The (Sad) Case of the Open Fly

closeup-of-cattails
 
 
By Jean Pierre Girard
Translated from the French by J. T. Townley

 

The police report couldn’t be any clearer.

The body was discovered by an elderly woman riding her bicycle early Tuesday morning.

She was having a difficult time making her way west along a rough dirt road when she noticed a garnet red, four-door Ford Granada, plate number 217R177, parked thirty or so meters from the road on a poorly maintained path next to a rundown sugar shack. Initially, she wasn’t certain about what she was seeing, as a result of the haze and eyes that aren’t what they used to be, you understand, as the report mentions. The lady believed the garnet red Ford Granada could be the old, rusted-out International that belonged to Hervé, her fourth neighbor over. Yet the closer she came, the less the Ford resembled a tractor. Hervé is prone to spells, she later said in explanation of her mistake. The poor man always leaves on his tractor but more often than not comes home on foot.

The rear passenger door was open.

The elderly lady stopped near the vehicle, then cautiously approached, shouting, Hello? Hello? No response. As she stepped closer, she observed a white man of approximately forty-five years of age lying across the backseat. He wore black-framed glasses, a gray three-piece suit with blue pinstripes, and somewhat scuffed black shoes.

His head hung out of the car. He looked ridiculous, said the lady. As if he were sleeping, she specified during the second interrogation. (At that moment, she asked for a glass of water because, it was thirstifying inside this here place. She was given a glass of fruit juice.) Both of the man’s forearms were touching the top parts of some young cattails growing out of a swomp. (Read swamp. The report mentions the swomp to remain faithful to the words of the old lady, whom the cattails seem to have marked profoundly.) The man’s fly was open, his penis out, his fists clenched, and, of course, his balls very soft. He wasn’t breathing, the elderly woman said, sighing and lowering her eyes. He was completely white. Her expression betrayed her discomfort. The whole thing worried her more than seemed normal. It smelled fishy.

The police arrived at the scene at approximately 9:37 a.m. Tuesday. The haze had dissipated.
 

*

 
No evidence of theft, rape, or violence of any sort was noted. No blood, no sperm, no note. No tissue in the abnormally clean ash tray or under the seats, no used condom in the rundown shack or underbrush, no words of love or explanation carved hastily into the bark of a birch or maple, no confession, no farewell, no cigarette butts, no wads of chewing gum, no pocketknife, nothing.

In his wallet: ninety dollars Canadian. No trace of a driver’s license, vehicle registration, or pink packet of insurance papers. The garnet red Ford Granada’s engine had stalled when it ran out of gas. Though the battery was dead, the radio had been on full-blast when the engine stopped running.

The summary findings of the medical examiner, whose professional competence no one would question, led him to conclude that the death occurred sometime between five and eight o’clock on Monday morning.
 

*

 
In one of those summary verdicts for which he’s known (and despite the fact there’s no real evidence for the time being supporting his decree), the chief of detectives maintains it was suicide by asphyxiation. Moreover, he’s convinced it took place in a rental car. (He’s on his own and knows it, but times are hard, good deals are rare, and his hopes of promotion—that little Norwegian skiff would cut valiantly through the foam with him at the helm!—would climb up a notch if he could quickly resolve “Garnet Red.” Further, the detective has been fond of peremptory declarations for a long time, finding in them, by his own admission, a kind of moral reassurance.)

Hushed tones at the station: people consider the captain’s hypotheses to be completely farfetched. They whisper: He’s really fucked up this time. They venture: How far you think he’s got his head shoved up his ass? They murmur into the ears of trusted colleagues: Anyway, who would’ve opened the rear door of the car in question, huh? Who? Who could’ve done it?

(For some time, the detective has enjoyed a reputation as a keen sleuth. Which, in fact, is blown completely out of proportion and based upon absolutely nothing. Truly: based upon nothing. He’s most dreaded—and with good reason—in his relationships with his subordinates: he’s extremely parsimonious when it comes to congratulations and recommendations for promotion. What’s more, he demonstrates an intransigence bordering on despotism toward anyone who annoys him, which allows him to avoid having any number of sterile discussions and repeating curt, dry orders. He also has—and this shouldn’t be overlooked—influential relationships with the top brass, which everyone understands tacitly, given the golfing photos hung in a pyramid on the wall of his freshly redecorated office. The message is so clear, in fact, that, prudent in the extreme, officers in the department are generally careful not to dismiss any hypothesis, especially if it originates with the captain himself. In this particular case, moreover, they don’t discuss anything pertinent for long: the investigation has just begun—anything might still come to light—so there’s no use taking risks on that front. They prefer to make conjectures about other subordinates’ hypotheses.)

As soon as the nine officers dispatched to the crime scene Tuesday morning return to the station, one of them receives the curt, dry order to make a series of calls to different car rental agencies on the outskirts of Montreal. (Montreal: another of the detective’s intuitions.) A dramatic turn of events: the captain shows off his sixth sense yet again. The vehicle originated from a small, rarely visited Budget office in the city of Anjou. (A man—presumably the same one—had rented it Saturday afternoon. Unfortunately, the man gave a false name and false address, and, worse still, paid with counterfeit bills. The case was definitely growing more complicated, but it was taking a thrilling turn for the young, justice-hungry wolves the detective bumped into at random in the classified-plastered hallways of the police station). The odometer readings between the time the car was rented and the discovery of the body suggested that the man with the open fly drove almost straight to the dirt road.

