from The Devil's Web

by Lillian Augspurger

Here to your service I will bind me;
Beck when you will, I will not pause or rest;
But in return when yonder you will find me,
Then likewise shall you be at my behest.”
—Mephistopheles; Goethe’s Faust

Paris; December 1894

Chapter 1

No matter who the client is, or what they ask, it’s always the same: arrive punctually—not early, never late—to an unlocked door and a darkened room. Never give your real name—always “Odile” instead of “Eugenie.” Always lock the door upon entering, but keep a weapon within arm’s reach. Preferably, within hand’s reach. Never reveal your cards, and speak as little as required. Most important, take any threats seriously, and prepare for them.

The client was a man named Balustrade. It was my first time working for him, but that hardly lessened the danger.

“I trust you know why I asked for you to come tonight.”

He spoke softly, carefully, as if every word needed to be chosen with utmost caution. I stood at the opposite end of the room, staring at the back of his chair.

“Yes,” I said, “at least part of it.”

This made him laugh. “Odile,” he said. “You are charming.” He gestured to a mahogany table, on top of which stood a bottle of wine and two glasses. “A drink?”

“No, thank you,” I replied.

“You’re straight to business? Very well.” Balustrade held a newspaper for me to take. “Oscar Legère,” he said. “He was close friends with Baron Haussmann. Old money; he’s a member of the Chamber of Deputies now, but it’s likely he’ll eventually run for a position in the Senate.”

“I’ve heard of him,” I said, taking the newspaper in my gloved hands. By the dim gaslight in the room, I could distinguish a picture of a bald, mustachioed man at a podium, addressing a crowd. Legère Calls for Military Reform, the headline ran.

“As it happens, he is quite fond of gambling, and to preserve his reputation he has borrowed a great deal of money from me; a great deal which he has not returned. He will ruin me, and I cannot afford to take that chance.”

I stood in silence, staring for several moments at the picture.

“How, and how soon?” I asked.

“As soon as you can, a month at most,” Balustrade replied. “I do not like waiting, and this man will continue to cause me great damage and cost me a small fortune unless he, ah, meets his demise. See that he does—by any means you choose—and see that my thirty thousand francs make their way back into my hands.”

I folded the paper and slipped it into the small bag I carried.

“And, Mademoiselle,” Balustrade said as I turned to leave. “Do be careful. I would hate to have to cause any unpleasantness between us.”

A wispy veil of snow had begun to cover the Opera Garnier, snowflakes resting briefly on the gilded statues of Apollo and Pegasus before disappearing as quickly as they had come. Below the dome of the Pavillon des Abonnés, black umbrellas blossomed over the heads of socialite wives as they dismounted from their carriages. Beneath the gaze of Apollo, broughams arrived and left, the opera-goers they contained hurrying to the doors.

I hurried along with them, not only rushed by eagerness to see the night’s production of Gounoud’s Faust, but also by my need to watch for Legère. A figure of his importance would surely be seen mounting the Grand Escalier only moments before the performance.

Out of the collection of lives I had taken, this one, by far, had proven to be one of the most challenging. The usual targets had been debtors of no significant social standing, all easily eliminated with promises of bribes and an unfortunate, fatal meeting in an alley. Legère, by contrast, was a politician with growing influence, constantly surrounded by the press and fellow members of the elite. I’d meticulously watched the man’s comings and goings, paying more attention than normal to the politics sections of the daily papers. I learned that he had a wife and two young children, and that his increasing debts were gradually becoming a threat to his run for a place in Senate. Legère, I gathered, was a man of habit, and one of his habits was to attend the performances—ballets and operas—every Saturday night at the Garnier.

Warmth wrapped around me as soon as I stepped into the building. Though I had been to the Garnier on several occasions, I never tired of its grandeur and opulence—the gilded mirrors lining the Grand Foyer, the ornate patterns in the granite floor, even the sculpted salamanders on the bronze heating pipes lining the stairwell. A line of patrons ascended the grand staircase, all finely dressed, the women glittering in the light of the candelabra. I stood at the base of the staircase, removed my coat, and examined the night’s program, all while keeping a close eye on the procession, ready to find Legère.

