Javert first noticed him the day the town hall balcony nearly fell. It might have crushed a dozen workers, convict and civilian alike, had it not been for him: the prisoner with the plate reading 24601 on his red cap, emerging from chaos to hold the loosened Atlas in place. The heat was sweltering that day and some of the laborers, 24601 among them, had shed their shirts; consequently, one could see his back glistening with sweat, the shifting of muscles there as he strained beneath the weight of the balcony.
After, when a scaffold had been put in place and the work crew brought back to the prison, Javert stood at the gate to search each convict as he entered. He counted down the number of men between him and 24601, almost unconsciously, until there were none and the man stood motionless before him. There was a tired, wrung-out look to him, not at all the bright, fiery determination Javert had glimpsed earlier.
He was still not wearing a shirt. Javert cleared his throat, took the grimy red smock from 24601's hands and shook it out to check for any weapons or stolen goods that might be hidden in its folds. Satisfied, he returned it.
“Shoes off." The man complied. Javert crouched to inspect first one shoe, then the other. Empty. He stood, running a hand along the inside and outside of both firm legs. The thin material of his trousers was damp with sweat. Javert held his breath without realizing as he gingerly felt between the man’s legs. No hidden objects, nothing unexpected. He stepped back. “Arms up.” 24601 raised his arms, revealing only dark hair and corded muscles. Javert nodded; the prisoner lowered his arms again.
“You did well today,” he said, and immediately regretted it—he rarely addressed prisoners directly and never to give idle praise.
24601 barely acknowledged it. He glanced up at Javert with a hollow look and blinked; then his gaze slid back to the ground.
Javert waved him on.
“What a day, eh? I swear, when that support started to go, my life flashed before my eyes.”
“What did you see? A blur of whores and mornings waking up in your own piss?”
Lavigne swatted peevishly at Rosier, who went on chuckling at his own joke. Javert’s lips twitched in the vague direction of a smile. The three of them were resting in a corner of the casern, a game of cards between them.
Once Rosier managed to control his laughter, he turned a mock-serious look to Lavigne and said, “Yes, it was a narrow escape. Lucky that ox was there to save you.”
“No joke! And to think—he should have been gone years ago.”
“What do you mean?” asked Javert. While he had barely begun his third month at Toulon, Rosier and Lavigne had been employed there nearly half a dozen years each.
“Well, the beast tried to run!” said Lavigne. “Twice, wasn’t it?”
“Twice,” Rosier confirmed.
“Good thing we still have him. Good piece of equipment.”
Javert took a sip of wine. “What’s his name?”
Lavigne shrugged. “His fellows call him the Jackscrew.”
“It’s Jean—Jean something Jean,” said Rosier. He snapped his fingers. “Ah! Valjean, that’s it.”
Javert had noted, with some admiration, that Rosier seemed to know the names of nearly all the prisoners on the chain they guarded. Javert, for his part, could scarcely tell one miserable dog from the next. Even 24601—Jean Valjean—had been indistinguishable from the others until that day.
Their game finished, Rosier and Lavigne announced their plans to head into town for the evening, “to see about finding some convivial society,” as Lavigne put it, or, in Rosier’s words, “to get some cunny.”
“Why don’t you come along?”
Javert grimaced into his cup. The thought of tagging along as the two of them chased skirts was utterly unappealing.
“Ah, Javert.” Lavigne shook his head pityingly. “You dull lad.”
“I’ve got a shift tonight.” There was no point in adding that he would rather not go along regardless. From their smirks, it seemed his peers were well aware of that.
“Right, then,” said Lavigne. “See you in the morning.”
“Enjoy the convicts!” said Rosier with a cheerful wave.
At midnight, Javert took to his post outside the salle where the prisoners ate and slept, accompanied by a superior officer by the name of Rancourt, advanced in years, but no less menacing for it. He was a shrewd, quiet man, quicker with his cudgel than his words—the prisoners knew to jump at his command. Javert admired him.
