With a polite nod, Hubert led the way up to the third floor landing where there were exactly two chocolate brown-painted doors, one on the right and one on the left. The walls were a faded peachy colour. The steps continued switching back and forth up another two floors from the landing.
A radio played softly, but it was in the apartment behind them. The one they were interested in seemed dead silent, but then they heard a clunk and what sounded like a match striking. Someone coughed and that’s when Hubert raised his hand and knocked firmly but not overly-loud.
There came some indeterminate sounds and then footsteps falling on thin carpet over hollow boards.
With no peep-hole, the rattling of a chain—it was probably being put on rather than being taken off, was no surprise, and then one dark eye was peering at Levain and Hubert through a seventy-five millimetre gap.
The man eyed them suspiciously.
“We are from the police. We would like to speak to an Aron Saunier, please.”
The man uttered a deep sigh of resignation.
“Yes, he’s home.” The door closed and then the chain came off and the gentleman let them in, where a homey smell of cooking, mostly fried meat, and tobacco, and sweat and steam quickly enveloped them in its sticky embrace.
It was the smell of bacon and tobacco, thought Hubert as he waved clouds of stale smoke aside.
The man, shuffling along a short and rather dim hallway, wore slippers, baggy pajama bottoms and a housecoat with an undershirt. Lanky white hair stuck out all round, including upper chest and no doubt the armpits. He had long sideburns and a patch of bushy grey hair that went from ear to ear and nowhere else, not even a vestige of it on top anymore. Hubert looked at his watch, briefly struggling to remember today’s date. He had at least three pens with him.
Stopping inside the front room, judging by the windows and the yellow curtains, the man turned to his right.
“Aron! Someone is here to see you.” He glanced back.
“It’s all right, sir, he’s not in any trouble.” Levain kept his hands in his pockets but Hubert looked around, taking in the seediness of the place.
The couch sagged, the arms were ripped on the armchair, the end tables were miss-matched, the one picture on the long wall was a faded print of some clipper-ship at anchor in a cove with palm trees. The picture hung crooked. The walls showed brighter patches were someone else’s pictures had hung for quite some time.
The ashtray overflowed and there were several dirty glasses strategically placed here and there. There were no coasters, judging by the prominent rings he saw on the coffee table, mostly on one corner area. Beside the door was a crate full of empty beer bottles, with a couple of much larger ones standing beside it.
It was all very impressive.
The man nodded glumly as ashes grew on the end of his cigarette. When he took it out of his mouth, he held it so very carefully, so as not to accidentally knock it off on the rug, but the rug looked distinctly grimy, pounded black and flat in the entranceway from a thousand people over the years. When he turned, his housecoat was tattered in the area of the behind.
From somewhere off in the distance they heard a toilet flush, very reluctant it sounded, and then then they heard thumps from sock feet as the young man came down a side passage beside what was probably the kitchen.
Judging by the room they were in, someone was sleeping on the couch. The blanket was thrown hastily up over the back of the couch and there were two pillows on the right end of it. On balance, Levain thought it might be the old man, who didn’t seem all that ambitious. He looked to be about forty-five or sixty.
Then Aron was there, freezing on the spot when he got a good look at them.
They flashed their badges in perfunctory manner.
“Is there someplace we could talk, Monsieur Saunier?”
The young man looked defiant and a little bit scared.
“What’s this about?”
Hubert was bang on, again.
“It’s really nothing to worry about. We would like to ask one or two questions about a party you were at.”
The startled look on the kid’s face was priceless. Levain wondered about that as the kid actually relaxed, air coming out in a big rush for some reason.
Okay, here’s another short extract:
The boy allowed that his father was ill and had been for some time. A hunted look came over his face upon speaking the words. Nodding, Hubert could think of nothing further to say. It put the peeling paint and shabby furnishings, the smell of grease and cabbage, into a whole new light.
At least in these respects, the kid was paying his own way, or at least Hubert hoped he was.
It seemed likely, but he didn’t want to ask about the financial arrangements. The kid had his dignity and a good cop would leave him as much of it as he possibly could. Until further notice. And a horrible feeling it was sometimes, too.
