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"The French Letter"


Chapter 1
The Envelope

By tfawcus

Midsummer sunshine filtered through the horse chestnut leaves, throwing dappled shade on the stalls, each one constructed from a simple iron frame with a canvas roof ribbed with wooden struts, frail protection for the rows of memories stored in boxes and in albums, or hanging in plastic envelopes from hooks, to tempt and fascinate passers-by, like Peking ducks in an oriental market. These weathered stalls were manned by a handful of seasoned enthusiasts, the few remaining traders of the Champs Elysées stamp market, a place I last visited in the 1970s when it thronged with people and bustled with trade.

Gabriel Avenue, a heavenly place to be sure, embraces the whole world, stretching from Archangel to Zanzibar and all places between and beyond and, on this particular Sunday morning, the stamp of perfection was upon it.

A sultry morning breeze lifted the red, white and blue tricolour that could just be seen beyond the trees, flying from the Grand Palace and languidly proclaiming its message of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. A pair of impertinent young sparrows foraged at my feet without fear, as if to emphasise the truth of this unlikely assertion.

Only four stalls now remained out of the legion that I remember so well. There were few customers to disturb the gentle cooing of wood pigeons and the rise and fall of friendly reminiscence among old men sitting on a low wall conveniently placed between the pissoir and their stalls. An atmosphere of peaceful somnolence dampened the background grumble and hum of city traffic, and their good-natured banter was broken only by occasional ripples of laughter and a sudden exclamation of greeting, welcoming the arrival of another of their dwindling number. 

I confess that my own interest in philately, in common with that of the general population, is not as strong as it used to be, but vestiges still remain of a schoolboy romance with the colourful scenes depicted on the sixpenny packets of colonial stamps that were all my budget could afford in my younger days. Of course, like most of my friends at the time, I dreamed of one day owning a Penny Black or a twopenny Mauritius Blue but, in the meantime, I was happy with my lurid pictures of the flora and fauna of the colonies.

In those days, exotic places like the West Indies, the Pacific islands of Samoa and Fiji and the East African triptych of Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika were all still coloured pink in my school atlas, the colour not only of empire but of its florid civil servants, and of their ladies, gently perspiring under parasols in their prettily concealed corsets, petticoats and bloomers.

However, today, underdressed in casual trousers, open-necked shirt and floppy hat, my time is spent idly flipping through a box of old envelopes, imagining what ardent missives might have been constrained within each fragile fragment, and what manner of person might have merited the sweep of cursive script now fading across these tattered surfaces, browned with age.

It was here that I made my first acquaintance with Mademoiselle Suzanne Daudeville, late of La Rue de Paradise in Versailles, the envelope date stamped 9.15 a.m. on 13th February, 1903, in the department of Seine and Oise. The imprint was clear and repeated twice, as if for emphasis, the first heavy blow having almost missed the pink fifteen centime stamp stuck at the top right-hand corner. The austere, laurel-wreathed figure of Marianne, Goddess of Liberty, could just be made out, seated alongside a placard proclaiming The Rights of Man - a figure now almost completely obliterated by the second over-stamping of the municipal postmaster.

Friday, 13th February, 1903 was an auspicious date marking the birth of Georges Simenon, author of the character of that famous Belgian detective, Jules Maigret. Could Maigret, perhaps, have been able to solve the mystery that was to unfold from the events of this unlucky day? What rights would man hold over the petite and sylphlike figure of Mademoiselle Daudeville who lived, as it seems, on the street of Paradise. Lastly, and very much to the point in those heady days of the Moulin Rouge and of the can-can, was the pinkness of that ancient stamp to turn red, in time, with shame?

With questions such as these buzzing in my mind, I handed over two euros and pocketed the envelope. A small price to pay, as I thought at the time, though in this, as in many things, I was soon proved to be wrong. Entering the life of another can have many hidden costs and dangers.

 


Chapter 2
An Unexpected Meeting

By tfawcus

I folded the envelope carefully and placed it inside the small black notebook that I kept in my hip pocket. This aide-memoire contained notes for the travel story I was researching, but also happened to record my forthcoming assignation, at midday, in the Parc Monceau. It was a meeting that I felt distinctly uneasy about.

The young lady and I had met only two days earlier, under the most dramatic of circumstances. I had been seated that evening at a pavement café, enjoying a glass of Chambertin and watching the world go by, when my attention was drawn to two women at a nearby table, who were having an animated discussion.

I could not see the one with greying hair, for she had her back to me, but I was struck by the feline intensity with which the younger woman listened; an intensity underlined by the elegant steeple she made with her fingertips. The steeple always leaned slightly to the right as she bent forward to hear more clearly, and this gesture accentuated the unsheathed edge of her vermillion nails, suggesting to me an exciting element of danger.

I could not hear what they were saying, nor would I have understood the French, but I enjoyed following it in mime and found myself becoming more and more fascinated. Her eyes would sometimes flash momentarily up to the right as she spoke, and this hesitation as she searched for the right word made it clear that French was not her native language.

It was a warm evening, and light from the setting sun blazed on the windows on the far side of the avenue, giving a theatrical atmosphere to the ornate sandstone façade and its rows of wrought iron balconies. It also highlighted the soft outline of the young lady's cheek and glinted on the opalescence of her drop pearl earring. For a moment this reminded me of the girl in Vermeer's famous painting, though her raven hair and sharply lined eyebrows were quite unlike the Dutch painter's vision of innocence, and I soon discarded the thought.

Eventually, the older woman stood up and bent forward to give a quick peck on each cheek before she left.

"Au revoir, Helen, ma chérie," she said with a thin smile.

I could see the tension drain from Helen's body as she leant forward and took a sip of Perrier water. Then - a sudden sickening squeal of brakes and a dull thud. Helen's acquaintance who, just a moment ago, had been seated opposite, deep in conversation with her, was now spreadeagled like a discarded marionette that had been tossed carelessly into the gutter. The body lay at an unnatural angle, a look of surprised terror caught on her lifeless and blood-stained face.

Helen spun round with a half-stifled cry and started to rise, but the scene that confronted her was too much. Her knees buckled and she fainted. I sprang forward, quick to rush to her aid.

A small crowd gathered and Helen and I were left in the shadows behind them, near the café entrance. I had wrapped my coat around her shoulder and could feel her shivering with shock as she leaned into the crook of my arm.

Within minutes, the eerie sound of ambulance sirens reached a crescendo and the thin wail of a policeman's whistle heralded the arrival of the law. Helen's body tensed and she looked up at me like a cornered animal.

"Quick!" she said. "Get me out of here."

Before I knew what was happening, she was almost dragging me down the street and into the anonymity of the boulevard beyond. As soon as she saw the green light of an unoccupied taxi, she began waving wildly to attract the driver's attention. I was about to climb in with her when a look of horror crossed her face.

"My bag!" she exclaimed. "Sweet Jesus! I've left my bag behind."

I stepped back onto the pavement as she leaned forward to give the driver an address. As the taxi drew away from the curb she turned, obviously distraught, and gave me a pleading look.

I retraced my steps, arriving back at the cafe to find the body had been taken in an ambulance and most of the crowd had dispersed. The police had cordoned off the area and were standing guard. I could see Helen's bag in the shadows but did not know how I could get to it. However, as luck would have it, one of the remaining bystanders was able to substantiate my story, telling the policeman that he had seen me shortly after the accident, sitting at the table with a lady, and so the bag was handed over without further question.

I was loath to ferret through the bag, but found several business cards near the top with the name Helen Culverson on them, describing her as a freelance travel writer and giving a phone number and an email address. Her mobile phone was in the bag, so when I got back to my lodgings, I e-mailed, and the following morning had a reply which briefly stated: Meet me in the Parc Monceau at 12 noon this Sunday. I shall be at the kiosk near Guy de Maupassant's statue.

A sense of foreboding came upon me as I set off from the stamp market, carrying her handbag wrapped in brown paper. It occurred to me that my mood was very much in keeping with the pessimism of some of Maupassant's better known short stories.

I suppose I could have caught the Metro, but I wanted time to think things out, for I was not at all sure what I might be getting myself into. It was a sunny day and only a half-hour walk up the Rue Washington and into the Rue de Monceau, a gentle uphill stroll that a younger man might have accomplished in half the time. However, I was not as young as I used to be, and in no particular hurry to confront my fate.


Chapter 3
At Parc Monceau

By tfawcus

I have always found walking conducive to thinking, and there is no doubt I had much to think about. I couldn't help feeling there was something strange about Helen's reaction, or lack of reaction, to the accident.

True, she had fainted from shock, but afterwards she appeared to show no concern over her friend's tragic fate. On the contrary, she was clearly intent upon getting away from the scene as quickly as possible, almost as if she was an accomplice in a crime. I recalled the other woman's thin smile and formal embrace. Perhaps they had not been friends after all.

In dragging me away with her, had she been deliberately trying to involve me? Was the forgotten bag just a ploy to make sure the police associated me with the scene? Why the terse note, adding a sense of mystery and suspense? A meeting? And two days later? Wouldn't a brief note of thanks and a return address have been more usual?

There seemed to be something of the art of the fly fisherman here - and perhaps I was the poor trout. I had certainly been hooked by her beauty. I confess that I was intrigued, and I could not brush off my increased heart rate as being due only to the warm day and the gentle incline. A cold tingle near the base of my spine gave away my anticipation, and an excitement I knew I should not be feeling.

I arrived early at Monceau, a little warm and flustered, and needing to compose myself. There was a café near the entrance to the park. Although it was still twenty-five minutes before noon, I ordered a snifter of cognac. French courage, I thought with a wry smile. While it was being poured, I slipped into the washroom, splashed a little cold water on my face and neck, and combed my hair. Satisfied with what I saw in the mirror, I took a seat in the corner, under the shadow of a glory vine.

Not many minutes later, I saw her arrive. There was a sensual sway to her step, a delicacy of movement and an understated elegance in the cut of her casual ivory blouse and red culottes. Only a blue beret was lacking to complete the patriotic colour scheme. She stopped at the entrance and glanced up and down the street before going in through the heavy wrought iron gates.

I gave her a few minutes start before I drained my brandy and followed.

Guy de Maupassant's bust is imposing, and set high on a pedestal, as befits a famous writer. A young woman in a flowing dress is draped around its base, lounging negligently on a settee as if in a dream. His muse perhaps - or an adoring reader? Certainly not "Butterball", the common prostitute and heroine of his most famous short story!

A voice behind me said, "I wonder which one has captured your attention, monsieur. Is it, perhaps, the lovely lady at his feet?”

I turned and saw the look of amusement in her eye. Being at a loss for a smart answer, I held out the brown paper parcel.

"Here, mademoiselle, your handbag."

"There's no need to take offence," she said with a disarming smile. "I'm really very grateful, you know. Please, come and join me at the café across the road. Perhaps you will allow me to buy you some lunch?"

I felt foolish, sensing that I had been caught on the wrong foot.

"That's kind," I said, "...but only if you will allow me to buy the wine."

"Perfect. Shall we go?"

As the waiter brought menus, she said, "I suppose you know a good deal about me, having been in possession of my handbag for forty-eight hours?"

I bridled and was about to protest, then I realised she was teasing me again.

"Mademoiselle! A gentleman would never take such an advantage," I said with a smile.

"Of course not!"

I knew she didn't believe me.

"Perhaps we could dispense with the 'mademoiselle'? We both know I'm not French. Call me Helen - unless you consider that too informal."

"Of course not, Miss Culverson, and you may call me Charles if you like." It was my turn to adopt a mocking tone.

After briefly consulting the menu, we both asked for a prawn salad. I ordered a moderately good Chablis to accompany it.

"What made you choose Parc Monceau for our meeting?"

"Oh, that's easy. I'm a freelance travel writer, and I'm putting together an article on the parks of Paris."

"Really? How interesting. And who is it for?"

"Horse and Hounds," she replied.

"Horse and Hou..?" I burst out laughing. "Oh, I see!"

Her reference to the famous scene between Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts in "Notting Hill" was not lost on me. It seemed she wasn't going to be drawn to give out more information about herself than she had to. I changed tack.

"What a strange coincidence. I, too, am a travel writer of sorts."

"I know. Who has not heard of the famous Charles Brandon?"

I confess I was surprised, but I did not protest. In fact, I was secretly flattered, as she had obviously intended.

"...and what are you researching at the moment?"

"The markets of Paris. There are some fascinating ones here. Only this morning I was at the Champs Elysée Stamp Market."

"I didn't know it still existed."

"It almost doesn't. There were only four stalls today. I can remember when there would have been ten times that number."

"That must have been a very long time ago!"

"It was," I answered shortly.

"Oh, dear! I didn't mean that," she said, smoothing my ruffled ego. "Did you find anything interesting to write about?"

I felt I needed to justify the high opinion she professed, and a simple 'No' seemed a lame response for a distinguished travel writer.

"Only this," I said. I took my notebook from my jacket pocket and showed her the envelope.

She studied it carefully, then turned to me and said, "Wow! How romantic is that? This has all the makings of a fascinating story. Perhaps we should investigate further."

We? I began to regret I had been foolish enough to share the find. I had a feeling that a strand had just been spun to draw me into a web. Yet, I realised I was still no closer to answering any of the questions disturbing my mind so I said, "Yes, perhaps we should."

"How about a trip down to Versailles tomorrow?" she said with a twinkle in her eye. "I could pick you up from your hotel if you like."

"You could, but I'm not staying at a hotel. I've taken lodgings in Montmartre for the month."

"Oh - whereabouts?"

"On Rue Gabrielle - quite close to the Louise Michel gardens."

"Oh yes, I know where you mean - that's where the funicular railway goes up to Sacré Coeur, isn't it? Another place to add to my list of public parks. Maybe I can mix work with pleasure."

Rather too enthusiastically, I responded, "All right then. How about breakfast at the Rendez-Vous des Amis? They open at ten o'clock."

"What an appropriate name - 'the meeting place of friends'! We shall be friends, shan't we?"

I smiled uncertainly, feeling an almost imperceptible tightening of the stomach.

Author Notes Image: The Statue of Guy de Maupassant in Parc Monceau


Chapter 4
Le Rendez-vous des Amis

By tfawcus

A huge crash woke me the following morning. The wind was howling through the trees and driving rain against my window, turning the outside world into an Impressionist blur of liquid colour.

I got up to investigate, and saw that a branch had fallen through my landlord's greenhouse. Part of the fence was down, and the poor man was struggling against the storm in a windcheater flattened against his back like a sail against a mast. His prize tomatoes lay squashed and bleeding under shards of broken glass and twisted metal.

I did what any human being would have done in the circumstances: threw some clothes on my back, jammed a hat on my head, and raced downstairs to lend a hand.

"Zut alors!" he exclaimed, throwing his hands to the heavens in despair.

Thinking this called for a sympathetic response, I summoned my finest schoolboy French to echo his evident distress.

"Sacré pommes de terre!"

Holy potatoes seemed to have the right agricultural ring to it, but throwing my arms into the air to imitate his Gallic gesture was a mistake. The wind caught my hat, and in running forward to recapture it, I tripped and fell onto a piece of broken glass. I felt a warm wetness on my sleeve as my right forearm started to ooze blood in sympathy with the tomatoes.

At this stage, having done everything I could to assist him, I retired hurt.

By the time I had washed and bound the wound, put on a clean shirt, and improvised a sling of sorts, I realised it was nearly ten o'clock. Fortunately, Le Rendez-Vous des Amis was only a few minutes down the street. The rain still teemed down, so I seized an umbrella from the hallstand on my way out. It was adorned with a big red heart and the words, I Love Paris.

Just as I approached the café entrance, the wind blew the umbrella inside out, and while struggling to regain control, I reopened my wound. A small crimson blob stained my sling. My hair clung to my scalp and water ran down the back of my neck. I was definitely not in the best of humour when I staggered in, to find Helen immaculate in a summer dress printed with poppies. She was laughing.

"Goodness! Look what the cat's dragged in. You look as if you've just returned from battle! Come and sit down. I'll get you a coffee."

I drew up a chair opposite her, trying to hide my discomfiture.

"Oh, dear! Poor Charles! What's happened to your arm? It's bleeding."

"It's nothing," I said. "Just a scratch."

Helen arched her eyebrows in that annoying way of hers, and said, "Well, it looks to me as if it needs attention. Why don't you let me check it out?"

"No, honestly, it's all right."

I attempted a brave smile, but it came out as a weak, rather inane grin.

A breakfast of café crème, croissants and fresh orange juice gradually helped restore my equilibrium, and we even began to enjoy a bit of light repartee. Then, towards the end of the meal I ventured to say, perhaps more abruptly than I meant, "Who was that woman you were with the other evening?"

"Oh, that was Madam Durand - a magazine editor here. She sometimes takes my articles, but more often than not rejects them. She's a tough old biddy."

"That doesn't seem a very charitable way to speak of the dead - and don't you mean 'was'?"

"No. She was tougher than either of us thought. I heard the news report next day. It turns out she was severely concussed, but not killed."

"Really?"

"Yes, unbelievable, isn't it? I was so sure she was dead when I saw that contorted, lifeless figure, and all the blood. That's why I just wanted to get away. I panicked. The last thing I wanted was to get involved in a police enquiry. Someone was bound to have noticed we had been together, and there would have been all sorts of questions, statements to be taken, and red tape. I couldn't have coped with that. It's not as though I was involved in the accident, is it?"

I looked at her carefully. Things still didn't seem to add up.

"You know, there's something else that has been puzzling me. Knowing how indispensable a woman's handbag is, I wondered how you managed without it for forty-eight hours. I could have returned it earlier, you know."

"No you couldn't. You see, I spent almost all of the next day in the hospital with Madam Durand."

Why, I wondered, had she not mentioned any of this the day before, when we had been in Parc Monceau?

"Oh," I said, "...which hospital?"

Helen hesitated for a fraction of a second before answering, "The American Hospital of Paris on Boulevard Victor Hugo. It's not far from Parc Monceau."

She got up and said, "Come on! Enough of the third degree! Let's get out of here and see to that wound of yours. It needs re-bandaging at the very least. Your lodgings are quite close, aren't they?"

"Just a couple of hundred yards down the street," I said while helping her put on her black vinyl trench coat - as best as I could with one arm. Standing right behind her, I was intoxicated by the musky, floral fragrance of her perfume. My heart started to beat a little faster as she donned her black sou'wester hat and turned to flash me a smile.

She reminded me of a character from The Matrix. Beautiful, but dangerous.


Chapter 5
A Modern Mata Hari

By tfawcus

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of sexual content.

As we were leaving the café, Helen slipped her arm into mine and leaned in towards me. A heady scent of jasmine with faint undertones of bergamot and cardamom filled my senses as we bent against the wind.

The worst of the storm had now passed and the sun had begun to break through. The freshness in the air made it feel more like spring than mid-summer, and the blood coursed through my veins with unaccustomed vigour.

As soon as we reached my room, she sat me on a chair by the window. The intimacy of close contact as she slipped my sling over my head was almost more than I could bear. Her breasts were inches from my face, and I felt a natural physical response beyond my control.

"You'll need to slip that shirt off if I'm to re-dress that wound. Here, let me help you."

I stood up as she slowly undid the buttons. When she eased the shirt off my back, her hands brushed lightly against the bare skin of my shoulder blades and biceps.

"That wasn't too painful, was it?" she said, with a playful smile. "Now where do you keep your First Aid kit?"

"I don't have one, but there's a tin of Elastoplast in the drawer of my bedside table."

While I went to get it, she put some warm water in a cereal bowl and added a splash of vodka from a bottle on the kitchen sink.

"I guess this will have to do as a disinfectant."

"I think it might do more good taken internally," I said, "as an anaesthetic."

"Probably! But that is against hospital rules."

She grimaced a bit as she unwound the makeshift bandage around my forearm and tossed it into the bin. The cut had stopped bleeding and looked much less serious than I had first imagined. She dabbed carefully around with a pad of tissues soaked in the weak vodka solution. The sting of the alcohol made me wince, and I tensed with a sharp intake of breath.

"Sorry," she said, pressing a square of Elastoplast down over the cut. "There!" she murmured, lightly brushing her lips against my shoulder. "All over now!"

She got up from her knees and went through to the bathroom while I put a clean shirt on. I walked over to the window and looked outside. The clouds had cleared and the wind had dropped. Vapour drifted from the pavement as the sun gained strength, and I could hear the beautiful, melodic song of a blackbird in a nearby apple tree. All seemed right with the world.

I didn't hear Helen as she came up behind me, sliding one arm around my waist, but I felt the hard, cylindrical object pressed firmly into the middle of my back.

"I seem to have you at my mercy, Mr Brandon. I suggest you stay very still."

My mouth went dry, and a sudden bout of dizziness overcame me, causing the room to spin. As my knees started to buckle, she put her other arm around me to stop me from falling, and my electric toothbrush fell from her hand, clattering onto the floorboards.

She steered me across into a nearby chair and left me with my head between my knees as she went to the bathroom to dampen a flannel. While I was recovering, she gently bathed my forehead and ran her fingers through my hair.

"Wow! That was some reaction!"

"You really are a bitch, Helen. What on earth did you do that for?"

"Since you seem to have got it fixed in your head that I'm a reincarnation of Mata Hari, I thought it would be fun to play the part. I didn't expect it to have quite such a dramatic effect though!"

"I need a drink," I said. "If there's any of that vodka left, you'll find martini in the fridge."

"Shaken, not stirred, Mr. Bond?" she teased. "I believe that's how you take it?"

"I don't know about that," I replied. "You certainly stirred me up, and I couldn't have been more severely shaken."

"Poor Charles! If you had been James Bond, you'd have dashed my gun to the ground, swung me round and kissed me passionately on the lips. I, of course, would have melted in your manly arms."

"Perhaps we should replay the scene."

"Too late," she said with a smile. "You've missed your chance! Anyway, isn't it time we set out for Versailles to see what we can find out about the lady on your envelope?"

"You're right," I said, "but why don't we detour and pick up the makings of a picnic. The open air food market on Rue Poncelet is one of the best in Paris and it's on the way. It shouldn't take more than fifteen minutes in your Lamborghini."

"Lamborghini? I wish! I'm afraid a Fiat 500 is all I can manage – sorry! It's parked down the street."

"Oh dear. Not quite the Mata Hari image. Never mind - at least we'll be able to nip in and out of the traffic."

"Come on then," she said, draining my glass of vodka. "Let the adventure begin!"

Author Notes Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Margaretha_Zelle,_alias_Mata_Hari.jpg [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Chapter 6
Rue Poncelet Market

By tfawcus

The Rue Poncelet market is alive with the sights and smells of boulangeries, pâtisseries, fromageries, charcuteries, and a divinity of other curiosities for the food lover. I intended it to be the centrepiece of my upcoming article, and was eager to show it off to Helen.

I glanced at my watch. Almost midday. I realised we wouldn’t have a great deal of time before the stalls and shops closed for their two hour lunch break. What a civilised city Paris is, I thought. Paced for the enjoyment of life’s finer pleasures. None of this twenty-four seven nonsense.

Paradoxically, the next words I uttered were, “We’ll have to hurry.” 

Helen was already revving the engine before I had finished squeezing my lanky body into her tiny Fiat. I had scarcely buckled my seatbelt when she pulled out and skidded round the first corner. The squeal of tortured rubber made me instantly regret my words. Weaving in and out of the traffic with all the dexterity of a sweatshop seamstress, she showed herself to be more than a match for any Paris taxi driver. 

"Where on earth did you learn to drive like that? You’re absolutely insane, you know.”

 “I lived in Thailand for a while. You had to be aggressive and competitive to get anywhere. Only the fittest survived."

“You’re not in Thailand now,” I reminded her, “and survival appeals to me.”

“Well, you did say we were in a hurry.” She gave a wicked little smile. “Fun, wasn’t it?”

Before I could think of a suitable answer, she had hopped out of her seat and was waiting impatiently for me on the pavement. “Let’s go!” she said, dragging me by the elbow into the nearest boulangerie. “A baguette is the basis of any good French picnic.”

“We should pay a visit to Alléosse,” I said. “It’s one of the best fromageries in Paris and just around the corner.”

After some discussion with the cheesemonger, we chose a soft goat’s milk cheese with an earthy flavour. Many people here knew me, and I sensed I was beginning to go up in Helen’s estimation as we moved from stall to stall making our purchases.

“That should be enough,” I said at last. “Now it’s up to you. Where should we picnic? I bow to the expert.”

“Easy! The parklands surrounding Chateau Saint-Cloud are only twenty minutes away, and halfway to Versailles. We might even have time to visit Marie Antoinette’s rose garden.”

“That sounds perfect. I’m starving.”

“Then you must eat cake!” she laughed, parodying Marie Antoinette’s famous saying as we entered La Pâtisserie des Rêves.

“Ahh!” I sighed. “The Pastry Shop of Dreams!” 

“Bonjour, Monsieur Brandon!” Smiles wreathed the proprietor’s face. “What can I do for you today?”

Helen pointed to a tray of chocolate eclairs. “They look scrumptious!”

“My favourite, too, mademoiselle. Freshly made this morning.”

“…and if we’re going to picnic in the shadow of Marie Antoinette, we really should have cake. What’s that one?” She pointed to a small rectangular block.

“They are a real treat,” I said. “Light and moist. The French call them Financiers, because they look like gold ingots. These are Alphonse’s speciality. They have a delicious chestnut flavour.”

“They sound decadent.”

“Mais oui! Fit for a queen. Definitely the right choice for you, mademoiselle!”

While the cakes were being boxed, I whispered in her ear, “I hope he’s not suggesting that you, too, deserve to be guillotined.”

“Not me, Charles. I have been too close to the edge of starvation for that.”

“Really? You must tell me about it sometime.”

“Maybe sometime …but today’s too nice a day to spoil.”


Chapter 7
The Road to Versailles

By tfawcus

Perhaps Helen spoke too soon. As we skirted the edge of the Bois de Bologne on our way to Saint-Cloud, the skies darkened with the threat of another summer storm.

"Oh, dear! This doesn't look promising for our picnic!"

"Well, it was you who chose to invoke the cloud saint."

"Ha! Ha! Trust you to come up with something like that!"

Shortly before the bridge where the Autoroute de Normandie crosses the Seine, there was a crash of thunder, a brilliant staircase of lightning out to our left, and a sudden, violent clatter of hailstones on the roof. Visibility was instantaneously reduced, almost to zero.

"Pull over! You can't possibly drive through this."

Helen slowed down, peering out of the window. "There's nowhere to stop. I'll have to keep going."

Her words were almost drowned by the roar of a semi-trailer rushing past. It threw up a spray of grey slush, like a warning shot across our bows.

"Turn on your headlights. Then at least we'll be seen!"

"A fat lot of good that will do - they're coming up from behind! Anyway, who's driving this car? You or me?"

With that, she put her foot on the accelerator and swung into the slipstream of the semi-trailer. I clutched the edges of my seat and closed my eyes - not that I would have been able to see anything anyway, even if I had left them open.

A few moments later, there was a squeal of brakes. I'm going to die!

Helen wrenched the wheel around but held her nerve, steering back into the skid, and squeezing through the narrow gap between the leviathan and the deep. How she avoided crashing through the railings and going off the bridge is one of life's unsolved mysteries.

"Phew!" she said, "It seems as though dear old Saint Cloud is looking after us."

"A bloody miracle, I call it!"

"Perhaps we should light a candle to the old sod. Who was he, anyway?"

"Not an old sod, actually. An old clod called Clodoald. He narrowly escaped assassination by his Uncle Clotaire and became a hermit."

"Come on! You're making this up, aren't you? I don't believe a word!"

"Take it or leave it," I said, with a smile.

"You really are a fount of useless information."

"...and you, fortunately, are quite some driver!"

"Flattery will get you everywhere."

"I hope so."

The storm passed almost as quickly as it came. A small patch of blue widened as we approached Versailles, throwing shafts of diamond-studded light onto an avenue of trees. One might have thought that the Sun King himself had arranged our triumphal entry into his city.

The envelope, carefully folded into the centre page of my aide-memoire, directed us to 79 Rue de la Parouisse, an address that I had initially misread as the Street of Paradise. With the aid of Google Maps, we had no difficulty in tracking it down, though I am not quite sure what we expected to find.

The house turned out to be a veterinary clinic. An old woman sat in the waiting room, nursing a sad looking miniature poodle that had been dyed pink. They both looked equally mournful.

I showed my envelope to the receptionist. "Does the name Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin ring any bells?"

"Non, monsieur. It is only the Hunchback who rings the bells! But that was in Paris, n'est pas?"

"Très drôle! I see you have a sense of humour, Mademoiselle."

"The Notre Dame de Versailles is much smaller, of course, but no less magnificent. One moment, please. I will go and ask."

Helen nudged me. We both smiled.

After a few moments, the vet appeared, peeling a pair of rubber gloves off her hands. "Dr Laurent," she said. "How can I be of help?"

I passed the envelope to her. "Do you know anything of this lady? She used to live in this building, I believe."

She looked at the envelope carefully. "That was a long time ago, Monsieur. More than a hundred years. I'm afraid I've only been in practice here for five years. Things change - even in sleepy old Versailles! However, Madam Lefauvre might be able to help. She's lived here all her life."

She turned and spoke to the old lady with the poodle.

"Madam Lafauvre, these people are looking  for information about a Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin. Do you know of her?"

The old woman looked up sourly.

"Gaudin? Yes, there are still a few Gaudins in the neighbourhood, but that one's long gone," she said with a knowing smile. "There was quite a scandal, but that's none of my business, is it?" The poodle cocked a sorrowful eye up at his mistress, knowing that was a lie. She was one who made sure that everything was her business.

"Thank you, Madam. You've been most helpful," Helen said. "Is there anything else you can tell us, perhaps?"

"None of my business," the old lady muttered , as she shuffled towards the surgery, dragging the unwilling pink dog behind her.

"You could try at the Paroisse Notre-Dame if you want to find out more," Dr Laurent said. "It's just up the road towards the Palace. They keep all the parish records there."

"Nous sommes très obligés. Je vous remercie," I said, bowing slightly and offering my hand.

"De rien - you're welcome."

As we made our way back to the car, Helen googled the cathedral page and found a phone number for Monsieur le Curé. She explained what we were trying to find out, and asked if we might be permitted to conduct a search.

I gave her an enquiring look.

"He says he can meet us there at 5 o'clock."

"Great! That leaves plenty of time for a mid-afternoon picnic in the Gardens of Versailles. We can pretend that we are members of the aristocracy."

"...having a last meal before the guillotine falls."

"Don't be like that! We're on the trail of something exciting here."


Chapter 8
At Versailles - The Search Continues

By tfawcus

We arrived to find the Palace of Versailles under siege, as is always the case in the summer season. A steady stream of coaches poured foreign tourists out, to swell the restless mob demanding entry. They may have been less belligerent and better fed than in revolutionary times, but it was still a formidable invasion; enough to make the blood of any aristocrat run cold.

However, perhaps because the weather had been unsettled earlier in the day, entry to the Versailles Gardens by way of the Queen's Gate was relatively easy, and we were lucky enough to find parking under the shade of a tree not far from the Grand Canal.

"Fifi should be nice and cool there," Helen said.

"Fifi? Who is Fifi?"

"Who do you think, Charles? You've been driving around in her all day."

I sighed. Whatever possesses women to name their cars?

"Of course! But why Fifi? That's a dog's name, isn't it?"

"Because she's faithful, and obedient, and she's my darling little Fiat."

"Good grief! I'm surprised you haven't spray-painted her pink."

"Don't be so silly."

Was I imagining it, or had a small cloud just passed over the sun? I could certainly feel a distinct chill in the air.

"I've got a good idea! Why don't we hire a boat, and picnic on the water, away from the crowds?"

Helen immediately brightened at the suggestion. "You can row," she said, "and I'll sit in the back like a lady of leisure, under the shade of a parasol."

"But you haven't got a parasol."

"Yes, I have." She withdrew a small, collapsible umbrella from her bag with a flourish. "Ta! Ra!"

And so it was. I plied the oars manfully, and the boat responded with a stately surge, pushing a silver bow wave out along the Grand Canal. Helen sat, prettily poised under her parasol, with the westering sun glinting against the grand façade of the Palace, resplendent in the background behind her.

"Does life get any better than this?" I said. My question was not really addressed to Helen. It was more of a thought, expressed out loud.

She trailed her fingers listlessly through the water with a faraway look in her eyes, and did not reply. I was about to make another of my facetious comments, when I noticed a deep sadness in her expression. She was no longer with me, but reaching back into the past, lost in reverie. What demons had crossed her mind to cast such a pale shadow? I rowed on in silence until we reached the transept of the watery cross laid out for Louis XIV three and a half centuries ago, then I shipped oars, letting the boat drift, as idly as the thoughts of its occupants.

Before long, a warning shout startled me. "Watch out, you fool! Why can't you look where you're going?"

The two boats collided with a jolt, nearly tipping Helen into the water.

"Crazy fool, yourself! Surely you could have steered round us?" I snarled angrily.

Helen quickly recovered her poise and smiled graciously at our assailant. "No harm done," she said. "Come on, Charles, let's get under way."

The other rower looked somewhat abashed, and muttered an apology in her direction, then turned to scowl in mine. I was tempted to tip him into the water with my oar.

As we continued up the canal, Helen started to unpack the picnic things. "Look! There's a quiet spot. Over there."

I spotted a bollard, and steadied the boat against the embankment whilst I made fast. Helen passed me two glasses and a bottle of lukewarm Anjou Rosé. "Here, why don't you pour us both a drink, while I get the food sorted out?"

Though not the finest drop I'd ever tasted, it was enough to restore my equilibrium, and we were soon chatting away happily about nothing in particular, while enjoying the delicacies we had bought in the market that morning. I wanted to ask Helen what had been troubling her, but thought the better of it. No doubt she would tell me in her own good time if she wanted to.

When almost everything else had been finished, she brought out two chocolate eclairs that definitely hadn't been improved by their hours in the sun. "Oh, dear," she said, "I'm not sure that even the swans will appreciate these. I think we'd better stick with the cakes."

"Not for me, thanks. As my dear grandfather used to say, 'I have had an ample sufficiency and any more would be a redundancy.'"

"What a quaint, old-fashioned way of putting it! I couldn't fit another crumb in either. Anyway, we should pack up and head back into town, if we're to meet Monsieur le Curé on time."

"I suppose we can always feed the scraps to Fifi," I said.

She gave me the sort of look that, in Biblical days, would have turned me into a pillar of salt.

***
Monsieur le Curé stood on the steps waiting for us when we arrived at the Notre Dame de Versailles. He extended a blue-veined hand, and introduced himself: "I'm Father Pierre Lacroix, the parish priest."

"Thank you for meeting us, Father. This is Mademoiselle Culverson, and I am Charles Brandon."

"I understand you are on a quest to unravel a small mystery. Is that correct?"

I nodded, and Helen turned and flashed him a smile, "What a fine building this is."

"Yes," he said, with obvious pride. "It is a neoclassical design, built in the 17th Century for King Louis XIV. The baptisms, marriages and deaths of the French Royal Family are all entered in our registers, but I gather the woman you are seeking information about is from humbler origins."

"Yes, we think so, although we have nothing to go on, except her name and the address where she used to live at the turn of the last century. Suzanne Gaudin. 79, Rue de la Paroisse. That is all we know about her. The house is now a veterinary clinic."

"Ah, yes. I know it. Dr Laurent is a parishioner of mine. Come this way. Let us see what we can find." He led the way, up the nave and into the vestry. "I'm sure you will appreciate the magnificent 19th century stained glass windows, Mme Culverson," he added, as we approached the altar.

Helen bowed her head and made the sign of the cross before replying in hushed tones, "They are outstandingly beautiful, Father."

"We have a blend of ancient beauty and modern convenience here these days. All of our records are now digital. You could, in fact, have searched on-line, but now you are here, you are welcome to spend some time in our microfilm library. I can spare half an hour, while I carry on with other church business, but then I shall have to lock up. Let me know if you have any queries."

"Thank you, Father. We appreciate it."

As he was leaving, he added, "I have been turning things over in my mind. I knew the name Gaudin was familiar. There is a Mademoiselle Françoise Gaudin in the parish still, but unfortunately she suffers from a mental illness caused at birth. Perhaps she is related to the woman you are interested in. You could look up her birth records, too, if you think it might help."

Author Notes To make fast. (Naut.) to make secure; to fasten firmly, as a vessel, a rope
To ship oars. (Naut.) to stop rowing a boat and put the oars inside it.
Bollard. (Naut.) A fastening post on land, used for securing a rope.


Chapter 9
An Interesting Turn of Events

By tfawcus

Helen and I immediately set about our search of the microfilm library and, within minutes, found two records under G for Gaudin. One was the birth of Alain Gaudin in 1948, and the other reported the death of Estelle Gaudin in 1975. However, there was no record of Suzanne Gaudin, nor even of Françoise Gaudin, whom Father Lacroix had mentioned as still living in Versailles.

A short while later, he returned and we told him what we had discovered. "Ah, yes!" he said. "Estelle Gaudin. I had forgotten about her. There is a headstone in the unconsecrated section of the cemetery. Unusually lavish, under the circumstances."

"What do you mean, 'under the circumstances'?" I asked.

"Well, there would have been a good reason why she was buried in unconsecrated ground. Perhaps she wasn't a Catholic. She might even have committed suicide, or have been a prostitute. Usually such people are buried in unmarked graves, or ones with a very simple cross."

"How sad for them to be discriminated against after death," I said.

Father Lecroix gave me a withering look. "Ground that has been consecrated by the bishop is quite rightly reserved for the faithful."

Helen intervened diplomatically. "I understand that the Church must take a moral stance, Father. In a literal sense, these people were considered to be beyond the pale, weren't they?"

The priest appeared not to notice the hint of satire in her tone. "Precisely. They are placed outside the boundaries set for those who have earned the Church's blessing."

"It is odd that we weren't able to find any records for Françoise or Suzanne Gaudin, since they both lived in this parish."

"There could be any number of reasons for that, my dear. Perhaps they were born and died somewhere else - or they might have been foundlings - who knows? You could try the Paris Archives. They keep the civil register of births, deaths and marriages."

"I appreciate your help, Father," Helen said, extending her hand formally.

He took it between his two hands and said, "Bless you, my daughter."

Nodding coldly in my direction, he strode off towards the street.

"That's odd," I muttered, "I thought that he said that Françoise had suffered from a mental defect caused at birth. So why wasn't the birth recorded?"

Helen shrugged. "I don't know. Anyway, Father Lacroix doesn't seem to like you much, does he? Never mind! Let's have a look around the cemetery. I'd like to see that memorial to Estelle before we go."

"All right, but I doubt it'll tell us anything. On the other hand, it's a lovely evening to be out with one's favourite ghoul, in the dead centre of town."

"Very funny."

Helen seemed fascinated by the lichen-covered headstones. Most had standard inscriptions such as 'In Loving Memory' or 'Rest in Peace'. Occasionally there was a biblical quotation, and in one or two rare cases, a memorable epitaph.

"Come and have a look at this one!" she exclaimed. "It's a doozy!"

The inscription was to Germain Madec, known as 'Germain the Dwarf', according to the headstone. He lived from 1870 to 1895 and his epitaph was a two-pronged barb of simplicity: 'His life was short'.

I smiled. "Clearly a good Catholic, though. Buried on the right side of the palings." Then, as an afterthought, "Perhaps he was a court jester."

"More likely a comic turn at the Moulin Rouge, poor man."

Eventually, we came to Estelle's final resting place. As Father Lacroix had said, it was a lavish memorial - a grand marble plinth, inscribed 'Estelle Gaudin, 1916-1975, Beloved mother of Alain and Françoise'. Under her name were the words, 'Free at last'.

"Now that is interesting," I said. "Whoever put that up, it certainly couldn't have been Françoise. It must have been her brother. I wonder where he lives now."

"What a strange epitaph. A hard life, perhaps?"

"...or maybe a prolonged illness before she died."

"Born during the Great War - growing up through the Great Depression - it couldn't have been easy."

"I think we should pay a visit to Mademoiselle Françoise Gaudin and see if we can find out more," I said.

"Yes, but not tonight. We've made good headway and we ought to celebrate with a decent dinner before we drive back to Paris."

"Now that's a good idea! Where do you suggest?"

"The Alcôve restaurant in the Hôtel Le Louis Versailles."

"That sounds expensive."

"It is, but being a sugar daddy doesn't come cheap."

"Sugar daddy?"

"Only joking."

Only joking, I wondered, as we headed back to her car.

Fifi seemed a little out of place as she swept up to the front entrance of the historic Le Louis Versailles Château, but Helen handed the keys to the valet with panache.

"Take good care of her, my man. She is more precious than you could possibly know."

She winked, and the valet smiled.

This joke is going to cost me a fortune, I thought ...but what is money for?

After an apéritif in the bar, we made our way through to the dining room. Helen looked at the menu briefly. "I think I'll have the Royal Virgin Sea Bream with citrus fruits, cromesqui Thai rice and parmesan."

"That sounds good," I said, "...and a bottle of champagne, perhaps, to celebrate?"

"Why not? I wonder what it is that makes the virgin sea bream so special."

"Probably not the same as the virgin sturgeon."

"What do you mean?"

"Caviar comes from the virgin sturgeon,
The virgin sturgeon is a very fine fish.
The virgin sturgeon needs no urgin’,
That’s why caviar is a rather rare dish."

"I'm not quite sure how to take that."

You would, I thought, if I quoted the second verse.

As things turned out, I did not need to. Helen ordered a half bottle of Sauternes to go with her dessert, and then announced - rather tipsily - that she was in no fit state to drive.

"Nor am I," I confessed.

"Then we'd better make use of the room I booked, hadn't we, Charles? My treat. You can always sleep on the sofa bed, if that would make you feel more comfortable."


Chapter 10
After Dinner

By tfawcus

[Previously, at the end of Chapter 9:

Helen looked at the menu briefly. "I think I'll have the Royal Virgin Sea Bream with citrus fruits, cromesqui Thai rice and parmesan."

"That sounds good," I said, "...and a bottle of champagne, perhaps, to celebrate?"

"Why not? I wonder what it is that makes the virgin sea bream so special."

"Probably not the same as the virgin sturgeon."

"What do you mean?"


"Caviar comes from the virgin sturgeon,
The virgin sturgeon is a very fine fish.
The virgin sturgeon needs no urgin’,
That’s why caviar is a rather rare dish."

"I'm not quite sure how to take that."

You would, I thought, if I quoted the second verse.

As things turned out, I did not need to. Helen ordered a half bottle of Sauternes to go with her dessert, and then announced - rather tipsily - that she was in no fit state to drive.

"Nor am I," I confessed.

"Then we'd better make use of the room I booked, hadn't we, Charles? My treat. You can always sleep on the sofa bed, if that would make you feel more comfortable."]

Chapter 10


No doubt about it, despite my natural inclinations, the sofa bed was definitely going to make me feel more comfortable. I still felt sure Helen was playing me along, and I needed to know why. Even through the alcoholic haze, I could hear alarm bells ringing, and I had enough sense to realise I was almost old enough to be her father.

The situation was awkward and, if she came on strongly, I would have difficulty in handling it. I certainly did not want to make the fatal error of slipping between the sheets with her while she was inebriated and her defences were down.

I liked Helen, despite all the questions in my mind, and I wanted, at least, to keep our friendship on an even keel until I had a chance to lay my suspicions to rest.

She leant against me for support as we made our way up to the room and, when we got there, she had some difficulty sliding the keycard into its slot.

"Whoopsy-doo!" she said, as she dropped it on the floor. I bent down and picked it up, and opened the door for her. "Why, thank you, sir!" She flashed me a lopsided smile and headed across to the bed, flopping down on it before bouncing up and down several times. "Come and sit beside me," she said, patting the coverlet invitingly.

I headed across and sat gingerly on the edge of the bed, just beyond her reach.

"Tell me more about the sturgeon."

"The sturgeon?"

"You know. The virgin sturgeon that needs no urgin'."

"Well, there are a few more verses, but I don't think you'd want to hear them. It's just an old Rugby song."

"Go on! Don't be shy."

"All right. The second verse goes something like this:
     'I gave caviar to my girlfriend,
     She was a virgin tried and true,
     Ever since she had the caviar,
     There ain't nothing she won't do.'"

"Oooh! Naughty!" She giggled. "You should have fed me caviar, shouldn't you? Or don't you think I'm a virgin?"

She stretched out across the bed and closed her eyes. "Are there any more verses? I like that song."

I launched into a third verse, relieved not to be invited to do anything more risqué:
     'I fed caviar to my grandpa;
     He was a gent of ninety-three.
     Shrieks and squeals revealed that grandpa
     Had chased grandma up a tree.'

By the time I reached the end of the fifth verse, I was relieved to see that she was sound asleep.

I walked across and opened the French windows to a cool night breeze. The lights of the city shimmered in the moonlight, and somewhere in the distance a church clock struck ten. I carried a cane chair onto the balcony to enjoy the solitude and tranquillity as I continued to turn things over in my mind.

Why were we on this wild goose chase? What was the point of it all? I took the envelope out of my pocket and looked at the beautiful copperplate script again:

'Chez ses parents' -- 'in the house of her parents'. That part of the address had not struck me before. Was she still a child at the time? If so, who would be writing to a child in those days? An educated person, judging from the well-formed and fluid hand. And, if she lived with her parents, why were they not listed in the parish records? Surely someone would have the answers. After all, 1903 was not all that long ago.

Maybe it was foolish romanticism on my part, but the more we looked, the more unanswered questions seemed to be coming to the surface. As a writer, my curiosity was aroused. There had to be a story here, and perhaps something more interesting than my regular, bread-and-butter travel articles.

My mind continued to play with possibilities about Mademoiselle Gaudin, and I also tried, in vain, to make more sense of my feelings about Helen, perhaps an even more mysterious woman. Eventually, the alcohol had its inevitable effect, and I drifted off to sleep.

An hour or two before dawn, the soft pressure of a hand on my shoulder awakened me. I sat up, rubbing a stiff neck as I got to my feet. There was a distinct chill in the air, and a few low clouds drifted like wraiths across the moon.

"Come inside, Charles. You'll catch your death out there. I've been having the most dreadful nightmares. They plague me sometimes, and I just can't sleep."

I closed the French windows, drew the curtains, and asked Helen if she'd like a cup of tea.

"The English solution to everything! All right."

"What are your nightmares about?"

"They're complicated."

"No need to talk about them, if you don't want to. I thought it might help."

"Mostly, they centre round a childhood trauma. Both my parents were brutally murdered when we were living in Pakistan."

I could see the deep-seated pain in her eyes, and took her hand gently. "Do you want to tell me about it?"

“My father was an engineer. He went there as a consultant, giving advice about small infrastructure projects organised by a local NGO, the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme. He was working in the Chitral region, way up north, near the Afghan border when he met my mother, a Kalasha.”
 
“What do you mean – a Kalasha?”
 
"The Kalash are a minority indigenous group who have lived in the northern part of Pakistan for thousands of years. The women are extraordinarily beautiful.”
 
“Yes, I can see that, just by looking at you, Helen.”
 
She smiled at the compliment. “No, my looks come from my father. The Kalasha tend to have blonde hair and blue eyes. Some people think it may have been because the region was conquered by Alexander the Great. Anyway, the point is, they fell in love.

It wasn’t easy for them. He was a Catholic and the Kalash religion is pre-Islamic. It is rare for a Kalasha to marry outside her ethnic group, and she was disowned by her family.”
 
“They must have been very much in love.”
 
“Yes. They had two daughters. My sister, Kayla, was two years older than me.”
 
“You say ‘was’. Where is she now?”
 
Helen’s eyes misted over, and for a moment I thought she was going to break down.
 
“This might be a good time for that cup of tea,” I said.
 
She nodded gratefully. I passed her a box of tissues from the bedside table and went to put the kettle on.

 

Author Notes Cast of Characters:

Charles Brandon: The narrator, a well-known travel writer
Helen Culverson: A woman of mystery, also purporting to be a travel writer

Madam Durand: A French magazine editor, who was involved in a serious accident
Dr. Laurent: A veterinary surgeon in Versailles
Madam Lefauvre: An old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip
Francoise Gaudin: A woman living in Versailles
Alain Gaudin: brother of Francoise
Estelle Gaudin: deceased mother of Francoise
Suzanne Gaudin: recipient of a letter posted in 1903 - presumably now deceased (possibly, but not necessarily, related to Estelle and her two children)


Chapter 11
The Shadow of Darkness

By tfawcus

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of violence.

If I thought that giving Helen a little space to compose herself was going to work, I was wrong. The boiling kettle screamed, like the disembodied wail of a demon. I returned to find her eyes as wild as those of an animal at bay. Her knuckle was white, and I could see the faint imprint of teeth marks on her index finger as she took the steaming cup.
 
Eventually, after a few sips, she pulled herself together enough to say, “I don’t know.” Her voice was barely a whisper. “I don’t know where she is. We became separated in Thailand.”
 
“In Thailand?”
 
“Yes, that’s where we ended up. We were lucky to escape with our lives, and we wouldn’t have done if it hadn’t been for Kayla’s quick thinking.”
 
I waited for her to continue.
 
“My parents took us to the Catholic Church that morning. My mother hated it. It wasn’t her religion, and she only went out of a sense of loyalty to my father. We all knew it was dangerous, but his faith was strong. ‘God will protect us,’ he used to say. Well, he was wrong. Halfway through the service, the doors at the back of the church burst open. Kayla turned to see a group of masked Jihadists standing there, with AK-47s trained on the congregation. In the split second before the firing began, she pulled me down with her, below the level of the pew.

The noise was deafening. We clung to each other in terror as the relentless thud of bullets splintered wood and tore through human flesh. Our mother crumpled and fell across my shoulders and our father was slumped over the pew, the side of his face completely shot away. Suddenly the shooting stopped and there was a loud explosion, followed by a deathly hush. A grenade had blown the pulpit away.”
 
I knew Helen was recounting an actual event, for I recalled the blaring headline, one more atrocity to feed the news machine before becoming yesterday’s discarded sensation, but the image accompanying this one was more memorable than most. In the fractional moment before the priest slithered to the ground, a photographer had captured the outline of his blood-spattered body spreadeagled against the stucco wall behind the pulpit, like a Christ on the cross – a particularly gruesome propaganda shot, callously designed to publicise the power of the Jihad.
 
I could well imagine the kind of silence Helen described.  I had experienced it myself, thirteen years earlier, when on assignment in Bali, the playground of Indonesia. While researching a travel article, I had been dining at Raja’s in the busy downtown area of Kuta, when a Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist threw a bomb into the restaurant. The explosion had been, literally, deafening.  It took a minute or two before I became aware of the agonised groans of the wounded and it was several weeks before I recovered full hearing in the ear that had taken the blast’s full impact. My mind flashed back to the acrid smell of concrete dust and the nauseating aroma of burning flesh. I remembered, too, the indefinable, metallic taste of death.
 
As Helen continued her story, I could visualise the two girls, cowering and terrified as they watched wisps of incense fading into the vaults of Heaven, carrying away the last prayers of the faithful.

"When the smoke cleared, we summoned the courage to get up and run. We were just two more figures, fighting our way through the panic-stricken crowd. No-one even noticed us.
 
“We made our way home, half running, half stumbling. When we got there, Kayla took control. She said to me, ‘We have to get out of here. Put on fresh clothes, and pack your things.’ I tore the blood-stained blouse from my body with revulsion, but I shall never be able to strip it from my mind. It is always the most traumatic image in the nightmare.”
 
Helen started to shake uncontrollably. I put my arm around her and drew her body towards mine. For a while, her head rested on my shoulder and my senses were again swamped by the tantalising scents of night jasmine and cardamom. Was it really less than twenty-four hours since we had left Le Rendez-Vous des Amis, arm-in-arm? It seemed a lifetime ago.
 
We remained in this close embrace for a short eternity, our heartbeats uniting as an ostinato pulse, to soothe away the dissonant minor chords of memory. Eventually, Helen raised her head, letting her lips brush softly against my cheek as she disentangled herself, and she continued, like Scheherazade, to tell her tale.
 
“Kayla soon came back with our passports and an envelope full of US dollars, which our father always kept in the bottom left-hand drawer of his desk in case of emergencies. ‘One can never be too careful,’ he used to say. She had already called for a taxi to take us to the airfield, two miles north of the town, and she was now ringing to check on flights. ‘P.I.A. have a scheduled departure to Karachi in less than two hours. We may just be able to catch it,’ she said. ‘Come on! There’s no time to waste.’
 
“The taxi was already waiting when we reached the front gate. We recognised Ibrahim, for he had often picked up our father. ‘Where are you girls off to?’ he asked, with a friendly smile. We told him we were meeting an aunt in Karachi. ‘Well. We’d better hurry then, hadn’t we?’ Kayla and I clambered into the back, and he took off at breakneck speed, up the main road alongside the swollen torrent of the Chitral River.
 
“We soon arrived at the short airstrip, and saw the familiar shape of a Fokker Friendship parked by the terminal. We’d travelled in it many times before. Kayla purchased our tickets at the P.I.A. counter and was told by the clerk that we would have three and a half hours in Peshawar before our connecting flight to Karachi. ‘It will be 7 p.m. before you get there. Do you have somewhere to stay?’ We assured him that we would be all right. He looked at us carefully, and said, ‘There have been some disturbances today. You should wear your hijabs. A head covering is a wise precaution – even for those who are not of the Islamic faith.’
 
“We knew he was right.
 
“As we taxied out across the asphalt on the first stage of our journey, the huge shoulders of the Hindu-Kush towered above us, dwarfing our tiny aircraft.”
 
I had heard tales of those mountains. The tallest of them, Tirich Mir, stretches its giant claw 25,000 feet up into the sky. It is one of the highest mountains in the world, an austere and jagged peak. Some people call it The Shadow of Darkness. I couldn’t help wondering what ominous shadows it would cast over these two frightened and fleeing sisters in the days that lay ahead.


 

Author Notes P.I.A. Pakistan International Airlines.

Cast of Characters:

Charles Brandon: The narrator, a well-known travel writer
Helen Culverson: A woman of mystery, also purporting to be a travel writer
Kayla Culverson: Her older sister.
Madam Durand: A French magazine editor, who was involved in a serious accident
Dr. Laurent: A veterinary surgeon in Versailles
Madam Lefauvre: An old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip
Francoise Gaudin: A woman living in Versailles
Alain Gaudin: brother of Francoise
Estelle Gaudin: deceased mother of Francoise
Suzanne Gaudin: recipient of a letter posted in 1903 - presumably now deceased (possibly, but not necessarily, related to Estelle and her two children)


Chapter 12
Fairy Magic

By tfawcus

 From Chapter 11:
“As we taxied out across the asphalt on the first stage of our journey, the huge shoulders of the Hindu-Kush towered above us, dwarfing our tiny aircraft.”
 
I had heard tales of those mountains. The tallest of them, Tirich Mir, stretches its giant claw 25,000 feet up into the sky. It is one of the highest mountains in the world, an austere and jagged peak. Some people call it The Shadow of Darkness. I couldn’t help wondering what ominous shadows it would cast over these two frightened and fleeing sisters in the days that lay ahead.

Chapter 12

"I suppose I must have been numb with shock and in denial, but the horror of the killing was too immense for my brain to handle. As we took off, I remember looking out of the window at the Kalash Valley and at the mountains, and experiencing an overwhelming feeling of loss, not of my parents, but of the land where I had grown up. I wondered if I would ever see it again."

Helen moved towards the French windows, drew back the curtains and stepped out onto the balcony. The moonlight threw a silvery beauty over the sleeping city, giving it an air of mystery. A pearlescent pre-dawn blush softened the horizon, and that, combined with a thin layer of mist, lent a feeling of otherworldliness to the scene.

"I will always remember the effect of moonlight on the mountains," she said. "Sometimes the fairy folk of Tirich Mir would spin silken mists like these to hide themselves from prying eyes as they protected the mountain goats, the majestic Markhors of the upper slopes."

"It sounds as if you still believe in these fairies! Fairy goatherds, indeed!"

"Oh, but I do. They are inherent in my mother's culture. I was brought up on the tales of the Hindu-Kush. When my father was away on his engineering projects, she would sometimes take us back to her village for the dancing and the singing of ghazels. The high-pitched, eerie melody of the flutes imitated the shrill voices of mountain fairies. Songs were plucked from the sitar, and flowed like a sparkling stream. Everyone clapped in time to the mesmeric rhythm of drums, and we danced until we were at one with the spirit of the mountains. Sometimes a fairy spirit would inhabit one of the young men, and for a while he would enter a trance-like, ecstatic state."

"Song, dance and fairies. What an idyllic upbringing!"

"Yes, it was idyllic. The Kalash Valley is one of the most beautiful places on earth. Bees hum among the wild roses, the mountain air is heavy with the scent of flowers, and snow-capped peaks reach up to touch the sky. Apricot trees bend under the weight of their golden fruit and, sometimes, if you are quiet, you can hear the mellow piping of the golden oriole, poised like a streak of fire among the branches.

"In the winter months, when snow creeps further down the mountainside, so do the Markhors and their guardians, the Peris. They bring with them grey shadows of eternity and the stillness of the heavens, as they drape the trees with a lacework of frost. It is indeed a fairyland, and some people even call it the land of the fairies, Peristan."

I looked at Helen in astonishment. She seemed almost to have fallen into a trance as she spoke. We stood together in silence as the sun's first rays spilled over the horizon and watched the morning star grow fainter and fainter until it finally disappeared.

"Isn't that sad?" I said. "Venus can't stand the light of day."

"Yes she can! She may shine more brightly during the night, but she's still up there, even if you can't see her." As if to prove it, Helen turned and kissed me lightly on the cheek.

'You're an enigma. First a belief in fairies and now a belief in the Roman goddess of love. What next?"

"Actually, I'm more in tune with the Greek goddess, Aphrodite. Some of our people still believe they are descended from Alexander the Great's soldiers who settled in Chitral nearly two and a half thousand years ago. So isn't it reasonable that I should also believe in the Greek gods? Anyway, don't you believe in fairies, or the Olympian gods, or anything?"

"No, I don't think I do. I only believe in people and their eternal struggle between good and evil."

"But what if I told you the most beautiful of the Kalash women are half human and half fairy? Would that mean you only half believed in me?"

I could see myself walking into a trap, no matter which way I turned.

"You're certainly very beautiful! Aphrodite was the goddess of beauty and of love, wasn't she?"

"...and of pleasure, and of lust," she added with a wicked smile. "Come on. We still have a couple of hours before breakfast."

I closed the curtains against the prying eyes of the Sun God, and pushed to the back of my mind the creeping suspicion that Aphrodite was also the patron goddess of prostitutes. I was in little doubt there would be a price to pay for my weakness.

Who was this woman and what was the story of her flight to Thailand? Such thoughts soon slipped from my mind as Helen worked her fairy magic on me. It did not take me long to realise that I believed in her entirely, and that was all that mattered.

The hotel had stopped serving breakfast well before we finally emerged, arm-in-arm, from the elevator. Our relationship had moved to a new level, one that put a lightness in the step and drove all logic from the mind.

The sun had almost reached its zenith by the time we began our search for Françoise Gaudin, the lady whom Father Lacroix had described as having a mental illness. It was through her that we hoped to find Alain, the brother who spared no expense in erecting a monument to the memory of their mother, Estelle.

Was Estelle to be the star to light our way forward? That morning, I didn't really care.

Author Notes The image of a Markhor is by Rufus46 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Cast of Characters:

Charles Brandon: The narrator, a well-known travel writer
Helen Culverson: A woman of mystery, also purporting to be a travel writer
Kayla Culverson: Her older sister.
Madam Durand: A French magazine editor, who was involved in a serious accident
Dr. Laurent: A veterinary surgeon in Versailles
Madam Lefauvre: An old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip
Francoise Gaudin: An intellectually disabled woman living in Versailles
Alain Gaudin: brother of Francoise
Estelle Gaudin: deceased mother of Francoise
Suzanne Gaudin: recipient of a letter posted in 1903 - deceased


Chapter 13
The Dog Who Smokes

By tfawcus

End of Chapter 12:
The hotel had stopped serving breakfast well before we finally emerged, arm-in-arm, from the elevator. Our relationship had moved to a new level, one that put a lightness in the step and drove all logic from the mind.

The sun had almost reached its zenith by the time we began our search for Françoise Gaudin, the lady whom Father Lecroix had described as having a mental illness. It was through her that we hoped to find Alain, the brother who had spared no expense in erecting a monument to the memory of their mother, Estelle.

Was Estelle to be the star to light our way forward? That morning, I didn't really care.

Chapter 13

"I think we ought to retrace our footsteps," I said. "I have a gut feeling that the lady with the pink poodle knows more than she's letting on. What was her name again?"

"Madame Lefauvre, but I don't think you'll get very far with her. She wasn't very forthcoming last time."

"Maybe Dr Laurent can help us find her."

"I doubt it. Privacy laws are fairly strict these days."

"Perhaps, but it's worth a try. Besides, I noticed that there's a restaurant where we could have lunch, just a few doors down from the veterinary clinic."

"That would be great. I'm starving! What's it called?"

I tried to keep a straight face as I told her. "Au Chien Qui Fume."

"The Dog Who Smokes? You must be joking! Pink poodles and smoking dogs. Really!"

"I think we should give it a go. With a name like that, it must have something going for it."

"Hot dogs, I expect!"

"I could eat a horse! We missed breakfast this morning."

"...and whose fault was that?" Helen looked at me meaningfully before continuing. "We could ask Dr Laurent if The Smoking Dog's any good. She should know. After all, she is a vet."

I groaned.

As it happened, Helen was absolutely right. Dr Laurent apologised, but told us that she was unable to give us Madame Lafauvre's address. "Details about our clients are confidential, I'm afraid."

"I thought that might be the case," Helen said. "There's one other thing you might be able to help us with, though. Do you know of anywhere near here that would be good for lunch? We noticed a place called Au Chien Qui Fume across the street."

"Yes, that would be a good choice. It's one of the oldest restaurants in Versailles and has a great reputation for oysters, if you like that kind of thing."

"A bit late for oysters," I said to Helen with a grin.

"On the contrary," Dr Laurent said. "A bit early as it happens. Oysters are at their best during months that have an 'R' in them. They aren't really in season until September, but these days they are available throughout the year. For the tourists, you understand."

"I'm not sure that was quite what Charles meant, but thank you for the information, and for the recommendation. We appreciate it. What a strange name for a restaurant, though. Do you know the history behind it?"

"No - I'm afraid not. I'm told it used to be frequented by the market traders from Les Halles in the 18th century. Perhaps that had something to do with it."

"Les Halles de Versailles. Another famous market for my article! We should take a look."

"Not today, sweetheart. We need to keep our noses firmly glued to the scent of the pink poodle."

"That presents an unfortunate image. But you're right. After all, these are the dog days of July, aren't they? Woof! Woof!"

"Oh, what a wag you are."

Dr Laurent gave us a look that suggested she thought us both quite mad.

After a very fine lunch, Helen and I realised that we were no nearer to solving any mysteries than we had been when we got up. However, luck seemed to be on our side, for just as we were leaving the restaurant, we saw Madame Lefauvre dragging her unwilling poodle up the street towards the clinic.

We quickly crossed the street to catch up with her.

"Good afternoon, Madame. How nice to see you again. What a lovely little dog!"

I leant forward to pat him, but he snarled and she drew him away sharply.

"Perhaps he's not feeling too well," Helen said. "He doesn't seem very friendly."

Nor does she, I thought.

"We were wondering if you could help us," Helen continued, with a winning smile. "You mentioned yesterday that there were still Gaudins living here in Versailles. Do you know of a Françoise Gaudin by any chance?"

"Why do you want to know?" Her voice was abrupt and filled with suspicion.

"We're trying to trace her brother."

"Alain? He doesn't live here anymore. Good riddance, I say. A nasty bit of work. Not that it's any of my business."

"No, of course not. I perfectly understand. Do you know where he moved to?"

"I know why he moved. Stealing knickers off clothes lines. He was a part-time gardener. Strange eyes and a white streak in his hair. Nearly as batty as his sister, if you ask me."

"Yes, but where is he now?" Helen persisted.

"Locked up, I hope. The little pervert. The last I heard was that he'd gone to Giverny to work in the gardens there. More likely to look up the skirts of the tourists while pretending to weed the flower beds."

"I don't think he'd have much luck with that. All the tourists wear jeans."

Madam Lefauvre stared at me coldly. She reminded me of Madame Defarge, knitting away beside the guillotine like one of the Greek Fates, stitching in the names of her intended victims, as each unfortunate aristocrat mounted the steps to the jeers of the mob. I shuddered at the thought.

Helen more or less pulled me through the door. "Merci, Madame! Au revoir!"

"Wow!" she said as she danced down the street. "I think we're on the Monet!"

"Giverny will be hell at this time of the year," I said as we climbed aboard Fifi.

"Who cares? We're not going to be gawking at the famous water lilies, but tracking down a perverted gardener with a white streak in his hair. Much more fun! Besides, by the time we get there, the crowds will be thinning out."

"It's only about an hour's drive. We should be there by mid-afternoon."

But it was not to be. Just a dozen miles short of Giverny, where the Route Nationale runs alongside the River Seine, Fifi gave a cough and a splutter, then ground to a halt.

"Oh, God! What do we do now, Charles? Where are we?"

"According to the Sat Nav, there's a little village called Rolleboise just off to the left, less than a mile from the main road. Maybe there's a garage there."

"Can you look it up on your iPhone?"

I fiddled about for a few minutes, trying to open a web browser. "Blast! We seem to be out of Wi-Fi coverage. I guess we'll just have to take pot luck and walk."

"A walk through the Normandy countryside in the sunshine. How romantic!"

"That's one way of putting it," I said as we set out.

Half an hour later we found ourselves standing outside BSA Bacquet Seine Auto, where a pair of old boots were visible sticking out under the chassis of a green Citroen.

I cleared my throat loudly. "Bonjour, monsieur."

"Bonjour," said the owner of the boots, as he slid the trolley out, revealing dirty blue overalls and a cheerful face covered in grease. "Comment puis-je vous aider?" Then, seeing that we were tourists, he switched to English. "I'm Michel, the proprietor. How can I help you?"

We explained our predicament.

"That's not a problem," he said. "I have a tow truck. I'll get Claude to bring her in. Claude! Claude! Venez ici! Where the devil is the lad?"

A gangly youth appeared from the office, chewing gum. "Qu'est-ce que tu veux?"

"J'ai un travail pour toi. Sortez la dépanneuse, mon garçon. Il y a une Fiat 500 à ramasser du côté de la route  nationale. Ces personnes vont vous montrer où."


Claude beckoned us to follow, and we were soon squeezed three abreast in the cab of the truck. There was a sickly smell of banana extract as he popped a bubble before crunching into first gear. We lurched forwards and were all nearly thrown through the windscreen.

"Merde!" said Claude, cursing under his breath and giving us an apologetic smile.

By the time we got back to the garage, it was nearly five o'clock. There was no chance of reaching Giverny before the gardens closed.

Michel cast a professional eye over Fifi and ran a couple of tests. "It looks like you've got a problem with your fuel pump," he said. "I should be able to fix it in the morning."

"Not till the morning," I said with dismay. "Is there anywhere nearby where we could stay overnight?"

"You could try Domaine de la Corniche. It's a nice place and only a few minutes up the road. My brother works there as a chef. I'll give them a ring if you like."

We both thanked him profusely as he disappeared into the office. A few minutes later he reappeared. "All arranged! If you are happy to wait while I lock up, I can give you a lift up there. It's on my way home."

"Oh, dear, Charles. It looks as if we are going to have to spend another night together. Are you up for that?"

A suggestive choice of phrase, I thought.

Author Notes Cast of Major Characters:

Charles Brandon: The narrator, a well-known travel writer
Helen Culverson: A woman of mystery, also purporting to be a travel writer
Kayla Culverson: Her older sister.
Madam Durand: A French magazine editor, who was involved in a serious accident
Dr. Laurent: A veterinary surgeon in Versailles
Madam Lefauvre: An old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip
Francoise Gaudin: An intellectually disabled woman living in Versailles
Alain Gaudin: brother of Francoise
Estelle Gaudin: deceased mother of Francoise
Suzanne Gaudin: recipient of a letter posted in 1903 - deceased


Chapter 14
Domaine de la Corniche

By tfawcus

Connecting to the end of Chapter 13...

Michel cast a professional eye over Fifi and ran a couple of tests. "It looks like you've got a problem with your fuel pump," he said. "I should be able to fix it in the morning."

"Not till the morning," I said with dismay. "Is there anywhere nearby where we could stay overnight?"

"You could try Domaine de la Corniche. It's a nice place and only a few minutes up the road. My brother works there as a chef. I'll give them a ring if you like."

We both thanked him profusely as he disappeared into the office. A few minutes later he reappeared. "All arranged! If you are happy to wait while I lock up, I can give you a lift up there. It's on my way home."

"Oh, dear, Charles. It looks as if we are going to have to spend another night together. Are you up for that?"

A suggestive choice of phrase, I thought.


Chapter 14

Domaine de la Corniche turned out to be a magnificent old building, perched high above a sweeping curve of the River Seine. We had seen it on the skyline as we walked in to Rolleboise and had imagined it to be a fairy-tale castle. Some fairy-tale, as it turned out. While I signed us in, Helen idly thumbed through a brochure on the front counter.

"Oh, look! Legend has it that King Leopold II of Belgium had this place built for his mistress. How romantic!"

"Not if he was the King Leopold that I'm thinking of. He mercilessly exploited the Congolese to build an immense fortune for himself. Millions died in the most horrific conditions. Some have even described it as a genocide."

"You are right, Monsieur," the receptionist said. "That was the man. He also had many mistresses, but the most infamous was Caroline Lacroix, a French prostitute. He showered gifts and estates on her and it is thought that this building was among them."

"Lacroix? What a coincidence. Wasn't that the name of Monsieur le Curé...  Father Pierre Lacroix?" I said.

"Wouldn't that be a turn up for the book, if the old hypocrite turned out to be the son of a whore?"

I shook my head. "That's stretching the imagination. Lacroix is quite a common name in these parts."

"Yes, but...? What if he was?"

"What if? My father used to look at me dryly whenever I said that, and he'd dismiss my suppositions by saying, 'If my aunt had balls, she'd be my uncle' ...and that would be the end of it."

"What a brutal way of suppressing the curiosity of a child. Poor Charles! Look! It says here that Caroline Lacroix was only sixteen when the old lecher became infatuated with her, and he was sixty five. What a dirty old man!"

I smiled inwardly. That made the fifteen year gap between Helen and me seem much more acceptable.

The receptionist soon shattered my illusion. "How long will you and your... er ...niece be staying?"

Helen laughed. "I'm not his niece. I'm his mistress. That's why we have a double room."

It was hard to tell which face turned redder, mine or his.

"Oh, I think one night should be enough," she said in an unmistakably sensual tone that added to the discomfiture of us both.

"You're incorrigible!" I whispered.

"I know," she said, kissing my cheek lightly as she winked at him. "We'd like dinner on the balcony at 8.30. In the meantime, I think we'll try out your famous Spaquana. A double massage and then some time relaxing in the Jacuzzi. What do you think, Charles?"

"What do I think? I think that you and Fifi are in league with one another. Don't tell me that we ended up here by accident!"

"Oh, but we did."

It seems that Michel must have put in a good word for us, for when we eventually reached the dining room, we were ushered to a romantic table on the balcony, overlooking the river. The waiter brought menus, but said to me, "I suggest you leave the choices to our chef, monsieur. I understand you know his brother? I don't think you'll be disappointed."

"Yes, it was Michel who recommended that we come here. We'll be glad to take your advice. Thank you."

The gourmet meal that followed defied description. Each dish more superb than the last. Each wine its perfect complement. The setting sun bathed the river in gold. The heavy scent of roses wafted over the parapet, and the sickle shape of an ivory moon suggested the exotic promise of an orient night as the first faint stars began to appear.

"Well, Scheherazade?" I cradled a brandy balloon, and gazed into the deep, mysterious pools that were her eyes, searching for what lay within.

"Shall we indeed have a thousand and one nights like this, oh king of kings?"

"Perhaps ...if your story continues to please me."

"Very well then. We flew on our magic carpet, down from the roof of the world where fairy goatherds dwell, and onto the Gandhara Plains and the most ancient city of Peshawar. There we sojourned awhile. I clasped my sister close, for I was afraid, and she soothed and calmed me.

"Eventually, a great white bird took us onward, following the course of the mighty Indus River, almost to Hyderabad, then continuing south by south-west to the sea, where lies Karachi, capital city of the Sindh, like a million twinkling diamonds in the night. Thus we came to Jinnah, gateway to the world.

"All was a confusion of lights, and of people scurrying this way and that, like rats in a maze. Loudspeakers blared. Strained eyes looked, as if for a means of escape, and Kayla and I stood staring at a great board listing arrivals and departures.

"'Look,' Kayla said. 'There's a flight to Bangkok in a few hours, just before midnight.'

"'Bangkok? Where is that?'

"'A city in the east, many miles away. It is where mother and father spent their honeymoon. It is where her shimmering Thai silk dress came from. The one you most particularly liked.'

"'Bangkok it is, then.'"

"Is that really how you decided where to go?" I looked at her in amazement.

"Yes, pretty much. But that's enough storytelling for one night, don't you think? I'm not yet brave enough to tell you what happened next. Besides, it would spoil a beautiful evening. Come on! Bedtime!"

Author Notes Cast of Characters

Charles Brandon: The narrator, a well-known travel writer
Helen Culverson: A woman of mystery, also purporting to be a travel writer
Kayla Culverson: Her older sister.
Madam Durand: A French magazine editor, who was involved in a serious accident
Dr. Laurent: A veterinary surgeon in Versailles
Father Pierre Lacroix, vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church
Madam Lefauvre: An old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip
Francoise Gaudin: An intellectually disabled woman living in Versailles
Alain Gaudin: brother of Francoise
Estelle Gaudin: deceased mother of Francoise


Chapter 15
Karachi

By tfawcus

Continued from Chapter 14:
"'Bangkok? Where is that?'

"'A city in the east, many miles away. It is where mother and father spent their honeymoon. It is where her shimmering Thai silk dress came from. The one you most particularly liked.'

"'Bangkok it is, then.'"

"Is that really how you decided where to go?" I looked at her in amazement.

"Yes, pretty much. But that's enough storytelling for one night, don't you think? I'm not yet brave enough to tell you what happened next. Besides, it would spoil a beautiful evening. Come on! Bedtime!"

Chapter 15

We climbed the stairs arm-in-arm. This time, however, we made our way to our room less tipsily than we had done in Versailles, and with a greater feeling of mutual understanding and completeness. It had been a wonderful evening, and we were happy just to lie in the warmth and security of each other's arms, drifting off to sleep together.

Yet, as before, Helen's sleep was restless, and this time it was filled with sudden, staccato eruptions of wild, unintelligible words. Eventually, she awoke and grasped me to her, like a security blanket. I reached for the light and saw that her face was damp with sweat, and her eyes wide with terror.

I stroked her hair gently, and drew her in closer. "There, there. They are only nightmares. You are perfectly safe now."

"But they are so real, Charles. I don't have them often, but they almost drive me out of my wits when they come."

"Perhaps it would help if you told me about them. Sometimes, bringing ghosts out into the open can make them disappear."

"I couldn't get the picture out of my head, - that evil king and the poor young innocent he seduced."

"Perhaps not quite so innocent. She was a prostitute, remember ...and certainly not poor. His gifts ended up making her a multi-millionairess. She even gained a title, Baroness Vaughan - or, as her disparagers more often called her - the Queen of the Congo."

"How do you know all that?"

I pointed to the hotel brochure by the side of our bed. "I guess I read more about the history of the place than you did. A man has to do something while his lady is titivating herself for an evening's pleasure."

Helen arched her eyebrows, but made no comment.

"Yes, but I still say she was a poor woman. People don't just become prostitutes. They are driven to it, and often by extreme circumstances and great tragedy. God! I should know."

I looked at her, aghast.

"No, not me - but someone very close to me. My sister."

I didn't know what to say, but bewilderment must have been written all over my face.

"There's no need to look at me like that, Charles. I'm not about to give you the clap. Anyway," she added mischievously, "you do have a French letter, don't you?"

"Not exactly a French letter - just a French envelope. Does that count?"

"I suppose that would depend on what was inside it."

Once again, I was embarrassed, and adroitly steered the conversation in a different direction. "What happened next, when you arrived at Jinnah International?"

"That is where the fairy-tale ended. When we got to the ticket counter and presented our passports, the Sikh official looked up and asked, 'Where are your visas?'

"'Visas?' Kayla responded in dismay. 'I didn't know we needed them.'

"'You can't fly to Bangkok without a visa. You'll have to go to the Royal Thai Consulate in the morning and make your application. They aren't all that difficult to get. If you have the right paperwork, it usually takes about a week.'

