The night was colder than it had any right to be in mid-June, the breeze carrying a chill that cut through Justin’s light jacket as he walked down the narrow street toward Couteau du diable. The bar was on the next block, sandwiched between a dry cleaner and an appliance repair shop, its outer face nothing more than a black, brick wall pierced by a single red door. No sign announced its name, and in fact only those who knew it was there could possibly find it.
Justin took a deep breath and let it out slowly, trying to calm his nerves. He was taking a great risk tonight, and he wasn’t completely sure he was making the right decision. But he couldn’t sit by and do nothing, not when so much was at stake.
He crossed the last side street and saw the blank wall up ahead, the red door seeming to glow in the light of the street lamps. He approached it and, glancing up and down the block to see if anyone was watching, reached out for the handle.
Just before his hand made contact, the door was pulled open from the inside. He raised his eyes to see a large, muscular man in an ill-fitting suit step forward to block the entryway. Justin looked into the man’s eyes and could tell this was one of Camille’s real-life servants.
“I’m here to see Mademoiselle Martel.”
The large man looked Justin up and down, his gaze ending up on Justin’s face. He said nothing in response; only stood there, blocking the doorway and staring in a vaguely threatening manner. Justin also waited—he knew Camille was considering his request and would eventually respond, one way or another.
They stood like that for almost a full minute, and then the doorman stepped back into an alcove to one side, and the dark hallway lay open. Justin suppressed another deep breath and forced himself to step across the threshold. He could see the silhouette of another huge thug standing at the end of the hallway and began to walk toward the shadowed figure.
The door behind him was pushed shut, and the doorman followed Justin, a few paces behind. Justin reached the second man, who did not move out of the way. The thought that he was trapped between these two thugs gave him a momentary pause, but then the second man stepped aside and Justin moved forward into the small bar.
To say Couteau du diable was exclusive would be a massive understatement. There was never more than one or two “guests” in the establishment, depending on who was in town that night. But on nights when there was business to be done, it was always empty except for the owner and her private army of bodyguards.
A bar ran down one side of the room, the shelves of bottles on the wall behind it glittering in the light from the recessed spotlights above. The bartender stood motionless, a gaunt man in his late fifties dressed in a white shirt and black bow tie. Justin could see that he was long-dead, though thoroughly well-preserved.
The rest of the room was filled with a number of small, round tables, scattered in what appeared a haphazard manner, though as Justin flicked his eyes across the room he quickly identified the pattern. It was not reassuring.
Camille Martel, owner of Couteau du diable, was seated at a table near the center, her back to Justin. Contrary to what one might expect, power did not radiate from the woman. In fact, she was like a empty spot, an absence of presence. Regular people always have a spark of something, even if they have no power themselves. But Camille seemed to swallow it all down. Though Justin could see her with his eyes, it was as if the woman was not actually there.
The thug motioned for Justin to approach the table. Justin noted the path between the other tables would force him into walking that particular pattern. He started to move, and then slid a chair to one side so he could cut between two of the small tables and break the path.
The two thugs converged on him, while a third and fourth emerged from a doorway at the far end of the bar that Justin had not noticed. He tensed, not sure if he would have to try to fight his way back out, when Camille raised her left hand.
The four men halted, glaring at Justin.
“Please join me, Mr. Marley.”
Camille’s voice was deep and smooth, not loud but it carried across the room effortlessly, though she had not turned. There was just the slightest hint of a French accent, barely perceptible as she spoke.
Justin walked to Camille’s table using the most direct route, though he had to slide a couple of chairs out of his way. He stepped around the last table and turned to face Camille.
She stood and Justin got his first good look at the owner of Couteau du diable. She was beautiful, dark hair and deep brown eyes, with skin like ivory. She was dressed in a tailored white dress shirt and black slacks. Justin was shocked to see that Camille was much younger than expected, perhaps thirty at most.
She held out her hand, and Justin took it. Her grip was firm and she gave Justin’s hand a quick, sharp shake before releasing him. She motioned to the single chair opposite and waited for Justin to sit before lowering herself back into her own seat.
