Provençal Mystery Series #1
Watch the series! Murder in Provence is now on Britbox.
When local nobleman Étienne de Bremont falls to his death from the family château, it sets the historic town of Aix-en-Provence abuzz with rumors. Antoine Verlaque, the charming chief magistrate of Aix, suspects foul play, and when he discovers that Bremont had been a close friend of Marine Bonnet, his on-again off-again girlfriend, Verlaque must turn to her for help.
The once idyllic town suddenly seems filled with people who scould have benefited from Bremont's death—including his playboy brother François, who's heavily in debt and mixed up with some unsavory characters. But just as Verlaque and Bonnet are narrowing down their list of suspects, another death occurs. And this time, there can be no doubt—it's murder.
A lively mystery steeped in the enticing atmosphere of the south of France and seasoned with romance as rich as the French cuisine that inspires it, this first installment in the acclaimed Verlaque & Bonnet Provençal Mystery series is as addictive and captivating as Provence itself.
“Longworth’s voice is like a rich vintage of sparkling Dorothy Sayers and grounded Donna Leon. . . . Bon appétit!” —Booklist
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APRIL 17, 12:05 A.M.
The attic light was burnt out. He’d talk to Jean-Claude tomorrow. Étienne sensed that the caretaker had never really liked him, or perhaps his coolness was out of respect for their difference in class; Jean-Claude was polite but never looked his employer in the eye. They had easily avoided each other while Étienne’s parents were still alive, but as Étienne was now the only Bremont living in Aix, the château’s enormous upkeep required that owner and caretaker have more frequent contact. Jean-Claude was a huge man but clumsy. His size had never caused Étienne much worry, but there was something in the way Jean-Claude looked at him sometimes that made him uneasy. Étienne de Bremont had recently found himself fascinated by the caretaker’s enormous hands, which would lie stiffly at his sides as he received his employer’s blunt instructions; after a few seconds his fat fingers would slowly, and then quickly, begin to twitch, as if they were waiting for messages from the brain that would call them into action. At any rate, the fingers seemed to be thinking ahead of the slow, still hands.
Luckily Étienne had brought a flashlight with him, out of habit. There was always a burnt-out lightbulb somewhere in the crumbling château—a home that no one lived in, more trouble than it was worth. He shone the light around the dusty room, one of the only rooms of the twenty-odd that brought him some good memories. His first ten-speed bike was propped up in a corner: it had taken him downhill into Aix-en-Provence in forty-five minutes, the return trip took almost double that. He was fit then, and still was, considering in five years he would be forty.
Next to the bike, a rosary hung on the post of a nineteenth-century iron bed, as it always had, and he thought of her laughing face and green eyes. He missed her, but it wouldn’t do to call. Their lives were too different, their friends too different. Especially their friends.
There was a full moon that night, and Étienne walked over to the window. It was covered by a wooden shutter a meter wide and two meters tall. He swung it open, careful to latch it against the stone wall with his left hand as he held on tightly to the inner wall with his right. The window was open to the elements: years ago the hay had been brought in through this opening for the winter. They had never bothered to put glass in the window. Each Bremont family member learned, as soon as they were tall enough to be able to reach the wrought-iron latch, how to open the window without falling out. The moonlight now filled up the room and would give him enough illumination to read what he had come for. The Louis Vuitton suitcase was on the floor near his right foot, and he picked it up and set it on the wooden dresser that was filled with moth-eaten blankets. The lock on the suitcase had been opened, probably by his brother, François. He quickly opened the suitcase and grabbed the first papers that lay on top, flipping hurriedly through the documents. He didn’t understand why he suddenly felt so rushed—Jean-Claude was gone, an hour and a half away, until tomorrow—but he was anxious all the same and couldn’t stop his hands from shaking. The lawyers’ and notaries’ documents were handwritten, in the graceful script he and his brother were taught to use in the first grade, with fountain pens his father had bought at Michel on the cours Mirabeau. The papers were out of order, and mixed in with the legal documents were odd bits of paper that characterized his noble family’s disregard for money, for filing, and for organization in general. Receipts had been kept in flour tins; hundred-franc bills were dropped or hidden under the library’s faded Persian carpet; the electricity and telephone companies had to call regularly because of late payments, but they never dared to cut off the château’s power.
He began separating the papers, dividing twenty-year-old bank statements and shopping lists from important legal documents. He laughed as he picked up a yellowed receipt from Aix’s best pâtisserie, still in operation, with a fourth-generation chef doing the baking. The receipt was for two brioches, which could have been for him and François, or Marine, except that it dated from the 1950s, years before any of them had been born. He held the receipt in his hands, calming down a bit and allowing himself to think again of Marine and their friendly preadolescent arguments over the merits of brioches versus croissants, or the chocolate powder Banania versus Quik. She could always outargue him.
Étienne de Bremont’s smile froze when he heard the château’s front door open. Instinct told him to stand closer to the wall, partly hiding his thin frame in the shadows. He took off his reading glasses and rested them inside his V-neck sweater. Footsteps quickly ran up the first flight of stairs, and then down the hall and up the second flight, down the next hall and up the last set of stairs, these narrower and wooden rather than stone. Holding his breath, Étienne reasoned that the footsteps probably belonged to Jean-Claude, who must have gotten it into his head that he couldn’t possibly spend a night away from the château. His stupid plants would miss him too much. When the attic door opened, Étienne pointed his flashlight at the figure in the doorway; he sighed and said, “What are you doing here?”
