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Authors: Charles O'Brien

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BOOK: Deadly Descent
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“Right!” interjected Anne. “But we'll never know since his body has been burned.” She glanced at the colonel and scowled. “Could that be a coincidence?”

Lines of doubt creased Saint-Martin's brow. “Do you mean the police have deliberately destroyed evidence, preventing a thorough investigation? What do you think, Georges?”

“The investigation wasn't thorough,” the adjutant replied. “The police didn't puzzle out the physical evidence because the man was unimportant. They had an authenticated written confession. The writing didn't appear coerced, as if someone were torturing Dubois.”

“The experts must be blind!” Anne exclaimed. “If the man had just killed his lover, wouldn't he write with more passion than this?” She thrust the note toward each of the men, her finger jabbing at the text. “This is too tame for Antoine. There's no real grief or remorse. And the hand that wrote it is strong.”

“I'll play the devil's advocate,” Saint-Martin said cautiously. “Experts can only guess why a man who has committed a murder and is about to kill himself writes his usual steady hand. Perhaps, the deed done and his mind made up, he enjoyed a moment of composure as he wrote out his confession.”

“Your experts may say what they like!” Anne glared at him with indignation. “I don't think he killed anyone. I want to explore the idea that someone else killed them both.” She glanced at Georges. “Would you help me get started? I'll take the risk.”

Georges looked down, tapping his fingers on the table. Then he turned to Saint-Martin. “Miss Cartier could begin by inquiring casually about Lélia Laplante among her acquaintances. I don't think theater people who knew her would be alarmed by the curiosity of a newcomer.” Detecting disapproval in the colonel's face, Georges added, “I could back her up in my spare time.”

“What spare time!” Saint-Martin growled, as he rose and walked to the courtyard window. Arms folded, he stood there looking out for a few seconds. Then, he turned around and stared first at Anne and then at Georges. “All right, make a few probes. Search for new evidence. You
not attract the attention of the police.”

He returned to his desk, concern mounting in his face. “And there are others whose attention we don't want if we're dealing with a double murder.” He sat down next to Anne. “You may need to speak to me or to Georges. I want to be kept informed. But if you are frequently seen coming to this office, you may arouse curiosity in the minds of certain persons who could do you great harm.”

He reached into a desk drawer. “Take this key. You can enter the back way through the garden pavilion. The servants who live there can be trusted.”

Anne glanced at him without smiling, took the key, and dropped it into her bag.

Chapter 11

The Variety Theater

Early next morning, the sun barely above the rooftops, Anne stood alone by a fountain in the middle of the vast garden of the Palais-Royal. Around her to the north, east, and west, she saw tall, pilastered apartment buildings rising in regimented order, their uniform facades a fresh cream color. At ground level in the arcades, shopkeepers were preparing for the day's business. To the south, the garden ended at a low arcade of wooden shops and stalls. The Camp of the Tatars, it was called. Beyond stood the duke's palace, an older, irregular, sprawling gray building. Anne slowly turned a complete circle, letting her impressions sink in. This colossal place was designed more for giants than for mere humans.

Her throat tightened. Here Antoine Dubois had lived as well as died. There must be men and women in these buildings who still remembered him. And Lélia Laplante. Where to begin? For a few moments the question overwhelmed Anne, her arms hanging at her side. Thousands of people were milling about in the garden. Countless thousands more were hidden in the shadows of the arcades, in the shops, the restaurants, and theaters. Searching here for traces of Antoine and his Lélia was like looking for needles in a haystack.

Comtesse Marie had guided Anne through the place. Named after the palace at its southern end, she had said. Cardinal Richelieu had built it, then left it to King Louis XIII. Hence, Palais-Royal. The palace and its grounds passed eventually to Louis-Philippe, Duc d'Orléans, who had transformed them into this bustling commercial and social center.

