…after all, a case could come up at any moment…
Speaking of which…
“Frankly, Ellie,” I said after I closed my rucksack and quickly bent to tie the laces on my Converse, “I think my having fun here has less to do with a sudden passion for fashion than it does with the fact that I’ve just finished solving a case… I haven’t even had chance to think about a new mystery yet…
“Anyway,” I continued, as we shut our flat door behind us and clattered down the cool, stone stairwell of the building, “maybe even detectives need holidays…” I thought of all the sights Sebastian and I planned on seeing within the next few days – and after failing to show him any in London last week, I was really looking forward to catching up now.
I met Sebastian, my case-cracking partner (and, yes, the guy I’ve been “seeing” over the last few months) in Paris, where he lives. To begin with we mostly only saw each other on Skype, but last week he finally came to visit me in London.
Unfortunately, I ended up being totally sidetracked by a tricky case involving a mysterious memory stick full of fashion images. I spent the week in a race with the past, digging for clues in order to solve the case before someone got hurt. In the end I cracked it, but not before I’d also ruined all the plans Sebastian had so carefully made. A pang of guilt shot through me as I thought about it. This week, I told myself, things will be different…
“If only your parents could hear you,” Ellie laughed as she skipped down the stairs beside me. “Detectives need holidays too…not thinking about a new case…no mystery to solve… I’m not sure I believe you, but it sounds good!”
“Ha ha.” I gently yanked her braid.
But Ellie had a point – I wasn’t sure I believed myself – and I was sure my mum wouldn’t if she heard. In fact, on our way to the airport on Sunday, Mum’s conversation (I use the term loosely) had basically been one long, stern warning against getting involved in any more dangerous mysteries.
“Life isn’t a game of Cluedo, you know, Axelle,” she’d said. “It’ll be better for all of us if you concentrate on your modelling this summer.”
I pushed my glasses up the bridge of my nose and brought my mind back to Ellie. “Yeah, well,” I said as we reached the bottom of the stairs, “my parents won’t have anything to worry about this time. The agency here has filled every time slot in my schedule, plus Sebastian and I have so much sightseeing to do that I’m not sure how I’ll be able to fit it all in between the modelling assignments. Besides,” I whispered, “with you-know-who standing guard over us…” I nodded towards the courtyard, where a short, round figure stood watering the plants in the morning sun, “I’ll be lucky if I’m allowed to breathe – let alone chase after suspects.”
“You have a point,” Ellie said as she stopped to apply some lip balm to her full, pouty lips and glanced at Signora Buonanotte.
Ellie and I were staying on our own in the model flat – something my mum had never allowed before. At first I thought she’d relented because Ellie is a couple of years older than I am and, as a newly minted supermodel, knows the ins and outs of working abroad. Besides, even a mum can go with the flow sometimes, right?
Upon landing in Milan on Sunday evening, Ellie and I had been picked up at Linate Airport by the car service the agency had arranged. From there we’d been driven straight to the model flat near Porta Romana, and within five minutes of stepping out of the car I’d understood the reason why my mum had been so cool with the idea…
Signora Buonanotte was the building’s caretaker but apparently she’d been assigned to look after me too – or, more specifically, to make sure that I didn’t stay out late. If I wasn’t back at the flat by 10 p.m. sharp every night, she’d call my agency.
“But why is she only looking out for me? What about you?” I’d asked Ellie on Sunday night as Mrs B glared at us.
Ellie whispered. “I’m eighteen. You’re only sixteen. Agencies can get into trouble if they’re not seen to be looking after underage models.”
This much was true: Calypso had had a file of papers about working hours ready for me to sign, and I’d had to have a doctor’s appointment to check my health – all because I was sixteen.
As we left the courtyard Ellie turned to me. “Well, sightseeing plans and modelling aside,” she said, “just remember that fashion never sleeps. You might be dragged into a case before you know it.”
A while later we were walking towards the wide open piazza in front of Milan’s towering cathedral, the Duomo. The cathedral dwarfed the square. I tilted my head back and gawked at the great structure, open-mouthed.
I’d arrived on Sunday night, and worked all day Monday (yesterday), and then had to do food shopping with Ellie after my booking had ended, so I hadn’t had time to see anything of Milan yet, which was why Ellie had promised to quickly show me the Duomo this morning before work. And while I instantly recognized the famous cathedral from Instagram (every model who goes to the Milan fashion shows takes a selfie at the Duomo) just looking at it left me speechless. Its steep, pitched roof is crowded with Gothic spires of varying heights, each one topped with a statue reaching for the sky.
Ellie pointed and said, “Can you see the Golden Madonna?” I followed her fingertip and, at the top of the tallest spire in the middle of the cathedral’s roof, I spotted a tiny golden statue (well, she looked tiny from this far below) serenely glinting in the early morning sun. “They say that no building in Milan should be higher than she is,” Ellie told me.
The square in front of the Duomo was already crowded and busy. Ellie and I slowly moved through the brightly clad tourists and chicly dressed locals. The early morning heat gave an unrushed, holiday feel to everything, along with the sounds of laughter, cooing pigeons, and the animated snippets of Italian that punctuated the warm summer air. All was friendly and relaxed; it was hard to imagine anyone ever being in a bad mood here, let alone committing a crime.
I turned to Ellie. “You might be right about fashion never sleeping,” I said, “but, seriously, I bet nothing sinister ever happens in a place as sunny as this…” I cut myself short, however, as another thought suddenly occurred to me.
