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Thursday, June 28, 2012

My View of the Paris Catacombs

  I suppose I should really hold off this post until next October.  But I have such a problem only doing the things I should do.  And I really have a problem holding off on things I should hold off on.  So I'll just ignore the whole hold-off-till-October thing about this catacomb post.  The great news is that I run this blog and I get to decide what gets held off and what gets...the opposite of held off.  (Dropped On? I'm not sure about that one.  Anybody have any suggestions?)
  So on a rainy day in April, with a good bit of cold wind tossed around, we spent the morning seeking out Charles Baudelaire's grave at Montparnasse Cemetery.  It was pretty cold, the French guard gave us a map of the cemetery in Italian (presumably because Jennifer's French sounded like it came from Genoa) and we found good-old-Chuck's resting place.  Jennifer cried.  I didn't.
  So after this wonderfully uplifting experience (and here, you think I'm joking, but cemeteries really do sort of perk us up, which I would try to explain, but I just don't think I adequately can) we slowly sauntered up Rue Froidevaux, past Chez Papa's, to Place Denfert-Rochereaux, watched the school children line up at the little theater that was showing Charlie Chaplin movies (oh, yeah, I wanted to join them!) and then finally found Le Catacombes.
  This was one of the longest (or slowest-moving, to be more precise) lines we stood in during our entire trip.  We huddled on the sidewalk, as the wind, and occasional rain, worried at us.  We occasionally used the umbrella, chatted with the couple behind us from Washington DC, and took pictures of the lion statue in the center of the traffic circle, dedicated to la Defense Nationale 1870-1874 (which really didn't go too well, as I recall).  People were allowed into the catacombs a few at a time.  We never saw anyone come out.  The French lady ahead of us, speaking with her little girl, made several jokes about that.  The little girl thought that was funny.
  To enter the catacombs, you must descend a tightly spiralled stone staircase that drops down over sixty feet to the old mines of Paris.  Down here, some of the most iconic stone buildings of Paris began as rock quarried from these mines centuries ago.  In order to deal with the overcrowded cemeteries within the city, Paris officials finally decided on removing the nearly six million bones collected in the aboveground "charniers", which were ossuaries filled with the bones of the bodies from the many mass graves that were used in these early times.  Once a mass grave had been covered long enough to allow the decomposition of flesh from the bones, the mass grave was reopened and the bones stacked in the "charniers".  We call them charnel-houses.  Most of these bones came from near Les Halles, the food courts, from a cemetery known as The Innoccents.  From 1886 to 1888, most of these millions of bones were stacked in the cavernous mines under the old "porte d'Enfer" city gate.
  After a faily long walk (the entire tour is about one and a half miles) through bare corridors, you will finally come to the entrance to the catacombs.  The wonderfully dark sign that announces the entrance reads: Arrete!  C'est Ici L'Empire De La Mort.  (Attention: Halt!  Here is the Empire of Death.)
  Right off you notice how damp it all seems.  Water drips down from the low ceilings.  Stalagtites have formed over the centuries, and there are puddles of water everywhere.  The path is this wet, gritty surface that adds a constant crunching sound all around as you pass through the halls of the dead.  Amazingly, though there are so many bones, they have not been haphazardly thrown into piles.  There are orderly stacks of femurs, tibias, and skulls.  What I did not see were hands, feet, hips, spines, or shoulder blades.  I suspect they were either hidden by the orderly piles of the straighter bones, jumbled below, or they were smaller bones that mostly fell apart and were not taken below.  I did not use an audio guide, and have not read enough on the subject to know for sure.  I kind of like not knowing that tidbit.  It sounds like something from a movie: Look at all these legs, arms, and heads...but where are the rest of the body parts?  (I might have to use that in a story one day.)
  Great care was taken to label the bone collections.  Stone signs designate the dates and the cemeteries from which the bones were taken.  There are many stone signs with bible verses on them, as well as selected poetic verses.  Too many to mention.  The winding tunnels are not too narrow, so if you have trouble with tight spaces I wouldn't worry.  However, realize, that once you begin, there is no going back.  The entrance and the exit are not in the same place.  You will have to walk the full tour to get back out.
  Eventually you climb another set of stairs and pop out on the Rue Remy Dumoncel.  Even this is wonderfully mysterious, since the exit is unmarked, and you can be pretty disoriented as you try to find your way out of this little neighborhood.
  There is a strict ban on flash photography, which makes little sense to me.  These bones are constantly wet, which is not doing them any favors, and flashes of light would not really do more damage to them, thought I suppose it would be distracting to have so many flashes going off in the semi-darkness.  But I was disappointed that I could not get many good shots with such low light.
A rare photo of yours truly, as photographed by my wife,
  I wish we had been able to spend more time down there, but the self-tour is just one long constant walk, and you do not know how much is left, and before you know it you are at the end.  And you are aware that there are many people standing in the rain and wind waiting to get in.  But this is certainly a trip worth taking.  There is nothing like this in the world, that I am aware of, and if you are in Paris it must be a part of your trip.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

