For a long time, he watches the people in the queue. It’s remarkable how patient these tourists are. It’s 38 degrees Celsius and there’s a bedraggled air about the line leading into the Pop Art exhibition here at the Centre Georges Pompidou. Yet they seem happy enough to wait. In the meantime, they’re making friends and swapping tips. Last night we had a steak-frites at the Assiette au Boeuf, have you heard of it? Best steak-frites I’ve ever had and the Béarnaise was heaven. I know a small place off the Place du Marais, you’d never guess it was there, it was just us and the locals. Forget about the Champs-Elysées, no one in their right mind goes there any more except the nouveaux-riches. Everyone likes to think they’ve made a discovery when it’s generally the case they’re the last to find out.
A shuffle of feet and the column lumbers half a step forward. It amazes him that so many will go out of their way to see this, will line up in a heatwave for the opportunity to gaze at a giant tube of toothpaste or a reproduction of a tin of tomato soup. If this is art then he obviously knows nothing about it. Art, he believes, should have an illuminating effect, should permeate the soul.
He has a headache and he’s dizzy from standing in the stifling heat for so long and from the buzz of conversation coming from the queue. It’s a wonder no one’s fainted or had a heart attack, or just walked away. A quick look at his watch tells him he’s been here twenty minutes already. How much longer should he wait? His coffee’s cold but he sips at it till the grainy residue at the bottom of his Styrofoam cup spills onto his tongue. A bead of sweat rolls down his eyelid and he blinks.
He’s never liked the industrial style of the Pompidou Centre with its utility pipes and exposed ducts on the outside of the building. To him it’s like a carcass, the worthless remains of a structure that never quite came to life. It stands there with its innards exposed, stripped of all mystery. Down on the square the jugglers and mime artists and musicians are competing for attention. A woman is singing ‘La Vie en Rose’ and playing the accordion and he thinks about the tourists who will take this moment home as though it’s genuine and says something about this city.
But at least the visitors are courteous. Paris is nearly civilized in August, with the Parisians gone. The tourists are harmless, with their shiny new sneakers and eager faces, taking snapshots of everything. Every other month of the year he has to contend with his hard-nosed, pushy compatriots here. It takes a great deal out of him to ignore them and focus on the exhibitions – this year there have been such treasures, particularly at the Louvre and Orsay.
His headache is under control still, but there’s the dizziness and he thinks he had better eat soon, before nausea sets in. Something light, maybe a salade de chèvre. At the Café des Halles they make the goat-cheese salad just the way he likes it. He should go there now, before it gets too crowded.
He looks at his watch one more time, just to confirm that it’s time to give up and leave, but then he sees the boy out of the corner of his eye, heading towards him with his left foot trailing slightly. If you didn’t know, you’d mistake his lopsided gait for an adolescent’s exaggerated nonchalance. He wears his backpack over one shoulder and his grey cap turned back to front. His clothes hang too loosely on him. He is trying hard to look cool, and at the same time holding back a smile.
To the man, the boy seems breakable, like his skinny, loose-jointed limbs might easily snap.
When he reaches him, his face shiny with sweat, the boy raises both hands in the air, as if to say his lateness is not his fault but due to circumstances beyond his control. As usual, he seems oblivious to the fact that there are other people around and the world contains a great deal more than just the two of them. He tugs at the man’s sleeve and rubs his stomach. I’m starving. Maybe it has something to do with his age: the boy is always famished.
The man nods. ‘Come on. Let’s get some lunch.’ He takes one last look at the queue which has just inched forward again, and turns towards the escalator. He throws his coffee cup into a bin.
He watches the boy step down the escalator, in his oversized clothing. It’s almost as though he is absent, beneath his clothes. It’s almost as if he doesn’t exist.
Commandant Serge Morel finished his coffee and tossed the cup into a bin before crossing the street and entering the nineteenth-century stone building on Rue de l’Eglise. He looked at his watch: 9.16 a.m. He’d driven straight here after getting the call, without stopping at home.
He looked at the sky. Another muggy and uncomfortable day to look forward to. He could have done with a cold shower and a change of clothes.
In the red-carpeted lobby he debated whether to take the lift but one look at the tiny old-fashioned cage with its iron gate was enough to change his mind. Besides, his doctor would probably tell him that taking the stairs was a smart option. What had the GP said? A man in his forties is at risk of, well, just about everything.