“What if the old woman herself opened the door? She wouldn’t remember having done it, what with the panic and all…”

“What about the hose? The one supposedly bringing exhaust into the vehicle? Where’s the hose? Or maybe the old lady did it? On a bicycle? Fat chance! Anyway, what motive would she have? It doesn’t add up.”

“Hello! Don’t forget the dirt road … a road everybody knows lots of people use … seriously, loads of people … How could it be that nobody noticed the vehicle in question during the day on Monday? How could that be, huh? With the radio on full-blast? You’re forgetting that, too!”

Etc.

In short, the staff is on fire with suppositions—which sometimes blithely defy the bounds of logic, but nobody dwells on it. They suspect locals may be responsible, they think it was a settling of scores, they recall a similar case that occurred years earlier, they dig through reports, they discover misplaced files (not digitized), they loosen their ties and knock back liters of instant coffee. The National Police of Quebec, Nicolet branch, midway between Montreal and Quebec City, has reached the height of reflection and excitement. (It’s here, of course, that the case goes astray, if you’ll excuse our tardiness in mentioning it; in such serious investigations, geographical location is of rather relative importance.) There’s something Epicurean about the early days of the inquiry. (In truth, they soak the station staff in a stream of enthusiasm.) Meaning the secretaries type more quickly, the officers take less time than they’re allotted for meals, a necessary sacrifice, and even the higher-ups consent to deadly boring Wednesday night meetings without dragging their heels. (What’s more, the Rio, a topless bar whose jovial young owner still maintains good relations with an old beat cop for whom he was a privileged informant—a cop who’s since bootstrapped his way up the police hierarchy—turns a good profit on some of these late meetings. Gérald Boudrias, alias Roteux, offers a two-for-one coupon special—on beer and only beer, he takes pains to clarify—on Wednesdays.) When all’s said and done, the atmosphere of the imposing machinery of justice is radically altered, and the enthusiastic spirit of the constabulary forces rains down over the whole city. You could even go so far as to say that a case such as this one, so rich and full of intrigue, is an absolute blessing for the entire region zero four.
 

*

 
The autopsy will confirm it was death by asphyxiation.

The young officers will puff out their chests, proud to serve under such a clairvoyant captain. Some of them, in veiled terms, will even let him know as much.

A man of action, the detective will revel without letting it show, but his triumph won’t last long. Because.

Everyone will be torn between the inexplicable suicide theory and the incomprehensible murder theory (no motive, no witness, no identity, no one to claim the body), and it will begin to cost the taxpayers dearly, who will luckily know nothing about it.

The general spirit of enthusiasm will take a beating.
 

*

 
The investigation will go nowhere for nineteen weeks. They’ll rely too much on certain informers, lose themselves in new hypotheses—alright, it was suicide, but how did he do it?—and think a dozen times that they’ve shed light on what will become the mystery of the year so far. (What’s more, members of other regional police forces won’t run out of more or less veiled allusions and condescending smiles for the officers of the Nicolet branch. Which will no doubt be extremely embarrassing for them.)

With other investigations to attend to and, well, summer coming to a close (his dreams of boating across Lake Saint Pierre at an end), the chief of detectives will want to limit the damage and close the file on this case.

One hopeful young woman—fresh out of the police academy nationally renowned for the quality of its recruits, who emerge from it like rabbits out of a hat—worried about making a good impression on her higher-ups (and maybe, who knows?, eager to advance rapidly along the usual path)—, will request, wait patiently for almost six months, then, just when she no longer thinks it possible, obtain official permission to pursue the investigation. (A happy turn for everyone else, since the waiting will have seriously frayed her nerves: she’ll become impatient with her coworkers, as well as with her mother at home, with whom she’ll have been living for a month and some, since it’ll seem too silly for two lonely women to live by themselves.)

After thirteen more weeks of interrogations, second-opinions on fingerprints and facts, cross-examinations of the old lady (she’ll be the first real suspect) and the owner of the rundown sugar shack (the very Hervé who’s prone to spells, which will make him an interesting suspect), in short, nine long months after the death, at the end of inquiries as unfruitful as they are costly to the State, the young go-getter won’t have discovered anything new to show as progress. (Several leads, false but worthy of interest, will come to confer a respectable originality on the tangerine cardboard folder in which the forms, statements, and other documents pertaining to the investigation are organized, but nothing in all this mound of paperwork will help predict how the case will turn out.) Furthermore, behind the scenes in the Hall of Justice, people are beginning to allude to ill fortune, a curse, the long, dark tunnel of unsolvable cases. The harshest criticisms naturally come from the youngest judges, the most recently promoted friend groups, the magistrates whose eloquence is most incantatory, the most daring legal stylists, and other mischievous types. In these circles, they’ll even go so far as to speak of complete incompetence, of useless subsidies for schools whose reputations surpass their actual output, of overhauling the system, of the ancient city of Alhambra where everyone bathed in oil, of Sweden, where they get along fine by employing revolutionary approaches—all in all, of anything, but not everything, certainly not about what it would actually be possible for this magistracy, which will remain idle from this point forward, to act upon.

