Inspector LeClerc Meets his Match
Despite the great pains that he took to remain anonymous and to keep his public profile as low as possible after his retirement, I always felt that Inspector LeClerc was pleasantly flattered when someone sought him out to solve a mystery. For all his undoubted brilliance, he had his weaknesses just as we all do, and ego was most assuredly among them.
So when Etienne Bateau, the elderly patriarch of one of the oldest and wealthiest families in all of Paris, was ushered into his study, I knew his show of irritation at the interruption was just that – a show.
M Bateau was, of course, not unexpected. A man of his stature and fine social graces would never consider arriving unannounced. A messenger had delivered his card and compliments the previous day and announced he would be calling at 3pm. A glance at the wall clock revealed he was as precisely punctual as one would expect.
He was a spare, sparse figure in his heavy, dark greatcoat and his advanced age was clearly written in his lined face and the steely grey of his carefully waxed moustache. Nevertheless his bearing was ramrod straight. The only evidence of his distress was the black circles under his eyes that spoke of long, sleepless nights.
LeClerc laid the papers he was working on aside with thinly concealed reluctance (I happen to know that one of them was a shopping list) and ushered his visitor to a chair.
“Monsieur Bateau,” he said, “welcome to my humble home. May I offer you coffee? Something else, perhaps?”
“Nothing, thank you.” Bateau’s voice was firm and cultured. A man accustomed to making decisions and having them obeyed.
“To business then,” said LeClerc. “You are here regarding the disappearance of your son.”
I don’t think M Bateau could have looked more surprised if LeClerc had reached over the desk and slapped him in the face.
“How the devil could you know?” he spluttered, his composure deserting him entirely.
“Monsieur Bateau,” LeClerc said, “calm yourself. You may be assured that the matter is far from common knowledge. It is my job to know and what I do not know I must deduce. Your family is old and distinguished, with old money. You have few business interests and little that could cause you obvious distress. You were blessed, if that is the right word, with your only child, Tomas, at a very late age.”
LeClerc was clearly enjoying himself. He often began interviews in this manner – deliberately flaunting his knowledge and deductive powers to impress and even cow his clients. He frequently counted the rich and powerful among his clientele, as they were often the only ones who could afford his fees, and he liked to establish from the beginning who was in charge.
“As is common in such situations – a young, single child born to parents of advanced years – your relationship was strained and difficult.” He held up a hand to forestall the protest. “This much is public knowledge, at least to those who pay attention to such things. When he became of an age, your son was a wild one. But he hasn’t been seen or heard from in public for several months now, has he? And now you are here, in my study. What else could bring a man like you to my door? Tomas has disappeared.”
He paused a moment, considering. “You have been to the police,” he said, thinking out loud. “You suspect foul play but you are not sure, so the matter has been kept quiet for now. But the police have not found your son for you, so here you are.”
M Bateau could not contain his amazement. “Mon dieu,” he muttered. “I have clearly come to the right man. You are correct, monsieur, in nearly every particular.”
LeClerc looked a little irritated at the ‘nearly’, but he sat back and motioned his visitor to continue. M Bateau cast a glance at me, the question was clear in his face.
“You may speak freely in front of Gaston, Monsieur Bateau. He is an Inspector of le Surete and frequently assists me in these matters. You may rely on his discretion absolutely.”
Bateau nodded and sighed. “Perhaps it matters little, at this stage,” he said. “My wife and I are at the end of our wits. My son has indeed disappeared, Monsieur LeClerc, you are quite correct.” He paused for a moment. “You have guessed so much of our story, but I think it is best that I start at the beginning.
“Tomas is not really our son. Or rather he is – we have raised him from birth and love him every bit as much as if he was our own.” He looked directly at us at that moment, as if challenging us to contradict him.
“We were never able to have children of our own. We have access to the finest doctors in all of Europe, but none were able to help us. I had no son, no heir and my wife wanted so dearly to be a mother. As the years went by I thought we had reconciled ourselves to this, but it was not so.
“Eventually, when we had given up all hope, fortune offered us a solution after all. A young woman in our close employ was pregnant, out of wedlock you understand? She was young and rather silly, in no position to raise a child and hardly able to bear the scandal of being an unmarried mother.
“To put it briefly, we adopted the child, straight from his birth. We had ample time to arrange matters – we went away in the later stages of the girl’s pregnancy and my wife stayed hidden. When the boy was born, we returned to Paris and announced the birth just as if it had been ours. At our age, a few eyebrows were raised, but nothing I couldn’t handle. The child was raised as ours from that point. He was born as Tomas Bateau and never had another name.
