Authors: If You Deceive
And after she’d completed those arduous travels, she was rewarded with…La Marais.
Her cab rolled to a jerky stop in front of her ancient tenement building. Centuries ago, this area had been the playground of kings, and her building, with its slate roof and high Gothic style, had probably been a lord’s mansion in the sixteen hundreds. Yet it had since been sectioned off into cheap boarding rooms, and like the entire area, it had been ravaged by time and marked by decay.
As soon as she stepped from the cab, Maddy heard the unmistakable, heavily accented English of her two nemeses, the sisters Odette and Berthé Crenate.
“Miss High-and-Mighty Madeleine’s returned,” Odette called from their stoop across the street, fluffing her titian-dyed hair. “And in a cab, too. No omnibus for her.”
When the driver lugged Maddy’s trunk from the rear boot, Berthé added, “Careful, driver, she’ll try to get you to take her trunk up—and she’s
Maddy swung a glare at the sisters. They loved to ridicule her sixth-floor home. In Paris, the highest floors were reserved for the poorest—her building only went to six.
” the man asked with raised eyebrows and an outstretched palm. After Maddy paid him, he drove off without a backward glance.
Fantastic. Somehow she had to get the trunk up one hundred and two stairs. In an unlit stairwell.
has her work cut out for her
” Odette added, snickering.
Maddy stilled, balling her hands into fists.
meant “imp” or “urchin,” but it also meant “street child.” She loathed it when they called her that.
Just as she was about to wade into the fray, Maddy heard from behind her, “Berthé, Odette,
fermez vos bouches
.” Maddy turned to find her friend Corrine emerging from the dark building, descending the front steps. Corrine, a fellow expatriate Englishwoman, was like a mother to her. Years before, when Maddy had had nowhere else to go, Corrine had taken her in.
Grabbing one end of the trunk, Corrine raised her eyebrows and waved Maddy on to pick up the other. With a sigh, Maddy did, and together they wound around the harmless drunks snoozing on the stoop. Inside, they entered the tunnel-like stairwell. Maddy had climbed the rickety steps to her room in the pitch blackness so often that she didn’t even have to use the rope that acted as a banister.
Once they reached her landing and dropped the trunk, Blue-Eyed Beatrix swung open her apartment door directly across from Maddy’s. Whenever Bea heard the board at the stair-head groan, she hurried out, hoping either Maddy or Corrine was leaving the building and would fetch her goods from outside—any of the three Cs she lived on: coffee, croissants, and cigarettes—so she wouldn’t have to make the journey down the stairs more than twice a day.
Bea was a prostitute, known in La Marais as Bea the Whore. Maddy found the name offensive; moreover, it really was useless in a definitive sense, considering that most of the females here—like Berthé and Odette—were prostitutes as well.
Maddy had begun to call her Blue-Eyed Bea because of her pretty eyes, but this had proved eerily prophetic. Maurice, the man Bea had fallen in love with, had a nasty habit of giving her black eyes—or “blue eyes” as the people in La Marais called them. She had one right now.
“How did you fare, Maddée?” Bea asked breathlessly. “Was the trip a success?”
Maddy was bedraggled, exhausted—and back here. A good wager said
. Bea was a bit simple sometimes. “I failed. I told you both he was out of my league.” She removed the key ribbon she usually wore around her neck and unlocked the door to her colorful apartment. Scuffing directly to the bed, she fell forward on it. “It was a debacle, all the way around,” she muttered against her threadbare cover.
Corrine sat beside her and patted her shoulder. “Let’s have some tea, then,” she said. “And you can tell us all about it.”
Talk about her disastrous trip? What could it hurt? Maddy couldn’t feel worse. “Very well.
Faisons du thé
. Lots of tea.”
While the water boiled and her friends began unpacking all the dazzling gowns she’d soon have to sell, Maddy drew back her scarlet baize curtains to open the casement windows to her balcony.
She was secretly proud of her home, pleased with what she’d been able to do to it with such limited resources. To conceal the crumbling plaster, she’d pasted a collage of bright playbills and opera posters on the wall. The entire room was awash with sumptuous fabrics, thanks to a friend at
who alerted Maddy whenever a company discarded props and materials. Maddy always got there before the ragpickers.
