“After graduating from Sorbonne, I had the pleasure of working at Laurent’s bank – you know, the bank that handled the offshore accounts for the Chamber of Commerce? – and rose to assistant director within two years. Managing director after five. But now, I’m looking for new opportunities. I’d be delighted to bring my experience here.” The portly man leaned across the desk, his eyes gleaming behind his wire-rimmed glasses. “Perhaps as… associate partner? Of course, you know my family’s connections. With me on your board, Périer Bank will have access to all the merchants that pass through Paris.”
“I see.” Casimir flipped open his pocket-watch, disinterest etched on his face. “Well, it looks like our time is up, Monsieur Tremblay.”
“Right. Do close the door on your way out.”
Travers blinked in confusion. “But… you – you did get the letter from my uncle, did you not? Scipion said – ”
“Francisco! Show this gentleman to the exit if you please.”
A young man with curly brown hair and the willowy figure of a dancer popped his head through the doorway and ushered the sputtering Travers out.
“Shall I send in the next applicant, Monsieur Casimir?”
“No, I’m finished for the day.” Casimir muttered, “One more fool, and I’ll be finished with this bank for good.”
“In that case, will Monsieur be taking off early? Or perhaps just taking an hour to… relax.” When he received no reply, Francisco glided to his patron’s side and placed a delicate hand on Casimir’s arm.
“You still haven’t finished those ledgers I asked of you.”
“I’ll get them to you tomorrow, I swear.” Francisco fluttered his long lashes, his Cupid’s bow lips drawing down into a pout. “But Monsieur, I cannot focus knowing you’re so distraught, and I could do something to ease your worries. Just a little something.” At a slight nod from Casimir, he sank to his knees beside the desk, his nimble fingers working at Casimir’s belt as he pressed kisses up his patron’s thigh.
Casimir slid a hand through those dusky curls, gripping firmly, watching as his secretary’s wet mouth closed around his cock. Ahhh… exquisite. He groaned and leaned back in his chair. Whatever Francisco’s failings as a banker – and there were many – he did not regret hiring a boy with such a talented tongue.
A knock at the door interrupted his pleasurable thoughts.
“What is it?” Casimir snapped, jerking around so the desk hid his undressed state. Francisco hurriedly stood up and wiped a frilly sleeve across his mouth.
“One more applicant to see you, Monsieur Casimir.” His clerk, Leo, bowed apologetically.
“Tell him I’m busy.”
“I would, but he’s insistent. Says you recommended him yourself.”
Casimir heaved a sigh as he tugged his trousers closed. “Send him in.” A moment later, a skinny lad of about sixteen with shoulder-length black hair and deep green eyes entered, tugging awkwardly at the hem of his frock coat. “Well?” Casimir drummed his fingers impatiently on his desk.
“Monsieur Casimir Pierre-Périer, it is an honor to make your acquaintance again.”
“Spare me the pleasantries. Your name?”
“Henri Gisquet, Monsieur.”
Rising like a panther, Casimir stared intently down into the boy’s face, searching, studying, as if he were assessing the value of an exotic antique. He brushed one long finger against Gisquet’s cheek. Gisquet drew in a sharp breath and looked away.
Ah yes, now the memories were stirring. A soiree at a friend’s mansion, a chorus of angelic voices, and a beguiling young tenor whom he shared a drink with at the night’s close. Those green eyes and high cheekbones were unmistakable. “Right. From the private choir.” Turning, Casimir strolled behind his chair, all coolness and composure. “What brings you here?”
“You asked me to apply to your bank as an accountant.”
“Did I now? Ah, yes. Perhaps I did. Well, unfortunately, there are no positions open right now for junior accountant.”
“An assistant accountant then?” Gisquet asked earnestly. “Or a secretary, I finished a year of secretarial training under – ”
“The role of secretary is already filled,” Francisco sniffed haughtily, stepping in between Gisquet and Casimir.
“Why don’t you leave your address at the front desk, Henri? Leo will let you know if an opportunity arises.” Sinking back into his chair, Casimir waved an elegant, ringed hand in dismissal.
“A copyist!” For a second, both Casimir and Francisco were stunned into silence, allowing Gisquet’s next words to tumble rapidly from his mouth. “You need a copyist. You have 27 ledgers and over 12 separate accounts that must be copied by the end of this month. I can do it.”
A storm gathered on Casimir’s face. “Have you been spying on my business?” he rumbled.
“No, Monsieur. I-I just counted the books while waiting in the antechamber.” Swallowing, Gisquet retreated toward the door. “I’ll be going now.”
