Thursday, January 14, 2016

Excerpt: Maintenon and the Golden Dragon.


Louis Shalako

She had lips like rubies, toes like jelly beans and nipples that could cut glass. Her cheeks were high and flushed. Her skin was like alabaster.

Her name was Mathilde Gaudrau. It was her first really good role rather than just being in the chorus.

Mathilde was, quite naturally, devastated.

She’d been the closest to the victim when the lights came down. When the lights came back up again, Largo Banzini, a promising new tenor, was dead on the floor at her feet.

The circumstances were troubling.

So far, only they knew that. To everyone else, it would merely be sensational. They had damned little evidence and no suspects. It was early and no one knew a thing.

Not yet, anyways.

“So you didn’t hear anything at all? Nothing out of the ordinary?”

The girl was still sniffling.

She crumpled the wet handkerchief, all lace and airy holes in her anguished hands. Gilles was wondering if there had been any sort of deep relationship there. Banzini had a reputation as a play-boy and was successful.

He had money and style, as such things went. Even the critics liked him.

“I’m sorry, Inspector.”

“You’d think he would have gasped, or cried out, or clutched at his chest or something…”

“No, Inspector. But it really is a hustle and bustle back there with the crew working at top speed.”


Maintenon raised his eyebrows, flipping idly through the notebook. It was the end of Act One, and time for a change in the set and scenery. Banzini had shown no signs of distress. 

The star, having sung very well according to those they had interviewed thus far, would have normally stepped off the stage. He would have gotten back to his dressing room on the double. There was a quick costume change. After a little touch-up on the hair and makeup, he would have waited in the wings until the scenery was done. She certainly had, as she had her own change. Her hair style would be done, and the dress. Then, along with other members of the cast, Banzini would have gone out, the curtain still down, and found his marks. He would have waited patiently. The lights would be down, although there was enough light back there to find their way around. The curtain would go up, up would come the lights—and there was Banzini, lying dead on stage.

Unfortunately, it hadn’t happened that way. He seemed to have died at the end of the first act, still in the original costume. Apparently he dressed alone, with no help. It was a personal idiosyncrasy, not unheard of. With his clout, not too many questions had been asked.

No one had noticed whether he came or went, in other words.

The whole thing seemed very unlikely and yet there it was—

They needed to establish everyone’s movements during the break. There was a cast of dozens, dozens more in support crew, and dozens more in various categories of hangers-on. It was opening night and anyone who was anyone, anyone who could be there, would be there. Wild horses couldn’t have kept them away.

The opera itself was almost secondary—to be seen was the thing.

The audience would have been abuzz, up on their feet and craning their necks. The manager had quickly called an ambulance. The understudy had stepped in, performed magnificently, and the show must go on—always, always, the show must go on.

It’s what everyone had said so far.

Banzini had been whipped away via ambulance, only to be pronounced dead (really dead) at the hospital.

Quite a treat for lovers of drama. Telling the audience that the star was indisposed—something they must have known for themselves, the manager called police, and arguably—his insurer.

Banzini’s agent, also in attendance in a private box reserved for just that purpose, would have been doing exactly the same thing—calling his insurer.

There really hadn’t been much more that they could do, except to try and keep a lid on things.

They would have been hoping for the best…

“..and, when the lights came up, and there was Largo Banzini, lying dead at your feet…”

She flushed, but what else would one have done?

She started screaming and then ran away, sobbing, providing a fine distraction for those other cast members who still hadn’t seen it...

So far, their witnesses were merely speculating as to why he might have collapsed. Heart attack, stroke, brain embolism—the whole gamut from A to Z. Banzini had been the picture of health before the performance—opening night, the house full of celebrities, the corporate boxes full, even the President of the Republic’s wife attending with friends.

Mathilde Gaudrau was wearing a simple pink slip of a dress, hand-beaded with faience or something fine and colourful. That one must have set somebody, (probably not her), back about four thousand francs at any one of a hundred shops somewhere along the Rue de las Paix. It was opaque enough that a slip wasn’t required—just barely.

