Call of the Void

Le rue de Madrid was not a prosperous part of Paris.  It lay in the eighth arrondissement, a forgotten street beside the sprawling cloud of coal-smoke that was la Gare de St. Lazare, a stretching network of dirty rails and screaming locomotives that even that talented quack Monet couldn’t make beautiful.  

The buildings that lined the trash-littered cobblestones of le rue de Madrid were old and leaned against each other like the teeth of an old man, graying and stained.  The few windows that in the decaying edifices that still contained glass were barricaded with scavenged bits of iron and wood. The street reeked of horse shit left to rot in the middle of the boulevard; a putrid stench so common the residents of le rue de Madrid didn’t even notice anymore.  Stained and soiled linens hung from bannisters and clothes-lines overhead, twisting in the turgid summer breeze. It was June of 1898, and the days were sullen and hot.

Soot-covered youths lounged on unswept staircases, waiting for unsuspecting Italians or Englishmen to wander through the wrong part of town.  These few laborers walking down the street did so quickly, with their hands in their pockets and heads hunched. Les gamins picked up on them with the unerring skill of those who begged to eat everyday.  Their voices rang shrilly along the rue like the screeching birds that wheeled over the open markets of Les Halles.

Bonjour sir, spare a livre for a starving boy to eat? S’il vous plait!’  And then, when their cries were ignored, “Allez au diable, connard!

Monsieur boulanger, give us a piece of that baguette, come on now! Hey! Hey!”

The youths gave chase to these innocent coal-shovelers and tradesmen, harping and yelling and throwing rocks until they had made it safely past le rue de Lisbonne.  The few policemen that were brave enough to walk through le Madrid didn’t scare the urchins. They circled the blue-coated men with held hands, chanting “Vive les cochons! Vive les cochons!” and when the policemen had enough and gave chase wielding their oak batons, swearing red faced and angry, the children scampered away shrieking with wild laughter.  

But when the men in black silk suits walked languidly down the street, the children slipped inside without a word.  When les sanglants walked the streets, no one said anything.  

In one of the graying, stained buildings, in one of the tiny cramped apartments with roaches scuttling audibly beneath the floors and water stains peeling the ugly yellow paint from the walls in jagged shards, Marie Rochelles sat at her small, dismal table. The apartments were typical of le rue de Madrid; two rooms adjacent to each other with a kitchen at one end and a cracked toilet behind the illusional privacy of a moth-eaten muslin curtain in the corner of the other.  

Marie Rochelles sat at the table with her two children. D’arcy snuffled quietly beneath her cloud of black curls gone frizzy in the damp heat, the left side of her face already swelling with blood.  A single carmine trickle wept from a whipcord-thin gash high along her cheekbone. The girl clenched and unclenched her jaw, trying and failing to hold back tears. Acel, too young to understand, tore lifelessly at his wedge of hard black bread and cheese, too small to feed a growing boy and yet the lion’s share of the food at the table.  

Marie felt the breath rising and falling through her lungs, felt the blood thrumming uselessly through her veins, felt her knees slowly regaining strength, all without her direction.  She felt like a puppet singing in one of those street shows in the Place Beauveau, a soft shell that was empty inside, that gave off the appearance of life, driven by the motion of someone else’s movements.

D’arcy sniffled again and Marie stirred, moving for the first time in what felt like years.

“Are you alright, ma chere?” She knelt by her crying daughter, a faded white handkerchief flying from her apron.  She kept it there at all times, now. She dabbed at the thin bloody line, gently cradling D’arcy’s head as the girl flinched away from the rough linen.  “It’s over now, darling. Shh shh shh.”

Maman, I’m–”  The little girl wiped at her eyes, flickering between anger and shame blink to blink in the way of small children.  Adults, from years spent reading social cues and solidifying emotions, portray them singularly. Marie, for example, felt the cold edge of shame slide through her gut, as she did every time this happened. Children, unsure in their feelings and place in the world, flitter from emotion to emotion like birds.  “I–I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to–”

“Hush now my darling, of course you didn’t.  It’s nothing that you did.”

