Castang's City

Castang's City

by Nicolas Freeling


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781912194049
Publisher: Ipso Books
Publication date: 06/13/2017
Pages: 322
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 1.25(h) x 9.00(d)

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Major Strasser Has Been Shot

Commissaire Richard had seen Casablanca on late-night television and thought it funny, as one can at fifty-seven years old and having had, in the consecrated phrase, 'a good war'. Richard as a young aspirant officer in La Rochelle had climbed aboard a fishing-boat and joined The General in London.

He liked to quote bits from time to time. The most successful beyond doubt had been a moment when the mayor, much flown after a good lunch and happy to be gambling on a certainty, mayors do from time to time, clapped him jovially on the back (a thing Richard detested).

"Commissaire, I bet you – I bet you ten thousand francs ..."

"Make it five: I'm only a poor corrupt police official."

The mayor, disconcerted at such bluntness, had been vexed and had to have the joke explained.

In the offices of the Police Judiciaire to say 'Round up the usual suspects' was a corny synonym for 'Do nothing at all'. One had to be careful, for Richard had several ways of delivering the line: like Sloppy in Dickens he could 'do the police in different voices'.

He put the phone down and said it in an entirely new voice, so that even Lasserre knew better than to go ho-ho.

"You push your red button," Richard said to him. Lasserre was a Commissaire too, though a more junior kind. He was the sous-chef, the Chief of Staff, the Co-ordinator. The phrase meant a general alert, to the urban police as well as the PJ: to the gendarmerie who have authority outside city limits and come under the Defence not Interior Ministry. Even the CRS, the Auxiliaries. Their uniform is dark blue but to Richard they were known naughtily as 'The Black and Tans'. Road-blocks: check-points: machine-guns: Would-you-please-open-your-luggage-compartment.

What the hell had happened? A terrorist attack?

"Castang, get two boys, my car, wait outside. I shan't be a minute." Lasserre was leaping for the levers of command, turning while you watched into the Foreign Legion Sergeant from Dayton, Ohio, about to snarl "Move your chicken ass."

The car was a big Citroën, the best they had. Orthez, the best driver they had, got into the front, Castang with young Lucciani in the back. Castang was a Divisional Inspector, a middle-rank officer, superior to the other two.

Richard came out tidy and unhurried. Blue and white checked shirt, dark red tie; his accustomed country-club look. "Cours La Reine," he said. "Opposite the Opera." Orthez made a spectacular U-turn. "Etienne Marcel," very deliberately, "has been shot. That is all I know at present." Well ... Anybody less like Major Strasser – or come to that looking less like Conrad Veldt – was scarcely imaginable, but Castang knew what he meant. Marcel – always called Marcel, and by everyone who claimed to be friends with him, which was almost everyone called Etienne – was a municipal Councillor, an adjunct Mayor and a great deal else. All that red-button stuff was now explained. Orthez turned the Priority signal on, Pim-pam, Pim-pam, and went majestically through a red light.

It was a day in early May. Everybody had been complaining as usual about the weather, which had been unusually cold and spilling rain. It was late afternoon: the sun was out between showers, beginning now to get some warmth in it. A French city of some three hundred thousand souls. Neither truly north nor of the south. An Atlantic climate when the west wind blows, which it does a lot; central-European in easterly weather: cold winters and hot summers.

Castang liked every sort of weather. He liked this; the young growth of trees, bushes fresh and moist, the whole town for once smelling wonderful. The planes were in leaf, the chestnuts in flower, so that what he would remember first would always be the myriads of sodden blossoms under foot, the white and pink turning to pale tobacco colour; and everywhere the powerful scent of rain and springtime. He was wearing an old camel pullover, but a prudent man, he had his trench coat in the car, and one of his mildly eccentric hats.

The Cours La Reine is a creation of eighteenth-century town-planning (the reine is Marie Leczinska, Louis Quinze's plain, patient, and pious Polish wife). Double avenue, with broad pedestrian alley down the middle: six rows in all of pruned trees and underfoot a vile gravel, muddy in wet weather, dusty the moment it was dry. Crammed with parked cars for a generation: the municipality, creakingly, moving towards banning them and planting grass and flowerbeds, thirty years late as usual.

The place was still full of cars claiming privilege: France has a terrible number of privileged persons. Regulations are for the poor. The end of the alley, with a nice formal garden in front, is the old Palace of the Dukes, now the Préfecture. Along the sides are big buildings – many beautiful, others merely pompous. The Banque de France and the Opera, the Seat of the Military Governor and museums where nobody ever goes.

Up at the other end the avenues degenerate into mere streets and here is the commercial centre of the town with banks, insurance companies and the palaces of industry.

