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The river flowing sluggishly under Pont de la Concorde was flat and grey, like worn-out linoleum. It was October and the authorities were having one of their periodic crackdowns on contraband. They had set up their customary lightning checkpoint at the far end of the bridge, backing traffic all the way across to the Right Bank.
“One thing I’ve never got straight,” Custine said. “Are we musicians supplementing our income with a little detective work on the side, or is it the other way round?”
Floyd glanced into the rear-view mirror. “Which way round would you like it to be?”
“I think I’d like it best if I had the kind of income that didn’t need supplementing.”
“We were doing all right until recently.”
“Until recently we were a trio. Before that, a quartet. Perhaps it’s just me, but I’m beginning to detect a trend.”
Floyd slipped the Mathis into gear and eased forward as the line advanced. “All we have to do is hold the fort together until she returns.”
“That isn’t going to happen,” Custine said. “She left for good when she got on that train. You keeping a seat free for her in the front of the car isn’t going to change things.”
“It’s her seat.”
“She’s gone.” Custine sighed. “That’s the trouble with recognising talent: sooner or later, someone else recognises it as well.” The big Frenchman rummaged in his jacket pocket. “Here. Show the nice man my papers.”
Floyd took the yellowing documents and placed them next to his own on the dashboard. When they reached the checkpoint, the guard flicked through Floyd’s papers and handed them back wordlessly. He thumbed through Custine’s, then leaned down until he had a good view into the back of the Mathis.
“On business, monsieur?”
“I wish,” Custine said quietly.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means we were looking for work,” Floyd said amiably. “Unfortunately, we didn’t find any.”
“What kind of work?”
“Music,” Floyd said, gesturing around the car. “Hence the instruments.”
The guard jabbed the muzzle of his stamped-metal machine gun towards the soft fabric case of the double bass. “You could get a lot of cigarettes into that. Pull your vehicle over to the inspection area.”
Floyd slipped the old Mathis back into gear and crunched it forward, steering into a bay where the guards performed more detailed searches. To one side was a striped wooden cabin where the guards amused themselves with cards and cheap pornography. A low stone wall overlooked a narrow, pebbled quay. An empty chair stood by the wall, next to a large trestle table covered with a cloth.
“Say as little as possible,” Floyd said to Custine.
As the guard with the machine gun returned to his post, another from the inspection area knocked on the roof of the car. “Bring it out. Place it on the table.”
Floyd and Custine worked the case from the rear of the Mathis. It was cumbersome rather than heavy, and had already accumulated enough scuffs and scratches that a few more wouldn’t matter.
“You want me to open it?” Custine asked.
“Of course,” the second guard said. “And remove the instrument, please.”
Custine did as he was told, setting the double bass down gently. There was just enough room for it on the table next to the empty case. “There,” he said. “You’re welcome to examine the case if you think I have the ingenuity to hide something in it other than the instrument.”
“It’s not the case I’m concerned about,” the guard said. He motioned to one of his colleagues, who was sitting on a folding chair next to the striped cabin. The man put down his newspaper and picked up a wooden toolkit—an inspector of some kind, clearly. “I’ve seen these two before,” the guard continued. “They’re back and forth across the river like it’s going out of fashion. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?”
The inspector narrowed his eyes at Custine. “I know this one,” he said. “Used to be a policeman, didn’t you? Some big cheese at Central Headquarters?”
“I felt a change of career would do me good.”
Floyd took a fresh toothpick from his shirt pocket, inserted it into his mouth and bit down. The sharp end dug into his mouth, drawing blood.
“Quite a comedown, isn’t it, from high-profile police work to this?” the inspector persisted, setting his toolkit down.
“If you say so,” Custine replied.
The inspector picked up the double bass, shaking it with a look of deep concentration on his face before returning it to the table. “Nothing rattling around,” he said, reaching for his toolkit. “Still, they might have taped something to the inside. We’ll have to take this boy apart.”
Floyd saw Custine draw in a sharp breath and place his hands protectively on the double bass. “You can’t take it apart,” Custine said incredulously. “It’s an instrument. It doesn’t come apart.”
“In my experience,” the inspector said, “everything comes apart in the end.”
“Easy,” Floyd said. “Let them have it. It’s just a piece of wood.”
“Listen to your friend,” the guard suggested. “He talks good sense, especially for an American.”
“Take your hands from the instrument, please,” the inspector said.
