Passport to Crime

The Touffard Affair

by Marcel Aymé

 

Translated by Anne Bru

 

O’Dubois, the prince of detectives, left his apartment in the company of his faithful friend, Joubin, to go for his morning walk. Like all gentlemen who work with their heads, he liked walking a lot, and it is thanks to his everyday practice of footing it that he stayed svelte despite his fifty-five years. Joubin looked like any confidant of a great detective: massive, and slightly slow-witted. He often burst out laughing for no apparent reason, except that he had just understood a joke he had heard the day before. He was a bit of a secretary to O’Dubois and did interviews on his behalf.

As the two friends started walking along the boulevard de la Madeleine, Joubin asked him:

“What should I say to the Paris-Crimes reporter who is coming to you this afternoon?”

“Intuition and reflection. You will have these to sum up my method.”

“Of course,” approved Joubin with importance.

They were still walking when the detective stopped abruptly. At the foot of a tree, he had just perceived three objects which were immediately
suspect to him. They were a silver magnifying glass, an antique hourglass, and a glass cutter. A professional detective would have immediately measured things or looked for footprints. O’Dubois simply said:

“Let’s go and sit in the cafe on the other side of the street.”

They crossed the street and sat on an almost deserted terrace. O’Dubois ordered a pint of lager and a small glass of beer for his friend and entered into a state of meditation. He had given himself three minutes to solve the enigma, and, as the three minutes went by without result, he logically concluded that it was an important crime.

“What do you think of this case, Joubin?”

“I think we should gather some evidence and build a hypothesis which the facts will later confirm.”

O’Dubois took a gulp of his lager, rotated his glass pensively, and gave his walking stick to Joubin.

“Joubin, take my walking stick and cross the street. When you are at the foot of the tree where we discovered the three objects, look at the lowest branches, and if you see a top hat, unhook it from the tree with my walking stick.”

Nothing from his friend surprised Joubin. Nevertheless, he had a moment of doubt.

“Above all,” added O’Dubois, “don’t touch the objects.”

Joubin left, walked around the tree, stretched up on tiptoe, and, red with emotion, crossed the boulevard, brandishing a top hat at the end of the walking stick.

“Would you mind looking at the inside of the hat,” asked O’Dubois, “and telling me the name of the hatter?”

Joubin turned the hat over and, having attentively examined it, answered: “The name of the hatter is Paul Glass.”

“Of course,” murmured the detective, “of course . . .”

Joubin could hide his stupefaction and impatience no longer.

“This is incredible! How did you guess that this top hat was hidden in the branches?”

“All simply intuition!”

“That’s true,” stammered Joubin. “Intuition and reflection  . . .”

“Talking about reflection,” said O’Dubois, “can you tell me the first thing that struck you about this affair?”

“I don’t know,” Joubin had to admit. “It is quite difficult. . . .”

“My dear friend, you will always lack sangfroid. Why? You weren’t even struck by the connection between the words that designated the three objects: magnifying glass, hourglass, glass cutter  . . .”

Joubin’s face lit up with a smile of comprehension.

“Indeed, I hadn’t thought about that. There are three glasses.”

“And, what’s the name of the hatter who sold this top hat?”

“Paul Glass!” exclaimed Joubin. “Now we have four glasses!”

“I believe that we’ll meet quite a few more,” pronounced O’Dubois. “Can you see, Joubin, with a problem like this one, one has always to let the general idea take the lead . . . Intuition and reflection . . . Do you know why, earlier, I rotated my glass before sending you off to find the top hat? Let me tell you. I understood that this affair was built on this glass mystery. You have seen the results. . . .”

Joubin was consumed with admiration. He furtively rotated his glass a few times, but made no discovery of any interest. O’Dubois, seeing this, smiled and said indulgently:

“My dear Joubin, you are certainly too intelligent for all this. It is to the detriment of your intuition. Don’t feel bad. Your faculties of discernment make you a precious auxiliary. Come, would you mind going to get me a packet of cigarets and the morning paper?”

Blushing with pleasure, the precious auxiliary galloped off to the nearest tobacconist, grabbed a morning paper from a newspaper kiosk, and, returning to the terrace, exclaimed breathlessly:

“A crime . . . listen . . . a monstrous crime was committed last night!”

“I was sure of it.”

“A family of twelve was killed!”

“I would have bet on it.”

“The presumed assassin has fled.”

“I knew it.”

Joubin raised his arms heavenwards and sank into his chair and whined:

“So, no one can ever surprise you!”

“Not at all. Read the newspaper to me. Perhaps there are some small details I have missed.”

Joubin read the six-columned article. This was the essence:

“An abominable incident, perhaps without precedent in the annals of crime, was committed last night between the hours of eleven and midnight, in a mansion in faubourg Saint-Honoré, where Mr. Alcide Touffard, a billionaire well-known in the world of footwear, had been living for many years.

