MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
An Old House in Provence
Roger Blanc kicked at a stone, startling a black scorpion underneath it. The creature was as long as his thumb and its curved stinger rose threateningly. Within seconds it had scuttled away under the gravel. Welcome home, Blanc thought.
He was a captain in a special unit of the Paris gendarmerie, in his early forties, with pale blue eyes, and he wore a black T-shirt, jeans, and shabby sneakers. He was an expert detective who had solved so many cases it seemed almost supernatural to his colleagues. He lived in an apartment high above the sixteenth arrondissement, and was married to a wonderful woman. Or had been. Until 11:30 A.M. last Friday. Now it was 9:00 on Monday morning and his career was in the trash can. There were already photos of his apartment in the real estate agent’s window and his wife was in the arms of her lover. He’d known weeks that had started better.
The sun shone mercilessly down on a ruin of yellowy-brown stone more than five hundred miles south of Paris. The hamlet of Sainte-Françoise-la-Vallée was so tiny that it had taken his Nokia cell phone’s maps app nearly a whole minute to plan a route here from the capital. Provence. It sounded wonderful until you zoomed in on the map. Sainte-Françoise was so far south it almost bordered the Étang de Berre. Weren’t there oil tankers and refineries down there somewhere? In any case it wasn’t far from Marseille, and that meant drugs and corruption and the scorn of headquarters back in Paris.
Blanc had inherited the dilapidated house in the Midi from an uncle ten years ago. He had only been here once before and that must have been back when he was just four or five years old. He had only a few images in his head: a tiny room, wooden shutters on the windows, closed to keep out the heat. Rays of sunshine that fell through the wooden slats and spread across the tiled floor like a yellow fan. But his main memory was much clearer: his uncle putting down a glass of rosé wine in front of him. He had been gasping with thirst and downed it in one, only later noticing the bitter taste of the alcohol.
Blanc hadn’t been back to his uncle’s since. Years later he had nonetheless paid the inheritance tax without thinking, simply because he couldn’t be bothered to go to the trouble of selling a house he cared nothing for. In any case he was always too busy. He could probably see that changing now. The house was a lot smaller than he remembered. And in worse condition.
In the eighteenth century it had been home to an olive oil press in the Touloubre valley, a two-story house leaning against a sixty-foot-high cliff face like some tired hiker. The walls were made of roughly rectangular hewn stone, as thick as the walls of a castle. The roof tiles were a reddish ochre, some of them broken, others having slid out of place. Wild vines sprawled over the walls, the iron grids on the windows, and the wooden front door. Once upon a time it had been painted blue, but now the paint had peeled and weathered to a pale gray. The shutters hung from their hinges at oblique angles like ragged sails. In the stream that ran around the little patch of land, bottle-green water flowed over stones covered in moss, dragonflies hovering in the reflected light like miniature helicopters. Around the house were flowering thistles and other bushes Blanc didn’t know the names of. At one corner to the rear an ancient oleander grew as high as the gable, releasing an intoxicating perfume from its green leaves and bloodred flowers. It was already so hot that the cicadas were clicking away in the trees.
Blanc weighed the blacksmith-made key in his hand: It was as heavy as a hammer, a piece that any local museum would have been proud to display. He used his Opinel knife to clear away the vine growth around the lock and inserted the key. It took a few minutes and all his strength to get the rusty mechanism to work. At least nobody had broken in, he thought, taking a deep breath of the aromatic air outside before venturing into the murky interior.
It had the cool of some ancient ruin, and a dusty smell somewhere between sand and old paper. Nobody had ever cleared the house out. Blanc had walked into a time capsule: a kitchen with yellow marble worktops and an ancient enamel sink with a dulled bronze faucet. Five non-matching chairs stood around a wooden table that once had been painted white but was now chipped and scratched. Blanc entered the living room: a little table from the 1960s, a fireplace of soot-coated stone, and a sofa on which lay the desiccated corpse of a bat. In the bedroom he came across a mahogany wardrobe from the Empire period, which would have cost a fortune in Paris. Next to it was the iron frame of a double bed. No mattress. (That was where his uncle had died, Blanc recalled.) In the bathroom stood an enormous bathtub with cast iron feet in the shape of fierce lions, encrusted in dirt, and lying in it three open wine bottles, the contents of which had long since evaporated.
Blanc decided not to take the stone stairs up to the next floor. He went back into the hallway, where a gray telephone with a dial stood on a little shelf. He lifted the receiver. The line was dead. What else had he expected? He opened the fuse box next to it, hesitated for a second, then pulled down the main switch. He expected to hear a series of bangs as ancient fuses blew, to see sparks and smell the stench of melted cables. Instead a little living room lamp lit up, giving a yellowish light through the dust on the bulb. So, there was still electricity. He suddenly remembered that every summer he got a bill from the electricity company that he never understood, but paid it all the same. Now he realized what it related to. Blanc pulled out his cell phone. No reception. Probably because of the cliff that held up the rear of the house. Some advantages then, he thought.
