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Bewildering Stories

Gary Inbinder, The Hanged Man

A Mystery in Fin de Siècle Paris


The Hanged Man
Author: Gary Inbinder
Publisher: Pegasus Books, Aug. 9, 2016
Length: 352 pp
ISBN: 9781681771649


Frères humains, qui après nous vivez,
N’ayez les cœurs contre nous endurcis,
Car, si pitié de nous pauvres avez,
Dieu en aura plus tôt de vous mercis.

— François Villon, Ballade des pendus

JULY 24, 1890

A burst of sunshine pierced a cloud bar, spotlighting the crime scene. A landscape appeared within the boundaries of the metropolis, an Eden for the urban masses. A focal point of this pastorale, a single-arched masonry footbridge, led to the Temple of Sybil, the classical belvedere perched on a rocky promontory that rewarded the visitor with a panoramic view of Montmartre.

Sultry winds stirred leafy elms, gingkoes, beeches, and shrubbery; rustling branches reflected on the smooth, olive-colored surface of an artificial lake spanned by the high bridge. A flight of cawing crows circled overhead. A uniformed man, standing in the center of the bridge’s planked walkway, hurled pebbles in the general direction of the scavengers.

“Damned rooks,” muttered Sergeant Rodin. “I hope they haven’t torn him up too badly.” The sergeant frowned beneath his immense red moustache. He hooked his thumbs in the broad leather belt encircling his beefy midsection, turned his head, and addressed his next remark to Inspector Achille Lefebvre. “It’ll be a shame if the birds have gotten to the face, Monsieur. Assuming we find no papers on him, it could make identifying him that much harder.”

A guard making his early morning rounds had discovered the body hanging by its neck from two meters of stout rope fastened securely to the bridge’s iron railing. Now, two police officers were carefully lifting the corpse by a cord looped under its armpits and around its chest.

Inspector Lefebvre kept his eyes fixed on the men raising the body. “I doubt he’s been hanging long enough for the crows to have made a feast. Identification papers would help, but I don’t rely on the dead for such conscientious assistance,” he replied. Then, turning to his friend with a wry smile, he added, “But there are always clues, Sergeant.”

Rodin laughed. “Well, Monsieur Lefebvre, if there are clues, you’re the one to find them.”

The police officers were in the process of hauling the body over the railing. One let his line slip, causing the body to drop to one side and swing precariously. The other man swore and groaned with the added effort of keeping the dangling corpse from plummeting into the lake.

“Careful, boys,” Rodin shouted. “Don’t want to break anything that’s not already broken.” The admonition worked; the grunting policemen soon regained control of their burden.

The photographer, Gilles, approached Achille and Rodin. He was a handsome young fellow who could approach even the most grisly crime scene with the jaunty air of a flâneur. “My equipment’s set up,” he told the two men. “There’s plenty of light for some good exposures before we cart him off to the morgue.” He lifted his straw boater, gazed up at the brightening sky, and mopped his forehead with a handkerchief. “It’s going to be a warm one, don’t you think?”

“A regular scorcher,” Rodin replied. “I’d like to be out by the seashore and stay there till September.”

Gilles looked to Achille. “What do you say, Inspector? Nice time for a holiday by the sea?”

Achille grimaced. He had promised his wife a romantic holiday at Trouville and had already made arrangements, but as he watched the policemen maneuver the corpse over the railing and down to the planking, he feared that the dead man might interfere with his vacation. “I’m afraid this job will keep us busy for a while, my friend.”

Gilles sighed. “Somehow, I knew you’d say that, Monsieur.” He looked again at the body and shook his head sadly. “Why did the poor bastard come all the way up here to hang himself, when he could have more easily done it at home? The attraction of this place for those looking to kill themselves is usually the twenty-two-meter leap.”

Achille gave Rodin a knowing, sidelong glance before answering. “It’s a good thing you’re such a fine photographer, Gilles. You’ll never be a detective. Why assume it’s a suicide?”

Gilles gave a perplexed stare in reply.

