An excerpt from a work in progress.
Speak Softly My Love
Without a lot of options, they went to the nearest working-class saloon. Hubert didn’t hesitate, as he who hesitates is lost. Tailler took a moment and read the colourfully chalked menu on the big board by the door out front. For whatever reason a Reuben sandwich sounded pretty good, either that or pastrami on rye or something exotic like that. He’d never actually had a Reuben. That had something to do with it. Just something in an old pulp magazine, Private Detective.
As a boy, he’d lived for the pulps. Look where it had gotten him, as Mother would say.
His partner didn’t seem to care.
After one last look around, Tailler stumped up the front stairs, to be temporarily blinded by the darkness of the interior. Some hokey music was coming out of the radio-box. Even in France there were hillbillies. It was bolted high up on the wall. It would require a ladder to change the volume or the station. The man certainly knew his customers. There were pool tables at the back, three or four of them that he could see. The place had an agreeable smell of beer, tobacco and fried onions or battered, deep-fried something.
Whatever it was, it smelled pretty good.
Hubert had already settled in. Tailler came in, looking around and not seeing him. He had to seek him out. It was one of those L-shaped spaces, one sometimes wondered how they did it so consistently. They were always knocking down interior walls and then building them up again. The landlord probably owned a whole row or the whole block. A big bank or insurance company or something. The face of the building was narrow. On the other side of the wall to his right was a barbershop, after that a coffee shop. Bars didn’t need all the windows of a storefront. Maybe that was why. The décor was predictable, cheap and generic art nouveau with a lot of wear.
There was some grime involved as well.
Hubert wasn’t alone when he finally caught up.
Standing beside Hubert was quite the bruiser, and while his partner’s voice was mild and accommodating, Emile didn’t like the attitude. It was written all over the guy, big arms and long side-burns and a toothpick sticking out of one corner of his mouth. Them pointy boots made a certain statement, and it said punk.
The air reeked of sweat and sarcasm.
The bartender was there, not being stupid, he wasn’t taking sides. The gentlemen would work it out.
They usually did.
“I’m sorry, but I didn’t realize we required a reservation—” Characteristically, Hubert was trying to be polite, easing the situation by making a joke out of it. “Perhaps we do bring the tone down a bit—”
He didn’t see why he should move, though. There were exactly eleven people in the place, all male. It was a prime spot, right on the end of the bar and farthest away from the cash register and entrance. The bar was clean. There were no drinks or ashtrays there. No bowls of peanuts. Playing billiards when he came in, the guy was looking for trouble. The question was, why would a good sort like Hubert ever bother to give it to him?
“Surely we can all get along.” He raised an eyebrow and a glass, smiling confidently.
“Come on, asshole. This is my seat.”
Tailler always wondered, afterwards that is, where it came from. It happened all too quickly for his liking.
“Beat it, punk.” He slammed a shoulder into the guy, knocking him back and then stopped short as the fellow scrambled backwards, barely keeping his feet. “Unless there’s a problem here?”
“You’d better believe there’s a problem.” The man looked carefully around, a sly look under lowered lids.
Tailler looked around to a straggle of shocked faces and then nodded.
“Let’s see what you got. Punk.”
Hubert rose hastily to pull out his police badge, but Tailler put a hand on his arm and stopped him. Hubert subsided, but not entirely.
Not just yet.
“It’s okay. My treat.”
The fellow gathered his wits and recovered his balance, half-crouching there as he decided what to do. The place was definitely quieter now thought Hubert. There was only the scratched and tinny disc going round and round on the turntable downtown at the radio station and coming in over the airways. Tailler already had the fighting stance, right foot forward, slightly turned in. His hands were at his sides, looking like a rank amateur to anyone who knew anything. The unspoken suggestion was that Tailler, wasn’t really ready to start anything…he was just big, thought he was tough and the other guy must certainly back down.
Hubert was frozen in place.
