Bruno Courrèges, chief of police of the small French town of St. Denis, awoke a few seconds before six, just as the dawn was breaking. His cockerel, Blanco, named for a French rugby hero, greeted the new day as Bruno donned his tracksuit and running shoes. The morning jog through the springtime woods around his home in the Périgord countryside was a delight as the sun cast long beams through the pale green of the new buds and leaves on the trees. The temperature was exactly as he liked it, not cold enough for gloves but crisp and fresh enough for him to enjoy warming up as he ran, his basset hound, Balzac, bounding along at his side.
Back at his home, its old stone walls glowing in the early light, Bruno fed his geese and chickens, watered his vegetable garden and took a look at the seedlings in the new greenhouse he had built from a kit. He placed his kettle on the stove for coffee and put one of his fresh eggs into a saucepan to boil while he checked his e--mails, then turned on the radio, tuned to France Bleu Périgord. He grilled the last half of yesterday’s baguette, shared it with Balzac and sliced his toast thin so he could dip it into the egg yolk. The national radio news ended and shifted to the local news. At the third item, Bruno pricked up his ears.
Périgueux psychologist Marie--France Duteiller has filed a complaint with the procureur on the slow progress of the investigation into allegations of pedophilia at a church--run children’s home near Mussidan some thirty years ago. She claims that the inquiry led by Chief Detective Jean--Jacques Jalipeau has been “insensitive and dilatory” and has denied justice to the victims who accused several local notables of abuse when they were orphans at the home. Commissaire Ja-li-peau said last night that inquiries continued, although the investigation was highly complex and controversial, since the allegations depended on memories that had been recovered during hypnosis by psychologist Duteiller.
His good mood of the morning evaporated as Bruno sighed in sympathy with his friend Jean--Jacques, known throughout the police as J--J. The investigation had been under way for months and evidently was not getting very far. This was unusual. Bruno might agree that at times J--J could be insensitive, but “dilatory” was one of the last words he’d use to describe the big, untidy man whom he’d come to admire on the occasions they had worked together. Such cases usually ended with a celebratory dinner, at which J--J played generous host, in recognition of the many times during the inquiry when he had lunched and dined at Bruno’s table. J--J’s cheerful personality matched his bulk, and he shared Bruno’s fondness for good food and wine. Their warm relations had even survived a waspish newspaper cartoon after one recent terrorist case when Bruno had been portrayed as Astérix the Gaul and J--J as his gigantic and overfed friend Obélix. The cartoonist had come closer to reality when he portrayed each of them with a bottle of Bergerac wine, suggesting it was their equivalent of the magic potion Astérix swigged before battling the Roman legions.
Above all, and unlike many in the Police Nationale, J--J did not treat a municipal policeman like Bruno as a lower form of life. He’d come to value Bruno’s profound knowledge of the people of the commune of St. Denis, developed in part through years as an active member of the local tennis, rugby and hunting clubs. He accepted Bruno’s idiosyncratic way of doing his job and recognized Bruno’s role in ensuring that St. Denis had the lowest rate of reported crimes in the département of the Dordogne. Bruno in return respected J--J as a relentless detective with a deceptively subtle way of navigating the politics of policing in France. Whatever the radio might be reporting, J--J was old enough and experienced enough to take care of himself. If he needed Bruno’s help, he knew he would only have to ask.
Bruno planned this morning to go first to the riding school of his British friend Pamela to exercise his horse, Hector, before heading for his office in the mairie. Perhaps on horseback he’d get some inspiration for a speech he had to give at a wedding at the end of the week. And perhaps I should think about getting some new clothes, Bruno thought as he scanned his wardrobe with the forthcoming event in mind.
Two--thirds of the hanging space was occupied by his official dress. There were police uniforms for summer and for winter, plus a full--dress parade uniform and an overcoat. At the back of the cupboard was a separate plastic bag holding his French army reserve uniform with its sergeant’s chevrons, in which he was required to report if summoned back to duty. Hanging in the utility room, where he kept the washing machine and the secure cabinet with his guns, were a set of military camouflage that he used for hunting and the old army tracksuit he had just taken off to air after his morning jog.