“Hold.” Rubbing his lip, Casimir considered the boy thoughtfully. Pretty. Naïve. But dressed rather poorly – there was a mended spot on his wool trousers, which Gisquet tried to hide by pulling his coat tails close to his thigh. Certainly no family pedigree on him like the other lads… which meant he was vulnerable and malleable. Casimir smiled. “Francisco, get me the paperwork for this boy.”
“Monsieur, surely you don’t mean – ”
“The hiring paperwork, Francisco. Now!”
Francisco clenched his jaw and disappeared from the room. A minute later, he returned bearing a piece of parchment, which he held out to Casimir with a stiff bow.
In the ensuing silence, the only sound was the scratch of Casimir’s quill.
“The end of this month and not a day more.” He whipped the parchment around and held the quill out to Gisquet expectantly. “If you get me the copies by then, we’ll see about extending your contract.”
“I won’t disappoint you.”
Gisquet signed carefully at the bottom, unaware of the jealous glint that flashed through Francisco’s eyes – a glint that Casimir caught and filed away for later perusal.
“A new copyist, Casimir? I told you to hire a partner for our bank, not another pretty lad to indulge your perverse appetites,” Scipion growled, his short iron-gray hair whipping across his forehead, as the two of them rounded a corner on their way to the bank.
“At least the lad is pleasing to look at. All the potential partners you’ve sent me are arrogant, ugly buffoons. Especially that Travers.”
“Arrogant or not, we need someone with business connections.”
“We have business connections. The old man left us plenty of contacts. Plus, Delacroix promised to introduce us to his merchant associates once we’ve sealed this deal.”
“That’s if we seal it. I don’t trust him.” Scipion’s eyes narrowed. Abruptly, he halted before the bronze placard of Périer Bank, pivoting with military precision to face Casimir. “We should take full stock of Delacroix’s ledgers before the next meeting. I trust your mop-headed secretary has skills beyond fluttering his eyelashes?”
“Now, Scipion, you know me better than that,” Casimir cooed. “Do you really think I’d hire a boy based solely on his looks?”
“If his tongue is clever enough – in a heartbeat.” Scipion fixed his younger brother with a hard stare, the two like eagles circling each other. But then, all tension eased as the brothers broke into a familiar laugh. “I need to catch a carriage out of the city. Take care, little brother.” Scipion patted Casimir fondly on the shoulder before heading down the street.
When Casimir strode through the bank’s double doors, gossiping voices hushed and backs straightened in their chairs.
“Francisco!” His secretary hurried to his side, quill and parchment in hand. “Gather the employees. I want a full and detailed breakdown of Delacroix’s finances – all his accounts, his ledgers, double-check the numbers in every book. Anything that looks out of place, you circle it and write it down. Get the report on my desk by Monday.” Casimir glared around the room, daring anyone to protest his deadline. “Is that clear?”
“Of course, Monsieur Casimir,” Francisco said with a charming smile.
Casimir turned his gaze onto his secretary, his eyes narrowing dangerously. “And no delays this time. Your excuses of late have worn thin.”
Only after Casimir had firmly closed his office door did the boys dare to heave a collective groan. All those ledgers! And less than five days to go over them! They’d be burning the midnight oil through the entire weekend.
“Alright, gentlemen! You heard the boss!” Francisco clapped his hands. “Off to work now.”
Gisquet sighed and rubbed the circles beneath his eyes. As the new boy in the bank’s pecking order, he’d been burdened with the most tedious, mind-numbing copying tasks, and now on top of that, he was expected to comb through his portion of Delacroix’s papers as well. There was nothing he could do but get started. While the others muttered among themselves, Gisquet pulled out a fresh sheaf of parchment and reached for his quill.
A stack of ledgers landed in the middle of his desk, nearly knocking over his inkwell.
“Oh Henri, do finish these up for me by Friday. I have an opera to attend.” Francisco fluttered his fingers as he glided past Gisquet’s desk, the tails of his lacy crimson frock coat swaying behind him.
Francisco whirled around just in time to catch the heap of ledgers, which Gisquet shoved into his arms.
“I won’t do your share anymore.” Gisquet’s jaw was set, his voice completely steady, even as his heart pounded like a hammer in his chest.
“Why you… I – I’ll – ” Francisco sputtered, his face turning the color of his coat. “I’ll have you tossed out on the street!” He threw the ledgers onto the floor.
“Then do it. I’ve had enough. And so has Monsieur Casimir, by the looks of it.”
“You know nothing – ”
The bell above the entrance rang, followed by the voice of a familiar customer.
