Prince of Liars 16

"Ah! Monsieur Valjean!"

Hardly had Jean descended the stairs than he was greeted by the cheerful voice of M. Viertel. The fellow, with the rotund little M. Aumont in tow had just been admitted into the hall. Their host smiled and extended them each a pleasant handshake in greeting.

"Welcome, gentlemen. Your arrival is nothing if not well timed." Valjean assured. "I have been quite distracted of late with certain matters that arose unexpectedly."

"I hope we do not interfere." Aumont spoke with genuine concern.

"Not at all. Please, let us go to my office."

Jean gestured toward the familiar path they had traveled more than once before. His visitors nodded in polite agreement, and soon the trio was comfortably seated around a tidy desk.

After a few niceties were exchanged, regarding one another's health and the state of the weather, M. Aumont presented a thin sheaf of papers. Valjean had approached the partners some weeks before, concerning the purchase of some property intended for business. The matter now seemed a welcomed diversion and it would be the center off all attention for at least awhile.

Leaning up on his arms, Javert felt the breeze cut coldly over him. He frowned deeply, unwilling to end this dreamy reverie.

"No!" he barked at his guide, as if truly angry with her. "You gave your word! You said the other one could not come while you were with me!"

He argued like a child, remembering her earlier promise. With the change in the air, and the dark and unsettling landscape, he believed the dreaded 'devil' of illusions was about to return. The only reply was a feeble shake of her head, before she looked away.

Beyond her, there seemed to be a road cutting across the bleak field. Now a coach and four approached, its black and snorting team struggling against the driver's demands. Their eyes flashed red as flame, as the conveyance shuddered and jangling its way closer.

Keep still, Henri Emil Javert. Her thought was no more than a breathless whisper. Remain hidden, watch and learn. And survive.

He struggled against this caution, attempted to rise but was unable to move. It felt as though some great hand was on his back, pressing him down. All he wanted was to rush to her and protect against whatever evil he felt certain was about to appear. Javert's arms slid from under him and he lay prone and helpless, as the coach thundered to a halt. But it was no coach; it was a hearse.

No! No- you promised!

These were indeed the protests of a child. Javert's fingers clutched the earth, tearing at the grass that had so recently been his comfort. In the moonless dark, all green had turned blood black.

The horses neighed and pawed the ground, impatient and perhaps terrified of their mission. Hardly had they come to a halt when four tall men vaulted from within. Javert watched in horror, recognizing their tall hats and long coats as familiar silhouettes. These were officials of some black and hideous justice, twisted and deformed in this barren and hollow place.

They set upon the woman who had been his guide, and seemed to swallow her up in their darkness. She was lifted without a struggle, and carried to the hearse. There she disappeared inside, with three of her assailants.

The fourth paused, alert that there might be a watcher unseen in the night. It looked with deliberation in Javert's direction, eyes as red as the beasts' that still strained at the reins. It stared but mercifully could not see.

Javert felt the air go out of his lungs. The last of the four finally vaulted into the confines of the hearse and at once the driver whipped his animals forward. The vehicle lurched forward, and sped off into the darkness, leaving nothing the fading sound of galloping horses in its wake.

"Mamere!"

The unseen hand that had held him fixed against his will was suddenly gone, and the boy Javert leapt to his feet. Eyes clouded with tears, he ran to the road, shouting into the bitter wind.

The business venture, calmly discussed and nearly concluded in the office below, was abruptly interrupted by a tormented scream. Both Monsieurs Aumont and Viertel started violently at the sound. Valjean, too, was shaken, but spent his next immediate response in reassuring his visitors there was nothing about which to be alarmed.

"Good Lord!" Aumont gasped in near panic.

"Gentlemen, gentlemen, please, do not be alarmed." A quick turn of his head confirmed that the Sisters were already dashing for the stairs. He was free to refocus his attention on calming his flustered guests. "I apologize for the disturbance, but we are caring for a friend. He is very ill."

"Well, there's not a thing wrong with his lungs!" Viertel observed, tugging his vest. He smoothed his hair and managed a smile. "M. Valjean, your kindness knows no bounds." There was another heartrending scream from above and then muffled sounds of anxious nurses and stifled sobs.

"I do what I can. What any man would do."

His visitors nodded and tried to ignore the interruption, which apparently had subsided. They knew in their hearts few men would go to the limits M. Valjean frequently did, often for complete strangers. His generosity and selfless charity was practically legend, and both men, while badly shocked by the initial noises, settled down to business once again.

Valjean was relieved that they did not ask for further information about the 'unfortunate' and he wondered what they would say if they knew the whole truth.

There was the rapid pat of lady's steps descending the stairs and before long one of the Sisters was tapping anxiously on the door frame. Aumont smiled at the plump young lady, who did not notice the innocent flirtation. By her expression it was evident she was most concerned and when Valjean turned to address her, she could hardly wait to speak.

"Sister, what is happening with our patient?"

Despite her state, she understood by his tone she was not to divulge a name.

"Oh, monsieur! He is most distraught!"

"So we heard." Viertel muttered with a smirk.

"He's raving-" She continued, as if the master of the house could solve it was a wink.

"The result of his new medication." Jean sighed with regret. "Very well, I will be up directly, Sister. As soon as I am done here."

The young lady, still wringing her hands, nodded once, curtsied and disappeared from view. Jean hung his head in thought, wanting most to rush up the stairs and find out what had caused this terrible outburst. He should be there, with Javert, but could not simply excuse himself in the middle of business.

"Well, M. Valjean, I do think that is everything we need." Viertel was already pushing back his chair, ready to rise. His partner seemed suddenly disheartened, secretly hoping for a friendly glass of Port to seal the deal. A nudge from Viertel encouraged a more appropriately charitable spirit, and the pair made ready to take their leave.

"Thank you for understanding, gentlemen." Valjean almost blushed that his concern was so evident. "I apologize, but-"

"Think nothing of it." Aumont patted his host's ample chest as they passed through to the hall. He had nothing but the greatest respect and admiration for the noble heart beating in that bosom. "You are needed elsewhere, and we cannot keep you from your charge."

The pair did not seem concerned that their meeting had been so brief, and were rather as considerate in departing as they would be, had Valjean been on his honeymoon. They shook hands and left, confident that every wonderful thing ever rumored about their esteemed host was in fact true.

No sooner had the door latch caught than Jean turned on his heels and vaulted up the stairs, taking them two and three at a time.