“What do you think of Lorraine?”
It was an interesting question, coming out of nowhere like that.
“Yes, er, well.” The banker gave him a shy, sad grin. “We have some of the most beautiful girls in France working our counters. Possibly even the world. It’s the sort of thing you can’t put in a training-manual, but you’d be amazed.”
The fellow had been telling him a little about his career in response to Maintenon’s prompting.
The banker certainly knew his way around the building, but as he explained, if the custodial staff missed something, he was ultimately responsible. The actual public parts of the bank were only a small fraction of what went on there.
“Amazed at what?”
“I once boosted, ah, sales, in a little branch in Orleans by a good twenty-five percent. Over two and a half years. It took some doing, but I got rid of a couple of old battle-axes at the front counter, and, uh, we brought in some really sweet young girls. Kids, really, but the previous manager basically had no imagination. We sort of had to teach them how to talk to customers. Some people have worked here for years—other places too, and somehow missed learning it.”
It was a revealing moment, and Maintenon filed that one away for future reference.
“…no idea whatsoever.”
Antoine nodded, glory days indeed. None of that mattered now of course.
Gilles was drawing him out as best he could.
“After all these years, you must know a lot about human relations.” Maintenon’s tone was admiring, and if Noel was innocent, he felt truly sorry for the old guy.
“Oh, I don’t know. Not really.” It was the first wrong note Noel had struck.
Like Gilles, he must have seen pretty much everything by now.
Antoine, after this brief rally, was showing his age and his grief more clearly.
The men were manhandling a three-metre stepladder up and out of the emergency stairwell when Grosjean found them. The man actually snapped to a halt and saluted upon finding them.
“We have the go-ahead. Our paperwork is on the way.”
Trying to sleep was pure agony sometimes. It had been one hell of a long day. Night was sheer torment.
With the pressure on, and with virtually no way to proceed without further information, Gilles had spent a fitful night. The fact that his hip and left knee, his lower back and his neck were bothering him had him wide awake at four in the morning. His mind just wouldn’t shut off, and yet so far there was little for it to chew on. Gilles was so tired at this point that he couldn’t think straight anymore. There were times, one couldn’t sleep but at least a man could think. He might have solved a case or two over the years, simply because he’d had the time, the sheer blessed time to think about it away from all distractions.
Pain, real pain, serious pain, was nothing if not a distraction. It was also a reminder of some rather hellish experiences in the War, and all of those old wounds seemed to be inflamed in sympathy.
Laying on the left side was the worst, laying on the right side not much better. He’d never been able to sleep on his back, although it didn’t hurt quite so much. The only problem was that he wasn’t going to be able to sleep. The only way he could lay on his stomach would be to swap ends and stick his head out over the end of the bed. That clearly wasn’t going to work. It had been like this for six days as he recalled. A few more days of this and he’d be in tears…
Getting out of bed before six, a hot bath was the only thing that seemed to help, that and a couple of the narcotic pain pills the doctor had prescribed—ninety fucking pills every two weeks. Over the years, Gilles had come to understand many things. One of which was that he was human and that all humans had their weaknesses. Codeine was derived from opium, but the real trouble was that it worked. It worked especially well with a couple of stiff glasses of cognac under your belt, and shortly after that, pain was a distant memory, you felt you could beat any odds, and couldn’t quite understand why anyone would ever be against opiates…and yet he was supposed to be a police officer.
He had thought himself strong, when he was as weak as the most miserable addict.
It had quickly become a dependency.
With the bank securely guarded and sealed as a crime scene, they were having an early-morning case conference prior to heading over there and continuing the investigation—assuming they could think of anything left to be done.
“Any thoughts on the subject?’
“Well, Inspector, they’re not going to like it.” He was right about that.
The bank and its customers were going to be screaming like hell. He was referring to their blanket warrant, the ink still drying on the signature. That name, Alphonse Piffard, was one of the more socialist judges, as no conservative judge would have ever signed it. It really was kind of precedent-setting, and yet they were hoping for minimum fuss and maximum cooperation. It was a nice dream, and one that might still happen.
The situation was unique and the book couldn’t help you sometimes.
“What I’m thinking, is to have the bank phone them, using their own employees, and asking the people to come in and check the contents of their boxes…” His idea was that the gendarmes could stand over them as they worked.
If folks discovered a theft, the police would take down the details.
“Yes, yes.” The young man, on temporary secondment from his own unit, had brought along a partner whom they hadn’t met yet.
Detective Dufort appeared to be the strong, silent type, not having said one thing so far.
“But, let’s assume a theft from the bank. We have a dead man, an employee, found in the vault with no obvious signs of violence. Surely this suggests certain things.”
With no desks of their own in this office, Grosjean and Fabian Dufort, his partner, were looking distinctly uncomfortable. Fabian had grabbed an empty seat by the far wall, opposite Maintenon’s desk, but his erstwhile partner had settled his buttocks on the front of another desk.
This one appeared fully equipped for work, but there was no sign of the occupant, one Detective Firmin going by the bronze plaque on the front. Not exactly standard issue, the plaque was a birthday gift from his kid.
“The nuts and bolts of the investigation are one challenge. The theory of the crime is another—”
The phone picked that moment to ring and Andre Levain picked it up.
