"Javert," Chabouillet said, and rose to his feet as Javert stepped into his office. His lips parted in what was perhaps intended as a smile; it came across as a grimace instead. "Please, sit down."
Javert sat. He took in the signs of Chabouillet's discomfort: the uneasy smile, the sheen of sweat upon his brow, the reluctant way he sat back down in his chair. "Babineaux said you wished to see me, monsieur."
"Yes, yes," said Chabouillet, but he sounded distracted. He unearthed a handkerchief from his pocket and mopped at his forehead for a few seconds before he sighed. "Javert, Gisquet asked me to speak with you about a, shall we say, delicate case that has fallen into our laps."
Chabouillet might have used the word delicate, but his tone implied disagreeable. Javert wasn’t surprised. In the two years since the failed uprising, he and the prefect had sometimes come into conflict over what was just versus what was merciful. As a consequence, Monsieur Gisquet now seemed to enjoy giving Javert undesirable cases.
"What is the case?" Javert asked, resigned to future unpleasantness.
To his surprise, color crept into Chabouillet's face. "It is a matter of blackmail. A député has come to Monsieur Gisquet seeking assistance and, ah, discretion."
There was a long pause. Usually Javert wouldn’t have been forward enough to prompt Chabouillet, but this time his superior seemed unwilling to elaborate. "May I ask what is behind the blackmail?"
"The député has a lover whom he met at a particular public-house, which is known in certain circles as a place for....gentlemen seeking certain types of companionship."
Javert frowned, unenlightened. He thought over the usual reasons for blackmail. "Is the public-house a front for an unlicensed brothel, monsieur? Or a gambling den--"
"It is a place where men who prefer other men spend time together," Chabouillet said flatly.
The rest of the suggestions died on Javert's lips. He blinked. Chabouillet was watching him cautiously, as though uncertain of Javert's reaction. Did Chabouillet think Javert would now object to the assignment and argue yet again with Gisquet?
Javert fought back a flush that wished to match Chabouillet's red face. In all honesty, he hadn’t thought much on such matters, or rather, he hadn’t allowed himself to. Such things were legal, and before the barricade, that had been all he had needed to know. That his own proclivities matched this député's had merely been another sign that he belonged forever outside of polite society. And while he had had the desire, he'd never had the inclination to seek any man out.
If after the barricade the latter had changed, well, it hardly signified, for the man in question wouldn’t be interested. In fact, Javert thought, repressing a humorless smile, Valjean didn’t seem moved by desire at all, save for that of seeing everyone around him happy and contented.
He realized that Chabouillet expected a response. The other man's eyes were narrowed, his expression still anxious. Javert focused on the matter at hand. After all Valjean had nothing to do with the case. He cleared his throat and said carefully, "I must point out, monsieur, that the député isn’t breaking the law."
Chabouillet nodded, relief smoothing out his expression. He mopped at his brow one last time and tucked the handkerchief away. Then he said dryly, "That’s true enough, but his type of relationship isn’t something one wishes bandied about in society, especially when the député in question wishes to seek higher office in a few years."
"I see." And Javert did. The député wasn’t yet powerful enough to be untouchable, or unaffected by public opinion. He settled back in his chair, turning his thoughts to the case and how it might be solved. "How does Monsieur Gisquet suggest that I catch this blackmailer?"
Chabouillet hesitated. Again he looked embarrassed, as though he disliked this assignment even more than Javert did. He spoke slowly and with obvious reluctance. "He proposes that you and Joly go in disguise to the public-house and make yourselves a target for the blackmailer."
While Javert had been startled by the assignment before, now he found himself genuinely dismayed. "Monsieur!" he said in consternation. Chabouillet offered him a sympathetic look but said nothing. "Is there really no one else I can work with on this case? Allard? Laurent?" He desperately searched his memory for another suggestion. "Linville?"
Chabouillet snorted at the final name. "Linville couldn’t act to save his life. And you know very well that Allard considered the priesthood before he became a policeman. I doubt he would handle the public-house well. Laurent would be suitable, if he hadn't managed to crack his head upon cobblestones chasing a cut-purse last night."
Javert frowned, briefly distracted. "I hadn’t heard. How is he?"
"Stable, but his doctor insists on bed-rest for at least a week. The député asked for speed as well as discretion."
"I see," Javert said. A dull ache began between his eyes. Of all the other inspectors, it had to be Joly! It was a wonder that the man even had a position in the police force, considering what Javert had heard of his conduct during the duc de Berry's assassination. Whatever the veracity of the rumors surrounding the duke's death were, it was true enough that Joly had been demoted back to the rank of sergeant. It had taken him several years to regain the rank of inspector and even then he stood further apart from the other inspectors than Javert did.
