|Inspector Gilles Maintenon.|
Number Eighteen was occupied until the end of the week.
Francis Herriot was a minor official in the Customs service. His wife Marie, was a consumptive-looking woman who smoked and coughed incessantly. Their son Benoit was about seven years old, wide-eyed and curious about the strangers in the living room.
“You understand, gentlemen, that if word should get out, my position at work might become very uncomfortable.”
“Ah, yes, of course, but I wouldn’t worry too much about it. We’re not going to go blasting it all over the front page.” Tailler consulted his little list of questions. “So. When was the last time you saw Monsieur Dubzek?”
Francis looked at his wife, who apparently did much of the talking.
“Saturday. He was at the lunch counter.”
“When was the last time that he had company, that you can recall?”
“There were some people…possibly two or three weeks ago.”
“Did he use the grille out back?”
“Yes, he did—they were out there drinking. They had steaks. It’s a popular meal around here, and the smell is unmistakeable.”
“Men or women? Or both?”
“Ah. Two males and three females.”
Tailler showed them a few photos.
The descriptions were pretty generic, but Tailler dutifully took them down. The two males had brown hair and were pretty average in all regards. There were two brunettes and one redhead.
One of them was a bit heavy, the others a little more average. The lady had no idea of the relationships involved. The people were in their thirties and forties maybe. That was all she could say.
“Ah. Do you guys know a little girl named Judith?”
“Oh, yes, she’s friends with Benoit. We know her parents very well.”
“Are you friends in town?” The Herriots were from Paris, and Tailler had the impression Judith and her family were from Orleans.
“No, just here.” Both parties had been coming to the park for a number of years.
“Did you ever see Judith go into Monsieur Dubzek’s cabin?”
She looked at her husband.
He shrugged, but taking up the thread, he answered this time.
“Yeah, pretty often.” No big deal, in other words. “The kids have been in there once or twice.”
They seemed terribly accepting of such things, as if it were natural for nine year-old girls to hang around with middle-aged men—naked ones, at that. And their own children.
He chewed on his lip, feeling like he was wallowing badly, which he was. Why in the blazes didn’t Maintenon step in with his superior knowledge and experience?
But for whatever reason, Gilles was letting him have the lead.
There was a loud knock at the door.
“Don’t worry, I’ll get it.”
Having taken off his jacket, there were visible sweat patches at Tailler’s armpits, although the Herriots seemed comfortable enough in their minimal attire—a thin house dress for Madame and sky blue Bermuda shorts for the old man. They’d been about to go into the village for ice cream with the boy. Monsieur Herriot was about forty-one and looked very athletic, and the fellow was about as hairy as a bear.
Maintenon was tiring of all that skin, all that hair—
It was Detective Larue, with an eager look on his face. A carload of gendarmes idled behind him.
|Detective Larue, St. Etienne detachment.|
Closing the door firmly behind, Gilles stepped out into the broad light of day.
“Yes? What’s up?”
“News. A vehicle was seen parked on a lane just north of the park. On the evening in question. It’s less than a kilometre from here. First, there’s a brush-line, not exactly a hedgerow in the classic sense. More of a windbreak, and then there are open fields, and then about a half a kilometre of woods and brush.”
“Then there’s the other thing. Shouldn’t we have seized all the bows and arrows? I mean, and check for fingerprints?”
Maintenon tipped his head on one side.
“Yes, but it’s hard to see what good that might have done if he was killed by someone in the park…” He nodded sharply.
Larue might be on to something—
“What I was thinking, sir, is what if it was an outsider.”
The archery equipment hadn’t been used since the week before, as it had rained heavily on the Sunday. It was just a whole bunch of stuff, jammed into a locker.
“Yes. Well, we can do that I suppose. However, it’s much more important to check out that vehicle.”
“We have a description. It was a big, black Voisin. Our witness doesn’t know anyone around here with that sort of vehicle, although we are asking around…”
“Can he pinpoint the place?”
“Yes, sir. He told us exactly where it was.” There was a farmer’s laneway, and the car had been parked on the opposite side of the road, facing west, and unoccupied.
