Paris, France (May, 1961)
Baron Maurice Chembeau, commissaire principal in the National Police, opened the Orleans folder once again. It was clear that Esteban Mendoza now required his special attention. If the “Mendoza problem” were ever to be resolved, extraordinary measures must be taken without delay. Baron Chembeau began to make the necessary telephone calls.
Orleans, France (May-July, 1961)
“If there’s a Hell, there’s a special place in it for men like Esteban Mendoza,” Sabine Williams had declared more than once. A regional reporter for La République du Centre, the only daily newspaper to serve the Orleans metropolitan area, Sabine was given to making hyperbolic, clichéd pronouncements. Bilingual daughter of a black, American father and a white, French mother, she’d grown up on both sides of the Atlantic. Upon her parents’ divorce in 1952 when she was fourteen, Sabine elected to remain with her mother in France.
Because of her background her editors felt that she was particularly well qualified to report on problems arising from the presence of a racially-troubled U.S. Army in and around early 1960’s Orleans. It wasn’t long before the periodic, intra-Army race riots were no longer news. Real news, as Sabine Williams saw it, would be her exposé of Mendoza’s illegal operations which were corrupting local authorities, area youth, and American soldiers stationed throughout the region.
Off and on for more than a year, Sabine had labored to get the goods on Mendoza. The son of inmates of an internment camp for fugitives from the Spanish civil war, Esteban Mendoza grew up French and prospered in the city near which his parents were once confined. Most of his success came from the presence of the American Army. GIs formed a loyal clientele eager to part with dollars for a variety of mainly illegal products and services. In a few, short years Mendoza had become the entrepreneurial animus behind all dollar-based commerce in metropolitan Orleans outside the American Post Exchange system.
Sabine was nearly done writing her Mendoza exposé when she had to set it aside to report on what her editors insisted that she call, with apologies to Baudelaire, “The Flowers of Evil Murders.” Every week for eight weeks one of Mendoza’s prostitutes was found dead, at home, her throat slashed, her corpse blanketed by the large, original, unsigned, water color sketch of a different flower. Several of Mendoza’s girls told Sabine that, prior to the murders, their boss had received unsigned notes ordering him out of the prostitution business. If Mendoza didn’t comply, the note writer promised to “weed out the flowers of evil one by one.”
After more than two months, the National Police seemed to be without a clue as to the killer’s identity. Sabine needed a fresh perspective. Army Specialist Walter Newsome, her current romantic interest and favorite armchair detective, couldn’t have returned from temporary duty in Germany at a better time.
In Sabine’s love-struck eyes the black Specialist, a college drop-out and working alcoholic, was highly intelligent, read and spoke excellent French (for an American), and reminded her pleasantly of her father. For nearly a year Walter and Sabine had been an on-again, off-again couple. When they were on-again, as they were now, he was her Sam Cooke and she was his Marpessa Dawn.
The young reporter knew where she’d find her Sam Cooke on Saturday night. If she corralled Specialist Newsome at La Pucelle Brave before he finished his first Pernod, there was a chance that he’d have something interesting to say about the murders. Sabine would bring along her case file to provide grist for his mental mill.
As expected, Sabine found Walter standing at the bar, Pernod in hand. She gave him a quick peck on the cheek, grabbed his elbow, and steered him to a back table.
“First, I want to know about the sketches that have everybody baffled,” Walter began, a little too abruptly for Sabine’s taste. “Those flowers have got to be very important.”
“Well, the cops have positively identified all eight flowers in the sketches. Let me see. I’ve a list here, somewhere. Got it! These are the names in the order that the sketches were found: calla lily, euphorbia, trillium, columbine, bloodroot, black-eyed susan, shasta daisy, and anemone. They make no sense.”
“They make sense to the killer, and I suspect he hopes that they’ll make sense to someone else or why go to all the trouble of preparing sketches and draping them over the corpses of his victims?”
“The man’s a monster!” Sabine was getting really worked up.
“A monster with a mission and a message.”
“Are the flowers some kind of code?”
“They have to be. And I think I know what it is. Just let me borrow your flower list. If I’m right I’ll give it back to you with a solution next week, same time, same station.”
