(Fiction) The mizzen and the spyglass

My body was recovered, along with two others, by a young mizzen—nominally, a practitioner of “street magic,” by definition, bits of illusion and conjuring mixed with hexes and holistic alchemy. In truth, mizzenry was as much pickpocketing, sleight-of-hand, opportunistic theft, and con artistry as much as anything magical. But despite their reputations, the mizzen had the honor of thieves and the nobility of the poor, and they took it upon themselves to collect and bury the bodies of witches and sages that were hung by the authorities, rescuing them from the unsanctified communal plots where they were discarded. I would come to learn that had at least as much to do with scavenging as honor. The recently dead have value—the eyes, the pineal gland, and the foreskin were all meagerly valuable in trade with gypsies and night maidens. But the bodies were buried properly after they were raided, and always with attending rites.

It was at this time that I slipped through the cracks of society. I had tried to make my way honestly in the world, twice, and it hadn’t worked to my favor or liking. I had been driven from two homes, shot, betrayed, abandoned, and hung, and with each death, the patent terror of a life without end, which is a life without meaning, became ever clearer. There were many days when I would not eat. I simply stared out at the world in a coma of existential dread. Occasionally, I might open my hands and try to feel the passing of moments, as if time itself were a steady rain, and I would say “This is it. This is what it will be like.”

I eventually came to know a mizzen named Durance Reynard l’Argentière—or at least that’s what he called himself. I doubt it was his real name. But I suspect he was in fact from the mountain town of Argentière, near Mont Blanc in the French Alps, for he had the rugged constitution of a man raised in the high country. He wasn’t especially tall or muscular. In fact, he was quite lean. But he seemed carved from alpine rock. He had been flogged, shot, hung (briefly), poisoned, pilloried, and stabbed more times than I can recall. And he had the scars to prove it. After lying together, I would trace one gently with my finger and he would tell me the story of how he got it. The tales were never the same, although occasionally some detail would be repeated. So too of the events that took him to Paris. He once mentioned he had been wronged by a “blue man,” who he described in such brief but exacting detail that I knew he must be a figure of truth.

Durance was mizzen in name only. He knew no magic. He had instead a spyglass that allowed him to see through solid objects, including clothing. I caught him examining me with it at our first encounter, although I did not know its purpose, nor was I the only object of his gaze. That spyglass was the secret of his success and the reason why the small crew that followed him were so intensely loyal. Durance delivered the goods, and at far less risk than most robbers of his time. By knowing in advance what was in a man’s pocket, or his home, Durance avoided the petty job, but also the government official. He targeted men with worthwhile sums who were not exorbitantly wealthy and therefore not likely to be highly connected. He could also rule out men who were armed as well as those who bore papers in their back pocket revealing them to be gendarme in disguise.

I don’t want to give the impression that Durance and his people were pickpockets or petty thieves. Of course, they were not above such things and resorted to them when necessary, but their stock-in-trade was the confidence trick, which is why I was recruited—over the strenuous objections of Lucille, the crew’s only other woman—for I could effect the mannerisms of the upper class, which you must understand was more than simply carrying a genteel air. An education was required. One had to understand the offhand Latin aphorism, for example, or casual allusions to the heroes of Greek myth—all the things any good blue-blooded aristocrat was expected to know. But we did not target the aristocracy, which had then begun its long wane across Europe. In their stead rose the industrial class who had pretensions of status and who were therefore enamored of all the things they did not have: old names and old mansions and old art.

The permutations were practically infinite, but the usual course went as follows. The team would identify a possible target, often by staking out the markets and train stations. Some of us would then follow the gentleman to his home where Durance would use his spyglass to confirm that everything was as it appeared and that the house contained suitable pickings. Many times it did not, or else Durance saw something that displeased him, and we would move on. The moment of his decision was always met with considerable suspense, not just because of the crime that might then be completed, but because he offered us each a bounty. It was meant to encourage us to keep our eyes open at all times—and also to justify his larger portion of every take. It worked. Besides the monetary reward, informal score was kept whereby members of the crew competed with each other for the crown of best “catcher.”

