Excerpt

No Room at the Morgue

Jean Patrick Manchette
translated by Alyson Waters

The following is an exclusive excerpt from the re-release of the classic French crime novel No Room at the Morgue, by Jean-Patrick Manchette. The novel marks the return of his PI, Eugene Tarpon, in a thrilling murder investigation

We took the Toronado that was waiting on the muddy path, a short distance from the garden that had gone to seed.

The driver had had the keys on him, and now I had them.

I asked the girl what she’d done with her car and she told me she’d left it in a parking lot before getting in touch with her fun pals. She didn’t say where. I didn’t push the matter. I started the car in a hurry because I had no desire to hang around. Far away or not, the neighbors were going to wind up calling the emergency services, the three individuals dying to free Palestine could get it in their heads to come back here, and God knows what else. The Toronado went down the dirt path and then we came to a local road. I asked Memphis if she knew where we were. She did. She directed me. I was driving clumsily because the automatic gearbox confused me. Nevertheless, we managed to find ourselves on Highway 14 and I headed toward Pontoise and Paris.

What interested Memphis Charles the most in the car was the pack of Marlboros and the cigarette lighter she found, the former in the glove compartment, the latter on the dashboard. She quickly lit up and made as if to pass the cigarette to me. I said smoking causes cancer and she didn’t insist. She didn’t even laugh in my face; she must really have been down in the dumps.

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What interested me the most was the radiotelephone in the armrest. I was waiting for it to ring. It didn’t ring, and the kilometers flew by. The road was almost empty. We passed a few trucks and saw a few more dotting the side of the road here and there in the night.

I turned on the radio to try to get some news and came across a frightening cacophony. I wanted to change stations but the girl told me to leave it, that it was Chick Corya or Gorya, who knows, on the synthesizer, so I left it but that did nothing to calm my nerves.

“When we get to Paris,” I said when Mr. Chick had finished synthesizing chaos, “we’re going straight to the police, right? You sure?”

“What else can I do?”

“I don’t know. I don’t like it. You shouldn’t have hightailed it in the first place.”

“You know I won’t implicate you,” she said. “I’ll tell them I made a mistake.”

“The other night, when I was drunk, you told me you had a motive.”

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“Let’s not bring it up.”

“Yes, let’s.  Did you have a motive to kill Griselda Zapata?” She lit a third cigarette with the butt of the second. “The little bitch stole a good role from me in Daddy

Longdick. Okay, it’s just a little crime story, but Borniol-Vilmorin is directing it. Well,  I guess  now he’s going to have to find someone else for the part.”

By the time she explained to me that Daddy Longdick was a book and that Borniol-Vilmorin was a director who was about to explode on the scene (I startled), we’d arrived at a roadside bar. I almost totaled the car because there’s no engine braking on an automatic; nevertheless, I managed to glide the Toronado into the gravel parking lot, between the hedge and a Fruehauf trailer as big as a house. From the street, the car couldn’t be seen.

“What are you doing?” the girl asked.

“I’m going to eat an entire ox if they have one,” I said, and I got out of the Toronado.

They didn’t have an entire ox. I consoled myself with four stale sandwiches, two Carlsbergs, a slice of fruitcake, and three cups of coffee. From time to time truck drivers would come in, order an espresso, listen to Mozart arranged for accordion and choir on the jukebox, and leave. The local drunk was sitting at one end of the counter.

“Youth!” he cried. “If it comes to get me, I won’t give it any advice. I’ll give it a knife. A knife!” he repeated at the top of his lungs, waving his fist.

“That’s enough, Gallibet,” the owner said from behind the bar.

Gallibet continued his grumbling, but his words grew less distinct. Meanwhile, the girl and I were sitting at a Formica table under a bawdy calendar distributed by the Champion candle company, and I was still stuffing myself full, she was drinking a glass of milk, and we were whispering.

“That’s not a motive,” I said.

“You don’t get it. Griselda would have killed to get out of porn and into something else.”

“But you didn’t need that.”

“Me? Sadly, I’m a stunt girl. And because there are only two or three stunt girls in Paris, I get lots of work, sure, but I’m always the motorcycle murderer who drives o/ the side of the road or else I’m the star’s double in a car accident.

That’s not a career.” “You want a career?”

“Listen, Tarpon,” she said. “I left home at sixteen. I was starving. Now I eat but I don’t know if I’ll still be eating next month. It’s not a life. I want dough.”

“Do you think the cops will believe that’s a motive?”

“I have no idea and I don’t give a damn. I don’t have a choice, do I? If I don’t go to the cops, where will I go?”

I finished my third cup of coffee.

“You could check into a good hotel and wait a couple of days,” I said. “Just enough time for me to bone up on the question. There are a few things I’d like to clear up, and you might not need to go to the police afterwards.”

She looked at me. She was on her sixth cigarette in thirty- five minutes. She asked me if I thought I was Sam Spade, and once again she had to explain to me that he was a character in a novel.

“I’m in the hands of a provincial ex-gendarme who is a total philistine,” she commented.

“If you’d rather be in the hands of the cops . . .”

