Murderous Mistral: New Excerpt
International Dagger Award shortlisted author of The Murderer in Ruins, Cay Rademacher, delivers an atmospheric new story in Murderous Mistral: A Provence Mystery.
Capitaine Roger Blanc, an investigator with the anti-corruption-unit of the French Gendarmerie, was a bit too succesfull in his investigations. He finds himself removed from Paris to the south of France, far away from political power. Or so it would seem.
The stress is too much for his marriage, and he attempts to manage the break up while trying to settle into his new life in Provence in a 200-year-old, half-ruined house. At the same time, Blanc is tasked with his first murder case: A man with no friends and a lot of enemies, an outsider, was found shot and burned. When a second man dies under suspicious circumstances in the quaint French countryside, the Capitaine from Paris has to dig deep into the hidden, dark undersides of the Provence he never expected to see.
An Old House in Provence
Roger Blanc kicked at a stone, startling a black scorpion underneath it. The creature was as long as his thumb and its curved stinger rose threateningly. Within seconds it had scuttled away under the gravel. Welcome home, Blanc thought.
He was a captain in a special unit of the Paris gendarmerie, in his early forties, with pale blue eyes, and he wore a black T-shirt, jeans, and shabby sneakers. He was an expert detective who had solved so many cases it seemed almost supernatural to his colleagues. He lived in an apartment high above the sixteenth arrondissement, and was married to a wonderful woman. Or had been. Until 11:30 A.M. last Friday. Now it was 9:00 on Monday morning and his career was in the trash can. There were already photos of his apartment in the real estate agent’s window and his wife was in the arms of her lover. He’d known weeks that had started better.
The sun shone mercilessly down on a ruin of yellowy-brown stone more than five hundred miles south of Paris. The hamlet of Sainte-Françoise-la-Vallée was so tiny that it had taken his Nokia cell phone’s maps app nearly a whole minute to plan a route here from the capital. Provence. It sounded wonderful until you zoomed in on the map. Sainte-Françoise was so far south it almost bordered the Étang de Berre. Weren’t there oil tankers and refineries down there somewhere? In any case it wasn’t far from Marseille, and that meant drugs and corruption and the scorn of headquarters back in Paris.
Blanc had inherited the dilapidated house in the Midi from an uncle ten years ago. He had only been here once before and that must have been back when he was just four or five years old. He had only a few images in his head: a tiny room, wooden shutters on the windows, closed to keep out the heat. Rays of sunshine that fell through the wooden slats and spread across the tiled floor like a yellow fan. But his main memory was much clearer: his uncle putting down a glass of rosé wine in front of him. He had been gasping with thirst and downed it in one, only later noticing the bitter taste of the alcohol.
Blanc hadn’t been back to his uncle’s since. Years later he had nonetheless paid the inheritance tax without thinking, simply because he couldn’t be bothered to go to the trouble of selling a house he cared nothing for. In any case he was always too busy. He could probably see that changing now. The house was a lot smaller than he remembered. And in worse condition.
In the eighteenth century it had been home to an olive oil press in the Touloubre valley, a two-story house leaning against a sixty-foot-high cliff face like some tired hiker. The walls were made of roughly rectangular hewn stone, as thick as the walls of a castle. The roof tiles were a reddish ochre, some of them broken, others having slid out of place. Wild vines sprawled over the walls, the iron grids on the windows, and the wooden front door. Once upon a time it had been painted blue, but now the paint had peeled and weathered to a pale gray. The shutters hung from their hinges at oblique angles like ragged sails. In the stream that ran around the little patch of land, bottle-green water flowed over stones covered in moss, dragonflies hovering in the reflected light like miniature helicopters. Around the house were flowering thistles and other bushes Blanc didn’t know the names of. At one corner to the rear an ancient oleander grew as high as the gable, releasing an intoxicating perfume from its green leaves and bloodred flowers. It was already so hot that the cicadas were clicking away in the trees.
Blanc weighed the blacksmith-made key in his hand: It was as heavy as a hammer, a piece that any local museum would have been proud to display. He used his Opinel knife to clear away the vine growth around the lock and inserted the key. It took a few minutes and all his strength to get the rusty mechanism to work. At least nobody had broken in, he thought, taking a deep breath of the aromatic air outside before venturing into the murky interior.