Ellie had stopped to check her reflection in one of the windows of the covered arcade but now caught my eye in the glass, her eyebrows raised in curiosity. “Or?”
“Or maybe this is just the calm before the storm,” I laughed.
Ellie and I parted ways at the Duomo. From there I took the subway to Megastudio, the large complex of modern studios where I’d be shooting a day of editorial for the Italian magazine, Amare. Once there, I signed in at reception and was directed to Studio Three on the first floor.
The studio looked much like every studio I’d worked in so far: clean and airy, with white-painted walls, high ceilings, polished cement floors and ample space for a large set, hair and make-up area, as well as a separate dressing room. Sunlight streamed through the glass roof that covered the entire space, infusing the studio with good spirits. Taylor Swift was playing, while the air conditioning whirred in the background.
The photographer and his two studio assistants were busy getting the set ready for the first shot, while a digi-tech guy was at the computer. Hair and make-up, meanwhile, were laying their equipment out on the clean tables that stood against one of the windowless walls. Each table was placed directly underneath one very large and long mirror that had tubes of especially bright lights running all around its edges – not that we’d need the extra light this morning, the sun was so strong. In fact, the make-up artist, with the help of a studio assistant, was busy adjusting the roof blinds directly over the make-up area; if the light was too bright it would be hard to see how the make-up would look later on, under the softer light on set.
I said good morning to the whole team before loading up a plate with a couple of Italian-style croissants, a muffin and some fresh fruit salad from the breakfast buffet laid out at a small table near the entrance of the studio. With the plate in one hand and a cup of peppermint tea in the other, I walked to the hair and make-up area and sat down.
The photographer, Craig McLeod, was someone I’d met on a go-see when I’d been in New York City a few months earlier, and although I’d never worked with Giulia, the make-up artist, I knew of her by name. The fashion editor still hadn’t arrived, but through the open curtain that divided the dressing area from the rest of the studio, I could see her assistant steaming the wrinkles out of the colourful dresses I’d be wearing later. They hung on a clothing rack, a pretty jumble of sorbet-coloured shades, embroidered flowers, pastel tulle and even a canary-yellow fur jacket (fake, I hoped).
As for the hairstylist, Benoit, I’d met him a few months earlier in Paris; I’d been there for my first ever Fashion Week – and my first ever fashion case!
Benoit was happy to see me and while he started working on my hair, and I munched on my breakfast, we chatted about what we’d been doing since Paris – although I didn’t go into everything. After all, discretion is paramount if you want to be a good detective, and the last thing I needed was for the fashionistas to know that my real interest lay in solving fashion mysteries – or I’d be frozen out faster than you can say Dolce & Gabbana.
There was a sudden buzz of excitement at the studio’s entrance; Elisabetta Rinconi, the Amare fashion editor, rising international fashion star, and the woman in charge for the day, had just walked in. She was tipped to become the editor-in-chief of Amare one day. Today, however, was an accessories story and she’d be styling the shoot herself – as she always did.
Through the reflection of the mirror, I watched as she waved and said “Ciao!” to everyone before going straight to Craig. They exchanged a few ideas and discussed details of the day’s shoot, most of which I could hear from where I was sitting: colour and black-and-white shots, candy-coloured jewels, pretty frocks, some gloves, and a couple
of handbags. As for the day’s hair, make-up and styling, the inspirational starting point was the 1960 Italian movie, La Dolce Vita – so, glam, but updated for Amare’s edgy younger readers, with messy hair, little make-up and dewy skin.
A minute later Elisabetta came up behind Benoit and me. “Buongiorno, Axelle and Benoit. Sorry I’m late, but I haven’t been feeling well since very early this morning.” She brought her hand up to her forehead as if checking for a fever. “Headache, nausea, and a dry throat – so no kisses today, darlings,” she added. I guessed that also explained the enormous sunglasses perched on her delicate nose.
“I think I celebrated a little too much last night, but I’ll be fine,” she said. She caught my eye in the mirror. “I’ve pulled some really fabulous dresses for us today, Axelle. Benoit, would you mind letting Axelle try some things on for me right now?” He nodded and she beckoned me to follow her into the dressing room as soon as I could.
Benoit pinned my hair, so that the work he’d started wouldn’t be messed up as I tried the clothes, and I watched Elisabetta carefully as she teetered on her heels towards the dressing area.
For someone who wasn’t feeling well she still managed to pull off an impressively stylish look. Tall and lean (I’d heard she’d modelled a bit before becoming a stylist), she appeared to be in her mid-thirties, but with a fragile air that made her seem more like an über-cool older sister than an ambitious know-it-all fashion editor.
She wore black-and-white palazzo pants (they looked vintage), with a loud pattern that clashed (on purpose, no doubt) with her long-sleeved, black-and-white silk blouse. She’d tied the neck bow on the blouse loosely, and its long ends fluttered as she walked off in her red strappy sandals. A wicker basket with bright green fabric lining stood in as a handbag, adding a whimsical touch to her otherwise sophisticated ensemble. Generously cut diamond studs twinkled in her ears and a huge blue butterfly ring decorated her right hand. A thin diamond ring in the shape of a vine with thorns adorned her left hand. Her hair was nearly as long as her legs and hung, straight and clean, but slightly roughed up.
She looked amazing. I watched her out of the corner of my eye until she disappeared behind the curtain of the dressing area.
