August: the air over Provence shimmers in suffocating heat. Capitaine Roger Blanc and his colleague Marius Tonon are called to the Camargue. A black fighting bull has escaped from the pasture and has gored a cyclist. A bizarre accident, or so it initially seems. Until Blanc discovers evidence that someone left the gate open intentionally…
The deceased is Albert Cohen, political magazine reporter, fashion intellectual from Paris, TV personality. He was in the Camargue to write a major article on Vincent van Gogh. Yet what has that got to do with the attack? Blanc comes across Cohen’s incomplete report during his investigation, which is not quite as harmless as it initially appeared. And also a spectacular, never solved burglary on the Côte d'Azur, and an old, deadly story that absolutely everyone wants to forget. By the end, Blanc feels a little more at home in his new surroundings in Provence. But he pays a high price for it.
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Blood on the Road
In twenty years of service with the gendarmerie, Captain Roger Blanc had never seen so much blood: a dead black fighting bull blocking the road, a dark colossus with at least two dozen 9mm Parabellum gunshot wounds. A few yards behind it lay the horribly ripped-open corpse of a man. The blood of both man and beast had mingled and dried into a cracked brown crust on the stinking tar surface of the road.
It was late afternoon, but the sun still hung above the horizon like a poisonous flower. A battered white street sign indicated the way to Saint-Gilles down the route départementale, a minor road branching off to one side. I know the name of that place from somewhere, Blanc thought, but in the heat there was no way to remember where or when he had heard it. Someone had fired a gun at the sign a long time ago, and the edges of the holes had gone rusty. The winding roads were narrow gray ribbons in a world of sand, salt, and tough grass: the Camargue.
Brackish water pooled like leaden mirrors the size of lakes and as calm as puddles, some of them an almost chemical blue, others bright red like diluted watercolors. Yellowish white bubbles of foam clung to their marshy edges. The grass was knee high, every blade as sharp as a dagger, swaying slightly up and down, up and down, in a gentle westerly breeze that brought no relief from the heat. Dragonflies danced over the surface of the water. Blanc noticed elegant pink silhouettes stalking along the blurred horizon and realized with astonishment that they were flamingos. He had only seen them once before, an eternity ago, in the zoo at Vincennes, when his children were still young and his marriage still intact.
Bright flashes of light boring into his eyes like needles diverted his attention to the macabre piece of theater lying at his feet. Rays of sunlight were being reflected by the steel watch on the wrist of the man who had been tossed by the fighting bull's horns. His body lay some fifteen feet beyond that of the shot animal.
Blanc bent down over the man's body. He was in his midfifties, between 5'7" and 5'8" tall, slim, and suntanned. An ultralight angular pair of sunglasses covered the upper half of his face; long gray hair already turning white spilled out from under a helmet that looked as if a computer-game designer had made it with a 3-D printer. The dead man was wearing black cycling shorts and a sports T-shirt in cobalt blue and neon yellow. Not that there was much of either color visible given that one of the bull's horns had struck the cyclist in the abdomen while the beast itself had thrown up its head, ripping him open as if with a butcher's knife from his navel almost to his throat. The edges of the wound were jagged, and the man's small intestine bulged out of the opening like some pale garden slug. Blanc spotted the end of a broken rib as well as a few other organs he wasn't too keen on identifying. Gorged bluebottles were crawling all over the corpse. The smell of blood and partly digested food mingled with that of the brackish water. Blanc felt faint and got quickly back on his feet.
He looked around, squinting despite his sunglasses. Just a handbreadth higher than his immediate surroundings a luxuriant green meadow glistened, enclosed behind a sturdy fence of square wooden beams and iron posts, with only one access gate, which was made of wood in a massive steel frame. It lay wide open.
