He couldn't breathe. His mouth was dry, and his throat tight. He was freefalling. She was wildly attractive: about thirty-five, five and half feet tall, slender, with short auburn hair and brown eyes highlighted by plain eyeglasses. Her voice was soft and steady. She had a keen, friendly, and reassuring look in her eyes, and a smile illuminated her face-a magnificent smile. He stared at her intensely, like a pimply teenager entranced by a Playboy cover girl.
"So, you're Mr. Sirsky, is that correct?" she asked. She was sitting behind her desk, her fingers absently playing with a pen.
"Nico Sirsky. Is your first name Nico?" she continued in a voice that was so memorable, he was sure he would distinguish it from all others from that moment on.
"Yes. It's not a nickname."
"When were you born?"
"January eleventh, thirty-eight years ago."
"What do you do?"
What a strange answer, but it was the first one that came to mind when he looked at her. He had married too young—when he was twenty-two—and had fathered a child. He was single again and not particularly interested in women, except for an occasional roll in the hay. No woman had ever had this effect on him. He had thought these feelings were the stuff of novels and movies.
"Mr. Sirsky?" the young woman pressed.
He looked at her hands. No wedding ring.
"What would you like to know?" he asked, suddenly sheepish.
"Your profession would be enough."
What an ass he was being.
"Chief of police."
"And more specifically?"
"Head of the Paris Criminal Investigation Division."
"Would that be the famous Brigade Criminelle at 36 Quai des Orfèvres?"
"That's right, La Crim'."
"I suppose it's a stressful job."
"Sure. But no more than yours, I guess."
She smiled. She was incredible.
"So, who sent you to see me—your brother-in-law, Dr. Perrin, right?" she continued.
Actually, it was his sister who had insisted, behaving like his mother.
"What exactly is wrong?"
"Please, Mr. Sirsky, let me be the judge of that."
"I've had a stomachache for about three months."
"Have you already seen a doctor?"
"What does the pain feel like?"
"Burning," he said with a sigh. "And some cramps." It was out of character for him to admit any kind of weakness.
"Are you more anxious or tired than usual?"
He frowned. His work was weighing on him. He was waking up in the middle of the night, haunted by visions of bloody bodies. It was impossible for him to share the anxiety that assailed him. Who could he confide in? His colleagues? From time to time they did spend an evening together, joking about dead bodies to chase away the ghosts. But nothing could keep a cop grounded better than going home to a family and reconnecting with day-to-day life. Routine puts priorities into perspective so the day's sordid experiences can be forgotten. That was why he hired married men with children. Eighty percent of his staff met these criteria. They needed this balance to withstand the pressure of the cases his elite crime-fighting squad handled. He alone did not respect this rule.
"Mr. Sirsky, you haven't answered my question," the young woman said sharply.
He gave her a mulish look to make her understand that she wouldn't get any more out of him, and she changed the subject.
"Does anything calm the pain?"
"I tried eating, but that doesn't change a thing."
"Get undressed, and lie down on the table."
"Uh, totally undressed?"
"You can keep your underwear on."
He got up and obeyed. His tall and muscular build, blue eyes, and blond hair impressed women, but here he was a little uncomfortable. She approached him and put her hands on his flat stomach to examine him. He shivered. Erotic images raced through his mind.
"Is something wrong?" she asked.
"Medical examiners are the only doctors I know, and believe me they haven't made me want to be treated by any others," he responded, hoping she would believe him.
"I understand. However, some symptoms require that you see a specialist without delay. What do you feel when I press here?"
He didn't take his eyes off her. He wanted to take her in his arms and kiss her. Damn it. What was happening to him?
"Mr. Sirsky, if you don't help me out here, we won't get anywhere."
"Oh, sorry. What were you saying?"
"Where does it hurt?"
He put a finger on the middle of his abdomen, brushing the woman's hand. She palpated and then had him sit on the edge of the table to take his blood pressure. She returned to her desk. He didn't want her that far away.
"Get dressed, Mr. Sirsky. You are going to need some tests."
"What kind of tests?"
"One of them will be an endoscopy. The doctor will put an optical instrument down your throat to explore your digestive tract, and view your stomach lining and duodenum."
"Is that really necessary?"
"Absolutely. We need to determine the exact cause of your symptoms. It could be an ulcer. We can't treat you until we have a precise diagnosis. An endoscopic examination is not very pleasant, but it doesn't last long."
"Do you think it's serious?"
"There are several types of digestive ulcers. In your case, I think it is probably a duodenal ulcer, which is generally benign. Although it's usually caused by bacteria, stress and fatigue can make the symptoms feel worse. But we need to be sure. What do you do other than work?"