He walked up to the fourth floor and waved his badge at the police officer standing outside the door of the dead woman’s apartment. The man stepped aside and Morel found himself in a living room so cluttered it looked like a furniture auction house before the bidding starts. As he entered the room he felt the tension crackle in the air like high-voltage power lines in damp weather. A buzzing of anxiety beneath the calm and measured movements of the experienced people gathered in the apartment, most of whom he knew. The tension was always there. The first stage of the investigation was its most crucial: no one wanted to make a mistake or miss anything.
Considering the lack of space it was a wonder so many people were able to move around at all without climbing over each other. Morel counted eight in this room alone. One of them was his boss, Commissaire Olivier Perrin. The minute he spotted Morel he hurried up to him on short, bandy legs.
‘What took you so long? Don’t you live just down the road?’
Morel looked at Perrin and marvelled for the hundredth time at how closely his boss resembled a bulldog. The same muscular build and permanent scowl. The same hanging jowls. ‘I came as soon as I got the call,’ he said. No point going into details.
Still, he wished he’d arrived sooner. He felt like the latecomer at a party. Two of Morel’s team members, Jean Char and Marco Lancel, wearing protective gear on their heads, hands and feet, were talking to one of the technicians. There were only two men Morel didn’t recognize. Probably the local, Neuilly boys who had initially been called in. In the hallway two women waited on chairs to be interviewed. One of them was sobbing, wiping at her eyes with her sleeve. ‘Where have you been? Are you ready to take a look at the body?’ Lila Markov, the youngest member of Morel’s team, was standing next to him with her hands on her hips.
‘In a minute.’ He took a quick look at Lila. Dressed in jeans, a V-necked white T-shirt and black Doc Martens, she had that look of intense concentration on her face which he knew well. Her hair was tied into a ponytail and she looked strong and fit. There was nothing soft and yielding about Lila Markov.
The police photographer emerged from what Morel guessed was the victim’s bedroom.
‘Morel,’ he said by way of greeting. ‘I’ve got all the shots I need for now. But when you’re ready I’d like to get the rest of her body. Didn’t want to pull the sheet back till you’d seen her.’
‘I’ll be right there,’ Morel said.
As he surveyed the living room one last time, Lila waited patiently. She was used to the way he did things.
Every available surface was covered in ornaments. One was a bronze owl. Morel gazed at it, momentarily distracted by its glistening feathers. The bronzework was delicate, the feathers detailed with great precision.
His eyes shifted across all the other knick-knacks on display. So much clutter spoke of an empty life. The room looked out on to a street lined with chestnut trees that looked careworn from the relentless heat of these past weeks. In the apartment too it was beginning to feel uncomfortably warm. Morel crossed over to the window and slid the balcony door open. He took several deep breaths before sliding it shut again. In the background the woman’s sobs went on, quiet and insistent.
‘That’s the cleaning lady,’ Lila said. ‘She found the body. The victim’s name is Isabelle Dufour.’
Morel nodded. ‘Anything else you want to tell me before I take a look?’ he asked.
‘I’d rather not spoil the surprise.’
It took Morel several seconds to understand what he was looking at.
The old woman’s face was grotesque. The closed lids caked in blue eye shadow. Her lipstick overlapped the shape of her lips, making them look like they’d been surgically enhanced.
Her cheeks wore bright circles of pink and the foundation across her face was thickly applied, spread unevenly across the wrinkly, parchment-like skin.
To top it all off, she wore a wig. The hair down to her shoulders, curly and bright red.
Morel was reminded of a couple of the regular ‘girls’ on Place Blanche who had long since passed the age of retirement but seemed to think that with extra layers of make-up they might still score. And it was true there were men who would make do with such ghoulishness.
The make-up was in stark contrast to everything else. The dead woman wore a virginal cream-coloured nightgown tied at the neck with a bow. She lay on a plumped-up pillow with perfectly white sheets stretched tightly over her thin body.
Leaving aside the face painting, if it had been a wake Isabelle Dufour couldn’t have been better prepared.
Morel looked at her and felt the familiar sense of unease that always accompanied this initial violation of a victim’s private world. The first thing the dead gave up was their intimacy.
‘Not what you’d call a typical crime scene, is it?’ Lila said. One of the two police officers who’d called in the murder came into the room. Morel turned to him. He guessed that the man was in his early thirties. His black hair was cropped military-style and his eyes were the molten colour of maple syrup.
