Extract from Willful Blindness © Stina Hemming

Chapter 1

Paris, France

October 2020

“Kiai!” Alex Greene’s bamboo sword vibrated as it struck her opponent’s weapon. Behind the slits of her kendō mask, Alex smiled as she aggressively pushed against the mat, her bare toes digging in like blades. Alex, an attorney turned insurance investigator by profession, felt her best whenever pummeling an adversary—whether for sport or for work.

“Good defense, Charlotte,” Alex called out as the young student fended off the attack. As an 8-dan kyoshi, Alex was not easy to impress.

Seeing Charlotte hesitate, Alex barked: “Keep focused.”

To make her point, Alex raised her bokutō over her shoulders in the practiced Katsugi waza technique and shouted “Kiai!” as she advanced. Alex’s sword connected with padded armor and drove Charlotte to the mat with a thump.

Charlotte got up and bowed to her teacher. “Merci, uchidachi.”

Merci, shidachi,” Alex bowed in return. She took off her mask and exhaled as sweat ran down her forehead. “Excellent workout, Charlotte.”

“Thanks, Aunty Lexi,” Charlotte said.

Alex had been very pleased when Charlotte, her ward, had shown an unexpected interest in martial arts at the age of thirteen. Charlotte had lived with Alex since she was a toddler—after Alex’s sister dropped her off one day and never returned.

The salle d’entraînement where Alex and Charlotte had battled had been a recent renovation to Alex’s 3,000-square-foot apartment in the 1st arrondissement of Paris. The apartment had been in a constant state of renovation since Alex moved in nearly twenty years earlier.

Alex picked up her cell phone as they left the salle and, after glancing at the time, said, “You’d better get going, Charlotte, or you’ll be late for school.”

“Yes, yes, I know, Aunty Lexi,” Charlotte said impatiently as she rushed away down the long hallway in the kitchen’s direction.

Alex went into her ensuite bathroom, stripped off her gear and jumped into the shower. Having time to herself was a luxury, and Alex savoured the idea of spending the day doing absolutely nothing constructive. She was often out of town for work, and when she was home, there were the interminable renovations to deal with and Charlotte to supervise. Alex’s housekeeper, Sophie, had helped out with Charlotte over the years, but Sophie had her own son, fifteen-year-old Olivier, to worry about.

After showering, Alex stopped and looked at her naked body in the full-length mirror. Her classic features had aged well, and her auburn hair had only recently started to grey. Her muscular arms and legs and flat stomach belied the fact that she rarely exercised. Sparring with Charlotte helped keep her in shape, but she planned to engage the services of a professional trainer now that she had a brand-new exercise room at home.

Overall, life had been good to Alex, an American by birth. She had spent most of her professional career working out of Paris and chasing down fraudsters in the American public markets. Now, Alex deployed the investigatory skills she had developed as a securities lawyer to contest insurance claims for her employer, Basel Re.

But, as Alex’s scars showed, those investigations invariably included an element of physical danger. She had long ago retained the services of a garde de sécurité, Max Pound, another American expat who had saved her life more than once over the years. Alex had also learned to defend herself by whatever means necessary; skills she intended to on pass on to Charlotte. Marital arts training was just the start.

After drying off, Alex slipped into a cashmere hoodie and track pants and walked barefoot down the long hallway to her sun-drenched kitchen at the far end of her apartment. The pleasantly cluttered room with its cream-colored walls and terracotta flooring was one of Alex’s favorite rooms. Alex reveled in her collection of antique copper pots and Limoges china, which she displayed in distressed cupboards and shelves, even though she did not cook and rarely entertained.

Alex enjoyed the peacefulness of her of apartment at that time of the day. Sophie had taken Charlotte and Olivier to their private school, École Jeannine Manuel, in the city’s 15th arrondissement. After the drop-off, Sophie would shop at the place du Marché Saint-Honoré’s outdoor farmers’ market for fresh bread, fruits, and vegetables.

Alex made herself a café au lait and walked down another wide hallway to her study. She sat on the sun-warmed chaise lounge by the porte-fenêtre and started scrolling on her laptop through several English, French, and American daily newspapers.

The sound of her cell interrupted Alex’s morning ritual.

She fished it out of her pocket and said, “Alex Greene.”

“Hello, Alex, it’s Karl Guttmann. Comment allez-vous?” A call from Guttman, Head of Claims for Basel Re, meant one thing—a new work file.

“I’m fine, thanks. Back to my old self,” Alex said. On her last assignment for Basel Re, she and Max had barely escaped death when a midnight surveillance operation at the Marseille-Fos Port had gone very wrong. They were on a stakeout on a remote dock when a massive explosion rocked the area.

“How can I help you, Karl?” asked Alex, with her characteristic bluntness.

“I have a new investigation for you,” Karl replied.

“I’d like to hear about it,” Alex said. “And I’ll have to see if Max is available.”

It had been nearly four weeks since the blast, and while Alex’s cuts and bruises had healed, Max had suffered a concussion and needed to take it easy. She would not take on an assignment without Max, and Karl knew that.

“Can you come into the office tomorrow at four o’clock?” Karl asked. “I will brief you then.”

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