Hear Now the Tale of a Jet Black Sunrise
Southern Soap occupied a large, dirty building on the northeastern outskirts of the city, a stinking haze surrounding it in the temporary absence of a wind to blow the smoke and stench away. Julien knocked at the office door and told the man who opened that he was looking for Didier Valland.
“Join the queue. He left without notice, a few months back.”
“How far back?”
The man thought for a moment. “November? His idea of notice was to send a letter after he didn’t show up for two days.”
“Have the police been here looking for him?”
“How would you know about that? I told them the same thing I’ve told you. I don’t want any trouble; I don’t know anything.”
“Thank you. I won’t trouble you any further.”
So the police had come for him at work. They had missed him at his flat and had missed him at work. Would they have put up such a show for their man? Their man would allow himself to be caught and interrogated and gone looking for the others and complained in false fear, wouldn’t he? Which means he was not a police spy, in all likelihood, but the killer himself, or at least the connection to the murderers. But where was he? Would he have left town? Where would he go? To Italy? To Corsica? Toulon? Back to Grasse? Marseille was the largest city in the region, the best place to hide. Anywhere else was small enough he would be noticed. Of course, it being a port city, he could have hopped a ship months ago and be halfway to China by now.
Julien knew he had to go to Aix. Lameire might have a clue.
He did not relish telling Henri that Valland had truly disappeared, but it was necessary. “The police were looking for him, too.”
“You see, they would not have to put so much effort into finding their own spy.”
“That is well enough, but it does not mean he is innocent.”
“Will you not stop until you can completely destroy the man’s character?”
“But you agree with me, don’t you? There’s something not at all right here.”
“Everything was fine until someone murdered my wife,” Henri insisted with a fierceness he usually reserved for others. But he permitted Julien to apologise and embrace him.
“I’m sorry. Is it such a terrible thing to want answers? I cared for her, too. She was nearly my sister.”
“Do you truly want to know? What if it were Valland? I do not suspect him,” Henri insisted, “but you will have it so. Therefore, let us have it so. Would that make you happy? Would that be a relief? That she and I took her killer into our bosom? That is what you will have. Would you really have that sort of a truth? Could you live with that sort of a truth?”
“The only unbearable truth would be if you were guilty or her father were guilty, and I know those cannot be true. The rest is the world we must live with.”
“What if it were my father?”
“What if it were my father?” Henri repeated harshly. “You can accuse a man without any sort of proof. So can I. Could you live with that?”
Julien looked away. “You have made your point.”
“Yes,” he snapped. “We are not the Terror. I’m going to Aix tomorrow,” he added tiredly. “I may be away for a couple of days.”
The mistral came up about halfway there, causing what had been a quick jaunt to become something approaching the feel of a journey. Julien was grateful to take shelter in the first inn he came to inside the walls. Seeing that Othello was well taken care of, he warmed himself by the smoky fire. He had been riding into the bitter wind most of the morning.
Aix was small, and seemed somehow faded, not with the brightness of the sun or the strength of the wind, but merely with age. Julien had spent most of his life in Paris and Marseille - even his English sojourn was conducted primarily in London. Aix was not on the road between Lyon and Marseille as Avignon was, and it did not have the history of Avignon, either. But because there had been a medieval university there, when the entire educational system was reordered under the Revolution and then under Bonaparte, Aix retained the law faculty and the theological faculty for the region. Yet despite the presence of students, it was a sleepy town. Yes, it was winter, and the wind was up, so none of the cafés spilled out into the streets, but there was not even a café on every corner. It was a profoundly depressing place - just as old as Paris (Marseille was older, with claims that the Greeks had been there, but in the constant rebuilding through commercial and industrial expansion, it felt new), in a far more beautiful setting than the capital, yet it was so obviously dying.
Asking his way to the law school, Julien managed to find both the edifice and a selection of cafés where the students almost certainly drank. Ducking into one, he found it not full at that time of day, but not wholly empty, either. Most students in Aix actually went to class, it appeared. He ordered a some wine and settled in, pretending to read a slim volume he had brought with him but listening to the conversations around him as best he could. His presence finally got the attention of a young man who had been haranguing his companions as to the state of his gambling debts, a state that would be unthinkable in Paris because Julien could pay it out of his pocket right now.
“Hey. Hey!” he called until Julien deigned to look up. “Haven’t seen you around here before. Who are you waiting for?”
“I’m waiting for no one, but I thought I might find a man I know here.”