‘Akil Abdelkader,’ the man said and Morel nodded. There seemed little point in shaking hands when they were both wearing gloves.
‘What alerted you?’ Morel asked.
‘It didn’t feel right. First the make-up on her face – that lady who cleans for her, the one who found her like this, said she never wore any make-up – and then the sheets,’ Abdelkader said, pointing to the bed. ‘They are too tight. No one can go to sleep like that, right? Even to tuck yourself in that tightly isn’t possible. Especially with your arms underneath the covers. So I started thinking, someone put her here like this, someone not quite right in the head maybe. Was I wrong to call it in?’
Morel pulled the sheet back. Both the victim’s arms lay straight down her sides. In her right hand, she held a wooden cross, with four blue stones embedded one at the end of each arm. There were no visible signs of injury. But the scene was all wrong. The woman’s ramrod posture, the make-up, the fact that someone – who? – had tucked her in that way. Abdelkader had made a good call.
‘You did the right thing,’ Morel told him, and he saw the other man visibly relax.
The photographer had returned to the room and moved in to take more shots. While he clicked away, Morel looked at Madame Dufour’s hands and face for anything that might reveal something about how she’d died.
Next he checked the bedside table. It held a lamp, a novel and a stack of religious pamphlets. At first glance they looked like the sort of thing you found in your mail box or people handed out to you on the street. There were three of them, all identical. Nothing in the drawer except a pair of reading glasses and a packet of tissues.
Morel pulled the sheet back over the victim. Even someone with more experience than Abdelkader might have been forgiven for thinking she had died of natural causes. Wearing too much make-up, admittedly. But still. Morel made a mental note to remember the officer’s name.
‘So? Any ideas? I’m hoping the answer is yes. The last thing we need is to give the press another excuse to bang on about soaring crime rates. They’re supposed to be going down, remember? If this government is telling the public that we’re getting tougher on crime, then we’d damned well better be getting tougher. And getting results.’
Morel waited. There was no point in responding, he’d heard it all from Perrin before. The pressure he was under because of the results culture brought in by Sarkozy.
‘Numbers. That’s all that matters to them,’ he said now, for the hundredth time.
He sighed meaningfully and looked at Morel. ‘So what have we got here?’
‘We’ll need to wait for the results of the autopsy before we jump to conclusions,’ Morel said mildly. Perrin eyed him with suspicion.
‘I need to know today,’ he said, articulating the last word as though Morel might have trouble understanding it. ‘I need to know what happened to her and what leads we’ve got. I’ll expect to hear from you before I head home tonight, and I’m leaving early to get changed for dinner.’
‘I understand,’ Morel said.
Perrin stared at Morel as if he didn’t know what to make of him. He started to say something else but just then he caught sight of the deputy public prosecutor entering the room and, without another word or even a look in Morel’s direction, he sidled up to the woman with his arms outstretched, all smiles.
Morel had been dozing happily in Solange’s arms when the call had come through at 8.34. Knowing he was running late but telling himself he deserved a break. Over the past six months Morel’s team had closed more cases than any other team at the Criminal Brigade. Even Perrin had been forced to acknowledge their performance.
‘The cleaning lady has been working for our victim for sixteen years,’ Lila explained. ‘She let herself in with her own set of keys. Looked for her employer and thought that maybe she was sleeping in, though she was an early riser. Then realized something was wrong. She ran out and alerted the concierge.’
Morel listened and looked over at the two women sitting in the hallway. The thin-lipped concierge and the cleaning lady made an unlikely pair. He had a feeling, looking at the former with her beady blue eyes and tight curls, that she would not typically show such warmth to the stout woman who sat by her side wearing a headscarf and clutching a shopping bag. But clearly this was an event that superseded any perceived issues of class and sophistication.
The two Neuilly flics had done a good job sending nosy neighbours away, Morel thought. Aside from a change of menu at their local bistro, this was probably the biggest thing that had happened to most of the tenants in years.
‘That Abdelkader was the one who decided to escalate this,’ Lila said.
‘Yes, smart guy,’ Morel said. ‘Speaking of which . . .’
Abdelkader was making his way over to them.
‘There is something you need to know,’ he said.
‘What’s that?’ Morel said.
‘The victim. It turns out one of my colleagues took a call from her a week ago. She wanted to make a complaint.’
‘About two guys who had knocked on her door. Evangelists. Jehovah’s Witnesses or something, I can’t remember.’
