Authors: Pierre Lemaitre
Anne behaves as though her surroundings do not exist. She would not react if the tall man were to stand over her and aim the barrel at the back of her head. It is a powerful survival instinct even if, watching it on the screen, it seems more like suicide: scarcely two metres away from a man with a shotgun who only minutes earlier made it clear that he was perfectly prepared to put a bullet in her head, Anne is about to do something that no-one in her position would wish to do. She is going to try to stand up. With no thought for the consequences. She is going to try to escape. Anne is a woman of great courage, but confronting a man with a sawn-off shotgun goes beyond bravery.
What is about to happen arises almost automatically from the situation: two opposing forces are about to collide and one or other must prevail. Both forces are caught up in the moment. The difference being that one is backed up by a 12-bore shotgun, which unquestionably gives him the upper hand. But Anne cannot gauge the balance of power, cannot rationally calculate the odds against her, she is behaving as though she were alone. She musters every ounce of strength – and from the flickering images, it is clear she has little left – draws up her leg, hoists herself laboriously with her arms, her hands slipping in a pool of her own blood. She almost falls back, but tries a second time; the slowness of her movements lends the scene a surreal quality. She feels heavy, numb, you can almost hear her gasping for breath, you want to heave her up, to drag her away, to help her to her feet.
Camille wants only to tell her not to move. Even if it takes a minute before the tall man turns and notices, Anne is so dazed, so out of it that she will not make it three metres before the first shotgun blast all but cuts her in two. But several hours have passed, Camille is staring at a video monitor, what he thinks now is of no importance: it is too late.
Anne’s actions are not governed by thought but by sheer determination which knows no logic. It is obvious from the video that her resolution is simply a survival instinct. She does not look like someone being threatened by a shotgun at point-blank range, she looks like a woman who has had too much to drink and is about to pick up her handbag – Anne has clung to the bag from the beginning – stagger to the door and make her way home. It seems as though what is stopping her is not a 12-bore shotgun, but her befuddled state.
What transpires next takes barely a second: Anne does not stop to think, she has struggled painfully to her feet. She manages to stay standing, her skirt is still hiked around her waist. She is scarcely upright before she begins to run.
At this point, everything goes wrong and what follows is a series of miscalculations, accidents and errors. It is as though, overwhelmed by events, God does not know how to play out the scene and so leaves the actors to improvise, which, ineptly, they do.
Anne does not know where she is, she cannot get her bearings, in fact in attempting to escape, she heads the wrong way. If she reached out a hand, she would touch the tall man’s shoulder, he would turn and . . .
She hesitates for a long moment, disorientated. It is a miracle that she manages to stay upright. She wipes her bloody face with her sleeve, tilts her head as though listening to something, she cannot seem to take that first step . . . Then, suddenly, she tries to run. As he watches the video, Camille falls apart as the last pillars of his stoic courage crumble.
Anne’s instinct is fine in theory; it is in practice that things go wrong. She skids in the pool of blood. She is skating. In a cartoon, it would be funny; in reality it is agonising because she is slipping in her own blood, struggling to stay on her feet, trying desperately to run and succeeding only in flapping and flailing dangerously. It looks as though she is running in slow motion. It is heart-stopping.
The tall man does not immediately realise what is happening. Anne is about to fall on top of him when her feet finally reach a patch of dry ground, she regains her balance and, as though powered by a spring, she begins to lurch.
In the wrong direction.
Initially, she follows a curious trajectory, spinning around like a broken doll. She makes a quarter turn, takes a step forward, stops, turns again like a disorientated walker trying to get her bearings, and eventually manages to stumble off in the vague direction of the exit. Several seconds pass before the robber realises that his prey is attempting to escape. The moment he does, he turns and fires.
Camille plays the video over and over: there is no doubt that the killer is surprised. He is gripping his gun next to his hip, the sort of stance a gunman takes when trying to hit anything within a radius of four or five metres. Perhaps he has not had time to regain his composure. Or perhaps he is too sure of himself – it often happens: give a nervous man a 12-bore shotgun and the freedom to use it and he immediately thinks he is a crack shot. Perhaps it is simply surprise, or perhaps it is a mixture of all these things. The fact remains that the barrel is aimed high, much too high. It is an impulsive shot. He does not even try to aim.