Anne joined the crowd in the western or Montpensier arcade. She would work her way toward the Théâtre des Variétés Amusantes and her promised job. Dark-skinned Africans in brightly colored robes strolled past her, followed by turbaned Indians. With shame she realized she was staring at them. She began searching for traces of Antoine and Laplante in shops, casually mentioning them without alluding to their violent deaths. Under the gimlet eye of a jeweler she gazed at a diamond studded broach Lélia might have admired. The man hadn't heard of her. In other shops Anne browsed among enormous wigs, miniature portraits, silks, satins and muslins the actress might have inspected. No one knew her by name. An hour passed in fruitless inquiry. Weary and disheartened, Anne told herself to stop. She must save her energy for the place where the murdered actress had worked.

After morning coffee in a small café, Anne made her way to the south-west corner of the Palais-Royal. The new variety theater was housed there in a large plain wooden building. Anne presented herself, repeating “Directeur Bouvin sent me” to a succession of underlings, until she reached his assistant. Recognizing her name, he gave her an ironic look. She reflected tartly on how Bouvin recruited talent. With a scowl, the assistant led her to the stage, chose music she knew, and stepped aside. As she sang and danced, he began to smile with reluctant pleasure. She could sing that very evening during an interlude. He found similar opportunities for her the next several nights as well.


Anne closed her eyes as if to shut herself out of the hot, tiny dressing room. The smell of powder and the rustle of cloth, the outbursts of shrill irritation, the jostling for space had brought her mind back to London and to some of the reasons for giving up a career in theater. Still, after two evenings, she was becoming familiar with her companions. A few were popular with the public. Others were linked to wealthy patrons. Most were poorly paid and lacked self-respect, especially the dancers and singers of the chorus. She suspected that they sold themselves, informed for the police, or taught song and dance for a pittance.

Her act finished, she removed the powder and rouge from her face. The other women in the dressing room were ignoring her or, with sidelong glances, whispering about her. Anne was not surprised. A stranger who enjoyed Bouvin's favor, she had taken one of the scarce places in the theater company. She pushed back her chair, hung up her costume, and stepped out of the room.

Walking toward the stage, she reflected that she didn't have time to ingratiate herself, even if she could. From a grapevine running back to Bouvin, they might already know—and resent the fact that Comtesse Marie had helped her get the position. Nonetheless, a few of her companions were surely curious about her and would strike up an acquaintance. From them she might learn something worthwhile.

As she watched the show from the wings, a red-haired dancer coming off the stage threw her a friendly smile and a few words of greeting. For the rest of the evening, Anne hovered between stage and dressing room. When the last performance ended, the friendly dancer came up to her. “I'm Henriette Picard. Care to join us for drinks?” They were a small group of women who relaxed after evening shows at the nearby Odéon, a café in the Montpensier arcade.

“I'd be happy to,” Anne replied, hoping that Laplante had frequented the place.

Through discreet inquiries over the next several days, Anne discovered that Henriette was well-informed and could be helpful, for she earned extra income selling information to the police and to other parties hungry for scandal. Anne feigned a wish to become acquainted. A risky tactic. The dancer was clever and unscrupulous. But Anne would learn what she could from her.

One evening with Henriette at the Odéon, their conversation turned toward crime in Paris. Anne sipped from her wine glass, then set it on the table. “A woman has to be careful here,” she ventured, grasping her opportunity. “I've heard that an actress was murdered last year in the Palais-Royal.”

“Lélia Laplante. I knew her.” Henriette waved her hands dismissively. “Stabbed, quarrelling with her lover.”

“She brought it on herself!” said a woman approaching the table with a glass of brandy in her hand. A singer with a fading voice, Georgette had a tired, worn look on her face. She set the drink down and pulled up a chair. “Lélia'd bed any rich man who'd have her.”

“And not just overnight,” added Henriette. “She'd move in with him for a week and come back to Monsieur Dubois as if nothing had happened.”