“You were right in your assertions, M LeClerc. Tomas was always a difficult boy. We were perhaps too old after all to be good parents to him. We’d waited so long, you see. I’m afraid we quite spoiled him, especially in his early years. When he grew into a young man he began drinking, gambling. To be frank, he was a disgrace to his family and his name. Our hold on him was negligible – he felt we were old fools who could never understand a young man like him.”
He sighed once more. “I don’t suppose ours is the first story of this kind. Matters came to a head a few months ago. I don’t know how he managed it, but he somehow found out something of his own origin, not long after his nineteenth birthday. He found out some of it and guessed much of the rest. Foolishly, I felt that it was finally time for honesty and told him the true story.”
He hung his head, his long grey hair falling over his eyes. “We have not seen him since,” he whispered. For a moment he lost his tight grip on his emotions and could speak no more.
LeClerc was never an emotional man, in all the time I have known him, but it is wrong to assume from this that he was incapable of sympathy. He sat in respectful silence while M Bateau composed himself. Finally, he said: “So he has run away then. Do you have any idea where he could have gone?”
“Yes, monsieur. In fact, I believe I know where he is. However I cannot prove it, nor can I gain access to him.”
“Go on,” I said, joining the conversation for the first time. LeClerc shot me a look of irritation but said nothing.
“Tomas, or a man matching his description so closely that it could only have been him, was arrested several weeks ago in the Latin Quarter. He had apparently been living rough for some time. He had no identification and was drunk and worse, raving. The authorities thought him a vagrant and could get no sense from him at all.
“He was committed. I don’t know what he had been doing in the time after he ran away, but the poor boy was quite out of his mind, at least for a time. As he was a vagrant and apparently of no account, they sent him to Bicetre. There the trail ends.”
LeClerc and I exchanged a look, which was not missed by Bateau. The name of the lunatic asylum was infamous throughout Paris. “Yes,” he said. “Bicetre. The place is notorious – a hell for the incurably insane. I have contacted the Director of the asylum and he has denied any knowledge of Tomas. He claims he was never brought to him, he has never seen him.
“I am quite convinced my son resides currently in Bicetre. Why they will not let me see him, I cannot understand. The police are powerless. Despite the testimony of their own officers, their written records are practically non-existent when it comes to vagrants and drifters. If the Director refuses to admit us, they cannot force him to open his asylum to us.
“Please, Monsieur LeClerc. I beg of you. Return my son to me. Money is of no object, and my pockets are deep. Will you help me?”
LeClerc stood up from behind his desk, smoothing his own neat little moustache. “Fear not, monsieur,” he said. “I will take the case.”*
There were further questions, of course. Many of them. But LeClerc satisfied himself that M Bateau’s belief regarding his son’s whereabouts were realistic and most likely correct. It sounded indeed like the Director’s behaviour was evasive and most strange – suspicious to say the least.
M Bateau took his leave, taking with him assurances that he would be contacted as soon as there was news. LeClerc turned to me and I saw the old, familiar light in his eyes that said that his great mind was fully engaged and the scent of blood was in his nostrils.
“I think,” he said, “that this calls for a frontal assault.”
The following morning found us in Le Kremlin-Bicetre. True to its reputation, Bicetre Hospital was a monstrous, dark building on the Rue St Michel, in the district from which it took it’s name. Even outside the building, we were accosted by the poor, misbegotten wretches that lived there. Certain patients, deemed no harm to others, were given licence to beg and to come and go as they pleased. They would be given baskets, turned out in the morning to ply the streets for change and be allowed to return in the evening – the origin of the term ‘basket case’ in later years.
Harmless they may have been, but these demented souls were not a reassuring sight and few came through these streets if they did not have business there. We pressed and pushed our way through them and came at last to the doors of the asylum.
Directeur Bonserre had agreed to see us, I believe from arrogance if nothing else. He had refused to see M Bateau, but the fame that went with the name of Alphonse LeClerc meant that that closed doors would be opened for him alone. Certainly it seemed that le Directeur felt safe and smug enough to relish the prospect of matching wits with the great detective.
Possibly he had reason to feel that way. I was certainly unprepared for the interview that followed. I believe that it was the greatest contest of intellect and implacable wills in all of Inspector LeClerc’s long and storied career and certainly the only time in my own acquaintance with him that I have ever seen him at such a loss.
Bonserre may have felt less smug knowing that his companion was a still-active police officer, so I was simply introduced as an assistant, a subterfuge I am sure you will forgive under the circumstances. To tell the truth, he paid me little attention throughout and barely even noticed me. I believe I was beneath his attention, although it humbles me to say so.
