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Authors: Peter Lewis

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BOOK: Dead in the Dregs
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“You’re sick,” I said to her. She clamped her jaw. I could see the veins working in her neck. “You’ll need this,” I said to Sackheim.
“Don’t you dare!” Françoise Pitot yelled. She rushed at me, one hand grabbing me around the throat, the other trying to wrest the bottle out of my hand. I struggled to break free, to keep it out of her reach, but her grip was ferocious. She grabbed my arm, caught me at the elbow, and wrenched it violently. The bottle flew out of my hand and shattered against the wooden floor.
Sackheim and Ponsard ran toward us and pulled her off me. They held her by the arms. She struggled momentarily and suddenly gave up. We stood there, looking into each other’s eyes. Hers were dark with malice. They terrified me.
Slowly, imperceptibly at first, and then with increasing pungency, a stench filtered through the air that made me want to vomit. It was putrid, a mix of powerfully distilled spirits and rotten meat.
“I told Jean to stop you, but you wouldn’t stop,” she hissed. “And
then you arrived here, and he tried again, at Carrière. But he’s an
imbécile.


Madame
!” Sackheim commanded. “You must come with us.”

Oui
,” she said in an exhausted voice, her breast heaving. “I will get my overcoat.”
They released her, and she backed away, turned, and disappeared through the doorway.
“Keep an eye on her,” Sackheim instructed Ponsard. “What is this, this disgusting odor?” he asked, looking down at the pieces of broken glass and the puddle of liquid splashed across the floor.
“I’ll explain it to you later. Let’s just get out of here. Before we die of asphyxiation,” I said.
We heard a door slam, and Ponsard, hapless, stuck his head out of the hallway a moment later.
“Get back there!” Sackheim commanded. “You must come with us, too,
Mademoiselle
,” Sackheim said, turning to Monique. “
Je regrette.

“But I have nothing to do with this,” she protested. “It was all her idea,” she said, flinging her arm at the hallway through which Françoise had disappeared.
“Even so,” Sackheim said. “We must do what we can to untangle this . . . this mess.”
At that instant we heard an explosion from one of the bedrooms.
Racing down the hall, we found poor Ponsard standing outside a bedroom.
“It’s locked,” he said. It was a limp excuse. I didn’t envy him Sackheim’s fury as the colonel pushed him aside and heaved himself against the door, which instantly gave way. They burst into the room.
Françoise lay on the floor. Half her head was gone, the bed linens and faded wallpaper spattered with brains and blood, fragments of skull and strands of hair. In the corner, Henri Pitot cowered, his eyes bloodshot and crazed. He held the shotgun in both hands, staring at what remained of his wife.
“She promised that she would tell no one,” he said.
Sackheim nodded to Ponsard, who took the gun.