Orthez had to push the car slowly through a mill of sightseers arriving faster than cops did, the bush telegraph functioning as usual better than electronics. Cops, growing irritable, had stopped saying 'Dégagez' and 'Circulez' and were beginning to link arms to heave back masses of morbid flesh anxious to see more morbid flesh: there was nothing much to see. Castang was aware that he had been brought to use his eyes. Richard would have, simply, too many distractions to be able to concentrate – and yes, there came the mayor with his television face on, saying "My poor Etienne – a friend for twenty years. Shocking, quite shocking." Yes, he meant it, it was all true, it was all sincere. But professional, inevitably. The press had arrived as soon as the police, plus a gaudily painted station-wagon from regional television: already one chap was flourishing a hand-held camera, and three more with microphones. And has there been such a crowd since the last state visit? An acutely public performance for a thoroughly public figure.

The very publicness of it all had created a small but distinct area of privacy within a nervous ring of exasperated constabulary quarrelling with some half-dozen persons who had cars parked on the alley and were complaining that Time was Money. "Everything is to stay as it is" repeated the police meaninglessly. Yes.

"Lucciani, get the number plates, names and addresses. Witnesses, Orthez, try to find who saw the body first. Let's get to this body."

The body lay between Marcel's car, a typically flamboyant Porsche, white with black this-and-that, and a humble pale-blue car belonging to the principal eyewitness, a young woman torn between shock and voluble self-importance, at present held in check by a young urban cop who had taken his képi off to mop the sweaty brow, terrified of doing something wrong. Castang looked at the car. There'd been a right fusillade, big holes in the bodywork. Identité Judiciaire would be here any moment, but that was big artillery, Blazing-Colts stuff, forty-four or –five calibre, eleven-sixty-threes if you count in millimetres. Maybe two guns, no considered kneecap work there but bang bang bang like Frankie and Johnny. Magazine emptied. The body had been covered with somebody's raincoat, legs sticking out. Castang peeled it off. Medical details were of no importance. Be hit at a closish range by three or four of those and it doesn't matter what they hit or where: massive shock and haemorrhage take you out of the vale of tears while you are still falling down.

A doctor had of course been summoned and there by God he was, telling Richard at the greatest possible length what Richard already knew.

The car keys were on the floor at no great distance, jerked out of his hand by the impact. One or more gunmen had waited by the car. As he bent over to unlock it he got mashed. Had he had his back turned? – the impact might have spun him round. Had the killer known him? – Meaning did you wait by the car to identify him? Or because the unlocking it immobilised him handily for long enough? The killer hadn't been a very good shot. Or with a gun of that calibre he hadn't cared. Or there were two guns and when IJ got the bullets they would know.

Castang felt a presence behind him, unobtrusive but making itself felt, named the Divisional Commissaire and more of his kind. Fabre, the stout professorial Central Commissaire of the urban brigade; the mayor with a graveside look. The man's misfortune was that in a moment of genuine emotion he would always look insincere.

Castang got up off his knee and dusted it. The damp gravel clung. A gunman might well have left a recognisable footprint, but it would be long gone beneath the tramplings of populace.

"Orthez, get this ground completely free and sweep it. The cartridge cases and whatever you can find. Things get trodden in: get one of those treasure-hunting gadgets. The angle and the distance is going to be difficult, unless this lady of yours actually saw the gunman."

"I've told this gentleman –"

"I'm afraid you'll have to come back with us. You might have a lot more to tell than you realise."

"But the Banque de France ... And my boss will be ..."

"Monsieur Lucciani here will go with you and explain. We want that car, Orthez. Will it start? – Here are the keys."

"Get all this mob off this ground," said Richard's voice.

"I've given the order."

"Well, see it's enforced. And see that photographer doesn't forget the angle of the sun this time – fellow to my mind had the light in his eyes."

Detail, a great deal of detail. The car wouldn't start either. As well as Etienne Marcel, a perfectly good Porsche had got itself assassinated. The technical squad went on working till well after six. Buses, when again able to make their way down the Cours La Reirie, crawled at foot pace with everyone hanging out of the window. Till night fell a football-size crowd eddied and clung like bees swarming, changing and eventually moving, but constant in number.

The whole city wanted to see where Etienne Marcel got shot. Quite a lot of people brought flowers and cast them on the spot where all the blood in a robustly-built man had leaked out on to the gravel. The police were patient about this.

As night fell, it began spotting again with rain. Heavy clouds gathered blackly as though in civic mourning. The national television news at eight had a long section on this coldblooded and dastardly killing in our midst that must surely be the work of extremists. Whether extreme right-wing or extreme left was at present unclear but extreme, very. Castang saw small opportunity of getting home before late, and phoned to tell his wife.


