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The Golden Dragon

The Golden Dragon

 

Louis Shalako

 

 

Copyright 2016 Louis Shalako and Long Cool One Books

 

Design: J. Thornton

 

ISBN 978-1-927957-94-3

 

 

The following is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any person living or deceased, or to any places or events, is purely coincidental. Names, places, settings, characters and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination.

 

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Shakespir.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

Table of Contents

 

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

 

About Louis Shalako

 

 

 

The Golden Dragon

 

Louis Shalako

 

 

Chapter One

 

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 or playing bit roles.

Mathilde was, quite naturally, devastated.

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

The circumstances were troubling.

So far, only police knew that, or had figured it out. 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, the props and the scenery, all working at top speed.”

“Uh-hmn.”

Maintenon raised his eyebrows, flipping idly through the notebook. It was the end of Act One, and time for a change in the set. 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 mark. The whole thing seemed to run on beige, paper-taped X-marks on slightly-scuffed, dark brown boards. 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.

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

They needed to establish everyone’s movements during the break. All they could do was to take people’s word for it, assuming there were no contradictions. 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.

Supposedly, it was a pretty good show.

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 was saying so far.

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

Quite a treat for the 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 VIP 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. She didn’t seem to be wearing a brassiere either.

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.

“But 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. As for Maintenon, he could not help but be aware.

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. Tips were sold all the time, auctioned off over the phone as it were. The fact that he was laying on the stage and unresponsive would have been a dead giveaway.

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. He had enjoyed a 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. He’d only just died, as Maintenon recalled. 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.”

“Merde.”

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, Andre.”

Levain, reaching for a cigarette, eyed the fellow speculatively. The lighter snapped and blue smoke billowed.

He gave him a quick wink, Maintenon busy scowling at his notes and no doubt wishing he was home with the radio, 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.

 

 

Chapter Two

 

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 she could actually afford to have purchased. A bit frumpy on her blocky frame, it was designed not to display shape but to obscure it. It was more of an envelope than a dress, 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. The downturned corners of the mouth indicated a general state of disapproval, rather than any great unhappiness.

One of the perks of being the President’s wife was that people sent you things. Very nice things, they honoured you in so many ways, and they asked your opinion, too. Technically, her husband’s proper title was President of the Council and he also held the Ministry of Finance these days.

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 really ought to be.

“Ah, Inspector—”

“Yes, Jean-Baptiste?”

The Boss blinked a bit on hearing that.

“How are things going?” This was not a very good time to ask as Maintenon and Levain had only been there for a little less than half 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 comparable was the ballet—which were also performed at the Palais Garnier. Running a close third was the symphony, which Gilles actually had attended a half a dozen times over the years. There was no fourth place, at least nothing he could think of.

“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. Brevity would be nice.

“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—”

Her eyes widened at the word.

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 should have been 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—nor let anyone else 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 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.”

“Ah.”

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, it was like he was holding back a good shit but didn’t dare leave.

“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 show.

“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, from our position. 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.”

Ahem.

“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.

“So…what does that mean?” Her eyes were wide.

“We suspect foul play, Madame. Please keep that to yourself and of course the President. We know we can rely on your discretion.”

The door opened.

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

“Yes?”

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

“Ah.”

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 desk and set up 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.”

What?”

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.”

Hanging up, 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 and so was the greying handlebar mustache, which displayed a fair bit of training.

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.”

 

 

Chapter Three

 

Gilles let Levain drive, as was his usual habit.

His tired mind was definitely elsewhere these days, thought Andre. Andre had a pretty full life of his own, both on the job and at home with Nichol and Maelys.

The Inspector was quite a few years older. Gilles had been yanked out of bed in the middle of the night, handed a tough case and there was probably a lot more to it than that. He must be terribly lonely at times. He was also the best there was, although there may have been some personal regard factoring into that equation. There was nothing anyone could really do about it and that was just the pure, un-distilled truth.

“Where are we going, Andre?”

“Ah, the Hôtel-Dieu, Gilles.” With a victim such as Banzini, perhaps that was just as well.

It was big and modern and they had all the best equipment.

People would want to know that every effort had been made to save Monsieur Banzini.

There was a long silence, the background hiss of the tires and the rumble of the motor almost reassuring. The glare of street-lighting on wet pavement gave everything a colourful, lurid glow.

Even at this hour, there were people out and about, cars, trucks, scooters and the never-ending stream of humanity. The kids on the scooters must have been freezing their bags off, as the saying went.

“Very well.”

“Are you all right, Gilles?”

“It’s just that I’m tired. Very, very tired.” He turned to his partner of some years. “I’ve got one of those fuzzy little headaches that just won’t quit. Among other things.”

Andre switched off the car. The great thing about an official car was that you could park just about anywhere. He hadn’t had a ticket in years, not even for speeding.

“Well, here we are, anyways.”

 

***

 

It was very quiet, this deep into the building. There was the faint sound of water dripping from a nearby sink unit. Off in the background came yet another siren, finally ending as the vehicle pulled into the Emergency ramp and quiet returned. Voices and footsteps passed by, just on the other side of the door.

On his internship, Doctor Emile Adam was very young, and very tall. He had spectacles and a thick head of stiff black hair that had been professionally trimmed only that morning. There were hints of white flesh edging the winter tan, around the short side-burns and the line along the back of the neck. The gentleman might be a skier, or something, in the out-of-doors. There really wasn’t much golf going on in November.

There was no question as to his intelligence or his competence. One look was enough for that.

He had Banzini laid out on an operating table, as he’d be going to the morgue and Doctor Guillaume for the autopsy.

“Vital signs were all gone when we got him. His body temperature was down, corresponding very well to the reported time of death. Ah…and. If you gentlemen will look just here…”

Open-mouthed, Gilles and Andre bent over the table, Maintenon reaching into a breast pocket and pulling out a pair of thin, black-rimmed spectacles. He used them for reading the newspaper, reading the instructions on food packaging, anything really small.

“Wow.”

Biting his lip, Maintenon could not help but agree.

“We’ll leave Doctor Guillaume to remove this.”

“I quite agree—but I must tell you that I did pull it out, about as far as you can see—” The dart, for surely that’s what it was, had been gripped by the doctor’s hemostat and pulled out about ten or twelve millimetres. “It was embedded, practically flush with the surface of the clothing.”

He’d withdrawn it, just enough for him to see that this was not normal.

This was clearly no accident.

This was homicide.

Even Doctor Adam could see that.

“Merde.” Maintenon tipped his head.

It was too late to go back and do it again—

“Write your report, doctor, in the most precise terms possible.” He gave Andre a look, receiving a shrug in return.

“I’m terribly sorry, I know I shouldn’t have touched it.”

“Oh, I don’t know—I wouldn’t worry too much about it.”

Maintenon shook his head as Andre straightened up. On a thought, Andre began looking for the pockets of the deceased or attempting to. Baffled by the costume, he gave up. There weren’t any pockets to go through, which sort of brought this one home to him. Hopefully his personal effects would be coming along at some point—presumably, his wallet and keys would be in the dressing room. It was already a case of too many cooks. Too many cops on the crime scene, all of them relying on the other guy to remember every little thing—and assuming, sometimes, that that was exactly what was happening, when it really wasn’t.

Hmn. Killed on stage in front of a packed house.

With a fucking blow-dart.

Ha!

Ha.

This one was looking like a real doozie.

“Don’t say it, Andre.” Maintenon stood there, thinking. “Don’t even think about saying it. Ah, shit. But. I wouldn’t worry too much about it, Doctor Adam. I must say, I’m impressed.”

His eyes flicked up from Banzini’s bland, well-fed face to the doctor’s troubled features.

The doctor shrugged.

“Honestly, I really am sorry. I was just a bit slow on the uptake.”

Gilles clapped the fellow on the shoulder in sympathy.

“I meant the killer.”

Levain’s eyebrows twitched.

Poor old Maintenon was sounding, and looking, better already.

 

***

 

Doctor Adam stood there, never having had a chance to observe homicide detectives so closely before. Certainly none as famous as Maintenon. The hulking figure at his side was Levain. Yeah, you wouldn’t want to mess with that one…sacré merde.

That was one prime specimen.

“Look at that costume.” Heavily embroidered and very colourful, the small brown tuft of fibrous material sticking into the gentleman’s ribcage had gone unnoticed by the emergency attendants.

“I suppose it’s no wonder. Shit—all those people tramping all over the place.”

Levain was taking a few notes.

“He was also laying face-down.” That might, conceivably, have pushed the dart home if it wasn’t there already.

The ambulance had arrived approximately seven minutes after the call. The place would have been a zoo, by that point. It also accounted for the fact they thought he was sick, rather than…killed. It would have been one hell of a panic, ministering to Banzini onstage. Without a pulse and with the body getting perceptibly cooler within minutes, his eyes all bugged out like that, they had grabbed him and run for it, raising some doubts as to their training and professionalism. There was surprisingly little blood, and it might have been mostly coagulated by the time the attendants began handling him.

Gilles looked up at the doctor.

“All right. Are you on shift for the rest of the night?” He checked his watch.

One-forty-five a.m.

Merde.

“Yes. I go off at six-thirty or seven.” That’s when his relief showed up, but when they were extremely pressed, he had little choice but to stick around.

“Good. I’m going to call Doctor Guillaume. Monsieur Banzini could cause quite the problem for us. There must be a dozen reporters already camped outside the building. They don’t know anything, and I’d like to keep it that way. I’ll have him get over and get the body out of here as soon as possible.”

“I’m attending to the emergency room tonight. I really don’t have time—” Doctor Adam gulped, checking his watch. “Don’t let them in my hospital—”

If they weren’t roaming the halls already.

Doctor Adam kept looking at his watch, they were lucky it was a slow night. He’d been away for too long.

They could padlock him in the cooler, and wait for Guillaume’s assistants. No time to babysit a corpse for them. The police and hospital security staff had their hands full.

“Andre. Get on a phone and get some more officers over here. Two or three, anyway.”

“Yes, sir.”

 

 

Chapter Four

 

“Very well.” Gilles hung up the phone.

With Inspector Martin on the scene, everything would be thoroughly documented, sealed off, scoured for clues by technical staff. The building would be guarded by twenty men if that’s what it took—and it probably would.

Some of that could wait until morning. The Palais was a huge and complex building. It would be better if they knew where to start. The dart had not been fired from the boiler room, essentially.

There was also the challenge of the next performance, which was tonight. Police would have little choice but to let it go on. They had a limited window of time to work over the crime-scene.

Due to the lateness of the hour and the social status of their mob of opera-goers, officers on scene had gotten a list of names. There were only a couple of hundred of them. The bulk of the audience had simply bolted, streaming past the two officers, tagging along on an ambulance call, initially responding to the sudden death of Largo Banzini.

They were going to have a hell of a time with them.

Box seats were registered. Corporate guests would be authorized—known, at least.

Most tickets were sold anonymously over the counter, although there were also reserved tickets. They would at least have names for reserved tickets. If Madame Poincaré was any indication they (the so-called witnesses), wouldn’t be of much use anyway.

Gilles Maintenon sighed deeply. With the scene secured, the body secured, it would be extremely wise to go home and try and get a few hours of sleep. Hopefully he would think of something…

He looked around, but Andre was nowhere to be seen. He’d slipped off while Gilles’ back was turned. Gilles didn’t quite know where to begin looking, so he just stood there in the hallway of the emergency section of the Hôtel-Dieu.

“Damn it.”

Levain had the car-keys and Gilles was strongly tempted to call a cab and just go. Surely he would turn up in a moment.

Gilles’ own kidneys were talking to him and Andre had probably just seized the moment.

 

***

 

How the hell he did it sometimes was a mystery. Three and a half hours sleep if he was lucky…

Andre didn’t feel all that bad, although a couple more long days might take care of that.

Nichol had been so warm, inclined to cuddle a bit this morning and he’d had to drag himself away. Strutting in late for work, a big smile on your face, was strictly a no-no.

Hopefully he would be home on time for once—not that that seemed too likely. She had definitely been in a bit of a mood, lately—

Which was fine with him.

Andre leaned on the buzzer and Maintenon’s voice came back immediately.

“Wait.”

“Yep.”

Andre had the car idling at the curb. The November sunshine was welcome after days of cold rain. There was even a bit of frost in outlying areas first thing in the morning. That’s what it said on the radio. There was a crunch when people stepped on a dead leaf. There were a few small shiny patches of ice, and householders were beginning to sand their steps and the walks in front of their buildings. In that sense, winter had arrived. The only thing missing would be a few flurries and some snow. It was better than the season of mud, when the whole natural world had turned shades of brown and black and charcoal grey. The only real colour was the blue of the sky sometimes.

The streets were busy, with Christmas coming up. People tended to huddle indoors when the weather was bad. When the weather was fair, they bolted for the nearest grocer’s or butcher shop. They got a few things done while they could.

Then there was the whole Christmas-shopping madness.

Less than three minutes had passed, and the door opened up. Maintenon seemed to have taken a bit of trouble with his appearance today, which was good. His cheeks shone and he’d splashed on a considerable bit of cologne.

There were times when people worried about Gilles.

“Good morning, Andre.”

“Good morning, Gilles.”

Was that a sparkle in his eyes? A gleam, perhaps? Bordering on a twinkle, for crying out loud.

Sacre, merde.

At least someone was happy.

 

***

 

The room was quiet. Doctor Guillaume, looking preoccupied, found the tool he was looking for on the tray beside the stainless-steel slab.

“Da, di-da, da-da. Hmn-hmn-hmn.”

He’d taken one or two photos of the end of the thing already. He had an overall body shot, with the dab of dark fluff prominent in the chest. Clad in his habitual outfit of shiny black shoes, white shirt, dark grey trousers and long, sky-blue lab coat with a genuine white carnation in the button-hole, he tended to hum and cuss and fuss and mumble to himself as he worked.

With receding, mousy-brown hair, wire-rimmed glasses, thickening round the middle in recent years, there were still some youthful qualities to Doctor Guillaume.

Perhaps it was his love of the work.

He looked up at Gilles.

“Do it.” Maintenon wanted a quick look at the thing.

His report would also be written as precisely as possible, which made things hard for defense lawyers. Guillaume didn’t much like being contradicted.

Especially…by defense lawyers.

Gripping the dart tightly, just below the tail-feathers, the doctor gave it firm pull and out it came.

“Ah.”

“Nice.” Levain spoke for the two of them.

Doctor Guillaume laid it reverently aside. Unbuttoning the shirt, he peeled back the fabric. They all had a look. The tiny hole in the victim’s chest was black and dry, as one might expect by this time. If nothing else, they had the time of death nailed down pretty tight, and something like two thousand eye-witnesses…to attest to that fact.

Flashbulbs popped as their technical assistant Francois documented this interesting exhibit. He’d arrived breathless but alert, and with a full kit. He’d be heading over to the Palais after this.

He caught the Inspector’s eye.

“Yes, Francois?”

“Nothing, sir.” Yet there was that funny smirk there—

“We’ll call that exhibit B, Francois…”

Gilles wondered what that was all about. Pure, boyish fascination, possibly.

Merde.

They were all like that these days.

“What’s Exhibit A, inspector?”

Andre snorted.

“That would be Monsieur Banzini, Francois.”

“Sorry, Inspector, just kidding.”

They chuckled and went on.

Monsieur Banzini’s body had been stripped except for the shirt and jacket, pinned in place by the dart.

With help from his own assistant, a beefy lad named Ducharme, Doctor Guillaume lifted and turned the body. They peeled off the remaining clothes, stuck with dried blood in the immediate vicinity of the wound, and set them neatly aside on the next slab. The inner shirt was heavily encrusted, the richly embroidered outer jacket did a much better job of disguising it, but it was there. There was some discolouration around the wound, possibly from blood flooding into the tissues after the heat muscle was punctured.

They took a few more photos of Exhibit A, lying naked and dead on his stainless-steel tray.

“That, is really something, Gilles.”

There lay what appeared to be a thorn. It was fibrous, striated lengthwise, and might have been a reddish-brown colour under the residue of blackened blood. It was easily eighty or ninety millimetres long. There was a bit of pale fabric or vegetable fibre glued on the butt end, twisted around and secured with thin black thread. There was a tiny knot and more glue.

It was wickedly sharp, all the more obviously so, as it had penetrated almost to the butt.

“A little bit of the tip might have broken off inside the wound.” The doctor nodded, staring at it through a magnifying glass.

“Thank you, doctor.”

It was true that Banzini had fallen forward, perhaps it was more accurate to say that he was discovered face down. He might have rolled around a bit before expiring. For what it was worth, there was a fresh bruise on the left knee. The shaft of the dart was unbroken, with no signs of stress or bending. The thing had gone in, right to the hilt.

Unbelievable.

“Penetration between the second and third rib. Angle of entry, a few degrees off horizontal. Above, I mean, or he was leaning forward. I reckon the heart was punctured, but I will, of course, do a full autopsy.” His eyes glinted behind the lenses. “Hmn, Yes. Of course.”

Maintenon stood there staring down at the vacant face, features peaceful but eyes still open.

“Yes, I want you to be very, very thorough.”

It was like Banzini didn’t even know what hit him. Gilles chewed his lip.

“Somebody didn’t like him very much, did they?”

It all came down to motive—and personality.

The personality of the victim, and the personality of the killer.

 

 

Chapter Five

 

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 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 shouldn’t have picked up, when you got right down to it—

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.

All you had to be was barely competent.

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, middle-class smugness.

“I understand.” Commissioner Chiappe’s cement-mixer 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.”

“Ha-ha. 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.

“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 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.

With a crime like this, it would be needle-in-a-haystack all the bloody way.

Maintenon seemed to be studying the ceiling, and Levain and Archambault and the others 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.

 

***

 

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, just to make a stab at it and pray for some luck.

Mondays were one thing, Fridays were the worst as they had always agreed. Luckily for them, this was a Wednesday…Maintenon actually laughed at that one.

Doctor Marchal Grenier was a historian. He lectured on ancient history. One of his specialties was 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 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. They were going from point A to point B at about the same time that he was going from point B to point A…

There were the usual pleasantries.

“Gentlemen.”

“Professor.”

“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. If nothing else, they might have a library card.

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

“The opera singer.” Andre was trying to be helpful, but the gentlemen gave him a blank look. “We’re thinking it was made from a hawthorn, something like that.”

Andre briefly explained the situation.

Apparently the professor hadn’t seen the morning papers, either. Not much of an opera fan, apparently.

“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. Close to the end of the semester, 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 high. 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.

It was an oddly breathless feeling.

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, lying on a bed of green felt.

“New Guinea, hill tribe.”

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 as Gilles 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. That would be a rare individual. 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—just as peak pressure is reached, at a point when the dart is just about to exit the tube…” After that, it was a case of rapidly-diminishing returns, literally, a waste of breath. “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…you can only exhale or expel so fast.”

A man had to drag the thing around with him in some pretty tight country.

“There is an optimum of bore and length and the shooter’s lung capacity.”

Maintenon was nodding vigorously.

“Bear in mind, these people grow up with them—and the boys have smaller pipes. It is a matter of great pride to be able to feed one’s family.” Training started young, in other words.

“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 twelve millimetres 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 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.

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.

“Holy.”

“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. Because the eyes are a few centimetres above the mouth, it’s a bit of a deflection shot. I think, that at a certain angle, at a certain range, the hunter just puts the end of the pipe directly onto the target, and the dart has just enough drop over the distance to have a good chance of a hit. Every shooter is a unique individual, of course.” By being almost 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 and ultimately, sharing in the kill.

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, other small game, they simply fall out of the tree. The hunters grab it, and knock its head against the nearest tree-trunk. Throw it in the bag and keep going.” In that sense, marksmanship wasn’t the highest priority—all the hunter needed to do was to tag a leg or a wing. “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?” According to the gentleman, the natives tended to eat the meat well-done, which killed a lot of other parasites as well.

“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. That’s a whole art in itself. In battle, which can be highly formalized, they’d be using shields, clubs, fire-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. A spear, a shield, a place in the line had to be earned. The gentlemen certainly knew his stuff.

“For someone to have punctured the heart muscle, ah, it 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 something like 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 from the Middle Ages, notably for hunting birds and such. It’s not a serious weapon of war.” As for murder, that was something out of his area of expertise.

Gilles held up a hand.

“Okay. What sort of force would it take to penetrate seventy-five or a hundred millimetres of tissue?”

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

“Ah, a big long thorn.”

“Hmn.”

The professor chewed his lip.

“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 the professor 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 be able to come up with something.

Yes, that might do very nicely.

“Professor.”

“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.”

“Ah.”

“There’s usually a small fee for that sort of thing, no big deal, really.”

“Ah. Hmn. Very well.”

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

 

 

Chapter Six

 

Gabin Lussier was understudy to Largo Banzini. He was married to Lise and had a daughter of eight years old. Her name was Amy. 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 more versatile 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.

They were even less outstanding, and again there was that engaging grin.

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. 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, and here was a man who knew the ins and outs of the industry. 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. The big stars preferred the bigger stages, the bigger venues, bigger audiences and, obviously, more money. 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 this far.

“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.” He explained that he would go out for a quick smoke by the stage door, sometimes even sign a few autographs—a nice, human touch.

It was true that people hung out by the backstage door. There were plenty of opera fans who couldn’t afford tickets. They still loved their stars and followed them assiduously in the magazines, in the papers, and in the record shops. He’d actually sung in the studio setting, doing sessions for bigger recording stars, or so he told them. He dropped a few names.

Lussier sat across the scarred maple table in the interview room at the Quai. His posture was relaxed, one ankle across his knee and his body well back in the chair.

“I see.”

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.”

“Ah.”

“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 cat-and-mouse 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. I’ve been married for quite a while—I try and stay out of trouble, for all the right reasons.” Quite frankly, trouble cost money and it took up a lot of time and it was nothing but a big pain in the ass.

“And what was your relationship with Monsieur Banzini?”

“It was fine. Very professional Ah, I would say he was happy, you know, to have someone good covering for him in an emergency, and of course he never would expect anything to happen anyways. That’s human nature. 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. No one is invulnerable. People get sick, people get in car-crashes or water-skiing accidents. They fall off the wagon and end up in some nice clinic in the countryside 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 just can’t print, right?”

Those innocent blue eyes stared at Maintenon from behind a burgeoning cloud, a facade of tobacco smoke.

Well.

That seemed plain enough—so there was something then.

Maybe.

“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.

Gilles nodded.

That was pretty much the same way he felt.

Just fucking wow.

 

 

Chapter Seven

 

There were only the three of them in the office, 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. The better class of idiot led from the front.

“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 and sculpture, read all the latest books, and wrote whatever he felt like, at least 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. It was going around.

“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, on the corner of Archambault’s desk, 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 cluttered little office of le Chat Noir was in one of the seedier, more industrial areas of the city. It had 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 city was in a constant state of decay, and rebirth. Sparrows had their place. They shit all over the place, for one thing. It kept things nice and humble.

“Hello.”

“Hey, Dax.”

The receptionist simpered and then turned on a dime. The door clicked quietly closed.

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…it might be some kind of an act.

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 their overcoats. At least it was a dry, 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. Levain reached up and undid a couple of buttons.

“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 it is 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, or some other language.

“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 his 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 fifteen, 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 quite put into words.

A cheap thrill, the forbidden fruit.

Beautiful boys.

“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. 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, or who is 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 proper 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.

He’d gone to school for a long time, or so the old man, Phillipe often said—

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, according to the best family sources.

Holy.

“Hmn. Interesting.” Levain passed the paper over to Gilles, who gave it a quick glance.

“There’s more.”

Gilles’ mouth opened.

“What?”

“Okay. There was an out-of-court settlement. Some girl got pregnant. This one was about seventeen, which is technically not statutory rape but…ah, no complaint, no charge. Parents have been known to kick up quite a fuss. 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. “It was the sort of thing I prefer not to write about. 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.

“Sorry, gentlemen, but I have an editor and a deadline…”

Holy!

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.

“Thanks, Dax.”

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. Some men believed in an avenging God, some believed in a loving, forgiving God. As for Levain, he figured Nature was completely indifferent and so you could pretty much do what you want.

“You should come over for dinner on the weekend. How about Sunday? Bring that Bernice—or whatever her name is.”

Dax grinned.

“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 have to 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.

 

***

 

They knew a little bit about him and he patiently told them some more. The gentleman was calm, cool and sophisticated. He was well-educated, and a man of the world.

Blaine Sauve was another columnist. His work appeared in a prominent Paris daily and was syndicated all over France. He wrote reviews on commission for various theatrical magazines all over the world, and was well-known in the industry. Half of what he said was pure promotional tour. The other half was pure bullshit.

He probably couldn’t help it, conceded Andre.

It was in the nature of the beast, the dominant male with half-moon glasses perched on the end of his nose. A real egghead—

“Naturally, gentlemen, you must accept that my remarks are not for attribution—”

Harumph.

He was giving them more or less the same sort of runaround that Dax had. He was most definitely passing the buck, reluctant to cough up too many more names. He wasn’t disagreeing with the ones they already had. He specifically mentioned Banzini’s agent, more than once, just in passing…like yeah, talk to anyone but me. For one thing it was just gossip, for another, he didn’t have direct knowledge. And yet it was probably true. To know it was to accept some kind of responsibility or something.

No one likes to be the rat. The trouble was that he was dependent upon the industry he wrote about.

Dax was just starting out and arguably had a lot less to lose by being helpful.

Unlike Dax’s cubicle, Sauve worked from home. His office was large, airy and bright, looking out onto the rear garden of a tall, narrow house. Outside there was either a white-spotted black dog or a black-spotted white dog, no one could really say, roaming around. There was a gnarly old apple tree, looking bare and forlorn in the stark grey light of another overcast day. The ground around it was littered with rotting, frozen red apples of a large calibre. Judging by the plush interiors, he and his stringy-looking wife seemed to be doing okay.

“I’m not saying there weren’t stories about Largo, who was a bit of a friend of mine—insofar as such things can go. We got along very well at parties and awards ceremonies and public appearances. He was the professional in that sense, and so am I. They say he liked to party, ah, hearty. Largo was charming. He was a funny, witty man, a real entertainer in every sense of the word. So much of that was public performance. There’s always something of the real person inside, of course. No matter how talented, some people just can’t do it. But yes, rumours have gone around from time to time. Quite frankly, a professional friendship. It’s a hell of a lot better than feuding with your subjects…” He pulled the pipe out of his mouth and examined it intently as such men were wont to do when pressed for an original thought.

The funny thing was, he’d gone to a good university.

“There was someone else. Yeah, that was kind of weird. An odd-ball fellow, claimed to be a police inspector from Hong Kong. He was asking a lot of questions about Banzini, and this was, ah, not too long before his rather unfortunate demise.”

“Oh, really. Got a name for us?”

If true, it had to be an unofficial visit, or they should have heard about it by now.

“Yes, he called me up on the phone—for what that’s worth.” The columnist sat back in his chair, having put his pipe down unlit.

He had taken up nibbling on the end of a yellow HB pencil. This was a bit of an odd note for an otherwise composed individual.

“So you have no idea what he looks like?”

Those eyes came up and locked on.

“That would appear to be the point…I think that is what I’m getting at.”

His hands seemed to be all over the place. It took him a while to find a pen. Andre wondered if he had the palsy or something. It was that bad.

“He said his name was Guan Fu. Apparently some sort of big-wig from the police out there.”

“Any idea of where he was staying?”

“Ah…not really. No.”

“Uh…are you all right, sir?”

There was a sad, deprecating little smile and the hands steadied.

“I’ll be around for a while yet.” There was a stillness, a coldness there.

They could always ask around.

“Er—okay. Well, we thank you for your help, sir.”

“Not at all, gentlemen. Not at all.”

And that, would appear to be that.

 

 

Chapter Eight

 

Once the chill got into you, it was with you for the day.

It would take some time to really thaw out again.

“Lord, love a duck.” It was getting pretty damned dark outside, low clouds scudding past, and the snow was falling faster and faster, slanting past on a stiff northwest wind.

They sat in the warm vehicle, engine running. The heater fan was going full blast and the cop-radio was turned down to barely audible.

Levain, his hand on the gear lever, foot on the brake, turned to Gilles.

“I guess we should talk to Vice. Work up a list of high-class brothels—child and otherwise.”

Maintenon nodded absently. The classical theory was, that in the absence of any other clues, concentrate on the victim. Their habits, their likes and their dislikes, their relationships above all else.

There was barely enough time in the day to get going, and then it was over and it seemed like you hadn’t gotten anything done.

“Largo doesn’t seem to have had any sort of a best friend. That’s kind of interesting. We can check around all the hotels, looking for this Guan Fu boy.”

“Yes, yes, whatever.”

This was no random killing.

To kill Banzini like that, with all the attendant publicity, meant something. It meant a lot—to the killer.

“Someone else has been asking about Largo Banzini.” Hmn.

In the absence of any real direction from Gilles, Andre let out the clutch.

They might as well head back to the Quai, if not, surely Gilles would say something…

Sooner rather than later.

“There will be a million reports to read, and someone has to have an overview of the case.” Levain was practically quoting the book.

Gilles nodded. It sure beat directing traffic all day long. Which both of them had done before.

“Hmn. I would like to know who this Guan Fu is.” The Inspector chewed on his thoughts. “Other than the actual killing, it’s the most interesting thing we’ve seen so far.”

The snow hitting the vehicle at fifty or sixty kilometres an hour was a bit like someone dropping sand from the sky.

It was abrasive, and yet at the same time, kind of soothing.

 

***

 

Rather than devote another half-dozen men and women to the phones, Levain used a few of those alleged little grey cells of his—pulp novels and their lurid covers being a bit of a thing with him. He sat there and tried to put his mind into the head of a visiting, senior police official from another country.

An Asian gentleman in Paris, asking about Banzini.

If the department was paying, he’d be on a pretty tight daily allowance. Hong Kong was a long ways away and this would have cost them something already. If he was traveling privately, the real question was why. A police inspector’s salary wasn’t that great—genteel middle-class poverty was one good way of describing it, and so one must wonder where such a person might be staying. Compared to France and a few other places—(police salaries in the U.S. were outrageous), the pay in Hong Kong would be somewhat lower. Andre didn’t know that for a fact, but it was a pretty good guess.

“You know, Gilles, there are a few places in town run by Chinese people.” The same might be said of any number of other nationalities. “Shit. I’m wondering if he’s rented a flat. He might be paying cash, in which case we might never find him. We could check and see if he’s got a driver’s license. We’ll check on that passport.”

“Yes, yes, do all that. But this is grunt work, Andre. Let somebody who really needs the experience do it.”

Andre grimaced on hearing that one.

“I suppose you’re right.”

Greeks, Russians, Lebanese, Chinese, Algerians, Dutch, Poles, Americans, it was a big city and there were all kinds of people trying to make a living. The world was full of investors big and small.

Some of them must own hotels.

Gilles was smoking, skimming through file after file.

“I’ve got a better idea. Lunch—down at Kwok’s Grille.”

Levain tilted his head and raised his eyebrows.

“Yeah.” He hadn’t thought of that, but they could always ask Burt.

He’d been helpful more than once.

Gilles looked at the clock.

“Before we go. Call the motor vehicle people about that driver’s license. The odds are he doesn’t, though.”

 

***

 

It smelled like hot, spicy food after the dankness of the streets.

Kwok’s was a tiny place, barely six or seven metres of frontage on a street that was narrow, cobbled and winding. If you weren’t careful, the food, based on the cuisine of Funan, would take the top of your head off with its heavy reliance on chilis.

They did a mean beef soup, and no doubt about it.

Nearby tables were occupied, which was a consideration and a bar to communication. It was the usual long, skinny space, all one floor, a row of ceiling fans turning slowly, dimly lit and going back from a narrow storefront. There was a little bell over the door that tinkled every time someone came and went.

“Hey, Burt. What’s the special?”

“Okay, boys. We gonna start you off fairly conservative with home-made, juicy, deeply-flavoured, steamed prawns. Then we got the most original mushroom and pine-nut dumplings, and then some Chinese ravioli filled with morsels of grilled chicken.”

“There’s more, right.” The special would have soup, noodles, rice…a little bit of everything.

