AUTHOR: Susan M. Garrett
CATEGORY: Drama, some mystical elements.
THANKS: No betas. As usual, I'm responsible for errors in grammar and spelling, what the characters do and say is entirely up to them.
Jeux de Hasard - Part 1
From the moment he settled himself against the leather seat of the cab, Jules Verne found himself completely and utterly at ease. The collar of his new shirt didn't seem to itch as much as it had when he'd originally been measured for it; it had undergone a magnificent transformation, having passed beneath Passepartout's reliable hands into being just slightly less than wholly comfortable. Even the rhythm of the carriage, which he normally found jarring, was threatening to lull him to sleep.
"You seem inordinately pleased with yourself," noted Fogg, seated across from him.
He opened his eyes, his grin widening. "That dinner--"
"Met with your approval?"
"More than met with my approval," Jules agreed enthusiastically. Leaning forward, hands clasped together, he added, "It was . . . phenomenal."
"So sayeth the writer." Fogg's comment was augmented by a smile - not to be taken as a criticism. He glanced out the coach window, brow furrowing. "I did think the mutton was a bit overdone. And Passepartout surely could have done better with the sauce."
"Trust me, it was perfect."
"Hmmmn. I think we should make more of an effort to educate your palate. To think that you live in the culinary capital of Europe - of the world! - and yet you've hardly set foot in any restaurant worth mentioning. Disgraceful."
Lowering his head slightly, Jules looked out the opposite window. He'd been on the verge of thanking Fogg for this fabulous opportunity - the meal would live in his memory for some time to come, and perhaps longer in his writing - but now anything he said would sound awkward. It was always the money, his lack of money, which made it so.
When Fogg had shown up at his room earlier that evening with a demand that he accompany him to dinner at one of the finest restaurants Paris had to offer, his first instinct had been to decline. The Foggs had been generous to him during their recent adventures - providing room, board, and appropriate dress when necessary. Even the suit he was now wearing had been given to him with the pretext of having been provided from the coffers of the British Secret Service for his proper presentation to the Queen. The money had undoubtedly come from Fogg - Jules doubted Chatsworth would have paid quite so much for proper tailoring a law student from the Sorbonne. He saw through many of the fictions meant to soften any blow to his self-esteem, accepting those offers he thought he could not decline without offense and turning back the rest as courteously as his pride permitted.
Tonight had been different. Fogg had, in passing, mentioned that he'd offered Rebecca the use of both the Aurora and Passepartout to bring an emergency situation under control. That she'd accepted the offer and had dropped him off at his club in Paris on the way spoke volumes - Rebecca did not want Fogg present, so the danger to her person must be both imminent and extreme. That Fogg had relented and had turned up at Jules' door with a cab and an invitation to dinner meant that he was well aware of the danger, well aware of the importance of the mission, and very well aware that his presence, or Jules', on the Aurora would be more of a distraction than source of assistance.
The aristocratic bearing, the consummate arrogance, the precision in dress and manner, and the nearly insufferable nature of the invitation - no, command - to attend Fogg at dinner all were based on a justifiable concern for Rebecca's welfare. Jules could understand and forgive him that. He was honored by the thought that Fogg would find his company worthwhile. Accepting the invitation with far more grace than the manner in which it was offered was easy; he was being a friend. It would not have surprised him to accompany Fogg back to his Paris club after having dined - Fogg seemed to have obtained membership to most of the important gentleman's clubs in the world. There he would watch Fogg drink himself into oblivion, have someone arrange to get Fogg to his rooms in good fashion, and then slip back to his loft where he could contemplate his own worries about Rebecca's current mission.
He'd been silent for too long. Jules glanced over and found Fogg watching him, then lowered his gaze again, certain that Fogg could see the worry in his own eyes.
"I assume that your lack of experience with the finest restaurants here extends to the gaming establishments of Paris as well?"
The comment was not meant as an insult, but a challenge. Jules knew as much, but kept his expression neutral. "I don't gamble."
"Nonsense." The reply exited as a snort. "You play chess. You play card games, board games--"
"But not for money, for fun." He hesitated a moment, then favored Fogg with a wan smile. "In my family, playing games for money is slightly less reputable than . . . writing for the theatre."
