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The First Day
The fleur de sel gave off a curious fragrance of violets in the days after the harvest; it mingled with the smell of rich clay and the salt and iodine in the air that people here in the middle of the White Land—the Gwenn Rann, the far-reaching salt marshes of the Guérande—smelled and tasted more strongly with every breath than anywhere else on the coast. Now, at the end of the summer, the distinctive scent filled the salt gardens. The old paludiers, the salt farmers, used to say that it made people faint sometimes, that it caused mirages and hallucinations.
It was a breathtaking, bizarre landscape. A landscape of the four elements needed for the alchemy of the salt: sea, sun, earth, and wind. Once a large bay, then a lagoon, a mudflat, a marsh put to good use by skilled hands, it was situated on a peninsula created by the raging Atlantic Ocean between the Loire and the Vilaine. The majestic little medieval town of Guérande, from which the area took its name, marked the northerly reaches of the salt gardens. In the south the gardens tailed off into the remaining part of the lagoon, and beyond that lay Le Croisic, with its enchanting port. You could see it from there, that impressive spectacle: with its mighty tidal rhythm, the Atlantic filled the lagoon with water, carrying it right into the delicate capillaries of the salt gardens. Especially on days when the “grande marée” happened, the spring tide following the full moon.
The White Land was completely flat, without a hint of a slope. For more than twelve centuries, it had been broken up into countless large, small, and very small rectangular salt ponds, laid out with mathematical precision and in turn bordered by random-looking fluid shapes made up of ground and water. An endlessly branching, elaborate system of canals, reservoir pools, preheating pools, evaporating pools, and harvesting pools. A system with just one purpose: to keep the sea moving as slowly as possible using sluice gates so that the sun and the wind made it evaporate almost entirely, until the first crystals formed. Salt was the purest essence of the sea. “Child of the sun and wind,” people called it. The pools had poetic names: vasières, cobiers, fares, adernes, oeillets. One of the oeillets, the harvest pools, had been in use since Charlemagne’s time. The harvest pools were sacred to the paludiers—everything depended on them, on their “character”: the floors of the pools, the different types of clay and the various mineral compositions. Lazy, generous, cheerful, feverish, sensitive, harsh, contrary—the paludiers talked about them as if they were people. That’s where the salt was cultivated and harvested in the open air. White gold.
Incredibly narrow, unpaved paths meandered between the pools, creating inextricable labyrinths, generally accessible only on foot. The salt marshes may have been flat, but you still couldn’t see very far. Overgrown earthen walls of varying heights ran alongside the pools and pathways. Scraggy bushes, shrubs, tall grasses crooked and bleached strawlike by the sun. A gnarled tree here and there. And the cabanes, the salt farmers’ huts made from stone or wood or metal sheeting, were scattered about.
Now that it was September, that dazzlingly bright white was all around. The white of the salt that had been piling up into impressive mounds over the summer. It lay in careful heaps, narrowing to peaks like volcanoes and sometimes two or three meters high.
Commissaire Georges Dupin from the Commissariat de Police Concarneau couldn’t help smiling. This landscape was surreal. Amazing scenery. The atmosphere was heightened by the overabundance of color in the sky and the water—an extravagant display of every shade of violet, pink, orange, and red—caused by the setting sun. And as the late-summer evening slowly closed in, a refreshingly brisk breeze picked up at the end of another baking-hot day. Commissaire Dupin locked the car, one of the force’s official blue, white, and red cars. The impressively old and problematically small Peugeot 106 served as the commissariat’s general backup car. Dupin’s own dearly beloved, equally ancient Citroën XM had been at the garage for ten days. It was the hydropneumatic suspension, for the umpteenth time.
Dupin had parked at the side of the road, half on the grass. He’d walk from here.
It was a narrow little road that meandered through the salt marshes, but at least it was paved. It had not been easy to find. Branching off the Route des Marais, it was one of only three winding roads between Le Croisic and Guérande town that cut across the Salt Land.
Dupin looked around. There was nobody in sight. He hadn’t met a single car on the entire Route des Marais. In the salt marshes, it seemed the day had come to a close.
He had only a hand-drawn sketch of the place he was trying to get to. It showed a hut near one of the salt marshes, toward the open lagoon, about three hundred meters away. He would search the salt mine in question and the huts linked to it, keeping an eye out for “anything suspicious”—he had to admit it was all a bit vague.
Once he had taken a look around, he’d head straight for Le Croisic. Dupin figured this was how it would go: after a brief and likely fruitless inspection of the area, he would be in Le Grand Large a quarter of an hour from now, eating Breton sole fried a golden brown in salted butter. And over a glass of cold Quincy he would be looking out at the water, the pale sand and turquoise of the lagoon, watching the last of the light gradually disappear in the west. He had been in Le Croisic once before, last year, with his friend Henri, and had great memories of the little town (and of the sole).
Regardless of the fact that the reasons he was here were extremely vague, dubious, and downright ridiculous, Commissaire Dupin was in a decidedly good mood this evening. In fact, he had had an overwhelming urge to get outdoors again at last. He had spent five weeks—more or less every single day—in his stuffy, airless office. Five weeks! Kept busy with mind-numbing desk work, official paperwork, the usual trappings of bureaucracy—the tasks that, unlike in books and films, filled the life of a real commissaire over and over again: new patrol cars for his two inspectors were accompanied by new “Regulations for the Use of Vehicles Allocated for the Fulfillment of Police Duty,” eight hundred pages long, with nine-point type and practically no line spacing, it was “extremely important,” with a “number of crucial reforms” according to the prefecture; a raise for his ever-patient secretary Nolwenn (finally!)—he had been fighting for it two years and nine months; painstaking filing for two old, trivial cases. This was a record for him since he had been “relocated” from Paris to the middle of nowhere: five weeks of office work during these magical late-summer days, when September’s enchanting light outshone every other month yet again. Weeks of a settled, spectacular Azores high, like something out of a picture book, not a drop of rain—“La Bretagne fait la cure du soleil,” Brittany is getting the sunshine treatment, the newspapers reported. Five weeks in which Dupin’s bad mood had worsened on an almost daily basis. It had become unbearable for everyone.
Lilou Breval’s request that he take a look round the salt marshes—although he had absolutely no connection with this area—had been a welcome excuse to really get out and about. Dupin didn’t mind what excuse it was in the end. And much more important: he had owed Lilou Breval a favor for a long time now. The journalist from the Ouest-France stayed away from police officers on principle—not least because she came into conflict with police and legal regulations on a less than infrequent basis with her largely unorthodox methods—but somehow she had come to trust him. Dupin respected and liked her.
Lilou Breval had provided him with “certain information” from time to time. She had last “helped” him two years ago during the case of the murdered hotelier in Pont-Aven that had ended up capturing France’s attention. Lilou Breval was not that involved with everyday journalistic work, specializing instead in large-scale research and stories, mostly very Breton stories. Investigative ones. Two years ago she had played quite a significant role in uncovering a colossal case of cigarette smuggling: 1.3 million cigarettes had been hidden in an enormous concrete pillar that had supposedly been built for an oil rig off the coast.
Lilou Breval had called Dupin the night before and—something she’d never done before—asked him to do something: to take a look at “a particular salt pond and a hut nearby.” Look out for “suspicious barrels” there, “blue plastic barrels.” Apparently she couldn’t say what this was about yet, but she was “reasonably certain” that “something very fishy” was going on. She said she would drop in to the commissariat as soon as possible after he had inspected the area so that she could explain everything she knew so far. Dupin hadn’t even begun to understand what this was all about, but after asking some questions that went unanswered he had eventually murmured “fine, okay” and Lilou Breval had faxed him a sketch of the paths and the area that morning. Of course Dupin knew that he was contravening every possible regulation, and on his way here he had felt a tiny bit uneasy, which was not usually his style. Officially, he wasn’t even allowed to be here—he ought to have asked the local police to look into the issue. Not least because the Département Loire-Atlantique, where the salt marshes were located, was not even, from an administrative point of view, part of Brittany anymore—let alone “his patch”—ever since it had been snatched away from the Bretons “with legalized violence” during the much-maligned “Reform of Administrative Structure” in the sixties. Culturally, in daily life and in the consciousness of the French, however—and also in the rest of the world—the département was still Breton through and through to this day.
But his brief moment of doubt was soon forgotten.
Dupin owed Lilou Breval, and he took that very seriously. A good police officer depended on someone doing them a favor now and again.
