General Fiction posted February 21, 2020 Chapters:  ...114 115 -116- 


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Chapter 116: Charles's adventures are over ... or are they?

A chapter in the book The French Letter

The Final Chapter

by tfawcus




Background
Seconded to MI6, Charles and Helen are in Pakistan having successfully completed a mission in the Hindu Kush to neutralise Abdul Jaleel Zemar (The Lion), leader of an international terrorist network.
The closing paragraphs of Chapter 115 ...

I smiled, struggling to hold back my tears. "Then I shall wait till the spring. Who knows? By then, you may have found a husband to help you run Markhor Lodge, and you'll have no further need of my Helen."

Bisto chose that moment to join us. "Time we were off, Charles, old chap. No good moping around here. I've said our goodbyes, and if we leave now, we'll be back in Chitral before nightfall."

Kayla gave me a hug. "I'll see you again before you go. You've been such a wonderful friend to us both."


Chapter 116

I was devastated at the thought of leaving Helen, but Kayla and Bisto persuaded me there was nothing else I could do for the time being.

"For everyone's sake, Charles, come and spend a few days at the Hindu Kush Heights. Give the old girl a bit of space to get herself together. She's been through a rough time, don't you know? Truth be known, she's probably suffering from shell shock."

Trust Bisto to use that term, but I acknowledged the possibility that Helen was suffering from post-traumatic stress, so I reluctantly agreed. A few days turned into a week. I tagged along as Bisto searched for information about his great-grandfather's part in raising the famous siege of 1895. He was delighted to find copies of rare photographs and sketches when we visited the fort, and he managed to convince himself one of them was of the old man himself.

"I'm sure that's him! The one with whiskers and a pipe clenched between his teeth. Sitting on the chair with his arms akimbo and a pith helmet pushed down over his eyes. Mad as a hatter! I told you, didn't I, that he suffered from shellshock, too? Off with the fairies, poor chap."

His words made me wonder how Helen was getting on. I was itching to get back to see her again. Then, one afternoon, Kayla appeared out of the blue. We'd just finished a splendid lunch at the hotel, and I was trying to dissuade Bisto from joining a group setting off the next day on a hunting expedition. They were planning to shoot markhor on the slopes of Tirich Mir.

"Bad idea, Bisto. They're a threatened species, just like you and me. If you want to shoot the blessed things, do it with a camera, for God's sake."

"You're probably right. Not sure I can afford it anyway. They charge a king's ransom for the privilege. I'd have enjoyed putting paid to all that nonsense about fairy spirits, though."

This was when Kayla breezed in, all dolled up in a traditional Kalash dress: loose-fitting black cotton intricately embroidered in emerald green and Byzantine blue around the collar and cuffs. She looked a million dollars as she plonked herself down next to us. "Hello, darlings! What are you busy discussing?"

"Don't you look a sight for sore eyes, my dear. Off to a fancy-dress party?"

Kayla gave Bisto a withering look and turned to me. "How are you getting on, Charles?"

"Oh, so-so, I suppose. More to the point, how's Helen?"

"That's what I've come to see you about. If anything, she's getting worse. She freaks out at the sight of men. Even
Chaprasi, and goodness knows, he's harmless enough."

"Not when he's got a loaded sock in his hand!" Bisto said. The thought made me wonder what had become of Ash. I supposed we'd find out one day.

"She's all right with Auntie Mozama and the girls, but we can't get her to leave the house. She just sits on the veranda or lies on her bed. Scarcely eats anything. Hardly talks, and when she does, never about what happened to her. It's going to take a long time for her to recover - if she ever does."

"I must see her."

"It would be better not to. Honestly, there's nothing you can do. I'm going to stay here with her and nurse her through it as best I can." She fingered her necklace of cowrie shells, and I sensed she had something else important to say. "I've been talking with Chaprasi, and he's agreed to sell me
Markhor Lodge. I'm going to turn it into a proper medical facility for the valley."

"But where will you get the money?"

"Better you don't ask."

The cunning vixen. Of course! I only hoped the notes weren't marked. Not that it mattered much. I was sure she would find a way of laundering them.

"Perhaps Helen will be able to give me a hand running the place when she gets better. I'll keep in touch and let you know how she's getting on. Promise. Don't forget the story of the Milkhon. Maybe you'll be able to come back next year for the Spring Festival. Both of you," she added, turning to Bisto.

"Not me! Too much to do in the spring. Can't leave Biggles again anyway. He'll be missing me dreadfully."

"That's a disappointment. I was beginning to think you cared for me, too."

Bisto flushed. "I do, but you're going to be here, and I'm going to be in England, so what's the point?"

There was an awkward silence between them. I sensed it was one of those forked roads in life where choices must be made.

"I'll think about it," Bisto said at last, and that's how it was left.

 
#

The following day we boarded the Fokker Friendship. Monty was there to meet us when we landed in Islamabad.

