Happy Halloween! As you can gather I’ve had something of an explosion of productivity this past week. Please enjoy part five, which takes its inspiration from one of my favorite stories.
“Encore une autre, monsieur?”
Etienne shook his head of the haze that had been creeping over him for the forgotten accumulation of hours he’d been idling at this table. He blinked hard to clear his view of the exhaustion-and-boredom-crafted filter of muddy glass and swung his attention to the decanter in the white-gloved clutches of the server, who was far too young and chipper for this late in the evening, or was it early in the morning? Etienne tossed him the barest of nods and turned back to his disappointing cards, shuffling them in his hand in the futile expectation that a different physical arrangement would somehow improve their value in the game. The server, sensing that this was not a customer who should be pestered overmuch, refilled his glass with the Cabernet Forêt Haute whose bold tannins and ripe underpinning of oak and currant long been a favorite of Etienne’s but to which he now found himself utterly indifferent. He let the glass sit untouched. The server noted quickly that the odds of a gratuity were not favorable, and he retreated with haste.
The croupier glanced at Etienne from beneath long lashes. “Ouvreurs?” she asked.
Etienne sighed as he contemplated his diminishing pile of chips. He stacked two hundreds’ worth and slid them across the baize. “Ouvert,” he replied. “Avec cinq.”
“Fermer,” said the thin, greasy man to his right, laying his cards face down and leaning back from the table. The bland, timid man next down the row did the same, and the loud, sweaty man on the end shoved an obese pile of chips forward and belted out “Ouvert avec sept.”
“Deux joueurs,” announced the croupier. She began to shuffle the cards. The loud man sucked on an ivory pipe and exhaled a withering stream of blue smoke over the green baize, making it plain with his leer that he would enjoy having the girl suck on something else of cylindrical shape. Etienne winced at the nauseating odor, which worked to exhaust him further. He finally sampled the wine, its precise flavor tainted by the stench of tabac wafting through his nostrils. Of all the tables available to play route de perle, the boor chose this one.
The Splendide was one of the seven major establishments lining Calerre’s Rue de la Reine, or “rue des casinos” as it was known (informally, because although technically gambling was illegal, a regular schedule of bribes, preferred tables and free drinks ensured that the law had not been enforced in over a hundred years). It was not the largest or the most finely gilded of the “Lucky Seven,” but Etienne had always preferred it for one simple reason: where its competitors hired male dealers and female servers exclusively, the Splendide had cleverly reversed those roles. The Splendide’s proprietor solicited the most attractive and capable women he could find, and spent a fortune tidying them up, focusing on their hands: dousing skin in expensive creams to soften away the callouses of hard living, shaping and lacquering fingernails so they gleamed beneath the crystal chandeliers and the flicker of the thousands of candles replaced fresh each morning, training them in the art of movement and music and grace. The effect was, of course, to distract the gamblers; to fixate their stares on the refined female fingers shuffling the cards and not on the cards themselves. (Low-cut uniforms supplying generous glimpses of cleavage did their part as well.) It worked. Beguiled, oafish men seeking to preen for the comely presence across the table bet more, stayed in the game longer, and lost big. The house at the Splendide made more money than the other six major casinos combined.
Etienne had identified this scheme years ago, and he could mark players whom he knew would be especially susceptible to the Splendide’s formula, leading him to a significant run of luck at its tables. Tonight, though, he was losing, badly. He was down two thousand in the last hour alone. Three times he had lost count of the play, letting his eyes against better judgment be entranced by the balletic flourishes of the croupier’s fingers as she spread the cards about the table. Her name was Sylvette, and she was young and new but carried herself with the confidence and poise of a seasoned professional twice her age. She spread the deck in a fan shape and trailed the tip of a wine-red fingernail over the back of each card, laid out precisely one half-inch from the next. “Vos choix, messieurs,” she said. “Grand ouvert premier.” The pipe-smoking man grinned and leaned forward to take his card. A smug grin exposed a row of brown teeth as he appraised his selection. Hardly the most effective gaming tactic, and Etienne should have noticed it, but he was distracted by Sylvette, a luminous thing even framed in the smoke. He gazed at her hands, folded in front of her on the table now, and studied the precise shape of each long, tapered digit, the clean pores in her unblemished skin, the brushstrokes of the rich paint decorating her nails. His mind was lost back on the road outside Montagnes-les-grands in the frosty night, on the sparkling purple glow winding about the equally delicate hands of the witch as she decimated his regiment with effortless finesse. On her devastating beauty, on her captivating smile, on the kiss that defeated the mighty Commissionaire.
It had not, much to his regret, been a dream.
