It was shortly after dawn on a day in late spring that carried all the promise of summer to come. The fresh green leaves were so bright they startled the eye, dew was already steaming from the grass under the first rays of the sun and the woods around the cottage were clamorous with birdsong. Benoît Courrèges, Chef de Police in the small French town of St Denis and known to everyone as Bruno, could identify the different notes of warblers and hoopoes, woodlarks and woodpeckers. But he knew these were just a fraction of the birdlife of the sweet valley of the river Vézère where he made his home.
Bruno wore his old army tracksuit in which he had just taken his morning run through the woods. His eyes were fixed on Napoléon and Joséphine, his two geese. These monarchs of his chicken run paced forward with slow dignity to study the quivering puppy held firmly in Bruno’s grip. Behind the geese, twitching his head from side to side, came Blanco the cockerel, named after a French rugby hero. Blanco was followed by his hens and the two pheasants Bruno had added to his flock because he liked their smaller eggs and the careful way the hen pheasant would hide them in the undergrowth.
Raising a basset hound to be a hunting dog was slow work, but Bruno was becoming convinced that Balzac was the most intelligent dog he had ever known. Already house-trained, Balzac would even abandon an alluring new scent to obey his master’s summons. Now he was learning that the birds in Bruno’s chicken run were to be treated with courtesy as members of the extended family, and to be protected against all comers. Balzac was eager to bounce forward to play and send the chickens squawking and jumping into the air. So Bruno held him down with one hand and stroked him with the other, speaking in a low and reassuring voice as the two geese advanced to see what new creature Bruno had brought onto their territory this time.
Bruno had already familiarized Balzac with the deep and sensual scent of truffles and shown him the white oaks in the woods where they were usually to be found. He took the dog on his morning jogs and his dawn and dusk checks of the security of the chicken coop, and thought the time was approaching when Balzac would be able to run alongside when he exercised the horses. Bruno suspected he’d miss the now-familiar feel of the large binoculars case strapped to his chest, where the puppy was currently stowed when his master went riding.
Napoléon and Joséphine, who had grown familiar with Bruno’s previous basset hound, Gigi, came closer. Blanco flapped his wings and squawked out his morning cocorico, as if to assert that however large the two geese, he was really in charge here. The puppy, accustomed to sleeping in the stables beside Bruno’s horse Hector, was not in the least awed by the size of the geese. He cocked his head to one side to gaze up at them and made an amiable squeak of greeting. The geese cruised on past Bruno and his dog, leaving Blanco to stand on tiptoe and fluff out his feathers to enlarge his size and grandeur. Balzac looked suitably impressed.
Watching his birds and stroking his hound, Bruno knew he could not imagine a life without animals and birdsong and his garden. He delighted in eating apples plucked straight from his own trees, tomatoes still warm from the sun and salads that had still been growing moments before he dressed them with oil and vinegar. At the back of his mind lurked the question of whether there would one day be a wife and children to share this idyll and enjoy the stately progress of the seasons.
He turned his head to glance at his cottage, restored from ruin by his own hands and the help of his friends and neighbours in St Denis. Repaired now from the fire damage inflicted by a vengeful criminal, the house had grown. Bruno had used the insurance money and much of his savings to install windows in the roof, lay floorboards and create two new bedrooms in the disused loft. The plan had long been in his mind but the decision to carry it out felt like making a bet on his own future, that in time there would be a family to fill the space.
On the desk in his study lay the estimate for installing solar panels on the roof, along with the tax rebates he would receive and the terms of the bank loan he had been promised. Bruno had done his sums and knew it would take him almost ten years to earn back his investment, but he supposed it was a gesture to the environment that he ought to make. Now, gazing at the honey-coloured stone of his house topped with the traditional red tiles of the Périgord, he worried what the panels might do to the look of the place.
His reverie was interrupted by the vibration of the phone in his pocket. As he extracted it, Balzac squirmed free and began creeping towards the grazing chickens. Bruno reached out to haul him back, missed, dropped his phone and a furious squawking erupted as the puppy bounded forward and the hens half-flew and half-scurried back to the protection of their hut.
‘Sorry, Father,’ Bruno said as he recovered the phone, having seen that his caller was the local priest, Father Sentout. He picked up Balzac with one hand and headed back to the house.
‘Sorry to disturb you so early, Bruno, but there’s been a death. Old Murcoing passed away and there’s something here that I think you ought to see. I’m at his place now, waiting for his daughter to get here.’
