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A St-Cyr and Kohler Mystery
By J. Robert Janes
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1996 J. Robert Janes
All rights reserved.
When the snow landed on the girl's face it did not melt even under lights so strong they made her eyes glisten—lights that disturbed the doves which cooed and fluttered until one wanted to shriek, Shut up! Stay still. As still as she.
It lay on the backs of her hands and dusted the dark navy blue of an open overcoat. It touched the rumpled white woollen kneesocks, the white knickers, dark blue pleated woollen skirt, pushed-up sweater and still-buttoned white shirt-blouse, the chin sharp and jutting up, the head back, lips compressed. Blood oozed and congealed at a corner.
Silently, St-Cyr crossed himself. Hermann, who had just lost his two sons at Stalingrad, blurted, 'Ah Gott im Himmel, Louis, she isn't more than eleven years old. Her boots are brand-new. Where ... where the hell did her parents get rubber and felt like that?'
On the black market, of course, for this was Neuilly and the Bois de Boulogne and money, but it would be best to save all that for later, best to shrug and say, 'I don't know. She's hardly worn them.'
Hermann liked children even more than he did. 'Look, why not ...' hazarded St-Cyr.
'Leave? No, I'll stay.'
'Then please do not be sick. You will only embarrass us in front of the préfet's men.'
That gawking ring of flics stood in their capes and képis just outside the dove cage, some manning the lights. Barred shadows fell on her bony, bare knees and auburn pigtails but, through some accident of kindness, did not touch her face.
She was of average height and skinny, like most girls who are just beginning to shoot up. The face was pinched, the nose sharp. The eyes were of a deep, dark brown and large under long dark lashes and softly curving brows. The ears were large, and St-Cyr knew beyond doubt that she would have hated them and would have prayed to God and the Blessed Virgin for compensating breasts.
'Louis, there's a giraffe.'
'A toy. Over there, under one of the boxes. The poor kid must have had it in her hand when he caught up with her.'
So there was.
The killer had all but smothered her with the weight of his body. He had had her by the throat, had not had time to do more than tear open her coat and push up her sweater and skirt. He had then forced her head back and had driven a steel knitting needle straight up under the chin and deep into her brain. A concierge's needle. One of those sturdy grey things the sweater-women who ride the trains use to annoy others.
Mercifully, she had died instantly. The blunt head of the needle still protruded a good four centimetres, but the thing had been bent by the force used until its end touched her chin.
'Her toque, her beret perhaps, is missing,' said St-Cyr grimly. 'The schools will still be closed for the holiday, yet she wears the uniform.'
'A convent, then. A boarder who was left to languish with the nuns over Christmas and the New Year.'
'Yet she has apparently come to the Bois without any of the sisters to watch over her. All alone, Hermann, but for a toy giraffe she is too old to play with and would have been ashamed to be seen carting around. She has, it appears, put up little if any resistance.'
'Too terrified, poor thing. Petrified.'
Between the ring of flics and the lights, the cage, one of gilded wire with scrolls and fleurs-de-lis in the style of the Sun King's hunt marquee, held perhaps two hundred white doves that at nesting times were kept in little boxes beneath its green-and-gilded leafy branches, which were richly carved and provided roosting places. Doves of royalty, then, in a time of war and privation, of hunger so great, one had to ask, Where the hell was the custodian while this was going on?
The branches extended everywhere above the nesting boxes, behind which, in a narrow corridor lined with bins for the droppings, the child had been all but hidden from view.
'Yet surely, Hermann, someone should have seen what was going on or heard her cry out?'
'To them he'd have been standing here with his hands on something they couldn't see. She'd have choked, Louis. She'd have ...'
Kohler turned and rushed from the cage into darkness. Everyone could hear him throwing up. It had happened again. For one so accustomed to seeing death, he could no longer stand the sight of it. A detective! A former bomb-disposal expert and artillery officer. A Hauptmann of the last war.
The murders of children were especially difficult, always grim.
