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The wind was bitter, the night like ink. Ruefully St-Cyr mopped his stinging eyes. Ah Mon Dieu, he ached like hell eighteen hours on the train from Paris. Eighteen instead of four! With Hermann bitching for the past twenty and the cause of the delays ... well, the Boches and their wretched controls, of course, but then some flywheel in the fledgeling Resistance had placed a pocket-bomb on one of the tracks. A minor derailment outside Lyon. A few more hours ...
Hermann gave a savage grunt. 'Heave, Louis, before I get a hernia!'
They were pushing their taxi uphill. They two officers of the law! One a Chief Inspector of the Sûreté Nationale; the other ... well, one from the Gestapo with the rank of a Haupsturmführer. Merely an Inspector, but those guys, they had their chiefs elsewhere. Ah yes. In Paris where it was comfortable. And those chiefs did the ordering these days. Never mind that one was absolutely exhausted from a case and had only just escaped from death with a left hand that was stitched across the back and sore as hell! Never mind that Christmas was only seven days away and that one had not had the benefit of a holiday or a day off in years. Never mind that the wife and little son had only recently been tragically killed or that someone new had miraculously come along to soothe an aching heart. Never mind ...
A sharp stone caused St-Cyr to cry out in pain as he went down. The gazogène, a converted hearse someone had left outside Chalons-sur-Marne during the invasion of June 1940, began to roll backwards.
'Louis!' shouted Kohler, straining.
'A moment, my old one. A moment.' Nom de Jésus-Christ but things were getting off to a bad start! Another murder. Provence this time Friday 18 December 1942, to be exact! Somewhere up in the hills behind Cagnes-sur-Mer, half-way to the other side of the moon!
'She is just ahead,' shouted their driver, the voice one of encouragement, the accent harsh. 'Shot as I have told you, Inspectors, with ...'
'Ja, ja,' grumbled Kohler, 'a crossbow.'
'An antique,' went on their driver. 'Right in the heart, messieurs. Right where the virgin sings best on her wedding night. It went through to lodge in the spine, from sixty metres, no more. The hard, solid thunk! She was trying to pull that thing out of her as she fell. The hooks, they are most certainly barbed and have bent her fractured spine.'
An expert, eh? Angrily St-Cyr threw his shoulder against the rear of the hearse and together, he and Hermann managed to roll it up on to a level spot, a hairpin bend in the road perhaps. It was far too dark to tell.
Hermann jammed a boulder behind the left wheel and impatiently ordered him to do the same.
'Don't get fussy,' swore St-Cyr. 'Me, I hope you do obtain the hernia, my friend, since it will give your latest little pigeon a much needed recuperation and will leave me in peace!'
'To get on with the detective work?' snorted Kohler derisively, as if the French were useless at such things. 'Jesus, Louis, what's with this wind?'
'Nothing. It is just the mistral. It comes and goes. It blows steadily for days, then instantly is gone, so,' he paused, 'why don't we stop discussing the weather and get on with the investigation, eh? Me, I would really like to spend Christmas with Gabrielle in a warm bed.' 'How's the knee?'
'A bitch. That stone ...'
'The left knee?'
'Of course. Always it is the left side that receives the injury. Blood is now presumably mining my new trousers that have already been mined by that last investigation!'
'Then try not to limp too much. It won't look good to these mountain people.'
These peasants St-Cyr knew that was what Hermann meant. He was impressed, for not only had the Bavarian correctly assessed their character, he had also couched his words in most acceptable terms so that their driver would take note and pride in what the Gestapo's detective had said. These mountain people ...
'Louis, what about a fag? I seem to have lost mine.'
'Or run out! Try lighting one in this wind, eh? Besides, I have only my pipe and a small ration left.'
'Cheapskate. I'll remember next time you run out of fuel for that thing in your pocket.'
The Lebel or the pipe? wondered St-Cyr but was too tired to ask. Always there was this problem of the gun, always the need to ask for the permission to shoot or carry, even in situations too dangerous to mention. Ah merde! Why had God seen fit to dump all this on him?