Anne does not see anything. She is still stumbling forward through a black hole when a deafening hail of glass rains down on her as the ornamental fanlight above her head is blown to smithereens. In the light of Anne’s fate, it seems cruel to mention that the stained-glass panel depicted a hunting scene: two dashing riders galloping towards a baying pack of hounds that have cornered a stag; the hounds are slavering, their teeth bared, the stag is already dead meat . . . It seems strange that the fanlight in the Galerie Monier, which survived two world wars, was finally destroyed by a ham-fisted thug . . . Some things are difficult to accept.
The whole Galerie trembles: the windows, the plate glass, the floor; people protect themselves as best they can.
“I hunched my shoulders,” an antiques dealer will later tell Camille, miming the action.
He is thirty-four (he is precise on this point; he is not thirty-five). The stubby moustache that curls at the ends looks a little too small for his large nose. His right eye remains almost entirely closed, like the figure in the helmet in Giotto’s painting “Idolatry”. Even thinking about the noise of the gunshot, he seems dumbfounded.
“Well, obviously, I assumed it was a terrorist attack. [He apparently thinks this explains matters.] But then I thought, that’s ridiculous, why would terrorists attack the Galerie, there’s no obvious target,” and so on . . .
The sort of witness who revises reality as fast as his memory will allow. But not someone to forget his priorities. Before going out into the arcade to see what was happening, he looked around to check whether there was any damage to his stock.
“Not so much as a scratch!” he says, flicking his thumb against his front tooth.
The Galerie is higher than it is wide; it is a corridor some fifty metres across lined by shops with plate-glass windows. In such a confined space the blast is colossal. After the explosion, the vibrations ripple out at the speed of sound, ricochet off every obstacle sending back wave upon wave of echoes.
The gunshot and the hail of glass stopped Anne in her tracks. She raises her arms to shield her head, tucks her chin into her chest, stumbles, falls onto her side and rolls across the glittering shards, but it takes more than a single shot and a shattered window to stop a woman like Anne. It seems incredible, but once more she gets to her feet.
The tall man’s first shot missed its mark, but he has learned his lesson; he takes the time to aim. On the C.C.T.V. footage, he can be seen reloading the shotgun, staring down the barrel; if the video were sufficiently high resolution, it would be possible to see his finger squeezing the trigger.
A black-gloved hand suddenly appears; the shorter man jostles his shoulder just as he fires . . .
The window of the nearby bookshop explodes, splinters of glass, some large as dinner plates, sharp and jagged as razors, fall and shatter on the tiles.
“I was in the little office at the back of the bookshop . . .”
The woman is about fifty, an archetypal businesswoman: short, plump, self-confident, expensive make-up, twice-weekly trips to the beautician, tinkling with bracelets, necklaces, chains, rings, brooches, earrings (it is a wonder the robbers did not take her with the rest of their loot), a gravelly voice – too many cigarettes and probably too much booze, Camille does not take the time to find out. The incident took place only a few hours earlier, he is in shock, impatient, he needs to know.
“I rushed out . . .” she gestures towards the arcade. She pauses, clearly happy to be the centre of attention. She wants to make the most of her little performance. With Camille, it will be short-lived.
“Get on with it,” he growls.
Not very polite for a policeman, she thinks, must be his height, it’s the kind of thing that must make you bitter, resentful. Moments after the gunshot, she witnessed Anne being hurled against a display case as though pushed by a giant hand, bouncing back against the plate-glass window and then crumpling on the floor. The image is still so powerful that the woman forgets her affectations.
“She was thrown against the window, but she was hardly on the ground before she was trying to get up again! [The woman sounds amazed, impressed.] She was bleeding and disorientated, flapping her arms around, slipping and sliding, you get the picture . . .”
