|Publisher:||Countryman Press, The|
|Product dimensions:||6.50(w) x 1.50(h) x 9.50(d)|
About the Author
Reginald Hill (1936-2012) was an English crime writer best known for his Dalziel and Pascoe series. He began the series in 1970 with the book A Clubbable Woman; he would go on to write two dozen books in the series, which would later be adapted by the BBC. In 1995 he was awarded the Crime Writers' Association Cartier Diamond Dagger for Lifetime Achievement. The last book he published before his death was 2010's The Woodcutter.
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The poplar-lined road ran arrow-straight from north to south.
At dawn it was empty. The rising sun barred its white surface with the poplars' shadows so that it lay like an eloper's ladder against the ripening walls of corn.
Now a car passed down it fast.
A few minutes later there was another.
Both cars had their roof-racks piled high with luggage.
The sun climbed higher, grew hotter. By ten there was a steady stream of south-bound traffic. By eleven it had slowed to a crawl. And it no longer consisted solely of cars.
There were trucks, vans, buses, taxis; horse-drawn carts and pony-drawn traps; people on foot pushing handcarts, barrows, prams and trolleys; men, women and children and babes in arms; rich and poor, old and young, soldiers in blue, priests in black, ladies in high heels, peasants in sabots; and animals too, dogs and cats and smaller pets nursed by loving owners, cows, geese, goats and hens driven by fearful farmers; here in truth was God's plenty.
By midday the stream was almost static, setting up a long ribbon of heat-haze which outshimmered the gentler vibration above the ripening corn. Cars broke down under the strain and were quickly pushed into the ditch by those behind. Janine Simonian sat in her tiny Renault, terrified that this would soon be her fate. The engine was coughing like a sick man. She glanced at her two small children and tried to smile reassuringly. Then she returned her gaze to the dark-green truck ahead of her and concentrated on its tailboard, as if by will alone she hoped to create a linkage and be towed along in its wake.
Her lips moved in prayer. She'd done a lot of praying in – the past few weeks.
So far it hadn't worked at all.
There were four of the green trucks, still nose to tail as they had been since they set off from Fresnes Prison that morning.
In the first of them, unbeknown to Janine, sat her cousin, Michel Boucher. It was to his sister, Mireille, living in what seemed like the pastoral safety of the Ain region east of Lyon, that she was fleeing.
Boucher himself wasn't fleeing anywhere, at least not by choice. And given the choice, he wouldn't have thought of his sister, whom he hadn't seen for nearly ten years. Besides, he hated the countryside.
Paris was the only place to be, in or out of gaol. Paris was his family, more than his sister and her peasant husband, certainly more than his cousin and her fearful mother. Bloody shop-keepers, they deserved to be robbed. And bloody warders, they needed some sense kicked into them.
Rattling his handcuffs behind him he said, 'Hey, Monsieur Chauvet, do we have to have these things on? If them Stukas come, we're sitting ducks.'
'Shut up,' commanded the warder without much conviction.
He was thinking of his family. They were stuck back there in Paris with the Boche at the gate while he was sitting in a truck conveying a gang of evacuated criminals south to safety. Something was wrong somewhere!
'Know what this lot looks like?' said another prisoner, a thin bespectacled man called Pajou. 'A military convoy, that's what. Just the kind of target them Stukas like. We'd be better off walking.'
'You think your mates would be able to spot you at a couple of hundred miles an hour, Pajou?' said the warder viciously. 'No, my lad, you'll be getting your Iron Cross posthumously if the bastards come!'
Pajou looked indignant. He'd been a charge hand at a munition factory near Metz. A year before, he had been sentenced to eight years for passing information about production schedules to German Military Intelligence. He had always loudly protested his innocence.
Before he could do so now, Boucher rattled his cuffs again and pleaded, 'Come on, chief, you know it's not right. If them Stukas come, it's like we were staked out for execution.'
