Murder and depravity are Police Commissioner Amédée Mallock’s daily bread. As far as he is concerned, mankind has been thoroughly abandoned by God, and the visions that haunt him do nothing to disabuse him of this notion. But nothing he has encountered has prepared him for the sudden appearance of a serial killer dubbed “the Makeup Artist.” The bodies of the killer’s first victims, found in four separate neighborhoods of Paris, are monstrous works of art, demented expressions of corrupted piety. These crimes are unprecedented in their ferocity and their intricacy—and the deeper Mallock investigates, the greater the mysteries and the enigmas. Foremost among them: Is a solution to a series of crimes behind which the devil himself seems to lurk even conceivable?
A blend of noir mystery, horror, and theological thriller, The Faces of God is ideal for fans of dark, atmospheric crime fiction.
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Flashback. Three days earlier. Saturday, December 25th. Christmas Day
A dreadful feeling of solitude weighed heavily in his gut and tensed the muscles of his back. Anguish emanated from his body in waves, along with sadness at being alive, and a weariness that was heavy and limp, like a tongue. To top it all off, Mallock had bought a fir tree, just for the hell of it. Then he had pushed his depravity so far as to decorate it. Garlands, balls, and little styro-foam angels. Yesterday, December 24th, Christmas had come howling outside his window. Christmas as Hell, as persistent sorrow. So many sad memories and the death of his son Thomas, still and forever unacceptable.
The tree's blinking lights were almost more than he could handle. What had possessed him to buy the ridiculous thing? Mallock was stranded in that curious no-man's-land that stretches from December 20th to January 2nd — the holiday break, a sugary-sweet expanse he was loath to cross. He heaved a loud sigh that did nothing to hide his profound distress. It was in moments like this, more than at any other time, that he was at the mercy of his memories, his cruelest obsessions. Like all people who have abandoned their roots, he nursed a certain unhappiness in the deepest recesses of his heart — and on this festive day he clung to that feeling as if caressing a pebble brought back from some twilit city.
At four o'clock in the afternoon, the ringing of the telephone jerked him out of the depths.
"Hello, Mallock, it's Dublin. How are you?" His boss's voice sounded slightly embarrassed. "Sorry to disturb you on a holiday. Merry Christmas."
"You too ... Dominique." After ten years of "Sir"
and then "Boss," he still struggled with this familiarity, calling his superior by his first name, even though the head of Number 36 had encouraged it.
"Have you had a nice Christmas?"
"Can we talk about something else?"
"I have a present for you. For the new year."
"What would you think about taking over the investigation?" Dublin didn't even mention the Makeup Artist. He didn't have to. Cases like that came along maybe once every ten years; plus, it was the only important case that hadn't already been assigned to his subordinate. After a short, surprised silence, Mallock asked:
"Grimaud hasn't gotten anywhere with it?"
"Let's just say he's done his best with it. But obviously that wasn't good enough. So?"
"Come on. I really need your touch on this one."
"I think everyone's been pretty happy without me so far, haven't they?" Mallock asked. He found himself taking out his anger on this first person he'd spoken to since the insane conversation he'd just had with that fucking Christmas tree and its goddamned blinking lights.
"People higher up have grievances with you; I don't know exactly what. There have been mutterings of 'who does he think he is' and 'no one is indispensable' more than once when your name comes up. You know it, or at least you suspect it. You're the kind who attracts jealousy and resentment. It has to be said. With your character —"
"My character," Mallock returned, "strongly suggests that I let those assholes stew in their own juices for a while."
* * *
Dublin didn't respond. He knew his superintendent by heart. As the commissioner of Number 36 his most important job was to convince Mallock. So, he would appeal — in order of importance — to his big heart, his sense of duty, and then, finally, his pride. It was better when dealing with Amédée to avoid threats or assertions of authority at all costs. Dublin had to make sure that his favorite superintendent wanted to take the lead of his famous combat battalion and march out to attack the piece of shit that was the Makeup Artist. The rest was just semantics.
The case was getting bogged down. They counted half a dozen crimes now; six assassinations in ceremonial robes, six Baroque tableaus, all attributed to the same bastard(s). And that didn't include the seven other murders that had been unofficially added to the tally in retrospect. By some miracle, the story had so far escaped the voraciousness of the media, thanks to a lucky set of circumstances.
Since the first homicide, Superintendent Raymond Grimaud had given free rein to his old paranoia from Central Intelligence. The victim being none other than the wife of a finance secretary, he had ensured painstaking compliance with procedure while bringing in the big guns, before hushing up the whole business. The entire case file, including photos, had been put "under embargo." And "they" had made up an official version: The secretary's wife had been stabbed and robbed of her possessions, probably by a prowler. Period, full stop. Nothing to see here; everyone go about your business.
Raymond had also been the first one to put forward the theory of a serial killer. The various murders had only had one element in common, but it was a doozy: the lavish application of makeup. More analyses had been done; they were the same products, applied in the same way. But "they" had decided not to do anything — other than convince the family to play the game and keep silent for the good of the investigation. Expressions like "the killer can't know we're on his trail" and "to achieve our ends" had been combined with "we want to get him as badly as you do" and "trust us."