[Challenge: At this point the reader may wish to leave the story temporarily to decipher the message of the flowers. In matching wits with Specialist Newsome, the reader has the advantage: nine clues to Newsome’s eight.]
“You’re pretty sure of yourself. Do you really have a clue or is this just the Pernod talking?”
“I need time to get to the Coligny Caserne library to follow up on my hunch. I recognize some of these flowers as being examples of how a certain number series, the Fibonacci sequence, occurs in nature. I’ll explain next week if my hunch is right. Meanwhile, run the names of the victims by me.”
Sabine rummaged around in her case folder. After an anxious minute she came up with a list of the victims’ names which she handed over to Specialist Newsome.
“Just as I thought,” Walter said. “I knew all these ladies slightly. They were some of the vanilla girls who specialize in the chocolate trade, not that I ever sampled any of their wares. The victims spent a lot of time in Paris working as the key employees of an escort service which Mendoza owns. I hear it caters to an upscale clientele from certain African embassies. The girls’ absence caused some bad feeling among us chocolate soldiers. Still, I don’t think that the killer was a customer with a grudge. As I remember, each girl was murdered in
her hometown apartment and all of the victims supposedly followed Mendoza’s orders to use hotel rooms, not their own digs, to entertain clients. So it’s possible that our killer was trusted by his victims, at least trusted enough to be let into their own rooms. What do the cops have to say about this? Any suspects?”
“Not yet, from what I’ve been told. The police know that the victims all specialized in ‘chocolate soldiers,’ as you insist on calling yourselves, so the cops aren’t ruling out the possibility that the murders were the work of someone who’s a racial bigot, a xenophobe, or both. From what I’ve been able to determine, the victims didn’t share a former or current boyfriend who could be the murderer. When it came to romance they all seem to have preferred their own sex. Now, I’ve got a question. Why do we have to wait a whole week for you to find out about those flowers?”
“Look, my time’s not my own; it belongs to Uncle Sugar. Besides, my guess is that the message of the flowers is at best a clue, not a confession. This artist doesn’t sign his work. You’ll have to keep on digging.”
And dig Sabine did, but to no avail. Thankfully, the week went by without a ninth murder. The downside was that the young reporter was desperate for something to show to her editors. If only she could count on Specialist Newsome to translate the language of the flowers. That would be a story, even if she must mention his damn Fibonacci numbers, whatever they were.
Saturday night came and Sabine was not disappointed. Walter was waiting for her at La Pucelle Brave, Pernod in hand. When they were seated at their favorite table in the rear of the café-bar, Specialist Newsome fairly crowed.
“I’ve cracked the code! If you take the number of petals on each flower from your list you get members of the Fibonacci series: 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, and 5 again. The repetition of the 5 suggests that the numbers represent a word or words. Assigning letters of the alphabet to the numbers, in order, we have: A, B, C, E, H, M, U, and E. Unscramble them and they spell‘EMBAUCHE’ Now, doesn’t ‘on embauche’ mean something like ‘we’re hiring’? Having thinned out the ranks of Mendoza’s prostitutes, the killer could be mocking our favorite master pimp.”
“You may be right,” Sabine agreed with some hesitation. “But, I’m not convinced. On your theory the murderer went to a heck of a lot of trouble just to convey a message which can be interpreted in more than one way. As an example, since you’re supplying missing words, why not consider ‘pas d’embauche’ for ‘no vacancies’ which sends the opposite message?”
Walter was mildly deflated. “I suppose the letters could form something other than ‘EMBAUCHE’ but my French isn’t good enough to come up with anything else. Maybe you’ll have better luck. In any case we’re no closer to finding the killer.”
“Still, I’ll have a story for the next edition. My readers can try their hands at uncovering the message hidden in the petal counts of the flowers that the murderer sketched. I won’t have to mention your precious Fibonacci series and I’ll let ‘EMBAUCHE’ remain our little secret for now.”
“You’re missing a chance to enlighten the masses,” Walter teased.
