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Arras, France, June 1793
Jerome leaned against the wall and casually pulled a stolen apple out of the pocket of his canvas jacket. He weighed the ripe fruit on his hand, admiring its bright red color and fragrance. Stealing apples was easy. In general stealing anything was easy if you worked out a good plan. Jerome reached into his other pocket and felt three copper coins there. Enough money to buy some sweets but that was about it. At the thought of honeyed cakes, he felt his mouth water and he looked longingly at the apple he was holding. It was a good apple and a symbol of sin if the priest Father Goddard was to be believed. Jerome was comfortable with sins. All one had to do was to confess them and the absolution was granted. Whether one could get into heaven was another matter entirely.
Like most boys in Arras, Jerome went to church, said proper prayers and prayed for salvation. Mother and Father told him time and again when he was old enough to understand that God was all powerful, all merciful, and saw everything that was happening on earth and in mortal hearts and minds. Sometimes Jerome had problems with the Almighty. God worked in mysterious ways and very often he would simply overlook the fact that there were bad people who lied, cheated, stole and committed acts that simply could not grant them absolution. The pampered rich did not pay taxes, the poor suffered and King Louis didn't care about any of this. And the king was God's viceroy on earth. Why did God tolerate such kings?
Jerome sighed and turned his head. The quiet narrow street paved with cobblestones was empty. Windows were closed in spite of the warmth of the late spring, and the good citizens of Arras were taking their afternoon rest. But while they rested, Jerome felt restless. He looked down at his worn clothes and dirty boots and wished he had the money to dress better. Money was the problem. It was always a problem for everyone. One could not earn good money by breaking one's back and doing honest work. Stealing money was easier but very dangerous. The boy sighed again and licked his lips, remembering how he and his friend Eugene Vidocq had begun their friendship and how Vidocq, who was known in Arras as the Wild Boar, took him under his wing after rescuing him from an angry traveler, who nearly killed him when Jerome tried to clean his pockets.
Vidocq was a thief and a scoundrel, and he was a terror of Arras. Many God fearing folk wished him a fast trip to the gallows but Vidocq was immune to empty threats and replied in kind when he was provoked. Vidocq was strong and fearless and was never afraid to fight. And he was a handsome devil too. If he didn't have such a bad reputation, girls would be happy to see him without fear of discovery by their parents. In contrast, Jerome was skinny and short and an ideal target for bullies. But today bullies would get their due. Vidocq, armed with a stick was hiding just around the corner ...
"Hey, Jerome!" cried a voice down the street.
"Finally," Jerome said through clenched teeth. "The fools are here at last."
He raised his eyes from his apple and turned his head. Right on time, he thought, feeling the familiar tension in his muscles. Fear and excitement raced through him like water and fire. Jerome brushed his blond hair from his eyes and bit into the apple. His teeth pierced the thin crimson skin and for a moment he enjoyed chewing on the piece he bit off. The apple tasted good but not as good as what was coming.
"O, Jerome!" the voice repeated.
Jerome tilted his head to the side and saw four boys coming from around the corner. He recognized them instantly because they were hard to forget. Nicholas, Robert, Luc and Jean, the four big fools who liked to pick fights with anyone who was smaller. Jerome had already experienced their fists on his skin and he wasn't about to repeat their first unpleasant meeting. The boys strode casually down the street. The four fools believed that skinny helpless Jerome could again be shaken for a few coins and given a few more bruises. The boys stopped and surrounded him. The expression on their faces promised nothing good. Jerome felt a familiar trembling in his knees but forced it down. There was nowhere to run.
"Got any money, Jerome?" asked Robert.
"Maybe I do and maybe I don't."
Luc, the smallest of the four pointed a stubby finger at him.
"You always have something in your pockets, Jerome," he said. "Don't you?"
"I need money," Jerome said suddenly. "Would you mind sparing a few francs?"
The four boys exchanged puzzled glances. It suddenly dawned on them that Jerome stood up straighter and made no attempt to escape. The confusion did not last long. Jerome suddenly threw his apple at Luc, hitting the smaller boy in the face. As Luc staggered backward, Jerome seized the opportunity and rushed through vacant space. He would have made it around the corner if he hadn't slipped on a patch of wet dirt. A few moments later, he was under a pile of bodies with fists pummeling him from every direction while one pair of fast hands went through his pockets. Jerome cursed and writhed, fighting hard for his three copper coins.