Blanc looked back at the dead man. He had been riding an expensive-looking mountain bike that had skidded maybe thirty feet until the front wheel had ended up in the drainage ditch at the side of the road. Then Blanc looked at the bull, its legs stretched out like the imploring arms of a beggar, its heavy lilac-colored tongue hanging from its mouth, the lines scraped in the tarmac by its horns, each one as long as a man's arm, and the side of its massive body ripped open by the bullets.
An older gendarme, sweating profusely, came over to him, the name RONCHARD on his badge.
"Was it you who shot the bull?" Blanc asked.
"Yes, mon Capitaine. A witness reported the accident. My colleague and I were the first on-site and found the body." Ronchard nodded toward another uniformed gendarme, who was using a compact camera to take photos of the road and the victim. He was holding the camera at arm's length as if afraid it might explode at any moment. Blanc doubted he would produce a single usable photo of the scene.
"The bull was still standing next to the victim," Ronchard went on. "At first we didn't dare get out of the car. I wasn't keen to tackle that half ton of bone and muscle with just my service pistol. It just so happened we had a UNP-9 in the car because we were on the way back from the shooting range. I'm a hunter in my spare time and ... eh bien ..." He hesitated, then gave a humorless laugh. "It wasn't exactly a marksman's shot. I rolled down the side window and emptied the magazine."
Blanc glanced back at the bull and nodded. "Maybe you'll get the sawed-off head as a trophy. Bit different from a pheasant."
"I'll be in the papers, that's for sure. I can't remember the last time a tourist in the Camargue was impaled on a bull's horns."
Blanc nodded toward the open fence. "Was that gate already open when you got here?" "As open as a flasher's fly."
"So the bull was grazing in a meadow that had been left open," Blanc mused. "Why wasn't the gate closed? And how long had it been open? Bien, one way or another, a cyclist just happens to be coming down a country road on his mountain bike."
"These animals are bred to fight, mon Capitaine. They are extremely aggressive and very fast. Maybe the animal got disturbed and it felt threatened. Or maybe it was just bored and hot with that black pelt in this sun. Maybe the screech of the brakes irritated it. Those things are monstrous beasts. In any case the creature must have seen the cyclist. There was nothing in between them. The bull lowered its head and charged. Hits him straight on. It'll be in the pages of La Provence in the morning."
"Maybe the front page," Blanc murmured gloomily, removing the victim's sunglasses. "Have you taken a closer look at him, Ronchard? Do you know him?" The man coughed. "The helmet and sunglasses covered up most of his face, and in any case I wasn't that close."
"Try to ignore the ludicrous cycling outfit he's wearing. Imagine him in designer jeans and an elegant dark jacket, wearing a shirt so white it hurts your eyes, with always one button too many undone. That's how this gentleman normally appears on his frequent television appearances."
* * *
It was Thursday, August 4, the seventh day of a heat wave that felt as if God had dragged the Midi away from Europe and planted it in the Sahara. Every day the radio was predicting temperatures of 95 degrees — a political move, Blanc figured, made not to panic people. If the temperature gauge in his run-down old Renault Espace still worked, he expected the little display would show 100 degrees from morning to late in the evening.
On Wednesday he had given up trying to inspect the roof of the old olive oil mill he had been living in for several weeks. The curved terra-cotta tiles had been heated by the sun to the extent that he had been forced to put on gloves just to touch them. After a few minutes, covered in sweat and dehydrated, he had retreated down the rickety wooden ladder he had found in a Dumpster near the house. But he had been careless enough to go up there with his shirt off and had come back down with sunburned shoulders. He cursed his own stupidity later when the burning from his neck to his upper arms stopped him from falling asleep. Born a northerner, always a northerner.
On Thursday morning he had sat in front of the nearly useless monitor of his antique computer staring at the screen saver. The heat had sapped the destructive energy of even the usual suspects in the criminal fraternity, so there was not much to do. He had tried to move as little as possible, which wasn't easy given that the chair was too small for his nearly six-foot-six frame. The shabby little concrete office block in the center of Gadet had air-conditioning, but it was less than inadequate and hadn't been serviced in years with the result that the whirring metal box emitted nothing more than a few waves of lukewarm air stinking of mildew. To get any fresh air at all the gendarmes had to open the windows from time to time, even if it did feel like they were opening the doors to an oven.