“Oh, yeah, there’s a lot more.” The meal came with egg-drop soup, rolls and butter, and a salad with dressing. “You can have tossed salad, coleslaw, cheeses. You like very much.”

Gilles looked at Andre.

“What do you think?”

“Shit, let’s do it. And Burt—”

“Yes, Andre?”

“Beer. Lots and lots of beer—”

Burt grinned, picking up the menus from the table. The lotus blossom floating in a bowl of water rippled under some small and distant vibration.

The menus hadn’t even been opened, as they so rarely were in this particular establishment.

“Oh, yeah. Okay. I think know you guys, pretty well by now. I think we can handle all of that.”

Levain waited until Burt had turned and made it back to the kitchen. He’d only be in there a minute to give the order. On the front side of the kitchen wall was Burt’s small bar in black faux-marble, and in front of that the boss’s table.

Andre headed to the restrooms, which were on the right side of the hallway leading to the kitchen and the emergency exit at the back of the building. He’s always loved the décor in these places, the sheer Oriental decadence of it. It was all deep red rugs, black-painted walls, red and gold trim. There were the little signs in two languages, those crazy alien characters in gold lettering with black drop-shadows. When people went to a Chinese restaurant, they expected to see something just a little bit different. They said the food was sort of attuned to western tastes and appetites and that the food back home would be completely different. They really didn’t get much meat over there, not the poor folks anyways.

In which case, more power to them, and he was looking forward to that beer. They hadn’t done this in far too long—responsible police officers that they undoubtedly were, much of the time.

By the time he was done taking a leak, Burt would be ensconced at his usual table by the server’s station. His table would have its scattering of French, English and Chinese newspapers, the day’s receipts and the horoscope on the table top. Maintenon would have a cold beer to keep him company.

At this time of day, there were only a handful of other tables being served. In general, people in this part of town minded their own business. Especially when the police were concerned.

It was funny how you always knew—

Hey, everybody, them’s the cops…

 

***

 

After shaking it off and washing his hands, Andre stepped out. He went around the corner.

He casually dropped into the red leather seat of the booth, right beside Burt.

“Ah, so.”

“So.”

They sat silently for a moment.

“So. What you guys want?”

Under the table, Andre slipped him a hundred-franc note.

 

***

 

A tight-lipped Burt Kwok was non-committal, which came as no big surprise. It was like watching a ventriloquist’s lips as he worked…

He also wanted to know what it was about, which Andre was relatively prepared for.

“He’s been sniffing around regarding a certain dead opera singer. The trouble is we don’t know a damned thing about him”

Burt’s eyes widened slightly.

“You mean?”

“Ah, yes.”

Largo Banzini. They were going to have to give something up, in order, hopefully, to get something better. There was more to it than just money.

There usually was.

Burt had a business to run, and this would involve putting some feelers out into the community.

If Burt had questions, so would everyone else. He would have to tell them something.

The trouble was that a certain kind of news traveled fast. There was some chance of alerting their quarry. How vital that was, was an unknown—in which case caution was the proper attitude.

Andre listened as much as talked.

Burt had a few things to say.

It was a tight-knit little community, which wasn’t to say they all liked each other. Sometimes business interests collided, as Burt put it.

“There are certain toes that I don’t step on. You may have some idea of whom, or the sort of persona that I’m talking about.”

“Yes, we do, Burt. We sure appreciate any help you can give us. Anyways, that’s just a down payment, if you can get us anything.” Rising, Andre gave him a final nod, a quick pat on the shoulder.

Andre headed back to their table, where Gilles was lifting the domed covers from various dishes and looking a bit lost if truth be told.

Maintenon looked up as Andre slumped back into his seat.

“Well?”

“He took the money.”

“Hmn.” Lifting his chin, Gilles laughed aloud, and Andre realized what he had just said.

He resisted the urge to cuff himself in the head as Maintenon began filling his plate with something hot, meaty and spicy, which was about all one could tell just by looking at it.

“Gilles.”

“What?”

“If God created man in his own image, how come we’re not all invisible.”

“Well. I don’t know, Andre, why?” Gilles had the most innocent look on his face…

That, is a very good question.

And Andre didn’t have an answer.

Of course he took the money, you fucking dummy.

“Andre?”

“Yes, Boss?”

“The greatest revenge lies in having a good lunch.”

What in the hell could you say to that?

Not much, as it turned out.

 

 

Chapter Nine

 

They were all bellied-up and barely in the door of the squad-room. It was funny how alcohol and cold air cleared the nostrils and made everything smell a whole lot sharper. A case in point would be the fog of tobacco smoke in their office…man, it really was bad. It was unmistakably brown, and dry, and dead somehow, and it caught at the back of the throat.

It was possible that cold air focused the mind or something.

“Inspector?” It was an unfamiliar gendarme, the room’s only occupant.

“What, what?”

Maintenon had had a couple of drinks, unusually for him at work, and at lunch and on a weekday.

It didn’t seem to have mellowed him out, very much.

“Message, sir, from someone sounding rather foreign.”

“I’ll take that.” The gendarme gave the slip of paper to Andre, returning to a seat at Firmin’s desk and looking down at a big pile of notes that obviously needed typing.

There was a half-eaten sandwich, an apple and a heavily-used brown paper bag on the desk beside him. It looked like he’d be carefully folding that up and taking that home with him again in order to save a centime or two a week.

It made a certain statement.

“Who in the hell are you, anyways?”

He whipped up a hand, brushing aside one long lock of blond hair over his left eye.

“I am Police Constable Louis Bedard, temporarily assigned from the Traffic Division, Detective-Sergeant. Inspector.” With a firm nod, his eyes fell to the pages beside him and his fingers spurted up into action.

“Sounds like someone has been drafted.” Andre caught Maintenon’s eye. “That’s the second time I’ve been impressed in this investigation.”

Their new face was blushing, eyes forcibly held to the work, and Andre grinned in appreciation.

“Burt’s gotten back to us already.”

Merde. That was quick.”

There was a name, an address and a phone number.

The Star Luck Hotel.

They were on the trail. The game was afoot, the door was a fucking jar.

Gilles shrugged, reversing the process of taking off his outercoat, and instead, started buttoning it back up again.

“Bah. Let’s go, Andre.” His glance slid across to the young fellow at Firmin’s desk.

“Yeah—I see what you mean.”

But that kid could really type.

 

***

 

Andre had parked fifty metres off. They were just taking a look.

They had the front of the Star Luck Hotel under surveillance. It was five floors up and maybe forty metres wide on a block with no alleys, no openings. The whole street was festooned with Chinese and other Asian signs, probably in more than one unfamiliar language. Even with the car windows closed, the smell of hot food and even hotter grease permeated the vehicle’s interior.

Andre wondered how seriously Gilles took all of this, but in the absence of any real leads, what the hell else they were supposed to do was a pretty good question.

“So what do you want us to do, Gilles?”

Maintenon sighed, deeply.

While the ground was bare, even dry looking, tiny flecks of white flew past, leaving dots of moisture on the windshield.

“Ah, what the hell.” Reaching for the door handle, he was up and out on the street before Andre had a chance to comprehend.

Was it something I said?

Andre popped the door hastily after hitting the lock on the passenger side.

“Hey, Boss, wait up.”

Maintenon’s back was disappearing ahead of him through a green-tinted revolving door in an expensive bronze-coloured frame.

The dry heat of the place hit Andre like a breaking wave, and always that smell of food and tobacco in the air. It was very quiet, with not even a radio playing in the background.

There was the usual reception desk. Unlike the better class of domestic hotel, there was no problem getting the attention of the deskman. True to the colourful Chinese lettering on the marquee, this one was Asian.

“Hello.” Gilles flashed him the badge.

“Ah, yes, sir. How may I help you?”

“We’re looking for a gentleman. His name is Guan Fu, and he’s from Hong Kong.”

The fellow nodded.

“Ah, yes, sir. I’m not sure if he’s in or not—his key’s not here, but that means nothing.”

“So he’s staying here, then?”

“Yes, sir, but I really haven’t seen him in a couple of days…would you like me to buzz up to the room?”

“No, that’s quite all right.” Levain slipped the fellow a small bill. “What room would that be?”

There was little or no hesitation—which was some kind of an indicator.

“Room four-oh-seven. That would be to your right when you come out of the lift.”

“How long has the gentleman been here?”

“Oh, I don’t know—a week or ten days, anyways.”

“Thank you very much.”

Gilles wondered if the fellow would buzz the room as soon as the elevator door closed, but there was no point in making a big thing out of it. They were there on a bit of a hunch, and as for Inspector Guan Fu, they had nothing really against the man.

Not even suspicion.

Just a few questions. Answers would be nice.

They would start off nice and easy…

Who are you?

Why are you here?

The elevator door finally closed, and the whole thing seemed to be taking too long. The clerk had seemed to be ignoring them, giving no impression of bolting for the house phone or anything like that…not looking for trouble, maybe.

The floor bumped and rattled under their feet, jolting them from side to side.

“I hate these things.”

“I know, Boss.”

“They could at least make them a little bigger.”

There wasn’t much Andre could say to that, but to make them bigger was to make them heavier and more expensive. A little hotel of twenty or thirty rooms simply didn’t need anything more.

“You could always stare up at the ceiling, Gilles. It’s really interesting, when you get right down to it.”

And so it was, too, all grilles and vents and concealed, indirect lighting. Some minor cobwebs in the corners.

You would need a small stepladder to change those bulbs.

 

***

 

The wrought-iron cage door opened relatively quietly. Stepping out into the hall, there was someone talking behind a door down the hall to the left. The voice faded as they went to the right. Odd numbers were on the street side, even numbers on the rear side of the building.

The place smelled like furniture polish and whatever they used to clean the bathrooms, and of course tobacco.

Andre nodded, getting on the far side of the door, feet soundless on what was a pretty good quality brown rug.

Gilles stood close, putting his ear up to the panel and hearing nothing behind door number four-oh-seven. The doorframe by the latch had been shattered and nailed back together more than once, a sign of the times and the neighbourhood. The door itself was good, probably replaced last time around, rather than repaired one too many times.

Rapping lightly with his knuckles, he listened again. There were no sounds of movement or a quick intake of breath or anything like that from the other side. He could almost hear a clock ticking somewhere…

“Hello, hello—room service.”

Nothing.

“Telegram for Mister Guan Fu. Telegram for Mister Guan Fu…”

Yeah, Maintenon had been a bit off lately…holy, shit.

The boss knocked again.

Still nothing.

Acting on pure instinct, Gilles became aware of that smell—just about the same time he took the doorknob, gloves still on, and gave it a twist.

“Merde.”

There was no mistaking that smell.

The door was not locked—no one said anything and there was nothing else for it but to push it open, guns drawn, and have a look.

“Hello? Hello?”

Maintenon stepped in. The windows overlooking the street, straight ahead, were tightly closed, curtains closed, there were no lights on. The bathroom was to the left, a very small kitchenette beside it, and then he went around the corner into the room proper.

Levain followed, gun up, safe enough and yet ready to go.

There was a dead man lying on the rug, knees bent, face blue, fingers frozen in the act of trying to get at the long cord around his neck. He’d shit and pissed himself, that was one thing for sure.

“Ah. Lord love a duck—”

“What the fuck is that, Gilles?”

There was a long, heartfelt sigh. Stowing the 7.65, Maintenon knelt down, wanting a quick look before calling the technical people.

“That, mon ami…looks like a bowstring.” There were loops on the ends of it, and what looked like glued thread reinforcements on the ends and in the middle.

There were two little knobs of thread, presumably marking where the arrow would go. They were just under the right ear.

“Shit. That’s what I thought you were going to say.” There were one or two rather obvious points. “Gilles—this guy would have been kicking and pounding like crazy. Somebody really ought to have heard something.”

It wouldn’t have lasted for long, thirty seconds at most.

The gentleman was flat on his back, in his stockinged feet, and Andre was right.

“That would be nice.”

He should have made some kind of a fuss.

Gilles rose on knees that were quite frankly cracking and creaking.

“Hmn.” He stood there looking.

The body was that of an Asian male, perhaps forty-five or fifty years of age. He was fairly well dressed, wearing neatly-pressed grey slacks and a clean white dress shirt with the collar still attached. The matching jacket was slung over the back of a chair, a red tie draped over one shoulder.

A pair of shiny black Oxfords were just inside the door. There was a suitcase, empty and a few shirts and things in the closet. The closet doors were open.

The neat, professionally-trimmed mustache and grizzled brush-cut were just what one would expect, assuming this was indeed Inspector Guan Fu of the Hong Kong Police. Dead eyes and a gaping mouth screamed up at them. Maintenon’s eyes cast around the room, looking for a wallet, a passport, anything, really.

He supposed it was all there, lying out in the open on the dresser and the small writing desk…

Merde.

“If nothing else, now we have two clues.”

Andre nodded as if he understood exactly where this might be going.

Unfortunately, he didn’t.

“Gilles. Have you ever liked a murderer?”

“Ah, no. No. Not very often, anyways.”

“Boss?”

“Yes, we’d better call this in.” Kneeling back down again, Gilles had his finger on the man’s neck.

The body was cold.

When he tugged on an arm, it moved readily enough.

“Yeah. He’s been dead a while.”

Argh.

Levain definitely heard the knees crack that time as Gilles made it up again.

“Merde. Andre. Nobody leaves. I’ll make the call.”

“Yeah, Boss.”

Andre turned and headed for the lobby.

Gilles, gloves still on, reached for the phone.

 

***

 

They were back at the office, which always felt like an oasis in a sea of insanity.

Chiappe was all over them like a dirty shirt, and Gilles couldn’t even really explain his thought processes.

Not so far, anyways.

“Basically, we were following up a lead. We got a tip and we went and checked it out.”

“Hmn. Well. I agree with you, Gilles. This is just too much of a coincidence to be unrelated.”

“Look on the bright side.”

Chiappe stared at Levain.

“What? Hey, at least we’ve got another case? Fuck you, Levain!”

Andre laughed, sneaking a look at the poor gendarme on the typewriter. He’d scooped Archambault’s desk now, and LeBref was off somewhere else at the moment. Firmin was downstairs somewhere, talking to somebody or other…

“No, sir. What I meant is that now we have three clues.”

The Commissioner snorted at that one. He had taken over Levain’s desk, enjoying one of Maintenon’s slender cigars, smelling heavenly and sweet what with allegedly being dipped in brandy. As for the flavour, he’d always wondered why.

The difference between smell when unlit and actual flavour burning was that profound.

“Look, Jean-Baptiste. We asked one person, one name. Burt sent us straight to him—his sources, rather ambiguous, and it’s just bad politics to press too hard there. That doesn’t necessarily make poor old Burt a suspect. If you see what I mean—”

“I agree. I’m not a complete dummy, Gilles. Now we have that whole Chinatown angle. So. What’s up for you guys now?”

Maintenon shrugged.

“We’ll get our technical reports soon enough. He actually had a fake driver’s license. It’s pretty obviously badly-made, the photo just pasted on. Whether he actually used it or not, we don’t know. He had to identify himself to sign into the hotel. It would pass under most circumstances. People barely glance at them, they’re looking for the proper spelling, a plausible address. As for the passport, we’ll see. Let’s just say it’s slightly better done. In the meantime, I want to interview Banzini’s business agent. His statement is pretty bare-bones, and relates exclusively to the night in question.” So far, anyways.

Chiappe nodded.

“But you’re interested in other things, right?”

Gilles agreed.

“Yes. I want to go for a little dig through his mind. Banzini was his bread and butter. A good portion of it, anyways. One wonders what he might have had to gain. He certainly had a lot to lose. How much he knew about Banzini’s extracurricular activities is another good question.”

“Ah.”

It wouldn’t do to wander the halls smoking. It was just one of their little rules for the building, so Jean-Baptiste regretfully stubbed it out.

He regarded their mysterious new officer in assessment.

“You. How do you like it up here in the stratosphere.” His voice carried well, a certain inflection alerting the wary.

The young gendarme ceased working and looked up.

He was blushing and smiling at the same time. The poor guy had probably never been directly addressed by the Commissioner before.

“Yes, sir. I love it.”

Now Chiappe smiled. He gave them a beatific look.

“Hear that, Gilles? He loves it.” The Big Boss Man tipped his head back and let out a good horse-laugh. “All right, young man. You keep these guys happy and I am sure they will duly note it in their reports…capiche?”

“Ah, yes, sir.”

Jean-Baptiste rose, patting his pockets, looking around for something, purely reflex as he was traveling light—coatless and hatless, wandering the building, keeping a finger on the pulse of modern policing in the big city. Trying to get the men and women under his command to love him—if that were possible, and it probably wasn’t. Not all of them, anyways.

The young fellow had the moxy not to stand and salute—he put his head down, face red, and began typing earnestly again.

It might have been discretion, it might have been valor.

“All right, Gilles. I will leave you guys to it—and I think you are right.”

“I am?”

“Yes. Now we have two clues. Sorry—three clues.”

“We do?’

“Yes.” Another laugh, not quite so hard this time.

As caught up as he was likely to get, Jean-Baptiste was out the door and halfway to the stairs before anyone could think of a suitable answer to that. The door swung to and hung there, almost closed. It would have to suffice.

Levain was reading his notes and looking at the messages plastered all over his desk-blotter.

“Shit, Gilles—can you get along without me.” Their other cases were piling up, and cooling off by the minute.

His phone was going to ring again, he just knew it. Any God-damned second now—the time to bolt was now or never.

Sometimes all it took was a warrant. A bit of questioning and your suspect folded. He had this gut instinct sometimes.

“Yes. Young man.”

“Ah, yes, sir?”

“Can you drive?”

“Yes. Sir.”

“Do you take good notes, ask good questions, and do you have a bloody fucking brain in your head?” Are you free, white and twenty-one…???

“Ah—yes, sir, absolutely, sir.” Bedard was smiling again, albeit a bit unsure of himself amongst such august company.

There was a certain intuitiveness at work—they were jiving him to a certain extent.

Testing him, feeling him out—teasing, often a sign of liking or maybe just curiosity.

As if to demonstrate, he was already securing his completed pages, the raw notes. He made sure his ashtray wasn’t smoldering and that he wasn’t leaving someone a half-full cup of lukewarm coffee to knock over with an elbow first thing they came in…

He had his coat on and his hat was right there. It would appear he was ready.

“Good. Then we are off.”

“Detective-Sergeant?”

“Ah. Right.” Andre reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out his keys. “Okay, you’ll need this one for the ignition, and this one here does the trunk and the glove-box.”

Maintenon waited by the door, hat on. Gloves on, notebook in pocket. The weight of his pistol tugged pleasantly at his left shoulder.

Bedard went through a similar mental process, patting his baton in habitual fashion where it hung on his belt.

Check.

“Ready now, sir.”

Levain grinned slightly.

“Then this is your lucky day, young man.” It may have come out a little gruffer than Maintenon intended.

“I’ll grab a lift somewhere, Gilles.” Levain’s hand hovered over the phone.

The young and the old, the old and the new. The long and the short of it—that Bedard was a pretty big boy.

It was like you could see the future sometimes.

Maintenon was a wonderful teacher.

“Quite frankly, any asshole can become a detective.”

A startled, possibly even freckled face turned and looked at Andre—mouth open and jaw on the floor. There was no time though, for Gilles was already gone.

With eyes firmly (possibly even grimly) averted, head down, the kid was gone too.

Deal with it, you little fucker.

Heh-heh-heh.

Also, someone needed to have a look at that door.

 

 

Chapter Ten

 

Roche’s office was located in what was rare for this city, a new building in the fashionable Montparnasse district. There were people who would have killed for a set of smoked windows like that. It took real money to tear down an old house and put up a new place. This one was all dark brown brick and large, anonymous glass panels. It was all very modern. The odds were that Roche was renting, but one never knew. He wore a brown, pinstriped suit, a waistcoat with a watch-chain prominently displayed. He affected a goatee and mustache that went back some years. He seemed oddly young for such a suit, and even younger for such luxuriant facial hair.

There were several people in the waiting room, and a lithe woman seated at a desk filing her fingernails and answering the phone, which apparently rang frequently.

Surprisingly, they had been admitted within a minute.

Maintenon had the impression a certain red-faced young man had just been ejected rather forcibly.

It was a big, airy office with none of the pictures and memorabilia that would have been more usual, splattered all over the walnut-paneled walls of the unsophisticated—or the insecure.

“Thank, you, thank you.”

Gilles was seated, a nervous Bedard preferred to remain standing just inside the door. Gilles would speak to him about that later.

“So.”

“Yes. It’s a terrible tragedy. The public is really hurting. I don’t know if you’ve seen the memorial—”

Maintenon nodded.

He had, in fact, seen it. There were mounds of cards, letters, teddy-bears, balloons, and a veritable plethora of hand-made tokens of love and respect heaped up on the sidewalk just off to the left (for whatever reason) of the main entrance of the Palais Garnier. It was the sort of thing the media loved.

Niel Roche was definitely not happy, but there were times when all one could do was to cope.

“Luckily the role isn’t a difficult one, and with the attendant publicity, ticket sales are way up. The show must go on, eh, gentlemen?”

Roche, on the other hand, was now out in the cold and he told them so.

“So. Were you insured in any way?” Maintenon had been wondering. “I mean, Largo was a hot property, right?”

“Ah. Well. We’re indemnified against any claims arising from unforeseen circumstances—assuming someone brings suit against us. Other than that, not really. There’s no way to insure against future earnings, or, ah, losses, I mean. I suppose you could, really, but the premiums would be astronomical.”

One could almost hear Bedard swallowing nervously—

“We’ve been hearing some weird rumours about Largo. Did you know him well? Off-duty, and after hours?”

“What kind of rumours?”

“Sexual rumours. Sexual things.”

Looking away, Roche sighed, deeply. His eyes came back to Maintenon.

The sound of Bedard’s pencil was loud in the stillness.

“And?”

“Were they true?”

“Largo was a passionate and affectionate man—I suppose I’ve heard, ah, some of the same rumours.” That didn’t necessarily mean they were true, of course—

“Did he have a regular lady friend…er?”

“Ah, no. Not in so many words. Naturally, he went out with various people.” He had his lady of the day, according to Roche. “But, Largo never seemed to be able to settle down. Or maybe he couldn’t settle for just one, gentlemen.”

Basically, there was nothing that seemed very serious, his glamorous dates as often as not arranged for the publicity factor with some other aspiring artist in need of free promotion. That sort of thing happened all the time. All those egos feeding off of each other—and feeding the public’s need for something else, scandal, romance, wish-fulfillment of a vicarious nature.

“Hmn. So, what was it like managing someone like Largo Banzini?”

“He could be a handful at times.”

Maintenon sat there, hands folded neatly in his lap.

“So. Ah.”

Bedard spoke up.

“Did you like Largo Banzini?”

“Oh. Fuck. I don’t know. That is always one hell of a question—what sort of rumours?”

“Young girls, little boys, things like that.”

Niel was having a hard time looking at them.

“Don’t think this is an easy job, because it isn’t.” Niel Roche studied his fingernails for a moment. “Okay, so you’ve heard the rumours. Well. Some of them must be true—right?”

Gilles turned.

“Bedard.”

“Sir?”

“For crying out loud. Sit down.”

“Yes, sir.” Thump.

“So, who was he going out with lately. He wasn’t married, right?”

“Oh, well…I don’t know, Inspector.”

“Oh, come on—you must have some idea.”

 

***

 

“He was really pussy-footing around, wasn’t he?” Bedard seemed competent enough in driving, although he tended to follow a little too closely, one foot on the brake and one on the gas.

“It’s possible he doesn’t know anything.” It was, in fact, the likeliest explanation. “He has other clients, he must be trying to keep them out of the limelight. He’s got his own reputation to consider. It’s a bit of a contradiction for a man like that. It’s no doubt a tough situation.”

Even so, he would have heard something.

He’d admitted that much and not much more.

Roche was married and had a wife and a son. The boy was nineteen and in university studying medicine, a fact Roche was extremely proud of.

When pressed, he’d come up with a few names, all women. They were all known from the society pages, all of them of legal age and indeterminate marital status. A good half were divorced or in the process of being divorced. He seemed very doubtful about the whole thing.

Banzini and Roche, as well as Roche’s wife, had been slated to attend the opening night party afterwards. The whole thing was very shocking, in his words.

He was still all shook up about it, which was understandable enough, after signing Banzini fifteen years previously. Having endured the ups and downs and eventually enjoying the success, the rewards together, as he said.

“I wouldn’t have taken him on, if I hadn’t sort of liked him on some level. And yet it’s a business relationship. I owned a little piece of Largo, in exchange for my services, and that sort of taints things sometimes.”

There was some food for thought there, and at some point Roche had dried up.

“So where to now, Inspector?” They were half a block away from Roche’s office and some direction would be nice.

Maintenon pulled the microphone from its clip on the dash.

“I don’t know. Pull over for a minute. We’ll just see if Levain or anybody has come up with anything.”

 

***

 

“All right.” Levain, had completed his errands and interviewed his subjects and even made an arrest in another case.

There was some paperwork still, but that one looked like a goner.

He’d also gone downstairs and asked a few pointed questions about their latest acquisition.

After telephone consultation with Gilles, Andre had met them, bringing his trusty notebook along as usual.

In response to cabled photographs of the dead Asian man, his passport and fingerprints, the police in Hong Kong were claiming that they had never heard of him and that he sure as hell wasn’t one of theirs. All of their currently-serving Inspectors were accounted-for.

According to them, they had no record of the prints nor the individual in question. There were a few dozen listings for a Guan Fu in their phone book. It was a relatively common name.

That was about it, and what did Paris police want them to do about it.

In the absence of any real money changing hands, and both departments ran on money after all. It all came down to an exchange of favours, and Hong Kong had no real pressing needs in that sense.

Not a bad question, in other words. It was best to remain philosophical, and polite as well and just ring off after inquiry with no hard feelings…

The same was true of Paris city police records. They had nothing on this individual. There were no listings for Wu in the Paris phone book.

Within France, cables had been sent to other detachments big and small, inquiring about the individual. So far they had nothing back, but such things took a certain amount of time. Within France, it was an entirely different question, essentially. People would look it up in the files, or check their own local phone book. They could only go alphabetically, and if there was nothing there then there was nothing there. If they did have something and it was simply misfiled, then they’d never find it, a sad fact of life but there it was.

It would be a minor item for their daily briefings, (assuming it even came up amidst dozens of other daily bulletins), and then it would be just as quickly forgotten.

It was just that simple.

“Hmn. Interesting. His badge certainly looked genuine.” Gilles was in the front seat, Levain having slid into the back after being dropped off by another official driver, on their way somewhere else.

“You can buy them in any joke-shop, in other words.”

“That’s right, young man.”

This is the third time in this investigation where I have been impressed…

Bedard, with the handbrake on, engine idling, was twisted sideways in the seat, trying to follow a conversation where his only real introduction had been to type up a few pages of notes. He knew what or who it was about, of course, Largo Banzini. He’d helped to secure the scene and guard the place for a few hours. He’d been stationed at a side door on an alley, far from the action, and now this.

It was quite the spectacular crime.

You really had to follow along sometimes, trying not to be too presumptuous and at the same time make yourself useful. He was tempted to interrupt any number of times, but if they wanted to sit there in the rain all day, well then. They were senior officers and what in the hell did he know.

Not too much, in the grand scheme of things.

“Constable Bedard.”

“Yes, Inspector?”

“Do you have any idea of why you were assigned to us?”

There was a moment of confusion.

“Ah, no, Inspector.”

Levain stared out the side window, waiting for the punchline. This sort of thing was always dark, bittersweet and oddly sentimental. Honestly, he wished the guy all the luck in the world—

“It is because someone sees something in you. Do you understand?”

“Ah—”

No, sir.

Andre suppressed a grin, listening to Maintenon’s tone and nuance.

“I understand you’ve been planning to take the sergeant’s exam—although you’d have to give up your, ah, cushy little day job.” You know, driving senior assholes like us around and all that sort of thing—parking tickets and moving bums along and keeping an eye on the underage drinkers, all of them at risk of becoming delinquents…

There was a long silence as Bedard’s neck burned red.

Turning, he carefully engaged the Inspector’s eye.

“Ah, yes, sir.”

“Have you been studying?”

“Ah—yes, Inspector. I mean, I have all the manuals and I have read them—”

Bedard had a wife and three kids, all under five years old. Not the wife—the kids.

Sure he’d read them. He’d probably skimmed through it once if he was lucky.

Levain could sympathize. It wasn’t all that easy to find the time. They were all ensconced in a tiny, smoky little apartment in the extreme southeastern part of the city. He’d seen the guy getting off a battered old bicycle, back tire half-flat, carefully locking it to a lamp-post, and this was with seven or eight years of seniority. It had rained in the night, the temperature falling below zero. This was at six-thirty a.m. on a winter morning. It was eight and a half kilometres. The streets were all ice and he’d obviously fallen at least once, judging by the stains and the stifled wince when getting off the bike, and the temporary limp going up the stairs.

Otherwise Andre might not have bothered asking around…well, fuck, somebody had to do it.

The trouble was that no one ever did.

The trouble was they needed good sergeants. At the present time, there were a lot of guys coming up for retirement age, and the poor bastard could probably use the money.

If he screwed it up, he could always go back and be a sergeant in the traffic division. Beat cops had their sergeants too.

But people were saying he had a brain in his head. There was something about the guy. He’d pulled some kids out of a fire when saner minds would have held back. It was sort of hard to visualize, Bedard not being particularly aggressive at first glance, and not very self-assured on the face of it.

There were guys like that, of course. Guys who came through when least expected. Insane guys who thought nothing of kicking in a door or a window and crawling into a fucking house-fire for crying out loud—one last thought for your own wife and kids and then in you go.

Other than that he seemed sincere, and what was possibly more important, detail-oriented and thorough.

Above all else, thorough.

That was about all they knew about Bedard.

 

***

 

He’d done some phone work.

Andre had been talking to the people over in Vice.

Apparently, they’d just done a big sweep. While there were rumours, there weren’t too many known brothels of the type they were looking for. Not anymore. They would spring up again like mushrooms after a summer rain, in the sudden absence of competition. It was the law of supply and demand. You could only put so many people in jail at once. Police could only try and skim the cream, or the scum, off the top…as the saying went.

There were only so many cops, and so many jail cells, to go around.

On the other hand, they had a number of people in custody—the sort of unfortunate person who had no assets, no one willing to sign bail for them, (once burned, twice shy), and therefore some of them might be inclined to cooperate. It was a good place to start, because they had both a nice juicy carrot and a pretty big stick to offer.

The only question was whether the subject had anything.

They’d talked to a couple of such unfortunates so far.

So far, no dice.

Gaspard Leduc was one such individual. His wife was pissed, or so he told Andre. One of her friends had seen the tiny little news story in the back pages and his name was in there with a bunch of others. He hadn’t been home for a couple of days at that point. It had been bad, when he finally got a chance, calling home to tell her the news, three days after going missing and not coming home on time as expected.

“Honestly, Inspector. The guy looks familiar. I’ve heard the name, of course.”

The photograph of Largo Banzini lay before them.

They sat in one of the grubby little interview rooms at the Fresnes Prison, with its extensive hospital wing and provisions for special prisoners. Gaspard had been spending twenty-three hours a day in his cell, and would be ready to talk about just about anything.

It must be tough to sit there in a cell, listening to people shouting death threats at him all day long. The pecking order, and the moral views of the criminal class were always surprising. Fraud artists were somehow better than smash-and-grab thieves, who held themselves above the pimps, the pushers, the hookers and their Jeans. Opium-smokers and lifelong derelicts and kids popped on their first bacon and eggs.

It was like they could justify anything. Hey—I’m not as bad as them, right?

I’m not that bad.

Just trying to get by in a cruel and indifferent world.

Every damned one of them had some kind of a sob story. Some of it might even be true.

“So you’ve seen him around, then?” Levain’s eyes were intent on the prisoner.

“Yes, ah. I suppose so—” The face, unshaven and pouty, was trying to be neutral but not succeeding.

The wooden clogs (an odd oversight on the part of the corrections system, in that they were weapons of a sort), and the prison-pattern boiler suit probably didn’t help, neither did the overhead lighting which always had the ability to be garish and yet remain dim at the same time. It would be hard to feel good about oneself or one’s situation.