It had the cool of some ancient ruin, and a dusty smell somewhere between sand and old paper. Nobody had ever cleared the house out. Blanc had walked into a time capsule: a kitchen with yellow marble worktops and an ancient enamel sink with a dulled bronze faucet. Five non-matching chairs stood around a wooden table that once had been painted white but was now chipped and scratched. Blanc entered the living room: a little table from the 1960s, a fireplace of soot-coated stone, and a sofa on which lay the desiccated corpse of a bat. In the bedroom he came across a mahogany wardrobe from the Empire period, which would have cost a fortune in Paris. Next to it was the iron frame of a double bed. No mattress. (That was where his uncle had died, Blanc recalled.) In the bathroom stood an enormous bathtub with cast iron feet in the shape of fierce lions, encrusted in dirt, and lying in it three open wine bottles, the contents of which had long since evaporated.
Blanc decided not to take the stone stairs up to the next floor. He went back into the hallway, where a gray telephone with a dial stood on a little shelf. He lifted the receiver. The line was dead. What else had he expected? He opened the fuse box next to it, hesitated for a second, then pulled down the main switch. He expected to hear a series of bangs as ancient fuses blew, to see sparks and smell the stench of melted cables. Instead a little living room lamp lit up, giving a yellowish light through the dust on the bulb. So, there was still electricity. He suddenly remembered that every summer he got a bill from the electricity company that he never understood, but paid it all the same. Now he realized what it related to. Blanc pulled out his cell phone. No reception. Probably because of the cliff that held up the rear of the house. Some advantages then, he thought.
Blanc went back out again. He was still exhausted from his last row with Geneviève, from the long overnight journey down from Paris, from the heat, and from the task ahead of turning this wreck into an inhabitable house again. All his possessions were in his old green Renault Espace. He and Geneviève had bought the car when the children were still small: It was spacious but unfortunately was prone to go on strike as often as the trade union members who made it. His wife—his ex-wife—had left him the car. He wondered what sort of car her new man drove, then told himself not to be an idiot.
“Hey,” an aggressive voice yelled from somewhere on the other bank of the Touloubre river. “This shack isn’t for sale. It belongs to some idiot from Paris.”
“I’m the idiot from Paris,” Blanc called back. He spotted a white-haired but not very old man sitting on a dented green tractor, scowling at him suspiciously from the opposite bank. Behind him was a dirty white-plastered house of an ill-defined shape, surrounded by rusty iron scaffolding but with no wooden planking. Somewhere in the distance a goat was bleating. Had to be a farmhouse, Blanc reckoned. “I’m the new inhabitant too,” he said in a more friendly voice. The last thing he needed was to be on bad terms with his neighbor. The man on the tractor was small and wiry, like a bantamweight boxer. “If you’re renovating, you can’t extend it,” he growled, “The commune won’t allow it.”
His voice was tinged by the yellow Gitane that hung from his mouth the whole time he was speaking.
“I’m not intending to build a hotel,” Blanc reassured him, muttering connard—idiot—under his breath.
The neighbor shouted something incomprehensible in the direction of his house, where there was obviously someone Blanc couldn’t see. Then he roared off on the tractor.
Blanc bent his nearly six-foot-six frame double and dived into the Espace, fumbling around amidst the piles of stuff on the passenger seat. A sports bag fell into the foot well, notebooks and CDs tumbling out of it. He wasn’t the most dexterous of men; his arms and legs were too long and somehow always got in the way. Finally he found his faded blue baseball cap with NOVA SCOTIA printed on it. He had been born up north, where people apologized to strangers if they went two days without rain. He didn’t want to meet his new colleagues with his nose peeling.
New colleagues … It was July 1 and every decent Frenchman was in lazy summer holiday mood. But he had to turn up at his new workplace. “Merde,” he cursed, thumping the steering wheel, “merde, merde, merde!”
