In this series, we invite our Crime Cymru authors to showcase an excerpt from one of their books. This week, Sally Spedding talks of her journey as a writer and gives us a taste of Fin Du Monde, the thrilling last book in her Delphine Rougier series.
Since the year 1999, having won an International short story competition with ‘Magnum Opus,’ a fairly autobiographical account of working in an underground mushroom farm up north, I was approached by a London literary agent who in turn helped my first two chillers, ‘Wringland’ (set on the haunted Fens) and ‘Cloven’ (set in Wales and rural Northamptonshire) to be published by PanMacmillan.
Eighteen books later, having been ‘round the publishing block’ with much joy but also inevitable disappointments, comes ‘Fin du Monde.’ The last in the plucky, dogged Delphine Rougier series where she’s re-located from the Sarthe to the Pyrenees with her newly-promoted husband Alonso Diaz – a senior gendarme – who also becomes ensnared by her risky and controversial past which is no longer hidden. A past which for some people, doesn’t deserve a future.
Who will live and who will die?
We first meet her while out shopping on a blustery morning in early November 2010, when suddenly her mobile rings. Its brief, chilling message leaving her stunned. A stone from her past has been rolled back, but why? And by whom?
Warning. Not for the faint-hearted, so keep the light on! And huge thanks to Dave Lewis, writer, poet and publisher (Publish&Print) who, in that rough and treacherous sea of sharks, threw me a lifebelt. Also, to Crime Cymru, particularly Chris Lloyd, Judith Barrow and Thorne Moore for their interest and support. Diolch!
EXCERPT FROM ‘FIN DU MONDE.’
THE LAST OF DELPHINE ROUGIER’S INVESTIGATIONS
by SALLY SPEDDING
Dedicated to my inspiring, late parents, Dulcie Ena Richards Wolff and David Salomon Wolff, who, together with his sister, my late aunt, Katilie Sally Wolff, also loved France.
‘Le monde a commencé sans l’homme et il s’achevera sans lui.’
Orne-les-Bains. Saturday 6th November 2010. 11:00 hrs.
A wet, wind-blown morning, and twenty-seven-year-old Lieutenant Delphine Françoise Diaz, née Rougier, orphaned since 12th September, and six weeks later, married to Lieutenant-Colonel Alonso Diaz, also of the Villedieu gendarmerie, is buffeted this way and that while wheeling her Carrefour supermarket trolley containing three full carrier bags towards her beloved old turquoise 2CV. A still reliable relic, it represents too much of the past to be exchanged for something new, particularly since losing François Rougier, her widowed father buried too far away in those Sarthe flatlands. A unique character who’d survived the murder of his wife only to sacrifice his own to that same brutality. Yet whose Inquest last month had disappointingly added nothing new.
As for Rose Dampier, another equally selfless benefactor who, without warning, had drowned herself in that same department’s main river, her generous legacy, combined with that from Delphine’s own father, had not only paid for a spacious new home, but also left enough money over to secure the future.
Once a former lycée run by nuns, Delphine and Alonso re-named the house La Maison d’Espoir for a new and hope-filled beginning. Already converted by the previous owner to a commodious family home, it was also conveniently close to this attractive spa town nestling beneath Mount Canigou in the Pyrenees and the equally beautiful Plȃteau de Sault. A friendly, bustling hub not only for holidaymakers, but also those needing therapies and cures for the downsides of modern life.
Rihanna’s recently installed ‘We found love’ is way too loud, nevertheless, Delphine stops to press this new phone close to her ear. The wind roaring eastwards from between those nearby Pyrenean peaks, stings her eyes and mouth so that while listening, she feels weirdly disabled. It’s impossible to tell if this oddly androgynous voice is male or female, as other shoppers hurry by, oblivious to her increasingly anxious frown.
“Whore, bitch, slag!” It snarls. “There will be justice. Mark my words. Your next cursed foetus will also die. My promise. Never forget. Your undoing is what you deserve.”
Call ended, without a number to redial.
Your next cursed foetus? Jésu…
For a mind-numbing moment, Delphine fails to grasp its meaning. Then she does. Who apart from herself and Alonso could have guessed or even known she was pregnant for a third time? Who, for God’s sake? There’d been no identifiable accent to that chilling, warning voice. It could have been anyone. Young or old. Male or female…
Nausea creeps up her throat, while the names of possible ‘perps’ both past and present flow into her mind like a toxic high tide. Twenty-year-old Marcelle Perron, for a start, serving a life sentence in Fresnes prison? Or Patrick Gauffroi, free to roam from there since his unexpected release in August? Even Émile Dampier, her late benefactor’s resentful, adult son and only child, wherever he might be? Although his mother and her bank manager had sworn he’d never know, perhaps somehow he might have found out. Maybe too, that amoral and still-vanished Sandrine Doucet, originally from Réunion? The murdered Maurice’s sly sister and Hervé Courbet’s former lover. Or even someone present at that lovely Soirée in the Foix Commissariat at the beginning of last month.