There was something in the dark, shadowed eyes, and Andre had learned to study them.

Was that hope, springing eternal in the human breast?

Possibly so.

“Give us something we can use, and we’ll put in a good word for you. Look. The file says you were just there—not really doing anything. The odds of a conviction seem rather small. The problem is that charge, eh? It kind of sticks around. People hear about it and shit. It kind of hangs around for a while—and you with a pretty good job and everything.” For what it was worth.

“I don’t have a job anymore.”

There was also the fact that the guy had a wife and three kids in the suburbs.

Maintenon was non-committal.

“There aren’t too many jobs in jail, I will give you that, Monsieur. Give us a name, a place, a date. A time.”

“Yeah, okay. I can do that. Look, I seen him going into a place called The Bird Dog. It was a, ah. A Tuesday. No. A Monday.” Nine-thirty p.m. on a Monday—no gig that night for Largo.

It was summertime—June the previous summer, or so he thought. Fairly recent in other words. It must have been payday, and the next day was his day off—

Gaspard worked at a place called the Street Priest, which was a bit of a giveaway but these guys had their code and they had to call it something. He was the doorman, bouncer, lookout, however one wished to look at it. It was a couple of blocks from The Bird Dog. There was more than one place on their list.

It was all word of mouth. These places, and others, were a bit off the more beaten track, and yet the whole neighbourhood was dedicated to that seedier side of entertainment.

There was never much of a sign out front—they were a little more sophisticated than that, and for the most part they used noms de plume, or otherwise fake names. The place was at the end of a long alley, three or four steps down from the street into a low, cool basement that went on for fifty metres after an initial turn to the right. Levain vaguely recalled raiding it or one very much like it, eight or nine years previously.

It was a smoky-blue place with low ceilings and a burlesque sort of show.

They knew it was illegal, but they couldn’t quite bring themselves to admit that it was wrong—Levain had heard all kinds of explanations over the years. Excuses, reasons, apologies…people begging to be understood, when you got right down to it.

Some of them were a lot worse than Gaspard—real kid-fuckers, when you got right down to it.

Thank God they weren’t dealing with anything like that, eh?

Eh, Gaspard?

That was one of the interesting thing about being cops, as Andre opened up a little. They could talk to pretty much anybody—

It’s not our job to judge anyone. All we do is collect the information and determine if there is sufficient basis for a charge.

After that, it’s up to a jury of your peers—

It was a funny thing. There was no power in heaven or Earth to compel a police officer to either lay a charge, or to stop him from withdrawing one—this was right out of the training manual, and from an early chapter at that.

Listening with all of his might, in between the lines as well as what was being said, Gaspard became a little more free with the information.

He butted out one smoke and Levain let him have another one. They kept going, hopefully.

It was all word of mouth. Everything would be strictly by referral only. People were vetted by other like-minded individuals before being admitted to the inner sanctum. They were already known. The actual room, as Gaspard called it, was set up (or had been), as a cheap off-the-books gambling parlour, with billiard tables, coin-operated arcade games and other incentives for a young, loose and slightly-impoverished crowd to come in, and ultimately, to be taken in the toils of the more predatory older males. Most of whom, quite a few anyways, had a record of some sort or another.

In Levain’s experience, there would be a minimal number of females around, adding to the local colour or something. Yet regular, working-class bars weren’t all that much different in terms of male-female ratio.

A lesbian bar was almost unheard-of. He couldn’t think of a single one.

By the time Andre was done with him, he’d be patting Gaspard on the shoulder.

They kept going.

The Street Priest had a few shabby rooms for let on the upper floors. Theoretically, patrons had a right to privacy, and also, theoretically, management had no clue as to what went on up there—although they’d be plenty pissed, in Gaspard’s words, if they didn’t get their percentage.

“Are we talking girls or boys here?”

The Bird Dog was, ah, young men—a bit underage but nothing too weird. Same idea, really. There were enough older ones there, trust me. No, it’s just that certain things are illegal.”

“Ah. Okay.” Gilles cleared his throat. “Bearing in mind that prostitution itself is not illegal, and that the age of consent for non-commercial sex is fifteen, and for homosexual acts, eighteen, exactly what sorts of things are we talking about?”

Technically, a proper brothel had to be run by a woman. Girls had to be registered, and there were routine medical inspections. The homo crowd typically ran afoul of other laws, anti-sodomy and the like. It was the proverbial grey area—depending upon who you asked.

It turned out the menu was fairly extensive. Booze, drugs, card games, betting on the horses, numbers games, and the prospect of paying employment for the more enterprising sexual entrepreneurs, as Gaspard put it.

People plied their trades and preyed upon one another.

An old Chinaman ran the place.

He almost smiled.

“One or two of them have even gotten real jobs—not bad positions, actually, and their employer a fellow traveler and all.”

“Ah.”

The gentleman offered up the names of several other clubs, which they’d already heard of, but he couldn’t confirm if Largo Banzini had ever gone there. According to him, they were high-end clubs, very exclusive and very discreet, and the clientele might have suited Banzini’s tastes.

“Yeah, it’s just the sort of thing he’d be into.” Apparently, their subject had sat at the same table once or twice, and Banzini had bought him a drink after losing a game sort of thing.

It was like they all knew each other. He mentioned the street-names of several boys. Largo had sat there with his arm around them, sipping drinks and looking smug.

“And you’re sure about this?”

“Yes, sir.”

“So. You understand that the charge, that of undermining public morals, doesn’t require police to catch you en flagrante delicto, right?” Gaspard had been arrested on the sort of premises where such activities were known to be taking place, not much secret about that, and that was sufficient to sustain the charge. “We’re not taking any notes here, Gaspard. But what you just said is tantamount to a confession.”

Some of his fellows were undoubtedly going to be convicted, and Maintenon made sure he knew that. Gaspard’s voice was low, his eyes downcast.

“Yes, sir.”

“All right. We’re going to take off now.”

“Look, guys—”

“Yes?” Levain’s chair scraped back decisively.

“…it’s just that we can’t help ourselves, sometimes. And me—a happily married man.” He looked Maintenon in the eye for one fleeting second. “It’s actually quite a minor charge. The thing is, sooner or later I have to go home—”

He really was wretched in that moment. It wasn’t like he wanted to stay in jail, either. It was the worst of both worlds.

“My wife won’t visit me in here. I get one phone call a week…my trial is still four months away…I don’t even have a lawyer…” He was broke, out of work now, and had been convicted of one or two minor beefs over the years.

He couldn’t look for work while sitting in a jail cell. There was no money coming in, and he had a family—if he did any real time, they just weren’t going to be there when he got out.

“All right Monsieur Leduc. We’re not promising anything, okay? But thank you for speaking to us. You know what? I think I will have a word with the prosecutor. A good one, Gaspard. I never lie about such things. Okay, Andre. Let’s go.”

“Oh, God. Thank you, sir—thank you, guys.” Gaspard nodded, head down, eyes wet as Levain raised a fist to rap on the door.

Well, I guess we just made his day—

The place had always given Andre the creeps. Since he wasn’t getting paid to hate anyone, he usually didn’t bother. A certain type of unfortunate was just that: an unfortunate, and one wondered sometimes how all of this fit into God’s plan.

There was always that wife and three kids sitting at home.

It just didn’t seem fair, somehow.

The voice came from outside.

“Coming, coming.”

Levain rapped again, as they might not be the only investigators conducting interviews along the hallway.

The key was rattling in the lock.

“Yeah. Hey. Garcon. Let us the fuck out of here.”

Prisoner number 0953492-13 is officially returned to custody…visitors must sign in and sign out, and be accompanied by prison staff at all times when not locked in a room with unfortunate people.

 

 

Chapter Eleven

 

“Get out. Get the hell out.”

Aristide de Calvet was a very angry man. He was fairly large as well. He looked like the sort of man who owned more than one suit, all of them well-cut and expensive.

“I’m sorry, Monsieur. I’m afraid we can’t do that.”

“I don’t answer to you. I don’t owe you a God-damned thing. Get the hell out of my office.”

The door opened and his secretary stuck her head in, as his voice was really carrying.

“Sir? Would you like me to call the police.”

Levain flashed her the badge. It’s not like she didn’t know already—

She just wasn’t very smart. She wasn’t all that decorative, either.

“Oh.”

“I’ll throw them out myself.” The chair crashed into the wall.

Monsieur de Calvet came out from behind his desk.

“Really, Monsieur. This is totally unnecessary. And you are drawing just the sort of attention that you wish to avoid.”

Neck swelling, fists clenched, the man kept coming for Maintenon, perhaps missing the significance of Andre hovering off to the side. He was quite the bruiser, and he was reverting back to his roots…

A dominant person, this was his environment or he might have thought about it a little longer—or maybe just a bit better. There was a flurry of activity and all of a sudden Monsieur de Calvet was face-down, right arm twisted up behind his back. There was a lot of heavy breathing on both sides, less so for Levain. Monsieur de Calvet had been living well these last few years.

“Argh. Damn you—I’ll sue your asses off. I’ll get you bastards for this—”

Argh, argh, argh.

His face was grinding into the carpet, which probably didn’t taste very nice.

“Close the door behind you, please, young lady.” Gilles, normally a calm man, completely in control of himself, had a voice that cracked like a whip when he needed to take control of a situation. “Monsieur. You can cooperate or you can be charged with assault. Which would, for a man in your position, certainly make the newspapers. And the first thing they are going to ask is why. And they will be asking us, won’t they? For you, sir, will be behind bars.”

His lawyer would just tell him to shut up anyways…he must have known that.

“Argh.”

“Boss?”

“Let him up. We’ll see what happens. And you, young lady—I wasn’t joking. We’re going to have a nice, private conversation with the gentleman. You’re not invited.”

Andre had some advice as well.

“Okay, sir. Here’s what’s going to happen—I’m going to let go. If you take a swing at me, I will hit you—once. And when you wake up, you’ll be handcuffed to a hospital bed. Do you understand.”

Apparently he did.

Argh.

The body under him went limp and all of a sudden de Calvet was crying, and him a grown man and everything.

Eyes wide and fearful for her employer, the secretary closed the door very quietly behind her.

Maintenon nodded in approval, holding her eye to the last, hoping perhaps to reassure the lady that nothing really bad was going to happen to her boss.

 

***

 

He was mouthy one minute, and all squishy with tears and self-recrimination the next.

“So. Why don’t you tell us what happened, Monsieur de Calvet. What happened between Paige and Largo Banzini?” Paige was his only daughter.

“Argh. I hate that man—” An awful groan came out of him. “Oh, God. I wish it was me—oh, God, I would have loved to have killed that fucking piece of shit.”

Haunted eyes glared at them.

“I should have ripped his balls off—” Smashed his head in with a rock, gutted the fellow, sliced his cock off and shoved it down his throat, sewed his lips shut while he was still alive, et cetera, et cetera, etc.

“Go on. Please. I can assure you that we will use the utmost in discretion. Quite frankly, you’re not a serious suspect in Monsieur Banzini’s murder. For surely that’s what it was…do you read the papers?”

Aw, for fuck’s sakes…” The gentleman was back in his seat, behind his desk, hands up to his face.

He wept some more. After standing there for a minute with a big paw on his shoulder, Andre moved to the window, staying behind him in a tactical maneuver. Gilles finally took a chair in front of the desk. He sat with legs crossed, hands clasped in his lap, patiently waiting for the man to get a grip on his emotions.

“Come on, sir. Do the right thing.” Levain’s voice was firm.

There were no ashtrays, looking around, noted Gilles.

Monsieur de Calvet pulled out a handkerchief and dabbed at his eyes, blowing his nose and unable to look directly at Maintenon.

He sighed, perhaps finding a different kind of courage.

“I’m sorry about that, gentlemen.”

“It’s all right, sir. We’ve seen it all before. There comes a time to trust someone, incidentally. Just for the record, you weren’t at that performance of the Golden Dragon? Opening night, what, a whole two days and a half ago now?”

The man shook his head forcefully.

“Fuck—opera—hell, no.”

Levain chuckled, as the room seemed to be loosening up a bit. The gentleman wasn’t stupid. He was just upset, and he was cooling off rapidly.

The guy had a good brain. He hadn’t done anything really wrong.

Just came a little too close, that’s all.

Andre could take a joke, and the guy hadn’t hurt anybody that he knew of.

Let the man have a minute.

Which was the more potent threat? The newspapers or an assault charge? With a good lawyer, he could maybe beat the one rap, but the papers would stay between the lines—and have a fucking field day.

Probably the newspapers, Andre decided. There was some leverage there.

He turned.

“Please, Monsier de Calvet. Honestly, we’re only here to help. And you have to admit. Banzini has his justice. He’s fucking dead now, eh? A stone-age dart, straight to the heart. In front of two thousand of his closest friends. Let it comfort you in your old age. Now. Please help us to find our justice—for surely, whatever he did, to anyone…well, I mean, it really doesn’t justify someone taking the law into their own hands. We really can’t have that, can we, sir? We simply must have order, and that’s what the law is for. Look. We’ll keep your name out of it, okay? But we need to know more. A lot more, about good old Largo.”

“Argh. All right. It’s just that it’s my fault, really. You see…we were at this place. A fine restaurant.” He mentioned a name, and it was definitely four-star, very exclusive and expensive. “And there was Largo Banzini. He was with a few people and I knew one or two of them. It’s like I wanted to impress my daughter—it was her birthday. She was growing up so God-damned fast. Fucking Jesus Christ. There was Largo Banzini, sitting at a nearby table. And I recognized him. Paige—she likes culture. A spoiled, rotten little girl, in some ways. At least I thought so. Up until it was too late.”

Basically, she was an innocent.

“Could you give us some specifics?”

“Yes. Like a damned fool…I got up out of my seat, I went over to Largo Banzini. I introduced myself as the head of de Calvet Industries, and told him my daughter was a big fan.”

A little light went off in Maintenon’s head.

“I see.”

“He took one fucking look and he was up and out of that fucking chair in a heartbeat. He made a point of signing her little book, which she carries with her sometimes. Oh, yeah. That slimy bastard sure knew what he was doing, all right. He was all over her, and at the time the wife and I just thought it was so wonderful…just so fucking wonderful of him.”

Maintenon’s eyebrows were rising politely…

Monsieur de Calvet flushed.

“It’s okay. Gentlemen. I don’t always talk like this. But maybe this is who I really am. I started off in life, you know, slugging bags of coal down at the quays. You can take the boy out of the coal-yard, eh? Funny thing is, the rule book isn’t all that different. I’ve done very well for myself since then. And I know it, too. But my daughter was young, stupid as they all are. She had no real idea of what life can be like. Innocent, naïve. And I’ve often wondered just exactly how he got to her…shit. It’s not like he couldn’t just look us up in the telephone book, n’est pas?”

“Okay.”

“Well. Anyways. My daughter—my daughter.”

His daughter had a social life, and he couldn’t be there, and neither could her mother, every stinking minute of the day. They had to give her some freedom or she would never grow up, right?

There was a long silence.

“Anyways, Paige had an abortion. Considering what sort of a man he was, I doubt if their little affair lasted three weeks. I doubt if it went on for three months, that’s for sure. There you have it. Afterwards, she fell into a deep depression. It’s a sin, after all. She gave up her precious lover—he dumped her, most likely, and worse, she had to give up her precious little baby. Of course her mother was fit to be tied. It’s not like Paige has ever opened up to us, because she hasn’t. We’ve all prayed like crazy, but it hasn’t seemed to help much. He got her hooked on drugs, you know—”

“No, I’m sorry. We didn’t know that.”

“Monsieur.” Now Levain was playing the hard man. “Did Largo Banzini give you some money?”

Aristide’s eyes slid away and he chewed on his answer.

“She was already in private school. Thank God for money, eh, gentlemen. I kept it out of the fucking papers. But Madame Elov’s is a special sort of place. Honestly, the best thing that could happen to my daughter would be to get cleaned up and fall in love with some nice young man…a good Catholic. Someone with an honest heart, for Christ’s sakes.”

So he had gotten some kind of satisfaction out of it—reading between the lines. It sounded like de Calvet had given Banzini a bit of a rough time over it. For whatever that was worth.

It was at this point that Maintenon dug out the notebook, de Calvet being oblivious at this point, tears in his eyes and all of that, and Andre finally came back around and took a seat.

“So what was the money for, Monsieur? And were there intermediaries—a lawyer or two, perhaps?”

 

***

 

Monsieur Serge Hector was Largo Banzini’s lawyer. His specialty was contracts, and he handled all of Banzini’s legal work.

The funny thing was, he didn’t seem to know very much about it…

Maintenon and Levain had made a call to Banzini’s agent, Niel Roche, who came on the phone almost immediately. Roche had coughed up the information readily enough, voice low and subdued.

He didn’t ask a single question.

This would be unusual.

Human psychology being what it was.

“I’m afraid I can’t give you any comment, officers.” Hector’s voice had started to climb, when as an attorney he should have known better.

Keeping one’s cool was everything.

“I’m sorry, Monsieur, but we really need this information.”

Maintenon sat quietly, letting Andre do the talking while he studied the gentlemen.

“Sorry. No comment. But I would point out that my client and his family do have the right to privacy.”

“Even after he’s dead—by homicide. I’m afraid I don’t quite agree with you, sir. This is an investigation into the murder of Largo Banzini. Your former client. If necessary, we will get a court order. I can assure you, Monsieur Hector that we do it all the time and the judge rarely refuses our requests.” They would be back in a couple of hours.

Andre was polite enough, laying out his cards.

The gentleman looked nonplussed. That was about it. Already thinking of ways around it, although appeals were rare and expensive. Any appeal would happen after the fact, the police would go in and be totally ruthless. He knew that getting an injunction would be difficult if not impossible.

“No one is accusing you or your firm of any wrongdoing.” Levain ground on, relentlessly.

Monsieur Hector heaved a deep sigh, eyeing up Maintenon in slightly rueful, slightly humorous way.

“And I’m sure the family will be pleased to know that the great Maintenon and his trusty side-kick Levain are on the case. I must let them know as soon as possible, this is such wonderful news—”

“Don’t be an asshole, Monsieur.”

Levain’s head turned in shock as Hector’s face flamed red.

But Maintenon was getting a bit testy—not a good sign.

“Look. I wish I could help you gentlemen—” Hector was still playing the hard man. “I appreciate that you’re just trying to do your jobs.”

Something out of a movie.

Andre could do that too.

“All right, sir. Why don’t we just do it this way. I will tell you what happened more or less. And if my facts aren’t correct, perhaps you will be kind enough to correct me. Isn’t that so, sir? Largo got this Paige girl pregnant—that’s the one we’re talking about. Really, the only one we’re interested in. He paid for the abortion, at one of the finest private clinics in the world, and he paid certain other expenses as well. They got her in quick, too. One must assume the gossip rags will somehow get hold of this. One hopes not, but that’s just the way things go—”

“You wouldn’t dare.” Hector’s face was flaming now. “Largo had a mother, a father, two sisters and a younger brother. Luigi is only sixteen years old. He worshiped his older brother. How dare you—”

“Relax, Monsieur. Of course we would never do that. But we’re not the only ones digging around, are we? And yet, oddly enough, the girl’s father, this de Calvet, doesn’t impress me as the imaginative type. Not real subtle, you know? He’s a hard man, hard enough. And he’s got money. A man like that would just pay someone. He would hire a professional. It might take a bit of research, but a thousand francs would buy a bullet in the head. Maybe less, maybe a lot less. This blowgun thing—that’s special, Monsieur Hector.” Maintenon steepled his fingers on his belly. “One wonders who else might be on their list.”

Serge Hector chewed his lip, looking back and forth from one to the other.

“I suppose.” He wasn’t real happy, but a professional also knew when to fold. “So…what are you getting at?”

Now it was Gilles’ turn.

“Okay. I’m going to let you in on a little secret, Monsieur. There has been another killing. We feel it is connected to the death of your client. Now we are relying on your discretion.”

The man sat staring at Maintenon, mouth open.

“All right. Please be assured, Monsieur Hector. We will be discreet. We know all about Paige de Calvet. Were there any more, ah…settlements.”

Hector looked a little sick at that question, face dropping, eyes sliding around.

“We’re looking for someone who really, really hated Largo. Either that or they stood something to gain, Monsieur Hector.”

The man’s mind was pretty transparent at that point, even as he looked away.

Shit.

What do I do now.

I have to tell them something.

“Okay. So I made the payment. Once, gentlemen. That’s all I know.”

“Right. Now we’re getting somewhere. Go on, please.”

“Fuck you. That’s all I know.”

“And this was Paige de Calvet?”

“Yes.”

“Nobody else?”

“No. I swear to God, and that is the truth, gentlemen.”

 

***

 

“So. Apparently I’m a side-kick now.”

Gilles chuckled.

“Sure you are. But I was thinking of getting myself a new one. What do you think, Constable?”

“Absolutely, Inspector.”

With nowhere to park, Bedard had been cruising the block, round and round in circles. Bedard eyed Levain in the mirror. He seemed amiable enough, in one quick glance. The only way to take a guy like that down would be to hit him first, and in exactly the right place. It would be better not to let it come to that. It was a good thing to think about sometimes, because Bedard might not be on traffic forever. Hell, even traffic had its physical encounters.

“Ah, this is better.” The three of them were lined up on hard stools, food and coffee in front of them.

After leaving the lawyer’s office, they had gotten Constable Bedard to drive them to a working-class, department-store lunch bar. They were a bit early, but the place was starting to bustle, with the smell of hot grease, tobacco smoke and coffee billowing. For some, lunch was a coffee and a cigarette and not much more. It was more about getting away from the boss for half an hour or an hour.

“So. Who’s up for a child brothel?”

Andre laughed and Bedard blew coffee-foam out the nose, jumping up and back suddenly, trying not to blast it all over his uniform.

“Jesus H. Christ, Gilles. Keep your voice down.”

Bedard was still coughing and spluttering.

“Sirs. I’m game if you are.”

“Hear that, Gilles?” Levain cracked a grin. “He’s game if you are.”

“Good for you, Constable. But first, some lunch and then we’ll consult our notes and decide what’s next. Who knows. Perhaps we’ll assign you some undercover work.”

That was the first time in quite a while that Levain had laughed out loud.

Bedard, not so much.

Yes, the eyes said it all.

 

 

Chapter Twelve

 

The Bird Dog was boarded up on the street side, but they were lucky. An alley ran along up the middle of the block, entrance gained by an archway, at ground level, with the second floor directly overhead. That was on the narrow end of the block.

There were a lot of dead weeds and the vestiges of a trail.

The rear courtyard, or what could have been one, was divided up by ramshackle fences, hedges and one or two rotting, rusted old cars. Chickens buk-buked, heads going back and forth, seeking sustenance in the muck and the icy dirt down at the far end.

As was often the case, a number of pigeons circled rapidly and noisily overhead. Their loft must be somewhere nearby.

They found what had to be the kitchen or at least the back door, pacing the distance off carefully and studying the rear facades of a row of buildings. They were tall, narrow, but built in differing materials and at different times. There were the usual heaping garbage cans beside the back steps. The trouble was that the garden side so rarely matched the front, which in this case had been heavily painted in charcoal grey. The back was un-retouched stone, or stipple, or gravel stuck on stucco—or something like that. It was all very durable, not meant to be pretty.

This particular building went back centuries. In this neighbourhood, the foundations might be built on even more ancient ruins, not uncommon in the central city.

A cat lazed in the sunshine, on a small patch of sun-warmed pavement, oblivious to the cold.

Its tail flicked as they went past.

The outer screen door, ripped at the bottom corner, was propped wide open with a concrete block. The inner door was open, a small delivery van and a scooter were parked outside the opening.

Levain stepped up and rapped on the door.

“Hello. Hello?”

A reedy, balding man in a stained blue smock came out of an inner room. Levain stepped into what was indeed the kitchen with Maintenon and Bedard at his heels.

“Yes?”

Andre flashed him the badge, although Bedard, in uniform, should have been a clue.

“Is this The Bird Dog?”

“Hmn. Well. It used to be—”

“We’d like to speak to the owner, Monsieur Jung Chan.”

“Uh, huh. Well, so would I. He owes me quite a bit of money, and I wouldn’t mind seeing it someday.” He gave an elaborate shrug.

So, he remained philosophical about it, then—

“Ah. And who are you, sir?” Bedard, stepping forwards, had the notebook and pencil poised.

He gave the end of it a speculative lick.

“I’m Blanchet, I’m the landlord.”

“First name, sir, just for the record?”

“Pierre. Look, these guys have skipped, as far as I know. We’re just assessing our prospects, I guess you might say. The door wasn’t kicked in, for which I am grateful, and they don’t seem to have taken anything that didn’t belong to them. They left quite a bit of stuff behind. The furniture will be a pain in the ass. I usually try to sell stuff like that, and get some of my rent money back. This stuff exhibits a rather peculiar taste, and it might be a bit of a hard sell. They’re in arrears, since they didn’t make the payment last month, and then again this month. I try and get a lease on commercial properties, for what that’s worth. People go out of business all the time—as long as they don’t trash the place…it’s one of our little facts of life.”

“I see.” Bedard cleared his throat. “I understand some of them are facing charges.”

“Ha. Wouldn’t surprise me—”

Bedard turned to Gilles.

“Can I show him the picture?”

“Yes, of course, Constable.”

Levain stifled an odd sound, giving Gilles an appreciative look.

“Do you know this man?”

It was their picture of Banzini.

“Ah, that’s Largo. Isn’t it? A terrible tragedy. Unbelievable. Who would have done such a thing? It’s mad, and that’s exactly what I was telling the wife just the other day.”

The lad at his side took a good look, but gave his head a quick shake. Not everyone was an opera fan, not everyone read the papers. About eighteen years old, he had a wide, open, ingenuous face.

“Okay, thank you.” Bedard turned back to Planchet. “So. You know the place was raided.”

“Yes.”

“Did you know what kind of establishment the people were operating?”

“Ah. That’s always a good question, isn’t it. Well, I knew it was going to be a club. A private club, selling memberships, ostensibly. It’s one way around the liquor regulations. They had a business license though, and without any special knowledge, a landlord is inclined to accept things at face value. Until the facts speak otherwise. But yeah—I come around, and I picked up the rent cheque. I am entitled, by the terms of the lease, to inspect the building, the roof, the furnace. If there’s something that needs fixing they call me anyways, right? It looks just like any other place, only different—come on, I’ll show you around.”

Turning, the gentlemen led them out of the kitchen, past the restrooms and then out into the club proper. His lad followed along, all curiosity and unspoken questions.

“Ah.” Levain gave Gilles and Bedard a humorous look. “I see what you mean—”

The décor was something out of a medievalist’s fantasy, and yet oddly feminine.

There were pinks, mauves, purples…blacks and oranges. Lots of paisley.

There was the look and smell of an Oriental seraglio. Someone had been burning a lot of incense.

“Whoa.” Mouth open, Bedard stepped further into the room, noting gaming tables, curtained alcoves, and Moorish archways leading from one section to the next. “Holy.”

“…anyways, you see what I mean, gentlemen. But by this point they’re occupying the space, we have a signed lease, and at first, the cheques didn’t bounce…”

“Bedard.”

“Andre?”

“Show him the other picture. Pictures.”

The Constable had a pocket full of photos. It was all very illuminating. One or two were familiar—probably from the newspapers, but he had no names or solid identifications. As it turned out, the landlord did provide them with an address for their subject, Jung Chan.

“Good luck with that, incidentally.”

“Oh, have you tried already?”

“No, but I got a funny feeling about it…” The home phone number he provided them had been disconnected when he tried it, according to Monsieur Planchet.

As predicted, the phone line was dead when they checked it via a nearby phone booth.

The address was a few blocks away, difficult to find in the maze of tiny streets and tall, narrow buildings, some of which had the higher stories jetted out over the street.

When they knocked on the door, up on the fourth floor, a wizened old Chinese woman, keeping the door on the chain, berated them in no uncertain terms in a high, lilting dialect.

It was the language barrier, resulting in exactly zero information.

She kept shaking her head at the name of Jung Chan.

After a while, they left her a business card and gave it up as a bad job. The thing to do was to see if they had a picture on file of the Jung Chan character, and then come back later and ask some of the other tenants.

All in all, it was looking like another dead end.

 

***

 

Andre was going over the latest technical reports.

Maintenon was on the phone, Archambault, Firmin, LeBref all busy with other cases.

Constable Bedard, as usual, was typing notes and reading reports just as soon as Levain was done with them.

“Very well. Thank you.” Maintenon hung up the phone.

He sighed.

“Well.”

“That’s a deep subject.”

Bedard snickered, but Maintenon just gave Andre a blank look.

“Yes. Still waters run deep. The passport is fake. The driver’s license is a fake. According to the autopsy report, it’s just what you’d expect. He was strangled with a bowstring, that one bizarre element. Apparently, the bowstring was, in fact, home-made. By a hobbyist, an archery buff, whatever. Maybe someone just got a book on it. It doesn’t seem very common to me. Why not just use a piece of stout wire? A couple of short lengths of broomstick for handles. This looks like more smokescreen. If nothing else, it’s a starting point…”

Leading off down another dead-end trail, was Gilles’ unspoken assumption.

Someone was playing a game with them, with dead bodies as the counters…like poker chips.

A little game of one-upmanship.

“As for Jung Chan, he was charged with operating a brothel and a few other minor beefs. He made bail and appeared for his formal arraignment.” He might even show up for the trial.

Gilles wondered what else their killer was getting out of it. The purely random psychopath so beloved of cheap pulp novelists were incredibly rare—and of those that surfaced, their own afflictions, the acting out, the bizarre statements and behaviours, the quest for attention, usually gave them away sooner rather than later. If nothing else, you knew when you were dealing with one. The truly mentally-ill so rarely had the resources, whereas in books they always seemed to be diabolically rich—severely disturbed, out of control, and yet none of those closest around them ever had the slightest clue.

Someone was trying to make investigators think they were insane, when clearly they weren’t.

Bedard cleared his throat. His voice cracked a bit when he spoke.

“What about this whole Chinatown aspect of the case? Is that more window-dressing, Inspector?”

Maintenon tipped his chair back, put his feet up on the end of the desk, and his hands behind his head.

He sat there, chewing on his lower lip and staring up at the ceiling.

Bedard raised his eyebrows, exchanging a tolerant look with Andre.

Finally Maintenon’s face came around.

“That, young man, is a very good question.”

The phone rang and Maintenon, not even looking, put a hand down and picked it up.

“Yes?” His eyebrows rose as he listened with a seemingly casual air. “Very well. Thank you, Doctor Guillaume.”

The phone came down with a crash.

“Bedard. You’ll be driving me. Andre.”

“Yes, boss?”

“The doctor says there is a very interesting tattoo on the body of Guan Fu—or whatever his name is.”

Levain nodded, thoughtfully. His face brightened.

“How in the hell did he miss that?” Andre had the autopsy report right in front of him, and it sure as hell hadn’t mentioned anything like that.

Gilles looked blankly at the desk phone.

“Well, I don’t know, Andre. Why don’t I ask him when I see him—”

“And in the meantime?”

“Keep going.” Gilles dropped his feet to the floor, looking around for his reading glasses, his best pen and a clean notebook.

Tattoos, eh.

I will take just about anything at this point…

 

***

 

“Doctor Guillaume, this is Constable Bedard.”

“Hello. Come in, young fellow—welcome to our happy little club.”

“Er, thank you, sir—I think.”

Guillaume laughed, slapping a thigh. He was in a fine humour.

“And this other non-descript fellow is Ducharme, my assistant.”

Ducharme and Bedard shook hands, which Bedard had found rare in regular policing.

The customer was so very often wrong—

“So. Doctor. What’s going on? And why wasn’t this in your report?”

“Hmn. Because I just plain missed it, Gilles. I must be getting old and blind or something, but it was actually Ducharme here. He deserves all the credit.”

Stepping over to where the body lay on a slab, Guillaume pulled away the white sheet covering it. He turned the head to one side.

“Now, take a look…just here.”

His fingers pulled back thick black hair, revealing skin that was much paler than the face. Deep down among the roots of the hair were hints of black, red and possibly yellow…

“So. Want to stick around? I’m just going to shave him up and we’ll have a look.”

Maintenon nodded.

“Constable. Might as well take a seat. Proceed, Doctor.”

