I call Michelle, who I spoke to only days earlier. She tells me the studio of Madame Douleur can be found on 9 Rue Chaptal, which is on the other side of town, not far from Boulevard de Clichy.

It’s a quiet neighbourhood I enter half an hour later. It’s already well past three o’clock, but the Thursday commerce, which is still thriving on the surrounding streets, doesn’t appear to have had much effect on Rue Chaptal. The building lies across a little alley from the Musée de la Vie Romantique, which stands in stark contrast to the business of Madame Douleur, but perhaps her clients need both in equal measures.

I stand in front of the door to number 9, an edifice built in the distinct Parisian Haussmann style. Only a code will give me access to the building, so I wait until a young man comes out. Could he be a customer? It would have been difficult to know which door to seek out if it weren’t for Michelle’s description. Ground floor, to the left. There isn’t even a doorbell, so I resort to a gentle knock. No one opens, and I curl my hand into a fist before pounding.

“OK, OK.” A man opens the door just enough to get a good look at who is standing on the other side. A chain is all that separates us.

“I am looking for Mademoiselle Lefèvre. It’s a matter of urgency,” I add.

Un Moment.” The door closes again and I stand there in the draughty doorway until a woman in her late forties comes out.

“Who are you?”

“Justine Bertrand. It’s a matter of…”

“I know. Michelle called. Come in.” I walk into something that could pass as any other waiting room. Perhaps the colours are somewhat quirky. Dark silk tapestries cover three-metre-something walls, and large gilded Louise XVI armchairs in zebra skin stand in a group formation. It’s not my taste, but someone with an eye for detail has clearly been the mastermind behind it. Her assistant seems a likely culprit, signalling strongly on my gaydar.

The man, with a boyish frame and short, straight hair (the only thing that is straight about him), is entirely dressed in black. He approaches with a silver tray and asks me if I would like coffee or tea. For reasons entirely unknown to me, I opt for the latter.

“Very well,” he clips with a sharp Parisian accent.

Madame Douleur returns, dressed in a black suit, Armani Privé with tell-tale Christian Louboutin shoes on her slender feet. As she pours herself a cup of coffee, I get my first good look at her face. Traces of beauty still remain, although years of work in a dark and brooding business have left it gaunt and pasty. Still there is little doubt that men will readily see past these flaws. The doors behind her are slightly ajar, and I strain to get a glimpse of the room. So far I can only see the left side of large chair. I believe it to be a throne, but I suppose it could equally be a chair of torture.

“I understand you are here regarding the Reaper killings.”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“What makes you think I know anything about it?”

“You shared an apartment with Marie Laroche and Leila Girard.”

“Who told you this?”

“A newspaper article. You identified yourself as Mademoiselle Ava. But your real name is Jeanette Lefèvre, isn’t it?” Her ice-cold, blue eyes penetrate mine before she picks up a cigarette in a holder and lights it using a fragrant candle that rests on the coffee table.

“Why do you want to know all of this?” The harshness in her voice is now gone, seamlessly transitioned into a soft, feminine tone.

“I am researching the Reaper Murders.”

“You are?” She sounds curious.

“Yes, I am a historical investigator by profession.” I hand her my card, but moments later regret having done so as my identity now is compromised. She takes the card.

“I already know. Michelle informed me. And of course I could read between the lines from those emails you sent earlier, although you weren’t exactly forthcoming with information.” She takes a drag on her long cigarette and expels the smoke, worthy of a 1940s screen siren. Then she adds: “I liked the alias you used – Severine. Mmm, quite the sophistication….” She trails off and I leave her comment for what it is – a preluding mind game, one I’m not inclined to play.

“There have been recent developments in this case, which is now more than fourteen years old,” I start.

“Such as?”

“Certain evidence has come to light.” I look for ways to circle the truth but find myself floundering for the right lies.

“Look, you better be straight with me. If not I cannot help you.”