He realized that he had leaned forward in his chair. Chabouillet was watching his hand, which drummed an agitated beat against his knee. He forced himself to stillness. "Does Joly know about the assignment?"
"No, I still need to speak with him. You both will meet at the public-house--" Here Chabouillet paused to slide a small piece of paper across the desk to him. When Javert looked at the paper, it had an address and the word Souris , presumably the name of the public-house. "--tomorrow evening after dinner. From what the député has told Gisquet, patrons begin to come there around seven or eight o'clock. I’d advise you to be there promptly at seven, so you may meet as many of the suspects as possible."
Javert tucked the paper in his pocket and frowned. "That seems too simple, monsieur. If these men at the Souris value their privacy and safety, wouldn’t there be some way to test newcomers?"
"There is one, if you would let me finish," Chabouillet said. His smile belied the rebuke. "The député says you should tell the man at the door that the establishment was recommended to you by Antoine-Hughes. That name means you have been vouched for by a trusted visitor. If you are ever pressed, you may mention Arnaud, the false name the député used during his patronage. "
"I see." Javert pinched at the bridge of his nose, trying in vain to fight off his headache. "Joly and I begin tomorrow evening, you said?" When Chabouillet nodded, disappointment twisted Javert's stomach. He would have to write to Valjean and tell him that their weekly dinner must be postponed. "Are we being furnished with false names, or should we come up with them ourselves?"
"Use your imagination," Chabouillet said in the same dry tone. Then he sighed. "If you would only keep quiet when you disagree with Gisquet, you wouldn’t get these types of assignments."
Javert smiled without humor. "Ah, well, monsieur, I never had the skill for politics. And I’ve never looked higher than the position of inspector. Besides, it isn’t so horrible a case, unless Joly and I are expected to pretend to be together--" He stopped when Chabouillet's gaze slid away from his. " Monsieur!"
“It is either that or you both must feign desire for the men frequenting the Souris,” Chabouillet said. He raised an eyebrow. Amusement crept into his expression. “I suspect that Joly is the safer option. He at least will know that you’re insincere in your interest.”
“I suppose,” Javert said sourly, though privately the thought of pretending to be infatuated by Joly of all people rankled. He frowned. “Is there anything else I should know, monsieur?”
Chabouillet shook his head. “We don’t know who is involved, only that it must be someone who frequents the public-house. That is where the député meets his, ah, friend.” Then he frowned as though struck by a sudden thought. “Although...if you suspect you’re being followed home from the Souris, keep away from the station. We’ll have someone watch your tobacconist. You can pass along your discoveries through the store.” He waved a hand in dismissal. “But first finish that report on the Les Halles case. Then go and get some rest. You have a long night tomorrow.”
He was almost to the door when he was stopped by Chabouillet’s quiet, “Javert?” He turned and blinked at Chabouillet’s grave look. “While Gisquet wants speed and discretion, don’t take any unnecessary risks.” He paused. His frown deepened. “We don’t want a repeat of when last we had you go about in disguise.”
Javert drew back his lips in another smile, this one uncomfortable. He never knew what to make of Chabouillet showing such obvious concern for him or referring to the failed uprising and the ensuing days. And Chabouillet only knew half of the story! He still believed that Javert, wearied and distracted after his capture by the insurgents and subsequent escape, had been caught unawares by a thief near the Pont au Change, which was true. He didn't know that it was in fact Javert's confused decision to seek out Jean Valjean instead of a doctor, and the fevered convalescence that followed, which had kept Javert from throwing himself into the Seine.
Javert quelled the urge to touch his shoulder where the pale scars lingered. The knife had caught upon his stock and then savaged his shoulder and arm instead. “Don’t worry, monsieur,” he said, and ignored Chabouillet’s snort as he added, “I hardly think there will be a gamin to expose me or some thief to stab me this time.”
From across the street, the Souris looked like any other public-house, a large and solid-looking building. It was only unusual in that its entrance was situated in the alley rather than the main thoroughfare.
Javert took his watch from his pocket for a third time and eyed the minute-hand in frustration. Joly was late. He supposed that he shouldn’t have been surprised, and yet the other inspector’s tardiness irritated him. Apparently Joly hadn’t learned his lesson with the duke’s murder.
In the distance, bells chimed, marking the half-hour. He gritted his teeth and tucked away his watch. He would wait another thirty minutes, he decided, and then determine whether he wanted to venture into the public-house on his own or postpone his admittance into the Souris until Joly could be found.
“Excuse me, monsieur.”
Javert looked up to find a man frowning at him. He instinctively noted the man’s physical details: his hair, curled and parted to the side in the latest fashion; and his frame, middling height but broad in the shoulder and chest, making the fashionable padding of his coat ridiculous. He had no scars or unusual aspects to his features, other than the suspicious expression he wore as he awaited Javert’s response.
