Authors: Peter Morfoot
Also by Peter Morfoot and Available from Titan Books
Box of Bones
Print edition ISBN: 9781783296644
E-book edition ISBN: 9781783296651
Published by Titan Books
A division of Titan Publishing Group Ltd
144 Southwark Street, London SE1 0UP
First edition: April 2016
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Names, places and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead (except for satirical purposes), is entirely coincidental.
© 2016 Peter Morfoot
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library.
For Rob and Katey
To arms, citizens!
Form your battalions!
Let impure blood
Water our furrows!
From the French national anthem,
The boy swung the scythe in a low, slow arc. As precise as a pendulum, it was a movement beautiful in its economy; the blade levelling the crop and gathering it in one fell swoop. With each pass, he edged further into the waist-high wheat, using the old Roman road that ran alongside the field as a guide. Turning at the end of the first swathe, the cut crop lay in an arrow-straight row in front of him.
Hand-scything a one-hectare field gave the reaper plenty of time to think. Or to dream. The boy was imagining himself a warrior facing impossible odds; a lone swordsman pitted against the endless ranks of a vast army. A sudden scuttling in the undergrowth reminded him of the true enemy. Why, he wondered, did a rat disturbed at a field margin almost always head back into the uncut crop? His father had told him that rats were clever, resourceful creatures. But if they were, why didn’t they break cover while the going was good instead of retreating into an ever-shrinking island of safety? The last part of the field to be cut, the boy knew, would be alive with the devils. And then, as if in agreement, they would all rush out at once. That’s when the fun would really begin. He felt the weight of the shotgun against his back as he worked on.
The main line to Paris flanked the far boundary of the farm. The groan and squeal of a train pulling away made the boy glance up. It was as well he did. Something was moving in the field ahead; something feral among the waving wheat. He couldn’t see the creature directly but the parting and closing of the canopy above it pinpointed its position. Whatever it was, it was bigger than a rat. As if attracted to the
of his slashing blade, it seemed to be heading straight for him. He stopped swinging the scythe. Still the thing advanced. And then he heard it, a whimpering cry among the dry scratch of the stalks. An injured animal was dangerous. A half-dead boar could still kill, he’d heard. His eyes fixed directly ahead, the boy moved back and slowly set down the scythe. With a shrugging motion, he unhitched the shotgun and took aim. The creature didn’t appear. Perhaps it had changed course at the last moment. He scanned the whole front rank of the crop. There? No. Just a shadow. There? His trigger finger twitched. The stalks finally parted. The boy stared for a long moment. And then he lowered the gun.
A tram materialised out of the heat haze and floated towards the stop at Jean Médecin. On the platform, wilting clumps of passengers picked up their bags and shuffled forward. From a balcony in the adjoining Rue Verbier, Marie Lacroix watched the tram whine to a halt and open its doors. She ran an eye over the new arrivals. None was wheeling a case. Marie glanced at her watch and sighed – the family taking the apartment was now thirty minutes late. Reasoning that if she stopped looking out for them, they might arrive sooner, she decided to check out what else was happening. It should certainly prove more entertaining; her balcony overlooked one of the most cosmopolitan streets in Nice.
Opposite the apartment, a living statue was setting up her pitch under the palm-buttressed north wall of the Basilique Saint Eustache. Made up as a white marble Medusa complete with snake headdress, the girl looked startling. Yet the size of the crowd she was attracting surprised Marie. Maybe they knew something she didn’t. Staring blindly ahead, the girl mounted a low plinth, exhaled deeply and froze into a classical pose. Marie looked on for some moments. And? Giving a shrug, she returned her attention to the avenue.
A bald man kneeling at the far kerb seemed far more interesting. In the glare of the midday sun, he wore neither hat nor shades. A bottle of Evian sticking out of the hip pocket of his white linen suit seemed to be his only concession to the heat. But it was the shoelace-tying movement he was making with his hands that really captured Marie’s imagination – the man appeared to be wearing slip-on loafers. Rising tentatively, he fingered the screw-top of the Evian bottle as he stared along the pavement towards the tram stop. Then looking all around him, his gaze seemed to settle on the circular billboard, the Colonne Morris, standing on the Rue Verbier side of the avenue. As if compelled to check it out, he hurried across the street towards it.
