Author Susanna Shore
Paranormal and contemporary romances, light mysteries


The Perfect Hoax

Chapter One         


Of all the things I would miss when I left Lyon, I hadn’t thought the old ladies of my yoga class would be among them. There were three of them, each more delightful than the other, making the afternoon yoga sessions with students, pensioners, and stay-at-home mothers something I looked forward to.

The youngest of them was Mademoiselle Morel. She was in her late sixties, I guessed—a gentleman never asks a lady’s age—a former nun turned kindergarten teacher, now retired. As a very lapsed Catholic since my childhood, now a firm non-believer, I was in awe and a little frightened of her.

She was best friends with Madame Fabien, a seventy-something sturdy matriarch of four children, eleven grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren by the latest count. She would talk ceaselessly of them given half a chance, and we usually gave it. Mademoiselle Morel had taught most of them and she was as devoted to them as Madame Fabien herself.

And the cherry on the top was my absolute favorite, Madame Benoit, eighty-two. She’d volunteered her age herself the first time we met.

She had buried three husbands and was on the lookout for number four. She’d set her eyes on me. “I like a big, strapping man in my bed,” she told me with a teasing smirk.

I’d blushed, to the great glee of all three. I don’t even know why. I’d been propositioned by older women hundreds of times, especially when I’d been the manager of the casino-spa hotel in Brooklyn, and regularly mingled with the guests. They’d been customers I needed to entertain, and I’d usually taken their advances in stride. These women were … well, friends as it turned out.

Madame Benoit was a tiny, lively woman who wasn’t bothered by her age at all, thanks to a life-long yoga habit. Her white hair was tinted purple, and her black eyes were twinkling.

“You were particularly energetic in class today, Monsieur Reed,” she teased me in French, the only language we had in common. They always called me Monsieur Reed, even though I’d asked them to call me Eliot. I, of course, only called them by their last names. I wasn’t sure I knew their given ones.

We were in the café of the gym, a bland space on the ground floor lobby, enjoying our after-yoga refreshments, a healthy kale smoothie in my case, cappuccinos and cakes in theirs. “When you’re as old as we are, it’s absolutely vital to indulge,” Madame Fabien had said once, giving me and my smoothie pitying looks I wholeheartedly agreed with.

There’d been a time when I’d indulged too, especially Italian food, but that was double my body weight in muscle ago. I was happy with my new, lean form, but occasionally I missed some foods almost as much as I missed my mother. I especially missed my mother’s food.

She wasn’t dead. I was. As far as she knew anyway.

Madame Benoit leaned closer to me. “I nearly had a stroke when you did that downwards dog.”

I turned my eyes to the ceiling and bit the inside of my cheek not to laugh aloud, but they noticed and doubled their efforts at teasing me, Mademoiselle Morel included. A nun really shouldn’t be so good at innuendo, even a former one.

I’d already finished the smoothie, which was my usual signal to say my goodbyes and return to my office in the next building. But I was in no hurry to leave. I’d sold my business and terminated the leases on my office and apartment. I had my getaway bag ready, and I’d emptied the apartment of everything personal and wiped all the surfaces clean of fingerprints. I’d only wanted one last yoga session before I left.

And then it had dawned on me that I would truly miss these women. A small ache unfurled in my chest, threatening my composure.

Pity I only realized it when it was already too late. I would’ve brought them chocolate—or the excellent port they’d introduced me to.

I kept a smile on my face as I listened to the outrageous comments the old ladies made, but all I could think of was that this would be the last time I saw them. And that made me not want to leave.

I squeezed my hands into fists under the table, annoyed with myself. This was exactly the reason for the rule number three in my list of how to stay alive and undetected after faking your death to escape a life as a mafia first. Because that’s what I’d done—successfully, I might add.

And then I’d put everything in jeopardy by breaking the rule stating I should never get attached to people. Maybe I needed a new rule: Don’t start any hobbies where you might accidentally befriend someone . Or maybe it was more of a subrule.