During this inspection, which had taken only a second or two, Javert had kept his expression neutral. Now he said politely, “Yes, monsieur?”
“Are you waiting for someone?” asked the man. His gaze passed slowly over Javert, doing an unsubtle survey of his own. Javert couldn’t help but wonder what he thought of Javert’s trousers, slightly worn, and his hair, sternly parted and his whiskers thick, all a rigid obedience to the latest fashion without appearing a dandy, so that he might blend in among the Souris patrons. The man frowned. “You’ve been standing there for at least forty minutes by my watch.”
Javert’s eyes narrowed. He resisted the urge to scowl, but the fact that he hadn’t noticed anyone observing him galled. He drew himself up to his full height, pleased when the man twitched. “I don’t think that’s any of your business,” he said coolly.
The man’s expression darkened. “It is my business when you’re skulking about and possibly scaring away my customers, monsieur,” came the unexpected reply. “My patrons are a very private sort, and when they see someone hanging around, they get nervous.”
“Your--” Consternation replaced Javert’s wounded pride. His gaze slid past the man’s shoulder towards the Souris. There were darkened windows on the second story; perhaps that was how the man had observed him. Damn! In the back of his mind Javert cursed Joly once more. He forced a polite smile, his thoughts racing. He couldn’t afford to antagonize the owner of the public-house, not if he wanted this investigation to be less of a disaster than it already appeared to be.
He cleared his throat. “ You are the owner of the Souris? I-- that is-- I was waiting for someone. We were going to visit the Souris together but he doesn’t seem to….” He stopped, irritated by his own stammering, as though he was some fresh-faced sergeant. He turned his gaze once more towards the street, hoping that Joly might miraculously appear, but his fellow inspector was still nowhere to be found.
The man looked unconvinced by Javert’s story. “And I suppose your friend is the one who suggested the Souris to you,” he said. There was a certain emphasis on the word friend that Javert disliked, a skeptical, half-mocking note.
“No, it was….” For a long, terrible second Javert’s mind went completely blank. Then he remembered. “It was Antoine-Hughes who suggested it. We -- that is, my friend and I -- have never been here before.”
Most of the suspicion left the man’s face at that, though caution remained. “Antoine-Hughes sent you?” he said. His gaze passed slowly over Javert once more as though re-evaluating him. “You’ll forgive me for being suspicious, monsieur, but my establishment values its privacy. I can’t take any chances. You must admit you looked queer, standing there for such a long time!” The man extended his hand with a smile. “Call me Daniel.”
“I understand,” Javert said, shaking Daniel’s hand. “I’m sorry for the confusion. I don’t know what could be taking him so long. We said we’d meet at seven.” He forced a smile, inwardly cursing Joly once more. He was uncertain what to do. Should he enter the public-house on his own and see what he could learn? Or should he excuse himself and tell the man he would return with his friend at a later time? Gisquet had urged speed, but--
He was pulled abruptly from his thoughts as Daniel said, “But perhaps that’s your friend now, monsieur!” Daniel leaned a little to the side, presumably to peer past Javert’s shoulder. Interest chased away even more of his caution.
“Perhaps,” Javert said dryly, for it would be like Joly to arrive just as the awkwardness had been all but resolved. He turned, a ready rebuke on the tip of his tongue.
It went unsaid. Instead Javert stared, incredulous, down into Valjean’s startled face.
Valjean blinked. Embarrassment replaced his surprise; he looked guilty, as though Javert had caught him in something untoward. Javert scowled. No doubt Valjean had been on one of his evening excursions to pass out coins, this despite a recent argument that he shouldn’t venture out alone after dark. The disagreement had grown heated, Javert losing his temper at Valjean’s mild and inexplicable amusement when Javert had said that he would be a temptation for the city’s pickpockets.
“Out giving alms, I suppose,” Javert said. He realized that his tone was dangerously flat when Valjean winced and offered him an apologetic smile.
Then Javert startled as Daniel stepped past him and extended his hand to Valjean. “Good evening, monsieur! We’re glad to see you. Perhaps your friend wouldn’t say so, but he’s been waiting quite a while! I’m Daniel, the owner of the Souris.”
Javert opened his mouth, but nothing came out. Dismay and consternation held him in its grip. Again he cursed Joly’s ineptitude. Surely Daniel would take it amiss if Javert claimed that Valjean was his friend but not the friend who had kept him waiting. It was too unlikely a coincidence. Valjean would have to play the part tonight; Javert would make some excuse for his absence tomorrow. Still Javert stood there, frozen.
