Corner of the Sky


Part 28

Somehow the smoke and grease smelled more rank in the old tavern than they did anywhere else in Paris. It was not that Vivienne was a terrible housekeeper, but that the clientele brought their own dirt and smells, the gutter come inside. The candles seemed to burn lower, the smoke to hang more thickly in the air. It was warm inside, to be sure, but Feuilly shuddered anyway as he stepped across the threshold. Less than a year and he was already back where he had started. What had ever been the point of trying to go straight if he would always end up back here?

Babet and Gueulemer were at the table in the back corner, murmuring over their glasses. Gueulemer saw Feuilly first. “The kid’s here.”

“Sit,” Babet ordered. “Where were you last night?”

“Tying up loose ends.” Feuilly straddled a chair backwards. “Eviction notice, attempt to get my last week’s pay, all that rot.”

“How’re you settled?”

“Staying with a mate.”

“The kid in jail with you?”

“Who else?”

“I hear he isn’t exactly prime company.”

“He owes me. And I owe you. If Hogu says he’s soft, well, he’s right, but he isn’t all that bad on the whole.”

“Is he to be trusted?”

“He isn’t to know. He knows that he’s to keep his mouth shut. I can’t see any better choice when it all comes down to it. It’s not as if I can safely spend a couple months in some dormitory, is it? So let’s get right to it. You’re down a couple pairs of hands, am I right?”

“Brujon’s going to trial; Hogu might be able to get himself out of it.”

“Thank you, by the way. I’ll stay as long as it takes to pay you back. Not just the cash,” Feuilly insisted. “The favour meant a lot, and it’s worth something.”

“I should hope. It wasn’t easy, getting you the fuck out of there.”

“The cop was completely off his nut,” Gueulemer added.

“The hell?”

“Your friends have always looked out for you,” Babet reminded him.

“As if you could shut down a treason investigation and get three men released.”

“Came from higher up than us,” Gueulemer said.

“Of course it did,” Babet snapped. “If we could save your stupid head, do you think we’d let a man like Brujon go to trial? Treason. What the fuck were you thinking, getting yourself involved in politics? That isn’t going straight. And what’s this shit about foreign exiles?”

“You can let that one go. Sounded to me like the girl was worth it,” Gueulemer leered.

“She’s not for the two of you to discuss.” He hadn’t properly said goodbye to Sophie, even as he knew he could hardly permit himself to attend church anymore, not if he were returning to this sort of life. The idea that others might consider his attachment warranted rather than improper was hard to bear.

“No need to be defensive,” Babet reminded him. “You wanted help; we needed to know just what the situation was.”

“Speaking of help,” Feuilly tried to change the subject, “Parnasse needs a lot of it. He wasn’t convincing in the least.”

“You weren’t as brilliant as you must think you were,” Gueulemer informed him.

“Really? Come, I can’t have been that bad. He was sobbing like the damned fox trying to guilt the crow into giving up his cheese.”

“You never sobbed for me, I’ll give you that,” Gueulemer said.

“He was supposed to, the little brat. Why the hell do you think we put in you in the bloody dress? A little girl was supposed to get sympathy.”

Feuilly cursed Babet for bringing that up again. “Just because I didn’t play into your most ridiculous games doesn’t mean I was total rubbish.”

“It was the most entertaining visit I ever had.”

“I could walk right out of here,” Feuilly threatened.

“Sit down, have a drink,” Gueulemer offered.

“Can’t afford it.” But Feuilly did settle in. “What’s the job?”

“House in the rue des Rosiers.”

“What do you want with the Jews?”

“That should be obvious enough. This one’s a jeweler.”

“Security?”

“Nothing to worry about. It’s a flat, not a private house. We’re only after the obvious.”

“You know I hate going into flats. A house gives me space to work.”

“This’ll be quick, contained.”

“Brujon got jacked over the damned furniture,” Gueulemer admitted.

“So no distractions, the take is easily moved, we’re in and out. What’s to do with the neighbours?”

“That’s what we need you for.”

“I pick locks. I don’t do anything else.”

“Maybe your friend could be some help.”

“He stays out of this.”

“The next door neighbour is a girl who isn’t half-bad looking. Well, of course she isn’t, she’s a Jew,” Babet added with something of a leer himself. “She needs to be kept out of the way. Do we know anyone else who isn’t half-bad looking?

