Gabin Lussier was understudy to Largo Banzini. He was married and had a daughter of eight years old. He lived in the city and provided personal details readily enough.
He was making a living at it, or so he told them.
Lussier even smiled when he said it.
There was little physical resemblance between the two, Gabin being a little shorter and much heavier than Banzini. As a singer, he was versatile more than anything else, very experienced, and would normally be playing a minor role, staying in the background when he was there at all.
In no one role was he outstanding—not so far, anyways.
A swing had taken his part when he stood in for Banzini.
Lussier would be a good five years older than Largo.
He seemed very calm, very assured of himself, and yet he of all people stood to gain a lot by Banzini’s demise. It was something to keep in mind. According to him, the management was already looking for another star, another big draw, and Maintenon wasn’t sure how much weight it carried. Yet it could be seen as a big break for Lussier, who had never had a major, lead role on the Parisian stage.
What if they couldn’t find anybody? Marquee players might be booked up years in advance.
That would leave it all up to him.
In the provinces, that was a different matter. He’d been the headliner once or twice when a hit show went out on the road. There was some element of prestige, and then there was the money.
All of these people had an ego or they never would have made it.
“So, you returned to your dressing room for the break?”
“Ah, yes. I’m not in the next scene, and I usually just hang around backstage.”
Lussier sat across the table in the scarred interview room at the Quai. His posture was relaxed, one ankle across his knee and his body well back in the chair.
Other detectives in other rooms were interviewing other witnesses. There were a lot of them to get through.
“So tell me about Mathilde.”
“Ah, yes. Delightful girl, and not affected at all—humbled, you know, and it’s unusually sincere in her case.” He grinned. “Hell, it might even be true.”
“Yes, it’s a real privilege to sing with a girl like that.” Lussier’s voice rose and a look of humour was exchanged. “I mean, guys like Largo have it all too easy. Not that he wasn’t talented of course, because he was—”
“You got along well?”
“I’ll put it this way—everyone liked her. Seriously, and in this business that’s quite an achievement.” He nodded firmly, giving the impression that he had liked her as much as anyone, and possibly more.
“What about Banzini?”
There was little or no hesitation.
“He was all right—I never had a problem with him.”
How sincere that might be was anyone’s guess.
They were all bloody actors, and that was just the truth.
“What were they like together?”
“Hmn. I would say there was some chemistry there. He was at the top of the game, she was young and impressionable. There might have been some hero-worship there.” On her side, presumably.
“And what about him—”
“As I’ve said, she was a very charming young lady.”
So far it had been like that—more gossip than any hard information. People were often reluctant to slander the dead, whereas they might be a bit more forthcoming regarding the living.
“So, you don’t think Largo had any bad habits?”
“Oh, hey, Inspector—you can read the newspapers as well as I can. But seriously, I wasn’t in that circle, and so I really don’t know much about it. Certainly he didn’t confide in me.”
“And what was your relationship with Monsieur Banzini?”
“It was fine. Ah, I would say he was happy, you know, to have someone good in an emergency, and of course he never would expect anything to happen anyways. He had laryngitis a couple of years ago—you may have seen that one too. No matter how healthy, no matter how rich or successful, no one is immortal—or invincible. People get sick, people get in car-crashes or skiing accidents. They fall off the wagon and end up in a clinic in Switzerland for three months. Whatever. But no, we got along just fine.”
“I see. So when you say circle, what do you mean? What sort of people? Because honestly, someone must have disliked Largo rather intensely.”
The young fellow pursed his lips. It seemed like he had something, and then thought better of it.
He shook his head.
“Oh, I don’t know. Talk to the society columnists—there’s a lot of stuff that they can’t print, right?”
Those innocent blue eyes stared at Maintenon from behind a burgeoning cloud, a facade of tobacco smoke.
That seemed plain enough—so there was something then.
“And so, how do you feel, knowing that Largo was murdered?”
“Wow—just wow, Inspector.” There was still that irrepressible element of humour there—
Gilles couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but it was definitely there.
That was pretty much the same way he felt.
Just fucking wow.
