Fleurs du Mal

Issue #56

“Where did you meet her?” I spoke loudly to be heard over the crush in the place, and then had to repeat my query as Jeremy hadn’t heard me the first time.

Understanding lit my brother’s weary features, and he gave me what he must have considered a wolfish grin. “Why, here, Bertrand. At Le Boeuf. At one of Nicolas’ parties.”

I shook my head and surveyed the smoky room. In the four years since it opened in ‘22, Le Boeuf sur le Toit had become a gathering spot for a ‘fast and loose’ crowd. Jeremy would have been an easy target, laughably innocent compared to the type who frequented this sort of place.

The nightclub’s denizens reminded me of nothing so much as a horde of desperate butterflies, all flitting about a handful of glowing flowers. A few would be satisfied, but most would starve and die. And the seductive blooms? They would be fulfilled, serviced by the abundant insects’ cravings.

I couldn’t help seeing my younger brother as one of those starving creatures. He looked ill, his dinner jacket hanging loosely across his broad shoulders. He’d lost a great deal of weight. Father paid Jeremy’s bills, so he wasn’t in dun territory, and I doubted that my brother—once an athlete at university—would turn to the false comfort of the cocaine or morphine that flowed so freely here. I had no simple explanation for his decline.

Mother had actually dispatched me forth, worried by the tenor of Jeremy’s letters. Promising my superiors at the Royal Botanical Gardens a side trip to Berlin to visit with Dr. Baur regarding his recent work with pelargoniums, I’d been given leave to visit Paris to check on my brother.

Recalling that charge, I frowned at him and yelled. “Do you come to this place regularly?”

Jeremy didn’t answer but gazed past my shoulder as if he saw his salvation there. I turned, and spotted his Anne returning.

The notes of a tango slid through the voices of the crowd, and Anne Dubourg moved with it, gliding through the close-set tables. Under a dark cloche hat, one blonde curl showed on her forehead. Her shapeless dress revealed little of her figure, but her breasts—larger than fashionable, I noted—swayed as she walked. Her hips writhed under the silk.

Jeremy rose stiffly, like an old man, and pulled out a chair for her. He leaned down to kiss her as she sat. She looked away demurely, whispering, “Pas sur la bouche.”

Not on the mouth. How I’d been able to hear that over the crowd, I didn’t know. It was more as if her voice had come into my head through some avenue other than my ears.

Jeremy complied, pressing a fevered kiss to her ivory cheek rather than her lips. Her blue eyes flicked upward and met mine, a pained look in them as if she were embarrassed to receive such a salute in public. A demure flower, I decided, which had the same goal as any other flower. The violet wanted the same thing as the tiger lily.

Jeremy sat again, and Anne smiled at him and patted his hand. The tango grew louder and the smoke whirled about us as we worked through the second course, our voices almost impossible to hear above the din. The truffled eggs were too rich for me, so I watched my brother eat, noting with some satisfaction that he devoured the entire selection before him. He wolfed down his lamb chop as well, although he bypassed the peas, having always had a dislike for his greens.

The deserts were pedestrian and, afterwards, I was more than happy to leave the stifling atmosphere of the club to make our way along the rue Boissy-d’Anglas. The night was still young. Chattering people passed us on the street, likely heading off to scandalous pursuits. Automobiles trundled by, and I turned away from their headlamps to spare my eyes.

I looked at Anne instead. She clung to Jeremy’s arm with one hand as we walked, her hips swaying as if she still heard a tango in the night air. I couldn’t decide what to make of her attachment to him. He is far out of his league, I thought, my trusting little brother.

Anne’s eyes fixed on me then, the look in them not innocent at all. Her strawberry lips pursed as if blowing me a kiss. “You must come visit my home.”

“Yes, Bertrand, come,” Jeremy inserted, apparently oblivious to his paramour’s defection. “It’s a lovely house.”

I agreed, thinking I might find some leverage there to ease Jeremy out of her grip.

We walked through the traffic past Boulevard Haussman and then turned onto a side street whose name I didn’t catch. Houses crowded onto each other, most three or fours stories tall. Along our path I saw window boxes full of faded flowers—colors leached by the night, but I recognized their shapes even in the darkness: pelargonium, lobelia, petunia, and verbena. Under a streetlight, I caught a flash of red in the petals of a hybrid musk rose which, no doubt, Pemberton would find fascinating. I made a mental note to come back later in the daylight and ask a cutting of the homeowner.

