9 Brumaire, Year V of the Republic
(October 30, 1796)
Aristide Ravel did not often set foot in the Place de Grève. It was an ill-omened place, the Golgotha of Paris, the site of uncounted butcheries across five centuries, and he loathed public executions.
He shivered and cast a fleeting glance toward the guillotine, waiting high above the heads of the crowd, as the sharp breeze of a Parisian October whipped lank dark hair into his eyes. Perhaps, he brooded, not for the first time, he was over-sensitive for a man who worked for the police. Police officials, his friend and employer Brasseur among them, did their duty and washed their hands of the affair, leaving the rest to the Criminal Tribunal and the public prosecutor. But the police and the law courts, he thought, in their determined efforts to maintain order in a city still unsettled after seven years of revolutionary upheaval, sometimes could be wrong.
He elbowed his way onward, through the clamorous crowd of errand boys in smocks, domestics in shabby cast-off finery, and craftsmen in work aprons who slouched about, playing truant from their trades for half an hour’s free entertainment. The muddy square between the City Hall and the Seine swarmed with spectators, pushing, joking. Here and there a spruce bourgeois or stylish incroyable, flaunting the exaggerated fashions of the season, blossomed like a hothouse flower amid the weeds. Though Aristide wore no tricolor sash, the mark of a police inspector or commissaire, they made way for him, reluctantly parting ranks before the austere black suit that instantly placed him among such traditional dignitaries as police, civil servants, or magistrates.
He shouldered his way through the spectators until he could push no farther against the eager, humming barricade of bodies. He could see well enough; he stood half a head taller than most of his neighbors. The guillotine loomed above him against the leaden sky like a doorway to nowhere. Two men, silently overseen by a third in a fashionable black frock coat and tall hat, hovered about it, brisk and impassive, tightening ropes, testing moving parts, greasing grooves and hinges. Aristide offered a silent prayer of thanks that at least the guillotine was far swifter and gentler than the punishment meted out to murderers and bandits in the decades before the Revolution.
The crowd stirred and muttered, growing bored with idling. A few fights broke out. Rough-voiced street-peddlers sold rolls, oranges, vinegar-water, hot chocolate, and cheap brandy.
A pair of mounted gendarmes appeared at the edge of the square. Behind them creaked the executioner’s cart and the murmur grew into an uproar. Those who often attended such free public entertainment self-importantly pointed out the approaching actors: there the attending priest in civilian costume; there the old executioner, come out of retirement for the day, Old Sanson who had topped the king, and Danton, and Robespierre, and so many others, in those disagreeable years 1793 and 1794; there his assistants. Young Sanson, the new master executioner, they told one another, was already waiting on the scaffold: a good-looking, well-made young fellow, wasn’t he?
In the cart a splash of crimson, a smock the color of blood. The central performers of the show stood between executioner and priest. One of the three condemned men had fainted and was lying nearly out of sight in the bottom of the cart.
A shout pierced the crowd’s babble.
“I am guilty!”
The man in the crimson smock leaned forward across the cart’s rail, straining at his guard’s tight grip on his bound arms.
“I am guilty, citizens! But Lesurques is innocent!”
“That’s Courriol,” said someone in the crowd, “one of the bandits…”
Aristide swallowed and squeezed his hands together behind his back as a chill crept from the pit of his stomach to the center of his chest. When even a confessed killer insisted upon his comrade’s innocence…
The second man stood erect in the cart, his pale, youthful face betraying neither fear nor hope. His fair hair was cropped short for the blade, but unlike his companion, he wore no red shirt, the emblem of a condemned murderer; waistcoat, culotte, shirt cut open at the neck—all were spotless white.
Absence of the usual formalities betrayed some belated sympathy on the public prosecutor’s part. What must it be like, Aristide wondered, to live in doubt, to have to ask yourself for the rest of your life whether or not, in the performance of your duty, you had condemned an innocent man?
“Lesurques is innocent!” Courriol repeated. His crimson smock fluttered in the wind. “I am guilty!”
The cart creaked to a stop before the scaffold. Above, Young Sanson waited silently, hands at his sides, ignoring the wind’s bite.