I didn’t play. Lucille, who considered herself my rival, assumed it was because I thought myself above them. In truth, it was a kind of moral armor by which I satisfied myself that what eventually happened, the crime, would have happened regardless of my involvement and that therefore I was not significantly culpable. As excuses go, it was paper-thin, like gift wrapping, but it gave me the pretense I wanted, for I could say that none of the gentlemen had been chosen by my hand.

If what Durance saw in his spyglass pleased him, we set immediately to work. First, the gentleman was tailed for a period of three or four days. Next, based on his schedule and inclinations, a suitable meeting was arranged. I might, for example, bump into him on the street, knocking him down and apologizing profusely in broken French. By my dress, I would appear to be the daughter of a wealthy foreign noble. Besides being the distant truth, it was also a common fact of life in those days since many such girls were sent to Paris to finish their education prior to being married to their cousin (so as to retain the family wealth) or to some baron twice their age (so as to increase it).

Alternatively, if circumstances permitted, we might feign an attack whereby I would be set upon by Hugo, Durance’s hulking henchman, during a casual stroll in the park. Hearing my plight, the gentleman would of course rush to my aid and drive away my attacker with his cane. I was always sure to give him a glimpse of my undergarments in the process, and with trembling hands and a stunned visage, I would thank the gentleman and offer stammering praise for his courage and virility. I did this in a heavy accent, despite that I spoke French (and later English) quite well. If the gentleman called for the police, I would excuse myself quickly on the excuse that I was not supposed to be out alone, without my chaperon, whom I would grudgingly admit had fallen ill or quit unexpectedly or otherwise left me completely vulnerable in that big foreign city, and what was I after all but a simple girl from a country manor in Bohemia, or Tyrol, or wherever?

As I turned to leave, I would spin round again and chide myself for my manors and ask that I be able to call on the gentleman again in order to thank him properly. At this point, I might offer him some perfumed token, a ribbon or some such, and watch whether or how he took it. If he refused the token, or if he invited me without ceremony to his home, then I knew he was a faithful man who would see me only in the company of his wife. If, on the other hand, he suggested we meet “in public”—on the pretense that it preserved my honor—then my companions and I would move to the third stage. Almost all of the gentleman fell into the latter category. At the time, I was sure that was proof of the overwhelming infidelity of the male of the species. Since those days, I have realized our success rate was less the result of constitutional weakness than it was Durance’s careful estimation. I suppose he could tell by the man’s wardrobe and private spaces, by his toilet and shoes, whether he was fond of his wife or not, or perhaps whether the crucifix in the hall was hung from faith or mere propriety, and so on.

Suffice it to say, within two or three meetings, I found myself alone with the gentleman in question. I would always make it known that I preferred to see him at his house. I might even insist on it. This did not raise alarms. A young noblewoman such as myself would not seek a tryst—understood to be her last, perhaps only, before marriage—in some high street hotel, like a common whore. So it was the man’s wife and children, if there were any, were sent away for the weekend on some pretense or other, and I was invited to dinner. At the appropriate time, after excusing myself to use the bathroom, I would open the door to my companions, who entered with heavy batons and tied the surprised gentleman and any remaining servants to their chairs. Lucille, dressed as a parlor maid, would pretend to have stopped on the sidewalk in front of the house on her way home from work in order to fix her dress or shoes or something and so keep watch from the street. Meanwhile, Durance, Hugo, and I would relieve the gentleman of his easily salable possessions.

