Little Thomas didn’t have time to finish his stewed apple. His mother hadn’t given him the slightest chance. The speed with which the poison circulated through his blood simply meant he didn’t suffer when he died. Only Marie’s body was still upright, securely wedged against the back of her chair, her head tipped back. She must have struggled to ensure this was noticed. Laurent had been served first. Few people stumbling across these three ashen bodies could have imagined the warm laughter filling the room just moments before the tragedy occurred. Marie felt absolutely no remorse and, apart from her final gesture, there was no sign of a struggle. Every object was in its usual place, the strong flavorsome smell of the meal still hung in the air in the kitchen, paper napkins hardly marked, a water jug placed squarely in the middle of the table. The child was still in his booster seat, his face pitched forward onto his plate and the last morsels he hadn’t wanted to eat. His dimpled little fingers hung limply. Marie’s fists, meanwhile, rested squarely on the table. There had been only one tragic event in her life, but one powerful enough to goad her to action. Her face looked peaceful, at last. Her features relaxed, her body utterly freed of all pointless suffering. She had finally become the woman in the picture, the sort of woman who succeeds in controlling her own destiny. Her husband had suffered terribly. He’d felt his lungs fill with blood, his breathing slow, and his throat constrict as his moist flesh convulsed. He had fallen from his chair and crawled for many a long minute, spitting liters of blood and vomit over the kitchen’s white-tiled floor. But he wasn’t dead. He was the only survivor, and was hastily evacuated a few hours later, still hovering between life and death. In the first seconds of this hellish chaos, his wife, who hadn’t yet touched her own food, had watched him slump to the floor before giving the first poisoned mouthfuls to her son. She hadn’t wanted gushing blood. There’d been enough blood already. Poisoning had struck her as the most judicious option. Laurent’s cell had kept vibrating on the console table in the hall. Perhaps he might have found out the truth before taking his first taste. The Charonne district was cordoned off by the police. Just a precaution. The investigators soon grasped what she’d done. The two corpses were extricated from their chairs. The stiffness in their limbs meant the medical examiner had to relax them by injection before sealing them in body bags under the stunned gaze of their neighbors across the landing. Marie had contemplated killing her son before, several times and in different ways. She was very determined. Day after day, the false innocence in the child’s eyes had driven her to murder. But until now, circumstances had stopped her seeing it through, mostly for practical reasons. She had killed her little boy and it was simply justice being done. Before any revelations that might invite the first verdicts, let’s take a moment to appreciate the figure of this dead woman surrounded by her loved ones, the only one of the three to have remained upright.
As on every Monday, Marie will arrive at work five minutes late. She’s known for six years that this will never change. It has simply become another part of her daily routine. Laurent is fussing in the kitchen, nursing a lukewarm cup of coffee. Marie watches him just as tenderly as she did ten years ago. Things weren’t so different back then. They met at a student party organized by a mutual friend. Marie was a shy, reserved young woman and didn’t immediately respond to Laurent’s advances. It took considerable perseverance on his part before she granted him a first date. They were married three years later in Bois-le-Roi, with the affectionate support of both of their families and their friends. From the very start theirs was a straightforward happiness, their love enough to give each of them more than him- or herself to think about. She takes care of him, encourages his plans, reassures him when he doubts himself, and helps him find his files every morning so he isn’t late for work. Laurent’s love for Marie is genuine and deep, but he is not as attentive to her as she to him. They’re not a couple who instantly understand each other. They need to discuss, expand, explain. Four years ago, Laurent was taken on by a big law firm that specializes in probate and divorce. His workday begins at nine and often goes on till late. Marie understands his ambition and does not judge him for it. She earns less than he does but enjoys her job at the bank. When she arrives at the branch on the place de la République in the morning, she feels useful and enjoys her commitment to helping other people, giving them advice and suggesting options to them. Money has never stirred her to great plans, but she’s happy that she and Laurent have a comfortable life. Shortly after they were married, Laurent and Marie decided to move to a large apartment on the boulevard Voltaire in the Eleventh Arrondissement of Paris. They were immediately taken with the neighborhood’s friendly atmosphere. The arcades that run from the place de la Nation up to the place de la République are filled with little shops and businesses, at lunchtime their apartment is often pervaded by the smell of chicken from the local rotisserie, and on Sundays they can hear the bell ring on buses that stop at every crossroad through the busy bustling market. They’ve always loved Paris, and over the years have accumulated a good many friends and developed a varied, interesting social life. Laurent moves in more sophisticated circles than Marie. Thanks to a highly publicized divorce case between a former soccer star and a