There was no one around, no one walking down the road with a jerry-can, as if the vehicle might have run out of gas. The person had gone down the road, going the other way, just a few hours before and the car wasn’t there then.
Gilles had made up his mind.
Stepping to the chalet door, he opened it.
“Say goodbye, we’re going.”
Dappled shadows danced under their feet as gravel crunched.
“Here.” There must have been a rain the night before, there were faint tire marks on the verge.
“I want plaster casts.”
“Sir.” Granger waved a hand and spoke.
One local officer would remain here.
Maintenon eyed the laneway, leading to the golden glow of the grain field at the other end of a long tunnel.
“Has anyone been through here?”
“Not that we know, sir. We could ask Joinville, who owns the land, but he’s away. The whole family’s gone. Visiting his mother. The odds are no one, sir.”
“Very well. Let us use our eyes.”
|A known party place.|
The very first thing they noticed was the empty bottles, mostly beer but one or two small whiskey bottles, brandy, even liqueurs like crème de menthe. The second thing was the used condoms, littering the ground and not speaking well for the purity of their scene…
Noting the raised eyebrows, Larue spoke up.
“It’s a known party-place. But that’s mostly on weekends, and virtually always after dark.” As they all knew, when they the had time, patrol officers would take a ride past, (and they still used bicycles in a lot of rural detachments) and check for underage persons out past their bedtime as Larue said.
“I see.” Maintenon nodded. “That might account for how our unknown subject knew about the place.”
Constable Granger raised the camera and took a few pictures, in both directions, using natural light and then the flash as well. Even with the thin leather gloves, he winced when removing the bulbs, which were white-hot, although they cooled pretty rapidly. Rather than chuck them all over the place, Maintenon saw that he put them in a leather pouch, and then into a special pocket of the camera bag slung over one shoulder.
“Let us proceed.” At the end of their lane, ten metres into the trees, there was a field of golden wheat.
At one time this must have been a farm-stead, accounting for the mature trees and relict bulbs and flowers including periwinkle and day-lilies in all of their tall, orange glory.
They stopped before venturing out into the sunlight.
“I’m a bit of a hunter, you know, and it looks like something crossed the field.” Larue pointed, head leaning in towards Maintenon and Tailler.
He knelt down and had a look.
“It’s not a deer, anyways.”
Granger changed lenses, trying to document the trail, which clearly led south, more or less in a straight line, towards the forest on the other side.
“All right. Use your eyes. Let’s stay off the actual trail and look for footprints.” Maintenon led off, head down, moving slowly, eyes roving across the distinct patches of flattened grain.
Larue got down on his hands and knees, feeling the ground, shuffling along sideways like a dog.
“What? Have you got something?” Tailler and Granger stepped in close as Maintenon gazed off into the far distance, a blue haze over the low hills and the more distant forest.
It was very much a Cezanne landscape. Perhaps that was just fancy, or perhaps it was the wrong artist—he wasn’t much of an expert on the subject. Just what one might learn out of magazines and newspaper coverage, and little more than that.
“It’s definitely not a deer…” Feeling around, Granger stood.
He nodded at another officer, who was carrying a bundle of stakes with cheap red flags on the end.
|"I'm pretty sure that's not a deer."|
“Mark this one.” He looked up at Maintenon. “We’ll make a plaster cast. It appears to be a human footprint. At least the heel-marks are distinct. The ground must have been pretty soft, and it did rain…I think the night before the murder, or two nights before the body was discovered.”
“What about the grain?” Tailler raised an eyebrow and Larue hastened to explain.
“We’ll use some snips and try to expose the proper print. If we find enough, we’ll try it a couple of different ways.” Obviously, they were hoping for clear and distinct prints in soft soil.
Maintenon nodded. So they weren’t total fools, then.
They meandered their way across the field. Larue and even Tailler found more marks, which were flagged for casts and photos. Another thing would be to measure the length of the stride and look for other indicators such as uneven weight distribution—like a cripple, or whatever.
They could do all that later, with no rain expected in the next twenty-four hours at least.