There were only the three of them, the unit being particularly busy at that time.
The logical thing was for the more experienced investigators to tackle major personalities.
It was easy enough to sit there and say that. Any idiot could make up a schedule, a roster, and sit back and read the reports.
“We need to find out everything there is to know about our victim.”
While Gilles had his contacts, Levain had just thought of a name. Nichol’s cousin Dax happened to write for a fluffy arts magazine, le Chat Noir. It was about as obscure a magazine as one could get, and still be in business. As Andre recalled, Dax had mentioned reviewing plays and musical revues. He took in shows of modern painting, read all the latest books, and wrote whatever he felt like, according to him.
According to Dax, a hundred and fifty francs a month was darned good money and most writers didn’t even see that. Too many of them worked for free and so there was no pressure tending to drive the wages up…all that socialism.
“Let me make a quick call here, Gilles.”
“Sure, otherwise we’re going to be wading in crap for the foreseeable future.”
It’s all yours, then.
LeBref laughed, but he was the only one. Now there, was one sardonic son of a bitch.
He sat there swinging his legs.
Levain called home and Nichol got him the number from her little book. It only took a couple of minutes and might even be relevant.
The office of le Chat Noir was in one of the seedier, more industrial areas of the city. It always impressed Andre how the city just went on and on, anonymous business after anonymous business lined up along such a street. A hundred streets, a thousand streets, anonymous streets, all different, all the same. They all had the same dead little trees and the same cheerful little sparrows. What was interesting was how people lived and died, giving up their entire lives, not just within the city limits but within a five or ten-kilometre radius…the sparrows too, when one really thought about it.
Their lives were even smaller.
The receptionist simpered and then turned on a dime.
Dax was a fresh-faced young man, with good posture. He was narrow in the hips and broad in the shoulders, definitely taking after his father. That would be Nichol’s uncle Phillipe.
“Come in, come in.”
He closed the door.
“Ah, gentlemen. Please, sit down. Now, let’s see here.” In the short time since their call, he’d apparently misplaced it…
Levain had explained briefly over the phone. There wasn’t much point in talking to Dax if he didn’t have anything, and hopefully they weren’t wasting their time.
There was some sense of relish as Dax seized upon a sheet of paper, sitting in his cluttered little office, a heaping ashtray and the remains of a box lunch stinking up the room. Whatever that was, it wasn’t French. It was very hot and very damp in the building, judging by the permanent fog on the windows.
If Dax found it uncomfortable, he gave no notice. He was in his shirtsleeves, (admittedly there were faint dry stains under the arms), whereas the two detectives were sitting there in overcoats. At least it was a sunny day, or the detectives would have been literally steaming by this point. As it was, they were patiently enduring it. It was a cop’s lot in life to do just that, among other things.
“So. Tell us what you know.”
Dax snorted. He glanced at a few notes in point form.
“I don’t know anything. It’s one of my little rules. I don’t have too many of those but I stick to them. People talk, though, right? And they say all kinds of things. Crazy things, jealous things, malicious things. Ignorant things. Bear in mind, gentlemen, calumny is more prone to exaggerate than to invent. I forget who said that—” If it was Gibbon, then he would have been quoting someone else anyways, if not in Greek then in Latin, Hebrew or Syriac.
“Okay.” Maintenon had picked up this most American of words during the war.
“So. Word is that Banzini liked them young.” He stopped and took a breath, scribbling something on a slip of paper. “Don’t tell them I sent you.”
“What do you mean by young?”
“Pretty young. Quite young.”
“Are we talking little kids here? Or what?”
“The impression I got was what they call nubile—we’re talking girls, I don’t know, but at least a few years slightly underage.” The age of consent was twenty-one, which left some latitude of interpretation. “There was something about boys too. If true, that generally implies pitcher rather than catcher…as the Yanks would say.”
That made sense—grown men weren’t generally looking to get boned by little boys.
That really would be unusual—necrophilia was more common. Even homo necrophilia was more common—
No, they were looking for something else—something indefinable, in the analysis.
They were looking for something that the average aficionado couldn’t put into words.
