Luc arrived at the Snack-Wagon the next day to find Louis waiting for him. The gendarme was in full uniform, his usually vague and pleasant face wearing an expression of almost military indifference. There was an object in the grass beside the wagon, something that looked something like a child’s trolley.
“Watch this,” said Paul to me from the window.
I left my place at the stove, where the coffee was just beginning to boil.
“Just you watch this,” said Paul.
The window was open a crack, and I could smell the smoky Loire mist as it rolled over the fields. The scent was nostalgic as burning leaves.
“H'e l`a!” Luc’s voice was quite clear where we stood, and he walked with the carefree assurance of one who knows himself to be irresistible. Louis Ramondin just stared at him impassively.
“What’s that he’s got with him?” I asked Paul softly, with a gesture toward the machine on the grass. Paul grinned.
“Just watch,” he advised.
“Hey, how’s it going?” Luc reached in his pocket for his keys. “Must be in a hurry for breakfast, hein? Been waiting long?”
Louis just watched him without a word.
“Listen to this.” Luc made an expansive gesture. “Pancakes, farmhouse sausage, egg and bacon `a l’anglaise. Le breakfast Dessanges. Plus a big pot of my very blackest, very meanest caf'e noirissime, because I can tell you’ve had a rough night.” He laughed. “What was it, hein? Stakeout at the church bazaar? Someone molesting the local sheep? Or was it the other way around?”
Still Louis said nothing. He remained quite still, like a toy policeman, one hand on the handle of the trolley-thing in the grass.
Luc shrugged and opened the Snack-Wagon door.
“I guess you’ll be a bit more vocal when you’ve had my breakfast Dessanges.”
We watched for a few minutes as Luc brought out his awning and the pennants that advertised his daily menus. Louis stood stolidly beside the Snack-Wagon, seeming not to notice. Every now and again Luc sang out something cheerful at the waiting policeman. After a time I heard the sounds of music from the radio.
“What’s he waiting for?” I demanded impatiently. “Why doesn’t he say something?”
Paul grinned. “Give him time,” he advised. “Never quick on the uptake, the Ramondins, but once you get them going…”
Louis waited fully ten minutes. By that time Luc was still cheery but bewildered, and had all but abandoned any attempt at conversation. He had begun to heat the cooking plates for the pancakes, his paper hat tilted jauntily back from his forehead. Then, at last, Louis moved. Not far-he simply went to the back of the Snack-Wagon with his trolley and vanished from sight.
“What is that thing, anyway?” I asked.
“Hydraulic jack,” replied Paul, still smiling. “They use them in garages. Watch.”
And as we watched the Snack-Wagon began to tilt forward, ever so slowly. Almost imperceptibly at first, then with a sudden lurch that brought Dessanges out of his galley quicker than a ferret. He looked angry, but he looked scared too, taken off balance for the first time in the whole of this sorry game, and I liked that look just fine.
“What the fuck d’you think you’re doing!” he yelled at Ramondin, half incredulous. “What is this?”
Silence. I saw the wagon tilt again, just a little. Paul and I craned our necks to see what was going on.
Luc glanced briefly at the wagon to make sure it wasn’t damaged. The awning hung askew and the trailer had tilted drunkenly, like a shack built on sand. I saw the look of calculation come back into his face, the careful, sharp look of a man who not only has aces up his sleeve, but who believes he owns the whole pack.
“Had me going there for a minute,” he said in that cheery, relentless voice. “Hey, you really had me going. Knocked me sideways, you might say.”
We heard nothing from Louis, but thought we saw the wagon tilt a little more. Paul found that from the bedroom window we could see the rear of the Snack-Wagon, so we moved for a better view. Their voices were thin but audible in the cool morning air.
“Come on, man,” said Luc, a flicker of nerves in his voice now. “Joke over. Okay? Get the wagon back on its feet again and I’ll make you my breakfast special. On the house.”
Louis looked at him. “Certainly, sir,” he said pleasantly, but the wagon tipped a little farther forward anyway. Luc made a rapid gesture toward it, as if to steady it.