When I joined Elisabetta a few minutes later, I could see that beneath the glamour she was wilting quickly. Nevertheless, she put on a good show. While her assistant, Marzia, continued steaming dresses on the other side of the dressing area, Elisabetta turned to me. “It’s so nice to work with you, Axelle,” she said in her breathy, heavily accented English. “I’ve been following you since you started and I’m glad things are going so well for you.”
I thanked her and told her that modelling had turned out to be a lot more interesting than I’d thought it would be.
“Yes, too many people think fashion’s pure fluff.”
“I agree,” I answered lightly – the fashion crimes that came my way were anything but “fluff”.
Apart from this initial chit-chat, though, Elisabetta didn’t say much else and I wasn’t sure if that was just her way – aloof, fashionista-style – or whether she wasn’t feeling well enough to talk. After a minute Marzia turned to Elisabetta and spoke in rapid-fire Italian. From what I could make out Elisabetta declined Marzia’s offer of tea, but told Marzia to get something for herself and for me.
Elisabetta finally asked me to try on a dress and gloves – “No hats today,” she said to herself through pursed lips, looking ruefully at the colourful headgear laid out on the styling table, and handed me the gloves. “Craig does not like to shoot hats…”
I zipped myself up into a Dolce & Gabbana embroidered brocade dress and put on the gloves. I stood while Elisabetta eyed me, her long thin hands gently resting on her slim hips. Then she abruptly turned to the styling table and picked up a pair of large crystal chandelier earrings. She held these up to my ears, her head on one side as she assessed the look.
We were alone now in the dressing room; the curtain that separated us from the rest of the space was shut, dulling the noise of the studio.
As my eyes followed Elisabetta I couldn’t help but notice that she was moving more and more slowly, until she became noticeably clumsy. And she was drinking a lot of water. I watched as she reached yet again for a large bottle on a tray with glasses at one end of the styling table.
“My throat is so dry,” she said by way of explanation, “I shouldn’t have stayed up so late last night, even if it was to celebrate. I’m paying the price now. Ugh. The pain and the nausea…” She took a deep breath and emptied her water glass. I heard her mumble out loud as she turned and reached for her basket. “I should probably take something for my stomach – it still feels odd. I have to start feeling better by tonight. What I have to do is so important…”
I watched as she set her basket-bag down on the edge of the accessories table and attempted to look through its contents. I wanted to suggest that it might help if she removed her sunglasses, but the basket promptly fell off the table and half its contents spilled out. “Grazie, Axelle,” Elisabetta said as I rushed to help her pick up the various things. Then I poured her another glass of water and watched as she swallowed some pills for her stomach pain.
“I feel terrible,” she said. “I’m so sorry about this – and it’s your first Amare shoot, too. I hope you are not superstitious?”
“No,” I smiled.
“Good, me neither.” She tried to smile back. “Anyway, don’t worry – you and I will definitely work together
again – hopefully at some wonderful location to make up for today.”
Why fashionistas partied so much was beyond me. What was the point? Unless I had suspects to chase down, I found fashion parties so dull. Of course, Elisabetta had won a major award last night, so I suppose some celebrating was in order…but still…she really must have partied hard, judging by the way her skin had just gone from ghostly white to puke green right before my eyes.
By the time she asked me to try on a second outfit, she was slumped in a chrome and leather armchair near the far wall, between a small sofa and the edge of the long accessories table. Her basket lay at her feet. As per her instructions (she’d lifted her arm a bit and twirled her hand in the air) I moved a few steps back from her and turned in a circle so she could have a good look at my outfit.
I stood watching her, waiting for her to say something, but she didn’t. From behind her huge sunglasses she was inscrutable. I could imagine her sitting in the front row at the fashion shows with the exact same expression on her face. How often had I walked down the runway as various editors sat watching, sunglasses on, mouths glued shut, showing no visible signs of life?
I continued to wait for Elisabetta to make her final pronouncement. Did she like the ensemble she’d put together or did it need tweaking before I wore it on set later? The large-faced clock on the wall behind us ticked loudly in the silence.
Great, I thought, the day has only just begun and already it’s ticking by slowly. I won’t be able to buzz out of here for hours yet… At least I had my sightseeing with Sebastian to look forward to later. He was going to pick me up (on his rented Vespa scooter) at the studio this afternoon before we zoomed off to see Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous fresco, The Last Supper.
I was just about to ask Elisabetta what she thought about the outfit when I heard her cough. Okay, maybe “cough” wasn’t an accurate enough description. It was more like a gurgle that started from deep within her, then rose to the back of her throat. By the time it reached her lips it sounded less like a symptom of late-night excess and more like the noise you make stepping on a large bug with soft-soled shoes: painful and squelchy.
“Elisabetta?” I asked.
As I waited for her to answer I caught sight of my phone – it was lying on the table next to me, lit up with a message from Sebastian:
What time shall I pick you up? Can’t wait! Sxxx
I still hadn’t had a chance to ask what time we’d be finished today – and this clearly wasn’t the moment to ask Elisabetta anything. Sebastian would have to wait.
Elisabetta had gone very quiet and still, but she sat as front-row ready as ever: long legs tucked under her chair, arms crossed in front of her and with her pretty basket on the floor by her side. From behind her Jackie O shades she gave nothing away. Was she asleep? I wondered.
“Elisabetta?” I asked.
