Footsteps in the Dark
Gaspard Ouimet didn't know he was being followed.
At 2 a.m. on the Rue des Rondeaux, Gaspard strolled past the stone wall that enclosed Pére Lachaise with his head down, his figure popping into the streetlights' sharp white beams, then sinking back into shadow. He hummed the "Masquerade Waltz" on the way, his voice and footsteps his only company.
Gaspard loved noise - the distant buzz of a radio, or the hushed conversations of neighbors at his favorite café. For with silence came thinking. Humming the notes of the "Masquerade" helped him forget things - and there was much to forget.
His figure slid through a couple more streetlights, and he hummed a few more bars. In the shadows behind him, three figures lurked at a distance, but Gaspard couldn't hear them over the sound of his own voice. Casually, he slipped a silver pocket watch from a fold in his wool overcoat; his eyebrows arched as he flipped it open, evidently surprised at the time.
Gaspard often lost track of the hour - time meant little to him. And brandishing valuables on a dark city street didn't strike him as dangerous. For not only did he believe himself alone, but he wasn't afraid - not of the dark or the dangers hidden within it.
Gaspard snapped the watch shut and buried it in his pocket without concern. A couple more bars of the "Masquerade" drifted from his throat into the damp Paris night, and his walk continued. Meanwhile, his tail removed itself from shadow to follow him more closely.
A sharp wind blew open his overcoat, its cold hands pressing through his shirt. Gaspard closed his eyes and smiled. He adored winter - the briskness of the air, the dusting of snow on the trees, the warmth of blazing fires. This night's chill reminded him of a thousand winters, spent in Belgrade, Montana, Glasgow, the Yukon and countless more. Their memories made him smile again.
Until, behind him, someone coughed - the rattling, wet cough of a smoker. Gaspard stopped the "Masquerade," unfinished, and turned an ear to the silent night air. Finally, he picked out three sets of footsteps, rushed and graceless and inching closer by the second. In a flash, he knew he wouldn't make it home - at least not easily.
Footsteps had chased him in the dark before. He recalled the stabbing in 1403, the hanging in 1798 and the suicides 150, 80 and 50 years ago. So he was prepared and, more unusually, not the least bit alarmed by this latest threat.
On the swell of another sharp breeze, Gaspard detected his attackers' scent - of sweat, cigar smoke and cheap cologne.
"Here we go."
Even as their footsteps hastened, Gaspard kept his easy pace until a crude weapon rapped him on the back of the head. His stroll turned into a springing leap and he fell forward, elbows first, the impact sending shots of fire up his arms. Gaspard winced and retracted into a fetal ball on the cold, wet asphalt as his head rang with pain, half his body illuminated in the spotlight of a street lamp. The attackers ringed around him beyond the light and he cried out as a foot met his stomach. As he gasped for breath, the men growled to each other in rapid French.
"Gentlemen, gentlemen ..." Gaspard raised his arms in a sign of peace. "Why are you doing this? If you require money or any of my possessions, you are welcome to them. There is no need for violence."
His pleas went unheard and a fist struck his side, the last word forced out of his body in a huff. Its force, and the realization that he would meet another end - his first in Paris - brought a gagging and hacking Gaspard to his back.
"There are better ways, my good men," he stuttered. "I am happy to help with your needs..."
Another punch shut him up. Gaspard couldn't distinguish arm from leg as each struck him on the chest, sides and belly, his grunts and weak moans disturbing the once quiet night. After a minute of this, he gave up the fight and just lay there, waiting for the end to come.
A second later, Gaspard spied the knife from the corner of his eye, its point catching a white beam of light as its wielder peeled away from the others, his steps casual and uncaring. The man knelt before him and muttered something in French as he trailed the knife lightly across Gaspard's neck.
Gaspard didn't flinch.
"Oh, a beheading is it? Good luck, my good sir."
The world went black once again.