Hermann was a big man, big in the shoulders, a giant with sagging jowls, a storm-trooper's jaw, brutal nose and sad pouches under faded pale blue eyes that so often saw things but seldom let on.
One with the heart and mind of a small-time hustler who both cushioned the Gestapo's blows and kept his little Frog out of trouble. Well, sometimes. 'Forgive me,' said St-Cyr, allowing a touch of servility to enter his voice since their driver was still within earshot. 'Here, Inspector. Please accept my tobacco-pouch and pipe. If I were you, I would not try to roll the cigarette in this wind, no matter how desperate the craving.'
Kohler grunted, 'Piss off!' and they both followed the lantern which, as their driver had now left the road, began to jig and toss itself above the slabby grey rocks and boulders. Immediately there were stunted clumps of sage and mountain thyme, of juniper too, and goat droppings, and though the wind was far too strong to let their individual aromas perfume the air, it carried the mingled pungency of the hills as St-Cyr remembered it.
Though he had to walk with care, still he let himself dwell momentarily on the little farm he had always wanted, the quiet brook with its life-giving spring that would be so absolutely necessary during the long summer droughts. To retire in peace from all the slime, to till the soil and milk the goats ... What soil? his other self demanded, only to hear, Ah, never mind. Mere trifles. Pah! No more crime, no more agonizing over charred little children or girls that have been savagely murdered and then raped.
No more of the Nazis. No more of Hermann? he asked. Hermann was, of course, a former Munich and Berlin detective, a damned good cop when he wanted to be but a bad Nazi, a lousy Gestapo Kohler had no use for or interest in the Third Reich's garbage except when it was prudent or necessary to the investigation. No beatings, no torturing nothing like that. No, they were still free of that sort of thing, thank God. Just ordinary murder, ordinary robbery, extortion and forgery ... so many things.
And these days, all solved at gunfire pace because that was the way the Germans wanted them solved. With Hermann it was always blitzkrieg, blitzkrieg, not just because that was his nature, but because it had to be.
She was lying on her side among the rocks, the knees pulled up a little, the left arm bent and tucked under the body, that hand still clutching the wooden shaft of the iron-tipped bolt that had struck her.
A quiet lady, a woman of some substance well-dressed in a worsted grey-blue suit of pre-war make. Good, stout walking shoes. Pre-war again. Woollen stockings a cameo at the tightly buttoned throat of a ruffled white blouse whose lace collar the wind constantly attended. The hair not grey, not tinted either but the faded memory of a once beautiful ash blonde. 'Young at ...' he began.
'At about your age, Louis. Fifty-two or -three and well preserved. Just where the hell are her coat, hat and gloves? She must have been freezing!'
'A good question, my old one,' said St-Cyr, not taking his eyes off the body to glance for answers at their driver. 'The braided hairdo, Hermann. The crisscrossing into a diadem. That is not common here.'
'Swiss?' asked the Bavarian. 'Or Austrian?'
'Or French ... perhaps Alsatian, eh?' he taunted, seeing as the Nazis had taken what they had thought was theirs: Alsace-Lorraine. But what was it about the corpse that made him feel uneasy? That crushed bit of thyme where someone's shoe had been carelessly placed? That small, burned circle on the downwind side of a limestone slab grey-green with moss, the butt of a small cigar carelessly lying amid the stones?
With difficulty, St-Cyr tore his gaze from her and, pushing the lantern aside, looked steadily up at the stars to smell the wind and hear it rub the earth like sandpaper!
Had it all been deliberate again? The choosing of Hermann and himself to solve what should have been a local affair? Were the SS still out to burn them for matters past? Vouvray perhaps, or the carousel, eh? Or both?
Beyond the stars, God mocked and begged his little detective to climb up there to have a look down at himself poised lonely on this windswept hillside with Hermann as his Gestapo watcher and yet another body.
Fate and God had a way of doing things like that and, as if that were not enough, had provided a hearse as accompaniment!
