Inspector Henri Castang is called in to investigate the mysterious appearance of a woman's body... but it is not the one he expected.
When Castang is asked to investigate a sensitive case involving a three star Michelin restaurant and an infamous British High Court Judge, he is not expecting the bizarre scenario that greets him. With the body found in the Judge's Rolls Royce and his whole family testifying that it was not in the car when they arrived, Castang must unravel a web of lies, coincidences, and political intrigue.
Castang soon finds himself in a race against the clock as another two bodies are found. Will justice be served on these mysterious killers before there's another corpse to contend with?
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.75(d)|
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Henri Castang, at the end of the day, drunk with fatigue and with a tension too long maintained and too brutally released, was driving home through rush-hour traffic. The job was done: he had gone without free time for a fortnight: the one idea in his head was to get home to wife, shower, supper, bed. Then why stop? And what a place to stop in! It was forbidden to park on the bridge. A lot Castang cared for municipal police regulations ...
The bridge was a strung bow, a taut and graceful arc of stressed concrete crossing the railway. Castang bumped the scratched dusty police car up onto the pavement, gave the door a kick and leaned his elbows on the parapet. Below him forty shiny steel ribbons and the spider-web ladders of overhead cable showed the way to the freight yard; and Paris, some hundreds of kilometres further. Behind him a rushing stream of tin cans paid him no heed. Their jagged owners, if they glanced at him at all, thought he had had a heart attack – or the Renault had; much the same thing and no affair of theirs. But in front of him the sky was full of setting sun.
A winterset: the huge sky was a hard bright blue. On one side, over the city, was a piled mass of white cloud, static, painted all over with pale gold. In the very centre, straight above the railway lines, was one stab of pure bright gold that scorched the eye. The left side, over the interminable suburbs, was scribbled over with fragile lace of a warm bluish grey: God smoking a huge beautiful cigar from Celestial Cuba. The thin veils broke as he looked at them: beyond, tiny islands of white and gold, high and far, promised silence, a glad peaceful tomorrow.
Castang knew no cops who looked at sunsets. He couldn't remember when he last did so himself. For nearly five minutes he leaned on the parapet and breathed in and out. When he got back into the car he kicked it straight out into the traffic without signalling, so that the onrushing queue of baa-black-sheep braked in frenzy, klaxonning furiously and hanging out of the window as they overtook to scream, 'Crucify him.' Again cop, he didn't give a roger for the rats. At the red light he lounged back and stared ahead, languidly insolent like a chauffeur in a Rolls-Royce.
On the quay, bordering a disused canal and pretty with poplar trees, where he lived (a Good, Bourgeois, Frightened district) he locked the car and gazed again for a moment. The sky had gone pale. A lame- brained huge jet plane, like a bewildered pterosaur, lumbered sadly down towards the airport. Poor thing! In its belly, more poor things. There was a silver thumbnail of new moon. Castang felt insanely happy at this new manifestation of good fortune, as though he had drunk the goldfish bowl full to the brim with champagne and then swallowed the goldfish out of sheer insolence. He turned to go into his house; got the fright of his life. The vast, serene pile of cloud seen ten minutes before, whitey-gold as the Pope's triple tiara, was marching dread and mighty across the eastern sky; one immense incandescent flame of pale orange. As the population of France goes, Castang was highly unsuperstitious, but he shuddered and his hand feeling for latchkeys in the pocket made an instinctive sign against the evil eye.
Vera, his wife, who was peacefully reading a magazine, looked up keenly.
'Finished at last? Hallo! Have you met somebody you thought was dead?'
'It's finished,' sitting down and kicking his shoes off. 'Something like that. I'm tired, I suppose. I saw heaven and I saw hell. I saw God in the middle, come to judge the living and the dead.'
'There's nothing very odd about that,' said Vera who had a theological cast of thought.
'I suppose not. God was smoking a very big Cuban cigar.'
'You saw the sunset,' said the woman of rapid understanding. 'I was studying it too. You've had a hard time. Are you getting your days off now?'
'Yes, unless some idiot holds up a bank.'
'Let's go somewhere with no telephone. There's potato soup.' Vera's potato soup was Slav, like her. One got a big bowl, and three little bowls, with chopped chives, and little soldiers of fried bread, and rashers of bacon, grilled crisp and crumbled up. It put heart back into Castang. He wished he'd had a shower. Vera sniffed rather, and it was probably his socks, but she was too polite to say so.
'How's your baby?' he asked.
For she had been paraplegic for three years after an accident. She had re-educated herself, helped by much female bloody-mindedness, into walking; could manage now short distances without crutches, and as though in celebration had managed to get herself pregnant for the first time. Now in the third month. It had given Castang a whole new sense of responsibilities and a different awareness: he was not ordinarily given to looking at sunsets.
'It's quiet, and comfortable.' She would not be ostentatious. She was knitting a lot, but there was no display of tiny garments. Not going to lever a vast belly all over the place, either. Everything was going to be undramatic. Breath-control exercises, a nice change from birth- control; there would be no sweaty groaning or clutching of bedposts. Plainly, it was Castang that would create all the uproar. Life as a cop was not yet reconciled to the blushing-father bit.