* * *
Dupin stood next to his patrol car, towering over it with his generally sturdy build and broad shoulders. To be on the safe side, he glanced at the sketch again. Then he walked across the road and started down the grassy path. After just a few meters the first salt pools appeared to his right and left, the path falling sharply away right to the edges of the pools. A meter or a meter and a half deep, Dupin reckoned. The pools were all kinds of colors—pale beige, pale grayish, grayish blue, others were an earthy brown, reddish, all crisscrossed by narrow clay footbridges and dams. Birds strutted about round the edges, looking like they were on a silent search for food. Dupin had no idea what they were called; his ornithological knowledge was lacking.
The landscape was truly extraordinary. The White Land, it seemed, belonged to people only during the day, belonging entirely to nature again in the evening and nighttime. It was quiet, not a sound to be heard apart from an odd kind of chirping in the background, and Dupin couldn’t tell whether it was coming from birds or crickets. It verged on the eerie. Every so often, a cranky gull screeched, an emissary from the nearby sea.
Perhaps coming here had been an idiotic idea after all. Even if he were to see something suspicious—which he wouldn’t—he would have to let his local colleagues know immediately anyway. Dupin stopped walking. Maybe he should drive straight to Le Croisic and forget this cryptic mission. But—he had given Lilou Breval his word.
Dupin’s deliberations were interrupted by his mobile ringing. It seemed even louder than usual in this meditative silence. He fished his small phone out of his pocket, his face brightening when he saw Nolwenn’s number.
“Bonj—aire.—there?” There was a small pause, then: “—air—And have—trip—kang—roo—?”
There was a terrible clicking sound on the line.
“I can’t hear you, Nolwenn. I’m already at the salt marshes, I…”
“They—between the—I know—ly—kangar—”
Dupin could have sworn he had heard the word “kangaroo” for the second time. But he might have been mistaken. He spoke much more loudly this time.
“I—honestly—cannot—understand—a—word. I’ll—call—you later.”
“—just—ay—ter,” and the connection seemed to drop altogether.
Dupin didn’t have a clue why Nolwenn was going on about an Australian marsupial. It sounded preposterous. But he didn’t agonize over it any longer. Out here in the back of beyond, Nolwenn was undoubtedly the most important person to him. And although he felt a little bit “Bretonized” by now, he would still be lost without her. In fact, Nolwenn’s scheme was called “Bretonization,” and came with the motto: “Brittany: Love it—or leave it!”
He thought highly of Nolwenn’s practical and social intelligence as well as her inexhaustible regional and local knowledge. And her passion for oddities and “good stories.” The kangaroo must be one of them.
Dupin had just started to refocus on the task at hand when his phone rang again. He answered automatically. “Can you hear me now, Nolwenn?”
For a few moments he couldn’t hear anything apart from some more loud clicks.
Then suddenly there were a few reasonably comprehensible words: “I’m looking forward—morning, Georges. Really.”
Claire. It was Claire. The line went bad again almost immediately.
“I’m—I’m coming tomorrow evening. Yes, of course!”
There was a pause. Which was followed without warning by an earsplitting hiss. Tomorrow was Claire’s birthday. He had booked a table in La Palette, her favorite restaurant in the Sixth Arrondissement in Paris. A great big boeuf Bourguignon with hearty bacon and young mushrooms, braised in the finest red wine for several hours, the meat so tender you could eat it with a spoon. It was meant to be a surprise, although he assumed that Claire had long since cottoned on because he had dropped far too many hints, as usual. He was going to catch a train at one o’clock and be in Paris at six.
“Did it seem—to come—betwee—! Is—ways—unclear?”
“No. No. Not at all. Nothing is unclear! I’ll be there at six. I already have my ticket.”
“Same here. I just wanted to say that I’m really looking forward to it. To tomorrow evening, I mean.”
“I’ve arranged everything, don’t worry.”
Dupin was speaking too loudly again.
This was pointless.
He hung up.
After meeting last year in those late-August days in Paris, which had been so wonderful, they began to speak on the phone every day and see a great deal of each other. It was mostly spontaneous, they just got on the TGV. Yes, they were back together. Although they hadn’t said it out loud and it was still far from official. Although Dupin had made the awful mistake of mentioning it vaguely in an unguarded moment to his mother, who was immediately delighted, in a far from vague way, that she might now get to have that long-awaited daughter-in-law after all.
Claire had just been in the U.S., at a cardiac surgery training course at the famous Mayo Clinic. So they hadn’t seen each other for seven weeks, although they had spoken on the phone a lot. That was definitely another reason why Dupin had been in such a bad mood recently. Claire had only been back two days now. And that was a large part of the reason for Dupin’s good mood today. But he was a bit nervous. In general. He didn’t want to mess up what he had with Claire again, not like he had done the first time round. He had even bought the train ticket three weeks ago to make sure that nothing could get in the way.
He would call Claire back from Le Croisic very soon. And talk to her again about tomorrow in peace and quiet. Right after the sole.
He would be quick here.
Commissaire Dupin was pretty sure he had seen someone close to the wooden hut. Only briefly, for a split second. More of a shadow really; it had disappeared again instantly.
The commissaire slowed his pace. He scanned his surroundings. He was about twenty meters away from the hut. The path ran past it and looked like it plunged headlong into a salt pond.
Dupin came to a stop. He ran a hand roughly down the back of his head.
His instinct told him something wasn’t right. He did not like this situation one bit.
He took another careful look around. Objectively, there was nothing that looked suspicious in any way. And what if it had just been a cat? Or another animal? Perhaps he had only imagined it. That was entirely possible in this atmosphere. Perhaps that beguiling scent, more intense this deep in the salt gardens, was beginning to have a hallucinatory effect.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, there was a hissing, a strange noise, metallic, high-pitched, and followed by a small, dull thud from close by. A flock of birds rose upward with loud squawks.
Dupin recognized the sound immediately. With a speed and precision that would have seemed unthinkable judging from his heavy build, he flung himself to the ground on the left, where the narrow strip of grass fell steeply away to a reservoir pool. He rolled away skillfully, turning so that he slipped into the pool legs and feetfirst, and found his footing. The water was about half a meter deep. Dupin drew his weapon—a SIG Sauer 9mm—and instinctively trained it on the hut. It was far from perfect cover, but it was better than nothing. The bullet had hit nearby, to his right. He couldn’t tell exactly where it had come from, whether it was from the large hut or one of the smaller shacks nearby. He hadn’t seen anything at all. Dupin’s thoughts were racing. You didn’t think in a normal way in a situation like this. Instead a hundred things mingled at once: bright, sharp observations, reflexes, instincts, and scraps of thought muddled together feverishly and produced what people vaguely called “intuition.”
Dupin needed to work out where his assailant was. And hope that there was only one of them.
There were three sheds in his line of sight, all close together. The one closest to him was about ten meters away.
The shooter couldn’t have been all that close, otherwise he wouldn’t have missed his target.
Again the high-pitched noise—and another dull impact. Not far from him. And again. And once more birds took fright and rose screeching into the sky. Dupin slid lower into the pool, kneeling now with the water up to his stomach. A fourth one.
This time the bullet couldn’t have missed him by more than a matter of centimeters. He felt something on his left shoulder. It felt as though the shots were all coming from one direction now. Then suddenly there was silence. Perhaps the assailant was trying to find a better position.
It was clear to Dupin that taking cover in the pool was not a solution. He had to do something. His thoughts were racing. He could only have the element of surprise on his side once. Hopefully. Just once.
He leapt out of the pool at lightning speed, pointing his gun toward where he believed the shooter was, firing again and again as quickly as the gun would allow. He stormed toward the closest hut as he did so. He had emptied the magazine by the time he got there. Fifteen shots.
Dupin took a few deep breaths. There was a deathly silence. The commissaire was curiously calm, as he always was when a situation was volatile. Still, a cold sweat had broken out on his forehead. He didn’t have a second magazine with him. There was one in the glove compartment of his car, but not here. He had his mobile, but that was no use right now, although he should obviously try to file a report soon.
The hut he was now crouching behind was made from heavy-duty corrugated iron, but it was hard to tell how heavy-duty it was. And Dupin had no idea where the door was. Or whether it was unlocked. But it was probably his only chance. He was on one of the two longer sides of the hut. The most logical thing would be if the door was facing the path, which would mean it was to his left. He knew he didn’t have long to think about it. And he would get exactly one attempt to make this move.
With quick, cautious steps, he moved to the corner, pressing himself right up against the iron sheeting. He paused for a moment. Seconds later he lunged around the corner with a sudden movement, saw a door, wrenched it open, flung himself inside, and slammed it shut again after him.
