Bruno Courrèges, chief of police for the small French town of St. Denis and for much of the Vézère Valley, was taking a late evening patrol around the garden with his basset hound, Balzac, when the phone at his waist vibrated. Although it was nearly time for bed, the screen showed that it was his friend J-J, head of detectives for the département of the Dordogne, who was calling, so Bruno thought he’d better answer.
“Glad you’re still up and about,” came the familiar voice. “I’m coming to your place right away. I want to show you something and then you can tell me how worried I should be.”
Commissaire Jean-Jacques Jalipeau was a large and bustling bear of a man who had not been distracted from his duty when he was shot making an arrest. Some called him a cop “of the old school” in that he wore ill-fitting suits, smoked a pack of Gauloises a day, seldom polished his shoes and did not treat the media with the deference they had come to expect. His prisoners did not fall “accidentally” downstairs while handcuffed nor were their fingers caught in car doors. Female cops on his team almost never applied for transfers and he refused to play the usual turf wars with the gendarmes or to sneer at the municipal police.
Bruno went indoors and put out some glasses for drinks in the living room. Then he checked the latest regional news on his phone for any clue to J-J’s unexpected visit. A few minutes later, the headlights of J-J’s big Peugeot flared, and Bruno went to the porch to welcome his friend. Josette, J-J’s driver and aide, reversed into the driveway and stepped nimbly out. J-J took more time to extricate himself from the passenger seat. He emerged carrying a small evidence bag.
“Welcome,” said Bruno. “It’s too late for coffee, but do you want wine, or something stronger?”
“I’ll have a glass of your homemade vin de noix, since I know it has wine plus eau-de-vie,” said J-J. Josette asked for mineral water.
Once installed in Bruno’s living room with his drink, J-J tossed the bag toward Bruno.
“You’re the military man with the Croix de Guerre,” he began in his usual, abrupt way. “What can you tell me about that bullet, beyond the fact that it’s a twelve-point-seven millimeter caliber and one hundred eight millimeters long, with what look like Russian letters stamped into the base?”
Bruno managed to catch the bag without spilling his drink, surprised not only by the unexpected nature of J-J’s inquiry but also by his friend’s confident expectation that Bruno could answer all questions concerning war, weapons and the military in general. Then he recalled that it was many years since all young Frenchmen had been required to do at least a year of military service, and by going to university and then enrolling in the police, J-J had been spared that. The tradition launched by the French Revolution for every male citizen to be trained as a soldier and ready to fight for France had gone for good. Bruno knew that modern weaponry and warfare demanded far more than the ability to fire a simple gun, fix a bayonet and throw a grenade. But he sometimes regretted the passing of the principle that every citizen owed a duty to the homeland and of that egalitarian mood of national integration that bonded young men together in their drills, mess halls and barracks. Bruno supposed that he was the former soldier that J-J knew best.
“It’s a bullet for a Russian heavy machine gun, often used en masse for antiaircraft fire, but it also has the power to blast through body armor, vehicles and buildings,” Bruno explained, weighing the bag in his hand. “The Russians pioneered their use in specialist rifles for snipers, and now everybody else has copied them. With one of these, a trained sniper can kill at a great distance. The current record is a confirmed kill at just over three kilometers by a Canadian in Iraq. The Americans have developed a similar version in their half-inch caliber, almost the same size.”
“Is that what you were shot with in Bosnia?” J-J asked.
“No, thank God,” Bruno replied, surprised at how little J-J knew about military firearms. “A bullet that size would have torn my leg off and probably half my pelvis. I was hit with a standard round, the usual NATO caliber of seven point sixty-two millimeters, half the length and almost half the caliber of this bullet. And even that put me in the hospital for months. So how has this bullet suddenly turned up?”
“In a stolen car, an old Peugeot that crashed and was abandoned. The bullet had rolled down into the spare-tire housing. It was in a ditch on a small road running parallel to the N21, north of Castillonnès and close to Issigeac. It had fake license plates. We’re trying to identify the car now from its serial number.”
“Any other car involved?”