The warder, Chauvet, opened his mouth, but before he could speak, Pajou cried, 'Listen! Look!'
Looking and listening were almost the same thing. Two black spots expanded like ink stains in the clear blue sky in a crescendo of screaming engines; then came the hammering of guns, the blossoming of explosions; and the long straight river of refugees fountained sideways into the poplar-lined ditches as the Stukas ran a blade of burning metal along the narrow road.
Boucher saw bullets ripping into the truck behind as he dived over the side. With no protection from his arms, he fell awkwardly, crashing down on one shoulder and rolling over and over till a poplar trunk soaked up his impetus.
'Jesus Christ!' he groaned as he lay there half-stunned. All around were the cries and moans of the terror-stricken and the wounded. How long he lay there he did not know, but it was that other sound, heard only once but now so familiar, that roused him. The Stukas were returning.
Staggering to his feet he plunged deeper into the field which lay beyond the roadside ditch. What crop it held he could not say. He was no countryman to know the difference between corn and barley, wheat and rye. But the sea of green and gold stems gave at least the illusion of protection as the Stukas passed.
Rising again, he found he was looking into Pajou's pallid face. His spectacles were awry and one lens was cracked but an elastic band behind his head had kept them in place.
'You all right, Miche?'
Why the man should offer him the leadership, Boucher did not know. He hardly knew Pajou and didn't care for what he did know. Robbing the rich was one thing, selling your country another.
But people often deferred to him, probably simply because of his appearance. Over six foot tall, Titian-haired, eagle-nosed, he had the kind of piratical good looks which promised excitement and adventure. Also he was known from his name as Miche the Butcher, and if his easy-going manner made anyone doubt his capacity for violence, his sheer bulk generally inhibited them from testing it.
But Pajou's question was a good one. What now? Run till they found a friendly blacksmith?
'Hold on,' said Boucher.
An image from his mad flight from the road had returned to him.
He retraced his steps to the roadside. Lying in the ditch just as he had remembered was the warder. There was no sign of a bullet wound, but his head was split open. Despite the freedom of his arms, he must have fallen even more awkwardly than Boucher.
The bloody head moved, the eyes opened and registered Boucher, who raised his booted foot threateningly. With a groan, Chauvet closed his eyes and his head fell back.
Squatting down with his back to the body, Boucher undid the man's belt, then fumbled along it till he came to the chain which held his ring of keys. It slid off easily.
Standing up, he found that Pajou had joined him.
Looking down at the unconscious warder, he said admiringly, 'Did you do that? Christ, you can handle yourself, can't you, Miche?'
'Let's go,' said Boucher shortly.
They set off once more into the green-gold sea, sinking into it like lovers after a couple of hundred metres.
It took ten minutes working back to back to unlock the cuffs from Pajou's wrists, two seconds then to release Boucher.
Released, Pajou was a different man, confident of purpose.
'Come on,' he said, massaging his wrists.
'Where, for Christ's sake?'
'Back to Paris, of course,' said Pajou in surprise. 'With the Germans in Paris, the war's over.'
'Tell that to them back there,' said Boucher curtly gesturing towards the road.
'They should've stayed at home,' said Pajou. 'There'll be no fighting in Paris, you'll see. It'll be an open city. Once the peace starts, it'll be a German city.'
Boucher considered the idea. He didn't much like it.
'All the more reason to be somewhere else,' he growled.
'You think so?' said Pajou. 'Me, I think there'll be work to do, money to be made. Stick with me, Miche. The Abwehr will be recruiting likely lads with the right qualities, and they're bloody generous, believe me!'
'So you did work for them,' said Boucher in disgust. 'All that crap about being framed! I should've known.'
'It didn't harm anybody,' said Pajou. 'If anything, it probably saved a few lives. The Krauts were coming anyway. Whatever helped them get things over with quickest was best for us, I say. It's them silly military bastards who went on about the Maginot Line that should've been locked up. We must've been mad to pay any heed to a pathetic old fart like Pétain ... Jesus Christ!'
