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The TWENTY-YEAR Death
By Ariel S. Winter
Hard Case Crime Copyright © 2012 Ariel S. Winter
All right reserved.
Chapter One A Man in the Street
The rain started with no warning. It had been dark for an hour by then, and the night had masked the accumulation of clouds. But once it began, the raindrops fell with such violence that everyone in Verargent felt oppressed.
After forty minutes of constant drumming—it was near eight o'clock, Tuesday, April 4, 1931—the rain eased some, settling into the steady spring rainfall that would continue throughout the night.
The rain's new tenor allowed for other sounds. The baker, on his way to bed for the night, heard the lapping of a large body of water from behind his basement door. He shot back the lock, and rushed downstairs to find nearly two feet of water covering the basement floor. A gushing stream ran down the wall that faced the street.
Appalled, the baker rushed up the stairs calling to his wife. She hurried past him, down the stairs, to see for herself, as he went to the coat rack to retrieve his black rain slicker. This had happened before. Something blocked the gutter at the side of the street, and the water was redirected down their drive, flooding the basement. Somebody in Town Hall would hear from him in the morning.
He opened the front door and went out into the rain just as his wife arrived from the basement. The force of the storm pressed the hood of his slicker over his forehead. He hurried down the drive with his head bowed; rivulets of water formed long v's on the packed earth beneath his feet. Now he'd be up much of the night bailing out the basement, and he had to be up at three-thirty to make the bread. The mayor would hear about this in the morning!
He reached the end of the drive, about twenty-five feet, and looked along the curb towards the opening to the sewer. The streetlamps were not lit, but there appeared to be a person lying in the gutter. The baker cursed all drunks.
"Hey!" he called, approaching the man, who was lying face down. The baker's voice was almost covered by the rain. "Hey, you!" He kicked the man's foot. There was no response. The street was dark. No one else was out in the storm. The houses across the way and along the street were shuttered. He kicked the man again, cursing him. Water still coursed along the drive towards his house.
His schedule was shot; tomorrow was going to be a nightmare. Then he noticed that the drunk's face was buried in the water coursing around his body, and the baker felt the first flicker of panic.
He knelt, soaking his pants leg. The rain felt like pins and needles against his shoulders. Choking back his discomfort, he reached for the drunk's shoulder, and rolled him away from the curb so that he was lying on his back in the street. The drunk's head rolled to the side. His eyes were open; his face was bloated. He was undisturbed by the rain.
The baker jerked back. The concrete thought: He's dead! coincided with a gathering numbness and the uncomfortable beat of his heart in his throat. The baker turned, and hurried back to the house.
His wife, elbows cupped in opposite hands, held herself at the door. "Did you fix it?"
"Call the police," the baker said.
His wife went to the phone stand at the foot of the stairs. "You're dripping on the floor; take off your coat."
"Call the police," the baker said, not explaining himself. "Call the police, call the police."
His wife raised the phone to her ear. "The line's down. It must be the storm."
The baker turned and grabbed the doorknob.
"Where are you going? The basement ..."
"There's a man dead in the street."
The baker lived ten minutes from Town Hall, which was also the police station. Nervous, he avoided looking at the dead man as he turned towards the center of town. The rain was still steady, a static hush over everything that served to both cloud and concentrate the baker's hurried thoughts: A man was dead. The basement was flooded. It was late. A man was dead.
At the police station, he found that it would not have mattered if the phone lines had been operational. Of the three officers on duty, two had been called to assist with an automobile crash before the phone lines had gone down.
"The rain makes the roads treacherous," the remaining officer explained. "People shouldn't be out."
"But the man's dead," the baker insisted, confused that these words had not inspired a flurry of activity.
"We just have to wait for Martin and Arnaud to return."
The baker sat on one of the three wooden chairs that lined the wall between the front door and the counter where the officer sat. Small puddles of water refracted on the tile, tracing the steps the baker had taken since entering the police station. The officer had already taken his name and statement, and now was trying to pass the time, but the baker was unable to focus. He was exhausted.
Martin and Arnaud returned twenty minutes later. They were young men, the fronts of their slickers covered in mud from their recent work at the automobile crash. They glanced at the baker, but ignored him, talking to each other, until the officer on duty interrupted them and explained the baker's situation.
It was decided that Martin would accompany the baker back to his house, while Arnaud would go in the police car to the hospital to retrieve a medic and an ambulance.