The shutter rattled intermittently against the stone wall as Étienne spoke to his uninvited visitor; a strong wind had begun to blow, carrying their voices out the open window, over the pine trees, and up the hill toward the field of lavender.
As the wind grew louder so did their voices, now tinged with anger. Étienne, oddly enjoying the insults, imagined that he could smell lavender. He was getting bored with this exchange. For a split second, he turned his face toward the open window, in order to inhale the night breeze, and as he turned back around, he heard a rushing sound on the attic’s wooden floor and felt hands on his chest. The mistral blew around his body as he fell. He looked up at the attic window and saw the faint light from his flashlight, and he heard the wind, not whistling, but groaning. Even in the few seconds before his death, all Étienne de Bremont could think of were those two brioches and how he had always preferred brioches to croissants.
APRIL 17, 5:30 P.M.
Verlaque stood in front of the caretaker’s house. It was a medieval cottage; its thick walls made of a golden, rough-hewed stone that glowed in the late afternoon light. The windows were small, to keep out the summer heat, and their wooden shutters were painted a faded gray-blue. Behind Verlaque loomed the mountain. He remembered what Paul Cézanne had said of the montagne Sainte-Victoire—that he could move his easel half a meter and see a totally different mountain. Verlaque tried it now, shifting his heavy body slightly to the right. It worked. The spiky top of one of the mountain’s many limestone knobs—its south flank resembled a dinosaur’s back—came into view. A shadow suddenly floated across the peak, and its color changed from dusty rose to gray.
He turned back around and looked at the château, not really a château but a bastide—a country home built by Aix-en-Provence’s wealthy seventeenth-century citizens, who every July would leave their downtown mansions and make their way, servants in tow, to the cooler countryside. It was cold up here—although less than ten kilometers from Aix, Saint-Antonin was five hundred meters above sea level—and Verlaque realized that he had left his jacket in the car.
The bastide, like the cottage, was built of golden stone, but this stone had been smoothly cut. Giant yellow-and-green-glazed earthenware pots, now chipped and cracked, lined the pebbled walk that led to the front door. He noticed that despite the poor shape of the pots, each one contained a healthy oleander, not yet in bloom. Another pebbled walk, lined on either side with rows of lavender, cut across a manicured lawn and led down to a centuries-old ornamental pool. Verlaque walked down the path, aware of his newly acquired kilos and his stomach pushing against his Italian leather belt—living alone didn’t mean that he now ate less, as he imagined other bachelors did after a breakup. He sighed and promised himself that he would start running tomorrow, trying to think where his trainers might be. “Trainers,” he said aloud in English, and smiled. His English grandmother had called them “trainers,” and his French grandmother wouldn’t let him leave the house with them on. “Seulement pour le tennis,” she would say.
The pool’s water was green and murky and covered with leaves that had fallen from the plane trees that towered above it. At the far end was a fountain made from the bright orange and yellow marble that came from the mountain. It was in the shape of a lion’s head whose mouth spewed water into the pool. When he first came to Provence, Verlaque didn’t like the mont Sainte-Victoire marble—he thought it too bright, almost kitsch—but now he loved it. Marine’s bathroom sink was made of the same marble. He reached down and put his hand under the running water and thought of some lines from a Philip Larkin poem, his preferred grandmother’s preferred poet: “I put my mouth / Close to running water: / Flow north, flow south, / It will not matter, / It is not love you will find.” He had found love with Marine, but not contentment, and so he let the love go. His past was too difficult to explain to Marine, and the more she tried to get Verlaque to talk about it, the more he withdrew. It was easier to be on his own, in his loft, with his books and paintings and cigars. They hadn’t spoken for over six months now.
“Monsieur le Juge!” cried a voice from the cottage. The caretaker was standing in the doorframe, his height and breadth filling it completely. “The coffee is ready!” Verlaque walked toward the cottage, at the same time slipping his hand into his pocket and turning on a tape recorder.
He tried not to shiver as he stood in the chilly kitchen. The caretaker, Jean-Claude Auvieux, began to serve coffee for the two of them. Judge Verlaque glanced around the frugally furnished and spotless room, taking time to admire the perfectly preserved flagstone floor. A stove dominated the room—an old burgundy red La Cornue of the sort amateur chefs like Verlaque dreamed about. He would like to have one, with two ovens, at his home in Aix, but then he’d have to redesign his entire flat. He rubbed his big hands together and resisted the temptation to blow on them.
Auvieux turned away from the stove and spoke to Verlaque, as if sensing the judge’s discomfort. “I’m sorry that it is so cold in here. I turned the heat off before I went away this weekend. It’s warm enough during the day, but at night we still need to turn on the heat a bit, non? It will warm up soon.” Auvieux was older than Verlaque, perhaps in his late forties, but his weathered face made him look even older. He was a huge man: tall and wide shouldered, with full lips and big brown eyes. He wore the usual dress for a Provençal in his line of work: blue overalls and a quilted green hunting vest.
“You’ve had a rough Sunday,” said Verlaque, pulling out a wooden chair and sitting down without invitation. “What happened exactly?”
Auvieux looked down at the floor, and then back at Verlaque, whose dark eyes were staring at him. “Well . . . I found the body and called the police straightaway, and then—”
“Were you alone?” Verlaque interrupted. The caretaker froze, “Yes, I was,” he answered. He kicked at some imaginary dust on the floor.
