By Marcel Maurice and Pierre, translated by Ricky Sprague
translation © 2009 Ricky Sprague
THE UNFORTUNATE THIEF, JACQUES
Jacques’ step was heavy with dread, his tattered clothing encrusted with dried mud and grime. The man used something to prod him with more force than seemed necessary.
“Keep movin’, ya foul peasant.” The man, dressed in the blue and red uniform that Jacques all too readily recognized as the uniform of a City police officer, had a voice that was animalistic- almost savage.
“You’d think it was me bein’ charged with somethin’,” Jacques said, under his breath.
“Until th’ chief inspector hears your story, I don’t know how we’ll be dealin’ with you!”
In the inky blackness that immediately preceded dawn, Jacques was barely able to see the trampled grass of the ground on which he walked, let alone the decaying farming equipment and skeletal barn they now approached. His muscles ached with each step, a cruel reminder of the cold of the night, and of the long hours spent in a frantic race to escape the fearful thing of nightmares that had chased him.
The policeman, head down, stepped ahead of Jacques and used something he couldn’t quite make out- it might have been a piece of pipe or a musket- to press against the barn door. It moaned open, and Jacques was assaulted by the concentrated smells that Jacques believed common to any farm. The policeman took hold of his arm, and pulled him roughly inside. He forced Jacques to sit at a table and then forced the door closed.
Now all was ominous shadow, and the policeman’s voice came to Jacques as if something disembodied. “Don’t move from that there spot where I seated you,” the policeman said. Then there was the sound of a match being lit, and a spark became visible. The match seemed to float before him as the policeman lit the candle on the center of the table at which Jacques now realized he was seated.
The candle provided just enough illumination that Jacques could see a man sitting across from him, on the other side of the table. The man’s face was covered in murky shadow. As a common thief, Jacques knew the favored attire of Inspectors; the thick tweed coat that gave them a sense of importance, and he could see that his table-mate wore this outfit. Perhaps if the candlelight had been brighter, he might have recognized the Inspector’s face.
“This here’s Jacques,” the policeman said. “He’s a witness.” Then, to Jacques, he said, “Tell the Inspector what you saw!”
Jacques leaned forward slightly and felt the policeman’s hand on his shoulder. “Lean back in your chair an’ relax,” the policeman said, in a tone that sounded almost soothing. “Just relax an’ tell your story.”
Jacques was compelled to follow the policeman’s advice, leaning back and listening to the almost silence that surrounded him. From somewhere in the darkness he could hear the sound of something dripping. It had been nearly a fortnight since the last rain, but surely the water had collected in the gutters and through one of the many gaps in the structure’s walls and ceilings. Indeed, there was damp mustiness all around him. And the smell! It was one of many reasons that Jacques preferred to spend his time in the City. Not even the Bottoms got this bad.
“Can you-all protect me?” Jacques said.
“Just tell us your story,” a voice said. Although Jacques still could not see the Inspector’s face, he knew that the voice belonged to him. It was a full octave higher than the policeman’s, and coming from the inspector’s direction. “If you know anything important, you’ll be taken care of.”
Jacques sighed heavily and decided he’d better tell them everything he knew, if he had any chance of escaping with his life. “Two days ago, I was in the City, when I heard through tha Underground that Mme Possédant had just acquired the Coer de Merde diamond- tha largest diamond in the entire world! Naturally, I conspired to steal it.”
“How did you hear of this information? Be specific.”
“A man dressed in black come in to the Cat and the Fiddle, an’ announced it. I don’t know that anyone else believed him, but I knew it were true.”
“'Cause, Mme Possédant is rich! Rich people always have big diamonds like that!”
After a short pause, the voice asked, “Had you ever seen the man in black before?”
“What did he look like?”
“I don’t know!” Jacques’ voice was almost a whine. “He were dressed in black, with glasses and black hair and black moustache and eyebrows.”
“Fine. Continue with your story.”
“I took the train up to her estate at N’t’Pauvre, and I managed to sneak my way past the drunken chambermaid. Oh, she were a pretty one, that chambermaid! I say I actually thought twice about my endeavor-”
“Please don’t get bogged down,” the voice said. “We are losing time.”
Indeed, Jacques now noticed that sunlight was starting to penetrate the gaps in the walls and ceiling, and providing more illumination than the single candle. Still, Jacques could hardly see anything beyond the torso of his table-mate. He noticed now that the Inspector’s arms rested at his sides.