Valjean smiled vaguely, his eyes asking a wordless question of Javert as he shook Daniel’s hand. Whatever he saw in Javert’s expression turned his smile still vaguer, his gaze cautious, though perhaps only someone who knew him well would have spotted the worry in his eyes.
Before Javert could figure out what to say, Valjean said, “It’s a pleasure to meet you, monsieur. I am--”
Javert went pale at the thought of Valjean telling this man to call him Fauchelevent. He may have managed to inadvertently draw Valjean into this, but he would be damned if he would make Valjean potential prey for the blackmailer. Strength returned to his limbs and he stepped forward, saying, “Shall I make the introductions?” He spoke too loudly; his voice rang through the street.
The interruption earned a startled look from Valjean and a faint smile from Daniel. “Go ahead, monsieur,” Daniel said.
There was something in his tone that irked Javert. He repressed a scowl. “Very well,” he muttered. He thought hastily. If Daniel and the blackmailed Arnaud were any indication, the men of the Souris used first names only, and likely even those were as false as the député’s. Yet Javert’s mind proved unhelpful. Lies still did not come naturally to him for all that he’d kept Valjean’s identity a secret these past few years. All he could think was the name Jean, which was common enough, and yet….
He wet his dry lips, aware that Daniel was watching him, the man’s expression still amused. “Daniel, may I present to you Jean?” His voice hitched a little on the name as Valjean’s face went curiously blank. Javert coughed and focused his gaze on Daniel. “And I am--”
His mind was empty again. Now Daniel smiled as though Javert’s struggle to provide false names was entertaining. What else was a common enough name to be safe? “Jacques.”
“Jean and Jacques, is it?” Daniel said with an annoying twinkle in his eyes. At least he seemed amused by Javert’s awkward efforts to lie. Hopefully he assumed that both names were false. Daniel clapped his hands and gestured towards the alley. “Well! It’s always good to see new faces in the Souris, messieurs. But please, come inside and let me show you the establishment.”
Javert half-choked on nothing, imagining Valjean’s reaction when he discovered what the Souris was. Javert’s stomach soured and twisted. He didn’t want to know if Valjean was disgusted by, or, worse still, pitied the patrons of the Souris for their urges, and yet it seemed there was no avoiding it.
“Yes,” he muttered past the sudden tightness of his throat. “Yes, I suppose we should go inside.” He started when a light hand touched his elbow. He looked into Valjean’s concerned face and tried to smile in reassurance. Judging by the way Valjean’s brow furrowed, however, Javert looked as ill as he felt.
Valjean said slowly, “Monsieur, might we have a moment? I believe I owe Jacques an explanation for my tardiness.”
The false name came smoothly to Valjean’s lips, and Javert laughed, the sound sharp and again too loud. “An explanation,” he said. He suppressed another humorless laugh. “Yes.”
“I’ll meet you at the door then,” Daniel said.
When Javert darted a glance in his direction, he couldn’t read the man’s expression, though something in it made Javert’s pride smart. Once Daniel was out of earshot, Javert took a deep breath, trying to gather his thoughts.
Before he could speak, however, Valjean’s hand tensed minutely and he said, very low, “Javert, is this the case you mentioned in your note?” Valjean’s mouth tightened. “Are you in danger?”
“In danger ?” Javert stared. Even the dusk could not hide Valjean’s flush as he colored at Javert’s incredulous look. Affection and amusement lessened some of Javert’s embarrassment. In danger! He wondered what Valjean would have done had he said yes. When he attempted another smile, it felt more natural than before. “No, I’m in no danger, I think.” He paused and snorted as Valjean’s expression eased. “Except perhaps in danger of mortification.”
“Mortification?” Valjean’s hand dropped back to his side, the cool night air replacing the warmth of his touch. He frowned, puzzled, and then looked enlightened. Sympathy softened his voice as he asked, “Has Gisquet given you another unpleasant case then?”
“Unpleasant,” Javert echoed. He pressed his lips tightly together, uncertain whether he wanted to frown or not. “It is-- well, that is--” He stopped, again irritated by his own stammering. He searched his memory for how Chabouillet had phrased the facts of the case. Slowly, striving to keep his voice even, he said, “It is a matter of blackmail. Someone inside the Souris has blackmailed at least one man and perhaps others. The Souris is, ah, it is a place where men who prefer other men spend their time, you see.”
Valjean said nothing.
The silence was unbearable. Javert said into the sudden quiet, “I was supposed to have another inspector with me, but he’s an hour late. I don’t know what could have kept him! But now Daniel, the proprietor, believes that you are the friend I was waiting for. If you will indulge this farce for the evening, I’ll make my excuses for you tomorrow--”
Javert stopped. He caught himself bracing for Valjean’s words. He forced himself to relax, but despite all his efforts, he could feel the painful clench of his jaw as he scowled.
