Monsieur Pamplemousse and the French Solution

BOOK: Monsieur Pamplemousse and the French Solution
7.18Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Monsieur Pamplemousse and the French Solution



Monsieur Pamplemousse and the French Solution



The moment Monsieur Pamplemousse placed his ID card against a brass plate set in the wall outside
Le Guide
’s headquarters and nothing happened, he knew it was going to be ‘one of those days’.

By rights, there should have been a discreet buzz, followed by a faint click as a small oak door let into one of a much larger pair swung open on its well-oiled hinges, thus allowing free passage to any member of staff wishing to enter the august premises on foot. Instead of which … what happened? Nothing!

He tried repeating the process, this time holding the card in place rather longer than before, but again to no avail.

Looking, if possible, even more upset than his master, Pommes Frites lowered himself gently onto
the cold pavement, stared at the offending piece of metal as though daring it to misbehave for a third time, then raised his head and gave vent to a loud howl.

To anyone close by, the mournful tone would have said it all, but it was lunchtime and the rue Fabert was deserted. That being so, and having decided knocking on the door would be a waste of both time and knuckles, Monsieur Pamplemousse applied a shoulder to it.

For all the effect it had, he might have been paying a surprise visit to Fort Knox with a view to enquiring how things were going with their gold reserves. There was what the powers that be might have called a negative response.

Nursing his right shoulder, the very same shoulder that had performed yeoman service whenever called upon to act as a battering ram during his years with the Paris Sûreté, he had to admit he found the situation extremely annoying.

He wouldn’t have minded quite so much had he not received a message from the Director summoning him back to headquarters
tout de suite

His first thought had been ‘Not again!’ followed in quick succession by ‘What is it this time?’ and ‘If it’s
important, why isn’t he using the word “
Le Guide
’s standard code word for use in an emergency?’

He had spent most of the journey turning it over in his mind. The last time he had received such a
summons had been when they were called in to offer advice on a possible terrorist attack on the food chain. It had all been very Hush Hush.

Once again, no reason had been given, but by comparison, the latest message –
– was positively verbose. Although it imparted a sense of urgency, the use of the word ‘Please’ – not a word that normally figured large in Monsieur Leclercq’s vocabulary – was unusual to say the least. It struck a personal note.

It was not as though he had wasted any time getting there. Setting off from Rodez in the
at a ridiculously early hour, he had driven the 600 kilometres to Paris almost non-stop. He hadn’t even been home, but instead headed straight for the office.

To arrive and find they were locked out was akin to arriving at a theatre all set for an evening’s entertainment, only to discover it was the wrong night. Both were equally dispiriting.

An even more frustrating aspect of the whole affair was that it had meant cutting short his current tour of duty. On the principle of saving the best until last, he had been looking forward to rounding it off in the small town of Laguiole, home to both the eponymous cutlery firm and the equally renowned restaurant Bras, famous for the patron’s wondrous ways with the flora of the region.

Anticipating a brief stop at the former to do some
Christmas shopping for his wife, he had pictured heading up the Puech du Suquet, a small mountain just outside the town, arriving at the futuristic restaurant perched like a space capsule on its launch pad at the very top, in good time for lunch.

Overlooking the vast Aubrac plateau, there was very little in the way of natural growth that didn’t find its way into Monsieur Bras’s kitchen sooner or later. Wild herbs, fennel, sorrel, celeriac, coriander, garlic, all were grist to his mill.

It was the kind of gastronomic experience that made the time spent away from home, driving for hours on end and putting up in strange hotels, abundantly worthwhile.

Given that it was near the end of October and the hotel and its restaurant would soon be closing down for the winter months, the chance wouldn’t come his way again until next March at the earliest, if then.

In all probability, anonymity being one of the keywords of
Le Guide
, he would find himself assigned to a very different part of France. Word travelled fast and it didn’t do to become too well known in any one area.

