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Authors: Jean-Luc Bannalec

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BOOK: Murder on Brittany Shores
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‘We won't get any closer.'

The captain of the police boat, a young, gangly chap in a high-tech fabric uniform that flapped fiercely about him, called down from his raised captain's booth without looking at anyone as he did so. He was fully absorbed by the navigating.

Dupin started to feel queasy. It was still a good hundred metres to go to the island.

‘Spring tide. Coefficient 107.'

The lanky captain called this into the great unknown too. Commissaire Dupin looked at his inspector quizzically. After the incident with the large wave, he had made his way over to stand right next to the others and not moved from that spot. Riwal moved very close to Dupin. Even though the boat was barely moving, the motors were still deafeningly loud.

‘We have extreme tidal amplitude at the moment, Monsieur le Commissaire,' he said. On spring tide days, the water level is significantly lower again than during a normal low tide. I don't know whether you…'

‘I know what a spring tide is.'

Dupin wanted to add ‘because I've been living in Brittany for nearly four years and have already experienced quite a few spring tides and neap tides,' but he knew it was pointless. He would also have had to admit that although he had had the thing about tidal coefficients explained to him many, many times, to this day he had never really been able to remember how they worked. To Riwal, and to all Bretons, he would still be a ‘foreigner' for decades to come (although this was not necessarily meant in a nasty way). And on top of this, the worst kind of foreigner for Bretons – a Parisian (which could in fact be meant in a thoroughly nasty way). He had to have it spelt out to him again, every time: if the moon, sun and earth are in alignment and this results in the forces of gravity adding up …

The motor suddenly died away and the two employees from the marine police who looked, Dupin only noticed now, hilariously like the captain – the same wiry stature, the same narrow face, the same uniform – were immediately making their way forward to the prow.

‘We won't get any closer to the island. The water is too shallow.'

‘And what does that mean?'

‘We have to get out here.'

It took a few seconds for Dupin to respond.

‘We have to
get out
here?'

As far as Dupin could tell, they were still very clearly at sea.

‘The water isn't deep any more, maybe half a metre.'

Inspector Riwal had knelt down and begun to take off his shoes.

‘But we have a dinghy.'

Dupin had only just noticed it. To his relief.

‘It's not worth it, Inspector. We wouldn't get much closer to the beach in that either.'

Eyebrows raised, Dupin looked over the ship's rail. It seemed a lot more than half a metre deep to him. The water was incredibly clear. Every shell, every pebble was visible. A school of tiny pale green fish darted by. The boat was off the northern coast of Le Loc'h. Nothing but dazzling white sand, shallow turquoise water and the sea lying completely still in the chamber. With the addition of a few coconut trees – probably the only kind of palm tree that didn't grow in Brittany, it seemed to Dupin – the scene would have been indistinguishable from the Caribbean. Nobody would ever have dreamt of associating this landscape with Brittany. But the sight could be marvelled at in hundreds of postcards – they were no exaggeration.

By now, Riwal had taken his socks off too. The boat's crew had dropped anchor, leapt neatly into the sea without the slightest hesitation and were now in the process of turning the boat so that the stern, with the wooden step that was only just above the water, was pointed in the direction of the beach. Riwal, in pale-coloured slacks, jumped into the water too, as though it was the most natural thing in the world. And, directly after him, the gangly captain.

Dupin hesitated. It looked absurd, he thought. The young police officers, Riwal and the captain had stopped and were waiting. It looked as though they were forming a guard of honour. All eyes were fixed on him.

Dupin jumped. He hadn't taken off his shoes. He was standing up to just over his knees in the Atlantic, which at the beginning of May was at most fourteen degrees now at the beginning of May. His eyes were fixed on the floor of the sea. The school of tiny pale green fish, now much bigger than before, approached inquisitively and swam fearlessly around his legs. Dupin made a half turn to follow the fish with his gaze – then he saw it: a magnificent crab, twenty or thirty centimetres long, in attack-ready position and staring right at him – a real ‘tourteau', eaten with enthusiasm here on the coast, by Dupin as well. He stifled both a small cry of fear and his culinary enthusiasm. He looked up and realised that everyone was still standing motionless, watching him. Dupin straightened up his upper body with determination and began to wade in the direction of the beach, taking great care not to meet the gaze of Riwal or the other three police officers. His colleagues quickly overtook him on either side in the water.

