Octavius sat drinking coffee from a demitasse at his favorite table in his favorite café in Paris. The café, Le Procope, had been operating on the Rue de l'Ancienne Comedie ever since 1686. Decorated in red walnut paneling and green beaded trim, with black-checkered white marble floors and a winding staircase overlooking the bar area, it had not changed much since its opening.
Octavius liked to sit inside, rather than at the preferred outdoor tables that better allowed for the favored French pastime of people watching, because he enjoyed watching people who didn’t think they were being watched. The small table by the door, his table, allowed him to see people walking in, and, more importantly, a view of the coat hanger by the stairs. There people would stop to remove their coats as if they were removing their daily burdens.
Octavius would watch the old, the infirm, and the weak most intently. Their slow and jerky movements when removing their outer vestments provided all the insight he needed into their level of frailty. These he would mark by memorizing their face and their clothes.
The café grew busiest just as darkness descended and Paris illuminated for the evening. This was also the time the older patrons began to exit, leaving the café to the young.
Once a week, Octavius Vieillesse would choose one of the elder patrons and follow them out. If they were alone, and they happened to walk down a quiet street, the elegant Frenchman would catch up to them and strike up a cordial conversation. He usually began by asking them if they needed help to get home.
He had been surprised, when first he began his sojourns nine months prior, how many would readily accept his help and be thankful for any conversation. These he called Sheep. Only rarely did any of them ignore him or dismiss him with a curt rejection. These he called Rams. He was now very good at knowing which would be which before they even left the café. The Rams were the lucky ones. The Sheep, trusting of a gentleman in need of a cane himself, would never be weak again, never follow again, and, certainly, never return to the café again.
The cane was not an affectation or a disguise. He had spent the war years as a German sympathizer, and while it had brought him power and riches during the occupation, it had also gained him three years of beatings at the French penal colony off the coast of French Guiana named 'Bagne'. The Dutch closed the prison in 1946 due to the atrocities committed there by the sadist guards. The closing had resulted in freedom for Octavius.
The prison's other name had been more commonly know: 'Devil's Island'.
He had, however, taken from his years as a sympathizer a taste for the good life, which he indulged at every turn thanks to the Francs he had squirreled away during the war.
The other tastes he acquired during that time he allowed himself to enjoy about once a week.
This cool April evening he made his choice quickly; a little old woman, well into her seventies, was unable to hang her coat herself. Octavius obliged her befuddled attempts and hung it for her, walking back to his table after a slight curtsy. The woman thanked him with a small, confused smile.
He was certain she was a sheep.
Octavius watched her walk toward a table next to the grand stairs. He noticed she had sat by herself and that the other place setting was removed by Alfonse, the Maître d’. The old lady was dressed in an expensive black dress with long sleeves and white cuffs she would pull at continuously. She wore a white cloche hat with a narrow black band which she unpinned and placed on the empty chair next to her when the menu was presented to her. The black band around the hat ended in a ribbon, symbolizing the wearer’s status as married. Octavius knew she wore it as a widower. She pulled out a pair of pince-nez glasses from her purse and placed them at the end of her nose. A tiny gold chain swung freely from the bottom of one of the lenses as she read the menu.
As he drank his coffee he would steal glances at her over the brim of his cup, his glasses fogging lightly from the steam. He considered his options. It had not yet been a week since his last choice was made; he usually waited at least a week, more often ten days, before choosing again. But Madame was perfect... perhaps too perfect. He had not gone undiscovered this long by being rash.
He watched a look of fear cross her face as she reached for her head and found her hat missing. She pulled her arm back when she realized it was on the chair she had placed it on. The tingle he felt at the bottom of his throat whenever he was ready to act came furiously this time.
His decision was made. Madame was exactly perfect - He’d act tonight.
With that decision, Octavius Vieillesse had become the Sheep.
Madame Claire was afraid to move. She had learned her lesson. Move slowly, wait for the pain, and if it came, move in a different direction. Let it guide you. Don’t speak. Ever. Point and smile. That was allowed. So was eating. She had managed to feel no pain since she entered the restaurant. It wanted her here.