Blanc went back out again. He was still exhausted from his last row with Geneviève, from the long overnight journey down from Paris, from the heat, and from the task ahead of turning this wreck into an inhabitable house again. All his possessions were in his old green Renault Espace. He and Geneviève had bought the car when the children were still small: It was spacious but unfortunately was prone to go on strike as often as the trade union members who made it. His wife—his ex-wife—had left him the car. He wondered what sort of car her new man drove, then told himself not to be an idiot.
“Hey,” an aggressive voice yelled from somewhere on the other bank of the Touloubre river. “This shack isn’t for sale. It belongs to some idiot from Paris.”
“I’m the idiot from Paris,” Blanc called back. He spotted a white-haired but not very old man sitting on a dented green tractor, scowling at him suspiciously from the opposite bank. Behind him was a dirty white-plastered house of an ill-defined shape, surrounded by rusty iron scaffolding but with no wooden planking. Somewhere in the distance a goat was bleating. Had to be a farmhouse, Blanc reckoned. “I’m the new inhabitant too,” he said in a more friendly voice. The last thing he needed was to be on bad terms with his neighbor. The man on the tractor was small and wiry, like a bantamweight boxer. “If you’re renovating, you can’t extend it,” he growled, “The commune won’t allow it.”
His voice was tinged by the yellow Gitane that hung from his mouth the whole time he was speaking.
“I’m not intending to build a hotel,” Blanc reassured him, muttering connard—idiot—under his breath.
The neighbor shouted something incomprehensible in the direction of his house, where there was obviously someone Blanc couldn’t see. Then he roared off on the tractor.
Blanc bent his nearly six-foot-six frame double and dived into the Espace, fumbling around amidst the piles of stuff on the passenger seat. A sports bag fell into the foot well, notebooks and CDs tumbling out of it. He wasn’t the most dexterous of men; his arms and legs were too long and somehow always got in the way. Finally he found his faded blue baseball cap with NOVA SCOTIA printed on it. He had been born up north, where people apologized to strangers if they went two days without rain. He didn’t want to meet his new colleagues with his nose peeling.
New colleagues … It was July 1 and every decent Frenchman was in lazy summer holiday mood. But he had to turn up at his new workplace. “Merde,” he cursed, thumping the steering wheel, “merde, merde, merde!”
* * *
At 11:30 A.M. on Friday he had been called in to the gendarmerie headquarters, a bland new functional building in the rue Claude Bernard in Issy-les-Moulineaux, outside Paris’s Périphérique inner ring road. Monsieur Jean-Charles Vialaron-Allègre had summoned him—a graduate of the top civil service college, a member of parliament, a ministerial deputy in the ministry of the interior, and one of those men in the ruling party whose insatiable ambition would only be satisfied when he moved into the Élysée presidential palace. His office was kitted out in the same easy-clean luxury as the Air France first-class lounge at Roissy Airport. The minister of state was fifty years old, slim, his thinning gray hair glued to the dome of his head with pomade, his tailored suit of the sort that was extremely expensive but at the same time not in the least flashy. He had a Charles de Gaulle nose and when he walked his head nodded backward and forward on his long neck so that the captain thought he resembled a ponderous heron.
Blanc stood in Vialaron-Allègre’s office, swaying with fatigue. He hadn’t had a day off in two months, and the few hours of sleep he had managed had as often as not been at his desk in the gendarmerie station, with the rubber mouse mat in front of his monitor as a pillow. That was the price he had had to pay (the only price, he thought at the time) to convict a former trade minister before the man could get rid of all the incriminating documents. It had been an old story but it hadn’t exceeded the statute of limitations. Back in the nineties France had sold power station turbines to the Ivory Coast. The African state’s government had paid millions of francs for them, but the money hadn’t ended up in the state coffers nor those of the constructors, but in bank accounts in Liechtenstein. It had ended up financing the minister’s campaign to be elected mayor of Bordeaux, which he had hoped would be a cozy sinecure for his old age.
No politician likes a policeman who uncovers corruption, in case every new scandal brings the ax closer to his own head. On the other hand the former minister had been one of the heavyweights in the rival party to that of the minister of state, and there were once again elections on the horizon. That made it more important than ever to appear incorruptible. Blanc therefore had hopes he might be promoted; commandant of the gendarmerie, perhaps. At his age, that would be something.
“Congratulations,” said Vialaron-Allègre, “you’re moving on.” His voice sounded like chalk on a blackboard.
In his tired and optimistic state, it took a few seconds for the meaning of the minister’s words to explode in his head: “Where to?” He realized himself that he was spluttering as if he’d been punched in the kidneys. Paris was the center of the world—at least for any policeman with ambition. Especially for a northerner like him who never ever wanted to be reminded of the damp and dreary place he came from. He had longed to escape the grimy terrace houses and shut-down steelworks, where the only people who still had jobs were those that worked at the unemployment insurance offices, where life consisted of beer and cigarettes and nothing more.
“To the south.”
Blanc’s mind was reeling. The Midi. Mafia. The provinces. The asshole of the world. The graveyard of any career. “You’re freezing me out?”
The minister of state raised his hands. “Freezing you out? In the warmest part of France? I should think not.”
