Fred Vargas

Wash This Blood Clean from My Hand

The fourth book in the Commissaire Adamsberg series, 2007

English translation copyright © 2007 Sian Reynolds

To my twin sister, Jo Vargas

Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood

Clean from my hand?

Macbeth, II.ii


LEANING HIS SHOULDER AGAINST THE DARK BASEMENT WALL, Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg stood contemplating the enormous central heating boiler which had suddenly stopped working, two days before. On a Saturday, October 4, when the outside temperature had dropped to one degree Celsius, as cold air had arrived from the Arctic. The commissaire knew nothing about heating systems, and was examining the silent tank and pipework, in the hope that his benign gaze would either restore the boiler’s energy or perhaps conjure up the engineer, who was supposed to be there but hadn’t turned up.

Not that he felt the cold, nor was he distressed by the situation. On the contrary, the idea that the north wind should sometimes come funnelling down from the polar ice cap to the streets of the 13th arrondissement of Paris gave him the sensation that he was only one step away from the frozen wastes, that he could walk across them and dig a hole to hunt seals, if he felt like it. He had put on a pullover under his black jacket, and if it was up to him, he would have waited patiently for the repairman to come, while watching for the whiskers of a seal to pop up out of the ice.

But in its own way, the powerful heating system down in the basement was a full-time participant in the handling of the cases that poured in all day long to the Paris Serious Crime Squad, as it conveyed its warmth to the thirty-four radiators and twenty-eight police officers in the building. The said officers were at present shivering with cold, huddled into anoraks and crowding round the coffee machine, warming their gloved hands on the white beakers. Or else they had simply left the building for one of the nearby bars. Their files were consequently frozen solid too. Important files, dealing with violent crimes. But the boiler wasn’t concerned with all that. It was simply waiting, in lordly and tyrannical fashion, for the man with the magic touch to arrive and kneel in front of it. So as a gesture of goodwill, Adamsberg had gone downstairs to pay it brief and unsuccessful homage, and in particular to find a quiet dark place where he could escape from the complaints of his colleagues.

Their curses at the cold, since the inside temperature was, after all, about 10 degrees, did not augur well for the vote on the proposed DNA profiling course in Quebec, where the autumn was turning out severe – minus 4 yesterday in Ottawa, and it was already snowing in places. They were being offered two weeks’ full-time study of genetic imprints, using saliva, blood, sweat, tears, urine and other excretions, now captured on electronic circuits, classified and broken down. All body fluids had become battleground weapons in criminology. A week before the planned departure date, Adamsberg’s thoughts had already taken off towards the Canadian forests, which he had been told were immense and dotted with millions of lakes. His second-in-command, Capitaine Danglard, had reminded him crossly that they would be staring at computer screens, not gazing out over lakes. Danglard had been angry with him for a year now. Adamsberg knew why, and was waiting patiently for the grumbling to subside.

Danglard was not dreaming about lakes, but praying every day that some urgent case would keep the entire squad back home. For weeks he had been imagining his imminent death, as the plane blew up over the Atlantic. But since the heating engineer had failed to arrive, he had cheered up somewhat. He was hoping that the unforeseen breakdown of the boiler and the sudden cold snap would put paid to the absurd idea of travelling to Canada’s icy wastes.

Adamsberg put his hand on the tank and smiled. Would Danglard have been capable of scuppering the boiler, since he was well aware that it would spread alarm and despondency? And then making sure that the technician didn’t turn up? Yes, Danglard would have been quite capable of that. His fluid intelligence could slip into the narrowest mechanisms of the human mind. As long as the mechanisms were those of reason and logic. And it was precisely along that watershed, between reason and instinct, that Adamsberg and his deputy so diametrically differed, and had done for years.

The commissaire went back up the spiral staircase and crossed the large room on the ground floor where people were walking about slowly, heavy shapes bundled up in extra sweaters and scarves. Nobody knew quite why, but they called this the Council Chamber, presumably, Adamsberg thought, because of the full-scale meetings and consultations that took place there. Alongside it was the similarly named Chapter Room, where smaller gatherings were held. Where the names came from, Adamsberg did not know, but probably from Danglard, whose encyclopedic knowledge seemed to him sometimes to be unlimited, and almost toxic. The capitaine was capable of sudden outbursts of information, as frequent as they were uncontrollable, rather like the snorting of a horse. It could take a trifle – an unusual word, an imperfectly formulated idea – for him to launch into an erudite and not always well-timed lecture, which could be stopped by a warning gesture.

Shaking his head, Adamsberg communicated to the faces that looked up as he passed that the boiler was still showing no signs of life. He walked into Danglard’s office. His deputy was finishing off various urgent reports with a gloomy air, just in case the disastrous expedition to Labrador went ahead as planned, although of course he would never reach Canada, on account of the mid-Atlantic explosion, caused by the fire in the left-hand engine, which would have been knocked out by a flock of starlings. The prospect gave him a cast-iron excuse for opening a bottle of white wine before six o’clock. Adamsberg perched on a corner of his desk.

‘Where are we in the D’Hernoncourt case, Danglard?’

‘All sewn up. The old baron has confessed. Full confession, crystal clear.’

‘Too crystal clear by half,’ said Adamsberg, pushing the report aside and picking up the newspaper which was lying neatly folded on the desk. ‘A family dinner turns into a bloodbath, and we have an old man who stumbles and stutters and can’t express himself. Then all at once, he starts expressing himself with absolute clarity. No light and shade. No, Danglard, I’m not signing that.’

Adamsberg noisily turned over a page of the newspaper.

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ asked Danglard.

‘Go back to the beginning. The baron’s stringing us along. He’s protecting someone, his daughter, I would guess.’

‘And you think the daughter would let her father take the rap?’

Adamsberg turned over another page of the paper. Danglard disliked the commissaire reading the newspaper he had just bought. He would give it back to him all crumpled and out of order, and then it wouldn’t go back into shape properly.

‘It has been known,’ Adamsberg answered. ‘Aristocratic traditions, or more likely, a reduced sentence for an old man in poor health. I’m just saying we don’t have any light and shade here, and it’s not credible. His change of

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