‘I’ll shower and come straight there,’ Bruno said. ‘How did you learn of his death?’
‘I called in to see him yesterday evening and he was fading then, so I sat with him through the night. He died just as the dawn broke.’
Bruno thanked the priest, filled Balzac’s food and water bowls and headed for the shower, wondering how many towns were fortunate enough to have a priest who took his parochial duties so seriously that he’d sit up all night with a dying man. Murcoing had been one of the group of four or five old cronies who would gather at the cheaper of the town’s cafés. It had a TV for the horse races and off-track betting on the Pari Mutuel and the old men would nurse a petit blanc all morning and tell each other that France and St Denis were going to the dogs. Without knowing the details, Bruno recalled that Murcoing was one of the town’s few remaining Resistance veterans, which could mean a special funeral. If so, he’d be busy. The decision about the solar panels would have to wait.
As if determined to make it his last sight on earth, the dead man clutched what at first appeared to be a small painting on canvas or parchment. Bruno moved closer and saw that it was no painting, but a large and beautiful banknote, nearly twice the size of the undistinguished but familiar euro notes in his wallet.
Impeccably engraved in pastel hues stood Mercury with his winged heels before a port teeming with sailing vessels and steamships. Facing him was a bare-chested Vulcan with his forge against a backdrop of a modern factory with tall chimneys belching smoke. It was a Banque de France note for one thousand francs of a kind that Bruno had never seen before. On the quilted counterpane that was tucked up tightly to the corpse’s grizzled chin lay another banknote, of the same style and value. Picking it up, Bruno was startled by its texture, still thick and crinkly as if made more of linen than paper. It was the reverse side of the note the dead man held. Against a cornucopia of fruits and flowers, a proud cockerel and sheaves of wheat, two medallions contained the profiles of a Greek god and goddess. They stared impassively at one another against the engraved signatures of some long-dead bank officials, and above them was printed the date of issue: December 1940.
His eyebrows rose. For any Frenchman 1940 was a solemn year. It marked the third German invasion in seventy years, and the second French defeat. But it was the first time Paris had fallen to German arms. In 1870, the capital had withstood months of siege before French troops, under the watchful eye of the Kaiser’s armies, stormed the capital to defeat and slaughter the revolutionaries of the Paris Commune. After the invasion of 1914, the Germans had been held and eventually defeated. But in 1940, France had surrendered and signed a humiliating armistice. German soldiers had marched through the Arc de Triomphe and down the Champs-Elysées and launched an occupation that would last for over four years. France under Marshal Pétain’s Vichy regime had retained some shred of sovereignty over a truncated half of the country while the Germans took over Paris, the north and the whole Atlantic coastline. So this was a Vichy banknote, Bruno mused, wondering how long after the war’s end it had remained legal tender.
There were more notes, all French and for varying amounts, inside a black wooden box that lay open at the dead man’s side. Alongside them were some old photographs. The one on top showed a group of young men and boys, carrying weapons from shotguns and revolvers to elderly submachine guns. They were squatting on the running boards or leaning against a black Citroën traction-avant, one of the most handsome cars France ever made. A French tricolore flag was draped across the bonnet.
Bruno picked up the photo and turned it over to see the scrawled words Groupe Valmy, le 3 juillet, 1944. Mainly dressed like farmers, some wore berets and two had the old steel helmets from the 1914–1918 war. An older man sported a French officer’s uniform with leather straps across his chest and ammunition pouches. He held up a grenade in each hand. Each of the men had an armband with the letters FFI. Bruno knew it stood for Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur, the name De Gaulle had chosen for the Resistance fighters. The next photo showed the same car and an ancient truck parked beside a train. The doors of a goods wagon were open and men in a human chain were passing sacks from the train to the truck. On the back were the words Neuvic, 26 juillet, 1944.
‘I’ve never been allowed to see inside his box before,’ said the woman. She eyed the photos but made no move to touch them or the banknotes. Her hands, work-worn and gnarled, remained clenched in her lap. She looked to be in her sixties. Father Sentout had introduced her as Joséphine, one of the dead man’s three daughters. The priest was packing away the breviary and holy oils he had used to give the last rites. A spot of oil gleamed on the dead man’s forehead where the priest had made the last sign of the cross and another on the eyelids.
‘Eighty-six,’ the priest said. ‘A good age, a long life and he served France. Your father is with our father in heaven now.’ He put his hand gently on the woman’s arm. She shook it off.