C’est fini
,” Sackheim said. “
L’histoire est terminée.
Come, we have much to do.” He looked at Ponsard and sighed, shaking his head. “
Mademoiselle, s’il vous plaît
,” he said, placing his hand on Monique’s shoulder, “do not look. Come. And you,
Monsieur
,” he said to Henri Pitot, taking him by the arm. He led them down the hall, and I followed them outside.
I could see Marcellin standing by one of the police cars. Jean-Luc Carrière stared out the window from the backseat.
We walked through the yard. Halfway across it, Monique loosened herself from Sackheim’s grasp and grabbed the shotgun out of Ponsard’s hand. She ran to the edge of the well and turned to face us.
“It’s all your fault!” she screamed at me. “Why didn’t you stop? Why?”
She lifted the muzzle of the shotgun to a point beneath her head and pulled the trigger with her thumb. Nothing happened. Henri had emptied the thing into his wife. She flung the gun at Sackheim, who was racing to stop her, and as he dodged it, she clambered onto the edge of the well. Sackheim took her around the waist and pulled her to the ground. She raised herself on all fours and stared at me through a mass of tangled hair, tears streaking her face.
“I hate you!” she cried
“My God, my God!” Sackheim said.
“Quel désastre
!” he stammered and put his hands to his head as if to blot out the string of calamities that had engulfed him. Ponsard, who had been paralyzed up till that moment, ran toward them and, after stooping momentarily to check on Sackheim, lifted Monique off the ground.
“It’s too much, too terrible,” Sackheim said, gazing down into the darkness of the well, then collected himself and walked to the police cars. He took the radio and called for help.
29
I walked to where
Monique had fallen, bent down, picked up a pebble, and pitched it into the well. I heard a faint
plop
as it hit the water.
It took only a few minutes for the first police car to show up. Others followed over the course of the next hour. The
flics
from out of town were immediately recognizable, some in plainclothes, most in uniform, their authority acknowledged deferentially by the locals. Sackheim had been cornered by one of them—a detective, from what I could tell—who was vexed that Sackheim appeared to have continued the investigation on his own in contravention of his orders, as if the tragedy that had unfolded before our eyes had been the predictable result of provincial incompetence.
The Brigade de Recherche stood in a cluster at first, whispering and smoking, unsure who was in charge or where they should start. The man to whom Sackheim had spoken finally issued various instructions, while Sackheim himself picked up the shotgun from where it leaned against his car, handed it to Marcellin, and told him to get Carrière to the
gendarmerie.
Ponsard drove Monique, and a third car ferried Henri Pitot.
Sackheim came up to where I stood in the opposite corner of the yard, looking through the chain-link fence.
“Henri must have been hiding in the bedroom after he ran from the shed,” he said. “He heard everything. I am an idiot.”
It was as if the situation had taken on such enormous dimensions that Sackheim needed to anchor himself to one detail, an explanation of a single element to which he could attach his own culpability.
“I am going home now. And you should, too,” he said.
“If only I knew where that was,” I said.
For an instant, he looked puzzled, then he nodded. “Come,” he said.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“Where would you like to go?” he said.
“I’d like a drink, to be perfectly honest.”

Quelle bonne idée. À Beaune
,” he said.
 
Neither of us
spoke after that. We entered the old part of town, parking across from Athenaeum. I doubted I would find any narrative as tortured as the one I had just witnessed anywhere on its shelves. We walked across the square, our shoes crunching the gravel, and entered a garishly lit brasserie a few doors down from the burger joint where I’d botched my own interrogation of Jacques Goldoni. Sackheim stopped at the bar and ordered for us.
“Come this way. It’s quieter,” he said, directing me up a staircase to an empty dining room on the mezzanine.

Alors
,” he said, as we sat down. “It is a sad day. Let’s have a Calva to soothe our souls.” Sackheim pulled a brown leather cigar case from his inside pocket and offered it to me.

Merci
,” I said, pulling one out and handing the case back to him. He took my cigar, carefully clipped it, and set a box of matches on the table between us. We slowly turned the cigars, the flames flaring and dying in quick succession. The barman set our drinks down and disappeared. Sackheim took a puff to ensure his was properly lit.
“So, why did you suspect the gift Eugénie brought for her mother was Wilson’s hand? I still don’t understand.”
“Just a hunch.”
“What is this, ‘a hunch’?”
“You know, a guess, a feeling.”
“Un pressentiment, oui.”
“What’s a hand, Colonel?” I said.
“A hand?” he repeated. “
Je ne comprends pas.

“Skin and bones. And what’s the oenological corollary of skin and bones? We know that Jean killed Richard. But he screws it up. He places the body in a cask where, naturally, they find it the next day. It’s the middle of
vendange
, after all. What did he expect?” Neither of us could suppress a smile. “But before he drops the body into the vat, he cuts off the hand, the writing hand, the symbol of everything he believes has ruined his family. He brings it to his sister, who, thinking that he had forgotten a package at her house, brings it with her. For his funeral, as it turns out.”
“Continue,” Sackheim said.
“The day we met Henri Pitot in the cellar, he mentioned the old still he had out behind the house.” Sackheim nodded. “Skin and bones. Skin, seeds, and stems. What’s left over: pomace,” I said. My companion, swirling the snifter of Calvados in a lazy circle, stopped. “Henri, sick bastard that he is, gets it into his head to distill the hands—Wilson’s and Eric Feldman’s writing hands—with pomace and blended what you saw, smelled, in the shed.”
“Henri was distilling . . .” he said.
“Richard’s hand that Eugénie brought home. The gift for her mother.”
“And the little bottle you discovered?”
“Le Marc Pitot, Réserve de la Famille
? Feldman’s hand, of course. Henri had left room in the bottle for the second batch.”