I decide to drop one of my aces. “Jean-Marie Rabois.”

A flutter in her eyes, a millisecond blink, yet a blink nevertheless.

“Do you recognise the name?” Madame Douleur remains silent.

“You live on 2 Rue Crébillon, right? How did you come to be in possession of this apartment?” She stands up and calls for Master, a Doberman who has been kept from view until now. He comes to attend her, growling at me, his upper teeth exposed enough to show he means business.

I stand up to leave, and I’m just about to turn towards the door when I decide to drop my last card.

“Your activities in the Hellfire Club have been exposed. The evidence will soon be revealed.”

“Wait,” she blurts. She kicks her dog, and he whimpers, more so from being betrayed by his mistress than from actual pain. “What do you want?”

“I want the truth.”

“And what if I can’t give it to you?”

“I will expose your organisation and, without your cooperation, I cannot guarantee your anonymity. “

“If you know this much you also know I have nothing to do with it.”

“Of course I do. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here. But you are safeguarding people in your organisation that are not so innocent as you. That’s a crime punishable by law, as far as I know.”

“What makes you think I belong to this organisation?”

“Because I have established links to it. To the very top. And there are forces at work, bringing on its demise. I would say it is time you choose your allegiances.” She ponders her options for a moment, then calls for her assistant.

“Marat, fix me a double scotch. In fact, make that two.” Before she’s continues her story, two crystal glasses generously filled with whisky are served.

Santé, Mademoiselle Bertrand!” She raises her glass before taking a good sip.

“I can’t deny I knew this day would eventually come. They are clever, but not that clever, and God be damned, I wish I never accepted that invitation.”

“Why did you? Was it for the apartment?”

“I can’t deny it played a role. It’s not like one gets filthy rich in this business, –  au contraire to some people’s beliefs.” She raises her cigarette holder to her lips for a long drag before once again expelling the smoke in my direction. ”So, yes, it definitely played a role. Rabois was a client of mine. He had come to me for years, letting off steam from a stressful job. You know a lot of men are like that. They won’t admit it to their wives of course, but they love to be dominated, hog tied, whipped, dog walked, playing servant to a superior mistress. Rabois was no different. And he liked whores. Had a soft spot for them. But I didn’t know more beyond that. Although he liked to tell me things, always after our sessions as I suppose they brought him relief, he kept certain parts very private. His was quite peculiar about that. Not like most clients I have, who feel they can be very open about almost anything.” She stops, like she’s considering what to say next.

“He would come here once a month, sometimes less. The last time was a week before he died. I had no idea that anything was wrong, and frankly I didn’t count myself as one of his friends. Then three weeks later I have a solicitor at my door. He says he is the executioner of the last will and testament of Monsieur Rabois and I am mentioned as his sole beneficiary. He asked me if I could come to his office. It was all very odd, as I would have expected to get a letter rather than a personal visit, but perhaps he was just curious about my services.” She takes a sip of her whisky and, without thinking, I follow her example.

“The testament was a very odd one too. I would stand to receive all of his possessions, an apartment and 150,000 euros in a savings account as well as some stocks in a high-tech company I had never heard of. There was also a pension that would be paid out over the next twenty years. I would receive all of this on the condition that I joined a society by the name of the Hellfire Club. I asked what kind of society this was, but the solicitor couldn’t say. I got an address and was told to meet with a Monsieur Rabelais the following Tuesday at three o’clock. I went there, and the man I had come to meet seemed most normal and quite friendly. He explained the rules, ones I totally endorsed already through the life path I’d chosen. So I saw no reason not to join. At the sixth degree. Monsieur Rabois had been a Seventh Degree member – but this I only found out later -, but as members can only be elected to this level, I was initiated into the degree below. This was in 2003.”

“Yes, I know, in October,” I cut in.

