The dark vineyard
Wine is bottled poetry
The distant howl of the siren atop the mairie broke the stillness of the French summer night. It was an hour before dawn but Bruno Courreges was already awake, his thoughts churning with memories and regrets about the woman who had until recently shared his bed. For a brief moment he froze, stilled by the eerie sound that carried such a weight of history and alarm. This same siren had summoned his neighbors in the small town of Saint-Denis to war and invasion, to liberation and peace, and it marked the hour of noon each day. Its swooping whine also served to call the town’s volunteer firemen to their duty. Such an emergency invariably required his presence as the sole municipal policeman of Saint-Denis. The brusque summons shook him from his melancholy thoughts, and he thrust aside the tangled sheets.
As Bruno dressed and swigged from a carton of milk by way of breakfast, his cell phone rang. It was Albert, one of the two professionals who led the town’s team of pompiers, and he, his truck and his night patrol were already en route.
“There’s a big fire up on the old road to Saint-Chamassy,” Albert began, an urgency in his voice. “It’s at the top of the hill, just before the turn to Saint-Cyprien. A barn and a big field. This time of year it could spread for miles if the wind gets up.”
“I’ll join you there,” Bruno said, tucking the phone between his shoulder and his ear as he tried to fasten his shirt buttons. He squeezed his eyes shut to draw on the map of the sprawling commune of Saint-Denis that he kept in his head. It was composed of the roads he patrolled, the isolated homes and hamlets he visited, the farms he knew, with their flocks of geese and ducks and pigs and goats that made this the gastronomic heartland of France. His familiarity with the ground over which he hunted, and searched for mushrooms after it rained, meant that he knew his district like a woman knows her own face.
“There’s no report of any casualties,” said Albert. “But you’d better alert the hospital as soon as you’ve told the mayor. I’m calling Les Ezyies and Saint-Cyprien for support. Can you stop at the station and make sure they send up the spare water tankers when the rest of the guys get in? Drive one of the tankers yourself if you have to. We’ll need all the water we can find. I’ll see you at the scene.”
“What about evacuation? There are four or five farms up there.”
“I don’t know yet, but the mayor had better start phoning people to put them on alert. Get a warning out on Radio Perigord.”
Bruno prayed that his elderly and sometimes temperamental van would start right away. He quickly fed his dog, left his chickens to fend for themselves and ran to the vehicle. It started at once, and he drove one-handed down the lane from his cottage toward town, thumbing the auto dial on his phone to alert first the mayor and then the chief doctor, each of whom already had been awoken by the siren. Lights were on inside people’s homes, and the town was stirring as Bruno drove at high speed to the gendarmerie to tell old Jules on the night desk to call the radio station in Perigueux and to dispatch men to seal off the road near the fire. As Bruno hurried back out to his van, Captain Duroc rushed into the main building from the small barracks next door, still pulling on his uniform jacket. Bruno left Jules to explain the situation. At the fire station, Ahmed and Fabien were struggling with the towing rig for the tankers as the other volunteers were arriving, sufficient to man the trucks and tenders. Bruno drove on as fast as his van could manage, his blue light flashing and the town siren still howling into the night behind him.
By the time he reached the open road by the railway line to Sarlat, he could see the broad glow in the hills above. Bruno shivered with apprehension. Fire frightened him. He had always treated it with a wary respect, which had become something close to fear since he’d hauled some wounded French soldiers from a burning armored car during the Balkan Wars. His left arm still carried the scars. In his bedside drawer was the Croix de Guerre the government had awarded him for his efforts, after a lengthy debate among bureaucrats as to whether the Bosnian peacekeeping mission was actually a war.
Bruno wondered if there was anything in the jumble in the back of his van that might serve as protective gear. There would be gloves and a cap in his hunting jacket, his hunting boots and some swimming goggles and a bottle of water in his sports bag. Maybe there was an old tennis shirt he could soak and use as a face mask. He pushed the accelerator harder as the van labored up the hill. He knew this area well but tried in vain to remember where there might be a barn this high up on the plateau, where the land was too poor for farming. It was mainly woods and thin pasture, some tumbledown shepherds’ bories of old stone, plus the tall microwave tower.
As Bruno rounded the last bend before the plateau, the whole night sky ahead seemed to pulse and glow red above the trees. He remembered the dry summer, the river so low that the tourist canoes had to search out the deeper channels. Now he could smell the burning. He slowed down. At least some of the pulsing red was the flashing light of Albert’s fire truck. Bruno parked off the road. He put on his boots, gloves and hunting cap, looked at his swimming goggles and stuffed them into a pocket, poured water on the tennis shirt he had found and ran up the road to the truck, where two pompiers stood bracing the spouting hose, silhouetted against the flames.
“Not a barn, just a big wooden shed. We couldn’t save it,” shouted Albert over the crackling of the flames and the roaring noise of the truck. He reached into the back of the vehicle and pulled out a heavy yellow fireman’s jacket and handed it to Bruno, nodding his approval of the stout boots on Bruno’s feet.
“It could have been a lot worse. We were here in time to stop it from spreading to the woods.”
More pulsing lights began to grow on the road as Ahmed approached with the second fire truck and the big water tanker, and then there were flashes of blue as the gendarmes arrived in their big van. Albert was calling the neighboring fire chiefs to say their help would not be needed.
“No sign of any people?” Bruno asked. Albert shook his head and ran off to direct the second truck. “How did you hear about the fire?” Bruno called after him.
“Anonymous call from the phone booth in Coux,” Albert shouted back.
Bruno made a mental note of that as he tried to get his bearings. He remembered this road being thickly wooded on both sides, but where he stood there was a break in the trees, and a new-looking dirt track curved into the wide stretch of field and pasture that was burning low but steadily. What little breeze he felt on his cheeks was coming toward him and toward the woods, where the pompiers were soaking the brush to deny the flames any fresh fuel. The biggest fire was the ruin of what had been the shed, standing amid the charred crop. Bruno’s foot caught on something. He looked down and saw a small metal flag, like the one farmers used to identify which seeds they had sown in which rows. He plucked it from the ground and, in the light from the truck headlights, read the words AGRICOLAE SECH G71. That meant nothing to him, but he stuffed the flag into his pocket. Shouts came from behind, and he turned to see more yellow-clad pompiers struggling up with a second hose, which bucked in their hands as it filled and a much more powerful jet of water lanced onto the edge of the woods.
“Smell anything funny?” Albert asked, suddenly looming beside him. “Come on, this way.”
He led Bruno across the still smoldering ground and around the side of the shed until they were upwind, where it was quieter. Inside the shed, a metal table supporting some charred machinery was still hot enough to spit as water dripped from what was left of the roof beams. Two smoking roof timbers thrust into the sky, perched on top of what looked like an old filing cabinet. Bruno caught a stink of burned plastic and rubber, and something else.
“Gasoline?” he asked.
“That’s what I think. We’ll send some trace evidence off to the lab in Bordeaux, but I’ll bet this was deliberate. If you go over to the far side of the field, you’ll smell it again. Somebody was thorough-he got the crops, the shed, everything. This is going to be a job for you a lot more than for me.”
“If it’s arson, it’s the Police Nationale,” said Bruno. It would be a good idea to seal off the phone booth in Coux to check fingerprints, Bruno thought.
“If it’s arson against crops,” said Albert, “it’s local. Some farmers’ feud or somebody’s been playing games with another man’s wife. And that means the Police Nationale won’t have the first idea where to start.”
Bruno nodded, peering at something in the shed that struck him as odd. “Albert, have you ever seen a filing cabinet and office stuff like that in a farmer’s shed in the middle of a field?”
“No. Looks like it could be a computer, though there’s no electricity up here. Maybe it’s an old typewriter.”
Bruno turned away and was walking across to the point where the charred crops stopped when an explosion came with a flat crunch. Light flared, and a rush of heat stunned him as he turned and saw Albert topple to his knees amid the debris of the shed, which was bright with new flames.
His forearm up to protect his eyes against the searing heat, Bruno ran instinctively toward Albert and grabbed him by the collar. Fighting down fear as he plunged into the flames that seemed hungry to engulf him, Bruno hauled Albert back. The fire chief’s legs dragged limply through the flaring wood of the shed, and his trousers were on fire. Once the two men were clear of danger, Bruno spread-eagled himself over Albert’s legs to douse the flames with the fireproof material of his jacket. And then the other firemen were there, spraying them both with foam from handheld extinguishers.
Ahmed hauled Bruno up and shone a flashlight into his face, shouting, “You okay?” while others tended to Albert. Bruno nodded, shook himself and rose a little jerkily to his feet, brushing away the thick foam that covered him.
“A bit scorched, but nothing serious thanks to that jacket Albert gave me,” he said. “What the hell was that explosion?”
“An aerosol; maybe a can of paint or kerosene. Some bastards leave an almost empty fuel container at the scene and close the cap. The vapor can make it go off like a bomb once it’s hot enough,” Ahmed said with a shrug. “Albert never should have gotten that close. We’d have carried on hosing it but we had to put water on the edge of the fire, stop it from reaching the woods.”
“My fault,” said Bruno. “I was asking him about the equipment inside the shed.”
Albert had been lifted to his feet and was shaking his head to clear it, flecks of the foam flying off from his helmet and jacket. Bruno asked him how he was.
“I’ll live to make a fool of myself another day. Some damn thing hit me on the ear,” said Albert. He put his hand up to the side of his head and it came away bright with blood. One of the firemen gave him a bottle of water; he drank deeply, then rinsed his mouth, spat and looked across at Bruno and nodded once. “Thanks,” he said quietly, handing him the water. Albert’s hand was trembling. So, Bruno noticed, was his own.
“How are the legs?” Bruno asked. His voice was hoarse, and his throat hurt. The thought of the gasoline and of the fire being set deliberately brought a surge of anger and a sudden sharp memory of the airfield at Sarajevo, the crunch of mortars and the screams of the men inside the armored car. Bruno had often wondered if he’d ever be able to go back into a fire. Now he knew, but he shuddered and took a deep breath to control himself.
“Not bad. I wear flameproof undertrousers, just like the race car drivers,” Albert said, his voice raised. He spoke quickly as the adrenaline rushed through his system. “I’m okay, just a bit dizzy from whatever hit me.”
More shouting erupted from behind them, and another fireman came running up.
“Hey, Chief, there’s a water main. The gendarmes just ran into a standpipe.”
Albert looked at Bruno and rolled his eyes. “Probably the first time our Captain Duroc ever found anything, and even then he had to run into it.”
They headed back to the road, where a jet of water was fountaining high from a broken standpipe and Fabien was doing something violent with a heavy wrench in the light of the only headlight on the gendarmes’ van that wasn’t broken. Captain Duroc could be heard shouting angrily at his men. Fabien gave a final twist of his wrench and the water stopped.
“We can use this now,” he said. “There’s not much pressure, but enough to damp down the embers.”
“Where’s that pipe going? Why isn’t it on my maps?” Albert demanded angrily, mopping at his bloodied ear with a handkerchief.
“Looks like it goes from the water tower to the microwave station. That’s Ministry of Defense, so they have a guard post,” said Fabien. “And this standpipe is here because they have another pipe going off to that shed and the field. Looks to me like there’s some fancy irrigation system installed.”
“Irrigation? Up here?” said Albert. “Somebody’s got more money than sense.”
“Funny that the one field that has its own piped water supply is the one that gets torched,” said Bruno. “You ever heard of this Agricolae?” He reached into his pocket and pulled out the small metal flag he had plucked from the ground.
“No. Could be some experimental seed, I suppose, but I never heard of anything like that up here.”
They went back to the truck, where the elderly mayor, Gerard Mangin, stood patiently by the road. Behind him was a row of parked cars belonging to locals who had come to watch the excitement. The mayor stepped forward, smiled a greeting and shook hands with Albert and Bruno. A camera flashed. Philippe Delaron was recording the scene for the local paper.
“Not much to report,” said Albert. “The danger’s over, and there’s no sign of anyone hurt. Not even me, thanks to Bruno. There’s a burned-out shed, a field of crops destroyed and one broken standpipe. I have my suspicions about what started this, but we’ll have to wait for the lab report.”
“You mean the fire was set deliberately?”
“It looks that way, Monsieur le Maire. And I think that explosion you saw was of a gasoline can going up. Whatever it was, it could have killed somebody. Could have killed me, if Bruno hadn’t pulled me out.”
“I hadn’t realized this was so serious,” the mayor said.
“Now I’d better go and see about getting my guys back to the station. And, Bruno, I’ll take that fire coat back. Those things cost a small fortune.”
“Whatever they cost, they’re worth every centime,” said Bruno, shedding the coat. He turned back to the mayor. “There’s more to this than meets the eye. That field had its own water supply, and the shed contained what looked like office equipment. Not what you expect to find in a bare upland field in the middle of nowhere. I’ll have to inform the landowner, probably have to make a report for the insurance and so on.”
“Have you told the gendarmes about this?”
“Not yet. Captain Duroc is a bit preoccupied with the damage to his van. It appears they ran into a standpipe.”
“Yes, I saw that.” In the strengthening light of dawn, Bruno watched a smile twitch at the mayor’s lips. “Well, it seems clear there’s been a crime here.”
“Right, and that means the Police Nationale, not the gendarmes. They might even want to send a forensics team.”
Bruno walked on to the row of parked cars and the small knot of locals to tell them there was no danger, that the show was over, and to ask them to move their cars so the fire trucks could turn around and leave. Big Stephane the dairy farmer, a friend of Bruno’s from the hunting club, was there with his pretty young daughter Dominique. Their farm was just down the hill, probably one of the first that would have been hit if the fire had spread, and this was normally the hour when they would start the milking. Bruno shrugged off their questions and persuaded most of the onlookers back into their cars. Then he walked over to Captain Duroc to arrange for a gendarme to seal off the phone booth in Coux. It was just past 6 a.m. Fauquet’s cafe would be open, and Bruno needed a proper breakfast.
Bruno walked toward two familiar cars, an elderly Citroen DS from the 1960s and an even older Citroen deux chevaux, a design with a canvas hood that traced back to the 1930s. His friend the baron, a retired industrialist whose trim figure belied his age, leaned against his big car. Beside him stood Pamela, the owner of the deux chevaux and of a local guesthouse, who was known to most of Saint-Denis as the Mad Englishwoman. Bruno had introduced them over a game of tennis, and Pamela and a visiting friend had thoroughly trounced them.
“The baron woke me with a phone call. I hadn’t heard the siren,” Pamela said. A handsome woman whose features were too strong to be described simply as pretty, she was wearing an Hermes head scarf and a battered version of the English waxed cotton jacket that had become highly fashionable in France. Whether she was standing, walking or on horseback, Bruno could recognize her at a distance from her posture alone, the straight back and the proud neck, the bold stride of a woman wholly at ease with herself.
“Where’s your horse?” Bruno asked, leaning forward to kiss her on both cheeks. She shrank back, laughing.
“Sorry, Bruno. Normally I love this French obsession with kissing, but you look terrible and smell worse. Of burned wool and I suppose that awful foam all over your trousers. And I think you’ve lost your eyebrows. It’s hard to see under all the black smears over your face.”
“I’m fine,” he said, touching his fingers to his eyebrows. They felt like the bristles on his chin.
“I didn’t bring the horse,” she said, “because I thought the fire might frighten her. I only came up to see if we’d have to evacuate.”
“What’s that building that was on fire?” asked the baron. “I thought I knew every inch of these hills but I never knew it was there.”
“Nor I,” said Bruno. “There’s a break in the trees, and then a track that curves away toward the field so you can’t see it from the road. I want some breakfast. See you back at Fauquet’s?”
“Good idea,” said the baron. “It’s far too late to go back to sleep. Pamela, please be our guest, so long as you promise to prefer our company to your English crossword puzzle.”
“But of course, Baron. You’re more entertaining than any crossword puzzle. But I think Bruno needs to wash and change first.” She studied him. “You’d better throw those trousers away. I hope the town pays for a new uniform.”
Even in the age of computers, it was not an easy task to find out who owned the charred field and burned-out shed. Claire, the mayor’s secretary, pored over the cadastre, the giant map that listed every building in the far-flung commune of Saint-Denis. It also showed the boundaries of every plot of land, each identified by its own lot number. She wrote down the relevant numbers. Now they could cross-check it against the tax list to learn the identity of the registered owner.
“There’s no building marked on the map anywhere up here,” Claire complained. “Are you sure you’ve got the right road, Bruno?”
“Yes, I’m sure.” Showered, shaved and dressed in a spare uniform, Bruno was feeling himself again, except for the eyebrows. He came over to join her at the giant map, careful to keep some space between himself and Claire’s ample form. Even though irritated, she couldn’t resist flirting with him and batted her eyelashes from sheer habit. The only single man at the mairie, Bruno was used to Claire’s ways.
He traced the road he had taken that morning. “The microwave tower was there and the water tower was over there, so the water line must have run along the road to that point,” he muttered to himself, placing his finger firmly on the spot. He was sure he had the correct lot, but Claire was right. There was no building marked on the map. That was not just very odd, it was also a criminal offense, since it meant the commune had granted no construction permit. And because the land was also served by a water line and a standpipe, the commune was being cheated out of its annual water fee. Still, he had the lot number. He left Claire to roll up the map, and went into the cramped room that was called the registry to check the name of the owner in the tax files.
The owner was a societe anonyme, a company called Agricolae with a registered office in Paris, and the lot had been purchased from the Ministry of Defense three years earlier. Agricolae-that had been the name on the metal flag Bruno had plucked from the ground and put in the pocket of Albert’s pompier jacket. He’d have to get that back. The file showed that no water fee had been paid, no building tax either, and there was no building permit. That meant the company called Agricolae was in trouble. He was just reaching for the phone in his office to call Albert when Claire peeked around the door to tell him he had a visitor.
“The most important man in Saint-Denis after the mayor and they still keep you in this miserable hole they dare to call an office,” declared Commissaire Jean-Jacques Jalipeau, the chief detective of the Police Nationale for the departement. He took a half step into the room and at once seemed to fill it.
“Christ, you look terrible, face all red and eyebrows burned off,” J-J went on. “Sure it wasn’t you who started that fire? You certainly got too close to it.”
“I certainly got far too close,” Bruno replied, smiling at his colleague. “Heaven help whoever started that damn fire if I get to him first.”
Bruno liked J-J despite his friend’s regular and justified accusation that Bruno’s concept of justice owed more to the interests of Saint-Denis than to the code criminel. They had worked on a couple of cases successfully and enjoyed some fine meals together. Bruno led J-J down the ancient stone stairs of the mairie and through the arches into Fauquet’s cafe, where J-J ordered two Ricards.
“How’s Isabelle?” J-J asked. “She must be heading up to that new job in Paris any time now.” Isabelle had worked for him as a detective in the regional headquarters in Perigueux before her karate skills and her looks had caught the attention of the minister of the interior. J-J had taken a benign interest in the affair Bruno started with her that had blossomed throughout the summer, flattering himself that he had played a role as matchmaker.
“She’s already left,” Bruno said, trying to keep his voice neutral. “They said the minister had some foreign trip coming up and he wanted her in the delegation.”
“Well, you always knew she’d be leaving,” J-J said. “And you had three happy months.”
Bruno nodded. When Isabelle had announced that she would leave, putting her career in Paris ahead of whatever she and Bruno had between them, he had accepted her decision. But the walls he had kept around his heart since his last love had been snatched from him, defenses that Isabelle had started to dismantle, began to rebuild themselves in a way that he could almost feel. In their last week together, he had lain awake at night, knowing from her breathing that she too was pretending to be asleep, and he could almost feel stone piling upon stone within him. Strangely, it had made their lovemaking even more intense. But the final parting at the Saint-Denis train station had been dry-eyed.
“I miss her,” J-J went on breezily. “My new inspector isn’t much of a replacement. Another woman, but not half so easy on the eyes.”
“You’re not bringing her in on this case?”
“Not yet. We haven’t even gotten a formal notice of arson from the pompiers. But I had one of those discreet calls from Paris just after lunch saying they wanted this sorted out fast. It’s not just their usual worry about eco-saboteurs. There’s some high-level interest pushing this. What can you tell me?”
Bruno related the events of the night, the unusual nature of the water supply, the former ownership by the Ministry of Defense, and finished with a description of the tax and building permit delinquency of the Agricolae company.
“I’m not sure about the eco-saboteurs, though,” he added. “Don’t they usually want publicity and bring along their journalists and cameras?”
J-J shrugged and swirled the ice cube in his glass; he added water and watched his Ricard turn a milky color, then took a healthy sip. “I’ve got a formal letter of request to your mayor from the prefect, asking you to be assigned to the case to lend us poor city flics your local knowledge. So consider yourself conscripted. I’ve got a team up in Perigueux, collating all the names of militant ecolos, and the forensic team from Bergerac will be up at the field by now. What can you tell me about the local ecolos?”
“Nothing special. One was elected to the town council, an elderly hippie named Alphonse who runs a commune in the hills. He’s a sweet man-has a heart of gold, takes in waifs and strays, has been here over thirty years. Then there’s a group that holds protest rallies demanding we close down the local sawmill because of pollution from the chimney. But no real militants. The Greens don’t even get ten percent of the vote, except for Alphonse, and he gets elected because everyone likes the cheese he makes. Let’s go to the fire station and see Albert. He won’t have the lab reports yet but he should be able to give us some idea of whether this really was deliberate or not.”
“Deliberate?” said Fauquet, the cafe owner, who was proud of his reputation for being first to hear all the gossip. He leaned over the counter. “Did you say that the fire might have been deliberate?”
“No, I didn’t say that,” snapped J-J. A big and burly man, whose crumpled appearance concealed his keen brain, J-J could be very intimidating indeed. “And if I hear that you did, I’ll be back here with an army of suspicious health inspectors and a warrant for your arrest. This is serious police business. Do you understand me, monsieur?”
Bruno thought “Agricultural Research Station” was a grand name for the modest single-story building that had been erected alongside an old farmhouse on the road to Les Eyzies. Securing the station for Saint-Denis had been one of the mayor’s prouder achievements. It housed four scientists, four technicians and half a dozen locals employed to run the farm and greenhouses. The director and chief scientist, Gustave Petitbon, kept his office in what had been the best room of the old farmhouse. A tall and very thin man with a pronounced stoop, he sat perched on the front of his desk and looked defiantly at the two policemen.
“I can’t tell you what the crop was, not without authorization. It’s a commercial secret,” he said. Bruno knew Petitbon slightly from the few town rugby games Petitbon attended, and from a couple of mayoral receptions, at which Petitbon stood aloof in a corner with a glass of wine. He lived quietly in town with his wife, and they had no children.
“Monsieur Petitbon, I’ve been ordered by the minister of the interior in Paris to conduct this inquiry,” said J-J firmly, his voice starting to grow louder as he went on. “I don’t think that would have happened unless somebody pretty senior in the Ministry of Agriculture, your employer, asked them to get the chief detective of this departement to take charge of the inquiry. I’ve put off one murder, two rapes and a bank robbery to come down here. So rather than waste my time, I suggest you call your ministry in Paris and get whatever authorization you need before I call my ministry and tell them I’m going to arrest you for obstructing my inquiries.”
Petitbon, startled by the volume that J-J’s big frame could generate, went behind his desk to make the call. Then he ostentatiously turned his swivel chair so his back was toward them. He mumbled into the phone and then listened attentively as the voice on the other end of the line barked what sounded like orders. The phone was evidently slammed down at the other end before Petitbon could finish his last deferential “Oui, Monsieur le Directeur.” Petitbon jumped slightly, turned and put the phone down.
“What I am about to tell you must go no further than this room,” he began self-importantly, sitting up very straight. “The crop that was burned was a project of national importance, backed by the Ministry of Agriculture but initiated by the Ministry of Defense. Concern about the implications of climate change led the defense ministry to recommend a special project on drought-resistant crops that might flourish on marginal soil. The project included one pharmaceutical and one agrochemical corporation, and a new company was formed, Agricolae SA, to organize and fund the research. We have been working with a number of crop varieties, soya and other beans, maize and potatoes, some vines. Those were the crops that were destroyed. It is a matter of urgent importance to establish who is responsible, and indeed, who might have known of the project. It was highly confidential.”
Bruno remembered the little flag that he had recovered from the fire station. “So a small metal marker that said ‘Agricolae Sech’ would be yours? I found it at the site.”
“Agricolae Sech -short for Secheresse -that’s the drought-resistant strain we are trying to develop. We have some of the crops on the farm here, but we also wanted to do some tests on marginal soil. That’s why we planted up there on the plateau. And it looks like the crop is all gone, along with a lot of files and research notes. Three years’ work.”
“Do you have any particular reason to think it might have been deliberate?” Bruno asked, keeping his tone light. “Any enemies, aggrieved ex-employees, jealous husbands?”
Petitbon smiled, and his thin, almost severe face became quite pleasant. “I’d prefer the latter. But no, no enemies I can think of, except maybe those crazy eco-saboteur types. Was it arson?”
“We’re waiting for the lab results.”
“Well, I may be able to tell you. We had a webcam set up in the shed, playing back to a computer here at the research station, so we could check rates of growth, color, ripeness and so on. It should also have a record of anybody behaving suspiciously in the field or around the shed, even in low light or at night. We can probably enhance the image a bit.”
“Wouldn’t it have burned? How did you power it?”
“We had a solar panel up there, and that was more than enough. The camera is probably destroyed, but the image will be stored on the computer. I was going to take a look when you arrived.”
“I’m sorry about your three years’ work, monsieur.”
“Thank you. Let’s go over to the lab. That’s where the equipment is.”
“Just one thing,” Bruno added. “These crop varieties you were working on, were they genetically modified, the controversial stuff that people protest against?”
“Of course. That’s why it was all kept confidential. And we made real progress with some of the soybean strains up there.”
“How many people here at the station knew about this project?” J-J asked.
“Just about everybody, I imagine. All the scientists and technicians, and the men who did the actual farming. They’re all aware that this is confidential. We were told not to discuss it even with our wives.”
“So altogether, ten or fifteen people?” J-J said.
“Fourteen. And I have no reason to question the loyalty of any one of them.”
“I’ll need their personnel files and a room here for my team. It will be more discreet here than back in town.”
“Okay,” said Petitbon. “I suppose you’d better take this room. I can always make do over in the lab. And now let’s see what the webcam can tell us.”
Fixed under the eaves of the shed, the webcam showed nothing until the digital timer displayed 3:02 a.m. Then the first sign of distant movement began on the western edge of the field. At 3:06 there was more movement on the northern edge, and then the camera seemed to shudder.
“That could be the intruder trying the door,” said Petitbon. “It was locked, but from the way the shaking goes on and gets violent, I suspect the door was forced.”
At 3:09 came the first faint glow of light, very close, and then a sudden flare of flame. The webcam stopped transmitting at 3:18.
“Well, at least we have the time frame,” said J-J. “Can you make a copy of that footage for my forensics team? They may be able to enhance it, get something from that bit of movement. But if you ask me, whoever was spreading that gasoline knew exactly where your webcam was and what it did, so the first line of investigation will have to be whether this was an inside job.”
“Just one more thing,” added Bruno. “Do you have any more of these web cameras?”
Petitbon nodded. “Yes, we monitor some other crops.”
“Well, I think you’d better put them up around here, around the offices and the greenhouses. Whoever burned your crops may want to come back and finish the job here at the research station.”
After three fruitless days of interviewing the staff of the research station, Bruno was relaxing in the barber’s chair for his monthly haircut when the call came from Nathalie, the cashier at the wine shop of Hubert de Montignac. Listed in the Guide Hachette des Vins as one of the finest such caves in France, it was one of only three businesses aside from the vineyard itself to offer every year of Chateau Petrus from 1944 to the present. For Bruno, who understood that a great part of the law’s duty was to uphold the grand traditions of France and of Saint-Denis, the cave was close to being a shrine. He leaped from the barber’s chair, forgetting for the moment Baptiste’s flashing scissors, tossed aside the smock that covered him and thrust his official hat upon his half-shorn locks. Pausing only to put the magnetic blue light on the roof of his van, he roared off.
Nathalie had not been very precise about the nature of the emergency, saying only that there was trouble and he had better come quickly. It took Bruno less than three minutes to force his way through the usual traffic jam at the small roundabout by the bridge and into the courtyard of Hubert’s sprawling single-story barn. Despite the ivy and flowers that tumbled from various old wine barrels, it was not, Hubert admitted, the most impressive of entrances for an establishment so renowned. But then, Hubert liked to explain, he spent his money on the contents rather than the showcase. He also spent his money on his appearance, cultivating a countrified English look with tweed sports jackets and Viyella shirts, knitted ties and handmade brogues that he bought in London on his sales trips.
Bruno saw the usual mix of cars in the courtyard, Mercedeses and BMWs, Citroens and Renaults and Peugeots from all across France. His eye lingered on a green Range Rover with British plates. For a devoted hunter who too often found himself hauling the carcass of a deer through long stretches of rough country, it was the only vehicle that sparked a touch of envy. But he knew he’d be more comfortable with the army surplus Citroen jeep that he was saving for.
Bruno quickly took in the scene. Nearest the entrance, with one door open and a shouting match under way all around it, was a white Porsche convertible with an extremely pretty young woman sitting in the passenger seat. Hubert himself was standing in front of the driver’s door, gripping the steering wheel to prevent a very angry man in bright yellow trousers and a pink polo shirt from climbing in and driving away. Nathalie sat grimly on the Porsche’s hood, a younger woman whom Bruno did not know, presumably some new employee, perched beside her. With the sun gleaming off the thick ringlets of her blond hair, the new girl with the large dark eyes was attractive enough for Bruno’s glance to linger. She stared back at him boldly, the kind of frank appraisal he might expect from an older and more experienced woman.
Standing beside the new girl was Max, a handsome youth with blond streaks in his hair whose skin glowed with good health. He grinned at the sight of Bruno, who had taught the boy to play rugby. Now at a university in Bordeaux, Max had a summer job working for Hubert. He lived at his father Alphonse’s commune. As backdrop to the scene around the Porsche, a small audience of enthralled customers was gathered in the door of the cave.
The blue light on his van still flashing, Bruno had stopped with his front bumper almost touching the Porsche, blocking its exit. He took out his notebook and recorded the license plate number. It ended in 75, which meant Paris. He strode up to the group, which now fell silent. This was no time for the habitual round of kissing and hand-shaking. It was an occasion for the anonymous majesty of the law.
“Messieurs-dames,” he began, touching his peaked cap in salute and taking in the scene. “Chef de Police Courreges a votre service.”
Bruno took a good look at the strangers and their expensive car. The man in pink and yellow must have been in his late fifties. He had a magnificent head of long, curling white hair and a small paunch, and he wore a gold wedding ring. The woman in his Porsche looked to be in her twenties. She was wearing big sunglasses and shoes that cost-Bruno guessed-at least two weeks of his pay. He noted that she wore an impressive collection of diamonds on her fingers but no wedding ring. An exquisitely groomed small white poodle with a diamante collar sat at her feet.
“He dropped the Chateau Petrus ’82 and is refusing to pay for it,” said Hubert, in a voice that somehow expressed grief as well as anger.
“You mean, he broke it?” Bruno was awed. “A bottle of the ’82?” This was like a death in the family.
“Two thousand two hundred euros’ worth of wine, smashed on the floor,” said Nathalie.
“It was an accident,” said the man in pink. “The bottle was slippery, greasy. It wasn’t my fault.”
“And you are, monsieur?” inquired Bruno.
“Just a tourist, on a short vacation.”
“Your papers, please.”
“Look, I’m just passing through. I’ll be on my way once these people stop blocking my car.”
“Your papers, monsieur. And yours, please, madame.”
“Mademoiselle,” the well-groomed young woman corrected him, fishing in her purse for her identity card. Bruno recognized the distinctive Chanel logo.
“Apologies, Mademoiselle, ah, d’Alambert. This is still your address, boulevard Maurice-Barres in Paris?”
She nodded. Bruno took down in his notebook the relevant information. She was twenty-four and had been born in Lille. It was quite a jump from an industrial city in northern France to boulevard Barres, a celebrated street overlooking the Bois de Boulogne in the richest part of Paris. Her profession was listed as model.
“Monsieur, your papers,” he repeated.
The man pursed his lips as if to object, then shrugged and reached for his wallet, an expensive slim design of crocodile skin, and handed Bruno his identity card and his driver’s license.
“Monsieur Hector d’Aubergny Dupuy, of avenue Foch, Paris, sixteenth arrondissement. Is that right?” The man nodded. Avenue Foch was a grand address, and but a pleasant stroll from the Bois de Boulogne and boulevard Barres.
“And if I were to call your home, monsieur, would someone be there who could confirm that you are who you say you are?” Bruno paused and glanced at the girl in the Porsche. “Perhaps a Madame Dupuy?”
Dupuy colored, his face almost matching the pink of his polo shirt. “I doubt it, not at this time.”
“And your business address, if you please.”
Dupuy opened the wallet again and fished out a card that identified him as chef d’entreprise of a business consultancy named after himself, with an office on the rue de Monceau. Bruno pulled out his cell phone. “And there would be somebody at this number in Paris, monsieur, to vouch for you and confirm that the car is yours?”
“Yes, my secretary. But I have the car’s registration papers and insurance and…”
Bruno held up a hand, turned away and dialed the number of Philippe Delaron, a photographer and part-time reporter for the Sud Ouest newspaper, whom he had seen at the fire. Bruno suggested that Philippe come with his camera. Bruno then turned back to the now silent group.
“I’m not sure any crime has been committed,” he said with a deliberately ponderous delivery, “but there’s clearly the prospect of a civil lawsuit, and I’d have to be a witness. So I have to ask you to be patient while I satisfy myself that I understand what’s happened here. To help us with that I’ve asked a local photographer who sometimes works with the police to join us.”
Bruno noticed with satisfaction that Dupuy’s face was coloring anew. Bruno looked at the employees of the wine shop, who were still clustered around the hood of the Porsche.
“Perhaps, madame,” Bruno said, looking at Nathalie, “you can come from the front of the car now that everything is calm and under control.” Nathalie flounced off, and the pretty young stranger beside her slid off rather less gracefully. Bruno noted that Hubert reached quickly forward to help her, only to be beaten to the task by Max. Nathalie, Hubert’s longtime mistress, had also noticed Hubert’s protective move, and her jaw tightened.
“I don’t believe you’ve met our new stagiaire,” Hubert said to Bruno. “Mademoiselle Jacqueline Duplessis from Quebec. She’s a quick thinker, the first one out to sit on the car after the bottle broke and the customer tried to leave. She’s been studying wine in California, and she’ll be working with us this year, learning our ways. Her family in Canada makes a very interesting dessert wine.”
Bruno shook hands with the young woman, who held his hand a moment too long, greeted him in the curious accent of French Canada and almost stroked his palm as she released it. Bruno murmured a pleasantry before turning toward the entrance, weighing how best to proceed. The first thing would be to keep this as private as possible.
“There’s no more to see, messieurs-dames,” Bruno called to the little audience in the doorway. “Please go back inside and continue your shopping.” He moved forward with a smile on his face, his outstretched arms steering them inside. Then he resumed his official expression and faced the white-haired gallant from Paris.
“Monsieur Dupuy, you agree that you handled the bottle of Chateau Petrus and that it fell from your hands?”
“Well, it slid. It was greasy.”
“Then let’s go inside and examine the remains of the bottle. With your permission, Monsieur de Montignac?”
The cave was one of Bruno’s favorite places. Directly ahead lay Hubert’s own wines, which were the source of his success. He had started by blending the wines of various local growers into his own brand of Bergerac whites, reds and roses. Then he’d bought a small vineyard near the castle of Monbazillac to produce his version of the sweet and golden dessert wine. Later came the partnership with an English businessman who had bought a run-down chateau and vineyard outside Bergerac and produced a wine that won prizes at the great fairs in Dijon and Paris. To the right lay the seat of the cave ’s reputation, row upon row of the finest wines of Bordeaux, year after year after year of Latours and Lafites, Cheval Blanc and Angelus, and the famous unbroken run of Chateau Petrus. To the left was what was said to be one of the finest selections of malt whiskies outside Scotland and one of the best collections of vintage Armagnacs in France.
Between these two wings was the heart of the place, six tall plastic cylinders. These gigantic vats, with their gas station-like pumps attached, dispensed wine in bulk. All comers were invited to buy their Bergerac white, red and rose, their vin de table and their sweet white wines for one euro a liter or less, so long as they brought their own plastic containers or bottles and did their own filling. This was where Bruno bought his everyday wine. The air smelled of wine, old and new, freshly spilled and freshly opened, at least some of it breathtakingly costly. Knowing the way to the shelf of Petrus, Bruno led his small entourage to the altar of this temple to wine, and stopped, looking down mournfully at the smashed bottle on the tiled floor. Out of respect, he removed his hat, and kneeled to see it more closely. The price, carefully written in delicate thin strokes of white paint, was 2,200 euros.
He peered closely at the largest shard of glass. There was indeed a grease mark, more of a long, smeared thumbprint. He turned and looked at Dupuy’s glistening face.
“Monsieur, I noticed in the pouch by the driver’s seat of your car a tube of sunscreen, a sensible precaution when driving a convertible, although it can be greasy. How recently did you apply it to your face?”
As Dupuy shrugged, the door opened and Delaron walked in, his camera around his neck.
“Monsieur Delaron, how about beginning with a photo of the Porsche outside, and be sure to get the license plate and of course the passenger,” Bruno began. “It may make a story for your paper: the sad death of a bottle of Petrus ’82…”
“I’ll pay for the bottle,” Dupuy said suddenly. “It may have been my fault.” He handed a black credit card to Nathalie. “Let’s forget about the whole thing.”
“You’re lucky it wasn’t the ’61,” said Nathalie. “That’s 4,100 euros. By the way, Bruno, what’s wrong with your hair?”
“This is a very generous gesture, monsieur,” said Bruno, ignoring Nathalie but hurriedly replacing his hat on his half-cut hair. “It’s a pity there aren’t more people like you. And I’m sure that, in a spirit of reconciliation, Monsieur de Montignac would like to offer you a small glass.”
Hubert was already behind the counter pulling a bottle from the cooler. “I was planning on tasting a new shipment of the Krug ’95, if Monsieur Dupuy would care to join me, and mademoiselle, of course.” He tapped the bottom of the bottle to prevent it from bubbling over, and removed the cork with a restrained but festive pop. Jacqueline scurried forward with glasses, and Nathalie stood sternly by the door with the credit-card bill for Dupuy to sign. Max emerged from the vast warehouse at the rear with a mop and a dustpan and began cleaning up. Bruno went outside and invited the bored-looking Mademoiselle d’Alambert to join them for a glass of champagne. She left the car with impressive speed and a flash of thigh, leaving the poodle behind.
His interrupted haircut complete, Bruno took the ancient stairs of the mairie up to his office, pondering as he often did how many feet it had taken over the centuries to wear the stone steps into such deep curves. The usual mail and paperwork awaited him, along with the endless to-do list that had grown while he was at the research station with J-J. It ranged from providing certificates of good conduct for people applying for jobs and university places to signing contracts for the musicians who would play at the civic ball on the night of the fair of Saint Louis. As secretary of the council’s sports committee, he had to sign the check for the first stage of the repainting of the rugby stadium. There was a faxed notification of death from the Prefecture de Police in Paris informing him that a resident of Saint-Denis had died in the jurisdiction of Paris, and asking that he please notify the family. The name of the deceased was unfamiliar, but the address was that of the hippie commune that had survived in the hills since the 1960s, probably because they produced the best goat cheese in the market. He would have to find time for that visit before the end of the day, but he would use the occasion to put some questions about GMOs to the commune residents. If anybody knew about the ecolos, environmentalists who were militants for the Green cause, it would be Alphonse and his people.
He put his hat on top of the bookcase, beside the FBI baseball cap that a friend had brought him after a vacation in New York, then squeezed between the filing cabinets and the wall to get behind his battered metal desk. He sat down, hearing the familiar squeak of his swivel chair, and looked down through the window at the busy roundabout and the bustle of the main shopping street behind it.
Most of the people he could see were tourists, studying the houses for sale in the real estate agents’ windows. Saint-Denis now boasted four bakeries, four salons, four real estate agencies, three banks and three shops selling foie gras and other local delicacies, but there was only one grocery and one butcher’s shop. The fishmonger had long since given way to an insurance agency. Another grocery had been replaced the previous winter by a business that serviced computers and sold cell phones and DSL lines for the Internet. And a butcher had retired in the spring and now rented his premises to a real estate agent. It was no longer the Saint-Denis Bruno had first come to a decade ago, when the small towns of rural France still retained the shops and the texture he remembered from his boyhood. Now people shopped at the supermarkets on the outskirts of town, or drove to the complex of shopping malls and hypermarkets outside Perigueux, forty minutes away. Bruno sighed and turned back to his desk.
He filled out the good conduct forms, signing and stamping each one with his seal, and signed the musicians’ contracts. He completed the paperwork for two death notices to be sent to the prefecture, and phoned Father Sentout to confirm the church for the funerals. Then something jogged his memory. He had signed another batch of good conduct forms earlier in the year. He looked at his file of copies, and there he found what he was looking for: an application for a summer job as a lab assistant at the Agricultural Research Station for Dominique Suchet, Stephane’s daughter. He and J-J had interviewed the permanent staff, checking the backgrounds of the technicians and the farmworkers. But he hadn’t thought about the summer workers. Putain. That meant more work, but it had to be done.
Bruno paused. Dominique had been at the scene of the fire with her father-natural enough since their farm was just down the hill. Still, it was an interesting coincidence. He looked again at Dominique’s good conduct form, which contained a recommendation from the headmaster of the town college, the secondary school where the kids went before going on to the lycee. He picked up the phone and called Rollo, the headmaster.
Rollo told him Dominique was a very promising girl, good at math and science. She’d done well at the lycee and was now studying computer science at a university in Grenoble. She was a hard worker and had been captain of the school swimming team. Bruno began to scribble notes as Rollo described how during a mock election, Dominique and her partner had held meetings about global warming and melting ice caps, plastered the school with posters about it and defeated the Socialist favorites to pull off a victory for the Greens. When he asked who had been her partner, Rollo said it had been Max, Alphonse’s son.
Bruno thanked Rollo and put down the phone. The prospect of a militant young Green at the research station, doubtless knowing about the GMO project, with a father whose farm was near the trial crops, was by far the best lead in a case where he was making no progress. But Stephane was a friend of his. He’d have to make some inquiries of his own before talking to J-J, at least to establish whether the girl had a decent alibi for the time of the fire. He rose and was reaching for his cap when Claire put her head around his door to say the mayor needed to see him.
“I like the new haircut, Bruno,” she added, lingering in the doorway.
“It’s the same one I get every month,” he said, grabbing his notebook.
“No, it’s shorter,” she said, edging closer to the door so that he had to squeeze past. “It makes you look younger.”
“But I’m even older now than I was when it was cut,” he said, and left her nonplussed.
His spirits rose as they always did when he entered the mayor’s office. The rich colors of old wood and paneling and faded rugs could hardly have been more different from those of his own cramped and functional office, or from the modernized reception area. The mayor kept to the old ways, preferring his fountain pen to a computer terminal, and the traditional system of manila file folders bound with green and red tape over some electronic database.
“Bonjour, Bruno. I had a call earlier from the American embassy in Paris, commercial section, following up on a letter they sent that somehow Claire seems to have misfiled. Could we receive some distinguished businessman who wants to discuss a possible investment in our region?”
“What kind of investment?”
“They didn’t say. But I’d be glad of anything. We need the jobs. The meeting is here in my office, tomorrow at 9 a.m. I’d like you to be there, along with Xavier.” Xavier was the maire-adjoint, as well as one of Bruno’s tennis partners, and probably would be the next mayor when Gerard Mangin eventually stepped down.
“Did we get a name?” Bruno asked.
“Only if Claire finds that letter.”
“If the meeting is at nine, they’ll be staying in a hotel near here. I’ll call around, find out the name and see what I can dig up.”
“It could be just some big political donor looking to buy a chateau,” the mayor speculated. Bruno knew him to be an old-school politician who had learned his skills as an aide to Jacques Chirac around the time Bruno had been born. “Still no progress on the fire?”
“Only that we got the lab report confirming the presence of gasoline. It was arson, all right. But we’re no nearer to knowing who or why. The staff all seem to be in the clear, so J-J is working on possible competitors, and I’m supposed to make discreet inquiries among the locals, starting with the ecolos and then the nearby farmers who might have been worried about contamination of their crops. But first I want to find out a bit more about the anonymous call alerting us to the fire. It came from the phone booth at Coux. It’s a long shot, but somebody may have seen or heard something.”
Back in his office, Bruno tracked down the American businessman at the Centenaire in Les Eyzies, the grandest hotel in the district, with a restaurant that boasted a Michelin rosette. Therese at the hotel’s reception desk had a daughter in Bruno’s tennis class. He took hasty notes as Therese told him everything she knew. A young man named Fernando Bondino had arrived in a big Mercedes and taken the presidential suite, at a cost of nearly a thousand euros a night. He had demanded an Internet connection the moment he checked in, then had ordered the menu degustation and a bottle of Chateau Petrus, followed by the best Armagnac. The booking had been made by the Dupuy consultancy in Paris, on the avenue Monceau. Bruno checked his notebook for the names he had scribbled down at the wine shop. The address and the phone number were the same. Monsieur Dupuy had booked a room at the hotel that night.
Bruno fired up his computer, typed in Google. fr and looked up the name Bondino. A flood of page references came up, starting with Bondino Wines, Inc., in English and in Spanish. He understood enough to see that they ran vineyards in California, Chile, Australia and South Africa and were clearly a very large and rich company. He turned back to the main Google page and found articles in French from Figaro, Marianne and Les Echos, the business paper. The Figaro piece was an interview, which he printed out, marking the passage in which the head of the company, Francis X. Bondino, was asked if his global wine empire would ever spread to France.
“France and Italy are the homes of great wine, and our ambition will not be satisfied until we return to the source of our craft in these great countries,” Bondino was quoted as saying. His son Fernando had added: “And frankly, the wine industry in these countries is suffering from too many small vineyards overproducing too much indifferent wine. They have not yet followed the United States and Australia into a rationalization of the industry with new techniques and modern marketing. Opportunities for reorganization are enormous.”
Bruno read on in Marianne about a family feud that had split the business a generation earlier, with prolonged lawsuits and much bad blood, and a brother and sister disinherited. Les Echos had a story about the company’s buying new vineyards in South Africa the previous year, along with some figures that startled Bruno. Bondino had turned down an offer to sell the company for six hundred million euros; he had nearly three thousand employees worldwide-roughly the population of Saint-Denis-and had made a profit the previous year of thirty-eight million euros. Marveling at the amount of instant information that the computer brought to his desk, Bruno printed out the story from Les Echos and prepared a small dossier of his research for the mayor, while wondering what exactly a firm so large might want from his little town. He turned to his telephone and called Saint-Denis’s own expert on the wine trade, Hubert de Montignac.
“Bruno, my friend. I’ve put aside a fine bottle for you to show my appreciation for your tact and good sense,” Hubert began as soon as he heard Bruno’s voice. “Really, I owe you a big favor.”
“Just doing my duty. Listen, what can you tell me about an American wine corporation called Bondino?”
“Bondino is very big, up there close to Gallo and Mondavi among the American giants. Worldwide operations-Australia and South Africa-and there was a rumor that they’re sniffing around one of the big Bordeaux chateaux. They make their money with mass wines they call varietals.”
“What are varietals?”
“It’s just the name of a grape, like chardonnay or cabernet sauvignon, with each brand made from a particular grape. It’s mass production, trying to make exactly the same product year after year, whatever the weather and terrain. Why are you asking about Bondino?”
“He’s coming in to see the mayor. That’s all we know, so I thought I’d call you. What would Bondino Wines want with us?”
“Could be a number of things. They don’t have much of an operation in Europe, and it might not be a bad idea for them to look around here. As you know, we used to be a big wine area before the phylloxera epidemic, and then we started growing tobacco instead. Now the tobacco trade is dying, so land is pretty cheap. There’s no appellation controlee in this valley to drive up the price. Funny you should mention this, because that guy who dropped the bottle, Dupuy, was asking me about wine and land prices around here just after you left. I let him try a glass of that stuff the Domaine produces; it’s a bit overpriced but it’s not bad.”
“You mean Domaine de la Vezere? But that’s just a house wine that Julien makes for his hotel and restaurant. It’s not exactly a viable operation.”
“You’d be surprised, Bruno. Julien bought some of that neighboring land across the commune boundary. He must have eight or nine hectares by now, and that’s enough to make forty thousand bottles a year when the vines mature. The land is all on a south-facing slope on a chalk hill with good drainage, so there’s no reason it won’t produce decent wine. And his hotel and restaurant are a captive market.”
Bruno had never had much to do with business, but he suddenly got the point. A small grower in an ordinary part of Bordeaux would be lucky to get even one euro a bottle when he sold to a negociant, but at the restaurant Julien could sell every one of his bottles for eight or nine euros.
“When I realized what he was up to, I bought a few hectares alongside the Domaine, reckoning I’d get a good price from Julien the next time he expands,” Hubert went on.
“You mean Philibert’s old farm, off the Limeuil road? I thought you bought that as a place to house your staff.”
“Sure, but it was mainly an investment in the land, and I’ll be planting my own vines there in November. Don’t forget that I have some of the same advantage as Julien at his hotel. I can bottle it as vin du pays and sell it in the cave for three euros.”
“What about Dupuy? What did he want to know?”
“Well, he calmed down a bit with the champagne, and then I presented his girlfriend with a bottle. Not the Krug, but I thought, hell, he’d paid a lot of money. He obviously knew a lot about wine and is obviously pretty rich so I thought I might try to turn him into a regular customer. Why do you ask?”
“Dupuy’s office in Paris made the hotel reservation for Bondino, and Dupuy is booked into his hotel tonight.”
“Don’t tell me-the Centenaire. Nothing but the best for Bondino.”
“That’s right. But Dupuy got a single room, so where does that leave the girlfriend?”
“He said he had to put the girl onto the Paris train at Perigueux. She wasn’t a great talker but she certainly was decorative. It looks like that little romantic interlude is over.”
“And now it’s time for business,” said Bruno. “Let’s stay in touch on this because the mayor is going to need your knowledge of the wine trade. They probably think we’re a bunch of country bumpkins down here, and when it comes to me they’re not far off.”