“Who? I know everyone.”
“He is only recently arrived in Aix.”
“Trust me, I know everyone.”
“He doesn’t drink here. If he did, I wouldn’t be here. Thirty francs I owe him. Thirty!”
“Dice or cards?”
“Cards. He doesn’t lower himself to dice.”
“I should have known. As it happens, I have been asked by a friend of his to discharge a debt. Where might I find him?”
The gambler checked his watch. He was not in bad shape if he still had a watch. “Lectures will let out in probably ten minutes. He’ll go straight to René’s. In the rue Courteissade.”
“Thank you.” To be sociable, he paid for their drinks before he left.
The wind was stronger - the mistral back in earnest. It was hard enough to keep hold of his hat, much less to keep his coat wrapped tightly around him in the bitter onslaught. He took a wrong turn, ended up utterly lost in the medieval streets, and had to ask directions again. Still, he was safely inside just before the hordes of students descended.
Julien recognised Lameire immediately, the only dandy in the café, though Lameire stared at him as if trying to place him. But when he introduced himself, Lameire blanched. “Look, I’m sorry about what happened, but Christ, why the hell do you follow me here?”
“Because I need to know what happened.”
“I wasn’t there. I didn’t kill her, I wasn’t jealous of Enjolras, I wasn’t jealous of her - I had it all out with the police, and I really want don’t to talk about it any further.”
“Please? I need to know what there is to know.”
“Hell no.” He sighed. “Follow me.” They ended up at a quiet restaurant near the hôtel de ville, no obvious students in sight. “What do you think you need to know?”
“What did the police try to ask you?”
“Ask? It was more ’Please, monsieur, confess to this murder, because we really don’t want to do our jobs’. You know how you felt when whoever it was told you the news, so you can imagine how awful it was to hear it from the police. Did I like her hanging around all the time? I don’t know. A girl shouldn’t make me feel that stupid. But by the same token, I wouldn’t have minded at all if she’d been a man. You know how confusing it all was. But dead? Kicked to death in an alley? I did not sign up for girls getting kicked to death in alleys.”
“I don’t blame you for coming back here,” Julien insisted. “But could you have told Henri something? Expressed some sympathy to her family? He intended to marry her, and he thought you were friends.”
“What could I say? ’Sorry I didn’t protect your would-be-wife, who could have beat any of us in a boxing match’? I’m not built like the rest of you. He’s out there on street corners again, of course, with you beside him. Because this is proof of something, either the unfeelingness of the police, the cries of the people unheard, maybe even the lengths to which the high ones will trample on those who dare to make a noise. I can’t do it. We got a girl killed. I had to get out of there, and yes, I am ashamed that I’m not like him.”
“He isn’t on street corners,” Julien told him sadly.
“In the cafés, then.”
“He leaves the house only to walk in his own gardens, and even that took a great deal of coaxing. I have gotten him off the property only once.”
“I came from London. You were not even across town and did not send a message. Neither did Gérard, though I think in his case his courage was wanting and his sense of duty misplaced, a fatal combination but not unexpected. Valland is gone. Henri was with her family when she died; he answered the police questions then. Even they never came again for him. Her family have had a letter from Gérard, but no visits except for me. Henri has had no visits except for me, no letters, not a single word or sign from men he considered his friends. Gérard is afraid, and you are ashamed. And Valland has left his flat and his job, so can you see why I think there is something no one has dared to tell me?”
Lameire looked away for a long time, but he made no effort to go, and he seemed chastened rather than angry. “Valland did not kill her, I’ll swear to that, but if anyone was jealous, it was he.”
“I liked her quite well, we would have been good friends if she had been a man, but even I can’t see her as being quite to other men’s tastes if they aren’t looking for a laundry maid.”
“Not her. You and I and everyone else with a pair of eyes knows perfectly well that Henri Enjolras is considered a more eligible match than men of longer fortune and better name - a better match even than you, I’m sure, and I note you don’t argue - strictly because he is beyond handsome. That’s a bloodline anyone would want to invite in. He’s a lucky bastard and I hate him for it. Did Enjolras tell you anything about Valland?”
“Never very much, and it has worried me. Valland’s father runs the post office, held a position in Grasse before coming to Marseille, and Valland himself was educated there, certainly with a strong emphasis on religion if Henri is correct that M. Valland is a pious man. Something about preferring not to enter the priesthood and a break with the family. He worked at Southern Soap as an assistant bookkeeper. This is all I know, and I have learned it all within the past few days.”
