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Chapters 1, 2, & 8 from Fatale

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1

The hunters were six in number, men mostly fifty or older, but also two younger ones with sarcastic expressions. They all wore check shirts, sheepskin jackets, waterproof khaki trench coats, more or less high boots, and caps. One of the two younger guys was all skin and bone, and one of the fifty-year-olds, a bespectacled pharmacist with white hair in a crew cut, was fairly thin. The other hunters were potbellied and rubicund, especially one named Roucart. They carried two- or three-round sporting guns because birds were the game. They had three dogs, two pointers and a Gordon setter. Off to the northeast there must have been other hunters because they heard a gunshot, followed by another, from a kilometer or perhaps a kilometer and a half away.

They reached the end of a stretch of damp moorland. For ten meters or so they passed through silver-birch saplings barely taller than a man, then they found themselves amidst large rustling trees, mainly birch and poplar, and thickets. The group loosened. There was standing water here and there. From the northeast came four or five more distant reports, a muted crackle of fire. A little later they broke up deliberately. They had been hunting for a good three hours and still had not killed anything. Everyone was frustrated and crotchety.

A moment came when Roucart went down into a damp, narrow coomb strewn with masses of rotting leaves. He found the descent rather hard because his paunch pulled him forward and he was obliged to dig in his heels and throw his head back. His head was shaped like a pear, stem upwards, and his bald pate was red beneath his green-and-brown camouflage-style cap. The skin of his face was red too, his eyes bright blue and his eyebrows white. His nose was short and stubby, with wide nostrils and white hairs inside them. He pulled up at the bottom of the coomb to catch his breath. He propped his gun against a tree trunk, then leaned back against it himself. Mechanically, he felt in his jacket pocket for a cigarette, then recalled that he had given up smoking three weeks earlier and let his hand fall to his side. He was disappointed. Suddenly a gunshot rang out no more than a hundred meters away and a badly trained dog barked briefly. Roucart had no dog. Without removing his considerable backside from the tree trunk, he leaned forward and with his mouth half open cocked an ear in the direction of the sound. All he heard at first was the murmur of the leaves, then someone coming down behind him into the coomb. He turned his head with some difficulty to see a young woman standing motionless at the foot of the incline, just four steps from him, a thin figure in a long light-brown oilskin, waders, a round rain hat over her long brown hair. Slung over her shoulder was a 16-gauge shotgun.

“Good heavens! If it isn’t Mélanie Horst!” exclaimed Roucart, hastily detaching his rump from the tree trunk and sucking in his stomach. “Well, this is a nice surprise! But how come? I thought you had left us for good, dear child.”

She smiled vaguely. She might have been thirty, or thirty-five. She had dark brown eyes and delicate features. The vague smile barely exposed her teeth, which were small and even. Roucart approached the young woman, continuing to address her as “dear child” and talking in an avuncular tone as his big blue eyes roved up and down her slim form. He declared himself greatly astonished to see her here—first because she never went shooting and secondly because she had said her goodbyes to everyone the previous afternoon and taken a taxi to the station.

“As surprises go, this beats all. And such a pleasant one too,” he exclaimed, and she unslung her 16-gauge shotgun, turned it on him, and before he had finished smiling emptied both barrels into his gut.

Moments later he was lying on his back against the upward slope and its rotting leaves. His torso was full of holes and his khaki jacket had ridden up beneath his chin from the impact and his check shirt was half out of his pants. Roucart’s bare head was bent forward and twisted to one side, his cheek was in the mud, his eyes and mouth were open, and his cap lay upturned on the ground. With saliva glistening in his mouth, the man narrowed one eye slightly and died. From far away there came the sound of three gunshots. The young woman walked away.

2

It was night when she went into the station, and she had reversed her oilskin, which was light brown on one side and white on the side now visible. A red scarf was tied around her brown hair and the frame of her large glasses was black-and-white check. The young woman’s mouth was at present made up with scarlet lipstick. The station was hardly crowded. An Arab family with three children waited on a bench, peeling oranges. Lamplighters were going to and fro with oilcans suspended from their belts. The young woman made her way to the self-service luggage lockers. Opening a locker at one end of the row, she took out a slim attaché case and a large leather bag. Then, going to the other end, she opened another locker and removed a green plastic briefcase with a zipper running around three sides. She slid the fastener open about twenty centimeters and looked quickly inside the case, which was twisted and bulging from the volume of its contents. Raising her head, she zipped it up again. With her three pieces of baggage, she went and sat down in a corner of the station hall and smoked two Celtiques.
After ten or twelve minutes a royal-blue luxury train pulled into the station. By this time the young woman was already on her way to the underground passage. She emerged onto the platform just as the train came to a halt. She walked for fifty meters or so alongside the train, checking the car numbers. She came to her sleeping car. A porter greeted her on the platform and took her ticket, along with the leather bag and the slim attaché case. She kept the overstuffed briefcase under her left arm and grasped its edge with her right hand as she climbed into the carriage and made her way to her single sleeping compartment. The porter set the bags down. He told the young woman that they would arrive at Bléville* at eight o’clock the next morning and asked whether she would like a wake-up call. At seven, she replied. Smiling, she asked the man whether it would be at all possible to bend the rules and deliver a meal to her compartment, a meal whose desired components she detailed. The porter began by saying no, but then fell prey to the charm of her smile and the fifty-franc bill she held out to him, folded in half and nipped between two fingers. All the while she barely took her eyes off the briefcase, which she had put down on the made-up bunk.