"'A week! But what are we to do in the meantime?'

"The official shrugged. 'Be careful. Parts of Karachi are dangerous.'"

"You must have both been devastated," I said. "What did you do next?"

"It was already nearly ten o'clock, so we decided to hang about the airport until dawn, then make our way to the city. Neither of us wanted to be walking the streets alone at night."

"I can well imagine."

"We spent some of our time at the airport researching, and discovered that the Consulate was in an affluent area of the city called Clifton, about 20 kilometres away. We also searched for somewhere nearby to stay, and were able to book a room at the Mashwani Guest House, a place not too expensive that had good reviews.

"Kayla was worried about money. Although we had more than $3000 in cash, she could see it quickly slipping away in airfares and accommodation. I knew that our father had made her a joint signatory on his bank account when she turned eighteen, but thought that would be of little use now.

"'I'm going to try anyway,' Kayla said. 'The bank won't know he's dead yet, and I may be able to withdraw enough Pakistani rupees to cover our expenses here, so that we can keep our American dollars for Thailand.'

"'That's illegal, isn't it?' I said.

"'Probably,' she replied, 'but what choice do we have?'

"As it turned out, she could still withdraw money and, more important, she was able to show an on-line bank statement to the consulate. One of the requirements for a visa was proving that we had enough money in an account to cover the cost of our 'holiday'. Without that, we would have been sunk.

"However, little did we realise the longer term implications of that decision."

"Yes, technically it would have been theft, and she could have been imprisoned under Pakistani law."

"I know. That's why we can never return to Pakistan, and to my beloved mountains.

"Anyway, we made the mistake of walking to our guest house. It was only about half an hour away, but the monsoon season was not quite over, and we were drenched!

"There's not much else to tell about our days there. We spent much of the time in our room, watching videos and TV, except for when we went to Clifton Beach. It was quite a novelty for us to be near water. We enjoyed watching the sun sparkling on the sea, and appreciated the soothing tranquillity of gently lapping waves." Her face brightened a bit as she added, "We even went for a camel ride one afternoon!

"Of course, the cloud of past events still hung heavily over us during those few days, as the pain of our loss gradually sank in. Grief soon turned to anger at the unfairness of fate. Why us? What had we done to deserve this?

"However, it wasn't until we reached Thailand that the nightmare would truly begin."

Author Notes Cast of Main Characters

Charles Brandon: The narrator, a well-known travel writer
Helen Culverson: A woman of mystery, also purporting to be a travel writer
Kayla Culverson: Her older sister.
Madam Durand: A French magazine editor, who was involved in a serious accident
Dr. Laurent: A veterinary surgeon in Versailles
Father Pierre Lacroix, vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church
Madam Lefauvre: An old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip
Francoise Gaudin: An intellectually disabled woman living in Versailles
Alain Gaudin: brother of Francoise
Estelle Gaudin: deceased mother of Francoise


Chapter 16
Giverny

By tfawcus

Continued from Chapter 15:
"There's not much else to tell about our days there [in Karachi]. We spent much of the time in our room, watching videos and TV, except for when we went to Clifton Beach. It was quite a novelty for us to be near water. We enjoyed watching the sun sparkling on the sea, and appreciated the soothing tranquillity of gently lapping waves." Her face brightened a bit as she added, "We even went for a camel ride one afternoon!

"Of course, the cloud of past events still hung heavily over us during those few days, as the pain of our loss gradually sank in. Grief soon turned to anger at the unfairness of fate. Why us? What had we done to deserve this?

"However, it wasn't until we reached Thailand that the nightmare would truly begin."

Chapter 16

I waited for Helen to go on. She had dropped so many hints about what happened in Bangkok that I was now buzzing with curiosity. I felt sure that some of the questions lingering in the back of my mind were about to be answered, but she stopped her story there and said, "That's enough for one night, Charles. I really must try to get some beauty sleep if we are going to investigate this mysterious gardener tomorrow."

With that, she turned away from me and buried her head among the pillows. I wasn't sure if she was playing games, or whether she was too emotionally distraught to continue. I lay gazing at a gap in the curtains for a while. They had not quite been drawn together, and they let a slither of moonlight fall across the languorous curve of Helen's body. Eventually, I drifted off with an old joke, not all that inappropriately, in the back of my mind: "Confucius say... man with erection, who walk through airport door sideways, is going to Bangkok."

The following morning, after breakfast, we decided to walk back down the hill to Michel's garage. It was a glorious summer's day of the kind that makes one feel glad to be alive. I hailed a frumpy old lady in curlers and a mauve dressing gown. "Bonjour!" I shouted to her, with a broad grin.

She looked at me uncertainly and retreated up the garden path to her front door, grasping a bottle of milk and defensively thrusting her copy of Le Monde under one arm.

"Come on, Helen! No time to lose." I grabbed her by the hand and propelled her down the street in a whirlwind of enthusiasm.

"Come on, yourself," she said, pushing me into a hedge and running on ahead.

We arrived at the garage breathless, and saw two men standing outside, in deep conversation with Michel. Helen drew me in under the cover of a tree. "Aren't they the men who bumped into us in their rowing boat? You remember? Just before our picnic at Versailles the day before yesterday."

"Yes, you're right. What on earth are they doing here?"

We lurked in the shadows until they climbed back into their black Citroen - one of those old-fashioned ones with running boards. For a brief moment, I had a vision of white spats and spitting machine guns, before I shook myself back into the present.

"Who were those men?" Helen asked Michel.

"I don't know. They were here snooping around your car on the forecourt when I arrived this morning. I demanded to know what they were doing; they hesitated, then asked me if it was for sale."

"Fifi for sale? Definitely not!" Helen exclaimed.

"That's what I told them, but they came back again just now, and wanted to know who the car belonged to. I didn't like the look of them and I told them to mind their own business. They didn't look any too happy when they left." Michel shrugged, and spat in the gutter.

"Anyway, she's fixed now. Just a bit of dirt in the fuel line. I've flushed it all out and given the old girl a bit of a run. She'll be fine. Did Alphonse look after you all right last night?"

"Alphonse?"

"My brother, the chef."

"Oh, did he ever! He put on a magnificent meal for us. We had a wonderful evening." Helen gave Michel her sweetest smile and thanked him profusely.

He blushed a little under his Gallic tan. "I'm glad to hear it, mademoiselle. Anything for a pretty lady." It was Helen's turn to blush, but she did not. Instead, she leant forward and gave him a small peck on the cheek.

"How far is it to Giverny from here?" she asked.

"Only about 25 minutes. If you leave now, you will get there before the coachloads of tourists arrive from Paris. The gardens are at their best at this time of the year, with the water lilies in bloom."

We thanked him once again, and gave him a large tip on top of the modest amount he charged us for the repair. A smile creased his weathered face as he shook our hands and bid us farewell.

"What a very nice man," Helen said as we drove off.

"Lucky you! Two nice men in one morning."

"Mmmm... and two not so nice ones." Helen looked worried, perhaps even a little scared. Again, and not for the last time, I wondered if there was something she wasn't telling me.

It was a five-minute walk from the carpark to the admission gate, and by a quarter to ten there was already a small queue of people waiting to get in. Along with the others, we were ushered down some steps, and along a narrow path that led to the gardens in front of Monet's house. The herbaceous borders were drowsy with bees and heavy with the scent of roses and honeysuckle. A Babel of admiring voices surrounded us, interspersed with cameras clicking like the consonants of Kalahari bushmen.

Two or three of the paths were roped off, where gardeners were busy weeding and pruning, but we saw no sign of Alain among them. It took us an hour or more to follow the crowd as it drifted onto the paths surrounding the lily ponds, and to squeeze through narrow doorways as we went from room to room through the house.

We had almost finished the tour and given up hope of finding him when, from a window in one of the bedrooms, I saw a figure on a stepladder, pruning and tying back a climbing rose that was rampant, a shocking riot of yellow along the back wall of the garden. I nudged Helen and pointed. There was an unmistakable streak of white in the man's hair.

Author Notes Cast of Main Characters

Charles Brandon: The narrator, a well-known travel writer
Helen Culverson: A woman of mystery, also purporting to be a travel writer
Kayla Culverson: Her older sister.
Madam Durand: A French magazine editor, who was involved in a serious accident
Dr. Laurent: A veterinary surgeon in Versailles
Father Pierre Lacroix, vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church
Madam Lefauvre: An old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip
Francoise Gaudin: An intellectually disabled woman living in Versailles
Alain Gaudin: brother of Francoise
Estelle Gaudin [deceased]: mother of Francoise
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased]: to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.

Photograph by the author: July 2018


Chapter 17
Alain Gaudin

By tfawcus

From Chapter 16:
Two or three of the paths were roped off, where gardeners were busy weeding and pruning, but we saw no sign of Alain among them. It took us an hour or more to follow the crowd as it drifted onto the paths surrounding the lily ponds, and to squeeze through narrow doorways as we went from room to room through the house.

We had almost finished the tour and given up hope of finding him when, from a window in one of the bedrooms, I saw a figure on a stepladder, pruning and tying back a climbing rose that was rampant, a shocking riot of yellow along the back wall of the garden. I nudged Helen and pointed. There was an unmistakable streak of white in the man's hair.

Chapter 17

Anxious not to lose sight of him, I grabbed hold of Helen's hand and tried to push past the throng of tourists on the staircase. Muttered apologies of 'Excusez-moi' and 'Pardon' were met with angry looks and grumbling, as people moved this way and that to let us pass.

I imagine that those who were outside must have wondered what these two fleeing fugitives were making off with, as we raced down the garden path. I half expected there to be shouts of 'Stop, thief!'

We were out of breath when we arrived at the foot of the ladder, and I blurted out, "Hello there - are you Alain Gaudin, by any chance?"

"Who wants to know?" the gardener growled.

"I do," Helen replied, as she swept the hair back from her face. Her cheeks were flushed pink, and her breasts still heaved prettily from the exertion.

Alain's sour demeanour softened. He thrust his secateurs into the pocket of his apron, and climbed carefully down.

"So - what do you want?"

"To compliment you on your fine work, of course." Helen smiled at him provocatively. "There, at one end of the trellis, you have a wild rose, rampant and running in all directions, and here it is tamed, tucked in, its wildness cut away, and its blossoms peeping demurely from between the leaves. Do you have the same effect on your women?"

I wasn't sure if his grudging response was one of embarrassment, or appreciation of the compliment. "I like things to be neat and well-ordered. In a garden, that's possible."

"But not always in life," I remarked.

He ignored me and turned to Helen with a leer. "Yes, I am Alain Gaudin. At your service, mademoiselle."

"Alain ...brother of Françoise? ...and loving son of Estelle, late of Versailles?"

Alain's expression froze. He stared at Helen with suspicion. "Who are you? What do you want?"

"Just to talk to you about your family," I said. "We have something that might interest you." I withdrew the envelope from my pocket and showed it to him. "Do you know who this is?"

The man paled as he studied the writing and the postmark. "Yes," he said. "Suzanne Gaudin was my grandmother. Where did you get this?" There was the tension of a coiled spring in his voice. He almost hissed his question the second time. "Who gave you this envelope?"

I prised the fragile paper from his hand, and replaced it in my coat. "Perhaps it is soon time for your lunch break? There is a café down past the main gate. We could talk about it there, over a glass of wine, if you like."

He hesitated before saying, "Alright then, but I have to finish this first. I'll meet you in half an hour. Pierre's house wine is good enough, and you can shout me a steak sandwich into the bargain."

"Of course! Our pleasure," I said, taking Helen's hand again.

She gave him a surreptitious wave as we moved off. "See you soon then, Alain."

I smiled. "What a flirt you are!"

"Yes - but it worked, didn't it?"

As we made our way towards the exit, the peace was shattered by a car backfiring in the street. Three crows in a nearby stand of pine trees took flight, cawing like a coven of witches disturbed from their cauldrons. They wheeled on ungainly wings, casting a fell shadow across the sun as they flapped away into the distance.

Unnerved, I turned back to calm myself with one last look at the gardens, and saw two men in dark suits talking with Alain. My heart missed a beat.

"Look!" I said. "There they are again."

Helen made no reply but, taking my arm, she steered me towards the gate. I could see she, too, was shaken.

The café had a row of tables alongside the gravel path leading to its entrance. Two women in floral hats were sitting at one of the tables. They looked up briefly as we went past, then continued their conversation, sotto voce.

We chose a table further down, shaded by an umbrella advertising Campari. It overlooked an herbaceous border filled with blue delphiniums and pink phlox. Bees hovered among the low-growing lavender and salvias, and a pair of wood pigeons cooed in the trees behind us, completing the aura of lazy tranquillity. What a contrast it was to the racing of our minds!

We sat there for about twenty minutes, speculating on the recent events. When Alain arrived, he was wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat. I poured him some wine from the carafe, and he sat down - next to Helen. He drained his glass without comment, then his eyes bored through me like a pin through a beetle. "Show me that envelope again."

I passed it across the table and refilled his glass. He studied it briefly before drawing a coarse canvas wallet from his trouser pocket. He folded the envelope in half and started to put it away.

"I say! You can't do that. The envelope is mine."

"No, monsieur. It belongs to me. That is the handwriting of Colonel Neville Arnoux. I would recognise it anywhere ...and 1903 ...that was the year he took my grandmother to Paris to be his mistress. He was a young man then, and infatuated with her. I still have his lousy letter, enticing her with his vain promises."

He took another deep swig and grasped the neck of the carafe, angrily splashing more wine into his glass. I was not inclined to argue.

Helen placed her hand on his arm. "What happened next?"

"He set her up in a squalid garret in Montmartre, near where her sister was living, and used to visit her after his wild revels at The Moulin Rouge and in the nearby bars."

"She had a sister?"

"Yes, Carmen ...much older than her. She had been living there for years as a prostitute, and sometimes used to model for the painters. It wasn't long before my grandmother, Suzanne, was caught up in the same game. How else was a girl to live in those days?"

"As a laundress, perhaps?"

Alain scowled at me. "Yes, that too. You obviously know of the painting." He paused. "It should have been mine!" Now with a dangerous glint in his eye, he thumped his fist on the table, overturning one of the glasses. The two ladies in floral hats swept up their belongings and departed, casting furtive glances behind them as they hurried away.

"Calm down, man!" I said.

"Yes, Alain ...take it easy. You can't afford to make a scene here."

At that moment, our waiter came out with the food. "Hello, Alain, old friend! What brings you to my café today, hobnobbing with the tourists?"

He set the steak sandwich down in front of his friend, who grunted and sank his teeth into it. I could see that he was in no mood to continue his story.

Helen watched in fascination, as one might view a ravening wolf. "Who were those men who were with you just after we left?"

Alain finished his last mouthful, wiped his lips with the back of his hand, and shrugged his shoulders.

"How should I know?" he said. "They were asking questions about you."

With that, he pushed his chair back and strode off down the path without a word of thanks, back to the peaceful haven of his precious garden.

I drank the remainder of my wine, looking over the rim of the glass at Helen. "I suspect those poor roses are in for a hard time this afternoon."

"Come on," she said. "Let's go back to Paris."

Author Notes Image reproduced under Creative Commons licence. Attribution: http://www.vinoveritas.it/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/macchia-vino-rosso.jpg


Cast of Main Characters

Charles Brandon: The narrator, a well-known travel writer
Helen Culverson: A woman of mystery, also purporting to be a travel writer
Kayla Culverson: Her older sister.
Madam Durand: A French magazine editor, who was involved in a serious accident
Dr. Laurent: A veterinary surgeon in Versailles
Father Pierre Lacroix, vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church
Madam Lefauvre: An old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip
Francoise Gaudin: An intellectually disabled woman living in Versailles
Alain Gaudin: brother of Francoise
Estelle Gaudin [deceased]: mother of Francoise and Alain
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased]: Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.


Chapter 18
The Painting

By tfawcus

Continued from Chapter 17:

Helen watched in fascination, as one might view a ravening wolf. "Who were those men who were with you just after we left?"

Alain finished his last mouthful, wiped his lips with the back of his hand, and shrugged his shoulders.

"How should I know?" he said. "They were asking questions about you."

With that, he pushed his chair back and strode off down the path without a word of thanks, back to the peaceful haven of his precious garden.

I drank the remainder of my wine, looking over the rim of the glass at Helen. "I suspect those poor roses are in for a hard time this afternoon."

"Come on," she said. "Let's go back to Paris."

Chapter 18

As we returned to the carpark, Helen and I talked over our meeting with Alain.

"What a horrible man! You must have been furious, having him walk off with your envelope like that."

"Yes and no. We now know that Alain has the original letter, and we've found out who wrote it. The dilemma now is how we pursuade him to let us see it. The envelope is really not important. I bought it on impulse, for the princely sum of two euros, imagining that there might be a story behind it - and it looks as if there is."

"Not much of a story. All we've found so far is a grumpy gardener, with a grudge against the creep who seduced his grandmother."

"Not quite all. You're forgetting the painting."

"You mean the one that Alain mentioned?""

Helen sidestepped to avoid a bee hovering around her face, and almost lost her balance. I steadied her before continuing.

"Yes, I'm pretty sure that Alain was referring to Toulouse Lautrec's famous painting, La Blanchisseuse - The Laundress."

"Oh, right! What leads you to that conclusion, clever clogs?"

"Do you know who the laundress was?"

"No. I haven't got a clue. Tell me."

"A prostitute ... called Carmen Gaudin."

"Carmen Gaudin? You mean Suzanne's older sister?" Helen looked at me in disbelief.

"Exactly. No wonder Alain holds a grudge if he thinks the picture rightly belongs to him ... it was sold at Christie's a few years ago for twenty two million dollars."

"Now that is interesting. Perhaps we need to find out more about that randy Colonel, Neville Arnoux. Who, apart from Alain, might know about him?"

"Alain's sister, Françoise, perhaps?"

"Maybe, but according to Father Lacroix, she's got a screw loose."

"I think the term he used was 'a mental illness'."

"Whatever."

We arrived back in the carpark to find an envelope under Fifi's windscreen wiper.

"I hate the way people stick advertising leaflets on cars," Helen said.

I reached over and removed it, and was looking around for a rubbish bin when I noticed the black Citroen parked under the shade of a tree. I decided to open the envelope instead. There was an advertising flyer inside. When I turned it over, I felt a dryness in my mouth and my pulse quickened.

"What is it, Charles?"

"Nothing," I said, slipping the leaflet into my jacket pocket. "You were right. Just a bit of nonsense."

"Then why have you put it in your pocket? What is it advertising? A Gentlemen's Club?"

"Don't be absurd. What did you expect me to do - just chuck it on the ground?"

"Oh dear! We are touchy, aren't we? I'll bet it's an advert for a strip joint. Come on, let's have a look."

"No."

"It's mine - it was on my car. You're worse than Alain, going around pinching people's envelopes."

"Really, it was nothing. Just a two-for-the-price-of-one offer for The Moulin Rouge."

I took the leaflet out of my pocket and waved it in front of her face.

"Perfect! As a penance, you can take me there."

"Isn't that what's called 'carrying coals to Newcastle'?"

"Sometimes, Charles, you can be an absolute pig."

Helen turned the key in the ignition, revved the engine and crashed the gears. Fifi bunny-hopped away in a most undignified manner.

The black Citroen eased out smoothly and fell into place some distance behind us.

As we drove back to Paris, I mulled over the message scrawled on the back of the Moulin Rouge leaflet. 'Get rid of Brandon. See you as arranged, noon tomorrow. JD'

Who, I wondered, was JD - and why did he want to get rid of me?

It was mid-afternoon when Helen dropped me back at my digs on Rue Gabrielle. I thanked her rather more formally than our relationship warranted, and didn't make any arrangements for another meeting.

"Let me know when you've got the tickets for the Moulin Rouge," she called out of the window as she drove off.

As soon as I got inside, I rang the American Hospital of Paris.

“Hello? I wonder if you could help me. I want to visit my sister, who was admitted to your hospital a few days ago, following a car accident. Her name is Durand - Madame Durand.” (Knowing how tight privacy rules can be these days, I had decided it was best to make out that I was a close relative.)
 
“Just a moment please.” One moment turned into several before the nurse returned. “I’m sorry, Monsieur. Madame Durand was discharged two days ago.”
 
“Really? That’s most irritating. Do you know where she went? I’m from out of town, and would like to visit her before I leave.”
 
“I’m sorry, monsieur. All I know is that she was discharged under the care of two men in white uniforms. I imagine they would have been taking her to a private nursing home for convalescence.”
 
“Perhaps my niece, Mademoiselle Culverson, will know. I’m sure that she would have visited her.”
 
“There was a young lady here on Saturday morning, monsieur. I remember her because she was distressed and very emotional when she left. I offered her a cup of tea, and sat with her for a few moments while she composed herself. Perhaps she was your niece. I think she said her name was Helen.”
 
“Yes, that would have been her for sure. I’m not surprised she was upset. They were very close. Was she with my sister for long?”
 
“No, monsieur. It was a short visit. Madame Durand would have only just regained consciousness.”
 
“Thank you, nurse. You have been most helpful. I appreciate it.”
 
Interesting, I thought, after I hung up. I wonder why had Helen told me she was at the hospital almost all day. It seems that she could easily have arranged to meet me on the Saturday afternoon to pick up her handbag. My suspicions were kicked up another notch, and I decided to make a further call.
 
“Hello, is that Alamo Car Hire? I’d like to book a rental for tomorrow - for twenty four hours.
A small car, please. I’ll pick it up from the Gare du Nord at nine o’clock. My name is Charles Brandon.
Yes, a VISA card. The number is - "
 
It occurred to me that the initials JD might belong to Madame Durand. There was only one way to find out. I hoped that my driving skills would be good enough to keep Fifi in sight.

 

Author Notes Newcastle-upon-Tyne in England has been well-known as a coal mining centre since the Middle Ages, although much diminished in that regard in recent years. 'Carrying coal to Newcastle' was an archetypically pointless activity - there being plenty there already.

digs - UK informal for 'lodgings'

Gare du Nord -one of the main railway stations in Paris.

Cast of Main Characters

Charles Brandon: The narrator, a well-known travel writer
Helen Culverson: A woman of mystery, also purporting to be a travel writer
Kayla Culverson: Her older sister.
Madame Jean Durand: A French magazine editor, who was involved in a serious accident
Dr. Laurent: A veterinary surgeon in Versailles
Father Pierre Lacroix, vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church
Madame Lefauvre: An old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip
Francoise Gaudin: An intellectually disabled woman living in Versailles
Alain Gaudin: brother of Francoise
Estelle Gaudin [deceased]: mother of Francoise and Alain
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased]: Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.


Chapter 19
A Car Chase

By tfawcus

Continued from Chapter 18:

"Hello, is that Alamo Car Hire? I'd like to book a rental for tomorrow. Yes, twenty four hours. A small car, please. I'll pick it up from the Gare du Nord at nine o'clock. My name is Charles Brandon. Yes, a VISA card. The number is - "

I hung up, hoping that my driving skills would be good enough to keep on Fifi's tail.

Chapter 19

The following morning, I woke early to noisy banter between Monsieur Gerard and his neighbours, as they unloaded materials for the repair of his greenhouse. I opened the window and looked down.

"Bonjour, Monsieur Brandon. Sorry if we disturb you with our clatter."

"Not at all! I am already up and about. I see you have better help today than on Tuesday! It looks like a fine day for fixing up the storm damage."

Monsieur Gerard laughed. "How's that cut on your forearm, monsieur?"

"Much better thank you - despite all the blood, it was barely a scratch."

"I'm glad to hear it. Have a good day, monsieur - it's going to be a hot one." With that, my landlord turned his attention back to the job at hand.

Two streets away, the rising hum of rush hour traffic along Boulevard de Clichy suggested I would be almost as quick to walk as to take public transport. The Gare du Nord was, after all, only a mile away, and the exercise would do me good. I also had a feeling that I might soon be spending more than enough time sitting in a car, 'staking out the joint', as they say in American crime thrillers.

When I reached the station, it was already thronging with people. The line of flustered tourists queuing for taxis suggested that a high-speed Eurostar train from London must have recently arrived. I hoped that not too many of the passengers would be hiring cars, for I could do without a long wait.

As it turned out, there were only two people ahead of me at the Alamo service desk. However, the man being served was expostulating with the clerk, and making heavy weather of the paperwork. He insisted on every detail being gone over twice and, by the time he was satisfied that all was correct, a lengthy queue had started to form behind me. Even so, I was on my way by a quarter to ten, and still had plenty of time to drive across to Helen's apartment on Avenue de Villiers, a few hundred yards north of Parc Monceau.

There was a parking spot near Café Gabrielle, on a street corner almost opposite her apartment. The café had plenty of outdoor seating, and I selected a table with a good view of the entrance. A young waiter swept towards me, arriving with a flourish.

"Bonjour, monsieur. Que puis-je faire pour vous ce beau matin?"


"Un café blanc et une brioche, s'il vous plaît."

I placed my order, thinking how much more pleasant it would be if Helen were sitting here with me, instead of me tailing her like an amateur sleuth - a role I was already feeling uncomfortable with. It had begun to dawn on me that I had no idea if Helen would be driving to her destination in Fifi, or travelling there by bus. The Wagram Metro station was also just down the street, and that presented a third alternative. I started measuring distances with my eye, wondering if I would be quick enough off the mark to keep on her tail when she finally emerged from the building.

I insisted on paying the bill for my coffee straight away, so that I would be able to leave without delay. The surprised look on the waiter's face showed that he thought this unusual, but he humoured me, no doubt privately thinking what strange customs foreign tourists had. I over-tipped him to compensate, and shortly afterwards saw him gesturing in my direction as he stood in the doorway talking to one of the other waiters. They both laughed.

Half an hour later there was still no sign of Helen, so I ordered another coffee. The café was by now quite busy and I occupied myself by watching the other customers. A pigeon fluttered down and landed on a nearby table. The matronly patron shooed it away in disgust, with an exaggerated sweep of her menu that upset the water bottle over her husband's trousers.

"Merde!" he cried, leaping to his feet.

In the ensuing consternation, I almost missed the black Citroen as it pulled up on the other side of the road. Two men in dark suits got out and entered the building. I slipped a ten-euro note under my water glass to pay for the now redundant coffee and hurried back to the car. My heart was racing, both from the unaccustomed exertion, and from this unexpected turn of events.

Helen appeared a few minutes later, writhing and kicking as she was propelled across the pavement by the two men and man-handled into the back seat. Within seconds, the car joined the stream of traffic heading west. By the time I found a gap in the traffic, it was almost out of sight. I cursed and put my foot down, narrowly missing a cyclist as I accelerated past a large tourist bus. My manoeuvre unleashed a cacophony of blaring horns. I looked in my rear-view mirror and saw the cyclist being helped to his feet, and two or three angry fists being waved in my general direction by nearby pedestrians.

Undeterred, I continued the chase. A minor snarl up at the Place de Maréchal Juin allowed me to catch up enough to see the Citroen turn up Rue de Courcelles. I knew that if I didn't close the gap before they reached the Paris ring road, I risked losing them.

The car beside me was slow to move forward, and gave me the opportunity I needed to swing out into a clearer lane. This was my last chance, for there were only a few hundred yards before the ring road and no way of knowing if they headed north or south - but I caught a glimpse, and saw them carry straight on over the dual carriageway, towards the Seine.

At this point Rue de Courcelles becomes Rue du President Wilson where, in the nick of time, the US cavalry came to my rescue. Not actually the cavalry, but a portly gendarme, who decided to exercise his authority by blowing his whistle and raising a hand to stop the traffic. A dejected carthorse pulling a load of bric-a-brac ambled out from the side street. It was coaxed forward by a bewhiskered old gentleman sitting comfortably among cushions on a bench seat. When he reached the middle of the road, he pulled on the reins, and the carthorse came to a leisurely halt in front of the gendarme, who was evidently a friend.

One of Helen's captors leant out of the window and shouted what sounded very much like an obscenity. The old man affected to take no notice. In due course, he waved the gendarme farewell and turned to face the Citroen, touching his forelock in a most subservient fashion, then raised the middle finger of his left hand in an internationally recognised salute, before teasing his horse forward down the side street.

Shortly afterwards, they turned left down Rue Paul Vaillant-Courturier, a street named in honour of one of the founders of the French Communist Party. If his spirit still lingered, it would have approved of the old carter exercising the rights of the common man - possibly almost as much as I had done.

A few moments later, Helen's abductors pulled up opposite a small urban park. As I drove past, I saw 'Jeanne Durand et Cie, Literary Agents' painted in bold white lettering on the fascia panel above the door. My suspicions were confirmed. JD clearly stood for Madame Jeanne Durand.

Stopping a little further up the street, I watched in the rear-view mirror as Helen was hustled into the building. What now? I thought.

Author Notes Cast of Main Characters

Charles Brandon: The narrator, a well-known travel writer
Helen Culverson: A woman of mystery, also purporting to be a travel writer
Kayla Culverson: Her older sister.
Madame Jeanne Durand: A French magazine editor, who was involved in a serious accident
Dr. Laurent: A veterinary surgeon in Versailles
Father Pierre Lacroix, vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church
Madame Lefauvre: An old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip
Francoise Gaudin: An intellectually disabled woman living in Versailles
Alain Gaudin: brother of Francoise
Estelle Gaudin [deceased]: mother of Francoise and Alain
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased]: Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.

Image source: Citroen, Lane Motor Museum, Citroenet.org


Chapter 20
Rag-and-Bone Man

By tfawcus

From Chapter 19

Shortly afterwards, the Citroen turned left down Rue Paul Vaillant-Courturier, a street named in honour of one of the founders of the French Communist Party. I imagined that, if his spirit still lingered, it would have approved of the old carter exercising the rights of the common man – possibly almost as much as I had done.
 
A few moments later, Helen’s abductors pulled up opposite a small urban park. As I drove past, I saw ‘Jeanne Durand et Cie, Literary Agents’ painted in bold white lettering on the fascia panel above the door. My suspicions were confirmed. JD clearly stood for Madame Jeanne Durand.
 
I stopped a little further up the street, and watched in the rear-view mirror as Helen was hustled into the building. What now? I thought.

Chapter 20

When I set out, my original idea had been to contact Madame Durand, on the pretext of having a travel article for her consideration. I thought that, with a face-to-face meeting, I might find out what was going on. If Helen was there at the same time, so much the better. I could confront the two of them together.

Now the situation had changed. The two strong-arm men knew me by sight. They'd been tailing us for days. Helen was obviously not conspiring against me with this Durand woman after all. On the contrary, she had been dragged here against her will, and was clearly in trouble. So what could her knight in shining armour do about it?

Frankly, I had not got a clue. I sat there with futile schemes spinning in my head. However, something had to be done. The Citroen was parked in the shade of some trees on the other side of the street. It occurred to me that letting down its tyres might be a good start ... and reasonably safe. Skirting furtively from tree to tree, and using the car to shield me from the Durand office window, I depressed the valve of one of the front tyres with a ballpoint pen, and was rewarded with a gentle hissing sound.

In the middle of doing the same to the rear tyre, I heard the rag-and-bone man clattering down the street. His old carthorse clip-clopped at a leisurely pace, and the old man was whistling. He drew up alongside me and beamed with delight.

"Bravo, mon ami! 
That will teach those pigs not to swear at Henri Caron." He leant down and patted the bull mastiff laying at his feet. "Eh, Bonaparte?" Bonaparte gave a low growl of assent.

This touching scene between man and dog was rudely interrupted by a commotion on the other side of the street. The door of Madame Durand's office burst open, and Helen came stumbling out. Dishevelled, and staring wildly behind her, she started to run down the street. I tore back to the hire car. As I turned the ignition on, one of the men appeared, bent almost double and clutching his private parts. His partner, just two steps behind, pushed him to one side and took off after Helen.

He would have caught her easily if it had not been for Monsieur Caron, who slipped Bonaparte off the leash, gave him a friendly clip on the backside and, with a quiet command, sent him flying. Bonaparte shot away like a greyhound out of the traps. A few seconds later, there was a whirlwind of mobster and mongrel, followed by a sharp and agonised cry.

As I passed Henri's cart, he rose to his feet and levelled a shotgun at the second hoodlum. "Arrête - ou je te tire!" The man stopped in his tracks, and raised his hands in surrender.

I accelerated down the street and, drawing abreast of Helen, shouted, "Quick! Get in!"

She scarcely had time to close the door before I wrenched the steering wheel around, fish-tailing the car with a screech of tortured rubber, and came to an abrupt halt twenty yards in front of Henri's carthorse. To his credit, the old nag scarcely turned a hair.

Leaping out of the car, I raced back towards Henri. "Here! Take this," he said, tossing the shotgun down to me as he fumbled in his jacket pocket. He drew out a mobile phone.

"Allô! Alphonse? I need your help, my friend. We have two scoundrels under citizen's arrest here, in Rue Paul Vaillant-Courturier, opposite the park."

As soon as he had made his call, Henri leant forward and tapped me on the shoulder. "I'd better have that back, monsieur."

I handed him the shotgun. Strangely enough, it was nowhere to be seen when the sleek blue and white police car appeared at the end of the street, lights flashing and siren wailing.

Ten minutes later, it was all over. Helen's abductors had been handcuffed and bundled into the back seat. Alphonse leant in through the side window and spoke to the driver. "I will stay here and take statements from the witnesses," he said self-importantly.

As soon as the car had driven off, he removed the kepi from his head, brushed the sweat from his brow with his sleeve, and strolled across towards Henri with a broad grin on his face.

Bonaparte nudged the gendarme just behind the knee, and wagged his tail expectantly. Alphonse responded by fumbling about in his pocket and withdrew half a sandwich, the remains of his lunch. "Bon chien!" he said, patting the dog as he wolfed it down.

My eyes were moist with gratitude as I thanked Henri. I pulled out my wallet and peeled off several notes. "Here, my friend - please accept this small recompense for your trouble."

He waved the money aside. "No need for that, monsieur." Thinking perhaps I had offended him, I started to put the notes back. The look of dismay on his face made it clear that he was  wrestling with his better nature, and losing. I hesitated for a moment, giving him an opportunity to revise his answer. This time, with evident relief, he said, "Well, if you insist."

I then turned to Alphonse and gave him a brief, and judiciously edited, account of what had happened. He listened patiently, but I had the distinct impression that he had not understood a word. Finally, he took out a small notebook, and asked me to write my name and contact information in it. 

"I will get all the details from Henri," he said. "We will need written statements from you and the young lady, but for that you must come down to the station. Perhaps in a little while, after mademoiselle has recovered from the shock of this terrible ordeal."

I thanked him and walked back to the car. There appeared to be no sign of Helen. For a brief moment I panicked, but then I saw her, curled up in a foetal position on the back seat.

"Are you all right, darling?"

"What do you think, you chump? Do I look all right?"

I took her hand and helped her climb unsteadily from the car, whereupon she threw her arms around me, and burst into a flood of tears.

 

Author Notes Glossary:

kepi - a French policeman's hat

Cast of Main Characters

Charles Brandon: The narrator, a well-known travel writer
Helen Culverson: A woman of mystery, also purporting to be a travel writer
Kayla Culverson: Her older sister.
Madame Jeanne Durand: A French magazine editor, who was involved in a serious accident
Dr. Laurent: A veterinary surgeon in Versailles
Father Pierre Lacroix, vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church
Madame Lefauvre: An old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip
Francoise Gaudin: An intellectually disabled woman living in Versailles
Alain Gaudin: brother of Francoise
Estelle Gaudin [deceased]: mother of Francoise and Alain
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased]: Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.


Chapter 21
The French Mob

By tfawcus

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of violence.

Continued from Chapter 20

There appeared to be no sign of Helen. For a brief moment I panicked, but then I saw her, curled up in a foetal position on the back seat.

"Are you all right, darling?"

"What do you think, you chump? Do I look all right?"

I took her hand and helped her climb unsteadily from the car, whereupon she threw her arms around me, and burst into a flood of tears.

Chapter 21

It took several moments for Helen to compose herself, moments that we shared silently in a mutual embrace. As I felt her heartbeat return to normal, I said, "Surely my driving wasn't that scary, was it?"

"I don't think you realise how serious the situation is, Charles. Those men belong to the French Mob. They will stop at nothing."

"The French Mob? What on earth is that? It sounds like a leftover from the French Revolution. You're not suggesting that we're in danger of being thrown into a tumbrel and carted off to the guillotine, are you?"

Helen smiled, despite herself. "No, my darling, I'm not suggesting that. Nonetheless, heads may roll. Our friends in black belong to the Corsican mafia. They are criminals of the worst sort. They operate in what is called Le Milieu, the French underworld, and it will take them no time at all to bribe their way out of police custody."

"You can't be serious. How on earth have you got mixed up with the mafia?"

"It's a long story."

"I thought it might be. So where does it begin?"

"Across the street. Now that your tinker and his policeman friend have moved on, I think it is safe for us to go and rescue Jeanne."

"Not actually a tinker, a rag-and-bone man - a collector of people's unwanted bric-a-brac. There are only a few of them still in business these days, but they were around long before 'recycling' became the buzzword of modern times."

"I thought he looked a bit like a relic from the last century."

"You may jest, but without the help of Henri and his redoubtable mutt, Bonaparte, we'd have been in dire trouble. Anyway, who's Jeanne?"

"Jeanne is Madame Durand. Last time you saw her, she was spread across the pavement with blood oozing from her head, and she was doing a pretty good imitation of a dead fish. Now do you understand how dangerous these men can be?"

"You're saying that they were responsible for that? No wonder you wanted to get away." I looked at her accusingly. "You were just using me as cover."

"I'm afraid so. But since then you've become my very favourite umbrella. Come on - follow me."

We entered the dingy front office and made our way past an unmanned reception desk to the back part of the house. I wasn't sure what I expected to find there, but I hadn't imagined a terrified, middle-aged woman, gagged and bound firmly to a wooden chair.

"My God, Helen! Why didn't you tell the police?"

"I don't think that Jeanne would have appreciated a visit from the police. She is much more heavily involved in all this than I am. But I think it's up to her to tell you - not me."

Jeanne was by now making noises that suggested she would rather like to be released. I could see that the ropes were tight and the knots secure, so I went through to the kitchen while Helen was undoing the gag. I found what I was searching for in a drawer next to the sink ...a mean-looking carving knife.

When Madame Durand saw me approaching, knife in hand, she passed out.

I cut through her bonds as quickly as I could, while Helen pushed her head down between her knees to help her recover from the faint.

"Wow! That was quite some reaction," I said. "I didn't mean to frighten you. Do you have a thing about knives?"

Madame Durand said nothing. She merely undid her blouse to expose the lacerations on her breasts and the bloodstains on her brassiere.

"Excuse me a moment. I must go to the bathroom. I have a First Aid kit in there, and must attend to these cuts."

Helen offered to help, but was waved away dismissively, so she turned to me and said, "As I told you, these people will stop at nothing. They think that Jeanne double-crossed them. They think that I was part of the double-cross. I can't say how much she will tell you - how much she will trust you - but she owes me an explanation. She owes it to me to say how far I have been drawn into this, and how deeply."

"You are right, my dear." Madame Durand's voice came through the open bathroom door. "There are things that you need to know and actions that you need to take. If you trust your Mister Brandon to help you, then I will tell him, too. Think carefully though - for, if I tell him, he will have great power over you. Great power over both of us. Do you know him well enough to take that risk?"

Helen took my hands in hers and she looked deep into my eyes. "I trust Charles implicitly. I would trust him with my life."

After a few moments, Madame Durand re-joined us. "It may come to that. And you, Monsieur Brandon? Do you want to take on the burden of this knowledge?"

"I think that I'm now implicated to such an extent that I have no alternative. I also need to know what is happening and why. I need to know what the dangers are. You should understand, too, that I have fallen in love with Helen and in the name of that love, I will do anything I can to protect her."

"Charles, you are an ass. You might have told me! A woman likes to know these things."

Madame Durand stepped in to save me from my discomfort. "You're a lucky man, Monsieur. Helen is a wonderful woman. Resourceful, intelligent and strong. We have seen ample evidence of that today."

"Yes. There wouldn't be many women who could escape from the Corsican mafia in such a convincing manner. Where did you learn such skills? You were amazing."

"In Bangkok. Kayla insisted on it. She said that in our line of business, we had to be able to defend ourselves. We used to go to Muay Thai classes every week - 'the art of the eight limbs'."

"Learning how to be an octopus?"

"No. Learning how to be a lethal weapon. The hands become daggers and swords; the elbows strike like a hammer or mace; the knees cut like an axe, the legs bash like a staff and the shins and forearms protect the body like a suit of armour."

"And I'm talking about protecting you? All I can say is that I'm glad that I'm on your side!"

"You'd better believe it."

Both Helen and I turned to Madame Durand. She winced as she re-adjusted the set of her blouse and began to speak. "Yes, Bangkok," she mused. "That is where it started..."

Author Notes List of major characters:

Charles Brandon: The narrator, a well-known travel writer
Helen Culverson: A woman of mystery, also purporting to be a travel writer
Kayla Culverson: Her older sister.
Madame Jeanne Durand: A French magazine editor, who was involved in a serious accident
Dr. Laurent: A veterinary surgeon in Versailles
Father Pierre Lacroix, vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church
Madame Lefauvre: An old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip
Francoise Gaudin: An intellectually disabled woman living in Versailles
Alain Gaudin: brother of Francoise
Estelle Gaudin [deceased]: mother of Francoise and Alain
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased]: Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.

Image: The Corsican Flag


Chapter 22
The Bangkok Connection

By tfawcus

Continued from Chapter 21

We used to go to Muay Thai classes every week - 'the art of the eight limbs'."

"Learning how to be an octopus?"

"No. Learning how to be a lethal weapon. The hands become daggers and swords; the elbows strike like a hammer or mace; the knees cut like an axe, the legs bash like a staff and the shins and forearms protect the body like a suit of armour."

"And I'm talking about protecting you? All I can say is that I'm glad that I'm on your side!"

"You'd better believe it."

Both Helen and I turned to Madame Durand. She winced as she re-adjusted the set of her blouse and began to speak. "Yes, Bangkok," she mused. "That is where it started..."

Chapter 22

"Bangkok is where it started for me, too, if - by 'it' - you mean the spiral into the cesspit of life where you found me."

Helen saw the look on my face, and explained. "Jeanne came to me with an offer to publish a story based on our experiences in Thailand, and offered me a trip to Paris to meet with her associates. My situation was pretty desperate, and I couldn't believe my luck. She was like a fairy godmother to me - or so it seemed at the time."

"Nothing in this life is free, my dear. Your rescue came at a price. Perhaps a higher price than either of us realised."

"What on earth are you two talking about?"

"She didn't know it then, but I'm afraid that I used Helen. She was desperate to get away and I offered her the opportunity. An airline ticket to France, a suitcase full of new clothes and a promise to edit her journal, with a view to publishing parts of it in one of my magazines. I even gave her a substantial advance. The journal was dynamite."

I was watching Mme Durand as she spoke. There might have been something of a fairy godmother about her - a benign face, and neatly set grey hair, with a suspicion of blue rinsed through it - but there was also a hardness in her slate-grey eyes that belied the character. I don't know. Perhaps my head was filled with a foolish ideal. Fairy godmothers need to be ruthless to achieve their aims, not to mention devious. After all, they have to deal with wicked witches, jealous stepmothers, evil queens and - in this case - the spreading tentacles of the Mafia.

By contrast, Helen fitted the Cinderella mould rather well, at least in the sense of being downtrodden by fate, and in need of a helping hand at that particular time. It seems that Mme Durand appeared at an opportune moment, perhaps not in a shower of fairy dust, but with more reliable transport than a pumpkin, and a more useful proposition than a handsome prince.

Helen picked up the tale. "When I arrived in Paris, Jeanne set me up in an apartment and commissioned me to write travel articles. They often involved travelling overseas - usually to the Far East. She encouraged me to think I was able to capture something of the exotic flavour of the Orient in my writing, after having lived there for more than a year."

"It sounds as though she set you up rather well. Perhaps in more ways than one."

"She did, but I didn't find that out until later, and by that time the situation had changed."

"And what about your sister?"

"She had disappeared weeks before - and I haven't heard from her since. I have no idea where she is, or what has happened to her. She may have been murdered, for all I know."

Jeanne raised her arm to put it around Helen's shoulder, and I noticed another fleeting grimace cross her face, from the pain of stretching. "Come now, my dear. You are making wild assumptions. I am sure we will find her, and that she will be perfectly safe. By all accounts, she is more resourceful than the three of us put together."

Helen forced a smile, and said, "I hope you're right."

Determined to find out more, I steered the subject back again. "When you said that you had used Helen, and that nothing in this world comes for free, what exactly did you mean, Madame ...or may I perhaps take the liberty of calling you Jeanne?"

"I am Jeanne to my friends, monsieur. I will leave it up to you to decide if that is an apt description of our relationship. As you will no doubt discover, I am no saint, and I am afraid that now is not the right time to answer your questions."

A gruesome reminder of the fact was the ooze of blood seeping onto her blouse. Conscious of my gaze, she covered the offending spot with the flat of her hand.

"Perhaps you should let Helen help you attend to that. At the very least, she should take a look. It looks as though it needs medical attention."

"Medical attention? I don't think so. I have no love of hospitals, nor of the medical profession.

"If the idiots at the American Hospital had done their job properly, I would never have been abducted by those two men, and taken away in their so-called Private Ambulance. It is because of their sloppy practices that I've been held prisoner for days in appalling conditions, while the Mafia bosses have been planning how to use me to ensnare you two.

"Now this! Brought here. Intimidated. Mutilated. And for what? Come, Helen. I shall need to fix a more secure dressing. There is very little time before we must make our escape. They will soon be back."

"But surely," I said, "if we go down to the gendarmerie and make a full statement, they will be bound over for trial, found guilty, and then imprisoned."

Madame Durand laughed bitterly. "You don't know these people. They will be back within a few hours - probably sooner. Our only hope is to vanish. We must find a place where they would not even think of looking. Even if those two are detained for a while, there will be others."

I could see the sense in what she said. "It sounds as though that journal of yours could be an important document, Helen. Where is it now?"

"I have it hidden in the apartment, Charles. It's quite safe."

Although they had now both moved to the next room, I could hear Jeanne saying, "I hope so - because it contains material that the Mafia would go to any lengths to suppress. If it ever fell into their hands..."

"It won't. You can be certain of that."

"I hope you're right, but to be sure, we should go by way of your apartment and pick it up."

Author Notes List of major characters:

Charles Brandon: The narrator, a well-known travel writer
Helen Culverson: A woman of mystery, also purporting to be a travel writer
Kayla Culverson: Her older sister.
Madame Jeanne Durand: A French magazine editor, who was involved in a serious accident
Dr. Laurent: A veterinary surgeon in Versailles
Father Pierre Lacroix, vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church
Madame Lefauvre: An old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip
Francoise Gaudin: An intellectually disabled woman living in Versailles
Alain Gaudin: brother of Francoise
Estelle Gaudin [deceased]: mother of Francoise and Alain
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased]: Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.


Chapter 23
A Lightbulb Moment

By tfawcus

Continued from Chapter 22

"It sounds as though that journal of yours could be an important document, Helen. Where is it now?"

"I have it hidden in the apartment, Charles. It's quite safe."

Although they had now both moved to the next room, I could hear Jeanne saying, "I hope so - because it contains material that the Mafia would go to any lengths to suppress. If it ever fell into their hands..."

"It won't. You can be certain of that."

"I hope you're right, but to be sure, we should go by way of your apartment and pick it up."


Chapter 23

Jeanne didn't take long to pack a few things. However, I saw that she walked with a slight limp, and noticed her wince with pain as she bent to open a drawer.

Helen sprang to her feet. "Here, let me help you with that."

It occurred to me that it was less than a week since she had been knocked down leaving the café. The squeal of brakes and the dull thud flashed through my mind, as did her apparent lifelessness, and the awkward angle of her limbs as she lay on the pavement. She might easily still be suffering the after-effects of concussion, and I wondered how much of a liability she would be if we needed to move quickly.

Glancing at the wall clock, I realised we had already wasted too much time. "I'll go out ahead of you, and get the car."

The first thing I set eyes on as I left the building was the Mafiosi's old Citroen, still parked opposite. I was wishing I had time to let down its other two tyres when I spotted an apple lying in the gutter. A single small bite on one side suggested that some ragamuffin had surreptitiously discarded it when his mother wasn't looking. Not all children share their parents' enthusiasm for healthy eating.

I picked it up and rammed as much of it as I could into the Citroen's exhaust pipe. That may buy us a little extra time, I thought. Smiling to myself, I imagined how thrilled the lad would be, if he knew how he'd helped to foil the bad guys. His mother, perhaps, less so.

My two passengers were already out on the pavement when I drew up at the entrance. Helen yanked the door open. "What kept you, Batman?"

"Robin and I have been busy foiling the opposition."

"He has these delusions, Jeanne. Seems to think he's some kind of superhero. You'll get used to it."

She took Jeanne's small case, and leaned over to put it on the back seat, then squeezed in after it, giving a good impression of the last sardine being squashed into a can. "Weren't there any cars with four doors in Gotham City this morning, for my beloved Caped Crusader?"

I felt it was time I scored a point in this one-sided game. "Sorry, Catwoman. You, of all people, should know Batmobiles only have two."

As soon as Jeanne was aboard, I gunned the engine and surged away down the street with a squeal of tortured rubber. "Let's go, team. The Joker is after us!"

Jeanne maintained a look of sangfroid throughout this inane exchange, and gave what can only be described as a Gallic shrug. "I do not understand your English humour. Perhaps you underestimate the danger we're in."

I changed gear, slowing down for the intersection. "Helen isn't actually English, but never mind."

"In point of fact, I am half-English, Charles. My father was English."

Jeanne glanced at Helen in the rear-view mirror. "That is not the half of your parentage that interests Monsieur Bellini and his apes, my dear."

"I do wish you'd stop calling Helen 'my dear' - it sounds so patronising."

Jeanne stiffened slightly. "I thought you would have had more manners, Monsieur Brandon, than to insult me with a remark like that."

"Je m'excuse, Madame Durand. Je m'excuse." My heavy-handed repetition was not lost on her.

The rest of the journey took place in frosty silence. I spent the time continuing to wonder why Mme Durand had paid Helen's airfare to Paris, and then put her up indefinitely in a rent-free apartment. My experience of the publishing industry suggested that magazine publishers were not that generous - especially with unknown writers, no matter how good they might be. Jeanne Durand did not strike me as an exception to the general rule.

I parked, as I had done before, in the side street next to Café Gabrielle.

"You stay here and keep a lookout, Monsieur, while I go up to the apartment with Helen."

"Au contraire, Madame. You stay here, while I go with Helen."

"I think Charles is right, Jeanne. We'll be quicker. There are two flights of stairs to be negotiated, and your leg is not yet healed."

I have often heard the expression, 'she looked daggers'. However, this was the first time I'd experienced it so sharply, face-to-face. 'If looks could kill' was another cliché that sprang to my mind. Before she could say anything more, I took Helen's hand and dragged her across the road, dodging through the traffic as best we could.

Glancing back as we reached the door of her apartment, I saw Mme Durand at one of the outside tables. She was placing her order with the same young waiter who had served me. Somehow, I doubted she'd be tipping him as generously as I had done.

When we reached the apartment, I put my ear to the door. Rather pointless really. I have no idea what I expected to hear. Helen pushed me to one side, slipped her key into the lock, and walked in.

I followed her, and saw a maelstrom of papers and clothes on the floor. "Oh, Jesus! It looks as though a tornado's been through."

"How rude, Charles. I know I can be a bit untidy at times, but I don't usually leave the place like this - except on the odd occasions when I'm being abducted."

I scratched my ear thoughtfully, ignoring her retort. "Now that is strange. Why didn't I think of it before?"

"Think of what, Sherlock? Please let me in on your lightbulb moment, so I can record it for posterity."

"Well, if Monsieur Bellini and his mobsters really wanted your journal, wouldn't this morning have been the ideal time for them to get hold of it? I mean to say, they had you here at their mercy, and could have forced you to reveal its whereabouts before carting you off to the Durand place on Rue Paul whatever-his-name-was."

I thought Helen looked impressed, but wasn't sure. 

"Did it ever occur to you that it might be your friend, Jeanne, who is eager to get her hands on it again? Perhaps, when you showed it to her, she saw something that she didn't want made public. Something that might incriminate her. After all, what could a diary of yours possibly contain that would be of interest to the Mafia?"

"I think you may be right, Charles. Perhaps it would be best if you took charge of the journal for the time being."

I nodded thoughtfully, strolled across to the window, and looked out. There was no longer any sign of Madame Durand across the street.

I beckoned to Helen. "Come over here. It looks as though Poison Ivy has done a bunk."

Author Notes For those of you who weren't brought up on DC Comics, Batman (alias The Caped Crusader) is the archetypal superhero, who kept crime off the streets of Gotham City. Robin was his sidekick. Catwoman was introduced in later episodes as his girlfriend (possibly to scotch the growing rumour that Batman and Robin were in a homosexual relationship). The Joker was his nemesis, and Poison Ivy was also a force that he had to reckon with.

Perhaps Helen should have refrained from mixing her metaphors by adding the reference to Sherlock Holmes, who was a hero of a different ilk. Possibly, having been brought up in the Hindu Kush, she knew no better. Sad, really.

List of characters:

Charles Brandon: The narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Helen Culverson: A woman of some mystery, also a travel writer, who seems to be becoming Charles's girlfriend.
Kayla Culverson: Her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok.
Madame Jeanne Durand: A French magazine editor, who was involved in a serious accident, and seems also to be involved with the Mafia in some way.
Monsieur Bellini - a Mafia boss.
Dr. Laurent: A veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix, vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre: An old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Francoise Gaudin: An intellectually disabled woman living in Versailles.
Alain Gaudin: brother of Francoise.
Estelle Gaudin [deceased]: mother of Francoise and Alain
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased]: Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.


Chapter 24
Safe Haven

By tfawcus


From Chapter 23:

"Did it ever occur to you that it might be your friend, Jeanne, who is eager to get her hands on the journal again? Perhaps, when you showed it to her, she saw something that she didn't want made public. Something that might incriminate her. After all, what could a diary of yours possibly contain that would be of interest to the Mafia?"

"I think you may be right, Charles. Perhaps it would be best if you looked after it for the time being."

I nodded thoughtfully, strolled across to the window, and looked out. There was no longer any sign of Madame Durand across the street.

I beckoned to Helen. "Come over here. It looks as though Poison Ivy has done a bunk."

Chapter 24

Helen shook her head. "I very much doubt it. She's not particularly mobile at present and, besides, we've got her case in the back of the car."

"Well, she's not there. Come and see for yourself."

"She's probably just gone to powder her nose - that nose that you did your very best to put out of joint during the journey across here. Why do you have to go out of your way to antagonise people like that?"

"I only do it to people I don't like. Sometimes I have a sixth sense."

"Sometimes I think you have no sense. It was the first time you'd met Jeanne. What makes you so suspicious? You were just the same with me, when we first met. Always suspecting the worst. Honestly, it's not a very attractive side of your personality."

"O.K. Let's not argue about it now - but I wasn't wrong about those two men who collided with us in the boat, was I?"

"No - but what about Father Pierre? You didn't exactly endear yourself to him, did you? And Alain?"

"Alain! That grumpy old bastard! The one who stole my envelope? You must be joking."

"All right. No need to blow a gasket. I know he didn't seem very friendly, but I got much further with him by being nice, didn't I?"

"By flirting, you mean?"

"I'll try to ignore that, Charles, but I may not forget that you said it."

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean it like that. Anyway, changing the subject - where's your journal?"

"Next door. I left it with a neighbour."

"Was that wise? If the contents are as explosive as they are made out to be, how can you trust her? I'm assuming she's a woman, and that you haven't got an on-site boyfriend."

Helen flexed all of her eight limbs and took up an aggressive stance. "Careful, Charles. You're treading on very thin ice today."

I cowered in mock submission and opened the door, bowing with exaggerated deference and waving her through. "Well, we'd better get a skate on, then - hadn't we? Lighten up, darling. I was only joking."

Helen made a feint at me as she went past. "Come on. I'll introduce you to Madame Bisset - my landlady."

She rapped firmly on the door of the adjacent apartment, at the same time calling out, "Hello? Madeleine? Are you home?"

There was no response, so Helen banged a little harder. "I'm afraid she's a bit deaf."

After a few moments, I heard a scuffling from the other side. The door opened a crack, still on its safety chain, and an old lady peered through.

"Qui c'est?"

"It's only me, Madeleine. I've come to pick up the things I left in your safe." Mme Bisset did not respond immediately, so she continued, "You know - my passport and papers."

"Oh, it's you, Helen! Why didn't you say so? Yes, I remember. Just a minute." She fumbled around with the safety chain and opened the door. "Come on in."

An overpowering odour of cats greeted us. I plunged my hand deep into my pocket to find a handkerchief to forestall an inevitable, allergic sneeze. Madeleine looked me up and down with suspicion, her eyes coming to rest on the outline of my buried fist. "Who is that man with you? Is that a gun in his pocket?"

"No, Madeleine. He's just pleased to see you." I drew out my handkerchief, and covered my nose with it to suppress both my laughter and my sneeze.

Madeleine let out a squawk. "Oh, she's a tease, that one! Pleased to see me! I doubt it."  She winked at me with an undeniably naughty look, "Mind you, there used to be a time when I had tits like Mae West - but they've slipped a little now." She cupped her hands under her bra and hoisted her ample bosom. "See?"

Shuffling between us in her down-at-heel slippers, she pushed the door shut. "What a cheeky thing you are, Helen. I don't know why I put up with it." Then, with a twinkle in her eye, she added, "And who were those men you were with this morning? I hope you're not running a maison close in my house, young lady."

"Oh, them? Just a couple of hoods who were abducting me."

Madeleine cackled with laughter. "Dear me! You are a one! Abducting you! What will you think of next? I saw them, escorting you into that smart car of theirs. All three of you, arm-in-arm. A right mênage à  trois!"

"And what might you have been doing, may I ask? Being your usual busybody self, I suppose?"

"What a thing to say to your landlady! Really! I should give you notice. Snooping? I should say not! There was such a kerfuffle coming through the wall that I thought you must be having a wild party and breaking all the furniture. I was just about to come round and see what was going on, when the door slammed. Next thing I saw, looking out of the window, was you going off with those two handsome friends of yours."

"Not really friends, Madeleine. Quite the opposite, in fact."

"I see! You want this gentleman to think he's the only one in the running, do you? Well, he's got enough sense to know that a pretty young lady like you must have lots of beaux swarming around her, like bears round a honeypot."

Helen looked mildly embarrassed, an expression I'd not seen on her face before. "Could I just pick my things up? We're in a bit of a hurry."

"You young people are always in a bit of a hurry. Rushing around here and there as if there's no tomorrow. I don't know! I suppose the next thing you'll be telling me is that you don't have time to stop for a cup of tea and a chat."

"Well, actually..."

"I know. I'm only teasing. Let's go and get your things. Passport, eh? It sounds as though you two are skipping the country. I'd better check, and make sure that you're up to date with the rent."

"We'll only be gone a couple of weeks," I said. "We're off to Bermuda for a holiday. A sort of trial honeymoon, if you know what I mean."

Madeleine chortled as she handed Helen the passport, the journal and a few other papers.

"You can keep those," Helen said, handing back the papers and a sealed envelope. "They'll be a surety against my return. Now, don't you go leasing my apartment while I'm away."

"I wouldn't dream of it, my dear. You're the loveliest tenant I've ever had."

Helen bent down and gave her a kiss. "I'll be back soon, and we'll be able to watch old-time movies together again, over a nice cup of tea."

"Never mind the movies! I'll be wanting to hear all about this trial honeymoon of yours. It sounds much more interesting."

As we went down the stairs, Helen turned to me and said, "What on earth did you say that for?"

"We can't be too careful. Those hoods, as you call them, are sure to be back, and they're bound to ask where we've gone."

"Good thinking, Batman."

You'd better believe it, I thought, as I secreted Helen's journal in my jacket pocket.

We came out into the sunshine to find Madame Durand sitting at her table, just as she had been when we left her.

"See? What did I tell you?"

As we approached the café, my favourite waiter came rushing out onto the footpath, intent on ushering us to one of his tables, no doubt with euros spinning around in his eyes. I brushed him aside, shaking my head.

Madame Durand half rose from her seat. "What kept you so long? I was worried that you had run into trouble up there. Did you get the journal, Helen? Was it still where you'd hidden it?"

"No, Madame," I said, before Helen had time to answer. "I'm afraid we were too late. Helen's apartment has been ransacked. The journal is gone. We had to spend quite some time calming down her landlady. She was distraught. The police have been called, of course, and should be here any moment. We should leave now. We don't want to get caught up in the enquiry."

Madame Durand looked at me in utter disbelief. I could almost hear the cogs whirring. "They couldn't have got here that quickly," she said. "It's impossible."

"Then it must have been some of their associates, Madame. In any case, whoever it was, we must leave. Helen, take her to the car, while I settle the bill." I raised my arm to summon the waiter. "L'addition, s'il vous plait."

He soon returned with an expectant look on his face. I studied the bill and left the exact amount on the plate. "Here, this is for you," I said, handing him a one-euro coin.

By the time I got back to the car, Helen and Jeanne were seated and waiting for me. I spent a moment opening up Google Maps. "It's getting close to the rush hour, and the lady in the box will know the quickest way through the traffic."

"The lady in the box?"

"Yes, you know... 'In three hundred metres turn left onto Boulevard de Clichy. Turn now. I said left, you idiot...'"

"Oh, that lady! The program would be much more fun if she actually did say things like that." Helen laughed. Madame Durand remained tight-lipped.

"We probably won't need her, but I have to get the car back to the Gare du Nord today. I suggest our next move should be to catch the Eurostar to London. Trains are frequent - so we shouldn't have any trouble getting tickets."

"Why England?" Helen looked puzzled, but, unless I was imagining it, also quite impressed.

"Because that's where trains from the Gare du Nord go. Besides, I know of a place down in the West Country that should be safe enough for a while."

"It seems you have everything worked out, Monsieur Brandon - but you are forgetting one thing. We still don't have the journal." Madame Durand looked much less impressed.

"Damn the journal. I'm more interested in making sure that we still have our lives. Of course, you don't have to come, if you don't want to."

Helen slid her arm around the side of the seat and surreptitiously pinched me on the thigh, rather more painfully than was strictly necessary. "Of course, you will be most welcome to accompany us, Jeanne. We can look after you there, at least until your injuries have healed. You'll be quite safe with us."

Yes, I thought, but will we be quite safe with her? My sixth sense was running overtime. However, what chance has a mere male got against two determined women?

Author Notes A bit longer than previous chapters. Sorry - I got carried away!

Glossary:
to powder her nose: a euphemism for visiting the restroom
to put her nose out of joint: to offend or upset her
maison close: a bordello or brothel
menage a trois: three people live together, especially when one of them is having a sexual relationship with both of the others

List of characters:

Charles Brandon: The narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Helen Culverson: A woman of some mystery, also a travel writer, who seems to have become Charles's girlfriend.
Kayla Culverson: Her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok.
Madame Jeanne Durand: A French magazine editor, who was involved in a serious accident, and seems also to be involved with the Mafia in some way.
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Monsieur Bellini - a Mafia boss.
Dr. Laurent: A veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix, vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre: An old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Francoise Gaudin: An intellectually disabled woman living in Versailles.
Alain Gaudin: brother of Francoise.
Estelle Gaudin [deceased]: mother of Francoise and Alain
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased]: Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.


Chapter 25
The Seizure

By tfawcus

From Chapter 24:
But Helen slid her arm around the side of the seat and surreptitiously pinched me on the thigh, rather more painfully than was strictly necessary. "Of course, you will be most welcome to accompany us, Jeanne. We can look after you, at least until your injuries have healed. You'll be quite safe with us."

Yes, I thought, but will we be quite safe with her? My sixth sense was running overtime. However, what chance has a mere male got against two determined women?

Chapter 25

We arrived at the Gare du Nord without incident, and while I returned the hire car, Helen and Jeanne went to book tickets for the next available train to London. We arranged to meet on the second level, at a café close to the international departure platforms.

Our timing couldn't have been worse. It took longer to return the car than anticipated, and when I finally emerged, the main concourse was thronging with people returning home after their day's work. My temper was frayed by the time I had struggled through the crowds, and when I reached our meeting point, I was annoyed to find neither Helen nor Jeanne were anywhere to be seen.

I cursed silently as I joined a queue to order coffee. Why do these arrangements always have to go wrong? I pulled out my mobile phone to text Helen, "Where the hell are you?" There was no reply. I abandoned the queue and started to search in nearby shops and cafés. My irritation changed to concern. Damn, we should never have separated. What a fool I am.

I had almost given up finding them when I saw Helen frantically weaving through the crowds in the main concourse below. She was alone, and it was clear from the way she was pushing people aside that she was distressed. Something was seriously wrong. I raced down to meet her.

It took her a moment or two to catch her breath. "Oh, Charles," she said. "Jeanne's been taken ill."

"Where is she?" I saw the frantic look in her eye. "Tell me - what's the matter?" I put my arm around her shoulder and guided her to a nearby table. "Calm down and take your time. There's no hurry." Taking her hand in mine, I held it gently. "It looks as though you've had a nasty shock, but everything will be all right now. I promise.”

She pulled away from me abruptly. " Don’t be so bloody patronising. I don’t see how you can promise that." Then, with a deep breath, "Sorry, I’m a bit overwrought at the moment.” She gave a half-smile of apology before continuing, “We were standing in the queue, waiting to buy tickets, when Jeanne suddenly turned white, and began shaking. She seemed to be having a seizure of some sort. It was ghastly. She started to vomit, then her legs gave way and she passed out."

"What an awful thing to be faced with. What did you do?”

“We took her to the hospital.”

“We?”

“Yes, a man helped me.”

“What man?” I was instantly on the alert.

A waiter hovered near the table, waiting to take our order. “How about a hot drink," I said, "while you tell me about it?”

“Yes, that would be good.”

I ordered two large cups of coffee - with cognac - then leaned forward, waiting for her to continue.

"There was a lovely gentleman in the queue just behind us. He knelt down, took Jeanne's pulse and examined her briefly, then turned to me and said, 'Madame needs proper medical assistance. There is a General Hospital just across the road from here, the Lariboisière. They have an emergency department. Please - let me assist you. I happen to work there.' Taking charge of the situation, he helped Jeanne to her feet and said, 'Sit down with her and stay here while I go and find a wheelchair. They will have one at the SNCF information desk.'"

“That sounds almost too good to be true. What a coincidence that a doctor was there, right beside you when you needed him.” I beckoned to the waiter, and took a cup from him to pass across the table to Helen. "Here, have a drink of this. It will do you good."

She smiled gratefully and took a sip, then spluttered, spilling coffee all over the place as she put the cup down. "What on earth's in that?"

"A shot of brandy. I thought it would help calm you."

"You might have told me, you idiot! I nearly choked." She dabbed the table with a paper napkin, and looked down to make sure she hadn't spilt any on her skirt.

"I'm sorry. I thought you heard me give the order. Here, have mine instead. I'll clean up the mess." The waiter noticed my ham-fisted efforts, and was quick to bring a cloth to complete the mopping up properly.

Meanwhile, Helen took a sip from my cup - with rather more success this time. "Mmmm, not bad - when you're expecting it." She gave me a sidelong look. "Anyway, it turned out he was a surgeon in the cancer unit. He returned in no time, and we were able to wheel her across to the hospital, where he arranged priority assistance. It's not what you know on occasions like this - it's who you know."

"Then you suddenly remembered your other travelling companion, and came rushing back here to find me?"

"More or less."

"Why didn't you phone?"

"I did, but you didn't answer."

I fished my phone out of my pocket. Sure enough, there were three missed calls recorded. "Damned phones! No bloody use when you need them."

"Especially when you leave them on 'silent'." She gave me a playful look, an encouraging sign that she was beginning to recover her usual equilibrium.

"Now what?" I left the question hanging in the air.

"We shall have to go back to the hospital, and see how Jeanne is getting on. We can't just leave her stranded there."

"What about the Mafia?" I scanned the crowds, searching for suspicious looking men in dark suits and dark glasses.

"I don't think we need to worry too much about them. If they were hot on our trail, they would have been here already." I was pretty sure that I heard an element of hero-worship in her voice when she continued,  “Maybe that old  Citroen has got the pip."

"As you well might have, with an apple stuffed up your jacksie. There's an old saying, 'A pippin a day keeps the mafia away.'"

"Doctor."

"Maybe, but it didn't keep the doctor away on this occasion. Lucky for you! You'd have been lost without him."

***
I'm not good at sitting around in hospital wards and so, when Helen suggested that she keep the vigil at Jeanne's bedside alone, I didn't protest too strongly. "I know a lovely little restaurant, a couple of hundred yards down Rue St Vincent de Paul. You'll deserve a splendid dinner after your Good Samaritan act. I could meet you there in a couple of hours if you like. It's called L'Ardoise Gourmande and the escargots are to die for. "

"Not literally, I hope. Ugh! Snails! I hope that's not the only thing on the menu." She gave me a lingering kiss, as if to suggest that it might not be.
***
Fifteen minutes later, I was comfortably ensconced at a side table in L'Ardoise Gourmande, enjoying the romantic atmosphere of chandeliers and soft music, white table linen and polished silver, and looking forward to an appetiser of a dozen escargots in garlic butter, washed down with a half bottle of Piper-Heidsieck. A champagne moment, I thought, as I withdrew Helen's journal from the inside pocket of my jacket and contemplated its travel-worn faux-leather cover, a dun-coloured disguise for the secrets within. I placed it in front of me reverently, opened it at the first page, and began to read.

Author Notes Glossary:
SNCF: The 'Societe nationale des chemins de fer francais' is France's national state-owned railway company.

The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that 'getting the pip' means feeling depressed or out of sorts- as you might well be, with an apple stuffed up your exhaust pipe.

List of characters:

Charles Brandon: The narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Helen Culverson: A woman of some mystery, also a travel writer, who seems to have become Charles's girlfriend.
Kayla Culverson: Her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok.
Madame Jeanne Durand: A French magazine editor, who was involved in a serious accident, and seems also to be involved with the Mafia in some way.
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Dr. Laurent: A veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix, vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre: An old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Francoise Gaudin: An intellectually disabled woman living in Versailles.
Alain Gaudin: brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Estelle Gaudin [deceased]: mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased]: Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.


Chapter 26
The Journal

By tfawcus

The first few entries in the journal were about Karachi and, as Helen had already told me what happened there, I skipped over them to the account of their arrival in Thailand:

September 3rd

As we approached Bangkok, the aircraft was tossed around like a boat on a rough sea. Banks of cloud towered above us, grey and bearded giants that batted the plane about like a plaything. We hit an air pocket on final approach that sent my stomach to my mouth, and I reached out in panic, grasping for Kayla's hand. She smiled weakly to reassure me, but it was obvious that she was as scared as I was. Anyway, she tried to put on a brave face, saying, "Trust us to arrive in the middle of the monsoon season, dear sister!"

A few moments later, the plane hit the runway with a sickening thud and a squeal like a stuck pig. A sudden surge of power threw us forward against our seatbelts as the pilot slammed all four engines into reverse. I looked out of the window to see needles of rain splattering on the tarmac. The ghosts of buildings slid past as we gradually slowed to walking pace and turned off the runway to follow the blue taxiway lights. Thank God! We had arrived. Safe, and in one piece.

When Customs and Immigration formalities were complete, we proceeded to the arrivals hall. We were looking around for an information desk, when a man approached us with a welcoming smile. He made a few remarks about the appalling weather before offering us a cut-price taxi fare to the city. Among his torrent of words were, "no need to queue in the rain like everyone else" -- "my friend is just across the road in the carpark" -- "so much quicker and easier".

He introduced himself as Sammy, and asked which hotel we were staying at. We told him we hadn't booked one, and off he went again, ten to the dozen, "not to worry" -- "I know the very place for you" -- "cheap and clean" -- "a nice area" -- "my uncle works there" -- "he'll look after you ladies".

Sammy was so plausible and friendly that we took him at face value and agreed to everything. He was quick to scoop up what little luggage we had, and marched off, flashing gold-filled teeth as he called back over his shoulder, "Follow me!"

How lucky, we thought! Such a nice person! He reminded us of Ibrihim, our taxi driver in Chitral.


I paused in my reading to glance up. The proprietor had arrived with my half bottle of champagne, held deferentially at an angle of forty five degrees so that I could read the label.

"Monsieur has made an excellent choice, if I may say so."

There was a slight hiss as he removed the cork and poured a little of the wine into my flute. I held it to the light, swirled it around, and inhaled, then nodded appreciatively. He filled the glass, leaving the remainder of the bottle in a small bucket of ice, with a white napkin draped elegantly around its neck.

The ceremony complete, he retired, and I was left to reflect upon the utter naivety of Kayla and Helen, two unaccompanied girls travelling overseas for the first time. I took a sip of wine and then read on, curious to see how the scam would play out.

We hurried out of the terminal building after him. The heat and humidity outside were so intense that we were gasping for breath. The rain had stopped, and a fierce tropical sun was now beating down on the pavement, turning it to steam...

I anticipated that, when they reached the car park, Sammy would put out his hand for a tip. Of course, they wouldn't have any bahts, so they would need to give him dollars, probably a ten-spot. At the hotel, the driver would demand three or four times the proper fare, even more taking into account his scandalous exchange rate for their US dollars.

I glanced down the page and confirmed my predictions. The hotel, however, turned out to be central, in one of the better areas of the city, and not too expensive. Doubtless Sammy and his friend were getting a hefty kickback.

I skipped through a few pages filled with Helen's first impressions of the city, and her various excursions to the places tourists tend to visit - the temples, the Royal Palace and a river trip to the famous Floating Market. My eye was caught by a reference to exotic street food and delicacies being sampled from a bug cart.

September 6th

This evening we browsed around street stalls, milling about with a thousand other tourists. Some were eating deep fried insects from a street stall. Kayla and I watched in fascination as the vendor scooped them up into a paper bag like French Fries, and sprayed them with a mist of soy sauce. We decided to risk it, and tried some fried grasshoppers. I shut my eyes as Kayla dropped the first one into my mouth and, after getting over the initial revulsion, I crunched and found it tasted quite good - a high protein snack!


I stopped reading, to reflect on the strange things people eat in foreign countries. Just then, the kitchen door swung open. I found it wryly amusing that my thoughts should be interrupted in this way by the arrival of a dish of snails.

"Bon appétit, monsieur!"

The irony was not lost on me as I picked up a shell with the stainless steel tongs provided, and deftly removed the first escargot with a small two-pronged fork and dipped it in melted butter. I chewed its gristly flesh to release a clam-like flavour beneath the garlic. Who knows? Perhaps crunchy grasshoppers are equally delicious.

In due course, I wiped my chin and drained my glass of champagne, then returned to the journal. I found little of interest until an event that was to change the lives of the girls for ever:

September 10th

Calamity! Kayla and I were out this afternoon, when a young girl tugged at my skirt and beckoned us to follow her down a narrow alleyway. As soon as we were away from the main shopping street, we found ourselves confronted by three Thai boys. One of them pulled out a knife and motioned us to back up against a wall, while the other two relieved us of our bags. Kayla tried to resist, and received a savage backhand blow across her face. The next thing we knew, they had run off down the alley, whooping in triumph, and laughing. It was all over in a matter of seconds.

I saw that Kayla had an ugly welt raised on her cheek, and blood trickled from her swollen lip, where her teeth had cut the inside of her mouth. I tried to comfort her but she was inconsolable. Hysterical, in fact. I escorted her back to the hotel, ducking behind some newly arrived guests as we passed through the foyer. Once in our room, she became calmer. We were both numb with disbelief.

This evening we are taking stock. We have lost everything - passports, money, phones, all forms of identity - everything. What can we possibly do? The Pakistani Embassy is out of the question. With Kayla having cashed cheques on our dead father's account, she must be a wanted criminal back home - and I could be arrested as an accomplice.

The Thai Police? What would they do? Lengthy statements and cross-questioning. After that, if they believed our story, they would probably hand us to the Embassy for repatriation. Alternatively, if they did not, they might consign us to the 'Bangkok Hilton' - one of the most notorious prisons in the world.


What would make them think that? There was certainly nothing in the journal in the least bit incriminating up to this point. Had they been doing something illegal while they were there, or was it just street talk that they had overheard?

I read on. They trampled over a multitude of discarded ideas before they found the answer - they would use their talents as entertainers. Their upbringing in the Kalash Valley had blessed them with an innate grace of movement, an ability to dance with sinuous ease. I remembered what Helen had told me about the mesmeric rhythm of drums at village dances and the eerie sound of the mountain flutes. I also remembered her trance-like state as she spoke of the sitar's haunting melodies, and the singing of ghazals.

