Speak Softly My Love
It all started with a litre of milk. Or rather, the lack of one.
He’d run out completely. It was only Thursday. Shopping day was Saturday.
Madame Lefebvre had laid in a fair supply of groceries before heading off on her annual one week’s vacation with her sister in Orleans. He wasn’t short of food exactly, just milk. He wasn’t expecting to see her before Monday.
Gilles didn’t drink much milk, not being a big cereal eater, not being a big fan of oatmeal and porridge and the like. His routine was to have at least two cups of coffee in the morning. Lately the caseload was such that nothing much had been happening to disturb the even flow of his morning.
He should have left a note for the milkman, really, but he was unfamiliar with the routine of his own household.
To have a little milk in the house might save him from a day that began badly. At work, they’d have him running his legs off all day long, with no chance of getting off his feet. Rushing out first thing, finding a familiar place and then queueing up for it, and then finding a place to drink it, would never be his first choice. He wasn’t that sociable to begin with, and the fact was Maintenon felt like a walk.
The milk was merely his excuse.
It was good to walk alone sometimes.
It was a fine clear night in early September. The moon was up but high clouds obscured it in some places. The dark sky to the north revealed stark glittering stars down low, in among the branches, the rooftops and the chimneys. He walked softly, preferring to hear other people first, which meant that he had an option…
The park was coming up. Gilles wasn’t particularly worried, although the difference between night and day could be profound. This wasn’t such a bad neighbourhood. Not being a young man he had nothing to prove—as an older individual maybe a little something to fear. The statistics were clear enough.
He was also armed and wasn’t afraid to use it, which made a big difference.
The fragile, hence doubled-up paper bags tucked under his left arm, Gilles turned onto the grass and soft wet leaves halfway in between streetlights. It was a habitual cut-through. There weren’t too many people about. At this exact hour, most were either at home having dinner, or had already gone out for supper, dinner, dancing or the show. Whatever. An entirely different crowd would be out a little later, when the more prosperous victims were coming home again. They would be mellow and off-guard, with full bellies and as often as not a skin-full of good wine aboard.
It was very dark under the old oaks and beeches, there were shadows strewn everywhere and every which way, but the ground was level underfoot and benches and flowerbeds were easy enough to avoid. Flowerbeds were, with their rick black humus, even darker than the grass. They were topped by dormant shrubs and those stalks which were trimmed or clipped but not totally collapsed in the way certain perennials might do—horticulture being a bit of a foreign subject to Maintenon.
When he stumbled across the body, Gilles fell flat on his face, dropping the bloody milk and putting his hands out quickly in an effort to save himself from falling right in somebody’s open mouth.
Forgetting the milk, he was up in a jiffy.
“Damnation.” There was something warm and sticky on his hand, after he touched the body again in the general centre of the body mass.
It confirmed what he already knew.
He was half bent over, trying to get a good look. The only thing he could properly see was that pale oval face, and the deeper black mass of the body, a dark suit blocking out the lighter coloured leaves, but darker than the wet green grass. It was a formless shape, a body nevertheless.
The moon came out fully from behind the thin cloud layer and that’s when he got a good look at the fellow.
He stood staring down at a slender male of indeterminate age, high thirties possibly. The man looked to be about average height. He was a handsome enough, clean shaven. It might have been a kind, a gentle face once, curiously unlined. Was that grey at the temples or a trick of the light? The eyes were wide and staring, the hair tousled and lanky. The body was still warm, the blood still wet and he was a police officer.
With a quick nod at nothing at all, Gilles left the milk, the cheese, the butter and the fresh baguettes where they lay.
Turning, he sprinted back towards the light.
The sooner he called this one in, the better. There was barely a chance, but that body was still warm.
Inspector Gilles Maintenon lived in the city’s 14th arrondissement. A running man drew attention, and there were curious looks from an obviously-married pedestrian couple as he pelted back to the corner store where he had bought his miserable little purchases.
Jamming coins in, he dialed an all too familiar number.
“Who?” Dispatchers never wasted a second.
“Inspector Gilles Maintenon. Hurry. The body’s still warm for Christ’s sakes.”
“All right, Inspector Maintenon. We have units on the way. You say this is in the Park Montsouris?”
