We are there within ten minutes. Perhaps I should be afraid but I am not, the last remnants of fear leaving me as I trace the silhouette of my office building. He invites me in. The apartment is so very different from the one we just came from. It is cosy, homey and filled to the brink with books. I am pleased to see my olfactory sense is spot on. A bottle of Black Label Johnny Walker, three-quarters empty, sits on a shelf next to a bottle of Houbigant Fougère Royale, their content and pedigree in stark contrast. He takes down the whisky and pours two generous glasses.

“Here, take this.”

He takes a hefty sip, and although whisky is not my favourite drink I follow his example. The alcohol burns a path all the way from throat to stomach.

“You want to tell me what is going on?” I say.

“I suppose I owe you that. After all you were rather forthcoming yourself.” He is referring to the events at Le Liberty, which for a brief moment I had banished to the back of my mind.

“I’m sorry if I have brought you into something you didn’t deserve. You see, there are things you don’t fully understand yet.” He pauses, but as I don’t issue a question, he continuous.

“You see those windows?” He points to the building opposite.

“As you can see that’s your office. Take these.” He hands me a pair of binoculars, which I raise to my eyes. I can clearly see our offices, all dark with the exception of the fluorescent light that continues to illuminate the main corridor.

“Have you been spying on me? From here?”

“I wouldn’t call it spying. It’s more a matter of perceived interest. Perhaps a little on the unhealthy side.”

“Since when?”

“Since you moved in.”

“That’s like, what, eighteen months ago? But why?” I am as equally perplexed as I am amazed. Perhaps even a little flattered.

“The heart has reasons that reason cannot know.”

“Mmm, you choose your words well.”

“When you stepped into my car that night something changed. I never sought to contact you, but providence seemingly intervened to my great surprise and delight.”

“And what about the note in the book.”

“I can’t attest to that. However, I do admit I was at the scene when you entered. I’m sorry if I hurt you in any way. It wasn’t my intention.” He closes the curtains.

“It’s not safe to keep them open. And if you’ll excuse me I’d rather forget the recent past for the moment to concentrate on some more pressing matters. There is a lot I need to tell you. But first…” He throws a few logs and old newspaper into the hearth of the marble fireplace and sets it alight. Within minutes the fire is crackling, its heat filling the room with the sweet smell of smoke and burning cellulose. For a moment we sit in silence watching the flames dance. Then suddenly he begins to talk. It’s a long story, the dimensions of a saga by the time it has reached its conclusion.

 

“When I was in my mid-twenties, I worked for a traditional publisher called Galimatias – Latin for ‘nonsense’. It was a small publishing house that had been in the Heurtin family for generations and published no more than thirty titles or so a year from a well-selected pool of authors. Monsieur Heurtin was already an old man when I started to work for him as an editor. A very distinguished man, he was sharp and agreeable, with impeccable manners. The airs of a dandy, he dressed exclusively in tweed jackets, white shirts and blue cravats. The latter was said to be in homage to his maternal ancestors who came from Croatia, the land that gave birth to this piece of clothing, as the legend has it.

As I was saying, Monsieur Heurtin was in his seventies when I first joined. I was fortunate to get a job straight out of university, and quickly rose to the rank of Chief Editor. This was not such a feat as it may sound as two editors retired within the year and another one succumbed to prostate cancer. I was the only one left with a workload not even a young man with the superhuman energy of youth could tackle. Yet, we managed to survive through new hires, and the niece of Monsieur Heurtin who was set to take over the publishing company one day. This happened sooner than expected.

It was I who found him one morning, slumped over his desk with an old Freeman pistol on the floor. The pistol was of the pre-revolutionary kind and had failed to bring relief to the poor fellow until several hours later. It must have been a slow and agonizing death, although by the time I found him, he looked rather serene amidst his blood-soaked documents and a grazing wound that had just missed his temple. An inquest ruled his death a suicide and, according to his last will, he was interred in the Père Lachaise Cemetery, where he got to spend his final days in the company of literary luminaries such as Honoré de Balzac, Alfred de Musset, Marcel Proust and, of course, Oscar Wilde. Vixit dum vixit laetus, ‘he that lived happily lived as long as he lived’, marked his tombstone. Well-chosen words for a rather remarkable man I must say.

