Editor's Note: this is an excerpt from a work in progress as well as an online serial. Materials may be subject to change before final publication as a complete work.
Speak Softly My Love
By the time the cross-examination was done with Gilles Maintenon, two whole days spent in the witness-box, he was totally wrung out. The defense was just doing their duty, and being paid very well for it too. Even so, the tension, the need to be professional and not reactive, not to blow one’s cool under the flurry of blows, the psychological hammering, took a lot out of a person.
It was purely on impulse that he went back to the Quai at all. The day had begun cold, windy and wet, but by the time he got out of the court building, the heat had become oppressive.
There wasn’t a breath of air in the streets and the scorching of the sun on the backs of his hands, especially the side of the neck and the cheekbone for some reason, was immediately apparent. That was the trouble with September, one never knew how to dress for it. You would freeze your bag off first thing in the morning, and be dragging two coats and a sweater over the shoulder by the time you got home.
Even with the heavy coat over his arm, and taking his time dismissing the motor pool driver, who looked grateful to be nearing the end of a long and boring day, Gilles was sweating. This was unusually warm weather for mid-September and no doubt it would give people something to talk about.
The stairs were always better for Gilles than the elevator for some reason, not so much claustrophobia as the fact that there was some delay. You had one more minute to think. It got the heart pumping and made you suck in a lot of oxygen. He rarely ran into higher authority in the stairwell, especially the back one, coming up from the extremely limited parking area away from the river. On the island the river was right there outside the windows for much of the building.
The big-shots always got themselves dropped off at the front steps. It was a way of life with them. They got the best offices, plenty of windows, well away from elevators and stairwells.
When a new government came along, which was pretty often these days, they got the biggest shake-ups too. Some lived and some died, figuratively.
Their own space was cramped at the best of times. With Archambault absent due to chronic ill-health in recent months, and with no replacement in sight, it was perhaps a little better lately. The downside was that they still had to do Archambault’s work.
Poor old Archambault, and let’s hope he gets better.
Their office was on the top floor, up under the eaves and the doves which sometimes became quite obtrusive with their cooing and the other mournful sounds they made.
“Ah.” He stepped into the room, where Tailler patiently tapped out a report and LeBref of all people was quietly hanging on the telephone.
The fellow, not quite a dwarf, raised a languid hand in greeting. He twitched his eyebrows and made quick, darting little notes.
Firmin’s hat was there on the rack as he took his own off and hung it up. LeBref wore his watch cap as usual, and he would rarely take that off for anything. Gilles put the coat on a tine, the rack wobbling gently but it had never actually gone over. The coat was still damp from the morning. Predictably, Tailler had the window sashes pushed all the way out on their obtuse angle or whatever it was called and the pigeons were roosting just a metre or so up above.
“Tailler. Please shut the window.”
LeBref put down the phone. He nodded pleasantly.
“Gilles.” He took a file and went out the door.
Maintenon had to clear his briefcase, it was why he was ostensibly here after all.
The young Detective-Sergeant compromised by cranking it furiously inwards. He left it open a couple of fingers width and perhaps Maintenon could live with that.
Gilles gave his head a shake, loose lips flapping in a conscious attempt to inject some humour into what had been a particularly humourless afternoon. He kind of blew like a horse.
“That bad, eh, Inspector?”
“Bad enough, yes. So. How were things in Lyon?” He moved towards the coffeepot, but unfortunately it appeared to be cold and dead in there. “Where’s Firmin? Where’s your partner in crime, Detective Hubert?”
“Ah, yes, sir. Ah…maybe I should make some fresh coffee.” It was getting on for five-thirty and no one had even the slightest idea that the boss-man would show up.
Maintenon waved him off, as he could make it himself. This delay now, that was intriguing.
“So. That, bad, was it?”
Tailler heaved a bit of a sigh and then let it drop.
“Okay. Yeah. Boy, oh boy. We got a weird one for you, Inspector.”
Gilles settled into his seat. He pulled out a cigar, and struck a match. His feet came up and he put them on the end of the desk.
“So. Why don’t you tell me all about it.”
|"It was all very romantic, Boss."|
It was all very romantic.
Didier and Lucinde had the storybook whirlwind romance. The sophisticated and yet shy, well-dressed and hard-working young gentleman, had stepped into a bank one day to cash a cheque. He was in a strange town but had impeccable credentials. The cheque was for a substantial amount and her immediate supervisor had run into a family crisis, leaving Lucinde in charge. She had taken a big chance on Didier that day. There was just something about him. The paperwork was fine, but she was a junior and simply didn’t have the authority.
Lucinde had left home to go to Lyon to find work. Her mother was sick. She sent money home every week and lived very simply, a shy and yet extremely intelligent girl, living a hundred and ten kilometres from her home village. She didn’t know anyone, and didn’t get out much due to some relatively rational concerns.
She knew no one, and yet by coincidence, she had been having her lunch, a simple sandwich brought from home and green tea from a little shop she knew. Didier needed to eat once in a while and upon leaving the bank, it was shortly before noon. Long story short, they had recognized each other. Neither one having a friend in the world, not in that town at least, it had somehow taken the awkwardness out of it, according to her.
“Boss, they were married six weeks later.” Tailler consulted his notes, a bit of a laborious process. “A couple of years later, she gave up the job. Started having kids and such.”