On her diminuitive balcony, ivy flourished in tin cans and petunias still bloomed. Chat Noir, a fickle rooftop cat owned by no one, was patronizing her balcony to laze in the sun, and a late summer breeze blew, fluttering her wooden wind chimes. Maddy wasn’t
solely because she was poor. The sour smell permeating the street didn’t reach this high, and from her vantage, she could see all the way up to Montmartre over a sea of roofs and a forest of clay chimneys.
When she turned back to the room, the sun caught Bea’s face. “Maurice or a client?” Maddy asked, pointing at Bea’s puffy eye.
Bea sighed. “Maurice. He gets so angry.” Her tone forlorn, she said, “If only I didn’t anger him so much.”
Corrine and Maddy made disgusted noises, and Maddy bent down to toss pumps at her. There was no convincing Bea that she deserved more, no matter how hard they tried. Though she was lovely and kind, Bea wouldn’t believe that anything better than Maurice awaited her.
La Marais had a way of doing that to its inhabitants. Their unofficial motto was
de mal en pire—
“from bad to worse.” Their reasoning was that one’s situation, no matter how unbearable, could always deteriorate. Especially if one dared aspire to more.
“Best to accept one’s lot,” they said. To which Maddy inwardly answered, “Fortune favors the bold.”
But it hadn’t this time for Maddy….
When the tea was ready, they adjourned to her balcony, sitting on milk crates and drinking from mismatched cups. Chat Noir deigned to allow Maddy to pick him up and settle him in her lap. She couldn’t help but grin at how hot his fur was as she petted him.
“I thought he was cross with you,” Bea said, with a nod at the big tomcat.
“He was. Forsook me for weeks.” All she’d done was explain to him that he didn’t want
for his keeper. He could do better—perhaps even find someone who could afford to feed him more than apple cores.
She stretched her legs out to her iron railing, musing over how much she’d missed this—the easy camaraderie the three of them shared.
Maddy did enjoy being around Claudia and the Weyland women, but she had so little in common with them now. Bea, Corrine, and Maddy were of a kind—each with her secret sorrows and tragic past.
Like Maddy, Bea had come to La Marais young. Her mother had been married to a poor soldier, and she’d followed his regiment around the world with Bea in tow. To this day, Bea always woke at dawn, and the sound of drums still depressed her spirits. Her own and her mother’s food and safety had depended on keeping that soldier alive. They’d managed to until Bea was twelve; then they’d lost everything.
At sixteen, Corrine, an educated English parson’s daughter, had married a fancy French tailor traveling through her hometown. “I’m a tailor. I own a shop,” he’d said, which—more literally translated—had actually meant, “I live four floors above a shop, I stitch sailcloth for a living, and I spend every centime I earn on gin.”
Corrine had had two more husbands since then, each raising the bar for indifference and laziness. She might have tolerated the former but couldn’t stand the latter—her work ethic was remarkable. Though she only received rent for
and a small pension, she considered the building her personal charge and slaved herself to the bone to fight the decay. Yet she waged a losing battle. Her broom, washrag, and near ceaseless labor were no match against time and neglect.
“Are you awake enough yet, Maddée?” Bea asked. “Won’t you tell us what happened with your Englishman?”
Maddy was only halfway through her cup, so she opted for a brief summary. “I went to London, I flirted and cajoled, but he simply didn’t want to marry—much less marry me. As I suspected,” she added a bit pointedly, since they’d browbeaten her to go. Maddy had known better—but not because of the law of
de mal en pire
, she hastily assured herself. No, simple reasoning said that if Quin was rich and cultured, and she was uneducated and lived in a gutter, then there was no future between them. “He told me just two nights ago that he wasn’t the marrying kind.”
“I hate it when they say that,” Bea murmured, and Corrine raised her cup in agreement.
Though Maddy had thought the memory of the Scot would be too fresh, too raw, she found herself saying, “But there was another man….”
“And?” Corrine prompted.
“He was a tall, strapping Highlander whom I met at a masquerade ball. We had this…this
je ne sais quoi
, a connection—a strong one, I believed.” Since that night, she’d thought about him at every hour, no matter how hard she tried to put that man from her mind. “And I don’t even know his name.”
