Passport to Crime
The Wendigo’s Spell
by Paul Halter
Translated from the French by John Pugmire
“It was there, in the middle of the lawn, that the dog started to bark. . . . It was past midnight. And there was no reason for him to do it, because there were no threats around. In fact, he was howling at death, as if transfixed by pain. . . . And it lasted quite a while.”
Suppressing a shiver, Dr. Twist looked out over the lawn he had crossed earlier that evening, which was now bathed in moonlight. A vast and desolate lawn, dominated by the hundred-year-old oaks that bordered it. In fact, everything seemed too big there, in the Renaissance-style manor where Commissaire François Lecomte lived with his wife Jeanne. A building far too large for a peacefully retired couple. For example, the salon where he was standing with his host was too vast to be heated by the log fire flickering in the grate, fighting in vain against the chilly air of that late autumn of 1967. Even Jeanne Lecomte, who had served them each a large brandy before retiring, had seemed too tall. Blond, emaciated, and with a lifeless expression, she was almost Dr. Twist’s height. Her husband, on the other hand, would have to look up to talk to her face to face. A short, plump man, his careworn features testified to a career heavy with responsibility.
“Jeanne and I said nothing at the time,” he continued, “but we understood instinctively. We were here to keep her mother company. She was worried about her husband, Colonel Giraud, who was serving in Vietnam. That was at the beginning of May, nineteen fifty-four.”
Having rejoined his host by the fire, Dr. Twist nodded solemnly:
“At Dien Bien Phu, I assume?”
“Precisely. Colonel Giraud succumbed to the Vietminh’s artillery fire on the fourth of May, at the very moment that the dog barked. And my wife and I, having witnessed the animal’s suffering firsthand, can assure you that it was not a coincidence. The creature really had sensed the death of its master thousands of kilometers away. But I can imagine what a detective of your caliber, whose reputation for solving the most inexplicable cases has even crossed the Channel, must think about such testimony.”
The British detective smiled amicably, for he was there precisely because of his formidable reputation. Whilst he was on holiday in France, in the Touraine region, his friend the head of the Paris Sûreté had given him Commissaire Lecomte’s address, assuring him he would be guaranteed a warm welcome in a picturesque environment.
“You’re mistaken, Monsieur,” he replied. “I know the limits of science and deduction. And yours is not an isolated case. Don’t you remember that celebrated incident in the twenties when Lord Carnarvon died suddenly in Egypt, just after the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb? His dog reacted in the same way. They also say that the lights in his castle, as well as all the lights in Cairo, went out at the same time.”
François Lecomte nodded gravely.
“I’ve never forgotten that dog’s heart-rending cry. I can still hear it echoing throughout this vast property, which Jeanne inherited and where we have lived since her mother passed away. It was like the cry of a mournful dog, almost like the howl of a wolf.”
Swirling the amber liquid in his glass, he added, with a strange smile:
“Have you ever heard of the Wendigo, Dr. Twist?”
“Of course. A monster half man and half wolf; in other words, the North American equivalent of our werewolf.”
“Precisely. A mythical monster who tracks down hunters and trappers lost in the forest, and whose bite is as contagious as that of the werewolf. But they also say that it can breathe evil into its victim without even touching them! All it needs is a small break in the skin, no bigger than a pinprick, for its toxic breath to overwhelm its prey and turn it into another murderous creature.”
“I was unaware of that. It would have created a formidable murderer!”
“It was an old woman who told me that. A Canadian with Native Indian roots. She also told me a strange story that seemed to end well, but which eventually . . . A young lumberjack in La Mauricie, where she lived, decided to kill such a creature, which was haunting the region. Together with his wife, he staked out a position in a cabin deep in the forest. . . .”
“Ah, those famous Canadian log cabins, buried under a thick fall of snow,” said Twist, bringing the comforting glass of brandy to his lips.
The commissaire smiled. “Yes, everyone has heard of them, which makes it easier to envisage the scene. So, after locating the monster, our brave young lumberjack set out in pursuit. But the roles quickly became reversed, the hunter became the hunted, and he hastily turned back to barricade himself in the cabin. He and his wife must have passed a horrendous night under assault by the Wendigo, who growled at the door and the shuttered windows, relentlessly scratching the wood with its razor-sharp claws. . . . Then they saw what looked like fog pour in through the gap at the foot of the door, filling each room in turn. They both knew the legend and dreaded a deadly ending in which they tore each other apart. But nothing of the sort happened, and the following morning the Wendigo, battle weary, seemed to have abandoned its prey. They returned to their residence unscathed, relieved to have escaped the curse. Or so it seemed. Neither of them had been seized by madness. But they had forgotten one small detail . . . I’ll stop there for now. I don’t want to give too much away . . .”
