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Bewildering Stories

Gary Inbinder, The Man Upon the Stair


The Man Upon the Stair
Author: Gary Inbinder
Publisher: Pegasus Books
Date: February 6, 2018
Length: 352 pages
ISBN: 1681776359; 978-1681776354

Chief Inspector Achille Lefebvre returns from a much-needed vacation to find that there are assassins on his tail and, as if that weren’t enough, one of France’s wealthiest men has gone missing without a trace...

Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there again today.
I wish, I wish he’d go away.

—Hughes Mearns, Antigonish
Paris, September 25, 1890

Chapter 1: Place De La Roquette

At four a.m., an unmarked black van drawn by two powerful draft horses rumbled up the avenue toward the gate of the Grande Roquette prison. The District Police Commissary had stationed a cordon of gendarmes around the square to restrain the crowd, which since midnight had burgeoned from dozens to several thousand. The authorities never released the date of execution until hours before the event. However, once the police had assembled and formed the familiar protective lines, the news of an impending decapitation spread far beyond the confines of the Roquette district. The steady light rain and early-morning chill had not deterred a curious crowd from attending the grim ceremony.

The wagon passed through the police barrier and halted next to five rectangular granite stones, which demarcated a level space set aside for the guillotine. Deibler, known publicly by his sobriquet, M. de Paris, stepped down from the driver’s perch to the pavement. The executioner and four assistants opened the van, removed its contents, and began the task of assembling the guillotine.

At dawn, Laurent Moreau had less than two hours to live. Deep within the fortresslike prison, three burly warders removed their boots and crept down the somber corridor to Moreau’s cell. The imminent appointment with M. de Paris was supposed to come as a surprise, which was considered a humane policy because the condemned could go to bed each evening hopeful that the morning might bring news of a successful appeal.

A warder opened the cell door; his lantern shone a cone of white light onto the face of the sleeping prisoner. Moreau awoke with a start, his eyes wide like a frightened stag’s in a hunter’s sights. Two guards ran forward to restrain the condemned man. The governor of Roquette entered, followed by Chief Inspector Féraud, Inspector Lefebvre, Examining Magistrate Leblanc, and the District Police Commissary. Now fully awake, Moreau sat on the edge of the bed, pallid and visibly shaking in the warders’ grasp.

“Moreau,” said the governor in a theatrical baritone, “the day of expiation has arrived. Prepare yourself.”

Moreau’s lips moved as if in response, but all that came out was an incoherent rasping noise. The officials turned and filed out of the cell. The warders started dressing the prisoner in shirt, trousers, and shoes. When they finished, he would have one hour alone with the priest.

The priest and the warders led Moreau to the prison registry, where the officials, including Inspector Lefebvre, waited patiently. The registry was a gray, stone-floored room; a few flickering gas jets cast shadows on the dingy walls. The prisoner was made to sit on a small wooden stool in the center of the room. There, the warders cut Moreau’s hair and ripped away his shirt around the shoulders so there would be no impediment to the blade. The prisoner endured this operation stoically, which impressed Lefebvre. The inspector had seen the toughest criminals shudder at the first touch of cold steel on the backs of their necks.

Moreau caught the eye of the detective who had hunted him down and brought him to justice. Lefebvre gazed back at the prisoner calmly. To the inspector, the condemned man’s look was neither angry nor frightened. Rather, the prisoner’s stare seemed to ask a question: Why am I here? The answer was simple. Moreau had murdered twice and conspired in a bomb plot that could have killed and maimed dozens. Lefebvre’s detective work averted the catastrophe.

“Do you want a cigarette, Moreau?” a warder asked.

The prisoner turned his eyes from Lefebvre to the warder and shook his head without speaking.

“Better have a glass of rum, then,” the warder said in a kindly voice. “It’ll brace you up.”

Moreau nodded and half-whispered, “Thank you.”

Moreau swallowed his last drink, coughed, and cleared his throat. The governor said, “It’s time.” The warders pinioned the condemned man and conducted him through the registry door to the prison courtyard; the officials followed. The rain had stopped; the sun shone brightly in a deep blue, cloud-stippled sky. The air smelled fresh and clean.

At the end of the yard, near the arched gateway, Deibler waited with two assistants. They wore black frock coats and silk top hats, like wedding guests or pallbearers. The assistants took charge of the prisoner; the pro- cession passed through the gate and out into the square.

A roar went up from the crowd. “There he is! Death to Moreau! The murderer! Assassin!”

