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Chapter One: Loss

From Jeannie's Memoirs:

I stood at the counter and looked across the shop we were robbing, trying to imagine what life would be like if I'd been brought up as a jeweler.

“Jeannie!” My beloved's voice broke my reverie. I went to him.

“My love, my beautiful love.  Marry me.  Become Madame Louis Proust.”  Louis picked up a bracelet glittering with diamonds.

“Of course I will!”  I offered my left hand.  He attached the bracelet and I kissed him.  At thirty eight he was sixteen years my senior, and we had been living together for six years, although we had only been sharing a bed since I turned twenty.  I had been in love with Louis ever since I first met him, mostly because he was the first person I’d ever met who had treated me like his equal.

A loud bang flung us apart suddenly.

“Give up scumbags. You're nicked!” A voice bellowed in guttural Parisian - my native dialect.  The night watchmen had caught us.

“Fuck!”  I cried.  Louis looked at me.  I ran to the cold fireplace and ascended.

“I'll meet you at the den,” Louis whispered, squeezing my behind affectionately.  I knew he couldn't fit up the chimney but I felt abandoned all the same.  I followed the chimney to the sweep's cavity, glad that the jeweler had recently cleaned it.  No telltale soot landing on the hearthrug. I waited and listened.

Thump. Bang.  Footsteps.  A scream.

“Where's the girl?”

“I work alone.” Louis replied.  Another scream.  All I wanted to do was give myself up so they would stop hurting Louis, but I knew something was amiss here.

“Bollocks!  Yannick told us you left together.  Where is she?”

“We- had a fight.  She ran away.  Stupid, vapid women.”  Louis replied.  I couldn't hold my breath any longer.  I tried to breathe out very carefully so they wouldn't hear.  Breathe in again.  There was another thump sound. 

“Can't find her, sir.”

“Okay.  Take this one.  She'll be back.  Post someone on the entrance.  It is very important that we find her.”

Footsteps again.  I hazarded a deeper breath. I wondered how long I could stay in the chimney.

“What's happening, Francois?” A woman's voice, so near that I almost fell back down the chimney.

“I don't know, Marie.  Rats?” the man asked.  More footsteps, a rustling sound, then the sound of two people going downstairs.

“Zut alors!” Francois bellowed.   This was followed by a bang and a woman's scream.  Perfect distraction. I took the opportunity to climb out of the fireplace of the master bedroom, thankful that all the fireplaces in this house were connected, and I lifted the sash window, climbing out and down the drainpipe.  The guards were all inside still; by the sounds of it they were trying to arrest the jeweler's wife.

“She's not a thief, that's my wife!” The jeweler was bellowing.  I'd imagine his face was purple. 

I ran away, down the rain slicked street.  The gas streetlights served only to make the shadows darker, and there weren't many lights in this district anyway.  I stopped dead at the corner- the curfew patrol was rounding up some partygoers.  I turned down an alley, unsure of where to go.

Yannick had sold us out.  The thought echoed in my head.  A coup had taken place.  Yannick, Louis's sullen second in command, had planned this and he sold us out.  We would have to get out of Paris, start a new life abroad.  A moment of madness - or possibly clarity - took hold of me, and I ran back down the road.  If I could just speak to Louis, everything would be all right.  And the night watchmen would never look for me in jail.  As long as they didn't notice me, it would be the safest place to be.  The curfew patrol was still rounding people up from the unauthorized house party.  I skipped up to the crowd, grabbed a drunk man by the hand and kissed him on the cheek.

“Stonking party!”  I cried.  “Although you'll have to excuse me - the home brew made me a trifle tipsy!”  I swayed a little for good measure.

The drunk leered at me, and I pretended he didn't make my skin creep.

“All right twinkletoes, into the cart.  Some time in the cells will soon have you sober.”  A burly night watchman, who obviously hadn't been told yet to look out for me, put his hand on my rear and shoved me into the cart, giving me a little spank as he did.  The other occupants were either too drunk to care about being arrested or terrified about facing the ensuing scandal.  I sat down and tried to remain calm.  I must have lost my marbles.  No big thing.  Plenty of crazy people about.  Did it even matter?  Would anyone notice?  Oh, God, what if they recognized me?  I had to see Louis.  I picked the leery drunk man's pocket as a pothole caused him to fall on me. Then I emptied his purse into my own, before pretending to tumble over his knee and replacing his now-empty purse.

The curfew cart was near-full from breaking up the house party, and took us straight to the watch-house, where we were all put in a large holding cell.  I wasn't an expert, having generally tried to avoid the long arm of the law, but the way I see it, there are two types of cells; airy exposed ones, with three or four walls made from floor-to-ceiling bars, or the grim dank sort.  This was an airy cell, which didn't lend itself to privacy - from guards or adjoining cells.  When we were all closed in together, I had plenty of light to see into the next cell across.  I prodded a bundle of rags on a bench.

