|A crime scene.|
Dawn was breaking over the eastern horizon as the city came to life. Paris buzzed with the morning traffic. There were shouts, and horns, and bells, and the roar of bus exhausts.
One window, the one farthest from her bed, was open. Cheerful yellow chintz curtains bellied and luffed like sails on a ship at sea. Birds chirped and sang as they only do at a certain special time of the year, when they are just back from Africa or Spain and are in a rush to claim a home and begin another brood.
Muriel Ducharme steadied herself before attempting to dress. The room was chill after removing her night-dress, as she splashed water on her face from the bowl and ewer on the dresser top.
The clock on the wall read six-thirty-two a.m. It meant nothing to her, only that another day had begun. The habits of a lifetime were impossible to break. The doctor had once suggested she could take it easy and sleep in, if only on a Saturday. Trying it more than once, she had found it impossible and had spoken almost sharply to the doctor about such nonsensical ideas.
When she got really tired or had one of her dizzy spells, she would sit in a chair and doze lightly for a few minutes, or perhaps half an hour at most. Their snickers and indulgent remarks meant nothing to her. They treated her like a little old lady, and perhaps that was just. That much she could accept. She could still hear people speaking in the background. The maids and the cook had gotten used to it. They didn’t make a fuss or take much notice, although they might be a little careful of what they said. This was a good thing, for the help could be a mite too talkative at times. It wasn’t that she didn’t care for them all on some human level, but they must know their places or they would soon get out of hand. It wasn’t like she could ever really be intimate friends with them, although the environment a real house created was and should be intimate and friendly for all concerned.
She dried herself thoroughly, used to the chill of dawn after all these years of a morning routine that hardly varied. Changing into clean underwear, sturdy if plain, choosing which housedress to wear this fine Monday, noting the cheerful sounds outside of the set of three windows which admitted light and air to her boudoir, her mind was ahead on the tasks of the day.
They’d gone without coal much of the time in the War, and no one died or froze to death. They just put on another blanket or two and wore sweaters and coats if necessary. A smile crossed her face at some of the memories. It was in the nature of seventy-seven year-old ladies that their minds jumped about a bit, but she didn’t mind that at all. It made life interesting. That was important at her age. She had done without a lot of things, as had they all, which made her present fortune all the more bearable. As someone had once said, the only thing worse than getting old was not getting old. The best revenge lay in living a good life.
They were certainly lucky to have such a good house to live in and food to eat and beds to sleep in. They would never lack for anything, and yet people could be so selfish, so stupid.
She must phone someone somewhere and lay in the fish for Friday, for last week it had been atrocious. That fish came from Monsieur Normand’s. Normally she sent Eloise out for it on Wednesdays, however they would have to find another place. Not after the way Monsieur Normand’s assistant spoke to her. He was altogether too flippant for her liking. She buttoned her dress firmly all the way to the top and also habitually, found a loop of clean elastic ribbon to hold her grey hair in the severe bun she had affected since her husband’s passing almost thirty-four years ago. The dress, a faded royal blue one today, hung almost to the floor, leaving only the fronts of her feet exposed. It was almost a reflex to take up her rosary and put it around her neck.
She stood in front of the mirror, over which was a crucifix. Bowing her head, she said the first prayer of the day. It would not be the last. The world was very wicked, or perhaps it was just some of the people in it, and one couldn’t be too careful when it came to one’s soul. It was a sign of humility to pray, and to pray barefoot had always seemed the best way. It was different in church of course, all those feet with all those warts and funguses—sometime the floor was quite filthy, even her old eyes couldn’t help but notice, but this was her home and no one kept a cleaner one as far as she knew. It made her feel good about the day ahead.
She sat on the Louis Quatorze chair, the left one of a pair beside a small writing desk she never used, and found her stockings as laid out the night before by Sophie, her dearly beloved grand-niece. She was such a beautiful child and grateful to help out around the house, which made up in part her free room and board. Not that Muriel begrudged the girl, she was just at an age and what girl wouldn’t want to see Paris? And perhaps make a suitable match, if one could be found. At sixteen and a half, her raven-headed charge was a bit young for such thoughts but that was the way it was these days, all these newspapers and radio shows, and the posters in the metro all full of sex and glamour.
How would it all end? No one could really say, and so she prayed for everything to work out…
Black, knee-high silk stockings, as she could afford it, came next, and then the plain, brown flat-heeled, sensible shoes. Although this pair had seen better days she wasn’t going out so they would do. It was just her, Sophie, the cook and the housemaids today.
Her heart brightened at the thought of beginning spring cleaning, although it mustn’t interfere with the normal cleaning routine. She would speak to the girls about it and let them decide.
If Olivier dropped around near lunchtime as was his wont, if he was in the neighbourhood, her youngest son would hardly notice her shoes. That was one thing for certain.