It was quite remarkable. Ushered into his office and presence, I was forcibly struck by a curious resemblance to LeClerc. I say curious, as the resemblance was in no way physical – where LeClerc was short and rather portly, Bonserre was tall and gaunt. LeClerc was dark of hair and eye – his moustache trimmed short and his thinning hair swept carefully back from his brow. Bonserre’s own hair was a wild, extravagant mane of grey and his eyes were a cold, piercing blue. Physically they could hardly have been more different. And yet there was a similarity there nonetheless.
There was that same chilly, hooded glint in their eyes, the look that betrayed the constant driving motion of the great engines of the minds that lay behind them, regarding everything and missing nothing. It was there that the similarity lay. They were both creatures of intellect and cold arrogance, used to shaping the world around them to their own wills. They recognised each other in that first instant, I am quite sure, weighing each other up like opponents at the chessboard.
But where LeClerc’s will was always tempered with a certain humanity, there was none in Bonserre’s. In those calculating blue eyes and the slight, mocking smile there was more cruelty and malice than I believe I have ever encountered in nearly forty years of police work, before and since that moment. It was as if Bonserre was LeClerc’s opposite, his twisted mirror image. LeClerc was no angel but I could honestly believe, in that first meeting, that Bonserre was the Devil.
It was Bonserre that first broke the silence.
“Monsieur LeClerc, the famous detective. I must be most favoured to receive such a celebrated guest. To what do I owe this singular honour?”
LeClerc paused before answering for a moment, as if measuring the weight and shape of the contest to follow. “Monsieur Bonserre,” he said at last. “Let us dispense with games. They are beneath us. You can hardly fail to know why I am here. I am seeking Tomas Bateau.”
“Ah, the mysterious Tomas. Are we not done with that yet?”
“Hardly, monsieur. He was brought into your care some weeks ago, albeit anonymously and has not been seen or heard from since. I am here to ascertain his fate and, if it is still possible, his whereabouts. It would be simplest and best for you to simply tell me. I assure you Monsieur Bonserre, that you will save yourself a great deal of trouble if you do.”
Bonserre threw back his head and uttered a short, barking laugh that quite made me jump. “Oh capital!” he cried. “Is this how the great inspector solves his cases? Is it truly as easy for you as that? I am so intimidated by you that you merely have to show me your face and I will run up the white flag and confess all?”
“Come now, Inspector. Where is the fun in that? Where is the challenge? No, I am afraid you must do considerably better than that.”
LeClerc shifted forward in his seat. “I notice you do not deny. You have seen the boy?”
“Why should I confirm or deny anything to you? You are not the police or the government, are you Monsieur? Not any more. You are simply a nosy private citizen.” He smirked at LeClerc. He seemed to be hugely enjoying himself. “So many are brought to me. So many tortured souls for me to save.
“I have not seen this boy, this Tomas. Perhaps a young man who resembled him was brought to me. What of it? It is not the young man you seek. You must look elsewhere.”
LeClerc changed tack. “The boy that was brought to you – the young vagrant from the Latin Quarter – may I speak with him?”
“No you may not,” Bonserre snapped. “I will not interrupt the treatment of one of my patients. Not for you, not for anyone.”
“Please, Monsieur Bonserre. You must be reasonable. This is a hospital, a public institution. It is a simple matter for me to obtain permission to visit a patient. To go over your head. But that would demean us both, no? Far simpler to settle the matter quickly, like gentlemen. Let me see the boy.”
LeClerc’s talk of going over his head did not sit well at all with le Directeur. Bonserre’s face flushed with sudden anger and he seemed to swell behind his desk. “You would go above me, would you? To whom will you go? The government has no sway over me here, Monsieur LeClerc. And less interest. This is not a public hospital, as you believe. It is funded privately and I am answerable to no-one, least of all a retired civil servant like you. Besides, no-one cares what happens to these animals. People are disgusted by them, shamed and embarrassed. So long as I keep them from the streets, no-one cares what I do here.” He leaned forward over his desk and fixed LeClerc with a menacing glare.
“Within these walls, monsieur, you are not in the world you know. You are in mine. But perhaps a demonstration is in order. A little tour of this world of mine. Would you like to see it, Inspector? Would that satisfy your curiosity?” He laughed again, back in control of himself, arrogant and confident.
I believe he was deliberately flaunting himself for LeClerc – enjoying showing his indifference to him. He could have ended the interview whenever he felt like it. He could have refused to see him at all, as he had done with M Bateau. But it was his conceit to match wits with such a celebrated figure as Inspector LeClerc and defeat him. LeClerc knew it too and the anger at the insult was clear in his face, at least to one that knew him as well as I. Bonserre was playing with him and the affront to his dignity was almost too much to bear. Could it be that he had met his match at last?*
Bonserre was as good as his word and took us around Bicetre lunatic asylum. I hope I never again have such an experience. It was like a guided tour of hell.