Tu as fermé cette petite chienne!”  Tomas staggered back into the room from the bedroom where he had procured a fresh bottle, bellowing and pointing at the sniffing girl who began to cry in earnest, terrified.  The man’s gut protruded over the waistband of his uniform pants, barely covered by a yellowing undershirt with growing stains beneath the armpits. His hair, already intent on it’s march away from his brutish forehead, stuck up in unkempt disarray.  Gross lips pouted over a weak chin covered in stubble. He had been home for an hour, which meant he had been drinking for three. The smell of sour beer and cheap perfume rolled off him in waves. D’arcy’s blood was starting to dry on the stones of his wedding band.  Marie trembled with fear as she turned towards her husband, speaking quickly.

“Tomas, please calm down, she didn’t mean anything–she’s a little girl, she was just curious–”

Her babbling voice rose an octave, pleading.

He hadn’t been like this when they married five years ago.

(Five years felt like another lifetime)

He had courted her like a true gentleman, bringing her flowers he had picked from the Jardin des Tuileries, and taken her on walks along the Seine.  He had asked for her father’s permission for her hand.  

(Five years ago she was another person)

The vestiges of the promising young man she married were still visible every now and then.  When he wasn’t drunk, when he wasn’t thinking about the fact that he was thirty now and the dreams he had planned on having time for later had moved on without him.  He held her still some nights and whispered nice things in her ear like he had when they were eighteen and sixteen, staring out a window at the velvet night. She could see the Tomas she married when he carried Acel around the tiny rooms, screeching like a mocking-bird, when he sat and helped D’arcy with her schoolwork, the two of them bent over the yellowing pages of her thrice-used textbook.  She could see him sometimes when he smiled.

(Five years ago was the past, and it was as dead and buried as her parents.)

Je t’ai dit de la garder silencieuse!” Tomas bellowed, taking a deep swill of the cheap liquor and wiping his mouth.  His eyes, once warm and hazel, now narrowed at Marie piggishly, leeringly. She hated that look; it made her feel like a cheap whore.  She knew he would paw at her like a dog later and she would have no choice but to acquiesce, because if she said no he would beat her until she wept and then he would take what he wanted anyway.  She hoped when she went willingly to his clumsy, drunken embraces that she would feel some part of Tomas as he had once been.

She never did.  

“I’m sorry, I’ll talk to her she doesn’t know any better, she’s only ten, she’s too young–”

They had been eating dinner.  Tomas had come home sullen and tired but not angry, not screaming, not yet.  She had hoped that tonight could have been a good one, maybe he wasn’t drunk yet.  There was always hope if he wasn’t drunk yet.

Then D’arcy had asked the question.  It had been innocent, an idle query by someone who doesn’t know the ways of the world yet.  

Papa, pourquoi Lily a-t-elle de nouvelles chaussures et les nôtres ont des trous?

Father, why does Lily get new shoes and ours have holes in them?

Tomas hadn’t hesitated.  He had backhanded the little girl hard enough to send her twisting out of her chair with a squeak of terror and pain.  He had screamed at her to shut up, and how dare she question him. She had gotten back in the chair, her brave little girl, because she knew to cower and continue to cry would only make things worse.  

Garde cette petite chienne loin de moi. Tu lui dis.”  He spat on to the floor, undressing her.  “Je vais me coucher.” He turned and stumbled back into the bedroom with his bottle.  

Marie and her children finished the pitiful meal by themselves.  They didn’t speak much.

An hour later, Marie was reading the children’s favorite book, La bonne petite souris.  It was an old, ragged copy that Marie had purchased by scrubbing Madame De la Tour’s household undergarments for four hours.  To D’arcy and Acel the book was magic, and they sat on the mattress they shared on the floor of the salon with rapt attention and listened once more to the tale of the joyful mouse who danced for the captured queen and her unborn child.  More than anything Marie wished she could afford another fairytale book.

An explosion roared in the hallway outside, and a chunk of plaster flew across the room, borne on a cloud of dust.   

Marie collapsed over her children, covering their delicate forms with hers.  Another report thundered from mere feet away, followed by an ear-piercing cry of pain and a heavy thud. Beneath her D’arcy and Acel were screaming in fear, clutching her homespun dress in tiny fists.