Verlaque sighed and said, “I realize that it must have been a terrible shock when you found Count de Bremont’s body. I don’t know if you were close to the count, but I know that you grew up here, with him and his family. Can you please tell me precisely what you did when you got back from the Var? Be as detailed as possible.”
“I got back to Saint-Antonin around noon today,” answered Auvieux, after a short pause. “Alone. I left my sister’s house in the Var, near Cotignac, around ten thirty.”
“I’ll need your sister’s name and address, for our records,” Verlaque interrupted.
“Fine.” Auvieux swallowed a bit, then breathed in and continued, “I parked my car beside the cottage, to the right of the château. The car is still there. I brought my suitcase inside and then began to prepare a lunch for myself.”
“What exactly?” asked Verlaque.
“My lunch?” Auvieux stared at the judge for a few seconds, trying to understand the line of questioning, and then shrugged. He had long ago given up trying to understand people. Plants were so much easier. Verlaque, in fact, had already noticed a bowl full of strawberries and some thin green asparagus sitting on the counter, waiting for that night’s dinner. When Auvieux opened the fridge to get the milk, Verlaque had quickly taken an inventory: eggs, a half-eaten goat’s cheese, a salami wrapped in plastic, butter, mineral water, and white wine. Just about the same things that were in Verlaque’s fridge at home. Minus the Pol Roger champagne. The caretaker finally answered, “Um, I fried a steak, an entrecôte, and I had a salad, a green salad. Plus two glasses of red wine. I buy the wine in bulk from the cooperative in Puyloubier. It’s not bad, you know.”
Verlaque smiled a warm, genuine smile. He knew that cooperative’s wine, and the caretaker was right—for a wine that cost less than three euros a liter, it really wasn’t bad. “What time did you finish eating?” Verlaque continued.
“Around two o’clock. After lunch I changed into my work clothes, and I took my walk—I like to walk after lunch, even a fifteen-minute walk is beneficial to the health. My sister saw a reportage on it. Fifteen minutes is all you need.”
“Yes, that’s what they say,” Verlaque answered, starting to grow impatient again.
“And so I walked along there,” continued Auvieux, gesturing with his hand toward the château, which could be seen from his kitchen window, “through the olive grove. I took a few minutes to check the trees—I’d cut them back in February. Count de Bremont, that is, Mr. Étienne’s grandfather, used to tell me that the branches should be pruned enough so that one still had a clear view of montagne Sainte-Victoire through the trees.”
At this point the caretaker stopped and looked at the judge, as if waiting for an answer.
“I’ve heard that too,” Verlaque found himself saying. It took him a few seconds to realize that it was Marine who had told him, while clipping the olive tree on her terrace one sunny morning. There wasn’t a view of the mountain from her downtown apartment, but in the early twentieth century there had been glorious views, before the tall apartment buildings were built on the outskirts of Aix, and so the expression had stuck. Verlaque remembered seeing Cézanne’s many studies of the mountain, done from his studio located on a hill north of Aix. Today those views were hidden behind cube-shaped concrete apartment blocks. It seemed fitting to Verlaque that not only could Cézanne’s mountain not be seen from the painter’s studio but the town itself now possessed only two or three small paintings by its famous son—arguably one of the most important painters in the history of art. Verlaque thought about Aix’s small musée Granet, and tried to think if he remembered seeing a Cézanne painting there. The nineteenth-century Aixois had scoffed at the painter’s work, it being too modern for their provincial tastes. The twenty-first century Aixois still had the same conservative taste as their ancestors, Verlaque thought. Despite all the new, and old, money in Aix-en-Provence, today they still lacked the contemporary art galleries and modern restaurants that filled other cities, like Toulouse and Lille.
Verlaque looked out the window toward the château and suddenly asked, “Whose car is that with the Côte d’Azur plates?”
Auvieux leaned down so he could see out the small cottage window. He answered, “It’s an old car of François’s—François is Étienne’s brother—he lives in the Riviera. He and Étienne shared it now. They used the car for odd jobs or for driving into Aix.”
“All right,” Verlaque said. “Continue.” Seeing the bewildered expression on the caretaker’s face, Verlaque added, “You were in the olive grove.”
“Ah, merci. So after about fifteen minutes in the olive grove, I walked behind the château, intending to go up into the pine forest to the south of the house. But just before I headed up the hill, I looked to my left and saw Mr. Étienne’s body lying on the ground.”
“So it was between two fifteen and two thirty. And that’s when you called us?”
“Yes. I looked at the body, of course, but I didn’t touch it—him. I knew he was dead. I ran back to my house and called 18 right away.”
“What time did you leave Saint-Antonin on Friday?” Verlaque asked.
Auvieux sipped a bit of coffee before answering. “I left well before dinner, because my sister was making me a blanquette de veau. I left here at about five o’clock.”
“And you didn’t see anything unusual?”
The caretaker’s body twitched and his eyes widened as he asked, “What do you mean?”
Verlaque noticed Auvieux’s uneasiness. “Well,” he replied, “I know that the police have already asked you if anything was missing. But did you notice anything out of place either before you left for the Var or when you got back?”
“No,” the caretaker slowly replied.
“Have there been any break-ins at the château?”
The caretaker rubbed his hands together fretfully. “Only once, two years ago. Some kids from Marseille, three of them. They tried to break in through one of the shutters in the dining room. I heard the racket they were making and scared them off with my hunting rifle. I called Mr. Étienne the next day, and he had someone come out and repair the shutter.”
