In a packed movie theater, an usher notices two women enter and leave just before the show begins. Moments later, the theater goes up in flames, and 183 people perish in the stampede to escape. By the time investigators Jean-Louis St-Cyr and Hermann Kohler arrive from Paris, the charred bodies are frozen solid. It is two days before Christmas, 1942, and the people of Lyon are terrified. As the detectives try to unravel what happened in that packed movie house, the arsonists plan their next attack. Saving Lyon from fire will force St-Cyr and Kohler to confront the worst of human nature, in a city lorded over by one of the most infamous Nazis of the Second World War.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
A St-Cyr and Kohler Mystery
By J. Robert Janes
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1994 J. Robert Janes
All rights reserved.
The stench was terrible, of piss-soaked wool, wet ashes and death, that sweet, foul, clinging odour of burnt flesh, excrement and human hair.
Jean-Louis St-Cyr let his gaze drift over the corpses that lay in two great mounds at what had once been the curtained doorways to the foyer. Some, too, were scattered about the charred, soaked seats that now lay in ruins under ice.
Some had tried repeatedly to force the exit doors—there were corpses there, too, lots of them—trampled again and one could see how that seething mass of terrified humanity had run to those doors and then had tried to escape through the foyer.
'Louis, how the hell are we supposed to go about sorting this thing out?' demanded Kohler angrily. Hermann was looking desperate and ill behind a blue polka-dot bandanna that had been soaked in cheap toilet water and disinfectant. Contrary to popular belief, many Bavarians were known to have weak stomachs, this one especially.
Concerned about him, St-Cyr nudged his partner's arm. 'Try not to think too much about the loss of so many, mon vieux. Try to go carefully, eh? Remember, we don't have to pull them apart. Not us. Others.'
Louis was always saying things like that! A chief inspector of the Sûreté Nationale and a detective of long standing, he was the other half of their flying squad, such as it was and always seeming to be on the run. 'Verdammt! It's nearly Christmas, Louis! Giselle and Oona ... they were expecting me to be at home in Paris for the holiday.'
Ah merde, no concern for his partner, and how, really, were they to begin? wondered St-Cyr, wishing he was elsewhere and looking desperately around at the carnage, telling himself that Hermann was better off if a little angry. It helped the stomach.
One couple clung in a last, desperate act of love. Ice encased everything, and the fire that had come before had removed all but scraps of clothing. Even the woman's garter belt was gone, the elastic adding its tiny contribution to the conflagration, the wires now embedded in her thighs.
Others had cringed under the seats, covering their heads and trying to protect their faces. Still others had been trampled by their fellow human beings. Now those who had done the trampling lay atop the piles of tangled bodies, their stark, empty-eyed expressions caught and kept by death and the encasing ice.
A cinema ... The Palace of Pleasure of the Beautiful Celluloid. Whoever had set the fire—and it had been set—had made certain of the carnage. Both fire doors had been padlocked, though not, he thought, by the arsonist. The cinema had been packed—two days before Christmas 1942, a Wednesday evening performance, the fire set at about 9.15 Berlin time. The City of Lyon, the German Occupation of France but not a cinema reserved for the Wehrmacht, not one of the soldatenkinos. Railway workers and their families. Humble people, little people. Loyal fans, the film a favourite of all railway workers, La Bête humaine, The Human Beast.
In the scramble to escape, 183 patrons had died, an unofficial estimate. 'Ah, mon Dieu, Hermann, to come straight from the railway station to a thing like this!'
Icicles were everywhere—hanging from the balcony and a brass railing that had come loose under the crush. Even from the cornice of the projectionist's booth, even from the backs and bottoms of the seats. Charred timbers showed where portions of the roof had gone. The sky above was empty and grey. Icicles hung up there—great long things that, with the fifteen degrees of frost, appeared dirty grey and savage.
There was glass underfoot from the skylights above, and plaster in chunks with laddered bits of once-painted wood whose charred alligator pattern might have been used to trace the progress of the fire had one not been told exactly where it had started.
'Right at the head of each aisle, Louis. Simultaneously or very close to it. Gasoline, though God knows where they got it.'
'Molotov cocktails?' asked the Frenchman.
Kohler shook his head and nudged the bandanna farther up on a nose that had been broken several times in the course of duty and elsewhere. 'More subtle than that. Two women were seen entering together. One carried a woven rush bag large enough for the shopping.'
'And those two women?'
The Bavarian's gaze didn't waver. 'Seen leaving in a hurry, Louis, just as the fire struck. They were the first to get out.'
'Yes. They came in late, and the usherette found them seats at the very back, the right aisle, left side, nearest the aisle.'
'It's not possible. No woman would do this, Hermann, and certainly not two of them.'
'Then talk to the usherette. See if you can get any sense out of her. The poor kid's still so deep in shock, she couldn't even tell me her name. I told her to go home and think about it. All the others had buggered off. She alone had stayed.'