A raindrop stung Aristide’s cheek. Mathieu had died on just such a day as this, he recalled, a bleak autumn morning with a cold, leaden sky and spattering rain. Three years ago tomorrow…the last day of October 1793. Perhaps under the same steel blade. He closed his eyes for an instant at the touch of another cold drop.
The assistant executioners lowered the cart’s tailboard and lugged the unconscious man up the narrow steps. Carefully impassive, they strapped him to the plank and slid it forward beneath the blade. The wooden collar clapped down over his neck. Young Sanson stepped to the machine’s right-hand upright and tugged at a lever.
Aristide blinked. Did anyone ever see the blade in the midst of its fall? Yet there it hung, at rest at the bottom of the uprights, smeared with glistening red, and blood was weeping between the boards of the scaffold onto the sawdust below.
“I am guilty! Lesurques is innocent!” shouted Courriol as hands reached for him and swung him down from the cart. He struggled a moment, twisting about to shout once again to the crowd as the executioners marched him toward the waiting plank. “Lesurques is innocent!”
Aristide watched, motionless. Here, at least, simple justice had taken its course. But God help us all, he thought, if the criminal court has condemned a blameless man.
The crowd grew silent as Lesurques climbed the steps. Upon reaching the platform he paused.
“I am innocent of this crime. May God forgive my judges as I have forgiven them.”
For the third time, the great blade scraped and thudded home.
Aristide thrust his way past the gawkers and at the edge of the square paused, gasping for breath. At last he found an upturned skiff on the riverside and dropped down on it, elbows on knees, staring into the murky shallows of the Seine. Had the police he worked for, so determined to keep the peace, instead been so horribly wrong?
He clasped cold hands before him, shivering suddenly, not from the chill river breeze alone. Men made mistakes; it was the natural way of things. Impossible that you would never make a mistake, accuse wrongly, perhaps unwittingly destroy a life…
He sat brooding a while longer, watching the stray raindrops ripple across the river as it slid silently past. Forget this, he told himself at last. You can do nothing about it. Even if you could somehow learn the truth, and clear his name, he will still be beyond help. There is nothing you can do.
He sighed, pushed himself to his feet, and turned his steps westward along the quay, letting the walk and the chill breeze calm him.
Like a great ship, the Île de la Cité parted the river, the cathedral at one end of the island and the Law Courts at the other. As Aristide passed along the shore of the Right Bank, the brooding medieval towers of the Conciergerie, the ancient prison attached to the Law Courts, caught and held his gaze. All his misgivings returned in a rush.
What if I, too, in my time, have sent innocent men to that place, and even to the executioner?
11 Brumaire (November 1)
Aristide dreamed of the execution for a second night, heard the shouts, the thud of the blade, and woke sweating and trembling at dawn, as his small mantel clock chimed seven. Grateful for the common, raucous noise of morning, carts and peddlers in the street below, he stared at the fine web of cracks in the plaster ceiling above his bed alcove as the twilight slowly brightened. Swiftly he thought back through the murders he and Brasseur had solved during the ten years past—or had thought they had solved. Could anyone ever be so completely sure he was right? The evidence had borne them out—but still…
Someone pounded on the door, jerking him back to the present. He struggled out of bed and pulled on his culotte and stockings as the pounding continued.
“Ravel, for heaven’s sake, wake up!”
It was Brasseur’s voice. Aristide unbolted the door to the landing to find his friend’s fist poised for another hammer-blow as his landlady hovered behind him with a breakfast tray.
“I didn’t want to let him upstairs, citizen,” she protested, “not at this hour.”
Brasseur scowled at her and she hastily pushed aside a few books and broken quills on Aristide’s writing-desk, set down the tray, and scuttled away. Brasseur’s broad shoulders and bayonet-scarred face had led more than one timid witness into wondering if he were being questioned by a brigand rather than a district police chief.
“Ravel, I need you. I have a double murder on my hands.”
“And this on top of the hotel murder a month ago,” Brasseur added, stepping inside and shutting the door. Aristide poured cold water into the basin on the washstand and splashed it on his face as Brasseur continued. “This one looks like a crime of passion, Didier said. No robbery evident.”
“Didier’s there, is he?” Aristide said.
“Well, I had to send somebody.” Brasseur glanced about the crowded room, at the litter of books and dirty coffee cups left on top of shelves, a wrinkled cravat hanging about a candlestick on the desk, coat tossed carelessly over a chair. “Doesn’t your landlady keep things tidy for you?”