“Sure; I’ll help however I can. But let’s keep me out of it, at least in public. We need to know what they’re really up to.”
“Just one more thing. What’s the price of land around the Domaine? Land that you might use to grow wine, I mean.”
“Well, you know what I paid for Philibert’s place: 120,000 euros, for just over three hectares and the old farmhouse.”
“I know what you paid officially for tax purposes,” Bruno said. “I don’t know what you paid under the table when the notaire left the room.”
Hubert chuckled. “The usual ratio. Only the greedy go for more than a third off the real price.”
“So you paid about a hundred and eighty, and the farmhouse alone is probably worth that. What are we saying, four or five thousand a hectare for the land?”
“Somewhere around there. Maybe five or six, depending on what the land is used for. Straight farmland, maybe as little as two or three. With zoning permission for building, twenty or more.”
“What would it be worth if it were proper wine land, with the appellation controlee?”
“It depends. In Champagne you’re talking about 600,000 to 700,000 a hectare. But a vineyard in the Bordeaux region with any kind of decent reputation would be 60,000 a hectare and up. In the Bergerac, maybe ten. I think Julien paid about three thousand a hectare for the extra land he bought.”
“What’s his place worth?”
“Taken all together, the chateau and the winery and the big restaurant, at least three million euros, probably more. It’s a good business.”
“Christ. I must be the poorest man in Saint-Denis,” said Bruno.
“Well, after today, you’re richer by a lovely ’89 Cos d’Estournel from Saint-Estephe. That’s my way of saying thanks for that business earlier today.”
“You don’t have to do that. You’ve more than repaid me with all this information.”
“Bruno, it’s in my interest to know what Bondino wants. As for the wine, let’s make a date for me to bring it up one night to your place. You can make me one of your truffle omelettes and we’ll enjoy it together, maybe invite a couple of friends who’ll appreciate it.”
Coux was a quiet place with a bakery, a tabac, a cafe and a small hotel where Bruno would occasionally join friends for Sunday lunch. It lay outside the commune of Saint-Denis, so he did not know it well. Thinking his jurisdiction was therefore somewhat limited, he left his cap in the van.
The phone booth stood in front of the tiny mairie, a scrap of yellow police tape still fluttering from the handle where it had been sealed. Bruno peered in, took note of the number and saw that the phone was one of the modernized ones that took no coins, only phone cards. France Telecom might have a record of the card used, but J-J’s team doubtless would have checked that. Behind the phone booth there was a bicycle stand and a small parking area, large enough for perhaps two cars and a motorcycle. Bruno scanned the ground. There was a patch of oil that looked fresh. He took a tissue from the pack in his car and gently pressed a corner into the edge of the stain. The thin paper went translucent, so the oil was recent enough to be interesting. Bruno strolled down to the small hotel to take a coffee with Sylvestre, the owner, who was also the chef and bartender. He asked Sylvestre if he’d seen anything the night of the fire.
“At three in the morning? I was fast asleep,” said Sylvestre. Sylvestre’s wife, poring over the account books at the cash register, said she had heard nothing. “But you might try the baker,” she told Bruno. “He’s usually up at about four to start the oven.”
Bruno strolled across to the boulangerie. The baker said he slept deeply until the alarm woke him at four, but he suggested Bruno try his uncle, a retired postman, who always complained of waking early and seldom getting back to sleep. “You’ll probably find him in the cafe. His name’s Felix, Felix Jarreau.”
Every cafe in France seemed to have a group of old cronies playing cards around a small table at the back of the room, their glasses of petit blanc beside them and a TV blaring away ignored above their heads. Bruno recognized Felix from his postman days, and like most people in the valley, Felix knew Bruno by sight. Bruno was introduced and shook hands all around, waited until he was invited to sit, declined the offer of a drink and explained his task. The bartender’s inevitable curiosity brought him across to their table with a bottle to refill the glasses. He hovered there as Felix said he had indeed heard something.
“Just after three-thirty-and I know because I looked at the clock when I woke up-I heard a motorcycle coming down the street and then stopping by the mairie. I looked out and the bike was parked and someone was going into the phone booth. But he wore a helmet, one of those big ones with a chin piece. He came out and went off down the hill.”
“Did you see his face? Would you know him again?” Bruno asked. Felix shook his head. “Not in that helmet.”
“Didn’t he take it off to make the call?”
Felix shrugged. “I didn’t look out for long, just went back to the kitchen to make some coffee.”
“What about the bike? Anything about it you remember?”
“It was a modern one, the kind they use for motocross, tiny mudguards, fast-revving engine, noisy. All the youngsters drive them these days.”
“Did you see him drive off?”
“No; didn’t hear him either. He could have freewheeled down the hill.”
Bruno climbed into the furnace of his van as the heat finally began to fade from the late-summer day. He opened all the windows and pondered the delicate tasks ahead. First he would have to interrogate Stephane, and then he would have to stop at Alphonse’s commune to deliver the death notice he had received in the office. Sighing, he set out on the same winding road up the hill that he had taken on the morning of the fire. He turned off over a small bridge by a wayside shrine that commemorated two young Resistance boys “fusilles par les allemands,” one of them Stephane’s uncle. This road led past a steep and muddy hollow that seldom saw the sun; Stephane rented it out to the local motocross club for their trail bikes. Beyond the hollow, with its constant buzzing whine of straining engines, Bruno came to Stephane’s pastures and the old farm, now almost overwhelmed by the new dairy and cow sheds and cheese barn.
He had spent many a happy evening here, enjoyed long Sunday lunches, brought back game from his hunting forays with Stephane and every February had helped the family kill and clean a pig in the annual ritual. He had taught Dominique how to rinse out the intestines in the swift brook of running water that led down to the shrine. Stephane’s friendship would be a central part of Bruno’s life long after the ministers of the interior and agriculture had been voted out of office. He would handle this meeting with great care.
“Salut, Bruno,” said the big farmer, greeting him at the entrance to the milking shed, a broom in his hand. Dominique was playing a running hose over the floor. She turned it off and clomped across in her big rubber boots to hug Bruno.
“We’re just finishing,” said Stephane. “Care for a little apero? I always reckon I deserve a Ricard after this job.”
“Not this time, thanks. I’m on business, looking into that fire. It looks as though it was started deliberately, so I’m checking with everybody nearby to see if they heard or saw anything at about three that morning.”
“That’s a bit early, even for me,” said Stephane. “I was up at about four-thirty, as usual, and then I got the phone call from the mairie. I looked out and saw the glow. I woke Dominique and we left the cows in the barn and took the truck up to the fire. That’s where we saw you. I didn’t hear anything. What about you, Dominique? You were fast asleep when I came to your room.”
She shook her pretty head, her cool gray eyes and clear complexion the very image of youthful innocence. “I didn’t hear anything, not even the phone.”
“Did you know the place at all, from when you were working at the research station?”
“Sure; I was up there once or twice a week to bring back samples and take up testing equipment. We never left expensive stuff there overnight. And every time I was there, I had to fill in the log, but that must have been burned.”
“So you knew what they were growing up there.”
“You mean those GMO crops? They used to scare me stiff, but not now that I know more about it. The only thing that worries me now is contamination, seeds blowing over into our fields and getting into the crops and maybe into the milk. One of the projects I worked on was seeing whether we could test milk for GMO traces. I remember worrying what might happen to my dad if our customers thought they were getting these traces of Frankenstein foods in his milk and cheese.”
“I see what you mean,” said Bruno. “What did you do?”
“I asked the scientists at the station and did some research and found they weren’t growing that kind of crop.”
“We talked about it a lot,” Stephane added. “Dominique said not to worry.”
“Well, I’m no expert, but I can’t say I’m feeling very reassured,” said Bruno. “Still, it seems there wasn’t anything secret about what was being grown up there.”
“All of us who worked there knew, naturally,” said Dominique. “But like I said, it wasn’t in our interest to spread the word. And it’s not as though there were any farms up there with crops at risk; the land is too poor.”
“So you’re less worried about this GMO stuff now, is that right? I remember you used to be a real ecolo when you were at school, with you and Max winning that mock election.”
“I’m still a real ecolo,” she said, almost snapping. “And so’s Max. It’s just that there are bigger things to worry about-global warming, the ice caps, millions of refugees as the sea levels rise. That’s when we’ll need GMO crops to feed people. Did you know the Rice Research Institute in the Philippines has developed a gene that will let rice plants live for twelve days after being flooded with salt water? That could save millions of lives in Asia.” She turned to her father. “Remember how I used to be dead set against nuclear power? Well, these days I can’t wait for them to build more reactors because it’s better than carbon. The Green movement has grown up, Bruno. We had to.”
Bruno had to smile, she was so young and fiery. “You should go into politics. I’d vote for you, Dominique. We need some of that passion around here.”
She grinned at him, suddenly looking even younger. “You think I’m passionate? You ought to hear Max.”
“You two are still friends, even with you at school in Grenoble and him in Bordeaux?”
“We talk most days-we e-mail and text. We’re in the same chat forums on ecology. He’s really into organics, not surprisingly since he grew up on the commune. His dad, Alphonse, was the first real Green I ever met.”
“Did you tell Max about the GMO crops?” Bruno asked, keeping his voice light.
“Not exactly,” she said hesitantly, choosing her words carefully. “Well, not in so many words. We were having an argument about GMOs and I was saying my views had changed, now that I’d been working with them. And he knew where I was working this summer, so I suppose he could have figured it out.”
“What about his views? Is Max still against GMOs?” His question jolted her, and he could feel Stephane start to eye him quizzically.
“You’d better ask him, Bruno,” she said. “This is beginning to sound like you suspect something here. You’re not going to start behaving like a cop, are you?”
“Come off it, Dominique,” he said. His affection for her helped damp down the irritation tinged with guilt that came when friendship interfered with police work. He had known this girl since before she wore braces on her teeth. He smiled at her, gaining a little time as he wondered how to make her realize how serious this could be.
“I’ve been a policeman for as long as you’ve known me, which is most of your life,” he said. “But I work for Saint-Denis, not for anybody else, and there are some much tougher policemen down here under pressure to make an arrest. The chief detective of the department for one, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see some security people down from Paris. And you’ll be right in their sights. You worked at the station, you knew about the GMO crops, your dad’s farm could have been at risk, you’re a passionate ecolo. You’re an obvious suspect. And arson means a prison term.”
“Are we going to need a lawyer, Bruno?” asked Stephane. At least he understood.
“Not yet, but I’ll let you know. And in the meantime, if you have any documents that show you’re not against GMOs, this would be a good time to get them together.”
“That I can do,” Dominique said thoughtfully, sobered by his speech. “We had a whole debate about them in our chat group, and I wrote a piece about them for Grenoble Vert, the Green newsletter at the university. But what about Max? What should I tell him?”
“That’s up to you. He didn’t work at the station, so there’s no reason for him to come under suspicion. But you’re in a very different situation. What’s the name of that chat group, by the way?”
“Aquitaine Vert, the same as the organization. It just sort of grew out of their Web site, and I’ve been in it since I’ve been at school. Well, thanks for the warning. But I haven’t done anything wrong, so I’ll be fine.”
“Whatever you wrote for that newsletter, e-mail a copy to me, just in case. It might come in handy,” said Bruno, closing his notebook. “By the way, you might like to know that your boss thinks very highly of you. Petitbon told me earlier that he’d like to offer you a permanent job once you get your diploma.”
“So he must be sure I had nothing to do with it.”
“Right-you’ve got a witness for the defense already,” Bruno said with a grin. “Along with me, of course.”
In a slightly easier frame of mind, Bruno went on to his next errand, wondering who the dead woman might be who had given Alphonse’s commune as her address. Her name had provided no clue and there were no records of her at the mairie. If she had been here, it had been before Bruno’s arrival a decade ago. Bruno took the back road toward Saint-Denis over the railway crossing, skirting the new cemetery and turning onto the small single-track lane that led out of the town and up the hill to the water tower. Beyond it lay the rolling wooded countryside, where the hay was freshly harvested and the golden Limousin cattle grazed contentedly in the early September sun. He drove on up the gentle slope to the high plateau, where the land was cheap and the farming difficult. Bleak and windswept in winter, these high lands had a certain austere grandeur now at the tail end of summer, and spectacular views over the river valleys on either side.
Farther along the ridge, standing watch over the confluence of the rivers, were the ruins of the Chateau de Brillamont, the nearest to Saint-Denis of the chain of medieval fortresses that marked the shifting frontier between the English and the French. Their war had lasted more than a hundred years, until Jeanne d’Arc restored the French morale and Bertrand du Guesclin devised an artillery train that was light enough to be moved and heavy enough to batter the English castles into submission. Despite what he had been told in school of the national heroine, Bruno knew from his army days that it was the gunpowder that had won decisive victory. It usually was.
Bruno turned off at a half-rotted and illegible wooden sign that pointed to a primitive road. He heard the blades of grass between the tire treads swish against the bottom of his van as he followed the lane through an avenue of trees into a broad and protected hollow. He sounded his horn as he came to a wooden gate across the lane, turned off the ignition and walked alongside a large and well-kept vegetable garden. It led toward the curious assortment of buildings that faced the sun from the northern slope of the hollow. A woman he recognized was weeding, while two of the children from his tennis class were picking tomatoes. Briefly he paused at the sturdy fence of chicken wire that surrounded the plot, greeted the woman and children and accepted a gift of two plump and perfect cherry tomatoes.
“Salut, Bruno. What brings you up here?” called Celine, a grandmotherly type who had been with the commune from the beginning. “Have you come to help?”
“I’m too busy with my own garden these days, Celine. Is Alphonse around?”
“In the cheese barn.”
Bruno nodded and turned away to view the small village that the young revolutionaries of 1968, the soixante-huitards, had built in the nearly four decades since their arrival. Even if he had not known the steady output of healthy and well-mannered youngsters they had sent through the schools and sports clubs of Saint-Denis and seen Alphonse elected as the first Green member of the town council, he would have been impressed. In pride of place stood a traditional stone farmhouse, with ivy covering most of the side wall. It was topped with the usual red tile roof shaped like a witch’s hat native to this part of Perigord. Beside it stood a tall and spindly windmill that seemed to provide enough power for the needs of the dozen or so people who usually lived here. Closer to Bruno and the lane stood a large log cabin with a shaded porch, on which a middle-aged woman with long straight hair sat cross-legged, her eyes closed and her back straight. The gaps between the logs were stuffed with clay, and the roof was composed of two layers of planks separated by thick sheets of polystyrene foam, all covered by solar panels to heat water.
Then came a wide and deceptively large building that Bruno knew from previous visits to be constructed of homemade bricks of mud and straw; it was covered with earth and dug into the side of the hill so that the doors and windows appeared to peek out from the living turf. A goat grazed on the roof, and two children were seated on benches in front of the building, where they appeared to be playing chess. To the right was the barn, a simple but sturdy A-frame made of abandoned planks of wood and some salvaged iron piping welded into bracing triangles for strength. Bruno’s favorite building was the dome, perched on the grass like half of a gigantic multicolored golf ball, composed of triangles, some of glass, some of wood painted in various hues, some of plastic and some of shards of mirror.
To one side of the dome was a wooden framework over which grape vines had been trained for years to make a shaded terrace. Its floor was stone, and it housed a long wooden table with a variety of chairs and benches, and a remarkably wide and ornate hammock that was festooned with sashes and ribbons. Goats lounged around the hammock like courtiers waiting on the empty throne of their monarch. Standing in the doorway of the dome was a naked toddler, the little boy’s arms resting on the neck of a kid goat about his own size. The kid bleated and the toddler waved. Bruno waved back.
Alphonse emerged from the barn, wiping his hands on a long apron. His face was looking older these days, but he was still slim and spry with his long gray hair braided into a ponytail. He wore jeans, rubber thong sandals and the top half of a pair of embroidered pajamas from India, and he topped off this unique confection with a colorful silk bandanna that glinted with gold threads.
“Bruno, welcome,” Alphonse said. “Some tea? A homemade beer? How about some of our new cheese?”
“Nothing, thanks. I’m here on business, and I hope it won’t be too sad. Do you recall a woman named Mireille Augereau? She claims this as her address.”
“Mireille, yes; she lived here nearly twenty years ago for over a year, and then moved on. She first came even before that for a summer as a student with one of the original members, who had become her professor. But I haven’t heard from her for years.”
“And Maximilien Augereau? Would that be the Max I know?”
“Sure; that’s her son. Only he calls himself Vannes after me, I suppose because I brought him up and he never heard much from his mother after she left. Mireille was a pretty thing when she first came here. What’s happened?”
“Well, we received word that she died yesterday in a car crash just outside Paris. Her license and identity card listed Max as next of kin. It seems that some money may be involved. She was working in a municipal nursery school, so she had life insurance, and Max was the beneficiary.”
“It’s bound to be a blow. He may not have known much of her, but still, losing your mother… I thinks she sent a birthday card once or twice, whenever she sobered up and got off the drugs.”
“She just left the boy here, with you?”
Alphonse nodded. “She met some guy in the market. It was right after we started selling our cheeses, and she was good in the markets. A pretty face always helps, and she spoke a bit of English for the tourists. She said she was going off with him for a weekend, and she never came back. That was it. And Max, well, he was part of the family by then, even if he had nowhere else to go.”
“Was there a father? A birth certificate? What’s on Max’s identity card?”
“I’m listed as the father. Mireille never mentioned the father. Bruno, she slept around. She might not have known for sure who the father was.”
“Where’s Max now? Still working at Hubert’s cave?”
“By now he’ll be over at Cresseil’s place, helping the old boy with the vineyard. It’s what Max most likes to do. He’s really interested in winemaking as a career, so he’ll help Cresseil bring in the crop before he goes back to school. He’s a fine boy, Bruno.”
Bruno nodded. He liked Max, who kept all his violence to the rugby field. Fast and slippery, and a determined tackler, he played center for the second team whenever he was home.
“I’d better go over and tell Max the bad news,” Bruno said. “Unless you’d rather do it?”
“Let me come with you. I have to get something in town anyway. Try a bit of the new cheese while I clean up. You know where it is, and you’ll find some bread on the counter.”
Alphonse ducked into the dome, and Bruno headed into the dark barn, which smelled of goats and urine and warm ripening milk. Most of the cheeses were stored in the cooler room at the rear, but here in the workroom Alphonse had left row after row of fresh crottins, the small disc-shaped cheeses that could be sold fresh or in varying states of dryness. On a wooden board stood one of the big round loaves of brown bread that was the commune’s specialty. Bruno took his Laguiole knife from his belt, cut himself a slice of bread and half a crottin and leaned back against the counter to enjoy it. To one side he noticed a brown cardboard box with a small tap and he turned it to the window. South African pinotage. There was an empty glass beside the box, so he poured himself a taste. No nose to speak of but not bad in the mouth. He looked at the price tag. Four euros for five liters. No wonder the French couldn’t compete.
“You found the South African wine,” said Alphonse. “Not bad, is it? Max bought it; he also bought some from Australia and the stuff from Chile, trying all the different wines. Research, he called it. But here, try a glass of this.”
“The cheese is really good,” said Bruno, holding out his empty glass to the anonymous bottle of red wine that Alphonse was pouring. He took an appreciative sniff and a good sip to taste, smacking his lips and then nodding a cautious approval.
“It’s our own, and a lot better than the crap we used to make up here, thanks to Max. The techniques aren’t much different-it’s just better when he does it.”
“You’re right,” said Bruno. “It’s a lot better than your old plonk, and now I can tell you that I only used to swallow it to be polite. This is very drinkable.”
“All organic, too. I got him onto that. Now he says it’s the future of the wine business, as if it was all his own idea,” Alphonse said, then smiled. “If you’re finished, let’s go and break the bad news.”
Bruno stopped the van where the road emerged from the trees and reached the top of the ridge. He loved this view above all others, he explained when Alphonse turned to him, raising his eyebrows in a silent question. The familiar view down the valley of the Vezere to the hilltop villages on the far ridge was splendid in its lavish sweep. Immediately below him stood the small chateau that was the heart of Julien’s Domaine de la Vezere. Bruno got out of the car to look down at the rows of new vines that Julien had planted. He brought his eyes back to the Philibert farm that Hubert had bought, and to Cresseil’s ramshackle place beside it. It boasted a farmhouse, not much more than a shepherd’s cottage, where the old man lived, with two barns, a kitchen garden and perhaps twenty rows of vines. Cresseil had not been mobile enough to farm the place for years, so the rest of the land down the slope to the river was left to grow hay for him to sell. A dozen of the giant cylinders of compacted hay, wrapped tightly in black plastic strips, lay in the shorn field where the baling machine had left them.
Bruno tried to estimate the extent of Cresseil’s holding. Long and narrow, it was a bit more than half the size of the Philibert farm, maybe even two-thirds. Looking back to Saint-Denis a couple of miles up the river, and then down to the river bend where it began the long sweep to join the Dordogne, he could not begin to estimate the full extent of the south-facing slope that Hubert de Montignac had suggested might grow decent wine. There were places where the slope steepened sharply to become the sheer chalk-white and limestone cliffs pockmarked with caves where people had taken shelter in the Middle Ages, and where prehistoric men probably had lived. But the Domaine itself took up no more than a fraction of the length of the gentle hillside, so if Hubert was right to suggest that the Domaine was worth three million euros, the overall value could be enormous.
“You don’t know your own valley yet?” called Alphonse from the van window. Bruno turned back.
“How did Max come to know Cresseil?” Bruno asked, leaning against the side of the vehicle while Alphonse rolled himself a cigarette.
“Through the college. Rollo links each of the older kids to a resident of the retirement home, almost like a kind of adoption.” Alphonse broke off to lick the paper and light up. “Max was visiting Madame Cresseil just before she died, must be three years ago now, and her husband took a shine to him. It probably helped that Max represented a new audience for his stories about the war. Then Max started helping him out in the garden, doing a few chores around the house, and Cresseil started teaching him about winemaking. Max got Cresseil’s ancient motorbike running again, and Cresseil lets him use it. Max likes the old boy, says it’s like having a grandpa.”
The postman at Coux had seen a man on a motorbike, Bruno remembered, but not an old model. Perhaps Max also had access to a more modern one.
“Cresseil didn’t have any kids of his own, as far as I know,” said Bruno.
“Just the one who got killed in the air force, in Africa, long before your time.” Alphonse pinched out the half-finished cigarette between his horny fingers, and put it carefully back into his tobacco pouch. “Come on, let’s go see Max.”
“Alphonse, there’s something I have to ask you, officially.” Bruno explained the background to the fire and asked Alphonse whether as a committed Green he knew of any militant ecolos in the area capable of doing such a thing.
“You’re not joking, are you?” Alphonse asked, more resignation than question in his voice. “I was wondering if it might get around to this. Any real ecolo might trash a crop if he thought it was some GMO business, but he’d never start a fire. And nasty rumors are going around about that crop. I had some people calling me from Bordeaux, asking whether as a council member I could check if a special GMO permit had been issued. So I looked into the law because I’ll be bringing this up at the next council meeting.”
“There’s no permit, Alphonse. The mayor and I are as much in the dark as you.”
“Well, if that was a GMO crop and our town council knew nothing about it, there’s going to be a scandal, I promise you that. This is not just me, Bruno; the whole Green Party will kick up a stink, arson or no arson.”
“I can’t say I’m a fan of this GMO stuff,” said Bruno. “But arson is a crime. I’ll pursue that, GMO or no GMO. And I’ll expect your help, Alphonse. We can be on the same side about that, just as I think the whole council and the mayor will be on your side about permits for GMOs.”
Alphonse gave a cursory nod.
“One more thing, Alphonse. A bit of advice: There are so few leads on this case that the detectives are getting anxious. So it won’t be your old friend Bruno making inquiries but some serious cops looking for leverage. If they have to pin something unrelated on you to make you cooperate, they will. That’s how they work. And a commune like yours is just asking for a drug raid, so if there’s anything up there that shouldn’t be, you’d better get rid of it fast.”
“Now let’s go down and find Max,” said Bruno.
Max, bare-chested and tanned, his long, fair hair sun-streaked, was energetically wielding a hoe on the weeds of Cresseil’s kitchen garden when Bruno pulled up in front of the barn. Beside Max was the French-Canadian girl Bruno had met at the cave. As she stood up from the weeding she was almost as tall as Max. She wore a low-cut T-shirt that revealed the tops of her tanned breasts, and her shorts were very short indeed. No wonder Max always seemed to be wherever she was, Bruno thought.
Cresseil was sitting on an old wooden chair, resting his chin on his walking stick and watching the youngsters work. An aged Porcelaine, one of the classic French hunting dogs, lay asleep at his feet. The old man turned to see his visitors approaching and held out a gnarled right hand.
“Alphonse, Bruno,” he said. “Welcome to you both. A little apero? Max, time to stop work. Your dad’s here.”
“Thanks. I’ll take a glass of that wine you made last year,” said Alphonse, before Bruno could say this might not be the best time to sit around drinking, at least not until Max had been told of his mother’s fate. “Give it a try, Bruno,” Alphonse went on.
Max put down his hoe and came toward them, murmuring greetings. He kissed Alphonse on both cheeks, then did the same to Bruno, whom he’d known since boyhood.
“You remember Jacqueline from the cave?” Max said as she came forward to shake Bruno’s hand and to embrace Alphonse. That was interesting, thought Bruno. The girl knew Max’s family already. Again, she held on to Bruno’s hand slightly too long, and her appraisal of him was slightly too frank, almost brazen. It was automatic, Bruno realized; she may not even have known the kind of signals she was sending.
“Bring our guests some wine, Max,” said Cresseil, and Max slipped his shirt over his broad shoulders and went into the house, followed by Jacqueline.
“You’ve got him working hard,” said Bruno.
“It does him good. The devil finds work for idle hands,” Cresseil replied, pulling a well-used pipe from the pocket of his waistcoat and striking a match. Between puffs, he squinted at Bruno. “What brings you here? Bad news?”
“Not good,” said Bruno, and the three men waited in silence until Max returned with a small table under one arm and two folding chairs swinging easily from the other. He set them down as Jacqueline came out with a tray. Max poured the drinks and the two young people sat cross-legged beside the old man. The dog stirred, rolled over and put his head on his master’s foot.
“Max, Bruno has some bad news,” Alphonse said when they were seated. Bruno took a breath to settle himself. He’d never had to deliver a death notice quite like this, to the abandoned child of a long-gone mother. Nor had he ever had to combine the matter with a police inquiry.
“I got word from Paris. I’m afraid your mother has been killed in a traffic accident. I’m sorry,” Bruno said. He paused a moment and went on. “There will probably be a bit of paperwork since she had you listed as next of kin, but I can take care of a lot of that for you and help you with the rest.”
Max stared at him blankly, pursed his lips and then looked away across the river. Jacqueline put her hand on his arm but kept silent.
“Alphonse and Celine and the rest of the commune and Grandpa Cresseil here are my family,” Max said after a moment. “As for my mother, I barely knew her and hardly ever heard from her, so I can’t say I feel very much. I always thought I’d meet her again, as an adult, when we each had our own lives and could talk calmly.”
“We can have her buried up at the commune,” said Alphonse.
“I never saw the point in burials,” said Max. “I’m not religious, and cremation makes more sense to me.” He turned to Bruno. “Should I come to your office and sign something?”
“Not yet. We’ll have to wait for the paperwork from Paris. You don’t have to decide anything now, but if you want we can arrange for the cremation to be done up there.”
Max nodded vaguely, then took a long sip of wine and held up his glass. “What do you think of it, Bruno? It’s last year’s, the first wine I helped Cresseil make.”
“I didn’t do much,” said Cresseil. “Just sat here and watched while you did all the work.”
Bruno twirled the glass and took a sniff, then a sip. “It’s pretty good, Max. But then the wine you made up at the commune was pretty good as well. Alphonse let me try a glass.”
“This year’s will be better. Jacqueline is going to help,” Max said, and rose to his feet in a single, supple movement, bringing the girl up with him. He looked at Alphonse, making it clear that he wanted to leave.
“Just a minute, Max,” said Bruno, shifting uneasily in his chair. It was terrible timing but he knew he had to ask Max where he had been on the night of the fire.
“I was in bed asleep,” Max replied to Bruno’s question, still standing, still poised to leave. He gave Bruno a nervous smile and then glanced at Jacqueline.
“Up at the commune?” Bruno pressed.
“No, you stayed here that night,” Cresseil said abruptly. “I don’t sleep too well these days. Max was here that night because I’d have heard if he left. Half the valley would have heard that old motorbike.”
Bruno looked at Cresseil. It seemed like an unconvincing alibi but one that would be hard to shake. Max’s response had been too glib, Cresseil’s interruption too quick. J-J had once told him that a policeman had to assume that nobody ever told the truth, but Bruno was not accustomed to being lied to. His relationship with the people of Saint-Denis was such that they almost always did tell him the truth. If Max was lying, Bruno wasn’t sure he’d be able to tell, even though he’d spent hours with Max on the rugby field and watched him grow from boyhood. Bruno scratched his head and scrutinized the young man. It was time to push Max a bit.
“Just speaking hypothetically, you wouldn’t have needed the bike. You could have walked out quietly, even walked up through the hills to the field. It’s not that far,” he said. “You’re fit enough, you could even have run…”
“I could have, but I didn’t,” Max snapped at him. He regained his composure almost instantly. “You don’t really suspect me, do you? It’s just you being a flic.”
“Have you seen my eyebrows, Max?” Bruno said. “See where they’re burned off? And I still cough occasionally from the fumes I breathed in. I’m taking this fire very personally because it could have killed me. So, yes, I’m being a flic.”
“Sorry, Bruno,” Max said, scrutinizing Bruno more closely and looking chastened.
“Whoever set that fire left a kind of bomb in there that went off just as the firemen got close. Did you know that?”
“That’s not…,” Max began, but then seemed to catch himself. Bruno wondered what he’d been about to say. “That’s not what was in the newspapers. I hadn’t heard anything about a bomb.”
“Set a fire with the gasoline, then screw the cap back on the not-quite-empty can and you have yourself a fuel vapor bomb that goes off quite a bit later, when the fire gets hot enough,” Bruno explained. “Arsonists know that, and some of them do it deliberately to hurt firemen. That’s why it carries such a long prison term.”
Max froze for a moment at the mention of prison. Then he shook his head firmly. “I don’t know anything about it,” he said, and Jacqueline looked at him, rather anxiously, Bruno thought. There was nothing that could be called proof, but Bruno suddenly felt with dismay that he could be looking at the culprit. He pulled out his cell phone, as if checking for a message, but instead hit the speed dial to call his office voice mail, which would record the rest of this conversation as a message.
“You haven’t heard any gossip about it among the ecolos?” Bruno asked, holding the phone casually in his hand. “People must be talking about it. What about your old girlfriend, Dominique? You must have talked about it with her.”
“Sure, we’re talking about it; I told you that,” Alphonse broke in. “Some of us were getting very suspicious about that place.”
“I was asking Max the question,” Bruno said abruptly, his eyes firmly on Max.
“We talk all the time, via e-mail and instant messaging, texting. Dominique’s always been my best friend.” He turned to Jacqueline with an encouraging smile and took her hand. “She was never my girlfriend, but we’ve known each other forever.” The girl glanced at Bruno before turning her eyes back to Max.
“So what information did you and Dominique exchange when you talked about the fire? I’m trying to find out if there are any ecolo crazies around here who would do something like this. It wasn’t just me and the pompiers that were at risk. It could have burned down Dominique’s farm, for God’s sake.”
“Do you think so?” asked Max, real concern in his voice. “It was that dangerous?”
“A bit more wind, a bit of delay in the pompiers getting there, and we’d have had a real disaster,” said Bruno. “So, any ideas?”
“And why burn down the shed, rather than just the crop?” Bruno pressed.
“How should I know? Maybe whoever started the fire wanted to destroy the files, whatever it was they had in there. It said ‘office equipment’ in the paper.”
“Did Dominique tell you about the office?” Bruno could hear the harshness in his voice, and he took a breath to calm himself. Sud Ouest had indeed mentioned a destroyed typewriter, but the paper had reported nothing about files.
“She said she was keeping files up to date when she went up there. She’s furious about the fire. Dominique was starting to think that GMOs made sense. That’s mainly what we talked about.”
“You agree with her?”
Max shrugged again. “I don’t know. It’s technical, very complex. I mean, most of the vines in France are transplants of Californian rootstock. And to do that you have to graft your cutting onto the root of another kind of vine. Isn’t that genetic modification? In its own way, I mean?”
“So what do you think about the fire?” Bruno wasn’t going to let it go.
“It was a really foolish, dangerous thing to do. So if I learn anything, I’ll let you know,” said Max. He draped his arm around Jacqueline and turned to go. “If that’s all, I’ll see you at rugby practice, Bruno.”
Max put his hand on Cresseil’s shoulder in farewell and walked off with Jacqueline to the barn, where he pulled out Cresseil’s old motorbike. It looked like World War II vintage. Alphonse shrugged an apology and followed, preparing to clamber aboard the pillion seat. Bruno turned off his phone as he watched Max embrace the girl before she pulled a battered bicycle from the hedge and began pedaling away alone.
“You seem to have grown fond of Max,” Bruno said to Cresseil when the roar of the motorbike and the clouds of blue smoke had faded. He was wondering how tough it would be to break Cresseil’s alibi. Without that, Max would be the prime suspect.
“If it weren’t for him, they’d have had me in the old folks’ home by now,” said Cresseil. He rummaged in his pockets for his matches, then lit his pipe again. “He helps with my shopping and gardening, and he fixed the roof. I couldn’t do without him, to be honest. And he won’t take anything-no money, nothing. Even that old bike he fixed, he says he’s only borrowing it, that he’ll leave it for when my leg’s better.”
“How’s your leg these days?”
“I can get around, just. But it won’t get any better. The circulation is so bad they might have to amputate. I don’t think I can take another winter here. They’ll get me into that home yet.”
“It might be for the best.”
“Bruno, I may be old, but I’m not a fool. I won’t go into that place until I have no other choice because we both know that the only way I’ll leave it will be feetfirst. They won’t even let me have my dog, the best hunting dog in the valley. Mind you, he’s on his last legs, just like me.”
He reached down with his walking stick and poked the sleeping dog gently in the side. His eyes opened, and the old man and the old dog looked at each other for a long moment, exchanging some deep but unspoken communication. The dog squirmed across the grass to nestle against Cresseil’s legs, then closed his eyes again. Bruno smiled, watching them.
“Max seems to have gotten himself a girlfriend,” Bruno said. “She’s a good-looking one.”
“They work together at Hubert’s cave; she’s studying wine, like Max. He’s crazy about her, and I can’t say I blame him. He’s brought her here a few times to help with the vines.” His eyes twinkled, and he winked at Bruno. “Takes years off me, just looking at a woman like that. I don’t suppose I’ll see many more young beauties. I’ve got a feeling I haven’t much time left.”
“What about this place?” Bruno asked. “Do you have family to leave it to?”
“There’s always family somewhere, cousins or some such, but none that I can say I’m close to, none that I’d especially want to have the place. I was born in this house, Bruno, and lived here all my life, over eighty years on this farm, and I’m very particular about what I want to happen to it. I’ve been thinking about it, and I know what I want. I just don’t know how to go about it. I was going to ask your advice.”
“Ask away. If I don’t have an answer I’ll find someone who does.”
“Well, I was thinking about Max, whether I could leave it to him when the time comes.”
Bruno whistled softly. That would be quite an inheritance for a young man. It could also mean a lot of legal complications. Under French law it was almost impossible to exclude a family member from right of inheritance. It also meant, Bruno thought, that he could neither refute nor rely on the old man’s alibi for Max on the night of the fire.
“You know the inheritance laws,” Bruno said. “Family comes first, however distant.”
“I know, and I’ve thought about that. But what if I were to adopt the boy? He’d be family then, wouldn’t he?”
“I suppose he would. I don’t even know if you can adopt somebody over the age of eighteen. In any event, he’d have to agree, and he’s an independent young man. Ambitious, too. He might not want to get locked into the land.”
“We’ve discussed it. Max likes this terrain, likes the house. He says this whole stretch down to the river can produce good wine. He wants to try planting some new vines, different varieties, when he comes back at Christmas. Just to see how they take in the soil. I haven’t had the heart to tell him I don’t think I’ll be here at Christmas.”
“Well, keep it to yourself for a bit, until I can research the law about the adoption and get back to you. And the boy won’t want any more shocks for a while. I know he wasn’t close to his mother, but her death will still take some getting used to.”
Cresseil nodded. “His new girlfriend will help with that. She’s a pretty thing, that Jacqueline, but she’s got a sharp mind. Wise beyond her years.”
“Maybe a bit too sharp for Max, you mean?” Certainly too sharp for me, Bruno thought. And too flirtatious. “Do you want a hand up?” Bruno asked.
“No, I can totter off on my own. But I’d be glad if you could take the table and chairs back to the porch. And the glasses. You can have that wine, if you like. It’s not bad, is it?”
“Not bad at all, but it tastes pretty much like your wine always did.”
The old man grinned. “You ought to hear young Max talk about the way we make the wine around here,” he said. “He’s read all the books, and goes on about cold fermentation and stainless-steel vats and malolactic something-or-other that I never heard of. I tell him that old wooden wine vat was good enough for my father and for his father before that and it’s good enough for me.”
“I suppose all that new equipment would cost quite a lot.”
“It’s not so much that. I’m not a winemaker; I always just made enough for myself and the family, with a bit left over for friends. That was how everybody around here did it in the old days. We all got together and helped each other pick the grapes, and we’d all tread them together, all the young people, and then we’d all come together again for the bottling. Those were happy times, Bruno. That’s how I fell in love with my Annette, treading the grapes together. That’s why most of the babies used to be born in May, nine months after the vendanges. Did you know that?”
Smiling, Bruno shook his head. He hadn’t known that, but he could understand how it must have been.
“It was the harvest of the Liberation, September of ’44. The Germans had been kicked out and De Gaulle was back in Paris. It was a great time, and a great harvest that year.”
The old man paused, his eyes looking across the valley into a distant past, a smile playing gently among his wrinkles.
“Of course I’d known Annette before when she was a schoolgirl; she lived just up the valley,” he went on. “But treading the grapes that September, seeing her blond hair tumbling down around her shoulders and her lovely white legs with the grape juice running down them… I could have licked it all off, I tell you. Ah, Bruno, she was a real beauty, so delicate, and you could tell from the way she liked treading the grapes that she was a lively one. I was young and strong and proud of myself after being in the Maquis, and all the girls looked up to those of us who had fought the Germans. Well, you can imagine. We got married in November, and the baby came along in May. I was in the army by then, in Germany.”
“So what did it do for the wine, all those bare legs and passion in the vats?”
“I don’t know what it did for the wine, but it certainly made me feel a lot better when I thought about Annette’s legs each time I had a drink. It still does.”
Bruno was shamelessly looking forward to meeting the business consultant from Paris again. But he kept a straight face as he shook hands with the American, Bondino, and then watched Dupuy blush as Bruno announced to the room: “But of course I know Monsieur Dupuy, and his reputation as a connoisseur of fine wines.”
They were gathered in the council chamber, a long glass-roofed room that had been built onto the wide balcony of the mairie and which looked down to the old stone bridge and the length of the river’s slow bend. Bruno noted that the heir to the Bondino company, Fernando, was about his own height, but sleek and slightly plump with thinning dark hair cut very short. Close to thirty, Bruno estimated, perhaps a little younger. He was dressed in a black linen suit with an open-necked white silk shirt, and he wore what looked like a very expensive watch, as well as a chain bracelet of white gold dangling from his other wrist and a large ring on his right hand. Bruno did not care for jewelry on men. Bondino pulled a slim laptop from his briefcase, turned it on and slowly ran his index finger over a small sensor below the keypad.
He noticed Bruno watching, held up his finger without smiling and said, “Security.” It had to be one of those devices that read fingerprints, locking the computer until it identified the correct digit. Bondino leaned back casually in his chair, letting one leg dangle over the other as if to show off his black moccasins, the leather so thin they could have been slippers. Bruno felt an instinctive dislike for the man.
“Might I begin, gentlemen, by requesting your assurance that this meeting is confidential and that nothing that we communicate to you will be repeated outside this room?” Dupuy began. He wore large, black-rimmed spectacles and a severe blue suit with a bright pink tie. “Monsieur le Maire?”
“We’re accustomed to commercial discretion, monsieur,” the mayor said. “Perhaps you could ask your colleague with the machinery to be careful with that table. It’s said to be nearly seven hundred years old, which may be an exaggeration, but it is certainly older than all of us in this room put together.”
Bondino took a glossy magazine from his briefcase and slid it beneath the computer. It was Marie Claire Maison, Bruno noted, a French magazine of decor and design that suggested Bondino might be fluent in the language. Of course, he might just be looking at the photos.
“Bondino Wines was founded in California by the grandfather of the present chairman, Francis X. Bondino-” Dupuy began.
“In 1906,” interrupted the mayor, addressing the room but turning to look directly at Bondino. “I should say, messieurs, that Bondino Wines needs no introduction, even here in rural France. We know of your interests in South America and South Africa, of your three thousand employees, so we may be able to dispense with your introduction and come directly to the point.”
Dupuy seemed about to speak again when Bondino held up his hand. Dupuy sat.
“It all comes down to one question,” said Bondino, speaking heavily accented but serviceable French, keeping his eyes on the mayor. “Do you have the political juice to get this valley made into an appellation controlee region within the next twelve months? Our embassy is pretty well plugged into Paris, and Dupuy makes a living at this stuff, and they both tell me that you have the political connections to do it.”
“And if I do?”
“Then I’m prepared to invest an eight-figure sum in your district. That means over ten million dollars. Correction, I mean over ten million euros. That’s a lot of jobs and a big new tax base for Saint-Denis.”
“And you would do what with that large sum of money?”
“Buy land, build a state-of-the-art modern winery with a visitor center, run a hotel, grow vines, make fine wine and export it all over the world.”
“How much land would you need and how much wine would you intend to produce?”
“Our business plan calls for a minimum of a million bottles a year within seven years. That means about two hundred hectares.”
“And how many jobs?”
“Full-time, probably about fifty when the visitor center is up and running, plus some seasonal employees.”
Bruno noticed how Bondino and the mayor appraised each other. Each kept his eyes fixed on the other man. There was no staring match, no play for dominance, just two experienced men coolly taking each other’s measure without any apparent emotion. It was clear to Bruno that the American had been through dozens of meetings with politicians, and that the mayor had held just as many meetings with businessmen. Bruno began to temper his dislike for Bondino with a little respect.
“I see. That’s a very ambitious project,” the mayor said. “And the entire plan hinges on your ensuring that this valley is designated ‘appellation controlee’? ”
“That’s right. And since that will improve land values for a lot of your voters, I’d like no property taxes for the first seven years.”
“And what else?”
“A lot of help in acquiring the land discreetly. Once this is known, land prices are going to go through the roof. If that happens, the deal is off.”
“Do you know which land you want?”
“Dupuy, pass the mayor the aerial photos and lay out the map so we can all see it.”
The land Bondino wanted was, as Bruno and the mayor expected, the Domaine and all the land along the south-facing slope above the river.
“Just so you know how serious we are,” said Bondino, “I have already obtained an option to buy Domaine de la Vezere, the hotel and the vineyard. I’m sure you know the place. I also have an option to buy the canoeing business and the campground and restaurant on the far side of the river. We have also done very discreet but detailed soil and drainage tests on the land. All this was arranged by my colleague Dupuy here, and the diplomats we’ve talked with assure us that we will face no objections from the relevant ministries in Paris.”
“When you ask that we waive taxes for the enterprise, do you mean that we’d lose the taxes the commune currently receives from the Domaine and from the other properties you intend to buy?” Bruno asked. “That would be a big hole in our budget.”
“I understand that, and I know that all of this will only work if we in this room come together in a willing partnership,” said Bondino, with a smile that Bruno did not find convincing. “So I’m prepared to negotiate on this to minimize any negative impact on your revenues. You help me out on the cash flow, and I’ll do my best for you.”
“I’m a politician who needs to get reelected, monsieur,” said the mayor, his relaxed posture as he leaned back in his chair belying the firmness in his voice. “If my opponents could say that I conspired with an American corporation to buy up land cheaply so that it could benefit from increased land prices, I would lose the next election. And I would deserve to lose because it would be a scandal. So even if I were prepared to do this, you would not have your partner here in the mairie for very long.”
“I think it’s important to bear in mind that Monsieur Bondino is not trying to speculate in land prices but to build a thriving local wine industry,” said Dupuy smoothly. “Perhaps we can put the matter of land ownership aside while we explain the other benefits…”
Bondino held up his hand. “What about a lease with an option to buy? Could that work?”
“You could lease the land for a minimum period of, say, five years, with an option to buy at the end of the lease,” said the mayor.
“What do you think of that, Dupuy?” Bondino asked, not bothering to look at the consultant. He was leaning back in his chair, which was tilted on its two rear legs.
“Well, the lease could be written to impose a maximum selling price at the end of the lease period. But you could also give each landowner options to buy shares in your company as a way to ensure they would benefit from the growth in value. There are tax advantages in that, for them and for you.”
“How does that sound to you, Monsieur le Maire?” Bondino said, almost insolently. “Reasonable?”
“I think it has some very interesting possibilities.”
Bondino brought out from his briefcase a document, encased in a plastic sleeve, and slid it across the table to the mayor.
“Just so you know I’m serious, there’s my letter of credit for ten million euros, certified by the Paris branch of Citibank and waiting to be put to work.”
As the mayor studied the letter of credit, Bondino spoke up again. “One other thing. I read your local paper about a fire nearby and some political fuss about GMO crops. Unless there is an arrest pretty soon, you’re going to get a lot of unfavorable publicity, and nobody needs that. We are not going to take any risks with ten million euros. I hope that’s clear.”
The request from the gendarmerie was courteous, but Bruno knew it was an order just the same. The presence of the chief of police of Saint-Denis was requested at his earliest convenience at the gendarmerie by a senior officer from the Ministry of the Interior. As Bruno crossed the square, where the usual game of boules was under way, he saw a large and official-looking black Renault parked opposite the gendarmerie, a driver waiting at the wheel. Inside the building, he was shown to Captain Duroc’s austere office with its view over the village cemetery and the standard framed photograph of the president of France beside the door. A middle-aged man in civilian clothes but with a distinctly military bearing occupied the chair behind Duroc’s desk.
“Brigadier Lannes, may I present the municipal policeman Courreges,” said Duroc coldly. “The brigadier has been sent down from Paris, from the Ministry of the Interior.”
As Bruno saluted, he felt himself being studied by a penetrating pair of dark eyes. He recalled that J-J had warned him this might happen.
“You’re the one with the local knowledge and the Croix de Guerre,” said the brigadier, standing to shake his hand. “People have been telling me about you. Well, you’d better tell me where we are. It’s been nearly a week since the fire.”
“We don’t have many new leads, except that forensics was able to determine that the gasoline was Total regular,” said Duroc. “There was nothing from the fingerprints on that phone booth in Coux. The culprit must have been wearing gloves, or used a pencil or something like it to press the buttons.”
“It’s a phone that takes cards,” Bruno intervened, thinking he’d keep the postman’s evidence to himself for the moment. “I know that Commissaire Jalipeau from the Police Nationale was checking with France Telecom to establish where the card was bought.”
The brigadier glanced reproachfully at Duroc, as if this had been left out of his briefing. Then he reached into his briefcase, pulled out a printout from a Web site and said: “There’s been a development.”
“Aquitaine Vert is an ecolo newsletter published in Bordeaux by some militants in the Green Party,” he went on. “Jalipeau is interviewing them now in Bordeaux, because their new issue, which was e-mailed to their members last night, is almost entirely devoted to your research station and the GMO tests. They have a lot of accurate details, and apparently they have copies of test results that seem to have been taken from the barn that was burned. They also have a number of comments from one Alphonse Vannes, a council member here in Saint-Denis for the Greens. He says that no permit for the crops in question was ever issued by the mairie or by the conseil general.”
“That’s true,” said Bruno. “The mayor is not happy about it.”
“Well, that’s not my concern. I’ve been brought in because this was a discreet government-backed research project. It now looks likely to become a national scandal, and all the more embarrassing if we can’t find who was responsible for the fire.”
“Excuse me,” said Bruno. “I just want to be sure I understand. You are a brigadier of gendarmes, assigned to help J-J-I mean Commissaire Jalipeau-of the Police Nationale?”
“Brigadier is my rank, and I report to the minister of defense, but I’m attached to the staff of the renseignements generaux. I’ve been given the authority to take over this investigation by the minister of the interior. J-J will work under my orders, and I’m sure you two gentlemen will give me your full cooperation.”
“Yes, sir. Completely,” said Duroc.
“I’ll be happy to cooperate all I can, but you understand that I’ll have to consult the mayor. He’s my chain of command,” said Bruno formally, not liking this at all. The renseignements generaux was officially the intelligence arm of the French police, with a special mission of counterterrorism and a sinister reputation.
“J-J told me you’d say that,” said the brigadier with a grin that surprised Bruno. “He also said I should call you Bruno and tell you I really need all the help I can get. Would you mind starting by telling me whatever you feel you can about possible suspects and why you thought they weren’t guilty?”
It was a reasonable request, Bruno thought, courteously presented, from someone who probably had and certainly could obtain whatever authority he needed. This brigadier appeared to be a decent fellow, or at least he was making the effort to act like one. Knowing something of brigadiers, and the kind of pressure for a swift result that Paris would bring, Bruno reserved judgment. Protecting his town and his people, as well as he could, was his job.
“There was a possible suspect, Dominique Suchet, a university student who had a summer job at the station and who is very ecolo. But first, she has a strong alibi for the time of the fire from her father. And second, she’s actually a supporter of GMO crops and of nuclear power. She’s a highly evolved ecolo, besides which, if that fire had spread, her family’s farm would have been the next to go. So I don’t think she’s a likely suspect. The most promising line of investigation is through this Aquitaine Vert group in Bordeaux. If they have the documents from the burned-out shed, that’s the obvious connection.”
“I’ll bet you a beer they’ll tell J-J that the documents arrived anonymously by post,” said the brigadier. “Tell me more about this Alphonse Vannes.”
Bruno tried to explain Alphonse’s background and the unusual but successful commune in the hills. But he knew from the start that it was hopeless, with Duroc snorting contemptuously from the window. Even when Bruno suggested they call on the mayor to confirm that Alphonse was a model citizen, the brigadier’s eyebrows rose in what looked like mockery. “He’s a responsible type, so he may be prepared to help us if we treat him right,” Bruno concluded. It sounded lame, even to him.