Dupin was the last to reach the beach.

*   *   *

The lifeless body lay partly on its stomach and partly on its side, the shoulder wedged unnaturally underneath the body. It looked as though it had lost its right arm. Its left arm, which must have been broken, was severely bent. The head was resting almost exactly on the brow, as if someone had deliberately positioned it like that. The face could not be seen. Its blue jacket and the jumper were extremely ragged – on the back and throat, on the back of the head and on the left arm you could see the terrible wounds, superficial and deep. The lower body, by contrast, seemed practically unscathed. It was covered in algae in a few places. The sturdy sailing shoes, both still on the feet, looked new. The man's age was hard to judge in this pose, perhaps somewhat older than himself, Dupin guessed. Late forties, early fifties. The dead man was not very tall. Dupin knelt down to examine him more carefully. The sea had carried the body far up the beach, a few metres from the line where the white sand stopped sloping gently upwards and the bright green vegetation began.

‘The two others are over there, quite close together. They're in a similar state.'

Riwal pointed along the beach. Dupin saw his young colleagues from the marine police standing next to something bulky, a good hundred metres away. Dupin had not realised that he was not alone. Riwal's voice was a little thin.

‘The corpses look terrible.'

Riwal was right.

‘Which pathologist is coming?'

‘Docteur Savoir should be here any moment. He's on a different speedboat. With Inspector Kadeg.'

‘Of course. That works out well.'

It was well known that there was little love lost between the Commissaire and Docteur Savoir.

‘Docteur Lafond has a commitment in Rennes this morning.'

Nolwenn usually always arranged things behind the scenes so that old, grumpy – but superb – Docteur Lafond was called when Dupin was investigating.

The captain of the
Bir
strode towards them.

‘There are three men, all probably early fifties,' the young man said gravely and calmly. ‘Identities as yet unknown. The corpses very likely washed up with the last tide. They are lying quite far up the beach. We record powerful currents on the Glénan and on spring tide days they are even stronger than usual. We are photographing and documenting everything.'

‘Is this the lowest low tide reading now?'

‘Almost.'

The police officer glanced at his watch.

‘Low tide was an hour and a half ago. The water has already risen again since then.'

Dupin did some calculations.

‘It's now 10.45 am – so the low tide was at…'

‘The last low water mark was this morning at 9.15, the one before that was yesterday evening at 8.50pm. Twelve hours and twenty-five minutes earlier. The high water mark was attained at 3.03am at night.'

It had taken less than three seconds. The police officer was looking at Dupin without the least sign of triumphalism.

‘Have we got any reports of missing persons? At the station or with the sea rescue service?'

‘No, Monsieur le Commissaire, none have come in yet, as far as we know. But they could still come in.'

‘Le Loc'h is uninhabited, isn't it?'

‘Yes. Saint-Nicolas is the last inhabited island in the archipelago. But there aren't even many people living there. Ten at most, fifteen in the summer.'

‘So that means nobody is here on the island overnight?'

‘Camping is strictly forbidden on the archipelago. A few thrill-seekers do it some nights in the summer anyway. We're going to inspect the whole island. And there might have been some boats lying in the chamber off Le Loc'h last night. It's a popular place to drop anchor. We'll find out.'

‘What's your name?'

Dupin liked the unflappable, meticulous young police officer.

‘My name is Kireg Goulch, Monsieur le Commissaire.'

‘Kireg Goulch?'

Dupin's question had just slipped out.

‘Exactly.'

‘That … that is a very … a … I mean, a Breton name.'

Even this comment didn't seem to annoy the young man at all. Dupin cleared his throat quickly and made an effort to focus again.

‘Inspector Riwal said that the Englishman who discovered the bodies was travelling by canoe.'