That’s why he typed them up as quick as he could while they were fresh. Never tear them out of the notebook, and even then number your fucking pages.
“Oh, yeah. They went for a two-day honeymoon in Brittany, and it was a nice little mom-and-pop maison where they stayed. Ah…” Tailler shuffled through the papers. “They have a little boy, Jean, and a girl, she’s the younger, named Lise.”
Gilles nodded thoughtfully.
Tailler went on.
“Okay. The gentleman has a sort of routine but not exactly a schedule. Oh. She showed us the marriage certificate and everything when we asked. We told her we needed to verify that she was sole next of kin in the event we got any information—Hubert said it was pure routine…”
Tailler cleared his throat and Gilles nodded. One way or another, they needed everything and sometimes getting it took a little finesse. Hubert definitely had some strengths, while Tailler had skills in other areas.
“We don’t even have that for the Monique woman.”
The young fellow nodded, Adam’s apple bobbing.
He’d give his left nut for Hubert to show up right about now. There were days when he was barely hanging on, by the skin of his teeth sometimes.
“Okay, sir. He goes out of town on a long road trip. Sometimes it’s only a few days, sometimes a week. Sometimes its ten days. It depends where he’s going. He can spend two weeks in Bordeaux, but according to the lady that’s like two, three times a year max. The company is located in Paris. She’s saying that when the gentleman goes to Paris, it’s only for two, maybe three days at a time. There are sales meetings, there are a lot of shows and exhibitions in Paris. But the guy is a sales rep; he’s just as likely to be knocking on doors in some small town in the Beauce according to her.”
“How much time does he spend at home? In Lyon, I mean?”
“She’s saying two, three nights a week, most of the time. There was some emphasis on that last bit. But she understood before she married him, ah. That he was on the road a lot.”
“We need to ask the same questions everywhere—the one in town here.” The Inspector sighed. “It’s like we no sooner walk away, and then we think of another question.”
Gilles wasn’t trying to be overly critical, but neither one had that much experience.
“Absolutely.” He rapped his pen on the desk. “You know what? She’s just going to say exactly the same thing.”
Gilles thought about it. The schedule was supremely flexible. Two wives—one in Lyon and one in Paris.
“Yes. But we need to hear her say it.”
There were footsteps in the hall and Hubert came in. His eyes came awake when he saw Maintenon and also the cigar, the squint, and the characteristic position.
“This one is like all mixed up, like a dog’s breakfast. Dead body gets up and walks away—one too many wives.” Tailler tried to get his notes in order again.
He had been about halfway through typing them.
“And what about Monique?”
Tailler’s gaze slid around to his partner.
“Yeah—what about Monique?”
Hubert slid smoothly into the breach.
“Well, sir, we thought we’d consult with you first. But I was thinking of getting a list of names…”
“Names. Every person we can find who knew him, spoke to him…shit, bought wine from him, sold wine to him…other than that, without a body this really isn’t going too far.”
“Nothing really interesting has come in so far today.” Tailler looked at his desk phone, but nothing happened at that exact moment.
He had a funny feeling that would go on for some time.
Bodies turned up every day in the city. The trouble was that none of the other ones really matched the description. One way or another they had all pretty much been accounted for.
Hundreds of people died every day in Paris. For the most part, the doctor signed a perfectly legitimate death certificate, the next of kin called the funeral director of their choice, and other than the grieving, other than the fact that a loved one had passed, no one really thought much about it—the process, the implications. A body, an unclaimed one, had meaning in spite of some nihilistic speculations that were a sign of the times and little more. All of philosophy wasn't worth a good fart in a windstorm in Tailler's opinion.
A boy who had drowned three days before, a dead hooker in an alley, beaten about the head and neck and facial areas, a wino who had apparently had heart or liver failure, and that was about it.
Somebody out there knew something. No person existed in a complete vacuum.
If there was a body out there, the odds of it turning up seemed very slim. The whole fact that the perpetrator had dragged it off after Gilles discovered it, spoke of a plan. Their killer probably had a very good plan, for the disposal of said body. He was beginning to think that Gilles had interrupted the transportation of the body—not the killing, not the disposal itself. A public park was chancy at best, and not for any real length of time. You just couldn’t get it deep enough, quick enough, without leaving traces of your work. And then what? Walk home, whistling in the dark, with a shovel in one hand and a rug rolled up over your shoulder.
Two perpetrators presented even more problems.
Whatever the motive was, it had to be enough to compel two or more people to act. They had to act in a premeditated manner.
“I’m just sort of thinking out loud here, sir.”
Gilles almost appeared to be sleeping, but his hand flicked the ash from his cigar in the general direction of his ashtray.
His eyes opened and his feet dropped to the floor.
“Hmn. We have, or have had, once upon a time, a dead man. And two missing-person reports. What appears to be a bigamist. It is enough to go forwards on. Right? That is for sure.”
He blinked and took in some air preparatory to rising, and then he was up.
“Very well, gentlemen. Carry on. We’ll see you tomorrow.” Taking the now much lighter briefcase and his hat, leaving the coat behind to dry on company time, Gilles had had enough for one day.
Blessed Are the Humble is the third in the Maintenon Mystery Series and is available where ebooks are sold. It's also available in paperback with a little Googling.