A/N: And now for something completely different :-)
As a note to this: This chapter of the story ventures into the area of Roma culture. I have done my best to do some research to portray it accurately, and I feel a little self-conscious about it, so if there is anything blatantly wrong feel free to tell me and I will try to remedy. Also, it should be noted that I have been trying to toe a line here with respect to the descriptions. It is seen through the eyes of Javert, who is intrinsically not very favourable to the Roma, which leads to some judgemental reactions on his part - which are because the scene is written describing his interpretation of it.
Again - I tried not to make any blatant misgivings there.
Apart from that: Thanks to all who read and reviewed. I hope you like this one. And I appreciate comments :-)
Chapter 36: Shapeshifting
My grandfather had a saying: Good News can wait, bad news will refuse to leave.
He knew better than to arrive where he was going in his usual attire.
He scorned deception as a part of villainy and sin, but time had taught him that unlike deception, stealth was indeed part of his work. And so, morning found Inspector Javert in the simple dress of a working man, in cap and jacket and trousers, the spitting image of a man of the lower classes.
It was not the ideal attire as to where he was going, but it was as much as he was willing to manage. It would not give away the inspector at least and that was as much as he could hope for.
He had spent the early morning in the Préfécture, preparing for the deed in front of him. Although, if he was to be honest with himself, the amount of preparation possible for this was limited, especially with the means of what was available to him in his office and the archives. Some locations and names were all that he could gather, and although this was a starting point, it did not help further.
When it came to Roma, his colleagues usually asked all the wrong questions.
Not that Javert would fault them for this. He had made it a point to steer his course away from the travelling folk (and those of them, who, numerous as well, lived in one place but still counted them as part of the Roma) altogether, as much as he could, and did very well understand why one would try to avoid association with them as much as possible.
He knew what it meant.
It was in his blood.
Looking through the notes of his colleagues had been like travelling into a distant, almost forgotten past. Names whispered with affection or hate as light shone between the bars into the small cell that had been his home during the first years of his life.
Growing up at the side of his imprisoned mother, he had been raised a gypsy child, despite his father not being Rom, one of the manifold of taboos that his mother had risen against; but she had not fully conquered what she was and so he grew up with stories of the kris, the tsera and the phuri daj, of the society that his mother had come from.
He had forgotten much, but not all of it. The name of his early years was like a curse he only broke when, after he had left the prison of his childhood, he had taken on the name of his father.
He had been Alsacien, but his roots were French.
Javert was such a more befitting name for a police officer than Roussata would have been.
It was the only grace ever bestowed to him by his father, Javert thought, that he had mostly inherited his looks; the brown hair and the greyish eyes, as opposed to the Snow White colors of his mother with her black hair and fair skin, which one might have quickly associated with the travelling folk.
Which certainly would not have helped his advancement through the ranks.
So the heritage of the man called Javert was a well-kept secret of his; and this was why he avoided the travelling folk as well. He did not care for confrontation with a skin he had shed.
But now, if he wanted to get to the bottom of the attacks on the rebels – and he had sworn himself he would, to give justice its due – the trace led him back to his own roots, and he would not avoid the challenge if it was placed before him.
And thus, Javert went to visit the gypsies.
He had chosen a family that had lived within the borders of Paris for years, in one of the hovels in Saint Germain, for the simple reason that there was intelligence to be had about them. Several raids had been carried out into their hovels, and the descriptions of the individuals and their dwellings was accurate enough.
They seemed to be slightly more adapted to the society they were not living in than most of their kind; some of the men had been known to do small jobs at one of the markets in town, and while two of the elder women employed themselves as fortune tellers to lure the naïve and gullible of Paris, they had done so with relatively little noise.
Of course, the police had not been bestowed with a lot of answers there – all the wrong questions at all the wrong places in combination with the mark of a Paris police officer would turn every gypsy into the mutest of fish – but what Javert had read between the lines told him that this particular family was slightly more accessible than others, and it was as good a place to start as any.
The sun had risen high into the sky, heralding the noon hour, as he reached his destination.
The tenement was constructed around a small and somber courtyard that was now for a short time illuminated with sunlight that would all too soon vanish behind the towering building again.
The hour of brightness had called out the children from the tenement – numerous, as was to be expected with folk as they were, and they were rolling about the floor with a set of scruffy dogs, as dirty and ragged as them, merry as daylight and unaware of the wickedness that had already stretched out their hands towards them while they were not looking.
They were doomed, Javert thought, and did not know it yet. He was staring at the blatant face of what he could have been, had life been only slightly less kind.