Taking up a brush and a cup of foamy shaving cream, the doctor prepared to do just that.

Young Doctor Ducharme picked up the first of three straight razors and began stropping them on a wide, leather belt.

 

***

 

Levain studied the photo for a moment, then tossed it onto the desk beside some of their other exhibits.

“We’ll have to get our resident experts to study that.”

“Not really necessary, but we will go through the motions. The golden dragon—that’s a well-known symbol.” Maintenon had run into them before. “Still, it’s another Oriental angle. Also the subject matter.”

The tattoo was the black outline of a scaly and decorative dragon, the colour, the form, filled in with yellow, orange and red.

The Golden Dragon.

“Andre.”

“Yes, Boss?”

“Call down to the technical people and see if they have a simple cine camera we can use. Tell them I’ve authorized it.”

“Okay, sure. What’s that for?”

Maintenon sighed.

“I think it’s time we took in a performance of the opera.”

 

***

 

They had arranged to use one of the corporate boxes, which Jacques Rouché had confirmed wasn’t being used that evening.

Even before the first act, it had been noted that the light on the stage wasn’t quite as bright as they might have liked. Constable Bedard, happy enough to be on overtime, had the camera up on a tripod. Back at the shop, as he called it, Bedard had quickly scoured the manual, successfully loading the film, in a darkroom, into the snap-on magazine, and threading the end properly…or so he hoped.

He seemed to be doing okay with it. Anyways, it sure beat night shift, on foot patrol, going through all the back alleys looking for broken windows, unlocked doors and derelict human beings.

The two senior detectives sat by the front rail, noting who was whom and who stood where, essentially. The program was helpful, neither having seen the play before. Once they’d identified a character, not always easy in the flowing, colourful get-up, the name of the player was right there in the program.

Gabin Lussier, colourfully costumed, was winding down his sad aria, and there on stage was Mathilde Gaudrau, holding his hand and swaying along with the dance.

The two lovers must be parted.

“Hmn.”

The song ended abruptly, the lights were coming down and the lady dropped Gabin’s hand. The pair of them turned and bolted for the wings, the girl going left and the lead male crossing behind her and going off to the right.

“What?” Levain had never thought of himself as an opera fan, but he had to admit it was fascinating.

His old man’s scratchy recordings and the reedy-thin rendition of the Victrola didn’t do the music proper justice. This was really something. As for the surroundings, they were incredible.

He better understood now, why people said the building itself, was a symbol of France, the moral centre of world culture…

Applause, swelling up and loud, gradually petered out as Bedard sweated and cussed quietly.

“Damn. I wish we had like five cameras.” The problem was that the magazine only held so much film, and changing the thing in the middle of a scene was a pain in the ass.

Especially in the dark of the box.

Each reel had to be carefully stored in its light-proof envelope, labeled, dated, numbered, signed and initialed. All the while, the action ground forwards onstage. To accidentally expose the film, even just a thin crack of light entering the magazine, would be to ruin it. You also wanted to leave a bit of the end sticking out. He should have brought a blanket or something, thrown it over his head to keep out the light.

Theoretically, they were going to catch a killer. It was funny how your heart beat a little faster at the thought.

“It’s all right, Constable. Just do the best you can.”

The house lights came up again so people could move around and head for the restrooms if they were quick about it. The curtain was fully closed but muffled thuds and scraping noises could be heard from behind it. There was a fair bit of noise from the audience as numbers of them got up, stretched their legs or stood in the aisles and engaged in a swelling babble of excited small talk, and the usual stream of people heading for the lobby or the restrooms.

Maintenon looked at his watch.

Six minutes wasn’t very much time at all.

Rising, he clapped Bedard on the shoulder.

But it sure would be interesting to get a look backstage, for what was certainly a large production.

All those people running around at a critical moment.

All of them would be intent upon their own business, the pressure causing them to be psychologically blinkered like draft animals.

 

 

Chapter Thirteen

 

Considering how short the break was, there was a surprising number of people, audience members and staff, streaming down the hallways.

Some of them might even be late-comers fighting against the current, and then there was the whole problem of finding his way backstage. His only real clue came when he saw a security guard standing in front of a door at the end of a short and barren hallway. It was in about the right place, going in about the right direction, from what little he knew of theatre and the building itself. It was on level one, three sets of stairs down from their booth.

“I’m sorry, sir…”

“And so am I, young man.” Gilles flashed the badge and with a quick decision, the fellow turned and opened the door for him.

“Thank you.”

“Ah, yes sir—”

Back up a half a flight of steps, and there it was, the stage and the wings all laid out before him.

Lucien Sauvage was such an obvious homo—perhaps it was in the nature of the business, all those expressive, artistic types running around. Gilles had to patiently wait to get his attention. They were standing in the wings, right up by the front wall, stage left.

Sauvage stood, posed with one hand on his hip, bent sideways at the waist. He should have been holding a baby—balancing it on his hip and gossiping over the back fence.

The curtain was already up, the orchestra was playing and the girl, Mathilde was singing. She had a lovely, sweet, high voice that reminded him of angels, making the hair prickle on the back of the neck.

That was one hot mama, as the boys would say.

Gabin picked up the melody and they were now singing a duet.

“Yes?”

Gilles showed him the badge, as an unhappy look crossed the other’s face.

“I’m just trying to get an impression of how things work backstage.” Gilles kept his voice low. “I might want to ask you a few questions.”

“Not right now, please.”

Maintenon nodded, easing back and eyeing up the arrangements. There were any number of anonymous bodies and faces clustered on this side and over on the other side. They were tucked away, back out of sight of the audience. They were formless shapes, draped in shadows and esoteric costumes, eyes shining and mouths open in breathless rapture…even the players were watching the show.

He wondered what they all did, and just how many of them really had to be there.

On that thought, Sauvage began gesticulating wildly, pointing here and there, you, you and you, at the same time giving a resolute push to a young male player standing just in front of the director.

Other characters, including the two men inside of the highly-stylized dragon, quite impressive to see it moving and dancing about onstage, were traipsing in from the stage, their parts, big and small, over until next call.

Sauvage’s hoarse whisper dominated everything else.

“Come on, come on, out you go.”

Maintenon plucked at his elbow, Sauvage’s face bright and intent on his chicks, shepherding them all out to do their best and earn him a name. For Sauvage, The Golden Dragon was the opportunity of a lifetime. He wasn’t well known and the play was a big hit.

“I’m sorry, Monsieur. But I have just one question.”

“Argh.”

“Were you standing in this exact spot on the night Largo Banzini died?”

“Argh.”

Gilles took that as a yes, as it could hardly be otherwise—or someone would have remarked upon it. Sauvage was pretty much nailed in position for the length of the performance.

Banzini’s body had been laying with the head towards the audience—in other words, an impossible shot from here.

Theoretically.

 

***

 

By the end of the show, Bedard had exposed a good dozen rolls of 16-mm film.

He was relatively pleased with his own performance, although there was sweat running down inside of his shirt.

The little man in the dark grey suit was fascinating in his own right.

Maybe that’s why I’m scared…

That’s fucking Maintenon down there—

They say he keeps his medals, police and military, the real shit, in an old cigar box and you’d better not ask about them.

Maintenon stood at the front of the stage, and several junior cast members stood waiting in a semi-circle. The house was mostly cleared, the lights were up and people were being relatively cooperative.

Bedard only wished he could hear a little better.

The Inspector just wanted them to go through the motions and that’s what he told them. They were only interested in major characters.

“Right, ladies and gentlemen. This is a bit of a secret, and I would appreciate if you didn’t talk too much about it. We have reports of an odd sound. It came just as the applause would have been dying, or intermittent. Sort of winding down. It might even have been Largo himself. He was shot with a dart after all, and it obviously could not have happened at any time before that moment. Largo and Mathilde would have taken a quick bow and then run off—well. You know what happened next.”

“What kind of a sound, Inspector?” Sauvage, with a steely glint in his eye and foot tapping, still with head cocked oddly and a hand on the hip.

“It has been described as a cough or a grunt—it might not have even been made by Largo himself. People heard it in spite of considerable applause.”

Largo might have been conscious enough to let himself down onto the stage, clutching his chest and looking around for help—he might have tried to speak.

There were blank looks, looks exchanged between players, and a long look exchanged between Maintenon and Sauvage. Gilles was about ready to apologize for wasting their time and send them all home.

“Sir?”

The voice came from nowhere, it came from all around. Like God Himself, it came from up above. There was a whirring sound and Maintenon and the others looked upwards to see a lanky-haired man in a grubby boiler suit step from a platform, the gate wide and the safety chain dangling. He had a foot into a sling made of a stainless-steel wire rope. An assistant up there, a pale face in the gloom, let the switch go and the gentleman slowly descended, rotating slowly through the heavenly spaces. There seemed to be an electric winch up there…

“Yes, please come down.”

There was a hollow-sounding thud, the whole problem of the trap, as it was called in theatre. A person could be lowered from above, only to disappear below, an apt allusion which meant nothing. Gilles had certainly wondered about it, but it was behind where Banzini had fallen, and if the trap had come up even a few millimetres, someone would have been sure to trip on it.

Technically, people could also ascend, as if into Heaven.

There were just too many characters on stage for a shot from the trap to have any hope of succeeding. The man stepped off the loop, slack now, and it quickly retracted into the darkness above.

“…and who are you, sir?”

“Anton.” The man looked around as if trying to find a place to spit.

“So what did you hear, Anton?”

“Well, I don’t know if I heard it or not. After a while, you sort of don’t take any notice anymore. But what I can tell you, is that the curtains are electrically-drawn, open and shut.”

“Ah.”

Anton turned, looking up to the apprentice on the gallery above.

“Okay, hit her, Pierre.”

The lad moved to one end and presumably pushed a button. Out of sight of the audience, it would be a big, industrial control system with lit-up buttons…and half the internal bulbs burnt out in those very same buttons.

There was a distinct but muted sound when the curtains jerked forwards and then a lower, mid-pitched hum as the curtains were drawn. It was obvious enough in the silence, those few people still there craning their necks and their ears in the cavernous space.

“How does that work, exactly?”

“It’s pretty simple, sir. The curtains are hung on rollers, like, ah, upside-down roller skates. They’re running in C-section tracks, and there’s a set of cables. When the curtains go the other way, one cable is pulling and the other is being wound off of a spool. That way it’s ready for the next operation.” Changing direction was essentially just a matter of running current backwards through the motor…or something like that.

There were limit switches on each end to knock the power out and stop it. Reversing direction before fully opening or retracting wasn’t recommended as it put a lot of strain on the system. What they were hearing was the big relay snapping in the main power supply. The control system itself was only twelve-volt.

Maintenon would ask his own technical people about that, but it sounded logical enough.

“Very well.” The curtains were now fully closed, blotting out poor old Constable Bedard, still engaged in filming the proceedings from three levels up.

Gilles suppressed a sigh.

“Open them up, please.”

There was a sound again, almost a click really, or a clunk, and then the curtains parted, swishing along a couple of fingers above the stage.

Maintenon was rewarded with the view of the empty seats, the orchestra pit, and Bedard up there filming away like mad.

He nodded.

“Thank you.”

“A pleasure, sir.” Anton stood there.

If he’d had a hat, he’d be wringing it in his hands in sheer joy at the attention and getting one up on the rest of the people. The rest of them were more intent on going home than anything. The fate of Largo Banzini, or justice, or even simple humanity, was the last thing on their minds at this point.

Gilles looked around.

“Andre?”

Levain gave an elaborate shrug, looking around at the remaining cast and crew.

“All right ladies and gentlemen. Thank you very much. You can go now. Ah, with the exception of you, sir—”

Sauvage nodded unhappily, but the truth was he’d be last to leave anyways. Him and Rouché—that one wasn’t going to be sent home so easily.

The bunch of them turned and scattered with alacrity.

It was spooky, in a way, as the big old building seemed to breathe around them, any little wisp of sound magnified and reflected and distorted by the marvelous acoustics of the space. The last scurrying sounds of them going away faded. A door slammed several times in the distance.

“May we borrow…a music stand, a microphone stand, something like that?”

“But of course.” Sauvage made an impatient gesture, and Anton scurried off to find one.

“Naturally, you are aware of the cause of death.”

“Er, yes—”

“Did Banzini take a bow?”

“Oh, yes. They both did, several times. They blew kisses and waved happily at the audience. It was opening night—it was a sellout crowd and the audience ecstatic. Largo was very popular, as you may have gathered.”

“Yes. Unfortunately, due to the angle of the wound, it just opens up more possibilities.”

“You mean, the bit about being shot while he was leaning forward?” All of this had been in the papers.

Somehow.

It always seemed to get out.

“Exactly.”

Sauvage chewed his lip.

“I wish I could help you. But quite frankly—if you want my opinion, and you probably don’t. But the whole premise is ludicrous.”

Gilles nodded thoughtfully.

Sauvage had a point—the whole thing was ludicrous.

If so, they were going to love what came next.

 

***

 

The best they had come up with in the technical department were coconuts, watermelons, and a couple of raw pork roasts that were already starting to look a bit grey and becoming distinctly gamy in smell.

For want of a more logical starting place, Levain, who had been practicing on his own time at home, would fire the first dart from their own special booth with Bedard filming the activity. His own apartment was quite small. The biggest distance he’d been able to achieve involved a target on the salon wall. Andre had been shooting through the doorway, from the opposite side of the hallway. It was five, six metres, no more. Nichol had hated it, of course, it gave her all the wrong thoughts.

Gilles had his volunteer standing right there, patiently waiting for three or four hours now, and you really couldn’t buy that kind of cooperation sometimes. Hopefully he had enjoyed the show…

He was a funny little man in a shabby grey suit and waistcoat, with his own custom-built blow-pipe as he preferred to call it. He carried it in a long leather bag that was longer than he was. The gentleman, apparently not trusting to the coat-check, hadn’t taken it off since they came in.

Andre finally managed to hit the thing, looking a bit sheepish as it was about the seventh or eighth shot. The boys in the technical department had made up a dozen darts for the experiment, they were a pretty close match for the murder weapon.

Maintenon held up a hand.

“Okay. This is Monsieur Clair Lafarge. He will be assisting us in a little experiment. Monsieur Lafarge is a former national champion in competitive blowgun competition.”

The gentleman in question gave a stiff and formal bow.

Sauvage stared wildly at them, doing his best, but barely keeping his temper.

Ludicrous, gentlemen—fucking ludicrous.

Levain, neck slightly red, sunk into the turned-up collar of his trench-coat and good old Bedard—or was that poor old Bedard, kept the camera grinding away.

By this time, Bedard had brought the whole rig down and had it set up onstage to try and film their targets under impact. From the side, the light was even worse somehow, but it was worth a try.

“All right, all right. Let’s get on with it.” Gilles was tired and they really weren’t getting too far with this bloody case.

It might even be past his bedtime.

 

 

Chapter Fourteen

 

Monsieur Lafarge was back up in the booth. The lights were at about half of their normal brightness.

People were well back in case of a miss, a bounce, or a ricochet.

“Firing.” The gentleman put the tube up to his mouth and his whole body, which had gotten taller and bigger when he sucked up a lot of air, convulsed in an instant and fired. The sound of the dart hitting the coconut was clearly audible.

Smack.

“All right.” Maintenon and Levain stepped in, mouths open in a kind of sick fascination.

The dart had penetrated the woody outer husk, with a good three centimetres of the butt end sticking out. By the look and the length of it, the inner side of the far wall had stopped it.

The pair stepped back, after Levain had replaced their coconut with a watermelon. They were using their empty corporate box for a firing position, and the whole thing was still ludicrous.

“Fire away, Monsieur Lafarge.”

Phut…whack.

The noise was less, but still audible in the silence.

They stepped forward again. The dart had hit the melon, balanced precariously on a small platform hastily improvised on the top of what was normally a music stand, a thin metal grid type rather than a heavy wooden one which would prevent the dart from fully penetrating.

The dart had punctured the rind, and then gone most of the way through, to the extent that forty or fifty millimetres of one of their longest darts stuck out the far side of the melon. The melon was a good hundred and fifty millimetres through the short axis. Thin pink juice dripped on the floor.

“Monsieur Lafarge.”

“Yes, Inspector?”

“How hard is it to hit the target from up there?” They’d used a long tape measure on a spool and determined the distance at about twenty metres.

“Ah, not too bad, but the angle is funny and the light isn’t very good.”

This was coming from a champion shooter.

“Okay, we’ll try a couple more from there and then we’ll try a couple of other spots.”

Maintenon gave the nod and Andre, gloves on, fastidiously began fastening their flabby old pork roast to the microphone stand. Luckily, someone had remembered to bring a roll of butcher twine.

 

***

 

“This, is an impossible crime.”

On the face of it, it was true enough. Yet there wasn’t much point in arguing against a dart embedded into human flesh in front of roughly two thousand witnesses.

“And yet it was done, Inspector.”

Once their blowgun expert was finished, Andre, who had been practicing in his off hours, went at it from different ranges and angles, and even Bedard had a try. Andre and Bedard both hit the watermelon, although smaller targets were problematical. The two of them missed more often than they hit—the darts skittering off the stage in various directions as the observers cursed and stepped back and muttered among themselves.

What it proved, exactly, was something else.

Upsetting as it must have been for him, a grim Sauvage hung in there, giving orders to the few remaining crew, and keeping an eye on things. It was his turf and they were on it, although he clearly saw the necessity—

Maintenon himself wasn’t quite so sure.

But they had to go through the motions.

They had to be thorough.

“You know who could have done this, Inspector? That Marchal Grenier, the historian.”

Maintenon was lost in thought.

Late as the hour was, the three officers had stopped in at the Ham Bone, a twenty-four hour diner just a couple of short blocks away from the Quai. It was a popular cop hangout, as the food was cheap, hot and plentiful, and they were very quick about it. The great thing was no blaring radio, bolted up on the wall and everyone having to shout over it.

It wasn’t exactly cuisine—it was just food.

Maintenon looked up from his coffee, dark, bitter and strong.

“Do you mean impossible to commit? Or impossible to solve?” His steady brown eyes studied the young gendarme.

“…ah. A little bit of both, I think.”

Gilles nodded thoughtfully, Levain practically ignoring them, slumped in the corner in exhaustion.

Levain’s lips hurt, something he’d never thought about in police work—there was a bad joke in there somewhere, but he didn’t have the heart to go after it.

“Then maybe we should treat it like that. Let’s forget about the weapon, the killer, the methodology. We need a motive, and yet we seem to be wading knee-deep in them. Ah—”

Their waitress, all of them working from behind the counter in the long narrow place, barely five metres wide or so it seemed, came out of the back, bearing three heaping plates. There were no tables, just a long counter and rotating stools, some of which had the backs missing.

“We seem to have motives coming out our asses, sirs. If our killer knew him well enough—and one must assume that they did, then they might have simply taken advantage of the situation. As a public figure, Banzini was popular. Everyone loved him, until you dig a little deeper. People closer to him are telling different stories—”

Maintenon let the young man talk. It couldn’t do any harm and it might even be of some use. It was nothing he hadn’t already considered, and it was a useful glimpse into another man’s mind, into his thinking processes. The problem with Bedard was that he didn’t have an evil bone in him, as the saying went.

In order to catch a bastard, one had to become a bit of a bastard oneself.

Their killer had been devious.

Very, very, devious.

Maintenon had ordered pastrami on rye, which came with coleslaw and patates frites and then there was that bottomless cup of coffee.

Which he probably shouldn’t be drinking at this hour. The odds were he’d be tossing and turning all bloody night long.

“Also, there’s that element of showmanship. This person wasn’t hiding their tracks, this person was announcing…something, to the world. Doctor Guillaume was right, incidentally. Putting a dart that far into a chunk of meat, ah, the size of your fist, is really something. At almost any range.”

“Announcing what, Constable?” Levain, finally sticking an oar in, bored as hell but finding it necessary to keep awake for just a while longer.

“Competence? I’m smarter than you? You’ll never catch me. Something like that, Andre.”

Maintenon was pretty bleary-eyed himself.

“Largo Banzini was a miserable little prick, and so I killed him—something like that.” Bedard was mucking into his own sandwich.

The truth was, Gilles hadn’t been out this late in a long time. It said a little something about what his life had become.

Bedard’s eyes were bright and blue above the rim of his cup.

“This person is anything but insane. I’m firmly convinced of that.”

His instincts were good, and that was something. Levain grinned quietly at Maintenon…

“Hmn. Maybe we learned something after all, tonight.”

“And what’s that, Gilles?” Levain was halfway through the first of three chili-dogs, which might have brought a shudder to a gourmand but Maintenon rather approved of them.

“That this is an impossible crime.”

Gilles looked at Bedard.

“We’ll stow all of our evidence back at the shop, and then you can go home. Constable.” He chewed for a moment. “Oh. And thank you for your help tonight.”

Bedard grinned.

“Time and a half, what can I say. Also, getting away from the house once in a while is all right.” He looked around as if he’d never seen the place before.

“Gilles.” Levain quickly reminded him before he forgot. “Don’t forget that radio interview. That’s tomorrow, isn’t it?”

“Merde.”

Chiappe.

You son of a bitch—

 

 

Chapter Fifteen

 

Gilles was being interviewed, at his home, at ten-thirty-seven in the morning on a weekday. They were at the dining room table, with wires and cables and microphones seemingly strewn everywhere. The room was warming up. Normally Gilles had the heat on, and one or two windows open a couple of centimetres to let the smoke out. They had closed them to keep street and other noises out. Although faint sounds could still be heard through the walls, the big carbon microphones were directional to some extent and right in front of your face.

Besides the lady, there were a sound engineer and her producer, listening on headphones, checking their notes, shoving scraps of paper back and forth and listening intently.

Constable Bedard had been relegated to a quiet corner, perched on a chair and afraid almost to move. He was all set to drive Maintenon into work as soon as the radio people had cleared the place.

It was the sort of thing senior officers had to do from time to time, for the public relations if not exactly educational value. What was unusual in this case, was that it was for radio. Bedard’s alert eyes and ears were all over it…

“Today we’re speaking with Inspector Gilles Maintenon of the Sûreté.”

“Hello, and welcome to my home. It is always good to speak with Radio France.”

“You’re in charge of the Banzini case. How are police making out with that?”

“We’re conducting a thorough investigation and making very good progress.”

“Any suspects so far?”

Gilles smiled thinly. It was all in the tone. Confidence is everything…

“No comment.”

“I see. Some of your homicide cases have, in the past, been explored by the notable mystery author Louis Shalako. How do you feel about that?”

“It’s all right, I suppose. He’s very good at drawing out the moral component.”

“Do you get paid for that?”

“No, I believe he combs through the public records and makes it up from there.” Evil grin.

“One of your cases is detailed in Redemption: an Inspector Gilles Maintenon mystery?”

“Yes.”

“Are you the hero of your own story?” She gave him an impish smile, which he could only resist through a kind of gravity.

A good interviewer tried to get under the skin just a little bit. A better interviewer tries to provoke you—

“I am never the hero, Mademoiselle. Standard operating procedure is to reduce the risks as much as possible for all concerned. This includes the guilty as well as the innocent. Officers are expensive to train and we don’t like losing too many of them, either. It’s not our job to shoot suspects—forget all the pulp fiction and radio-plays out there. No. We want to see them in court.”

“What is your problem in the story? Where’s the big challenge.”

“A young man is accused of murder, and what little evidence there is definitely implicates him and no other. But I did not believe him capable of murder under those particular circumstances. Most of us would kill, and justifiably so, to protect our families and our own lives. If someone stole my coat and I had a gun on me, would I be justified in shooting them? Arguably not. It’s just a coat, after all. I wouldn’t say all moral questions are equally easy, because they are not. In a more general sense, my problem, is the provision of justice and the restoration of order. Personally, I’ve always been fascinated by the mental puzzle.” Gilles preferred to be the hunter rather than the hunted, but of course one didn’t say that, as it wouldn’t have come across very well.

“Some criminals are extremely intelligent. How do your friends see you?”

“I have never asked. We remain friends after many years, so I suppose I’m all right to get along with. Most criminals are not very smart. The smart ones give us a lot of trouble.”

“How do your enemies see you?”

“I really don’t have enemies unless you mean criminals and possibly the disgruntled. There will always be a few of those…my enemies see me from the wrong side of a set of steel bars or a very hard and sweaty chair on the other side of a police desk.”

“How does the author see you?”

“I think he sees me as an extension of himself…a useful tool, to misquote the Socialists.”

“Do you think the author portrayed you accurately?”

“No, but I think he tries very hard.”

“What do you think of yourself?”

“I try not to think about it too much.”

“What are your achievements?”

“Several hundred killers have been guillotined, and many more now reside for the term of their lives in new (and rather bleak) surroundings, partly due to my own efforts, as well as the efforts of my colleagues and our brother and sister officers in uniform. We’re very proud of our record.”

“You’ve been on the force since before the War. When it comes to homicide, I would dare to say that the public appreciates your work, and your experience is, of course, quite extensive. Do you have any special weaknesses?”

“Ha. I’m a little too sympathetic sometimes. That’s bad for the objectivity. I have the romantic’s tendency to dream, which I believe to be incurable. If I run out of cigars, I can be pretty miserable. There are a few others. I like my milk, for example.”

“Do you have any particular skills?”

“I am thoroughly trained in the art of detection and criminal psychology. I’m a competent administrator and well-versed in the elements of court procedure insofar as it relates to the job.”

“If you had not become a policeman, what would you have done with your life?”

“I have asked myself that question many times—it’s a complete mystery to me.”

“What do you want?”

“What? What do I want? Hmn. Perhaps it is a question of what I don’t want—I don’t want to die alone. I would like to die in my bed, and with my boots off. In that sense, I am no different than anyone else. But in answer to your question, I have everything that I need…except love. For we can never have enough of that, can we?”

“What makes you angry?”

“I should say that crime makes me angry, but that would be a half-truth. Certain types of crime are merely pathetic, and I have more than my share of compassion for both victim and perpetrator. By the time we get there, well…our job is to calm things down…to put the pieces back together, of people’s lives if we can. Above all else, a police officer must remain calm. What makes me angry, really angry? Violence makes me angry. It resonates within me. I could be like that all too easily. And yet I have learned to control myself, sometimes in the face of my better instincts. It’s not like we didn’t kill men in the war. We did, and we were killed too. We were killed too…my job is to prevent it, or, when that fails, as it so often does, to bring the miscreants to justice. I have learned to govern my passions accordingly. Otherwise I would not be able to do my work. And, I think my life could have turned out very differently. This was something I only learned recently.”

“Are you lucky?”

“Yes, I probably am, but I never rely on luck. Hard work, clear thinking, persistence and teamwork. Thoroughness. These attributes are the key to success as a gendarme.”

“What in your past had the most profound effect on you?

“My wife. Even now, I can barely speak her name without blinking back the tears.”

“Your wife’s name was Anne. Was there a defining moment of your life?”

“I wanted to be a professional cyclist. That sounds crazy now. Even I can admit that. You must understand the romance of the early days of the sport. I was very young. But my father convinced me to become a gendarme, or at least try out for it. It was a secure job, and the pay was the best I could hope for. My father had little schooling, and he saw it as a way out of the crushing poverty he had accepted as his own fate. He wanted better for all of us. My father was not exactly lavish with his praise. I can only think of three times in my life when he said he was proud of me. When I was accepted into the Police Nationale, well. That was one of those times. He cried at the ceremony.”

“At some point you came to love the job.”

Right between the eyes—

“Er—yes.”

“Is there anything else about your background you’d like to discuss?”

“No, not particularly.”

His interviewer, Mademoiselle Simone Savary, laughed, and reaching across, patted him on the knee. With her rather impressive bust, heavily exposed in a low-cut black dress, it was surprisingly stirring.

It had been a long time, after all.

“Thank you, Inspector Gilles Maintenon of the Sûreté. And now ladies and gentlemen, a word from our sponsors…”

Someone hit a button or cut a switch, the producer was making slashing motions across the throat and hopefully it wouldn’t take them too long to pack up and get the hell out.

Bedard was staring at him, as if seeing him for the first time—which might even be the case.

There was nothing wrong with his ears, or with his brain.

 

***

 

LeBref was on the tail.

A long, cool young woman stepped out of a chic little boutique on the Rue de Passy. This was a one-way street in the classic 16th Arrondissement, very upscale.

If Mathilde Gaudrau had any great sorrow for the loss of Largo Banzini, she wasn’t showing much hint of it.

Carrying on with life was not a crime—not even grounds for suspicion. It was exactly what people advised, after all.

One had to concede that Mathilde wasn’t too hard on the eyes, and there were certainly worse duties. The thing with LeBref, he always had a sandwich in his pocket, a good hunk of cheese, an apple, and a small flask of vin rouge if the truth were known.

So far, she’d hit three shops and was carrying a few small packages in the deep blue bags favoured by one Garcon Schmidt, and LeBref was quite frankly bored with the whole thing. He had an eight-hour day to kill, following somebody else’s agenda.

The trouble with this case was that they had, potentially, about a million suspects to tail. All over town if need be, and it was better if a particular subject was watched by the same team. It gave a certain continuity to their reports, but it was just the luck of the draw that he’d ended up with her.

Taking the Metro, she’d gotten out at La Muette station. How in the hell women kept warm was a mystery sometimes, what with the skirts and stockings and boots and those short jackets. Like a lot of women, she seemed ready to make a day of it. With his diminutive size, and a habitually shabby look, Detective LeBref was slightly out-of-character for the neighbourhood and all too easily spotted. He’d already tipped the wink to one uniformed gendarme on patrol, who had recognized him from some case or another, and who was just on the verge of whipping out one big salute.

The crowd, with everyone taller than him, bobbed all around. Vehicle traffic was one-way, but there were sidewalks on both sides of the street. It was a sunny morning, a Friday and it seemed as if everyone was out and about.

None of Paris’ famous outdoor urinals were in the vicinity.

Mathilde went about three doors further up the street, placidly oblivious to all around her, and then she turned into yet another dress shop. LeBref, uttering a muffled curse, stepped down into the next basement stoop. It was right there and he was determined to take a leak if it killed him. With such valuable real estate, there were no alleys. They simply didn’t exist.

And it might kill him, or at least get him in trouble. There was activity just on the other side of a paneled wooden door painted a bilious sea-foam green, and marked with a sculpted bronze logo of a prominent Paris couturier. The voices rose and fell, under pressure of work and time and the need to make a living in a tough and competitive business.

If that door opened suddenly, they weren’t going to appreciate LeBref very much. The thoughts of a bunch of dress-makers staring at his hairy old pecker as he pissed on their shoes, didn’t help much…argh.

Ironically, his penis was not a dwarf, and perhaps that accounted for a happy marriage with a regular-sized woman.

His bladder was bursting, and yet apparently very reluctant to let go.

Ears cocked to the people passing by on the pavement above, and with one eye on the small, metal-barred window set up high in the door, finally the blessed flow came and hot piss steamed on the wall. It was quieter, and kept it from splashing (mostly) on his shoes.

“Oh, sacre bleu.” Gratefully, he zipped it up and got the hell out of there.

Checking his watch, only three or four minutes had elapsed.

Standing there doing nothing was a no-no. He really ought to check on the girl if he could.

He really ought to wash his hands as well.

He moseyed along up the street, checking out the store windows with one eye, the brim of his hat pulled low, collar turned up, (for all the good that would do), and a sinking feeling that she must be in the back room or whatever.

There was just one hell of a lot of glare coming off that front window.

Could she have gone in, and then come out in a bare three or four minutes?

Probably not, he had to concede.

 

 

Chapter Sixteen

 

Not far away were Andre Levain and young Bedard, in plainclothes for the first time. Andre was showing him a few tricks of the trade.

Bedard looked all right. His collar was freshly starched and the suit not too bad, but then he’d probably gotten married in it and gone to one or two funerals over the years.

Having been assigned Jacques Rouché, they were not surprised to find he was a busy person outside of running the Opera.

So far, it was after two p.m. in the afternoon and he hadn’t even made it into the office. Nothing he did looked suspicious in any way. He apparently woke up fairly early, had breakfast, and then left the house in a rather posh-looking British six-cylinder car with leather straps across the bonnet. The car was in the French pale blue racing colour and lovingly maintained.