"You stupid shit, Jerome," Nicholas, the oldest and the strongest boy was saying as he pulled Jerome's hands behind his back. Jerome managed to kick out with his leg, and his foot connected with something soft. Someone on top of him yelled in pain, but Jerome's copper coins already left his pocket. Jerome twisted and the pocket ripped open. Pain shot up his right arm, and he gasped as Nicholas grasped a handful of his hair with his other hand. Robert was in the process of raising his fist when something flew through the air and hit him on the head. Robert went over sideways, and the missile that brought him down rolled on the cobblestones under Jerome's very nose. It was a large potato, round and gray with white spots where its roots were severed. A second missile hit another boy, Jean, between his shoulder blades, knocking the wind out of him. Luc, who had taken the money from Jerome's torn pocket managed to duck as the third potato sailed over his head and harmlessly hit the stone wall breaking into several pieces.
A tall and large boy suddenly emerged from around the corner. He was thickly built but not fat, naturally muscular. His clothes consisted of gray shirt and brown jacket with black trousers and old boots that needed the attention of a shiner. The boy had a ruggedly handsome face with large nose, prominent black eyebrows, and mischievous green eyes that seemed to sparkle from under his thick, brown shoulder length hair. There were no more potatoes in his hands but there was a stick. The stick was thick and long enough to do some serious damage.
"Surprise, morons!" cried the boy as he charged forward.
"Vidocq," said Jerome, his mouth with a split lower lip curled into a smile.
"Vidocq!" yelled Robert. "Damn it, it's Vidocq!!!"
"Run!" Luc screamed.
Jerome suddenly felt the weight lift from his body and rolled away. He was just coming to his feet when Vidocq swung his stick like a club, connecting it with Robert's back. Without stopping, his hand reversed the direction and landed on Nicholas's shoulder. Both boys howled in pain and did their best to escape the incoming blows. Jean, who managed to pick up one of the fallen potatoes to throw at Vidocq quickly dropped it and sprinted after Luc. Robert and Nicholas first retreated under a storm of blows then simply turned and ran. Jerome, who was sitting on the ground, reached for one of the fallen potatoes, got up and threw it after the retreating boys.
"Cowards!" he yelled picking up the second potato.
Vidocq, swore then lowered his stick and saw Jerome take aim at the retreating backs of Robert and Nicholas. Jerome threw the potato and missed. He turned his face, flushed with excitement, toward Vidocq. Then the excitement turned to anger.
"What took you so long?" Jerome demanded as he began dusting himself off. "They almost killed me! And they took all my money, thanks to you! It was supposed to be the other way around!"
"Oh, so now it is my fault?" Vidocq said leaning on his stick. "I helped you, didn't I?"
"Sure you did. You were supposed to watch me. Where were you?"
"Around the corner," Vidocq replied.
"You might as well have been a league away."
"Now I am insulted. The least you could do is to say thank you."
"Thank you," Jerome grumbled.
"That's better," Vidocq frowned. "Well, what's the matter?"
Jerome touched his split lip tenderly and winced. He showed Vidocq his ripped pocket, and Vidocq shook his head sympathetically.
"They took my money," Jerome cried slapping his hips.
"We will get it back," Vidocq replied confidently. "Stop whining."
Jerome gave him a dirty look and shook his head. "Just tell me why you waited so long. We are friends, right? You protect me, I help you steal. I want the truth. And don't tell me you fell asleep."
"Fine," Vidocq said. "I will tell you-"
The answer came but not what Vidocq and Jerome had expected. A window suddenly opened above them and both were instantly drenched from head to toe in cold water. Following the torrent appeared Madame Charbet. Red faced, plump and with a short temper, Madame Charbet was no doubt awakened from her afternoon slumber by the noise and began her impressive monologue that shattered the stillness of the quiet street like a cannon shot.
"Vidocq!" she screeched. "I know you, you little thief! You bandit! Who stole my laundry ropes? Who broke my window last week? Who beat up my nephew George? Who broke my window? It was you Vidocq! You and your friend whose name I don't care to know! You will grow up to be a criminal and end up on the gallows!"
Vidocq and Jerome beat a retreat before more voices were added to that of Madame Chabert. Vidocq waved at the woman and Jerome showed her his long tongue. Laughing, both boys sprinted around the corner and down the street, pursued by the echoes of Madame Charbet's impressive voice. Five blocks down the boys stopped and sat in the shadow of an old oak that grew near the fence of an old Calais Abbey. It was July and the air was fresh with the smells of summer. Vidocq rested his stick in his lap, patting it like one might pat a dog. Jerome, who now had the time to adjust his clothes and swallow his wounded pride waited for his friend to speak. Vidocq broke the silence by tapping the heel of his boot twice on the old cobblestone.
"Are you still angry with me, Jerome?"
"I still am. You were never late to save my hide before."
"I had a good reason."
"You found a gold nugget?" Jerome said with sarcasm.
"Better. I saw the most beautiful girl."
