Authors: Peter Morfoot
Outside the prayer room, a hundred backs were still bent in prostration to the east. Then, as a tram rolled past the end of Rue Verbier, the congregation rose.
All, that is, except one.
Captain Paul Darac had to queue at Fantin but the wait was worth it. Warm pâtisserie in waxed cardboard; the smell was making his mouth water as he threaded his way between the trinket sellers in Place Garibaldi and headed home. It was going to be a late breakfast; he hadn’t got in from The Blue Devil jazz club until 4 am.
It had been some gig, though. Avoiding the runs and chord progressions he’d played a thousand times before had led Darac into some strange territory during a couple of solos. But those moments of being almost lost, of needing inspiration to find a way back to the band, was one of the things he loved about playing jazz. Each return from the unknown had been rewarded with whoops of appreciation from the audience and, a rarer accolade, spontaneous yells of ‘yeah!’ from veteran club owner, Ridge Clay.
Sightseers were already out taking photos in the Place. Padding like a sleepwalker behind outstretched hands, a prodigiously paunched man in his sixties almost collided with Darac as he crossed in front of the Garibaldi statue.
‘Well what do you know?’ the man called out in English, finally lowering his camera. ‘Garibaldi the Italian patriot, right? It says on the plinth he was born right here in Nice.’
A full ten metres to the man’s left was a little nugget of a woman wearing white pedal pushers and a sun visor. Hands on hips, she was surveying the scene with the air of the commander of an invading army.
‘Make sure you get the arcades. They’re elegant. And check out these apartment houses.
‘Yes they are.’
‘But see the balconies?’ A charm bracelet jangled as she waved at one of the frontages. ‘All that stone decoration? That’s Baroque. Like Rome.’
‘Rome is right!’
Darac gave a little snort. Those balustrades and pediments were not stonework but brushwork – a painted
. But visitors could be forgiven for being fooled. Many things about the Côte d’Azur were not as they seemed.
As a tram snaked behind him into Boulevard Jean Jaurès, Darac left the Place and disappeared into the whorl of narrow streets and alleyways that made up the old town, a quarter known as the Babazouk. Exuding coffee, fish, flowers and drains, the Babazouk had the feel of the Moorish souk its name suggested – a shaded warren frequented by fast locals and slow tourists. For all its teeming life, the Babazouk was a secretive place. Behind façades washed in tones of cayenne, cumin and turmeric, anything from ratty flats to filigreed palaces could be found. And at every window, swing-wing shutters acted as a sort of niqab against prying eyes.
Street signs in the Babazouk were written in two languages – French and the local Nissart. Embedded in the quarter’s northern rim, Place or Plassa Saint-Sépulcre was a grand title for what was no more than a large, cobblestoned courtyard lined by ancient apartment houses on three sides, the rear wall of the eponymous church on the fourth. Darac had acquired his roof-terrace apartment in the Plassa five years ago. It had proved a good move. The pan-tiled canopy of the Babazouk was an atmospheric habitat and it suited him to live suspended between the tangle of the old town and the Nice of the boulevards.
Following the series of doglegged
that led off Rue Neuve, he entered the Plassa by a locked iron gate. He hadn’t taken more than a few strides before his neighbour Suzanne came hurrying towards him. His strong, broad-boned face broke into a smile as he turned back and unlocked the gate. Adopting a doorman’s pose, he held it open for her.
‘Sister Lasorgue will murder me. You working today?’
‘Then you’ll know who to arrest.
, Suzanne,’ he called as she disappeared into the
‘Kiss Angeline for me!’
He could try, anyway. The smell of the cooling pâtisserie fading in his nostrils, Darac re-locked the gate and walked through blue shadows into the Plassa. The sun was blowtorch hot.
It’s going to be busy today
, he thought.
An overheated city always brings out the craziness in people
And then his mobile rang.
Downing a triple espresso, Darac swung his unmarked Peugeot into Rue Verbier and hit the brakes. He’d expected one, perhaps two,
POLICE INCIDENT – NO ENTRY
signs to have been set down across the entrance. Instead, he had to negotiate a slalom course of staggered pairs. After the final gate, cones funnelled him towards a trio of shirt-sleeved officers standing in a shady spot on the kerb. One of them stepped forward and held up her hand. Slowing to a stop, Darac eased the volume on his CD player and lowered his window.
