Into the Fire
by Pam and Del

Warrants, bailiffs, bills unpaid,
Lords of laundresses afraid;
Rogues that nightly rob and shoot men,
Hangmen, aldermen and footmen.

--John Bancks, "A Description of London"

 

 

PART FIFTEEN: "Loose Ends"

 

The house wasn't merely empty but shut up, the furniture swathed in dustsheets, the sideboard bare. Picking open the locked desk drawers had yielded no clues, either. Surprisingly few papers of any sort: some old invitations to social gatherings, no personal letters, and only two rather crumpled sheets had been handwritten reckonings of old gambling losses owed--and presumably paid, from their dates--in figures that made Carmichael raise his brows. In room after room it appeared the place had been visibly stripped of small, easy-to-hand valuables. There had been some clothes remaining in the wardrobe, food still stored in the pantry--and nothing else.

Conceding defeat at last, they had waited until the street was clear of passers-by before slipping out the door. Within minutes of their cautious departure they had heard footsteps behind them.

It had taken hours to elude their followers. An alarmingly large group: at least seven, perhaps even more than ten. Even after they had gained enough distance from the chase to take to the roofs without instantly being seen, their pursuers had been close and thick enough in the streets below to make descent impossible; moreover, they knew London much better than the two agents. Rory had heard one final, muttered exchange: "--could've skipped. You lot get back to the 'ouse. I'll get word to the Grey Man."

 

They were gathered in the small library again on the following morning, seated around a long oval table: Kilcarron, Archie, Rory, Carmichael, Smitty, Grant, Ferguson, Caillean, and half a dozen more senior agents from the London divisions. Grant's sketches of the main suspects and their observed contacts were laid out neatly on the center of the table. Archie had given a brief summary of his report that apparently eliminated Cotard as a viable suspect; to his private satisfaction, he had managed not to look at Kilcarron even once during the recital. Then Rory and Carmichael had related their account of events from the night before.

"Say that again," Smitty ordered.

"The Grey Man," Rory repeated, and the regular London agents sat back in their chairs. "What does it mean?"

"It means so much for the Honorable Ainsley," Barrington declared.

"Who's the Grey Man?" Archie asked.

"One of the three most--vicious--moneylenders in the city," Smitty explained. "If Ainsley's house was being watched, and he was in debt . . . "

Carmichael snorted. "D'you mean we were being chased halfway round London by some bloody pawnbroke's bullyboys?"

The note of professional pique was clear even under the broadened accent; Archie just managed to conceal a smile.

"Essentially," Smitty answered, "yes." And ignored the brief soldier's oath that followed. She seemed quite composed this morning, Archie noticed, showing no sign of last night's raging fury. And despite Carmichael's obvious displeasure at the news regarding Ainsley, he too seemed disinclined to quarrel.

"In the case of such an entanglement Ainsley's disappearance from town would be a prudent first step," Kilcarron observed. "If he's wise, his next move may be to fly the country."

"And if he's not wise?" Rory asked.

"Then you'll find him in the river." Arundel sounded the final note.

"So we have proof of serious debt," Kilcarron summed up, "but no evidence supporting a charge of either treason or murder. A watch can be kept on the ports--I may need to request assistance from other sources for that
eventuality. "

"My lord, is Ainsley still to be considered a suspect?" Barrington inquired. "We would usually consider his flight an admission of guilt."

"That may yet prove true," the earl conceded. "But in the absence of further evidence and indeed of Ainsley himself, we can only speculate so far in that direction. Much will depend on whether he resurfaces, living or -- not.

"In any case, Cotard seems to have been cleared of suspicion, although I shall confirm Agent Lennox's report with another of my associates at the Admiralty this afternoon. Apropos of which, I expect to hear more from those agents pursuing Lieutenant Baxter's investigation within the next two days, though they have complained to me that the trail is quite cold." Kilcarron pursed his lips briefly. "Meanwhile the Admiralty has informed me that they fully expect a move on Napoleon's part no later than mid-summer, and they believe the passage of information to him through the network Baxter was searching for has continued unimpeded. They wish our investigations to continue with dispatch. It has also been suggested that the suspects may be in collusion, rather than working independently--it may be worth exploring possible connections between the remaining parties."

"DeGuise, LeGrande, and Parillaud," Ferguson mused aloud. "And we already saw--there may have been some passages between Parillaud and the Vicomtesse DeGuise."

"An intrigue?" Barrington shrugged. "It would not be her first." Realizing he had the attention of the room, he elaborated. "It has long been rumored that almost since her arrival in London she has acquired . . . companions, and changed them as frequently as most women of the ton change their apparel. But her sense of enterprise in this regard is only exceeded by her apparent sense of--discretion, it is an unusually long and difficult process to discover the name of even one partner in her affaires de coeur. If Parillaud has indeed been one of them, it is most uncharacteristic that she should offer him so public a rebuff."

"Certainly a connection to be explored," Kilcarron acknowledged. "Fortunately, my colleague, the Earl of Thorne, is holding a musical evening at his townhouse tomorrow, and at my request, has invited those with whom we are now most concerned. I believe a close observation of our suspects in proximity to each other may prove--illuminating." Again the slightly vexed compression of the lips. "Though to my mind, it would be advisable not only to consider the suspects in themselves, but in association with other parties who may act as their mutual contacts. Someone with access, who would not arouse suspicion. A servant, a tradesman, some further mutual acquaintance . . . "

Go-betweens, Archie thought.