Anne produced a jingling bunch of keys from her purse and led us up the steps of one of the houses. Once inside, she showed us to an elegant sitting room on the first floor. Like her, it was outfitted in the most current style, all straight lines and geometric shapes. Two spare-looking chaises waited on either side of a low black table, a Japanese tea service on a small stand to one side. An open book lay next to the delicately painted cups and pot.

“Please sit down,” Anne said.

I did so, and watched her settle next to Jeremy on the other chaise. One leg slid along the other, and for the first time I noticed a tattoo on the inside of her shapely calf, visible through her fine beige stocking. A design of angel’s trumpet snaked its way up her leg and disappeared under the edge of her skirt. Pendulous blossoms in a pale color hung down, their edges curling upward. I knew though, as many do not, that angel’s trumpet is deadly poisonous.

“Jeremy tells me that you’re a botanist,” Anne said brightly.

My brother yawned, as he often did when the conversation turned away from himself.

I wondered what else he’d told her. “Yes.”

“And how does one make a living at that?” she asked. “Or do you?”

“I make an excellent living,” I said, and then added what I expected she wanted to know. “Although, as I’ll inherit all the Everslee estates on our father’s death, money isn’t truly an issue.”

She shifted closer to Jeremy. Her legs moved along each other again, setting off other thoughts in my mind, of skin against skin. “So what do you do, exactly?”

“I’m at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew,” I said, “currently working on breeding new geranium cultivars.”

Her eyes did not—as most women’s would at that point—glaze over into a mask of polite attention. “How successful have you been?”

“Quite,” I said. “I’ve created two new cultivars, and I have another line I hope to breed successfully this season.”

“Breeding successfully is always important.” The tip of her tongue appeared between her red lips.

My brother yawned again. “Bertrand, do stop going on about plants. You’re boring us.” He turned to her and added in an aside, “He likes plants better than his own family.”

“No,” Anne assured him, “I don’t find it boring at all. I love plants.”

She ran a hand along his cheek, and his head lolled against the high back of the chaise; he’d fallen asleep. That sent a frisson of warning down my spine. I didn’t know how, but I felt certain she’d caused his sudden somnolence.

She turned back to me as if nothing unusual had happened. “Have you named one of your new cultivars for yourself?”

“Not yet. I haven’t yet produced one distinct enough that I want it to bear my name.”

I intended to choose carefully from among my botanical children. I wouldn’t have any human ones. None of my many affaires had produced a child, and although my wife Millicent had died in childbirth back in ‘18, it was clear that the stillborn child wasn’t mine. (I’d been long out on the front at the time, fighting for Home and Family for over a year. My younger brother, who’d been too young to interest the War Office but old enough for my young bride, had fallen under her spell. Unwilling to think her darling Jeremy capable of such moral weakness, Mother chose to believe a footman at fault instead, but Jeremy and I knew better.) Either way, my brother would have to carry on the family line, or the family’s fortunes would pass to a distant cousin on my own death.

Anne rose and held out a delicate hand to me. “Would you like to see my workroom? It’s up on the third floor, but I think you’ll find it worth the climb.”

I didn’t know if this was a euphemism, but either way I had nothing against accompanying her, whether to her workroom or her bed. Either would serve my ends in prying my hapless brother free of her.

I followed her swaying hips up the narrow stairwell to the third floor. She took out her jangling keys and unlocked the first whitewashed door. Bright light streamed from the open doorway, produced by what looked like a dozen large lamps. I shielded my eyes until they adjusted. “They prefer darkness,” she told me. “They’ll still grow in the light, but slowly enough that I can judge the results.”

Inside the room, shelves lined the walls. Dozens of glass globes larger than a man’s head rested on them, each encasing what seemed to be a withered plant. I stepped over the threshold into the workroom, eyeing a single globe that rested on the wide worktable—a forcing glass of sorts, in which a bulbous plant grew without soil. The morphology of the plant, though, was one I didn’t recognize.