A Pre-View of The Lazaretto

  My new novel, The Lazaretto, will soon be available in print.  In anticipation of this, I am posting an excerpt from the book.  The book is a science fiction story set on a quarantine planet in an Earth colony solar system, set in an undefined future.  This quarantine planet, a lazaretto, is the central hub of travel, where any person wishing to travel between planets must spend forty days in quarantine.  The real hitch is the fact that if you are found to be infected with a disease, you may not leave the lazaretto, ever.  It is a dark world where people shun physical contact and live in constant fear for their health.

  Into this rather paranoid world comes Gregor Lepov, a private detective who has been hired to find a woman's missing son.  A simple missing person's case turns into something far more disturbing as the police begin tracking a violent killer in the city.   
  The print version will soon be available at Amazon, though right now, advance copies can be found at the link to the left.  The Kindle edition will be ready by the first of July.  This is the first book of a trilogy.  The second book (The Lady in the Lazaretto) will come out next year.  I hope you give it a try.  I've been working on this now for about three years, and I hope you enjoy it.  Until you have the full book, enjoy the following excerpt.

      The driver talked nonstop until Lepov paid him and stepped in front of Ethan Layne’s building.  There was nothing about it that made it stand out from any other building on that street.  Only the worn black numbers on the battered door told him he was at the right place.  He climbed the steps of the covered entrance testing his knee on each step.  He was pleasantly surprised to discover the pain had gone.
       The small foyer and first level hallway were dimly lit.  There was enough light for him to see this place looked worse than his dormitory.  One look at the elevator was enough to make him seek out the stairwell.  Even if the old lift did work, he wasn’t about to trust it with his life.  It looked rotten, as if a river had run down that elevator shaft over the years and soaked all the wood until it was warped and soft to the touch.
       Lepov grabbed hold of the stairwell’s handrail and pulled himself up the first step.  He did not hurry.  He rested two separate times before he reached the eighth floor where Layne’s door stood opposite the stairwell.
       Lepov knocked in case someone was actually there.  He expected no one and grabbed the door knob.  To his surprise, someone inside pulled the door open a few inches.
       “What do you want?”  A young woman stared at him with steely eyes from within a shadow.
       “I’m looking for Ethan Layne.  Do I have the wrong door?”
       “It’s the right door.  Ethan is not here.  What do you want?”
       “I’m here on behalf of—a friend of Ethan’s.  May I come in?”  Lepov caught the smell of cigarette smoke and although there were days he couldn’t stand to smell it anymore, this day it smelled good.
       “Just a moment,” the woman said, and quickly closed the door.
      The hallway had only one working light in it, and that was thirty feet down to his right.  Pale light from a window at one end of the hall was the only other illumination.  Lepov began to wonder if he’d been a fool to allow the door to close on him.  No one should have been at Ethan’s apartment.  His mother had said nothing about a roommate.
      More than likely, he thought, the mother was unaware that her son was shacked up with a woman.  That might explain everything.  He was hoping that would be the case.  He wanted to get out of the Lazaretto as soon as possible.
       “Alright,” the woman said as the door opened, “you may come in.  I was just leaving.”
       She was maybe twenty years old with brown hair cut like a little boy’s.  She was terribly thin.  Her dark brown eyes were hidden behind a worried brow.  Her small mouth looked even smaller as she chewed on her bottom lip.  She carried two packs, one slung over each shoulder.  She tried not to make eye contact as she attempted to get past Lepov.
      “Hold on a minute, Miss.”  He stood his ground and blocked her exit.  He had a good idea she was doing more than leaving.  It looked very much like she was fleeing.