Ten minutes until the curtain rose, I saw him—with his Father-Christmas belly, balding head, and mustache to rival that of Kaiser Wilhelm—ascend the grand staircase, a young woman I did not recognize clinging to his arm. It was not difficult to slip into the procession behind Legère and his companion, and to take my seat behind them in the auditorium beneath the extravagant chandelier.

After careful consideration, I had decided to use arsenic. Unlike cyanide, it does not smell of almonds or turn blue when mixed with other liquids. It leaves no traces; there would be no trail linking the woman in the indigo evening gown to the broken champagne flute on the parquet floor of the Sun Room during intermission. Legère was certain to retire to the Sun Room for customary champagne; it was the perfect opportunity to speak with fellow politicians and dignitaries, an opportunity that would surely gain him at least a small place in the next day’s papers. In my toilette kit—the customary item a lady of elegance would bring to the Opera—I had a small vial of arsenic, which I would empty into a champagne glass that I would in turn swap with Legère’s own. Simple, almost dangerously so, but the Opera would be the most convenient place to eliminate Legère without having to lure him somewhere covert and risk him being followed by the press. I had brought a dose that was strong enough to take effect quickly, two hours at most, and would leave as soon as I had ensured Legère was dead. It was common enough for even the most well-bred to leave the opera before the conclusion.

I had also had the foresight to obtain Balustrade’s thirty thousand francs before coming to the Opera. Legère—bless him—had made this contract only too easy. I had learned that he kept a well-stocked safe in his office; therefore, quietly breaking into the first-floor office, finding the combination to the safe, and taking the money with no incident had been child’s play. The money was safely stored in my own new flat in the Rue de Rivoli. I wouldn’t have to go to the unfathomable extra lengths to steal back the small fortune from a house swarming with police officers after the death of a prominent politician. Among the many skills I learned as a teenager during the Prussians’ siege of Paris, burglary had proven to be one of the most useful.

The knowledge that I would have to leave Faust early pained me greatly. For the moment, however, I leaned against the crimson velvet seat, settled my arms on the ornate gilded armrests, and observed the elite taking their places in their private boxes. While I waited, I perused the program. The celebrated soprano Marie Cygnie would play the role of Marguerite. This only added to my disappointment of having to leave early. I had read the glorious reviews of La Cygnie’s performance in Le Figaro three days prior:

To hear La Cygnie in the role of Marguerite is to know the purest form of sound. It is to know the pure anguish of the fallen heroine, to have one’s heart rent in two. The “Jewel Song” is sung with such emotion that one who has not heard it has not known beauty. Truly, when La Cygnie reaches the final “Non! c’est la fille d’un roi, / Qu’on salue au passage,” the listener has been taken on an odyssey of joy to defy any other.

La Cygnie, who dazzled last season in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro as Countess Almaviva, triumphs again. Her pure, bell-like coloratura and stunning purity of sound seems to radiate from every fiber of her being, and the listener may, as Marguerite does, feel the thrill of receiving splendid riches—both of jewels and the first blossom of new love.

Regarding La Cygnie’s triumph during The Marriage of Figaro, I wholeheartedly agreed with the reviews. I would no doubt have agreed, too about her performance of the “Jewel Song,” that which I was, sadly, going to miss tonight. La Cygnie was indeed leagues better than the Garnier’s previous star, Emma Larousse, had been. While Larousse had been technically flawless, her singing did not hold the same purity of sound as that of La Cygnie. Laeousse’s cadenzas were always too decadent, and she displayed her vocal abilities more often than she emphasized the emotions of the piece. La Cygnie, on the other hand, had reduced me to tears during Lucia di Lammermoor with her rendition of Lucia.

Balustrade did not share my love and respect for opera or famed sopranos. Doubtless, he was already telling some mistress of his how his avenger was out for blood and that all debts would be repaid tonight. She would be in furs and diamonds once I finished. Doubtless too, he had neglected to inform her that his avenger was not, in fact, a brawny and hulking brute, but a slight young woman. Balustrade did, however, share my love of fine things and the ability to afford them. Though I had never fulfilled a contract for him before, the collection of Japanese prints on his wall and the flat in one of Paris’s most fashionable quarters couldn’t have come at a low price.