“It’s all true, as far as it goes. I mean, it’s all what Valland told us, at any rate. He was at Southern Soap, Henri was speaking in one of the cafés that cater to the actual workers, he somehow saw us and waited around to talk to us. About a year ago, it probably was. It was definitely winter. There wasn’t much to tell, really. Until a few months ago. If any of the five of us were jealous of any of the others, it was Valland, and he was jealous of Mlle Duchamp.”
“This is not a time for jokes.”
“It isn’t a joke. I’ve two eyes in my head and a decent enough brain to put together what I saw. I’ve been a dilettante, not an idiot. I saw how he’d look at Enjolras, and how he’d look at Mlle Duchamp, but I didn’t quite know what I was seeing for a long time. It isn’t exactly unexpected that someone would appear to not take kindly to a girl among men, doing men’s intellectual work. But the way he’d look at Enjolras, like the café girls would look at him. That interest, that need to follow him with his eyes, but not too eager, not desperate, not as if one would actually do anything. Except one day, I come in on them, and Valland is wiping blood from a split lip, and Enjolras is wiping his hand with a handkerchief. No one said anything, and I said nothing to Gérard, but it’s pretty obvious what happened.”
“Spell it out for me,” Julien insisted.
“You know Enjolras as well as any of us - better probably - but you haven’t always been here. Valland wouldn’t be the first idiot to try to make his affections known. There was an older boy at school who tried to make advances, and yes, I know this one for certain because Enjolras asked me afterwards what he should have done. What he did do was push the boy off and say nothing ever again. He probably gave him that look, which is enough to scare anyone away. Valland had little sense of tact. He probably said something about Mlle Duchamp being mannish and therefore Enjolras should get the real thing, and thus earned himself a punch in the jaw.”
Julien dismissed the whole thread. “You’re speculating.”
“Enjolras punched him for some reason. That much I saw. And those looks were hard to mistake, and they didn’t go away, either.”
“You said yourself that you did not know what you were seeing.”
“It fits together.”
“No, what fits together is that Valland idolised Henri and despised Emilie. He did or said something that was egregious enough for Henri to lash out, but not so bad as to be banned from your company.”
“Then why did he run?”
“That’s what I’m trying to find out.”
“The police are focused on making one of us out to be jealous. He really was, so he bolted.”
“Or he was a spy of some sort, sent into your midst, and he gave information to her killers and then left once he was paid. The police only came looking for him after he was gone. Did you see him after you were questioned, in order to tell him that the police were bent on making everyone out to be a jealous lover?”
Lameire paused for a moment. “He wasn’t a spy. Trust me, he wasn’t a spy. The police down here are stooges.”
“The police are not the only people who would benefit from silencing all of you.” What had that pause meant? Julien cursed himself for taking the bait when he should have pressed Lameire to answer the question.
“Yes, they are, actually. We’re a sideshow, and at least I know it. It was fun playing at revolution, but it’s Marseille. The government treats us like we’re a backwater, and politically, we are a backwater. No one cares. Not even ’the people’. We make noise, the cops stare, people point and laugh, and it’s all in good fun. Come, you’ve been working at the centre of things. You know perfectly well that we’re doing nothing. We might as well be Calvinists in Rome.”
“Do you really believe your own story?”
“I do,” Lameire said firmly. “You weren’t here. You didn’t see.”
“You saw a look and the end of a fight.”
“Enjolras had blood on his lip. It came away on a glass, later. There was no cut.”
“So now you are suggesting that Valland insulted Emilie, received a punch for his pains, and then forced a kiss on Henri.” Julien shook his head. “I’m done hearing stories.”
“Where else did the blood come from, then?”
“Perhaps his hand, the one he was wiping when you walked in. I was hoping for information, not prurient speculation.”
“It’s a theory, not speculation.”
“Yes, that much is true, something that has yet to be proved. Good day.”
Julien got as far as the door before Lameire called him back. “I am sorry. About everything that’s happened. And he didn’t do anything, except possibly try to kiss Enjolras and feel guilty as hell when Mlle Duchamp turned up dead. I swear he didn’t do anything.”
“Nobody did anything, then or after. That’s the trouble. None of you did anything, anything at all. You did not put yourselves out for her or for him. I could never forgive myself if I abandoned a friend, even if it was safer for him that I not act. No one has yet been prosecuted for sending a note that says ’I’m sorry’ for an event that was published in the newspaper.” He let the door slam on the way out.
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