Achille smiled and clapped his shoulder. “All we’ve got so far is a dead body hanging from a bridge in the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. It could be suicide, homicide, even a macabre prank; perhaps something associated with the Butte. The place has quite a history, you know. The Montfaucon gibbet stood at the summit for centuries. It figured in Villon’s Ballade des pendus and Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris. The army took some of their Communard prisoners up here, shot them, and dumped the bodies in the old lime pits.”

Achille pondered the bloody uprising following France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, the Communard insurgents who had declared a new government that lasted less than two months. It was certainly a historic place, perhaps even a haunted one.

“At any rate,” he continued after a moment, “we’ll know more after the pathologist makes his examination of the remains.”

“Monsieur Lefebvre, I’ve found something — a couple of things, actually.” Achille’s assistant, Inspector Legros, knelt by the body and gestured to his superior, as if to emphasize the importance of his discovery.

Achille nodded and excused himself. On the way to investigate the body, he encountered the two policemen who had lifted the corpse. Puffing and mopping their sweaty brows, they seemed to be making a show of their recent exertions.

“Excuse me, Inspector,” said the sweatier of the two, “but would you mind if we took a break?”

“I’ve no objection, but check with your sergeant first. And please don’t wander off.”

The policeman smiled. “Thank you, Monsieur.” Suddenly reinvigorated, he and his companion took off in Rodin’s direction.

Achille approached the corpse. Legros looked up and seemed about to speak, but Achille silenced him with a wave of his hand. He wanted to get his own first impression, unprejudiced by the assumptions of his assistant.

The birds had pecked here and there, but, thankfully, the damage to the man’s features was minimal. Except for a few avian scratches, the pale, bloodless flesh was smooth and clear. His eyes were closed, and the gaunt face bore a serene expression that gave the illusion of eternal sleep. Obviously, the man hadn’t strangled. Achille was familiar with the faces of strangulation victims, the mottled skin, bulging eyes, and black, protruding tongue, all evidence of their agonizing departure.

But he would not waste time speculating as to the cause of death; that was a job for the medical examiner. Achille was a skilled practitioner of M. Bertillon’s portrait parlé; his eye had been trained to act like a photographer’s lens, his memory a fast photographic plate. He concerned himself with taking note of the facts: a man of medium build and average height and weight; age forty to fifty years; medium brown hair and full beard; streaks of gray; receding hairline; long, straight nose, fleshy at the tip; slightly protruding ears, long lobes; no distinguishing scars, moles, ulcers, carbuncles, etc.

But more than the photographer and his camera, Achille observed the corpse from the perspective of a true artist. Like his acquaintance, M. de Toulouse-Lautrec, Achille had attended dissections and lectures at the morgue. He understood the bone structure, the muscles, nerves and sinews, veins and arteries, the complex anatomical totality of the dead face confronting him.

Pursuant to his instructions, the policemen had not disturbed the noose; he wanted to leave that to the pathologist. The skill used in tying and placing the knot could provide an important clue. Fracture of the vertebrae and compression of the arteries causing unconsciousness, followed by asphyxiation and death. That was a quick and dirty assessment; he’d learn more from the doctor at the morgue, later that day.

Prior to the hanging, someone had removed the collar and necktie to make way for the noose. He made a mental note to have the area searched to see if they could be found. The nondescript dark brown suit was neither cheap nor expensive, and lacked any obvious patches, holes, or other signs of wear. The black leather boots had been polished recently; there was little wear on the heels and soles. The shoes would have been muddied if he’d gone off the footpath. Leaves or dirt might have clung to his clothing. There might be tears if a sleeve had caught on a branch.

Having made these quick, initial observations, Achille concentrated on one of the items that had caught his assistant’s attention. There was a note pinned to the breast of the dead man’s jacket. Adjusting the pince-nez balanced on the bridge of his aquiline nose, Achille hunkered down next to Legros to get a better look.

“Is this note one of the interesting ‘things’ to which you referred?”

“Yes, Monsieur; it’s in a foreign script, as you can see. A suicide note, perhaps?”

Achille smiled, and turned to Legros. “Is perception reality, Étienne?”

Legros eyed his superior with a puzzled frown. “Pardon me, Monsieur. I don’t understand.”