What have you got to hide? Blanc asked himself. Was Vialaron-Allègre involved in the turbine engine corruption? What position had he held back then? Was he already in parliament? Which committee had he sat on? But it was too late: For millions of French the south was a dream. Insofar as they might be remotely interested, the voters would think the reassignment of Roger Blanc was a reward for exposing corruption, rather than a punishment. Very subtle. “When?” he asked, trying to keep the expression on his face under control.
“Right away. You start Monday morning. In the gendarmerie of a place called Gadet. A bit different from Paris, eh, mon Capitaine? I believe you own a house nearby.”
It took Blanc what seemed like an eternity before he understood what the minister of state was talking about. How did he know that? Blanc himself hadn’t thought of the wreck he had inherited for years, and had never mentioned it to any of his colleagues. “In that case I’ll clear my desk and take my files with me,” he muttered. It was meant as a threat, a last defiant gesture, a warning: I’ve got stuff on you, just you wait.
But if the minister of state was discomfited he didn’t show it. He gave a token smile, his small gray eyes looking Blanc up and down. “I imagine we’ll meet often,” he said, shaking his hand formally. As Blanc reached the door he called after him, “I’m sure your wife will be pleased at the move to Provence.” It sounded snide, but it took Blanc more than an hour to realize what he really meant.
* * *
Blanc entered the address of the Gadet gendarmerie into his smartphone. The app pulled up a rural road, a few curves, a roundabout, barely a mile and a half in all. He turned the key in the ignition and on the third attempt the Espace finally burst into life. He shoved the Fredericks Goldman Jones CD Geneviève had bought him after their first week together into the player and drove off toward the big, dilapidated gate to his property. At least he wouldn’t be stuck in a traffic jam like he would have been in Paris at this time of the morning. But just twenty yards on he had to slam on the brakes. In front of him stood three whitish gray horses, peering disinterestedly through the windshield.
Blanc honked his horn. One of the horses whinnied. He honked again. The horses turned their rear ends to him. Blanc wondered if he should just try to drive around them. But his Renault was so ramshackle that he feared it would come off second best if he went up against them. He extracted the Nokia from its in-car holder and zoomed in on the map. This minor road was the only way to get to Gadet. He rolled the window down and shouted angrily at the horses: “I’m going to make sausage meat out of you.”
“For sausage meat you want donkey, not Camargue horses.”
Blanc spun round in his seat. Next to the passenger window stood a horse that was a good head taller than the other three, with a woman on its back. She had to have come across the field. Blanc put her at about forty years old, with thick black hair tied back in a ponytail, her skin so brown from long hours in the sun that it would probably never lose the color. She was wearing moccasins, jeans, and an old white T-shirt with a red heart and the words DON DU SANG. Blood Donor.
“Pardon, sometimes my daughter forgets to close the gates.” She nodded toward a meadow on the other side of the road, half hidden behind a row of tall cypress trees. Next to it was a house in reddish stone with yellow oleander blooming in front of it and bougainvillea cascading down from a wrought-iron balcony on the first floor.
“I guess we’re neighbors then.” Blanc introduced himself and climbed out of the car, leaving the engine running, just in case it wouldn’t start again.
She sprang down from the horse as lightly as a gymnast and said, “Paulette Aybalen.”
He shook her hand and nodded toward the ruin behind him. “I’ve got to do something with that heap of stones.”
“It will be nice to have someone living there again. Is it your holiday home?”
She’s seen the number plate, he thought to himself, the “75” that indicated Paris, and down here probably “idiot.” She’d think the worst. Best to tell her the truth. “I’ve been posted down here,” he said. “Gendarmerie.”
She hesitated a second, ever so slightly distrustful, the way everybody reacted at first when he told them his job. “Well, you certainly won’t get bored down here,” she said in the end.
“I’ll split my time between work and renovating this place. I’ve already had a few tips.”
Paulette’s smile faded. “Serge,” she said. “Serge Douchy.”
“A man who speaks his mind.”
“Serge runs around the place like a drunk tramp, his sheepdogs bark all night, his goat herd stinks to high heaven, his grubby little house doesn’t have planning permission, he uses an asthmatic old diesel pump to siphon off water from the Touloubre and an antique flintlock to shoot anything with feathers or fur. Apart from that he’s okay.”
“That was more or less my opinion of him too.”
“Hmm, you really are an expert.” Paulette was smiling again. “I’ll get the horses back into their meadow before they end up at the butcher’s.”
Blanc looked at her and took a deep breath. There was a scent in the air. “What’s the smell around here?” he asked.
“‘It was there that I first saw dark green bushes like dwarf olive trees sprouting up among the wild herbs,’” she replied. “It’s a quotation,” she said, when she noticed the confused expression on his face. “From Marcel Pagnol. He reacted the same way as you when he first went out into the countryside in Provence. The scent overwhelmed him. It’s wild thyme. It grows beneath the trees everywhere around here. It’s very good for you, very flavorful.”
Blanc, who had for the past few years subsisted mainly on croissants and soggy baguettes, had no idea what thyme tasted like or looked like, just nodded so as not to appear a complete idiot.
“I’ll come by and give your wife a few recipes,” Paulette said, realizing he hadn’t a clue what she was talking about.
“You’ll have to mail them to her. My wife is in Paris.”