“You may be right, but we don’t have enough time to treat anybody with kid gloves. If he knows anything, I need to know it now,” said the brigadier. “How did word get out about the GMO crops?”
“Possibly through Dominique Suchet or one of the other employees at the station,” Bruno said, wondering how he could explain what he knew about his local people to an outsider who simply wanted to make an arrest and move on.
“Dominique told me that she’s part of an ecolo chat group on the Internet and she started arguing in favor of some GMOs on the basis of her own experience at the station,” he said. “It wouldn’t be difficult for anyone in that chat group to put two and two together.”
Bruno scratched his head, half remembering something, and then took out his battered notebook and read what he had scribbled after talking to Dominique. He looked up. “This is interesting. She called that chat group Aquitaine Vert, so there must be a connection with this newsletter in Bordeaux.” Suddenly he felt more cheerful. It looked as if the focus of the inquiry might be shifting away from Saint-Denis. “I’d better phone J-J and let him know.”
“That’s already taken care of,” said the brigadier. “There’s a whole floor of an office building in Paris filled with computer experts who have since this morning been trawling through Aquitaine Vert’s entire history on the Net: e-mails, phone numbers, call histories, credit-card records, Web searches. You have no idea how many resources we have when we focus our efforts. We’ll have every exchange on that chat site, so if our fire starter learned about the GMOs from Dominique Suchet’s indiscretions, we’ll find him.”
“Captain Duroc, I’m going to need your office,” the brigadier now said. “I also need your men to bring in Alphonse Vannes and Dominique Suchet. I’ll start by talking to them.”
“Are they under arrest?”
“No, of course not. Just helping us with our inquiries. But I’ll want their computers.”
“And if they don’t want to come?”
“You’ll have to find a way to persuade them.” He turned to Bruno. “Most of these old ’68 types usually have some drugs around. We can always hold them on that. What do you think?”
“Alphonse must have grown out of it by now,” said Bruno. “And the young people up there now are more interested in rugby. A raid might be counterproductive. It might be more useful to keep Alphonse cooperative.”
The brigadier studied Bruno in silence for a long moment. “Just so long as you don’t forget which side of the law you’re on,” he said, then turned to Duroc. “Take a long hard look at those rugby-playing youngsters. They were probably brought up to be zealous little ecolos . And when we’ve done that, we’ll go through the other inhabitants of Saint-Denis, one by one until we find what we’re looking for. And make a special note of every France Telecom phone card you find.”
Bruno felt a chill as the brigadier turned away to pull a laptop from his case, plugged it in and settled down before the screen. Duroc and Bruno were dismissed. Duroc went to the front desk to order a car to fetch Alphonse and Dominique. Bruno walked thoughtfully back toward the mairie, thinking about that room full of computer experts in Paris trawling through e-mails and tracing phone calls and probably listening in to numbers of interest. By now, that would probably include Dominique’s cell phone. His instinct was to give Stephane a warning call. But any sign that Dominique was prepared, or that she had called in a lawyer, would just deepen the suspicions about her.
Bruno felt miserable as he took the short stroll from the gendarmerie to the fire station, but his spirits were restored by the cheery greetings he received from the throng on the pavement outside the nursery school. As they always did this close to noon, young mothers with their strollers and shopping bags massed and gossiped and showed off new babies as they waited for the morning classes to end and their children to pour out of the front door in a happy, shrieking horde. If the birthrate alone were the sign of a town’s health, Saint-Denis was in fine shape, Bruno thought as he tipped his peaked hat to the assembled mothers and stepped into the road to pass them.
Ahmed was in the fire station, as arranged, and the two of them went up to join Albert in his office to try Bruno’s experiment. It had been Ahmed who had taken the alarm call on the night of the fire, and although the call had not been recorded, Bruno thought it was worth taking a chance on Ahmed’s hearing and his memory.
“I don’t know how much I can help, Bruno,” said Ahmed as they stood by Albert’s crowded desk. “I told you it sounded to me like there was a cloth over the mouthpiece. The voice was muffled, hard to make out.”
“But you remember what the caller said?”
Albert pushed toward Bruno the notepad he had on his desk. “Here’s what Ahmed scribbled down as he took the call.” It was just a list of single words-“Fire. Barn. Field. Behind woods. St.-Cham. road. Before St.-Cyp. turn.”
“That’s pretty much all the caller said,” Ahmed confirmed. “Then when I asked for his name and address he just said he was calling from the Coux phone booth and hung up.”
“Well, try to remember the voice and then listen to this,” Bruno said, picking up Albert’s phone and calling the voice mail message box at his office. “The quality isn’t brilliant, and you’ll hear me talking a bit, but there’s another man’s voice and I want to know if it sounds like the caller from Coux.”
Ahmed took the phone and listened, closing his eyes in concentration. “Can you play it again?” he asked when the short conversation at Cresseil’s farm was over. “It’s a bit faint.”
Bruno hung up and dialed again. This time Ahmed’s eyes were open and his lips moved as if he was reciting the words to himself. Albert sat motionless behind his desk, his eyes fixed on Ahmed, the only sound the tinny crackles that leaked from the phone at Ahmed’s ear. Bruno realized he was holding his breath in response to the tension that was building in the room.
“One more time,” Ahmed said, handing the phone back to Bruno. “There’s something familiar about the voice. Maybe it’s just someone I’ve met once or twice. But try again.”
“As often as you like.” Bruno dialed again.
“You think it’s him, don’t you?” said Albert. “You think it was the caller who set the fire.”
“Maybe,” said Bruno, handing Ahmed the phone for the third time.
Again, the voices leaked from the phone into the silence and tension of the room. From outside the window came the voices of the children liberated from school, followed by the howl of the noon siren.
“I can’t swear to it,” said Ahmed. “But I think it’s him. It’s the way he says the word ‘fire.’ But when he says he knows you and he’ll see you at rugby practice… maybe I heard that voice there at the rugby club. He’s one of us, isn’t he, from Saint-Denis?”
“Don’t worry, Ahmed. I won’t ask you to testify in court about this,” said Bruno. “I’m just trying to narrow things down a bit.”
“Maybe this will persuade the mayor to let us have a new phone system in the next budget,” said Albert. “One that records calls automatically.”
“Not until I get my new van,” said Bruno.
As he climbed the familiar steps of the mairie Bruno had the uncomfortable feeling that he was losing his grip on the affairs of his town. It wasn’t just the arrival of the brigadier but also the coming of Bondino and the scale of the change the venture might bring to Saint-Denis. But his immediate problem was the brigadier. It felt like a personal humiliation, knowing that Dominique and Alphonse, friends of his, were now to be hauled in for a less-than-gentle grilling by the big guns from Paris. And his own hardening suspicions about Max made the fate of the other two seem all the more unfair.
Bruno paused at the top of the stairs, reflecting on the prospect that matters were likely to get a lot worse. This wouldn’t stop with Alphonse and Dominique, nor with Max, when the brigadier got around to him, as he surely would. Once the Paris politicians got worried, the people of Saint-Denis became just so many pawns. His anger brought back the old bitterness that he’d hoped to leave behind when he left the army. It was all part of the same rotten system. The people of Saint-Denis were going to be treated poorly, just as he and his fellow soldiers had been used and abandoned when they were sent into Bosnia as barely armed peacekeepers when there was no peace to be kept, no orders to fight, no honor in the duty. There had been only humiliation and mortar rounds and the sniper who put a bullet into Bruno’s hip.
He stayed there at the top of the stairs, staring at the old and faded tourism poster that had been banished to the stairwell in one of Claire’s redecoration projects. The top half depicted the prehistoric cave paintings of Lascaux and the lower half an idyllic view of the valley from the ridge above Saint-Denis. Between them was the phrase “Valley of the Vezere, cradle of mankind for 40,000 years.” Whole civilizations and nations, monarchies and cultures, had come and gone. His own petty concerns seemed minuscule in such a vast historic scale. But this was his town, these were his friends and this was duty. The only way to protect Saint-Denis now was for him to solve the case quickly, and to do it himself. He knew that Max was his obvious suspect. That meant breaking Cresseil’s alibi, eliciting a confession or setting a trap for Max. Bruno let out a deep breath. He didn’t like it, but he knew the course he’d have to take. With a last look at the ancient animals of Lascaux, he pushed through the heavy door into the offices, barely nodding in response to Claire’s cheery greeting from the reception desk. He knocked on the mayor’s half-open door and leaned into his office to ask about working with the brigadier.
“Better cooperate,” the mayor said. “I already approved your assignment to work with J-J, and it’s the same case. And after that remark by Bondino about finding the arsonist, the sooner we do so the better. I’m glad you came by because I wanted to ask about this adoption request. I don’t want to stand in Cresseil’s way, but it may be a problem. Cresseil’s land is part of the slope Bondino wants us to help him buy. Perhaps you could find out informally what Cresseil plans to do. From the look of him, I’d guess he’ll be in the retirement home before the year is out. And maybe you could talk to Bondino’s people about a job or a scholarship or something for young Max. If he wants to go into the wine business, it could be a good opening for him.”
Heading back to his office, Bruno pondered the mayor’s words. The prospect of a Bondino scholarship for Max could be an attractive idea, unless he was arrested, but it also carried the implicit threat by the mayor that he would block the adoption request. Clearly the mayor had decided to go ahead with the Bondino project. If it worked, it could secure the economic future of Saint-Denis for generations. So why did Bruno feel so wary of the plan? Was it just his dislike of change, or was it his affection for Saint-Denis as it was? Absentmindedly, he booted up his computer. The first e-mail was from Isabelle in Paris: “Coming to Perigord. Are you free this weekend?”
Bruno was taken aback by the sudden rush of emotion that flooded him. I’m not some teenage innocent in the grip of his first affair, he told himself. I’m going to be forty. We had a very grown-up conversation about how her career ambitions and my love of this place could never blend happily. And now she’s coming to visit and my heart is beating faster and I want to stand up and cheer.
He read the e-mail again, analyzing the eight-word message for some deeper meaning. There was not the slightest hint of affection, only the raw data. Did she want to spend the whole weekend with him? How should he respond? In similar neutral terms, or should he say something personal? Did he really want to repeat the cycle of joy and then melancholy with Isabelle? His fingers rested lightly on the keyboard. He had to send some kind of reply. He closed his eyes in thought and then quickly opened them and tapped out, “Wonderful news. For you, of course I’m free. Bruno.” And without letting himself pause to think about the phrasing, he hit the Send key.
When Bruno arrived at Cresseil’s property, a familiar white Porsche was parked in the yard. Dupuy and Bondino were standing on the porch facing the seated Cresseil and Max, who stood protectively at Cresseil’s side, his hand reassuringly on the old man’s shoulder. Cresseil’s venerable dog was growling and trying to stand, his hackles raised but his rear legs crumpling at his master’s feet. All their faces had turned to watch Bruno’s arrival. He had interrupted a far from amiable scene. Leaving his hat in the van to appear less official, he walked in silence up to the porch, ignoring Dupuy and Bondino, shook hands with the old man and Max and then knelt to let the dog sniff his knees and his hands before he consented to be stroked by a friend. Only then did Bruno look up at Dupuy and Bondino to offer a curt greeting.
“These men were just leaving,” said Max angrily. Cresseil looked very tired, but nodded firmly.
“Well, monsieur, I trust that you will consider our proposal,” said Dupuy. “Perhaps I might call again when you’ve had time to reflect.”
“No considering needed,” said Cresseil. “The answer is no today, and it will be no tomorrow. You won’t be welcome if you come here again.”
Bondino was about to speak when Dupuy quickly steered him back toward their car.
“You,” said Bondino, addressing Bruno. “You talk to them. Make them understand. Tell them how it is.”
Bruno, now wishing he had worn his hat, stood and faced them impassively. When Max started forward to say something, Bruno put a restraining hand on his arm; Max was trembling with emotion. As Bondino and Dupuy approached Dupuy’s Porsche, Bondino pushed Dupuy away from the driver’s door and climbed in to take the wheel. Looking back at Bruno, Dupuy shrugged and walked around to the passenger door. Bondino was already revving the engine aggressively. Dupuy had barely taken his seat and had not even closed his door when Bondino took off, sending gravel flying as the wheels tried to grip the road, the expensive car lurching and bouncing up the rough lane.
“What is this shit?” said Max, speaking directly into Bruno’s face. “They said the mayor is with them and they want our land. And why do they expect you to talk sense into us?”
“Maybe I’d better sit down,” said Bruno mildly. “Is there another chair? Then you can tell me what’s going on.”
“They said they were going to buy us out. Not asking. Telling,” said Max.
“Max, a chair for our friend,” said Cresseil, leaning back and reaching for his pipe. “And I’d like a glass of something. You too, Bruno?”
Max breathed heavily, but he went inside and came out with a chair, which he scraped noisily on the stone of the terrace before going back to fetch two glasses of wine.
“The boy’s right,” said Cresseil, puffing on his pipe. “They also said there was no point in my arguing because the mayor would make sure I sold the place, that it was all arranged. Is that right?”
“No,” said Bruno. “You know the law. This is your property and you can do with it what you want. What did those two tell you?”
“They made an offer, not to buy the place, but to take an option,” Max said. “The young one showed a fat wad of notes, said it was ten thousand euros, just for an option to buy at the end of the year for the market price. We said no, and then they got nasty and said we’d find we had no choice, that the mayor would take care of it.”
Bruno cocked an eye at Cresseil. The old man nodded confirmation, then looked at Max. “They only got nasty after you laughed at them. That never helps, Max. Always leave a man his dignity.” He turned to Bruno. “So why don’t you tell us what’s going on here?”
Bruno started to explain, only to be interrupted by Max’s scornful demand to know where the fifty jobs were supposed to come from.
“And they’d want control over the grapes, the plantings, the winemaking and the selling, all of it,” said Max. “Why do they want to come here? What’s in it for them?”
“Water,” said Bruno, who had learned a lot from surfing the ecolo Web sites. “I read about it in Hulot’s newsletter. You know Nicolas Hulot, the ecology guy on TV. He had a long piece on world water shortages. That’s what this is all about.”
“What do you mean, water shortages?” asked Cresseil, pulling some eyeglasses from his waistcoat pocket to scrutinize Bruno.
“Bruno’s right. We have water, but everywhere else it’s getting short,” said Max, suddenly animated. “The Australian wine crop has been halved because of their drought. A big group like Bondino must be thinking about climate change. South Africans are getting worried about water, and the Chilean glaciers are shrinking fast. California has its own water problems, and I read about drought in Spain last year. But we’ve got decent rains, and the river. That must be it.”
“Well, it would explain why they’re interested,” said Bruno. “But that still leaves the question of whether we all want to go in with Bondino. They’ve got the money to pay top price, if you want to sell. That’s for sure.”
“It’s my own wine I want to make here, organic wine, quality wine. Not the mass-market stuff they’ll produce.”
“This will take some thinking about,” said Cresseil, putting away his glasses. “The boy and I will talk.”
“There’s something else you might want to think about,” Bruno said, leaning back in his chair and preparing to lay the bait in the little trap he had prepared. “Max, if you really want a career in wine, you could do worse than start off with Bondino, get them to train you, send you off to their operations in California and Australia.”
Max said nothing, but his eyes never left Bruno’s face. This was what Bruno was counting on. He’d seen Max playing rugby dozens of times, observed how the young man applied his intelligence to the game, thinking even in the heat of the match. Bruno was sure that Max would be thinking now, turning over the options in his head.
“Think of Jacqueline,” Bruno went on. “She’s studied wine all over the world. You’d certainly have the leverage to make Bondino back you. When you really know the trade, that’s the time to come back and make your own wine, as organic as you like. A couple more years at the university, get your diploma, and then you’d be pretty useful to the Bondino group. Think about it.”
“That Jacqueline! She’s the only thing he thinks about,” said Cresseil, chuckling. He turned to Bruno and winked. “The boy thinks he’s in love. Can’t say I blame him.”
“The problem is, it might not go like that,” Bruno went on, closing the trap. “I was surprised to see Bondino here because the last I heard, he was threatening to pull out. It’s the fire that worries him. He told the mayor that if we can’t manage our affairs properly, if we can’t find out quickly who set the fire and arrest him, then the deal is off. He’ll go somewhere else with his ten million, and some other bright young students will get to make their start in the wine business. You might even find Jacqueline signing up with Bondino.”
Max looked thoughtful, but Bruno wasn’t done yet.
“Just one more thing, Max.” He pulled a small tape recorder from his pocket and pressed Record. “Just read those words aloud into the recorder, if you would.”
He handed over the paper on which he’d copied down the notes that Ahmed had taken on the night of the fire. “And then you too, Cresseil. We have to get every man in Saint-Denis and its environs to do this, to see if one of them was the caller.”
Max’s face was unnaturally blank as he read the paper, but in a halting voice he spoke the short list of words. Then Cresseil followed suit.
“There’s no point in having us do this,” Cresseil said when he had finished. “I told you Max was here with me.”
The plat du jour at Ivan’s was kidneys in red wine with petit pois , which Bruno felt was a small compensation for Ahmed’s being unable to confirm that Max’s voice on the new recording had been that of the anonymous caller. Bruno was just wiping up the last of the sauce with a slice of bread and was about to finish off the small carafe of Bergerac red with the baron when his phone rang. It was Dominique, sounding excited.
“Bruno, I’ve just had a text message from Aquitaine Vert, the kind they send out to all their members. They’ve organized a demonstration at the agricultural station here this afternoon at five. A couple of busloads of people are coming from central Bordeaux, leaving at two-thirty, and more buses are coming from Perigueux and Sarlat.”
That would be well over a hundred people, Bruno calculated quickly, plus whoever came in their own cars and however many came from Saint-Denis. It could be a couple of hundred, and there was nowhere for buses to park or people to gather near the research station, which was right on the road. They’d be blocking the main road to Les Eyzies just as the rush hour was starting. Come to think of it, that was probably the disruption they wanted to draw attention to their protest.
“Thanks, Dominique. Can you alert Petitbon at the research station? He needs to know about this. And tell him I’ll be there soon. Will you go too? It could be useful if we have to calm things down.”
Dominique agreed, and Bruno closed his phone and opened it again. He shrugged an apology to the baron, waved away Ivan bringing the cheese course and called the mayor to explain the situation. The baron signaled Ivan to come back and helped himself. Bruno suggested the mayor call the prefect and ask for some extra gendarmes to be sent from Perigueux. And perhaps the mayor might also call Alphonse to see if he knew about the demonstration.
“Any other suggestions, Bruno?” the mayor asked.
“Well, you know people at a demonstration want some kind of result, and you might think about giving them one by announcing that you are bringing charges against the research station over the nonpayment of taxes. It would make the demonstrators think they’d achieved something, and it would get Alphonse on our side. I think he might be the key to this.”
“That’s not a bad idea. I’ll get the paperwork moving and see you at the research station a bit before five.”
Next Bruno called the gendarmerie, where Jules reported the welcome news that Captain Duroc had the day off and had gone to the movies in Sarlat. That made things much easier. Bruno explained the situation to Jules, and asked for a patrol on the main road from Perigueux and Bordeaux to check all buses and order those going to the demonstration to park in the square by the gendarmerie. That would ease the traffic problem. The remaining gendarmes should gather at the research station. As he folded his phone, it trilled again. It was the brigadier.
“Something’s up,” he said.
“You mean the demonstration at the research station?” Bruno asked.
“How did you know about that? My computer guys just picked it up from their Web site.”
“Dominique Suchet, one of your suspects. She called to let me know. As I told you, she’s a responsible young woman.”
“How do you want to handle it?”
“The mayor’s asking the prefect for more gendarmes. And we’ll show restraint. People have a right to demonstrate peacefully.”
“If it turns out to be peaceful; but I doubt it. From the cell phone traffic, some of the militants who trashed the McDonald’s in Millau are going to be turning up. Leave them to me. That’s an order. One more thing, we traced the phone card. It was one of a batch of five-euro cards sold in the tabac here in Saint-Denis and hasn’t been used for any other calls so far.” He ended the call, leaving Bruno staring worriedly at his phone.
“Sounds like trouble. Anything I can do?” asked the baron, nonetheless relishing his cheese. Bruno found a steaming coffee in front of him and he sipped it gratefully. “Maybe call some of the members in from the rugby teams. Get them chanting ‘Save our research station.’ Just in case there’s trouble from any outsiders. And since you’re the big shareholder in that building yard, maybe some of your heavy trucks could cruise up and down slowly past the station, make sure the demonstrators stay off the road.”
The baron nodded, an amused glint in his eye. “It’s our town; we’ll make them play by our rules,” he said.
Bruno watched as the demonstrators straggled in on foot after the long walk from the square where their buses had been parked. He was not altogether confident, but he was calm. His objectives were clear. He had rallied his forces and organized a reserve. He had prepared the ground and made his dispositions, and he had a plan. All the tactical requirements the army had taught him had been met.
He stood before the closed iron gates of the research station, five gendarmes alongside him and the mayor at his elbow. Another dozen gendarmes from Perigueux were inside the gates with Petitbon and some of his employees, and four more were directing traffic. Across the road, the baron and a small knot of rugby players were grinning and waving some hastily inked signs that said SAVE OUR RESEARCH STATION and HANDS OFF SCIENCE. Heavy trucks loaded with sand and building supplies ground slowly by, forcing the marching demonstrators into a single file along the grass. Bruno looked down. The bullhorn stood ready behind the folding steps he had placed in front of the gates, and the mayor had a file of papers under his arm. The forces of order of Saint-Denis were as prepared as Bruno could make them.
“You knew we were coming,” said Alphonse as he approached at the head of the marchers, the matronly Celine from his commune at his side. They both wore T-shirts that said STOP GMO. Alphonse carried a sign that bore the same slogan. There was resignation and perhaps a touch of relief rather than accusation in his voice.
“You’re a town council member. You don’t want trouble here any more than I do,” said Bruno. “Let’s keep this calm and dignified. The mayor thought you might like to say a few words, tell your demonstrators why they’re here. And then the mayor has something to say.”
Alphonse went back to confer with two of the older men who led the group of marchers. Well-groomed and wearing polished shoes, they did not look to Bruno like troublemakers. He eyed the rest of the demonstrators, noting that Max and Jacqueline were among them, Max waving cheerfully at his rugby friends across the road. There was no sign yet of Dominique. Bruno counted maybe one hundred fifty people, at least a third of them women, and perhaps twenty of them kids he knew from the Saint-Denis college, in addition to the local Greens. The only ones who worried him were shouldering their way from the long straggle of marchers to the front, all young and carrying signs, some of them wearing heavy boots and hooded sweatshirts and carrying suspiciously heavy bags over their shoulders. Bruno turned to Jules, the senior gendarme present, and quietly pointed them out. Jules nodded, then passed the word to his men.
Bruno strolled over to where Alphonse was talking urgently to the two men. One of the young toughs with heavy bags joined them. Bruno casually turned so his arm jostled the bag. It seemed to squash like liquid rather than anything solid. At least it wasn’t bricks.
“Ready, councilman?” he asked Alphonse, who nodded, handed his sign to one of the two men and began to turn toward the gates.
“Perhaps you’ll introduce me to your friends. I presume they’re from Aquitaine Vert,” Bruno said pleasantly.
“Well, perhaps…,” Alphonse began.
Bruno was already shaking the hand of the first man and introducing himself as the municipal policeman, welcoming them to Saint-Denis and wishing them a pleasant and peaceful stay. They mumbled polite replies, and Bruno made a mental note of their names. One, he learned, was an elected member of the conseil regional, the other a parliamentary candidate. The young tough hastily backed away into the crowd. Alphonse began squeezing his way through to the gates, and Bruno walked slowly across the road to the rugby team members.
“Any trouble, grab those guys in the hoods and keep them out of action, as peacefully as you can,” he told the baron quietly, then he strolled back to stand beside the small stepladder where Alphonse and the mayor had their backs to the crowd, talking with animation. Bruno didn’t bother with the bullhorn; he ascended the steps and began in the parade-ground voice he had learned on the barracks square.
“Welcome to Saint-Denis, where we take very seriously the right of every citizen to demonstrate peacefully on matters of public concern. I repeat, peacefully. We’re proud of the scientists and technicians at our research station, whose work we believe will help feed a hungry world and keep Perigord the agricultural heartland of France. Our respected town council member Alphonse Vannes of the Green Party, who is known to most of you, will now say a few words on the issue that brings you here. He will be followed by our mayor, who has some news of great interest.”
Bruno stepped down, gave Alphonse the bullhorn and helped him up the steps. At the back of the crowd, he saw Dominique on a bicycle overtake one of the slowly grinding trucks. She turned off to leave her bike with the rugby boys, most of whom had been in school with her.
Alphonse began. He was not a born speaker and had trouble with the bullhorn, which squeaked and burped whenever he became animated. This was not often. Bruno had ensured that Alphonse would be the main speaker, knowing that he wouldn’t be an incendiary one. Alphonse began citing some vague statistics about the dangers of genetically modified crops and the charm of organic foods, and what little energy had been in the demonstration began to leak away. Sensing this, Alphonse changed his tune and began condemning the research station for illegal plantings and operating without a permit. This seemed to stir up some of the militants, who began chanting, “Stop the GMOs.” Feeling drowned out, Alphonse joined in the chanting, and so did the crowd, the young toughs turning to the crowd and waving their arms to get everyone chanting and a rhythm going.
Bruno tugged at Alphonse’s sleeve. “Calm them down,” he said with some urgency. Alphonse nodded and stopped chanting, but a momentum had built among the crowd and they were moving forward, their faces red and their voices climbing in pitch. Bruno tugged at Alphonse once more and he began to speak again, but somehow the bullhorn had been turned off and he was drowned out. Bruno kept his eyes on the young men in hoods who were now pushing others forward. He clambered up the steps alongside Alphonse and waved across their heads to the baron, and the rugby team began to move in.
From the middle of the crowd something black was hurled into the air. Then another one. Bruno whirled to see. It seemed to have a tail and to be heading off to one side, way over the heads of the gendarmes and toward the long row of greenhouses that flanked the research station. Were they trying to break the glass? He pushed Alphonse down the steps, grabbed the bullhorn, turned it on and shouted for calm. Three, four, five more projectiles were in the air when the first one landed with a great splash of red paint across the glass panes. Another bag seemed to open in midair, scattering splashes of paint over the gendarmes and the research staff inside the gates.
Bruno located the paint throwers-now he knew what had been in that shoulder bag-and handed the bullhorn to the mayor. He turned to Jules and the gendarmes, shouting, “Get them!” and pushed his way through the crowd. He reached the one he had jostled, who was taking his arm back for another throw. Bruno grabbed the arm and pulled the man backward so he fell, the paint in the bag splashing over the marchers behind him. Bruno grabbed the shoulder bag, pulled out a bag of paint and upended its contents over the face of the man he’d felled. He turned and threw a second bag at another of the young paint-throwers, half of it catching a gendarme who was trying to collar the man.
Jules had one hooded youth in a bear hug and another was ducking away from two gendarmes. The rugby players had moved in to grab some of the others. Red paint was splashing everywhere. The chanting had stopped, and most of the marchers were scuttling away from the mess of paint. One young tough ran at Bruno, his sign held out ahead of him like a lance, and Bruno stepped quickly to one side, pulling on the stick so the youth lurched forward and Bruno pushed him sprawling to the ground.
Suddenly it seemed to be over. The mayor was standing on the steps, speaking calmly into the bullhorn about his lawsuit and waving the legal papers he had brought. Nobody was listening, so he asked the crowd to disperse. Max, his arm protectively around her, was escorting Jacqueline back toward town. Dominique was helping a middle-aged man who was holding his head and sitting on the ground. All of the paint-throwers were pinioned by either a gendarme or a rugby player.
Bruno almost lost his footing on the lake of fresh paint that seemed to cover the ground, and camera flashes went off. Of course the marchers had tipped off the media. Bruno began steering the captives through the gates, where the remaining gendarmes could handcuff them.
A braying siren sounded, and with a squeal of brakes a large dark blue bus with darkened glass windows came to a halt on the road. When the door opened, Bruno saw the brigadier, standing by the driver and clutching a handrail to keep his balance. Two by two, the squadron of thirty black-clad figures wearing helmets and leg guards and carrying shields and clubs jumped out and formed a disciplined line. The Compagnies Republicaines de Securite were France’s feared riot police, tough and trained and ruthless.
The crowd retreated hastily back toward town and their parked buses. Abandoned paint bombs lay leaking on the road behind them. Alphonse’s two well-groomed friends, their hair and clothing splashed with red paint, stood staring at the immobile ranks of riot police and at the brigadier, who now descended the steps from the coach and eyed the scene, nodding affably at Bruno.
“You seem to have handled this without our reinforcements, but I thought it best to be on hand if needed,” he said, eyeing the lake of red paint. “Let’s hope nobody tries to claim that the riot police left a sea of blood on the road.”
“We had the research station security cameras running the whole time,” said Bruno. “They’d look silly if they tried.”
The brigadier nodded. “I’ll take over the arrests. How many have you got? It looks like eight or nine. Criminal damage and inciting a public disturbance; they could get two or three years. And I get to interrogate them all, search their homes and confiscate their cell phones and computers. Lots of address lists. Many thanks, Bruno, for a gratifying haul. All this, and your little town stays remarkably calm, considering.”
“I hope you note that your suspects Alphonse and Dominique were not part of this.”
The brigadier raised his eyebrows and turned to wave the riot police into the research station compound. They trotted dutifully forward to take custody. The brigadier turned back to Bruno. “And now perhaps you’ll introduce me to your mayor.”
Almost any French village can boast a weekly market, but Bruno was very proud that his venerable town of Saint-Denis had two. He was usually too busy to enjoy the justly famous market of the royal charter, which had been held every Tuesday since 1347. He preferred what Saint-Denis called the new market, held on Saturdays since the relatively recent year of 1807, when one of Emperor Napoleon’s prefects had a bright idea. He was running out of money to complete the new stone bridge, and his wife’s cousin was running out of customers for the output of his textile mill. So the prospect of a second market, which would double the income from tolls on the bridge and provide twice as many buyers for the wool, made eminent commercial sense. That was the theory. In practice, the Saturday market had never lived up to the prefect’s hopes, failing to attract as many stalls and merchants as expected.
The Saturday market did survive, however, as an agreeable and useful addition to the amenities of Saint-Denis. Bruno admired the stubborn patience of the citizens in keeping it going. While the grand Tuesday market could comprise more than a hundred stalls and stretch from the main square in front of the mairie all along the rue de Paris to the parade ground in front of the gendarmerie, the Saturday market was a more intimate affair. Bruno seldom saw more than a dozen stalls, all manned by locals, and they never overlapped the small square that was on other days the parking lot for the mayor and his staff. In winter, the entire Saturday market could be accommodated under the arches of the mairie, benefiting from the warmth of the brazier that Bruno lit, his own small effort to ensure that the tradition did not die out.
For Bruno, it was a gathering of friends. Stephane was there with his milk and cheeses and yogurts with Dominique to help out at the stall, alongside Raoul the wine merchant and Yves with his fruit and vegetables. The fishmonger and charcutier were squabbling over which of them got the prime location at the corner of the bridge. Marie with her ducks and eggs and magrets was in her usual place under the arches and close to the cafe, the dubiously legal fat goose livers tucked discreetly out of sight in a cool box. Jeanne, plumper than ever and with her leather cash bag dangling from her shoulder, passed through the stalls exchanging kisses and gossip as she took the modest fees the town charged the merchants.
The air was fresh and the sun warm but not oppressive. Fauquet had not bothered to open the sun umbrellas over his outdoor tables, where people were lingering over their croissants and newspapers. Light glinted on the ripples where the river shallows danced over the pebbles on the near shore. Far downstream, a group of pony-trekkers waited patiently as their steeds drank their fill while a flotilla of ducks paddled by. The golden stone of the old bridge and the local buildings glowed warmly in the mid-morning light. The clock on the mairie read 10 a.m., and the bells of the church in the rue de Paris began to strike.
Bruno, still feeling a glow of satisfaction from the way his town had emerged unscathed from the demonstration, surveyed the familiar scene from the steps of the mairie. He enjoyed the familiar rhythms of the town that had become his home, where he knew all the stallholders, most of their customers and some of their secrets. How much of this would survive the changes that the Bondino enterprise would bring? There would be more jobs and money and probably more American tourists and a handsome stall in pride of place selling Bondino wines. All that would be good. Raoul’s modest little wine stall, selling his choices of the local Bergerac wines, would face stiff competition, but that was not much of a price to pay. So why did Bruno have so many doubts about this project? Why did it feel like an oversized and alien intrusion that would change the way of life in Saint-Denis?
He was surprised to notice that one of the shoppers pausing at the stalls was Bondino. Bruno wondered if he had seen the previous day’s Sud Ouest, with its front-page report headlined “Riot in Saint-Denis” and a photo of the riot police pushing men in handcuffs into the police bus. Bondino was wearing jeans and a polo shirt, with a camera around his neck, looking like just another tourist rather than the sleek global businessman Bruno had disliked on sight. He was buying honey and beeswax candles from Margot, the housekeeper at the home for retired priests in Saint-Belvedere, who was almost as old as her charges. Then he stopped to purchase some of the small crottins of goat cheese from Alphonse, walked quickly by the man selling mussels and oysters from the bay and came up to Bruno.
“Bonjour, monsieur,” he said, putting out his hand to shake. Bruno returned his greeting. “I like this market,” Bondino went on. He smiled an apology. “I speak French poorly, I regret. Saint-Denis has much charm.” He gestured with a look of puzzlement at the stall behind Bruno. “What is it?” he asked.
Now that Pierrot had his driver’s license back, he was in the market once more with his ancient Citroen bus, whose side folded down to display some of the oddest merchandise in France-black mourning clothes and bonnets for widows, felt slippers, long skirts and shawls and flat caps, and the gaudy wraparound aprons that farmers’ wives used to wear. In tiny cubbyholes beneath were the useful items that could be found nowhere else: typewriter ribbons and crochet hooks, little gas mantles for paraffin lamps and smooth wooden domes used to darn socks.
“The farmers and their wives find Pierrot very useful,” Bruno explained. Bondino smiled and moved on to buy some strawberries, with a last look at Pierrot’s display of hand-operated mixers and can openers and the blowpipes the farmers used to shoot medicine deep into the throats of their livestock. Pierrot hardly attended his wares, spending his time in the cafe or helping Raoul’s customers taste his wines, which was why he had lost his driver’s license six months earlier.
As Bruno headed for Fauquet’s cafe, Jacqueline appeared in front of one of the stalls. She stopped, smiled and held out her hand. He tipped his finger to the brim of his cap and then shook her hand.
“Not shopping yet?” He gestured at her empty bag. She shook her head.
“Meeting someone for coffee,” she said, appraising him. “You were brilliant at the demonstration, taking charge like that.”
“Max seemed to get you out of the way without any trouble,” he said.
She shrugged. “Not my kind of scene, but Max gets so passionate about this GMO stuff. How about you? On duty again?”
He nodded. As far as Bruno was concerned, he was always on duty, even though he was supposed to work only thirty-five hours a week. If he charged for all his overtime, he’d bankrupt the town budget. In fact, he was about to drink a coffee and then go to his office to see if Isabelle had sent another e-mail. This was the weekend she was supposed to come down, but there had been no more word from her. His cell phone number had not changed. She knew how to reach him. But he wanted to check his e-mail, just in case.
“I’ll be heading off to a friend’s vendange soon,” Bruno told her. “It’s probably too early, but he picks his grapes at the same time every year and feeds us all a grand lunch of cassoulet.”
“Does he take volunteers?” She spoke in correct and fluent French but with an unmistakable Quebecois accent that derived from the eighteenth-century Bretons and Gascons who had planted the fleur-de-lys in the New World. “I’d love to take part in a French wine harvest. It would be a first for me.”
She was better like this, Bruno thought. For the first time since he’d met her she seemed genuine, with all the eagerness of youth. It made her easier to like. He smiled at her. “There’s always room for one more. Come and have a coffee so I can explain what you’re getting yourself into.” As they walked the few steps to Fauquet’s, Bruno asked, “Have you picked grapes before?”
“Often, back in the States. And in Australia, where I studied winemaking.” She was wearing jeans tucked into tall boots, and carrying what looked like an army surplus shoulder bag.
“Okay, Jacqueline. I could come back and pick you up here in the cafe at about eleven, but you might want to change into working clothes. Or I could entrust you to my Communist friend, council member Jules Montsouris, whom we’ll find in the bar. He’s a fierce revolutionary who wishes Stalin were still alive. He’ll probably be heading to Joe’s before me, and I’m sure he’d be delighted to escort you.”
Fauquet’s was already filled with the usual market crowd. Fauquet himself, brisk and dapper in his white chef’s jacket and little white cap, came from behind the zinc counter to shake Bruno’s hand and inform him that the latest batch of croissants was still piping hot from the oven.
“Not today, mon vieux. Just a quick coffee. I know what’s coming at Joe’s feast.” Bruno passed along the counter shaking hands with the usual crowd, introducing Jacqueline as the new stagiaire from Hubert’s wine shop. The men greeted her with ponderous gallantry, bowing over her hand as they shook it. Pierrot instantly ordered a petit blanc for the new arrival and Pascal from the insurance office offered her a cafe creme. Fauquet swept off his chef’s hat, and Montsouris used a paper napkin to wipe the seat of a bar stool for the young woman to perch on amid the circling admirers.
Laughing, she took her place on the stool and chatted agreeably. But Bruno noticed that she kept glancing out the window. Following her gaze he saw Max appear at Alphonse’s stall. Jacqueline began to step off her stool as if to leave. Then Bruno saw Dominique walk across from her father’s stall to embrace Max and steer him off behind one of the columns that supported the mairie for what looked like a private and urgent conversation. Probably talking about the fire, thought Bruno, or perhaps the demonstration, wishing he could overhear them. Jacqueline had sat down again. A lovers’ tiff seemed to be brewing. Bruno watched the assured way that Jacqueline drew the men at the bar back into her orbit.
“I gather this is the day Joe picks his grapes and makes his cassoulet,” she said.
“The day we pick his grapes, you mean,” grumbled Pierrot. “Joe’s pretty clever, getting everybody else to pick his grapes while he just stays at home and cooks.”
“You can’t complain, Pierrot,” said Fauquet, with a wink at Jacqueline. “You drink Joe’s wine, which is more than most of us can say.”
“Be fair,” said Bruno. “We all use Joe’s wine for the vin de noix , and for the eau-de-vie. Where would we be without him?”
Bruno was accustomed to the chorus of amiable jeers that met his defense of Joe, his predecessor as police chief of Saint-Denis. Joe’s vineyard, tucked between the town’s rugby field and its tennis club, was small and poorly drained. But it was the first piece of land that Joe had ever owned, and his wine was no worse than the pinard Bruno had been given to drink as a young recruit in the French army, the daily liter of rough red wine that had sustained the tricolor throughout the ups and downs of French history.
“Don’t be naive, Bruno,” said Montsouris, a big and burly railway man. “Joe’s just hanging on to that plot of land to force the rugby club to pay more to get the second pitch. He knows he can force a higher price so long as he claims it’s a vineyard, whatever crap he makes.”
“And here’s another North American who’s visiting our town, Monsieur Bondino,” Bruno said as the American walked into the bar, loaded down with shopping bags. He stopped in his tracks when he saw Jacqueline. She gave him a cool appraising look, and then her face broke into a broad smile, almost as if she recognized him. They shook hands and exchanged bursts of English too fast for Bruno’s limited command of the language, though he heard the words “wine” and “Bondino,” so she evidently knew the family name and business.
From the doorway, Bruno smiled his farewells, his smile becoming all the broader as he saw Montsouris’s wife heading with her usual determined stride through the market toward the cafe, where her husband was paying court to Jacqueline. Madame Montsouris, far more rigid in her Communist ideology than her husband, held equally strict views on marital fidelity. Bachelor though he was, Bruno could not help smiling to himself as he ran up the stairs to look at his e-mail and to check for the third time that his phone was on and its battery charged. But there was still no message from Isabelle.
Joe was not particular about the grapes that went into the ancient wooden vat for the pressing. So as well as the bunches from the forty rows of vines in his own vineyard, he welcomed grapes from the shady terraces and hedges of his neighbors. To Joe, grapes were grapes. Nor was he averse to the occasional handful of black currants mixed in.
“Mainly cabernet sauvignon, a couple of rows of merlot, which is about what I’d expect around here, along with the odd foot of cabernet franc,” said Jacqueline, casting what was evidently an expert eye over Joe’s pride and joy, where men and women of all ages and several children were dragging blue plastic boxes between the rows of vines and yelling greetings at Bruno as they carried the full boxes to the trailer behind Joe’s ancient tractor.
Bondino, who had been sitting with Jacqueline when Bruno returned to Fauquet’s to pick her up and had asked to come along, stared bemusedly at the scene. “It’s like history, like the nineteenth century,” he said. “No machines.” He bent to look at some of Joe’s undistinguished bunches of grapes and shook his head.
Bruno shouted out a brief introduction of Jacqueline and Bondino as new volunteers.
Jacqueline waved cheerfully, then turned to examine the rows of vines. “There’s a couple of feet of mourvedre and cinsaut and even a petit verdot, but it’s really too soon to pick that,” she said. “And Lord bless my soul but I think that’s a carignan, although I’ve never actually seen one before. Where on earth did Joe get this job lot of vines? This isn’t a vineyard, it’s a vine museum.”
Jacqueline had changed into sneakers and a baggy cotton shirt that was emblazoned with the letters UCD. Her abundant hair was swept back into a loose bun. The tight jeans she’d worn in the cafe had been replaced with some loose cargo pants that seemed to have pockets everywhere. From one she took some very fine latex gloves and from another a pair of curiously curved scissors that were evidently designed to cut the bunches of grapes. Bruno was always eager to observe a real expert, an expert in anything, so he listened carefully.
“The soil is terrible for wine,” she said. “No drainage, a lot of clay, not enough pebbles, too much water too close to the surface-and the soil nutrients are probably too good for vines. There are weeds everywhere, and I’m not sure that Joe has ever heard about pruning. The foliage is far too thick for the sun to get to the grapes.”
She then spoke in a burst of English to Bondino, too fast for Bruno to follow, but since she was pointing at the various vines it seemed to be a translation of what she had told Bruno. Bondino nodded appreciatively.
“You can identify all those different varieties of grape by sight?” Bruno asked.
“Well, I cheated on the carignan. Back in the hotel I checked my reference books for the kinds of grapes that are grown in southwest France. But I can tell most of the varieties. I grew up on vineyards and then did four years at UC Davis.”
“UC?” Bruno asked.
“University of California. There’s a branch in the town of Davis, where they have a famous wine program. Then I took a year in Adelaide, the best place in the southern hemisphere to study wine. My family takes wine very seriously, and if you want to make it in the family business, you have to know your stuff. By the way, Bruno, I wanted to ask you something, since you evidently know everything that happens in Saint-Denis. I really don’t want to stay at the hotel too long. It costs more than I should be spending. If you hear of any rooms for rent or a small, cheap apartment, could you let me know? As long as it’s not too far from town. That nice man at the bicycle shop let me have a cheap beat-up bike so I can travel a bit.”
Her voice trailed off as she looked over his shoulder. Turning, Bruno saw Max and Alphonse arrive, greeting the other grape pickers. Max was heading toward them, waving at Jacqueline, but she turned her back and bent over a row of vines with Bondino.
Bruno went off to get a blue plastic basket for each of them and a pair of Joe’s rusty wine scissors for himself and Bondino. As he approached the truck, Max brushed past him, barely grasping his hand with a quick “Bonjour.” Bruno assumed he was still nervous about being under suspicion until Max moved on quickly to Jacqueline, only to be taken aback by her frosty response. Max looked hesitant, furious and baffled, all at the same time. He had a lot to learn about women, Bruno thought. But then so do I, Bruno told himself as he checked his phone yet again and wondered if Isabelle was ever going to call. And how would he respond if she did appear? Could he possibly assume that all would be as it was, that they would fall into bed and make passionate love? More likely he’d be tongue-tied and nervous but would try to conceal it with some light bravado. And what of Isabelle? Would she too be uncertain at meeting again, a little reserved, suggesting that she was not prepared to jump into bed at the sight of him?
Time would tell. She had made the approach, saying she was coming again to Saint-Denis, to Bruno’s turf. She would decide the way things would develop. He would have to take his cue from her, and try to fathom Isabelle’s intentions behind whatever mask she’d be wearing for the delicate moment of reunion. Snipping away at Joe’s grapes, Bruno wondered whether it was the policeman in him that made him so interested in how other people presented themselves to others. In his experience, and indeed in his own case, what the public saw was often very different from the real person, but it was full of useful clues about the way the person would truly like to be. Bruno would love to be as calm and self-confident as he had taught himself to seem, and to be even a fraction as wise and patient as he sought to appear.
The reality, Bruno knew, was that he tended to be lazy and self-indulgent and required the imposition of a clear routine and self-discipline to function even tolerably well. He assumed that it was the same with others, and that one’s own faults loomed much larger than they usually appeared to the outside world. The superficially poised and self-assured Jacqueline was probably far less sure of herself than she appeared as she played off her two admirers against each other. Bruno watched as she chatted happily to Bondino in English, and gave curt replies in French to the crestfallen Max.
Jacqueline lifted some vine leaves and peered through at Bruno. “Does your friend ever trim these vines? I can’t imagine what kind of wine he produces.”
“It’s an acquired taste,” Bruno said. “But I doubt that you’ll acquire it. I never have.”
“Nor I,” said Max, working alongside Bondino at the next row of vines. “It’s probably the worst wine I’ve ever tasted.” He looked sourly at Bondino. “Except for some of that mass-produced merde from the New World, sugary grape juice with added alcohol.”
Aha, thought Bruno. The young bulls are starting to face off.
“So why do you all do this? He pays you?” asked Bondino. Bruno wasn’t sure whether he was ignoring Max’s last comment or simply didn’t understand.
“Not in money, but in food and fellowship,” Bruno replied. “Joe has been a good friend to me. He did my job for years before I came to Saint-Denis, and he’s helped me enormously. All the people here are his friends and family, and they come every year for the vendange.”
“But why bother when he takes no care of his vines and the wine is no good? I don’t get it,” asked Jacqueline.
“You missed that bunch,” Bruno said, thinking it was rather the point that she was missing. “And that one back there.”
“No, I didn’t,” she said primly. “I left them on purpose. Some of them were already rotten.”
“So cut those off the bunch and put the good ones in the plastic bin with the rest. Joe is not particular.”
She shook her head, ignoring him. Bruno went back and cut the bunches she had left. A few of the grapes had burst, and some were shriveled. Bruno shrugged, cut off the worst and tossed the bunch into the bin.
“If we were in California, I’d fire you,” she said when he returned, her voice rising in pitch at the end of the phrase. That was often the case with her, Bruno noted.
“If we were in California she’d probably shoot you,” said Max, grinning.
“If we were in California I would not be working in a vineyard,” Bruno said. “Unless a friend asked me to help. And then I would follow his rules, or hers, for cutting the grapes. Here, I follow Joe’s rules. So should we all.”
Still conscious of Joe’s cassoulet lying comfortably under his belt, Bruno waited in front of the mairie. With a wedding scheduled at 3 p.m., the mayor had agreed to fit in the formal attestation of adoption at 2:45 as a favor to a fellow member of the town council. Never having bothered to register Max’s status, beyond agreeing to be listed as next of kin on the boy’s identity card and on his university application, Alphonse had been enthusiastic about Cresseil’s plan the moment he heard it.
“Can you think of a better way to keep Max here than by giving him some land of his own?” he’d asked Bruno. “I always thought that once he had his university diploma, he’d be off to Paris or California or somewhere like so many of the kids.”
The guests for the wedding were already gathering in the parking area beside the mairie when Alphonse’s car pulled up. This was not a marriage of local people that Bruno felt he should attend. Two of the temporary workers from the Royal Hotel had decided to marry after a summer of passion and hard work, and one of them had been kept on as the barman. Bruno shook hands with some members of the wedding party he knew, and then stopped as he recognized Pamela in a wide straw hat with a red satin scarf tied around the brim.
“You look magnificent, as always-almost regal,” he said, kissing her on each cheek, and taking care with his enunciation. He had perhaps taken one glass more than was wise at Joe’s lunch. “But then you English have a special affinity for royalty.”
“Bruno, you have evidently lunched extremely well,” she replied in her excellent French. “I presume you were at Joe’s vendange?”
“And like all the men of the village, disappointed not to see you there.”
“That’s the wine speaking, Bruno. Marie stayed with me overnight before going off tonight to her husband’s bed.”
“Marie the bride? I didn’t know she was a friend of yours.”
“She helped me out a bit in the summer when things got hectic, so I’ve known about this romance from the beginning. And that meant I had to help dress the bride, so I sent Joe my apologies.”
“Too bad you’ll have to miss the pressing of the grapes this evening, too. Now I have to run, but there’s one thing I wanted to ask you. There’s a Canadian girl working at Hubert’s cave and she’s looking for a place to rent. I thought one of your gites might be free. Let me know, or call her at the cave; her name’s Jacqueline. See you soon, I hope.” He turned to run up the stairs and arrived at the council chamber just as Cresseil was limping slowly from the elevator. The mayor, wearing his tricolor sash and his Legion d’Honneur button in his lapel, came forward to greet them.
“We need another witness, Bruno,” the mayor began. “Alphonse won’t do. He’s listed as next of kin.”
“Does it have to be a French citizen?”
“No; anyone with an address in the department will do.”
Bruno nodded, went back down the stairs to find Pamela and hastily explained why her presence was needed as he took her by the hand to steer her upstairs. He said it would take only a few minutes, so it wouldn’t interfere with the wedding. His request seemed to fluster her, but she quickly recovered her poise and politely shook hands with everyone in the group. She knew Alphonse and Max from the market, but not Cresseil.
“Francois Pontillon Cresseil,” the mayor began once they were all gathered in his office, “do you formally adopt this young man present, Maximilien Alphonse Vannes, as your son and inheritor, taking upon yourself all paternal responsibilities under the code civil of the Republic?”
“I do, freely and willingly, as a citizen of the Republic,” said the old man. Bruno noticed the pride in Cresseil’s eyes as he watched Max make the ritual replies, and pondered again his suspicions about the fire. Max had shown no sign of hatred for the genetic crops at the demonstration; he had simply been there taking care of Jacqueline. Perhaps Bruno’s suspicions were misplaced. But if he was right, this touching scene was just the prelude to Max’s arrest and Cresseil’s heartbreak.