"Jolly good show," he said. "We heard all about it. Sir Robert is delighted. Asked me to pass on his congratulations. He says he wouldn't be surprised to see you in the New Year's Honours list. Sir Charles Brandon. It has a nice ring to it, don't you think?"

I cleared my throat. "I think I'll just stick with Walnut if you don't mind. I would never
live it down at The Fallen Angel."

I could just imagine John pulling me a pint of bitter and handing it to me with mock deference, 'There you go, Sir Charles', and Bess in the background giving a curtsey. Memories of Moonraker Cottage were still sharp. How I had loved the old place. No matter what else, I was determined to find another cottage in Wiltshire when the insurance money was paid out.

"What happened to Ash?" I asked. "He was in pretty bad shape last time we saw him."

"Going back to Madame Durand's outfit in Paris, I think. Sir Robert's sent him packing. Won't tolerate that kind of behaviour associated with the High Commission. Liaison Officer, my foot. He thought it a dashed strange way to liaise. Anyway, changing the subject, how's Apricot?"

For a moment, I was lost. "Oh, you mean Helen. She's not doing well. Staying in Bumburet with her sister for a while."

"Sorry to hear it. There's one other thing. Sir Robert wondered if you could take a small package back to London. It's for Group Captain Bamforth."

"You must be joking."

"No, really. Just a small gift. A painting, I believe."

"Not bloody likely! Tell him he can give it to Ash. After all, he's the one going to Paris."

Bisto chortled. I don't think Monty understood our reaction.

 
#

We touched down at Heathrow on a typical November day with low cloud and drizzle. Bisto had asked me to stay with him at The Willows until I got things sorted out. Jolly decent of him. His heart's always been in the right place. Apart from wanting to cheer me up, I suspected he'd be glad of the company. It was a big house and one haunted with memories. I had no doubt we'd be spending long winter evenings together mulling over old times and knocking back innumerable glasses of port.

The flight from Islamabad to London had taken eight and a half hours, but with the five-hour time difference, it apparently took almost no time at all. That certainly wasn't what my body was telling me. It didn't help that Monty had booked us First Class on British Airways. We were both somewhat sloshed by the time we disembarked, and I was glad to find Bisto's next-door neighbour there to meet us.

She was waiting in the pick-up area in a muddy old shooting brake with Biggles on the back seat. Bisto gave her a feeble grin, then there was a touching reunion between man and dog. I sensed from the look in her eye, that the kindly neighbour wouldn't have minded being included in the welcome, so I climbed into the front beside her and made small talk. I looked back occasionally to see Biggles continuing to reestablish the bond with his long-lost master, licking his face and covering him with extraordinary quantities of hair and slobber.

 
#

The winter passed pleasantly enough in Bisto's company. We took long walks together, frequented The Three Horseshoes at Henley rather more often than was good for us, and on Sundays, we attended the Church of St Margaret in Harpsden-cum-Bolney and laid fresh flowers on Jenny's grave. This sombre winter ritual made me realise the depth and infinity of his grief compared with mine.

 
It wasn't until the following April that we heard from Kayla. The Spring Festival was a little over a month away. Her brief note let us know that plans for the new medical facility at Markhor Lodge were well advanced and that Helen was beginning to recover. Apparently, she had asked if I could go over to Paris and collect her things from Madame Bisset. It was a journey I'd been meaning to make for some time. I, too, had belongings stored in Helen's apartment on Avenue de Villiers.

I also wanted to look up Alain Gaudin. I had no doubt that his infatuation with Kayla was the sole reason he'd bailed me out from Chitral Jail. However, I still needed to thank him personally and give him the latest news
of Helen and Kayla. If Bisto did decide to stay at home, I thought I might ask Alain to join me on the Kalash trip. It would be good to mend bridges.

 
As things turned out, my attempts to track down Alain were unsuccessful. However, I found out that his sister had suffered a stroke and died. The staff at the nursing home thought he'd gone overseas after the funeral, but they weren't sure where.

#

My trip to Paris was brief. The high point was Madeleine Bisset's reaction when I knocked at her door. She appeared in curlers and a violet cardigan, with Serafina clutched under one arm.

"Mon Dieu! If it isn't Monsieur Charles returned from his trial honeymoon." She dropped Serafina and threw her arms around me, kissing me extravagantly on each cheek. "But where is Helen?"

"She is in Pakistan with her sister. I'm going to join them next month." I spared her the details. "She thought it only fair to remove our things from your apartment as we won't be back for some time."

"Oh, how you young people get around. I can't keep up." She bent to scoop Serafina back into her arms. I felt an almighty sneeze building up and took a step back. "I'll miss her, bless her, but you must tell her to stop sending me handsome men. It's not good for me at my age. Such a lovely gentleman, the one who came to collect the key. I was - how do you say? - distrait for the rest of the week."

My next stop was the British Embassy. I hailed a taxi but was taken aback when the driver took one look at me and exclaimed, "Oh là là!" I thought him quite mad and put it down to his being French.