Aristide shrugged. “She’d love to.” He wolfed down a few mouthfuls of breakfast, sour, gritty bread with a spoonful of lard scraped across it. So again there was no butter to be had. “If Clotilde had her way, she’d tidy this place up so well I’d never find what I need.”
“Are you ready, then? I’ve a cab waiting. It’s not far.” Brasseur headed for the stairs as Aristide gulped down a cup of milky coffee—at least half of it roasted chicory, he thought with a grimace—and struggled into his coat.
Only a single black-clad inspector on guard at the front door of the house indicated anything amiss on Rue du Hasard. The building was a modest five-story apartment house, too small for a carriage gate and central courtyard, built, Aristide guessed, within the past thirty years. Inside the ground-floor passage that led to a small backyard and common privy, a stone staircase spiraled upward at their left, opposite the door to the porter’s lodging. A few stucco moldings ornamented the walls and ceilings in the now outmoded rococo style.
Inspector Didier approached them, his expression grim.
“Commissaire Brasseur—second floor, if you please. They sent word you were coming.” Didier caught sight of Aristide and they exchanged frigid glances. “Him, too.”
Aristide gave him a cool nod and followed Brasseur into the foyer and up the two flights of stairs. Two guardsmen passed them, a draped stretcher between them. “The other’ll be down in a moment, Commissaire,” one of them told Brasseur as they edged past him along the narrow staircase.
“Wait a moment!” Brasseur said as they continued. “Who told you to take away the bodies?”
The man jerked his head at Didier, who had trailed them. “The inspector here.”
“For God’s sake!” Aristide said, turning on Didier. “What do you think you’re doing?”
Didier reddened. “I’m doing my job!”
“Surely Brasseur’s told you never to move the corpse? Of all the—”
“Enough, Ravel,” Brasseur grunted. “Obviously the damage has been done. You men, you bring that up again and wait with the body here on the landing. Damn it, Didier, leave a murder scene intact until I’ve seen it—and that includes the corpse. You ought to know better.”
“Sorry, Commissaire,” Didier muttered. He darted a venomous glance at Aristide. “Dr. Prunelle was done inspecting them. I did take notes.”
A fat lot of good they’ll be, Aristide thought. He turned his back on Didier and climbed to the next landing. The inspector sullenly pointed the way through a door hanging ajar. Aristide glanced at the lock and latch. They were intact, the wood of the door unsplintered.
“It’s the man’s apartment,” Didier said. “Him on the litter. Louis Saint-Ange. Age thirty-eight, according to his papers; property owner, lived on his rents.”
Aristide noticed the smell as soon as he stepped past the door, the acrid scent of powder smoke in a closed chamber. Then he caught a glimpse of the girl on the stretcher as they drew a sheet over her face, and the memories that for three decades he had tried to forget came flooding back, sharp as daggers. He halted in the foyer, gazing at the scene.
It was the apartment of a comfortable bachelor, a man of fashion and taste. Two chairs, back and seats upholstered in rich crimson brocade, lay on their sides, as did a table that had once held a gilt clock. Candelabrum, inkwell, paper, sand shaker, blotter, and quills had been swept from the mahogany writing-desk. Ink lay across the rose-colored carpet and the scattered writing paper in a broad black splash like spilled blood.
Half a dozen colored engravings hung on the walls, daintily salacious scenes of plump, blushing, scantily clad maidens squirming in the clutches of smirking young Adonises. Three of the framed engravings hung crookedly; a fourth lay on the floor at the base of the wall, its glass shattered. Books and a pair of small bronze sculptures lay tumbled from overturned side tables.
The smell—yes, the smell of stale, burned powder was exactly the same as he remembered, the same caustic tang in the air assailing his senses. She had lain dead, too, so small in her thin chemise, sprawled across the floor, the other nearby. And a huge shadowed figure had loomed above them, shaking hand still clutching the pistol, a colossal ogre to his nine-year-old eyes staring terrified in the smoky twilight.
“Ravel?” said Brasseur, behind him. He drew a quick breath.