He had awoken from her spell into the stark midday heat, the wintry air the witch had carried with her vanished along with both her and any trace of the other one, Genvieve. His men, he was frankly shocked to discover, still lived to the last of them, though most had broken bones and so many cuts and scrapes that they looked as though they had been dropped from an impossible precipice onto a sea of rocks. Corporal Valnier was wheezing through cracked ribs, his temper flared beyond its regular level of merely foul. Their horses were long gone, so they salvaged what they could from the carriage, mended their wounds with the field gear as best possible, and resumed what was now the humiliating long walk to the district garrison. Etienne had said nothing on the voyage, leaving Valnier to marshal the others and maintain their morale, what little remained of it. He retreated into his thoughts to ponder his failure. Should he have left Montagnes-les-grands earlier? Had it been truly necessary to stage the theatrics of the dinner? Should they have chosen a different route to the garrison? Had it perhaps been needless to pursue Genvieve in the first place? No, as to the latter he had no choice. It was a directive from the Bureau, and no matter your misgivings, you did not disobey those. The realization was sobering; Etienne had grown complacent with his record, his indefatigability. The witch had shown him just how miniscule he truly was.
“Monsieur?” said Sylvette. She giggled and gave his distracted face a coquettish wave with her perfumed hand. He saw the witch sweeping his men from the road with hers, saw her touching a flirtatious kiss to her fingertips and unleashing her power against him with a breath. That face. Its hypnotic perfection was burned immutably into his vision like that of the child who despite his parents’ warnings stares at the sun too long. It haunted each step along the endless road to the garrison, hovered on the fringes as the patrolling constabulary happened upon his bedraggled band, manifested in the hearing room days later as his superiors in the Bureau castigated him for his negligence, suspended his rank and ordered him back to Calerre without pay while they considered further sanctions and possible expulsion from the Bureau itself.
Etienne had not argued the decision.
Calerre usually felt like home, but not this time. The restaurants did not sate his appetite, the operas did not stir his soul, the gambling offered him no joy in victory. His sleep was sparse and shallow. Tellingly, he had not gone near any of his customary venues in search of temporary companionship. The witch’s beauty had been such that it had destroyed his capacity for perceiving it in any other woman. Those many local belles who had once enchanted him and lent their fire to his nights had become second-rate reminders of the sheer awe that he had been fortunate to witness in a moment ever too fleeting.
Enough of this foolishness. He was Etienne de Navarre, a decorated Commissionaire of the Bureau Centrale, dedicated to hunting down witches wherever they lurked and practiced their evil deeds. The hunter was not meant to long for, let alone lust after his prey.
“Monsieur,” said Sylvette again. A red fingernail tapped the table. “Ces gentilhommes attendent sur vous. S’il vous plaît, choisir votre carte.”
The fog in Etienne’s mind broke, and his face soured. Deliberately, and certainly taking no pains to avoid inconveniencing his frowning, bourgeois pipe-smoking table-mate, Etienne reached for his glass and drained it in one gulp. He winced at its bite, coughed hard, and groped at a card from Sylvette’s pile. It was a seven of moons. Etienne shuffled it into his hand and mulled over the possibilities. He pushed another pile of chips forward. “Augmenter à neuf,” he said.
Sylvette cast eyes to his competitor, whose confidence was abruptly rattled. “A vous?”
At the least, the unexpected move on Etienne’s part motivated the man to crush out his infernal pipe. He had the option to fermer now and lose only half his stake. If he stayed in, the house would double the pot, so a possibility of a large win loomed, but a far more probable loss would claim his entire pile of chips. Yet men loathed appearing cowardly in front of gorgeous women, and Sylvette’s appeal to this fellow was palpable. The man sighed, mumbled “dupliquer,” and matched Etienne’s dangerous bet.
“Le jeu continue,” said Sylvette. She gathered her fan of cards into a single pile, cut them and selected five from the bottom half. They snapped as she lay them in front of the two players and the lingering two spectators who had already opted for fermer. An eight and three of ships, a nine of moons, a pair of captains of oceans and a solitaire of stars. The boor looked mollified, at least for now. Those two captains in the croupier’s hand combined with the solitaire were a potential threat, but they were undercut by the weakness of the other two cards. It was all betting and odds now.
“Augmenter à douze,” said Etienne. He had placed far more chips in the center of the table than remained in his reserve now. The other man had no option but match him again. Sylvette spread the rest of the cards in another fan and invited them both to choose. Route de perle favored boldness, but it had an equally nasty tendency to punish the faint-hearted. Etienne drew a five of stars. His opponent did not seem pleased by what he had taken. Sylvette collected the cards, cut them again and laid five more next to her original draw. She had added an admiral of oceans and commodore of moons to her hand, along with two useless deuces and a four of ships.
