Authors: Fred Vargas
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General
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Have Mercy On Us All
Seeking Whom He May Devour
To my brother
‘PIERRE, SOMETHING’S WRONG WITH THE GARDEN,’ SAID SOPHIA.
She opened the window and examined the patch of ground. She knew it by heart, every blade of grass. What she saw sent a shiver down her spine.
Pierre was reading the newspaper over his breakfast. Maybe that was why Sophia looked out of the window so often. To see what the weather was like. That’s something you do quite often when you get up in the morning. And whenever the weather was dull, she would think of Greece, of course. These sessions standing at the window had, over time, become full of nostalgia, which swelled inside her some mornings to the point of resentment. Then it would pass. But this particular morning, something was wrong.
‘Pierre, there’s a tree in the garden.’
She sat down beside him.
‘Pierre, look at me.’
Wearily, Pierre raised his face towards his wife. Sophia adjusted the scarf around her throat, a habit she had kept since her days as an opera singer. Protect your voice. Twenty years earlier, on one of the stone terraces of the open-air amphitheatre in Orange, Pierre had proposed to her with a cascade of protestations of love and undying certainties. Just before a performance.
Sophia cupped in her hand the gloomy face of the newspaper reader.
‘What’s eating you, Sophia?’
‘I just told you something.’
‘I said: “There’s a tree in the garden”’.
‘I heard you. That’s pretty normal, isn’t it?’
‘There’s a tree in the garden that wasn’t there yesterday.’
‘Well, what about it? Am I supposed to react or something?’
Sophia was not feeling calm. She didn’t know whether it was because of the newspaper, or the weary look, or the business about the tree, but it was clear that something was not right.
‘Pierre, explain to me how a tree can turn up in a garden all by itself
Pierre shrugged. He really could not care less.
‘What’s the problem? Trees reproduce themselves. A seed, a cutting, a graft: that’s all it takes. They grow into mighty forests in this climate. I imagine you know that.’
‘It isn’t a cutting. It’s a tree! A young tree, standing up straight, with branches and everything, planted all by itself a metre or so from the end wall. How did it get there?’
‘It got there because the gardener planted it.’
‘The gardener’s been gone two months and I haven’t found a replacement. So, no, it wasn’t the gardener.’
‘Well, it doesn’t bother me. Don’t expect me to get worked up about a little tree standing by the end wall.’
‘Don’t you even want to get up and have a look? Can’t you just do that?’
Pierre heaved himself to his feet. His reading had been interrupted.
‘Yes, of course I can see. It’s a tree.’
‘It wasn’t there yesterday.’
‘Not maybe. It wasn’t there. So what are we going to do about it? Any ideas?’
‘Why should I have?’
‘That tree frightens me.’
Pierre laughed. He even put an affectionate arm round her. Briefly.
‘I’m not joking, Pierre. It frightens me.’
‘Well, it doesn’t frighten me,’ he said, sitting down again. ‘In fact, having a tree turn up is quite nice. You just leave it in peace and that’s that. And you might perhaps give
a bit of peace about it. Someone got the wrong garden, I dare say. Their problem, not ours.’
‘But it was planted during the night, Pierre!’
‘All the more likely someone got the wrong garden. Or perhaps it’s a present. Have you thought of that? One of your fans wanted to honour you discreetly on your fiftieth birthday. Fans get up to all kind of tricks, especially those mouse-type fans, the obsessive ones, who won’t give their names. Go and see, there might be a message.’
Sophia thought for a bit. The idea wasn’t entirely ridiculous. Pierre had decreed that her fans fell into two camps. There were the mouse-type fans, who were timid, agitated, silent, but unshakeable. Pierre had once known a mouse transport a whole bag of rice into a rubber boot over the course of a winter, grain by grain. That’s the way they are, mouse-fans. Then there are the rhino-type fans, equally to be dreaded in their way: noisy, loud-mouthed, very sure of themselves. Inside these two categories, Pierre had developed masses of sub-groups. Sophia couldn’t remember them all. Pierre despised the fans who had come before him and the ones who came after him, in other words, all of them. But maybe he was right about the tree. Possibly; not certainly. She heard Pierre go into his ‘Bye-see-you-tonight-don’t-worry-yourself-about-it’ routine, and then she was alone.