The officer leaned in.
‘Quite a production number.’
‘Hi, Captain,’ she said, smiling as they shook hands.
‘They’ve got the riot squad standing by as well.’
‘Wonderful.’ Crushing the espresso cup, he tossed it into the empty Fantin box sitting next to him. Crash barriers; riot squad – it all added up to one thing: Public Prosecutor Frènes, the Palais de Justice official who had green-lighted the investigation, wanted the world to see he was committing every resource to what was a ‘sensitive’ situation. Darac indicated a group of spectators corralled on the opposite pavement. ‘It’s certainly brought out the fans.’
‘Don’t know what they expect to see from back here.’ She cast a glance towards the far end of the street. ‘And we’ve told them the forensic guys will have their tent set up in a minute.’
Darac followed her gaze. Outside the prayer room, white-clad figures hovered like partially materialised ghosts over the shimmering tarmac. At their blurred feet, a vague white shape lay motionless.
‘Meanwhile, they might get heatstroke.’ Straightening, she waved him through. ‘With any luck.’
Smiling, Darac restored John Coltrane’s ‘Naima’ to its rightful volume and headed for the action.
Nearing the inner ring of cordon tape, he ran an eye over the sheet-draped corpse and the pathology team waiting to examine it. Leading it was a woman with a fine-boned face and the round-eyed alert expression of a small bird. ‘Well, well,’ Darac said aloud. Professor Deanna Bianchi attending the scene? They
meant business. Trailing Coltrane’s mournful horn through the on-off crackle of police radios, he slowed to park.
,’ he called to her through his opened window. Her forehead creased as she gave him the merest nod in acknowledgement. Deanna subdued? Unusual.
The ache in the tune demanding a respectful fade, Darac slowly turned down the volume, then pulled on his police armband and got out of the car.
Among the airless, grimy streets clustered around Nice’s main railway station, the leafy Rue Verbier formed a welcome oasis. Orientated east-west, the street’s northern side was lined mainly by apartment houses, some with ground floors converted into shops and cafés. Its southern flank was taken up entirely by the Basilique Saint Eustache and the car park laid out in its voluptuous shadow.
Occupying the premises of a former bistro, the prayer room was tucked away at the end of the street furthest from the Basilique, just before it opened out into a small marketplace. Here too, Crowd Control seemed to be doing a good job of keeping spectators back.
A little further along stood the phone booth from which the emergency call had been made. ‘I’m ringing from the box on Rue Verbier,’ the anonymous female caller had said. ‘The one outside the pharmacy. A Muslim has just been killed. On the street. During a prayer service.’ No further details had been given and Darac still knew nothing about how the man in question had died. Ideally, he would have liked to talk to the caller but unless someone identified her or she came forward, it wouldn’t be possible to trace her: the emergency 17 number she’d dialled was a free, cardless call.
As Darac scanned the streetscape, he realised he might not need her. Apart from all those going about their business at ground level, at least fifty apartment balconies and ten times as many windows overlooked the scene. A couple of CCTV cameras set up in the car park might also have a story to tell – perhaps of a shot being fired from one of those windows. A sniper could easily have picked off a stationary target from such a vantage point. And from a silenced rifle, the report would have sounded no louder than a cough.
But it wasn’t all good news. A crime scene without witnesses was one sort of problem; a scene with too many could prove a logistical nightmare. Triage was the key and Darac’s best man for it, his second-in-command, Lieutenant Roland Granot, had booked the day as leave.
As the forensic examination tent finally went up, most of those looking on from above strolled back inside their apartments. Curtain down for the moment. Perhaps they should have stuck around. In the marketplace, an entertaining shouting match was starting up. Crowd Control and TV news crews often clashed. Recognising the reporter at the centre of it, Darac gave a little smile as he headed off to the inner cordon. He hadn’t gone more than a few steps before she caught sight of him.
‘Darac! We’re in Siberia over here. Do something about it, will you?’
He kept moving.
‘You’re better off where you are.’