“I’m a damned expensive decoy, you know.”

“Which is why it would be nice if your friend would pull his weight.”

“If I’m decoy, who is breaking in?”

“We’ve got a false key.”

“This is what happens when I leave you? You were going to start training Parnasse, I thought. I gave him to you five years ago,” Feuilly complained. “Isn’t he game?”

“He’s not one for detail work,” Babet explained.

“Fuck.”

“He can do other things. He’s not a complete waste, I mean,” Gueulemer explained.

“Maybe if you let him get jacked, he’d grow up a little.”

“Not everyone was born old like you,” Babet argued. “You see now why we need you?”

This was not at all how the evening was supposed to go. Feuilly had thought he would turn up, be told what he needed to do in order to pay back the loan, engage in a little small talk, then leave. He was not supposed to watch how everything had started going downhill in the ten months since he had last seen anyone. Two years had not set them back this badly, even if it did send Gueulemer back to prison. Brujon was the latest casualty, but it was expected, and it was his second stretch, after all. But false keys, which automatically drew a longer sentence when one was caught with them, apartment robberies where the neighbours on all sides could hear, Parnasse worthless to train for anything requiring serious thought and application - to leave had blessed him and cursed them somehow, and to return was only going to blacken him. What benefit could be gained by staying beyond two or three jobs when those two or three must be dangerous enough? Gueulemer’s return could not have wreaked such havoc with Babet’s general plans - they had worked together for years. Had Vidocq managed to infiltrate, or at least his methods seep in to undermine the old loyalties Babet had always cherished, the loyalties Feuilly had been taught as long as he could remember? Quick and violent was certainly one of the styles Babet followed, the one that best connected him with Claquesous, but it was not at all the style he had tried to teach Feuilly. Feuilly’s hands had been white a year and a half ago, carefully kept that way so far as he could tell. He had been taught to use a knife, but the murder was hardly a premeditated entry into manhood. But looking back, it was easy to contemplate the murder as being the beginning of everything turning into the slop he swore he was now privy to.

“You need me, all right, but how much do I need you? I’ll pay you back. I’ll do the job however it needs to be done. But I save my own skin, understood?”

“What other way could it be?”

He clasped hands with both men, sealing a deal that felt too starkly about his fate, before heading back into the cold December night. Laforêt would be waiting.

But a female voice called his name, and he had to turn around. Vivienne had come out into the cold, just to see him. He took her hands his his, rubbing her fleshy fingers. “You’ll freeze out here. I’m coming back soon enough. I promise.”

“I’m sorry it all went south.”

“So am I. Your father will kill me if he catches us out here.”

She sighed. “You’re probably right. You really will be back?”

“Tomorrow. I’ll stick around long enough we can talk then. I promise.”

It was rather nice to see her grin before she ducked back inside. Viv was the only person worth coming back for.

Laforêt was standing at Robillard’s counter, attempting to flirt badly with the proprietress, who was easily old enough to be his mother. “A glass for my friend,” he told her when Feuilly came up to him. “Put it on my tab.”

Feuilly motioned the bottle away. “No, thank you. I don’t use credit.” Laforêt gave him an incredulous look. It was odd that Feuilly had mostly managed to avoid debt, when everyone in Paris seemed to live entirely on credit, but his self-respect depended on owing the rest of the world as little as possible. “If I don’t owe anyone anything, they have no power over me,” he tried to explain as they sat down at a table covered with the dirty glasses of a group who had just left.

“You’ll have to get over that if you’re looking for work,” Laforêt told him. “You keep your business to yourself, and that’s fine, but I’m starting to think there are ways the world works you don’t quite understand. How did you find Cartoux?” The question sounded more like an accusation.

“The Gazette de France.”

“And how were you looking for work before that?”

“A man in a bookshop keeps a list.”

Laforêt shook his head. “How can you possibly know about prison, and be willing to share a flat with a chap like me, if that’s the sort of work that’s natural to you?”

“It’s the sort of work I wanted,” Feuilly answered defensively. “It’s not at all what I was trained for.”

“What did you apprentice at?”

“Nothing.”