On the table a plate exploded in a screeching shatter, spraying the three of them with stone.  A bullet slammed into the wall, cracking the cheap plaster like a lightning-bolt.

Tomas, in his drunken stupor, didn’t stir.  

From the hallway came excited male voices, the stomping of many feet.  More gunshots, so close it felt to Marie that they were roaring just above her head.  She had never heard guns so close. Their bellows echoed deep beneath her breast.

“That way! He went that way!” Someone cried.  Another gun screamed it’s death screech.

Marie felt D’arcy twitch violently beneath her, but didn’t dare look.  She clenched her eyes shut and gritted her teeth.

The gunshots stopped.  The apartments were still except for the panicked wailing of Acel, which quickly subsided into terrified sniffles as he looked down at the blood growing beneath the whimpering form of his sister.  

“D’arcy? D’arcy!” Marie grabbed frantically at her little girl, cold terror sinking into her joints.  Blood, blood where was it coming from? There, on her arm. A bloody furrow dug along the outside of her shoulder, bleeding heavily.  It stank of heat and smoke. Of gently cooking meat. Marie’s fingers slipped clumsily along the girl’s shoulder-blade, blood soaked, pawing for another wound, causing the child to shriek in pain.  

She would never lift the arm the same again.  Every time she rose her hand above her head she would feel a twinge of pain.  For the rest of her life.

The mother ripped a strip of linen from the bottom of her dress, holding it against the wound..

“D’arcy, it’s good.  Listen to maman.”  

Her voice, strangely, was steady as a rock.  

“Press this against your shoulder.  You are not badly hurt.”

She had that feeling again, like she was hollow inside, but this time it was altogether different.   

Anger filled the hollow core inside her in a hot coil that rose in her gut like a snake. It moved her like a puppet.

She worked hard.  She scrubbed the dirty floorboards with lye and hard ash soap, she washed her husband’s stained and filthy uniforms, ignoring the lipstick stains that weren’t hers.  She haggled with Joules the fisherwoman down at the docks when buying cockles, because that narrow bitch always tried to charge her more.  She lived in this rat-nest building owned by gangsters in a poor part of town with her children because she loved the man her husband used to be.  She watched her children, her perfect little boy and girl, endure violence and poverty and shame and filth, watched them carry books to school that were held together by plaster and hope.  

How was she rewarded for her patience?  D’arcy would carry that scar until she died.  

No more.    

Maman will be right back.  Lock the door behind me, and don’t open it for anyone but me.”

Marie gasped at the sight beyond her door.  The hall outside was a scene from hell. A man in a black silk suit lay slumped against the far wall, sightless eyes staring at the floor in confusion, his last question frozen on his face.  She recognized him vaguely from the street. He was one of les sanglants.  One of the bloodied.  He held a revolver limply in his hand.  She took it.

She remembered the last time she had held a gun.  She had been eleven, hunting rabbits with her father on vacation in a small cabin outside Bordeaux.  He had taught her to aim with both eyes open. She had killed eight rabbits that day.

Surely gangsters couldn’t run as fast.       

The yellowing plaster of the wall behind the corpse was covered with blood, both his and of someone else.  Bloody handprints tracked along the narrow corridor leading east, staggered and chaotic and trickling down the peeling yellow paint.  One of them was hurt. Holes riddled the thin walls, glaring yellow with the lamplights in the other rooms. She walked down the hall slowly, looking behind her shoulder with every step. Whoever made those handprints was hurt badly, and fleeing for their lives.

Marie could feel her heart beating hard enough to shake her vision.  Now the fear slid through her, sending doubts scurrying through her head like rats.

What are you doing, you foolish girl? Chasing thugs with a borrowed gun?

You’re a housewife, a simple country bumpkin.  What do you hope to accomplish?

You’re a woman.  You’re nothing.

She cocked the trigger on the gun grimly.  The voices quieted.

Whoever was running would be headed to the infermerie at the end of the hall.  The building, before that smug, drug-running bastard Jules Sanglent bought it and turned packed it full of the desperately poor, used to be a hospital, run by nuns.  At the end of the infermerie was a staircase that led to the alley outside.  