The first hour passed uneventfully. Javert stood silent, arms folded behind his back, pacing now and then. It was not until sometime after one o’clock that Javert heard it: a low, guttural moan from inside the salle. He frowned and might have dismissed it as his imagination, had it not happened again—and again. As he listened, the sounds grew louder, frantic. Javert’s mouth went dry.
Something should be done; he couldn’t simply stand here and listen to this. He turned on his heel and walked over to Rancourt. “Do you hear that, sir? Should we not—look into it?”
Rancourt arched an eyebrow. “You don’t know what it is?”
Javert felt his face grow hot. “Sir—that is—should we not put a stop to it?”
Rancourt’s smile was slow and crooked. “Be my guest, Javert. They’ll just get right back to it.” He leaned in slightly, adding quietly, “Don’t let it trouble you.”
Javert blinked, glancing at the entranceway uneasily. “Sir,” he repeated. If Rancourt didn’t think it worth intervening, then Javert wouldn’t protest. He was embarrassed to have brought it up. He returned to his post.
It started raining, a soft, misty rain that did nothing to drown out the sounds. Javert tipped his head back, letting it wet his heated face, and tried to clear his mind. It was no use: he thought of 24601—Jean Valjean, the Jackscrew—thought of his broad shoulders straining, of his arms stretched overhead. What if it was him in there? A man like that—surely he reigned over all the other devils and took his pick from the lot. If Javert had been another man, a convict—
He shuddered, wishing he could rip the thought from his skull like an errant weed.
There came a high, desperate whine from inside. Javert’s fingernails dug into the flesh of his arms.
When at last the next guard came to relieve him, he was grateful for the limited light of the lamppost and the loose fit of his uniform. Above all, he was grateful to leave.
It was dark inside the casern. Javert made his way carefully past the other guards, most of them asleep, stripped down to his shirt and climbed into his hammock. He turned his face to the side, into the canvas, willing himself to sleep, willing the heaviness between his legs away. Those sounds filled his mind still, and in the dark now, curled up to sleep, it was easy to picture the sights that might accompany them. At the height of it, Jean Valjean’s face might look as it did beneath the balcony—almost pained, yet fierce, determined: masterful.
But the convict had seemed so subdued at the gate, accepting Javert’s touches passively, as if he were not there at all. How might it have been if the man had sprung to life, as he did when the Atlas slipped, and caught Javert’s hand as it traveled up his leg? If harnessing a fraction of that strength, he had pinned Javert’s arms behind him, that he might reverse their roles and subject Javert to a thorough exploration of his own?
Javert brushed a hand over his thigh, imagining Jean Valjean’s hand in its place. He hesitated as he neared his prick. Jean Valjean would not hesitate. He gripped himself roughly, through his shirt—just a little pressure, just for a moment.
If he ever fell in with that lot, became a lost, lawless wretch—
He thought of dropping to his knees before the man, of looking up to see those dark, dull eyes ignite. Jean Valjean would lay a heavy hand over his head—his head would be shorn and scarred—he would grasp his shoulder, urging him on, and Javert would lean forward to ease those thin sailcloth trousers down.
Now, in his hammock, Javert bit his lip, afraid to breathe, clutching himself tightly. It was torture. He could hear the man on the sleep-mat on the floor below him shift restlessly. If Javert did as he wished, as he needed, they would all hear it, and the smell would linger on him. He drew his hand back, curling it into a fist, and bit down on it, hard. The pain did little to help. With a quiet, frustrated sigh, he folded his arms across his chest and squeezed his eyes shut.
It seemed to him that hours passed before sleep took him at last.
He woke with a start, lurching upright. The hammock swayed slightly. Outside the windows of the casern, the sky was the deep royal blue of dawn. Javert blinked, and in a flash, realized what had awakened him.
The cannon had been fired. A prisoner had escaped.