The oddest thing was that Destinat went so rarely to the Rébillon that his table remained unoccupied about three quarters of the time. That caused Bourrache a fine loss of income, but he wouldn't have given that table to someone else for anything in the world, even on big fair days when all the peasants from miles around, having felt the rumps of all the prized cows, came to stuff themselves. By lunchtime they would have become insistent, on a liter of plum brandy, their heads spinning with thoughts of winding up at Ma Nain's whorehouse to ease themselves. But the table stayed unoccupied even as patrons were being turned away. One time Bourrache went so far as to eject a cattle trader who had dared to demand it. The man never came back.
"Better to have a king's table without the king than to seat somebody with manure all over his shoes!" That was Bourrache's romantic explanation, one day when I was needling him.
The first Monday of December 1917 was freezing cold. The clatter of the ground
under your heels could be felt reverberating up to your neck. The large blanket
they'd thrown over the body got soaked in a hurry as the two other cops,
Berfuche, a short guy with ears like a wild pig, hairs sticking out of them, and
Grosspeil, an Alsatian whose family had emigrated forty years earlier, stood
watching over it near the bank of the canal. A little farther back stood young
Bréchut. A boxy fellow with hair as stiff as broom straw, he yanked on his vest,
not too sure what he ought to do: stay or leave. He was the one who'd spotted
her in the water on his way to work at the port authority, where he kept the
accounts. (He still does, only he's twenty years older now and every straw has
fallen out of the broom.)
Lying on the ground, a ten-year-old's body seems even smaller, especially when it's drenched by winter water. Berfuche pulled back a corner of the blanket to confirm what he knew and puffed into his hands for warmth. Morning Glory's face appeared.
She looked like a fairy with her eyelids blanched and lips turned blue, her hair entangled with the grass, withered brown by morning frosts. Her little hands had clutched at emptiness. It was so cold that day that all our moustaches whitened with hoarfrost as we huffed and stamped our feet like bulls getting ready to charge. In the sky some dim-witted geese were circling. They seemed to have lost their way. The sun huddled in his mantle of fog, which was fraying more and more. Even the cannon in the distance seemed to have frozen. You couldn't hear a thing.
"Maybe it's peace at last," ventured Grosspeil.
"Peace my ass!" His colleague snorted as he replaced the wet blanket over the little girl's body.
We were waiting for the gentlemen from V. Finally they arrived, accompanied by the mayor, who looked very much out of sorts, as you might too if you'd been jerked out of bed at the crack of dawn, especially in weather you wouldn't put a dog out in. There was Judge Mierck; his court clerk, whose name I never knew, though everyone called him Crusty because of a nasty eczema that ate away at the left half of his face; three cocksure policemen; and a military officer. I don't know what he was doing there, but he didn't hang around for long; one look at the murder scene and he keeled right over and we had to carry him to Jacques's Cafe. I figured the closest that slicker had ever come to a bayonet was in the armory, and maybe not even then. You could tell from his flawlessly ironed uniform, tailored for a mannequin at Poiret's. He must have been waging war beside a good cast-iron stovesitting in a big velvet armchairand then in the evening telling young ladies in long gowns all about the action, under gilded moldings and crystal chandeliers, among the bewigged musicians of a chamber orchestra, a glass of champagne in his hand.
Excerpted from By a Slow River by Philippe Claudel Copyright © 2006 by Philippe Claudel. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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