Anne leaned back in her chair, lifting the wine glass again to her lips to hide her distress. This gossip threatened to stain her memory of Antoine. Had he lost all self-respect?

Georgette emptied her glass. “I'd have thought he'd take her as she was. Unfaithful and all. But Lélia had a nasty tongue. That could've pushed him over the edge.” She sneered. “Even a weak man'll take just so much.”

Angered by this slur, Anne glared at the aging singer. “No! He would have left her instead.”

Georgette shrugged her shoulders and beckoned to a waiter for another brandy.

Henriette appeared startled by Anne's outburst, began to object, then fell silent.

Regretting the vehemence of her unguarded reaction, Anne inquired in a detached voice, “Was she killed at the variety theater?”

“No, over there.” Henriette pointed toward the massive building to the south, faintly outlined by the dim night light of the city. “They were preparing a production at the duke's private theater.”

Anne learned that this theater in the west wing of the duke's palace was used by the Société des Amateurs, an association of young noblemen who claimed to foster the performing arts. A few with talent wrote, produced, and acted in their own plays. Others merely dabbled. Most of them mixed a slight interest in the arts with serious gambling, refined carousing, and sophisticated games with women.

The theater was the Amateurs' favorite venue. The palace of the duke, a member of the royal family, lay outside the ordinary jurisdiction of the Paris police and beyond the reach of censors. The Amateurs rented palace rooms adjacent to the theater for parties following their productions.

The duke was an honorary patron. Embarrassed by the murder-suicide, he had excluded the society from his property for several months. Recently, however, he was persuaded by several prominent businessmen and Freemasons, who shared an interest in the Amateurs, to open the theater to them again.

“Their directeur, Chevalier de Pressigny, will produce a show in a couple of days,” said Georgette, the singer. “He's asked our manager for variety acts between plays and during intermissions.” She noticed her remark caught Anne's ear. “But he pays poorly and expects us to entertain the Amateurs and their patrons.”

She winked at Anne. “You
earn real money, depending on what you're willing to do. Few of us go there unless we have to.”

“Well, I'll take up his offer,” said Henriette with a grimace. “I need the money, and I'll stoop for it.” Turning to Anne, she said, “Come with me, I'll introduce you. He'll be happy to fit you in.”

About to refuse, Anne stopped, pretended to stifle a cough. A connection had suddenly leapt to her mind. Pressigny! She shuddered, kept her hand pressed to her mouth. According to the police file, Chevalier de Pressigny had charge of the Amateurs' production ten months ago when Antoine died. He was a man she needed to know. “Yes, Henriette, I'll be glad to join you.”

Late that night, Anne walked slowly back to her apartment alone, through a dark narrow street. The moon was but a slim waxing crescent. The bells of Saint-Roch struck midnight. A madman's shriek, then a volley of curses punctuated the silence of the city. An ominous quiet returned. Anne stopped as if struck. She felt a tremor of fear. The women's cynical remarks at the Odéon echoed in her mind. Was she being drawn into dangers she might not be able to handle? The events at Islington came back to her. She remembered the pain. Should she quit now?

No, she told herself, she
to take these risks. For Antoine's sake. She lengthened her stride. In Islington she had also learned the hard way to trust friends. Harriet Ware. Louis Fortier. Mr. Newton. Here, in Paris, she wasn't alone. She could rely on Comtesse Marie, the colonel, and Georges. Her courage returned. She could deal with the risks.

Chapter 12

The Amateurs, June 1786

Bright sunshine poured into Anne's bedroom as she woke. A good omen, she thought. She walked to the open window, stretched, breathed deeply. A jumble of street noise greeted her. She pulled back the drapes separating her bedroom from the main room. Sunlight flooded the parlor. She had lived here for almost three weeks and it felt like home. She reached for her clothes and planned the day ahead of her.