Plaster crunched beneath her simple boots. Her breath came shakily and seemed to echo in the sudden silence of the hall.  Just ahead, she could hear muted voices. Her palms were suddenly sweaty; she wiped them on her apron, leaning against the wall, eyes tight shut.  It wasn’t too late. She could turn around and go back to her apartment, and no one would be the wiser. She thought of D’arcy’s screams.

Marie took a deep breath and crept down the hall.  

“You thought you could outwit us.”  Amusement curled audibly through the soft-spoken voice.

“You should have known better.”

The infermerie was a squat chamber with one window in the wall that looked out to an alley full of trash.  The windows set into the ceiling were stained and filmy from years of disuse, casting a blank white light onto the two men standing in the center of the room.  

One was dressed as a baker, the collar of his white linen shirt damp with sweat. His closely-shorn hair glittered with it.  His pants were too tight, his shirt sleeves too baggy. His apron was knotted loosely behind his back. He had a revolver pointed at the other man.  Her gaze shifted as she peeked around the corner at the scene before her.

Mon dieu, it’s Jules Sanglent.

She had only seen the man once before, at a restaurant Tomas had taken her to three years ago. He had been escorted on either side by cabaret dancers from le moulin rouge, giggling and stroking his shoulders.  His valet, a mountain in a black silk tuxedo, had stalked behind them, black eyes flickering around the corners of the room.  The maitre d’hotel had personally escorted them through the buzzing restaurant to a private salon.

“Who is that?” Marie had asked curiously.  The man wasn’t particularly handsome; in fact there was something unnervingly savage about his pinched face and narrow eyes.

Monsieur Sanglent. He owns all of the buildings on le rue de la Madrid.  Tomas had muttered, glancing down at his glass of claret.  “Don’t look!”

“Whyever not?” Marie giggled.  “Has he an affliction?”

She had already had a glass of wine, and was drunk on wearing her one dress she owned, being taken out to dinner like a lady of society.  

“He’s a dangerous man.  A gangster.” Tomas whispered the word, looking fearfully over his shoulder like the man could hear him.  

“He looks like a banker.” Tomas glowered at the hint of admiration in her voice, his broad face flushing to an ugly red.  She recognized the look all too well now. That night had been the first time he hit her, but it wouldn’t be the last.

Jules Sanglent didn’t look nearly as elegant as he had that night.  His suit was ripped and dripped with blood and sweat, his trousers torn and smeared with dirt.  His hands, covered in the vivid carmine of fresh blood, shook with strain as he held them up. His black hair stuck to his forehead in sweaty strands.  He stared at the baker with dark, flat eyes, silent.

“We’ve waited a long time for this moment.”  The baker said triumphantly, raising the pistol.  Sanglent inhaled suddenly in a rush, bracing himself.  

In the fractions of a second that followed, Marie Rochelles made a snap decision that altered her destiny.

Her finger squeezed the trigger on the gun, hard.  There was a mighty roar, like thunder from a summer storm only echoing in her breast, crashing through her eardrums in an agonizing wave.  The recoil reverberated through her slightly bent elbow (‘keep your elbow bent, ma cher’ her father had whispered in that field in Bordeaux ‘or that gun will kick you right in the face’) and wrenched against her shoulder like Acel leaping on it from the table when they played les singes.

The baker was thrown from his feet by the force of the bullet that slammed into his spine, his pistol skittering across the floor.  He didn’t get back up. The echo of the gunshot hummed in her ears like a bee.

Sanglent straightened slowly, his hands still held over his head.  She didn’t lower the gun, but didn’t point it directly at him either.  His bleak eyes were cautious, curious. He didn’t say anything, and neither did she.  They stood still as carved statues in the abandoned infermerie.  A bead of sweat trickled down her spine.  

“Who are you?” Sanglent asked mildly, like he was asking her the weather outside.

“M-Marie Rochelles.”  She said, her voice trembling only slightly.  He was attractive, in a particular sort of way.  He was filthy, clearly injured and sweating heavily, but a sort of keen intellect shone in those flat eyes. They bespoke a bleak understanding about the way the world worked. Like he wasn’t surprised that a housewife had crept down the hall with a dead man’s gun and saved his life.  