“Forgive my frankness, mon cher Monsieur,” said Dr. Twist with a mischievous gleam in his eye, “but I’m wondering where you’re going with this.”
The policeman’s face took on an indecipherable expression.
“To an even stranger case . . . To an incomprehensible murder which defied the laws of logic and science. It occurred two years ago, just before my retirement, and, because of my long years of experience, I naively imagined I would solve it easily. My last case, the highlight of my illustrious career! But what was supposed to be my swan song turned into a crushing defeat, which haunts me to this day. As hard as I fought, I got bogged down at every step of the investigation. Like a series of cold showers, each new element was an attack on my Cartesian spirit and on Reason itself. And despite the respect that I have for you, Dr. Twist, and your reputation as a wizard of crime . . . if you are willing to listen to my account, I don’t believe that even you will be able to shine a new light on the mystery!”
“You intrigue me, cher Monsieur! The more mysterious a case is, the more it interests me. But I must warn you that the extrasensory perceptions of dogs, the means by which carrier pigeons find their way, or how salmon swimming upstream locate their birthplace, do not fall within my purview. My field of expertise is more concerned with human machinations and twisted murderers. . . .”
“That’s what I feared,” sighed the policeman. “Because the crux of the matter is just that: Were we dealing with a twisted criminal or a twist of fate?”
Filling his pipe, the criminologist assured his host that he would be pleased to give him his point of view. He watched the blue fumes rise to the ceiling as François Lecomte began his strange story.
“First of all, I need to say a few words about the principal characters, starting with Brigitte Blanchet, a pretty, slender blond who was in her thirties at the time—two years ago, in September nineteen sixty-five. She lived with her brother Julien in Les Quatre Vents, a manor situated not far from here, and even bigger than this one, which they had inherited from their parents. Julien, who was some ten years older, taught Greek and Latin. He was a tall bachelor with a brooding look, but quite reserved. When she was in her mid twenties, Brigitte met the love of her life: Marc Riaud, an architect in his forties, like her brother, who had just set up on his own. Of medium height, with a thin moustache, calm, and as serious about his work as his relationship with Brigitte, he was the ideal man for her in every respect—except one. He was already a widower, and the father of an eighteen-year-old son, Maxime, blond and rebellious, like most young people of his age. But that wasn’t an obstacle, and Brigitte and Marc were married soon afterwards and took up residence in Les Quatre Vents. Although her brother was already living there, the residence was spacious enough that their intimacy was not affected. Everything went well on the whole, but after three years the couple decided they wanted their own house and found one twenty kilometers away, and quite near here. Life continued peacefully for the next six months. They were viewed as the perfect loving couple: No one had heard of any incidents between them. Brigitte was gentleness personified and Marc was known for his calm and levelheadedness. Young Maxime had gone to Paris to study fine arts. It was then that the tragedy occurred. . . .
“On the night in question, at around three o’clock in the morning, Marc phoned the gendarmes to tell them that he had just killed his wife. Lambert, the officer on duty, whom I know personally, thought at first that it was a fatal domestic accident and Marc’s statement was because he was in a state of shock. But when he arrived on the premises he alerted me immediately. I was there within the hour, to be faced with one of the most gruesome sights of my forty years in the business.
“Here I need to say a couple of words about the layout. The couple’s bedroom is on the first floor. Adjoining it is a sewing room, furnished with a bed, where Brigitte sometimes passed the night when she was feeling nervous. It didn’t happen often, but it happened to be the case that night. Brigitte had bought a red silk dress that morning, which she liked very much, but which her husband had found too provocative. According to Marc, they hadn’t quarrelled about it, but he had teased her. Their disagreement was already over by the time Brigette had gone to bed, and had nothing to do with her decision to sleep in the other room. She had been feeling strangely tense, possibly because of the full moon, and had taken a sleeping pill. Marc had been feeling tense as well, but had opted for whiskey, which was unusual for him. Now back to the crime itself.
