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“Echenoz picks out the absurd nuances of pop culture and twists them into a contemporary detective book. . . . A hilarious read.” —Publisher's Weekly
You are Paul Salvador and you're looking for someone. Winter is coming to an end. But you don't want to do the looking by yourself, you don't have much time, and so you contact Jouve.
You could, as usual, arrange to see him on a bench, in a bar, or in the office—yours or his. For a change of pace, you suggest he meet you at the municipal swimming pool at Porte des Lilas. Jouve is glad to oblige.
On the day in question, you are there at the appointed hour, at the appointed place. But the Paul Salvador you are does not usually show up early for his meetings.
Arriving particularly early that day, Salvador first walked around the large black and white building containing five thousand hectoliters of water. Then, following the slight incline of Boulevard Mortier, he passed in front of the gray constructions that bordered the southern face of the pool building and contained five hundred employees of the French counterintelligence services. Salvador took a stroll around that, too, until, not far in the distance, the bells of Notre-Dame des Otages rang the hour.
He and Jouve met in the pool cafeteria, above the grandstands that hung over the lanes, beneath the wide, transparent sun roof. The only people in that area wearing business suits (light gray for Salvador, navy blue for Jouve), they watched the bathers flail about at their feet, observing the women more closely than the men, each establishing a private mental typology of their swimwear: the one- or two-piece kind, bikinis or thongs, models with pleats, smocks, ribbons, even flounces. They hadn't yet begun speaking. Theywaited for their Perrier and lemons.
At the time, Salvador was working for a company that produced TV shows, in charge of entertainment programs and news magazines—entertainment programs and news magazines that Jouve watched every evening with his wife. Salvador, a tall, thin individual of about forty, didn't have a wife. His long pale fingers played with each other constantly, whereas Jouve's hands, more carpenter- or butcher-like, ignored each other, carefully avoided contact, each one ensconced most of the time in one of Jouve's pockets.
Heavy-set, ten years older than Salvador and four inches shorter, Jouve prudently sipped the contents of his glass: the carbonated water and lemon blended with the chlorinated air of the natatorium to gently cleanse his nostrils. "So," he finally said, "who is it this time?" He shook his head when Salvador uttered a woman's name. "Mm, no, I don't think so," he said. "I don't believe I've heard of her."
"Take a look anyway," said Salvador, handing him a ream of press clippings and photos depicting the same young woman, always on the point of departure, with captions mentioning the name Gloria Stella.
Two kinds of photos. On the four-color ones, cut from the glossy pages of weekly magazines, one could see her leaving the stage, or bursting from a Jaguar or a jacuzzi. On the other, slightly more recent ones, in poorly screened black-and-white garnered from the Society pages of the daily press, you could see her exiting a police station, leaving a lawyer's office, or walking down the steps of a courthouse. If the first batch of photos, perfectly lit, abounded in dazzling smiles and triumphant looks, the second was filled with averted eyes behind dark glasses and closed lips, flattened out by the flashbulbs and hastily centered. "Hang on," said Jouve, "wait a moment."
While waiting, Salvador excused himself. On the door to the toilet stalls, amid various propositions, an exasperated felt pen had inscribed NEITHER LORD NOR SWIMMING MASTER! I've got it, said Jouve when Salvador retook his seat in the cafeteria. "Now I recognize her. I remember that story. Whatever happened to that girl?"
"No idea," said Salvador. "Vanished four years ago. I'd like you to handle this for me. It shouldn't be too complicated, should it?"
"Shouldn't be," said Jouve. "We'll have to see."
Soon afterward they headed out on foot toward the city's outer boulevards. "Right," Jouve said. "I'll start a file. It would be good if you could write down for me everything you know about her."
"Of course," said Salvador, pulling another paper from his pocket. "I drew this up for you. I've put down everything I could find on this sheet."
"Nice-looking girl, in any case," Jouve pronounced as he leafed through the photos. "Can I keep them?"
"By all means," said Salvador.