‘Lots of visitors go on tours in sea kayaks around here, it's extremely popular. Even though there aren't as many at this time of year, there are already some.'

‘Even in the morning? They go on tours at this hour?'

‘It's the most popular time. By midday the sun is already beating down on the sea.'

‘But the man didn't land and get out?'

‘As far as we know, no. There are no footprints visible on the beach here.'

Dupin had not even thought of that. The sand that was virginal again after every high tide would show any mark perfectly and any attempt to blur anything out.

‘Where is the man?'

‘On Saint-Nicolas. He's waiting on the quay there. Our second boat is taking one of our colleagues to the island. He's going to speak to the man. Inspector Kadeg ordered it.'

‘Inspector Kadeg
ordered
it?'

‘Yes, he…'

‘It's okay.'

Now was not the moment to let an emotion get the better of him. With some difficulty, Dupin fumbled one of his red Clairefontaine notebooks out of his still wet jacket. It was one of the ones he traditionally used for making notes. Well protected, it had stayed halfway dry in the sea incident. With the same stubborn awkwardness, he rummaged around for one of the cheap bic pens that, because they were always going missing on him so quickly, he bought in large stockpiles.

‘Has there been a shipwreck somewhere then?'

He immediately knew it was a pointless question. They would have long since heard about it. The young police officer greeted the question with gracious patience.

‘We don't know anything about that yet either, Monsieur le Commissaire. But if a boat did capsize yesterday, it could take a while for its absence to be noticed. Depending on how big the boat was, what technical equipment was available to it, where it happened, where it was going, who was expecting it…'

Dupin made a few half-hearted notes.

‘So was there bad weather last night? Was there a storm out here?'

‘You shouldn't be fooled by the weather today. Last night a storm tracked along the coast. Headquarters will be able to tell us exactly how severe it was, and where and how it moved. It was hardly noticeable in Concarneau, but that doesn't mean anything. We have access to all the records. The sea is actually still a bit choppy today, even though it's calm here in the chamber. Clearly, you noticed that yourself on the boat just now.'

It was a neutral observation with no undertones. He was getting to like Goulch more and more.

‘It wasn't the storm of the century, but it was clearly powerful,' the captain concluded.

Commissaire Dupin was well aware of that – he himself had long since become too much of a Breton to be taken in by the blue, cloudless sky and the perfect atmosphere of good weather. The Breton peninsula and its furthermost, rugged outcrop – Finistère – lay far offshore in the
middle
of the North Atlantic, as Nolwenn was always explaining to him. ‘Armorika sticks its jagged head out like a primeval monster. Like a dragon's tongue.' He liked the image – and you could actually make out the dragon on a map. Not only was Brittany exposed to the elemental force of the wildest of the world's known oceans, but also to the chaotic, constantly changing weather fronts that developed between the east coast of the USA, Canada, Greenland and the Arctic; and the western Atlantic coasts of Ireland, England, Norway and France. The weather could switch from one extreme to another in an instant. ‘Four seasons in one day' was the way they put it. The Bretons liked to quote this with pride.

‘Maybe there wasn't even a shipwreck.'

Riwal's voice had regained some of its strength.

‘The high tide may have taken them by surprise. Or the storm. While fishing or mussel-picking. Especially if they were tourists. Lots of mussel-pickers come when the tide is particularly low.'

That was true. Dupin noted this point in his notebook.

‘Why do they not have any life jackets on? Does that not point to a hypothesis like that? That they weren't even on a boat?'

‘Not necessarily,' Goulch replied firmly. ‘Many of the locals go around without life jackets. And if alcohol comes into it too … I wouldn't attach any importance to it.'

Dupin made a gesture of resignation. So this was how it was. They knew nothing – especially not out here.

‘Alcohol is generally a big issue at sea. Especially here on the islands,' Goulch added.

‘People claim that the bottles on the Glénan are smaller than on the mainland – that's why they empty so quickly here,' said Riwal.

BOOK: Murder on Brittany Shores
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