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all sinners crawl

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“Now, Inspector, you’re a sight.”

Middle-aged white male, around his early fifties, with dark blond hair that most likely came out of a bottle. The curves of his mouth were twitching upwards into a grin half-hidden by the cigarette smoke curling from his lips.

Javert smiled, wolf’s teeth glinting as bright as the collar around his neck and the chain on the man’s hand. “That’s the wrong term, Monsieur,” he said, tone deliberately mild. “I haven’t been an Inspector for months.”

His head snapped backwards when the blow came, jarring his jaw. Pain blossomed like steel flowers in his mind, but he barely noticed.

In the distance, someone called a name. It was not his.

“Come on now,” his handler said. Smoke wafted over Javert’s face as the man reached down to tug on his chain. “Time to do your part for the economy.”

The stairs towards the backstage of the auction hall were made of mahogany, newly polished. Javert looked at them, thinking of filthy alleyways with trash dumped from pristine buildings. There was an itch under his skin. He ignored it; it had been his companion for months.

After a few more minutes of the air being filled with cries of numbers that had become meaningless, his handler pulled him out towards the stage. The lights were bright and glaring, but Javert’s steps were steady, and he refused to flinch away from them.

A hand shoved at his shoulders. Javert fell to his knees as the announcer stated, “Javert, no first name; murder second degree, multiple charges of prison assaults. Sentence: life.”

Whispers exploded in the hall. Uneasy glances were exchanged. Javert looked at them, the buyers in their perfect suits. The few who met his gaze turned away immediately, covering their mouths as they whispered once more.

The smell of the sewers carry even in the alley some hundred meters away from them. The sick-orange streetlamps are flickering at the mouth, illuminating the spreading bloodstain colouring the cobblestones on the ground.

A girl is panting and pulling down her too-short skirt in front of him. Her cheekbone looks broken. Blood creeps around her spiked heels; at his boots, crawling up the ankles, seeping through leather.

“Five thousand francs,” a voice called.

Javert blinked. It called at something within him, that voice; something deeper than the alley and the blood and the raw taste of injustice and the rust-heavy one of failure on his tongue. He saw a white suit and a dark beard, but it was the glasses of the girl beside him that tugged at his memory.

“Five thousand francs,” the announcer confirmed. “Are there any more bids?”

The boy had a name, Javert knew. He should try to remember it; that was the least he could do for the boy to whom he would owe a debt to for saving his life.

(He had never been a fool: this auction was meant to be a farce; to give an excuse to reinstate the death penalty for crimes beyond first-degree murder and organised crime. After all, if Toulon wasn’t suitable for him and no one wanted his collar, then what place could he belong to other than an execution chair?

Once he had seen it being used. The straight-backed thing made of wood the same colour as the backstage stairs; the leather straps; the stark black control panel. The black cap that went over the skull and the horse-bit that went between the teeth. The way a man would shake when turned on, muffled screams echoing around the enclosed room. The stench of piss and shit that would permeate even through the glass, suffocating-thick until it was drowned out by death.

Sometimes he dreamed of it. They were usually good dreams.)

“Sold at five thousand francs,” the announcer said, an odd note in his voice that Javert didn’t bother to decipher. He banged the gavel. “What is your name, Monsieur?”

Marius, Javert remembered suddenly. The boy’s name was Marius Pontmercy. The only one who went by his first name amongst the kids at the barricade; the schoolchildren who imprisoned him and then released him into Valjean’s hands. The boy who tried to explode the entire furniture-built structure with gunpowder.

“M. Pontmercy, please come down to sign the documents and retrieve your property.”

Javert’s lips twisted as his chain was tugged.

He should have been used to idea of irony by now. Yet it still stung at the open wound that used to be his wooden heart.

***

“Inspector,” Pontmercy said hesitantly. Javert’s chain was held in one hand gingerly while the other was clasped around his own elbow where the slave handlers had drawn his blood for DNA to use for the collar’s programming. Javert wondered just where the girl had gone.

There is a body. Its fly is open, a blood-streaked cock lolling from between good cloth.

The red should be different. It isn’t.

“I haven’t been worthy of that title for months,” he said dully, tired at having repeated the line for the umpteenth time. He paused, then remembered:

“Master.”

Pontmercy flinched immediately at the title. “M. Pontmercy would do,” he said, fingers twitching around the chain. “I… Monsieur, I bought you for a particular purpose.”

