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Authors: Nicolas Freeling

The King of the Rainy Country

BOOK: The King of the Rainy Country
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Nicolas Freeling

The King of the Rainy Country

Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 1

Van der Valk woke up. His mind was filled with confusion and there was a nasty taste in his mouth, like cheap Spanish brandy. Had he fallen asleep after drinking too much? In an overheated room with no window open? It felt like that. He had had horrible dreams too. And these blankets – he had thrashed about, got all wound up. Obnoxious tangle; he gave a great kick and was astonished; nothing happened. Was he still dreaming? – surely he was not still asleep. It seemed his foot was. Something was wrong: he told his leg to kick but the leg refused. The whole leg seemed to be asleep, from the hip downwards; the brandy tasted vile – where had he drunk that? He must still be dreaming because he remembered things about the dream, and it had something to do with Biarritz. Ha, a holiday in Biarritz – bit dear for the likes of him. Nice idea though – neither he nor Arlette had ever seen the Atlantic coast.

It wasn't a nice idea.

Ham though, he had had bread with raw ham. Not Biarritz but something else beginning with a B. Bayonne, Bayonne; he felt triumphant at remembering. And his dream had had something to do with war. The Spanish border – the river Bidassoa. Soult crossed the Bidassoa, going north. Soult was not much of a general, but then neither was Wellington, who took five years to win a campaign in which every single thing was on his side. Soult was good at moving men but not much good at a fight. He would have to show Soult how to fight.

Stop dreaming and wake up. Well, move an arm. He moved an arm, and the hand touched something very funny. A sort of coarse grass. And a stone, and it felt stony under his head too. He wasn't
in bed at all; he had been drunk and fallen asleep on the hill under the hot sun. He could smell the sun; baked grass and thyme. He suddenly recalled, then, a most important thing. He had been shot.

He was a soldier in Soult's army, that was it, and that tripe-hound Soult had left him here to die on the hillside; he knew it was a hillside, for his head was quite a lot lower than his heels were. Poor heels: poor head. He had been shot, and when one got shot in Soult's army one stayed on the hillside and died, because there weren't any ambulances. Full of self-pity, he cursed. ‘Now' – dramatic tears were pouring out of his eyes – ‘I'm going to die on some godawful hillside somewhere. I don't even know if it's France or Spain, and my bones will be found by Portuguese plasterers gaining illegal entry to the Republic, and they won't be in the least interested. Going to die, and not even had a shot at the enemy. That romantic imbecile Robert Jordan could say goodbye to his girl and get all nicely propped up with a machine-gun and everything to pop at the Navarrese cavalry, and I have nowt. That's it, that's what happens in books. This isn't a book; this is real.' Weeping with self-pity he reeled off again to sleep. The brandy was fearfully strong; the hillside spun round, and round, and round.

When he woke up again there was a face that had not belonged to the dream. A round, youngish, muscular face, very French, with crewcut hair and rimless glasses. He moved his eyes; a white rolled-up shirtsleeve and a brown arm. Thin delicate fingers were squirting the airbubble out of a hypodermic syringe; the needle turned in the air with a drop on the end of it and pointed itself at him.

‘Who are you?'

‘Be a good boy and forget about Marshal Soult, will you?'

‘Where is he?'

‘Dead a hundred and twenty years; we're almost getting to remember him with affection. I'm going to put you to sleep now.' He turned his eye with difficulty past the hand as it dipped out of sight. He was right enough about the hillside. On it stood a faded grey Citroen ‘two-horse' and a Peugeot 404 station wagon with a
cross painted on it. Yes, Marshal Soult had not known about Peugeot station wagons; what on earth was he doing in this company? The round young face with the glasses came back suddenly.

‘I am like the king of a rainy country,' Van der Valk told him. ‘Rich, and impotent. Young, and very old.'

‘Really? Dear dear, you've been too long in the sun, we get you off Marshal Soult and the first thing you do is quote Baudelaire at us. There there, all gone, all these people. Sleepy-bye.'

*

Next time he remembered waking, though he knew there had been other times, in between, it was better. No bells of Bicêtre, no Soult. Arlette, his wife, instead, her hair wild and tatty-looking, unusually blonde and held back with a white bandeau, so that it almost looked as though they had been on holiday in Biarritz after all. He made a big effort to remember. Arlette … Napoleon's marshals.

‘My poor boy,' she said to him in French. He thought there might have been a blank again, after that, for when he looked again there was the youngish man again with the crewcut alongside Arlette, grinning down at him. Things began to slip into place; he remembered he was supposed to be a detective and felt better.

‘I've seen you before.'

‘That's right. Out on the hill. Marshal Soult, remember?' laughing heartily.

‘But who the hell are you?'

‘I'm Doctor Capdouze. At your service. I will explain. Very briefly, and you won't understand half of it anyway, but that doesn't matter. You got shot. A man heard the shot and was curious about it, because there isn't much round here one shoots with a big rifle. He found you, which was just as well. Being an innocent chap who does his best he gave you some brandy, which bloody near killed you, and ran to get me; I'm the village doctor, ha, of St Jean. We brought you away and you're not going to die this time; you've had several litres of blood belonging to Arabs
and black men and lord knows who. You're in Biarritz, in a nice clinic, ha, not the clink, though there are some policemen who want to talk to you. Don't worry, I won't let them in yet. You are perfectly all right. In case you can't recall you are Inspector Van der Valk of the Amsterdam Police and this is your wife Arlette. I have no idea what you were doing on the hill, but I can answer for it that you are now surrounded by modern post-operative care, social security, nuns, me, Professor Gachassin who is your surgeon, and your wife who is a remarkably nice woman even if she does come from Provence. O.K.? Nothing more to worry about; you're going to go on catching up with your sleep.'