It was quiet in his office. Peaceful even. But as he led us down and into the bowels of his hospital it was anything but. Before we saw any of his ‘patients’, we could hear them. The grimy, fitfully lit halls rang with the shrieks, howls and terrible laughter of the damned. I could not suppress a shudder. Bonserre noticed it and laughed. “Come sir,” he said. “Steel yourself. There is worse to come than this.” LeClerc was made of sterner stuff than I and if he shared my dismay he did not show it.
The hospital itself was indescribable – the horror of it will live with me always, I think. That, in 1863, such ghastliness could still exist, masquerading under the guise of medical treatment is almost unthinkable. The dirt, the stench was like a blow to the face. Everywhere was abject human misery. The mad wretches lay naked in filthy straw in the hallways, watching us with empty, rolling eyes. Here a man was chained to a wall, snarling and biting at us as we passed, like a dog. The wall behind him was stained with filth and I could not guess how long he had been fixed there. There a man lay in a caged box just barely big enough to accommodate his body. His outstretched arms lay outside the bars of the cage, hands grasping and grabbing hopelessly. He shrieked and laughed incessantly. Whatever his previous condition, I am quite sure I could not have remained in such a cage for long without going entirely mad myself.
I will not continue my description for long – partly because I do not believe I could do full justice to the awfulness of it, but partly also, I confess, because I would rather not think on it for too long. Directeur Bonserre took great delight in showing us this and that ‘therapy’ – men beaten with sticks and worse, a woman half-drowned, tied to a table while basins of water were emptied over her face. It was quite clear that, as far as his patients went, he was tied by no convention, no rules other than his own ideas and whims. He had not been lying – we were in his world and it was a terrible one indeed.
“Do you see, Inspector?” he said at last. “My treatments and my methods are my own. I will drive the madness out of these poor beasts in the way I best see fit. Neither you, nor anyone has the authority to make me do otherwise.“Observe,” he said and moved over to another poor devil. “In your world, would I keep this creature chained in this way? Could I? Here he is mine and I can do with him as I will. He is my patient and I am his doctor. Here he has no life, no rights.” He looked at me now, apparently interested in me for the first time. “No name.”
“Have you any idea how easy it is to have a man committed? It simply takes my professional word and that of one other doctor. I have several in my employ. Perhaps you both will do more than just visit me one day.” He smiled at us and the threat implicit in his words chilled me to my soul.
Suddenly he struck the man hard, with his fist. “What will you do now?” he asked us, his eyes dancing with light. He looked at me again. “Will you arrest me, policeman? Oh don’t start so – did you think I would not see you for who you are? Did you honestly think me so stupid?”
“When your request for an audience came to me, Monsieur LeClerc, my curiosity was piqued. I wanted to see for what all the fuss was about. Perhaps you would prove an interesting adversary. A challenge. I am disappointed.
“There is nothing for you here. In your world perhaps you are something to be reckoned with, although now I meet you I am not so sure. This, is my province. My world. And here,” he spread his arm wide and the howls and cries of the insane echoed from the walls, “I am God!”
“You may leave now. I am bored with you. The boy you are looking for is not here. I have given you my word and it is all you need. I will not see you again, I think.”*
“Monstrous!” LeClerc was furious, beside himself. Now we were out of Bonserre’s presence and away from that awful place, walking the sunny, leaf-dappled streets of Paris once more, our encounter hardly seem real. Although it was clearly only too real for LeClerc – the impassive iron mask that he had held throughout our meeting finally slipped and betrayed the boiling anger underneath.
“He is a monster, a devil! That such grotesque evil should exist in Paris in my lifetime! It is unthinkable!”
I don’t believe I, or anyone else for that matter, has ever seen LeClerc in the grip of such passionate emotion. His face was red and I swear that his hands were shaking.
“How could this be? Is medicine in France so impoverished? That such a creature as this is placed in such a position?!”
I dared to venture a remark. “Remember,” I said, “that the position was vacant for many months. Who would want to live and work in such a place?”
I was glad I had spoken, for he calmed somewhat and seemed to remember himself again. “Yes,” he said, a little less forcefully. “Perhaps that is so. Certainly his academic credentials are of the highest order. It would appear that they blinded whatever medical council governs the care of the mad.” He sighed. I have never heard Inspector LeClerc admit defeat, but that sigh was as close to it as I ever wish to hear.
