"Marvelous . . . An absorbing, sometimes laugh-out-loud mystery." New York Journal of Book
"A delightful creation." The Times
"Quirky and interesting . . . Much to savor." Library Journal
Was the old lady murdered seven years ago really just the victim of a botched robbery? Who was behind the dead sailor discovered in the Seine with three gunshot wounds? And why does there seem to be a curious link with a ferry that was shipwrecked off the Florida coast many years previously?
Suspended from her job as a promising police officer for firing "one bullet too many," Anne Capestan is expecting the worst when she is summoned to HQ to learn her fate. Instead, she is told that she will head up a new police squad, working on solving long-abandoned cold cases.
Though relieved to still have a job, Capestan is not overjoyed by the prospect of her new roleand even less so when she meets her new team: a crowd of misfits, troublemakers, and problem cases, none of whom are fit for purpose and yet none of whom can be fired.
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Paris, August 9, 2012
Anne Capestan was standing at her kitchen window waiting for dawn to arrive. She drained her mug in one gulp and set it down on the shiny green tablecloth. She had just drunk her last coffee as a police officer. Or had she?
The brilliant Commissaire Capestan — the star of her generation, undisputed career-ladder-climbing champion — had fired one bullet too many. As a result, she had been dragged before an Inspection générale des services disciplinary hearing, received several reprimands and been handed a six-month suspension. Then radio silence, right up until the telephone call from Buron. Her mentor, now in charge of 36, quai des Orfèvres, the headquarters of the police judiciaire, had finally broken his silence. Capestan had been summoned for August 9. Typical of the man: bang in the middle of the summer break. A gentle reminder that this was no vacation, that she was unemployed. She would emerge from this meeting with or without her badge, stationed in Paris or the provinces, but at least the waiting game would be over. Anything had to be better than wallowing in limbo — this hazy, uncertain space where moving on was not an option. The commissaire rinsed her mug in the sink and told herself she would put it in the dishwasher later. It was time to go.
She crossed the living room, where the familiar pulsating double bass of a Stray Cats record was thrumming from the stereo. The apartment was spacious and comfortable. Capestan had not skimped on the rugs, throws, and ambient lighting. Her cat, snoozing away happily, seemed to approve of her choices. But the coziness was punctuated by traces of emptiness, like patches of frost on a lawn in springtime. The day after her suspension, Capestan had watched as her husband left her, taking half the apartment's contents with him. It was one of those moments in which life leaves you with a bloody nose. But Capestan was not one for self-pity; she refused to run away from what had happened.
Vacuum, TV, sofa, bed ... within three days, she had replaced the essentials. That said, the round marks on the carpet were a constant reminder of the furniture from her former life. The wallpaper gave the clearest illustration: the shadow of a desk, the ghost of a bookshelf, the late lamented chest of drawers. Capestan would much rather have moved, but her precarious professional situation had kept her in this cage. Come the end of this meeting, she would finally know which path her life would pursue.
She removed the elastic band she kept on her wrist and tied her hair back. It had turned blonde, as it did every summer, but soon a deeper chestnut tone would start reasserting itself. Capestan smoothed her dress with a mechanical motion and pulled on her sandals, without so much as a flinch from the cat on the armrest. Only the pinna of the feline's ear twitched into action, tilting toward the door to monitor her departure. The commissaire hitched her big leather handbag onto her shoulder and slipped in the copy of The Bonfire of the Vanities that Buron had lent her. Nine hundred and twenty pages. "That'll keep you busy while you wait for my call," he had assured her. Waiting. She had had enough time to read all thirteen installments of Fortunes of France and the complete works of Marie-Ange Guillaume. Not to mention stacks of detective novels. Buron and his hollow words without dates or promises. Capestan closed the door behind her, turned the key twice, and set off for the stairs.
Rue de la Verrerie was deserted in the soft morning light. In August, at this early hour, Paris seemed restored to a natural state, cleared of its inhabitants, as though it had survived a neutron bomb. In the distance, the flashing light of a street sweeper gave off an orange glow. Capestan walked past the window displays of the BHV department store, then cut diagonally across the square outside the Hôtel de Ville. She crossed the Seine and continued to the far side of Île de la Cité, arriving at the entrance of 36, quai des Orfèvres.
She went through the enormous doorway and turned right into the paved courtyard, pausing to glance at the faded blue sign: STAIRWAY A, POLICE JUDICIAIRE SENIOR MANAGEMENT. Following his promotion, Buron had set up shop on the third floor, the cushy level for the force's decision makers. No gun toting on that corridor, even for the real cowboys.
Capestan pushed open the double doors. The thought of this meeting made her stomach lurch. She had always been a police officer, never considered any other options. Thirty-seven's hardly the age to go back to school. The restlessness of the past six months had already taken its toll. She had done a lot of walking. She had followed every single line on the Parisian métro at street level: 1 to 14, terminus to terminus. She was desperate to be welcomed back into the fold before having to tackle the suburban trains. Sometimes she wondered if she might be forced to run the length of the high-speed TGV train tracks, just to give herself something to do.