Morel thought of the pamphlets on Dufour’s side table. ‘What was the big deal?’
‘She was freaking out because they had come into the building and all the way to her front door. Normally the concierge keeps a close eye on who comes and goes.’
‘What happened to the complaint?’
‘We got her to come in and took her testimony. That was about it. We never followed up on it.’
He looked unhappy.
‘Well, that sounds right,’ Morel said. ‘There wasn’t anything else you could have done. What’s bugging you?’
‘Nothing. Just that one minute two guys turn up at her door and she seems really freaked out. And the next she’s been killed in this weird way.’ He shook his head. ‘I’ve seen a few dead people since I took this job but nothing like this.’
‘It’s certainly an unusual crime scene. I’ll give you that,’ Morel said. ‘We’ll have to see what the forensic pathologist has to say.’
‘Let me know if I can help.’
Morel noted the restraint in the other policeman’s tone. Abdelkader looked like a man who kept his emotions to himself but Morel guessed how much he wanted to be a part of the investigation. His hunger was evident.
Morel hadn’t been that different himself, back then. And he was impressed by the younger man’s professionalism.
‘Don’t worry. I will.’
After sending Jean and Marco to interview the other tenants in the building, Morel took Lila with him and instructed one of the two women who had been sitting in the hallway for the past half hour to follow him to the ground floor.
‘Sorry to keep you waiting. Would you mind coming downstairs with us? We’ll use your living room, if that isn’t too much trouble,’ Morel told the concierge.
‘Not at all,’ she said, clearly flustered. ‘If you could just give me a tiny minute to make sure the place isn’t a complete mess.’
Once they reached the ground floor, she trotted ahead of them to her apartment while they followed at a slower pace. Through the half-open door they heard a bout of furious whispering before she reappeared.
‘Please come in.’
The room they found themselves in was fussy and feminine. Morel guessed that the concierge, who’d introduced herself as Rose Jardin, was solely responsible for the interior decoration. It certainly seemed to have little to do with the man who sat as well he could on the pale leather sofa, between two rows of symmetrically arranged heart-shaped cushions. He wore a pair of blue overalls over a short-sleeved shirt and hardly looked away from the TV screen when they entered the room.
‘Georges,’ she hissed at him and turned to Morel with an apologetic smile. ‘My husband has been working on the pipes all morning. We’ve had some plumbing issues. Sorry. Would you care to sit down?’
‘Thank you. Commandant Serge Morel.’ He extended a hand to Rose’s husband.
Reluctantly, the man turned the television off and turned to the two officers. ‘Georges Jardin. So she’s dead, is she? Madame Dufour?’
‘I’m afraid so.’
‘We’re investigating what happened,’ Morel said while Lila fidgeted on the sofa, trying to make a space where she could sit comfortably. In the end she picked up two of the cushions and shoved them aside. Morel noticed how the concierge flinched. He saw that Lila had noticed too.
‘We hope you won’t mind if we ask a few questions.’ ‘Not at all.’
‘Though I’m not sure how we can help,’ the husband said. ‘You might not be much help,’ the concierge said. Then, turning to Morel, ‘Georges wouldn’t notice if someone took an axe to me right in front of his nose. But happily, I’m more observant. No one gets past me in this building.’ ‘Did Isabelle Dufour have many visitors?’
‘No. The only people I ever saw were her son Jacques – and even that very rarely – and her daughter-in-law and grandchildren. Mostly her daughter-in-law came with just the younger of her two children.’
‘How often did her son visit?’
‘In the eight years I’ve been here I’ve probably seen him four times. That’s how rarely he comes. The last time was just last week, in fact. He stayed for about an hour. He probably had lunch with his mother. It was around midday.’
‘Did he visit with his wife and children?’ Rose shook her head.
‘No. Always alone. The wife came separately. About once a month, I saw her and the little boy. They usually spend some time in the afternoons.’
‘What about the cleaning lady? How often does she come?’
‘Maria? She cleans at Madame Dufour’s three times a week. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Always comes in at 8 a.m. and leaves at 12 p.m.’
‘We’ve been told there might have been a couple of people, a man and a boy, distributing religious pamphlets.’
‘I’ve never seen anyone like that.’
‘Yet Isabelle Dufour filed a complaint with the police about them.’
‘A week or so ago.’ Rose looked put out.
‘Well, I never saw anyone like that.’ She looked at Morel. ‘I wish she had mentioned it. After all, I am responsible for this building.’
