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TWENTY-ONE

COMMISSAIRE CLAUDE LEBEL felt as if he had never had a drink in his life. His mouth was dry and the tongue stuck to the roof of it as though it were welded there. Nor was it just the heat that caused this feeling. For the first time in many years he was really frightened. Something, he was sure, was going to happen during that afternoon, and he still could find no clue as to how or when.

He had been at the Arc de Triomphe that morning, and at Notre Dame and at Montvalerien. Nothing had happened. Over lunch with some of the men from the committee which had met for the last time at the Ministry that day at dawn he had heard the mood change from tenseness and anger to something almost of euphoria. There was only one more ceremony to go, and the Place du 18 Juin, he was assured, had been scoured and sealed off.

«He's gone,» said Rolland, as the group who had lunched together at a brasserie not far from the Elysee Palace while General de Gaulle lunched inside it, emerged into the sunlight. «He's gone, pissed off. And a very wise thing too. He'll surface somewhere, sometime, and my boys will get him.»

Now Lebel prowled disconsolately round the edge of the crowd held two hundred metres down the Boulevard de Montparnasse, so far away from the square that no one could see what was going on. Each policeman and CRS man he spoke to on the barriers had the same message. No one had passed through since the barriers went up at twelve.

The main roads were blocked, the side roads were blocked, the alleys were blocked. The roof-tops were watched and guarded, the station itself, honeycombed with officers and attics facing down on to the forecourt, was crawling with security men. They perched atop the great engine sheds, high above the silent platforms from which all trains had been diverted for the afternoon to the Gare Saint Lazare.

Inside the perimeter every building had been scoured from basement to attic. Most of the fiats were empty, their occupants away on holiday at the seaside or in the mountains.

In short, the area of the Place du 18 Juin was sealed off, as Valentin would say, «tighter than a mouse's arsehole'. Lebel smiled at the memory of the language of the Auvergnat policeman. Suddenly the grin was wiped off. Valentin had not been able to stop the jackal either.

He slipped through the side streets, showing his police pass to take a short cut, and emerged in the Rue de Rennes. It was the same story; the road was blocked off two hundred metres from the square, the crowds massed behind the barriers, the street empty except for the patrolling CRS men. He started asking again.

Seen anyone? No, sir. Anyone been past, anyone at all? No, sir. Down in the forecourt of the station he heard the band of the Garde Republicaine tuning their instruments. He glanced at his watch. The General would be arriving any time now. Seen anybody pass, anyone at all? No, sir. Not this way. All right, carry on.

Down in the square he heard a shouted order, and from one end of the Boulevard de Montparnasse a motorcade swept into the Place du 18 Juin. He watched it turn into the gates of the station forecourt, police erect and at the salute. All eyes down the street were watching the sleek black cars. The crowd behind the barrier a few yards from him strained to get through. He looked up at the roof-tops. Good boys. The watchers of the roof ignored the spectacle below them; their eyes never stopped flickering across the roof-tops and windows across the road from where they crouched on the parapets, watching for a slight movement at a window.

He had reached the western side of the Rue de Rennes. A young CRS man stood with his feet planted squarely in the gap where the last steel crowd barrier abutted the wall of number 132. He flashed his card at the man, who stiffened.

«Anybody passed this way?»

«No, sir”

«How long have you been here?»

«Since twelve o'clock, sir, when the street was closed.»

«Nobody been through that gap?»

«No, sir. Well… only the old cripple, and he lives down there.»

«What cripple?»

“Oldish chap, sir. Looked sick as a dog. He had his ID card, and Mutile de Guerre card. Address given as 154 Rue de Rennes. Well, I had to let him through, sir. He looked all in, real sick. Not surprised with him in that greatcoat, and in this weather and all. Daft, really.»

«Greatcoat?»

“Yessir. Great long coat. Military like the old soldiers used to wear. Too hot for this weather, though.»

«What was wrong with him?»

«Well, he was too hot, wasn't he, sir?»

«You said he was a war-wounded. What was wrong with him?»

«One leg, sir. Only one leg. Hobbling along he was, on a crutch.»

From down in the square the first clear peals from the trumpets sounded. «Come, children of the Motherland, the day of glory has arrived…» Several of the crowd took up the familiar chant of the Marseillaise.

«Crutch?»

To himself, Lebel's voice seemed a small thing, very far away. The CRS man looked at him solicitously.

“Yessir. A crutch, like one-legged men always have. An aluminium crutch…: Lebel was haring off down the street yelling at the CRS man to follow him.

They were drawn up in the sunlight in a hollow square. The cars were parked nose to tail along the wall of the station facade. Directly opposite the cars, along the railings that separated the forecourt from the square, were the ten recipients of the medals to be distributed by the Head of State. On the east side of the forecourt were the officials and diplomatic corps, a solid mass of charcoal-grey suiting, with here and there the red rosebud of the Legion of Honour.

The western side was occupied by the serried red plumes and burnished casques of the Garde Republicaine, the bandsmen standing a little out in front of the guard of honour itself.

Round one of the cars up against the station facade clustered a group of protocol officials and palace staff. The band started to play the Marseillaise.

The Jackal raised the rifle and squinted down into the forecourt. He picked the war veteran nearest to him, the man who would be the first to get his medal. He was a short, stocky man, standing very erect. His head came clearly into the sight, almost a complete profile. In a few minutes, facing this man, about one foot taller, would be another face, proud, arrogant, topped by a khaki kepi adorned with two gold stars on the front.

«Marchons, marchons, a la Victoire…»

Boom-ba-boom. The last notes of the National Anthem died away, replaced by a great silence. The roar of the Commander of the Guard echoed across the station yard. «General Salute… Prese-e-e-ent arms.»

There were three precise crashes as white-gloved hands smacked in unison across rifle butts and magazines, and heels came down together. The crowd around the car parted, falling back in two halves. From the centre a single tall figure emerged and began to stalk towards the line of war veterans. At fifty metres from them the rest of the crowd stopped, except the Minister of Ancient Combattants, who would introduce the veterans to their President, and an official carrying a velvet cushion with a row of ten pieces of metal and ten coloured ribbons on it. Apart from these two, Charles de Gaulle marched forward alone.

“'This one?» Lebel stopped, panting, and gestured towards a doorway.

«I think so, sir. Yes, this was it, second from the end. This was where he came in.»

The little detective was gone down the hallway, and Valremy followed him, not displeased to be out of the street, where their odd behaviour in the middle of a serious occasion was attracting disapproving frowns from the higher brass standing at attention against the railings of the station yard. Well, if he was put on the carpet, he could always say that the funny little man had posed as a Commissaire of Police, and that he had been trying to detain him.

When he got into the hall the detective was shaking the door of the concierge's parlour.

«Where's the concierge?» he yelled.

«I don't know, sir.»