assistant, is.” He pointed to a middle-aged man, just emerging from the inner office.
Young Sanson, it seemed, often spent some time after an execution in a wine shop near the Châtelet, the medieval castle in the center of the city that now housed jails, morgue, and police courts. The assistants, Desmorets added, generally gathered to drink together in a cabaret in the faubourg Denis, their own neighborhood, but Sanson, he was a bit standoffish and didn’t mix much with them. “His father, he was just the same,” he concluded. “We lodge at his house, most of us, and serve at his table, but he doesn’t care to be seen with us, beyond the work, that is.”
The work, Aristide repeated to himself. An innocuous euphemism for a repugnant vocation. Though he had spoken with the elder executioner and his assistants before, in the course of his own work, he found he still harbored a trace of uneasy distaste toward men who put their fellow beings to death for pay.
“Do you—do you enjoy your trade?”
Desmorets glanced at him, passive reproach in his gaze. “I’m used to it. Doesn’t mean I enjoy it. And the son of an executioner has precious little choice in the matter. Take up your father’s trade or go hungry. No one else will employ you.”
“Forgive me. I spoke without thinking.”
“No offense taken, citizen. It’s not as bad as it was before the Revolution. Used to be some folk were afraid to touch us, for fear they’d be contaminated. But during the Terror, all of a sudden it seemed we were the keystones of society. That’s what some of them called old Sanson: ‘Keystone of the Terror.’ He didn’t care for it, but it was better than being called butcher, and scum, and worse.”
Aristide nodded. He had crossed paths with the elder Sanson in 1793, and he could imagine how that dignified and taciturn public official might have reacted to the crude adulation of tipsy sansculottes.
He found the wine shop soon enough, on a narrow side street winding off in the shadow of the Châtelet’s towers. After a moment’s search among the crowded, noisy tables of card players, he recognized his quarry, seated alone at a small dimly-lit table in a corner, staring at his empty bottle.
“May I?” he inquired, and slid into a chair opposite the younger Sanson, quickly taking stock of him. The new executioner of Paris was a robust, handsome young man of no more than thirty, who would not have seemed out of place strutting in an army officers’ mess or riding amid the wealthy and fashionable in the parkland of the Bois de Boulogne. “What are you having?”
Sanson glanced at him, expressionless.
“Are you sure you want to sit with me, citizen?”
“Do you know who I am?”
“Then you have the advantage of me.”
“My name is Ravel.”
Sanson shrugged. “Stay, if you must.”
Aristide ordered a half bottle of red wine from a barmaid and then returned to the table and his companion. “Citizen Sanson,” he said without wasting words in idle talk, “do you believe Lesurques was guilty?”
Sanson raised his head and glowered at him.
“What should it matter what I think? It can’t be undone. Let the dead rest in peace.”
“I ask you because I, too, am a servant of the law.”
Sanson glanced at him again, with vague interest. “Are you—”
“No,” Aristide said hastily, “I’m not one of your … colleagues … but I do serve justice. I assist one of the section commissaires, a friend of mine.”
“Informer?” Sanson inquired, with a contemptuous twist of his lips.
“Certainly not. An investigator.”
“I had nothing to do with the case, though I’ve followed it. But I do believe that every servant of the law must take some of the burden upon himself for such a terrible error, if an error was made. If Lesurques was innocent as he claimed.”
Sanson was silent for a few minutes, drinking down the last of his wine and staring at the play of the