Paulette Aybalen didn’t reply, just swung herself back into the saddle. The other three horses had meanwhile trotted back into the meadow. Blanc had no idea what secret sign their mistress had given them. “Then I’ll bring the recipes round and give them to you. We’ll run into one another quite often.”
“I promise never to mention horsemeat sausage again.” Blanc got back behind the wheel and put his foot down gently on the gas so as not to frighten the animals. In the rearview mirror he saw the horsewoman watching him.
* * *
The air above the narrow asphalt roads shimmered. On the radio an announcer was warning of the risk of forest fires and reminding listeners not to drop cigarette butts or glass in the countryside. It sounded like a threat. On either side of the road the land was as brown and crusty as dry bread. He passed by a little drystone wall, with the gray-green leaves of young olive trees on the other side, along with the ruin of a building that might once have been a stable or even a little homestead. Beyond that was a slope with pine trees and oaks growing on it, and then a little dip in the land with rows of vines.
A dented white van was coming toward him, much too fast. The road was so narrow that he had to swerve the Renault onto the sandy shoulder in order to avoid being rammed. Blanc cursed and the Espace bounced up and down as he crunched over the stones. The glove compartment fell open and an old toy car fell out, a green Opel Rekord. Blanc had never been able to throw out the Majorette and Matchbox cars he had collected as a child. He didn’t display them in glass cases like nostalgic collectors did; they just lay around here, there, and everywhere, coming to light in the most surprising places, then vanishing again for a bit. Like this old Opel. A present from his father.
He had been a cop too, but was long dead: out in the patrol car one evening when he hit an oil slick on a bend and the old Renault 4 that the gendarmerie used in those days had hit a tree and collapsed in on itself like a tin can. His mother had always been a heavy smoker, and just after her fortieth birthday the doctor had found a shadow on her lungs in an X-ray and had calmly given her the bad news. Two pathetic deaths in one year had left Blanc an orphan in his teens.
He had gone on to study law in Paris because he wanted to join the police after taking his master’s at the École des Officiers de la Gendarmerie Nationale in Melun. In his second week at the university he had gotten to know Geneviève. She was a first-term history of art student. She was small and dark-haired. He was big and blond. She came from the Languedoc, he came from the north; she talked constantly, he was strong and silent; she thought Éric Rohmer’s movies were the best in the world, they had the same effect on him as valium. She smoked Marlboros, he hated cigarettes; she liked painting late into the evening, he got up early to study. They had absolutely nothing in common. They were the perfect couple.
The children came along quickly, a long time before they got married, something they only did later, for form’s sake. Then all of a sudden Eric was twenty-one years old and studying biochemistry in Montreal because the job opportunities in France were so poor. And Astrid was twenty and working as an event manager in Paris, though Blanc hadn’t the faintest idea what sort of a job that might be. It obviously wasn’t much of one, because his daughter’s bank account was a black hole. He had taken living with Geneviève as much for granted as breathing, with the result that the bloodhound famed for his sensitive nose hadn’t had a clue she’d been seeing someone else for a year. Minister of State Vialaron-Allègre must have known though on Friday morning when he transferred him to the ends of the earth. Maybe he had even known how Geneviève would react? Gendarmes were soldiers who behaved by military rules: An order was an order! Even if it was an order to be gone from Paris within two days. When Blanc had come back from Issy, still in shock, his wife had listened to what he had to say and then announced that she would be staying in Paris, that she had been meaning to have a serious talk with him for some time and now the moment had arrived. Then she had packed her bag. Blanc had slept no more than four hours since then, and felt like a boxer in the twelfth round.
He noticed red and yellow shapes in the forest to his left. There were big fire engines parked in the shadow of the pine trees, firemen in full kit who’d just taken their helmets off. A few of them were sitting at a wooden picnic table having breakfast, others were dozing on top of the engines. It appeared that in the Midi the fire service didn’t keep watch from their fire stations but out in the middle of the threatened forests. Clever. He would pay a few euros himself if he could take a snooze in the pine woods right now.
A bit farther on he parked the Espace between two pine trees and got changed. T-shirt, jeans, and shoes were all thrown carelessly onto the backseat as he donned a uniform for the first time in ages and strapped on his gun belt. Gendarmes could usually choose whether to turn up for work in uniform or plain clothes. In recent years he had usually worn all-black clothing so that his plain clothes still looked somewhat like a uniform. For his first day at a new post, however, he thought it was better to turn up in full kit: The uniform reflected the authority of the state and added just that little bit of magic. Then finally he put on the narrow blue gendarme’s cap. A lot of his colleagues had protested when the old képi had been abolished in 2011 but Blanc had always felt like an extra in one of those old Louis de Funès comedy movies. He put his foot down on the gas.
At the next crossroads he saw a tall plastered wall to his right with a graveyard and little chapel behind it. It was the road leading in to Gadet. Little brightly colored houses on either side, a modest church in the center, shady plane trees, four bars, tables on the sidewalk, the scent of café and croissants in the air. The morning customers—farmers, older men in rustic clothing, young guys with motorbikes parked between the chairs, stared after him as he drove by. Two boulangeries, a butcher’s shop, a tiny Casino supermarket, a bar-tabac. At least he wouldn’t go hungry here. He wondered what newspapers there were. There was a modern athletic field next to the river—a sign said it was the Touloubre. Post office on his left, opposite the mairie, the town hall, which looked like a little castle hibernating in the summer sunshine. He would have to wait until August 15 to register his new address and change the plates on his car.
