General Fiction posted November 24, 2019 Chapters:  ...96 97 -98- 99... 

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Chapter 98: Some questions answered.

A chapter in the book The French Letter

Back to Civilisation

by tfawcus

Seconded to MI6, Charles and Helen are in Pakistan on a mission in the Hindu Kush to neutralise Abdul Jaleel Zemar (The Lion), leader of an international terrorist network.

Last paragraphs of Chapter 97...

"There's plenty to tell but all in good time. Look, here's the hotel"

As we swung into the driveway, the scent of rosemary and winter jasmine filled my senses. A magnificent old building rose up out of the side of the mountain. My first impression, as we drove through immaculate gardens, was of the intricate wooden verandahs that overlooked the valley below. Guests leant over the balustrade, mocktails in hand, admiring the sweeping panorama with its rugged backdrop of mountains. There was a sense of timeless tranquillity.

Chapter 98

I tapped Bisto on the shoulder. "I say, Ian, I can't go in through the front door looking like this. Isn't there another entrance? Somewhere I can sneak in unnoticed."

He understood my predicament perfectly. "I'm not sure but, if you wait here with Kayla, I'll see what I can find out."

Kayla couldn't see the problem. She laughed at me. "You're such a stuffed shirt, Charles. What does it matter what people think?"

I stiffened at the insult, for that is what I took it to be, and was about to rebuff her when I realised she was teasing me. She reminded me of her sister, Helen.

Although Kayla was immaculately dressed and well-groomed, she had a drawn look, one might even say haunted. I shifted focus from my own sorry state. Two months earlier, she had been comatose in her Paris apartment, suffering withdrawal symptoms, and on the verge of a breakdown. The change was remarkable, though I feared that it might only be a veneer.

During the minutes Bisto was away, I studied her more carefully. She squirmed under my gaze and became defensive. "Don't stare at me like that!"

"I'm sorry. I was only thinking how marvellous you're looking. It's wonderful to see you again - and such a surprise."

We both knew what I meant, and there was an uneasy silence. While she groped for a suitable rejoinder, Bisto returned. He looked very pleased with himself as he handed me a long overcoat and a trilby hat. "Here, put these on. They'll cover the worst of you. I'll drive around and park at the rear."

"My God, I shall look like a character from The Third Man. I hope nobody sees me." I set the hat at a rakish angle over my right eye and started whistling the 'Harry Lime Theme'.

Bisto chuckled. "More like the mad monk, Rasputin. Anyway, good to see you're recovering your spirits, old man. I'm delighted." He pointed at a fire escape. "That's your way in. The door is open, and someone will be up there to show you the way to your room."

What had started as a potential embarrassment was now a game. I was both glad and relieved to have my old friend around. We understood each other perfectly. Just how perfectly, I was soon to find out.

A set of clothes befitting an Englishman abroad had been laid out at the foot of the bed: a raw silk shirt, a maroon cravat, beige corduroy trousers and green suede shoes. The latter
were what my Aunt Agatha used to call brothel creepers. No matter how well manicured the fingernails or how sharp the crease in the trousers, anyone fool enough to wear such things in her presence was a social outcast. 'Not one of us, dear', she would say.

I smiled to myself as I went into the bathroom. A pair of scissors and shaving gear were beside the hand basin. I picked up the shaving brush and ceramic soap dish and was about to start lathering when I realised why I needed the scissors. An hour later, bathed and clean-shaven, I slipped into the fresh clothes. I was adjusting my cravat when there was a gentle tap on the door. Dammit, if Bisto hadn't arranged for a barber to come up to my room.

Before going downstairs, I glanced in the mirror. The transformation was remarkable and dispelled my feeling of insecurity. It was going to take a long time to recover from my ordeal, but at least I looked human again.

I nearly funked it when I reached the top of the staircase. A portly gentleman was mounting the rough-hewn flagstone steps and making heavy weather of the ascent. He had a younger lady on his arm who looked as though she would have been more at home on a Paris catwalk.

