Police agents leave the Barriere d’Italie to make their nightly rounds in a tough, sparsely settled district inhabited by thugs and cheap crooks. In this precinct the police are always careful to move in groups. Their leader is old Gevrol, an unimaginative, fearless inspector. About one hundred yards from Mother Chupin’s wine shop they hear some loud cries, and the whole party rushes forward over the rough ground. The house is closed up tight; only bands of light through the shutters give evidence of life within. One eager young officer climbs on a box to peer through the shutters, and his evident horror at what he sees causes the officers to hasten their attempt to break into the house.
At Gevrol’s order, two agents batter down the door. Inside on the mud floor are three bodies, two men dead and one wounded. Swaying on his feet is a stocky man with a revolver in his hand. On the stairs, a hysterical Mother Chupin hides her face in her apron. One agent seizes the man with the gun and disarms him, while another agent kneels beside the wounded victim, who is wearing a soldier’s uniform. Murmuring that he had received his just deserts, the man dies.
Gevrol diagnoses the affair as a drunken brawl and is pleased that the assumed murderer was so quickly caught. The young agent who had peered through the shutters, however, expresses doubts about the case. Gevrol patronizingly asks him if he suspects some mystery. When the young agent says yes, Gevrol tells him he can stay with the bodies until morning and investigate to his heart’s content.
The doctors leave the crime scene, and a police wagon takes away the accused murderer and Mother Chupin. The young agent stays at the scene with a stolid, seasoned companion, grizzled Father Absinthe. The young agent is Detective Lecoq, who had decided to join the police force after drifting from one job to another for several years. With Father Absinthe to help him, he eagerly looks around the house.
Lecoq’s first find is an earring, half buried in the mud on the floor. It is a diamond earring, jewelry too expensive to be found in Mother Chupin’s establishment. Encouraged, Lecoq goes outside. There is enough snow on the ground for him to reconstruct some of the happenings prior to the murders. Lecoq figured that two women, one young and one older, had visited the house, and that they had been running when they left. A man had met them outside the garden, leading them to a cab. Here the traces become lost.
Lecoq also remembers, however, what the murder suspect had said when he was captured: “Lost! It is the Prussians who are coming!” Only someone who knew Napoleonic history would have used that allusion. He evidently had been expecting someone to return and help him.
Lecoq presents his lucid report to the examining judge in the morning. Monsieur d’Escorval is greatly impressed with Lecoq’s report. Despite Gevrol’s insistence that the case is merely a wine shop brawl,...
(The entire section is 1224 words.)