Sunday, January 24, 2016

Excerpt Number Three, Maintenon and the Golden Dragon.

Good old Chiappe.

Louis Shalako

Yeah, good old Chiappe.

They had popped into the office to check for messages or any big breaks—forlorn hope that it might be. Gilles wanted to know where everyone was and what they were doing. Chiappe had eyes and ears everywhere, nailing them via phone barely two minutes in the door.

“I’m sorry, Gilles, I know this is tough for you guys.”

Normally, senior officers were called in when off duty in a strict rotation. It was based on seniority, and Gilles was a long ways up that ladder these days.

Gilles had the impression that the case had quickly been dumped off on him, possibly by someone even higher up the totem pole. It was just a little feeling he had. He could be wrong about that—maybe they just weren’t answering their phones, an old trick in more than one industry. After all, a man had to leave the house once in a while.

He’d never had much patience for professional lizards who wanted the perks and the pay but in the crunch, didn’t have what it took. That was the trouble with seniority and open-call job postings. All they had to do was hang in and be patient. Sooner or later you’d make the grade.

It wasn’t like Gilles knew anything about opera or singers or the beautiful people who, at times, infested this town with their intemperate demands and their appalling smugness.

“I understand.” Commissioner Chiappe’s voice was about as sympathetic as it ever got. “I’m sorry, Gilles. But you’ll just have to do the best you can with what you’ve got.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“I’m having a press conference at nine-thirty. At that point, the cat’s out of the bag. I’m sorry, Gilles.” 

Like Gilles, Chiappe was also impressed.

“Yes, sir.”

Their respective phones crashed into their cradles. Maintenon’s might have hit a little harder than Jean-Baptiste’s, but oh, well.

That was just the way things were some days.

“So, it’s our baby, then.”

“Yes, Andre.”

“Right. Well. We’ve got our list. So what do you want us to do?”

The pencil in Maintenon’s hands snapped with a crack that made Firmin, whose back was turned, flinch in reflex action. LeBref was perched on the corner of someone else’s desk as always. His wizened features were unreadable, a valuable skill most times.

“Some days, it’s all you can do to do your job.”

“Yes, it is, Inspector.” Levain opened up the notebook. “Well, Gilles. Somebody had a motive—either that, or we’re talking pure psychopath.”

“Yes.” Maintenon nodded gravely. “In which case, sooner or later they must tell us what it’s about.”

“So what do you want us to do, Gilles?” It was LeBref.

LeBref, a dwarf and excellent for undercover work.
“Bring on the forty monkeys.” The tone was bitter, very bitter.

Levain nodded in complete understanding.

LeBref just grinned.

“All right. We can do that—”


With a dozen junior officers conducting interviews of the cast, first and foremost, Gilles and Levain were almost at a loose end. They had other cases on the go, if they cared to think of it that way. 

Unfortunately, it looked as if they were going to get plenty of pressure on this one.

If each and every statement was one single page, two pages at most, they would have thousands of pages of so-called evidence in a very short time.

Maintenon had his hands behind his head, his feet up on the end of the desk in his characteristic position. It would be dumped on some overworked junior prosecutor, who would skim it at best.

Most of it would never be called upon. At this point in the game, he knew of no shortcuts.

Maintenon seemed to be studying the ceiling, and Levain and Archambault knew enough not to disturb him. The look on his face indicated that he was thinking.

The feet crashed to the floor and Maintenon opened up a desk drawer and pulled out the thick Paris phone book.

That was the great thing about the newspaper.

He’d just remembered a story, and a name to go along with it.

He’d always been pretty good with names and faces and stories.

Inspector Gilles Maintenon. Good with names.

They never did get the man on the phone and had to go looking. School was in and it was a weekday…it was the best they could do, to make a stab at it.

Doctor Marchal Grenier was a historian. He lectured on ancient history, and specialized in primitive weapons. At first glance, an ordinary, rather unassuming man.

He wore a tweed jacket with leather patches on the elbows, stout brogues on his feet and thin trousers as befitted his mostly indoor existence…the gentleman was in his early to middle fifties.

Andre had been on the grounds and in the buildings of the Sorbonne once or twice. Paris was a big city, and even a police officer would get lost if they were a little bit out of their own neighbourhood.

Finding their way once inside was quite a chore, and the man himself elusive within his own department.

University professors were like cops in that they didn’t have a secretary…when not lecturing, they were remarkably elusive quarry. All you can do is ask sometimes. There were other doors and some of the adjacent offices were occupied. They had finally tracked him down in the library after several bum leads. Rather than talk there, they had gone back to his office. The weird part was that they had actually passed him in the hall, not knowing what he looked like…going from point A to point B.