I climbed in and said, "Take me to the Ambassade Britannique on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, please." Several times during the journey, he glanced at me in his rear-view mirror and smirked. Damn his impudence, I thought. I shan't give him a tip.

On arrival at the embassy, James, the urbane Head of Administration, opened the door. A strange look crossed his face before he greeted me. "It's good to see you again, Mr Brandon. Come this way please."

He paused in front of a large mirror in the hall. It was in a richly carved, gilt frame. "Louis XIV, sir. A beautiful piece, isn't it?"

I stared at my reflection. There were livid smears of lipstick on both my cheeks. James coughed discreetly. He studiously examined a portrait of the infamous Princess Borghese on the opposite wall as I attempted to wipe the marks off with my pocket-handkerchief.

My cheeks were still lightly rouged when the Air Attaché, Group Captain David Bamforth, came walking down the corridor towards me. He was deep in conversation with His Excellency, the Ambassador.

"Ah, Charles. Let me introduce you to Sir Edward."

The Ambassador stretched out his hand. "I hear congratulations are in order, Mr Brandon. Sir Robert sent me a full report from Islamabad last November, detailing your outstanding service to Queen and Country. If I may say so, your actions have saved many innocent lives. Our man, Asim, was able to send a full list of ISIS operatives in Europe. Splendid work." He paused to consult a gold fob watch. "Must be getting along, I'm afraid. Running late. It's been a pleasure meeting you." He reminded me of the White Rabbit.

David smiled, basking in the reflected glory. "I'll be with you in about ten minutes, Charles. James will show you up. You'll find an old friend already there."

James escorted me to the top floor and ushered me into David's palatial office. Jeanne Durand was in an immaculate tweed suit, gazing out of the window. She turned as I entered.

"Well, Charles, you are a surprise. The Lion captured, the drug haul blown up before it reached Paris, and the British 'mole' able to make good his escape with his list of ISIS operatives. Is there no end to your ingenuity?"

"... and only one casualty on our side," I said bitterly.

"How is she?"

"None the better for your asking."

The ensuing silence was broken by a familiar sound of fairy bells as the mantle clock struck the half-hour. I was still thinking of my meeting with the Air Attaché a few months earlier when the door opened. The great man looked flustered as he gestured towards three seats by the window.

"I must be brief, I'm afraid. To cut to the chase, Jeanne wants to retain the services of the Culverson sisters as undercover operatives for the French Drug Squad. What do you think, Charles.? Will they do it? You know them better than almost anyone."


"Why can't you just leave them alone? Haven't they already done enough for you? Anyway, it's a crazy idea. Everyone in the valley knows about Kayla's part in capturing The Lion. She'd hardly be undercover."

"That's for us to decide." His tone was dismissive. "British interests are closely aligned with the French when it comes to intercepting drug running in that part of the world. You would make a first-class liaison officer between the Culversons and the High Commission. An advantage, from your point of view, is that it would put you in a position to help Helen through her recovery. Think about it, at least." He pushed his chair back and clasped his hands behind his head. I remained silent, nonplussed by his offer, and unsure how to respond. "The position comes with free accommodation and a generous allowance. It might suit you for a year or two now you've lost your base in the West Country."

Mention of my beloved cottage was the tipping point. "You still don't get it, do you? I'm finished with all this. Kayla and Helen are, too. That's the end of it."

"I'm sorry to hear you say so, Charles. You make a fine team, but if that's the way you feel, we'll leave it there ... for the time being, at any rate."

His closing words echoed in my mind as I left the embassy and headed down towards the Champs Elysées. It was Thursday, and as I passed Gabriel Avenue, I saw a scattering of stalls at the far end. The sticky buds on the horse chestnut trees had opened earlier in the spring, exposing delicate, lime-green leaves, and the trees were now covered in pyramids of white flowers tinged with pink. A sweet scent pervaded the stamp market. On a whim, I succumbed to one last look before my return to England. 

I was idly thumbing through a tray of envelopes at one of the stalls when the proprietor said, "I remember you, monsieur. Last year in September, wasn't it?" His eyes twinkled at the prospect of another sale. "I have something that might interest you. A moment, please."

He returned with a manilla envelope. Its pink Mauritian four-cent stamp carried the head of a young Queen Victoria. The envelope was addressed in flowing purple script to a Monsieur Paul Dupont of 15 Ganachaud Street, Port Louis. There was a bloodstain in one corner. No, perhaps I was imagining things. It could have been a coffee stain.

I paid him five euros and placed the envelope carefully in my jacket pocket.


Recognized

#64
2020


A much longer chapter than usual and probably my last post for some time. Now comes the hard graft of a structural edit. I'll keep you in touch with how it goes, now and again. Many thanks to all of you who have made the journey with me and offered me invaluable advice along the way. I would never have finished the book without you.

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
Minaxi and Geeta - Mozama's daughters
Deeba - Minaxi's friend
Chaprasi - owner of Markhor Lodge Guest House
Farrokh - owner of the Alexandra Hotel
Asim - a 'mole' in The Lion's headquarters
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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