The Amateurs had called a rehearsal for the morning, a day before the performance. For her small part she would choose something familiar, Rameau's
The Milkmaid's Lament
, perhaps. She practiced the song at the window, her audience a clutter of chimney pots angled helter-skelter on the tile roofs across the street.

Satisfied her voice was ready, she sat before her mirror, comb in hand, considering the next step in her investigation. It soon became clear she must explore the theater and see where the crimes had taken place.

At nine o'clock she joined her companion, Henriette Picard, for coffee at Café Odéon. They chose an outdoor table with a view of the duke's palace. Anne put on her most innocent face and asked again about Lélia Laplante.

have had a maid with her that night she was killed, to help her with costumes?”

“She couldn't afford a maid. When she needed work done, she hired Michou.”


“A little seamstress.”

Anne cocked her head, affecting mild interest. This little Michou might be the kind of person who went unnoticed in a room and could have observed the actress Laplante in unguarded moments.

“An odd creature,” continued Henriette, sipping her coffee. “Neither speaks nor hears what you say. Can't read or write either. But she alters garments and paints sets for the stage. She comes cheap. The Amateurs used to hire her.” She frowned, as if the little woman were eluding her. “Come to think of it, I haven't seen her in quite a while.”

Not a promising lead, Anne thought, but she had to start somewhere. “I might look her up for occasional work. Where does she live?”

“In a garret on Rue Richelieu, a couple of blocks north of here.” Henriette reflected for a moment. “If she's not in, try the Hospital of the Holy Spirit on Place de Grève. The nuns look after her.”

Midmorning shoppers were now filling the arcades. The two women left the café and walked through the garden toward the palace theater. Henriette pointed to a plain rear door at ground level. “That's where
going, the servants' entrance.” They snaked their way through a bustle of tradesmen, artisans, and performers in the back hall, then down a narrow corridor. “This is it,” Henriette whispered, stopping at an open door. “Here's where Laplante was murdered!”

An odd-shaped room, it was enclosed on the outside by the thick curved wall of the foundation and, on the inside, by a solid supporting wall. To the right, where the room narrowed, stood a table piled high with boxes. To the left was a large wardrobe where two seamstresses bent over a table at their work. Through the open door, Anne could see herself in a mirror.

Henriette tugged on Anne's sleeve and pointed toward a dressing table up against the foundation wall. “Lélia was probably standing there when she was attacked. It was evening and only Laplante and Dubois were in the theater.”

“Wasn't a watchman at the rear door?”

“He didn't see a thing.” Henriette rolled her eyes. “He was drunk.”

“Then anyone could have come in and…” Anne glanced toward the seamstresses who were talking to one another, ignoring the intruders. She continued in a low voice. “Anyone could have killed Laplante and Dubois and left unobserved.”

Henriette shrugged her shoulders. Following Anne's cue, she also lowered her voice. “Nothing was stolen. Why would anyone have bothered to kill them?”

Anne confessed to herself she didn't know.

Her companion pointed toward a pile of cutting shears on a table. “A powerful thrust from one of them killed her.” She held up a pair of shears for Anne to see, running her finger to its sharp point.

Anne glanced at the tool and abruptly turned away. She walked around the fitting room, silently fighting the image of Antoine raising such a dreadful weapon. She stepped into the wardrobe. There was a cutting table immediately to the right, bolts of material on nearby counters, and racks of costumes. Daylight poured in through a pair of deeply recessed windows. The seamstresses broke off their conversation and looked up, startled.

“Let's move on,” said Henriette. “There's more to see.”

They climbed a staircase to the first floor. On the stage, two comedians were rehearsing. Henriette pointed to a slim intense young man off to one side observing the act, chin in hand. “Simon Derennes, assistant to the directeur. There's bad blood between them. Pressigny would like to get rid of him. Or so I've heard. But Derennes is well-connected. Was raised in the palace. Part of the household.” Henriette frowned. “Watch out for him.”


Henriette glanced over her shoulder, shook her head. “I'll tell you later.”