Moreau, who had until then maintained his composure, halted. He glanced up at the machine and its gleaming blade. The assistants urged him on. If necessary, they would drag him to the bascule, the tilting board that held the condemned under the knife. After a moment, Moreau controlled himself and walked on.

Lefebvre joined a small group of privileged spectators at the foot of the guillotine. He watched the assistants strap the condemned man to the bascule, tilt the board, and guide it forward, carefully positioning the neck in the lunette, a stock-like device that secured the head. With the lunette fastened, Deibler tripped the mechanism. The heavily weighted knife came down with a thud; the severed head dropped into an iron bucket. The assistants unstrapped the truncated corpse and rolled it off the board into a large wicker basket. The crowd cheered. A flight of sparrows rose from the trees and circled the Place de la Roquette.

An elegantly dressed woman, a deputy’s wife, turned to Inspector Lefebvre. Her queasy expression reminded Lefebvre of the look on the face of a young detective after his first visit to the dissecting room at the Morgue.

“Well, M. Lefebvre,” she said with a slight tremor in her voice, “that was quite . . . efficient, wasn’t it?”

Lefebvre smiled politely to put the woman at ease. “Yes, Madame; very efficient.”

Attending Moreau’s execution was Paul Féraud’s last official act as chief of the Paris Detective Police. With that final duty fulfilled, he relaxed in a leather armchair behind a large, file-cluttered mahogany desk in his office on the Quai des Orfèvres. Across from him sat his protégé, the newly appointed chief, Achille Lefebvre. The detectives silently contemplated each other, each enjoying a Havana cigar. The only sounds were those of a barge chugging up the Seine, the ticking clock on the wall, and the footsteps and murmurings of clerks and detectives in the outer hallway.

They had spoken little during the short cab ride from the prison to headquarters and had said nothing about the execution. Féraud knew Lefebvre’s views on capital punishment; the younger detective was skeptical of its deterrent effect and considered legal execution little more than an act of revenge. Nevertheless, he was circumspect about expressing his controversial opinions in public; in such matters, he adhered to his mentor’s dictum: “We enforce the laws; we don’t make them.” The old chief was keenly aware of Lefebvre’s attitude when he made the following observation:

“It’s always a dreary business, but thankfully it went off without a hitch. Moreau died like a man.”

Lefebvre leaned forward and knocked some ash into a brass tray next to the guillotine cigar cutter on the chief’s desk. Then he eased back in his chair and smiled wryly. “He didn’t lack for guts. When I told Moreau things might go easier for him if he ratted out his pals, he spat in my face and told me to go to hell.”

Féraud nodded. “I heard about that. You remained cool in keeping with your role as lead investigator, but Legros knocked the bastard down. Étienne is a good man. He understood your position as his superior and acted for you. You brought him along well.”

“Thanks, Chief. With his recent promotion, I expect he’ll continue to be of great service to the brigade and me.”

“I’m sure he will.” Féraud paused a moment; he frowned and spoke gravely. “I’ve heard that some of Moreau’s cronies have sworn revenge.”

Lefebvre shook his head and sighed. “I’ve heard that, too. I won’t lose sleep over it. It’s always the same with these punks after an execution. Their mouths are bigger than their balls. But I suppose I’ll need to take precautions.”

Féraud grinned. “Yes, precautions are in order. You don’t want to be killed your first week as chief. At any rate, you’re thinking and talking like one of us. Keep it up and the old boys will stop calling you the Professor.”

Lefebvre had never liked the nickname, but after eight years on the force, he was used to it. Now no one would dare use it to his face, at least no one except for Féraud and the man who gave Lefebvre the moniker, his former partner, Rousseau.

“I suppose I was pretty green when Rousseau gave me that name. And at times I did tend to talk and act like a schoolmaster.”

Féraud could not help laughing. “Oh, on occasion you still do, my boy, you still do.” He took another puff on his cigar before continuing. “I’m glad you reconciled with Rousseau. He’s come up in the world since he left us, and I expect you’ll need to work closely with him in future.”

Rousseau had left the Sûreté following his botched role in the Ménard case. The veteran detective’s fixation on a particular suspect had hampered his judgment and, for a while, led him to work against his partner, Lefebvre.

However, Rousseau had found a position in the newly formed political brigade. There, his wide network of snoops and informers, coupled with his reputation for ruthlessness, made him indispensable in a new era of espionage, intrigue, and terrorism. In that regard, he had worked with Lefebvre in breaking up the assassination plot involving Moreau and several confederates.