Custine wasn’t going to do it. Floyd couldn’t blame him, not really. The double bass was the most expensive item Floyd owned, including the Mathis Emyquatre. Short of another investigation dropping into their laps, it was also about the only thing standing between them and penury.
“Let go,” Floyd mouthed. “Not worth it.”
The inspector and Custine began to struggle over the instrument. Drawn by the commotion, the guard with the machine gun who had stopped them originally left his post and began to saunter over to the action. The double bass was now off the table and the two men were yanking it backwards and forwards violently.
The guard with the gun slipped off its safety catch. The struggle intensified, Floyd fearing that the double bass was about to snap in two as the men wrestled with it. Then Custine’s opponent gained the upper hand and pulled the instrument out of Custine’s grasp. For a moment, the inspector froze, and then in a single fluid movement threw the double bass over the low wall on the other side of the examination table. Time dragged: it seemed an eternity before Floyd heard the awful splintering as the double bass hit the cobbled dock below. Custine sagged back into the chair next to the examination table.
Floyd spat out his toothpick, grinding it underfoot like a spent cigarette. He walked slowly to the wall and peered down to inspect the damage. It was ten, twelve metres to the cobbled quay. The bass’s neck was broken in two, the body smashed into myriad jagged pieces radiating away from the point of impact.
A scuffing of booted feet drew Floyd’s attention to his right. The second guard was on his way down to the quay, descending a stone staircase jutting out from the wall. Hearing a moaning sound to his left, Floyd glanced over to see Custine looking over the parapet. His eyes were wide and white as eggs, his pupils shrunken to shocked dots. Eventually his moaning formed into coherent sounds.
“No. No. No.”
“It’s done,” Floyd said. “And the sooner we get out of here, the better off we’ll be.”
“You destroyed history!” Custine shouted at the inspector. “That was Soudieux’s double bass! Django Reinhardt touched that wood!”
Floyd clamped a hand over his friend’s mouth. “He’s just a bit emotional,” he explained. “You’ll have to excuse him. He’s been under a lot of pressure lately, due to some personal difficulties. He apologises unreservedly for the way he has behaved. Don’t you, André?”
Custine said nothing. He just trembled, still fixated on the wreckage of the double bass. He wanted to reverse time, Floyd thought. He wanted to unhappen the last few minutes of his life and let them spool forward again. He would be obliging this time, answering the guards’ questions civilly, and perhaps the damage that they would inevitably do to the double bass would not be irreparable.
“Say it,” Floyd whispered.
“I apologise,” Custine said.
“I apologise unreservedly.”
The inspector looked at him critically, then shrugged. “What’s done is done. In future you might take a leaf from your friend’s book.”
“I’ll do that,” Custine said numbly.
Down below, the guard kicked the remains of the double bass into the river. The bits of wood were soon lost amidst the oozing debris that hugged the banks.
Floyd’s telephone was ringing when he let himself into his office on the third floor of an old building on rue du Dragon. He put down the mail he had just collected from his pigeonhole and snatched the receiver from its cradle.
“Floyd Investigations,” he said, raising his voice above the rumbling passage of a train and pulling the toothpick from his mouth. “How may—”
“Monsieur Floyd? Where have you been?” The voice—it sounded as if it belonged to an elderly man—was curious rather than complaining. “I’ve been calling all afternoon and was about to give up.”
“I’m sorry,” Floyd said. “I’ve been out on investigative work.”
“You might consider investing in a receptionist,” the man said. “Or, failing that, an answering machine. I gather they are very popular with the Orthodox Jews.”
“Answering machines. They employ magnetic tapes. I saw a model for sale in rue des Rosiers only last week.”
“What a fascinating scientific world we live in.” Floyd pulled out his chair and lowered himself into it. “Might I ask—”
“I’m sorry. I should have introduced myself. My name is Blanchard. I am calling from the thirteenth arrondissement. It’s possible that I have a case for you.”
“Go ahead,” Floyd said, half-convinced that he must be dreaming. After everything that had happened lately—Greta walking out, the lack of work, the incident at the checkpoint—a case was the one thing he hadn’t dared hope for.
“I should warn you that it is a serious matter. I do not believe it will be a quick or simple investigation.”
“That’s… not a major problem.” Floyd poured brandy into a waiting shot glass. “What kind of case are we talking about, monsieur?” Mentally, he flipped through the possibilities. Cheating spouses was always a lucrative line of work. Sometimes they had to be tailed for weeks on end. The same went for missing cats.
“It’s murder,” Blanchard said.