To reveal the existence of a serial killer now, without having caught him, while also admitting major cover-up tactics, would make everyone look bad. Once this habitual murderer was behind bars, "they" would be able to justify their actions more easily — and even congratulate themselves on having opted for the hush-up strategy.
This was why palming the case off on Mallock now was very nearly an ideal plan. If he failed, "they" had told themselves, the great superintendent would, without the shadow of a doubt, be the perfect scapegoat. "They" had gotten the best, so "they" would have nothing to reproach themselves for.
Mallock the Wizard. Dédé the Wizard. Mallock the Tower of Strength. The superintendent owed most of his nicknames not only to his professional abilities, but also to his dazzling intuition. While he didn't deny the sobriquets, he preferred not to talk about them too much. Even though he knew it was just the ability to concentrate in a particular way, a kind of deductive reasoning, his visions might just as well be explained by a not-yet-understood genetic trait or, worse, something abnormal. Since his arrival in Paris he had conditioned himself never to think about his parents again. Blocked out all the images of his childhood, of doctors' waiting rooms and mental-institution corridors. Because madness, or anything close to it, even his famous and wonderful flashes of intuition ... well, Mallock didn't like that at all.
Dublin, hoping the storm on Mount Mallock had passed, resumed his plea. "You know, Amédée, in their defense, no one could have imagined at the time that the investigation would go on so long. Four months and six bodies later, they're truly sorry — for covering up the whole thing, and for putting Mallockus habilitus out to pasture."
Dublin had thought a little stab at humor might soothe the savage beast, but the attempt was doomed to fail. Mallock was sulking. "This case has turned into a ticking time bomb," he continued. "Besides the new victims, we've got a truckload of suits with short fuses, and the whole thing could blow up at any time. See how it is?" Mallock's silence was deafening.
"There was a meeting with poor Grimaud, who they're now blaming for everything. A clear decision has been made. The same people who chose to pass you over — against my wishes, by the way — have decided to seek you out, with their heads bowed and their dicks at half-mast. If you take over the case and succeed, which I don't doubt will be the case, they'll owe you one. And —"
"And nothing! They didn't give enough of a damn to come to me in person. I don't care about their recognition or their gratitude, and actually I'd just as soon wipe my ass with their white flag."
Mallock, for whom coarse language was a way of letting off steam, didn't see his superiors' capitulation as a victory. Instead of taking the bull by the horns and putting the best possible team on the case, "they" had insisted on playing their little power games.
"And RG? I hope he's been warned, at least?"
"Not yet. I'll call him after I get off with you. I hope he won't kick up a stink, too."
"Don't worry," said Mallock dryly. "He's not some asshole politician; he's a good cop. He has a sense of duty. He'll understand, and he'll probably be relieved. Not everyone likes marching to the front only to be booted in the ass, like your servant."
"So you're saying yes?"
"I'm thinking." Amédée looked at the Christmas tree winking at him from the corner of the room. He wanted this case as much as he feared it.
"We don't have a lot of time," Dublin persisted. "You have to decide quickly." Then, suddenly, like a summer hailstorm, he burst out:
"You're a real pain in the ass, Mallock. I've handled you with kid gloves; I've stayed calm, but shit! I know you don't give a crap, but I'm your superior. And believe me, there's a lot you don't know."
Dublin's voice was shaking. Mallock couldn't quite interpret it. Fear or anger? Both, most likely. The big boss was terrified by this case. But what else did he know about it? What was he still hiding?
"Look, don't hold it against me," Dublin tried to explain, "but there are still a few things I absolutely can't tell you. This hideous thing goes a lot further than you — well, than you — it's — the effects could be devastating. We've got to —"
"You'll give me carte blanche?" Mallock interrupted him.
It sounded like an agreement. Dublin was relieved, but he let another moment go by without speaking.
"Why so quiet, Dominique? Do you have something else to say?"
There was a sigh on the other end of the line. "Okay ... it's coming from upstairs. They have one condition. You have to understand —"
Amédée blew out a frustrated breath. "Spit it out!"
"Fine! Okay. We have to maintain discretion on this."
"Lovely paraphrase. Keep my trap shut; is that what you're trying to say?"
"Yes, if you like. But just for now. Ideally, until the case is resolved. Investigate without letting anything slip to the media."
Mallock's response surprised his superior. Knowing his intransigence, he fully expected to be told to go to hell.
"I'll do everything I can," was the brief and obliging answer of Mallockus Habilis.
Dublin, relieved to have gotten off so easily, didn't push his luck.
"I'll send you my personal case file tonight — it's a yellow binder. This is highly confidential, Mallock; I'm not even keeping a copy, if that tells you anything. You'll give it back to me next time. It's not the whole file, of course, but it's got everything that caught my attention the most, plus some photos. Anyway, you'll see. And don't go lugging it around with you —"
"Okay; send it," Mallock interrupted. "I won't move. But as a reward for my indulgence, how about you tell me who 'they' are? The ones you've been talking about for this entire enthralling conversation?"