Van der Valk slept.

*

Arlette did not talk about the rifle-shot, but he stitched information together. He had been shot somewhere near the right hip, with a highspeed Mauser cartridge – whee, that was a whacking great thing, ten-seventy-five millimetre; he had been awfully lucky. It had hit him at a range of about three hundred metres, sideways and downhill; that had saved his life, because the shooter had not known how tricky it is to sight downhill. The bullet had perforated an intestine, luckily just missed the big artery, touched his spine, bust his pelvis, and popped out somewhere in his buttock, leaving a great deal of havoc. He would stay paralysed quite a while, but they didn't think permanently. Doctor Capdouze was red hot, doctors just didn't come any better; all the local people agreed on that. This Professor Gachassin was a big authority from Toulouse, and he had sworn that within a year Van der Valk would be walking again. There would be a long long time, with lots of books and lots of remedial exercises.

‘We'll get him up on skis,' they had said. Arlette had suspected that this was talk to cheer her up, but was beginning to feel hopeful. She thought the idea of skis would amuse him and give him something to fight for.

He didn't much like the idea, though he did not tell her that. He
had remembered the whole story, by now. Skis came into it. Too much.

As soon as he felt lucid he had himself asked for the police. They turned out to be an elderly commissaire in a grey suit with a scrap of red cord in the lapel, with short grey hair, who smoked cigarettes in defiance of the nurses. He was about fifty, brown and sun-dried as a Smyrna fig.

‘Lira, commissaire. How are you?'

‘I'm fine: seems there's a hole in my arse you could drive a truck through. Give me one of those cigarettes.'

‘Hell, boy, you're not allowed to smoke.'

‘Neither are you, here.'

Mr Lira wasted no time arguing. He put a cigarette in his mouth, lit it, removed it with a scarred brown hand, and put it very neatly and delicately in Van der Valk's mouth where it wiggled as he talked. From time to time the French policeman took it out with equal delicacy and tipped the ash into the fresh air outside the open window, along with his own. Each time he had a trip of a dozen steps, which he made without irritation, as though he were accustomed to taking trouble over tiny pedestrian things. Which, of course, he was.

‘I understand that you went after a maniac with a rifle for me, and I'm very grateful, because it might otherwise have been me lying there. Strasbourg, though, can't understand why the two of you came haring down here. What was the point? Just to get over the border?'

‘There's a man called Canisius, business man. He was here. He went into Spain to look at houses he owns. He was coming back a little later. The idea was to pop him. Going into the hills was with a suicide idea, I thought. That's why I followed. Was I right?' Lira nodded.

‘We knew nothing, of course. Only that there was someone up on that hill with a rifle, who could use it, too. We strung boys out with guns, we got a mental doctor from Hendaye, and a loudhailer. Useless. We went up when we heard the shot. Toe job. No head
left at that range. I have to make a report for the parquet. I can't make head or tail of the story I got from Strasbourg; you know the story, it seems. If you can just tell me what you know. Anything that looks good on a report.'

‘Nothing I know ever looks good on a report.'

‘I can see,' said Mr Lira with no smile at all, hardly, ‘that policemen are much the same where you come from as where I come from.'

‘I'll tell you,' said Van der Valk. ‘It's easy really. And now, there's nothing to hurry for. I can't right now. Have to think a bit first. I'm bloody tired. Can you come tomorrow?'

‘Yes.'

‘Bring me some cigarettes. I can hide them. People keep bringing me flowers.'

Mr Lira threw two cigarette-ends out of the window and stood looking down at him.

‘Boy, did you have a narrow squeak – when you're better we'll drink to that. I'll bring you cigarettes.'

‘Bugger off now,' faintly.

A nurse came banging in very suddenly, the way they do, stopped dead and sniffed.

‘Smoking by god. Policemen … like a pair of silly kids.'

‘Sister,' said Mr Lira quietly, ‘did you know there's a defective rear light on your little Simca? Get it fixed, there's a good girl.'

*

Van der Valk spent twenty-four hours between waking and sleeping, thinking. This was the end of the story that had started ‘Once upon a time, in a rainy country, there was a king …' The end had not happened in a rainy country, but on a bone-dry Spanish hillside, three hundred metres from where Van der Valk had left a lot of blood, some splintered bone, a few fragments of gut, and a ten-seventy-five Mauser rifle bullet. Only a few more hundred metres away was the spot where Junot had crossed the Bidassoa, going south, where seven years later Soult had crossed, going north, where a hundred and fifty years later the last of the marshals had
waited for a Dutch business man called Canisius to stop his car at the border, lying with a rifle in a patch of scrub.

*

Van der Valk had been in his office in Amsterdam, minding, mostly, his own business, when Mr Canisius was announced on the phone from the concierge's office downstairs.

‘Wants to talk to someone in authority, he says.'

‘What's he look like?'

‘Sort of a rich guy. His coat's got a fur collar!' The policeman at the reception desk had closed his glass partition and could not be heard in the passage. Not that Mr Canisius was trying to listen; he was contemplating his beautifully polished black shoes and looking bored.

BOOK: The King of the Rainy Country
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