Whatever the case may be, things will continue to drag on, and the chief of detectives won’t find it amusing.

Nevertheless, he’ll very much appreciate—though secretly—the manner in which the ambitious young woman will play the procedure game. He’ll even go so far as to notice—he, a happily married man for twenty-one years—a slight family resemblance in her that recalls his own hunger as a young detective.

Admiring her tenacity—and believing in her abilities—but fearing being accused of laxity by his superiors as much as nepotism by Internal Affairs and a midlife crisis by his wife, whom he loves and who gave him beautiful, honest children, on the sly he’ll allow the fresh recruit to conduct a new investigation. In a chivalric gesture that will astonish even him, he’ll take final responsibility for “Garnet Red Ford Granada.” Taking advantage of this nascent complicity with the young woman, he’ll stealthily highlight the possibilities offered by the most recent case (“The Diplomat Attack”), exploiting their mutual good feeling and luring her in with the promise of how favorably it will be regarded from on high (This one will be extremely well-regarded…) to the point that she’s rapidly resolved to take it on. (“The Diplomat Attack” will be at least as complex—if not, as some will say, more so—than “Garnet Red Ford Granada”: shameless blackmail, three perjured witnesses, two hit-and-runs, four financially motivated murders, twelve kilos of crack in the false bottom of a Greek diplomat’s attaché case, all in all, a case that will pay off. Some of the young wolves will make a show of their disappointment about being passed over for “The Diplomat Attack” in this way, but the detective, that leader of men, will know how to salvage their spirits for his own benefit.)

Despite who knows how many significant blunders, the cocky young woman will never second-guess her gut instinct. (At the Academy and after, she’d so often heard that she would learn more from her failures than her successes.) Though he’s married, the captain’s increasingly overt intimacies won’t trouble her further. (The trust he’ll prove he has in her will be a turning point in her young career. From that point on, she’ll shoot for a position as a chief of detectives, convinced she’ll one day reach her goal. She’ll face life head-on, completely unfazed, and it will open up for her. Deep down inside, she’ll be very proud of the path she’s taken.) None of which will prevent her from releasing a long sigh of relief—in the restroom—when the detective officially relieves her of “Garnet Red Ford Granada.” (This unfortunately famous case will be perceived of as a veritable oil stain on every decent road map to the future.)

Several weeks later, on the evening “The Diplomat Attack” is solved (a case closed in less than two), the proud young woman will double-park boldly outside the Nicolet branch of the Quebec Spirits Company to procure a half-liter of Veuve Cliquot, which she’ll drink somewhat reluctantly with her mother from champagne glasses purchased on sale at Stokes in the Trois-Rivières-Ouest mall barely a week earlier. (As if eight days before, the young woman—at the very moment when her career glistered with promise—had foreseen the imminent conclusion of “The Diplomat Attack.” And, by the way, as she’ll later brag to the young wolves, instinct’s how you can tell who has this job in their blood! Which will make for some hard feelings.) Even as they clink their glasses, that Thursday evening will mark exactly thirty-nine weeks, two days, nine hours, and three minutes, give or take, since the old lady found the man with the open fly in the garnet red, four-door Ford Granada.

By this time, the chief of detectives will have been sure to transfer “Garnet Red Ford Granada” to another justice department, as it so happens, to the Crimes Against Persons section of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, where—as long as serious suspicion remains that there’s a criminal angle to the case—they won’t hesitate to track the culprits for years, to the point that their confessions are written and signed.

In transferring the case to the Mounties (an astonishing act if ever there was one, knowing the captain), the detective will clearly demonstrate that he has renounced any prestige associated with the case’s eventual resolution. (This attitude, moreover, will amount to a formal confession. The fact is, by handing the case over to the Crimes Against Persons section, the chief of detectives will be tacitly admitting that he no longer believes in the suicide theory. Some of the young wolves will never forgive him for it, which can easily be understood: you can’t kill off a dream with impunity.)
 
 
 

-The original version of this story first appeared in the book Silences © L’Instant même, 1990

 


 
Jean Pierre Girard has published five collections of short fiction, a novel, a collection of prose poetry, and several works of nonfiction, and he also writes plays, screenplays, and radio scripts. His work has garnered numerous awards, including the Prix de la Création Artistique du Conseil des Arts et des Lettres du Québec (2002), the Grand Prix Desjardins de la culture (1997), and the Prix Adrienne-Choquette (1990). He teaches literature at Cégep régional de Lanaudière à Joliette.

J. T. Townley has published in Collier’s, Harvard Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Prairie Schooner, The Threepenny Review, and other magazines and journals. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and an MPhil in English from Oxford University, and he teaches at the University of Virginia. To learn more, visit jttownley.com.

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