Paris, 1858. Mercedes Fabron, pragmatic wife and childless mother, has her hands full running her husband’s fashion shop and navigating social etiquette. All of which would be considerably easier without uninvited ghosts haunting her night and day.
Out in the streets, people are dying of an undetermined cause. The newspapers speak of an unknown disease, the police speak of accidents. But when a dead man is found in her stairwell, Mercedes has every reason to suspect something much more sinister. Only the ghosts know the truth, but they are too afraid to tell. In fact, they are scared to death…
Disclaimer: THIS IS SEMI-RAW MATERIAL. The final novel will undergo further editing. For now, some inevitable typo’s and linguistic hiccups have not yet been weeded out.
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THE DEVOURER – Chapter 1
Confusion killed. This observation shouldn’t matter to him in his present state, but universal facts remained blissfully unaltered by such trivialities.
He lay suspended in the chilling darkness. Its silent embrace was a haven and a scourge in equal measures. Countless needles etched his mind and carved into his soul. Annoying, but acceptable. The needles made him forget the pain that seated in deeper recesses, which he didn’t care to visit. Entertaining such thoughts caused only confusion, and the mere contemplation of it was a futile exercise.
His attention, he found, was better spent on more important tasks.
Mercedes Fabron believed that good service started with paying attention. As hostess of one of Paris’ renowned fashion boutiques, her professional device was to listen carefully to what her clients desired, what they needed, and what they didn’t yet know they would need. At the moment, though, listening attentively while the lady in question wept into her handkerchief between uncontrollable sobs proved to be something of a challenge.
It took a good ear to make out what the lady babbled about in the first place. Her interrupted sentences contained but few understandable words, most of which were mangled by her obvious foreign accent. At times her pronunciation was so far off the mark that Mercedes couldn’t be sure whether she had been speaking French at all.
To make matters worse, the man who accompanied the lady tried to explain the situation too. Mercedes ignored him. The bloodstains on his jacket and the hole in the side of his head were clear indications that he shouldn’t be partaking in the conversation in the first place.
“Madame, my sincerest condolences,” Mercedes said when the lady’s incoherent plight at last ran out of steam. “I understand your grief, as well as your wish to express it. Forgive me, but I believe I detected you are from the British Isles?”
The lady sighed into her hands. “More than five years I have lived in Paris, but I still cannot hide my roots.”
“None of us can help how we are made, madame. There is no shame in wanting to mourn your—” Mercedes’s voice caught when the bloodied man forced the answer on her unspoken question. “—to mourn your brother in the manner you were brought up with. The French mourning customs are not as extensive as those of the British, but neither are we barbarians. Nicole!”
Her senior shop assistant hurried across the shop floor.
“Nicole, fetch me a roll of black silk and one of black… bombazine! Yes, bombazine. And I believe we still have some lengths of black crape stored in the back? See if you can find that, too.”
New tears shone in the lady’s eyes, but not for sorrow. “Oh, Madame Fabron! My friend was right when she said you would help me.”
“At your service, madame,” Mercedes said, and produced a few sketches of dress designs for her client to choose.
Parisian boutiques rarely got requests for mourning dresses according to British fashion, and most workshops thought it too costly to anticipate such orders. A poor business decision, in Mercedes’ opinion. While rare, these requests were always well-paying rush jobs for three dresses or more. Not an order to be sneezed at, and so she didn’t. If that meant keeping a small stock of otherwise unsaleable fabrics, the cost was well worth the profit it made.
The only significant downside of rush jobs was the pressure on her seamstresses. For that reason, Mercedes made sure to limit her client’s choice to a handful of designs, all of them straightforward and therefore fast to make.
“Madame, whenever you are ready to decide, Nicole will take your measurements and my girls will start on your dresses this afternoon. The first dress will be ready for fitting by end of business tomorrow.”
The lady stood agape. “Really? So soon?”
“We understand time is of the essence in these matters, madame” She gauged the lady’s figure and current dress. Ten years of experience told her what she needed to know. She wrote the order down in the order book, made a quick calculation in her head and added the outcome to the bottom of the page before showing it to her customer. “For three dresses, all services included.”
“Yes, yes, of course.” The lady attempted to dry her eyes as she pulled a small purse from the hem of her bodice. “How much is the advance?”
Mercedes stayed the lady’s hand. “We only ask advances for the more, shall we say, impulsive orders.” Mourning dresses were guaranteed to be collected, so her generosity bore no risk. Her grieving clientele appreciated the gesture, while the shop’s finances were secured. A perfect deal.
Except for the bloodied man who followed in his sister’s wake: his presence had nagged at Mercedes ever since they had come in. Most of the time she could tune out his kind well enough, but if she spared them a fraction of attention, she could sense their intentions. Sometimes without wanting to.