The ivory-fleshed bulb had the smooth, elongated shape of the Resurrection Lily (or Naked Lady, as they are sometimes called), but the leaf habit was wrong, more like the delicate fronds of the asparagus fern. The color of the leaf was peculiar as well, almost the tone of human flesh. At first I wondered if it might be a sculpture, intended to mock life, but then I saw the fronds move as if a wind reached them inside that glass. “What are these?” I asked, turning my attention to the others lining the wall.

“I don’t actually know what they’re called,” she said. In the small room, she stood close enough that I could smell her skin, the sweetness of lilies under the scent of smoke that lingered from the club. She lifted the globe from the table and set it on a bare spot on one of the shelves. While she held it, the fronds bent and writhed against the glass as if they sought the warmth of her touch.

I inspected the other globes, seeing inside each a similar growth. A few of the plants looked much like the one she’d had out on the table, although none were as large or as vigorous. “Where did they originate?”

“The original was a...gift,” she said, “so I don’t know.”

Or she had no intention of telling me. I kept my hands behind me and peered at one of the more robust specimens. “And what does my brother think of these?”

She laughed dismissively. “Young Jeremy has never been past the first floor.”

I was fairly certain that was a euphemism, but one can never tell with French girls. I’d learned that during the War. I turned and gazed down into her innocent face. “Are you lovers?”

“Ah, les Anglais,” she said in a despairing tone, shaking her head. “So blunt. No, we have not been. He is too young for my tastes.”

“Then why lead him on?”

She fingered my sleeve. “He is charming company. It is no more than that.”

Or more likely, she’d discovered Jeremy had an older brother who would inherit the family’s money. French is, sometimes, not difficult to understand. For a moment we regarded each other in heated silence. “Why do you grow these?” I finally asked.

“They are like my children,” she said.

“And you keep them caged like this, rather than in the soil where they belong?” When forced so, most bulbs would not survive coming into bloom, their strength depleted by that effort.

She stroked the globe of one of the sickly plants. The fronds inside followed the motion of her fingers, but feebly. “You work with hybrids, Bertrand,” she said, pronouncing my name in the French way so that it sounded soft and seductive. “You know many do not survive, and of those that do, many do not ever reach fruition.”

“It’s difficult to predict one’s results,” I said, “but given a sufficient number of trials, it isn’t impossible.”

She nodded. “I’m very selective which of these children of mine I allow to grow to maturity, so I start them here. Those that are successful, I move to proper...soil. The others should not be allowed to live.”

“The weak ones?” I asked, thinking inadvertently of my brother. I felt disloyal then and pushed that thought aside.

“I fear they end in the incinerator,” she said with an unapologetic shrug. “The strong survive.”

I believed I understood her better then. “I am not easy prey,” I told her.

She smiled wisely, those strawberry lips drawing up into a tight bow. “I never thought so.”

“I want you to leave my brother alone.”

She stroked one hand down my lapel. Her fingers slid to rest on my hip. “What would you give me in return?”

I set my hands about her waist and lifted her onto the worktable. The many lamps kept the room overwarm, and the table was hard, but I didn’t intend to go looking for her bedroom when this was so much more convenient.

“Not on the lips,” she whispered, as she had to my brother. She turned her head away when I tried to kiss her, but everything else was clearly acceptable to her.

In the morning my brother still lay on the sofa on the first floor, sleeping like the dead. It took some effort to wake him, but then I dragged him forth to his own flat.

I told him, of course, which not only made him angry with me but also caused him to swear off women altogether. “After Milly, I guess I deserved that,” he said in a resentful tone.

“Women are eternally fickle, little brother,” I said, and clapped him on the shoulder. I couldn’t help wondering how many of them would use him before he figured that out. “Your family is forever.”

I didn’t feel too sorry for him. Even so, I decided to stay in Paris to keep an eye on him, relegating my many projects at the Gardens to my assistant (a capable young man, but lacking in vision). Jeremy didn’t go back to Anne, which was the important part.

After a few bitter days, his spirits lifted and he seemed to have forgiven me. He actually got out his oils and sat on his rooftop, recreating the sunset on canvas. He’d not painted in weeks and expressed relief at getting back to his art.

For my part, I wrote letters to our mother and father and detailed instructions to my assistant. I tried not to think about those fascinating plants in Anne’s forcing globes or wonder about their origin. I tried not to recall how they had moved like infants reaching to touch their mother’s hands—or carnivorous plants seeking prey.