It’s not she, he told himself, it’s not she. It’s not she, and he is not here, standing trembling above their still-warm corpses; here is only death, and silence, and the dispassionate aftermath. These are strangers here, and someone, some other stranger, has murdered them, and you are here to discover who did this.
“I’m all right.” He stepped forward, into the salon.
“Bullet wounds on both of them,” said Dr. Prunelle, the police surgeon, catching sight of Brasseur as he pulled his coat on. “Undoubtedly mortal. Judging from the rigor mortis they died late yesterday afternoon.”
“Between four o’clock yesterday and seven o’clock this morning,” said Didier, “according to the servant. He was out for the night and found them when he came back.”
“I repeat,” Prunelle said severely, “judging from the degree of rigor mortis that has set in, they were killed yesterday afternoon or evening. Eight o’clock at the latest.”
Aristide paused beside the dead girl on the stretcher and drew back the sheet. Her mouth hung a little open in a sweet childlike face. Someone had closed her eyes and death had smoothed her features, had dissolved the astonishment or terror that must have distorted them at the moment of her sudden, violent death. His mother’s face had borne the same blank expression.
“Damn it,” he whispered, and with an effort thrust aside the memory, thankful the girl looked nothing like his mother. She was young, little more than twenty, slight and fair-haired, and her gown and fashionable short jacket with long cashmere scarf were of good cloth and well made. Blood had oozed and spread in a broad red-brown stain across the front of the jacket and the bodice of her gauzy white day dress.
Didier shook his head. “No. No identity card.”
“No wedding ring, either.” Her hands were soft and well kept.
“All she had was a watch and fifteen sous in her pocket. No other money, no notes at all. And not even a latchkey on her.”
“She wouldn’t have a key,” Aristide said, fingering the fine muslin of her gown. “For heaven’s sake, look at her hands and her clothes.” Fashionable girls called their revealing gowns “Grecian,” in accordance with the new fad for all things classical, but in late autumn the thin draperies were unfortunately more suited to the sunny hills of Attica than to damp and chilly Paris. “She has plenty of money, or her family does, even if she has none on her. A girl like this doesn’t need a key to her own house; that’s what servants are for.” Ignoring Didier’s resentful glare, he moved around her to gaze at her in the light from the tall window.
“She was crying…tears have dried on her cheek.”
“Begging the murderer to spare her?” said Brasseur.
“But he killed her anyway…”
“It looks as if this Saint-Ange was the murderer’s primary victim. It was his apartment, after all. The girl may just have been in the way.”
Aristide nodded. Though he had supposed Brasseur stolid and unimaginative when he had first begun to work with him, he had soon realized his friend’s patience and tenacity were the ideal foils for his own nervy, febrile imagination.
“Each victim was shot with a single bullet,” said Dr. Prunelle. “The one that killed the girl went horizontally, straight through her corset; she must have died quickly.”
“No powder burns on the cloth,” Brasseur said, peering at the girl’s bodice. “Well—we can’t do much about her until we know who she is.”
“The servant says he’s never seen her,” ventured Didier, “or rather, he claims women often visited Saint-Ange, but she’s not one he’s seen here before.”
“What sort of women?”
Didier grunted. “He brought home plenty of women of a certain sort, whores or just good-time-girls, living almost next door to the Palais-Égalité like this.” The pleasure garden of the Palais-Égalité, just a few steps from Rue du Hasard, was renowned not only for its dozens of fashionable shops, cafés, restaurants, gambling-parlors, and theaters, but also for its brothels.
“And manifestly this young woman is not of that sort,” Aristide said. “So where does that leave you?”
“Where were the bodies when you found them?” Brasseur asked, forestalling Didier’s reply.
Didier pointed. “The girl was about here, near the middle of the room, lying on the carpet; Saint-Ange was over there, on the floor behind the sofa. It pretty well concealed him.”
Aristide crossed the room to the sofa and gazed at the floor, frowning. He could see no bloodstains on the parquet or on the edge of the burgundy and rose carpet.
“The man was killed instantly?” he asked the surgeon. “Not much blood?”
“No, no blood. Bullet straight to the brain, and lodged there. It’s not often you see such a neat job of it,” Prunelle added. “Usually, with a musket ball or similar projectile, the bullet exits the cranium—”
“Blood and brains all over the place,” muttered Brasseur, grimacing.