“Javert,” Valjean said again, quietly. His face in the fading light was unreadable, but his shoulders were tense and his hands very still at his sides. As Javert watched, he released a slow breath and said, “I’ll help you if I can.”
Javert grimaced. Of course Valjean would offer his assistance, whether or not he found the men’s predilections reproachable. He stifled the urge to smooth an agitated hand over his whiskers. He muttered, “Well, it’s as I said. If you’ll indulge me tonight, I shall--” He paused, diverted by Valjean’s bemused expression. “What?”
Valjean frowned and shook his head. When he spoke, his speech was slow and his tone strange, almost cautious. “I don’t know why you keep speaking of indulgence and mortification as though this is some hardship on my part. These men don’t deserve to be blackmailed. Why wouldn’t I wish to help them?”
“Why wouldn’t you--” Javert’s mouth shut so suddenly that his teeth clicked together. The mad impulse to laugh nearly strangled him as Valjean watched him with honest bewilderment. Fumbling for words, Javert said, “The church doesn’t exactly view such men with fondness. I thought you would follow the church’s example and condemn--” He shook his head again, so sharply that his hat started to tip and he had to grasp hastily at the brim to keep it steady. “No, no,” he corrected himself. “You wouldn’t condemn them, of course, for you believe that no man is above redemption, but--”
“Javert,” Valjean said, a third time. The careful way Valjean said his name rooted him to the spot and stole all the words from his head. Valjean smiled. It was a small and awkward thing, but still a smile. “Did the good bishop not love me as a brother and so save my soul? Does Cosette not love me and so continue to save my heart? Love is a form of redemption. How can I look at these men who seek happiness, and rebuke them for it?”
Javert had no answer. He felt strangely breathless and too warm, almost dizzy. He licked his lips and managed an inarticulate, “Ah. Well.” After another second, he gathered enough of his scattered thoughts to speak. “Yes, that’s true enough, I suppose, though I find it unlikely that all of these men seek happiness and not baser things. Well! Tonight is intended merely to scout the public-house and learn the lay of the land. You may notice something or someone I miss.” Here he paused. Genuine amusement touched him. “You’ll certainly be more observant than Joly.”
Valjean’s smile warmed briefly at the remark. Then he glanced past Javert. One corner of his mouth creased, the way it did when he was suppressing a rare laugh. “Perhaps we shouldn’t keep Daniel waiting any longer.”
Javert turned. Daniel had stepped to the entrance of the alleyway, presumably to see if they were coming. The man didn’t gesture them over, but something in his stance suggested impatience. Javert’s lips twitched. “You’re right, of course.” He cleared his throat and added, not quite daring to look at Valjean as he spoke, “Thank you.”
Valjean touched his elbow again, very lightly. “I only hope I’ll be able to help.”
“Florian, meet Jean and Jacques,” Daniel said cheerfully. “Messieurs, please allow me to introduce you to Florian, the gentleman who ensures our privacy.”
The large man’s glower wasn’t especially welcoming, but he unbent enough to step aside and mutter a good evening as they passed through the door and into the public-house. Javert glanced at him, but dismissed him for the moment as an unlikely suspect. If he guarded the door, it would be difficult for him to overhear or discover anything useful in a blackmail scheme.
Inside, the Souris was clean but dimly lit, with the air of a common public-house struggling to improve itself into something more exclusive. Two men sat at a shadowed corner table, their heads bent together, too far away for Javert to get a clear look at them. Another man stood behind the bar, whistling as he handed a glass to a waiting customer.
“You both must be thirsty,” Daniel said.
Valjean murmured a polite agreement.
The barman grinned at Valjean and Javert as they approached. “Welcome to the Souris!” Unlike the other men, he seemed to accept them without question, the lamp light falling upon an unfeigned smile. Perhaps he trusted Florian and Daniel’s judgment. Or perhaps he was drunk, for even in the dim light Javert saw the physical signs of a drunkard who had somehow lucked upon his barman position.
Daniel made the introductions, giving the barman’s name as Etienne, who laughed heartily and said, “What will you both have? And Lionel’s ready in the kitchen if you both fancy a late supper.”
“No, I ate earlier,” Javert said, and Valjean nodded. Javert thought on parties where Monsieur Gillenormand had pressed drinks upon them both, the older gentleman consistently puzzled by their lack of interest in the expensive wines. Javert named Valjean’s favorite Bordeaux and asked for two glasses.
Etienne grinned. “Right away, monsieur.”