“I’d step away if I were you, sir,” suggested Louis mildly. “It doesn’t look very stable to me.” The wagon tipped another fraction.
“What do you think you’re playing at?” I could hear the angry note in his voice returning.
Louis only smiled. “Windy night last night, sir,” he observed gently, with another touch at the hydraulic jack at his feet. “Whole bunch of trees got blown down over by the river.”
I saw Luc stiffen. His rage made him graceless, his head jerking like that of a rooster getting ready for a fight. He was taller than Louis, I noticed, but much slighter. Louis, short and stocky, had spent most of his early life getting into fights. That’s why he got to be a policeman in the first place. Luc took a step forward.
“You just let go of that jack right now,” he said in a low, threatening voice.
Louis smiled. “Certainly, sir,” he said. “Whatever you say.”
We saw it in a kind of inevitable slow motion. The Snack-Wagon, perched precariously on its edge, swung back as its support was removed. There was a crash as the contents of the galley-plates, glasses, cutlery, pans-were suddenly and violently displaced, hurled into the far side of the wagon with a splash of broken crockery. The wagon continued to move backward in a lazy arc, propelled by its own momentum and the weight of its displaced furniture. For a moment it seemed as if it might right itself. Then it toppled, slowly and almost ponderously, onto its side into the grass of the verge with a crash that shook my house and rattled the cups on the downstairs dresser so loudly that we heard it from our lookout in the bedroom.
For seconds the two men just looked at each other, Louis with an expression of concern and sympathy, Luc in disbelief and increasing fury. The Snack-Wagon lay on its side in the long grass, sounds of tinkling and breakage settling gently inside its belly.
“Oops,” said Louis.
Luc made a furious dash at Louis. For a second something blurred between them, arms, fists moving too fast for me to see properly. Then Luc was sitting in the grass with his hands over his face and Louis was helping him up with that kind expression of sympathy.
“Dear me, sir, how could that have happened? Taken over faint for a moment, were we? It’s the shock, it’s quite natural. Take it easy.”
Luc was spluttering with rage. “Have you-any-fucking-idea what you’ve done, you moron?” His words were unclear because of the way he held his hands in front of his face. Paul said later that he’d seen Louis’s elbow jab him neatly across the bridge of the nose, though it all happened a bit too quickly for me to catch. Pity. I’d have enjoyed seeing that.
“My lawyer’s going to take you-to the fucking cleaners-be almost worth it to see you-shit, I’m bleeding to death-” Funny, but I could hear the family resemblance now, more pronounced than it had been before, something about the way he emphasized syllables, the thwarted squeal of a spoiled city boy who’s never had anything denied him before. For a moment there I could have sworn he sounded just exactly like his sister.
Paul and I went downstairs then-I don’t think we could have stayed indoors for another minute-and out to watch the fun. Luc was standing by then, not so pretty now with blood dribbling from his nose and his eyes watering. I noticed he had fresh dogshit on one of his expensive Paris boots. I held out my handkerchief. Luc gave me a suspicious glance and took it. He began to dabble at his nose. I could tell he hadn’t understood yet; he was pale, but he had a stubborn kind of fighting look on his face, the look of a man who has lawyers and advisors and friends in high places to run to.
“You saw that, didn’t you?” he spat. “You saw what that fucker did to me?” He looked at the bloody handkerchief with a kind of disbelief. His nose was swelling nicely, and so were his eyes. “You both saw him hit me, didn’t you?” insisted Luc. “In broad daylight? I could sue you for every-fucking-penny-”
Paul shrugged. “Didn’t see much myself,” he said in his slow voice. “We old people, we don’t see as well as we used to-don’t hear as well either-”
“But you were watching,” insisted Luc. “You must have seen…” He caught me grinning and his eyes narrowed. “Oh, I understand,” he said unpleasantly. “This is what it’s all about, is it? Thought you could get your pet gendarme to intimidate me, could you?” He glared at Louis.