The whole thing took two or three seconds. Either the assailant hadn’t seen Dupin or he had been caught truly off guard. The fact was, he hadn’t opened fire.
It was pitch black in the hut. The last of the dim light was only coming in through gaps in the door.
Dupin gripped the door handle firmly. It was just as he had suspected: he couldn’t lock the door from the inside. Dupin reached for his mobile—that was the most important thing now. Nolwenn’s number was the second-to-last one on redial. The small screen lit up a surprising amount of the space in the hut. Dupin looked around swiftly. The front half of the hut was empty, and there were half a dozen large sacks and some kind of rods in the back half. He gaped at the screen again. He had no reception.
This couldn’t be happening. No reception. Not a single bar. CONNECTION NOT POSSIBLE. The message on the screen was direct and unequivocal. He was used to this: here, at the end of the world, you were often cut off from the rest of the world, indeed. It was only in the large towns that you could occasionally get good reception. His radio must be in the car—next to the second magazine. In violation of every police regulation, Dupin seldom carried it on him. Perhaps he would have found a local officer on one frequency or another. He certainly could have found someone on the emergency frequency, but that didn’t matter now: he didn’t have it with him. And it was extremely unlikely anyone would happen to come past this secluded spot at this hour.
He had blurted this out far too loudly. A moment later there was a deafening, metallic sound and Dupin nearly dropped his phone. A gunshot. And another. A third. The same hellish noise each time. Dupin held his breath. He had no idea whether the iron sheeting could withstand the bullets. Especially if the shooter was clever and kept shooting at the same place. He couldn’t make out any bullet holes yet. The sound of a bullet on the corrugated iron rang out again, and this time it was louder—the shooter seemed to be coming closer to the hut. Two more gunshots in quick succession. Dupin knelt down and propped one elbow on his knee, the heel of his hand wedged underneath the door handle. But even like this it would be difficult to stop someone opening the door. The leverage he had was much worse. He had to hope that the assailant would not dare to try the door for fear of an exchange of fire. All of a sudden there was a dull impact against the door. It wasn’t a gunshot, but as if a massive object had slammed into the door, then a kind of loud scraping. The door handle rattled for a moment. Somebody was right outside the door, a few centimeters away from him. Dupin thought he could hear a quiet voice saying a few words but he wasn’t sure. Then things went silent again.
Nothing happened for the next few minutes. It was nerve-racking. He didn’t know what his assailant would do next and there was no way to find out. There wasn’t a thing he could do, except hope that the person wouldn’t try to storm the hut. The one thing he would surely guess was that Dupin’s mobile didn’t have good reception here and he wasn’t able to call for help.
But it was very likely his assailant would look around and see the patrol car. Or else there was a patrol out on the road anyway and it would report the police car directly. It also depended on the scale of whatever was going on here.
Suddenly Dupin heard a car engine, not close to the hut, but not that far away either. He hadn’t seen any cars on his way here. The engine was kept running for a while and nothing was happening. Then the car moved off. Dupin could hear it, muffled but unmistakable. What was happening? Was his assailant fleeing? He had achieved something. After a few more meters the car braked abruptly. Dupin waited for the sound of doors opening. But nothing happened.
Suddenly his mobile rang. Moving automatically, he reached for the device.
“Hello?” he barked, his voice low.
All he could hear was crackling and hissing.
“This is an emergency. I’m in the Guérande salt marshes. In a hut. I’m being fired on. My car is on a side road off the Route des Marais. I walked west along the gravel path from there. Hello?”
Dupin hoped that the caller would hear some of what he was saying and raise the alarm. But it was very unlikely.
“Hello? This is an emergency!” He was practically screaming now, without intending to. “I’m being shot at, I…”
“—just calling to—table—eight o’clock.”
Dupin didn’t recognize the distorted voice. But the phrases “table” and “eight o’clock” had been oddly easy to make out. This was unbelievable. It must be La Palette calling about his reservation for tomorrow evening. Stéphane perhaps, the headwaiter, who knew it was always best to remind Dupin of his exact booking.
“A police emergency—please call the Commissariat Concarneau—Hello, Stéphane?”
The caller obviously hadn’t understood a word. But Dupin had to make use of this phone reception, no matter how bad it was. For as long as it was still there at all. There was just one solitary bar. He quickly pressed the red button and then immediately hit redial for Nolwenn’s mobile number. It was ringing. Dupin could hear it clearly. Once. Then the connection dropped. He tried again. No luck. He stared at the screen in disbelief: the solitary bar had vanished.
A moment later, he heard the car, whose engine had been running the whole time, driving away at speed.
Dupin put his mobile back on the ground. He had to keep an eye on the screen. But nothing happened.
The car was out of earshot now. It had left the salt marshes. Had there been just one assailant or were there two or perhaps more? If there had been more than one, had one stayed behind? And were they now simply waiting for Dupin to leave the hut? Were they laying a trap for him?
It would be too risky to leave now. He would have to stay put. He would have to keep on waiting in this stuffy hut, unable to do anything. The situation wasn’t over yet.
* * *
It was a little after ten. Nothing at all had happened in the last half hour—it felt like it had gone on forever. Dupin had stayed in this unbelievable position, sweating more and more, switching between his left and right arms every two or three minutes to block the door handle. It wasn’t long before everything hurt, then gradually he had lost all feeling in his hands, arms, and legs, and at some point he went numb throughout his body. All he could feel was the occasional sharp pain in a spot on his left shoulder. He reckoned the temperature inside the hut was over eighty-five degrees, and almost all of the oxygen seemed to have been used up.
He needed to get out of the hut. And there wasn’t a single bar of reception on his mobile screen. He had to risk it. He had a plan.
Cautiously, he tried to press the door handle downward.
To no avail. It wouldn’t budge. Not one millimeter. His assailant had jammed the door handle. So that was what those strange noises had been when someone was fiddling with the door. Something was wedged underneath the handle on the outside. Dupin shook the handle as hard as he could. Nothing moved.
It was stuck fast. And his assailant was probably miles away.
Dupin sank into a heap. He crawled slightly to the right and stretched himself out on the floor of the hut. He was upset about what was happening but also, he could sense now, relieved that the immediate threat seemed to be over.
He had lain there for perhaps a minute, trying to get some life back into his arms and legs, which had gone to sleep, and thinking about what to do next, when he heard a crack. Quite loud. Distinct. He was certain it hadn’t been an animal.
Someone was out there. In a flash, Dupin moved back into his earlier position, securing the door. He heard a soft murmuring. He pressed an ear to the iron sheeting, straining extremely hard to hear what was happening outside.
For a minute or two, everything remained quiet. Then suddenly—Dupin flinched—a loud, echoing sound cut through the night air: “This is the police. We’ve got the area surrounded. You must surrender immediately. We will not hesitate to make use of our firearms.”
Dupin leapt to his feet. And almost fell over.
“I’m here. In this hut.” He screamed and hammered on the door. “Commissaire Georges Dupin—Commissariat de Police Concarneau. I’m in this hut. Alone. The threat is over.”
Dupin was about to call out again when he paused. What if this was a trick? Who could have alerted the police, anyway? A megaphone didn’t prove anything. Why hadn’t anyone responded to him? On the other hand, if it really was the police, his colleagues had to establish what the situation was first. They had to make sure that the danger had definitely passed.
A moment later the door handle gave a jerk.
“We’ve unblocked the door. Come out with your hands up and fully open. I want to see the palms of your hands. Nice and slow.”
The tinny voice had come from some distance away at the same time as the door handle was being rattled, so there had to be at least two people.
Dupin thought for a moment, then called out: “Identify yourself. I need to be sure that you’re really with the police.”
The answer came right away. “I will do nothing of the kind. Come out now.”
This response was probably the best proof possible.
“Okay, I’m coming.”
“As I said: hands in the air and very, very slow.”
“I’m Commissaire Georges Dupin, Commissariat Concarneau.”
“Come on, then.” The tone of voice was steely.
Dupin opened the door. A bright, clean-edged cone of light fell into the hut; it must have been one of those new high-power LED torches. He stayed where he was for a few moments to make sure he had got his balance back. A moment later he stepped calmly out of the hut, his right hand in front of his eyes, his mobile in his left.
“I need a working phone. I have to make a call immediately.” He had to speak to Lilou Breval. Straightaway.
“I said, hands in the air. I—” The voice broke off. And then a person was coming toward him from the right.
“What are you doing here? What the hell is going on?” It was a woman’s voice, somewhat rasping. Aggressive, but composed and not even very loud. “What happened here?”
