Luc Ladmiral was awakened shortly after four o'clock Monday morning by a telephone call from Jacques Cottin, the pharmacist in Prévessin. The Romands' house was on fire; their friends should come try to salvage as much of the furniture as possible. When Luc arrived, the firemen were bringing out the bodies. All his life he will remember the sealed gray plastic bags into which they had put the children: too horrible to look at. Florence had simply been covered with a coat. Her face, blackened by the smoke, was unmarked. Smoothing her hair in a desolate gesture of farewell, Luc's fingers encountered something strange. He felt around, carefully tilting the young woman's head to one side, then called over a fireman to show him, at the base of the skull, an open wound. It must have been from a beam that fell on her, the fireman said; part of the attic had collapsed. Luc then clambered into the red truck where the rescuers had placed Jean-Claude, the only one of the family who was still alive. His pulse was weak. He was in pajamas, unconscious, burned yet already as cold as a corpse.
An ambulance arrived and took him away to the closest major hospital, across the border in Geneva. It was dark, chilly, and the jets of water from the fire hoses had drenched everyone. Since there was nothing more to be done at the scene, Luc went into the Cottins' house to dry off. In the yellow light of the kitchen, they listened to the sputtering of the coffee pot, not daring to look at one another. Their hands shook when they raised their cups, and as they stirred their coffee, the spoons made a dreadful racket. Then Luc went home to tell Cécile and the children what had happened. Sophie, their eldest, was Jean-Claude's goddaughter. A few days earlier, as she often did, she had slept over at the Romand's house, and she might very well have slept there again that night and wound up, like her playmates, in a gray plastic bag.
They had been friends ever since medical school in Lyon. They'd gotten married almost at the same time; their children had grown up together. Each knew everything about the other's life -- the public image, but also the secrets, the secrets of honest, reliable men who were all the more vulnerable to temptation. When Jean-Claude had confided in him about an affair, talked about chucking everything, Luc had made him listen to reason: "And you'll do the same for me, when it's my turn to be an ass." A friendship like that is one of the precious things in life, almost as precious as a successful marriage, and Luc had always been certain one day, when they were sixty or seventy years old, they would look back together as from a mountaintop, after all that time, on the road they had traveled: the places where they'd stumbled, almost gotten lost; the ways they'd helped each other, and how, in the end, they'd come through everything. A friend, a true friend, is also a witness, someone whose attention affords you a clearer look at your own life, and for twenty years each of them had unfailingly, without any fuss, played this role for the other. Their lives were very similar, even if they hadn't succeeded in the same way. Jean-Claude had become a leading figure in the world of research, hobnobbing with government ministers, always off at international conferences, while Luc was a general practitioner in Ferney-Voltaire. But Luc wasn't jealous. The only thing that had come between them was an absurd disagreement, during the last few months, regarding their children's school. For some unfathomable reason, Jean-Claude had really gotten on his high horse, so Luc had had to take the first step, saying that they weren't going to quarrel over such a silly thing. The whole business had upset Luc; he and Cécile had talked it over several evenings in a row. How trivial it seemed now! How fragile life is! Only yesterday, there was a close, happy family, people who loved one another, and today -- a boiler accident, charred bodies being taken to the morgue.... His wife and children were everything to Jean-Claude. What would his life be like if he survived?
Luc phoned the emergency room in Geneva: the patient has been placed in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber; the prognosis was guarded.
Luc prayed with Cécile and the children that he would never regain consciousness.
When Luc went to open his office, two policemen were waiting for him. Their questions seemed odd. They wanted to know if the Romands had any known enemies, if they'd been involved in any suspicious activities.... Seeing Luc's astonishment, the police told him the truth. An initial examination of the bodies revealed that the victims had died before the fire, Florence from head injuries inflicted by a blunt instrument, Antoine and Caroline from bullet wounds.
That wasn't all. In Clairvaux-les-Lacs, in the Jura Mountains, Jean-Claude's uncle had been delegated to break the tragic news to the injured man's parents, a frail elderly couple. Accompanied by their doctor, he had gone to see them and found the house locked, the dog mysteriously silent. Worried, the uncle had broken open the door to discover that his brother, his sister-in-law, and the dog lying in their own blood. Like Antoine and Caroline, they had been shot to death.
Murdered. The Romands had been murdered. The word echoed through Luc's brain, stunning him. "Was it a robbery?" he asked, as if that word might reduce the horror of the other one to something rational. The police didn't know yet, but two crimes striking members of the same family fifty miles apart were more likely to be an act of revenge or a settling of accounts. The officers asked again about possible enemies, and Luc, at a loss, shook his head. Enemies? The Romands? Everyone loved them. If they had been killed, it had to have been by people who didn't know them.
The police needed to find out exactly what Jean-Claude did for a living. A doctor, the neighbors said, but he didn't have an office. Luc explained that he was a researcher at the World Health Organization, in Geneva. One of the officers telephoned, asking to speak to someone who worked with Dr. Romand, perhaps his secretary or one of his colleagues. The receptionist did not know any Dr. Romand. When the caller insisted, she connected him to the personnel director, who consulted his files and confirmed that there was no Dr. Romand at WHO.
Then Luc understood and felt hugely relieved. Everything that had happened since four that morning -- Cottin's phone call, the fire, Florence's wound, the gray bags, Jean-Claude lying severely burned in the hyperbaric chamber, and now this business about crimes -- all of it had happened with perfect verisimilitude, an impression of reality that left no room for suspicion, but now, thank God, the scenario was going awry, revealing itself for what it was: a bad dream. He was going to wake up in his bed. He wondered if he would remember everything and if he would dare tell Jean-Claude about it. "I dreamed that your house was on fire, that your wife, your children, your parents were murdered, and that you -- you were in a coma and no one at WHO knew anything about you." Could one say that to a friend, even to one's best friend? The idea occurred to Luc (it would haunt him later on) that in this dream, Jean-Claude served as a double, bringing out into the open Luc's own fears -- of losing his loved ones but also of losing himself, of discovering that behind his social facade he was nothing....
Excerpted by permission of Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Copyright © 2000 by P.O.L. éditeur. Translation copyright © 2000 by Metropolitan Books.