With Jouve, Salvador walked once more past the counterintelligence headquarters, of which only the upper floors were visible behind a protective wall bristling with barbed wire and fixed cameras aimed at the sidewalk. At wide intervals, enameled signs bolted to the wall discouraged people from photographing or filming the area, which enjoyed military classification and bore witness to successive styles of administrative architecture from 1860 to 1960. A tall, skinny metal tower supported a number of antennae directed toward the four corners of the earth, and the only means of ingress was a heavy gateway mounted on rails, through which French vehicles containing vague individuals entered and exited nervously. Two uniformed sentries guarded this gateway, with similarly deterrent expressions and somber appearances, their eyes masked by mirrored shades.
"To tell the truth," Salvador said, "this might not be too easy. We looked around a bit ourselves, but came up with nothing. It's as if she hasn't been in touch with anyone in, as I said, almost four years."
"We'll see," said Jouve. "I'll get somebody on it for you right away. But who?" He wondered. "There's Boccara, who wouldn't be bad; I'll see if he's free. Or else Kastner, maybe. Yeah, better Kastner. Nice guy, and he could handle it just fine. First off, is that the right identity?"
"Excuse me?" said Salvador. "What identity?"
"That, her name," said Jouve, putting his finger on Gloria Stella. "Sounds kind of like a fishing boat, don't you think?"
"Oh, right," said Salvador. "Oh, no, no of course not. But you'll see, I put all that down on the sheet."
Late in the afternoon, Jean-Claude Kastner reached the small industrial zone that gave some preliminary idea of Saint-Brieuc. He parked his car in the lot of a pet food factory, then searched in the glove compartment for an opaque plastic pouch, fastened with Velcro, which he set on his knees without opening right away. First he pressed his eyes, with just the tips of his fingers, but hard, to rid them of the 250 miles of highway.
The pouch contained the documents Salvador had given Jouve the day before yesterday, along with Michelin map number 58, detailing Brittany between Lamballe and Brest. In a fold of the peninsula was slipped a handwritten list of port towns swarming up and down the coast, as well as others further inland, from here to Saint-Pol-de-Leon. According to the first cross-checks that Jouve had done, it was there that the woman might be living—a tall, beautiful intimidating blonde woman photographed in various angles and various climates. Tracing his route for the next few days, Jean-Claude Kastner joined together in red pencil, directly on the road map, the townlets that he would have to visit. Once the latter had been connected by a broken line, as in certain magazine games, the route formed no discernible shape, and Kastner found this vaguely disappointing.
Having refolded these materials into their sheath, he started up and got back on the highway, continuing on to Saint-Brieuc. With his car parked in the center of town near the covered market, Kastner dined on a deluxe couscous at one of the Maghreb restaurants that compete with each other near the old station; then he found a room in an unrated hotel opposite the new one. Gloomily lit by a single overhead bulb, the room was a windowless cube with no television or refrigerator, and no toiletries in the bathroom, since there was no bathroom: in a corner they had simply grafted an elementary shower under a tarnished, foldable plastic device, fragile and leaking. Kastner fell asleep fairly quickly.
He woke up just as quickly two hours later, tossed several times in his bed without managing to fall back asleep, turned on the overhead light, then tried to get back into a sci-fi novel whose ins eluded him even more than its outs. The room was too hot, then too cold, and Kastner alternately shivered and perspired, unable to keep his mind on what he was reading. Taking up his road map again, he reworked the itinerary established in the parking lot: it didn't change very much, but this time the resulting drawing vaguely suggested a sea horse lying on its side. In desperation, he ended up swallowing a sleeping pill, dozing off after twenty minutes.
Incoherent dreams passed through him, concluded by a familiar nightmare. The classic vertigo dream: Kastner clings with all his might to the top of a vertical mass of disjointed girders and rusty crossbars hanging over an abyss. It's a precarious scaffolding with peeling paint, which a strong wind is threatening to knock down. Kastner doesn't dare look at the void below him; he feels his energy flagging and his strength deserting him, knowing full well that he is about to let go. The situation is already very distressing, and normally the dream ends there; it's there that his terror generally wakes him. But not this time. This time Kastner loses his grip and falls, falls into the endless void. He wakes up, drenched, just before hitting the ground.