“They caught you as well?” Louis asked.  He looked desolate.

“No.” I replied.  We spoke in Swedish for privacy.  It was something Louis had taught me to do on jobs, so most witnesses couldn't understand what we said to each other.  It had the benefit that they also told the night watchmen that two foreigners had robbed them, so they wouldn't be looking for us. 

“The guards are out searching the city for me, but they don't really know what I look like.  I joined a group of curfew breakers to avoid the heat.  I'll be out in the morning when they'll have slowed their search.”  I replied. “What about you, what's going to happen?”

“I...don't know.  I feel I've let you down.” Louis said.  His shoulders were slumped.

“You can escape.” I suggested. “Can't you?”

“Not this time, love. Yannick has stitched me up too well.” Louis said.

“So what? We'll run away to... Italy! And start a new life, a new racket. Admittedly we don't speak Italian but I'm sure we can pick it up.”  I pleaded.

“Yannick has already sent me a message.  He's found my brother, and says that if I try to escape, he'll kill Laurent and his family.  Please try to understand.”

“You never told me you'd found your brother.” I said.

“I hadn't.  I'd said very little to Yannick when I sent him to search for Laurent, and he came back telling me he hadn't found him.  Obviously that was a lie.  I underestimated him in too many ways.  I thought he was my friend.”  Louis was crestfallen.

“Well, I'll kill Yannick.  That'll stop him.” I said.

“He thought of that.  The man guarding Laurent has orders to kill him if Yannick doesn't contact him every day by a certain time.” Louis stared at the floor.

“Can't your brother take care of himself?” I asked.  Louis handed me a letter.  He'd only taught me to read about a year ago, so I was a little slow, but I got the gist.  Yannick had thought of everything. He even knew where Laurent's boy went to school.

“They sound very ordinary.  Not living in the cracks like us.” I said. “You're doing the right thing, but I still think it's stupid.”

“You're envious.” Louis said.

“Of you? God no!” I replied scornfully. “Disappointed that you can't run away.  Sad to my very core that I'm losing you.”

“Of them.  You want that life.” Louis said. “But you will never have it.  You're made for much bigger things.”

“I don't want bigger things any more.” I cried. “I want you.”

“Calm yourself, my love, people are around.” Louis warned. “As long as you live, I live through you. Don't do anything stupid.  You must survive at all costs, otherwise we both die.”

“I-” I floundered.  “I love you.  That should make everything safe and happy, and nothing bad should ever happen because we love each other.  Like in the stories.” I said. Tears were running down my cheeks.

“Life is a peculiar kind of story which doesn't follow the rules, my love.” Louis said.

“I don't have anything left to say.” I said, leaving plenty of things unsaid.  Did any of them really matter now?

“Then let us sit quietly and enjoy one another's company.” Louis offered his hand, and I took it, squeezed it tightly, trying to get as much of his love as possible before he was taken away from me forever.  We sat holding hands, bars between us, until morning when the guards came.

“Curfew breakers, you can be sent on your way if you accept a 50F fine, a short spanking, and don't return in a tenday.” The nightwatchman was easy to read.  His expression and tone said, “I don't make the rules, in fact I think they're bloody stupid, but the King, who does make the rules, is scary as all hell, so let's all just do what he says until some poor bastard takes his place.”

Most officials in 1890's Paris felt the same way.  Except for the few who were the other type, who bent the already quite twisted laws to suit themselves.

I reached for the money I'd stolen; confidence drained as I realized it was not there.  I looked around.  Someone in this cell had picked my pocket!  I was equal parts astonished and horrified.  There was nothing I could do about it.  I sat down forlornly.  Every last partygoer left.  The watchman frowned at me.

“I've lost my purse.” I said flatly.

“You'll have to wait for a friend or family member to collect you, then.” The watchman said, locking me in again.

“Why don't you leave?” Louis asked. “This is dangerous. What if Yannick comes to gloat and identifies you?”

“I don't have any money.” I said.  I began to cry again.  It was all so hopeless.

“Your bracelet.” Louis said. His voice was dead, as if I'd been really stupid. “Give them your bracelet.”

“No.” I replied. “I can't.  What will I remember you by?”

“For goodness' sake, Jeannie, have my handkerchief, my cigarette case, my knife, my matchbox, my fountain pen!” He emptied his pockets. “Now stop being a silly romantic little girl and go and live your life for yourself!” Louis shouted.

“I love you.” I said.  I kissed him and picked up his personal effects.  The watchman returned to find out what the commotion was.

“He made a pass at me!” I stammered. “Please, I have to leave! Will you accept my bracelet as payment?” I asked.  The watchman appraised it.  “All right, let’s have you out here for your spanking then.”

I followed him into the spanking room, a large room which all the cells overlooked.