Hermann was really upset. The faded blue eyes that could so often hold nothing but saw everything, were moist and wary. Frost tinged the strongly boned brow round the edges of its bandage—a bullet graze there from a last investigation and blood ... blood everywhere, some still seeping through. Too worried to even change the dressing. Yes, yes, that last case and what it had revealed to him about the growing resistance to the Occupation. Provence and a hill village. Murder then and murder now, and no time to even take a piss. Just blitzkrieg, blitzkrieg, because that was the way the Germans wanted everything solved. No time even for Christmas and a little holiday.
'We'll leave the usherette for now, Hermann. The relatives will want the dead released for burial. It's the least we can do.'
Then you take this aisle, I'll take the right one. Meet me in front of what's left of the stage.'
'Look for little things. House keys, cigarette lighters, bits of jewellery, brass buttons, anything that might let us get a feel for what really happened here. Then we will know better how to proceed.'
'Yes, guns. They were railway workers. Communists. Resistants. Perhaps the fire was an act of vengeance after all.'
'Gestapo Lyon wanting to get even, eh?'
'Perhaps, but then ...'
Kohler snorted sarcastically. Always Louis couched things by saying Perhaps but then ... mais alors ... alors ... And of course Gestapo Lyon could well have lit the bloody thing just for spite to nail a couple of Resistants yet would try their damnedest to blame it all on someone else!
Worried about him, St-Cyr watched his partner and friend pick his way between the seats. No row gave easy access to the far aisle, but once committed, Hermann moved deliberately, stepping over a corpse, pausing to examine something. A big man with tired, frizzy hair that was not black or brown but something in between and greying fast. A man with the heart and mind of a small-time hustler. A petty thief when need be. These days, food and everything else was in very short supply and ration tickets often unavailable to one who was not a 'good' Gestapo but a damned good detective. Hermann lived with two women in Paris, so was always on the look-out for things. Unfortunately there was a third back home on her father's farm near Wasserburg, the wife. But 'his' Gerda was suing him for divorce, having taken up with a conscripted French labourer, and the Gestapo's Bavarian detective was feeling betrayed by his own kind. Ah yes. Gerda's uncle was a big shot in Munich. Gerda's uncle had pull enough to see that the divorce went through in spite of all the laws against such a thing. Problems ... there were always problems and they had only just got word of the divorce.
When a bit of roof came away, Hermann jerked his head up and froze in panic with a hand inside his overcoat, clutching the pistol in its shoulder holster.
Yes, Hermann was just not himself. The German Sixth Army was surrounded at Stalingrad. In North Africa, the Americans had landed. It was only a matter of time until the Germans packed up and left, and they both knew it.
Uneasy at the thought of their parting and what it might entail—a shootout perhaps, though they had become more than friends—St-Cyr went back to work. A child, a girl of six he thought, had tried to escape by worming her way under the seats. Her hair had caught fire, she had tried to get to her knees but one of the seats had held her down.
The mother's hand was still firmly about the child's slender wrist. She'd been racing to reach the daughter, had gone down on all fours and had scrambled between the next two rows of seats only to flatten herself as the fire had swept over them, and to reach out to the child.
The ice that encased her body had cracked. A gossamer of dirty, whitish-grey lines now made an angular web over the charred back and blackened head.
The child had been trying to reach the stage but had only got about one-quarter of the way. Had the mother seen her dive beneath the seats? Had she simply been searching madly for her daughter by the light of the flames and suddenly come upon her at the last moment?
And why, please, had the child been here at all? La Bête humaine, madame? Marital infidelity and murder? Was there no one to look after your daughter, or did you think it necessary for her to see that railwaymen were really human? That among them there could be both good and evil, just as there is in any other class or occupation? That they, too, could lust and hate with passion?
There was little left of the woman's purse, no chance of readily determining her identity, though he knew her flesh and skin would be better preserved next to the floor and that if he turned her over, parts of her clothing might still remain.
From across the bodies and the ice-encased wreckage, Kohler secretly watched as Louis tried to rationalize the child being with the mother. He'd be 'talking' to them, he'd be asking questions of the mother. Louis was stocky and tough, rarely belligerent and normally the diplomat even in very tight situations. Plump and chubby in the face, with the brown ox-eyes of the French and a broad, bland brow that brooked no nonsense. The hair was thick and brown and needing a trim, the scruffy moustache wide and thick. A fisherman, a gardener, a reader of books in winter when he could get the time, but now year round since fishing was no longer allowed under the decree of June 1940. Verboten to drop a line in the Seine of a Sunday. Verboten! Gott im Himmel, what had they been thinking of in Berlin when they'd written that decree? It had baffled the Bavarian half of their partnership as much as the French, and they both had had the idea then that this lousy war could not possibly last for ever. Take away the potatoes and you create, hunger; take away a man's right to fish and eventually he'll begin to question why.