, Marie thought,
the man must have seen this material before; it’s plastered all over the city
. Had been for weeks. The posters were shouting up just one thing: the Tour de France. Two hundred thousand people were expected to attend the opening stage, a time trial around Monaco. But for the Niçois, the real excitement began on day two.
Cresting the ridge of the high Corniche, the 180-strong peloton would fly down the coast road into the old port, file around the foot of the Château Park, and then power out of the city along its palm-fringed hem, the Boulevard des Anglais. A map illustrated the whole stage. There was just one day to go before the Tour began. Two before it rolled into Nice.
Slipping behind the Colonne, the man in the white suit leaned around its circular bulk and peered back across the avenue. Who was he watching so covertly? Marie looked in the general direction of his gaze. There were any number of candidates. None seemed noteworthy.
A shriek rent the air to her right. Marie shot a glance towards the Basilique but before she could make out what was happening, laughter rang out, allaying her concern. Now she understood why Medusa was a hit. While the girl herself remained utterly deadpan, the nest of vipers in her hair had turned into a living, writhing, tongue-darting nightmare. It was so horribly convincing, Marie could hardly bear to look. It was some moments before the snakes froze, prompting sighs of relief tempered with disappointment. The vile creatures would strut their stuff again, wouldn’t they? Medusa let the tension build. Just when it seemed there would be no reprise, they squirmed into life once more. A wave of delighted revulsion broke around the audience. There was nothing so entertaining as fear and suspense, Marie reflected, reacting with everyone else.
It was during the next lull in the action that White Suit came jogging into the street. Marie half-expected to see someone chasing him but there was no one. Running in this heat? In playing hide and seek, perhaps the guy had made himself late for a train – Nice’s main station, Gare Thiers, was just a couple of streets away. As he jogged past the steps that led to the west door of the Basilique, a bell began to toll and some members of Medusa’s audience took their leave. One of them, a bearded young man carrying a rucksack over one shoulder, stepped blindly into White Suit’s path. The collision almost knocked the pair of them off their feet. White Suit issued a breathless apology and hurried off, a move that earned a hideous writhe from Medusa’s snakes. It drew a big laugh.
As the bell continued to toll, Marie followed White Suit’s progress for a moment and then looked past him to the far end of the street. There, a congregation of a different order had already been called to prayer. She’d witnessed the scene before.
The venerable and the vulnerable were always the first to take up places in the prayer room itself. On Fridays, the room filled up quickly and for the rest, there was no alternative but to form ranks on the street outside. Most laid down mats or towels. Others made use of flattened packing materials donated by local shops and cafés. Marie felt a certain sympathy for them. Catholics praying in the vaulted sanctity of the Basilique were often disturbed by sightseers. But Muslims praying in the hustle and bustle of the street had far more to contend with: stray footballs; delivery vans; rubberneckers; abuse hurlers. The solemn choreography of the prayer ritual seemed rather beautiful to her.
Marie’s eyebrows rose. Cardboard box in hand, White Suit was one of those joining the outdoor congregation. He hadn’t been in danger of missing a train, after all. He’d been in danger of missing midday prayers.
Her mobile rang. In passable French, her client apologised for his late arrival. He anticipated being with her in forty-five minutes. An hour at most. Marie sighed, thanked him for the update and settled down to watch the service once more. Everything seemed to go smoothly until the final cycle of prayers. At first, she didn’t notice the old woman who wheeled her shopping trolley up to the rear of the congregation.
‘Look at this!’ the woman shouted, fanning herself furiously. ‘And taking up the whole street!’
Her observations grew more aggressive as she jolted the trolley off the kerb and set off around the obstruction. Midday prayers being silent, her words carried starkly across the rows of prostrated backs. That they appeared to have no effect seemed to irritate her still further. As she rounded the rearmost rank of worshippers, she turned in sharply, catching White Suit’s elbow as she ran a wheel over his makeshift mat. Even if he had wanted to, he couldn’t have washed off the smudge at that moment – he’d already used his bottle of Evian to wash his feet. Making a clicking sound with her tongue, Marie shook her head. The old woman tottered off towards the Basilique and another potential hold-up. Marie looked expectantly across but there would be no clash of the soul sisters. Medusa had struck camp, the crowd had dispersed.