It was to be my fourth experience of the, by now, legendary events at Chateau Vert that were held every spring and summer. I was again asked to procure women of different ages, appearances and standing. I had by now become a rather well known face in the Paris underground scene. It wasn’t something I was particularly troubled about as I used different aliases and sometimes disguises as I ventured out on my nightly missions seeking pleasure for personal reasons as well as on behalf of the Society.
The last months had seen me a frequent visitor of the Golden Key, a brothel on Rue St-Denis. That’s were I met a girl I took a liking to – Leila. She became not only a romantic companion, but also a trusted confident I respected highly for her opinions and advice. It was several months into our liaison that I invited her to Chateau Vert. In hindsight, I regret this terribly. But at the time I wanted to share my world with her. Perhaps I even foolishly believed in a future beyond the immoral lives we both led.
It was the beginning of June. I recall it had been a late spring resulting in a delayed summer. The temperatures hadn’t reached twenty yet, so we wrapped ourselves up warmly on our way to the much-anticipated event. By now, I had seen too many things to be easily thrilled, but Leila, who despite her life choices possessed an almost childlike nature, giggled with excitement as we both made our way in a chauffeur-driven Mercedes with blacked-out windows. As we arrived at the party, I tried to hold onto her at first, but as the nature of our relationship was not one of exclusivity, I let her go to explore what life held on her own.
Not wanting to be left behind like a love-struck puppy, I equally threw myself into the festivities on offer. As we all wore masks, and alcohol began to cloud my judgement, I never saw Leila again that night. In fact I never saw her again at all. The next morning I woke up in my apartment, memory obliterated by the substances that still ravaged my veins.
I tried to call Leila – many times – but without result. Her voicemail kept haunting me until her dead body resurfaced six weeks later. In the weeks after the discovery, I kept walking the Seine, wrapped up in a tweed coat I’d inherited from my late master, always on the lookout for the ghost of Leila. But the river never returned the image I most wanted, only those of lights reflecting back a thousand times brighter than seemed possible in a kaleidoscope of yellow and orange.
The winter hit hard, and a lingering depression held my mind hostage, its grip loosened only by bottles of whisky and opium-laced cigarettes. Perhaps they only made it worse, but my mind was too cloudy to see the truth for what it was.
Mademoiselle Heurtin visited my dwellings one cold winter morning and found me in a dishevelled state. Not holding my long hours of dedication to the Galimatias cause in my favour, she ended my employment on grounds of misdemeanour. I don’t even believe I knew what hit me, because it was only days later I found the official letter of resignation I had apparently signed myself.
It was probably the turning point in my life, and the next day I started to write. I still kept up with my engagements at the Hellfire Club and, through a member, I landed an editor position for a larger publication firm. It saved me from the bottle and a downward spiral into substance abuse.
Although I remained the Seneschal, I stopped my activities in procuring girls. I even stopped attending the events hosted at Chateau Vert, although I kept up with the organisation of them, as after all it was part of the charter I had sworn to serve and uphold.
One day Monsieur Rabelais caught me in the apartment. He asked me why he hadn’t seen me as of late. I replied I had been busy, mumbling something about conflicting schedules.
“Too busy?” he demanded. “I don’t know what to say, Cyril. You’ve always been one of our most trusted and loyal servants.”
I replied I was terribly sorry, and insinuated that there were other woes as well that played a certain role in my absence.
“Ah, women woes you mean?” he asked with a paternal smile. I didn’t reply and he didn’t continue the subject either.
“Cyril, there is something I want to show you.” He gestured with his hands to take the lead and I instinctively walked towards the door. He closed it and we took the lift to the basement level where he opened a large door that brought us to the cellars. We walked past the boxed compartments until we come upon a brown door. He opened it and led me down the narrow stairs until we reached an opening. In the shallow light I identified it to be the catacombs – the underground honeycomb world of Paris.
“Here, son!” he beamed, looking benevolently at me. “I come here when I seek peace and solitude. Only a few know of this place. You are free to use it, as long as you find its key in the locked right-hand drawer of my bureau. If not, you may not enter.”