The guy was definitely strong-looking. Considering the neighbourhood, he might be tough enough to cause a serious problem. Especially if he had friends, which was distinctly possible. A couple of guys in a corner booth were halfway out of their seats, but still undecided. That wouldn’t last very long.
Hubert squawked. He spun and straightened vertically in his seat as the knife appeared and the fellow lunged at Tailler. Hubert scrabbled for his gun, finding the butt and then he felt a whole lot better about things. He sat there with his hand under his coat, muzzle poking at the fabric. He could hit him from here, if only Tailler wasn’t in the way.
Tailler had grabbed the wrist of the knife hand with his left hand and pulled it along. The arm, straight and low, kept going. Tailler spun with it and threw the right shoulder again, right into the guy’s face. Tailler spun, pulling the arm up and over. He locked the knife arm in place with a quick forearm wrap-around that paralyzed the knife hand. With the guy’s head in behind his right armpit, he gave a quick pinch to the nerve endings in the wrist, already spinning the body of his victim into a new position…
The hand let go and the knife fell to the floor at Hubert’s feet. Tailler turned the guy like a rag doll, big paws up under the armpits, the rag-doll feet up and off the ground. He dropped him hard on his heels and changed the grip.
Tailler had his right hand up in the guy’s face, his left knee in between the guy’s legs. The man’s arm was straight up and he hovered on tiptoes. Tailler towered over him as he pushed the unshaven jowls up, up, up…powerful hand clamped on the jaws. The guy’s arm was still locked in place. Suddenly Tailler chuckled and relaxed, a kind of demonstration. He was taking an awful chance. He gave a playful shove and the guy half-fell onto a table, fortunately an empty one.
“Argh.” The guy shook his head in disbelief.
He didn’t like that very much.
The man was quick on his feet, and down low and in close, he was a handful. Tailler parried a couple of sweeping side-kicks with contemptuous ease. Hubert abandoned the bar stool and side-stepped, getting out of there as the pair of men rotated. They circled like wrestlers, each seeking to get the first and best hold.
One good, clean shot would do it…with six bullets, Hubert was safe enough.
The man’s hand clamped on his left wrist. Tailler twisted his arm, almost breaking the lock.
He grabbed the fellow’s wrist now. Tailler laughed, straightening up.
The big detective began to pull the man closer, cocking his right arm up and back…just waiting, or so it seemed.
The look on Tailler’s face was priceless. The bruiser decided not to go there. Tailler let go, and with the guy’s arm stiff, he shoved him back. There was one quick backhand from the right hand and the slap echoed through the building.
The man stood there, shocked as shit and humiliated as all hell. But now he knew better.
“More?” Tailler tapped his chin with an index finger. “Come on, you little prick. Let’s have it.”
The poor fucker, with what was a look of forlorn desperation on his face, pulled back and then drove the hardest right-handed punch he could muster. By any objective standard of measurement, it should have landed in the jaw or throat area. Tailler stopped it dead, with a clap of his left paw, snapping up from nowhere in a split second. They stood there for a moment. Tailler leaned in and gazed deep into those trouble eyes. The man tried to get his hand away and he couldn’t even do it.
“Want to try that again?”
The man shook his head.
“Go sit where I can keep an eye on you.”
The man looked a little askance.
“When we’re done our lunch, we’ll be out of your hair. No hard feelings. Comprene vous?”
The man nodded.
Unexpectedly, he stuck out a hand.
“I’m Leonard. Incidentally.” He licked his lips, in all humility.
His Adam’s apple bobbed.
“Emile. And this is Hubert.”
“I’m very pleased to meet you gentlemen.”
The man Leonard nodded, sweat rapidly cooling. The bartender still stood there, still polishing that glass, still squinting at the smoke of a bad cigar. The guy stood there for a second. Eyes slid over.
He noted Hubert’s hand inside the coat…
He backed off, ignoring the knife on the floor, only turning at the last minute. He found a seat by the back wall.
