Jason Blood in the Cat-Tales Universe from Lady Dien

Saisons et Temps
1924: PremiŤre Rencontre: Prelude

Janvier

Itís a little before three at the Cafť de la Paix, weak January light coming in through the windows and lending a soft glow to the silverware. I sip my coffee slowly; Iím in no hurry to finish and head back into the cold outside. At least itís not raining.

Perhaps we should head south for the rest of winter, visit Napoli or even Athens. The villa would be nice now, better than Paris in winter. It seems I always do this-- stay a season too long for the place Iím in to look its best.

I glance out into the street, watching solitary people hurry by with collars turned up against the wind. In spring or summer or fall, itís different; young couples stroll along arm in arm, groups of friends saunter towards the Opera, that sort of thing. But itís winter, and nobody wants to dally getting home.

A figure in a great fur-trimmed overcoat and stylish hat is coming across the street, 'tourist' written in the body language and the way the head turns this way and that, craning to look at the Opera, then turning around again. As the person comes closer, I can make out itís a little slip of a girl; she canít be any more than sixteen or seventeen. The wind whips her chin-length dark hair out from under her cap and blows it around her face. She passes from my line of vision, and in a moment I hear the door open, over the sounds of light conversation in the cafť.

The coffeeís getting low. I look over for the waiter, but heís busy with the new arrival, leading her to a table, asking her what she wants. "Bonjour, qu'est-ce que vous dťsirez, mademoiselle?"

I wait until sheís situated, hold up my cup, catch the waiterís eye. He nods briefly to show he understands, helps the girl slip her coat off and hang it over the chair.

As I wait for him to come with more coffee, I observe the girl. Sheís wearing a little flapper dress of pastel pink, not really her colour at all, and looking around with that same gaze of innocent abroad. Dark brown hair with a slight wave to it curls at her chin in one of the fashionable 'bobs', though itís been disheveled by the wind and her hat. A girlish figure, not all the way developed yet; frank sky-blue eyes and features that make her pretty but hardly beautiful.

Earrings and a necklace, obviously at least semi-precious, glisten in the lights, and I arch a brow. Very much an innocent then, to walk around Paris without an escort. With such temptations out for all to see.

Andrť refills my coffee then heads over to her. The child is still looking at the menu, sitting up straight and trying to look older than she is. I smile slightly into my cup, blowing on the hot coffee.

"Avez-vous dťcidť, mademoiselle?" {Has mademoiselle decided?}

"Oui, s'il vous plaÓt, je voudrais un cafť express et un croissant," {Yes, please, Iíd like an espresso and a croissant} she murmurs in reply, and I blink once. She has a pleasant, smoky voice; older than she is. Perhaps she'll grow into it. Her accent marks her as an American; her French is formal and straight from her textbooks.

"TrŤs bon, míselle," Andrť murmurs, and takes her menu with him. I stir a small amount of milk into the coffee and speculate about the girl three tables away, speculate as if I didnít already know who she was, hadnít already recognized her for the missing daughter of Gotham.

An American girl, well-educated and well-off, runaway from home to see Paris. Alone in a large city, and so far having come to no harm by dumb luck alone. Silly child.

I was in England last week, on a bit of business, and the news was in all the circles; Claire Ashton was missing. The youngest daughter of the Gotham Ashtons was in England for her seventeenth birthday, under chaperonage of course, and had disappeared from her hotel room without a trace. John Roderick Ashton has offered ten thousand dollars for the safe return of his youngest child. The family has advertised in all the London papers, gone to Scotland Yard, et cetera et cetera.

Well. Here she is.

I add a bit of sugar to my cup and return my gaze to the street and the people hurrying by. Etrigan asks what I intend to do, and I take my time in replying.

ÖI think Iíll go to le Gare Saint Lazare and buy a ticket to Rome.

Tch. About the girl, Jason; the innocentís a-broad
A fetching little chit, donít you agree?
By the wide wide world so awed
Ah, how delicious is naÔvetť.

I donít intend to "do" anything. Sheís hardly my problem.

What? You'll not turn her in
To her well-meaning kin
And claim the famed Ashton reward?
Oh dear. I must confess that leaves meÖ rather bored.

So? Iím not here to amuse you, Etrigan. ÖAnd in any case, I hardly need the money and I donít want the publicity. Neither Miss Ashton nor her-- likely unpleasant-- fate is my affair.

Not your affair, but she could be, keeper mine--
With 'affair' the word thatís operative.
I bet sheís still a virgin, how divine;
And probably dumb enough to be cooperative.

Please. I donít bed children, Etrigan; take your suggestions with you back to Hell.

Hmph. Jason dear-heart, you're no fun at all.
Just remember; the righteous have the farthest to fall.