Face-to-face with the gleaming, brand-new engraved plaque bearing the name of the regional chief of the police judiciare, she gathered herself and knocked three times. Buron's deep, booming voice instructed her to come in.
Buron stood up to greet her. His basset-hound face was framed by military-cut gray hair and a beard. Everywhere he went, he wore a kind, almost downcast expression. He was a good head taller than Capestan, who was not exactly short herself, and a good stomach wider, too. But despite his hearty appearance, Buron radiated authority: no one joked around with him. Capestan smiled at him and handed over the Wolfe novel. There was a small scuff on the cover, which prompted a flicker of disapproval from the chief when he noticed it. Capestan apologized, even if she failed to see what the fuss was about. It was nothing, he said, but he clearly did not mean it.
Behind Buron, sitting in large armchairs, she recognized Fomenko, the former head of the drug squad and now deputy regional chief, and Valincourt, who had recently left a senior role at the brigade criminelle to become top brass at brigades centrales. Capestan wondered what these big guns were doing there. Given her current status, the prospect of her being snapped up by one of them seemed unlikely. She smiled at the lordly law enforcement triumvirate, sat down and waited for the verdict.
"I have good news," Buron said, diving straight in. "The IGS investigation has wrapped up, your suspension is over, and you are formally reinstated. The incident will not go down on your file."
A huge sense of relief washed over Capestan. She could feel the joy coursing through her veins, and with it came a sudden urge to rush out and celebrate. But she managed to retain her focus as Buron continued:
"Your new post takes effect in September. You'll be heading up a new squad."
Capestan could not help raising an eyebrow at this. Her reinstatement had been enough of a surprise; entrusting her with a position of responsibility was starting to look suspect. Something about Buron's little speech had the effect of the crack of knuckles that usually precedes a punch.
"Me? A squad?"
"It's a special, force-wide initiative," Buron explained with a distant look. "As part of the police's restructuring that aims to optimize the performance of various frontline services, an ancillary squad has been formed. The squad will report directly to me, and will comprise some of the force's least ... conventional members."
While Buron delivered his spiel, his associates looked bored beyond belief. Fomenko was studying the collection of old medals in Buron's glass cabinet without any real interest. From time to time he ran his hand through his white hair, tugged at the bottom of his vest, or gazed at the points of his cowboy boots. His rolled-up shirtsleeves revealed hairy, muscular forearms: a reminder that Fomenko could unhinge your jaw with one swing of his fist. As for Valincourt, he was fiddling with his watch in a manner that made it plain he wished it would speed up. He had clean, angular features and a dark complexion that brought to mind an Apache chief, an old soul that had been through many incarnations. He never smiled and gave off a permanent air of irritation, like a monarch who takes offense at the slightest inconvenience. He was no doubt reserving his attention for more lofty concerns, an altogether higher purpose. Mere mortals would do better than to disturb him. Capestan decided to put them all out of their misery.
"And practically speaking?"
The casualness of her tone irritated Valincourt. Like a bird of prey, his head revolved abruptly to one side, revealing a powerful hooked nose. He shot Buron a questioning look, but it took more than that to ruffle the chief. Buron even allowed himself a smile as he edged forward in his armchair.
"Very well, Capestan, here's the bottom line: we're cleaning up the police to give the stats some gloss. The drunkards, the thugs, the depressives, the layabouts, and everyone in between — the people hamstringing the force but who can't be fired — are all to be absorbed into one squad and forgotten about in some corner. With you in command. Starting in September."
Capestan did not react at all. She looked toward the window, taking in the blue shades playing across the double glazing. Beyond the glass, she watched the gentle ripples of the Seine gleaming beneath the clear sky, giving her brain a moment to extract the meaning of this pitch from the men in suits.
A shelf. One big shelving unit, basically. Or rather a trashcan. A bunch of down-and-outs discarded into the same Dumpster; the department's shamefaced pigsty. And she was the cherry on the top. The boss.
"Why me in command?" she said.
"You're the only one ranked commissaire," Buron replied. "Oddly enough, most people with a penchant for thuggery or drunkenness don't get much opportunity for promotion."
Capestan would have bet good money that this squad had been Buron's idea. Neither Valincourt nor Fomenko seemed to approve of the scheme: the former out of disdain, the latter out of indifference. Both of them had better things to do, and this whole business was a tiresome distraction.
"Who's in the team?" Capestan said.
Buron stuck out his chin and leaned forward to open the bottom drawer of his desk. He pulled out a thick, bottle-green leather folder and dropped it on his blotter. There was nothing written on the cover. The anonymous squad. The chief opened the dossier and picked out a pair of tortoiseshells from the lineup of glasses below his lamp. Buron had a variety of spectacles that he alternated depending on whether he wanted to appear reassuring, trendy, or strict. He began reading.
"Agent Santi, on sick leave for four years; Capitaine Merlot, alcoholic —" "Alcoholic? So there'll be no shortage of personnel ..."