We did not, as a strict rule, take heirlooms, custom works of art, or so much as to send the gentleman to the poor house. On this, Durance was adamant, and I had heard that he had “dismissed”—by which was meant murdered—at least two men for breaking the rule. If a gentleman lost so much that he had nothing left, then he would easily go to the police. If, on the other hand, we took just enough to embarrass rather than impoverish him, then we could usually rely on his discretion. After all, it’s discomfiting to admit to the authorities that one had been taken in by confidence tricksters, which makes one look the fool. But also, in so doing, the police asked all kinds of inconvenient questions about the factual circumstances of the theft—for example, how it was the thieves had gained entry to the house without force. All but the most dimwitted of wives and family members would be able to ascertain the truth, especially when it came time to give a description of the crew. If the losses were relatively modest, it was always easier to blame the servants, or the gardener, whom the returning wife would discover had already been dismissed, taking with him all first-hand knowledge of the real events, and so normal life in the household would resume.

This, in conjunction with the spyglass, is how we avoided the police for years. Indeed, it wasn’t the gendarme but the sudden appearance of the blue man which finally drove us from France. We went first to Germany, where the hot-tempered Hugo was arrested for brawling in a beer hall. Rather than risk a police inquiry, the rest of us left him there. We went immediately to Amsterdam, but finding it a poor climate, left soon for London, where business was good but also very risky. We were all foreigners in England, which made us immediately suspicious. We also discovered that, unlike in France, where the police generally despised the new industrial class and so took no special precautions to preserve their good name, in England, they were seen as the backbone of the Empire, and the police were only too happy to keep certain relevant details quiet for the sake of the gentleman in question. Suddenly we had to be very selective indeed, despite the ocean of potential targets—more by far than in Paris, for the English had taken to industrialization with a much greater zeal.

Durance replaced Hugo with a Yorkshire man named Baxter, who got Lucille pregnant. He was powerful and brutish, and she had hopes of arousing Durance’s jealousy. It seems she and Durance had been sleeping together at one time, which I had guessed. I didn’t care in the least. I liked my Frenchman well enough—he was an excellent lover and taught me most of what I know of the art of pleasure—but I was not any more faithful to him than he was to me. But Lucille was convinced we had secretly married and that we were planning to ditch the lot of them and disappear with a horde of cash, which she was sure Durance had failed to share. For that reason as well, she needed Baxter to be her ally in the coming confrontation. But fortune didn’t favor her. When he discovered she was with child, the brutish Baxter beat her severely, as if she’d done it on purpose, and we never saw her again.

Around the same time, on the pretense of expanding our crew, Durance and I began to haunt the city’s numerous opium dens, which were then everywhere in London. It is sheer irony of fate that we succumbed to the stuff, for it was imported from China by the very industrial class we had made a career of robbing. For me, the languor of the poppy was the perfect salve to the anomie of years, and my habit, more than Durance’s, became a serious liability. It not only drained the cash he and I had saved during our years in Paris, it also began to take its toll on my physical appearance. I looked sickly, and when finally I was refused help by a gentleman, who pretended not to see Baxter assaulting me during our usual charade. Only then it wasn’t a charade. Alone with him in the bushes, I dared the man to rape me for real, suggesting by my tone that perhaps he wasn’t virile enough. He was. I think the idea was to arouse a fight between the two men on the hopes of claiming the winner, who might then ravish me. But honestly, the drug had perverted my mind so greatly that do not waste time for a rational explanation.

Durance, watching from afar, did nothing as Baxter stuck his sausage fingers under my pantaloons. I was barely able to get the man off. Strung-out and afraid and looking to blame anyone but myself, I demanded Durance kill the Englishman. When he smartly refused, looking at me all the while as if he didn’t know me, or didn’t want to, I called him a coward, questioned his manhood—both literally and figuratively—and left. I awoke later to find I had been taken from the opium den to which I’d retreated and was tied to a chair in the bare A-frame attic of some old house in Whitechapel. My only companion was the blue man, still in his long, high-collared revolutionary coat. I told him I was immortal and that killing me would do no good. I told him also that Durance didn’t care for me at all and so I was useless as bait. In one rambling sentence, I explained the entire circumstance of our parting, right down to my own ridiculous motivations. But the stranger simply smiled, as if amused, and never spoke.

