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Acts of Mercy

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Since the night Javert had witnessed the murder, his dreams were often terrible.

They began with Laure. She had been the most beautiful girl at the Siège d'Amour, with clear skin and white teeth that she had never become desperate enough to sell, but that was not what Javert had noticed about her. Although it was against the law for the curtains to be open in such an establishment, he had once found her at the window, holding a book of diagrams, studying the stars. Even though he had been meant to be patrolling the brothel for evidence of criminal activity, he stopped to glance at her book. Like himself, Laure was the child of a fortuneteller who had believed the stars could predict a man's character and future. Also like himself, Laure did not believe in astrology, yet she admired the regular movements of the stars in their seasons, the planets following their steady paths.

In Javert's nightmares, he reached for Laure at the window as her killer's hands closed around her throat, but he could only save her book as she fell. Then Laure's face changed. She became a woman whom Javert had seen only briefly, many years earlier -- the prostitute from Montreuil-sur-Mer. Fantine. She too had been dying, her head falling back much as Laure's had, eyes growing wide and glassy, more empty than the window. The face of Jean Valjean swam into Javert's vision, accusing: You have killed that woman. Then Javert heard a child's scream, and though he knew it to be the voice of Jacqueline, the little girl who lived at the Siège d'Amour, a different name whispered in his mind: Cosette.

When Javert arrived at his room very late at night, he often found Jacqueline sleeping across the foot of his bed.

This night was the second time in as many days. He shook his head in exasperation. "Donzelle," he whispered, touching her shoulder. "Does your Mama know where you are?"

The girl blinked up at him. Though she sometimes had bad dreams and would cry out in her sleep, she woke calmly when Javert spoke to her. "Mama is working," she told him. "Emilie is supposed to be watching me, but she shouted at me to mend her stockings, even though I mended them yesterday. So I told her I would stay with you and you would teach me how to read the sky so I will never get lost."

For reasons he did not understand, Javert found it impossible to be as stern as he should have been when those wide blue eyes looked anxiously at him. He had tried, at first, but though the girl usually obeyed his commands and listened seriously when he spoke to her about the importance of the law, he could not persuade her of how inappropriate it was for her to come to his room at night. "You didn't stay with me, since I wasn't here," he pointed out.

"But now you are." With a yawn she scooted against the wall. "And you will stop Monsieur Vallette from bothering me."

Javert scowled. Monsieur Vallette had offered Jacqueline two sous to let him see her two nénés, but she had shrieked and run away, and Madame Veuve had warned the man that he would not be permitted back in the establishment if he tried such a thing again. It had not stopped Valette from prowling the corridors looking for the child, and Javert feared that she might be only a year or so away from being persuaded, though perhaps by then she would be too old to be of interest to the despicable Monsieur Vallette. "If he was bothering you, you were right to come here."

"I told him that you would send him away if he kept talking to me," she said with another yawn. "He called you a cock-sucker who doesn't know what girls like."

Kicking off his shoes, Javert stretched out on the bed. "You should not repeat words like that." He supposed that Linette's lack of concern about her daughter creeping into his room at night meant that Jacqueline's mother believed the same of him. Indeed, he suspected that was why Madame Veuve had offered him the room behind the kitchen and a pittance in exchange for his help keeping her girls safe, for she was certain that Javert had no interest in any of the women there.

"Yes, Inspector," Jacqueline murmured, already half-asleep again. Javert wondered whether it would be possible to persuade one of the convent schools to take her. He supposed that it would require claiming that she was an orphan, for surely Linette could not visit her in such a place. This concern occupied his thoughts as he fell asleep.

He did not often dream of Laure's murder when he knew Jacqueline was safe.

That particular morning when he woke, the child was nestled against him, the fan of her hair spread out over his arm. "Jacqueline," he said, blinking away sleep, but not moving unduly to spoil her calm. His voice was still rough and the girl did not stir. "Ma petite," he said more sternly and finally she shifted, pulling herself up enough to rest her chin on the sheet covering his chest. He had of course not taken off his clothes while she was present, but he had often slept in his clothes and didn't mind it.