Visions of strawberry lips haunted my days, along with the smell of lilies. I spent the nights in my hotel room, sweating in my narrow bed, feeling the phantom slide of Anne’s skin against mine, a siren’s call just as potent as my curiosity about the bulbs in that workroom.

I expected Jeremy to improve but, despite rising spirits, he grew even gaunter under my watchful guardianship. He became listless, sitting unmoving before his canvas as if something sapped away his strength. His breathing grew increasingly shallow.

The doctor had no explanation for Jeremy’s continued wasting—not tuberculosis, nor any other sickness he recognized. I suspected that if anyone knew what ailed Jeremy, it would be Anne Dubourg. After the doctor’s visit I knew I would be going back to that apartment near Le Boeuf sur le Toit.

Following a trail I recognized only by the contents of the window boxes, I arrived at her house before the dinner hour. I expected to find Anne at home, preparing for an evening on the town. I stood on the steps for a moment, a shiver chasing itself along my skin, feeling a sense of anticipation like catching the first scent of brandy after too long without.

She came to the door wearing her dressing gown, a silken affair with flowers painted on it, twining branches like the tattoo that snaked its way up the entire length of her leg. “Bertrand,” she said, affecting surprise. “Please come in, I’ve been hoping you would come to see me.”

“You knew I would.” I followed her inside and up the stairs to her dressing room. I leaned against her black-lacquered vanity table as she applied her lipstick, painting strawberry red over the plump flesh of her lips.

“What’s wrong with my brother?” I asked.

She sighed heavily and her eyes met mine in the mirror. “Ah, Bertrand, I am so sorry.”

“So you do know what’s wrong. What can I do?”

She turned and faced me. “There is nothing. The seed was sown weeks ago.”

I grabbed her arm and hauled her up from the boudoir chair. “What do you mean?”

A teardrop glistened in the corner of one eye. “What I said, Bertrand. The seed was sown. I have no way to take it back.”

I held her close to me, trying to see past her façade of innocence. This close I could smell her skin, the heady scent of lilies this time not masked by smoke. My body recalled that fragrance, tightening in anticipation, but I forced my thoughts away from that. “What seed?”

“You only choose the best specimens for breeding, n’est ce pas? Jeremy was vigorous and young, which gave promise of a healthy fruit. The seed was planted. It must have nourishment to form a bulb, so it takes from the body in which it grows. It is the way of life.”

I thrust her away, horrified. She fell against the vanity table but didn’t cringe as if afraid of me. Instead, she turned knowing eyes on me.

“The way of life?” I asked. “It sounds more like the way of death.”

“I can make him comfortable here, for what time is left. Do you want him to suffer?” She reached a hand toward me.

I batted it away. She clearly believed Jeremy was as good as dead. Having witnessed his continued decline, I didn’t have much doubt myself. “What can I do to help him?” I demanded anyway.

She shook her head sadly. “There is nothing. I swear.”

I considered wringing her neck, but that wouldn’t help. “I’m not leaving until you tell me exactly what you did to him.”

“But I did tell you,” she said. “The seed was planted, Bertrand. When it comes to fruition, I’ll retrieve the bulb. Once in my workshop, I can determine if the growth is healthy.”

And I wondered if her selection of Jeremy as her victim might not have had some deeper significance, if she might not have known about me all along. “Why?”

“If anyone would understand the process, it should be you.” She stroked my chest, which I knew for an invitation. “I can only allow the most successful of my children to be planted again. So after I harvest the bulb, I have to watch them carefully.”

“Planted again?” I repeated, feeling dazed. I could not seem to focus with her scented skin so close.

“Just as I am, in this body,” she said. “I pass my seed on to others, but the process is unpredictable. In some part, the child comes from the host.”

My mind spun that over as I looked down at her. She came closer, pressing against me. She was poison, any way I looked at it. I felt my hands curl about her shoulders, almost of their own volition.

“There’s nothing you can do,” she whispered, and once again, I felt almost as if I heard her words in my head rather than my ears. “Jeremy is gone, whether you admit it or not. You can only choose how you act afterward. Truly, Bertrand, if I could give you your brother back, I would.”

She was a monster, perhaps not one of Baudeliare’s vampires, but something just as inhuman. I reconsidered my decision not to strangle her, but my traitorous hands moved to push the robe from her shoulders instead, craving the feel of her skin under them. “Are there others like you?”