“…we simply must have a theory of the crime.” It was one of Maintenon’s little bugbears.
Levain put his hand over the mouthpiece.
“It’s Doctor Guillaume.”
They froze in place and listened for all they were worth.
“Eh. Hello, Gilles. How’s it hanging?”
Maintenon snorted softly, grateful that Levain, needing the bathroom or something, had put his phone down and left the room. None of the others quite had the nerve to listen in.
“So, what have you got for us, Doctor?”
“Well, Gilles. You are going to love this.” Guillame would be grinning fiendishly.
“Merde, I hate it already—”
“I can’t find anything.”
“We’re still looking. Okay, so he puked and all of that. The man’s heart stopped rather suddenly. We have all the signs of heart failure, ah. You have to admit that, and yet he appears rather fit and healthy for all the fact that he’s gone. I’ve spoken to his physician and there was no history of anything related to the heart. His heart stopped, but it was physically intact, showed no signs of anomalies, and there were no embolisms. We’ll keep looking, Gilles. That much I can promise you. But there are all the so-called untraceable poisons, and then God knows what. Everything takes time. I wish I could do better, Gilles. There are no signs of death by natural causes.” He was being only slightly facetious. “As for the apple, we’ve sent it to the lab. That’s because apple is one of the things we can easily identify in the contents of the gentleman’s stomach.”
“Yes, Gilles. He’d already eaten at least one apple.”
If the man had spent four days in the vault, where was the human waste disposed of? There had been no sign of it in the unrented boxes. But it might be in a rented box that had not been opened yet. It might have been bagged in oilcloth or rubber bags, and the boxes were relatively tightly-sealed. What they had found, was one box with cigarette butts, ashes, used matches, and the wrappers from candy, dates, chocolate. There was no uneaten food except for one apple. Would that have been enough to live on for four days?
That depended on the motivation, for one such as Daniel Masson.
That was another extremely relevant question…Gilles wished his mind would shut up sometimes.
This sort of thing was not exactly unheard-of, it was the circumstances that were extremely suspicious.
“Oh, for the love of God.” The headache that this case was, was getting worse.
Doctor Guillaume went on to talk about stomach contents. There were various poisons, and various tests. It would be helpful to know what they were looking for, for all of this would take time.
“Look, Gilles. No one has ever died of nothing before—and this is a young guy, in the prime of his life. A man found dead in a vault that shows every signs of having being robbed. But I thought I had better give you a call—and let you deal with Chiappe and others, the, uh, you-know-whos.”
He let the doctor go after a few more desultory questions. He filled in Grosjean and the other guy on the details, bringing scowls but no major inspirations.
The morning papers lay on his desk. The headlines screamed, conveying outrage and stirring up paranoia.
“What about our other evidence?”
“Hopefully that’s where Andre’s gone. They should have something for us by now. But there is little doubt that with the guard keys, all kinds of duplicates made up, what a long and labourious process that must have been. Merde, with four days to work with, a person could get into any number of boxes…” And yet virtually nothing about the incident made any sense at all.
“How did they get the money, or presumably, some other valuables, out of the vault? Assuming they did. Among other things.”
Good question as it was, they had run out of daylight. Heavy storms had arisen before anyone really came to grips with that. It had been a wild night weather-wise and there were trees and power lines down. An examination of the roof had to wait until today. Gilles lifted his feet back up onto the end of the desk, wondering where Levain had gotten off to. As soon as the technical people called, they could round everybody up and get back to the crime scene. Also, there were about a hundred interviews that needed to be conducted.
The technical people had gone up on the ladder. A closer examination of the ceiling heating vents inside the vault had revealed nothing unusual with the heating and cooling system. The cold air vents were different in that the slot screws on one vent showed signs of use. There were shiny cuts and flecks of paint missing, all the rest being heavily overpainted. When the grille was removed, it was bagged up for evidence along with the screws. The electric motor that should have been mounted just inside the opening was missing. The wires, neatly capped with tape to avoid short-circuit, were hanging in the cavity. A typical seventy-five millimetre air duct was now open from end-to-end. With three out of four suck-out fans working, presumably no one would have noticed. The box that the fan was mounted in had been laboriously removed, all of this presumably working from the top of a ladder. For whatever reason, none of the fan parts had been found in the boxes. Peering up and around the corner with dental mirrors and flashlights had revealed something—the end of a rubber hose or something like that, only they were having the devil of a time snagging it and it was still in the vent. With gendarmes swarming all over the place, protecting the crime scene, it wasn’t going anyplace. That was small consolation.
Sooner or later, he had to make some decisive move, or they were just a bunch of cops sitting around in a room with their heads up their asses, figuratively speaking. Andre came back in with a cluster of thin sheets in his hand. Hopefully that would be some of the lab reports, and he had the usual big envelope full of photos. They might begin by having another look at them, and Gilles scowled at the futility of that.
The phone rang again and Levain picked up.
He mouthed the word Chiappe.
Sighing deeply, Maintenon’s hand hovered for a moment while he tried to decide what to tell the old man.
(End of excerpt.)
Here is The Handbag's Tale, the original novella that spawned The Inspector Gilles Maintenon Mystery Series. This title is usually free on most sites where ebooks are sold.
Thank you for reading.