“Yesterday evening, the whole family of the illustrious industrialist had decided to meet at his home to celebrate the eighty-seventh birthday of the patriarch, and, in the absence of domestic staff, who had been given an evening off, had organised a kind of surprise party. The caretaker of the neighbouring building, who was taking some air at the entrance around eight-thirty in the evening, confirmed that he saw twelve people with bottles and food enter the Touffard mansion; his testimony is definite on this point.

“Therefore thirteen people met at the patriarch’s home.

“Returning from the cinema, shortly after midnight, the domestic staff found the family sitting around the table. They were silent and immobile. Each of them was strapped to their chair and each of their brains spilled out onto their plates from a hole gouged out of their foreheads by a pick and hammer. The police, who were immediately called, were able to identify without delay the twelve victims of this savage butchery: Mr. Alcide Touffard and eleven other people who all belonged to his family.

“The local chief of police, during his enquiries, had been surprised that there were only twelve victims, as the caretaker had confirmed that she had seen twelve people entering the mansion. Diligent research has revealed that Mr. Jules Pontin, Mr. Alcide Touffard’s grandson, was not one of the victims. The police immediately went to his home and found a young lady-friend in his bed, a Miss Crystal d’Artigor. She declared that Mr. Pontin had left home the day before at eight p.m. to celebrate his grandfather’s birthday.

“Should we conclude from this declaration that Mr. Jules Pontin, escaping the massacre, managed to flee? But then, why didn’t he alert the neighbours? Should we believe that he himself was implicated in this abominable crime . . . ?

“No precious objects have disappeared from the home of the billionaire, and the safe was not opened. A curious detail, intriguing for the police, is the fact that Mr. Alcide still had twenty-three thousand francs on him whereas the guests were robbed of all their money and jewellery. . . . At the time of publication, the whereabouts of Mr. Jules Pontin remain unknown.”

O’Dubois ordered another pint and, rubbing his hands, said:

“So, Joubin, what do you make of this business?”

“I think we need to get our hands on this Jules Pontin. He’s the one who has committed this horrible crime.”

“Why would you say that?”

“Look for who stands to benefit from the crime. . . .”

O’Dubois looked with sympathy at his faithful companion and said, nodding his head:

“Joubin, you’ve just had a thought of invaluable import. I say, invaluable.”

“Oh! It was quite simple,” answered Joubin with modesty. “You only had to think of it, really.”

“But you are reasoning like a country postman,” O’Dubois added hastily. “Why on earth would you think that this poor Jules Pontin assassinated twelve people? If he had done, he would have been clever enough to have an alibi; he wouldn’t have disappeared so suddenly in such a way that we don’t know whether he is dead or flown, either scenario unfavourable for an heir. You know that the law prohibits a murderer inheriting from his victim. . . . No, if Jules Pontin was the culprit, it would mean that his motive was revenge; revenge or an outburst of insanity. I don’t believe it. Joubin, remind me of the name of this beautiful woman that the police found in Mr. Pontin’s bed.”

“Crystal d’Artigor.”

“Crystal? What a strange first name . . .”

“Another glass,” murmured Joubin, “the fifth one.”

“As you see, Joubin, a tiny detail is sometimes enough to connect two affairs that at first sight seem unrelated. To tell the truth, I already had a presentiment that there was a link between the crime and the discovery of the top hat. Once again, the facts confirm my intuition, and I hope to understand, within fifteen minutes, the disappearance of Jules Pontin. However, I have a most important mission to send you on. I would like you to go to the hatter Paul Glass and ask if Mr. Jules Pontin was one of his customers. You will then carry out an inquest to accurately count the members of the family of Mr. Alcide Touffard. I think this information is already all over the newspapers. All this should take you no more than fifteen minutes. I am going to drink a pint, and I will tell you where Mr. Jules Pontin is when you return.”

“Do you know that already?”

“No, but I will think about it seriously. By the way, don’t tell anybody that I am working on this affair.”

Joubin hailed a cab to accomplish his mission, and O’Dubois lit a cigaret.

A few minutes later, Joubin got out of the cab and ran up to O’Dubois. Joubin’s face was radiant with pride.

“You’re two minutes late,” said O’Dubois sharply.

“Yes, but . . .”

“And you haven’t paid for your cab.”

Laughing at his absent-mindedness, Joubin retraced his steps and, in his euphoria, tipped the cab driver generously. O’Dubois was growing impatient.

“I haven’t wasted my time,” Joubin told him. “When I left you a short while ago, I had an amazing idea.”

“I have already warned you, if you persist in having ideas, I will do without your collaboration.”

“Dear friend, let me tell you. I had the idea of questioning Jules Pontin’s caretaker.”

“That would be unnecessary.”

“Wait . . . I’ve learned that Jules Pontin lived it up, that he had a string of mistresses and was drowning in debt.”

