EVERY MORNING, AS THE BELLS OF THE CHURCH IN SAINT LEON SUR Dême were clanging eight o’clock, Louis Morgon set the two pitchers, one of hot milk, the other of coffee, along with a cup and a knife, a baguette, the white and blue butter dish, and the little cracked marmalade pot on the battered metal tray and carried them all out to the terrace. If the day was cold, he put on a gray wool overcoat and wrapped an old plaid shawl around his neck. When it rained, he sat contentedly under the faded umbrella as it flapped and rattled in the wind and the rain dripped around him. When it was hot, he wore a T-shirt and a pair of shorts. From the little table between house and barn, he could gaze over the gravel driveway, across the descending garden at the field running up the opposite hill. What he saw changed with the weather and the seasons. But, however it changed, it always pleased him as though he were seeing it for the first time.
This year, as it happened, the fields were planted in sunflowers, which were in full bloom now, their massive heads sagging under the weight of their seed. And this particular Tuesday morning, the sun was brilliant. Its brilliance was refracted in the thousands of drops of dew that still clung to the grass, the hedge, the roses, the herbs and vegetables, the ivy and trumpet vine which climbed the stone barn. The sky was that particular blue which endures right down to the horizon, a color so intense and deep that you can feel the blackness of outer space behind it.
As Louis opened the door with his right hand, balancing the tray with his left, something fell lightly against his leg. He looked down to see that it was the arm of a dead man who lay across his doorstep, having been deposited there sometime during the night. Louis pulled his leg back, and the dead arm settled on the floor. Louis did not drop the tray. To an observer it might almost have appeared as though he had expected to find the dead man there.
Louis carried the tray back to the kitchen. Then, after steadying himself against the table for a moment, he returned to look at the body. It had belonged to a black man although by now the skin had taken on that peculiar gray pallor the dead share, no matter what race they may have been. The dead man wore blue jeans and running shoes without socks, and a polo shirt not tucked in. There was a red, green, and black embroidered skullcap sitting on the front of his head.
The man’s throat had been slit from ear to ear. But, aside from the blood crusted black along the edges of the wound, there was no blood anywhere else, not on the ground and not on the man’s clothes. The eyes were closed. The mouth was closed. The man seemed perfectly tranquil, but for the gaping smile which had been cut into his neck.
Louis was not entirely undone by the grim sight of this corpse, even though this was his first face-to-face encounter with violent death. Nor was he worried that the man’s murderer or murderers might still be lurking about, although he perhaps should have been. Louis walked to the top of the driveway and peered down the hill. He came back, crouched down, and studied the man. After some hesitation, he lifted the hands, first one then the other, more to feel the weight of the dead arms than anything else. He looked at the fingernails, although he did not know what he expected to see. The arms were hard and heavy. They no longer had the feeling of human flesh.
Louis examined the clothes. The dead man’s pants and shirt were clean and looked to be new. There was nothing in his pockets. The cap had the word Liberté
embroidered on it.
Louis stood and looked at the dead man for a long time. Then he went inside, closed the door, and dialed the number of the police. When, a short time later, the police car came up the drive followed by the ambulance, Louis was seated at his outdoor table, his back to the corpse. He rose as though to greet invited visitors. The men shook hands all around. After a quick exchange of friendly words, Louis and Renard, who was the Saint Leon gendarme, went over to look at the dead man. Renard crouched down to look at the man. This was not Renard’s first corpse by any means, but it was his first murder—at least, as he said with a slight smile, as far as he knew. The ambulance men had edged up behind Louis and Renard and were peering at the body.
"He was killed elsewhere," said Renard to no one in particular and stood up. He gazed for a few moments at the body from this vantage and then turned his gaze on Louis. At just over forty-five, Renard was probably fifteen years younger than Louis. He stood half a head taller than the older man. Louis’s thin white hair riffled in the breeze. He felt the policeman looking at him. "Coffee?" he offered. Without waiting for an answer, he went inside to make a pot.
After Renard had finished with the dead man, he nodded to the ambulance men, and they lifted the corpse onto a stretcher. The skullcap fell off. One of the men picked it up and put it on the stretcher. They loaded the body into the ambulance and shut the door. Then they all stood in the bright sun and drank coffee. They drank in silence.
"A warning from ‘the sordid world’?" asked the gendarme finally. "The sordid world" was one of those phrases which old married couples and old friends have as a sort of code for ancient and familiar arguments. It reminds them why they like and dislike one another. Louis did not answer.
The ambulance men waited. The gendarme motioned with his head. They took a last sip of coffee and set their cups on the edge of the table. They shook hands with Louis, got in the ambulance, and backed down the driveway. They did not turn on the blue lights. The ambulance disappeared backward over the rim of the hill. Louis and the gendarme listened while the driver changed gears at the bottom of the drive and drove off toward town.
"We are so far from Washington. How did they find you? And why?" Louis did not answer. "He looks North African. There will probably be a big investigation. It will get political."
"It already is political," said Louis and turned his face into the wind. He appeared to regret having said even that.
Then the two men made small talk. Renard promised to let Louis know if he discovered anything about the dead man. But neither man expected that he would discover very much. They stood in silence for a while, listening to the wind shake the leaves of the linden trees, listening to the birds. Then they shook hands and Renard left.
Louis returned to the kitchen with the empty coffee cups. He refilled the coffeepot, picked up his breakfast tray, and carried it back outside to the table. He sat down facing the field of sunflowers. The butter had gotten soft. The marmalade was sweet and bitter as good marmalade is. He ate his breakfast with relish and sorrow. When Dominique Brisard came clattering up the drive on her moped, he had just finished eating. She came every Tuesday morning to clean his house.
"Bonjour, monsieur," she said. "It is a beautiful day." She smiled broadly and swept her arms about her. Her gesture took in the garden, the roses climbing the front of the house, the fields, the sky, the whole world.
"It is a beautiful day, Dominique," Louis responded, and she thought in that moment that Monsieur Morgon was surely the most contented man she had ever known.
Excerpted from Le Crime by Peter Steiner.
Copyright © 2003 by Peter Steiner.
Published in 2008 by St. Martin’s Press
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.