It has been a while since I published a flash fiction story to the blog, but I’ve been a bit lax lately and they’re good for getting back in the habit. The setting for this story was Paris in 1719, during the Mississippi Bubble, one of the first major economic collapses in modern times. Parisian society was caught in a fever, trading shares in The Mississippi Company, which had a monopoly on French trade to Louisiana. A great account of this can be found in Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, which is a must read book exploring dramatic examples of mob behaviour.
“Why should I be quiet, old man?”
Braker had watched the boy for an hour now, the more he drank the more foolish he became.
“I’m a patron like anyone else?” He slapped money down on the bar and then went back to boasting among his friends. Braker watched the landlord slip the coins into his pocket, shake his head and then leave the boy to his folly.
“Carry on, Jean!” Shouted one of his friends.
“Well it was as easy as all that. I’ve only been in Paris a few weeks, and I tell you I’m going to leave this city a rich man.”
He wished the young fool would keep his mouth shut, but if he didn’t listen to the landlord, he wouldn’t listen to some interfering Englishman. Now the word was out, Braker didn’t want the other patrons getting any ideas, but the lad continued.
“A drink to John Law, I say.” His friends raised their glasses. “I tell you, three days ago I bought and handful of shares in this Mississippi company of his and they’ve doubled in value since then. At this rate…”
“Aye, at this rate.” Muttered the landlord. “Half of Paris stood at the door of M. Law day and night, and for what? Paper?”
Braker watched the boy’s face fall, he was clearly stewed in ale now and the rest of the bar seemed uninterested. The fever that had gripped most of Paris hadn’t yet reached the houses of the poor yet, and whatever the boy was doing in a place like this, he had certainly never been poor. Neither had Braker, he’d taken a walk to the house of John Law himself. He felt his breast pocket nervously, but his stash was there safe and sound. He would not leave his home without his shares, but he knew better than to loudmouth about it like the child he saw before him.
“Paper!?” The boy sounded aghast. “I shouldn’t expect you to understand,” he sniffed and peered around the tavern. “Grotty little place like this, what do you know about economics?” The landlord waved him away and went back to cleaning glasses. “After all,” he said to nobody in particular. “Was it not M. Law and his bank that saved the country from the last disaster?” The crowd that followed the rich boy was dissipating, and Braker almost felt sorry for the lad. Up among the toffs he’d start a frenzy just mentioning the Mississippi company.
He watched the boy until he could see he was reaching his fill. When he started to button his cloak, Braker got to his feet too. He reached inside his jacket and felt for his old sword. It was tarnished and bent out of shape, but it would do the job. Brake patted down the pocket with his shares and smiled to himself. The boy was right, wealth made overnight, but the more shares the better, and Braker had put all the money he had on the little he now possessed. Rumour was Law would stop selling soon, unless the Regent intervened, and Braker couldn’t wait for that.
Soon the boy pushed his way through the drunks by the door and stumbled into the night air. Braker wasn’t far behind. He stepped slowly and carefully. The boy was too merry to notice him, but Braker didn’t believe in taking chances. He’d need a quiet spot to slip the sword in and unless the boy lived in the same slum he drank in, Braker knew he might need to walk for some time.
He’d followed the boy nearly twenty minutes when he turned a corner into an alleyway between two houses with dark windows. Nobody would see them there, but when he turned the corner too, the boy was nowhere to be seen. He stepped forward into the alley, covered his eyes and peered through the fog of the gas lamps. Had the steamed young gentleman collapsed into the gutter? Perhaps he could be off with the shares without bloodshed, that was as good an option as any, Braker supposed. He leaned down to see better through the mirk, but it was no good. The boy was lost to him.
Unfortunately, the boy found him first. The sensation was new, but Braker had seen enough of war to know the sound of a knife through the back. It had missed his heart, but as he struggled to breath, he knew it had pierced his lung. The knife was removed, and Braker fell onto his face. The wet street soaked into his jacket, and even now he panicked for the papers in his jacket. Firm hands turned him onto his back, and under the lamplight, Braker saw the boy clearly. He smiled back at Braker and started to search his jacket.
“Sorry for that, my friend.” Said the boy, Braker spat curses and blood in return. “You’re English? How are you finding Paris?” The boy found Braker’s papers and his eyes gleamed. “I really am sorry, but I see from your sword you had the same in mind for me.”
Braker tried to speak but his wind was gone.
“No need to apologise.” The boy closed up Braker’s jacket and then got to his feet. “It was a cruel trick, I know. Beneath me really, but I really would like to leave Paris a rich man.” Braker felt his strength leaving him.
“Anyway…” The boy pulled Braker’s eyelids closed, he tried to open them but he had nothing left. “…they’re all doing it.”