With the tree.
She went to take a look. Gingerly, as if it might explode in her face.
No, of course there wasn’t a message. At the foot of the young tree was a circle of freshly dug earth. What sort of tree was it? Sophia walked round it a few times, grudgingly, feeling hostile. She was inclined to think it was a beech. She was also inclined to uproot it now, to tear it out, but being slightly superstitious, she dared not attack a living thing, even a plant. The truth is that few people would tear up a tree that had done them no harm.
It took a long time to find a book that would help. Apart from opera, the life of the donkey and Greek myths, Sophia had not had time to
become expert on anything. A beech tree, perhaps? Hard to say without seeing its leaves. She went through the index of the book, to see if there were any trees called
-something in Latin. It could be some sort of disguised homage, the kind of convoluted thing a mouse-type fan might think up. That would be quite reassuring. But no, no
Well, perhaps a species by the name of
something. That would not be nice at all. Stelios was nothing like a mouse, or a rhino. And he did worship trees. After the cascade of declarations by Pierre on the terraces in Orange, Sophia had wondered how she was going to leave Stelios, and had sung less well than usual. And the immediate reaction of her mad Greek had been to try and drown himself. They had fished him out of the Mediterranean, gasping for breath and floating like an idiot. When they were teenagers, Sophia and Stelios used to love to go out of Delphi along mountain paths with donkeys and goats, playing at being Ancient Greeks’, as they called it. And then the imbecile had tried to drown himself. Luckily there was the cascade of declarations by Pierre. Nowadays, Sophia was still trying to locate a few trickles of it. Stelios? Was he a threat? Would he do something like this? Yes, he might. When he had been pulled out of the Mediterranean, he had been suddenly galvanised, and started screaming like a madman. Her heart beating too fast, Sophia made an effort to get to her feet, drink a glass of water and look out of the window.
The view calmed her down at once. What had come over her? She took a deep breath. Her habit of creating a whole terrifying logic out of nothing was exhausting. It was almost certainly just a beech tree, a sapling, and it didn’t mean a thing. But how did whoever planted it get into the garden, with their blasted beech tree? Sophia dressed quickly, went outside and examined the lock on the garden gate. Nothing to notice. But it was such a simple lock that anyone with a screwdriver could undoubtedly open it in a moment and leave no trace.
It was early spring. The day was damp, and she was getting chilled, standing there defying the beech. What might it mean? Sophia tried not to think. She hated it when her Greek soul got carried away, especially twice in one morning. And what was she to think if Pierre wouldn’t take
any interest in this tree? Why didn’t he? Was it normal that he should be so unconcerned?
Sophia had no wish to stay alone all day with the tree. She picked up her handbag and went out. In the street, a young man, well thirty-something, was looking through the gate of the house next door. ‘House’ was perhaps putting it too grandly. Pierre always referred to it as ‘that tumbledown disgrace’. He thought that in this privileged street, where the houses were all desirable residences, that barn of a place, which had for years lain empty, let the side down. Up to now, Sophia had never imagined that Pierre might become stupid with age. The notion now crossed her mind. This is the first sinister effect of the tree, she told herself without really meaning it. Pierre had even had the side wall of their garden built higher to prevent them from having to see the so-called ‘disgrace’. You could only see it now from the second-floor windows. This young chap, on the other hand, seemed to be looking admiringly at the façade with its broken windows. He was skinny, with black hair, black clothes, chunky silver rings on the fingers of one hand, and a bony face; his forehead was pressed between two bars of the tall, rusty gates.