“A few,” she said, coyly holding her dressing gown closed even as she came closer. “But I will not tell you who they are, if that’s your question.”

Her silk-clad breasts brushed my chest then, and my mind suggested other ways to convince her to help me to save my brother. I laid one hand on her hip and drew her savagely against me. When I leaned toward her, she set one surprisingly strong hand against my chest and pushed me back. “Not on the lips, Bertrand. Never on the lips, or I will lose you.”

Which made me suspect how her ‘seeds’ passed to her victims. That I would not forget, no matter how much I wished to defy her.

I walked along Boulevard Haussman in the pale morning light, my ruined shirt hidden under a tightly buttoned suit jacket. Some things about French girls I liked excessively, particularly in this new Paris.

I still did not know what to make of her appetite for me, when I’d made it so plain that I did not like her. I wondered if it might only be my knowledge of botany that drew her—or if it was the other way about, my interest in her stemming from her bizarre glass-enclosed garden. Either way, she hadn’t told me anything that would help me halt my brother’s decline.

And when I reached his studio, I discovered Jeremy sitting in his favorite chair, the coverlet from his bed draped across him as if he’d sat up waiting for me. But his eyes were open, unblinking, fixed on some place I couldn’t see. He was already dead. For a moment, I simply gazed at his unmoving form, trying to decide what I would tell the police.

I wondered then if there was inside him a seed of sorts, a slender elongated bulb like those I’d seen in Anne’s workroom. Thinking the police would never know, I drew the coverlet away, revealing the bloody mess of his shirt. A large hole gaped several inches beneath his chin, just to the left of the breastbone. I dropped the blanket back over him and stepped back, shaking in fury.

It hadn’t been Anne. I knew that. I knew where she’d been every moment of the previous night. My chest still stung from the scratches her nails had left behind.

A few, she’d said. A few like her existed—only a handful, all close by in Paris. Any of them would have motive, a reason to cut into his body and remove that thing which had killed him. One of them must have done this to Jeremy, and I swore to myself then that I would do whatever I must to find them, every one.

A frisson of premonition warned me, and I turned. A policeman stood in the open doorway, nightstick in his hand. Behind him, other voices sounded in the stairway.

I had been set up, I realized, to take the fall for my brother’s death.

For a long time I sat in a cell at the police station on rue des Prouvaires, waiting for someone who would listen to my protestations of innocence. I had ample time to think, to consider the tangle that had ensnared both my brother and myself, but I couldn’t decide what to say.

Whether to tell them that my brother and I were distant at the best of times; whether to tell them I had recently stolen his paramour just as he had, several years ago, taken my wife; whether to admit I wouldn’t deeply mourn my brother’s absence, as I had never known him half as well as I should have? Nevertheless, whatever his flaws, Jeremy had been a scion of the Everslee family, and I intended to avenge his death. My family would expect no less.

As the hours passed, I became anxious, my hands shaking and my thoughts scattering. Their design, no doubt. It was late afternoon by the time a Lieutenant Golairde came to hear my explanation of events. When asked where I spent the night (for the hotelier had given out that I’d not returned to my rented room), I told them I’d been at the house of Anne Dubourg. None recognized her name. As I couldn’t recall the name of her street, I offered to lead them to her house instead. I would expose the room full of globes, I decided, and reveal that each represented a life stolen.

After much confusion, Goliarde located a couple of officers to escort me to locate the house of my mystery woman. They put handcuffs on me and as we neared the front door of the station, she walked over the threshold.

“Bertrand!” she cried. “I went to your brother’s flat, and the landlady told me they’d brought you here.” She turned her innocent eyes on the officers who held my arms. “What is this? Why does he wear these?”

She had come to deny my claim, I guessed, the final seal on my condemnation. I scowled as she grasped my cuffed hands, her red lips pouting up at me. I caught the scent of her skin then, and my anxiety eased.

The officer on my left gazed down at her legs. She wore the shortest skirt I’d seen yet, one that actually bared her knees. “Who are you, mademoiselle?” the man asked.

She primly held out one hand. “Anne Dubourg, officer. Monsieur Everslee was at my flat all night last night. A party, you understand. I’m sure the other guests can attest to his presence as well.”

I hadn’t told Goliarde what I was doing at her flat, merely that I’d been there all night. He shrugged and bid the officers to uncuff me.