They climbed up to the second balcony, walked into the front row of benches, and gazed over the auditorium toward the stage.

“How lovely!” Anne murmured. Several years ago, it had been renovated in Louis XVI's style, all white and gold. It could seat two hundred Amateurs and guests. She imagined the most distinguished persons reclining on comfortable chairs in the elegant boxes of the lower balcony; the least distinguished, perching on the wooden benches where she stood; the remainder, sitting on padded benches on the main floor.

Henriette beckoned, apparently relishing the role of guide. “We still have a few minutes. Let's see where Dubois killed himself.” She led Anne out of the balcony into a narrow walkway. On their left was the open area above the stage, in which hung rows of curtains; on their right, a closed room.

Her ear to the door, Henriette whispered to Anne, “Do you hear anything?”

Anne drew near and listened, then shook her head. Her companion cautiously opened the door. The two women slipped inside an office sparely furnished with a plain writing table, a few wooden chairs and tall cabinets, a shelf of books, and piles of papers. Large transverse beams supported the exposed roof high above them.

Henriette went to a window. “He must have jumped from here. He was found in the morning lying dead in the abandoned basement stairwell below.”

Her gorge rising, Anne forced herself to lean over the sill and look down into the courtyard. She quickly pulled back, shuddering, nauseous. Don't faint, she told herself, keep your mind on the investigation. She breathed deeply, then walked to the writing table and stared at its surface, bare except for an ink pot and a rack of pens.

“They found his confession there,” said Henriette.

Anne picked up a pen, possibly the one Antoine had used at this table. She tried to imagine how he felt, his hands still stained with Lélia's blood, writing his confession. It all seemed plausible to her now, sitting in his chair with his pen in her hand. Still her mind balked. He could not have killed her. There must be an explanation somewhere.

She began fingering through a pile of paper on the shelf above, searching for Antoine's name. Playbills, notes, scripts, and stage directions were carelessly mixed together.

Her companion shuffled nervously about the room. “We'd better go down to the stage.”

“Yes, in a moment,” Anne replied, but was too engrossed to stop. She had discovered a small, clasped, leather-bound, gilt-edged book. She was unfastening the clasp when she heard the latch rattle.

Simon Derennes burst in, hair unkempt, clothes disheveled. Dumbfounded, the women glanced at one another. Anne quickly fastened the clasp.

“My book! Have you seen it?” He stared with wild eyes, first at one woman, then at the other, as if he expected them to be where they were. They apparently had not aroused his suspicion.

“Is this it?” Anne volunteered, handing the book to him.

! I
I might have left the damn thing here.” He took the book, the wild look vanishing from his eyes. For a moment he stared at Anne, reading her face. “Thank you,” he said unsmiling, then turned abruptly and walked away, leaving the door ajar.

“He's strange!” Anne exclaimed in a hushed voice. “Did you see how his hands trembled?”

“That's typical,” her companion replied. “They say he drugs himself with laudanum and drinks until he falls on his face. He's charming one day, cruel the next. Likes women. Especially young ones.”

Anne had taken an instant dislike to Simon Derennes. A devil! she thought, but curbed her tongue. She started toward the open door. “He's going to wonder what we're doing in the office. Let's get out of here.”

A half-hour later, the two women rehearsed before Derennes, Henriette dancing, Anne singing. With cat's eyes, he tracked the movement of their bodies. His feet tapped to their rhythms. His hands no longer trembled. When they finished, he bent over his writing pad, jotting down a note, then looked up. A mocking smile played on his lips. “You are both ready. Be here tomorrow evening at seven sharp.”

Anne and Henriette met at the theater the next evening. The manager assigned them the same dressing room on the first balcony with several other women. They were putting on their costumes when the door opened. A handsome gentleman in his early thirties sauntered in, tastefully dressed in a shimmering pale blue satin suit and matching gloves. His lightly powdered hair was thick and curly. His lips, red and sensual.