What fairy-tales might these two weave in the cesspits of Bangkok after the tropic sun had done with staining the sky? What magic might they create to defend themselves against the pallid moon, and her sorcery of glittering lights?

Again and again, they auditioned as dancers, each time setting their sights lower to raise their hopes of survival. At last, after weeks of wearying disappointment, they were successful. An insalubrious nightclub took them on, offering a pitiful, subsistence wage, and the prospect of pin money entertaining sleazy, drunken customers, the dregs of the sex tourism industry.

How glad Helen was that Kayla had insisted they both took lessons in Muay Thai after their harrowing experience with the three Thai boys. She had pawned the few pieces of jewellery she had, to make sure of it. One entry in the journal suggested that, even at that early stage, she might have pawned even more than that.

What became increasingly clear as I turned the pages was that, under Kayla's tutelage, Helen became progressively more street-wise, more able to look after herself. As time went on, the journal chronicled the way in which they gradually lifted themselves from the gutter, making some kind of a life for themselves.

December 18th

Good news this morning! I have been offered a job at one of the high-class nightclubs. There's an important Pakistani business convention in town at the moment. The manager has already employed a sitar player and wants someone who can woo the businessmen with traditional ghazals from the Hindu-Kush. He liked what I sang at audition, and has given me a generous prepayment to make sure that I can dress for the part. We are to perform every night for a week. Whoopie!

If it all works out, I may end up getting more permanent employment, and at a decent living wage. This could be the break we've been waiting for, but it has also made me feel desperately homesick. How I wish I could escape this place for ever.

December 20th

My performance last night was met with rapturous applause, and not just by the businessmen. There was also a European lady in the audience. French, I think. She came up to me afterwards to congratulate me. She wants to meet me again tomorrow so that she can find out more about us. She seemed like such a nice lady, and said she had a proposition that might interest us. Intriguing! I can't wait to hear what it is! Kayla says I should be careful, and not say too much until I know more about her - who she is, what she wants, and where she comes from.


I knew, of course, that this must be Mme Durand. Perhaps now I could get to the bottom of the mystery. I was about to continue reading when my phone rang. It was Helen, from the hospital.

"Hello? Listen, Charles, I can't join you at the restaurant tonight. Something has come up."

"What's the problem? Is everything all right?"

"Yes, but the doctor has just examined Jeanne. He wants to speak to me about her condition, and get more details about her collapse." There was a slight pause, then she continued in a voice barely above a whisper, "Can you meet me here at the hospital in half an hour? I'll explain everything then."

Before I could answer, the phone went dead.

Author Notes List of characters:

Charles Brandon: The narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Helen Culverson: A woman of some mystery, also a travel writer, who seems to have become Charles's girlfriend.
Kayla Culverson: Her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok.
Madame Jeanne Durand: A French magazine editor, who was involved in a serious accident, and seems also to be involved with the Mafia in some way.
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Dr. Laurent: A veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix, vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre: An old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Francoise Gaudin: An intellectually disabled woman living in Versailles.
Alain Gaudin: brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Estelle Gaudin [deceased]: mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased]: Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.


Chapter 27
A Meeting with Madame Durand

By tfawcus

end of Chapter 26
I was about to continue reading when my phone rang. It was Helen, from the hospital.

"Hello? Listen, Charles, I can't join you at the restaurant tonight. Something has come up."

"What's the problem? Is everything all right?"

"Yes, but the doctor has just examined Jeanne. He wants to speak to me about her condition, and get more details about her collapse." There was a slight pause, then she continued in a voice barely above a whisper, "Can you meet me here at the hospital in half an hour? I'll explain everything then."

Before I could answer, the phone went dead.

Chapter 27
It seemed strange that Helen should cut off the conversation so abruptly, and even more so that she should forego the opportunity of dinner with me in one of the city's best restaurants. Distinctly out of character, I thought.

I caught myself idly questioning her relationship with me, and sensing a tug between it and her relationship with Jeanne. Why couldn't she talk more openly on the phone? Surely she wasn't becoming paranoid about someone eavesdropping on her conversation?

I have to admit it also irritated me to have my reading of the journal interrupted. What had Jeanne been doing in the company of a delegation of Pakistani businessmen? Was it just a coincidence that she was in the nightclub at the same time as them, or was there a connection? I needed to know more about this before returning to the hospital.

'Can you meet me in half an hour?' Those had been Helen's words. Well, since it was only a five minute walk, there was no particular hurry. I raised my hand to signal the waiter. Time for a cheese platter, a glass of wine and a few grapes. No need for us both to go hungry.

"Serveur, apportez-moi un verre de Chambertin, un plateau de fromages et quelques raisins, s'il vous plaît."

I already knew that Jeanne had expressed a wish to publish a story based on Helen's experiences in Thailand and that she had offered her a trip to Paris. She had said Helen's rescue from her predicament in Bangkok came 'at a high price' and that she'd 'taken advantage of her'. Did she mean at a high price for herself, I wondered, or at a high price for Helen? She'd certainly been generous - too generous, I thought - an airline ticket, new clothes, an advance on a publishing contract, accommodation in Paris. There had to be something in the journal that answered the central question. What was in it for Jeanne? I settled back to read more.

December 21st

I met with the French lady this morning in the foyer of her hotel, as arranged, but was surprised to find one of the Pakistanis with her. She introduced him to me as Mr Bukhari. He shook hands formally and greeted me in Urdu. He seemed pleased when I was able to reply fluently in his native tongue. He went on to explain that he and Madame Durand were business associates, and that they might have a proposition for me. They both congratulated me again on my singing of the ghazels of the Hindu-Kush and asked me where I'd learnt them. So far, so good, I thought.

I told them I'd grown up in Chitral and that my mother was a Kalasha, and that she used to teach them to us when we were growing up. Mr Bukhari immediately switched to Kalasha-mun, the local dialect of my homeland, and asked why I had left there. It almost seemed that he was testing the truth of my story. He noted that I'd said 'we', and asked if I had any brothers or sisters. I remembered what Kayla had said about being careful what information I shared, so, after complimenting him on his command of the dialect, I switched back to English and addressed both of them, asking what their proposal was.

At that point, Mr Bukhari rose to his feet, saying how nice it had been to meet me, and he excused himself, saying that he had an important business meeting to attend. 'Madame Durand will be able to explain everything to you. I'm delighted to have met you, Miss ...?' I gave him my name without thinking, and then immediately regretted it. Kayla's warning re-echoed in my mind.


Putting the journal to one side for a moment, I cut a sliver of brie and spread it on bread. How well the burgundy enhanced its flavour! As the French say, 'Un repas sans fromage est comme une journée sans soleil' - 'A meal without cheese is like a day without sunshine'.

As the sunshine burst upon my palate, my mind began to make connections. The mountain range separating Afghanistan from Pakistan ... backstreets of Bangkok ... large amounts of money being spread around ... Mafia involvement. The jigsaw was beginning to take shape, though some pieces were still missing. Amongst other things, I needed to find out how deeply Helen was involved, and what Jeanne had done to upset the Mafiosi.

A sinister scenario was beginning to take shape in my mind. It occurred to me that the kidnapping must have been to involve Helen more deeply in whatever was going on. I guessed that she had already been used, possibly without her knowledge, as a courier smuggling drugs between Thailand and France. Now, perhaps, the strong-arm men were trying to coerce Jeanne to pressure her into a more significant role - maybe on the drug run between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where her local knowledge would be invaluable.

I wondered if their crude knife work back at the studio had been mainly for Helen's benefit, a demonstration of what could happen if she didn't cooperate. It stood in her favour that she had not acquiesced. Indeed, she had been able to take them by surprise with her martial arts skills and send them packing - not without a little help from Henri Carron and his dog, Bonaparte - and, of course, from me.

A whole new batch of questions buzzed around my head as I walked to the hospital. There was a stillness in the air, as one sometimes experiences before a storm. A temporary lull in the traffic noise was filled by a clock chiming the hour, perhaps from the façade of the Gare du Nord. Only ten minutes late, I thought.

A few large drops began to fall, and I quickened my step. Why, I wondered, did it always have to rain when I was on my way to meet Helen? Apparently, there is no cheese induced sunshine after dark - just the growling prospect of nightmares.

There was a crack of thunder and almost simultaneous lightning, indicating that the storm was directly overhead. I reached the sanctuary of the building in the nick of time before the heavens opened. I found Helen waiting for me downstairs in the cafeteria. She was seated at a small table, eating an egg sandwich.

“Hello, Charles. At last! You took your time, didn’t you?” She dabbed the corner of her mouth with a paper napkin. “It would have served you right if you’d got a soaking.”

“You said half an hour, so I didn’t see any point in rushing. You know how much I love hanging around hospitals. Anyway, what’s the problem?”

“I already told you on the phone. The doctor knew that we were about to board the Eurostar when Jeanne collapsed, and he was concerned. He thought he should give us more details about her condition.” Helen took another bite from her sandwich, mumbling through the crumbs, “I’m starving!”

“That really does look revolting. Why couldn’t you have come to the restaurant, as we arranged?”

“Because he was due to finish his ward rounds in about half an hour, and there wouldn’t have been time. Anyway, I don’t suppose that you went hungry while you were waiting.”

“Well, no, as a matter of fact -”

“I don’t want to hear about it. “She pushed the empty cardboard triangle to one side and took a sip from her disposable coffee cup. “I thought you’d also want to hear what the doctor had to say.”

“Why all the secrecy?”

“I was in the ward with Jeanne, and knowing how well you two get on together, I didn’t think it would be a great idea for her to know I was proposing to divulge intimate details of her medical history to a prickly and rather pompous Englishman. You know how the French are in such matters.”

I grunted, but was saved from making a reply by the arrival of the doctor.

“Bonsoir, Monsieur et Madame. I am Dr Dupont. Come this way, please. There is a private office just around the corner where we can speak.”

“Mademoiselle, actually.”

“Mille pardons, mademoiselle. Is this gentleman your father, perhaps?” Helen smiled prettily at him and nodded. Then, as he went on ahead, she turned and stuck her tongue out at me. Really! I sometimes wonder why I put up with the woman.

When we reached the office, Dr Dupont motioned us to sit in chairs opposite him. “I understand from Mademoiselle Culverson that Madame Durand was involved in a car accident a few days ago, and that she was severely concussed. This is almost certainly a delayed reaction from that, perhaps brought on by stress.” He gave me a penetrating stare. “Has she been in any particularly stressful situations recently?”

“Yes,” I answered carefully. “That is why we were taking her away for a few days holiday in England. We thought the rest would give her time to recuperate.”

“I thought as much. There were some concerning cuts on her chest that suggested self-mutilation. She will need careful watching and attention. Personally, I would not advise travelling under these circumstances. There could easily be a recurrence. However, that is your decision.”

“I thought it might have been an epileptic fit,” Helen said.

“No. The symptoms are somewhat similar, but there is no evidence of epilepsy.” He glanced at his watch. “Now, if you will excuse me, I have to get on. I just thought I should let you know my opinion, since it seems that Madame Durand is in your care.”

“Thank you, doctor. My daughter and I are most grateful. Madame Durand is a close personal friend. She has known Helen since she was in nappies.”

I was delighted to see that I had made Helen blush ...or did that reddening of her cheeks indicate fury? I wasn't sure. If I hadn't been such a gentleman, I'd probably have stuck my tongue out at her at this juncture.

 

Author Notes List of characters:

Charles Brandon: The narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Helen Culverson: A woman of some mystery, also a travel writer, who seems to have become Charles's girlfriend.
Kayla Culverson: Her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok.
Madame Jeanne Durand: A French magazine editor, who was involved in a serious accident, and seems also to be involved with the Mafia in some way.
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Henri Carron - a rag-and-bone man, owner of an heroic dog called Bonaparte.
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Dr. Laurent: A veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix, vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre: An old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Francoise Gaudin: An intellectually disabled woman living in Versailles.
Alain Gaudin: brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Estelle Gaudin [deceased]: mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased]: Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.


Chapter 28
The Moulin Rouge

By tfawcus

End of Chapter 27

"I thought it might have been an epileptic fit," Helen said.

"No. The symptoms are somewhat similar, but there is no evidence of epilepsy." He glanced at his watch. "Now, if you will excuse me, I have to get on. I just thought I should let you know my opinion, since it seems that Madame Durand is in your care."

"Thank you, doctor. My daughter and I are most grateful. Madame Durand is a close personal friend. She has known Helen since she was in nappies."

I was delighted to see that I had made Helen blush ...or did that reddening of her cheeks indicate fury? I wasn't sure. If I hadn't been such a gentleman, I'd probably have stuck my tongue out at her at this juncture.

Chapter 28

Perhaps, when Dr Dupont departed, Helen and I might have continued our childish banter, puffing it into a full-blown lovers' tiff, but we were interrupted by a call over the hospital intercom system: "Mademoiselle Culverson, voudrait-elle venir au poste des infirmières, s'il vous plaît?"

I was puzzled by the announcement. "Why would they want you at the nursing station, Helen?"

"How should I know? Come on. There's only one way to find out."

She ran on ahead and had already summoned the lift by the time I caught up. We waited impatiently while the amber numbers flashed its progress from the third floor. There was a lengthy pause at the second, which was explained when the door opened, disgorging two hospital orderlies and a wheelchair patient wrapped in bandages. My heart missed a beat. For a moment I feared the worst.

Helen saw the look on my face and said, "It's all right, Charles. No need to be so jumpy. It looks as though that one's from the Burns Unit on the second floor. Jeanne is on the next level."

As the lift doors closed behind us, she leaned forward and kissed me. "Mustn't let an opportunity like this go to waste, must we? Nappies, indeed. What a naughty sugar daddy you are!"

Equilibrium restored, we approached the nurses' station arm-in-arm, like two people in love. A neatly starched young lady glanced up from her paperwork. She had soft, round features that broke into a ready smile as we reached the counter.

"Mademoiselle Culverson? I'm so glad you were still in the hospital. Madame Durand has been asking for you. She seems quite distressed." The nurse got up from her desk and tucked a stray lock of hair under her cap. "If you'd like to follow me, I'll take you to her." Concern showed in her face. "She has already got herself dressed, and is sitting in the waiting room, anticipating your arrival. She should really be staying here overnight, under observation."

"Of course! I couldn't agree more," I said. "We shall do our best to convince her of it. You speak excellent English, by the way."

"Thank you, monsieur. I spent a year as a trainee nurse in England. I was intending to work there, but the conditions were not quite as I had expected."

"Ah, that explains it!"

"Here we are, monsieur. Madame Durand is by the window." The nurse flashed me a charming smile as she left.

"When you've finished flirting, Charles, perhaps you would like to come and help me drive some sense into Jeanne's head."

"Me? Flirting? Well, I must say, that's a case of the pot calling the kettle black, don't you think?”

"Not in these days of electric kettles and induction stove tops, dear. For goodness sake, which century are you in?"

I knew this was a skirmish I couldn't win, so turned to the matter at hand. The look in Jeanne's eye and the set of her jaw, made it clear that tact would be needed. Jeanne obviously wasn't keen to be sitting around in hospital waiting to be kidnapped again, as had happened in the American Hospital of Paris on Boulevard Victor Hugo a few days earlier.

Nonetheless, we - or, more accurately, Helen - managed to persuade her that the safest place would be right here in the hospital overnight. We promised we would return to arrange her discharge in the morning, in time to catch the first available train to London.

It now looked as though we were going to be saddled with her, whether I liked it or not. But that might not be such a bad thing, in view of what I now knew, or guessed. I felt sure that if we got her alone, out of Paris and away from her contacts, I'd be able to discover the truth of the matter. One thing was becoming clear in my mind - if my suspicions were correct, she was a ruthless woman who had fallen foul of her associates, whoever they might be. Mafia? I wasn't entirely sure. Would they really have been so inept?

We stopped briefly to let the nurse know what we had arranged, and I gave her a cheerful wave goodbye as we made our way back to the lifts. Helen poked me sharply in the ribs.

"Ow! That hurt!"

"Serves you right."

I pressed the button to summon a lift, then turned and said, "What now?"

"I seem to remember that you have a 'two for the price of one' coupon for The Moulin Rouge." Then, rather unnecessarily, she continued, "Since your mind is obviously on pretty young ladies this evening, I suggest we go there."

Of course, she was teasing me again. As the lift doors opened, she added, "It's less than ten minutes from Rue Gabrielle. Maybe we could go back to your place afterwards. I doubt the boys from the Mafia would think we're stupid enough to spend the night there."

"Not at all stupid. One of your better ideas, in fact." I thought it sounded like the kind of evening that had the potential to improve as it progressed. I reached for my iPhone. "I'll see if I can book a table for the 11 pm show, shall I?"

Of course, being high season, I discovered that the two-for-one offer wasn't valid. Hardly surprising! However, as luck would have it, I was able to make a last-minute reservation.

 

***

As with all such tourist venues, we had to wait in a queue when we arrived. Then we found ourselves being ushered to a table near the back of the room. However, I found that rather unpleasant phrase, 'greasing his palm', worked wonders. Our waiter slipped the notes into his pocket and miraculously discovered a vacant table with a much better view.

Helen was fascinated by the show, drinking in the sheer professionalism and dazzle, the shimmering, feathered costumes with their sequins and rhinestones, and the joie de vivre of the singing and dancing. How different, I thought, from her experiences as a performer in the nightclubs of Bangkok.

The atmosphere was electric, effervescent as the champagne when we clinked glasses and thumped the table. Each scene seemed to upstage the last. I had never seen Helen quite so animated.

Halfway through the show, the stage came alive with jugglers and acrobats, and a troupe of clowns burst onto the scene, cartwheeling and chi-iking one another, provoking roars of laughter from the audience.

Helen leaned across the table and pointed to a dwarf wearing a yellow and red cap-and-bells, and one of the saddest faces imaginable.

"Look!" she said. "It's Germain! At least, it must be his reincarnation. Don't you remember? That epitaph in the churchyard at Versailles? Germain the Dwarf - 'His life was short'! I told you he must have been a comic turn at the Moulin Rouge."

I was delighted by the naivety of her pleasure, and gave her a broad grin of assent. "Yes, I remember!"

Of course, the highlight of the show was at the end, when the famous Doriss Girls came on for one last time, to dance the Can-Can. Many in the audience rose from their seats and clapped along enthusiastically. Helen was right at my side when she suddenly grabbed my arm and started waving frantically. "Kayla! Look! It's Kayla. Right there, third from the end. Kayla is one of the Doriss girls. I've found her! Oh, God, Charles, I've found her."

There were tears streaming down her face as she threw both her arms around me and smothered me in kisses.

Author Notes Glossary:
nappies [UK/AUS]: diapers [US]
chi-iking [pronounced chai-eye-king]: Light-hearted banter, friendly mocking exchanges. A term popular among London costermongers in the early to middle nineteenth century.


List of characters:

Charles Brandon: The narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Helen Culverson: A woman of some mystery, also a travel writer, who seems to have become Charles's girlfriend.
Kayla Culverson: Her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok.
Madame Jeanne Durand: A French magazine editor, who was involved in a serious accident, and seems also to be involved with the Mafia in some way.
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Henri Carron - a rag-and-bone man, owner of an heroic dog called Bonaparte.
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Dr. Laurent: A veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix, vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre: An old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Francoise Gaudin: An intellectually disabled woman living in Versailles.
Alain Gaudin: brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Estelle Gaudin [deceased]: mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased]: Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.


Chapter 29
Kayla's Story

By tfawcus

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of violence.

end of Chapter 28:

Of course, the highlight of the show was at the end, when the famous Doriss Girls came on for one last time, to dance the Can-Can. Many in the audience rose from their seats and clapped along enthusiastically. Helen was right at my side when she suddenly grabbed my arm and started waving frantically. "Kayla! Look! It's Kayla. Right there, third from the end. Kayla is one of the Doriss girls. I've found her! Oh, God, Charles, I've found her."

There were tears streaming down her face as she threw both her arms around me and smothered me in kisses.

Chapter 29

The excited buzz of the audience had barely subsided as we found the nearest exit to the stage door.

A dour doorman ground his Gauloise underfoot and adjusted his uniform cap, before taking up a stance in front of us, blocking the way. He looked at us as though we were insects recently crawled from the sewers, cleared his throat, and delivered his well-worn mantra. "Vous ne pouvez pas venir ici. Cette porte est réservée aux artistes interprètes." Being thus relieved of his official speech, he turned and spat in the gutter.

Helen looked at me in dismay. "How are we going to get past him?"

"You will not get past me, mademoiselle. As I say already - this door is for the artistes. Entry is forbidden."

"But my sister is one of the artistes, monsieur. Her name is Kayla Culverson."

The doorman shrugged. "You expect me to know all the artistes' names, mademoiselle? That is not possible. You must wait here till she comes out."

Already a small crowd had begun to gather, in anticipation of seeing some of the performers at close quarters. Some were carrying cameras, a few carried roses, and one or two were doubtless carrying the impossible dream of a romantic liaison. A tall and distinguished looking gentleman stepped out from among them.

"Excuse me, kind sir. I could not help overhearing your conversation. Is this really Kayla's sister?" He took a half-step back, adjusted his monocle, and looked her up and down admiringly. "My word, Kayla's description fell short of the mark, and no mistake! You are a fine looking young lady, if ever I saw one."

Helen bristled. "And who might you be, monsieur?"

"Ah! Forgive me! You may call me Scaramouche." His mockery was evident. He swept his cape to one side and made an extravagant bow from the waist, at the same time whisking the velvet cap from his head. "I am at your service, mademoiselle."

"No you're bloody well not. Cut the bull, and tell me who you are, and what you've got to do with my sister."

Scaramouche twirled the end of his waxed moustache, and regarded her thoughtfully. "My, you are a hot-headed one, my dear. I like that in a woman! There's nothing like a bit of fire to ignite the passions."

He turned and winked at me. "Isn't that so, Monsieur?"

I thought Helen was going to blow a fuse, but the situation was saved by the stage door suddenly bursting open, disgorging a bevy of young ladies, arm-in-arm, giggling and blowing kisses to the enraptured mob. I was reminded of gazelles, safe from the predators so long as they remained together in their herd. Helen scanned the faces anxiously, but Kayla was not among them.

"Be patient, my little beauty. She will be here soon. I know my Kayla." He winked again. "She will be making herself look beautiful for Scaramouche, her paramour."

I physically restrained Helen from using him as a Muay Thai punching bag. "Take it easy, darling. He's harmless. Besides, Kayla might be quite disappointed if you damaged his crown jewels."

"As if! She wouldn't be seen dead with a creep like him."

How wrong she was. After a while, the stage door opened again, and Kayla sashayed out as if she were coming down the boardwalk. She was greeted with wolf whistles from every side as she and Scaramouche ran towards each other, arms outstretched. They met like two characters in an opera, extravagantly kissing first one cheek, and then the other.

Not content with that, Scaramouche sank onto one knee, took her hand in his and exclaimed, "Ma chérie. Tu as l'air divin!" and proceeded to kiss, like a chicken pecking corn, from her fingertips all the way up to her shoulder. At least, that appeared to be his intention, but he had barely reached her wrist when Kayla caught sight of Helen looking on in astonishment.

She tore herself free and rushed across, crying out, "Helen, my little sister - is it really you?" Whereupon they fell into each other's arms, mumbling incoherent endearments to one another. Scaramouche was left kissing thin air. He spun around on his heel and raised his eyebrows in mock amazement. "Gadzooks!" he exclaimed in dismay. His monocle fell from his eye, dangling from a silken sash, flaccid as the appendage of an aging gigolo.

I sauntered across to him and offered him my hand. "Bad luck, old chap. It looks as though you're not going to be needed tonight. You might as well make your way back to the madhouse." I immediately regretted my words, for a look of unmitigated misery crossed his face, and he slunk off into the night, a deflated and dejected parody of his former self.

Eventually, the two sisters disentangled themselves from their embraces and endearments, and turned their attention to me. I apologised profusely to Kayla, "I'm afraid I sent your friend Scaramouche off with a flea in his ear. I hadn't realised that under all that braggadocio, he was such a sensitive fellow."

"Oh, don't mind too much about André. He belongs to a commedia dell'arte troupe that's putting on a show at the moment. He adores playing the part of Scaramouche, the lovable braggart who's also an inveterate coward. It suits him perfectly!" She tried to allay my concerns by continuing, "I imagine he was just putting on an act for you. I'm sure he won't harbour any hard feelings. The dear man has a heart of gold. I don't know what I would have done without him over the past few weeks.

"Anyway, we mustn't let that cast a shadow over our reunion. Helen has been telling me things about you that would make any man blush."

There was an ominous roll of thunder in the distance and a flash of lightning to dramatize the skyline. "Why don't we all go round to my place? That'll give you two a chance to catch up, and it may save us all from getting soaked to the skin."

"Good idea," Helen said. "I seem to remember that you have a bottle of medicinal vodka in the cupboard."

"Saved especially for occasions such as this," I said, as I stepped out from the pavement to flag down a taxi. "I'll take you back there and unlock the place, then scout around and see if I can find some revolting takeaway food that we can share - frogs' legs pizza, perhaps."

Kayla gave Helen a knowing look. "I see what you mean about him. He probably can't help it."

She brushed aside the offer of pizza, saying that she was on a diet. Helen also demurred, presumably having been satisfied by her egg sandwich, and, on reflection, I thought that pizza might not sit well on top of a dozen snails. That being decided, I accompanied them upstairs to my apartment, resigning myself to the contiguous roles of drinks' waiter and fly on the wall.

By two o'clock in the morning, and halfway through her third Harvey Wallbanger, Kayla began talking about Bangkok. It was evident that she knew a good deal more about Mr Bukhari than we did.

"A dangerous man, and that's not the half of it. As soon as you told me he'd been at your meeting with Madame Durand, I knew that my warnings to be careful were not exaggerated. As you will remember, Helen, I pleaded with you to have no more to do with the woman. Bukhari was a powerful and evil man. I had heard our father talk about him in connection with the opium trade between Afghanistan and Pakistan, along secret and hidden passes through the Hindu Kush. The only possible reason for his interest in us would have been to involve us in the operation in some way."

"Yes, I know. I told Jeanne of your concerns and she just laughed. 'I hardly know the man,' she said. 'I am just a literary agent with a nose for a good story, and I happen to think that your story is a good one. That is why I'm offering you this opportunity. A trip to Paris, all expenses paid, has nothing to do with the Hindu Kush or Mr Bukhari.' She was convincing, and I believed her. I still do believe her."

"Open your eyes, sister. No-one gives what she was offering you without expecting something in return. Why, for instance, would she have given you a suitcase of new clothes? What happened to that suitcase, by the way?"

"She took it back. She said she needed it for another trip she was planning."

"Really? Or was it so that she could retrieve what was in the concealed compartments? Have you thought of that?"

"Don't be ridiculous. She wouldn't have done a thing like that. She was only trying to help me. To help us. But what happened to you? You just disappeared. Why was that, if you were so concerned about me? Where did you go?"

Kayla drained her glass and held it out towards me for a refill. "Bukhari put the screws on me. I was walking home from the nightclub after work when a car pulled up beside me and I was hustled into it. Bukhari was in the back seat. He leaned across and ran his hand over my breast, pausing to squeeze the nipple - hard. I winced in pain, and he drew closer and whispered in my ear, telling me what would happen to me if I didn't cooperate. Telling me what would happen to you, if I didn't cooperate. My blood ran cold.

"I knew there was only one thing I could do. When the car came to a halt at some traffic lights, I took my chance. He never saw it coming. A combination of blows so fast he had no defence against them. I broke a fingernail trying to gouge his eye out, and the chop to his neck must have collapsed his trachea, for he emitted a strange gurgling sound. It was over in seconds. I pushed the door open and threw myself out, barrel-rolling across the pavement, and disappeared into the crowd.

"It wasn't until the next day that I discovered that I had killed him. It was all over the front page of the Bangkok Post. Does that answer your question?"

Helen looked stunned. I shifted uncomfortably, not knowing what to say.

Eventually, after a long pause, Helen said, "...and then what?"

Author Notes List of characters:

Charles Brandon: The narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Helen Culverson: A woman of some mystery, also a travel writer, who seems to have become Charles's girlfriend.
Kayla Culverson: Her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok.
Madame Jeanne Durand: A French magazine editor, who was involved in a serious accident, and seems also to be involved with the Mafia in some way.
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Henri Carron - a rag-and-bone man, owner of an heroic dog called Bonaparte.
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Dr. Laurent: A veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix, vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre: An old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Francoise Gaudin: An intellectually disabled woman living in Versailles.
Alain Gaudin: brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Estelle Gaudin [deceased]: mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased]: Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.


Chapter 30
Kayla's Story - continued

By tfawcus

from Chapter 29:

“It wasn’t until the next day that I discovered that I had killed him. It was all over the front page of the Bangkok Post. Does that answer your question?”

Helen looked stunned. I shifted uncomfortably, not knowing what to say.

Eventually, after a long pause, Helen said, “…and then what?”
 
Chapter 30

“…and then I panicked. There was no way that I could remain in Bangkok. I didn’t even dare to contact you, knowing how close you were to Jeanne. If you had known where I was, she’d have found a way to force the information from you.”

Helen looked sceptical. “But you could at least have let me know you were safe. I was worried witless about you. Why didn’t you leave a message for me in the apartment?”

“I would have, but Bukhari’s men were waiting for me. I went home, intending to pack a few things, but they were already in the street below. It was lucky that I spotted them in time to slip down a side alley. Realising what danger I was in, I headed straight for the railway station.”

“That explains why there was nothing to suggest you had left. Everything was in its usual place when I got back home that evening, and I only started to worry when I woke up the following morning, and found that you hadn’t slept in your bed.”

A look of concern crossed Helen's face as Kayla staggered to her feet without replying, and made her way unsteadily to the bathroom.

“Ease up on the drinks, Charles. It looks as though my big sister has had more than enough.”

Strange gurgling sounds from the bathroom suggested that was a distinct probability.

“Are you all right in there?” Helen called out. The only answer was a flushing toilet. Kayla emerged soon afterwards, somewhat dishevelled, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.

“Here, let me get you a drink of water,” I said.

“Thanks. I’m sorry. I haven’t had anything to eat since this morning, and that orange juice concoction of yours went straight to my head.”

“Straight to your stomach, more like, poor girl.” Helen passed her a box of tissues, while I rustled up a ham sandwich, a hunk of cheese, and a few dry biscuits.

“That’s the best I can do at short notice, I’m afraid.”  I put them on the coffee table in front of her. Kayla smiled weakly, and reached out for one of the dry biscuits.

“I was strapped for cash. All I had was my purse and the clothes I had on.” She brushed a few crumbs from the corner of her mouth, and took a sip of water before continuing. “I decided to go to Phuket. I knew there was a good chance of picking up a job in one of the nightclubs in Patong.” She glanced across in my direction. “It’s always crawling with tourists there - mainly Chinese and Russians, and a lot of ocker Australians looking for a good time.” The corners of her mouth turned down with obvious distaste.

“I found I had just enough to cover a second class ticket on a train going south towards the Malaysian peninsula. It was a twelve hour journey to Phun Phin, in Surat Thani Province, and then a couple of hours in a minibus across to Patong, on the Andaman coast. Not a great alternative to a two hour flight, but I didn't have enough money for that. Besides, I felt sure that there would be people on the lookout for me at the airport.

“I prayed that Bukhari’s influence didn’t extend beyond Bangkok, and that I’d be able to disappear into anonymity on the island beach resort - at least for a while.”

Helen took up the tale at this point, as Kayla braved a tentative skirmish with the ham sandwich. “As soon as I realised you were missing, I went to see Jeanne. She said not to worry, and that you’d probably picked up a bloke for the night. I said I didn’t think so.”

“Strange she didn’t mention Bukhari’s murder,” I said. “She must have known about it.”

“I don’t see why.”

“Because it was all over the newspapers, and because she knew him. She was obviously concealing it from you for her own ends.”

“Don’t be absurd, Charles. Just because you don’t like her…”

“Don’t trust her, you mean.”

“I’m afraid he’s right, Helen. She did know, as I found out to my cost later. Bukhari’s men would have been on to you, too, if she hadn’t been protecting you. She was planning to play a much larger game now that he was out of the way, and using you as a pawn in it.”

“Now you’re both being ridiculous.”

Realising Helen felt we were ganging up against her, I turned to Kayla. “Tell us about the journey. Did you get to Phuket safely?”

“Yes. More or less.”

“What do you mean?”

“Most people would have taken the overnight sleeper, arriving at Phun Phin in the morning, but I didn’t dare hang around Bangkok station for half a day, so I caught a train leaving soon after midday – which meant I’d be getting out in the middle of the night. That didn’t worry me, though. I felt sure that, if I could look after myself in Bangkok at night, I’d be more than able to do so in a remote rural province.

“The 2nd-class sleepers have pairs of seats facing each other, which convert into two fold-down berths, one over the other. Curtains provide some privacy, but not much. The other people in my carriage included a group of young Australians -  three blokes from Sydney with backpacks, a couple of girls, and a case of Singha beer.

“Since our carriage wasn’t air-conditioned, they were getting through the case at a fair rate, and becoming louder and coarser as the journey continued. After a while, one of the boys leaned over and offered me a beer. I shook my head, but he insisted, pressing the cold bottle against my arm.

“I tensed like a wildcat about to spring, then took the beer from him and prised the bottle cap off with my teeth, flashing him a provocative smile. I realised that travelling with them would be the perfect cover. Just another tourist, out for a good time.”

 

Author Notes Glossary:
ocker: Australian vernacular for someone rough and uncultivated.

List of characters:

Charles Brandon: The narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Helen Culverson: A woman of some mystery, also a travel writer, who seems to have become Charles's girlfriend.
Kayla Culverson: Her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok.
Madame Jeanne Durand: A French magazine editor, who was involved in a serious accident, and seems also to be involved with the Mafia in some way.
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Henri Carron - a rag-and-bone man, owner of an heroic dog called Bonaparte.
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Dr. Laurent: A veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix, vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre: An old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Francoise Gaudin: An intellectually disabled woman living in Versailles.
Alain Gaudin: brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Estelle Gaudin [deceased]: mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased]: Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.


Chapter 31
The Journey to Phuket

By tfawcus

continued from Chapter 30

"The 2nd-class sleepers have pairs of seats facing each other, which convert into two fold-down berths, one over the other. Curtains provide some privacy, but not much. The other people in my carriage were a group of young Australians. Three blokes from Sydney with backpacks, a couple of girls, and a case of Singha beer.

"Since our carriage wasn't air-conditioned, they were getting through the case at a fair rate, and becoming louder and coarser as the journey continued. After a while, one of the boys leaned over and offered me a beer. I shook my head, but he insisted, pressing the cold bottle against my arm.

"I tensed like a wildcat about to spring, then took the beer from him and prised the bottle cap off with my teeth, and flashed him a provocative smile. I realised that travelling with them would be the perfect cover. Just another tourist, out for a good time."

Chapter 31

"He responded with an inane, lascivious grin, suggesting that he was well on the way to getting completely sloshed. Then he introduced himself, briefly raising his gaze from my cleavage as he did so."

Kayla took off the Australian accent with relish.

"'By the way, I'm Dave - and these two galahs are Johnnie and Brucie Babe.' Then, more or less as an afterthought, 'The sheilas are Kate and Josie.'

"'...and I'm Kayla,' I said.

"'Good on yer, Kylie. Cheers!' I didn't bother to correct him. Taking another swig from the bottle, he continued, 'Jeez, girl, you oughta look after the enamel on those pretty white teeth of yours.'

"I smiled sweetly at him, and thanked him for his concern. Meanwhile, Johnnie and Josie waved in my direction and carried on snogging, but Kate unwound herself from Brucie Babe for long enough to say a few words of welcome. 'Good to have you on board, Kayla, dahling. Don't mind Dave. He's three sheets to the wind.' She leaned forward and whispered, 'Got ditched by his girlfriend in Bangkok. The poor sod's drowning his sorrows.'

"About ten minutes before nightfall, two attendants came round and converted our seats to beds. I climbed onto the top bunk and drew the flimsy curtain across, relieved to have some privacy at last. However, it wasn't long before the drunken galoot tried to clamber in beside me. I lay doggo with my back to him as he wrestled the curtain aside and lifted one leg over the edge of the bed, attempting to hoist himself up.

"I must say that my timing was pretty near perfect. I rolled over, flinging my arm out carelessly, and caught him right between the teeth. He clutched wildly at the curtain as he fell.

"He landed with a resounding crash. 'Bugger! Oh, Jeez, that hurts! I think I've broken my bloody leg.'

"Bruce and Johnnie made a great scene of helping him back into bed, offering belchloads of sympathy. I managed to control my suppressed laughter just enough to lean over and say, 'Jeez, I'm sorry, Davey Boy. Were you sleepwalking or something? I hope you're not hurt.' Despite his melodramatic moans, it seemed that the leg was only bruised, not broken. The more serious injury was apparently to his ego.

"His two mates did the best they could to put the curtain back up, but it was ripped at one end, leaving me with a triangular view out of the carriage window as the train rattled and clacked its way south, hugging the headlands that overlooked the Gulf of Thailand. It was a calm night, and I could see lights of fishing boats reflected, like mermaids dancing among the stars. For a while my mind was drawn back to the Hindu Kush, with its snow fairies guarding their precious flocks of mountain goats. Suddenly, I felt desperately homesick and lonely."

Helen put her arm around her, and Kayla buried her head in her sister's shoulder. The two of them remained still for what seemed like an eternity. Who knows what was running through their minds as they clung, each to the other, sharing the mutual sustenance and support that only a close family member can give?

At length, Kayla raised her head, swept a few strands of hair from her face, and regained her composure. Her eyes were smudged, with a rivulet of mascara drying on her cheek. Helen took a tissue from her bag and gently wiped it away, replacing it with a kiss.

"How many times have I felt the same?" she mused. "One day, God willing, we will return."

"Who knows? Much has happened since we left. For Christ's sake, I am now a thief and a murderess."

"No. A brave and resourceful lady," I said. "You are a survivor, an inspiration to the downtrodden and ill-used of this world, and your sister's saviour. I admire you very much."

"Good grief!" exclaimed Helen. "There's no need to lay it on that thick."

The tension was broken and they both laughed, but I sensed a look of gratitude in Kayla's eye.

"Why don't you carry on with your story," I suggested.

"The train arrived at Phun Phin on schedule, at about half past midnight. As we were getting out, Dave asked me where I was staying. I told him I'd find a bench somewhere and make the best of it.

Kayla then mimicked his reply with a perfect Sydney accent.

"'I wouldn't do that if I were you. It's not a safe place for a woman alone. Us guys are booked in to the Queens Hotel, just across the street.' He hesitated fractionally before adding, 'You're welcome to share my room if you like.' Full marks for trying, I thought. Then it occurred to me that perhaps it wasn't such a bad idea. There were some shady looking characters lurking in dark corners, and the station was grey and dismal. 'Okay,' I said, 'but no funny business'.

"'Look, I'm sorry about the way I behaved. I was pissed as a newt. I'll be a perfect gentleman this time - Scouts' honour.'

"Too bloody right you will, I thought.

"Because of his exaggerated limp, we trailed behind the others. He was evidently still playing for sympathy, a commodity in short supply, as far as I was concerned. The street lamps reflected off the wet pavement, throwing an eerie half-light on the façade of the Queens Hotel. It might have come straight off a Hollywood film set - the archetypal haunted house, complete with a creaking sign swaying in the wind.

"Inside was no better. As we approached the reception desk, two cockroaches scurried across our path, and I don't mean Brucie Babe and Johnnie. The 1950's décor was neutral and muted. A typical two-star hotel. Castrati and bollocks, I thought. What on earth had I let myself in for?

"The ceiling fan in Dave's room laboured against the humid air, wafting a faint aroma of urine and stale cigarettes about the place. I was busting, and headed straight for the bathroom. The sink had rust stains in the enamel, and the water was cold. A half-drowned hawk moth was doing doggy paddle across the plastic bucket used for flushing the loo. The poor thing was clearly in its death throes, so I put it out of its misery, submerging it with the toilet brush.

"I came out to find Dave sprawled across one of the beds in nothing but his underpants. 'Not bad for ten dollars a night,' he said cheerfully. He swept away my offer to pay half, saying that he reckoned he owed me. I reckoned he owed me a lot more, but I didn't argue. I had a bed for the night and a roof over my head.

"Within minutes he was asleep, his rhythmic, adenoidal snores rising and falling in perfect counterpoint to the creaking of the fan. I smiled. The perfect gentleman, as promised.

"When I was quite sure that he was dead to the world, I stripped off and rinsed all my clothes in the basin, hanging them over the towel rail to dry overnight. After that, I hosed myself down with the hand-held shower, before crawling into the other bed dripping wet, and pulling the sheet up over my head to protect myself from the mozzies. I lay there, wondering for a while what Phuket would have in store for me, before I eventually drifted into a restless sleep."

Author Notes Glossary:
mozzies - mosquitoes

List of characters:

Charles Brandon: The narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Helen Culverson: A woman of some mystery, also a travel writer, who seems to have become Charles's girlfriend.
Kayla Culverson: Her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok.
Dave: An Australian on holiday in Thailand with some friends.
Madame Jeanne Durand: A French magazine editor, who was involved in a serious accident, and seems also to be involved with the Mafia in some way.
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Henri Carron - a rag-and-bone man, owner of an heroic dog called Bonaparte.
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Dr. Laurent: A veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix, vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre: An old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Francoise Gaudin: An intellectually disabled woman living in Versailles.
Alain Gaudin: brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Estelle Gaudin [deceased]: mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased]: Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.


Chapter 32
A Night at Rue Gabrielle

By tfawcus

continued from Chapter 31

"Within minutes he was asleep, his rhythmic, adenoidal snores rising and falling in perfect counterpoint to the creaking of the fan. I smiled. The perfect gentleman, as promised.

"When I was quite sure that he was dead to the world, I stripped off and rinsed all my clothes in the basin, hanging them over the towel rail to dry overnight. After that, I hosed myself down with the hand-held shower, before crawling into the other bed dripping wet, and pulling the sheet up over my head to protect myself from the mozzies. I lay there, wondering for a while what Phuket would have in store for me, before I eventually drifted into a restless sleep."

Chapter 32

I interrupted Kayla at this point. "What a trip you endured. I'd love to know how it ends, but it's getting late."
I glanced at my watch. "I, for one, need to turn in. We've an early start in the morning, if we're to pick Jeanne up from the hospital before she discharges herself. Maybe you could finish telling us about it on the way to England?"

"I don't think so, Charles. I can't possibly travel to England with you. I'm under contract at the Moulin Rouge for another two weeks," then she added vaguely, "and I've other commitments in Paris after that. I feel sure that Helen will be safe in your hands for the time being."

Helen's face fell. It was evident that, having found her sister, she was in no mood to be parted from her again. "If Kayla can't come with us, I'm staying here, too."

"Don't be ridiculous. You know you can't do that. What about Jeanne? What about the Mafia?"

Helen exploded. "Don't you dare call me ridiculous, you pompous ass. Kayla's the only family I've got left. I'm not going to desert her."

"Calm down, the both of you. Charles is right, sweetie. You can't really stay here. I'll be working my butt off at the Moulin Rouge, and besides, I'm living with André at present. I don't think he'd like it."

"That fancy boy, Scaramouche? You must be joking. What on earth do you see in him?" Helen was clearly stunned by her sister's revelation. "He's a complete idiot."

Kayla took a deep breath. "You should be careful what you say, little sister - especially when you don't know what you're talking about. Without André's help, I'd never have survived here in Paris. If you knew him better, you'd soon change your opinion." Then she turned to me. "What's all this about Jeanne and the Mafia anyway?"

Before I could answer, Helen chipped in with an apology. "I'm sorry. I didn't really mean it. I guess I was just sore at the suggestion that you'd rather be with him than with me. He seemed like such a silly man."

"Appearances can be deceptive, darling. Underneath all that flamboyance and makeup, he's sharp as a pencil."

"So's his nose."

Kayla laughed. "You're right, he's not exactly a looker, but looks aren't everything."

Peace having now been restored, I briefly filled Kayla in on the events of the past few days. When I mentioned Monsieur Bellini and his two apes, she stopped me.

"Bellini, did you say? Are you sure?"

"Yes, that's what Jeanne called him."

"Monsieur Bellini's nothing to do with the Mafia. He's just a small-time hoodlum. A drug peddler. I know all about him." She paused, then mused, "So Madame Durand has double-crossed him, has she? Well I never! He's a mean sonofabitch. No wonder she's running scared."

"Not Mafia?" Helen was dumbfounded. "But why would Jeanne have said he was?"

"Just trying to frighten you, I expect. She's an evil woman. Maybe she thought that if she upped the ante, she could get you to do what she wanted." She looked Helen squarely in the eye. "I found out a great deal about your Jeanne while I was in Phuket, and none of it was good. That's why I came to Paris - to save you from her clutches."

"Now you really are being melodramatic. Jeanne's always been good to me. I won't have you speak about her like that."

"Don't be so naïve, Helen. You need to wake up to yourself before it's too late. I may have killed Bukhari, but when you lop off one head of the Hydra, two grow in its place. Jeanne is inextricably linked with the drug cartels. She's using you as a pawn."

"That doesn't make sense. If she's a drug lord," (or should that be 'drug lady', she added sarcastically), "why would she be afraid of small fry like Bellini?"

"I don't know, but whatever she did to double-cross him, it seems that she underestimated his response. Personally, if I were you, I'd leave the rats to fight it out amongst themselves and carry on with your original plan. Go to England with Charles. That way, you'll have half a chance of getting out of her clutches. With luck, Bellini and his henchmen might even kill her."

"That's a horrible thing to say. I can't just leave her to take her chances with Bellini's men. Not after all she's done for me. We'll have to take her with us."

"You'll regret it if you do. You're just being pig-headed now." Kayla turned to me and pleaded, "Can't you make her see sense, Charles?"

"I'm not sure that I can. Helen already knows that I wouldn't trust Jeanne as far as I could throw her. What a silly expression that is - it always makes me think of Scotsmen tossing the caber." Kayla smiled at my weak joke. "She's not going to listen to me. I think you'll need to carry on and tell her what happened in Phuket that makes you so sure of what you are saying. But - as for me - I'm going to bed. It's two o'clock in the morning. You and Helen can use my bedroom. I'll sleep in the office."

I got up, stretched, and stifled a yawn. I leaned down to give Helen a goodnight kiss, murmuring, "You two probably need some time together on your own, especially if Kayla's not coming with us in the morning."

"Thanks, darling. I don't suppose we'll be far behind you."

As I entered the junk room that I euphemistically called my workspace, I overheard Kayla saying, "He's a nice man, Helen, considerate, too. You're a lucky girl."

Her opinion of me was more important to me than I expected, and it crossed my mind that it might be a good thing she was staying in Paris. I could do without further complications in my life at present.

I was in two minds. As much as I would have liked to hear what happened in Phuket to turn Kayla against Jeanne, I also wanted time to myself to skim through Helen's journal before she asked for it back. There had to be something else there, apart from Jeanne's association with Bukhara. What made her so anxious to get her hands on it again? I needed to know what was so incriminating.

I moved a pile of papers, the research for my latest article that lay scattered across the spare bed, and stripped down to my underwear before climbing in. Ablutions would have to wait until the morning. What was I thinking? It was already morning, and far too late to start dipping into the journal again.

My mind was spinning as I stretched over to switch off the light, and it wasn't long before I was tossing and turning in a dream-filled sleep. The images were vivid and bizarre. Characters from Carnivale wailed in woebegone tones as Helen and I fled from a wicked witch. Suddenly, a satyr with a white streak in his hair bore down on us, wielding garden shears and whooping, with a wild look in his eye. For a time, he was held at bay by fairies riding on the backs of mountain goats, who formed a protective circle around us as we clutched each other, shaking with fear.

Then, out of nowhere, just as all seemed lost, a bare-breasted Amazon galloped through the ranks on a white stallion. Helen was cast to one side as she swept me up into the saddle. Saved by the conquering heroine! We careered off together, charging towards a windmill filled with dancing girls quaffing absinthe with lewd laughter. Then, as she skidded to a halt, I was thrown unceremoniously from her fiery steed and flung into a picture suspended in the shadows, a picture of a washerwoman waving a wooden spoon. I landed with a thump, fending off her bitter blows.

At that point I awoke to find myself on the floor, drenched with sweat and tangled in my sheets. Helen stood over me, prodding me repeatedly in the small of my back with her toe. "Wake up, sleepyhead. It looks as though you've been having quite some nightmare in here, all on your lonesome. You must tell me about it sometime."

I got up to find Kayla already gone and the mess from the night before cleared away. It was already ten o'clock. As I staggered into the bathroom, I could smell coffee simmering on the stove. Sun streamed through the window onto a neatly laid breakfast table, and a tempting aroma of fresh croissants lingered in the air.

 

Author Notes List of characters:

Charles Brandon: The narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Helen Culverson: A woman of some mystery, also a travel writer, who seems to have become Charles's girlfriend.
Kayla Culverson: Her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok.
Dave: An Australian on holiday in Thailand with some friends.
Madame Jeanne Durand: A French magazine editor, who was involved in a serious accident, and seems also to be involved with the Mafia in some way.
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Henri Carron - a rag-and-bone man, owner of an heroic dog called Bonaparte.
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Dr. Laurent: A veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix, vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre: An old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Francoise Gaudin: An intellectually disabled woman living in Versailles.
Alain Gaudin: brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Estelle Gaudin [deceased]: mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased]: Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903


Chapter 33
The Drug Bust

By tfawcus

Link from Chapter 32 (posted just before Christmas)

I got up to find Kayla already gone and the mess from the night before cleared away. It was already ten o'clock. As I staggered towards the bathroom, I could smell coffee simmering on the stove. Sun streamed through the window onto a neatly laid breakfast table, and a tempting aroma of fresh croissants hung in the air.

Chapter 33

"Where is Kayla?" I asked casually as I sat down. "She must have left early."

"Not really. It's already past nine o'clock. Anyway, why the keen interest in Kayla? She's not the one providing your breakfast."

"No particular reason. I just wondered where she'd gone. That's all."

There was a slight tension in the air. Anyone with sensitivity to such things might have mistaken it for paranormal activity. They would have been wrong. It was Helen's sixth sense at work. She, like most women, seemed to be equipped with an antenna capable of picking up vibrations beyond the wit of man.

I took a sip of coffee before continuing, "I assume that she's gone back to Montmartre, to lover boy, André. Is that right?"

"Yes, but I doubt they are lovers." Helen’s face clouded as she said it. "She told me a bit more last night about him, and about her circle of friends up there. You're not going to believe this, but that dwarf we saw at the Moulin Rouge comes from Versailles. He might even be descended from Germain. Now, wouldn't that be a coincidence?"

With my mouth full, I mumbled, "A bit farfetched, but possible, I suppose."

"But not as much of a coincidence as this. I was telling Kayla about our time in Versailles and mentioned Alain Gaudin. Her interest was immediately piqued. Apparently, one of the stagehands at the Moulin Rouge is called Alain, and - get this - he has a distinctive white streak in his hair. It would have to be the same man. He and the dwarf are almost inseparable."

"Now that is interesting. I wonder what Madame Lefauvre would say if she knew? Enough gossip to keep her going for months." I smiled at the thought. "Alain and his darling dwarf tumbling about amid the boobs and bottoms of the Red Windmill. The mind boggles."

"Anyway, Kayla's going to see if she can find out more about him. A little judicious flattery, and he's sure to take the bait."

"Yes, she'd only need to wiggle the naughty bits, and he'd be hooked."

Helen gave me another of those looks of hers. I could see that I was treading on dangerous ground. On the other hand, I was delighted to think that we had an ally in our quest to discover the secret of the French letter - always assuming there was a secret. Alain not only had the original letter - and my envelope, blast him - but he knew something about the dark deeds of its author, Colonel Neville Arnoux.

We might also be able to uncover more informaton about Lautrec's lost painting, the one that Alain thought belonged, by rights, to him. Now that would be a scoop, I thought. My mind was buzzing as I devoured the last of the croissant.

"Come on, Charles. Hurry up! We should already be at the hospital. Jeanne isn't going to hang about there forever, waiting for us."

I answered absentmindedly, "You're right, and Bellini's men might be back on the trail. I suppose we'd better get going."

I was in two minds about returning to the hospital, especially after the things that Kayla had said about Jeanne. The sooner she was out of our lives, the better. If Bellini bumped her off, it would be no great loss.

However, Helen still seemed to regard her as a guardian angel. I couldn't understand this blind spot, but I knew she wouldn't countenance any suggestion of letting events take their natural course.

It seemed to me that the only way of destroying Helen's dangerous relationship might be to implement my original intention, and spirit the pernicious old viper away to England for a while. When back on home territory, I might be able to milk her of her venom, or perhaps even withdraw her fangs altogether.

We arrived at L'hôpital Lariboisière half an hour later, to find no sign of Bellini's men, and no sign of Jeanne either. Her bed was empty.

"Madame Durand? Let me see." The duty nurse flipped through her register. "That's strange. It seems she discharged herself earlier this morning. The paperwork must have been handled by one of the other nurses." Somewhat apologetically, she added, "I only came on duty a short while ago. Wait a moment while I ring downstairs to reception. They may know more."

Helen glared at me. "This is all your fault, Charles. I knew we should have been here earlier. Now what are we going to do?"

"I suggest we wait while the nurse makes her enquiries. There's no point in jumping to conclusions."

"Jumping to conclusions? You wouldn't jump, even if I put a firecracker under you."

"Perhaps not. But the hospital security staff might."

"God! You're impossible with that bloody English sangfroid of yours."

I didn't bother to reply, but regarded her speculatively, recalling Napoleon's famous words: "He who is full of courage and sangfroid before an enemy battery sometimes trembles before a skirt.''

"What are you smiling at, Charles?"

"Oh, nothing."

"- and what's with that ridiculous trembling, for goodness sake? You look like an alcoholic with the DTs."

I was saved from answering by the nurse.

"Excusez-moi, mademoiselle." She looked puzzled. "The receptionist says that Madame Durand has only recently been discharged. I can check with matron, if you like, and see if she knows more. A moment, please."

"Come on! We're wasting our time here," Helen said. She tugged me away towards the lift. I turned to the nurse, with a half-smile of resigned apology. I daresay she thought me a poor excuse for a man.

Matters were made worse when we got downstairs. "You stay here in the waiting area, Charles, while I go and see what I can find out."

I was becoming irked at being bossed about by this mere chit of a girl, but thought the better of tagging along behind her. Instead, I reached for a newspaper and sat down. A rather pointless exercise really, as my French wasn't good enough to understand much. Nonetheless, it was somewhere to bury my dark mood while I quietly simmered down.

I could make little sense of the headline: UNE SAISIE DE DROGUE À PARIS. My mind turned to Scaramouche and his friends. "The drag season in Paris" perhaps? No, perhaps not. There was a picture further down the page of an unsavoury looking man handcuffed between two gendarmes. Fat, with beady eyes and jowls like a pig. His bulging Italian suit added to the sinister impression. I couldn't help thinking of Napoleon -- no, neither the dictator, nor Henri Carron's heroic bull mastiff, but that odious oinker, the scourge of Animal Farm. Standing behind, and slightly to one side of him was a square-built bozo with an impassive face, one of a pair of faces I was beginning to know quite well. Doubtless his doppelgänger was lurking in the background.

The words 'cocaïne' and 'amphétamine', essentially the same in both French and English, leapt from the page. UNE SAISIE DE DROGUE À PARIS. Of course! ...a seizure of drugs in Paris. It appeared that our Monsieur Bellini had been neutralised by the Parisian Drug Squad. I paused to let the news sink in. So where did that leave Madame Durand?

As I lowered the newspaper, I saw Helen approaching, her arm wrapped around the shoulder of my question mark.

"Look, Charles dear, I've found Jeanne! She was in the cafeteria all the time, waiting for us to arrive." Helen looked triumphant. "Now the three of us can leave for England together, just as we planned, can't we?"

Author Notes I could write a glossary of the British slang here, but I think most of it is pretty self-evident from the context. I hope so, anyway.

List of characters:

Charles Brandon: The narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Helen Culverson: A woman of some mystery, also a travel writer, who seems to have become Charles's girlfriend.
Kayla Culverson: Her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok.
Dave: An Australian on holiday in Thailand with some friends.
Madame Jeanne Durand: A French magazine editor, who was involved in a serious accident, and seems also to be involved with the Mafia in some way.
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Henri Carron - a rag-and-bone man, owner of an heroic dog called Bonaparte.
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Dr. Laurent: A veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix, vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre: An old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Francoise Gaudin: An intellectually disabled woman living in Versailles.
Alain Gaudin: brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Estelle Gaudin [deceased]: mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased]: Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903

Image is of the stamps on the famous envelope that started us out on this wild goose chase. (See Chapter 1)


Chapter 34
The French Letter

By tfawcus

the last paragraphs of Chapter 33

The words 'cocaïne' and 'amphétamine', essentially the same in both French and English, leapt from the page. UNE SAISIE DE DROGUE À PARIS. Of course! ...a seizure of drugs in Paris. It appeared that our Monsieur Bellini had been neutralised by the Parisian Drug Squad. I paused to let the news sink in. So where did that leave Madame Durand?

As I lowered the newspaper, I saw Helen approaching, her arm wrapped around the shoulder of my question mark.

"Look, Charles dear, I've found Jeanne! She was in the cafeteria all the time, waiting for us to arrive." Helen looked triumphant. "Now the three of us can leave for England together, just as we planned, can't we?"

Chapter 34


"Yes, but what about Kayla?" I was surprised that Helen still seemed so eager to leave the country, having witnessed her euphoria the night before. "Surely, you must want to stay and spend more time with her now?"

Helen looked at me as though I was crazy. "Perhaps you have forgotten, Charles, but we are being pursued by members of a drug cartel - people who will stop at nothing."

My view had been coloured by what I had read on the front page of the newspaper and I realised that she
, of course, wasn't yet aware of the changed situation.

"Not any longer. Come and sit down. I have something to show you."

Helen and Jeanne sat down next to each other and I sat opposite them, where I had a good view of their reactions as I showed them the newspaper headline. "Look! It seems that our troubles are over. Bellini and his men have been arrested."

Helen's expression was one of surprise and relief, but she still turned to Jeanne, as if to seek confirmation.


Jeanne remained impassive. "Bellini and his men are just the tip of the iceberg, my dear. Do you really think, just because they have been arrested, we are now safe? The Mafia does not cease to operate just because one or two of its members are out of circulation."

"Really?" I said. "Is that so? We have rather a different account from Kayla. She seems to think that Bellini is a small-time operator without any connection to the Mafia."

Jeanne did not quite conceal the flicker of anger, or was it perhaps alarm that lit her face? Either way, an unmistakable crack in her taciturn veneer. I wondered if Helen had noticed it, too.

"Kayla? But she's only recently come back from Thailand. What would she know about it?" Jeanne turned to face Helen more directly. "How did you manage to get back in touch? I thought you'd lost contact."

Evidently, Helen had not yet told Jeanne anything of the previous night's events.

I had hoped that Helen might be circumspect about the information she shared concerning Kayla's whereabouts, but she never gave it a second thought. It all came gushing out. "We were at the Moulin Rouge last night. Kayla was right there on stage, dancing in the chorus line and kicking her heels up with the best of them."

Helen's eyes sparkled as her words tumbled over each other. "We caught up with her after the show and she told us all about her adventures in Thailand, being kidnapped by Mr Bukhari, escaping on the train south, arriving in Phuket with some Australian tourists..."

"Yes, yes, I know all that. She murdered Bukhari. She was being hunted by the police. It was all over the front page of the Bangkok newspapers."

"Hardly murder," I cut in. "He kidnapped her, and she killed him in self-defence while making her escape. It's more likely members of the drug cartel were after her than the Thai police. How would they have known anyway, unless someone tipped them off?" I paused for just long enough to make it sound like an accusation. "You were one of Mr Bukhari's associates weren't you, Jeanne?"

Jeanne remained tight-lipped but Helen was aghast. "What are you suggesting, Charles?"

"I'm not suggesting anything. I'm just stating the facts."

"No, Mr Brandon. You are reporting what Kayla and Helen told you. That's a very different thing."

Helen bristled. "But you and Mr Bukhari were connected. He was at our first meeting." I could hear the doubt creeping into her voice. "Are you suggesting that Kayla was lying about what happened to her? Why would she do that?"

"Calm down, dear. That's not at all what I'm suggesting. I'm merely pointing out to your friend the difference between fact and hearsay. The newspapers described Mr Bukhari's death as a murder. That is a fact. Kayla suddenly disappeared from Bangkok. That, too, is a fact.

"...and, yes, I did know Mr Bukhari. He was an important Pakistani businessman who was impressed by your singing and dancing. He was prepared to sponsor you and further your career." Jeanne paused, as if to emphasise the point. "He thought you and Kayla had great talent, wasted in the nightclubs of Bangkok. That, also, is a fact - perhaps the most important fact of all. It could have been the opportunity of a lifetime. The real question is why did Kayla suddenly choose to disappear if she was as innocent as Mr Brandon suggests?"

I was quick to respond, "She fled because she knew who Bukhari was, and what he was. She remembered her father talking about him in connection with the opium trade. You seem to forget that these girls were raised in the Hindu Kush, on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. She feared for her life."

"Really, Mr Brandon? You surprise me." There was an edge of sarcasm in Jeanne's voice. "Of course I know where the girls came from. What kind of a fool do you take me for?" She turned to Helen. "Did you ever hear your father mention Mr Bukhari in connection with the drug trade?"

"No, I don't think so."

"I thought not. Your sister, a lovely person in all other respects, seems to have a rather over-active imagination." She paused. "What did she tell you about her time in Phuket?"

Helen looked uneasy and swept a strand of hair back behind her ear. "Nothing really. She just said it was a long story and she'd tell us about it later. But it sounded as though, whatever it was, it turned her against you - big time. Do you have any idea why?"

"Yes. There was a misunderstanding. She seemed to think I was interfering with her life, but I was only trying to help her out of a difficult situation. She became angry and irrational and swore she would have nothing to do with me ever again."

"A rather extreme reaction," I said. "What was the misunderstanding about?"

"That, Mr Brandon, is really none of your business."

It was at this point I decided that I, too, would have nothing further to do with Madame Durand if I could help it. I was tired of her abrasiveness, and her evasive answer only reinforced my view that she was a thoroughly nasty piece of work. I still could not figure out what kind of a hold she had over Helen, but one thing seemed clear. She had her in her power. I looked across at them. There seemed to be a spark of electricity there that I had not noticed before. A physical magnetism, if you like.

"If that's the way you feel," I replied coldly, "I don't think there is much point in you coming to England with us. Anyway, according to Kayla, you no longer have anything to fear." I got up from my seat. "Come on, Helen. We have a train to catch."

"No, Charles. You have a train to catch. I'm staying here with Jeanne. She needs me. And you are right, I do want to spend more time with Kayla."

"I see," I said, and I really did see, perhaps more clearly than I had done for quite some time.

Author Notes List of characters:

Charles Brandon: The narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Helen Culverson: A woman of some mystery, also a travel writer, who develops a liaison with Charles.
Kayla Culverson: Her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok, but has now turned up in Paris.
Madame Jeanne Durand: A French magazine editor, who was involved in a serious accident, and seems also to be involved with the Mafia in some way.
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman, now deceased.
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Henri Carron - a rag-and-bone man, owner of an heroic dog called Bonaparte.
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Dr. Laurent: A veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix, vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre: An old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Francoise Gaudin: An intellectually disabled woman living in Versailles.
Alain Gaudin: brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney and part-time stagehand at the Moulin Rouge.
Estelle Gaudin [deceased]: mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased]: Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.

Image is of the stamps on the envelope from the Paris Stamp Market that started us out on this wild goose chase. (See Chapter 1)


Chapter 35
Revelations in Montmartre

By tfawcus

The final paragraphs of Chapter 34:

"Come on, Helen. We have a train to catch."

"No, Charles. You have a train to catch. I'm staying here with Jeanne. She needs me. And you are right, I do want to spend more time with Kayla."

"I see," I said, and I really did see, perhaps more clearly than I had done for quite some time.

Chapter 35

"You're making a big mistake, Helen. I have no idea what kind of a hold Jeanne has over you, but this is your chance to break free. For your own sake, come with me."

She looked from one of us to the other. "You don't understand, Charles. I have to stay. There is no other choice." Jeanne put her arm around Helen's shoulder and cast a defiant look in my direction. It was as if she were claiming ownership. For one moment, I thought that Helen might pull away, but she didn't.

There was something here beyond my understanding. I felt a surge of anger, but there was nothing I could do. How easy, I thought, to become angry about things one doesn't understand. I knew, deep within, that it would only be through understanding that I could save Helen. Save her from what, I wondered? From herself? From Jeanne? I didn't know. I wasn't even entirely sure she needed saving. Perhaps I was just a victim of my own vanity.

"All right," I said. "If that is what you feel you must do, I have to accept it. Nonetheless, I hope this will be au revoir and not adieu." Before turning to leave, I added, "You know how to contact me, if you need me."

Helen seemed to be holding back a tide of emotion as she nodded. What was it, I wondered, that made such a strong and self-confident woman so apparently cowed and subservient? I imagined it might be a while before I found the answer.

I felt like a man who had just delivered a child into the hands of a monster. Was this how the Athenians felt in ancient times, when offering up their sacrifice of youths and maidens to assuage the Minotaur?

I needed to get out of Paris for a while to think things over. I had also accumulated a backlog of work while I'd been traipsing around with Helen like a lovesick orange. I needed somewhere quiet to get on top of it. An English cottage buried deep in the countryside would be perfect.

First, however, I needed to return to Rue Gabrielle to pick up a few things for the journey, and to let my landlord know I was going to be away for a while. The trip by taxi didn't take long at that time of the morning but was long enough to feed my growing sense of regret. When I walked into my apartment, I found myself inhaling the lingering scent of Helen's perfume. Or was it, perhaps, Kayla's? The two had become intermingled.

On an impulse, I ducked down the stairs, crossed the street, and strode off towards the Louise Michel gardens for a last ride up the funicular rail to Sacré Coeur. It was a glorious day, and it felt good to be alive. England could wait. I looked forward to the prospect of a light lunch in Montmartre, and a final, lingering view of Paris spread out below, looking like a scale model of itself made for the amusement of the gods.

I spotted a table beneath the dappled shade of a honey locust tree and made myself comfortable. The waiter brought a menu and I scanned it for an aperitif. It didn't take me long to decide. "Je prendrai un Suze, s'il vous plaît, et un plat d'olives."

Infused with gentian root, the Suze has an earthy, bitter and refreshing taste - perfect for a summer's day. The bitterness would suit my mood nicely, I thought.

While I waited for it to arrive, my attention was drawn to a skeletal old man sitting on some stone steps nearby. Not quite down-and-out, but he had obviously seen better days. There was a box of pastels beside him and he had a pad of sketching paper on his knee. He was importuning passing tourists to pause for a lightning souvenir of their visit, but meeting with little success.

After a while, I beckoned him over. "You can draw me if you like. Take your time. I'm in no hurry."

He needed no persuasion, and sat opposite me to study my face before embarking on his work with single-minded intensity. A small group of people gathered behind to watch. One or two gasped in admiration. A covey of young girls giggled shyly. "You're next," I told them. The artist smiled with delight, exposing nicotine stained teeth.

Before long, a familiar figure joined the group; a tall and distinguished looking man who stood curling his waxed moustache appreciatively. He paused for a moment before stepping forward.

"André, how g-good to see you again," I said, the words being a poor match for my thoughts.

He drew up a chair. "It was churlish of me to take offence at your rudeness last night, Charles. Please forgive me."

The non sequitur of this strange apology amused me and, not knowing quite what else to do, I forgave him. His insouciance disarmed me completely. "Where is Kayla?" I asked.

"Oh, she'll be here shortly. We have a rendezvous at the Musée de Montmartre for lunch. Perhaps you would like to join us? She was embarrassed about not being able to say goodbye to you this morning."

André glanced across at his friend, Marcel. "I see you've finished already. Let me see this masterpiece of yours." He glanced at the sketch before addressing me, "What possessed you to allow this rogue to steal your soul for his portrait? It is, veritably, a Faustian work of art."

"I felt sorry for him." I said as I assessed the caricature of my likeness. "Now I have a priceless portrait and I don't know what to do with it."

Marcel obviously did not agree that his portrait was priceless. On the contrary, he pitched its value at twenty-five euros, a price he calculated, shrewdly, I might be willing to pay.

"You could give it to Helen," Andre said. "By the way, where is she?"

"That's a long story. Perhaps we should wait until Kayla arrives. I think it's important that she knows what has happened. I doubt I'll be seeing Helen again for a while."

"Ah, a mystery! I love mysteries. They lift us out of the humdrum and add spice to our lives." André picked up the portrait and showed it off to the assembled crowd. "It's very good, don't you think?" He passed it across to me. "Perhaps you should leave it with Kayla. She could give it to Helen when she next sees her -- a memento of lost love. You are a lost love, aren't you, Charles dear?" he added mischievously.

Before I had time to answer, Kayla came flouncing down the street towards us. She looked ravishing in a tight-fitting white frock festooned with scarlet poppies the size of dinner plates.

"Hello, Charles. What a pleasant surprise! I thought you'd be in England by now."

André leaped up from his chair and threw his arms out. They embraced extravagantly with air kisses on either cheek. "Mwah! Mwah!"

"Darling, you look divine!" He flashed her a radiant smile and clicked his fingers to summon the waiter. "We must have champagne! Look, darling, Charles has had a portrait done. Isn't it just marvellous?"

Kayla glanced at the likeness, then studied my face with close attention to detail. "Almost as good as the real thing," she murmured appreciatively. I blushed to the roots of my hair.

"My word!" she teased. "I think you've caught a touch of the sun. Whatever have you done with Helen?" She arched her eyebrows in a way that reminded me of her sister. "How foolish of her to let you out alone."

"Come now," said Scaramouche, "stop flirting with our dear friend. You're making me jealous! Besides, the champagne has arrived."

He passed us each a glass. Raising the narrow flutes so that the bubbles sparkled in the sun, we clinked them against one another. "To absent friends," he said. "Lest we forget," he added with a knowing wink.

"Don't take any notice of him," Kayla said, "nor me, for that matter. We are entertainers, a little larger than life, and we don't mean half of what we say. You shouldn't get me wrong. I'm not trying to steal you away from Helen. Just having a bit of fun. That's all. I love her too much to play a dirty trick like that."

In a way, although she excited me, I was relieved to think that Kayla and I could just be friends, with no romantic baggage. My heartstrings were still slightly stretched and out of tune.

"I'm surprised she's not with you. Is there some problem at the hospital with Jeanne?"

"Well, yes, actually, there is. Helen's decided to ditch me in favour of Jeanne. Says that Jeanne needs her. There is something between them that I don't understand, and I'm worried for her."

"You're a bit naïve, aren't you, dear? Anyone can see from a mile away that Jeanne is a lesbian. Helen, poor thing, is bisexual. She has fought against it and denied it for years, compensating by being over-flirtatious with the opposite sex, perhaps hoping to smother what she still sees as being an unnatural urge."

Kayla stopped there to see how I was taking the news. Not very well, as it happened, although I did my best to conceal it. "I'm afraid that, in that sense, she may have been using you."

As this revelation drove a fresh wound into my already battered ego, Kayla continued, "Don't take it too badly. She really does love you, but she has a few issues to resolve. It's not easy for her."

"I'll say she has a few issues," I almost hissed. I picked up my glass of champagne and took a large gulp. The bubbles went straight up the back of my nose, making my eyes water so badly that I could hardly recognise the blurred images of Kayla and André in front of me. The sight of me coughing and spluttering had them both doubled up. Their hilarity was infectious and I, too, was soon overtaken by convulsive paroxysms of laughter. What a catharsis it was. I laughed until I cried. My sides ached. I was weak at the knees. And still the laughter came.

Andre looked at me, tears running down his cheeks, and said, "I'm glad you can see the funny side, old chap." As he wiped his eyes, he knocked his waxed moustache skew-whiff and his mascara started to run, setting Kayla and me off into another round of insane guffaws. Eventually, we were so completely drained that we could laugh no more.

Kayla then took me by the hand and said, "I'm so sorry, so very sorry, but you'll get over it. Sexuality is a strange thing. We all have our own definitions of what is normal. Perhaps in time you will come to accept Helen for what she is."

Suddenly, I no longer felt like joining them for lunch at the Musée de Montmartre. I needed to be alone. I made my apologies and, after exchanging telephone numbers and email addresses with Kayla, I bid them farewell.

Kayla got up and gave me a light kiss on the cheek. "Keep in touch," she said.

"I will. I promise."

*****

Three hours later I was roaring through the Picardy countryside on the Eurostar express, my face pressed to the window, and my thoughts, like the wheels of the train, turning along the preordained lines of my prejudices. We were due to arrive at St. Pancras station around 4 p.m., just in time for the London rush hour.

Author Notes I am almost, but not quite, embarrassed to explain the origin of 'lovesick orange': Knock, knock. Who's there? Orange. Orange who? Orange juice sorry you made me cry.
However, a more plausible explanation, offered by one reviewer, is that, when lip reading, 'orange juice' is almost identical to 'I love you'.

List of characters:

Charles Brandon: The narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Helen Culverson: A woman of some mystery, also a travel writer, who develops a liaison with Charles.
Kayla Culverson: Her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok, but has now turned up in Paris.
Madame Jeanne Durand: A French magazine editor, who was involved in a serious accident, and seems also to be involved with the Mafia in some way.
Andre (aka Scaramouche) - one of Kayla's friends in Montmartre.
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman, now deceased.
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Henri Carron - a rag-and-bone man, owner of an heroic dog called Bonaparte.
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Dr. Laurent: A veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix, vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre: An old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Francoise Gaudin: An intellectually disabled woman living in Versailles.
Alain Gaudin: brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney and part-time stagehand at the Moulin Rouge.
Estelle Gaudin [deceased]: mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased]: Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.

Image is of the stamps on the envelope from the Paris Stamp Market that started us out on this wild goose chase. (See Chapter 1)


Chapter 36
The Eurostar to England

By tfawcus

from Chapter 35

Three hours later I was roaring through the Picardy countryside on the Eurostar express, my face pressed to the window, and my thoughts, like the wheels of the train, turning along the preordained lines of my prejudices. We were due to arrive at St. Pancras station around 4 p.m., just in time for the London rush hour.

Chapter 36

There is no turning back on the path of iron. One rushes through the landscape in madcap motion, borne by grappled and grinding wheels, locked on parallel lines, inevitably impelled. No deviation, no escape, no matter how maudlin the machinations of the mind. The heart goes clickety-clack, clickety-clack, driving the throbbing pulse of humors; rust encrusted blood, bile, black as night, yellow as the lick of a London fog, and phlegm. Each one striving for ascendency. Life's Chemin de Fer, its deadly game of chance. Nine temperaments, one life to rule them all. Should I stick on the mediocrity of five, I mused, or draw a third card for the chance of a Baccarat?

How I began to regret my reaction to the news of Helen's bisexuality. Maybe her flirtation with me had merely been an attempt to assuage her conscience. She might well have been using me to sublimate a sin she had been schooled to view as unnatural. Was my ego so fragile that I could not bear the thought of being used in this way? The copper pot on the stove is more honoured by boiling broth than by hanging from its hook over the range, an onlooker in life's kitchen.

Clickety-clack, clickety clack, and the lick of a London fog, a maudlin seep of thoughts going round, and round, and round.

With a sinuous sway, the train raced past long straight roads, poplar lined, erect and pencil thin, grey-green against the swathes of ripening corn. They suggested columns of marching soldiers, and memories of the Somme. I watched the poppies nod and nudge against the scars of long forsaken trenches. How far, I wondered, would Madame Durand drag Helen down among poppies of a different kind, bleeding sap and the sticky sweetness of lingering death? I dwelt on this and dozed, falling in and out of sleep, haunted by foul imaginings borne on nightmare's foetid breath.

Awakened now, I registered the recent arrival of a fellow passenger, slumped down opposite me, belching garlic breath and over-ripened cheese.

"Salut, mon frère - ça va?" he said, with a broad and vacuous grin. "Allez. Très bien!" He stretched across and proffered a piece of baguette, smeared with a crawling ooze of brie, into which he had pressed a small white onion that bore an uncanny resemblance to the eye of a dead man.

I declined and closed my eyes once more.

Again, the dreams took hold. This time they were of Helen, festering in a Bangkok jail, pale with pleading eyes and arms stretched out in supplication. My hands were being thrust aside by Jeanne, whose thin lips sneered as she mocked and jangled keys.

The prison bars morphed slowly into trees, with rays of sunlight flashing in-between, then, all of a sudden, the train plunged into the gloom of a charnel house, its song becoming a hollow sound as it thundered through the Chunnel.