What was even more remarkable was the will he left behind. I had been asked by his solicitor to attend the disclosure of its content. On the dot of five, the doors opened to me and Monsieur Heurtin’s niece, who was a young woman of questionable repute and morals. I say so as she didn’t strike me as someone taking a terribly great interest in the business. Yet she was the only blood relative and therefore heir to the family business of Monsieur Heurtin, who had never been married and therefore lacked offspring.

The last will and testament was read and it was declared in a few words that Mademoiselle Heurtin was now the sole owner of Galimatias. As expertise was lacking, I was to help her in her daily business to “keep business steady in the Galimatias tradition”. What the latter meant was anyone’s guess, but I couldn’t let the old man down and asserted my allegiance to my new mistress with the promise to serve her well.

Mademoiselle accepted her lot, including the princely sum of 3.4 million francs – which were assets tied to business, I have to add – and signed the papers, at which point she was asked to leave. I was about to leave too when the solicitor interrupted my intentions.

“Monsieur Monfort, we are not done yet.” He emphasised the word we, compelling me to sit down.

“There is an addendum to the will of Monsieur Heurtin. One that only concerns you,” he explained. This came as a complete surprise, and in order to hear the aging lawyer well, I uncrossed my legs and leaned forward. He read out the addendum, like it was a king’s announcement. Although the exact words escape me, it said I was to be the sole beneficiary of Monsieur Heurtin’s apartment on Boulevard Saint-Germain – the very one we are now sitting in. This gift included all of his belongings, not to mention his vast book collection. I was thrilled yet perplexed by his generosity. I had never set foot in his dwelling, but concluded with a great many assumptions that it must be an apartment of substantial size and content. It turned out that I was wrong on the first account, as you can see it merely consists of three rooms, but the second one proved more accurate.

However, it all came with one stipulation: I was to take his place in a society called the Hellfire Club. I had never heard of the Hellfire Club and could not imagine what it was. But the conditions were firm. If I were to decline, it would mean forfeiting the apartment. As I was a young man in a hard-up economy, I felt I had little choice. And, of course, what could happen, I reasoned? Surely Monsieur Heurtin’s motives were purely honourable.

The instructions that followed were simple. I was to present myself at 160, Rue de l’Université the following Tuesday at three o’clock sharp. I had few expectations when I announced myself at the intercom. A lady answered and told me to walk up the stairs to the fifth floor. I was under no circumstances allowed to take the lift. The door was already open when I reached the landing. The apartment wasn’t much different to how it looks now, with the exception of a glass desk on wheels at which an ageing secretary sat. I reported myself and she saw me into the library where a gentleman in his late sixties sat at a mahogany desk.

“You must be Cyril.” He reached out for my hand and shook it with both of his. The handshake was firm and to the point. He asked me to sit down and I chose one of the two empire-style chairs that were on offer.

“You must be asking yourself why you are here,” he began. I mumbled something inaudible along the lines of, “Yes, I certainly am.”

“Good, good. You see I was a very good friend of your master’s, Monsieur Heurtin, who is sadly no longer with us. God bless his soul. Our friendship goes a long way back to the last years of the Great War when we both joined the resistance. It’s a long story, one I don’t wish to bore you with, but suffice it to say that, if your friendship survives the dehumanising effects of war, it will survive anything. But this is not why you are here. You are here, of course, for your invitation to the Hellfire Club.” He picked up a Partagas cigar from a polished cigar box and offered me one. Declining would have been a dishonour, so I gracefully accepted.

“When a member of the Hellfire Club dies, he – or she, as we’re a gender-equal society – has two options: First is to appoint someone to take his place and rank, at which time he must bequeath all earthly goods to the appointee. Should the appointee not accept, the goods will fall to us. Should the member decide not to continue the tenancy through a new appointee, the tenancy will be forfeited. If so, the member is free to do with his personal belongings as he wishes, with the exception of what he has gained from the Hellfire Club. Those belongings will naturally revert back to the Hellfire Club.”

He puffed on his cigar in an attempt to reanimate the embers that were slowly dying, before continuing. “We only have 365 seats, all of which can be seen in the theatre that I will show you in a moment. There is a 366th seat, which belongs to the Grand Master. That is I, and I go by the name of François Rabelais, who is, according to tradition, the founder and patron of the Hellfire Club. Should you accept, your membership will be one for life. You will need to take an oath to serve our society and its members well. It comes down to two principles: First and foremost is our dictum ”Do what thou wilt”, or in French, ”Fais ce que tu voudras”. The second principle is rather simple and needs no further translation: What happens at Hellfire Club stays at the Hellfire Club.

