The faces in the crowd were dark, from Spain, Morocco, Constantinople, and a sensuous air prevailed, exotic and violent. The shops were filled with cheap merchandise; a dark-haired prostitute stood on the corner, smiling, and Inspector Picard passed her, making his way through Pigalle.
Glancing at his watch, he quickened his step, muttering the usual nonsense to himself about eating less and training more, for he was breathing heavily from his exertion.
Yet he moved more swiftly than any other on the busy street, with the surprising swiftness of the bear who has suddenly found reason to move. And like the bear he had a heavy, natural grace, despite his fifty-two years and the extra pounds around his waistline, produced by a particularly delicious lemon tart sold on the rue Dauphine; he longed for one now, for as always when on the scent, a strange hunger stole over him--he felt he could devour Baron Mantes alive, swallow him down and munch his bones.
As he hurried along, Picard studied certain faces carefully, taking note of their eyes, and also of their hands--the way they handled a franc note, almost caressing it, ritually folding it and slipping it away--these were men he would see again, in the intimate embrace of arrest, or they would find their fate elsewhere, or they would escape absolutely. The city was vast, sprawling, who could know it all?
He left the street of cheap pimps and prostitutes, entering the chausée d'Antin, where the Great Whores had their apartments. The carriages at the curb belonged to diplomats, ambassadors, and the voices he heard were discreet, refined. Nonetheless, last month he'd assisted in the removal of a body from one of the luxurious gardens, where a duel had been fought over a whore's favor. Madness prevailed everywhere.
Ahead he saw the lights of the Opéra. The street was lined with waiting carriages. Among them he spotted Paradis the ragman, a wicker basket over his shoulder, a filthy paper flower in his lapel. Picard approached the informer quickly. "He's still here?"
"The box seats," said Paradis, staring wildly around him.
Picard handed him a roll of franc notes. "Stay and point him out to me."
Paradis hurriedly thrust the money in his pocket and shuffled off as fast as he could, his enormous shoes slapping in the mud, his baggy pants trailing over his heels. Picard watched the retreating ragman for a moment, then turned and walked into the lobby of the theatre as the final ovation was being offered the horned and embattled singers.
He took his position where he could observe those music lovers who'd held box seats. The crowd filed past, involved in the usual flirtations, the regular boredom. All they'd killed was another evening. There was no butchery in their eyes. Picard waited--Baron Mantes will carry himself in a special way, for the training of a Berlin fencing master cannot be erased from the body.
Those from the box seats were now descending the staircase--the noblest faces in the Empire. Among them were numerous men who walked with the authority of polished swordsmen, but only one glanced about him with cautious watching eyes, even while his lips smiled softly at the young woman beside him, and his gaze instinctively met Picard's. The Inspector stood on tiptoe, stared past the man, calling, "Here, Yvette, here I am! Where is little Charles?" then plunged into the crowd, keeping the tall blond head of his quarry in view. Baron Mantes was accompanying a young woman in white, whose gown was trimmed with undulating bands of black satin, a touch of death upon her already. If you knew, mademoiselle, with whom you walk...
Picard tried to close in, but the Baron was in control of the situation, scanning the crowd with the nervous tension of a man-at-arms. Picard's hand was resting inside his jacket, upon the handle of his revolver, but to draw it here, to attempt arrest in this crowd, would endanger many lives.
He followed the Baron into the street; Mantes was already showing the young woman into a waiting carriage and quickly followed her, closing the door behind him. Picard hurried among the other carriages, gaining an advantage in the crowded muddy street, for the horses were slow to move out, and he found an unoccupied carriage.
"Driver, do you see that coach, three ahead of us, a young woman's face at the window?" Picard held his badge out and the driver, a hawk-nosed black-bearded fellow, glanced at it and moved his eyes in the direction Picard indicated.
"Yes, I see her."
"If you lose sight of her tonight, she is certain to die at the hands of the man who is with her." Picard climbed into the carriage, and the driver swiftly maneuvered into the main line of traffic.
Picard lowered his window. "He mustn't know we're following him."
"He'll know nothing," snapped the black-bearded driver, his eyes fixed on the Baron's carriage, and Picard knew he'd chosen one of those carriage men who will drive you into hell if you request it.
The street was filled with opera lovers, and they stepped haughtily in front of the hawk's carriage. "Out of my way!" he snarled, cracking his whip and moving so close to the terrified pedestrians his carriage wheel went over the edge of a woman's long trailing skirt.
They continued along the avenue de l'Opéra, keeping steadily behind the Baron's vehicle; Picard saw the young woman's beautiful head at the window. The last woman the Baron had escorted had also been beautiful. She was found in a bedroom of the Hôtel du Rhin, her eyes open and a sheet tucked up to her neck. As the bedcovers were in a state of dishevelment, only when they were taken away was it discovered that the rest of her body was not in the bed.
Picard's stomach growled; he was ravenously hungry. Withdrawing his revolver from inside his jacket, he opened the cartridge gate, clicking it nervously, then cocked the hammer and lowered it again. The carriages turned onto the rue de Rivoli. He rapped on the sliding panel in front of him, which quickly opened.
"When his carriage stops, make note of the address and drive me on past it one block. Then you must hurry to the Prefecture and explain that Baron Mantes has been found. Tell them Picard sent you."