      “I have to go!  I haven’t time to talk.”
      “You’d better do some talking,” Lepov put a hand on one of the packs and firmly guided her back into Layne’s apartment.  He decided not to waste time with this girl.  “In fact, you better do a lot of talking.”
       “Who are you?” she asked, jerking away from his touch.  “Who are you to touch me?  Huh?”
        Lepov stepped back as she angrily dropped onto a couch with hard black cushions.  The packs slid down her arms and she pulled one of them onto her lap.  Still angry, she rammed a hand into its main compartment and fished around in it.  Lepov didn’t wait to see why.  He swiped a big hand down and snatched the pack away from her.  She called out as if she’d been stung by a wasp.  It took Lepov a moment to realize the hand she yanked from the pack was holding a small caliber gun.  She aimed it at him.
       “Don’t.”  His tone was enough to make her hesitate.  In one easy move he tossed the pack back towards the still open door and snatched the gun from her hand.  At the same time he moved forward and pinned her to the couch with the other hand.
       “Damn you!”  She squirmed with nowhere to go.
       “Now just hold on.  I’m not the one pulling guns on strangers.”
       The woman kicked him.  It was a lucky shot.  She hit his knee.  Pain washed over him in distinct waves.  He staggered back two steps, biting back a mouthful of curses.  The woman recognized what had happened and smiled, quite pleased with herself.
       “We better start over,” Lepov tensed as another wave of pain rolled through his leg.  “I’m simply looking for Ethan Layne.”
       “Does he owe you money?  Or was he screwing your wife?”  An impish smile came out even as he could still see anger in her eyes.
       “No and no.  I take it you wouldn’t approve of that last item, huh?”
       “I didn’t care about the other women.”  The set of her jaw said otherwise.  “He owed me money.  And he’s been gone a long time now.”
       “So you thought you’d liquidate a few of his things?”  Lepov looked around the apartment.  It was a small two-room affair.  There was a bedroom in the back.  The main room was kitchen, living and storage all wrapped up in one.  As far as he could tell, most of Layne’s things were gone.  The woman had been there before.
       “I’m taking what I can.  Do you care?  I paid for most of it over the last two years.  I can’t prove it, but what do you care?”
       Lepov admitted he didn’t care in the least.  He just wanted Layne.
       “So where is he?” Lepov removed the bullets from her gun.  When he had finished, he dropped them into the front pocket of his pants.
       “Why do you want to know?”  She brushed her hair back in a nervous gesture.  As short as it was, it was still long enough to conceal a bruise high up on her forehead.
      “I doubt that’s Ethan’s doing, unless you’ve seen him in the past couple of days.”  Lepov leaned forward and pushed the hair back more to see the extent of the damage.  “This is maybe 24 or 48 hours old.”
      “You know so much about bruises, huh?  I’m not surprised.  You probably beat your woman.”
      “I don’t have a woman, but if I did, and she was anything like you, I’d sure as hell beat her.”
      The woman looked at him, shocked at his frankness before she understood he was putting her on.  She smiled wickedly.
      “I’m Greta Becker.  I’ve been living with Ethan for two years.”  She pulled out a cigarette and lit it, blowing a cloud of smoke around her face.  “Are you a cop?” 
      “No.  My name is Lepov.  Ethan’s mother was getting worried.”  That cigarette didn’t just smell good to him, it made him think about opening the pack in his coat pocket.  He fought off the impulse though he could not take his eyes off the cigarette.
      “A Private Detective?”  She pronounced each word with extra care then shrugged off the revelation with a laugh.
       “Who did that to you?”  Lepov pointed at her injury.
       “What do you care?  I live in a rough neighborhood.”
       “That why you carry the gun?”
       “Not that it helped.  The gun is useless against bastards like you.”