It was good to see that her feet were not too deformed, although as she aged, it might still happen.

It was all too common with modern footwear.

“Very well, young lady. If we have further questions, may we contact you?”

Levain had all the details of address and phone number.

He never forgot a pretty face, as the saying went. That’s what notebooks were for.

“Of course.” She rose gracefully from her seat, smoothed down the clingy knit and with a nod from Levain, Mathilde turned and headed for the door.

It was hard not watch that kind of action, and Andre Levain a married man and all.

No one thought Banzini drunk, and if he had any really bad habits, it had never interfered with his performance before. Some of them already knew he was dead. Not just collapsed, but dead.

When pressed, they said a rumour was going around—and ambulance attendants could be bribed if the price was high enough. Excited people blurted things out that perhaps they shouldn’t have.

Secrets didn’t last for long, not in this town.

The fact that he was laying on the stage and unresponsive would have been a dead giveaway.

Tips were sold all the time, auctioned off over the phone as it were.

A few drops of blood, one small round patch where he had been lying, had been completely missed, at first.

Even so—

A death by natural causes would be sensational—Banzini was that popular, known from his society page and tabloid antics…the meteoric rise in the opera career.

Maintenon rubbed his tired eyes.

The opera was The Golden Dragon, by the late composer Fosse. He was, according to witnesses, generally regarded as not a genius but competent enough and knowledgeable in the tastes of Parisian opera-goers. Maintenon knew, vaguely, that this was the composer’s most popular work without ever having seen an opera in his entire life. That was the benefit of a working class upbringing, a liberal education and thoroughly reading the newspaper on any given day. A hit might not be the same thing as good, thought Maintenon. Some of them were very prolific, and the more money they made, the more important they became.

“All right, Andre. Who’s next?” Called out into a black and dreary winter night, Gilles was distinctly cranky.

Levain looked at his list. His mouth opened, but at that exact moment, someone knocked at the door of the small room they were using.

Bring on the witnesses.

All two thousand of them.

“Yes? Come in.”

A gendarme stuck his head in the door.

“It’s Chiappe—and he’s got company. He’s on his way up, sir.”

“Aw, for shit’s sakes.” Maintenon gave his head a quick shake. “What, was he watching the show?”

“I don’t think so, sir. You know what big ears he’s got—”

“Shit, Gilles.” Levain gave the officer a look. “So, like who else?”

“The President’s wife for one thing. Also Monsieur—ah, what’s his name, the president or director of the Opera Garnier.”


Levain nodded. “That would be a certain Jacques Rouché.” They’d already gotten a quick and dirty précis as to the night’s events from the gentleman.

A full statement probably wouldn’t include much more.

“There goes the neighbourhood.”

“Yes, sergeant.”

Levain, reaching for a cigarette, eyed the fellow speculatively.

He gave him a quick wink, Maintenon busy scowling at his notes and no doubt wishing he was home with the cat, a book and his brandy. A cheese and mushroom quiche, or something like that…

“Well. Looks like we’re going to have ourselves a real bastard of a time with this one, eh, sir?”

Coal-black eyes came up and stared at the gendarme. Gilles was otherwise silent.

The face was a bit stiff and the corners of the mouth turned down. The chin jutted forwards, a bad sign in the officer’s interpretation.

“Ah, yes, sir.” The young fellow, duty done, averted his eyes and closed the door very quietly behind him.


Madame Poincaré was a stout, competent woman, clad in black as befitted her age, her marital, and her social status.

Rouché hung in the background, grey and sweaty in his seersucker suit.

Her face was grim, gloved hands in her lap, her hat of a previous season oddly counterbalancing a frock which would have been a promotional item rather than a purchase. 