“No, it hit and killed a deer and then went into the ditch, lost a front wheel. No sign of the driver. We think there might have been a passenger. There were two different brands of cigarette butts in the ashtray. Though, of course, they could be old.”
“A trained sniper wouldn’t leave butts,” Bruno said. “Was there anything else in the car?”
“No bags, no papers, but one of the cops at the scene is a hunter and says he could smell traces of fresh gun oil on an old blanket. So the owner of the bullet might have had the weapon in the car with him. That’s what worries me,” J-J said. “Putain, you tell me this thing can kill at three kilometers?”
“In the hands of a trained sharpshooter, yes.” Bruno had seen armored cars immobilized by a few of those heavy rounds. “Almost certainly he’d have to be military trained, and with the right kind of sights. I imagine they could be picked up in war zones like Iraq, Afghanistan, Ukraine and Syria, anywhere they used Soviet or Russian weapons. It’s likely that such sniper rifles could get out into the illegal arms trade. There would certainly be a market for this kind of weapon.”
“How do you mean?” J-J demanded. “Terrorists?”
“Yes, there’s that, but some criminals would love to have them, or they could be sold for serious money to passionate big-game hunters. And we can’t rule out the possibility of assassinations. I think you’d better contact the security guys, and maybe also the military police.”
“What about the weapon itself, the gun that could have fired this bullet?”
“There are different models,” Bruno said, “but they’re all big, well over a meter long with a massive shoulder butt and special muzzle brakes at the end of the barrel to cut down the recoil. Without those muzzle brakes you could never fire the big rounds without breaking your shoulder. Mostly the sniper versions are single shot, bolt action, and always with a bipod to hold it steady. Barrett makes them in America, and there’s a Canadian manufacturer whose name I forget. In Russia, Kalashnikov and Dragunov both make them, and then there’s Snipex in Ukraine, Zastava in Serbia—”
“Putain, Bruno, where did you learn all this?”
“Ever since I was shot by a sniper, I’ve had a special interest,” he replied. “When I was convalescing in the military hospital the psychologists had the bright idea of bringing in one of our own snipers to talk to me about how I’d been shot. I’m glad they did. I stopped thinking about me and my wound and began thinking about the sniper, almost as an intellectual problem.”
“There are machine-gun versions, you say?”
“Yes, it’s the classic Soviet air defense system: send up missiles to force the enemy aircraft low and then use massed machine guns to try to bring them down. The Iraqi Medina Division used them to break up an attack by American Apache helicopters, one of the few Iraqi successes of that war. The Vietcong used them to shoot down five U.S. helicopters, and when a colonel flew in to see what had happened, they shot him down, too. But the machine-gun versions need special reinforced mounts. They can’t be fired from the shoulder like a sniper rifle.”
“Thanks, Bruno, I’ll keep you informed,” J-J said as he stood up.
“J-J, there are some other things you really have to know about this weapon,” Bruno said urgently. “Snipers like these never work alone. They need spotters. The sniper can’t afford to be lifting his head and staring around. He almost has to be in a Zen state. I’ve known some of these sniper guys, and they are very special, almost mystical, almost religious. It is just them, their sights, their gun and their spotter. The target becomes almost irrelevant.”
“Putain, Bruno, you sound almost romantic,” J-J said after a moment, his voice not quite succeeding in making a joke of the remark.
“There is one more thing, J-J. At these shooting distances the sights have to be very powerful and calibrated to that particular weapon.”
“Are they easy to find?” asked J-J.
“For hunters, yes. But at extreme ranges you want some special sights like AccuPower from Trijicon that cost around three thousand euros. Look, J-J, you have a serious problem here. It would have to be a high-value target, maybe even presidential level. And remember that snipers are accustomed to doing their job under extremely hostile conditions. We have to find them before they locate their target and fire, J-J, and it’s not easy to find someone who’s two or three kilometers away from the target before you even know the poor bastard he shot is dead.”
J-J emptied his glass and led Josette to the door. “Thanks for the drink and the insights. We’ll talk again tomorrow.”