On first glance, the play of the children seemed unsupervised, but he knew better, and after a quick glance around he saw two faces looking out from different windows of the building before him. His arrival had not gone unmarked.
Taking a discreet, deep breath, Javert entered the dark hole that was the entry to the tenement.
Two young men were sitting on the stairs, only slightly less dirty than the children in the courtyard, indistinguishable from one another with their black eyes and hair, and a tan that in the darkness of the staircase could also be dirt ingrained too deep to ever wash off again.
Javert picked the right one at random and met his eyes, mustering determination and strength.
"Who speaks for you?"
The two men exchanged a quick glance and Javert saw confirmed that he had at least slightly surprised them. But he knew that family traditions were strong. None of these two boys would tell him anything. There was, of course, the possibility of arrest. It had happened before, but Javert knew that this did not ensure that information was passed on. They were stubborn and resilient, as are many things that tread dark and dangerous paths.
There were not many threats that would make a gypsy betray family honor. He knew that much at last from the whisperings of his mother.
"Who wants to know?" the boy he had spoken to gave back, chewing on a stick of licorice, giving a picture of nonchalance that did not suit the youth of his face well.
"My name is Javert", the inspector answered, opting for truthfulness. While stealth was a part of his chosen profession, and stealth was excusable in the face of wickedness, lying was not. The boy narrowed his dark eyes, his mustering insolent.
"That does sound familiar."
It was possibly one of the times where his reputation came to play against him, but Javert would not regret it. Instead, he decided to face the challenge head on.
"If that is so, you would be aware that I am determined to talk to the one that speaks for you. The phuri daj. He let slip in the word in the hated language and did not even try to hide his contempt; but his knowledge of this fact alone elicited some surprise from the two boys, who exchanged another, slightly puzzled look.
However, they did not get the chance to respond.
"Come up", a voice could be heard from a floor above him, distinctly female and deep, a resounding alto that did not need strength to rise above the squabble of the children in the courtyard.
Javert hesitated only for the slightest of moments. He was invited into the lion's den – whatever this would mean – and he knew better than to expect that the stronghold of a gypsy tsera would be a friendly place for him. But he had been born in a dark place and had never feared them since.
He stepped between the two boys, assuming correctly they would open the way to his determination, and followed the call into a small apartment on the first floor, where indeed the phuri daj – or at least the woman that they were willing to show him for this role, was waiting for him.
She was sitting at a table knitting something that was probably supposed to become a cap for a smaller child and looked at him briefly with dark, curious eyes. She did not get up at his entry but gave a splendid picture of the insolence of those defying the law. She was younger than was expected, her hair still mostly black and only vaguely streaked with grey. The tanned skin made her age difficult to evaluate but Javert did not think that she was significantly older than him.
He received no invitation to sit. But he had not expected courtesy from the savage.
"You know more than you should, inspector", the woman said without pretense, not even looking up from her knitting as she spoke and Javert sneered slightly.
"This seems to be a habit we share, Madame", he retorted to the fact, that his name had apparently rendered his attempt at disguise useless. She responded with a shrug. Needles were clacking.
Javert waited the moment out, before he continued.
"You are the one who came here with an errand."
They were alone in the room, but Javert could see shadows moving in another room behind another open door, and there was no doubt that watchful eyes were giving them a remote way of privacy while still taking care of the well-being of one of their own.
"Why did you let me in if you knew who I was?" Javert digressed from the original questions he had been willing to ask. His response was a surprisingly unconcerned shrug.
"You will be more trouble if I do not let you in. You have not come to arrest us, otherwise you would have brought minions. And you know more than you should."
Her unconcerned manner angered him. But he was not prepared to take up a fight against her and her family right now. He made a mental note to go through the files – gypsies were notorious criminals and law breakers – to make sure that no deed of villainy had been overlooked when it came to this particular family.
But for now, he would have to deal with her as she was.
"I need to know which gypsy family was at the illegal fair in Issy three days ago", Javert said. "Where the students were attacked."
The phuri daj nodded.
"Because a student was killed", Javert reiterated sharply. Anger at the fact he had to pursue these deeds at all resurfaced, together with the only barely swallowed irritation at the conversation with Gisquet the previous day.
"So was one of us", the woman answered over the clacking of needles and Javert narrowed his eyes. He had not known that before.
"A Rom was killed?" he reiterated, slightly stupidly, and the woman nodded again, now raising her head without her knitting even missing a beat in its rhythm. She gazed at him briefly and then returned to look at her work.
"Where is he?" Javert asked and the woman frowned.