“Skirt up, head down.” He said in a businesslike manner.  I lifted my skirt and bent over the table in the centre of the room.  He detached the official night watchman’s spanking paddle from his belt and spanked me with it, ten times, briskly.  When my behind was starting to sting a little, he stopped.

“All right, come along then.  Sign the book then you can go.” He said.  I rearranged my skirts and followed him back to the front desk. 

Ten minutes later, after signing the book as Mademoiselle Orange-Melons, I was standing outside the guard house with a slightly sore bottom, bemused and lost, and feeling very sad.  I wandered back home, to our room on Rue de Marie-Antoinette.  It was one of those big Parisian tenement buildings that were falling down before they were even completed, with huge cracks across the internal walls and uneven flooring.

Sitting on the staircase outside my door was a tiny, grubby bundle of rags.

“Annete?” I asked it.  The bundle jumped up and tried to hug me.  I hugged her back, then firmly pushed her away while I opened my door.

“Don't say anything until we're inside.” I said.

I picked up two envelopes from the door mat, ushered Annette inside then locked the door behind us.  The room was exactly how Louis and I had left it. Mostly bare, walls a greenish color from decaying lead paint.  Louis once told me these tenements used to belong to Paris's rich and famous.  Now, they stagnated and crumbled like the rest of the city.  A grimy window looked out into oblivion.  I sat on one dining chair, Annette took the other.

“I'm so sorry, I should've warned you.  I was so scared that he would- that... I should have told you not to go.” Annette blurted, tears running down her face.

“What d'you mean?  Did you know about this?”

“I didn't know Yannick had called the night watchmen! I thought he was just talking about fighting with Louis again!” Annette cried. “Maybe if I'd warned you both, Louis would be here now!”

“No.  Yannick has found Louis's estranged family, and will kill them if Louis doesn't hang.” I said. “What are you going to do?  He'll know you came.”

“He'll only hit me.  It's not like I've got any teeth left to lose.  I had to see you though, and know you were safe.” Annette said. “How did you get away?”

“You've calmed down very quickly.” I remarked. “What's going on?”

“I have no idea what you mean.” Annette said.  We'd grown up together, though, and I knew she was lying. I suddenly realized she was keeping me here until Yannick arrived.  I stood up so quickly, my chair flew out from behind me.

“You little bitch!” I shouted, grabbing a few precious possessions and my purse from a shelf, then throwing open the front door.  I took the stairs two at a time.

“Jeannie, wait!” Annette cried in her whiny voice.  “He only wants you!”

“That won't change if you hand me over.  Go and die in a ditch!” I shouted, hoping he wasn't close yet.  I got to the front door, and locked it behind me.  That'd slow Annette down.  I ran down the road and turned sharply down an alley way because I'd nearly run straight into him.  Annette had nearly succeeded in catching me for him.

“Jeannie!  I need to talk to you.” Yannick said, a long knife drawn.

I didn't reply, running as fast as I could towards the end of the alley, then left, right, left again, until I came to a wall with nails hammered into it.  I climbed them and landed on the other side as I heard the footsteps approaching again.  I kept running for what seemed like miles until I reached the river.  I ran straight onto a coal barge.

“Now look 'ere.” The owner began protesting.  I pressed some money into his hand.

“Please, out of Paris.” I begged him.  “And don't tell anyone I'm here.”  He stared at me then nodded.  I hid in the tiny cabin, and remembered the letters I'd picked up.  I opened one.

You still owe us 1000F for the fees due to us.  If we do not receive payment within a tenday, we will break both of your legs. Yours, the Fence Bros.

Yannick had been sent out with the money to pay them last week.  He must have pocketed it.  More people angry at me and wanting blood.  Just great.

The second letter was more disturbing.

Jeannie, I don't know how you escaped the watchmen last night, but I have an offer to make.  Come to my home and give yourself to me, swear you will never speak to Louis or think of him again.  Tell me you love me, and I shall pay the judge to be lenient - to transport Louis to Sud Amerique instead of hanging him.  I have sent Annette to wait for you at your home.  I would strongly urge you to take my generous offer.  Y.

I didn't even consider his proposal.  I just wanted him to die.  I folded the envelopes up and pocketed them.  Then I thought about Louis, and started crying uncontrollably.  When I could cry no more, my exhaustion overtook me, the soul-eating tiredness of a sleepless night and a terrible loss.  I sank into the beautiful oblivion of sleep.  My dreams were lucid and chaotic.  I was a hare, being hunted.  I was caught, trussed up, taken somewhere unfamiliar.  I was in a cage at a pet shop.  All the children came to pet me.

“What a lovely rabbit.” They said.  I tried to tell them that  I wasn't a rabbit, I was a hare, but I had no voice.

I awoke in the dark, and it took me a moment to realize that I wasn't on a boat any more.  I tried to sit up, and discovered I was chained to the wall.