Someone switched the torch beam from focused to diffuse and Dupin was able to take his hand away from his eyes.
An attractive woman was standing in front of him, tall, with shoulder-length, wavy dark hair and wearing a light gray pantsuit, a dark blouse, and elegant dark ankle boots with rather high heels. A half-drawn SIG Sauer in her right hand.
“Commissaire Sylvaine Rose. Commissariat de Police Guérande.” She paused briefly, then said, emphasizing every syllable: “Département Loire-Atlantique.”
“I have to make a call. Do you have a satellite phone?”
“Unlike the Commissariat Concarneau, we carry the necessary equipment when we’re on duty. What are you doing here? What kind of unprofessional operation was this?”
Dupin checked himself at the last minute, just before he might have blurted out something gruff.
“I … Who informed you that I”—he broke off briefly—“that I’m here?”
“You have a waiter from Paris to thank for your rescue. The one who called you about your reservation tomorrow evening. He might not have been able to understand you, but thought he heard the word ‘shot,’ and as a precaution called the police in the sixth. And as a precaution they called us. Apparently you’re still remembered there; your departure must have been spectacular. And then as a precaution we stopped by.” Suddenly, her tone of voice changed: “What are you doing in the salt marshes? How did you end up in this hut? What’s going on? You are going to explain everything to me, right down to the last detail. You won’t be making any calls beforehand. You won’t be doing anything at all beforehand.”
Dupin would have been impressed if a burning rage had not bubbled up within him in the previous hour, a rage that had eclipsed all other feelings, including the feeling of powerlessness, and the pain in his arms and legs and shoulder. He was furious—at his assailant, at the whole situation, but mostly at himself. He knew he had been an incredible idiot. He wanted to know who had shot at him! And what on earth was going on! He had the same questions as Commissaire Rose. But, apart from telling her what he’d seen, he would not be able to give any kind of answers. He needed to find out what Lilou Breval knew right now, whatever it was she hadn’t told him yesterday.
“Give me the satellite telephone,” he hissed.
“I will do nothing until you’ve told me everything.” She could not have said this more calmly.
“I—” Dupin broke off. He understood where his colleague was coming from. He wouldn’t have behaved any differently, but he didn’t have time for all this. “What are you going to do, arrest me here?”
“I can’t do that, unfortunately. But I will drive you to the hospital in Guérande right now. And not budge a millimeter from your side until I know everything. I’m not fond of shootings on my watch. We’ve seen a huge number of cartridges; it must have been quite the operation. I hope you’re not making up your mind to slow down my investigation. The brass are going to love you as it is.”
By now a dozen police officers had come into view, each armed with a heavy torch. It had been pitch dark for some time now. Two police cars had come down the path in quick succession and were almost at the hut. The scene was dazzlingly lit up by their headlights on full beam.
Dupin thought it over. Perhaps he should cooperate. This was not his jurisdiction. Nobody was listening to him. He couldn’t achieve anything here by himself; he was dependent on this commissaire, for a start. No matter how difficult he found that.
“It was because of suspicious barrels here in the salt marshes. I was following up a tip from a journalist. Lilou Breval from the Ouest-France. When I arrived, somebody opened fire. I couldn’t make anyone out; I don’t know how many people there were or whether it was more than one person. I was able to take refuge in this hut. The assailant or assailants probably left the scene around nine thirty-five.”
“What kind of barrels?”
“I don’t know. Blue plastic barrels. That’s why I need to speak to this journalist right now, only she can tell us—”
“You don’t know? You got yourself into this grossly negligent situation because somebody told you to check out these barrels? Without having a clue what it might be about? In a département you have no business being in?”
“I have to use the phone.”
“You have to go to the hospital.”
“Why do you keep going on about a hospital?” Dupin’s anger was returning.
Commissaire Rose looked doubtfully at him for a second, then turned aside and called in the direction of a policewoman who was just about to tackle the hut: “Chadron. Put out a search: one person. Maybe more. No clues as to their identity. We don’t know what car they’re in either. The only thing we know is this: a car drove away from the salt marshes around nine thirty-five P.M., direction and destination unknown. Pointless really, but put out the message anyway.”
The policewoman pulled out a radio and the commissaire turned back to Dupin, clearly annoyed. “Let’s go. Personally, I dislike circumventing important service regulations. You’ve been shot and I’m going to make sure you see a doctor. Due diligence.”
“Your left shoulder is bleeding.”
Dupin held his left side and turned his head. His polo shirt was wet with sweat and water from the salt ponds. It wasn’t easy to make it out in the light from the headlamps, but when you looked carefully, you could see it: the left side was a much darker color than the right. And he had occasionally—only occasionally, the adrenaline had acted as a powerful stimulant—felt that sharp pain. He hadn’t thought about it any more than that and had put it down to his cramped position. He could see that the polo shirt between his forearm and shoulder was ruined. He grasped his arm there. Suddenly the pain got much worse. Sharp.
“Absurd,” he said with conviction. The commissaire smiled at him for a moment and Dupin could not interpret what she meant. She spoke very softly and calmly, while looking him directly in the eye.
“You’re in my world here, Monsieur le Commissaire. And here you are either someone who makes my life easier or someone who makes it harder. And I can assure you, you do not want to be someone who makes it harder.”
She continued at a normal volume: “Come on.”
Dupin wanted to protest.
Commissaire Rose looked to the sky, murmured “Should work,” and turned to her colleague from earlier:
“I need a satellite phone. You take over here while I’m gone. I’m accompanying Commissaire Dupin to the hospital. Get in touch every time there’s any news. No matter what it is. I want to know everything. Everything.”
Dupin rubbed his right temple. Those last few sentences had sounded disconcertingly like the kind of thing he would have said.
Commissaire Rose was walking toward the farther car. “Let’s go.” She had shoved her left hand into her jacket pocket, leaving only the thumb peeking out.
Inspector Chadron brought over a phone that looked, with its enormous antenna in plastic casing, like a mobile from fifteen years ago, and held it out to him.
“Speak to your journalist on the way and then go over it all again, in detail,” Commissaire Rose instructed him. Dupin got into the car after her. The salt marshes beneath the clear blue-black sky; the mounds of salt illuminated by the police cars’ headlights; the flashing cones of light as the police officers walked around—it made a surreal scene.
A lot had happened since he had arrived. And nothing had come of that sole he’d wanted.
* * *
“I need a coffee. Double shot. And a phone. And you have to let my inspector in to see me.”
“Ninety-seven over sixty-two. Your blood pressure is still very low. But your pulse is holding steady at around one forty. Symptoms of shock. And results of blood loss. Not a life-threatening condition, but we’ve got to—”
“I’m not in shock. I have low blood pressure generally. Inherited it from my father. I just need caffeine and everything will be okay again. Is the wound bandaged in a way that allows me to move around freely?”
“You shouldn’t be moving at all for now.”
The young, clearly not very sympathetic doctor whom Dupin had just spoken to for the second time had examined him when they arrived, after an inconvenient wait of more than twenty minutes in the ambulance. Commissaire Rose had stayed outside to make some calls. At some point, another doctor had turned up who seemed to Dupin even younger and no less indifferent. She was given the vital information and brought him into a small room a few corridors away. It was a graze wound and it had nicked the muscle in a superficial way—harmless in itself, but he had lost a lot of blood. The doctor had given him a local anesthetic—he had vehemently refused a sedative—then thoroughly disinfected the wound, put in five stitches, and bandaged it up.
It was now midnight. He had used the satellite phone on the way to the hospital, trying to get through to Lilou Breval, but he was put through to voicemail each time, on both the landline and her mobile. He hated satellite phones. The antenna had to point directly upward when it was extended, which meant that he had had to sit in an unnaturally cramped position at the beginning of the trip, and the commissaire drove eye-wateringly fast. She made sure to emphasize that she was driving carefully because of his injury. And you also had to dial any number of prefixes first (he always forgot which ones), and quite apart from which, the sky couldn’t be cloudy. Between frequent bouts of cursing about satellite phones and voicemail, he had eventually told Commissaire Rose everything he knew. Which amounted to nothing at all. She made no secret of the fact that she still didn’t trust Dupin as far as she could throw him. And she still seemed to believe he was holding back some information. His whole story sounded, to put it mildly, not all that plausible.
Inspector Riwal, one of his two inspectors, had set out from Concarneau as soon as he’d heard what had happened. Dupin liked him a lot, even if he had odd moods every now and then. Riwal had made his arrival known to Dupin via an obliging nurse. The doctor had brusquely instructed the nurse, with reference to “clear and strict rules,” not to let the inspector in to see the “injured man” under any circumstances, especially not during the “medical history.”