* * *
At 11:30 A.M. on Friday he had been called in to the gendarmerie headquarters, a bland new functional building in the rue Claude Bernard in Issy-les-Moulineaux, outside Paris’s Périphérique inner ring road. Monsieur Jean-Charles Vialaron-Allègre had summoned him—a graduate of the top civil service college, a member of parliament, a ministerial deputy in the ministry of the interior, and one of those men in the ruling party whose insatiable ambition would only be satisfied when he moved into the Élysée presidential palace. His office was kitted out in the same easy-clean luxury as the Air France first-class lounge at Roissy Airport. The minister of state was fifty years old, slim, his thinning gray hair glued to the dome of his head with pomade, his tailored suit of the sort that was extremely expensive but at the same time not in the least flashy. He had a Charles de Gaulle nose and when he walked his head nodded backward and forward on his long neck so that the captain thought he resembled a ponderous heron.
Blanc stood in Vialaron-Allègre’s office, swaying with fatigue. He hadn’t had a day off in two months, and the few hours of sleep he had managed had as often as not been at his desk in the gendarmerie station, with the rubber mouse mat in front of his monitor as a pillow. That was the price he had had to pay (the only price, he thought at the time) to convict a former trade minister before the man could get rid of all the incriminating documents. It had been an old story but it hadn’t exceeded the statute of limitations. Back in the nineties France had sold power station turbines to the Ivory Coast. The African state’s government had paid millions of francs for them, but the money hadn’t ended up in the state coffers nor those of the constructors, but in bank accounts in Liechtenstein. It had ended up financing the minister’s campaign to be elected mayor of Bordeaux, which he had hoped would be a cozy sinecure for his old age.
No politician likes a policeman who uncovers corruption, in case every new scandal brings the ax closer to his own head. On the other hand the former minister had been one of the heavyweights in the rival party to that of the minister of state, and there were once again elections on the horizon. That made it more important than ever to appear incorruptible. Blanc therefore had hopes he might be promoted; commandant of the gendarmerie, perhaps. At his age, that would be something.
“Congratulations,” said Vialaron-Allègre, “you’re moving on.” His voice sounded like chalk on a blackboard.
In his tired and optimistic state, it took a few seconds for the meaning of the minister’s words to explode in his head: “Where to?” He realized himself that he was spluttering as if he’d been punched in the kidneys. Paris was the center of the world—at least for any policeman with ambition. Especially for a northerner like him who never ever wanted to be reminded of the damp and dreary place he came from. He had longed to escape the grimy terrace houses and shut-down steelworks, where the only people who still had jobs were those that worked at the unemployment insurance offices, where life consisted of beer and cigarettes and nothing more.
“To the south.”
Blanc’s mind was reeling. The Midi. Mafia. The provinces. The asshole of the world. The graveyard of any career. “You’re freezing me out?”
The minister of state raised his hands. “Freezing you out? In the warmest part of France? I should think not.”
What have you got to hide? Blanc asked himself. Was Vialaron-Allègre involved in the turbine engine corruption? What position had he held back then? Was he already in parliament? Which committee had he sat on? But it was too late: For millions of French the south was a dream. Insofar as they might be remotely interested, the voters would think the reassignment of Roger Blanc was a reward for exposing corruption, rather than a punishment. Very subtle. “When?” he asked, trying to keep the expression on his face under control.
“Right away. You start Monday morning. In the gendarmerie of a place called Gadet. A bit different from Paris, eh, mon Capitaine? I believe you own a house nearby.”
It took Blanc what seemed like an eternity before he understood what the minister of state was talking about. How did he know that? Blanc himself hadn’t thought of the wreck he had inherited for years, and had never mentioned it to any of his colleagues. “In that case I’ll clear my desk and take my files with me,” he muttered. It was meant as a threat, a last defiant gesture, a warning: I’ve got stuff on you, just you wait.
But if the minister of state was discomfited he didn’t show it. He gave a token smile, his small gray eyes looking Blanc up and down. “I imagine we’ll meet often,” he said, shaking his hand formally. As Blanc reached the door he called after him, “I’m sure your wife will be pleased at the move to Provence.” It sounded snide, but it took Blanc more than an hour to realize what he really meant.
* * *
Blanc entered the address of the Gadet gendarmerie into his smartphone. The app pulled up a rural road, a few curves, a roundabout, barely a mile and a half in all. He turned the key in the ignition and on the third attempt the Espace finally burst into life. He shoved the Fredericks Goldman Jones CD Geneviève had bought him after their first week together into the player and drove off toward the big, dilapidated gate to his property. At least he wouldn’t be stuck in a traffic jam like he would have been in Paris at this time of the morning. But just twenty yards on he had to slam on the brakes. In front of him stood three whitish gray horses, peering disinterestedly through the windshield.
