Saturday, January 23, 2010

“Si vous avez vu quelque fois mourir un homme, considérez toujours que le même sort vous attend.: If you have seen several times the death of a man, consider always that the same fate awaits you.” ~Unknown, from century-old graffiti in the Paris catacombs

I look to my right and see Cyril lighting a stack of candles that have been placed on a series of skulls flanking the wall. They illuminate the stone walls, with their piles of bones that have been glued together by something that looks like old cement.

“Sit, please sit,” he instructs, gesturing at a set of large silk-clad cushions that cover the ground.

“Lovely place you have here,” I smirk.

“Yes, isn’t it?” He replies, almost unaware of the irony in my voice.

“We use it for the most clandestine of meetings. Only a few of the absolute inner circle of the Hellfire Club know of its existence. So you should feel privileged.” He laughs rather awkwardly at his own joke. I say nothing.

“Well, there is something I want to show you. Let me see, how I shall get this out… Oh yes…” He removes two skulls from the wall and takes out a small, rather plain wooden box.

“We found this a few weeks ago when we were doing our own rudimentary excavations. What do you think?”

I take the box.

“It looks rather new and quite cheap. I’m sure you can find these in the dozens at Tati or equivalent stores.” I say while I study the object with great intensity.

“Yes, I thought so. Here…” He hands over a small metal key, which I use to open the box. Inside I find women’s jewellery. Not expensive by the look of it. Ordinary bracelets, pendants, rings. Pieces that would have once been valuable to the owner despite their lack of worth in the eyes of the common man. Perhaps even what she treasured the most. I start to untangle the lump of metal. It is no more than I can hold within my fist.

First is a silver cross with slightly diagonally skewed cross section. The front is rugged, like hot liquid silver has been dropped on the surface and then been left to coagulate. It looks like a confirmation gift, and behind it is a date engraved: 27/07/1986.  I put it next to me on the silk cushion. There are three rings. One gold wedding band with the engraving filed down to something almost unreadable. Perhaps it has been used as a means of distraction, constantly twisted and turned around the wearer’s ring finger. Another is a white gold ring with a small diamond, a fourth is a large ring with a flower. It bears no marks and looks to be of little value. There is a pair of earrings, gold-coloured with small red stones. Undoubtedly bijoux too. I untangle another two necklaces. One a gold-plated pendant with an amber stone, a prehistoric insect encapsulated firmly within its hold. The last is a silver necklace with a heart pendant inlaid with opal stones. I turn it over and find the name Catherine da Luz engraved in italic handwriting. The name rings a bell, but I can’t recall from where. I take the torch and shine it on the collection in front of me, then bring out my mobile phone and take several pictures from different angles.

“Where do you think they come from?” he asks, sounding intrigued.

“Hard to say, but somehow I don’t believe they belong to the same person.”

“Why is that?”

“Well, for starters the jewellery is all different, mismatched. Every woman creates a distinct style and these all look….so haphazard, carelessly put together.” I regard him before I pick up the rings.

“Look at these. I have rather small hands and I can only wear the wedding band…barely…on my ring finger.” I put it on to show.

“The rest are all too big, the flower ring I can just about wear on my thumb, but it’s way too big. Cyril, I don’t believe these are from the same person at all.”

“Yes, I thought so, but I wanted to hear what you thought of it. I value your opinion…a lot Justine. After all you are the investigator here, albeit a historic one.”

“Have you looked up the name – Catherine da Luz?” I ask.

“As a matter of fact I have, and this is where things are turning quite murky. Do you remember the murders in the late 1990s by a killer dubbed the Reaper of Paris?”

“Yes, I do. You are referring to the decapitated bodies that they found in the Seine, right?”

Oui, oui, exactly! Seven in total, all prostitutes. They had various suspects but none ever led anywhere. And then…poof…,” he gestures with his hands, ”…the killings stop. The murderer vanishes into thin air, just to become another serial killer legend.”

“Yes, I remember I was about seventeen, perhaps eighteen at the time. My parents forbade me from going outside late at night. And it was summer, I recall. When usually a lot of people were out at night. Suddenly backstreets went from being quiet to utterly silent. You just wouldn’t go anywhere where it was dark and empty.” I stop myself.

