As if determined to make it his last sight on earth, the dead man clutched what at first appeared to be a small painting on canvas or parchment. Bruno moved closer and saw that it was no painting but rather a large and beautiful banknote, nearly twice the size of the undistinguished but familiar euro notes in his wallet.
Impeccably engraved in pastel hues stood Mercury with his winged heels before a port teeming with sailing vessels and steamships. Facing him was a bare-chested Vulcan with his forge against a backdrop of a modern factory with tall chimneys belching smoke. It was a Banque de France note for one thousand francs of a kind that Bruno had never seen before. On the quilted coverlet that was tucked up tightly to the corpse’s grizzled chin lay another banknote, of the same style and value. Picking it up, Bruno was startled by its texture, still thick and crinkly as if made more of linen than paper. It was the reverse side of the same kind of note the dead man held. Against a cornucopia of fruits and flowers, a proud cockerel and sheaves of wheat, two medallions contained the profiles of a Greek god and goddess. They stared impassively at each other against the engraved signatures of some long-dead bank officials, and above them was printed the date of issue: december 1940.
His eyebrows rose. For any Frenchman 1940 was a solemn year. It marked the third German invasion in seventy years and the second French defeat. But it was the first time Paris had fallen to German arms. In 1870, the capital had withstood months of siege before French troops, under the watchful eye of the kaiser’s armies, stormed the capital to defeat and slaughter the revolutionaries of the Paris Commune. The Germans who invaded in 1914 were eventually defeated. But in 1940, France had surrendered and signed a humiliating armistice. German soldiers had marched through the Arc de Triomphe and down the Champs-Élysées and launched an occupation that would last for more than four years. France under Marshal Pétain’s Vichy regime had retained some shred of sovereignty over a truncated half of the country, while the Germans took over Paris, the north and the whole Atlantic coastline. So it was a Vichy banknote Bruno held in his hands, and he wondered how long after the war’s end it had remained legal tender.
There were more notes, for varying amounts, inside a black wooden box that lay open at the dead man’s side. Alongside them were some old photographs. The one on top showed a group of young men and boys carrying shotguns, revolvers and elderly submachine guns. They were grouped around a black Citroën Traction Avant, one of the most handsome cars France ever made. A French tricolore flag was draped across the hood.
Bruno picked up the photo and turned it over to see the scrawled words Groupe Valmy, 3 juillet, 1944. Most of the individuals were dressed like farmers, some wore berets, and two had the old steel helmets from the 1914–1918 war. An older man sported a French officer’s uniform with leather straps across his chest and ammunition pouches. He held up a grenade in each hand. Each of the men had an armband with the letters ffi. Bruno knew it stood for Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur, the name de Gaulle had chosen for the Resistance fighters. Another photo showed the same car and an ancient truck parked beside a train. The doors of a freight car were open, and men in a human chain were passing sacks from the train to the truck. On the back of the photo were the words Neuvic, 26 juillet, 1944.
“I’ve never been allowed to see inside his box before,” said the woman Father Sentout had introduced as Joséphine, one of the dead man’s three daughters. She eyed the photos but made no move to touch them or the banknotes. Her hands, work worn and gnarled, remained clenched in her lap. She looked to be in her sixties. The priest was packing away the breviary and holy oils he had used to give the last rites. Spots of oil gleamed on the dead man’s forehead, where the priest had made the last sign of the cross, and on his eyelids.
“Eighty-six,” the priest said. “A good age, a long life and he served France. Your father is with our Father in heaven now.” He put his hand gently on the woman’s arm. She shook it off.
“We could have done with that money when I was growing up,” she said, staring dry eyed at the banknotes. “They were hard times.”
“It was the banknotes that made me call you,” said Father Sentout, turning to Bruno. “I don’t know what the law says about them, being out of date.”
“They’re part of his estate, so they’ll go to his heirs,” said Bruno. “But those photos mean I’ll probably have to plan for a special funeral.” He turned to Joséphine. “Do you know if he had the Resistance medal?”