I had followed Legère that evening, letting him out of my sight only when he took the fiacre to the Opera and I took a separate one, knowing I would see him mount the Grand Escalier. I, too, had dined at Maxim’s, watching him. Accompanied only by one young woman, he alone ate enough for three men—soft escargots with garlic butter, foie-gras smeared on two baskets’ worth of sliced bread, then boeuf bourguignon with potatoes au gratin and sautéed vegetables, washed down with two glasses of a very expensive (I assumed) Pinot Noir, and finished with a bowl of vanilla sorbet with a cognac sauce. How the man ate that much and still managed to walk to the fiacre will remain one of Paris’s greatest unsolved mysteries. I had dined far more lightly. Though I am not inexperienced in my line of work, murder never sits quietly with my nerves.

Three weeks of tracking Legère’s movements brought me to sit behind him in the Opera Garnier, waiting to hear La Cygnie in the role of Marguerite for however brief a time.

Excitement coursed through me as the overture began. As is customary, the light dimmed only slightly at the Garnier once the performance began; the purpose for many of the opera’s patrons is to see and be seen. I, however, was there for my usual cocktail of business and pleasure. War has a strange way of making animals of us all, and the instinct to survive was sharper than any of the daggers in my collection. I may have lost my taste for blood, but Oscar Legère had fortunately not lost his taste for champagne.

The curtain rose on Faust’s study. There was tumultuous applause when La Cygnie appeared in the second act, despite the fact that she had no lines. Simply seeing her onstage, knowing she would crown the rest of the opera with her brilliance was enough.

Quicker than even I anticipated, the intermission came. The patter of whispers morphed into a squall of voices, and with a crescendo the storm of sound filled the room from the depths of the orchestra pit to the highest tier of the chandelier. Oscar Legère talked animatedly to his escort, a tittering woman in a gaudy lilac dress with layers reminiscent of puff pastry. Slowly, he stood, folded his program, and filed out of the row to the aisle. I followed suit.

We made our gradual way to the Sun Room, where suited waiters carried silver platters bearing small forests of champagne flutes. Legère strutted between his fellow elite and nouveau-riche. His hand hung near a glass. I held my breath, waiting for the opportune moment to brush against him. A fellow member of the Chamber of Deputies stopped him mid-stride back to the auditorium and tapped his shoulder. Legère turned, and soon the men were in a lengthy and animated conversation about the Dreyfus Affair. The scandal had rocked the city, and former political allies were hastening to ensure their continued allegiance. The man steered Legère towards an empty patch of wall so they could talk privately. Legère set his glass on a nearby table; the luck of the devil was with me. I took a glass of champagne from a passing waiter and emptied the contents of the tiny vial into it. The new liquid was as traceless as water; there was no swirling of colors or filtering of powder. I took a feigned sip, set the glass next to Legère’s, and surveyed the scene. I picked up his glass, took a second imaginary sip, and disappeared into the crowd, depositing Legère’s former glass on a passing tray. Legère would amble back into the hall, sit in his velvet chair, and not leave the room for the next intermission. Balustrade would regain his losses, the murder would be traceless, and I would have enough in my safe to keep me quiet and well-fed for at least another month. I have been called “L’Araignée,” “The Spider”—I strike, then retreat back to my web with my prize to wait.

I picked up a glass of champagne—fresh, to be sure—and wound my way back to my chair in the hall. The job had been simple, and I could allow myself to sit through one more act before I had to disappear. No one would notice if Legère missed the next intermission. I sat back, sipped my champagne—high quality, like everything at the Garnier—and waited for Legère to return.

The lights dimmed slightly. Surely, Legère was still deep in conversation with the egg-headed Chamber of Deputies member.

The first scene passed. Legère still had not returned. My eyebrows came together slightly; this had not been part of the plan. Legère should have been back, deep discussion or not. He couldn’t have left; he always stayed late to conduct business and ensure he had been seen by enough important people. He couldn’t have died so soon either; I had calculated the dose specifically to take at least an hour and a half, but no more than two hours to take full effect, leaving time for me to escape to the new flat. It became difficult to focus on the plot; I barely concentrated on La Cygnie’s marvelous “Jewel Song.”

At the second intermission, the line of overdressed elite made its serpentine way out of the hall. I watched my quickened breathing rustle the plumes on the sleeves of the woman in front of me.