“Then please come forward and sign in turn,” said the mayor, “and then Bruno and you, madame, in the space below for the witnesses.”
Alphonse took photos of the signing, and the mayor brought out a bottle of his own vin de noix and began filling the small glasses that stood waiting on a tray.
“We still have a few moments before the marriage,” the mayor said. “In the name of the commune of Saint-Denis and of the Republic, let me be the first to acknowledge this new family. The adoption will not, of course, be wholly legal until it is ratified and registered by the court in Sarlat, a formality that should be completed next week.”
Max kissed Cresseil on both cheeks, and then he embraced Alphonse, Bruno and Pamela, who congratulated everyone and declared it was the most charming adoption she had ever attended.
“I might as well stay up here since I think I hear the wedding guests on the stairs,” Pamela said. “But, Max, I shall be most disappointed if this means you stop selling the best goat cheese in the market. I’m sure some of my guests come and stay only for your cheeses.”
“I soon hope to be selling your guests wine as well, madame,” Max said. “I have an idea that might interest you and other businesses in the area. With my computer I can print special customized labels for your guesthouse, your own private cuvee, and I can offer you a very good price for the new vintage of Domaine Cresseil, a completely bio-organic wine.”
“Sounds interesting. I’ll come round for a tasting. And now forgive me, I have a wedding to attend. Bruno, tell the girl to call me. I’m sure we can work something out.”
The adoption party shuffled out, squeezing past the wedding guests in the hall. Bruno felt a tug on his arm. The mayor hauled him back into his office and closed the door.
“Is the boy serious about making Cresseil’s land into a vineyard, into a business?”
“It looks that way, but he’s heading back to school soon. I don’t see how he can do anything until he finishes his studies.”
“I’m tempted to hold off sending those adoption papers to the court at Sarlat for the moment,” the mayor said. “I’m not going to let the fancies of an old man and a youngster who thinks he’s a vigneron block the best chance this commune has for fifty new jobs.”
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” Bruno said carefully. “Cresseil is one of us, and so’s Max. Our obligation is to them, not to Bondino, and his investment isn’t even certain yet. We said we’d file the finalized adoption papers by the end of next week. If there’s much delay Alphonse could be asking you some pointed questions, and if it turns out we sat on them, it won’t look good. It will certainly make it harder to get Max and Cresseil to see things our way about selling the land to Bondino.”
The mayor squeezed his lips together in irritation. Then he took a deep breath. “Putain. You’re right. But so am I, and you know it. Tiens, I’ve got this wedding. I won’t bury the papers. I’ll just delay them a bit, buy some time for you to sound out Cresseil and the boy. If we can’t get those land sales guaranteed, this whole project collapses. And then some people will get really upset, including some council members, I’m sure.”
“But the council members don’t know about this yet,” Bruno objected.
“Bondino knows how the game is played. The best pressure he can apply is to get the rumor going that I’m blocking an opportunity that’s going to raise land values for a lot of people. That’s what I’d do in his place, and he’s shrewd enough to know that. We don’t have much time. Let’s meet tomorrow, with Xavier, and talk all this through.”
Disturbed by this first real breach with the mayor, someone who had been his patron for a decade, Bruno walked heavily down the stairs and into the sudden sunlight. But his mood was transformed and his face broke into a wide smile when he saw, leaning against the door of his official van, the familiar slim figure of Isabelle, watching the entrance to the mairie for him to emerge. As she saw him, she brandished a shopping bag.
“Steak, salad, cheese and a bottle of Saint-Emilion,” she said as he stretched out his arms to hug her. “Just like the first time. And I also have a bone for Gigi.”
And then she was in his arms, easily fitting the length of him as she always had, tall enough to put her cheek against his and to whisper in his ear, “I’ve missed you more than I thought possible.”
How could he have anguished over this moment? He kissed her and felt all his doubts dissolve, all his questions about how they would meet and what they would say and how reserved she might be.
“Bruno,” she said. “How fast can your little van get us back to your place?”
The party was still under way at Joe’s place when Bruno and Isabelle arrived that evening. Their hair was still damp from the shower, their desire for each other slaked but hardly sated. Joe’s favorite 1930s bal musette music was blaring from the speakers, and a throng of bare-legged people stood around the outbuildings at the bottom of the yard. Around them scampered the hens from Joe’s chicken coop, pecking at the ground between the feet of the revelers and fluttering fussily out of the path of the humans.
Montsouris sat with Karim and his wife, Rashida, from the roadside cafe at the entrance to Saint-Denis, tickling their new baby under the chin. In swimming trunks and a T-shirt, and with a big smile on his face as he played with Karim’s new son, Montsouris could not have looked less like the fiery trade union militant he liked to play at the council table. Stephane, his vast thighs like tree trunks, had one arm fondly around his wife, and his other hand gripped a large tumbler of wine. Brosseil, the town notary, was locked in conversation with Gerard, owner of the local campgrounds, his white and spindly legs looking as if it was their first time in the open air this year. Rollo, headmaster of the local college, was pouring more wine.
A cheer went up as Bruno and Isabelle joined them, hand in hand, a languid, almost dreamy look on their faces that signaled the way they had spent the afternoon and raised knowing smiles from his friends. Bruno bent down to take off his boots, socks and trousers and took his place in line at the tap to sluice off his legs. Like most of the men coming for this annual ceremony of treading Joe’s grapes, he wore swimming trunks beneath his pants, and with his T-shirt he was dressed as if for a game of tennis. But the familiar sight of his bare legs sent the women into bursts of bawdy laughter.
“Ooh, there’s a hairy one,” hooted Monique, who worked at the town swimming pool and spent her life with half-naked men, and she pirouetted before a bunch of giggling friends, her skirts tucked up into her waistband to reveal her tanned and brawny legs.
“That’s why he’s Bruno, Bruno the hairy bear,” called out Montsouris’s wife, arm in arm with Josette from the flower shop. “You two just control yourselves in there-if you’ve got any energy left, that is.”
Isabelle, slipping off her shoes and sliding her jeans down her shapely legs to reveal the sleek swimsuit she had donned in Bruno’s bedroom, was laughing openly as she joined Bruno at the faucet. “These women are terrific,” she said, putting her arm on his shoulder and turning to watch them.
There was something about the day’s events that turned the usually staid women of Saint-Denis into so many jolly wenches, hooting with derision at the legs of each other’s husbands, making saucy jokes about the young men and flaunting their bare thighs as they paraded up and down, singing along to Joe’s old songs after their turn in the vat. It was the kind of evening that made Bruno aware that he was a bachelor, for the husbands seemed entirely pleased with the liveliness and the raucous sisterhood of their wives, as if the woman they knew in private was treating herself to a rare public appearance. The single men by contrast seemed startled, even a little shy, at seeing the worthy women they knew from the shops and markets, weddings and funerals acting so out of character.
Bruno relished this event each year. If the men of Saint-Denis could let their hair down at the rugby club and the hunting dinners, their womenfolk deserved a similar license. Bruno smiled to himself, remembering Cresseil’s remark about the number of children born nine months after the harvest. Probably the reason the married men were all grinning at their wives’ performance was that they took the bawdy mood home with them. He exchanged glances with Isabelle, twining his fingers into hers. “We won’t stay long,” he murmured.
“Come on out of that vat, Jacquot,” Josette shouted to her husband through the doorway. “I don’t want you tiring yourself out in there. Save something for later.” The women around her collapsed into happy hysterics. Scenes like this had probably gone on in these parts for centuries, thought Bruno, soon distracted by a number of slaps on his rump as he squeezed through the women to take his place in the vat after Jacquot.
The sweet scent of the grape juice was heady, somehow made more intense by the large electric fan that Joe had whirring at the edge of the vat. There was a sound of youthful laughter from the vat, and Joe, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, played the hose over Bruno’s and Isabelle’s legs as they waited.
Gingerly, because the top step was slippery, Bruno eased himself into the giant vat, nodding at Joe’s pretty great-niece Bernadine as she made way for Isabelle. He saw that Bondino had managed to join Jacqueline. The girl seemed delighted in his company, her arm and his intertwined as they braced on the wooden rim and their legs trod rhythmically in the purple foam. They were talking fast in English, but he noticed that Bondino’s eyes were riveted on Jacqueline’s face. Max’s girl seemed to have made a new conquest.
Beneath Bruno’s trailing fingers, the purple froth still felt greasy rather than clear, the old telltale sign for the vignerons to know when the pressing was done. He felt around with a foot, looking for a whole bunch for the tactile pleasure of treading on it and feeling it burst through his toes before starting the steady tramping motion that was the approved style. Once the novelty wore off, it reminded him of marching in the army.
Bruno had done this for years and knew the ritual, and Isabelle quickly followed his lead, holding the rim with one hand as they faced each other and moved back and forth in unison, then turned to stand sideways with both hands on the rim. He beamed at her, admiring her readiness to try anything. Isabelle grinned back at him, and then looked down to see the grape juice splashing her tanned thighs.
“They’ll never believe this in Paris,” she murmured, and leaned forward to kiss him. “I think you set this up for my return; back to the real France. Back to my very real Bruno.”
Bruno laughed aloud at the incongruity of it, exchanging kisses and the sweet words of lovers as they tramped up and down like a pair of old soldiers amid the rich and heady scent of the grapes. Somewhere in the back of his mind he knew that this wondrous moment would not last, that she would go back to Paris and he would stay. But it didn’t matter. She was here, and her eyes were huge as they drank him in and her hand came up to touch his face, careless of the other couple.
“You done up there?” called Joe from the bottom of the steps. “You taught them what to do, Bruno?”
It was time to leave the vat, but Bondino and Jacqueline kept staring at each other, glued to their respective spots.
“Time to move on, Bondino,” Bruno said, giving him a friendly push toward the ladder. “Let someone else have a go.”
Bruno felt the spume as Joe clambered into his vat. The consistency had changed; the slipperiness had gone and the pulp was thickening. There was no sense of anything but liquid underfoot. Joe held on to the rim with both hands, probing with a foot, and nodded.
“That’ll do. Out you get, Bruno, and you too, Canada. We’ll leave her overnight, see how the cap is in the morning.”
“That’s it?” asked Jacqueline, following Isabelle down the steps to where Bondino waited for her. She flashed the American a quick smile. “You don’t run off the first pressing, you just leave it all in together overnight?”
“Always have, and I’m not changing my style now,” said Joe. “Can you take care of the hose, rinse us off as we come down the steps, and pass us one of those towels?”
“Do you feel a little light-headed?” Joe asked when they were all down and rinsed off. “That’s the carbon dioxide coming out as the fermentation starts. That’s why I have the fan going.”
“Do you add any yeast?” Jacqueline asked.
“There are enough yeast spores in the walls of this barn to ferment half of all the wine in the Bordeaux. So we just leave the yeast to Mother Nature, as our ancestors have for hundreds of years. Come on, I want you to try last year’s wine, get a sense of just what you’ve been helping to make. Bring us a couple of those glasses from the table there.”
He pulled a bottle with no label from a horizontal rack and opened it with an elderly corkscrew with a handle of olive wood. He splashed some of the wine into a glass for each of them and raised his glass.
“To the new vintage,” he declaimed, and then emptied his glass in a single gulp, like a Russian downing vodka.
Jacqueline was staring at the sludgy liquid in her glass. Gingerly, she put her nose close and took a very small sniff. Her eyes widened. She took a sip, swirling it around in her mouth and then spitting it out as if she was at a wine tasting. Then, noticing Joe’s horrified glance, she took a small sip, rolled it around in her mouth and swallowed. Bondino was staring at his own glass in disbelief, and Isabelle discreetly placed hers back on top of a barrel.
“So what do you think of my wine, Mademoiselle Canada?” Joe asked.
“Very authentic. Very true to its terroir, and to its maker.”
“You’re too kind. Unlike your friend Bruno here, you are clearly a connoisseur, who knows what she’s drinking. I’ll save you some bottles.”
Bruno tried to suppress his chuckle. Joe was no fool, and he knew what kind of rough old wine he turned out, but he was amusing himself by seeing if he could tease a polite young woman into praising his pinard, and talking herself into having to drink more of it.
“Oh, but I couldn’t possibly. I’ve heard how much everyone in town depends on your wine for the vin de noix, and I’d hate to rob them of your specialty.” The girl had passed that test nicely.
“Let’s get back to the party,” said Bruno. “It’s time for the dancing.”
“Not too long,” said Isabelle, fastening the belt of her jeans.
Bruno awoke slowly, only dimly aware of Isabelle’s arm across his chest and his deep sense of contentment at the ease of their reunion and the teasingly delayed pleasures of the night. He turned his head to study her. She was deeply asleep, her lips slightly parted, the calmness of her face all the more striking after the passion of the night. How long would she stay this time? It was a question they had carefully avoided the previous day.
She wanted him to change his job, change his life and join her in Paris. But the work of a big city policeman held no attraction for Bruno. In his heart, he wanted to wake up with Isabelle for all the mornings that stretched ahead. In his mind, he suspected the decision had already been made when she transferred from the Police Nationale in Perigueux to the high-powered job on the minister’s staff. What lay ahead of them was snatched weekends interrupting their separate lives, into which other lovers would doubtless come. That was not a future that appealed to him, not when compared with that vague assumption that always lay at the back of his mind that someday there would be a wife in this house he had built, and children that he could teach to hunt and play tennis and watch grow and explore his woods in this beautiful heartland of France. And he could never see Isabelle in that misty mental image.
Bruno sighed gently. What would be, would be. He lay back with his hands clasped behind his neck and let his thoughts wander. No matter how long Isabelle stayed, eventually she would head back to Paris or dart away on some new mission.
His thoughts drifted to Max. His feeling that Max was in some way involved in the fire had grown. The fact that Max had not joined in with the paint-throwing militants at the demonstration meant nothing. Max was a loner. He even played rugby that way. Max would never join a group. He’d do things his way, acting alone, and he’d see them through, which was why Bruno had a hunch that the security cameras at the research station could yet be useful.
Damn it, the real problem was that he liked Max and didn’t want to see a promising young life wrecked by a prison term for a foolish act of political idealism. And how would Max react to losing Jacqueline, or having a rival for her, Bruno wondered, remembering the way Jacqueline and Bondino had left Joe’s party together at about the same time he left with Isabelle.
That thought took him to his deeper worry, the Bondino proposal. He did not trust the slick Dupuy, and he did not much like Bondino. And something in Bruno rebelled against the idea of Saint-Denis doing a deal behind the back of its own people. Even if some fancy lease arrangement could guarantee a future share in theoretical profits, it simply was not right to press the locals to sell their land for less than it might be worth. The mayor had to be made to see that. And now , said Bruno to himself, comes the real question: What if the mayor insists on proceeding with the scheme? That was the issue that kept him from kissing Isabelle awake and into renewed embraces, that kept him fretting in bed on this fine September morning.
Bruno firmly believed that life always looked a little better after a shower, a shampoo and a shave. It was a hangover from his army days. So he slipped gently from his bed, his eyes lingering on Isabelle’s sleeping form, and went to the porch to greet his dog. Together they made the usual rounds of his vegetable garden and his chicken coop to feed the ducks and the chickens before Bruno performed his military exercise routine, turned on his kettle and headed for the bathroom. Cleansed and refreshed, and dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, he looked into the bedroom, where Isabelle still slept. He went back into the kitchen, sliced the previous day’s baguette in half and put one half in the toaster while he prepared his coffee and ate the apple he had just plucked from a tree. Then he broke his slice of toast in half, spread some of his own raspberry jam onto his portion and shared the other with Gigi.
The basset hound’s official name was Gitan, or gypsy. But having awoken hungover the morning after his housewarming party to find this adoring puppy in his bed, Bruno immediately shortened the name to Gigi, much to the surprise of the mayor, whose gift Gigi had been from the litter of his own renowned hunting dog. On the hour, Bruno checked the news on Radio Perigord and heard nothing that mattered or needed his attention.
He made a fresh pot of coffee and put the other half of the baguette in the toaster. He went to the garden for another fresh apple, and picked a late white rose from the bush by the door. He spread jam on the toast, put everything on a tray and returned with Gigi to the bedroom. Whether it was the smell of coffee or the heavy breathing of Gigi, his front paws perched on the side of the bed, Isabelle awoke and turned to look at him.
“Hello again,” she said, smiling, and then disappeared under the dog’s happy welcome as Gigi clambered onto the bed and nuzzled her ear.
“How is a woman supposed to look languorous and romantic with a dog like this in her bed,” she said, laughing and stroking Gigi’s long ears. She sat up, her lovely, delicate breasts appearing above the sheets, ran her fingers through her hair and grinned broadly.
“Breakfast in bed. Bruno and dog. Fresh coffee. A rose. Mon Dieu, Paris is never like this.” She settled the tray across her lap, put the rose behind her ear and patted the bed beside her. “Come and join me. We have the whole day together.”
“You forget the duties of a country policeman,” he said, and leaned down to kiss her. Gigi wriggled over to make room for him, and Bruno lay down on his side, enjoying the sight of Isabelle sipping her coffee. She broke the toasted baguette into three portions, one for her, one for Gigi and another for Bruno.
“I have a rugby class for the minimes and then a quick meeting at the mairie before I’m free. I thought you might like to take a walk in the woods before I go to the rugby club. Then later we could go out to lunch and have the day to ourselves.” He kissed her again, and then asked the question that had been on his mind since her first e-mail. “How long can you stay?”
“Until you find the arsonist,” she said. “I’m attached to the brigadier’s team. The minister wants one of his own staff on this investigation.”
“So you’re here on business?”
“Yes, but I was planning on coming down anyway, since the only time I’m ever likely to see you in Paris is when you come up to watch England play France at rugby.” She leaned forward to kiss him to take any sting from the remark. “How long do we have before your class?”
“Long enough,” he said, moving the tray from her lap to the floor and shooing a reluctant Gigi from the room.
“Oh good,” she said, and lifted the sheet to invite him in.
Bruno understood his dog well enough to have accepted that a human never walks a basset hound. The dog and the human go for separate strolls, which coincide always at the beginning, sometimes at the end and rarely in the middle, unless Bruno gave the special hunter’s whistle. Gigi knew every inch of the woods that backed onto Bruno’s house, and was on nodding terms with every tree, most of which he gave a token watering as he followed the various beguiling scents that rose to his nostrils, scents stirred up by his long trailing ears. Bruno, happy to be showing Isabelle his land again, took her hand as they followed Gigi through the well-spaced assortment of beech and chestnut trees.
“There’s something on your mind,” she said, squeezing his hand. “Is it about me?” She paused. “You want to talk about it?”
Skirting the thick entanglements of brambles, he smiled to reassure her and explained his doubts about the Bondino project and the prospect of a conflict, even a breach, with the mayor.
“What bugs me most of all,” he said as he led the way through the thin brush and onto the ridge that let them look down the valley to the town, “is the thought that Bondino could change Saint-Denis beyond recognition. It’s like being in bed with an elephant to have an international firm worth tens of millions of euros dominating our lives. But as the mayor says, if we don’t get jobs, Saint-Denis could be finished anyway.”
“So what’s the worst that could happen?” she asked, looking down at the view. “You have a fight with the mayor, resign or get fired and this wine project goes ahead anyway. You’ll walk into a police job in Paris, J-J and I will see to that, and then you’ll move in with me. We can come back here every holiday to your house. Does that sound so bad?”
She turned to face him, still holding his hand. “You can say I’m being stubborn for not giving up my career in Paris. And I can say you’re being stubborn because you won’t give up your country life in Saint-Denis. And so two people who make each other happy are going their separate ways. But what if Saint-Denis gives you up, Bruno? What then?”
Her eyes searched his face, but he had no answer. The thought of a new life in Paris with Isabelle, marriage and perhaps children… Appealing as the prospect seemed, he just couldn’t embrace it. Bruno knew himself well enough to understand that much of his need for Saint-Denis was that its people had become the family his orphaned childhood had never provided, with the mayor as father figure. Yet there had never been a woman with whom he could talk like this, a woman whose judgment he trusted, a friend as well as a lover.
He drew her to him and hugged her close. “Let’s see how things go these next few days,” he said. “Will you be staying here with me?”
“I can’t, damn it,” she said, speaking into his shoulder. “They’ve based me in Bordeaux. I have to get back for a 9 a.m. meeting tomorrow morning. Merde, Bruno, I never cry,” she said, turning away and putting a hand to her eyes.
Gigi came running to snuffle at their feet and gaze up inquiringly as Bruno embraced Isabelle and stroked her hair. Suddenly he saw on his watch that he was going to be late for the minimes. He grabbed Isabelle’s hand and they walked quickly back toward the house, Gigi trotting at their side. They laughed as his long ears bounced like flopping wings as he scrambled over fallen branches.
Bruno had a theory that a country displayed its deepest national character in the way it played rugby. The English relished wars of attrition in the mud, grim battles for inches between bloodied forwards under gray skies. The Welsh played like quicksilver, fans of the dashing break through the line by a nimble fly-half dancing his way through the defense. The Scots loved the heroic charge, even when it looked most hopeless, the brave sprint down the wing with the fullback and every man hurling himself into the line. The Irish loved cunning, and they played with creative trickery, suddenly switching their line of attack or kicking ahead to frustrate their opponents.
But the French played with unique flair, ready to use their running backs like forwards to power through on the wing. Even better, they loved to play their forwards as if they were wingers, constantly passing the ball to one another and overwhelming the defenders as they sidestepped and broke tackles and moved and thought too fast for the other side to react. And that was how Bruno taught his ten-year-olds, drilling them constantly into the habit of always being just three paces behind the boy with the ball, ready to take the pass.
“Now turn and pass; turn and pass. Make each pass clean,” he panted as they ran the length of the field and back again. “Tackle low, you defenders. Get his ankles and he’ll come down. That’s how you stop them. Don’t grab his arms. Go low. The lower the better.”
By now the older juniors and the adult team members were drifting through the entrance gates and past the stadium, heading to the locker rooms to change for their own training sessions. Some girls accompanied their boyfriends and took seats in the stadium to watch. Bruno saw Jacqueline arrive with Max. He waved a greeting to them and turned back to give his youngsters a few last minutes of his attention. Then he shook hands with each of his boys as they trotted off the field to make way for the older players.
“That’s how he taught me to play,” Max was explaining to Jacqueline as a winded Bruno approached, his chest still heaving. He paused to catch his breath before he greeted them, and then asked Max to help him move aside one of the painters’ ladders that partially blocked the way to the locker rooms.
Max was already changed into the royal blue shirt and white shorts of Saint-Denis, and Jacqueline was in jeans and a sleeveless white blouse that showed her tanned shoulders to advantage. The other girls in the stands, who had all gone to school with Max, were looking at Jacqueline with curiosity as she slipped her arm around his slim waist. Whatever tension there had been between them the previous day at the vendange was now evidently resolved.
“You look very well, Jacqueline,” Bruno said. “Treading the grapes agrees with you.”
“You look good, too, Bruno. I see how you keep so fit,” she said, smiling.
“How are you spending this lovely Sunday?” he asked. “It’s not a day to waste on watching a training session.”
“Max is taking me up the river to his favorite swimming spot after practice. Then we’ll have a picnic lunch before we head off to pick Max’s grapes,” she said, keeping her arm around Max’s waist. Cresseil’s grapes, in fact, thought Bruno, but the young man looked at Jacqueline with devotion in his shining eyes.
The other players came trotting onto the field, a rough chorus of “Oh-la-la ”s and “Allez, Max ”es at the sight of Jacqueline. With a final caress of her cheek, Max followed them, and Bruno nodded amiably at Jacqueline, remembering how closely she had danced with Bondino the previous evening before leaving with him. A very sociable young woman, this Canadian. Indiscriminately sociable, Bruno thought, recalling her instinctive flirting with him. And she was not nearly as attached to Max as he was to her. Some half-remembered quotation came to his mind as he walked to the shower, that in affairs of the heart there is always one who kisses and one who is kissed.
As he toweled himself dry, Bruno was startled to hear a woman’s brisk footsteps coming into the locker room. Women weren’t allowed in here. It was Isabelle, whom he had left with her laptop at the gendarmerie. She was carrying his boots and his uniform, and she told him to get dressed fast.
“We’re heading for the research station. It’s been attacked,” she said, bundling his sports clothes into a plastic bag she plucked from a pocket. “That’s all I know.”
“Again? I’m supposed to be at a meeting at the mairie,” he said, wondering what the security cameras might show this time.
“I called the mayor. The meeting’s canceled. He’s joining us at the scene.” She bustled him out of the small stadium and into her car, its blue light flashing as she raced into town. “One of the staff went in to monitor the automatic watering systems and found the place trashed. He called his boss, who called the gendarmerie. Paris is going to be furious about this. I called J-J to let him know, and he’s on the way from Perigueux with a forensics team. I also called the brigadier and left a message. I’ll have to call the ministry as soon as we have enough to give them some kind of report.”
Bruno hadn’t known what to expect, another fire or a break-in, and at first all seemed normal as they drove into the research station. Then they saw the mayor and Petitbon and a couple of the technicians standing in front of the greenhouses, their panes of glass now thoroughly drenched and covered in a thick layer of white paint.
The front of the greenhouse was still spattered with red paint from the demonstration, but the roof and sides were now an expanse of gleaming white. Petitbon had a bottle of turpentine in one hand and a rag in the other, and he was rubbing hard at one of the panes, but he was only smearing the paint. The main door to the greenhouse was open, and Bruno could see from the darkness inside that the light had been thoroughly blocked.
“How long will your plants survive without light?” he asked Petitbon.
“A week or more, but that’s not the point. We have to monitor their progress on a daily basis or our records make no sense. And this paint isn’t coming off, neither with water nor with turpentine. It seems to be some special kind of paint.”
“They made a hell of a job of it,” said the mayor, staring at the splashes of red paint at his feet and around the door and the whitened sides. “It’s all around the back as well.”
Isabelle led the way inside one of the greenhouses, which was still warm but with the familiar smell of soil and fruitfulness now masked by the acrid smell of the paint. Some of the roof panes had been left open for ventilation, and beneath them the white paint pooled around the rows of plants.
“That’s as clever a piece of sabotage as I’ve seen,” she said. “They didn’t break the glass, so there was no sound. There was no break-in, so no alarm sounded. But the place is destroyed, just the same.”
“Have you looked at the security cameras?” Bruno asked Petitbon.
“First thing I did. But we’re not going to learn much. Come and see.”
He led the way to the front of the old house, where one camera had been fixed above the door. Its lens and the stone wall behind it were covered in a spray of white paint.
“It’s the same around the back,” Petitbon said. “The only one they missed was on the chimney, looking over the side. I was just going to check the tape when the mayor turned up. Let’s go and see if we got anything.”
The images were fuzzy but clear, made just after 2 a.m. The camera showed one man dressed in painter’s overalls and wearing goggles over a hood, moving with slow deliberation along the side of the greenhouses. There was a large pack strapped to his back, presumably the paint reservoir, and a long nozzle in one hand that emitted a fine, spraying arc of paint onto the glass roof as he pumped a lever with the other hand. When he got to the end of the greenhouse, he moved out of sight of the camera for a few minutes and then returned, walking in the same slow way back to spray their sides.
“I couldn’t identify my own wife, dressed up like that,” said the mayor.
“That’s a lot of paint,” said Bruno. “I suppose when he disappeared he might have been refilling. He couldn’t have brought all that on foot.” Or on a motorbike, he thought. “There must have been a truck or a car somewhere very near.”
“The chain was cut on the side gates,” said Petitbon. “The cameras don’t cover that. He probably just drove straight in.”
“Check if there was anything from the other cameras before they got sprayed, just in case,” said Bruno. “I’ll take a look at the side gate.”
The chain was thin enough to have been cut easily, but on the grass there were two clear tire tracks in white that faded as they led to the gate. Bruno measured the gap between the tires and scribbled a note. It was too wide for a car. J-J’s team might be able to identify the kind of truck and maybe even the tires, although the tracks looked too smeared on the grass for easy identification. There were plenty of smeared white footprints on the grass along the side of the greenhouses, but nothing as clear as the imprint of a shoe. Perhaps the culprit had bags over his feet. He had left nothing else behind, not even an empty can of paint.
Isabelle was sealing a small plastic evidence bag that she had filled with a sample of the paint she had scraped off as Bruno returned to the greenhouse, where the technicians were trying various products to clean the paint. None of them seemed to be working, and the technicians were muttering about some special type of cement paint. In his office, Petitbon had his head in his hands and a phone to his ear, muttering, “Oui, monsieur; oui, monsieur.”
The mayor drew Bruno discreetly aside. “You realize what this means? Bondino won’t go ahead now. First the fire, then the demonstration and now this.”
Bruno felt a small surge of relief. He hadn’t been thinking of that. From the road outside he heard the sound of a police siren. That would probably be J-J. Bruno went outside to greet him, only to find himself caught in the flash of Delaron’s camera. Putain, he thought, another front-page story on the crime wave of Saint-Denis.
“How come you’re always on the scene, Philippe?” he said to the photographer as J-J’s car drew in. “You’ll be at the top of the suspect list if you go on like this.”
“My uncle works here,” said the young man cheerfully, focusing his camera to get J-J’s hulking form against the gleaming array of what used to be pristine greenhouses. “He was the one who first saw what happened and called his wife, and she told my mother. You can’t keep secrets in Saint-Denis, Bruno.”
Bruno showed J-J the greenhouses and led him inside to the office, where Petitbon was still on the phone and Isabelle was downloading the images from the camera onto her laptop.
“Think it’s the same guy who set the fire?” asked J-J.
Bruno shrugged. “Who knows? But I think I might know where he got the paint. I even think I may have paid for it.” He turned to Isabelle. “Bring that little evidence bag you filled and let’s follow my hunch. J-J, I’ll leave you here to wait for your forensics boys. If I’m right, we’re going to need them.”
Isabelle was on the phone to a colleague in the minister’s office in Paris, so Bruno drove, wondering as he parked at the rugby stadium if this was a fool’s errand. The players were still on the field, the knot of girls still watching, and the painter’s ladder was still where he had left it. He took out his ring of keys, and Isabelle followed him to the rear door of the stadium, which led into the kitchen and the large dining room. He didn’t need his keys. The door swung open to his touch-the wood of the lock was splintered where someone had forced it open.
A dozen large cans of paint, each about half the size of an oil drum, were stacked against the wall, with two backpacks and nozzles leaning against them. Goggles and hooded white coveralls were draped over a trestle table. He was sure the contract had said there would be three painters on the job, but he went into the office to check. Isabelle held her small exhibit bag against the newly painted stadium wall to make a comparison, but she shrugged. White was white.
He called the contractor at home. Three painters were on the stadium job, and there had been three backpacks and fourteen cans of special cement paint, brilliant white, when they packed up on Friday. Would there be any way to remove it from glass? Bruno asked. Wait for it to dry fully and then scrape it off, he was told. It should peel away easily. How long would it take to dry? Two or three days, depending on the weather. Less, if you applied a dryer. Did he have one, or better still, did he have several? He had one, but could probably round up a few more. The local Bricomarche stocked them. Bruno told him to get to the research station with his workers as fast as he could, along with ladders and scaffolding. Then he called the Brico manager at home and asked him to open up. Finally he called the mayor, still back at the research station.
“We know where he got the paint and the equipment-from the rugby stadium. Somebody broke into the dining room, where the paint was stored,” he said, and then spoke over the mayor’s reply. “Wait, there’s more. The good news is that the painter says the stuff can be scraped off easily once it’s dry, and we can dry it with those big industrial blowers they have at Brico. He’s coming directly to the research station with his men. Can you call in the mairie maintenance staff with ladders and scaffolding? We can probably have the paint off by tonight if we move fast enough. I only hope that’ll be fast enough to save Petitbon’s research.”
“So much for the rest of our day together,” said Isabelle as he closed his phone.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “You’re a cop too. You know how it is.” He tried to take her in his arms, but she came only with reluctance, seeming almost to sag in his embrace.
“I know down deep you’re always going to be like this,” she said flatly. There was no anger in her voice, more a resigned disappointment. “You’re married to Saint-Denis, and I don’t think I can compete with the whole town. Plus I heard what the mayor said about the wine deal being off. That means you aren’t going to have a fight with him and get sacked. So you’ll stay, and I’ll go.”
“Isabelle,” Bruno began, with no idea what he was going to say next.
“Not now, Bruno. Let me just take you back to the research station.”
Bruno was ready to drop with tiredness after his day up and down ladders and moving the scaffolding along the greenhouses. The research station was back to normal, the glass scraped clean of its quick-dried paint. And Isabelle was back in Bordeaux. All he craved was a good, satisfying supper and then some sleep. The restaurant where he felt most at home was the Cafe de la Renaissance. It wasn’t just because Ivan was a friend but because it was one of the few restaurants in the region that was designed for the locals rather than the tourists, with their expectations of confit de canard, tarte aux noix and other famed specialties of Perigord. The people of Saint-Denis ate enough of that at home. The cafe contained a small zinc-covered bar and an elderly coffee machine in the front room and enough space outside for a handful of tables. In the rear was what Ivan boasted was the smallest kitchen in France, and a dining room into which he’d squeezed half a dozen tables. So as soon as Bruno heard that the plat du jour at Ivan’s bistro was rabbit in mustard sauce, his decision was easy.
Bruno was not in the mood for company, but when J-J called and asked about his plans for dinner, Bruno invited him along. When J-J arrived he could see how exhausted Bruno was. They exchanged pleasantries during the meal, talking mostly about sports after Bruno curtly blocked J-J’s innocent inquiry about Isabelle. They went easy on the wine, sharing a small pichet of Ivan’s Bergerac red, but Bruno drank most of the bottle of mineral water. Realizing there would be no long after-dinner conversation with Bruno in his current state, J-J paid the modest bill and left a generous tip for Ivan. Bruno walked him down the street to J-J’s car, which was parked in the open ground by the gendarmerie, where a group of determined old men played boules by the light of a streetlamp. J-J paused as he fished for his car key, and asked Bruno if he had any suspects among the locals.
“Maybe, but I haven’t got any evidence, just a hunch,” Bruno said, yawning mightily.
“What’s the brigadier got you doing?”
“He’s had me calling all the other municipal cops for miles around to ask if they’ve seen anything suspicious, if they’ve seen any strangers,” said Bruno. “Half of them thought I was mad and the other half wanted to complain about the GMO crops. The brigadier won’t find them very cooperative. Most farmers around here think whoever burned those crops is a local hero.”
“What about you?”
“On the science, I don’t know, though I can’t say I’m comfortable about tampering with nature. But as far as I can see, there’s not much of a crime here.”
“How do you mean? It’s arson.”
“By the letter of the law, maybe. Yet growing those crops requires a series of permits. That’s the law, too. The research station didn’t have a permit from this commune or from our conseil general. And if the crops were illegal, what exactly is the crime in destroying them?”
“What about the shed and the equipment that got burned?”
“Same thing. No construction permit, no taxes paid on it, no listing of the water pipe and no water fees paid. Whoever did this committed the questionable crime of destroying an illegal building.”
“You should have been a lawyer,” J-J said, laughing and climbing into his car. He was just closing the door when some shouts and a woman’s scream and the sound of breaking glass came from the Bar des Amateurs, and a small knot of bodies erupted onto the pavement outside the bar, stumbling over the cafe tables and sending them flying. Trouble at this bar, run by two burly stalwarts of the town rugby team, was unheard of.
Bruno ran toward the scene, while J-J maneuvered himself out of his car. By the time Bruno reached the bar, Rene, one of the owners/barmen, was holding Max firmly by one arm, and a disheveled Jacqueline was clinging to the other. Gilbert, the other owner/barman, was kneeling on the chest of another man, and the rest of the crowd had become so many shouting spectators.
“Silence, all of you!” yelled Bruno, and pushed his way through to Rene, noting the smashed plate-glass window of the bar and the stream of blood that trickled from Max’s nose. “What’s going on here, Rene?”
“It’s this bastard here who started it,” panted Gilbert, struggling to keep hold of the flailing arms of the man he sat on. “Just came in and started the trouble. He took a swing at Max and tried to drag the girl out.”
“He hurt my arm,” said Jacqueline, her eyes blazing. “Max saved me.”
“It’s true, Bruno,” said Rene. “This guy came into the bar and just punched Max in the face, knocking him off his chair. Then he started pulling the girl and Max got up and began pulling her back. I tried to separate them, then the troublemaker toppled backward and broke the window.”
“That’s exactly what happened” came a chorus of voices from the spectators. “The guy must be crazy.”
“Let’s take a look at him and see if he’s hurt,” said Bruno, and Gilbert rose carefully from the prone figure, still keeping firm hold of one of his arms as he grabbed the man by the lapels and hauled him to his feet. Bruno was not greatly surprised to see that it was Bondino.
“I’m okay,” said Bondino, shaking his head and standing upright. He was clearly drunk, but hardly incapacitated. He pointed at Jacqueline. “She’s my girl.”
“That’s between the two of you. Stand still for a moment,” snapped Bruno. He inspected the back of Bondino’s head, brushing some glinting shards of glass from his back and from his hair. He was not bleeding, and his coat seemed to have taken the brunt of the window’s impact. Bruno looked at Rene and Gilbert. “It’s up to you to bring charges.”
“He smashed a few things, a chair and some glasses, plus the window,” said Rene. “That’s the big thing.”
“I’ll pay,” said Bondino, reaching for his wallet and taking out a wad of seldom-seen yellow five-hundred-euro notes. He peeled off three and handed them to Rene. “I’m sorry,” he said. “If it costs more, tell me.”
“What about you?” Bruno said, turning to Max. “Do you want to bring charges for assault?”
Holding a handkerchief to his bleeding nose, Max shook his head. “As long as he promises to leave Jacqueline alone and stop making trouble. But if he comes at us again, don’t blame me if I beat the shit out of him.”
“Right,” said Bruno. “No charges, so we all go home. You first, Bondino. Now.” He watched as Bondino shambled off toward his hotel and then looked back over his shoulder at Max and Jacqueline.
“You haven’t asked me yet,” Jacqueline said, angrily but with control, casting a look of pure hatred after Bondino’s departing figure. “He tried to pull me out. That’s assault.”
“So it is,” said Bruno coldly, recalling the way she had danced with Bondino and left with him after Joe’s party. His mild liking for the girl was rapidly disappearing.
“It seems the American thought he had a relationship with you,” he said. “If you want to bring charges, you understand that I’ll have to take statements from everybody involved, and I mean everybody, to establish whether there was something that could have misled him to believe he did. You might want to consider that, mademoiselle, before you make a decision. You may also want to get advice from a French lawyer, since these matters can be complicated once it becomes a formal matter.”
“I’ll help you take the statements, if it’s to be a criminal matter,” said J-J, who had been standing off to the side since his arrival. He could tell Bruno needed no help. “I should introduce myself: Chief of Detectives Jalipeau of the Police Nationale. I’ll start by looking at your passport, mademoiselle.”
Jacqueline looked for a moment at Bruno and then shrugged. “I don’t want to put anyone to such trouble, so long as the bar owners are happy to let it drop,” she said, and turned to Max. “I’d better take him back and make sure the nosebleed stops. I’m sorry that this happened.”
It isn’t over yet, Bruno thought as she led Max away.
Sitting alone at the bar in Fauquet’s over his morning coffee, Bruno checked his phone again. Three days now without any word from Isabelle. He had left messages and sent two e-mails and had gotten no reply. But then it had been the same after she had left for Paris-not a word until her sudden announcement that she was arriving. He wasn’t irritated so much as mystified that she behaved this way. When she left the first time, he had understood her silence to mean that it was over. Now he supposed it meant it was really over. Or did it? In another woman, he might have suspected crude manipulation, but not in Isabelle. She was too honest for that, he told himself when his cell phone rang, and with a surge of hope that surprised him he scrambled to fish it from his pouch.
“It’s Pamela,” said the voice, strangely subdued. “I’m afraid there’s been a death. That sweet old man Cresseil. I’m at his place now, over by the Domaine. I think he’s been dead for a while, but can you call a doctor? Damn, my battery’s running out. I’ll wait till you get here. I’m okay.”
Tempted to head over there right away and comfort Pamela, Bruno knew there were things he had to do first. He called the pompiers, who handled all emergencies, and then called the medical center. One of the doctors would have to certify the death. He climbed the stairs of the mairie to tell the mayor the news. Then he headed for his van, punching into his phone the number for Max, who was now the next of kin. There was no reply.
Pamela always dressed smartly for her morning ride in riding boots, jodhpurs and a black jacket, with most of her bronze hair tucked into her black velvet hat. On horseback, she looked magnificent. But now on foot, holding on to the bridle of her horse, who was munching on the grass by the small farmhouse, she appeared oddly diminished. As Bruno parked his police van at the end of the yard, he noticed that the small plot of vines had been picked.
“Bonjour, Pamela,” Bruno said, kissing her on both cheeks, and hugging her. “I’m sorry you had to find him; it must have been an awful shock. Are you all right?”
She hugged him in return and then stepped back, nodding.
“I suppose he’s in the house?”
“No, he’s not,” she said in a small voice. “He’s in that barn, just where I found him. I touched nothing and called you as soon as I realized he was dead.”
“What brought you here?”
“I was looking for Max. He wanted me to come and try some of the wine he made. He’s got some idea of selling it to all the guesthouses, with special labels that he can print up. He rather sold me on the idea of a Chateau Pamela. But there was no sign of him, or of the old man, so I looked around.”
She hitched her horse to a fence post and walked with Bruno through the yard and down the small pathway that led to the big stone barn and the two smaller ones. She went to the farthest door, which was half open. Inside, Bruno saw Cresseil lying crumpled at the bottom of the stepladder that led up to the ancient wooden wine vat.
“I just touched his wrist to see if there was a pulse,” she said.
Bruno nodded, crouching by the body. He put the back of his hand against Cresseil’s cheek. It was cold but not yet stiff, showing that he had been dead only a few hours. The neck looked odd, twisted. Bruno looked at the rickety stepladder, its rungs slippery with grape juice. Had Cresseil been looking into the vat and lost his footing? Or had it been a heart attack or a stroke, a mercifully quick end that Cresseil might have prayed for? The doctors would know.
“There’s nothing we can do for him now,” he said. “We’ll wait for the pompiers and the doctor and then get him to the funeral parlor. If you wait in the yard, I’ll go into the house and see if there are any papers; a will or something.”
She nodded. “I wonder what happened to Max. He must have been held up. When we arranged to meet he said he’d be picking the grapes in the cool of evening because it was too hot for them in the day, and that he’d see me here this morning. He’ll be devastated, having just gone through the adoption and now this.”
“So now he’s got a vineyard of his own, a nice little inheritance. All the same, I’d better go inside and look around. The pompiers will be here any minute.”
Bruno had been in a lot of homes where an elderly person lived alone, and he was expecting the usual stale smells. But Cresseil’s place was clean and tidy. There was a large living room and a kitchen on the ground floor, with a small bedroom and a bathroom off to one side, and another room that looked like a study. Cresseil’s legs had almost gone, so he probably spent all his time downstairs. Bruno went quickly upstairs, which contained two spartan bedrooms and no bathroom. One of the beds was made up, but the sheet and pillow were slightly creased, so it looked as if it had been slept in. Perhaps Max used it when he slept over.
The kitchen sink was clean and empty except for two tumblers with dregs of wine. The towels in the kitchen and bathroom were fresh, the crockery all where it belonged. The study was equally well ordered, with an old sofa facing the window, and a pigeonhole desk off to the side. Most of the pigeonholes were empty; in one was a roll of papers held together with red ribbon-the adoption documents. In the drawers, Bruno found bank statements and electricity bills neatly filed, an old Resistance medal and a box of photographs. Some dated from wartime, showing groups of smiling young men with weapons, but most of the photos were of Annette, Cresseil’s wife, and a baby, growing into boyhood and young adulthood. At the bottom of another drawer he found the property deeds; the last transaction, dated 1949 and recording the inheritance of the Cresseil farm, carried the name of a local notaire , Brosseil. He was long dead, but the practice was still maintained by his grandson. If there were any legal papers to be found, Brosseil would have them.
Bruno turned at the sound of a heavy vehicle coming down the lane, and went out to greet the firemen. Albert stepped down, followed by Ahmed, who was driving the big truck. Pamela went to calm her horse, who had been made nervous by the fire engine. Bruno led the way to the barn, pausing as Ahmed pulled out the resuscitation kit.
“I don’t think we’ll need that,” Bruno said, nodding at the gear.
“Regulations,” said Ahmed, shrugging. “And besides, you never know. I’ve seen some miracles happen with this.”
Once in the barn, Albert shook his head and sent Ahmed back.
“He’s been dead for hours,” Albert said, and took off his helmet. “I can’t say I like the look of that neck. Do you think he fell?”
“No sign of slipping on the steps, but I wouldn’t trust that ladder and I’m not half Cresseil’s age,” said Bruno. “His legs were just about gone.”
There was the beep-beep of a horn outside. The doctor had arrived. Bruno went out, to find Pamela calming her horse once more. He grinned at her sympathetically and walked across the yard to where a young woman was pulling a doctor’s case from the back of an elderly Renault 5. This must be the new doctor at the medical center, the one with the Italian first name. All he could see of her so far was an extremely shapely rump. She turned, and he kept his surprise under control. A large scar covered a good part of her right cheek, and she had made no attempt to cover it with makeup. While trying not to focus on it, Bruno wondered what might have caused the wound.
“Hello, Bruno-I know who you are. I’m Fabiola Stern, the new doctor,” she said, smiling and holding out her hand. As they shook hands she asked “Where is the body?”
“Mademoiselle le medecin,” he said. “A pleasure, despite the circumstances. This is Madame Nelson, who found the body, and the pompiers you have met. And now we go this way.”
“Madame Nelson, a pleasure to meet you. That’s a fine horse.” She turned back to Bruno as they started walking and said, “Please call me Fabiola.”
“That neck is broken,” she said after a brief examination of the body. “But from the pupils and the purple hands and the very pale face, the cause of death may have been a heart attack. Maybe he had cardiac arrest and then fell. We need an autopsy.”
Putain, thought Bruno. That would both delay and complicate matters.
“Are you sure?” he asked. “It looks like the straightforward death of a very old man.”
“Sorry,” she replied formally, “but with different possible causes of death I have to do this by the book.”
There was no appealing the doctor’s verdict, so he turned his attention to the necessary notifications, starting with Max. It was clear he’d been around recently, since who else could have picked the grapes? They must already be in the vat, which would explain why the old man had been up the stepladder in the first place. Bruno left the barn and the body and walked into the yard, pulling out his cell phone.
“Alphonse, it’s Bruno. Is Max there?”
“No, Bruno. He’s at Cresseil’s place. He was planning to pick the grapes last night and said he’d stay over. It’s his organic thing, picking the grapes in the dark when it’s cooler.”
“Well, they’re picked all right, and I saw him in town late last night, but there’s no sign of him here. I’m at the place now, with the pompiers and the doctor. Cresseil’s dead; looks like a heart attack. Max isn’t answering his phone. Can you track him down and tell him the bad news?”
Thinking about the grapes, Bruno walked back into the barn just as the pompiers were packing up to leave. Suddenly he heard the ring of a cell phone somewhere inside the barn. Like everyone else there Bruno automatically checked his own, although the ring tone was wrong. In fact, it came from the back of the barn, where a jumble of baskets and dusty bottles and old clothes were piled onto a sagging array of rough shelves. He walked across, saw the phone and answered, noticing the pair of clean blue jeans and sneakers on which it rested.
“Hello?” he said into the phone.
“Max, is that you?”
“Alphonse, it’s me, Bruno. I just answered what must be Max’s phone here in Cresseil’s barn.”
“What? It’s not like Max to leave his phone. Is there no sign of him?”
“Hold on.” Bruno picked up the jeans and felt the pockets. There was a wallet inside, some keys and some coins. Inside the wallet were Max’s library card and university ID, and tucked behind that, Bruno was not greatly surprised to find a five-euro phone card from France Telecom. He looked further. Over by the wall was a small red bundle. He pulled out a pencil and picked it up, conscious of the eyes of Fabiola and the firemen silently following his every move. It was a pair of cotton shorts, sodden with wine.
Putain, he swore to himself. I never looked in the vat.
“Alphonse, I’ll call you back.” He put the phone back on the jeans and turned to the stepladder. “Ahmed, come and hold this thing steady for me. Albert, don’t pack that resuscitation gear just yet.”
He climbed up, and by the fourth step he was high enough to see in. He went another step to be sure.
“Hold tight, Ahmed,” he called, and leaned into the vat, perilously far, the stepladder rocking as he plunged his hand down to the thick cap of fermenting grape juice to pluck at the head of blond hair that floated facedown in the vat. It was no good; he couldn’t keep a grip. He tried to grab at the shoulder, but his hand slipped in the thick must of grapes. So Bruno took a grip on the rim and vaulted in, fully dressed, splashing hard through the thick must while still holding the rim. He kept his feet, bent down and with a great heave hauled Max’s naked body out of the dense liquid and braced him against the wooden side.
“Albert, Ahmed, get another ladder and help me here. Fabiola, can you come up the stepladder?”
With one hand, he reached into Max’s mouth and pulled out a froth of must and broken grapes, took a deep breath and leaned forward to plant his mouth firmly on the sagging lips of the boy. He blew with all his might, trying to force air into Max’s lungs, but there was resistance. He let go of the vat’s rim, put both arms around Max’s chest and squeezed hard. A rush of juice and must fountained from Max’s throat. Bruno took another breath and blew again hard into Max’s mouth.
“That’s right. You’re doing the right thing,” said Fabiola, her eyes barely above the rim. “Do that again. Keep blowing. Can I help hold him?” She reached in to help hold Max up.
With a clatter, Albert and Ahmed appeared with proper ladders and began clambering up to help. Bruno heard Pamela’s voice; she obviously had called the emergency number and was asking for more help.
“Pull him out; bring him down here,” called Fabiola. “Keep blowing, Bruno, hard as you can.”
Bruno pushing, Albert and Ahmed pulling, they got Max over the rim, and then the two firemen took the weight and laid him on the ground, where Fabiola took over the kiss of life. Ahmed dried off Max’s chest and applied the two paddles of the resuscitator to his chest, then tapped Fabiola to let go, and the body jolted as he applied the electricity. Fabiola bent back to her work.
