Dancing Suite 3: Hopscotch and Bal Musette, 2/?
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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 puzzled. They were heading directly to the Thiers fortification wall. As they approached, they made their way through a smaller civilian gathering than expected to join two Guardians of the Peace from their station, Leroux and Varney, beside whom they dropped their bicycles. Dark blue frocks and white sticks on display, the two stood keeping the crowd back along the boulevard. Still, the obvious reason the onlookers were fewer and more orderly than usual were the some ten soldiers from the nearby bastion, armed with bayonetted rifles. They were standing guard close behind the fence marking the Military Exception Zone, which ran parallel to the high stone fortifications that circled the entire city, footed by a pock-marked military road used for troop transport.
Murdoch and Pendrick followed Guillaume closely. The former addressed him in French, so as to keep public the procedures from that point on: “Is the army giving us this case? Why?”
“It seems that even the soldiers know we’re the experts here! In any case, the victim is civilian.” Guillaume smirked and jumped the rickety fence, expecting to be followed.
“Are we sure it’s a crime?” chimed Pendrick in his heavily accented French. He really did sound like an American when speaking Molière’s tongue. Murdoch found it quite endearing.
Pointing to an open, flat area hidden by brambles, Guillaume shot back, “Certainly looks like it to me!”
Murdoch and Pendrick approached, careful not to smudge possible tracks left in the yellow Parisian soil. The Provisional Investigator was right, the scene was gruesome enough to count as suspicious. Murdoch crossed himself, sending a prayer for the lost soul left alone on the ground. Then as one, the Canadiens reached inside their murder bags; Murdoch pulled a magnifying glass and a measuring gallon, while Pendrick took a notebook and pencil.
Murdoch could not lie, he loved this! Despite the gruesome circumstances, he was in his true element: he circled the body slowly, eyes sharp, voice certain, stating out loud the details of import for Pendrick to write down. The body lied nearly halfway between the Porte de la Chapelle-Saint-Denis and the Porte d’Aubervilliers, two meters off the military road. The male, moustached and in his early 1930s by the looks of him, was prone on his front, his right cheek in the dirt, right arm extended, hand apparently pointing toward the railroad track that crossed the wall into the train passage less than 20 meters away. The deceased was in a frightful state: face and hands covered in angry rashes, eyes looking forward, bloodshot and frozen open in death, mouth bloody, clothed ragged, hat missing. Murdoch asked gendarme Massot who’d been trailing them with the camera to take a photograph of the entire body and a close up of the head. Marcel Guillaume, standing five meters away on a foldable footstool, called out for the man to also take a photograph of the deceased’s point of view. “Might at well record what he was looking at.” Murdoch nodded in agreement.
A perched Marcel Guillaume at a crime scene was not an unusual sight. He claimed that a higher vantage point allowed him to take in the entirety of an incident site. He’d been known to barge into some citizen’s upper floor apartment to look upon the aftermath of brawls to murders to demonstrations. Here in the military exception zone, a short stool was the best he could manage, but as with everything Guillaume aimed to lord over all his purview. He started dictating his observations to gendarme Braun who stood below. Murdoch paid them no mind ––they would discuss the case together and compare notes later at the station –– and he kneeled at the corpse’s head, joined by Pendrick. The latter spoke under his breath, in English. “This is strange. I know he looks like he was trying to crawl toward something, but his face is frozen in fear.”
Murdoch shot a scolding look at his partner for his choice of language and responded louder in French, “You’re right. He could have been crawling away from something.”
Standing, they walked four steps to the body’s feet. The gravelly dirt had been disturbed in a clear path, which they followed for approximately 15 meters, leading in a broad curve toward the fortification. “It looks like he dragged himself from the here to there and then simply stopped... What is that?” Murdoch hurried to the limestone wall, Pendrick at his side.
Hand prints. The stone was covered with pairs of trailing bloody hand prints, as if someone had tried to climb the vertical surface and shredded his hands raw in the process. “What was he doing?” asked Pendrick.
Murdoch’s insides liquified. The circumstances of this death proved darker by the minute. “The question is what was he trying to escape?”
They turned as one hearing the ambulance arriving. They were running out of time. Murdoch placed a reassuring hand on his partner’s partner’s shoulder. “Can you make a diagramme of the entire scene, please? I’ll go back to the body. I want to look at it more before they take it away.” Handing Pendrick the measuring gallon, he quick-marched back to where Guillaume was readying to turn the corpse on his back. Murdoch extended his hands to help. “Prêt? Sur le compte de trois.”