“Thank you for seeing me tonight,” Justin said, looking into her eyes and trying to get a read on her. But Camille’s presence still registered as non-existent.
“I admit that I almost turned you away at the door. I will be honest and direct with you, Mr. Marley. I see no business that we can do this evening.”
“If that is so, then may I ask why you allowed me entry?”
Camille smiled without opening her mouth.
“I had not yet a chance to formally meet the famous Justin Randell Marley, protector of the weak, champion of lost causes.”
Justin was sure he was being mocked, but chose not to let himself become angry.
“I would hardly say I’m famous.”
“Please, Mr. Marley. You have thrice managed to pull a victory out of a hopeless situation. Why do you think my men are so nervous around you? You’ve displayed a resourcefulness that has caught your opponents by surprise and turned your defeat—and certain death—into a stunning reversal of fortune.”
Justin considered that. He had barely managed to succeed each time, but the end result was no less true than what Camille had stated. It appeared the powers-that-be had taken notice of him, and he was sure that was not a good thing.
“Please call me Justin,” he said. “I am not here to cause any difficulties, and I sincerely hope we can remain on friendly terms.”
Camille’s smile faded from her face.
“Neutral terms, perhaps. But ‘friendly’ may no longer be possible. You have caused me some difficulty with your actions, though indirectly so far. But you act rashly, Justin, without thought to the greater forces moving within our circles. You are like a child coming upon a game of chess between two masters and deciding to save some of the pawns.”
“Except that the pawns are real people,” he felt obligated to point out.
“People blind to the real world around them. They are limited, bereft of the ability to see the greater truths, to wield anything resembling real power. Make no mistake, they are pieces on a game board, and nothing more.”
Justin knew there was no way to get those like Camille to see regular people as anything more than what she had just said—pieces on a game board. Justin himself was barely aware of the movements of the true players, except where they touched the lives of those he was determined to help, to save where he could.
Which is precisely why he had come here tonight.
“Then I wish to apologize to you for my interference. You are right, there is much I don’t know. Yet I find it difficult to watch the ruination of lives when I am in a position to do something about it.”
“We all started where you are now,” Camille said, spreading her hands wide. “We all carried a certain amount of naivety in those early days, and we cannot fault you for that. But we grew up quickly, and you will have to do the same.”
She lowered her hands and leaned forward over the table.
“Because I will tell you this: if you interfere with our plans again, we will simply eliminate you. It won’t be any great battle or convoluted scheme. One day you will simply die and that will be the end of it.”
At that moment, Justin realized that he was not going to succeed in his mission tonight. He wasn’t going to save Lazare, after all. In fact, he was actually being given a chance to save himself, and he was lucky to get that much.
As if reading his thoughts, Camille leaned back in her chair and said, “As to the matter that brought you here tonight, you won’t be effecting any last-minute rescue. Lazare’s soul is safely hidden away, and the two bidders have already submitted their offers. You cannot outbid them, for you have nothing that I want. But I have given you a warning and some advice of great value, so you do not leave here empty-handed.”
The four thugs, who had remained rooted to the spot since Camille had initially raised her hand, now converged on the table and surrounded Justin.
“I wish you a pleasant evening, Justin Marley. Study hard, keep out of our way, and perhaps we can do business in the future.”
Two meaty hands grabbed Justin’s arms and pulled him to his feet.
“Wait,” he said, thinking furiously.
“There is no reason to wait,” Camille responded calmly. “You have nothing to offer, and I have other matters that require my attention. Leave in my good graces while you are still able to leave at all.”
The men pulled Justin away from the table, and he didn’t bother to struggle against their implacable strength. He desperately tried to think of something to offer Camille, something that would make the woman pause, to give Justin time to come up with a plan.
But he had nothing. Nothing, except…
“I offer myself!” he shouted.
By this time, he was nearly at the entrance to the dark hallway, and Camille’s back was once again facing him. And once again, the woman’s left hand went up.