Breathing heavily, and suddenly conscious of a sharp headache, Bruno began feeling around the vat to see if anything else was in there, but his legs were rubbery and he felt himself begin to slide. He called out something and flailed with his hand for the side of the vat. The noise attracted Fabiola’s attention.
“Albert, get Bruno out of there now,” Fabiola shouted, before turning back to the boy. “The fumes can kill him.”
Bruno felt a sharp pain as his fingernail tore on the wooden side of the vat, and it jolted him enough to get one knee under him. By then Albert had grabbed the collar of his shirt and was hauling him up. As soon as his head was over the side, Bruno took a deep breath and felt his vision start to clear. Albert kept hauling, and then Pamela was below him and pulling at his flailing arm. Albert shifted his grip to Bruno’s belt and tumbled him over the rim to collapse on the ground in the arms of Pamela.
“Get him out into the open air,” shouted Fabiola, “and then come back for the boy.”
Bruno was prone and retching, a grape-sodden Pamela rinsing him with a bucket of cold water, when Captain Duroc appeared. Fabiola was still giving the kiss of hoped-for life to Max, and Ahmed was shaking his head sorrowfully at Albert, who was bent double, taking deep breaths of fresh air. Every one of them was purple with grape juice, thick gobbets of grape must in their hair and eyebrows and stuck to their arms.
“It’s no good,” said Fabiola, leaning back, pressing her hands into the small of her back and wincing. “The boy’s been dead too long. We’re lucky we didn’t lose Bruno.”
“What the devil has happened here?” asked Duroc, plainly shocked.
“Two dead,” said Fabiola. “Nearly three. Carbon dioxide from the fermentation of the grapes. I’ve heard of it, though I’ve never seen it. I remember learning that the volume of carbon dioxide produced during fermentation is forty times that of the volume of the juice.”
“But it’s not poisonous,” Duroc protested.
“No, but it displaces the oxygen. That’s how it kills. Asphyxiation.”
Bruno looked up. His head felt clearer, and the retching had stopped. He glanced at Pamela, who looked at him reassuringly and squeezed his hand. She was such a sight he almost grinned.
“People die of it every year when they forget the need for ventilation,” Fabiola went on. “Bruno was taking deep breaths inside the vat, trying to force air into this poor boy’s lungs. He was suffocating himself.”
She looked down at the must-smeared body of a well-muscled young man, tanned brown except for the pale band of white where his shorts had been. She went inside and came back with an old blanket. Just before she laid it over the body, she bent and wiped Max’s face clean, then she closed his eyes and laid a gentle hand on his cheek.
“A fine-looking man,” she said. “Such a waste.”
“A double tragedy,” Bruno said, standing up and addressing Duroc. “Cresseil, possibly a heart attack, possibly a broken neck when he fell off the ladder. There will be an autopsy. And Max, Cresseil’s adopted son, dead of asphyxiation in a wine vat. It looks to me like natural causes or a fall for the first one, and a tragic accident for the second.” He turned to Fabiola. “Do we need an autopsy for Max?”
She shook her head, and then rubbed her eyes. “My first week on the job, and two dead,” she said.
“You did all you could,” said Pamela.
“If it wasn’t for you, we might have lost Bruno,” said Albert. “I’d never heard of death by fermenting wine.”
“I never heard of anybody treading grapes naked,” mused Bruno. “I wonder why he took off his shorts. My guess is he took them off for some reason when he was in the vat, and then tossed them over the side.”
“Putain de merde,” said Albert, looking at Ahmed and then down at himself. “What a mess.”
“I’m going to clean up in the bathroom here,” said Fabiola. “I’m sure the late owner won’t mind.” She began to walk toward the house but suddenly stopped to watch Bruno, who was poking about at the side of barn. “What are you looking for?”
“Cresseil’s dog,” he replied, heading around the back. “He’s nearly as old as Cresseil was. Give me a shout when you’re done and I’ll use the bathroom myself. First, I’d better tell Alphonse about Max.”
Bruno braced himself for a difficult conversation. And he’d also have to tell Jacqueline about Max’s death. That would not be pleasant either, however much she’d been dallying with Bondino. He was curious to see how she’d react. He pulled his phone from its sodden leather pouch at his side. A clump of grape must obscured the buttons. He wiped them off, but the phone was useless.
“Merde,” he muttered, and stomped back into the barn to use Max’s phone.
“The important question will be who died first,” said the mayor. Bruno, now washed and changed into his spare uniform and back at the mairie, accepted a restorative glass of Armagnac. “If old Cresseil died first, then Max’s heir would inherit. But we don’t know that he has one. He still has Alphonse formally listed as next of kin, but I’m not sure how much weight that has. And if Max died first, then Cresseil’s distant cousins would inherit, and that could be important for our project with Bondino. He tells me he still wants to go ahead, thanks to the way you fixed the problem at the research station,” the mayor went on. “So how do we establish who died first?”
“That depends on the autopsy on Cresseil being done by that new young doctor, Fabiola Stern,” Bruno replied, feeling relieved that this at least was entirely beyond his control. “But there’s no autopsy planned on Max. It could be very hard to tell when he died. Time of death is never easy to establish with certainty.”
“Logic might suggest that Cresseil wondered what had happened to Max, went up the ladder and saw the boy lying there already dead, and the shock brought on the heart attack that killed him, or sent him reeling off the ladder so he broke his neck,” said Bruno. “That would mean Max died first.”
“A different logic might say that Max got into difficulties, Cresseil tried to clamber up to help, had the heart attack and died, and then in the absence of help, young Max tragically drowned. So the old man died first,” replied the mayor, so casually that Bruno knew he was up to something. “If somebody makes the case that the boy lived long enough to inherit, we’ll have a lawsuit brought by Cresseil’s family. It won’t get settled for years, and Bondino may give up in disgust. So, Bruno, how well do you know the young doctor?”
“Hardly at all. She seems pleasant and very capable. In fact, she may have saved my life,” said Bruno, focused once again on how much the mayor wanted the Bondino project to move forward. He was not going to start his relationship with the new doctor by hinting that she might bend her professional verdict to suit the mayor’s scheme. “She struck me as a person of integrity. I’m sure she’ll give us an honest opinion.”
“Could you perhaps suggest the importance of this matter to her? Its importance to the future of Saint-Denis, that is.”
“There’s a further complication,” said Bruno, avoiding a direct answer. “Earlier this week, Bondino started a fight with Max in the Bar des Amateurs, breaking a plate-glass window and assaulting a young woman. I could have arrested him, and I’m really having second thoughts about linking the future of Saint-Denis with that guy.”
“Well, we were all young once. He’ll grow out of it.” The mayor paused. “You’ve never liked this project, have you?”
“I like the idea a lot, in principle. But Bondino’s behavior hardly inspires confidence.”
The mayor rose from his chair and walked to the window. “ Merde, Bruno. You’re right, of course. But what else can we do? I have to fight tooth and nail to keep the sawmill alive. The supermarkets are killing small businesses. This Bondino project is the best chance we have to secure our future, and I’m not going to lose it. Go and look at Saint-Fenelon or at any other of those hollowed-out tourist towns around here, with only a couple of bistros and a real estate agent. They’re dead from September to June every year,” the mayor went on, flourishing his hand at the window as if pointing to the ghost towns he evoked. “No families, no schools, no jobs, no shops, and most of the houses empty until the tourists come back to rent them. That’s what’s at stake, Bruno. We have to have those jobs for Saint-Denis.”
The mayor thrust out his jaw and advanced on Bruno. “So I don’t much care if Bondino is a drunken young fool, so long as he commits that investment. You’ll just have to manage him.”
“Whoa!” Bruno held up his hands and grinned. “I’m not the council, and I’m not a voter at a public meeting. Practice your speeches on me all you like, but you don’t need to convince me. I like the project. But if it makes commercial sense with Bondino, it might also make commercial sense with somebody else. That’s my point, and we haven’t even looked at that possibility.”
“Businessmen with ten million euros to invest are hardly lining up outside my door,” the mayor said.
“But now that one is doing so, that’s valuable information. Maybe there are other big companies, British or Italian, that see the same potential Bondino does. Maybe there are French investors who could be interested. If you do get the appellation, we can make our own deal.”
Hubert’s wine shop was busy when Bruno arrived, bracing himself for the task of telling Jacqueline the bad news. Hubert was talking in English with a couple standing by the racks of vintage Armagnacs. Nathalie turned from the cash desk, where she was serving a line of customers, and greeted Bruno sadly.
“We know about it,” she said. “The Mad Englishwoman came by, covered in grape juice, to tell Jacqueline. The girl was shattered, in floods of tears, so Hubert gave her the day off. The Englishwoman took her home with her. We’re up to our eyeballs here, shorthanded without Jacqueline and Max, but is there anything we can do? She told us you were hurt, too.”
“I’m fine. So Jacqueline will still be up at Pamela’s place?”
“Yes, she moved in a few days ago. Didn’t you know? She said you helped arrange it.”
A tourist buying a case of Hubert’s wine looked baffled at the presence of a policeman but started tapping his credit card on the counter in impatience. Nathalie turned back to him with a tired smile, and Bruno took his leave. “We’ll miss that lovely boy,” she called after him.
As Bruno opened his van door, Hubert dashed out of his cave and waved urgently as he trotted across the parking lot.
“Terrible news. A tragedy,” he said. “But how are you? The Englishwoman told us you almost died as well.”
“I’m fine. All I needed was a shower and a change of clothes,” Bruno said, shaking hands. “It was that new woman doctor who saved me, once she realized what was happening. I never knew wine could be that dangerous.”
“Max was a fine boy,” said Hubert. “He loved wine, and he sold a lot as well. He and Jacqueline were naturals at the wine tastings, great with the tourists, always steering them to the better bottles. I was going to offer him a job here, once he had his diploma.”
“I’d better go see Jacqueline, and you’ve got customers to attend to.”
“I know. But I came out to see if you wanted to postpone that dinner party of yours. The wine will keep for another evening.”
“Yes, but my becasses won’t,” said Bruno. “I took them out of the freezer this morning and I don’t want them to go to waste. I’ve never got that many in a single season before. Besides, we all need cheering up. Let’s go ahead as planned.”
There were not many parking lots in Saint-Denis, but Bruno dutifully visited each one, looking for the type of small truck that J-J’s team had listed as having the tire-track width to match those in the grass at the research station. Each time he found one, he examined the tires minutely for signs of white paint. Having examined the lots at the school, the supermarkets and the garages, he set off in his van for the builders’ yard and the post office. There were only a handful of potential trucks remaining in Saint-Denis. The one Bruno particularly wanted to see, the very old Renault that Alphonse used to transport his cheeses, was delivering to shops all across the region and would not be back before nightfall-by which time any telltale sign of paint would have been worn away by country roads, Bruno thought glumly.
He turned through a pair of imposing iron gates into one of the last places he might find the truck, short of visiting every single farm, and he’d see most of those trucks on market day. It was Julien’s Domaine de la Vezere, the crown jewel of Bondino’s ambition. The long driveway was fringed first by woods and then by the formal gardens of the undistinguished chateau that was the heart of the property. A clumsy nineteenth-century restoration of a late-Renaissance manor house, it had been adorned with circular turrets with pointed roofs at each corner, a crenellated wing that looked solid enough to stop artillery and a grandiose terrace with wide steps leading down to the garden. The lawn was broken into geometric designs by gravel paths and dotted with unlikely topiary. To one side, protected by hedges with more topiary, stood a large swimming pool, from which came the sound of children gleefully splashing and diving. To the other side, beyond the vast wing, which had been turned into a restaurant, was a large modern barn, expensively covered with wood to look suitably antique, which housed the winery, and a large yard for delivery trucks. The ones he saw were too big for his inquiry, so he set off to look for Julien, who might have something useful to say about Bondino.
Bruno started his search at the winery, where the elderly cellar master, Baptiste, was supervising some seasonal workers who were cleaning the vats in preparation for this year’s harvest. He nodded at two mairie employees doing some freelance moonlighting. Baptiste said he had not seen Julien all day and suggested Bruno try the main office. That was odd. It was not like Julien to be away from the winery for an hour at this time of year, let alone all day. The winery office was empty, so Bruno went around to the front of the chateau, threading his way past the rows of vines heavy with fruit, through the parking area and up the steps to the main entrance of what was now the hotel. There was nobody at the reception desk, so he looked in the small office to the rear. Julien’s assistant, Marie-Helene, was there, as she had been for years, ever since she retired from teaching at the nursery school. Surrounded by a thick scent of lavender, she was tapping away angrily at a computer as if she had a personal vendetta against it.
“Bonjour, Bruno. I hate this thing worse than the telephone. Why does nobody write letters anymore? I have to print out everything so I can file it properly or I’d never find another reservation.”
“Computers are supposed to make your life easier, Marie-Helene,” he said, bending to kiss her on both heavily powdered cheeks. “Is Julien around?”
“Who knows, these days?” she said, almost dismissively. “I hardly ever see him, and when I do his mind’s elsewhere. If I didn’t have this place running like clockwork, I don’t know where we’d be. I tell you, Bruno, I’m worried about him. And did you know Mirabelle has been in the hospital?”
“That was in the summer. A woman’s thing, Julien said.”
“Well, she went back, all the way to Bordeaux. She was there more than three weeks, and Julien drove there every day. He told us not to tell anyone. He just brought her back two days ago, and he hasn’t even let me see her. I think it’s really serious, but Julien doesn’t want people to know because he says it will be bad for business.”
“That’s very troubling. And it’s almost time to pick the grapes,” said Bruno.
“A bunch of migrant workers has turned up already-Bulgarians, Poles, Moroccans. I’m running out of space in the barn to put them all up, but Julien still hasn’t given the green light to start picking. You’ll probably find him in the family quarters.”
Bruno walked through the ornate salon that contained the chateau’s best feature, an original sixteenth-century fireplace that was large enough to roast an ox; Bruno had once been in attendance at the roasting of a wild boar that seemed almost dwarfed by the great hearth. Various assemblies of furniture were dotted around the giant room: some Louis XVI chairs around a card table, two vast Napoleon III sofas squared off against each other across a marble-topped table. An Empire couch perched against one wall with a decent copy of David’s Madame Recamier hanging above it, and two rather battered Empire chairs were on either side. A large Restoration writing desk, bearing an ormolu clock, was placed against the row of French windows, and the rear wall was graced by two lovely English bookcases. No scholar of antiques, Bruno identified all these because Julien, or more likely his wife, had thoughtfully placed small handwritten cards on the respective tables, identifying them, for example, as “Coin Empire” or “Coin Louis XVI.”
Not sure whether this said more about Julien or his clients, Bruno went through the French windows and along the terrace to the wing adjoining the swimming pool, and knocked on the door that led to Julien’s apartment. No reply. He knocked again, more firmly, and the door was flung open, an angry Julien standing in front of him saying, “I told you not to disturb… Oh, it’s you, Bruno. Sorry, but the staff never gives me a moment’s peace. What can I do for you?”
“ Bonjour, Julien. Is this an inconvenient time?”
It looked very inconvenient indeed. The usually immaculate Julien was wearing stained trousers, slippers and a rumpled denim shirt that looked as if it had been used to polish a car. His hair was uncombed and his jaw unshaven, and his breath stank of alcohol.
“No, no; come in. It’s a relief to see somebody who doesn’t want something from me. Sorry, Bruno, but I’m having a few problems these days.”
“Anything I can do to help?” Bruno asked.
Julien simply nodded, and led the way into what was normally a carefully kept and welcoming living room, with even better furniture than the assortment in the hotel’s salon. But there were papers all over the chairs, empty wine bottles and even a couple of dirty plates on the floor.
“How’s Mirabelle?” Bruno asked.
“In bed. Not well. Putain de merde, I can’t keep it bottled up. It’s shit, Bruno. Complete and utter. Cancer of the liver. She won’t live out the year, and I’ve got the grapes to be picked, the wine to be made, the hotel and the staff to manage. The chef left, and I’m making do with a temp with some fancy diploma from a job-training center who doesn’t know a roux from a rillette. I got behind on a loan repayment, and business is not good. Christ, it seems like forever since I saw a friendly face. I’m glad you came, Bruno.”
“I’m really sorry about Mirabelle. Can I see her? Is she well enough?”
“Maybe. Poor woman can’t get any sleep with those damn kids in the pool. She’s seen nobody so far. We came back from the specialist in Bordeaux and she just took to her bed. She doesn’t even want to see Father Sentout.” Julien turned and went down the corridor to the final door; he opened it softly and peered in.
“Listen,” Bruno said firmly, taking his arm, “leave me to her for a bit and you go and take a shower and shave and get changed into clean clothes. It will make you feel better, and I think Mirabelle would rather see you that way.”
As Julien walked away, Bruno entered the darkened room, which felt hot and stale. The windows were firmly closed, but the shouts of the children in the pool could still be heard. With painful slowness Mirabelle rolled over to look at him and said weakly, “Is that really you, Bruno?”
“Yes, my sweet, it’s me.” He came forward, kissed her gently on the cheek and took her limp hand. Too tired to even think of her hair or the matted bedclothes around her, she had covered her head with a small skullcap. “Julien told me the news. Let’s just take one day at a time. Try to focus on those great parties you threw, those hunting club dinners. Remember that song you loved, ‘Je Suis Seule Ce Soir’? You used to sing it as you danced.”
“Ah, Bruno, I don’t think I’ll be dancing again. But listen, take care of Julien. He’s been knocked out by this, and everything’s going to pot.”
“Did the doctor say you should stay in bed?”
“Yes. Well, sort of. He said I’d be getting very tired all the time and not to exert myself. They gave me radiation and chemotherapy and all my hair fell out.”
Bruno went over to the window, threw back the curtains and opened the French windows. The kids had left. He looked out into a small walled and private garden, which was bathed in sunshine. Noticing a chaise longue at the foot of the bed, he walked back, picked it up and took it out into the fresh air. Then he returned to the bed, scooped up Mirabelle, bedclothes and all, and carried her out into the sunlight, her eyes squinting against the glare. He laid her on the chaise longue, then took his sunglasses from his shirt pocket and put them on her face.
“It’s beautiful out here, Mirabelle. Smell the air.”
“Oh, Bruno, I can’t. I can’t smell, I can’t taste. I can’t eat.”
“You will, though. Try it. Keep your eyes closed and breathe with me. Come on; let a deep breath out and then breathe in through your nose. Can you feel that gentle breeze on your cheek?” She shook her head. He put his hand to his mouth and wet his finger, and then gently removed the sunglasses and stroked her closed eyelids with his moist finger. “Now can you feel the breeze on your eyes?”
“Yes; yes, I can,” she said breathlessly. He put the sunglasses back.
“Julien’s such an old fool,” she said, the tenderness in her voice belying the words. “He wants to sell everything, you know, take me to some place in Switzerland he found on the Internet that claims to do miracle cures. The doctors in Bordeaux warned me about places like that. They’ll only take all his money and leave him with nothing. I just want to stay here, Bruno, to keep it all as it’s always been, like it used to be.”
Her voice trailed off. “You’ll keep an eye on him, Bruno?” Then her body relaxed into sleep, her mouth slightly open, her face waxen and yellow. Bruno sat with her until Julien came into the garden, clean-shaven and neatly dressed.
“That looks more like you,” Bruno said. “She’s asleep.”
“She sleeps a lot. She never wanted to be in the garden before.”
“I didn’t ask her; I simply carried her here. She was glad to be in the open air. I think she just didn’t want to trouble you.”
“Trouble me? God, she’s never been any trouble, my lovely Mirabelle. We’ve been married thirty-six years, Bruno, and I don’t know what I’ll do without her. I just want to make her comfortable, to try everything, even if the doctors tell me there’s no hope.”
“There’s always hope, Julien, but the living have their own needs. Mirabelle wouldn’t want to see you let yourself go. You have to be strong for her, and for your business, for all the people here at the Domaine who depend on you.”
“I’m thinking of giving it all up.”
“That’s why I dropped by, to talk about that,” said Bruno. “Come over here by the wall where we can talk quietly without disturbing her.” He led the way to two metal chairs, painted green with wooden slats for seats. They looked flimsy, but chairs like them had taken the weight of generations of customers on the terraces of French cafes.
“I’m kind of surprised that you heard something. I thought it was a very discreet negotiation.”
“I’m sure it was, until the guy who bought your option came to see the mayor and talked about a big expansion. That’s how we heard.”
“Dupuy? An expansion? He’s just a Paris businessman, a property dealer, I assumed,” said Julien.
“Maybe he is. But he’s acting for a very big fish indeed. Bondino Wines of California. They’re the ones talking about expansion and buying up more land here.”
“You’d need a lot of money to do it right. I thought of doing it myself, got a bank loan I couldn’t really afford, but it would take deeper pockets than mine. The potential is there, the land and the climate. Did you know we used to produce more wine than all of Bordeaux before the phylloxera epidemic? Those riverboats you see, the flat-bottomed gabares they build for tourist trips? They used to take the wine barrels along the Vezere and the Dordogne in the old days, down to Bordeaux, where they’d sell the wine and then sell the wood from the boats and walk back up here.”
“Really?” Bruno knew the old story well, but he was pleased that Julien sounded like his old alert and talkative self.
“I always planned on making wine here, and we made a good business from selling it at the restaurant. But then I started expanding and things became tight. The loan is guaranteed by the hotel, so the bank isn’t worried, but the interest payments have been killing me, and then Mirabelle got her diagnosis and it all became too much. So when Dupuy came along with fifty thousand euros for the option, it seemed like the right solution. That pays all the bills, and when I sell the place there will be more than enough left over for me to retire on. There’s not much point carrying on here without Mirabelle.”
“Don’t be a fool, Julien” came a small but firm voice from the chaise longue. “You’re not even sixty yet; you’ve got a good ten years to build up something to be proud of. My life insurance will give you the working capital. If you just waste away when I’m gone, I swear I’ll come back and haunt you.”
There was a twinkle in Julien’s eye as he looked at Bruno and then rose and moved across to his wife, kneeling on the grass at her side and taking her hand.
“Don’t throw your life away, Julien. One thing I know from this damn cancer is that life’s far too precious to waste while you’ve got it. You need a goal in life, Julien. And you’ll probably need another wife as well, just to liven you up!”
Bruno rose, half smiling, and went across to kiss her and pat Julien on the shoulder. “She talks a lot of sense, your Mirabelle,” he said.
“She always did,” Julien replied, gazing at his wife with a smile on his face. He rose as Bruno said he had to leave. “I’ll walk out with you.”
When they got to the salon, Julien stopped. “It’s not possible, you know,” he said to Bruno. “That option I signed is very clear. If they want to proceed by the end of the year, I have no choice; I have to sell.”
“What? Even if you paid back the fifty thousand euros?”
“Well, no. That would cancel the deal. But I’ve already spent a lot of it. And I’d probably be liable for legal fees. I can’t do anything about it now, Bruno. The Domaine is going to be sold by the end of the year. They want it as a going concern, with the furniture and everything, including the wine in the cellars and this year’s wine as well. That’s probably why I’ve been putting off harvesting the grapes. It won’t be my wine by next year.”
“Maybe, maybe not. But whatever happens, Mirabelle’s right. You’re an active man. You’d get bored stiff with nothing to do. Life goes on, Julien. And it’s probably time you walked along the vines and tasted a few grapes to see whether it’s time to pick. Your crew is here and other vineyards are already picking. You can’t wait much longer.”
“You’re right. Do me a favor and come with me; keep me company. Besides, I always like a second opinion on whether it’s time to pick. And then we can have lunch.”
Pamela was the first to arrive for Bruno’s dinner, wearing a pale blue summer dress that left her tanned shoulders bare. Gigi raced barking to greet her clattering Citroen deux chevaux. Putting his head out the kitchen window, Bruno waved a welcome. After he checked that all his prepared dishes were covered with cloths, he went outside, twisting the foil from the cork of a bottle of champagne. Pamela had a white jacket over her arm and was holding a large jar, which she handed to him. Gigi stood at her heels, sniffing.
“I know you have all the jam in the world from your black currants and strawberries and apricots,” she said, “but I don’t think you will have tried this. Rose hip jam, from my grandmother’s recipe.”
“My thanks, and Gigi’s. We’ll try it at breakfast tomorrow. I never even heard of it. Come and have a glass of champagne. You didn’t bring Jacqueline?”
“She’s coming with Hubert and Nathalie, and she’s already paid her first month’s rent in advance,” Pamela said. “She’s young and resilient, so I think she’ll be fine.”
“She may be rather sad company, but perhaps we can cheer her up. Now, let me pour you some champagne. Would you like some cassis in the glass first?”
“No, just the champagne on a lovely warm evening like this.” She turned, taking in a wide view of the ridge and the rolling hills and then the rows of truffle oaks and fruit trees. Bruno directed her to the garden table, which was arrayed with glasses and a bottle of cassis and an ice bucket for the champagne.
“This place is a lot bigger than the cottage you told me to expect. Either you’ve got a secret family hidden away here or you’ll be going into competition with me.”
“I don’t think many vacationers would like to rent a room in a policeman’s house,” Bruno said, handing her a glass. “It might stop them from relaxing. Besides, they only want a place with a swimming pool.”
They turned at the sound of another car laboring up the steep entryway, and the baron’s old Citroen DS rolled into view. It set Gigi off barking a new welcome, which redoubled when the baron opened the rear door and out jumped his own dog, a giant Bordeaux hound named General. Good friends and hunting partners, the two dogs sniffed each other politely and then raced off toward the woods while Bruno poured another glass of champagne.
The baron handed over a bottle wrapped in the distinctive brown paper of Hubert de Montignac’s cave.
“I saw Hubert, who told me he was bringing your Saint-Estephe,” the baron announced in his deep, rolling tones. “I thought I’d bring a good Beaune. It will help take our minds off the sad events.”
Hubert’s white Mercedes, its top down, rounded the corner, Nathalie in head scarf and sunglasses beside the driver and Jacqueline waving from the rear seat rather more cheerfully than Bruno had expected, her hair spread out in a vast fan from the wind over the open car.
“ Mon Dieu, that’s a pretty one,” the baron said. “An evening to be graced by three beautiful women. This will cheer us all up.”
Nathalie handed Bruno a cold bottle of Krug, while Jacqueline set a bottle of Monbazillac on the table and Hubert bowed solemnly as he placed the Saint-Estephe in Bruno’s hands. Bruno glanced at Jacqueline, who seemed to be wearing more makeup than usual, perhaps to cover the effects of her crying. He left them all chatting as he went to his barbecue, thrust in an armful of dried vine branches on top of the crumpled pages of the previous day’s Sud Ouest and lit the fire. He waited until the twigs flared and then tossed on four handfuls of charcoal and headed for the kitchen to wash his hands and bring out the sliced baguette and the becasses.
“Your luck must have been magnificent this year,” said Hubert, admiring the six game birds. “I never managed more than two in a season, and I was pretty proud of that.”
As Bruno went back into the kitchen to prepare his omelette, Hubert joined him, bringing the Saint-Estephe and the baron’s Beaune to be decanted. Hubert knew the house well. He found a corkscrew in the kitchen drawer and the decanters in the dining room and went to work. The other guests gathered at the wide kitchen window, looking in as Bruno took a pebble-sized truffle from a jar filled with walnut oil and began to slice it very thin with the knife from his belt.
“Is that all you need?” asked Pamela. “I’ve never made a truffle omelette, so I need to learn.”
“It would suffice, my dear, and that is more truffle than you would get in any restaurant,” said the baron. “But I know Bruno’s cooking and I can assure you that another truffle even larger than that one has been steeping in his bowl of eggs in the refrigerator since last evening.”
“Almost right,” said Bruno. “I never make an omelette with cold eggs. They have been on the table for the last hour.”
“Might I smell a piece?” asked Jacqueline. Pleased that the truffle seemed to have distracted her, Bruno handed her a slice on the flat of his knife. Cautiously, she sniffed at the dark brown fungus. “It smells of the woods. May I taste it?” Bruno nodded and she crumbled off half the slice and put it in her mouth, her face screwed up and eyes closed in concentration.
“Not as gritty as I’d have expected, and very delicate,” she said. There came a pop as the baron opened the Krug and refilled all the glasses. Bruno glanced out at the barbecue, which was starting to glow nicely, and tossed a large lump of duck fat into his huge frying pan. When it was hot enough, he used a small press to add the juice of two cloves of garlic, poured in the eggs and began to twirl the large pan over the flaming gas ring.
“A master at work,” said Pamela, raising her glass to him through the window. Keeping his eyes on the eggs, Bruno took his own glass from the counter, raised it in return and drank more champagne before he took up his spatula, dark with age and many meals, and began pushing the eggs away from the sides of the pan.
“When it’s done we let it rest a moment while you take your seats at the table,” said Bruno, darting out to the barbecue to prepare the next course. He was back in less than a minute, and paraded in front of his guests the golden-yellow omelette, rolled into the shape of a fat baguette and sprinkled with flat-leaf parsley. He sliced and served it at the table.
“My first omelette aux truffes,” said Jacqueline, her eyes shining. “Thank you, Bruno.”
“And the eggs and truffles come from within a few footsteps of this table,” said the baron, who leaned forward to pick up the bottle of white wine. “New Zealand? What’s this?”
“Try it with the omelette. You’ll be very pleasantly surprised,” said Nathalie. “It’s one of Bruno’s finds. Hubert wants to see if he can make a sauvignon blanc like it in the new vineyard.”
“New vineyard?” queried the baron. “This is a fine omelette, Bruno, very fine. Your truffles are coming on splendidly. But, Hubert, I want to hear your plans.”
“Well, since we’re among friends, and this should go no further, I bought old Philibert’s place by the Domaine as an investment, but I’ll plant vines on the land in November. Nathalie’s right: I’m going to experiment with sauvignon blanc. I think the grapes could do well there.”
“I thought that grape was mainly grown in the Loire Valley for Pouilly-Fume,” said Jacqueline. “Is that not right, Monsieur le Baron? I’m sure you’re an expert.” The baron preened, and Bruno was surprised once again by Jacqueline’s gaiety.
“So it is, but it is also grown in Bordeaux, and some of the best whites from Grave are sauvignon,” said Hubert. “By the way, I’m with the baron; the omelette is perfect. Now let me try your experiment, Bruno.” He sipped, and the rest of the table followed. They all waited in silence for Hubert’s verdict. “I think it’s a really good combination, as creamy as your eggs and sharp enough to balance the truffles.”
“Jacqueline, you must tell the rest of the table about your family’s wines,” Hubert went on. “It will come as a surprise to most of them to hear that a country as far north as Canada makes excellent wine.”
“Well, it may be north, but near Niagara Falls we have a microclimate that lets us produce ice wine, from grapes picked very late when they have shriveled and frozen. They make a wonderful dessert wine. It’s very concentrated, so we sell it in small bottles. Hubert knows it, but not much gets exported except to the States.”
“I tasted an Inniskillin, thought it was marvelous and was able to get some cases. But I never tried the Duplessis-that’s Jacqueline’s family’s wine-until she brought me a bottle. So as you can tell, I have employed someone with wine in her veins. Now you must tell us about this New Zealand wine you chose for the omelette. I was surprised when you asked me to find some for you.”
“It’s a long story,” said Bruno. “I first tasted it in Bosnia, thanks to the quartermasters of the French army, who have my deep admiration since they always managed to track down something that might be called wine for us, whether in the jungles of Cote d’Ivoire and Madagascar or in the deserts of Tchad. But it was difficult in Sarajevo until they reached an arrangement with the NATO base in Italy, and then a strange assortment of Californian zinfandels and Australian shirazes and Chilean wines found its way to our commissary. And on one memorable evening I drank a white wine of such remarkable freshness and style that I vowed to track it down again someday. It was named after the English general Milord Marlborough. And I’m delighted that you all approve.”
Bruno stood and bowed, earning him a brief round of applause, picked up the empty serving plate and went out to his barbecue.
Back in the kitchen with the birds, Bruno put more duck fat into the frying pan, along with thick slices of garlic, and tossed in the sliced waxy rat potatoes that he had parboiled and dried earlier. He added parsley and another squeeze from the garlic press, and was pushing the potatoes around with the spatula when Pamela came in carrying two glasses of wine and handed one to him.
“It’s a magnificent dinner, Bruno. Just what we all needed. So kind of you.”
Six shining plates, still warm from the omelette, greeted Bruno as he returned with another great platter, the six grilled becasses neatly arrayed. Their heads and long beaks were still attached, but each bird had been split down the middle, and six slices of freshly grilled baguette were lined up beside them.
“This is for Jacqueline and Pamela, who have never tasted this delicacy,” Bruno said, standing at the head of the table. “Hubert, please start by pouring the Saint-Estephe, and thanks for bringing it. You should all know that the becasse has a peculiar characteristic. When it is startled and flies from the ground, it evacuates its bowel. This is easy since it has a very simple digestive system, just a single stomach in the shape of a fat tube, which is completely emptied when it takes flight. That tube is a delicacy. When cooked, it softens into a most delicious and creamy consistency, which we spread on the grilled bread.”
He took a long spoon and scraped from the inside of each grilled bird a white tube, perhaps half an inch wide and less than two inches long. He placed each one on a slice of bread, spread it with the back of the spoon, handed one to each of his guests and then served the bird itself.
Hubert stood and raised his glass of wine. “A toast to our chef, my dear friend, but also to the memory of our young friend Max, whom we all miss. Let us hope they serve wine as good as this in heaven.”
“And let’s not forget Cresseil, a Resistance fighter who then joined the army to chase the invader back into Germany,” added the baron. “We honor a brave son of France, and this is a fitting wine to drink to him.”
They each raised a glass in salute, and then savored the Saint-Estephe. Even Jacqueline joined in the murmurs of appreciation as they all addressed themselves to the food.
“But I want to hear more of your vineyard plans, Hubert,” the baron went on. “I have never been much impressed with Julien’s wine. You think you can do better?”
“I know he can,” said Nathalie. “The land is good, the drainage excellent, and some of Julien’s most recent wines have a lot of promise. Obviously we are not suggesting that we can make a new Saint-Estephe, but I think we can match the best of Bergerac. Anyway, we’re going to try. But first, I’m going to eat my favorite part of the becasse.”
She neatly severed the charred head of the bird from the remains of its body, and then picked it up by the beak. She put the head of the bird into her mouth and cracked the thin skull, tossed the beak back into the plate and chewed with evident pleasure. The other French people at the table followed her example. Jacqueline and Pamela stared.
“I don’t believe I’m doing this,” said Jacqueline, but copied the others. Very gingerly, Pamela did the same.
“But that’s delicious,” said Pamela, obviously surprised. “I thought it would be all bone.”
“One of the secrets of French cooking,” said the baron, “is never to let anything go to waste.”
Hubert began talking enthusiastically of the blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc that he thought would best suit the land around the Domaine. Jacqueline sat with her chin in her hands, taking in every word, her eyes fixed on Hubert’s animated face. Nathalie observed Jacqueline coldly. Aha, thought Bruno, a little tension seems to be developing. He looked across at Pamela, who glanced at Nathalie and returned an amused glance at him. Time to change the tempo, thought Bruno.
“Is it time for the baron’s Beaune, Hubert?” he asked.
“Ah, yes; excuse me,” said Hubert, picking up the second decanter and pouring into the fresh glasses. Bruno preferred to use the same plates for his dishes-after they were scraped clean by bread, leaving only a hint of the preceding course-but he always offered different glasses for different wines.
“Well, if you think there’s real potential there, that could be interesting to me,” the baron said. “You know I own some of that land by the Domaine and I had an interesting offer for it just the other day from some Parisian. He wanted to pay me for an option to buy it by the end of the year, but he was a bit too cagey about his plans for me to bite.”
“What did he offer?” Hubert asked, rather too innocently. “You know some of that land has been going for four thousand euros a hectare and more.”
The baron looked across the table at Hubert, weighing whether to answer or to concentrate on his food and drink. Courtesy won the day. “He offered more for the barns and buildings. I was quite surprised.”
“You turned him down?” asked Nathalie.
“No; we’ll be meeting again. But I need to make some inquiries about land values and what it might cost me to restore the buildings.”
“Houses and land, you should ask at least six hundred thousand,” said Hubert.
“His offer was short of that. We’ll see what happens when we meet again.”
“You should hold out for a lot more,” said Jacqueline. “Did you know that the real buyer is Bondino, the big American company? Max told me they’re trying to buy up all the land, including Cresseil’s.”
Hubert threw her a frosty glance, as if he’d have preferred this information not be revealed. But her remark made Bruno pensive. That might explain why she spent time with Bondino. Max may have asked her to find out more about Bondino’s plans.
“Bondino? That’s very interesting,” said the baron, finishing his Beaune with a satisfied smack of his lips. “I must make more inquiries. Thank you, mademoiselle.” He glanced at his watch. “No more for me, Bruno. No dessert, none of your Monbazillac, just in case the gendarmes are out tonight.”
“I couldn’t manage another thing,” said Nathalie. “Not a bite and not a drop. It was lovely, Bruno, a dinner to remember, despite everything that’s happened.”
“It was your wine that made it.” Bruno smiled. “But no Monbazillac? No coffee? No little digestif?” he asked, to a chorus of nos and much patting of full stomachs.
“So it seems there is a choice to be made, Hubert. Either you will bring our valley back to its wine-growing tradition, or the Americans will. We should discuss this further,” said the baron, strolling out to the garden, where the two dogs waited hungrily by the still glowing barbecue.
Bruno was just piling dishes beside his sink when he heard the rattling of Pamela’s starter, over and over. Wearing around his waist the old towel he used as an apron, he went out to see what the problem was.
“The car likes to tease me,” said Pamela. “It usually starts the first time. But it can be moody.” She tried again, and this time Bruno heard the slowing of the starter motor as the battery began to fade. “Oh God, the battery’s dying on me. I knew it was time for a new one.”
“I’ll drive you both back in my van, but someone will have to ride in the back, which is kind of a mess,” Bruno said. “I have a charger for the battery in my barn. I’ll attach it overnight and your car will be fine tomorrow.”
Bruno quickly cleared some of the jumble in the back of his van and turned his sports bag into a makeshift seat. Then he went back to the house for his keys and called the duty sergeant at the gendarmerie to ask if the patrols were out. He’d have to drive through town and over the bridge, and the last thing he needed was to try to talk himself out of a breath test. Jules answered the phone sleepily and told him all was quiet.
Once they were en route, Jacqueline spoke from the back. “That was an amazing dinner, Bruno. Really, I can’t think when I ever dined as well.”
“And those wines were heavenly,” added Pamela.
“Sadly, I can’t afford to drink like that often,” he said.
Jacqueline chattered away happily until he came to the Bar des Amateurs, where she asked to be dropped off, saying she had to meet someone for a nightcap. Raising his eyebrows slightly, Bruno pulled over and let her out. She thanked him again before running into the bar. He drove through town.
“I’ll bring you your car in the morning,” he told Pamela. “Then you can drive me back to my house to pick up my van.”
“I’ll have some coffee ready for you. About eight?”
“Fine. I’ll bring some croissants.” They drove on in silence over the bridge, then she turned to him.
“Jacqueline certainly seems to have gotten over Max’s death pretty fast,” Pamela said. “I thought their relationship was more serious than that. But then, she’s still very young.”
“She’s still a kid in many ways, although I suspect she can be a calculating one,” Bruno said. “But I honestly wondered if she’d come tonight. I thought she might be too upset. How’s she going to get back to your place?”
“I know she left her bike at the cave. She came straight to your dinner from work with Hubert and Nathalie.”
“Did you notice her showing off about wine to Hubert over dinner?”
“Who could have missed it?” she said with a laugh. “Nathalie was looking daggers at her. It’s just the way Jacqueline is, realizing how attractive she is to men and trying out her powers. She’ll grow out of it.”
“You haven’t grown out of it.” He grinned in the darkness, his eyes on the narrow road ahead. And not many women do, thanks to le bon Dieu, he thought.
“I hope I’m a little more subtle than that. She’s in her early twenties, finished with her education. You’d think she would have matured by now,” said Pamela, staring ahead. Bruno felt comfortable with her in the strange mix of intimacy that came with driving together at night, almost like a confessional.
“Tell me what brought you to Saint-Denis.”
“A divorce. I married far too young, almost straight out of university, and my husband was in banking, working very long hours in the city. It was the usual story. He fell in love with his secretary. Well, he probably fell in love with the money, but she happened to be around and available. I was teaching, which I quite enjoyed, but not enough to devote my life to it. I’d always loved France, so when we sold the house and divided the property it was an opportunity to come here and have some horses. It worked out very well for me, but he’s divorced again, poor man.”
Poor man? Was she still attached to him? “What did you teach?”
“History and French, to children between the ages of twelve and sixteen who were always getting lost on school trips to Paris. Thanks to them, I’ve been up the Eiffel Tower three times and seen the Mona Lisa and the Sacre-Coeur four times each. The fourth time I should have been going up the Eiffel Tower I was looking for a child we’d lost at Napoleon’s tomb in the Invalides. Knowing the girl in question, I was sure she was plotting to steal the body. A little devil.”
“Maybe Jacqueline was like that when she was a child,” Bruno said.
“I think Jacqueline was rather more cunning, after what we saw this evening,” she said. “By the way, I meant to ask her if she likes horses. I’d be glad to have someone help exercise them. That new doctor, Fabiola, says she like horses.”
“Maybe you could teach me to ride someday,” said Bruno. “Properly, I mean. I’ve sat on a horse and walked a few trails, but I remember seeing you and your friend Christine in the summer galloping through the field. It was a marvelous sight and made me envious.”
“I’d love to teach you, but you’ll have to be patient.” She poked him amiably in the ribs. “It would certainly get some gossip going.”
“Well, there’s a project for the winter,” he said, a little surprised at how much he was looking forward to the idea, and not only because of the riding.
“Do you know this is one of my favorite buildings in the neighborhood?” he asked her as they turned into her driveway. “I remember when I first saw it in the sunshine, it just looked so warm and welcoming, surrounded by flowers in the courtyard and nestled into its hillside.”
“I feel the same way, Bruno. But we’ll see how welcoming the stables feel after I get you to clean them out.” He pulled up at the entrance to her courtyard, the old stone buildings glowing brightly in his headlights. He walked around the back of the van to open her door.
“Thank you, Bruno, for everything. I’ll have the coffee ready at eight,” she said as they reached her house. She turned to kiss him good night but somehow they turned their heads the wrong way, or not quite enough, and Bruno felt himself kissing her mouth and realizing that her lips were relaxing against his own. Uncertain, he moved his head and kissed her on the cheek, then started to back away.
“Goodness, that was a nice surprise,” she said, flustered. “Now, where’s my key? Silly me, of course I didn’t lock the door.” She opened it and went in, turning around to say, “Until tomorrow.” Then she closed the door.
He stood watching the door for a moment, wondering just what had taken place, and remembering the frisson of pleasure that had run through him when he realized he was kissing her lips. But remember your rule, he told himself. Not in your own backyard. Maybe he could bend the rule this once, now that Isabelle seemed out of his life after her prolonged silence. But he’d thought it was over before, and then she came back. Would she again, though? God, it was hard sometimes. He went back to his van, telling himself to think about the pile of dishes that awaited him.
As Bruno crossed the bridge and turned onto the main street of Saint-Denis, the mairie was dark. He saw Ivan placing the chairs on the tables of his Cafe de la Renaissance. The blue neon light of the Bar des Amateurs at the end of the street was still glowing. And by the light from the wide window of a real estate broker, he noted a quick blur of movement. When he slowed the van to take a look he saw two figures scuffling in the small alley beside the maison de la presse. He pulled in beside a darkened pharmacy and stepped out, feeling slightly ridiculous as he realized he was still wearing the old towel around his waist. He whipped it off, tossed it into the van and began to run toward the sound of a slap and a woman’s cry, and the growl of a male voice.
“Good evening,” he called loudly. The scuffling figures broke apart. “I’m a policeman. Might I be of assistance, mademoiselle?”
“It’s nothing; friends having an argument,” said Bondino in his accented French, the words slurred by alcohol.
“Hello again, Bruno,” said Jacqueline. “It’s okay. He’s just leaving.”
“I heard a slap,” Bruno said. “That didn’t sound friendly to me. Are you sure, Jacqueline?”
“Yes, yes. He just wanted to take me for a last drink, a nightcap. I can handle this, Bruno.”
“Monsieur Bondino, you’re staying in Les Eyzies, right? You’re in no condition to drive back there tonight.”
“He’s moved to the Manoir, here in town,” said Jacqueline. “Listen, it’s okay, really. I’ll see he gets back all right. He’s just drunk.”
“Did you slap him?”
“Yes, just to sober him up. It’s not a problem. I’m sorry, Bruno. When I got to the bar I didn’t realize how drunk he was.”
“I think you’d better go back to your bike and go home, Jacqueline. I’ll see that Monsieur Bondino gets back to the Manoir.”
She shrugged and turned, and began walking slowly down the street that led to the cave. Bruno scrutinized Bondino, who was slouched against the wall. “Thanks again, Bruno, for everything,” Jacqueline called, too loudly for so late at night. He waved at her, distracted.
“Come on,” he said to Bondino. “Let’s get you back to your hotel.” He took Bondino’s arm and began leading the stumbling drunk to his van. Bondino jerked out of Bruno’s grip and lurched off after Jacqueline, swinging an aimless arm as if to sweep Bruno out of the way and catching him painfully in the eye.
Bruno had dealt with violent drunks before. He grabbed the flailing arm, twisted it up behind Bondino’s back and slammed him hard against the front of the police van, bending him over the hood. Then he pulled on Bondino’s shirt collar, turned him and forced him to his knees in the gutter, stepping back as Bondino retched and a gush of vomit flooded from his mouth and nose. Bruno stood waiting until Bondino finished, and then went to the back of his van and took a bottle of water from his sports bag.
“Here,” he said, handing over the bottle. Bondino mumbled something that sounded like “Thanks” and rinsed out his mouth, retched drily and then began to drink.
Bruno hauled him to his feet and pushed him into the passenger seat of the van. It was less than two hundred yards to the Manoir, a small and expensive private hotel that was darkened, its main gate onto the street already closed at this time of night. Bruno sighed. He could ring the bell and wake everybody, or call the private number of the owners, who were doubtless asleep at this hour. And then the word would get around that the drunken young man who was probably going to be important to the future of Saint-Denis had been dragged back to his hotel by the cops. The tale would lose nothing in the telling, Bruno knew, and that would color the town’s relationship with Bondino forever.
He turned his van around and with Bondino now snoring beside him drove up the hill to his home, where Gigi still stood patiently by the cold barbecue, wondering where his portion of the meal might be.
Bruno awoke just as the dawn was leaking pink streaks into the sky to the east and the cockerel in his chicken coop greeted the new day. He lay quietly a moment, his eyes closed, thinking of the difference between waking with Isabelle beside him and waking alone. His thoughts drifted to Pamela. Then he snapped his eyes open and scolded himself for self-indulgence. There was work to be done, and it promised to be a busy day. He had to visit Alphonse and check the tires on his truck. And he still hadn’t found out what had happened to Cresseil’s dog.
He did his exercises, showered and dressed in his uniform. He looked for his dog to feed him. It was unusual that Gigi wasn’t already at his side. He strolled to the chicken coop, and then to the top of the lane, but no Gigi. Finally he went to the back of his house, to the large courtyard with the barn and outbuildings, and saw Gigi sitting patiently at the foot of the sagging sun bed in the barn. Bondino lay asleep, an old blanket thrown over him, where Bruno had left him. Gigi turned to look at his master and ran across to be patted, but then scampered back to the stranger asleep on the sun bed.
Bruno fed his chickens, collected some eggs for Pamela and went back into the kitchen, where he put on some water to boil for coffee and listened to the news on Radio Perigord. He went back to the barn and unhooked Pamela’s battery from the charger and took it to her car, replaced the cables and tried the motor. It started right away. He left the engine running and went back into the house. The coffee was ready. From the bathroom he took a large sponge; he put it on a tray with a pot of coffee and two cups and headed for the courtyard. Opening the tap, he soaked the sponge, and then he held it over Bondino’s sleeping face and squeezed. It took a moment for the cold water to register, then Bondino sat straight upright, cleared his eyes and looked wildly about him before his gaze fixed on the silhouette of a policeman standing over him against the strengthening early morning light.
“Coffee,” said Bruno, handing him a cup and then sipping at his own.
“Er, bonjour.” Bondino stared around at the barn, the dog, the courtyard. Looking at Gigi, he smiled, put out his fist to be sniffed and then stroked the dog’s head. Gigi submitted to this with pleasure and then rubbed his head against Bondino’s leg. Bruno noted this with interest. Gigi was one of the finest judges of human character he knew. If his dog liked this American, there was probably more to the young man than the disheveled sight that met the eye.
“You brought me here, yesterday night?” Bondino asked, struggling with his French.
Bruno nodded. “Drunk.”
Bruno shrugged. “You were fighting with Jacqueline. You should apologize to her.”
Bondino felt his forehead, groaned and took a sip of coffee.
“And you fought me,” Bruno said. “You certainly don’t want to be doing that.” Bondino closed his eyes and hunched forward. Bruno took Gigi inside and fed him, finished his coffee and went back outside. Bondino was holding a silver flask over his cup, letting the last drops fall out.
“Hair of the dog,” Bondino said in English. Bruno nodded. It was a phrase he remembered from the British troops he had known in Bosnia.
“Great dog,” he said, smiling at Gigi. It was the first genuine smile Bruno had seen on the face of this man he had instinctively disliked.
“I’ll drop you at your hotel,” Bruno said. “But first you clean that.” He handed Bondino a hose and a rag and pointed to the streaks of last night’s vomit on the side of Pamela’s car.
Once the two men were in Pamela’s car, Bruno realized that Bondino still stank like a brewery. Bruno opened all the windows, and they drove into town in complete silence. He stopped at the wrought-iron gates that guarded the entrance to the Manoir and turned to Bondino.
“No more fighting, understand? Next time, I’ll arrest you. And stop drinking so much.” Bondino got out, said “Merci” and closed the door. Bruno drove on through the town-it was still too early for many people to be stirring-parked in front of the mairie and went into Fauquet’s, where the air smelled of warm bread and coffee, and the espresso machine busily bubbled steam into a large jug of milk. He looked briefly at that morning’s Sud Ouest, checking the front page, the sports scores and the local news, and greeted Fauquet and his wife and their Helene, who had just left school and used to be in his tennis class. He shook hands with the knot of men from the Public Works Department in their bright yellow coveralls and nodded affably to Mr. Simpson, the retired Englishman who had taken enthusiastically to the local custom of having a small glass of red wine with his breakfast. Protocol satisfied, he bought his croissants and a baguette, went back to Pamela’s car and drove out on the long road past the supermarket toward Saint-Cyprien.