On three, they rolled the body. Lividity had set in and the man’s left arm stayed rigid on his side, his head at an angle. The deceased’s frightful state was in clear evidence. The dead man was wearing a dark grey suit of the kind worn by the Nouveau Riche. The front shirt and collar were dotted with dried blood and what looked like a greening yellow fluid as was the dirtied beige waistcoat. “Perhaps bile or vomit,” Guillaume mused. The Investigator patted the body’s sides and pockets, finding a broken smoking pipe, some tobacco, quite fine, a once-white handkerchief, but no wallet, nor watch. On a hunch, Murdoch inserted his fingers in the watch pocket of the waistcoat, finding a folded over calling card, which said:
Pierre DEULLIN, éditeur.
Sciences occultes, spiritisme, théosophie.
Rue de Savoie, 3.
Guillaume gave the former detective a fond smile: “Well, we know who we’ll be visiting this afternoon, don’t we! Now Massot, photograph the face, will you.”
Once that was done, and the ambulancemen were taking the corpse away for examination, Marcel Guillaume announced he wanted to speak to the boys who’d found the body. Murdoch felt a pang at his side. Less than two years ago, it would have been him that would have approached the two very young lads, barely old enough to wear shorts, holding onto a gaunt woman’s skirts, perhaps their mother or an aunt. But no longer a detective, he had to contend himself to physical evidence, to the prosaic. Banking down his jealousy, he resolved to look in the direction where the body was pointing, toward the railway tracks.
For the first four or so meters from where the body had lied, the ground revealed nothing unusual, dried leaves and random stick were strewn about, bits of decayed labels and slivers of torn advertisements, a flattened and rusting food tin. But then the vegetation grew denser, first with taller grasses, then with nettle bushes. Two things were obvious to his eye. Firstly, someone had been here recently to harvest nettles, likely in the early morning. More than a dozen plants had had their leaves freshly cut, the stalks still seeping sap, and the tall grasses were broken and flattened all around. Someone had walked about in search of the best leaves, then left in a clear path leading directly to the perimeter fence. Murdoch knew that many older ladies in the neighbourhood, including his neighbour Madame Meilleur, used nettle infusions to sooth their aches due to rheumatism. This particular scene was not, therefore, suspicious. Secondly, however, another path was obvious from his current viewpoint. One, perhaps two persons had also made their way through the vegetation, this time in a direct line from the railway tracks, only to stand side by side near the nettles but far enough away not to get stung. Indeed, two sets of prints were clear in ground where the soil was slightly damp and had preserved the shape of their shoes. Two men. They had stood there, looking towards where the deceased had been found, not moving around much, then seemingly they had left through where they had come.
For an instant, his near perfect memory provided him with an image of the last time he’d walked through grasses in search of clues to a crime. Two years ago in Toronto, when James Gillies had taken his lover. Turning, he looked back to see Pendrick was safe and sound, measuring the hight of the topmost handprints left on the fortification wall. Dismissing his momentary flutter of panic, Murdoch realized that from this position, whoever had stood in the grass had had a perfect view of not only the crime scene, but almost all the way to the Porte des Aubervilliers. A perfect vantage point, but also a somewhat hidden one. If, as he thought, the events took place the previous night, and if these men were crouching, the deceased might not have seen them at all. But the deceased had seen something. He had been reaching for something, had he not?
Knowing he could not answer these questions yet, Murdoch gave a last look to his lover then turned his attention back to the ground, concentrating on finding what evidence was left behind. He chose to preserve the path by walking half-a-meter to the right of it, using his hand to bend the grasses slightly so they would not block his view. He reached the stone wall flanking the rail tracks in minutes without finding anything of import. The wall was not as high here than farther toward the boulevard, barely two meters high, soil and mulch having accumulated along it. In this spot, someone would not have found it difficult to climb over it, something Murdoch demonstrated to himself post haste. Jumping just enough to find purchase, he pushed himself on top it to look over. The railway tracks were some three meters below, but someone with a ladder could have climbed up this way quite easily.
But why? Why not simply make their way from the boulevard. It’s not as if the military zone was respected, on either side of the fortifications. The shacks and houses built on the zone outside the walls numbered in the hundreds. On this side, chickens, children and old ladies passed through regularly, despite the efforts of the soldiers on guard. So why risk the train tracks? What in the world had happened here last night?
He needed to find a woman about nettles.