"That's none of your business", she answered, not unfriendly, but determined. "And it is not what you came to ask."
Javert wondered what to say to this, but the woman continued, again in the same offhand manner. The cheap wooden armrings around her wrists added to the maddening sound of the knitting.
"But a death of one of us is less important, is it not?" Her voice was heavy with sarcasm. Javert snorted.
"The student was a law abiding citizen." The reaction was automatic, and only when he had spoken the words he realized, that in fact they were not true.
In harmony with this, the woman quickly raised her gaze and a single brow.
"Was he?" she asked.
Javert gritted his teeth in annoyance at being caught out.
This whole story was a sorry mess, and sorrier by the minute.
"Why would the attacker kill one of your numbers?"
She shrugged again, the lines around her mouth tightening slightly.
"You are the inspector. Is it not your duty to find this out?"
"By investigation and questioning, Madame", Javert retorted. "Preferably cooperatively."
He let the sentence hanging but the meaning was clear. He had no reservation to take further, more drastic means if she did not provide him with what she knew.
Her lips twitched.
"Ah", she replied. And then the knitting ceased.
As she looked up at him he saw that she was slightly cross-eyed, but her eyes were black and very much awake.
"The reason probably is, inspector, that the attacker was Roussata. Blood traitor, if you like this wording better. Blood calls for blood. And the Roussata have spilled enough of it to be beyond caring."
Javert's heart skipped a beat. He willed his breathing to calm down before he continued to speak.
"So the family", he asked, voicing his dread, "that was in Issy was the Roussatas as well?"
She shook her head.
"No", she replied. "What he was doing with them I don't know. A debt? A lie? He killed when the tsera tried to stop him. And escaped."
"Where is the family now", Javert asked and she shrugged slightly.
"I cannot tell you", she answered. "Not here, that is for certain. They left to mourn their dead in peace."
"Geramazzi", she answered finally, after a moment's hesitation. "They will be far from the city by now."
Javert suppressed a sigh. Her words were not unlikely. It was the natural reflex of those wicked to flee in the sight of investigation, no matter if in their favor or disadvantage.
"A trace gone cold", he remarked, wishing he had known this earlier. To track a travelling gypsy down in the countryside was challenging if they did not want to be found. And he could not leave Paris at the moment.
"Will he be tried for both murders? When you catch him?" the phuri daj spoke up, all of a sudden, and he would have almost flinched, as unexpected as it was. He found her watching him intently, the dark, slightly crooked eyes unblinking and he understood what she was doing.
She knew more. And was offering a deal.
Javert decided in a split second. The law was unambiguous. Murder was murder. So he nodded.
"Two murders", she demanded. "And young Julio Geramazzi has never wronged in the face of the law. You may take my word for it."
Javert was fairly certain how much he could count on this word of hers, but it was of no importance. If the man was caught, murder would lead him to the guillotine. Murder of one or of two would not make a difference. Not with a nobleman's death involved. So, again, he nodded.
And the woman complied.
"The attacker is not the only Roussata in Paris", she answered calmly and he barely suppressed a flinching, but when she continued, he realized she was aiming at something different. "There is at least another who is not going by his old names and affiliations any more. When the tsera was disbanded, the members fled into all corners of the earth, but these two turned up here. I would think it highly possible they know each other."
"Who is this man?" Javert asked.
"He was Emilio Roussata", she answered. "The name of the attacker I do not know. And I doubt that Emilio goes by this name these days. He should be in his thirties. Not very much of a Rom in looks, which is probably a help for him to hide. I heard he was involved in a robbery in Rue Saint André in march this year. This is where I learned of him."
Javert mustered her carefully. This sort of forthcoming behavior was rare in a gypsy. And put him on edge.
"Why are you telling me this?"
She held his gaze for the moment, but then she lowered it towards her knitting again and the needles took up her endless rattling, unnerving as it was.
"I have told you, inspector. The Roussatas are mahrime. Not one of us any more. Blood traitors."
"I see", he responded.
"Do with that knowledge what you will". The phuri daj seemed to have lost all interest in the conversation, which was just as well, since Javert had heard enough and was preparing to leave. "You will hear no more from me."
He nodded and recognized the dismissal for what he was.
The former inspector managed a greeting and all but fled the building, not looking back.
He had turned away from the dirt in his blood before. He would do so again.
"Are you sure?" With a frown, Bossuet took a look at the piece of paper that Lamarin was turning in his hand. They had met up with the boy after bringing Feuilly to his work in the atelier and having a generous breakfast; and while their cups still retained the last of their coffees, they already turned to the matter at hand.
