A few steps away, Massu found a shovel, a dark-stained hatchet, and then, underneath the stone stairs, a gray bag containing the left half of a decomposed body, minus the head, foot, and internal organs. Massu did not know how to describe the ghastly site other than by using a reference to medieval literature. The basement of the elegant town house looked like a scene from Dante's Inferno.
EXITING into the courtyard, Massu, Bernard, and a couple of detectives, including Inspector Principal Marius Battut, entered one of the smaller buildings in the back. In the first room was a polished desk, along with two leather armchairs, a lounge sofa, and a small round table topped with magazines. A cupboard full of medical supplies stood against one wall; against another was a glass-lined bookcase in which medical treatises were shelved. What particularly struck the commissaire, however, was the room's appearance: It was cleaner, tidier, and in much better condition than the more stately main building. It also seemed to have been recently renovated.
Opening a second door, located near one of the bookshelves, Massu exited into a narrow corridor, about three feet in width, which led to another door, this one with a thick chain and padlock. The investigators entered. It was a small, triangular room, about eight feet on the longest side, six on the shortest. The walls were thick, two of them of rough cement and the third covered by beige wallpaper. There were no windows or furniture, only two unshaded lightbulbs and a plain metal cot. Attached near the corners of each wall, about one meter from the ceiling, were a number of iron hooks.
A gold-trimmed double wooden door on the far wall appeared to lead to some grand salon, but when one of the inspectors tried to open it, the doorknob simply turned around. With the help of a crowbar, the men ripped the door from the hinges to discover that it had been glued there. To the right of this false door was a bell, which did not work either. Actually it was not even connected, as its wires had been cut from the outside. As for the door through which the inspectors had entered, Massu noticed that it had no handle on the inside.
Examining the beige wallpaper, which looked freshly applied, Bernard peeled it back and discovered a viewing lens fitted in the wall at a height of almost six feet. The purpose of the room was not clear, but there was already a disturbing hunch that this small space with its iron hooks, many decoys, and virtually soundproof walls might well be where the victims had met their demise.
After retracing their steps to the courtyard, Massu and his team entered the old carriage house, which had been converted into a garage and crammed with tools, boards, slop pails, paintbrushes, gas masks, and old mattress springs. A sliding door in the back led to another building, probably the former stable. There, on the ground, beyond a pile of rusty scrap iron was a metal cover that hid the night's most horrific discovery.
It was the entrance to a pit. A newly greased pulley, with a hook and a thick rope tied to form a noose, hung over the hole. A horrible stench left little doubt as to what lay inside. Massu, nevertheless, climbed down the wooden ladder, watching each slippery step, and landed in the middle of a revolting mix of quicklime and decomposing bodies of varying stages - the dumping ground, in effect, of a veritable slaughterhouse.
But who could say how many bodies lay in the pit? With a depth estimated at ten to twelve feet, there were clearly many more here than in the basement. The bones crunched under Massu's foot on landing.
When the commissaire exited, reeking from his descent, he ordered specialists to retrieve the bones for analysis at the police laboratory. His assistants, however, refused. They looked as frightened, Massu said, as if they expected a bomb to explode or had met the devil himself.
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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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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