Floyd allowed himself a bittersweet sip of the brandy. He felt his spirits plummet just as quickly as they’d risen. “That’s a real shame. We can’t take on a murder case.”
“Homicide’s a job for the boys in the bowler hats. The boys from the Quai. They won’t let me touch that kind of work.”
“Ah, but that is precisely the point. The police do not consider the incident to have been murder, or ‘homicide’ as you call it.”
“They say that it may have been suicide or misadventure, but in either case they are not interested. You know how it is these days—they are far more interested in pursuing their own investigations.”
“I think I get your drift.” An old habit already had him taking notes: Blanchard, 13th arr., poss. homicide. It might amount to nothing, but if the conversation was interrupted, he would do his best to contact the caller again. He scribbled the date next to his note and realised that it was six weeks since he had last made an entry on the pad. “Supposing the police are wrong, what makes you think it wasn’t suicide or an accident?”
“Because I knew the young lady involved.”
“And you don’t think she was the type who might kill herself?”
“That I can’t say. All I do know is that she did not care for heights—she told me so herself—and yet she fell from a fifth-floor balcony.”
Floyd closed his eyes, wincing. He thought of the smashed double bass, splintered on the cobbles. He hated fallers. He hated the idea of fallers, suicidal or otherwise. He sipped the brandy, willing the drink to blast away the image in his mind.
“Where’s the body now?” he asked.
“Dead and buried—cremated, as it happens—as per her wishes. She died three weeks ago, on September the twentieth. There was a post-mortem, I gather, but nothing suspicious came to light.”
“Well, then.” Mentally, Floyd was already preparing to cross out his line of notes, convinced that the case was a non-starter. “Maybe she was sleepwalking. Or maybe she was upset about something. Or maybe the railings on the balcony were loose. Did the police speak to the landlord?”
“They did. As it happens, I was her landlord. I assure you, the railings were perfectly secure.”
It’s nothing, Floyd told himself. It might be worth a day or two of investigative time, but all they would end up doing was reaching the same conclusion as the police. It was better than no case at all, but it was not going to solve Floyd’s deeper financial malaise.
He put down the fountain pen and picked up a letter knife instead. He slit open the first of several envelopes he had collected from his pigeonhole and spilled out a demand from his landlord.
“Monsieur Floyd—are you still there?”
“Just thinking,” Floyd said. “It seems to me that it’d be difficult ever to rule out an accident. And without evidence of foul play, there’s not much I can add to the official verdict.”
“Evidence of foul play, Monsieur Floyd, is precisely what I have. Of course, the unimaginative idiots at the Quai didn’t want to know. I expect rather better of you.”
Floyd wadded the rent demand into a ball and flicked it into his wastepaper basket. “Can you tell me about this evidence?”
“In person, yes. I would ask that you visit my apartment. Tonight. Does your schedule permit that?”
“I should be able to slot you in.” Floyd took down Blanchard’s address and telephone number and agreed a time with the landlord. “Just one thing, monsieur. I can understand the Quai not being interested in the woman’s case. But why have you called me?”
“Are you implying that it was a mistake?”
“No, not at all. It’s just that most of my cases come through personal recommendation. I don’t get much work through people finding my name in the telephone book.”
The man at the other end of the line chuckled knowingly. The sound was like coal being stirred in a grate. “I should think not. You are an American, after all. Who but a fool would seek the services of an American detective in Paris?”
“I’m French,” Floyd said, slicing open the second envelope.
“Let us not quibble over passports. Your French is impeccable, Monsieur Floyd—for a foreigner. But I will say no more than that. You were born in the United States, were you not?”
“You know a lot about me. How did you get my name?”
“I got it from the only reasonable policeman I spoke to during this whole affair—an Inspector Maillol. I gather you and he know each other.”
“Our paths have crossed. Maillol’s a decent enough fellow. Can’t he look into this supposed suicide?”
“Maillol says his hands are tied. When I mentioned that the woman was American, your name naturally popped into his head.”
“Where was she from?”
“Dakota, I believe. Or perhaps it was Minnesota. Somewhere to the north, at least.”
“I’m from Galveston,” Floyd said. “That puts us a world apart.”
“None the less, you will take on the case?”
“We have an appointment, monsieur. We can discuss things then.”
“Very well, then. I shall expect you on the hour?”
Floyd shook the second letter from its envelope, which was postmarked from Nice. A single sheet of grey paper, folded in two, tipped out on to the desk. He flicked the paper open to reveal a handwritten message in watery ink that was only a shade darker than the paper on which it was written. He recognised the handwriting immediately. It was from Greta.