Bruno had few civilian clothes. There was a dark blue wool suit he’d bought when invalided out of the French army after taking a sniper’s bullet in his hip during a tour of duty in Bosnia. He’d long since lost the extra kilos he’d gained during his months--long hospital stay and while convalescing, so it hung loosely on him these days. A dark blue blazer and a pair of gray slacks shared a wooden coat hanger. Khaki chinos hung with the dark red jacket that he wore over his uniform shirt and trousers when he wanted to look plausibly civilian. Its equivalent in black was kept in his official van. A pair of jeans was folded on the top shelf with his polo shirts, sweaters, his police képis and a blue UN peacekeepers’ helmet that he kept for sentimental reasons, despite its dents and scrapes.
Anyone could take one glance at my wardrobe, he mused, and tell the story of my life: the army and then the police, all the signs of a man more at home in uniform than in civilian dress. His modest collection of clothes suggested a man who was careful with his money, seeing no need to spend much on new garments when the French services took care of most of his needs. His dark suit was timeless, of a classic cut, paying no regard to the whims of fashion that dictated that this year trousers should be tight and ties and lapels narrow.
He knew this was a sparse wardrobe, even for a country policeman. I am a man, he thought, of little imagination and less style; or perhaps I simply have other priorities. Bruno disliked shopping for clothes, although he could spend many hours happily perusing hunting magazines for a new shotgun that he could not afford or a new rod for when he went fishing with the baron.
The good thing about weddings, he thought, was that people usually had eyes only for the bride. Nobody would care what he was wearing; the dark blue suit would do fine. The ceremony was to take place in the mairie, followed by a reception and dinner for close friends at the National Museum of Prehistory in Les Eyzies. The gallery of flints, with its life--size models of early humans wearing skins and holding spears, might be considered an unusual place to choose. Bruno thought it very suitable, since bride and groom were professional archaeologists of renown. Clothilde, the bride, was the museum’s senior curator, and her husband--to--be, Horst, after retiring from his university post in Germany, had joined the museum as an adjunct professor responsible for archaeological digs. Most of the guests were in the same profession.
Idly, Bruno wondered if they might offer the fashionable Paleolithic diet of nuts and berries, fruit and charred meats, instead of the more traditional wedding feast. No, he concluded. Horst might be amused by such a meal, but Clothilde was a sensible Frenchwoman—-she would understand that when guests came to the culinary heartland of France, they expected the classic food of the Périgord.
As Horst’s best man, Bruno was a little nervous about the speech he’d have to give. He would obviously be expected to make some reference to his friend’s distinguished career in archaeology, before an audience that would include some of Europe’s top experts in the field. On Bruno’s bedside table lay the latest issue of Archéologie, a popular magazine that contained Professor Horst Vogelstern’s latest article, comparing the various small statues of women that had been found at prehistoric sites across Europe.
Long before he had become Horst’s friend, Bruno had sub- scribed to the journal, fascinated by the wealth of cave art and prehistory that surrounded him in the valley of the River Vézère. The cover of the magazine was arresting, a photograph of a woman fashioned from clay with gigantic hips, a prominent vulva and pendulous breasts. The caption was “Miss Europa, 25,000 b.c.” This Venus of Dolní Věstonice, the place where she had been found in the modern--day Czech Republic, was the oldest ceramic known. It was just one of several illustrations accompanying Horst’s fascinating piece.
Bruno had been intrigued to learn that just over a hundred of these statues, known as the Venus figurines, had been found. They had mostly been made between 28,000 and 20,000 b.c., in the early Paleolithic or Stone Age, and had emerged in caves and graves scattered from Spain through France and Germany to Siberia and south through Italy and the Balkans to Syria and Israel. If there was one outstanding element that could be said to have connected our direct ancestors among early Stone Age peoples, Horst argued, it was their fascination with amply proportioned women. Usually between five and twenty centimeters in height, the figurines were the first--known depictions of any human form, and they were highly stylized. The women had with rare exceptions enormous breasts, buttocks and thighs, a swollen stomach and a prominent pudendum. Some had complex and carefully carved hairstyles, or perhaps headdresses made of small shells, rather like the one that was on display in the Les Eyzies museum.
Inevitably they had been seen as fertility symbols, since they focused so much on the female breasts and reproductive organs. Countless bookshelves had been written on these figurines and their role in prehistoric culture. There was speculation on whether they signified an early matriarchal society, in which female fertility was the great mystery and object of worship. Some feminist scholars interpreted this to mean that women had ruled the families and perhaps also the tribes. Most scholars, however, sought to place these Venus figurines into the mysterious context of prehistoric art in general. Some tried to discern timeless concepts of beauty and proportion from these limited and somewhat blowsy foundations. But all could agree that these figurines appeared to coincide with the explosion of human creativity, between the first great work of cave art at Chauvet in France, some thirty thousand years old with its extraordinary depictions of horses and other beasts, and the masterpiece of the Lascaux cave in the Vézère Valley, some seventeen thousand years old. Chauvet and Lascaux portrayed almost exclusively animals. The Venus figurines were palpably human.