Verlaque did not ask Auvieux how he knew that the kids were from Marseille, but he could guess that the color of their skin had something to do with it.
As Verlaque got up to leave, he gestured toward the asparagus and strawberries. “Did you buy those at that roadside fruit stand on the route nationale?”
The guardian, wide eyed, looked at the table and then at Verlaque, and answered, “Yes, on the way home.”
“How is their produce?” Verlaque asked.
“Quite good!” the caretaker exclaimed. “And cheaper than at the market in downtown Aix.”
Verlaque rolled his eyes up to the ceiling. “Yes, it’s funny how the price of an apple at the Aix market is double the price of one in Gardanne.” Gardanne was an old coal-mining town fifteen minutes south of Aix. The mine was closed, but the power plant’s imposing chimney, now fired with coal from China, could be seen south of the highway as one approached Aix. It was an ugly, sinister town, and the buildings, and even some of the inhabitants, looked as if they always had a fine layer of soot shrouding them. Verlaque wasn’t about to do his shopping there. In fact, he wasn’t even sure about the prices—it was just what everyone in Aix said.
Now that they’d had their chat about food, Verlaque asked, “Did you like Étienne de Bremont?”
The caretaker seemed surprised by the question. “He was my boss.”
“But,” the judge continued, “did you like him?”
Auvieux looked down at the floor. “No, sir, to be honest with you. Not very much.”
Verlaque saw that the caretaker was tired and overwhelmed. He finished his coffee and said good-bye, telling Auvieux that a team of policemen was still in the attic, inspecting, and when they had finished they would let him know so that he could lock up. “Should I come with you, Monsieur le Juge?” Auvieux offered.
“No, that won’t be necessary, but thank you.”
Auvieux asked the judge to make sure that his men didn’t leave a mess, and that they turn off all the lights. Verlaque reassured him, and thanked him for his time and the good strong coffee.
As Verlaque walked back to the château, he thought that despite the family’s obvious lack of funds the caretaker Auvieux took great pride in the estate and his work. He wished that some of the civil servants who worked at the Palais de Justice had the same attitude. He hadn’t been the examining magistrate long—less than two years. He had in fact jumped from prosecutor to head district judge in record time and at any extremely young age—he had been thirty-nine years old at the time of his appointment. He was known as being incorruptible and was extremely well spoken—both in French and in English—and outspoken as well. Verlaque made it clear that in his new position he would be taking a hands-on role in the investigations, something examining magistrates were entitled to do, though they seldom took advantage. In July of that year he had been interviewed by various newspapers, including Le Monde and Le Figaro, and his portrait had appeared on the cover of the Marseille edition of L’Express. The oddest piece of publicity had come in the form of a short article in Elle magazine. A black-and-white photograph of the judge had been taken by an extremely popular young Czech photographer living in Paris. The photograph, shot from below, exaggerated Verlaque’s already large shoulders and powerful chest, while disguising his paunch and the fact that he was only five foot eight. His dark brown eyes, almost black, stared directly at the camera; his hair, thick and black and streaked with gray, was—as it always was—disheveled. The photographer had said, “I love your nose, man.” Verlaque, while at law school, played rugby for a club team at Château de Vincennes, and his nose had been broken and was still very crooked. During that game, he had knocked heads with another player in a scrum; that night, while studying a law case, he had the frightening realization that he could only read the bottom half of the text—the upper was black. The impaired vision lasted only a few hours, but it marked the end of his rugby playing. The editors at Elle had obviously not minded the crooked nose. The eventual article ran with the headline “We Surrender!” The sudden fame didn’t suit him well, but the power given to examining magistrates did: the exclusive right to authorize searches and to issue subpoenas and wiretaps, the results of which could be used in criminal proceedings.
He pounded up the château’s stone stairs and could hear some police officers laughing and chatting in the attic. It was a routine job for them—it appeared that the young count had fallen from a window and broken his neck. What Verlaque wanted to know was why Étienne de Bremont had been leaning out of the window in the first place—he had met Bremont a few times and had liked and respected him. He felt that he owed it to the count, and to his wife and children, to thoroughly inspect the place where he met his death. The judge had also detected Jean-Claude Auvieux’s anxiety under questioning: his slow, nervous pauses when asked if anything had been disturbed in the château.
The policemen’s chattering immediately stopped when Verlaque entered the attic. It was late afternoon, and the sunlight shining through the window was fading. “Why hasn’t anyone turned on the lights?” he asked no one in particular.
One of the policemen answered back, “They’re burnt out, sir.”
Verlaque crossed the room and smiled when he saw le commissaire. Verlaque had been away for the past six months—a month in Luxembourg with the European Court, a month’s holiday in England, and a four-month research sabbatical in Paris—and although he had only worked with the commissioner once or twice, Bruno Paulik was one of his favorite colleagues, a no-nonsense man with a thick Midi accent. Paulik was full of contradictions—he was born to farming parents in a small village in the Luberon, was now one of Aix’s best detectives, and was an opera buff. His wife, Hélène, was the head winemaker for a prestigious, privately owned winery north of Aix. Paulik normally took a full-week’s holiday during the Aix opera festival, and his nine-year-old daughter was already an accomplished singer at Aix’s prestigious music conservatory. Paulik was also a former rugby player and, like Verlaque, had an undying love for the game. “Hello, Commissaire,” Verlaque said, holding out his hand.
“Welcome back, sir.” The commissioner’s smile then turned to a perplexed frown. “You haven’t already received the prosecutor’s dossier, have you? She only just left.”