Floyd dropped the letter as if it was stamped from hot metal. His fingers seemed to tingle. He hadn’t expected to hear from Greta again—not in this life. It took him a few moments to adjust to her sudden intrusion back into his world. What could she possibly have to say to him?
“Monsieur Floyd? Are you still there?”
He tapped the mouthpiece. “Just lost you for a moment there, monsieur. It’s the rats in the basement, always at the telephone lines.”
“Evidently. Upon the hour, then? Are we agreed?”
“I’ll be there,” Floyd said.
Verity Auger surveyed the underground scene from the safety of her environment suit, standing a dozen metres from the crippled wreckage of the crawler. The tarantula-like machine lay tilted to one side, two of its legs broken and another three jammed uselessly against the low ceiling of carved ice. The crawler was going nowhere—it couldn’t even be dragged back to the surface; but at least its life-support bubble was still intact. Cassandra, the girl student, was still sitting inside the cabin, arms folded, watching the proceedings with a kind of haughty detachment. Sebastian, the boy, was lying about five metres from the crawler, his suit damaged but still capable of keeping him alive until the rescue squad arrived.
“Hang in there,” Auger told him on the suit-to-suit. “They’re breaking through. We’ll be home and dry any moment now.”
The crackle and static accompanying the boy’s response made him seem a million light-years away. “I don’t feel too good, miss.”
“Just stay still. Those suit seals will do their job if you don’t move.”
Auger stepped back as rescue crawlers from the Antiquities Board emerged from above, forcing ice aside with piston-driven claws and picks.
“That you, Auger?” came a voice in her helmet.
“Of course it’s me. What took you so long? Thought you guys were never coming.”
“We came as fast as we could.” She recognised the voice of Mancuso, one of the recovery people she had dealt with in the past. “Had trouble getting a fix on you this far down. The clouds seemed to be having some kind of argument tonight, lots of electromagnetic crap to see through. What exactly were you doing this deep?”
“My job,” she said tersely.
“The kid hurt?”
“His suit took a hit.” On her own faceplate monitor she could still see the diagnostic summary for Sebastian’s suit, hatched with pulsing red hazard indicators near the right elbow joint. “But it’s nothing serious. I told him to lie down and keep still until rescue arrived.”
The lead crawler was already disgorging two members of the rescue squad, clad in the faintly comical suits of the extreme-hazards section. They moved like sumo warriors, in squatting strides.
Auger moved to Sebastian, kneeling down next to him. “They’re here. All you have to do is keep still and you’ll be safe and sound.”
Sebastian made an unintelligible gurgle in reply. Auger raised a hand, signalling the nearer of the two suits to approach her. “This is the boy, Mancuso. I think you should deal with him first.”
“That’s already the plan,” another voice squawked in her helmet. “Stand back, Auger.”
“Careful with him,” she warned. “He’s got a bad rip near the right—”
Mancuso’s suit towered over the little boy. “Easy, son,” she heard. “Gonna have you fixed up in no time. You all right in there?”
“Hurt,” she heard Sebastian gasp.
“Think we need to move fast on this one,” Mancuso said, beckoning the second rescuer to him with a flick of one overmuscled arm. “Can’t risk moving him, not with the particle density as high as it is.”
“Recover in situ?” the second rescuer asked.
“Let’s do it.”
Mancuso pointed his left arm at the boy. A hatch slid open in the armour and a spray nozzle popped out. Silvery-white matter gushed from the nozzle, solidifying instantly on impact. In a matter of seconds, Sebastian became a human-shaped cocoon wrapped in hard spittlelike strands.
“Careful with him,” Auger repeated.
A second team then set to work, cutting into the block of ice immediately underneath Sebastian with lasers. Steam blasted into the air from the cutting point. They paused now and again, signalling each other with tiny hand gestures before resuming. The first team returned with a wheeled, stretcherlike harness, pushing it between them. Thin metal claws lowered from the cradle, slipping into the ice around Sebastian. The cradle slowly hoisted the entire cocooned mass—including its foundation of ice—away from the ground. Auger watched them wheel Sebastian away and load him into the first recovery machine.
“It was just a scratch,” Auger said, when Mancuso returned to check on her. “You don’t have to act as if it’s an emergency, scaring the kid to death.”
“It’ll be an experience for him.”
“He’s already had enough experience for one day.”
“Well, can’t be too careful. Down here all accidents are emergencies. Thought you’d have known that by now, Auger.”