Then finally, the gendarmerie. A two-story flat-roofed concrete building with rows of dark, shuttered windows and a steel door. It was one of those UFOs from the seventies that didn’t age gracefully like the traditional buildings but just decayed. There were marks of dog piss at the corners. He noticed a movement behind a curtain near the entrance. Blanc parked the Espace next to a patrol car and took a deep breath.
At the desk a young, overweight gendarme with dark sweat marks on his light blue uniform shirt looked him up and down. Blanc introduced himself and showed him his police ID card.
“Ah,” the gendarme grunted, evidently not feeling the need to give his own name. The badge on his uniform shirt read CORPORAL BARESSI. “The boss is upstairs,” he said, waving one fleshy hand toward a staircase at the back of the room. “He knows you’re coming. He was told you’d been posted here,” Baressi added as Blanc was just about to climb the stairs.
“When did he hear?”
That means they knew down here I was coming even before I did, Blanc thought angrily. The staircase reeked of strong detergent that was giving him a headache. On the floor above was a corridor with orange-painted metal doors on either side, some of them open, others closed, along with a pin board with torn duty rosters on it, faded wanted posters, circulars from the ministry in Paris, a few police photos and random notices. The coffee machine was out of order, probably had been for a long time, judging by the layer of dust. Cigarette smoke wafted from one of the open doors. At the end of the corridor was one door bigger than the others, closed, with a bronze name plate: COMMANDANT NICOLAS NKOULOU. “Merde alors,” Blanc whispered, and knocked on the door.
He opened the door into the most well-organized office he had ever seen: The light-colored desk with a leather blotter and a black computer monitor looked like something out of a furniture catalog. Against the wall stood a bookcase with fastidiously labeled files, the window facing the door covered with an immaculately pleated off-white blind. There was a gold-framed certificate on the desk, but no private photos, no souvenirs, no knickknacks, not even a coffee cup.
Enthroned on the leather office chair was the youngest commandant Blanc had ever come across. Nicolas Nkoulou was in his midthirties at most, with an unlined face that made him look even younger. His skin was as black as ebony, his crinkled hair cut so short that it looked like his head was encased in a thin helmet. He wore elegant gold-rimmed glasses. His blue uniform shirt was so bright it almost hurt Blanc’s eyes. He wore dark blue summer pants, immaculately pressed. Polished leather shoes.
“So, Paris sent you down here,” Nkoulou said, getting to his feet with what seemed to be immense effort.
Blanc looked at his new boss and thought he could hardly have done worse. Brilliant. Ambitious. This one wants to get to Issy, he thought, all the way to the top. He’s afraid I’m going to stick like bird shit to his impeccable reputation.
“Reporting for duty, mon Commandant,” he said, wondering whether he ought to give him a military salute, reach out to shake his hand, or do neither. In the end he left his arms hanging where they were.
“I believe you’re an expert on corruption?”
“Down here in Provence, everybody’s corrupt.”
“But they don’t get caught.”
Blanc stopped nodding.
Nkoulou cleared his throat. “I’ll introduce you to your colleagues,” he said without enthusiasm.
Blanc followed the commandant from office to office; a row of names and faces, a little guy with a broken nose and massive shoulders, a character with wire-rimmed glasses that might have been modern when he was at school. An overweight brunette, with lips that were way too red and a Gauloise between them, pushed the crumpled pack over toward him. Blanc, whose mother had been consumed by cancer, declined. She made such a face that it wouldn’t have taken an expert psychiatrist to guess what she was thinking. Two dark-haired men who might have been brothers and gave each other an ironic look when he came in. A young female officer with long brown hair who barely looked up from her mouse mat when he was introduced. At the end of the corridor, the office farthest away from Nkoulou’s, were two oak-veneered desks, with two computers, the oldest Blanc had ever seen in a gendarmerie station, gray boxes, the only ones that still had flickering bulky monitors on them, rather than flat screens.
“Welcome to your new home,” the commandant said wearily. “Your partner is Lieutenant Marius Tonon.” He gave a look of disgust at the croissant crumbs on the desk before adding, “No idea where he might be.”
“Has he been without a partner for long?”
Nkoulou shrugged. “Don’t let yourself be misled by the office gossip.”
“I haven’t heard any office gossip.”
“You’ll hear whispers in your ear soon enough, believe me: ‘Tonon is a bad-luck charm.’ Provincial superstition. I’ve been in charge of this station for a year and nothing bad has happened. But I can’t persuade anybody to go out on a job with Tonon. So I’m glad to have somebody from Paris. A free spirit.”
Blanc wasn’t sure if it was meant to be an insult or a compliment. “We’ll get on fine,” he replied.