Exactly the kind of person Pierre could not stand. Pierre was a defender of moderation and sobriety. And this young fellow was elegant, both rather austere and rather showy. The hands gripping the gates were beautiful. Looking at him, Sophia felt a little comforted. No doubt that was why she asked him if he could identify the tree. The young man moved his head away from the gate, flecks of rust now in his straight black hair. He must have been standing like that for some time. Without showing surprise or asking any questions, he followed Sophia, and she pointed to the tree, which could be seen quite clearly from the street.
‘That’s a beech tree, Madame,’ the young man said.
‘Are you sure? Forgive me, but it is quite important.’
The young man looked again carefully. With his dark and as yet unclouded eyes. ‘Absolutely sure, Madame.’
‘Thank you, monsieur. You’re very kind.’
She smiled at him and walked away. The young man walked off in the other direction, kicking a small stone with the toe of his shoe.
She was right, then. It was a beech. Just a beech.
THAT WAS HOW IT STARTED.
He had been down on his luck-for how long now? About two years.
And then finally, a gleam of light at the end of the tunnel. Marc kicked a pebble, sending it about five metres up the street. It’s not so easy on the pavements of Paris to find a pebble to kick. In the country, yes. But who bothers in the country? Whereas in Paris, you sometimes really need to find a pebble and give it a good kick. Sod’s law. And, like a little ray of sunlight in the clouds, he had had the good luck, about an hour ago, to find a very suitable pebble. So he was kicking it along and following it.
His pebble had now taken him all the way to rue Saint-Jacques in the Latin Quarter, not without one or two problems. You’re not allowed to touch it with your hand, it’s strictly feet only. So, anyway, the bad luck had lasted two years now. No job, no money, no woman in his life any more. And no way out in sight. Except, perhaps, the house, or if you prefer, the ‘disgrace’. He had seen it yesterday morning. Four floors, counting the attics, plus a bit of garden, in an out-of-the-way street, and all in a totally tumbledown state. Holes everywhere, no central heating, an outside lavatory with a wooden door and latch. If you screwed up your eyes, it looked fantastic. If you opened them properly, it looked like a disaster area. On the other hand, the landlord was willing to let it at a peppercorn rent, in exchange for the tenant doing it up a bit. This house might help him get out of the hole he was in right now. What was more,
there would be room for his godfather. Somewhere near the house, a woman had asked him an odd question. What was it now? Oh yes. The name of a tree. Funny how people know absolutely nothing about trees, yet they can’t live without them. But maybe they’re right. After all, he knew the names of plenty of trees and where had that got him?
The pebble went off-piste in rue Saint-Jacques. Stones don’t like going uphill. It had rolled into a gutter right by the Sorbonne, what was more. Well, farewell the Middle Ages. Farewell all those monks, lords and peasants. Marc clenched his fists in his pockets. No job, no money, no woman and no more Middle Ages. How pathetic. Skilfully, Marc propelled the pebble out of the gutter and back onto the pavement. There’s a trick to doing that. And he knew all about the trick, just as he knew all about the Middle Ages, it seemed to him. Don’t even think about the Middle Ages. In the country, you never have to confront the challenge of getting a pebble back onto a pavement. That’s why one can’t be bothered to kick a stone in the country, even though there are tons of them there. Marc’s pebble sailed smartly across rue Soufflot and manoeuvred without too much difficulty into the narrow part of rue Saint-Jacques.
Two years, then. And after two years of that, the first reaction of someone down on their luck is to look out for someone else down on their luck. Seeing friends who have succeeded, when you have made a complete mess of your life, aged thirty-five, only makes you bitter. At first, OK, it’s interesting, it gives you ideas, and encourages you to try harder. But then it begins to get on your nerves and makes you bitter. Well-known fact. And Marc wanted at all costs not to become bitter. It’s pathetic, and even dangerous, especially for a medievalist. Dispatched with a solid thump, the pebble reached the Val-de-Grâce.