Pamela was already in her courtyard watering her geraniums, wearing her riding jodhpurs and a white shirt, when Bruno parked. He took off his peaked cap and strolled toward her. Arms outstretched and smiling, he held out the bag of croissants and fresh eggs in one hand and the baguette in the other, and took such good care to kiss only her cheeks that he almost pecked at her ear.
“This is very kind of you, Bruno,” she said, leading the way into her kitchen, where two places were set at a small table, with a bowl of fresh-picked berries at each place, bowls of yogurt and cereal and a large jug of orange juice. He put the croissants and bread on the table, and then watched Pamela make tiny rearrangements to the settings to make herself look busy. These are the signals a woman sends when she does not want to suggest that she is available, Bruno thought. He wondered if she regretted the half kiss they had shared. He took his seat, deciding not to make some foolish joke about breakfasting with a woman with whom he had not spent the night.
“You’re going to be surprised when I tell you what happened after I left you,” he said, and described the scene with Jacqueline. When Bruno had finished Pamela said, “She seemed fine when she left for work not long before you arrived.”
“She was fine. Bondino was too drunk to be anything more than a nuisance. Maybe she’d flirted with him once too often. I’ll ask at the bar. I hope they didn’t serve someone as drunk as he was. But he had a flask with him; maybe he was drinking from that.
“The good news,” Bruno concluded as he dug his spoon into the bowl of berries, “is that your battery’s fixed and your car started right away.” He paused. “There’s something else,” he said. “Do you remember the conversation last night over dinner about the value of the land and the houses? I need to understand the economics of this. Say you buy an old house with a barn and a few hectares for a hundred thousand, and you spend another forty thousand to fix it up, install water and electricity. What can you make out of that, as a gite?”
“Add another ten thousand to furnish it and twenty thousand for a swimming pool. That’s a necessity. Say you have three bedrooms in the house and put two more in the barn. Five bedrooms at around sixty euros per night each, say two thousand euros a week for the twelve weeks of the season, a bit less in May and September. You should get thirty thousand a year, less the cleaning costs and linens, replacement of furniture, repairs and taxes. Maybe twenty thousand a year, total.”
“More than enough to pay off a loan from the bank, I think,” Bruno said, scribbling in his notebook.
“That’s if you get full occupancy, which means you have to do some marketing,” she said. “And the owner has to do all the administrative work, the bookings and tax forms and accounting. If I had to pay someone else to do that, it would take half the profit. Why the questions? Are you thinking of going into business?”
“No. But knowing these figures could be useful for a proposal that’s before the council.” Bruno checked his watch. “Great breakfast, Pamela, thank you. We’d better get going. I’ve got a meeting at the mairie.”
“Is this to do with that scheme Hubert was talking about last night over dinner?” she asked as they drove into Saint-Denis.
“In a way.”
“You realize that you don’t have to rent out the buildings as gites. You can always just restore them and sell them, each with a small garden, which is all that’s wanted by most of the people who buy second homes. So you take your profit and still keep the rest of the land. I assume that’s Hubert’s plan, to use the land to grow vines and to rent or sell the buildings.”
“You make it sound like an easy profit.”
“As long as people from England and northern Europe want to come down here to retire or just to vacation, it works fine. But if there’s a recession, or if those people fear that the value of their property might stop going up, it could all come to a screeching halt. That’s why I daren’t speculate in property. I’m no businesswoman, and besides, I like having my land. I couldn’t keep my horses without it.”
No word from Isabelle, thought Bruno as he scanned his e-mails. Did that mean it was really over? The ringing phone broke into his thoughts.
“Monsieur le Chef de Police?” said the calm voice on the other end. “Dupuy here. Fernando Bondino asked me to call and express his personal thanks to you for last night, along with his deep regrets. Apparently you took him to your home and looked after him when he was somewhat the worse for drink. He said that your behavior was above and beyond the call of duty. He wanted to thank you personally, but it seems you were in a hurry when you dropped him off. And of course I would like to add my own thanks for your kindness and forbearance.”
“First he’s in a nasty bar fight where some windows got broken. Then he harasses a woman in the street late at night. That kind of behavior can’t go on. I hope he understands that.”
“Most certainly. He doesn’t usually behave like that. It won’t happen again.”
“If it does, he’ll spend the night in jail, whatever that may mean for Saint-Denis. Please make sure he knows that.”
“I don’t think that’ll be necessary, and please remember that this project is not committed to Saint-Denis, not by any means.”
“I hope that’s not a threat, Monsieur Dupuy. I still haven’t talked to the young lady whom Monsieur Bondino attacked last night about filing charges. If she does, the law would take its course.”
“I know you’ll handle these matters in the best interest of Saint-Denis. But again, please accept Monsieur Bondino’s thanks and my own. I should add that he has written a formal letter of apology in which he expresses his heartfelt thanks to you, with a copy to your mayor. Au revoir, monsieur.”
As soon as Bruno hung up, his phone rang again. “Bruno, it’s Brigadier Lannes. I need you at the gendarmerie right now. There’s a break in the arson case. Duroc’s made an arrest. A friend of yours, I gather.”
From his perch on the window ledge, Duroc looked triumphant as Bruno was shown into his office. The place had been transformed. Even the obligatory portrait of the president of France had been taken down and leaned against a wall. Duroc’s photographs of himself in uniform at his promotion parade had been cleared away and replaced with a large cork bulletin board. It was covered with photos of the burned-out shed at the scene of the fire, lists of names and phone numbers and mug shots of the militants arrested at the research station. The brigadier rose from behind Duroc’s desk to shake Bruno’s hand.
“So who’s been arrested?” Bruno asked. “And where is this friend of mine now?”
“In a cell below,” said Duroc. “He’s one of the gardening staff employed at the research station whom you and the Police Nationale were supposed to have checked out. We received information that someone was lying about being at home that night. Apparently he knows you from the hunting club. We offered him a lawyer and he asked for you instead. His name is Gaston Thiviers. No previous record.”
“I certainly know him, but he seems an unlikely suspect. What’s the evidence against him? What kind of information did you receive, an anonymous letter?”
“I can’t talk about my informants,” Duroc said, turning directly to the brigadier and looking smug. “But I got his wife to confess that she’d lied to the police and he wasn’t home on the night in question. And he also lied about it in the statement the police took from him at the research station.”
Bruno closed his eyes and winced. Damn Duroc, acting like a bulldozer with so little sense of the town and the people in it. When Bruno looked up, the brigadier was looking at him curiously. “You have something to add?”
“Yes, sir. I congratulate Captain Duroc on his initiative, but I think you’ll find that if we check with Genevieve Vuillard at the bank, Gaston will have an alibi.”
He turned to Duroc. “You know, I’m sure, that Madame Thiviers is in a wheelchair?” Duroc nodded. “She was crippled in a car crash about five years ago when her brother was driving,” Bruno went on. “He was killed in the crash. So what you’ve stumbled on is a very discreet family arrangement. Gaston’s a good man, a devoted husband, and he takes wonderful care of his wife. But because of her injuries, she can’t be a wife to him in certain respects. So he spends a couple of nights a week elsewhere. Gabrielle knows about it and has been very understanding. After we first interviewed the research station staff, I checked on Gaston’s whereabouts on the night of the fire with Genevieve.”
“Madame Thiviers said nothing about that,” said Duroc, irritated and openly skeptical of Bruno’s account. “Under questioning, she confirmed that her husband hadn’t spent the night with her. She lied in her initial statement to the police. I warned her she could be prosecuted.”
Bruno controlled his anger. Whatever brief satisfaction he would feel from telling Duroc he was a fool would be paid for in bad relations for months to come. “She probably felt humiliated at confessing to a stranger that her husband was elsewhere overnight,” Bruno said. “Now she’ll be terrified of getting him into trouble and being in trouble herself. I just wish you’d asked me about this earlier so I could have explained the background. I told J-J, which is why the Police Nationale didn’t pursue it. In fact, I think J-J made his own discreet check with Madame Vuillard.”
The brigadier was grinning, whether at the suspect’s marital arrangements or at Duroc’s discomfiture was not clear. “Anonymous letter, was it?” the brigadier asked Duroc.
“Don’t tell me,” Bruno said. “It wasn’t posted but hand-delivered to the gendarmerie early in the morning. Mauve notepaper, handwritten in the old-fashioned way they used to teach and with lots of words underlined.”
Duroc blushed, but nodded reluctantly when the brigadier looked at him.
“It’s Virginie Mercier from the retirement home,” said Bruno. “She’s been a bit funny that way for years. She spent over fifty years working as a maid in Father Sentout’s house before he sent her off into retirement. The time she doesn’t spend in church she spends trying to root out what she calls ‘immoral behavior’ and sending off letters denouncing it. I can’t imagine this is the first one you’ve received from her. I get one a week. I think one of them was about you, mon capitaine.”
“I’ve had several complaining that you and the mayor are suppressing the evidence she gave you,” Duroc said stiffly. “This is the first one she sent with any information we could act on.”
“You didn’t ask any of your gendarmes about it first?” Bruno asked. If the man didn’t consult his own team, he was even more of a fool than Bruno feared. “Your sergeant Jules would certainly know about Gaston’s little arrangement.”
“Sergeant Jules is off today,” Duroc said, swallowing hard. Bruno knew that wasn’t the case, but he ignored it.
“Well, all this will obviously have to be looked into, and it confirms the importance of local knowledge,” said the brigadier. He glanced briefly but knowingly at Bruno, who maintained a solemn face. “If Madame Vuillard confirms that Gaston was with her on the night in question, we have no reason to detain him, or to trouble his unfortunate wife further.”
On his way out, Bruno stopped for a word with Jules at the desk to tell him Gaston was in the clear. “And another thing. Cresseil’s old dog is missing. You remember, that Porcelaine. Can you put out a call to the gendarmes and municipal cops downstream, in case he went into the river?”
The Bar des Amateurs had become a remarkable success despite its location at the far end of the rue de Paris, opposite the gendarmerie, of all places. It boasted a large TV screen for sporting events and stayed open late. Its location and the formidable size of the owners, whose wives prepared the crepes and pizza and the occasional croque-monsieur, guaranteed that its customers seldom dared to disturb the late-night peace of the town. So the proprietors were keen to answer Bruno’s questions about the drunken American and the pretty Canadian girl, to make sure he understood that what had happened in their bar was an aberration.
“He’d been in most of the evening off and on, going out to walk along the street and then coming back,” said Gilbert, a tall man with a hooked nose. “He said he was waiting for somebody, and had another drink each time he came back.”
“Vodka and tonics, he was drinking,” said his partner, Rene, a squat and powerful man.
“Then at about eleven he came back in, this time with the girl, and they sat talking, quietly enough, until she got up to leave and he grabbed her arm,” Gilbert said. “I walked over, and very politely asked if everything was okay. She said it was. He asked for another drink, but we wouldn’t serve him. He’d had more than enough. The girl said she’d see him back to his hotel.”
“Why did you still serve him after he smashed your window?”
“He paid up fast enough. And it’s only a couple of evenings they’ve been in, usually pretty late, as if they’ve come from dinner. She used to come in with Max, and I was kind of surprised when she switched to the American. I thought they’d only gotten together very recently from the way they always seemed to be talking, like strangers discovering things about each other.”
As Bruno strolled up the rue de Paris toward his office he passed the most modest of the town’s three hotels and remembered another small detail he wanted to check. The hotels of Saint-Denis were each well tailored to the range of visitors: the Manoir was for the wealthy, the much larger Royale was for the package tours and the Hotel Saint-Denis was cheaper, much more old-fashioned and, in Bruno’s eyes, far more agreeable.
It had long ago been a fairly grand town house with its own large courtyard and stables, and the best rooms had their own bathrooms. In the communal bathrooms on each floor, the plumbing was ancient, but the scale of the bathtubs was magnificent. On market days and in the tourist season, the courtyard was constantly filled with tables and customers, and in winter the hotel seemed reserved for commercial travelers and morose fishermen. It served breakfast and a light lunch but had no restaurant per se, no conference rooms and no Internet service. It was as French provincial hotels used to be, which was why Bruno felt warmly about it, and its owner-manager was the long-standing chairman of Bruno’s hunting club.
“Salut, Mauricette,” he said to the owner’s wife, who ran the cafe, kissing both cheeks of the formidable woman with steel-gray hair. “Is Christophe around? Or maybe you can help. I need to check the guest book.”
She led him to the small reception desk with its telephone and registration book.
“It’s about one of your guests, Mademoiselle Duplessis, a Canadian who stayed with you for a while. Do you have her details?”
“Jacqueline? A busy girl, that one.” It was clear she was not a favorite of Mauricette’s. She leafed back through the pages of the massive book. “Early August she arrived. Here it is: on the fourteenth, not long before that big fire.”
“Are you sure? I thought she told me she’d arrived in town later than that.”
Mauricette shrugged. “That’s what the book says.”
“Do you remember her arrival?”
“Not particularly; we were busy then. And I hardly saw her during the day-she was out and about. In the evenings she always seemed to have a different beau in tow. Sometimes the beau didn’t leave when he should have.”
“Did you know them?”
Bruno knew what was coming. “There was a young American, and then poor Max from our rugby team,” Mauricette said, dropping her voice almost to a whisper. “The American was a stranger to me, except he’s been in here at lunchtime for a sandwich and spoke enough French to get by. We got to talking, so I learned he was from California. A little plump but very well dressed.”
“Did you ever talk to Jacqueline?” Bruno never underestimated the amount of information that could be elicited by a hotel keeper, and Mauricette was a born gossip.
“Oh yes, she told me all about her job down at Hubert’s cave and her own family’s wines. I never knew they could make wine in Canada. She was a very pleasant young person, apart from her love life. She checked out a few days ago, and Max helped her with her suitcases. One was really heavy, full of wine books. She used to have them all piled up on the desk in her room.”
“How did she pay her bill?”
“By credit card, a Visa.” Mauricette turned the register toward him and pointed to the final column, where she had written down the number of the credit card. Bruno copied it into his notebook.
“What’s your interest in the girl, Bruno? Is she in trouble?”
“No, but we’ve got a team of detectives looking into that fire and they asked me to get the details of any strangers staying in town. It’s just routine. Thanks, Mauricette.”
Back in his office, when he opened his e-mails, he doubted there’d be one from Isabelle, but he sat up straight when he saw the message from her private address on Hotmail, not her official one: “Sorry for silence. Suddenly reassigned to Luxembourg. Same case, new direction. I’ll call when I can. Maybe. Don’t use my other e-mail. Kisses, Isabelle.”
What on earth did she mean by that, except to keep him guessing and uncertain? She’d call, maybe. And “Kisses” was the way you might end a note to an old boyfriend from school, or to a family member. It was a usefully vague word for Isabelle to deploy. There was a hint of conspiracy in her asking him to avoid her official e-mail address, and what on earth could be taking the case to Luxembourg? I’m being kept on the hook, Bruno concluded, and I’m a little old for that. A ringing phone brought him back to the real world. It was the funeral parlor calling. Could he come at once?
Francois Cheyrou had inherited the Saint-Denis funeral business from his father and grandfather, and Bruno expected that Francois’s teenage son, Felix, would probably bury him one day. Since Bruno was responsible for the registration of all deaths in the commune, he knew Francois well and was a frequent caller at the funeral home, which was tucked away behind the municipal campground. There was a large parking area in front of it, shaded by trees, and then inside, a row of rooms where the dead could be laid out for viewing. The rooms were furnished with simple dignity, each containing a bed, two prayer stools, vases for flowers and a small table that held the condolence book for visitors to sign. Behind the viewing rooms was an office, a waiting room and a garage for the hearses. Farther back was the large workshop, where the coffins were made. To one side stretched some smaller rooms for embalming and others for the dressing of the dead and the application of cosmetics that could repair the ravages of death before the deceased were subjected to public view.
It was to one of these smaller rooms that Francois led Bruno; Max’s washed and naked body lay on a long metal table that had two taps at one end and a drain at the other.
“I was trying to comb out the hair when I found it,” said Francois, and he lifted Max’s head so Bruno could see the gash on the side of the scalp. He bent down to examine it more closely. It was less a wound than a bad scrape, but the skin had been broken and the flesh was swollen. Max’s body had spent hours soaking in wine before being washed here at the funeral parlor; Bruno wondered what effect that had on a wound.
The ash on the end of the cigarette Francois kept in his mouth curved down at an improbable length. Automatically, Francois turned his head and blew. Ash tumbled to the floor. “Sorry. The smoke stops me from smelling the corpses. Some of them get a bit ripe until I do the embalming. Anyway, look at the size of that bump. I don’t think he got that by accident.”
Bruno nodded, agreeing. “Have you called a doctor?”
“Of course. You know the law. Anything suspicious on a body and we call the police first and then a doctor. I called the medical center and asked for that new one, Fabiola. She signed the initial death certificate, so she has to be called in. Max’s death was marked as nonsuspicious. She was the one who told me to try that number I reached you on. Your own cell phone isn’t working. Have you changed it?”
“It’s a long story. Use the new number for the moment. It was a nonsuspicious death when we found the body, but it’s certainly suspicious now,” said Bruno. “What do you make of it? Could he get that kind of wound from just falling and hitting his head on something?”
“If he fell from a height, yes. But the way it’s supposed to have happened, collapsing in a wine vat, I can’t see how that would have caused this bump. It’s not the usual kind of wound you get from a club or anything like that. I can’t say much more because I don’t have the kind of equipment that forensics teams have, but it just looks odd to me.”
“Could it have been inflicted after death?” Bruno pressed. “I wasn’t being gentle when I pulled him out of the vat and threw him over the side. Maybe the wound happened when he landed.”
“Don’t ask me.” Francois shrugged. “You need a forensics specialist.”
Bruno was already on the phone to J-J when Fabiola arrived, pulling on surgical gloves and a face mask, wrinkling her nose at the smell from Francois’s cigarette. With her scar covered, Bruno noticed that her eyes were magnificent, large and dark and fringed with very long eyelashes. She took plastic bags from her briefcase and put them on the corpse’s hands, and then pulled out a magnifying glass and began to peer at the wound.
“The doctor is looking at him now, J-J. What time should I expect you? Okay, within the hour. Call me when you get to Saint-Denis because I’ll be at the farmhouse where it happened, sealing off the place. You might have trouble finding it.”
“There are wood splinters in this gash in the head,” said Fabiola as Bruno closed his phone. “I’ll leave them there, but make a note of that, would you?”
“The forensics experts from Bergerac…,” Bruno began.
“I know,” she said briskly. “Don’t worry, I won’t do anything to affect what clues may be left. But write down what I said about the wood splinters. I’m pretty sure that blow to the head wouldn’t have been fatal, and I’m going to stick with my initial opinion of asphyxiation as the cause of death, but he may have been knocked unconscious.”
“Could that have been accidental?” Bruno asked.
“I don’t know. Head wounds are funny things.” She pulled back the eyelids, peered into the mouth and nostrils and then began to examine the rest of the body more closely.
“Have you noticed the penis?” asked Francois. “If you ask me, this guy had sex not long before death. You might want to tell the forensics team to check the seminal vesicles.”
Fabiola nodded and took her magnifying glass to the groin area. “I think you’re right. Make a note of that too,” she said to Bruno, and took another plastic bag and placed it carefully around the boy’s genitals. She parted his legs and peered closely. “No sign of anal penetration.” Then she began to look at the hands through the thin plastic film, paying particular attention to the nails. “Left hand, foreign matter in the nails of index and middle fingers. Hair, possibly pubic.”
Her inspection completed, Fabiola took a large plastic bag and wrapped it around Max’s head. “Short of cutting him open, that’s the best I can do, but make sure the forensics team gets my notes, and give them my card. Since this looks like it’s going to be a police inquiry, I’ll type out a statement for you, Bruno. I can’t rule out the possibility that he fell awkwardly and hurt his head that way, but I’d say it was unlikely. I think somebody hit him or pushed him.”
“It could have been me, when I got him out of the vat,” said Bruno. “You remember helping me hold him up when we tried to breathe air into him before I pushed him out?”
Fabiola nodded. “You’re right. But we might be able to exclude that if we can establish an accurate time of death. It won’t be easy after he was in the wine so long. It works on the tissues. There are also signs of recent bleeding from the nose and bruising there, but they look three or four days old. Could be a rugby injury, or maybe he was hit on the nose.”
That must have been during the bar fight, thought Bruno. “Anything else?” he asked, scribbling quickly in his notebook as she took off her face mask and peeled off the surgical gloves.
“Yes, there’s something the forensics team should look at carefully. I think Francois is right about the boy having had sex, and rather rough sex at that. It could have been masturbation, or possibly sex under water, reducing the natural lubrication. But I think there was a partner because he has scratches on his buttocks.”
“Any sign of whether he died before Cresseil or after?” Bruno asked, remembering the mayor’s concern. “The lawyers will want to know for the inheritance.”
“They both died in the same time frame, but perhaps the Bergerac lab can narrow it down.” She turned to Francois. “You’re good,” she said. “Not many people would have noticed that inflammation. Did you have any medical training?”
“In the navy,” he said, lighting another cigarette. “I was an orderly. But I see a lot of bodies. Amazing what you can tell from them.”
“You’ll be a dead body yourself if you go on smoking like that,” she said. “But while you’re at it, pass me one. I haven’t had a Disque Bleu in years.”
Bruno sighed as he looked around the barn, which still stank of the wine that had splashed out when he’d heaved Max’s body from the vat. Alongside heaps of junk that looked as if it had been there since before the war, dusty shelves and dustier bottles were stacked along the back wall. Two members of the crime scene team, dressed in white coveralls, were poking gingerly through it.
“They’ll have their work cut out in here,” J-J said. “The forensics people in Bergerac are taking their time, but it looks as if they’ll agree with your doctor. Somebody hit that boy on the head, even if he did die from carbon whatever it was. So if it’s not murder, it’s at least aggravated manslaughter. Anyway, as far as I’m concerned, it’s a good excuse to get away from being at the beck and call of that brigadier. Murder trumps arson. Who are our suspects, beyond that American we saw Max fighting with? He’s got to be number one.”
Bruno shrugged. “We’ll want to talk to Jacqueline. That was the girl with him. She should know his movements, and if he was having sex not long before he died it was probably with her. We should also talk to Dominique, and then we’ll have to ask Alphonse what he knows about Max’s movements in the last few days and check the tires on his truck. Then there were those glasses in Cresseil’s kitchen. There may be fingerprints.”
“I know you think the boy could have been mixed up in that fire. And now Dominique comes up again. Could there be a connection, do you think?”
“Maybe, but there’s no evidence of that,” said Bruno. “I thought the leads would be coming from your ecolo network in Bordeaux.”
“I wanted to talk to you about that. Where can we go that’s private?”
“Let’s walk in the garden.” Bruno guided J-J out past the forensics team and led the way past the house and the vegetable garden down toward the river before J-J spoke.
“There’s almost no sign on the ecolo Web sites that anybody knew much about this research station. It doesn’t come up-no rumors, nothing except one posting by your Alphonse asking if anybody had information about it. Usually before there’s an attack or a demonstration, the Web sites will be full of information about the particular farm or company, like whipping up a campaign about it. Before they attacked that McDonald’s, the Web sites and the left-wing press and newsletters were all full of material. It was the same when they hit that experimental rapeseed crop down near Foix. But not this time. The fire came out of nowhere, and that’s odd.”
“So what does that mean, a lone arsonist, with no connection to the movement?”
“Did you ever read Sherlock Holmes?” J-J asked.
Bruno looked at him quizzically. Where had that come from? “Years ago at school. I saw an old film about him once. I remember that funny cap he wore and lots of London fog, and that he could identify hundreds of different kinds of cigars from their ashes.”
“There was a story about a dog that failed to bark in the night. The point was, he should have barked but he didn’t, so he probably knew the intruder. On this arson case, the usual dogs among all the activists didn’t bark at all, so I’m beginning to think this wasn’t the ecolos but something else altogether, maybe someone with a grudge against that scientist who runs the research place.”
“Have you talked to the brigadier about this dog that didn’t bark?” Bruno asked.
“He’s the one that explained the strange silence of the ecolos. You and me, we’re just the errand boys, the local help he expects to do the legwork for him. But his real interest in this case is using it to build up a database on all the ecolo movements. He’s taking the opportunity to collect computer hard drives all over the region. That’s what they do in the RG. So we’re supposed to solve it on our own, because once he realized this wasn’t some big ecolo conspiracy, his level of interest dropped right off.”
“So you want to start looking into local feuds around the research station? Nothing much comes to mind. That director you met, Petitbon, lives a very quiet life, except that he’s passionate about cycling.”
“Where else do we start to look?”
“There are some things I should check on, like when Max picked the grapes, and whether anybody has found Cresseil’s dog. I also have to see if my phone can be repaired. You’ll need someplace to work and set up a squad room. I’ll take care of that, but it can’t be till tomorrow.”
“That’s okay; I’ve got the mobile incident crew coming down now that we’ve got a suspicious death. I can work out of their new trailer. As soon as they get here, I’ll get the gendarmes to start bringing in the witnesses. We can set up here in the courtyard. I’d better stay here and wait for them, poke around a bit, see what’s in the house and the other outbuildings.”
“That reminds me,” said Bruno. “I haven’t seen Max’s motorcycle, some antique that he managed to get running again. It’s probably in that shed.”
Bruno looked around the outbuildings and the back of Cresseil’s house. He found an ancient SOMUA tractor that hadn’t been moved for decades, as well as a wooden dogcart that someone had sanded down and started to repaint, but no motorbike. There was little doubt where it had been, from the pool of oil on the floor of the small barn and cans of oil and tools on a bench beside it. There were some oil-stained rags and motorcycle magazines and a manual on a shelf above. And then a gap. Bruno pondered that gap, and on an impulse, hauled up an old crate, stood on it and looked at the gap on the wooden shelf. He saw a stain of regular shape, an oblong with rounded corners. It could be the shape of the bottom of a gasoline can. He pulled out his tape measure and scribbled down the dimensions and then looked at the slip of paper that marked a place in the manual’s oily pages. It was a receipt from Lespinasse’s garage for melange, the oil-and-gas mix that old bikes require.
Armed with the dimensions of the oil stain traced onto a sheet of paper, Bruno parked his van at the Total garage on the road to Bergerac. Lespinasse’s sister was dealing with a tourist who had stopped to fill his tank. Most of the locals went to the pumps at the supermarket, where the price was three centimes less per liter, which saved more than a euro on a full tank. But Lespinasse had always made more as a mechanic than he ever had from selling gas, and his son Edouard had inherited his father’s skill with engines. Before he walked back to the large garage at the rear, where they kept the old Citroens they loved to work on and restore, Bruno stopped in the small showroom attached to the office and looked at the bidons, the small gas cans. He saw two models in plastic and one in metal. He measured each of them, and the metal one was a perfect match.
With a tinny radio blaring out a call-in show on France-Inter, father and son were working on a stripped-down traction-avant, a classic Citroen that dated from the 1930s and had been the staple of the old policier films that Bruno loved. Lespinasse was beneath the engine, and Edouard leaned perilously in from above, one foot on the running board and the other waving in the air to the sound of clanging metal and muffled curses. Rather than disturb them, Bruno looked around the cavernous space, at the array of bicycles they rented out to tourists, at the Renaults and Peugeots waiting for their inspections and maintenance. One of the commune trucks up high on the hydraulic lift bared its underparts to Bruno’s curious gaze. Beyond it three trail bikes stood in a row with their knobby tires and high mudguards, and at the end of the line, with a large and almost overflowing drip pan beneath its leaking engine, lurked Cresseil’s venerable bike.
A roared “Putain” came from under the old Citroen, and Lespinasse heaved himself from beneath the car, shaking a damaged hand and waving a large wrench in a vague greeting. “Ca va, Bruno?”
“Have you got a moment?” asked Bruno, shaking the forearm Lespinasse proffered rather than the oily hand. Edouard came forward to brush cheeks.
“Cresseil’s old bike. How long have you had that in here?”
“Well, it was Max’s, really. He and I worked on it to get it going again,” said Edouard, “but we couldn’t get the right parts. We tried making some different parts to fit, and it sort of ran but lost a lot of oil. We were going to put some new piston rings in, but I don’t suppose I’ll bother now that Max is dead. I can’t believe it, Bruno. We went all through school together.”
“Tragic, what happened. I never knew you could die that way. I really liked Max,” said his father. He turned to Edouard. “I suppose that old trail bike you lent him is still around Cresseil’s house somewhere. Don’t forget to get it back.”
“Max has been using a trail bike?” Bruno asked, suddenly alert.
“My old Kawasaki,” said Edouard. “It was a bit small for him, really, but when the old bike started dying he needed it to get around.”
“When did you first lend it to him?”
“Couple of weeks ago, the last time. But he used it whenever he wanted.”
“Can you remember exactly?”
“Well, that weekend before the fire, he and I were trying out that motocross course by the go-kart track on the way to Perigueux. He kept it after that. It was okay, all insured through the garage.”
“Did he buy his gas here?”
“Well,” said Edouard, with a nervous glance at his father. “We usually filled up together. I mean, he didn’t always pay, except for parts for the old bike. I didn’t charge for my time because it was after hours. He paid the full amount for everything else, though, for his helmet and the oil and that gasoline can he bought.”
“When did he buy that?”
“He bought the can when we started working on Cresseil’s old bike, ages ago. But he brought it back to fill it with gas the same weekend we tried the motocross course. He said he might need some more for himself because he wanted to try that other motocross place on the road to Sarlat. So he brought the can and filled it with ten liters. He paid for that, though. He did, Dad. Honest. It’s in the book.”
Sitting in the passenger seat of J-J’s car, with the retired postman from Coux in the backseat, Bruno tried not to listen to J-J’s curses as his big Peugeot bumped its way down the narrow lane to Alphonse’s commune. He was waiting for the look on J-J’s face when he first saw the geodesic dome and the house dug into the growing hillside. In the end, it was the postman who first spoke.
“This place has changed, and haven’t they done well?” he said. “I delivered mail here years ago when I had to take over this route during holidays. They used to tell me their plans but I never thought they’d stick it out.”
Bruno headed directly for the dome, the place he thought he was most likely to find Alphonse. J-J simply started blaring the horn. Goats began moving amiably in his direction, and a toddler appeared wearing a vest and waddled toward J-J with a large smile. Edouard’s trail bike, a helmet perched on the handlebars, was parked under a lean-to at the back of the dome. An old Renault flatbed truck was parked just beyond it, and even without a magnifying glass Bruno could see a trace of white paint on the side of a tire. He walked across and scraped a fleck of it into an evidence bag and then beckoned the postman to join him. J-J’s horn stopped, and he heard Alphonse shouting “In here” from somewhere inside the cheese barn.
“Does that bike resemble the one you saw at the phone booth?” Bruno asked the postman.
“Yes, it does. But they all look the same, those motocross bikes. It seems like the one, but nobody could be sure. But that’s the helmet, I’m sure of that. I never saw one like that before, with the built-in chin, but that’s what the guy was wearing who made the phone call. And it’s the same light color.”
“What about this?” asked Bruno. The key was in the ignition, so he turned it on and kick-started the engine into life, then revved it a few times before turning it off. “Does that sound familiar?”
“Yes, but they tend to sound the same, too. It’s the helmet that stuck in my mind.”
“Thank you for that, monsieur,” said J-J. “You’re free to wander around, or perhaps you’d like to wait at the car until we’re finished.”
Alphonse arrived just then, wiping his hands on a cloth and wearing the kind of brown woolly hat that Bruno recalled seeing on TV news shots of Afghan mujahideen. “What’s all this noise?” he wanted to know. His face broke into a half smile when he saw Bruno and the postman, and he hurried forward to shake hands. “Welcome, Bruno. I was going to call you. We’ll be having a ceremony for Max up here tomorrow evening, light a fire for him and drink to his memory. I’d like you to be there, and I know Max would have wanted that.”
The postman said, “I’m sorry for your trouble” and headed back to the car. Bruno waited until he was out of earshot before speaking again.
“Alphonse, this is going to be difficult. The postman is pretty sure that this was the bike and the helmet of the person who made the phone call from Coux about the fire. We know that Max bought a full can of gasoline that day. And I’m pretty sure that white paint on the tires of your truck is going to match the stuff that was sprayed on the research station. It was Max who burned down those crops.”
Alphonse looked at Bruno sternly, as if about to protest, but then his shoulders seemed to slump and he sighed and shrugged. “I think you’re probably right. But since he’s dead, poor Max, it hardly matters now.”
“Well, it means we can stop wasting police time looking for another arsonist,” said J-J. “It might mean we can put more resources into finding out who killed your boy.”
“What do you mean, killed?” Alphonse’s hands fell to his sides and the cloth fluttered to the ground. He turned to Bruno, dismay giving way to anger. “Bruno, you told me it was an accident, asphyxiation. What is this about him being killed?”
“We found a bruise and a gash under the hairline. It looks as if he fell, or he could have been hit, but as yet we don’t know when or how. The doctor still says the cause of death was asphyxiation. But tell me, Alphonse, why do you think it was Max who burned those crops?”
“From his computer. When that brigadier of yours took mine away, I had to use Max’s laptop to get on the Internet and keep up with our orders. Max had left it at Cresseil’s place, so the gendarmes missed it when they searched here. I told you, Bruno, that we sell more and more cheese on the Internet. Max set that up for us.”
I missed it too, thought Bruno. I should have known Max would have a laptop of his own. “So what was on his computer?”
“A poem he was writing about the fire, or maybe a song,” said Alphonse, half smiling at the memory. “There’s a lot more that’s encrypted, but the poem was up on the screen as a Word document. I can show you, if you like. It’s not finished, but it’s about how the fire cleansed the poison, but how hard it was to wash away the smell of the gas. There’s another big file on GMOs. I just put two and two together. I was planning to tell you when you came up tomorrow for his wake.”
“I’m afraid we’re going to have to take that computer as well,” J-J said. “And we could have saved a lot of time if you’d told us about this second computer when we first called you in.”
“But I didn’t read any of his stuff until this afternoon,” Alphonse snapped, more fiercely than Bruno had ever heard him. “I just used his laptop to log into our e-mail. Max was entitled to his privacy.”
“It’s a sad day, so we’ll just leave it at that,” said Bruno, laying a hand on J-J’s arm as the older policeman looked about to launch into an angry retort. “I’m sorry for your loss, Alphonse. You raised a fine boy, and we’ll miss him. If you could let us have that laptop, we’ll be off.”
“But I need it for the e-mail,” said Alphonse.
“I understand. Come into the mairie anytime and use mine in the office until we can get one of your computers back to you. Just type in ‘Bruno’ to start it up, and then my cell phone number is the password.”
“Don’t you need a court order or something to take it?”
“No, we don’t,” said Bruno calmly. “But the alternative is that I stay here until J-J comes back with a carload of gendarmes and a magistrate and then they’ll hunt through everything and tear up your houses and take lots of things away with them. Arson is a serious crime, Alphonse. Let’s not make this worse than it is.”
After a long moment, Alphonse sighed and nodded. He went into the dome and came back with the laptop. “You’re still welcome at the wake tomorrow, Bruno. Max thought the world of you.”
“And I thought the world of him. Thanks for the invitation; I’ll be there. Keep your spirits up, and call me on Max’s phone if you need anything. It’s the only one I’ve got, after the last one went into the wine vat with me when we pulled him out.”
“That’s fine. He’d have wanted you to have it if you needed it. Bye, Bruno,” said Alphonse, coming forward to embrace him, and then he turned and walked slowly back into the cheese barn.
“A strange kind of policeman you are,” said J-J as they walked back to his car. “It’s just as well there were none of my recruits here to see that. Giving away your computer password. It would set their training back years.”
“Maybe it’s exactly what they need. It would do them all good to spend a year as a village policeman. You’ve said as much yourself, J-J, more than once.”
“I’d probably had a drink or two when I said that. Still, if you’ve got your old phone, I’ve got someone on my team who can do wonders with phones. If he can’t fix it, he’ll transfer all your numbers into that new one in a couple of minutes with his laptop. And I think we’ve got a couple of spares in the mobile unit.”
“We’ve solved one crime,” said Bruno. “But now we’ve got a bigger one to tackle.”
“Crime never sleeps,” said J-J. They saw the postman waiting at the car and climbed in. J-J drove up the bumpy narrow lane, wincing as branches scratched the sides of his Peugeot. “ Putain, putain, putain . I knew we should have taken your van.”
“We needed your car to bring the postman. My van has only two seats,” said Bruno. “One thing a village policeman knows is never to leave a cooperative witness stranded miles from anywhere. I’m surprised you don’t teach the recruits that in the Police Nationale.”
Bruno was a fatalist, like most soldiers who had been shot at and lived. The bullet would either get you or it wouldn’t. So while he admired people who prepared their meetings and their conversations in advance, he could never do it himself. Even if he was making official inquiries or was involved in an interrogation, whatever line he’d planned to pursue was soon diverted into unexpected directions. On the whole Bruno thought these tended to be more rewarding than his intended approaches, rather like being forced to take a detour when traveling; the surprises were often more interesting than the planned route. So as he headed for Hubert’s cave, he thought he would just ask Jacqueline the simple questions: When and where had she last seen Max? Where had they planned to meet next? Had she heard any more from Bondino? That should cover it, he thought as he greeted Nathalie and looked at Hubert’s latest special offer. With the tourist season over and space needed for the first of the Beaujolais and the new deliveries, this was the time when Hubert started selling off some stock cheaply.
“Salut, Bruno. I was just closing. Have you come in for that Gigondas?” she asked. “Word’s getting around and it’s going very fast. It’s an amazing buy at four euros.”
“I was looking for Jacqueline, but I’ll take three bottles if it’s that good.” He handed over a twenty-euro bill.
“You just missed her. We had a long day doing inventory, so I said she could go when I started to lock up. Since it’s you, I’ve got half a case left of that Gigondas, which you can have for that twenty.”
With the half case of wine cushioned by his sports bag, Bruno took the familiar road past the railway bridge and along the path to Pamela’s home. It was one of his favorite spots in the region; the familiar mixture of the honey-colored stone and the dark red roof tiles, the crushed chalk castine of the courtyard and the lush greens of garden and countryside had come together here in a particularly satisfying harmony. Perhaps it was the way the hill curled down to nestle the property like a jewel in its setting, or the contrast between the shielding stand of tall poplars and the lower cluster of buildings. There was something comforting and fitting in the way that it still had the appearance of a working farm, with its large vegetable garden and the two horses idly munching grass, the placid cows on the hill that Pamela leased to a neighboring farmer. And Bruno’s own fondness for the owner and the life she had built probably also played a part. But other than his own house, for which he had the fierce affection that came from having built so much of it with his own hands, there was no other house in his district that made him feel quite so content.
“I tried to call you, but your cell phone’s still dead,” said Pamela, coming out to greet him in the courtyard. He was careful to kiss her cheeks, but he could not disguise his smile of pleasure at the sight of her, dressed for gardening in green rubber boots, a wide floral skirt and what looked like a man’s old white shirt, all topped with a big straw hat. She carried a large hoe. “I was just going to weed the vegetables. Did you want to see Jacqueline? She’s in her gite . I just took her a cup of tea.”
Bruno smiled at the Englishness of it, the firm belief that tea was the answer to every crisis. He enjoyed the way that Pamela fulfilled so many of the beliefs the French held about their neighbors across the channel, from her perfect complexion and her love of horses to her belief in the healing powers of tea.
“Yes. I have to ask her some routine questions.” Bruno did not intend to reveal that Max’s death had now become a murder inquiry. For Pamela, and presumably for Jacqueline, it was still a tragic accident. “How about you? You look like you’re over the shock.”
“Life goes on. The weeds keep growing; the horses must be seen to,” she said. “I find that routine tasks can be rather soothing in difficult times. Would you like some tea, or coffee, or a petit apero? It’s late enough for one, and you must have been very busy.”
“No apero just now, thanks, and yes, we have been busy. We solved the first crime, of the fire. Keep it to yourself, but it was Max, and we know when and where he bought the gas, how he got to the research station. There’s no doubt about it. So if he hadn’t died, he might well have been heading to prison.”
“Heavens,” she exclaimed. “I’ll make some coffee. You look as though you need it. Come on into the kitchen.”
She put down the hoe and took his hand and almost pulled him inside, sat him down at the table and began bustling at the stove with kettle and filter paper and pouring the beans into an old hand grinder that was attached to the kitchen counter.
“Have you eaten today?” she went on.
He shook his head. “I’ll get a pizza later, probably with J-J, the detective from Perigueux that I worked with on that other case, the dead Arab. He’s going to have to stay here for a day or two, clearing up Max’s case.”
“I’d rather like to meet your J-J, from what you’ve told me about him,” she said, piling cups and sugar onto a tray as the familiar smell of fresh coffee reached Bruno’s nose. “There aren’t many men you admire, but you certainly think highly of him. Bring him here for a meal this evening, rather than make do with pizza.”
“Well, thank you. That would be something to look forward to. And I can provide some very nice wine, a Gigondas I just bought at Hubert’s place.”
“The stuff on special offer at four euros a bottle?” she asked, then laughed. “There’s my six bottles over there. I haven’t put them away yet.”
Bruno smiled broadly. “She’s a good saleswoman, Nathalie. And you make good coffee, Pamela. Thanks.”
“My pleasure. You know, I’m sorry we won’t have the chance to enjoy Max’s wine. I think he was going to be a rather special young man, despite what you say about the fire.”
“That reminds me, what time did Jacqueline get back the night before you found Cresseil?”
“Late. I was still reading in bed after midnight, and I didn’t fall asleep straightaway. You know how it is when your thoughts start churning. So she didn’t get back before one, maybe even later. And she can’t have been with Max; I’d have heard the motorbike.”
“Did she ever say what she was doing that night?”
“No, except that she was planning to help Max pick his grapes. She said something about his wanting to pick them at night, after the heat of the day. I didn’t pay much attention.”
“But you’re sure that she wasn’t back here before one in the morning?”
“Well, almost sure. It’s possible that I may have dropped off and didn’t hear her return.”
“And when did she leave the following morning?”
“The usual time, not long after eight-thirty. The cave opens at ten, but Hubert wants the staff there before nine to prepare for the day. That’s what she said.”
“Do you like her?”
“I’m not sure. She hasn’t been here long.”
“You must have formed an impression,” Bruno said.
“Hmmm. Do I like her? It’s too soon to say. Our dealings have been very matter-of-fact; we haven’t had the kinds of conversation that lead to intimacy or friendship, and I rather doubt we will. I suspect she’s one of those girls whose behavior is very different with men than with women.”
“I think you’re right,” said Bruno. “Maybe that’s how it has to be for pretty girls, accustomed as they are to getting so much attention from men. You’d know that, Pamela.”
“I think you just paid me a compliment, so thank you. But no, even when I was younger I don’t think I was that different when I was with men as opposed to women. It’s just the way Jacqueline is. Some women are like that.”
“Did you ever come across any other boyfriends of hers, apart from Max?” Bruno asked.
“She’s hardly had time for other suitors, has she?”
“Remember I told you about the American, the drunk who was pestering her in the street? He had a fight with Max in the bar over Jacqueline. He seemed to think he had prior rights.”
“I never saw him here. Max seemed to be her regular date. Rather good taste on her part, I thought.”
Wearing jeans and a sleeveless blouse when she opened the door to his knock, Jacqueline smiled a welcome and invited him in. She was made up and wearing fresh lipstick, which to Bruno suggested that she had her emotions well under control. Her laptop was open and running, and one of her big wine books was open next to it, a stack of manila files to one side. Perhaps the affair with Max had been just a casual thing, like that dalliance with Bondino. Bruno kind of liked this young woman, even if he wasn’t quite sure he approved of her.
“I’m sorry to bother you, Jacqueline, because I know you were close to Max, but I have to ask you some questions about him. It’s just routine when there’s a death.”
“That’s okay. I understand. And I wanted to thank you for dinner. I should have sent a note.” She sat down in an armchair and gestured to him to take a seat on a chaise longue opposite her. “I liked Max a lot, and our relationship might have grown into something more. He was so young and full of life.”
“A few years younger than you, right?”
“Well, so what?” She almost snapped the words out, instantly on the defensive. “He was mature for his age. And he could talk about things other than sports.” Unlike most men, she seemed to be implying as she looked at him almost angrily. Then she appeared to take hold of herself and sat forward, fumbling for a tissue from a box on the low table beside her and holding it to her eyes.
“When did you last see him alive?” Bruno asked. He had observed many people under police questioning, had noted their shifts of mood and posture and manner, their varying attempts to exert some control over a process in which the police always had the upper hand.
“Not long after we saw you, after that scene at the cafe. We walked back to where I’d left my bike and said good night.”
“So you left Max, what, five minutes after you saw me outside the cafe?”
“Maybe ten minutes, not much more.” She gave a timorous smile and put her hand to her cheek, as if remembering a tender moment.
“And you came straight home, back here?”
Bruno sat back, looking at her. She seemed to straighten her posture under his gaze. She was certainly acting, but why was she lying? Pamela had been almost sure she had not returned before one in the morning, and the fight at the bar had been before eleven. And what about Max’s having had sex before he died? He took out his notebook and pen and began writing, aware that she was reaching for another tissue. He continued to write, letting the silence build, the oldest trick in the interrogator’s book.
“You know,” she said into the silence, “most young men are static. What you see when you meet them is all there is. It was like Max was older, more mature. He had the depth of an older man.”
Bruno glanced up from his notebook. She was looking at him with wide eyes, her lips parted, her arms to her sides and pressing her breasts forward. It was a-he had no other word for it-flirtatious pose. He looked back down at his book and kept his pen at the ready as he asked his next question in a flat, almost bored tone of voice.
“Was Max in good health when you left him that night? Did he seem normal or depressed?”
“Completely normal and in good spirits.”
“You’re sure you didn’t go to Cresseil’s place with Max after leaving the bar? He didn’t ask you to tread the grapes with him?”
“He asked me to go back with him, but I was tired. I’d been working all day, and we’d been picking grapes all evening. I needed to rest.”
“When you said good night to him, was it affectionate, a long embrace?”
“He was my boyfriend.” She smiled. “We kissed good night for a while.”
“Did you make love?”
“Damn it, Bruno,” she said, jumping up and glaring at him. “This is none of your business. No, we didn’t, but what does that have to do with his death?”
“Because from the autopsy we know that Max had sex shortly before he died. If it wasn’t with you, then we need to find out who the partner might have been. This is not about you, Jacqueline; it’s about him.”
“Well, yes, we did make love,” she said defiantly, as though daring Bruno to disapprove. She went to the dresser and lit a cigarette and began smoking as she spoke. “In the field by the trailer park on the other side of the river. We liked to make love in the open air. And then I came back here.”
“And Max? Where did he go?”
“I don’t know for sure. To Cresseil’s place, I guess.”
“He was alone when he left?”
“Of course. We’d just made love.” This time, she said it almost proudly, a kind of arrogance about her as she began to stride back and forth across the room. It felt somehow false to Bruno.
“How did he leave, on his motorbike?”
“No, on foot. I don’t know where his bike was.”
“Did you talk about the fight at the bar?”
“A bit, just saying that Bondino was crazy. That’s all.”
“You didn’t see Bondino again that night?”
“No. Not after the fight and after you came.”
“Max didn’t ask you why the American seemed so persistent?”
“No. He was just angry that Bondino wouldn’t take no for an answer.” She sounded bored as she said it, and stubbed out her cigarette with three savage jabs. Bruno had the impression that in her different moods she was copying the mannerisms of some actresses she had seen, as though trying to invent emotions like anger and boredom that she would be expected to display. None of it seemed to come from her. Perhaps it was time to jolt her.
“Had you always said no to Bondino?”
At that, she stopped her pacing and looked down at him with real surprise. Then she put her hands on her hips, tightened her mouth and released genuine anger, or perhaps another emotion.
“Bruno, this is very hostile questioning into my personal life, and I don’t see any relevance when it comes to Max’s accidental death. If you want to ask any more of these dirty old man questions, I’m going to call a lawyer.”
“That’s up to you, Jacqueline,” he said calmly, scribbling in his notebook and avoiding her eye. “We can always continue the questioning at the gendarmerie, but you’d have to stay in jail under what we call garde a vue, and I doubt you’d get to see a lawyer for some time. In any event, this is France, and we can hold you for questioning for three days. I repeat, had you always said no to Bondino? I’m trying to understand why he felt he had some claim on you and why that led to a fight with Max.”
She turned her back on him. “I got drunk one night and let Bondino into my room. It was a mistake. I’m not usually like that. It made me feel like a slut.”
“Thank you for telling the truth. Had you lied, I would have known because I already talked to the hotel about this. You can stop answering my questions at any time and call a lawyer, but I and the magistrate investigating Max’s death would draw the appropriate conclusion. And as far as we know, you were the last person to see Max alive. That makes your testimony very important.”
“That’s what feels so strange about this,” she said. “He was fine when we parted, happy and affectionate. And the next thing I know, he’d dead in this bizarre way. It’s a shock. You don’t expect someone young and healthy to die just like that.”
“You have no reason to believe that his death was anything other than an accident?”
“What do you mean? Of course not. An accident is what I heard. If you know any different, tell me. He was my boyfriend, damn it. I have a right to know.”
“The precise cause of death has not yet been established, Jacqueline. It was clearly an unusual death, so we have to be thorough in our investigation. Besides which it seems that Max may have been involved in something else we’re investigating. Did he ever talk to you about that fire up in the hills a week ago?”
“Not specifically. People were talking about it in the cave and at the bar at night. Most people seemed to approve of it-I mean, to applaud whoever it was who burned the GMO crops. They’re not too popular around here.”
“Max never talked about GMO crops with you?”
“Sure, when the topic came up in the bar. He was against them. He was very green-minded, interested in producing organic wines…” She smiled, and for the first time, Bruno felt she was showing a genuine emotion.
He stood up, not returning her smile. “I’m sorry about all this, but it’s my job. I’ll type this up as a statement and then you’ll have a chance to correct it before signing it. I should warn you that under French law, a signed statement is a very serious document. Any lies or misrepresentations in it can lead to prison or other dire consequences.”
