Two detectives arrive at the scene of 160 Rue de l’Université. They are let in by one of its residents who also opens the door to the communal cellar. With a search warrant already having been issued, they don’t need to wait for someone with keys to open up the brown door. The detectives descend the stairs until they find themselves looking at a part of the Paris catacombs that they never knew existed. They put on their latex gloves and set to work. It takes an hour before one of the detectives finds the first mummified head. At the exact time as the younger agent calls for backup from the forensics department, the older detective gets a call on his personal cell. It is Frederic Berthelot, the head of the National Police.
“This is a matter for the National Police. We will take it from here.”
“Sir, with all due respect, the Director of the Paris Police is already involved. I cannot abort unless I get his consent.”
In a different part of town a dispute ensues between two strong-willed men. One had appointed the other, but the other is already after his job. He wouldn’t let this go so easily. Within the hour, the discovery of several severed heads has been leaked to the press, who camp outside a house on Rue d’Université as boxes are removed throughout the night. Seven mummified heads are found in total. Roux, the Director of the Paris Police Department, knows this will be his golden ticket in a career that holds few possibilities beyond an early retirement.
It is late in the evening. I’ve read and reread the words of Jean-Marie Rabois, and the anonymous private detective. I’ve watched a film portraying the final hour of Catherine da Luz. I had not expected to feel so apathetic, almost indifferent. In all its stark cruelty I have heard and witnessed too much to even find it shocking. Yet I suspect it’s a defence mechanism for something I don’t know how to cope with. Fear has always been an ally, but with the past hours’ events, I start to feel something that can only be described as quiet apprehension. When I can’t reach Cyril I try for Amélie, but the call is directly diverted to voicemail. I try to reason with my mind, but as the dark and the quiet settles over the city mansion on Rue de la Faisanderie, I sense something far more sinister breathing within these very walls.
“Justine, it’s your mind playing games,” I say quietly to myself. “Get a grip of yourself.” I walk to the kitchen in search for any weaponry I can get my hands on. It doesn’t amount to much but I take all the knives, which I strategically place in exactly the same spots as our potpourri sachets are currently residing. It will help remind me of their locations in case I forget. I take all the empty wine bottles and place one on the floor behind each curtain. A broken bottle makes for good improvisation. I also make a mental note of the positions of the fire extinguishers, escape routes going over balconies and lastly I set the external alarm on. I’m so tired, having survived on only a few hours of sleep from the previous night. I make myself a cup of coffee before resuming my research work on the Organisation and the Network. As the coffee machine churns out an espresso, I turn on the TV and find myself watching the developing news on the excavations at 160 Rue de l’Université.
“An anymous tip is what led the police to the underground chamber on 160 Rue de l’Université in the 7th arrondissement of Paris. The Police are still reluctant to reveal any details pertaining to the discovery and its nature, but we have just received news from unofficial sources confirming the discovery to be that of the remains from the murder victims attributed to the Reaper of Paris who plagued the city in the mid-to-late 1990s. “
The news anchor, a young woman in her late twenties, slim and petit, with large brown doe eyes magnified by her false eyelashes, continues to recite the background of the murders and the known facts about the alleged victims. Just before the commercial break, she throws in a last cliff hanger: “Stay with us for the gruesome discovery of the mummified heads of the Reaper victims.”
I turn off the TV and walk to the study where I left the letter and the CD. Something isn’t right, as the letter is gone. So is my laptop, with only an empty CD cover hastily thrown to one side.
I search for it frantically, sure that I left it here. Well, almost sure. There is no one in the room, as far as I can determine. I take one of the knives, a small fruit knife that sits in a glass bowl on a bookshelf. Then I reach for the landline to make that call I should have made a long time ago. Without feeling the slightest bit of surprise I discover the line is dead. Where the hell did I leave my mobile? My bag? It’s in the bedroom. Armed with the fruit knife and a bottle, I walk out over the landing, which I need to cross in order to reach the bedroom. It’s eerily quiet except for the sound of my feet. He must know my exact position. I pray I can reach the bedroom, which also offers an escape route via the balcony. The handbag, a nude-coloured Balenciaga, stands at the side of the bed, seemingly in the same position I left it. I bend over to get my phone and my keys but don’t quite reach it as I’m stopped in my tracks by a voice I don’t recognise.
“Justine, so finally we meet face to face.”
I turn around slowly, finding a tall man standing in front of me. He’s wearing jeans, well-polished brogues and a white shirt that is unbuttoned to his chest. He is tanned, but it looks more red than a deep brown. The sleeves are rolled to just below his elbows, exposing strong, sinewy arms. Not a bodybuilder’s arms, but the arms of someone who is naturally fit from work that requires both strength and endurance. His hair is straight, a dark blond. Perhaps it would qualify as light brown. But what is most striking are his eyes. They are piercing blue and seem to change colour with mood and intention.
“Of course, we already met…” He looks at his clock. “Technically almost two days ago. I could see you, but you didn’t have the same benefit.” He takes a few steps towards the door and closes it. One escape route less.
“I don’t want to harm you Justine. Trust me, I have done enough of that for one day. I just want us to have a little chat. I have the document and your computer, so I just need to know a few things.”
I regard him as he walks around the room. He reminds me of someone. A younger Max Headroom, or an older Barry Pepper. It is in fact difficult to put a description to him. Yes, he is the mercenary from the letter. And equally the Executioner. The Reaper. The knowledge of this makes me sick. I stand still, gazing at the intruder, unable to speak a word.
“You and I are going to go for a little ride. We will take my car, I will handcuff and blindfold you, and an hour later you will find yourself at my home. I will return the courtesy of your hospitality. It will be a friendly talk, and as long as you tell me everything, I will let you leave. You understand?”
I don’t say or do anything. My eyes dart quickly towards the balcony, but the doors are closed. It will be a matter of nanoseconds before he overpowers me. The fruit knife is tucked in the waist of my jeans. With that I still have a weapon, although the advantage is slim.
“OK, I can make you understand if you prefer that. Here is a semi-automatic Smith & Wesson. It comes with a silencer, which will render a shot near inaudible. I will not hesitate to use it Justine. Your playtime is over. Turn around, or I will make you.”
I do as he says. A push to my back, a hard grip on my arms and the cold touch of steel to my wrists. He pulls me up again, takes my bag and as well as his own, which presumably is where my laptop and documentation rest. We walk outside to a car that is parked next to the curb. I try to find someone to make eye contact with, but the street is deserted. He opens the back door and pushes me in. A scarf is tied around my eyes. I believe I can sense a faint odour of some commercial fragrance. Prada?
We drive for what appears to be an hour. It’s impossible to know the direction, but at one point we stop. The Man heaves a deep sigh as the car comes to an unexpected stop. I hear a woman shouting in American English. “How the fuck did we end up on Rue Marc Séguin? This is Hotel Belfort. Wrong hotel, moron.” I have no idea where we are but I memorize the street name and the hotel. Moments later I hear someone getting into the car in front of us and The Man shifts gear and continues.