I gazed down at my unexpected rescuer and wondered what she planned for me. I was not, it seemed, the sacrificial lamb after all.

In the workroom on the third floor, she gazed raptly at the new globe that sat upon her worktable. She stroked the glass, but the bulb had no fronds yet to reach for the warmth of her fingers.

That was all that was left of foolish Jeremy. Although I knew she hadn’t been the one to take my brother’s life, I could not deny that she’d been a part of it. Nor could my involvement be an accident.

I would have to handle her carefully. In her presence I could not seem to keep focus on my ultimate goal. Sooner or later she would trust me enough to introduce me to the others, her children. When I knew their names, I would reveal them all. If the police would not act, I would bring an end to them myself. I raised my eyes to hers, hoping my face did not show my intentions.

She watched me with a shrewd expression. “A healthy start,” she said, still stroking the glass. “If this one does well, then a part of your brother will live on forever. Together we will find a strong host for him, and he will never grow old, never die. He will have children as numerous as the stars.”

I’d heard that sort of promise before, somewhere. “What do you need me for?”

She smiled up at me, those strawberry lips drawn up into a smile as lethal as the angel’s trumpet. “Who would be better than you to help us select potential bearers of our seed, Bertrand? You understand breeding like few others—how to look at a plant and see what traits would breed true. How could I let you molder in prison when you might learn so much here?”

I couldn’t argue that. I did have much to learn. “Still, it is a shame about my brother,” I said, searching her eyes for a hint of remorse.

“I have said I was sorry, Bertrand. He pressed me for my kisses, and he paid the price.”

Not what she had told me the night before. All her words might have been lies, from the very beginning.

She stroked a lily-scented hand up my sleeve, and that suspicion faded from my mind. I felt it slip away, like an unpleasantness forgiven after a bottle of fine wine.

“Not on the lips,” she said, her breath on my cheek. “I am pleased you understand the importance of overcoming that desire.”

Even dazed as I was, I kept that warning well fixed in my mind.

To my mother’s sorrow and my father’s ire, I didn’t escort my brother’s body back to England, leaving them to see him buried. I worried that if I left France I would return to find Anne and her kind gone, beyond my grasp. I might lose my chance for to expose them I put off my assistant’s queries so I might stay, and then the furious demands of my superiors at the Gardens.

I studied the glass-encased bulbs fervently, wanting to understand what sort of creature would destroy its host and move on to another. The bulb stolen from my brother’s body grew leaves that resembled the fronds of the asparagus fern, a warm flesh tone much like the one I’d seen that first night. My attention kept returning to it, as if it were actually a part of my brother as Anne claimed. I might save this one, I thought, and then just as quickly reminded myself that I must, when the time came, destroy them all. I must.

If there were aught of my brother there, I saw no sign of recognition. When Anne touched the glass, the fronds reached for the warmth of her fingers. They did not respond to me as they did to her, perhaps recognizing their own kind.

Just as I am, inside this body. That passing comment of hers came back to me time and again.

I had no doubt that one of these things lived inside Anne’s warm body, set inside her chest near the heart. What I did not know was whether she told me the truth—that the ‘plant’ inside maintained the hosts’ health, no more—or if it took a firmer hold of the body it inhabited. More than once I wondered if it was truly Anne Dubourg whose body I clutched at night or merely the remnant of her, a husk animated by something else altogether. The lily scent of her skin, the sweet taste of her perspiration—those hinted that she was not human any longer.

I began to have nightmares, imagining delicate fronds unfurling throughout my own body, infiltrating or even supplanting my own flesh. I would wake entangled in Anne’s poisonous limbs, but my suspicions would fade with her touch.

After some days, I received an ultimatum from the Royal Botanical Gardens: return or be quit of my position. I ignored that, too, as my plan had not reached fruition. In fact, it hadn’t proceeded nearly as far as I’d hoped. I had only identified one of Anne’s compatriots by that time, the glassmaker who made the globes for her, a man who’d once worked for Lalique. But I didn’t even know his name. I couldn’t leave.

And the bulb I’d first seen had reached maturity. Spores appeared along the undersides of those feathery fronds, and Anne declared it time to find the creature—for I knew it to have some sentience by then—a new host.