Javert raised an eyebrow. He was gratified when Pontmercy looked down immediately, hands fumbling at the chain. Though part of him wondered just how Pontmercy might maintain control of a slave when he seemed so intimidated by him already.

“In fact, it is two particular purposes.” Pontmercy said. “I need you to tell me about a man named Jean Valjean, and also to find a M. Fauchelevent.”

Opening his mouth, Javert closed it again at the look in the boy’s eyes. The man already knew that he was speaking of the same person, apparently, and Javert gritted his teeth instead, biting out his sigh.

Despite the months in Toulon, despite the collar on his throat, it seemed that he was still not free of Jean Valjean.

“I can do that,” he said. Hesitating a moment – Pontmercy was his new Master after all, and Javert knew perfectly well that his next words would be considered insubordination – he continued.

“But before I begin, Master, I have one question. May I ask it?”

Pontmercy looked flummoxed, eyes wide and blinking. “Of course you can,” he said, words tumbling out of him in a rush. “You don’t- you don’t have to ask me permission for that.”

Javert inclined his head at the order. “As you wish.”

“So what is the question?”

“What do you plan to do with me after I have accomplished those two tasks?”

Surely it shouldn’t be possible, but Pontmercy’s eyes seemed to grow even wider. Despite himself, Javert felt satisfaction well up within him: the boy seemed to have no sense whatsoever, buying a dangerous criminal just to ask of him things he could have accomplished while in prison.

“Well, I…” Pontmercy said, dragging a hand through his hair. He looked at Javert for a moment before averting his gaze, the hand now scratching at his beard. “I was thinking that you could tell me more about the workings of the law. I’m studying to be a lawyer, Inspec- Monsieur, and it would be good for my education to have someone who have worked so long within it to advise me.”

Slave, Javert reminded himself. You’re a slave.

But he was already rolling his eyes. “You have no idea whatsoever, do you,” he heard himself say flatly.

“That doesn’t matter!” Pontmercy threw up his hands. The chain flew out of his grasp and nearly smacked him on the face. Javert caught it and handed it back, fingers folded around the links.

“I’ll do as you ask,” he said as the boy sheepishly took the chain from him. “But, Master, I suggest that you either start thinking of a way to make use of me afterwards, or start talking to the auction house about getting a refund.”

Pontmercy opened his mouth. Closed it. He nodded.

***

In the chauffeured car back to Pontmercy’s estate, Javert sat beside Pontmercy with the girl on the other side.

She did not look like her mother. There was too much innocence in her eyes.

He hears the screams first. “No, no, no, stop, please Monsieur, please stop--”

Instincts have him turning away from his path towards the river and running down the streets towards the alleyway. The night should be quiet; the riots are already over. The screams are an anomaly.

A girl is pressed against the wall. A man’s hand is wrapped around her thighs, and her head smacks hard against concrete with every thrust. Her nails scratch uselessly at his arms. She is young, fifteen or sixteen at most, dressed in stockings – torn – and a too-short skirt and garters. Spiked heels. Even with the dim lights, he sees the makeup on her face.

A prostitute.

She turns towards him. “Help! Please! Help!” she mouths, unable to speak for the hands around her throat. Her eyes are starting to bulge.

The world shifts. Instead of black leather he sees a white cotton dress. Instead of auburn waves he sees cropped-short dark curls. Instead of a grey wall he sees pavement. She is on her knees, grabbing at his pants leg, her eyes filled with tears.

Gunshot. The smell of powder, sharp and stinging, fills the air. The girl screams again.

There is a body slumped against her. Its face is gone, half-blown off by the force of a bullet, a cavernous hollow where its eye and cheek should be. He is suddenly aware of the weight of metal in his hand, shaped like a gun.

The barrel is hot when he touches it.

“Fauchelevent is the name of a factory worker I knew in Montreuil-sur-Mer, a town far from here,” Javert heard himself saying. “His life was saved by the Mayor.”

“Mayor Madeleine,” Pontmercy nodded vigorously. “I have heard of him. He was a good man and a good mayor.”

He frowned, falling silent as he glanced at Cosette again.

“I’ve never heard of that name before,” Cosette said, folding her hands and leaning over Pontmercy towards Javert. Her eyes were carefully on his face, avoiding the collar and the chain. “Neither Papa nor Uncle Fauchelevent had ever told me about it. Why wouldn’t Uncle Fauchelevent tell me about a man who saved his life?”