Just at that moment entered a man of about fifty who must have had to wear insoles to meet the five-foot, ten-inch minimum height requirement for the gendarmerie. He had strong hands with a coat of black hair on the back like huge paws, a body that stretched his crumpled suit, a blob of a reddish violet nose, and thinning, tousled black hair. He trailed behind him an aroma that Blanc at first thought reminded him of cheap aftershave until a memory from his childhood hit him like a hammer: rosé wine. “Lieutenant” was normally a rank people reached in their midtwenties. If it was still your rank thirty years later, then something had gone wrong. Blanc was certain there must be something after all to the office gossip. He shook the man’s hairy paw and introduced himself.
“A colleague from up north will be good for us,” Tonon said. His voice was pleasantly deep. The sort of voice that could calm a hysterical witness or get a confession out of a suspect, Blanc found himself thinking.
He smiled. “Parisians don’t normally think of themselves as from ‘up north.’”
“As far as we’re concerned anything north of Lyon is Scandinavia.” He nodded at the empty desk. “In the afternoons the sun coming through the window means you can’t see anything on the screen. It’s better to go and think things through down at the café.” He laughed.
Nkoulou gave a wry grin. “I’m afraid you’re going to have to give the café a miss, mon Lieutenant. I’m giving you and Blanc here a routine case. So that you can get to know one another a bit. It’s in the ZGN.”
“Zone de responsabilité propre de la gendarmerie nationale. The ninety-five percent of French soil that we are responsible for rather than the Police nationale. You really have been in the capital too long, mon Capitaine.” It was true that in Paris the old, traditional, ridiculous separation between the gendarmerie and Police nationale had become meaningless: Down here the gendarmerie were responsible for rural areas while the police were in charge of the cities. Blanc was going to have to get used to working in the sticks.
“What do you call a routine case?”
“A corpse, found on a garbage heap.”
“You call that routine?”
“You’re a provincial gendarme now. When we first get a report like that, I assume all we’re supposed to do is to cordon off the scene. There are a few things that our colleagues from Marseille will then take over. ZPN. Zone de responsabilité propre de la Police nationale.” He once again gave a humorless smile. “But judge for yourself. Corporal Baressi has put the details together. You can’t go wrong.”
“He likes using acronyms,” Blanc whispered as his boss left the office.
“He can use more than that on his underlings, just you wait,” Tonon warned.
* * *
Back downstairs Baressi handed over a sheet of paper. “Dead body found on garbage heap near Coudoux,” he mumbled. “Right on the A7. A sanitation worker found him and called the emergency line, seventeen. He was still glowing.” The corporal coughed.
“The sanitation worker?” Tonon asked.
“The corpse, it had been burnt. But that’s probably not what killed him. The colleagues from traffic police were the first to get to the scene; they were already on the autoroute when the report came in. They said there were bullets everywhere. From a Kalashnikov.”
“Bon,” Tonon said matter-of-factly, and took the report.
“Good?” Blanc stared at him. “What’s good about it?”
“We’ll be back here in time for lunch. The little restaurant in Gadet isn’t bad.”
“Somebody’s just been executed with an automatic weapon. We’re going to be there for hours, at this garbage dump.”
The lieutenant raised his hands. “In Marseille a Kalashnikov is as common as an Opinel penknife. You can get one for a thousand euros, and even for half that price, though most of them are pretty useless. The dealers spend half their time shooting each other with them. No need to worry. The garbage dump is on the A7 leading directly to Marseille. Commandant Nkoulou was right. We secure the crime scene and wait for our city colleagues. It’ll be one of their usual customers. They’ll take over the case. And we can go and have lunch.”
Baressi threw Blanc a set of car keys. “Great,” he muttered to himself, throwing open the steel door. “I always wanted to see a Provence garbage dump.”
Tonon pointed to the patrol car. “That’s our Mégane,” the lieutenant said, squeezing himself into the passenger seat of the blue station wagon. Blanc didn’t like the big blue lettering of GENDARMERIE on the doors, the white stripes, the red and white reflectors, the blue light. In Paris they had only ever used unmarked cars. He found the position of the seat and rearview mirror awkward for his height, but eventually turned the key in the ignition. “I assume you know the way, Lieutenant Tonon?” he said, using the polite form, “vous,” for “you.”
“I may only be a lieutenant, but I am the elder and I suggest it might be easier if we address each other by first name. I’m Marius, by the way. After all, we’re going to be seeing more of each other than our wives.”
“That’s for sure,” Blanc mumbled.
“Head to the rotary, then follow the signs to Lançon. After that I’ll navigate. It’ll take us fifteen minutes.”
Blanc was a lone wolf by instinct. It was true that police always worked in teams, sometimes just three or four on a case, sometimes up to a hundred. He knew that and accepted it. Nonetheless he had a habit of going for cases he could work on alone: He would follow a suspect for hours, days if need be. He would retreat to his office, go through his crammed notebook, and think it all through. Right now, sitting next to this blubbery colleague reeking of rosé wine on the way to visit a burnt corpse, he didn’t exactly feel in his element.
“The commandant is very young,” he said vaguely, to break the silence. He drove carefully, but unlike in Paris nobody cut him off or honked at him: They recognized the police car.
“Nkoulou is already at his desk when I get there in the morning and he’s still at that perfectly tidy desk when I leave in the evening. He loves rules and regulations, hard work, punctuality. He’d drive even a German mad. A few of us have opened a betting book. If you want, you can join in. Whoever is first to find out if Nkoulou has a girlfriend takes the pot.”
