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PART ONE: PARIS, 1958

CHAPTER 1

“You’re late.” 

Dom glanced up from the newspaper he had been reading. There was a man standing in front of him. He had a thin mustache—the sort that had gone out of style several decades ago—and he wore a grey overcoat. There were gloves on his hands and a hat was pulled down on his head. He looked "kitted up for the weather," as they used to say in another time and place. 

“I wasn’t aware I had any appointments today,” Dom said. He made no effort to invite the man to join him at the small table outside Les Deux Magots, the famous Parisian café. 

The man pulled back his lips. It might have been a smile. It might have been a grimace brought about by intestinal distress. Regardless, it wan’t pleasant to look at. 

It had rained earlier that morning, and the storm had washed the dust and shadows from the Boulevard Saint-Germain. Windows gleamed in the afternoon sunlight, and Dom was distracted by an attractive woman in a camelhair coat and a colorful scarf crossing the boulevard. She caught sight of him looking at her and smiled. They never send the pretty ones, Dom thought as he smiled in return. 

The man with the thin mustache made a noise that sounded like the old pipes in his apartment as they rattled in the evening chill. “My employer is a patient man,” the man said. “But he is not a fool.” 

“Did I say he was?” Dom asked, peering up at the stranger. 

The man shrugged. “You are behind on your reparations. If my employer were to allow that to continue . . .” 

Dom shook the newspaper. “You can spare me the lesson in economics,” he said. “I’m familiar with how this all works.” 

“Then you know what happens if there are no . . . reparations.” The man enjoyed saying that word, and not because he was a amateur etymologist. No, Dom thought, he’s the sort who likes it when other people squirm and beg. That’s what he wants from me. That's what he is hoping I will do.  

Dom folded the newspaper up with a sigh and put it on the narrow table. He picked up his cup and sipped from it slowly, eying the man with the mustache as he enjoyed the hot coffee. “I doubt I’ll be late,” Dom said, returning the cup to its china saucer. 

A shadow passed overhead, and the thin man flinched. His eyes darted up, as if he could spy what had changed in the sky, even though part of his brain knew he wouldn't see anything. 

“Tomorrow,” the man said, suppressing a shudder. He pointed a gloved finger at Dom. “You must pay by tomorrow.” He pointed several times. “Or else.” 

Dom frowned. “Or else what?” he asked. 

The man’s finger paused. In that pause, Dom knew the man was thinking about what his employer had said about Dominion Eldritch Sebastian. He’s not as soft as he wants you to believe. Nor is he as much of a fool as he pretends. 

What is he? The man probably had asked. 

He just needs a gentle reminder, the boss had said. Nothing more. 

And the man with the thin mustache had probably spent most of the journey from wherever he had come from to Les Deux Magots thinking about what the boss had said. Thinking about whether the boss meant it. About whether the boss would ever know if he just . . . 

“Don’t do it,” Dom sighed. 

“Do what?” the man demanded. 

“Whatever it is you are thinking about doing.” 

The man wiggled his fingers, making the leather of his gloves creak. “Maybe you need a reminder of who I work for,” he said. 

“No, I know who you work for,” Dom said. “And I’m sort of surprised he didn’t warn you off of saying something stupid like that.” 

“Like what?” 

“Like what you are doing right now.” 

The man closed his hands into fists. “Like this?” The leather of his gloves creaked. “What are you going to do about it?” 

“Oh, I might go back to the night your father lay down with your mother, and just before he gets his pants off, I might hit him with an iron pipe. Not hard enough to kill him, mind you, but hard enough for him to forget about making you.” Dom raised his eyebrows. “And then where will you be? Hmm?” 

The man blinked, and in that blink, Dom knew that the boss had said something else to the man with the thin mustache. Something that the man hadn’t believed. Not at first. No, it had been too incredible. Too impossible to fathom. But now? Now he remembered what the boss said, and in remembering, he doubted his own disbelief.

The man relaxed his hands. “Tomorrow,” he said, less sure of himself than he had been a few moments earlier. 

“Tomorrow,” Dom said. “I’ll be there.” 

The man nodded. “Tomorrow,” he repeated. He started to point at Dom, and then decided to tug at his hat instead. “Don’t be late.” Trying very hard to remain in control of the conversation. 

“Oh, that won’t be a problem,” Dom said sadly. “I’m never late.” 

*

CHAPTER 2

For many years—well, many lifetimes, actually—there were a number of things that Dominion Eldritch Sebastian did not worry about. Money, for one. Having enough time was another. It wasn’t that he was incapable of worry—he worried about a great many things—it was merely that he had ready access to both time and money. And when you did not lack either, they became invisible to you. 