“You should check on the girl,” she said, indicating the crawler.
“Then she isn’t a priority. Let’s see what you risked these kids’ lives for, shall we?”
Mancuso meant the newspaper.
“It’s in the crawler’s storage shelf,” Auger said, leading him over to the crippled machine. At the front of the crawler, tucked beneath sets of manipulator arms and tools, were a netting pouch and a hatch containing a compartmented storage tray. Auger released the manual catch and slid out the tray. “Look,” she said, taking the newspaper out of its slot with great care.
“Whew!” Mancuso whistled, grudgingly impressed. “Where’d you find it?”
She pointed to a sunken area just ahead of the wrecked machine. “We found a car down there.”
“Empty. We smashed the sunroof and used the crawler’s manipulators to extract the paper from the rear seat. We had to brace the crawler against the ceiling to prevent it from toppling over. Unfortunately, the ceiling wasn’t structurally sound.”
“That’s because this cavern hasn’t been cleared for human operations yet,” Mancuso told her.
Auger chose her words carefully, mindful that anything she said now might be on the record. “No harm was done. We lost a crawler, but the recovery of a newspaper easily outweighs that.”
“What happened to the boy?”
“He was helping me stabilise the crawler when he ripped his suit. I told him to lie still and wait for the cavalry.”
She put the newspaper back into the tray. The newsprint was still as sharp and legible as when she had retrieved it from the car. The act of picking up the paper—flexing it slightly—had even caused one of the animated adverts to come to life: a girl on a beach throwing a ball towards the camera.
“Pretty good, Auger. Looks like you lucked out this time.”
“Help me remove the tray,” she said, guessing that there was going to be no attempt to recover the entire crawler.
They extracted the sample tray, carried it to the nearest rescue crawler and slid it into a vacant slot.
“Now the film reels,” Mancuso said.
Auger walked around the leaning vehicle, throwing latches and sliding out the heavy black cartridges, clipping them together as she went for ease of transport. Once all twelve of them had been assembled, including those from the cabin monitors, she handed the bulky package to Mancuso. “I want these shot straight to the lab,” she said.
“That’s the lot?” he asked.
“That’s the lot,” Auger replied. “Now can we deal with Cassandra?”
But when she looked back into the glow of the cabin, she saw no sign of the girl. “Cassandra?” she called, hoping that the channel to the crawler was still functioning.
“It’s OK,” the girl said. “I’m right behind you.”
Auger turned around to see Cassandra standing on the ice in the other child-sized environment suit.
“I told you to stay inside,” Auger said.
“It was time to leave,” Cassandra replied. She had, as far as Auger could tell, made an efficient and thorough job of donning her suit. Auger was impressed: it was difficult enough for an adult to put on an environment suit without assistance, let alone a child.
“Did you make sure—” Auger began.
“The suit is fine. I think it’s time we were leaving, don’t you? All this activity may have alerted the furies. We don’t want to be here when they arrive.”
Mancuso touched Auger’s shoulder with a power-amplified glove that could have crushed her in an eyeblink. “Girl’s right. Let’s get the hell out of Paris. Place always gives me the jitters.”
Auger peered through the ceiling porthole of the rescue crawler, willing the red and green lights of the dropship to burn through the clouds and hoping that the clouds themselves would not become even more agitated. There was something wrong with the clouds tonight. Their talk was normally a slow and serene form of communication, revealed by changes in their shape, colour and texturing. Vast circuitlike structures of hard-edged blue-grey would take form over many minutes; these forms would gradually stabilise and then slowly fade. Tens of minutes later, new patterns would begin to emerge from the doughy grey of unstructured cloud. Such movements were merely the basic units of an exchange that might take hours or days to complete.
But right now the clouds were bickering. The patterns formed and decayed at an accelerated rate, with lightning a kind of emphatic punctuation to the dialogue. The clouds fissioned and merged, as if renegotiating age-old treaties and alliances.
“They do this sometimes,” Cassandra said.
- "Reynolds possesses the true and awesome widescreen SF imagination...an exciting, thought-provoking novel."—Locus on Century Rain
- "Century Rain fuses time travel, hard SF, alternate history, interstellar adventure, and noir romance to create a novel of blistering powers and style."—SF Revu on Century Rain
- "An intelligent space opera."—Time Out on Century Rain
- "A darkly brilliant love story set in worlds we think we know but don't."—The Guardian (UK) on Century Rain
- On Sale
- Aug 4, 2020
- Page Count
- 592 pages