Muriel stuffed her handkerchief up into her left sleeve and pulled the curtains back to ensure the windows were fully open. The middle one had always been stiff in the guides and she must be careful not to put a crick in her back or her neck, in spite of that she leaned into it and gave it a good heave. Up it went with a groan. It was early summer now and the rooms up on this floor could get quite stuffy as the house faced south onto the street. Big front windows admitted glaring sunlight, and in fact it was better in high summer, when the sun was more directly overhead.
The whole place could use a good airing as it had been damp lately and the towels for one thing were taking forever to dry. A person should be able to use a towel more than once, without it starting to smell, she thought.
She never could stand closed curtains, especially on such a lovely street as hers. The constant throng of traffic brought life and entertainment of a kind, right into her sitting room, where she could knit and listen to the radio or the gramophone, keeping a sharp eye over her world.
Snapping off the light, for electricity was very dear or so it seemed to one who had grown up without it, she left her bedroom door all the way open and headed for the salle de bain to complete her morning toilette.
Muriel had her morning tinkle, flushed the toilet and washed her face and hands with hot water and soap. The pipes gurgled faintly behind the walls as she snapped off the light and carefully closed the door.
They rarely had visitors up here, but proprieties would be observed, besides, it kept any suggestion of a rank smell out of the hallway and the rest of the upstairs.
As was her custom, she turned right for the servant’s stairs instead of left for the more formal main stairs. Her first stop was always the kitchen. She would stoke up the boiler, as she always said, and put the kettle on for when Therese arrived.
Pausing at the head of the stairs, she studied herself in the oval hanging mirror placed there on the wall for just such a purpose. Thoughtful, pale blue eyes with a hint of warmth and humor had always surprised her when she saw them. Her spectacles were smudged, she could see it in the mirror in the glow of the small wall-sconce. It was the most frustrating thing, but they were almost impossible to keep clean with crabbed fingers and the small tremors in the hands. The girls really couldn’t be trusted with such a job.
Is that really me? She had always wondered, but the eyes were the windows into the soul, or so the poets always said.
She had looked better, but it would have to do.
Gripping the handrail firmly, with her head carefully tipped down and her glasses firmly on, with the light in the stairwell snapped on, the grand old lady began making her way down the dark and narrow boards of the staircase.
Wheezing slightly, her temperature feeling slightly elevated as was her heart-beat, she came to the bottom step where she paused. The hall light was just inside the doorjamb as light spilled out into the front of the kitchen. Finding it, she turned it off as she stepped out into the room. The switch for this room was to the right, on the wall. She fumbled in the dark for it as the kitchen was at the back of the house and the dim light of pre-dawn wasn’t making much of an impression.
The silence of the morning was special somehow, also the fact that it would be a sunny day. They said it might go up to thirty degrees later in the afternoon.
An unseen hand hit the switch on the far end of the room and she gasped, hand clutching at her rosary beads. She stopped where she was and awkwardly turned, peering to see who it was. It was much too early for the cook.
“Oh!” Her eyes bulged in shock and belatedly, real fear.
The first shot hit her high in the chest, going through her hand with its pathetic beads, and she spun to the left as she fell.
“Oh! Oh, mon Dieu.” She lay on the bottom of the stairs as footsteps approached, sounding cold and distant, echoing in her head which made whoosh-whooshing noises. “Hail Mary, full of grace…”
Her lips were moving as the second shot hit her in the back, with the angle and the convulsive shock, for this was a strong old lady, still with plenty of light left in her, and it flung her half onto her back again. She stared up in dumb shock, unable to comprehend, let alone believe what was happening to her. The pain came then, and with it, the reality of what was happening to her.
There was no answer given.
“The Lord is with thee…”
The sound came of a pistol cocking.
“Why?” She gaped, blood pouring out of her open mouth, eyes glazed with the pain.
There was no answer. One final shot to the head made all such questions superfluous. The impact smashed her head back onto the stairs to stare sightlessly up at the kitchen light fixture, albeit the lights were quickly turned off again, and the footsteps rapidly faded on the stairs of the rear exit.
A long and narrow alleyway, home to old carts, broken glass, dustbins, and the occasional outcropping of tree or brush, led all the way the length of the block.
Half an hour or so later, the cook arrived, finding the door unlocked and with broken glass from a single small pane set up high scattered both inside and outside of the threshold. At the sight that greeted her eyes, she gave a single great gasping sob. Throwing aside her packages, she put her hands over her mouth, staring with eyes bugging out, and then she ran out into the alley.
She screamed, once, twice, and then again. Crying and sobbing and with her lungs heaving, she ran down the two flights of steps and out of the small back courtyard and around to the next house. She pounded on the rear door, repeating over and over again that she needed to use the telephone.
End of excerpt.
The usual disclaimer.
This is a first draft. The story may be subject to minor changes and possibly some cutting. But this is basically how I work. And the copy as it is seems pretty clean. My spelling is good and the grammar seems all right.
Redemption: an Inspector Gilles Maintenon mystery, the first in the series, is presently free on Kobo as well as other fine online retailers.