“I can work with Rousseau, but I can’t always approve of his methods.”

Féraud raised an eyebrow. “But you’ll do what’s necessary in the interest of public safety?”

“Yes, of course. There are exigencies that warrant extrajudicial means, but there remains a line that mustn’t be crossed.”

Féraud nodded. “Now you’re back to talking like the Professor, but that’s all right. I know what you mean, and I agree.” The old chief took another puff on his cigar and glanced around the office. “I suppose you’ll be making changes?”

Achille eyed the messy desk and dusty shelves stacked high with relics of cases going back to the last days of the Second Empire. “Not many, Chief, although I might update the filing system.”

Féraud shook his head. “You’ll change things, all right. I’ve seen your office. It’s as neat and sterile as a modern operating room. And what’s to be done with that typewriter contraption? The clerks hate it, and none of the detectives will touch the damned thing.”

“I’m giving it to Étienne. I taught him how to use it, and he’ll set a good example. As for the others, their reports had better be legible or I’ll make them take typing lessons.”

“Ha! And they said I was a hard taskmaster.” The old chief scanned the photographs on the opposite wall. His Rogue’s Gallery consisted of portraits of the most dangerous criminals captured or killed in battles with the police during his long tenure. There were several photographs of heads posed on slabs in the Morgue. “Will you keep the Rogue’s Gallery?”

“What’s already there will remain in your honor, but I haven’t yet decided whether to continue the practice.”

Féraud nodded. “Fair enough.” He kept staring at the wall as if reflecting on his more than thirty years with the Sûreté.

Lefebvre detected sadness in the chief’s eyes; he said something calcu- lated to cheer up the soon-to-be-retired detective. “There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you. I know it’s an imposition, but I’d like to consult you from time to time. It wouldn’t be often and only on the toughest cases or the biggest administrative problems. At least until I get my feet wet.”

The tactful suggestion snapped Féraud out of his valedictory mood. “I’d be delighted. You may call on me anytime. For years I’ve dreamed of my little house in Pontoise—fishing in the river, puttering about in the garden, drinking, playing draughts at the café, and chatting with friends—” He broke off for a moment and sighed. “But now the time’s come, and I fear I’ll die of boredom. At any rate, when it comes to advice I’m always at your service. And you must come up some Sunday and bring your family. By the way, how are they? I assume they’re still at Aix-les-Bains?”

“Thank you for asking. Now that this morning’s unpleasant business is over, I’m going to wire Adele to return to Paris. But first, they must stop at Lyon. My uncle Octave lives there; he agreed to accompany my family to the spa. You may remember my uncle, Octave Lefebvre, the retired magistrate?”

“Indeed I do. A fine examining magistrate, and he’s a friend of Professor Lacassagne, as I recall.”

“Yes, and it was Lacassagne who got me interested in forensic medicine. He’s the best; I wish we had him here, in Paris.”

Féraud nodded his agreement. “By the way, how is your mother-in- law’s rheumatism? Did the waters help her?”

“I believe so, or at least that’s what Adele said in her last letter.”

The old chief smiled. He reached into his vest pocket, removed a small key, opened a locked desk drawer, and retrieved a bottle and two glasses. “I’d like some prunelle. Will you join me?”

“Thank you, Chief; yes, I will.”

Féraud poured two glasses and handed one to Lefebvre. “Let’s drink to our future. But remember,” he added solemnly, “after today, I’m just plain old Paul Féraud. You’re the chief.”

Copyright © 2017 by Gary Inbinder

In The Man Upon the Stair, Gary Inbinder’s brilliant detective Achille Lefebvre returns to solve the mystery of a disappeared millionaire in the sensational, atmospheric world of fin-de-siècle Paris.

At the public execution of the anarchist assassin Laurent Moreau, the outgoing Chief Inspector warns his protégé, the newly promoted Lefebvre: “I’ve heard that some of Moreau’s cronies have sworn revenge. You don’t want to get killed your first week as chief.”

Meanwhile, Lefebvre is charged with investigating the disappearance of the Baron de Livet, a brash millionaire with connections to Russian spies and a history of gambling, womanizing, and fighting in duels. The case is more complicated than it seems, of course, and Lefebvre and his team must make sense of a poisoned maid, an unidentifiable stage coach, and a missing briefcase full of cash. The Baron’s connection to the world of international espionage means that if the Inspector isn’t fast enough, the Baron’s disappearance might trigger a war.

And Lefebvre mustn’t forget those stalking anarchists who are out for his blood, as he searches for the man who wasn’t there...

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