‘Yes, well, I’m sure she didn’t want to trouble you.’
The entire time Rose’s husband hadn’t said a word. Now Morel turned to him.
‘Monsieur Jardin, did you ever see any visitors that fit that description?’
‘No.’ He hesitated and looked at his wife. ‘But we aren’t always aware of who comes and goes. There are times when Rose and I are having our lunch. And often we like to take a quick nap in the afternoons.’ He blushed then, and Morel forced himself not to smile.
But he couldn’t resist looking at Rose Jardin. Her face had turned bright red and she was staring carefully at the ground.
‘Well, thank you for all your help,’ Morel said, standing up. ‘Now if you don’t mind I’ll call Maria in. If there is a room where we could speak to her . . .’
‘Of course,’ Rose Jardin said. ‘You can use this room. My husband and I will leave you to it.’ She still wouldn’t meet Morel’s eye.
Morel stepped out of the flat and gave Jean a call. ‘Can you get the cleaning lady to come down now?’ he asked.
Morel and Lila waited for Maria in the lobby.
‘I bet Georges is in for a telling-off,’ Morel said.
‘I don’t know about that. I think she’ll be too busy rearranging the cushions,’ Lila said. ‘Did you see her face when I moved a couple of them? I wonder if she uses a ruler or if she relies on instinct?’
The interview with the cleaning lady revealed very little. ‘It was horrible, to see her like that,’ Maria said. She was clearly distressed about Dufour’s death.
‘Any idea who could have done this?’ he asked.
She shivered. ‘I have no idea. A monster! It must be someone who is crazy.’
‘What sort of employer was Madame Dufour?’ he asked. ‘Very good.’ Maria shook her head. ‘I have a son, Alfonso, and Madame Dufour always remembers his birthday. She always gives him something special.’ She seemed to realize she was using the wrong tense and paused, unsure of what to say next.
‘She was thoughtful,’ Lila prompted her. ‘Sounds like she was fond of you.’
‘I was fond of her, too,’ Maria said, and she started crying all over again. ‘She helped us with the plane tickets when we went home to Portugal every summer. This year we went back for four weeks. I brought her a gift.’
‘Did anyone visit her?’ Lila asked.
Maria wiped the tears from her face. ‘Her daughter-in-law and grandson. Once or twice I saw Madame Dufour’s son.’
‘No. She sometimes met a friend for lunch but they never came here.’
Morel showed Maria the pamphlets he’d placed in a sealed bag.
‘Do you know anything about these?’
Maria shook her head. ‘No. They have been lying on Madame Dufour’s bedside table for a little while, maybe the past week or so. I don’t move anything, except to clean underneath, of course.’
‘Was she a religious woman?’
‘I don’t think so. But we never talked about it.’
‘How would you describe her, generally?’
Maria thought. ‘I think she was a nice lady who was quite lonely. She was usually alone.’
‘Did that make her unhappy?’
Maria looked at them with troubled eyes. ‘I don’t know. She was a very quiet person. We talked mostly about practical things. What cleaning products she needed, whether we should think about replacing the shower curtain, that sort of thing.’
‘But you worked for her for sixteen years,’ Lila said. ‘Surely you had some idea of the sort of person she was?’
Maria shook her head. ‘I don’t know what sort of person she was. We weren’t friends. I cleaned her house and she was kind to me. But she wasn’t looking for someone to talk to.’
It was well past 2 p.m. when Morel and the three members of his team left the apartment and headed back to Quai des Orfèvres. They stopped on the way for takeaway sandwiches and coffees.
While he and Jean waited in the car for Marco and Lila to return with the food, Morel thought about Isabelle Dufour’s painted face and the clothes she’d been dressed in. A strange, ritualistic murder. There was no doubt that someone had taken their time with her. There had been nothing impulsive about it.
He wondered what sort of person they were looking for.
Morel balanced his weight carefully on the swivel chair and turned to face his visitor. Six months he’d been waiting for a new seat. This one concertinaed and slumped without warning, leaving him at times with his knees up to his chest. Looking at his visitor, Morel hoped the chair would behave itself, just this once.
Through the open window directly behind him, he could hear the morning traffic in the distance, commuters making their sluggish way along the quays. Drivers slammed their horns to let off steam.