This one had to have been very close with his sister –
– because his contrition –
I’msorryI’msorry·Ididn’tmeanto·Ihadn’tseenthem·Ididn’t·knowuntil· Iheardacrackanditwasmyskull·andImeant·tocomeback·sorryArlene· sorrysorrysorrysorrysorrysorrysorrysorry
– threatened to overwhelm her. The sister’s grief was equally tangible, but easier to ignore than the incessant voice in her head. Mercedes pretended not to hear him. Much as she wanted to comfort the distraught twins, her task didn’t exceed supplying the woman’s mourning dresses. When the soldier realised this, Mercedes felt him pull away and return to his sister’s side.
Soon Nicole returned with the promised fabrics and a measuring tape. The lady approved the fabrics at a glance and at Mercedes’ direction, stepped behind the curtain in the corner.
“Nicole will take good care of you, madame. Please excuse me for a moment while I make the rest of the arrangements.”
Mercedes cast polite nods at the more frequent customers browsing her wares before pacing through the narrow doorway to the workshop at the back of the building. An overnight order didn’t get filled on promises alone.
By the light of big windows and plenty of oil lamps, two dozen seamstresses worked on various items of clothing in various stages of completion. Younger girls toiled away at the repetitive work of men’s shirts and straight capes, while the more experienced women sewed intricate dresses and exotic waistcoats. Mercedes headed for the workstations of the three senior seamstresses, which stood positioned between the back entrance to her boutique and that to the boutique for menswear next door. It irked her when she saw that their best seamstress, Yvette, was already engaged by the only man who dared to venture into the workshop.
“I don’t care what Nicole said! Nicole is an assistant, I am your boss. Therefore I am the one who tells you what to do. Let there be no doubt about that!”
Eric-Marie Fabron was a lithe man with short, red hair and a boyish face that deceived anyone who would guess his age. He wasn’t blessed with a strong voice, but he had learned young that hands demanded the respect his lack of stature failed to inspire. With his personnel, he spared the rod only because flogged horses might become dead horses, but threats were easy to make. Too easy, sometimes.
“No one doubts who is in charge, mon cher,” Mercedes cut into the conversation. “Is there a problem?”
“I daresay there is,” Eric hissed at her. “Did you take on a rush job?”
“Yes, I did. Three dresses at twice the normal price, payment guaranteed. Nicole is taking the lady’s measurements as we speak.”
Eric’s mouth twisted as it did whenever the world didn’t meet his expectations. “I just had Monsieur Leclerc in my shop for a final fitting. You know, big customer? Bit of a dandy? Lots of money to spend? He said to make haste with his order, and I promised we would.” He glared at Yvette. “That you would!”
“Mon cher, that man always tells you to ‘make haste’, but he never gives a deadline.”
“Because if one boutique isn’t fast enough, he will go to another!”
“My rush job was forwarded to us by another customer. If I do not meet her requirements, we might lose more than just this one order.”
His pale face ran red with indignation. Yvette hunched her shoulders, and all around heads bowed deeper over the workbenches, feverishly ignoring the argument. Mercedes, on the other hand, only lowered her voice.
“Honestly, Eric, I do not see why you make such a fuss. Plenty of our girls are willing to work a night or two extra. There is no reason why we cannot have both orders done by tomorrow without delaying the regulars.”
“And who pays for that effort? Yes, I!”
Untrue. The customers paid the extra cost, plus a margin. Eric had instated that policy himself. However, the angry blotches on his cheeks spread, so she bit her tongue. A considerable part of keeping a marriage stable, she had learned, was knowing when to stop.
Eric held her gaze, nostrils flaring as he waited for someone to talk back at him. When Mercedes looked at her feet and Yvette retreated all together, he seemed appeased.
“Right, then. Yvette, select the girls who will be working late today and tomorrow to get this done. But no more than three.”
“Yes, Monsieur Fabron.”
“Good.” He eyed Mercedes as if he expected her to argue. She didn’t. “Yes, good.” He turned on his heels and returned to the men’s boutique.
Mercedes waited until the door had closed behind him.
“Yvette, make sure the girls you select take two candles each from the candle cabinet. I will not have them working by poor light.”
Eric wouldn’t be pleased when he found out, but candles were less expensive than replacing experienced employees who had ruined their eyesight for him. He knew that, too. A gruff glare and a snarl at her address, but after that no further word on the subject. Business as usual.
Mercedes gave the seamstress a last nod and went back to the women’s boutique to confirm to her grieving customer that the dresses would be ready as promised.
Through the darkness rippling about him, another approached. One of his kind. He focused on it, curious to find it so close. Yet when the other sensed his interest, it veered away.
Not uncommon. Most parasites sought only the company of hosts, opting to shy away from all others, even their own. Merely the natural order of things. Nothing to spare a thought on. He only acted when he had just cause, or when hunger compelled him. At the moment, neither factor was a convincing reason to leave his haven.
So he let this one go. For now. When the darkness extended tonight, he would go out to feed. That, too, was natural.
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