His Cupillard Rième watch showed almost 12.45. Even now he might be tucking in to what Michel Bras called his
– a warm salad of over twenty young vegetables, each separately steamed before being brought together in total harmony. The ingredients varied with the season of course, and no two days were alike, but they were always as fresh as
they could possibly be. However, there was no point in dwelling on it.

He stared the massive oak doors. What now? He couldn’t even make use of his mobile phone. The battery had gone flat halfway through his tour and he had left his charger at home.

Security at
Le Guide
’s offices in the 16
of Paris was a serious matter at the best of times, but especially so during the latter part of the year. Staff were almost wholly engaged in the mammoth task of collating reports and information concerning some ten thousand or so hotels and restaurants across the length and breadth of
; afterwards checking and rechecking, first the galleys, then the page proofs and finally the guide itself.

In the months leading up to spring publication, secrecy was paramount. Anyone caught breaking the rule ran the risk of instant dismissal.

All the same, totally denying him entry seemed to be carrying things a little too far.

Wondering if, as occasionally happened with plastic cards, continuous use, or even long periods spent in juxtaposition with each other, had brought about a failure of the magnetic strip, he was about to reach for his handkerchief in the forlorn hope that a quick rub might do the trick when, to his surprise, the door in front of him swung open.

Pommes Frites immediately froze as they found themselves confronted by a man in uniform; a
uniform, moreover, emblazoned with an alien emblem:
, a well-known security company. To complete the picture, he was wearing the kind of reflective sunglasses beloved of American traffic police.

‘Looking for something, bud?’

,’ replied Monsieur Pamplemousse.


Monsieur Pamplemousse held up his card. ‘I happen to work here.’

The man reached out and took it from him.


‘Pamplemousse.’ Given that his name was clearly embossed in thick black letters alongside his photograph, it seemed a somewhat pointless exercise. He was hardly likely to risk making up a false one.

‘Grapefruit, huh?’

He felt rather than saw the other’s eyes boring into his as comparisons between the image on the card and the real thing were made. For a brief moment, as the man held it up to the light, turning it first one way and then another, Monsieur Pamplemousse derived a certain vicarious pleasure in picturing a holographic effect coming into play. Ideally, in his mind’s eye it would be the sticking out of a tongue. However, no such luck.

The man’s face remained utterly impassive as he turned away, withdrew a mobile from his hip pocket and held a brief conversation.

‘OK this time,’ he said, grudgingly holding the door open. ‘But you better go get an update on your card.
It needs eyeball identification installed. You can get it done in back of reception.’

Feeling his hackles rise, Monsieur Pamplemousse stared at his reflection in the man’s sunglasses for a full ten seconds, long enough for his eyeballs to be permanently embedded in the other’s memory. Comparisons with attempting to enter Fort Knox were clearly not so wide of the mark after all.

Signalling Pommes Frites to follow on, he retrieved his card and passed through the opening, wondering as he did so if his friend and mentor would receive similar treatment. One glance was sufficient. Pommes Frites’ tail was standing bolt upright – a warning sign if ever there was one, and it proved more than sufficient.

Monsieur Pamplemousse thought he detected the security guard mouthing the words
trottoir royale

At least, despite the phoney American accent and the glasses, it meant he was sufficiently well versed in the French language to know the slang phrase for mongrel. He hoped for the man’s sake his friend and mentor hadn’t registered it. He was sensitive to such things.

Fearing the worst, he glanced back over his shoulder.

Normally the most docile of creatures, Pommes Frites was rooted to the spot, staring up the guard as though daring him to make a move.

Rather than call out, Monsieur Pamplemousse gave a brief whistle through his teeth and immediately
regretted it as a series of high-pitched bleeps came from inside one of his jacket pockets.

The man from
heard it too and beckoned. ‘Hey, you … let me see that.’

Noting the other’s hesitation, he added: ‘You wanna go on in or don’t you?’

