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A St-Cyr and Kohler Mystery
By J. Robert Janes
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1995 J. Robert Janes
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Among the broken saplings in the centre of the glade, sunlight trapped the blowflies. Now they rose above the corpse which was still hidden from view, now they settled on it. And in the stillness of an early summer's afternoon, their sound was constant.
Alarmed, St-Cyr held his breath. Nothing stirred but those damned flies. 'Hermann, a moment,' he breathed.
'Be my guest,' softly grunted the Bavarian in guttural French that was still improving. 'She's all yours.'
'It's just a thought. Rape and then silence, eh? That hangdog truffle hunter who reported this should have taken a closer look.'
'Perhaps he did but was afraid to admit it.'
'Perhaps that sow he uses to find his truffles stuck her snout into something she shouldn't have.'
Ah merde, must Hermann? 'In the Dordogne, as elsewhere, my friend, the fall is the time for truffles. Don't tempt the pig before the fungus is ripe. That hunter might just have been checking the ground but not with his pig!'
The forest canopy had opened, ferns giving way to saxifrage and vetch whose soft blue and pale purple flowers were tangled among the tall grass, swaths of which had been beaten down. Burdock grew here too, and goldenrod, fly honeysuckle and elder. But everywhere the ferns had crowded closely, holding to the shade of limestone shelves beneath dark humus, holm oak, walnut and chestnut, one of which had fallen many years ago to open up the glade.
St-Cyr stopped suddenly and said, sadly, 'Ah no.'
Kohler heard the flies as they rose in a dense blue cloud to shimmer in the sunlight and give pause to their egg-laying. The wounds, the lacerations and punctures were all puffed up, dark and oozing. Dried blood was glued to blades of grass and broken wild flowers. The pale and flaccid buttocks were blotched by putrefaction. The stench hit him and he turned suddenly away.
'I warned you!' hissed St-Cyr. 'Piss off now. Vite, vite, dummkopf! Go and have a cigarette if you have any left!'
'I haven't,' came the whispered confession. 'I gave the last of them to that girl I met on the train.'
Ah yes, the one with the nice calves she kept trying to hide. 'She knew you were Gestapo, idiot. She was terrified.'
'I told her I was a salesman of polished gemstones and ashtrays from Idar-Oberstein. She was convinced.'
You were old enough to have been her grandfather! Just because there are so few young Frenchmen around doesn't mean you can take advantage of their absence.' Furiously a crumpled packet of Gauloises Bleues, the national curse if one could get them — if — was snatched from a slightly ragged jacket pocket and thrust into the Bavarian's hands.
Shaking, Kohler lit up and inhaled deeply. Retreating quickly across the glade into shade, he shut his eyes and silently cursed the French. Why did they always have to kill each other in such horrible ways?
It was Friday 21 June 1942. Jean-Louis St. Cyr — Louis — the Sûreté's Chief Inspector, was now firmly planted just outside the cloud of blowflies. A cinematographer at heart — such a lover of the cinema he would take time out if possible to see again a film he had already seen nine times — Louis would memorize every detail. A gardener, a reader of books when time allowed, he was fifty-one years of age, married and with a little son he seldom saw. The wife, too, and she was pretty and all alone in Paris. A worry, ah yes. Sooner or later there'd be trouble, and who could blame her if she wanted a little something on the side?
Unaware of his partner's thoughts, St-Cyr let his gaze move slowly over the victim's back. The dress had been one of her best, if not the best — he was certain of this. It was of a vivid dark blue seersucker, pre-war, and must have been very chic for these parts. It was belted at the waist but the fabric had been torn and cut to shreds. There were no undergarments. The legs were spread and slack and at odd angles — clumsy looking but that was common enough in death. Had she family? he wondered. There'd been no missing-persons report. Not one word, a puzzle.
The wounds were many and, though most were shallow, some were far deeper and had been worked at. The flies descended en masse and began to worry the flesh. Bruises that might have lightened had she lived were everywhere but hard to define due to the discolouration. Often the weapon had struck her bluntly, not breaking the skin until the second or third attempt. Had her killer been unfamiliar with it? Could it have been a jagged stone? Were there still traces of rigor?
He crouched over the corpse. Disturbed, the flies rose up, buzzing unhappily at the intrusion of dispersing hands.
'Married,' he said. The wedding band was wide and at least of eighteen carat gold, and it caught the sunlight and glowed warmly from between its puffy edgings. Perhaps some well-off relative had donated the ring — this was often done in the country. Life was closer, more solid, more meaningful than in the large cities where a girl from the country would only feel out of place. But the dress was at odds with the country. It really was. Ripped to shreds as if hated.
The finger was slack. 'Dead at least three days,' he murmured. 'Maybe four or five, Hermann,' he called out.