The space in the Sun Room previously occupied by Legère and his political ally was empty. Not even a champagne glass remained to testify they had stood there. I had killed, and there was no corpse. In ordinary circumstances, this would have been almost a delight, but no corpse meant no payment, and Balustrade’s warning rang in my ears: Do be careful, Mademoiselle. I would hate to have to cause any unpleasantness between us.

Perhaps the effects of the arsenic had made him feel ill, and he had gone to collect his coat early. I headed to the cloakrooms, my heart beating a frantic staccato against my ribs.

“Excuse me, Mademoiselle. You do know that this is the way to the cloakroom, yes?”

I nearly jumped. A man of medium height had stepped into the corridor in front of me. Immediately, I analyzed my new potential adversary. His mop of titian curls seemed to stick up from his skull, yet he was immaculately dressed. A rich eccentric, perhaps? Wealthy enough to afford such apparel and to attend the Opera, and also to disregard several standards of modern taste without bad press. The sort of man easily taken care of by a few lies, smiles, and a little ego-stroking.

“Thank you for letting me know,” I began, smiling. “I’m searching for my escort, who is not half so handsome as you.”

“Mademoiselle, you flatter me,” the little man smiled back. I estimated him to be in his mid-thirties, roughly my age. I walked past him; his footsteps followed mine and soon he was beside me, now armed with a notepad and a pen.

“Excuse me, but you wouldn’t be waiting for Oscar Legère, would you?”

My insides froze, then dropped. “What makes you think that?” I asked, keeping my voice as level as possible.

“Who else would you wait for, since it means missing such an exquisite performance? I, too, noted his absence, and was myself on the way to see if I could interview him before he departs. After his rather…controversial remarks regarding the Dreyfus scandal, I assume many here tonight wish to have words with the man.”

“I would hardly call this performance ‘exquisite,’ Monsieur,” I said, quickening my pace. “I am leaving because I find the pianist mediocre at best. I couldn’t care less about talking to the man.”

He was not so easily deterred. “You would call this performance only ‘mediocre?’ Are you really suggesting you know more about the piano than the pianist of the Opera Garnier? This is all really beside the point—do you know who I am?”

“For your information,” I began, feeling an uncanny rush of anger at men such as this prattling fool who dared insult my musical knowledge. “I studied piano at the Paris Conservatory before the war broke out. I was accepted at only sixteen because of my brilliance. So yes, I believe I am qualified to make that assumption. And,” I added, clenching my gloved fists. “I do not know who you are.”

“Vincent St. Clair,” he said, giving a little bow. “Reporter for Le Rayon, and author of the Jacques Bijoux detective novels. And, Mademoiselle, I assure you I meant no offense. My sincerest apologies. The fact of the matter is, I plan to write an explosive article on Legère and his rather…unfavorable views concerning certain members of the French army, and society as a whole. For the past two months, I have been following his movements carefully, though I have never seen you here before.”

A reporter. I hadn’t just been seen, I had been seen by a reporter. It couldn’t have been a doddering old soldier or a merchant’s complacent wife, who wouldn’t put two and two together. It had to be a reporter, whose hobby was writing successful crime novels, and who had probably taken notes and already found my new address.

“Ah,” I said, searching my mind for an escape route. “How charming. I have never heard of your novels.”

By now the opera was about to resume for the fourth act, and the throngs of people were returning to the auditorium. St. Clair, however, did not join them.

“Do you not wish to return to the opera?” I asked.

“I, too, wish to see if Legère is in this room. Besides, Mademoiselle,” he smiled again. “If I am indeed half as handsome as you say, I would hate to deprive you of my company.”

We had reached the door. I extended my gloved hand to open it, but St. Clair had beaten me to it.

With a sharp jerk of his wrist, the door swung open.

We stood, gaping.

Leaning against a corner of the small cloakroom was Oscar Legère, with a deep wound in his chest. A trail of crimson blood had run down his legs and pooled at his feet. His mushroom-like head lolled grotesquely to one side; his icy blue eyes stared lifelessly ahead. I approached slowly, like one in a dream. St. Clair stood behind me, muttering the Hail Mary. I gingerly pushed up Legère’s head; it fell back to its position as soon as I stepped back.

“Christ,” St. Clair whispered, stepping closer. He began scribbling furiously in his notebook.

“Monsieur, we need to get out of here.” My instinct to run and hide was taking increasing control. “If anyone finds us here with this, they’re going to assume we did it.”

