A fictional moment in the life of Eugène Vidocq, the criminal turned criminalist
It was a warm Parisienne evening and fog rose from the Seine. It mingled with the smog of industry and clouded the gas street lights that dimly lit cobblestone streets. Beside the Seine, in the 4th arrondissement, was La Force Prison, within which was the man Eugène Vidocq, whose wrists were shackled to the dungeon wall by cold steel chains and ankles bound by manacles.
Eugène had black, curly hair and long, thick sideburns that taunted the corners of his mouth. He wore rags. His nose was still bruised from the scuffle to detain him when five men were needed to pin him down and capture him.
“Monsieur,” he said, speaking to Julian Devéria, the Parisienne Chief of Police, “I became a criminal the night my father had me arrested as a boy.” When those gendarmes had turned up and taken him away to a cell that night, he had felt betrayed, devastated and humiliated by his father. Above all, he had felt angry. And that anger had stayed with him all his life, a chip on his shoulder that had been ever-present in his interactions and informed his life choices.
Julian sat in the opposite corner of the dungeon on a wooden stool. His top hat lay in his lap and his walking cane leant against the wall. He remained as still as a gargoyle. “Your trial for treason commences at first light, and you wish to reminisce about your father? Do not waste my time.”
The flame of torches lining the walls flickered. A rat scurried between iron bars and retreated into the shadows.
“I have watched the guillotine severe the head of my dear friend César Herbaux. This can not be my fate.” He shook his head. The surprised look upon César’s face as his head fell to the ground was forever etched in his memory. He could not shake it, could not recall how César used to smile or the jovial times they had shared in local brothels.
“You have deserted from the army, you have stolen, you have forged and you have destroyed marriages. Why would I care about your fate?” Orange from the flickering flames glinted in Julian’s eyes.
A distant scream echoed around the chamber. It briefly registered to Eugène like the sound of a new prisoner being subdued into his iron attire.
“Monsieur, I crave a life no longer on the run,” said Eugène, thinking of his recent arrest. His estranged wife, who left him for a soldier, had found him back in Paris and reported him to the gendarmerie. He could never be free while the sins of his past stalked his being.
“Such is the fate of a criminal. Why would I care about what you crave? You are wasting my time,” Julian said, snatching up his cane and smashing it against the stone wall. He stood.
“Monsieur, s’il vous plaît, let me tell you what I can do for you, so as not to waste any more of your time.”
Julian pushed out the backs of his jacket and sat carefully on his stool. “Proceed.”
“Thieves adore me. Hardened wretches esteem me. I drink and mingle in their circles. I have their trust. I know their hearts. I will gather their secrets and share them with you.”
“We have informants already, why would I need you?”
“Monsieur, I will be the best of them all! Of your informants, do any have as much esteem amongst the other criminals? Of your informants, have any been as cunning as me, to escape prison so many times, even dressed as a nun to avoid detection? Sir, I will go to lengths those simpletons could not even imagine imagining. I will be your best informant, Monsieur. I know this without a doubt, and I think you do too.”
“I can’t trust you.”
“Monsieur, when my late father had me arrested as a boy, my fate was sealed. In my mind, I became a criminal. It has taken my whole life to realise he did that out of love. I can be different, I can be of use to society, I can be the man my father knew I could be.”
“I don’t know if you can.”
“Monsieur, I’ve seen the end. I’ve seen my friend’s head freed from his body by guillotine. I know that God’s grace has all but kept me alive. I will be as devious as I was in crime but use those skills to catch the criminals, and make Paris safer.”
He shook his head. “Just as the rats carry the plague, I fear you spread a vile truth.”
“Monsieur, s’il vous plaît. Just give me one last chance. Please.”
Julian was silent. “We will hold off your trial in the morning. But know this, you are one mistake from execution. I want intelligence, actionable intelligence, or you’ll be seeing your father sooner than you had imagined.”
He stood, gathered his cane, placed his top hat on his head and waved to a guard outside the cell to let him out.
Eugene put his head back on the stone wall and blinked away a tear. He would be tireless, he would be disciplined. He would use the tricks and the cons and the black arts he had learned. It was clear that Julian barely believed what was said. But that was fine. Because he knew what was there in his heart. And it was true. And, with time, he would prove it. He felt the anger that had fuelled his heart for so long start to thaw. The miserable wretch that was his soul, felt a flicker of hope. His father had loved him and had wanted him to be the best he could be, no matter how tragically he had tried to teach that lesson. And now, he understood that it was only ever a lesson. He could become the man his father knew he could be.