Ordered for seven o'clock, his breakfast consisted of watery, mass-produced coffee, orangeade, and pastry. Kastner didn't have the stomach to finish it. The sleeping pill had left his mouth dry, cut his strength just like in his dream, along with most of his appetite. He was achy, feverish; his fingers trembled a bit. He proceeded to do a few half-hearted deep kneebends, after which his sweat gave off a chemical odor that persisted after a careful shower, persevering even through the eau de toilette. Then he put on the same clothes as the day before: brown polyester suit over a wine-colored polyester polo shirt. In this way, Kastner was dressed like some salesmen or door-to-door canvassers—professions that he had more or less held in the past, as well as several others that enjoyed a similar level of prestige in the social scale of employment.
All day long, at the wheel of his car, the Michelin road map folded out on the right front seat, Kastner followed the prescribed route. Stopping in each little town, he showed his photos to bartenders, service station managers, tripe butchers, or bakers not yet done in by the large supermarkets. He convinced himself he was being discreet. Kastner said that the woman in the photos was his sister, or sometimes his sister-in-law. Once he got up the nerve to pretend she was his wife, but it bothered him, upset him, and he didn't risk it again. In any case, the small shopkeepers shook their heads and pouted negatively, and so Kastner also canvassed the large supermarkets. But in vain all that day, and all the next.
On the third day it rained, and Kastner got lost. In fact, it rained without really raining; minuscule droplets dotted the windshield—not heavy enough to make it worth using the wipers, not light enough to do without them. The blade smeared the glass instead of washing it. No doubt because of that, while trying to get to a village named Launay-Mal-Nomme, he missed a junction on Route D789, somewhere between Kerpalud and Kervodin, only to find himself smack in the middle of a cluster of anonymous gray houses. He parked on a platform in front of a massive church, with a monument to the dead to the left and a small marine cemetery to the right, which was scarcely more lively: nothing to inspire any joy in the man sitting in his car. He tried to decipher his road map, which by now was more like a rebus. Then he vaguely sought out his name on the monument to the dead, but as usual it was a total loss: only patronyms of local vintage were listed there, which did not include the Kastners.
His glance drifted toward the church, behind which an elderly man no sooner emerged than disappeared; then two minutes later a woman skirted the church door. Kastner, despite all the wrong-way streets in his life, had never liked asking directions of anyone, but this time the ambient dampness, loneliness, and silence led him to lower his window and, as the woman was passing nearby, apologize for bothering her:
"Excuse me," he said, "but I think I've lost my way. I'm looking for an intersection. You wouldn't know anything about an intersection around here, would you?"
The woman was young, slightly stooped: little flat shoes, dull mid-length hair that for lack of better word one would call chestnut brown, large eyeglasses on a small aquiline nose—the whole thing covered in violent makeup and wrapped in a sweat-quit whose halves didn't match. Closed, perhaps fearful expression, nothing attractive, didn't seem mean. She stopped without immediately coming closer, her body leaning to one side under the weight of a bag of groceries. "An intersection," Kastner repeated, "a crossroads."
She appeared at first glance to have no particular ideas on the subject, then not to have very many ideas at all. Doesn't seem all that bright, judged Kastner, slowly repeating himself in a more articulated voice, pressing his finger onto the map that he presented upside down through the lowered window. "Launay-Mal-Nomme," he specified. "That's where I'm going."
"Launay," the woman finally said without looking at the map, "I know it. It's on my way. Wait a minute and I'll tell you."
A pause, then, in a monotonous tone, a succession of first rights and first rights, of lefts before a light, of thirds after the traffic circle, you couldn't miss it; Kastner had quickly stopped following. "Listen," he said to her, "if you're heading that way, I can give you a lift if you like. You can tell me where to go. Get in—if you like." Another pause, then she gave only a small nod; as she walked around the back of the car, she said something about a bus which Kastner didn't understand. She got in, setting the bag down by her feet. It was in her way for the entire ride, but Kastner didn't dare suggest putting it on the backseat.