While he had been a police inspector, Javert's day had started early, usually before dawn, and he had worked long hours during which he hadn't always known when he would be able to sleep. He had not minded that either, for he had become bored and restless when the streets had been quiet, the lawbreakers either more lazy or more clever than usual. Now that he worked at the Siège d'Amour, he had a less regular schedule. Though overnight guests meant that the establishment operated at all hours, there was little going on in the morning and afternoon, so Javert was not required to stay close enough to be summoned should anyone cause trouble in the house.

"I'm hungry," Jacqueline declared.

He waved one hand toward the door. "The maids will feed you; run along."

Jacqueline heaved a great sigh and plopped back down beside him. "They will still be sleeping. No one wakes up as early as you do."

It occurred to him to say something about justice being ever vigilant, but even he knew it was no competition for an empty belly. "There will be bread in the kitchen. Go on or I will make you empty my chamberpot," he threatened.

Wrinkling her nose, she slid off the bed, stretching. "You would not make me do that. I would drop it and you would have to beat me."

Javert rolled his eyes heavenward but there was no guidance from any angel. "I have never laid a hand on you, nor would I, donzelle, as well you know." He sat up on the bed. "I thought today that I would look for a school for you, would you like that?"

The expression on her face was not very different from when he had threatened to make her empty out the chamberpot. "Madame Veuve says the nuns would beat the wickedness out of me." Her mouth set in a determined line. "I am not wicked, so they cannot beat me."

Frowning, he swung his legs over the edge of the bed. "Your mind is full of beatings this morning. The nuns would not beat you, though they would be strict and teach you to read and cipher and sing songs."

She had picked up his hat and set it atop her head, though it slipped down at once, covering nearly her entire face. "I already know how to read and sing songs. I heard one last night about a lady and a swan --"

"You will not learn such songs in a convent," he decreed, his resolve firming. He had heard that song the night before as well. No matter what her mother said, he would set about making inquiries to get Jacqueline into a school. Otherwise, he could see her future at the Siège d'Amour too clearly before him.

"Inspector," Linette greeted him when at last he tracked her down. Her skin was not as fair as Laure's had been, and she was not interested in the stars, but she could do sums and had a strong voice for reciting the naughty stories that some men liked to hear, though Linette preferred tales of ancient gods and heroes. Javert had not been a police inspector since the days before he came to work for Madame Veuve, but he had given up telling the women to stop using his title, for they didn't listen and he wondered whether it made them feel safer to pretend that a true policeman patrolled the premises. "Has Jacqueline been difficult? Emilie tells me that she would not finish her work."

"A child her age is too young for that sort of work, and too old to stay here. You know the law -- no children over the age of four are allowed to live in establishments such as this one." Javert expected Linette to argue, but she only dropped her eyes and nodded. The police who visited were willing not to ask questions about Jacqueline's age as long as Linette pleased them, and there were far more working class brothels than the Bureau Sanitaire could hope to inspect with regularity. "Are you certain you have no relative to whom you can send her? This is no place for a young girl."

"I know that, but I have no one, or I would not be here either." As Linette spoke, Javert tried to place her accent. He knew that she claimed to be from the south of France, but there was a flatness to her vowels that he had not heard in Paris. Perhaps, like Laure, she had run away from a life with a family so terrible that she no longer wished to remember. She peered at him hopefully. "Inspector, if you have family, could you persuade them that she is a distant relation? I have made some little drawings I might be able to sell. I would give you some of my earnings..."

"I have no family who could take her in." He watched Linette rearrange the scarf around her throat that hid a purple bite mark. "I had a different thought. Jacqueline is clever. Her reading is improved. She remembers the names of all the stars that I have taught her and where to find them in the sky. Perhaps I could persuade a convent school to take her in."