‘We could have done with that money when I was growing up,’ she said, staring dry-eyed at the banknotes. ‘They were hard times.’
‘It was the banknotes that made me call you,’ said Father Sentout, turning to Bruno. ‘I don’t know what the law says about them, being out of date.’
‘They’re part of his estate so they’ll go to his heirs,’ said Bruno. ‘But those photos mean I’ll probably have to plan for a special funeral.’ He turned to Joséphine. ‘Do you know if he had the Resistance medal?’
She gestured with her head to a small picture frame on the wall above the bed, below the crucifix. Bruno leaned across the bed to look closer. The curtains were open and the sun was shining but only a modest light came from the tiny courtyard. He saw the stone wall of a neighbour’s house barely two metres away. A single light bulb hanging from the ceiling in a dingy parchment lampshade did little to help, but he could make out the small brass circle with its engraved Cross of Lorraine hanging from a black and crimson ribbon. Beneath it in the frame was a faded FFI armband and a photograph of a young Murcoing wearing it and holding a rifle.
‘I’ll have to check the official list but it looks like he qualifies for a Resistance funeral with a guard of honour and a flag for the coffin,’ Bruno said. ‘If that’s what you want, I’ll make the arrangements. The state pays for it all. You can either have him buried at the big Resistance cemetery at Chasseneuil or here in St Denis.’
‘I was wondering if he’d left enough to pay for cremation,’ she said, looking around the small bedroom with its faded floral wallpaper and a cheap wardrobe that had seen better days. ‘He was waiting for a place in the retirement home so the Mairie stuck him in here.’
The old man had lived alone in the small apartment formed from the ground floor of a narrow three-storey house in one of the back streets of St Denis. Bruno remembered when the Mairie had bought the building and converted it for social housing. Four families were stuffed into the upstairs apartments and another from the waiting list would be moved into this place as soon as the old man was buried. The recession had been hard on St Denis.
‘Paul should be here by now,’ she said, looking at her watch. ‘His grandson, my sister’s boy. I called him as soon as I called the priest. He’s the only one my dad ever had much time for, the only other man in the family.’ She looked sourly at the corpse in the bed. ‘Three daughters weren’t enough for him.’
‘I’ll need your phone number to let you know about the funeral,’ Bruno said, taking out his notebook. ‘Do you know where he kept his papers, if there’s a will?’
She shrugged and gave her number. ‘Nothing much to leave.’ She looked at her watch again. ‘I have to go. I’ll take whatever food he’s left.’ Through the open door they heard her rummaging in the small fridge and the food cupboard before she stomped down the narrow passage beside the garage that led to the street.
‘Not much sign of grief there,’ said Bruno, taking out his phone to call the medical centre. A doctor would have to certify death before Murcoing could be removed to the funeral parlour.
‘He didn’t have many visits from his family, except for Paul,’ the priest said. ‘All the sisters live down in Bergerac. Joséphine told me she works as a night nurse, so she probably sees more than enough of the old and sick.’
‘How sick was he? I haven’t seen him in the café for a while.’
‘He knew he was dying and he didn’t seem to mind,’ Father Sentout replied. ‘He had pneumonia but refused to go to hospital. That was the sickness we used to call the old man’s friend. It’s a peaceful passing, they just slip away.’
‘I remember seeing him coming out of church. Was he a regular?’
‘His wife dragged him along. After she died he didn’t come so often at first, but this place is close to the church so he’d come along for Mass; for the company as much as anything.’
‘Did he ever talk about the money?’ Bruno gestured at the open box on the bed and the banknote still held tightly in Murcoing’s dead hands.
The priest paused, as if weighing his words in a way that made Bruno wonder whether there was some secret of the confessional that was being kept back.
‘Not directly, but he’d rail against the fat cats and the rich and complained of being cheated. It was just ramblings. I was never clear whether he reckoned his daughters had cheated him out of the money from the farm or it was something else.’
‘Is there something you can’t tell me?’
Father Sentout shrugged. ‘Nothing directly linked to the money. I presume it’s from the Neuvic train. Don’t you know about it? The great train robbery by the Resistance?’
Bruno shook his head, reminding the priest that he’d only been in St Denis for a little over a decade. He’d heard of it but not the details. These days, the priest explained, the story was more legend than anything else. A vast sum of money, said to be hundreds of millions, had been stolen from a train taking reserves from the Banque de France to the German naval garrison in Bordeaux. Despite various official inquiries, large amounts had never been accounted for, and local tradition had it that several Resistance leaders had after the war bought grand homes, started businesses and financed political careers.