Iíll keep it in mind. Go away now.

My demon leaves me in peace for the moment. I sip at the coffee and return my attention to the newspaper. All very boring things, I have to confess; the death of Lenin yesterday holds my interest for only a few seconds. In America the current President has nominated some federal judges. The exhibit of Picassoís paintings in Chicago is just over, with a review by a critic who knows less about painting than I do about frogs. In Egypt, Carter and his faithful peons have now gotten into the inner shrines of Tutankhamunís tomb, despite governmental interference.

EgyptÖ now thereís an idea. I havenít been to Cairo in two or three decades. And the weather will be warm.

You're spoiled, Blood, by inner fire
Hellís warmth is all you could ever desire
And leaves this mortal plane a frigid place to thee.
Hereís the solution: you come here, and set me free,
my demon drawls idly, knowing Iím not about to let him out, but making the suggestion anyway. Itís habit, for both of us. I laugh inwardly and let it serve as my refusal, hearing him snarl and slink back into my subconscious.

The last of the coffee is drained, and I set my cup down and muse on the logistics of going to Egypt. Have Conner come down from London and take the valuables from the maison back with him, pack, take the train to Napoli, book passage on a ship to CairoÖ a lot of work, when in four months the country will be too bloody hot to tolerate and Iíll have to head north again. I frown, drum my fingers on the tabletop.

"Monsieur, voudriez-vous plus de cafť?"

I blink as Andrť interrupts my thoughts to ask if I want my cup re-filled, then shake my head. "Non, merci. Apportez-moi l'addition."

He nods and takes my cup with him on his way. I stare out at the grey sky, sit back in my chair as I wait for the bill. In the glass window before me I can see the Ashton girl reflected, sitting there primly drinking her espresso. And--

Three men, in the background, eyeing her and smiling at each other. Ah, the French. For the girl is a lamb among wolves. Admittedly, these wolves look particularly disreputable; a rather seedy hat on the one, a shifty look in the eyes of the other, greater insolence than is usual, even for the French, written in the way they lounge. I look, and concentrate, focusing beneath the surface. Itís easy enough to read them, simple fellows that they are.

Ah. A pleasant trio of petty criminals, this; those two stole an automobile last week and drove it into the Seine. The cigarettes and cigars they're smoking were bought with money taken out of otherís purses. I snort and return my attention to the passers-by. Well, Miss Ashton, your luck-- and some luck, that you have been unmolested for over a week and a half on your own, through London and Paris-- your luck has run out.

Andrť brings me the bill. I pay and put my own coat on. "Est-ce que nous vous verrons demain, Monsieur Blood?" {Shall we see you tomorrow, Mr. Blood?}

"Non, je ne pense pas. Je partis de Paris pour un temps," I reply. {No, I think not, Iím leaving Paris for a while.} He nods, slight regret on his features (Iím one of his better customers), and disappears in the way good waiters do. I put my own hat on and prepare to head for the door.

One of the three lounging at their table says a little too loudly, "Regardez, mes amis. Cet homme a des cheveux comme un chat rayť," and he giggles. Itís more the laugh that annoys me than the comment about my hair. This man has an extremely annoying giggle. Oily and high-pitched.

On the basis of his giggle, I decide to take down my metaphorical Swiss flag of neutrality and come down on Miss Ashtonís side of the battle she doesnít even know is being fought.

Instead of the steps towards the door, I cross the distance instead to the girl sitting solitary at her table, giving a hard look at the men as I go, letting them know that I know what they're thinking. Two of them look away; one returns my gaze with insolence and anger.

"Miss Ashton? A word with you, if I might."

She looks up startled, eyes the exact shade of summer sky wide open, diverted from whatever fantasy or daydream had her staring out the window. "How did you-- I mean, Iím not-- I think you- you must have the wrong person, sir."

I smile thinly. "Miss Ashton. Please donít be any more foolish than you already are. Your father has your picture floating all around London and Gotham both; sooner or later it will be here too, I imagine. May I sit?"

She looks helpless, torn between nervousness, anger, worryÖ I sit down without waiting for the invitation.

After a tense moment, in which anger is the dominating expression on her pretty-but-hardly-beautiful young face, she lets out a small sigh, as heartbroken as any child whose little game is over, and who must now go to bed. "You're going to hand me over to my father, arenít you."

I pause. I made the decision to help her against these three young malcontents; am I going to give her back to her family? I consider, then smile. "Why should I do that, Miss Ashton? Rather an inconvenience for me, actually."

She frowns, thoughts going behind that face. The girl is not an idiot, I can tell; just blissfully ignorant. For a moment, I indulge myself with a mental image of this Claire-child all grown up; sharp brain, the eyes piercing, perhaps a harsh tongue as well. Girlish slimness abraded into a womanís curves that she'll use as a weapon, like her smile and mind.