He thought for a while. "Run and play squash. And shoot, of course."
"You should slow down. Everyone deserves some rest."
"You sound like my sister."
"She gives good advice. Here's a prescription. Once you've had the endoscopy, make another appointment with my secretary."
"You're not going to do it?"
"A doctor in the department will do it."
He gave her another obstinate look.
"Is something wrong, Mr. Sirsky?"
"Listen, I'd like you to do it. Would that be possible?"
She looked at him calmly for a while. "Okay." She took out her appointment book and turned the ink-blackened pages.
"You look overbooked, and I'm adding to it," he said.
"Don't worry, we'll find a time. We have to do it quickly. Wednesday morning at eight. Will that work for you?"
"Of course. I'm not going to push my luck."
She stood and accompanied him to the door. There, her handshake was both caring and firm. He was sorry to leave. One final time, he read the nameplate affixed to the office door: "Dr. Caroline Dalry, professor of medicine, gastroenterologist, former Paris Hospitals chief resident."
Once he was outside Saint Antoine Hospital, the sounds of the city enveloped him, and he continued daydreaming about her delicate hands touching his stomach. A dull upper-abdominal pain brought him back to reality.
His cell phone vibrated on his hip. It was Commander Kriven, the head of one of the Criminal Investigation Division's twelve squads.
"We've got a customer," he said. "It's an unusual murder. You should come."
"Who's the victim?"
"Marie-Hélène Jory, thirty-six, white, assistant professor of history at the Sorbonne. Killed in her home, Place de la Contrescarpe in the Latin Quarter. Homicide with sexual connotations. The scene is particularly, well, shocking."
"Who found her?"
"Someone named Paul Terrade, her partner."
"He wasn't working?"
"He was, but the university was worried when she didn't show up for her class at one this afternoon. A secretary called his office, and he went home to see why she wasn't at work."
"Breaking and entering?"
Nico looked at his watch, which showed four-thirty. About two hours had elapsed since the discovery of the body. It was a miracle of sorts. Some evidence might still be intact, unless a lot of people had gone in and out of the apartment.
"I'll be right there."
"You don't really have a choice." Squad commanders were under orders to request his presence or his deputy's presence whenever they thought the situation was serious enough.
"And ask Dominique Kreiss to join us," Nico added. "Her input could be valuable."
She was a criminal psychologist with the Regional Police Department, recently hired for a brand new profiling unit. She wasn't there to take over any investigations, but rather to provide detectives with her psychological expertise. Considering what Kriven had described, it seemed logical to have her at the scene. She specialized in sexually related murders.
"Can't we call in the old bearded shrink?" Kriven grumbled. "That brunette's cute little ass distracts me!"
"Get your mind out of the gutter, would you, Kriven?"
"Impossible with the body she's got."
"I'm hanging up now. I don't want to hear any more of that crap. See you in a few."
The Latin Quarter reminded him of his childhood. His grandparents had a shop on the Rue Mouffetard. He recalled the days he spent playing with the kids of other shop owners on the street, which wasn't far from Saint Ménard Church. That kind of neighborhood conviviality was long gone now.
These days, the Place de la Contrescarpe was a tourist haunt because of its cafés. As Nico approached, he saw café customers gawking at the building, where an unmarked police cruiser, its lights flashing, was blocking the entrance. A man was slumped over the Renault's backseat. Two uniform officers were guarding the car. You could tell by their determined look they had no intention of letting the guy get away. David Kriven walked out of the building to meet Sirsky.
"We're lucky, Chief," he said. "The precinct officer had the good sense to evacuate everyone before he contacted us. It's all clean."
He meant that no other police units had been able to go over the crime scene before being told that the case was outside their jurisdiction. Too often, evidence was ruined by the time La Crim' was called in. Sometimes the body had already been removed. Those were not easy investigations. Yes, things were improving, but there was still a long way to go. To get the job done right, they really needed an efficient cop, which they had today.
"Where is this prodigious one?" Nico asked.
"On the third floor, standing in front of the apartment door. He's monitoring who's going in and out."
The two men walked up the stairs slowly. Nico studied the walls with each step to soak up the atmosphere.
"I showed up at three," the officer guarding the door said, as he shook the chief's hand. "I discovered the body and immediately knew that this wasn't an ordinary case."
"Why is that?" Nico asked.
"The woman, uh, well, what's been done to her ... It's disgusting. I'll be honest. I couldn't even stay near her. It's enough to upset anyone."
"Don't worry," Nico said. "We all wind up being affected. Anyone who says otherwise is just showing off."