“Simone Levy from Marseille? Is Roussel still away?”
“Yeah, he’s still on holiday, but he’s due back any day.”
Verlaque tried to hide his disappointment at missing the striking prosecutor Levy from Marseille, but also at the news that Roussel, Aix’s prosecutor, would be back soon. “An inquest was formally requested by the family about an hour ago, so here I am.”
“Ah,” Paulik replied. “The widow?”
“Actually, no. Charles and Eric Bley, the deceased’s first cousins.”
“The lawyers Bley? Ah, I didn’t realize they were related to the Bremonts. So did Bremont’s widow cosign the request?”
“No, she refused,” Verlaque answered, raising an eyebrow. He surveyed the room. “Anything?”
“Nothing, Juge,” Paulik answered. “The area in front of the window has recently been swept, the caretaker told me he sweeps and dusts up here often. In fact, we had trouble getting rid of him; he was following me around like a lost sheep.”
Verlaque noticed the broom propped in a corner. “Make sure you get that dusted for prints.”
“I’ve already told them to. So far we haven’t found any signs of a disturbance. The attic door was wide open, and the key to the door was sitting here on this suitcase. We’ve getting the fingerprints off it. The caretaker has given us one of his keys, and I’ve told him not to let anyone in.”
“Good,” said Verlaque, glancing down at the suitcase. It was a vintage Louis Vuitton, probably from the 1930s, with a label from the Ritz Hotel in London still attached to it and the name Comte Philippe de Bremont written in black ink across the tag. Philippe de Bremont would have been the dead man’s grandfather, Verlaque thought—the man the caretaker had spoken of.
“Quite a room isn’t it, sir? They have more stuff in here than I do in my whole house,” Paulik said, looking around the attic and rubbing his bald head at the same time.
“The French nobility aren’t so bad off as they want us to believe, hein?” Verlaque asked, trying to joke. He did not like the police officers to know that he came from money, although it was fairly obvious since not many judges, who were after all civil servants, could afford to drive an antique Porsche and eat out almost every night. But he didn’t come from nobility—far from it.
Paulik didn’t reply but was busy frowning and leaning out of the open window. The commissioner was humming what Verlaque believed to be an opera aria, but Verlaque’s knowledge of opera was embarrassingly nonexistent. Paulik stopped humming and told the other officers they could leave the attic. He then frowned and asked the judge, “Do you think that Bremont could have lost his footing and fallen through that opening?”
Verlaque shook his head back and forth. “Not very possible—he grew up here. He must have opened that window thousands of times. That’s what Eric Bley told me on the phone and why he and his brother asked for the inquest. What’s your theory?”
Paulik considered before answering. “He could have been pushed, but there are no signs of struggle. Or he was taken by surprise—it could have happened in seconds.” Then he added, “If there was a struggle, the mess may have been cleaned up. Suicide?”
“Suicide seems unlikely from what I know of the count, but we’ll need to ask those uncomfortable questions of his family members. Both of the Bleys thought it highly unlikely. Besides, Bremont’s glasses were found next to his body. Wouldn’t you take off your glasses if you were going to jump?” Verlaque asked, and he grabbed his reading glasses, which had been hanging permanently from his neck since he was in his early thirties.
Paulik nodded and replied, “Yeah, I see what you mean. It’s like those suicides on the Mediterranean. The distressed will carefully fold their clothes and leave everything in a neat pile on the shore, and then quietly walk into the sea.”
Both men stayed silent for a few seconds, each one lost in thought. Verlaque then finally said, “As for theft, the caretaker did a thorough check of the château and everything seems to be in place. Talk to him tomorrow and get a second report, just in case. I’ve already talked to him. We’ll need to go visit his sister in the Var. As I understand it, they both grew up here.”
“And the count’s brother?” Paulik asked. Verlaque silently noted that Paulik, as usual, had done his homework before visiting the accident scene.
“François de Bremont is expected tomorrow,” answered the judge. “Let me know as soon as he arrives—he was sailing off the coast of Corsica and will be driving here from Toulon.”
“What about Count de Bremont’s work? Could he have made an enemy during the filming of one of his documentaries?”
Étienne de Bremont had made his name as a filmmaker. He’d shown several documentaries at festivals over the past five years, including one that focused on organized crime in Provence. It was during the production of that film that Verlaque first made his acquaintance.
Verlaque thought of the film and the earnest young man behind the camera. He remembered Étienne de Bremont, from their interviews together, as tall and thin, with jet black hair that always seemed a little greasy. For each of the interviews, Bremont had been wearing one of those safari-type vests that National Geographic photographers seem to prefer. Verlaque thought it was a little curieux, until the interview began and Bremont’s sincere gray eyes didn’t, for a second, leave Verlaque’s face. Bremont had delicately posed his questions to Verlaque, who in turn answered as truthfully as he could without pointing fingers. The director and the judge both knew that high crime in the Marseille area had its origins in Corsica, but there was little either of them could, or was willing, to say. Verlaque had liked the film very much. It was stunningly photographed, in a light so bright that it made the viewer uncomfortable, which Verlaque thought suited the Corsican Mafia and the criminal world in general. The judge’s prejudices about noble gentlemen with no serious professions, only titles, had lessened after his three interviews with Bremont, and especially after seeing the documentary, which had just won an award earlier that year.