The thugs stopped in their tracks, though they didn’t slacken their hold on Justin’s arms.
“What is Lazare to you?” she asked, without turning. “Who is this man, that you would offer yourself in his place?”
Justin took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
“I do not offer myself in his place,” he explained. “I offer myself to you, my service for a year and a day, to serve you in whatever capacity is required short of my death.”
Camille stood and turned to face Justin.
“What makes you think your service would have any value to me?” she asked in a mild tone.
“You yourself spoke of my resourcefulness, my ability to turn certain death into victory. You have given me a chance tonight, a chance to walk away, hide among the shadows and learn what I can. But I can learn much faster working under you. I can be a resource for you, I can use my skills to your benefit, and at the same time I can learn what I need to know to be of use in the future.”
Camille approached Justin and looked into his face.
“I don’t think you want to learn the lessons I will teach you. You value your naivety, you clutch it to yourself like a protective blanket, letting it justify your actions and giving you a reason to feel superior to the rest of us. I don’t believe you are ready to give that up.”
“If I willingly bind myself to your service, then none of that will matter. I will do as you request, and I will either find a way to reconcile my view of humanity with the things that must be done, or I will destroy myself. Either way, you get a benefit from me and I stop being a nuisance.”
“And you’re willing to do this for Lazare? He is not worth the effort, believe me.”
“I know all about Lazare. And I know what is in store for his soul when the bidding is over and the sale is made. Yes, I’m willing to do this if you return his soul to his body and let him live. You wipe the slate clean, and I pledge myself to you.”
“And if Lazare doesn’t learn his lesson? If he chooses to cross me again? Your service is not worth giving him a free pass forever.”
Justin shook his head.
“Give him back his life and hold no grudge for past actions. Whatever happens after that point is up to him. I’m giving him a chance to fix his mistakes. Now he has to learn his lesson and not make the same mistakes again.”
Camille stood looking into Justin’s eyes, considering the offer. Justin knew he was taking a terrible gamble. Serving such a person could result in Justin damning himself forever. He might learn all the wrong things and become just another great player, moving normal people around like chess pieces, caring nothing for their lives.
But he had to believe he could hold onto his humanity while he served Camille and learned what he needed to know. The hidden world behind the one most people saw, it was where the real power was held. With full access to that, one could help the world and save countless lives.
It was a desperate gamble, but three times now Justin’s gambles had paid off. He had to believe he could do it once more.
And then Camille shook her head.
“Justin,” she said. “You surprise me and—at least a little bit—disappoint me. I was interested in seeing what plan you had come up with to save Lazare. I was expecting something more…impressive. But all you have is this, begging for me to give him up and sacrificing yourself in his stead.”
Justin stood up straight and looked Camille in the eyes.
“I do not beg, Camille. I have made my offer. Accept it or reject it. Take me into your service and give up Lazare. Or turn me down and know that you will never get this opportunity again. But know this: whichever choice you make now, either way, you lose.”
Camille stared at Justin, and then threw back her head and laughed. Justin watched as it went on for some seconds, and then she looked him in the eyes once again.
“Very clever, Justin. Very clever indeed. You show promise, certainly, and a strength of character that might just make you a rather useful asset after all. At the very least, you will keep me endlessly amused.”
She reached out and grabbed Justin’s wrist. Leaning in, her eyes bored into Justin’s skull.
“I accept your offer, Justin Randall Marley. One year and one day of your service in return for Lazare’s life and the slate wiped clean.”
Justin felt the binding take hold and knew it was done. Camille let go of his wrist, and the thugs released their hold on his arms. She waved a hand at the bartender, and the man lurched into motion and started to mix a drink.
She thinks she’s won, Justin thought to himself. But if I’m going to come out on top in this game, I have to learn rules before I can change them. And there’s no better place to do that than from inside.
But deep down, he couldn’t ignore that nagging feeling that his own overconfidence was going to be his downfall.
© Andrew J. Luther