“That’s right. Then exactly a year ago to the month, I am sent a letter by an anonymous sender who claims to be a dissident of the Seventh Degree. He has been trusted with a full confession of another fellow member – Rabois’, as it turns out – a confession that was to be sent to me when the time was right. And apparently last year time had reached its pinnacle. The confession started off most strangely. Let me see, I will find it for you. She walks to a painting depicting Dante’s Inferno and brushes it to the side. A few strokes with her finger and the door to the safe opens.

“Here,” she says, placing it on the table.

“May I take a look?”

“No, but I will read it to you.” She flips through several pages before she starts.

“It’s dated July 14, 2003.”

 

Dear Reader,

 

I will not name you to avoid drawing unwanted attention to your person. You don’t deserve it after everything I have done to you. But I hope you know my reasons and remain faithful to my memory. As I am writing this letter, I am naturally still alive, but I believe my days are numbered. Someone is following my whereabouts with great interest and, having survived a near-death experience in a hit and run, I fear they will not give up until their mission is accomplished. Now you ask yourself why I have brought such wrath onto myself. After all, I am a doctor dedicated to the cause of Hippocrates. Well, if only I could only answer that with ‘I don’t know’. But I can’t. I have done certain things that I should stand trial for and for which most people would think I should pay with my life.

But before I tell you, I also need to tell you the background. It might serve as somewhat mitigating circumstances, although I don’t expect you to feel that way.

Some fifteen years ago I was initiated into a society going by the name of the Hellfire Club. As you now know, it is a society with one motto: Do what thou wilt, or Fais ce que tu voudras. My predecessor was not a very wealthy man, but I suppose I just liked the idea so much that despite a not-too-substantial inheritance, which amounted to a central Parisian apartment and an old Fiat Uno, I accepted without further ado. My enthusiasm knew no bounds and I quickly rose within the ranks until I was finally accepted into the highest degree: the Seventh Degree. This was in 1995.

Our Grand Master Rabelais was a kind man, and his presence was one of reason and order. What very few people knew, though, was that his influence was rather limited. For beyond him stood a Supreme Master, one I never knew beyond his ominous presence, always disguised by a dark cloak and mask.

I made my acquaintance with the Supreme Master a late September evening during my first Seventh-Degree meeting in the theatre. He started off by conducting a sermon in Latin until a man who wore an executioner’s garment with leather hood and apron stepped out. With him he had a girl. She was no older than her late teens. A runaway, I thought; her white limbs bore bruises, some newer than others. She didn’t appear afraid, but then again the influence she was under would have negated any alarm she might have felt.

The Supreme Master told him to proceed, and the man with the executioner’s garment forced her down onto a makeshift bed where she was ravished and then knifed to death. I am not sure which was more disturbing, and my stomach turned in disgust as he spilled her gut. I have, of course, through my profession seen many things, but this was something else. A few vomited at the sight. I recall one fainted. This didn’t seem to bother the hooded man, although Rabelais looked pale as he watched on.

The strangest thing was that we never attempted to leave or stop what was happening. Instead we sat transfixed by what was playing out, like it was some bad, very bad horror film. The next day, before any of us could have possibly collected our senses and done the decent thing and reported what we’d witnessed, I was sent a parcel. It contained a film, which showed me in a number of compromising situations with women from previous parties. It also contained a type-written letter, which outlined my personal life. Needless to say most of it wasn’t pretty. The letter concluded with ‘Fais ce que tu voudras’. Or, do what thou wilt.

It was very simple. If I went to the police, I would lose it all: the apartment I had inherited, my career, but most of all my name and life as I knew it. So I kept quiet, hoping the experience would never repeat itself. I never discussed it with my fellow initiates, as I supposed they too were blackmailed into silence. I kept an eye out for any news in connection to the dead girl, but there was nothing. After a while I started to think it had just been a bad dream.