The rear exit was right there and the washrooms. He nodded at Tailler, catching Hubert’s eye for a second as a waitress scurried in that direction. Emile finally looked for a seat beside the rather ashen-faced Hubert. Slowly the room came to life again. They were the centre of attention.
“That was hardly necessary.”
Tailler bent and retrieved the knife. He closed the blade and hit the button. It clicked open with a flash of bright steel. Thoughtfully, he closed the blade and put it in his right-hand jacket pocket.
“Oh, I don’t know. If it wasn’t him, it would be somebody else.” He looked around the room, where more than one interesting and hard-bitten face hastily looked to their own soup as opposed to somebody else’s business.
People had settled down now. It clearly didn’t pay anyways.
“What will you gentlemen have?” The bartender had found the courage.
“Beer, the soup of the day, and a very large steak sandwich for my friend here.”
Hubert looked at Tailler.
“My treat. It’s the least I could do.”
“That’s very true.”
Ha, thought Hubert.
On the other hand, he was kind of useful.
That was a beautiful thing to see. The trouble was that he couldn’t tell anyone or they’d both be in a heap of shit.
They made it out into the sunlight again, with dark clouds on the horizon, what they could see of it. They were still in the warehouse district.
“We might as well call this Barrault character.”
It was better than heading back to the office, empty-handed and with Gilles most likely not around.
Sure as shooting someone with a big salad on their hat would grab them and give them some real work.
“All right. Let’s find a phone. This guy’s another traveler, so the odds of finding him in town would appear to be rather slim.” An elementary deduction, in Emile’s humble opinion.
Beer often brought out the best in him. That’s what he’d always thought.
“There was a phone in the bar back there.”
“Yeah, well—let’s not push our luck.” Hubert was happy enough to be out of there.
He’d just been polishing up some of Tailler’s unwanted coleslaw, only to look up and see that their new friend Leonard was no longer there.
This had led to certain thoughts, not the least of which was that only fools stuck around the scene of the crime.
Edmond Barrault was at home. Young, professional and a sophisticated man of the world, the fellow was also touchingly overwhelmed by a couple of rambunctious toddlers. There was a strange aroma in the air, one which took a moment to identify.
“Here. Sorry. You see—” Edmond handed off a baby to Hubert, whose mouth opened in dismay, but nevertheless snuggled the thing into his left shoulder.
“Oh, Lordy.” Hubert felt the heat of the thing on his chest and shoulders and marveled anew—he’d held a baby a few times in his life, but they were also pretty God-damned heavy.
Edmond bolted for the rear of the house and presumably the kitchen. One man ran in and two small boys almost immediately ran out.
“Oh, Lordy, ain’t the half of it.” Tailler still had a smoke hanging out of his mouth.
He still wasn’t properly addicted yet. He found you had to be attuned to it, and so far he really wasn’t.
The baby made small sucking noises, looking up at Tailler in friendly wonder.
He looked around, but there was no place to put it out. Okay, this is in some small way who I am—
Hubert made soothing noises, looking a bit wide-eyed at Tailler as Edmond ran after the two boys, looking about three and four years old. They scampered in different directions as soon as they made it through the next doorway. A kettle screamed in the kitchen and there were heaps of dishes piled in the sink. It was right there through an open archway. Monsieur Barrault certainly had his hands full.
“Do you want—”
“Dammit!” They could hear the monsieur scolding somewhere way at the back.
He returned shame-faced, palms up and shrugging in apology.
“I locked them in their room—for the moment.” He blew a long lock of fine blond hair out of his right eye. “Now, gentlemen. What can I do for you?”
He looked hopefully from one to the other. At last, some adults to talk to, was the impression Tailler got. He seemed a cheerful-enough sort.
Hubert took the lead.
“Yes. We’re interested in Didier Godeffroy.”
A ray of understanding dawned on the gentleman’s intelligent brow.
“Ah, yes. Didier.”
There was an oddly flat note to it, or was that just Tailler’s imagination.