“A man with no private life. Does he have a social life connected to work, or does he spend all day every day locked in his office?”
“He goes out shooting, target practice. He was the best shot in his year, allegedly.”
Blanc felt the metal of the Sig-Sauer SP 2022 stuck in his holster at his back, against all regulations for carrying an official weapon. As a young cop he had shot in panic at a thief doing a runner. The guy had spent a week hovering between life and death. In the end he had come through, and Blanc had gotten his first official praise for neutralizing a sought-after criminal. But he never wanted to go through a week like that again. Never since had he drawn his weapon on duty, and he only went to the shooting range when it was his turn each year to keep in training.
Tonon directed him through an industrial estate on the outskirts of Gadet, past a swimming pool installation service that had a huge ready-made pool standing up on its side, like some vision in a surreal dream. Then they were driving through fields again, past the straw-covered roof of a pottery stall selling lacquered vases, terrine pots, and little pottery cicadas, then a village. Blanc turned onto route départementale 19 past a cemetery with an ancient chapel leaning to one side. Then, suddenly, several hundred feet below the level of the road, a gray strip appeared, which at first Blanc took to be a wide river: the autoroute. The A7 sliced its way through rocky gray hills, with the route départementale running parallel to the broad asphalt highway for over half a mile, cars, camper vans, and trucks roaring past on their left, leaving black diesel fumes in their wake. Blanc closed the window. It wasn’t just pollution that he smelled, but something rotten. Ripped plastic bags fluttered in the pine branches of the trees shadowing the road to their right, seagulls circling around them.
“That’s the garbage dump,” Tonon said, clutching a gold medallion hanging around his neck. Blanc gave him a look. “Saint Geneviève, our patron saint,” he explained.
“The patron saint of the gendarmerie. Aren’t you a Catholic?”
“I managed to turn up at the church on time for my children’s first communion,” Blanc replied. His wife would have had a laugh at that: Geneviève as the patron saint of policemen. His ex-wife, he reminded himself. “Are you afraid of something?” he asked his colleague.
“I’m afraid of throwing up. I’ve never seen somebody burnt to death before. He might look like a Moroccan mutton méchoui, and that would ruin my appetite.”
“Do you always think about food?”
“You have to get your priorities straight.”
* * *
Blanc turned through a gate in a ten-foot-high wire fence onto an unsurfaced track. He cursed beneath his breath as an oncoming green garbage truck forced him to one side, into a cloud of diesel, dirt, and dust. Once upon a time, this had probably been a valley between two rocky crags, but the dip was now almost completely full of garbage. Bulldozers were pushing mountains of trash here and there, with seagulls wheeling furiously in the air around them. To either side thick sheets of black plastic bulged out, the edge of an artificial barrier spread along the ground to prevent the dirt sinking down toward the water table. The air stank of rotting vegetables and meat that had gone off.
“It’s always worse in summer,” Tonon apologized. “Half of the garbage in all Provence gets dumped here.” He nodded toward a patrol car and a motorbike of the highway police parked in between two inconspicuous white delivery trucks with plastic signs behind their windscreens proclaiming TECHNICIENS D’INVESTIGATION CRIMINELLE.
“Crime scene people from Marseille?”
“No, from Salon, the nearest unit. They’re good people, take their time. Of course they don’t have as much on their hands as the guys from Marseille.”
Blanc climbed out and shook hands with the corporal and a young, tanned official from the public prosecutor’s office. They had nothing else to do but stand there in the heat and the stench, watching the crime scene people about their job. They were wearing full-body protective kits with NTECH on the back, booties, gloves, masks. He wondered how they survived in this heat.
The body had been found on the edge of the parking area, behind a great open container used for waste metal. Blanc recognized the skeleton of a sprung mattress and the frame of a bicycle sticking up out of it. The crime scene people had not gone directly over to the body, but were working their way toward it in a curved path from the rear. One of them was taking photographs. Two of the white-clad forms were kneeling down next to what looked like a tree trunk turned to charcoal. Blanc got wind of a smell of a different kind: roast meat, and melted fat.
“Who found him?” he asked the corporal.
The policeman nodded toward a figure in green overalls, sitting in the shade of a stunted pine tree, being handed a bottle of water by a very young policewoman. “He’s a garbage truck driver. He’s still getting over the shock.” He smiled sarcastically.
Blanc said nothing, just walked over to the man, Tonon following him. They both kneeled down next to him. Blanc got out a notebook and a pencil, badly chewed at one end. “Do you mind if I ask a few questions? Or would you prefer I waited a while?” the captain asked.
The truck driver, a young Arab, shook his head. “Let’s get it over with,” he said, trying bravely to smile.
“Your name, please?”
“When and how did you come across the body of the victim?”
“I drive that thing over there.” He pointed to a heavy vehicle with a crane and flat load-carrying area. “Once a week I load up a container with scrap metal and take it to a dealer. I was just fastening the chains to that Dumpster when I…” He searched for the right words. “When I saw … the body. I smelled it first. It was … still smoking.”
“Was it already totally burnt?”