It was already warm. He wished he’d worn a short-sleeved shirt. He wished he could have a cigarette, but Perrin had caught him once puffing away and blowing the smoke out his window. All of a sudden Morel was fifteen again, trying to hide his humiliation while his father delivered a lecture on the debilitating effect of nicotine on the brain.
He would rather not give Perrin another opportunity to dress him down. Still, he would have killed for a smoke. The day had not started well. His father had thrown a tantrum at the breakfast table after finding butter in the strawberry jam. Morel had ended up shouting, then apologizing. I’m a forty-four-year-old man, fighting with my father about the way I like to do things, he thought.
Morel suddenly realized he’d turned away from his visitor and was gazing without seeing at the pattern of leaves against a cobalt sky and the outline of a boat carrying sightseers along the Seine. Another world to the one he’d walked into this morning. Arriving at the inner courtyard of the Judicial Police Headquarters at eight he’d found a team from narcotics pulling a car apart following a tip-off from one of their informants about a sizeable heroin stash.
Morel turned to his visitor and managed to look contrite. ‘I’m sorry.’
The woman sitting across from him couldn’t have been much more than five feet tall but she radiated an intensity that Morel found unsettling. She was the third and last of the women whose testimonies Morel’s team were hearing. Three women who, like Dufour, had called their local police stations to complain of two visitors handing out religious material.
‘Doesn’t that seem strange to you?’ Morel had asked Lila. ‘All four of them, reporting something so innocuous?’
‘Unless our evangelists visited others. For whatever reason, these four found it unsettling enough to call. Others might have had the knock on their door but didn’t think anything of it.’
She had a point. Still, Morel couldn’t figure out why these women had bothered to complain at all, except for the fact that they were elderly and perhaps easily scared.
His visitor certainly didn’t look like the fearful type. But he remembered Isabelle Dufour’s body lying prone under the sheets. He was not giving this woman the attention she deserved, he realized.
‘So where were we?’ he said, feeling abashed.
The old lady shifted in her chair. Her eyes darted across the room as though the walls were made of rubber. She was humming the tune again. He was sure he knew it, but it evaded him no matter how often she did this. How long exactly had the two of them been at it? He didn’t dare look at his watch, not with her sharp eyes observing him.
That tune. What was it exactly? Morel’s father would know. Of course he would. At the thought of his father, Morel’s mind began to wander again. He forced himself to focus. Maybe if it wasn’t so hot, he told himself. It didn’t help that the windows opened only so far and that there was no ventilation. No air-con unit, no fan.
He tugged at his collar. This Wednesday heralded the first heatwave of the year. Belatedly, considering it was the fourth week of August. Half the city’s indigenous population had long since left town, heading south for the congested beaches or for holidays in the country. Morel would have liked to be among them. Right now he’d be grateful for a square foot of sand on the beach in Antibes, to sit among the lobster-coloured people and gaze at the sea.
‘Like this, you see,’ his visitor said, and she started up again. Morel found himself straining forward again, as though the problem were to do with volume rather than her inability to carry a tune.
‘An English piece, perhaps? I seem to remember—’
The old woman shook her head vigorously. She seemed offended.
‘English! Never trust the English,’ she said. Her voice rang like a rusty old bicycle bell.
He ignored the comment, much as he’d ignored her comments at the start of their encounter. He had been making small talk to put her at ease and telling her how much Paris had changed since he was a child, to which she’d replied that it was all due to the Arabs. It was they, Morel learned, who had introduced cockroaches to the capital due to their lack of hygiene. Morel could have told her that French history was riddled with unhygienic practices – all authentically local. For centuries this had been a country awash with lice, bedbugs, fleas. But he held his tongue.
‘Anyway, it wasn’t just the tune, it was something about his face,’ she continued. Morel leaned closer so that the chair tilted dangerously.
‘What about it?’ he asked.
‘Oh, he had all the airs and graces,’ the woman said. ‘But.’ You could tell she liked to choose how she told a story.
She wouldn’t be rushed.
‘But,’ she continued, pausing for effect – ‘what sort of well-mannered man comes knocking on a stranger’s door at eight o’clock on a Sunday morning, handing out business cards? Calling me sister and telling me Jesus is coming. Sister!’ she repeated, with a disgusted air. ‘I told him, I’m not your sister. I’m old enough to be your mother, though, and if the poor woman is still alive I hope to God she doesn’t know how her son is disgracing himself, intruding on people in their homes.’