As always Blanc had gone to work in dark jeans and a black T-shirt and felt as if even the light cotton was scraping the sunburned patches of his skin.
His partner wasn't doing any better. Lieutenant Marius Tonon was also sitting staring apathetically at his screen, though at least he wasn't plagued by sunburn. His massive subordinate's olive-colored skin had long since become immune to the rays of the sun. But he blinked continuously, and there were big inflamed rings around his eyes while spiderwebs of tiny burst veins had exploded across his eyeballs.
Blanc had had lunch with his colleague in the shade of the plane trees in Gadet's Le Soleil restaurant, watching Tonon knock back a pastis "to cure my thirst." And then another. Only then did the landlord silently deliver his usual carafe of rosé wine.
When they were just starting to nod off in the office later, Blanc and Tonon jumped at the ring of the telephone. "Merde," Blanc muttered when he glanced at the display and saw that it was their boss calling.
Commandant Nicolas Nkoulou as ever lorded it over them in his office at the opposite end of the corridor, his immaculate pale blue uniform contrasting perfectly with his gold-rimmed glasses and chocolate-colored skin, on which there was not a single bead of sweat. He looked at Blanc and Tonon for longer than usual and for a moment it seemed as if he was about to say something totally different than what he was supposed to say to them. But in the end he collected his thoughts and pushed a piece of paper across his desk to them.
"This has just come in. It would appear to be" — the commandant cleared his throat — "a rather bizarre accident. A cyclist, a bull, and a real mess. Go check it out, purely pro forma."
"Putain, what does he mean pro forma?" Tonon whispered as they closed the door to the boss's office behind them.
"That he's given the job to us because everybody else thinks it's too hot," Blanc replied, requisitioning a squad car. "How long will it take us to get down to the Camargue?"
His colleague rolled his inflamed eyes. "Have you ever looked at a map?"
"The only map I know remotely well is the street map of Paris."
"Welcome to the real world."
As he walked out into the glaring sunlight, Blanc pulled the cloth armband bearing the word GENDARMERIE onto his left arm. Even that hurt. "I never would have thought that I'd feel better in that moldy hunk of concrete than I would outdoors," he grumbled, looking back at the gendarmerie station and noticing a blind twitch. Almost certainly a gloating colleague. Merde.
* * *
"You'll feel at home in the Camargue: it's salty, flat, and boring. Just like the north, only a bit hotter."
"I don't recall mad fighting bulls careering down the streets back home," Blanc replied dismissively.
His colleague flopped down into the passenger seat with a groan and fiddled with the dashboard until Radio Nostalgie filled the Renault Mégane, which was a bit of a relic from the past itself. Patricia Kaas. "Reste sur moi."
"I'd like to know whether it is a Provençal or Spanish fighting bull," Tonon said, unconsciously mouthing the words of the melody so it looked as if he was singing along. It annoyed Blanc and he concentrated on looking at the road.
"A bull is a bull," he replied, driving slowly out of the gendarmerie parking lot. There was hardly any need to rush.
Tonon gave him a sympathetic look. "You wouldn't say that if you were a bullfighter. In the Spanish corrida it's a matter of life and death. Usually it's the animal that gets stabbed, but sometimes the bull can win. Spanish bulls are bred so that their horns point lower — that makes it easier for them to get you."
"That's only fair."
"Provençal cocardiers, however," Tonon went on, "are smaller than the Spanish animals, faster, more nervous, more mobile — and their horns point upward."
"Nice for the torero."