“Shouldn’t we call the gendarmes?”

“No. The safest thing for you to do is leave. If you wish, go back and enjoy the rest of the opera.”

“Mademoiselle, I don’t understand.” St. Clair’s pen was now still, his eyes now fixated on the gruesome sight in front of us.

“You wouldn’t,” I stood next to the corpse, staring back at St. Clair. “And neither would I.”

“This could be the story of my career!” He was still staring, now in a sort of awe, at the body. “Just think—I’m the first reporter on the scene. ‘Oscar Legère, potential candidate for Senate, killed barely weeks after the Dreyfus Affair.’ Reporters everywhere would kill for a chance like this.”

“This is a murder; don’t you understand? That means the murderer is possibly still here.” I searched Legère’s pockets. His wallet was still there. However, in the pocket beside it, was a slip of paper, with an address marked on it: 312 Rue de Rivoli.

My heart began beating even faster. My new flat was only one number off, 212 Rue de Rivoli. My thoughts flew to my butler and longtime friend, Soulier. If someone knew I had stolen Balustrade’s money from Legère, and were desperate enough to possibly kill for it….

“Whoever did this wasn’t looking for money,” I remarked to St. Clair, replacing the wallet and trying my best to sound collected.

He peered over my shoulder at the piece of paper. Even in the dim light, I saw his face pale. “My God,” he breathed. Taking the piece of paper, he put it carefully in his pocket. “This is…quite disturbing. Nonetheless, I’m going to the police. Be careful, Mademoiselle.”

With more haste than I would have expected from him, St. Clair left the room. I calculated fifteen minutes at best before police arrived on the scene.

I fetched my coat and hurried to the exit. The snow was falling harder now, and I stepped into one of the waiting fiacres. 312 Rue de Rivoli.

“Rue de Rivoli,” I ordered the driver. The fiacre moved over the cobblestones, its jolting progress imitating the jumbled events of the evening.

Chapter 2

It was barely eleven by the time the brougham reached the Rue de Rivoli. The street lamps had been lit, casting a mellow golden glow on the snowy streets. The last cafes were closing, the last patrons walking out of barrooms singing bawdy carols. A few women waved at them from the doorways, only their skirts catching the weak beams of the light. Bunches of holly, their red berries like dots of rouge, hung with the hams in a butcher’s window; a large fir wreath adorned a bakery door. The brougham passed all of these, and stopped before a row of Haussmann’s identical apartments.

Straight and orderly, the only thing out of place was the streak of moisture where the gutter met the beige stones. Identical iron balconies reached to catch snowflakes. My new flat was located on the third floor. Before the Rivoli, I had lived on a street closer to Montmartre. However, Balustrade’s request had required a change of location if I wanted to keep a constant eye on Legère.

The Rivoli is one of the more fashionable streets, and located just south of the Garnier. When Soulier had told me that a flat was available on this street, it was the obvious choice for my new home. He had done admirably searching for my new residence, making sure to give me all the details of the building, its security, and the surrounding neighborhood. Parquet floors, a marble bath, elegant draperies, a decent kitchen, French doors leading into the parlor and onto the balcony—it couldn’t have been better.

I paid the driver, made my way briskly along the dimly lit sidewalk, arrived presently at 5 Rue de Rivoli and entered. The entryway was lined on either side by slabs of polished brown and pink marble that glinted like mirrors by the light of the small chandelier. The concierge, a young woman with pinched features and startlingly red hair, dozed behind the large desk. As I already had my keys in hand, I made my way up the stairs with as little noise as possible and arrived presently at room 212. The lights in the hall were dimmer than those on the street, and cast shadows in the doorways. I entered the flat cautiously, keeping a hand on the dagger in my handbag.

Soulier presently emerged from the kitchen, wiping his hands on a towel, and I collected my breath. Fifty, tall and thin, with a receding line of limp brown hair that was always immaculately swept behind his ears, Jean Soulier had lived with me ever since the end of the Commune. His brown eyes looked down at me over his rather large nose, and he smiled. “You’re back early.”

“The date went poorly, so I left him standing around the cloakroom during the third intermission,” I quipped. “I’m surprised you’re still awake.”

He frowned. “Eugenie, nothing went wrong, did it?”