Le coup de foudre
,” Bea said, nodding enthusiastically.
“Love at first sight?” Maddy gave a humorless laugh. “I thought so. I’d
so after strong punch and his sinful kisses.”
Bea’s eyes lit up. “Oh, Maddée, you finally took a lover,
Maddy sighed, then explained everything that had happened, before finishing, “…and after that, he tossed money at me like I was a pesky problem to be resolved and abandoned me in the cab.”
“It won’t be painful like that again,” Bea assured her. “The first time is always the worst, and if he was
Maddy knew that had to be true, but she still feared what her next experience might be like—though she could say with certainty it wouldn’t be with anyone
“On my trip back here, I decided if I’m never with another man again, it will be too soon.” Affecting indifference, Maddy briefly raised her face to the sun, courting freckles on her nose, but she didn’t care. “He turned out to be an ass, anyway. I wouldn’t want him if he begged me to marry him.”
“What about your instincts?” Corrine asked. “Surely you were warned away if he was so terrible?”
“My instincts told me he was…good.” She didn’t miss that Bea and Corrine shared a look. Corrine never rented a room to a male unless Maddy gave approval.
“Why didn’t you tell your London friends of your plight?” Corrine asked.
“I thought about it. I imagined revealing all over tea and scones. I would begin with the setup: ‘Well, the thing of it is…after Papa died, my mother and I didn’t move to Paris because she’d missed her birthplace—we fled creditors in the middle of the night. After a year in a slum, she did marry a rich man, named Guillaume, and for a while we lived in the wealthy part of Paris—what you believe is my current address and my present situation. But it’s not now! I pay the maid there to save my mail for me and tell visitors I’m away.’
“Then would come the denouement: ‘Sylvie died years ago, and my miserly
Guillaume tossed me out on my ear. Actually, I live in a slum teeming with danger and filth. I’m really an orphan, and not in the exciting sense of an heiress orphan but in the penniless pitiful sense. Because I couldn’t
enough to pay for the dresses and paste jewels necessary for my plot to ensnare Quin, I borrowed money from a lender who will happily break my arms over a late payment.’”
Corrine pursed her lips and sniffed, “Well, when you put it that way…”
Bea added, “Oh, Maddée,
As if bored by Maddy’s dramatics, Chat Noir deserted her with a yawn. He leapt to the railing, sidling along, drawing Maddy’s gaze down to the street. Two burly men had just arrived at the building. “Are those Toumard’s men?” she asked without looking back. “Who else besides me would be foolish enough to get involved with Toumard?”
She’d borrowed heavily—for more than she could make in a year with sporadic work selling cigarettes, serving in the cafés, betting
or picking pockets. When she turned back, she saw that their expressions were pensive. “What is it?” Maddy asked. “Tell me. My day can’t possibly get worse.”
“Come, then, let’s go in so they can’t spot us,” Corrine said. They grabbed their milk crates and hurried inside. “Maddy love, those henchmen came round yesterday, too. They were searching for you, demanding to be let into the building. We’re keeping it locked at all times.”
“And I will only see regulars!” Bea added with an earnest nod.
“They were here already?” Maddy pinched her forehead. “I’m not even late.”
“They said Toumard raised his rates. The interest is escalating each week.”
Maddy sank onto her bed again. “But why?”
“You know how gossip spreads around here,” Corrine said. “You went into debt to buy a new wardrobe, and then you left town. Everyone figured a cull was happening. Berthé or Odette probably told him, and he could be betting on your success.”
But even after delivering the news, Corrine was still wringing her lye-eaten hands. Beatrix had begun studying her chipped cup.
“What else?” Maddy forced a smile. “I can take it.” She could find a way to weather bad news. Somehow she always did.
Corrine hesitantly said, “Toumard might have another agenda. He might not be keen on getting paid back at all.”
Maddy swallowed. She’d heard that was how Berthé and Odette had gotten started in their present line of work. They were barmaids who’d owed money. Instead of getting their arms broken, they’d gone into a more lucrative trade—facilitated and overseen by Toumard.
Corrine set her cup aside. “If we can’t come up with the money…”