well-loved actress, he has already forged himself a solid reputation in certain journalistic circles. He and Marie are frequently invited to private parties where intellectual Paris rubs shoulders with business Paris. Marie never feels awkward. She’s proud to be there with her husband and makes the most of her own discreet charms to captivate those around him. Immersed in the contentment of her day-to-day existence, she quietly ensures everything is under control without drawing any attention to the fact. She is the one who runs the household. Her upbringing and her parents’ unconditional love protected her from the boundless torments of childhood and adolescence. Of course, she has often had to confront complex or difficult situations, but she has never for a moment felt she was losing her grip on her life. The fall is Marie’s favorite time of year. A poetic season. The plane trees on the boulevard Voltaire are dropping their orangey leaves on the sidewalk, the air is cool but mostly dry, and the sky azure blue. Sunbeams light up part of the kitchen. Marie gazes serenely out the window. “Look how pretty it is! Did you see all these colors?” Laurent doesn’t reply. He’s frantically looking for his file from yesterday. Marie smiles when she sees that it’s staring right at him on the kitchen counter. She steps over to hand it to him, a knowing smile on her lips. Laurent looks at her, amused, then kisses her before racing out to work. Marie finds routine reassuring. She knows what she needs to do before even thinking about it, and although some might feel disenfranchised by this, it has never bothered her. Marie finishes her coffee and leaves at eight forty-five. Almost before she is in the street she can feel the morning hustle, the whirl of France at work, keeping it together. Marie acknowledges that she’s never had to struggle to make ends meet. Born into a middle-class family with traditional values, pampered at every turn, encouraged and steered by her parents in her every choice, she is in no position to understand how people get into a downward spiral. It’s not that she lacks compassion. She often puts herself in someone else’s position, in her clients’, for example, to understand what’s really at stake in their lives, what their risks are, what they stand to gain or lose. As she emerges from the République Métro station she has only a few minutes’ walk to reach the bank at 9:05. Her coworkers are always friendly, greeting her with a smile, offering her a coffee before her meetings and asking for her well-considered opinion. Marie is a financial consultant, a privileged position, well up in the bank’s hierarchy. Her clients like her very much and her drawers are filled with all sorts of gifts: boxes of chocolates, bottles of wine, homemade preserves, scarves . . . When she arrives home from work in the evening, Marie likes to tell her husband about the day’s amusing little events or the disagreements she occasionally needs to address. Money lies at the heart of everything in her work. Her standard clients are people with enough income to contemplate lucrative investments. On Monday mornings Marie always has to check her best clients’ accounts to familiarize herself with any new transactions. On her huge desk there are framed photographs of Laurent and herself on vacation, her family, her sister and her nephew, and her late grandmother. It suddenly occurs to her that she doesn’t see enough of her family. Since she was born her parents have lived in a large house in Bois-le-Roi, just a few miles from Paris. Her sister lives with her husband and son in the Ninth Arrondissement, in the Saint-Georges neighborhood. The sisters are very close and are due to have lunch together today. Her telephone starts to ring. Monsieur Collard doesn’t understand why a payment he asked to have made has still not gone through; Madame Siris would like to know whether she can use the money from her life insurance to give her son a new car for his birthday; Madame Frousard wonders whether her husband will still agree to pay her the lump sum he promised when they divorced. Each client has a problem, and Marie knows exactly how to solve it. The hours spool by, meetings come one after the other. In the distance there is chanting from demonstrations against a law allowing homosexuals to marry, it reverberates all over Paris. Through her office window, Marie watches hundreds of thousands of people tramping the streets and brandishing enormous pink-and-blue banners around the place de la République. Her parents told her they considered joining the demonstration but in the end they weren’t able to reach the location in time. Laurent is against this law too. Like many French children, Laurent and Marie were baptized, went to Bible study classes, and occasionally attended Mass with their parents on Sunday mornings or for religious festivals. Marie feels that this law is a question of religion and principle. “Well, they’re right, aren’t they?” her client exclaims. “Marriage is for a man and a woman, it always has been. Even some homosexuals are against this law.” Marie looks at her client and smiles. She thinks her comment vapid but is more comfortable concentrating on the woman’s home insurance contract. It’s lunchtime. Marie slips out of the office to join her sister Roxane in a brasserie on the rue de Bretagne. All the streets that lead to the place de la République are still barricaded by the police. When they watched the news last night, Laurent admitted he was finding it increasingly difficult to cope with the endless demonstrations in Paris. Marie, on the other hand, finds it refreshing. She certainly won’t participate in any sort of protest movement but is happy other people do it for