But when one—or both—became constrained, well, Dom was not well equipped to deal. He had never had to learn how to cope with an empty purse, or how to properly keep track of which day of the week it was. He wasn’t terribly inclined to learn new things, because he had learned quite a few things during his existence, and there comes a point where you think, “Yes, well, I think that’s enough of that.” 

While he wasn’t terribly concerned about his upcoming appointment—even though the man to whom this middling moneylender reported was an individual worthy of some caution, the persistence of the appointment gnawed at him. And so, after ordering another coffee from the waiter at Les Deux Magots and brooding over the cup awhile, he realized he was going to have to deal with this problem the old-fashioned way: he was going to have to play baccarat. 

However, since gambling had been outlawed in the city for nearly forty years—the French government had taken steps in the 1920s to remove the temptation from the common folk—he would have to find a private game. There were member clubs, of course; there were more than a dozen Circle des Jeux, as they were known, scattered throughout the arrondissements of Paris. Of which, and Dom had to think about this for a moment—yes, eleven, he decided. He had been thrown out of eleven of them. 

As he wandered toward the river, he considered the remaining options. He had heard rumors of a club running out of the backroom of a patisserie in Montmartre. Somewhere near the Terrass’’ Hôtel . . . He dismissed that one. Too close to Pigalle, he thought. Disorganized crime—as he thought of it—in that part of Paris was part of Belette’s organization, and The Weasel had no sense of humor when it came to money. Cleaning out a room full of players and then paying off his debt to one of Belette’s other sub-bosses was not going to go over all that well. Moving money around in the organization was not the same as “reparations.” Money was expected to come into the organization. 

Dom was well past haranguing himself about being in debt to Belette. You couldn’t change the past—regardless of how much you bent it. It was—literally—a waste of time to fret otherwise. He had done a foolish thing—no, he had done exactly the same thing he had always done. This time, however, he hadn’t been able to scamper away like he usually did. 

Dom caught sight of the sign for Le Pré aux Clercs, another of the restaurants which the American writer had ruined for the locals, and he paused. The street, like many near the heart of Paris, was narrow and crowded. Two hundred years earlier, a famous french satirist had likened the neighborhoods of Paris as rat warrens fit only for Goths and Vandals, and even the efforts of Georges-Eugène Haussmann couldn’t shift buildings that had been in place for generations. Somewhere around here, he thought, glancing up at the uniformly uninspiring facades. The Salon des Cent had been housed along this block. Deschamps had published his literary magazine here. What was it? The Sword? No, that wasn’t it. La Plume. Yes. “The Pen.”

Dom recalled the last time he had played cards with Redon and Huysmans. It had been twenty years since the publication of Huysmans’s book, À rebours, a novel which had become symbolic, if you will, of the Symbolist movement. Redon had, of course, benefited from the publication of the book as well, given the protagonist’s obsession with the artist’s work. For the literati of the late 19th century, having a Redon sketch on your wall signaled to like-minded aesthetes that you, too, were prone to fits of melancholic recall about past debaucheries. 

Anyway, it had been upstairs, separate from the salon, where he, Odilon, Jors-Karl, Léon, and a few others had played cards through the night. At some point, a gentleman who Jors-Karl had just cleaned out made a disparaging comment about Huysmans’s famous novel, calling it filthy and perverted. Redon—sweet sweet Redon—quietly said: “You do realize you are in the presence of the man whom Jean des Esseintes is based on.” 

The evening got a little chaotic at that point. There were some heated words, a scuffle developed (much to Deschamps’s dismay), and a window was smashed. Most of the players were swiftly banned from the Salon.

It wasn’t the first place that Dom had been thrown out of, and it wouldn’t be the last, but as he stood in front of weathered doors of 31 Rue Bonaparte, Dom felt a twinge of regret. Not for punching the sneering gentleman in the face—that fellow had quite plainly asked to be smacked. No, it had been the look on Léon Deschamps face. That look of utter betrayal. The man hosted weekly poetry readings in this space. Salon des Cent had been created as a haven from the ruder aspects of mankind. In fact, years before, Dom had been an early investor in La Plume, and now, he was merely another boorish bloody-knuckler of the middle class. 

Dom still had a Redon sketch. It hung on the back of the bathroom door in his apartment. You only noticed it when you were sitting down. 