“Sometime during his second term, Madeleine declared himself to be a convict named Jean Valjean,” Javert continued, deliberately not dropping his head into his hands. “Valjean tried to escape from the town, but I caught up with him before he could,” he continued, ignoring Pontmercy opening and closing his mouth like a fish. “He escaped from me and left.”

“Wait,” Cosette said, frowning. “What does this have anything to do with my father?”

“Mademoiselle,” Javert said, looking at the girl straight in the eyes. “Valjean is—”

Pontmercy lunged towards him, hands reaching out for his mouth with a wild desperation in his eyes. His thumb slid across the screen of the collar on his throat. Immediately, it constricted, cutting off Javert’s words, his air, strangling him viciously.

He didn’t move. There were white stars bursting behind his eyelids; the first stars he had seen in months. Distantly, he could hear Pontmercy yelling, and there were fingers scrabbling at his neck. He was dragged forward by the chain, falling from the seat of the car to the floor. The collar tightened even further, threatening to break his windpipe.

Suddenly, it loosened. Javert’s body gasped for breath, chest heaving. His shoulder ached from where he had slammed it against the car’s floor as he was falling. There were hands clenching at his shirt, dragging him up, and he found himself half-sprawled across someone’s lap. His bare feet scraped the floor.

“Marius, stop.” Water fell on Javert’s face. Reluctantly, he opened his eyes without knowing when he closed them. He looked up to Cosette’s face. There were tears spilling down her cheeks. He looked away.

“You’re not a good liar, Marius,” she said. “And I… I’m not a child anymore.”

She wiped at her face. “I can guess. That’s Papa’s real name, isn’t it? Jean Valjean.”

Pontmercy was looking at him with horror stark in his eyes. He bit his lip and looked away.

“Yes,” Javert tried to say. It came out as a croak. He swallowed past a dry throat and tried again. “Yes.”

His lips twisted, and he found a laugh bubbling up from his chest. It tore at his throat when he swallowed it down, but he had to speak, nonetheless.

“A parole-breaker and a good mayor. A thief and a man who couldn’t stop giving away his wealth. A convict and the man all three of us owe our lives to.”

The itch beneath his skin was spreading through his nerves, turning into flames that burnt him from within. He shoved himself away from Cosette, falling again – seemed like he was always falling these days – before his hands found the seat and he managed to pull himself to sit down. He didn’t look at their faces.

“Papa is…” Cosette said quietly. “He’s a good man, isn’t he, Inspector?”

Javert wanted to correct her, to tell her like he had her fiancé that he no longer deserved the title. But when he opened his mouth, something else tumbled out instead:

“Yes,” he said, low and raw. “Yes, he is.”

“That’s all I ever needed to know,” Cosette said, nodding. “Papa is Papa. Whatever his past is, it doesn’t change what I know about him.”

Javert turned away from her. He picked up his chain from the ground, feeling the metal – chilled by the air-conditioning in the car – slide over his fingers before he handed it over to them.

“There’s just one more thing about what you said, Monsieur,” Pontmercy said. His hands were hesitant as he took the links. “You said that we all owed our lives to M. Fauchelevent- Valjean. What do you mean by that?”

In the mirrored surface of the car’s window, Javert saw himself. His ragged beard, his too-long hair, the wildness in his eyes. If he had met himself like this months ago, he would have been arrested immediately, or been followed.

He closed his eyes.

“Who do you think took you from the barricades, Master?” he murmured.

“I—” Pontmercy started. His swallow was loud in the car. “I thought that was you.”

This time, he couldn’t help the bark of laughter that wrested itself from his throat. “No. I’m not nearly so kind as to try to help a traitor.”

“Oh,” Pontmercy said, sounding dazed. “Oh.”

Javert turned to him. “Is there anything else you need of me, Master?” he asked. Maybe if they had nothing to do with him, he could try to escape. It would be easy enough to unlock the door and run out to the streets. If one of the cars didn’t kill him, it would only take him a few minutes to run a kilometre and wait for the collar’s nerve disruptor to kick in.

With luck, he would end up dead. Pontmercy would probably receive a refund for his so-soon-dead slave. His debts should have been paid.

Pontmercy opened his mouth, but it was Cosette who leaned forward, her eyes bright and earnest on him.

