Now, Then

He ran. Worse than the lacerating branches and thorny venomous vines cutting his arms and cheeks was the uneven ground, if there was a ground at all. So enmeshed was the floor in ancient roots and fallen moss-shelled trees—themselves sprouting ferns that lashed and grabbed as he tried to leap over them—that Jacob wondered fleetingly if there any terra firma existed beneath it all whatsoever.

Looking over his shoulder was a mistake. The timing was miserable. He tripped over a knob of twisted roots and lost balance. The jaguar’s timing was impeccable. He leapt as Jacob stumbled, and now Jacob had fierce claws submerged in his back as the two of them plunged over a low drop to where the floor continued five or six feet below.

A jaguar’s reflexes being much better, of course, than a human’s, it recovered instantly to resume its attack. How bewildered it must have been—would be, if it had a human’s brain—will be, if they ever make that evolutionary leap—to discover that its prey was gone.

But Jacob Verde was already in the relatively safe climes of Paris in January, 1898.

Peering around a corner as he blotted his gashed cheek, he made sure no one was watching. It was early and the plaza was mostly empty, the morning fog still lingering as shopkeepers opened their doors. He regained his breath, and smirked at the red windmill, utterly hokey by daylight, even in its heyday.

He looked conspicuous in his silk shirt, leather vest and velvet (now shredded) breeches. He sighed. The buccaneer look wasn’t going to fly here. Fashion had saved his life on numerous counts, yet it never interested him much. He scratched the stubble of a beard that was growing in, thinking he’d do better clean-shaven, perhaps with a long, well-waxed mustache.

Walking out of the clothiers (thank God for modern times!) fitted anew with a black suit and derby—his personal nod to the Belgian Magritte—he strode briskly down the street to 21bis rue de Bruxelles.

The secret knock was simple: his instruction was to rap “timidly.” If he rapped fiercely, or with any sort of urgency, desperation, panic, or impatience, he would be ignored at best, or shot if he proved too insistent. He used a single knuckle, sore still from his recent adventures in French Guiana, to tap quietly, politely at the door. No response. Was he doing it wrong? He thought a moment. Why should he be nervous? He was in control of the situation. No one suspected anything. Certainly not this. And he could leave any time.

Like an actor composing himself before a scene, Jacob straightened his shoulders and flushed the tension from his face and shook it from his body. He addressed the door once more, raised a single knuckle, and lightly knocked—with deference, but not politeness. With a bit of conjured diffidence, and without the self-assured tact of a gentleman who belongs there at six a.m.

Jacob held his breath. The door opened. In his nightgown, Emile Zola answered the door, rudely awakened and frowning to the bottom of his chin.

«Qui êtes-vous? Pour quelle raison vous êtes ici?»

Jacob reached inside his jacket pocket and produced a folded letter. It bore no seal, for prisoners in French Guiana lack access to such niceties. “de Dreyfus,” Jacob said in his best French accent. “Duh Dry-foo.” Not like the actor Richard Dreyfus.

Zola hadn’t been expecting him, and Jacob Verde expected this. Zola knit his brow at the young man with the American accent, and quickly scanned the street from side to side before re-evaluating the stranger.

«Entrez…Entrez.»

Jacob handed Zola the letter and walked in. “Votre preuve,” he said simply as it changed hands. He would have to remember to suggest a knock. And he would love to have a copy of the next day’s paper—Jacob wouldn’t be there to see its publication, but as a student of modern European history was quite familiar with its headline—a keepsake of another self-assigned mission successfully completed. He’d frame it and put it over the mantel in his apartment in Berkeley. He would have to bury it, of course, and recover it later, after it had been lacquered appropriately with age.

Because, of course, he did have a nicely yellowed but well-kept copy framed in UV-protective glass above the mantel in his cheap one bedroom apartment near the campus.

“J’accuse!” the headline screamed.

The End.