There were the usual pleasantries.



“So. What is this about?”

“You may have read the news. Largo Banzini. He died at the Opera last night.”

“And? What does that have to do with a humble scholar, such as myself?”

“He was killed with a dart from a blowgun. Or something like that. Any information you can give us about such weapons would be welcome. Also, we may have you examine the actual projectile—we would like to know whether it’s authentic, or whether someone merely had some knowledge.” In Maintenon’s opinion, making such a thing wasn’t much more difficult than tying flies if one was an angler.

Surely this all went towards the character, the habits and knowledge of their killer.

“Huh. A blowgun dart. Ha. Banzini, Banzini.”

“The opera singer.” Andre was trying to be helpful, but the gentlemen gave him a blank look.

Apparently the professor hadn’t seen the morning papers, either.

“Anyways. It is my opinion that the blowgun is a short range weapon. But I am by no means an expert.” Gilles inclined his head, prepared to defer to such an expert.

“Ah. Well then. Why didn’t you say so.” The professor thrust his chair back on its rollers and stood up abruptly. “Why don’t you just come with me, then, gentlemen.”

With a look, the pair got up and followed the fellow out of the cluttered office. He’d been grading papers when not hiding out in staff rooms and student cafes. He took them down a hall which was narrow but very tall. The guts of the building were all sort of no-nonsense, industrial looking, in contrast to the more decorative public areas.

The ceilings must have been five metres up. The silence was palpable, you could cut a slice off and eat it. There were doors on the left side of the corridor, and when the professor opened one up, it was another long, narrow room with high ceilings and rows and rows of steel cabinets of over two metres tall.

There was this feeling of being afraid to speak, which would surely spoil the silence and the atmosphere.

The professor had a pretty good idea of where he was going. He led them to the end of one row, used a small key and opened up a cabinet that was easily three metres wide. Pulling out some shallow drawers, he showed them a collection of a dozen blowpipes from various cultures. They were all neatly tagged with white pasteboard tags tied on with thin buff twine.

Taking out a long, heavy black one with colourful markings on it, he allowed Gilles to have a good look. The thing must weigh a couple of kilograms anyway.

“How long is it?”

“That one’s over two metres. Bear in mind, gentlemen—” Picking a narrower drawer higher up, he opened it and Levain stepped in for a look. “The length of the thing adds to the efficiency, and yet the human lungs only have so much capacity.”

“Ah. And so?” Maintenon could sort of see what he meant—but it wasn’t up to him to say it.

The gentleman certainly qualified as an expert witness.

“Ha. Let’s say your lungs are one-tenth of a cubic metre, fully extended, in terms of nominal capacity. They’re nowhere near that, actually. A twelve or fifteen-millimetre bore, two and a half metres long, means that your air is partially expended, and your projectile is at maximum acceleration—” After that, it was a case of rapidly-diminishing returns. “There is a question of efficiency in terms of barrel length, but also the bore—too small, and you’re working too hard, too big and you haven’t got enough air in you…” A man had to drag the thing around with him in some pretty tight country.

Maintenon was nodding vigorously.

“I see.”

There was a big ball on the end, presumably to get a better grip with the lips.

“…you might do a bit of pre-breathing before firing. I’ve spent some time with these things and you can literally see spots in the peripheral vision after a really good shot. I’ve put a dart through a half an inch of white pine.” The tip, according to the professor, was sticking out five or six millimetres on the other side.

“Oh, really.”

Maintenon had another question.

“What do you reckon for the maximum effective range of this thing?”

“Oh, golly. I don’t know—maybe twenty, twenty-five metres max. Even so, that’s one hell of a shot—”

Gilles nodded.

Detective-Sergeant Andre Levain.
Levain was fascinated, finally trying the thing up to his mouth and seeking a target down at the far end, the way they had come in. There was a brown light-switch on the faded, pale green wall, and that was about it. It wasn’t all that bright in there after all, when one thought about it. The end of the pipe bobbed and weaved all over the place. Shifting his grip, he tried holding it differently.

He could see how this might take a bit of skill…a bloody miracle, really. The target couldn’t have been ten or twelve metres away.


“Okay, sergeant. The tip drops and it’s hard to aim it, as you’ve already noticed. But for light game such as birds and monkeys, the pipe is held much closer to the vertical. You’ll see that it is significantly easier to hold on a target.” By being directly below the target, the range was about as short as it was going to get for the hunter, who needed every edge just to survive.