“Think,” Delphine urges herself out loud. “For God’s sake!”
But she can’t. Not with bile lurking in her throat and two so-far missed periods.That wintry blast eroding her weakening defences… Then she recalls her loose-mouthed doctor in Labradelle. But he’d died of a stroke a month ago. Also, Jean-Marie Longeau, that duplicitous former reporter with Le Maine Express, who’d apparently left Spain for New York.
“Who are you, sicko?” She yells to the wind as her trolley suddenly swings round to buffet her legs. “Or haven’t you the guts to tell me?”
Sunday 27th March 2011. 18:00 hrs.
‘Your next cursed foetus will also die…’
Delphine cautiously climbed down from the step-ladder she’d used while painting the door to what would soon be their expected baby daughter’s nursery. For some reason, even after almost five months, each step seemed to re-deliver that vile phone message which had cut to the bone. Her secret shame reduced to those third and fourth words. And still she wondered who on earth had not only made that call, but also known her new Blackberry’s number?
Easier said than done, because all those people who’d also attended her and Alonso’s wedding in Orne-les-Bains, had – for convenience – needed to know it. That friendly priest, who’d married them in the local church, for a start. All certainly ignorant of her present condition. These included both her and Alonso’s new boss, Chef d’Escadron Jordi Sanchez plus colleagues from his gendarmerie in Villedieu. Also, InspectorAnna Lavour and Manuel Prades from Foix’s Commissariat, and the newly-retired Armand Grouillet who’d left that popular spa town for Paris. Never mind several representatives of local businesses
But how could she be so sure? And what about other contacts from her recent and not-so-recent past? Crucially, who now might help trace that verbal poison? And who could she trust with knowing about her desperate, early termination in Le Mans on Monday 29thAugust 2005? Certainly not Alonso, who almost five years later, had left her hospital bedside just before her sudden, very early miscarriage of Colonel Valon’s barely-formed foetus. Neither he nor her dead boss would ever know, but that was another date she’d never forget. Like painful bruises they spread over her conscience incrementally day by day, and in less than a month, she’d be twenty-eight.
As for tracing that vile phone call, she’d already thought of tech-whizz Thierry Nugent. Both her and Alonso’s former colleague at the Labradelle gendarmerie who, despite briefly and foolishly colluding with that late psychopath Athène Lardin, had since proved a loyal ally. Now a Telecommunications expert at the very same ‘École de la Gendamerie Nationale’ she’d attended in the Corrèze, he’d surely settled in, and perhaps for a decent fee, might trace that sick caller’s source.
Definitely worth a try, she told herself, especially after so many weeks had passed, and with added resolve, re-folded that ladder before placing it against the nearest wall.
Her first day’s maternity leave from the Villedieu gendarmerie had, unlike that horrible Saturday in early November, been uneventful. She’d made a fish casserole – Alonso’s favourite supper – then ordered two more maternity shift dresses from a local shop plus several other items of clothing for herself and also their unborn baby. A tiny, but perfectly-formed girl, according to the scan Delphine had requested only a week ago, in case it might have shown insurmountable problems. Especially given the crazy past few months of moving into La Maison d’Espoir, never mind not only housing the grateful Catalan-born Pueblo Navarro, whose life she’d helped save in Montaillou a year ago, but also paying for his full set of dentures after he’d lost all his teeth. Plus giving Juanita, his new donkey, a peaceful home. All this apart from Alonso starting his new but nevertheless rewarding job, while she, although shortly to bringing a new life into the world, was missing both her murdered parents terribly.
Delphine suddenly gripped her taut, swollen stomach having felt a noticeable shifting of their daughter’s position inside it. Then kicking, which lasted several minutes preventing her from going to clean the paintbrush she’d been using.
Alonso, just back from the gendarmerie, and looking more than warm in his Lieutenant-Colonel’s uniform, must have heard her.
“What’s up?” He frowned, taking the stairs to the nursery two at a time. “Are you OK?”
“I’m fine, “she lied to reassure him. “Just glad that painting job’s all done. So, don’t worry.”
“I’ll try not to.”
He then glanced approvingly at the smart, pale pink door and matching cot.
“It’s looking good,” he grinned. “Clever you.” Then seemed to realise her discomfort had worsened by the way she suddenly bent over, bringing an even louder cry of pain.
“Damn, that one hurt!” she murmured, breaking away to curl up in the comfortable wicker chair by the window. “She’s on her way, Alonso. I just know it.”
