Michel Bussi is the author of After the Crash, Black Water Lilies, Don’t Let Go and Time Is A Killer. His latest novel, Never Forget, was published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on 9 July 2020.
Today I have an extract from Never Forget.
Fécamp, 13 July 2014
From: Lieutenant Bertrand Donnadieu, National Gendarmerie,
Territorial Brigade of the District of Étretat, Seine-Maritime
To: M. Gérard Calmette, Director of the Disaster Victim Identifi –
cation Unit (DVIU), Criminal Research Institute of the National
Dear Monsieur Calmette,
At 2.45 a.m. on 12 July 2014, a section of cliff of about 45,000
cubic metres collapsed above Valleuse d’Etigues, 3 km west of
Yport. Rockfalls of this type are not uncommon on our coast. The
emergency services arrived on the scene an hour later and established beyond a doubt that there no casualties resulting from this incident.
However, and this is the reason for this letter, while no walkers were
caught in the landslide, the first responders made a strange discovery.
Lying among the debris scattered over the beach were three human skeletons.
Police officers dispatched to the site found no personal effects or items
of clothing in the vicinity that would enable them to identify the victims. It’s possible that they might have been cavers who became trapped; the network of karst caves beneath the famous white cliffs are a popular
attraction. However no cavers have been reported missing in recent
months, or indeed years. We have analysed the bones with the limited
equipment at our disposal and they do not appear to be very old.
I should add that the bones were scattered over forty metres of beach
as a result of the landslide. Th e Departmental Brigade of Forensic Investigation, under the auspices of Colonel Bredin, pieced together the skeletons. Their initial analysis confirms our own: not all of the bones
seem to have reached the same level of decomposition. Bizarre as it may
seem, this suggests the three individuals had died in that cavity in the
cliff at different times, probably several years apart. Th e cause of their
death remains unknown: during our examination of the remains we
found no trauma that would have proved fatal.
With no evidence to go on, ante or post mortem, we are unable to
pursue the usual lines of inquiry that would allow us to determine who
these three individuals were. When they died. What killed them.
The local community, recently unnerved by a macabre event that
has no apparent connection to the discovery of these three unidentifi ed
corpses, is understandably rife with speculation.
Which is why, Director, while I am aware of the number of urgent
matters requiring your attention, and the suffering of those awaiting
formal identification of deceased relatives, I would ask you to make this
case a priority so that we may proceed with our investigation.
Lieutenant Bertrand Donnadieu,
Territorial Brigade of the District of Étretat
Five months earlier
19 February 2014
‘Watch out, Jamal, the grass will be slippery on the cliff .’
André Jozwiak, landlord of the Hotel-Restaurant Sirène, issued
the caution before he could stop himself. He’d put on a raincoat
and was standing outside his front door. The mercury in the thermometer that hung above the menu was struggling to rise above the blue line indicating zero. There was hardly any wind, and the
weathervane – a cast-iron sailing ship fixed to one of the beams on
the façade –seemed to have frozen during the night.
The drowsy sun dragged itself wearily above the sea, illuminating
a light coating of frost on the cars parked outside the casino. On the
beach in front of the hotel the pebbles huddled together like shivering eggs abandoned by a bird of prey. Beyond the final towering sea stack lay the coast of Picardy, a hundred kilometres due east.
Jamal passed the front of the casino and, taking brisk, short
strides, set off up Rue Jean-Hélie. André watched him go, blowing
on his hands to warm them up. It was almost time to serve breakfast
to the few customers who spent their winter holidays overlooking
the Channel. At first the landlord had thought the young disabled
Arab was odd, running along the footpath every morning, with
one muscular leg and one that ended in a carbon foot wedged
into a trainer. Now, he felt genuine affection for the boy. When
he was still in his twenties, Jamal’s age, André used to cycle over a
hundred kilometres every Sunday morning, Yport–Yvetot–Yport,
three hours with no one pestering him. If this kid from Paris with
his weird foot wanted to work up a sweat at first light – well, he
understood. Jamal’s shadow reappeared briefly at the corner of the steps
that rose towards the cliff s, before disappearing behind the casino
wheelie bins. The landlord took a step forward and lit a Winston.
