General Fiction posted January 22, 2020 Chapters:  ...107 108 -109- 110... 

This work has reached the exceptional level
Chapter 109: In which we meet a gnome in a pancake hat.

A chapter in the book The French Letter

A Thief in the Night

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 108 ...

"We should leave," I said. "Thank your aunt for her hospitality. We'll be back in the morning, refreshed from a good night's sleep and ready for our journey to The Lion's den."

"We? I thought I was meant to go alone."

"You don't really think we'd let that happen, do you? We'll be with you every step of the way. You can depend on it." I gave her a light kiss on the hand as we left. Gallantry is not dead.

She might have wondered about that as she stood waving us goodbye from the veranda, for there was a sickening crunch of gears as Bisto goaded his trusty steed into action and we lurched down the road.

Chapter 109

Fortunately, we had only a few hundred yards to drive before pulling up outside a two-storey wooden building. Like the Hindu Kush Heights, the upper floor had a balcony running along its length, overlooking the valley below. A sign by the entrance showed a mountain goat standing on a rocky outcrop beneath the inscription, 'Markhor Lodge'. A small man with a wispy grey beard stood beside it. His traditional Chitrali cap was a little too large for him and resembled a pancake perched on a coil of rope.

Bisto nudged me. "What a strange-looking chap. He looks like a gnome hiding under a mushroom."

"Shhh! He might hear you."

"Good evening, gentlemen and welcome." The man bowed with a theatrical flourish and continued in fluent English, "I am Chaprasi, your host. Follow me, please." As he escorted us into the building, he expressed great delight that we were friends of Mozama's. "She is a wonderful lady. Any friend of hers is a friend of mine. You will, of course, be staying here as my guests. No payment required."

I protested, but he would have none of it. "Mozama has arranged everything," he said. "Your travelling companion
is in the end room on the ground floor. He has already retired. Unfortunately, he was feeling unwell. The wound in his leg throbbed and he had a headache, so I gave him something to help him sleep."

"Put him to sleep," Bisto said. "Brilliant idea." I frowned and dug him in the ribs, but Chaprasi carried on chatting away, unaware of the euphemism.

"You two gentlemen are in the room next to his, so you can all be together. I hope you don't mind sharing."

"Not at all," I said. "You have been very thoughtful."

As soon as our host departed, Bisto announced he was going to turn in. I didn't intend to be far behind him but felt guilty about Ash. I thought I'd better look in on him so went down the passage and tapped on his door. There was no response. I bent to look through the keyhole and could see his light on. I tapped again, this time a little louder.

"Hello, Ash. It's Charles. Are you all right in there?" Still no response.

I tried turning the knob, but the door was locked. Normally, I would have left it at that, but in view of what Chaprasi had said, I decided to go back to the foyer and ask for a key. However, Chaprasi was nowhere to be seen, and he didn't answer the night bell. I noticed that the outside light hadn't yet been turned off. Perhaps he had gone around to see a neighbour. I scratched the back of my head and was about to give up and return to our room when I changed my mind. "No, dash it," I thought aloud, "I'll go around and check at the window. There's probably nothing to worry about, but I ought to make sure."

The pool of illumination by the front door didn't extend very far and, while trying to reach the window, I tripped on a rock and stumbled into a rosebush. Muttering curses, I extricated myself, but not without catching the back of my hand on a particularly vicious thorn. It must have nicked a vein, for I felt blood dripping through my fingers. Thoroughly out of sorts, I clambered back up and peered in. The sight that met my eyes made me even more furious.

Ash was lying in bed fast asleep. A book he'd been reading lay open on his chest. It rose and fell in time with his breathing. There'd been nothing to worry about, after all. Obviously, whatever Chaprasi had given him to help him sleep had been highly effective. I did notice, however, that he'd taken the precaution of chaining the briefcase to one of the legs of the brass bedstead. Who wouldn't, with two million euros inside?

By the time I got back to our room, I found Bisto already in bed. He looked at me in astonishment. "What on earth have you been doing? You look a frightful mess."