“In the sewing room, the bed was unmade and stained with blood. Brigitte, in her nightgown, was lying on the floor in a sea of blood. Her beautiful blond locks had gone, and in their place was a massive, bloody wound. Next to her, on the carpet, was the weapon, a large kitchen knife. The medical examiner would later confirm that she had been stabbed no less than fifteen times, and that the crime had occurred between half past two and three o’clock in the morning. Lambert drew my attention to a piece of red material, lying at the foot of one of the mannequins, which had been savagely lacerated. I found out later that it was the silk dress that they had argued about. In Marc’s bedroom there were also bloodstains, notably on the bedsheets. And on the second pillow, a hideous mass of blood-spattered blond hair . . . Brigitte’s scalp.
“It was butchery, plain and simple. But strangest of all amidst the horror was Marc’s behavior. He was, at one and the same time, distraught, yet unreservedly admitting his guilt. And he never wavered from that position: He had savagely stabbed the woman he loved, without knowing why! An inexplicable and implacable surge of hatred had overcome him, as if an evil force had seized control of his mind in the middle of the night.”
Commissaire Lecomte, having finished his narrative, asked his guest:
“Perhaps you’d like to read his testimony for yourself? It’s in the library, and it will only take a minute to fetch it.”
Alan Twist nodded his head. “Good idea. The more detail the better.”
He barely had time to finish his cognac before the dossier prepared by Lieutenant Lambert was handed to him.
* * *
Marc Riaud: Yes, she had bought a red silk dress in the morning, which had aroused my jealousy, I don’t mind admitting. She had arranged it carefully on the mannequin in the sewing room. But the incident, if you can call it that, was over by the end of the evening. That said, she was on edge that night and so was I, although I can’t say why. I served myself a stiff whiskey, which might have been a mistake. I don’t drink very often, but I don’t get nasty when I do . . . Afterwards, I remember getting a sort of fog in my brain, something painful, powerful and provocative . . . A need for violence, a need to fight someone . . . I went into Brigitte’s room and started to insult her, the woman I loved, for no reason . . . I didn’t understand my violence, but I was incapable of controlling it . . . Then I saw the red dress on the mannequin, which inflamed my hatred and my jealousy. I started to stab it furiously with the knife. . . .
Lambert: It was a kitchen knife. Was it already there, or had you previously gone downstairs to get it?
Marc Riaud: I don’t remember . . . All I know is that it was in my hand . . . Brigitte protested and I stabbed her . . . Her eyes were wide with incomprehension and fright. I suffered to see her like that, but at the same time I sensed my hatred increase tenfold . . . I stabbed her several times, more violently each time. . . .
Lambert: Was that when you scalped her?
Marc Riaud: I don’t remember very well . . . I must have grabbed her hair as I continued the stabbing. . . . My God, it was horrible. . . . Slaughtering the one I loved. I wasn’t myself anymore . . . it was impossible to contain the evil force that had taken taken possession of my mind . . . I was suffering, my head was caught in a vice. Everything was spinning around me . . . I lost consciousness . . . I must have gone back to my room. . . . When I woke up, I was in my bed with the sheets splattered with blood and the horrible mass of blood-soaked hair on the pillow next to me, as if I had brought in some macabre trophy. . . . And, in the room next door, my poor Brigitte, just as I had left her . . . She wasn’t moving or breathing. . . . There was the one I loved more than anything in the world, dead by my own hand. . . .
Lambert: And that’s when you telephoned the gendarmes? At around three in the morning?
Marc Riaud: Yes, there was nothing else I could do. . . . It never occurred to me to run away. . . . As for the time, I didn’t check. But it must have been when you said it was.
* * *
When Dr. Twist had finished reading, the commissaire declared:
“And after that, a thorough search of the premises confirmed everything the husband said. There was no sign of a break-in, or any form of external intervention. Nor were there any indications of conflict between the couple, or adultery. We questioned their family and friends and found nothing. And neither of them had made or received phone calls that day or the day before, according to the post-office switchboard. So, what do you think?”
Stroking his moustache, Dr. Twist replied:
“A very strange case, indeed. The sudden madness is difficult to explain. Several details seem a bit vague, but how can you dispute the husband’s adamant declaration? So sure of himself, yet so distressed . . . You did tell me he seemed sincere, I believe?”
“Yes, I never had any doubt. How could he be lying if he was accusing himself and condemning himself to the guillotine?”