Remembering Valjean’s earlier guilty look, Javert drew out his purse and added dryly, “I shall pay for both drinks if you’ve emptied your pockets with your almsgiving.” When Valjean didn’t answer, Javert glanced at him and found him wearing a familiar expression. It was the warm, pleased look Valjean got whenever Javert did something that Valjean considered thoughtful.
Javert fought back a flush. “A good wine, I believe,” he said, and turned hastily away. The man who’d just purchased a drink could be a suspect, after all. But the man was already retreating to a shadowed table; Javert had a vague impression of dark red hair kept longer than the usual fashion, tied back severely by a ribbon, and nothing more.
“Here you go, messieurs,” Etienne said, handing them both their glasses and naming the price.
“Let me know if you have any questions about the Souris, messieurs, or need anything more,” Daniel said, and slipped away. He headed towards the door, though whether to strike up a conversation with Florian or to greet anyone who entered, Javert wasn’t certain.
He considered Daniel as a suspect, for Daniel would probably know his customers better than anyone else, but it seemed unlikely when he remembered Daniel’s protective regard for his patrons and his suspicious expression on the street. And Daniel would be out of business if word spread that his patrons were being blackmailed. No, Javert doubted that Daniel would be that foolish.
Valjean cleared his throat. “Shall we sit down?”
“Oh. Yes,” Javert said, and found them a table with a good view. Here he could get a closer look at the other patrons as well as keep an eye on the door for any newcomers. He drank slowly, glancing around the room, and discovered that one of the men in the corner was watching them.
The light was too dim to read the man’s expression, but Javert knew what the man must assume of him and Valjean. Perhaps he was even wondering how long they had been together and what had brought them to this public-house.
Javert should have been pleased that their cover was intact. Instead his heart gave a traitorous pang at the thought, and guilt soured his stomach. It was a necessary deception, and yet he couldn’t help but feel he was taking advantage of Valjean’s better nature to perpetuate a lie that he wished were true.
He drained his glass, but his stomach still roiled. He stood so abruptly that Valjean paused in the middle of raising his own wine to his lips, concern creasing his expression. Javert cleared his throat. “I should see if I can learn a little more of the place,” he said. He glanced to where Etienne seemed to be helping himself to some more wine at the bar. There was a source of information, and a potential suspect, for Javert had often found that a weakness for drink signaled other vices. “Would you like another drink?”
Understanding chased the surprise from Valjean’s face. He smiled as he shook his head and said, "No, but thank you.”
Once on his feet, Javert hesitated, unwilling to leave Valjean alone in the public-house. But Valjean’s smile didn’t fade. He looked as though he was perfectly at ease in this strange place, surrounded by men that society would condemn.
“Another glass already, monsieur?” Etienne asked when Javert approached. He refilled Javert’s wine, chuckling as he added, “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. You wouldn’t be the first newcomer to steady his nerves with a few drinks!”
The man’s laughter and good-natured amusement grated, but Javert forced a thin smile. Pretending to be nervous could prove useful. Sympathy might loosen Etienne’s tongue more than the alcohol already had. “This is my first visit to any such public-house. Have you been here long?”
“Lord, monsieur, I’ve been here five years!” Etienne said with another loud laugh. He looked around the public-house and shook his head, smiling. “Though you wouldn’t recognize the place if you’d visited then. Daniel bought it off the old owner two years ago, and he’s been fixing it up ever since.”
Javert studied the repainted walls and the bar, all of which showed signs of recent repair. Yes, it seemed very unlikely that Daniel would jeopardize this place. “So the public-house has changed much in Daniel’s hands?”
Unexpectedly Etienne sobered. “Yes, monsieur. Every sort used to come here. Those rules you were told? Daniel created them to keep us all safe.”
Javert frowned. Rules? All Chabouillet had mentioned was the password and the time most men arrived at the public-house. It would’ve been helpful to know the rules, he thought sourly. He cleared his throat and glanced towards the door, where Daniel stood in conversation with Florian. “I must admit, I was a bit focused on the existence of the Souris and less on the rules when they were explained to me.”
Etienne’s expression remained solemn. “Hard to believe there’s such a place? I felt the same when I first heard of it. But Daniel’s rules are smart: no surnames, no taking advantage of the younger men, no exchanging money for, well -- and no acknowledging anyone outside of the public-house.” Here Etienne paused and gave Javert an appraising look. Some of the good humor returned to his face. “You and your friend are exceptions to that last rule, of course! You two seem like quite a happy pair! If you don’t mind me asking, how long….?”
Javert’s heart gave another traitorous pang, stronger than before. He took another sip of wine, trying to buy time, and accidentally finished his drink. He stared down into his empty glass, turning over various answers in his mind. At last he forced himself to look up and meet Etienne’s eyes. “We’ve known each other for many years,” he said, hearing the stifled quality of the partial truth.