He stopped at another residence, a couple of kilometres away in another fine neighbourhood. The cops noted the address and would look it up later. An attractive woman about the right age for him came out and they drove off to wander the town aimlessly for a while, and then they stopped at well-known sidewalk café where they took refreshment.

One of the officers had to find a parking spot and would have to do their best to get back quickly…one man, one set of eyes on them at all times. That was the rule.

Levain and Bedard were now split up, with Bedard going inside, taking a table by the front window and ordering coffee. Leaving the car, Levain hung back, studying shop windows, and eventually going inside of another small bistro where he had noticed an empty window seat. It was just in view of their quarry, or at least the front of the building.

So far, this was looking like another long day.

If only something interesting would happen.

They might get a sandwich if they were lucky.

One at a time, of course.

 

***

 

For an opera singer, Gabin Lussier seemed to have the totally boring life, completely taken up with his wife and family.

When not rehearsing, when not performing, he was at home. The watching detectives even saw him out on the narrow, wrought-iron balcony of their second-floor flat, brushing light snow off of the window ledge and the platform itself. A cat came out and did some business in the big pots that held a row of brown and dead plants, faded annuals with big bulbs and floppy dead leaves hanging straight over the rim of the containers. Gabin was in a striped housecoat, pajamas and slippers.

“Shit.” Firmin and a Sergeant Leduc were shivering in an alley, as they were in the midst of a cold snap, as the radio people called it.

Having been there for hours already, they were chilled to the bone. It would have been better if the quarry was moving. They could get in the car, or even just warm up a little with the exertion of walking on icy pavements, even though battling a wind that becoming increasingly strong. There was no parking around there, and the official sedan was pretty obvious to even the most unsophisticated person. Presumably, their killer would be on high alert for any such signs of surveillance.

“I agree, sir. God damn them all to hell—”

Firmin, mystified as to who the subject of this remark might be, gave him an odd look.

“What? Who?”

“Ah—the criminals, sir.”

Firmin, indistinguishable from a million other Frenchmen with the toothbrush mustache, battered fedora and dark overcoat, slapped his erstwhile companion on the upper arm.

He grinned from ear to ear.

“That’s the spirit, laddie.”

 

***

 

The situation was just as Gilles had initially feared. They had hundreds, possibly thousands of pages of witness statements. Dozens of officers were involved, which was always a nightmare. No fingerprints, no footprints in the garden, no cigarette ash to write a little monograph upon, no real suspects, no trail from the Guan Fu killing. What with fire escapes everywhere, the elevator and a set of stairs, and a rear entrance by the kitchen of the Star Luck Hotel, that wasn’t surprising. No one there had seen or heard a thing, at least to hear them tell it. A little bit of pounding might have gone unnoticed in a certain type of establishment, although police had nothing really on the place. Its reputation was actually pretty good. Going on the autopsy report, time of death had been determined. A check of the register showed the adjoining rooms had been unoccupied, most likely, when the killing occurred. Guan Fu had been dead from forty-eight to seventy-two hours by the time he was discovered.

As for the audience, after the first mad rush, where it seemed every damned person in the Opera that night wanted so badly to get it down—

Well. Anyone who was coming forward had already done so, hence the heap of meaningless statements on his desk…everyone else’s desk too.

That stream had died out just as quickly.

No doubt they’d be talking about it for the rest of their lives. They would be rushing home after work, or getting up before dawn, eagerly perusing the papers, looking for some kind of hint, some indication that the police were getting somewhere, when they were so clearly not.

I was there.

I was there the night Largo Banzini died—and such a shame, too. Whereas anyone who was in a position to know anything, anything at all, had been as reticent as possible.

That would include just about every person who actually knew Largo Banzini. It was only human nature and one could hardly blame them for that. Some of them probably didn’t know anything about his love-life or his personal habits.

One or two of them must.

His phone was ringing, just as he reached for a stack of photos. Bedard, desperately trying to fit in and be useful somehow, had suggested that the rags, the mags, the papers would have had photographers at the Opera on opening night. He’d had this inflection in his voice. There was a funny little quaver in there, but it showed initiative and it wasn’t a bad suggestion.

The show was much-anticipated, all the bigwigs would be there and that dart had to have come from somewhere, according to Bedard. The Palais even had their own, official photographer. His work tended to be more staged pics, but then they had a list of who to get and a good instinct of who to ignore.

The police were looking for walking sticks, a bygone fashion accessory that still held sway for a certain set, in a certain environment.

The Opera, as well as opera itself, was just that—an environment. Unique, self-sufficient, and true unto its own internal logic. The Opera was a motif—a background for certain other activities.

His hand had a mind of its own, sometimes…

Argh.

If he didn’t pick up, they would just call back in a minute.

“Hello. Maintenon here.”

“Gilles. It’s Chief Inspector Rouard.” He didn’t sound too happy.

“What can I do for you, sir?”

“I want my men back. You’ve got half my fucking shift, Gilles.”

“I’m sorry, sir, but, unfortunately, the situation right now—” Is such that—

“Yeah, I know. Chiappe, he’s got his nose so far up there it ain’t even funny. Fuck the President and you heard it from me. You can quote me on that one. Gilles, it’s a Friday. It’s a payday, the streets are already hopping. We have traffic accidents all over the place, we have a full moon tonight and I need my fucking men.” Jesus, H. Christ in other words.

“Look, I’ll see what I can do, Emile. Quite frankly, that part of the investigation is winding down anyways.”

“What’s the trouble?” It came out as a bark, almost, and yet it was a sign of softening.

“Information overload, all of it useless, and none of it very interesting. No one seems to have a clue. Not even us.”

“I see. What can you do for me?”

Gilles sighed, deeply. He was sort of in the middle of one big mess. That probably came through with the tone—the inflection.

“Okay. I will go through our list here and see who’s doing what, okay? You’re on the afternoon shift this week, right? We’ll see who we can spare—and maybe see who wants to earn a little overtime.”

“Shit.”

“That’s the best we can do, sir.”

“Very well—” It was the Chief Inspector’s turn to sigh deeply, now.

“Sir.”

“Yes?”

“I want to get a shitload of phone-tap warrants.”

“If you can figure out…fuck, some kind of valid excuse, Gilles—” And he laughed out loud. “Yeah, I might even sign that one for you myself. I’ll lend my weight to it—anything for the old cause, eh? Thanks, Gilles, and I’ll call back later and see how you’re doing on that one.”

Their respective phones slammed into their cradles.

Argh.

Sarcasm from a superior officer.

Maintenon had always tried to avoid the temptation with his own little crew. Not that it wasn’t tempting sometimes…at least at first, when he was totally inexperienced, but it wasn’t a very good command tool.

Maintenon reached for the file folder full of society and publicity pictures from the night in question, heartened by the fact that if nothing else, it was a big thick file.

Surely there had to be something in there.

 

***

 

Hector Vachon, paunchy, bleary-eyed and sardonic, studied the photographs.

Hopefully he would be able to identify at least some of them. Jacques Rouché had been helpful already, but he didn’t know everybody either.

The air was blue with smoke, and someone in the next office was madly typing, the slap and ding of the carriage return coming through the wall loud and clear.

Tap-tap-tap.

Tappity-tap.

Tap-tap.

Tappity-tap, smack, ding.

Presently working for Le Matin, Hector had been around the block more than once, as the saying went. His career went back to the last century. He and Gilles were contemporaries, they’d both served at Verdun, although in different regiments. For that and other reasons, they had an understanding.

Hector was what Gilles considered a good journalist—not overly concerned with sensation, but merely delivering solid, in-depth coverage of current issues and events with as little bias (or bullshit) and editorializing as possible. He’d probably interviewed more people than Gilles, perhaps not in quite such depth, at least not in most cases. Vachon was patient enough to help out, not ask too many questions, and wait for the exclusive. There was a shit-load of respect there.

Maintenon had interrogated German prisoners during the war, which was something else entirely—the funny thing was, he didn’t even speak German.

“No. Sorry.”

Maintenon put that one in the right-hand pile, unidentified, as the left-hand pile consisted of people that had been identified by either Rouché or Vachon.

They had a list of names, a few more pictures in the stack and the police would at least go through the motions.

“Andre Neuman, the financier. That’s his wife, ah, she’s Italian. Rita.” Gilles took the photo and printed the names on the back as Vachon picked up the next photo. “Yeah, he just did that big stock split. His kids are all grown up and happily married…relatively speaking.”

A walking stick but no discernable motive…

Next picture.

“Ah, no…vaguely familiar though.”

For want of anything else in terms of hot leads, they were interested in men with walking sticks, anyone using a cane. Anything out of character, anything unusual, people walking around with blowguns for example. One person, a stolid, prosperous-looking middle-aged woman, clearly a sufferer of polio or some other debilitating disease, had a shiny pair of modern aluminium canes, with strap-on forearm braces.

“That’s Madame Brevard, basically just some rich old lady. That one’s got a heart of gold, just so you guys know.”

Hmn.

Shit.

Visions of quick and furtive disassembly in the shadows, metal braces becoming one big long tube danced through their heads…yeah, a man dressed as a woman. He made a mental note of it and moved on. It was just an idea, and how much weight could you give it?

“No. No. Ah. Guillaume Abel, the fashion columnist. Ha. Yeah, he probably did it—” But he grinned when he said it and Maintenon just shrugged.

They weren’t getting anywhere, just as surely as God had made little green apples.

That’s when Vachon dropped his little bombshell.

“You guys know that Largo Banzini and Mathilde Gaudrau had an affair, don’t you?”

Merde.

 

 

Chapter Seventeen

 

 

Maintenon pulled a chair back and waved the gentleman into it.

Gilles took his own seat, picked up a pencil.

“Thank you for coming in at such notice, Monsieur Lussier.”

Gabin Lussier nodded, wondering what was up and who else might have been called.

Everyone was saying that the police weren’t getting anywhere, and more interviews seemed pretty much inevitable. If they didn’t get somebody soon, they probably never would, though.

That was his opinion, anyways.

“No problem.” Gabin looked relatively at ease, certainly not like anyone who had anything to fear.

“Mathilde Gaudrau and Largo Banzini had an affair.”

The gentleman slowly coloured.

“Ah—” His body went very still, eyes wavering, then falling to study the edge of the desk and the scuffed boards between his feet.

“Please don’t lie to us, Monsieur Lussier.”

The eyes came back to meet Maintenon’s and Gabin surrendered a big, long exhalation.

“Yes.”

“How come nobody told us, Monsieur Lussier.”

“She was very young. This was some years ago. People liked her and it’s a sensitive subject. Largo was always going to be Largo. I have to admit, I wondered how she was going to do it—I read about her getting the role in the trades just like everybody else, right? I wasn’t confirmed myself, not for a few weeks. I honestly thought I wasn’t going to get it, not at all. Yeah, I thought about her playing the lead female role on stage with her former lover.” He shook his head, uttering another deep sigh. “Unbelievable, really.”

“How old was she?”

“Oh, God, I don’t know for sure. But yeah, this was years ago—and I sure as hell wasn’t going to volunteer the information. There was some talk of her going away for a while. Something about having a bun in the oven, right? It’s an awkward subject and there’s just no way I was ever going bring up that subject. Okay, Largo was sheer hell with the ladies. He was what he was. Nothing was ever going to change him. Hell, I like Mathilde—yeah, I’m a married man and all of that, but she had a way of…sort of getting under your skin—and into the imagination, if you see what I’m getting at. She was a nice kid, right? After a few years of marriage, familiarity tends to breed boredom. I won’t say contempt, but a girl like Mathilde can sure make you think, eh?”

Gilles uttered a little sigh of his own.

Yes, a girl like Mathilde could certainly make one think.

“Any idea of where she might have gone? What clinic, I mean?”

Lussier shook his head.

Maintenon had been chewing on what was some pretty troubling news, ever since he’d heard it. The trouble was that every damned one of them had withheld this important little fact from the police.

Every fucking one of them—

It was sheer luck that Vachon had said anything at all. Most people would have assumed that the police already knew everything, and so why bother to go there at all?

Such a nice young girl, after all.

“I want you to promise me something, Monsieur Lussier.”

“And what’s that?”

“I want you to forget that we ever had this conversation. Don’t talk about this with anyone, understand? I will even tell you why. The very fact the police have not bothered to ask this question might be of very great…er, significance, to someone. Our killer, for example.”

Lussier nodded thoughtfully.

It really wasn’t his problem anyways.

He had a performance that evening, and more than anything else, he needed to focus on that.

“Sure, no problem.” The dark eyes met Gilles’ and the guy seemed relatively intelligent.

“Thank you so much, Monsieir Lussier.”

 

***

 

“I must say, Gilles, I’m impressed.” Chief Inspector Rouard rose from the other side of a gorgeous walnut antique desk.

Sensing dismissal, Maintenon rose, placing the written request on the Chief Inspector’s desk.

“Thank you, Chief Inspector.”

“From what you’re saying, we probably have a good chance. It’s too bad there’s so damned many of them—” He gnawed on that one for a while. “And what do I get back, what, three men? How generous.”

Half the cast and crew were on that list.

“I’ll find you a couple more, as soon as I get a minute.”

The Chief Inspector grunted, and then pulled himself out from behind his desk.

“Sure. I will do my best for you, okay?”

Rouard was headed for the coat rack, which Gilles took to mean that he wouldn’t be seeing a judge until first thing in the morning.

There wasn’t a damned thing he could do about it—not with one such as Rouard, and so he turned for the door himself.

 

***

 

Their film had been developed and sent back from the lab overnight.

“Okay, so one thing we can see here, Inspector. Gabin Lussier is onstage, in the background, at the end of the first act.”

He was left of screen, which would be to Banzini’s right. All immaterial, of course, especially with a fucking blowgun.

Maintenon blinked in the sudden brightness as the reel ended.

“Yes. Hmn.”

“That’s not to say he couldn’t have hired somebody.”

“Hmn.”

It was another bloody long day. With Bedard the only one really proficient on the camera and now the projector, Gilles had called him away from the tail. Somebody else could do it for a while. Bedard at least had ideas, and his suggestions were pretty good so far.

The first flush of enthusiasm could take a man a long way—Bedard was proof enough of that.

Yet good men were also made. They had to be. Otherwise they never got an opportunity. Too many grasping bastards putting themselves first, front and centre otherwise.

“Okay, next roll.”

Maintenon sat watching patiently.

They had the machine set up in a conference room just down the hall from their squad-room.

They came to the end of the third roll, and the tail began slap-slapping as Bedard reached for the switch.

The lights came up and he began changing reels.

Stealing a glance at Maintenon, the Boss seemed pretty preoccupied.

Bedard was humming and so he stopped—

Constable Bedard had the loop threaded, which was much easier once you’d done it a few times.

He went to the light switch on the wall.

“Sir?”

Maintenon looked up, slightly startled.

“What? Oh, yes. Please continue.”

Bedard hesitated.

“So, what are we going to do, Inspector?”

“Oh, God. I don’t know. For starters, we’re going to watch the film and just try and think about things.”

“Yes, sir.” Bedard snapped the switch.

He went back and started the projector again.

The film was silent, which meant that they could talk if they wanted. Talkies were all the rage on the big screen these days. The times they were a-changing, that was one thing for sure.

“So. Constable. What is your impression?”

“It’s darker backstage. Ah…the human eye can see pretty well either way, but the camera needs more light. Some of it is just pure darkness on the film.” The action onstage was at least visible enough to identify the characters, they could see the movements and where they were in relation to everyone else at any given time.

That didn’t necessarily mean much, as anything could have happened on the night in question. The play had been well rehearsed and there was no real reason for people to get out of their proper places.

The trouble there was that so far, no one had mentioned anything out of the ordinary. The police were completely dependent upon what people chose to tell them. This was always the way, wasn’t it.

When the curtains were closed, so that guests could safely make their way to the exits, the house lights were brought up for five or six minutes.

Backstage, the well-drilled crew worked in half-darkness, but they knew exactly what needed to be done, and they had rehearsed their roles just as often as the cast. More in fact, as from their perspective, one play or opera was pretty much like another. For them it was just a series of moves and movements, placing backgrounds and furnishings on the proper marks, just as they had done many times before. The interior scenes had rugs and fake windows and wall hangings, potted palms strategically placed for atmosphere and effect, their bases behind something else to keep them out of sight. The play itself, was wonderful enough and looked to be headed for a good long run.

“Very well.”

“But seriously, Inspector. It would be…fuck, virtually impossible for anyone in the crew to have fired that blowgun dart. And yet at the same time, it’s difficult to see how anyone in the audience could have done it either…” Bedard trailed off as Maintenon nodded in agreement.

“Go on.”

“Well. I mean, really—anyone close enough to have a reasonable chance of hitting the target is almost too close—they’d be at the rail, looking down at the stage, and it would be remarkable for someone close by, either in an adjacent box or even across the hall, not to have seen that—”

The public seats were pretty much out of the question, the orchestra pit same thing.

Bedard seemed to be overcoming a basic shyness, which was good. As for the logic, Gilles couldn’t see too much wrong with it.

“Largo doesn’t impress at the suicidal type.”

“Okay.”

Constable Bedard shrugged, at a temporary loss.

“More film, sir?”

“Why certainly, young man. We must leave no stone unturned.”

Also, Gilles was away from the telephone. He had peace and quiet and this was as good a place as any to just sit and think.

Or maybe just to sit, stare at a screen and not think about anything at all.

But Bedard was right—no matter how you looked at it, this was still an impossible crime.

 

***

 

Nobody liked Mondays, not even Gilles.

It’s not like he had anywhere else to go.

The thing was to cope with it, and after a long and dreary weekend on his own, a bit of company wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.

“Inspector?” It was Bedard.

Gilles looked up from the report he was reading (no poison on the dart and other assorted and sundry facts), as the young gendarme closed the door behind him.

“Yes?”

“We got a bit of a weird one here. Sheer luck, really. But we were canvassing the neighbourhood of the Star Luck Hotel—”

“And?”

“It turns out Monsieur Guan Fu rented a suit—a tuxedo.”

Gilles stared at the young man.

“At least that’s what it says on the receipt. He paid cash, incidentally.” A clerk had recognized the photo without a whole lot of hesitation. “The suit was returned the day after opening night.”

“Interesting.”

“Yes, it is, sir. With your permission, sir, I’ve got an idea—a bit of a weird one too, but I thought I would ask rather than just go ahead. It means more man-hours after all.”

Gilles bit back an abrupt smile—

“Sure. What’s your idea.”

“Okay, give me a second here.”

Bedard went to the pile of exhibits, stacks of notes and folders full of photographs, and began quickly leafing through them.

“Ah.” He brought one photo in particular over to Maintenon’s desk.

He had another one, keeping that back for a moment.

“Here’s a man in a tuxedo. Look at the big, bushy beard. Look at the glasses. We didn’t have the photos with us, and I wouldn’t mind taking that one back there to show them. But, the one on the receipt sure sounds similar. A plain, black tuxedo with the white dickey. It’s the correct size, I mean the one on the receipt. It corresponds very nicely to Guan Fu’s own suit. The shoes are a bit off when you take a look at the picture. He might have saved a few francs there. Whether he’s on his own or working for someone else, it all costs money. Let’s say he’s getting a fee plus expenses. Anything left over goes right into his own pocket. No one has been able to identify this particular individual so far—take a look at that face, sir. We’re assuming he sat in the regular seats, or possibly came as a guest of someone with a box. But we really ought to have gotten something, if that was the case, and so far, we haven’t.” People sneaking into boxes that were unoccupied but didn’t belong to them was a bit of a problem at any venue. “Here’s the thing, sir. Most people don’t bother to wear a tuxedo, not even on opening night. They wear nice clothes and everything. But a costume—one that’s a bit over the top, well. It tends to do something, I don’t know—to sort of validate that face. It also shows forethought—they’ve disguised themselves. Somebody knew there was a chance of being identified, possibly even the fact that the newshounds would be there—popping pictures at anything that moved. That’s sort of our line of thinking here, sir. Also…the monkey-suit sort of justifies the walking stick, doesn’t it?”

Box doors had locks of course, but they were easily beaten as they opened outwards and the tongue of the latch was easily accessible with bit of wire or a strip of metal. An old hack-saw blade might have worked very well, according to Bedard. Opera staff, ushers and the like, kept a pretty sharp eye for all that sort of thing, people sneaking into private boxes. None of them had mentioned anything of the sort. The thing was, their crime only took a minute.

With all of the typing and consequent reading, Bedard knew as much about the case as anyone else by now. His future was looking brighter by the minute.

Mouth open, Gilles took the other photo. This was a dead Guan Fu.

Merde.

“Ha. Ha.”

“Yes, sir. What I want to do is canvass, mostly in that area, or any relatively nearby location. Even if he had wheels, or took the Metro, there’s no real good reason for him to go twenty kilometres across town when there might be something nearby. If he came from outside the country, you don’t want fake beards and all that in your luggage. Customs has a habit of asking tough questions as a matter of course. Hong Kong’s on their shit-list already. We’re looking for a joke shop, a costumer’s, a theatrical supply company. Anything like that, where a man could get a fake beard, fake glasses, and uh, stuff like that, sir. Maybe even a hollow cane—like for a magician or something like that.”

“Yes. Yes. Take the car—take someone with you.” Looking around, the squad room was empty, but that was a problem easily solved.

Maintenon’s hand hovered over the phone, but Bedard had more.

“Ah, yes, sir. I thought I’d just check the phone book first, because there probably aren’t all that many of them.”

That fresh, bright young face beamed at Gilles.

Gilles nodded, thoughtfully, staring at that photograph. His hand settled back into his lap for the moment.

Bedard proffered another photo—a real close-up morgue shot of their dead man. One glance was enough for Gilles.

It could be so—it might be so.

Merde.”

There was nothing wrong with Bedard’s eyes or his thinking faculties.

“It kind of works, doesn’t it, sir?”

“Yes. Thank you. And good work, incidentally.”

Maintenon had never been lavish with the praise, and yet people said he was good to work with—or for.

The look on Bedard’s face was priceless, but then good cops were worth their weight in diamonds, and this kid was beginning to look quite exceptional. The best ones never even knew it half the time—they just did their jobs, got results, and that was all Maintenon had ever asked.

Getting lucky once in a while, well, that was a bonus.

Maintenon’s face felt funny, but then it had been a while since a smile had crossed it.

Maybe they stood a chance after all—

Just maybe.

“Constable.”

“Yes, sir?”

“One of our responsibilities here is developing new talent.” He composed his thoughts, as the words were important.

“Sir?”

“Right now we’ve got some bright young gendarme, dragged into the case from what would normally be traffic duties and street patrols. Due to the nature of crime and investigation, a scene sometimes has to be secured, and with a murder at the Palais, it’s a big building. You were guarding a side door, and that’s just the luck of the draw. You have some seniority. You’re eligible to write the sergeant’s exam, with a pretty good chance of a posting if you pass. It’s a big department, and if you play your cards right, you can end up anywhere you really want. People are saying you have a brain in your head and you’re obviously destined for better things.”

Bedard stared. Hopefully he would remember to breathe—every so often, every once in a while.

“You’ve got a bit of rope and responsibility. Let’s be honest. Everyone wants to work homicide. This is the top of the heap in policing.”

“Yes, sir.”

There was a long, heartfelt moment. They stared at each other.

Gilles more calmly, perhaps. He felt kind of cold inside, right about then. Perhaps that was necessary. It would be worse for Bedard…

“It’s a tough job and you need to be doing it for the right reasons. There’s not a lot of macho bullshit around here. Corny as it sounds, the best possible reason to become a cop would be service to one’s fellow human beings. That’s the sort of thing that we take pretty damned seriously. Cops need honour or they become very dangerous. No one needs that.”

“No, sir.”

“Young man, good cops are priceless. And no one likes to work with the real assholes anyways. They inevitably drag you down, down to their own level. They drag down everyone around them. You don’t impress me as that type. So far, you’ve been doing all right, to the extent that we’ve got you in plainclothes. You’re driving the boss around and making all kinds of sensible contributions. You are learning a lot and gaining some confidence.”

“Yes, sir.”

Gilles was having a hard time looking at him just then, but this sort of thing had to be done.

“I have every confidence that the team will solve this crime, the murder of opera singer Largo Banzini, by blowgun-dart, in front of two thousand witnesses at the premier performance of The Golden Dragon. If you’ve been following along, that opera was written by the great (and very French), composer Fosse.”

“Yes, sir, thank you very much, sir.” That spinal column couldn’t get a whole lot straighter and Maintenon envied him for it in that moment.

“So. What sort of things would you like to be doing, if you had the chance?”

“Ah—well, ah—”

“Don’t be shy, Louis. That’s not going to work for you in this business.”

“No, sir. I want the Youth Bureau.”

There was a long silence as Maintenon let that one sink in for a minute.

Shit, why not.

He’d be as good as anybody.

And he’s still young enough to make it stick.

“All right, Constable Bedard. You pass that sergeant’s exam, and I might even sign that one myself, okay?”

There was always that bit of pain lurking in the background.

“Ah, yes, sir.”

“Do me a favour and go down to the cafeteria for a while.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Oh—and if you get a minute, read the fucking play.” No one else around here had the time, in other words.

Bedard laughed, and then thought better of it.

“Yes, sir.”

“And don’t salute or I will slap you. I really mean that.” Yeah, sure you do—

Son.

He was gone in a heartbeat.

 

 

Chapter Eighteen

 

Like any regular Monday, they were busy. Gilles and the other team members all had their own stack of backlogged cases, reports to be written, documents submitted to the prosecutor.

The constantly-ringing phone was just part of the routine.

At first, it was just another call. Gilles didn’t quite get what they were saying, who was saying it, and why they should have called him in the first place. This was not the lost-and-found.

His hearing was good, but one never knew—

“I’m sorry, who is this?”

“This is Constable Cloutier. It’s just that I was patrolling on my regular beat, Inspector. I saw these two boys, and they had a walking stick. It looked like a pretty nice one. Boys being what they are, at first I wondered if it was stolen, and then of course I also wondered if it might be a sword-stick.” Very dangerous, especially with young kids playing around with it.

“Ah. Now I understand.”

“Yes, sir. Anyways, it’s not too far from the Palais Garnier—and of course there’s that whole blowgun thing.”

Maintenon’s heart picked up another beat or two per minute…

“Go on.”

“Yes, sir. It’s the real artifact, Inspector. It’s cleverly disguised, but it’s definitely two hollow tubes of some very thin metal. One’s quite a bit longer than the other or there’s no way it could work. They kind of fit inside each other and screw together like a pool cue. The butt for the hand is detachable. The thing’s been in the water. The boys say they found it along the river, and that seems likely enough. The other thing is that they were skipping school—which is what attracted my attention in the first place. Kids of a certain age are all in school at that time of day—”

So the stick had been thoroughly handled.

“Bring me the stick—can you find out exactly when they found it.”

“Yes, sir. They said they found it this morning, shortly after nine o’clock, washed up on a bit of shoreline along there. This is also interesting. They said they walked along there the day before, and they’re sure the stick wasn’t there then.” The water levels along there were pretty stable.

The thing might have drifted along and then been blown ashore by the wind.

“I see. How old are these boys?”

“Twelve and thirteen, sir. We have to get them back into school, contact their parents, or whatever.” The usual bullshit, necessary, the right thing to do—but still a kind of bullshit.

“Where was this exactly?”

“It was along the Canal de St. Martin, maybe a kilometre southwest of the Bassin de Villette.”

That wasn’t even the Seine, just a mucky old canal, green and stagnant in summer and not much better in winter.

“Very well.” Maintenon’s eye traveled to their fading wall map of the city.

It was as good a place to dispose of a murder weapon as anywhere.

“I will be there as soon as possible, Inspector.”

“Thank you. Who is your shift supervisor?”

“Caron, sir.”

“All right. If I’m not here when you get here, you sit and wait. Don’t let anyone tell you any different. All right?”

“Yes, sir.”

Well, I’ll be damned.

Two breaks in one day.

This was kind of unusual.

 

***

 

Chiappe had stopped in just before going home at his more-or-less usual time of six o’clock, with Chief Inspector Rouard in tow, which was a bit unusual for him.

Rouard had the afternoon shift, four-to-twelve, responsible for all general operations. He was one of those guys that never seemed to go home. As a high-ranking professional, sixty or eighty-hour weeks were de rigeur. There was always a bulging briefcase going back and forth.

Between home and work, it might even be more hours than that.

“Gilles.”

“Sirs.”

Chiappe took a seat, Rouard, presumably not staying long, leaned back casually on a filing cabinet.

“So is this our blowgun?”

“Hmn.”

“Has it been dusted for prints?”

“Yes. No prints, no fibres, no bits of lip stuck on there like glue…”

Chiappe leaned over and had a good look. Rouard winked, stifling some comment or other.

Chiappe pulled it apart, screwed the two pieces together at the obvious joint…taking it apart, he set it down again.

“The big end would appear to be the mouthpiece.” Maintenon shrugged.

Half of the tube was painted to appear like heavy dark wood, the other half just a tube of thin aluminum.

“Huh. Ingenious. So. What are we getting on the phone-taps?”

They had been granted a half a dozen, and it took time to set up. They’d only been going for a little over a day.

Maintenon snorted.

“Nothing. Not a damned thing. No mysterious foreign voices calling up in the middle of the night, no cryptic messages, anyone they call seems pretty legitimate. Mathilde talks incessantly on the phone. She seems to have a lot of friends, mostly female. The Lussier household had a minor snag with a grocery order, whereby Madame Lussier didn’t much like the cabbage and the meat they sent over. Some of the others have domestic staff who seem to do much of the talking, especially when the boss isn’t home.”

“You were asking for a lot of warrants there, Gilles.” Rouard stood there chewing on a corner of his lip, eyes taking a quick look at Constable Bedard, who was studying his notes and wondering if he should start typing again or wait until they left.

He wasn’t real fast at it, but he had strong hands and tended to make quite a racket.

“Okay, well. I guess it hasn’t been very long—” Just as abruptly as they had arrived, Chiappe got up and with a slightly-amused looking Rouard still trailing along like a pilot fish or a lamprey or something, they were gone.

A pair of voices muttered their way down the hall and Gilles took a good hard look at the clock.

“Bah.”

“Sir?”

“Go home, Constable. We’ll see you tomorrow, okay?”

“Ah—yes, sir.”

The constable sat there for a moment, but the fact was that this could wait. It was just one more freaking report, after all. It was all negative information—nothing much happening.

Maintenon, hands up behind his head, feet up on the desk, eyelids fluttering, hadn’t budged.

That was his problem, decided a rather tired Louis Bedard. He was also getting hungry as hell.

 

***

 

There was only so much one could do in a day, and at some point Maintenon decided he wasn’t doing anyone any good by working himself into a frazzle. It was good to have quiet, not that he wouldn’t have that at home. But all the notes and materials were right there if he thought of something.

Across the hall, it was a hive of activity, but since he didn’t want to get sucked in, he didn’t look out.

It was their problem and not his.

His glance strayed to the window, and his shoulders sagged.

This time of year it was pitch-black outside, only the streetlights and dull amber windows across the river giving any hint of warmth at all.

At some point he had to go home.

“Ah, for crying out loud.” Getting up, he went to the coat-rack.

The nearest Metro station was a short walk, the night air chill and cold. The moon was full. Off in the distance dogs barked, someone called out briefly, and there were a few people about, with automobiles and buses coming and going.

No matter how a person felt, at any given moment of time, the life of the city went on.

When he got home, the house would be cold and dark, with nothing but the radio and hopefully some leftovers in the fridge.

He was quite looking forward to it. Lately, just looking after himself, had become something of a chore.

 

***

 

With nothing really new to go on, and most of their little jobs best left to junior officers, Gilles was back in the office early enough. Lately he’d noticed that his posture was really bad, perhaps adding to the discomfort in the lower back, and so he was trying to sit up properly. He was finding it hard going. People just didn’t walk enough anymore.

Again, he was reading the material and hoping for some odd fact to leap out and strike him right between the eyes.

So far that wasn’t happening, and it was with a small sigh of relief (almost) that he reached for the phone, which was ringing.

It had been a quiet morning, and perhaps that was the difference.

“Hello?”

“Gilles. It’s LeBref.”

Maintenon looked at the clock.

“So. What’s up?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing?”