Back out in the rain, the men were silent. The streets were still deserted. Even the few late-night cafés and bars at the center of town were closed. Martin and the baker arrived at the baker's house to find the body unmoved. It was still blocking the gutter, still sending water into the baker's home. They stood several feet away in silence, their hands in the pockets of their slickers, their shoulders hunched against the rain.
They only had to wait a minute before a police car followed by an ambulance pulled up in front of the house. The medics jumped out of the ambulance and retrieved a stretcher from the back. Arnaud came to where Martin and the baker were standing.
"We will contact you tomorrow, if we need anything else," Martin said.
The baker watched the medics load the body onto the stretcher and then into the ambulance.
"Somebody needs to fix the drainage," the baker said, his mind clearing some now that the body had been removed.
"You'll have to bring that up with the town in the morning."
"I have to be up early, and my basement is flooded."
The officers were unconcerned.
The baker's heart wasn't really in it.
The ambulance pulled away. One of the officers said, "We'll let you know," but he didn't say what they would let him know. They got back into the police car and pulled away, leaving the street once again empty.
The baker could see that the water was already flowing correctly, draining into the sewer. He turned back up his drive, preparing for a night bailing out the basement.
Inside, his wife came downstairs. "What happened?"
The baker peeled off his dripping coat, and began to roll up the sleeves of his shirt. "Some drunk was taken unexpected."
These were the details as related over breakfast the next morning to Chief Inspector Pelleter by the Verargent chief of police Letreau. Pelleter was in town to hear the testimony of a murderer at the nearby Malniveau Prison. This murderer, Mahossier, was one that Pelleter had arrested several years earlier for a brutal multiple child slaying in which he had kept children in cages in his basement in order to have them fight one another to the death. On two prior occasions, Mahossier had contacted Pelleter, claiming to have information. Pelleter hated to be on call to a convicted criminal, but Mahossier would talk to no one else, and his information had both times proved accurate. Over the course of the previous visits, Pelleter and chief of police Letreau had become friendly.
As they ate, the rain streamed down the café windows, distorting the town square, rendering it invisible.
The café was empty of other customers. The proprietor stood behind the counter with his arms crossed, watching the water run. Two electric wall sconces had been lit in deference to the continued storm.
An automobile passed around the square, its dark form like some kind of lumbering animal, its engine sawing diligently, audible and then gone.
Nobody was out who didn't have to be, and not many people had to be out in Verargent early on a Wednesday morning. The weather had been worse last night. Why would a drunk choose to be out in the rain instead of sitting it out in some bar?
"Tell me about the dead man," Pelleter said.
"We don't know him. None of my men had seen him before, and in a small town like this, you get to know the faces of all the night owls. He had no documents on him, no billfold, no money. Just a drifter. We've sent his fingerprints in to see if there are any matches."
"You get many drifters here?"
Pelleter sat back and retrieved a cigar from his inner coat pocket. He lit it, and blew out a steady stream of smoke.
"Would you go with me to see the baker?" Letreau asked.
Pelleter chewed his cigar. Seeing Pelleter smoking, the proprietor came to clear the plates. The two lawmen waited for him to leave.
"I need to get to Malniveau. Madame Pelleter expects me home."
"It won't be a minute. This is exactly what it looks like, a drifter drowning in a puddle. I just need to be careful, and if I arrive with you, an inspector from the city, if there's anything to know, we'll know it. Benoît will be too scared to hide anything."
The rain continued outside.
"Not that I think he has anything to hide. I just need to be careful."
"Tell me about the baker."
"Benoît? He made the bread we just ate. His father was the baker here before him, but the old man died many years ago. He works seven days a week, and does little outside of his house and his shop. In his domain, he can seem very commanding, but when you see him anywhere else, at the market, at the cinema, he is a small man. My men said he sat last night in the station as though he had been called to the headmaster's office at school. And he's fifteen years older than my oldest officer! His wife works in the bakery too."
Pelleter called the proprietor over to pay, but Letreau told him that it was taken care of.
"I have a tab," he explained, standing.
Pelleter made sure that his cigar had gone out, and then placed it back in his pocket. He took his rain slicker from the standing coat rack just inside the door, and his hat.
Letreau called goodbye to the proprietor, who answered as though he had just been awakened. Fixing his own coat, Letreau said, "I hate to go out in this rain." Then he opened the door, and the sound of the weather doubled in strength, like turning up the radio.
There were more people on the street than it had appeared from the café, but each walked separately with the determination of someone who had places to go. Most walked with hunched shoulders and heads down, but there was the occasional umbrella.
The bronze statue atop the ten-foot concrete column in the center of the square watched the faces of the shops on the north side of the street.
It was cold.