He answered Paulik’s question: “It’s possible. Send one of the other officers, perhaps Flamant, to talk to the CEO of the film production company he worked for, Souleiado Films. They’re in a renovated factory in the Belle de Mai neighborhood in Marseille. On second thought, why don’t you head down there yourself tomorrow morning?”
Paulik shook his head. “Sorry, sir. I can’t. I’m testifying in court tomorrow and Tuesday.”
“Merde. All right. Well, it’s not urgent. Later in the week will be fine.”
The two men were jolted out of their respective thoughts when they heard a pair of hurried footsteps on the stairs leading to the attic, and a young officer rushed into the room. Verlaque had seen the red-haired, freckle-faced youth around police headquarters, but his name escaped him.
The young officer let out a long and weary “Putain!” as he mopped his brow with the back of his hand. He then, to his horror, saw his superior officer and the juge d’instruction, and apologized for his six-letter word. “Sorry, Judge, but there’s a bunch of reporters gathering outside the front door.”
“Tell them I’ll be right down to give my statement,” Verlaque told the youngster.
On his way out, the young officer dropped his notebook and pen on the stairs, swearing again as he picked them up. Paulik, trying unsuccessfully to hide his smile, coughed and asked the judge, “What is our statement, sir?”
Verlaque shrugged. “Death from an accidental fall. That’s what the coroner has said, and until I can talk to Bremont’s wife and find out why he was up here on a Saturday night, that’s all we can say.” He then added, “If you’re through in here, we can leave and lock the door.”
The two men locked the attic door and headed downstairs, passing bedrooms that had already been inspected by Paulik and his team. On the ground floor, Verlaque turned to the commissioner before opening the front door and asked, “Are there any rooms in this place that have been used in the past decade?”
“The library, and a first-floor bedroom that has an adjoining bath. That’s about it. The library is through the salon, in the rear of the château.”
“Let’s have a look. The reporters can bloody well wait.” The salon’s furniture was covered, not with fresh white sheets like those that now protected Verlaque’s grandmother’s furniture, but with psychedelic flowered sheets—no doubt itchy polyester, thought Verlaque—that were the rage in France in the 1970s. Verlaque winced when he realized why he hated those sheets—he hadn’t thought of Aude in months—and his mood turned sour.
Double doors opened into the library, its shelves covering two walls. The books were a mixture of leather-bound editions of classics, in French, English, Russian, and German, and thousands of paperbacks, in English and French, most of them murder mysteries and westerns.
“What’s in the desk?” Verlaque asked.
“Almost nothing, sir. Some paper and pencils, tape, a stapler. No documents.”
Verlaque approached the desk. A small collection of silver-framed photographs sat on its polished wooden surface. “This room is spotless, and the silver frames shine. Who cleans this room?”
“The caretaker, sir. I noticed the lack of dust and asked him about it. He told me that he insists on cleaning the library himself, while a young girl from the village comes in to clean the rest of the rooms whenever François de Bremont is in residence, which is only a few times a year and at Christmas.”
Verlaque leaned down and put his reading glasses on. “The old couple in this picture taken in front of the house, they must be the grandparents?”
“Yes, Philippe and Clothilde de Bremont. In the next photo, taken in the 1970s judging by the guy’s wide tie and her hair, are the parents of Étienne and François de Bremont, both dead now as well.”
“And the third photo, the brothers in their teens, perhaps fifteen and seventeen it looks like,” Verlaque stated. “I recognize Étienne de Bremont as the skinny guy on the left. The handsome one with the big shoulders and wide toothy grin looks like a Kennedy. That must be François. And who is the girl in the middle? I thought there were only the two sons.”
“You’re right. There was no mention of a daughter in the report. It must be a cousin or a girlfriend.”
Verlaque leaned in closer to look at the laughing girl, her thick auburn hair a mess, her green eyes sparkling, and a slender freckled arm around each of the boy’s shoulders. Verlaque began to smile, despite himself. “Take a closer look at the girl,” he said to Paulik. “I think we both know her.”
Verlaque looked away from the photograph and walked over to a shelf that held a collection of leather-bound editions of French classics. His eyes glazed over as he scanned the titles, and he realized that he would call her as soon as he could, in fact as soon as he stepped out of this cold old house. She had made him smile and laugh—not many women could do that. He had been comfortable with her. A few nights ago a mutual friend had told him that she was now seeing an overly handsome young doctor, and he felt a pain in his stomach that he had never had in connection with a woman before. At first it had been easy, with work and travel, and his nose buried in law books in Paris for four months, to ignore her absence, and he knew from experience that the desire would, with time, disappear. But instead of forgetting about her, as he had so easily done with other lovers, he found himself thinking of her more and more. The poetry didn’t help, nor did the whiskey. One evening, late, he had walked across town to her apartment and rung the bell, but there was no answer.
“Ah bon?” Paulik too leaned in and looked. “Since you say we both know her, she must still live in Aix,” Paulik said as he looked at the girl. She was laughing despite her picture being taken—and he could almost hear her infectious laugh. Then it clicked. “It’s Professor Bonnet, non?” Marine Bonnet, always one to shake up the conservative law faculty at Aix’s university, loved to invite guest speakers into her classroom, and Verlaque remembered that one of her most well-received guests had been the commissioner. Paulik had enjoyed speaking to her class and thought it hilarious that the law students had gathered around him afterward as if he were a rock star. Verlaque and Marine had also been invited to a dinner hosted by Hélène Paulik’s vintner-boss, and the Pauliks had been briefly present. They left early, Hélène feigning an oncoming flu, though the real reason was Bruno Paulik’s uneasiness about being at a social event with his boss, the examining magistrate.
