Speak Softly My Love
The two detectives had requisitioned a car, which they didn’t do very often. They were on their own for a change. Their next stop was way over on the other side of the city. Madame Godeffroy lived in the Chaillot area on the north side of Paris. The company was far to the south. Gaston e Cie was located just below the Butte aux Cailles, near the Seine and the route out of the city to the major wine regions, which were primarily in the south.
There were wine regions all over the country, but the firm had set roots down in the industrial and commercial fringe belt. What had once been near the outskirts was now well within the built-up areas. The city was getting bigger every day, a product of the industrial revolution.
Hubert picked his way through unfamiliar streets, attempting to avoid yet another go-around due to yet another one-way thoroughfare.
“Where in the hell are we? Argh.” Hubert spun the wheel and the car swerved into the curb.
“We forgot to ask how they met.”
“Yeah, I know. It’s a hard job sometimes, eh?” Tailler was still thinking about Didier—and two different beautiful women, both of whom seemed to care for him.
That was just plain unbelievable. He could not deny a moment of what could only be described as envy. There were times when you just had to be honest with yourself, although the heart pounded a little because of it.
It really didn’t bear thinking about. That Didier must be a real bastard.
Hubert made Tailler crank the passenger-side window down. Checking the mirror, he waited for a pedestrian to come along from behind them.
He leaned way over.
|"Where in the hell is Gaston e Cie?"|
The guy stopped and looked.
“Sir?” The fellow had some element of caution but seemed helpful.
“Where in the hell is Gaston e Cie, the more or less world-famous wine distributors?”
The fellow shook his head.
“Sorry. I don’t actually live around here—I work down the road. We make boots. Lots and lots of boots. My bus stop is just up the street.”
“We’re looking for the Rue Cantagrel.” Tailler had his trusty notebook right there in his lap.
“Oh. Okay. Well, you’re on the Rue de Patay. You must have gone right by the turn, a left turn back there. What you want to do is to go up a block and make the next left. It’s the next block. It’s just that it goes on a weird angle.”
They had zigged right when they should have zagged left. Hubert nodded cheerfully.
“Thank you.” He pulled back out into light traffic.
Tailler left the window down, stuck his arm out and enjoyed the last little bit of their ride.
Hubert made his left turn, which was quite a ways along. They went a few hundred more metres. The Rue de Cantagrel was finally there. They were still in a commercial area. There were some run-down storefronts here and there that might have had some pretty grim little flats above them. In what was rare for Paris, they even saw a vacant lot. It really was a lot more open. They sat at an intersection waiting for the light to turn. Both men peered and shaded their eyes. Finding a street number that wasn’t microscopic, missing or invisible was turning out to be impossible.
“…left, I think.” To Tailler’s amusement, Hubert turned right.
The odds were fifty-fifty either way.
There was a whoop from the driver’s side and there it was on their left. The name of the company was up on a painted signboard over what looked like a small but modern distribution facility. The street-front in red brick was narrow. The driveway was on the left.
The window trim, the doors and door frames were all white. There was an administration block on the street. There were a half-dozen parking spaces. In behind was a warehouse with a dozen loading docks and big doors under a wide awning roof. They saw a forklift go across from one to the other. There were a couple of company trucks and an even larger one from a well-known carrier backed in, and presumably in the process of loading or unloading.
“All right. Now we just need a place to park.”
“That, Mon ami, is what the hat is for.”
Hubert reached into the back seat and pulled out a dusty but serviceable gendarme’s cap.
Hopefully that would keep the beat cops (flatfoots but not gumshoes) off of them for the moment, for there were signs and painted lines strictly forbidding vehicles from stopping in that section.
He set it on top of the dashboard and they got out.
“Hopefully they can take a joke.” From where they were, it would seem all the parking slots in front of the building were taken. “If not—”
“Good day. We were hoping that you might be able to help us. We’re trying to locate a Monsieur Didier Godeffroy, who is employed with this company. His wife has reported him missing.” Hubert flashed her the badge.