On the C.C.T.V. footage, the two men seem to freeze for a moment. The shorter one shoves the shotgun aside and drops the bags on the floor. He squares up, it is as though they are about to come to blows. Tight-lipped beneath his balaclava, he seems to spit his words.
The tall man lowers the gun, one hand gripping the barrel, he hesitates for a moment, then reality takes hold. Reluctantly he watches Anne as she struggles to her feet and staggers towards the exit; but time is short, an alarm goes off inside his head, the raid has taken far too long.
His accomplice grabs the bags and tosses one to him; the decision is made. The two men run off and disappear from the screen. A split second later, the tall man turns back and reappears on the right-hand side of the image, grabs the handbag Anne abandoned when she fled, then disappears again. This time he will not be back. We know that the two men went through the toilets and out onto the rue Damiani, where a third man was waiting with a car.
Anne barely knows where she is. She falls, gets up and, somehow, manages to make it out of the arcade and onto the street.
“There was so much blood, and she was walking . . . she looked like a zombie.” A South American girl, dark hair, copper skin, about twenty. She works in the hairdressing salon on the corner and had just stepped out to get some coffees.
“Our machine is broken and someone has to go out and get coffee for the customers,” the manageress, Janine Guénot, explains. Standing, staring at Verhœven, she looks like a brothel madam, she has the same qualities. And the same sense of responsibility: she is not about to let one of her girls talk to some man on the street without keeping an eye open. The reason the girl went out – the coffee, the malfunctioning machine – hardly matters, Camille brushes it aside with a wave. Though not entirely.
Because at the moment Anne stumbled out into the street, the hairdresser was rushing back with five cups of coffee balanced on a tray. Clients in this neighbourhood are particularly annoying, being well heeled they feel entitled to be demanding, as though exercising some ancestral right.
“Serving lukewarm coffee would be a disaster,” the manageress explains with a pained expression.
Hence the young hairdresser’s haste.
Surprised and intrigued by the two gunshots she hears coming from the Galerie Monier, she is trotting along with her tray when she runs straight into a crazed woman, covered in blood, staggering out of the arcade. It is a shock. The two women collide, the tray goes flying and with it the cups, the saucers, the glasses of water, the coffee spills all over the blue trouser suit the hairdressers in the salon wear as a uniform. The gunshots, the coffee, the delay, she can deal with, but trouser suits are expensive. The voice of the manageress is shrill now, she wants to show Camille the damage. “It’s fine,” he waves away her concerns. She demands to know who is going to pay for the dry cleaning, the law must surely provide for such eventualities. “It’ll be fine,” Camille says again.
“And she didn’t even stop,” the woman insists, as though this were a prang with a moped.
By now, she is telling the story as though it happened to her. She imperiously takes over because, when all is said and done, this was one of “her girls”, and having coffee spilled all over her uniform means she has rights. Customers are all alike. Camille grabs her arm, she looks down at him curiously, as though observing a piece of dog shit on the pavement.
“Madame,” Camille says with a snarl, “stop pissing me about.”
The woman cannot believe her ears. And a dwarf at that! Now she’s seen it all. But Verhœven stares her down; it is unsettling. In the awkward silence, the young hairdresser tries to prove how anxious she is to keep her job.
“She was moaning . . .” the girl says, to distract Camille’s attention.
He turns to her, wants to know more. “What do you mean, moaning?”
“She was making these little cries, it was like . . . I don’t know how to explain it.”
“Try,” says the manageress, eager to redeem herself in the eyes of the policeman, you never know when it might be useful. She nudges the girl. Come on, tell the gentleman, what did they sound like, these cries? The girl stares at them, eyelashes fluttering, she is not sure what she is being asked to do and so, rather than describing Anne’s cries, she tries to mimic them. She begins to mouth little moans and whimpers, trying to find the right tone –
, yes, that’s it, she says, concentrating now,
, and having found the right tone the moans grow louder, she closes her eyes then opens them wide and seconds later
, it sounds as though she is about to come.