her. Roxane is sitting at an outside table with her baby in his buggy. It’s her day off. Marie is happy to see her, kisses her and sits next to her. The child whimpers a little before Roxane gives him his bottle. Marie watches him fondly, strokes him, and showers him with affectionate pet names. Roxane tells her about her recent holiday with Julien in Rome. While they were away, the baby went to his grandparents, who couldn’t wait to look after him. Everyone in the family wants to know what Laurent and Marie are waiting for before having their first child. She is thirty-one, he thirty-three. There couldn’t be a better time to start a family. She just hasn’t had the opportunity to think about it. Their respective careers needed a while to take shape and so far their ambitions have been focused on work. “Watch out, you’ll be too old soon! You don’t want them calling you Grandma!” Roxane had her first child at twenty-four. She looks happy but tired. Yes, people talk about the tiredness but they don’t make a big thing of it. The joys of parenthood are enough to make other people understand that they too should throw themselves into the adventure. An hour has gone by. Marie and Roxane leave the restaurant and say goodbye with a long hug, promising they’ll call each other very soon. It’s the end of the day. The sun is only just starting to set. Marie walks up the rue du Temple to buy a few things at the Monoprix supermarket. She’d like to cook something nice for Laurent this evening, there might be time to make a blanquette of veal. The autumn wind is pleasantly bracing on her face. People hurry through shop entrances. No one seems to dawdle in any one place, as if everyone has made a deliberate effort to go in different directions. There’s no such thing as stasis in Paris. She collects her bicycle, which she left near the bank yesterday because of the rain, puts her shopping in the small basket at the front, and sets off toward boulevard Voltaire. Laurent isn’t home yet so she has a couple of hours left to prepare the meal. She knows he’ll be very happy to have his favorite dish when he comes home. As she peels the vegetables on the kitchen counter Marie thinks over what her sister said at lunchtime. She contemplates motherhood. As a child she already knew she’d be a mother and spent hours looking after the baby dolls her parents gave her for Christmas. She now feels ready to have a baby with Laurent, and maybe that’s why she thought of making this particular dish this evening. She’d like to stop taking the pill and start a family. It’s eight thirty, time seems to be going so quickly. The blanquette is simmering and the table’s set. Marie recognizes Laurent’s ritual as he comes through the door. He lobs his keys onto the sideboard in the hall, hangs his coat on the hook, takes three steps before realizing he hasn’t closed the door, closes it, then calls her name—“Marie!”—to check that she’s there. She can tell from his smile and how quickly he moves that he has good news to tell her. “I got the Lancarde case!” he announces. She’s thrilled and throws her arms around him to congratulate him. They hug tenderly, kiss, and look into each other’s eyes. He lifts her up, sits her gently on the sideboard, and kisses her again. Gérard Lancarde is a wealthy industrialist who specializes in the plastics market in Europe. His father, who founded the Calcum consortium fifty years ago, was meant to hand over more than half the ventures within the company when he officially took retirement. Except that a few years before the cession he married a Russian singer with a huge following in her own country, and, against his son’s advice, bequeathed to her a substantial proportion of his shares. Laurent is still reeling from receiving the news himself. “I don’t know if you have any idea, honey. This contract deals with an inheritance worth hundreds of millions of euros and he chose me, personally! I can’t believe it.” Marie is genuinely happy for him. Laurent goes over to the still-steaming casserole dish and she watches him affectionately, his childish pleasure, the way he slowly lifts the lid and closes his eyes as he smells the meat. But she suddenly remembers wanting a baby. With this new contract maybe Laurent won’t have time for that. A slight cramping feeling ripples through her stomach. After explaining his new case in detail for an hour, Laurent doesn’t seem to have noticed her turmoil at all. “You know I saw my sister today, darling. That little Guillaume is so adorable. Wait till you see him, he’s grown again!” Laurent is receptive but makes no connection with their own circumstances and keeps eating. Confronted with this dead end, Marie decides to state her case openly. “I want a baby. I think it’s the right time, I think we can start our family now. I can feel it, I’m ready.” Laurent lets a piece of veal fall from his mouth. He’s stunned by the news, his face drains of color. It hadn’t occurred to him. Or he hadn’t had time to think about it, at least. Silence settles over the room. Marie holds her breath, waiting for his reply before she can breathe again. Laurent smiles, gets up from his chair and kisses her full on the mouth. “My darling. I want to! Of course I want to have a baby with you!” Marie’s body relaxes, flooded with intense relief and happiness. She thinks she’s never felt so weightless, every corner of her being is intoxicated, blissfully shaking off all tension. She feels like screaming from the rooftops of Paris, calling her parents, her sister, her colleagues and clients to tell them the big news before she’s even pregnant. After their blanquette of veal this evening, Laurent and Marie will lie in bed arm in arm, pressed up close in the elation of their plans.