With a show of reluctance, Monsieur Pamplemousse retraced his steps, feeling inside the pocket for the offending object attached to his keyring. It went against the grain to afford the man any kind of pleasure, on the other hand he wouldn’t be sorry to see the back of it.

A birthday present from Pommes Frites, it had turned out to be more trouble than it was worth, reacting as it did to all manner of sounds: ice cubes being emptied into a glass before going to bed at night, the playing of accordions on the Metro, and on one never to be forgotten occasion, during a violin solo at a concert. He still went hot and cold at the thought. Squeaking doors were another hazard; the oven door in their own apartment never failed to trigger it off. Doucette was always complaing about it.

It seemed a golden opportunity; one too good to miss.

The guard held out his hand. ‘Gimme.’

‘You are absolutely right,’ said Monsieur Pamplemousse. ‘I congratulate you on your powers of observation.’

Wondering if he hadn’t perhaps laid it on a bit
too thick, he was about to remove the alarm when he heard a deep-throated rumble from somewhere nearby. Looking down, he realised it was coming from Pommes Frites His top lip had somehow curled itself upwards into the distinct shape of a letter S, revealing a row of incisors, snow-white and razor sharp from much gnawing of bones over the years.

‘Are you sure you want it?’ he asked.

‘Forget it!’ With a show of considerable ill grace, the security guard turned on his heels, unlocked the door to the tiny office just inside the gate, and disappeared from view, slamming it shut behind him.

Old Rambaud, the gatekeeper, must either be ill or on leave, for he was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps the new man was a temporary replacement.

Monsieur Pamplemousse sincerely hoped so. Looking at the state of Rambaud’s window box, the sooner he came back to work the better.

The second thing that struck him as he led the way across the inner courtyard was that the fountain in the middle wasn’t working. Apart from the annual spring clean, the only occasion he could remember that happening was when some joker introduced a piranha fish to the pool, nearly frightening a young secretary to death one lunchtime when she dangled a hand in the water while eating her sandwiches.

The next thing to catch his attention was the fact that the Director’s top of the range black Citroën was missing from its normal parking place outside
the private entrance to his quarters. In its place, occupying about a tenth of the space, short, squat and looking for all the world like a child’s toy, stood a tiny Smart car.

It was something else unheard of. The Director’s parking space was sacrosanct. No other member of staff would normally dare to make use of it.

Unless … he dismissed the thought. Even if the Director was on one of his periodic economy drives, it was inconceivable that the car belonged to him. The Citroën was his pride and joy; a status symbol, it would be the last thing to go. The Smart car wasn’t even properly positioned. Monsieur Leclercq was a stickler for things being in their correct place, particularly when it came to parking.

As he drew near, he also registered the fact that someone had sprayed the words
in black paint across the car’s rear window. Protesting against autoroute charges was one thing, but there was no excuse for spraying such a crudely impractical message on another person’s car. It was an act of sheer vandalism.

Quickening his pace, he headed up the steps leading to the main entrance, steadying the
revolving doors momentarily with one hand in case Pommes Frites’ tail, now waving to and fro in anticipation of better times ahead, jammed the mechanism as they passed through.

There was an unfamiliar girl on duty in reception and her greeting struck him as being perfunctory to
say the least. She seemed to be making a point of
asking to see his pass. The question of registering his eyeballs didn’t arise.

That again, was unusual. In Monsieur Leclercq’s book, the first person a visitor came into contact with, whether by phone or in the flesh, was often the one who left a lasting impression. Staff were expected to behave accordingly.

Hesitating by the row of lifts, none of which happened to be at ground level, he decided to use the stairs instead, partly because he felt stiff after the long drive, but also to give himself time to marshal his thoughts.

To say the air was awash with undercurrents was putting it mildly. There was a feeling of anarchy in the air. If the inscription on the back of the car was anything to go by, it was no wonder security had been tightened.

BOOK: Monsieur Pamplemousse and the French Solution
7.18Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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