“I couldn’t look for long. I ran straight back to the cabin, grabbed my phone, and called the cops. Then I threw up.”
“Were you alone?”
“My colleagues had been driving in and out all morning, but they use the rear access ramp. This area is reserved for private individuals to dispose of their trash, but there’s never anyone here this early.”
“Take it easy,” Blanc said, standing up. He was feeling queasy himself, from the heat, the stench, and his own exhaustion.
“Sometimes a few idiots meet up here secretly at weekends,” said Tonon, getting back to his feet with remarkable agility for someone of his build. “To play paintball. Illegally.”
“Paintball, on a garbage dump?”
“Seems some guys get a kick out of it. Every now and then we raid them and arrest one or two for breach of the peace.”
“Well, this must have been one hell of a hot paintball.”
“Maybe somebody saw what happened?”
“Bien, you can go out a bit later and knock on the doors of some of the guys you’ve arrested in the past. If we’re lucky maybe one of them will have seen something.”
A scratched white Jeep that clearly had a hole somewhere in its exhaust pipe trundled up. The asthmatic-sounding engine choked to a halt, causing the whole vehicle to shudder. A woman in her midthirties with long brown hair jumped out, her face half hidden behind a pair of huge sunglasses left over from the 1970s.
Tonon nodded to her and introduced her to Blanc: “Dr. Fontaine Thezan. Médecin légiste at Salon hospital.”
Blanc shook her hand, noticing the slight but unmistakable odor of marijuana from her hair and T-shirt. He shot a quick glance at his colleague, who didn’t seem to have picked up on it. “We’ll have to wait a bit,” he told her.
“Looks like I turned up just in time,” the doctor said, nodding at the crime scene technician, who was pushing up his mask as he came toward her coughing, and said, “All yours, Madame.” Blanc didn’t even get a glance.
“Hmm, fencer position,” Thezan murmured to herself. “Arms bent due to muscular contraction caused by heat. Charred, blackened skull, facial eruption from extreme temperature.”
Blanc had spent his most recent working years plowing through bank accounts, letters, and files. He tried to take shallow breaths of the air that reeked of burnt flesh, mixed with the stench of the garbage dump. This damn heat! In front of him lay a body with skin black as coal, its arms curved parallel to each other, the legs too, the face a distorted grimace—it looked less like a human corpse than a shop window mannequin after an arson attack: no hair, no ears, no clothes save for the buckle of a belt on its torso. There was no blood, no recognizable facial traits.
“You really don’t have to look over my shoulder,” Dr. Thezan said, watching him recoil in horror.
“It’s just the heat,” the captain replied.
“You’re not from around here.”
Blanc decided to ignore the remark. “Can you tell if the victim was burned alive?”
The pathologist shook her head, nodding toward holes in the charred torso. “I’m assuming those are gunshot wounds,” she said. “The victim is male. I’ll examine his lungs back at the lab, what’s left of them, that is. But I’d be surprised to find any soot in them. I doubt he was still breathing when he was set on fire.”
Tonon nodded at the dusty ground all around them, being dutifully marked up into numbered sections by the forensics people. “Cartridges, from a Kalashnikov. At least a dozen cases. And to think we’re not allowed to use the firing range anymore, to save money.” He shook his head. “Farid Berrhama was a fighter and drug dealer from Salon, with ambitions to become one of the big shots on the Marseille crime scene. They called him Monsieur Barbecue because if anyone got in his way he would sweep them aside and burn their remains to get rid of any evidence. We never caught him. But one day a Corsican clan spotted him in a brasserie: Eight hit men at once put a dozen bullets in his body. Now it looks like we have a Berrhama copycat on our hands.”
“A drug dealer feud?” Blanc suggested.
The lieutenant pointed at the charred corpse. “This guy was probably doing coke or heroin. Or hadn’t paid his bill. Or maybe ratted someone out. Or somebody else wanted to take over his patch. Basically, somebody in Marseille gets taken out by a Kalashnikov every couple of weeks.”
Blanc cast his mind back to the recent scandal when one of the city’s district mayors had suggested sending in the army to pacify her part of town. There was a wave of outrage, and a lot of sarcastic comments in Paris. Send the army into Marseille! President Sarkozy had made a wave of cuts that included suppressing 350 police jobs in Marseille alone. Nobody had protested about that.
“There’s enough of him left to get a DNA sample,” Dr. Thezan said. “And his teeth are intact. I can get an idea of his height and age from his bones. I might even be able to work out the color of his hair and eyes, and what he had last eaten. We’ll get an ID on him.”
“And then the boys from Marseille will take over. I’ll report back to HQ,” Tonon said. He was about to head back to the Renault when he came to a halt. The pathologist had taken hold of the body with her gloved hands and was carefully turning him over when she spotted something gleaming where the neck had lain on the ground. Gold. The remains of a chain, with a medallion. Blanc and the lieutenant bent down, careful not to touch anything. The medallion had a cobra engraved on it, poised to strike, with two tiny rubies set into its eyes.
“Fucking hell!” Tonon swore. “I know that cobra. We can save ourselves the bother of notifying Marseille. This guy is local.”
Copyright © 2015 by Cay Rademacher
Translation copyright © 2017 by Peter Millar