“—but this seems to have been quite a small bullet from a small firearm. Probably the same gun that killed the young woman.”
“Perhaps a pocket pistol,” said Brasseur. “Could have been double-barreled, one shot for each.”
“Like this,” Aristide said, twitching aside his frock coat to reveal the tiny pistol, smaller than the length of his hand, that he kept tucked in his belt to ward off footpads.
“Saint-Ange had a pistol,” Didier said, marching to a low cabinet lacquered in the Chinese style, on top of which the dead man and woman’s personal possessions had been laid out. “It’s here, with his effects.”
“Where’d you find it?” Brasseur demanded. “In its case? In his hand?”
“Almost under the sofa. Might have fallen from his hand when he was shot.”
Aristide lifted the pistol. It was large and heavy, a gold-inlaid pattern ornamenting the grip. He sniffed at the muzzle, scenting the familiar tang of scorched powder, and handed it to Brasseur. “Doctor, this has been fired. Could it have inflicted the wound that killed him?”
“Certainly not. A ball from that, at close range, would have made a nasty mess of his head.”
“He was shot at close range?”
“Go see for yourself. Shot right through the forehead, an inch or two away at most.”
“Dueling pistol, I’d guess,” Brasseur said, with a closer look at it. “Expensive, too. A housebreaker wouldn’t have overlooked it, nor those trinkets, either,” he added, with a nod toward a side table where a gold snuffbox sat on a silver tray between two silver candelabra. “The servant will know, but at a glance I’d guess nothing is missing.”
“Saint-Ange had money on him,” said Didier, returning to the cabinet. “No robbery here. And over there, in the cabinet in the bottom of the buffet, we found a case with a matching pistol in it. Looks as if the pistols were his, all right.”
Aristide glanced at the marble-topped buffet. A single half-empty wine glass stood on it, surrounded by a few deep crimson splotches, a fine film of dust floating on its ruby surface. “Was the cabinet door open or shut when you found it?”
“Open, I think.”
“Then why is it shut now?”
“I suppose one of my men shut it after we searched it.”
“Death of the devil!” Brasseur exclaimed. “When will you blockheads learn to leave things as they were? Don’t you understand how much you can learn, sometimes, from something as trifling as that? Or do you do your best to make a mess of the scene?”
Aristide pointedly ignored Didier and strode out to the landing to turn back the sheet covering the dead man’s face. The neat round bullet wound in the center of the corpse’s forehead marred the man’s sharp good looks. Though the skin was scorched and blackened from the explosion of the gunpowder, the wound had scarcely bled.
“Brasseur,” Aristide said suddenly, “look at this.” He brushed aside a few strands of the man’s long, sandy hair. “This mark on his temple. What do you make of it?”
“Looks like a slight scrape or a scratch,” Brasseur said, joining him and laboriously kneeling. “Scarcely bled, though. Doctor?”
“I was wondering if you would find that,” said Prunelle smugly. “I barely did myself. And there’s a hint of bruising. Feel the wound; the cranium is thin at that spot, and something cracked the bone like a porcelain coffee cup.”
Aristide prodded lightly at the dead man’s temple. Beneath his fingertip, the bone gave way.
“Something struck this man hard, shortly before he died,” continued the police surgeon. “Dead bodies don’t bruise or bleed. The blow itself might have killed him, after ten or twenty minutes, if the bullet hadn’t finished him off first.”
“It’s likely,” Aristide agreed, running his fingers carefully through the dead man’s hair in case the wound extended farther beyond the hairline.
“What do you think struck him?” Brasseur said, turning to the surgeon. “Fire iron?”
Dr. Prunelle inspected the irons by the fireplace and turned the poker over in his hands, frowning, before replacing it. “No, I’d say the weapon was round. These squared edges would have left a mark.”
“Prunelle,” Aristide said sharply. His searching fingers had found a sticky spot on the back of the corpse’s head. “There’s another wound here.”
He rose, as the police surgeon knelt beside the body, and returned to the salon, glancing around him. “There,” he said, beckoning Brasseur over, just as Dr. Prunelle coughed.
“There is a contused wound, on the back of the skull…”
“A wound that could have been caused by falling against some heavy object?” Aristide pointed to the buffet and to the small smudge of brownish red, inconspicuous among the dried wine stains, at the beveled corner of the pink marble. “I’d guess that’s blood. The murderer hits him, he staggers, falls backward, strikes his head on the edge—shaking the buffet enough to slop some wine from the glass—and goes down.”
