Authors: Pierre Lemaitre
When she becomes aware of Camille’s presence, she tries to reach out her hand, her eyes fill with tears, then her energy seems to drain away. She closes her eyes then opens them again. They are glassy and expressionless; even her beautiful green irises seem colourless.
Her head lolls to one side, her voice is hoarse. Her tongue seems heavy and clearly painful where unconsciously she bit into it; it is difficult to make out what she is saying, the labial consonants are inaudible.
“I feel sore . . .”
Camille cannot utter a word. Anne tries to speak, he lays a hand on the sheet to calm her, he does not dare to touch her. She suddenly seems nervous, agitated; he wants to do something to help, but what? Call a nurse? Anne’s eyes are shining, there is something she urgently needs to say.
“. . . graaa’ . . . ’eet . . . ard . . .”
She is still dazed by the suddenness of what has happened, as though it has just happened now.
Bending down, Camille listens carefully, he pretends to understand, he tries to smile. Anne sounds as though she is talking through a mouthful of scalding soup. Camille can hear only mangled syllables, but he concentrates and after a minute he begins to decipher words, to guess at meaning . . . Mentally, he translates. It is amazing how quickly we can adapt. To anything. Amazing, and a little sad.
“Grabbed,” he hears, “beat . . . hard.”
Anne’s eyebrows, her eyes grow wide with terror as though the man were once more standing in front of her, about to club her with the rifle butt. Camille gently reaches out and rests a hand on her shoulder, Anne flinches and gives a strangled cry.
“Camille . . .” she says.
She turns her head, it is difficult to make out what she says. The words are a sibilant hiss through three shattered teeth – the upper and lower incisors on the left hand side – that make her look like she is thirty years older, like Fantine in a crude production of “
”. Though she has begged the nurses, no-one has dared to give her a mirror.
In fact, though she can barely move, she tries to cover her mouth with the back of her hand when she speaks. More often than not she fails and her mouth looks like a gaping wound, the lips bruised and bluish.
“. . . going to operate . . .?”
This is what Camille thinks he hears. She starts to cry again; her tears seem to come independently of her words, with no apparent logic they suddenly well up and course down her cheeks. Anne’s face is a mask of mute astonishment.
‘”We don’t know yet . . .” Camille says, his voice low. “Try to relax. Everything is going to be fine . . .”
But already Anne’s mind is elsewhere. She turns her head away, as though she were ashamed. Her voice is barely audible now. Camille thinks he can make out the words “Not like this . . .” She does not want anyone to see her in this state. She manages to turn onto her stomach. Camille lays a hand on her shoulder, but Anne does not react, she stubbornly looks away, her body shaken by ragged sobs.
“Do you want me to stay?”
There is no answer. Not knowing what to do, Camille stays. After a long moment, Anne shakes her head at something though it is impossible to know what – at what is happening, at what has happened, at the grotesque farce that can engulf our lives without warning, at the injustice victims cannot help but see as personal. It is impossible to ask her. It is too soon. They are not in the same moment. There is nothing they can say.
It is impossible to tell whether she is asleep. Slowly, she turns onto her back, eyes closed. And does not move again.
Camille gazes at her, listening intently, comparing her breathing to that when she is asleep, a sound he knows better than anyone in the world. He has spent hours watching her sleep. In the early days, he would get up in the middle of the night to sketch her features that looked like a swimmer’s, because during the day he could never quite capture the subtle magic of her face. He has made hundreds of drawings, spent countless hours attempting to reproduce the purity of her lips, her eyelids. Or sketched her body silhouetted in the shower. His magnificent failures had taught him just how important she is: though he can draw an almost photographic likeness of anyone in a few scant minutes, there is something inexpressible, something indefinable about Anne that eludes his gaze, his senses, his powers of observation. The woman who lies swollen and bandaged before him now has nothing of the magic, all that remains is the outer shell, and ugly, terribly prosaic body.