The sudden flowering of art in this period had long fascinated historians, wondering what creative magic had begun suddenly to touch our ancestors. Why were these supposedly primitive creatures suddenly inspired to start making an art that is instantly appealing to modern humans, who recognize instinctively an aesthetic sensibility akin to our own?
All this, Bruno told himself, provided excellent material for a lighthearted and slightly teasing speech to be made at the wedding. He could talk of Horst’s lifelong fascination with the Venus figurines and the female form and his endless pursuit of perfection in the shape of Clothilde. That gave Bruno a theme that would flatter both bride and groom and refer to their common passion for prehistory. He would also suggest that this marriage of the Frenchwoman Dr. Clothilde Daumier and a German symbolized all that was best of the new Europe.
Jotting down these notes, Bruno felt a weight lift from his shoulders. He dreaded having to give speeches and as a result put so much effort into preparing them that his friends kept pestering him to speak. At least this one was now sketched out, though he knew a few hours of careful drafting still awaited him, part of a busy day ahead. He was due to give evidence before a tribunal in Sarlat at ten, so Bruno checked his appearance in the bedroom mirror, summoned Balzac from his morning patrol of the garden and was about to set off to the riding school when his phone vibrated. It was Ahmed, one of the professional firemen who led the team of mostly volunteer pompiers in St. Denis. As well as fighting fires, they also acted as the region’s emergency medical service.
“We’ve got an urgent call to Commarque, that ruined château off the road to Sarlat,” Ahmed began. “A woman, possibly dead, fallen from the cliff or the castle wall. The guy who phoned it in runs the kiosk at the entrance, said his name was Jean--Philippe Fumel, and he’ll be expecting you. Fabiola’s on call today, and she’s meeting us at the spot. Will we see you there?”
Bruno said that he would join them at the château and then called the riding school to say that duty called; he could not exercise Hector this morning. Pamela replied that she’d just heard the same news from Fabiola, and they’d expect him for the evening ride instead.
“Bisous,” she said as she hung up. It always slightly confused Bruno when Pamela used this affectionate French term, which meant “kisses.” Their affair had been over for some months, but the mutual attraction that remained reminded him that there was more than friendship between them. He had no time to think of that now. He phoned the mairie to leave a message explaining why he’d been called away. Then he thumbed through his phone’s address book to find a number for the Count of Commarque, a genial giant of a man who had for the past thirty years mounted an ambitious project of research, restoration and public education at the grandiose ruin his ancestors had built. The count, whom Bruno knew from the rugby club, deserved to know of the accident and might have some useful background to contribute. It was not long after seven in the morning, so Bruno was not surprised when there was no reply. He left a message.
Before he left, Bruno checked his mailbox at the end of the drive, on which he had painted pas de pub to tell the postman not to deliver the endless supermarket and other advertising brochures that would otherwise clog the box. There was a bank statement and a postcard from London showing an unimpressive modern building captioned as the police headquarters at New Scotland Yard. The message was simple: “Wish you were here instead of me. Give Balzac a big hug and a kiss from me, and a little hug for you.”
It was signed with the single initial I, which meant “Isabelle,” the woman who got away. No, Bruno thought, that wasn’t right. When she left the Périgord for a high--powered job on the staff of the minister of the interior in Paris, she had wanted him to join her. But Bruno could never see himself in some cramped apartment in Paris with no garden, where it would not be fair to keep a dog, let alone his chickens. He knew he’d lose touch with all his friends and the hunting and tennis and rugby clubs and would miss the training sessions for the schoolkids that made up so much of his life. Now Isabelle had an even--bigger job coordinating French and European antiterrorist efforts. Balzac had been her gift to him when his previous dog had been killed, and these occasional postcards from foreign capitals always seemed more about Balzac than about him. Or perhaps it was just Isabelle’s way of reminding him of what he was missing, not that he needed reminding. He sniffed the card, wondering if it were his imagination or if he really detected just a hint of her perfume. He offered the card to Balzac, who sniffed and gave a discreet but plaintive howl. Balzac missed her, too.
Copyright © 2017 by Martin Walker. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.