An hour later, in the Hôpital Saint Cyprien’s warm, busy neo-natal ward of around twenty other pregnant women, mostly young and French, Delphine watched as a clearly anxious Alonso – spared a night shift at Villedieu gendarmerie – fetched her an espresso from a nearby machine. His identical wedding ring, glinting like hers, under the lights. That first sip tasted like Heaven, after they’d both watched her latest, hypnotically awesome scan.
It had seemed surreal, but Delphine’s joy was soon replaced by a secret, deepening regret for what she’d done at that miserable Arc-en-Ciel Clinic in Le Mans almost six years ago. Something neither Alonso nor Patrick Gauffroi – who’d have been a first-time father – must ever know. A former jailbird from Fresnes who so far, despite that brief sighting near Orne-les-Bains last September,wasstill untraceable. Not even the local Mairie or any bank held a record of his existence. Wherever he’d holed up, had most likely been paid for by cash, to make tracing him all the harder. Also, with water and electricity maybe illegally accessed.
“Everything will be fine,” Alonso’s reassurance broke into her thoughts. “That scan shows our girl’s looking good, and you’re in excellent hands.” He then removed her empty coffee carton and shifted his chair closer.
“Let’s hope so.” Delphine forced a smile, yet still thinking of that same afternoon when thunder and lightning had for a moment, plunged that already bleak Clinic into total darkness. More a kind of Hell, not remotely like its name, meaning ‘rainbow.’ Whereas here, having undergone blood tests and the rest, she’d been reassured that their daughter – not officially due until June 6th – was indeed doing well. However, there must have been a sudden, significant re-adjustment in vitro to have triggered such recent pain.
“Thankfully, the umbilical cord hasn’t wound around her neck. That was our main concern.” Giovanni Bedetti, the middle-aged obstetrician with a strong Italian accent and accompanying whiff of ‘Antarctic’ aftershave, reassured them both. “And her head has just engaged, so best you both stay here in case she makes an early entrance.”
Delphine smiled her relief, while reaching for Alonso’s hand, knowing he’d be a brilliant father, despite his baby having only one grandparent. As for her name, while en route to the hospital, they’d agreed to honour Delphine’s own mother and also – after some discussion – Emilie – her maternal grandmother. For forgiveness. Delphine had also considered Giselle – the first name of Serge Valon’s own mother, whose silver brooch featuring an angel she’d still kept safe, but Alonso had disagreed.
“Her middle name was Delphine, remember? Blindfolded then shot by the Gestapo. Could still be unlucky.”
Deep down, she’d thought so, too, then rebuked herself for having overlooked her late, incredibly generous benefactor.
Rose Irène Emilie…
“All will be well,” Alonso bent over to kiss her. Still in his uniform, he smelt of ‘Lynx’ and perspiration. “Pueblo’s promised he’ll teach her to ride Juanita as soon as she can.”
Just to imagine it, brought not only a smile, but also nervousness. Of course, she’d consulted various websites and watched the whole process of childbirth on several other sites, however, it wasn’t the thought of physical pain bringing fresh fear, but something else. Two people she thought had long faded from her consciousness.
Her former boss, Lieutenant-Colonel Serge Valon and his secretary, Béatrice Melin. Aka ‘Maritime’ for her dangerous, undercover phone-tapping deeds.
Mon Dieu. How on earth could she have forgotten?
Both lovers had recently gone missing at sea. Or had they?
But that same treacherous, incoming tide of memories, also delivered other names she’d rather forget until drowsiness overtook her, accompanied by re-living that first meeting with Pueblo Navarro in Montaillou. How he was lucky to still be alive, having arrived almost a month ago to share their new homewith a younger, larger donkey than his Ana had been. Another placid, loyal friend whom he could observe from his self-contained flatlet overlooking her rear paddock. He regularly kept watch not only for her, but also anything and anyone remotely suspicious. While Juanita had become a reassuring presence to them all, standing by her padlocked gate, near the street, braying loudly should anyone linger there too long.
Delphine opened her eyes to notice Alonso checking his watch. Although his shift in the Villedieu gendarmerie had officially ended, he was, like others, still on call should anything serious crop up.
“Touch wood,” he smiled as if reading her thoughts then gave her another kiss. “And by the way, Jordi Sanchez sends you his best wishes. I’ve just updated him, and he’s ordered me to stay here with you. So,” he acknowledged the stocky, black nurse who’d arrived to take his wife’s blood pressure. Her badge bearing the name Basma Kassouri. “No worries.”