“Can I have a smoke here?”

“Feel free. I don’t think the dead are desperately worried about succumbing to lung cancer.”

I laugh at this remark. Cyril has an odd sense of humour. But this is also the only thing that makes him marginally endearing.

“I suppose not.” I light my cigarette, and hand Cyril one too. He takes it, more out of courtesy than desire.

“So, yes, where was I? Oh yes…so, of course I Googled the name Catherine da Luz, more so to find who the possible owner of the jewellery box was. At that point I hadn’t drawn such brilliant conclusions as you just have yourself. There were a lot of search results I had to go through: Facebook, Linkedin, but further down the result page popped up articles on a certain woman with the same name. And that’s how I got on the trail of the ‘Reaper of Paris’ murders. Now the interesting thing here is there were seven murders, and there are seven pieces of jewellery.”

“Is there anything else we can identify them with? Did you check their photos to see if you could identify any of the jewellery? Or was there jewellery reported missing in the investigation?” I ask.

“I must confess, I haven’t come that far in my own primitive investigations. At first I didn’t think much about it, and it wasn’t until last week I actually started to do a bit of research. But all valid points of course, all valid points.” He touches his chin as if this will bring forward an epiphany.

“OK, so let’s recap what we know so far, and perhaps a little help from Wikipedia wouldn’t hurt.” I bring out my mobile. “The reach is crap, but at least it will do. OK, I got it here. The Seine murders/the Reaper of Paris:

 

The Seine Murderer (also known as the Reaper of Paris) was an unidentified serial killer who murdered and decapitated at least seven female victims in Paris, France during a three-year period between 1996 and 1998.

Murders & Victims

The official number of murders credited to the so called Reaper of Paris is seven, although two separate murders two years after the killings stopped are still being disputed to this date. The first two victims, Marie Laroche and Chantal Moreau, were found four months apart, both bodies floating near the suburb of Charenton. Marie Laroche, 35, a prostitute and drug addict, had been strangled and her head decapitated. Four months later, on September 27, 1996, a second body was found not far from the site of Marie Laroche. The body was identified as Chantal Moreau, 29, also a prostitute but with no known prior drug problems. The autopsy report concluded that she had been decapitated while alive. Chantal Moreau was last seen in a bar on Rue St Denis three weeks earlier.

There were no further murders until the following year when, on May 1, 1997, the body of a Jane Doe washed up on one of the Seine embankments not far from Île de la Cité. Intense media coverage followed, and the name “The Reaper of Paris” was assigned to the killer. The murder followed a similar modus operandi as the last killing, with decapitation by a sharp object whilst the victim was still alive. Although the victim was never identified, she had a rare double-headed-eagle-of-Skanderbeg tattoo on the side of her torso. The tattoo, which was shown to the public in a bid to identify the victim, was entirely made in grey-black ink. Beliefs that she might have been from Albania circulated given the tattoo’s link with the now dethroned Albanian royal family.

12 weeks later, the corpse of another woman was found, that of Leila Girard, 37. The body, which had been carried by the currents as far as Argeuntuile, north of Paris, was in an advanced stage of decomposition and, based on the last sightings, she was thought to have died around June 3. Her cause of death was thought to be asphyxiation prior to decapitation, although a conclusive cause of death could never be established.

On September 7, the fifth body was discovered near a water-cleaning plant north of Paris. The woman, who was thought to have been Eastern European, was never identified. She was thought to have been between 25 and 30 years of age. The cause of death was decapitation itself.

Again there were no further bodies found during autumn and winter, only for the killer to resurface in April of 1998 when a group of Japanese tourists on a sight-seeing cruiser spotted the headless corpse of a female floating in the Seine. The body was identified as Celine Martin, a 28-year-old hairdresser from Versaille. This was a breakthrough in the investigation as Martin had no prior records of prostitution and was described by family and friends as a hardworking woman dedicated to her profession and family. Martin had been out with friends on a bachelorette night on April 25, and had left the group after midnight a few blocks from Rue St Denis. Her body was discovered three days later. Cause of death was determined to be decapitation.