Etienne looked wistful, but didn’t press. He held up a bottle. “Another glass, monsieur?”
Javert shook his head in refusal. He glanced down at his glass once more. Here at least was a potential excuse to move around the public-house. “Is there a privy outside?”
“No, monsieur,” said Etienne, as Javert had hoped. “We’ve some chamber pots. Take the stairs and then it’s the last door on your left.”
The steps creaked beneath Javert’s feet as he mounted the stairs. He found further evidence of Daniel’s handiwork with a few framed watercolors of the Parisian streets and signs of recent dusting and polishing. He counted at least five closed doors as he passed down the hall. He paused before each one, but heard only silence.
Javert hesitated. Should he investigate further? But he thought of the trouble it might cause Valjean if he were discovered prying into the rooms. No, surely it was better to wait until Javert and Joly could investigate together.
He went into the last room. There was an unlit lamp on the wall and a small table holding the means to light it; he lit the lamp, watching the light throw shadows throughout the room and fall upon a wardrobe and a few chamber pots that thankfully didn’t smell used.
Javert found that the window lent a clear view to the cobblestone where he had been standing not so very long ago, impatient and ignorant of the strange turn the night would take. He shook his head, frowning at his own reflection, and then turned, distracted from his thoughts by someone groaning in pain in the hallway.
He groped for his truncheon and remembered only as his hand closed on nothing that he'd left the weapon at his apartment. The sound came again, louder. Javert started to open the door, ready to assist or intervene, and stilled, realizing too late, as his eyes fell on the pair in the hallway, that the noises weren't of pain but instead pleasure.
Oblivious to his presence, the two men kissed. Javert tried to look away, but he stood rooted to the spot, his eyes fixed upon the way the taller man stroked a possessive hand through the other's yellow curls and down his back.
The other man -- almost a boy, for when he drew back, Javert saw that he looked no older than twenty -- laughed, and leaned away a little. He said breathlessly, “We should go into a room. The rules--”
“Oh, the rules,” said the other man with a dismissive curl of his lips. “Worried about disappointing Daniel?”
The young man flushed at the question's mocking edge. For a second he looked almost angry, and then he smiled, all the harsh lines on his face smoothing away. “Jealous, Marc?”
“No,” Marc said. He didn't return the smile. He caught a fistful of the young man’s hair and tugged hard enough to make the other man sharply protest. “But I am tired of talking about him.”
There was an unpleasant tension in the air that had Javert prepared to clear his throat and interrupt. Then, just as suddenly as Marc had grabbed the young man, the boy relaxed into Marc’s grip. He stroked the fist still tangled in his curls and laughed. “Sorry. I can fix that if you like.” The words were said low and warm.
Understanding crashed down upon Javert and wrested him from his stupor. He fumbled the door shut, but was too late to avoid the sight of the young man sinking to his knees.
Javert stumbled backwards. His heart pounded queerly in his ears and the door was closed, but still he fancied that he could hear the obscene sounds the two men were making. He fled to the window. Perhaps the noise of the street would drown them out. The evening air cooled his hot cheeks but not his mind. It teemed with unseemly thoughts, as though somehow this incident had destroyed his control.
He remembered anew the hunger in Marc’s face as the young man had knelt, but now his brain taunted him, imposing Valjean’s face instead. Valjean’s touch wouldn’t be gentle then, as it had been during the worst of Javert’s fever. No, Valjean would hold him with the strength of Monsieur le Maire lifting the cart off old Fauchelevent. Perhaps, his traitorous mind suggested, Valjean would be clumsy and rough with desire.
Even with the open window, the room grew stifling and too warm at the thought. Javert worked at his cravat, trying to catch his breath. “Enough,” he growled at last, and flinched at his own voice. Why torment himself with the impossible?
He turned at the sound of raised voices. Curiosity replaced relief at the distraction as he perceived that one of the speakers was a woman.
“…know the rules, Sébastien,” scolded the woman as Javert opened the door a sliver. Her frustrated voice sounded young. Through the sliver of open door Javert could see Marc and Sébastien in varying degrees of dishevelment. Her back was to Javert, but he saw the movement as she shook her head. “You’re lucky I don’t tell Daniel on you both!”
A new voice to their left said, bored, “Unless you want a third, I’ll take my chances downstairs.” Javert frowned, for the young man’s voice sounded familiar.
Marc laughed unpleasantly. “There’s some old stranger down there. He looks well off. Maybe you can pick his pockets.” The last seemingly innocent sentence was sullied by a leer.
The bored voice said without a change in inflection, “We’ll see.”
Javert listened to the footsteps retreating down the stairs. His instincts clamored at him; he wished he’d been able to see the man’s face. He grew even more uneasy at the realization that Marc had been speaking of Valjean, alone at his table.