“After the shock and the blood loss you should drink plenty of fluids. Water or herbal tea are best. No coffee or alcohol.”
Dupin’s feelings vacillated between despair and fits of rage.
“But I’m telling you, everything is fine. Let the inspector in to see me. It’s about important police matters. I…”
From the corridor outside the treatment room came an aggressive voice. “That’s enough! He’s my only witness. He has been treated, his injuries aren’t life-threatening, he’s conscious. I’m going to see him now.”
The door flew open and Commissaire Rose walked in with a nurse frowning in resignation behind her. The commissaire stopped in the middle of the room. “We’ve searched the whole salt marsh area. And we didn’t find any barrels. No blue ones, yellow ones, or red ones. Not a single one. Not outdoors, not in the hut, not in the sheds. We didn’t find anything suspicious at all. The forensics team is looking for any traces that the larger barrels might have been left behind. And for footprints, tire marks, and so on. I tried that journalist of yours again, but couldn’t get through. She probably just went to bed hours ago.”
Dupin was about to protest. He absolutely had to speak to Lilou. They needed to get hold of her as soon as possible. Commissaire Rose beat him to it, speaking as if he wasn’t in the room:
“We still don’t have the faintest bloody idea what’s going on here. No matter how carelessly self-inflicted it might have been—a police officer came within an inch of being shot dead. In the middle of our salt marshes.” Suddenly she looked fiercely at him. “Surely you must know or suspect something! You don’t just go and risk serious disciplinary proceedings because some friend of yours found something suspicious somewhere. I don’t buy it!”
It was impossible to tell whether Commissaire Rose had spoken angrily. But she spoke rapidly and very firmly.
“There must be something major going on.” Dupin said this broodingly to himself, realizing that it wasn’t a proper answer.
“Whatever it is, I’m not going to tolerate it. Not on my beat. An innocent person could have been caught up in it too.”
Dupin was about to protest this time—very sharply—but at the last second he decided against it. And he was glad he had. He understood the commissaire. All too well.
Besides, he felt rather awkward with his upper body bare, sitting dirty and sticky on a hospital bed, with a bandage on his left shoulder and the cuff from the blood pressure monitor still around his upper arm.
“Do we know yet who owns the salt marsh?” Dupin had made an effort to strike a cooperative tone, and this seemed to have something of an effect.
“Of course we found out ages ago who owns the salt marsh where your exciting adventure played out. My colleagues are trying to get through to the owners and speak to the head of one of the cooperatives in the salt marshes—the salt marshes right next door belong to him. The same goes for the director of the Centre du Sel. She knows every single paludier. And every pool.”
Dupin had just noticed, and this was really neither here nor there, but the commissaire’s hair was in constant motion, even when she was standing still. And although it was difficult to imagine right now, deep laughter lines betrayed the fact that she could really laugh—and that, in theory, she must do it a lot.
“You let the commissaire in to see him; I’m going in too.”
There was more hubbub from the corridor. Dupin recognized Riwal’s voice. He had sounded very forceful.
“I haven’t let anybody in to see the patient, that woman just stormed in earlier,” whimpered a crestfallen voice. A moment later, Riwal was standing in the room too. A plastic cup in his right hand.
“I brought you a coffee, boss. Double shot. That’s what it said on the button anyway. There’s a vending machine in the waiting room.”
Dupin wanted to hug his inspector, something he would never actually have done, of course. He was just that happy to see him. And the coffee cup. It was a ray of light.
“Well done, Riwal.”
Riwal came over and handed Dupin the cup with an almost ceremonial flourish.
Commissaire Rose acknowledged Riwal with a movement of her head. It was minimal but it was friendly and collegial.
“Inspector Riwal, Commissariat de Police Concarneau. This is a worrying incident.”
Riwal had spoken with uncharacteristic calmness. It must have been the commissaire’s influence.
“Absolutely. You can’t shed any light on it either, I take it?”
“No. We just heard that our commissaire was involved in a shooting and had been wounded.”
Dupin took a mouthful of the lukewarm coffee. It tasted horrible. And like plastic too. Not that it mattered. He was feeling better now. After arriving at the hospital, he had started to feel the strain of the previous few hours, a profound fatigue deep within his bones. Even though he was fighting it valiantly, he felt shattered—which he would never admit. He had been through shootings before, of course, in Paris, and a much crazier one at that—underneath a bridge outside the city, a large-scale car theft. And he had been shot once before during a hostage situation at the Gare du Nord, worse than today, in his forearm, but this was still tough.
“Do you know Madame Breval’s home address, do you know where she lives?” Commissaire Rose put her right hand on her hip and her left back into the pocket of her jacket.
“Yes, I know where Lilou Breval lives. At the gulf. Near Sarzeau.”
He had visited her there once during the case of the murdered hotelier.
Dupin drank the last mouthful of coffee, took off the blood pressure cuff, and stood up. At first he was dizzy, the world swaying around him, despite the coffee. He picked up the hospital-issue white doctor’s T-shirt that the nurse had left out for him. His shoulder made putting it on very difficult, and the anesthetic seemed to be wearing off. The T-shirt was at least two sizes too big and Dupin was aware that he must look ridiculous. Even his jeans looked terrible, covered in dirt and bloodstains, but it didn’t matter.
“About an hour from here. Let’s go. Now that you’ve got something on.” Commissaire Rose couldn’t resist a smirk.
“Riwal. Could you get me something to eat from the vending machine? Anything—cookies, a chocolate bar, it doesn’t matter what,” Dupin said.
“All right, boss.”
Dupin hadn’t had anything to eat since lunchtime. His blood sugar was very low.
“And another coffee. Let’s meet at Commissaire Rose’s car.”
Riwal was already out the door by the time Dupin finished speaking.
“Do you know where Lilou Breval works? Which of the editorial offices?” As before, there was a forcefulness to Commissaire Rose’s questions and words.
“Officially speaking, she’s with the editorial office in Vannes. But she mostly works from home, I think.”
The Ouest-France was the largest daily paper in France—and together with Le Télégramme and Le Monde, constituted Dupin’s routine daily reading. In fact, the Ouest-France was the Atlantic newspaper par excellence; it was published along the entire coast from La Rochelle upward, throughout Brittany, the Pays de la Loire, and also in Normandy. And it was available via local editorial offices in every big city.
“Perhaps one of her colleagues will know what story their friend is working on.” Commissaire Rose had deliberately said “friend” with meaningful emphasis.
“I think that’s unlikely.”
Lilou was not the kind of person to do research in a team.
“You’ve got to sign here for me that you’re leaving the hospital at your own risk.” The indifferent doctor had been lingering in the background for the last few minutes, filling out various forms. “The standard treatment involves painkillers and then antibiotics for prophylaxis.” He held out two packets to Dupin. “The painkillers will make you feel slightly woozy. So no alcohol.”
Dupin took both packets, stuffed them into the pocket of his jeans, and left the room moments later. Commissaire Rose followed suit.
In no time, she had overtaken Dupin in the long corridor and was striding purposefully toward the exit. She had parked right in front of the emergency-room entrance.
Dupin stood still for a moment and breathed the mild summer night air in and out a few times. The hospital was on a slight hill right outside the town and he had a perfect view of the medieval, atmospheric Guérande from here—the contrast with the hospital’s sterile, harsh lighting and functional new-build architecture could not have been more stark. Dupin found himself reminded of the Ville Close in Concarneau. There was something comforting about the way the colossal city walls and towers shone in the warm light.
Commissaire Rose was already at her car. A large, new, dark blue Renault Laguna. Dupin walked around to the passenger door.
“This was the only decent thing in the vending machine.” Riwal had materialized next to Commissaire Rose’s car and was holding out a packet of bonbons caramel à la fleur de sel and plastic cup to Dupin.
Dupin took them both gratefully. Salted caramel candy was not what he would have expected in a hospital, but obviously the local affinity for the Salt Land was huge. And he had to admit he loved those caramel candies, that bittersweetness with the flakes of salt.
“It’s no sole, but still,” he said.
Riwal looked at Dupin; his brow was furrowed and almost concerned. Commissaire Rose was already in the driver’s seat, watching them impatiently. The air was doing Dupin good, as was the prospect of more caffeine.