"I could never see her at a convent!" When Linette flung out her arm in distress, Javert could see that her arm, too, was bruised. "And they would never take her in. She is hopeless with numbers. She speaks like I do. We have no money, unless you are hiding some great fortune you took from a criminal." She touched the crucifix she wore on a chain around her throat. Javert wondered whether it had belonged to her own mother.

"You could see her sometimes. It would be a better life than she has here, with men like that Vallette visiting." Javert hesitated to make his next suggestion, but he knew it offered Jacqueline the best chance of a better life. "Perhaps you could persuade some man to become her benefactor."

"You mean fuck him for no money?" Linette scoffed as Javert pressed his lips together, unable after all this time to keep himself from reacting to such words. "Madame would never allow it. It would be bad for business. I think she only lets me keep Jacqueline because soon the girl will be old enough to make money on her own."

The thought was intolerable. "I would sooner see her sleeping inside the Elephant of the Bastille," Javert grated. "There must be some way."

"Only if you know an angel who gives alms," muttered Linette, pushing at her hair. "That girl who sometimes comes to find Brujon -- Éponine? She claims that there is such a man, a philanthropist, who gives money to gamins and does not spit at whores. Her father has a plan to take his money. Any man foolish enough to help girls like us ends up with nothing."

She coughed, stirring an uneasy memory in Javert. It took him a moment to place it. Fantine had had such a cough when he had arrested her in Montreuil, the night that had sparked the incident which made Javert angry enough to denounce the mayor as a former convict. Javert had not understood why Jean Valjean had been kind to a whore he scarcely knew, even if she had a child.

Much had changed in how Javert viewed gentlemen and prostitutes alike since then. He knew that if Linette became too ill to work, Jacqueline might be forced to take her place, and she would have to work on the street, for no brothel would dare let a girl so young have visitors. As a woman, she would never have the opportunity that he once had to work to uphold the law. Javert had always supposed that the willingness to sell sex, like the willingness to steal or destroy property, must be innate, but the women who worked at the Siège d'Amour had made him see otherwise. And he had also seen that not all magistrates behaved in a manner befitting their titles.

As for Valjean, Javert's feelings were even more turbulent than at the moment he had first recognized in the handsome mayor the strength of a convict. But he had not seen Valjean in many years. If Valjean remained alive, even if he remained in Paris, it was very unlikely that Javert would see him again. Why this struck Javert as a cruel fate, now that he no longer had the power to arrest the convict, he could not say.

Linette was watching Javert, which made him realize that he was frowning. "You won't tell Madame that Jacqueline is trouble for you?" she asked.

"I will tell Madame that Jacqueline is helpful. But she must be instructed to follow the rules. If she is meant to be darning stockings, she must stay out of sight and finish that task. She should be given more responsibilities in the kitchen." It was drudge work, but better a drudge than a whore. Again Javert shook his head. "The next time that girl Éponine is near, point her out to me."

She stretched up on her toes and brushed her lips over his cheek. "You are a good man, Inspector." Javert opened his mouth to protest that it was no more than his duty, to protect and keep safe all the inhabitants of the house, but he had tried such protestations before and they had taken no root.

He didn't have long to wait before Linette sidled up to him in the hall outside the kitchen and motioned toward a girl whose blouse looked like it needed little urging to fall around her waist. Éponine was younger than he had expected, waifish and thin, though cleaner than most of the street rats who came around the establishment. Javert knew that he had seen her before. It took him a few minutes to realize that it had not been at the brothel, but in the streets, for she worked sometimes with Thénardier's gang. With a start he realized that she might be that terrible man's daughter.

Giving a nod, Javert strode over to her. At his approach, she looked up, her eyes going wide with fear. She would have bolted had he not reached out first and gripped her arm.

"I've done nothing!" she exclaimed, twisting in his grasp.

"I never said you did," grunted Javert, relaxing his grip but not letting her go. "Hold still, you silly girl, I only need a word."