He wasn’t the only one braving the cold: in the distance, two
silhouettes stood out against the wet sand. An old lady holding an
extending lead with a ridiculous little dog – the kind that looks as
if it runs on batteries, operated by remote control, and so conceited
that it goaded the seagulls with hysterical yaps. Two hundred metres
further on, a tall man, hands in the pockets of a worn brown leather
jacket, stood by the sea, glowering at the waves as if he wanted to
take revenge on the horizon.
André spat out the butt of his cigarette and went back into the
hotel. He didn’t like to be seen unshaven, badly dressed, his hair
a mess, looking like the sort of caveman Mrs Cro-Magnon would
have walked out on many moons ago.
His steps keeping to a metronomic rhythm, Jamal Salaoui was
climbing one of the highest cliff s in Europe. One hundred and
twenty metres. Once he’d left the last of the houses behind, the
road dwindled to a footpath. The panorama opened up to Étretat,
ten kilometres away. Jamal saw the two silhouettes at the end of the
beach, the old woman with the little dog and the man staring out
to sea. Three gulls, perhaps frightened by the dog’s piercing cries,
rose from the cliff and blocked his path before soaring ten metres
The first thing Jamal saw, just past the sign pointing to the Rivage
campsite, was the red scarf. It was fixed to the fence like a danger
sign. That was Jamal’s first thought:
A warning of a rockfall, a flood, a dead animal.
The idea passed as swiftly as it had come. It was just a scarf
caught on barbed wire, lost by a walker and carried away by the
wind coming off the sea.
Reluctant to break the rhythm of his run, to pause for a closer
look at the dangling fabric, he almost carried straight on. Everything
would have turned out quite differently if he had.
But Jamal slowed his pace, then stopped.
The scarf looked new. It gleamed bright red. Jamal touched it,
studied the label.
Cashmere. Burberry . . . This scrap of fabric was worth a small
fortune! Jamal delicately detached the scarf from the fence and
decided that he would take it back to the Sirène with him. André
Jozwiak knew everyone in Yport, he would know if someone had
lost it. And if it wasn’t claimed, Jamal would keep it. He stroked
the fabric as he continued his run. Once he was back home in La
Courneuve, he doubted he would risk wearing it over his tracksuit.
In his neighbourhood, someone would rip your head off for a €500
cashmere scarf! But he would no doubt find a pretty girl who’d be
happy to wear it.
As he drew near the blockhouse, to his right a small flock of sheep
turned their heads in his direction. They were waiting for the grass
to thaw with a lobotomised look which reminded him of the idiots
that he worked with, standing by the microwave at lunchtime.
Just past the blockhouse, Jamal saw the girl.
He immediately gauged the distance between her and the edge of
the cliff . Less than a metre! She was standing on the precipice, looking down at a sheer drop of over a hundred metres. His brain reeled,
calculating the risks: the incline to the void, the frost on the grass.
The girl was more at risk here than she would have been standing
on the ledge of the highest window of a thirty-storey building.
‘Mademoiselle, are you all right?’
Jamal’s words were snatched away by the wind. No response.
He was still a hundred and fifty metres from the girl.
Despite the intense cold, she was wearing only a loose red dress
torn into two strips, one floating over her navel and then to her
thighs, the other yawning from the top of her neck to the base of
her chest, revealing the fuchsia cup of a bra.
She was shivering.
Beautiful. Yet for Jamal there was nothing erotic about this
image. Surprising, moving, unsettling, but nothing sexual. When
he thought about it later, trying to fathom it out, the nearest equivalent that came to mind was a vandalised work of art. A sacrilege, an inexcusable contempt for beauty.
‘Are you all right, mademoiselle?’ he said again.
She turned towards him. He stepped forward.
The grass came halfway up his legs, and it occurred to him
that the girl mightn’t have noticed the prosthesis fixed to his left
leg. He was now facing her. Ten metres between them. The girl
had moved closer to the precipice, standing with her back to the
He could see that she’d been crying; her mascara had run, then
dried. Jamal struggled to marshal his thoughts.
Above all, emotion. He felt overwhelmed by emotion. He had
never seen such a beautiful woman. Her features would be imprinted
on his memory for ever: the perfect oval of her face, framed by twin
cascades of jet-black hair, her coal-black eyes and snow-white skin,
her eyebrows and mouth forming thin, sharp lines, as if traced by
a finger dipped in blood and soot. He wondered whether he was in
shock, whether this was impacting on his assessment of the situation, the distress of this stranger, the need to grab her hand without waiting for an answer.