Monsieur Godeffroy’s secretary was a slim, well-preserved woman of about thirty-four. Her name was Violet Pelletier. In the inner sanctum, ferns reigned supreme, along with the solitary sound of a large grandfather clock standing outside the room in an out-of-the-way corner of the foyer. It was unnaturally loud in the oppressively still air of the room.
“I’m a little surprised by the question.” She stood up behind her desk. “Is this some kind of a joke?”
They exchanged glances.
|Bordeaux? A punch in the guts.|
“No, why do you ask?”
“Because I was just speaking to Monsieur Godeffroy, not two days ago. He’s on his way to Bordeaux, you know, for the autumn trade shows down there—”
“Bordeaux?” Tailler resisted the urge to slap himself on the side of the hat.
They’d never even considered the possibility. They were just so damned sure.
“He called. He’s on a big sales trip. He said he might be delayed on the way there—something about seeing a problem customer, and yet it’s a good account. He’s had to put off a lot of other appointments. It’s an important account. Didier sold them the original order, ten or twelve years ago. He’s been servicing that account ever since. Anyway, they’re real sticklers sometimes.” They had every right to be, in her obvious opinion, which remained unsaid.
“And where is this?” Hubert had a note of disbelief in his voice, hand frozen in the act of reaching for a pen.
The hand finally dropped into the pocket.
“Troyes, is what he said.” She mentioned a company name, they made a wine that was familiar even in Tailler’s limited experience.
“Do you have a number, a hotel where we could reach him?”
“Well, no, he’s on the train today. He makes all the stops, gentlemen. It’ll take him a day or two to get to the real champagne country down around Troyes. Three days there and then down to Bordeaux. Then there’s the whole Moselle swing he usually takes about this time of year.”
“So…” Tailler licked his lips and wondered what the hell to ask first. “So what exactly does Didier do on these little trips?”
“He’s a qualified taster, and he will place orders for carefully considered quantities of various vintages. He visits all major chateaus and many of the smaller ones. It’s a question of quality—and getting there early with a rational offer on the futures. The very best vintages, from exceptional growing years…well. The house reserves might be kept for months and years, but when it comes on the market, a percentage of that wine will be sold to us. There’s an agreed-upon price, and we have a contract.”
Gaston e Cie sold, or distributed, wine, brandy, and liqueurs. They were major importers and exporters.
She slowly lowered herself into her desk, studying Hubert’s identification, and then she looked up at Tailler.
“Go, on, Mademoiselle, what else does he do?”
“Well, a lot of things really. He represents the company on all sorts of levels. He’s as much of a salesman as buyer—he’s always traveling, you see. They talk amongst themselves. Such types, I mean. If Didier is impressed with a wine, he will tell people all about it. People, vintners and growers, stalk him almost, hoping that he will discover their wine. Sometimes it’s a worthy vintage and then of course he’s interested. He has a lot of power in the company, as you can imagine. Then he takes orders. He’s always got his little order book with him. Sometimes we have the wine in stock. Sometimes we have it shipped from elsewhere, and we take a straight commission. He travels with a large portmanteau, and crates of half-size sample bottles in the freight car sometimes. Most customers simply rely on his word, on his taste and discernment. They might be looking for a house red at a certain price and of course he is always very good at that sort of thing.”
“I see.” Hubert took the plunge. “So. How hard would it be for someone like Didier to have an affair? How difficult to take a mistress, for example, and hide it from the wife?”
Her face went flaming red and she was up and out of the desk. She strutted past them, back stiff and chin erect.
She opened the door and held it.
“Gentlemen. If you have further questions, it would be much better if you spoke with Monsieur Gaudet. He is in the office now, I believe, and if you will just take a seat in the ante-room.”
Without argument or comment, the pair of rather subdued detectives departed her work space. Tailler hesitated, but he just had to try her again.
She sniffed and lifted her chin.
She wasn’t budging.
“What is this about, gentlemen?”
“It’s just that we need to speak to Monsieur Godeffroy.”
Hubert paused. An impasse of sorts had been reached and he needed to break it. Why not keep bludgeoning, it’s what I’m here for.