“Elisabetta?” I walked up to her and gently tapped her shoulder with a finger, but got no reaction. She didn’t move at all. Hmm…she must be asleep. Well, like it or not, I thought, I had to wake her – an entire team was waiting for her to get the ball rolling. Slowly I leaned forward, intending to tap her arm and talk directly into her ear. But as I moved towards her and my hand settled on her shoulder, I got a bad feeling. Even if she was sleeping, there was something odd about the way she was sitting. I pulled back suddenly as an icy creepiness stole over me.
It couldn’t be anything more than a deep sleep, could it? Besides, she hadn’t been feeling well; she’d just taken some pills, so wasn’t it likely that she’d fall into a deeper sleep than usual?
Well, there was only one way to put my mind at ease, I told myself with a feigned cheerfulness before lowering myself to her eye level. Gently I shook her shoulder.
I shook her again, more forcefully this time, but still nothing.
Carefully, I lifted the sunglasses from the fine-boned bridge of Elisabetta’s tiny nose and peered at her eyes… That’s when a cold, clammy fear grasped at my throat and I recoiled in horror.
The glassy stare of her open eyes burned into my mind as I staggered backwards, struggling to find my voice. The glasses slid back down her nose and above their rim her blank gaze followed me. Her eyes were flat and glazed; they looked as lifeless as two wet marbles.
Now I understood why she sat so still.
Elisabetta wasn’t asleep.
She was dead.
Thoughts swirled full-speed through my mind senselessly. The overriding emotion, though, was shock; after all, I’d never seen a dead body – let alone had someone die right in front of me.
I had to get help.
My voice was blocked by fear; I didn’t trust myself to call out. I staggered over to the heavy linen curtain and pulled it open. For a moment I stood looking out at the others milling around the set on the far side of the studio – everything seemed so normal. The music played loudly and the sound of laughter floated across the vast space beyond me. Everyone else was busy, happily consumed by their work.
I desperately wanted someone – anyone – to come and see Elisabetta and explain to me what had happened.
My legs still shaking, I finally managed to call out, but no one responded. Even to my own ears my voice had sounded barely more than a whisper. I called again and waved my arm and from across the studio one of the photographer’s assistants saw me. He must have thought I was motioning for Marzia because she turned to me, holding up two fingers to signal that she’d be with me in a couple of minutes. For me, right now, that was enough; someone was coming, help was on its way.
Then a thought occurred to me: what if she wasn’t really dead? I forced myself to take as deep a breath as possible. I straightened my back and moved towards Elisabetta. It had all happened so quickly, I had to check. I kneeled by Elisabetta’s side and steeled myself before taking her wrist. I felt for her pulse but there was none. I tried her other wrist but it was the same. Then I stood up and leaned in close to her face, straining my ears to listen, but I couldn’t hear a thing. There wasn’t the faintest movement or sound of breath.
She must have had some kind of heart attack, I thought as I pulled back, still in shock. I’d heard of things like that striking even when people were in the prime of their lives. I could hardly bear to look at her frail form, dressed in such lively clothes. She was sitting there so elegantly, her pretty basket at her feet and not a hair out of place. Except for the sickly hue of her skin, she looked as startlingly pretty in death as she had in life.
I felt panic begin to overtake me again. Where was Marzia, what was taking so long? I called her name from where I stood, my voice louder this time, more frantic. Then I turned away from Elisabetta, closed my eyes and tried to slow my breathing. When I opened my eyes again, time seemed to stand still for a moment as I stared across the room.
My gaze fell on Elisabetta’s basket. Without really thinking, I bent over it and reached in, searching for the medication she’d swallowed earlier. I’d have to make the emergency services aware of what she’d taken. It felt strange rifling through her belongings – I could see the corner of her wallet poking out from under a spray can of facial mist, a notebook of some kind, a newspaper, a make-up bag, and a clear plastic bag with a pair of white Nike trainers inside. All completely normal – and yet weird. They’d never be used again; their owner was dead.
At last I found the tablets and took them out of the basket, then turned back to the curtain. What was keeping Marzia? Looking out, I saw she was halfway across the studio, heading towards me.
Thank goodness. I’d been alone with Elisabetta for long enough. The shock and panic I’d been unable to shake was starting to subside into the nausea of horror.
Marzia walked in, smiling, until she met my eyes. “Axelle, what’s wrong?” She hastened towards me.
Without a word I turned and pointed to Elisabetta. Marzia advanced upon her boss but stopped suddenly, frozen with shock. I watched as she looked at Elisabetta. She moved her hands to cover her mouth but a second later she dropped her arms again and let out a shrill, high-pitched scream that reverberated around the studio.
The shoot was immediately cancelled. After Marzia had gone screaming out of the dressing room it had taken a few minutes for the team to understand exactly what had happened.
Craig, the photographer, was the first one to come running to the dressing area, while the others followed behind him to see what the fuss was about. One look at Elisabetta, though, was enough to make it clear that something was very wrong. “What’s happened?” Craig asked, taking charge as he rushed to her side and grabbed her wrist.
“She’s dead,” I blurted, my voice sounding wobbly. The whole situation seemed so unreal, yet here I was saying it out loud. “There’s no pulse, she was just sitting on that chair feeling unwell one moment, and then coughed and died the next – all while I was trying on my outfit.”
Giulia ran out, hands over her mouth, while Benoit and the studio assistants stood frozen and silent, their eyes wide with shock.