“I snuck meself up to the Mme Possédant’s quarters, an’ when I got to tha door, I heard from within the sounds of either pain or ecstasy, I couldn’t tell which one. All’s I thought was, weren’t it surprising, since most o’ tha upper crust people I ever run across turned out ta be real stale! Hahahaha!” Jacques laughed at his own joke, but neither the policeman nor the inspector seemed to find him amusing.
Jacques looked around, over his left shoulder, then his right, but did not see the policeman anywhere. “Say, is tha policeman what brung me here still about?”
“He is behind you, in the shadows,” the Inspector said, with irritation that Jacques found intimidating. “Now then, continue your story- quickly!”
“Right. Ah, well, anyway, I managed to sneak myself into tha next room over, which happened ta be tha bathroom. Through tha door, which was cracked a bit, I seen tha Mme on the floor, her skirts up over her back and shoulders, and over her was the strangest looking man I ever seen. He had in his right hand this narrow sort of cylinder, with a plunger he operated with his left hand. On tha other end, it had a long rubber nozzle, which ran from the cylinder in his hand to some point behind the Mme’s skirts.
“Then, suddenly, tha Mme screamed out, an’ weren’t no mistakin’ tha sound o’ that scream. It were tha scream o’ death, an then there was this sound of gushin’, an’ tha Mme was surrounded by a chunky pool o’ her own intestinal effluvia! I realized I’d just witnessed her gettin’ murdered by enema!”
“Then what happened? Did you see the face of the man who did it?”
Jacques was suddenly filled with the terror he’d been repressing. “I think he’d been wearing a mask, for there was a jester’s mask, with the long nose, on the floor beside the Mme. I figured it must have been knocked off in the struggle… Oh, I wish he’d still worn the mask, for tha face was tha face o’ pure evil it was…” Jacques leaned forward, only slightly, looking for some sign of sympathy from the Investigator. All he heard was that eerie dripping sound.
“Don’t ask me to disclose no further information! ‘Twas enough ta make even tha stoutest o’ blood veer off an’ scream, terrible-like!”
Jacques frantically searched the Investigator’s face, which he could almost make out, thanks to the increasing light from the rising sun. The face, what he could see of it, was inscrutable.
“Oh, why ya got to do this ta me? He’ll kill me, he will, if he finds out I described ‘im to ya!”
The Inspector’s face was impassive, almost blank.
“Fine!” Jacques screamed, frustrated by the Investigator’s lack of compassion. “His eyes were red as tha blood-reddest sky! His nose were shaped like tha shape o’ pure evil! His mouth was curled up inna snarl, sorta like tha snarl o’ tha most evil animal you ever did see!”
By now the light was enough that Jacques was able to make out the Inspector’s face completely. The eyes stared ahead, unmoving, unblinking. There were no movements such as one might expect to see from someone breathing. Behind the Inspector’s chair, Jacques believed he could just barely make out the figure of another person, and he had the chilling thought that the person was the policeman who’d brought him here.
“Have you more to say?” the policeman said, but in the inspector’s voice.
“Please, policeman- something seems to be wrong with tha Inspector-”
The policeman laughed. “You silly fool,” he said. “There’s no policeman here!”
“But- I thought you-”
“I never told you I was a policeman!” the man Jacques believed to be a policeman said, viciously. “You simply assumed that when I handcuffed you and told you I’d place you under arrest if you didn’t submit to our questions!”
Jacques was thinking suddenly with great clarity, as if the illumination provided by the rising sun was burning the fog from his mind. He realized the terrible sound of dripping was coming from directly in front of him, from under the table. But he was too afraid to look.
“Please, sir! I beg of you! Let me go!”
“But you saw my face,” the man said. “Your description of me was perfect. Any officer of the law would be able to spot me.”
Jacques tried to stand, but found he was too terrified to move at all. “I won’t tell no one, I swear-”
“But you just told me, with hardly any prodding at all.”
“No! That was just ‘cause you- you musta hypnotized me, or something!”
More laughter. “If I’d wanted to hypnotize you, I could have! I could have you believe I’m anyone- I could appear to you to be five metres tall, if I wanted!”
Jacques had a pathetic, frantic thought, and leaned forward toward the Inspector. “Please, Inspector, you got to help me! You got to stop him!”
“The Inspector can’t help you,” the voice said. “I’ve already cleaned him out!” He nudged the Inspector’s shoulder, and his body toppled off the chair and onto the floor, accompanied by the sound of a horrible splash.
The Inspector’s body was now lying on the floor, in what Jacques now saw was a chunky pool of his own intestinal effluvia.
Jacques looked up just in time to see the figure of the man he’d believed to be a policeman leaping toward him, tube in hand, and he realized that he himself was about to be murdered by enema.
His scream was something like ecstasy and pain.
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