“They want to be titillated not tutored, thank you very much. Now, back to your Pernod; you’ve earned it. I’ve got to return to my office and write my story.”
“Just a minute. Before you go buzzing off, I want to give you something else to think about: Markov has dropped from sight.”
“Isn’t Markov that itinerant artist you once told me about? As I remember, he makes a poor living by painting quick oil portraits from photographs of GI wives and girlfriends.”
“The very same. He disappeared without explanation just before I left for Germany.”
“So, why would Markov want to kill those poor girls?”
“He’s a gentle soul. I don’t see him as a throat slasher. But he could have painted those damn flowers.”
“Then he would be an accomplice to murder.”
“An unwitting accomplice at worst. In that case he must be dead by now.”
“Why do you say that?”
“The killer couldn’t let him discover how the sketches would be used. Better check to see if the police are looking for him. They may even have found his body and are keeping quiet about it.”
“I’ll do that.”
“All right. Let’s get back together again next Saturday night when you’re not in such a hurry. Perhaps your readers will be able to make sense of the flower code.”
Sabine left La Pucelle Brave grateful to Specialist Newsome for a story which would pass muster if only just barely. The theory that the floral sketches conveyed a code would intrigue her readers, she felt sure. Whether
they could make heads or tails of the letters “ABCEHMUE” only time would tell.
And time did tell; only time was not particularly talkative. By Tuesday night Sabine had received just one response. A retired military historian telephoned her with his theory that, when the code was unscrambled, the letters spelled “CHEMBEAU,” a reference to the Chevalier de Chembeau, an obscure knight who helped Jeanne d’Arc break the English siege of Orleans in 1429.
Sabine didn’t think it likely that the killer of eight prostitutes would adopt as a nom de guerre the name of a 15th century warrior unknown to all but specialists in medieval military history. Nevertheless, the suggestion started her thinking. She and Walter might well have erred in failing to realize that the killer had indeed signed his work, not at the bottom of each picture but in the petal
counts of the flowers which he sketched or had sketched for him.
Even so, Sabine was reluctant to abandon “EMBAUCHE” as a solution to the puzzle. Something in the shadows of her memory was flitting about just beyond the light of recognition. While preparing for bed on Tuesday night, no longer trying to grasp the illusive moth of a thought, Sabine remembered Mme Eglantine Menthe Bauche, the oddly named, recently assigned member of the vice squad whom she’d been meaning to interview. Widow of a vice squad officer, Mme Bauche had been encouraged to join the force after her husband’s death. According to Mendoza’s ladies, Bauche never made any arrests but she did make regular rounds of the ladies’ homes at the end of their evening’s work to collect payoffs disguised as voluntary contributions to the National Policemen’s Benevolent Fund.
It was quite a stretch to think of Mme Bauche as a serial killer. She had had the opportunity, but Sabine was reasonably sure that the policewoman lacked the motive and the lethal skills to have committed eight serial murders. Also, there was no indication that she was clever enough to have thought up the flower code or talented enough to have executed the floral sketches. Still, Sabine knew that Mme Bauche must be interviewed if only to get a feminine, police perspective on the murders. There was always an outside chance that, if Bauche were the guilty party, she would betray herself in some way which the young reporter could recognize.
Because Mme Bauche worked the evening shift, she preferred to talk to Sabine at the Bauche home in the late afternoon. When the reporter arrived for the interview she found the front door ajar. Calling for Mme Bauche and not receiving an answer, Sabine took the liberty of wandering through the gloom of the old house until she came to a sunlit room which contained three objects of particular interest: the corpse of Mme Bauche, a bloodstained knife in the bloodspattered left hand of Mme Bauche, and a bloodstained easel on which a painting was resting: the sketch of the black rose of death or of farewell. Unlike its predecessors, this sketch bore a signature in defiant, red letters: “E. M. Bauche.”
Sabine phoned for the police who questioned the young reporter about her presence in the house but permitted her to remain so long as she didn’t “get in the way.” That evening the story she filed with her editors omitted two
details which she wanted to discuss with Specialist Newsome on Saturday night.