It is this that, as the minutes pass, fuels Camille’s anger.
From time to time, Anne wakes with a start, gives a little cry, glances round wildly and in those moments Camille sees a new and utterly unfamiliar expression, one he saw on Armand’s face in the weeks before he died: the incredulous shock that things have come to this. Incomprehension. Injustice.
Hardly has he recovered from the upset than the nurse comes to tell him visiting hours are over. She is self-effacing, but she waits for him to leave. She wears a name-tag that reads “
”. She keeps her hands clasped behind her back, at once determined and respectful, her compassionate smile rendered utterly artificial by collagen or hyaluronic acid. Camille wants to stay until Anne can tell him everything, he is frantic to know what happened. But all he can do is wait. Leave. Anne needs to rest. Camille leaves.
It will be twenty-four hours before he begins to understand.
And twenty-four hours is much more time than a man like Camille might need to lay to waste the whole earth.
Emerging from the hospital, Camille knows only those few details given him over the telephone and later, here, at the hospital. In fact, aside from broad strokes, no-one knows anything; it has so far been impossible to retrace the precise sequence of events. Camille’s only piece of evidence is Anne’s disfigured face, a harrowing image that merely serves to fuel the anger of a man inclined to strong emotions.
By the time he has reached the exit, Camille is seething.
He wants to know everything, to know it now, to know it before everyone else, he wants . . .
Camille is not a vengeful man by nature, although, like anyone, there have been moments when he was tempted. But Philippe Buisson, the man who killed his first wife, is still very much alive, despite the fact that, given his contacts, it would have been a simple matter for Camille to have ordered a hit on him in prison.
And this time, seeing the attack on Anne, he is not motivated by a desire for revenge. It is as though what has happened threatens his own life. He needs to act, to do
because he cannot grasp the magnitude of this incident that has almost destroyed his relationship with Anne, the only thing since Irène’s death that has given it meaning.
What to others might seem like pompous platitudes sound very different to someone who already feels responsible for the death of a loved one. Such things change a man.
As he dashes down the steps of the hospital, he sees Anne’s face again, the yellow rings around her eyes, the livid bruising, the swollen flesh.
He has just pictured her dead.
He does not yet know how or why, but someone has tried to kill her.
It is this sense of
that panics him. After Irène was murdered . . . The circumstances are completely different. Irène was personally targeted by her killer whereas Anne simply ran into the wrong man at the wrong time, but in the moment, Camille is incapable of untangling his emotions.
But he is also incapable of letting things take their course without doing something.
Without trying to do something.
In fact, though he does not realise it, he instinctively began to act from the moment he received the telephone call. Anne had “sustained injuries”, he was told by the woman from the Préfecture de Police, having been involved in an “altercation” during an armed robbery in the 8th arrondissement. “Altercation” is one of Camille’s favourite words. Everyone on the force loves it. Police officers are also fond of “perpetrator” and “stipulate”, but “altercation” is particularly practical since in four syllables it covers everything from a heated argument to a vicious beating, leaving the other party to infer whatever they please.
“What kind of ‘altercation’?”
The officer did not know, she was probably reading from a report, Camille could not help but wonder whether she even understood what she was saying.
“Armed robbery. Shots fired. Madame Forestier did not sustain gunshot wounds, but she was injured during an altercation. She has been taken to the nearest casualty department.”
Shots fired? At Anne? During a hold-up? It is difficult to make sense of the words, impossible to imagine the scene. Anne and “armed robbery” are concepts that have nothing in common . . .
The woman on the telephone explained that, when she was found, Anne did not have a bag or any form of identification; officers had discovered her name and address from the mobile telephone lying nearby.
“We called her home number, but there was no reply.”
So they had dialled the number Anne had called the most frequently – Camille’s number.
The woman asked his surname for her report. She pronounced it “Verona”. Camille corrected her: “Verhœven”. There was a brief silence and then she asked him to spell it.
This triggered something in Camille’s mind.