Just seeing that first name revived the horrors of when she, Delphine had worked as a chambermaid at ‘Les Palmiers’ commercial hotel near Le Mans and made that shocking discovery in one of its bathrooms. Basma Arouar had then been her boss, and shortly afterwards, was found hanged in her own house. Another sight never to be erased. A callous murder by someone who’d known too much of her past. Someone maybe still at large…
“He’s a good man,” Delphine managed to murmur, feeling that cold, black, rubbery snake tighten around her upper arm. Both she and Alonso were indeed fortunate, and next Autumn, when hopefully, she could resume her post as Lieutenant before the pre-Christmas tourist season began in earnest, there’d again be two full salaries. Not that they’d depend on them, but for self-esteem earned through hard work. As things stood, both legacies would, for the time being, stay in her bank account, paying for all bills on their recently renovated home, and a full-time babysitter until Rose began attending the excellent local Collège Maternelle. Then there’d be plenty to help secure her future. Whatever that might be. Even support a sibling, should that arise.
“And how’s Ludo?” Delphine then asked Alonso, changing the subject. Their boss’s dog they’d helped rescue too long ago, which still felt like yesterday.
“Apparently, his lady friend’s expecting puppies next month. And I know what you’re thinking…”
“A dog might be very useful. My parents always had one.”
She’d thought of Julie, their last, a loyal, friendly collie, deliberately strangled, before being mown down in the lane nearby. Then snapped back to the present as that same nurse carefully unwound the sphygnanomometer before giving Delphine a gentle pat.
“Normal,” she announced. “So nothing to worry about.”
“By the way, what did you mean by saying ‘let’s hope so?” Alonso checked his watch, then watched Basma Kassouri draw the blinds on a suddenly sombre sky outside, before leaving.
“I know we’ve got Pueblo, but just supposing Patrick Gauffroi…”
“Look,’ he broke in. “Just forget him. Easy for me to say, but he wouldn’t dare risk his freedom again. I’m telling you…Just one week in Fresnes sorts out even the worst criminals. OK?”
Delphine turned away, closing her eyes, recalling that late September afternoon when they’d last seen him walking so close to the town. She also smelled cooked beef coming from the nearby open door, making her feel queasy.
With that same nurse gone, her phone began to ring. She listened intently, anticipating another weirdo while an even more heavily pregnant older woman was being wheeled into the ward and helped on to the empty bed opposite.
She was right.
Androgynous weirdo number two…
“Who are you?” Delphine demanded, turning to Alonso. “Only cowards make anonymous threats like this. How did you know my number?”
“Never you mind, you piece of filth.”
Piece of filth?
Despite that stuffy ward, Delphine shivered. Could this be the same sicko who’d phoned her last November? Someone she’d so far not dared to mention? It was possible, as she realised there’d been something horribly familiar about that voice. Meanwhile, Alonso, still frowning, was trying to find the weirdo’s number.
“Any idea who it might have been?” She ventured, dreading the answer.
“No idea. Male or female, would you say?”
“Not sure. But they seem to have a real problem with me. Listen…” He lowered his voice before repeating, “Your wife is the scum of the earth who’ll rot in Hell…Get it?”
“What on earth could that mean? Think…”
Of course, in her rapidly beating heart, she knew…
Suddenly, those overhead lights were way too bright. Other voices too loud, especially that latest addition to the neo-natal ward, shouting for her partner.
The ward seemed like a locked cage with no way out.
Delphine felt faint, while Alonso had morphed into being almost a stranger. Then, with no warning, came the sharpest, most biting pain she’d ever known. Her pelvic area seemed on fire, alive with what seemed a huge, seismic shift which nothing, not even his quick response could halt.
“Help!” She screamed, “For Christ’s sake!”
“Hang on.” Alonso’s left hand rested on her forehead, while the other, pressed the loud buzzer nearby. Other heads turned their way and within seconds, she saw his chair was empty.
“Hurry!” She screamed after him. “I’m dying!”
Suddenly, what sounded like a herd of running footsteps, grew louder as they neared her bed, and before anyone reached her, came flashbacks to her former smithy in Labradelle when Rose Dampier had so suddenly vanished and drowned. Alonso earlier, pulling up his Y fronts and jeans, while she’d stood nearby, still dizzy with joy, because just then, a fulfilling and loving future together had seemed more than just possible. A necessity.
“Vite!” Shouted Dr. Luis Gomez, who’d installed her in that particular ward. “Every second counts!” His words faded as Delphine’s trolley wheels swiftly bore her away into a cooler zone she didn’t recognise. A drip of some sort stinging her left arm’s basilic vein while Alonso holding her right hand, exhorted her to relax. How everything would be alright.
“Nearly there,” he added. “Just breathe deeply and stay calm.”
The last words she heard before the morphine kicked in and a sudden, dense darkness fell.