“Absolutely, fucking, nothing. She seems to be staying in today.” LeBref had a car and a partner just around the corner, but he was stuck in the mouth of an alley.

The cold northwest wind was blowing and the temperature was hovering just above freezing.

Calling in from the phone booth down the block meant that he was at least in out of the wind, if only for a moment. He could just barely make out the door of her building from where he was.

Even snow would have been better. As it was, everything was sopping wet and it was likely to stay that way.

“I’m sorry. Life sucks sometimes, as we all know—”

“Yeah, I know. Look, here’s Alphonse. I have to go, Gilles.” Slam.

Gilles hung up, wondering what all that was about. But if truth be told, no one liked working a case that clearly wasn’t going anywhere.

He wondered who Alphonse was, but it would be in the report.

LeBref was just dropping a hint, not that Gilles couldn’t have lived without it.

Across the room, ensconced behind the battered old ironclad typewriter, Louis Bedard heaved a deep sigh. From his perspective, every phone call was another little punch in the guts. The way things were going, he’d be back to patrolling, directing traffic and writing parking tickets. Give it another day or two with no breaks or fresh leads, and it seemed inevitable.

“I’m sorry, Constable. I know you didn’t sign up for secretarial work.”

The fact was, that Bedard was pretty much all caught up. The previously-heaping stack on the left side of the desk had been all sorted out and filed in rows along the shelves behind him. The smaller, neater stack on the right side was all typed up and ready for review—and eventual prosecution.

Maybe.

Or that’s how it was supposed to work.

“It’s not that, so much, sir.”

“You look tired.”

“I was out late last night, sir. The wife and I got a babysitter and, uh, we went out dancing—” Stopping abruptly, a strange look came over the young man’s face.

He sat, staring into space, mouth open. Then he firmly closed it and turned to Gilles.

“Sir—”

Maintenon looked up again.

“Yes.”

“Can I just talk for a minute here? It’s about our theory of the crime.”

Gilles nodded. Bedard had been listening. He’d been thinking and using his head. He was sticking his neck out and risking ridicule if not exactly his ass. That’s what it was for, the brain inside that meat-bucket.

That was the theory, anyways.

He was reading the sergeant’s manual on his lunch and his breaks. Every chance he got, he had his nose buried in that book. The book certainly had its place. It was by no means everything. People figured that out after a while.

“Yes.”

“We’ve been leaving a lot of stones unturned. There are just too many of them. Too much time has gone by. Not enough men, not enough hours in the day.” He tried to put it as logically as he could, and yet he wasn’t quite sure what he was trying to say, either. “Did Guan Fu buy a ticket? We haven’t even tried on that one. Certainly there were no ticket stubs in his room—”

“Hmn. I agree. Go on.”

“Well, it seems to me that we can’t really prove that Guan Fu killed Banzini. Sure, it’s a logical inference, if we accept the two deaths as connected. That is our assumption—that Guan Fu was hired to kill Banzini. Which implies the person involved was in no position to do it themselves…”

“Which leads us back to the Opera, and those people closest to the victim.”

“Right, sir. But it seems to me that Guan Fu didn’t have to kill anybody. He’s already done his job. He has distracted us from perhaps something else, some little thing of much more significance.”

“I see. I think I agree. So we have two killers, presumably. Guan Fu—maybe, and whoever killed Guan Fu. After he killed Largo Banzini.”

“Maybe—maybe we have only one killer, sir. What would Guan Fu’s motive be. We have no reason to believe they’ve ever met—certainly not in Hong Kong, as Largo has never been there.” He had, however, been on two or three international tours. “For all we know, he answered some kooky little ad in the employment section. Easy work, good pay. Take this stick and throw it in the water, take this money and rent a suit—get yourself a beard and some fake glasses. See if you can find us a magician’s cane. And maybe that’s all there was to it—” The old work from home and make a thousand francs a day sort of thing.

By one line of reasoning, if Largo knew Guan Fu, he could have met him anywhere. But the same could be said of any other person.

“I’m just trying to be thorough here. Obviously, I don’t have much experience—” He coloured slightly under Maintenon’s gaze.

Maintenon chewed on that one for a while.

“Don’t ever put yourself down, Louis. It is always a mistake.”

“Ah, yes, sir.”

“Go on.”

“That’s right sir, and we can always turn it bass-ackwards and look at it from the other direction. And yet, we’re not really suggesting that Largo was killed as a cover of some kind in the death of Guan Fu. It’s just too ludicrous—too risky. We’ve made a big assumption on the Guan Fu killing. I don’t know if that’s a mistake, however, there is some strength in acknowledging that assumption…ah. If you see what I mean—”

“So. What do you want to do next?”

“Well, sir. It’s just that we’ve showed that picture of Guan Fu to half the town. We’re showing it to the foreign office, the counter staff at the bus stations and the train stations. Even the airport. Seriously, sir. We’ve sent it to Hong Kong and every detachment in France. We’ve canvassed the area of the Star Luck Hotel, we’ve got guys out checking joke shops for fuck’s sakes—”

“And?” A glimmer of what he was getting at stole over Maintenon’s consciousness…or something like that.

Were they going at it, ‘bass-ackwards’?

“Why don’t we show it to those closest to him, all the people around Banzini—and I mean his mother, his sister, his little brother, all the people who worked most closely with him in his career. Guan Fu didn’t just come out of nowhere—if someone hired him, then they had to have had some kind of contact.” Bedard sucked in air, plunging onwards, ever onwards. “We haven’t exactly been showing pictures of all the cast members around either. The Star Luck for example. We were looking for people in the audience, ah…with blowguns, right? Our thinking has been manipulated right from the start. Look. What if it isn’t a cast member? At this rate, pursuing this line of thinking, we’re never going to get them.”

Maintenon thought about it. That last bit seemed accurate enough. Anyone planning to kill Guan Fu would have avoided being seen at the hotel. And yet that was another assumption.

“All right. Why don’t we just do that, then?”

“We’ll take some of the other pictures as well, right sir? Maybe even throw in a few odd-balls, and we’ll just see what the people have to say.” They could go right back down through their whole list of personalities. “Also, if somebody knows something, we’ll put a little pressure on them…right, sir?”

“And when would you like to do all that, Constable?”

“Just as soon as I get a list of names, addresses and phone numbers. All together in the same notebook.” As the young man began putting selected items into a fresh folder, another thought struck him. “A real pro doesn’t manufacture evidence, sir. He doesn’t plant false clues all over the place. He tries to leave nothing behind at all, sir.”

Amateurs cook up a story, when caught with any evidence at all—an excuse, as it was sometimes called, and the pros desperately tried to remain undetected, according to Bedard.

Pros tried to stay really, really clean.

Yes, it was out of the book. No, it wasn’t exactly brilliant. At least there was hope.

“Hmn, I suppose that’s true, or true enough, anyways.”

“Honestly sir, I think we’re dealing with a real talented amateur here. One who’s had time, to think it through. And yet they don’t know anything about crime, sir. The cast has been together for months, training for the dances and learning what is, after all, the choreography for a brand-new work. All that singing. All them songs. None of them had ever seen it before.” As a group, most of them had worked with at least some, of the other cast members before.

There was a complex set of relationships there.

It was a very tight little demographic, according to Bedard.

“And we still can’t rule out that homosexual angle, either.”

 

 

Chapter Nineteen

 

“Shit.” The phone crashed into its cradle.

What had looked like a promising idea was starting to look like another big waste of time.

Most of their subjects—one could hardly call them suspects, even at this point, were out and about at this time of day, and while other investigators, out on the tail, would call in from time to time, just finding anyone to talk to was a bit of a problem. Bedard hadn’t been able to get a single one on the phone, although he had spoken to Madame Lussier and a maid or a housekeeper or two at other residences.

“Hmn.”

“Well, the last we heard from LeBref, Mathilde is at home. Maybe we’d just better get over there. Almost anything is better than this—” Bedard trailed off. “Why don’t I give her a call.”

“I agree.” Rope and responsibility—

Maintenon made a sweeping gesture, taking in their heaps of useless material.

“Yes, sir. I guess they’ll let us have a car at the desk, eh, Inspector.”

Gilles, creaky in the joints, was busy putting on his coat so Bedard picked up the phone and made a quick call down there.

It was a strangely potent feeling.

And, as usual, he was scared shitless.

The next call was to Mathilde.

Was it always going to be like this?

Fuck.

 

***

 

While it wasn’t quite noon yet, they were admitted almost immediately upon pushing the buzzer.

The door clunked into place behind them, and Bedard noted chunks of salt all over the floor of the small ante-room.

Cops never took their shoes off, it simply wasn’t done.

The world just wasn’t that civilized.

It took a moment, and then they were seated.

Mathilde was still in her housecoat and fuzzy slippers, but it looked like she’d been up for a while. There was an empty cup and saucer, a small plate with the crumbs of toast or something still on the heavily-veined white marble coffee table. With an afternoon nap, she’d be fresh as a daisy and able to perform.

Her apartment was quite large, and it was an interesting picture to see, in that a successful and beautiful young woman was also not particularly neat. There were papers, fashion and society magazines, and other detritus, maybe even debris, scattered around. There were several vases of fresh-cut flowers on the mantel, where perhaps another sort of person might have another sort of trophy. Here again, one of them had clearly wilted, petals lying on the massy wood and the water was looking cloudy. The bouquet really ought to have been thrown out by now.

Her hair was in curlers and it appeared to be still wet. The place was more humid than most and smelled very much like the bath and a clean, healthy young woman.

This was in stark contrast with Maintenon’s bedroom, which had become a bit of a bear-pit after Ann passed away. His own smell was a combination of old man, aftershave, socks, underwear, feet and tobacco. Human sweat, a few drops of piss and possibly one or two other things in there as well. It was a terrible thing, to be aware of one’s own smell.

Her house was definitely different, mostly because of what was missing.

Cooking oil and bacon, boiled cabbage and laundry, diapers and cigarettes, all those good things—all the usual smells were gone.

Constable Bedard, exhibiting considerable charm, had taken a hard-stuffed, floral-patterned chair directly across from her. There was no question of her taste. He began by lining up his questions and his photos. Gilles stood, hands behind his back, in front of her third-floor windows, curtains thrown open. He examined the room for other signs of personality and perhaps intellect—this was always difficult, never more so than with a certain type of worldly young woman.

She could afford nice things, which made a certain impression. She had to have some kind of brain in her head, if only to listen to some good advice.

Dumb as a stick, she probably had listened—

Money came and went, essentially. This one might be good with it.

“Okay, and hopefully this won’t take long. Have you ever seen this guy before?”

It was the morgue shot of one very dead Guan Fu, unmistakable in its nature and its intent. The ligature marks around the neck were ugly viewing. He’d been in the fridge for a while. Her hand stole up to her throat and she clutched at the neckline of her robe, white and fuzzy and very thick and warm-looking. The slippers must have come with it, a perfect match.

She had gone very still.

“It’s okay if you don’t recognize anyone in particular. We’ll be showing these to everybody, basically.”

“No. Sorry.”

Bedard slid the next photo in front of her.

“No. Sorry.”

Next photo.

“No. Sorry…”

Next photo.

“Ah—that’s Monsieur Sauvage.” She looked up ingenuously. “You don’t think he did it, do you?”

She was so innocent, but that one didn’t speak well for her thought processes as Maintenon listened and watched.

She recognized Banzini’s agent, a half a dozen of their columnists, and several more obvious ones. It took a few minutes to go through the pile.

“Okay, well, thank you, young lady.”

“So…what’s this all about? Everyone says the police will never solve this.”

Bedard looked up with a friendly grin.

“Oh, don’t you worry about them. Honestly, I think we’ll be making an arrest very, very soon now.”

Nicely done, Bedard.

Maintenon cleared his throat.

“Anyways, Mademoiselle Gaudrau, that’s really all we wanted to ask you.”

On cue. Bedard put the photos back in the folder.

“I guess that’s about it, eh, Inspector?”

They had agreed not to confront Mathilde with her affair with Banzini. First, they would show their photos to all concerned. Maintenon was even thinking of putting Guan Fu’s picture in the paper. The police would ask for the public’s assistance in identifying him and hopefully get some kind of handle, on where he might have come from, and where he might have gone while in town. He hadn’t quite made up his mind on that one yet. Putting pressure on a killer was always a tough call.

“We won’t trouble you for any more of your time, Mademoiselle.”

“Thank you, Inspector.”

She stood, eyes still straying to the file folder. They made their goodbyes and exited the building.

The car was collecting quite a load of snow, unusual but not unheard-of for northern France this time of year. The constable got it running and Maintenon gratefully eased himself inside, where it wasn’t quite so insufferably hot. Mathilde wasn’t having any problems paying for the heat. That was for sure, unfortunately the police had to dress for the weather, the cold, the outdoors. The Quai was pretty old fashioned as well, a bit drafty in winter and potentially stifling in summer. In winter the feet were both cold, and sweaty at the same time.

Bedard opened the trunk and found a brush.

It took him a minute to clear off the windows and then he brought it into the car, sticking it down behind the passenger seat on the floor.

“Okay, Inspector. Where to now?”

“Who’s next on the list?”

“Monsieur Rouché, I think.”

Maintenon checked his watch.

“All right. Let’s see if he’s turned up at work yet.” He reached for the microphone.

They were in luck. The subject had in fact been followed to the Palais, and his followers were parked nearby. They were wondering what to do next, as he was probably there for the duration. Maintenon told them to stay put and wait for relief…being an Inspector wasn’t exactly a popularity contest sometimes.

Bedard put it in gear and off they went, the streets wet and slippery. Visibility was still pretty good but traffic was heavy and the snow would inevitably slow everything down. The sun was a pale glow behind the slanting flurries, something bright but cold, more or less round. It was down low in the south, and not much more could be said about it. It was just there.

 

***

 

They were back to square one.

“This guy could be anybody. There are hundreds of gentlemen, with beards, mustaches, nice suits and walking sticks in this town, and a good number of them turn up for the Opera.” That was the consensus so far, and Rouché had seemed particularly adamant about that one. “Sooner or later.”

Rouché was no happier with a few days gone by, but he had no discernable motive and he had cooperated as best he could. You really couldn’t read that much into it. Gilles chewed on that thought. If he wasn’t careful, he’d wear a hole in his lip.

All of the other people they had interviewed, as they turned up for work at the Palais, had hemmed and hawed and said they didn’t know the man in the photograph from Adam. They’d picked out a few celebrities, some rich people, and some of their fellow actors. That didn’t prove that any one of them was lying.

The logic kept spiraling out of control.

They were at a bit of a loss, with too many ideas and no real direction of travel, as Bedard put it. They’d been hours at it so far.

They were sitting in the car.

The radio crackled quietly in the dashboard.

It had been another disappointing day. Although they had questioned people and shown the photos to more than a dozen subjects with more-or-less predictable results, (i.e. nothing), Gilles’ mood seemed to have improved somewhat.

“Car Nineteen.”

Maintenon ignored it.

His lower back was aching from the car seat, hard as a rock in the police model and sloped just the wrong way to relax. Bedard’s aggressive tailgating style of driving and the bumpy, pot-holed streets, weren’t helping much either. Still, he was alive and there was always hope.

Sooner or later, he was going to have to find a washroom.

“Car Nineteen.”

“Oh. Shit.” Bedard grabbed for it, turning up the volume.

“Is that us? Ha.” Maintenon shook his head.

He really wasn’t paying all that much attention, which was a bad sign for any investigation.

“Car Nineteen here. Go ahead.”

“Car Nineteen. See the gentleman. Monsieur Sauvage, Palais Garnier.”

“Whoa.”

“Give me that.” Maintenon sat up, biting back a wince of pain and cussing silently.

I have not been paying attention.

What in the hell is wrong with me…

“Inspector Maintenon here. What’s going on? Over.”

“One of their players hasn’t shown up for work and they have some concerns. Over”

“Which person, please?”

“Mathilde Gaudrau.”

Gilles and Bedard exchanged inscrutable looks.

Maintenon’s right thumb pressed the button. Bedard dropped it into gear, checking over his shoulder to see where the traffic was.

“Right. Roger. Car Nineteen. Rolling. We are five, six minutes out.”

They were only a few blocks away.

 

***

 

Opera-goers muttered, lined up for tickets in the cold and the rain, as the pair flashed badges and the security guard let them in. There was quite a bustle in there, as those already admitted dealt with their coats and hats and headed off looking for their seats.

“The whole thing was a trap, wasn’t it, sir?”

Maintenon avoided giving him a dirty look by ignoring him. Inwardly, his guts roiled. That was one nice lady…but was it completely unexpected?

Is this a trap?

What ever could we have been thinking of…

Hmn.

“No, we’re just trying to be thorough, Constable.” And then, out of pure desperation, they had ended up winging it.

Now they were paying the price.

Argh.

“Yes, sir.”

They were metres from the door to Rouché’s office.

Gilles gave it a quick rap and then went in. Sauvage, Rouché and several other familiar faces turned in unison and then they were all up on their feet as they opened their mouths to speak.

One was Mathilde’s agent, Gustave Constantineau. Unlike some of the others, he hadn’t been there on opening night, and so far, all he had been to the police was a few routine questions and a file photo courtesy of the newspaper morgue. He was just one of far too many peripheral faces, faces with no real motive, and nothing to be gained. Ironclad alibis were just icing on the cake, but his in-laws had been in town and they’d been having a quiet dinner at home on the night in question. And yet if he knew anything about Largo and Mathilde, he couldn’t have liked Banzini very much. There was still that. Successful in his business, he must have a few bucks as the Yanks would say.

In the flesh, Monsieur Constantineau was a medium-sized man of good proportions. He was clad in a warm brown pin-striped suit with paisley socks and black and white saddle shoes. It was as much a costume as anything else. He had a red and white corsage in his lapel and was clean shaven with a hint of blue in the cheeks and chin areas. There was plenty of male cologne in the air.

Maintenon gave Bedard the nod. He wanted to observe objectively. The constable was quick on the uptake and seemed to be doing well.

“Okay, gentlemen, we understand Mademoiselle Gaudrau didn’t show up? What time is the show?”

“It’s in fifteen minutes!” On that, Constantineau looked at his watch and gulped.

None of them looked happy.

“You’ve called her home and all of that? What about parents, friends, boyfriends, et cetera?”

“Yes. We’ve certainly tried that. We don’t necessarily know all of her friends, mind you. According to the housekeeper, who arrived about four p.m., Mathilde wasn’t there when she arrived and she assumed that she had gone in a bit early. A lot early, but then I don’t think she’s all that bright.” He cleared his throat. “I mean the servant. Her boyfriend, well…I don’t quite know about anything like that.”

Players generally showed up a good hour and a half, two hours before the show. No one seemed to know much about her boyfriends, although she was out and about quite a bit in the off season—when she wasn’t working five nights a week at the Palais, with only Sunday and Monday off. She’d been seen with various men at parties and such. None of them seemed to last very long—

Bedard looked at Maintenon, who nodded in encouragement.

“We’ll put out a bulletin immediately. I’ll need your phone.”

“Inspector Maintenon.”

“Yes?”

“I’m very worried.” Sauvage looked ill. “I’m sorry, gentlemen, but I really must go—”

The poor man was practically shitting razor-blades. He had an opera to perform. He’d just lost a second star in as many weeks.

“Yes, Monsieur. We take this very seriously, I can assure you of that.”

On Maintenon’s nod, Sauvage turned and bolted.

Bedard strode to the desk and the phone.

“How do I get an outside line?”

“Dial zero and the operator will assist you.”

Bedard nodded sharply. His finger spun.

“Thank you, sir. Operator. Get me the Quai d’Orfevres.” His professional voice was calm and assured and Maintenon would have to admit that he was impressed.

With a way of taking charge, Bedard reminded him of himself, at a younger and perhaps better age. That would have been quite a few years ago. With the constable on the phone, Maintenon took over, beckoning them away from the desk so Bedard could make the call.

“We’re a little curious, gentlemen, and I suppose it is a minor point. But which of you called the police that night…and why?”

All he got were blank looks and unanimous shrugs.

“I’m sorry, but we have no idea. We had a lot going on. Most likely one of the junior staff.” Rouché.

“Hmn, Very well. So how has Mathilde been lately? Was she showing any signs of distress, was she moody, had she withdrawn from friends and acquaintances?”

More blank looks.

Maintenon sighed a little sigh.

“Well, let’s don’t all speak up at once. Okay, we’ll talk to the others as well, but it sounds like no major changes in her work performance? No big change in the demeanour. So, who’s taking over for her, anyways?”

This was a question that they understood. Since the others looked at him, Constantineau spoke first.

“Sylphie Valois. A very good singer, a little bit old for the part, especially with public expectations running so very, very high, ah. She’s a little bit broad in the beam as one might say. She’s adequately prepared. She’s one of my clients, actually. She’ll do. Please, Inspector. You must find her—” He turned away, face down, suddenly overcome with some powerful emotion.

“Did she call in sick?”

“No, sir.” This time it was Rouché. “If she had, I mean, we would just fill in, make an announcement, and go on with the show. No, this is very troubling, in light of certain other events.”

“Yes, of course.”

Bedard’s low murmur broke off. He looked up from the phone.

“Sir. We have the publicity photos, but perhaps we could contact her family members. There’s a chance she might have changed her hair or dressed differently for some reason, assuming she’s gone off on her own.” Bedard’s intelligent eyes engaged the Inspector, mostly. “With missing persons, it’s better to have a few different pictures. She’s sure as hell not going to be in the costume, right?”

Let the others think what they might.

Maintenon nodded.

“Someone here probably has the next of kin’s phone number, non?”

“Fuck. Shit.” Constantineau nodded glumly, reaching for his side pocket and the little black book. “Yeah.”

 

 

Chapter Twenty

 

There wasn’t much point in hanging around the Palais waiting to see if she would turn up.

They were hoping to keep the press at bay, so they were staying off the radio. They pulled over and made a quick call from a phone booth, looking for information. They were lucky to catch Levain at the office.

According to those officers manning the phone taps, there had been no unusual activity on Mathilde’s line, nor of anyone else that they were monitoring. While they would review it again, there just didn’t seem to be anything there. Otherwise, they would have alerted the investigators at that time.

That seemed firm enough for now.

Mathilde was a local girl and her mother lived on the third floor of an old house in the northwestern quarter of the city. It was in the 19th Arrondissement. Bedard, sensing an opportunity, drove aggressively, and Maintenon endured it. It probably did save a bit of time. It took a while to gain admittance, but the maid finally let them in, a little apologetically. After taking their hats and coats, she led them into the living room. A small, black, long-haired dog with a bad case of mange or something, came racing out from somewhere, barking madly and turning circles around their feet, first right and then left and then back again.

“I’m so sorry, gentlemen.” The maid grabbed the still-barking dog and took it off down the back hallway, where they could hear her talking to it in a high, baby-talking voice.

Finally there was quiet and she came tap-tapping back into the room.

The old lady sat there glaring at them, speechless, the whole time.

Madame Gaudrau was very frail, shoulders wrapped in a patterned, lacy shawl. Her eyes were very bright and very blue. Oddly enough, the shawl was pink, fitting into one or another of many stereotypes. Her hands were all bones inside of a skin that was no longer elastic.

She didn’t seem to understand what was happening.

They were going around in circles.

“It’s all right, Freda, she’s just gone somewhere, to a friend’s house for a visit, maybe.”

The maid, seated beside the old woman, patted a blue-veined hand reassuringly. Madame Gaudrau had long, crabbed fingers with the big knuckle joints of arthritis. There were lace antimacassars on the backs of couches and chairs, a bird cage, hooded, in one corner and a faint hint of mothballs off in the distance.

“Well. That is certainly a possibility—” The maid gave the officers a bright, blank look.

The old woman was so placid now, so assured that she was right and they were just wrong, possibly even horrible men just being rude.

“Ah, Madame.”

The old lady, once going, was unstoppable.

The father had been dead about ten years. There were still pictures of a happy young couple on the mantel, dressed for the 1870s. Maybe even the 1860s. It was unbelievably hot in the parlour…argh.

There was the odd smell of something almost toxic in there, the sort of salve that people rubbed on the chest to ward off a cold.

It was one of those things. The lady was getting pretty senile. She was hard of hearing and didn’t seem to understand who they were or why they were asking all these questions about her youngest daughter. Her little baby. She must be terribly afraid, on some level—life being so uncertain. These days, and at her age.

They sat and listened. They sat and endured.

Mathilde was the youngest of nine children, and Euphemia Gaudrau must have been getting pretty tired by then. She would have been forty-eight when the last little soul came along—this sort of thing had always given Bedard food for thought. There was no way he’d ever do that to Charlotte, not if he could help it, anyways.

The conversation had been stilted so far. So far she had dominated the conversation.

Seeing the old woman, clearly suffering from some debilitating affliction, it was obvious the lady wasn’t very competent, and Bedard felt kind of responsible for what had happened to Mathilde.

He tried to say as much.

“Honestly, Madame Gaudrau. It’s just that her friends are really worried about her—”

“Nothing has happened to her. She’s just gone out for a while—”

Senility. Sooner or later, death comes for us all. That’s how she looked—dead but not forgotten, not quite ready to lie down yet, not by a long shot—every so often there was a flash of the woman she must have been, once.

She was scary as hell on some level, like when she gave that death’s-head smile.

“You’ll see.”

Formidable.

“So, basically, that’s why we’re here, Madame. But, I suppose, there’s nothing for it.” Bedard, aware that he was floundering, unsure of how to handle the situation, fell silent. “Look, if you don’t mind, would it be all right if we looked through the family album?”

“Oh, we have some wonderful pictures. Such wonderful times—”

They’d shown her their pictures, after all, and it was only polite. Even though she had basically ignored them, shaking her head impatiently as she tried to explain that her daughter was just out with friends.

“I’ll get it for them, Madame, it’s no real trouble.” The maid up and bolted to the rear of the house, presumably knowing exactly what she was looking for and where it was kept.

Maintenon was on the other side of the coffee table from Madame, with a face longer than a horse’s, completely silent so far, after a few short questions.

Why are you here?

She just didn’t seem to get it.

Perhaps that was more merciful in the end. In a few more years he would be in her place.

The maid came bustling back with a thick black album, bulging with pictures held in place by gummed corner mounts and a few loose ones stuffed inside the front cover.

Bedard, as if sensing Gilles’ sudden rush of melancholy, again stepped up to the microphone, figuratively speaking.

“Well. Madame. We’d best not be troubling you any further. Mademoiselle—”

The maid, or housekeeper, or companion, Freda, a slender, flat-chested woman in grey habit, was obviously eager. Perhaps this was the most exciting thing that had happened to one such as her, in quite some time.

“Perhaps, ah, after making sure that Madame has everything she needs, you might allow us to speak to you…in the kitchen?” Bedard took the photo album from willing hands as the old lady looked on in a kind of contempt.

The lady nodded, and turned to attend to her employer, her friend and charge and benefactor of all these many years.

“Oh, yes, thank you, Monsieurs. I shall be right with you.”

 

***

 

The kitchen was spotless, smelling vaguely of roast chicken and the hot, wet smell of tea and then there was the spice cabinet with its glass-fronted doors. This room was distinctly different, much brighter than the front room. She had the most modern light fixtures and the blonde type of block table in the middle of the room, all bits and pieces of pine glued together and lavishly varnished where it wasn’t all cut up from food preparation. The thing had to be a third of a metre thick. There was an impressive rack of copper cookware hanging overhead.

Quickly going through the album, Constable Bedard located a half a dozen fairly recent pictures of Mathilde, in different hairstyles and outfits.

The kitchen itself, was impressive.

The old lady certainly hadn’t stinted on a room she herself would never use, and it looked like a pretty good place to work. He particularly liked the glass-fronted cupboards, displaying some pretty nice tableware. Freda came in, carefully leaving the door open a crack.

“So. Wow. What a challenge! Quite the grand old lady, though.”

“Oh, sir. Thank you, thank you.” She had a surprisingly good smile. “It’s just that we don’t get many visitors these days. She’s just as scared of you as you are of her.”

Again that tired smile…

Maintenon chuckled, dutifully perhaps.

Bedard, empathy written all over him, reached out and she clung to his hands in a curiously touching gesture. This lady was childless. It was written all over her—in those spare lines and narrow hips and in an even less kindly manner, in those pinched lips. Somewhere in there would be her own bit of disapproval—but clearly not for the police. Freda had come over from England as an au pair girl, and had loved the city so much that she had stayed and made a life of it. All of this came gushing out upon asking about her delightful accent…as Bedard put it.

“It’s just that I recognized him straight away. She probably did too, but she just wouldn’t tell you—”

“It’s okay, Freda. I hope you don’t mind if I call you that.”

“No, not at all.” She was all giddy and breathless, a spinster badly in need of attention.

“It’s just that I recognized him straight away.”

“Which one? Er, whom?”

Maintenon was hanging back, letting the young officer have his head.

Wordlessly, the lady beckoned at his file folder.

Biting his lip, Constable Bedard opened it up and put the stack of pictures on the gleaming countertop. His eyes glittered as she took it.

She quickly shuffled through the stack and pulled one out.

“That one. Eric. He used to drive Madame, on Sunday mornings he would drive her to Church. He was a handyman, and for a while, he had some pretences of being a butler. I think he’d taken some kind of a course, the kind that you see on the back of a matchbook. Not that he ever really did much with it. She fired him about four years ago.”

“Well, that’s wonderful. Did you recognize any of the others?”

“Yes, of course, but this is her home. Mathilde is her daughter. And well. You saw—you saw how she is…what she’s like sometimes.” Her finger poked at one photo in particular. “That’s Monsieur Sauvage…for example.”

“And where do you know him from?”

“He’s in the papers, and I’ve heard the name, of course. I follow along, as Mathilde was such a beautiful singer—”

“Okay. So do you know where she banks? I mean Mathilde. It’s basically just a routine question, of course we have to ask, and as you said, you see how she is—”

Freda coughed that up readily enough and Bedard scribbled it down as Maintenon watched in a kind of sick fascination. But the constable was reading the poor lady pretty well so far.

“What’s Eric’s last name?”

“Ah, ah…ah. Shit.” It was on the tip of her tongue, but it just wouldn’t come and Bedard did his best to reassure her. “You can call us later when you think of it, all right?”

He gave her a card from the Special Homicide Unit.

“Yes, sir, of course, sir.”

“And, we were just curious. No one seems to know if Mathilde had a boyfriend—oh, you know what I mean, a proper boyfriend—not just the sort of men that she had to sort of pay attention to, you know, for professional reasons?”

“Do you mean like Monsieur Beliveau?” They’d just been in the paper the other night.

Some fancy after-hours place. A whole crowd of beautiful people.

“Ah, well—” Bedard cleared his throat. “I’m not familiar with him. Oh, wait, he’s the agricultural chemicals, isn’t he? No, I was thinking of someone a little younger than that…someone a little closer to her own age.”

Beliveau was fat, bald, smoked cigars and liked to gamble in the more public houses. He was also about sixty-five years old.

The lady blushed beet-red.

Paydirt.

“There was this boy, one time. Before she really started to get famous…before she moved out.”

“I see, and can you give us a name?”

“Aloysius.”

He waited patiently, pen in hand.

Finally she remembered, and coughed that up too.

“…Vizard.” She seemed pleased, as at her age such little things were often hard to bring back from the depths of one very long memory.

She wasn’t that old, but she probably didn’t get much intellectual stimulation around there either.

“And how long ago roughly was that?”

“Ah—oh, God. Maybe a year, not much more than that.” The Golden Dragon had been Mathilde’s big break, not that she hadn’t ever performed or had a decent part before.

Mathilde had begun serious study at age nine or thereabouts. She’d worked very hard.

They listened, but she was sort of trained in reticence and ran out of things to say soon enough.

“Er…did you know about her and Largo Banzini? I mean, five, six years ago?”

She blushed beet red and shook her head.

This was probably not a good time to push, thought Bedard. Maintenon could help out once in a while, but he just stood there listening, for crying out loud…

“I know this is a terrible thing to ask, but we heard she might have been pregnant…”

Her hand, beyond her control at that point, came up and covered her mouth. It was difficult to read, but she clearly didn’t want to answer…

Bedard nodded and patted her forearm reassuringly.

“Okay, just a few more routine questions.”