"We call them raseteurs. Their job is to seize the rosettes fixed between the bull's horns, tiny little things tied to the base of the horns, right above the powerful skull. No normal person would do it of their own free will. A raseteur doesn't wave a red cape or play around with a sword or prance around the arena like some fancy Spanish fairy. A raseteur has no weapon save for the crochet, which looks a bit like an outsize knuckle-duster with hooks on it. That's what he uses to snag the rosettes from the horns if he's skilled enough and can get that close to the bull. A raseteur is dressed all in white and has to be quick on his feet. That's why we call it the course camarguaise; it's really more like a race than a fight. It can end in bloodshed, but it doesn't very often, and if it does, it's the man's blood. Throughout the spring and again in the autumn the spectacles are held in arenas such as those at Arles or Istres, sometimes Spanish-style but more often Provençal-style. But even the best bulls end up in the abattoir. Their meat has a gamy taste."
"All your thoughts come back to the kitchen," Blanc teased him. "If there are that many beasts, how come cyclists don't get gored more often?"
Tonon laughed. "Because there's enough free space to get out of the way most of the time. The Camargue is nearly eight hundred square miles, full of swamps, meadows, rice fields. The town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer has a Mediterranean coastline with beaches, gypsy music, happy tourists. Saint-Gilles is a hick town with a huge church, Aigues-Mortes is a sort of medieval Disneyland. But apart from those three towns, the whole area is more or less deserted. In the middle of the wasteland there are a couple of places where Parisians and the English come down to bust their balls on the backs of the famous Camargue white horses. There are the little cabanes that used to be lived in by the gardians, the cowboys of the Camargue with their black hats and tridents, the guys who look after the bulls but who can't afford the huts anymore. They're lived in by the Parisians and English who cool their balls off in them after they've been out riding. The cattle just wander freely through the wasteland, but the fighting bulls are kept in enclosed meadows behind strong fences. As a cyclist, there's normally just you and a few thousand uninterested flamingos."
"You sound like a great fan of the Camargue."
"You might say that."
Blanc turned onto route départementale 113, which ran mile after mile straight ahead between fields and lines of cypress trees. It felt a bit like driving down an endless airport runway without ever taking off. He was glad to see the traffic get a bit heavier as they approached Arles or else he might have fallen asleep at the wheel. His colleague nodded at the road sign that read SAINTES-MARIES and said wearily, "That way, just keep straight ahead. We're bound to come across the whole mess sooner or later."
It only took a few minutes before the patrol car was in a whole different world, driving through an ocean of grass and silvery water. Blanc spotted a cabane a few hundred yards away from the road. The straw roof had gone dark, but the walls were whitewashed to the extent that they were almost blinding. The northern end was narrow, rounded, and without windows. Blanc had experienced the mercilessly icy mistral and could imagine why these huts out in this unsheltered expanse presented it with a streamlined, wind-resistant face. There didn't seem to be a track across the marshland to the cabane and he wondered how anyone was supposed to get there from the road. A few white horses were tied to a wooden fence near the building. Paulette Aybalen, who lived near Blanc's dilapidated oil mill, also kept Camargue horses on her land. Sometimes she would ride out alone and sometimes with her daughters through the forests that lay on the other side of the mill. A wild, attractive woman. A woman ... And then his thoughts went back to Geneviève and why she had left him. He wondered if she was still on vacation in the Caribbean with her new lover. Or whether she was back in Paris with him. Looking out the window of his apartment, cooking in his kitchen, falling into his bed in the evening ... He wasn't paying attention to the road and almost drove into a drainage ditch when a few miles down the road took a sudden turn.
"The Camargue is better than Valium," Tonon commented, as soon as he had gotten over the shock. "As soon as you get here, your thoughts drift off elsewhere. What were you thinking about?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Deadly Camargue"
Copyright © 2015 Cay Rademacher.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Blood on the Road,
A Mas in the Camargue,
A Less Than Harmless Text,
An Old Suspect,
A Woman with a Past,
A Rendezvous Before a Death,
Collectors and Painters,
A Man with an Alibi,
A Clear Track,
Also by Cay Rademacher,
About the Author,