Our normal gatherings continued and, by then, I started to feel safe again. Until June the following year, when we celebrated a party themed ‘The Beautiful and the Damned’. It was a party as all others, full of food, wine and all the rest that follows. But our invitation specified our required attendance in the tower room of Chateau Vert at the strike of midnight. Fear held me in its grip as I walked in procession along with the rest of the seven.

The door was closed behind us by our Grand Master Rabelais, who told us the time had come to be initiated into the highest level. I must admit I was struck by confusion, as we were already in the highest degree, which I thought was little more than taking part in secret meetings, exotic parties and the odd favour within an old boys’ network. But the initiation was into a different kind of activity. That of murder. The Supreme Master selected one of the members, who was told to undress, defile and eventually murder the woman that was brought forward, gagged and handcuffed. As we all wore masks, and by the time the initiation took place had had plenty to drink, I was never sure who it was. But the man complied and, to my surprise and horror, he appeared to enjoy it – but let’s not forget, fear does strange things to us humans. We all watched as the woman was brutally taken by force for what seemed like a long time.

Eventually the time came to end her life, but the man shied away. Our Grand Master reminded him of his duty to the society, and he was told he could use any tool he wanted of the array glistening in the candlelight on a table nearby. The man looked up, and I could only see his wild eyes through the black mask he wore. Then he strangled her. The girl choked over and over, rolling her eyes until the only motion that remained was the spastic twitching of her legs. The man with the leather mask, the Executioner, placed her head on a block, her body twisted sideways next to it. It took two strokes with an axe before her head was severed from her body. He took the head, walked around with it, her eyelids still half open, and then he placed it in what looked like a body bag and removed himself from the scene. The party dispersed quickly after, and I thought I saw a few of the members in the arms of other ladies downstairs. I longed for the same warmth only the softness of a woman can provide, and eventually found myself a dark-haired beauty to take my mind off what I had just witnessed.

The same ritual, involving a female human sacrifice, was re-enacted twice, sometimes three times, during the following years. Only during spring and summer at Chateau Vert. You probably ask yourself why I didn’t leave, but I was afraid, for my own life, for my reputation and, more importantly, for the wellbeing of those close to me. But to take precautions, I had hired a private investigator to find out more about the people behind the organisation, in particular the Supreme Master and the Executioner. I shall come to this later as my story is still far from over.

At one of the parties at the apartment I had the pleasure of meeting a girl by the name of Catherine. She was a beautiful southern girl, and after years of living alone, with the occasional female as my only company, I fell in love with her. Two weeks before our next event at Chateau Vert, I received a personal request to bring my lady friend by the name of Catherine da Luz. Along with the telegram was a box with a fine garment in the tradition of Marie Antoinette. Despite knowing what might happen, I gave her the dress and the invitation. My fear was apparently greater than my love.

We enjoyed ourselves like royalty, although I could sense a certain discomfort in Catherine. As previous times, I was asked to make my appearance in the tower room by midnight. I handed over a secret note including my name and personal password and was admitted in. To my great surprise, and relief, there was no woman nor Executioner amongst us. Rabelais stood silently behind the Supreme Master, this time in a red vestment with a bird’s mask – a similar one to the ones used during the time of the great bubonic plague. He announced to us that we had a traitor among us. “And a traitor’s death he shall suffer as he will live to see his four limbs quartered by that of horses.” My heart was beating with great fervour as I was certain they had discovered my transgression of hiring the private investigator and my ultimate disloyalty.

“Will the traitor come forward?” The Supreme Master called out in a hollow voice. No one did, and I bided my time.

“Very well then, bring the girl out,” he sighed, and from the shadows of a remote corner a girl was pushed forward to the centre of the circle. It was Catherine. I wanted to rush to her, embrace her, take her place with mine. But I couldn’t. On the brink of death, a gruesome and dishonourable one, I couldn’t act. And so I allowed events to unfold in a shocking manner that only a coward could be an accomplice to. Events that through my lack of intervention turned me into a traitor of the worst kind.