Meanwhile, the bodies kept piling up. On Thursday, Markov’s shallow grave was discovered in Orleans Forest when the ground gave way under the feet of a passing hunter. Markov had been dead for more than three months. From the dried blood on the artist’s shirt collar, the medical examiner concluded that Markov’s throat had been slashed. Then, on Friday, Mendoza was found dead in his back garden, his throat cut to form a grotesque smile. The unsigned water color sketch blanketing his body was that of a trefoil, the flower of revenge. Pieces of the puzzle were on the table, but they didn’t seem to fit together.
Sabine very much wanted to discuss matters with Specialist Newsome.
As usual Sabine and Saturday evening both found Walter Newsome at the bar of La Pucelle Brave, well into his first Pernod.
“Come on, my dear, we need to talk.”
“Anything to oblige a lady,” Newsome replied wearily.
“Look, I must have your opinion. You’ve read about Mme Bauche? About Markov? About Mendoza?”
“Naturally. I hang on your every word in La République.”
“Don’t be such a smart-ass! Put down that Pernod and help me. There were things about the crime scene which I didn’t report. First, there was blood all over that easel, but none on the front of the flower sketch. When the cops lifted the sketch from the easel there were thin streaks of blood on the back of the picture which had not penetrated to the front. Next, the knife was in Bauche’s left hand. From the angle of the gash on her throat, her wound could only have been self-inflicted if she were right-handed, or so the cops say. What do you make of these anomalies?”
Specialist Newsome closed his eyes in a caricature of deep thought and took a swig of the Pernod. “Well, Lois Lane,” he drawled after a suspensive pause, “I make of them what I suspectyou do. The sketch was suitable for framing, suitable for framing Mme Bauche. It was planted on the easel after Bauche’s throat was slit. The killer brought the easel to the Bauche house along with the other props he’d need to dress the set for a painter’s suicide scene. The placement of the sketch and of the knife was deliberately bungled. For the moment, I can’t think why. But, I’m convinced that our killer was too clever to have made two stupid mistakes. Now, before we go on, is there anything else you know which hasn’t appeared in the papers?”
“Well, for what it’s worth, there’s Chembeau, the 15th century warrior who helped Jeanne d’Arc save Orleans from the English.”
“How the devil does he fit in?”
“I don’t say that he does. But, one of my readers noticed that the letters of the flower code can be unscrambled to spell ‘CHEMBEAU,’ as in the Chevalier de Chembeau.”
“I see. That’s interesting. Wait! What if our killer is a right-wing avenger hell bent on breaking what he believes to be a new siege of Orleans, this time by a Franco-Hispanic crime boss and his confederates? I like it! I like it! Such an avenger would take the name of one of the city’s 15th century liberators.”
“But, Walter. Why would he take the name of someone so obscure?”
“Stay with me! You’ve got to remember that this guy was primarily employing the flower code to frame Mme Bauche. He had to find a nom de guerre which would use the same letters. It must have been pure luck that he came up with
‘CHEMBEAU,’ the kind of luck that only happens in bad fiction and in real life.”
“But why frame Mme Bauche?”
“To do the maximum damage to Mendoza.”
“You’ve lost me.”
“I’ve only just now seen it myself. Stay with me! If my theory about a right-wing nut is correct, ‘Chembeau’s’ plan was diabolical. Step one was to insinuate himself into Mendoza’s confidence and then to involve Mendoza in a get-rich-quick scheme. Step two was to execute the scheme in such a way as to backfire on Mendoza, alienating him from his criminal confederates and the corrupt local officials who tolerated his activities for a price.”
“Mendoza was no fool.”
“But he was greedy, and greed (like lust) lowers the IQ, or so I’ve been told.”
“Are you saying that Mendoza had a hand in the deaths of his eight prostitutes?”
“Exactly. And because their deaths would appear to be counter to his best interests, Mendoza felt that he would be beyond suspicion. Although a pimp can’t insure his prostitutes, an escort service can insure its key employees. (What a marvel of social hypocrisy! I read about that last year in Le Monde.) Mendoza had his girls killed to make a killing. His error was in being too greedy. At the cost of not covering his tracks, he wouldn’t sacrifice any uninsured assets. He arranged for the murders of only those chocolate soldier ‘spécialistes’ who worked off and on for his Paris escort service. This was Mistake Number One, and my guess is that ‘Chembeau’ encouraged Mendoza to make it.”