At length, we were disgorged, breaking out into the Garden of Eden, cobnut lanes of Kent with cockeyed oasts and fields of hops, orchards groaning with the promise of the cider press and golden pints in firelit English pubs.

Soon the hollyhocks and climbing roses of Kent cottage gardens gave way to the grey, amorphous sprawl of London. The train tunnelled like a tapeworm into the entrails of the East End and the Thames dockland, before emerging and coming to rest in the majestic upper concourse of St Pancras Station.

I rescued my overnight case from the luggage rack and disembarked. Not yet ready to launch myself into the seething mass of humanity below, I sought out Searcys champagne bar for a celebration of my homecoming, and a gathering of my wits. Nothing but native fare would do for this occasion, so I selected a medley of English seafood - Colchester rock oysters, Portland crab and some mussels from the West Country - then asked for a large glass of sparkling Rosé from Dorset's famous Furleigh Estate to wash it all down.

Alone at last and looking forward to a week or two of solitude, I gradually became aware of a silver-haired gentleman in a well-cut coat, who was eyeing me from a nearby table. His pink shirt set off a black silk tie with blue diagonal stripes that proclaimed him to be an Old Etonian. I raised my glass, then turned slightly away.

A few moments later, he was at my side and, attracting my attention with a discreet cough, he opened with, "I say, old chap. Sorry to intrude and all that, but it's Brandon, isn't it? Charles Brandon, the famous travel writer? Mind if I join you?"

Well, what could a chap say? "Of course, my dear fellow! But you have me at a disadvantage, for though your face seems familiar, I can't immediately recall your name."

"Brockenhurst. Forgive me. Sir David Brockenhurst. I am somewhat of a fan of yours, in a roundabout way."

He signalled the waitress and ordered a Vichy water before making a steeple of his carefully manicured hands. I noticed his signet ring had a boar's head on it, and sighed inwardly, hoping that he wouldn't turn out to be too much of a bore himself. Hoping, in fact, that he'd sink back into the woodwork again after having made his interest known to me.

As things turned out, that was not to be the case.

Author Notes Chemin de Fer, the French for a railway, is also an alternative name for the game of Baccarat, the purpose of which is to score as close as possible to nine with two or three cards.

The Chunnel - a common contraction for Channel Tunnel

List of characters:

Charles Brandon: The narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Helen Culverson: A woman of some mystery, also a travel writer, who develops a liaison with Charles.
Kayla Culverson: Her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok, but has now turned up in Paris.
Madame Jeanne Durand: A French magazine editor, who was involved in a serious accident, and seems also to be involved with the Mafia in some way.
Andre (aka Scaramouche) - one of Kayla's friends in Montmartre.
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman, now deceased.
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Henri Carron - a rag-and-bone man, owner of an heroic dog called Bonaparte.
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Dr. Laurent: A veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix, vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre: An old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Francoise Gaudin: An intellectually disabled woman living in Versailles.
Alain Gaudin: brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney and part-time stagehand at the Moulin Rouge.
Estelle Gaudin [deceased]: mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased]: Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.

Image is of the stamps on the envelope from the Paris Stamp Market that started us out on this wild goose chase. (See Chapter 1)


Chapter 37
A Chance Meeting

By tfawcus

...from Chapter 36

Alone at last and looking forward to a week or two of solitude, I gradually became aware of a silver-haired gentleman in a well-cut coat, who was eyeing me from a nearby table. His pink shirt set off a black silk tie with blue diagonal stripes that proclaimed him to be an Old Etonian. I raised my glass, then turned slightly away.

A few moments later, he was at my side and, attracting my attention with a discreet cough, he opened with, "I say, old chap. Sorry to intrude and all that, but it's Brandon, isn't it? Charles Brandon, the famous travel writer? Mind if I join you?"

Well, what could a chap say? "Of course, my dear fellow! But you have me at a disadvantage, for though your face seems familiar, I can't immediately recall your name."

"Brockenhurst. Forgive me. Sir David Brockenhurst. I am somewhat of a fan of yours, in a roundabout way."

He signalled the waitress and ordered a Vichy water before making a steeple of his carefully manicured hands. I noticed his signet ring had a boar's head on it, and sighed inwardly, hoping that he wouldn't turn out to be too much of a bore himself. Hoping, in fact, that he'd sink back into the woodwork again after having made make his interest known to me.

As things turned out, that was not to be the case.

Chapter 37


No doubt, Sir David sensed my reserve, and there was an awkward pause before his conversational gambit began.

"What a coincidence it is, bumping into you like this, Brandon. Have you just arrived from your latest travels, or are you about to set off on some new gastronomic adventure?"

What's that to you? I thought, but I answered civilly enough. "I've just come in from Paris on the Eurostar. Now, as you can see, I'm whiling away some time until the rush hour subsides... and what about you, Sir David?"

"Oh, please - you can drop the formalities, old chap. Call me David." I demurred with a thin smile, knowing that he didn't really mean it. Even if I reciprocated his invitation to be on first name terms, he would no doubt continue to call me Brandon. English class distinctions are not broken that easily.

I said nothing but held him in my gaze as I waited for him to answer my question. However, the waitress chose that moment to arrive with his Vichy water. He took a sip. "Not as good as your bubbly, but I'm off the grog for a while. Stomach ulcers, don't you know? The curse of living too well."

I couldn't have given a damn about Sir David's stomach and, anyway, it was more than likely the ulcers were a fabrication. I knew from personal experience that they left one feeling irritable and out of sorts, and certainly in no mood to engage complete strangers in idle chit-chat.

"What a coincidence," he continued, "us being on the same train together.
I'm surprised we didn't bump into each other. We could have spent an hour or two in pleasant conversation. "

I wasn't at all surprised, but I was mightily relieved. The thought of being trapped with him drivelling on for the entire journey sent shivers up my spine.

"I imagine that might have been because you were travelling First Class," I said, "a luxury we humble writers can seldom afford."

"Short of ready cash, eh? What a curse! Never mind - I have a proposition that might interest you and provide you with the wherewithal to travel First Class as often as you like."

I was surprised and offended by the way he spoke of my financial position. How dare he presume from my remark that I was poverty-stricken. It was gauche, and out of character with my image of an Old Etonian and a Knight of the Realm. I decided to retaliate by taking him up on the offer to call him David.

"As a matter of fact, David..." I gave the name slight emphasis and paused to relish his reaction, "I prefer to travel cattle class. One meets such interesting people." (I could almost smell the garlic breath that swirled around my lie.)

"Quite, quite... I understand. You writers are always on the lookout for interesting characters, your stock in trade I suppose. Grist to the mill, eh?"

"Something like that... and, if you don't mind me asking, what took you to Paris at this time of the year... David?"

He burbled on, ignoring the intended sleight, "Visiting an old pal of mine, Gaston Arnoux. Bit of a bounder, really, but we enjoy each other's company. High jinks, and all that."

I was rapidly coming to the conclusion that Sir David's affected way of speaking, a parody of English upper-class banter, was something he put on purely for my benefit. I smelt a rat.

"Gaston Arnoux, did you say? No relation to Colonel Neville Arnoux, I suppose?"

"Can't say that I know. Though I believe his father was a military man. No idea about his name, rank and number, and all that. Not something Gaston would ever have talked about. The two of them didn't see eye to eye. A rich old bastard - that's where all of Louis' money came from of course." Sir David laughed. "The old boy would be turning in his grave if he knew what he does with it, dabbling on the fringes of the art world, living the high life in Paris, and goodness knows what."

"Interested in art, is he? Anything in particular?" I was keeping the old fool talking, not so much on the slim chance that his friend was related to Colonel Arnoux, but more immediately because it's not easy to give one's full attention to delicacies like oysters and crab while thinking of something intelligent to say.

"Mainly the artists of Montmartre. You know, people like Degas, Matisse, Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec."

"Artists that you wish your grandfather had had the foresight to buy a century ago," I said between mouthfuls.

"Exactly! ...and it seems that his grandfather did. That was the basis of his fortune. The esteemed ancestor had a particular interest in that funny dwarf fellow, Toulouse-Lautrec."

"Really?" Suddenly, Sir David was becoming more interesting than my West Country mussels. "I wouldn't mind meeting up with your friend one day. I have a similar interest." I pushed my plate to one side and swilled my last mouthful down with a draught of sparkling Rosé.

"Perhaps that could be arranged. I shall be back in Paris in a fortnight, and I have a suspicion that you might be, too."

"Whatever gives you that idea?"

"The little proposition I mentioned - assuming you are interested?"

"That would depend."

I weighed my words carefully, for any interest I might have was counterbalanced by my suspicions about this chance meeting. What was there to trust about this unlikely knight with a plum in his cheek, who appeared to be offering me some shady deal?

The odds were against him being able to provide a connection with Colonel Arnoux. Yet
I couldn't afford to ignore a possible lead. After all, the colonel - according to Alain Gaudin - was the author of the letter written to his grandmother, Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin, back in 1903...

Without thinking, I felt in my jacket pocket for the envelope from the Paris Stamp Market. Then I remembered, much to my annoyance, that Alain still had it, together with the letter it once contained.

Author Notes List of characters:

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Sir David Brockenhurst - a chance acquaintance, met at St Pancras Station
Helen Culverson - a woman of some mystery, also a travel writer, who seems to have become Charles's girlfriend.
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok.
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor, who was involved in a serious accident, and seems also to be involved with the Mafia in some way.
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Francoise Gaudin - an intellectually disabled woman living in Versailles.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.
Gaston Arnoux - an unknown quantity at this stage, a dilettante.


Chapter 38
A Matter of Moolah

By tfawcus

end of Chapter 37

Without thinking, I felt in my jacket pocket for the envelope from the Paris Stamp Market. Then I remembered, much to my annoyance, that Alain still had it, together with the letter it once contained.

Chapter 38

I needed to find a way to convince Alain, if not to part with the letter, then at least to let me read it for myself. I already knew from him that it contained hollow promises from the colonel that had lured Suzanne to Paris. Once there, he had set her up in a sordid garret in Montmartre, captive to his carnal whim.

What induced her to follow that path? Money, perhaps? Exchanging the backwater of Versailles for the whirligig of the capital? Or was it that her older sister, Carmen, had preceded her? Maybe she imagined an easy life posing for artists, as Carmen had done for Lautrec. Bright lights have blinded many a young girl to the darkness and depravity concealed, like a rotting corpse, beneath the veneer. Beyond the glitz and glamour, prostitution populates the shadows. Those who can't afford the carousel soon find themselves in a spiral of destitution and despair.

Who was this monster, Colonel Neville Arnoux? I needed to find out. Could Gaston Arnoux be holding the key that would unlock more information about him?

Sir David rapped the table with the bottom of his glass to regain my attention. "My dear chap - are you all right? You seem to have drifted off."

"Not at all," I assured him. "I was merely reflecting while waiting for you to explain your proposition."

"Ah! The proposition. Straightforward, really. I have one or two canvasses in England that need to be transported to Paris next week. They are for an exhibition in Gaston's gallery. Unfortunately, I can't do it myself as I have urgent business elsewhere."

He waited for my reaction, but I remained impassive. Stunned is a more accurate description. "They would fit neatly into your suitcase, and he would pay handsomely to have them delivered in time for the opening. That's it, in a nutshell."

"Whatever makes you think I'd want to do a thing like that?"

"Moolah."

"Moolah?"

"Dough, dosh, cash, old chap." Sir David's eyes lit up like a one-armed bandit about to deliver a jackpot. "I think you may find it suits you." He leant forward. "You see, I was also at the stage door the other night and saw you waltzing off with that tart from the chorus line." He tapped his nose and gave a sly wink. "It would give you a chance to dip your spoon into the honeypot again, old boy - all expenses paid. Now, what do you say to that?"

I resisted the temptation to throw up, spattering his pink shirtfront with partially digested oysters, and reminded myself that I really did want to meet Gaston. As for seeing Kayla again? Well, that didn't seem like too bad an idea, either. Maybe she could contact Alain and act as intermediary. I knew of his penchant for pretty girls. It was much less likely he'd respond if I made the approach.

My focus returned to the present, and in what seemed like an out-of-body experience, I heard myself saying, "I'd be delighted, David. Anything to help a chap out in his hour of need." I fumbled in my wallet for a card then passed it over to him. "Perhaps you could get in touch nearer the time, with arrangements for picking up the paintings?"

"Of course! I knew I could rely on you, Brandon. What a capital fellow you are. Can't thank you enough." He dusted an imaginary speck from his jacket as he got up. "Must dash. Have an important engagement, don't you know." Then, before turning on his heel, he gave a cheery salute. "Toodle-oo! See you next week!"

Curiouser and curiouser. He vanished into the crowd in the main concourse, coattails flapping, the very image of the White Rabbit, and I slipped into my own small world of conjecture until only my smile was left.

My thoughts were interrupted when an odour of cheap perfume assailed my nostrils. A well-endowed waitress was leaning over the table to clear my dishes. "Is there anything else I can get you, dearie?"

I felt my hackles rise. On the verge of saying, "Don't you 'dearie' me, young lady," I realised what a pompous ass I would sound. Instead, I said,"Yes. I'd like a double brandy - and bring me the bill, please." When it came, I wasn't altogether surprised to see that Sir David's Vichy water had been added to my account.


I was still thinking about Sir David as I made my way down to the Tube. Had he been following me, I wondered – and why had he selected me to courier his paintings? There had to be an ulterior motive. He was right, though. It suited my purpose, even if not for the reason he had lewdly suggested. Anyway, I couldn’t see it causing me any harm, and it might provide a useful lead in my investigations.

By this time, the crowds had begun to thin, and I had no difficulty in getting a seat on the Victoria Line train to Oxford Circus. The dank, slightly electric smell of the London Underground filled me with nostalgia.  There is nothing in the world quite like it.

As invariably seems to happen, I narrowly missed my connection to the Bakerloo Line, and had to wait a few minutes for the next westbound train. How irritating it is to hear the dwindling rumble of carriages disappearing into the darkness just as one reaches the platform. However, I wasn’t unduly worried, as there is a frequent service to the West Country from Paddington.

I spent the five wasted minutes contemplating the peace and quiet of my little cottage. A few days of solitude were just what I needed.
 

Author Notes List of characters:

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Sir David Brockenhurst - a chance acquaintance, met at St Pancras Station
Helen Culverson - a woman of some mystery, also a travel writer, who seems to have become Charles's girlfriend.
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok.
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor, who was involved in a serious accident, and seems also to be involved with the Mafia in some way.
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Francoise Gaudin - an intellectually disabled woman living in Versailles.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.
Gaston Arnoux - an unknown quantity at this stage, a dilettante. Owner of an art gallery in Paris.


Chapter 39
Moonraker Cottage

By tfawcus

...the last paragraphs of Chapter 38

As invariably seems to happen, I narrowly missed my connection to the Bakerloo Line, and had to wait a few minutes for the next westbound train. How irritating it is to hear the dwindling rumble of carriages disappearing into the darkness just as one reaches the platform. However, I wasn’t unduly worried, as there is a frequent service to the West Country from Paddington.

I spent the five wasted minutes contemplating the peace and quiet of my little cottage. A few days of solitude were just what I needed.
 
Chapter 39

There is a bleakness about Paddington station that is only partially dispelled by souvenir bears wearing hopeful expressions, sou'westers, and pairs of wellies - appropriate clothing, as all the world knows, for any right-minded bear bound for the West Country.

I stopped to scan the departures board. A fast train to Chippenham was due to leave from Platform 3 in twenty minutes, time enough to purchase a ticket and find a comfortable window seat. I looked forward, with pleasure, to the prospect of an uninterrupted journey that might give me the chance to read more of Helen's journal.

Jeanne's eagerness to lay her hands on the journal still puzzled me. Perhaps she felt evidence of her association with Bukhari would compromise her. Perhaps there was other information that would incriminate her if it fell into the wrong hands. It was with a feeling of anticipation that I felt its rectangular outline in my jacket pocket as I boarded the train.

If I was worried about interruptions, then I needn't have been. All my fellow passengers were lost in their own little bubbles of cyberspace. As I sat down, I glanced at the West Indian lad opposite me. He was tapping his feet on the floor and writhing rhythmically. Occasional grunts suggested he might be in tune with the animal world - a view reinforced by the slogan, Save the Hedgehogs, which was splashed across his chest.

I made the mistake of holding my gaze a fraction too long. He looked at me with aggrieved defiance, and wrenched the bud from his ear.

"What you starin' at, man?"

I was caught off guard and lost for an answer. "Nothing. Sorry. I didn't mean to be rude." This obviously wasn't good enough for him, so I continued rather lamely, "I just wondered what you were listening to. You seemed to be ...right into it."

"List'ning to der music, man. Don't you ever list'n to music?"

"Yes," I said uncertainly. "Actually, I do enjoy a tune now and again."

"Oh, man! 'Enjoy a toon now 'n again'! Wot a larf." He gave me a pitying look. "You got ter absorb der toon. Let dat rhythm run right thru' your body. You got ter live der music, man."

I decided to change the subject, taking my cue from the slogan. With a conciliatory smile, I said, "I see you like hedgehogs."

"No, I don't."

I was taken aback by his flat denial, and he seemed amused by my puzzled expression. "...but my girlfren' does. She's crazy 'bout dem."

"Did she give you the T-shirt then?"

He threw his head back and chortled. "Nah! Don't be daft! I bought it fer meself."

"But, if you don't like hedgehogs, why would you do that?"

"Playin' her music, man." He gave me a pitying look, as if he knew I wouldn't understand. "Sometimes you got ter play her music, man - even when it's not your groove. Know what I mean?"

"Yes," I said, half to myself. "I know what you mean."

Putting the bud back in his ear, he shifted his gaze to the middle distance to signify that our brief social contact was at an end.

His words still echoed through my mind as we broke out of the drab London suburbs into the neat fields and copses of Berkshire.

I slid Helen's journal from my pocket and started to flip through its pages. In the light of Kayla's revelation, I could hear a musicality in her words that I hadn't noticed before. Casual references to Jeanne took on a new meaning, and I began to see hints of the strengthening bond between them. Jeanne's eventual proposition to pay for her flight to Paris - and to put her up in an apartment - began to make more sense.

Knowing Jeanne's connection with Bellini and the drug trade, I had no doubt that her original intention had been to set Helen up as a courier. Was this closer and more intimate relationship part of an elaborate ploy to gain Helen's confidence? Or had Jeanne changed her mind?

The kidnapping of Helen by Bellini's men and their callous use of Jeanne - tying her to a chair in her studio and torturing her in front of Helen - would be explained if Jeanne had decided to back out of her deal with Bellini. This was a warning to them both. Jeanne had promised him a courier, and a courier he would have.

Jeanne obviously wouldn't have wanted Helen's journal to fall into Bellini's hands if it contained evidence of the bond between them. It would only make it more certain he would continue to exert pressure, using the strength of their mutual love as leverage. The message was clear: Do as I say, or Jeanne will suffer. Do as I say, or Helen will suffer.

However, he had miscalculated, underestimating Helen's resourcefulness. Thanks to her martial arts skills, both she and Jeanne had made their escape, and now Bellini had been arrested. Could that have been because of an anonymous tip-off by Jeanne, I wondered?

Of course, there was still the other alternative. Maybe Jeanne's feelings for Helen were feigned. They might be an elaborate subterfuge to gain her confidence while she drew her further and further into the network until there was no possibility of escape. Only time would tell.

As I continued to read, I became increasingly repulsed by the intimate details Helen revealed in her writing. A new question began to form in my mind. At first, it was a small thought bubble but, by the time I reached the final page, it had become a hot air balloon sustained in its flight by the fires of my righteous indignation. Knowing what the journal contained, and knowing that I would read it, why had Helen left it in my possession? One thing was crystal clear. Her music was definitely not being played in my groove.

***

It was dark by the time the train reached Chippenham and the station was almost deserted. Yellow pools of light flooded the forecourt before draining away into the shadows. I gave an involuntary shiver, imagining what might be lurking in the half-light beyond. The silhouette of a cat stalking her unseen prey unnerved me momentarily. The events in Paris had left me alert and on edge, and it was with an illogical sense of relief that I climbed into the safe cocoon of the cab.

My destination was only a few miles away. We followed the main Bath road until we reached The King's Head. I tapped the driver on his shoulder.

"This will do," I said. "Pull in here."

I waited outside the pub until he was out of sight, then crossed the road. A narrow lane lay partly hidden between high banks held together by gnarled and twisted roots. Soon after turning the first corner, the bitumen ran out, giving way to a farm track which plunged steeply into a long valley or dene.

Moonraker Cottage lay sleeping in a hollow at the far end. It was a solitary, low-slung building that butted hard into the hillside, as if anxious to evade notice. Only a rutted bridle track lay beyond. This meandered along the side of a babbling brook, before disappearing into the dark recesses of Druid's Wood.

I paused when I reached the front door and looked up at the gaunt limbs of long-dead elm trees on the eastern ridge. The moon was nearly full, throwing an eerie light on the huge rookery in their branches. I knew that, by November, the dark shadows of hundreds of rooks would begin to gather like harbingers of doom, wheeling and swooping with hideous cries each evening before they finally settled for the night.

At the onset of winter, Druid's Wood becomes a different place. The wind howls through the trees at night, and disembodied voices echo with agonised groans. Suddenly and without warning, these sometimes give way to high-pitched screams - enough to freeze the marrow of anyone foolish enough to be caught abroad after dark.

However, at this time of the year, the valley was tranquil enough. In the morning, I would be awakened by a myriad of small birds twittering. Their cheerful orison would greet the dawn as they flitted down from among the golden autumn leaves, swooping hungrily for wayside berries and insects on iridescent wings.

I closed the door, knowing that, for the moment at least, all would be right with my world.

Author Notes Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Sir David Brockenhurst - a chance acquaintance, met at St Pancras Station
Helen Culverson - a woman of some mystery, also a travel writer, who seems to have become Charles's girlfriend.
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok.
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor, who was involved in a serious accident, and seems also to be involved with the Mafia in some way.
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Francoise Gaudin - an intellectually disabled woman living in Versailles.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.
Gaston Arnoux - an unknown quantity at this stage, a dilettante. Owner of an art gallery in Paris.


Chapter 40
The Fallen Angel

By tfawcus

The last paragraphs of Chapter 39...

At the onset of winter, Druid's Wood becomes a different place. The wind howls through the trees at night, and disembodied voices echo with agonised groans. Suddenly and without warning, these sometimes give way to high-pitched screams - enough to freeze the marrow of anyone foolish enough to be caught abroad after dark.

However, at this time of the year, the valley was tranquil enough. In the morning, I would be awakened by a myriad of small birds twittering. Their cheerful orison would greet the dawn as they flitted down from among the golden autumn leaves, swooping hungrily for wayside berries and insects on iridescent wings.

I closed the door, knowing that, for the moment at least, all would be right with my world.

Chapter 40

It has always been my belief that an Englishman's home is his castle, a contention eloquently expressed more than a quarter of a millenium ago by William Pitt, Prime Minister of England. He proclaimed "the poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the crown. It may be frail - its roof may shake - the wind may blow through it - the storm may enter - the rain may enter - but the King of England cannot enter."

Moonraker Cottage was not frail, nor did it leak. Its walls of Cotswold stone were almost four feet thick at the base. Deep-set leadlight windows were mullioned and framed in stone. A thick straw thatch overshadowed them, giving the appearance of a beetle-browed gentleman, firmly set in his ways. The effect was one of solidity, and the place was in far better repair than most castles of my acquaintance. As for Royal guests, I very much doubted that Prince Charles would be travelling the few miles from Highgrove House this evening to pay me a visit.

As I stepped down into the sitting room, I ducked my head to avoid the lintel. Firewood was neatly stacked on one side of the inglenook, and the other side boasted a seat, just wide enough to sit on. I nestled into the ingle and put a match to the fire, already neatly laid with tinder. I had Mrs. Wilkins to thank for that.

Fire is a primeval element that lies deep in the hearts of men. As the flickering flame caught hold, I felt not only its warmth, but a growing sense of security. Storms could howl down the valley and beat themselves into a frenzy against the windows, but I would be safe. This was not a night for the harsh reality of electric light, nor for curtains to shut out the gentle sway of moonlit trees. I stacked the fire with more wood and reached up to the oak mantelshelf for a candlestick, which I placed in the window. Let wayfarers be aware, the master is home.

I flipped idly through my collection of vinyls until I came to an old recording: Edith Piaf - Her Greatest Hits. Soon the room was filled with the soulful voice of 'the Little Sparrow'. Her tormented vibrato tugged at my heartstrings, as it always does. She was singing La Vie en Rose, one of the greatest love songs of all time. In my mind's eye, I could see her wooing the world on the stage of the Moulin Rouge and receiving rapturous applause.

My thoughts turned to Helen and the way she had captured my heart in those few days of blissful happiness. La Vie en Rose - a life seen through rose-tinted spectacles. I found myself moving in time with the music, imagining her in my arms again. Although no longer young enough to conquer the world, I could at least try to save a hedgehog.

The final track was Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien. No, I thought, I have no regrets. "Whether it is the good that has been done to me ...or the bad, it's all the same to me! No, absolutely nothing... No, I regret nothing" ...nothing ...nothing ...nothing ...nothing ...nothing. The rhythmic swish of the needle told me that my song had come to an end.

I went to the window, and peered out through the diamond panes. There was a barn owl poised on the limb of an ash tree at the start of Druids Wood. Moonlight reflected on the ivory heart that surrounded her face. I was spellbound by her beauty. Then, without warning, she swooped. A sharp cry split the night. At that moment, I felt the fear of death. My heartbeat faltered. Seconds later, a shadow slipped by my window as she wafted away, a small tail twitching in the curl of her claws
. Athene's ghost was gone.

The moonlight tempted me to take a short stroll to clear my head before I turned in. I trod with care through the damp leaves glistening on the bridle track. As I neared the old mill a few hundred yards upstream, long stalks of foxglove reached out at me like wraiths from the shadows. A final blood-curdling screech from the barn owl cut through the silent valley. The harsh cry sent a shiver down my spine.

Pausing for a moment to compose myself, I leaned my weight gingerly against the wooden railings above the millpond. Its mirrored surface held the image of the moon; a perfect round. It looked, for all the world, like a wheel of yellow cheese.

I glanced at my watch. Still an hour before closing time, longer if the publican of The Fallen Angel was in the mood. On a whim, I struck out through the woods. The track became little more than a footpath as it crossed Jack Wilkins' field. There was a chill in the air, and his herd was huddled under the Ypres Oak, wisps of their milky breath drifting up through its branches. Perhaps they were huddled for warmth, or perhaps to keep company with Jack's great-uncle Tom, cradled beneath its roots, resting in peace. I shuddered to think of the mouldering uniform of the Wiltshire regiment still clinging to his shattered bones.

It was with these maudlin thoughts in mind that I entered the public bar of The Angel.

"Well, if it isn't the squire of Moonraker Cottage - home again! How good to see you, Charles. So - what'll be your poison, my friend?"

"A pint of the usual thanks, John - and a packet of crisps. I haven't eaten tonight. I'm starving."

"We can't have that now, can we? Let me ask Bess to put a slice of veal and ham pie on a plate for you."

"That's very kind of you. Yes, I'd like that - if it's not too much trouble at this hour."

"No trouble at all, sunshine. No trouble at all."

John disappeared round the back, and I glanced across at the old bloke in the corner, the only other occupant of the bar. He fixed me with his eye in a way that reminded me of The Ancient Mariner.

"Moonraker Cottage, eh? You know the story, I suppose?"

I knew it, of course, but I had a feeling he was going to tell me anyway. "Something to do with Wiltshire men being called Moonrakers, isn't it?"

"That's right, squire. From the days of the old woollen mills, when the county was alive with Dutch and Flemish wool merchants. Foreigners, all of them, and with some very strange ways. Their favourite tipple was Holland Gin. Dreadful stuff, if you ask me. What's wrong with a plain old English pint?" He picked up his empty glass and put it down again wistfully.

"Would you like a refill?"


His face lit up. "Don't mind if I do."  He turned to mine host, who had just returned with my supper. "Half a pint of mild please, John. My friend will pay."

"I hope you're not annoying this gentleman, Gabriel."

"Not at all," I said. "He was about to tell me the Moonraker legend."

John raised his eyebrows and gave me a knowing look. I winked back at him.

"Now, where was I? Ah, yes! Holland Gin. Well, there was a hefty tax on it, see. The smugglers along the south coast were doing a brisk trade, I can tell you. Now it happened one evening that the excisemen were hard on the heels of a band of them. The story has it that they rolled their casks into a pond, sinking them beneath the green cresses and weeds. The excisemen had their suspicions but nothing to go on, so they were forced to leave empty-handed."

Gabriel paused a moment to whet his whistle. "Unfortunately for the smugglers, they stopped a little further up the track, then turned around and came back - and they caught the men red-handed with rakes and pitchforks, trying to retrieve their goods.

"'Ho, now. What have we here?' they said, withdrawing their pistols.

"Making themselves out to be feeble-headed country yokels, the smugglers replied, 'As you can see, officer, we are fishing this great cheese out of the pond. It must have fallen from the cheesemonger's cart this afternoon.'

"'You oafs! What dunderheads! That's not a cheese. It's a reflection of the moon!'"

"Would you believe it?" 
I interrupted, looking from Gabriel to John. "I saw that selfsame cheese in the millpond on my way here this evening!"

"Did you indeed?" Gabriel looked sceptical. "Anyway, the excise men went on their way, laughing amongst themselves at the simple-minded country bumpkins ...and that, my friend, was how the wily Wiltshire men saved their skins, and their casks to boot. They were pleased as Punch to have pulled the wool over the eyes of the excise men. No-one can make a fool out of a trueborn Wiltshire man. To this very day we call ourselves Moonrakers, and are proud of it."

He drained his glass and said, "Well, I'll be off now. It's time for my bed." With that, he picked up his walking stick and put his cloth cap on his head. "Good night, all," he called out cheerfully as he walked out through the door.

"I'd best be getting along, too, John."

"Will you not have one for the road? A Whiskey Mac, perhaps, to keep out the cold? It's on the house. Thank you for humouring the old boy. It was good of you."

"He tells the story well though, doesn't he?"

John gave a wry smile. "He should. He's had enough practice at it!"

We chatted for a while and I was soon caught up with all the local news. Two Whiskey Macs later, I was out in the cold autumn night, and more than a little unsteady on my feet. Clouds had drifted across, obscuring the moon. I stumbled once or twice and nearly fell. When I came to Druids Wood, it had an ominous feel about it. As the wind began to pick up, I fancied I could hear low and anguished moans.

It was with some relief that I regained the safety of my front door. I stepped inside and shot the bolts across, both top and bottom. Having drawn the curtains, I was about to mount the stairs when my iPad chimed like a set of tubular bells. It was Kayla on a FaceTime call. She looked worried.

Author Notes Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Sir David Brockenhurst - a chance acquaintance, met at St Pancras Station
Helen Culverson - a woman of some mystery, also a travel writer, who seems to have become Charles's girlfriend.
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok.
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor, who was involved in a serious accident, and seems also to be involved with the Mafia in some way.
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Francoise Gaudin - an intellectually disabled woman living in Versailles.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.
Gaston Arnoux - an unknown quantity at this stage, a dilettante. Owner of an art gallery in Paris.


Chapter 41
A FaceTime Call

By tfawcus

from Chapter 40:

With some relief, I regained the safety of my front door. I stepped inside and shot the bolts across, both top and bottom. I had just finished drawing the curtains and was about to mount the stairs when my iPad chimed like a set of tubular bells. It was Kayla on a FaceTime call. She looked worried.

Chapter 41

I went back into the sitting room and turned on the light.

"Oh, there you are, Charles. You look like you've seen a ghost."

"I thought I had. A moth followed me in, and I was brushing it away from my face. I've just come home from the pub."

"Maybe that explains why the picture's pointing at the ceiling. Been drowning your sorrows, have you?"

"Is that better?" I said, slumping down on the chair that had the wall light behind it.

"Not much. Now you look as though you are the ghost - not that it matters. I didn't call up to drool over your handsome features, darling."

There was a playful edge in her tone, and I was glad my face was in shadow. My reaction was best kept to myself.

"What did you call about, then? Is something up?"

"Yes and no. I've been trying to get in touch with you for a few hours and was getting worried in case something had happened. It's a relief to know that you were out getting sloshed."

My hackles rose - at least, they would have if I'd been a dog. The impudence of it! I nearly bit back but thought better of it. "Go on, what's the story?"

"I wanted to let you know that I've contacted your friend, Alain. He's been away for several days. Apparently, he had a run-in with the police."

"What's he been up to? Pinching knickers off clothes lines again?"

"No, nothing like that. Apparently, he had a face-off with a local art dealer here. Accused him of stealing a painting of his. The conversation got heated and they came to blows. The flics were called in and carted him off. He was charged with assault."

"Really? He mentioned a stolen painting when we were with him in Giverney last week. He was pretty stirred up then, too. Seemed to think I had something to do with it."

I shivered, not as you may think, at the memory but because the fire was nearly out. Putting the iPad face down on the floor, I went over to throw a couple of logs on, to resuscitate the flame.

A disembodied voice rose up from the carpet behind me. "What's happened? The screen's gone blank."

"Sorry. Back again now. I don't suppose the art dealer was Gaston Arnoux by any chance?"

"Yes. How on earth did you know that?"

"Never mind. I'll tell you when I see you. It looks as if I may be back in Paris again quite soon. Anyway, go on about Alain."

"It seems that Arnoux dropped the charges. He probably didn't want the publicity. Alain turned up at the Moulin Rouge this evening for his usual shift, so I swung my tits at him after the show. He took the hint and asked me out for a drink. What a very strange man!"

"In what way, 'strange'?"

"I'd half expected him to come on to me like a sex-starved jackrabbit after what you'd said, but not a bit of it. Under that gruff exterior, he's quite shy and reserved. Lonely, I expect."

"I thought you said he was friends with the dwarf."

"Yes, but I didn't say they were living together. It took a while to get him talking. I mentioned that Helen was my sister. The girl at Giverney, I said - remember? He remembered all right! He started off about you, wanting to know who you were and all about you."

"I'll bet he had a few things to say. We didn't exactly hit it off."

"That was the odd part. He was quite apologetic. Said you'd caught him off guard with your envelope. It brought back unpleasant memories of the wrong done to his grandmother by Arnoux's grandfather, and - of course - of the stolen painting."

"Yes, I remember. He said that his grandmother once sat for Toulouse Lautrec. I'm assuming the portrait must have been of her. You do know, of course, that her sister, Carmen, was the subject of his famous painting The Laundress?"

"Oh, my God! I had no idea. You mean the one that sold for squillions of dollars in New York not long ago? That probably explains why he's so bitter. Your meeting prompted him to have it out with the colonel's grandson, but initially, he couldn't get anywhere near him."

"Why not?"

"It's one of those places that's always locked, with heavy grilles over the windows and a notice saying 'By Appointment Only'. There was no way he'd ever get an appointment, so he just waited outside the place until Arnoux turned up. He seemed pretty sure that he either had this other painting or knew about it. Apparently, it was left to his mother, but mysteriously disappeared years ago."

At that point, Kayla also disappeared mysteriously. Her face froze and became a pixilated blur before being replaced by a message saying, 'Internet connection lost'. I had been about to tell her of my meeting with Sir David Brockenhurst.

I began to see a possible connection. If Alain had mentioned that I turned up in Giverney with the envelope containing his grandfather's letter, Arnoux must have decided he wanted to find out where I fitted into the scheme of things. If so, he had a funny way of going about it. Not that it mattered. I was equally keen to discover more about him.

Now there was no doubt in my mind that I would take up Brockenhurst's proposal. I decided there and then that I would ring him in the morning.

Bloody internet, I thought as I climbed the stairs. It never seemed to work properly down here in the valley. The place was in a time warp, tucked away from all the trappings of modern life. I smiled to myself. That, of course, was a large part of its charm.

Author Notes Glossary:
flics - French slang for police

List of characters:

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Sir David Brockenhurst - a chance acquaintance, met at St Pancras Station
Helen Culverson - a woman of some mystery, also a travel writer, who seems to have become Charles's girlfriend.
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok.
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor, who was involved in a serious accident, and seems also to be involved with the Mafia in some way.
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Francoise Gaudin - an intellectually disabled woman living in Versailles.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.
Gaston Arnoux - an unknown quantity at this stage, a dilettante. Owner of an art gallery in Paris.


Chapter 42
A Rude Awakening

By tfawcus

The last paragraphs of Chapter 41

Now there was no doubt in my mind that I would take up Brockenhurst's proposal. I decided there and then that I would ring him in the morning.

Bloody internet, I thought as I climbed the stairs. It never seemed to work properly down here in the valley. The place was in a time warp, tucked away from all the trappings of modern life. I smiled to myself. That, of course, was a large part of its charm.

Chapter 42

The following morning, I woke with a start. I had opened my bedroom window for some fresh air when I went to bed and one of the honeybees that inhabit the wall cavity must have drifted in for a dawn reconnaissance. Perhaps he was attracted by the autumn flowers Mrs Wilkins had put on the dressing table to welcome me home. I was subconsciously aware of the buzzing as he flew around before settling on my cheek, half-waking me from a torrid dream involving a desert scorpion.

It's possible the dream was a delayed reaction to Helen's teasing in Rue Gabrielle a few days ago. I remembered with chagrin, her provocative taunts about what James Bond would have done if a beautiful lady insinuated herself around him and stuck a gun in his back. Incongruously, I was reminded that I'd left my electric toothbrush in Paris.

I opened one eye carefully, fully expecting this moment to be my last but was relieved to find my potential assailant was a comparatively benign little bee. I coaxed him onto my finger and carried him to the window, gently releasing him onto the riotous blooms of the climbing rose that covered the honey-coloured stonework immodestly with splashes of crimson.

I  loved that rose - the Don Juan. What an appropriate name for the profligate rambler. It took my mind back to Montmartre and the Moulin Rouge. I wasn't sure if the diaphanous figure lurking there, in a dark corner of my imagination, was Helen or Kayla. I luxuriated in the uncertainty for a whole minute before slipping out of my reverie and taking a long, deep breath. Already, the sun was burning through the early mist and the stillness in the air held promise of a fine day ahead. Time to be up and doing.

It was too early to ring Brockenhurst and, in any case, I was in no mood to spoil such a perfect day with thoughts of mystery and intrigue. At this time of the year there would be mushrooms in the fields and berries in the hedgerow. A walk before breakfast was called for. The distant cry of a cockerel up at Dovecote Farm settled the matter. I salivated at the prospect of breaking my fast with blackberries and cream and maybe a mushroom omelette.

Besides, I wanted to thank Mrs Wilkins for her kindness. It would already be too late to catch old Jack Wilkins himself, unless I happened upon him ploughing in preparation for winter frosts. He would have finished milking more than an hour ago.

It wasn't long before I had my hickory cane and straw hat from the porch and was striding up Primrose Lane with a wicker basket in hand and a tune in my heart. A pair of hedge sparrows squabbled under a blackthorn like lovers having a tiff but flew off at my approach. Soon I came to a patch overgrown with brambles and scrambled through the hedge to the sunny side. Thorny tendrils stretched out to catch my coat. They scratched my arms unmercifully as I reached in to pluck the lush berries. I only managed to gather a scant bowlful to take back to the cottage. Empurpled hands and lips were evidence of where the majority had ended up.

My picking was arrested by the cheeky alert of a yellowhammer from high in the branches of a hawthorn. People describe his call as 'a-little-bit-of-bread-with-no-cheeeeese', which I think fanciful, but it served to remind me that I should pick up a piece of Nancy Wilkins' famous Wiltshire Blue, along with anything else that took my fancy in the farm shop.

I wondered what had caught the bird's attention, for he didn't seem to have been in the least concerned by my presence. I glanced up the lane and saw Jack approaching, with a shotgun under his arm. He didn't look happy.

I waved my hat at him and called out, "Good morning to you, Jack. A fine day it is, too."

"Aaarr! So it's you, is it?" he growled. "I seed there was a berry-moucher trespaasin' down this way and thought to see him off. There've been a few of them vandals or varmits by here this week. A man can't be too careful."

"Sorry to hear that, Jack. I was on my way up to your place when I got tempted by the wayside. I remembered this spot from last year as being a good one for blackberries."

"That it is, and you've been helping yourselve to a few by the looks of it!" Jack laughed - a rich, deep country laugh that exposed the gaps in his crooked teeth. "You're welcome to them, Mr. Brandon. More than welcome."

"I thought you'd be out ploughing this morning, Jack."

"Not today, Squire. 'Ave you forgot? 'Tiz market day at Chippenham and I shall be off there by the by. I've one or two poddy calves for sale, with winter coming in."

"Then it's lucky for me I ran into you before you left. I was on the lookout for a few mushrooms for my breakfast. You'd be just the man to tell me if there's any about."

"Breakfast? It'll be more like lunch by the time you get home. You townsfolk are all the same. Miss the best part of the day, you do, then complain you haven't enough time to get things done. Anyway," he looked at me conspiratorially, "I might be able to help you. I do know a place, but you mus' promise not to breathe a word."

"On my oath."

Well, there's a good few of them at the edge of Druids Wood, down by Uncle Tom's tree..."

"You mean the Ypres Oak?"

"Aarr, that be the one. I know I can trust you, Mr Brandon. Just cut a few to meet your need. There's some that'd root them out by the basketful if they knew they was there. Then that'd be the end of it."

I valued my friendship with dear old Jack Wilkins and was always careful not to abuse it. There'd been times in the past when I'd helped him out and, in the old country way, he and Nancy had been grateful. They welcomed me into a community that was always distrustful of strangers. I could have lived there for fifty years, and still not been a local - not in the true sense of the word. Some of the families traced their roots back to the Middle Ages.

I didn't get back to Moonrakers until past ten o'clock. The weather had turned by then. A fine mist of rain brought out the aroma of leaf mould as I trudged back through Druids Wood with my basket laden. It had been good of Jack to tell me about the mushrooms, but I knew he wouldn't have done if they'd been morels. There's a limit to friendship!

There's nothing quite like a morel. Their little conical brain structure conceals a flavour that almost matches the truffle. Thinly sliced and sautéed in butter, they are fit for a king. Sadly, the elusive little fungoids were not in season at this time of the year. If I found any in the Spring, I promised myself that I'd take a few of them up to Dovecote Farm.

Spring, I thought - that's a long way off. Who knows what might happen between now and then?

I finished washing up my breakfast things and was contemplating what I might do with the rest of the day, when the phone rang. It was Brockenhurst.

Author Notes List of characters:

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Sir David Brockenhurst - a chance acquaintance, met at St Pancras Station
Helen Culverson - a woman of some mystery, also a travel writer, whose relationship with Charles is complicated by her relationship with Jeanne Durand.
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok.
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor, who was involved in a serious accident, and seems also to be involved with international drug trade.
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Francoise Gaudin - an intellectually disabled woman living in Versailles.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.
Gaston Arnoux - an unknown quantity at this stage, a dilettante. Owner of an art gallery in Paris.


Chapter 43
What's in a Name?

By tfawcus

continued from Chapter 42:

I had just finished washing up my breakfast things when the phone rang. It was Brockenhurst.

Chapter 43

"That you, Brandon? Silly question - who else would it be, buried away in a backwater, tapping away on that typewriter of yours?" He paused, but not long enough for me to marshal a witty response. "Pots of work to catch up on, I expect, after your holiday in Paris. Nose to the grindstone, and all that."

"If you say so." My answer was accompanied by a universally recognised finger gesture. Telephones have that compensation.

"Look, something's come up, old chap. Rather urgent. Can you meet me at my club in Piccadilly this evening? Short notice, I know. Terribly sorry - but these things happen. Can't be helped, I'm afraid."


I took a deep breath. "Suppose you tell me what this is all about."

"'Fraid I can't. Telephones have ears. All terribly hush-hush, don't you know."

For a moment, I thought I was going to puke. Which Bertie Wooster novel was this idiot getting his script from? I made a mental note to contact the Old Etonian Association and check up on Sir David's credentials. Perhaps I should also take a look in the latest edition of Debrett's Peerage.

That aside, I was determined to follow through with my plan - particularly after what Kayla had told me about Alain's run-in with Gaston Arnoux - so I bit my tongue.

"Of course, Sir David. I understand perfectly. No time to be lost, eh? I shall leap like a rocketing pheasant and be on board the next train to London." I touched an imaginary forelock.

"Leap like a what?"

"A rocketing pheasant." Clearly, Sir David wasn't as familiar with P. G. Woodhouse as I imagined. I paused to reflect on the appropriateness of the simile. Some poor old cock being flushed out from the woods so that a member of the baronetcy could take pot-shots at him with a 12-bore. What was I letting myself in for, I wondered?

"Splendid. I'll expect you around six for a sundowner. RAF Club - 6, Pall Mall - just down from Hyde Park Corner. Call me when you get there, and I'll come down to Reception and meet you."

"No need, Sir David. I'm a member."

"Really? I didn't know."

There was a click as the line went dead.

Really? He didn't know? A likely story! My short service commission more than twenty years ago had a few compensations. Apart from learning to fly, I now had access to a cheap bed in Central London whenever I wanted it.

The only thing that was puzzling me was how Sir David came to be a member. I couldn't imagine him surviving in the average squadron crew room for long without having that appalling arrogance knocked out of him. I wondered what kind of a nickname he'd have been given. Probably Gimlet (a small boring tool).

As soon as he rang off, I called the club. "Have you a room for tonight? Just a single. Flight Lieutenant Brandon." It seemed strange putting the rank in front of my name after all this time.

"Not usually at such short notice, sir, but you're in luck. We've had a last-minute cancellation." I heaved a sigh of relief, grateful to have somewhere to stay the night.


I gave the receptionist my membership number and other details, before adding, "I'm meeting an acquaintance, name of Brockenhurst. Do you know if he's signed in yet?"

"Just a moment, please." There was a longish pause before she came back on the line. "I'm sorry, sir. We don't have anyone of that name staying."

"Really? Are you certain? Sir David Brockenhurst. I believe he uses the club quite often when up in town."

I could hear a muted conversation going on in the background. "Just a minute, sir. We're double-checking."

I started to hum the tune of La Vie en Rose while I waited, and I found myself gently tapping the rhythm on my knee. I thought that love was just a word they sang about in songs I heard... What was it that was drawing me back to Paris? A letter? A painting? Or was it love, perhaps? Perish the thought!

I wondered what the delay was, not that I was in any hurry. The sun was out again and the plum tree in the front garden was glistening. A blue tit flew across and landed on one of the smaller branches, unleashing a crystal shower. It hopped onto a ripe plum, straddled it with its claws, and started to peck. Why not, I thought? I wasn't likely to be around to eat them.

Eventually, a voice interrupted my reverie. "Sorry to have kept you waiting, sir. You did say Brockenhurst, didn't you?"

"Yes, that's right. Sir David Brockenhurst."

"It's just that I asked George to check on the computer. There doesn't seem to be anyone of that name on the membership list. Are you sure he didn't mean the Army and Navy Club?"

"Yes, quite sure, but thanks anyway." I was puzzled. There had to be a simple explanation, though I hadn't a clue what it was.

"Will you still be requiring a room, sir?"

"Yes, I'll come up to town anyway. I'll be with you around six. Can you reserve me a table in the Dining Room for ... shall we say, seven o'clock?"

"Of course, sir. A table at seven o'clock for one person."

"Thank you. You'd better make that a table for two, just in case."

I looked at my watch. Still half an hour shy of noon and such a glorious day. It would be a pity to waste it.

I rang Ian. A funny old cove, but I loved him like a brother. "Hello, Bisto, you old bastard. Fancy a pub lunch at The Old Bell? Or has Jenny got you on a tight leash this afternoon?"

"Charles? What a surprise. I thought you were in France."

"Long story. I have to be back there soon, but it'd be great to catch up before I go."

"I'd like that. You know I would."

"Oh, and another thing. I was thinking of taking the MG out for an airing. Any chance I could leave it in one of your garages overnight? I've got to be in London this evening." I paused for a moment to let my request sink in. "You'd be able to drop me off at the station in Reading later this afternoon, wouldn't you?"

Bisto hesitated for a few moments. I could hear the cogs turning. The lads on the squadron had nicknamed him Bisto because he was rich and thick - just like the gravy. A bit unfair really. But once you get a moniker, it sticks.

"Yes, that'd be fine," he said. "I have to be back by four thirty, but I could drop you at four, if that's OK."

"Perfect! You're a gem. I'll come straight to The Willows and we can go on to the pub in your car. Be with you in an hour and a half." I waited for his grunt of approval before adding, "See you soon." Then, as an afterthought, "You wouldn't like to dive into your copy of Debrett, would you? See if there's a chap called Sir David Brockenhurst listed?"

"Brockenhurst? Isn't that a place down in the New Forest? What is he - the local squire, or something?"

"Probably Comptroller of the New Forest ponies."

"You're pulling my leg."

"Yes," I said with a smile, as I hung up.

I had the dust cover off the MGB convertible in no time. What a beauty she was! British Racing Green, sleek as a lynx, and my pride and joy. Within quarter of an hour, I'd reconnected the battery, topped up the fuel, and wiped away a few imaginary specks of dust.

Cruising down the M4 with the wind in my hair, I wondered if it was possible for life to get any better. I fell to thinking about Flying Officer Ian "Bisto" Kidson as I headed for Henley-on-Thames. We'd served together in East Anglia and formed an indestructible friendship. Now he was what most people would call a gentleman of leisure. The Willows was a grand old Victorian property on the banks of the river and built on very much the same scale as Toad Hall.

"Poop! Poop!" I muttered dreamily, as the needle hovered around 70 m.p.h. Not that the police would have had the slightest interest in me for that was my top speed or, more accurately, it was as fast as I dared push the old girl.

Author Notes List of characters:

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Ian 'Bisto' Kidman - an ex-RAF friend of Charles's.
Sir David Brockenhurst - a chance acquaintance, met at St Pancras Station
Helen Culverson - a woman of some mystery, also a travel writer, whose relationship with Charles is complicated by her relationship with Jeanne Durand.
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok.
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor, who was involved in a serious accident, and seems also to be involved with international drug trade.
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Francoise Gaudin - an intellectually disabled woman living in Versailles.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.
Gaston Arnoux - an unknown quantity at this stage, a dilettante. Owner of an art gallery in Paris.


Chapter 44
The Old Bell

By tfawcus

Last paragraphs of Chapter 43...
 
Cruising down the M4 with the wind in my hair, I wondered if it was possible for life to get any better. I fell to thinking about Flying Officer Ian "Bisto" Kidson as I headed for Henley-on-Thames. We'd served together in East Anglia and formed an indestructible friendship. Now he was what most people would call a gentleman of leisure. The Willows was a grand old Victorian property on the banks of the river and built on very much the same scale as Toad Hall.

"Poop! Poop!" I muttered dreamily, as the needle hovered around 70 m.p.h. Not that the police would have had the slightest interest in me for that was my top speed or, more accurately, it was as fast as I dared push the old girl.

 
Chapter 44
 
Just before one o'clock, I swung through the heavy wrought iron gates. There was a satisfying crunch of gravel as I drove along the avenue of linden trees. Their dappled shade splashed across the manicured lawns flanking the long driveway.

As I drew up by the front door, the sweet, honeyed fragrance of phlox filled my nostrils. Several peacock butterflies flitted amongst the pink blossoms, their lovely eyespots a radiant blue against rust-coloured wings.

Bisto was similarly resplendent as he stood beaming on the doorstep, the gold buttons of his blazer glinting in the sun. A raw silk shirt and somewhat startling yellow cravat completed the picture of flamboyant opulence as he came down the steps, his spaniel at heel.

"You don't know how good it is to see you, Charles."

Biggles wagged his tail in enthusiastic agreement, and I bent to stroke his head before unwinding myself from the car and stretching stiffly.

"You, too, old chap." I flashed him a broad grin. "It's been far too long."

He took my hand and pumped vigorously. "There was a time when you'd have leaped out of that seat and been vaulting over the bonnet to open the door for some pretty young damsel. Getting a bit creaky in the joints these days, are we?"

We both laughed, but I sensed something unfamiliar behind Bisto's bonhomie.

"Is everything all right?" I held his gaze for a second or two. "You don't look your usual, cheerful self."

His face clouded momentarily before he replied. "Come on, let's get this heap of junk put away in the garage. If we don't get a move on, the pub will have stopped serving lunch before we get there. We can talk about things over a beer."

He gave me a friendly slap on the back, rather harder than I expected. Bisto had never been known for his moderation. "We'll take the Mini," he said. "It'll be easier to park."

Twenty minutes later we were in the front bar of The Old Bell, pints of Brakspear in hand, and the pleasant prospect of cottage pie in the offing. Biggles lay comfortably at my feet, his chin resting on my shoe, gazing up at me with sad eyes. He clearly thought that I was going to be a soft touch.
It wasn't long before I turned the conversation to Brockenhurst.

"I looked him up, as you asked," Bisto said. "No mention, I'm afraid. Whatever else he might be, he's certainly not a Knight of the Realm."

I had suspected as much. The façade was crumbling, and I had no doubt that his Old Etonian tie was also being worn under false pretences. I looked forward to finding out who he really was and what kind of a scam was being planned.

It wasn't until halfway through our second pint that I again asked Bisto what was ailing him. Uncharacteristically, he was pushing peas around his plate with a fork and had scarcely touched his pie. He certainly wasn't the doughty trencherman I remembered.

When he looked up, my heart sank. His eyes had the same sad look that Biggles had been giving me all through the meal.

"It's Jenny," he said. "She's been diagnosed with cancer." There was a lengthy pause before he continued. "It's at an advanced stage. The doctors say there isn't any hope. A matter of months."

I didn't know what to say. I mean, what can one say under such circumstances? I reached across towards his hand. He withdrew it sharply.

"I don't want your bloody sympathy, Charles. I don't want anyone's bloody sympathy. I just want Jenny back."

His eyes were glistening as he turned away from me and reached for a pocket handkerchief. He blew his nose loudly and attempted a weak smile of apology. "I shall be lost without her - absolutely lost."

With that uncanny sense that dogs have, Biggles jumped up and put his paws on his master's knee. Bisto absent-mindedly stroked the top of the spaniel's head and fondled his silky ears. Biggles responded with an adoring look and a slow wag of his tail. I could see that, in comparison, any sympathy I might offer would be totally redundant.

"You'll let me know if there's anything I can do, won't you? I mean, when the time comes. There'll be a hundred and one things to attend to."

"Yes, Charles. Of course. I daresay I may need a bit of help then, and someone to drown my sorrows with. You're a good bloke. Thank you."

He pushed Biggles down gently and slid his chair back. "Come on, then. You've a train to catch, and I must be getting back home. I've got some ghastly chap coming around later this afternoon to talk about arrangements for hospice care and that sort of thing."

We both avoided the subject as we drove across to Reading, confining ourselves to inconsequential chatter about his garden. I blundered into a reminiscence about the little boat he kept moored behind The Willows, a 27ft Cruiser he and Jenny kept for pottering about on the river, but the subject clearly pained him. How much better women are when it comes to this kind of thing, I thought.

I was lucky enough to catch the fast train up to town, a little under half an hour, so had time to spare. For most of the journey, I thought of Ian; he was not quite the Bisto Kid that his nickname suggested. I envied him his love for Jenny. It was something much finer than I was capable of, and I was deeply saddened by his plight.

Inevitably, my thoughts turned to Helen. She was the only woman who had ever sparked that kind of feeling in me. Of course, I also found Kayla attractive, but not in the same way. Not in the same way at all.

Why did life always have to be so darned complicated?

Author Notes List of characters:

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Ian 'Bisto' Kidman - an ex-RAF friend of Charles's.
Sir David Brockenhurst - a chance acquaintance, met at St Pancras Station
Helen Culverson - a woman of some mystery, also a travel writer, whose relationship with Charles is complicated by her relationship with Jeanne Durand.
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok.
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor, who was involved in a serious accident, and seems also to be involved with international drug trade.
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Francoise Gaudin - an intellectually disabled woman living in Versailles.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.
Gaston Arnoux - an unknown quantity at this stage, a dilettante. Owner of an art gallery in Paris.


Chapter 45
At the RAF Club

By tfawcus

Last paragraphs of Chapter 44...

I was lucky enough to catch the fast train up to town, a little under half an hour, so I had time in hand. For most of the journey, I thought of Ian; he was not quite the Bisto Kid that his nickname suggested. I envied him his love for Jenny. It was something much finer than I was capable of, and I was deeply saddened by his plight.

Inevitably, my thoughts turned to Helen. She was the only woman who had ever sparked that kind of feeling in me. Of course, I also found Kayla attractive, but not in the same way. Not in the same way at all.

Why did life always have to be so darned complicated?

Chapter 45

Arriving at Paddington with more than an hour to spare, I decided to walk to the club, cutting across to Lancaster Gate and into Hyde Park. It was a glorious evening for a stroll through the Italian Gardens, and the graceful sculptures, lily ponds and fountains worked like a balm, transporting me from the blare and grime of the Bayswater Road.

The majestic trees were tinged with autumn colour, and leaves crunched underfoot as I meandered along the banks of the Serpentine towards Hyde Park Corner. The formal beds of chrysanthemums and dahlias were still at their best, and the grassy slopes beside the lake were dotted with groups of people determined to enjoy the last of the Indian summer.

For a while, I sat watching the few remaining boats as they returned to shore, threading their way between flotillas of swans and greedy ducks clamouring for picnic scraps.


Horizontal shafts from the setting sun shone through the plane trees, turning them to gold as I crossed Park Lane to the north of Apsley House. There was now a distinct nip in the air, and I drew the collar of my coat up as I turned the corner into Piccadilly. I smiled wryly to myself as I passed the Hard Rock Café, for the anachronism of such a gauche tourist trap next door to the RAF Club never failed to amuse me.

As I mounted the steps to the main entrance on the dot of six, I was unsure of what I would find within. Knowing what I now did, I was unable to conceal my surprise when I saw Sir David in the club foyer. Bombastic as ever, he greeted me with his usual bluster. "Glad to see you're on time, old chap. Service discipline and all that, what?"

Ignoring his outstretched hand, I cut straight to the chase. "I've been doing a bit of checking up, and I have to say I didn't expect to see you here,
Sir David ...or whoever you are."

Without missing a beat, he gave a tight-lipped smile. "Good to see you've been doing your homework, Brandon. I like that in a chap."

He waved his hand in the general direction of the bar. "I think we have time for a drink before dining, don't we? I gather you've reserved a table, but not until seven."

He beckoned the barman over. "Mine's a pink gin." Then, more or less as an afterthought, "What can I get you?"

"A whiskey and soda, thank you."

"Let us not beat about the bush, Flight Lieutenant." Clearly, he was at pains to emphasise the difference in rank. "I'm Wing Commander Bamforth, Intelligence Branch. Brockenhurst is one of several aliases I adopt when I'm in the field."


He paused to gauge my reaction before continuing, "We've been watching you for some time you know, and think you could be useful to us." 

I took a measured sip from my whiskey and looked him in the eye. "If you think you can manipulate me on the basis of a short service commission twenty years ago, you're mistaken. Whatever you are proposing, I have absolutely no interest."

"Oh, but I think you do, old chap. I think you do. We'll have to renew your security clearance of course, but I'm sure you'll suit us admirably."

My mind was in overdrive. This wasn't at all what I'd been expecting. The Wing Commander had shed the foppish persona of Sir David, much as a snake sheds its skin. What lay beneath glistened with danger. I spoke carefully.

"I'm a travel writer, not a spy. I'm sorry to have wasted your time. You've got the wrong man."

"On the contrary. Yours is an excellent cover for the operation we have in mind." He smiled disarmingly. "Spying isn't quite the expression I would use. You've been watching too many T.V. dramas. All we want is a courier. It's a simple, one-off job with no danger to yourself, or to anyone else."

"I don't think you understand. I said no, and that's the end of it."

"I don't think you understand, old boy. You are wanted by the French police in connection with that hit-and-run accident on Avenue de Villiers a few days ago. The cyclist was quite badly injured, you know."

"What cyclist?" I cast my mind back to the car chase and the silhouette of Helen, struggling in the rear seat of the black Citroen. "I didn't hit any cyclist."

"Really? I'm not sure that all of the eye-witnesses would agree." He paused to sip his drink. "...and then, not long afterwards, there was the ugly incident outside the offices of Jeanne Durand. The police are still investigating that one."

"Just what are you suggesting?"

"I'm suggesting that, if we handed you over to the French authorities, it might not be long before they found out about your connections with known drug smugglers - Monsieur Bellini, for instance."

The sting was obvious, even before he added, "I'm also suggesting that if they knew you were working for us, quite a different interpretation would be put on your involvement."

"This is outrageous! Barefaced lies and blackmail. I've never heard of such a thing. I have absolutely no connection with Bellini, or anyone else in the French underworld for that matter."

"Perhaps it would be better if you kept your voice down, old boy. We wouldn't want to cause a scene here, would we? Let us just say that we are in a position to see you out of your difficulties. All it would take is a little help from you to resolve ours. As I understand it, your friend Madame Durand is closely connected with Bellini. By association, you are, too."

I looked at him, dumfounded.

"I'll give you a little time to think it over. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have other business to take care of. If you decide, on reflection, that you would like to help us, we could discuss the details over dinner." He looked at his watch. "Shall we say in three-quarters of an hour? I expect you'll appreciate a little time to freshen up after your journey."

With that, he got up and left. An aura of threat seemed to linger in the empty space that remained.

As I finished my drink, my eye was drawn to a hapless fly in
Bamforth's almost untouched pink gin, now struggling for its life. In a moment of empathy, I dipped my finger into the glass and rescued it.

Author Notes List of characters:

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Ian 'Bisto' Kidman - an ex-RAF friend of Charles's.
Sir David Brockenhurst - a chance acquaintance, met at St Pancras Station
Helen Culverson - a woman of some mystery, also a travel writer, whose relationship with Charles is complicated by her relationship with Jeanne Durand.
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok.
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor, who was involved in a serious accident, and seems also to be involved with international drug trade.
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Francoise Gaudin - an intellectually disabled woman living in Versailles.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.
Gaston Arnoux - an unknown quantity at this stage, a dilettante. Owner of an art gallery in Paris.


Chapter 46
Babylon-on-Thames

By tfawcus

The closing paragraphs of Chapter 45...

"I'll give you a little time to think it over. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have other business to take care of. If you decide, on reflection, that you would like to help us, we could discuss the details over dinner." He looked at his watch. "Shall we say in three-quarters of an hour? I expect you'll appreciate a little time to freshen up after your journey."

With that, he got up and left. An aura of threat seemed to linger in the empty space that remained.

As I finished my drink, my eye was drawn to a hapless fly in
Bamforth's almost untouched pink gin, now struggling for its life. In a moment of empathy, I dipped my finger into the glass and rescued it.
 

Chapter 46
 
The following morning, I crossed the road into Green Park. My appointment at Babylon-on-Thames was at 10.30. Since it was another glorious autumn day, I decided to walk through the park and cut across Buckingham Palace Gardens to the Victoria Tube Station. At least half my journey to Vauxhall would then be in the shade of some of the loveliest linden trees in London before I plunged into the entrails of the Underground.

I wasn't sure how the Secret Intelligence Service building gained its nickname, but I assumed it had something to do with the babble of foreign languages, as intelligence was being gathered from around the globe. The staff would probably have been equally at home in the Tower of Babel, speaking in tongues. Forked tongues, for the most part.

I felt in my jacket pocket for the Visitors' Pass that the Wing Commander had given me the evening before. I hadn't bothered to ask how he obtained the photograph for it, and I wasn't sure I really wanted to know. He told me very little, except that he was shortly to be promoted to the acting rank of Group Captain to take up the position of British Air Attaché in Paris, and that I, apparently, was to be his personal assistant.

This, he assured me, was a sinecure. There was someone else on the embassy staff who would be filling the role for all practical purposes. It was purely to give me status as a member of the British Embassy and diplomatic immunity, in case I might need it.

In case I might need it? I was beginning to feel like a fish being drawn into the narrowing funnel of a trawl net, unable to swim fast enough against the tide to escape. There was nothing I could do to prevent being landed, and I had a feeling that I would be doomed unless a friendly deckhand happened to toss me back into the ocean.

Bamforth refused to give me further details until I had signed the Official Secrets Act. This was the main reason I was having a James Bond moment, and on my way to MI6. At least I would now know how to deal with Helen, should she be unwise enough to try sticking an electric toothbrush in the small of my back again. If I was lucky, Q might even supply me with a wrist-mounted dart gun to use against my nemesis, Madame Durand.

Just for the pleasure of annoying Bamforth, I deliberately arrived ten minutes late. As it happened, I was met by an affable young man who was unperturbed by my pointless act of rebellion.

"How good of you to come, Mr. Brandon," he gushed, shaking me warmly by the hand. "I'm Carruthers of MI6."

"Carruthers?"

"No, actually I'm John Smith. Just my little joke. Carruthers sounds so much more hush-hush MI6, don't you think?"

I was delighted to meet someone who appeared not only to be human, but also to have a sense of humour.

"Come this way, and we'll get the formalities dispensed with. Can I get you a coffee?"

"Thanks very much. Sounds good."

"Actually, it isn't. I think they load the office coffee machine with crushed acorns. It's warm and wet though. The way I like my women."

I thought his attempt at humour unnecessarily coarse but decided to let it pass. However, I was left wondering if misogyny was a hallmark of the organisation.

The coffee was better than expected, and Carruthers-cum-Smith was quick and efficient.

"I imagine you are wondering what this is all about."

"Yes. The Wing Commander left me pretty much in the dark."

"That would be par for the course. I'll do my best to give you the bones of it now. If you have any questions, don't hesitate. I can't guarantee that I'll have all the answers, but I'll do the best I can."

The next half hour gave me a good deal to think about. This had nothing to do with either drugs or stolen artwork. At least, they were not the reason for MI6's involvement. His synopsis took me right back to Helen and Kayla's homeland.

"I suppose you know that their parents were mown down by Islamic extremists?"

"Yes. Helen told me." My mind flashed back to our night in Versailles. "She has recurrent nightmares about it."

"I'm not surprised. However, what she wouldn't have known about is that her father was working for us. His work as an engineering consultant with the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme provided ideal cover, giving him complete freedom of movement throughout the Hindu Kush."

This, of course, was a revelation to me, though I did vaguely recollect Helen mentioning her father's work with the Aga Khan programme.

"We don't know what made them suspicious, but we're sure that one of the main reasons for the Jihadist attack on the Catholic Church in Chitral was to kill him. It seems that he was getting close to making a breakthrough. The information would have exposed several terrorist cells worldwide and it still could."

I was feeling distinctly uneasy, for this was a far cry from delivering a couple of paintings to a dealer in Paris. I couldn't see any possible connection.

"What has all this got to do with me?"

"I'm coming to that. We believe that he realised they were closing in and that he had planned a way of getting his intelligence out of the country in the event of his death. Our best guess is, although they don't know it, that his daughters hold the key."

"You mean they have been unwitting couriers?"

"That's a possibility, but we haven't been able to eliminate another. Until we do, we must tread extremely carefully."

"And what is this other possibility?"

"That one or both are involved with the Jihadists."

"You must be joking. That's impossible."

"We don't joke about such matters, Mr. Brandon. How do you think they survived the massacre?"

"Kayla saw what was about to happen, and she pulled her sister down below the pew in the nick of time. That's what Helen said anyway."

"Really? I doubt a wooden pew would have been much protection against a hail of AK-47 bullets. Think about it."

"You're being absurd. I know both of them. They would be quite incapable of such a thing."

"It is precisely because you know them that we need your help. Particularly because of your relationship with Helen. It's important that you renew that."

"You're not seriously asking me to spy on Helen?"

"No. We're asking you to help establish her innocence. You'd like to do that, wouldn't you?"

I hesitated. "Well, yes, of course. But there are difficulties."

"You mean Madame Durand?"

"Exactly."

"I very much doubt you will need to worry about Jeanne Durand any more, Mr. Brandon."

There was something about the way he said this that sent a shiver up my spine. What wasn't he telling me? I paused, waiting for him to elaborate, but it was clear that he didn't intend to say any more, so I brought the subject back to the reason Bamforth had enlisted me.

"What about the paintings?"

"Ah yes, the paintings. We'll give those to you before you leave the building. You'll have to sign for them, of course. They are quite valuable. We have also booked you onto the 4.30 Eurostar. You're lucky. It's a Business Premier seat now you are officially P. A. to the Air Attaché. You'll be on your own when you reach Paris but, if you run into difficulties, you can contact the Embassy direct line."
He passed me a slip of paper. "Destroy this as soon as you have memorised the number."


My head was spinning. Things were moving faster than I had expected. I glanced at my watch.

"I won't keep you any longer.
I imagine that you have a few arrangements to make before you leave."

He extended his hand. "It's been a pleasure meeting you, Mr. Brandon. If you wait here a moment, I'll get someone to take you down to pick up your ticket and the paintings."

Author Notes Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Ian 'Bisto' Kidman - an ex-RAF friend of Charles's.
Wing Commander Bamforth (alias Sir David Brockenhurst) - an intelligence officer with MI6
Helen Culverson - a woman of some mystery, also a travel writer, whose relationship with Charles is complicated by her relationship with Jeanne Durand.
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok and has surfaced again in Paris.
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor, who was involved in a serious accident, and seems also to be involved with international drug trade.
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman (now deceased)
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Francoise Gaudin - an intellectually disabled woman living in Versailles.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.
Gaston Arnoux - an unknown quantity at this stage, a dilettante. Owner of an art gallery in Paris.


Chapter 47
Queen's Messenger

By tfawcus

Last paragraphs of Chapter 46...
My head was spinning. Things were moving faster than I had expected. I glanced at my watch.

"I won't keep you any longer.
I imagine that you have a few arrangements to make before you leave."

He extended his hand. "It's been a pleasure meeting you, Mr. Brandon. If you wait here a moment, I'll get someone to take you down to pick up your ticket and the paintings."

Chapter 47

The keeper of the paintings was a nondescript looking man named Brown.

"You have to understand, Mr. Brandon, the temporary nature of this arrangement. It's a matter of national importance that our package reaches its destination unimpeded and unobserved. There are reasons why we are unable to use a regular Queen's Messenger as courier, and that is why I am issuing you with a Diplomatic Passport.

"These two paintings will have the status of a diplomatic bag. As such, they are not subject to scrutiny by security x-ray and they're immune from customs search."

I couldn't help being reminded of Q, the James Bond gadgets' man, when he continued, "As you can see, it has a tamper-evident seal to deter or detect interference by unauthorised third parties. We can't be too careful. I'm sure that I hardly need mention that you must never let the parcel out of your sight."

Nondescript Brown paused for breath and allowed himself a ghost of a smile as he added, "Not that we anticipate you being set upon by enemies of the state."

My throat was dry, my skin was clammy, and, for a moment, I thought I was going to pass out.

"You don't look well, Mr. Brandon. Can I get you a glass of water?"

I shook my head. "No, thank you. I'm just a little claustrophobic, that's all. Windowless basements have that effect on me."

"How unfortunate." Brown's tone of voice lacked any vestige of sympathy. "When you reach Paris, you are to go straight to La Galerie Arnoux on Rue de Dunkerque. It's not far from the Gare du Nord. Hand the package to this man. He is expecting you."

The anonymous Mr. Brown slid a photograph across the table. "This is Gaston Arnoux, the owner of the gallery."

I studied the photograph carefully and was about to pass it back to him when he said, "Keep it. I'd hate to think what might happen if you gave the paintings to the wrong man.

"Oh, and there's one other thing. Keep the package hidden in your case at all times except, of course, when you are passing through Customs and Immigration. Under no circumstances should it be subjected to the x-ray machine along with your personal effects. That is most important. Do you understand?"

"No, not really. All this cloak-and-dagger rigmarole seems to be way over the top. What's the purpose of it?"

Brown ignored my question. "Tomorrow morning, you are to report to the British Embassy on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, where you will hand over your Diplomatic Passport. You will also relinquish your position as P. A. to the Air Attaché on completion of this courier assignment. Wing Commander Bamforth has instructed me to transfer £5,000 to your bank account, in lieu of notice."


*****
 
It was with some relief that I left the building, clutching the package of national importance to my breast. It didn't take me long to make the necessary phone calls to Mrs. Wilkins and Bisto Kidson, letting them know that I'd been urgently recalled to Paris. Neither seemed too surprised, for my movements were notoriously erratic. Nancy Wilkins said she'd check from time to time to make sure that all was well with Moonraker Cottage. Bisto cheerfully assured me that he wouldn't put too much extra mileage on my pride and joy.

Avoiding the start of the London rush hour, I arrived at St. Pancras with time to spare and the journey to Paris was smooth and uneventful. The Eurostar pulled in to the Gare du Nord on schedule, just before eight o'clock and I decided to walk, rather than joining the queue for a taxi. It was a clear, moonlit night and La Galerie Arnaud was less than five minutes from the station.

Gaston was waiting outside the gallery to meet me. I had intended to suggest an appointment to view the paintings he had for sale, hoping to discover something about the portrait of Alain's grandmother. However, there was no opportunity. As soon as I handed him the package, he scurried through the door, locking it behind him.

I shrugged my shoulders and carried on a few doors down the street, humming to myself and thinking that was probably the easiest £5000 I would ever earn. I entered the Portuguese restaurant, Churrasqueira Galo, in a buoyant mood.

I had scarcely finished ordering my barbecued chicken when the room was shaken by an ear-splitting explosion. Pandemonium ensued. People ran in all directions. A wild-eyed man burst into the café shouting, "Il y a eu un attentat terroriste! A terrorist bombing! Take cover!"

It was hardly the work of a genius to see the reason behind Mr. Brown's 'tamper-evident seal'. I had no need to join the panic-stricken crowd milling about in the street. I already knew what had caused the explosion, and what lay mangled among the debris and shattered glass.

I quietly slipped out of the restaurant and started walking, numbed by the enormity of my unwitting involvement, and unsure what to do next.

Author Notes Characters:

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Ian 'Bisto' Kidman - an ex-RAF friend of Charles's.
Wing Commander Bamforth (alias Sir David Brockenhurst) - an intelligence officer with MI6
Helen Culverson - a woman of some mystery, also a travel writer, whose relationship with Charles is complicated by her relationship with Jeanne Durand.
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok and has surfaced again in Paris.
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor, who was involved in a serious accident, and seems also to be involved with international drug trade.
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman (now deceased)
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Francoise Gaudin - an intellectually disabled woman living in Versailles.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.
Gaston Arnoux - an unknown quantity at this stage, a dilettante. Owner of an art gallery in Paris.


Chapter 48
Barking at the Moon

By tfawcus

Last part of Chapter 47...

It was easy enough to imagine the bloody remains of Gaston Arnaud, splattered through the debris and shattered glass.

I slipped out quietly and started walking, numbed by the enormity of my unwitting involvement and unsure what to do next. 

Chapter 48

I walked briskly, my only thought being to put distance between me and the scene of the explosion.  After about quarter of an hour, I was overcome by an uncontrollable shaking, so severe that I sank to my knees, huddled in a doorway. To make matters worse, I felt my gorge rising, and I began to be violently sick. The retching continued until I was only bringing up bile. When, at last, the spasms ceased, I continued to squat, exhausted, with my head between my knees.

By this time I was well away from the turmoil and panic. I could still hear sirens in the distance, but the nearby streets were undisturbed. Most of the night owls and revellers quickened their step as they walked past, studiously ignoring me. However, as one young couple approached, the youth drew his girlfriend closer to him, steering her towards the curb. She had other ideas, though, and pulled away, turning a concerned face towards me.

"Are you all right, old man? Do you need help?" She spoke with a soft Kentish accent.

I noticed she wrinkled her nose slightly at the sour smell of my vomit. I looked up gratefully and managed a weak half-smile. "C'est bon. I'll be okay. Merci, mademoiselle!"

"Bloody drunk! Come on. Leave him alone." The lad grabbed her arm and started to tug her away. She wrenched herself free, her eyes blazing with indignation.

Shrugging his shoulders, he reached into his pocket and tossed a couple of two-euro coins onto the pavement beside me. "Here you are, you old pisspot. Go get yourself a cup of coffee and sober up." I doubted this grudging act of generosity would salvage his hopes of a romantic evening. I sincerely hoped not. He didn't deserve her.

A few minutes later, I staggered to my feet, brushed the dirt from my knees, and ran my fingers through my hair. Get a grip, man. I squared my shoulders, blew sharply out through my teeth, and set off again.

I soon found myself on Rue de Hauteville, and realised that I was only a few hundred yards west of the Folies Bergère. However, having been involved in enough folly for one evening, I turned my attention to the magnificent twin towers of St. Vincent-de-Paul Catholic Church, rising up above the surrounding rooftops.