Leaning in, Francisco twisted Gisquet’s collar in his fist until the latter made a choked sound. “Mark my words, Henri, you’ll live to regret this,” he hissed before storming off.
Gisquet’s footsteps echoed loudly in the main hall, the rows of narrow wooden chairs deserted. His co-workers had apparently finished their work – or squirreled up an excuse for Monday. Sighing, he set his knapsack down by his desk.
“Ah, you’re here. Excellent.”
Whirling, Gisquet yelped in surprise. “Monsieur Casimir!”
The president of the bank towered over him. “I need to see the ledger dated December eighteenth of this year.” Casimir held out one manicured hand expectantly, his lips pressed in a thin line.
“Of course, let me just find it.”
Gisquet pulled open his desk drawer, only to find it empty. Strange. He tried the bottom drawer. Empty too. Had he left it in the bookcase? He’d been so exhausted last night… Gisquet fumbled through each shelf, but came up with nothing old, dusty law books and crumpled parchment. A trickle of cold sweat slid down his brow.
“The ledger, where is it?”
“Th… They were right here yesterday!”
Casimir cocked his head, his dark eyes narrowing dangerously. “Are you telling me you lost the ledger for this bank’s single most important client?”
Gisquet’s face flushed bright red. “I’ll find them, I promise! I must have left – ”
“The meeting is tomorrow. I want that ledger now.”
“I-I can re-copy it. Any book you want. I have all the accounts memorized.”
“Don’t take me for a fool! You think you can just make up some numbers and get away with it?!”
“I’m not making them up.” Though his stomach churned, Gisquet tilted his chin up and met Casimir’s gaze. “I know the ledgers by heart, all of them. From December eighteenth, there were purchases of 550 francs against costs of 732 across all Monsieur Delacroix’s corporate accounts.”
“That balance is impossible.”
“It’s the truth. Monsieur Delacroix is deeply in debt. He’s just hiding it behind different businesses.”
Abruptly, Casimir’s hand shot out, catching Gisquet’s jaw in a vise grip. Gisquet inhaled sharply. The pitch black eyes transfixed him like two bullets shot through bright, gleaming marble.
Casimir studied Gisquet’s quivering face for a long, agonizing minute before releasing the boy. Walking over to a crate of ledgers, he scooped up a book and flipped to an arbitrary page. “Tell me the cost of linen purchased by Delacroix Imports on March twenty-first of this year.”
Gisquet hesitated only a second. “113 francs.”
“The operating expenses for its subsidiary on April ninth.”
“The gold and precious metals currently on hand.”
“Nominally 60,000 francs worth, but that’s 1,280 francs less than November, and seemingly not accounted for in the year-end statements.”
Casimir closed the ledger and tossed it back in the crate. “Well,” he said after a thoughtful silence. “It seems you have a talent.” His lips spread into a shark-like smile.
Swallowing, Gisquet replied in his most steady voice, “I work hard, Monsieur, and I’ve got a sound memory.”
“Not sound enough to remember where you misplaced your ledgers.”
“I left them here before I locked up last night, both the front door and the back. There was hardly anyone around, just a few clerks and Francisco tidying up in your office.”
At Francisco’s name, Casimir arched an eyebrow. “Oh, my silly boy. Forget about the books.”
Casimir brushed by Gisquet as he headed for the doors. “Compose your report and bring it to my office early on Monday.” He glanced over his shoulder, his smile razor thin. “We’ll kill two birds with one stone.”
And with that, he departed for the apartments along Rue de Gramont, where his soon-to-be former secretary would discover that the luxuries he was enjoying on Casimir’s account carried a price.
Francisco had lost all of his arrogant posture, his back hunched and head bowed, gaze fixed on the floor. A purpling bruise peeked out from the collar of his plain gray jacket.
“He will act as liaison should we decide to reconsider your offer. Now, if you’ll excuse me – ” Casimir stood and waved at the exit. “Henri, show these two to the door.”
After the two had departed, Delacroix with a scowl on his face and Francisco following meekly behind, Gisquet returned to Casimir’s office.
“Monsieur Casimir, if that is all – ”
“There’s a new opening at the bank, Henri. Secretary and chief assistant.” Casimir leaned back, steepling his fingers on his lap. “To me.”
“When someone offers you a gift horse, it’s best not to look him in the mouth.”
“I would be honored!” Gisquet said instantly.
“Excellent. You’ll go far under my patronage, so long as you listen and obey.” Swiveling his chair around, Casimir gestured for his new secretary to lock the door. “But first, a question. That talent for memorization – does it extend to your tongue?”