Verhœven is hardly a common surname, and in the police force it is very unusual. And, frankly, Camille is not the sort of policeman people forget. It is not simply the matter of his uncommonly small stature, every officer knows his history, his reputation, they know about Irène, about the Alex Prévost case. To most people, Camille might as well have a tattoo reading “As seen on T.V.”. He has made a number of high-profile appearances on television; cameramen favour an angled shot of his hawk-like features, his balding pate. But the assistant had clearly never heard about Verhœven, the renowned
commandant de police
, the T.V. appearances: she asked him to spell his name.
In hindsight, Camille decides that this is the first piece of good news in a day that bodes no others.
“Ferroven, did you say?” the girl said.
“That’s right,” Camille replied, “Ferroven.”
And he spelled it for her.
Such is the nature of the human animal: give them an accident and people immediately hang out of their windows. As long as there’s a flashing police light or a smear of blood, there will be a rubbernecker there to pry. And right now, there are lots of them. I mean, an armed robbery in the middle of Paris, shots fired . . . Disneyland has nothing on this.
In theory the street is cordoned off, but that doesn’t stop pedestrians strolling past. The order has been given that only residents are allowed through the barrier, but it’s a waste of time – everyone claims to be a resident because everyone wants to know what the hell is going on. Things have calmed down a little, but from what people are saying, it was chaos this morning. With all the police cars, police vans, forensics teams and motorcycles clogging up the Champs-Élysées, the city was gridlocked from Place de la Concorde to l’Étoile and from the boulevard Malesherbes to the Palais de Tokyo. I have to say that just knowing I’m responsible for all that chaos is kind of exhilarating.
When you’ve fired a shotgun at a woman covered in blood and made off, tyres shrieking, in a four-by-four with fifty grand’s worth of jewels, coming back to the crime scene gives you a little thrill, like Proust and his madeleine. It’s quite pleasant, actually. It’s not hard to be cheerful when your plans work out. There’s a little café on Georges-Flandrin right next to the Monier. The perfect location. It’s called Le Brasseur. The noise is deafening. Everyone babbling and arguing. It’s very simple: everyone saw everything, heard everything, knows everything.
I stand at the far end of the bar, keeping a low profile, away from the people milling in the doorway, I blend in, I listen.
Fuckwits, the lot of them.
The autumn sky looks as though it has been painted especially for this cemetery. There are lots of people. This is the advantage of serving officers, they turn up to funerals
so you are guaranteed a crowd.
From a distance, Camille spots Armand’s family, his wife, his children, his brothers and sisters. Well groomed, ramrod straight, desolate, serious. He does not know what they are like in reality, but they look like a family of Quakers.
Armand’s death four days earlier devastated Camille. It also liberated him. For weeks and weeks he had been visiting the hospital, holding Armand’s hand, talking to him even when the doctors could no longer tell whether he could hear or understand. And so now he simply nods to Armand’s widow from afar. After the longs months of agony, after all the words he has said to Armand’s wife, his children, Camille has nothing left. He did not even need to come today: he has given everything he had to give.
Camille and Armand had a number of things in common. They had started out together at the police academy, a youthful connection made all the more precious by the fact that neither of them had ever truly been young.
Then there was Armand’s pathological tight-fistedness. He waged a battle to the death against expense and, ultimately, against money. Camille cannot help but think of his death as a victory for capitalism. It was not this meanness that united them but the fact that, in their different ways, they were small men with an overwhelming need to compensate. It was a kind of solidarity for the differently abled.
Moreover his long, slow death had confirmed that Armand thought of Camille as his best friend.
What we mean to others can be a powerful bond.
Of the four original members of his team, Camille is the only one now standing in the cemetery, something he finds difficult to accept.
His assistant, Louis Mariani, has not yet arrived. Camille is not worried, Louis is a man with a strong sense of duty, he will be here – for someone of Louis’ social class, missing a funeral, like farting at the dinner table, is unimaginable.