If you accept these stipulations – maxims we expect you to remain faithful to – I will give you a key to this apartment and I will tell you about your rank and purpose within the organisation. I will give you five minutes to think it through, after which I will come back for your definite and permanent answer.”

He paused for a moment, remembering one last thing. “Do you have any questions?” I thought for a moment before answering.

“In fact I do. What happens if I want to leave?”

“Excellent question. You may, but of course you will never be allowed back. And you will forfeit the property you have inherited. It’s all in the contract.”

“And ‘do what thou wilt’. Would that entail any criminal activities?”

“We do not endorse criminal activities, my friend. But it’s up to each and every person to decide that for himself. We will not hold you accountable for your own actions. Only you can. We only ask you to adhere to the second oath, which protects the first.”

I thanked him for his answers and assured him I understood, and the man who had presented himself as François Rabelais left the room. I fixed my eyes on the antique grandfather clock that stood in a far corner, counting the number of times the pendelum swung back and forth. Exactly five minutes later, Monsieur Rabelais reappeared. He walked to his desk with light steps and sat down.

“May I have your answer?” It wasn’t so much a question as a demand. I said I was happy to accept, to which he congratulated me and handed me a simple contract, including the oath, which I signed.

“Here are the keys. One is to our apartment here, another one to the entrance downstairs; and this one is to the apartment Monsier Heurtain has left you.”

There was only one of each, and I concluded they had kept for themselves a copy of the key to my soon-to-be private apartment. Needless to say, I made a note to myself to change the lock as soon as I moved in.

Monsieur Rabelais then told me I was to enter the society as Seneschal, entrusted with the upkeep of the apartment and its staff, which included a secretary, known as Minou, housekeepers and servants. I asked how much time this would take, knowing I had precious little of it having accepted my master’s wish to oversee the wellfare of Galimatias. Rabelais simply answered ‘do what thou wilt’, which of course was entirely appropriate.

In the weeks that followed, I gradually learned about the society I had been thrust into. I spent my evenings reading up on Rabelais and, of course, the historical British equivalent. I spent my Monday mornings with Minou planning for the week ahead. The apartment was mainly used for meetings, and with the exception of making sure the staff adhered to their tasks, it was light work consuming little of my time. It took three months before I saw Monsieur Rabelais again. He called me into the library and asked me to close the door.

“How is life treating you these days?” he asked benevolently.

“Well, Monsieur. Very well.”

“I am glad to hear it, son.” It was the first time he called me by this epithet, and it made me feel special.

He continued, “There is something I want to share with you. We will be arranging our Vicars and Tarts party in three weeks. Invitations need to go out in the next days. Minou will hand you the list of invitations and you will need to coordinate the event with her.”

For the first time since my investment into the order I felt a flutter of excitement in the anticipation of forthcoming events.

The original raison d’être of the club was merely a pledge to live life as it was intended, without the long-reaching arm of the king, Parliament or the Church. This would be done through nocturnal get-togethers, often mocking Church rituals. My first Vicars and Tarts party was just that. Processions of men clothed in priestly vestments and women dressed in elaborate 17th-century costumes. They were all members of the society I had recently joined. It all was very well organized.

Grand Master Rabelais took centre stage in the theatre and welcomed everyone. He started by announcing the members that were recently deceased. For each such person, his watch, which had been rewound to the moment of death, was destroyed with a small silver hammer to symbolically incarnate his earthly demise. When the deceased had been honoured through the reading of passages of Latin scriptures yet unknown to myself, the Grandmaster proceeded with the vestment of new members, in the order of low to high rank. I was last, as my master had been of the sixth degree, one below the most inner circle of the Seventh, which included only seven members.

I was asked to kneel in front of the Grandmaster and swear my formal oath in front of the congregation. I was then handed a gold watch symbolizing my time on this earth, which I promised to dutifully serve and honour for as long my life would serve me. The gathering ended with further announcements, and most people were becoming animated and elated from the anticipation. This vibrating euphoria spread and even the few, including myself, who knew nothing of what the evening had in store felt the urge for something that could be nothing short of wondrous.