                                                *                                  *                                  *

From Xavier's diary:

It was a balmy May afternoon, the perfect weather for a hanging.  I lit a Gaulloise and inhaled the feeling of hope and rebirth.  The hanging was well-attended; the watchmen had rounded up people from street cafes and shops nearby, to bulk out the numbers - the King's laws, retarded in so many ways.  If there was insufficient turnout, the spectacle of the scaffold could not take place.

I took a dim view of the King.

My view of the spectacle was unrivaled, and I waved at the condemned man as he was brought out.

“Louis Proust, you are charged with the crime of being a common burglar.  By order of the King-”

“Did the King really sign my death warrant himself? I feel special.” Louis said.  A watchman hit him.

“By order of the King you are to be hanged by the neck until you are dead.” The registrar waved the death warrant at us.  The crowd cheered unenthusiastically.  I shouted something in Swedish to the condemned man.

“Tack!” He replied in the same language, taking a slight bow.  The executioner was bemused by Louis's cheer, and decided to get it all over with before he tried anything.  He flung a bag and noose around Louis's head, pulled the handle and Louis fell through the trapdoor.  His neck broke instantly, a good clean death.  I was impressed with the briskness of it all.  There was no choking, eye popping struggle for life; Louis had done the decent thing and died.

I turned my attention to the lecherous looking, heavyset man who stood at the side of the stage.  He was speaking to a thin, childlike young woman dressed in a bundle of rags.  She was gazing sycophantically into his eyes.  I edged towards them, never looking at them.

“...Can't find her anywhere.  I think she's killed herself.”  The young woman was saying, and it was clear that she hoped that this was the case.

“Ask the rivermen, Annette.  If she drowned, they'd find her.  Otherwise, we'd know by now.”  The man said.  Chunks of spittle flew out of his mouth and landed on her face, but she didn't seem to notice.  I suppressed a shudder.

“I'll ask them, Yannick, but don't forget there's the sewers, and the endless ravine in Montmartre.”  Annette said.

“I know Annette, but I have to find her.  She's my property, because I want her.”  Yannick said.  He was gripping Annette's arm so hard that tears came to her eyes. 

“Please, you're hurting me.” She said.  He hit her round the face, then flung her to the ground and spat on her.

“You don't know what hurt is, Annette.” He said, stepping over her and walking away.

I wasn't best impressed by her, and didn't particularly want to help her.  Luckily my burden of gentlemanly obligation was lifted by three other men, leaving me free to pursue Yannick, my target, which I did.

I caught up with Yannick down an alley, and threw a throwing knife at him from behind.  It hit the back of his knee;  I only wanted his attention.  I was behind him, and stifling the scream before it came out.  I retrieved my throwing knife then cut him again with it, slightly higher, towards his groin.

“You're a filthy piece of shit, Yannick, and I want you to know that I am simply dying to kill you.”  I said.  He responded with a girly squeal.

“Think of me as Louis's bodyguard.”  I replied.  “If you don't let his brother Laurent go unharmed,  if you don't stop searching for Jeannie,  I shall come back,  I will kill you, and I can assure you that you won't like it at all.  Do you understand me?”

He nodded quickly.  I stabbed him in the shoulder then let him fall to the floor, swiftly running away before he could call his friends.  I flagged down a hansom cab as soon as I saw one.

“Huitieme Arrondisement, please.”  I said.  The driver swiftly dropped me off outside a cafe, and I drank a cup before walking the short distance to my home.

I unlocked the huge wrought iron gates, then locked them behind me again before wandering up my drive, taking a moment to appreciate the snowdrifts of cherry blossom, before going indoors to dress for dinner, before my guests arrived.

“Do you think the red tie is a little flamboyant?” I asked my friend Benny.  He'd arrived early so we could be half-bombed by the time the other guests came.

“Madame Pompidou d'Orange-Melon would possibly view it as a tad racy, but the others would probably approve of a splash of color amongst this season's miserable onslaught of mourning suit dinnerwear.” Benny replied.

“How long must we endure this ridiculous law before the King realizes his wife isn't going to come back from the dead to approve of how much black is being worn in her memory? It's unreasonable.” I said.

“And inconsiderate. My favorite white linen suit has had to languish in the wardrobe until this silly edict is gone.” Benny said.

“Perhaps the blue tie.  One should not make too many waves when hosting a dinner party.” I pointed out.

“True, and the main course should set people talking.” Benny replied. “How your chef managed to prepare an entire crocodile...” Benny trailed off in thoughts of food.  I changed my tie and was combing my hair when Henri, my butler, tapped on the door.

“Sir Harald Gunnar and his wife have arrived.” He said. “They are proceeding up the driveway in their carriage.”

“Very good, let's assemble downstairs and begin the evening's performance.” I said, slipping my shoes on and heading out of the door, Benny behind me.

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