'Four, you idiot! Four! I could have told you that hours ago. I'm going to take a look around. I'm going to leave the details to you.'
'Good! Look for little things, eh? Things our truffle hunter might not have touched.'
Ah yes. These days, especially, one could never tell what had been removed to be saved for later use or sold on the black market. A lipstick, a compact, a pair of underpants, even a set of keys to a flat someone else would briefly go through.
She had worn matching gloves but these had been taken off and folded neatly over the belt — he could just see them. The belt was tight and the gloves didn't appear to have been disturbed. Few if any signs of a struggle then — yes, yes, but her strand of pearls had been broken. The pearls were scattered in the grass about her head. Good ones too and old, yes, old.
A woman, then, who had dressed as if to meet someone, a lover perhaps, but had found death instead.
She must have worn a slip, underpants and a brassiere but of these there was still no sign. A disturbing puzzle. Had she taken them off elsewhere and then come on here? Where were her shoes, her hat?
Questions ... there were always questions, but he didn't think she had snatched up the gloves at the last moment. No, they must have been intentional. The dress, the belt, the pearls and the gloves but nothing else.
Instinctively St-Cyr looked up and across the glade, realizing that he was still not alone. Hermann was a big man, a giant with the pugnacious nose, lower jaw and jutting chin of an ageing storm-trooper, though he swore he was but three or was it really four years older than St Cyr. Shrapnel scars glistened about the ragged, dissipated countenance whose puffy eyelids drooped and bagged from faded blue and often expressionless eyes.
The shrapnel scars were from that other war. They'd been enemies then, in 1914. God did things like that to detectives, this one in particular. Ah yes, of course. Necessity and nearly two years of fighting crime together — arson, murder, extortion and kidnapping, et cetera, et cetera — had welded their partnership so that now, though they were still discovering things about each other, they each knew how the other thought and worked. Hermann was wanting to walk through the woods. He hated death. He was afraid of it always though he'd been a Munich détective long before this lousy war, long before Berlin and his ascendancy to Paris, and had seen lots of similar things. Well, not like this. No, not quite like this.
He was standing among the ferns, reading the woodcraft signs. The big, strong, stumpy fingers were delicately touching a broken leaf as if it was a tripwire or the timer of a bomb he had to defuse.
'Yes, I know. Follow her trail. See where she came from but don't go too far and don't get lost.'
'Sarlat isn't too far. The Dordogne is close.'
'Yes, yes, and the woods and valleys are thick and many.'
'You do that.'
'I'll find the railway line and follow it out to the road, dummkopf. She must have come along it. She can't have gone far in her bare feet.'
Somewhat chubby, somewhat diffident, the Sûreté's détective was broad-shouldered, not tall but not short either, a solid trunk of a man whose dark brown hair was thick and carelessly brushed to the right. Unlike so many of his contemporaries who tarted themselves up in ersatz cloth of human hair or cellulose or in black-market suits and shoes of good quality, Louis depended on things from before the Defeat, from before the Occupation.
The dark brown moustache was thick and wider than the Fuhrer's and had been grown long before that ranting little corporal had ever wet his pants over Czechoslovakia. The bushy eyebrows and large, brown ox-eyes sought Kohler out again.
'Ah mon Dieu, Hermann, why hang around? You know I need to be alone with her. It's always best, isn't that so?'
'Was she raped?'
'How could I possibly tell?'
St-Cyr watched as his partner and friend slowly picked his way through the woods until, at last, he had disappeared from view.
'He desperately needs a holiday,' he said apologetically to the corpse. 'He's got a new girlfriend in Paris but she's playing hard to get and he hasn't yet introduced us or said much about her. If you ask me, I think he's planning to set up house even though he has a wife back home on her father's farm near Wasserburg, and when he is forced to see someone like yourself, this causes him much concern.'
Though he could not yet prove it, St-Cyr felt the woman had bathed and then had calmly put on the dress. The pale, light brown hair was loose and it must have fallen to her shoulders but was now matted forward over the back of her head and caked with dried blood through which, among the hairs, there were bits of grass and torn wild flowers. Some yellow, some pale blue among the amber strands of what he felt must surely have been her pride and joy.
The killer had even hacked at the back of her neck — had he tried to saw off her head with that thing? Ah merde, merde, what the weapon been?
'Both sharp and ragged but pointed too and blunt also,' he said aloud.
He knew he had to turn her over but had best wait until a photographer could be summoned and then the district coroner. It could and would take ages and time ... time was a luxury they did not have.
The Sturmbannführer Walter Boemelburg, Head of the Gestapo in France and Hermann's Chief, had telegraphed to say he wanted to see them immediately on their return to Paris. Immediately.