The ride offered a uniform vista of scattered gray houses, few of which seemed inhabited, a fair number of which were for sale—but who would want them, Kastner wondered, who would want the ones whose narrow windows didn't look out to the sea? Not me. Not really a place for me. I prefer the sun, and anyway, when you get down to it, I don't have any money. On the bloodless facades one could sometimes see traces of water from a flowerpot or hanging laundry, a sign of life that dripped from the wash and irrigated the flowers. Other facades were barely still breathing, bearing the old skins of advertisements painted fifty years before, the ghosts of hernia trusses and phosphatides.
Immobile on her seat, lips almost still, his passenger indicated the route step by step for Kastner—who, ostensibly watching the road, used his peripheral vision to take in the harsh makeup: apple-green eyelids, two violet lines under the eyebrows, two circles of terra-cotta blush on the cheeks, and extraterrestrial garnet-red lipstick. All of it against a rather pale background. His peripheral vision even made out the time on the kind of little wristwatch you can win at a local fair—something-or-other to seven—and spotted a few red traces that flaked on the half moons of chewed fingernails. Upstream from one of them, Kastner thought he identified a wedding band—but no, the object, having turned, was decorated with a cheap little green stone flanked by three brilliants.
They headed on toward Launay-Mal-Nomme; the young woman was now completely silent. To fill that silence a little, Kastner decided to divulge the reasons for his presence. Employed by a small private company, they had dispatched him into the sector with the mission of finding someone. For reasons that weren't clear to him, he specified—probably some miserable matter of debt repayment, as was too often the case. Careful not to touch his passenger, he stretched out his arm toward the glove compartment and pulled out by feel two or three photos of the someone in question. You wouldn't have seen her, by any chance? She was barely listening or didn't understand it all, said no the way she might have said yes; she didn't seem too happy or too stable. Kastner felt a certain sympathy rising in him, not far removed from a vague solidarity.
Around a bend, the young woman pointed her finger (there, I'm getting off there) at a small, isolated house near the road: Kastner braked while downshifting. The house was gray and squat, like so many others in the area, with a small garden on the side. Won over to the wild state, timorous flowers encircled a yellowed palm that, half-dead from cold despite the microclimate, looked like a large janitor's broom that had been planted in the ground and started growing. "It's not too much farther," the young woman said. "Straight ahead about another half mile."
"Thank you," said Kastner. "Thank you very much."
"Thank you," said the young woman. "Can I offer you something to drink?"
"I don't want to impose," said Kastner.
"Oh, come on," she said with a new little smile. Then, as she bent down to get her bag, her left hand seemingly accidentally brushed Kastner's right thigh. Who shuddered imperceptibly. Who then said sure, OK, and parked his car on the verge. "Don't leave your car out here," said the young woman. "I'll open up for you."
"Sure, OK," repeated Kastner, whose auto then crossed through the gate and rounded the house toward a small courtyard that mirrored the garden. Kastner switched off the engine, got out of the car, and slammed the door without taking his keys from the ignition.
The sea was not very far away. Through a side window, in the absence of a clear horizon line, one could almost see it blending with the sky in the waning daylight. Kastner was now sitting in a not overly comfortable wicker armchair, a glass in his hand, piles of brochures at his feet. The furnishings in the living room were rudimentary, mismatched as in the kinds of houses one rents on vacation; a socket hung bulbless from a wire in the middle of the ceiling. After a first glass, Kastner had accepted another, then a third, before the young woman had suggested, given the hour and since he was there, that he stay for dinner. It would be a change from the usual steak and fries swallowed alone and at top speed; he hadn't put up much resistance. They didn't speak much more after that. Kastner heard the woman moving glass and metal objects in the kitchen. The idea—incongruous, immediately dismissed—crossed his mind that he could spend his whole life this way.
While waiting, he took stock of the brochures: always the same magazines in last month's issues, a television guide, the almanac of tides for the current year. Leafing through the latter, he looked for today's date, scarcely familiar with these phenomena. Nonetheless, he seemed to understand that corresponding to today's date, at eleven twenty-four P.M., there would be a record level of high tide. The young woman passed through the living room from time to time, restoring the levels in the glasses until dinner was pronounced ready.