"Don't play dumb. Please."
Mallock didn't need to see Dublin's face to know he was grimacing on the other end of the line. But the boss hesitated only briefly. "There are three of them, and they're influential enough to have taken your name out of the running for this case."
"The chief of police, for one. And the former director of Number 36. He's working now as a consultant to the Department of the Interior. The one who —"
"Okay, enough. I know who he is. The kind of guy who doesn't have enough balls to make a pair. And the third?"
"Judge Judioni. 'Big Jack,' as the media calls him."
"That asshole? Well, that's quite a lineup of lame ducks. I had my suspicions about the first two. The chief is as dull as a shareholders' meeting. Dreary and completely spineless. That's quite a scoop about the judge, but it's not that shocking. He'd do anything to get on TV. He hasn't figured it out yet, but the Indians were right: when you let yourself be photographed with the white man's black box, your soul ends up in the camera."
Dublin, ever a pragmatist, steered the conversation back on topic. "The handover is set for Tuesday. That's three days from now. Can I confirm that's okay with you?"
Silence. A sniff. More silence. Deep breath.
"He's quite a piece of work, this Makeup Artist. Even without all this hush-hush crap. It's going to make this very complicated, and if I screw up, I'll be the one with shit all over my face."
Dublin chose not to reply. Any denial would only annoy Mallock. He would say yes or no in the end, at any rate; it was just a question of patience.
"Nothing to say?"
"I'm letting you think about it, Amédée."
"Goddamn it, Dublin, you know me too well."
"Between you and me, is there really a choice?"
Mallock chuckled. "No. You're right. Let's do it."CHAPTER 2
Saturday, December 25th. Twilight
The scent of oysters and capons filled the building's courtyard. Amédée decided to go out and pay a visit to his neighbor Léon at his bookshop, for a little chat about the Makeup Artist.
The sky was darkening to violet, and the temperature hovered around freezing. The aromas of roasted chestnuts and mulled wine wafted from the cafés opening onto the square. Mallock passed his old Jaguar, immobilized by the cold. Poor little thing; just two more days to go, and then on Sunday she would have a warm place to sleep, protected from half-wits and the elements. After two years of hemming and hawing, Amédée had finally rented a space in a private garage just a few steps from his flat, on the other side of the Rue de Rivoli.
"You'll see — you'll wonder how you ever did without it," the seller had promised him.
Mallock had no doubt of it. In the meantime, he was obligated to go on foot to his old friend's bookshop on the Rue des Mauvais-Garçons. Tiny flakes of snow had begun fluttering out of the ink-purple sky. At the top of the Rue du Bourg-Tibourg the neighborhood's shopkeepers had erected an imposing flocked Christmas tree; the mixture of textile fibers and water-based glue adhering to the branches cemented the victory of artifice over nature. As a final outrage, the whole tree had been painted blue. Dazzled children circled the tree, shrieking, their backs glowing orange in the cafés' lights and their faces turned blue by the illuminated tree.
In front of his friend Léon's secondhand bookshop, Mallock stopped for a moment to contemplate the window display.
Dusted with artificial snow and adorned with two garlands and three balls, it was the same jumble of books and manuscripts as always; a treasure laid out in an order understood only by Léon Galène, "like radio sets," he told his customers. As he did every year, the elderly bookseller had put out a figure of Santa Claus in ice skates, spinning endlessly. The poor toy was so old that it had become rather horrifying, like the pieces of dusty styrofoam and the ancient yellow star dangling from a brass curtain rod.
It was Christmas Day, but the shop was open. A book is always a treat, Léon had written in his elegant cursive on a battered piece of cardboard. Mallock entered, causing the wind chimes that hung from the ceiling to jingle.
"Hello, Superintendent. How are things going?"
The stirring scent of old paper.
"They're going. How's business, Léon? I swear I'm coming next year on December first to throw all these decorations in the bin. Especially Father Christmas and that star."
"Why? You know the yellow star is an unforgettable memory for me." Léon gave a loud bark of harsh laughter.
"You're a lunatic, my friend."
Léonhard Scheinberg had led something of a tumultuous life. Mostly tragic. His entire family had been exterminated by Hitler's goons and he himself had spent three years in the camps. Between the ages of nine and eleven he had experienced the unspeakable, the very worst. He almost never talked about it, and Amédée, more than anyone, respected that silence.
"Must never forget ... never forget ... what a load of bullshit! I lived through it, and it's my right to forget," he had confided to Mallock once in a moment of temper. "It's my suffering. It belongs to me, myself, and I, and no one else. It's not just mine — it is me. If I want to kill it and bury it in the back garden, that's my right, isn't it?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Faces of God"
Copyright © 1999 Jean-Denis Bruet-Ferreol.
Excerpted by permission of Europa Editions.
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