It was a good rule, and not solely because I would miss those I left behind. I had to be able to ditch everything and leave without anyone noticing I was gone.

These women would definitely notice. And then they would meddle. Before I knew it, there would be a full missing person search. And that would lead to trouble with the police when they realized I’d disappeared on purpose.

I also had a rule about not being noticed by the law enforcement, number eight for those keeping score. Another solid one—and one that I’d already broken too, thoroughly.

I would have to say proper goodbyes, but every time I opened my mouth to tell the ladies I wouldn’t be coming back, I froze. The mere thought of upsetting them made me want to stay instead. Knowing that it was my own fault I had to leave didn’t make this any easier.

A year after faking my death and making a clean escape from my life as the right-hand man of Craig Douglas, a crime boss in a major New Jersey drug organization fast expanding to other areas—geographically and business-wise—I’d had a good thing going in Lyon, Southeast France. I had a nice home, good job, new face and body, and identity that I liked. And then, like an idiot, I’d first gotten involved with the police, and then I’d garnered the attention of one Salvatore Bosco, an Italian crime lord. He’d believed I was a cop investigating his drug smuggling business and had tried to kill me outright.

My only hope was that he believed he’d succeeded. It was the only reason I hadn’t fled immediately and had put my affairs here in order first. Because men like him didn’t leave things half-finished. He would try again until the job was done.

I would have to ditch my current identity, Eliot Reed, a thirty-two-year-old businessman with American and Italian nationalities, and adopt a new one. I had several identities ready, complete with passports that were as genuine as a world-class hacker could make them. I only had to choose.

I hadn’t chosen a new one yet though. I was about to go after Bosco before he came after me. I might not survive it, so why bother changing.

The only real thing about my identity was my American nationality, though I did have Italian heritage from my mother’s side. Likely from father’s side too, but I didn’t know him. Even my looks were radically different from my original self, Jonathan Moreira, who had begun his career in crime as an enforcer and had had looks to match: six foot three and almost 260 pounds of solid muscle—or 120 kilos and 190 centimeters in local.

It had taken years and a thorough lifestyle change, but I was now about 80 kilos with nice, lean muscles that didn’t bulge all over the place, and an inch shorter. The latter I’d achieved by giving up wearing shoes with false bottoms. I’d been short growing up and got used to wearing them even after a growth spurt.

But apart from maybe growing a beard—I’d already stopped shaving, much to the delight of the old ladies—dyeing and cutting my hair—currently light chestnut, slightly curling and longish at the sides, shorter at the back—and wearing colored contacts over my green-grays, I couldn’t go through a change as radical as when I became Eliot Reed.

Luckily, I had the ability to learn from my mistakes before anything permanent happened, like death. I would do better staying hidden in the next location. I just needed to go.

I opened my mouth once again to say my goodbyes, when a new person walked to our table. My heart sank.


The woman was in her mid-twenties, short and wiry, with multiple piercings and full-sleeve tattoos revealed by her black tank top. Her hair was dyed blue and teased into a low faux-hawk. She looked like a frontwoman of an underground punk band, or a post-grad student of intersectional feminism, both of which might be true.

Her name was Laïla Diab and she was a cyber security expert at Interpol, the headquarters of which were in Lyon. Back when I settled here, I’d thought I could go under their radar. I’d been wrong, and breaking the rule number three was to blame for that too.

“Sensei!” the old ladies greeted her, delighted. She smiled and bowed in Japanese style in return. She had a black belt in ju-jitsu, and the ladies and I had recently attended an introduction class. The ladies had continued. I hadn’t been back.

Laïla turned to me, her eyes concerned. “Have you seen Ada?”

I tensed, trying to figure out what she was after with the question. Ada Reed—the last name was a coincidence; mine was false after all—was an Interpol analyst about my age, highly intelligent and very attractive, which alone would’ve guaranteed my interest. But she was also a successful cat burglar, which I’d discovered by accident. For a career criminal like me, it was like catnip.