Achille shrugged and heaved a little sigh. “It’s a note pinned to a dead man’s jacket. As of now, neither you nor I know who wrote it, when, where, or to what purpose.” He rose to his feet and made a gesture pointing to one end of the footbridge. “This bridge, M. Legros, is a means of getting from point A to point B, and it’s supported by an arch. Think of it as analogous to our investigation. We are at point A, just beginning to cross the lake on our way to a destination, over there, the Temple of Sybil.” Achille made another illustrative gesture.

“Now consider each clue, each relevant bit of evidence we discover, as a stone in the arch. To reach our objective, we must first build the bridge. Omit one block and the whole thing will collapse and tumble twenty-two meters into the water below. Moreover, we are not winged creatures who may take flights of fancy over the lake, skipping the laborious task of erecting our sturdy bridge.”

Having made his point, Achille turned his attention back to the note. “The script is indeed foreign; it’s Cyrillic, used in writing Russian, Bulgarian, Serbian, and other Slavonic languages.”

Legros smiled broadly. “Yes, M. Lefebvre, and now you’ll see why the other item I discovered is of particular interest.” Legros rose and stood next to Achille. He took a pair of tweezers from his breast pocket, opened an evidence bag, retrieved a cigarette butt, and held it up for Achille’s inspection. “It’s a Sobranie, isn’t it?”

Achille recognized the distinctive paper and cardboard-tube filter. “Where did you find this?”

Legros pointed. “Over there, on the planking next to the railing where the rope was fastened. I’ve marked the spot with chalk.”

Achille eyed the cigarette butt with a skeptical squint. “Did you find anything else on the individual’s person, or in close proximity? Identity papers or passport, watch, rings, billfold, photographs, tickets — perhaps a packet, cigarette case, or match box?”

Legros frowned and shook his head. “No, Monsieur.”

Achille muttered under his breath, “Merde!” After a moment, he pursued. “So, Étienne, you think a note in Cyrillic script and a half-smoked Sobranie equals one dead Russian?” Before Legros could reply, Achille turned toward Gilles and Rodin, who were engaged in an animated debate concerning the relative merits of dancers at the Moulin Rouge and the Folies Bergère. “Say, Gilles, bring your camera over here, if you please. Sergeant Rodin, you might also find this of some interest.”

The photographer and the sergeant joined Achille and Legros. “Gilles,” said Lefebvre, “I want photographs of the corpse with the note. When you’ve taken the pictures, M. Legros will remove the note.” He turned to his assistant. “Carefully, Étienne, I don’t want your fingerprints on the paper.”

Gilles interjected, “Ah, Monsieur, I anticipate another of your forensic experiments. Do you want me to check the note for latent prints, using the Coulier method?”

“Yes, Gilles, and I want a good, sharp photograph of the document for my expert translator. The original, of course, must be carefully preserved in evidence.”

“But of course, Monsieur.” Gilles nodded the affirmative with a wry smile, indicating that he knew the Lefebvre manner and did not need to be reminded.

“You know, Inspector,” Rodin broke in, “I was certain Chief Bertillon would incorporate fingerprinting into his identification method following your stunning success in the Virginie Ménard case.”

Achille turned to Rodin. He appreciated the comment, since he believed that it was prompted by sincere admiration for his detective skills, rather than mere flattery. “Thank you, Sergeant. For the moment, Bertillon considers his anthropometric system sufficient, though he does not forbid my using fingerprinting on an ad hoc basis.” In fact, Achille had been gravely disappointed by Bertillon and the prefect’s rejection of his plan to incorporate fingerprinting into their identification system, an innovation that would have put the Sûreté ahead of all the world’s police agencies in the new science of forensics. At least Achille had the consolation of knowing that his own chief, M. Féraud, and the juge d’instruction, Magistrate Leblanc, had backed him to the hilt.

Achille left his companions to walk slowly up the bridge in the direction of Temple Island. The others went about their business and didn’t disturb him; they knew his habits and moods. He was thinking about the case.

Copyright © 2016 by Gary Inbinder

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