Now Elisabeth Guillou was waving a pamphlet at him. It was the same one Morel had found in Isabelle Dufour’s bedroom.
‘Can you describe them to me? The ones who knocked on your door and gave you that pamphlet?’ he asked.
His visitor sighed, as though it pained her to have to explain herself.
‘The man was quite ordinary. Pleasant enough, though he didn’t fool me for a second. He was dragging a boy around with him, no doubt to prevent doors being slammed in his face. The boy was mute. Literally. A shameful character,’ she said.
She glared at Morel, but there was a hint of pleasure in the old prune’s eyes. Something merry and unkind. She leaned forward.
‘You know, I was raised as a Christian. We used to recite the Lord’s Prayer twice a day, before breakfast and after dinner. My father would watch me and my sister to make sure we were saying the words, not just pretending. I always knew, well before I could read and write, that it was a load of rubbish.’
She laughed as though something excessively droll had just occurred to her.
‘You know, it delights me to think of all those people living their lives with the conviction they’ll be going somewhere special for eternity once they die. And where are they now? Decomposing, gone, buried underground, reduced to ashes. Just think! How wonderful, how utterly priceless!’
Morel laughed with her. It could do no harm, and might in fact jog her memory further. ‘Is there anything else, Madame Guillou?’
She began whistling again, loudly, startling him. Her thin lips clenched into a tune, a better rendition this time, which Morel found overwhelmingly familiar once he got over his initial surprise. He rolled his chair forward. Thankfully, it didn’t collapse.
‘Yes, that’s the tune.’
‘The one the man was humming? Who came to your house?’ ‘Yes, it is. Do you recognize it?’
‘Indeed, Madame, indeed I do.’ They looked at each other, beaming.
‘Well, you’ve been an immense help, Madame Guillou. I thank you, once again, for taking the trouble to come in.’
‘Are you a believer, Commandant?’ she asked. She was standing up, adjusting the strap of her handbag on her shoulder and holding on tight, as though she expected someone to snatch it from her.
‘Of sorts, Madame, of sorts. But not the peddling kind, if you know what I mean.’
Not so certain now, she hesitated. ‘Yes, yes. Will that be all?’
‘Yes indeed. And I thank you for taking the time to come in. You’ve been a great help.’
‘My pleasure.’ All briskness and efficiency now. ‘Nice to meet you too.’ She looked him up and down, as though she might say something more. But then thought better of it.
He walked her to the top of the stairs, thinking to accompany her to the ground floor, but she waved him away as though guessing his intention.
‘I’m perfectly capable of seeing myself out,’ she said. They shook hands as though they’d just conducted a successful business transaction. ‘Goodbye, then.’
Morel returned to his desk, triumphant. Who would have thought he would recognize the tune? That it would in fact turn out to be one he had grown up with? One his father listened to so often that to Morel it became synonymous with long Sunday afternoons, when, as a child, he waited for something, anything, to happen to relieve the tedium? As he sat down and swivelled the chair to face his computer, he hummed the melody. ‘In Paradisum’, from Fauré’s Requiem. In the end, the old lady had rendered it perfectly.
The morning wore on, sticky and warm. Nothing was resolved. The heat seemed to get on people’s nerves, in and outside the building. Phones were ringing off the hook. In the sixteenth, a man clobbered his wife with a 300-euro lamp she’d just brought home from a boutique on Avenue Molière. Thirty-five years of marriage, and now this lamp he hated, which he took as a personal affront. A homeless man had thrown himself in the Seine naked, to cool down, he said. No one cared to pull him out of the water and so he floated on his back for half an hour, singing, until the police arrived.
The room Morel shared with his team was dingy, but large enough to accommodate three desks. Morel’s desk was separated from the other two by a Song-era Chinese folding screen, a wedding gift from his paternal grandfather ten years ago. Morel’s marriage to Eva had lasted less than two years but he still treasured the screen. He’d moved it to the Quai des Orfèvres the day he was promoted to the position of team leader. His father had thrown a fit.
‘Have you gone mad? Do you know what this thing is worth?’
‘Well, no one’s likely to steal it at headquarters, are they?’ This priceless object had the advantage of providing Morel with some much-needed privacy. People thought twice before disturbing him when he was in his lair out of sight.
‘Real coffee. I hope you’re grateful.’ Jean was standing before him, holding a takeaway cup.
‘Thanks,’ Morel said. ‘How’s it going?’