“We will need a list of any hotels that he may have regularly stayed at. Any phone numbers where he might be located would also be very helpful. We regret any inconvenience our visit may have caused. We certainly never intended any disrespect…”
She said nothing, clasping her collar up near her slightly-waspish throat. With a nod of acceptance, he went out the door. She closed the door behind her and then went down the hall.
Her walk was not a happy one.
They sat there. There was a long, red leather couch and one empty low table with a bowl of stale peanuts in it. They were almost afraid to speak. It was almost funny, and almost sad.
There was this sinking feeling like they’d been had, somehow. Neither one knew what to think. They needed time to analyze. She was back in two minutes.
“Monsieur Gaudet will see you now.” She was very stiff, very firm, very erect.
Another secretary came along just then and cocked her head and eyebrows. They got up and followed her in. Mademoiselle Pelletier stood there with a storm cloud for a face, face to the farthest window, either unwilling or unable to look at them directly.
|A very expensive suit.|
A tall, balding man in a very expensive suit, the gentleman was reserved but polite. Tailler wondered what the lady might have told him. Probably only that they were making inquiries, and that they were from the police.
“We were just asking Monsieur Godeffroy’s secretary a few questions.” Hubert was casual.
“Yes, so I understand.” The gentleman shook their hands, and then studied their proffered IDs, one at a time.
He handed them back and ushered them over to a low conversation-pit, dark wool in a kind of warm chocolate brown. All the wood furnishings showed that machine-age touch, with narrow geometric and patterned lines, curves here and there, and the lovely classic proportions. Hubert stood for a moment, examining some etchings on the wall. Studying the signature, he’d never heard of the guy. The place certainly looked very prosperous. He wasn’t sure what he had been expecting, but this was anything but the back room of a second-hand clothing store. A firm like this would have a lot of important customers.
It introduced a whole new element.
Tailler sat, noting the factory smoke-stacks visible just on the other side of the road. There were railway tracks nearby. The route to Lyon had followed the river for a ways, probably right through here. The tracks couldn’t be more than a hundred and fifty metres away. There was an unmistakeable rumble coming up through the chair and the soles of his feet.
“Please let me know how I can be of assistance.”
The gentleman clasped his hands and looked at them calmly.
“Well, it’s just that we’d very much like to speak to Monsieur Godeffroy, Didier. It’s just that his wife is a little worried about him. He took off without a word. He hasn’t checked in in quite a while. We pooh-poohed it at first—the flics, you know, we’re not all that interested in…ah, divorce—shit cases like that, eh, sir?” He cleared his throat. “It’s just that he’s been gone for a while. Maybe he just forgot to leave a note, eh?”
The gentleman’s eyebrows rose.
It was Hubert’s turn.
“She says they weren’t fighting or anything like that, uh, sir.”
“I’m sure Didier would never do anything to upset Madame—I mean Monique. They make an admirable couple, and they always seemed very much in love. I must say.” If Monsieur said it, then it must be so.
Hubert sat down. He crossed his legs as the fellow sort of waited politely. They all sat down.
They were all very good friends for some reason.
“Hmn. Disappeared, you say.” Gaudet chuckled expressively.
“I understand from his secretary that Didier is on a road trip right now. Is this true? And what sort of places would he be, ah…going.” Hubert seemed satisfied with this contribution as Tailler’s pen took that down.
It was no act, all of a sudden both detectives were very unsure of themselves. What a bombshell.
“Didier is headed for Bordeaux. We have dozens of suppliers down there. Ah.”
“When was the last time you spoke to him? When was the last time he came into the office?”
“Ah—” The gentleman, Vice-President of Sales and Distribution by the plaque on the door, looked nonplussed. “Ah. Four or five days ago—”
“You mean like Tuesday?” Tricky, Hubert—very tricky.
“Ah, no, sir. Ah—I’m pretty sure it was Thursday—Thursday morning. And then again in the afternoon, he was just checking his list and the itinerary. It’s very important to know his way around down there, as you can imagine.” He went on to explain that Didier would have a long list of appointments made ahead of time. “So, what is this all about, gentlemen?”
