General Fiction posted August 11, 2019 Chapters:  ...76 77 -78- 79... 


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Chapter 78: Final preparations.

A chapter in the book The French Letter

Up, Up and Away

by tfawcus

Book of the Month Contest Winner 



Background
Charles and Helen are poised to set off on an assignment in Pakistan to neutralise the leader of an international group of ISIS terrorist cells.
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.


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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
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