Sobered by the thought, he was all business when he sought their driver, part Italian, part Greek, Roman, Saracen and Visigoth or Vandal. A tough little man with a wide, bony brow and cheeks that had been hammered out of these mountains and were grizzled with at least four days of whiskers, the scruffy brown moustache speckled with grey and half-frozen spittle, soup or snot. Small rimless glasses and a brown-eyed shiftiness no priest would have admired. 'So, monsieur, the details please. Who found the body, when was it found, who ordered the canvas to cover and then uncover her, and who told you to wait for us at the station?'
Dédou Fratani shrugged as he drew on the cigarette that miraculously clung to his lower lip even when he was facing into the wind.
'Please do not press me, monsieur,' said St-Cyr. 'My partner, here, really is from the Gestapo.'
'I am,' said Kohler, removing the man's fag and flicking it aside. 'Don't piss in your trousers. If you have to take the wiener out, fire it downwind. We don't want to get her wet.'
'Me, I have already relieved myself, monsieur, while you and ... and that "partner" of yours were pushing my gazogène.'
'Your hearse,' breathed Kohler.
'You bastard!' swore St-Cyr, remopping his eyes and mouth, then spitting on the handkerchief to give himself a good wash.
'The hill, messieurs,' began Fratani. 'It is very steep. I did not wish for you to pause on my account. I ...' He looked away because the one from the Gestapo was grinning and had the cruellest of scars down the middle of his left cheek! 'I ... The bladder, it is weak. The guns ... I was at Sedan in 1914 and ... and again in 1940. That is how I have come by the hearse, monsieur. It ... it was sitting at the side of the road. The driver, the undertaker, he had no more use for it. He ...'
Kohler tucked the man's frayed tie under the tattered sweater and brushed the lapels of the stovepipe jacket. 'Sure you were there in fourteen and in forty, eh? And me, my fine, I have heard it all before, so give.'
Kohler ... Kohler of the Kripo, the smallest and most insignificant of the Gestapo's many sections, the ones who were supposed to investigate ordinary crimes. Subordinate and attached to Section IV for convenience.
'I'm waiting,' breathed Kohler.
'And so am I,' said the one called St-Cyr, the one who was much shorter than his friend. Chubby and round of face, but with that broad, bland brow of the determined cop! The thick, wide moustache that was there in defiance of reality and grown perhaps long before the German Führer ever came to power. The hair on the head untidily long for a Parisian and blown about by the wind since he had lost his fedora somewhere and would no doubt insist on finding it.
'But of course, messieurs. Young Bébert Peretti found her after school late on Wednesday when he came to fetch his father's goats from this, the lower pasture of the Perettis and the Borels, who do not speak to each other these days or for the past two hundred years, and so must take turns using it when the abbé says it is time.'
A stonemason's field, thought Kohler, grateful for the insight but curious as to why it had been offered so readily. 'Didn't anyone see anything?'
The man shook his head. 'We were all gathered in the village square to hear our mayor and ... the lieutenant speak to us about ... about the labour brigades.'
'The forced labour for the Reich,' sighed Kohler. 'The maquis, eh?' he shot. 'Come on, don't shy away from it. You were all gathered by the fountain to receive a lesson about those who had escaped into the hills to avoid their patriotic duty.'
Fratani's gaze didn't waver. 'The maquis, Inspector, as you yourself have said.'
'And admitted, is that it?' snarled Kohler.
'Hermann, please! Monsieur Fratani knows only too well he must not upset the Gestapo, not on such a touchy subject and not when they are so tired. Monsieur, what about this one, eh? The victim?'
'A hunting accident perhaps. Who knows? L'Abbé Roussel says it is not our affair. That she was not of us, monsieur, and therefore we are not obligated to give her the last rites or to take her remains up to the church to rest with God.'
'Louis, she's not Jewish, is she?' Everyone knew that the Jews, like a lot of others, had bolted south to the Riviera during the invasion and must now be squirming like hell, seeing as the Wehrmacht had only just moved in to occupy the whole of the country but had given in to Il Duce and let the Italians occupy the coast from just east of Cannes to Menton and the frontier.