Catherine was ritually abused and taken by all men present with the exception of Rabelais and the Supreme Master. You must know by now that none was spared, including myself, and as my anger mounted, I took her over and over and over again until my seed washed away my rage only to be replaced by shame and humiliation. I had turned into something sub-human, I had lost any power and knowledge of the person I once was. Catherine was barely conscious when the Executioner put her head on the block and with one single stroke severed her head. I turned away when he lifted it, and with that I ousted myself out as the traitor they were truly seeking.

 

There were to be no more ritualistic murders as Rabelais died a few months later and a new Grand Master was elected. My actions with the private detective had made apparent that the possibility of a leak was far too dangerous, so the society regrouped under the new leadership.

I tried to make contact with the PI, but he was nowhere to be found. Under the circumstances, I presumed he had gotten too close to the fire and aborted his mission. Or was dead. It would take five years before there was any further word of him. By then I was a mere shadow member in the Seventh Degree, where little activity took place.

The letter was posted from South Africa and contained a brief account of the society. I include the main part of it in here:

 

The Hellfire Club, also called the Society by its members and the Organisation by the ones in absolute power, is a network dating at least back to early-18th-century England, thus even earlier than the first Masonic Lodges. Others believe it to have been instigated by François Rabelais himself around 1540. A third version circulates that it was founded at the time of the French Revolution in a backlash to the Reign of Terror. The foundation is probably to you of little importance, but from what can be ascertained, members have more often than not been highly influential in contemporary society. There are rumours that The Hellfire Club was instrumental in the organisation of the French resistance. Equally they seem to have infiltrated the French Foreign Legion’s operations in Africa, South America and French Indochina. Depending on the Grand Master and the era, the activities have gone from that of the benign to what might be constituted as criminal. Money laundering, illegal diamond export and much more disturbing recent discoveries: sex parties, orgies, prostitution, human trafficking and perverted acts of sex and violence, often filmed for small-scale distribution. In other words, what you might call snuff.

 

The murders you asked me to initially look into, of which there were eventually seven, although I believe there were many more, have been attributed to a character by the name of Mr. Nemo. This Mr. Nemo appears to be one of the organisation’s own henchmen, going under several different names including, among others, Albert Long, Robert Doyle, Francesco Puzzi and Luc Pierot. He has a chequered past to say the least, having served for the US Navy Seals before being discharged for unknown reasons. Thereafter he became a mercenary before joining the French Foreign Legion, where he served for five years before leaving in 1995, working on special missions in Yugoslavia and other war zones.

 

There are no positively identified photos of him, but the little information I can find to attest to his physical attributes is that he is naturally dark blonde, rather tall and well built without being overly muscular. An unconfirmed source mentioned he has a tattoo in the form of inscriptions of where he has served. Needless to say, I couldn’t find any birth records either, but doing the math, he should have been born around 1960, making him around 43 years old today.

 

Now, the most interesting part is that I have managed to come across one of the so-called snuff movies they produced. It’s about an hour long, showing multiple men raping a dark-haired woman in a setting that appears to be a dungeon or a castle keep of some sort. The woman is eventually beheaded with an axe by what I can only presume to be the man known as the Reaper. If you look closely at his right arm, you can see the bottom half of a tattoo, which appears to say 1990-1995 FFL, Bosnia. I have included a copy of the video here on an enclosed CD.

 

Lastly, it took me some time to find the full membership list. I cannot vouch for it entirely, but the only source I have confirmed it to be accurate. The organisation with its members appears to be structured as follows:

 

The Network – The umbrella organisation responsible for activities such as prostitution, child pornography, trafficking, snuff movies and other illegal activities. I can’t find anything at all on this beyond that it does exist and is linked with several of the largest criminal networks around the world.

| Supreme Master – unknown*

* Cannot find any reference at all to him beyond his alias.