“He’s dead.” It wasn’t a response, but it would be enough to stay his interrogations until I could fully compose myself and change out of the dress that, after dinner, was feeling a bit snugger than usual.

His face relaxed slightly. “Now you can put this whole business behind you. I was sitting up in case I had to go to the opera myself. This occupation is too dangerous.”

“It pays for this apartment, and for meals, and you. If I were you, I wouldn’t complain.”

“I wasn’t complaining,” he said quietly. “I was merely meant you can’t play this game too many times running. Remember the war?”

I shot him a glare I knew he didn’t deserve and made my way to the parlor.

“I trust you dined?” He asked.

“Yes, I ate already, and I won’t need anything else. But I will ask—have you heard or seen anything…unusual tonight?”

He frowned again. “Nothing out of the ordinary. What happened?”

“Just a precaution,” I smiled. “Paranoia. Probably nothing.”

With a nod, he left, bidding me goodnight as he did so. Soulier’s room was down the hall from my own, close enough to handle intruders, though I still slept with a dagger within arm’s reach.

A bath was in order. I turned the copper spigots and watched the water run into the tub as I began to undress, laying my clothing over the ornate Japanese screen. While the water ran, I checked my safe. The money I stole from Legère was still inside.

Steam had begun to fog the mirror by the time I turned off the water. It was deliciously warm, especially in contrast to the snow still swirling outside. Ordinarily, I would turn on my gramophone and listen to one of my recordings—perhaps a collection of Berlioz arias—but not tonight. Not only did I have Marie Cygnie’s voice still ringing in my head, I had the image of Legère to drown from my mind. Furthermore, the reporter troubled me. How much of the connection between myself and Legère did he know? I leant back, letting my hair swirl around my face in the steaming water, hearing every minute sound muffled, yet loud. It had been strange, even for something in my field of work.

I had never been beaten at my own game, and certainly not in a manner so grotesque. This had been overt, deliberate, meant to make a statement. Whoever was behind this had not intended the murder to be a secret from the police for long.

Who was Vincent St. Clair, really? I had heard of Le Rayon, though only briefly. From my understanding, it was one of the more liberal newspapers, and circulated only in Paris. Though I was hardly an expert, Soulier and I had read so many different newspapers following the outbreak of the Dreyfus Affair that it would have been astounding if we had left one untouched. I resolved to reinvestigate Le Rayon in the morning. If we still had a copy of the paper in the house, and St. Clair was half as famous as he claimed, he would surely have been the one to write about the scandal.

Though at first St. Clair had been unsettling, he was now unnerving. What if he had seen me switch the glasses, but was smart enough to know not to confront me? On the other hand, what if he had meant to confront me in the cloakroom, but seeing Legère’s corpse had put him off? Had he told the police? Though Legère had certainly not died of the arsenic poisoning, would the police be able to find evidence that I had tried to kill him?

I began to wish I had lingered longer at the opera. Had I stayed, I could have watched the case unfold if St. Clair had indeed called the police. As I scrubbed my feet, I imagined the investigators rushing to the crime scene and examining the body, making little notes in their little notebooks, interrogating the opera-goers and staff one by one. By the time I was running my washcloth over my face, I felt sure that St. Clair had ratted me out, and I would have been brought in for questioning. By the time I had begun to drain the tub and get dressed for bed, I was once-again grateful for having departed early.

As I gave the brocade coverlet a slight tug, already anticipating drifting into sleep, my eyes fell on the dagger on my bedside table. Soulier knew my habits, and knew to respect them. Though he said nothing, I suspected he had a similar habit. I wondered how often he dreamt of starving during the war, giving rats to hungry children while his own mouth watered. I wondered if he felt the same guilt as I, that we were lucky enough to have such abysmal professions during Prussia’s siege of Paris, when so many starved or died on the streets, exposed to three weeks of shelling. The lives we took enabled us to save our own.

We never talked about it unless we were drunk.

Lillian Augspurger has been thrilled to serve as the UNC Asheville intern to The Great Smokies Review for the past year. Born in Raleigh and currently residing in Asheville, she often finds herself reading and writing about nineteenth-century Paris. She is majoring in Creative Writing and French, and hopes to pursue a career in editing.

About The Devil’s Web: A blend of Goethe’s Faust, Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera, and a longtime love of murder mysteries, this is what I hope will turn out to be my first completed novel.