Mon Dieu
,” he muttered.
“Do you drink
marc
, Colonel?”
“Too harsh. I prefer this,” he said, lifting the Calvados and taking a sip.
“Yeah, it’s an acquired taste,” I said. “Not that one could ever acquire a taste for
marc
blended with a dead person’s hand,” I added. “I doubt I’ll ever be able to drink the stuff again.”
“But how did you solve this puzzle?” He looked at me, genuinely curious.
“I kept asking myself,
Where are the hands? What the hell can you do with hands?
And then, when we were at Pitot’s, it came to me. It’s the same method I applied to the mystery of
le collage
: to employ
les
techniques de vinification
to the elements of the case. The hands had to be somewhere.”
Sackheim thought for a moment. “You know, this piece of furniture in which you found the bottle today, in French we call this
un buffet deux corps.
” He paused. “But it contained only one body. It awaited the arrival of the second.”
He stared down at the table. His cigar had gone out. Slowly, meticulously, he relit it, sucked it with relish, blew a long, precise stream of smoke into the thick atmosphere of the café, and looked at me. Then he sipped the Calva and stared at the ceiling.
“They have taken me off the case,” he said.
Smoke swirled in heavy waves around the globe of light ensconced on the wall.
“Jesus, Colonel. It’s my fault, isn’t it?” I felt wretched.
He didn’t answer me directly. “My men will need me, but there is nothing I can do for them.” He signaled for the check. “Give me just one minute,” he said. He pulled out his cell phone and walked away.
“I have made a reservation for you in your old hotel,” he said, returning to the table. “One requires the comfort of the familiar after such a day.”
He had me drop him at the
gendarmerie.
“There is no need for one to go back to see the carnage
,
” he said. “In fact, they will not let me go back. I think perhaps, in the end, I broke a few too many rules.” I started to say something, but he put his hand up. “Get some rest. Tonight I will cook. I need something to keep my mind off this . . .
catastrophe.
I’ll pick you up at seven o’clock.”
 
Le Chemin de
Vigne was nearly empty after the frenzy of the Hospices, and the owner gave me the same room I’d used the week before. I wanted to sleep, but my mind was whirling and I decided to take a walk.
I stepped out the front door and wandered down the street, passed through the tiny plaza, and skirted the vineyard I could see from the window of my room. I stuck to the road that fronted a walled mansion and passed the hillock that contained the cisterns that fed
Aloxe-Corton. They really did look like bomb shelters, their vented chimneys rising out of the earth like ventilation pipes.
The road paralleled the irrigation ditch, a channel I now realized fed the wells from the hills and vineyards of the Bois de Corton. I walked uphill against its current, the water descending the channel in a trickle. At the end of the road, I turned left and crossed a concrete bridge. Brush and weeds all but obscured a modern
cabotte
dug into the hillside like a pillbox.
As I ascended to the wooded crown of the hill, I passed the ancient stone hut I had seen that morning when Sackheim had driven us to the body of Lucas Kiers. A small van was parked on the side of the road, and workers stood in a vineyard watching me. We nodded from a distance. Mist hugged the hollows of the land that rose and fell in gentle waves across the imperceptible microclimates of Aloxe. At the end of the track where Sackheim had parked, I turned and looked back toward the village, turned again, and headed up the path.
Just beyond where we’d found Lucas Kiers lying on the ground, I saw a sapling with a hand-carved sign set into the earth. It was a beech tree, the plaque marking the convergence of the four communes of Aloxe-Corton, Ladoix, Magny-lès-Villers, and Pernand-Vergelesses. I did a circuit of the Bois, following the same path I was sure Kiers had jogged on the mornings he’d staggered into the Chemin’s dining room, breathless and drenched in sweat.
As I came down the hill and descended toward the village, the sky unleashed a rain shower and I ducked into the concrete hut to sit it out. My mind was numb, empty, and I sat on the ground, listening to the endless
pit pit pit
of water hitting the earth.
BOOK: Dead in the Dregs
12.1Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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