Jerome licked his broken lip and tasted saltiness in his mouth. His ribs hurt from the brawl with the four fools, but nothing appeared to be twisted, dislocated or broken. He thanked God for his good fortune and kissed the copper cross he wore around his neck. He cast a sidelong glance at Vidocq, who appeared blissfully unaware of his friend's discomfort. Jerome scratched the back of his head and sighed as he gathered his thoughts.
"You forgot about me because you saw a beautiful girl?"
"Briefly," Vidocq admitted. "You should have seen her, Jerome, she's a real beauty."
"Well, I didn't see her," Jerome retorted. "All I saw was these four idiots who were beating me up while you were looking at the beautiful girl. Our plan was to beat them up and take their money. It was a good plan but you ..."
"Yes?" Vidocq turned his head slowly to look him in the face.
"I thought you were my friend, Eugene."
"I am still your friend, Jerome," Vidocq said and squeezed his shoulder.
"Easy, you oaf. Nicholas almost broke my arm."
"I will break his teeth next time I see him," Vidocq promised. "How much money have you lost?"
"Three coppers, I think."
"Three coppers? Only three coppers? Jerome, that's not enough to buy even a bowl of soup! If you are ready to cry over it, turn away so I don't have to see it. And, mind you, I don't have a spare handkerchief."
Jerome rolled his eyes but thought better than to further accuse Vidocq. Jean, Nicholas, Luc and Robert got what was coming to them. He smiled remembering Vidocq's dramatic entrance preceded by flying potatoes. Eugene Vidocq was well known in Arras as a troublemaker. Vidocq once told him that when he was born, a great storm swept across Northern France, rattling the windows and igniting the sky with furious bolts of lighting and thunder. The midwives delivering the baby had crossed themselves, and one of them, a fortune teller said that this boy's life would be a stormy one ...
"Do you know her?" Jerome asked, changing the subject.
"What are you talking about?"
"The girl who captured your attention," Jerome licked his broken lip again.
"No," Vidocq admitted. "But I am sure I will see her again."
The bells on the Nord De Calais cathedral rang and Vidocq looked up at its sharp spire that pierced the blue sky like a giant gray spear adorned by a golden cross. The cross itself shone under the sun as if calling to all faithful to look up and acknowledge the existence of God. The bells of the Nord De Calais did not call the faithful to prayer. It wasn't even a holiday and there was nothing to celebrate. The cathedral bells simply announced the afternoon hour. Every hour, a monk would come up and pull at the ropes, making the giant bells heard all across the city and beyond. Vidocq wondered why the priests did not go deaf from having their ears assaulted by the bells ringing every hour. He squinted at the golden cross and wondered if it contained some kind of message from the Almighty. It had been a while since he went to the church to confess his sins. But who has the time when you are only fifteen and you had too many sins to confess? Vidocq sighed and looked at his friend. Jerome didn't look that bad, and the bruise on his cheek made him somehow look funny.
"Here," he said reaching into his jacket and coming up with a handful of coins. Jerome looked at his hand like a puppy that got an offer of a tasty meat bone. He reached for the coins and Vidocq dropped them into his palm. Jerome counted the copper circles and whistled.
"Ten francs! Eugene, I am in your debt."
"Yes you are, and don't you forget it. The four fools had learned their lesson. They won't bother you again, I think."
"You think?" Jerome looked meaningfully at Vidocq's stick. "What if they have sticks the next time they see me? I don't know how to fight. Look at me. No wonder Nicholas called me a girl the first time they roughed me up. I have got to do something."
"Learn to fight. Come with me to the armory. I know this good sergeant who can teach you how to use a foil or a saber, your choice."
"No, thanks," Jerome said. "I would rather get a pistol."
Vidocq rolled his eyes and sighed. "Then join the army. I heard they pay well."
"I am too young. They would never take me."
"Then lie about your age. I know some boys who did. Now they wear nice uniforms and get all the girls."
"And they can get killed if they go to war."
"They can," Vidocq agreed. "Still it's good money. And no one will dare raise a hand against you once you put on that uniform. You get lucky you can become an officer. Then life would really be sweet."
"Then why don't you do it? You look older than me."
"My parents would be horrified at the idea," Vidocq replied. "Besides, I have other plans to make my fortune. I deliver bread, and my father wants me to take over the family trade. I don't think I am made to knead dough and stand all morning in front of the oven. There are better things in life than baking."
"Like what?" Jerome persisted. His eyes gleamed conspiratorially. "You want to run away?" he whispered, leaning closer. "Become a sailor? See other countries?"
Excerpted from MAN OF RISK by DAVID CRANE Copyright © 2011 by DAVID CRANE. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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