(The copy in this email is used by permission, from an uncorrected advanced proof. In quoting from this book for reviews or any other purpose, it is essential that the final printed book be referred to, since the author may make changes on these proofs before the book goes to press. This book will be available in bookstores December 2022.)
The Hôtel Picardie stands on a gentle rise of land a few kilometers outside the small town of Dinon-sur-Authie. It is a crumbling confection of slate-roofed turrets and tall chimney stacks, and, inside, forgotten rooms and staircases that end in blank walls, the result of changes to its innards that have been made over the centuries. The east wing has been closed off, the once-graceful lawns and walled formal gardens are neglected, the ornamental maze is overgrown, the moat silted, and the only guests in these days of German occupation—if "guests" is the word for them—are Major Egon Wolff, Feldkommandant of the Dinon region, and his aide, who have taken up long-term residence, and other servants of the German Reich whose duties bring them to Dinon from time to time.
Long before the Picardie became a hotel it was the ancestral seat of the Ducs de Dinon. The last of the line was Henri, whose life-size portrait still holds pride of place beside the great stone fireplace in the main lobby. Here he stands in his powdered wig and silver-buckled high-heeled shoes, as arrogant as any pre-Revolution nobleman could be.
Henri made the mistake of being unpopular, so when times changed, he was dragged from his bed by his peasants and packed off to Paris for a rendezvous with Madame la Guillotine. Legend has it that when his severed head—no powdered wig that morning—was plucked from the basket and raised aloft for the crowd, the eyes blinked and swiveled, perhaps in search of the rest of him. The mouth worked as if to speak but no sound emerged. The head was dumped back in the basket, the cackling tricoteuses returned to their clicking needles. And that was the end of Henri.
There are other tales. On some nights, it is said, a ghostly figure can be seen wandering through the wild grounds, lost among the twists and turns of the old maze. The forlorn figure is not Duc Henri; it is the shade of a friar, Henri's confessor, who had come to know too much and was tortured to death in a secret dungeon somewhere beneath the building. Unlike the duke, the friar is said to be audible in death, praying and weeping by turns as he drifts past.
"Foolish tales from long ago," says Max Duval, owner of the Picardie, when talk among the old-timers in the bar turns to such legends. "This is 1941, not 1789, and it's not Robespierre's Terror we have to worry about. I have neither time nor inclination to bother with ghosts and ghouls. I have enough to do to keep the Picardie from falling to bits around my ears—not to mention keeping our German guests happy. These tales, they're all nonsense. Drink up, my friends. Whose round is it?"
For Max is also mayor of the township and commune of Dinon-sur-Authie; and a mayor must be a practical man, a man of good sense.
But the curious fact is that the more Max dismisses the Picardie's foolish legends, the more doggedly do the good souls of Dinon cling to the tales of Duc Henri and his ghostly friar as though they are gospel truth.
Which suits Max just fine.
On this sweltering June night, the Picardie is in almost total darkness. A single feeble bulb illuminates the main staircase. Although the light is too dim to reach anywhere else, blackout blinds are in place on every window.
Max is standing at one of the tall windows in the lobby. He will not get to bed tonight.
All is quiet but for the occasional creak of the Picardie's timbers cooling from the heat of the day. The plumbing, to which Max is ever attentive, has been silent for a good hour and more, meaning that upstairs, on the two upper floors, Major Egon Wolff and his aide are snugly asleep in their respective rooms. Both men dined well this evening on chef Bruno's boeuf bourguignon. Max kept their wine glasses well charged.
Afterwards Bruno helped him clear the dining room.
"I'll stay here tonight if you like," offered Bruno, a great hulk of a man, his bushy moustache yellowed by cigarette smoke.
Max shook his head and crated the empty wine bottles. "No need. Go home. Nothing I can't handle on my own."
"Even if there are three of them? You said three."
"I can manage."
Now Max peels back an edge of the blackout blind just enough to allow him to watch the night outside.
Behind him Duc Henri gleams dimly in the shadows.
* * *