She cocks her young empty head and considers me. "Then what are you going to do, Mr-- who are you? You're English, arenít you? What do you want from me, then?" A stubborn imperious lift of the chin. The woman-child is used to getting her own way. I feel a slight, admiring smile crawl onto my mouth.

"My. Many questions, Miss Ashton. Let us say I am a concerned citizen, which is in its way true; and I was born in Britain, yes. I want little from you save perhaps some discretion, and what I am going to do-- well, Iím going to give you some advice, if you'll take it."

She shifts in her chair, eyes narrowing as she processes what I've said. "Go on," she commands, not aware that I wasnít waiting for her permission. I nearly laugh aloud. Hellís bells, but she is a proud little thing, isnít she?

I smile coldly. "Grow up. You're a seventeen year-old female in a city with millions of people, many none too scrupulous. You walk around positively radiating the fact that you're by yourself; you wear jewelry and carry money in public-- frankly, I find it amazing itís taken this long for someone to decide to rob you blind. Or worse."

She stiffens. "Iím not a child! I can take care of myself! And in any case, everyone overrates the danger. I havenít had a single problem with anyone I've met," she says airily. I resist the impulse that bids me roll my eyes.

"Donít look behind you-- I said donít-- look in the window instead. The reflection. Do you see those young men at the table?"

She bites her lip to think-- annoying habit-- and nods slowly. "What about them?"

I do roll my eyes. "Are you that dense, child?" Again she flashes anger at me with her eyes. "Iím not--"

"Spare me. Iím older than you will live to be, I assure you, especially if you continue with such foolhardy obliviousness to the world around you. Shall I spell it out for you? Those three have been eyeing you since you walked in, and I would lay several thousand francs on a wager that their intentions are less than benevolent. Where are you staying?"

"Öwhat?" she says, now concentrating on the men. "Wait, Iím not going to tell you where Iím staying! How do I know your intentions arenít 'less than benevolent,' oh concerned citizen?" she hisses, glaring at me with renewed suspicion. I sigh.

"Fine. Cherish your idiocy. In any case, I assume you walked here. I assume you'll walk back. I can guarantee they'll follow you, and, if not now then at a later date, take the opportunity to accost you or your possessions."

She looks nervous now, nibbling at her lower lip. "Alright. What do you suggest I do?"

"Ah, an intelligent question. Good. Now, are you asking for suggestions on your immediate situation, or just in general? Never mind, Iíll give you both because Iím in a generous mood.

"Today, when you leave, donít go directly to your hotel. Take a long route and lose them-- but make sure that long route goes through well-populated areas, where you can get help if you need to. Donít hesitate to ask for it, either.

"As for general advice-- I donít suppose you have any idea how to defend yourself? Physically?"

She looks at me as if I were the idiot here. I sigh. "Then I suggest you learn. Buy a serviceable gun and find someone who will teach you how to shoot it. Also, learn a bit of how to punch and kick and bite, that sort of thing is always useful. Keep in shape, and for godís sake wear shoes you can run in, not those dainty little heels.

"Leave the jewelry in a box. It shows off your wealth, and thatís one of two things you most definitely donít want to be showing off. As for the second-- well, you can either start dressing like a man or get very good at physical defense."

I smile briefly at the contained outrage and indignation in her eyes. She doesnít like being ordered.

"Oh-- and I would do something about your looks in general. You're very recognizable as Claire Ashton. ÖI trust you're not using your real name? Anyways-- get a hair cut, change the wardrobe, something.

"Stay alert-- the world has far too many risks in it to go through it with your eyes shut, unless you have someone to watch your back. With that in mind, I suggest you find someone-- that you can trust-- and work on a mutually agreeable arrangement."

I pause. That seems like all the bases covered. Very well; my good deed for this century has been accomplished. I stand and slip my hat back on, smile and bow briefly to Miss Ashton, and turn.

"Wait! WhoÖ who are you?" A hand, tugging at my sleeve. I turn and stare until she lets go.

"Iím the Devil, Miss Ashton. Good day to you."

All right, I admit to myself as the cafe door closes behind me; that last was a bit of over-the-top melodrama. In the shadow of the Opera, it was quite impossible to resist. But it was certainly worth it, for the look on her face.

ÖAh well. She'll not listen. I give her two more weeks, maximum. And then they'll be fishing her body out of the Seine to send it back to her family.

In any case, I get some amusement out of the whole affair when the three young men try to follow me to my lodging. We leave their bodies in an alley three streets away from the Louvre, in between telegraphing Conner and booking the ticket to Italy.

Bon voyageÖ

***

Part 2

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