The edge of the forest was another problem, and Larue led, looking for crushed plants, snapped branches and marks in the leaf litter. There was the occasional mud-hole, which would fill in a heavy rain but drain almost as quickly in the local deep, black humus. The puddles had now dried but at least there was a lot less underbrush due to standing water much of the time. Larue explained how he’d once camped in such a spot, for just that reason, and after a big rain, he and a friend had woken up with four inches of water in the tent.
More flags were planted.
“The trail is still heading due south.”
Like Red Indians, the men filed along, trying to step where Larue had stepped, and swatting at the bugs which seemed very thick in the air. There was no breeze in the dark forest, and the temperature seemed to have climbed accordingly.
“Ah. Here we are.”
The men crowded around.
One footprint, revealed after Laure had deftly swept away the leaves, grass, and twigs that littered the forest floor everywhere.
“Right. Mark it and keep going.” Tailler was cheerful enough, in spite of the trickles of sweat going down inside the shirt. “That one might work pretty well.”
“That looks like a man’s shoe.” It was the left foot—their first print had been a right, (he was pretty sure), indistinct though it might be.
Larue nodded at Tailler.
“Yes, and it’s a fairly big one. I’d say size ten or eleven at the least.”
Maintenon, not particularly happy about the hot sun and the various stick-seeds and burdocks stuck all over his pant-legs, kept silent, the inner band of his hat feeling unfortunately moist.
At times, there was no trail at all, at times, there were marks and signs that seemed almost ludicrously easy. Whoever they were tracking wasn’t particularly good at bush-craft, according to their guide. He seemed very pleased with his conclusion, showing off a little for the big-city boys maybe.
Finally, they came to a place where they could see the camp. They were still in the woods, having come out behind a chalet. It wasn’t Number Eighteen, but that was only thirty metres off.
This would have to be Number Fifteen or thereabouts.
“What would you have done, Larue?”
“I don’t know. The lockup for sporting equipment is on the other side of the park. I think I would have circled around, no matter how long it took.” Especially in daylight hours.
“Which way would you have gone?”
“I’m tempted to say, to go the long way around, meaning the back way. I’m wondering how much local knowledge they actually had…yet the front way is probably shorter. They could wait until there was no traffic and then just dart across the road.” They would have to check in both directions and really use their ears. “There’s another thing, Inspector.”
“What if he brought the bow and arrow with him? Or her. What if they had been to the camp at some point in the past, and simply stole some archery equipment then? Or at least knew what brand to look for in their local sporting goods store…” The actual bow had not been properly identified or recovered.
It probably never would be…
It might have been any brand of bow.
|Photo by Arthur Kastler., (Wiki.)|
These were all good points, and Maintenon nodded thoughtfully.
“Well. Let’s carry on. Ah, you and Tailler go that way, and Larue and I will go this way. Follow us, young man.” This last to the gendarme, patiently carrying the flags and marking where he was told.
Granger took a handful of stakes from his comrade.
What with the plaster casts, and more photographs, they had some work to do, but they were at least generating some kind of a lead.
It was food for thought, at the very least.
The two parties were soon lost to each other.
“What if—” The gendarme paused as if embarrassed by his own temerity in the face of the big-city cops.
“Yes? Spit it out, young man, we need all the ideas we can get.”
“What if it’s just some peeping Tom?”
“Then the odds were, that he would be very disappointed. At least in most cases. Also, there are a few dogs around here. They should be barking like crazy. Not that people haven’t done it, I suppose—”
With a nudist camp in the vicinity, surely more than one person with a prurient interest had shown up here in the bushes over the years.
“How come the dogs didn’t bark, Inspector?”
|Why didn't the dogs bark?|
It was a good question. There was a dog barking now, not more than a hundred metres east, where a small farmstead stood just on the other side of the park boundary. The only thing visible had been the back of a sagging barn and a break, a clump of tall, gently-rounded deciduous trees a contrasting green in amongst the predominant conifers.
“Maybe they did and people just ignored it.”
The others nodded. It happened often enough.
“All right. Off we go.”
Gilles stood there a moment, squinting into the far distance at a long line of geese flying low over the treeline. He hadn’t realized his eyes were that good, since he’d taken to reading glasses a few years ago. In the city, the air was bad and there were buildings on every horizon.
Out here, the air was very clean.
You learn something new every day.
(End of excerpt.)