She did not know why she was here, but the pain had driven her right and left and forward until this was where she ended up. Where it wanted to go. Avoid the pain, she thought.
The pain had started two days earlier. She had been in the garden, pruning her April roses, which had just begun to bud. Monsieur Leblanc, the postier, had come through the white iron gate and stood behind her. He did not greet her, but she noticed his shadow over her. When she turned, she saw his face, racked with pain, and blood creating a puddle by his feet.
His only words came then, “Je suis désolé”, as he collapsed.
She had seen a shadow, a blur, then felt pain. It started at her back, but quickly consumed her from top to bottom as she writhed on the ground.
Since then, it had all been about training. Her training. If she moved the wrong way she felt pain. If she didn't sit when it wanted her to sit, she felt pain. She had quickly learned to do whatever didn’t cause pain. Her mind was her own, but the pain controlled her body.
She had picked up the phone to call an ambulance and the pain knocked her to the ground. A few hours later she tried again to call her granddaughter for help and she had passed out from the pain.
She stopped going near the phone.
She looked at her back in the mirror and saw the shadow attached to her lower back. A demon, she thought, I have been possessed. The demon made her turn around and walk closer to the mirror. Just a little pain on her left side had made her spin as if she were twenty years younger. It had then nudged her closer to the mirror. Pain shot up her right arm until she touched her face with her fingers. Then little pangs as she searched her own face for the spot he wanted. The pain stopped when she reached her right eye. The pain intensified again until she was pushing on her eyeball. Tears streamed from her eye as she was forced to press on it over and over.
She had nearly gone mad.
When it forced her to do the same with her left eye, madness was no longer a question.
As she sat at the table in the café, she waited for further instructions patiently, and impatiently for death. The bill arrived and she laid down the Francs to cover it. She got up gingerly, expecting pain to stop her, but none came.
She walked out of the little café and nodded at the gentleman who had helped her with her coat. She wished she could scream her troubles and have him help her. Instead, she walked out into the dimming Paris night, and took a right, hoping that she had guessed right. The night was cooler, and she buttoned her coat all the way up. She headed home.
Octavius watched the Madame shuffle by, left a twenty Franc note on the table, and placed a red cravat loosely around his neck. At the street he took a right and hurried to remain thirty steps behind his chosen sheep, his cane tick-tacking against the sidewalk. The tingle in his throat had now traveled to his fingertips and his scalp. He breathed in deeply, trying to calm his mounting excitement. He knew this was the feeling he lived for, more than any other, and his gait became care-free and rhythmic, a wolf on the prowl.
Ten minutes later the sheep stopped and appeared lost, and Octavius pretended to arrange his cravat on a store mirror. The lady seemed to wobble a little and then took a right onto a walkway between two brownstones. Octavius looked at his reflection on the glass and gave himself a knowing smile.
Madame Claire panicked as she failed to understand what the demon wanted. It was not leading her home. She was uncertain what it wanted, and she knew uncertainty lead to more pain. She sharpened her senses to perceive any inkling of pain so she may respond quickly. She could not take the pain anymore. Halfway down the alley she has been forced to take, she suddenly felt the pain that meant STOP, and she obeyed immediately.
She froze, and awaited its next instruction.
Octavius turned the corner and saw that the old lady had stopped, her back turned toward him.
He felt for his Kappmesser knife, previously owned by a Nazi paratrooper, and found the hilt sticking out of his belt on the left side.
He was nearly in a trance now, elation mixed with the excitement of the kill. The knife was thirteen-and-a-half inches when extended by pressing the gun-like trigger mechanism. He had spent hours sharpening the knife before each use, and hours after cleaning it .
There would be no need for polite talk. This sheep was plump and weak, and ready for slaughtering. He pulled the knife out and closed the distance to the sheep in a few quiet steps.
The pain made her turn and she saw a man approaching her, a knife held in his right hand high above his head. She had time to think she recognized the face before the pain at her back turned excruciating and her knees buckled, landing on the street’s rough cobblestones. She felt wetness pour down the back of her legs.
She looked at the man, who had stopped coming forward, and saw confusion cloud his eyes.
“Je suis désolée,” she whispered, and was glad she would never feel pain again.