‘Better? Hey – this wouldn’t happen anywhere else in Europe! Even fucking England!’
‘Well this is fucking France.’
The pathology lab technician, Patricia Lebrun, was waiting to sign him into the red zone. On seeing him, she turned to a box containing crime-scene overalls and decided to start counting them. If Darac hadn’t known better, he would have sworn she was trying to avoid him.
‘Chief? Hold it!’
The voice was as rich as cream-smothered
And it was one Darac wasn’t expecting to hear. He turned. The moustachioed figure bustling towards him was Granot, alright. At fifty-one, the man was twenty years older than his boss. He was also thirty kilos heavier. On what was the hottest day of the summer so far, sweat stains the size of dinner plates had turned his short-sleeved shirt into a peek-a-boo disaster area.
‘Take it easy.’
The big man was breathing too hard to reply.
‘And what are you doing here, anyway? You’re supposed to be on a day off.’
‘Might disappear… later. We’ll see… how it goes. Uh… listen…’
‘I’ll talk – you get your breath back.’ Darac turned to the street scene. ‘Talk about a cast of thousands… So what have you got? Those worshipping outside at the time of the death; those worshipping inside the prayer room itself; people who may have seen something from shops, apartments and the like, and finally, passers-by?’
Granot wiped a ham of a hand across his forehead.
‘Yes, more or less.’
‘No point in separating them individually… They had more than enough time… to get their stories straight… before we got here.’
‘What are people saying about how the man died?’
In the background, a young officer questioning passers-by jetted Darac a quick glance.
‘No one knows anything.’
‘Bang goes my sniper theory.’
Granot seemed in no mood for gags.
‘Listen, chief, I’ve got to tell you something. You’re… off the case.’
‘Yeah, yeah. Let’s go.’
Granot threw out a restraining arm.
‘Seriously. You’re off the case. Or that’s how it’s looking.’
The humour that habitually played around Darac’s eyes and mouth disappeared.
‘How can I be off the case? I haven’t got started on it yet.’ Granot gave a sideways nod.
Outside the prayer room, the squat, grey-suited figure of the public prosecutor, Jules Frènes, was jabbering into his mobile as he paced back and forth. Every few steps, a stubby index finger stabbed the air – a small man laying down the law.
‘What’s the little arsehole up to?’
‘Telling Agnès he wants her to lead the investigation, I should think. He’s already told the examining magistrate that’s what he wants.’
‘The boss lead the case?’ Darac’s expression regained its characteristic lift. ‘What’s the problem? Let’s get on with it.’
‘Uh… it’s not just a question of you not leading. Frènes doesn’t want you anywhere near…’
Granot was talking to fresh air. Darac was already striding away.
‘Don’t hit the bastard!’
Outside the prayer room, Frènes was still declaiming as he spotted Darac. He hurriedly ended the call and stood his ground. It didn’t last.
‘Not here, Captain – my car.’
A couple of uniforms smiled as Darac, a light heavyweight, pursued his welterweight quarry to a shiny new Mercedes. He joined Frènes on the back seat.
Frènes knew a thing or two about confrontation. He stared straight ahead.
‘Are you a good Catholic, Captain?’
Obtuse yet seemingly direct, it was a typical opening from the public prosecutor.
‘There’s no such thing as a good Catholic, I’m told. I ask you again. Why?’
‘No matter. Thanks to the separation of church and state in our system, citizens are not required to observe, believe, or even show respect for the Catholic faith. First and foremost, we are Frenchmen, are we not? Frenchmen first and last.’
Darac ran a hand through his black, wavy hair.
Frènes continued to address his monologue to the stalls.
‘But while showing respect for the faith may not be a requirement, showing tolerance toward it most certainly
You, Captain, have never shown any such tolerance. Indeed, you show no tolerance toward any faith or creed, do you?’
‘You really are the king of cant, Frènes. Why…’ Trying not to lose it, Darac took a deep breath and began again. ‘Why do you want me off the case?’
Beads of sweat began to dribble through Frènes’s sleek, swept-back hairline. As if staunching a haemorrhage, he took a silk handkerchief from the breast pocket of his jacket and pressed it to his forehead.