So caught up had he become in staring at the body, the poor Frog was trying to pack that furnace of his while the wind took the last of his tobacco ration. 'Louis ... Louis, I asked you a question.'
Startled, the brown ox-eyes with their bushy brows flew up in alarm. 'Hermann, what ... what is it?'
'Perhaps you'd better tell me,' sighed Kohler, nodding towards the corpse.
'It is nothing, Hermann. Nothing. I was just wondering why the garde champêtre was not here, waiting for us.'
The village cop. Kohler knew that Louis must have other reasons for being so distracted but let it pass. By rights the lieutenant, whoever he was, should have been in on this too. An SS lieutenant? he wondered, giving a silent curse at the thought.
Grunting painfully, St-Cyr knelt beside the body and, motioning impatiently, had the hearse-driver bring the lantern closer.
Blood had run from the corner of her lips and from her nostrils, but had long since congealed and darkened. The eyes were not blue as he had expected from the hair but that rather pleasant shade of greeny-brown which can sometimes overwhelm an unsuspecting man. A once quite handsome woman, not beautiful but very fine of feature, and definitely once of wealth though that might no longer be so.
The nose was aristocratic, the cheeks slightly pinched. The skin was good clean too the brow not overly wide but high and incredibly unwrinkled for a woman who must have had worries in plenty. Why else the climb into these hills and across this stony pasture to what? he asked. To some peasant's farmhouse up there on a barren slope, sheltered only from the wind? Opal and gold ear-rings, the ears pierced, the pendant stones full of fire even in the fitful fluttering of the lantern.
A woman of perhaps seventy kilos tall, but not too tall. Had she stood with poise even in alarm, she not believing her assailant would dare to fire that thing at her? Had that been it?
The bolt was feathered by leather flights that were hard and cracked with age. The wooden shaft had that dark colour of ash or birch that has first been hardened by fire and then polished before greasing with tallow. The force of the bolt should have knocked her on to her back, yet she had stood her ground in shocked disbelief perhaps and had clutched it. Ah merde, who could have done such a thing, what were they to do? Scream at the injustice of it all or simply get on with a job quite obviously no one else wanted?
'Well, Louis, what do you make of it?'
'Trouble, Hermann. Me, I have to ask, Why did your chief demand that we attend to this one? Disregard, please, the need for us to get out of Paris, eh? Let's simply stick to the absolute truth.'
'Someone telephoned Boemelburg from Cannes,' said Kohler lamely. 'Look, I would have told you sooner or later.'
'Who? Hermann, please do not do this to me.'
Kohler gave a shrug. 'A friend of your chief's.'
'That little shit?'
'The same. Major Osias Pharand himself, Louis. Titular head of the Sûreté Nationale and as file-minded an anti-Semite as Himmler and his boys could ask for.'
'So, is this one Jewish, eh? Is that what you're saying? Hey, my friend, me I can't tell so easily with members of the opposite sex. Perhaps you'd better have a look.'
Touché. Pharand hated the Resistance too Kohler could see the worry clouding the Frog's eyes. 'Relax. We'll sort it out and wrap it up in style.'
'That is exactly what I'm afraid of! The small cigar, Hermann. This ... this one left deliberately at the scene.'
'As a reminder?'
'But of course.'
'Then take my advice, Louis. Let's say it was a hunting accident. Let's find the village idiot and nail him with it.'
This from a former Munich detective, to say nothing of Berlin! 'So, Hermann, ask our friend who told him to meet us at the station.'
'He's gone, Louis. Fratani's buggered off.'
'Nom de Jésus-Christ! I leave you to do the necessary while I attend to business and you ... you ...'
'Easy, Louis. Easy, eh? Why not tell me what's upset you?'
'A feeling. The breath of memory, Hermann. An uneasiness I have not experienced since the first week of January 1934.'
St-Cyr tugged at something in the woman's right hand and when he had it free, let out a gasp, then lifted brimming eyes to the lantern.