Although I still describe myself as C. of E. when it comes to declaring my faith on official forms, I am not a religious man. My only church attendance these days is for weddings and funerals. Nonetheless, I was overcome with a sudden urge to confess my sins to whatever divine being might currently be hovering over Paris, with arms spread wide in a classic gesture of forgiveness.

Recalling that St. Vincent used to have a soft spot for galley slaves, I thought he might perhaps put in a good word for me. With a contrite heart, I started to walk north up 
Rue de Hauteville towards the church. As I reached the steps to the main entrance, I felt another twinge of reflux, which left a searing aftertaste of bile at the back of my throat. Part of my penance, I supposed.

Forgiveness does not come easily. It being well past nine o'clock, the church doors were securely locked. I beat upon them with a mixture of frustration and indignation, which bruised my knuckles considerably and did little to improve my feeling of maudlin self-pity.

On the other hand, I knew that the Wine Therapy Bar, a few hundred yards down Rue la Fayette, was bound to be open. St Vincent-de-Paul might not be available to come to my aid, but Bacchus certainly was.

When I reached the wine bar, having missed out on my chargrilled chicken at Churrasqueira Galo, I ordered a cheese platter to go with my bottle of burgundy but when it arrived, I found I still only had the stomach for a few dry biscuits.

I was determined to follow Keats' example and imbibe a beaker or two 'full of the warm South, full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene, with beaded bubbles winking at the brim'. I intended to gain a purple-stained mouth, drink myself silly, and then, all being well, 'leave the world unseen'.

With that in mind, it occurred to me that I still had my diplomatic passport and £5000 in the bank, though, on reflection, I wan't too sure about the £5000.

It is remarkable how a few glasses of wine can change one's perspective and clear the conscience. Half way down the second bottle, I began to realise that I was not merely a sordid assassin, but the alter ego of James Bond, and on Her Majesty's Secret Service. I gazed around the room and my eyes alighted on a particularly attractive-looking young lady at an adjacent table. I flashed her a dazzling smile but should perhaps have left the winking to beaded bubbles and blushful horse-hoof thingummybobs.

She looked at me disdainfully and said, unnecessarily loudly in my opinion, "That disgusting old man over there is leering at me. Do something about it."

I found a dozen pairs of eyes boring into me but the ones that most seriously disconcerted me belonged to her husband. I hadn't anticipated Oddjob in this scene. The bull neck and beady eyes were unpleasantly familiar, but my, how he had grown.

“Cochon!" He spat the word out as he towered over me, grabbed me by the collar, and propelled me towards the door. I always thought it was only in Westerns that one went sailing through the air and landed in the gutter. How wrong can one be?

"Pig, yourself!" I said between gritted teeth. I held out my hand to the
waiter hovering at my elbow, as I staggered to my feet. I thought he was there to assist but it turned out that the only thing he was proffering was my bill.

The effect of the wine intensified the cool of the evening as I swayed down the street, slurring the words of the old song:
I b'long to Glasgee
Guid old Glasgee toon
Sheesh, what's the matter wi' Glasgee?
It's goin' 'roon and 'roon...


There was little doubt that I was as legless as a French frog. The fact that I regarded my Diplomatic Passport as a Get Out of Jail Free card confirmed the fact.
I'm only a poor old working chap
As anyone here can see
But with a couple of drinks on a Saturday night
Glasgow belongs to me.
Paris, in this case, but what the hell - same difference.

It suddenly occurred to me that it would be an excellent idea to go back to La Galerie Arnoux and inspect the scene of the crime. I whispered "Shhh!" to myself and started tiptoeing back towards Rue de Dunkerque, sidestepping to avoid the bollards that kept getting in my way.

As luck would have it, the two gendarmes who had been posted to guard the premises happened to be temporarily distracted, giving directions to some passing tourists.

I ducked under the chequered tape, slid along what remained of the front wall doing a fair impression of a Ringwraith from Mordor, and crept into Arnoux's erstwhile fortress. Having achieved my objective, I was at a loss to know what to do next, so I curled up on the floor in a back room and went to sleep.

Author Notes The idiom "Barking at the moon" refers to someone who's gone a bit crazy, because of their drinking.

C. of E. = Church of England

Quotes from John Keats - Ode to a Nightingale


Oddjob - Goldfinger's bodyguard in the James Bond saga


Ringwraiths of Mordor c.f. Tolkein's Lord of the Rings

Characters:

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Ian 'Bisto' Kidman - an ex-RAF friend of Charles's.
Wing Commander Bamforth (alias Sir David Brockenhurst) - an intelligence officer with MI6
Helen Culverson - a woman of some mystery, also a travel writer, whose relationship with Charles is complicated by her relationship with Jeanne Durand.
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok and has surfaced again in Paris.
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor, who was involved in a serious accident, and seems also to be involved with international drug trade.
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman (now deceased)
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Francoise Gaudin - an intellectually disabled woman living in Versailles.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.
Gaston Arnoux - an unknown quantity at this stage, a dilettante. Owner of an art gallery in Paris.


Chapter 49
La Galerie Arnoux

By tfawcus

Last paragraphs of Chapter 48...

As luck would have it, the two gendarmes who had been posted to guard the premises happened to be temporarily distracted, giving directions to some passing tourists.

I ducked under the chequered tape, slid along what remained of the front wall doing a fair impression of a Ringwraith from Mordor, and crept into Arnoux's erstwhile fortress. Having achieved my objective, I was at a loss to know what to do next, so I curled up on the floor in a back room and went to sleep.

Chapter 49


I woke several hours later, confused and disorientated. It was still dark, except for a sliver of light that fell across a small portrait painting that hung on the opposite wall.

My hip bone was sore from lying on the wooden floor and I could scarcely move my right shoulder. To add to my woes, I had a persistent, dull thud in the back of my head. I eased myself gently into a sitting position and made an effort to focus my eyes on the dimly lit portrait.

There was something about the snub nose and the auburn hair that was vaguely familiar. I almost fancied it to be Lautrec's model for The Laundress, but there were subtle differences. This model looked unutterably sad and lacked Carmen Gaudin's determined set of the jaw. There was also a suggestion of desperation, the look of someone trapped. Could it be possible that I was looking at the lost portrait of Alain's grandmother?

That look of desperation was one I was beginning to identify with myself, as I gradually became aware both of my surroundings and my predicament. I crawled across to the window. The two gendarmes were still there, silhouetted under the streetlamp, and I could hear the murmur of their conversation. One was smoking a Gitanes. He was close enough for its pungent smell to drift through the broken glass. He turned towards me and spat a shred of tobacco from between his teeth. I shrank back into the shadows.

The silence was broken only by the thump of my heart and the sound of a solitary vehicle approaching. It drew up outside the building. I dared not look out to see what was going on. I could hear voices and a sudden guffaw of laughter as the new arrivals chatted with the two gendarmes.

Footsteps approached. I cast about in a panic and my eyes lit upon a paint-spattered drop sheet in the corner. I scrambled across and curled up like a hedgehog beneath it, making myself as small as possible as I drew it up over my head.

A floorboard creaked as they entered and a torch flashed briefly around the room. "Tout va bien ici."

I suppressed a sigh of relief.

The voice continued, "Seulement une heure avant l'arrivée de l'équipe de police scientifique. Ensuite, nous pouvons tous rentrer à la maison. Dieu merci!"

Only an hour before the forensics team would arrive. The place would be swarming with people and I was sure to be discovered. What a fool I was. What on earth had possessed me to return?

I knew I had to find a way out. As soon as I was certain the policemen had gone from the building, I started to investigate. The first grey fingers of dawn cast an eerie half-light, illuminating a doorway leading to what looked like a storeroom. My hopes rose as I set eyes upon curtains drawn partly across a sash window. There was now enough light for me to see a small empty yard leading to a laneway beyond. Gently easing the fastener, I began to raise the lower frame of the window. It moved quite easily.

I was about to climb out when I remembered the painting. There were two or three empty shopping bags on the table next to me. Why not? I was already a murderer. What difference would it make if I were also a thief? After all, if Alain was to be believed, the painting of Suzanne Gaudin rightfully belonged to him.

It was a small painting, probably not much more than a preliminary sketch, and it slipped easily into the distinctive Galeries Lafayette bag that I had taken from the top of the pile.

I was careful to slide the window shut behind me before edging from shadow to shadow across the yard to the lane beyond. A few minutes later, I emerged in Rue Petrelle. There was a chill in the morning air as the city began to wake up. The few people on the street hurried as they made their way to work, heads down and with wisps of mist trailing from their breath. An old man wrapped in a heavy coat and scarf tugged impatiently at his dog's lead as it paused to cock its leg on a lamppost.

I pulled up the collar of my coat and set off down the street. Being familiar with this area since my apartment on Rue Gabrielle was less than half a mile to the north, I headed purposefully for Le Café Royal. I remembered that it was
around the corner at the end of the street. What I needed more than anything else just now was a mug of strong black coffee and a brioche.

The café owner gave me a strange look as I made my order. Glancing at my reflection in the window, I realised why. My hair was tousled, I was unshaven, and my eyes were bloodshot. In short, I looked as if I had spent the night on a park bench.

While he was preparing the coffee, I made use of his toilet facilities to splash cold water on my face and neck, and ran a comb through my hair. On the way back to my seat, I helped myself to a copy of La Monde from the pile on the counter. Predictably, the events of the night before were all over the front page. After glancing at it briefly, I slipped the newspaper into my shopping bag, making sure that it concealed the frame of the painting.

It was still only a little past 7.30, and the Carrefour Market opposite would not be open for another hour. I would have to pick up the few supplies I needed sometime later in the day. In the meantime, a brisk ten-minute walk to Rue Gabrielle would help clear the cobwebs.

It is hard to describe the sense of relief I felt when I eventually walked through the gate. My landlord, Monsieur Gerard, was on his way out, and he gave a cheerful wave as he saw me approach.

"Bonjour, Monsieur Brandon. Quel plaisir de vous revoir."

"Je suis content d'être revenu." How true that was. I was indeed happy to have returned.

Once safely in my room, I took the painting out and studied it more carefully. Toulouse Lautrec's signature was in the bottom right-hand corner and it was certainly in his style. If it wasn't an original, it was a darned good copy. However, only Alain would be able to tell me if it was of his grandmother.

It seemed an eternity since I had found the envelope addressed to her whilst browsing in the Paris Stamp Market. In fact, it had only been a few short weeks, but what weeks they had been! I was just beginning to retrace the journey in my mind when I heard voices at the front door, followed by footsteps on the stair.

Author Notes Characters:

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Ian 'Bisto' Kidman - an ex-RAF friend of Charles's.
Wing Commander Bamforth (alias Sir David Brockenhurst) - an intelligence officer with MI6
Helen Culverson - a woman of some mystery, also a travel writer, whose relationship with Charles is complicated by her relationship with Jeanne Durand.
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok and has surfaced again in Paris.
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor, who was involved in a serious accident, and seems also to be involved with international drug trade.
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman (now deceased)
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Francoise Gaudin - an intellectually disabled woman living in Versailles.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.
Gaston Arnoux - Owner of an art gallery in Paris, assassinated by Charles



Chapter 50
An Unexpected Visitor

By tfawcus

Last paragraphs of Chapter 49...

Once safely in my room, I took the painting out and looked at it more carefully. Toulouse Lautrec's signature was in the bottom right-hand corner and it was certainly in his style. If it wasn't an original, it was a darned good copy. Only Alain would be able to tell me if it was of his grandmother, Suzanne Gaudin.

It seemed an eternity since my purchase in the Paris Stamp Market of the envelope addressed to her. Yet it had only been a matter of a few short weeks. What weeks they had been! I was retracing the journey in my mind, when I heard footsteps on the stair.

Chapter 50

Who knew that I was back in Paris? My mind raced. It could only be one of Bamforth's people. Surely the police couldn't be on to me so soon. There was a gentle rap on the door. I slipped the painting back into its bag and slid it under the sofa.

"Who is it?"

"May I come in?" The voice was familiar, but no - surely it couldn't be. I must be imagining things. I went to the door and dropped the safety chain into place before opening it a crack.

"You are right to be cautious, Mr Brandon - or should I call you Charles?"

My blood ran cold. Actually, it didn't, but my reaction was a strange mixture of surprise and fear. The cheek of the woman! How could she possibly have known I was here?

I slipped the chain off to let her in. Her smart tweed suit - lavender and lovat green - exuded an air of efficiency. Her hair was tied in a bun, fastened by a pewter bobble, with an oval amethyst at its centre. Its metallic quality matched her eyes as she regarded me with sardonic amusement.

"You look as though you've seen a ghost, Mr Brandon."

"You were the last person I expected, Madam Durand - or should I call you Jeanne?" She brushed past me, ignoring my mimicry.

"I see your mission was successful," she said, glancing at the newspaper lying on the floor. "The world is well rid of that man. He was a danger to us all." She picked up the paper, folded it carefully in half, and placed it on the coffee table. "May I sit down?"

Without waiting for an answer, she crossed the room and seated herself primly on the edge of the chair by the window; the same chair I had been sitting on when Helen administered first aid to my injured arm.

My mind flashed back to the overpowering sensuality of Helen's perfume as she had leaned over me to dress my wound. I also recalled the James Bond moment when she had stuck the electric toothbrush into the small of my back, teasing me with, "I seem to have you at my mercy, Mr. Brandon. I suggest you stay very still."

I looked over at Madam Durand and suddenly felt very naked without a Walther PPK in my pocket. She sat there, saying nothing, waiting for me to make the next move.

"Where is Helen?" I blurted out.

"You needn't worry about Helen. She is quite safe. In fact, she is rather looking forward to meeting up with you again. We are keen on that, too - though this time on a professional basis, as well as a personal one. Your next assignment will be an interesting departure for you both."

What on earth is the woman talking about? Professional basis? Next assignment? She must be stark raving mad.

"I don't know what kind of a game you are playing, or what your part is in all of this, but I can assure you there isn't going to be a 'next assignment'."

She reached into her handbag and brought out a small envelope. "Before you make that decision, you may be interested in looking at these."

There were three photographs. One showed me standing with Gaston Arnoux outside his gallery. The others were of me handing the package over to him and of him disappearing into the gallery with it under his arm. Each one had a date/time inset.

"I think you'll agree, Charles, that it would be unfortunate if these were to fall into the wrong hands."

So that was what this whole scheme had been about. What a fool I'd been. Even a fairground coconut would have known it was being set up.

"You must understand, we had to make absolutely sure of your loyalty to the firm." My fist clenched and unclenched as I absent-mindedly crumpled the photos. Jeanne seemed unfazed. "Feel free to keep those as a souvenir if you like. They are only copies. As you probably now understand, I have been grooming Helen for her part in this for quite some time. I realised how ideal she would be from the moment we first met in Thailand."

My head was in a whirl as I processed what she was saying. Her actions in getting Helen out of Bangkok and installing her in Paris must have been part of an elaborate, long-term plan.

"Your appearance on the scene caused a bit of a hiccough, but when we delved further into your background, we realised how fortuitous it might be. Of course, convincing you of the need to serve your country did present a bit of a problem. However, I think that is all settled now, isn't it?"

I was aghast. "Do you mind telling me what this is all about?"

"All in good time. I just wanted to make sure that you had arrived home safely. We were a little anxious when we lost sight of you after the explosion. Where did you spend the night, by the way?"

"That's none of your business," I snapped.

I was relieved to hear that she did not know of my return to the gallery, and I intended to keep it that way.

"There's really no need to be so defensive. Anyway, it's not important." She turned to look out of the window. "I see that my chauffeur is getting impatient. Would you like a lift to the embassy? I believe you have an appointment there this morning."

"No thank you. I'll make my own way."

"Please yourself, Mr. Brandon. I'll see you there later anyway. Shall we say eleven o'clock? All will become much clearer to you when we meet with the new Air Attaché."

As she let herself out, she added, "You won't forget to bring your passport, will you?"

Author Notes Characters:

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Ian 'Bisto' Kidman - an ex-RAF friend of Charles's.
Wing Commander Bamforth (alias Sir David Brockenhurst) - an intelligence officer with MI6
Helen Culverson - a woman of some mystery, also a travel writer, whose relationship with Charles is complicated by her relationship with Jeanne Durand.
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok and has surfaced again in Paris.
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor, who was involved in a serious accident, and seems also to be involved with international drug trade.
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman (now deceased)
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Francoise Gaudin - an intellectually disabled woman living in Versailles.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.
Gaston Arnoux - Owner of an art gallery in Paris, recently assassinated by Charles


Chapter 51
The Worm Turns

By tfawcus

Closing paragraphs of Chapter 50

"Would you like a lift to the embassy? I believe you have an appointment there this morning."

"No thank you. I'll make my own way."

"Please yourself, Mr. Brandon. I'll see you there later anyway. Shall we say eleven o'clock? All will become much clearer to you when we meet with the new Air Attaché."

As she [Madame Durand] let herself out, she added, "You won't forget to bring your passport, will you?"

Chapter 51

My first reaction was one of anger. How dare these people threaten me. I was damned if I was going to dance to their tune. If I did decide to serve my country, it certainly wouldn't be because I was blackmailed into it.

I looked at my watch. It was still shy of nine o'clock. Two hours to go before the meeting. What if I didn't go? Having expended so much time and effort on setting me up, they would hardly just hand the photos over to the French police. I decided to call their bluff. If they wanted my help, it would have to be on my terms.

I reached under the sofa and pulled out the painting, placing it on the coffee table. It took a little time to arrange angles so that there were no reflections or shadows while I photographed it. The next step was to properly protect it with bubble wrap and to make a secure parcel before slipping it back into the Galeries Lafayette bag.

It occurred to me that my apartment was probably being watched. Sure enough, when I looked out of the window, I could see a man
leaning against the railings a little way up the street, reading a newspaper. It was going to be interesting to see if, in my new role of master spy, I could shake him off.

Rue Gabrielle is a narrow, cobbled street. Most of the houses abut the pavement, leaving few convenient recesses for a tail to duck into. If this man followed me, I would soon know. I set out at a brisk pace towards the eastern end, which eventually narrows and becomes a pedestrian access to a stairway leading to the Sacré-Coeur funicular railway. It was easy to melt into the shadows at this point, and to look back down the street without being seen. My suspicions were confirmed.

I ran down the steps to the lower station, reaching it seconds before a large group of Japanese tourists swarmed around the entrance, blocking my pursuer. I scrambled aboard the carriage just before the doors closed and had the satisfaction of being able to turn and wave to him as we started our rapid ascent.

There were two or three taxis parked near the entrance to the Sacré-Coeur Basilica. My branch of t
he Banque Nationale de Paris was in the Latin Quarter, in the shadow of Notre Dame Cathedral, a taxi ride of less than quarter of an hour. By ten o'clock, the painting was safely deposited, along with Helen's journal and my diplomatic passport.

The main business of the morning now complete, I found a cheerful café in the sunshine and ordered myself a celebratory glass of Pastis. While waiting for it to arrive, I rang the direct line to the embassy that Smith, alias Caruthers, had given me during my briefing at Babylon-on-Thames.

"Hello? Put me through to the Air Attaché, please. Tell him that it is Mr. Brandon."

"Just a minute, sir. I'll see if he's available."

The waiter appeared at my elbow with a small jug of water and a glass containing a finger of Pastis. As I poured water into the glass, the amber liquid turned cloudy and yellow, giving off a pleasant aroma of aniseed. I thought the metamorphosis an apt metaphor for my own situation.

"Group Captain Bamforth here. Is that you, Brandon?"

"Hello, David, old chap. Congratulations on your promotion. A step up the ladder, what?"

"Look, Brandon, I'm a busy man. Can't this keep until our meeting?"

"Terribly sorry, old chap. 'Fraid I shan't be able to make the meeting. Some French tart burst into my apartment this morning and threatened me with blackmail. Quite upset my applecart. Not cricket. No, definitely not cricket."

There was a pregnant pause at the other end of the line before the Group Captain gave birth to a response. His tone had changed remarkably.

"Don't be too hasty, my dear fellow. Things aren't quite as they might seem. What Madame Durand said this morning was beyond her brief. Obviously, the last thing we'd do is hand you over to the French police. Being an intelligent man, you'd know that, of course."

"I don't respond well to threats. Never have and never will. If you want my cooperation, it will need to be on an entirely different basis."

"Of course. I quite understand. I'd have been disappointed if you'd said anything else. Take it as a little test of your mettle. We have to be sure that you're up to the task."

I took a leisurely sip of my aperitif and waited for him to continue.

"What we have in mind is a matter of extreme national importance. Many people's lives hang on it. I hope that you will at least give me the chance to explain. After that, the decision is yours. You'll be free to walk away, if that's what you decide. I give you my word on it."

Call me a fool if you like, but I heard myself replying, "All right then, I'll give you that chance."

Despite my show of bravado, I knew that they had me by the balls. Nonetheless, I felt better for having asserted myself. It doesn't do to let people walk all over you, and I was clear in my own mind that I wasn't about to start taking orders from Madame Durand. Not insignificantly, there was also the temptation of working with Helen. As I drained my glass, I decided that I liked that idea.

It was a pleasant half-hour walk along the banks of the Seine to the embassy in Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, a little to the north of the Place de la Concorde. Coincidentally, the embassy was also close to the Paris Stamp Market.  Only a week or two ago, I had been happily browsing there
without a care in the world. I could not, in my wildest dreams, have imagined then where my purchase of a tattered old envelope addressed to Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin would lead.

Author Notes Characters:

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Ian 'Bisto' Kidman - an ex-RAF friend of Charles's.
Wing Commander Bamforth (alias Sir David Brockenhurst) - an intelligence officer with MI6
Helen Culverson - a woman of some mystery, also a travel writer, whose relationship with Charles is complicated by her relationship with Jeanne Durand.
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok and has surfaced again in Paris.
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor, who was involved in a serious accident, and seems also to be involved with international drug trade.
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman (now deceased)
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Francoise Gaudin - an intellectually disabled woman living in Versailles.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.
Gaston Arnoux - Owner of an art gallery in Paris, recently assassinated by Charles


Chapter 52
The UK Embassy in Paris

By tfawcus

The concluding paragraphs of Chapter 51...

It was a pleasant half-hour walk along the banks of the Seine to the Embassy of the United Kingdom in Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, to the north of the Place de la Concorde.

It was also a couple of hundred yards from the Paris Stamp Market. Not so long ago, I had been happily browsing there without a care in the world. I could scarcely have imagined where the impulse purchase of my two-euro envelope would lead.

Chapter 52

The embassy presents a daunting façade on one of the most famous streets in Paris. It is adjacent to the Ambassador's official residence and just a few doors down from the Élysée Palace. Shortly after entering, I was met by the head of embassy administration who escorted me upstairs to the Air Attaché's office. He knocked discreetly before announcing my arrival.

"Mr. Brandon, sir."

"Thank you, James." Bamforth got up from behind his desk. "Ah, Charles. I'm delighted you were able to make it." He indicated two armchairs by the window. "Do come and sit down, won't you?"

Exuding charm and suavity, he ushered me towards my seat. "James, I wonder if you could arrange for someone to bring us a pot of coffee and some biscuits, almond macaroons for preference."

"Very good, sir. Will there be anything else?"

"Not at present. I'm expecting Madame Durand in half an hour. Please let me know when she arrives. I'll inform you when I'm ready to see her."

Hitching his trousers at the knee to avoid spoiling their immaculate crease, he lowered himself into the chair opposite me. "I think you'll enjoy the macaroons, Charles. They are exceptionally good."

I cast a quick eye around the room. It combined the elegance of classical French design with the warmth and comfort of a British drawing room. "You seem to have come up in the world, David."

He smiled urbanely. "Nothing compared with the Ambassador's residence. Bought by the Duke of Wellington in 1814 from Napoleon's sister, Princess Borghese, or so James tells me. She was quite a gal, apparently. Used to wander around naked at her soirées so that people could admire her beauty, au naturel."

I raised my eyebrows. "Really? How riveting, but maybe we could dispense with the history lesson and get on with the matter at hand."

"Right you are, old chap. Straight down to business, eh?"

I looked at him coldly, waiting for him to continue. I felt it important to assert myself, and not let him make too much of the home ground advantage.

"First of all, I owe you an apology for all the subterfuge and double dealing. It has been necessary to ensure your loyalty by making it impossible for you to renege on your commitment to us.  The stakes are too high to risk having you bring down the whole operation." He managed to make it sound as though this kind of coercion was perfectly reasonable and acceptable.

"I don't know what this top-secret operation is, and I'm not altogether sure that I care. The fact that you have made an assassin of me, then collected evidence that could be used against me by the French authorities, is outrageous. I should approach the tabloid press and expose this despicable affair for what it is."

"That would certainly be an option - but we would, of course, deny it. Unfortunately for you, if you did choose to do so, you would find we have overwhelming evidence to discredit you. You would undoubtedly spend the remainder of your days behind bars in Clairvaux Prison, which is, by all accounts, rather less salubrious than your present surroundings."

As if to reinforce the point, it was at this moment that our coffee was brought in on a silver salver. The china was a particularly fine example of nineteenth century Limoges.

"Here - try one of these macaroons. They are fresh from the Rue Poncelet market."

"Yes, I know them. One of Alphonse's specialities. I was in La Pâtisserie des Réves only the other day." My mind wandered back wistfully to those wonderful few days spent with Helen.

"The Pastry Shop of Dreams - what a delightful name. I was forgetting your reputation as a writer about gourmet food and travel."

"Well?" I said, changing the subject. "What is this affair of extreme national importance you keep talking about - and what did Gaston Arnoux do so heinous that you needed me to blow him to smithereens?"

"Not us, as a matter of fact. We have been working in cooperation with the French government. Gaston Arnoud was head of an ISIS cell here in Paris. He has been directly responsible for recent terrorist attacks, but too clever to enable the French to gather direct evidence to convict him. His network extends into all the major capital cities of Western Europe, including London."

"So now we are fighting terror with terror, are we?"

Bamforth looked at me as if I were a pre-schooler. "It is sometimes necessary to fight fire with fire. Let us just say that this has been a back burning operation. Cutting off the head of the monster gives us more chance of dealing with its body."

"If I remember my mythology correctly, cutting off the head of the Hydra caused two to grow in its place."

"We are not dealing with mythology here, Brandon. We are dealing with grim reality."

If the French wanted this man dead, then surely, they wouldn't want to go after me.

Almost as if he were reading my mind, Bamforth continued, "As you probably realise, it would be highly convenient for the French to have you as a scapegoat. It would keep their hands clean if they could pin the assassination on a foreigner. Perhaps they could even pass it off as an internecine killing within the organisation, branding you as another terrorist."

He took a sip of coffee and nibbled the edge of a macaroon, dusting the crumbs from his trousers before continuing, "Of course, as long as we can be assured that you are working for us, we will do our utmost to protect you and to ensure that never happens."

Bamforth's threat was subtler and more oblique than Madame Durand's, but none the less deadly for it. If there was a way of escaping the snare, I couldn't see it.

"So, what is it that you want me to do?"

"You alluded to the mythological Hydra just now. Perhaps you will recall that when Hercules hewed the last head from its body and cauterised its neck with fire, the monster was defeated."

I looked at him in amazement. "You're asking me to commit another murder?"

"Not exactly. The core of the problem lies in Pakistan. As you know, Miss Culverson is a Pakistani national. Naturally, she is fluent in Urdu. She is also familiar with several of the northern dialects.

"With your established cover as a travel writer and her intimate knowledge of the border regions of the Hindu Kush, we think you could successfully penetrate to the roots of the organisation. The fact that her sister, Kayla, was radicalised while living in Phuket is, in some ways, a bonus."

I couldn't believe what this man was saying. "Surely, you're not suggesting that Kayla is a terrorist. That is laughable."

"Not yet a terrorist, perhaps, but a sympathiser. We are watching her carefully and are most interested to find out why she came to Paris. We think it unlikely that it was purely in search of her sister."

An antique French mantle clock above the fireplace struck the quarter hour with the delicacy of fairy bells.
Autumn sunshine streamed through the window onto a vase of copper-coloured chrysanthemums turning them to gold. It was hard to believe what mayhem we were discussing in these civilised surroundings.

"Madame Durand will be here shortly. I'll ask James to bring her straight up. She can fill you in on many of the details, particularly those pertaining to the Culverson girls. She will also explain her part in all of this. I should make it clear that she isn't actually working for us, but our paths cross from time to time, and our roles can sometimes become inextricably linked."

Author Notes The characters

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Ian 'Bisto' Kidman - an ex-RAF friend of Charles's.
Group Captain Bamforth (alias Sir David Brockenhurst) - an intelligence officer with MI6 and Air Attache in Paris
Helen Culverson - a woman of some mystery, also a travel writer, whose relationship with Charles is complicated by her relationship with Jeanne Durand.
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok and has surfaced again in Paris.
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor, who was involved in a serious accident, and seems also to be involved with international drug trade.
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman (now deceased)
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Francoise Gaudin - an intellectually disabled woman living in Versailles.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.
Gaston Arnoux - Owner of an art gallery in Paris, recently assassinated by Charles Asserted to be leader of an ISIS network

Image credit: By Krokodyl - my own picture, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3689708


Chapter 53
A Web of Deceit

By tfawcus

Last paragraphs of Chapter 52...

An antique French mantle clock above the fireplace struck the quarter hour with the delicacy of fairy bells.  Autumn sunshine streamed through the window onto a vase of copper-coloured chrysanthemums turning them to gold. It was hard to believe what mayhem we were discussing in these civilised surroundings.

"Madame Durand will be here shortly. I'll ask James to bring her straight up. She can fill you in on many of the details, particularly those pertaining to the Culverson girls. She will also explain her part in all of this. I should make it clear that she isn't actually working for us, but our paths cross from time to time, and our roles can sometimes become inextricably linked."


Chapter 53

Bamforth eased himself out of his chair and leaned forward to press an intercom buzzer beneath his desk.

"Send Madame Durand in as soon as she arrives, please."

"Very good, sir." James's disembodied voice sounded like a ghost from a previous era.

"She's a remarkable woman, you know. Nerves of steel. Not everyone likes her, but that goes with the territory."

"What territory is that?"

"She works undercover for les stups. A dangerous job, as you have already witnessed in the little time you've known her."

I looked blank. "Les stups? Who on earth are they?"

Bamforth adopted a patronising tone. "Oh, dear! I was forgetting that your command of French is still a bit shaky. Les stups is what members of the French underworld call the Brigade des Stupefiants, the French Drug Squad."

"You mean she's a policewoman?"

"For all practical purposes, I suppose you are right. She has much the same authority, but a freer hand in exercising it. Her operations in Thailand were what brought us together." He looked at me condescendingly. "You'll no doubt understand that there is a close link between drug trafficking and terrorism."

The statement was phrased to suggest that I didn't understand, and probably wouldn't ever understand that, or anything else of consequence. This obnoxious man was beginning to get under my skin again, and it was just as well a knock on the door cut me short.

"Madame Durand, sir."

"Jeanne! How good of you to spare the time. Do come in!" He crossed the room and shook her warmly by the hand. He was not the kind of man to indulge in the French custom of a kiss on either cheek.

Drawing up a beautiful, hand-carved walnut chair, he said, "Made for you, my dear; Louis XV with an Aubusson tapestry - fit for a queen."

Madame Durand was clearly unimpressed. She inclined her head slightly in acknowledgement, sweeping a stray hair back behind her ear as she sat down. Bamforth indicated a rather sturdier looking chair for me and retreated into a defensive position behind his desk.

"You two know each other, of course, so let's get down to business, shall we?"

Jeanne gave me a tight-lipped smile, devoid of warmth, and directed her opening remark to Bamforth. "I presume you have filled in the background for Mr. Brandon?"

"Of course, but I leave it to you to explain about the Culverson sisters."

She adjusted the angle of her chair to face me more directly. "What do you already know? Be brief, if you can." Her tone was withering, but I let it pass.

"I know their parents were gunned down by ISIS soldiers during a brutal attack on their church and, as a result, the girls fled from Pakistan to Thailand."

"Yes, go on."

"Kayla was kidnapped in Bangkok and sexually assaulted by an odious little drug dealer called Bukhari. However, being skilled in self-defence, she managed to fight him off. Unfortunately, a sharp blow to his neck proved fatal and she was forced to flee again, this time as a fugitive from the law. I understand that she made her way to Phuket but I know nothing more of her movements until she turned up in Paris recently, looking for her sister."

"The killing was unfortunate for us all. Mr. Bukhari wasn't just an odious little drug dealer, as you put it. He was high up in the organisation and of great interest to us. I had been cultivating him for months and we were on the verge of a breakthrough. His death was a major blow to our plans."

Bamforth interrupted. "Perhaps you could explain your subsequent interest in the Culverson sisters to our friend, Charles."

"I was coming to that." The sharp response made her irritation clear. "Bukhari and I had seen them singing in a nightclub, and he was attracted to them. It didn't take me long to find out their background and circumstances and I realised how useful they could be with a little grooming."

"A little grooming! That's one way of putting it."

"I understand your animosity, Mr. Brandon. It's true that, as I gained her trust, Helen developed an excessive fondness for me, perhaps in reaction to the loss of her mother."

"You bitch! You're nothing but a ..."

Bamforth cut me short. "Steady on, Brandon! Calling each other names isn't going to help."

"I think he was about to accuse me of homophilia, David. I've had worse accusations made against me. Naturally, I led her on. Her infatuation suited me admirably. It made it much easier for me to manipulate her."

I stared at her in disbelief. It was clear that the woman was enjoying my reaction. What a cold-blooded snake she was.

"There's no room for sentiment in our world, Mr Brandon. You'll soon discover that. We do what we must do. Pragmatism is a matter of survival."

"I'm afraid she's right, Charles. In times of war, we have to make difficult decisions for the greater good and make no mistake; this is war."

I looked from one to the other, searching for a vestige of humanity in their faces. There was none. As if to confirm it, the sun chose that moment to go behind a cloud, the chrysanthemums resumed their ochre tones, and the ticking of the mantle clock was amplified by the sinister silence that ensued. Its single chime marking the half hour reminded me of the bell in a boxing arena.

"What we want you to do, Charles, is to resume your relationship with Helen Culverson. She will be devastated when Jeanne distances herself, withdrawing her affection. The poor girl will no doubt seek a shoulder to cry on. We'd like you to make it yours."

"It would be best, Mr Brandon, if you kept Miss Culverson in the dark. For her own protection, you understand. She must know nothing of this. Not yet, at least."

I knew what they were saying was fundamentally wrong and that deceit would only serve to destroy our relationship - if, indeed, we still had one. Nonetheless, I was hungry to see Helen, to share her warmth and laughter, and once again to inhale that tantalising scent of jasmine infused with oriental spices.

"Well, Charles?"

I wrestled with my conscience, but it was clearly having an off-day and offered little resistance. "I'll do it," I said. "Not for me, but for Helen." How easily the lie slipped from my tongue.

"Good." An urbane smile spread across the Air Attaché's face as he rose to shake my hand. "There is one other thing, old boy. It is vitally important that her sister, Kayla, knows nothing of this. We still have her under surveillance."

"Under surveillance? What for?"

"She made some dangerous friends while in Phuket. But that need not concern you. Not for the present, at any rate."

Author Notes The characters

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Ian 'Bisto' Kidman - an ex-RAF friend of Charles's.
Group Captain Bamforth (alias Sir David Brockenhurst) - an intelligence officer with MI6 and Air Attache in Paris
Helen Culverson - a woman of some mystery, also a travel writer, whose relationship with Charles is complicated by her relationship with Jeanne Durand.
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok and has surfaced again in Paris.
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor, who was involved in a serious accident, and seems also to be involved with international drug trade.
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman (now deceased)
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Francoise Gaudin - an intellectually disabled woman living in Versailles.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.
Gaston Arnoux - Owner of an art gallery in Paris, recently assassinated by Charles Asserted to be leader of an ISIS network


Chapter 54
Nearly a Cat-astrophe

By tfawcus

Last paragraphs of Chapter 53...

"Good." An urbane smile spread across the Air Attaché's face as he rose to shake my hand.

"There is one other thing, old boy. It is vitally important that her sister, Kayla, knows nothing of this. We still have her under surveillance."

"Under surveillance? What for?"

"She made some dangerous friends while in Phuket. But that need not concern you. Not for the present, at any rate."

 

Chapter 54
 
Although I still had many unanswered questions, Bamforth cut the meeting short, pleading the excuse of another engagement.

"We'll brief you fully later," he said, then, to my surprise, he continued, "Since you are still officially my P.A., we'll be calling you back here from time to time. It would be wise to keep up appearances."

Brown had made it clear that my position as P.A. would terminate as soon as I had delivered the package to Arnoux. Either things had changed, or the headquarters' staff had not been adequately briefed by their masters. Not unusual in the civil service.

Almost as an afterthought, Bamforth added, "Perhaps you could drop your diplomatic passport off with James on your way out. You won't be needing it again."

"If I am still your P.A., I rather think I should keep it. I understood from Smith and Brown, your colourless colleagues in London, that it goes with the job."

I detected a slight crack in Bamforth's veneer. "As you wish, dear boy, but don't make the mistake of trying to use it, unless on business that I have personally authorised. That would be a grave mistake."

It had been a pointless act of defiance, but a defeated man needs to save face with small victories. As I left the building and stepped back into the sunshine, my spirits lifted. Perhaps I was not so defeated after all. My brief was to contact Helen and I couldn't think of a more pleasing prospect.

To hell with them both. I had no intention of keeping her in the dark. If we were in this together, it would be with her full knowledge and consent. As the sparrows in the Stamp Market had reminded me nine days ago, France was the land of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. I strode back down towards the Place de la Concorde whistling the Marseillaise. The first few lines were all I could remember from my schooldays, but they seemed appropriate:

Allons enfants de la Patrie
Le jour de gloire est arrivé
Contre nous de la tyrannie
L'étendard sanglant est levé


Maybe the day of glory was still a little way off, but I was damned if I was going to languish under the bloody banner of tyranny. Vive la revolution!

After stopping to buy a single red rose, I hailed a taxi. "Avenue de Villiers, s'il vous plait, en face du Café Gabrielle." A single rose was more than enough, I thought, considering that it was she who had left me. No need to go overboard.

There was no reply when I rang the buzzer at the front of the apartment block. Perhaps, I should have let her know I was coming. I rang again, this time holding my finger down for several seconds. Still no reply. Blast, what a fool I am.

I was about to walk away when the door opened. There stood Madame Bisset, Helen's landlady, in her down-at-heel slippers and a violet cardigan. Her face lit up when she saw me. 
Her longsuffering tortoiseshell, Serafina, was tucked under one arm.

"Monsieur Charles! How good to see you again, and look! A rose! What a gentleman you are."

She dumped Serafina unceremoniously on the doorstep and stretched her arms out towards me. Fearing a kiss, I proffered the rose. She clasped it to her ample bosom, scrunching the cellophane wrapping, and a tear glistened in her eye.

"For you, Madeleine, the loveliest landlady in Paris."

I realised I had overdone things when she took a step forward, tripped over the cat and fell into my arms. I staggered under the weight, just managing to retain my balance. Poor Serafina gave a bloodcurdling screech and fled back into the building.

There was a tinkle of laughter behind me. I don't know how long she had been standing there watching as the scene unfolded. "Oh, Charles, you fickle man! And what a cheapskate! Only a single rose? I'm surprised at you, Madeleine, falling for a man like that."

I interjected with the only defence I could summon. "A rose is a rose is a rose."

Madeleine giggled like a schoolgirl. "Oh, ma petite chérie, I thought it was my lucky day. Tant pis!" She gave a resigned sigh, "I suppose you must have him back." Then, with a suggestive wink. "You will be able to make better use of him than I can."

With that, she blew me a kiss and, scooping Serafino back into her arms, disappeared into the gloom of the hallway. I was left facing Helen, not sure what to do next. I needn't have worried. She wrapped her arms around me and kissed me lightly on the cheek.

"What a prize chump you are. How could I not love you?"

"How, indeed?"

She gave me a playful kick on the shin. "Mmmm? Let me count the ways."

"All right then, but not here in the street. How about a walk down to Parc Monceau? We can sit on the steps of Maupassant's statue, eating ice-cream and tearing each other to pieces."

"Trust you to choose that place. You're in love with the young lady lounging at his feet. Go on, admit it."

"She has a heart of stone, like someone else I could mention."

How easily we seemed to slip back into a teasing repartee. It was as if Madame Durand had never come between us.
As the last of the ice-cream succumbed to the Indian summer and started to run between my fingers, I summoned the courage to ask the vital question. "What has become of your friend, Jeanne? Is she still as much in need of your help as you imagined?"

"I'm not sure. She's been acting strangely. Behaving - how shall I put it? - as if she wants to distance herself from me. She seems preoccupied."

"So! I've caught you on the rebound, have I?"

I regretted the words as they left my mouth. The look she gave me was one of wild confusion, as one might expect of a puppy who, expecting love, has received an unexpected blow.

"I didn't mean that."

"Oh, but you did. I knew you were angry that I wouldn't come to England with you, but I honestly thought she needed me."

"More than I needed you?"

"Now you're being ridiculous, Charles. Had you been knocked over by a hit-and-run driver, barely escaping with your life? Had you been tied up by thugs from the underworld and cut with knives? What was your selfish need, I wonder? A young woman to boost your flagging ego?"

That stung. It stung because it was the truth. It stung because I loved her and because I was too old to love her and because... and because... and because.

I got up and turned to leave, kicking an empty Coca-Cola can along the footpath like a teenager in a tantrum as I walked away. Before I knew it, I felt something cold and soft pressed into the back of my neck, something that slithered slowly down the inside of my shirt, spreading sideways as it reached my belt.

"Come back, you old fool," she whispered. "We've better things to do with our time than argue."

She put an arm around my waist and started, in a most lascivious way, to lick the remains of her ice-cream from behind my ear. "Perhaps we should go back to my apartment, so that I can clean you up properly. It would be a pity to waste any of that lovely gelato, wouldn't it?"

A shiver went down my spine. It may have been anticipation or it might only have been ice-cream. "Okay," I said.

I nearly added, "I know when I'm licked," but wisely thought better of it.

Author Notes Characters

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Group Captain Bamforth (alias Sir David Brockenhurst) - an intelligence officer with MI6 and Air Attache in Paris
Helen Culverson - Also a travel writer, whose relationship with Charles is complicated by her relationship with Jeanne Durand.
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok and has surfaced again in Paris.
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor and undercover agent with the French Drug Squad.
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman (now deceased)
Ian 'Bisto' Kidman - an ex-RAF friend of Charles's.
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Francoise Gaudin - an intellectually disabled woman living in Versailles.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.
Gaston Arnoux - Owner of an art gallery in Paris, recently assassinated by Charles Asserted to be leader of an ISIS network


Chapter 55
Hung Out to Dry

By tfawcus

Last paragraphs of Chapter 54

She quickly caught up with me, put an arm around my waist, and started to lick the remains of her ice-cream from my neck in a most lascivious way.

"Perhaps we should go back to my apartment, so that I can clean you up properly. It would be a pity to waste any of that lovely gelato, wouldn't it?"

A shiver went down my spine. It may have been anticipation, or it may just have been ice-cream. "Okay," I said.

I nearly added, "I know when I'm licked," but thought the better of it.

Chapter 55

By the time we reached the apartment, I was feeling sticky and uncomfortable. Moreover, Helen seemed to have lost her desire to lick semi-congealed, tepid ice-cream from a hairy back. She offered me a hot shower instead. I hoped, and assumed, she would be joining me, but life is full of disappointments.

My fantasies of an intimate reunion were further dashed when I eventually emerged, only to find that she had disappeared. My shirt was pegged to a makeshift clothesline over a radiator and there was a scribbled note on the kitchen table. It read, "Gone out. Back soon."

I scowled at the damp shirt. It looked limp and dejected. I found myself in a similar condition. We had both been hung out to dry.

I had no intention of kicking my heels for the rest of the afternoon, so I threw the towel around my shoulders and jogged downstairs. Madame Bisset was in the hallway, busily watering a woebegone pot plant.

"Monsieur Charles! What a surprise! Where are you off to, displaying your manly chest for all the world to see?"

I blushed and stammered, "I'm going for a run."

"Then you'd better run fast. All the pretty girls will be chasing you."

I gave her a feeble grin and fled, feeling rather foolish. My jogging didn't last for long. Within a couple of hundred yards, I began to wheeze and my stride soon subsided to a more gentlemanly pace.

There was now a distinct nip in the air so, finding myself near a consignment store called La Boutique de Kroll, I ducked inside. I was disillusioned to discover it advertised chic and trendy clothing. I had no wish to be either chic or trendy.

The young lady behind the counter gave me a look that wasn't nearly so appreciative as Madeleine Bisset's had been. "Je peux vous aider?" Her tone suggested the way she'd really like to help me was out through the door.

"Je voudrais acheter une chemise." Then I added, "Something vintage."

"A shirt? Of course. Come this way."

Her idea of vintage shirts did not coincide with mine. Nonetheless, I managed to find an innocuous-looking cashmere sweater that had been reduced to half price. It had a high neck, described on the label as a 'china neck'. I was at a loss to see the oriental connection.

"This will do," I said, as I pulled it over my head. "No need to wrap. I'll wear it."

"A good choice, monsieur. Made by Derek Rose of London. Ape to gentleman."

"I beg your pardon?"

"That is how they market themselves, Monsieur. Ape to gentleman." This time there was no mistaking how appropriate she thought the slogan was. I looked in the mirror. She was quite right. I did look rather dapper - and considerably less ape-like.

I parted with 120 euros and rolled Helen's towel up in the op shop bag. I then texted her to say that I, too, had been called away, but how would she like to meet up for dinner later. As an afterthought, I thanked her for washing my shirt.

Having time to spare, I hailed a taxi and directed the driver to Rue Gabrielle, where I picked up a few necessities from the local supermarket before returning home. Once there, I rang Kayla to let her know I was back in Paris. She seemed overjoyed.

"How about a drink at La Divette? I don't have to be at the Moulin Rouge until eight this evening. Plenty of time for you to tell me all about your trip to England."

That I would not be doing, but a drink at La Divette de Montmartre appealed to me. It was a cosy, informal wine bar for a catch-up chat. "That sounds good. Let's meet there in about an hour."

I still had it in mind that Kayla was under surveillance. It seemed absurd to think that she might be linked to ISIS, particularly after they had gunned down her parents in cold blood. Yet, something had happened in Phuket that concerned both Madame Durand and Bamforth. Drugs or terrorism? Both seemed unlikely, but I had to find out for myself.

I also wanted to renew my acquaintance with Alain Gaudin. There was the matter of a letter to discuss. I still hoped to find out what secrets it might reveal. I also wanted my envelope back. Now that I had the painting, I felt sure we could work something out. I assumed Kayla would be able to tell me where to find him.

I put a jacket on over my new sweater, brushed my hair and dabbed a few drops of cologne on my neck and wrists. Then I took my second trip in as many days up the funicular railway to Sacré-Coeur. The sun was low in the sky, casting a soft light over the city spread below. It threw taller buildings such as the Pompidou Centre into sharp relief. A thin mist was also beginning to form, hanging like gossamer over low-lying areas near the river.

It was a short walk across Montmartre to the wine bar and I arrived twenty minutes early. As I was about to enter, I saw that Kayla was already there, sitting in the corner with her back to the door. She was deep in conversation with a swarthy man whom I instantly recognised.

I shrank back and sidled along the street to the nearby Cave Café, which had tables out on the pavement with a good view of La Divette. As I was about to sit down, I noticed another familiar figure, half-hidden behind a copy of La Monde. I recognised him as the man who had been tailing me that morning.

Taking the initiative, I approached him with a friendly wave. "Good evening. What a coincidence finding you here. Mind if I join you?" I didn't wait for an answer but drew up a chair alongside him. "Twice in one day. There's a coincidence. I thought we were both on the same side now - so why are you still following me?"

"I'm not following you, Monsieur. Not this time, anyway. We are keeping the gentleman with Miss Culverson under surveillance." With that, he retired behind his newspaper and lapsed into silence.

A few minutes later, the man who had been talking to Kayla appeared, looked hurriedly up and down the street, and walked swiftly off in the opposite direction. My table companion was quick to follow.

I gave them time to disappear around the corner before returning to La Divette. It would be fascinating to find out what Kayla had in common with one of Bellini's henchmen who had tailed Helen and me to Versailles and later, to the gardens at Giverney. It was the first time I'd seen him by himself. Why was he still at large? I knew that his boss had been arrested by les stups nearly a week ago.

Author Notes Some sayings that may not be familiar to those who live in the New World
Shirty: annoyed
hung out to dry: left in the lurch or let down
op shop: consignment store or charity shop

Characters

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Group Captain Bamforth (alias Sir David Brockenhurst) - an intelligence officer with MI6 and Air Attache in Paris
Helen Culverson - Also a travel writer, whose relationship with Charles is complicated by her relationship with Jeanne Durand.
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok and has surfaced again in Paris.
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor and undercover agent with the French Drug Squad.
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman (now deceased)
Ian 'Bisto' Kidman - an ex-RAF friend of Charles's.
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Francoise Gaudin - an intellectually disabled woman living in Versailles.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.
Gaston Arnoux - Owner of an art gallery in Paris, recently assassinated by Charles Asserted to be leader of an ISIS network


Chapter 56
Day Tripper

By tfawcus

Last paragraphs of Chapter 55...

A few minutes later, our man came out, looked hurriedly up and down the street, and walked swiftly away in the opposite direction. My table companion was quick to follow.

I gave them time to disappear around the corner before returning to La Divette. It was going to be fascinating to find out what Kayla had in common with this man who had been following Helen and me when we were at Versailles and later, in the gardens of Giverney. It was the first time I'd seen him by himself. Why was he still at large? I knew that his boss, Monsieur Bellini, had been arrested by les stups nearly a week ago; presumably his oppo, too.

Chapter 56


As soon as I entered the wine bar, Kayla sprang up and ran towards me. She threw her arms around me, burying her head in my shoulder and hugged me tightly. After a few moments she pushed back against my chest and looked into my eyes.

"Is it really you, Charles? I'm so glad you've come back. So very glad."

The intensity of her emotion caught me off balance. This was not at all what I had expected. "Whoa! Steady on, old girl. What's this all about?" I put an arm around her and guided her towards a chair. "Come and sit down and tell me what's going on."

She brushed a few strands of hair to one side, managing the vague semblance of a smile through her tears. "I don't know where to start. This has been a terrible few days. They've arrested André. They came in the middle of the night and took him away."

"Hang on. Who is
André - and who are 'they'?"

"Scaramouche - surely you must remember him. They burst in without warning. Five or six men in military uniform. I was in the bathroom and stayed hidden behind the door, but I could see through the narrow slit by the hinges. The one nearest me had a badge on his arm with the word RAID in the middle, and Police Nationale in a circle round it. He was carrying a sub-machine gun and barking out orders. One of them hit
André on the side of the head with a rifle butt. They dragged him away in his pyjamas, blood trickling down his temple. It was over in less than a minute."

Her account poured out, a tumble of words leaving her breathless. She slumped on the table, her head between her arms. At a loss to know how to comfort her, I leaned forward to touch her arm, but she pulled away.

"I don't know what I'm going to do. He was everything to me. I'm terrified. Who were those men? What did they want with him?"

"I'm not sure. I've never heard of RAID but it sounds like a special forces unit. We can find out. What do you know about
André? Had he been involved in anything illegal?"

"He's a sweet, sweet man under all that swagger. Not at all the pompous ass that he makes himself out to be. Really, he wouldn't hurt a fly. There's not a mean bone in his body."

"There must be some reason why they arrested him. Think back. Are you sure you don't know what it might have been?"

Kayla's eyes flashed. "Of course not. He was just an actor in the commedia dell'arte troupe. An actor, nothing more."

Perhaps an actor at more than one level. And what about Kayla? If she's acting, then she's doing a mighty fine job of it.

Having heard what Bamforth said, I thought it sounded as if RAID might be an anti-terrorist squad. What puzzled me was why they hadn't arrested Kayla at the same time. Did they really not know she was there?

"When did all this happen?"

"Yesterday morning, just before dawn."

"And since then? Has anything else happened?"

"Yes. I'm being followed. I'm sure of it."

"What makes you so sure?"

"A gut reaction. A sixth sense, if you like. Then sometimes I see him out of the corner of my eye."

"What does he look like? Can you describe him?"

"No, he's always too far away and partly hidden in the shadows."

"I know what you mean," I said. "Helen and I were being tailed last week when we went to Versailles. Two men. We caught sight of them now and again. One was tall and had a swarthy complexion. He might have been North African. I'm not sure." I paused to take a drink and to see if there was any reaction from Kayla. "The funny thing is that I saw someone just like him leaving here a moment or two before I walked in."

"Really? I didn't notice anyone like that. How strange."

"I was probably mistaken. We found out that they were Bellini's men. You know, the drug dealer who was arrested the other day. It was all over the papers."

"Was it? I never look at newspapers. The news is always so depressing."

I knew she was lying but there wasn't a trace of it in her demeanour. I could only hazard a guess at the game she was playing.

She got up suddenly. "Excuse me. I need to go to the toilet. I'll be back in a moment."

I leaned back in my chair and listened to the music from the jukebox while I waited for her to return. It was an old Beatles song, Day Tripper. I started to tap the rhythm on the table with my hand and to mime the lyrics:

Got a good reason
For taking the easy way out
Got a good reason
For taking the easy way out now
She was a day tripper
One-way ticket, yeah
It took me so long to find out
And I found out


When Kayla reappeared, she seemed like a different person. Her natural gaiety and humour had returned. Her eyes sparkled and she spun around on her toes. "Come on!" she said. "Let's dance. I love this music."

She pulled me up from my chair and drew me in close. This was just as well, for although I can manage a slow shuffle at close quarters, I'm no dancer. There was a sensual electricity in her movement that overwhelmed and rather frightened me.

"I say! Steady on!"

She laughed. "You are an old fogey! Where's your sense of fun? This is Paris - city of love."

I steered her back to her seat and resumed mine with some relief. Lifting my glass, I clinked it against hers. "Cheers!" I said, taking a large draught to regain my composure.

Kayla giggled and wiped her nose with her sleeve. It was then that I noticed the tell-tale trace of white powder. Now I understood her sudden mood change, the reason for her meeting with Bellini's henchman, and her denial of having even seen him. Things were beginning to fall into place.

Author Notes List of Characters

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Group Captain Bamforth (alias Sir David Brockenhurst) - an intelligence officer with MI6 and Air Attache in Paris
Helen Culverson - Also a travel writer, whose relationship with Charles is complicated by her relationship with Jeanne Durand.
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok and has surfaced again in Paris.
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor and undercover agent with the French Drug Squad.
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman (now deceased)
Ian 'Bisto' Kidman - an ex-RAF friend of Charles's.
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Andre (aka Scaramouche) - an actor in Montmartre and friend of Kayla's
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Francoise Gaudin - an intellectually disabled woman living in Versailles.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.
Gaston Arnoux - Owner of an art gallery in Paris, recently assassinated by Charles Asserted to be leader of an ISIS network


Chapter 57
Stumblebum

By tfawcus

Closing paragraphs of Chapter 56

Kayla laughed. "You are an old fogey! Where's your sense of fun? This is Paris - city of love."

I steered her back to her seat and resumed mine with some relief. Lifting my glass, I clinked it against hers. "Cheers!" I said, taking a large draught to regain my composure.

She giggled and wiped her nose with her sleeve. It was then that I noticed the tell-tale trace of white powder. Now I understood her sudden mood change, the reason for her meeting with Bellini's henchman, and her denial of having even seen him. Things were beginning to fall into place.

Chapter 57

"That was fun, wasn't it? Go on, admit it." Her teasing tone was provocative but not so arousing now I knew what had induced it.

I shrugged off the challenge with self-deprecating humour. "You're far too good a dancer for me. I've always been a bit of a stumblebum."

"Stumblebum! What a gorgeous word." She leaped to her feet, lurching around me, sticking her bottom out at odd angles and laughing. "Come on! Let's get out of here."

That suited me for I thought a bit of fresh air might do her good. As soon as I got up, she wrapped herself around me, kissed me on the cheek, and tugged me away towards the door. Two lads playing table football in the corner paused in their game to give me the thumbs up and a knowing grin. One of them thrust his loins out in an unnecessarily obscene gesture. I hoped Kayla hadn't noticed.

As soon as we were outside, she turned to me. There was a pleading look in her eye. "Take me back to my place, Charles. I'm scared to go there alone after what has happened."

"All right," I said, "but don't you have to be at the Moulin Rouge in time for the evening performance?"

"Yes, but that's not for another hour or two. Plenty of time for a quiet drink and, if we can't think of anything better to do, you can tell me what you've been up to in England for the past few days."

An hour or two? I wondered how I was going to navigate my way through the rapids looming ahead. I glanced around, half expecting to see a seedy sleuth with a trilby tilted down over his face, but the only thing lurking in the shadows was my overactive imagination.

Kayla's apartment turned out to be not much more than a bed-sit. It was in turmoil. She obviously hadn't done anything to tidy the place since André had been dragged away by the police.

She reached into a cupboard and brought out a bottle of absinthe and two tumblers, into which she splashed generous fingers of the clear green liquor. "You know what they say, don't you?" she said as she handed me my glass. "Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder."

I winced at the pun and gave her a weak smile before holding my glass to the light to appreciate its emerald translucence. I swirled the viscous fluid around and inhaled the pungent odour of wormwood. "Bottoms up," I said. We clinked glasses and I took a cautious sip.

"You know, of course, that a green fairy lurks in the absinthe bottle, intent on stealing your soul?"

"Thanks for the warning," I said. "How foolish of me. For a moment, I thought you were only after my body."

She laughed. "Not tonight, dear Charles. My memory of André is still too sharp. He was a very dear friend ... and a remarkable lover." She looked at me intently before continuing. "Yes, and that, too. I saw the look you gave me in La Divette, and I know you're not a fool. He kept me supplied when I needed it."

"Do you think that's why he was arrested?"

"I doubt it. If they'd wanted to pick him up for dealing, they'd have used les stups, not a full-scale paramilitary operation. They must have wanted to pin something far more serious on him."

"Any idea what?"

"No. He was a secretive man behind all of that showmanship. I don't know much about him, except that he was kind to me at a time when I desperately needed support."

"How did you meet up? Was it just coincidence?"

"Not really. He was a friend of Thaksin's."

"Thaksin?"

"Dear me. I was forgetting that you don't know about my time in Phuket. Just a minute." She fetched a small jug of water and came to sit beside me before continuing.

"Thaksin was the main reason I went to Phuket rather than anywhere else. I met him during Muay Thai training in Bangkok before he moved to become an instructor in one of the boys' training camps." A wistful look came over her face. "He helped me in ways you would hardly believe, but that's another story."

Pausing in her narrative, she added water to our drinks. The clarity of the liquor was instantly transformed to an eerie green mist. "When things got too hot for me in Phuket, he suggested I should come to Paris in search of Helen. Don't worry, he said. I know a man there who will look after you. That man turned out to be André."

"And now that he's gone, you're all alone. That must be dreadfully hard." I offered my hand to console her. "Is there no-one else to look out for you here in Paris?"

"There is one other person," she said. "By a strange coincidence, you introduced him to me. I thought he was a dreadful man when I first met him, but I was wrong. A diamond in the rough, you might say, but a diamond all the same."

I was puzzled, for I couldn't remember introducing anyone to her. "Who is this chameleon? I'm fascinated."

"Alain Gaudin."

"The grumpy gardener? You must be joking."

"No. He's not at all the way you and Helen described him after your meeting in Giverny. Under that gruff exterior, he's a sweetie. Did you know, he has a sister in Versailles that he looks after? That's why he moonlights at the Moulin Rouge."

"Yes, we knew about Françoise, but I didn't know that he was doing anything to look after her. She's in residential care. Mentally disabled from birth, according to Father Lacroix."

"The poor man has been responsible for her all these years and, to make matters worse, he was driven out of Versailles a few months ago by pernicious gossip. Damaging, but quite unfounded. No wonder he has a chip on his shoulder." Kayla sounded quite upset. She'd obviously developed a soft spot for Monsieur Gaudin.

"Fascinating. I'd love to meet him again. There are several things I want to talk over, if he's amenable. Tell me, does he live here in Paris or out at Giverny?"

"He rents an attic room on the outskirts and commutes to Giverny three days a week. I can speak with him if you like, and try to arrange a meeting."

"Could you? That would be wonderful." Although the mystery of the French letter now seemed insignificant in comparison with all the other things going on, I still wanted to get to the bottom of it. After all, it was what had set this bizarre train of events in motion.

I could see that Kayla was coming down off her high, and I was no longer quite so concerned about her. I drained my glass and got up. "I'm really going to have to leave now. I've promised to take Helen out to dinner, and she'll be wondering what has happened to me."

"Does she know where you are?"

"No."

"Well, don't you think it might be a good idea to call her? She'll be worried sick, if I know my little sister."

Author Notes List of Characters

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Group Captain Bamforth (alias Sir David Brockenhurst) - an intelligence officer with MI6 and Air Attache in Paris
Helen Culverson - Also a travel writer, whose relationship with Charles is complicated by her relationship with Jeanne Durand.
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok and has surfaced again in Paris.
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor and undercover agent with the French Drug Squad.
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman (now deceased)
Ian 'Bisto' Kidman - an ex-RAF friend of Charles's.
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Andre (aka Scaramouche) - an actor in Montmartre and friend of Kayla's
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Francoise Gaudin - an intellectually disabled woman living in Versailles.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.
Gaston Arnoux - Owner of an art gallery in Paris, recently assassinated by Charles Asserted to be leader of an ISIS network


Chapter 58
Oysters and Champagne

By tfawcus

The last paragraphs of Chapter 57...

I could see that Kayla was coming down off her high, and I wasn't so concerned about her as I had been. I drained my glass and got up. "I'm really going to have to leave now. I've promised to take Helen out to dinner, and she'll be wondering what has happened to me."

"Does she know where you are?"

"No."

"Well, don't you think it might be a good idea to call her? She's probably worried sick."

Chapter 58

As I rode down the funicular, I thought Kayla might be right, so I texted Helen:
"Sorry. Held up. C U soon. XXX"

"What kept you?"

"Will explain when I C U"

"Better be good or it's I C U 4 U"

"???"

"Intensive Care Unit, darling."

This was obviously going to be trickier than I had expected. Perhaps I should take flowers. Or chocolate? Maybe wine. Certainly not absinthe... There was a wine shop nearby in Rue des Trois Frères. I knew the place would still be open since was only just around the corner from my lodgings in Rue Gabrielle and I was a regular customer.

Rue des Trois Frères, the Street of the Three Brothers. Was it perhaps named from the Brothers Grimm tale? One of the brothers in that story had been a fencing master. He was so skilful with his sword that, when it rained, he could intercept every drop and remain dry. I hoped that I could be equally adroit in deflecting the trouble looming ahead.

I chose a particularly good champagne and a soft washed-rind cheese to go with it. If that didn't do the trick, nothing would. Twenty minutes later I was knocking at the door of Helen's apartment with renewed confidence. I was sure that I had the perfect gift. There was no answer. I knocked again. Louder.

The door to Madame Bisset's apartment opened. "Who is it, making that infernal racket?"

As soon as she peered out, I saw that I had interrupted a delicate operation. The dear lady now had strawberry blonde hair, curled tightly around pink plastic rollers. Possibly the emphasis should be more on the straw than on the berry. The effect was startling.

"It's me - Charles. Sorry if I disturbed you, madame." I swallowed a smile, "... nice hair, by the way."

"Oh, Monsieur Brandon, how kind." She pirouetted so I could admire the back view, at the same time calling out, "The runner has returned!" Then she caught sight of the bottle of champagne. "A peace offering! How wise! But you're at the wrong door, lover boy. She's with me. Come in. I'm sure I can find three glasses."

This was not at all what I had in mind. Nonetheless, a gatekeeper might have some advantages. "Thank you, madame! I have cheese, as well. Perhaps we should have a party."

Helen chose that moment to squeeze past her landlady, giving her a quick peck on the cheek. "Maybe some other time, Madeleine. I need Monsieur Charles all to myself this evening. Sorry!"

"Just my luck, dear. Still, I don't blame you. He really is a gorgeous hunk." She winked at me and blew a kiss as she closed the door.

Helen grabbed my free hand and yanked me towards her apartment. "Where on earth have you been all this time? I was frantic with worry. Madeleine said you were running around the streets of Paris half-naked. What happened? Did the police arrest you for indecent exposure?"

"It wasn't that half that was naked. You had my shirt. Remember? Where did you go, for that matter?"

"I went out to buy provisions for a romantic dinner with a special man. Come and see."

She opened the door and led me in. A cloth of white lace was draped over the table by the window. My eye took in the pink orchids, the silver candlesticks, crystal glasses and linen napkins, each one neatly folded into a bishop's mitre.

"I thought I would surprise you, darling. Why don't you pour the champagne while I go and freshen up? I shan't be a minute." She gave my hand a quick squeeze and disappeared into the bedroom.

With my heart beating a little faster than normal, I took a napkin from the table and wrapped it around the neck of the bottle before removing the metal cage. Holding the cork firmly in place with my left hand, I twisted the bottle until the first signs of movement, then eased it out, releasing the pressure with a gentle fizz before pouring a little of the foaming liquid into each glass. After the first bubbles had subsided, I topped them up, two thirds full.

I then spent a few moments sorting through Helen's collection of music before selecting Claude Debussy's 'Nocturnes'. As the first haunting notes filled the room like clouds drifting across a sombre sky, Helen reappeared, a dish of oysters in hand, and dressed only in a seductive smile and my white shirt, the tail of which hung negligently around the bare skin of her thigh.

"Oysters to begin with, I thought ... in memory of The Dog Who Smokes," she said as she placed the dish on the table and handed me one of the glasses. "To us," she said, clinking hers against mine.

She took a small sip, then held her glass up to look at me through the beads of straw-coloured wine. "Now come and tell me all about your visit to my dear sister, Kayla." She slipped her arm around my waist and drew me in close, nibbling at my earlobe as she whispered, "You were going to tell me, weren't you?"

Author Notes List of Characters

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Group Captain Bamforth (alias Sir David Brockenhurst) - an intelligence officer with MI6 and Air Attache in Paris
Helen Culverson - Also a travel writer, whose relationship with Charles is complicated by her relationship with Jeanne Durand.
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok and has surfaced again in Paris.
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor and undercover agent with the French Drug Squad.
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman (now deceased)
Ian 'Bisto' Kidman - an ex-RAF friend of Charles's.
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Andre (aka Scaramouche) - an actor in Montmartre and friend of Kayla's
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Francoise Gaudin - an intellectually disabled woman living in Versailles.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.
Gaston Arnoux - Owner of an art gallery in Paris, recently assassinated by Charles Asserted to be leader of an ISIS network


Chapter 59
A Night to Remember

By tfawcus

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of sexual content.

The closing paragraphs of Chapter 58

... Helen reappeared, a dish of oysters in hand, and dressed only in a seductive smile and my white shirt, the tail of which hung negligently around the bare skin of her thigh.

"Oysters to begin with, I thought ... in memory of The Dog Who Smokes," she said as she placed the dish on the table and handed me one of the glasses. "To us," she said, clinking hers against mine.

She took a small sip, then held her glass up to look at me through the beads of straw-coloured wine. "Now come and tell me all about your visit to my dear sister, Kayla." She slipped her arm around my waist and drew me in close, nibbling at my earlobe as she whispered, "You were going to tell me, weren't you?"

Chapter 59

"Of course," I murmured as I turned my head, brushing my lips against hers. "Now, how about giving back my shirt?"

"Not just yet, you impetuous man. It is my second skin. I should feel naked without it."

For a moment, the image of a snake shedding its skin crossed my mind, but Helen was no snake. I was sure of that. The creature in my arms was decidedly warm-blooded and mammalian. More intoxicating than any champagne.

She steered me towards the table. "Come, let's eat."

Picking up an oyster, she dribbled a few drops of Tabasco sauce onto it before passing it to me. "Some like it hot," she said in a voice that oozed sexuality. Yes, dribbled. Definitely not drizzled.

I eased it free from its shell with my fork and slid it into my mouth. I held it there for a lascivious moment to relish the briny taste before biting into the soft flesh to release its sweet, metallic flavour. She watched my every move, her lips slightly parted.

As soon as I swallowed, she picked up another oyster between her fingers. Selecting a wedge of lemon, she squeezed until two or three drops fell. As the acid splashed against its firmness, the oyster twitched. She raised it slowly, holding my gaze as she took it between her teeth and tugged. Slurping it into her mouth, she bit fiercely into the adductor muscle, tearing it from its shell.

I winced.

Eventually, we rose from the table, spent shells strewn, and the last of the champagne lingering in a lipstick-stained glass. In my mind, I swept her up into my arms and carried her across the threshold into her boudoir. Perhaps wisely, I refrained from putting this fantasy into practice, instead escorting her to the bedroom with as much chivalry as I could muster and shutting the door behind us.

Our lovemaking transcended words, taking us to peaks of ecstasy that I had not thought possible. In yielding so much of myself, I have never been so vulnerable. Yet, paradoxically, the bonds forged between us that night gave a new sense of invulnerability. Replenished and fulfilled, I now felt a new certainty
as I drifted into the world of dream. Together we would be able to take on the world. 

A few hours before dawn, Helen stirred restlessly and threw a negligent arm out, rousing me from my sleep. Fearing that she was having another of her recurrent nightmares, I pulled her towards me, cocooning her in my arms. "It's all right, darling - just a bad dream."

She sat up suddenly, rubbing her knuckles into her eyes. "Where am I? What's happening?"

I calmed her with a kiss. "You're quite safe. There's nothing to worry about."

She wrapped her arms around me in a tight embrace. "You're never to leave me, Charles. Never, ever. If you so much as look at another woman, I shall kill you." Her intensity took me by surprise and as we lay there, flesh to flesh, heart to beating heart, I swore everlasting faithfulness and my undying love.

When morning came, I slid quietly from the bed, leaving Helen in a deep, untroubled sleep as I made preparations for the coming day. Scooping up the debris from the night before, I descended to street level to deposit it in the bin. On my way back upstairs, I met Madame Bisset.

"Good morning, Monsieur Charles. I see you have had a good night." She winked knowingly. "You look like the cat who swallowed the canary."

I blushed in a way that rendered any other response redundant and heard her chuckling to herself as I regained the safety of Helen's apartment and closed the door.

I had just finished brewing the coffee when Helen appeared. "Are those croissants I smell in the oven? Mmmm." She crossed the floor to give me a lingering kiss. "You're a good man, Charles. A very good man."

"Yes, I know."

She gave me a playful push. "Not that good!" Then, with a smile that set my heart soaring, "Yes, that good, and then some."

"You're not so bad yourself - for one who stripped the shirt from my back. Next thing, you'll be stealing my heart."

"Not stealing, I hope. I thought you were giving it of your own free will."

"You're right - exchange is no robbery. I have yours in my pocket, have I not?"

"I'd hoped it was in your chest, lying next to your own. Two hearts beating as one." She took her coffee and croissant to the table and sat down. "Now, tell me about Kayla."

So, I told her. I told her about André's arrest and the meeting that was being set up with Alain Gaudin and about Kayla's cocaine habit.  However, I didn't mention the way Kayla flirted with me when she was riding the Big C, or how much that aroused me. After all, it didn't represent Kayla's true feelings, did it? And my response was something I had well under control.

It turned out that Helen already knew about her sister's flirtation with the Snow Queen and about André's arrest. She also knew that it had been André supplying her with the nose candy, and she was worried sick.

"Thank God that creep's out of her life, at least for the time being. I've no doubt she'll find an alternative source, though."

"She already has. One of Bellini's mob was with her in La Divette. I saw them together just before she had her last fix. I'm pretty sure that he supplied it."

"That doesn't surprise me. Montmartre was Bellini's patch before Jeanne brought in les stups and had him arrested."

I refilled Helen's coffee cup and passed her the milk, absorbing the impact of what she had just said.

"You know about Jeanne and her work with the Narcotics Squad? That is a surprise."

She looked at me thoughtfully. "Really? The surprise is that you know about it, Charles. It seems that you still have secrets to share."

"No, Helen, secrets shall never come between us."

Confident in the new depth of our new relationship, I went on to tell her about MI6, my mission to deliver the package to Gaston Arnoux, and my meeting in the Air Attache's office. The silence that followed felt as if it might last forever, but was eventually broken by the wailing of an ambulance siren in the street below.

"You have had a busy few days, haven't you, my poor darling? What a fine mess you've got yourself into! Drugs, terrorists, espionage, murder - you don't do things by halves, do you?"

I looked at her ruefully. She was right. A fine mess. But how much better I felt for having been able to share it with her.

"You've come a long way since some broad stuck a toothbrush in your back and told you to remain very still."

"Yes, a long way."

"... and if last night was anything to go by, you're beginning to get the hang of the new James Bond persona. I think I am going to enjoy sharing a world of intrigue with my intrepid hero."

There was a definite twinkle in her eye.

Author Notes List of Characters

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Group Captain Bamforth (alias Sir David Brockenhurst) - an intelligence officer with MI6 and Air Attache in Paris
Helen Culverson - Also a travel writer, whose relationship with Charles is complicated by her relationship with Jeanne Durand.
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok and has surfaced again in Paris.
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor and undercover agent with the French Drug Squad.
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman (now deceased)
Ian 'Bisto' Kidman - an ex-RAF friend of Charles's.
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Andre (aka Scaramouche) - an actor in Montmartre and friend of Kayla's
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Francoise Gaudin - an intellectually disabled woman living in Versailles.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.
Gaston Arnoux - Owner of an art gallery in Paris, recently assassinated by Charles Asserted to be leader of an ISIS network


Chapter 60
Small Arms Fire

By tfawcus

Closing paragraphs of Chapter 59

"You've come a long way since some broad stuck a toothbrush in your back and told you to remain very still."

"Yes, a long way."

"... and if last night was anything to go by, you're beginning to get the hang of the new James Bond persona. I think I am going to enjoy sharing a world of intrigue with my intrepid hero."

There was a definite twinkle in her eye.

Chapter 60

I could think of nothing I'd like better, but there was still the matter of her relationship with Madame Durand to clear up. I couldn't shake the image of her standing on the steps of the Lariboisière hospital and saying to me, "No, Charles. You have a train to catch. I'm staying here with Jeanne."

How I would have liked to have shared my few days in England with her. Perhaps, if she had come with me, I wouldn't now be in this mess. But, as the old saying goes, If wishes were horses then beggars would ride. The fact that she was with me again now was all that really mattered.

Nonetheless, I had to know. "You say that you love me but, only a few days ago, you chose to stay with Jeanne rather than coming to England."

"I told you. She needed me."

"Really? In what way? She doesn't seem to be the sort of person who needs anyone."

"Now you're being obtuse. She has a desperately difficult job and no emotional support. Everyone needs someone."

"Why you?"

"She's fond of me. She's been good to me and I owe her some return. That's all."

Perhaps I should have left it there. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

"Is that really all? Kayla suggested there's more than just an emotional bond between you. Look, I'm a broad-minded man, but I need to know where I stand. Have you made a definite choice, or is there still some element of ambivalence?"

Helen's hand tightened, scrunching the paper napkin by her plate and when she looked up at me, her eyes glistened. "How could you ask me such a thing after last night? How could you possibly believe-?"

I cut her short. "I had to ask. Surely, you understand. You would kill me if I so much as looked at another woman. You said as much last night. Don't I have the right to expect-?"

"The right to expect? No! You have no rights over me. I'm not your slave. What a nerve! Do you think you own me?"

She pushed her chair back with such force that it fell over and, seizing her cup of coffee, she threw it in my face. "This time you can wash your own bloody shirt." With that, she stormed out and slammed the door.

That didn't go quite as planned. Female logic! Damn her! Damn everything! I wiped away the worst of the tepid coffee and headed for the bathroom. Sure enough, my shirt had copped some collateral damage, so I dropped it in the sink to soak. After a quick shower, I got dressed in my newly acquired cashmere sweater.

The whole operation probably took a quarter of an hour. All that remained was to plunge my shirt up and down in cold water a few times. I was busily engaged in soaping the stain when I heard the door to the apartment open. Pretending not to notice, I carried on with my laundry, curious to see what she'd do next.

The floor creaked as she came up behind me. A small cylindrical object was pressed into my back and I grinned with relief, spinning around before she had time to say, "I have you at my mercy, Charles. Stand very still."

Dashing the toothbrush to the ground, I swung my assailant around to kiss her passionately while she melted in my manly arms. What a glorious opportunity to replay the scene from Rue Gabrielle according to her suggested script.

The next seconds were a blur. The gun clattered to the tiled floor and went off. The glass screen around the shower disintegrated. The woman in my arms kneed me sharply in the groin and I sank to the ground, doubled up in pain. Seeing her gun inches from my grasp, I reached out and grabbed it, only to have it kicked from my hand and sent spinning across the floor. She retrieved it casually and levelled it at my forehead.