They would sort it out, the way they handled all their problems; together. There were things about being a cop that he did not tell her; mostly she guessed at them, and passed them over in a tacit agreement. Most of what had happened in the last ten days she knew. She knew the two sides of a policeman's existence; the arrow that flies by day, and the quieter, more sinister knife in the dark.
There was not much to tell her about the English family: she knew all about that, understood it perhaps better than anyone, had been instrumental, perhaps, in disentangling it. She knew all about the property speculator too. She knew about the last brush – too close – with violence. It was best so. This was what being married meant. Indeed without this confidence in each other, they could not have stayed married.
'I'll have a shower,' taking the gunbelt off, carrying his trousers into the bedroom to put on a hanger. Castang the meticulous. Won't last much longer, he thought. Place will be full of babies and nappies and whatnot. An end, finally, to a tidy, careful, egoist existence.
He sat on the bed to peel plaster strapping off his body; the itch was driving him dippy.
'Healing,' said Vera, studying the angry red scar just above his liver. It was; he knew from the itch, and had looked when Fausta changed the strapping: no, he wasn't going to tell Vera about that detail.
'It needs a day or two's rest,' he said. 'We're going out tomorrow night, to celebrate.'
'Are we? Where?'
'To your friend Monsieur Thomas. We've both earned that. He'll be an unwilling but lavish host.'
'That adds edge to appetite,' going off to do the washing-up. She wasn't smoking at all, because of being pregnant. He was smoking much too much. This was all wrong but she was going to be placid about it. 'I'll make some coffee, shall I?'
Yes, that was a good idea, before he tumbled down asleep under the shower.CHAPTER 2
SUN ALSO RISES
It had been a green winter: they were the worst. There had been a heavy premature fall of snow, and up to Christmas it had frozen hard, but this had all melted and left a dense tangle of muddy boots and wet smelly umbrellas: it had hardly stopped raining since. A real February filldyke; the river valleys brimmed with floodwater, topped by an offensive layer of fog. Castang caught a streaming cold, a rarity with him, and gave it to Vera who was not best pleased. The very mildness of the temperature lowered resistance, the fog smelt bad, when one could smell anything: the rain that fell was not clean, but greasy and polluted, and left stains on Vera's windowpanes. Commissaire Richard seemed in a perpetual bad mood. A heavy crop of crimes in the senseless-violence category did nothing to tax his brains but laid a strain on his nerves. There was the usual Press outcry about incompetent police forces which persecuted the public without protecting it.
March the third dawned much like the sixty days that had gone before it; grey, oppressive, smelly. Castang, whose cold had passed the disgusting stage and dwindled to only one pack of paper handkerchiefs per day, got up and went to the office with resignation. A vague prayer went up to police divinities (it was hard to believe that God took any interest) that it be a quiet day. He had three reports to write, all unsatisfactory, on three different holdups of three small suburban banks. One had no sympathy whatsoever for the banks, who kept opening these idiotic corner-shop branches and leaving them insufficiently protected. No sympathy for the bandits, though at least half of them were pathetic imbeciles armed with toy pistols. No sympathy for anyone but himself, who had to get through a mass of paperwork.
Concentrated upon all this – an individual one metre sixty- eight in height (who had measured him?) with light-brown hair (how long since the individual had washed it?) whose features had been dissimulated under the roll neck of a loose dark green pullover – Castang failed to notice a vague lightening of the spirit, which somehow disinfected the work in hand. It wasn't until he came out of the door to go to lunch that he noticed that the sun was shining. Not just a watery gleam, but a true sun in a clean sky. Lunch was only the 'plat du jour' or cheapest menu in the pub opposite; stewed bacon and lentils with endive salad, a morsel of cheese and a cup of coffee, tax and service included with a quarter of mineral water, and his table- companion was Lasserre, never a stimulating person, but the sun made all the difference. He was digesting in some contentment when the phone on the bar rang and the boss said, 'Castang' – might have known it was too good to last.
'I want you,' said Richard's voice.
The Commissaire was drinking a cup of vervain tea. Richard didn't eat in pubs. His secretary, the seductive Fausta, provided material as well as spiritual refreshment; a delicious vision bringing scrambled eggs. She had a camping-gas stove in the outer office, and made a rather snobbish ritual out of it. It was a quarter past one and lunch was now over.
'Whip smartly out to Thomas,' said Richard, sweeping crumbs into the wastepaper basket, 'peculiar things are happening on his parking lot.'
'Oh hell – why me?'
'A variety of reasons,' bland. 'He asked for you, seems to think you'd be anxious to do him a favour.'
'Trust him to get a lot for sixpence. Vera did him some drawings and he thought he was doing her a favour,' with a snort.
'He seems too to be in a muddle with some English people and you do speak roast-beef.' It is extraordinary how quite sophisticated Frenchmen remain convinced that the English are nourished exclusively upon sirloin.