 

Eventually, Dom ended up at Hôtel Napoleon, which you will find at the end of a leisurely stroll that—follow along now in our Joycean perambulation—starts at 31 Rue Bonaparte, and heads north for awhile. You turn left at La République, the statue by Jean-François Soitoux, which is at the base of Rue Bonaparte, and walk along the river (passing the Musée d’Orsay, where you can see a number of Odilon Redon’s paintings and sketches). Soon thereafter, turn right and cross over the Seine via the Pont de la Concorde, and then dawdle awhile in the gardens outside the Louvre, as the sun slowly fades behind the buildings on the Left Bank. Then, as the Avenue des Champs-Élysee starts to wake, you follow that straight arrow flight that cuts through Paris from the museum to the Arc de Triomphe. Finally, just before the clamorous circuit around the Arc, you turn right and pass through the unassuming doors of the Hôtel Napoleon. 

Why the Napoleon? Well, it was not far from the Aviation Club, one of the two private clubs which hadn’t barred Dom outright. He had, during the hour or so it had taken him to walk from Bonaparte to Bonaparte, settled on the classic ruse of a suitably stylish female companion to distract the eyes at the door of the Aviation Club. If they were busy looking at her, he figured, they wouldn’t pay much attention to him. And if he could get in, he could get a seat at a table. 

Showing up is half the battle. Napoleon said that, shortly before arriving in Moscow late in 1812. Of course, the locals had abandoned the city prior to the French Army's arrival and the walk home proved to be disastrous, but Napoleon had shown up. Dom was hoping to have a better exit strategy. 

*

CHAPTER 3

The biggest issue with Le Bivouac—the restaurant inside the Hotel Napoleon—was that it was primarily a restaurant. It had two decadently decorated dining areas—the upright arms of an ‘H,’ if you need to imagine its layout. Both sides opened onto the heated patio out front, which made it possible to see and be seen during the winter months. There was a banquet room in the back on the left side, and the right side allowed access to the hotel proper. The bar—such as it was—was located between both sides, and while it was reasonably stocked with fine liquor, it was very small. 

The reason for this was because Le Bivouac was, first and foremost, a restaurant meant to service the patrons of the hotel. One of the reasons to approach the bar was because you and your party had arrived early for a reservation, and a cocktail always makes waiting easier, doesn’t it? A second was because you were waiting for your lavish-attired dinner guest to make her entrance, and again, a cocktail spends up the passage of time. There were three stools at the bar in Le Bivouac. None of them were occupied by half-pickled locals who spent their evening hours nursing a gin and tonic. This was not that sort of place. 

If you wanted to float yourself with vodka, there were other establishments suited for that. Darker places. Places without polished sconces and fine art on the walls. Places without staff in jackets and ties. Places where it didn’t cost a night’s lodging at some sweaty flophouse for a finger of Scotch. 

The problem with such places is that they were not frequented by women of a certain caliber, a caliber that Dom hoped to attract into his clever game of appearances and high-stakes card play. A class of woman much like the one approaching the bar in Le Bivouac right now, in fact. She was wreathed in lemon-colored silk, and her hair was a coil of frozen flame. Blue shards—like ice, threatening to melt—sparkled in an arc across her throat. More ice dripped from her ears. Her eyes were green (like his, but not quite as verdant), and her lips were the color of summer roses. Ah, yes, he thought. Even among the glitterati who came down to earth at Le Calliope, or at L’Etoille she would be a radiant star. 

He rapped his knuckles on the bar, getting the bartender’s attention. He forked two fingers at his near-empty glass. The bartender gave him a glance that said: Way ahead of you, monsieur. 

The woman glided up to the bar. She had seen him notice her—Dom suspected she noticed everyone’s attention without giving any of her own—and she offered him a tiny smile as she put her silver clutch on the bar. She extracted a silver cigarette case and withdrew a single cigarette from it. She tapped it on the case, twice, and brought it up to her mouth. Dom noticed her nail polish matched her lips. Tiny lettering circled the cigarette, just above the marbled filter. Gauloises, he thought. 

Traditionally, Gauloises were stubby unfiltered things, packed with dark and distinctive tobacco from Turkish plantations. The patriotic cigarette, if you will, one that was as emblematic of France as a Camel was for America. Writers liked them, of course, as did dilettantes and zealots. They were statements, as much as diamonds and lemon silk dresses.  

Dom produced a lit match from somewhere. It wasn’t magic, even though he made an effort to make it appear as if it were. He had several loose matches in his jacket pocket for occasions such as this. When no one was looking at him—which was not uncommon when women such as this made their entrance—he palmed one, and it was no matter to scratch the sulfur with his thumbnail as he rotated the match in his hand. 