“Riwal, you try the editorial offices in Vannes. And her colleagues at home, to be on the safe side. You’ll still be able to get hold of newspaper staff.” Even delegating tasks was helping, Dupin noticed. Everything was feeling a bit more normal now. “Have them give you the names and numbers of colleagues Lilou Breval worked with. And the editor in chief. Call everyone straightaway. And contact Kadeg, he’s to come tomorrow morning and”—Dupin pondered for a moment—“he’ll have to drive past our office first. There’s a blue bag next to my desk. Tell him to bring it here.”
Riwal knew the commissaire too well to ask questions when faced with these kinds of instructions. As Dupin briskly gave his orders, he climbed somewhat awkwardly—due to the shoulder injury and the coffee in his hand—into the car.
Once he was seated, Commissaire Rose leaned right over to him, as far as she could go, and said: “We’re going to have the conversation with that journalist now, as soon as possible. You’re going to be present for that, and after that—after that, you’re out. Do you hear me? Then you’re a witness on my case. And nothing more. I am the only person investigating. I mean that in a friendly and collaborative way, of course.”
She spoke with perfect irony, sweetly, but she was not being sarcastic. It infuriated Dupin. But, objectively speaking, she did have everything on her side on this point, the police regulations and the law.
The smart thing was to stay silent.
In one fluid movement, Commissaire Rose started the engine and put her foot down hard on the gas.
* * *
It had taken them forty minutes, with flashing lights and sirens and speeding above every limit inside and outside residential areas, even on the smallest country roads. To Dupin’s relief, they hadn’t spoken much. The effects of the anesthetic were wearing off and the pain in his shoulder was getting worse. Dupin had taken one of the painkillers—he couldn’t afford any weakness. And he’d eaten five of the salted caramels, which had done him a lot of good.
During the journey he had tried to get through to Lilou Breval numerous times; he was back on his mobile again—it finally had reception on this road. No luck. Commissaire Rose had looked strangely worried a few times, much more so than in the salt marshes earlier. Lilou Breval lived near Brillac, a few kilometers away from Sarzeau, right on the Gulf of Morbihan, one of the most enchanting parts of Brittany. Without any of the usual Breton exaggeration, Dupin truly thought it a wonder of nature. Mor bihan meant “small sea” in Breton: an inland sea linked to the “large sea”—the mor braz—by nothing more than a narrow passage through which the ocean surged in and out every day. It was dotted with hundreds of islands and islets—depending on the state of the tide—in the most fantastical shapes, just twenty of them inhabited. A calm sea, a few meters deep at high tide. At low tide, large parts of it were just centimeters deep or gone entirely. That’s when the sea revealed kilometers of sandy, silty, or stony seafloor, with big tidal creeks and smaller ones, long dazzlingly white sandbanks as well as oyster and mussel beds. At high tide it looked as though the countless flat, thickly forested islands were floating on the sea, as though someone had launched them onto the water as carefully as boats. Romantic little woods with romantic names: The Wood of Sighs, of Lovers, of Sorrow, of Longing. A charming mixture of every shade of green and the blue of the tides and the sky in just as many shades.
Dupin’s friend Henri, also a “Parisian in exile”—but who had at least married a Breton woman—owned a house on the Gulf of Morbihan, near the Port Saint-Goustan. Dupin had visited him there in June last year. He had stayed for seven days, his first days off in a long time, and he had loved it. And from there they had driven to Le Croisic too. The gulf was a world unto itself. Here, the Atlantic relinquished its terror, all of its roughness, tumultuousness, and violence, and became instead a tranquil still life. The gentle land that embraced it seemed to soothe it. But the sea was fully there. And determined everything. A particular climate dominated, which the Bretons proudly called “Mediterranean” or “subtropical.” A lot of sunshine, luxuriant flora and fauna, mild, fertile. Dupin had been especially taken by the fact that there was a large reservoir for seahorses (he worshiped them almost as much as he worshiped penguins); the seahorse was also the logo of the national parks and bioreserves, because the gulf seahorse had been a protected species for years.
One of the first Breton lessons Nolwenn had taught Dupin went like this: “La Bretagne does not exist! There are many Bretagnes.” The Breton landscape was so diverse and the differences, contrasts, peculiarities, and contradictions so great. And Dupin had realized she was right. That phrase contained perhaps the last and greatest of Brittany’s secrets. And the gulf, for him, was the Brittany of summer sun, nonchalance, magnificent regattas, delightful bathing, and a leisure even the sea itself indulged in. The gulf was lovingly called the “kingdom of leisure.”
During the drive, Dupin was reminded of the tragic legends about the birth of the gulf that Henri had regaled him with. The holy Forest of Rhuys had once stood on this spot—much like the rest of Brittany, it had been crisscrossed with holy forests—and this forest was home to the most wondrous fairy folk, from whom dozens of names and stories were still handed down to this day. Like villains, people began to clear the magical wood, to destroy the unique magical land, and thus drive away the fairies. They took off into the air. They cried bitterly. Their tears fell endlessly, drowning everything. In the depths of their grief, the fairies threw away their headdresses and from these, strewn with golden dust, came the beautiful islands. There were so many that there was one for every day of the year. The gulf was a sea of tears.
Lilou Breval’s house—a remarkably narrow, old, beautifully renovated stone house—was in darkness, not a single light visible. It stood forlornly on a small promontory, the Pointe de l’Ours, the “Headland of the Bear.” The sandy path ended here and then a few meters farther along, at the edge of the garden, the “small sea” began. So close. Lilou Breval lived alone, or it looked that way at least. Dupin had heard from Nolwenn that she used to be married, but she had been separated for years. Dupin had never heard of any new man. But that didn’t mean anything, of course.
Commissaire Rose stopped right in front of the house. Dupin had undone his seat belt and opened the car door before she had even turned off the engine. Despite his injured shoulder—and with stabbing pains—he got himself out of the Renault in one smooth movement.
The first thing he was looking for was a car. He couldn’t see one. Coming here had probably been all for nothing; it didn’t look like Lilou was here.
“Let’s ring the bell anyway. And: take this.”
Commissaire Rose was standing directly behind him, he hadn’t even noticed her. He turned around. She was holding out a magazine for the SIG Sauer. “In case of emergency only.”
Dupin hesitated for a moment. Then he reached for his gun, took the magazine, inserted it skillfully, and put the gun away again.
The wooden gate was ajar. Dupin opened it, walked into the garden, and approached the front door.
This was where he and Lilou Breval had sat when he came over. They had sat together long into the night. The garden was a paradise. At high tide it was bordered by water, a truly wild garden with trees growing in rampant chaos, shrubs, ferns. Magnolias, camellias, rhododendrons, laurel, sea buckthorn, and Dupin was particularly struck by the lemon tree and a tall orange tree. An enchanted garden. Not of this world.
Dupin rang the bell.
“It doesn’t look like anyone is in.”
Commissaire Rose was again standing right behind him. Dupin rang one more time. The bell trilled through the night air.
Nothing. Dupin moved off and started to walk around the house.
“Hello? Lilou? It’s Georges Dupin!” he shouted very loudly. And shouted it again.
“She isn’t here,” said Commissaire Rose firmly.
She came round the corner of the house now too; Dupin could see her clearly. The moon was out. Full moon had been three days ago and it was waning again already, but it was still quite bright.
Dupin’s phone rang. He whipped it out of his jeans pocket straightaway. It might be Lilou. Or Riwal with some news.
It was Claire. In the car earlier he had seen that she had tried to call him twice while he was being treated in the hospital. Two calls had also come through from private numbers during this time. If Dupin didn’t answer, calls were forwarded to Nolwenn’s office line. He really ought to answer. Claire would definitely be annoyed that he hadn’t called back. She still didn’t know that he was now on an investigation, of course. She would think that he might not want to come tomorrow and was afraid of admitting it to her. But what should he say now?
“Who is it?”
“It’s from a withheld number.”
The ringing stopped.
Dupin took a few steps to one side. Ostentatiously. And dialed.
“Hello, Riwal?” he said in a strained voice.
“Have you found out anything? Have you got through to anyone?”
“Yes, I have. Were you able to speak to Lilou Breval? Is she at home?”
“No. Tell me what you know.”
“There was an editor on call. He couldn’t help; he didn’t have much to do with Lilou Breval. But I’ve got numbers for two of the Vannes colleagues Lilou Breval seems to have been friends with and who might know where she is right now. And the editor in chief from Vannes. I’ve just spoken to him. He thinks she’s crazy.”
“He thinks she’s crazy?”