She gestured with her head to a small picture frame on the wall above the bed, below a crucifix. Bruno leaned across the bed to look closer. The curtains were open, and the sun was shining, but only a modest light came from the tiny courtyard. He saw the stone wall of a neighbor’s house barely six feet away. A single lightbulb hanging from the ceiling in a dingy parchment lampshade did little to help, but he could make out the small brass circle with its engraved Cross of Lorraine hanging from a black-and-crimson ribbon. Beneath it in the frame was a faded FFI armband and a photograph of a young Murcoing wearing it and holding a rifle.
“I’ll have to check the official list but it looks like he qualifies for a Resistance funeral with a guard of honor and a flag for the coffin,” Bruno said. “If that’s what you want, I’ll make the arrangements. The state pays for it all. You can either have him buried at the big Resistance cemetery at Chasseneuil or here in St. Denis.”
“I was wondering if he’d left enough to pay for cremation,” she said, looking around the small bedroom with its faded floral wallpaper and a cheap wardrobe that had seen better days. “He was waiting for a place in the retirement home, so the mairie stuck him in here.”
The old man had lived alone in the small apartment formed from the ground floor of a narrow three-story house in one of the backstreets of St. Denis. Bruno remembered when the mairie had bought the building and converted it for social housing. Four families were stuffed into the upstairs apartments, and another from the waiting list would be moved into this place as soon as the old man was removed. The recession had been hard on St. Denis.
“Paul should be here by now,” she said, looking at her watch. “His grandson, my sister’s boy. I called him as soon as I called the priest. He’s the only one my dad ever had much time for, the only other man in the family.” She looked sourly at the corpse in the bed. “Three daughters weren’t enough for him.”
“I’ll need your phone number to let you know about the funeral,” Bruno said, taking out his notebook. “Do you know where he kept his papers, if there’s a will?”
She shrugged and gave her number. “Nothing much to leave.” She looked at her watch again. “I have to go. I’ll take whatever food he’s left.” Through the open door they heard her rummaging in the small fridge and the food cupboard before she stomped down the narrow passage beside the garage that led to the street.
“Not much sign of grief there,” said Bruno, taking out his phone to call the medical center. A doctor would have to certify death before Murcoing could be taken to the funeral parlor.
“He didn’t have many visits from his family, except for Paul,” the priest said. “All the sisters live in Bergerac. Joséphine told me she works as a night nurse, so she probably sees more than enough of the old and sick.”
“How sick was he? I haven’t seen him in the café for a while.”
“He knew he was dying, and he didn’t seem to mind,” Father Sentout replied. “He had pneumonia but refused to go to the hospital. That was the sickness we used to call the old man’s friend. It’s a peaceful passing, they just slip away.”
“I remember seeing him coming out of church. Was he a regular?”
“His wife dragged him along. After she died he didn’t come so often at first, but this place is close to the church so he’d come along for Mass, for the company as much as anything.”
“Did he ever talk about the money?” Bruno gestured at the open box on the bed and the banknote still held tightly in Murcoing’s dead hands.
The priest paused, as if weighing his words in a way that made Bruno wonder whether there was some secret of the confessional that was being kept back.
“Not directly, but he’d rail against the fat cats and the rich and complained of being cheated. It was just ramblings. I was never clear whether he thought his daughters had cheated him out of the money from the farm or if it was something else.”
“Is there something you can’t tell me?”
Father Sentout shrugged. “Nothing directly linked to the money. I presume it’s from the Neuvic train. You know about that, right? The great train robbery by the Resistance?”
Bruno shook his head. He’d heard of it but not the details. These days, the priest explained, the story was more legend than anything else. A vast sum of money, said to be hundreds of millions, had been stolen from a train taking reserves from the Banque de France to the German naval garrison in Bordeaux. Despite various official inquiries, large amounts had never been accounted for, and local tradition had it that several Resistance leaders had bought grand homes, started businesses and financed political careers after the war with the loot.
“If that was his share, he didn’t get much,” Father Sentout concluded, nodding at the banknotes on the bed. After the war there had been so many devaluations. Then in 1960 came de Gaulle’s currency reform; a new franc was launched, each worth a hundred of the old ones. “That thousand-franc banknote is probably worth less than a euro, if it’s worth anything at all.”