Marc Lamarin shrugged, obviously slightly uncertain.
"Stéphane gave it to me, when we were visiting Jacques. Why would it be wrong?"
Bossuet leaned back and had to admit that Lamarin did have an argument. However, the address that the boy had brought with him was not what he expected. His dealings with the Cougourde of Aix had, up to now, not been very intensive, but from what he could tell, the social structure of their group rivaled the one of his own friends. Mostly, their origin could be traced to wealthy bourgeois families of the Provence; in a few cases such as Armand's, even to nobility.
The address in one of the more sordid corners of Saint Germain, however, pointed to neither.
"How is Jacques, by the way?" Joly had not picked up on the subtext of the address note yet and was more inclined to venture towards medical detail as was his nature. Lamarin took a careful sip of coffee.
"Not sure", he confessed. "He seemed a little better. More lucid than yesterday."
That was good if one considered the frightening tale that Courfeyrac had wrought yesterday evening about a confrontation between Enjolras and Jacques de Morier that had seemed to have gotten slightly out of hand. In another situation, Bossuet would have found it humorous, but he was not quite certain that these days called for exactly that kind of joke.
Courfeyrac had, at the end of his tale, with uncharacteristic soberness commented that this was the wrongest time imaginable to divide themselves over pride, and Bossuet felt inclined to agree.
"Good to hear he has improved", he commented none the less, or probably even because of his thoughts. Marc Lamarin shrugged.
"He is still very weak though. And the doctor is still worried."
"We should step by at the Necker once more as soon as we are finished here", Joly proposed, giving a nod towards the slip of paper that Lamarin had brought. "I can speak to the doctor again. Maybe he will disclose some more to me."
Bossuet could not completely shake the notion that Joly's wish to see a doctor was also connected to the fact that he had detected a slightly bluer vein on his arm, some centimeters above where he had drawn a wooden splinter in a few days ago and was now valiantly battling worry. However, he did not want to remind his friend of this issue and refrained from commenting.
"That may be a good idea", he answered none the less, if only to get another peek at the state that Jacques was in himself. Not to mention that it would be decent to pay him a visit and ask after his well-being. "But first we should try and contact Joseph."
Lamarin nodded, draining the last of his coffee, and then they set out, towards the streets of Paris, in search of a man who for all intents and purposes should not be there.
Rue du Gabot was a small alley just off Rue du Four in Saint Germain. A dark place with cobblestones that barely saw the sun due to all the shadow that the tenements that crowded the small street to both sides were able to give. Bossuet found himself taking a deep breath as they entered it, as if its darkness were also a sort of airlessness that would require special preparation and bracing for whatever things lay beyond its threshold.
Of course nothing happened as he stepped from sun into shadow, unless one counted that the air was slightly cooler in Rue du Gabot. This would have been a grace, had the air not been stifling in itself, and were not the stench, that was significantly magnified here.
Joly bore it better than him, but Bossuet knew that he had been around the quarter from time to time, helping those who could not afford the services of a doctor and usually coming back with a lot of worries on the diseases he may have caught in these surroundings.
It had never stopped him, though.
Marc Lamarin, on the other hand, looked horrified. His gaze went back to the slip of paper, uncertainly.
"Maybe this is wrong after all", he worried, but now that they had come here, Bossuet was not inclined to leave again so soon.
"We will learn that soon enough", he decided and stepped forward towards the building that had been indicated by Stéphane to be the home address of Joseph Sicar.
The inside of the tenement fulfilled the promise given by the outside. A dirty, rotting staircase led up to the higher stories, while to the left a closed door led into an apartment that was usually reserved for the caretaker and concierge of such a house.
Whoever was in charge of the building could not have been very diligent, because the floor was dirty and sticky, and the windows looked as if they had skipped at least one, if not two spring cleanings. As a result the whole staircase was bathed in somber half-light, as the three of them carefully mounted up to the fourth floor, where Joseph's apartment was.
The house was noisy, with a loud quarrel resounding from one of the apartments on this fourth floor, a baby's wailing from another and a mixture and mingling of other sounds from everywhere around them – children laughing, people discussing, pots clanking, a couple making love.
No one answered their knocking, but as they were about to turn, Bossuet realized that the door was indeed not fully closed but only leaning into the lock. Their pushing against the door must have opened whatever mechanism was responsible for closure, and as he carefully pushed against the tattered wood, the door swung in without resistance.
Lamarin looked uneasy at the thought of entering the apartment unbidden, but Bossuet had no such reservations and the others followed his determination.
The apartment was no surprise after what they had seen in the tenement.