Fogg laughed - the reply succeeded in its intent. "I hardly think it would endanger your immortal soul, if that's a consideration."
"I'd like to learn, to watch," Jules corrected quickly. Because he had watched Fogg once or twice upon the Aurora, when the cousins had sparred against one another in a friendly game of cards that always turned cutthroat by the time the last trick ended. He'd joined them in a few games as well to pass the time, but as if by prior agreement wagering had never entered the conversation. "I may need to write about a gamester, someday."
"Remind me - I've an extra copy of Hoyle you might want to borrow. He provided the best piece of gaming advice I've ever read."
"Which is?" pressed Jules, his mind already clicking into research mode.
"'When in doubt, win the trick.'" Fogg glanced out the cab windows. "Blast, we're already halfway to the club. Would you mind--?" he turned toward Jules, "if we stopped here? There are a half dozen gaming parlors in the vicinity. It's not an unpleasant evening for a walk."
With a gesture to show that he didn't care one way or another, Jules gathered his coat around him. Fogg was right - it wasn't all that chill for a January evening and after a dinner as they'd had, a walk in bracing air might awaken him from the pleasurable stupor to which he'd been ready to succumb.
He paid little attention as Fogg conversed with the driver. As the cab shuddered and bounced to a halt, he exited the far door onto the street, then walked around the back of the carriage. The cobblestones were cleaner than they might have been after a day of horse traffic and Jules had little problem making his way to the curb, but he hesitated at the rear of the cab, hearing someone call his name.
The voice was familiar enough for him to look up - although there couldn't be anyone in this fashionable district who might know him with the exception of a lecturer at the Sorbonne, or a business acquaintance of his father.
The last thought gave him pause and he looked over the area more thoroughly. No one would know that he was accompanying Fogg on a tour of Parisian gaming salons. If he didn't gamble himself, what could it hurt? His father might grumble about endangering his reputation by even stepping into such a place, but who of his father's friends, or his professors, would recognize him in these clothes?
Yes, the voice was familiar. Just - there, in the shadows, the next street over, he recognized the sash and apron of the university, of--
"Arago," he whispered, first in recognition then repeated in joy aloud, "Arago?"
The cab was still in place, Fogg on the other side paying the driver. He'd not told his mentor of the wonderful things that had happened to him - and not such wonderful things - since the Foggs and Passepartout had befriended him and he'd been invited to travel in the Aurora. He'd not seen Arago since . . . before the incident with the mole, when he'd been kidnapped and tortured by the disembodied head that spoke to him, commanding him to see the future. He'd been certain he was going mad and Arago had told him to rest, to forget, to write . . . .
Arago was beckoning him forward into the darkness. Jules cast another glance at the cab over his shoulder, then ran onward. "Arago?"
Another cab came by, forcing him against the wall of a building opposite. Jules came to the corner, turned into a side street --
His mentor was gone.
"Jules - here."
Arago was standing at the mouth of an alley, a stone's throw from him. Jules ran to him, taking his hand as it was offered.
"Arago! Where have you been? I've got so much to tell you."
"I wouldn't be at all surprised," said Arago kindly, clapping a hand on his shoulder. The hand remained as he pulled Jules further into the alley, placing his back against the wall. "But that has to wait for another time. There's something you must do tonight - lives are in the balance."
He was used to hearing this sort of thing now - not from his mentor, but from his friends. "Lives? What are you talking about? What can I do?"
"You'll know when the time comes." When Jules stared blankly, Arago patted his shoulder again. "Continue down this street - there's a club, very special, very private. They'll let you in."
"Why would they let me in? I'm not a member of any--"
"Trust me, Jules." Arago squeezed his shoulder, then smiled. "Your friend is calling. I should like to meet him."
"Fogg - yes." Jules turned his head, hearing Fogg calling him from the street.
"Verne? Where the devil have you gone?"
"Here!" He touched Arago's shoulder, saying, "Wait right here, I'll get him." Then Jules dashed out onto the boulevard and down the street to the corner, where their coach had stopped. "Fogg?"
Catching sight of him, Fogg met him in the center of the street, then grabbed his shoulder and pushed him against a wall almost too roughly as a horse-drawn cab rattled by. "Are you mad?" accused Fogg, even before the cab had completely passed them. "Where did you get to? I turned to pay the driver and you were gone."
