Maintenon was thinking that a vacation was a rare and precious thing. It was also a lucky thing, coming just when it did. Paris had gone mad for the Olympics.
Why then, did he dread it so? The worst moment came when he locked the front door at street level and picked up their suitcases, as the taxi-man bustled about, putting things in the boot. He was grinding his jaws already, but the mood somehow lightened. Just the act of getting in the car and finally moving made things better. He didn’t want to make it any worse for Ann. That was part of it. Just getting away was the big psychological hurdle. It was a little like going over the top, thought Gilles. He must be artificially cheerful, a feeling he had known from before, and dreaded.
Fix bayonets. Off you go, lads.
It’s one thing to go—it’s quite another to send the wife.
And then would come the pistol shot, and everything turned into a daze of mud and blood and fire and hell.
Ann’s face was always in the periphery of his vision. All he had to do was to look over and feel the guilt.
Her illness was no respecter of persons. It didn’t care who you were, or where you came from.
You were fucking dead, sooner rather than later, and that was it for you.
It didn’t care if you had been good, or bad, or indifferent.
It was completely arbitrary, and mean, and it could take anybody.
Anyone at all, and in that sense it was an allegory for all of life—and all of death. It was a metaphor for all of human existence, past, present and future.
The other thing was his stomach, something he had been paying more attention to lately. A good cup of railroad coffee—anything but a contradiction in terms, for it was one of the few things they did well, and a heavy slab of dense, sweet chocolate cake had been a big help.
The train ride was almost interesting. It was the most time they had had together in years. All of those hours with nothing to do but stare out the window. Difficult under the present circumstances to appreciate, France was a lovely place, with a rich landscape and a varied history going back through the millennia. Ann seemed to enjoy it and that was the main thing, with Gilles holding her close and trying very hard not to see it through her eyes.
Any words exchanged were a bonus and a torment. He knew they would not be her last, or their last, and yet each one was precious, never to be repeated. Such intensity. He didn’t know how he could stand it. And of course, there was that patient look on her face, and the times when he wondered what kind of a look might be on his face.
Waking up in a strange bed was refreshing, in that it was new and unfamiliar. Luckily, the water in the bathroom was quite hot. That, at least, was different. For many years, Maman had heated water on the top of a massive old range, and given the kids a tub-bath once a week on Saturday nights. What awful fights they’d had, when the time rolled around for the boys to get a hair-cut.
The memories were there, almost a relief from the present. All he needed was a gentle prodding to get the thoughts flowing.
It was their first full day in what had once been his village. They hadn’t even left the house yet. On some level, Gilles was looking forward to showing Ann around, perhaps meeting some old friend. They would be reliving a bit of history, boyhood memories, in that bittersweet manner that sensible folks had once they hit old age. It would be a kind of pleasure, he supposed.
Maybe it wouldn’t be as bad as he was making out. Or, it could be worse…there were plenty of things that could be worse than what they had right now.
“Gilles. Gilles.” His sister Henrietta appeared in the archway of her small salon.
The smell of food, and dogs and cats and Pierre’s pipe tobacco never left the room. He remembered it from last time, and some things never would change. The smells from the kitchen were already making their presence felt, with bread baking in the oven.
She had her sleeves rolled up and there were traces of flour on her apron. He was struck by the redness of her hands. No one in this family had ever been afraid of a little work. They always said he had the brains in the family, mostly because he had escaped. The break from established routine was the worst, unwelcome and yet probably very necessary—once in a while.
He looked up, being immersed in a game of backgammon with his fourteen year-old nephew, Raymond. It was unique in his experience, and therefore valuable.
He and Ann were staying with Henrietta and Pierre’s family for a week, and then they were going on to the seaside and a week with Louise, another sister; and her family. On the way back to Paris, they would have a chance to visit with Ann’s folks. He was almost looking forward to that, but then he didn’t know them quite so well and they were much less demanding in terms of entertaining their guests. It was also only for one day.