A mere stop for boiler water at a small station and they'd been pulled off the train from Bergerac. Two 'free' détectives on the run back to Paris with nothing else to do but try to read a train novel — a paperback — or chat up some pretty girl. God did things like that — yanked them out of the doldrums and threw them into the woods without even the benefit of a glass of Vichy water. Ah merde, this Occupation, this blitzkrieg pursuit of crime and its perpetrators. It was no life for Marianne and the boy. There was never enough to eat in Paris and she was always wanting to take Philippe home to her parents' farm in Brittany. 'He'll have milk, Jean-Louis, and meat sometimes. He'll have bread and potatoes and be warm in winter. Paris is so lonely.' She had said it with such feeling and so often. 'I am a stranger. The house, it is too empty.'
This woman would have understood Marianne. Though he felt odd at the thought, instinct told him it was true but had Paris ever figured in the victim's life? That, too, was a thought, and suddenly, though he still wanted to be alone with her, he wanted to be with Hermann.
'Find the place where she bathed, mon vieux,' he whispered. 'Find her other things but do not touch them until I've had a look.'
The valley was secluded and well wooded, and when he had gone up it a few hundred metres, Kohler heard the waterfall in the distance and then he found the cave. It was high up beneath a thick limestone ledge and from its darkened mouth, the sun-drenched slope below glared with the tumbled grey-white rubble of the ages until this progressed into brush and then into trees. He let his eyes linger on the cave. He couldn't understand why its presence frightened him. Christ, it was just a cave. The Dordogne was riddled with them.
On 12 September 1940, cave paintings far better than any others had been discovered at Lascaux by four boys searching for a lost dog a mère twenty kilometres to the north, which just showed a person what boys could find when hunting for something else. But those paintings were only twenty thousand or so years old, which was long enough to make one wonder why the clergy had taken such an interest in them. Rumour had it that some local abbot was now calling that cave the Sistine Chapel of the Périgord!
Had the abbot found any crosses, any fish symbols among the paintings? A staunch non-believer, not a conscientious doubter like Louis, Kohler had little time or patience for religion, let alone that of the Nazi ideologists who fabricated to suit themselves. But being alone in the shade, and standing on two flat stones in the bed of the nicest stream he had seen in ages, he was deeply troubled by the sight of this cave. He had the sudden thought that he could not possibly know what it might mean to the murder, yet it must mean something. She would have been only too aware of it.
The sound of the waterfall came to him. There was leafy shade along the banks of the stream, now dark and cool, now light and warm. The pungent scent of moss and decaying vegetation reminded him of a graveyard, which was stupid really, but he couldn't shake the thought. It was that kind of place.
The stream-course took a small bend. There were blocks of light grey to dark grey limestone among the trees, and everywhere there was moss growing green on grey and still, so still. Ferns and King Solomon's seal, May lilies after their flowering, bluebells too, probably.
High above the little valley a honey buzzard soared against the sun-hammered sky.
When he found her shoes, he found the blanket she had spread under the arms of a giant chestnut tree. There was a picnic hamper lying broken open, its contents scattered by badgers, the leftovers foraged by mice and squirrels. Her clothes were neatly folded to one side of where the hamper must have once rested. A rough beige skirt, serviceable white blouse, pale yellow cardigan, kerchief, raincoat, knee-length stockings with elastic bands, slip and underwear and sturdy shoes ... the handbag in which she had brought the dress she had then put on. The truffle hunter had touched nothing.
A sliver of pre-war soap lay on a modest towel. Beside these, there was a pair of glasses in their leather case, a sandpaper board for the nails, a pair of clippers, and a blue velvet-lined box for a strand of pearls.
From the picnic site beside the stream it was but a short walk through the woods to the waterfall, and along the way, in the dark humus and in clean sand, he found faint traces of her footprints. Bare feet, no other prints but hers. She had stripped off at the blanket and had come this way and then had gone back.
There was a small ledge of limestone, a pavement broken by rectilinear cracks. This ledge led to the base of the waterfall, to large rectangular blocks of limestone that, through time, had collapsed from above. Though the water fell among them, some thoughtful soul, 20,000 years ago perhaps, had cleared a place for bathing.
When he found, in the undergrowth near the blanket, a basket of mushrooms and the worn but razor-sharp paring knife she had used to gather them, he saw she had covered them with a thick layer of once dampened moss. There were puffballs and edible morels — any farmboy, such as he had been, could have identified them. Sweet-chestnut boletus too and parasols, others too. Others.
He removed the moss completely, noting that she had placed a pair of thin cloth work gloves between the mushrooms in a small canvas collecting bag. The gloves were worn through at the thumbs and fingers and stained not by humus as he had thought, but by ochrous fine sand, grey ash and some sort of very black powder.
There were also tiny bits of black flint no longer than a few millimetres at most.
Excerpted from Stonekiller by J. Robert Janes. Copyright © 1995 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
OK story, nice geology and archaeology tidbits, but I found it hard to keep the players straight.