For the first time, I wondered if that host might be me. I didn’t know whether I feared that opportunity, or craved it. Anne assured me it would only cost a fraction of my own mind. In return I would have health and long life, and eventually offspring of my own.

And if I let them place it inside me, surely they would trust me, my mind reasoned. They would allow me into their inner circle. It would mean sacrificing myself in the end, but that would be worth it if I could achieve their destruction. Or would I be so lost to my own self that my sense of purpose would fade away?

It would make me more of a match for Anne in every way. I had to believe that I would be strong enough to enforce my will over it, that I could defeat the designs of such a pale and fragile creature, even if it were set inside my chest next to my heart.

When the time came, the glassmaker came to the house. In the third floor workroom, he used a ball hammer to tap a small hole near the bottom of the globe. Seeming to recognize the danger of the shattering glass, the feathery fronds of the bulb folded inward. The stems curled up like a fern’s nascent fronds. I watched as the glassmaker removed the bulb from the broken globe and slipped it into a silken bag, hiding it away before I could even touch it.

“Were you able to secure him?” Anne asked.

“With no difficulties,” the man assured her. He nodded to Anne and left the workroom.

I was clearly not the chosen one, not this time. I felt the sting of betrayal, even though she’d promised me nothing.

“There are priorities,” she said vaguely when I regarded her with raised brows. “You will have your own soon, my love. There are others.”

I glanced about the workroom and gestured at the shelves. Most of these specimens lacked the vigor she favored. “Where?”

Smiling secretively, she took my hand and led me out into the hallway. She unlocked the second door and let me peer within. “You see, there are others.”

If there were dozens in the first room, there must have been more than a hundred in this one. I ran back in my mind and counted the number of rooms that led off the hallway. Six in all, a frightening number when added together.

“And when they are all ready?” I asked.

“Then we will scour Paris for the best and wisest to make them of us. Like you,” she said, her hand stroking my cheek. My anger with her fled, and I breathed in her wonderful scent. And that led to other things.

In the morning, I stood on the steps of the house watching the early sun. I was surprised to see Lieutenant Goliarde coming up the street, finally searching me out, I assumed, to deliver news of my brother’s killer. I feared he would ruin my chances by acting too early, so I moved to intercept him before he entered the house. But he strode up the steps almost as if he didn’t see me there.

“Lieutenant, are you here to see me?”

He blinked at me. “Excuse me?”

“About my brother’s death. Is that why you’re here?”

“Your brother, monsieur?” His attention wandered to the stone of the house’s facade.

I resisted my desire to slap him. “You were investigating my brother’s death, man,” I said. “Jeremy Everslee?”

Goliarde regarded me as if there were nothing in his brain. “I suppose,” he said, and brushed past me into the house. He did not come out again.

“He was asking difficult questions,” Anne explained later that evening in the cacophony of the nightclub. “We could not afford to let him pursue his inquiries further.”

The choice of Goliarde had been expedient, I understood then, not a slight against myself. “He seems much changed.”

She stroked my hand in time to the music. “He will regain some personality once the two parts have had a chance to merge together. And it will be useful for us to have a man among the gendarmes.”

A man among the police. Just as it was useful to have a glassmaker in her retinue—and a botanist.

Goliarde did improve over the next day, but I saw little resemblance to that officer I’d briefly met. He seemed healthy. His eyes took on a new innocence, and yet he eyed girls as they walked along the street as if he wished to devour them. He now seemed that which I was destined, in Anne’s greater plan, to become.

And then I began to question if that was her intent at all, or another of her lies. Were I to become like Goliarde—a mere caricature of his former self—my skills as a botanist would be blunted.

And then Goliarde brought back a bulb. It was small and covered with blood—but his own, he claimed proudly. I watched with narrowed eyes as Anne carefully placed it inside a new globe. At that size, my studies suggested it would not fare well.

“Curb your eagerness next time,” Anne told Goliarde sternly. “This child of yours should have been given time to gather strength before removing it.”

He stroked the globe and smiled down at his child regardless.

“And when is it my turn?” I asked Anne after he’d left the house.

“Soon,” she whispered, her strawberry lips pursing.

Which meant never, I suspected. I was more valuable to Anne as I was—human, and vulnerable.