Buron closed the folder and handed it to her.
"I'll leave you to study it at your leisure."
She tested the weight: it was almost as heavy as the Paris phonebook.
"How many are we? Are you 'cleaning up' half the police force?" As the regional chief sank back into his chair, the brown leather issued a creak of surrender.
"Officially, around forty."
"That's not a squad, that's a battalion," Fomenko jeered.
Forty. People who had taken bullets, done days of stakeouts, piled on the pounds and filed divorce papers for the sake of the force, only to be spat out into this dead end. They were being sent to a place where they would finally hand in their notice. Capestan felt sorry for them. Curiously, she did not count herself as one of them. Buron sighed and removed his glasses.
"Capestan, most of them have been off the grid for years. There's no chance you'll even see them, let alone get them to do any work. As far as the police force is concerned, they no longer exist: they're just names, that's it. If any of them do turn up, it will be to swipe the stationery. Don't be under any illusions."
"Any actual officers?"
"Yes. Dax and Évrard are lieutenants, Merlot and Orsini are capitaines."
Buron paused for a moment and concentrated on the arms of his glasses as he twiddled them in his hand.
"José Torrez is a lieutenant, too."
Torrez. Better known as Malchance: the unlucky charm, the black cat you would never want to cross your path. Finally they had found a place for him. Isolation had not been enough — they had pushed him even farther away. Capestan knew Torrez by reputation. Every police officer in the country knew Torrez by reputation and would always cross themselves when he was nearby.
His story had started with a simple accident: a partner was stabbed during an arrest. Fairly routine. While the officer was convalescing, his replacement was injured, too. Occupational hazard. The next one took a bullet and spent three days in a coma. And the last guy had died, thrown off the top floor of a tower block. Any blame on Torrez's part had been brushed aside each time. He had not been responsible in any way, not even of negligence. But his aura became thicker than pitch: he brought Bad Luck. No one wanted to be on Torrez's team anymore. No one wanted to touch him; few would even look him in the eye. Except for Capestan, who didn't give credence to such things.
"I'm not superstitious," she said.
"Oh, you will be," Valincourt said, in a funereal tone.
Fomenko nodded in agreement, suppressing the shudder that rippled down the dragon tattoo on his neck, a souvenir of his days as a young man in the army. Nowadays, Fomenko wore a big white mustache that fanned out beneath his nose like a shaggy butterfly. Somehow the mustache didn't go too badly with the dragon.
Every time Torrez's name was uttered, a silence fell over the room for a few moments. Buron filled it.
"And finally there's Commandant LouisBaptiste Lebreton."
This time, Capestan sat bolt upright in her chair.
"The guy from IGS?"
"The very same," Buron replied, spreading his arms resignedly. "I know, he didn't make things easy for you."
"No, he wasn't the most flexible. What's that fair-play fanatic doing here? IGS isn't even part of the police judiciare."
"A complaint was filed, something about a personality clash at IGS: basically an internal affair at the internal affairs division, and they decided they didn't need him anymore."
"But why the complaint?"
Lebreton might have been monstrously uncompromising, but no one could accuse him of being shady. The chief shrugged the question aside, feigning ignorance. The other two scanned the cornice of the ceiling, smiling mischievously, and Capestan realized that she would have to make do with the party line.
"Let us not forget," Valincourt said coldly, "you are hardly in a position to judge people for behaving aggressively."
Capestan took the hit without wincing. It was true: she was not without sin, and she knew it. A ray of sunshine spilled across the room and she could hear the distant reverberation of a pneumatic drill. New squad. New team. All she needed now was her mission.
"Will we have any cases?"
Anne Capestan had the feeling that Buron was starting to enjoy himself. It was his little welcome-back joke, a knickknack to mark her brand-new position. After a decade and a half of service, she was back in first year, and this was her initiation ceremony.
"Following an agreement between police headquarters, the local branch of the police judiciaire and the brigades centrales, you will take on all the unsolved cases from every single squad and commissariat in the region. We have also relieved the archives of any closed cases that still have question marks. They have all been sent to your office."
Buron gave a satisfied nod to his colleagues, then continued:
"The headline is that the Île-de-France police force's record for solving cases stands at one hundred percent, and yours will be zero percent. One incompetent squad letting down the whole region. It's all about containment, you see."
"Archives will send the boxes over when you start moving in," Fomenko said, scratching his dragon. "In September, when you've been assigned your premises. We're fuller than a Roman Catholic school at number 36, so we'll find you a little spot elsewhere."
"If you think you've got off lightly, then you're wrong," Valincourt said, still not moving an inch. "You should know that we're not expecting any results."
Buron made an expansive gesture toward the door: Capestan's cue to leave. Despite these less than encouraging final words, she had a smile on her face. At least now she had an objective, and she had a start date.
Excerpted from "The Awkward Squad"
Copyright © 2015 Editions Albin Michel — Paris.
Excerpted by permission of Quercus.
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