There was a long, low black car waiting at the curb in front of the Crédit Lyonnais when their little cavalcade arrived. There were three or four people waiting at the door, bundled in thick long coats and huddled against the strong northeast wind.
A young man leapt out of the driver’s side of the Mercedes, hastening around to let his passenger out. It was Antoine Noel, looking like he’d spent a sleepless night as well. He probably had, in fact.
“Ah, Monsieur Noel. Another rotten morning, and why not say so?’
The banker looked a little shocked at this and Gilles wished he hadn’t said it. They both had enough problems.
“Hmn. Inspector Gilles Maintenon, I would like you to meet my son, Maurice…” The gentleman trailed off as if searching for some proper label or description for his son.
“Maurice. Maurice Noel.”
Maurice, dropping his chin and regarding the police with humourous eyes, extended a hand and shook with Maintenon and Levain. He was a tall, well-built young man of about twenty-five.
“I’m a driver.”
Levain nodded thoughtfully, he knew the type.
“Hmn. Pleased to meet you, Monsieur Noel.” Maintenon was less judgemental than Levain, perhaps.
“Shall we go up, then?” The elder Noel had a heaviness in his tread as he climbed the stairs, his son at his side, steadying him with one hand on the upper arm.
The young man found Maintenon’s eyes upon him. If anything he was, if possible, even better-dressed than his father and a lot less conservative. Where the old man wore brown with pinstripes and a plain white shirt, the usual clunky black oxfords, the younger man tended to the sharp American zoot-suit look. He wore a soft, hand-knitted charcoal black jacket, and lighter grey trousers, big at the top and tapering down quickly to the cuffs. The gentleman wore saddle shoes. The heavy weight of a silver flask dragged the one side of his coat down.
His shirt, with the knock-off collar, must have cost fifty or a hundred francs, having the look of real silk and in that canary yellow to boot. The only thing that could possibly go with that would be grey or black, and in fact he wore a grey and black silk tie.
“Papa hasn’t been feeling very well this morning.” He seemed embarrassed by the disclosure.
“Shut up, Maurice.”
“I’m sorry, Papa, but it’s true.” Maurice, who had a scar running up from the left corner of his lip and displaying an otherwise wizened countenance, had genuine concerns about his father.
“I want you to promise me, you’ll take it easy, okay?”
“Yes, yes, of course, Maurice—”
Maurice eyed the detectives.
“Father has an ulcer.’
“Ah.” They nodded in professional empathy.
Most of them had ulcers too.
They were at the top of the stairs and the senior gendarme in charge was holding the door open.
“Er. Have a good day, father.”
“Yes, you too, Maurice—”
Father and son exchanged a quick and awkward hug, which was touching, and then the young fellow gave the rest of them an unreadable look. Whatever he was, he was a cool young professional about it.
He could see the impact on his father better than they ever could. Maurice held his old man by the shoulders for a moment of unspoken communication, and then he scuttled down the stairs to where the gleaming black car idled at the curb.
Gilles filed it away.
Maintenon ushered them all in and they could finally get out of the cold wind. Turning for one last glance through the suddenly rain-specked window, he watched the Mercedes’ flashing signal and then it pulled out into traffic.
It was as silent as the tomb except for the footsteps of the few employees they were admitting.
“All right, Monsieur Noel. I have to get my men up on the roof before those blasted thunderstorms return. I will come back down shortly and we can speak more then, n’est pas?”
“Er, yes. Of course.” A defeated-looking Antoine Noel shuffled vaguely in the direction of the offices and his kettle.
A fresh face, wearing the red of a sergeant in their private security garb, gave him a pleasant nod.
For Antoine Noel, the morning ritual would never be quite the same again.
“All right. There is a hatch onto the roof.”
The most senior gendarme held up a jangling ring of keys.
“It’s at the top of the stairs, sir.”
“All right. Grab that ladder and follow me.” Two men ran off to get the ladder.
Their footsteps and voices loud in Maintenon’s ears, they followed him up the stairs two steps at a time. For one thing, Maintenon wasn’t a big fan of elevators, for another, there were just too many of them.
It was at the end of a hall, right at the back of the building on the upper floor. Some buildings had steps going up to a landing and a vertical door to the exterior. The central block was much taller than the two wings, which indeed had such doors. A quick sweep revealed nothing of interest, and the air vent stacks clearly went up to the full height of the building.
With no iron-runged ladder in this application, it would be a good four-metre drop to the floor from the lip. Assaulting a bank from the roof wasn’t unheard-of. This worked best in a single-story branch of a bank. People had literally cut a hole in the roof. It was noisy, attracted attention whether it was done in the middle of the night or the broad light of day, and, generally speaking, had to be carried out in minutes. In short, it was an impossible job in a major city like Paris. Whoever had pulled this particular crime had at least had the luxury of time.
Two uniformed officers opened up the big step ladder and braced it. Their sergeant climbed it carefully, keys in hand.
With a few keys to choose from, it seemed to take forever. It took a dozen tries. It was a simple padlock, and he was working with his gloves on in case of fingerprints.
Something was very remiss and they were taking all precautions.
Finally he had it. He came down and they put the lock aside for the moment on a window ledge...
Gilles had seen one or two of them around before but didn’t know any of the men by name.
Maintenon raised his eyebrows but said nothing. One of the junior men went up the ladder and braced himself, and then gave a careful heave. The hatch was solid steel, but necessary for roofing inspections and cleaning drains, as well as washing windows, which happened once a year for most major buildings.