“Call for an ambulance,” Craig told one of the studio assistants. His voice was sharp and matter-of-fact. “And then call the studio management – they need to be alerted, too.”
The assistant ran for help and I explained what had happened in more detail while Craig checked Elisabetta’s other wrist for a pulse and put his ear to her mouth to listen for breath.
After a minute or two, the studio assistant returned. “An ambulance is on its way and the studio has called the police. A team will be here in a few minutes. They’ve asked us all to stay…they’ll need to speak to us…”
Craig nodded as he carefully pushed Elisabetta’s sunglasses back up the bridge of her nose. “We don’t need to keep seeing her eyes,” he said. Then he took a deep breath before turning away from her. “I don’t think there’s anything else we can do besides wait for the police. I just need to make a few phone calls…”
“Me too,” Benoit said as he filed out behind Craig, the two studio assistants beside him. I decided to do the same – I had to call my agency – and Sebastian!
As I walked towards the set, however, I remembered that I was still wearing the dress, jewellery and gloves Elisabetta had asked me to try on! I stopped with a jolt – I was suddenly desperate to get back into my own clothes. I turned around and pulled the curtain shut behind me before changing as quickly as possible, trying to forget Elisabetta’s glassy eyes staring at me from behind her large designer sunglasses.
Automatically, I reached for my phone in the back pocket of my jeans; it wasn’t there. I walked out to the hair and make-up table but my phone wasn’t there either. Next I had a quick look in my bag – which was still next to Benoit where I’d left it – but I didn’t find it.
Then I remembered that I’d had it with me in the dressing area when I’d been with Elisabetta – Sebastian had texted me, I’d seen it light up. I was just heading back behind the curtain when the police arrived. I stopped and watched as they strode into the studio, their determined strides and easy chatter making it clear that, for them, unexpected death was a normal part of their lives. Another siren wailed outside; I stood aside as Craig led some of the officers into the dressing area. “You should come with us, too, Axelle,” he said, “to explain what happened.”
The studio was suddenly humming with activity. While the paramedics and a pathologist examined Elisabetta, a uniformed police officer took out his notebook and spoke to Craig. Two more officers looked around the studio and another two began photographing the dressing area and Elisabetta. While Craig spoke with the police, I started quietly searching for my phone. But after a quick sweep of the area I still couldn’t find it. I must have knocked it onto the floor…
Craig and the police were still deep in discussion so I bent down and scanned the the area carefully. But nothing caught my eye. Well, almost nothing.
Under the small sofa just in front of me, next to a ball of dust and hair, there was a suspiciously neatly folded gum wrapper. A bit further under the sofa, I thought I spotted a piece of thin grey cardboard. It was easy to miss because in the shadows under the sofa it was the exact same colour as the floor. Without further thought I rapidly swept up both items with my right hand.
I’d have a look at them as soon as I had a moment to myself. I did quickly note, though, that what I’d thought was a piece of cardboard was in fact an envelope – and there seemed to be something in it. Could it have fallen out of Elisabetta’s basket earlier? Possibly. We’d looked around carefully at the time but maybe this had slipped under the sofa unseen? Elisabetta’s name wasn’t on the front though…
I suddenly stopped myself: I was acting as if I was working on a case and looking for circumstantial evidence when, actually, it was more than likely that Elisabetta had had a heart attack…
Or was it?
The tiniest inkling of suspicion suddenly broke through the lingering shock I still felt. After all, Elisabetta was young and in seemingly good health. It couldn’t have been natural for her to just die like that. I know it happens…but, still, that kind of thing is rare. I stood, quietly reflecting on the events of the morning. And somehow I couldn’t help feeling that I’d just witnessed more than a straightforward natural death.
I struggled as thoughts of my mum suddenly floated through my head. “Don’t start meddling in things which are none of your business, Axelle,” she’d say.
But now that I was slowly getting back to normal and the police were here, I couldn’t ignore the idea that maybe there was something fishy about Elisabetta’s sudden death.
Think, Axelle, think.
If it turned out later that something shady had indeed happened to Elisabetta, wouldn’t I kick myself for not having looked for any clues? And for not taking the gum wrapper and envelope with me when I’d had the chance? Of course, they were more than likely forgotten rubbish…but, still, why risk leaving them behind to be swept away by the studio clean-up crew? In fact, I suppose I had a duty to hand them over to the police…
It was then that Craig called me over.
As I walked towards him and the two police officers, I finally spotted my phone on the table lying amongst the accessories for the shoot, so I slipped it back into the pocket of my jeans. Then, after a quick introduction, I began to explain to the police exactly what had happened – making sure to show them the medication Elisabetta had taken. But if I’d been expecting an exciting television crime show kind of interview session, I was sadly disappointed. It was nothing of the sort at all.
The police listened to everything I had to say about what I’d witnessed (it took some time – they didn’t speak great English and I certainly didn’t speak any Italian), asked me a few questions about my arrival in Milan, took down my contact details, agency details and passport number and we were finished. That was it. No interesting questions, no why do you think it happened – none of that.
Out of earshot of the police I talked to Craig about it.
“Obviously she just had a heart attack or something. So what’s there to ask?” Craig shrugged his shoulders.
“But how can they be so sure?” I hissed. “For all they know I might’ve had a long-standing grudge against Elisabetta and wanted to do her in.” It popped out before I could stop myself.