There was only so much of an itinerary that they could squeeze in. Her folks had always treated him very well. Perhaps they had seen something that he himself had missed. It was only later, as a mature man, when he had wondered why. Here was some brave young man, and he was interested in their daughter…let’s give the fellow plenty of rope. Perhaps he will hang himself.
He blinked at Henrietta, struck by how old she had gotten.
The baby of the family, Gilles was always welcome in the homes of his siblings. When the inevitable vacation rolled around, he and the wife were at a loose end moneywise and unable to refuse the offers of hospitality that poured in. With Ann’s condition, there were only so many options. Staying home didn’t seem right, somehow.
“It’s the telephone.”
Gilles bit back a smile at her tone of wonder. Quite isolated, Bagneres de Luchon, the village of his birth, was near the border with Spain in the high Pyrenees. Change came slowly this far from the real world, but come it inevitably must.
They weren’t all that well off, although his brother in-law made a good living as the local postmaster. They would never be rich, and they would never be poor. Perhaps that would suffice.
“The telephone?” Raymond looked up from the board.
His bug-like antennae began quivering, instincts aroused. Gilles was his favourite, and Raymond saved any newspaper clippings about his uncle that he could get his hands on, although the local papers only reported the most sensational national cases.
Gilles put his hands on the arms of the chair and heaved himself up.
He hadn’t been in town in years and he wondered who in the hell would be calling him here? His wife Ann, thin, pale and consumptive, looked up. She was just as beautiful as ever, perhaps more so now that he had seen her courage, her resolve. She smiled reassuringly. She had been looking through a picture book with nine year-old Denise, dark and a little too pugnacious, in Gilles’s estimation, but the kid couldn’t help herself.
Ha! It was the family tree. Those roots went very deep. Ann’s knitting bag was on the couch beside her, a habitual pass-time and an escape from boredom and ennui. At least she had something, thought Gilles. I have nothing when it comes to hobbies. Did he really love his work that much?
Not exactly. He saw it as a necessary evil. That really says something about me, he thought.
“Very well, then.” Like many an old-fashioned home, the phone was on the back wall of the kitchen, being not quite fit for polite society.
The house was just as he remembered it. It was quite spooky how Henrietta had redecorated, and everything was all new, except her taste was so very strongly influenced by their dear departed Maman. All pink, floral and stripes and swirls. Why couldn’t women leave well enough alone.
Had no one ever heard of painting a wall white and then just leaving it?
“Yes?” His mind raced.
The voice was the wrong age for anyone he knew around here. Four years ago, or at the time of his last real vacation, it had been Jacqueline Roux. That one had been a little hard to explain to Ann.
You probably don’t remember me, but…
The voice, male, was too strong, too definite. This was not some tentative inquiry from thirty years in the past.
It didn’t ring any bells. Reality snapped back with a bang.
“Gilles. We need you back here.”
Who in the hell are you?
“I’m sorry, Gilles. We need you back here. On the double. We have a case.”
“What? A case?” Damn this bad line.
The crackle on there was something else, and Gilles had the impression from a quick intake of breath, that there were others on the line. Ah, yes. The old party line.
“Yes, Gilles. A case.”
His mind hit on that voice.
“Inspector Mathieu…?” Nicholas Mathieu, his immediate superior.
“Yes, who the hell did you think it was?” Matheiu had his orders and getting through to the man had been a bit of a chore with the antique phone system in that part of the world.
“I’m sorry, sir. Bad line. I can hardly hear you.”
There was a quick pause.
“Ah…if you don’t mind my asking, sir. I am on vacation.”
“Yes, and we’re dreadfully sorry about all that.”
“Ah…” There was no saying no.
Gilles bit back his rising irritation.
Ann was ill. She hadn’t been out of Paris in years. She hadn’t seen her parents in a year and a half. She had tuberculosis. His wife was dying, and dying very slowly…they both knew it and so should the damned department.
“Look Gilles, you’re being asked-for in all the right places.”
A detective sergeant in the Surete, Gilles had written his exam. It took time to assess the results from all of those candidates. No one would know the results for quite some time, and they didn’t always accept all of the qualified people. There were only so many Inspector jobs going around.