The two men walked in silence. Letreau led, but they walked so close together it would have been impossible to say whether or not Pelleter knew where they were going. They crossed the square, and took the southern of the two roads that entered the square from the west. The buildings here were still a mixture of shops and houses. The baker's shop was on the first floor of a two-story brick building, five storefronts from the square. The words Benoît and Son Bakery were emblazoned on the plate glass window in green and gold paint.
There were several women in the store buying bread for the day, but when Benoît saw the policemen enter, he came out from behind the counter. "Monsieur Letreau! I'm glad you came. This terrible business from last night has my wife very upset. She could hardly sleep. And we have to get up very early. Very early to make the bread. We could hardly sleep."
Despite his loud greeting, the baker looked exhausted, the spaces under his eyes dark and puffy. There was a small patch of light stubble on the left side of his chin at the jaw line where he had missed a spot shaving.
"And my basement is ruined. One day my house will collapse. You'll see. The town must do something about this. Every time that gutter gets clogged, I must spend the next two days bailing out my own house. The worms come through the walls."
The customers conducted their business with Madame Benoît, the women apparently used to the baker's little tirades. As each one left, the sound of the bell hanging from the top of the door mixed with the shush of the rain.
"This is Chief Inspector Pelleter," Letreau said. "He's come to see about this business."
Pelleter was annoyed by the introduction. He could see himself becoming more involved in this investigation than he wanted to be. He moved his lips, but it was unclear what the expression meant.
Benoît stepped in towards the two men. "Is it that serious?" Then he got excited. "Or are you here to inspect our sewers, and solve this problem? I can take you to my house right away. My wife can take care of things here. There's still water in my basement. Let me show you."
"I'm with the Central Police," Pelleter said.
Benoît became grave again. "What happened?"
"Nothing as far as we know," Letreau said. "We just wanted to hear it again from you."
The door opened. The bell tinkled, letting the last customer out. Madame Benoît watched the three men, but she remained behind the counter.
"I was going to bed when I thought to check the basement. As I said, these storms often cause floods. When I saw the water, I rushed out to the street, and found the drunk lying there. We tried to call the police, but the lines were down, so I went to the station myself. It probably caused another two feet of water, leaving that body there like that."
"The men said he was face-up when they got there."
"He had been face-down. I rolled him over to see if he was all right. Then I saw he was dead ..."
"Did you hear anything? See anything?"
Benoît gripped his left hand in his right, rubbing the knuckles. His voice had grown much quieter, almost timid, and he glanced at his wife before looking back at Pelleter. "What was there to hear? Only the rain ... Only the rain ..."
Benoît turned to his wife. "Did you hear anything last night?" he called to her.
She pressed her lips together, and shook her head.
Letreau caught Pelleter's eye, and Pelleter nodded once.
"Okay, Benoît," Letreau said. "That's fine."
"Did ..." Benoît looked at his wife again. "Was ... Did something ... happen? The man was drunk, right?"
"Sure. As far as we know."
Benoît's expression eased slightly at that. He had clearly been shaken very badly by the whole incident, and the idea that something more might have taken place was too much for him.
"Ah, the mop!" he said looking down. "We need the mop."
The door opened, letting in another customer, and before it closed a second new customer snuck in as well. They commented on the terrible weather.
Benoît looked for permission to go, and Letreau said, "Thank you. We'll let you know if we need anything."
Benoît stepped back, his expression even more natural now. He reached one hand out behind him for the mop, which was still several feet away in a corner behind the counter. "Come to my house, and I'll show you the flood. The water was up to here." He indicated just below his knees with his hand.
Pelleter opened the door, and Letreau followed him out into the street.
"What do you think?"
"There's nothing to think."
"I just had to be sure."
Pelleter nodded his approval. Water sloshed off of the brim of his hat.
They began to walk back towards the square. "Come back to the station. I'll drive you to the prison."
They waited for an automobile to pass, and then they crossed the street. The rain had eased some again, but it was still steady. Lights could be seen in the windows of various buildings. It was like a perpetual dusk even though it was still before ten in the morning.
They stepped into the police station through the entrance on the side street beside Town Hall. The station was an open space separated into two sections by a counter. In front of the counter was a small entryway with several chairs. Behind the counter were three desks arranged to just fit the space. Doors led to offices along the back and left-hand wall. Letreau needed to get keys to one of the police cars.
Excerpted from The TWENTY-YEAR Death by Ariel S. Winter Copyright © 2012 by Ariel S. Winter. Excerpted by permission of Hard Case Crime. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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