She had prepared only white foods: peeled shrimp, noodles, and plain yogurt, seasoned with sauces in tubes whose colors were no less vivid than her makeup. White wine. As Kastner asked a few questions about her life, she claimed to have worked the previous year in a canning factory, to have lost her job, to be currently unemployed, like a fair number of people in the area (unfortunately that seems to be the case all over, Kastner commiserated gravely), but that she helped out twice a week at a fish market in Ploubazlanec (I worked in fish too, Kastner informed her, without specifying further).
After dinner—rather drunk, to tell the truth—Kastner reeled out a few tortuous phrases from which one could deduce that he found the young woman quite pleasing and that he was, indeed, rather attracted to her. As she smiled while refilling his glass, he judged that the situation was advancing nicely. As she did not pull her hand away from his, he figured it was in the bag. Kissing her voraciously a bit later as he leaned against the door, he was forced to admit that he was having a hard time standing up. Then, with a snicker, his fingers blindly sought an opening in the uncooperative textile; he was starting to get excited when he broke out in a cold sweat. The woman laughed and shook her head; she gently caressed Kastner's cheek before her hand slid down to his neck, against his chest, and when she passed over his belt the man trembled from head to foot and turned pale. Then, although she was still pressed tightly against him, Kastner continued to shake. "What's wrong?" she asked in a low voice. Kastner found it hard to explain. "Come," she said, "let's get some air. It will clear your head."
"OK," said Kastner, "sure."
He hadn't paid much attention to the time passing during dinner. He was surprised that night had already fallen, so black, opaque, and dull, solid as concrete, devoid of stars as if its consistency were blocking out the celestial vault. Far off in the corner a moon just barely hung, reduced to its thinnest shaving. Scarcely out the door, Kastner put his arm around the young woman again and took the liberty, encouraged by the fresh air and the darkness, to explore matters a bit further. She did not seem to mind this development, and so Kastner was pleased. "Wait a minute," she said. "Come—we'll be more comfortable over there."
To get over there, away from the road, they took a dirt path between two artichoke patches. The young woman went ahead while Kastner followed by guesswork, stumbling to the rhythm of the potholes, disoriented by darkness, horniness, and white wine. Unable to see even his feet, the man discovered at the last second that the sea was right there, thirty yards below. You couldn't see it from the top of the cliff he had just reached, but Kastner divined its proximity by its habitual low growl, punctuated with convulsions. Crashing here and there on the rocks, a larger wave exploded like a bass drum, dissipating afterward in shudders of studded cymbal. The woman seemed to be disappearing toward the silhouette of a small blockhouse, the size of a sentry box for two—perfect, stammered Kastner's consciousness.
But an instant later she had vanished behind the pillbox. Kastner reached it, walked around it without finding her. He tried calling out to her, realizing only then that he didn't know her name, and timidly emitted a few exclamations of the hey, hello variety—followed by a prolonged euhh for his own benefit, bending toward the sea but leaning with one hand against the sentry box wall.
Then, as he tumbled into the void under the impact of a violent shove, his groan was transformed into a strangled cry, a horrified whimper that stretched out while, in fast motion, the sensations of his last dream rushed toward him. During his fall he barely had time to hope he would wake up again before hitting the ground, but not this time. This time his body would shatter for real against the rocks. Of the man named Kastner only his clothes would remain intact, transformed into a sack of broken bones. Two hours later the tide would rise to take care of them; then its record level would carry them far away from the coast, and six weeks afterward the sea would bring them back, beyond recognition.
That Jean-Claude Kastner should manage, first, to lose his way in a civilized and well-marked region already suggests that he was not the world's sharpest investigator. That he should have to ask directions of a passerby says a lot about his ingenuousness. But that he should not recognize her as the very person he was seeking disqualifies him once and for all. Even if that person had changed a lot.
The fact was, she had completely transformed herself. Judging by the documents they had given him, Kastner had pictured some tall, elegant blonde with interminable legs and high heels, the delicately pitched gait of a tightrope walker, and a clear gaze sloping gently down toward him. That was how he had visualized her. That was no longer the case. She no longer fit a single point of the description. On the other hand, it's true that, since the day she had disappeared, things had had plenty of time to evolve.
Copyright © 1998 Peter Schrag. All rights reserved.