“Why do it?” Brasseur demanded, to no one in particular. “That is, why knock him unconscious with a killing blow, and then burn his brains?”
“Who knows?” Aristide absently gnawed at his thumbnail. An abominable habit, he reminded himself. “He came in,” he began at last. “Or she…but we’ll say ‘he’ for simplicity’s sake, and this looks more like a man’s crime…the murderer was admitted, probably by Saint-Ange himself—” He paused, staring about the salon, thinking. Abruptly he strode to the wall on which the engravings hung, gazing at the empty space where one picture had crashed to the floor. The wall was covered with an expensive paper in an ornate pattern of Grecian columns and dark green acanthus leaves, in the new fashion that had begun to supplant the carved and painted rococo paneling or boiseries of the past century.
“What’s that you’re looking at?” Brasseur said after a moment.
“A bullet hole. From Saint-Ange’s gun, I expect. Here.” He brushed his fingertips across a hole partially disguised by the pattern of the wallpaper. Bending, he picked up the fallen engraving in its frame and held it against the wall. “You see? A tear and a hole in the print, where the glass was shattered.” He rehung the print on its peg. “See here, it’s plain: Saint-Ange recognized his murderer and defended himself as best he could, pushing furniture in the murderer’s way. He was trying to get to his own pistols, there in the buffet. They might have struggled. Saint-Ange at last got hold of a pistol and fired at his attacker—but he missed, and the bullet hit the wall.”
“Missed?” said Brasseur. “—Of course; no blood at that side of the room.”
“In the struggle, the murderer either fired at Saint-Ange and missed—we should look for bullet holes in the opposite wall—or else he didn’t want to waste his shot in the chance of shooting wide. So instead, after Saint-Ange fired—these dueling pistols are only single-shot—he pursued him, and swung his own pistol at Saint-Ange’s head—so”—clutching an imaginary pistol, Aristide swung his arm in a wide arc—“Crack—and Saint-Ange loses his balance and stumbles backward, and hits his head on the buffet, and falls to the floor, stunned, where the murderer shoots him.”
Brasseur snapped his fingers. “That’s it—a gun barrel, or the grip. Round, solid.”
The surgeon stirred. “The skin is severely scorched about the bullet wound. The gun was held against his head, or no more than a finger’s breadth away, when fired.”
Kneeling behind the sofa, Aristide closed his hand once more around the imaginary pistol and lowered it slowly to the spot where the dead man had lain. “Saint-Ange is unconscious…now the murderer has ample time to reload if he needs to, and aim, and bring it down, close to his head, so, before squeezing the trigger…” He jerked his hand up with a sigh. Something was not right with the little drama he had fashioned.
“That wound…it’s too perfect.”
“Perfect?” the surgeon echoed him.
“You’ve come here in search of an enemy, with murder in your heart,” Aristide said, “and you’re frantic to get it over with, cover your traces, and flee before someone finds you. You’re probably shaking with rage, or fear, or at least agitation and fatigue from the struggle.”
“Of course you want to kill your intended victim, who is lying helpless before you. But do you squeeze off a shot at his heart or head and run for it…or do you take the time to aim your pistol, probably while your hand is trembling, so precisely and symmetrically at his forehead?” He gnawed at his thumbnail again for a moment, frowning. “This precise, deliberate killing means something. It has to.”
“Revenge?” said Brasseur.
“Possibly. Something to do with the girl, even?”
“Could be…though it looks as if the girl was simply killed to silence a witness.”
“Wouldn’t she have run for it as soon as the murderer came in and the fun began?”
Brasseur shrugged. “Women just freeze sometimes when they panic. She might have cowered there, too frightened to move. And then the killer shot her.”
“Revenge for an injury…punishment for a crime…” Aristide returned to the the corpse on its stretcher and gazed at it a moment longer, reflecting. “Yes…Saint-Ange must have been the one he wanted to kill. Look at the wound, Brasseur, right in the center of his forehead like the mark of Cain. Branded like a felon. Our murderer wanted this man dead for some private, profound reason—not merely dead, but executed.”