“We need you to find my father,” she said. Her hands took his, squeezing slightly.

Looking down at those small, pale hands, he sighed.

“Then you need to tell me every property that your father owns, and also every place you know that he has gone before.”

Apparently not.

***

The bars of Petit-Picpus’s gates were sky-reaching with pointed tips at the top. The message of Keep Out was clear enough even without the board declaring that trespassers would be turned over to the police.

Cosette pushed them open, the hinges creaking. She ignored the ominous sound even as Pontmercy shivered slightly, his hand tightening on Javert’s chain.

It had been easy enough to narrow down the list of where Valjean would be. Javert knew the man well enough despite himself; knew that he would still want to be able to see his daughter – if only from afar – so he would still be in Paris. As an old man, he was more than likely to simply want to return to some place familiar instead of seek out somewhere new.

Hence the convent; and the sisters had been kind and welcoming enough to an alumnus of their school that they told them promptly that Valjean had returned to his post as a gardener with them. It had barely taken two days.

And it seemed that he also worked as a sort of security guard, because he could see Valjean’s bald head approaching from the distance. He carried a shotgun with the inelegance of a man overcome with the discomfort of carrying it. His lips started to curve into a smile when he spotted Cosette walking towards him, the worry-wrinkles at the sides of his eyes smoothing out— until he spotted Javert behind him.

Like a scientist taking note of his specimen, Javert catalogued Valjean’s reaction to seeing him: the sound of the shotgun dropping to the ground; eyes widening in surprise before it changed to shock as his gaze moved down to the collar on his neck and chain in Pontmercy’s hands; the desperate plea for an explanation turned towards Pontmercy; the furrow between his brows when Pontmercy dropped the links as if they were burning red-hot.

“Javert?” Valjean whispered. His Adam’s apple bobbed.

Ignoring him, Javert picked up the chain and swung it around his shoulders. There was no use in making Pontmercy hold it now that Valjean was in sight and Javert could tell that the boy was consumed by guilt and an eagerness to please the man whom he had both wronged and owed his life to.

Instead, he walked forward and picked up the shotgun, hefting its weight on his hands. Valjean took a step backwards instinctively, and Javert pushed away the way his skin burned before he presented the thing, handle-first, towards him.

“You need to be more careful with this,” he said.

Valjean took the gun with jerky motions, his eyes fixed upon the collar on Javert’s neck.

“Papa,” Cosette interrupted, stepping between the two of them. She placed a hand on Valjean’s elbow. The effect is immediate: surprise and suspicion melted out of Valjean’s expression, replaced by affection so heavy and strong that Javert practically choked on it.

Javert had never wondered what it was like to look at someone like that. And he wasn’t about to begin.

“Can we go inside? It’s been a while since I’ve seen you.”

“Of course,” Valjean said. His hands fell to the side, the gun’s barrel pointing down to the ground. “Of course we can, Cosette.”

He shot another gaze at Pontmercy, and the boy replied with a gesture that grew beyond a shrug to encompass his entire body with helplessness. Valjean’s lips twitched a little before he shook his head, starting inside the gardens; most likely to the little hut Javert could see a distance ahead.

“Monsieur,” Pontmercy said, hesitantly turning towards him. “Would you mind staying outside while we speak to M. Jean?”

He nodded.

“Javert,” Valjean said, his voice slicing through Javert’s thoughts. “I… Can we speak, afterwards?”

He stared at the man. Parole-breaker, convict, thief; mayor, alms-giver, saviour. His lips twisted, exposing canines in a mockery of a smile.

“I’m not going anywhere.”

Valjean looked into his eyes for a long moment. Javert didn’t know what he was looking for, but he seemed to have found it. Because he smiled, bright and open and utterly incomprehensible, before he turned away to lead his daughter and future son-in-law to his cottage.

Seven hundred meters from where Javert was standing to the cottage. The moment the door closed, it would take even Valjean far too long to run a kilometre if Javert walked out now. Over there: open gates and distance and destroyed nerves. A fifty percent chance that he would end up paralysed in a coma instead of dead. The purposes that Pontmercy had bought him for had been fulfilled; five thousand francs paid for services rendered.

The door closed. When Javert moved, his feet took him towards instead of away, and he couldn’t even find it within himself to be surprised.

There was no one who knew how to trap him better than Jean Valjean.