L’Auberge Richard was in the village just up the road. St. Etienne was a crossroads, in an area of prosperous farms, occasional manor houses and quiet rural prosperity. The village might have had a population of three or four hundred.
In something a little unusual to the men from the big city, the parking lot was vast in initial impression, about half full of automobiles of recent make and some of them were very high-end. Parisian restaurants so seldom had a yard, complete with a shade tree steps away from the kitchen door. Going by the curtains and planter boxes hanging on the window-ledges, the proprietor lived on the second floor.
The trio stepped into the cool, dim light of the interior, made more intimate as the curtains had been drawn against the glare from the noon-day sun.
The buzz of conversation didn’t let up. Utensils clattered against crockery, there was a buzz from the kitchen, at the back and with access doors on each end of the wall. Waiters were attending to tables and then going to a small kiosk and handing their slips to some anonymous order-writer sitting behind it with sweat beading up on his forehead. In short, a busy and popular establishment.
The place was packed. Some tables had empty places, but all the tables would appear to be occupied.
“Damn. I was afraid of this—” Larue had sort of forgotten how popular the auberge was in high summer, and the fact was that it was the only place in town suitable for such august visitors.
There was a huddle by the door, a queue to get a table, and coincidentally, as a small party arose from their table, bus-boys pounced, harried but efficient. Even that would take a little time, with two of them working. There were several parties ahead of them.
He gave Maintenon a nervous look. Larue had of course read about a few of Maintenon’s cases, as many folks in the surrounding areas took the city paper, at least on a Sunday. He was one of them.
There was so little going on locally. Some items were just plain unobtainable here, and so they read the advertisements just as avidly as any sensational or scandalous bit on the front page.
There was also the radio—not having a local station of their own, people sat in the parlour most evenings and listened to football or music or whatever radio plays they favoured. That all came from the big city too.
Tailler shrugged. Maintenon was a tough old bird. If nothing else, he would be polite, although he was probably suffering as much as anyone. It was well after one o’clock.
His own stomach was gnawing on his backbone.
“I wouldn’t worry too much about it.”
|Laurent Espitailler, (Wiki).|
A man in a suit came out of the back room, and Larue waved his hand.
Richard’s face lit up. Grabbing a handful of menus, he hustled on over, a smile lighting up his slightly pudgy features and extending his free hand for a big handshake.
“Gentlemen, gentlemen, please. My apologies—you should have telephoned, but it’s not a problem. You can sit at my table.”
Opening up the small half-gate in turned and varnished maple, he gave a firm nod to the maitre’d and led them to an alcove at the back, on the far right, with a bar and a serving hatch right there where the boss could keep an eye on things…Richard was very much a hands-on manager.
Larue attempted to make introductions, but Monsieur Richard had recognized Maintenon right away. His enthusiasm, downright embarrassing.
“And this is Detective Emile Tailler.”
The pair shook hands and then Richard gave a quick, stiff little bow and a curt wave to a waiting server.
They settled in, the nearest customers a scant ten feet away, as yet seemingly incurious but that could change.
Tailler cleared his throat.
“I suggest we keep business talk to a minimum. Right, sir? We don’t know anything anyways, not until we get the reports.”
Larue glanced at Maintenon, who was opening up the menu for a look as the waiter hovered at his elbow.
Maintenon put it down.
“Oh, I don’t know.” A faint grin passed over his face. “What else do we have to talk about?”
Larue’s head bobbed.
“What about the, er, gentleman? I understand that you know him from before?”
“Yes. Yes, I do.”
It was a long story, or so the tone would seem to imply.
“Now, what are we going to eat?’
The waiter spoke.
“If I might suggest, gentlemen…”
|Arnaud 25, based on unverified copyright claims. (Wiki).|
“Marko Dubzek. Hmn.” Where to begin? “Marko Dubzek operates, or operated, a known child-brothel in Paris.”
Tailler sat up a bit straighter. So far, no one was paying them any attention, and Maintenon’s voice was low, but still clear and audible over the crowd.
“Here’s the thing. We could never get anything to stick. And we tried—charges were brought against him a few years ago. For one thing, he could afford a good lawyer, a very good one. An expensive one. And yet we were pretty sure that he owned the building. He must have had some idea of what was going on, and probably bankrolled it. People talk after all. The brothel was very expensive, very exclusive. The department had it under surveillance. We had people working inside. It was a long-term operation…”
“And, Inspector?” This was Tailler.
This was before his time, and it was news to him that Maintenon had ever pulled that kind of duty.
“We managed to shut it down. But. We found a series of shell companies, all leading back to a big property management company whose head offices are located in Zurich. Switzerland. And under their laws, we didn’t get any further. They’re very circumspect. They wouldn’t tell us a damned thing. They kept referring us to their legal counsel, who kept referring to privacy laws. We eventually let it drop. Dubzek spent a night in jail, nothing more. Our sources said he owned the place. If anyone made trouble, he would send someone after them. This was a certain Dubois character. He was the enforcer, and he had a little crew all of his own. We had victims, and no one willing to testify. In the criminal underworld, they all know each other—at least anyone of consequence, anyone who has, ah, been around for any length of time. Anyone that messed with Dubzek’s operation found out the hard way that he wasn’t messing around.”
“Really! A child brothel operator…”
“Right, Larue. But don’t forget, there’s big money involved…right, Inspector?”
“Yes. Ultimately, they’re all paying off somebody, and one would suppose overhead is high in any such business. The thing is, we shut them down, and the ones we missed, sometimes very small fry indeed, run off and set up somewhere else the very next day. It’s fairly organized, at least it seems so, in that they’re very hard to keep down. Even the victims, children in some cases, return to the same work, even after we had intervened. Or attempted to.”
“And Dubzek was on vacation…in a nudist camp.” Larue swallowed.
Tailler eyed Maintenon. The gentlemen just across from them was finally having a look.
Their voices might have unconsciously risen.
Then, his concerns were alleviated when the other guy’s mouth opened.
“…we’re looking at a bumper crop on the wheat this year. The thing is last year, the harvest was in by September. The thing with winter wheat is to get it in the ground early…” His companion, an attractive-enough woman in her low forties, nodded knowledgeably.
Tailler turned away.
“We’ll have the film soon enough, sir.”
Larue slowly subsided in his seat, finally able to relax a bit. These guys were human, after all.
“Yes, Tailler. Yes. Ah. Beer.”
Their server was back with a tray of glasses and one ice-cold pitcher.
Gilles made a couple of calls from the phone in the vestibule.
The first was back to the unit.
It was Levain who picked up.
“Hey, Gilles. How’s it going?”
“Not that well, Andre. I reckon we’ll be back tonight, and then come back here tomorrow. How are things there?”
“Busy as usual. We have a few more cases. Nothing special. So.”
“Ah, yes. So. I want you to pull every item, on our deceased. Have that ready for me when I get back.”
“No. I’ll talk to you tomorrow morning, if you’re around.”
“All right, Gilles.”
Maintenon hung up and dialed again, reading the phone number of Number Eighteen out of his notebook and cursing when the thing just rang and rang and rang.
A proper cop would pick it up, play dumb and see who it was—