To my surprise, I was very much wrong about Durance, who did come for me despite the obvious trap. Whether it was simply his advancing years and subsequent fear of being alone—by then, it wasn’t quite as easy for him to charm the young ladies as it had once been—or whether he had developed true feelings for me, I couldn’t say, but the blue man knew him well and had taken exactly the thing he most prized. I was stunned, but not nearly as much as when the blue man revealed himself. He was also Durance. He removed his coat and hat and I saw it was the same man. Not a twin. Not a doppelganger. It was the very same man with whom I had been intimate for years. How or why, I never knew. I knew only that he intended to kill the other version of himself.

When my Durance appeared, I watched, gagged and bound to a chair, as the two men argued in a language similar to French but which I guessed was much older. Argument turned to aggression and so began a breathless struggle at the end of which I knew one of them was sure to die. No sound rose into the attic from the street, and in the quiet, I heard every panicked shuffle of their shoes, every grunt through held breath, every drop of sweat that darkened the wood under their feet—until suddenly it was done. There was no preface to the ending. No warning. With movement no different than what had preceded it, a blade found its target, and Durance—my Durance—was dead. His blood spread out, thick and red, before disappearing into the space between the floorboards.

The blue man left me there. He took his coat and walked out. He was haggard from the kill but at the same time seemed fifty pounds lighter. I never knew what accident of science or magic had split them. I never knew why Durance Reynard L’Argentière fled his home, nor why he also spent his entire life chasing himself, intent on revenge. But I had a clue. I noticed that the blue man wore a wedding ring on his finger. He looked down at it as he left, as if that ring alone could bear witness to the significance of the killing that had just taken place.

I starved to death in that attic. I screamed for help for hours through my gag until my throat was hoarse and my every swallow stung. I went unconscious and died and rose on the third day, still tied to the chair. Durance’s body had begun to rot. I threw up from the stench, and the withdrawals,  and the milky vomitus covered my chest. It tasted faintly of opium. Flies buzzed in the room. They landed on the vomit. On my face. In my hair. I screamed for help. Wriggling maggots ate out Durance’s eyes and I screamed more. I died again, came back, and died a third time. And each time I rose, the corpse looked more and more like a ghoul. It stared up with hollow eyes and a lopsided grin. Hours and hours and hours turned to days and days and I died a fourth time. I began to earnestly believe the body would rise. I swear I saw it move. It was getting ready, I was certain, and very soon it would struggle to its feet and hobble over to me, mouth agape. And then it would eat me, starting with my feet. With my toes. Or perhaps it would bite into my head like an apple. In some of my visions, it raped me with a rotting member.

Some part of me knew I was going insane. It was all the happier for it. I would’ve surely finished the job, too, if not for Anna. She appeared to me in that attic, just as she had before with Jakub. She looked so sad. Even now, in my memory, it seems as if she came for just a moment, but honestly, my mind was so far afield that time then seemed less like a river than a knot. She could’ve been standing there for days, holding my rapt attention. All I know is that I blinked and she was gone. In her place, a pair of young street urchins slipped cautiously around the corpse to untie me. I was aware then just how emaciated I was, for my dress—the one I had chosen to accentuate the curves of my body—hung loose from my shoulders. I had lost most of my hair as well. My scalp looked like the base of a half-finished wig. When I finally saw my own reflection, I realized I was as much the ghoul as Durance. My skin hugged my skeleton. My pelvis and knee bones protruded. My eyes had sunk. I was too weak even to stand.

After I had recovered enough to walk with the help of a cane, the police gave me a choice…


from the opening of Bright Black, the fifth and final installment of my full-course occult mystery, FEAST OF SHADOWS.

You can start reading in order here: The old ones are patient.

cover image by Qissus