I thanked him for his kindness and he told me to sit down, pouring me a glass of an 18th-century Sauternes wine whose bottle had laid interred in one of the niches. The amber-coloured, slightly syrupy texture whipped up notes of walnut, curry, vanilla, cinnamon and hint of dried fruit. My hand was shaking at the promise of tasting such a noble drink, but I managed to keep it steady long enough for a toast and a first sip of this liquid gold. The taste was nothing short of what I had anticipated.
I watched the skulls that flanked the walls whilst Monsieur Rabelais initiated me into their history and I enjoyed my wine. From then on I made the crypt my sanctum as I, albeit not frequently, would descend the dark and moist stairs seeking solace…and atonement.
Months later, as November was on the brink of December, Monsieur Rabelais passed away from what was described as natural causes. Although perfectly accepted by the members as Monsieur Rabelais was after all of the distinguished age of seventy-nine, it seemed a little odd as Monsieur had been so vivid and vital up until his sudden passing. Still I saw no reason to question it and, within weeks, the Seventh Degree had elected our new Grand Master.
As our legislations and codes prescribe, our true identities remain hidden from the rest of our members. Only the Seventh Degree know our names and identities, which are kept under lock and key on a secret member list. Thus I knew little of the man that presented himself as the new Grand Master and Monsieur Rabelais. He was a man in his late fifties. Or so I estimated, as his age was clearly beginning to show, the former strong line of his jaw fusing with the fleshiness of his neck, producing a rather well developed double chin. Once graced with a full head of jet-black hair, people now more often took notice of the patches of grey at each of his temples.
If my relationship with his predecessor had been one of amicable and mutual respect, the new Monsieur Rabelais didn’t seem to hold me in any such regard. Such a notion was treated with contempt and, except for the Seventh Degree, who I still knew little of, with few exceptions members where divided into one of two categories: those that served expedience and those that were deemed superfluous. I believe I fell into the latter category as my profession, pedigree or lack of bestowed titles proved to be of little value to the new Grand Master.
Although I still remained Seneschal, if only in name, my activities became of less importance, having been transferred to his new secretary. By then the right-hand drawer had received a new lock, but the key to the underground catacomb remained the same, and I had been quick enough to make a copy of it.
Years went by, until one day, about two months ago, I received an anonymous letter. It was dated December 29, 2009 and read as follows:
Dear Monsieur Monfort,
How I know your name, the Seneschal of the Hellfire Club, is something I shall reveal in good time. What is more important is something I am about to tell you here, which depends on your utmost discretion. There are three reasons I write to you:
Firstly, as my investigations have proven so far, you are an honourable man, and someone I believe to be the only one I can trust in this matter. You are not driven by greed or fame, which your small reader base gives testament to.
Secondly, and this concerns only me, I am left with a matter about which I have first-hand knowledge. This matter is of a certain nature that weighs down on my soul. I have only little time on this earth and therefore must see to it that the necessary precautions are to be taken. If not to clear my name, then to bring forth the truth.
Which leads me to the third reason: Activities you may have heard about in whispers, partaking in only their most rudimentary forms yourself, may plague you with notions that won’t leave you, but a lack of proof and evidence makes your quest for truth impossible.
I cannot continue further, but I am asking you to fulfil my wish to expose the Organisation and the Network. You may or may not have heard of these, but you shall soon find evidence in the tomb that lies beneath.
Your knowledge will be known to me, upon which time I shall make further contact. Fear no harm, but destroy this letter.
Needless to say, I didn’t destroy the letter as I felt I needed it as evidence for my sudden mission. I tampered with conspiracy theories: could it be the Grand Master himself who sent such letter? The only thing I could go on was gut instinct telling me it must be someone else. Someone who wanted to expose the Society. It took the better part of an evening watching the embers die out in the fireplace as I finished a bottle of whisky to solve the first mystery: ‘the tomb that lies beneath’. I thought of my master’s tomb, and that of the late Grand Master, but both were neither accessible nor ones where artefacts would have been hidden. Especially if they needed to be retrieved on short notice.