Nodding, Levain tipped his head back and tried to imagine shooting at one screw or bolt visible on a bracket holding up a ventilation tube. It really was easier. That’s not to say it wouldn’t take a bit of practice. In hunting, if you missed, you missed. There might be a half a dozen hunters, all trying at once.

In homicide, you would only get one shot at it—and you didn’t dare tell your friends.

“Hmn. Okay.”

There were darts in various colours, types and sizes.

The professor reached into his jacket pocket and put on a pair of thin gloves. He picked out one item to show Gilles, who pulled his own gloves on and had a look.

“Wow.” Some of them were a lot longer than their dart.

Some of them were a good foot long and beautifully made.

“Right. These weapons are used primarily for hunting. The darts are almost invariably poisoned, or drugged perhaps is a better word. Even a hit that wouldn’t normally be lethal, causes the prey animal to become sleepy, or paralyzed, or numbed. In the case of monkeys and birds, they simply fall out of the tree.” In that sense, marksmanship wasn’t the highest priority—all the hunter needed to do was to tag a leg or limb. “The vegetable toxins that are used are usually pretty well destroyed by cooking. Also, the sort of dose that would take down a five or ten-kilo monkey would have little effect on a man—and you ain’t going to eat the whole monkey by yourself anyways. Right?”

“I see.”

“So. Normally, it’s not so much of an anti-personnel weapon, although primitive tribes do use them against each other. It’s not going to stop a charging man with a spear—not in time, anyways, and so they tend to fight spear against spear. In battle, which can be highly formalized, they’d be using shields, clubs, hardened wooden swords, primitive body protection, and relatively simple tactics.”

Maintenon nodded.

Boys, and the lesser warriors, low-status men, might hover on the flanks, hiding in the bushes and sniping opportunistically. The most honorable positions were in the centre and in the main line of attack or defense. The gentlemen certainly knew his stuff.

“For someone to have punctured the heart muscle, ah, shows at least a minimum knowledge of anatomy. Think of putting it into a moving target, right between the ribs like that. It’s a pretty small target even at close range. If they used a blowpipe, it either had to be very long, or they had good lungs, or it might have been powered by gas…possibly even a spring, gentlemen.” He pulled out another pipe, exchanging it with Levain. “So you say this happened at the Opera? Hmn.”

Levain stood there open-mouthed, as Gilles nodded.

“Good lungs—like an opera singer.”

“True.” Gilles thought about it. “Or a spring-loaded device—some sort of infernal machine.” It might be a lot easier to smuggle that into a crowded theatre.

“Okay. Assuming they really used a blowpipe or blowgun, I would think they must have spent a certain amount of time practicing for that one shot…it’s not well known, but there are European blowpipes. There’s even a few clubs out there. Mostly in major cities. People do it as a hobby or sport. They’re illustrated in various illuminated manuscripts, notably for hunting birds and such. It’s not a serious weapon of war.”

Gilles held up a hand.

“Okay. What sort of force would it take to penetrate three or four inches of tissue?”

“Hmn. More than you think. What sort of dart was used?”

“Ah, a big long thorn.”


The professor chewed his lip.

A historian, specializing in primitive weapons.
“Get yourself a pork roast or something and try shoving a similar dart into it a comparable distance. A simple spring-loaded scale, use that to do the pushing, n’est pas?”

“How do you mean?” Maintenon’s eyes had gone all cloudy, trying to visualize what he had just said.

“You have one person sort of hold the dart and steady it. Then use the pad or platform of your scales to push the dart into the meat…right?” Read off the number and there you go. “That gives you the amount of force required.”

“Ah. Now I get it—” The lab boys would come up with something.

Yes, that might do very nicely.


“Yes, Inspector?”

“Would it be possible to borrow one of these blowguns? Perhaps one of the more common ones—I see you have these three black ones here, all mostly the same…” A handful of darts for comparison and experimentation would also be handy. “I mean, if we promise to look after it, and if in the event of a successful prosecution, the university and this department would receive credit for their assistance?”

The professor hesitated only a moment.

“We’ll bring it back, of course.”

“Well, I—yes, I suppose that might be possible.”

His eyes sought Levain.

Andre shrugged, magnificently.

“Also, in the event, we might need you to testify as an expert witness.”


The sound of the heating sysetem hummed softly in the background and the lights flickered for just a second.

(End of excerpt.)

The Usual Disclaimer. This is a work in progress and all content is subject to change and revision over the course of writing Maintenon and the Golden Dragon.

Excerpt # 1.

Excerpt # 2.

Excerpt # 4.


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