“No, not since our … adventure.”

The euphemism was for the old ladies. I hadn’t told them what had happened a couple of weeks ago in Monaco, when Ada and I had barely escaped human traffickers—in addition to Salvatore Bosco, who had tried to kill me.

My euphemism failed. “You’re having a romance with Sensei Reed?” Madame Benoit demanded, but her eyes were lit in delight so she wasn’t truly upset.

I bit my cheek again, but couldn’t help the smile. “No, I’m not.”

In fact, I’d kept my distance from Ada ever since we returned from Monaco to avoid any sort of romance with her. I couldn’t afford one, knowing I would be leaving. I hadn’t called her and I hadn’t attended the self-defense classes where she was one of the teachers.

She hadn’t tried to contact me either.

Laïla’s brows furrowed with worry, making the piercings sway. “She didn’t come to work today and she isn’t answering her phone. She’s never done that.”

I didn’t know Ada well enough to offer insights, but what I did know was that she took her career seriously. She couldn’t afford to draw attention to herself if she wanted to keep her criminal activities hidden.

“Have you checked her home? Maybe she’s fallen ill and is too sick to contact you.” It was perfectly feasible that she would have caught pneumonia after our freezing escape through Mediterranean in wet clothes at night. René Bellamy, a lyonnaise detective who’d been with us had, though it had been almost a month already.

“Or maybe she’s tripped and hit her head or something.”

It was a lame suggestion and Laïla looked dubious. Ada had the body and dexterity of a gymnast. But the old ladies were instantly worried.

“My neighbor fell and broke her hip and couldn’t even call for help,” Madame Fabien said. “If I hadn’t gone over to ask her for a cup of coffee, who knows how long she would’ve lain there.”

“You have to go check her home,” Mademoiselle Morel urged Laïla, who gave her a decisive nod.

“I will.” Then she turned to me. “Will you come with me?”

I had no reason to, if curiosity didn’t count, and she didn’t need me for a quick check. But I had nothing pressing to do until my train to Rome left later today. I had my affairs in order and my bag packed. I nodded and rose.

“Of course.” I turned to smile at my companions. “Until next time.”

It wasn’t until I was outside that I remembered there wouldn’t be a next time.


Central Lyon was on a long and narrow peninsula between two rivers, the Rhône and Saône. At the southern tip where the rivers converged was a neighborhood called Confluence, where my apartment and office were. Or had been until today.

Tram and bus lines ran through the old town, but we took a taxi outside the Confluence train station around the corner from the gym. The station, and the mall above it, was a convert from an old warehouse, like so much of the area that had been transformed in the past couple of decades from an industrial area to a trendy residential neighborhood.

I had no idea where Ada lived, and I was both reluctant and curious to find out. Reluctant, because I knew she didn’t want me to know, and curious for the same reason.

Our destination turned out to be Quai de la Pêcherie by Saône in the old town. The distance was less than four kilometers and traffic was light, but most of the old town had one-way streets that were illogical to navigate. We couldn’t take the most direct route, so the journey took closer to twenty minutes. I paid the taxi despite Laïla’s protests that she’d invited me, and we climbed out.

The riverside boulevard was lined with five- and six-story stone buildings from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, built attached to each other. Each building was painted a different color and had different trimmings around the windows, with restaurants and small boutiques at street level. It looked pretty and very French.

Ada’s building was beige, or maybe pale yellow covered with grime of the past two centuries; three windows wide and six stories high, with two tall arched windows at the ground floor, which had once been elegant, but the wall had lost its marble coating long ago.

Each arched window belonged to an antiquarian bookshop, one of which looked to have gone out of business some time ago. I wondered briefly how the owner could afford to keep the retail space empty in such an expensive location, but perhaps it was just a hobby for someone rich.

The residential entrance was between the shops. Laïla let me into a narrow hallway that led to a staircase at the back. It was dim, and the walls were faded green and yellow. There was no elevator, so we climbed to the fourth floor.