A cheap thrill, the forbidden fruit.
“Right. Where would we find out more.”
“I have a couple of names here. These people were close to him. Let’s just say that one or two of them might have shared any bad habits our boy Largo had. They were with him, men and women, numerous occasions, when they were out and about in the public eye. What passes as a friend, you might say. But I can honestly say, it’s pretty common knowledge—another word for gossip. Here’s the thing, Andre, Inspector. If someone is charged with a crime, I can certainly report that fact. I must never be the one to say who is guilty, (I can say they were convicted, which isn’t exactly the same thing, right?). I can’t really say who did what, who’s evil, whatever. I’m a fucking journalist in the same way that you guys are cops. Professionals, right? I’m not a fucking idiot. I’m not a crusader or a crackpot. Also, I’m not getting my ass or this magazine sued for libel, slander or defamation of character. It’s in my contract, and I can at least read the thing. Which, totally off the record, is more than some people can say. I mean some other writers—also, if he was out and about and not where he should be—speaking euphemistically, then somebody close to him knows something.” Dax was writing under his real name, which was always a consideration.
A journalist was someone who could be held accountable—
Among other things.
Levain was looking impressed. He’d never seen Dax in his own element. He’d always seen him as more of a clownish young man than anything else. The life of the family reunion sort of thing.
But this kid had a real brain in his head. He would never look at Dax in quite the same way again. He was what, about twenty-two? Twenty-three?
And thinking about getting married and everything—at least, that’s how it looked.
“Hmn. Interesting.” Levain passed the paper over to Gilles, who gave it a quick glance.
Gilles’ mouth opened.
“Okay. There was an out-of-court settlement. Some girl got pregnant. This one was about fourteen, which is technically statutory rape but…ah, no complaint, no charge. You guys know more about that sort of thing than I do. Let’s call it a little bit of honest blackmail…that’s the name on the bottom. Her name’s there too. You did not hear it from me. That’s her dad—what the hell you’re going to tell him, and what in the hell he’s going to tell you…well, that’s up to you guys. No guarantees.” Dax stood. “Tell him anything you want, but people are saying some money exchanged hands there. Now that Banzini’s dead, he may be more inclined to talk about it.”
“We’ll use our discretion, young man. And thank you. You may have been of very great help to us.” Maintenon looked at Levain, who shrugged.
What the hell.
The phone was ringing on the desk. There was a sheet half-written in Dax’s typewriter, a few more complete ones stacked up beside it. It looked like Nichol’s cousin was giving them the bum’s rush.
Repressing a smile, Levain could take a hint, as for Gilles, he hadn’t even taken his hat off.
So that was okay, then.
Dax and Andre exchanged a blank look.
Levain was becoming more impressed by the minute. Nothing beats a list of names…short, sweet, and to the point.
It might even be useful.
They rose, nodding and extending their hands for a quick shake.
The young fellow grinned.
“My pleasure, Andre. Say hello to Nichol for me.”
There was something oddly wistful in the tone.
More than one man had admired a slightly-older female cousin over the years and there was probably not much more to it than that.
Dax was going out with a pretty nice-looking girl, as Levain recalled. Her name was Bernice.
She was a bit dowdy for his taste, but then he could see into her future and perhaps Dax didn’t have that kind of objectivity…not yet, anyways.
They might even make a match of it.
At least Andre didn’t have to marry her—not that Nichol had turned out (or would turn out) a whole lot different.
“You should come over for dinner on the weekend. How about Sunday? Bring that
Bernice—or whatever her name is.”
“All right. I will have to talk to her first, though.” Non-committal—nice.
Andre clapped him on the shoulder.
That’s the spirit, laddie.
“Yeah, I’ll ask Nichol, too—but seriously, think about it. Anyways, it’s a good excuse for a big pot-roast or something—you know her.”
Dax nodded in vague agreement, with qualifications.
As was often the case, the door hit the frame pretty hard behind them on the way out.
(End of excerpt.)
Editor's Note. This is a work in progress and all materials subject to change.
How to Rob a Bank is the sixth in the Inspector Gilles Maintenon Mystery Series.