The man climbed up and out.
Maintenon turned to Monsieur Tremblay, who was assisting them.
“I need a phone.”
Tremblay led him down one level. The stairwell was amazingly clean. It smelled like lemons, and carbolic soap.
“There will be one in this office here.”
He used his own master key to open up what looking like a low-level executive’s office.
He made the journey back up the steps again, voices from above echoing off hard stone walls.
There was not one soft or friendly surface in the entire place.
It was Levain, at the base of the ladder.
“They say they’ve got something.” He pointed a finger upwards.
Turning, he waited for another man to clear the top of the ladder and then with a nod at the two bracing cops, began to climb as thick maple rungs and runners bent and heaved under the weight.
Gilles hurried back inside. If they were going to be going up and down that damned ladder all day, then someone had better get a bigger, heavier one in there straight away.
“The phone, the phone, my kingdom for a phone…”
Tremblay coughed and politely stood by the window so as not to eavesdrop.
Maintenon made a lightning call to the technical branch down at the Quai and explained what he needed and why he needed it. Their reassurances were fulsome, for whatever that was worth, but sooner or later a bigger ladder would most likely turn up.
When he got back to the upper hallway again, one of the two remaining gendarmes was just about to go up.
“No. Stay here, no matter how bored you people get. Understand? No one goes up or down that ladder without the two of you bracing it.”
Maintenon took in some air and began to climb.
“Thank you.” Elevators were one thing, but Gilles was fine with ladders—until you got to the top, and had to let go of the ladder and reach for the edge of the hatch.
It wobbled alarmingly from side to side. Industrial safety was a joke in some occupations.
They just never thought it important…
That last part was a bit different, but he made it up all right, with Tremblay and an unfamiliar young officer steadying him by the armpits. They wouldn’t let him fall. He clambered up and over. It had been a very long time since he went over the top. It was beginning to show.
The roof was flat. It was much like any other roof. There would be some kind of a metal bed over steel trusses, with a rubber bladder to keep out the water and pea gravel to walk on. It was all heavily-tarred and sticky with the heat.
The surface heaved around substantially, a reminder that all human constructions were flawed.
There were puddles in the low spots where the drainage was poor.
“Over here, sir.”
Levain was keeping them back, their grubby hands off of whatever it was.
Thunderheads rumbled on the northeastern horizon.
“Ah, for the love of God.” Gilles grabbed a gendarme. “I want you to go down with Monsieur Tremblay. He’ll show you the phone.”
The man was right there at his elbow, all wide-eyed at the cluster of officers and the sight they were obscuring if that made any sense…
“What do we need, sir?”
“We’re going to need more technical people…and a tent or something to put over that hatch. Tarps. We need the lab people up here on the double. Oh—and bag up that lock…right?”
The idiots pelted off in the direction of the hatch.
The pair of relatively-young men slid to an abrupt halt, feet rasping on the loose gravel, deep in some places and thin or even missing in others.
“No running on the roof.”
“Er, yes, sir?”
“Don’t let Monsieur Noel come up here…right?’
Face pale and yet illuminated by understandable excitement, Orson Tremblay nodded soberly and then turned away.
Levain pulled the sopping canvas tarpaulin back. A man stepped forwards as Levain waited.
The technician raised a camera and snapped a series of pictures.
Levain went on, and another officer took the tarpaulin away for tagging and bagging as evidence.
“Well, well, well. What have we here—”
“It’s some kind of infernal machine.”
Gilles almost laughed aloud, but Grosjean had hit the nail on the head.
Gilles, looking around, saw sodden and slowly-dissolving cigarette butts, disturbed gravel and other signs of heavy use in the area.
“Shit.” He beckoned the photographer forward and got him to document the area.
The fellow took pictures from all angles.
Gilles got carefully onto his knees. There was sense here, only he really wasn’t an engineer.
“This is obviously some kind of petrol engine.” It had one cylinder, a carburettor and an exhaust.
There was a heavy base, and an enclosing framework.
There was a fuel tank, and a spark plug, and a pull handle for starting. There were three red tins lined up, presumably they had held fuel. Levain picked each one up in turn. Two were empty, mere drops inside, the third still held some petrol.
Gilles had owned a car once, back home, when he was very young. This was distinctly out of his experience. It was the machine on the other end that was different.
“It’s not a generator.” Levain appeared stumped.
“An air pump?”
Maintenon looked up, impressed. Grosjean had hit on it.
Looking around, there was a series of bundles, lined up against the wall of the upper story.
“No. It’s a vacuum pump.” How he knew that, Gilles had no idea, but they were definitely onto something. “Ha. It’s a suction-pump.”
The boys rocked back on their heels on hearing it.
His eyes found Levain.
“I’m going back down.” His eyes swept the long rooftop.
There was the centre section and then the two lower sections.
“We’ll have to examine the entire rooftop. If there was somebody up here, they had to get down somehow. Which reminds me—use gloves at all times, and that includes coming and going, up and down.” He could have kicked himself.
Now that they knew where to look, surely they should have checked the bank’s ladder for prints first, or used their own ladder right from the beginning. Hindsight was twenty-twenty.
Levain turned away, to organize their small gaggle of men and take another sweeping look at the blackening horizon.
(End of excerpt. )
Here`s a link to the fourth of The Inspector Gilles Maintenon Mystery Series. As for this one, number 6, How To Rob a Bank will be available for pre-order in the next few weeks.
Thank you for reading.