"Your reactions were better than I expected, Mr. Brandon - or should I call you Mr. Bond?" The mocking voice was one that I knew only too well. It belonged to Jeanne Durand.

"I suggest we go through to the sitting room. You'll be more comfortable there."

Using the handbasin for support, I dragged myself to my feet. "You bitch! What have you done with Helen?"

"Helen is quite safe. You may be assured of that. For the time being, anyway." She motioned with the handgun for me to sit on the sofa. "It was foolish of you to share so much information with the poor girl. We have the place bugged, you know. What an entertaining evening you gave us. I have to admit, though, that this morning was a bit of a surprise."

The idea that this odious woman and her accomplices had been listening in to the intimacies of the last few hours revolted me more than I thought possible. If it had not been for the pearl-handled Derringer aimed at my midriff... There go those wishes, galloping off into the sunset again.

"How can I put it so an Englishman can understand? You don't seem to have what Jeeves would describe as 'the psychology of the individual'. Nor do I think you fully appreciate the seriousness of breaching the Official Secrets Act. It would be a pity if Group Captain Bamforth were to hear about...," and here she paused for emphasis, "... this lapse of yours."

I felt like a schoolboy being reprimanded. I also felt a gradual easing of the excruciating pain in my groin, and a growing ability to focus my mind on the situation. Easing myself out of the sofa, I walked across to where Jeanne was sitting and stretched my hand out. She passed me the gun without blinking.

"It's a pretty thing, isn't it? Do have a closer look. I wondered how long it would take you to see that it is a single shot weapon. James Bond would have been much quicker to realise that a modern gun wouldn't have discharged on impact."

I handed the ornate antique back and she placed it in her handbag. "Shall we get down to business now? We have more important things to discuss than Miss Culverson's ambivalent sexuality, which - for your information - is largely a myth of her own making." She looked at me pityingly as she dismissed the relevance of my chief concern.

"There is, for instance, your position as a traitor. I understand the penalty for breaching the English Official Secrets Act can be up to 14 years in jail. Did you not consider that Miss Culverson might be an agent for a foreign power? As the Americans say, 'Loose lips sink ships'."

"It's hardly likely that Helen works for a foreign power."

"Perhaps, but you did know that her sister is under surveillance for possible links with a terrorist organisation. The Air Attaché made that clear at our briefing. We are a cautious breed in this profession, Mr. Brandon. That is why we place listening devices. You have a great deal to learn."

"But I thought you wanted Helen and me to work as a team. Bamforth said as much."

"Nonetheless, you have put us in a difficult situation. We specifically asked you not to tell Miss Culverson anything about our plans at this stage. To make matters worse, it seems that you have now alienated yourself from her by your stupidity."

I felt my gorge rising. I wasn't sure how much more of this kind of talk I could take.

"There is one other thing. It is important that you hand over Helen's journal. There are things in it that must not get out."

"I'll bet there are!" I could hardly contain myself. "The journal is safe with me. If you think I'm handing it over, then you're mistaken."

"I don't think you understand." Her tone was expressionless. "Helen fantasises in that journal about her relationship with me. In Pakistan, homosexuality is still a capital offence. It is for her protection that you must hand her journal over for destruction."

I had scarcely absorbed the implications of what she was saying before she deflated me entirely with her next comment. "It would make her position more secure, Mr. Brandon, if you could mend your relationship and marry her before we send you into the Hindu Kush."

Author Notes List of Characters

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Group Captain Bamforth (alias Sir David Brockenhurst) - an intelligence officer with MI6 and Air Attache in Paris
Helen Culverson - Also a travel writer, whose relationship with Charles is complicated by her relationship with Jeanne Durand.
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok and has surfaced again in Paris.
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor and undercover agent with the French Drug Squad.
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman (now deceased)
Ian 'Bisto' Kidman - an ex-RAF friend of Charles's.
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Andre (aka Scaramouche) - an actor in Montmartre and friend of Kayla's
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Francoise Gaudin - Alain's an intellectually disabled sister.
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.
Gaston Arnoux - Owner of an art gallery in Paris, recently assassinated by Charles Asserted to be leader of an ISIS network


Chapter 61
Well, I'll be bugged!

By tfawcus

Final paragraphs of Chapter 60

"I don't think you understand." Her tone was expressionless. "Helen fantasises in that journal about her relationship with me. In Pakistan, homosexuality is still a capital offence. It is for her protection that you must hand her journal over for destruction."

I had scarcely absorbed the implications of what she was saying before she deflated me entirely with her next comment. "It would make her position more secure, Mr. Brandon, if you could mend your relationship and marry her before we send you into the Hindu Kush."


Chapter 61

I snorted at the suggestion I might marry Helen for the convenience of the operation - whatever that operation might be. Marrying Helen because I loved her was an option, but for operational reasons? Absurd! What was this woman thinking?

"You must be joking! Anyway, who are the mysterious 'we' who intend to send Helen and me off to the Hindu Kush, and since when have you been the mouthpiece for MI6?"

"I never joke, Mr. Brandon. If Helen were to live in sin with you in Pakistan, and the police discovered that you were not married, the consequences would be severe. Discovery of her homosexual tendencies would be tantamount to a death sentence, particularly in the more remote areas of the country." I knew enough about Pakistan to realise how true that was.

"As for me being able to speak for MI6 - of course, you are right - but Group Captain Bamforth and I work together closely. Our intentions are aligned."

"Then perhaps you'll let me in on the nature of this operation you both keep talking about."

"Doubtless, MI6 will brief you in due course. That, as you have pointed out, is not a part of my job."

I could see that I wasn't going to get very far with this woman. However, I persisted. There was something about her that made me rise to the challenge. Perhaps it was her arrogant self-assurance.

"Tell me, Jeanne," I emphasised the first name, "why did you breeze in here and jab a loaded gun into my back? How did you get in, anyway? Has Helen given you a key?"

"So many questions. Helen suggested it as a joke. She is upset with you. I did it to humour her - and to help defuse the situation between you. Getting in was straightforward because the door was not locked."

"I thought you never joked. And a loaded gun? That is rather heavy-handed humour, wouldn't you say?"

She met my gaze with eyes of steel. "My gun is always loaded, Mr Brandon." Pausing for effect, she continued, "I have a second reason."

"Oh, yes - what might that be?"

"I want you to discredit me in Helen's opinion. By all means, tell her the gun was loaded. That will unnerve her. Spin her a yarn. Make yourself out to be a hero. Discover the electronic surveillance devices. She will admire you for discovering them and be shocked to find she has been spied on."

"She'll know the gun was loaded all right when she sees the mess you've made of her shower. But what's the point of this charade?"

"She needs to be weaned from dependence on me. I am sure you have already discovered, despite all outward appearances, Helen has a dependant personality. It's important she learns, not just to trust you, but to rely on you."

I hadn't a clue what the woman was driving at but, regardless of the hidden agenda, I liked the idea of driving a wedge between her and Helen. I glanced around the room. "In that case, you'd better show me where all these bugging devices are."

"There's one up there." She got up and pointed towards the light fitting. "I'll leave you and Helen to discover the other two for yourselves." She crossed the room and opened the door of the apartment, adding, "A nice little bonding experience, don't you think?"

Before I was able to articulate a response, she was gone. Probably just as well. I spent the next ten minutes searching and eventually uncovered one of the devices, hidden behind the headboard of Helen's bed. Perverted bastards. Oh, well - at least it wasn't video. I hope they were more amused by my grunting and snorting than Helen was.

I walked to the window. Across the street, the sun-faded, cerulean canopy of Café Gabrielle sparkled with dancing shadows. A few customers lounged on rattan chairs in the dappled shade, sipping cognac and coffee. It was altogether too inviting a scene to resist.

Stepping into the sunshine lifted my spirits. I chose a seat alongside two elderly gentlemen who were gesticulating with some animation against the government.  H
aving ordered a club sandwich and a half-carafe of wine, I shrank behind a copy of Le Figaro, while still keeping an eye on the entrance to Helen's apartment. All that remained was to wait for her return.

A gentle breeze disturbed the plane trees and blew a jaundiced leaf onto the table. I imagined it a fig leaf that concealed from Helen the nakedness of my intent. I imagined it a parachutist wafting towards the foothills of Tirich Mir. Then, after examining the intricacy of its contours and veins, I crushed it and cast it aside.

The waiter arrived and, with priestly ceremony, filled my goblet. Communion or libation? What did it matter? I swigged half at one gulp and wiped my mouth with the back of my hand. The old men paused to regard me with the Gallic suspicion that is reserved for strangers. I raised my glass in a mock-toast before draining it and attacking the toasted sandwich.

My thoughts turned inwards. What was I to do? Jeanne's self-serving suggestion suited my purpose, but could a relationship with Helen really be built on intrigue? On a snot-rag of lies? I was considering this when my phone rang. It was Bisto.

There was a pause before he heaved the words out on a tide of emotion, "It's Jenny. She took a sudden turn for the worse yesterday and ... and ..."

"...and you'd like me to come back and help with things."

"Yes - that's it - the arrangements. Would you mind awfully?"

"Of course not. What are friends for?  Terribly sorry to hear the news. You must be devastated.
Don't worry, I'll drop everything and come straight over."

I imagined the look of relief as he stammered his thanks and put down the phone.

Author Notes List of Characters

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Group Captain Bamforth (alias Sir David Brockenhurst) - an intelligence officer with MI6 and Air Attache in Paris
Helen Culverson - Also a travel writer, whose relationship with Charles is complicated by her relationship with Jeanne Durand.
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok and has surfaced again in Paris.
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor and undercover agent with the French Drug Squad.
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman (now deceased)
Ian 'Bisto' Kidman - an ex-RAF friend of Charles's.
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Andre (aka Scaramouche) - an actor in Montmartre and friend of Kayla's
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Francoise Gaudin - Alain's an intellectually disabled sister.
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.
Gaston Arnoux - Owner of an art gallery in Paris, recently assassinated by Charles Asserted to be leader of an ISIS network


Chapter 62
Thrills and Spills

By tfawcus

Closing paragraphs of Chapter 61:

... my phone rang. It was Bisto.

There was a pause before he heaved the words out on a tide of emotion, "It's Jenny. She took a sudden turn for the worse yesterday and ... and ..."

"...and you'd like me to come back and help with things."

"Yes - that's it - the arrangements. Would you mind awfully?"

"Of course not. What are friends for? Terribly sorry to hear the news. You must be devastated. Don't worry, I'll drop everything and come straight over."

I imagined the look of relief as he stammered his thanks and put down the phone.

 

Chapter 62
 
I cradled my head in my hands. Poor Ian. I knew just how he must be feeling. Jenny had been the world to him, particularly as they had never been able to have children. All that was left for him was a house echoing with memories and their Cocker Spaniel, Biggles. I doubt if, in fifty years of flying adventures, the dog's illustrious namesake had ever faced a tougher challenge than keeping Bisto from falling apart. Reinforcements would be needed and there wasn't a moment to lose.

After delving for a handkerchief to wipe away an unaccustomed tear, I blew my nose loudly, grasped the table with both hands, pushed my chair back, and rose. Whether because of my imitation of a trumpeting elephant or the screech of the chair legs against the pavement, I found all eyes upon me, including those of Helen. She immediately sprang forward, sensing something was wrong.

"What's up, Charles? You look as though you've lost your last dollar."

"Worse than that, I'm afraid." I ran my fingers through my hair and barely restrained the trembling of my bottom lip. "It's my old friend, Ian Kidman. His wife has passed away. Cancer, you know. I think I told you about it." I gave her an anguished look. "He needs me. He really doesn't have anyone else."

"Then what are we waiting for?" She dragged me across to the kerb and flagged down a taxi. Bundling me in, she squeezed alongside and gave instructions to the driver. "La Gare du Nord. Rapidement."

As he pulled away, I heard a commotion behind us. Glancing back, I could see my waiter gesticulating wildly, giving full voice to all the imprecations at his command. It dawned on me that I hadn't paid the bill.

"That's the least of your worries, darling."

Helen put her arm around my shoulder and leaned in to give me a sympathetic kiss on the cheek. Suddenly, the events of the morning seemed unimportant. I was on a mission of my own choosing, supported by the woman I loved.

If Bamforth and Madame Durand had orchestrated this turn of events, they couldn't have come up with a better way of bringing the two of us back together. The fact that Helen was dropping everything to be by my side at this dark hour said more about her than any words. After all, she didn't even know Bisto. I found it remarkable that she should have been so wholly in tune with my feelings.

We arrived at the station half an hour before the next Eurostar departure but it wasn't until our train was well on its way to London that I broached the subject of Madame Durand's bizarre behaviour. Even then, I skirted around the subject tentatively while the attendant was pouring us each a glass of wine.

"I had an unexpected visit from Jeanne this morning after you left."

"After I stormed out, you mean."

"Yes. I suppose 'stormed' would be more accurate. That's twice in as many days that I've been drenched by you. If you're wondering what to buy me for Christmas, a hydrophobic shirt might be a good choice."

"What?"

"Hydrophobic. I read somewhere that there are shirts so tightly woven they repel liquids."

"Really? I'll bear that in mind. Talking of Christmas, what were you thinking of getting me?"

"Perhaps a misandrous yashmak? One that repels insensitive males."

Helen laughed. "No, I don't think so. You're not usually insensitive and I should hate to repel you at the wrong times."

"Easily fixed. You could always respond to my more sensitive moments by removing a veil."

She picked up her glass and made an extravagant gesture, as if to throw the contents over me. "You're incorrigible!"

I ducked and, in so doing, upset my own glass over my trousers. "Now look what you've made me do."

I leaped to my feet, then, seeing the look on her face, sat down again abruptly. The widening stain had drenched my inside leg, just below the crotch.

Scarcely able to get the words out through her hysterical laughter, she said, "I see you hang to the left, sir."

I picked up her glass and was about to douse her when the attendant tapped me on the shoulder. "I wouldn't advise that, monsieur. If you cause a disturbance, I'm afraid I shall have to ask you to leave the train." Under the circumstances, that seemed a Draconian punishment, since we were hurtling through the landscape at 300 kph.

I was about to sit down at his request when Helen suggested I might like to make use of the toilet facilities. "You could dab off the worst of the stain before it sets and use the hand dryer to get rid of the damp patch."

There was sense in what she said, so I excused myself and made my way down the corridor. It was a lengthy and painstaking process, but I was able to restore a semblance of propriety to my trousers. Eventually, I shuffled back out, murmuring my apologies.

The man at the head of the now lengthy queue pushed past me. "About bloody time, mate. We thought you'd died in there."

I returned to my seat, only to find that Helen had disappeared. All sorts of scenarios flitted through my mind, inspired by the series of unlikely events that had occurred over the past few days. Murder on the Orient Express? Extra-terrestrial abduction from the Eurostar? Whatever next?

However, I needn't have worried. She soon reappeared, bearing a half-bottle of wine and some sandwiches. "I thought these might help to restore your equilibrium," she said, with a smile.

"I know you are dying to tell me about Jeanne's visit and, yes, I did put her up to it. I thought it might teach you a lesson."

"Teach me a lesson?" I spluttered. "That was a real gun she stuck in my back, loaded with a real bullet. Some lesson."

Helen looked aghast. "I don't believe you. She'd never have done a thing like that."

'Well, she did, and it backfired. I spun round and dashed the gun from her hand. It went off when it hit the ground and, if you don't believe that, perhaps the shattered shower screen will convince you."

I felt sure that the look of shock on her face was genuine. I went on to tell her about the apartment being bugged. "I don't suppose you knew about that, either. These are dangerous, unscrupulous people we are dealing with. They want us to work together on some clandestine operation in the Hindu Kush."

"Working together? Now that's an appealing idea, and I would dearly love to return to the land of my birth and childhood." She paused and searched deep into my eyes for her answer. "I think we should work together, don't you? But on our terms, not on theirs."

This time, when we raised and clinked our glasses, not a drop was spilled.

Author Notes List of Characters

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Group Captain Bamforth (alias Sir David Brockenhurst) - an intelligence officer with MI6 and Air Attache in Paris
Helen Culverson - Also a travel writer, whose relationship with Charles is complicated by her relationship with Jeanne Durand.
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok and has surfaced again in Paris.
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor and undercover agent with the French Drug Squad.
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman (now deceased)
Ian 'Bisto' Kidman - an ex-RAF friend of Charles's.
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Andre (aka Scaramouche) - an actor in Montmartre and friend of Kayla's
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Francoise Gaudin - Alain's an intellectually disabled sister.
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.
Gaston Arnoux - Owner of an art gallery in Paris, recently assassinated by Charles Asserted to be leader of an ISIS network


Chapter 63
The Three Horseshoes

By tfawcus

Last paragraphs of Chapter 62

"Working together? Now that's an idea that appeals, and I should dearly love to return to the land of my birth and childhood." She paused and searched within my eyes for her answer. "I think we should work together, don't you? But on our terms, not on theirs."

This time, when we raised our glasses and clinked them, not a drop was spilled.

Chapter 63

I was surprised by her enthusiasm and thought it wise to sound a note of caution.

"Are you sure you want to return to the Hindu-Kush? The trauma of your parents' murder..."

"... is exactly why I must go. There are ghosts to lay to rest. There are people to be brought to account."

"Violent, well-armed people who will stop at nothing."

Helen's eyes blazed. "People who have abused and mistreated the Kalash for years. It doesn't matter if you're talking about the Taliban, al-Queda, or Islamic State. At one time or another, they have all exerted pressure on us to break the ties to our culture and convert to Islam, often under pain of death."

There was an intensity in the way she spoke that I had not heard before. "The Hindu-Kush is our land. We have lived there for hundreds of years. I'm talking of my mother's people, the last surviving heirs of Peristan, faerie kingdom of the mountains."

"Yes, I know, you have spoken of it before. I have also read of it in Kipling."

"Kipling! He depicted us as ignorant savages. If you want a better sense of it, read Salman Rushdie. He understands the relationship between humans and the spirit world much better."

"Yes, I have read his book inspired by the Arabian Nights. Am I now to believe you're a reincarnation of Scheherazade, or a woman imbued with the spirit of a jinnia?"

"You are the storyteller! Think of me as a female djinn, spun from the silken mists of the faerie folk who tend the mountain goats of Tirich Mir."

"Would you grant me a wish if I rubbed your magic lamp?"

"Perhaps. But we are a tricky folk, master, and don't take kindly to being rubbed the wrong way."

This was something I already knew. I didn't need her to remind me of it. I looked at her, half-believing the account of her ancestry. I had seen that other-worldly dreaminess previously when she spoke of the Hindu-Kush. Perhaps she really was possessed by a jinnia spirit who had slipped through a crack in time and space.

I smiled and said, "I am not your master and will not offend you with my whims. I already have my heart's desire sitting in front of me, and I shall save any further wishes for another time."

"Go on," she teased. "Try me. After all, you have two more wishes. One has already been granted."

"All right then." I leaned forward and rubbed my finger around the rim of her wine glass. It emitted a musical hum. "There. That will have to do in the absence of a magic lamp. My wish is to fly with you to the rooftop of the world. From all I have read, Chitral is a fascinating place."

"Do you really think so?" Her eyes moistened. I could see how desperately she wanted me to believe in her world, the pure air of the mountains that transcended drug cartels, terrorism and murder. Yet, if we were bound there on a mission of retribution and revenge, how, I wondered, would it end?

She came and sat beside me, snuggled into the cusp of my shoulder, and kissed me on the neck. "Your wish is my command."

We continued to sit like that for some time. She, no doubt, remained wrapped in thoughts of her homeland as she gazed at the blur of Picardy flashing past the window, while my thoughts turned to Bisto and the task ahead.

I began to recall and jot down the names of squadron members I'd lost touch with years ago. I knew Bisto wouldn't be much help. He was one of those chaps with many acquaintances but few close friends. He'd always left social arrangements to Jenny, gone along with her plans, and been heartily pleased when everyone left and he could return to his beloved garden, the companionship of his dog, or the solitude of the river bank. Without her leavening influence, he might simply shut himself off from the world, becoming more and more reclusive.

I rang him well before Calais but there was no answer. Although I left a message, I doubted he'd bother to check his phone. He probably didn't even know where it was. There was nothing for it but to arrive unannounced and hope for the best. At least my MGB would still be in his garage. I'd be able to take Helen for a spin if it turned out he'd been scooped up and rescued by one of Jenny's bridge buddies.

I tried again when we reached St. Pancras but still no answer. Helen raised her eyebrows. "Are you sure he knows we're coming?"

"He certainly doesn't know that you're coming, and he probably didn't think I'd turn up quite so soon. Still, you never know with Bisto. I expect he's pottering about, busying himself with something to shut the reality from his mind. Anyway, if the worst comes to the worst, we can always drive down to my place and spend the night there."

She gave my hand a squeeze. "If that's the worst you have to offer, I don't mind being a pessimist for the day." As a provocative afterthought, she added, "I might even end up granting your third wish."

I kissed her lightly on the lips. "Hold that thought, darling. As tempting as it is, I really want to devote all my energy at the moment to helping Ian in his hour of need."

"Ian. That's a nice name. Why do you always insist on calling him Bisto?"

"It's just a nickname. We all used to call him that. You probably wouldn't understand. Like gravy. Rich and thick. Upside-down British humour."

"What a horrible thing to say. I thought he was your friend."

I sighed. "I knew you wouldn't understand."

There were many things that Helen would have difficulty in understanding in England. On the other hand, probably more that I wouldn't understand about Pakistan. We would have much to teach each other and I looked forward to it.

There are no direct trains from London to Henley-on-Thames. We had to change at Twyford and it was dark by the time we arrived. I tried one last time to ring Bisto.

"Hello? Charles, old chap, is that really you? Where the dickens are you?"

"Came as soon as I could. We're at the station. I'll call a cab and be with you in a quarter of an hour."

"Don't even think about it. I'll pick you up. How about we meet at The Three Horseshoes? It's only five minutes from the station and you can have a pint while you're waiting. Order one in for me, too, if you like. I won't be long." There was a pause before he continued. "Did you say 'we'? You and who else?"

"Helen. I told you about her when I was last here. She's a lovely lady. Dying to meet you."

"Can't think why," he muttered, "but any friend of yours is a friend of mine. Plenty of spare room in the old homestead. To tell the truth, I'm rattling around in it without Jenny."

Good as his word, Bisto arrived at The Three Horseshoes not long after us, ushering Biggles ahead of him as he took off his coat. The barman leaned over the counter. "Hello, Biggles. Haven't seen you in here for a while."

Biggles wagged his tail expectantly.

"Just a moment. Suzie, love, is that a morsel of ham on those plates you're taking back to the kitchen? I think I may have found a home for it."

"You're an old softie, Joe." Suzie paused just long enough for Joe to reach across and filch a bit. He tossed it to Biggles, who caught it and gulped it down in one movement.

"That's a lovely dog of yours, Mr. Kidman. Always a pleasure to serve him. You, too, of course. What'll be your poison?"

Bisto glanced across at us. "Thanks, Joe. I think my friends have already bought a round, but you could bring a menu across when you've got time. We'll be staying for a bite to eat."

He was wreathed in smiles as he approached. "Come on, Biggles. Now you behave yourself. Ladies present." Biggles trotted over and sat at Helen's feet.

"Where are your manners, old fellow. Shake!" The spaniel extended his paw, gazing at Helen with liquid eyes, and waited for her to accept it.

"What a perfect gentleman!" She held out her arms and, in a second, Biggles had both paws on her knee, tail wagging nineteen to the dozen.

I laughed. "Well, she certainly seems to have the seal of approval. Good to see you, Bisto. In case you hadn't realised, this is Helen."

Helen half rose, offering her hand. "Lovely to meet you, Ian. Charles has told me so much about you."

"Call me Bisto, my dear. All my friends do."

"No. I shall call you Ian, if you don't mind. It's a lovely name."

Bisto blushed and turned to me. "What a charming lady. Far too good for you, Charles."

Author Notes List of Characters

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Group Captain Bamforth (alias Sir David Brockenhurst) - an intelligence officer with MI6 and Air Attache in Paris
Helen Culverson - Also a travel writer, whose relationship with Charles is complicated by her relationship with Jeanne Durand.
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok and has surfaced again in Paris.
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor and undercover agent with the French Drug Squad.
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman (now deceased)
Ian 'Bisto' Kidman - an ex-RAF friend of Charles's.
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Andre (aka Scaramouche) - an actor in Montmartre and friend of Kayla's
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Francoise Gaudin - Alain's an intellectually disabled sister.
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.
Gaston Arnoux - Owner of an art gallery in Paris, recently assassinated by Charles Asserted to be leader of an ISIS network


Chapter 64
The Markhor

By tfawcus

Closing Paragraphs of Chapter 63...

Helen half rose, offering her hand. "Lovely to meet you, Ian. Charles has told me so much about you."

"Call me Bisto, my dear. All my friends do."

"No. I shall call you Ian, if you don't mind. It's a lovely name."

Bisto blushed and turned to me. "What a charming lady. Far too good for you, Charles."

 

Chapter 64
 
I brought a third chair to the table and put my arm around his shoulder, drawing him into a close embrace for a few seconds.

"Terribly sorry, old chap. I know how much Jenny meant to you. You must be devastated. Words don't mean much at a time like this, but we're here to do anything we can to help."

"Both of us, Ian."

"That's sweet of you, my dear. Thank you."

Before sitting down, he fumbled in his pocket for a handkerchief and, turning to one side, wiped his nose. "Autumn sniffles, I'm afraid. Blasted nuisance." Neither of us said anything.

Biggles wasn't fooled, either. As soon as Bisto sat down, the spaniel came across and rested his head on his master's knee. An awkward silence was broken by Joe appearing with the menus.

Bisto smiled with relief, took them, and passed one to each of us. "What'll you both have? On me," he added. "I insist. They do jolly good steak burgers here, home-made."

"Maybe something a little lighter," Helen said. "A mushroom omelette, perhaps?"

"Of course, my dear. Silly of me. You gals are forever watching your weight, aren't you?" He shuffled with embarrassment at the faux pas. "Not that you need to, of course. You look perfectly lovely as you are."

He glanced at me for approval. "Always putting my foot in it, I'm afraid. Now, how about another pint to go with the meal? Or would you prefer a bottle of plonk. The house red's pretty good."

Knowing Bisto's idea of 'pretty good', I butted in. "Let me get the bottle, Ian. Least I can do." Having taken the order, Joe said he'd return with a wine list shortly.

"Not to worry. I'll come over." I needed to see a man about a horse, and this was as good an excuse as any, so I followed Joe back to the bar. After a brief consultation, I ordered a bottle of Grenache, a wine that would sit well with the burgers and be light enough to go with Helen's omelette.

When I returned, I found Helen and Bisto deep in conversation. They were talking of Chitral, of all places. It turned out that Bisto's great grandfather had served in the Indian Army and had been one of the relief party that lifted the Siege of Chitral in 1895. Always an enthusiast for family history, he was telling her about it in exhaustive detail.

"An astounding feat, a 28-day forced march through snow-covered mountains, across the Shandur Pass. All the way from the garrison at Gilgit, more than 200 miles east."

"Across the Shandur Pass? Really? That's amazing!" Helen did her best to look impressed.

"Yes, the air's pretty thin up there. They'd have had their work cut out. Not to mention the bloody Kafirs taking pot-shots at them from hidden vantage points."

Helen's expression froze.

"Oh, dear," he said. "I've done it again, haven't I? You must think me a terrible boor."

"Not at all." Helen recovered herself enough to let it pass. "The British imperialists of the time referred to the Kalash as Black Kafirs and considered us primitive savages. Primitive we may have been, but a proud and ancient people."

She turned to me with a sweet smile. "We also treat our women with respect. If you have no objection, I'd prefer a Prosecco with my omelette."

"I'm sorry," I said. "I should have asked." When Joe turned up with the Grenache, I told him we'd changed our minds. "Could we have a Prosecco for the lady and -" I paused to wink at Bisto, "a carafe of the house red for the two old boors."

Helen kicked me under the table. "I didn't change my mind."

She resumed her conversation with Ian, "Your grandfather would have been mistaken. Those snipers must have been Pathans under the command of Chitral's Islamic ruler, the Mehter, who was as much our enemy as theirs."

Bisto breathed a sigh of relief. "I'm delighted to hear we were both on the same side, my dear. I'd hate to think my forebears had been at war with yours."

We passed the rest of the meal in small talk, avoiding any mention of the elephant in the room. When it was time to leave, Helen and I piled into the back of the car, snuggling close together against the cool night air. Biggles lay on the front seat with his head in Bisto's lap. Shortly after we arrived at The Willows, Helen supressed a theatrical yawn and declared her intention to have an early night.

"You two have probably got lots to catch up on. Men's talk. I should only be playing gooseberry."

I gave her a brief kiss. "All right, then. See you later."

"Don't wake me."

As soon as she was safely upstairs, Bisto and I retired to the library. He produced a decanter of port and offered me a cigar, which I declined.

"Filthy habit," he said, as he helped himself to one and sank into a leather armchair by the fire. He tried, without success, to blow smoke rings over the curled horns of the trophy hanging above the fireplace.

"Isn't that a markhor?"

"Yes, the old boy shot it on the slopes of Tirich Mir. A fine head, isn't it? He was dashed proud of it, I can tell you." He leaned forward to poke a bit more life out of the fire and to add another log. "I'm going to show it to Helen in the morning, along with some of his old photographs and his Chitral Relief Medal."

"If I were you, I'd stick to the medal and the photographs. The Kalash are the ancestral goatherds of Tirich Mir. They believe that markhors are protected by Peris, the faerie folk of the mountains. A curse would be levelled at anybody who shot one for sport."

"Really? I remember my grandfather spouting some tommyrot about mountain fairies. You don't mean to tell me that Helen believes in that rubbish?" He took a swig of port and refilled our glasses.

"Yes, she does - and I've half a mind to believe it myself."

Bisto was dumbfounded. "You're not serious, are you?"

"Serious enough to fly out there with Helen and see for myself." I stood up and warmed my back against the fire. "By the way, whatever became of your great grandfather?"

There was an uneasy silence, broken only by the hoot of an owl in the woods. Bisto gave me a strange look and said nothing.

Author Notes List of Characters

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Group Captain Bamforth (alias Sir David Brockenhurst) - an intelligence officer with MI6 and Air Attache in Paris
Helen Culverson - Also a travel writer, whose relationship with Charles is complicated by her relationship with Jeanne Durand.
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok and has surfaced again in Paris.
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor and undercover agent with the French Drug Squad.
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman (now deceased)
Ian 'Bisto' Kidman - an ex-RAF friend of Charles's.
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Andre (aka Scaramouche) - an actor in Montmartre and friend of Kayla's
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Francoise Gaudin - Alain's an intellectually disabled sister.
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.
Gaston Arnoux - Owner of an art gallery in Paris, recently assassinated by Charles Asserted to be leader of an ISIS network


Chapter 65
The Slaying of the Markhor Pt 1

By tfawcus

Last Paragraphs of Chapter 64

"Really? I remember my grandfather spouting some tommyrot about mountain fairies. You don't mean to tell me that Helen believes in all that rubbish?" He took a swig of port and refilled both our glasses.

"Yes, she does - and I've half a mind to believe it myself."

Bisto was dumbfounded. "You're not serious, are you?"

"Serious enough to fly out there with Helen and see for myself." I stood up and warmed my back against the fire. "By the way, whatever became of your great grandfather?"

There was an unearthly silence, broken only by hoot of an owl in the woods. Bisto looked at me strangely and said nothing.

Chapter 65

"Here's to his memory, anyway." I drained my glass and put it down. "Time to hit the sack. Plenty to do in the morning." I hesitated. "Will you be all right, Ian?"

"Yes, thanks. It was awfully good of you to drop everything and dash over. Can't say how much I appreciate it." He drew on his cigar and stared into the heart of the fire. "I shan't be far behind you, but it would be a pity to waste the remainder of this. Jenny used to have a box of them sent down from London each year for my birthday."

I could see how difficult it was going to be for the poor man to readjust but thought it best to leave him to reflect in solitude. Nonetheless, I was left wondering about the mystery of his great grandfather. Why had Bisto been so reticent about sharing it with me?

I climbed the stairs with care, so as not to wake Helen but floorboards in old houses creak and groan. I felt as if I were treading on ancient ghosts, disturbing their sleep. A threadbare carpet of oriental design ran the length of the corridor. A blue-and-white potpourri holder stood like a sentinel on a flame mahogany whatnot between two doors. However, the dried petals of summer were unable to mask the pervading odour of fust and decay. Moonlight filtered through a skylight above the landing, illuminating the wooden stand, making the rich colour of its wood glisten like freshly spilled blood.

Tiptoeing, silent as a wraith, I reached the bedroom door and inched it open. That was a mistake. A quick push might have done the trick. Instead, the hinges gave a long-drawn-out creak, a banshee wail, enough to wake the dead.

Helen sat bolt upright. "What was that?"

"Only me," I whispered. "Did I wake you?"

"Wake me? You scared the living daylights out of me."

She snuggled close as I climbed in beside her. "I feel sure this place is haunted. I haven't slept a wink." Burying her face in my shoulder, she inhaled deeply. "You smell of cigar smoke."

"Yes, I'm afraid Ian was smoking in the library. Although he freely admits it's a filthy habit, that doesn't seem to deter him."

"Sometimes, filthy habits are hard to break. Perhaps it's because he imagines the cigar has been rolled between the thighs of a nubile señorita."

'That's a myth."

"Really?" She ran her fingers down my body. "It doesn't feel like a myth to me."

"You're incorrigible."

"Mmm."

 

*****

The following morning, I woke early. My mind was a-whirr with the funeral arrangements that Bisto and I still needed to make. There being no sign of movement from Helen, I slipped out of bed, threw on some clothes, and went downstairs. This time, I opened the door with a sharp jerk to deprive it of its infernal creak. I also made a mental note to ask Bisto for a can of penetrating oil.

He was already up, standing in the conservatory, watching the sunrise. A pale wash of salmon and silver threw the trees by the river into sharp relief. The first rays were beginning to break through branches to work their magic on a dew-studded lawn, making it shimmer like an eastern veil.

Bisto greeted me without turning around. "It looks as though it's going to be a glorious day. Just look at that gossamer web suspended between the rose bushes. Isn't it wonderful?"

"A strand of pearls fit for a faerie queen."

"Still on about your blasted fairies, are you? Why don't you go and write a poem about them while I take Biggles out for his morning walk?" There was an unfamiliar edge of sarcasm to his voice. "No, I've a better idea. After you went to bed last night, I rummaged through the bookcases and found my grandfather's journal. He has a fanciful turn of phrase that I find disconcerting, but in it he gives an account of my great-grandfather's time in the Hindu-Kush. You expressed an interest."

"That's kind of you," I said. "I'd be fascinated to read it."

"I've left it out on the table in the library. It's a thin, leather-bound volume. Never published, of course. Full of Victorian romanticism and flowery language. Not my cup of tea at all. Anyway, you're welcome to browse before breakfast if you've nothing better to do." He gave a disdainful harrumph and headed for the door.

"Come on, Biggles, old chap. Time to chase a few rabbits."

 
*****

The first thing I noticed when I entered the library was the absence of the markhor's head. Bisto had replaced it with a seven-tined stag, noble in form, with nostrils flared, a truly magnificent specimen. He had obviously taken my warning to heart.

There was a brown, calfskin volume on the table with "Tales of the Hindu-Kush by Sir Robert Kidman K.C." etched into the cover in gold letters. Interesting, I thought - a barrister. One might expect more incisive prose than Bisto gave him credit for. I thumbed through the pages of cursive script until I reached a page entitled "The Slaying of the Markhor":

It is with a heavy heart that I relate this seminal chapter in my father's affairs. It marked the beginning of the end for him. Aspects border on the fantastic. Indeed, I fear that there may have been elements of the supernatural involved in his tragic downfall. Nonetheless, I shall leave that for you, dear reader, to judge for yourself.

I moved to a chair by the bay window through which the early morning sun now streamed, affording me a modicum of warmth, and settled there to read the book in comfort. I found the narrative absorbing...

Author Notes List of Characters

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Group Captain Bamforth (alias Sir David Brockenhurst) - an intelligence officer with MI6 and Air Attache in Paris
Helen Culverson - Also a travel writer, whose relationship with Charles is complicated by her relationship with Jeanne Durand.
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok and has surfaced again in Paris.
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor and undercover agent with the French Drug Squad.
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman (now deceased)
Ian 'Bisto' Kidman - an ex-RAF friend of Charles's.
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Andre (aka Scaramouche) - an actor in Montmartre and friend of Kayla's
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Francoise Gaudin - Alain's an intellectually disabled sister.
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.
Gaston Arnoux - Owner of an art gallery in Paris, recently assassinated by Charles Asserted to be leader of an ISIS network


Chapter 66
The Slaying of the Markhor Pt 2

By tfawcus

Closing paragraphs of Chapter 65

There was a brown, calfskin volume on the table with "Tales of the Hindu-Kush by Sir Robert Kidman K.C." etched into the cover in gold letters. Interesting, I thought - a barrister. One might expect more incisive prose than Bisto gave him credit for. I thumbed through the pages of cursive script until I reached a page entitled "The Slaying of the Markhor":

It is with a heavy heart that I relate this seminal chapter in my father's affairs. It marked the beginning of the end for him. Aspects border on the fantastic. Indeed, I fear that there may have been elements of the supernatural involved in his tragic downfall. Nonetheless, I shall leave that for you, dear reader, to judge for yourself.

I moved to a chair by the bay window through which the early morning sun now streamed, affording me a modicum of warmth, and settled there to read the book in comfort. I found the narrative absorbing:

Chapter 66

As previously stated, my father was noted for his prowess with the Snider-Enfield. It was said that he could shoot the eye out of a needle at five hundred yards, though personally I believe this to have been an exaggeration. Nonetheless, he was both a keen hunter and a marksman.

Shortly after the Relief of Chitral, in which he had played a major role, he took it into his head to mount an expedition onto Tirich Mir, whose name roughly translates as the King of Darkness, a forbidding peak rising above 25,000 feet. His unashamed intention was to track and shoot a markhor to add to his trophy collection.

His friends advised against it, warning of the rituals and animistic beliefs that defined the relationship between the markhor and the Kalasha Kafir. A hunting expedition would only stir up trouble. Anyway, they thought it unlikely that he would be able to engage bearers to accompany him, because of their superstitious belief in exquisite, winged spirits called Peri, who were the true guardians of the flocks.

Nonetheless, he was determined, and persuaded two Chitrali tribesman of dubious repute to accompany him. All went well until they reached the foot of the mountain, at which point his bearers deserted him. Realising that his venture was doomed, he took one last look up towards the tree line. There had been a heavy fall of snow during the night and the slopes were pristine. Dawn imbued them with a pink glow and he stood there, dwarfed by the huge silence and, as he later said, 'amazed by the air of sanctity'.

It was then that he saw the markhor, a magnificent beast whose corkscrew horns were beyond compare. It stood, statuesque, at the edge of the trees, surveying its domain. My father estimated the distance to be about six hundred yards, a little beyond the reliable range of his weapon, but he knew this was his only chance. He raised the rifle slowly, took aim at where he judged the animal's heart to be, and gently squeezed the trigger.

The report rang out, reverberating around the mountainside. A small flock of snow finches took flight, whirled around, then settled again, and the wounded markhor turned and bore down upon his assailant. My father scrabbled to remove the spent casing, ripping the glove from his right hand to make the task easier, but his gun was solidly jammed.

Still the markhor came, measuring the distance in heartbeats. The bullet had severed an artery, and plumes of crimson blood squirted from the wound, each one spreading like scattered roses across the virgin snow. At fifty yards, he fell to his knees, like a supplicant making mock obeisance, his corkscrew horns levelled at my father's heart. Then he died.

In later times, before he became incoherent, my father swore that, at the point of death, the noble beast exhaled. His misted breath swirled, transforming itself into a fragile winged spirit that hovered momentarily above the dead markhor before drifting across the void like a firefly, and entering his body.  Impelled by the Peri, the half-crazed hunter staggered forward in a frenzy of bloodlust and hacked the markhor's head from its body before collapsing in a dead faint.

When the bearers turned up in Tirich village without my father, a search party was immediately dispatched. It found him, hours later, suffering from exhaustion and exposure, and soaked in blood from the trophy clutched to his breast. Inexplicably, his boots had been discarded and lay at some distance from his body.

A man who can survive a forced march of two hundred miles across the rooftop of the world, over some of the toughest terrain on earth, is not easily defeated. After weeks of rehabilitation, he emerged physically intact, except in two particulars. Frostbite had deprived him of the index finger of his right hand and both of his big toes. Never again would he hunt and, from that time forth, he was only able to get about with the aid of a stick.


I paused at this point, as I could see Bisto returning from his walk, wisps of breath trailing behind him. In his case, I doubted that they were caused by paranormal activity. As he came through the door, he stamped his feet on the mat and clapped his hands together. A wet and happy spaniel was at his heels.

"Brass monkey weather out there," he said, tossing his deerstalker onto the hatstand. "Now, how about breakfast?"

He glanced down and saw the journal still in my hand. "How did you get on with that? Pretty good nonsense, isn't it?"

Before I could reply, he continued, "He was repatriated shortly after the markhor affair. These days, his condition would be described as PTSD; shellshock following the Chitral Siege. According to my grandfather, his accounts became wilder and more fanciful as time went by. In one of his later versions, he swore that his shot found its target and the markhor fell where it stood. An ethereal maiden stepped from the body. Her dress was pure white, embroidered with crimson roses which she ripped from her bodice, tossing them into the snow as she ran forward to take possession of him.

I was reminded of Kayla, flouncing down the Montmartre street a few days earlier, ravishing in her white frock festooned with scarlet poppies the size of dinner plates. I wasn't sure if the hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach was caused by a yet to be defined sixth sense or by the imminent prospect of a hearty English breakfast.

Both thoughts were cast to one side when Helen appeared at the top of the stairs, clutching the bannister and looking as if she had seen a ghost.

Author Notes List of Characters

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Group Captain Bamforth (alias Sir David Brockenhurst) - an intelligence officer with MI6 and Air Attache in Paris
Helen Culverson - Also a travel writer, whose relationship with Charles is complicated by her relationship with Jeanne Durand.
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok and has surfaced again in Paris.
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor and undercover agent with the French Drug Squad.
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman (now deceased)
Ian 'Bisto' Kidman - an ex-RAF friend of Charles's.
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Andre (aka Scaramouche) - an actor in Montmartre and friend of Kayla's
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Francoise Gaudin - Alain's an intellectually disabled sister.
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.
Gaston Arnoux - Owner of an art gallery in Paris, recently assassinated by Charles Asserted to be leader of an ISIS network


Chapter 67
The Potting Shed

By tfawcus

Closing paragraphs of Chapter 66

I was reminded of Kayla, flouncing down the Montmartre street a few days earlier, ravishing in her white frock festooned with scarlet poppies the size of dinner plates. I wasn't sure if the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach was caused by a sixth sense or by the prospect of a hearty English breakfast.

Both thoughts were cast to one side when Helen appeared at the top of the stairs, clutching the bannister and looking as if she had seen a ghost.

Chapter 67

Bisto was the first to speak. "You feeling all right, Helen? You look a bit peeky."

Fearing she might fall, I called out, "Stay there! I'll be right up." I took the steps two at a time, a foolhardy thing to do before breakfast, and was barely able to wheeze out my next words.
"What on earth's the matter, darling?"

"In - in - the potting shed."

"What's in the potting shed? Apart from pots, that is."

"Come and look." She dragged me to the bedroom window. "Down there," she said, pointing to a small wooden shed half hidden in the rhododendrons.

I could just make out the shape of a head pressed against the dusty, cobwebbed window. "It looks as though some poor animal is trapped in there."

She clutched my arm. "It's a mountain goat."

There was a discreet cough behind us. "Not quite accurate, m'dear. It's actually just the head of a mountain goat."

"What do you mean 'just the head'? What's it doing there?"

"I put it there."

I could see this conversation wasn't going anywhere and decided to interject a little light humour.

"Bisto took Biggles out shooting this morning. Most mornings they bag a brace of rabbits or a jogger, but he thought, being from Pakistan, you might prefer goat biryani for dinner tonight."

Helen gave me a pitying look. "I wouldn't try jokes like that when you reach the Hindu-Kush."

Bisto shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot. "Oh dear, 'fraid I've made a bit of a mess of things, haven't I? Best of intentions but-"

"-but nothing. You're the salt of the earth, dear fellow. No harm done. Look, why don't you toddle off downstairs and rustle up breakfast while I explain to Helen what this is all about?"

The poor man brightened. It was as if a weight pulling down the corners of his mouth had suddenly been released. "Right you are. The Willows wellness breakfast coming up." There was a look of relief on his face as he set off downstairs.

"Wellness breakfast?" Helen sounded puzzled.

A voice like the Water Rat's came floating up from below. "Baconandeggsandsausagesandblackpuddingandfriedbreadandtoastand marmaladeand... Good for the soul, don't yer know?" He whistled cheerfully as he disappeared into the kitchen.

"I think he's joking," I said.

"I hope so." Helen wrinkled her nose in disgust. "Well, what is this all about?"

"It's a long story."

"Then you'd better be quick telling it."

"Bisto has a skeleton in the family closet."

"Ian."

"Ian has a skeleton in the family closet. It's his great grandfather."

"No wonder it's a skeleton. But what's that got to do with the markhor in the potting shed?"

"He shot it and when it died the peri, its guardian spirit, entered his body and drove him mad. That's what the book says, anyway."

"What book? What on earth are you talking about?"

"Look, darling. Ian and I are going to be busy with funeral arrangements for most of the morning. His grandfather kept a journal describing his father's time in the Hindu-Kush. Why don't you read it after breakfast? Then you'll know as much as I do - probably more."

"It sounds as if you're trying to get rid of me."

"Well - yes. You wouldn't want to be wafting around like a genie in a bottle, would you?"

Helen could see the sense in that and decided to acquiesce gracefully. "Seeing that goat gave me a nasty turn. I felt as if I'd seen a ghost." She smiled sweetly at me. "I'd be fascinated to read what brought a markhor to Oxfordshire."

"Silly thing is - Ian took its head down from over the fireplace in the library this morning and hid it in the potting shed. He didn't want you to be upset by it, knowing the close connection between your people and the mountain goats of Tirich Mir."

"That was really sweet of him." A faraway look came into her eye. "You know, I don't really believe in those folktales. At least, not in the way my mother did."

I wondered. One outgrows fairy tales of pink and purple glitter, but real faerie tales have an enduring quality. There is a different kind of spelling in them, bound up in the deep magic of cultural belief. It cannot be so easily shaken off. I looked hard at Helen to see what truth I could find in her eye, but she would not allow my gaze and looked away.

 

*****

True to his word, Bisto conjured up a hearty breakfast, after which he and I got down to the business of making phone calls, organising flowers, sorting through old photographs, speaking with the vicar, writing an obituary and composing a eulogy. It was a bittersweet experience of shared memories and misty eyes.

Meanwhile, Helen took herself off to a sunny spot in the garden, settling herself in a deckchair with Sir Robert Kidman's journal and a floppy hat. After a while she got up and went over to the potting shed, emerging a moment or two later with the markhor's head, which she carried across the lawn with due reverence. She leaned it against the trunk of an apple tree, adjusting its position so that it was looking directly at her as she returned to the story.

We both noted this strange behaviour from the conservatory window and Bisto remarked on it.

"Odd," he said. "You thought she'd be upset by the sight of the thing, now there she goes treating it like some kind of religious icon."

"We all have our rituals. Deep seated beliefs that are hard to shake off. Your old journal seems to have sparked something in her that must have been lying dormant for years."

"Humph! Sounds like rot to me. Never been able to see anything in it. Fanciful nonsense. Peris, djinns and genii. Nanny Smith used to read me that kind of thing in the nursery. Couldn't see the sense of it. Give me a good adventure story any day. Something by Hammond Innes." He leaned down to fondle a silky ear. "- or Biggles, of course."

"Of course."

Yet, a few days later, as we sat together in the pews of the Norman church of St Margaret in Harpsden-cum-Bolney, I could see Bisto also had firmly entrenched rituals and beliefs. His spaniel eyes were steadfast
but inside that ramrod figure was a heart that was breaking as we sang:

The day Thou gavest, Lord, is ended,
The darkness falls at Thy behest,


Stained-glass saints gazed down on him with pity from the 14th century arched windows. They had seen it all before; there were five generations of Kidmans buried under the nave.

It wasn't until much later that I discovered more about Helen's family rituals in circumstances no less poignant; circumstances that, if I had known of them in advance, would have made me abandon our forthcoming journey.

Helen eventually struggled back from the garden, the markhor firmly grasped to her chest. "I think you should hang this back over the fireplace, Ian. The warmth may prevent its evil spirit from returning. Peris are cold climate creatures, you know."

"Very well, my dear. If that's what you think." He gave me a knowing look as he took the trophy from her.

"Oh, and one other thing. May I keep the journal a while longer?"

"You can keep it for ever, as far as I'm concerned."

"Really? That would be wonderful!" She rushed forward and planted a kiss on his cheek.

He backed away in obvious embarrassment. "I say, steady on! You almost made me drop the blessed goat."

Author Notes List of characters

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Group Captain Bamforth (alias Sir David Brockenhurst) - an intelligence officer with MI6 and Air Attache in Paris
Helen Culverson - Also a travel writer, whose relationship with Charles is complicated by her relationship with Jeanne Durand.
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok and has surfaced again in Paris.
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor and undercover agent with the French Drug Squad.
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman (now deceased)
Ian 'Bisto' Kidman - an ex-RAF friend of Charles's.
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Andre (aka Scaramouche) - an actor in Montmartre and friend of Kayla's
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Francoise Gaudin - Alain's an intellectually disabled sister.
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.
Gaston Arnoux - Owner of an art gallery in Paris, recently assassinated by Charles Asserted to be leader of an ISIS network


Chapter 68
Things Warm Up at Moonrakers

By tfawcus

Chapter 68
Although Ian was effusive in his thanks for the help I'd given him, it didn't take long for me to realise he needed time alone, working through his grief without the distraction of others. Essentially a shy and private person, he didn't find it easy to fulfil the role of host. He might have coped better if I'd come without Helen. Her presence was adding an element of tension. I had noticed it in some of his snappish comments over the past twenty-four hours.

Since the funeral wasn't for another two days, I decided to take her across to Moonrakers for a short break. I knew that locals would pop in occasionally to see that Ian was all right. His next-door neighbour had already presented him with a basketful of precooked meals for the freezer, and I felt sure there would be an embarrassment of culinary gifts yet to come. He'd probably end up taking refuge on the river in his beloved boat.

Having reassured him that we were only a phone call away, I thought it best to set off that afternoon in my little green sports car. I needed to get the old girl out of his garage and take her back where she belonged. Before we set off for Pakistan, I would have to grease her, put her up on blocks, and disconnect her battery, but in the meantime I intended to show Helen something of the West Country.

I could sense her anticipation as she slid into the seat beside me, adjusted her flamboyant silk scarf and Gucci sunglasses, and waved a cheerful goodbye. I gunned the engine, spitting a spray of gravel across the lawn as we skidded down the driveway. Glancing in the rear-view mirror, I saw Biggles cowering behind his master's legs and suddenly felt rather foolish, a middle-aged man in his second childhood. However, Helen's radiant smile as she clutched my thigh dispelled any such maudlin thoughts.

As we followed the meander of the Thames towards Reading, watery sunshine filtered through a fairy-tale canopy of amber and bronze, throwing a shadow-speckle across the bonnet of the car. We joined the M4 thirty miles west of Heathrow. High above us, a maze of condensation trails stood out against the blue, a chilling reminder of a world beyond the Cotswolds, a world filled with contrails of a different sort. I wondered whether one of the specks in the sky was winging its way home to Karachi under the aegis of the crescent moon. I felt a fluttering sensation in my stomach and shivered.

As I accelerated to motorway speed, I noticed Helen shivering, too. With the sun now lower in the sky, there was a distinct chill in the air. "There's a mohair rug behind the seat if you need it, or, if you like, I can pull over at the next junction and put the hood up."

"No, the rug will be fine. I'm used to the cold," she added.

I reached back and felt for it under the tonneau cover, swerving in the process and narrowly missing a delivery van in the nearside lane. Its driver thrust the middle finger of his right hand up with bestial vigour and leant on his horn. I didn't need to be a lip reader to understand the stream of invective accompanying his obscene gesture.

Helen giggled and blew him a kiss. "I bet he grunts when he does that in bed." I was taken aback by her remark. Her forthrightness still caught me off guard
sometimes.

An hour later, we reached the Dodington Ash exit, and turned south onto the A46 towards Bath. Then, swinging left down a series of high-hedged lanes, we pulled up a few miles further on, in front of Moonrakers Cottage. I
gingerly eased myself out of the seat and went around to open the door for Helen.

"What chivalry," she said, as I took her arm and helped her to her feet. Then, I leaned against the side of the car and did a couple of stretching exercises.

Helen looked amused. "What's all that about?"

"I'm feeling a bit stiff after the journey."

"Really? Sounds like my lucky day."

I pretended to ignore her.

"What a sweet little cottage. Is this really where you live?"

"Yes, really. Do you like it?"

"I absolutely adore it."

I showed her around the downstairs rooms with ill-concealed pride.

"Look, why don't you make a cup of tea while I put the car in the garage and get the fire going? Everything you need is in the kitchen. I'm sure you'll find your way around."

She pouted. "I'm not very good in kitchens. Why don't I put the car away while you light the fire?"

"All right," I said, little knowing how those two small words were about to alter my life. It didn't take me long to build a pile of kindling and place a few larger logs on top for when the flames caught.

After that, I headed straight for the kitchen to put the kettle on. A few minutes later, Helen came up behind, wrapped her arms around my waist and blew softly onto the back of my ear. "You haven't shown me upstairs yet. Come on, while the kettle's on the boil."

I allowed her to lead the way, following two steps behind, mesmerised by her swaying hips. She peered briefly into each room before pulling me into the bedroom and kissing me fiercely on the mouth. I pulled the door closed behind us.

Neither of us took the least notice of the frantic whistle of the electric kettle. It continued its warning screech for several seconds before the automatic shut-off silenced it. Half an hour later, there was a dull thud as a smouldering log rolled out of the fireplace, coming to rest against a nest of small cedar tables by the sofa.

Who knows how long it lay there before the first flickering tongues of flame started to take hold? After a few minutes, wisps of smoke crept under the bedroom door. Even that, initially, did nothing to disturb us.

Author Notes List of characters

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Group Captain Bamforth (alias Sir David Brockenhurst) - an intelligence officer with MI6 and Air Attache in Paris
Helen Culverson - Also a travel writer, whose relationship with Charles is complicated by her relationship with Jeanne Durand.
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok and has surfaced again in Paris.
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor and undercover agent with the French Drug Squad.
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman (now deceased)
Ian 'Bisto' Kidman - an ex-RAF friend of Charles's.
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Andre (aka Scaramouche) - an actor in Montmartre and friend of Kayla's
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Francoise Gaudin - Alain's an intellectually disabled sister.
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.
Gaston Arnoux - Owner of an art gallery in Paris, recently assassinated by Charles Asserted to be leader of an ISIS network


Chapter 69
Rising From the Ashes

By tfawcus

Last paragraphs of Chapter 68

I allowed her to lead the way, following two steps behind, mesmerised by her swaying hips. She peered briefly into each room before pulling me into the bedroom and kissing me fiercely on the mouth. I pulled the door closed behind us.

Neither of us took the least notice of the frantic whistle of the electric kettle. It continued its warning screech for several seconds before the automatic shut-off silenced it. Half an hour later, there was a dull thud as a smouldering log rolled out of the fireplace, coming to rest against a nest of small cedar tables by the sofa.

Who knows how long it lay there before the first flickering tongues of flame started to take hold? After a few minutes, wisps of smoke crept under the bedroom door. Even that, initially, did nothing to disturb us.

 

Chapter 69
 
The insistent beep, beep, beep, of the smoke alarm eventually broke through my subconscious. I sat up, instantly alert and aware of the acrid smell of burning.

"Fire! Wake up, Helen! There's a fire." I dragged her towards the window, still groggy and half asleep. Tugging a blanket from the bed, I wrapped it around her shoulders, wrenched the window catch open and pushed her ahead of me onto the fire escape. "Quick! Down the stairs." She lurched towards the handrail, throwing me a backward glance, her eyes like those of a hunted animal.

"Go on! I'm right behind you." I seized my trousers, hopping from one leg to the other as I put them on, then grabbed my wallet from beside the bed and thrust it into my pocket as I swept Helen's handbag from the dressing table. Glancing around to see what else I might salvage, I noticed an eerie glow under the door and a noise like rushing wind.


As I dived through the window, I lost my balance. Sprawling across the metal grid of the fire escape, I felt skin being ripped from my knee as I slid into a wrought-iron stanchion. At that moment, there was a sharp crack. The bedroom door had given way. The draught sucked a tongue of flame straight from the dragon's maw. It licked above my head, spitting a shower of sparks into the cold night air, fiendish fireflies that goaded me with tiny swords, impelling me down the steps. Dazed and oozing blood from my scalp, I clutched at the handrail, half sliding, half falling to the ground.

Helen shrieked. It was a primeval sound dragged from the depths of her being. She rushed at me like a wild animal, grabbed my arms, and pulled with all her strength. She slapped me around the face. "Get up, damn you! Get up!"

I tried to shield my head with my hands, beseeching her to have mercy but she continued to harry, forcing me away from the inferno. At last, she sank down beside me, wrapping us both in the blanket, and began to sob. I felt the wetness of her tears on my neck as she smothered me in kisses. Exhausted, I sank into semi-consciousness, scarcely aware of the cacophony of bells and sirens as I gasped for breath. My lungs were on fire.

A throng of helmeted silhouettes ran hither and yon, unreeling fire hoses and shouting instructions to one another. Two dark shapes detached themselves from the main group and headed in our direction. They bent over and rolled me onto a stretcher before rushing me across to a waiting ambulance.

Helen scrambled in beside me and held my hand as we were whisked away, the wailing siren cutting a swathe through the night. One of the paramedics tapped her gently on the shoulder and pointed to another chair.

"Here, lass, slip this hospital gown on. There's a blanket over there if you need it. The nurses will fit you out with something warmer when we get to the hospital."

He sat down beside me and lowered an oxygen mask over my face while his partner held a swab to the wound above my temple.

"You've had a lucky escape, mate, but everything's going to be fine." He smiled and asked my name.  "Mine's Stan," he added.

"Charles." It was a defensively monosyllabic response.

He continued with routine questions to check my coherence and mental acuity; simple things like my date of birth and the name of the lovely lady with me. After that, he asked me to repeat the days of the week backwards, a task that would have caused difficulty at the best of times. As I stumbled over the words, I began to laugh but was instantly overcome by a fit of coughing. My throat felt as if it was being sandpapered. I struggled into a sitting position and started to rub my sore eyes.

He put a hand on my shoulder. "Lie back down, mate. These drops will ease the irritation." After handing me a tissue to dab off the excess, he held his finger up to check my visual tracking.

Satisfied that I was in a stable condition, he turned to Helen. "They'll do some more tests at the hospital, love. It doesn't look as if the smoke inhalation's too bad, but radiant heat may have damaged the lining of his respiratory tract. Could have been a lot worse though. I'd say he's a lucky fellow." I saw him cast an appreciative eye over Helen and add, "A very lucky fellow indeed."

Ten minutes later we arrived at the Royal United Hospital on the outskirts of Bath. We were ushered into the emergency department and checked over by a hollow-eyed intern with bum fluff on his chin. After an interminable time in the waiting room, they finally admitted us for overnight observation. We were allocated beds in the Respiratory Unit, a mixed sex ward on the 2nd floor.

I spent most of the night gazing at the ceiling, letting the impact of the last few hours sink in. I had lost everything, the memorabilia and accoutrements of a lifetime. Strangely, I felt an overwhelming sensation of release. I no longer had any physical ties to the past. It was as if I had been reborn, a phoenix rising from the ashes.

After a while, I was aware of Helen by my side. She had drawn up a chair and was watching over me like a guardian angel. Our eyes met, searching hidden depths in one another. No word was spoken, but at that moment I realised, in losing everything, I had gained something immeasurably better than I deserved; a second chance at life. I stretched out and squeezed her hand.

Author Notes List of characters

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Group Captain Bamforth (alias Sir David Brockenhurst) - an intelligence officer with MI6 and Air Attache in Paris
Helen Culverson - Also a travel writer, whose relationship with Charles is complicated by her relationship with Jeanne Durand.
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok and has surfaced again in Paris.
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor and undercover agent with the French Drug Squad.
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman (now deceased)
Ian 'Bisto' Kidman - an ex-RAF friend of Charles's.
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Andre (aka Scaramouche) - an actor in Montmartre and friend of Kayla's
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Francoise Gaudin - Alain's an intellectually disabled sister.
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.
Gaston Arnoux - Owner of an art gallery in Paris, recently assassinated by Charles Asserted to be leader of an ISIS network


Chapter 70
The Aftermath of Disaster

By tfawcus

Closing paragraphs of Chapter 69

I spent most of the rest of the night gazing at the ceiling, letting the impact of the last few hours sink in. I had lost everything, the memorabilia and accoutrements of a lifetime. Strangely, I felt an overwhelming sensation of release. I no longer had any ties to the past. It was as if I had been reborn, a phoenix rising from the ashes.

After a while, I was aware of Helen by my side. She had drawn up a chair and was watching over me like a guardian angel. Our eyes met, searching hidden depths in one another. No word was spoken, but at that moment I realised that, in losing everything, I had gained something immeasurably better than I deserved; a second chance at life.

Chapter 70

The following morning, while we were waiting for the doctor to do his rounds, I had a visitor, none other than John, the proprietor of The Fallen Angel. He edged into the ward, scanning the occupant of each bed until his eyes lit on me with evident relief.

"I don't much like these places, Mr Brandon, and that's the truth. But it warms me heart to see you sitting up in bed looking like your old self. Indeed, it does."

"So good of you to call in, John. Can't say how much I appreciate it." I pointed at a chair in the corner. "Pull up a pew. Come and sit down."

"Can't stay long, but me and Bess just wanted you to have this." He thrust a small brown paper parcel into my hand, tied up prettily with red ribbon and a bow. "It's not much," he said as I unwrapped it, "but maybe it'll remind you of the old place. It belonged to my grandfather," he added.

I stared down at the family heirloom in disbelief. Wiltshire Rhymes and Tales in the Wiltshire Dialect by Edward Slow 1894. "Look," he said, "signed by the author and all. You'll find the Moonrakers legend there, somewhere towards the back, told almost as good as old Gabriel told it you that night when you was last here. Remember?"

I remembered all right. If it hadn't been for John coming to my rescue, Gabriel would have had me cornered all night.

"I can't accept this, John. It's too much."

"Nonsense, squire. Least we can do under the circumstances. Oh, and before I forget, the lads are having a whip round Saturday night to help put you back on your feet." He shifted uncomfortably before getting up to shake my hand. "'Fraid I must be on my way. Have to open up for the lunchtime trade. Can't keep my customers waiting, can I?"

"What a nice man," Helen said, as she slipped onto the chair that had just been vacated.

"Sorry, love. I should have introduced you."

"No, I wouldn't have wanted to intrude. He looked uncomfortable enough as it was." She picked up the book, flipping it open at random. "HAYMEAKIN ZONG, When Mid-zummer is draain nigh. An grass in mead, an vield is high... Goodness! It's written in a foreign language."

"Not really. But it does take a bit of getting used to, I must admit."

Right on cue, Nancy Wilkins appeared, wreathed in smiles, her accent resonating with rhotic richness, long-drawn-out vowels, and a silken buzz of 'z's and 'v's.

"An' howz Mizter Brandon veelin this morning?" She pulled up a chair and plonked herself down next to Helen. "You muz be the young lady Jed wuz tellin' uz about. 'E wuz the one as zaved your car, Mizter B. Lucky you left the keys in th'ignition."

She scarcely paused for breath before launching into her plans for the day. "I've told that young doctor vella, we'll be lookin' after you, zoon as he sez you can go. The spare room's made up an' we won't take no vor an answer. You tell him, missy - doctor's orders."


*****
And so it was. By midday we were seated in the parlour of Widdershins Farm. Old Jack Wilkins exuded gap-toothed charm as he handed Helen a glass of Nancy's finest elderflower wine. There was a wooden board on the table, with a hunk of Wiltshire Blue and Bath Oliver biscuits. I looked at it longingly but knew that my throat wouldn't be up to such luxuries for a while.

"Will ye be 'aving zum elderflower, Charles? Or p'raps you'll join me in a drop of scrumpy?"

I wasn't sure which was the lesser of the two evils. Whichever I chose was going to render me comatose for the remainder of the day. I knew Jack's scrumpy of old. Redolent of wrinkled apples, it was a cloudy brew with a kick like a Jersey bull and enough body to suggest a drowned rat or two at the bottom of the barrel. However, I knew he'd be offended if I didn't join him.

"Just half a pint, then."

"Nonsense, man. There's no such thing." Just as I feared, he returned with two pewter tankards full to the brim. "This'll do more to anaesthetise your throat than anything them wretched doctors'll give you." How right he was. By the time I'd drained the contents, I felt ready to do battle with Bath Olivers and Wiltshire Blue. After the second pint, I could have taken on a Jersey bull, roar for blood-curdling roar.

Eventually, Jack excused himself. He had jobs to do around the farm before bringing the cows in for milking. Nancy told us to make ourselves at home. She needed to relieve Liz in the farm shop so she could have her lunch break.

Helen and I took the hint and decided we'd go out for a walk. Unsure of who was supporting whom, we made our way down Primrose Lane, blissfully unaware of sombre clouds gathering in the west.
As much as I dreaded the task, I had to see what was left of Moonrakers.

An old grey mare looked up with mild interest as we passed, then continued grazing. Wood pigeons cooed. Everywhere around us, there was an air of somnolence edged with the heavy stillness that precedes a storm.

When we turned into the lane leading to Moonrakers, we were startled by a harsh alarm call and rushing of wings as a cock pheasant took flight, exploding from the trees, a flash of red wattle surging ahead of its verdigris neck and copper plumage. A colony of rooks rose out of the gaunt limbs of an elm tree, cawing and circling like harbingers of doom, then settling back again, the danger passed.

A cold wind sprang up as we approached the cottage, now a haphazard skeleton of blackened beams, a harsh outline of chimney stacks, an oozing morass of charred thatch, and gaping wounds where windows once had been. There was nothing left to clothe the ugliness of contorted timbers. Small wisps of smoke still swirled from the smouldering remains, giving the illusion of a beaten monster subsiding in the final throes of death.

Confronting the ravaged remains brought home the enormity of my loss. I turned to Helen and we clung together, suspended in disbelief, till the first raindrops mingled with the tears I was fighting to hold back. Helen took my hand and dragged me with her to the shelter of the trees at the entrance to Druids Wood. As we turned the corner, we discovered, half-hidden at the edge of the bridle track, the sleek green shape of my beloved MGB. Whoever the mysterious Jed might be, I could at that moment have kissed him, an action that would doubtless have earned me a black eye.

Author Notes List of characters

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Group Captain Bamforth (alias Sir David Brockenhurst) - an intelligence officer with MI6 and Air Attache in Paris
Helen Culverson - Also a travel writer, whose relationship with Charles is complicated by her relationship with Jeanne Durand.
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok and has surfaced again in Paris.
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor and undercover agent with the French Drug Squad.
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman (now deceased)
Ian 'Bisto' Kidman - an ex-RAF friend of Charles's.
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Andre (aka Scaramouche) - an actor in Montmartre and friend of Kayla's
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Francoise Gaudin - Alain's an intellectually disabled sister.
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.
Gaston Arnoux - Owner of an art gallery in Paris, recently assassinated by Charles Asserted to be leader of an ISIS network


Chapter 71
A Cloak-and-Dagger Assignment

By tfawcus

Last paragraphs of Chapter 70...

The enormity of the loss took my breath away. I turned to Helen and we clung together, suspended in disbelief until the first raindrops mingled with the tears I fought to hold back.

Helen took my hand and dragged me with her to the shelter of the trees standing at the entrance to Druids Wood. As we turned the corner we discovered, half-hidden at the edge of the bridle track, the sleek green shape of my beloved MGB. Whoever the mysterious Jed might be, I could at that moment have kissed him, an action that would almost certainly have earned me a black eye.

Chapter 71

I felt sure of this when I phoned Mrs. Wilkins. She told me Jed was not only an on-call firefighter with the Dorset and Wiltshire Brigade, but also the village blacksmith, a solitary and taciturn man who related better to horses than their owners.

She called back a short while later to inform me that he'd left the keys under the wheel arch, on the front nearside tyre. It was such an obvious hiding place that he might as well have left them in the ignition.

Meanwhile, Helen and I had taken shelter from the rain under a mighty oak. Long ago, its trunk had been split into three parts by lightning, creating a charred grotto lined with staircases of saffron fungi.

Dog violets carpeted the woodland floor, their ephemeral scent mingling with the earthy aroma of damp leaves. Water droplets glistened on the white berries of a large mistletoe hanging overhead. I half expected Druids to appear, wielding a golden sickle to cull its sprays, while chanting long-forgotten spells to ward off witchery. Instead, Helen drew me into her arms and, following more recent custom, she brushed my cheek with a lingering kiss.

It wasn't long before we were back at Widdershins Farm where we spent a pleasant evening with Nancy and Jack Wilkins. The next morning, after profusely thanking them for all their kindness, we set off to attend Jenny's funeral.

Helen insisted she should drive, on the pretext that I might still be suffering from concussion. Having already experienced her skills in Paris, I battened down the hatches, tightened the seat belt across my chest, and prepared for an exciting ride. I wasn't disappointed. She drove at high speed, handling the car with precision. Since the clothes we had been lent were loose-fitting and casual, we stopped in Reading to buy something more suitable to wear at the funeral. Even so, we arrived at Harpsden-cum-Bolney church in plenty of time.

Bisto was already on the porch, chatting with the vicar. When he saw us, he broke off his conversation and hurried towards us. "Good of you to come." His greeting was effusive. He shook Helen's hand warmly and embraced me like a long-lost brother. "Follow me. I'll show you to your seats." He spoke with a distracted air, scarcely pausing for breath. "I do hope you'll be able to join me at The Willows after the service." I hardly had time to answer before he was off up the path to welcome the next arrivals. We found our own way to our seats.

The reception at The Willows after the service was stiff and formal. Bisto had engaged outside caterers for the occasion. He buzzed from one group to the next playing the perfect host, ensuring everyone had a cup of tea and a full plate. Eventually, the last people drifted away, offering muted condolences as they left, and he joined us with a sigh of relief.

"Thank God that's over. Let's go through to the library and put our feet up." He ushered us through the door. "I think we gave the old girl a good send-off, don't you?"

Helen was quick to respond. "She'd have been proud of you, Ian. You spoke beautifully. It was the most touching eulogy I've ever heard."

"Every word of it true. I shall miss her dreadfully." His bottom lip quivered slightly before he pulled himself together. He brought the whiskey decanter across on a tray with three glasses. "Time for something a bit stronger. You'll join me, I hope."

He poured two generous fingers of scotch into each glass then raised his own in a toast. "Slange Var!"

"Slange Var!" we both echoed, standing around the fireplace under the disapproving eye of the markhor, now restored to his rightful position above the mantel.

"Come and sit down. Make yourselves comfortable." He sank into one of the armchairs. "Tell me about your time at Moonrakers. Such a lovely place. Wish I could have been with you."

As we related the tragic events, his face fell. "You must be devastated. It sounds as if you were lucky to get out alive." He took a swig from his glass. "I imagine the bottom has fallen out of your world and my heart goes out to you. "
He paused to stroke Biggles's head before adding, "What are you planning to do now? Of course, you're welcome to stay here as long as you like. I'd welcome the company."

"Good of you to offer but Helen and I are planning a trip to Chitral. We're on our way to Paris this evening to tidy up loose ends, pack and, with luck, catch a flight to Pakistan within a couple of days."

"Chitral? Ah, yes. I remember you saying. I suppose my grandfather's old journal perished in the blaze. Best thing for it really. Full of nonsense."

"As luck would have it, I left it in the car," Helen said. "It's still in the glove box. Would you like me to get it for you?"

"No, my dear. You keep it. I don't suppose you've had time to read it yet." He glanced up at the goat's head above the fireplace. "No earthly good to me, and you may find odd snippets of interest, knowing the place as you do."

Once again, Helen thanked him profusely. "You are a dear. I should like that very much." She got up, her scotch barely touched, and excused herself. "I have to go and powder my nose."

While she was out of the room, I took the opportunity to speak with Bisto privately. "I've a couple of favours to ask of you, old chap."

"Go ahead. Fire away. Of course I'd be delighted to do anything I can. You know that. I imagine the first will be to look after your car while you're away - and the second, let me guess, will be a lift to the station."

"Yes, both of those if it's not too much trouble. But there's one other thing, too. I have a painting in a safe deposit box in Paris. Should anything happen to us in Pakistan, I'd like it returned to its rightful owner."

"What do you mean, 'Should anything happen'? You're being a bit melodramatic, aren't you?"

"Maybe. Nevertheless, I'll leave the key with Helen's landlady on Avenue de Villiers. Name of Madeleine Bisset. Absolutely trustworthy. Salt of the earth. I'll let her know of the arrangement."

Bisto looked confused. "I say, old man. What's this all about?"

"Just a precaution really. The painting could be quite valuable. It rightfully belongs to a man called Alain Gaudin who works as a gardener at Giverny and sometimes as a stagehand at the Moulin Rouge."

I could see Bisto's eyes beginning to glaze over. "Look, I'll leave details in an envelope with the key, and if there's any problem, Helen's sister, Kayla, will know how to contact him. Here's Madame Bisset's address. I've written it down for you."

"Right-ho! I'm beginning to get the drift, but why don't you give him the blessed painting yourself before you go?"

"I will, if I can get hold of him in time. Under normal circumstances, I would leave the key with Helen's sister, but there are reasons why that may not be a good idea.
Her details are written down, too, in case you need them."

"If you say so. It all sounds a bit bizarre to me. Cloak-and-dagger stuff." He furrowed his brow." I hope you're not getting yourself into deep water."

"It's probably nothing. We should be back in a couple of weeks, in which case I'll be able to do it myself. I just want to make sure that all my bases are covered. Anyway, here comes Helen. I'd prefer you didn't mention it to her, old chap."

Bisto tapped the side of his nose with his finger. "Mum's the word. Don't want to worry the little lady, eh?"

"Something like that."

Author Notes List of characters

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Group Captain Bamforth (alias Sir David Brockenhurst) - an intelligence officer with MI6 and Air Attache in Paris
Helen Culverson - Also a travel writer, whose relationship with Charles is complicated by her relationship with Jeanne Durand.
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok and has surfaced again in Paris.
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor and undercover agent with the French Drug Squad.
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman (now deceased)
Ian 'Bisto' Kidman - an ex-RAF friend of Charles's.
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Andre (aka Scaramouche) - an actor in Montmartre and friend of Kayla's
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Francoise Gaudin - Alain's an intellectually disabled sister.
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.
Gaston Arnoux - Owner of an art gallery in Paris, recently assassinated by Charles Asserted to be leader of an ISIS network


Chapter 72
Spaced Out

By tfawcus

Chapter 72

Catching up with Kayla was our priority when we reached Paris. We were both concerned about her spiral into drug addiction. I also hoped she'd be able to tell me where Alain Gaudin was, so I could return the painting of his great-grandmother to him. Trusting the matter to Bisto was a backstop solution at best.

Several attempts to phone her were unsuccessful. Fearing the worst, we made our way up to Montmartre. The last time I had seen Kayla was shortly after André's arrest by the anti-terrorist squad. She had been in a bad way, not only riding high on the Big C but knocking back absinthe as well.

When we reached her apartment, Helen grasped the door knocker, a curiously wrought brass dragon, and rapped loudly. There was no answer.

She knocked again, with renewed vigour. Still no response. The reverberations echoed away into silence.

"Dear God, I hope she's all right." She took two or three steps back into the steep, cobbled lane and called out, "Kayla! It's me - Helen."

"Perhaps she's out," I offered, without much conviction. "We could try again later."

"No, I'm sure she's there." She continued to hammer away. By this time, we had attracted an audience of gawking bystanders, tourists making their way down the hill from Claude Charpentier Square to the Montmartre Museum.

Eventually, an upstairs window was flung open. "Who's down there, making that god-awful racket? Go away and leave us in peace."

"Alain? Is that you?" Helen shielded her eyes against the sun. "We've come to see Kayla. Let us in."

Alain's gruff voice lost some of its vitriol. "Oh, it's you, is it? Wait a minute."

