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Fred Vargas

An Uncertain Place

The sixth book in the Commissaire Adamsberg series, 2011

Translated From The French By Siân Reynolds

First published with the title Un lieu incertain in 2008 by Éditions Viviane Hamy, Paris


COMMISSAIRE ADAMSBERG KNEW HOW TO IRON SHIRTS. HIS mother had shown him how you should flatten the shoulder piece and press down the fabric round the buttons. He unplugged the iron and folded his clothes into his suitcase. Freshly shaved and combed, he was off to London, and there was no way of getting out of it.

He pushed a chair into the patch of sunlight falling on the kitchen floor. Since the room had windows on three sides, he spent his time moving his seat around the circular table, following the light, like a lizard on a rock. He put his bowl of coffee on the east side and sat down with his back to the warmth.

Going to London was fine by him: he would find out whether the Thames smelt of damp washing the way the Seine did, and what kind of sound the seagulls made. Perhaps they had a different call in English. But he would hardly be allowed time for that. Three days of conference, with ten papers per session, six debates, and a reception at the Home Office. There would be a hundred or so top brass, representing police forces from all over Europe, crammed into a big hall; cops from twenty-three countries, seeking to foster closer police links in an expanded Europe and, more precisely, to ‘harmonise the management of migratory flows’. That was the subject of the conference.

As chief of the Serious Crimes Squad in Paris, Adamsberg was obliged to turn up, but he wasn’t greatly concerned. He would be participating in a virtual, hands-off way: first because of his ingrained hostility to any ‘management of flows’, and secondly because he had never been able to remember a word of English. He finished his coffee contentedly, reading a text message from Commandant Danglard: ‘Rdv 80 mins GdNord eurostar gate. Fckin tnnl. Have smart jkt + tie 4 U’.

Adamsberg pressed ‘delete’, wiping away his deputy’s anxiety like dust from furniture. Danglard was not cut out for walking or running, still less for travelling. Crossing the Channel by tunnel was as distressing for him as flying over it in a plane. But he would not for all the world have given up his place on the mission to anyone else. For thirty years, the commandant had been wedded to the elegance of English clothes, on which he banked to make up for his lack of good looks. And from this vital choice he had extended his gratitude to the rest of the United Kingdom, becoming the typical Anglophile Frenchman, addicted to good manners, tact and discreet humour. Except, of course, when he let himself go – revealing the difference between an Anglophile Frenchman and a true Englishman. So the prospect of a trip to London had overjoyed Danglard, migratory flows or not. He just had to get past the obstacle of the fckin tnnl: it would be his first experience of it.

Adamsberg rinsed out his coffee bowl, snatched up his suitcase, and wondered what sort of jkt + tie Danglard had chosen for him. His elderly neighbour, Lucio, was knocking loudly on the glass door, his weighty fist making it rattle. Lucio had lost his left arm in the Spanish Civil War when he was nine years old, and it seemed that his right arm had grown so large to compensate that it had the strength of two. Pressing his face to the pane, he was summoning Adamsberg by his imperious expression.

‘Come along,’ he said gruffly and peremptorily. ‘She can’t get them out, I need your help.’

Adamsberg stepped outside and put his suitcase down in the unkempt little garden he shared with the old Spaniard.

‘I’m just off to London,’ he said. ‘I’ll give you a hand when I get back, in three days.’

‘Not in thrrrreee days! Now!’ said the old man.

And when Lucio spoke in this tone of voice, rolling his r’s, he produced a great rumbling sound that seemed to Adamsberg as if it was issuing from the very earth. He picked up the suitcase, his mind already on its way to the Eurostar departure lounge at the Gare du Nord.

‘What can’t you get out?’ he said distantly, locking his front door.

‘The cat in the tool shed. You surely knew she was having kittens?’

‘I didn’t even know there was a cat there, and I certainly don’t care.’

‘Well, you know now, hombre. And no way will you not care. She’s only managed three so far. One’s dead and two others are still stuck, I can feel their heads. I’ll massage her belly, and you can pull them out. And be careful, gently does it. A kitten, you can break it in half like a biscuit if you’re too clumsy.’

* * *

Anxious and impatient, Lucio was scratching his missing arm by moving his fingers in the air. He had often explained that when he had lost his arm, aged nine, there had been a spider bite on it which he hadn’t finished scratching. And on account of that, the bite was still itching sixty-nine years later, because he hadn’t been able to give it a really good scratch and have done with it. This was the neurological explanation provided by his mother, and it had become Lucio’s philosophy of life: he adapted it to every situation and every feeling. You either finish something, or you don’t start. You have to go through to the bitter end, and that applies in matters of the heart too. When something was intensely important to him, Lucio scratched the interrupted bite.

‘Lucio,’ said Adamsberg clearly, walking across the little garden, ‘my train goes in an hour and a quarter, my deputy is having kittens himself at the Gare du Nord, and I’m not going to be midwife to your wretched cat when a hundred top cops are waiting for me in London. Do it yourself, you can tell me about it on Sunday.’

‘How am I supposed to manage like this?’ cried the old man, waving his stump in the air.

Lucio held Adamsberg back with his powerful right arm, thrusting forward his prognathous jaw, worthy of a Velázquez painting, according to Danglard. The old man couldn’t see well enough these days to shave properly, and his razor always missed a few bristles. White and tough, they glittered in the sunshine in little clumps, like a silvery decoration made of thorns. Every now and then, Lucio caught a bristle between thumb and fingernail and pulled it out, as he might a tick. He never gave up till he got it out, observing the spider-bite philosophy.

‘You’re coming with me.’

‘Let me go, Lucio.’

‘You’ve got no choice, hombre,’ said Lucio darkly. ‘It’s crossed your path now. You have to come. Otherwise it’ll scratch you all your life. It’ll only take ten minutes.’

‘My train’s crossing my path too.’

‘Time for that afterwards.’

Adamsberg dropped the suitcase and groaned impotently as he followed Lucio into the shed. A tiny head, sticky with blood, was emerging between the cat’s hind paws. Under the old Spaniard’s instructions, he caught hold of it gently while Lucio pressed the mother cat’s stomach with a professional gesture. She was miaowing piteously.

‘You can do better than that! Pull harder, hombre, get hold of it under its shoulders and pull! Go on, don’t be afraid, but be gentle, don’t squash its skull, and with your other hand, stroke the mother’s head, she’s panicking.’

‘Lucio, when I stroke someone’s head, they go to sleep.’

Joder! Go on, pull!’

Six minutes later, Adamsberg was putting two red and squeaking little rats alongside the others on an old blanket. Lucio cut the cords and placed them one by one at their mother’s teats. He looked anxiously at the mother cat, which was whimpering.

‘What did you mean about your hand? You put people to sleep?’