Jutting out were the charred remains of a human hand. On the far staircase was a pile of debris, which turned out to be a skull, a rib cage, and several other recognizable bones. Arms and legs had been strewn about in parts. A split torso and two other skulls lay on the floor. The stench of scorched and decomposing flesh was overpowering. Horrified, the fire chief ordered his men out of the basement. As the firefighters exited the grisly site, one of the younger men leaned over an iron banister and vomited.
"Gentlemen, come and take a look," Boudringhin told the patrolmen once he emerged onto the street through the old carriage entrance. "I believe that your work will be cut out for you."
Teyssier was not the least prepared for the carnage that awaited him in the basement. He rushed back to Garanne and telephoned headquarters.
A large crowd soon gathered outside the town house, many of them curious about the smoke, the commotion, and now also the sight of a fire truck that was not yet extinguishing the fire. Among the arrivals was a slim, dark-haired man of medium height, pushing a bicycle through the throng of onlookers. He was pale and clean-shaven, and wore a dark gray overcoat and a fedora. He was sweating profusely.
When he reached the front of the crowd, he leaned his bike against the building, walked up to the fire chief, and identified himself as the brother of the owner. He demanded to be taken inside, speaking with such conviction that the fire chief waved him through to Patrolman Fillion. While the two men were talking, Patrolman Teyssier returned to the scene.
"Are you good Frenchmen?" the man asked.
"What kind of question is that?"
"Then listen carefully. What you see there are the bodies of Germans and traitors to our country." Discreetly, he asked if the authorities had been notified. Teyssier nodded.
"That's a serious mistake," the man said. "My life is at stake, as are the lives of several of my friends who serve our cause." He explained that he was in charge of a French Resistance organization and handed over a document to that effect, though the details were difficult to read in the darkness. In the meantime, he reached down and picked something off the ground, shoving it into his pocket.
The man then professed to have some three hundred secret files and identification cards of fellow Resistants at his house. "I must destroy them at once before they fall into the hands of the Germans." Sympathetic to the work of the Resistance, Teyssier and Fillion had no desire to see so many patriotic Frenchmen handed over to the Nazis and carted off to prisons, concentration camps, or some other horrific fate. They agreed to allow the man to leave the scene of the crime, even though he clearly had information that could have helped the investigation.
What's more, the officers agreed not to inform their superiors about his visit. The stranger biked away into the night.
Later, when Teyssier saw a photograph of the physician who owned the building, he was mortified to learn that the man on the bicycle had been Marcel Petiot.
ACROSS town, at 48-50 Boulevard Diderot, Commissaire Georges-Victor Massu, the chief of the Brigade Criminelle, had just finished dinner with his wife, Mathilde, and twenty-year-old son, Bernard. Massu had settled into his favorite chair to talk about the day's activities: a burglary, an assault case, and the usual routine of reports, interrogations, and seemingly endless paperwork. Bernard, a law student at the University of Paris, had retreated to his room to prepare for exams. Minutes before ten p.m., after Massu had just climbed into bed, the telephone rang. "I still remember that call as if the crackle of the bell rang in my ears today," he said many years later. At that hour, he knew it could only mean one thing. This was not, as he put it, another "stabbing in the vicinity of Montmartre." Massu took the receiver with the steely composure of a gambler trying to bluff a rogue cardsharp.
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.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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