Hermann was a Gestapo who had been called up against his will and was hated by his confrères because he did not believe their Nazi doctrine, nor would he do the horrible things they did. A Bavarian. A Fritz-haired, greying giant of fifty-five with the ragged, glistening scar of a rawhide whip down the left cheek from eye to chin. The SS had done that, a little matter near Vouvray they hadn't liked, ah yes. There were shrapnel scars also but from that last war, and drooping bags under often empty and faded blue eyes, the graze of a bullet wound, too across the brow, a more recent affair but now healed.
'He's not himself,' confessed St-Cyr to that silent ring of men. 'We've only just got in from Quiberon and the submarine pens at Lorient. A dollmaker, a U-boat captain ... a girl of about the same age.'
They said nothing, those men. With the bovine insensibility of Parisians the city over, they sought details of the corpse. Had she been violated? Were her lips torn, her tongue perhaps bitten through during the forcing open of the jaws, her hymen ruptured?
Ah Paris ... Paris, he said sadly to himself, you are both the heart's rejoicing and the soul's lament.
It was the night of Sunday the tenth of January 1943, yet, in spite of the black-out regulations, lights burned here in a city that, with its suburbs, had a population of nearly three million. A city so darkened by its bilious wash of laundry blueing and black-out curtains, no lights but those infrequent pinpricks were allowed. Most people travelled on foot in blindness, the city silent after the curfew but for the tramp of Wehrmacht patrols, the screech of Gestapo tyres and sometimes a piercing scream from the cellars of Number ll rue des Saussaies or some other such place, or the rain of rifle butts on a door to shouts of 'Raus, raus!'—Get out, get out!
Hands up. Backs to the wall—you, you and you! Crash! and it was all over. For every German killed by an act of 'terrorism', one, two, five—ten—hostages must die. Most were taken from the jails because it freed up much-needed space. Some, though, were plucked from the streets. To date, these acts of 'terrorism' were few and far between, but the defeat at Stalingrad would feed their flames, and if not that, then the hated, indentured labour in the Reich or some other such injustice.
France was on her knees and bleeding in the grip of a winter that could only promise to be far harsher than the last one.
Looking like death, not like a member of the Occupation's dreaded Gestapo, Kohler staggered back into the cage to prop himself against the nesting boxes. 'Louis, I think I must have the flu. It's like it was last winter. I'm sweating when I should be freezing.'
The flu ... ah merde, must God do this to them? Last winter's had been terrible. 'You didn't give it to me, did you?' hissed the Sûreté vehemently. 'If you did, I ...' He gazed up and said, 'You didn't look well on the train. Ah no, no, my fine inspector from the Kripo, you were sleeping fitfully. You awoke several times. I know! You were having nightmares.'
Kohler pulled his coat collar close and lamely gave that indisputable signal of absolute truth in the matter. 'I don't want a cigarette. You could offer me ten and I wouldn't touch a one.'
Ah nom de Jésus-Christ! the lousy air on that lousy train, the wretched food—what food? No sleep for days, none now either, and von Schaumburg on their backs. 'Von Schaumburg, Hermann. Forget about having the flu. Don't be an idiot! Old Shatter Hand simply won't believe you.'
He wouldn't either. The Kommandant von Gross-Paris was a Prussian of the old school, a real Junker's bastard when it came to former N.C.O.s who had had the great good fortune to find themselves in a French prisoner-of-war camp in 1916.
'Hey, my French is pretty good, eh, Chief?' quipped the giant, trying to grin. 'You take the left side, I'll do the right and try not to breathe on you. Then we'll compare notes.'
'You sure?' They hadn't been able to do this in nearly a year.
'Positive. We've got to find the son of a bitch. We've got to put a stop to him. I've already promised her we'll use the bread-slicer.'
Ah yes, the guillotine, but first ...