“Yes, it’s off the path and away from the lights.”
“All right then.” The dispatcher was calm and cool when Gilles could only wish. “You had better wait on the sidewalk then.”
“I’ll be on the Rue Gazan. Near the lake.” Pond might be a better word.
The dispatcher was speaking into their microphone and he waited on the line.
“Right. You live right there, don’t you, Inspector?”
“Yes, I went out for milk. I cut through the park on the way home.”
“Very well, Inspector. We’ll have some people with you shortly.”
Gilles hung up the phone. He was a little shaken. There was little else he could do. It wasn’t an insult, it was just coincidence. The odds against finding a body on your evening walk were astronomical.
Quite frankly this was the first time it had ever happened to him and he hoped it would be the last.
Let other people find the damned things.
For crying out loud!
It was distressing. It gave him a new perspective—civilians found bodies all the time and the police were often quite cross when they muffed it up. They disturbed the body or left their own soda bottles, candy-wrappers, cigarette butts and footprints all over the place. The worst one in his recollection had been a cub journalist. He worked for some socialist weekly down south, and he was just in Paris for the day or something…the seventh congress, the popular front. The freaking Communist International. For crying out loud. He’d had found himself a body and then spent what seemed like hours photographing it before phoning it in to police. That one left a complete circle of footprints around the body, taking pictures from every angle and carefully bracketing his shots as he subsequently explained.
Looking back, Gilles couldn’t quite recall, but he might have seen one or two on the front page.
The guy might have made a few francs out of it.
He looked at Madame Foubister, on duty most evenings in the small, slightly unkempt but always cheerful little store on the corner. He lived a few short blocks away and there was a kind of warmth, a kind of friendship or friendliness at least, that he had learned to appreciate very much since Ann’s passing. No doubt she, and the lady standing goggle-eyed with her, had heard every word, which meant the next customer and the next, and the one after that would also hear every word.
“Ah, yes, Monsieur?”
He repressed a sigh, there being nothing he could do about it. It was only human nature, and anything further would only add fuel to the fire.
“Good evening, Madame. Thank you, there is nothing to be alarmed about.”
She waved as he made his way out the door, brushing past more customers on their way in.
Gilles made his way back to the point where he had first entered the park. He found a pool of light under a lamp-post. On the chill evening air, the cry of the sirens came from somewhere not too far away.
He shook his head. Two young people were coming down the street from the northeast, a male and a female. Before they got to him, they turned. They were holding hands and giggling as they entered the park. His mouth opened. They were too far away, and it was already too late. There were scattered lights in there and he watched them. Voices traveled across in front of him from left to right. Their shadows swept across like the second hand of a clock and he sighed deeply. He was pretty sure the body was right along there…
A scream confirmed it. The girl was hysterical.
The young man’s voice was high but loud, cursing and swearing and saying it was an abomination.
He called out.
“Please don’t disturb the body.”
There was nothing but silence and then came the sound of voices. The girl was crying and the young man was holding her close as the pair came out of the darkness, seeking his authoritative voice. As soon as they saw him, a non-descript middle-aged man, standing a little too close to a dead man and seemingly somehow involved, the pair turned and bolted off to the southeast.
“Excuse me—please.” The young man gave an angry look back, and putting their heads down, the pair ran off up the street.
Innocent. That was his first impression, and first impressions are lasting ones. Neither one of them was wearing a coat. There was little doubt they were from the neighbourhood. Hopefully they could be located quickly, although they probably knew nothing. Just what they had seen, and no more.
A loud engine and stabbing headlights careened around the corner and roared up the street from the north.
A carload of uniformed gendarmes screeched to a halt right in front of him. The driver stayed in the car and the other two got out. The driver had the microphone up, reporting their on-scene status.
“Sergeant Girard. I understand you have a discovered a body? A dead one?”
“That’s the usual description, Sergeant Girard.” Gilles lifted an arm like a tour guide. “Step right this way, please.”
The officers snapped on their torches and followed him across the dewy grass, and a moment later he was rewarded with the sight of his own footprints...presumably. They were the only obvious ones along there. They should lead straight to the scene of the crime.
Redemption: an Inspector Gilles Maintenon mystery is the first in the series.
Thanks for having a read. > Louis