He was nearing the top of the second flight of stairs, and the temperature had gone up by a degree or two. The light rumble of talk came from somewhere in the room, behind the wall to his right. His head was about floor level.
“Andre?” His voice sounded loud in the enclosed space, but perhaps they hadn’t heard him.
He clambered up a few more steps, holding the rail as the wooden risers were dusty and he’d already slipped once with his hard leather shoes on the third one from the bottom.
“It’s all right, boss. The boys are almost done.”
Gilles turned the corner from the landing and went into what was clearly a kitchen. It was all glazed to his left, with curtains thrown wide open, and giving a strong north light to that end of the room. The other way was the kitchen proper with its big and very old fashioned cast-iron range and oven immediately to his right.
“Well.” Gilles suddenly understood why Andre sounded so smug about it over the phone.
The lady of the house, sprawled at the foot of the stairs in the far left corner, lay amidst puddles and spatters of blood. He moved around the central block table and had a look.
The long slender sword sticking out of her chest lent a rather surreal air of melodrama to what was already a shattering scene. Her glasses were on her face and intact, but her eyes had that glazed and lifeless look, halfway rolled up, back into her head. Gilles approached the body and knelt. He touched her lightly on the wrist, noting she was certainly very close to room temperature.
“Oh, my. Was she stabbed in the head, then?” The blood loss was copious…
Levain neatly bypassed the question. He was letting Maintenon have it cold, like yesterday’s gravy. That was just an expression they had.
“Madame was killed early this morning. The cook arrived at seven-oh-five, or seven-ten or so, according to her.”
Andre Levain cocked his ears at the sound of feet on the stairs.
Tailler came in, taking in the scene, mostly the body at first, and looking with interest at the lab boys, before his eyes finally came around to Gilles and Andre. Andre Levain nodded at him in neutral fashion, noting the boyish air he had about him, with his unusual height and still a bit of baby fat in the face. Tailler had hazel-brown eyes and a fairly intelligent look about him.
Tailler glanced at Levain in equally neutral fashion and nodded politely back.
“It’s all right, Tailler. You can observe the goings-on.” Gilles looked deadpan at Andre. “Go on, please.”
“Right. The young girl, her name is Sophie. She was out late, came home around four or four-thirty, alone in a taxi-cab. She says she can’t remember the name of the company.”
“She said she had a couple of glasses of champagne at the party, and that she fell asleep immediately upon coming home.” Levain consulted his notes as if to ensure he had everything. “She says she didn’t hear anything until the cook pounded on her door around seven-twenty. She’s not sure of the exact time and neither is the cook.”
“There was no one else in the house. The rear door, which opens onto the alley, appears to have been broken into. Glass inside and out, nothing unusual. We’re asking if anything is missing.” Levain looked at his notebook. “The cook and the other girls are pretty shaken.”
“So, it looks like a sneak thief.”
“That’s how it looks, Gilles.”
The unspoken question was, if so, then why are we here?
Gilles bit his lip in silent contemplation.
“So she was stabbed repeatedly with the sword? Hmn.” It certainly fit the profile of a hasty choice of weapon. “That’s very strange.”
Something heavy, a blunt instrument, wielded from behind, would have been much easier to use with any likelihood of success. It was hard to conceive a self-respecting thief not hearing her coming down the stairs, but that was an assumption on his part. The thief might have been deaf!
She would have been screaming like mad.
A deaf perpetrator seemed unlikely, as they would find a less hazardous profession very quickly. There were hard floors in all directions from this vantage point. Gilles moved further into the room, absorbing it, the smell of cooking, the smells that emanated from behind the cupboard doors, spices and condiments and the raw smell of onions coming from somewhere nearby. Levain watched him silently as he got the feel of the place.
“What’s in there?” Gilles pointed to a small door.
“The pantry. The usual stuff.”
Gilles used his handkerchief to avoid leaving prints and carefully opened it.
Bulkier stores, jars, tins and boxes, sacks of flour and what he thought was salt, were lined up on wall shelves. There were empty baskets on the floor in the corner and shopping bags hanging from pegs close to the door. A half a bushel of apples, some potatoes, carrots…nothing out of the ordinary.
The fingerprint technicians came out of a front room with their bulging valises. They had their jackets on.
“We’ll fill you in when our reports are complete.”
Maintenon nodded thoughtfully.
The first one made for the stairs.
The second one was more outgoing.
“We got a lot of good prints, quite a number of different ones.” His attitude seemed to imply that he was just having some good clean fun. “Any place a thief was likely to touch, including the doors and knobs, of course.”
“Thank you, gentlemen.” Gilles could still hear faint muttering from somewhere in the front of the house.
The inhabitants must be around somewhere. He’d have a few questions for them in a moment. Levain continued.
“All right. We have a housemaid, the cook, and the niece in the parlor, which is up one flight. We have plenty of photos and the morgue boys are waiting for the body.”
Just then a familiar figure stuck his head out of the passage leading to those rooms overlooking the street out front. Brighter out there, he was backlit but immediately recognizable by a miss-shapen head, just like a big strawberry. That had been his nickname in his younger days. The shock of tousled red hair would have given him away at almost any distance. The sound of the fingerprint boys clumping down the endless stairs, for the ceilings were all three and four metres up on these floors, finally faded away with one last flurry of deep, distant voices.
The coroner was none other than the inimitable—Gilles had never found much use for the word, but it somehow fit Gaston Janvier.
“You know your victim was shot three times, don’t you?”
Levain laughed aloud at the sadly patient look on Maintenon’s face, the deep and expressive sigh he gave. Tailler looked on as if he’d known it all along. The poor fellow had no idea of what he was supposed to be doing there. He had the uncomfortable feeling that the Inspector was making a joke of him, which wasn’t very nice.
“Sorry, Inspector! I was just saving a little something for you.” Levain winked at Janvier.
Gilles eyed Levain in a sardonic kind of agreement.
“Ah. Ha. Yes. I see. Hmn.” He looked over at Tailler with tolerance written all over him. “So, what do you think, young man?”
Tailler shook his head, completely baffled by all of the attention, but then he just grinned. He shrugged expressively and winked solemnly at Levain, who oddly enough looked away.
“Might as well have a bash, eh, sir?”
END of EXCERPT.
So there it is, warts and all, my third mystery novel and my twelfth overall.
I'm still proofing it and it will be out in a couple of days.
It will be available by Christmas on various platforms.