“Who's here tonight?” he inquired, a cock among hens. Anne had hastily covered herself before noticing Henriette and the other women hadn't bothered. They were snickering at her. The visitor gave slight, teasing smiles to several familiar faces, including Anne's companion. When his gaze reached Anne, it halted abruptly.

“And who is this lovely stranger?” His eyes scanned her body, then lingered on her face.

Henriette spoke up. “Anne Cartier, Sir, she's new at the variety theater.”

“Oh!” he murmured, then smiled at her with interest. “We must meet again,” he said as he left the room.

“Who was
?” she flustered.

“Chevalier Jean de Pressigny, the directeur,” replied Henriette softly. “He's in charge of tonight's production.” She seemed to sense Anne's irritation. “It's best to go along with him.”

As Anne left the dressing room for her performance during the interlude, she looked up to the second balcony for a glimpse of the office where Antoine had worked. A clutter of stage machinery and curtains blocked her view. She had to force her mind back to the task before her.

A small remnant of the audience had remained in the hall chatting with one another. For their entertainment, she had chosen a popular song: a young princess, betrayed by a false lover at court, fled to the countryside into the arms of a virtuous shepherd. An insipid tale set to a charming melody. Dressed in white muslin like the queen's “milk maids” at Versailles, Anne lightly parodied the rustic simplicity fashionable among nobles. Taken by her satirical sallies and vibrant voice, her distracted audience untangled itself from its gossip and gave her several minutes of its attention, then hearty applause.

Leaving the stage, she met Chevalier de Pressigny in the wings. “A bit daring, Mademoiselle Cartier. I like that.” He bowed slightly towards her. “I hope we shall have you again on our stage.” He drew close, taking her hands in his. “Come to the palace after the show and meet our members and guests.” For a few moments, he studied her like a fine vase he considered buying. “Delightful creature! Do come!”

She stepped back, withdrawing her hands. “Perhaps,” she said coolly, though she fully intended to come. It seemed wise to keep the directeur at a safe distance.

Near the end of the final performance, Anne readied herself for the reception. Squinting into a mirror, she rubbed powder and rouge from her face. Muffled voices from the stage mixed with dressing room chatter. She fought off an attack of nerves. No need to worry. Georges was coming in disguise. Wear Dido's costume from Piccinni's
Queen of Carthage
, he had said; he would recognize the tiara. The reception was a masked party. Her face concealed, she could move about freely. By the time she finished dressing, she was the only one in the room. Passing the mirror, she struck a regal pose and wordlessly pronounced approval.

As she walked through the hallway to the reception, a man appeared at her side. “Hello, there.” The voice was strange, but she hoped for a moment it might be Georges. It was, instead, the assistant directeur in a short Roman tunic, a laurel wreath in his hair. He seemed sober and courteous, but Anne noticed with alarm a lecherous glint in his eyes. As she had only now masked, he must have recognized her coming out of the dressing room and followed her.

“Let me show you about, Mademoiselle….”

“Cartier,” said Anne sharply, as she quickened her pace.

He appeared to alter his expectations. “Sorry, if I seemed abrupt,” he said in a chastened tone. “I did enjoy your performance. May I formally introduce myself? Chevalier Simon Derennes. I would be honored to be allowed to escort you.” He spoke this plea with good-natured self-irony. Feeling she had the upper hand and might learn something from him, Anne took his arm.

They walked masked into a vast hall lighted by a large chandelier hanging from the ceiling and by hundreds of candles in sconces on the walls. In the center a band of harlequin revellers danced in swirls of green, yellow, and red around a life-sized white marble statue. Standing on a pedestal, the male warrior was nude save for a Corinthian helmet pushed back from his forehead. One of the revellers with a fife and another with a tambourine goaded the dancers into frenzied gyrations, as if the statue were the focus of a pagan rite. Anne stopped and stared, fascinated by the scene.

BOOK: Deadly Descent
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