Craig looked at me oddly. “Um…Axelle, are you trying to tell me that you’d rather Elisabetta had been murdered? And that you want to be a suspect? Because that’s seriously weird. Why don’t you just go back to your flat and take a break – seeing Elisabetta die right in front of you can’t have been easy.”
“I’m fine, Craig, thanks. I just think the police are letting me go too easily.”
Craig pursed his lips. “You know, Axelle, maybe you should talk to your agency. I’m sure—”
But I didn’t want to hear any more of Craig’s advice, so I turned to the police while he was mid-sentence and held out my hand with the gum wrapper and dirty envelope.
I tried telling them in English, slowly and carefully so they understood, that I’d found these two items under the sofa. “I thought they might be of importance to your investigation.” They didn’t say anything. “You know – importante,” I said again as I tried handing them the envelope. At that moment some of the dust that still clung to the envelope flew up one of the policeman’s nostrils, triggering an extremely loud bout of sneezing.
The officer’s partner wasted no time in telling me that, for the moment, they didn’t have anything else to ask me and that the best thing I could do to help their investigation would be to leave the dressing area. He put his hand on my shoulder and actually tried to turn me towards the curtain.
“They could be important,” I insisted, although even I had to admit that under the bright lights of the studio, the folded gum wrapper and scruffy, unmarked envelope looked anything but.
As I walked out of the dressing area the curtain divider was pulled quickly shut behind me.
I wasn’t about to leave the studio, though. They weren’t going to get rid of me that easily… I planned on hanging around at least until that niggling feeling at the back of
my mind – the one telling me that there might be more to Elisabetta’s death than met the eye – had calmed down.
I walked to a quiet corner of the studio and called my booker, Tomasso. He was shocked to hear about Elisabetta, and concerned that I’d want to fly straight home: “Of course, I understand if you want to…it means I’ll have to cancel your bookings, but maybe I can reschedule them… Oh, Axelle! What a start to your Milanese week! I’ll start calling off your appointments now – and to think I was so excited about you being here! And I was going to tell you, the casting director, Kristine Abrams, asked to see you today about walking in one of the men’s shows this week.”
I gritted my teeth. The men’s fashion shows were on in Milan this week and, yes, it could be great publicity to be the only girl, or one of a small handful, to walk down the runway at a men’s show, but my mind was on other things now.
One of the police officers had just stuck his head out from the behind the curtain to the dressing area and yelled out a sentence in Italian that included a word sounding suspiciously like “toxicology”…
Tomasso was still droning on as I held the phone away from my ear, concentrating on trying to hear what the police were saying – not that I understood much.
“Tomasso,” I said suddenly, cutting him off mid-stream, “what does tossicologia mean?”
I repeated the word.
“Er…it’s a kind of science that, er…studies the effects made by things like…” He was struggling to answer, completely thrown by my question.
“Like veleno.” I waited while he searched for the English word. He was silent for a moment – it felt like an hour. And then finally he blurted out, “You know, like poison. But why do you ask?”
I didn’t answer. My mind was whirring fast, a thousand scenarios playing themselves out and Elisabetta was at the centre of them all.
“Yes, Tomasso, I’m here – and, by the way, I’m staying. Don’t bother changing a thing on my schedule.”
“But what about Kristine Abrams? At what time can you see her? Surely the police need to question—”
I didn’t hear the rest. I told him I’d call him back and then hung up.
Needless to say, now more than ever I was determined to stay at the studio. I was curious as to why the police wanted to run toxicology tests. It seemed even more possible that something unusual had happened to Elisabetta – and I didn’t want to miss out on any developments.
I took a short breath of air and finally admitted what had been dancing around my mind since I’d lifted her sunglasses. I mean, hypothetically speaking, what if Elisabetta had been murdered? And what if someone in the studio knew more than they were letting on? I couldn’t just leave now; I had to stay as long as possible and listen in on as much as I could.
I watched as one of the policemen opened the studio door and admitted an assistant carrying a tray laden with Thermos flasks of fresh coffee and tea. As I walked back towards the others, I reached into my bag and searched for the gum wrapper. The police had made it clear that they weren’t interested in my finds, so I figured they belonged to me now. Without further hesitation I pulled out the gum wrapper and unfolded it, hopeful I’d find something written on it (wrappers are great places to write secret notes; nobody coming across one in your handbag or wallet would think to look twice). In the end however, I was disappointed; there was nothing there.
I walked to the nearest wastepaper bin and chucked the wrapper away, then I reached back into my bag and pulled out the envelope. I was just about to open it when I saw Benoit returning – he’d just been questioned. I made straight for him in the hope that I could glean some information. Along the way I heard the word tossicologia yet again. I asked Benoit about it.
“Yes, they will be running tests…although I think it’s pretty standard procedure for any sudden, unexplained deaths.”
“If it’s not unusual then I wonder what they think they’ll find?” I asked.
“Well, she was celebrating,” he said with a shrug of his shoulders, as if that explained everything.
“What do you mean?” I pressed.
Benoit stopped cleaning his large black Mason Pearson hairbrush and looked at me. “Please take what I’m going to tell you as more of a warning than gossip…but in her younger days Elisabetta was known as a real party animal. She’d be up all night, hitting the dance clubs – and I mean real dance clubs, from the underground dance scene, not these chichi nightclubs filled with rich bankers and trust fund kids. She was dancing, but also doing drugs…nothing heavy, but, well, sometimes…”
“And you think that’s why she may have died? Because she’d taken something last night?” I took my phone back out of my rucksack and carried on talking while I did a little online research. I was curious about Elisabetta’s symptoms.