       “Sometimes.”  Lepov tossed her the gun.  “Unless you know what to do with it, it only causes more trouble.   Someone’s going to start asking uncomfortable questions about your gun.  Like why are you carrying one and emptying out a missing man’s apartment.  That looks bad.”
        If she understood the implication, she didn’t let on.
       “I’m trying to say that with the police asking questions about Ethan’s disappearance, they’re bound to think it’s a little strange—you stealing all this and having a gun in your possession.”
       “They haven’t.”  She challenged Lepov with a hard stare.
       “Haven’t what?”
       “Been asking questions.  They haven’t been asking questions.”
       “I’d been told Ethan had been missing for three weeks now.”  Lepov tried to work the timing out in his head.  “When did you last see him?”
        “I’ll tell you, but it does you no good.  I hadn’t seen him in nearly two months.  I’d left him.”
        “That other woman you didn’t mind so much?”  Lepov’s question was colder than his tone.
        “Yes,” she nodded.  Some of her hard exterior began to soften.  “I came back a week ago.  When I saw he wasn’t here, I figured he got out of the Laz.  Maybe he had jumped into a closing quadrant without time to pack.  As far as I knew, he was never coming back.”
       It wasn’t her conjectures about Ethan’s disappearance that grabbed his attention.  He was still focused on what she’d said about the police.
       “Greta, you said the police aren’t asking questions?”
        “No.  I know a few of the neighbors here, and they say no one has been around looking for him.  As far as I know, you’re the first.”
       “He did work for the Lazaretto Administrative Unit, didn’t he?”  She nodded firmly.  “Wouldn’t they wonder where he was?”
        “It’s why I thought he took off.”
        “No,” Lepov shook his head while trying to puzzle out what he was hearing.  “I checked all of that out before I flew out here.  According to official records, he’s still within the Lazaretto.”
        It took only a cursory glance around the room for Lepov to realize he had lost any chance of finding information in the apartment.  The woman had taken too much.  She had nearly stripped the place bare.
        “You sure did a job on this place,” Lepov shook his head.  “I don’t suppose you happened to notice anything unusual before you began to dismantle everything?”
        “I don’t think so.”  Her answer was both guarded and petulant.
        “Sorry if the question offends you, but I have to say you haven’t exactly done me a favor here.  You said it looked like he hadn’t packed, is that right?”
        “Maybe a little.  Some clothes but nothing else.”
        “Forgive the implication, but did it look as if someone else had been living with him?”
        The implication was apparently not going to be forgiven, or even acknowledged.  Greta Becker stood up and snatched up the pack on the couch.  Keeping one eye on Lepov, she moved to the door and retrieved the second pack, clutching both of them as if she were hugging a lost child who’d just been found.
       “You can’t keep me here.  And I don’t have to answer your questions.  For all I know you did something to Ethan.  I should call the cops.”
      “Right,” Lepov allowed a mocking smile on his lips.  There wasn’t a chance in hell she’d call the cops.  She didn’t realize he was now practically forced to contact them.  Once someone official did begin to look for Layne, they would quickly discover the looting of his rooms.  And once they discovered that, anyone associated with Layne would come under suspicion.  And he was sure it would eventually become known he was there for the sole purpose of tracking down Layne.  The longer he kept in the shadows the more suspicious he would look to the authorities.
        “I think it’s only fair to warn you that I’ll be calling them.”  Lepov stood at the top of the stairs and watched her descend.  “I won’t call them until tomorrow.  That gives you a day to decide what you’re gonna do, and how you’re gonna answer their questions.”
       Her sharp curse echoed up the cavernous stairwell.

For more information on The Lazaretto, got to Rocket Fire Books, where you can order a signed print copy.  You may also purchase a print or eBook copy below:

And watch for book two of the Lazaretto Trilogy: Lady in the Lazaretto.