“If this is really the best you can do between you-” he pinched his nostrils shut to stop the bleeding.
“I don’t think there’s any call to go casting aspersions,” said Louis stolidly.
“Oh, you don’t?” snapped Luc. “When my lawyer sees-”
Louis interrupted him. “It’s natural you should be upset. The wind blowing over your caf'e like that. I can understand you didn’t know what you were doing.”
Luc stared at him in disbelief.
“Terrible night last night,” said Paul kindly. “First of the October storms. I’m sure you’ll be able to claim on the insurance.”
“Of course it was bound to happen,” I said. “A high-sided vehicle like that by the side of a road. I’m only surprised it didn’t happen earlier.”
Luc nodded. “I see,” he said softly. “Not bad, Framboise. Not bad at all. I see you’ve been hard at work.” His tone was almost coaxing. “But even without the wagon, you know there’s a lot more I can do. A lot more we can do.” He tried a grin, then winced and dabbed at his nose again. “You might as well give them what they want,” he continued in the same almost seductive tone. “H'e, Mamie. What do you say?”
I’m not sure what I would have answered. Looking at him I felt old. I’d expected him to give in, but he looked less beaten at that moment than he’d ever been, his sharp face expectant. I’d given it my best shot-our best shot, Paul and I-and even so Luc seemed invincible. Like children trying to dam a river. We’d had our moment of triumph-that look on his face, almost worth it just for that-but in the end, however brave the effort, the river always wins. Louis had spent his childhood by the side of the Loire too, I told myself. He must have known. All he had done was get himself into trouble too. I imagined an army of lawyers, advisors, city police-our names in the papers, our secret business revealed… I felt tired. So tired.
Then I saw Paul’s face. He was smiling that slow sweet smile of his, looking almost half witted but for the lazy amusement in his eyes. He yanked his beret down over his forehead in a gesture that was somehow final and comic and heroic at the same time, like the world’s oldest knight pulling down his visor for a last tilt at the enemy. I felt a sudden crazy urge to laugh.
“I think we can…ah…sort it out,” Paul said. “Maybe Louis here got carried away a little. All the Ramondins were a little…ah…quick to take offense. It’s in the blood.” He smiled apologetically, then turned to address Louis. “There was that business with Guilherm…who was he, your grandmother’s brother?” Dessanges listened in growing irritation and contempt.
“Father’s,” corrected Louis.
Paul nodded. “Aye. Hot blood, the Ramondins. All of ‘em.” He was lapsing into dialect again-one of the things Mother always held most against him, that and his stutter-and his accent was thicker than I ever remember it back in the old days. “I remember how they led the rabble that night against the farmhouse-old Guilherm at front with his wooden leg-and all for that business at La Mauvaise R'eputation -seems it’s kept that bad reputation all this time-”
Luc shrugged his shoulders. “Look, I’d love to hear today’s selection of Quaint Country Tales from Long Ago. But what I’d really like-”
“‘Twas a young man started it all,” continued Paul inexorably. “Not unlike yourself, I’d say he was. A man from the city, hein, from the foreign…who thought he could wrap the poor stupid Loire people round his finger.”
He gave me a quick look, as if checking an emotional barometer somewhere in my face. “Came to a bad end, though. Didn’t he?”
“The worst,” I said thickly. “The very worst.”
Luc was watching us both, his eyes wary. “Oh?” he said.
I nodded. “He liked young girls too,” I said in a voice that sounded dim and distant to my own ears. “Played them along. Used them to find out things. They’d call that corruption nowadays.”
“Course in those days most of those girls didn’t have fathers,” said Paul blandly. “‘Cause of the war.”
I saw Luc’s eyes kindle with understanding. He gave a small nod, as if marking a point. “This is something to do with last night, is it?” he said.
I ignored the question. “You are married, aren’t you?” I asked.
He nodded again.
“Pity if your wife had to be involved in all this,” I went on. “Corruption of minors…nasty business…I don’t see how she could avoid getting involved.”