Bedard ran down the list from the top, and she was familiar enough with Mathilde and the household. She was reassured that the police were doing something. The answers came readily enough.

He couldn’t think of anything else and Maintenon just shrugged and looked impatient.

She gulped.

“Promise that you will find her—”

“Yes, and you’re doing such a wonderful job. I know it can’t be easy. Thank you. This has all been very helpful to us—and we will find Mathilde. Say, what did this Vizard sort of look like, anyway?”

Apparently, he was tall, slender, with longish brown hair and brown eyes.

“Okay, thank you, Freda. I can’t think of too much more—”

“Thank you, thank you, gentlemen.”

A life lived through others, an all-too-familiar story.

It was a subdued Bedard who broke off somehow and gratefully got them away.

Poor old woman—both of them.

 

***

 

There was some possibility that Mathilde was simply late for work, although according to their sources she had never done it before—a few minutes, maybe, once or twice.

She was a professional, and it was completely out of character.

Since the press had taken to listening to their own police-band radios, (the bastards), they had gone back to the Quai to work the phones rather than sit in the car and use the radio.

Calling the Opera, she hadn’t turned up so far. It looked pretty serious, or serious enough.

The possibilities were endless, not all of them having really dire consequences. She might have fallen and broken an ankle or a wrist or hit her head. She might have become ill and gone to an emergency room, or called her doctor. She might have gone off her rocker and lost her mind—the police had no choice but to cover all the possibilities. This took manpower, or just man-hours perhaps, with two or three officers calling round to hospitals, ambulance services, and the like. Even that took a couple of hours, and their list was by no means complete. It was quickly established that she had not seen her doctor. It was a good thing that Bedard, under Maintenon’s scrutiny as it were, had been thorough. He had all of that in his little notebook, also the phone number of Mathilde’s head-shrinker. Her analyst, one Doctor Ernest Gephard, had stated that she had not spoken to him recently, nor had she seemed particularly stressed or troubled during her last visit. That had been a week or six days previously, as it worked out. According to him, she seemed perfectly normal at the time, an irony that seemed to escape the doctor but caused Bedard an involuntary giggle. (Why was she there then?) He knew all about Banzini, of course, but said she had made a pretty good recovery, and of course all of that was years ago.

Why she had a shrink at all, was a question for another day. Assuming she had made a good recovery, but again it was wise not to press too hard. Bedard had agreed to call him later, as perhaps he might be needed…it was all very diplomatic.

They might need him later, after all.

They had dispatched officers with quickly-copied pictures of Mathilde to the bus and train stations and also to the airport. There were no pictures of Vizard that they knew of. They had people checking with the attendants at all the Metro stations that lay between her house and the Opera. They were also checking for sightings between one or two other possible destinations, including her mother’s in the 19th Arrondissement. If they had more men, they’d be talking to every cab driver on shift in the area. All of the information was negative so far.

It was a cop’s nightmare.

If she wasn’t so famous, and if she hadn’t been involved in the Banzini case, police would have normally waited forty-eight hours before taking a missing-person case seriously. In the absence of any other information…

Experience had shown that ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the individual in question would show up again, pretty quickly, and that much of the time there was no criminal activity involved.

But this one was definitely different, thought Bedard. He stole a glance at Maintenon. He was at the other end of the room, busily engaged on a phone of his own.

Outside the high windows, the sky was black and cold, a few barren pin-pricks of light indicating the half-dozen major stars visible on a clear night despite the lights and pollution of the city.

The phones kept ringing, low voices muttered and fell silent, and it was another good bit of overtime, if one cared to think of it that way.

The wife, on the other hand, was beginning to ask a few questions.

As if reading his mind, Maintenon turned and gave him a look and a nod.

 

 

Chapter Twenty-One

 

The revelation that he lived in a tenement had been a recent one, stemming from seeing Maintenon’s place. Then, a day or two later, he had taken the car to pick up Archambault. The gruff old detective’s own vehicle had broken down or failed to start. Archambault’s place was all right too, certainly from the outside, as he stood waiting on the pavement.

He wasn’t too sure how he felt about it, but then it was all he had ever known—until then. The family’s prospects were looking up, and it sure beat working in a coal mine or a sweatshop somewhere. All he had to do was to keep on doing his job. Keep his nose clean, he might even go places.

Louis Bedard clattered up the hollow treads of the last flight of stairs, nodding pleasantly at a man he knew only as Benoit. He was just coming out of the apartment door. He would be doing another long night shift, supervising a room full of women and girls sewing, many of them of foreign extraction. There were a few males too, men who didn’t speak any French at all, according to Benoit. It was one of those innumerable loft factories that were becoming a bit of a social problem in their own right. Imagine, a whole life lived on piece-work, and taking every shift you could get, too.

They didn’t even need to know your name—they paid in cash. A centime for a washcloth to be hemmed-up, two centimes for a tea-towel. Cheap crap, imported a few hundred rolls at a time from somewhere a long ways east, and probably cut by hand with scissors and a tape measure.

The sounds of home were just on the other side of the wooden panels, as Charlotte raised her voice, busy in the kitchen, and oblivious to the scratch of the key in the lock. He closed the door and took off his hat.

He hung up his coat. Kicked off the damp shoes.

Sighed a deep sigh…fuck.

“Daddy!” Albert, just coming out of the living room and around the corner at the far end of the hallway, broke into a dead run. “Daddy-daddy-daddy!”

“Slow down, Spider!” The kid came up off the ground at about the same time that Louis managed to get a hold of him, and then there was a slight collision in the midriff. “Oh, God, you’re getting heavy.”

A smiling Charlotte raised her eyebrows as he entered the kitchen, the whole place smelling of fresh bread and some sort of hot casserole in the oven.

“Honey, I’m home.” He dangled the boy by the arms, slowly lowering him until his feet touched and he scampered off again. “Maybe even on time for once.”

Oh, for the energy of the young.

“So I gathered.”

Taking her in his arms, he began smooching her forehead, the bridge of her nose, eventually working his way down to a kiss on the lips after a brief stop in the vicinity of the right ear lobe.

“Stop that. There are eyes and ears everywhere…”

“Ha. They’ll figure it out someday anyways, and they might as well know that their parents love each other. It’s not going to do them any harm. Wow. That smells good—hey, what’s for dinner?”

“It’s a cassoulet with pork sausage, white beans, a few vegetables and bacon…” She did it with mushrooms, onions, celery, potatoes, everything but the kitchen sink in there.

If he wasn’t mistaken, a humongous apple tarte was cooling on the windowsill.

“Nice.” His eye strayed to their little blackboard by the phone on the back wall, but he didn’t see anything unusual there. “So, how was your day?”

She laughed.

“Take a look at the living room.” And the bedrooms, and the hallway, the bathroom and the utility room.

He snickered as they clung together for another moment.

“That bad, eh?”

“Yes.” Again, she smiled when she said it, so that was okay.

“Gabble-goo. Da-da-da. Smurgle.” Lily, eight months old, was in her high chair at the end of the kitchen table. “Ha-ha-ha.”

She had already been fed, going by the stains around her mouth and a platform festooned with colourful food-goop. Justine, two and a half, was right there, clutching at daddy’s leg. He tousled her hair. This one was the quiet one of the family.

“Hey, Baby.”

Justine sucked her thumb, looking up, her eyes big and wide.

It was good to be home.

“Don’t forget we’re going to my mother’s this weekend.” They exchanged a humorous look.

“Oh, Honey, I’m not too sure I can go.” It’s not that he hated them or anything, but the overtime was rolling in, he seemed to have a real good opportunity at work and he might not be able to get away. “I will speak to the Inspector, and, ah…see what he says, okay? Honey?”

“Go wash your hands. This is about ready to come out.”

Charlotte was a patient woman, that was for sure, and one of many reasons why he loved her and why they were right for each other. Finally they separated, her to find the big mitts, to pull the big pot from the oven and Louis to have a look in the fridge.

“Come on, Justine. Stay out of mommy’s way.” He took her by the hand, going over and opening up the fridge.

There was a thin bit of ice in the water of the tall carafe full of celery sticks.

“I reckon that fridge is cold enough, eh, dear?”

There was a jug of her Uncle Thomas’ rough red vin in there as well. It was strong, not too sweet and did the job.

They’d just bought the refrigerator the year before. When he thought about it, his face was feeling kind of greasy. By the time he got back, supper would be on the table.

 

***

 

The apartment was quiet. All the children were in bed, presumably asleep but one could never be sure. They might just as well be peeking around the corner, trying to see what the adults were up to, or they might be trying to lift the window and sneak out on the tiny balcony that every room seemed to have on this level and on this particular street. One never knew, with kids.

The odds were that Lily would wake up in the night and need feeding and a change, but that was par for the course and something all parents dealt with.

No big deal, not after the sleep deficit of the last few years.

“What’s gotten into you?”

They were plastered all over each other, sitting on the couch. It was all of eight-thirty. The lights were low and soft music played from the radio, a recent acquisition. Thanks to the job. There was always going to be this little stab when he thought of the job.

She smelled good and he’d just had a shave and a shower.

“Oh, I don’t know.” Fondling Charlotte’s breast, nipple hard and erect, her top three buttons undone, he went in for another kiss.

“Don’t we have enough kids already? I thought we agreed to wait.”

“We do have enough kids. And we did agree to wait.”

“Well, then.” Yet she did not seem displeased.

Charlotte had spent about half of the last five years pregnant, or so it seemed. While they had practiced the Church’s rhythm method assiduously, it was just too capriciously uncertain. None of the children were planned, exactly. It simply didn’t work that way—quite frankly, the rhythm method was bullshit.

“It’s okay, honey. I’ve been doing some thinking. Anyways, I bought us a box of dum-dums—”

“What?” Charlotte was a strict Catholic, more so than most, anyways.

Theoretically, so was Louis…

Yet it was also a new world, a modern world. Things were changing all over.

“I’m just trying to be practical here. Anyways, they’re not a hundred percent reliable either.”

God can look the other way here, just this once.

She giggled.

“Poor Louis—always thinking.”

“If God really wants us to have another baby, trust me, He’ll make it happen. He can sneak down here and poke holes in them with a pin—”

She chuckled at that one.

“I suppose so. Well. Hmn. If you think it’s a good idea, lover.”

Kissy, kissy, kiss.

Two hearts beat strongly in the night, and the house was still and quiet. The clock chimed and the voice on the radio started up again when the song ended, cheerful and non-threatening.

“Let’s go to the bedroom.”

“All right.”

There.

That wasn’t so hard after all.

 

***

 

When Constable Bedard came into the squad-room the next morning, Maintenon was humming, rubbing his hands in a kind of glee as the percolator on its electric hot-ring spluttered and gurgled and spurted out its enticing aroma. Going down the hall for water was a regular ritual, one that Bedard wouldn’t have to be doing this morning.

“Good morning, Inspector.”

“Good morning, Constable.”

“So, uh. What’s up, boss?”

Maintenon smiled like a Cheshire cat.

Going to his desk, he picked up a report from Levain and Firmin. Proffering it to Bedard, again he took up his vigil over the coffee-making processes.

“Holy, shit.” Bedard quickly skimmed through. “Ha. Mathilde took a shit-load of money, out of the bank, hours before not turning up for work…”

His eyes sought the inspector.

“That could have been done under duress, sir.”

Maintenon nodded.

“I know. But there’s more—” A twitch of the head indicated the small pile, neatly stacked dead centre of a desk that looked suspiciously clean, and Louis wondered just how early the boss-man had actually gotten in this fine morning—even though it was actually pretty cold, dark and rainy.

 

***

 

“I need my desk back.”

“Sorry, sir.” A bemused Constable Bedard rose, still reading, as Gilles carefully set his coffee cup down, took the ashtray over to the wastebasket and emptied it…hopefully not too many red-hot embers in there…

…found his seat, propped his feet up and looked pointedly at a phone which steadfastly refused to ring.

It was terribly quiet all of a sudden, and for no good reason.

Bedard put the reports down on his own desk. He poured himself a coffee, black as always around there, giving himself a moment to think. By the looks of the boss, they weren’t rushing off, not for a minute anyways.

Thoughtfully, he lowered himself down onto Firmin’s battered hemorrhoid cushion, and sipped at the scalding brew.

“So. Boss.”

“Ah, so.”

Bedard spluttered a bit and then went on.

“So this Vizard character didn’t show up for work this morning, either. Booked off yesterday—sure looks like something’s up, eh?” At least now they had an address for him.

“So it would appear.” A warning.

The boss didn’t like assumptions, and Bedard was coming around to the same view.

There was even more to it than that, as he flipped through to the last report, two pages, neatly typed, with Firmin’s name and badge number on the top corner.

“Holy, shit.”

Two young people, with heavy luggage, answering to the description, had departed the city aboard a train for Italy. They had left from the Gare de Lyon at approximately four-oh-three on the previous afternoon. Counter staff had identified them with hardly a skipped beat. The one lady said the girl in the pictures had looked a bit familiar, but she just hadn’t twigged onto it at the time.

Mouth open, Louis Bedard checked his watch and looked up at the big wall map of Metropolitan France and contiguous areas.

Well.

Isn’t that a fine how-do-you-do?

And it still could be under duress.

If one really thought about it.

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Two

 

Their young couple had easily had time to make it to Lyon, arriving there about the same time the police were beginning to ask some real serious questions back home.

According to counter staff at the Gare de Lyon, the couple in question had bought a ticket to Lyon and no further. They had also inquired about tickets to Turin, just across the border in northwestern Italy.

With a long conference call to the chief of police in Lyon, officers in that city were seeking their suspects. Lyons was a big city with well over half a million people. The volume of traffic on that particular rail line, and the number of hotels within easy range of the station, was such that it was a pretty big job, and it would be strange if they were not registered under some other name. It took minutes to wire photos, perhaps a half an hour to make any number of copies down there. Bedard was getting some unexpected training in over-the-phone homicide work. It was seat of the pants stuff, fresh decisions, new questions, coming thick and fast.

Mathilde’s real name was too well-known, they were all sort of agreed on that. Interestingly the staff at the Lyon station hadn’t sold any tickets to Turin, although some passengers had been aboard the through train from Paris. It seemed like an odd place to go to ground, although it was a fairly large city. That one train had a quick stop and then carried on. It was an express with sleeping berths and more luxurious accommodation than the short-run lines that entered every large city from the surrounding countryside, neighbouring towns and villages, for market days and business and employment purposes.

On the run, their quarry was taking a breath and thinking through their next step…or at least that was one interpretation.

There were three of them sitting around the squad-room, Maintenon and LeBref attempting to focus on other cases, too many of them to list, and Bedard just trying to make himself useful and look busy in the event senior brass came around.

The irony was, that it was a pretty quiet morning, with no real distractions to take the mind off of all those other things.

When the phone rang, Bedard almost jumped out of his skin. Quite frankly, with the new-found freedom provided by a simple box of condoms, he and Charlotte had been up late, and of course sex was very physical. He was almost shaky this morning and his guts were already rumbling.

Even so, with his youthful reflexes, he beat the other two to it by a clear margin. Bedard took the call with both Maintenon and LeBref eye-balling him in anticipation. In rising excitement he grabbed his pen and began taking down details.

“Yes, yes. Yes. I see—thank you. And your name and number, sir?” His pen flew across the page.

Maintenon lifted an eyebrow, but Bedard sent the phone crashing into its cradle.

With a flourish of something or other, the constable rose from his seat to take the note over to Gilles.

LeBref engaged him with a long look but whatever he was trying to convey remained unsaid.

“So.”

“Ah, yes, sir.”

“What’s up, Gilles?” LeBref dropped off the corner of Archambault’s desk and came over.

Bedard grinned and slapped him, gently to be sure, on the shoulder. Poor old LeBref barely came up to his short ribs and Bedard could sort of empathize with a man who’d been different since the day he was born…it was affectionate, rather than giving him a rough time.

“Come on, somebody spit it out. For crying out loud—”

The inspector looked up.

“Hmn. They have located two people matching our description. They got off the train from Paris at the Lyon station. And—”

And?” They both spoke at once, Bedard grinning because he saw it coming and thought now was the time to establish a reputation, not just for humour but intuitiveness.

“They’re being watched very closely. The hotel is a big commercial one, about six blocks from the station. Their passports, in the name of Dubuc—Michel and Denise. They’re fake. Common names, but there is no record of such a couple. Lyon police have checked with the Foreign Office. It’s the unique combination of two names, two dates of birth, and the two places of birth. An address in Tours, for whatever reason, and they’ve never been heard of there. It’s a live-in hotel with a clerk, another dumb mistake. Theoretically, they are a married couple. According to police down there, there is something distinctly fishy going on…” Neither one of them had a driver’s license.

Hotels needed identification to register a guest.

Hence the need for false ID, and the opportunity to trip themselves up.

“And where are they now?” LeBref’s voice was a little higher from tension.

There was a lot invested in all of this.

“They’re just aboard the train to Turin. They didn’t buy a ticket at the station, but they can pay the conductor once they’re underway. They’ve made more than one mistake, but that one’s fairly intelligent.” Maintenon stopped, chewing his lip, turning to regard Constable Bedard. “This is always a very tense time. But they’re not getting over the border. Don’t you worry about that, Constable.”

Bedard nodded soberly.

“It’s strange our phone taps didn’t pick up any hint of this. But we had no knowledge of this Vizard—and there’s a phone booth in the lobby of Mathilde’s building.”

Maintenon sighed.

“Yes. That’s just the way things go sometimes. But the fact is, we can never know everything.”

As far as the phone booth in her building was concerned, there was no way they were ever getting a phone tap for that one. Half the people in the building used it, and of course they had rights. The other problem would be to identify all those other voices.

“The other thing is all these American gangster movies. People get all sorts of ideas.”

LeBref nodded sagely.

It was true enough, he supposed.

Bedard didn’t want to appear like he was giving shit to a senior officer. The question had to be asked, if only for his own understanding.

“Ah, er—LeBref.”

“Yes, young man?”

“So what happened, anyways? Weren’t we watching her?”

LeBref nodded.

“Yes. But that always has its limitations, even when they’re not moving. We figure she went down to the lobby, and called for a cab, or her boyfriend or whatever. The street door is, I don’t know, ah, it’s like some kind of frosted glass. She could have stepped across the hall and borrowed a phone, which we haven’t even checked on yet. The fact is, we weren’t directly across the street. There was just no way to do it. No cover. We might have been blown anyways, at this point. We’d been following her for days. I really don’t see her as stupid—a good actress, maybe. We figure she took her luggage out the back door and across the rear courtyard. She’d have to hop a fence or two, but they’re not very high. On the next block there’s an archway, and it has a wrought-iron gate. It is, or was, the private entrance to somebody’s garden. It goes back to even before the block was completely filled in, fuck, a hundred years or more. But. If she was watching out the back window, even coincidentally, she might have seen the person sticking the damned key under a flower pot on the back step.”

“Ah.”

“Or, her little boyfriend might have come up and helped her pack. They might have taken some time, over the course of a few days, and collected all her stuff at his place. Right? But, uh. We don’t recall anyone like that going in from the street. He might have had a key and gone in when we were off following her. I’ve taken a look at the lock on that gate, and you could easily pick it with a bit of stiff wire. Anything with a skeleton key is like that, but you probably know that. The gate is a couple of metres in from the street. It’s pretty dark in there. Child’s play, really. What’s really interesting is the fact that they didn’t talk over the phone—” Not even once.

“That’s very suggestive.”

“Yes, it is.”

In other words, how did they get together at all?

Bedard heaved a deep sigh.

“So in other words…she’s been sneaking off and making calls and we had no idea?”

Holy.

LeBref nodded.

“Sure looks that way.”

That was one hot lady, but things were not looking too good for her and her little boyfriend.

There were only so many interpretations that one could put upon it.

 

***

 

The suspense was killing Bedard.

“So, what happens next, Inspector?”

Their fugitives had been denied entry into Italy, their passports seized, and, probably at a loss as to what to do next, they had taken a cab and found themselves a hotel.

“They’ll be in custody within the next half hour. And then they will be returned to Paris, handcuffed to a pair of rather burly police constables on an all-expense trip to the big city. And then we will get to the bottom of this.” The aforesaid constables would have a big meal on a sister department.

Odds were, they’d go and sit around a hotel room and drink themselves to sleep, (at their own expense), get up at the crack of dawn and be off again…

Bedard was at a bit of a loss.

“So what do you want me to do now?”

Maintenon nodded.

“Well. Now that you’ve got a minute—are all our notes and statements in order?”

“Ah, yes, sir.” The line-up, evidence and exhibits, tagged and bagged, dated and signed, was all along the shelf behind Archambault and Firmin’s desks.

It rather spoke for itself.

“Do you have your manual with you?”

Gilles suspected he did, he was carrying it everywhere these days.

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. Then take one of the interview rooms—and read that thing again. Capiche?”

“Yes, sir, absolutely, sir.”

The young fellow went to the coat-rack, pulling the volume in question from the voluminous side pocket of his trench-coat.

With a nod at LeBref and Maintenon, he departed to get some studying done. Also, lunch was just around the corner. It would be good to be out of sight for a while, just in case Rouard or someone like that came calling.

 

***

 

It was another day, dawning bright and clear. Maintenon was whistling as he entered the squad-room.

Raising an eyebrow, he gave a nod to Firmin, noting Bedard’s absence.

“What’s up?”

“Our guests have arrived. They’re just being processed and we’ll be able to speak to them shortly.”

“No trouble?”

“No, and they seem bewildered by all the attention. I had a quick look at them.” Firmin hadn’t met the girl, and had only skimmed a few relevant reports.

Other than that, he was pitching in where applicable.

“Where’s Bedard?”

“Yeah. Him and a couple of other hopefuls are writing the exam—”

“Oh, really? That quick already?” The exams were only scheduled at distinct intervals, and Gilles’ impression was that Bedard would be waiting for the next round.

Which would be about three months away.

Hmn. He supposed it was understandable.

He glanced at the clock.

Bedard’s confidence must be riding an all-time high.

“Yeah, well, he seems pretty bright. He’s done most of the work, it’s the administrative stuff he’d be least familiar with. Simple experience goes a long way in passing a test, and he can read and shit like that.” It was one thing to take orders and to direct oneself.

Firmin had done it himself, and then gone in for Homicide.

Directing a unit or a whole shift, giving a bunch of orders to a whole bunch of different personalities, in any and all kinds of emergency circumstances, well. That was an entirely different kettle of fish.

Maintenon snorted. He knew it all too well.

The phone rang.

“Huh. How much do you want to bet?”

Firmin shook his head.

“You’re not taking my money. And that probably is Chiappe, or Rouard. Want me to take it?”

“No, that’s all right.” Gilles picked up the phone with an evil grin. “Special Homicide Unit. Hello, Jean-Baptiste.”

“Hey, Gilles. How did you know it was me?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Call it a lucky guess.”

 

***

 

Police had gone through the luggage of their suspects, finding nothing much out of the ordinary except a couple of fake birth certificates. They had a pretty good whack of cash. They had their bankbooks with them, big, national banks, and there were definitely branches overseas, at least in major cities. The birth certificates were in the same names as the passports, also returned as part of the booty. Official thanks would go to the Italian border people. The Republic owed them a favour and, ultimately, the bill would be paid cheerfully enough.

Their prisoners had been processed, numbered and photographed, fingerprinted both by the detachment that had scooped them up in a little village just this side of the Italian border and then again by Paris police. There were a series of administrative checks and balances, all of it constitutionally-ordained. Otherwise there would have been an unfortunate tendency for people to disappear into the maw of the system, and it could be difficult to find them again when needed.

Aloysius Vizard was first to be interviewed.

Maintenon had him brought up to Interview Four. After that he’d be going to the Prison Sante, with a bail hearing slated a couple or three days later…as soon as it could be arranged, and at the same time, pushing the bounds of the legally-permissible time as police wound up loose ends.

He sat there, file folder closed, studying the young man for a moment. He was, according to his real birth certificate, a copy of which had been obtained by police, about a year younger than Mathilde. Such things were not unheard-of, and in fact Maintenon’s brother-in-law (or one of them) was a good six years younger than the wife.

So far, Vizard hadn’t asked for a lawyer and he had been cautioned as to his rights.

“So. Inspector—Inspector Maintenon. Yeah, I know you. Why are we here?”

Vizard didn’t seem particularly nervous, although there was a certain angry tension to the body. He wasn’t a stupid person, and his potential for violence was unknown. Vizard had no criminal record. Maintenon had Levain and Firmin on the other side of the smoky, one-way glass that was supposed to fool people into thinking it was merely a mirror.

“Well, what’s up with you guys running off? Doesn’t Mathilde have a career—a pretty good gig by all accounts. She has a promise of performance, and a contract with her agent, ah, and the producer of the play. All of that sort of thing.”

“Hey, Inspector. I love the girl. Do you believe in love at first sight?”

“Yes.”

“Bullshit.” Vizard, leaning forward in earnest mode, slumped back into the seat. “Look, I shouldn’t even be speaking with you without advice of counsel. Everybody knows that. The trouble is, that I haven’t done anything wrong. What the fuck is this about, Inspector?”

“It’s about the murder of Largo Banzini. It’s just that we had a few questions for Mathilde. Her disappearance is troubling, to say the least. And now you. Where were you on the night of the murder?”

“At home. With my sick mother.”

“Your mother is ill?” Because we’re going to check, right?

“She had the flu and it was pretty bad. She’s getting older and she’s got some respiratory problems…”

“Okay. If that’s true, then you have nothing to worry about personally. What happened, Monsieur Vizard. Can you just tell us that?”

Vizard took a sidelong glance at the big mirror on the wall.

“Did you kill Eric Wong, otherwise known as Guan Fu?”

“Who the hell is Eric Wong?” The young fellow shrugged in disdain. “Or whatever.”

He gave Maintenon a frank look.

“For the record—no, sir, I did not kill whatever his name is, or anyone else. Now, fuck off.”

“According to our information, Mathilde broke off with you about a year ago. Approximately. So why the sudden urge to see Turin? That’s where you were going, right. Oh—and why the fake identification? She cleaned out her bank account. You had a few big ones of your own. It’s all right there in your wallet. So. You were just going to abandon your sick mother and run away with Mathilde. You had no real questions, is what you’re saying.”

This drew nothing but an ugly look.

Maintenon sighed.

“This is a homicide investigation, young man.” The tone was flat and hard.

The young man in question coloured, then nodded in agreement.

“Yeah, okay, I see what you’re saying.”

“Honestly, I hope a lawyer can help you, Aloysius.”

“I haven’t done anything wrong. Why would I need a lawyer?”

“That’s the worst advice I ever heard. You’re in a lot of trouble. Seriously.”

The young man just shrugged, looking defiant.

“So what happened? Did you contact Mathilde, or did she contact you? Where did the fake passports and birth certificates come from? Was she just going to abandon her mother as well? What’s this all about, Aloysius?”

Aloysius sighed, deeply.

“All right, I guess that part wasn’t very smart. But as you so rightly pointed out, she does have obligations. Contracts, just as you say. I gave up a pretty good job too, eh.” He was a millwright, and had been involved in building a big food processing plant out on the edge of town.

“Did you call her, or did she call you?”

He blushed a deeper red, thinking it through perhaps.

“I have to admit, I was a bit surprised when she called me.”

Gilles wondered if Vizard had never been in trouble before—there was a certain innocence, a kind of defiance, with someone who wasn’t a hardened, experienced criminal. If they knew something, a person like that would very often tell you—

“Okay, why don’t we start from the beginning. How long have you guys been planning your escape? You know, we were all very worried about Mathilde. Now, we are nothing if not curious. Was she afraid of something?”

“Ah, fuck. Not in so many words…she was all jumbled up inside. It’s kind of a long story.”

“That’s all right. We have plenty of time, young man. Tell me about this love at first sight.”

“Well. Shit. Love, holy, fuck. Yeah, I guess I got it pretty bad. She’s really something, that’s for sure. Look. She called me up one day, and said hey, we got to talk—I can’t stand this anymore, I just want to chuck it all and go…”

“And when was this?”

“Ah. I don’t know. Maybe a month ago, maybe a bit less…”

“She’s the one that got the passports, right?”

Deep sigh.

“Yes, sir.” His face was a study in contrasts, as if he couldn’t quite bring himself to believe it.

“So why did she break off with you? And then she called you back one day, a bloody year later. That’s how it was, right?”

Shit.

The look on that face was really something.

 

***

 

Mathilde Gaudrau, still looking pretty ravishing in the shapeless prison garb, glared at Gilles from across the table.

“So. Who killed Largo Banzini?”

She didn’t appear to be too shocked by the question. She was nowhere near as tough as she thought she was.

“How in the hell would I know?”

“I just want you to know that we’ve had a long talk with Aloysius. He seems like a very nice young man. Were you going to kill him too? I mean, once he’d outlived his usefulness? Who got the bowstring? You or Eric Wong?”

“Go to hell.” Those angry eyes bored straight into his.

“I was sorry to hear that you lost your baby—you and Largo’s baby, right?”

“Fuck you!” She was out of her chair and already on him, Gilles fending off her awkward blows as best he could, when the door burst open and Bedard and Mathilde’s policewoman escort somehow managed to drag her off of him.

 

***

 

“Shall we begin again?”

“Go to hell.”

“Would you like an attorney present?”

“Go to hell.”

“We’re getting a search warrant for your apartment, your mother’s place and your dressing room. We’ll do Aloysius’ place too, any other place you guys might have used. Do you have anything to worry about?”

“Go to hell.”

Gilles stood up, closing his file folder.

“I sure hope you know what you’re doing, Mathilde.”

He gave a nod to the policewoman, standing arms crossed just inside the door.

“Very well. Take her away.”

He was waiting for it—

“Go to hell—” And she spat on him.

He sighed, deeply, reaching for his handkerchief.

“I’m sorry you feel that way, Mathilde.”

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Three

 

Neither Mathilde nor Aloysius were stupid people. Vizard’s little bachelor pad (he didn’t actually live with his mother) was neat, and fairly well organized. The kitchen floor could have used a bit of a sweep and scrub. Other than that, there was nothing—nothing the least bit suspicious or out of the ordinary. Aloysius’ real birth certificate, a driver’s license no longer valid, paycheques and bills for the utilities were about the only items of interest. Would he abandon everything for a girl like Mathilde? Arguably so. He’d given up a pretty good job on what was little more than a whim—and a dream. That’s what love did to people, if they were lucky or unlucky—it didn’t much matter which sometimes.

This sort of tended to confirm Vizard’s own story, and possibly, Maintenon’s own instincts.

He was an unfortunate victim of circumstance, dragged into it at the last minute.

Admittedly, she’d approached him weeks before, but the odds were, that he was entirely ignorant. The less he knew, the better for the both of them sort of thing. It made sense—

It was certainly possible.

At first, Mathilde’s apartment was no different.

There was nothing incriminating there, not even in her little book of personal phone numbers.

This basically showed all the same people she’d been calling while under telephone-monitoring. A whole bunch of innocuous friends, relatives, acquaintances and the more professional of her circle. A girl like that wouldn’t even need the book, she called half of them every damned day.

The one thing that was missing was Vizard’s phone number. Largo wasn’t in there either.

Tag it and bag it.

“Gilles.”

“Yes?”

Levain was in the bigger bedroom, and Maintenon had been going through her little writing desk in a spare bedroom that had been set up as an office space. The bottom drawer held bills, correspondence and agent and performance contracts. A bit of light reading when someone got a minute.

Merde.

Following the voice, he went down the hall to see what was up.

“Does Mathilde impress you as the sort of person who sews on her own buttons? Is she the sort of girl who darns her own socks?”

There was the hint of a laugh—now Nichol, she could do anything—anything with a needle and thread.

“Not particularly, no.”

She would more likely ask the maid to do it, and yet there in a bottom drawer, under some surprisingly sensible underwear, slips, thin, blousy undergarments and stockings, was a cookie tin.

Inside of that, was what appeared to be, an extremely-thorough sewing kit. It really was kind of out of character, and then there was the location. Levain reverently opened it with gloved hands.

“Hmn.”

“Shall we ask her?” The maid in question was seated firmly in the kitchen, under the vague supervision of Bedard.

Junior man, he was busy going through the trash, the utility and knife drawers, and poking around in the flour and sugar and classic other places to hide or secret small items.