Feeling I'd made a bit of an idiot of myself, I said, "I went out for a breath of fresh air and to look at the night sky. You can see millions of stars in this clear mountain atmosphere, but it would have been better if I'd looked where I was putting my feet. I turned my ankle on a rock, lost my balance, and fell into a rosebush."

"Bloody fool," he said, as he turned out his light.

Sleep eluded me as I lay thinking about what was to come. The idea of all three of us accompanying Kayla to her rendezvous didn't quite gel. I remembered the terms of Abdul Jaleel's demand. Kayla was to deliver the ransom money, and it was to be Kayla, alone. Three stooges darting from rock to rock trying to keep out of sight was a vaudeville act bound to end in disaster. We'd probably all get shot. My smile at the thought faded as I recalled the other part of his threat. Small injections at first, then increasing doses. These people didn't mess around. Poor Helen, I was worried sick about her.

Our only hope, as far as I could see, was Bamforth's mole in Jaleel's inner circle. I didn't give much for our chances, though. His best idea for passing a list of top ISIS operatives to me had been to hide it in a pear and chuck it at me
while shouting, 'Allahu Akbar!' at the top of his voice. Ye gods, what kind of low-grade farce was this?

Eventually, I drifted into an uneasy sleep, which did nothing to dispel my fears. On the contrary, it lent them a nightmare quality. I dreamt I lay with my lifeblood ebbing away. A huge pig emerged from the cave and started drooling and snuffling around us. It was making a devil of a din. I sat bolt upright in a cold sweat, terrified at the thought of being torn to pieces by a wild boar. Even when I was wide awake, the snorting and snuffling didn't go away. Bloody Bisto! If I'd had a dummy at hand, I'd have stuck it in his mouth.

The following morning, shortly after dawn, Ash burst into our room shouting, "Wake up! I've been robbed! Someone broke in through the window. My briefcase is gone."

"Impossible," I said. "I don't believe it."

"That man, Chaprasi, drugged me. I was dead to the world. Just wait till I get hold of him. This is a matter for the police." An icy tone crept into his voice. "It'll be no trouble tracking down the thief. There are footprints all through the flower bed, and there's blood on the windowsill. He must have cut himself on the glass."

"Are you saying he broke a window? Surely, that would have woken all of us," Bisto said.

"Not the way he did it," said Ash. "He used a rubber plunger to pull the pane out. It's still there, lying under a rosebush. The putty holding the glass was cracked and brittle. Quite useless." He paused as if lost in thought and stood stroking his lower lip. "What I can't understand is how he managed to get the briefcase. It was chained to the leg of my bed."

"Really? What treasures in it made you do that?" Ash met Bisto's question with a withering look. "O.K., I get the message. Maybe I need to check on my onions again." I grinned at Bisto. It was good to see he was able to make a joke of things this morning.

"Could he have lifted the end of the bed and slid it out underneath?" I asked.

"Yes, I suppose that's possible. Unlikely, but possible."

"Perhaps we should go and tell Kayla her trip won't be necessary now," I said. "After all, without the ransom money, what's the point?"

"You're not quite such a fool as you look,
Mr Brandon. How long have you known about the money?"

"That's not important. The point is - what are we going to do next? The clock is ticking."

"We're going to track down the thief and get the money back. First, we must find that scoundrel, Chaprasi, and get him to summon the police." As he left the room, he added, "By the way, that's a nasty cut on your hand. You ought to get it seen to."



List of Characters

Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Abdul Jaleel Zemar (The Lion) - Coordinator of an international network of ISIS cells
Helen Culverson - A Kalasha woman,
Kayla Culverson - her older sister
Auntie Mozama - their aunt
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor and undercover agent with the French Drug Squad.
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.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Francoise Gaudin - Alain's intellectually disabled sister.
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
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
Group Captain Bamforth (alias Sir David Brockenhurst) - an intelligence officer with MI6 and Air Attache in Paris
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.
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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