He turned as if to go. “Oh, one more thing. May I check your passport?”
She fished in her bag and handed it to him. He flicked to the back page to check the photo, and then took out his notebook and scribbled down Jacqueline’s date and place of birth, the passport number and the date of the French entry stamp, August 12. He handed it back.
“My condolences on the death of your boyfriend, Jacqueline. You may be needed as a witness as the investigation continues. Please do not leave Saint-Denis without informing me.”
It was Bruno’s first sight of the new mobile police station, J-J’s pride and joy. It was a large van towing a commercial trailer fitted out with a crime lab, portable lighting systems and tents to cover crime scenes, radios and computers. Parked together in Cresseil’s courtyard the two vehicles seemed larger than the farmhouse. Bruno looked into the trailer and saw nobody he recognized. But a prematurely bald young man introduced himself as Yves, a member of J-J’s team, and asked for Bruno’s old phone, which had been ruined in the vat.
“J-J has gone to the Manoir to see Bondino,” he said. “But he told me to replace your phone. He said you solved the arson.”
Bruno handed over both his phone and Max’s. Yves attached various wires to the old phones and then plucked a new one from a shelf in the van. He plugged them all into his laptop, and then his fingers started dancing over the keys.
“You had a lot of calls,” he said. “The phone is finished but the memory’s fine. What about this second phone? Is that yours?”
“No, it belonged to the man who died. I was using it while mine was out of commission, but I thought you might want to see if you can learn anything from it.”
“Thanks; I’ll get on it. Any developments from your talk with the girlfriend?”
“I’m not sure I believe her, but there’s nothing hard to go on. She says they made love after the fight in the cafe and then she left to go home, but her landlady is pretty sure she didn’t return until a couple of hours after that. Maybe the romantic interlude lasted longer than she thought.”
“Could be. Time flies when you’re having fun. Here’s your new phone, all loaded with your old numbers and messages. Give me a shout if you need anything.”
Yves ducked into the back of the mobile unit, and Bruno started going through his messages and returning calls. There was a message from Jacques, his fellow policeman in the next commune down the river, and he called him back. A white dog had washed ashore that afternoon. He put his head around the back of the mobile unit and said to Yves, “If J-J gets back, I’ve gone to check out Cresseil’s dog.”
Jacques was waiting for him at the foot of the bridge where the River Vezere flowed into the Dordogne, a spot Bruno knew well because there was a rugby field nearby. They shook hands, and Jacques said curtly, “It’s not pretty.”
“Bodies in the water seldom are.”
“It’s not that. Just wait till you see.” He led the way across the grass and through a glade of trees with picnic tables. Stalls to rent canoes were still open for what was left of the season. The smell of roasting meat hung in the air from two families with barbecues. Beyond them was the pebbled beach leading to the shallows where the river took its lazy curve. The dog lay on the pebbles, covered by a tarpaulin. Jacques lifted it aside. The fine head of the Porcelaine had been crushed into a lumpy, distorted ugliness. The blood had been washed away, but the broken bones of the animal’s skull showed through the torn skin.
“That’s a terrible thing to do to a dog,” said Jacques.
“He was a great hunting dog in his time,” said Bruno. He kneeled to take a closer look. The skull was caved in over a wide area, smashed by something much bigger than a club, probably a large stone. “Any idea how long it takes for a dead dog like this to drift down from Saint-Denis?”
“We seem to get cats mostly. It can take anything from twelve hours to a few days, depending on the current or if it gets caught in the reeds. Sometimes the pike feast on them. Bodies tend to come ashore here because the flow around the bend brings them to the shallows. What do you want me to do with it?”
“I’ll take him with me, let the forensics guys see if they can find anything. Then I’ll probably bury him in Cresseil’s garden. He was a good dog, and the old boy was very fond of him. Can I get the van down here, or shall I just borrow the tarpaulin so we can carry him up?”
“Easier to carry him,” said Jacques. “His having been killed is significant, then?”
“Very significant. I’m now sure we’ve got a murder on our hands. Have you ever read Sherlock Holmes?”
Bruno parked his van beside the mobile unit and took out the tarpaulin-wrapped body of the dog. The brigadier and J-J fell silent as he laid it gently at J-J’s feet and unwrapped the covering to expose the shattered head.
“One of the finest hunting dogs in the valley,” Bruno said. “Your dog that didn’t bark. Or maybe it barked too much. Maybe your boys can find something from the bones. Somebody, almost certainly the murderer, killed him on the night Cresseil died and then tossed him in the river. He washed ashore earlier today.”
“You’re more angry about that dog than you were about the fire,” the brigadier said. “Well, I’ll leave you to your new case. I just came up to give you my congratulations and to thank you for solving the arson case. The laptop you brought back and that paint from the truck tire pretty much confirmed that the boy did it, all on his own. No big conspiracy, but a lot of fallout. You won’t have seen today’s Le Monde, but I got an e-mail. There’s a big story about this Agricolae group breaking all the rules in the book about GMO plantings and about the mystery of who owns it. It seems it’s owned by a holding company that’s registered in Luxembourg, and that’s where the trail stops for the moment. I’ve had Isabelle and two more of my people there for a day or two already. The list of shareholders will emerge soon. And I won’t be surprised to find it includes the name of the odd son-in-law or cousin of some of our politicians.”
“Is that going to be a problem for you?” asked J-J.
The brigadier shrugged. “The ministers and the politicians come and go, but we go on forever. They gave me a case to solve. Thanks to you two, it’s solved. You’ll get full credit in my report. I left all the computers in the mobile unit, by the way. We’ve taken the information we needed, so you can give them back to their owners. And I wanted to say thanks in a more personal way.”
He went over to his large black car and brought out a bottle and three small shot glasses from a cabinet that had been built into the back of the front seats.
“A British colleague introduced me to this when I was in London on a liaison course. One of their special whiskies, Balvenie. I was in that famous cave of yours earlier and saw that they had some, so I wanted to share it with you.” He filled the three glasses and raised his own to J-J and Bruno, and the three men sipped.
“Tastes of smoke and the sea,” said Bruno. “A fine drink for winter, and for a last toast to a good hunting dog.”
“If you ever need a favor from the RG, here’s my card with my direct line and e-mail. And if you ever want a change from this charming little valley of yours, Bruno, we can always use a good man.”
“You’re not the first to try to lure him away,” said J-J. “Forget it, he won’t come.”
“Any news on the murder case?” asked Bruno.
“The boys found a couple of prints we can’t identify on a glass in the kitchen. The strands of hair under Max’s fingernails are from someone’s head; they’re not pubic hairs. They’ll need DNA analysis if we ever get a suspect. Bondino is still at the Manoir. He came back from a trip to Nevers, said he’d been looking for oak for wine barrels. We checked it out, and he was there, all right. He said he went straight to bed on the night after the fight and got up early for a meeting with some wine negociant in Bordeaux. That also checked out. The hotel staff said they gave him a wake-up call at 6 a.m. with coffee and he was out the door by twenty past. He volunteered to give us his fingerprints, so I don’t think he’s our man.”
“Did you check whether he had a key to the hotel?” Bruno asked. “He could have come and gone through the night without alerting the staff.”
“Yes, he has a key. He’s a very good customer, they tell me. Messy in his habits but tips well.”
“Well, good luck with this new case, and I’ll hope to see you two again sometime in happier circumstances,” said the brigadier, shaking hands and heading for his car. “If you’re coming to Paris, give me a call. I know you’re all rugby-crazy down here so I’ll see if I can get you some tickets for the next big match.” He climbed into the backseat and then lowered the window. “And take a look inside the mobile unit, in the evidence case. There’s a couple of bottles of that whisky, one each, with my thanks.”
As the brigadier was driven away, J-J said, “I hope you’re not tempted to take him up on his offer. You’d shake my faith in human nature. If you leave, how could I hang on to my little fantasy of giving up all this merde and enjoying the nice quiet life of a country cop, inquiring into stolen apples and dead dogs?”
“It’s amazing where dead dogs can take you, even out here,” said Bruno, looking at his watch. “Good news. We’re invited to dinner with a charming lady who thinks we need a good home-cooked meal after all our hard work.”
“I was wondering who you’d taken up with after that lovely inspector of mine went off to Paris.”
“I haven’t taken up with anyone,” said Bruno, grinning. “I’m just a battered old romantic nursing a broken heart.”
“Can we take my car, or is it on another one of your country lanes that likes to wreck my suspension?”
“She drives her old Citroen back and forth with no trouble, and my van takes the path just fine.”
“Right, we’ll take your van, unless you’re planning on staying the night and we need two cars.”
“We’ll just need the van.”
“Fine. You can tell me about our hostess on the way. Do we have time to buy her some flowers?”
“She grows her own flowers, and I’ve already got some wine. You could always give her your bottle of whisky.”
“A word of advice to you, Bruno, from an older and wiser man with the experience of many years of marriage,” said J-J, putting an avuncular arm around Bruno’s shoulders. “Never let your women get accustomed to really expensive presents. You don’t want to spoil them.”
“Particularly if you want to keep the whisky to yourself,” said Bruno.
As they climbed into Bruno’s van, J-J’s phone rang, and he put out his hand to stop Bruno from reaching for the ignition. He listened to the caller, his eyes on Bruno’s face, and then he said, “Pick him up and take him to the gendarmerie. I’ll interrogate him in the cells there.”
He closed the phone. “No dinner for us. You’d better call your friend and tell her something came up. And let’s get moving. You know I told you we’d taken Bondino’s fingerprints? We’ve found his thumbprint on one of the glasses that were in Cresseil’s sink.”
Captain Duroc had done them proud. He had moved a small table and two hard-backed chairs into one of the cramped basement cells and put a dirty blanket over the ancient horsehair mattress atop the iron bed frame. Bruno leaned against the metal door as J-J faced Bondino across the table. The cell stank of ancient sweat, black tobacco and God knows what else, with a distant memory of disinfectant. It was an odd place to be for a man as spoiled and well-dressed as Bondino. He was wearing a cream silk shirt-open halfway down his plump chest to reveal two gold chains with various medallions-his usual slipperlike shoes and a matching black leather jacket. Not assuming his usual sprawling pose, he kept his arms and legs tucked in, as if nervous about contamination by the grimy cell. But his face was calm and his gaze firm.
“You’re lying. We know you were in that house,” said J-J. “We’ve got the fingerprints to prove it.”
Bondino shook his head. “I only went to that farm once, with Dupuy. I never went inside. I never took a drink of wine or anything else. He was there.” He nodded at Bruno. “He saw me leave. I want a lawyer, and I want the American embassy.”
“This is France, not the U.S.,” said J-J. “You’re under garde a vue. That means you answer my questions until you’re charged or I’m satisfied. So let’s go through this again. With my own eyes I saw you fighting with a young Frenchman over a girl. I saw him bleeding. I saw you restrained by the owner of the bar whose window you had broken. I saw your rival go off with the girl you thought was yours. This was more than just a barroom scuffle. This was personal, and it was vicious. You went in and hit him, and the guy turns up dead a few hours later and you tell me you had nothing to do with it?”
“I know nothing about it. I want to contact my embassy.”
“What really upsets me about this is why you had to kill the old dog,” J-J went on, speaking over him, but this remark about the dog drew a reaction. Bondino began shaking his head angrily. “We found the rock you used, bits of the poor animal’s blood still on it. We’re going to find your fingerprints on that as well.”
“I have never killed a dog. I would never kill a dog,” Bondino said. “I want to speak to my embassy.” He nodded at Bruno again. “He knows I like dogs.”
Bruno intervened. “You don’t need to be ashamed of anything. You had a fight over a girl. It happens all the time. We understand that in France.” Bruno kept his voice almost friendly. He and J-J had played the good cop, bad cop roles before. “We call it a crime passionnel, and we’ve got a special law for dealing with such matters. It gets a lesser punishment, did you know that? A guy gets home early from hunting, finds his wife in bed with another man. Blam-blam, he lets them have it, both barrels. Crime passionnel. He walks free. And that’s what it was here, a crime passionnel. You were inflamed with jealousy of this handsome young Frenchman who had stolen your girl. We’re all guys here; we understand that kind of thing. Was that how it was?”
“I’ll say nothing more until I talk to the U.S. Embassy.” Bondino set his shoulders as he looked at Bruno in a way that seemed more confident than defiant. Perhaps it was the manner of a rich and privileged young man who knew that expensive lawyers and political influence were available to him. But that kind of protective shell didn’t usually last long under interrogation, so Bruno found his curiosity growing. They seldom had people in a cell who looked as calm as Bondino.
“You can talk to the president of the United States if you want, but even he can’t explain away your fingerprints in that farmhouse,” Bruno said.
“I have nothing more to say.” This time Bondino gave Bruno an almost casual nod. The young man was in complete control of himself.
“Your body does. It will have a lot to say, just like your fingerprints,” said J-J. He leaned down into his briefcase and pulled out a plastic evidence bag and held it against Bondino’s head.
“It looks like a match to me,” he said. “We pulled these hairs from under the fingernails of the murdered boy. I say they’re yours, and they’re going to convict you of murder.”
“They can’t be mine,” Bondino said calmly. “He didn’t even get to touch me in that fight we had in the bar. I hit him, he went down and then the barman pushed me through the window. There must be a mistake.”
“There’s an easy way to settle this, although it does mean you’ll be enjoying my company for some days to come.” J-J turned to Bruno.
“Send me a couple of gendarmes to hold down this prisoner while we take a sample of his hair and a swab of his mouth.” He turned back to Bondino. “DNA will settle it.”
“You have no right to do this without letting me talk to my embassy.”
“This is a French police station under French law, and I’ll do what I damn well please,” shouted J-J, who seemed to be getting more excited by the interrogation than Bondino.
Bruno heard J-J’s intimidating voice echoing from the cell as he mounted the stairs, relieved to be out of that atmosphere and even more relieved for the opportunity to make some vital phone calls. He told Jules at the desk to send down two gendarmes and a DNA kit and then stepped outside into the cool of the evening and pulled out his phone.
“Monsieur le Maire? It’s Bruno. We have a real problem. Bondino has been arrested on suspicion of Max’s murder. We found his fingerprints at Cresseil’s place. He’s under garde a vue at the gendarmerie, being interrogated now. He’s asking for a lawyer and the American embassy. You know I have my doubts about this project, but I respect your views. If we want to salvage anything from this Bondino project, we’d better get him a lawyer and let him inform his embassy.”
“Is he guilty? How long can he be held?” the mayor asked.
“I don’t know if he’s guilty, but the evidence is very strong. He denies being inside Cresseil’s home or taking a drink there, but we found his fingerprints on a glass in the kitchen sink. There may also be DNA evidence, but that will take some days. He can be held for three days under garde a vue without being charged, then he’ll go before a juge d’instruction and can be defended by a lawyer. With some heavy pressure, we can probably get a lawyer in to see him before that. I could call Dupuy and get him involved. He can contact the embassy-No, please, let me finish. That is what we can do, but we need to decide whether we should intervene in this way. The evidence against Bondino is strong, but if he turns out to be innocent and we’ve done nothing to help him, there’ll be no chance of any kind of deal.”
“Where are you now, Bruno?”
“Outside the gendarmerie. Bondino is being questioned in the cells.”
“Do you have time to meet me?”
“If we make it quick.”
“I’ll be there in five minutes. Make that three. Meet me at the rugby men’s bar.”
Bruno went back into the gendarmerie and told the desk sergeant that if J-J wanted him, Bruno had gone to see the mayor on some local business. Bruno left for the Bar des Amateurs. A large sheet of plywood still covered the broken window. He took a table outside, far from the only other occupied table. His glass of pression arrived at the same time as the baron’s big Citroen DS drew up outside the bar and he and the mayor climbed out. Bruno wasn’t surprised to see the baron.
“Bonsoir, Bruno,” the baron said, shaking his hand. “I was dining with the mayor, and he wanted me to come along.”
“We weren’t just dining, we were planning,” the mayor said, rubbing his hands together in that way Bruno recognized. Bruno felt his antennae quiver. The mayor was up to something. He’d expected his boss to be in despair at the prospect of losing the Bondino project.
“That point you made about other businessmen possibly being interested in the vineyard project, it got me thinking,” the mayor said. “So the baron and I put our heads together, and maybe we can make a modest version of this scheme work even if Bondino pulls out.”
“I really don’t see him wanting to stay involved with Saint-Denis after this,” said Bruno. “When I left the cell they were just about to hold him down and take DNA samples by force.”
“Is he guilty?” asked the baron.
“As I told the mayor, I don’t know. Probably. His fingerprints show he lied about not being at Cresseil’s. He’s an arrogant young pup, thinks he can get away with anything with his money. But I can’t quite see it. He’s not a big guy, and he’s out of shape. Max was bigger, stronger and in peak condition. You’ve seen him play rugby; Max was hard as nails. I wouldn’t have thought Bondino would have had the couilles to tackle him, but then he did just that one night right here in this bar. That’s how the window got broken. If he took Max by surprise, or found him passed out in the vat, then it’s possible.”
“If we just let the law take its course, what happens?” asked the mayor.
“He can be held until J-J brings in a juge d’instruction, and the story probably won’t reach the media until then. With the fingerprints, there’s enough evidence for the magistrate to hold him after that, at least until the DNA evidence comes back. But by that time, we’ll have an international incident on our hands and half the foreign press corps camped out at this bar. ‘American wine tycoon’s son held on love-triangle murder charge after a body is found in a wine vat.’ You can imagine the headlines.”
“Would they keep him here for the three days?” the mayor asked.
“More likely they’ll move him to Perigueux. But the TV cameras will all descend on us anyway to get pictures of the wine vat, photos of Max on the rugby field, interviews with Jacqueline when they learn about the bar fight. Still, the main focus would be Perigueux, and the sooner Dupuy and the diplomats get involved, the sooner they’ll move him and bring in the lawyers.”
“That settles it,” said the mayor. “You call Dupuy. I’ll call a man I know at the Quai d’Orsay who’s just back from our embassy in Washington.”
The baron got to his feet and looked toward the mayor. “I’ll go and see Julien at the Domaine and set up a meeting for tomorrow morning. I think Bruno should be there, along with Xavier and Hubert and the bank manager. Perhaps I’ll bring one or two more people. Ten tomorrow morning, Bruno, at the Domaine. Let’s see what we can save from this mess.”
The baron climbed into his car, and Bruno and the mayor began working their phones. Bruno had just reached Dupuy, in a restaurant from the sound of it, when he saw J-J come out of the main door of the gendarmerie. He put his hands on his hips and glowered in Bruno’s direction. Bruno held J-J’s gaze but spoke rapidly as the detective came down the steps toward him.
“Monsieur Dupuy, this is Chief of Police Courreges in Saint-Denis. Monsieur Bondino has been arrested on suspicion of murder. He’s under garde a vue at the Saint-Denis gendarmerie. You need to alert his embassy and get a lawyer fast. The arresting officer is Commissaire Jalipeau of the Police Nationale in Perigueux. I’ll call you back when I can.”
He closed his phone and stood up. J-J was red-faced and steaming as he approached, angrier than Bruno had ever seen him.
“If you’re interfering in my case I’ll have you in that damn cell, Bruno, you know that.”
His voice was so loud that people peered out of the bar at the scene on the terrace. The mayor turned to J-J, frowning in reproach, put a finger to his lips and turned back to his phone call.
“Your suspect is absolutely within his rights to refuse to say anything to you until he has been allowed to contact his embassy and get legal advice,” Bruno said quietly. “It’s the law.”
“Don’t tell me about the law,” J-J shouted. “I live the law. I am the law. And what kind of cop do you call yourself?”
“I’m a cop who obeys the rules. You know them as well as I do.”
“Damn it, Bruno, I’ve got a murderer in there.”
“No, you don’t. You’ve got a suspect. And now you’ve shouted that allegation to the whole town. Control yourself. This is not a conversation to be having on the street.”
“Putain de merde, you’re supposed to be on the side of the law, Bruno,” J-J said, more quietly now. “I suppose this is another time when your Saint-Denis comes first. Well, I don’t get it, because you’ve got one of your own Saint-Denis boys dead and cold and you’re trying to protect some fat foreigner who killed him.”
“Oh, sit down and have a drink, J-J. And say hello to the mayor.” Having noticed that the mayor had just finished his phone call, Bruno wanted to defuse the tension.
“Monsieur le Maire,” grumbled J-J, forced to shake hands and accede to the etiquette of the occasion.
“Well, I’m glad you’ve stopped shouting, J-J. For a moment there I thought you were going to have a heart attack, and that would have been very embarrassing for Saint-Denis, very sad for you and a great loss to the Police Nationale,” said the mayor. He was hanging on to J-J’s hand and shaking it slowly and repeatedly as he deliberately rambled on. Bruno realized that J-J’s anger was being diluted with every emollient phrase.
“It’s a pleasure to see you again, J-J. I remember very well that excellent work you and Bruno did together on that bank robbery we had, and again on the murder of that Arab. I always thought the two of you represented a model of what good relations should be between the various arms of the law here in our little part of the world. Now do as Bruno says and sit down and let’s have a drink. Cognac for me. And you, J-J?”
J-J looked at the mayor, who still clung to his hand, looked at Bruno, who was beaming innocently at him, glowered briefly at the small knot of spectators in the doorway of the bar, let out an enormous sigh and sat down.
“Scotch whisky,” he said, and turned his face up to the evening sky. “There are 36,565 communes in France. Why do I always have to end up in this one?”
“Because we make you feel so welcome,” said Bruno from the doorway, where he was calling to the barman. “Cognac for the mayor and two Glenfiddiches from your special bottle.
“Now that you’re here,” he went on, returning to the table, “let me tell you why it might be a good idea to release Bondino overnight and let him sleep in his hotel just down the road. He won’t be going anywhere. You’ll have his passport and you can take his car keys and wallet, and I can stay in the suite with him, if you want.”
“I’ll take some convincing,” said J-J as Rene brought the drinks.
“Your big problem is that so far you don’t have a formal statement of unlawful death from the pathologist. Until you get that, you don’t have a crime. That’s the first thing the juge d’instruction will want to see, and as soon as Bondino gets a high-priced lawyer on this case that’s the first thing he’s going to demand.”
“I’ll have it tomorrow,” J-J said.
“Even if you do, any smart lawyer would file a complaint against you for keeping him in jail overnight before you have it. Release him into my custody and you’re covered.”
J-J took a thoughtful sip of his drink.
“Bondino is the son of an extremely rich and well-connected industrialist who was introduced to us by the American ambassador,” Bruno went on. He turned to the mayor. “Isn’t that right?”
The mayor nodded solemnly, confirming the stretched truth. “I’m told the father is a big political fund-raiser,” he said. “We’re not just talking about political influence here, but about great wealth and the lawyers and publicity it will inevitably bring. This is a powerful and prominent man, so his son’s arrest for murder will be a big news story and probably an international incident.”
“The mayor’s right. It will be a media circus. You can write the story yourself, the killing in a wine vat of a sexual rival after a squalid barroom brawl. Look, J-J, you haven’t got a juge d’instruction , so right now it’s your head on the block and only yours. If the juge decides to detain him, it’s no longer your responsibility. And you can still have him to interrogate all day tomorrow if you want. But from what I saw in there, he’s not going to give you anything except a demand to call his embassy. Leave him to me overnight, good cop to your bad cop, and I might even get something out of him.”
“Bruno’s right,” the mayor said. A long silence ensued while J-J pensively sipped his whisky.
“If I transfer him to your custody and you sign the receipt, it’s your head if he disappears,” J-J said.
“And mine,” said the mayor. “Bruno works for me, and I authorize this.”
“Okay,” J-J said, nodding. “I want him back at the gendarmerie at eight a.m. sharp and I’ll take him to headquarters in Perigueux.”
“You’ll probably find the American ambassador and a small army of very expensive bilingual lawyers in your office by midday,” the mayor said, slipping a banknote under his glass to pay the bill.
“Come on, let’s get him out of there,” said Bruno, finishing his drink and rising to his feet.
His shoulders bowed and his eyes blank, Bondino was silent as Bruno led him up the stairs of the gendarmerie. When Bruno opened the passenger door of his van and gestured for him to enter he looked startled, but he complied. As Bruno drove off, Bondino asked, “Where are we going?” and Bruno simply said, “My house. Again.” Then the American fell silent, eyes fixed on the dark country road ahead. The passing tree trunks flared and faded in the yellow light of Bruno’s headlights, and then they were on the bumpy lane to his cottage.
Gigi welcomed them with a single bark of greeting and sniffed at Bondino’s trousers, probably trying to decipher the rich mix of scents picked up in the cell, then gave his ear a lick of sympathy as Bondino kneeled down to fondle him. Almost at once Bondino found all of Gigi’s favorite places: the two spots on either side of his backbone, the place on the side of his belly that made Gigi pump a rear leg in ecstasy. Bondino was smiling and murmuring softly, and Gigi jumped up to rest his paws on the American’s chest. He liked dogs, that was clear, and had a way with them, and dogs liked him. Bruno could not see him killing one.
“Tonight, you’re in my custody,” Bruno said. “You can stay here or in your hotel, it’s up to you. But I have to stay with you. Now I have to feed my dog.”
Bondino and Gigi followed him into the kitchen, where he took leftover soup from the refrigerator and warmed it on the stove, and then poured it over some crumbled dog biscuits. Bondino looked around at the shelves of homemade preserves, the rope of garlic, the framed photo on the wall of Bruno and Stephane in hunting gear. A dead deer was slung on a long pole between them, Gigi standing proudly by Bruno’s feet, his head cocked and his tail high. Bruno refilled Gigi’s water bowl and then showed Bondino the spare room.
“Here or the hotel?” he asked.
“Here,” said Bondino. “I like your dog. And tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow, more police, more questions,” said Bruno. “Now you’ll need the bathroom.” He handed Bondino a fresh towel from the cupboard. Once the American closed the door behind him, Bruno went to double-check that his guns were locked away and the ammunition sealed in its separate case.
“A drink?” he asked as Bondino came out, looking much fresher. “Coffee, beer, wine?”
Bruno opened one of his unlabeled Pomerols and poured them each a glass. He sat in his armchair by the chimney and Bondino took the sofa, a coffee table between them that carried a booklet on amendments to the law that Bruno was supposed to study, a historical novel by Brigitte Le Varlet from the Saint-Denis library that he much preferred to read, and the latest well-thumbed copy of Chasseur magazine, with a photograph of a stag on the cover.
“Very good Bordeaux,” said Bondino. “Merlot, just a little cabernet. A Pomerol?”
Bruno nodded, impressed.
“Why are you kind to me?” Bondino asked.
“My dog likes you.”
“You think I’m a killer?”
Bruno shrugged. “I know you can be violent. You attacked me when you were drunk. You attacked Max in the bar. And your fingerprints are on a glass that was found near the body.”
“Somebody must have put that glass there deliberately.”
“And you and Max were rivals for the same woman,” Bruno went on.
“Jacqueline is beautiful. She makes me crazy,” Bondino said, with a wry grin. He raised his glass to Bruno and said, “L’amour.”
Bruno nodded, and drank in turn.
“When I first saw her, in California, I felt it here.” Bondino tapped ruefully at his heart.
“California?” asked Bruno, suddenly alert. “I thought you met here in Saint-Denis.”
“No, when she was in college she was a student of a professor I know. My family gave money for a Bondino chair of global wine studies. I was asking the professor about France, where I should look if we wanted to buy land. Jacqueline came into his office when I was there. It was the only time I saw her until I came here, just for a few minutes, but I didn’t forget her.”
“What did your professor say?”
“He said there were very good possibilities in the Dordogne and he said to see Hubert de Montignac and his cave here in Saint-Denis. The professor wrote us a report on the history and prospects of wine around this valley. That’s when I got in touch with our embassy in Paris and they recommended Dupuy. Apparently he used to work for President Mitterrand and he’s well connected.”
Bruno nodded and sipped at his wine. So Jacqueline knew that Bondino was coming to Saint-Denis. She must have had some motive for making the same trip. He needed to find out exactly when she’d arranged to get her job at Hubert’s cave.
“Do you live alone? There’s no sign of a woman here.”
Bruno nodded and said, “There’s no woman here just now.”
“No woman in your life?” Bondino asked.
“I wish I knew,” said Bruno. “I think it’s probably over.”
He stopped. Bondino looked at him expectantly. Bruno shrugged.
“Women can make life very complicated,” said Bondino, raising his glass. This was a strange conversation to be having with a suspected murderer. Bruno refilled the glasses, pulled out his phone and rang Dupuy again.
“Chief of Police Courreges. This time I’m calling from home and we can speak now. I have Bondino with me.”
“So he hasn’t been formally charged?”
“Not yet. The police will start questioning him again tomorrow.”
“Is he all right, not too shaken up?”
“He’s fine, enjoying a glass of wine and petting my dog. You want to speak to him?” He handed his phone across to Bondino, saying, “Your man Dupuy.”
A long conversation in English followed, too fast for Bruno to follow; Bondino’s eyes kept returning to Bruno as his free hand caressed Gigi. He handed the phone back.
“I cannot thank you enough,” Dupuy began. “Monsieur Bondino’s father is taking a plane from California to Paris and then a charter that will land him at Bergerac airport sometime tomorrow afternoon. I’ll meet him there with Maitre Bloch from Bordeaux, the best lawyer I could find at this hour. The U.S. Embassy is also sending someone. We’ll come directly to Saint-Denis.”
“By then, he’ll probably be at the Police Nationale headquarters in Perigueux. That’s where they’re planning to take him.”
“Might I ask why you’re sticking your neck out like this?”
“It’s not just me, it’s the mayor as well. But Bondino has a right to contact his embassy and to see a lawyer. And I wouldn’t keep a dog in those gendarmerie cells.”
“I won’t forget this, and I’ll make sure the Bondinos understand what you’re doing. I’ll call you tomorrow when I’ve talked to Monsieur Bondino’s father and to the lawyer. Will that be okay?”
“That’ll be fine. We’ll stay in touch.” Bruno closed his phone and filled the glasses again, the bottle now close to empty. He looked across the table at Bondino. “Tomorrow, you’ll have your father, and a lawyer.”
“Thanks to you.”
“Did you kill Max?”
“No!” Bondino shook his head. “No.”
They drank in silence, studying each other, Gigi lying comfortably between them, his head on Bruno’s foot, his rump against Bondino’s leg.
But if he didn’t, thought Bruno, who did? And who killed Cresseil’s dog?
Just after eight the next morning, his prisoner safely deposited back at the gendarmerie, Bruno took his dog along the riverbank for the long stroll to Fauquet’s cafe. He had to stop at the mairie to pick up his notes on land and vineyard prices and his research file on the Bondino project before the meeting at the Domaine, but for the moment there was time to enjoy the beginning of a perfect September day. Gigi loved the river, darting in and out of the shallows to chase the ducks and splashing through the shaded waters where the willows hung low, and then looking back to see that his master was properly admiring his feats. As they rounded the bend past the old manor house, now converted into a tourist information center, Bruno’s favorite view of his town unfolded: the three arches of the great stone bridge flanked by the mairie and the church’s bell tower, and directly ahead of him the wide stone steps that led up from the river to the market square. He walked on along the quay that ran beneath the bridge to greet Pierrot, who was sitting by the base of one of the great arches with a fishing rod in his hand and two small trout already in his bucket.
Gigi raced ahead, and then stopped on a small rise, standing like a pointer with one front paw raised, his head and tail high, watching the curl of the river, where he sensed something was about to appear. Squinting against the glare of the morning sun on the river, Bruno saw the silhouettes of two riders appear on horseback, picking their way across the shallow waters of the late summer. Gigi barked and raced up the riverbank to greet them, Bruno following until Pamela and Fabiola reached him and swung down from horseback to greet him.
“I’m having a wonderful day,” Fabiola said. “I have a horse to ride and a house to live in. I’m going to rent one of Pamela’s gites until next season.”
“With Jacqueline that makes three lovely women together in one property. You’ll have an endless parade of admirers,” said Bruno, kissing each of them. “But will one of the horses ever be free for me to learn to ride?”
“Don’t worry about that. You can have her whenever I’m working,” said Fabiola, bending to make friends with Gigi. “Pamela told me about him. I can’t believe he’s a hunting dog with these funny long ears and short legs. How can he run fast enough?”
“He doesn’t have to. He just plods along relentlessly all day after the scent until the prey is exhausted.”
“Do you use him to hunt criminals?”
Bruno shook his head, grinning. “Never had to, but he did once find a little boy who strolled away from a family picnic and got lost in the woods.”
“Come and get to know the horses,” said Pamela. “This chestnut is called Bess, after Good Queen Bess, and Fabiola’s gray is called Victoria.”
“She couldn’t be easier to ride-very patient and stately,” said Fabiola. She fished in a pocket of her jeans, pulled out a bag of small carrots and handed one to Bruno. “Here, give her this and pat her neck so she’ll know you’re a friend. She’ll remember you.”
“That’s the difference between Fabiola and me.” Pamela grinned, bringing some sugar lumps from her pocket. “As a doctor, she offers healthy carrots, and I give them these. Here, give one to Bess; she loves them.”
“Do they like apples?” Bruno asked, gingerly holding his palm forward, the carrot perched on top. Victoria delicately snuffled it from his hand, and he felt only the warmth of the horse’s breath and the touch of a very soft muzzle. Then he gave Bess her sugar lump, keeping a wary eye on her teeth.
“They adore apples. Bring a few of them and they’ll be your friends for life.”
“By the way, I have some news for you,” said Fabiola. “The pathologist at Bergerac is a friend; we did our training together in Marseilles. He and I both agree that Cresseil had a heart attack that certainly would have killed him if he hadn’t broken his neck first. He was dying when he fell, if not dead.”
“Does that mean he died before young Max?”
“Only le bon Dieu could tell you that. They died within an hour or so of each other, but that’s as much as medicine can ascertain,” Fabiola said, shrugging. “One thing we know is that Max died of asphyxiation, not of drowning. There was no grape juice in his lungs.”
“And that wound to the head?”
“Not hard enough to crack the skull, so it probably didn’t kill him, and my friend in Bergerac is still trying to establish when exactly it happened. With the grape juice washing away the blood, and then Max’s body being rinsed clean with water, it’s not easy to see how much he bled. The grape juice also washed away any chance of doing a leukocyte count, which might have told us if he sustained the head wound more than a few minutes before he died. My friend is calling in his chief pathologist, who’ll do his own examination later today. But we’re sure Max wasn’t hit with any kind of weapon. The wood splinters in the wound came from the vat itself.”
“So the pathologist has not issued a formal statement of unlawful death?”
“Not yet. It’s a delicate matter, and we’re under a lot of pressure from the police. My friend in Bergerac said some commissaire was calling the pathology lab every few hours, demanding the attestation. That’s why they are doing it on a Saturday. Maybe this afternoon. He’ll let me know.”
“I suppose the adoption makes it important to decide which of them died first,” said Pamela.
Bruno nodded. “There are some cousins who stand to inherit if it’s clear that Max died first. If not, it could mean a lawsuit. Merde. I meant to tell you there’s a ceremony for Max up at Alphonse’s this evening, like an Irish wake,” Bruno said. “A lot of people will be there-the rugby team, his school friends. Would the two of you like to come with me?”
“I would. Having been a witness at the boy’s adoption, I feel somehow involved. I assume Jacqueline will be going as well. You should come too, Fabiola. It will be your chance to meet half the town. They’re not all hypochondriacs.”
“Which of Pamela’s places are you taking?” Bruno asked.
“The one beside the stables. It’s lovely, light and airy, and Pamela has decorated it very simply, just as I like it. It’s probably a bit big for me, but Jacqueline has the smaller one.”
“Have you met her yet?”
“Just briefly this morning when we saddled the horses. Poor girl, she looked very tired. Perhaps I should have offered her some sleeping pills.”
“Can you tell her about the event at Alphonse’s place this evening?” Bruno said. “I don’t have room for all of you in my van, but I can come by at about seven and then lead the way. You’d never find the place otherwise. Now I’m heading for Fauquet’s for some breakfast. Would you like to join me?”
“With pleasure,” Pamela responded. “That’s what we were planning to do. Fauquet loves it when I hitch the horse outside the cafe. He says it brings in customers. Did you know he keeps a small shovel just inside the garden gate for the droppings? He puts them straight onto those roses he’s so proud of.”
“They win him prizes,” Bruno said. “You’ll see the certificate he got from the fair at Bergerac up on the wall of the cafe in its own frame, right beside his maitre patissier certificate. But your own roses are just as good, Pamela. Maybe you should exhibit them next year and give Fauquet some competition.”
“But if I won, he’d never forgive me,” she said, laughing. “And then I’d worry that my coffee would be muddy and my croissants burnt and he’d only give me the baguettes with the misshaped ends. Life wouldn’t be worth living.”
Fortified by his breakfast, Bruno arrived early at the Domaine and was heartened to see the winery busy and Julien bustling around the vats with his long thermometer, scribbling figures in his notebook as Baptiste stood patiently by. The aged foreman carried a long glass pipette to take his samples, and both men beamed with pleasure at Bruno’s arrival.
“It’s not time for the meeting yet,” said Julien, glancing at his watch. He was freshly shaved, and his jeans and shirt were clean. He looked like a different man from the unkempt figure who had greeted Bruno on his last visit. “I’ve still got work to do here.”
“No, I just wanted to say hello to you and Mirabelle first, if she’s here,” said Bruno. “I’m glad to see you busy, but I thought this was the time when nature took its course with the wine.”
“I’m trying something new that Baptiste suggested,” said Julien. “There’s a technique to get the maximum fruit flavor through maximum contact with the grape skins, leaving the grapes in the vat for six hours before we start the pressing. We did it with the one vat only as an experiment and we’re just seeing how it’s going.”
“What’s the verdict?”
“Promising, but too early to be sure. I was worried it might produce some bitterness, too many tannins, but the fermentation temperature is normal and there’s no bitterness in the taste.”
“You worry too much,” said Baptiste, holding the pipette over a wineglass and lifting his thumb from the end to let the young wine drain in. He handed the glass to Bruno. “Try it.”
“Tastes like grape juice, but very fruity,” he said. “Not bitter at all.”
“Mirabelle is at home, and the door’s open. You can let yourself in,” said Julien. “Go and say hello and I’ll join you in the salon at ten.” With Baptiste’s delighted approval, Bruno left Gigi sniffing his curious way around the wine vats and went up the flight of steps into the main reception room of the Domaine.
Mirabelle was up and dressed in a flowing caftan, with a turban on her head, and her face was made up with rouge and lipstick so that she looked almost healthy until Bruno noted the hollowness around her eyes. She raised her cheek to be kissed, and Bruno recognized the scent of Chanel No. 5.
“I’m determined to be at this meeting,” she said. “I’ve put too much of my life into the Domaine for Julien to abandon it now.”
“I’m happy to see you looking so much better.”
“It’s one of my good days. I was determined it would be,” she said. “Julien has been a lot better since you came, more his old self. Listen, the important thing to ensure at this meeting is that Julien buys back the option to sell the Domaine. It means raising fifty thousand euros one way or another because if he doesn’t have this place to fill his time when I’m gone, he’ll just fall apart again. I know him.”
“Is that the only way, Mirabelle? What if he were to run the winery but let somebody else manage the hotel and restaurant like you’ve been doing? That’s not his strong point.”
“But they need to be under a single ownership. That’s how we make our profit, by selling our own wine at restaurant prices. If he just makes wine, the negociants will screw him on pricing like they do all the small producers. Now will you help me across to the salon so I can greet our guests?”
As Bruno helped Mirabelle up the steps, the mayor and the baron arrived together in the Baron’s car with Vauclos, the local bank manager. Then came Hubert in his Mercedes with Jacques Lesvignes, who ran the largest of the town’s small building firms. Xavier’s Renault followed, and the young maire-adjoint came out with his father, the local Renault dealer, and his father-in-law, who ran a timber business. As Julien bustled in from the winery, an old Jaguar appeared, and Dougal, a Scotsman, joined them. Having come to Saint-Denis to retire, Dougal found himself bored and started a company called Delightful Dordogne that specialized in renting the local gites and houses to tourists. With the handymen and cleaners he hired, Dougal had become an important local employer. Bruno smiled to himself in admiration at the mayor’s planning; the leading businessmen of Saint-Denis were now assembled. Julien shook hands all around and steered everyone to the corner of the salon that Mirabelle had chosen, under the painting of Madame Recamier.
“I think we have to presume that the American venture is dead,” the mayor began. “The son is under arrest. Even without that, many of us have doubts about the desirability of the big Bondino company as a partner for our little town. But there’s been one important benefit for us in this, which is that I’m now confident of getting appellation controlee status for our wines. The heart of this venture is the Domaine, so the first question has to be what are your intentions, Julien?”
“I have two problems. The first is the option to buy the Domaine. I could buy it back for fifty thousand euros, but I don’t have the money. The second is that I timed my expansion wrong. There’s a wine glut, so prices are low, and I’m already making more wine than I can sell through the hotel and restaurant. What’s worse is that I don’t have the working capital for a proper marketing campaign.”
“We have put together a proposal for you that has the backing of everyone here,” said the mayor. He went on to describe the initial investment each man at the meeting had agreed to put into a new company, Vignerons de Saint-Denis-sur-Vezere, before offering to sell shares to all the citizens of Saint-Denis. The new company would buy back Julien’s option to sell the Domaine, so he’d keep the hotel and vineyard. Hubert would market the wine Julien couldn’t sell.
“We’ve also decided that the company should see if it can acquire Cresseil’s farm cheaply,” said the baron, explaining the problem with the inheritance. The mayor had tracked down Cresseil’s relatives, distant cousins in Tulle, who would be at the next day’s funeral. They might have been hoping for a windfall from the farm, the mayor explained, but instead would discover that they faced a long lawsuit.
“So we’re going to propose that we buy their claim to the property for fifty thousand in cash. I’m prepared to go a bit higher, but that should tempt them,” the baron went on. “We may have to offer the same to Alphonse, but even then we’ll be buying it for less than half what it’s worth. The prospect of big legal costs while property taxes mount up should give both sides an inducement to settle. And if we have both claims, there’ll be no lawsuits.”
Bruno watched, fascinated, as the meeting progressed-remarkably smoothly, he thought, given the different interests involved. The mayor was at his most articulate and persuasive, and his explanations were backed by the hardheaded business sense of the baron. Wily old politicians, the pair of them. Years of practice, he supposed.
The mayor described the plan to restore the barns on the various properties into gites, which meant lots of work for Lesvignes’s building firm, which in turn meant jobs for apprentice plumbers and electricians. Xavier described the state grants available to pay for their training and salaries while they worked and learned their trade. Dougal said he’d been planning to expand, anyway, and would rent the new properties to tourists.
“This sounds like a property company,” said Julien. “What about the wine?”
Hubert explained that the Domaine would remain the property of the existing owners, Julien and Mirabelle. But it would be leased to the new company, which would make wine under his and Julien’s direction. On a rough calculation, the new company would have at least twenty hectares of vines that should produce one hundred thousand liters a year or more.
“Right now, I sell only about a thousand cases a year through the hotel and restaurant. That’s twelve thousand bottles,” said Julien. “How do we find a market for the rest?”
“I get over five hundred tenants a year,” said Dougal. “We give them each a free wine tour and tasting at the Domaine and a discount price and I’ll be surprised if we don’t sell another five hundred cases.”
“I’ll sell the wine at my cave, and I’ll offer it to all the local restaurants who are already my clients,” said Hubert. “I’ll also suggest it to customers who buy my Bergerac blends. Since I’ll be the negociant, in a company in which I’m a major shareholder, we save the usual middleman’s profit. I’ve talked to Duhamel at the supermarket, and he’ll take five hundred cases. That means we already have a market for all the wine the Domaine makes now, and quite a bit more. We won’t be selling the wine from the new vines we plant for another three or four years at least, and by then we should have built up a reputation. That’s our challenge. You and I are going to have to make wines that win prizes.”
“We also have to build a proper visitors’ center at the Domaine, for which we’d like a bank loan,” said the mayor.
“I’m certainly prepared to make the loan for that and to provide working capital for the company,” said Vauclos, the plump-faced and genial Gascon who ran the town’s Credit Agricole. “Indeed, I’m putting fifty thousand of my own money into shares in the company.”
Bruno smiled inwardly. The mairie was the bank’s main client. All the mairie ’s salaries and the town’s taxes went through its books, and the handful of men in Julien’s salon accounted for most of the town’s business. It would be a foolish bank manager who did not support a venture with such backing. And then Bruno began thinking of his own modest savings and how many shares he might be able to afford.
“When you suggested offering shares to the citizens of Saint-Denis, how would that work?” he asked.
“We price each share at a hundred euros, but any local taxpayer can buy a share at a discount, say ninety euros,” said Xavier. “And of course every shareholder will have the right to buy the wine at a special discount. We have nearly a thousand households here in Saint-Denis. If they each buy a case a year, that’s twelve thousand bottles. Then we can sell more at a stall in the market to catch the tourist trade and tell them about the visitors’ center.”
“So what we’re planning to do is to take Bondino’s idea and do it ourselves without Bondino and on a slightly smaller scale,” Bruno mused out loud.
“Well, I’m convinced,” said Mirabelle, who had been following the proceedings closely. With an obvious effort of will, she sat upright and fixed her eyes on Julien. “This is the best way for Julien, for the Domaine and for Saint-Denis. We accept.”
“What if the citizens don’t go for it and you don’t sell all the shares?” Bruno asked quietly.
“Then the mairie buys the remainder on behalf of the commune as a whole,” said the mayor. “This will be a good investment. We can use any profits for that indoor sports center you’re always nagging me about, Bruno.”
“All right,” said Bruno. “If Julien and Mirabelle and all of you are agreed, I’m prepared to join in. The shares are a hundred euros each, right? So with my discount, I can get a hundred shares for nine thousand euros. But I warn you all, I’m going to be a very active shareholder. These are my life savings I’m investing.”
“Bruno,” said the mayor, “why do you think you’re here? All this was your idea. You were the one who said that if this made sense for the Bondinos, it would make sense for French investors as well. And here we are. So you’re already getting an allocation of two hundred shares as the initiator of the project, and we all want you on the board of directors. But of course we’re delighted to have your nine thousand euros as well.”
Bruno parked his van beside a score of cars in the paddock off the narrow lane that led to Alphonse’s commune, and Fabiola pulled her Twingo in neatly beside him. He opened the door for the women, took the pannier with wine and food from Pamela and led them across the field. Fabiola clapped her hands with glee at the sight of the dome. Pamela pointed out the turf-covered house, the log cabin and the windmill to Jacqueline, who stared as if mystified. Bruno wondered if Max had ever brought her here.
“I should warn you,” Bruno said. “This is not a funeral, and if I know Alphonse, it’ll be more like a celebration of Max than a traditional wake.”
There must have been fifty people assembled already, mostly Max’s schoolmates or friends from the rugby club. Jeanne, Madame Vignier, Fabrice, Raoul and Stephane were there from the market. A small cheer went up from the rugby players when Bruno arrived with the three women, who were soon overwhelmed with greetings and introductions. Fabiola was waltzed away by young Edouard from the garage to join the dancers in front of the cheese barn. A sound system was playing the Rolling Stones, and rows of tables offered paper plates and the commune’s breads and cheeses, dozens of bottles and pates and hams and tartes brought by the guests. On a table by themselves stood four magnificent cakes, being eyed with longing by three of Alphonse’s goats and two of his toddlers, who kept pushing the goats away, so Fauquet had to be here somewhere.
Behind the tables, two of the year’s spring lambs were roasting over a deep pit above the heaped and glowing ashes of a fire that must have been lit before midday. Their limbs wired to a long spit, the carcasses dropped fat into the ashes, which flared briefly at each new drop. The skins were brown and glistening with the marinade that one of Max’s schoolmates was applying from a bucket with a long brush made of bay tree branches fixed to a broom handle. Bruno asked him about the marinade. He was told it consisted of olive oil, honey and vin de noix. He nodded approvingly. The bellies of the lambs had been stuffed with rosemary and bay leaves and then sewn closed with baling wire. The scent of roasting meat drifted enticingly into the beginnings of twilight.
Standing by the table with the bottles, and pouring wine from a large jug into rows of small glasses, Alphonse looked up at Bruno’s approach, put down the jug and embraced him. He looked both odd and magnificent, wearing an embroidered jacket from India in reds and golds, bright blue trousers and a tall red fez. A strong scent of patchouli hung almost visibly around him, and Celine appeared beside him in a great green tent of a robe, her hair glowing with fresh henna, a large joint in her hand. Bruno pretended not to notice.
“I’m making sure everyone gets at least one glass of Max’s wine for when I start the bonfire,” said Alphonse. “So we’ll have that to remember him by. I just hope we have enough, so many of his friends have come. And I’m delighted to see you again,” he said to Jacqueline. “He was in love with you, and very happy in those last days.”
Jacqueline managed a small smile, the first sign of animation on her face since Bruno had arrived at Pamela’s place to lead the three women to the commune. She embraced Alphonse, and then almost disappeared into Celine’s billowing dress as she was embraced again. Then Pamela was embraced and hailed as an honorary godmother for having been a witness at Max’s adoption. Dominique, wearing an apron and brandishing a large knife, came from the table where she had been helping Marie prepare great bowls of salad. She kissed Bruno and exchanged a cool, appraising handshake with Jacqueline.
“It’s a reunion,” said Alphonse, handing out glasses of Max’s wine. “All the original members of the commune have come for this, and one even flew in from London. Max was like a son to all of us. And the children have come back, from Bordeaux and Marseilles and everywhere.”
“We wanted to have his ashes scattered here tonight, when everyone was with us, but they won’t release the body,” said Celine. “I don’t understand why not. You must know, Bruno. What is it?”
“I think there’s some concern about whether Max or Cresseil died first because that will affect the inheritance,” said Bruno. He changed the subject. “What time do you light the fire?”
“Any time now, when it’s really dusk,” said Alphonse. “But first I think I should dance with Jacqueline, the last woman who held our dear boy and made him happy.” He took her hand, turned to take a long puff from Celine’s joint and led Jacqueline away.
“I’m glad you didn’t notice that,” Pamela teased. “It would be awful to ruin the evening by arresting the host.”
“Live and let live,” said Bruno. “Would you like to dance?”
They strolled through the throng, pausing to greet new arrivals, dodging goats and children, and arrived at the terrace that had become a dance floor to see all the dancers standing in a ring and grinning as Alphonse performed one of his extraordinary dances to Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.” Jacqueline looked bewildered as she tried to keep in step as Alphonse bounced happily around her, his elbows jerking out from side to side, his fingers snapping and his head rocking as he belted out the words of the song.