“It’s definitely possible…but…” Benoit answered slowly.
“But you’re not convinced.”
“The thing is,” he said, “we both stopped partying at the same time – and for the same reason – some years ago.”
“What was the reason?” I asked, quickly looking down at the small screen of my phone. As far as I could see, her symptoms might be indicative of any number of things, including, it seemed, misuse of different forms of drugs. It made for scary reading…
“Our jobs – and the success that came with them. We were both working so much, and travelling all the time, that we just sort of grew out of it. It became impossible to go out every night and show up for early starts the next day with clients who were paying us a small fortune. We went cold turkey at the same time and haven’t looked back since. These days we compare detox and juicing tips – or we did, anyway.” A pained expression played across Benoit’s face as he paused before continuing. “To tell you the truth, I’d be extremely surprised if Elisabetta had done more than drink a glass of champagne last night…but you never know. She did sometimes have a few drinks – but nothing like before.”
“Maybe she had an allergic reaction to something?” I asked. “That might explain the need for tests.”
Benoit sounded unconvinced as he put his hairdryer away. “I’ve never heard her mention any allergies.”
“By the way,” I said after a moment, “I know she was at the Moda Italia Awards last night, she won Editor of the Year. And I think I heard her say something about celebrating at an after-party somewhere. I wonder where she went…?”
“She went to Ugo Anbessa’s party,” Benoit said. “I was invited, too, but it was very late, very last-minute and, besides, I’d only just flown in. I opted for room service at the Four Seasons instead. I could kick myself now for not staying with her last night.”
Hmm…Ugo Anbessa. Since I’d started working undercover as a model I’d learned enough to know that Ugo Anbessa was Italy’s hottest young designer. Brash, savvy and talented, he was in his mid-twenties and designed for the famous Italian fashion house, Falco Ventini. And if his Instagram feed was anything to go by, he only dressed the biggest names in music, fashion and acting. He referred to them as his #Ventiniarmy.
Ugo had taken over as creative director of the Falco Ventini brand after Falco had died. He’d been an assistant designer on Falco’s team and although the management had taken a risk in promoting him to the top job so young, their gamble had paid off. Ugo’s sexy designs and social media savvy had driven sales to highs the company had never experienced before – even while Falco himself had been alive. Ugo was creating a new template to revive a historic fashion house and the corporate fashionistas were taking note. He was Italy’s designer of the moment – and he looked like he’d stay at the top for a while.
“So she was friendly with Ugo Anbessa?”
“Yes,” Benoit continued. “And Ugo won Womenswear Designer of the Year last night, you know…so after that it was inevitable that he’d invite a handful of good friends around – and yes, he and Elisabetta are – were – very close.”
“I wonder how long she stayed? Or if she went anywhere else after she left Ugo’s,” I said.
“I have no idea, but I suppose the police will question Ugo.”
Benoit stopped to look at his watch. “I have to go. Now this shoot’s cancelled I promised my assistant I’d help her prep for tomorrow’s men’s show. Lovely seeing you again, though, Axelle.”
Before he turned to leave, however, I pulled out the scruffy envelope from my rucksack and quickly asked him if it was his. He shook his head. I also asked Giulia and then the two studio assistants about it, but they too said the envelope wasn’t theirs. It didn’t belong to Craig either. So whose was it?
After a little while I noticed that a policewoman had sat down with Giulia at the make-up table. She appeared to be questioning her. Perfect! I didn’t want to miss any developments. I quickly made my way towards them and sat behind the officer, as close as I dared. I tried to listen in but the policewoman must have sensed something because she cleared her throat loudly, then spun round on her chair.
“Haven’t we questioned you already?” she asked me in heavily accented English as she tapped her notebook with her pen.
“I’m just sitting here quietly – I promise,” I said. “I’m still in shock, not ready to move at the moment. You’ll forget I’m here.”
But the policewoman wasn’t having any of it. I watched as she stood up with a heavy sigh.
“I’ll only stay for a while…” I made my last attempt, holding out the scruffy envelope I’d found. “Here,” I said, as I thrust it under her nose. “I found this in the dressing room under the sofa. Wouldn’t you like to have it? I can hold it for you until you’ve finished questioning Giulia.”
“Signorina,” she said, with a tight-lipped glare as she waved the envelope away with a karate-like movement of her hand. “We have already questioned you. So, per favore, go home. Now. Subito.” She leaned in to me as she said this last word, before adding, “I’ve never met anyone who actually wants to stay under these kinds of circumstance. You are the first – and I’m not sure it’s a compliment. Now go home and let us finish our work—”
“But—” I interrupted.
“Without you here,” she finished, cutting me off as she placed her hand on my shoulder and pushed me in the direction of the studio exit. Then, before I could say anything, she turned round and signalled to one of her colleagues to show me to the door.
So much for my not missing out on any developments.
I stood still as the studio door shut behind me. Was that it? The end of my involvement with Elisabetta? Would I have to find out what happened to her from the newspapers? Or by extracting from Tomasso inaccurate (and probably nasty) bits of information he heard through the fashion grapevine? As I sighed with frustration, I noticed a trolley with our breakfast leftovers parked just next to me. Without thinking I reached for a clean knife. I needed a distraction – and I had the perfect one.