Bruno stood in his garden beneath the stars, Balzac patiently sitting beside him, and watched the big car leave, thinking about the difference between him and his friend. Bruno had been through the military and J-J had not, and in that way he resembled most of the new generation of French people who were younger than Bruno. Bruno understood the idealism that lay behind the idea that the new Europe had grown beyond war. But the bright and peaceful new world that had followed the Cold War had changed, become darker, and brought back some of the old fears. It was not simply the new challenges of terrorism but the old and traditional forces of national ambition. As the new Russia flexed its military muscle and used the new technologies to interfere in Western elections and to poison its social media, and used nerve agents to kill defectors in England, could Europe still hope to continue in its placid, pacifist ways?
Bruno thought of the emergent superpower of China and its blunt assertion of power in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and of an America more focused on its domestic challenges than on the makeshift global peace and order it had sustained since the end of World War II. Could this great and lasting peace be maintained, or would future generations of Frenchmen, Germans, Britons and others have to gird themselves and train and mobilize to protect themselves and their people against hostile threats? The world, Bruno thought, was becoming dangerous again.
Bruno still tended to think of himself foremost as the chief of police of St. Denis, but because of his increased responsibilities he had recently changed the route of his morning run so that he could see not only his own town but also a long stretch of the river and the great cliffs that led to Les Eyzies and beyond. His authority now extended all the way upriver to Montignac and its new museum featuring the prehistoric cave paintings of Lascaux.
He began his run on the trail through the woods around his home, then turned off along the wide ridge that offered magnificent views. He reached his favorite vantage point and waited for Balzac to catch up just as the sun rose fully over the horizon. The valley itself was still shrouded in mist over which the church spire of St. Denis seemed to float weightlessly in the still air. He stood watching the brightness steal steadily over the slopes below as the sun started to burn away the haze, revealing the top of the arches of the old stone bridge. He lay down on the grass, the fine dew already steaming in the sun’s rays, and watched his dog’s ears flapping as he loped up to clamber onto Bruno’s chest and slather his master’s neck and jaw with exuberant canine affection.
Bruno hugged his hound, then rose and set off back to his house at a gentle trot so Balzac could keep pace. When the truffle oaks around his home came into view, Bruno, as always, ended his run with a sprint for the last two hundred meters. He watched Balzac lumber toward him and bent down to fondle his dog’s long, furry ears before turning to feed and water his chickens. Then he stripped off his running gear and left the kitchen door open for Balzac. He put the kettle on to boil, turned on his radio and headed for the shower. Balzac was slurping water from his bowl when Bruno, shaved and dressed in his summer uniform, returned to the kitchen to grill the remains of yesterday’s baguette, poach two eggs and make coffee.
He checked his phone for messages. There was one from J-J, reporting that the crashed Peugeot had been identified from its vehicle identification number by a Spanish tourist who had reported it stolen from a multilevel car park in Bayonne two days earlier. Bruno shrugged and returned to his breakfast, knowing that J-J would call if there was more news.
As an experiment, Bruno used two pans for the eggs, one with water to which he’d added a teaspoon of apple cider vinegar, and the second using tarragon vinegar. The news on France Bleu Périgord was predictable, so he was barely paying attention as he tried to decide if the eggs had a slightly different flavor. Maybe there was something more subtle about the tarragon vinegar, he thought. Then came the final news item, announcing that the Spanish government had banned a song, or rather a recording, made by a local Périgord group of folk musicians called Les Troubadours, whom Bruno knew well.
Banned? Bruno looked up at the radio in surprise. The newsreader explained that the ill-fated attempt by the regional Catalan government to declare independence was still provoking angry reactions from the government in Madrid. Some members of the Catalan government had been imprisoned, and others had fled into exile. Harsh sentences had triggered mass protests and a general strike. An uneasy calm had settled, but tensions remained. Even though the other countries of the European Union had declined to recognize Catalonia, the underlying question of the right of a region to declare independence remained unresolved. That was why the offending piece of music, “Song for Catalonia,” was henceforth outlawed on Spanish soil.
Copyright © 2022 by Martin Walker. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.