“Well, I need to work, so if you two can take yourselves into a room, I’ll clean the rest of them,” the woman said.
Still lost in his thoughts, Javert hastily concealed himself beside the wardrobe as the woman entered. It was a temporary solution at best, hiding, but he needed a moment to think of an explanation for his presence. His face grew hot with embarrassment as he wondered what she would think with Marc and Sébastien just outside. Just as quickly as he'd hidden, he silently cursed himself for a fool. If she'd caught him there, she would have assumed he'd been using the chamber pot.
He heard her soft footsteps and the dull thud of a bucket knocking against her side as she closed the door behind her and moved further into the room. She was half-lost in shadow, but as she set her bucket down and bent towards the first of the chamber pots Javert spied a resigned twitch of her nose.
The same strange sense of familiarity filled Javert now. There was something about that profile…. The lamp light fell directly upon her face as she straightened, and Javert knew her.
She managed a single, startled noise when he seized her. Azelma Thénardier’s wide eyes and blanched face reflected his own astonishment as he bent down and growled, “And what are you doing here?”
The girl’s mouth open and shut wordlessly. She’d been meek as a mouse during her arrest at the Gorbeau House affair, he remembered. But it seemed that the ensuing years had changed them both, for in the next moment she wrenched herself from his grasp and glared.
“Cleaning!” she said. “Cleaning like Daniel pays me to. Ask him, I ain’t lying.” She was almost all defiance. Only her hands, white-knuckled and fisted in her dress, spoke of her nerves. Her eyes narrowed. A speculative glance made Javert bristle. “Though I could ask you the same thing. I didn’t think you for one of Daniel’s friends.”
He had seen the Thénardier girl and reacted without considering that she would recognize him in turn. Soon the whole of the Parisian underworld would know that he had visited the Souris and all that implied. The horror of his realization choked him, and he flushed. He moved swiftly to block the door. The heat of his humiliation turned to blinding anger.
“Hunting criminals, of course,” he said coldly. “And who do I discover but the daughter of thieves? I wonder if you told Daniel that your father died a blackmailer.”
Nearly five thousand francs Thénardier had cajoled and threatened out of Pontmercy’s purse. Five thousand! Javert’s only consolation had been that the scoundrel hadn’t lived to spend it. He’d been found dead the following morning, presumably betrayed by one of his associates, his throat slit and the money gone.
The girl’s face went white. She shook her head frantically.
Javert went on. “It’s clever, really. A cleaning woman would be all but invisible. You could easily learn enough to blackmail Arnaud. Did you take lessons from your father before he died, or did you come up with the plan yourself?”
“No,” the girl whispered. Tears rolled down her face. She scrubbed fiercely at her cheeks and said, louder, “No! You’re wrong. I ain’t stupid. This is good work, good pay. Daniel—”
Javert sneered. “You expect me to believe a Thénardier is willing to earn an honest wage?”
“Thieving and blackmail got my father a knife through his neck!” the girl cried hoarsely. “ I lived, not Mama or Eponine or Gavroche or—” She caught her breath in a harsh sob. Her face contorted with grief. “I lived. This is a good job. I ain’t stupid. The men don’t bother me here, and Daniel pays me well.” She swiped at her face again and glared at him, daring him to argue.
Javert’s anger soured, tainted by doubt. It seemed impossible that he would go searching for a blackmailer and discover a blackmailer’s daughter working for the public-house and have her be innocent. He didn’t believe in coincidences. And yet the girl was either one of the best liars he had ever met, or completely in earnest. He frowned. An inner voice whispered that perhaps the girl had chosen a different path, as he once had himself. The voice sounded like Valjean’s.
“You’ve spoken to none of your father’s old friends about this place?”
“No,” the girl said quickly, but this time her red-rimmed eyes slid away from his.
Now at least he was certain that she lied. Javert stepped closer. “Who did you tell?”
“No one,” the girl said. The color, which had returned to her face during her outburst, blanched from it again. She turned and snatched up the abandoned bucket. “I answered your questions,” she said. “I should work. Daniel pays me to work.”
“Who did you tell?” Javert repeated. He remembered the bored man’s voice, and considered its strange familiarity. “Who was your friend in the hallway? The one with Marc and Sébastien?”
The question hit its mark; the girl’s fearful eyes met his. She backed away, shaking her head. “No one!”
Javert scowled. She was trembling now, apparently more frightened of the mysterious man downstairs than of the officer of the law standing before her. For a second he considered pressing her for more information, but then he remembered that the man inspiring such fear had gone to seek out Valjean.
Worry seized him. “We’ll discuss this further,” he warned, and waited just long enough for her miserable nod before he was out the door and down the stairs.