‘If that was his share, he didn’t get much,’ the priest concluded, nodding at the banknotes on the bed. After the war there had been so many devaluations. Then in 1960 came De Gaulle’s currency reform; a new franc was launched, each worth a hundred of the old ones. ‘In reality, that thousand-franc banknote is today probably worth less than a euro, if it’s worth anything at all.’
Bruno bent down to prise the note from the cold fingers. As he put it inside the box with the photographs, he heard footsteps in the corridor and Fabiola the doctor bustled into the small room. She was wearing a white medical coat of freshly pressed cotton and her dark hair was piled loosely atop her head. An intriguing scent came with her, a curious blend of antiseptic and perfume, overwhelming the stale air of the room. She kissed Bruno and shook hands with the priest, pulling out her stethoscope to examine the body.
‘He obviously didn’t take his medicine. Sometimes I wonder why we bother,’ she said, sorting through the small array of plastic jars from the pharmacy that stood by the bed. ‘He’s dead and there’s nothing suspicious. I’ll leave the certificate at the front desk of the clinic so you can pick it up. Meanwhile we’d better get him to the funeral home.’
She stopped at the door and faced Bruno. ‘Is this going to stop you getting to the airport? I’ll be free by five so I can do it.’
‘It should be OK. If there’s a problem, I’ll call you,’ he replied. Pamela, the Englishwoman Bruno had been seeing since the previous autumn, was to land at the local airport of Bergerac just before six that evening and he was to meet her and drive her back to St Denis. Pamela, who kept horses along with the gîtes she rented out to tourists, had been pleased to find in Fabiola a year-round tenant for one of the gîtes and the two women had become friends.
Bruno began making calls as soon as Fabiola and the priest left. He started with the veterans’ department at the Ministry of Defence to confirm a Resistance ceremony and then called the funeral parlour. Next he rang Florence, the science teacher at the local collège who was now running the town choir, to ask if she could arrange for the Chant des Partisans, the anthem of the Resistance, to be sung at the funeral. He rang the Centre Jean Moulin in Bordeaux, the Resistance museum and archive, for their help in preparing a summary of Murcoing’s war record. The last call was to the social security office, to stop the dead man’s pension payments. As he waited to be put through to the right department, he began to look around.
In the sitting room an old TV squatted on a chest of drawers. In the top one, Bruno found a large envelope marked ‘Banque’ and others that contained various utility bills and a copy of the deed of sale for Murcoing’s farm in the hills above Limeuil. It had been sold three years earlier, when prices were already tumbling, for 85,000 euros. The buyer had a name that sounded Dutch and the notaire was local. Bruno remembered the place, a ramshackle farmhouse with a roof that needed fixing and an old tobacco barn where goats were kept. The farm had been too small to be viable, even if the land had been good. Murcoing’s last bank statement said he had six thousand euros in a Livret, a tax-free account set up by the state to encourage saving, and just over eight hundred in his current account. He’d been getting a pension of four hundred euros a month. There was no phone to be seen and no address book. A dusty shotgun hung on the wall and a well-used fishing rod stood in the corner. The house key hung on a hook beside the door. Left alone with the corpse until the hearse came, Bruno thought old Murcoing did not have much to show for a life of hard work and patriotism.
He wrote out a receipt for the gun, the box and its contents and left it in the drawer. Beside the TV set he saw a well-used wallet. Inside were a carte d’identité and the carte vitale that gave access to the health service, but no credit cards and no cash. Joséphine would have seen to that. There were three small photos, one a portrait of a handsome young man and two more with the same young man with an arm around the shoulders of the elderly Murcoing at what looked like a family gathering. That must be Paul, the favourite grandson, who was supposed to arrive. Bruno left a note for him on the table, along with his business card and mobile number, asking Paul to get in touch about the funeral and saying he’d taken the gun, the box and banknotes to his office in the Mairie for safe keeping.
As the hearse was arriving, Bruno’s mobile phone rang and a sultry voice said: ‘I have something for you.’ The Mayor’s secretary was incapable of saying even Bonjour without some hint of coquetry. ‘It’s a message from some foreigner’s cleaning woman on the road out to Rouffignac. She thinks there’s been a burglary.’
Excerpted from The Resistance Man by Martin Walker. Copyright © 2013 by Walker and Watson Ltd.
First published in Great Britain in 2013 by Quercus, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block
London, W1U 8EW.
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