He appeared in the doorway unshaven and bleary-eyed, scowled at me, and gave Helen what could either have been a smile or a grimace, I wasn't sure which. Then he beckoned to us. As we followed him upstairs, Helen bombarded him with questions. "What are you doing here? Is Kayla all right? Doesn't she answer her phone anymore?"

"No, she's not all right. She's been in a dreadful state since André's arrest. See for yourself." He flung the door open. The room was in a shambles. Kayla was spreadeagled across the bed, spaced out, her hair in tangles, mascara running, a half-finished bottle of absinthe on the floor by the bed. She looked up at us and tried to focus.

Helen knelt beside her and reached out with her hand to touch her cheek, but Kayla backed away like a cornered animal and buried her head beneath a pillow. Helen turned to Alain with an anguished look. "For pity's sake. What's happened to her?"

Alain grunted. "Withdrawal symptoms mainly." He reached down and picked up the bottle. "I still let her have a little of this from time to time, to steady her nerves."

"That's not a good idea," I said. "She'll already be depressed, possibly even suicidal. Alcohol will only make the symptoms worse."

Alain sneered, "Alors, une vraie je-sais-tout! A real know-it-all. Do you think I'm a fool? I know the symptoms all right. My sister..." He stopped short, having obviously said more than he intended. I didn't press the point.

"Sorry, old man. No offense meant. Come on, let's sit down. Can I pour you a drink?"

"I don't."

Helen raised her eyebrows and glanced in my direction with a covert half-smile. We both remembered how he had gulped down nearly half a carafe of wine when we bought him lunch at Giverny.

"A cup of tea, then?" He made no answer but adjusted his position to give me the cold shoulder.

Helen took up the running. "So, you're here looking after my sister, are you? That's very sweet of you."

"She's been good to me. She's helped me a few times when things were tough at the Moulin Rouge." He shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other. "I'm not good with people. Without her, I'd probably have lost my job." Drawing himself up straight, he said, "A man doesn't forget these things. Yes, I'm looking after her."

Helen sidled up to him, gave him a hug, and kissed him lightly on the cheek. "...and I love you for it."

Poor Alain blushed. He didn't know where to put himself. I came to his rescue with a tray, thrusting it into his hands. "Put this on the table, could you? I'll bring the tea across in a few minutes, when it's had a chance to brew."

He sat next to Helen and looked at her with puppy eyes. "That's just the sort of thing your sister would have done. Always so kind. I won't stand by while she does this to herself. I won't."

I listened with admiration as Helen drew him out and got him talking about himself. It seemed clear that he had become infatuated with Kayla when she took him under her wing. His voice became more animated whenever he mentioned her and had an edge of anger when he talked about André, whom he regarded both as a rival and as the cause of her downfall.

I recalled the last time I'd been here in Kayla's apartment. She had mentioned how she had been introduced to André. He had been a friend of Thaksin, her Muay Thai instructor in Phuket. Muay Thai, I thought ruefully as I glanced across at her. She no longer looked much like an exponent of the Noble Art of the Eight Limbs.

Both Madame Durand and Group Captain Bamforth had mentioned the dangerous friends she had made in Phuket. They had intimated connections with drugs and with terrorism. They had even made the laughable suggestion that Kayla might have been radicalised in Thailand. Whilst I didn't believe a word of that, it was plausible that the nexus between Thaksin and Andre involved drug trafficking.

Nonetheless, someone obviously thought there was more to it than that. Why else would André have been dragged away by a SWAT team from RAID, the elite tactical unit of the French National Police? I found it hard to believe he was the same man we had met at the stage door of the Moulin Rouge, a flamboyant dilettante masquerading as Scaramouche. What an unlikely villain. A confidence trickster perhaps, but an international terrorist? I doubted it.

While I mused, the kettle came to the boil. I filled the teapot and was about to take it across to the table when I became aware that the conversation had taken a different directon. Alain was now talking about his sister. Fearing he might clam up in my presence, I held back and listened in the background.

His version of her history was very different from the account given us by Father Lacroix.

Author Notes List of characters

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Group Captain Bamforth (alias Sir David Brockenhurst) - an intelligence officer with MI6 and Air Attache in Paris
Helen Culverson - Also a travel writer, whose relationship with Charles is complicated by her relationship with Jeanne Durand.
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok and has surfaced again in Paris.
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor and undercover agent with the French Drug Squad.
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman (now deceased)
Ian 'Bisto' Kidman - an ex-RAF friend of Charles's.
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Andre (aka Scaramouche) - an actor in Montmartre and friend of Kayla's
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Francoise Gaudin - Alain's an intellectually disabled sister.
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.
Gaston Arnoux - Owner of an art gallery in Paris, recently assassinated by Charles Asserted to be leader of an ISIS network


Chapter 73
A Diamond in the Rough

By tfawcus

The closing paragraphs of Chapter 72

Whilst I continued to muse, the kettle came to the boil. I filled the teapot and was about to take it across to the table when I noticed the conversation had taken a different direction. Alain was now talking about his sister. Fearing he might clam up in my presence, I held back and listened in the background.

His version of her history was very different to the account given us by Father Lacroix.

 

Chapter 73
 
"Mentally deranged from birth? Is that what the damned priest said? He would have. The bastards removed her by force and put her in care. That's the truth of it. In care, my arse! More like prison."

"The Church authorities did that? ...but why?"

"My mother was a courtesan, though you'd have probably called her a common whore," he added, looking at me. "She was a single mother, shameful, immoral, and unfit to rear a child, but God knows, she managed to rear me all right."

His eyes blazed. "It was the orphanage that drove my sister mad. An infernal place. The Paris Foundling Hospital. Perhaps you've heard of it?"

Helen shook her head.

"They were the ones that carried out the infamous Loterie de Bébés in 1912, a raffle of live babies to raise funds. Can you believe it? And the Church said it was my mother who was unfit to raise a child." He made an explosive sound with his lips, as if to spit.

"How awful. Absolutely unbelievable. Did they really do that?"

"Yes, and to make matters worse, my mother believed them when they said she was unfit to be a mother. She gave large sums to the Church as penance for her sins. Not that it made any difference. Absolution? Not a chance."

There was an element of pride in his voice as he continued, "She made good money. Enough to take care of me and to provide nursing care for Françoise when she was old enough to leave the orphanage."

His eyes misted over as he recollected, "She was a real beauty, eyes of the palest blue, features of bone china, and locks of golden hair. The men fell over each other to gain her favours."

"She sounds lovely." Helen glanced across at Kayla, who now appeared to have lapsed into a deep sleep. Then, turning her attention back to Alain, she continued, "I understand that you still look after your sister. It must be very hard for you."

"Yes, all the money's gone now. I spent most of it on a memorial. Even with two jobs, I scarcely manage. Now this." There was a hint of desperation in his voice. "The Moulin Rouge will already have written me off. I can't risk leaving Kayla's side, you see."

Helen reached across to him in sympathy. He backed away.

"We saw the memorial. It's magnificent."

"They told me she couldn't be buried in consecrated ground. The pigs! I showed them. The finest memorial of any, inside or outside the churchyard wall. She was better than any of them."

Helen looked at him with compassion. "That was a fine thing to do. A wonderful tribute."

I chose that moment to interrupt, handing the teapot to Helen. "Will you be mother?" She was taken aback for a moment, then smiled at the quaint expression and started pouring.

"Perhaps we can help you, Alain," I said.

"You? Help me?" He spat the words out. "I can manage fine without handouts from a stuck-up type like you. I'm not a bloody charity case."

"I'm not suggesting you are. I was thinking about the painting."

"The painting? What painting? Blown to smithereens in the explosion when that fool of a terrorist blew up Arnaux."
It occurred to me that it was just as well he didn't know who actually blew up Gaston Arnaux.

"It may not have been destroyed," I said. Accused of being a fool of a terrorist made me have a change of heart.  I was damned if I was going to come right out and say that I had the painting.

"What would you know? Quel petit malin! How do you say it in English? A real smart-arse. Is that it?"

I bridled at his taunt. "Let us just say that I do know. I have it on good authority that your painting is safe, but it is worth nothing to you unless..."

"Unless what, eh? Are you trying to blackmail me now? Cochon!"

I held my cool. "No, I'm not blackmailing you. I'm trying to help you, though God alone knows, you're not making it easy. The painting is worth nothing without provenance and proof of ownership. I suspect both may be contained in the letter you have tucked away in my envelope." I stressed the word 'my'.

"Your envelope! I like that! What a nerve!"

"Come on now, you're both behaving like children." Helen handed out the mugs of tea. "Drink this while it's hot. Do calm down, and try to be reasonable."

Alain looked at me sullenly and said nothing. I passed him a plate of biscuits. "Here, have one of these."

"You know, Charles is right. That letter could make all the difference. I'd love to read it and see what it actually says."

I added a little encouragement. "Of course, if the painting is a Lautrec, it ought to go to one of the big auction houses. Handled properly, it could fetch hundreds of thousands of euros."

Without saying anything, Alain rose to his feet. He took a few steps across the room and pulled a Gladstone bag from behind the armchair. I was fascinated. As a piece of luggage, it belonged in an antique shop. The brass fittings were tarnished, the leather scuffed and cracked, but part of a name, Col. N. Arn..., could still be seen embossed on its side in faded copperplate letters. He opened it to reveal a motley collection of overnight articles, and he withdrew a small Manila folder from a leather pocket in the lining. He passed it across to Helen.

"Here, you had better read it." There was something in the grudging way he said it that made me realise the poor man was quite possibly illiterate.

Helen slid my envelope from the folder, carefully unfolded the letter, and was about to start reading when there was a scream from the other side of the room. Kayla was sitting bolt upright and gibbering with terror.

Author Notes List of characters

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Group Captain Bamforth (alias Sir David Brockenhurst) - an intelligence officer with MI6 and Air Attache in Paris
Helen Culverson - Also a travel writer, whose relationship with Charles is complicated by her relationship with Jeanne Durand.
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok and has surfaced again in Paris.
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor and undercover agent with the French Drug Squad.
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman (now deceased)
Ian 'Bisto' Kidman - an ex-RAF friend of Charles's.
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Andre (aka Scaramouche) - an actor in Montmartre and friend of Kayla's
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Francoise Gaudin - Alain's an intellectually disabled sister.
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.
Gaston Arnoux - Owner of an art gallery in Paris, recently assassinated by Charles Asserted to be leader of an ISIS network


Chapter 74
Demons

By tfawcus

Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of language.
Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of sexual content.

Closing paragraphs of Chapter 73...

"Here, you had better read it." There was something in the grudging way he said it that made me realise the poor man was quite possibly illiterate.

Helen slid my envelope from the folder, carefully unfolded the letter, and was about to start reading when there was a scream from the other side of the room. Kayla was sitting bolt upright and gibbering with terror.

 

Chapter 74
 
It was Alain who reached her first. He put his arms around her in a gesture of tenderness that took me by surprise. It was something I would not have given the curmudgeonly old fellow credit for, but it confirmed in my mind that his feelings were both real and intense.

"It's all right, baby. It's all right." He pulled her head towards his chest. "Just a nightmare. Calm down." He rocked gently to soothe her and stroked her hair. "There's no need to worry. You're safe now." Slowly, her shakes subsided.

"They're so real. You don't understand. They're after me and there's nowhere to escape."

Helen did her best to reassure Kayla. "I have those nightmares, too. The cold-blooded murderers who tore our parents apart with their relentless hail of bullets..."

"Not just them, but the fiends who dragged André away kicking and screaming. Bellini's thugs, too. Whichever way I turn, they're out to kill me."

"Nonsense." Something of Alain's gruffness returned to his voice. "No-one's out to kill you. The demons are only in your mind. You're safe here with me, I promise."

I knew, of course, that he was wrong. The demons were all too real: ISIS, the drug lords and the anti-terrorist squad. Each one was a potential danger to her, but, in a way, he was also right. Perhaps the greatest danger she faced was internal. If anyone could save her from that, it was Alain.

I drew Helen across to the other side of the room, leaving the two of them alone. "We have to find a way to make him accept payment," I whispered, "so that he can remain here as long as is necessary for her to dry out."

"No, I shall need to stay to help her."

"I'm not sure that's true. Underneath all of that bluster, Alain has great compassion and the strength to see her through."

"Are you suggesting I don't?"

"Not at all. What I'm suggesting is that we would be better employed putting some of the real-life demons to rest while Alain deals with the internal ones."

"What are you two whispering about?" The belligerence had returned. I could see we were going to have our work cut out.

"We were saying how caring you are with my sister. You have a magical touch."

"Hmph! Magic doesn't come into it. Just plain common-sense."

Helen continued to stroke his ego. "Common-sense and compassion, I think. You're a very special man."

I imagine that, if he'd been a cat, he would have purred but all he could manage was another grudging 'hmph', though this one had a more conciliatory tone.

Eventually, with Alain's support, Kayla settled back into an uneasy half-sleep. He spread an extra blanket over her shivering body, tucking it in around the edges before coming back to join us.

"Do you still want me to read the letter?" Helen's question was tentative. We both expected he would demand it back and return it to the Gladstone bag.

"Read it if you like," he said, "but I can tell you all you need to know. You think demons are a modern invention? The author of that pack of lies was the greatest demon of them all."

Helen took the letter up and started reading:

 
Montmartre
13th February 1899
My dear Mademoiselle Gaudin,
I trust you will excuse the liberty I take in writing these few lines to you, hoping to find you in good health, as indeed am I, despite the chills of winter.
You will no doubt be surprised to receive a letter from one who is almost a total stranger to you, but I suspect you will pardon me for my boldness.

This is the first opportunity I have had of writing to you since you were gracious enough, on the recommendation of your sister, to sit for my esteemed friend, Monsieur Lautrec. Let me tell you, he sung your praises! He was entranced by your fine features, charming personality, and the luxuriant beauty of your golden hair. Aurora personified! Indeed, having seen the portrait for myself last evening, I hope you will not think it too forward of me to say that I, too, am now a captive to your charms.


"Captive to her charms! Pah! What the randy old bastard really means is he thinks she'll be a good fuck."

"Yes, I think we know what he means. There's no need to spell it out."

Alain glared at me, clearly not in the least bit concerned about offending Helen's sensibilities. She ignored his profanity and continued:


Not to beat about the bush, I have a proposition to put forward. As you may know, your older sister, Carmen, honours me by residing in my lodgings in Montmartre where, when not engaged as an artist's model, she takes in gentlemen's laundry. I propose, with the blessing of your guardians of course, that you consider joining her. She would, I am sure, be glad of your help and companionship, for she has mentioned on several occasions how much she misses her dear little sister, Suzanne.

"Residing in my lodgings," Alain spluttered. "The nerve of the man. A lousy garret infested with rats and cockroaches." I looked at him scathingly and nodded to Helen to carry on.

In addition, should you be desirous of it, I have the utmost confidence in being able to secure further employment for you, both with Monsieur Lautrec and others of his ilk. I should perhaps also mention that I have several good friends of quality who frequent the neighbourhood. I am in no doubt that, should you be willing, they would be eager to make your acquaintance and bestow their favours upon you.

This time I feared that Alain might have an apoplectic fit. I tried to forestall his comment by saying, "Yes, I think we all know what that means."

"A colonel? A gentleman? The man's no more than a common pimp." He spat the words out, wiping the saliva from his lips as he finished speaking.

"There's not much more to come," Helen said, "but it may be the most important part of all." She paused to make sure that she had our undivided attention.


Let me conclude by saying I have persuaded my friend, Toulouse, to part with your portrait for a small consideration. In anticipation of your favourable response, I should like to make you a gift of it. Why, I ask myself, would I require the imitation of your beauty when blessed with the daily reality of it in the flesh, as 'twere?

I am, Mademoiselle, Your Humble Servant,
Neville Arnoux
Lieutenant Colonel


"What's so damned important about that?"

"That, my dear fellow, will be the first and most critical step in due diligence."

"Due what?"

"In order to sell the painting, an auction house has to establish its rightful owner. This proves that your grandmother was given the painting. In the absence of any contrary proof, it is reasonable to assume that it has passed down through the family to you and your sister."

"Yes, but he never gave it to her. He conned my grandmother into a life of sin and squalor. He promised her the world and gave her syphilis. But that was later, after he had fathered her child."

"You mean your mother?" Helen gasped. "Are you saying that Neville Arnoux was Estelle's father?"

"No, I'm saying that he was the devil incarnate. A monster. Years later, he set her up in a blue light brothel on the Western Front, one of those posh ones for officers only. One night he barged in with a group of drunken friends, pinned her down and raped her for their amusement. The bastard wasn't even wearing une capote Anglaise." When he saw my puzzled expression, he added, " ... what you English call
a French letter. My mother was conceived in the trenches in front of a cheering audience of officers and gentlemen. You call that man my grandfather? I don't think so."

"Nonetheless," I said, changing the subject, "he gave her the painting. No matter what he might or might not have done later, this proves it was hers. It also establishes the provenance of the work."

"What does that mean?"

"It means it is worth a small fortune."

We sat watching as Alain processed the information. His eyes narrowed. "But you would need to take the letter. How can I trust you?"

Without thinking, I said, "I give you my word as an officer and a gentleman."

Alain looked at me in amazement and then he started laughing. He laughed until the tears ran down his cheeks. He laughed until his sides ached. "Oh my, that's a good one! You toffs are all the same, aren't you? Do you think I was born yesterday?"

Helen reached over and passed him a tissue. "Would you trust me then?"

He wiped his eyes and blew his nose, making a noise like a foghorn. "Yes, my dear, I will trust the letter to you."

"In that case, I shall have to give you a small deposit against the final sale. An act of good faith. Would a thousand euros be acceptable?"

A vacuous grin spread across Alain's face as she added, rather unnecessarily in my opinion, "In my country, we seal such deals with a kiss."

Author Notes List of characters

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Group Captain Bamforth (alias Sir David Brockenhurst) - an intelligence officer with MI6 and Air Attache in Paris
Helen Culverson - Also a travel writer, whose relationship with Charles is complicated by her relationship with Jeanne Durand.
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok and has surfaced again in Paris.
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor and undercover agent with the French Drug Squad.
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman (now deceased)
Ian 'Bisto' Kidman - an ex-RAF friend of Charles's.
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Andre (aka Scaramouche) - an actor in Montmartre and friend of Kayla's
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Francoise Gaudin - Alain's intellectually disabled sister.
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.
Gaston Arnoux - Owner of an art gallery in Paris, recently assassinated by Charles. Asserted to be leader of an ISIS network


Chapter 75
Caliban

By tfawcus

Last paragraphs of Chapter 74...

Helen reached over and passed him a tissue. "Would you trust me then?"

He wiped his eyes and blew his nose, making a noise like a foghorn. "Yes, I will trust the letter to you."

"In that case, I shall have to give you a small deposit against the final sale. An act of good faith. Would a thousand euros be acceptable?"

A vacuous grin spread across Alain's face as she added, rather unnecessarily in my opinion, "In my country, we seal such deals with a kiss."

Chapter 75

It wasn't until much later that I understood what an act of betrayal that kiss represented. It was a lingering kiss followed by honeyed words. "You're a sweet man, Alain, to look after my sister, and I shall be forever in your debt."

The lascivious way in which he looked at Helen reminded me of Shakespeare's Caliban, an earthbound brute full of lust and loathing, but she appeared not to notice how he leered and fawned as she continued, "I shan't forget the trust you have shown in letting me borrow this letter of yours."

She took his hand and looked into his eyes. "There is just one more thing that needs to be done if I'm to act on your behalf to sell the painting. I shall need you to sign a letter authorising me as your agent. Are you willing to do that?"

I watched, fascinated, as he nodded. At that moment, I think he would have done anything for her. Whilst she drafted the letter, I slipped downstairs, hoping the concierge might be prepared to witness the signatures. When I knocked on his door, I was confronted by a balding man wearing half-rimmed glasses and a defeated air. He was more than willing to oblige. It was probably the most exciting thing he'd been asked to do all week.

Obtaining Alain's signature was a mere formality, but he paused as he passed the letter back to Helen. "This is between you and me. You understand? That man ..." he spat the words out at me, "has no part in our arrangement."

I had the feeling that he did this more to spite me than to please her. He seemed to take pleasure in driving a wedge between the two of us. I didn't like it. I didn't like it at all, but there was nothing I could do. We needed the letter and his authority to act. Was it jealousy making my gorge rise, or was it fear that Helen would end up double-crossing both of us? I wasn't sure.

I offered Alain my hand. "If that's the way you feel, I am sorry. I mean you no harm." The look he gave me made it clear that there was no chance of rapprochement. Harmonious relations between the two of us were out of the question.

Turning to Helen, I said, "If you'll excuse me, I have to leave now. I have an urgent appointment." My tone was cold. I wanted to give him the impression that he had achieved his aim and caused a rift between us. "I'm sure that Alain will look after Kayla well, both because of his regard for her and - because of his regard for you."

With that, I left. I knew she would soon follow, so I strode up the hill towards Claude Charpentier Square, turned sharp right, and headed for Le Déli's Café. The table I chose, under the shade of the red awning, commanded a clear view back to the square and down the street leading to Sacré-Cœur and the funicular railway. I ordered a coffee and waited.

After ten minutes, I grew restless. After twenty minutes, anxious. I tried phoning, but her mobile either had a flat battery or she had switched it off. Surely, I couldn't have missed her? Perhaps it had been unwise to leave her with Alain in his present mood. Something was wrong. I drained my cup and pushed my chair back, almost hitting a Pekinese lying at the feet of her mistress.

"Look out, you great oaf! You almost squashed Mou-Mou."

"I'm so sorry, Madame. Please forgive me." If I'd been wearing a hat, I would have raised it.

She glowered with indignation and Mou-Mou strained at the leash, snarling, clearly intent on revenge. I retreated, heading back towards the square. The street was full of tourists browsing around bric-a-brac displays, clucking and clicking, poring over maps and pointing uncertainly, one way, then the other. I scanned every face, in the vain hope of finding Helen amongst them, but she was nowhere to be seen. What a fool I'd been.

I quickened my pace as I turned into Rue Cortot but, barely fifty yards from the door with the dragon knocker, I ducked sideways, melting in behind a group of tourists coming out of the Museé de Montmartre. I had spotted the now familiar figure of the MI6 stooge loitering alongside a grey Citroen, hands cupped over a match as he lit a cigarette. Clearly, the embassy was still keeping an eye on Kayla. This man was working overtime. The least they could do was to give him a decent car. The 2CV was almost a museum piece.

I was puzzled, for I was sure he hadn't been there when I left the apartment. There was nowhere to hide on this narrow lane, nor did he show any sign of wanting to. It was as if he wished the occupants of the apartment to know he was there.

I shrank back into the doorway of the museum, where I could still observe while scanning leaflets promoting the latest exhibition. Before long, Helen emerged, crossed over, and climbed into the 2CV. The embassy stooge ground his cigarette into the pavement and, after looking up and down the street, got in beside her and they drove off.

Had she summoned him? If so, her phone was working, and I could only conclude that she had been ignoring my calls. I was turning this over in my mind while I retraced my steps. As I passed Le Déli's, I noted with relief that the lady with the Pekinese was no longer there.

As always, the view from the balustrade in front of
Sacré-Cœur was stunning, with the late afternoon sun bathing the city in a soft glow. It reflected off the glass domes of the Grand Palais and bronzed the metallic framework of the Eiffel Tower. The Seine flowed through the landscape like a silver thread. I paused to savour the magic, wondering if I would ever experience it again.

As I rode down the funicular, I recalled my conversation with Madame Durand following the unfortunate incident with the gun in Helen's apartment. She had been at pains to point out the close alignment between her work with the Paris Drug Squad and Bamforth's operations against ISIS. Perhaps Helen was on her way to see Madame Durand. That seemed a more logical conclusion.

A few hundred yards before reaching my lodgings in Rue Gabrielle, my ruminations were interrupted by the ringtone on my mobile phone. It was the Air Attaché, Group Captain David Bamforth.

"Hello? Is that you, Brandon? Something's come up. I need you to report to the embassy right away."

Author Notes List of characters

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Group Captain Bamforth (alias Sir David Brockenhurst) - an intelligence officer with MI6 and Air Attache in Paris
Helen Culverson - Also a travel writer, whose relationship with Charles is complicated by her relationship with Jeanne Durand.
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok and has surfaced again in Paris.
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor and undercover agent with the French Drug Squad.
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman (now deceased)
Ian 'Bisto' Kidman - an ex-RAF friend of Charles's.
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Andre (aka Scaramouche) - an actor in Montmartre and friend of Kayla's
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Francoise Gaudin - Alain's intellectually disabled sister.
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.
Gaston Arnoux - Owner of an art gallery in Paris, recently assassinated by Charles. Asserted to be leader of an ISIS network


Chapter 76
A Matter of Chivalry

By tfawcus

The closing paragraphs of Chapter 75...

A few hundred yards before reaching my lodgings in Rue Gabrielle, my ruminations were interrupted by the ringtone on my mobile phone. It was the Air Attaché, Group Captain David Bamforth.

"Hello? Is that you, Brandon? Something's come up. I need you to report to the embassy immediately."

Chapter 76

Unsurprised at the summons, though irritated by its peremptory tone, I found it hard to decide which version of the man I detested more: the foppish persona of Sir David Brockenhurst who had inveigled me into the half-world of MI6, or the authoritarian spymaster he turned out to be. Nonetheless, I was anxious to discover why Helen had been whisked away from her sister's apartment, and a visit to the British Embassy seemed the surest way of finding out.

It was dark when I arrived, except for the streetlamps, which cast grotesque tree shadows against the building façade. A gust of wind carried the muted sounds of traffic up from the Place de la Concorde and sent flurries of autumn leaves swirling around my feet.

I rang the night bell and waited. Moments passed. Aware of suspicious glances from security guards, I imagined being bundled off to the darkest dungeons of the Bastille or, at the very least, incarcerated in the infamous Clairvaux Prison. I shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other, waiting for the door to open.

It was Bamforth himself who let me in. He greeted me curtly, with an air of impatience. "Follow me. The others are already here."

We set off down some stairs into the entrails of the building. This meeting was clearly not taking place, as the last one had, in his elegant offices on the upper floor. I wondered who the others were and why the sudden urgency of his summons. He ushered me into a dimly lit briefing room. I could see several figures seated around a table, talking in low tones and poring over a map. It seemed that the meeting had already been going on for some time. There was an expectant hush as we entered.

"Gentlemen, this is Charles Brandon." His words were met with a few nods of greeting but no reciprocal introductions. "You ladies, of course, already know him."

My eyes were drawn to the far end, where Helen was sitting between Madame Durand and a distinguished-looking man with aquiline features. She cast me a helpless look that did much to explain her sudden departure from the house in Montmartre. I had an uncanny feeling I had seen the man before but could not, for the moment, place him.

Bamforth took his seat at the head of the table and called the meeting to order. I hesitated, unsure where to go. He indicated an empty chair halfway down on the left, next to a young man with a fresh complexion and an unruly mop of sandy hair. Easing to one side, he gave me room to squeeze in, half rising to extend a hand of welcome as he did so.

"As most of you know, we have been closing on our quarry for some weeks, and now have good reason to believe he has gone to ground in the Kalash Valley, as we anticipated he might. He was last sighted two days ago high up in the Bumburet gorge, near the Afghanistan border." Bamforth paused and looked across at Helen. "We are lucky to have a young lady with us this evening who is fluent in the local Kalasha-mun dialect. We shall be sending her in with Brandon to gather further intelligence on the ground."

"Why Brandon? Surely The Lion will be immediately suspicious of any foreigners." The speaker, a florid man of military bearing, appraised me with his penetrating eye, and I had the distinct feeling he found me wanting.

"Charles Brandon has an international reputation as a travel and food writer." Bamforth glanced between the two of us with a knowing smile. "A harmless looking fellow, don't you think? I doubt The Lion will spare him a second thought."

I bridled at the description, though secretly acknowledging he was right. The realisation gave me some comfort.

"Who is this ‘lion’, anyway?" I asked.

"Abdul Jaleel Zemar. He coordinates an international network of ISIS cells, each one a time bomb waiting to explode. His followers simply call him Zemar - The Lion
- possibly one of the most dangerous men in the world today." Bamforth's gaze shifted to the man seated beside Helen. "Wouldn't you agree, Gaston?" The man with the aquiline nose inclined his head.

"Gaston, as most of you know, has been acting as a double agent here in Paris, heading one of Zemar's groups and coordinating two others in Southern France. He's been providing us with invaluable intelligence until quite recently. Unfortunately, The Lion got wind of it and -" At this point, the Air Attaché paused and looked directly at me, "we had to take somewhat extreme steps to protect him."

I felt a tight knot in my stomach. Whether it was of outrage or relief was hard to tell. I now realised that my last meeting with the man had been in the half-light, a mere glimpse in a doorway. I looked at him again, more closely. "Gaston Arnoux?"

"A harmless deception, don't you think? But effective."

"Do you mean to say..."

"Zemar has no reason to pursue a dead man. For the moment, at least, Arnoux is safe."

"But..."

"You didn't really believe that we would murder a man in cold blood, did you, Charles? Just to bring you on board? Really, old man, we are more civilised than that."

I subsided, deflated. So, the bombing of Arnoux's gallery had merely been a ruse to make him disappear. I didn't know whether to laugh or to cry.

"You are, of course, free to go. There is no compulsion. However, we are reluctant to send Helen in without backup, and she is determined to do her bit to help remove this verminous man from the face of the earth and destroy his network."

All faces were now turned to me. Whether from a desire to serve my country, or (and this was more likely) from a misplaced sense of chivalry, I said, with an evenness of tone that belied my racing heart, "You can count on me, gentlemen."

As people pushed their chairs back and started to disperse, I was aware of a familiar scent wafting behind me and a soft, teasing whisper, "I'm rather hoping that I can, too, darling."

Author Notes Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Group Captain Bamforth (alias Sir David Brockenhurst) - an intelligence officer with MI6 and Air Attache in Paris
Helen Culverson - Also a travel writer, whose relationship with Charles is complicated by her relationship with Jeanne Durand.
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok and has surfaced again in Paris.
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor and undercover agent with the French Drug Squad.
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman (now deceased)
Ian 'Bisto' Kidman - an ex-RAF friend of Charles's.
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Andre (aka Scaramouche) - an actor in Montmartre and friend of Kayla's
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Francoise Gaudin - Alain's intellectually disabled sister.
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.
Gaston Arnoux - Owner of an art gallery in Paris. Asserted to be leader of an ISIS network in France
Abdul Jaleel Zemar (The Lion) - Coordinator of an international network of ISIS cells


Chapter 77
The Snow Leopard

By tfawcus

Closing paragraphs of Chapter 76...

All faces were now turned towards me. Whether from a desire to serve my country, or (and this was more likely) from a misplaced sense of chivalry, I said, with an evenness of tone that belied my racing heart, "You can count on me, gentlemen."

As people pushed their chairs back and started to disperse, I was aware of a familiar scent wafting behind me and a soft, teasing whisper, "I rather hope that I can, too, darling."

Chapter 77

The twinkle in her eye suggested that the next few weeks of my life were going to be lively. As I searched for a suitable response, a third figure joined us.

"Bonsoir, Monsieur Brandon. Things are not always as they seem, n'est-ce pas?" A dangerous smile played around Arnoux's lips as he continued, "It is easy to steal from a dead man but inconvenient when he comes back to life. Is that not so?"

"Just what are you accusing Charles of?" Helen's indignant tone made no impression on the man. He stared at her coldly before his features relaxed.

"I am accusing him of being a fool, mademoiselle. The painting he stole from my gallery cannot be sold, for it is mine. As soon as it turns up in an auction house, I shall reclaim it." He addressed his words exclusively to her, as if I were no longer there. "It would be better for him to return it now, of course, while only the three of us are aware that he is a common thief."

Extending finely manicured fingers, he took her hand with old world formality and pressed it to his lips, bowing slightly at the waist as he did so. "Enchanted to meet you, my dear." The ghost of his threat remained hovering in the air as he departed.

It took Bamforth's bluster to blow it aside. He was full of bonhomie as he approached us. "Jolly good show there, Charles. Well said! Well said, indeed! We'll make a hero of you yet."

He beckoned the sandy-haired young man across. "I'll leave it to Parsons to fill you in on the details. I believe he has you scheduled on a flight out tomorrow evening. I'm afraid I can't stop now; I have an appointment with the Ambassador. Good luck to both of you, although I'm sure you won't need it. Everything has been most thoroughly planned, hasn't it, David?"

"Of course, sir. Nothing foreseeable has been left to chance."

It is curious the way a single word can leap out of a sentence. It struck me that nothing that happened after we reached Chitral was foreseeable at this stage. Helen and I would be on our own.

Parsons had an open face and a charming manner, but God, how I wished he didn't have freckles. They made him look so naïve. He shook Helen's hand warmly and pumped mine up and down with such vigour that I felt in danger of losing my arm.

"Such a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Brandon. Only the other day, I was reading your article on French cheeses in the Good Food Guide. I've only been here a week, you know. So much to learn, isn't there?"

"To brie, or not to brie," I murmured. Helen dug me in the ribs sharply, one of her more irritating habits.

"Oh, marvellous," he chortled. "I must remember that. Genevieve will think it a hoot." Poor Genevieve. I hoped, for her sake, he might delay the retelling until spring. Love is much more forgiving when the sap is rising.

"Follow me," he said. "This shouldn't take long." He led the way to a small office at the end of the corridor, where we spent the next hour going over timetables and schedules, poring over maps, being issued with tickets, being given addresses of emergency contacts and receiving a thorough briefing about Abdul Jaleel Zemar, his habits and his weaknesses. That part was of particular interest. I was glad to hear the man had weaknesses, even if they only amounted to an over-inflated ego and an ambivalent relationship with his second-in-command. Parsons was nothing if not thorough. I began to revise my opinion of him.

We left the embassy with our heads spinning and hailed one taxi after another without success. I started to shiver, partly in defence against the freshening wind and partly a symptom of delayed shock at the enormity of our undertaking. The balmy breezes of a Paris street would be as nothing compared with the freezing temperatures and biting winds of the Hindu Kush.

We ducked into a nearby café for a mug of hot chocolate to stop my teeth from chattering. There were many things I wanted to talk through with Helen but now that we were together in the warmth, I found my resolve melting away. She sat opposite me, her elbows on the table and her hands forming a steeple, around which she peeped coyly with a mischievous look. The electricity between us set the base of my spine tingling. Why spoil the evening? Why look back?

"Well? What shall we do with our last night in Paris?"

"It may sound touristy, but I'd like to go on a romantic river cruise with my favourite man. One last look at all the famous landmarks: Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, the Musée d'Orsay, the Louvre..."

"And then?"

"We shall see." She drew her long, vermillion nails lightly across my cheek. "It depends on how brave you are. I am of the Kalash, where snow leopards roam wild and free." Her eyes sparkled as she curled her lip and growled.

Author Notes List of Characters

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Group Captain Bamforth (alias Sir David Brockenhurst) - an intelligence officer with MI6 and Air Attache in Paris
Helen Culverson - Also a travel writer, whose relationship with Charles is complicated by her relationship with Jeanne Durand.
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok and has surfaced again in Paris.
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor and undercover agent with the French Drug Squad.
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman (now deceased)
Ian 'Bisto' Kidman - an ex-RAF friend of Charles's.
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Andre (aka Scaramouche) - an actor in Montmartre and friend of Kayla's
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Francoise Gaudin - Alain's intellectually disabled sister.
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.
Gaston Arnoux - Owner of an art gallery in Paris. Asserted to be leader of an ISIS network in France
Abdul Jaleel Zemar (The Lion) - Coordinator of an international network of ISIS cells


Chapter 78
Up, Up and Away

By tfawcus

Closing paragraphs of Chapter 77...

"It may sound touristy, but I'd like to go on a romantic river cruise with my favourite man. One last look at all the famous landmarks: Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, the Musée d'Orsay, the Louvre..."

"And then?"

"We shall see." She drew her long, vermillion nails lightly across my cheek. "It depends on how brave you are. I am of the Kalash, where snow leopards roam wild and free." Her eyes sparkled as she curled her lip and growled.

Chapter 78

Next morning, I woke to the gradual realisation that the thump in the back of my head had translated into a persistent tapping on the door. Helen rolled over and gave me a playful nudge.

"Be a dear and see who that is at this ungodly hour."

I groaned and buried my head in the pillow. This time the nudge was more forceful.

"Oh, all right, then." I swung my legs over the side of the bed and staggered to my feet, grabbing a towel to wrap around my waist.

"Wait a minute. Just coming." Opening the door a few inches, without releasing the safety chain, I peered out. "Who is it?"

"Monsieur Charles? Is that really you? What a surprise. May I come in?"

"Madame Bisset? Of course. Just a moment." I slid the catch and called out, "Shake a leg, Helen! It's Madeleine, your landlady."

As the door swung open, I felt my towel slipping and clutched it around my waist with one hand, hastily turning away to readjust it.

Madam Bisset chuckled. She shuffled in, closely followed by Serafina who leapt across her pink slippers and started rubbing against her leg. Eyeing the scratches across my shoulder blade, she exclaimed. "Ooh, la, la! I see you, too, have a feline companion, monsieur."

I blushed, muttering excuses, and almost knocked Helen over as I beat a retreat.

"You really must stop that man of yours from flaunting his gorgeous body. At my age, it's not good for the heart."

"Nonsense, Madeleine. You know you enjoy every minute of it."

I glanced through the bedroom door to see her handing Helen a bag of croissants. "I heard you come in last night and thought you might like these for your breakfast."

Helen kissed her on both cheeks, taking care to avoid her rollers. "Come and sit down. I'll put some coffee on."

I emerged from the bedroom, buttoning my shirt and tucking it into my trousers as I drew up a chair beside her. Serafina leapt across, landing in my lap. She settled, purring as she kneaded my leg with her sharp claws.

Helen ran her fingernails across the back of my neck as she came to join us. "Two-timer!" she said, clearing away the remnants of the previous night's wassail and replacing them with a wicker basket lined with a red-and-white check cloth, and piled with warm croissants.

The sun streamed through the window as we sipped strong black coffee and told Madeleine of our travel plans. Skipping over the details, we said we would be working together on a travel story. Helen assured her we'd be away less than a month.

"You will be coming back, then?" She nodded in my direction. "I suppose your gentleman friend will be moving in, will he? It's high time he made an honest woman of you."

Before Helen had time to answer, I said I'd be grateful if she'd allow me to leave a few things in the flat whilst we were away. There was, after all, little point in renewing my lease at Rue Gabrielle.

Helen fired a warning shot across my bows. "Jumping the gun a bit, aren't we?"

"Well, if you don't want him, my dear, I'll take him." Madeleine puckered her lips and blew me a kiss. "Of course you can, lover boy. Any time."

I ignored the innuendo and went on to explain about Bisto, how I'd given him her address, and told him I'd leave her an envelope with a key, in case he needed it. I gave her a photograph.

"He looks like a nice boy," she purred. "A real gentleman."

As soon as Madame Bisset left, Helen and I began to go over the arrangements we still had to make. We decided to separate, then meet up again, either here at the apartment or at the airport two or three hours before our flight.

I needed to go to the Banque Nationale to deposit Alain's authorisation for us to act as his selling agent, together with the original letter from his grandfather establishing provenance. Helen and I agreed that the two should be kept together with his painting. Despite Gaston Arnoux's warning, we still thought we might be able to sell it for Alain, though God alone knows why I would bother, after the way he treated me. Nonetheless, it was his by right, and that was an end to the matter, or so I thought.

After that, I intended to return to Rue Gabrielle, pack my few possessions, give rent in lieu of notice, and take everything across to Helen's apartment for safekeeping by the redoubtable Madeleine Bisset.

Meanwhile, Helen wanted to see Kayla one last time before we departed. She needed to make sure Alain was holding to his end of the bargain and keeping her sister safe. Before she left, I gave her the thousand euros she had promised Alain as a down payment against the sale of the painting. What she omitted to tell me was that she also planned to meet with Jeanne, to make arrangements that would have unimaginable consequences for us both. Madame Durand had no intention of fading from our lives.

As it turned out, Helen returned to her apartment as I was handing over the deposit box key to Madeleine. My belongings were neatly stacked in a corner of the living room and my travel bags packed and ready to go. Although I had no need of it, and its validity had been annulled by the embassy, I had pocketed my diplomatic passport in addition to the regular one. It was a decision I would live to regret.

The light was fading by the time we reached Charles de Gaulle airport. Before entering the main concourse, we turned towards the western sky. The last remnants of a hellish inferno were being extinguished by the rising gloom. We remained silent as we drew closer to one another. I felt a slight shiver.

The flight to Lahore was scheduled to depart at 8.30 p.m. and, after checking our bags and going through the rigmarole of security, we headed for the bar. It was going to be a long night, and I knew that Pakistan Airlines didn't serve alcohol. I was in the process of ordering two stiff drinks when there was a tap on my shoulder. It was David Bamforth.

Author Notes List of Characters

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Group Captain Bamforth (alias Sir David Brockenhurst) - an intelligence officer with MI6 and Air Attache in Paris
Helen Culverson - Also a travel writer, whose relationship with Charles is complicated by her relationship with Jeanne Durand.
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok and has surfaced again in Paris.
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor and undercover agent with the French Drug Squad.
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman (now deceased)
Ian 'Bisto' Kidman - an ex-RAF friend of Charles's.
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Andre (aka Scaramouche) - an actor in Montmartre and friend of Kayla's
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Francoise Gaudin - Alain's intellectually disabled sister.
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Gaston Arnoux - Owner of an art gallery in Paris. A double agent, who has infiltrated the ISIS network in France
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - Gaston's grandfather. Author of the infamous letter of 1903.
Abdul Jaleel Zemar (The Lion) - Coordinator of an international network of ISIS cells


Chapter 79
A Bumpy Ride

By tfawcus

The closing pargraph of Chapter 78...

The flight to Lahore was scheduled to depart at 8.30 p.m. and, after checking our bags and going through the rigmarole of security, we headed for the bar. It was going to be a long night and I knew that Pakistan Airlines didn't serve alcohol. I was in the process of ordering two stiff drinks when there was a tap on my shoulder. It was David Bamforth.

Chapter 79

"Last of those you'll be enjoying for a while. Let me get them in for you." He signalled the barman. "You'd better make that three."

I eyed him with suspicion. "What brings you here, Bamforth? Checking we haven't chickened out, I suppose?"

"Not at all. Just a friendly farewell." With a sphinx-like smile, he raised his glass and tapped it against ours. "Bon voyage, my friends."

I knew there was more to it than that and waited for him to continue. He swirled the ice around with his finger and took a leisurely sip. "Abdul Jaleel is a dangerous man. He wouldn't hesitate to execute you both and make the occasion an international propaganda spectacle. We wouldn't want that to happen, would we?"

"You're damned right we wouldn't." I looked across at Helen. There was a determined set to her jaw that I had not seen before. It occurred to me that we were talking of the man who had arranged the cold-blooded murder of both her parents. She knew exactly what he was capable of.

"It's essential that you keep well clear of him and do nothing that could raise his suspicions." Bamforth steered us to a table in the corner, away from flapping ears. He glanced around before continuing, "We have infiltrated his inner circle and created a unique opportunity to cripple his network. The problem for our mole, however, is getting the information to us without alerting him. That's where you come in."

"How will we contact him?"

"You won't. He'll contact you. The procedure is simple. He will call out 'Infidels!', spit in your direction, and hurl a pear at you, at the same time shouting, 'Allahu Akbar!'"

"A pear?"

"Yes, they are in season at the moment. It will contain a small plastic vial. A convenient size to swallow."

"Why weren't we told all this by Parsons?"

"Simply because no one at the Paris embassy is aware of his existence. Least of all Parsons. Strictly need-to-know, old chap." He tapped his nose a couple of times with his forefinger.

I hated the way he overdramatised things. What a buffoon, I thought, as I drained my glass. "Come on, Helen. We should be heading for the boarding gate. Thanks for the drink, David. You don't mind me calling you David, do you?"

It was clear from his expression that he did mind, nonetheless, he let it pass. "There is one other thing I should stress, Charles. The GPS trackers you've been given should only be used in a situation of dire emergency. If we can pick up the signal, so can The Lion."

He shook my hand and gave Helen a quick peck on either cheek. "Good luck, and remember ..."

"Yes, David, I know. England expects every man to do his duty."

Bamforth's expression froze, and Helen giggled as he turned on his heel and left. "It's a good thing I'm not a man, isn't it?" she whispered.

"You can say that again."

She prodded me in the ribs. That annoying habit of hers. It was going to be a long flight, all night in fact, so I hid my irritation and gave her a friendly slap on the bottom.

"Ow! That hurt."

"Sorry."

Not long afterwards, we embarked. My nerves were on edge at the prospect of the forthcoming adventure, though all feeling of excitement drained away during a half-hour delay, lined up on the taxiway, waiting for take-off. The sort of occasion when a drink might have come in handy.

When we finally got airborne, I switched the in-flight entertainment system on. It didn't work. The evening meal, on the other hand, was excellent. Chicken biryani. However, an hour later, when the clear air turbulence set in, I found it hadn't been such a wonderful choice after all.

"You don't look well, darling."

"I'm not."

Eventually, I drifted into a half-sleep with Helen's head resting on my shoulder. Subconscious images meandered through my mind: images of capture and of torture, of ice and of snow, of mocking faerie figures astride mountain goats, goading me to the edge of bottomless chasms, their screeches blending with the howl of the mountain winds. Tossing and groaning, I twisted around in my seat. Helen poked me in the ribs - again.

"Are you all right?"

"No."

I turned to face the window and pulled a rug up around my neck. Giving myself up to the monotonous drone of the engines, I became mesmerised by the flashing of the anti-collision light on the tip of the wing, my forehead pressed against the cold window. Focusing my gaze on the horizon, I attempted to quell the waves of nausea.

After a while, I turned to find the seat next to me empty. Helen was standing by the galley, deep in conversation with one of the hostesses. She glanced in my direction, whispered something in the ear of her confidante, and came back, carrying a paper cup of black coffee.

"Less than an hour to go," she said, as she stretched across with a friendly smile to hand it to me. The aircraft gave a sudden lurch as it encountered an air pocket. Had it not been for my seatbelt, I would have hit the ceiling. A warm, dark stain spread around my crotch.

"Oh, dear," she said, clutching the back of the seat to steady herself. "I'm so sorry." Then she burst into an uncontrollable fit of laughter. Some people have the strangest sense of humour.

*****

We approached Lahore shortly after dawn. The rising sun cast a salmon glow over the mountains. Awestruck by their majestic beauty, I tapped Helen on the shoulder and pointed out of the window.

"Look," she said, indicating a jagged peak in the distance. "Tirich Mir." My mind was drawn back to Bisto's grandfather, levelling his Snider-Enfield at the markhor. I could hear the hollow boom of the shot echoing around the mountains, smell the acrid puff of smoke as the gun discharged, and feel the ringing in my ears. Great spurts of blood stained the snow as the beast lowered its horns and staggered towards the ill-fated hunter, crumpling at his feet.

The vision still lingered in my mind as the aircraft hit the runway with a squeal of tortured rubber and bounced before coming down again. I joined a handful of fellow passengers in applauding the second landing. Moments later, we were thrown forward in our seatbelts as the captain yanked all four engines into reverse. We had arrived.

Author Notes List of Characters

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Group Captain Bamforth (alias Sir David Brockenhurst) - an intelligence officer with MI6 and Air Attache in Paris
Helen Culverson - Also a travel writer, whose relationship with Charles is complicated by her relationship with Jeanne Durand.
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok and has surfaced again in Paris.
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor and undercover agent with the French Drug Squad.
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman (now deceased)
Ian 'Bisto' Kidman - an ex-RAF friend of Charles's.
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Andre (aka Scaramouche) - an actor in Montmartre and friend of Kayla's
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Francoise Gaudin - Alain's intellectually disabled sister.
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Gaston Arnoux - Owner of an art gallery in Paris. A double agent, who has infiltrated the ISIS network in France
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - Gaston's grandfather. Author of the infamous letter of 1903.
Abdul Jaleel Zemar (The Lion) - Coordinator of an international network of ISIS cells


Chapter 80
Lahore

By tfawcus

Last paragraph of Chapter 79...

The vision still lingered in my mind as the aircraft hit the runway with a squeal of tortured rubber and bounced before coming down again. I joined a handful of fellow passengers in applauding the second landing. Moments later, we were thrown forward in our seatbelts as the captain yanked all four engines into reverse. We had arrived.

Chapter 80

"What is the purpose of your visit?" The immigration official looked up from my passport and visa. His face was impassive.

"My wife and I are on a working holiday. Doing research for a travel article." I beamed at him and added, "Hopefully, it will bring more tourists to your beautiful country."

"I see - and where will you be spending most of your time?"

"In Chitral and the Kalash Valley."

He flipped through the pages of Helen's passport. "You say that this lady is your wife?"

"Yes, Miss Culverson and I were recently married. The trip doubles as a honeymoon."

He glanced at the empty third finger of her left hand. "Perhaps you have a marriage certificate with you?"

"Is it necessary?"

"No - but advisable. Excuse me a moment."

He scooped up our passports, together with my visa, and took them away to an office behind the counter. I could see him discussing the matter with a colleague and pointing in our direction.

Helen gripped my hand. "Oh, God," she said. "I hope there's not a problem."

"Why? Should there be?"

"Kayla and I fled the country after our parents' murder." Moving her lips close to my ear, she lowered her voice to a whisper. "She withdrew money from our father's account to pay our fares and to see us through our first few weeks in Bangkok. That's illegal, isn't it? I mean, after his death?"

"Yes - probably - but what she did shouldn't affect you. At least, I don't think so."

After a short eternity, the senior official returned with our travel documents. "Welcome home, Miss Culverson - or should I say 'Mrs. Brandon'?" He handed her passport back with an enigmatic smile and turned to me. "Congratulations, Mr. Brandon, it seems you have stolen one of our jewels. I hope you enjoy your stay and write nice things about us." He paused. "But a word of advice, if I may..."

"Yes, of course."

"We are easy-going people here in Lahore, but you may find things different as you travel north, towards the Afghan border. It would be wise for Mrs. Brandon to wear her wedding ring and, pardon me for mentioning it - more culturally appropriate clothing. A salwar kameez, perhaps."

"Thank you. I'll bear that in mind. The last thing we'd want to do is offend anyone." I offered him my hand. Perhaps it was as well he didn't take it. My palms were drenched in sweat. We passed through the barrier with a sigh of relief and made our way towards the baggage carousels.

"What the heck's a salwar kameez when it's at home?"

"It's a kind of trouser suit. Like that woman's wearing."

"Sexy. Mind you, I'm not sure about you wearing the pants so soon after our marriage."

"Marriage be damned! What happened to the down-on-bended-knee bit - and when, may I ask, do I get the golden ring?"

"How about when you start honouring and obeying me?"

"In your dreams!" I sidestepped to avoid the playful push.

After the experience of our flight, it was a miracle to find our cases sailing serenely around the carousel. Two customs officers chatting to each other over a cup of coffee waved us through without a second look and, along with several hundred other weary souls, we were ejected into the main concourse, looking like the leftovers from yesterday's dinner. We headed straight to the P.I.A. desk to enquire about the onward flight to Chitral, by way of Islamabad.

"I'm sorry, sahib. All flights to Islamabad are cancelled until further notice. There's been a terrorist incident. The airport's closed."

I cursed silently. "How long for?"

The man shrugged. "Hard to say? A day or two perhaps. It is kismet," he said, twirling the ends of his moustache. "Who am I to foretell the future?" He gazed at us from under shaggy brows, his brown eyes calm as muddy pools on a river bend.

"What other alternatives do we have?"

"You could try the train. There will be one to Islamabad tomorrow, leaving at seven o'clock."

We thanked him and went in search of a taxi. A quarter of an hour later, our cases were being loaded into the boot of a Metro Radio Cab by an enormous Sikh with a scarlet turban and gold teeth that glinted in the sun when he smiled. I was reminded of Jaws.

"My name is Rasheed, bhai sahib. At your service."

We climbed into the air-conditioned cab thankfully, for it was already 30°C and rising. Rasheed turned on the CD player, and the gravelly tones of Louis Armstrong wafted into the ether. He then adjusted the rear-view mirror so that he had a good view of us and flashed us another scintillating smile.

"You Americans like jazz, no?"

I thought it would be churlish to echo his 'no', so I returned his smile and nodded.

"Actually, I'm British."

Helen nudged me and whispered, "I'd keep quiet about that, if I were you. People here are still pretty sore about Partition."

He overheard her and laughed. "Partition was before I was born, memsaab. Not to worry about things like that."

Rasheed turned out to be a fount of knowledge. He regaled us with information about Lahore throughout the entire ten-mile journey. By the time we reached the city, he had convinced us that the Parkway Hotel would be the best place to stay, very handy to the station when you have an early train to catch.

"I'll take you there and wait while you check in, then off to Liberty Market for buying the salwar kameez. Many beautiful things to see before having leisurely lunch in rooftop restaurant. After that, Shalimar Gardens. Such a wonderful place. Not to be missed. World Heritage site and all that." He stopped to draw breath and glanced into the rear-view mirror to satisfy himself of our approval.

"That sounds lovely," Helen said. "You're a kind man, Rasheed. How much?"

"For you, memsaab, only four thousand rupees."

"Two thousand five hundred," she countered, switching to Urdu.

"Three thousand, then. Any less and you'll be stealing the bread from the mouths of my children." He looked crestfallen but immediately cheered up when we agreed.

I did a swift calculation in my head. About eighteen euros. Pretty good deal. I looked at Helen with renewed respect. "Maybe I'll be able to afford that wedding ring now."

"We could send a photo of it to Madeleine. She said it was time you made an honest woman of me."

Hmm. That'll be the day. I still wasn't sure to what extent I could trust my lovely companion.

Author Notes 30 degrees Celsius = 86 degrees Fahrenheit

'Bhai sahib' is a Punjabi and Sikh title of veneration given to a male; the word "Bhai" means "brother" and "sahib" means "Sir". It is an honorific stemming from historic times.
Memsaab or 'Memsahib', a variation of Sahib, an Arabic term, which is also a loanword in several languages. Memsaab is a title for a woman in a position of authority and/or the wife of a Sahib.


List of Characters

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Group Captain Bamforth (alias Sir David Brockenhurst) - an intelligence officer with MI6 and Air Attache in Paris
Helen Culverson - Also a travel writer, whose relationship with Charles is complicated by her relationship with Jeanne Durand.
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok and has surfaced again in Paris.
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor and undercover agent with the French Drug Squad.
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman (now deceased)
Ian 'Bisto' Kidman - an ex-RAF friend of Charles's.
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Andre (aka Scaramouche) - an actor in Montmartre and friend of Kayla's
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Francoise Gaudin - Alain's intellectually disabled sister.
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Gaston Arnoux - Owner of an art gallery in Paris. A double agent, who has infiltrated the ISIS network in France
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - Gaston's grandfather. Author of the infamous letter of 1903.
Abdul Jaleel Zemar (The Lion) - Coordinator of an international network of ISIS cells


Chapter 81
The Liberty Market

By tfawcus

Closing paragraphs of Chapter 80...

"For you, mem-sahib, only four thousand rupees."

"Two thousand five hundred," she countered, switching to Urdu.

"Three thousand, then. Any less and you'll be stealing the bread from the mouths of my children." He looked crestfallen but immediately cheered up when we agreed.

I did a swift calculation in my head. About eighteen euros. Pretty good deal. I looked at Helen with renewed respect. "Maybe I'll be able to afford that wedding ring now."

"We could send a photo of it to Madeleine. She said it was time you made an honest woman of me."

Hmm. That'll be the day. I still wasn't quite sure.

Chapter 81

Rasheed was as good as his word. We arrived at the Parkway Hotel mid-morning. Despite its austere, prison-like façade, the staff were friendly and accommodating. The two young lads behind the counter vied with each other in praise of its virtues, radiating enthusiasm and goodwill.

"Yes, sir. No problem. We have just the room for you. Very quiet. Good view. Don't you worry. We take care of your luggage while you enjoy the sights. Rasheed is very best driver. Trust him to show you our beautiful city."

I was overwhelmed by what seemed like a genuine desire to please. Already, I began to like Lahore and wished we could stay longer. It occurred to me, however, that Rasheed was probably getting a handsome kickback for bringing tourists to the Parkway, but, as station hotels go, it wasn't bad. We had no complaints.

Not long afterwards, refreshed and in clean clothes, we were on our way to the Liberty Market. Helen had changed into a loose-fitting trouser suit and was wearing a chiffon headscarf.

"Goodness! You look like Mata Hari in that get-up. A woman of mystery."

She drew the scarf up to cover the lower part of her face and fluttered her eyelashes. "I'll show you Mata Hari. You wait till you see the salwar kameez I'm going to buy."

Rasheed spent the journey extolling the shoppers' paradise as he wove his way skilfully through the gridlock of cars and auto rickshaws, leaning on his horn, mounting the pavement, and waving back cheerfully at those who shouted and swore, shaking their fists. Helen and I clutched each other and prayed as the taxi darted from lane to lane like a knight traversing a chessboard.

"Don't you worry, sahib. Nearly there now. Rasheed is very good driver. Quite safe." No sooner had he finished speaking than he wrenched the steering wheel around, narrowly avoiding an elderly woman with a live hen under her arm. There was much squawking and flapping of wings as it tried to break free, and we were thrown about in our seats in a manner reminiscent of our recent landing.

A few minutes later, we drew up outside the market. I paid Rasheed, thanked him profusely, and told him that we'd make our own way for the rest of the day. For a moment, he looked downcast, then grinning sheepishly, he handed me his card.

"Give me a call, sahib, when you change your mind. There are many scoundrels who will be trying to take advantage of you, but you can trust Rasheed to come to your rescue." I felt a bit of a heel abandoning him, but life is precious.

"I hope you didn't give him a tip," Helen said, as we joined the bustling throng.

"No," I lied, as I started to stuff my wallet into my back pocket.

"Not there, darling. Put it somewhere where you can keep a hand on it."

Just then, I felt a tug at my trouser leg. "Baksheesh, baba! Baksheesh!" A gaunt amputee sitting on a makeshift trolley looked up at me with pleading eyes.

I slipped a couple of notes from the wallet before putting it into the side pocket of my trousers. Seconds later, I was mobbed by several urchins, who pushed and jostled to get my attention. A babel of voices ensued. "Baksheesh, mister! Baksheesh! Baksheesh!"

Helen dragged me away into the main concourse. "These tourist places are full of professional beggars. Just be careful. If you want to give your money away, give it to an N.G.O. - or, better still, give it to me."

Having been suitably chided, I turned my attention to the market. My nose was assailed by the aroma of street food. Exotic spices filled the air as small balls of dough sizzled on charcoal burners.

"What are they?" I asked. "They look good."

"They're called gol gappas. Stuffed with potato and vegetables and tamarind chutney. Sometimes with chickpeas. Look, why don't you grab the table over there and order a couple, while I slip into that dress shop and try a few things on?"

I looked across the potholed laneway at an expensive shopfront displaying mannikins draped in embroidered silks. Gol gappas certainly seemed like a better alternative. Settling with my back to a wall, I surveyed the seething mass of shoppers, glad to have found a backwater. Several sparrows were busy clearing up the crumbs left by previous patrons. One, cheekier than the rest, landed on my sleeve and cocked his head. Even amongst the birds, there are beggars.

I finished my greasy gol gappas and washed them down with a refreshing mug of ginger tea. There was still no sign of Helen, so I crossed the street and poked my head into the shop. She was surrounded by garments in various styles and colours.

Hearing the bell as I opened the door, she said,
"I shan't be long. Why don't you browse around and come back in a quarter of an hour?" 

There was a jeweller nearby, and I thought I'd have time to buy a cheap wedding ring, a relatively quick procedure without female assistance. An obsequious Chinese man swept me into the shop and placed a tray of his finest rings on the counter for me to view. He lifted out the finest specimen.

"Haven't you anything cheaper?"

The avaricious look faded from his face as he brought out a fresh tray. I picked out the thinnest band I could see. "How much is this one?" He mentioned a figure that set me reeling. "You must be joking. I was thinking of something half that price."

He disappeared under the counter again and came up with a third tray. By now, he was sullen. "These ones are gold-plate. Poor quality. Not suitable for a gentleman."

I picked one at random. "This will do. How much?"

He looked offended when I offered him a lower amount. "Very sorry. Fixed price only." I wavered. "Perhaps, if you buy two, I give you a discount."

I walked out of the store with two over-priced rings and a hole in my pocket, but with the satisfaction of having beaten him down by a few hundred rupees. Helen would have been so proud of me.

When I returned to the clothing store, she was nowhere to be seen. The shopkeeper gave me a look of resigned patience. "She's in the fitting room, sahib. Trying on a salwar kameez." I sighed, then settled down to wait.

Author Notes List of Characters

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Group Captain Bamforth (alias Sir David Brockenhurst) - an intelligence officer with MI6 and Air Attache in Paris
Helen Culverson - Also a travel writer, whose relationship with Charles is complicated by her relationship with Jeanne Durand.
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok and has surfaced again in Paris.
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor and undercover agent with the French Drug Squad.
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman (now deceased)
Ian 'Bisto' Kidman - an ex-RAF friend of Charles's.
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Andre (aka Scaramouche) - an actor in Montmartre and friend of Kayla's
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Francoise Gaudin - Alain's intellectually disabled sister.
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Gaston Arnoux - Owner of an art gallery in Paris. A double agent, who has infiltrated the ISIS network in France
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - Gaston's grandfather. Author of the infamous letter of 1903.
Abdul Jaleel Zemar (The Lion) - Coordinator of an international network of ISIS cells
Pays 10 points and 1.07 member dollars (and maybe more).


Chapter 82
An Explosive Situation

By tfawcus

Closing paragraphs of Chapter 81

I walked out of the store with two over-priced rings and a hole in my pocket, but with the satisfaction of having beaten him down by a few hundred rupees. Helen would have been so proud of me.

When I returned to the clothing store, she was nowhere to be seen. The shopkeeper shrugged helplessly. "She's out the back, sahib. Trying on a salwar kameez." I sighed, then settled down to wait.

Chapter 82

While I waited, I idled away the time, browsing through a catalogue of dresses - though focusing, I confess, more on the shape of the models than their apparel.

When Helen finally emerged, the sight made me catch my breath.
A purple kameez hugged the contour of her body and was intricately embroidered in silver thread at the waist, neck, and sleeve. It left everything, and yet nothing, to the imagination. At her throat, a filigree necklace held tears of lapis lazuli like drops of dew. Her pendant earrings were of the same design. 

She swayed forward with sinuous charm, a half-smile playing around her lips. The matching dupatta draped over her arm fell gracefully like the drooping wing of an angel. It brushed against the loose-fitting salwar that swathed her legs, cuffed at the ankle to reveal exquisite khussa slippers.

"Well, what to do you think?"

"I think it is very beautiful, very beautiful indeed, but not entirely practical in present circumstances."

"It isn't bought for present circumstances."

"Then what for?"

"For my wedding."

My heart skipped a beat. This was an alarming new development. Without thinking, I slipped one of the rings in my pocket onto my finger, perhaps hoping to disappear. Alas, it was not a ring of power. At the price I'd paid, how could it have been?

I covered my confusion by saying, "Isn't it considered unlucky for the groom to see the dress before the ceremony?"

"Only if you're superstitious."

I crossed my fingers behind my back and gazed at her midriff. More to change the subject than anything else, I said, "What's that curious design on your bodice? It looks half woman and half snake."

"How observant of you. And there was I, thinking that you were just ogling my breasts. It is Shahmeran, goddess of wisdom and guardian of secrets. Do you not remember the story of Jemlia, in The Arabian Nights? The man who eats of her flesh inherits her gifts."

"Really? Hmm... You do look rather succulent. I must admit I wouldn't mind a little nibble."

Every inch the mistress of theatrics, she raised an imperious eyebrow and hitched up her dupatta. For a moment I felt as if I were in the presence of a Maharani and ought to be falling to my knees and shuffling backwards out of the door. Then, with a disdainful look, she twirled around and sashayed back to the fitting rooms with her raven tresses cascading over her shoulders and her bottom wiggling provocatively beneath the folds of silk. I was mesmerised.

After a short while, she returned with her purchases neatly boxed and her body more suitably attired for a bustling market. Her arrival coincided with a thunderous boom. The windows shook with the force of a distant explosion. Then the screaming started.

A distraught figure dashed past the shopfront, dragging a small child behind her. One old man, pushed aside in the panic, fell heavily against the glass. His look of terror was etched in my mind as he slid to the pavement. I raced outside.

"Here, let me help you."

He clutched at my sleeve as I steered him out of harm's way and into the shop. Together, we lowered him into a chair. The shopkeeper rushed over with a glass of water. Helen dipped a wad of tissues into it, and started to dab his bruised temple.

"May the blessing of Allah be upon you, child." He reached up to clasp my hand. "And on you, too, my son." A tear of gratitude fell from his rheumy eye.

Wailing ambulances and the rise and fall of police sirens soon broke the eerie silence following the explosion. The sharp footfall of soldiers rang out on the paved surface as khaki platoons surged through the fleeing crowd, shouting orders and ruthlessly brushing people aside. Roadblocks were set up. A grey pall of smoke drifted across a cloudless sky, carrying with it the acrid smell of death. The thwump, thwump of a hovering helicopter grew louder then faded away as it circled and swooped like a bird of prey.

"Come on, Helen. It's time we left."

"What about him?"

The lady who ran the shop said, "Don't worry. I'll look after him. You go." She ushered us out into the street, thrusting Helen's package into my hand.

We hadn't gone far before we saw the first roadblock. Police were checking everyone's ID and pulling people out, seemingly at random, for a full body search. These unfortunates were pushed up against a wall, with their hands raised above their heads while they suffered the indignities of intimate invasion. Female officers were equally thorough with the women.

I nudged Helen. "It might be wise to wear these," I said, handing her one of the rings.

"Wow! That must be the most romantic proposal a girl has ever had. How did you know what size to get?"

"I didn't. I got the jeweller to cut a bit out of the back so that you could adjust it."

"Clever."

"I know."

The police glanced at our passports and waved us through without comment. They obviously weren't in the business of identifying
couples living in sin, let alone top-class international spies working for MI6. They had more important things on their minds.

Fifty yards further on, a car pulled up alongside us. The passenger window opened, and a familiar voice called out, "Greetings, bhai sahib! Rasheed here, at your service. Take esteemed visitors back to Parkway Hotel? Lahore very dangerous place today."

We climbed in with relief and sank back into the seats. Had he really waited for us on the off-chance? Clearly, he was a man who didn't give up easily.

"Rasheed like bad penny. Keeps turning up." He flashed his gold-capped teeth and, with his foot to the floorboards, set off like a greyhound out of its trap. "Not to worry, sahib. Rasheed very best driver in Lahore. Have you home in no time."

"Insha'Allah," Helen muttered.

"What?"

"God willing."

I saw Rasheed looking in the rear-view mirror, and I turned round. There was a black saloon car following us, and it was catching up.

Author Notes List of Characters

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Group Captain Bamforth (alias Sir David Brockenhurst) - an intelligence officer with MI6 and Air Attache in Paris
Helen Culverson - Also a travel writer, whose relationship with Charles is complicated by her relationship with Jeanne Durand.
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok and has surfaced again in Paris.
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor and undercover agent with the French Drug Squad.
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman (now deceased)
Ian 'Bisto' Kidman - an ex-RAF friend of Charles's.
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Andre (aka Scaramouche) - an actor in Montmartre and friend of Kayla's
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Francoise Gaudin - Alain's intellectually disabled sister.
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Gaston Arnoux - Owner of an art gallery in Paris. A double agent, who has infiltrated the ISIS network in France
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - Gaston's grandfather. Author of the infamous letter of 1903.
Abdul Jaleel Zemar (The Lion) - Coordinator of an international network of ISIS cells


Chapter 83
Rasheed

By tfawcus

Closing paragraphs of Chapter 82...

"Rasheed like bad penny. Keeps turning up." He flashed us his golden smile and, with his foot to the floorboards, set off like a greyhound out of its trap. "Not to worry, sahib. Rasheed very best driver in Lahore. Have you home in no time."

"Insha'Allah," Helen muttered.

"What?"

"God willing."

I saw Rasheed looking in the rear-view mirror, and I turned round. There was a black saloon car following us, and it was catching up.

Chapter 83

Without warning, Rasheed slammed his foot on the brake. Our car slewed around a corner into a narrow side street, fishtailing before he regained control of it. Then he took off at an alarming pace, zigzagging across the city until he was sure we were no longer being followed. Eventually, he slowed down.

"What the hell is going on?" My initial fright turned to anger. My pulse was racing out of control as I leaned forward and grasped Rasheed by the shoulder, wrenching him round to face me.

This took him by surprise and, as he swung round, his eyes blazed with fury. I realised I had made a mistake. Although I couldn't understand the actual words he spat out, there was no doubt of their intent. He reached forward and produced a gun, seemingly from nowhere. My mouth went dry. I felt sure he was going to shoot me.

Helen cut in and exchanged a few words with him in his own tongue. I don't know what she said, but it seemed to calm him. He lowered the gun, but his body remained poised like an eagle about to swoop.

"Tell him I'm sorry. I was unnerved."

"You can tell him yourself. He speaks perfectly good English."

"Then why were you jabbering away to him in Urdu?"

"I wasn't. He's a Sikh and proud of it. We spoke in Punjabi."

"Oh, really? And when did you learn Punjabi?"

"I know a few words of it. He was affronted and alarmed by your rough handling. I told him it was a reaction to circumstances, and you meant no harm."

Anxious to defuse the situation, I mustered all the sincerity at my disposal. "I apologise, Rasheed. I'm very sorry."

He made a scornful gesture of brushing his shoulder, as if to smooth his ruffled feathers. His features and his body relaxed, and he reached over the back of the seat. We shook hands, though I still sensed that he was wary of me.

"Apology accepted. No harm done. Very dangerous men chasing us. ISI people."

"ISI? What is that?"

Helen answered for him. "Pakistani Intelligence Services. I've heard of them. They have a bad reputation. Sadistic ways of obtaining information from people."

"Yes, memsaab. Plenty cruel. Beatings and worse. Much worse."

"But I don't understand. Why were they chasing you?" I said.

"Not chasing me, sahib. Chasing you. Rasheed drive very fast to protect you. Now Rasheed's in danger, too."

I could appreciate that, and I couldn't understand why he'd put himself at risk for us. It didn't add up. Why were the intelligence services after us, anyway? We'd done nothing wrong. And why the gun? Why was our taxi driver carrying a gun?

Helen continued her soothing and conciliatory approach. "You're a brave man, Rasheed. We are in your debt. How can we ever repay you?"

"Not necessary, memsaab. Kind deeds, caring for others, is good karma. That's enough." He pointed to a frangipani tree overhanging a low wall. "My guru says, 'You are the flower; God is the fragrance within.'" He looked at her with an expression of transcendental serenity. It was very much at odds with the expression on the face of the man so recently behind the gun.

"You get out here," he said. "Parkway is two streets away. Best my taxi's not seen there."

Although it took less than ten minutes, we were both perspiring by the time we reached the hotel. There was little or no breeze to stir the shimmering heat from the bitumen. A mangy pye-dog lay panting under a jessamine bush, one of a row that had been planted to soften the austere façade of the building. They were tall enough to provide shade for the cars nosed in along the forecourt. To our relief, the black sedan was nowhere to be seen.

When we entered the foyer, it felt like an oasis. Although the two boys were no longer behind the desk, their place had been taken by an older man. He waved his hand up and down in front of his face.

"Very hot outside," he said. "Wait here while I fetch you a cool drink."

After a few moments, he returned with tall glasses of foaming white liquid. "Doodh soda," he said. "Very refreshing." He was right.

"Dude soda! I must remember that." I later learned it was a mixture of 7-Up and milk, a fact I filed away with gol gappas for my upcoming article on gastronomic experiences in the Punjab.

When Helen and I reached our room, she collapsed on the bed.

"Phew! What a day!"

I turned on the ceiling fan above her and said, "I don't know about you, but I'm going to take a shower."

She reached for the TV remote and started to flick through the channels. I left her to it.

I'd scarcely begun to wash the city grime from my body when she called out, "Charles! Come quickly. They are showing details of the bombing on the news."

I wrapped a towel around my torso and hurried to join her. The news was in Urdu, of course, so I could only follow the pictures. It looked as if a hotel foyer had been blown apart. People were running in all directions.

"They think it may have been the work of the Sikh Separatist Movement. A tall man wearing a scarlet turban was seen shortly before the explosion. He was lifting two large suitcases out of the back of a taxi. Not an unusual occurrence, but an eyewitness said he saw him come out again, running down the steps two at a time and taking off in a hurry."

"Holy Jesus!" I said. "That must have been Rasheed. So, it was him that they were chasing."

"No-one has claimed responsibility for the bombing yet, but they say there will be updates as fresh information comes in."

The TV switched to an advertisement for Coca Cola, with beautiful young people cavorting on a tropical beach, then it went blank. The fan slowed to a standstill.

"One of Lahore's famous power failures," Helen said. "Never mind. They're used to it. The hotel generator should kick in shortly."

Sure enough, it wasn't long before the TV flickered back on. An official was being interviewed. Helen watched for a few minutes then she clenched the pillow at her side.

"He says the suspect was later seen outside the Liberty Market. Two foreigners were climbing into the back of the taxi, a man and a woman. The authorities think we must be accomplices, because the taxi accelerated away as soon as the police gave chase."

I couldn't believe what I was hearing. "Go on. What else?"

"He says the three terrorists managed to evade capture, but police are still searching and expect to make an arrest soon."

The room began to sway, and I felt sick to the stomach. Grabbing hold of a chair to steady myself, I looked at Helen and said, "So ... the tables are turned. It seems that we have become the hunted terrorists. What on earth are we to do now?"

Author Notes List of Characters

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Rasheed - a Sikh taxi driver
Abdul Jaleel Zemar (The Lion) - Coordinator of an international network of ISIS cells
Helen Culverson - a woman of increasing mystery
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok and has surfaced again in Paris.
Group Captain Bamforth (alias Sir David Brockenhurst) - an intelligence officer with MI6 and Air Attache in Paris
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor and undercover agent with the French Drug Squad.
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman (now deceased)
Ian 'Bisto' Kidman - an ex-RAF friend of Charles's.
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Andre (aka Scaramouche) - an actor in Montmartre and friend of Kayla's
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Francoise Gaudin - Alain's intellectually disabled sister.
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious 'French letter' of 1903 was addressed.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Gaston Arnoux - Owner of an art gallery in Paris. A double agent, who has infiltrated the ISIS network in France
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - Gaston's grandfather. Author of the infamous letter of 1903.


Chapter 84
Pakor, Kurta and Lungi

By tfawcus

Closing paragraphs of Chapter 83...

Sure enough, it wasn't long before the TV flickered back on. An official was being interviewed. Helen watched for a few minutes then a look of horror crossed her face.

"He says the suspect was later seen outside the Liberty Market. Two foreigners were climbing into the back of the taxi, a man and a woman. They think they must be accomplices, because the taxi accelerated away as soon as the police gave chase."

"Go on. What else?"

"He says the three terrorists managed to evade capture, but police are still searching and expect to make an arrest soon."

I blanched. "So, now we have become hunted terrorists. What on earth do we do next?"

Chapter 84

Helen and I looked at each other. We were trapped. The police would be out in force at airports, bus stations and railway stations, all means of escape sealed off while the dragnet tightened.

"Goddammit! Defeated before we even reach Chitral." I crossed the room and, on looking out of the window, was relieved to see the street deserted. "I'm sure it wasn’t coincidence, Rasheed meeting us like that. Someone must have told him about us. The question is, who? And why?"

"No. The question is, what are we going to do about it?"

"You're right. No point in hypotheticals. What we need is an escape plan."

"There is one thing in our favour. On the news, it said two foreigners climbed into the taxi with Rasheed."

"So?"

"So, they'll be looking for foreigners."

"Like us, you mean? Call me stupid, but I can't see how that counts in our favour."

"I'm not a foreigner. It's only the way I dress that makes me seem so. I know the country. I speak fluent Urdu and Kalasha, and enough Punjabi to get by."

"Great, but what about me?"

"Ever heard of disguise? We could dress you in a kurta and lungi. You'd look great."

"Ridiculous! I'd look like a European in fancy dress. I’d stand out like a snowman in the desert. About the same chance of survival, too. What are kurtas and lungis, anyway? They sound like exotic varieties of mushroom - and I'm being treated like one."

"How do you mean?" (She obviously didn't know much about growing mushrooms.)

"Being kept in the dark and fed on bullshit."

"How rude! All will soon become clear. I have a plan."

Helen made as if to dig me in the ribs, but I sidestepped and pushed her onto the bed. She laughed. "Not now, you horny bastard. We've got work to do."