'What's it all about?'
'I've not the slightest idea,' said Richard more blandly still. 'Vampires by the sound of it. He gabbled. Corpses appearing and disappearing. He wants discretion, so he was unconscionably discreet. You're such friends, doubtless he'll open up. No Press, he begs in terror. Go and unruffle him.' Resignedly, Castang went.
One might think that the Police Judiciaire would be unlikely to send an officer running fast to investigate a vague tale of vampires, and one would be quite right. But though Thomas is a common name, there is really only one in France, because in all France there are only a dozen three-star restaurants, and only one of these is called Thomas.
This small and exclusive club possesses much leverage. Not perhaps strictly speaking 'political', but getting three stars in the first place had more to it than just being a good cook. You see to it that you acquire influential friends. Having got them, you take pains to keep them. Castang was far from being an influential friend, but every little helps. Vera, a semi-professional graphic artist of accomplishment, had made some drawings for new menus and sold them to Monsieur Thomas, pretty cheap.
Richard, who moved in golf-club circles and made a very good imitation sometimes of the dynamic business executive, might be an influential friend. That wasn't any of Castang's business.
The sun had dried the roads and sparkled on the drops clinging to hedges. The green shoots of daffodils showed yellow at the tips, the thin haze of tiny leaf was on the willows. Everybody in France who had the slightest sense had invented pretexts for stopping the dismal tasks they were engaged in, and rushed to the garden. On the outskirts of the city the little municipal vegetable-plots, dear to Vera's heart, were a bee- hive. Castang felt the pleasure and wellbeing, absent for too long. He was going to enjoy the vampires.
Three-star restaurants are found in unlikely places, and can show a splendid contempt for scruffy surroundings. If the wine is really good, it needs no bush. 'Thomas' lay on a main road, but at the end of a dreary and cement-dusty industrial quarter, a few kilometres outside the city, which had almost swallowed the original village. From the outside, an utterly undistinguished house. A word with the local mayor had seen to the planting of a few weedy-looking trees to insulate it from the main road. At the back, however, was a large terrace whose glass doors and roof rolled back in fine weather, and a big parking lot, pleasantly broken up by fruit trees, still bare.
Castang parked his dented and smelly Peugeot. This was where vampires had been flitting about? – he saw no sign of any. He studied the parked cars. Usual clientèle of elderly Germans in beige Mercedes sedans, French show-offs in Jaguars – salesmen – Americans in self-drives and plenty of pederasts of all nationalities in aggressive sports coupés with deep baritone exhaust- notes. There was a black Rolls-Royce with GB plates: ho ho.
Mr Thomas was certainly agitato, to come rushing out in that way: whatever form the vampires took they were bad publicity.
He was a youngish man, with a pleasant, slightly cheap face. He had charm, humour, and amiable conversation. His was the scarlet Ferrari at the end; a piece of conspicuous consumption to encourage customers into the same.
Three-star restaurants are a family business: a husband and wife, a pair of brothers, and there must be a strong personality, even if as occasionally happens this is a notorious phoney. This wasn't it; the real Thomas was the father, a cook of great imagination and talent, now an old gentleman of seventy, still an enormous presence in his kitchen but otherwise never seen. He had always hated customers and never went near them. The restaurant had been ruled by Mother, a formidable biddy like a champagne-granny, who had succumbed to brain haemorrhage a year or so ago. The son, a nonentity but a good front-man and adroit publicity hound, had inherited enough of Mum's business sense to step into her shoes.
Castang and he shook hands.CHAPTER 3
HOW A BUTCHER BURIES HIS GRANDMOTHER
They sat at an obscure table by the service entrance, behind a barrier of flowers and fruit. There was the unmistakable perfume of the very best which is found nowhere else.
'Have you eaten?' enquired Monsieur Thomas.
'Yes,' said Castang before he had thought of saying no.
'Never mind – another time,' very rapidly. 'Something to drink?' half-hearted.
'Yes please,' with firmness. Thomas jumped up and held a whispered confabulation with a head waiter; returned beaming. A commis arrived with two glasses, another with a half-full bottle. Much flourish of white napkins; stylised hieratic gestures: monsignori blessing the incense in the ritual of Pope Pius the Fifth. Castang knew perfectly that the bottle had been sold to a customer who had not finished it: the name on the label was flamboyant, the vintage superb. He admired this skilful mix of flattery with economy.
Monsieur Thomas chose his words with equal felicity: his explanation was brief and witty.
Funeral customs in France are the subject of strict municipal regulations, which differ from one community to another. It can happen that several enterprises in funereal pomp are allowed to practise in open competition within the community. The prices at this moment have at least a likelihood of being within the bounds of reason. In other, especially smaller towns, a monopoly exists, and by connivance with municipal authorities you may only bury your relatives with the aid and comfort of officially approved standards of hygiene. The price of which is exorbitant and the profits immense.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Night Lords"
Copyright © 1978 Nicolas Freeling.
Excerpted by permission of Ipso Books.
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