"Your man is turning again."
Picard leaned toward the window, studying the momentary profile of his quarry as the lead carriage moved into the rue des Archives. Mantes was himself glancing out the window, watching the traffic that followed him.
"He's stopping. Shall I turn? The street is narrow..."
"Cross the intersection ... straight ... stop now..." Picard jumped down on the blind side of the carriage and hurried to the corner building. Removing his top hat, he placed his nose on the cold brick, and slowly swiveled his head so that one eye only was cast down the street where the Baron and the young woman were descending from the carriage. A flower seller's awning marked the center of the block and they passed beside it, through an adjacent doorway.
Picard signaled his driver to move on, and walked round the corner, toward the flower seller's stall. There were but a few fresh bouquets; dried flowers of the season filled the shelves and rustled softly in the autumn breeze as Picard passed, entering the building. The hallway was empty and dim. He climbed the stairs quickly. As he turned the landing, he encountered a middle-aged woman, fat, menacing, seated behind her counter--the concierge. She was opening her large mouth, but closed it as Picard showed his shield, at the same time bringing one finger to his lips.
The smell of a fine dinner came from the open door behind the woman, momentarily beguiling Picard. He saw her dining table; she'd arranged her apartment and her life so that she could watch all movements in her house. She watched now, as Picard stepped directly up to her and whispered, "In what room is the couple who just entered?"
"At the head of the staircase, monsieur. Number 31."
He climbed the next flight, glad for the rug that muffled his steps, and stopped in the hall outside number 31. All was quiet within. He lowered his shoulder and charged the door. The hinges groaned, the old dried frame split apart and the door crashed onto the floor ahead of him as he thundered into the room. The shock of the collision slowed him slightly; Baron Mantes spun around, shattering the gas lamp with his cane.
Drawing his revolver in the darkness, Picard fired at the shadowy figure, heard the bullet splinter a mirror across the room. Then, in a sudden burst of firelight, the Baron's cane appeared, hissing toward his head. Unable to escape it, he saw with frozen clarity each detail of the approaching cane, handle shaped into a ball and claw, the iron ball crashing against his skull, driving him to his knees.
Blood ran into his eyes. The Baron's white shirt cuff appeared, his jeweled studs gleaming as Picard rolled, the iron cane whipping past his head again, missing him by a hair's-breadth. The room was burning, the oil of the shattered gas lamp spreading across the rug, and he saw the young woman's terrified face beyond the leaping flames.
"Run!" growled Picard, and she ran, across the flaming rug, to the open doorway. He heard the crisply starched linen of the Baron's sleeve, smelled the elegant killer's cologne, received the solid-iron cane across his throat. He fell backward, firing blind, gasping for air; the grinning lunatic charged with mad fury in his eyes. Picard squeezed off four rounds, saw them go wide of the Baron's lightning-fast shadow, and the fencing master's cane struck again, tearing the pistol from Picard's hand before the final round could be fired.
Picard stumbled onto the hearth of the fireplace, crashing into the fire tools. He hurled an iron shovel at the Baron, who parried and drove it across the room without missing a step of his advance upon Picard. The cane lashed out, clearing the mantelpiece of its figurines as Picard ducked low and charged with a heavy iron fire tongs in his hand, driving it into the Baron's ribs. The madman's momentum was stopped. Picard sought the offensive, swung the fire tongs against the Baron's cheek, laying open a long bloody gash, but the Baron smiled, blood trickling down his chin, and renewed his charge.
Iron mastery rang out against Picard. He swung the fire tongs desperately, his forearms knotting with pain as he beat off the Baron's blows. The iron weapons met in the air, their black shafts crossing; the Baron's cane found its way between the two arms of the tongs, and he twisted his weapon savagely, wrenching the tongs from Picard's grip.
The Inspector saw the ball and claw once again, briefly, as it landed above the bridge of his nose. Then he was lost in unconsciousness, chasing the Baron across a dream Paris, a Paris that had become smoke-filled, through which he fought to find his way.
He woke upon the floor, in an inferno. The Baron had fled the flames, and Picard rose, struggling through them toward the door. Blazing wood crashed around him as he stumbled into the hall, into an impenetrable curtain of smoke. He groped in the smoke, feeling his way along the red-hot walls, his eyes and nose burning, his throat constricted, his heart suffocating.
The skin of the wall peeled away, then collapsed, revealing the flames that were devouring the entire floor. He lurched through the smoke, trying not to breathe, but forced to inhale the raging cloud. The flames leapt up--the staircase fell away before his eyes, leaving only a flaming hole before him. The landing creaked beneath him, and the soles of his shoes were melting with the heat. Through the crackling of the flames, he heard a hideous wailing. He ran toward it, through another fiery doorway, into another dying room. There was no air, only smoke, and his lungs were bursting in his chest. The wailing cry drew him blindly through the room. He fell in the smoke and crawled across the floor like an infant, his heart pounding wildly. His hand touched the wall and he heard the high-pitched scream directly above him. Reaching up, he clutched a windowsill and raised himself.
The lights of Paris were just beyond him, winking through the deadly grey curtain. He tucked the howling house cat under his arm and threw himself against the window.