Kohler brought the light closer. 'The mont-de-piété in Bayonne, Hermann. The municipal pawnshop and the same damned one as in 1934!'
He turned aside, and for a cop with a gut of iron, proceeded to vomit and then to urinate in his trousers, both at the same time or in between.
Kohler sat him up and held the brandy to his lips, and when he'd had another pull at it, St-Cyr waved the flask away. 'Care to tell me about it?' asked the Bavarian. 'Just so that I know exactly what to expect.'
Those troubled eyes ducked furtively away to the body. 'That is just it, Hermann. With him if it really is him we will never be sure of what to expect.'
'Then you watch my back, I'll watch yours. Let's stick together like glue, Louis. That'll fix him.'
'The Deuxième Bureau, Hermann? State security? Even in a nation crippled by the Occupation, security must come before all else, especially murder.'
Louis really was quite ill. 'Perhaps he doesn't work for them any more.'
'Perhaps, but then ... then this one will. Once the dye has taken, the skin cannot be changed.'
'Then come on, let's see what's up the hill. This one will keep for a while.'
The house on the hillside had but one room, a single lantern hanging from the ceiling over the table, a loft for sleeping in warmer weather, and the fetid stirrings of the animals below.
As Kohler shut the heavy door behind them, the sound of the wind dropped a little but the shrieking voice carried on dementedly shrill in terror, the girl tossing on the only bed, roped to it while the old woman sat with her back to a roaring fire and the wind ... the wind outside laid its file over everything.
Blood gushed down the woman's pudgy hands as she turned the grinder and vigorously stuffed goose livers into it. Heaps of kidneys, a slab of fatty bacon, some larded ribs of pork and the skinned carcasses of four rabbits glistened on the chequered table-cloth before her.
There was a butcher's knife, a cleaver blood smeared everywhere and a bowl of freshly washed intestines, grey-white and flaccid in their coils. Herbs and spices and black olives. Oil too, and salt. A rope of garlic, two of dried peppers and a mound of peeled onions.
'She's making sausage, Louis,' whispered Kohler.
'And pâté. Merde, can I not see this myself? The girl, Hermann. What in God's name is wrong with her?'
'What else would you call it?'
The ropes about the ankles and wrists were feverishly strained at, the shrieking again became a shrill, hair-raising cry for penance perhaps or for the torture to end.
Quivering, the spasm passed, and from where they still stood at the door, they could hear the ragged breathing lapse into a fitful caution.
The woman merely continued to grind things, and the fire that raged, threw her rounded shadow on the wall beside them and on the beams in the ceiling too.
'Madame ...?' began St-Cyr only to see her suddenly stop and reach for the cleaver.
'Georges?' she asked. 'Is that not you?'
'Blind ... Goddamnit, Louis, she can't see us.'
'But I can hear you, mes amis. So, please, what is it you want of me? You are not from around here. This I already know.'
'A moment of your time, madame. Please do not be afraid ...'
'Afraid? Why should I be afraid?'
She was perhaps seventy. It was always so hard to tell with country people. Round of face and shoulder, chin, cheeks and nose, she had the gaze of the blind all right, the high colour of the wind and sun and the ample bosom of the hills.
Wisps of silky grey hair were matted to the brow with blood or stuck out from beneath the simple kerchief.
'Madame, the girl ...?' began St-Cyr with genuine concern.
'That one? Have you really come from the asylum in Chamonix as promised?'
'No ... Ah, no, madame. We have come from Paris about the ... the ...'
'Ah no, madame. Not the taxes.'
'The schooling for my grandson my only grandson? Look, messieurs, the husband he is dead, isn't that so? I am the widow, yes? The boy he is needed around the farm. Reading can do him no good if he cannot eat.'
'Then he was not at school on Wednesday?' hazarded Kohler.
The cleaver was lowered in defeat perhaps. 'No... no, he did not go to school then, monsieur. Wednesdays are not days for the schooling. Is it that you did not know of this perhaps?'
Excerpted from Kaleidoscope by J. Robert Janes. Copyright © 1993 by J. Robert Janes. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.