Dancing Suite 3: Hopscotch and Bal Musette, 3/?
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Fandom: Murdoch Mysteries
Rating: Not Rated
Warnings: Creator Chose Not To Use Archive Warnings
Relationships: William Murdoch/James Pendrick, Julia Ogden/Other Male Character
Characters: William Murdoch, James Pendrick, Julia Ogden, Dr. Roberts (Murdoch Mysteries), Marcel Guillaume, Alphonse Bertillon, George Crabtree, Prof. Harms (Murdoch Mysteries)
Additional Tags: Established Relationship, Period-Typical Homophobia, Period-Typical Sexism, Alternate Universe - Canon Divergence, A host of historical figures, Bicycles, Dubious Science, Spiritualism, Period-Typical Science, Period-Typical Medicine, Paris (City), Historically Accurate, Murder Mystery, Dancing, Poisoning
Series: Part 3 of The Dancing Suite
When faced with strange happenings and inexplicable poisonings, former Police Detective William Murdoch and all-around genius James Pendrick see their new Paris life turned upside down. They must turn to uncertain allies and use all resources at their disposable to solve this mystery before someone loses their life. Could this all be linked to the sudden arrival of long-lost friends in the City of Lights?
Murdoch was walking back at a brisk pace. Marcel Guillaume was conversing with a military officer, the body already gone. Pendrick himself was done with the site diagramme and was presently spooling his measuring gallon. He would transcribe the information onto larger paper back at the station, adding what details Murdoch had gathered. But now, Murdoch walked with intent. He stopped a couple meters back from the gathering, scrutinizing. Guillaume noticed too, nodding ascent, but continued his own conversation. Picking up both evidence bags, Pendrick joined his partner. Something was up.
Despite the many disadvantages of their lowly positions within the Gendarmerie, the fact of the matter was, they were afforded quite a bit of independence. So long as their paths of investigation did not directly interfere with Guillaume’s – and as long as they reported their findings promptly – Pendrick and Murdoch could essentially do whatever they deemed necessary to bring cases to a close. After all, the entire point of their working at La Chapelle was to test if their detecting approaches could work within Paris’s modernizing Criminal Police system.
As it was, it did not take long for Murdoch to focus in on an elderly woman, stooped and perhaps worried. Presenting himself with his pseudonym, William Gagnon, he asked her about picking nettles. The elderly lady, a Madame Branchu, was among the few onlookers remaining at the scene after the body was taken away. She had stared at both him and Guillaume, pointedly, for as long as she’d been there. When Pendrick approached, she indicated she didn’t think she liked the company, turning her nose at the soldiers still on site. Not a particularly surprising comment. As with a majority of the elderly working classes in the city, she was suspicious of the military, remembering all too well how government troops had massacred their brothers, husbands and sons during Paris’s many failed revolutions in the last half-century. Their own neighbour, Madame Meyer, was much the same and equal in her own losses.
Seeing the elder lady’s reluctance to speak in public, Pendrick took over the conversation. Giving her his most glowing smile, he suggested they might walk her home. In this field, Pendrick was much better equipped than his partner. His blond hair, gently tanned complection and English-accented French gave him a clear advantage over Murdoch, whose own looks were much closer to the Parisian norm. Madame Branchu blushed and eagerly took Pendrick’s extended arm.
They walked slowly, in deference to her, while he showered her with his charms. She lived close-by on the rue du Pré-Maudit and they reached number 12 in less than twenty minutes. By then, Madame Branchu was giggling like a girl in love. She shared a modest logement with her son’s widow and a host of grand children. The younger Madame Branchu was absent, currently working for the poulterer at the Marché de l’Olive. A ragged-looking teenager met them as they arrived, her hair falling out of a loose bun, holding two siblings by the collar, toddlers attempting an escape by the open front door. The elder Madame Branchu asked her to make coffee for the guests. The girl left the front room, a child under each arm. Then, her grandmother sat heavily and spoke without prompting: “Yes, I saw the body this morning.”
Pendrick stiffened in surprise, Murdoch too. The old woman laughed and patted the latter’s knee with a gleam in her eye. “I am old, dear boys, seventy-two years old! I don’t have time for prevarication, so yes, the man was already dead when I went harvesting this morning.”