The cable that had reached them on the homeward train had been brief:
SANDMAN STRIKES AGAIN. BODY OF HEIRESS FOUND IN BIRDCAGE AMONG DOVES NEAR CLAY-PIGEON SHOOT BOIS DE BOULOGNE. REQUEST IMMEDIATE ACTION. REPEAT ACTION. IMPERATIVE VILLAIN BE APPREHENDED. REPORT 0700 HOURS DAILY. STURMBANNFÜHRER BOEMELBURG CONCURS AND PLACES YOU BOTH DIRECTLY UNDER MY ORDERS.
Boemelburg was Hermann's Chief and Head of Section IV the Gestapo in France. Under him, the Kripo, that smallest and most insignificant of subsections, fought common crime, and every one of the flics standing around knew this, knew also that this particular flying squad was constantly held in doubt and challenged as to their loyalties. Two detectives of long standing but from opposite sides of the war, thrown together by circumstance and fate to become partners first and then friends Ah yes, God did things like that. God also had not answered the silent cries of such as this one, which only served to emphasize He could not have stopped it from happening.
But never mind those who would claim He needed another eleven-year-old angel. Never mind all that sort of thing. Four other girls, each randomly chosen, each caught alone and of about this one's age, had been sexually violated and murdered in Paris within the past five weeks. Four over the Christmas-New Year holiday—what holiday? One to the east of the Bois, in the industrial suburb of Suresnes, near the Terrot bicycle factory; another to the north, in Aubervilliers, in a crowded tenement near an overworked soup kitchen; then one in les Halles among the barren stalls of what had formerly been the belly of Paris but was now but a forlorn reminder of it.
And the last? asked St-Cyr of himself.
'Up in one of the bell towers of the Notre-Dame, right in the préfet's backyard,' sighed Kohler without being asked. 'Only pigeons were witness to it. Pigeons then and doves now, and why us, Louis? Why? How much more does that God of yours think we can take?'
He always asked those questions; they were nothing new. God often figured in their troubles, especially at times like this. 'Let us remove the bins of droppings but do so one by one. She might have tucked something among them. It's just a thought.'
'Don't forget the giraffe, eh? Don't let some flu decide to steal it for his kids.'
St-Cyr lifted the first of the bins away and, squeezing his broad shoulders into the space, just managed to kneel beside the victim with out disturbing her. Reaching well under the nesting boxes, he retrieved the giraffe. Faded red blotches marked its pale yellow hide. 'It has lost an ear. The left one,' came the droll comment to allay the distress they both felt. 'As with myself, injury is apparently attracted only to the left side. That eye has lost its black paint.'
'Made of real rubber?' asked Kohler, intent on something he had found.
'Real rubber ...? Ah, a stiff, rubberized composite, I think. Lots of clay to give it firmness yet keep its plasticity. Pre-war and not recent. Fabricated by injection moulding in an unlicenced shop, probably in Saint-Denis or Belleville during the early thirties. No date or manufacturer's name, but the number 979.12 has been written on the inner right hind thigh, with pen and ink.'
'From a crèche?' asked the Bavarian, still not looking up but now using a pencil to explore the bracelet that encircled her wrist.
'Perhaps but then ... ah mais alors, alors, mon vieux, why number it?'
'So as to prevent theft, idiot!'
'Then why do so with ink that will wash off?'
It was but one of many questions.
'Was she left-handed, Louis? Is that why her charm bracelet is on the right wrist?'
Hermann needed to talk when working so close to a corpse. To heave an impatient sigh would do no good. One must be kind. 'Why not wait until I've had a closer look?'
'You'll take all night! Hey, I'm nearly done and you've hardly started.'
Hermann hated doing this. He really did. 'Her ccat pocket has been torn a little. Did the one who found her do this, or did the killer, and if the latter, did he ...' said St-Cyr.
Suspiciously the Bavarian's head shot up. 'Did he have to check who she was?'
Ah, perhaps. But it may have been the flics.'
Had it given the Sandman a thrill to know who his victim was, wondered Kohler, sickened by the thought. It took all types. 'And who was she, Chief?' His stomach was just not right.