Against all odds, Louis and he had got on—common crime: murder, arson—oh yes, arson!—rape, extortion, kidnapping, et cetera, et cetera. None of the rough stuff—not that kind anyway. Not Gestapo brutality. Ah no. Only its witness in passing.
Decidedly uncomfortable and uneasy at the memory of a naked seventeen-year-old girl horribly tortured by the Gestapo but a few days ago in Cannes, Kohler tried to put all thought of the French Resistance out of his mind. But as he searched among the wreckage, he had the thought his two sons would die at Stalingrad and he'd never see them again. Gerda would leave him, she'd get her divorce, and there'd be no one at home to run to when this whole sad business was over. He'd be tarred Gestapo along with all the rest. God forbid that Louis should still think, as he had at first, that their partnership would have to end in one of them killing the other.
Ironically, there was a revolver lying under the ice, an old Lebel, Model 1873, a swing-out six-shooter exactly like the gun Louis still carried.
'Ah, shit!' swore Kohler, exhaling the words exasperatedly. 'I forgot about his shooter and Louis didn't remind me of it!'
As the Gestapo member of the flying squad, Kohler was to keep their weapons under German control at all times. Well, at least until the shooting started and the time for questions was over.
Swiftly Kohler sought him out again. Louis had gone back through one of the gaps in the rear wall and was now standing in what had once been the foyer. The grey light of day was louvered with shadow. Just his head and shoulders were visible beyond that tangled, horrible pile of humanity he was calmly studying. The brown felt trilby was yanked down over the brow for warmth and as a warning of determination. He'd get whoever had done this. One could read it in him in spite of his calmness.
The head and shoulders vanished and Kohler realized that Louis hadn't wanted to be seen just then.
Merde again! 'If we can't trust each other, we're done for,' he said, muttering it to himself. With difficulty he freed the revolver and, looking about to see that he was unobserved, quickly pocketed the thing, determined to drop it in the nearest sewer.
'There's no sense our getting Gestapo Lyon all worked up. Hell, they'd only rip the town apart and shoot thirty or forty hostages we might need to question.'
Kohler knew that if Louis had found the revolver he, too, would have hidden it away and said nothing of it, but Louis was French and had every reason to do so, whereas his partner was ...
When the revolver had disappeared, and Hermann had busied himself elsewhere, St-Cyr heaved a contented sigh. For a moment, he'd thought Hermann undecided. He was glad that they were beginning to think alike on this issue, but of course, Hermann might yet weaken and quite obviously there had been Resistants in the cinema. Railway workers were notoriously Communist, pro-Russian and therefore anti-German.
Distracting himself from such an uncomfortable thought, for things would be far from easy if the presence of the Resistance was as obvious to others, St-Cyr went back to searching the ruins. There were rings of gold and those of silver. If anything, the fire had deepened the colour of the gold wedding bands, while that of the silver had either been dulled by oxidation or swept clean by the flames. One gold wedding band had fallen and rolled ahead of its owner and he wondered about a last act of contrition. An illicit love affair? The wedding ring removed and then ... then the fire and the realization that the ring would have to be put back on the finger or else ...
He thought of Marianne, of how she must have removed the ring he'd given her on their wedding day. How she must have slipped it into a pocket only to guiltily put it back on when coming home late, satiated from the arms of her German lover. Yes, lover!
But Marianne was dead and so was their little son Philippe, killed by mistake! A Resistance bomb that had been meant for him. Ah yes, they had had his number—still did for that matter. They thought him a collaborator because he worked under a German, a Bavarian, and for the enemy. What else was he to have done, eh? God had frowned, and God had not thought to tell the Resistance otherwise.
With difficulty, he freed the ring and managed to force it back on the proper finger. He said to himself, Hermann was watching me just then. He has realized I've kept my gun and said nothing of it.
There was one corpse whose hand still clutched the clasp knife the man had used to kill those around him in his struggle to get out. The blade was a good fifteen centimetres long and not exactly what he should have been carrying around. Ah no, most certainly not.
Railwaymen! he said to himself. Ah nom de Jésus-Christ, how on earth were they to settle this business? How could they possibly hope to catch this ... this maniac, this Salamander who had supposedly set the fire? Salamander, the telex from Mueller, Head of the Gestapo in Berlin, had read with all the brevity of a command from on high and all the warning too. 'Find him before he kills too many more,' Boemelburg had said in Paris. The Sturmbannführer Walter Boemelburg, Head of Section IV, the Gestapo in France. Hermann's boss.
Two women, not one man, a Salamander, had been seen. It made no sense to tell them so little yet expect them not only to find out everything in the space of one or two days—would they have that much time?—but also to put a stop to the arsonist or arsonists immediately.
Excerpted from Salamander by J. Robert Janes. Copyright © 1994 J. Robert Janes. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.