"You are that policeman, Javert, the one Madame --" Her expression changed as her shoulders straightened so that her blouse remained around them, but she didn't finish her sentence.

"Yes, I am Javert. I wish to know the name of a man --" he began, only to see her mouth turn up into a smirk. "The one who gives alms to the poorest people of the city," he finished, managing to keep his teeth from grinding together. As a gesture of good faith, he released her arm.

Éponine tossed her hair and glanced around haughtily. "I don't know his name," she said.

Forcing himself to remember his mission, he thought it was a good sign that she knew who he meant. He had made several inquiries at local convents in the last two days but had met with the same response. They had no room for a child of no means and little education. In both cases, he had been directed toward an orphanage that Javert knew turned children out at the slightest infraction -- once they learned of Jacqueline's tendency to ask questions and her mother's reviled profession, she would have no chance there. "Perhaps your father knows his name," Javert tried, watching Éponine's smirk disappear.

"This man," she said, leaning back against the wall, "they call him the Man of Mercy. He always has a ready coin. I can find him for you."

"You said you didn't know his name," said Javert, keeping his voice flat and expressionless, a trick he had learned while questioning suspects when he'd been on the police force. "How will you find him?"

Their encounter, in the hallway outside the kitchens, had attracted the attentions of the kitchen maids. Linette too hovered in the doorway, though she glanced toward the parlor where Javert knew she was expected. Madame didn't tolerate slacking.

Javert ignored them and focused his attentions on the girl. In not too many more years, this could be Jacqueline. Without a father to plot schemes for her, she would roam the streets, dropping her blouse and lifting her skirts for any amount of money that would keep her belly from rumbling or some man from beating her. "Tell me --" he began.

"The man goes to the park nearly every day," Éponine blurted out, "with a girl."

Frowning, Javert studied her, alert for falsehoods. "A girl? A daughter?"

Éponine shrugged. "How would I know?"

"You know much for someone who knows nothing of this man," Javert said, sounding, he thought, reasonable.

She shrugged again. "I have seen them. My father tried to get money from him but this man is too cle-- " She made a face. "I have answered your questions." As she spoke she was sidling away, angling her shoulder in such a way that, Javert suspected, was supposed to inflame his passion for her youthful body.

"What park?" Javert demanded, but even as he was speaking, she turned and darted out the kitchen door into the alley.

Linette was by his side in a moment, pulling her filmy shawl around her bare shoulders. "She knew more," she said unhappily.

Something stirred along the hair of Javert's neck, the old thrill of detection, of finding pieces that had once fit and making them fit again. "Of course she did," he admitted, "but it may be enough to find this man. That old rat of a father of hers tried to get money from him. I know where he operates and so where the Man of Mercy may be found, somewhere between the Salpêtrière and the Champ de Mars, perhaps at the Jardin du Luxembourg. I will follow where he goes."

"You are the best of men, Inspector."

Javert watched her fingers move to the crucifix she wore around her neck and gave in to his curiosity. "Was that a gift? Or something you inherited from a relative?"

"This?" Linette covered the cross with her fingers, laughing bitterly. "The first thing I ever stole. From around the neck of an old woman who thought I planned to adjust her shawl. By the time I was home, I could not bear the sight of it, nor of myself. I kept it to remind me never to do anything so wicked again." Her fingers brushed the bruise on her throat and she blinked back tears. "It is often difficult to know the right thing to do, Monsieur."

Weeping women made Javert as uncomfortable as confessions of wrongdoing. He reminded himself that he was no longer a policeman. "We must see to it that your child does not find it so," he said awkwardly. "I will find the Man of Mercy, you may be sure."

He stepped back before Linette could kiss his cheek in front of the kitchen maids. He was quite familiar with the area that he had promised to search. Years before, he had spent many months investigating there, hunting for clues to the whereabouts of the escaped criminal Jean Valjean.