“Who was he?” She gestured with the gun barrel at the body.  Sanglent looked down, as though he had forgotten the man had been there in the first place, and shrugged.

“An enemy.  One of several.”

They stood in silence again.  He seemed to be waiting for her to say or do something.  He stared at her calmly, blinking in the filmy white light of the overhead windows, his bloodstained hands still held over his head.  

“Why are you here?”  Marie asked.

“My men and I were ambushed outside.  I was forced to retreat through the building.”

“Your men shot through the halls.”  An image of D’arcy’s ruined shoulder flashed through her, reviving her purpose. She narrowed her eyes as anger surged once more through her blood.

“They shot at my children.” She took a step forward.  

“I’m sorry.”  He said it blankly, an apology devoid of meaning and emotion.

“The hell you are.” She snarled suddenly.  Now she pointed the gun at him, the barrel rock steady in her still hands.  Her voice trembled with emotion, fear and anger coursed through her frame in violent waves, but her hands never wavered.  

Sanglent didn’t flinch. “My men didn’t shoot at your family, madameoiselle, his did.”

He nodded at the corpse of the baker at his feet.  

Be frightened of me, damn you.

“And you brought them here.”

He cocked his head to the left, a gesture that reminded her too much of Tomas in the early days.  She shook the comparison away savagely. This man was a monster, a gangster; he stood on human lives.  

“What do you want, Marie Rochelles?”

“I want you to apologize for almost killing my daughter.” She pulled back the hammer of the gun with a satisfying click, narrowing her eyes at the dark man before her.  “I want you to mean it.”

Sanglent lowered his hands slowly.  “Wrong.”

“Excuse me?”

“Why did you come out here?”  Sanglent gestured to the ruined room around them, stifling in the late summer heat.  “You could have stayed in your salon, seen to your daughter, and wished that this would all go away exactly like everyone else who lives in this taudis.  Instead, you snuck down a hallway with a dead man’s gun and shot someone you didn’t know, to save someone you only barely knew.”  

His voice was flat, only barely above a whisper.  

“And you did all that for…what?  An apology? Eh?” Sanglent shook his head, the corners of his mouth twitching.  “Non.”

Marie cocked a single eyebrow and stayed silent.  She didn’t move the gun. Her elbow was bent, just as her father had taught her. Sanglent ran a hand through his black hair, leaving a careless bloodstain just beneath his hairline.  

“Maybe I came here to deal with the leader of the ruthless sanglents once and for all.”

Sanglent chuckled with genuine warmth, a surprisingly resonant sound.

“First of all, if you shot me down this building would burn to the ground tomorrow, everyone still inside it.”  It wasn’t a brag or a threat; merely a statement of fact, an inevitability of events that would follow each other as surely as the sun rises each day.  “And secondly, even if you didn’t care about the people here, and you still wanted me dead, you have a gun.  You had the element of surprise. If you wanted me dead I would be a corpse next to this connard.  And yet, here I stand.  So I’ll ask again, Marie Rochelles.

“What do you want?”

Marie adjusted her sweaty grip on the gun, her head starting to spin.  She had no goal, no objective. She had come out into the hall borne on the hot winds of frustration, desperation and anger. And then she…her eyes flickered with horror to the still body on the ground, a pool of blood slowly growing beneath his chest.  

Mother of god, what have I done?

She had killed a man.  Blown his life from his body like one snuffs a candle, without a second thought or care about who he might have been.  Sanglent was an evil man; the baker could have been an undercover member of the police attempting to bring him to justice.  Her knees began to shake and she felt faint. What was she doing? She could go to jail for the rest of her life.  And who would take care of the children? Tomas? A bubble of horrified laughter rose in her throat.  He couldn’t even take care of himself. And D’arcy…she was still just a child. She couldn’t take care of Acel on her own.  

She was trapped.  The gun began to shake in her hand.  

Focus, Marie. One step at a time.  You can do this. Breathe.

“I can help you.”  

She glared at him.  He hadn’t moved from the spot he had frozen when the baker had him cornered.  His hands were at his side, and he stood completely at ease.