A bit frumpy on her blocky frame, it was all black silk and Chantilly lace, the neckline high and skirt hemmed relatively low. Just this once, she had forgone the high, lace-up Victorian boots. That’s not to say her shoes weren’t sensible, because they were…

One of the perks of being the President’s wife was that people sent you things. Very nice things.

She had a rose named after her, or so Gilles recalled. She might have been something in her younger days—probably had, one must concede. She’d recently been featured in a prominent home decorating magazine, giving a big long interview on the duties of a proper wife and what a home should be.

“Ah, Inspector—”

“Yes, Jean-Baptiste?”

“How are things going?” This was not a very good time to ask as Maintenon and Levain had only been there for a little over an hour.

The performance had to end, and due to the events of the evening, the cast had made several encores, resulting in one final standing ovation. The ticket-holders had certainly gotten their money’s worth tonight. All of this took time, and the police had waited for the players to clean up and change into street clothes before beginning the interviews.

To say the opera was special would be an understatement. The only thing bigger was the ballet—which were also performed at the Palais Garnier.

“The Madame had a wonderful view of the stage from her box.” Chiappe coughed.

So the lady wanted some attention, then—

She must have been upset.

“Ah, yes. Of course.”

Gilles indicated a seat.

Hopefully she would be discreet.

“We really don’t have much information to go on, not at this point, Madame. But all sources indicate he was young, healthy, and in the prime of life. Still, in the case of such a sudden demise—”

They were in the Imperial concourse, the pavillon or Rotonde de l'Empereur, left unfinished when the Empire fell—hopefully for good that time.

Gilles took a seat. Rouché would have to do without. He was in no fit state to notice at this stage of the game. If anyone knew where the chairs were kept, it really ought to be him.

“Please, Madame.” Gilles gave the impression of being pleased, to at last discover an intelligent woman. “Tell us. What did you see and hear.”

Chiappe bustled about, bringing up his own chair to sit beside her. Thoughts of taking her hand and patting it clearly crossed his mind, but then he caught Gilles’ eye and thought better of it.

“It’s okay, Henriette—just tell him what you told me.” They were knee-to-knee.

She nodded. She was the wife of the President of the Republic. Never would she forget. 

While she had a certain dignity to maintain, and would have loathed any suggestion of nosiness, if there was anything she could do to help the police, naturally it was her duty to do so. The psychology was not hard to read.

Slightly neurotic, but not too over the top. About what you’d expect, in other words—

“Very well. Well. The performance was going along nicely—really, it’s a very lovely little play, quite aside from the music, and so nice to see them together on stage—”

“Who, Madame?”

“Ah. Monsieur Banzini and Mademoiselle Gaudrau—”

“Go on.” Maintenon made a show of jotting things down. “He was older, wasn’t he?”

“Er, yes—I believe he was about thirty-four.”


She had the grace to blush.

“And she, I believe, is about twenty-three.” They would have made a nice couple, in other words.

She probably had more power than Poincaré himself, if one cared to think of it that way.

He at least had to preserve the forms, the appearance of democracy. She would be subject to no such restrictions or illusions.

“It’s a romantic tale, after all. Go on, please.”

“Yes, Inspector.”

Levain stirred at his side. His guts rumbled in tired disdain, but the Madame appeared not to have heard. A glance from Chiappe settled that question, as for Rouché, it’s not like he cared.

That one was definitely distracted.

“Well. He finished the aria, the chorus did their little bit, and people were applauding. The lights came down very slowly. Banzini and Mademoiselle Gaudrau were taking a breath and having a wave at the audience before going off. And that is when I heard something.” She grimaced, looking down at her clutching hands. “Naturally, when I saw Jean-Baptiste coming along, I felt I had to mention it straight away.”

Blowing a few kisses to famous faces on opening night wasn’t exactly new. Audience reaction was very good and everyone was enjoying the performance.

“Hmn. So. What did you hear?”

“I heard this funny little sound—like a grunt or a gasp, or a stifled cough…something like that.”