Nobody from the team had claimed the envelope – and the police had flatly refused to even consider it – so now I felt I could look at it with a clean conscience. Without further thought I slipped the knife blade under the sealed flap of the envelope. I mean, whether it had belonged to Elisabetta or not, I was curious about its contents.
I’d expected some kind of folded note or possibly a bit of money…but what I pulled out caught me completely by surprise. The overhead light of the corridor reflected off the metallic surfaces of three very old, very worn, but still exquisitely beautiful and intricately painted cards. A delicate sheet of protective paper lay between them – clearly they were fragile and maybe valuable, too.
I gasped as I stared at them; their extravagant and totally unexpected beauty was beguiling. Each card appeared to be painted by hand and all three were rendered in vivid, metallic paint that had worn away in places. The cards shimmered gently in the light as I tilted them in my hands.
They were rectangular in shape and, judging from the discernible weave of their surface, the thick paper they were made from looked to be hand pressed and hand cut – no surprise, I thought, considering they looked very old. I had no idea whether they were meant to be small paintings, or maybe even playing cards of some sort, but their colour palette reminded me of the medieval religious paintings we’d studied in world history at school last year.
The first card showed a bearded man who was colourfully dressed. He was sitting on a bench wearing a large hat with a wide, floppy brim and a long plume tucked into it. His hands lay on a trestle table in front of him. I peered closely at the cards. They looked like the tricks I’d seen at a Museum of Magic my parents had taken me to once. Three walnut shells were laid out in front of the magician; I guessed he would keep moving them about while the viewer had to guess which shell was hiding some little token or other. Maybe the man on this card was a magician.
I turned the card over but there was no image and no words on the back; it was painted in metallic silver and stamped with a repetitive graphic design. The backs of the other cards were all identical.
On the face of the second card was the image of a beautiful and radiant lady, her hair tucked under a large cap of shining gold. Dressed in a long and elaborately decorated dress, she rode a white horse that had a saddle and bridle as fine as her robe. I had no idea who she was and nothing on the card gave me a clue.
As for the third card, although edged with gold, the background was black, and a hollow-eyed, sickle-carrying skeleton stood in the centre. His ghoulish smile seemed to mock me as he danced in the middle of the black-and-gold card, his jawbone hanging open in a permanent cackle.
The sight of this last card reminded me of a shop my gran had once taken me to. It had been tucked away on a tiny, lively street behind Covent Garden in London. The shop specialized in the occult – and they’d had some cards there very similar to the ones I now held in my hands. The cards in the shop had been newer, with sharp edges and a flat, glossy surface, but the images had been much the same – and there’d been one just like this. I felt a surge of excitement as I finally realized what I was looking at.
What an odd thing to find! Why here? And why three of them? Where was the rest of the pack? And who did they belong to?
I stopped in my tracks and allowed these thoughts to spin through my mind. Tarot cards…hmm. They were interesting…but kind of freaky, too – the images were so spooky. But at this point I didn’t see how they could possibly connect to Elisabetta…although…
A shiver ran through me again as a new thought suddenly came to me. I looked at the cards once more. Images on tarot cards are always symbolic. Nothing appears on them by chance or simply because it looks pretty. As I examined the magician on the first card I felt certain that card must refer to magic or luck. I wasn’t sure about the one with the lady; mentally I put it down on my TBLI (To Be Looked Into) list.
Slowly I put the second card behind the third and studied the image of the mocking skeleton. I felt another shiver run down my spine because this image had a very clear meaning…and that was death.
I swallowed loudly as a new thought sprang to mind: Maybe these cards do have some connection to Elisabetta after all?
My mum’s voice found its way into my thoughts, like a foghorn cutting through a stormy night: “Your imagination is running away with you, Axelle. It’s just a coincidence. Do you hear me: a coincidence!”
The trouble was I didn’t believe in coincidences. My grandfather had been a detective – at Scotland Yard, no less – and now some of his sleuthing wisdom came to mind:
An incident that appears to be coincidence is often some kind of plan masquerading as chance. He’d reasoned that most people simply preferred to believe in chance than imagine there might be something suspicious going on.
Just then I heard a door open into the corridor behind me. Quickly I put the cards back into the envelope, stashed them in my rucksack and walked briskly forward. The cards might be valuable – and they certainly looked old. Perhaps they had an interesting history? Maybe they belonged to a collection somewhere? At the very least I should track down a tarot card collector or dealer, someone who could tell me about the cards and perhaps even help me trace their owner… And who knew, maybe my grandfather’s words would be prophetic? Maybe finding the card of death in the dressing area of the studio where Elisabetta had died wasn’t just a coincidence…
The last thing hot new model Axelle expects to find at a photo shoot is a top stylist dead on set. But as a high-heeled, runway-ready secret sleuth, she's just the girl to solve the mystery of who poisoned Elisabeta.
With gorgeous Sebastian by her side, Axelle plunges into a world of dirty rumours, sparkling jewels and high-speed chases to track a ruthless killer. Could this be Axelle's most dangerous investigation yet?
Carina Axelsson is a former fashion model whose jet-setting career saw her starring in many advertising and magazine campaigns across the globe. She is the author of the bestselling Model Under Cover series. Carina splits her time between her UK writing bolthole and the fairytale forests of Germany and she really believes EVERYONE needs to find their inner QUEEN.
Visit www.carinaaxelsson.com/ to find out more.
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The best book ever because it is like a book you can’t put down after you have started reading it until the end