Boucher had seized him by his shirt front and lifted him up till they were eye to eye.
'Careful what you say about the Marshal, friend,' he growled. 'He's the greatest man in France, mebbe the greatest since Napoleon, and I'll pull the tongue out of anyone who says different.'
'All right, all right,' said Pajou. 'He's the greatest. Come on, Miche, let's not quarrel. Like I say, stick with me, and we'll be all right. What's the difference between robbing the Boche and robbing our own lot? What do you say?'
For answer Boucher flung the smaller man to the ground and glowered down at him.
'I say, sod off, you nasty little traitor. Go and work for the Boche if you must, and a lot of joy I hope you both get from it. Me, I'll stick to honest thieving. I may be a crook, but at least I'm a French bloody crook! Go on, get out of my sight, before I do something I probably won't be sorry for!'
'Like kicking my head in like you did that warder's?' mocked Pajou, scrambling out of harm's way. 'Well, please yourself, friend. If you change your mind any time, you know how to find me! See you, Miche.'
He got to his feet and next moment was gone.
Michel Boucher sat alone in the middle of a field of waving cereal. It was peaceful here, but it was lonely. And when the bright sun slid out of the blue sky, he guessed it would also be frightening.
This was no place for him. He was a creature of the city, and that city was Paris. Pajou had been right in that at least. There was nowhere else to go.
The difference was of course that he would return as a Frenchman, ready to resist in every way possible the depredations of the hated occupiers.
Feeling almost noble, he rose to his feet and, ignoring the path trampled by Pajou, began to forge his own way northward through the ripening corn.CHAPTER 2
Janine Simonian had dived into the ditch on the other side of the road as the Stukas made their first pass. Like her cousin, she had no arm free to cushion her fall. The left clutched her two-year-old daughter, Cécile, to her breast; the right was bound tight around her five-year-old son, Pauli. They lay quite still, hardly daring to breathe, for more than a minute. Finally the little girl began to cry. The boy tried to pull himself free, eager to view the vanishing planes.
'Pauli! Lie still! They may come back!' urged his mother.
'I doubt it, madame,' said a middle-aged man a little further down the ditch. 'Limited armaments, these Boche planes. They'll blaze away for a few minutes, then it's back to base to reload. No, we won't see those boys for a while now.'
Janine regarded this self-proclaimed expert doubtfully. As if provoked by her gaze, he rose and began dusting down his dark business suit.
'Maman, why do we have to go to Lyon?' asked Pauli in the clear precise tone which made old ladies smile and proclaim him 'old-fashioned'.
'Because we'll be safe down there,' said Janine. 'We'll stay with your Aunt Mireille and Uncle Lucien. They don't live in the city. They've got a farm way out in the country. We'll be safe there.'
'We won't be safe in Paris?' asked the boy.
'Because the Boche are in Paris,' answered his mother.
'But Gramma and Granpa stayed, didn't they? And Bubbah Sophie too.'
'Yes, but Granpa and Gramma have to look after their shop ...'
'More fool them,' interrupted the middle-aged expert. 'I fought in the last lot, you know. I know what your Boche is like. Butchering and looting, that's what's going on back there. Butchering and looting.'
With these reassuring words, he returned to his long limousine, which was standing immediately behind Janine's tiny Renault. He was travelling alone. She guessed he'd sent his family ahead in plenty of time and been caught by his own greed in staying behind to cram the packed limo with everything of value he could lay his hands on.
Janine reprimanded herself for the unkind thought. Wasn't her own little car packed to, and above, the roof with all her earthly possessions?
Others were following the businessman's example and beginning to return to the road. There didn't seem to have been any casualties in this section of the long procession, though from behind and ahead drifted cries of grief and pain.
'Come on, madame! Hurry up!' called the man, as if she were holding up the whole convoy.