“I’ve just read that in the newspaper I’ve just bought.”

O’Dubois unfolded his newspaper and showed an article to his collaborator, who collapsed.

“Still . . .” muttered the poor soul. “I was right all the same. He needed money, and he has murdered his family. The proof is that he’s still on the run.”

Visibly irritated, O’Dubois shrugged and responded drily:

“Jules Pontin is not on the run. He’s dead.”

“Dead? Do you know where his body is?”

“Of course I know where it is. Did you think that I wasted my time gossiping with caretakers?”

Joubin went red with embarrassment, but curiosity made him dare to ask:

“Where is the body?”

“It is on the opposite side of the street.”

“You’re joking. . . .”

“I told you, it is on the other side of the street.”

Joubin found the audacity to be ironic:

“Intuition?”

O’Dubois did not deign to reply. He said severely:

“I thought I set you a delicate mission. I’m still waiting for your report. What about the hatter?”

“I went to see this Paul Glass; he could not shirk my close questioning. I first asked him why he called himself Paul Glass. He told me his father’s name was Raoul Paul and his mother’s name was Germaine Glass. I’m not sure how much his explanation is worth, but we should check that. . . .”

O’Dubois interrupted him angrily and swore that he would break his head if Joubin did not answer his questions very clearly:

“Tell me first, was Jules Pontin a customer of the hatter Paul Glass?”

“He was one of his very good customers, as were his brother Léonard Pontin and his cousin Pierre Touffard.”

“Good! Now, tell me, of how many members was the family of Mr. Alcide Touffard composed?”

“Twelve, not counting Alcide Touffard. As we had foreseen, I was able to get the complete list in the Paris-Crimes newspaper office. I am therefore able to inform you, if you wish, of the genealogy of the Touffard family.”

“Go on. Be brief.”

“The billionaire, Alcide Touffard, was in a state care home as a child. In eighteen seventy-one, when he was still only a messenger boy, he married a maid who had been in care herself. They had a son and two daughters, one of whom remained single. The son had three children from his first marriage and three more from his second. The eldest daughter of Alcide Touffard married a Mr. Pontin, with whom she had a daughter and a son. After she had been widowed two years, she had another son. This son is none other than our Jules Pontin. It is quite conspicuous that none of Alcide Touffard’s grandchildren are married. But, as they had such a meagre existence because of the well-known miserliness of the billionaire, we can only suppose they were waiting for the old man’s death to get better established. I presume I have been clear enough?”

“Perfectly clear, Joubin.”

“Your turn. Would you be kind enough to tell me clearly where Jules Pontin is?”

 “I’ve told you: On the other side of the street. Can you see that cylindrical kiosk papered with theatre posters, to the right of the tree where you found the hat? Jules Pontin is inside. You don’t believe me? Go and have a look around the kiosk. The heat is overpowering; the body must have started to smell.”

Joubin crossed the boulevard, walked around the kiosk, and, as he came back, said:

“It smells.”

O’Dubois ordered two pints, drank both of them, and consented to share the details of the discovery.

“When we found the three objects at the foot of the tree, I was singularly lucky. Supposing that we had found a pair of scissors or a knife instead of the glass cutter that in all likelihood the murderer had left behind, I would have thought: Here is a knife, a silver magnifying glass, and an antique hourglass. The set would have presented no interest. But there was a glass cutter next to the magnifying glass and the hourglass. I was, therefore, in the presence of three glasses which could not avoid awakening my curiosity. Admire, Joubin, how the appearance of words is sometimes more suggestive than the appearance of the objects they denote. A poet could do well out of this. . . . After I had discovered the hat, thanks to an effort of intuition that will remain a credit to my career, I found I was right in thinking that the hat’s owner had not chosen a hatter named Paul Glass by chance. Is this not your opinion?”

“Of course,” agreed Joubin.

“I draw your attention to the hourglass. Hourglasses are not in use anymore. The fashion is to wear a watch. This client of Paul Glass’s, who carried around a magnifying glass and an hourglass, could only be a maniac. . . .”

“I beg your pardon,” dared Joubin. “But how did you know that the owner of the hat was also the owner of the magnifying glass and the
hourglass?”

“Intuition,” replied O’Dubois drily. “Don’t interrupt me with silly remarks.”

Joubin apologised profusely and begged O’Dubois to carry on.

“When I read in the news that the Touffard family had been murdered, I realised straightaway that Jules Pontin, who had disappeared, had to be the owner of the hat because of this Miss Crystal d’Artigor. One thing bothered me, however: The initials on the hat were P.T. instead of J.P., but without delay I found a satisfying explanation : Jules Pontin had inadvertently taken his cousin Pierre Touffard’s hat. Pierre Touffard was himself a client of Paul Glass’s, as your investigation confirmed. There we are!”

 

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Copyright © 2020. Black Legacy by Almuth Heuner

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