Somebody had to do it.

She wasn’t very happy, looking more scared than anything, but she hadn’t kicked up much of a fuss and was likely just hoping that the police would leave without making too much of a mess.

Her name was Anne and she’d been doing this for two and a half, maybe three years or so.

“Gilles? What in the hell is this?” Levain was poking around in the tin with the butt end of a wooden pencil.

Pulling on thin cotton knit gloves, Gilles picked up the offending object.

It appeared to be some sort of leather wristband, stiff and stout, the fastening a businesslike white metal buckle, and with an extension, a widening of the leather on the opposite side. Maintenon’s first impression was of a sailor—pushing a big, curved needle through heavy canvas, repairing or making sails or something. That flap of leather would protect the butt of the hand, if you had a lot of heavy work cut out for you.

His next thought was of a wrist guard for archery or something…it was a crazy thought. But his suspicions had been fully aroused by Mathilde. By this time.

Wong had been strangled with a bowstring.

No matter how gooey she was—

“Yes. Let’s ask the maid about this—just the sewing kit at first. Oh. And keep looking for cheque books, bills, and financial stuff. I want all that in one place.”

“Sure, Boss.” Levain nodded.

Her jewelry box was jammed to the overflow, some of it might even be pretty nice stuff. How the hell it might relate, was a good question. But the fact was that she had abandoned it. It was interesting psychologically. She’d had a few small pieces with her, but nothing extraordinarily valuable.

They tramped their way back to the kitchen. They popped the question.

According to the maid, the sewing kit was a household item. It was normally kept in a hall closet along with towels and linens, soaps and lotions. She hadn’t had occasion to use it in months, a couple of months at least.

She had no idea of why Mathilde would have used it, and even less as to why it might have been misplaced—certainly that wasn’t her style.

According to her, Mathilde really wasn’t that good with sewing and the like.

When shown the leather wrist-band thing, she had no idea what it was, and said she’d never seen it before.

It wasn’t much, but it was something.

Tag it and bag it.

 

***

 

The technician pulled away from the scientific microscope, after fine-focusing the lens.

“There. Have a look at that.”

Gilles stepped in, bracing himself on the countertop and putting his eye to the view-piece of a state-of-the-art scientific microscope.

“Hmn, Nice.” Right in the centre of the leather pad, or about where a person’s palm would go—there was a line there on virtually every human hand, the Y-shaped line that ran from the butt of the hand to the centre of the palm.

There was a distinctly scuffed area, visible to the naked eye, but now brought into tight perspective under the lens and the lights.

“Do you see the dark bits?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Okay. Hold on.” The lab technician snapped the ring around to the next higher-powered lens.

Everything went out of kilter.

They traded places and he focused it in, letting Gilles have a second look.

“Looks like slivers, right?”

There were flashes of white, and that darkly reddish, shiny, striated surface—short little pieces of a stiff material embedded in the leather.

“Okay.”

The next lens snapped in, the lens was refocused again.

“And?”

Maintenon bit his lip.

“Sure looks like hawthorn to me. It’s actually quite pale inside. You can see the grain there. Nice. The outside is dark, and shiny. You have the other dart to refer to—make sure you’re thorough.”

“Don’t worry. We’ll get some nice slides from this one…”

After a moment of further study, hands bracing his lower back, Maintenon straightened gratefully, beckoning Bedard in for a look of his own.

Hawthorn—bits and splinters of hawthorn, or something that sure looked like it…on something that could have been worn around the wrist, possibly even hidden under the billowing sleeves and lacy cuffs of a theatrical costume. An Oriental costume.

A Golden Dragon costume.

It was unbelievable, really.

“What do you think, Constable.”

“Amazing. Where did she come up with this plan.” He looked up. “Vizard could not have committed this particular crime—not in that particular way, right?”

That, was a very good question. It was also based on an assumption—or was it merely another question?

The trouble was, they were running out of such assumptions, and at some point, they must have arrived at the truth.

So sayeth classic theory.

They also still needed to prove it, in a court of law, beyond any reasonable shadow of a doubt.

“I don’t know. The plan is starting to look a lot more amateur, now that we know where to look. And we should watch our…assumptions all over the place.”

Otherwise, she was probably going to walk on this one.

“Ah, yes, sir.”

“Bedard.”

“Sir.”

“They’ll never hang a beautiful woman.”

The constable nodded, swallowing.

“Yes, sir.”

In which case—

Why are we here?

Fuck.

 

***

 

A thorough search of Madame Gaudrau’s home revealed only one thing of interest. Freda was a bit devastated, and yet she was still attempting to be helpful, as the old woman quavered from her chair in the background.

“I told you so.”

She was such a pet, they let her follow them around. It was somehow easier for all involved.

She kept offering helpful suggestions, unaware of the real tragedy unfolding before her.

Police had pulled the contents of the desk in the office and gone through it all. The Madame’s old chequebooks had revealed stubs indicating payments to one Eric Wong, written in her spidery hand. Services rendered were of the driver, handyman and window-cleaning variety.

He’d done a number of small jobs for the household over the period of four and a half years.

The address was in Chinatown. As usual, the phone number was dead.

No big surprise there, for so was Monsieur Wong. They kind of laughed when Bedard said that.

With their pictures of Guan Fu, they were quickly headed over there, Bedard and Maintenon still paired up and working together like father and son.

As for Levain, he didn’t mind working on his own once in a while, and there were still all those other cases hanging over their heads.

 

***

 

Constable Bedard was at Firmin’s desk, checking out cheque stubs and birth certificates and fake passports with a magnifying glass. There was a shit-load of supporting evidence now. Gilles, as usual, was on the phone with his own stack of materials in front of him.

Then there was the whole leather palm-brace thing. He might do well to read that report again. And yet he’d seen it with his own eyes. How many more questions could one ask? At some point, you were relying on expert opinions and your own gut instinct. Somewhere out there, had to be the truth. There was a whole slew of photos to go with it. So far, their mystery object looked professionally-made and no one had any real idea of what it might otherwise be used for.

The door opened and LeBref came in, waving a plain buff envelope conspicuously on the end of a truncated arm.

(Truncated might not be the right word, but it was better than attenuated.)

“…telegram for Sergeant Bedard, telegram for Sergeant Bedard.”

Bedard was up and out of the desk in a heartbeat.

“Come on, you son of a bitch.”

LeBref laughed, dancing away.

“Give me that.”

There was a bit of a friendly tussle, which quickly subsided on a hard look from Gilles.

“Come on boys, be nice.”

“For you, my fine feathered friend.” LeBref gave a surprisingly graceful bow and handed it over.

Bedard’s knees were knocking slightly so he dropped back into a chair, almost any chair would have done at that point. This one happened to be Levain’s…

Fumbling fingers tore at the envelope. He managed to get the flimsy sheet out without ripping the end off of it.

The words sunk in.

Merde.”

“What? Did you flunk? Heh-heh-heh.” Yet LeBref’s tone belied the intentions, or something like that, of the remark.

“No. Sirs. I passed.” Bedard looked around, blinking, eyes suspiciously watering.

He was seeing the room, possibly even himself, for the very first time.

Someday, all of this could be yours.

“Ha.” Maintenon smiled faintly. “Was there ever any doubt?”

The newly-minted Sergeant Bedard—assuming the department could find a suitable job for him, looked around in a kind of shock.

“Sir. Yeah—I suppose there was…” And that was a funny thing.

He really had been expecting disappointment. According to the piece of paper, he’d gotten ninety-three percent overall, which wasn’t too bad when you thought about it. His lowest mark was a seventy-four…

It really didn’t pay to underestimate yourself—shit! He wondered what the other guys got.

Ninety-three fucking percent.

That’s not half-bad.

Bedard stood up again, suddenly a tiger that didn’t much like being caged.

“Hey. I passed.”

The whoop that came next sort of shook the building and startled its inhabitants.

A minute later, there came a polite rap at the door. It was Sergeant Talbot from across the hall.

“Hey, guys, would you mind keeping it down in here?”

They laughed in his uncomprehending face—and that look was fucking priceless.

Talbot wouldn’t be back for a while.

 

***

 

The maid, Freda, had finally phoned in. With a real name for Guan Fu, Eric Wong, police had followed up. The phone book had revealed a half a dozen Wongs, none of which were Eric or even started with the letter E. By calling every number in the book, investigators eventually hit pay-dirt when they found a cousin, a male. He sounded quite old over the phone. The gentleman gave them the street where his cousin Eric lived, although he said he couldn’t remember the exact address. The two men hadn’t seen each other in some years according to that story.

Levain and Bedard had attended to the area, where they showed Wong’s photo around until someone gave them information—they said he was a neighbour and lived just up the street. The guy was on his way to work and couldn’t be late. They grabbed a name, a phone number from the witness, and moved on.

Knocking on doors, they eventually got onto Wong’s landlady, a heavyset woman about sixty, who had had her eyebrows removed and who had permanently resorted to a thin black pencil line in their place.

In other respects, she’d put her makeup on with a trowel and the scent with a fire-hose. Her dress was a dusty black and the shoes three sizes too small for her feet.

She wasn’t particularly shocked that Eric was dead, and had quickly surrendered a key upon being served a warrant for the premises. She kept washing her hands of the whole thing.

According to her, he hadn’t been seen in some time, although the rent was all paid up until the end of the month and she always got some kind of security deposit. Apparently, Wong survived by doing odd jobs, and in fact there were tools and tool-boxes in the closet. He’d been known to wash dishes and shovel snow in season, and other than that the rent was usually paid more or less on time.

Whether the security deposit was from all tenants or merely single Asian males was a question that remained unasked. He’d only been there a couple of years according to her.

According to their report, the place had been left with the windows tightly closed. There was no milk in the fridge, although there was some stale bread, butter, a dried-out bit of ham, three potatoes, half an onion, and some rather limp carrots. He had a bag of rice and all kinds of sauces. While there were a couple of bowls on the kitchen floor and tins of cat food in the cupboard, there wasn’t any animal. They had noted the unmistakable signs, matted fur on one end of the sofa, for example. A grubby area on one end of a main window ledge for another. One could almost pick out the paw-prints there. There was no sign of a shit-box, but there were empty boxes in a rear closet. The kitchen garbage was also empty. Wong, anticipating that he would be away for a few days, seemed to have done something with the cat. A knock on adjoining apartment doors had brought no result and no further information. People in the building either had day jobs, were away, or just weren’t answering the door.

That would appear to be that.

Once again, they were in conference. The case wasn’t over until the prosecutor took it on, and in order for that to happen, a few loose ends had to be tied up first. Otherwise, this wasn’t going anywhere.

“All right, Louis. What is our theory of the crime?” Gilles was standing on tiptoe, looking out of their high windows at the billowing white clouds of snow blanketing the city in clean, dead white silence.

The black water of the Seine flowed smoothly past the Quai d’Orfevres, and tires hissed on wet pavement. It was the storm of the century—but it was early in the century, yet.

“Wow—me?” Bedard was apparently still unsure of himself.

“Yes, you.” Andre threw a wadded-up ball of paper at him, and then stuck a fresh sheet into his typewriter.

Bedard rose as Maintenon turned and headed to his desk. Thoughtfully, he bent and picked up the paper wad and fired it into the wastebasket by Archambault’s desk in an engaging hook shot.

“Okay. Hmn, Well.”

“That’s a good start—”

“Er, yes, sir.” Oh, Lord, where to begin—

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Four

 

“Okay. Well. I guess wow, expresses it rather well. So. Our little Mathilde has an affair with Largo Banzini, when she was pretty young—quite young. You sort of have to wonder what she was thinking. It must have been a bit of a fantasy-world. Here’s the man of her dreams, a bloody opera star, and she of course is studying to sing herself—and he wants her. It’s like something out of a story book. She gets pregnant, and worse, her old man, her mother finds out. The affair is broken up—and she gives up the baby, goes to Switzerland to the private school, et cetera. And she’s been studying operatic singing since she’s a little girl. She has the best of lessons, and the best of instructors, or so we are told. She’s a good singer—all of a sudden, five or six years later, she’s getting parts. She threw herself in to the work, right? In compensation for her whole life being ruined. She doesn’t seem for the most part, to have a regular boyfriend, fiancé, whatever. There’s a bit of coldness there towards men. She’s making money—enough so that she can move out of her elderly and stifling mother’s house and set up in her own rather nice little place.”

Maintenon, eyes closed, feet up on the end of the desk, had his hands clasped on his belly.

“And of course Banzini’s lawyer really, really, doesn’t want to talk about that one. Who knows, maybe he didn’t even hear about that one. Mathilde’s father had passed away, and that just left her mother and her older siblings to deal with the problem. Go on.”

“Right. And then she gets the part in the Golden Dragon.”

“Yes.”

“So. Shit. At some point. She knows she’s playing opposite Largo Banzini, who was signed a couple of days after her, according to all of our sources. I think that’s a key piece of information. It’s something she couldn’t have anticipated, and yet here it’s happened. And she’s caught between a rock and a hard place. She didn’t want to give up the part, did she? She probably still loved him on some level…hated him on some other level, for years afterwards, perhaps.” As far as the case went, that was all they really had—

Without that, they had nothing—not much, anyways.

Levain’s head jerked. Of course—of course.

“Where in the hell she ever got such a weird idea, I guess we’ll never know—but she probably read it in a book somewhere, and she has obviously thought it all out—she’s on stage after all, and she knows she can’t shoot him herself, ah, not with a fucking blowgun—surely someone would remark upon it.” Bedard’s dry tone and the sardonic look he gave at this point were priceless— “She has to come up with a variation on a theme. And yes, she’s still going to need some kind of alibi. A smokescreen, and a patsy.”

“Ha.”

Grinning himself, Levain snuck a look at Gilles, who seemed to be enjoying the performance. Andre wasn’t sure if that was good or bad, it said a little bit about how jaded they were all becoming, but oh, well.

“As far as our little wrist-brace goes, she took it off in the darkness, tossing it aside as her girl helped her to dress for the next scene. The lady is so busy, she wouldn’t even notice.” Mathilde would pick it up later, take it home, and stuff it into the sewing kit where it would sort of blend in. “I’m wondering if she just tripped over the thing in a thrift shop, an antique shop, something like that.”

“Hmn.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised, if we took a good hard look at the sort of books she read as a little girl, that we might find some clue as to her inspiration. The very name of the play, some psychological association, and voila. All the oriental elements come into play. Eric Wong, whom she must have known. In his butler phase, he did in fact shave his head. I’ve called Freda and she confirmed it. Mathilde would have remembered a tattoo like that. One of our receipts from the household shows him hanging curtains and painting her bedroom when she was a certain age. No longer the little girl with a mobile sculpture of little birds hanging over the crib, eh, gentlemen? She might have been very aware of this exotic male figure, and her father passed away when she was still kind of young. And she needed a patsy.” In the public eye, her money and success might have sheltered her in some ways—

Sheltered from reality.

“So what are we suggesting, assuming here?”

“She ran into him somewhere, or maybe his phone was working back then. It’s only just been cut off, according to the company’s records, a couple of months ago. Maybe he fell on hard times and approached her—asked her for some money or something. If she was going stick it to Largo onstage, she was going to need some kind of a smokescreen…”

“Okay.”

Bedard cleared his throat.

“What’s bizarre is how thin it all is, even now—and yet as you would say, sir, surely we have arrived at some semblance of the truth.”

“Did I really say that?” Gilles bit back anything further— “What about the bowstring?”

“She might have found something like that in a thrift shop. Wong might have made it up from heavy thread. According to the book, you drive two nails in a board at the right length, and then wind the thread around and around. Then you use thinner thread and glue for the reinforcements, making the loops on the ends, et cetera. You twist the thing, until it’s wound up and the right length. It’s a fairly simple process. Interestingly, you can sit in the library and read, and never have to use a card.”

“I see. Hmn.”

“So she had Guan Fu, or Eric Wong, get the fake passports, the fake birth certificates, she probably had him get the hollow walking stick, she would have him make a few phone calls asking about Largo Banzini. She needs him to leave as much of a fake trail as she can possibly get. Just to make sure, she probably had him call the police on the night in question—that element of showmanship, if you will. If you look at him and Vizard, there’s not much to choose in terms of height, weight and build. We don’t know if either one of them, really, ever attended at the Palais. It could have been either one of them. The fact that she took off with Vizard sort of implies no. Right? That’s my opinion. All it takes is money and a few contacts. He might have been the one to call it in from the Palais, but that was more likely Wong. There’s a phone right there, just inside the door. It’s easy work, it might even have been presented to him as a joke—she’s playing a gag on a friend or something. He figures what the hell, I can go stay at a hotel for a week or so, and why not? The man’s out of work and he probably likes her besides, who doesn’t. Right, Inspector?”

“So who killed Guan Fu? Or Wong, whatever?”

“She’s strong enough to do it, Inspector. You know how a garrotte works…she’s there to give him money. She’s a beautiful woman, famous, and he’s dumb enough to turn his back for a moment—she asks for a cigarette and he turns to get her one or something. Something like that. Hey, it’s hot in here—can you please open the window, Eric.”

Levain nodded. The dead man was at least a smoker—it was all right there in the list of personal effects. Bedard hadn’t been there, but he’d definitely been keeping up with their reports.

“So. Eric Wong must have figured things out by that point—and he would have been asking for a lot more money. He would have been threatening to go to the police if she didn’t pay up. She either didn’t have it to give, or preferred not to be blackmailed for the rest of her life…”

“Right.”

So far, Mathilde Gaudrau and Aloysius Vizard were only being held on charges of traveling on a forged document. Bail would be set relatively low for that sort of offence. But police had damned little physical evidence to go on—barring their two bodies and the murder weapons. The challenge was linking it all together in a way that could be used.

The press, of course, was all dark, screaming headlines all over the front pages…three question marks at the end.

“So what about this Vizard character?” LeBref, putting his two centimes-worth in.

“Same thing. She basically knew he was head over heels—crazy in love. She might have checked up on him, to see if he had found someone else.” He seemed slightly embarrassed. “Look. We’ve all had a crush on somebody. It’s not that easy to get over, this unrequited love. And one day, she called him up out of the blue—and she says, hey, fuck it—I’ve had enough. Let’s run away. And of course he jumped at it. Oh, how his heart must have leaped…”

Who wouldn’t, in his eyes.

“So what happened, Louis?” There was something about Andre’s tone that bought a flush to the cheeks. “I mean, what really happened?”

“Yeah. I can see it now. She had the thorn in her hair—that bun she’s wearing in Scene One. That’s the one with the fucking chopsticks sticking out the back. Hell, that might have been her original inspiration—stab the bastard with a specially-sharpened chopstick. In the next scene, her hair’s down, right? She had the wristband on the whole time. Her costume would have covered it. That big ball of hair’s just big enough to conceal it. She pulls out the thorn, holds it like so—” Bedard used a pencil to demonstrate. “She definitely doesn’t want to cut her own hand, right? The butt of the thorn isn’t that big. It’s going to take some force and just in the right place. And at the psychological moment, after their bows and waves, just as the lights are coming down and the curtains are closing, she stabs the bugger straight to the heart. One good shove and it’s in.” He gave a nod. “One thing I noticed about her. She’s left handed—she’s a fairly large woman, and she would have been on Largo’s left side, her right hand holding onto his left. Ultimately, Largo didn’t stand much of a chance. He probably did have time to say something—if only to gasp or grunt in shock and realization.”

Maintenon looked at Levain and LeBref, who exchanged a glance.

“She had him right where she wanted him. I can imagine him smiling, and remembering her naked body. She could imagine that too. It might have been a real revelation. All of her illusions torn away. This is where the hate comes in. And then…then she just did it.”

LeBref spoke for the two of them, apparently.

“I don’t know, Gilles. It makes about as much sense as anything else we’ve heard.”

“So. Would you be willing to put this in writing and take it to the prosecutor?”

“Ah, yes, sir. I suppose I would—” His heart thumped away in there…

There was always going to be that element of doubt.

It was always going to be there, and Bedard could see that.

It was in the nature of the work.

 

***

 

“Perhaps you and I could have a talk.”

“Ah, yes, sir.”

Levain and the others, LeBref and Firmin, had somehow, casually and unobtrusively, departed for mysterious places and errands of their own. As for Archambault, Bedard hadn’t seen him for days, but assumed he must be out working on cases of his own.

“We can’t keep you here for long, ah, Louis. The trouble is, there are no openings in Homicide, and this unit is special. More senior men would get the posting anyways. You need another four or five years before you can hope for that. Right now, you probably don’t need to go back to traffic and street patrol—” Checking parking metres and the like. “Standing at an intersection, white gloves on, whistle in your mouth—”

There was the hint of a blush. Some men loved it, of course—hell, they all did on some level.

Bedard, settling back into a chair, pencil in hands, twirled it around, listening intently.

“Yes, sir.”

“It’s just that you seem pretty good with the cameras, the technical aspects of the job. You’re very thorough. You have an eye for detail, and you’re not afraid to open your mouth and ask a question once in a while. Or even just to make a statement once in a while.”

“Ah…yes, sir. So. What’s up?”

“The Youth Bureau is very small. Quite frankly, it’s underfunded.”

“Sir.” It was a question, no mistake.

“I’m getting there, Sergeant. I hope you don’t mind me calling you that.”

That brought a rueful grin.

The budget allocations were one thing, politicking was another. Bedard just didn’t have the weight to do much about that. Not yet, anyways. There were just no openings there.

“Chiappe, Rouard, guys like that. They just don’t see the need in the same way that you do.”

Bedard’s eyes glittered at that one. He even bit his lip—just like the Boss sometimes.

“Go on, sir. Please.”

“There’s an opening. It’s a good one. Forensic Investigations Branch. You’ll be documenting crime scenes, and yes, traffic accidents. Suicides, stabbings, dead bodies and busted windows, graffiti on a monument, every kind of crime. Some of it’s quite boring—there’s all kinds of training, lots of camera work and the like.” He’d have to take a few courses along the way.

“Yes, sir.”

“Anyways, by all means keep your name in at the Youth Bureau. And, you can go back to your old duties, if that’s what you really want.”

This might cause some social tensions, as Maintenon explained. He wouldn’t be wearing stripes, (no openings there, either), and yet he’d passed the exam—a man suddenly felt differently about himself, as Gilles explained to a faint grin from Bedard.

“Anyways, it’s better if you think about what you really want to do, Louis. It’s your career, right? And this way you get the rank and the pay straight away.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.” There was always the wife to consider—Charlotte hadn’t heard the news yet, but boy, was she ever going to be happy.

Sergeant’s pay.

Merde.

“Some of those lab jobs are day jobs, incidentally. Most of the time—you’ll get called out in the middle of the night often enough.”

“Yes, sir—they sure are.” Imagine that—a fucking day job, and in the police department. “Ha. A day job—”

Mostly.

“There’s a fair amount of overtime, for a man who knows what to do with it…”

Bedard was hardly hearing him at this point.

Who knows, in a few years he might still make it into Homicide—or the Youth Bureau.

It was all up to him now, really. His jaw dropped as the significance of Maintenon’s odd behaviour sank in. He watched the boss get carefully out of his chair, and move to the office door on some surprisingly quiet feet…Gilles grabbed the knob, gave it a quick twist and yanked it open…

There was nobody there.

Hmn.

Hmn.

That was a bit suspicious, now that he thought about it.

As for Maintenon, maybe the guy really was nuts.

He was also one hell of a good teacher—

And this sure as hell sounded like goodbye.

 

***

 

They had put the whole package together, and signed off on it. The case, for better or worse, had been handed off to the prosecutor’s office, make of it what they might.

Two days later, they got the call. A junior prosecutor, perhaps hoping to make a name for himself, (or even to just get lucky), had agreed to give it a go. The new charges would be laid, and bail hearings for both suspects would be set. It was hoped that Aloysius Vizard, faced with the prospect of a life in prison as an accessory to murder, would quickly crack and hopefully divulge more information in the hopes of saving his own skin. The only other possible interpretation put him squarely in the driver’s seat for both homicides, yet certainly Maintenon’s instincts were against it. No, she’d played him like a fiddle…as the saying went.

No matter what the bail was set at, there were likely people who would sign, almost certainly for Mathilde. As for the young man, that was just too bad. If he didn’t know anything, even if he hadn’t done anything, he was in a shit-load of trouble, as they all agreed.

Ultimately it was all up to a jury of one’s peers and there wasn’t much they could do about that except supply every little bit of information that they could. It was all in how one wrote it up. That’s not to say that life was fair, because it clearly wasn’t…

Going by Mathilde’s attitude at the last interview, there seemed little chance of getting anything sensible out of her, and that was going to play very hard for the unfortunate Monsieur Vizard.

As their brash young prosecutor put it, justice must be seen to be done—failing that, justice had to have been seen to have been attempted to be done—or something like that. His own assessment of the odds was little better than fifty-fifty, and he would play it for what it was worth. It would be fairly easy to convict Vizard—Mathilde, not so much, maybe.

The trouble was that they were a package deal.

It was the best anyone could do, and Maintenon sort of agreed with that. It’s what they had done after all—they had done the best they could.

Ultimately, the unit had dozens of cases ongoing, and it was good to finally put this one to bed.

Like the show, the opera, life itself must go on and he was a busy man.

It was a busy job, and the bodies had a way of stacking up.

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Five

 

 

The caseload never let up, and the weeks and the months went by. It was coming up on the trial date for Mathilde Gaudrau and Aloysius Vizard, co-defendants. His court-appointed attorney didn’t impress as all that competent, very much the second fiddle in their little defense team. A wiser man would have gone for separate trials, but of course Vizard didn’t have any real money and Mathilde had engaged one of the best in the business.

The investigators had received a few ugly calls and letters, and then the public and the press had moved on as they always did. All of that would come back with a vengeance when the trial started.

While the prosecutor had initially been pretty enthusiastic, perhaps months of tabloid speculation had taken some of that starch out of him. Charges against Aloysius Vizard had been reduced, on some reflection, based on the sheer unlikelihood of ever getting a conviction. His lack of cooperation, or sheer lack of knowledge, would still play against him as an uncooperative material witness in a homicide. This was a serious charge all on its own.

His attorney was indicating that there was some chance of a guilty plea, on the charges of traveling under false documents. There would be pressure on him not to do that, from Mathilde and her attorney. Based on what the police knew, it was their only rational course of action. The fact was, he was probably another victim.

They were just discussing all of this in desultory tones, the winter hanging on when it really should be spring already. Technically it was spring, not so one would know it though, what with a bit of snow on the ground even this morning.

Gilles was just settling into his desk after getting a fresh cup of coffee. He’d just lit up one of his thin black cheroots and Levain was typing away in his ham-fisted way. It was hard to believe those sausage-like fingers could hit the keys at all. Firmin was on the phone, and LeBref and Archambault were out on a call.

The door opened up and Chief Inspector Rouard poked his head in.

“I don’t know if you guys have heard the news?”

Gilles looked up inquiringly as Levain crashed to a halt.

“No, what’s that?”

“Sergeant Louis Bedard was killed in a robbery gone bad, early this morning…”

“Aw, for fuck’s sakes—” Levain’s shocked face was white and sick.

“Oh, thank you. Shit. Fuck.” Maintenon sighed, deeply. “So. What happened?”

He felt sick to his stomach.

They all did.

 

***

 

After the church service, a long cavalcade crossed the city to the Cemetery of the Sacred Heart. The family didn’t even have a plot—his fellow officers had taken up a collection, eventually getting enough for a respectable monument too, and the inscription. There were so many vehicles and people attending that it took quite some time to congregate at the graveside.

It was all very nice.

Somewhere far, far over the city, cold thunder rumbled briefly.

Gilles, standing in full dress uniform, with a bloody sword in his hand if one could believe it, still felt sick to his stomach.

Louis Bedard, on his way home from the station, had interrupted a robbery in progress. He was just going in to get milk and bread on the way home after a long night on the job. The robbers, all of seventeen and eighteen years old, took one look at the big tall drink of water coming in the door and had shot him out of hand. The assailants were still at large, probably still in the country and most likely still in the city…this was the sort of case where investigators would never rest, and it was only a matter of time.

According to the store owner, Bedard had stopped dead—and then gone right after them—typical of the man, but he was already in there and the crooks had pistol-whipped the owner, who was kneeling on the floor with blood streaming down his face.

Maybe there was nothing Bedard, or anyone else, could have done differently.

Maybe it was just Fate.

The winds were whipping up, and in the spring thaw, the air smelled of dog-shit. All those dog lovers, walking their precious, tail-aging little bundles through the cemetery on a daily basis generally had that effect. Tight little flower buds on the maples and oaks gave a hint of life to the proceedings, chattering squirrels chasing each other around the trunks and through the high boughs, oblivious to the tragedy unfolding below them.

Bedard’s wife Charlotte was devastated. The sight of the kids, faces and mouths and eyes round as saucers, was particularly affecting. They stood in a line in the front row, dressed in their Sunday finest, the middle child sucking her thumb and the baby blessedly quiet in her bassinette.

The priest spoke his magic formula and the attendants began turning the cranks. All that was left of Sergeant Louis Bedard, late of the Forensic Investigations Branch, slowly descended into the ground.

Tears flowed and people murmured and birds called cheerfully from the branches overhead, not being involved.

The President, having made a bit of political hay out of Bedard’s sacrifice, as he kept calling it, looked over and gave the honour guard a nod. His eulogy had been notably cringe-worthy and would be all over the front pages later on.

Fucking sacrifice…

Gilles raised his sword to the vertical and the line of seven officers raised their white ceremonial rifles.

They gave Bedard three crashing rounds each in a final salute.

The baby was awake now, and bawling its lungs out…the officer at her side was holding Charlotte up, as she broke down completely, the tall young man looking desperately around for a little help…

The priest lowered the big book and closed it, turning to offer an arm to Madame Bedard.

Now all the kids were crying, never to see their daddy again. Slowly the crowd trickled away, muttering and talking and one or two of them even laughing at something, and then it was all over for another day.

Vachon was there, with his camera hanging around his neck.

“You all right, Gilles.”

“Sure I am.” Of course I am.

Why wouldn’t I be?

“Come on. I’ll buy you a drink.”

Maintenon sheathed his sword as his fellow officers streamed past on their way to the cars.

A fucking sword, for crying out loud—

The grave-diggers shoveled dirt into the hole, the sky had darkened and the rain began to fall—again.

“Sure. Why not.”

Yeah, why doesn’t somebody buy me a drink—

Vachon pulled out a handkerchief.

“Here. I’ll wait for you at the car.”

“Thank you, Hector.”

For some reason, Maintenon couldn’t stop the tears.

It was better if not too many people saw this.

Sometimes there was nothing you could do—nothing.

 

 

 

End

 

 

About Louis Shalako

 

Louis Shalako is the founder of Long Cool One Books and the author of eighteen novels, numerous novellas and other short stories. Louis studied Radio, Television and Journalism Arts at Lambton College of Applied Arts and Technology, later going on to study fine art. He began writing for community newspapers and industrial magazines over thirty years ago. His stories appear in publications including Perihelion Science Fiction, Bewildering Stories, Aurora Wolf, Ennea, Wonderwaan, Algernon, Nova Fantasia, and Danse Macabre. He lives in southern Ontario and writes full time. Louis enjoys cycling, swimming and good books.

 

 

> Louis Shalako <

 

 

 

 

Thanks for reading.

 

 

 

 


The Golden Dragon

Opera star Largo Banzini is killed by a dart from a blowgun at the end of Act One of The Golden Dragon. It’s an impossible crime, and Inspector Gilles Maintenon, who lost his wife Ann only a short time ago, has been a bit off lately. They have two thousand witnesses, all kinds of political pressure, too many people with some kind of a motive, and not enough real information. He’s also a pretty good teacher, and the bright young Constable Louis Bedard has been assigned to the case. Somebody sees something in this young man, who has enough seniority to write the sergeant’s exam. He has ideas, if only he can overcome a basic shyness. If he does well, there’s no need to go back to traffic duties and foot patrols. This is the seventh volume in The Inspector Gilles Maintenon Mystery Series.

  • ISBN: 9781927957943
  • Author: Louis Shalako
  • Published: 2016-03-26 17:50:16
  • Words: 61141
The Golden Dragon The Golden Dragon