Commissaire Lecomte served his guest another brandy, which he did not refuse, and continued with a sly smile:
“But despite all that, force of habit obliged me to suspect some kind of machination, and I asked myself the inevitable question: Who benefitted from the crime? Or should I say crimes? Because, after Brigitte’s murder, Marc had no chance of escaping the guillotine. They had no known enemies and were a peaceful couple. The answer was simple: Only Julien and Max. Julien Blanchet, because he became the sole owner of Les Quatre Vents. I knew from another source that his sister had wanted to sell the family seat, which he had opposed because he could not afford to buy her share.
“And Maxim was at odds with his father, who disapproved of his choice of an artistic career and had threatened to cut off his allowance if he continued down that path. As for alibis, Julien had spent the evening with friends and was home by midnight. It’s only about twenty kilometers between the two residences, so he had ample time to make the round trip by car. Maxime was in Paris and could not account for his time after eight o’clock. It’s a good hundred kilometers from there to here, but it’s feasible. So, neither of them had an alibi. And I’m obliged to say that I couldn’t see either of them committing such a Machiavellian crime, be it fratricide or patricide, by slaughtering one family member and condemning another. But the overriding question is how? If we start with the assumption that a stranger did it, how did he persuade Marc to take the blame? By some magical power of persuasion? By witchcraft? By hypnosis?”
Conscious of having raised his voice, he stopped and shrugged his shoulders.
“I have encountered some astonishing cases of hypnotism,” observed Dr. Twist, “but never for a murder, particularly such a barbarous one as that. It’s very hard to believe. The solution, if there is one, must lie elsewhere.”
After a short silence, François Lecomte continued:
“That’s only the beginning of my story, Dr. Twist. I’ll skip over the three weeks of investigation that followed the crime, except to say that Marc Riaud, after having been examined by several specialists, was found to have no signs of madness or paranoia. And no drugs had been found in his system. The mystery was still as baffling as ever when the bomb exploded. . . .
“Or, rather, the first of several. A Canadian tourist on holiday in the area contacted the police to alert them that an almost identical crime had been committed close to where he lived, in Québec. They thought he might be exaggerating, but upon contacting their transatlantic colleagues, they found that one Hubert Villeneuve, the director of a furniture factory, had stabbed his wife with ferocious abandon. He was a heavy drinker and had good reason to be jealous, and he, too, had scalped his victim. As if that were not a rare enough coincidence, can you guess when the crime was committed?”
Dr. Twist took off his pince-nez before replying:
“Don’t tell me . . . it was the same day?”
“Better still: the same hour! It was around eight o’clock at night in Québec when Hubert Villeneuve killed his wife, which is equivalent to two or three o’clock in the morning here, at the very moment that Marc Riaud, some six thousand kilometers away, was stabbing his wife to death!”
“Good grief!” gasped Dr. Twist, just managing to catch the pipe which had fallen out of his mouth. “That’s incredible!”
“Isn’t it? The Canadian police cooperated fully, but I eventually decided to go there, even at my own expense. I was becoming obsessed, and the information I was getting, although clear enough, only served to deepen the mystery.”
The commissaire selected a few pages from the dossier before continuing.
“I’ll just summarize it for you, without omitting the important details, because I ended up spending two weeks there, amidst snow and ice, and that’s where the old native woman told me about the Wendigo. By then, I thought I’d had more than my fair share of surprises, but there were more to come. . . . So, it’s almost eight o’clock at night, and we’re in a comfortable house on the main street of Saint Boniface, a small village of some two hundred inhabitants. That’s where Hubert Villeneuve lives with wife Pia.
“He’s a solid forty-year-old who has prospered by sheer hard work, and now runs his own successful carpentry business with ten employees. He’s quite a character, with a ruddy, bearded face and a fondness for alcohol, which does nothing to dampen his mood swings. Pia is a slender woman, still pretty, with emerald-green eyes and a shock of blazing ginger hair. Here are a couple of photos, taken shortly before the crime. The red-haired young man with the inscrutable face is their son Philippe, born early in their marriage. The other fellow with the dark, curly hair is Jérôme, one of their employees. More about him later . . .”
Dr. Twist examined the photos whilst his host continued:
“Shortly before eight o’clock, then, Hubert arrives home in his lorry. He was supposed to be traveling, so he wasn’t expected. There’s panic in the house because, at that very moment, Jérôme is declaring his love to a naked Pia. He just has time to escape through the kitchen door whilst Pia gets dressed hurriedly. Hubert’s red face shows that he’s been drinking, but he’s still sufficiently lucid to know that he’s interrupted something. He flies into a jealous rage. . . . Jérôme, behind the kitchen door, can hear the violent quarrel, but chooses to go home quietly. He does display a certain amount of courage, however, by returning twenty minutes later . . . when there isn’t the slightest noise. And yet, the Villeneuves must still be there, because most of the lights are on. . . . He looks through the salon window, and what he sees makes his blood run cold.