“So, ah…what’s he done?” Barrault chuckled, it was an obvious line and he wasn’t all that serious.
A sign of nervousness.
“Where is your wife, incidentally?” Damn.
There was just something about the way a baby looked at you—all of your soul was revealed to it. Hubert had always hated any feelings of vulnerability, and there was just no way he wanted kids…ever. They had way too much power. His Emmanuelle was a real sucker for anything in jammies. The trouble was that Hubert couldn’t quite see how to avoid it. In the end he would probably go down without much of a struggle—as poor old Edmond must have.
“She’s in hospital. Influenza, bronchitis, asthma.” Monsieur had the sniffles as well, and no doubt the kids. “Hopefully I’ll get someone to look after the kids and I can get up there and visit her tonight.”
They were only going to let him get in so close. Hubert handed the baby back and Edmond took it professionally enough. There was something sticky under Hubert’s foot, but he tried not to let on and make a big deal of it. The guy had enough problems already, wispy hair all askew and no socks on his feet. The gentleman was in his pajama bottoms and a housecoat. Tailler lurked there, off in the background, trying to look big and friendly.
“Ah. There you go.”
Hubert surreptitiously checked his suit, but didn’t see any major stains or up-chucks.
The two men chuckled while Tailler seemed to be just looking around. This place, while nice enough for a small family, was nothing like either of the Godeffroy residences. It couldn’t have been half the size of either one of them. It was nowhere near as clean, and didn’t smell all that good inside either. Tailler sort of wondered what the lady of the house might look like—he suspected nothing much like either of their Madame Godeffroys. Not with three kids to show for it.
Hubert looked around. Small children will eavesdrop, and if those two hadn’t figured out how to open the bedroom door lock with a bent bobby-pin, then they would soon enough. They might even be working on that right now.
His childhood was gone, and yet he still referred to it.
“Was Didier a bit of a rogue? I mean, to your knowledge?”
Edmond looked completely mystified.
“Whatever do you mean?”
“Well. His wife seems to think he has disappeared, and yet we hear that he’s off on a sales trip down south. We’re wondering if this sort of thing was really in character for him? Can you tell us anything about, ah, any extra-curricular relationships, encounters maybe, that he might have indulged in…along the way?” Hubert took a deep breath. “Did Didier and his wife ever, uh, feud about anything in particular?”
“Disappeared? Feud?” There was a half-gasp of disbelief.
“That’s what she thinks. We have a missing-person report and we have no choice but to take them seriously, n’est pas?”
Edmond’s face cleared.
“Yes, of course. Why didn’t you bloody well say so.” Now it was his turn to check for splashes on the upper chest.
He pulled a cloth out of a side pocket of his housecoat and wiped around the baby’s face and mouth.
“You guys know that secretary?”
Tailler’s jaw dropped.
“Yeah, he had her too. But no, I mean the one in Gaudet’s office.”
He sure had their attention now.
“What? You mean—you mean the Prideaux woman?” This was one of those things that had always amazed Tailler. “So he told you about all of this? Did you guys ever go drinking, stuff like that?”
“Yeah, sure. Once or twice, anyways.”
“Did you ever try to, ah, you know—score, anything like that?” Tailler was genuinely curious, but it was also relevant.
“Oh.” Barrault took a hasty look at the far archway. “Ah, no. Never. Not me, that’s for sure.”
“His wife says you’re friends.”
“I suppose we are, yes. But we, ah, me—no. I’m, ah, I’m always home on time.” He smiled, albeit a little sadly.
What some men actually got away with, for however long or short of a time, really was a wonder sometimes. The Prideaux girl wasn’t blonde either, come to think of it. Didier was capable of branching out.
The detectives were an attentive audience.