When the porter returned a good while later, only her reading light was on and the young woman was almost naked. A towel worn turban-fashion was tied low on her forehead, while her body was covered by another, rather large towel pulled tight below her armpits, leaving her shoulders and arms bare and falling to her heels like an African woman’s pagne. The porter placed the food on the little table, uncorked one of the two bottles of champagne, and placed their silver-plated ice buckets on the floor, saying it would be best if she called for him when the second bottle needed opening. Then, after she had paid him with bills extracted from a black box-calf billfold, he swiftly withdrew.

The train had been back in motion now for about fifteen minutes, often approaching a speed of one hundred and eighty kilometers per hour. Once the porter left, the young woman turned all the lights in the compartment back on. She removed the towel from her head and her hair appeared, still very wet and streaked yellow and black. The little towel was badly soiled with black dye. Bending over the washbasin, the young woman rinsed the remaining black dye from her hair. From her large traveling bag she took a small hair dryer. Earlier she had set on the floor an American battery-powered hair-setting device designed to heat twenty rollers, and turned it on. She plugged the dryer into a socket by the washbasin and dried her hair. Thanks to a reversible chemical change, the red core of the rollers had turned black, indicating that they had reached the desired temperature and were ready for use. The young woman, blonde now, threw off the large towel, which was hindering her movements. She rolled her hair into the twenty curlers. She pulled the edge of the lowered blind aside slightly. She got a vague impression of night rushing by and of dark masses that were copses or buildings. Here and there lights could be seen in the distance. Occasionally an illuminated railroad crossing shot past, close by the train. She let the blind fall back and went to sit at the little table. She reached out and picked up the briefcase. She put it on her lap and unzipped it completely. Carefully she counted the five-hundred-franc and hundred-franc notes that it contained. From time to time she dropped one, and the tips of her breasts would brush against the money on her knees as she leant down to retrieve the fallen bill. In all, the briefcase surrendered some twenty-five or thirty thousand francs; the young woman put the notes back, rezipped the case, and placed it on the floor next to the compartment wall.

Next she lifted the cover of the hot plate, revealing a choucroute. The young woman proceeded to stuff herself with pickled cabbage, sausage, and salt pork. She chewed with great chomps, fast and noisily. Juices dripped from the edge of her mouth. Sometimes a strand of sauerkraut would slip from her fork or from her mouth and fall to the floor or attach itself to her lower lip or her chin. The young woman’s teeth were visible as she chewed because her lips were drawn back. She drank champagne. She finished the first bottle in short order. As she was opening the second, she pricked the fleshy part of a thumb with the wire fastening, and a tiny pearl of scarlet blood appeared. She guffawed, for she was already drunk, and sucked on her thumb and swallowed the blood.

She went on eating and drinking and progressively lost control of herself. She leaned over, still chewing, and opened the briefcase and pulled out fistfuls of banknotes and rubbed them against her sweat-streaked belly and against her breasts and her armpits and between her legs and behind her knees. Tears rolled down her cheeks even as she shook with silent laughter and kept masticating. She bent over to sniff the lukewarm choucroute, and she rubbed banknotes against her lips and teeth and raised her glass and dipped the tip of her nose in the champagne. And here in this luxury compartment of this luxury train her nostrils were assailed at once by the luxurious scent of the champagne and the foul odor of the filthy banknotes and the foul odor of the choucroute, which smelt like piss and sperm.

Nevertheless, when the young woman arrived in Bléville at eight o’clock that morning, she had retrieved all of her customary self-assurance.

8

Over the next three weeks Aimée got into a routine. Accompanied by Maître Lindquist, she viewed several properties that were for sale in Bléville and the surrounding area. Each time she wavered, but was so charming that the realtor could not hold her rejections against her; on the contrary, he was more and more willing to humor her every whim.