“I do not need your help, bandit.”

His thin, serious lips twitched.  They were a remarkable shade of rose, she noticed with an odd stirring feeling in her stomach.  “As convinced as you may be of your innocence, mademoiselle, you did just kill a man.”

“No one can prove it.”

“In le rue de la Madrid? Please.  Seven people saw you sneak down the hall with that gun in your hand.  Twice as many heard the shot. When les cochons start asking questions, they’ll sell you out for a franc.

She growled in frustration, but it was true.  There was no such thing as a good neighbor in le rue de la madrid.  Each family was scrabbling over the others in a desperate scramble to improve their situation.  

“Start talking.”

He shrugged with absentminded insouciance.  

“I can have my men here in an hour.  They’ll remove the body to a safe place, wipe up the blood and bribe or threaten the residents into silence.”  

“And the gun?”

“You’ll wipe it down, leave it by the body.  They’ll take care of it.”

“Why would you be so…” She hesitated, searching for the right word.  He didn’t strike her as a man that had ever been kind in his life.

“Magnanimous?”  His dark eyes held a hint of laughter.  

“I was going to say manipulative.”

“In truth? You intrigue me.”  

She blinked, caught off guard.  “What?”

Sanglent smiled for the first time, an actual, honest (as honest as a man like him can get, Marie sniffed) smile, stretched wide over straight, white teeth.  It was a child’s grin, a grin that almost spoke innocence, or something like it.  It was surprisingly vulnerable.

“Weren’t expecting that, were you? Oui, it’s true.  You took a pistol from a dead man’s fingers, slipped through a hall riddled with bullet holes and–”

“Killed a man I didn’t know to save one I barely knew?” She finished for him curtly.  

“–all without a single thought as to what would happen next.  And I know cold-blooded killers whose hands shake after they’ve sent someone to hell.  And you…” He lifted a hand, indicating the gun in her hand. “Steady as a rock. You’re an unusual woman, Marie Rochelles.”

“Nobody gives something for nothing. Especially in la Madrid.” She didn’t believe his smooth charm as far as she could throw the thin man.

“You saved my life, I help you, we’re square.”

She said nothing.  Sanglent sighed.

Bien. I want something from you.  I think you’d be more open to it if I offered to helped you first.”

She fired the gun above just above his head, sending him scrambling across the floor with an short, alarmed cry.  

The recoil was easier this time.  Perhaps she could get used to firing a gun.  It felt good, powerful. Like she was in control.

“I’m not a whore.”  Marie gnashed her teeth angrily, pulling the hammer and pointing the gun at Sanglent as he pulled himself to his feet, wincing and clutching the bloodstain at his chest.

“I didn’t suggest you were, mademoiselle.”  

“What, then?”

“Do you believe in god?”

“Yes.” Her voice held a hint of iron. Her mother’s cross hung between her breasts, beneath her tattered shift she wore at home.  She took the children to saint-augustine every sunday.  Tomas didn’t come.  

“I don’t.  I believe in choices.”  His eyes, so devoid of color and life, gleamed with sudden ardor.  “I believe that in each person’s life they’re given a set of circumstances and the choices they make determine the outcome of their lives.  Most people, plain people, dull and grey people with no passion, make their choices without understanding the power they hold.  A set of choices a man or woman make can set them on a course to change the world. All one has to do is identify the choice, and walk down the path that leads to their goal.

“I believe you are at such a crossroads, Marie Rochelles.  On one hand, you can go back to the life you led before you walked out into the hall.  You can go back to that lying excuse for a husband who abuses you and spends his time whoring and gambling–”

“How did–?”

“Or you can walk down a path that leads to prosperity.  A house in the 16th arrondissement.  Private schools, good schools for your children.  You can dress like a woman of society, become a patroness of the arts.  Have a husband that doesn’t treat you like a dog, have a house in the country. All you have to do is make a choice.”

Beneath Sanglent’s feet, the baker groaned lightly, eliciting a horrified gasp from Marie, who snapped out of the reverie Sanglent wove with careless ease.

Mon dieu he’s alive–!”