Hubert put his notebook away and on some odd impulse, maybe to try and take some of the sting out of it, he stuck out his hand.
“It’s been a pleasure meeting you.”
Almost beyond his control, pure reflex, the kid’s hand came up and they shook briefly.
“Thank you, Aron.”
Another lost kid.
There was probably something else he should have said, but for the life of him he couldn’t think of anything good. The doorway back into his own life was just ahead.
“What’s your name?”
The kid dove into the bedroom and came out with a sheaf of pamphlets.
He thrust a small bundle of them into Hubert’s hand and then his hands dropped helplessly to his sides.
Without even looking at it, Hubert nodded in a friendly manner and then went looking for Andre, who was most likely down at curbside by this time. Aron was about four years younger than Hubert. What a gulf that was sometimes.
Gilles sat at his desk, waiting for a friend from another department to call on him, reading reports, going over his thoughts on several outstanding cases, and writing up a final report on an arrest he had made last week.
He had a few files like that to do, a small stack on the left front corner of his desk. File folders held shut with rubber bands. A man’s life, summed up in an instant for judge and jury. Those people were at least safely behind bars, awaiting trial, still, one caught up when one could.
From time to time his thoughts returned to the Ducharme case. It was hard to say if they were making any real progress. Not every case got solved, admittedly. The trouble was that for some reason, without knowing her, Gilles somehow liked Muriel Ducharme. He liked her in spite of himself. It was just one of those unexplainable things. In spite of all her faults, barely hinted at by anything so far, he had a sneaking kind of affection for that certain type of battle-axe. They had their rights just like anyone else, and some of them did a lot of good in the world.
If nothing else, they weren’t wishy-washy, weak characters, they knew what they wanted and how the world should be. They needed no validation.
Sometimes the police knew who did it, but didn’t have the evidence to even lay a charge. This was not one of those times. The very class of people they were dealing with made gathering a case together more difficult, cynically it must be said, and he had often allowed that poor people were easier to convict.
But if Gilles Maintenon was to charge someone, he had bloody well better get the right guy. For one thing, he had to live with himself. It was his only proper attitude, and one he had instilled into the heads of his men with a heavy if symbolic hammer.
The case was unusual in the fact that he still had no sense of who the killer might have been.
As usual, this revolved around the question of why.
No one ever did anything for no reason.
The fingerprint reports were conclusive: no prints that could not be accounted for by family members or household staff. And yet there were even a couple positively belonging to Philipe. For the most part, his prints were on the insides of closets, and inside some little-used drawers in his old bedroom, but there were a couple of oddballs, for example a row of four under the edge of a small brass and marble coffee table downstairs. He’d probably helped move it years before, and now it was a memento of those better times. It was a piece of evidence that meant nothing until some theory of the crime took it into account—and they still had no theory of the crime, although one or two suggested themselves well enough.
Philipe had been gone for years, by all accounts.
Gilles’ head came up and he stared into space again. He was almost certain he’d heard something, a familiar cough that could only belong to one man. His face changed, he was back in the room again, and Tailler saw it happen.
A knock came at the door. Tailler was rising when it opened. At first a head came in, looked around the door and sought out Gilles. A scruffy old man looked around, taking in Tailler as if reassuring himself that this was indeed the place. As Tailler sank down, the hunched form straightened up and entered, gripping the edge of the door with fingers like sausages. They were the hands of an old farmer, and very strong still, thought Tailler.
An unprepossessing figure shuffled in, shaking off a battered fedora and checking out Tailler and Firmin with sneaky, pale blue eyes. His eyes swept the room, taking in everything, and nodding at the open windows and fresh air.
“You guys do yourselves all right up here, eh?” He had just the voice for it, deep and tobacco-brown.
“Alphonse!” Gilles rose to greet his old friend.
“Tailler, this is Inspector Alphonse Durand, a legend in the force.”
Firmin smiled, looking up and down again quickly, intent on his paperwork. Tailler nodded dutifully, bobbing his head in acknowledgement of the gentleman’s second appraising glance.