“Every hotel owner is a police informant,” she interrupted, pedantically. “As soon as I went out somewhere, the guy would be on the phone mobilizing law enforcement.”

“You’re an actress,” I said. “Looking like someone else is your job.”

She thought for a moment. She moved her tongue across her lip. A lovely lip. Suddenly, she didn’t seem tired anymore. She seemed excited.

“Let’s go back to the car,” she said.

I paid with the dead guy’s money and we went back to the car. The girl hopped in the back seat and got out her makeup stu/, everything the late Carbone had taken and that I’d retrieved from his body.

“Don’t peek,” she ordered. “I want you to see the end result and tell me if it shocks you.”

I sat back in my seat. I played with the radiotelephone. It still wasn’t ringing. There was a flat box next to the instrument, with a series of buttons and a lined index card slid beneath a plastic sheet. The whole thing was laid out so that each button corresponded to a line on the index card. I got a sudden impulse. I picked up the phone, listened to a strange dial tone, and pushed the first button.

The dial started to spin by itself. I hung up immediately.

The spinning stopped. I smiled for the first time in a while. I took the notecard out and picked up a minuscule gold ballpoint attached to the side of the radiophone. Then I picked up the receiver and pressed the first button. The dial began to spin and I began to write. When I heard ringing on the other end of the nonexistent line, I’d written down seven numbers.

I let the phone ring for a long time, but no one answered. I hung up, then picked up the receiver again and began the routine with the second button on the gadget. I wrote down the second number. This time, someone answered. More precisely, the receiver began to broadcast a Strauss waltz in my ear, and a young woman’s perverse, prerecorded voice told me over Strauss to hold the line, to be patient, that I had reached the Hilton. Okay. I had nothing to say to reception at the Hilton. I hung up and started again with the third button. Nothing happened. The dial didn’t budge. Same for the other buttons (there were six in all). Four were worthless. One gave me the Hilton. One gave me a number that no one answered. Let’s say that one was the number of the Mercedes. Let’s say that the crying man was staying at the Hilton. It made sense. I turned back toward Memphis Charles to tell her I was pleased with myself, if not the rea- sons for my satisfaction, and nothing came out of my mouth.

“Good God,” I said after a moment.

“Really?” she asked, and I had another shock because her voice had changed too. It was the squeaky voice of a prudish old maid.

“Your clothes don’t go with that at all,” I stated. “They’ll have to do for tonight.”

True enough. She climbed back into the front seat to sit next to me. I started the car. I couldn’t help throwing sideways glances her way. She had a bun and looked nearsighted. She had completely destroyed her eyelashes and redrawn her eyebrows. Her mouth had nothing sensuous about it anymore. And her posture was awful. Her shoulders were sti/ but her lower back slumped and her belly poked out. Her face was slightly shiny. She looked ugly, and knowing that in reality she wasn’t had a strange effect on me, some kind of tingling in my neck and along my ribs.

“Wait until tomorrow,” she said. “You  ain’t  seen nothing yet.”

We bypassed Pontoise and sped toward Paris. We were on the ring road before 3:00 a.m. and at 3:15 I parked the Toronado on a street in the suburb of Montrouge. When I got out of the car, I looked at the license plate. It wasn’t the same as the day before.

We walked to the Porte d’Orléans. On the way, I tossed the late Carbone’s Ruger into a storm drain. A taxi took us to Montparnasse. We continued south on foot via rue René Mouchotte. In the rather seedy neighborhood that stretches out at the end of that street and that’s in the process of, or destined for, demolition because of the construction of the new stretch of rue Vercingétorix, I found the kind of hotel I was looking for, not quite decent but not a total dive. I stopped ten meters from the entrance.

“I have to go up with you,” I said. “It’ll seem more natural since you don’t have any luggage. Besides, I could use a wash. And the cops are probably waiting at my place, seeing as I was kidnapped in a sense.”

She nodded without a peep.

“I hope you’re not imagining anything else,” I added. She didn’t laugh in my face. How sweet of her.

She simply said okay and started walking again. We went into the hotel where a grumpy, alcoholic night watchman barely looked at us as he gave us a key and cards to fill out.

There was no way to take a bath at that hour, but at least the room had a shower. Everything else about it was sordid. Memphis Charles let herself fall onto the bed.

“Geez! I’m wiped,” she stated.

“Go to sleep,” I said. “I’ll take my shower and leave. I’ll call you tomorrow at noon, I mean, today at noon.”

“Hmm.”

I was already behind the curtain. I hung my clothes on the edge of the stall and showered. There was no soap, but I scrubbed myself for a long time. I was trying to think. I dried myself o/, badly, and put my dirty clothes back on. I left the shower. I still had a few questions to ask the kid, but she’d fallen asleep with her clothes on exactly where she’d col- lapsed, in the middle of a double bed. I said to myself I had nowhere to go. If I went to Haymann’s, I’d have to explain myself for hours, and I’d had enough, I needed to sleep. I pushed the kid to one side and she grumbled a bit but didn’t wake up. I covered her with the quilt. Before I got into bed, I took the time to wash my shirt and socks.

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