A Servant of the State

Henri Castang. Quite a common French name. In the South generally spelt Castaing, pronounced with a flat American a and a nasal n. Etymology – vaguely, something to do with the Latin for chestnuts; up to modern times an important, even essential food-supply for the people in the poorer areas of central France. He was by birth a Parisian, which meant nothing. He didn't have any family history. More of a small bullet-headed Gaul than a bony longheaded Frank, which meant nothing either. Blood from anywhere in the Mediterranean basin and probably, he thought, Iberian. There wasn't anything especially Latin about him, certainly not in a conventional sense of excitable, volatile, explosive. Vera, his wife, who was Slav, said indeed that he was a northerner by nature, and called him The Aquitainian Bastard: when pressed to explain this talked vaguely about Normans. The fact is that France is a melting-pot. The French have nothing in common, said Castang gloomily, save vanity, avarice and the mania for centralisation. His detestation for the State grew year by year but he had not allowed it to become cynicism. The State paid him; he was a servant. There was much he disliked about that, but one had to keep things simple. France is not Argentina. No, agreed Vera, and it's not Czechoslovakia either. Just that things do close in rather. But Vera, almost full-term pregnant with a first child at nearly thirty, while he was quite a long way over thirty, thought a lot about the future of the world.

He had stayed on the scene till six. This was one job that had better be well done. Make a mess of this, and you're the navigating officer that hit a rock in the Brest Estuary, and found himself commanding paper-clips at the Recruitment Depôt in Bourges.

He didn't do anything very spectacular. Found nine cartridge cases, and a good notion where seven bullets had gone: found an eighth in a tree, shortly before leaving. His mine-detector thing supplied by the fire-brigade had also turned up a lot of petty cash, several false teeth, assorted jewellery, a handsome nineteen-thirty model fountain-pen, and nineteenth-century antiquities of unguessable purpose and small aesthetic value. Nothing significant, though a lot of police time would get wasted on parking-tickets, shopping-lists and cashiers' receipts. The body had got taken to the mortuary, the car towed to the police parking lot. Clothes, contents, and contents-of-car stowed away in plastic bags, but no clue that pointed to anything. No handy menacing letters, assignations or whatnot.

The best thing he had done was turn up two witnesses. One was a young man in the cashier's office at the opera. Monsieur Marcel had picked up two complimentary tickets for friends. But this young man had run out earlier, for a woman who had bought tickets, paid for them, and then left them absent-mindedly on the ledge: he'd pursued her, overtaken her as she drove off, and noticed a man leaning on a car, smoking. Woman had been profuse in talkative thanks and he hadn't really noticed the man. A man smoking ... The other was a taxi-driver who'd been reading a comic while parked in the rank further along. He'd heard shots, jumped out, seen a man running. Man jumped into an already-moving car. He'd jumped back into his own car, laudably, to give chase. But the two avenues were one-way streets like an autoroute, and he was parked facing the wrong way. He'd reversed back down to the corner but the fellow was long gone: not a chance. Man seen running, tallish, brownish. Hair short rather than long. Dark glasses. Short bloused jacket or might be a pullover, dark green, brownish or beige trousers. Wearing some kind of cap with a peak. Way he ran – youngish man; he'd say around twenty-five. Sorry, can't do better. Car – easy: this year's pale green Simca, Chrysler job. Clean, polished. Accelerates well, that thing; lost no time. Driver had been on his side but sorry, he'd not noticed the driver. Long hair but whether man or woman couldn't say. Fellow running had jumped into an already moving car and whizz, off he was. Apart from telling Lasserre to persecute anyone in a green Chrysler there was little Castang could do. It was easy enough to reconstruct. When the smoking man – same man, little doubt of that, brown with a green top – saw Marcel approaching, he'd given the signal to a confederate to start the motor and have the car moving slowly along the parking lot, as though looking for a gap.

He found Richard alone, thinking, which didn't mean sicklied over with a pale cast, but looking as he always did.

"Any use?" he asked.

"Evidence of planning," answered Richard. "Even if we'd got to your green Chrysler earlier it wouldn't have helped. Found empty on the Place de Lattre. Nothing in it of any interest. The plates hadn't been changed. A local car, which Fausta traced effortlessly. The registration office gave us the name and address, she looked in the phone book, the wife was on the line: all simple. The owner left this morning for Paris on the morning plane, will be back this evening, not best pleased."

"Very simple: they wanted a car for a few hours whose theft would be unnoticed. Go to the airport, watch fifty-odd men on to the plane, help yourself to any car you fancy. Is that professional? Anybody who has seen a few films can do as well."

"So all these road blocks ..."

"Precisely, gave us four Arabs forbidden to be in the district. What could one go on? Anybody seeming flustered or incoherent or failing to give a reasonable account of themselves? What's the average none-too-bright cop looking for? Scowling Palestinians with grenades bulging their pockets out? Terrorist girls reaching nervously for their suspiciously large handbags? There are evidently quite a lot of men with greenish shirts and brownish pants, angry this evening at getting home an hour late. The one in question put a jacket on, took his cap off, went peaceably home to the suburbs; very likely never left the town at all. Roadblocks please Prefects, but never catch anyone save a couple of juvenile delinquents. Now how does this strike you?"


Excerpted from "Castang's City"
by .
Copyright © 1980 Nicolas Freeling.
Excerpted by permission of Ipso Books.
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Castang's City 1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
pnorman4345 on LibraryThing 19 days ago
Unbelievable plot. Way too much pompous European sophistication.