“I still don’t see why Mendoza would agree to the murder of eight valuable assets. By all accounts, the girls were pulling down big money in Paris.”
“As insured, key employees of the escort service, they had to have been worth more dead than alive to Mendoza, at least by his reckoning, or he’d never have sacrificed them. The trick was to persuade the insurance company that the escorts had been murdered in Orleans by a lunatic serial killer on a mission to stamp out vice, miscegenation, or both.”
“Then, there were no threatening notes?”
“Not unless Mendoza got them from ‘Chembeau’ or wrote them to himself.”
“But, I must ask you again, why frame and kill a corrupt cop? Why kill Mme Bauche? Her collecting for the Benevolent Fund wasn’t that burdensome.”
“Once more Mendoza played into ‘Chembeau’s’ hands. My guess is that ‘Chembeau’ argued that Mme Bauche would be easy to scapegoat. After all, she visited the girls regularly in their homes to collect for the Fund. Of course, the killer really didn’t have to be someone the girls trusted. It would have been a comparatively simple matter for ‘Chembeau’ to pick the locks of the girls’
apartments and lie in wait for his victims, just as he did for Mme Bauche. Her role as a scapegoat must have heightened Mendoza’s sense of security and helped convince him to go ahead with the scheme. He hadn’t counted on ‘Chembeau’s’ deliberate Mistake Number Two: the bungled placement of the signed sketch and of the murder knife. This made the police suspect Mendoza of trying to frame Mme Bauche to divert suspicion from himself. When Mendoza’s
people became aware that Mendoza was a police suspect, they began to have their own suspicions about their boss’s complicity in the murders of the eight prostitutes.”
“If you’re right, this was quite a plot!
“But wait, as they say on TV, there’s more. To make it clear that Mme Bauche was not the painter of the ‘flowers of evil’ sketches, ‘Chembeau’ buried Markov’s body in too shallow a grave so the corpse would be found sooner rather
than later. The police couldn’t fail to notice that the M.O. of Markov’s killer was the same as the M.O. in the ‘Flowers of Evil Murders.’ The cops would be led to conclude that Markov was eliminated because he, not Bauche, was the painter of the floral sketches.”
Sabine sighed. “O.K. Then, who killed Mendoza?”
“Mendoza’s death may have been a revenge killing by members of the vice squad with a little help from a police sketch artist who drew that picture of the trefoil. I don’t really buy that. I suspect that the trefoil was the last sketch ‘Chembeau’ had Markov make before he killed the artist.”
“Then, you think ‘Chembeau’ planned on killing Mendoza all along?”
“Yes. ‘Chembeau’ wanted to eliminate the chance that the crime king could implicate him at a later date. But, he needed to raise the possibility that Mendoza’s death was a police revenge killing for Mme Bauche’s murder. This would widen the rift between corrupt cops and Mendoza’s criminal organization which developed, I think, after Bauche’s suspicious ‘suicide.’ Also, by killing Mendoza, ‘Chembeau’ pretty much guaranteed that there would be a disruptive underworld battle to choose the crime king’s successor.”
“All this death! In the end, what did ‘Chembeau’ really accomplish?”
“Nothing much, I’m afraid. I doubt that Orleans will ever be liberated from vice as long as our Army is encamped here.”
In spite of herself, Sabine began to weep. “Then, I wish you all would just go away — well, not all of you…”
Paris, France (July, 1961)
Baron Maurice Chembeau, commissaire principal in the National Police, sealed the Orleans folder. His agents provocateurs had succeeded admirably in bringing about Esteban Mendoza’s downfall with a minimum loss of life. Still, whatever the cost, Chembeau would always do his duty. Ever faithful, he daily reaffirmed his commitment to the time-honored, noble values of his illustrious ancestors by wearing, pinned to his lapel, a fresh red nasturtium: beloved flower of patriotism, glorious flower of conquest.