“He said she works on, quote, ‘insane projects’ all the time and hunts down phantoms. Apparently it’s getting worse and worse. He thinks she is, and I quote, ‘paranoid.’ He didn’t know of anything specific, or anything that might have to do with barrels or the salt marshes. But he says, and I’m quoting again, ‘nothing would surprise’ him. He only became the editor in chief nine months ago, and sees her at most once a week. In fact he never knows what she’s working on at any given time.”
There was anger bubbling up inside Dupin. This was absolutely ludicrous.
“He sounds like a complete idiot. It’s remarkable that she puts up with him even once a week. And he has no idea where she might be?”
“No. He hasn’t seen or spoken to her since last week. He just knew where she lived. He didn’t know anything about her private life.”
“And her other two colleagues?” Dupin had been wandering around the garden during their conversation.
“They weren’t answering, it’s the middle of the night. I left messages on their answering machines.”
“Fine. Keep trying. We need information.”
Dupin hung up and turned around. “My colleague…” He stopped. Commissaire Rose was nowhere to be seen.
No answer. She was probably back at the car already. She was right. There was nothing they could do here.
Dupin had just decided to head back to the car too when a light suddenly went on inside the house. The light from the ground-floor window cast clean, bright stripes across the garden.
Dupin hurried back to the front door. It was wide open. A moment later Dupin was in the large space that took up almost the entirety of the ground floor—a living room, dining room, and kitchen rolled into one. Commissaire Rose was standing by a wooden table piled high with books and journals, foreign magazines, the latest editions of Time and The New Yorker.
No sign of the house’s inhabitant.
“Damn it, what are you doing?” Dupin said.
“I’m seeing if we can find any clues about where the journalist might be and what she’s working on right now.”
“How did you get in?”
“The door wasn’t locked.”
Of course. Dupin didn’t know anyone in Brittany who locked their doors, apart from in the cities and at holiday resorts.
“This is trespassing, unauthorized entry to—” He didn’t finish the sentence. He was aware it was strange that he of all people should be referring to regulations and laws today. Still, this was Lilou’s private space. They needed to speak to her urgently, but they couldn’t just walk into her house.
“We have no choice. Aren’t you worried about your friend?”
For the first time this evening, there was no sarcastic undertone or any edge to what Commissaire Rose was saying. She sounded deadly serious.
“A journalist, by her own account, is working on an explosive story. She gives a police officer a tip and he is then almost shot dead during his preliminary investigations—and the journalist suddenly vanishes.”
It sounded grim. Dupin had felt a certain unease, but he hadn’t thought of it this way before. Or perhaps he just hadn’t wanted to think of it this way, if he were honest. He realized that Commissaire Rose’s words had had a significant impact.
“She hasn’t disappeared. We just haven’t gotten hold of her yet. She could be anywhere, at a friend or family member’s house—at a boyfriend’s house. Just because she can’t be contacted between ten P.M. and two A.M. and isn’t at home on a weeknight, it’s by no means clear she’s disappeared.”
Dupin was trying to sound as convincing as possible and drown out his own unease. He wasn’t doing very well.
“Weigh the facts as you see fit. As long as we haven’t found her, she is, from a police perspective, missing. I can’t take responsibility for any other view. In the interests of the person herself,” Commissaire Rose said, walking through the room, looking carefully around her, and taking a slightly closer look at things here and there. She turned abruptly toward the stairs to the second floor.
“What are you planning?” Dupin asked.
“I’m going to search her study.”
An absurd thought occurred to Dupin: Might Commissaire Rose suspect Lilou Breval? Perhaps this wasn’t about Lilou’s disappearance at all? That would be—objectively—a possible interpretation: that for some reason a trap had been laid for him and Lilou had been involved in it. Although it might be possible theoretically, it was, objectively speaking, still complete nonsense.
Uncertain, Dupin followed Commissaire Rose upstairs.
To the right of the stairs was a bedroom with the door open. A fairly neatly made bed with a large, colorful bedspread and a narrow door in the wall behind it. Commissaire Rose was coming toward him through this door.
“A small bathroom. None of her things are there. Toothbrush, makeup, moisturizer. See, she’s gone away for a few days.”
Lilou hadn’t mentioned anything to Dupin about wanting to go away. And if he were honest, it hadn’t sounded that way either. She had actually said she was going to drop by straightaway once he had gone to the salt marshes.
“Maybe she’s got a second home?” he suggested.
“A second home, but not a second toothbrush?”
“Maybe she’s just visiting someone.”
Commissaire Rose rolled her eyes.
She marched past Dupin and into the room on the other side of the staircase.
It was a study with large recessed windows on either wall. The room was dominated by an imposing old wooden table, an exact replica of the one on the ground floor. It was ludicrously laden down too. But here there were countless newspapers, papers, and documents piled into precarious towers. The only free space was a relatively large area directly in front of the contemporary desk chair.
“Her laptop is missing too.”
“Astonishing—a portable device.” It sounded more sarcastic than he had intended.
Without responding to Dupin—even he was embarrassed by his childish retort—Commissaire Rose lost no time starting to work her way through the first pile of papers. Dupin stood next to her and, after a brief hesitation, began to go through the documents too.
They were standing almost shoulder to shoulder in silence. Old copies of the Ouest-France, or sometimes just single pages; other newspapers, Le Télégramme, Libération; printouts of online articles, printouts of her own articles. By and large it seemed like a kind of chronological filing system, within each pile, and pile by pile. Not strictly chronological, but largely so. In fact, the most recent documents were in the smallest pile, which Dupin was going through now. The filing system ended six weeks ago, however, with just a few unread-looking current editions of the Ouest-France lying on top. Scattered among the piles were empty cups in garish colors, at least half a dozen of them. And three used wineglasses. It looked like hard work. Like all-nighters.
Dupin took a look at Lilou’s own articles. They were on the most eclectic topics, a jumbled chaos, on issues major and minor. An angry objection to the deregulation of commercial fishing of praires—clams—in Concarneau from the beginning of March, which Dupin already knew about; he liked them even more than he liked any other clams, so he was inwardly torn between the understandably vital ecological consciousness and his gastronomic passion, because the deregulation meant for a start that you got to eat the mussels more often. Next he found an article from July about the Breton food industry’s resistance in the face of an “invasion” by large brands. Dupin found quite a few notes from conversations about this. And the second large article on this topic: about the “cola war.” The whole world drank Coke … The whole world? No. Those obstinate Gauls, the Bretons, created their own cola, “Breizh cola,” in 2002, and by now a significant proportion of Brittany’s 4.5 million people happily drank the caffeinated Gallic fizzy drink, even Dupin. Because it tasted better, of course, but also because it was a protest, a symbol. So many people drank it that a historic event took place: Coca-Cola, the empire, felt threatened and designed a special regional campaign with its own logo to break the wayward Gallic region’s resistance. It had the opposite effect, of course, and solidarity with “Breizh cola” grew and grew. Dupin couldn’t help laughing. It was a typically Breton story that was taken very seriously. And it was also a typical Lilou story.
“She certainly didn’t endear herself to powerful people. One or two people would have cursed her to hell. Bravo, I say. Hats off to her,” Commissaire Rose said casually as she sifted through more papers. But the words resonated with profound admiration.
“Everything from the last six weeks is missing.” Dupin had double-checked very carefully.
“Odd.” Commissaire Rose looked up for a moment, then set to work systematically on the next pile. A gesture that seemed like an order to be disciplined and keep working. For the first time ever, Dupin felt like he was twenty years old again and a rookie with the Paris police, assisting the senior inspectors and commissaires. His brow furrowed as he thought about it, shook his head—and then concentrated on the papers.
“The thirty-six dead wild boar,” murmured Commissaire Rose.
The sentence sounded so odd and out of context that Dupin almost laughed. He recalled that the story had caused waves last year in the middle of his case on the Glénan islands, a case he had inwardly been preoccupied with for a long time. It wasn’t as odd as it sounded, on the contrary: thirty-six wild boar—deemed sacred by Bretons—died from poisonous gases released during the decomposition of masses of green algae that had washed up on the shore. For Lilou, and this was the serious background to the article, it was about the causes of the marées vertes or the “green tides.” Too many nitrates from overly intensive conventional farming found their way into the sea and stimulated the growth there of green algae and became a dangerous problem. The algae was harmless in itself, even edible, but on land, in the sun and in enormous quantities, it gave off toxic gases. A huge issue, with enormous economic consequences, and not just in Brittany.
“Here. An article about salt. From last year,” Rose said.