Champagne was served by women in period costumes that put their ample breasts on display. For a penny, one could kiss them, and boy did we. As the Champagne together with a medley of hors d’œuvres was being served, two trumpeters announced that the entertainment had arrived. The doors from one of the reception rooms opened, and out came about fifty of the most beautiful women gracing this planet. Dressed in only their undergarments, 18th-century style, with stockings and little silk shoes on their feet, they were a feast for hungry eyes. I now fully comprehended the mottos I’d been sworn to, and I was going to take advantage of every bit of them too!

The men and women present were of all ages, with a slight leaning towards male domination. But the recent injection of the fairer sex had positively changed this balance. I ended up in the arms of a dark-haired beauty called Carmen. I am sure, with your own experience as backdrop, you can imagine what happened, for we found a discreet place between two rows of chairs in the theatre. I eventually fell asleep in my post-coital stupor, only to be woken by the janitor the next morning. He gave me a cup of coffee and helped me to a clean shirt. I thanked him for his kindness and left rather sheepishly.

This was in 1993, and for most of the coming years, I took part in what you might call debauched orgies of various kinds. Always under the cover of social gatherings. Most people were in what you might call the higher echelons of society. I can’t give you names, at least not yet, but there were politicians, doctors, scientists, policemen, artists and, of course, wealthy members of the public too. Some were no doubt aristocrats and, I am sure, distant relations of European royalty.

After three years serving the society well, making sure the apartment and its staff ran like a piece of well oiled machinery, I had been accepted as a full member of the family – one I still knew very little about. Despite my high rank, I was not invited to all of their meetings, although I knew such were taking place without my presence or intimate knowledge. I assumed they all involved the Seventh Degree, with the Grand Master himself presiding. I was never appointed to the inner circle, and no one knew in fact who was privy to it.

In my third year I got the unusual assignment of finding women of a more questionable kind for a party hosted in the summer. It was to be a splendid occasion at a chateau outside of Paris called Chateau Vert. I was introduced by one of our society’s members to a brothel in the outskirts of the city where he said we would be able to establish an “advantageous agreement” with the madame. So far the women I had been procuring where no prostitutes. Merely women that liked to have a good time and were compensated for it. This was different, though. Beauty was immaterial and, in fact, I was given the strictest order to find women of average appearance and bearings, but with great whoring skills. Although prostitutes were women I revered as my sexual companions in hours of need, the brief made me somewhat uncomfortable. I took great pride in finding women that met, and in some cases exceeded, the definition of beauty, and I can honestly and proudly say I’ve never slept with an ugly woman.

That evening we spent in the company of three women in their mid-to-late thirties. After making sure they fit the bill, we asked them if they were interested in joining our nocturnal soirées. They were, of course, and over the course of weeks I worked on a stable of women that could be called upon at any time.

The first party took place one late evening at Chateau Vert, an estate with large dominions once belonging to the Duke of Orleans. It was an elaborate and pompous affair, a masquerade where anything and everything went. Each room had a theme: love, spring, heaven, hell, winter, tavern, brothel and, of course, the dungeons. I didn’t know what to expect beyond the domains of love, whoring and drinking, but the excitement knew no bounds in speculating about what the night might entail.

A variety of entertainment was on offer, from samba and flamenco girls to cancan dancers and vaudeville acts. Naked women with large boa snakes, talking parrots on pirates’ shoulders, sword and fire swallowers all made for the most amazing of diversions. It was like being in a real-life play, or a medieval town, where friend could be foe and the opposite could equally be true.

I feasted on Champagne like there was no tomorrow and engaged in various dubious acts with the opposite sex. Two ladies, no doubt prostitutes, took me to the dungeons for a bit of fun. These dungeons were already in full swing with lighter plays to more extreme acts. A man stood on all his fours pretending to be a horse while a little fat lady rode him while spanking his bottom. It was bright red, with a few minor lesions he only seemed to take pleasure from.

Another man was being crucified – with fake nails I might add – his nipples clamped and then whipped until he could stand the pain no longer. How do I know all of this, you ask? Because for every room there was a little spyhole. Most spyholes were free to watch, but at least one spyhole was pitch black. I asked why this was and was told by a guard dressed in an 18th-century royal court costume that the room was unused. This struck me as a little strange as I could clearly see a piece of metal blocking the view. I wanted to find out more, but it would be a year before the next opportunity came.