Aimée’s life was well ordered and well filled. She took tea in the morning, lunched on grilled meat at the Grand Café de l’Anglais, and had eggs or soup for dinner. The moment seemed far off when she would once more crave a choucroute. (Her weight had dropped to forty-five kilos. it was always like that when she was focused.) In the daytime she mingled with the local elite and made connections. Twice a week she went horseback riding at a country club, three times a week she played tennis. She also golfed, and on Friday nights she went to the casino, where she gambled very little. Twice a week, too, she honed her martial-arts skills at the Jules Ferry center, a place where the elite were never to be seen. (She familiarized herself with the nunchaku, a weapon hitherto unknown to her.) And she became well known to the well-to-do of Bléville, and they to her. She observed their manners and customs, and especially the tensions and passions that existed amongst them; she observed them ceaselessly, attentively, patiently.

In the evenings, in her studio apartment, she made notes or added to earlier ones on record cards of some kind. She wrote with a small green fountain pen with a gold nib, using violet ink, and she moved her lips as she wrote. Returning after a game of bridge or a long conversation with the voluble Christiane Moutet, she would write such things as: Sonia Lorque had a foul life before she met Lorque. Mixture of gratitude and love. A solid couple, more solid than either thinks. Or else she might write: They say that L and L controls the construction business Géraud and Sons, which built the fish market. No competitive bids invited.

When she finished writing, she would reread her notes several times before tidying them away in one of the drawers of the chest.

During the third week after Aimée’s arrival in Bléville, the young woman left town briefly. She took the train one evening, arrived in Paris before midnight, changed stations by taxi, and caught another train. She had her slim attaché case and a large Delsey vanity case she had bought in Bléville. She had not reserved a seat on the train, but there were few travelers at that time of year, and she easily managed to find a comfortable spot.

About five thirty in the morning her train stopped for three minutes in a small town in the center of France. Aimée got off, walked out of the long gray railway station, crossed the Place de la Gare, and awoke the night man at the Grand Hôtel du Commerce et des Étrangers. At this time she was wearing a flowered dress beneath her coat and an opulent auburn wig. She took a room, awaking automatically at eight thirty as she had intended. She had rather good command of her body. At an earlier stage of her life she had been alienated from it in many ways. In particular, she could not get to sleep without a strong dose of barbiturates, nor wake up properly without a strong dose of stimulants, nor for that matter put up with her husband and the rest of her existence without quantities of appetite suppressants and tranquilizers, not to mention glasses of wine. But these days all that had changed. Aimée had control over her body; she had fallen asleep instantly and she woke up at the time of her choosing.

She showered, put her wig back on, and picked up the room phone. Croissants and hot chocolate were brought up to her. She ate heartily. Her demeanor had changed. A little later, smoking a menthol cigarette, she telephoned her financial adviser. “Madame Souabe, what a marvelous surprise!” cried Maître Queuille when they met at the hotel for an aperitif and dinner together. “You haven’t changed at all, how wonderful!”

“Nor have you, Roland,” replied Aimée.

They talked business. They examined operating accounts and extracts from the land registry. Aimée gave the accountant sixty thousand francs that she had brought with her.

“Always cash! Highly suspect, I must say,” joked Maître Queuille without malice.

He wrote out a receipt. He remarked that his sister had spent the month of September in England with her husband. The couple had not, however, been lucky enough to see Aimée on British television. The adviser asked Aimée, whom he continued to address as Madame Souabe, whether she had any thoughts of returning to France and finding work here. Aimée answered that she had grown accustomed to living and working in England.

“Well, of course,” said Maître Queuille. He only half believed that this young woman was an actress in Great Britain, as she claimed, and he was even less convinced that she appeared in television commercials. Maître Queuille had a lively, prurient imagination. He rather suspected that his client was in fact a call girl.

A while later Aimée and the adviser exchanged smiles and parted company. Aimée ran a few errands, then boarded a Chausson country bus. During the eighteen-kilometer ride, she browsed through a local newspaper. For quite some time now she had stopped buying the Paris papers. But in this local sheet she suddenly came upon the information she had searched for in vain in the national press two or three weeks earlier. DEADLY HUNTING read the headline of a short piece on a bloody accident in which the father of a family was killed and his two sons wounded. This, concluded the article, brings to a total of six the number of victims of hunting accidents since the beginning of the month. On the 2nd, M. Morin and M. Cardan shot each other in the vicinity of Saint-Bonnet-Tronçais (Allier). Two days later came the sad news from eastern France that M. François Roucart, a stock breeder, had been killed by a hunter not only inept but as yet unidentified. Are we heading for a time when hunting is more lethal to humans than to game? It is a fair question.

Aimée kept the paper when she got off the coach in a village of two or three hundred souls. She walked through the village and started up a rock-strewn path angling up a hillside. The sky was gray and stormy. Aimée covered some four or five hundred meters. She kept wrenching her ankles on the rocks. She was sweating, even though the temperature was no more than eight or nine degrees above freezing and she was hardly well bundled up.

