On a bright May morning, so early that the last of the mist was still lingering low over a bend in the Vézère River, a white van drew to a halt on the ridge that overlooked the small French town. A man climbed out, strode to the edge of the road and stretched mightily as he admired the familiar view of St. Denis. The town emerged from the lush green of the trees and meadows like a tumbled heap of treasure; the golden stone of the buildings, the ruby red tiles of the rooftops and the silver curve of the river running through it. The houses clustered down the slope and around the main square of the Hôtel de Ville where the council chamber, its Mairie, and the office of the town’s own policeman perched above the thick stone columns that framed the covered market. The grime of three centuries only lately scrubbed away, its honey-colored stone glowed richly in the morning sun.
On the far side of the square stood the venerable church, its thick walls and squat tower a reminder of the ages past when churches, too, were part of the town’s defenses, guarding the river crossing and the approach to the great stone bridge. A great “N” carved into the rock above the central of the three arches asserted that the bridge had been rebuilt on the orders of Napoleon himself. This did not greatly impress the town’s inhabitants, who knew that the upstart emperor had but restored a bridge their ancestors had first built five centuries earlier. And now it had been established that the first bridge over their river dated from Roman times. Across the river stretched the new part of town, the Crédit Agricole bank and its parking lot, the supermarket and the rugby stadium discreetly shaded by tall oaks and thick belts of walnut trees.
The man enjoying this familiar sight was evidently fit enough to be dapper and brisk in his movements, but as he relaxed he was sufficiently concerned about his love of food to tap his waist, gingerly probing for any sign of plumpness, always a threat in this springtime period between his last game of the rugby season and the start of serious hunting. He wore a uniform of sorts, a neatly ironed blue shirt with epaulettes but no tie, navy blue trousers and black boots. His thick, dark hair was crisply cut, his warm brown eyes had a
twinkle, and his generous mouth seemed ready to break into a smile. On a badge on his chest, and on the side of his van, were the words POLICE MUNICIPALE. A peaked cap lay on the passenger seat.
In the back of the van were a crowbar, a tangle of battery cables, one basket containing newly laid eggs from his own hens, and another with his garden’s first spring peas. Two tennis rackets, a pair of rugby boots, sneakers, and a large bag with various kinds of sports attire and a spare line from a fishing rod added to the jumble. Tucked neatly to one side were a first-aid kit, a small tool chest, a blanket, and a picnic hamper with plates and glasses, salt and pepper, a head of garlic and a Laguiole pocketknife with a horn handle and a corkscrew. Tucked under the front seat was a bottle of not-quite-legal eau-de-vie from a friendly farmer. He would use this to make
his private stock of vin de noix when the green walnuts were ready on the feast of St. Catherine. Benoît Courrèges, chief of police for the small commune of St. Denis and its 2,900 souls, and universally known as Bruno, was always very well prepared.
He chose not to wear the heavy belt that weighs down almost every policeman in France with its attachments of holster and pistol, handcuffs and flashlight, keys and notebook. There was a pair of ancient handcuffs somewhere in his van, but Bruno would have to conduct a search to find them. He had a flashlight but it could use a new set of batteries. The van’s glove compartment held a notebook and some pens, but the notebook was full of various recipes, the minutes of the last tennis-club meeting and a list of the names and phone numbers of the minimes, the young boys who had signed up for his tennis lessons.
Bruno’s gun, a rather elderly MAB 9mm semiautomatic, was locked in his office safe in the Mairie, and in recent years he had taken it out only for his annual refresher course at the gendarmerie range in Périgueux. He had worn it on duty on only three occasions in his ten years in the Police Municipale. The first was when a rabid dog had been sighted in a neighboring commune, and the police were put on alert. The second was when the president of France had driven through St. Denis on his way to see the celebrated cave paintings of Lascaux nearby; he had stopped to visit an old friend, Gérard Mangin, who was the mayor of St. Denis and Bruno’s employer. The third time was when a boxing kangaroo escaped from a local circus. On no occasion had Bruno’s gun ever been used on duty, a fact of which he was extremely but privately proud. Of course, like most of the other men (and not a few women) of St. Denis, he shot almost daily in the hunting season and usually bagged his target, unless he was stalking the notoriously elusive bécasse, a bird whose taste he preferred above all others. Bruno gazed contentedly down upon his town in the freshness of the early morning. His eyes lingered on the way the sunlight bounced and flickered off the eddies where the Vézère River ran under the arches of the old stone bridge.The place was alive with light, flashes of gold and red, as the sun magically concocted prisms in the grass beneath the willows and danced along the honey-colored façades of the ancient buildings along the river. There were glints from the weathercock on the church spire and from the eagle atop the town’s war memorial, where Bruno would later that day attend one of the ceremonies that punctuated the nation’s year.
All looked peaceful as the business of the day began, with the first customers heading under the crimson awning into Fauquet’s café, tucked into the alley beside the Mairie. Even from this high above the town he could hear the grating sound of the metal grille being raised to open Lespinasse’s tabac, which sold fishing rods, guns, and ammunition alongside the cigarettes. Bruno knew without looking that, while Madame Lespinasse was opening the shop, her husband would be heading to the café for the first of many little glasses
of white wine that would keep him pleasantly lubricated until lunch.