The officer nodded and let them through. Nico took the usual precautions to preserve any evidence, as did David Kriven.
Each of the division's squads had six members. The third-ranking member—there was an established order, based on experience and the role each member played—was the one responsible for the procedural aspects of working the crime scene. Pierre Vidal had waited for Chief Sirsky before he started collecting and sealing the evidence. He usually worked alone. For this investigation, he would do his job under the watchful eyes of Kriven and Sirsky.
The three detectives entered the living room. The victim lay on a thick cream-colored carpet.
"Shit. No," Nico let slip, despite himself. He squatted near the body and said nothing more. What could he say? The epitome of horror was spread out in front of him. Did man's perversity have no limits? He couldn't hold back a retch. He looked at his colleagues, all of whom were pale.
"See if Dominique Kreiss is here," he ordered.
Kriven averted his eyes from the body, and Chief Sirsky told the detectives to step out momentarily to give them a break.
"Go on. Now," Nico commanded.
Commander Kriven and Captain Vidal left the apartment, relieved.
Squatting beside the young woman, Chief Sirsky slowly took in the scene. The torture had been intense, the kind to make you lose your mind before you die. He thought about the probable unfolding of the murder and the killer's profile. He presumed that it was a lone man. He felt it. He knew it. Every emotion left him, which always happened to him at a crime scene. His work required focus, even in the most gruesome cases. But now his stomach was burning again. He was letting this murder get to him, and he would have to calm down. But how could he not react to this level of atrocity? Then Dr. Dalry's face came to him. She was smiling and holding out her hand, so gentle. She touched his cheek. He wanted to kiss her so much. He got nearer and nearer ...
The apartment door opened, and Chief Sirsky heard steps in the hallway. David Kriven was leading the squad in. The psychologist followed. She was small, thirty-two years old, with bright, mischievous green eyes. Dominique Kreiss crouched next to the chief. The professional in her surveyed the site without blinking. She looked unaffected by the repugnant vision and the smell of death. Dominique Kreiss had a degree in clinical criminology and was a specialist in sexual assault. She wanted to fit right into the mainly male team of detectives working at 36 Quai des Orfèvres. If for no other reason than that, she never showed any weakness in front of her colleagues.
"Any level-headed person would take one look at this and run away," Nico said to the psychologist.
Their eyes met. Nico had built strong walls, and it was not easy to guess his weaknesses. But he knew Dominique Kreiss perceived the discomfort in his eyes.
"Nothing seems to have been moved," Nico said. "Everything is in order. It was not a burglary. I bet we will not find a single fingerprint. The work is meticulous and organized, and it is not some passing folly. There was no break-in, so the victim either knew the murderer or trusted him and let him in."
"How high a risk was this for the criminal?" Dominique asked.
"Pretty high. The Place de la Contrescarpe is very busy. Killing someone in her home without attracting attention, taking the time to clean up, and leaving as if nothing happened require a lot of control. This bastard works like a professional."
"The bastard, you say. You're right that it's probably a lone man, someone who is sure of himself enough to think that no one would notice him. He is methodical and calculating—the opposite of an impulse killer, who would have left evidence everywhere."
"Now, the victim," he said.
Dominique evaluated the mutilated, bloody body. Her heart rate quickened. "There's a mix of sex and violence. This is all about fantasy. I'd say that sex is not the motive. There is certainly a desire to demonstrate his power, to dominate her to the point of taking her life."
"Be more specific," Sirsky ordered.
Marie-Hélène Jory was lying naked on her back, her arms raised and pulled back, her wrists attached to a heavy coffee table.
"The bondage has pornographic overtones," Dominique said. "The victim was stabbed in the belly, certainly after suffering those lacerations."
"Jesus," Nico said. "Okay, Dominique, let's get down to the heart of the matter."
"Her breasts were amputated, and the criminal probably took them with him."
"What do you make of that?"
"The person who did that has a problem with his mother. Maybe he was abused or abandoned as a child."
Nico stood up, and the psychologist followed suit.
"You can start," the chief told Kriven and Vidal. "Keep the knot whole when you cut the rope. We'll want to examine it."
Vidal took latex gloves out of his field bag and handed pairs around. Then he began a methodical examination. He took a number of pictures and recorded his comments on a tape recorder. He tried to uncover every possible piece of evidence, every possible fingerprint, some sort of signature, voluntary or involuntary. Finally, he did a drawing of the room and made sure that everything was noted: the position of the furniture, the objects, and the body. In the meantime, Chief Sirsky encouraged David Kriven to search the apartment.