She entered a hamlet at the edge of a wood of oak and beech. Pushing open a small metal door she came into the sandy courtyard of a stone house. Lichen and moss covered the walls. The doorway to the house was open. Aimée stood on the threshold and looked around the main room with its dark-purple tiled floor. In the half darkness she could make out a stove, a heavy table covered with an oilcloth, and a large bed piled high with eiderdowns and adorned with shiny copper fittings. a plate, a glass, silverware, and a saucepan were drying by the sink on a draining board of blackish stone.

Aimée turned around. From the doorway she looked down over the vegetable garden that sloped away from the house beyond the sandy courtyard. Down in the valley the village could be seen beneath the gray sky, and fat white cows grazed in garishly green fields. Truck farms bordered a river. In the middle of the vegetable garden sat a woman in a straw hat, her back to the house. Aimée went down the three front steps and approached her.

“Mama?”

The woman did not react. Aimée went around the chair and stood in front of her. The mother started, then closed her mouth and pursed her lips. She was a woman of about sixty, frail, with white hair pulled back and a pale puffy face with heavy eyelids. Her eyes narrowed. She was wearing a black cotton apron quadrilled by faint white pinstripes, a black woolen shawl, slate-gray cotton socks rumpled up at her ankles, and men’s black shoes. She had positioned herself between a row of potatoes and a lettuce patch.

“Don’t you have your hearing aid?” asked Aimée, articulating slowly so that the woman could lip-read the syllables; and when no reply, no reaction was forthcoming, she shouted, “Where is your gizmo, for God’s sake?”

“I don’t know,” answered the mother. “Don’t swear. So you came to pay me a visit. You scared me.”

“I came by to settle some things up,” said Aimée, calmer now. “I’ve told Maître Queuille to increase your monthly payment. You shouldn’t stay here alone…you should get someone to be with you. I’ve told you before.”

“Yes,” said the mother. Aimée delved in her bag. “I brought you some tobacco and a present.” She handed the mother some packages of shag and a parcel tied with a ribbon. The mother slowly unwrapped the parcel and extracted a mauve cotton blouse with a motif of tiny white flowers. She held it up before her with both hands, shaking it slightly to unfold it. Then she refolded it distractedly, put it on her knees, and placed her hands over it.

“It’s very pretty,” she said, staring down into the valley.

Aimée nibbled at the side of her thumb without realizing it. She went back around the chair and stood still for a moment behind her mother’s back.

“You bitch!” she said. “I hate you. God, I wish you would die!”

“Are you doing all right?” asked the mother. “What about your job? Your husband?”

She did not turn to see whether Aimée replied.

“In a little while,” she went on, “the Father will be coming over. I’ll make coffee. You could stay if you like and drink coffee with us.”

“I have to leave,” said Aimée.

She turned away and headed for the sandy courtyard and the little metal door.

“But,” said the mother, “perhaps you have to leave.”

Aimée reached Paris just as day was breaking. With time to kill before the Bléville train departed, she went for a walk. Near the Place du Châtelet, she was accosted by a broad-shouldered man in a chiné overcoat; his wavy hair glistened with hairspray. He followed her for a while. She accepted a light from him.

“Wouldn’t you like to have a drink somewhere?” asked the man. “We can go to my place.”

With her cigarette between her fingers, Aimée threw her head back and laughed.

“Why, you little devil!” said the man, quite pleased.

He grabbed Aimée’s wrist with one hand, her waist with the other, and tried to kiss her on the neck. Aimée pulled away and took a step backwards, then swiftly came forward again and slapped the man. He reddened and reciprocated.

“So that’s it, you filthy lesbo!” he cried.

For a few moments the two kept on slapping each other across the face. Then Aimée grew calm. Taking a very rapid half step back, she struck the man just under the nose with the side of her hand. He reeled back, staggered, and fell to the ground on his rear. He was pressing both hands to his snout.

“Oo! Oo!” he kept crying. “Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!”

His eyes were filling with tears. Aimée walked away.

In the Rue de Rivoli she took a taxi, retrieved her bags from the left-luggage office, and changed stations. There were still two long hours to wait before her train left, and she spent them in a brasserie. Then at last she was on her way back to Bléville.



*Bléville is, literally, Wheatville, but blé in a slang sense means money. The town’s name is thus something like Doughville.—Trans.

Contributor

Jean-Patrick Manchette, translated from the French by Donald Nicholson-Smith

JEAN-PATRICK MANCHETTE was a French crime novelist, screenwriter, critic and translator. His novels Three to Kill and The Prone Gunman are also available in English.
Donald Nicholson-Smith has translated work by Guy Debord, Paco Ignacio Taibo II, Henri Lefebvre, Antonin Artaud and Guillaume Apollinaire.

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