Each floor had two apartments, one facing the river and the other the back yard. Ada’s was toward the river, which had to be expensive, but if Laïla wondered how Ada could afford it with her salary, she didn’t say it aloud.

If I knew Ada at all, she’d already given her a logical explanation, like wealthy parents.

My gut tightened in unexplained anxiety when Laïla opened the door to Ada’s apartment. Did I fear we’d find Ada injured inside? Or worse.

I tensed when a notion that Bosco might have found her hit me. It only eased when I remembered that she’d been in one of her disguises when she met him. But the brief scare strengthened my resolve to go after him to make sure he wouldn’t retaliate on her.

Taking a calming breath, I followed Laïla in. Maybe I was simply reluctant to get a glimpse of Ada’s private life like I would be reluctant to show her mine. Our double lives were only possible if we kept our privacy.

A short hallway that doubled as a foyer opened onto a one-window living room. A small but functional kitchenette was on the left and could be entered from the foyer and the living room. To the right was a door to a bedroom, also one window wide.

Everything was elegant and neat, but a bit impersonal, as if Ada hadn’t wanted to make this place a home. I could relate. The bed was made and the kitchen didn’t have dirty dishes. Fridge was empty of perishables. And there was no Ada.

“Maybe she went away for the weekend,” I noted to Laïla, who frowned.

“She didn’t say anything to me. And she would’ve informed us if she weren’t coming to work today.”

“Maybe she was called home for an emergency,” I suggested, but I was starting to have a notion of where Ada had gone—or at least why. She was a cat burglar, after all. That she hadn’t come back made the ache in my gut return.

Laïla bit her lower lip. “Her mother is rather needy, always demanding she come to London to look after her. But surely she would answer her phone?”

I didn’t know if the needy mother was real or just a handy excuse for Ada’s other activities that regularly took her all over the world, but I shrugged. “Plenty of reasons why she wouldn’t. Maybe her mother is in a hospital, and she’s switched it off.”

Neither of us brought up that Ada would’ve called if she could.

Laïla sighed. “I guess I can only wait that she’ll call.”

“She will,” I said with more confidence than I felt. I didn’t like this one bit.

I saw Laïla back to the street. “I’ll be in Rome for the rest of the week. Can you contact me if Ada comes home?” I hadn’t planned to tell her where I was going, but if both of us went missing at the same time, she’d launch an investigation. With her skills, she’d find me in no time.

“Absolutely,” she promised, heading to the nearest bus stop with a wave of her hand.

I went in the opposite direction and rounded the corner. There I paused and waited for the bus to arrive. I peeked around the corner to make sure she was gone. Then I went back to Ada’s building and entered her apartment using the keys I’d lifted from Laïla. I’d leave them with the janitor when I was done.

I went straight to the bedroom and started looking around. The building was three windows wide, yet Ada’s apartment only had two. So where was the last window?

The bedroom had a large walk-in closet that would extend out of Ada’s apartment the way it was laid out—unless it wasn’t what it seemed. I felt behind the clothes that hung in neat rows, all suitable for an Interpol analyst. Several pairs of surprisingly whimsical shoes were in their rightful places too.

My hand met a lever, and the back wall swung open on silent hinges. I moved the clothes aside and stepped through.

It was the missing room. The curtains were drawn, but enough light came through to show me a tidy space that seemed to be a study, with an ordinary desk and a computer. The walls were lined with racks full of clothes, shoes, and accessories suitable for disguises. Drawers contained wigs, rappelling ropes, and night vision goggles.

The lair of a cat burglar.

I switched on the laptop, but it was password protected and I didn’t have time to start guessing what it could be, so I looked around the neat desk. There was only one paper, with flight numbers scribbled on it, along with a word that made my heart jump.

It was a hotel. I knew it because I’d booked a room there myself.

I guess we would both soon be in Rome.

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