Sanglent snarled in sudden anger, a gutteral, savage sound that could have easily come from a furious bear or hungry wolf.  Sanglent slammed a boot heel into the baker’s head, knocking his skull against the filthy cement with a sickening splat, his face contorted into a mask of gritted teeth and curled lips.  His black hair whipped around his head in blood-slicked strands. He drove out with his foot again and again.  The baker’s jaw snapped with a brittle crack that reminded Marie nauseatingly of the thick carrots she bought at the market on sundays as the man’s head was driven against the concrete over and over. Splintered fractions of teeth skittered across the floor.  

Dimly, Marie realized that Sanglent was screaming. Only, it wasn’t Sanglent.  It wasn’t the calm man with the twinkle of laughter in his dark eyes and the ghost of a smile on his thin lips.  It was some other beast that revelled in the desperate, sepulchral grunts for help that escaped what was left of the baker’s mouth.  That man had a cursed, twisted grin on his shrieking mouth, and his eyes were narrowed slits of vengeful joy.  

As quickly as it began, it was over.

The baker lay still.  Blood dripped from the ruined mess of his face. Sanglent bent and rummaged through the dead man’s (for he was now dead, without a doubt) pockets roughly.  Marie forced herself to inhale the hot, rank air as her lungs started to burn. She had, for a second, forgotten how to breathe. Not in fear, not in disgust, but in fascination.  She should have felt disgusted.  

The thin man straightened jerkily, pressing at the wound in his gut, and held something out to her.  It was him again, Sanglent, and not the other.  He stared at her uninterestedly with dark eyes, cool dispassion once again on his face.  She raised her hand robotically.

He dropped five gold napoleons in her hand, stained a brilliant red with the fresh blood on his hands.  She stared at the money, shaken, her mouth open in a silent gasp.

Five napoleons.  Tomas earned twenty francs each day shoveling coal at the Gare de St. Lazare, sweating and aching beneath the toxic plumes of the belching locomotives.  She held five of his days’ wages in her hand. Enough to feed her family for two weeks, maybe more.

“Someone in my employ earns that each day.”  Sanglent said quietly.

Marie almost laughed.  If Sanglent’s almond-shaped eyes hadn’t possessed the gleam of a zealot, if the corners of his mouth hadn’t twitched and made her wonder if they were soft or hard and how they felt sliding down her neck, if he hadn’t displayed the first ray of actual passion and emotion, she would have laughed.  But she didn’t. For a moment Marie Rochelles believed that life–life in the form of a bloodied gangster–was offering her a choice.

She saw her path, laid in uncountable bricks of a thousand seemingly unimportant moments, choices, unglamourous beige decisions that paved the road for a sad, meaningless existence.  Her parents, dying in poverty. Deciding to move to Paris so Tomas could apprentice as a builder (‘only for six months, cherie, until we can afford something better’ he had said as she clutched infant D’arcy to her shoulder and stared dubiously at the slumped and aging edifices of la Madrid), getting a job as a washerwoman and scrubbing her fingers raw and red every night so they could afford to pay for a little wine to have with their cockles twice a month.  Years and years of waiting to start her life. Waiting for a little more money, waiting for Tomas to be ready, waiting until D’arcy was old enough and then waiting for Acel to be born. Waiting and waiting. And now…what? She was six and twenty with nothing to show for it. Every morning when she looked in the piece of polished steel above the sink, a slightly older, more broken woman stared back.  Her husband beat her. Her children had no food and one bed to share between them. What did she have to lose?

Marie tilted her hand, watching the opaque white light reflect off the edges of the emperor’s rounded chin. An alien calm had descended on her.  She was beyond fear now, beyond anger. She hovered in the ice-cold serenity that was the center of her soul.

“There is a world you cannot yet fathom, mademoiselle.  It is dangerous, it is sneered at, and it is ignoble in the extreme.”  Sanglent was speaking softly, gently now.

This was his point.  This was the choice.  

“But if you choose…your children will never go hungry again.  All it takes is one decision. One answer.”

D’arcy.  Acel.

It was a choice so easy it might not even have existed.

She looked calmly at Sanglent.  Her fist closed over the bloodstained money.

“Tell me more.”


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