“I might have guessed. This is the way the world works,” Laforêt began to lecture him, “if you’ve run away from your master and want nothing more to do with that line of work. The café owners run everything. Why should a man of business take on someone he doesn’t know? Because someone he does know vouches for him. Who does everyone know? The café owner. Cartoux keeps a small shop and with the women in there, some of the old ways just can’t stick. But in an ordinary shop, this is how it would have worked. You needed a job, so you asked the owner of the local if he had heard of anything in your line. He might or might not have, or he might say that he’d think about it. Next time you came in, he might have heard of something. A man needs labour, he goes to the local and asks if the owner has heard of anyone looking for a job. Put two and two together. You’ve been spoken for by someone the boss trusts. And, because it was all done through the local, you probably already know several of the men you’d be working with. So what does the café owner get out of it, you may ask? Tradition. One has to baptise the new job, after all, and you’ll do it at his place. Everyone has a stake, so everyone wins.”

“Quid pro quo,” Feuilly sighed. Stated baldly, honesty did not sound as honest as he had somehow managed to still think.

“What?”

“Latin phrase. ‘Something for something.’”

“It’s how the world works. They must hide that better where you come from.”

“They don’t hide it at all,” Feuilly admitted. “What’s the word on the flat?”

Laforêt put a key on the table. “91 rue Quincampoix, fifth floor, above a moroccan leather shop. Windows face the courtyard, but the stink isn’t too bad. I managed two blankets at the Temple, but really, after the past couple of weeks, one would be luxury enough, wouldn’t it? We can work out furniture as we can afford it.”

“Is your girl going to be pissed off that you’re moving in across the hall?”

“She doesn’t scare me. It’s not like I gave her the clap I got from Fanny Rosier, which only happened when we were having a row anyway. Oh, and there is a fireplace. It’s a proper room, even up that high.”

“Fifteen for the month?” Laforêt had to be lying about the stink. Or the size of the room. Or something - fifteen for what he had promised seemed too cheap.

“And the blankets ran me six francs all told, but you’re not to give me another centime because I sure as hell owe you more than ten sous.”

There was no going back. The money was spent. They had a key. “Well, let’s see what it looks like.”

The rue Quincampoix was narrower than Feuilly had remembered, more an alley than a street. The house was nearly at the corner with the rue aux Ours, a wide front, the windows on the ground floor covered with wooden shutters at that time of evening. Laforêt had to knock several times, eventually shouting “Mère Fablet!”, before the concierge would open for them. “This is my friend Feuilly” was the only introduction made. Mère Fablet had a pinched face and a mole on her chin, and she was not in the habit of loaning candles, she made clear. Feuilly apologised and managed to find a stub in his bag that would at least guide them up the stairs. The stairs were papered up to the third floor; the fourth had a different pattern, much faded, peeling off the walls, and the fifth had paint flaking off the walls. Inside the room, which was indeed rather large and had the promised two windows, neither of which was curtained, the fireplace had a grungy mantle that must have been whitewashed but needed cleaning and a hearth that was dusty but had no recent signs of fire. The walls had more flaking paint, but a quick scrub and a little whitewash were all that seemed needed to make it a far nicer home than Feuilly had ever had. The windows seemed sound enough in their frames, though a quick knock was all Feuilly gave them at that time of night. It was too dark to examine the roof, which did indeed slope toward the windows, but the house had been constructed so that the hall, instead of leading all the way to the opposite house, cut off just at the doors, leaving the last two rooms to directly abut each other at an alcove a couple feet deep. The irregularity added a few feet to the room in such a way as to make the addition seem much more substantial.

“How is this only fifteen a month?” Feuilly stared up at the ceiling, hidden in darkness, wondering when he would discover the hole that must be in the roof.

“Do you look forward to getting furniture up that staircase? There’s no privy, Mère Fablet is utterly worthless, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, and the girl across the hall - not Ada, but her neighbour - got arrested for helping in a robbery, and she led the police on a chase through some of the lower apartments, which doesn’t give a house a good name, does it? But fifteen a month! If Mère Fablet ever goes, someone will figure out that to clean this place up would do a hell of a lot for rents. Oh, and there’s a drunk on the third floor, don’t know if he’s still there, but sometimes he passes out on the stairs. I think he lives on the third floor. He never passed out any higher up. Wait until daylight - it looks better and worse when you can see more than a foot in front of your face.”

At least the girl thief was gone, and at least one inhabitant of the house was respectable, Feuilly told himself. It would have to do. And why should he expect anything other than a place that was only half-respectable? Half-respectable was a more suitable fit.

 

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