I expected them to shrink away as they passed. Instead, they paused on a landing between the two flights, partly, I think, to let him catch his breath, but also to let me past. As I approached them, he greeted me with an openness that would have been unlikely had they known where I'd spent the last few weeks.

"What brings you to the Hindu Kush Heights, sir? It is unusual these days to see foreign tourists here - and a great pleasure, of course."

He introduced himself as Abdul and his partner as Genevieve. I smiled at her, nodding my head slightly, and shook his hand. His face was familiar. I had an uneasy feeling that I should have known who he was.

When I gave my name, Genevieve said, "Good Lord! Not the travel writer? What a pleasure to meet you. I'm a great fan." She hesitated and glanced at her partner. "We'd be delighted if you would join us for dinner - wouldn't we, Abdul, dear?"

"Of course. Delighted."

I demurred, realising that I was getting out of my depth. "You're very kind, but I am here at the invitation of friends."

When I reached the lobby, I cast my eyes around to see if I could catch sight of Bisto and Kayla. They were sitting on a leather chesterfield near the window and in animated discussion over what looked suspiciously like two glasses of wine.

"I thought Pakistan was a teetotal country," I said.

"It is, but non-Muslims can get a drink in a 5-star hotel if they want one. Kayla was keen for me to try a glass of mulberry wine from the Kalash Valley. It's very good. Can I get you one?"

"No, thanks. I'll have a Doodh soda if you're buying."

"A Doodh soda? What the hell's that?"

"Milk and 7-Up."

"I don't believe it - milk and 7-Up? You astound me, Charles! Sounds absolutely revolting."

Bewitching as a ray of sunshine, Kayla chipped in with, "Before you know it, you'll be a true local." Obviously, she was wanting to make up for the 'stuffed shirt' comment. I smiled. She and Helen were easy to forgive.

The thought of her sister stung me to my senses. "You were going to tell me what you know about Helen. Is she safe?"

The revelations that followed sent my head spinning. "The short answer, Charles, is that we don't know." Bisto then went on to tell me what had happened. "I received a phone call from her a few weeks ago. It must have been a day or two after you were imprisoned. She was distraught. Much of what she said made little sense to me, but I gathered she had tried to contact Kayla without success."

"Yes, Alain and I had gone up to Versailles for a few days. He thought the change would do me good. Besides, he'd had some disturbing news about his sister."

"Anyway," Bisto continued, "she wanted me to sell that portrait Lautrec painted of Alain's great grandmother. The trouble was, he'd only agreed to let Helen act as agent, and she wasn't able to leave the country. She was desperately hoping that Kayla could convince him I'd be trustworthy."

"That was a big ask," Kayla said. "As you know, he detested you. I thought the last thing he'd have considered was springing you from jail."

"So, how did you convince him? Assuming you did convince him, of course."

"As I said, we went to Versailles together because of his sister. She'd fallen ill and wasn't being well cared for in the nursing home. Alain was at his wits' end. He needed a large sum of money, and he needed it fast. Convincing him to sell the picture was easy, and he was quick to realise Ian would be able to negotiate the intricacies of the auction houses better than he would."

"Lucky I'd left the key to the safety deposit box with him, wasn't it?"

"Yes, I was puzzled about that," Bisto said. "I couldn't understand why you were so anxious for me to look after it."

"Because it contained the painting and the letter establishing ownership and provenance. I knew Helen and I were heading into a dangerous situation and we might not come out alive. I needed to be sure that someone reliable had the key."

"Oh, I see. A precautionary measure. Rather like a French letter." Bisto blushed furiously as he said it. "Sorry, my dear. I'm afraid that just slipped out."

Kayla giggled. "Did it really? How unfortunate for you."

It took him a moment to realise what she meant. Meanwhile, we both collapsed laughing, leaving the poor man even more flustered than before.

"How beastly of you," he said. "Come on, let's have an early dinner."

There were still many unanswered questions, but the tyranny of the stomach took precedence. I was starving.


List of Characters

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Rasheed - a taxi driver in Lahore, radicalised by ISIS
Abdul - a taxi driver in Islamabad, working undercover 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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