The public prosecutor was standing by the bed in his nightshirt, his wife looking up at him in surprise. He was cold all over, but especially his feet: he had got up so abruptly, he hadn’t found his slippers.
‘Who is this?’ he said into the receiver.
He frowned at the answer and repeated for his wife’s benefit:
‘Loursat? Is that you, Hector?’
Intrigued, his wife pushed back the blanket and reached out a long, excessively white arm to the other earpiece.
‘What did you say?’
Maître Loursat, Madame Rogissart’s first cousin, calmly announced:
‘I’ve just found a stranger in my house. In a bed on the second floor. He was dying when I got there. You’re going to have to deal with it, Gérard. I’m really sorry. I think he might have been murdered.’
When the prosecutor hung up, Laurence Rogissart, who hated her cousin, said:
‘He’s drunk again!’
And yet that evening, everything had appeared to be in its place, especially as it was raining, which added to the general feeling of stagnation. It was the first cold rain of the season, which meant that, apart from a few loving couples, the cinema in Rue d’Allier hadn’t had any patrons. The box-office lady was all the more furious at being stuck inside her glass cage for no reason, freezing as she watched the raindrops falling past the globe-shaped lights.
Moulins was the Moulins of early October. In the various hotels – the Hôtel de Paris, the Dauphin, the Allier – commercial travellers ate from fixed-price menus, served by girls in black dresses, black stockings and white aprons. Every now and again, a car passed in the street, on the way to somewhere: Nevers, Clermont, perhaps even Paris.
The shops were all shut, and the rain fell on their signs: the huge red hat at Bluchet’s, Tellier’s giant stopwatch, the gold horse’s head over the horse-meat butcher’s.
The whistle heard behind the houses was the local train from Montluçon, with barely ten passengers on board. At the Prefecture, a dinner was being held for about twenty: the monthly dinner, regularly attended by the same guests.
Most shutters were closed, and there weren’t many people at lighted windows. What few footsteps there were in the maze of rain-slicked streets were furtive, almost ashamed.
Standing at the corner of a street filled with notaries and lawyers, the house of the Loursats – the Loursat de Saint-Marcs, to be precise – appeared even drowsier, even more secretive than the others, with its wings, its paved courtyard separated from the street by a high wall, and in this courtyard, in the middle of an empty ornamental pond, an Apollo that no longer spat water through the tube sticking out of his mouth.
In the dining room on the first floor, Hector Loursat sat with his stooped back to the fireplace, in which lumps of coal were burning on a grate, giving off yellowish smoke.
He had bags under his eyes, pretty much as on any other evening, and his eyes themselves were watery, making his gaze vague and disturbing.
The table was round, the tablecloth white. Facing Loursat, his daughter Nicole ate with calm, glum concentration.
Neither spoke. Loursat was a messy eater, bent over his plate as if to graze, chewing noisily, sighing occasionally with boredom or fatigue.
When he had finished with one dish, he pushed back his chair a little in order to make space for his belly and waited.
It was so obvious that he was waiting, it became a signal for Nicole to turn slightly towards the maid, who was standing by the wall.
At this, the maid opened a hatch and shouted into the dumb waiter:
Downstairs, deep in the grey kitchen, which was vaulted like a chapel, a thin, ugly little woman eating at the end of a table stood up, took a dish from the oven and slid it into the dumb waiter.
As always happened, after a few metres the mechanism stalled: something had jammed, and the operation had to be restarted several times until by some miracle the maid, waiting upstairs, saw the expected food arrive at last.
The chimney didn’t draw. The house was full of things that either didn’t work or worked badly.
They were all aware of it.