Fogg was expecting an answer and at first Jules had none to give. He'd seen Fogg in full-fury before at his own peril - cold, horribly angry, fearsome - and this was somewhat different. There was worry threaded through the anger and it left him speechless.
Fogg released the hold on Jules' coat, then brushed down the crumpled cloth quickly as if the wrinkles accused him. "A child of four knows enough not to run in front of a cab," he said tersely.
"I saw a friend - my mentor from the Sorbonne, Arago." When Fogg raised a suspicious eyebrow and looked around, Jules added, "Over there. I know I must have talked about him. He'd like to meet you."
"You've never mentioned anyone by that name," noted Fogg. He held himself aloof for a moment, then passed Jules his hat. "You left this in the carriage."
"Thank you." Jules took the hat somewhat guiltily - careless of him to have left it, especially since someone else had paid for it. He placed it firmly on his head and gestured toward the boulevard at the corner. "He's waiting - there."
"Let's go meet your friend, then. Wait." Fogg dropped a hand to his shoulder to halt him, then adjusted Jules' hat properly. "There. Now do attempt to behave like a civilized gentleman, Verne, instead of a street urchin."
No matter how mild the tone in which they'd been spoken, the words stung. Jules reached up to readjust his hat as it had been in a gesture of defiance and headed for his destination at what Fogg would not doubt declare to be an ungentlemanly pace. That Fogg matched him, walking stick and all, managing not to look the least nonplused only annoyed him further. But his annoyance abated in the face of worry as he approached the mouth of the alley, called, "Arago?' and received no reply. "He was here a moment ago. I swear to you, Fogg, I spoke with him--"
Fogg placed a hand out at chest level, stopping him. "Wait." The hand dropped to his side yet he held it slightly away from his body.
Jules recognized the gesture, his friend was armed and a gun could appear in that hand at a moment's notice. He did as he was asked, but took a moment to glance at the walls of the buildings beside him and the street beneath his feet. Even in the dim glow of the streetlights beyond he could see no sign of a disturbance.
As he finished, Fogg approached, his steps still cautious and eyes scanning this way and that. "Nothing. You?"
"No. He was here. I know he was here."
"Perhaps you're mistaken about the street--"
"No. It was here." Recognizing a note of petulance in his own tone of voice, Jules sighed and gestured down the street. "Arago said there's a club we should visit, down that way. It's supposed to be private, but that they'd let us in."
"Did he?" Fogg stepped out of the alley and into the street again. He shaded his eyes from the street lamps and looked up. "Where are we?"
"The Rue du Vivant," said Verne, glancing up at the iron street sign above them. He squinted - the yellow paint was flaking, he could barely be certain of the letters.
"Better than the Rue du Mort, one would suppose." Fogg took a step toward the boulevard where their cab had left them, then stopped. He turned toward Jules, fixing him with a steady gaze as if deciding something. "I suppose you want to visit this club, on the off-chance that your mentor--"
"That this 'Arago,'" agreed Fogg, "might have gone there?"
"It's the only logical conclusion." Jules looked around in confusion. "I don't know where else he could have gone."
"What concerns me is where he might have come from."
Jules only caught a hint of the words, his attention concentrated on the alley behind them. "What?"
"Nothing." Fogg gestured with his cane down the street. "I would suggest we continue, then." As Jules fell into step beside him, Fogg asked, "You, uh, wouldn't happen to have asked the name of this club, would you?"
"I thought not."
There'd been no accusation, no recrimination in Fogg's tone, yet Jules still bit his lip in frustration, feeling like a proper fool. "All right - I should have asked him the name of the club. I should have stayed with him until you found us. I shouldn't have left the cab without telling you where I was going--"
Fogg caught his shoulder, stopping him. "We have no proof that anything's happened to your friend."
"And nothing would have happened to him if I'd stayed with him."
"You don't know that."
He shook off Fogg's hand angrily and continued down the street. "No, but you do. You know everything. You know when to stay and when not to stay and how long to stay. You know where to go and where not to go. You know how to dress and how to talk and how to act." He threw his hands up in the air. "I don't. I don't know any of this. I don't know what to do. I'm only a law student. I'm only a writer. I can do nothing right."