The newspaper was extremely yellowed, covered in several places with wavy, round stains. Commissaire Rose positioned the newspaper so that she and Dupin could read it at the same time. The hook for the piece was that “fleur de sel” had finally become a protected designation. In future, only the handmade “flower of salt” from the Atlantic salt marshes could claim the name—salt from the Guérande, the Île Noirmoutier, and the Île de Ré. For centuries, the Atlantic’s salt farmers had neglected this issue and fleur de sel from India and China had sprung up, one of the countless ridiculous consequences of globalization. The article was about the impressive comeback by the Guérande in the preceding decades, and by the Breton salt marshes, which had been teetering on the brink of collapse in the late sixties. And about the 270 paludiers who were back again too, and the twelve thousand tons of salt harvested there each year. And about the three different kinds of salt producers—the “independents,” the cooperatives, and the French and European large manufacturers specializing in salt. A whole paragraph was devoted to a manufacturer originally based in the South of France, Le Sel, which even Dupin had heard of. Everyone knew it.
Dupin read the paragraph about the “Salt War” particularly closely—the war was between Atlantic and Mediterranean salt, and the Mediterranean had long since won by streamlining manufacturing and continually lowering prices. Although Atlantic salt had always had the larger share of the market up until the end of the nineteenth century, this sel artisinal now made up just 5 percent of French salt production. From a global standpoint, the competition around salt was fierce: fully industrialized table salt production from other European countries and from Algeria, Russia, and South America meant that the salt from the White Land was becoming a rare luxury. Apparently the outlook was tough, the passionate Breton paludiers were not starving—thanks in part to certain subsidies—but they weren’t in an easy profession. There were some typical Lilou Breval–style barbs aimed at the large manufacturers from the South of France. Overall it was a very emotional article, however, that proudly celebrated the “marvelous ancient art of creating white gold” and demanded people banish all other kinds of salt from truly Breton kitchens. Two paludiers were quoted, the head of the largest cooperative, and the manager of the Centre du Sel. It occurred to Dupin that his notebook was still in his car—the replacement car—in the glove compartment (along with quite a lot of other stuff). It was one of the little red Clairefontaine notebooks that he had used since his training days for his extremely idiosyncratic “scribbles.” The notebook and the notes were indispensable to him during cases. It wasn’t just because of his sometimes terrible, or, rather, “selective” memory; this was his method. Or at least a sort of method. He would never have used that word. Commissaire Rose, on the other hand, didn’t seem to need to make any notes.
“Guy Jaffrezic, Juliette Bourgiot.” Dupin recited the names quoted in the article out loud to himself, committing them to memory. “An informative article,” he added.
“At least we now know for sure that your friend was involved with the salt marshes.”
“That was a year ago.”
“And we know who she was in touch with in Gwenn Rann. These two people at least. Perhaps we’ll find a more recent article about the salt marshes.”
Commissaire Rose turned back to the piles. As devastating as it was and as vague as it all seemed, these were their very first leads.
* * *
Commissaire Rose pulled the car door shut with some force. It was a quarter to three. They had stayed in Lilou Breval’s house for an hour, taking a look at the rest of the papers in the study before finishing by walking through all of the rooms again.
They hadn’t found anything else relevant. Or any more articles about the salt marshes. There seemed to be only one. And as far as they could tell, there were no links to the salt marshes or anything to do with salt in the other articles.
They hadn’t found any clues to support any theory other than that Lilou Breval was planning to spend the night elsewhere. Yet Dupin was becoming more and more concerned, albeit in a general way. He had tried Lilou’s mobile a few more times, but there was no answer.
Commissaire Rose had gone into the garden three times and made some calls too. Dupin called Riwal but he didn’t have anything new to say apart from asking whether the commissaire would mind if he drove to a second cousin’s house in Bono and got some sleep there. Dupin didn’t have much interest in sleep during a case. Or even in general. But he couldn’t think what else they could do at this point.
“We’ve got three hours,” Commissaire Rose said as she groped around on the side of her seat and tilted the chair back a bit. She looked like she was making herself comfortable.
“Let’s rest a little. Then drive back to the salt marshes. It starts to get brighter around half past six so I want to be there then. I’ll drop you off back at your car and then I’m going to open my investigation.”
She looked at Dupin in a friendly way; always, or so it seemed to him, with the message: it’s nothing personal. This time—although he tried with all his strength—he couldn’t hold back.
“I was almost shot dead, I’m personally involved, I can’t just watch from the sidelines, it’s out of the question, I want…” Dupin faltered. “I mean: you know it would be better if I did the interview with Lilou Breval. She trusts me. She’ll tell me everything she knows.”
“You think she will withhold important information from the police if you’re not present?”
Dupin didn’t answer. There was quite a long pause, Commissaire Rose calmly fiddling around with her seat lever again. She let the seat back farther.
“Have you got through to anyone yet? From the salt marshes?” Dupin said in a pointedly friendly way.
“The head of the cooperative. He’ll be there from seven onward.”
“Does he have any idea what might have happened?”
“Not in the slightest, he says.”
It was almost maddening how willingly Commissaire Rose was giving away information. It made Dupin instinctively suspicious.
“And the owner of the salt marshes?”
“You know him?”
“But you’ve already spoken to him?”
“Yes. He lives in La Roche-Bernard, on the Vilaine. Around twenty-five minutes from the salt marshes. That’s where we got hold of him.”
“And he didn’t know anything either?”
“Not a thing.”
“What about the barrels?”
“There are no barrels in the salt marshes, according to him. We haven’t been able to get through to the head of the Centre du Sel yet. The day starts early at the salt marshes during the summer months, before the sun even comes up. With the first of the morning light.” She sounded almost poetic for a moment. “I’ll speak to everyone face-to-face on site.”
Dupin thought there was something smug about the suddenly very detailed information about operations he was no longer allowed to be a part of.
“Now let’s get some sleep.” She was absolutely serious about this. Dupin hadn’t given it any thought because he had assumed she was joking.
“You want to sleep here? In the car?”
“By the time I’d have booked you into a hotel and dropped you off there, it would be four o’clock. This isn’t Paris. So I would have had to pick you up again more or less right away.”
That may well have been true. But it was still odd.
“You ought to get some sleep too. There’s absolutely nothing we can do for the next three hours. You’ve been shot. Some sleep will do you good. Have you never spent a night in a car while you’re on duty?”
With some effort, Dupin bit his tongue.
There really was nothing they could do for now. And it would be sensible to rest a little to regain some strength. But he was reluctant. Not just because he was a terrible sleeper anyway—even under normal circumstances he lay awake all night sometimes—but now, with all of the pressing thoughts and questions in his head, it would be virtually impossible to sleep. It was a ridiculous notion. Especially with the pains in his shoulder that, despite the painkillers, he noticed again as soon as he wasn’t otherwise occupied. And above all: there was a stranger fifty centimeters away from him.
Dupin decided to take a walk in the fresh night air. It always helped. To marshal his thoughts. To reflect on what had happened. And to relax properly.
“I’m going to go for a little walk,” Dupin said very quietly.
He had just finished speaking when his phone rang. The laborious process of getting it out of his pants pocket took a while. It was Claire. It had occurred to him that she would probably call again. He let it ring. He would call her back very soon. And then he could take his time telling her what had happened.
He opened the car door and got ready to climb out of the seat. He’d had five stitches and he was starting to feel it now. He would need to take another tablet. Dupin leaned back, waited for a moment, and started again.
“Watch out for the kangaroo. It’s wild.”
“What are you—”
Dupin had distinctly heard the word “kangaroo”—but another powerful, sharp pain intervened and he had to stop speaking. He felt an ache all down his left side to his foot and into each toe. He slid back into the seat. Tried to relax. He just had to be patient for a moment. It would get better soon. He breathed deeply in and out.
The car door was wide open. The air was still wonderfully mild. A perfect summer night without a hint of the season’s impending end. Despite the moonlight, the Milky Way shone like a bright ribbon across the sky, flickering and pulsating wildly. Dupin had never seen a more beautiful starry sky than here, in the middle of nowhere, on certain summer nights. Above the vast Atlantic. A billion stars were visible to the naked eye, endless galaxies. It was like looking into the universe’s core. Dupin realized his mind was wandering. It had been a stressful evening. Ludicrous. He would rest now for a minute or two and then take a walk through the night air. He would call Claire, perhaps Riwal again too, to discuss how to proceed tomorrow, he had forgotten earlier, he needed to … He would keep thinking it through now. He …
Dupin had fallen asleep.
It had taken less than two minutes.
Copyright © 2012 by Verlag Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Cologne/Germany
Translation copyright © 2017 by Sorcha McDonagh