"Okay, so tell me about it."

"We need to get you some clothes and set about darkening your skin colour."

"At this time of night? What are you going to do? Ask room service for a magic lantern to rub?”

"I'm going to take you to the Anarkali Bazaar. You can get almost anything there, and it's open all hours. My father took me and Kayla once. It's near the Old Town. Not far from here. We could walk it."

I was aware of the sudden sadness of memory in Helen's eyes.

"Come on, then. Let's go gather mushrooms," I said, though it seemed to me a pointless exercise, more like woolgathering. Still, at times like this, daydreams are better than lying down and giving up.


*****
 
It was a balmy evening. The warm air was scented with frangipani and the horizon held the sultry glow of city lights. I put my arm around Helen as we made our way through a maze of back streets towards the bazaar. The evening star shone brightly, as it had for the Magi two thousand years ago, but tonight we were guided by the Prophet, in the guise of a crescent moon hanging above the red sandstone towers and marble domes of the Badshari Mosque.

The bazaar announced itself with a low hum of activity. Street hawkers plied their wares beneath an enticing drift of eastern spices and charcoal smoke, but Helen guided me past them and into an Aladdin's cave of Kashmiri silks and cottons. She spoke in low tones to the proprietor. He looked me up and down then beckoned me into the back of the shop. Five minutes later, I reappeared in a loose fitting, collarless shirt and a kind of sarong. The material was deliberately ordinary and drab.

"How do I look?" I pirouetted like a mannequin on the catwalk, almost tripping over my sarong.

"Not bad. Not bad at all, but you need a hat. A Chitrali cap, I think. A plain and unassuming pakol. Something that will cover your hair." She put her hands on my waist. "Let me show you how to tie the lungi properly, so you don't end up with it around your ankles." She took up the slack in the material and tied it deftly in a double knot.

"That would be a dead giveaway, wouldn't it?" I had a fleeting vision of myself, standing on the railway platform in my underpants, before being escorted away by the secret police to suffer unimaginable tortures.

Before we left the bazaar, Helen slipped into a grocery store and came out with a quarter pound packet of black tea and a loofah.

"What on earth...?" Then it dawned on me. "But I thought in this part of the world people bathed in asses' milk and honey."

 
"Not if you want to turn brown, you don't."

*****

The following morning, I awoke before dawn to find Helen already up, dressed in her new salwar kameez, and putting the finishing touches to her makeup and hair. She looked every inch a woman of quality.

"Time to get up, sleepyhead! We have a train to catch."

I rubbed my eyes, stretched my arms above my head, and stumbled to the bathroom. I hadn't had much sleep and felt terrible. Leaning against the handbasin, I gazed at my reflection in the mirror. An unshaven man the colour of a ripe walnut stared back at me. I ran some hot water and reached for my razor.

Helen came up behind me. "I wouldn't do that if I were you, Khadim. Your tan is only skin deep. Come on, get yourself dressed. We need to leave in a quarter of an hour."

"There's no need to start ordering me around just yet."

Helen smiled. "Remember, you're a mute. No answering back." Her eyes twinkled. "This is going to be fun, isn't it?"

I was already beginning to regret my assigned role as her manservant, a trusty old retainer who would tag along behind, carrying the bags. There was no doubt she intended to take full advantage of the situation.

Author Notes List of Characters

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Rasheed - a Sikh taxi driver
Abdul Jaleel Zemar (The Lion) - Coordinator of an international network of ISIS cells
Helen Culverson - a woman of increasing mystery
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok and has surfaced again in Paris.
Group Captain Bamforth (alias Sir David Brockenhurst) - an intelligence officer with MI6 and Air Attache in Paris
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor and undercover agent with the French Drug Squad.
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman (now deceased)
Ian 'Bisto' Kidman - an ex-RAF friend of Charles's.
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Andre (aka Scaramouche) - an actor in Montmartre and friend of Kayla's
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Francoise Gaudin - Alain's intellectually disabled sister.
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious 'French letter' of 1903 was addressed.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Gaston Arnoux - Owner of an art gallery in Paris. A double agent, who has infiltrated the ISIS network in France
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - Gaston's grandfather. Author of the infamous letter of 1903.


Chapter 85
A Narrow Escape

By tfawcus

Closing paragraphs of Chapter 84

The following morning, I awoke before dawn to find Helen already up, dressed in her new salwar kameez, and putting the finishing touches to her makeup and hair. She looked every inch a woman of quality.

"Time to get up, sleepyhead! We have a train to catch."

I rubbed my eyes, stretched my arms up above my head, and stumbled to the bathroom. I hadn't had much sleep and felt terrible. Leaning against the handbasin, I gazed at my reflection in the mirror. An unshaven man the colour of a ripe walnut stared back at me. I ran some hot water and reached for my razor.

Helen came up behind me. "I wouldn't do that if I were you, Khadim. Your tan is only skin deep. Come on, get yourself dressed. We need to leave in a quarter of an hour."

"There's no need to start ordering me around just yet."

Helen smiled. "Remember, you're a mute. No answering back." Her eyes twinkled. "This is going to be fun, isn't it?"

I was already beginning to regret my assigned role as her manservant, a trusty old retainer who would tag along behind, carrying the bags. There was no doubt she intended to take full advantage of the situation.

Chapter 85

The railway station in Lahore is a fortress, square with forbidding watch towers, its thick walls inset with gun emplacements. Built in the aftermath of the great Indian Mutiny of 1857, it has stood for years as an impregnable stronghold, insurance against further strife.

On this day, in the pink flush of dawn, it seemed to draw itself up erect, glistening with pride in the glory of its past. Soldiers were everywhere, their sharp eyes scanning the incoming surge of passengers. A smart European couple ahead of us were stopped and questioned. They were made to produce passports and tickets and, not knowing the ways of the country, became fractious and belligerent.

The man was seized by two soldiers, spun around, stretched out against a wall, and frisked. One of the soldiers jabbed the muzzle of an AK-47 into his silk shirt while his wife looked on, aghast.

Having satisfied themselves that all was in order, the soldiers waved the terrified couple through. Although ruffled and flustered, they had the good sense to walk quietly away, suitably chastened.

Helen approached the soldiers, flashed them a confident smile, and asked in fluent Urdu what was going on. The older one told her about the hunt for terrorists, casting a lecherous eye over her as he spoke. She affected to ignore it.

"We can't have renegades like that running free, Corporal. I trust you'll catch them soon."

"Don't you worry; we will."

"Come on, Khadim! Hurry along. Careful with those bags, now." She raised her eyebrows at the soldier. "I don't know why I put up with that dolt. It's impossible to get good help these days."

If my hands hadn't been otherwise occupied, I'd have touched my forelock. Instead, I grinned inanely and shuffled forward. The soldier helped me along, giving a friendly shove with his rifle butt that sent me sprawling. He laughed and threw Helen a mock salute.

The other soldier picked up one of the bags for me and handed it back. I attempted an obsequious gesture of thanks, praying my perspiration wouldn't make the tannin run. Helen paused and, with a long-suffering look, waited for me to catch up.

The platform seemed to be a mile long as we ran the gauntlet of official scrutiny, making our way towards the first-class carriage. Helen led the way, displaying all the hauteur and arrogance of a Maharani. I followed in her wake with due deference and downcast eyes. I would like to be able to say that I acted my part bravely, but the voluminous folds of my lungi concealed a quaking at the knees matched only by the palpitations of my heart.

At last, we climbed aboard and made our way to the compartment reserved for us. It contained two gentlemen fated to be our travelling companions. The fat one wore a seersucker suit the colour of sour milk. Too tight at the shoulder, it was stained in the armpits with circles of stale sweat. A flamboyant handkerchief of green silk spilled out from his breast pocket but did little to alleviate the sordid impression. His well-oiled hair contributed to the general aura of smarminess as he rose from his seat, extending a garrulous welcome and a pudgy hand, both of which Helen ignored. I smiled at him apologetically.

The other man, thin and austere, sat in the window seat. He glanced up from his copy of the Lahore Post and regarded me with distaste before returning to his paper. There was a picture of Rasheed on the front page.

This disturbing reminder of our plight drew my attention to the station clock. I willed it to speed up. Instead, the long hand tripped by inches, recording each interminable minute before the whistle blew to signal our departure. At last, the carriage lurched forward, and the train creaked and clanked out of the station at a snail's pace, slowly swallowing each group of soldiers as they slid backwards, disappearing from our field of view.

Gradually, we picked up speed, and I felt the tension ease from my body. This relaxation brought with it a sudden and overwhelming need for relief. Excusing myself with a gesture, I backed out of the compartment, and made my way down the corridor, my gait like that of a sailor as I adjusted to the sway of the carriage and the comforting rhythm of the wheels. Clickety-clack, clickety-clack, we-have-escaped, clickety-clack, now-we-are-freeee.

The engine let out a screech of exaltation that was echoed in my heart then, without warning, it plunged into the gaping maw of a tunnel. The brief moment of elation was swallowed in sooty darkness and a bone-rattling terror of the unknown; forewarning of adventures scarcely yet begun.

Author Notes List of Characters

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Rasheed - a Sikh taxi driver
Abdul Jaleel Zemar (The Lion) - Coordinator of an international network of ISIS cells
Helen Culverson - a woman of increasing mystery
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok and has surfaced again in Paris.
Group Captain Bamforth (alias Sir David Brockenhurst) - an intelligence officer with MI6 and Air Attache in Paris
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor and undercover agent with the French Drug Squad.
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman (now deceased)
Ian 'Bisto' Kidman - an ex-RAF friend of Charles's.
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Andre (aka Scaramouche) - an actor in Montmartre and friend of Kayla's
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Francoise Gaudin - Alain's intellectually disabled sister.
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious 'French letter' of 1903 was addressed.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Gaston Arnoux - Owner of an art gallery in Paris. A double agent, who has infiltrated the ISIS network in France
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - Gaston's grandfather. Author of the infamous letter of 1903.


Chapter 86
Some Awkward Conclusions

By tfawcus

Closing paragraphs of Chapter 85 ...

Gradually, we began to pick up speed and I felt the tension drain from my body. This relaxation brought with it a sudden and overwhelming sensation and need for relief. Excusing myself with a gesture, I backed out of the compartment, and made my way down the corridor, my gait like that of a sailor as I adjusted to the sway of the carriage and the comfortable rhythm. Clickety-clack, clickety-clack, we-have-escaped, clickety-clack, we-have-escaped, now-we-are-freeee.

The engine let out a screech of exaltation that was echoed in my heart then, without warning, it plunged into the gaping maw of a tunnel. The brief moment of elation was swallowed up in sooty darkness and a bone-rattling terror of the unknown; a forewarning that our adventures had scarcely yet begun.


Chapter 86

When I returned to our compartment, I found Helen in conversation with the garrulous man. Conversation is not really the right term, for she was merely fending off his gush of words with monosyllables. I bowed slightly in her direction as I shuffled between them to take a seat in the corner by the window. The thin man had left, presumably to seek a quieter compartment. He had taken his newspaper with him.

Unable to communicate with Helen without giving myself away, I pressed my brow against the glass shield separating me from the outside world. Windblown debris whirled around as the Subak Raftar Express thundered past shanty villages. Women carried impossible loads, and mongrels cringed in patches of shade from backyard pawpaw and banana trees. Purple bougainvillea cascaded over a tumbledown fence that defined a dusty track, down which a donkey plodded. The weathered man who led it wore a loose-fitting shirt stained with sweat, ingrained with poverty.

As this foreground blur fell behind us, my eyes were drawn to the line of snow-capped mountains crouched low on the horizon; mountains with narrow ravines and gullies, through which a resinous traffic of oblivion was traded out of Afghanistan by hard-faced men without scruple; mountains that grew more ominous and formidable as we rolled relentlessly towards The Lion's den.

My thoughts turned to Kayla languishing in a cocaine-induced stupor in her garret in Montmartre, and I prayed that Alain would remain true to his word in caring for her. I thought of Madame Jeanne Durand and her underground war against the drug barons, and wondered whether she really was the evil woman I'd taken her for.

Then, as we passed a lazy herd of red Zebu cattle with their monstrous dowagers' humps and long floppy ears, I thought of Jack Wilkins bringing his cows in for milking, with Nancy churning curds for her famous Wiltshire Blue cheeses. There, too, in my reverie, was Bisto, tinkering with his boat moored behind The Willows, with Biggles snoozing at his feet. What a world away it seemed.

Eventually, the fat man opposite Helen heaved himself up, leered at her, and ambled off towards the restaurant car. We were alone at last.

"What an awful man! When he wasn't puffing himself up like a peacock, he was demeaning me with disgusting innuendos. If you hadn't been in the compartment, I dread to think what he might have tried on."

My mind was drawn back to a similar circumstance months ago in Bangkok, when she had killed Bukhari in the back of his car with a single blow to the throat.

"I've no doubt you'd have handled it. There's nothing in that sexy outfit to suggest a mistress of the Art of the Eight Limbs, but you'd have split his lip open and blown our cover without even thinking about it."

"It would have been worth it, too. We're going to have to shed these costumes sooner or later." She made an extravagant gesture with her fists and elbows, and there was the sound of a ripping seam.

"Blast! I hope you've got a safety pin."

"A safety pin? You must be dreaming. It looks as if you'll have to call a security guard and charge the sleazebag with assault."

A tall shadow fell across the doorway. "I wouldn't if I were you. That odious ball of fat has half the police force of Pakistan in his pocket. He's a dangerous fellow." Our saturnine travelling companion resumed his seat in the corner, regarding me with amusement. "I must say, you'd make a dashed fine punkah wallah in that outfit, Charles. David warned me there might be more to you than meets the eye."

Helen and I exchanged glances. Who was this man, and how did he know about us? It seemed that Bamforth had left nothing to chance. He was tracking our every move.

"When you get to Rawalpindi, you'll find a taxi waiting for you outside Chuno Autos on the Pindi Railway Road. You can't miss it; it's just outside the station. You'll know which one, because there'll be two pink plastic elephants suspended from the rear view mirror." He paused then added, "We enjoy our little jokes."

"I dare say. However, before we start hunting the streets of Rawalpindi for pink elephants, perhaps you'd like to tell us just who the hell you are."

"You don't need to know. Let's just say I'm loosely attached to the British High Commission in Islamabad. In the same game as your friend, Jeanne Durand, actually. It is because of her that I'm here. Helen will be able to fill you in on the details. Won't you, my dear?"

Helen coloured. It dawned on me she'd been playing a closed hand, and I didn't like it; especially as it involved Jeanne Durand. Nonetheless, I remained tight-lipped, waiting for the explanation that never came. She seemed to be tongue-tied. The awkward silence that ensued was suddenly broken, first by a buffeting and tarantella of noise as another train passed us, hurtling along in the opposite direction, then by the reappearance of our other travelling companion. I was left to simmer, conjuring with possibilities as I wondered just what kind of a double game she was playing.

There was now little doubt in my mind that she had divulged our travel plans to this man from the High Commission. How else could he have known, not only which train we'd be on, but also which compartment we had booked? I spent the remainder of the journey mulling things over. Who else had she told? Apart from Bamforth and Madame Durand, the only other person I could think of with a direct connection to the Hindu Kush was Gaston Arnoux. Bamforth had told me of his work as a double agent in Abdul Zemar’s European network. When his cover had been blown, his disappearance had been arranged by the explosion at La Galerie Arnoux on Rue de Dunkerque, an explosion caused through my unwitting agency.

I recalled with a shudder our last meeting with him, in the briefing room of the British Embassy in Paris. Had it been coincidence that Helen, Jeanne, and he had been sitting together at the table? Was there a nexus between them? What if he were playing a triple bluff and, unbeknown to Bamforth, in cahoots with our nemesis, Zemar? An absurd proposition, or was it? That would go a long way towards explaining why Rasheed had been our taxi driver in Lahore. How far-fetched would it be to imagine that he, too, was in Zemar's employ?

I felt as if a clammy hand had clutched my heart when I realised that, apart from Bamforth and me, Helen was the only other person to know of the existence of the mole in The Lion's lair. If my guesses were correct, she was in a position to blow the whole operation apart, and I was a dead man walking.

Author Notes List of Characters

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Rasheed - a Sikh taxi driver
Abdul Jaleel Zemar (The Lion) - Coordinator of an international network of ISIS cells
Helen Culverson - a woman of increasing mystery
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok and has surfaced again in Paris.
Group Captain Bamforth (alias Sir David Brockenhurst) - an intelligence officer with MI6 and Air Attache in Paris
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor and undercover agent with the French Drug Squad.
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman (now deceased)
Ian 'Bisto' Kidman - an ex-RAF friend of Charles's.
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Andre (aka Scaramouche) - an actor in Montmartre and friend of Kayla's
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Francoise Gaudin - Alain's intellectually disabled sister.
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious 'French letter' of 1903 was addressed.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Gaston Arnoux - Owner of an art gallery in Paris. A double agent, who has infiltrated the ISIS network in France
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - Gaston's grandfather. Author of the infamous letter of 1903.


Chapter 87
Abdul and the Pink Elephants

By tfawcus

End of Chapter 86
I felt as if a clammy hand had clutched my heart when I realised that, apart from Bamforth and me, Helen was the only other person to know of the existence of the mole in The Lion's lair. If my guesses were correct, she was in a position to blow the whole operation apart, and I was a dead man walking.


Chapter 87

I would have liked to quiz the man from the High Commission for more details. However, the other man, the one with half the Pakistani police force in his pocket, chose that moment to return, making further conversation in English impossible. I could only guess what might lie ahead but was relieved to know, at least, that we were not entirely alone.

Soon after midday, our train drew into Rawalpindi Station. We made our way to Pindi Railway Road and found the taxi, replete with pink elephants, just where it was meant to be.

The driver was indistinguishable from any other Pakistani taxi driver, except in one particular. He spoke with an impeccable Oxford accent. A blind man might have taken him to be an Englishman from the Home Counties. He introduced himself as Abdul and told us he would be driving us to a shop in the Capital Plaza called Ascender, where we would be kitted out with more suitable clothing.

As we set off, I saw from the GPS that we were travelling in a north-westerly direction. It took less than fifteen minutes to cross into the Islamabad Capital Territory.

"I'll park as close as I can," he said, "and take you to the shop myself. It's opposite the Bank of Punjab, if you need to change money. You will find some small denomination notes useful." He glanced at me in the mirror. "But there's no need to worry about your purchases in Ascender. They will be billed to the High Commission account." It was clear that Abdul was more than a mere taxi driver.

"What is this place, Ascender, that you keep talking about, and why are you taking us there?"

"Ascender is a very fine shop. The best range of trekking equipment in Islamabad."

"Trekking? What the hell's he talking about?" Helen looked at me in consternation. "We're not trekking."

I was as confused as she was. "Well, what are we doing? You seem to know a great deal more about it than I do."

"Not really," she said, "but I expect all will become clear when we reach the High Commission."

"You seem very certain that's where we're going."

"Isn't it obvious?"

Maybe it is now, I thought, but it wasn't when we left Lahore. I was still puzzled by the man who'd described himself as being loosely attached to the High Commission and in the same game as Jeanne Durand. Although linked, international terrorism and the opium trade were two separate agendas. I wondered what Jeanne and Helen might have cooked up without my knowledge and, presumably, without Bamforth's? It seemed we might soon be playing with matches in a fireworks factory, but this was neither the time nor place to have it out with her.

When we reached Ascender, an inventory of supplies and equipment had already been prepared, and all that remained was to select correctly fitting cold weather gear. I was familiar with most of the equipment from my winter survival training in the RAF, many years before. Some items, such as sleeping bags, lightweight folding shovels, and icepicks, suggested we would be camping off the beaten track. This was at odds with the briefing in Paris, where we had been told we'd be posing as travel writers doing research for an article on Chitral and the Kalash people.

I was turning this over in my mind as we made our way back to the carpark, heavily laden with backpacks. Abdul stowed our gear in the boot, and soon had us speeding eastwards along the Kabul Highway towards the Diplomatic Enclave, a journey of about thirty minutes.

Halfway there, we were slowed by an accident ahead. I nudged Helen and pointed out of the left-hand window to a sign written both in Urdu and English. It was to the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) Headquarters. These were the Pakistani secret police who had struck so much fear into the heart of Rasheed on account of their unscrupulous ways. I gave an involuntary shudder, hoping we would never have the ill-fortune to fall into their hands.

The High Commission was an unprepossessing building of rectilinear white stucco, surrounded by a three-metre high perimeter fence. There was a guardroom at the entrance with two armed guards. One of them carefully checked Abdul's pass before waving us through, into the enclosure.

We were met by a personable young man wearing horn-rimmed spectacles and a somewhat harassed air. He shook our hands and introduced himself as Montague.

"Most people call me Monty," he said. "Follow me. I expect you'll want to freshen up after your journey. When you're ready, I'll show you to the canteen, where we can have a spot of lunch before getting down to business." He had a staccato way of speaking and mannerisms that reminded me of the White Rabbit.

The meeting that afternoon was brief. It took place in Monty's office and there was only one other person present. We needed no introduction.

"You've already met my colleague, Ash. He tells me that you played your parts rather well on the train from Lahore this morning."

"Ash, is it?" I said. "So we have your name at last."

Monty gave a cheerful laugh. "Not really. We give all of our field operatives code names." He looked at my tannin-stained face with some amusement. "I think we ought to call you Walnut."

Helen seemed to think this a great joke. "And what about me?" she said.

Before either of the other two had a chance to speak, I chipped in, "How about Apricot?"

Monty looked at her appreciatively. "Wouldn't Peach be more appropriate?"

"No, I don't think so. She's definitely an Apricot."

Helen refused to take the bait. Instead, she merely raised an eyebrow, as if she were a teacher dealing with two rather silly children.

Ash glanced at his watch and
drummed his fingers on the table. "Shall we get on?"

Over the course of the next fifteen minutes, we learnt that the airport was still closed. We were told the most expedient way of getting to Chitral unnoticed would be as members of a trekking group. It seemed we had already been booked on a tour the following morning, travelling in a minibus run by a local company.

"What was wrong with the original plan? It was much more plausible, given my reputation as a travel writer."

Monty was blunt. "You may be overestimating your renown in this part of the world. Besides, as a travel writer, you would have been more likely to make your visit coincide with one of the annual Kalash festivals. No, this is a better way. We are at the height of the trekking season at this time of the year. You will have much more freedom of movement beyond the villages, without drawing undue attention to yourselves."

"It's all settled, then?"

"Yes, you could say that. We've booked you into a hotel overnight, and Abdul will take you to the tour company offices in the morning." Monty pushed his chair back, indicating the meeting was at an end. "There is one other thing before you go, Charles. The Deputy High Commissioner has expressed a wish to meet you."

"What about Helen?"

"No. He was quite specific. I'm afraid the invitation was for you alone. I'm sure that Ash will be able to keep Helen amused for a quarter of an hour."

"Of course I will, Apricot my dear. Au revoir, Walnut. Mustn't keep the old man waiting. He's a C.M.G., you know."

Helen looked puzzled. "C.M.G.? What does that stand for?"

"Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George," I said as I left the room. "A bit of a mouthful, isn't it? If you prefer the simpler version, it's Call Me God. Either way, he doesn't want to see you."


 

Author Notes List of Characters

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Rasheed - a Sikh taxi driver
Abdul Jaleel Zemar (The Lion) - Coordinator of an international network of ISIS cells
Helen Culverson - a woman of increasing mystery
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok and has surfaced again in Paris.
Group Captain Bamforth (alias Sir David Brockenhurst) - an intelligence officer with MI6 and Air Attache in Paris
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor and undercover agent with the French Drug Squad.
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman (now deceased)
Ian 'Bisto' Kidman - an ex-RAF friend of Charles's.
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Andre (aka Scaramouche) - an actor in Montmartre and friend of Kayla's
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Francoise Gaudin - Alain's intellectually disabled sister.
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious 'French letter' of 1903 was addressed.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Gaston Arnoux - Owner of an art gallery in Paris. A double agent, who has infiltrated the ISIS network in France
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - Gaston's grandfather. Author of the infamous letter of 1903.


Chapter 88
Call Me God

By tfawcus

Last paragraphs of Chapter 87 ...

"No. He was quite specific. I'm afraid the invitation was for you alone. I'm sure that Ash will be able to keep Helen amused for a quarter of an hour."

"Of course I will, Apricot my dear. Au revoir, Walnut. Mustn't keep the old man waiting. He's a C.M.G., you know."

Helen looked puzzled. "C.M.G.? What does that stand for?"

"Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George," I said as I left the room. "A bit of a mouthful, isn't it? If you prefer the simpler version, it's Call Me God. Either way, he doesn't want to see you."


Chapter 88

I was surprised at Helen's calm acceptance of this. However, as Monty escorted me to the great man's office, it occurred to me that she and Ash might welcome time alone. I was convinced a secondary mission was being orchestrated by Mme. Durand and could only hope it would not conflict with our primary purpose.

The Deputy High Commissioner was soon to confirm my suspicions. He turned out to be an approachable man of about my own age. After shaking me warmly by the hand, he dismissed Monty and offered me a drink.

I declined. "A bit early in the day for me," I said.

He laughed. "Me, too, but one never knows. Some people relish the prospect of a pink gin any time they can get it in this dry country. It seems that abstinence makes the heart grow fonder."

"Good of you to see me, Sir Robert. I know how busy you must be."

"Robert will do. I don't stand on ceremony." As if to reinforce the point, he ushered me towards a pair of easy chairs in the corner. "There are a couple of good reasons why I wanted you alone, Charles - or should I call you Walnut?"

It took me aback that he already knew the codename Monty had proposed in jest, less than a quarter of an hour before. There was only one obvious conclusion, but I decided not to voice it.

"David Bamforth is a good friend of mine," he continued. "He keeps me in touch, you know."

"So, you know the purpose of our visit to Pakistan?"

"Of course."

"Abdul Jaleel is a formidable adversary," he said. "They have good reason to call him Zemar, for he's certainly the king of the jungle in these parts. Unfortunately, he is already one step ahead of us."

"How do you mean?"

"Your Sikh taxi driver in Lahore. A fanatical supporter of the separatist movement that wants to establish Khalistan as an independent Sikh country within the Punjab. You've heard of them, of course?"

"Yes, I think so." I cast my mind back. "They were the ones responsible for the assassination of Indira Gandhi in the 1980s, weren't they?" I was puzzled and at a loss to see the relevance. "I thought there'd been a crackdown and that the movement fizzled out years ago."

"Not entirely. There are still a few dissidents like Rasheed who have no love of the status quo. Not enough of them to have much impact these days but easy recruits for The Lion."

"How on earth did he know?"

"Gaston Arnoux. His connection with Zemar is not completely severed. He's what the spy movies would term a triple agent."

It seemed that my surmise on the train had been correct. "Then the operation is blown. Helen and I might as well go home."

"Not exactly. Although Arnoux knew of your movements, he was not aware of the exact purpose. He had no knowledge of the mole planted in Zemar's headquarters or the vital list of names."

"You say 'had' as if he no longer exists."

"Oh, he still exists, but David has taken him out of circulation. I imagine he is being interrogated at this very moment. It would be good if we could persuade him to start feeding misinformation to The Lion."

The words 'interrogated' and 'persuaded' added up to an unpleasant euphemism. I doubted Gaston would be enjoying his time detained at Her Majesty's pleasure.

"There's no reason for your operation to be aborted. The Lion expects travel writers, not a pair of intrepid mountain trekkers. Monty has arranged new passports for you to go with your changed personas - or should that be 'personae'?"

"As in dramatis personae? Yes, probably. There's a fair bit of drama been built into this since I agreed to do it. That's for sure."

"Getting cold feet?"

"Yes, frankly. The Lion knows we're here and probably assumes we're out to assassinate him. He'll be keen to see the last of us and, on home territory, that should be easy for him to arrange."

"You seem to forget that Helen's also on home territory, and you've already shown that you're a resourceful pair. You just need to keep a low profile until our mole chucks a pear at you."

"Easy for you to say, sitting here in Islamabad. Who came up with that bizarre idea, anyway?"

"I did. They're in season, you know."

"I don't even like bloody pears." The absurdity suddenly struck me, and I burst into inane laughter.

Sir Robert joined me and, after we'd wiped away the tears, he slapped me on the back, saying, "You're a good man, Charles. A good man. Now shall we get on with the second matter?"

"The second matter?"

"Helen and Ash. Shall we see what they've been cooking up together?" He went across to a small device on his desk, pressed a button and waited. Static filled the room.

"Blast! Ash is cannier than I thought. He's managed to block the listening device. Now you'll just have to wait and see."

"Thanks very much."

"I'm sorry," he said, and he sounded genuinely apologetic. "David has known for some time that Jeanne Durand has other plans for Helen's time here. She's been grooming her for work in the French Drug Squad ever since they first met in Bangkok."

"Les stups?" I said it more to show off my knowledge than to seek clarification. I instantly saw from Sir Robert's expression that he knew it, and I felt like a right twit.


"Yes, la Brigade des stupéfiants. As you know, she's a senior figure in the organisation. However, the problem is an historical one. The French versus the English ... know what I mean? She's never fully disclosed her plans. It makes cooperation difficult."

"She certainly has some unorthodox methods," I said. Her exploitation of Helen's sexual ambivalence was sharp in my mind. For a time, it had driven a wedge between us. I had almost lost her because of it.

"I don't quite understand Ash's position in all of this, sir."

"It's an interesting one. He's attached to us as a liaison officer. French, actually - though you wouldn't guess it. One of Madame Durand's mob. Les stups," he added with a poker face. "It would be good to know what they're up to."

Author Notes List of Characters

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Rasheed - a Sikh taxi driver in Lahore, radicalised by ISIS
Abdul - a taxi driver in Islamabad, working under cover for the British High Commission
Ash - a French liaison officer attached to the British High Commission in Islamabad. Also a member of the French anti-drug squad (la Brigade des stupefiants), whose operations are directed by Jeanne Durand.
Montague (Monty) - a member of staff at the British High Commission in Islamabad.
Sir Robert - the Deputy High Commissioner at the British High Commission in Islamabad (a personal friend and confidante of Group Captain David Bamforth, the British Air Attache in Paris)
Abdul Jaleel Zemar (The Lion) - Coordinator of an international network of ISIS cells
Helen Culverson - a woman of increasing mystery
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok and has surfaced again in Paris.
Group Captain Bamforth (alias Sir David Brockenhurst) - an intelligence officer with MI6 and Air Attache in Paris
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor and undercover agent with the French Drug Squad.
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman (now deceased)
Ian 'Bisto' Kidman - an ex-RAF friend of Charles's.
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Andre (aka Scaramouche) - an actor in Montmartre and friend of Kayla's
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Francoise Gaudin - Alain's intellectually disabled sister.
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious 'French letter' of 1903 was addressed.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Gaston Arnoux - Owner of an art gallery in Paris. A triple agent, who infiltrated the ISIS network in France and fed information to MI6, but who is now providing information to Abdul Jaleel Zemar (The Lion).
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - Gaston's grandfather. Author of the infamous letter of 1903.


Chapter 89
The Graveyard Nightjar

By tfawcus

Last paragraphs of Chapter 88

"I'm sorry," he said, and he sounded genuinely apologetic. "David has known for some time that Jeanne Durand has other plans for Helen's time here. She's been grooming her for work in the French Drug Squad ever since they first met in Bangkok."

"Les stups?" I said it more to show off my knowledge than to seek clarification. I instantly saw from Sir Robert's expression that he knew it, and I felt like a right twit.

"Yes, la Brigade des stupéfiants. As you know, she's a senior figure in the organisation. However, the problem is an historical one. The French versus the English ... know what I mean? She's never fully disclosed her plans. It makes cooperation difficult."

"She certainly has some unorthodox methods," I said. Her exploitation of Helen's sexual ambivalence was sharp in my mind. For a time, it had driven a wedge between us. I had almost lost her because of it.

"I don't quite understand Ash's position in all of this, sir."

"It's an interesting one. He's attached to us as a liaison officer. French, actually - though you wouldn't guess it. One of Madame Durand's mob. Les stups," he added with a poker face. "It would be good to know what they're up to."


Chapter 89

When Helen and I eventually left the building, we found our taxi still in the High Commission enclosure. Abdul leapt out. He opened the door for Helen in a gesture of old-world civility that carried not the least hint of obsequiousness. I went to the other side and climbed in next to her. She slid her arm around my shoulder, drew me towards her, and kissed me lightly on the cheek. I hoped it wasn't a Judas kiss. My meeting with Sir Robert had left me even more suspicious than before.

I eased her gently but firmly out of the embrace but, as I started to speak, she pressed her finger against my lips. She gestured towards Abdul with her eyes. He was busy adjusting a plastic fan on top of the dashboard to direct its breeze towards us. The two pink elephants swayed and nodded their approval.

Monty had briefed me on our way out, saying that we would be staying at a place called Mulberry House. It had been chosen because it was near our departure point the following morning. He provided me with a mud map. Helen and I spent the ten-minute journey in uneasy silence. I continued to mull things over, and it looked as if she, too, was deep in thought.

When we arrived, we were shown to a room on the second floor. Heavily flocked wallpaper in a paisley pattern of gold and cinnabar suggested the sultry atmosphere of a bordello. Helen, on the other hand, seemed to think it romantic. I opened the slatted door onto a balcony overlooking a small rectangle of lawn neatly edged with canna lilies. In the evening light, they were ablaze like a flock of fire birds. Helen came out to join me.

"What were you and Sir Robert talking about so secretively this afternoon?"

"About you, mainly. For that matter, what plots were you and Ash hatching together?"

"Touché!"

Although her use of the fencing term acknowledged that I had scored a hit, her look of amusement threw me off balance, enabling her to follow up with a quick riposte. "Sir Robert must have been most anxious to find out. Clever of him to call you away and leave Ash and me alone. Even cleverer of Ash to discover the listening device."

I looked her squarely in the eye.
I was sick of this stupid fencing to score points and thought it time for the cut and thrust of a sabre. "If we're meant to be working together, wouldn't it be a good idea if you were to tell me just what the hell is going on? What is it, exactly, that Jeanne wants you to do? Trust is a pretty important element of a partnership, you know."  She looked taken aback.

"All right," she said. "I'll tell you. It's better that there are no secrets between us. I'd have told you earlier, but Jeanne insisted on secrecy. She didn't want Bamforth to interfere with her plans. He would have done, you know."

"So, what are her plans?"

"She wants me to seduce Zemar and kill him."

I looked at her, appalled. "... and you would seriously consider doing that? But, why?"

The ensuing silence was absolute, save for a mesmeric and strangely hollow sound outside the window; a repetitive "chonk, chonk, chonk", as if someone were knocking on wood. I frowned, unable to place it. Helen came to my rescue.

"It's a graveyard nightjar. At least, that's what they used to call them in Bangkok. They have a liking for cemeteries."

"Interesting," I said. "Rather like you, it seems. For that's where you'll end up if you pursue this crazy plan. Whatever possessed you to agree to it?"

Tears welled up in Helen's eyes. "It's not just for Jeanne. She wants him dead because he's a critical element in the opium supply chain from Afghanistan, but ..."

"But what do you want him dead for?" In truth, I already knew the answer.

"For my parents. He was the one who planned and carried out the massacre. He was one of the masked Jihadists standing at the back of the church, AK-47s trained on the backs of the congregation. He was their leader." Her voice rose as she spat out each accusation.

"As I kill him, I shall see the face of my father, shattered by their merciless fire. I shall feel the deadweight of my mother, slumped across my shoulders as she fell across Kyla and me cowering on the ground. I shall see my sister struggling against addiction in a Montmartre garret." Then, very quietly, like the breath of the Grim Reaper, "... and I shall rejoice, bathed in the warmth of his ebbing pulse. I shall rejoice."

She stood facing me. Fire blazed in her eyes, daring me to respond. I had only seen that look once before. It was when she had first told me of her nightmare, in a hotel bedroom in the Louis Versailles Château. It seemed a lifetime ago.

I took her gently in my arms, brushed the tears from her cheeks, and held her against my shoulder until the madness passed. I knew there was no way I could stop her. I was also certain it would kill us both. Revenge being a form of suicide, I resigned myself to a dismal realisation. If I went along with her, it would be tantamount to entering into a suicide pact. Yet, for me, there was no other option.

We undressed each other with deliberation and curled in a tender embrace. I anticipated it would be the last time for several weeks that we would lie together on a soft mattress. After a while, there was again the familiar "chonk, chonk, chonk" of a wooden surface striking against something. This time, however, it was the rhythmic knocking of our headboard against the bedroom wall.

Author Notes List of Characters

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Rasheed - a Sikh taxi driver in Lahore, radicalised by ISIS
Abdul - a taxi driver in Islamabad, working under cover for the British High Commission
Ash - a French liaison officer attached to the British High Commission in Islamabad. Also a member of the French anti-drug squad (la Brigade des stupefiants), whose operations are directed by Jeanne Durand.
Montague (Monty) - a member of staff at the British High Commission in Islamabad.
Sir Robert - the Deputy High Commissioner at the British High Commission in Islamabad (a personal friend and confidante of Group Captain David Bamforth, the British Air Attache in Paris)
Abdul Jaleel Zemar (The Lion) - Coordinator of an international network of ISIS cells
Helen Culverson - a woman of increasing mystery
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok and has surfaced again in Paris.
Group Captain Bamforth (alias Sir David Brockenhurst) - an intelligence officer with MI6 and Air Attache in Paris
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor and undercover agent with the French Drug Squad.
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman (now deceased)
Ian 'Bisto' Kidman - an ex-RAF friend of Charles's.
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Andre (aka Scaramouche) - an actor in Montmartre and friend of Kayla's
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Francoise Gaudin - Alain's intellectually disabled sister.
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious 'French letter' of 1903 was addressed.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Gaston Arnoux - Owner of an art gallery in Paris. A triple agent, who infiltrated the ISIS network in France and fed information to MI6, but who is now providing information to Abdul Jaleel Zemar (The Lion).
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - Gaston's grandfather. Author of the infamous letter of 1903.


Chapter 90
The Akond of Swat

By tfawcus

Chapter 90

The following morning, I stretched a languid arm across the bed to draw Helen into the cusp of my body, but to my consternation, I found the space beside me empty. The pre-dawn silence amplified the sound of my racing heartbeat. I was overcome by a surge of panic. 

As I swung my legs over the side of the bed, I noticed a soft breeze shifting the curtains. The sliding door was partly open. I drew the curtains back and, to my relief, saw Helen standing on the balcony, as if in a trance. Stealing up behind her, I wrapped my arms around her waist. T
he stillness was soon broken by the yearning cry of a muezzin, calling the faithful to prayer from a nearby minaret. His cry was taken up by others around the city. Helen and I were as one as we stood breathing in the sacred hour. I brushed her tangled tresses to one side and kissed her on the back of the neck. However, she pushed me away gently, and brought a finger to her lips.

"Listen."

Soon, the adhan subsided and I became aware of the city throwing off its mantle of sleep. A dog barked and cocks began to crow. Then, these sounds gave way to another call, a hollow oop-oopah ... oop-oopah, like a deep note repeated on pan pipes. The mournful monotone was every bit as insistent as the muezzin's previous call to prayer.

"Look," she said, pointing to a bird perched motionless on the branch of a jacaranda tree. Its erect crest was like a plumed helmet in the waning moonlight, and its long beak curved down like a scimitar.

"What is it?"

"A hoopoe," she said. "An evil bird."

"Why evil?"

"They say it's associated with lewdness and lust."

"Like me, you mean?" I said, giving her a playful pat on the bottom.

"No time for that, lover boy. We're due to leave in half an hour. Come on!" She disappeared into the bedroom, with a provocative wiggle.

 

*****

We arrived at the depot shortly before seven to find our travelling companions were a group of Eastern Europeans. We beamed at each other and shook hands, but it was clear that the language barrier was going to be insuperable. Soon, they started chatting and laughing among themselves, and we took seats at the front of the vehicle. One of them spoke a little Urdu, but Helen didn't let him know that she understood his halting attempts to communicate with Hassim, our driver.

Looking at the map, the two-day journey seemed unbalanced. It was around a hundred and eighty miles to Dir, where we were scheduled to spend the first night, but only a third of that distance on to Chitral.

When I mentioned this to Hassim, he laughed. "The roads are different after Dir, when we start climbing up into the mountains. You'll see."

 
*****

Even at that time of the morning, the streets were thronging with motorbikes swerving from lane to lane. At one point, Hassim had to press simultaneously on the horn and the brake as an ancient Honda Hero lurched in front of us, carrying a man, his wife, two boys and a baby. One of the boys waved cheerfully as they zoomed past.

Until we reached the Islamabad - Peshawar motorway, three-wheeled auto rickshaws outnumbered cars on the road. These tuk tuks, so called for the sound of their stuttering engines, added a carnival feel to the chaos, with their flamboyant colours and bizarre loads. There were crates of squawking chickens destined for the market. There were wicker baskets of pomegranates and pawpaw, precariously balanced on seats. One of the tuk tuks even contained a young boy and his sister, struggling to keep hold of a pair of Muscovy ducks. I slid the window partly open, letting in the exotic smell of spices and incense from a bazaar. It was mingled with the stench of roadside rubbish. I quickly shut the window again.

Eventually, we left the city behind and joined the motorway. Hassim accelerated until the needle was hovering around seventy-five miles per hour. I imagined that this was close to our minivan's top speed. It took less than an hour and a half for us to reach the Sher Khan interchange and veer north onto the Swat Expressway.

As soon as I saw the sign, I turned to Helen with a grin and started reciting:
"Who, or why, or which, or what
Is the Akond of SWAT?
Is he tall or short or dark or fair?
Does he sit on a stool or a sofa or chair,
Or SQUAT,
the Akond of Swat?"

She looked at me as if I were mad.

"Edward Lear," I explained feebly. "It's a great poem. I learnt it as a child. It never occurred to me, though, that there really is a place called Swat."

I decided not to mention the Kipling connection sparked by the Sher Khan interchange. My thoughts inevitably turned to The Jungle Books and Mowgli's nemesis, the rogue tiger. The parallel with our own situation was uncomfortably clear. I hoped we would also have friends to support us, but I doubted it.
 
The expressway was fast and well-maintained, and we arrived in Dir a little after midday. At five thousand feet, the air was crisp and cool, with a light breeze chasing small puffs of fair-weather cloud across the sky.

"How gloriously refreshing," Helen said, as she got out. She stretched her arms and inhaled deeply. Like me, she was stiff from the journey.

I saw Hassim looking anxiously to the north, where banks of cumulo-nimbus bubbled ominously above the Lowari Pass. "It looks as though we may be in for rough weather," I said.

"Yes, there's a big storm building. The pass will be closed for sure." A worried frown creased his forehead as he added, "It's early for such weather."

"What about the tunnel? Will we be able to get through, do you think?"

"I hope so." He glanced at his watch and said, "Why don't you join the others over there, while I call ahead to check." He pointed to a low building where a barbecue had been set up on the porch. Enticing smells drifted across towards us. "They are cooking chapli kebabs with hot Afghani bread. A speciality. Very good!"

Having missed breakfast, we needed no second invitation. We were both starving, or so we thought, but in days to come I was to find out how relative to circumstances that word can be.

It wasn't long before Hassim returned. "We should go now," he said. "The weather will be much worse tomorrow. If we leave immediately, we still have time to reach Chitral before nightfall."

There were murmurs of dissent from our travelling companions when he explained the situation in Urdu, but he managed to persuade them, and within twenty minutes we were back on the road.

Travel soon became dramatically different. It took more than an hour to traverse a dozen miles of hairpin bends rising up to the mouth of the Loweri Tunnel. The narrow, unmade road was slippery as a mudslide where snow melt had seeped through crevices, creating small cascades. The clear, mountain water sparkled in the sunlight as it swirled around fallen boulders and scree. We slid across hairpin bends, our back wheels slewing dangerously near the precipitous drop to the torrent below. In places, there was barely enough room to navigate around minor rockslides. At one point, Helen closed her eyes and buried her head in my shoulder.

"I thought you grew up in this part of the world," I said, drawing her closer to me.

"Yes, but ..." She tightened her grip, and I could feel the rigidity of her body pressed against mine. "I'm not good with heights. At this rate, we'll be lucky to reach Chitral."

"Don't worry, darling. We'll be all right."

In some places, isolated wooden buildings clung to the mountainside. Small children in doorways left the safety of their mothers' skirts to wave. A few of the braver ones screamed with delight as they ran alongside our minibus holding out their hands and shouting "Baksheesh!".

When we reached the checkpoint at the mouth of the tunnel, we were glad to don parkas. I stamped my feet up and down to restore my circulation, then in a childish moment, jumped with both feet into a puddle.

"You bastard! I'll get you!" Helen bent down to sweep the slush from her trousers and she scooped up a handful of wet snow to toss at me. It caught me just beneath the ear. Before I was able to brush it off, a good part had trickled down inside my collar.

"Serves you right!" she said.

Our games were interrupted by an impassive soldier with an AK-47 slung carelessly across his shoulder. He beckoned us across to the checkpoint, where we handed over photocopies of our passport ID page and Pakistan visa. Both were scrupulously examined, as he compared the photographs with our frozen faces. After a short delay, they were exchanged for the precious entry-exit pass issued to foreign tourists entering the Chitral region.

"Take great care of these," he said. "Travel is not permitted without them."

The sky blackened as we climbed back aboard, and there was an ominous rumble. The first heavy blobs of snow began to hit the windshield as we queued up to enter the six-mile tunnel connecting Chitral to the outside world.

Author Notes List of Characters

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Rasheed - a Sikh taxi driver in Lahore, radicalised by ISIS
Abdul - a taxi driver in Islamabad, working under cover for the British High Commission
Hassim - a tour operator
Ash - a French liaison officer attached to the British High Commission in Islamabad. Also a member of the French anti-drug squad (la Brigade des stupefiants), whose operations are directed by Jeanne Durand.
Montague (Monty) - a member of staff at the British High Commission in Islamabad.
Sir Robert - the Deputy High Commissioner at the British High Commission in Islamabad (a personal friend and confidante of Group Captain David Bamforth, the British Air Attache in Paris)
Abdul Jaleel Zemar (The Lion) - Coordinator of an international network of ISIS cells
Helen Culverson - a woman of increasing mystery
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok and has surfaced again in Paris.
Group Captain Bamforth (alias Sir David Brockenhurst) - an intelligence officer with MI6 and Air Attache in Paris
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor and undercover agent with the French Drug Squad.
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman (now deceased)
Ian 'Bisto' Kidman - an ex-RAF friend of Charles's.
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Andre (aka Scaramouche) - an actor in Montmartre and friend of Kayla's
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Francoise Gaudin - Alain's intellectually disabled sister.
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious 'French letter' of 1903 was addressed.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Gaston Arnoux - Owner of an art gallery in Paris. A triple agent, who infiltrated the ISIS network in France and fed information to MI6, but who is now providing information to Abdul Jaleel Zemar (The Lion).
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - Gaston's grandfather. Author of the infamous letter of 1903.


Chapter 91
Gone to Ground

By tfawcus

Last paragraphs of Chapter 90...

Our games were interrupted by an impassive soldier with an AK-47 slung carelessly across his shoulder. He beckoned us across to the checkpoint, where we handed over photocopies of our passport ID page and Pakistan visa. Both were scrupulously examined, as he compared the photographs with our frozen faces. After a short delay, they were exchanged for the precious entry-exit pass issued to foreign tourists entering the Chitral region.

"Take great care of these," he said. "Travel is not permitted without them."

The sky blackened as we climbed back aboard, and there was an ominous rumble. The first heavy blobs of snow began to hit the windshield as we queued up to enter the six-mile tunnel connecting Chitral to the outside world.


Chapter 91

Several trucks were already in the queue, their intricate paintwork as gaudy as gypsy caravans. They groaned under loads twice the height of their cabs as they rumbled forward. It was hard to imagine such vehicles crossing the treacherous ten-thousand-foot pass, yet Hassim assured us they did, and that they sometimes still do.

"People die each year going over Loweri Top. Many accidents in bad weather, losing control and crashing into the ravines below. Some are being swept off the road by avalanches and rockfalls. A very dangerous road, swirling mists and so on." He continued with typical fatalism, "... but if the tunnel is closed, there's no other way."

We were about to move off when a Pakistani soldier climbed aboard. He sat next to Hassim, his gun resting lightly across his knees. Hassim turned and said, "This is our security guard. He'll be with us until we arrive in Chitral."

As he spoke, the leviathan in front of us started to roll into the darkness. Our headlights illuminated the ghostly load towering above us, and for a moment, I fancied its taillights to be the bloodshot eyes of a monster luring us into its den.

Our journey through the tunnel was slowed to walking pace at times. However, the delay faded into insignificance compared with a seven-hour trip over the top. At one stage we were stopped for more than a quarter of an hour. "It's a good thing that neither of us is claustrophobic," I said.

Helen edged closer to me. "I hope it won't be too much longer. There's an eerie feel to this place, and the air tastes stale."

Hassim glanced back and said, "The blizzard is slowing things down, but not to worry, there are snowploughs at the northern end to keep the road clear."

When we finally emerged, I understood the cause of our delay. A truck had slewed into the railings and lost part of its load. I could see boxes scattered on the verges, though a sufficient path had been cleared to allow vehicles around the accident. Shadowy figures stumbled here and there, scarcely visible in the whiteout conditions. Some were waving their arms, beckoning the traffic through.

We eventually squeezed past and set off on the final sixty miles of our journey. In good conditions, it would have taken four hours, but the chances of arriving before nightfall were dwindling. There were several military checkpoints along the way, and rumours of bandits were rife.

Ten miles before Chitral, we slowed down. Hassim pulled up and peered through his binoculars. He looked worried as he handed them to our armed guard. The visibility was intermittent in blowing snow, but there was the vague shadow of a stationary truck a hundred yards ahead. People were spread-eagled against the side of the vehicle with their hands above their heads.

He had already thrown the minibus into reverse when there was a sharp crack. The windscreen shattered, and his head jerked back. I saw a hole above his left eye, surrounded by curled vestiges of skin like the petals of a wilted daisy. Blood swamped the flower as he slumped forward over the steering wheel.

The minivan continued to roll backwards, bunny-hopping against the engaged gear. It was heading towards
a sheer drop into the Chitral River. Our escort yanked the door open and leapt out. He dropped to one knee and started firing, seemingly at random. Helen and I grabbed our packs from under the seat and, using them as shields, tumbled after him.

"Keep your head down," I said, as we scrambled and slid towards trees on the other side of the road, ducking and weaving as best we could. There were muffled screams and shouts behind us. I turned to see the minibus topple in slow motion and crash into the torrent below, taking our travelling companions with it. There were two or three dull thuds as it bounced from rock to rock, the sound of an explosion, then nothing. Nothing, that is, but the keening of the wind.

The snow was now blowing almost horizontally and forming deep drifts. The wind chill was potentially lethal. We needed to act soon. Helen was already shivering uncontrollably, whether from shock or from cold, I wasn't sure.

"We have to get away from here and dig in, fast, before nightfall." As I urged her on, I noticed she was limping. "Wait a minute," I said. I searched around until I found a stout branch, about four feet long.

"Here, take this, and follow me." I slung one backpack over each shoulder and set off across the slope, towards an escarpment of rock fifty yards beyond the trees. A solid bank of snow, about eight feet tall, had drifted against it.

Small, collapsible snow shovels were attached by leather straps to the outside of our packs. Despite gloves, my fingers were already numb, and I had difficulty with the simple task of undoing the straps and assembling the shovels.


I handed one to Helen. "What's this for?" she said. "Digging our graves?"

"A snow hole. We're not dead yet." I grinned at her. "We'll have to work together as a team. I'll dig into the drift, and you clear the snow away from behind me." 
I knew we had less than an hour.

"Are you sure you know what you're doing?"

Without answering, I started to dig. The last time I'd constructed a snow hole was twenty years earlier, on a winter survival course with the RAF in Norway. I hoped I could remember how.

At first, there was little for Helen to do, but as I went deeper into the drift, she had to follow behind to clear away the shovelled snow. I sloped the entrance tunnel slightly upwards to stop the warmer air from escaping. Before long, despite the cold, I started to perspire. It took twenty minutes of steady digging before I was ready to start on the sleeping platform at right-angles to the entrance tunnel. By this time, I was breathless and slowing down.

Helen tapped me on the backside with the handle of her spade. "Time to change places, Moldywarp. My bum's freezing."

I backed down the tunnel, relieved to have some respite. Our backpacks were already covered in snow, and I noticed that our tracks had been obliterated. With luck, the bandits would assume we had perished in the river.

Turn and turn about, we extended the platform in each direction until there was room to lay our sleeping bags out. While Helen smoothed the inside surface to stop water dripping down onto us, I retrieved our backpacks, brushing the snow off as best I could. As I passed them in to Helen, I said, "We'll need to keep these on the platform. Anything left in the tunnel will freeze."

The last thing I passed in was the stick. "What on earth ...? Is that to beat off the bandits?" She looked at me as though I had slipped a cog.

"No. Actually to poke a hole through the roof for ventilation so we don't suffocate. I've left the shovels close at hand in the entrance tunnel - in case it gets blocked."

Before long, I had a candle lit and started melting snow in a billycan. In the flickering light, I fancied I saw a look of admiration on her face, but I may have been wrong.

 

Author Notes List of Characters

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Rasheed - a Sikh taxi driver in Lahore, radicalised by ISIS
Abdul - a taxi driver in Islamabad, working under cover for the British High Commission
Hassim - a tour operator
Ash - a French liaison officer attached to the British High Commission in Islamabad. Also a member of the French anti-drug squad (la Brigade des stupefiants), whose operations are directed by Jeanne Durand.
Montague (Monty) - a member of staff at the British High Commission in Islamabad.
Sir Robert - the Deputy High Commissioner at the British High Commission in Islamabad (a personal friend and confidante of Group Captain David Bamforth, the British Air Attache in Paris)
Abdul Jaleel Zemar (The Lion) - Coordinator of an international network of ISIS cells
Helen Culverson - a woman of increasing mystery
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok and has surfaced again in Paris.
Group Captain Bamforth (alias Sir David Brockenhurst) - an intelligence officer with MI6 and Air Attache in Paris
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor and undercover agent with the French Drug Squad.
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman (now deceased)
Ian 'Bisto' Kidman - an ex-RAF friend of Charles's.
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Andre (aka Scaramouche) - an actor in Montmartre and friend of Kayla's
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Francoise Gaudin - Alain's intellectually disabled sister.
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious 'French letter' of 1903 was addressed.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Gaston Arnoux - Owner of an art gallery in Paris. A triple agent, who infiltrated the ISIS network in France and fed information to MI6, but who is now providing information to Abdul Jaleel Zemar (The Lion).
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - Gaston's grandfather. Author of the infamous letter of 1903.


Chapter 92
Dawn in the Hindu Kush

By tfawcus

The final paragraphs of Chapter 91...

The last thing I passed in was the stick. "What on earth ...? Is that to beat off the bandits?" She looked at me as though I had slipped a cog.

"No. Actually to poke a hole through the roof for ventilation so we don't suffocate. I've left the shovels close at hand in the entrance tunnel - in case it gets blocked."

Before long, I had a candle lit and started melting snow in a billycan. In the flickering light, I fancied I saw a look of admiration on her face, but I may have been wrong.


Chapter 92

The following morning, a
dull thud on my forehead shattered my dreams. Damp spread from the bullet hole. Expecting to wake up dead, I lay still before attempting to open my eyes. An ethereal translucence filtered up from the entrance tunnel to illuminate glistening surfaces and the soft outline of shadows.  In the opaque light, more moisture gathered around a point above my head. A second drop fell.

I sat up to wipe away the wet but was overcome with dizziness. I felt a rapid pulse in my temple and was aware of an incipient headache, warning signs that something was amiss. I realised that the ventilation was blocked. Helen was still sleeping, curled like a pupating caterpillar. I leant over her and started reaming out the air hole with the stick, causing a small avalanche to fall on her head.

"What's happening?" she said, shaking snow from her hair and staring around, confused.

"The sky is falling in! Quick! Quick! We must rush and tell the king."

My weak attempt at humour fell flat. The next thing I knew, she was on top of me, pinning my shoulders down. However, a mistress of The Art of the Eight Limbs is at a disadvantage when partially encased in a sleeping bag. I wriggled out from under her, but not before she had knelt on my bladder. This, combined with the cold and the damp, produced a sudden urgency, and I wriggled out of my cocoon.

"Wait here a moment," I said. "I'll be back soon."

I struggled into trousers, laced up my boots, and crawled down the tunnel. The entrance was partly blocked with drifted snow. The blizzard had blown itself out overnight, leaving orange flames of cloud above the sombre mountains, and I paused to breathe in the stark beauty before shovelling loose snow away and heading towards the trees.

The winding ribbon of road lay a couple of hundred yards below. Yellow and black tape cordoned off the verge where the minivan had plunged into the river, but there was no sign of activity. At five thousand feet, the crisp mountain air cut through the last strands of sleep, leaving me alert and cautious.

When I returned, I found Helen standing by an outcrop of rock above our cave, still as a sentinel. She held a pair of binoculars to her eyes and was looking out towards an escarpment to the east of the river. Something seemed to have caught her attention.

As I approached, she motioned with the flat of her hand for me to keep low and to keep quiet. She handed me the binoculars and pointed, indicating the line of sight. At first, I saw nothing but a stand of pine trees about half a mile away, beyond a dazzling slope of virgin snow. Then the markhor moved. It raised its head and seemed to be staring directly at us. Perhaps there had been a glint of sunlight reflected from the eyeglass. Judging from the majestic twist of its horns, it was a male in its prime. I could just make out a curl of vapour rising from its flared nostril like a genie escaping from a magic lamp.

My mind flashed back to the leather-bound journal of Bisto's grandfather, Sir Robert Kidman. I began to understand his fanciful description of the peri; the fragile winged spirit borne upon the dying breath of his trophy all those years ago; the guardian spirit that floated like a firefly across the void before entering his body and driving him mad.

"What a truly magnificent beast," I said. "Just like the trophy hanging above Bisto's mantelpiece."

"You mean the stuffed head your friend discarded in his garden shed?"

I was taken aback. "Steady on, old girl. It wasn't Bisto who shot it."

"It would have been, if he was here with a licence to hunt. But, in those days, the only licence needed was membership of the British Raj."

"You're being a bit unfair, aren't you?"

"Am I? Because of the likes of him, markhors are an endangered species."

I turned to have one last look, but the beast had disappeared.

"Invisibility is their only hope," she said, "and ours, too, come to that. The world believes we are dead, and for all intents and purposes, we must remain dead."

"Easier said than done."

"Not really. You see those mountains?" She pointed to the west, beyond the river. "Their outline is written in my heart. Deep in their cleft lie the three valleys of the Kalash. The sacred valleys of my mother's people. I have an aunt in Batrik, a mile south of the Bumburet Valley Police Checkpoint. As the crow flies, we are probably less than three miles from her house."

"As the crow flies?"

"In a straight line, across the river and over the mountains."

I looked at the raging torrent below and the snow-covered peaks beyond. "I see - but there's one small thing you seem to have missed - we're not crows."

She looked at me as if I were simple. "No, but under cover of darkness, we can follow the main road north and cross the river a couple of miles upstream, via the Kalash Valley Road. From there, we can make our way back south, skirting around the police checkpoint."

"You, me, and your twisted ankle."

"It's not that bad. I've strapped it, and we have the remainder of the day to rest up. My aunt will offer us sanctuary. She will do everything in her power to help us bring down Abdul Jaleel, the man who murdered her sister. The Kalash people have no love for The Lion."


It seemed to me a hare-brained scheme, but I was at a loss to suggest a better alternative. "All right," I said. "We'll see how you are come nightfall, though I doubt we can follow the road without being spotted."

As if to reinforce my point, a police van drew up below. Several men got out, and two of them abseiled down the rockface to the burnt-out wreck of the minibus. A few minutes later, a tow truck with a winch appeared. Helen and I crouched low and retreated to the safety of our shelter.

Author Notes List of Characters

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Rasheed - a Sikh taxi driver in Lahore, radicalised by ISIS
Abdul - a taxi driver in Islamabad, working under cover for the British High Commission
Hassim - a tour operator
Ash - a French liaison officer attached to the British High Commission in Islamabad. Also a member of the French anti-drug squad (la Brigade des stupefiants), whose operations are directed by Jeanne Durand.
Montague (Monty) - a member of staff at the British High Commission in Islamabad.
Sir Robert - the Deputy High Commissioner at the British High Commission in Islamabad (a personal friend and confidante of Group Captain David Bamforth, the British Air Attache in Paris)
Abdul Jaleel Zemar (The Lion) - Coordinator of an international network of ISIS cells
Helen Culverson - a woman of increasing mystery
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok and has surfaced again in Paris.
Group Captain Bamforth (alias Sir David Brockenhurst) - an intelligence officer with MI6 and Air Attache in Paris
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor and undercover agent with the French Drug Squad.
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman (now deceased)
Ian 'Bisto' Kidman - an ex-RAF friend of Charles's.
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Andre (aka Scaramouche) - an actor in Montmartre and friend of Kayla's
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Francoise Gaudin - Alain's intellectually disabled sister.
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious 'French letter' of 1903 was addressed.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Gaston Arnoux - Owner of an art gallery in Paris. A triple agent, who infiltrated the ISIS network in France and fed information to MI6, but who is now providing information to Abdul Jaleel Zemar (The Lion).
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - Gaston's grandfather. Author of the infamous letter of 1903.


Chapter 93
The Vultures Gather

By tfawcus

Last paragraphs of Chapter 92...

It seemed to me a hare-brained scheme, but I was at a loss to suggest a better alternative. "All right," I said. "We'll see how you are come nightfall, though I doubt we can follow the road without being spotted."

As if to reinforce my point, a police van drew up below. Several men got out, and two of them abseiled down the rockface to the burnt-out wreck of the minibus. A few minutes later, a tow truck with a winch appeared. Helen and I crouched low and retreated to the safety of our shelter.


Chapter 93

I was unnerved by the proximity of the police. We were only a couple of hundred yards from the road, and our dugout, which had been well camouflaged by the blizzard, was now a gaping hole with footprints all around it. I felt like a fox gone to earth, listening to the baying of hounds as they came closer.

Helen echoed my thoughts. "We can't stay here all day. They're bound to start searching the area before long."

"But there's nowhere to go. The Chitral road is too great a risk in broad daylight. We can't even get down onto it with the police swarming below."

"There is another way."

"Oh, yes? Enlighten me." I scrabbled about in the top of my pack in search of food and passed Helen an energy bar.

"There's no need for sarcasm. I was born here, and I know the area."

"But you grew up in Chitral. How well do you really know the Kalash valleys?"

"Better than you." Her eyes blazed as she bit into the bar. "Our mother often used to bring Kayla and me here when father was away. She didn't want us to lose touch with our roots."

I recalled our conversation in Versailles. "Yes, I remember. You told me he worked for the Aga Khan Programme. That would have taken him away from home quite often." I carried on rummaging around for more food and found two sachets of porridge. "I say! Do you think we could risk a fire?"

"Don't be such a fool." The way she snapped made me realise how much on edge we both were.

"Only joking - but I'm starving." I put the porridge back and brought out two oatmeal blocks. "These will have to do. I hope you've got strong teeth. You'll need them."

She took one and started unwrapping it. "We could cut back behind this ridge to Gabhirat. It was the last place we went through yesterday evening. Only a couple of miles south of here as the crow ..." She stopped and grinned when she saw the look on my face. "All right, three miles, perhaps. There's a river crossing there, onto the Birir Valley Road. It's a rough track and seldom used, but scarcely more than an hour's hike to the southern end of Ayun."

"Then what?"

"Then we'd have a four-hour hike to Batrik tomorrow."

"And overnight?"

"Don't worry. I'll find somewhere."

I did worry. I worried a lot. The idea of slogging for miles through snow with Helen was daunting enough without the added impediment of her injury.

"Are you sure you can make it, with your twisted ankle?"

"It's nothing. Just a slight sprain. The greater concern is whether you'll be able to keep up with me."

Nettled because I was afraid it might be true, I said, "We'll see."

It didn't take long for us to pack our things and, while Helen was re-strapping her ankle, I took cover behind a rocky outcrop to check what was happening below. I was relieved to see no sign of a wider search being organised.

There were still ominous banks of cloud on the horizon, but the sky overhead was clear and, even at this early hour, the sun was gaining strength. A shower of snow cascaded from the branch of a nearby pine tree, making me start. The thaw had begun.

Helen was already shouldering her backpack when I returned. She pointed to a scree slope. "We'll have to skirt around the bottom edge of that if we're to stay out of sight from the road. Once the sun gets onto it, the melting snow may destabilise the rocks." She tugged at my arm. "We should get going. The longer we delay, the more dangerous it will be."

We made good progress at first and were soon beyond the shelter of the ridge. The gurgling of the river below was faint, its echoes of laughter muffled by the snow. We felt oppressed by the burden of silence, broken only by the crunch of our boots and the sinister burble of freshets coursing through the shale.

The slide was slow when it came, a creeping flow, loose rocks rolling, a gradual rumble, a gathering roar, then boulders that bounced like beach balls across the ocean surge.

We backed away from the brink of destruction as small trees were torn from the ground. They tumbled like acrobats in a danse macabre. One or two small rocks skewed sideways and hurtled over our heads. I wrestled out of my backpack and held it up in front of my face in a futile attempt to ward off flying debris.

Helen grabbed my arm to pull me away from the danger, but I slipped and fell, dragging her down with me. My backpack was torn from my hand. As we stumbled to safety, it was borne away like a ragdoll in a roiling sea.

Within seconds, the last of the rocks came to rest. The sound subsided. The silence was complete. It was as if the world had come to a standstill. We clasped each other as we gazed at the scar carved out by the slide and stood, overawed by the devastation.

Three specks in the sky circled and slowly descended. As they wheeled above us, their serrated wingtips and long, scraggy necks came into clear focus.

"Look," said Helen. "Griffon vultures, down for a feed."

One of them landed close by and stood with shoulders hunched and head stretched forward. I shied a stone at it, but it lumbered to one side. It regarded us balefully, as if disappointed at our good fortune.

"Come on. Let's get out of here. That bird's giving me the creeps." Helen took me by the hand and started to lead me forward, picking her way through the rocks.

"Careful," I said. "You don't want to start another slide."

"You can say that again."

So I did. "Be careful. You don't want to start another slide."

"Oh, shut up!" she said, as she skipped the last few feet to safety, landing awkwardly.

I scrambled after her, dislodging a loose rock in my haste. It tumbled away harmlessly, coming to rest a few feet lower. I flushed as she arched her eyebrows at me.

We could already see a few wooden huts and buildings on the outskirts of Gabhirat below. As I followed her down the narrow track, I noticed that Helen's limp was more pronounced.

"Here, let me take your pack," I said. "You can lean on my shoulder if you like."

She acquiesced more easily than I had expected. "I turned my ankle again coming across those rocks. Nothing serious, but it's a bit sore. I shall be glad when we're down on the flat."

Author Notes List of Characters

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Rasheed - a Sikh taxi driver in Lahore, radicalised by ISIS
Abdul - a taxi driver in Islamabad, working under cover for the British High Commission
Hassim - a tour operator
Ash - a French liaison officer attached to the British High Commission in Islamabad. Also a member of the French anti-drug squad (la Brigade des stupefiants), whose operations are directed by Jeanne Durand.
Montague (Monty) - a member of staff at the British High Commission in Islamabad.
Sir Robert - the Deputy High Commissioner at the British High Commission in Islamabad (a personal friend and confidante of Group Captain David Bamforth, the British Air Attache in Paris)
Abdul Jaleel Zemar (The Lion) - Coordinator of an international network of ISIS cells
Helen Culverson - a woman of increasing mystery
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok and has surfaced again in Paris.
Group Captain Bamforth (alias Sir David Brockenhurst) - an intelligence officer with MI6 and Air Attache in Paris
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor and undercover agent with the French Drug Squad.
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman (now deceased)
Ian 'Bisto' Kidman - an ex-RAF friend of Charles's.
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Andre (aka Scaramouche) - an actor in Montmartre and friend of Kayla's
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Francoise Gaudin - Alain's intellectually disabled sister.
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious 'French letter' of 1903 was addressed.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Gaston Arnoux - Owner of an art gallery in Paris. A triple agent, who infiltrated the ISIS network in France and fed information to MI6, but who is now providing information to Abdul Jaleel Zemar (The Lion).
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - Gaston's grandfather. Author of the infamous letter of 1903.


Chapter 94
Some Awkward Questions

By tfawcus

Closing paragraphs of Chapter 93...

We could already see a few wooden huts and buildings on the outskirts of Gabhirat below. As I followed her down the narrow track, I noticed that Helen's limp was more pronounced.

"Here, let me take your pack," I said. "You can lean on my shoulder if you like."

She acquiesced more easily than I had expected. "I turned my ankle again coming across those rocks. Nothing serious, but it's a bit sore. I shall be glad when we're down on the flat."


Chapter 94

We were perhaps three hundred yards short of an orchard of apricot trees when the air began to reverberate with the steady thwhump, thwhump, thwhump of a helicopter rotor. We were on open ground with nowhere to take cover. It swooped over the ridge at about fifty feet. The noise was deafening, and we were nearly blown over by the downwash as it flew overhead. Fifty yards on, it reared up like a warhorse and wheeled around to face us before landing in a flurry of snow. Four men leapt to the ground, crouching low as they ran. They fanned out in a semicircle, covering us with their automatic weapons.

The two on our flanks circled in behind. The others waved us forward, an invitation reinforced by cold, hard muzzles jabbed into our backs. Helen was pushed away from me. She stumbled and fell but was prodded back to her feet again. As we approached the helicopter, our heads were pushed down, and we were propelled towards the door. Two of the men climbed aboard, grabbed our arms, and hauled us in after them. We had scarcely slumped into the webbing seats opposite before the aircraft lifted off again.

Shell-shocked by the sudden turn of events, we stared at the impassive faces of our captors. They wore the black shirts and berets of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa frontier police. Unsure where they were taking us, I glanced out at the river. We were flying upstream towards Chitral.

Ten minutes later we landed close to the edge of a large, open space. As the rotors slowed, Helen nudged me. "Oh, my God! This is the High School sports ground. I used to play hockey here."

"Jolly hockey sticks," I muttered through gritted teeth. "It looks as if we've just become pawns in a greater game."

Our captors escorted us across the road to the Chitral Police Station, and Helen gave me one last despairing look as she was dragged down a corridor and pushed through a door on the right. It was the last I was to see of her for some time.

I was taken to what I naïvely assumed to be an interview room. There was a wooden table in the middle with an upright chair on either side of it. My arm was pinioned, and I was frogmarched across to one of the chairs and secured with leather straps. My captor grinned, his body odour overpowering me as he leant forward to check their tightness. He yanked on them sharply, then stepped back with sadistic satisfaction and turned off the light. The door closed with a click.

The whole operation had taken place in silence. Weaselface apparently lacked conversational skills, and I was too scared to speak.

I was left tied up in the dark for what seemed like hours. I could hear occasional laughter outside, and the thin strip of light under the door was interrupted by shadows every time someone walked past. My arms were aching from the cruel restraint, and my imagination raced as I wondered what was in store for me.

Eventually, the door opened, and the light was turned back on. I screwed up my eyes against the glare. The man who entered had refined features and an aquiline nose. He stood in front of the table, eying me speculatively. Three rows of medal ribbons were attached to his uniform jacket. His right hand gently twirled the end of a thin, waxed moustache, and a sickly smell of hair oil invaded my nostrils.

"I am Tariq Habeeb, the Senior Superintendent of Police for this region." He walked a few paces towards the edge of the room and stopped with his back to me, apparently studying the anaemic, green paintwork before returning to his previous position.

With an air of bravado that I did not feel, I said, "I'm Charles Brandon, a British citizen under false arrest. This is outrageous. I demand consular representation."

"Demand?" He raised his swagger stick, and I thought for a moment he was going to hit me. Instead, he caressed the bare globe suspended from the ceiling and set it swinging. "May I see your papers, please?"

My stomach muscles fluttered briefly, and I felt an extreme urge to void. "They were in my backpack, which is now buried under a rockfall."

"So - you have no means of identification?" He sat down opposite me.

My mouth was suddenly so dry that I could barely speak. "May I have a glass of water, please?"

Scarcely raising his voice, he said, "Hussein, bring us a jug and two glasses."

It seemed that Weaselface had been expecting the order, for he appeared almost instantaneously with a tray. The Superintendent of Police poured a little water into one of the glasses and sipped it slowly.

"What is the purpose of your visit to Pakistan, Mr. Brandon?"

I looked at the empty glass in front of him and said nothing. He filled it and pushed it across the table towards me. "Untie Mr. Brandon's arms please, Hussein."

I grabbed the glass unsteadily with both hands and took a deep draught. "I'm here on a trekking holiday." I rubbed my wrists to restore circulation before continuing. "We were on our way to explore the lower slopes of Tirich Mir."

"Ah, Tirich Mir, the one we call the King of Darkness. Its shadow falls upon Chitral. A fascinating mountain but dangerous." He moved his glass a little to the right. "... but you were travelling in the opposite direction when we picked you up. Why was that?"

"We were on our way to seek help. Miss Culverson had twisted her ankle."

"Really? If you were in need of assistance, I'm surprised you didn't make yourself known to the police salvaging your vehicle. Instead, it seems that you chose to sneak away from your snowhole like fugitives."

So, they had discovered the snowhole and our tracks leading away from it. That explains the helicopter.

Switching subjects, he said, "You have heard of Abdul Jaleel?"

"Yes," I blurted out, without thinking. "Isn't he the one they call The Lion?"

"I'm surprised at the extent of your knowledge, Mr. Brandon. When did you say you arrived in Pakistan?"

"I didn't. We landed in Lahore three days ago."

"Ah, yes. The day of the Liberty Market bombing. That was also Abdul Jaleel's doing."

"But I thought ..."

"But you thought Zaheed was a Sikh, a member of the Separatist Movement."

"Zaheed? Who is Zaheed?"

"Don't play games with me, Mr. Brandon. When we stripped away the scarlet turban, guess what we found beneath: an Islamic extremist. He squealed like a rabbit before he died." Habeeb paused to let the information sink in. "How did you get to Islamabad?"

"We caught the train next morning, the Subak Raftar Express."

"I don't think so. We would have known. The station was under heavy surveillance. We were looking specifically for the European man and woman who had been seen climbing into Rasheed's taxi after the bombing." Once again, he paused. "... unless, of course, you were in disguise - but there would have been no reason for that, would there?"

He got up and moved towards the door. "The Charles Brandon who landed at Lahore Airport told Immigration that he was a writer who had come to our country on a working holiday with his wife. They were apparently intending to do some research for an article extolling the virtues of our beautiful country. Are you that Charles Brandon, I wonder, or is this an intriguing case of identity theft?"

He nodded towards Hussein, who came up behind me and re-tied my arms to the chair, giving a particularly vicious twist that made me wince with pain.

"I shall be back, Mr. - er - Brandon. We are also interested to know why you were the only two people in the trekking group to escape, and why Abdul Jaleel's men did not hunt you down and kill you."

As a parting gesture, Hussein threw the remains of the jug of water in my face and spat on the floor.

Author Notes List of Characters

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Rasheed - a Sikh taxi driver in Lahore, radicalised by ISIS
Abdul - a taxi driver in Islamabad, working under cover for the British High Commission
Hassim - a tour operator
Ash - a French liaison officer attached to the British High Commission in Islamabad. Also a member of the French anti-drug squad (la Brigade des stupefiants), whose operations are directed by Jeanne Durand.
Montague (Monty) - a member of staff at the British High Commission in Islamabad.
Sir Robert - the Deputy High Commissioner at the British High Commission in Islamabad (a personal friend and confidante of Group Captain David Bamforth, the British Air Attache in Paris)
Tariq Habeeb - the Senior Superintendent of Police in Chitral
Abdul Jaleel Zemar (The Lion) - Coordinator of an international network of ISIS cells
Helen Culverson - a woman of increasing mystery
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok and has surfaced again in Paris.
Group Captain Bamforth (alias Sir David Brockenhurst) - an intelligence officer with MI6 and Air Attache in Paris
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor and undercover agent with the French Drug Squad.
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman (now deceased)
Ian 'Bisto' Kidman - an ex-RAF friend of Charles's.
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Andre (aka Scaramouche) - an actor in Montmartre and friend of Kayla's
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Francoise Gaudin - Alain's intellectually disabled sister.
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious 'French letter' of 1903 was addressed.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Gaston Arnoux - Owner of an art gallery in Paris. A triple agent, who infiltrated the ISIS network in France and fed information to MI6, but who is now providing information to Abdul Jaleel Zemar (The Lion).
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - Gaston's grandfather. Author of the infamous letter of 1903.


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