Hubert shrugged, elaborately, a national trait.
“That, sir, is a very good question.” It had to be about something, after all.
It was like a punch in the guts.
Human nature being what it was, there would be last-minute changes and thus changes to his schedule.
“It’s quite hectic, especially in the season.” Christmas was coming, or so he told them with a dry but engaging wit. “Right now we have a little space in our warehouses. Didier will have it packed to the rafters in there, and in pretty short order. I took him on as a very young man and we have, ah, never been disappointed. He has one or two protégés of his own.”
“It’s a heady responsibility for one so young.” Tailler was stalling, stalling for time and fishing for information of almost any kind.
“Ah, yes. He grew into the job, don’t you know.” The gentleman looked slightly amused. “He was knowledgeable to begin with, of course. There always has to be some sort of rational level of skill. Otherwise why take them on? It’s just a disappointment for all concerned. So…ah, really, gentlemen, what is this all about?”
“Nothing, really. Probably just the lady getting upset and the fellow maybe decided to punish her a bit. I suppose there’s no reason why he would want to talk about it at work, that’s only natural. As you know, some relationships are a little bit dependent, and a little bit abusive. He took off on some long sales trip. Didn’t say where he was going. It could be like that. Sometimes it’s all too simple. Anyways, we’re sorry to be wasting your time.” Hubert rose, his thin trousers sticking to his legs and raising the hairs with static electricity.
It always felt somehow shameful, tugging them down into place again.
“Ah, when did he leave? Any idea what train he might have taken?” Tailler took up the momentary slack.
Monsieur Gaudet didn’t know, but Violet should have all of that. He would just buzz her in a minute.
They could wait in the anteroom. If there were any more questions?
Tailler heaved a sigh. He stood.
“It’s strictly routine, sir. Sorry to have bothered you. No doubt we’ll get it all straightened out. Yeah, he’ll probably show up. Sooner or later, eh? Thank you for your time.”
Hubert had another question.
“Did Monique ever call here looking for him? Say last week, Thursday or Friday?”
“Oh. I really don’t know.”
“Okay, we’ll check with his secretary.”
“Yes, you’re lucky. He’s our senior buyer and the only one that even has a secretary.”
Hubert nodded thoughtfully.
After another round of hand-shakes, they were shown out the door by a raven-haired young beauty named Prideaux. She was personal assistant to Monsieur Gaudet himself. After another short wait in the reception area, Violet came out of her space and handed them some hastily-typed sheets.
“When did Monsieur Godeffroy’s train leave, Mademoiselle?”
|Not on duty last week.|
“He was taking the six-thirty-five for Orleans and Tours. He was leaving Friday morning. He would be making all the stops.”
Back to Friday again. Tailler didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Someone at the station might recognize his photo. One more thing to pile on the workload.
“And how long was he expected to be away?”
“At least ten days, perhaps as long as two weeks. His record is nineteen days on the road.”
Hubert nodded at that. A good time to kill and run—
“Did Monique call here looking for him? Last week?”
She gave him a blank look and shook her head.
“You could ask at reception.”
At the reception desk, the girl said she hadn’t been on duty last Thursday or Friday. At that point they decided to give it up while they were ahead of the game. With the story getting stranger and with no hard evidence to go on, they could only cause so much disruption without generating friction, and ultimately, complaints.
There was the sense of let-down as they found the car, unmolested by traffic officers in the short time they’d been away.
“Crap. Now what?” Hubert was tempted, just this once, to let Tailler drive.
After a quick mental review, recalling the rather amateur status of his partner, he reconsidered. More than anything, he just wanted to get back to the office in one piece. Tailler was almost better with the car when they let him go off on his own—it saved a lot of heartaches. A certain amount of screaming and hair-pulling went with the territory otherwise.
“Your guess is as good as mine.”
“When in doubt, let’s do lunch.”
“Sure. Just promise me one thing. No beer this time—and no girls.”
“Boy. You really have a one-track mind.”
“That’s two tracks. Don’t worry, Hubert. Don’t you ever give up. You’ll corrupt me yet.”