Thursday, August 9, 2012

Excerpt: The Art of Murder.

(Preliminary cover, 'Art of Murder.')

They were in a straggling neighbourhood of working establishments behind a major thoroughfare. Gilles realized he was completely lost, not just in symbolic fashion but for real. He hadn’t been paying too much attention. He had other thoughts, most of them not good.

The taxi sputtered off up the road, trailing dust from the wheels and throwing up a cloud that hung in the air, yellowing the sunshine and desiccating the nostrils. Maintenon and Levain walked up the gravel drive towards a pair of shirtless workmen who were sweating and grunting as they heaved on the chains of an I-beam lifting device, trying to steady a slab of black granite as it swung back and forth. Their contraption was sturdy if obviously home-made. The thing looked like several hundred kilos in mass. Clearly there was some hazard, some difficulty involved. It was all so prosaic.

“Hey, Charles.” Levain stopped, and they waited for a moment to let them finish the operation.

“Hey, Andre.”

This involved setting the stone down on a ramp, and pushing it up on wooden rollers all of fifty millimetres thick and half a metre long, up into the back of a battered black Citroen C4, which had the rear seat removed for this purpose. Gilles saw buckets lined up beside the car, all ready to go, with smaller tools in them, and some shovels, long steel pinch bars, and more rollers. There was a pile of sand and gravel in a corner of the yard, and the shop was at the back, set well behind the house. There was a painted wooden sign over the large door that was visible from the street in daylight hours, but otherwise unlit. He saw a black dog on the back porch and one floodlight set high on a post in the farthest back corner.

After a bored look, the dog put his head down and blinked at them with a look of resignation.

The smell of cooking came from the vicinity of the back door. Gilles grinned unexpectedly, and shoved his hands into his pockets. There were birds singing from a shade tree that grew in the next door neighbour’s yard. Birds were not his strong suit, but they had a certain pugnacious cheerfulness.

“Merde!” It wouldn’t do to get a hand under the slab at the wrong time, but no damage done and the fellow chuckled again just as quickly.

The language was colourful but succinct, and as his apprentice set to lifting the stone with a bar and putting wooden wedges and props under it for security, the sturdy proprietor of the place dusted off his hands and shook first with Levain and then Gilles.

“And, what can I do for you, sir?”

Gilles eyes traveled up and down the lines of stones displayed as they would be set, in that they all sat on a base, although they had no names on them yet. One or two in the front row did have names, and he realized they were all finished and awaiting delivery. His eyes took in the stone laying flat in the back of the Citroen. It had a name on it, an elderly lady going by the dates. She had been predeceased by a husband and an infant. Her child had died. She knew what tragedy was, he thought. She understood loss.

“I want one like that.”

“It’s for his wife.” Levain beckoned Gilles to look at some of the others. “Seriously, Gilles, you might want to look at more than one stone. Come on.”

Maintenon reluctantly followed him along the line of memorials, big, small, simple and ornate. None of them had an actual price marked on them, but that wasn’t any real consideration. He just wanted to get it over with.

“No. I think the first one—and make sure he puts my name on there too, and my birthday. Then when the time comes, it’s a simple matter to chisel in the date of my decease.”

“Sure, boss. But please, come on in and talk to the man.” Levain turned and led the way, relieved to hear Maintenon’s footsteps crunching gravel behind. “I don’t think he uses a chisel. It’s a sand-blaster now.”

The boss had been a little funny lately, but no one else could really do this for him. He had to take charge of things himself.

Gilles found the air inside the workshop cool, a little damp and smelling oddly of something he couldn’t quite place. He counted out the bills as the man pulled out a book and took a pen out of the pocket from a shirt hanging on a peg.

Gilles gave her name, and the fellow gave him a quick look.

“He’ll pay the balance after inspecting the memorial in place.” Levain seemed to know a little bit about it.


“Er, yes.” Levain stepped in.

“This is the fellow I told you about, Charles.” Charles nodded.

“Oh, yes.” He went blank for a moment, but then he seemed to recall the incident. “And you want the black one? With a black base?”

“Yes, and he wants you to deliver it.” Levain seemed to be in charge now, and Gilles let him.

The man named a figure, and Levain shrugged, looking at Gilles. Gilles agreed, and the gentleman started putting figures together in a row on paper. It was a fairly simple sales contract.

Levain told him the name of the cemetery, and that affected the price somehow as well. There were certain fees involved, peculiar to the different establishments around the city. Gilles thought he had paid all of them already, but apparently that wasn’t so. This was different from a funeral, the fellow explained, and some folks went years without a monument while the survivors saved their pennies.

“For you, sir, I’ll let you have the base at half price.” Levain gave an encouraging nod.

“Thank you.” Gilles accepted it at face value.

It was only later, jammed side by side on the Metro when Levain explained that Charles’ wife’s cousin had been strangled by her no-good boyfriend, and that Maintenon was responsible for his apprehension and subsequent execution by guillotine. People had congratulated him before, upon the conviction of a killer. He never knew what to think or to say under those circumstances. There really was nothing valid to say—it sounded like moral condemnation, which he preferred not to do. Most perpetrators were as pathetic as they were dangerous.

“Who says justice is only for the rich, eh, Inspector?” Gilles grinned a little lopsidedly when he heard that one.

He really was feeling better about things, and the ache in his jaw was finally fading.

“We have an interesting errand for Monday.” Gilles’ voice was curiously flat, expressionless.

“Which is?” Levain’s eyebrows rose at the answer.

“We’re going to see a hypnotist.”

Levain thought he was joking.

“At your command, good sir.”

“I’m serious, Andre. Anyway, it’s better than a dentist.”

So he really was serious then.

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