Before he could protest, the little man had smashed the frosted glass panel with his elbow, reached inside and opened the door.
«Follow me,» he called, and dashed inside.
Too bloody right I'm going to follow you, thought Valremy. You're off your chump.
He found the little detective at the door of the scullery. Looking over the man's shoulder he saw the concierge tied up on the floor, still unconscious.
Suddenly it occurred to him the little man was not joking. He was a police commissaire, and they were after a criminal. This was the big moment he had always dreamed of, and he wished he was back in barracks.
«Top floor,» shouted the detective, and was gone up the stairs with a speed that surprised Valremy, who pounded after him, unslinging his carbine as he ran.
The President of France paused before the first man in the line of veterans and stooped slightly to listen to the Minister explain who he was and what was his citation for valour shown on that day nineteen years before. When the Minister had finished he inclined his head towards the veteran, turned towards the man with the cushion, and took the proffered medal. As the band began a softly played rendering of «La Marjolaine' the tall General pinned the medal on to the rounded chest of the elderly man in front of him. Then he stepped back for the salute.
Six floors up and a hundred and thirty metres away the jackal held the rifle very steady and squinted down the telescopic sight. He could see the features quite clearly, the brow shaded by the peak of the kepi, the peering eyes, the prow-like nose. He saw the raised saluting hand come down from the peak of the cap, the crossed wires of the sight were spot on the exposed temple. Softly, gently, he squeezed the trigger…
A split second later he was staring down into the station forecourt as if he could not believe his eyes. Before the bullet had passed out of the end of the barrel, the President of France had snapped his head forward without warning. As the assassin watched in disbelief, he solemnly planted a kiss on each cheek of the man in front of him. As he himself was a foot taller, he had had to bend forward and down to give the traditional kiss of congratulation that is habitual among the French and certain other nations, but which baffles Anglo Saxons.
It was later established the bullet had passed a fraction of an inch behind the moving head. Whether the President heard the whipcrack from the sound barrier, travelling on a narrow line down the flight path of the bullet, is not known. He gave no sign of it. The Minister and the official heard nothing: neither did those fifty metres away. The slug tore into the sun-softened tarmacadam of the forecourt, its disintegration taking place harmlessly inside more than an inch of tar. «La Marjolaine played on. The President, after planting the second kiss, straightened up and moved sedately on towards the next man.
Behind his gun, the jackal starred to swear, softly, venomously. He had never missed a stationary target at a hundred and fifty yards in his life before. Then he calmed down; there was still time. He tore open the breech of the rifle, ejecting the spent cartridge to fall harmlessly on to the carpet. Taking the second one off the table he pushed it home and closed the breech.
Claude Lebel arrived panting on the sixth floor. He thought his heart was going to come out of his chest and roll all over the landing. There were two doors leading towards the front of the building. He looked from one to the other as the CRS man joined him, submachine carbine held on his hip, pointing forward. As Lebel hesitated in front of the two doors, from behind one of them came a low but distinct «Phut'. Lebel pointed at the door lock with his forefinger.
«Shoot it off,» he ordered, and stepped back. The CRS man braced himself on both feet and fired. Bits of wood, metal and spent, flattened slugs flew in all directions. The door buckled and swung drunkenly inwards. Valremy was first into the room, Lebel on his heels. Valremy could recognise the grey tufts of hair, but that was all. The man had two legs, the greatcoat was gone, and the forearms that gripped the rifle were on a strong young man. The gunman gave him no time; rising from his seat behind the table, swinging in one smooth motion at a half-crouch, he fired from the hip. The single bullet made no sound; the echoes of Valremy's gun-burst were still ringing in his ears. The slug from the rifle tore into his chest, struck the sternum and exploded. There was a feeling of tearing and ripping and of great sudden stabs of pain; then even they were gone. The light faded as if summer had turned to winter.
A piece of carpet came up and smacked him on the cheek, except that it was his cheek that was lying on the carpet. The loss of feeling swept up through the thighs and belly, then the chest and neck. The last thing he remembered was a salty taste in the mouth, like he had had after bathing in the sea at Kermadec, and a one-legged old gull sitting on a post. Then it was all dark.
Above his body Claude Lebel stared into the eyes of the other man. He had no trouble with his heart; it did not seem to be pumping any more.
«Chacal,» he said. The other man said simply, 'Lebel.»
He was fumbling with the gun, tearing open the breech. Lebel saw the glint as the cartridge case dropped to the floor. The man swept something off the table and stuffed it into the breech. His grey eyes were still staring at Lebel.
He's trying to fix me rigid, thought Lebel with a sense of unrealism. He's going to shoot. He's going to kill me.
With an effort he dropped his eyes to the floor. The boy from the CRS had fallen sideways: his carbine had slipped from his fingers and lay at Lebel's feet. Without conscious thought he dropped to his knees, grabbed the MAT 49, swinging it upwards with one hand, the other clawing for the trigger. He heard the jackal snap home the breech of the rifle as he found the trigger of the carbine. He pulled it.
The roar of the exploding ammunition filled the small room and was heard in the square. Later press enquiries were met with the explanation that it had been a motor-cycle with a faulty silencer which some ass had kicked into life a few streets away at the height of the ceremony. Half a magazine full of nine-millimetre bullets hit the Jackal in the chest, picked him up, half-turned him in the air and slammed his body into an untidy heap in the far corner near the sofa. As he fell, he brought the standard lamp with him. Down below, the band struck up "Mon Regiment et Ma Patrie'.
Superintendent Thomas had a phone call at six that evening from Paris. He sent for the senior inspector of his staff.
«They got him,» he said. «In Paris. No problems, but you'd better get up to his flat and sort things out.»
It was eight o'clock when the inspector was having a last sort through of Calthrop's belongings that he heard someone come into the open doorway. He turned. A man was standing there scowling at him. A big-built, burly man.
«What are you doing here?» asked the inspector.
«I might ask you just the same thing. What the hell do you think you're doing?»
«All right, that's enough,» said the inspector. «Let's have your name.
“Calthrop,» said the newcomer, «Charles Calthrop. And this is my flat. Now what the hell are you doing to it?»
The inspector wished he carried a gun.
«All right,» he said quietly, warily. «I think you'd better come down to the Yard for a little chat' «Too bloody right,» said Calthrop. «You've got a bit of explaining to do.»
But in fact it was Calthrop who did the explaining. They held him for twenty-four hours, until three separate confirmations came through from Paris that the jackal was dead, and five landlords of isolated taverns in the far north of Sutherland County, Scotland, had testified that Charles Calthrop had indeed spent the previous three weeks indulging his passion for climbing and fishing, and had stayed at their establishments.
«If the Jackal wasn't Calthrop,» asked Thomas of his inspector when Calthrop finally walked out of the door a free man, «then who the hell was he?»