'In a minute!' snapped Janine, who was busy comforting her baby and brushing the dust out of her short blonde fuzz of childish hair.
Pauli rose and took a couple of steps back on to the road where he stood shading his eyes against the sun which was high in the southern sky.
'They are coming back,' he said in his quiet, serious voice.
It took a couple of seconds for Janine to realize what he meant.
'Pauli!' she screamed, but her voice was already lost in the explosion of a stick of bombs only a couple of hundred metres ahead. And the blast from the next bowled her over back into the protecting ditch.
Then the screaming engines were fading once more.
'Pauli! Pauli!' she cried, eyes trying to pierce the brume of smoke and dust which enveloped the road, heart fearful of what she would see when she did.
'Yes, maman,' said the boy's voice from behind her.
She turned. Her son, looking slightly surprised, was sitting in the corn field.
'It flew me through the air, maman,' he said in wonderment. 'Like the man at the circus. Didn't you see me?'
'Oh Pauli, are you all right?'
For answer he rose and came to her. He appeared unscathed. The baby was crying again and the boy said gravely, 'Let me hold her, maman.'
Janine passed the young girl over. Céci often reacted better to the soothing noises made by her brother than to her mother's ministrations.
Turning once more to the road, Janine rose and took a couple of steps towards the car. And now the smoke cleared a little.
'Oh Holy Jesus!' she prayed or swore.
The bomb must have landed on the far side of the road. There was a small crater in the corn field and a couple of poplars were badly scarred and showed their bright green core, almost as obscene as torn flesh and pulsating blood.
The businessman lay across the bonnet of his ruined car. His head was twisted round so that it stared backward over his shoulders, a feat of contortion made possible by the removal of a great wedge of flesh from his neck out of which blood fountained like water from a garden hose.
As she watched, the pressure diminished, the fountain faded, and the empty husk slid slowly to the ground.
'Is he dead, maman?' enquired Pauli.
'Quickly, bring Céci. Get into the car!' she shouted.
'I think it's broken,' said the boy.
He was right. A fragment of metal had been driven straight through the engine. There was a strong smell of petrol. It was amazing the whole thing hadn't gone up in flames.
'Pauli, take the baby into the field!'
Opening the car door she began pulling cases and boxes on to the road. She doubted if the long procession of refugees would ever get moving again. If it did, it was clear her car was going to take no part in it.
She carried two suitcases into the corn field. As she returned a third time, there was a soft breathy noise like a baby's wind and next moment the car was wrapped in flames.
Pauli said, 'Are we going back home, maman?'
'I don't know,' she said wearily. 'Yes. I think so.'
'Will papa be there?'
'I don't think so, Pauli. Not yet.'
If there'd been the faintest gleam of hope that Jean-Paul would return before the Germans, she could never have left. But the children's safety had seemed imperative.
She looked at the burning car, the bomb craters, the dead businessman. So this was safety!
'Maman, will the Germans have stopped butchering and looting now?' asked the boy.
'Pauli, save your breath for walking.'
And in common with many others who had found there is a despair beyond terror, she set off with her family back the way they had come.CHAPTER 3
Under the Arc de Triomphe, a cat warmed herself at the Eternal Flame. Then, deciding that the air on this fine June morning was now balmy enough to be enjoyed by a sensitive lady, she set off down the Champs-Élysées. She looked neither to left nor right. There was no need to. Sometimes she sat in the middle of the road and washed herself. Sometimes she wandered from one pavement to the other, hoping to find tasty scraps fallen beneath the café tables. But no one had eaten here for at least two days and the pavements were well scavenged. Finally, when she reached the Rond Point, she decided like a lady of breeding whose servants have deserted her that she'd better start fending for herself and bounded away among the chestnut trees where the beat of a bird's wing was the first sign of life she'd seen since sunrise.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Collaborators"
Copyright © 1970 Estate of Reginald Hill.
Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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