She held me in her thrall. I had discovered that too late, much as I had discovered my regrettable dependence on morphine after being wounded in the war. I was addicted. I could not bear to be too long out of her presence now. My determination to avenge my brother’s murder would return when she left the flat, then turn to anxiety and sometimes even pain, only calmed by her touch and the scent of her skin.

Given what I’d seen of Goliarde’s change, I should have been relieved. But in some part, I still craved it, and her.

I always rose earlier than she did. The next morning, I stood on the steps and scowled at the sunrise. A policeman walked by, swinging his nightstick.

“Do you have a cigarette?” I asked.

Anne never selected men who smoked, as she claimed it fouled the lungs. I took the cigarette and cradled it over the match he offered. “Could I have the matches?” I asked. “I’ll give you a franc for them.”

His eyebrows rose, but he made the exchange anyway and then went on his way.

I took a puff of the cigarette, and then dropped it and ground it under my shoe. I recalled why I’d quit smoking after the war; it dried me out. I had escaped the morphine as well, although that had been far more difficult. Surely I could overcome my need for Anne.

I would keep to my original plan, and wait until she trusted me and made me known to them. Or perhaps....

I lit one of the matches and watched its comforting glow fade in the waxing light. I thought of the lace curtains in the sitting room and the fragile fabric of the throws. They would burn quickly. Then the wallpaper would catch, sending flames up into the walls and the upper floors. The third floor with its rooms of globes would become an incinerator, stamping out all the small fragile lives therein. Nothing of Jeremy could be saved.

Goliarde I could find easily. Then I would have to hunt down the others, although I don’t know all their names.

Anne slept on the second floor, entangled in her silken sheets, looking deceptively angelic but smelling of lilies and musk. She would go as well. I thought of her swaying hips and those strawberry lips that spread her seed so judiciously.

My hands shook as I blew out the match. Tomorrow, perhaps.


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J. Kathleen Cheney is a former teacher and has taught mathematics ranging from 7th grade to Calculus. Her works have been published in Fantasy Magazine, The Best of Jim Baen's Universe 2, and Writers of the Future XXIV. Her website can be found at www.jkathleencheney.com.

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Comments & Scrivenings
9 Comments on “Fleurs du Mal”

9 Responses to “Fleurs du Mal”

  1. Asakiyume says:

    11-19-2010, 11:49 AM
    Asakiyume

    This was super–reminds me of ETA Hoffmann or Nathaniel Hawthorne’s stories.

  2. euphrosyne says:

    11-20-2010, 04:04 PM
    euphrosyne

    I quite enjoyed this. Nicely sketched setting and characters, and unique material.

  3. DgB says:

    11-20-2010, 04:11 PM
    DgB

    This was a great story. In my opinion, one of the best I’ve read on here. The writer’s voice blended perfectly with that of the POV. Nice work!

  4. Kenneth Mark Hoover says:

    11-22-2010, 11:57 AM
    Kenneth Mark Hoover

    Really a very good story, except I thought the highly stylized writing got in the way a bit. But overall I liked it a lot.

  5. bcartwright says:

    11-27-2010, 03:36 PM
    bcartwright

    Great story!

    This story seemed to make really good use of the reader’s perspective. I felt like readers were able to piece together some of the sinister details (the effect of the perspiration, for example) before the characters, in a pleasurable, controlled way. It seems like a writer must have chops to get that to come off correctly.

    I think that quality of the story made the ending work very well–because the protagonist is sort of waffling between being able to take action, or remaining in thrall, and the reader is in the unique position to appreciate what’s at stake. Great story!

  6. J. Kathleen Cheney says:

    12-02-2010, 09:17 AM
    J. Kathleen Cheney

    Hi there,

    I’m glad you all liked the story. The style is not my normal ‘voice’, so writing this was a challenge.

    And thanks ‘bcartwright’ for the comments about the reveal pacing. It truly can be difficult to time that, but I was fortunate to have good first readers and a good editor to point out what worked and what didn’t ;o)

  7. […] Fleurs du Mal was published in 2010 in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. I think you could probably call Fleurs du Mal a horror story. We have here a story about possession, a really strange type of possession. Good thing I have the opposite of a green thumb. Any plant that comes near me had better run for its life. […]

  8. […] do write stories without any Romance, BTW, Fleurs du Mal being an example of […]

  9. […] Fleurs du Mal, I wanted the protagonist to be disdainful and […]

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