The smart move here would be to end things, to montrer rather than risk the dealer complete what she was very near to achieving. On another night, in another mood, Etienne would have done so without hesitation. He smirked, and pushed the last of his chips into the center of the table.
“Augmenter complet,” he said.
Gasps circled the table. More sweat pooled on the boor’s forehead, seemingly enough to drown a small bird. His hands were shaking. With a complet, there would be only one more draw of a single card for both the players and the dealer. The pot would now be trebled by the house, but it required all players to bet everything they had left. The other man looked down at the large pile of chips next to his trembling fingers. Etienne watched greed and sense play out their ageless duel across his opponent’s expression. If only he could wager on that particular contest. The man shoved his chips forward and buried his face in his cards. “Complet,” he repeated.
Sylvette spread the cards out once more. Etienne and the other man both drew. Six of stars for the Commissionaire, and again something obviously unappealing for the boor. The croupier touched a card in the center of the fan and pulled it slowly towards her. Etienne grinned. She was just as gifted at drawing out moments as he. Sylvette slid the tip of her lacquered nail beneath the side of the card, paused for one interminable second and flipped it over.
Mermaid of moons.
“Flotte,” announced the croupier.
“Putain merde de diable!” exploded the other man, confirming his loutish tendencies by slamming fists on the table so hard that drinks spilled, neatly arranged stacks of chips scattered into heaps and both spectators jumped.
“Désolé, monsieur,” said the fetching Sylvette, though not without a perceptible hint of bemusement as she swept his and Etienne’s chips into the receptacle on her side of the table.
“You!” spat the man, redirecting impotent rage at Etienne. “You made us lose on purpose!”
“Garçon,” said Etienne, lifting his finger to summon the server and ignoring the taunts. “You could have fermered at any time, mon ami. Don’t fault me for your inability to read the cards.”
The thin, greasy man and the bland, timid man sensed trouble and tripped over each other attempting to withdraw themselves from the field. The server approached and Etienne gestured at his empty glass for a top up. He winced at the odor of the boor, a fetid mix of onion and tabac smoke, as his opponent lurched over him, trying to intimidate Etienne with bulk. “You owe me ten thousand,” the man wheezed.
Etienne waited until his glass was replenished and he’d taken a cleansing sip. “Tell you what,” he replied. “I’ll give you half the money and use the other half to purchase you a decent bath.”
He wasn’t sure what he heard first: the shriek from Sylvette, the shattering of his wine glass on the marble tile, or the crack of the boor’s chubby, wet fist connecting with his face. But ending up sprawled on the ground was becoming something of a habit for him. A gaggle of bodies – Splendide workers, the other man’s allies, and random drunken toffs spoiling for an excuse for a fight – piled on top of him, crushing out the light and the air. Etienne felt blow after blow land on his body, and he simply closed his eyes and let the assailants have at it while he awaited the inevitable passing out. He craved seeing the witch once more, and in unconsciousness, his visions of her were the most vivid.
…With seductive amaranthine lips, the witch smiled at him. Her hand began to glow again as she raised it and planted a delicate kiss on her fingertips. Etienne felt the dagger in his hand, but did nothing. The witch lowered her fingers just so and blew. Etienne’s knees became water as a moving veil of sparkling purple mist enveloped him and permeated deep into his skin…
The whine of rusted hinges creaking to life startled his eyes open and admitted awful light into his throbbing head. Ache seized every muscle. The iron tang of blood filled his mouth from a swollen and split lip, and wafts of stale urine from a cold, lumpen floor floated into his sinuses. Definitely not the Splendide’s Suite Royale.
“Monsieur,” he heard a wry voice say much too loudly.
Etienne forced his head to turn. Corporal Valnier was standing at the opened entrance to the jail cell, grinning from ear to ear. Etienne permitted himself a deprecating laugh. “I’m sure this is not how you expected to see your Commissionaire again.”
The corporal shrugged. “Seen worse,” he said.
Etienne groaned as he attempted the impossible feat of sitting up. He rested his head against the pitted brick wall. “You have come to liberate me from my path of self-destruction, have you?”
Valnier shook his head. “The Bureau.”
Etienne felt a chill. He swallowed razor blades. “What do they want with me?”
“An assignment,” said the corporal with an eagerness in his eyes more suitable to a child handed a new toy than a grizzled hulk of a man with an uncountable slate of kills to his name.
“What kind of assignment?” asked Etienne.
Valnier took a step forward. “Retribution.”
* * *
Hope you are enjoying this tale! It seems to be sprawling a bit beyond what I had originally thought, but hey, as long as one derives fulfillment from crafting it, there is surely no reason to stop. Unless, you know, it becomes boring, but I’m sure you’ll advise me of that. Roll on Part Six…