I ransacked my brain and eventually came to the conclusion the tomb was none other than the crypt underneath the apartment. The dilemma was how to enter it without being discovered. Every time I would make my secret journey down, I would be careful to see who was in the apartment, and listen intently to any sounds emitting from the crypt itself. The door could be locked on both sides, so I reasoned I was probably at a safe distance from being caught. But in the event they would sense my entry, they would also know of my spare key, and a change of lock was the least thing I desired. With one day until the New Year, I decided New Years’ Eve, around the time most people are having their dinners, would be the best time for my visit. The apartment was empty, and as I pretended the nature of my visit was to leave bottles of Champagne for the staff and the Grand Master, I believed I had devised the perfect cover.
I walked down to the cellar, which was as equally eerily quiet as the apartment I had left. Two quick turns in rapid succession and the door budged. The air stirred – a moist, slightly earthy smell, that had by now become synonymous with death, and for a moment I thought I could hear a faint sigh, as if someone were taking their last breath. Thankfully, no one was there, but my nerves were strung to their greatest tension as I fumbled my way down the staircase. I lit the candles that were fixed to the gaping craniums that flanked the walls. At first there was nothing of interest, so I sat there in solitude trying to see the chamber in a new light. I traced the walls, the cavities and removed old skulls, which seemed to emit a muted, mocking laughter at my desperate attempts to solve the riddle they so closely guarded.
I removed a couple and noticed a black cavity behind a sandstone brick that, after much work, finally dislodged itself. It was there I found the jewellery box. Instead of looking further, I untangled the pieces, noting any clues in my notebook. It was then I recognised Leila’s necklace. A gold pendant with an amber stone. She always wore it. I couldn’t recall having seen the other jewellery on her, but when I found the pendant with Catherine’s name, who I vaguely remembered from the Reaper case, I thought I knew the nature of the mystery my anonymous writer had wanted me to know.
I quickly tangled up the jewellery once more and put it back in the box. I was careful to replace all the bricks and the two skulls in the right order to ensure my visit would go undetected.
I didn’t set foot in the crypt for weeks, with the exception of my weekly duties at the apartment. It wasn’t until I took you there on that January evening that our conversation shed new light on the matter. It wasn’t so much what you said, but for one thing. You mentioned the possibility the killer kept memento mori, and if so this would most likely be stored in the same place…well, it is something I’ve been pondering ever since.”
He stops his narrative. It is getting late, but still there are many questions for which we both seek answers. Although I wonder if our reasons may be of different sorts.
“Tonight something happened, which we both have to consider as having serious consequences to our safety. Someone knows about us and, most importantly, about our mission to expose whatever lays hidden. I am convinced this person knows my identity and equally knows that I have removed the jewellery box.”
I watch his sunken face. It shows the distinct signs of sleep-deprived nights, intermittent eating habits, with whisky and cigarettes the only source of nutrition. I’ve been watching him as he’s given his accounts, his two vices never far from his fingers and lips.
“Where is the jewellery box now?” I ask.
“It’s in a safe place. A place they will never expect.”
“So what do we do now?”
He stands up and walks to the window, slightly parting the heavy curtain where it meets the window frame. “I can’t see anyone there. But you are not safe here, and I would prefer if you stayed somewhere we can keep you under surveillance.”
“My house should be fine. I have an alarm.”
“Hmm.” He considers this, before responding. “Do you have anyone that you trust, who can stay with you?”
“Yes, I think so. A friend of mine.” I say this perfectly knowing this not to be the case. I just want home.
“Very well, here is what we are going to do. You are going to lay low, don’t do anything. Don’t seek contact with me or with anyone else you’ve been talking to about this whole affair.” I feel a lump in my throat, one I try to swallow, but it won’t disappear. His stern, severe looks break off any tender feelings he might have harboured for me earlier on.
“What about you?” I ask.
“You shall hear from me, I promise.”
He calls a friend who picks me up in his car. It is already past three in the morning, and even one of the most bustling of Paris streets is now deserted. In the next quarter hour I’m home. I see no sign of anyone watching me as I close the door behind me.