A threadbare carpet only badly covered a crooked wooden floor. A simple mattress – bed neatly made, but crude and worn – stood under the window, the table was evened out by means of a piece of wood that had been pushed under one of its legs. A few books stood on a shelf, but apart from that the interior of the apartment was remarkably unpersonal.
And also remarkably deserted.
Lamarin stepped up to the cupboard and opened it, revealing empty shelves except for two trousers and waistcoats, as well as three white chemises.
The items – of good fabric and cut – seemed to be utterly at odds with the shabby surroundings, like a colorful bird from the Caribbean finding itself amongst the sparrows, and Lamarin frowned.
"This is so odd", he remarked in a voice that sounded nearly plaintive. "These are his clothes, indeed. I have often seen him in them."
He hesitated for a moment, frowning at the garments.
"In fact, there are not much more clothes that I have ever seen him wear. That red waistcoat… he must have worn that when he left then. But apart from that…" He shook his head. "I have never truly thought about it, but his wardrobe was limited indeed. How… strange."
"Did you know what circumstances he was living in?" Bossuet asked and Marc Lamarin turned around to him, eyes wide. "I had no idea. Actually I think hardly anyone of us had. Maybe not even Jacques. Stéphane was reluctant to give me the address. Now I understand why."
"Where is he from?" asked Joly as he was taking a closer look at the books – taking them off the shelf one by one and sifting through it absent-mindedly.
"Aix, of course", Lamarin answered. "He is the natural son of a factory owner there."
Bossuet nodded. A natural son, but probably not a cherished son. Lamarin frowned.
"This is so odd", he repeated. "To think that he invited us, so often. He paid so many rounds of drinks."
"Perhaps", Bossuet attempted at a joke despite the unease that gripped him, "this was why he lived so simply." He took another look around, suddenly grateful for Joly's friendship. If the young doctor had not taken him in, who knew where he would have been forced to stay.
"If I'd known, I would never have taken these drinks from him."
"Which is why you did not know"; Bossuet clarified insightfully. He did not see the full picture yet, but fragments of it were clear. Pride. Ambition. Poverty.
It was a dangerous combination, and a sad one at that.
The exclamation from Joly had both of them turn as the medical student already bowed over to pick up a piece of paper that had fallen from between the pages of one of the books. He was about to put it back when he hesitated, looking at it with a slight frown.
"Lamarin", he asked. "Come and look at this."
Bossuet joined, naturally, gripped by curiosity, and as they both peeked over the shoulder of Joly, he felt his blood going cold.
In front of him was a list. It was unfinished as of yet – or maybe a draft of something that had been completed later and then been forgotten between the pages of the book – but its meaning was clear and unambiguous.
A list of names was easily associated with the members of the Cougourde. And while Bossuet avoided university and its lectures whenever he could, he had been around the Université de France long enough to discern the names that were scattered together with those of the Cougourde members.
"It's a schedule", Lamarin stated the obvious, worry, wonder and exasperation fighting a war in his voice. "No. Not only a schedule. Our schedule. A list of who sits in which courses."
He shook his head softly, as he went down the names, lips moving silently as he read.
"It's not accurate", he realized after a while. "It's wrong. Here." He placed a finger next to the name of Armand. "He did not take that course in the end. He wanted to, but then he changed his mind." Sadness crossed his face at the name of Armand, but he continued along the list, pointing out inaccuracies or blatant errors, before Bossuet had enough of it and interrupted.
"So we know why this list is still here. It's wrong. But the key question is: why has it been established in the first place?"
"That's not a question"; Marc Lamarin answered, with clear insight, and his voice sounded sad, almost demure as he looked at the list. "There is nothing of a question in here. Just a truth."
He folded the slip of paper in itself and looked first at Joly, then at Bossuet, and for a moment it was easy to forget how young he still was.
In this moment, he seemed old.
"Joseph is a traitor", he said sadly. "For whatever reasons, to whatever end. But this is one of the reasons they knew us and our habits so well. We have been betrayed by one of us."
"That makes two now." Joly's voice was slightly rough. "Although the second one was involuntary. A friend of Gavroche… seems to have spoken to one of them too. I heard it at the assembly the day before yesterday."
"Where there's one, there's two. And where there's two…"
Joly shook his head.
"I don't even want to think about it."
Bossuet could understand that very well.
Lamarin, heaving another sigh, pocketed the paper.
"Now it's even more important we find him", he said. Although I do think we should be more careful now that we know this."
His gaze went around the room, and for a moment, the sadness was overwhelming.
"Joseph…", the boy whispered. "If only I knew what has happened here…"