“They have appointed a fiend. He is mad himself, a psychopath. He has shown his true face to us, from arrogance and his own pleasure at believing us powerless, but he will not be so foolish with the authorities. I have no doubt Monsieur Bonserre can be entirely plausible when he wants to be.”
He took a deep breath and composed himself. “He has killed the Bateau boy, that much is certain. I do not know why, but I suspect that he did not need a reason. I wonder if he even knew or cared who he was. But if that poor troubled boy found himself in the clutches of that monster then I pity him very greatly.”
“You are so sure he is dead?”
“I wish it were otherwise but yes, it is undoubtedly so. Bonserre is an evil, terrible creature, but we must not think him stupid. He has no reason to conceal the boy if he were alive. Unless perhaps he fears that he would testify against him. Testimony from such a well-respected family just might carry sufficient weight to concern him. But if that was the case then he has had ample time to dispose of young Tomas.
“Either way, he is dead. I do not look forward to informing Monsieur Bateau.”
“But Bonserre… he must be caught! He cannot go unpunished!”
“What can we do? We have no proof, not even that Tomas Bateau was admitted into his care.” He snorted at the word – ‘care’ could hardly be applied to Bonserre and his asylum. “I will look into this further, but in truth I believe he is correct. Neither you nor I have any authority over him as things stand.”
“But…,” I spluttered. “This cannot be? I will return to la Surete, we will mount a raid! This evil must be exposed!”
He raised his eyebrows at me, seemingly amused, even in these circumstances, by what he often saw as my youthful impetuousness. “On what grounds? Hmm? No, my friend, I am sorry to say this but there is nothing you can do. We do not have the law on our side, not this time.”
“Then what can we do?”
So that was it. As you know, I have chronicled many of my adventures with Alphonse LeClerc – hero of la Surete, arguably the finest detective in all of France. This was to be his first defeat, then. The great man had met his match at last.
At least, that was how it would have been – had fortune not stepped in to lend a hand. Barely a week later there was a fire at Bicetre. The blaze began in the kitchens, late in the evening, but it soon swept into the east wing of the hospital itself. The fire brigade were alerted quickly and battled most of the night before it was extinguished. The asylum was saved, but at a cost to its Director. The veil of darkness and secrecy that had protected him for so long was ripped away. What the firemen and policemen called to the scene saw, in the cells and hallways of that awful building was the scandal of Paris for months. Strong men, hardened by years of service, had to be led away by their comrades, vomiting and weeping at the terrible sights that were exposed that night.
I was on duty myself that evening and, as soon as I received the news, I wasted little time. I made it to the hospital in time to see the Director arrested, dragged screaming and raving into a waiting wagon. Few sights in my life have been as satisfying as that.
After that night, it was all up for Bonserre. With all the eyes of Paris now firmly on Bicetre, the authorities had no choice but to act. A full catalogue of his awful crimes was made and he was held accountable for them all. I would like to think that it also had the effect of improving matters for the care and treatment of the incurably insane, but I somehow doubt that is the case. Asylums have always been grim places and little in that has changed, I fear.
To make matters even more damning for Bonserre, we managed to uncover the remains of the Bateau boy, poorly buried beneath the flagstones of his own cell. He had indeed been killed, as the Inspector deduced. It was too late for the boy but at least he had some measure of revenge. Bonserre, in addition to the other charges, was tried and convicted for the murder of Tomas Bateau.
So, the story comes to a satisfying conclusion after all. But what of Inspector LeClerc? Saved from the ignominy of defeat by blind chance?
There is a small postscript to this story, which I will add without comment. It was on the next occasion that I had cause to visit the great detective, barely a few days after the fire. I had stopped by unannounced and he was away on some business or other. I briefly passed the time of day with his housekeeper, as much out of politeness as anything else. I asked her how he had been in the past few weeks.
She said that he had been fine, right as rain, apart from one odd incident not too many days earlier. She had returned to the house unexpectedly late one evening – she had forgotten some item or other, she said. She was leaving when she was startled by LeClerc himself entering by the back door of the house. She was surprised by him, as she had assumed him upstairs asleep. But she was also surprised by his appearance – the usually unruffled detective was dishevelled and dirty and seemed oddly excited, disturbed even.
She made her excuses to him hurriedly and left. But not before she was struck with one other detail – a strong, pervasive smell of petroleum.
She shrugged, as if to say “Who can fathom the minds of such men?” Perhaps she is right.
Bonserre was tried, convicted and found to be insane. As I write this, he has been committed to lunatic asylum on the outskirts of Paris. I have no doubt that they will take good care of him there.