Edmond beamed, it was like he just couldn’t wait to talk about it. This almost made sense, when one wondered just who the average young married fellow could call his friends. The scruffier ones from a previous life were often quickly weeded out, as Hubert well knew. He wasn’t even married yet. As often as not this involved other couples, just as much friends of the wife (or affianced) as friends of the husband. They didn’t dare open their mouths for fear of distorted versions of those stories making the rounds. It always came back to haunt them, didn’t it? With a certain type of woman, once you were married, it was like you were Siamese twins, joined at the hip or something. The worst thing you could do to your wife was to embarrass her among her friends.
For a frazzled Edmond Barrault, a couple of young male cops with those open, sympathetic looks, might be a golden opportunity for a gossip. The thing was to show an interest and take his mind off his surroundings. With the wife sick, he wouldn’t be earning any money either.
The only problem was the baby had wet itself and it would take a minute to change.
Was that all? Hubert could have sworn it was much worse, but it might just be coming from the hamper down the hall.
Assuming they had the patience to wait him out, it appeared the gentleman would be only too happy to tell it.
The baby gurgled, chuckling quietly to itself in a small bed in the next room. They sat expectantly in the front room as their host hastily cleared a pile of clothes from one end of the couch.
Edmond had taken a quick phone call in monosyllables in the kitchen. He’d checked on the other two kids, and they were said to be playing quietly in their room. Either that or he’d put them down with a ball-peen hammer, possibly sleeping-powder in the grape juice, thought Tailler.
“So Didier had some kind of relationship with this Prideaux woman?”
Edmond nodded happily.
“I almost admired him at times. There were times when I hated him, mostly at breakfast. You really have to admit. Most of us just don’t have the nerve—the sheer, unmitigated gall. But that guy took the cake. He really did.”
“And what about the other secretary. She’s quite a bit older.”
“Oh, yeah.” He rolled his eyes. “But a body like a hot tamale, eh?”
It was quite an expression, one neither man had ever heard. There was a moment while they considered it…neither one had seen a tamale before, come to think of it, and so the analogy died stillborn.
“And you’re sure?” Tailler needed the fellow to come out and say it. “I mean, seriously?”
It wouldn’t do to put words in the witness’s mouth and then go ahead and write it in your little notebook. It had to come from them, with as little prompting as possible.
“Oh, yes. They kept it quiet about the office, of course.”
Hubert wondered about that.
“So how did you know? Did you see them?”
“No, of course not. But Didier told me all about it. Yeah, they must be some pretty good actors. Both of them. When we were both in town, or when we were at a big show, a whole bunch of us, we talked quite a bit. Half-drunk a lot of the time. It really does go with the job, although we all pretend it doesn’t. But yeah, I believed him.”
“You believed him?” Hubert’s eyes slid to Tailler, as usual taking his painstaking notes. “He wasn’t telling stories out of school, then?”
“Well. That’s good enough for us.”
Edmond shook his head.
“You would have to see the guy in action. He was always hitting on them. Anything in a skirt. You might be surprised who responded sometimes. I’ve seen it myself.”
He flushed a bit, looking about. He meant he’d seen other males do it.
“Okay, Monsieur Barrault. I hope your wife gets better soon.” Hubert rose, the whole visit rather disappointing. “Didier didn’t have any regular girlfriends, a mistress here in town? Anything like that?”
“Oh, God! Probably. Knowing him, sure. Anyways, gentlemen, I really must get dinner going or the little beasts are going to tear me limb from limb.” A mistress would be nothing out of the ordinary, in some circles.
Barrault seemed to accept it all too readily.
“What’s your wife’s name, sir?”
“And what hospital is that?”
Tailler patiently took it all down.
“Okay, thank you.” Tailler tapped the final period and closed his notes.
He was hit by an inspiration.
“A rose by any other name.”
“That, sir, is very true.” The fellow brightened and then he laughed.
Tailler seemed to have struck a chord there.
Sometimes it was best to leave it at that.
Leaving their business cards, the pair made a hasty exit.
The baby was crying again, some kind of fight had broken out in the back of the house; and there but for the Grace of God went them.