Blanc honked his horn. One of the horses whinnied. He honked again. The horses turned their rear ends to him. Blanc wondered if he should just try to drive around them. But his Renault was so ramshackle that he feared it would come off second best if he went up against them. He extracted the Nokia from its in-car holder and zoomed in on the map. This minor road was the only way to get to Gadet. He rolled the window down and shouted angrily at the horses: “I’m going to make sausage meat out of you.”
“For sausage meat you want donkey, not Camargue horses.”
Blanc spun round in his seat. Next to the passenger window stood a horse that was a good head taller than the other three, with a woman on its back. She had to have come across the field. Blanc put her at about forty years old, with thick black hair tied back in a ponytail, her skin so brown from long hours in the sun that it would probably never lose the color. She was wearing moccasins, jeans, and an old white T-shirt with a red heart and the words DON DU SANG. Blood Donor.
“Pardon, sometimes my daughter forgets to close the gates.” She nodded toward a meadow on the other side of the road, half hidden behind a row of tall cypress trees. Next to it was a house in reddish stone with yellow oleander blooming in front of it and bougainvillea cascading down from a wrought-iron balcony on the first floor.
“I guess we’re neighbors then.” Blanc introduced himself and climbed out of the car, leaving the engine running, just in case it wouldn’t start again.
She sprang down from the horse as lightly as a gymnast and said, “Paulette Aybalen.”
He shook her hand and nodded toward the ruin behind him. “I’ve got to do something with that heap of stones.”
“It will be nice to have someone living there again. Is it your holiday home?”
She’s seen the number plate, he thought to himself, the “75” that indicated Paris, and down here probably “idiot.” She’d think the worst. Best to tell her the truth. “I’ve been posted down here,” he said. “Gendarmerie.”
She hesitated a second, ever so slightly distrustful, the way everybody reacted at first when he told them his job. “Well, you certainly won’t get bored down here,” she said in the end.
“I’ll split my time between work and renovating this place. I’ve already had a few tips.”
Paulette’s smile faded. “Serge,” she said. “Serge Douchy.”
“A man who speaks his mind.”
“Serge runs around the place like a drunk tramp, his sheepdogs bark all night, his goat herd stinks to high heaven, his grubby little house doesn’t have planning permission, he uses an asthmatic old diesel pump to siphon off water from the Touloubre and an antique flintlock to shoot anything with feathers or fur. Apart from that he’s okay.”
“That was more or less my opinion of him too.”
“Hmm, you really are an expert.” Paulette was smiling again. “I’ll get the horses back into their meadow before they end up at the butcher’s.”
Blanc looked at her and took a deep breath. There was a scent in the air. “What’s the smell around here?” he asked.
“‘It was there that I first saw dark green bushes like dwarf olive trees sprouting up among the wild herbs,’” she replied. “It’s a quotation,” she said, when she noticed the confused expression on his face. “From Marcel Pagnol. He reacted the same way as you when he first went out into the countryside in Provence. The scent overwhelmed him. It’s wild thyme. It grows beneath the trees everywhere around here. It’s very good for you, very flavorful.”
Blanc, who had for the past few years subsisted mainly on croissants and soggy baguettes, had no idea what thyme tasted like or looked like, just nodded so as not to appear a complete idiot.
“I’ll come by and give your wife a few recipes,” Paulette said, realizing he hadn’t a clue what she was talking about.
“You’ll have to mail them to her. My wife is in Paris.”
Paulette Aybalen didn’t reply, just swung herself back into the saddle. The other three horses had meanwhile trotted back into the meadow. Blanc had no idea what secret sign their mistress had given them. “Then I’ll bring the recipes round and give them to you. We’ll run into one another quite often.”
“I promise never to mention horsemeat sausage again.” Blanc got back behind the wheel and put his foot down gently on the gas so as not to frighten the animals. In the rearview mirror he saw the horsewoman watching him.
Copyright © 2018 by Cay Rademacher.