“And when the lights went up, approximately five or six minutes later, the gentleman was lying on the stage. Not unnaturally, you put two and two together. And you did exactly the right thing—I just wanted to assure Madame of that. Very well. Could you tell us more or less where this sound might have come from?”

“That, ah, is terribly difficult.” The lady’s eyes rolled up and back, going from one side to another.

She impaled him with her next glance. Madame wasn’t exactly stupid. She was smart enough not to make up an answer.

“I couldn’t really swear to it, but it seemed to come from below us—perhaps a bit to one side or another. A little bit to the right, perhaps. But it might have been him—Monsieur Banzini, I mean.” Their box was hanging practically over the stage, as she explained.

The light folding chair creaked as she shifted her weight.

“I see. And this was just after the lights went dark?”

“Yes—very shortly afterwards.” The transition from bright to dark had not been complete, as she put it.

“I see.”


“Okay, so was there anything else?” Levain.

She shook her head, unintimidated.

Chiappe looked at Gilles and Gilles looked at Chiappe.

That would appear to be it.

“I would just like to reassure Madame—and the President, that we will leave no stone unturned.”

Now he really was patting her hand.

Shut up, Chiappe.

Maintenon and the boss exchanged a look.

The door opened.

Their young gendarme stuck his head in, catching Maintenon’s eye.


“Phone call, Inspector—it’s Doctor Adam, down at the hospital.”


Chiappe stood, extending a hand to assist Madame Poincaré.

“Well. Thank you, thank you, Madame. You may have been of very great assistance to us.”

She flashed them a grateful look and then Chiappe managed to get her out the door as the officer held it politely.

“Inspector? Right this way, please.”


It was a huge vast room with bare stone along the exterior wall. Blank windows stared out into the black night, curtain-less. The public never saw this part of the building.

Someone had found them a small office with a telephone extension, for what looked like a high-pressure, very political investigation.

“Hello. Doctor Adam? Inspector Gilles Maintenon.”

“Ah. Inspector Maintenon. I think you might want to get down here.”

“I don’t think I can get away. There’s quite a few people we haven’t spoken to yet, and they are, ah, rather unanimously clamouring to go home.”

“Okay. Anyways, it’s definitely murder. Just to remove all doubts. He was killed by a dart from a blow-gun.”


Gilles turned and looked at the young gendarme, looking furtive and trying to pretend he wasn’t listening for all he was worth.

“Nom de Dieu.” Gilles made a shooing motion and the young fellow moved off, hands behind his back and resisting the urge to whistle in cheerful boredom. “Ah. Right. I’ll tell you what—”

“We’re probably not going to ship the body over to Doctor Guillaume before morning, Inspector.”

Maintenon thought furiously.

“I’ll be down there as soon as I can get away.”

Maintenon had just seen Inspector Martin enter the room, with an eager-looking young man in tow, Detective-Sergeant Proulx as he recalled.

“Ah, Gilles. What in the hell is going on?”

Tall and cadaverous, hair thinning up top and with permanent lines and pouches under the eyes, Martin was known to all and sundry as The Bloodhound.

He was nothing if not competent.

Gilles had wondered once or twice if he knew about that nickname.

“That, is a very good question.” Taking Inspector Martin aside, he gave him the news. “I would like to keep the fact that this is murder, and the weapon, as quiet as we can. At least until the inevitable news conference.”

“Huh. I agree. Anything else?”

“I would like to know who called the police. So far no one has admitted to calling us, and I would like to know why.”

Martin nodded thoughtfully.

“Right. You.” Their anonymous gendarme froze. “Stay here by this phone. Proulx. Come with me.”

(End of excerpt.)

Editor's Note: Ah, hmn. Well. Okay ladies and gentlemen. We'll sort of keep working on that until it's done. 

Excerpt # 2.

Excerpt # 3. 

Excerpt # 4.


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