From the secretaries and social workers to the street sweepers and tax assessors, the staff of the Mairie would also be at Fauquet’s, nibbling their croissants and taking their coffee at the long zinc bar, eying the tartes aux citron and the millefeuilles they might take home for lunch along with the essential baguette of fresh bread and scanning the headlines of that morning’s Sud Ouest. Alongside them would be a knot of old men studying the racing form and enjoying their first petit blanc of the day. Bachelot the shoemaker would take his morning glass there, while the neighbor he despised, Jean-Pierre, who ran the bicycle shop, would start his day at the Café de la Libération. Their enmity went back to the days of the Resistance, when one of them had been in a communist group and the other had joined de Gaulle’s Armée Secrète, but Bruno could not reliably remember which had been in which. He only knew that they had not spoken to one another since the war, had never allowed their families to speak beyond the frostiest “Bonjour,” and each man had
devoted many of the years since to subtle but determined efforts to seduce the other man’s wife. The mayor had once confided his conviction that each had attained his objective. Bruno, as a careful guardian of his own privacy in such tender matters, was content to allow others similar latitude. He enjoyed the continuity these morning movements represented. They were rituals to be respected—rituals such as the devotion with which each family bought its daily bread only at a particular one of the town’s four bakeries, except on those weeks of holidays when they were forced to patronize another, each time lamenting the change in taste and texture. These little ways of St. Denis were as familiar to Bruno as his own morning routine on rising in his old shepherd’s cottage in the hills above the town: his exercises while listening to Radio Périgord, his shower with a special shampoo to protect against the threat of baldness, the soap with the scent of green apples. Then he would feed his chickens while the coffee brewed and share toasted slices of yesterday’s baguette with his dog, Gigi.
Across the small stream that flowed into the main river, the caves in the limestone cliffs drew his eye. Dark but strangely inviting, the caves with their ancient engravings and paintings drew scholars and tourists to this valley. The tourist office called it the Cradle of Mankind. It was, they said, the part of Europe that could claim the longest period of continuous human habitation. For forty thousand years, through ice ages and warming periods, floods and wars and famine, people had lived here. Bruno, who reminded himself that there were still many caves and paintings that he really ought to visit, felt deep in his heart that he understood why those people had
chosen to remain in this gentle valley.
Down at the riverbank, he saw that the rider known to the town as the mad Englishwoman was watering her horse after her morning ride. In the town of St. Denis, everyone had a nickname, and since she was devoted to her horses and invariably carried treats to give to other people’s dogs she evidently conformed to the English stereotype of bizarre affection for animals, even those that did not hunt. Along with her love of privacy and her odd habit of filling in the Times crossword as she walked from the Maison de la Presse to collect her morning croissant from Fauquet’s café, this justified her title. As always, she was correctly dressed in gleaming black boots, cream jodhpurs and a black jacket, and her auburn hair flared out behind her neat black riding hat like the tail of a fox. Of course, she was anything but mad. Moreover, she appeared to make a good business of running her small guesthouse. She even spoke comprehensible French, which was more than could be said of most of the English who had settled here. Bruno looked further up the road that ran alongside the river and saw several trucks bringing local farmers to the weekly market. It would soon be time for him to go on duty. He took out the one item of equipment that never left his side, his cell phone, and called the familiar number of the Hôtel de la Gare.
“Any sign of them,Marie?” he asked. “They hit the market at St. Alvère yesterday, so they are in the region.”
“Not as of last night, Bruno. Just the usual guys from the museum project stayed here and a Spanish truck driver,” replied Marie, who ran the small hotel by the station. “But remember, after they were here last time and found nothing, I heard them talking about staying in Périgueux and renting a car there to put you off the scent.”
Bruno, whose loyalty was to his local community and its mayor rather than to the nominal laws of France, particularly when they were really laws the European Union made in Brussels, played a constant cat-and-mouse game with the inspectors who were charged with enforcing E.U. hygiene rules on the markets of France. Hygiene was all very well, but the locals of St. Denis had been making their cheeses and their pâté de foie gras and their rillettes de porc for centuries before the E.U. even existed, and did not take kindly to foreign bureaucrats telling them what they could and could not sell. Along with other members of the Police Municipale in the region, Bruno had established a rigorous early-warning system to alert the market vendors of their visits.
The inspectors, called “the Gestapo” by some locals in a part of France that had taken very seriously its patriotic duties to resist the German occupation, had made their first visit to the markets of Périgord in an official car with red-and-white Belgian license plates. On their second visit all the tires had been slashed. Next time they came in a car from Paris, with the telltale “75” as the last two digits of the plate. This car, too, had been given the Resistance treatment, and Bruno worried that the local countermeasures were getting out of hand. He had a good idea who was behind the slashings, and had issued some private warnings that he hoped would calm things down. There was no point in violence if the warning system could ensure that the markets were clean before the inspectors arrived.
Then the inspectors had changed their tactics and come by train, staying at local hotels. But they were easily spotted by the hotel keepers, who all had cousins or suppliers who made the crottins of goat cheese and the foie gras, the jams, the oils flavored with walnuts and truffles, and the confits that assured that this corner of France was known as the very heart of the nation’s gastronomic culture. Bruno, acting with the support of his mayor and all the elected councillors of the commune, including even Montsouris the communist, made it his duty to protect his neighbors and friends from the nuisances of Brussels, where the idea of food was known to stop at moules and pommes frites, and where perfectly good potatoes were adulterated with an industrial mayonnaise they did not have the patience to make themselves.
So now the inspectors were trying this new tack. They had succeeded in handing out four fines in St. Alvère the day before, but they would not succeed in St. Denis, whose famous market went back more than seven hundred years. Not if Bruno had anything to do with it. After one final gaze into the beautiful little corner of the world that was entrusted to him, Bruno climbed back into his van and headed for the market.
Copyright © 2009 by Martin Walker. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.