“You’ll never get that one to stick,” said Luc quickly. “The girl wouldn’t-”
“The girl is my daughter,” said Louis simply. “She would do-say-whatever she felt was right.”
Again, the nod. He was cool enough, I’ll give him that.
“Fine,” he said at last. He even managed a little smile. “Fine. I get the message.” He was relaxed in spite of everything; his pallor came from anger rather than fear. He looked at me directly, an ironic twist at his mouth.
“I hope the victory was worth it, Mamie,” he said with emphasis. “Because come tomorrow you’re going to need every bit of comfort you can get. Come tomorrow your sad little secret is going to be splashed across every magazine, every newspaper in the country. Just time for a couple of phone calls before I move on… After all it really has been such a dull party, and if our friend here thinks his little bitch of a daughter even began to make it worthwhile-” He broke off to grin viciously, at Louis and gaped as the policeman’s handcuffs snapped sharply over first one wrist, then the other.
“What?” He sounded incredulous, close to laughter. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing now? Adding abduction to the list? Where do you think this is? The Wild fucking West?”
Louis gave him his stolid look.
“It’s my duty to warn you, sir,” he said, “that violent and abusive behavior cannot be tolerated, and that it is my duty-”
“What?” Luc’s voice rose almost to a scream. “What behavior? You’re the one who hit me! You can’t-”
Louis looked at him with polite reproach. “I have reason to believe, sir, that given your erratic behavior you may be under the influence of alcohol, or some other intoxicating substance, and that for your own safety I feel it my duty to keep you under supervision until that time-”
“You’re arresting me?” demanded Luc, disbelieving. “You’re charging me?”
“Not unless I’m obliged to, sir,” said Louis reproachfully. “But I’m sure these two witnesses here will testify to abusive, threatening behavior, violent language, disorderly conduct-” He gave a nod in my direction. “I’ll have to ask you to accompany me to the station, sir.”
“There is no fucking station!” screamed Luc.
“Louis uses the basement of his house for drunk and disorderlies,” said Paul quietly. “Course, we haven’t had one for a while, not since Guguste Tinon went on that bender five years ago-”
“But I have a root cellar that is entirely at your disposal, Louis, if you think there’s a danger he might pass out on his way into the village,” I suggested blandly. “There’s a good strong lock on it, and no way he could do himself any harm…”
Louis appeared to consider this. “Thank you, veuve Simon,” he said at last. “I think perhaps that would be for the best. At least until I can work out where to go from here.” He looked critically at Dessanges, who was pale now with something more than rage.
“You’re crazy, all three of you,” said Dessanges softly.
“Course, I’ll have to search you first,” said Louis calmly. “Can’t have you burning the place down or anything. Could you empty your pockets for me, please?”
Luc shook his head. “I just don’t believe this,” he said.
“I’m sorry sir,” persisted Louis. “But I’ll have to ask you to empty your pockets.”
“Ask away,” retorted Luc sourly. I don’t know what you’re expecting to get from all this, but when my lawyer hears about it…“
“I’ll do it,” suggested Paul. “I don’t suppose he can reach his pockets with his hands cuffed, anyway.”
He moved quickly, in spite of his seeming clumsiness, his poacher’s hands patting Luc’s clothing and abstracting its contents-a lighter, some rolling papers, car keys, a wallet, a packet of cigarettes. Luc struggled uselessly, swearing. He looked about him, as if expecting to see someone to whom he might call for help, but the street was deserted.
“One wallet.” Louis checked the contents. “One cigarette lighter. Silver. One mobile phone.” He began to open the packet of cigarettes and to shake out the contents into his palm.
Then, on Louis’s hand, I saw something I didn’t recognize. A small irregular block of some blackish brown stuff like old treacle toffee.
“I wonder what this is,” said Louis blandly.
“Fuck you!” said Luc sharply. “This isn’t mine! You planted it on me, you old bastard!”-this to Paul, who looked at him in slow-witted surprise. “You’ll never get it to stand-”
“Maybe not,” said Louis indifferently. “But we can try, can’t we?”