She put her hand on his as she leaned forward and allowed the flame to caress the end of her cigarette. The tobacco crackled, her eyes met his, and her hand lingered a second after she was done lighting her cigarette. 

He hesitated, watching her. Was she going to blow out the match? Would she shape that mouth into a perfect circle and—

She sucked in her cheeks, and the tobacco snapped and died. Her gaze was cool and aloof. I don’t purse and blow for just any man, her gaze said. Especially not for one who hasn’t even bought me a drink yet. 

Of course you aren’t, Dom replied with an equally cool gaze. He pinched out the flame with his fingers, because, apparently, it was going to be that sort of conversation. And yes, the flame hurt, but it was going to be worth it with her, wasn’t it? 

She raised a perfectly plucked eyebrow, noting his tolerance for a little pain. Approving of it. She exhaled a conical jet of smoke. “What are we drinking?” she asked. The huskiness of her voice betrayed her predilection for the national cigarette. Two packets a day, Dom thought. 

He wasn’t judging. During the War, he had had a not dissimilar habit. Of course, in the trenches, you smoked to keep the mustard gas from soaking into your lungs. She probably had a different reason for her habit, but it wasn't his place to ask. 

The bartender had put two martini glasses on the bar. The contents were the color of fragrant tulips. Like Isabella, he thought, remembering a different lifetime. The way the fields glowed in the morning light. 

“It’s called the Salomé,” the bartender said. 

The woman picked up one of the glasses. “Didn’t she dance for a king?” she asked. 

“She did,” Dom said. He chided himself for getting maudlin. Especially at a time like this! He knew his current situation would pass—it always had before—but that didn’t stop part of him from worrying that it was over. That he was done with all the other lives he had led. This one was the only one he had left. And while it wasn’t terrible—compared to London in 1665, for instance—it was not his favorite. 

“Do you dance?” 

Dom blinked. “Excuse me?” 

“I was wondering if you danced,” the woman asked. “Because you seem like you’d be a terrible partner. You are not very good at reading cues.” 

Dom laughed, banishing the melancholic shroud in his head. He picked up his glass and raised it to the gorgeous woman in lemon silk who was dangerously close to being bored with him. “Touché,” he said. “Here’s to the delightful dance of strangers in bars.” 

“And to more wanton frolicking when they are no longer strangers,” she said. 

Dom choked on his drink. It was the proper decision, of course. It was better to cough and wheeze like his lungs were on fire—which they were—instead of blowing a mouthful of cocktail all over a lovely woman in a form-fitting dress. Standards must be upheld, after all. 

She watched him, an amused expression on her face. “Oh, dear,” she said innocently when he managed to breath without convulsing. “Did I trod on your toe?” 

“You lead better than I,” Dom admitted. 

She exhaled a plume of smoke and smiled. “I studied under Lifar,” she said. 

Dom tried to place the name. “But not anymore,” he said, somewhat obviously, but mostly to buy some time. 

“Not anymore,” she said, playing the enigmatic game as adroitly as he. 

He considered asking What happened?, but knew the answer. A shrug. A tilt of the head. Downcast eyes. Maybe two words—“the War.” It had changed everything  big and small, and even now, more than a decade later, there were still shards of pain locked away in people’s hearts. There was nothing that could be done about changing that, he knew. Nothing at all. 

“You are a strange man,” she said, putting her empty glass down on the bar. “You have eyes like a wolf. I see how they look at me. I see how they look at the rest of the room. But the light in them, it flickers. Like a candle flame buffeted by a breeze.” She leaned closer to him, and he inhaled the heady scent of her perfume. “Am I too strong a breeze for you?” she whispered. 

He found himself. Maybe it was in her scent—a rush of, yes, tulips, of course. Maybe it was in the light reflecting in the diamonds around her neck. Maybe it was in the vibration he felt under his fingers when he reached out and touched her wrist. “I’m—

No, the vibration wasn’t coming from her. It was coming his glass. From her glass. From all the glasses in the racks behind the bar. From the crystal chandeliers swaying rudely from the ceiling. They were all vibrating. Keening from a harmonic disturbance that he alone knew. That he thought had been hidden from him. That was—

It’s not possible, he thought. 

The tall panes of glass that separated the banquet room from the main dining area shattered. The recessed lights in the wall sconces flickered, grew brighter, and then went out. A wind—more than a stiff breeze, and one that made steady the flicker in Dom’s eyes—blew through the room. There was rainfall in the corner, and near the patio, hail clattered off a table. 

A door opened, and a traveler came through.  

CONTINUE TO PART TWO :: RETURN