March 11, 1944
A thick black smoke streamed into Jacques and Andrée Marçais's
fifth-floor apartment at 22 rue Le Sueur in the heart of
Paris's fashionable 16th arrondissement. The smoke had begun
five days before, but now, in the unusually warm weather, it was getting
worse, seeping through closed windows and soiling the furniture. In the
air was a nauseating smell described variously as burnt caramel, burnt
rubber, or a burnt roast of poor quality. The source of the disturbance, it
seemed, was a building across the street. "Do something," Andrée Marçais
told her husband when he returned home just before six o'clock that evening, and she sent him over to investigate.
Neither Jacques nor his wife knew who, if anyone, lived in the neighboring two-and-a-half-story town house at 21 rue Le Sueur. A man was sometimes seen riding there on a green bicycle, towing a cart whose contents were concealed under a heavy canvas. On rare occasions, he appeared to receive visitors, who arrived almost invariably at night curiously lugging a couple of heavy suitcases.
As Jacques approached the stately structure with its blackened gray stone façade, he could tell that the smoke was indeed pouring out of its narrow chimney. He could not, however, see inside the house. The shutters on the ground floor were closed, and the curtains on the second floor were drawn. Jacques rang the bell. After no response, he pressed the button a few more times. Then, noticing a small, weather-worn piece of paper attached to the large double door that had once served as a carriage entrance, he took it down and read: "Away for a month. Forward mail to 18, rue des Lombards, Auxerre."
Worried about a chimney fire blazing in an empty house, Jacques returned home and called the police.
Moments later, two bicycle patrolmen arrived on the scene. After trying in vain to enter the premises, the men, Joseph Teyssier and Emile Fillion, went looking for someone who could identify the owner of the property. The concierge at No. 23, Marie Pageot, informed them that the town house was unoccupied but belonged to a family physician named Marcel Petiot, who lived at 66 rue Caumartin near Gare Saint-Lazare, in a bustling commercial district just south of a seedy center of strip joints, brothels, and nightclubs.
With the physician's name and telephone number in hand, Teyssier entered the nearby grocer shop, Garanne, and dialed: Pigalle 77-11. A woman answered and then put Dr. Petiot on the line. Teyssier informed him of the fire at his property.
"Have you entered the building?" the physician asked.
"Don't touch anything. I will bring the keys immediately. Fifteen minutes at the most."
When Teyssier exited the shop, the unusual smoke had attracted a few residents onto the sidewalk. Other neighbors watched from upper-story windows, the officers and onlookers alike scurrying about as they awaited the arrival of the owner. Fifteen minutes passed, and Petiot was nowhere in sight. Another ten minutes passed, and still no Petiot. Biking from his apartment on rue Caumartin at that time of the evening should not have taken more than ten to twelve minutes. After almost half an hour, the patrolmen decided that they could not wait any longer and called the fire department, which immediately dispatched a truck from the station at 8 rue Mesnil. The leader of the fire brigade, thirty-three-year-old Corporal Avilla Boudringhin, grabbed a ladder and climbed onto a second-floor balcony. Opening the wooden shutter, he smashed the glass, released the window lock, and stepped inside the darkened mansion. Two of his men followed. With the aid of a flashlight, the small team of firefighters traced the peculiar, nauseating smell to a small room in the basement. One of the two coal stoves there was roaring furiously. It was fireman Roger Bérody who opened the iron door.
Excerpted from Death in the City of Light by David King. Copyright © 2011 by David King. Excerpted by permission of Crown. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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