‘Mademoiselle . . .’
He held out his hand.
‘Don’t come any closer,’ the girl said.
It was more a plea than an order. The embers in her coal-black
irises seemed to have been extinguished.
‘OK,’ Jamal stammered. ‘OK. Stay right where you are, let’s take
this nice and slow.’
Jamal’s eye slipped over her skimpy dress. She must have come
out of the casino a hundred metres below. Of an evening, the hall
of the Sea View turned into a discotheque.
A night’s clubbing that had gone wrong? Tall, slim and sexy, she
would have drawn plenty of admirers. Clubs were full of creeps who
came to check out the babes.
Jamal spoke as calmly as he could:
‘I’m going to step forward slowly, I want you to take my hand.’
The young woman lowered her gaze for the first time and paused
at the sight of the carbon prosthesis. Th is drew an involuntary look
of surprise, but she regained control almost immediately.
‘If you take so much as a step, I’ll jump.’
‘OK, OK, I won’t move . . .’
Jamal froze, not even daring to breathe. Only his eyes moved,
from the girl who had emerged from nowhere, to the orange dawn
on the edge of the horizon.
A bunch of drunks following her every move on the dance floor,
Jamal thought. And among them, at least one sick bastard, maybe
several, perverted enough to follow the girl when she left. Hunt her
down. Rape her.
‘Has . . . has someone hurt you?’
She burst into tears.
‘You could never understand. Keep running. Go! Get out of
An idea . . .
Jamal put his hands around his neck. Slowly. But not slowly
enough. The girl recoiled, took a step backwards, closer to the drop.
Jamal froze. He wanted to catch her in his hand as if she were a
frightened sparrow that had fallen from the nest, unable to fl y.
‘I’m not going to move. I’m just going to throw you my scarf.
I’ll hold one end. You grab the other, simple as that. It’s up to you
whether to let go or not.’
The girl hesitated, surprised once again. Jamal took the opportunity to throw one end of the red cashmere scarf. Two metres
separated him from the suicidal young woman.
Th e fabric fell at his feet.
She leaned forward delicately and, with absurd modesty pulled
at the remains of her dress to cover her bare breast, then stood,
clutching the end of Jamal’s scarf.
‘Easy does it,’ Jamal said. ‘I’m going to pull on the scarf, wrap it
around my hands. Let yourself be dragged towards me, two metres,
just two metres further from the edge.’
The girl gripped the fabric more tightly.
Jamal knew then that he had won, that he had done the right
thing, throwing this scarf the way a sailor throws a lifebelt to someone who’s drowning, drawing them gently to the surface, centimetre
by centimetre, taking infinite care not to break the thread.
‘Easy does it,’ he said again. ‘Come towards me.’
For a brief moment he realised that he had just met the most
beautiful girl he had ever seen. And that he had saved her life.
That was enough to make him lose concentration for one tiny
Suddenly the girl pulled on the scarf. It was the last thing Jamal
had expected. One sharp, swift movement.
The scarf slid from his hands.
What followed took less than a second.
The girl’s gaze fixed on him, indelibly, as if she were looking at
him from the window of a passing train. Th ere was a finality to that
‘Noooo!’ Jamal shouted.
The last thing he saw was the red cashmere scarf floating between
the girl’s fingers. A moment later she toppled into the void.
So did Jamal’s life, but he didn’t know it yet.
About the Book
REVENGE IS WORTH WAITING FOR…
Jamal loves to run. But one morning – as he is training on a path winding up a steep cliff – he stumbles across a woman in distress.
It’s a matter of seconds: suddenly she is falling through the air, crashing on the beach below.
Jamal is only an unlucky bystander – or is he?
His version of events doesn’t seem to fit with what other eyewitnesses claim to have seen. And how to explain the red scarf carefully arranged around the dead woman’s neck?
About the Author
Michel Bussi is the author of many bestselling novels, including AFTER THE CRASH, BLACK WATER LILIES, DON’T LET GO and TIME IS A KILLER. He is one of the most succesful French authors of all time, with millions of copies sold internationally and over a quarter of a million copies in the UK alone.
(Author picture from Hachette website).
2 Comments Add yours
Wow, that is an incredible opening!
LikeLiked by 1 person
I know. Makes me want to read more 🙂