His initial impression of Madame Herriot, the cook, was that she was a thoroughly professional woman. She had done this job for many years in any number of fine houses, and probably understood her place in the grand scheme of things very well. Now her entire world had been crushed in one blow. Nothing would ever be the same again. She was at least in control of her demeanor. It was better than hysteria.
“What time is lunch here?”
“It is at one o’clock, Inspector.”
“Does Olivier usually show up so early?”
“Ah. Perhaps it is his morning off. He works Saturday mornings, I believe, and takes various mornings off as he will. In his position at the bank, he can come and go perhaps more than the junior employees.”
Gilles nodded at this simple explanation for something that had been bugging him.
“Of course. Like a fool, I forgot to ask the gentleman himself.”
“What can you tell me about the other sons?”
“Oh, Monsieur. You’ll meet them soon enough. But they have always behaved as perfect gentlemen to the servants and to moi. I wouldn’t stand for having it any other way, and neither would Madame Ducharme.”
As she recited some of the places where she had worked before, his impressions were borne out. An impressive list, not exactly cabinet ministers or stars of stage and cinema, but the names were staid, sober and staunchly middle-class. They were familiar types.
It was the cook’s special prerogative to use the surname when referring to the lady of the house. The maids would just say Madame in a breathless and reverent tone. To the servant, the Madame or Monsieur’s first name was almost irrelevant. It was a little lesson in social status, for cooking, and not just any cooking, but haute cuisine of even the most everyday, pedestrian nature, required training and experience. Good cooking was a valuable skill. Madame would have very definite ideas of how her table should be. It was a skill in demand and thus the cook’s sense of self-worth. Hence the little privileges, like saying Madame Ducharme, almost as if to an equal. Equally important, he thought, was the fact that she had her own household and her own brood. She was married, the girls were single. A thoroughly independent-minded woman, apparently her husband had been killed in the War leaving her with four children under ten years of age.
The implication, left unsaid, was that she was doing all right on her own.
“Were you here when the boys were growing up?”
“Hmn!” She took a moment to think on it. “Olivier was here for a couple of years. Benoit moved out, I think just a few months—two or three maybe, after I first arrived. The other two were gone, but of course they come and go. Amaury has come back, once for two months while he was waiting for someone’s lease to expire so he could move in. They’re all over town, and they don’t show up all that often. They always came when invited by Madame Ducharme. Except for Philipe. I don’t know much about him.”
“Do they ever talk about him?”
“Thank you.” He made a note. “When was all that?”
“I started here in January, nineteen-eighteen.”
Tailler carefully took down the details of the cook’s home address, the name of her late husband and her children.
Maintenon was interested to learn that she had a housekeeper-cum-nanny in her own home. It accounted for something in her bearing. By this time, she seemed calm enough.
“And Olivier comes around for lunch fairly regularly?”
As soon as he got down to the really important questions, she froze up again.
“It’s all right, Madame Herriot.” He cleared his throat.
She had discovered the body. It must have been traumatic, and yet she was composed enough when she came in.
“Just take a moment to think upon it. What time did you arrive?”
A wracking breath went through her.
“Ah—about the usual time.” Her mouth worked uncontrollably.
“I see. And you saw glass on the outer step?”
She nodded lugubriously, staring out the window as if to be free of this place. Now moisture welled up in her eyes and she dabbed at it with a sensible white cotton handkerchief, which appeared to be already damp.
“And what were your first thoughts?”
“A burglar—and of course I thought of Madame Ducharme and Sophie.”
“Very commendable. Naturally you feared for their safety, and so you had to go into the house, right?”
“So please tell me what you saw.”
“I saw what you saw.” She would budge no further.
“Was there anything else out of place? Does it look as if anything has been stolen?”
She just shrugged and stared far off into the distance, slightly over his head. Finally she answered.
“I don’t think so—it’s really hard to say.” Madame Herriot dabbed at her eyes some more.
She looked at him directly for the first time in what seemed like ages.
“She was a fine person. I hope you catch whoever did this and chop their head off.”
He lifted his eyes.
“All right, Madame Herriot. I understand. Perhaps we can just leave it at that, but I will have to ask these questions sooner rather than later. Justice demands that, you see?”
He could have sworn she growled at him, deep and low in her guts, but he might have been mistaken.
He closed the notepad.
On some kind of inspiration that came from he knew not where, Gilles pulled his chair up close to hers. He took her hands in his, as she fearfully searched his face, and he wondered just what she was seeing there. He returned her gaze, noting strength, dignity, and still the fearfulness in her eyes. Tailler was being as quiet as a church-mouse back there.
“Can you think of anyone who might have wished harm to come to Madame Ducharme?” The tone was gentle, and he thought she might answer. “You know I will do everything in my power to bring them to justice?”
She nodded. Then she gave a quick shake of her head, pulling her red, work-hardened hands away and sticking them under her arms. She refused to look at him, hot colour rising in her cheeks. Her jaw stuck out and it all seemed so very, very childish. But these were unusual circumstances. Sometimes people blamed the police for the most irrational of reasons.
He tried a few more mundane questions, hoping that would help.
“We saw one or two canes about the house. Did Madame Ducharme use a cane from time to time?”
She nodded but said nothing otherwise. He kept hoping she would open up and maybe volunteer something. Finally she said what was on her mind.
“May I be excused, please?”
“But of course, Madame. Please send in Emilie, s’il vous plait?”
She bobbed her head in a jerky fashion and shot out of the chair and out the door like her behind was on fire.
He couldn’t push too hard, but he had only so much time and less patience. He was convinced she could be of help, although he had no idea of what form that might take. He could not make assumptions. Anger said some strange things. Peel back one layer, and another layer presented itself. In that sense it was like the skin of an onion. That precept was fundamental to his nature. He had to consider her safety, and her rights, among other things. It was best not to make too big a thing of it.
Unshared knowledge was dangerous in a certain kind of case. This was beginning to look like one of those kinds of cases. It struck Maintenon that maybe she just resented being dragged into it. She must have some idea of how bad it could get, with the press, and the people, and the gawkers.
Now she just wanted it to be over and done with.
END of EXCERPT
Yeah. It's amazingly fun to write a mystery novel, as the reader may well imagine.
Other than that, the book is okay.
It's the only claim I can safely make.