The last known victim was Catherine da Luz, a 32-year-old prostitute from Marseille. Da Luz had been living in Paris for eight months when her body was discovered shortly after she went missing on July 2, 1998. Cause of death was also in this case ruled to be decapitation.

All victims, with the exception of Celine Martin and the two Jane Does, where occupation could never be firmly established, were prostitutes from working-class areas in and around Paris. Two victims, both Jane Does, were thought to be of Eastern European origin, whilst the other five were confirmed as native French. There were rumours of torture and rape, but this was never firmly acknowledged by the team of investigators in charge of the inquest.

Possible Victims

At least two non-canonical victims are commonly discussed in connection with the Seine Murders. Both murders happened two years after the Reaper of Paris murder spree came to a halt. The police never made any admissions to the connection of the killings, and the police investigator in charge of the investigation, Bernhard Roux, hinted that it might have been the work of a copycat killer. The first victim was found near La Frette-sur-Seine, north of Paris, on April 8, 2000. The body was identified as Valerie Gravois, who had disappeared a week earlier on April 1, 2000.

Nine months later, on December 9, Chantalle Bukowski’s severely mutilated body was found near Croissy-sur-Seine. Both victims had been strangled and then decapitated.

Suspects

Several suspects were questioned during the investigation, but no further charges were brought against them. Given the nature of the decapitations, it was speculated in the media that the killer would have been well versed in the medical profession, possibly a medical student or doctor. The murders taking place on irregular weekdays indicated to some experts a person with a flexible profession, a doctor suiting this profile.

The murders came to an abrupt halt in July 1998, lending the belief that the killer had received a jail sentence, died or gone into remission. The first is highly unlikely given that DNA technology was so advanced at the time that a further crime would have brought up a match. However, it should be noted that the police never confirmed securing DNA from the victims. The case remains open to this date and continues to be a subject of speculation, frequently figuring in popular media.

I take out my last cigarette and light it. I watch the embers glow in the semidarkness. It’s getting cold, and my legs are stiff from sitting on my knees. I move them into a lotus position to circulate the blood. Cyril has been watching me the whole time. Never interrupting my narrative. He looks to be lost in thought. Like something has triggered his neural connections, his mind now running leaps ahead of my own conclusions.

“You look preoccupied. What do you think?”

“I’ll tell you what I think…,” he starts. “We are sitting in the killer’s lair. This is where he went to relive the murders. He didn’t want to keep the mementos in his house for understandable reasons, and thus kept them here, outside the reach of prying eyes.”   “Yes, I think you might be right. But if so, it could be possible he’s kept other collectables here too. Such as memento mori.” I look at him and he knows what I am thinking of.

“Yes, quite possibly so. This would be an ideal location to store the heads for safekeeping. Adding to an already vast location…” He trails off. We both fall silent, knowing the place we are in is the final resting place of those long forgotten.

“I really need to go,” I excuse myself. The place is filling me with foreboding, and the cold yet repressing air lays heavy on my chest. It’s almost as if an overwhelming sadness, a dying spirit uttering her final words in a curse full of scourge, torment and bitterness, has descended on the crypt.

“Of course, I understand. But we need to agree on what to do next.”                            “What do you mean what to do next? We need to take this to the police.”

“No, I don’t think so. This is Hellfire Club property, and, remember, we have all sworn an oath to live by our motto. No police.” He blows out the candles, one by one. The room will soon be in total darkness. “You’re either with me or you’re not. Though I could use your help. We need to excavate this place, and only you have such knowledge and tools. Moreover, there’s an investigation to be conducted…”

“And then what?” I interrupt him. “After you uncover the killer, what then? What if the murderer is one of your fellow kinsmen?”

“Impossible, why hide this here if it was used by the Order? I don’t even think we knew about its existence until years after the murders. But we’ll discuss what steps to take at that point – whatever the outcome. But until such time, it’s all hypothetical and, moreover, completely superfluous to dwell on at this stage.” He’s about to blow out the last candle before he adds, “Are you with me or not?”

“I suppose I am.”

“Good!” And with that he snuffs out the last source of light.