“Did people used to dance like that?” asked Pamela.
“They must have,” said Bruno. “Look at the new arrivals.”
Celine now had taken the floor, twirling around with her arms outstretched, her green robe billowing like a mainsail as the smoke from her joint drifted into the air. Another of the commune originals, a tall and gaunt man, completely bald and wearing a suit of black velvet, joined her and began to sway. An even older couple with white hair stepped onto the floor and began to jive.
“I’m not sure I can do any of those dances,” said Pamela. “But let’s try.”
The last echoes of “feed your head” were fading, to be replaced by Eric Clapton’s “Layla” as Bruno and Pamela stepped forward. Bruno encouraged others in the surrounding crowd to join them, and soon it seemed everyone was dancing, including the mayor and Xavier and Rene and Gilbert from the bar with their wives. The mayor cut in on Bruno, took Pamela in his arms and began what looked like a slow foxtrot, leaving Bruno to join Jacqueline just a moment before half the rugby team descended on her.
“Alphonse said he had to light the fire,” she said. “Isn’t he bizarre? You wonder how Max grew up so normal in a place like this.”
The music faded, and the boom of a great gong sounded. People turned to see Alphonse standing by the bonfire, holding up a large brass disk and beating it again so that the sound echoed back and forth across the hollow. Even the goats stopped their chewing and stared. Celine walked down to stand beside him. Alphonse laid down the gong and picked up a large stick, its tip black and sticky with oil.
“Friends and family, we are all here because of Max, and in this commune we do not grieve the passing, we celebrate the life. So we dance and sing and feast in his honor. I raised Max and I loved him. His memory will always be with me, as it will be with you, and I’m grateful for the warmth he brought to all our lives. Now I’d like all the family of our commune to come down here and join me.”
They came to stand with Alphonse and Celine as the darkness gathered and Alphonse lit his torch. Celine bent to the floor by the bonfire and began to distribute a sheaf of similar torches. The commune members all held them against Alphonse’s flame until half a dozen were flaring against the darkening sky, casting red glows that flickered over their faces as the heady scent of roasting meat drifted across the crowd. It felt pagan but somehow deeply familiar to Bruno, as though this was how all celebrations and events must have been in the past, centuries of roasted lambs and fires and wine, before the age of electricity, when there was only fire to light the darkness.
Alphonse and Celine thrust their torches into the base of the bonfire, and then one after the other the rest of the commune members followed suit. Hesitantly at first but then with growing vigor the fire began to rise up the tall sticks, delicate blue flickerings at first and then yellow flares and finally thrusting, eager red flames four meters high that towered above Alphonse and his friends, who stepped steadily farther and farther back from the surging heat.
“Farewell, Max,” called Alphonse, then he turned to embrace Celine, and then all the children and the former members of his commune, and led them back to the wine and the roasting lambs and the throng of friends, all lit by the raging fire.
Stephane and Raoul were the carvers, neatly severing the heads and legs by the light of oil lamps and the distant bonfire, before slicing the meat into hearty portions. Alphonse was brandishing a massive ladle, serving couscous from a giant cauldron, and Bruno had been recruited to help Xavier open the massed ranks of wine bottles the guests had brought. Pamela was at the next table, tossing vast bowls of salad with olive oil and the commune’s own wine vinegar. Fabiola was bandaging the skinned knee of a weeping small boy who had tripped over one of the young goats, and Jacqueline was still dancing.
When the crowds were all served, and Bruno and Pamela and the other servers began to feed themselves, the few available chairs were all taken. Bruno tucked a bottle of wine under each arm, his plate in one hand and a stack of plastic glasses in the other, and joined Dominique and Stephane, who were sitting on the grass. Pamela brought her plate atop a large bowl of salad, one of Alphonse’s loaves under one arm and a roll of paper towels under the other. Alphonse had turned down the volume so the Beatles’ White Album was a distant backdrop.
“I feel like I’m back in the Middle Ages,” said Pamela, giving up on the feeble plastic fork and starting to eat with her fingers. Bruno handed her his knife, knowing it would make little difference. He had been to so many such events that he came prepared, and now he reached into a side pocket of his cargo pants and brought out a fistful of foil packets emblazoned with a lobster, each containing a moistened towel.
“I never go to a picnic without them,” he said. “The Middle Ages might have been different if they’d had them. But I know what you mean, feeling that this is how it must have been for our ancestors. Maybe that’s why we enjoy it.”
Looking out over Alphonse’s strange property, he saw Fabiola and Jacqueline squeezed onto benches at the same table with the rugby team, laughing and chatting. The mayor was at a table with Alphonse and Celine and some of the original commune members.
“You’re like a mother hen.” Pamela grinned. “Don’t worry, all your chicks are happily taken care of and enjoying themselves. The guardian of Saint-Denis can relax for once.”
“I was just a bit worried about Fabiola, but she seems to be fitting in fine and meeting people.”
“She’s a pretty girl, despite that scar, and since she doesn’t pay much attention to it, other people don’t get embarrassed and after a while you forget about it. It’s like having red hair. I hated it when I was a girl and thought everybody was looking at me all the time, but then you realize they aren’t, and if they are it doesn’t matter.”
“Really?” Bruno asked. “I thought your hair must always have been that glorious auburn-bronze color.”
“It was brighter when I was little. Carrottop, they called me, and sometimes Ginger. I had an uncle who used to pretend to light his cigarette from it.”
“They used to call me ‘dwarf’ and ‘shorty’ and other names because I didn’t really grow until I was fifteen,” said Dominique. “Except Max. He never called me names and never let other people do it, not when he was around.”
“You know, you had me worried for a while, when you went off to the lycee,” said Stephane. “I thought you and Max were getting far too serious for your age.”
She smiled, fondly putting a hand on his knee. “It was never like that with Max. He was much more like a brother.”
“So you didn’t mind when Max took up with Jacqueline?” Bruno asked.
“Not like you think. But I can’t say I was happy about it. She was cruel to him, dating that other guy, the American. Max used to confide in me, and I didn’t like what I heard.”
“She seems to be over it now,” Pamela said in a low voice, gesturing to the dome, where Jacqueline was laughing at her table. “But maybe she still is upset. She’s been throwing herself into her work. I took her some coffee earlier today and she was upstairs asleep, but the table was full of work, all her wine books and thick files about vineyards and companies. She has heaps of stuff on that Bondino group, the one with the young American. Since she wants to be in the wine business, I’m surprised she dropped him.”
Bruno looked sharply at Pamela. “When you say she has lots of stuff on the Bondinos, what do you mean?”
“Well, I didn’t really look, but she has annual reports, files of press clippings, lots of loose photos of the family. There were a couple of really thick files as well as the one that was open. I suppose she got it all from the Internet, doing some research when she started dating him.”
“Is that something you ever did, research someone you were seeing?”
“That was before the age of Google,” she said, smiling. “But yes, you ask around, ask your friends, try to find out something about someone who could be important to you. It’s human nature.”
“What you describe sounds like a lot more than that. Family photos, thick files.”
“Yes, I was surprised. It struck me as being like a special research project. They were real photos, glossy prints rather than computer printouts. And there were not just portraits but group shots, like snaps from a family album, some quite old, from what looked like the thirties and forties. But I think you can get real photos made from computer images these days.”
Bruno nodded. It was more than strange for Jacqueline to go to that much trouble for a guy she’d dated briefly and then dropped. But he was rich. Perhaps that was it. Despite her affair with Max, maybe she was thinking of Bondino and his money. Or perhaps she was hoping to make her career in the Bondino firm. That would make sense. But her having all these photos suggested something different, something more personal than just researching a company for a possible job. Even beyond her manipulative ways there was something about Jacqueline that troubled him. He’d have to question her again, maybe get a look at those files.
Dominique was collecting the used paper plates and throwing them into a big black plastic bag. Stephane hauled Pamela to her feet and back to the dance floor, where the music was now Beach Boys surfing songs. Alphonse’s collection seemed to have stopped growing at about the time he started the commune. Dominique gave her hand to Bruno and they went off to join the dancers.
“Max would have loved this,” said Dominique. “It’s just his kind of party.”
The music changed to Francoise Hardy, “Tous les Garcons et les Filles,” and as Alphonse cut in to dance with Dominique, Bruno found Pamela and took her in his arms.
“This is rather more my kind of music,” Pamela said. “I never really enjoyed the bouncy stuff.”
“Just wait,” he said. “I know Alphonse’s music. Next it will be Jean Trenet from the 1940s and then some slow numbers from Juliette Greco and Yves Montand.”
“Better still,” she said, and spun away, still holding his hand, to turn a stately pirouette before coming back into his arms. In the firelight, with her fine skin and clear complexion, she looked impossibly young, and Bruno felt the supple play of a horsewoman’s lithe muscles under the light touch of his hands.
“I never thought of you as a dancer, with all that energetic rugby and tennis,” she said.
She was smiling, her eyes fixed on his. She moved in toward him, her cheek close to his. He shifted his head a fraction to nestle his cheek against hers, and he felt the slightest tremble under his hands. Yves Montand was singing “Feuilles Mortes.” Bruno heard Pamela singing along quietly in English, “The autumn leaves caress my windowpane…” She had a sweet voice, soft and low.
“Did you mean to kiss me, the night after your dinner?” she asked, almost whispering.
“I didn’t mean to,” he answered quickly, almost despite himself. He had to tell the truth. “But then I wanted to, very much. It seemed to come from nowhere.”
“Yes, I know,” she said. “It seemed that way to me as well. Then I felt sorry that we stopped.”
He bent his head and kissed her neck, and felt her hands tighten on his back.
“I thought about it all the way back to town,” he said. “And then Bondino took over.”
“Ah, yes, Bondino and Jacqueline. And poor Max. What a mess that girl has made.” She paused, and they swayed together to the music, oblivious to the other dancers. “Do you think we get any more sensible about love as we get older?”
“Not more sensible, no. But it’s more quiet, more subtle, stronger. It loses none of its power,” he said. “Maybe we grow more cautious, because we know what it is to be hurt.”
“Is that what it is?” she whispered. He felt her lips brush his cheek and her fingers play gently with the curls at the nape of his neck. “Or do we just think about it and talk about it more?”
“I think about it far too much,” he said, and kissed her. This time neither of them turned away as the firelight slowly died and the stars became brilliant above.
Because he had been a soldier, Cresseil deserved military honors. Between his paperwork and phone calls, Bruno had spent the morning making the arrangements. Now as the mairie clock chimed the last quarter before three, he went down to the basement and brought out the flags and the ROUTE BARREE signs for the small procession from the church to the war memorial, then to Cresseil’s final resting place beside his wife in the town cemetery.
The church was almost full when Bruno slipped in through the side door. Raoul, who worked part-time as a pallbearer when he wasn’t selling his wines in the market, was taking a final smoke with the other men in black ties from the funeral parlor. The coffin stood on trestles before the altar, on a stool beside it a cushion that bore the campaign and Resistance medals Bruno had found in Cresseil’s house. The mayor and Xavier with their wives were in the front row with the baron, and behind them was a group of strangers who were the cousins. Bruno nodded at Alphonse.
The organ was playing some doleful music that Bruno learned from the program was a choral prelude by Bach. He scanned the crowd for Pamela. After the previous evening’s embrace, she had left him with a lingering kiss and a look of promise in her eyes as she left the wake with Fabiola and Jacqueline. He felt a surge of excitement as he spotted her, her face half shrouded by the dark shawl that covered her head. Jacqueline sat beside her, her head uncovered. As he studied them, the distinction was sharp between the mature and lovely woman and the more conventionally pretty girl. Sensing his gaze, Pamela turned and caught his eye. She smiled and raised a discreet eyebrow, as if to ask how their relationship would now unfold. He nodded to her in return.
Father Sentout, resplendent in full robes, came from the vestry to shake hands with the mayor and Cresseil’s cousins before standing at the head of the coffin and beginning the service. Bruno slipped out again to ensure that Jean-Pierre, Bachelot and Marie-Louise, each almost as old as the man they were burying, were ready with their flags. The small honor guard from the gendarmes was lined up with the school band for the short march to the war memorial.
As he went back to the main doors of the church, they opened and J-J emerged. “Saw you leave,” he said, handing Bruno a computer printout. “Here’s that reply you wanted from Quebec.” Bruno had sent him a text message the previous evening, asking him to send a routine “Anything Known?” query on Jacqueline to the Quebec police. “It looks like she’s clean,” J-J added, “which means she’s in better shape than I am. The prefect is furious with me, and we’ve got a fancy lawyer threatening to sue me personally for the wrongful arrest of Bondino.”
“Still no attestation of wrongful death from the pathologist?” Bruno asked. He resisted the temptation to remind J-J that he’d warned him of this.
“No, so they can’t appoint a juge d’instruction, and I can’t hold Bondino any longer. I’ve got his fingerprints, and I think the DNA will show it was his hair under the dead man’s fingernails. But until the pathologist’s report there’s no crime as yet, so he’s free, and I’m in the merde. I’m so deep in it that I’ve had to come down here to apologize to your Captain Duroc for misusing his gendarmerie. The prefect insisted. But I’m still not sure I’m wrong.”
“This reply from Quebec came back very fast. I wasn’t expecting an answer for a couple of days.”
“I rang our friend the brigadier, thinking he could get it faster. I got it overnight.”
The music swelled, and the doors opened. Led by Father Sentout and a boy in a white robe bearing a tall cross, Raoul and the other pallbearers emerged with the coffin. The flags all rose in salute and led the procession to the war memorial across the bridge. The mayor came out with Cresseil’s medals on the cushion and the gendarmes lined up behind him. The baron followed with Cresseil’s cousins. He caught Bruno’s eye, discreetly giving him a thumbs-up. He must have made a deal to buy their claim. The school band struck up “Le Chant des Partisans,” the Resistance anthem, and led the rest of the congregation behind the bobbing flags of France, of Saint-Denis and of the Cross of Lorraine, the wartime symbol of Free France.
Rollo, the headmaster, ensured that every resident of the retirement home in the procession was accompanied by a youngster to help him or her along. The old people scanned one another’s faces as they hobbled from the church. Bruno wondered if their glances indicated relief that this was not their time while they weighed which of their number might be next.
Bruno had placed the town’s wreath in readiness before the statue of the French soldier from the Great War with the gleaming brass eagle perched above. There was a second wreath from the Compagnons de la Resistance and a third from the Anciens Combattants. Bruno felt a sudden glow of pride that his town and his nation still took the deaths of such patriots so seriously, still honored the ancient virtues of patriotism and courage, and still insisted that the young remembered at what price their liberties had been bought. It was a fine community that could generate such mutual affection between young and old strangers as had grown between Max and Cresseil. Bruno felt a lump forming in his throat as he thought that Cresseil’s last sight on earth may have been the floating body of the young man he had come to love like a son.
The flags dipped in salute, the mayor laid his wreath, and then Bachelot, the shoemaker and veteran Gaullist, laid the wreath from the Compagnons, and his lifelong enemy, Jean-Pierre of the Communist Francs-Tireurs et Partisans, laid the wreath from the Anciens Combattants. It was the sort of compromise that made French politics work, and that was only made possible by the forbearance of Marie-Louise. A courier for the Resistance, she had been arrested by the Gestapo at the age of fourteen and sent to Buchenwald, and in Bruno’s eyes had thus suffered more for France than Jean-Pierre and Bachelot together. But Marie-Louise never made a fuss, always volunteered, and considered all the young people of Saint-Denis the grandchildren she’d never had. She stood watching impassively as the two old men straightened their backs and saluted and returned to their places. As the band struck up the “Marseillaise,” tears rolled down her cheeks.
The national anthem ended and the pallbearers loaded the coffin into the hearse for the short drive to the cemetery. Bruno gathered up the flags, and carried them all back into the basement of the mairie. Then he went upstairs to his office and took out the printout that J-J had given him. That reminded him. He picked up the phone, checking the number on the card in his drawer, and called the brigadier in Paris.
An aide answered. When Bruno gave his name he was surprised to hear: “You’re on the approved list. I’ll connect you now.” And then the brigadier was on the line.
“Our friend J-J is in trouble,” Bruno began.
“I know. The American ambassador came in to see the minister and lodged a complaint. I’m taking care of it. Don’t worry, the minister understands that it wouldn’t be wise to dissuade our police from showing a maximum of zeal. And I gather that thanks to you, this young American didn’t even spend a night in jail. There’s not a lot they can complain about. Did you get my message for you from Quebec?”
“Yes, sir. I’m looking at it now.”
“Good. And don’t forget, there’s a job for you here if you want one. And there’s a message from another friend of yours on the minister’s staff, Chief Inspector Perrault. I think you knew she was on assignment in Luxembourg? She says she’s looking forward to seeing you the weekend of the rugby match against Scotland. I got four tickets, for you and J-J, Perrault and me. Dinner on me afterward at the Tour d’Argent.”
If the brigadier said J-J would be all right, Bruno was prepared to believe him. Isabelle was another matter. He still felt a frisson of excitement at the thought of seeing her again, but he feared there was little future in it. Perhaps the invitation was the brigadier’s way of tempting him to give up Saint-Denis and move to Paris to join his team. Or perhaps Isabelle and the brigadier had planned it together, not understanding the bonds that kept him in Perigord. He could never leave Gigi locked up in some tiny Paris apartment. Besides, there was now Pamela. He had no idea where their-he hunted for a word that was more than “flirtation” and less than “affair”-liaison was heading. It was exciting, just the same. Now, however, he had work to do.
He looked again at the e-mail from Quebec. Nothing known against Jacqueline Duplessis, which meant no criminal record, and given the brigadier’s contacts probably nothing suspected against her. Bruno read on idly through the raw facts he had already scribbled into his notebook from her passport: date of birth, address, next of kin, mother’s maiden name… and then he stopped. He looked again at the printout from Quebec: mother’s maiden name, Sophia Maria Bondino; nationality, United States of America.
Suddenly everything that Bruno thought he knew about Jacqueline and Bondino shifted. He went back to his file of material on the history of the Bondino family and its feuds and began to read carefully, taking brief notes. He checked his watch. Jacqueline would be working at the cave for another three hours or more. He called Nathalie at the cave and asked her to check the files to find out when Jacqueline had first applied to work there. He went back to his files and the phone rang. He reached for it, expecting Nathalie’s call, but froze when he heard another, far more familiar voice.
“I’m calling from a phone booth at a service station on the way back from Luxembourg,” Isabelle said. “I don’t want this call showing up on my records because I shouldn’t be telling you this but it might help get J-J out of trouble.”
“Go on,” he said.
“We got hold of the bank documents for Agricolae, which is what I was sent here to do. Don’t even ask how. But there’s a big payment from Bondino, 120,000 euros, a wire transfer from their American bank on July 7. It’s listed in the books as a research contract on drought-resistant vines. J-J needs to know about it, and you need to find out whether Agricolae was really the target of that fire because this means it might have been aimed at Bondino.”
“But we solved the arson case,” Bruno said. One part of his brain was focused on the conversation and the case. But elsewhere emotions were churning at the sound of her voice.
“I know. And J-J thinks your arsonist was murdered by Bondino. This deal between Bondino and Agricolae could be the link J-J needs to prove it. I’ve sent you a copy of the bank transfer by post so there’s no computer trace.”
“Thanks. I’ll let him know,” Bruno said, wondering why Isabelle had called him rather than J-J. “Why not call him directly?”
“Not wise, given the job I do and the trouble he’s in,” she said.
“The brigadier just told me J-J’s in the clear.”
“I’m glad to hear it. All the same, it’s safer to go through you.” She paused. “Besides, I wanted to hear your voice.”
Bruno closed his eyes. “I like hearing yours, too. I thought I might hear from you earlier.”
“I had a lot of work to do, and I was thinking,” she said. “And I reached a conclusion.”
“Go on.” Bruno was concentrating intensely, trying to divine every last scrap of meaning from the tone of her voice, the pauses between her words.
“If I see you again, it will be in Paris. That’s where my life is going to be.” The words came out in a rush.
“It wouldn’t work in Paris,” said Bruno. “I don’t fit there.”
“Not even for a visit?”
And prolong the agony again? Bruno shook his head in silence.
“We’ll see. You don’t have to spend all your life down there in the country,” she said. More silence. “I miss you.” And she hung up the phone.
Bruno took a deep breath, knowing his pulse was racing and telling himself that he had done the right thing by not responding to Isabelle’s invitation. It was the sensible reaction, the wise decision on his part, but a part of him wanted to throw wisdom to the wind and take the next train to Paris and embrace Isabelle and all her risks.
The phone interrupted his thoughts. It was Nathalie calling to say she had checked the files; they had received Jacqueline’s application on May 30. That was six weeks before the Bondino payment to Agricolae. But it was after she had met Bondino in the professor’s office and realized that he was heading for this part of France. So what had triggered Jacqueline’s decision to come to work in Saint-Denis? Bruno grabbed his cap and the keys to his van and ran down the stairs of the mairie, stopping only to pose a question at the Hotel Saint-Denis and to phone J-J and ask him to meet him at Pamela’s place as soon as he could.
Pamela was doing her accounts at the kitchen table when he arrived. A stack of bills and papers sat in front of her, and her glasses were perched on the end of her nose. She looked up, startled as he knocked and opened the door, and then smiled to see him. She came forward to place her hands on his cheeks and kiss him on the lips. He responded with enthusiasm, hugged her close to him and then moved his head back.
“Don’t misunderstand. I’d like to carry on kissing you for some time, but I’ve got pressing business,” he said. “You know those family photos and files that you saw in Jacqueline’s house? I need to look at them before she gets back, so I’ll need your key, please. It’s official-J-J’s on his way.”
She took off her glasses. “Is this legal? Do you need a warrant or something?”
“You’re the property owner. Did Jacqueline sign a lease?”
“Then it’s legal. Come on, we don’t have much time.”
Pamela took a key from a row of hooks on the wall and led the way. “Can you tell me what this is about?”
“I just found out that her mother’s maiden name is Bondino. There was a bitter family feud over the ownership of the vineyards, really bitter. So I need to see those files and photos. And since most of them will be in English I’ll need your help.”
Jacqueline’s closed laptop was on the table, a row of her wine books lined up behind it. In a fat briefcase below the table Bruno found the files, all unmarked but full of material about the Bondino family and its company. In the first file were photographs of people, and on the back of each one was a penciled name. Several depicted the man he knew from magazine photos as Bondino’s father, the head of the company. Some showed him as a vigorous youth. In one photo he was holding a baby girl in the crook of his arm. On the back it said simply “FXB, Maman, 1957.” That would be Francis X. Bondino, Fernando’s father. Maman presumably would be Jacqueline’s mother.
“This file is all about the Bondino company-business plans, accounts, revenue projections for this year and next year,” Pamela said, suddenly a model of brisk efficiency. “I wonder how she got hold of that? It’s all marked ‘confidential,’ though it looks pretty boring.”
“Let me see,” said Bruno. The numbers and columns and charts meant nothing to him. He leafed back to the first page, which was headed by a short list of names. It was dated August 20, last month. How had she obtained something so recent? “What’s that say?” he asked, pointing to a phrase at the head of the list.
“That says ‘Distribution Restricted,’ and it lists FXB and FXB Junior, and then two more sets of initials identified as those of the finance director and the sales director. I think that means they’re the only four people supposed to have this, so how did Jacqueline get it?”
“I don’t know, but she was already in France by then so she must have obtained it here somehow, maybe from Bondino.” Bruno paused. “Can you think of some reason why he might give this confidential stuff to her?”
“Maybe she just took it,” Pamela said. “Or maybe this was what she was after, here on the next page. It’s about Saint-Denis.”
“What?” Bruno came to look over her shoulder. “What’s it say about Saint-Denis?”
“It’s a report from the research station on drought-resistant vines, along with the photocopy of a bank transfer from Bondino to a company called Agricolae for 120,000 euros to finance the research here in Saint-Denis. There’s another bank transfer, 200,000 euros to a Paris company called Dupuy. The transfers are dated in July of this year.”
“No wonder Bondino was angry about the research station crops being burned,” said Bruno.
“How did Jacqueline get hold of all this? It’s like espionage. Do you think she told Max about Bondino and the research station?”
“That’s a very good question. What’s in the next file?”
It contained the details of a lawsuit, Bondino v. Bondino, that started in 1957 in California. Pamela sifted through the legal papers-affidavits, statements and notices of discovery-and came to a clipping from the San Francisco Examiner dated March 11, 1958. The headline read “Bondino Will Upheld,” and Pamela began giving a rough translation of the story.
“It begins: ‘The elder son of deceased Napa Valley wine magnate Silvio Bondino lost his share of the multimillion-dollar inheritance when the district court ruled that a disputed will was valid.’ Shall I go on?”
“No, this is familiar stuff. That battle over the will was where the feud began. It replaced an old will that divided the Bondino estate evenly between the two brothers, but then this new will turned up,” said Bruno, riffling through more photographs, some so old they were in shades of brown rather than black and white. Others had crinkled edges like ancient postcards. He held up an aged sepia print. “Here’s the founder of the family fortunes, Silvio himself, as a young man. He arrived in California from Italy back in the late nineteenth century.”
“Quite a handsome man.”
“A tough one, too. He kept the family business going all through Prohibition, when alcohol was banned, and then again through the Depression. He had two sons. The younger one now runs one of the world’s biggest wine firms, after inheriting it from his father, and the older one was left nothing in the will that he claimed was a forgery.”
“Here’s another clipping-‘Disinherited Bondino Son Dies in Car Crash; Foul Play Not Suspected.’ Somebody didn’t agree with that verdict,” said Pamela. “The clipping is attached to a bill from a lawyer and another from a private detective for inquiries into the car crash. The lawyer’s bill is for thirty-two hundred dollars, but I imagine that was worth quite a sum back in 1958. And here’s the detective’s report. The last page says, ‘We regret to inform you that our inquiries have proved inconclusive.’”
“The dead man’s widow brought a lawsuit claiming her husband had been murdered. It got nowhere and she ran out of money,” Bruno said. “I was reading up about this earlier. But look at this photo-it’s the same baby girl, in nineteen fifty-seven, but this time with a woman, and on the back it says, Maman et Grand-mere. And if you look at this family photo of everybody including old Silvio, from Christmas 1956, the woman listed as Grand-mere is being embraced by Grand-pere. But look at Grand-pere’s face and compare it with this photo. It’s the same man, so Jacqueline’s grand-pere was the elder brother, the one who should have inherited but for the disputed will. You can confirm that from that photo of him in your news clipping. ‘Grand-mere’ was his widow, the woman who brought the failed lawsuit. See if you can find any names for Grand-mere and Maman.”
“Right here on the private detective’s bill-Mrs. Maria Bondino, 4249 Sunset Drive, Sausalito, California. What very long roads the Americans have. She must be Grand-mere. Look, here’s a carbon copy of a letter from Maria to Francis, dated April 4, 1958-that’s after the court verdict-asking for money ‘to ensure the education of’ his niece Sophia. So that’s the baby girl in the photo, who presumably grew up to marry a French-Canadian called Duplessis and to become Jacqueline’s mother.”
“That makes Jacqueline the great-niece of our Francis X. Bondino,” said Bruno, “the man whose wise old face beams at us from all these company brochures. And his son would be Jacqueline’s cousin, as well as her lover.”
“Her lover?” said Pamela, startled. “You didn’t tell me that. Was that while she was seeing Max or before?”
“Maybe while she was seeing Max; I’m not sure. But I think she deliberately set out to meet young Bondino. She knew exactly who he was and what he was doing in Saint-Denis. She knew that she was sleeping with her own cousin and she knew all about the family feud. But I don’t think Fernando had the slightest idea who she was or that they were related. The two branches of the family seem to have been bitterly estranged.”
“That makes it sound rather sinister.”
“Indeed it does,” said Bruno. “What’s in that next file?”
“More press clippings, new ones, all about the Bondino company, printed out from the Internet. Here’s one from BusinessWeek in March of this year about production problems in Australia because of the drought. And here’s an interview with Bondino from a wine magazine in May, with a paragraph marked in the margin. It’s about ‘exploring new opportunities in Europe, where the industry has yet to benefit from consolidation.’ He mentions France and Italy and eastern Europe. And here’s another bit she’s marked, about there being an ‘unsustainable business model in the Bordeaux region with too many small producers making too many wines of variable quality and no consistency of product.’ It says here that Fernando Bondino graduated from Stanford business school.”
“So she knew back in May that Bondino was coming to Europe,” mused Bruno aloud. “And Hubert got her letter asking to come and work for him at the end of May. She came to Saint-Denis on purpose, knowing that Bondino would also be here. But what did she have in mind?”
“This file looks interesting,” said Pamela, who had been perusing it while listening. “It’s about the history of wine making in the Dordogne and Vezere valleys by some professor at a university in California. It says he has the Bondino chair of wine studies, and she underlined the concluding paragraph that says, ‘History therefore suggests that the Dordogne and Vezere valleys represent the last unexploited opportunities for quality wine production in Europe, with excellent climate and terrain, reliable water supplies and inexpensive land prices.’ So Bondino decided to come here to Saint-Denis just after his own professor delivered this paper. It’s dated in April of this year.”
Bruno looked out when he heard the crunching of gravel in the courtyard as J-J braked his car. The detective opened the door but remained in the driver’s seat, his phone to his ear, nodding as Bruno waved a greeting and gestured for J-J to join them inside.
J-J burst through the door of Jacqueline’s house, beaming with pleasure. “We’ve got him. I was right all along. DNA evidence. Those hairs under Max’s nails. They definitely came from Bondino.”
“But those hairs could have come from the fight at the bar earlier that evening,” Bruno said.
“Don’t you remember? He said Max never laid a hand on him. It’s on tape from the interrogation. He says he punched Max in the nose but Max never laid a finger on him in the fight. So how can he explain away his own hair?”
“I don’t know,” said Bruno. “But the reason I called you here is that this Canadian girl is a lot more than she seems. Look at these family photos and these files-she’s Bondino’s cousin, and she knows it but he doesn’t. And it looks like she’s been stalking him. Pamela can explain it all; I’m going to look around because Jacqueline could be back within the hour.”
Bruno found the garbage can in the kitchen. It was empty, but there was a large wicker basket beside the fire that seemed full of old newspapers. He fished among the first few, using his pen to sort through them, but they just seemed to be discarded copies of Sud Ouest . He stood up, but one of the papers came with him, somehow stuck to his pen. He tried to shake it off, without success. He looked, and there were two strips of adhesive tape sticking his pen to the newsprint. Trying to peel them away he found five more small strips of the tape, each about a couple of inches long, all stuck to the paper.
“Why would Jacqueline have these strips of adhesive tape?” Bruno murmured, thinking aloud.
“Gift-wrapping,” Pamela said as she arrived in the kitchen. “That’s how I do it. If I’m wrapping a present, I cut off several strips of tape at a time so they’re ready when I fold the paper.”
“There’s no sign of wrapping paper,” said Bruno. “She may already have dumped stuff in the main garbage can outside. Pamela, can you have a look while I finish checking something upstairs?”
Leaving J-J looking at the files, Bruno went upstairs to find two bedrooms and a small bathroom filled with the usual feminine toiletries-soaps, shampoos, toothpaste and a hairbrush. He took a careful look but saw only the girl’s own long blond hairs. Jacqueline used one of the bedrooms to sleep in, the other as a dressing room, with her clothes and shoes in the cupboard. One item caught Bruno’s eye, an old Saint-Denis rugby shirt hanging forlornly from a nail. It must have belonged to Max. The chest of drawers was empty. The other room had a flimsy nightgown on the bed and a robe hanging on a hook on the back of the door. A small dressing table stood by the window, stacked with cosmetics. He looked in the drawers, which contained underwear and stockings. But then he saw something else, tucked away at the back, and pulled out a tightly rolled plastic bag that contained a spare hairbrush. He looked at it carefully.
“J-J, can you come up here a moment?” he called. When the big commissaire came into the room, Bruno pointed to the brush in the plastic bag.
“Look carefully and you’ll see short dark hairs on that brush. Obviously, they aren’t Jacqueline’s. My guess is they belonged to Bondino. She told me he spent one night in her old hotel room, but just before I came here I went to check with the manager’s wife, and she said it was two or three nights. Whenever Max wasn’t with her, Bondino was. He could have used her hairbrush then. Or maybe it’s his. So it’s possible that Bondino never laid a hand on Max, just as he said, whatever the DNA evidence might suggest. Somebody else put those hairs under Max’s nails to incriminate Bondino. I think you’d better get your forensics team over here.”
“That’s pretty far-fetched, Bruno. I suppose you see her motive as that family feud, and those documents you explained to me,” said J-J, looking through the items on the dressing table. “What’s that? A nail file?”
A nail file might be just the thing to put Bondino’s hair under Max’s fingernails, thought Bruno as J-J pointed at the thin plastic sleeve on the dressing table.
“Got any evidence gloves in your car?”
“In the glove compartment. Help yourself,” said J-J, thumbing a number into his phone to call his forensics team.
Out in the courtyard, Pamela was poking through a large yellow plastic bag that she had pulled from the garbage can. “No wrapping paper, but more of these strips of tape,” she called. Bruno waved an acknowledgment and grabbed two sets of gloves, then ran back up the stairs and handed a pair to J-J. He blew into them to loosen the latex, slipped his hands into them and then picked up what turned out not to be a nail file. He eased a long flexible plastic strip from the sleeve.
“A strip of thin plastic protected inside plastic. What on earth could that be?” he asked, holding it up to the window and turning it. Bruno switched on the desk lamp and they looked again.
“Wait a minute,” said Bruno. He darted down the stairs again and returned with some of the strips of tape that Pamela had rescued, holding them against the light.
“You always get fingerprints on sticky tape,” said J-J.
“Yes, but whose?” said Bruno. He went into the bathroom and came out with some talcum powder, then delicately tapped the bottom of the can, dusting a small amount onto one of the bottles of toilet water on the dressing table. “Let’s assume those are Jacqueline’s prints on her scent bottle,” he said, and gently blew away the talc. The ridges of a thumbprint emerged on the glass. He placed one of the adhesive strips alongside it. “That’s the same print, right?”
“Yes, it looks like it,” said J-J. “So what’s your point?”
“Watch.” Bruno carefully unwrapped a little of the plastic bag and dusted some talcum power onto the handle of the hairbrush and then blew it away. “That print there will belong to Bondino, and I know why she wanted his prints. His laptop computer has a security device, some kind of sensor that required his fingerprint to unlock it. That’s why she needed him in her bed and asleep in her room. She wanted to get into his computer. Some of the documents in those files of hers downstairs are confidential business plans and company accounts. Maybe that’s what she was after. But if she could fake his prints to get into his computer, what else could she do with them?”
“You think she could have transferred them onto that glass we found at Cresseil’s place?” asked J-J.
“That’s what the adhesive tape strips were for. I think she lifted the fingerprints from her hairbrush and then put them on the glass. That’s one for your forensics team to check when they get here. If that’s what she did, there’ll be traces of the adhesive on the glass.”
“Hello,” called Pamela from downstairs, above the sound of another car arriving. “Fabiola’s here. There’s nothing more in the garbage can, no wrapping paper. Are you two both upstairs?” Bruno shouted, “Yes,” and heard her footsteps coming up the stairs.
“Those bits of tape,” he said when she came into the bedroom. “I think they were used to lift fingerprints from one thing and transfer them to something else.”
“Oh yes?” she said, not the least bit surprised. “I think I remember something like that from one of the IRA bomb trials in Britain. You remember, the Northern Ireland troubles. So whose fingerprints do you have?”
“We aren’t sure yet,” said Bruno as J-J began working his phone again. “Let’s go down and say hello to Fabiola. I need to find out what happened with the pathologist’s report.”
Fabiola’s car was packed. There was a suitcase on the floor of the passenger’s side, and a cardboard box on the seat with a large stuffed plastic bag atop it that tumbled into the driver’s seat as soon as Fabiola emerged. The rear seats were down and the cargo space stuffed to the brim with suitcases, shopping bags and cardboard boxes.
“That’s my life,” she said. “Everything I own is in that car.”
“I’ll help you unload,” said Bruno, hearing J-J’s heavy tread coming down the wooden stairs. “But first we need to know about the pathologist’s report. J-J, you should listen to this.”
“The attestation has been filed,” Fabiola said as J-J joined them. “Accidental death by asphyxiation, but with a cautious appendix saying the blow to the head was inflicted after death. So you have no murder.”
J-J let out a vast explosion of breath, and his shoulders sagged. “Putain, putain, putain…”
“It looks like we may have another crime: planting false evidence,” said Bruno.
“Not to mention wasting police time and dropping me in the merde,” added J-J. “But how did she come to be at the death scene to plant those fake hairs?”
“You mean the ones I found under Max’s nails? I don’t think there was anything fake about them,” said Fabiola. “They were real hairs, with follicles on the end. It’s not like someone got them from a barber’s clippings. Remember, Bruno? I looked at them with a magnifying glass.”
“Like these?” asked J-J, holding up a plastic evidence bag that contained the hairbrush.
Fabiola looked carefully, and then asked for a magnifying glass. J-J got one from his car, and she looked again, then pulled out her phone. “I’m calling my colleague in Bergerac. There’s something we can check.”
She dialed quickly.
“Jean-Claude? Listen, it’s me. That autopsy we did with the asphyxiation, the one with the long delay over the head wound, can you check something for me? Yes? It’s the fingernails. You remember we found hairs in them and follicles. Was there any other alien flesh under the nails or just the hairs? There seems to be a possibility that the hairs were planted on the corpse. Okay, I’ll wait for your call. Thanks.”
Fabiola turned back to them. “He’ll let me know, but I can’t say I remember anything except the hairs. None of those traces of flesh you usually find if the hairs have been snatched in a struggle.” She looked forlorn. “I’m sorry; it’s my fault,” she went on. “I wasn’t thinking about planted evidence, so I didn’t look for anything else. I won’t make that mistake again.”
“Would that be definitive proof that the hair was planted, if there’s no flesh in the nails?” Bruno asked her.
“No, but it’s very suggestive,” she replied.
“I think we need a drink,” said Pamela. “You help Fabiola unload the car and I’ll bring the glasses. Ricard for everybody?” They nodded. “The door to Fabiola’s gite is open. I put a new gas canister in the kitchen and some milk and eggs in the refrigerator. The eggs are from Bruno’s hens, by the way. Just go straight in and put your stuff wherever you want.”
Two trips back and forth were all it took for the three of them. Fabiola’s suitcases were parked upstairs, the boxes of books placed beside the shelves in the sitting room, the plastic bags put on the kitchen counter and the medical bag by the door.
“Look,” said Fabiola when they were done, pointing at a vase filled with flowers on the table. “Pamela is so kind, welcoming me with flowers.” She went across to the refrigerator and opened the door. “And look at this, orange juice and butter, and coffee and fruit here on the counter. I must go thank her.”
Bruno and J-J strolled back to the courtyard with Fabiola, and the four of them gathered around Pamela’s table, where she had been waiting with a tray of drinks. They clinked their glasses in formal welcome to Fabiola, and J-J stole a glance at his watch.
“She’ll be here any moment,” said Bruno.
“So will my men,” J-J said. “You realize I’m probably going to have to go back to your Captain Duroc and ask to use his jail again.”
“You’re not taking her directly to Perigueux for questioning?” Bruno asked.
“No murder, so no juge d’instruction, and we’ll need the forensics report on the hair and fingerprints before we can file any charges. So no, I’m not taking her to Perigueux until I have all my ducks in a row. I’ve already got the American ambassador filing complaints in Paris. I don’t want the Canadian one joining in.”
Fabiola’s phone trilled. “Yes? Jean-Claude? Nothing but the hair and some splinters of wood. No flesh. Okay, thanks. Can you make sure the report gets amended to say that? Send me the paperwork to sign. Right. See you, and thanks again.” She looked up at them. “You heard that.”
“I heard,” said J-J, looking at Bruno. “Pretty cunning. But why would she want Bondino charged with murder? Is there money in it for her?”
“It’s the old family feud. But I don’t think there’s money involved. Greed’s not the motive. It’s vengeance.”
“So she slept with Bondino just to destroy him?” asked Pamela.
“Let’s ask her,” said Bruno, looking out through the courtyard.
At the end of the lane, a figure appeared on a bicycle, pedaling briskly, her blond hair streaming behind her. Pamela rose, put all the glasses on a tray and took them into the kitchen. “Come along, Fabiola. I don’t think we ought to be here for this, so I’ll help you unpack.”
When they had gone, J-J went across to his car, opened the passenger door and took a pair of handcuffs from the glove compartment and then returned to join Bruno. The two men stood and waited until Jacqueline pulled up in front of them. She stepped off her bike and lifted her cheek to Bruno as if to be kissed. Bruno ignored this and took the handlebars in one hand.
“ Bonsoir, Jacqueline. Commissaire Jalipeau here has some questions for you, and I need to see your passport again, please.”
Suddenly wary, her eyes darting from Bruno to J-J’s grim face, Jacqueline pulled her shoulder bag from the wicker basket above the bicycle’s rear wheel and fished inside, pulling out her dark blue passport and handing it over. Bruno quickly checked the photo, and then with his eyes fixed on hers, put the passport into the chest pocket of his shirt and fastened the button.
“We now know exactly what happened,” J-J said. “We know how you put Bondino’s fingerprints on the glass you left at the farmhouse. We know where you got those bits of his hair that you put under Max’s fingernails. We know how you broke into Bondino’s computer and downloaded his files. We know how you tried to plant the evidence so that Bondino would be convicted of murder. We know all this, and we can prove it. My forensics team will be here shortly and will go over every inch of your house, every item of your clothing, and when you are arrested and in jail a policewoman will be conducting a full body search.”
J-J advanced upon her, taking one arm firmly and opening the handcuffs. “Do you have anything to say?”
She looked helplessly at Bruno. “Answer the question,” he told her. “Do you have anything to say?”
“I don’t know,” she said hesitantly, her eyes fixed on J-J’s handcuffs.
“Well, let’s start where you lied the last time I asked you about this,” Bruno suggested. “You told me you spent one drunken night with Bondino in your hotel room. That wasn’t true. You entertained him in your hotel room at least three nights, the concierge tells me. And yet this was your cousin, from the other side of a bitter family feud. You seduced him and got him drunk so that you could get into his computer as he slept it off.”
Jacqueline closed her eyes and shook her head but kept silent.
“We can prove that, from your own computer files, and from the printouts we found in your files of confidential documents from the Bondino group. That’s commercial espionage,” Bruno said. “But let’s go on to your next lie. You said you left the bar with Max after the fight with Bondino and went to make love in the park by the river and then he left you to go and tread the grapes by himself. That wasn’t true, was it?”
“No.” She shook her head. “I went with him and we trod the grapes together.”
“Was that where you made love, at Cresseil’s place?”
She nodded, biting her lip.
“Did you go into the house, to the bedroom upstairs?”
“No,” she said quietly. “The old man was a light sleeper. And the dog…”
“In the open air, then? Were you telling the truth about that?”
“Yes. I mean, no,” she said urgently, her eyes very wide, a trace of panic in her voice. “We were in the vat, while we were treading the grapes. We made love in the vat.”
“So what happened?” Bruno asked quietly. “Why did Max suffocate but not you?”
“We were kissing…,” she began. She stopped and closed her eyes. Bruno and J-J just looked at her, letting the silence build. Her eyes opened but seemed to focus on nothing.
“My head was over the side of the vat and I was holding the rim with both hands. Max was behind me, he was… he was very passionate. Then he was slumped on me, a deadweight. I was trapped; I couldn’t move.”
She burst into tears, and let them fall down her cheeks. “I couldn’t move, and he didn’t respond. I thought he was asleep or that he’d passed out. I didn’t know what was happening, and even though my head was over the side of the vat I was dizzy, like I was fainting. I managed to push him away, and his head hit the side with a thud and I panicked.”
Jacqueline stopped, looking down at the ground. Bruno waited, his eyes fixed on her. J-J was immobile beside him.
“And when did Cresseil come into the barn?” Bruno asked.
“I climbed out of the vat and I must have been screaming because the old man came out of his house. He saw me at the door of the barn and pushed me aside and went in. I saw him climb the steps and then he crumpled and fell, right from the top of the steps. He just fell and lay there.”
“So why didn’t you call the emergency services, the pompiers, the ambulance?” asked Bruno.
She shook her head. “I don’t know. It was that damned dog, yapping. It was hardly able to move, its back legs crippled, but it kept creeping across to the old man and yapping and howling and turning to snarl at me. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t shut it up. I didn’t know what to do.”
“So you killed the dog.”
“I hit it on the head with a big stone to knock it out, but the stone was so big.”
“Your lover was dead. The old man was dead. The dog was dead,” Bruno said flatly. “You came here to Saint-Denis determined to ruin Bondino’s project. Max’s death gave you the perfect opportunity. You began to work out in a very cold-blooded way how this could be made to damage your cousin, to have him blamed for murder and take your revenge on the family.”
“You don’t know what they did to us,” she snapped back, her eyes suddenly ablaze. “They arranged the killing of my grandfather, they cheated my mother out of what was hers. They built their fortune on fraud. They’re the killers, not me. I didn’t kill anybody.” She stared defiantly into Bruno’s face. “And you know something else? They’re going to destroy this precious town of yours. They’re going to take your land and take your water and make their usual mass-produced crap. They’re going to swallow you all up, just like they devour everything else.”
Bruno just smiled and slowly shook his head. “No, they aren’t.” Into the silence came the sound of a distant car, drawing closer. J-J let out a deep breath, looked up the driveway and said, “My men.” Then he looked down at Jacqueline and snapped his handcuffs onto her wrists.
The leaves were thick on the ground at the edge of the woods, a fringe of browns and yellows and the occasional splash of red starting to cover the charred expanse of the field. Farther across the barren soil, the ruins of the large shed had crumbled under the rains and wind. Bruno felt himself shiver slightly as he remembered the sound of the gasoline can exploding and watching Albert topple to his knees in the flames. Beneath him, the gray mare twitched, perhaps feeling his brief shiver, perhaps sensing the change in his mood. Pamela had said horses could do that. He leaned forward to pat the horse’s neck.
“It’s all right, Victoria. Just a memory,” he said. The horse stood calmly, patiently allowing Gigi to sniff around her feet. The horses had grown accustomed to Bruno’s dog, but Bruno had yet to get comfortable with being astride an animal that seemed so much larger and more powerful underneath him than it did in the stables, and that kept him so high off the ground as he looked across the field.
“This is where it started,” said Pamela, bringing Bess to a halt alongside him. “There’s an old English saying, ‘Red sky at morning, shepherd’s warning.’ You remember the huge glow?”
“I remember. And I remember the hat you wore at the adoption ceremony. Cresseil told me you reminded him of his lovely Annette. He was right. You do look a little like her. I saw some of Cresseil’s old photos.” He looked at her. “You’re more beautiful.”
She smiled at him. “Do you feel ready to try a short canter?”
“In a moment, perhaps,” he said. “You’ve had me riding so much that the inside of my thighs are sore and I feel as if I’ve scoured all the hairs off my legs.”
“Your legs are still gripping too tightly. As you get more confident, you’ll relax, and it’ll be fine.” Pamela paused, and in a different tone of voice said, “I suppose you know what was in the paper, about Jacqueline?”
He nodded. She had been returned to Quebec under a treaty that allowed French and Canadian nationals to serve prison terms in their home country.
“Nine months wasn’t much of a sentence,” Pamela said.
“Obstruction of justice, providing false evidence and statements, failure to report a death, killing an animal; no, not much of a sentence. The commercial espionage count was dropped, since Bondino decided not to press charges. And there was no proof that she’d been paid by the Australians,” Bruno said.
“Australians?” Pamela asked. “There was nothing about them in the newspapers. How were they involved?”
“She did some research for her professor in California on that paper he wrote for Bondino on commercial prospects in the Dordogne,” Bruno explained. “So she had a copy of the paper and got in touch with the big Australian wine group she’d interned with when she was studying there and sent them a copy. They were interested to find out what the competition was doing and Jacqueline wanted a job, so the relationship grew. From her e-mails, it’s clear she sent them everything she got from Bondino’s computer, including the contract on drought-resistant vines with the research station.”
“Did she put Max up to setting the fire?”
“She denies it, and we couldn’t prove anything,” Bruno said. “And she was very good at the trial, beautiful and vulnerable and young. She milked the tragic ordeal in the vat and convinced the judge she had panicked. She probably didn’t even need the good lawyer her parents got her.”
“So next summer, she’ll be out and free again,” said Pamela. “It doesn’t feel right.”
“Her real punishment will start then,” said Bruno. “She’ll never work in the wine trade again. She’ll be notorious, after all the publicity. And Bondino escaped her plot. The feud’s over. He won.”
“You have a very idiosyncratic sense of justice, Bruno,” she said.
“Wait,” he whispered, pointing. “See over there, at the edge of the field?” At the horse’s feet, Gigi was pointing, one paw half raised and his head up to catch the faintest scent, his tail out horizontally behind him. Pamela peered across the field but saw nothing, and then suddenly there was a fluttering in the far hedge and a small black shape emerged to dash across the gray November sky, darting up and down as it flew.
“Becasses,” said Bruno. “Soon it will be hunting season.”
“Good hunting. I’m looking forward to another of your dinners with becasses. And what wine do you plan to feature this time?”
“It’s an embarrassment of riches,” Bruno said. He still could barely believe what an extraordinary case of wine he had been given, even though he had been to Hubert’s cellar to see the twelve bottles of Chateau Petrus. There were three each from 1982, 1985 and 1990, and a single bottle from each of the great years: 1947, 1961 and 1975. It was Bondino’s gift, and it had taken Hubert a month to assemble it from various cellars. It had come with a simple card saying “Thank you, Bruno. Fernando.”
Bruno realized it had cost a ridiculous amount of money. Hubert told him the case was worth more than Bruno’s investment in the new company Vignerons de Saint-Denissur-Vezere. “Maybe I’ll sell it and buy more shares in the company,” he’d told Hubert, knowing he wouldn’t. There were some things more valuable than money.
Another dinner, another wine, another love. He looked gratefully at Pamela, a woman who seemed content to give him all the time in the world.
“Let’s try a canter,” he said, pressing his heels into Victoria’s rounded sides as they rode past the ruined shed and headed for the break in the woods that led down to the valley and Pamela’s home.