To Morel’s regret, the older detective was tied up with a warehouse burglary and homicide that had occurred over the weekend. He wouldn’t have much spare time, though Jean was trying his best to be two people at once.
‘It looks pretty straightforward. We’ve got footage showing the guys coming in and leaving shortly after our victim arrived for work. They look like they’re in a real rush. We shouldn’t have too much trouble with this one,’ Jean said.
‘Good. Hopefully we can close it fast. I’d like you on this new case,’ Morel said.
Jean nodded. ‘Did the Guillou woman come in?’ ‘Yes.’
‘She told the same story as Marie Latour and Irina Volkoff, the two you spoke to,’ Morel said.
‘Have you heard back from Martin? About the body, I mean,’ Jean said.
Morel took a sip of his coffee. ‘Not yet. Lila and Marco are at the morgue, they should have some news when they get back.’
Jean sat down and glanced at the line of origami figures on the desk before him. A paper crow was at the head of a marching avian column that included a pelican and a flamingo. Morel had been busy.
‘Where’s Vincent?’ Jean asked.
‘I haven’t heard from him yet,’ Morel said.
The two men exchanged a look. With Vincent’s wife dying of breast cancer, no one wanted to comment on his frequent absences from work.
‘You’re going to have to talk to him,’ Jean said eventually. ‘I know he has to spend a lot of time at home and in the hospital right now but we need that extra pair of hands. So if he’s not going to be fully active anytime soon then we need to get someone in. At least temporarily.’
Morel nodded. ‘I’ll have that conversation eventually,’ he said. ‘But I don’t want to worry him with it right now. I don’t want him thinking he’s being pushed aside. He’s got enough—’
Before he could finish his sentence, he heard Marco and Lila come in.
Morel stood up. ‘Let’s hear whether there’s any news,’ he said.
‘So what has the great Richard Martin got to say?’ Morel asked. He sat on the edge of Lila’s desk, looking at the two younger officers in his team.
Lila frowned. Morel knew she would be foul-tempered for at least the next hour. Richard Martin had that effect on women.
‘Did Martin behave himself?’
‘What do you think?’ Lila said while Marco pulled a face at Morel, a warning not to pursue the subject further.
Morel had known the forensic pathologist for seven years now. The two had stepped into their current roles around the same time. He knew that Martin was as driven as he was and that, like him, he’d worked hard to get to where he was now. But the resemblance ended there. While Morel kept his private life under wraps, Martin had become notorious for his ability to make women squirm. Two of his female colleagues had tried and failed to make sexual harassment cases against him. Another had simply resigned. The fact that Martin was considered by many to be the best in his field had kept him in his position, so far at least.
‘According to our eminently sleazy pathologist,’ Lila began, ‘Isabelle Dufour died sometime between five and six in the morning. She was drowned. Martin couldn’t find any signs of a struggle. She was a frail old woman so perhaps she didn’t get an opportunity to fight her opponent. He could easily have held her underwater till she ran out of breath.’
The room was silent, while everyone considered this.
‘How does he know she drowned?’
‘The size and shape of the lungs,’ Lila said. ‘And crepitus.’ Morel had seen it before. The lungs inflated like water wings; crepitus, evidenced by the crackling sound the lungs made when you squeezed them. It wasn’t conclusive but along with the circumstantial evidence it painted a pretty convincing picture. Dufour’s hair, as well as the bath surface, hadn’t been completely dry.
‘If she drowned accidentally, that means someone else took the time to doll her up and tuck her in,’ Lila said.
‘Any signs of sexual assault?’ ‘None.’
Morel glanced at Marco. He was looking at the floor and Morel found himself growing irritable, as he often did with the young policeman.
‘Anything else, Marco?’ he said.
‘Not really or no?’
‘No,’ Marco said. Morel saw him blush and wondered, not for the first time, whether the young man really had it in him to work murder cases. He wasn’t assertive enough. You couldn’t work a crime case the way he did, by being timid and hesitant.
Maybe it wasn’t entirely Marco’s fault. He was a decent person, eager and good-natured. He just didn’t fit in to this team and would be better off in another department.
‘Let’s move on,’ Morel said. ‘But first, I need to catch up with our illustrious chief. Let’s reconvene when I get back.’
Excerpted from The Lying Down Room by Anna Jaquiery. Copyright © 2014 by Anna Jaquiery.
First published 2014 by Macmillan, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world http://www.panmacmillan.com.
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