“He rushes to alert the police. When they arrive, Hubert’s lorry has gone. And what they find in the salon is not a pretty sight. . . . The lifeless body of Pia is lying on the carpet, having been repeatedly stabbed. Her beautiful hair has been removed and is now lying near her on the carpet, more red than ginger, next to a large, blood-stained kitchen knife. . . . The police are aghast. It’s not hard to work out what happened, and the husband will later confirm it. His confession is very similar to Marc Riaud’s, but with a more understandable motive. Hubert, who already suspected his wife of infidelity, had flown into a terrible rage. It wasn’t the first time he had laid hands on his wife, but this time he literally saw red. The flamboyant tresses of the unfaithful spouse inflamed his jealousy. . . . Those long tresses she flaunted to inflame the desires of other men . . . He began by cutting off a lock with a kitchen knife. . . . Her screams of protest only served to increase his rage, and he stabbed her repeatedly until she was lifeless. . . . Then he scalped her to complete his sinister work. Only then did he realize what he had done.
“He knew he was quick-tempered, but not to that point. It was as if an uncontrollable force had driven him to madness. He knew his goose was cooked. . . . Just before the arrival of the police, he fled in his lorry to a remote cabin in the forest. But the police found him quickly by following the tire tracks in the snow. He was armed, however, and refused to surrender. He turned the weapon on himself, but the buckshot did not penetrate the skull. Three days later, however, he managed to finish the job by hanging himself in his prison cell.”
Once again, Dr. Twist nodded his head solemnly and declared:
“If you look at the bare facts, there’s not much of a mystery . . . just unbridled jealousy and anger. And there’s a certain logic in cutting off the hair of the unfaithful wife. But, needless to say, the resemblance to, and the simultaneity with, Marc Riaud’s crime are truly astounding.”
“That was my reaction,” agreed the commissaire. “I nevertheless interrogated Jérôme, the lover, at length. I didn’t learn much, except confirmation of his boss’s irascible character and the flighty nature of his wife. Philippe, their son, wasn’t in Canada at the time of the murder: He was in Europe, looking for new markets. Financially speaking, he was the sole beneficiary but, just like the lover, he couldn’t be suspected of any kind of machination, because the facts were so clear and he had a solid alibi. He only returned to Québec a week after the murder.
“About a month had elapsed when I went to interview him at his home, the scene of the crime. Naturally, he was still in a state of shock. Appalled, but not surprised: He had been forced to witness his parents’ squabbles over the years and was aware of his father’s violent nature. He had cleaned up the house, with a view to selling it as quickly as possible, and had placed the personal effects of his parents in a box, together with items taken and returned by the police. To show his disgust, he invited me to take what I wanted. After a quick check, I selected several items, which I shall come back to. Although he had been informed of a similar crime committed in France, he hadn’t paid much attention. On the contrary, he wanted to forget as much as possible. Nevertheless, he listened to me politely, and when I emphasized the coincidences, his eyes widened in astonishment. He repeated the name of Marc Riaud several times, becoming more and more stupefied. . . .”
Like a good storyteller, the commissaire paused, awaiting the reaction of his guest, who was hanging on his every word.
“Before going any further, Dr. Twist, I want to show you something which should put you on the right track. . . .” After foraging in his dossier, he handed his guest two photographs. “Here are shots of our two murderers, taken when they were ten years younger.”
Dr. Twist adjusted his pince-nez and studied the two images. He looked up in surprise:
“But they’re as alike as two peas in a pod!”
“Yes, it’s clear enough. They were taken before Hubert grew a beard and his face became bloated from alcohol. In fact, it’s quite understandable, because Marc Riaud and Hubert Villeneuve were identical twins.”
For a few seconds, the criminologist remained frozen like a statue. Only the crackling of the fire could be heard. After a while, he stammered:
“Extraordinary! I don’t know what to say. . . .”
The commissaire nodded understandingly. “That was my reaction at the time . . . and it still is. Two wives attacked in the same manner, then scalped, at the same moment, several thousand kilometers apart, by their respective husbands, both seized by a mysterious rage, and who turn out to be identical twins . . . It almost seems as if there were a metaphysical link between the two incidents.”
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Copyright © 2023 The Wendigo’s Spell by Paul Halter