Again, he found his back against a stone wall, the placket of his coat caught in Fogg's hand. "You're a writer and a law student; you have a logical mind, common sense, and a frighteningly inventive imagination - that should prove sufficient for most circumstances. You also have an unerring capacity for walking directly into danger without having any idea that you're at hazard, a situation in which the former sterling qualities are doomed to prove inadequate. Is that quite clear?"
Hearing that odd mixture of threat and worry in Fogg's voice, Jules stared back at him wide-eyed and nodded, then added, "Yes," quietly.
"Good." Fogg released him, but didn't step away. "I have reason to suspect your life might be in danger."
Small pieces began to fall into place - the demand to accompany Fogg to dinner, the reaction when he'd disappeared from Fogg's sight, followed by the incident with the cab, the worry that he'd automatically assumed was for Rebecca . . . .
"In danger?" Jules echoed, trying the taste of the words. He had looked away for a moment as the pieces had clicked into place and now he looked back, saw Fogg's appraising glance again. "What kind of danger?"
"An attempt on your life." Fogg took another step back and away, his gaze averted as he rubbed his lips with his fingers. "I don't know how. I don't know why. And - before you ask - this isn't a piece of intelligence gathered with or without Chatsworth's knowledge. It's just a . . . feeling."
Ever since he'd realized he was a target for the League of Darkness, there'd been a small, quiet place in his brain in which he'd hoarded his fear. Why they should want him was beyond his understanding. That they did want him, or something from him, was no longer a matter of argument - it was fact. When attending lectures or when in a bistro with his school friends, it was too bizarre to bear consideration. When aboard the Aurora, he was protected, or at least in a place in which he knew he could fight among his protectors and allies.
Alone in his room, with only a candle and his notebook and a third of a bottle of cheap wine, behind a door that didn't quite lock and a window through which a number of people had made entry . . . that's when the fear came out. At the bistro he disregarded the danger, on the Aurora he could be brave and even angry enough to defend himself, but when he was alone in the near darkness it was so very difficult to understand. It was so very hard not to be afraid.
"This club to which we're being directed could very well be a trap," explained Fogg.
"I don't know. This could be nothing - a false alarm, an undigested bit of mutton . . . ." Fogg shrugged dismissively.
It was his turn to watch Fogg, appraising every movement, every twitch of an eyelash. "You stayed in Paris to watch over me, instead of going with Rebecca." Jules paused, waiting for confirmation - Fogg's lack of an answer was sufficient unto itself. "Because she can protect herself and I can't."
"Because she's well aware of the danger she's facing," corrected Fogg. "And you aren't."
"Arago said--" Jules hesitated, as Fogg's gaze moved back to him, "Arago said there was something I had to do tonight, that there were lives in danger, no--" Again he paused, correcting himself, fighting for the right words. "That lives would be in the balance."
"One of those lives could be yours," warned Fogg.
The careless shrug was expected; the words that followed were not. "The decision is yours - stay or go?"
Fogg was giving him an opportunity to ignore the matter. They could return to Fogg's club - there could be no danger there, short of a lack of cognac or claret. They could return to his loft, where Fogg would no doubt stand guard, whether in his room or, having been dismissed, in the street below. He was being offered comfort and safety, in lieu of danger and fear.
Jules was not alone in his room, scratching dreams into a sketchbook by candlelight; he was standing on a Parisian street, worried for the safety of a friend and mentor, accompanied by yet another friend and mentor. The latter was quite different from the former in many ways, not the least of which was that he was heavily armed and capable of inflicting no end of damage on anyone who might attempt to attack them. And who, in addition, seemed to have more faith in his courage and abilities than he could dare to dream of himself.
"I'm not afraid," he said aloud, surprising himself - he sounded as if he actually believed it.
Fogg's smile was grim, as if that was the answer he'd anticipated. "I assume this means we continue to this club your friend mentioned?"
"Do we have a choice?"
"There's always a choice. The trick is knowing what to choose and when to choose it." Fogg straightened his right arm and a gun appeared in his hand. He checked the weapon, then offered it to Jules, holding it flat on his palm.
Jules took the gun, opened his coat to tuck it into an interior pocket, and they headed down the Rue du Vivant.
End of Part 1