Those deep brown ox-eyes he knew so well looked out from under a broad, bland forehead and bushy brows. Louis's battered, stain-encrusted fedora was judiciously removed and perched atop the nesting boxes to signal work in progress and not shade the corpse. 'Nénette Micheline Vernet, of the Vernets and money that would make even our friends in the SS over on the avenue Foch sweat with envy. Age eleven years, three months and seven days. The photo is good but the eyes ... ah, what can one say but that they are most definitely not dark blue, as is written here on her carte d'identité, nor is her hair black. Our flics have checked but have only taken time for the photograph, the name and then perhaps the address, yes, but not, I repeat not, for the descriptive details below them. They panicked, Hermann. They accepted that it was the heiress.'
'Then it's not her?' bleated Kohler.
'If it is, her parents, they have much to explain.'
The bushy brown moustache was plucked at in thought, the robust, swarthy nose pinched, the rounded cheeks with their depths of evening shadow favoured. At the age of fifty-two, and a Chief Inspector of the Sûreté Nationale, Louis was not easily ruffled.
'Only the photographs have been switched, Hermann. It's not a competent job of forgery—ah no, nothing like that. These are simply the identity papers of Mademoiselle Nénette Vernet, over whose photo this one has pasted her own so as to hide the other. Fortunately, the stamp of the Commissariat de Police has not intruded, and doubtless the heiress has this one's papers, though bearing her own photograph. But has the killer, having ripped off the victim's hat and having perhaps torn the pocket to see who she was, now gone after the other one?'
Verdammt! Another killing and so soon? Girls ... ah, just what the hell had they been up to? Von Schaumburg would hit the roof. False identity papers, et cetera, et cetera. 'Let's empty her pockets, then. Let's see what else she can tell us.'
A dustbin of things came out of the left pocket. A tin pencil case—a Faber Castell; a toy, hand-held, push-lever roulette wheel with a tiny steel ball bearing to roll around; frosted and unfrosted marbles; four of the gritty vitaminic 'biscuits' all children were given at school in lieu of fresh fruit, vegetables, milk, cheese and meat, et cetera, at home. 'A crystal of clear quartz,' said St-Cyr, gazing raptly down at the loot. 'A small pebble of poorly polished amethyst. A homemade ring of braided gold wire—scrap most probably and once saved for the jeweller's, perhaps. A tiny, zinc-cast Lone Ranger on his Silver, a pre-war thing from an American cereal box, perhaps, the horse rearing up so as to give chase to bank robbers. I've seen it myself in an American film serial, or was it in a Tom Mix film? There was also a wireless serial. She may have listened to it on the shortwave late at night. Not now, of course. Now she'd be arrested and shot, but we won't mention it, will we?'
Louis hesitated at something else. Kohler could hear him gritting his teeth in dismay. 'A death's-head cap badge, Hermann. Two of the gold wound badges, the Polish Campaign medal and a silver tank battle badge.'
Excerpted from Sandman by J. Robert Janes. Copyright © 1996 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.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I picked this one out because it takes place in occupied Paris in 1943 and the detectives are Jean-Louis St-Cyr a Paris detective and his partner, Hermann Kohler, veteran of WWI who¿s disillusioned with the Nazis. They are hindered in their search for the Sandman (who has been killing young girls with a knitting needle and raping them) by the forces of the Occupier. Luckily, though, they are very good and the various authorities (The German Gestapo, The French Gestapo, the SS,) and always behind them. One of the best things about the book is the way the author makes you feel the weather¿it¿s January of what was a particularly cold winter in Europe. Most people had no heat, little food, and not enough layers of clothing to keep them warm. But all things considered this isn¿t a great mystery. It¿s not terribly hard to figure out ¿who done it¿ though the book goes through 6 or 7 suspects, all with unsavory stories. It¿s a fast moving case¿the action takes only a few days during which the detectives don¿t get any rest and little food and a child is out there somewhere trying to avoid capture because she knows who the Sandman is. Still, though, the novel drags. Don¿t see how it was one of the New York Times notable books (which is why I tired it). Though it may be that I didn't read it quickly enough.