“Yes, I think it’s Marine. I’m going to phone her and tell her to come up here tomorrow morning. She obviously knows—or knew—the family intimately.”
Paulik raised an eyebrow at the suggestion that a layperson, even a law professor, would be invited to the scene of the accident, but he said nothing. Verlaque noticed his expression and shot the commissaire a look over his reading glasses. “I’m the examining magistrate and can invite whoever the bloody hell I want up here. Now,” he said, changing the conversation, since he realized that he was in a foul mood for other reasons—the flowered sheets. “Let’s deal with the reporters out there. The poor sods have been pulled away from their pastis-filled Sunday barbeques.”
“Yes, sir.” Paulik respected Verlaque and pretended not to hear when other policemen in Aix called him as a snob and an elitist. The judge was thorough and had an encyclopedic knowledge of the law, and although Paulik was very confident in his own knowledge, after each case with Verlaque he came away with new insights. They worked well together, and he knew that the judge felt the same way: Verlaque wasn’t afraid of criminals or of sitting up for hours questioning them, nor was Paulik, whose intimidating physical appearance usually got him respect from the accused. Verlaque didn’t waste time with Paulik, making off-color jokes or referring the women as poulettes. So what if Verlaque drove an expensive car and drank fine wines? But his comment about barbeques was a slight directed at another man’s enjoyment, and Paulik didn’t like it—for he too had been called away from a family lunch in the Luberon, complete with pastis and a barbeque.
The bells at Saint-Jean-de-Malte had already started ringing, as they did each morning at 7:50. In the past the bells served as a warning to churchgoers that they had ten minutes to get to mass. Marine now used them as an alarm to help get herself out of the apartment on time—off to the university or, if she had a late class, to her favorite café.
When the bells had finally stopped their pealing and she was dressed, Marine opened her bedroom windows and a gust of wind blew in, whipping around the room the pages of the newspaper she had been reading. She leaned out and fastened the shutters against the outer stone wall. The wind temporarily died down, and she looked up at the four stone creatures that jutted out from the corners of Saint-Jean-de-Malte’s medieval tower. They hung on to the church by their rear claws, the rest of their bodies reaching out into the sky, poised to spring away from their foundations at any moment. Marine worried about them sometimes—especially during the mistral, which had started blowing in the middle of the night. Eight hundred years of hanging on—and in an instant the gargoyles could be gone, shattered in a heap on the cobbled square below. Satisfied that the stone creatures were safe, Marine noticed that her neighbor across the courtyard had just opened her shutters and windows too. And before Marine could duck out of the way, Philomène Joubert yelled, across the fifty meters that separated them, and through the blowing wind, “Coucou, Mlle Bonnet!” Not waiting for an answer from Marine, Mme Joubert—or Mme Saint-Jean-de-Malte, as Marine secretly called her, for she’d been a member of the church’s choir since Marine was a little girl—continued to yell as she quickly hung her laundry from wires suspended below her apartment windows.
“This wind would blow the hair off a bald man!” Mme Joubert shouted, and then laughed heartily. Marine smiled and waited for the line she knew would come next. “Although it doesn’t blow as much as it used to when I was a girl! I can remember having to be pushed up rue de l’Opéra by my mother—the wind was that strong! But the weather is changing, you know. It’s that climate change they’re calling it! But it will dry our laundry quickly all the same, won’t it, Mademoiselle?” Marine nodded furiously this time and got in an “Ah oui!” But before she could add anything else the old woman had finished her hanging, said good-bye, and popped her head back inside, closing her windows with a well-practiced bang. Mme Joubert had obviously never noticed that Marine seldom hung laundry outside—she had cheated and installed a clothes dryer when she renovated the apartment. She used the excuse that she didn’t have time to hang her laundry, but she hated housework and was too embarrassed to hire a maid. Mme Joubert, on the other hand, was so organized that she did her washing by category. Today was nightgown and pajama day, and there they were: six pairs of men’s cotton pajamas and three or four almost-transparent white nighties, hanging in a row. Tomorrow was what? Maybe tea towel day. Marine had never really been taught how to keep house and believed that while other women all knew the secrets of laundry, wood polishing, and ironing, she was the only one left in the dark. Mme Joubert’s system seemed like an organizational nightmare to Marine. Did she have seven or eight laundry baskets, one for each type of garment?
Marine looked down at the almond tree, which was beginning to flower, and breathed a sigh of relief that she bought the apartment when prices were still reasonable and Aix-en-Provence wasn’t yet known as “the twenty-first arrondissementof Paris.” She had lived here for over ten years. Still, somehow she couldn’t help but associate Antoine Verlaque with the apartment, as if he had been here for ten years as well, and not just one. He’d enjoyed the time he’d spent here, of that she was fairly certain. After six months of dating, he had moved most of his clothes over, although he’d kept his loft on the other side of Aix. And so if the two hadn’t officially lived together, they had shared some wonderful moments in this apartment: the long summer dinners on the terrace, mesmerized by the church’s illuminated steeple, and sitting in front of winter fires in the living room, while Antoine smoked a cigar and they drank Armagnac and argued law—or anything. He used to rub my tummy,she thought, even when we argued.