Bruno bent down to pry the note from the cold fingers. As he put it inside the box with the photographs, he heard footsteps in the corridor, and Fabiola bustled into the small room, her medical bag in tow. She was wearing a long white coat of freshly pressed cotton, and her dark hair was piled loosely atop her head. An intriguing scent came with her, a curious blend of antiseptic and perfume, overwhelming the stale air of the room. She kissed Bruno on both cheeks and shook hands with Father Sentout, pulling out her stethoscope to examine the body.
“He obviously didn’t take his medicine. Sometimes I wonder why we bother,” she said, sorting through the small array of plastic jars from the pharmacy that stood by the bed. “He’s dead, and there’s nothing suspicious. I’ll leave the certificate at the front desk of the clinic so you can pick it up. Meanwhile we’d better get him to the funeral home.”
She stopped at the door and faced Bruno. “Is this going to stop you from getting to the airport? I’ll be free by five so I can do it.”
“It should be okay. If there’s a problem, I’ll call you,” he replied. Pamela, the Englishwoman Bruno had been seeing since the previous autumn, was to land at the local airport of Bergerac just before six that evening, and he was to meet her and drive her back to St. Denis. Pamela, who kept horses along with the gîtes she rented out to tourists, had been pleased to find in Fabiola a year-round tenant for one of the gîtes, and the two women had become friends.
Bruno began making calls as soon as Fabiola and the priest left. He started with the veterans’ department at the Ministry of Defense to confirm a Resistance ceremony and then called the funeral parlor. Next he rang Florence, the science teacher at the local collège who was now running the town choir, to ask if she could arrange for the “Chant des Partisans,” the anthem of the Resistance, to be sung at the funeral. He rang the Centre Jean Moulin in Bordeaux, the Resistance museum and archive, for its help in preparing a summary of Murcoing’s war record. The last call was to the social security office, to stop the dead man’s pension payments. As he waited to be put through to the right department, he looked around the apartment.
In the sitting room an old TV squatted on a chest of drawers. In the top drawer, he found a large envelope marked Banque and others that contained various utility bills and a copy of the bill of sale for Murcoing’s farm in the hills above Limeuil. It had been sold three years earlier, when prices were already tumbling, for eighty-five thousand euros. The buyer had a name that sounded Dutch, and the notaire was local. Bruno remembered the place, a ramshackle farmhouse with a roof that needed fixing and an old tobacco barn where goats were kept. The farm had been too small to be viable, even if the land had been good. Murcoing’s last bank statement said he had six thousand euros in a Livret, a tax-free account set up by the state to encourage saving, and just over eight hundred in his checking account. He’d been getting a pension of four hundred euros a month. There was no phone and no address book. A dusty shotgun hung on the wall, and a fishing rod, its handle worn with years of use, stood in the corner. The house key hung on a hook beside the door. Bruno thought old Murcoing did not have much to show for a life of hard work and patriotism.
He wrote out a receipt for the gun, the box and its contents and left it in the top drawer. Beside the TV set he saw a well-used wallet. Inside were a carte d’identité and the carte vitale that gave access to the health service, but no credit cards and no cash. Joséphine would have seen to that. There were three small photos, one a portrait of a handsome young man and two more with the same young man with an arm around the shoulders of the elderly Murcoing at what looked like a family gathering. That must be Paul, the favorite grandson, who was supposed to arrive. Bruno left a note for him on the table, along with his business card and mobile number, asking Paul to get in touch about the funeral and saying he’d taken the gun, the box and banknotes to his office in the mairie for safekeeping.
As the hearse was arriving, Bruno’s mobile phone rang, and a sultry voice said, “I have something for you.” The mayor’s secretary was incapable of saying even bonjour without some hint of coquetry. “It’s a message from some foreigner’s cleaning woman on the road out to Rouffignac. She thinks there’s been a burglary.”
Copyright © 2014 by Martin Walker. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.