Pendrick was charmed all over again. If only everyone were as pragmatic as she! Murdoch’s expression changed as he took in their conversation’s new state. He stated: “Madame, my colleague Monsieur Beckett and I need to know any detail you might remember about this morning. Tell us what you saw, please.”
She adjusted her skirts while choosing her words. “Well, I got up early, at Matins... I mean at about five, the same time as my daughter-in-law. I helped make breakfast – we had yesterday’s soup – and then I left for the wall. One can find nettles in a few places in the neighbourhood, but none are as healthy as those that grow wild near the train passage. I like to go early, when the plants are still wet with dew. It’s easier to choose the best leaves that way.”
“So you arrived at the Thiers wall before six this morning?” Pendrick asked, pulling our his notebook. She nodded her ascent. A time line was emerging.
“Please tell us,” Murdoch prompted, “what did you notice, once you saw the body? Did you walk over to it?”
“Oh! Goodness no! I didn’t want to get involved with the military! Too much trouble there! Once I saw the poor man, I finished my collecting as quickly as I could. Had I known civilians would be involved, perhaps I would have called the police, but I could not know then.” After a deep breath she continued, “There were no insects around the body, no smell, no bloating. It was a fresh corpse, I could tell from a distance. You see, I wash all those who pass on in this street, to prepare them for viewing. I have seen my fair share of the dead in my time. The poor man had not been dead long, I am certain of it.
“Also his eyes. You saw them, Monsieur Gagnon. He died in fear.”
Both Pendrick and Murdoch nodded. There was no forgetting the man’s tortured face. “Beside the presence of the body, did you notice anything else unusual?”
“No,” she added, sounding doubtful. Pendrick guessed she was pondering a different answer. Then, she looked to have reached a decision, perhaps reluctantly: “Yes, one thing. This.” From the folds of her apron, she pulled a small pharmacist’s jar. There was no label, but the small ceramic container and its cork stopper were in perfect condition, not even scratched. “One can find a lot of things near the wall, but a pot like this is rare. It was left opened and empty, like that, on the ground, where the grasses were walked over.” Turning to Murdoch she added, “You know where, I saw you find the path.”
Pendrick was confused, “And you took the jar. If it was so unusual, why not leave it there for the investigators to find?”
Madame Branchu seemed equally confused, “A jar like this can be useful. It’s a shame to throw them away. I wasn’t going to leave it there for someone else to take. I was going to wash it and put perfumed powder in it, for my grand daughter’s birthday.”
She had whispered the last sentence, since they could hear the girl in question walk back up the corridor with a tray. “Thank you my dear. Please go back to the kitchen now.”
The girl said nothing, but stiffened in displeasure and shot them all a rebellious look before turning and walking off. “Don’t mind her, she’s a good girl, but fancies herself a grown woman. All of fourteen, can you imagine?” Madame Branchu shrugged, “No matter.”
Pendrick searched for a way to ask her for the jar, but the elderly woman surprised them again.
“I guess now you’ll want it in evidence, as ‘proof’. Is that the word? To do all sorts of science with it?”
He felt his mouth drop in shock. What did the woman know? She chuckled and waved away their questions. “Oh, dear boys, of course I know all about you two. The Canadiens working for the police. From what I hear, despite everything, you’re probably the only two trustworthy men at the Commissariat, the only ones who are willing to listen and not judge us low folks for our social class when trouble arises.”
It was Murdoch’s turn to blush bright pink and sputter in gratitude as her words sank in on them. Despite everything? That was not quite good news. She had revealed that their hopes for an anonymous police career were as moot as their previous attempts to keep their relationship secret from their neighbours. As police specialists, they had managed to stay out of the newspapers, which was good. But it seemed that word had spread to the populace, far beyond their street, all the way to the other end of La Chapelle, that not only did they work for the Criminal Police, they were also “inverts,” in the polite parlance. Pendrick could not help but laugh at the futility of it all.
“Well, yes, good Madame, in fact we would like to examine it at the station. If you can part with it, of course.”
Still blushing, Murdoch pulled one of his ever-present handkerchief from his inner jacket pocket. “Please.”
The old woman, her swift wit now in full display, hesitated only a moment before placing the small container in Murdoch’s hand. Then she moved to her coffee cup on the tray and changed the subject. Murdoch tried to ask a few more questions about the crime scene, but she would have none of it. “Now, finish your coffees and shoo,” she insisted. “You have a killer to find.”