Marine cursed to herself, out loud this time. She had spent too long looking out onto the courtyard and would now have less time for coffee with Sylvie and other friends at Le Mazarin, their preferred café, named for the elegant eighteenth-century neighborhood she lived in. She grabbed her purse, keys, and briefcase and made for the front door, only to turn around, unplug her cell phone from its charger, and throw it into her purse. Locking the door behind her, she skipped down the three flights of steps to the street below, saying good morning to the street cleaner, Sami, who washed her street every morning at eight fifteen. Sami said hello and then pretended to chase her heels with the water hose, and she ran away giggling. It was their morning routine, and it made both of them laugh every time, and for that she was grateful.
She walked quickly up the rue Frédéric Mistral and paused, as she always did, when she got to the cours Mirabeau, Aix’s celebrated main street. One hundred years ago double rows of plane trees had been planted on both sides of the street, and by summer they would shade the sidewalks and the street itself. But the cours had been in a state of construction, or “deconstruction,” as Sylvie, Marine’s best friend, a photographer and art historian, liked to say. No sooner was the top of the street completed than the workmen would start jackhammering the bottom, and then someone at city hall would change his or her mind and the bottom would be hurriedly finished so the construction team could tear up the newly finished work at the top. This had been going on for four years, and Marine had overheard one American tourist say to her husband, “I just can’t get a good picture of the street from any angle!” Marine wanted to tell the woman that it was a good thing she hadn’t seen the cours this past Christmas, when the city’s new mayor, Yvette Tamain, had allowed a private company—owned by her brother-in-law—to line one side of it with Alsatian-style wooden chalets. It might have been a good idea if the chalets had sold handmade Christmas objects, like at the winter festival in Strasbourg. But instead each chalet was tackier than the next, full of mass-produced objects that could’ve been found at any carnival. Sylvie had been furious, and Marine had had to walk a bit ahead of her, embarrassed at her friend’s loud string of profanities, mostly aimed at the mayor. The showstopper, and where Marine had stopped, openmouthed, and begun to swear as well—although not as loudly or as profanely as Sylvie—was a large, orange, plastic kiddie slide that had been parked at the top of the cours. It completely blocked the view of the fabulous sixteenth-century golden-stone mansion, the Hôtel du Poët. While Sylvie marched off to yell at the proprietors of the plastic slide, Marine walked over and looked up at the statue of King René, Aix’s beloved medieval ruler, smiling and holding a cluster of grapes in his hand, thankfully unaware of the changes the good mayor Tamain was making to his fine city.
This morning the cours seemed strangely quiet: the construction workers had not yet begun their noisy work, and there were fewer cars on the road than usual. Marine ran across the wide avenue, holding down her skirt in the wind, and happy to see her favorite café. Cafés lined the west side of the street, where they received the morning sun, and banks and estate agents occupied the east side—one side gave you pleasure, the other side was interested only in your money. She walked across Le Mazarin’s terrace, pulled open the heavy wooden door, and was greeted by the café’s interior—its burnt ocher walls, the black-and-white tiled floor covered with a light carpet of sawdust, the long wooden bar with its dented copper countertop. Le Mazarin was her morning’s delight, and it had been even when she was with Antoine. She loved the smoky, noisy room that smelled of espresso and was filled with people who wanted to be in the company of others before their day began. To start the day there was, she knew, a pleasure and a privilege, one that could be enjoyed by only those who had flexible schedules or were lucky enough to work in downtown Aix. But today there was something wrong, and she noticed it instantly. Inside, the café was unusually hushed, just as it had been out on the street—the waiters whispered to clients, instead of barking at them, and her friends, already seated at their corner table, weren’t noisily arguing about European politics or the Marseille soccer team.
“What’s going on?” asked Marine, when she got to the table scattered with croissant crumbs, thick porcelain coffee cups, cigarette packages, cell phones, and newspapers. Marine glanced at the table and at her two best friends and smiled. I am lucky,she thought.
“You haven’t heard, then?” replied Jean-Marc, a fellow lawyer. He took Marine’s arm, guiding her to a chair beside his own.
“Heard what?” Marine repeated.
“About Étienne de Bremont,” answered Sylvie, taking a huge drag on her cigarette and looking smug. “Nice hair, by the way.” Marine looked at herself in the mirror on the opposite wall and saw that the mistral had given her hair a vertical touch. She flattened it with her hands, put down her purse, and looked at Sylvie and then at Jean-Marc. “No, I haven’t heard. What is it?” she asked, despite the answer that she feared was coming.
“He’s dead,” whispered Jean-Marc, who seemed to have been chosen as the spokesperson for the morning’s bad news. Sylvie raised her eyebrows to an impossible height, expertly flicked her ash into the ashtray, and crossed her well-toned arms across her breasts.
Jean-Marc continued, leaning even closer to Marine. “He fell from one of Château Bremont’s windows, sometime late Saturday night or early Sunday morning. His body was only found yesterday, when the caretaker came home from a weekend visiting his sister, Colette, Cosette, Yvette—something like that.”
Marine looked toward the large oil painting on the wall, a nineteenth-century portrait of an unknown male sitter. “How horrible, horrible,” were the only words that managed to get out of her mouth. “Cosette,” she suddenly said. “Cosette is the sister’s name.” She hadn’t thought of Étienne in a long time and couldn’t believe that he was dead. She stared down at the grain of the wooden table.
“Had you seen him recently?” asked Sylvie, who hadn’t grown up in Aix but had met Étienne. She loved gossip of this sort, especially bad news.
Excerpted from "Death at the Chateau Bremont"
Copyright © 2011 M. L. Longworth.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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