 

The Organisation – Tightly linked to the Network through its high-power, influential members. By ensuring these members take part in various unethical acts and even crimes, the Organisation and thus the Network have them forever in their hands. This ensures any on-going investigations are halted, any potential witnesses drop out, incriminating evidence disappears and so on. The Organisation also works on the principle the members make each other wealthy, from the first inheritance to beneficial deals that can be arranged at will. Thus there is a lot of money and power vested in here. The most senior members are extremely powerful and very serious people. They will stop at nothing to get what they want.

 

The Organisation is run by a Grand Master, always going by the name of François Rabelais. The previous Grand Master was Nicolas Bousquet, scion of an old banking dynasty. He was born in 1919, and had been a member since 1960. The date he was elected Grand Master is not clear, but he served until his death in November 1998. Thereafter he was succeeded by a David Ferro, the President of the European Central Bank.

 

The other seven members include:

 

1992 – present, Philippe Codorniou – Hedge-Fund Director at Brimstone Capital

1995 – present, Laurant Gaume – European Commissioner

1982 – present, Pascal Mapanas – Heir to the luxury-goods empire Helvetica

1977 – present, Eric Christol – Self-made billionaire running various ventures

1989 – present, Frederic Berthelot – Former Head of the Parisian Police, now Head of the Police Nationale

1995 – present, Jean-Marie Rabois – Neurosurgeon

2002 – present, Julienne Maillart, née Avaro* – Real-estate tycoon

* Widow of Lionel Maillart, who served as a member between 1972 and 2002”

 

The letter concluded that, as the transaction had been fully received, the assignment was to be considered concluded. There would be no further contact from my PI.

 

Within days after having received the letter I started to get calls. I thought they were prank calls at first, but then I received a note with the foreboding warning “Death to a traitor”. I’ve survived two near accidents that I am convinced have been attempts on my life. It’s only a matter of time until they succeed. Until then, I have made my preparations to secure the knowledge I have through people that one day will be able to expose it and those responsible for crimes that are still being perpetrated to this day. I will leave my life with the knowledge that I have ultimately done the right thing. I can only hope that God will have mercy on my soul.

 

Paris, July 14, 2003

 

Jean-Marie Rabois

 

Madame Douleur puts the letter down on the table. There is a short silence before I decide to shatter it.

“I don’t know what to say,” I start.

“No, neither do I. The strangest thing is that he got me involved even though he knew of their evil doings.”

“Perhaps he felt you would be able to expose them – in time.”

“Perhaps. But still…they are extremely dangerous and will ensure no one gets in the way of them and their activities.”

“What were you planning to do with this information?” I ask.

“Nothing, of course. Not until you showed up. Now is another matter, though.” She finishes her glass and calls to Marat for a refill. “This is my pension, of course, and what makes me an untouchable. I know too much. Needless to say there are several copies of this document, guarding my life.”

“If I were you I would be careful.”

“So should you my dear,” she retorts. “And on that note, I think we are done here. I have said enough and I trust my name will be kept out of whatever you decide to publish.”

“Of course, you have my word.”

“I know I do dear. The information you are now in possession of is very dangerous, so use it wisely. Now if you’ll excuse me, you have got to leave. I have a client in fifteen minutes.” She stands up and I gather my bag and walk through the hallway to the door. I am just about to leave when I give a bewildered peak into my bag, feigning the loss of my wallet.

“I think I left it on the table when I handed you my card,” I offer.

“OK, but please be quick.”

I walk back and, to my surprise, the letter and the CD are still there. I scoop them up as fast as I can with my back obscuring the view.

“Yes, I found it,” I say, holding my wallet triumphantly in my hand.

“You have my word that what has been said here remains between us two.”

“I know it will. Remember I already know a great deal about you too.” She draws her lips in what is supposed to be a smile, although it only underscores an expression of bitterness.

She stretches out her hand in a courteous adieu. “Goodbye, I don’t think we will be seeing each other again.”

“No, I don’t think we will.”