“Okay, ah. What’s this all about, Inspector Mathieu?”
The line was very clear all of a sudden, or had it just gone completely? But Gilles, staring out the back door into a bright sunny day, with that incomparable mountainside a hundred and fifty metres away and the dark boughs of conifers hanging low between here and there, caught a long sigh from the other end.
The Inspector said a bad word.
Maintenon’s eyebrows rose, and he waited.
“It’s complicated, Gilles! You might even say you are going to hate it. It’s a cold case, Gilles—and a man’s life is at stake. Maybe even a very important man. I don’t really know myself. This one’s out of my hands. They’re not telling me anything very much. It’s hard to say.”
“Um, yes. Sir. So. What exactly do you want me to do about it?” It came out in a rush, perhaps not the best sort of diplomacy with a senior officer. “Ann is ill. She deserves better than this.”
He ground his jaws, eyes going narrow, and his breath very tight in his throat. The big lump in there might have something to do with it. He swallowed, hard, panting through the nostrils like a bull in the arena after a couple of good pricks with the bandarillas.
My sympathies always lie with the bull…
“I’m sorry, Gilles. But we can certainly make it up to you, ah, later.” Mathieu was apologetic, knowing full well what he was asking.
Gilles could turn him down, and probably should. Mathieu understood the career implications, and everything there was to know about pressure tactics, but otherwise he was pulling for Gilles’ promotion.
“Very well.” Gilles’s jaw moved back and forth and he fought any urge to express resentment or reluctance.
It had better be bloody well important.
“Have you ever heard of the novelist Aldrich Tobias?”
“Ah, yes, sir. I have.”
Aldritch Tobias had won numerous awards, but never the big one, le Concordat de Literaire, according to press accounts. He was also awaiting the guillotine. His date of execution, as Gilles remembered, couldn’t be all that far off. He’d killed a bunch of women and girls, and had been duly caught, convicted in a court of law, vilified on the front pages of the newspapers, and ultimately sentenced to death. A real crazy one, with lots of ritual aspects to the case. Not directly involved, he’d followed it as best he could with his usual interest in all things homicide.
“You’ve got to be kidding me.” That one was like a punch in the guts.
“I’m sorry, Gilles. But we really do need you to look into this. Just so we can sign off on the man with a clear conscience, n’est pas?”
“Oh, God. But why, ah…Nicolas?”
“Ours is not to reason why, Gilles. Ours is but to do.”
Sullen stubbornness came over Gilles. He was looking at the sublime blaze of hot sun on that incomparable mountainside, after all.
I was looking forward to this…or so he told himself.
This was my home, once upon a time…
“At least let me have one damned day with my family. Sir.”
His raised voice could be heard in the salon, and Henrietta was right there in the kitchen door, wringing her hands and trying to interpret what was happening from his side of the conversation.
“Very well, Gilles. The odds are there’s not much in it, and he’s a guilty man. The trouble is that the President himself is interested in his case. Who knows, Gilles. Maybe we can find some extenuating circumstances. Maybe he really was mad, you know? Maybe you can help the man out, Gilles. He gets life on Devil’s Island, or locked up in the crazy-house somewhere. The president’s conscience is satisfied. His fans have cause to mourn, and agitate, and demonstrate, riot in the streets, and he can write more books. Right? Or whatever. But it sure would be a big favour if you could do it.”
Detective Sergeant Maintenon.
The choice is all mine, and it really ought to be harder than this.
“Very well, sir.” Gilles’ heart sank as soon as the words came out of his mouth. “Ah, yes. Of course.”
“Thank you, Gilles.”
He had to break the news to Ann, and his sister…Pierre was off at work. Raymond and the girls would be bitterly disappointed, or was he merely kidding himself?
The Inspector was still talking.
Somebody had been doing their research. The Inspector had it all mapped out.
Inspector Mathieu told him exactly when they could expect him home. If he and Ann hustled, they might be back by tomorrow, at midnight.
Maintenon really didn’t think they could do it, but the morning after that was barely possible.
Hanging up, he glanced at his watch.
God damn them all to hell.
End of Excerpt.