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Massif Central, France, February 2003
Dominique slipped the two wooden stakes under her arm and zipped her standard issue waterproof jacket up to the neck.    It was still winter cold.    Wet now, although the snow remained thick on distant volcanic peaks.    She pushed off up the track through the trees.    Pine needles lay thick in the mud, the smell of them filling damp air.    A powerful, bitter scent of decay, like the smell of death that awaited her at the end of her climb.    She felt the chill anticipation of it in her bones.

Beyond the treeline the hill rose steeply.    The little track, bounded by a crumbling dry stone wall, followed its ragged contour, before turning sharply to circumvent a stand of dark trees. There it rose again towards the summit where the hill flattened out and stretched away into the misted distance of the high plateau.

Dominique stopped at the turn, and looking back was surprised at how far she had climbed.    She stood, breathless, for a moment, and saw the blue flashing light of her van at the foot of the track, and the string of parked vehicles that snaked up the narrow road beyond it towards the auberge.    She saw a group of tiny figures clustered on the road, an upturned parabole beaming its signal to the gods of some edit suite in Paris where its images would be dissected for ease of digestion, along with some well-chosen soundbites. A great story! A tragedy! A shock aperitif for prurient consumers of the evening news all over France.

Wearily the young gendarme turned to face the last few hundred meters of her climb, and as she neared the summit saw, at last, the old ruined stone buron breaking the horizon. It was hard to believe now that such a place had once been inhabited. But only in summer, with the beasts feeding on the great banks of wild flowers and sweet grasses that blanketed the plateau.    And maybe then, with its soft estival winds, and its unbroken views across the roof of France, it was a good place to be.    An escape from the world below. A sense of elevation. Of godliness.

But today clouds sat low on the peak, drizzling their misery on the world, losing distance in grey mist.    And Dominique saw two figures in dark, shiny waterproofs, huddled in the shelter of the wet stone, one sitting on broken rocks, bent over, head in hands.    The other stood by the opening that led to the shadowed interior of the buron. Its stone roof appeared almost intact, crumbling lauzes that kept out the light but let in the rain, supporting a chimney that had not felt the heat of a fire in years.    A second, more dilapidated roof, rose at an angle above it, shelter for the animals when the weather closed in.

The standing figure stepped forward to shake Dominique’s hand. A familiar face. He was a big man, broad as well as tall, but diminished somehow by grief.    His dark blue béret was pulled down low on a furrowed brow, from beneath which grim eyes met hers.

Dominique glanced at the seated figure, and saw the torment in the woman’s briefly upturned face, before it fell back again into black despair. The merest of acknowledgments, but no shake of the hand. The gendarme turned back to the man.
“Show me.”

He nodded and bowed his head to duck beneath the lintel and she followed him into the darkness beyond.    Their shadows fell across a mud floor where water lay in pools, reflecting broken light from the doorway. A mess of footprints pitted the mud. Dominique unclipped the flashlight from her belt and let its beam wander back through the dark until it found the twisted figure of a man in a tracksuit half-lying in a pool of rainwater turned red by his own blood.    She felt a short, sharp, involuntary intake of breath briefly inflate her chest.    Ten years in the gendarmerie this was her first murder. And while she had, in that time, pulled horribly mutilated corpses from car wrecks, nothing had quite prepared her for looking into the dead, staring eyes of a man whose face was known in every household in France. A face marred by a single bullet wound in the dead centre of his forehead. The bullet had passed straight through. She saw the white, grey mess of brain streaked among his bloodied hair, and in the mud, and felt her stomach heave.    She let her eyes follow the beam of her flashlight around the body, just barely in control. She heard the quiver in her own voice. “No gun?”


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