"Someone around the theater area, perhaps?" Smitty suggested. "Or--has there been any word from our domestics?"

"I received a report last night," Barrington announced. "Infiltrating LeGrande's household has proven unexpectedly difficult. He may play the extravagant gallant with the ladies, but the number of his household staff is almost *miserly*. As for Parillaud," he added, a thoughtful crease deepening between his brows, "Jacques LeBrun has disappeared from that household, but not, apparently, because his employment has been terminated. LeBrun's own intimates believe he has been sent abroad."

Kilcarron's eyes narrowed. "Has he indeed?"

"But he may also have become a less likely suspect, my lord--Colonel Parillaud," Barrington continued. "Colonel Kendal-Jones was able to confirm Parillaud was out of the city both during the time Lt. Baxter was killed, and also when we lost . . . " he broke off for a moment, then resumed awkwardly, "Commander Seaton."

"Still could have ordered it done," Carmichael's brows were drawing together ominously.

"But less likely," Barrington repeated.

Kilcarron waved them both to silence. "Thank you for that point, Agent Barrington. Now, as to the other events of last night?"

"Except for Ainsley, everyone else we expected appeared at the theatre and Lady Theodosia's soirée," Lady Amhurst reported. "Parillaud, LeGrande. The Vicomte and Vicomtesse also attended--together, for a change--but then his son and his intended came as well. And later in the evening, the Vicomtesse was taken with the vapors."

"Ah, yes," Latour's tone was reminiscent and more than a little ironic.

Kilcarron raised an eyebrow. "And did you offer your services, Charles?"

"They were not required. Madame had her own tame physician in tow last night," the doctor replied.

"You sound most severe, Charles," the earl remarked. "Has this colleague somehow incurred your displeasure? Is he in truth a quack?"

"No more than most, it may be." Latour relented very slightly. "Claude Minard. Quite popular among the more prosperous and fashionable of the émigrés. He's not precisely a charlatan--perhaps merely a fribble. Certainly he contributes very little to science. He has one favorite diagnosis, rendered continually: that his patients' constitutions are forever afflicted by the unsupportable English climate, and their recovery is always incumbent upon travel abroad to the most expensive watering-places--which establishments no doubt provide him with a handsome recompense in exchange for his good word."

"A quack after all--but a stylish one," Kilcarron mused.

"Perhaps that is indeed the best description." Latour frowned absently. "That brings to mind something I cannot quite recall--well, no matter." He leaned forward to flick a drawing from Grant's "rogues' gallery" dismissively. "You didn't really need to sketch him last night, Laura. It's well enough known throughout London that he's in the Vicomtesse's train."

Grant stared at him, her own brow creasing. "That's not last night's. Look." She tapped a small notation at the sketch's corner. "This one's from the drum. I didn't draw him because of the Vicomtesse--I saw him talking to Ainsley." Her eyes sought those of her husband. "We both did--do you remember, Rob?"

Ferguson looked over her shoulder to examine the portrait. "Yes," he confirmed with a decisive nod.

"A Froggy doctor and an English Honorable? That's a strange pair," Carmichael speculated.

Latour swore abruptly in French, so vilely that, as one, his fellow agents fell silent, staring at him. "You see it, don't you, my lord?"he demanded, eyes fixed on Kilcarron. "Under all our noses!" He cursed again.

"I believe I do indeed." Kilcarron was leaning forward in his chair, the expression in his eyes suddenly keener "Consider: access without question, even to the very highest of the aristocratic houses--"

"And a reason to travel abroad, in order to assess the welfare of his patients," Latour finished. "That's what I was trying to recollect." His frown deepened. "We had speculated that the informer 'Jacques' must be someone with that same sort of freedom of movement. Though I find Minard an unlikely prospect for such a role. Yet if he's not Jacques . . . " His voice trailed off consideringly.

"Then you think he could be one of Boney's men?" Carmichael asked.

"He's certainly in an excellent strategic position, if that is the case," Kilcarron observed. "I do believe the good doctor will bear watching from now on."

"There is a more mundane possibility, my lord," Grant spoke up, a trifle hesitantly. "Rob and I noticed, as did Caillean, that the Vicomtesse swooned just seconds after Lady Theo announced that she had not seen Ainsley all evening. Perhaps it might have been a coincidence--but it seems a bit . . . unlikely."

Barrington's brows rose. "Parillaud and Ainsley?"

"Why not?" Caillean chimed in, with a hint of challenge. "Her husband has a mistress of long standing, after all. And Parillaud and Ainsley are both fine-looking men."

"And possibly more attentive than the Vicomte," Grant pointed out. She exchanged another glance with her husband. "Perhaps it is merely because we have employed this ruse ourselves, but -- what other reasons could a woman have to swoon? And why might her doctor be seen conversing with a young man who moves in --the same circles as she?"

Archie blinked. His sisters and his betrothed had often teased him about being slow regarding certain matters. But he believed he could see where Grant's argument was heading.

So could Carmichael, and the commander's tawny eyes were bright with unholy amusement. "Bloody hell! He might have got her in pup!"

Barrington sputtered, Latour inhaled sharply, and Kilcarron--predictably--looked unperturbed. All three reactions, Archie decided as he smothered another smile, were characteristic.

Oddly enough, Smitty's withers appeared likewise unwrung. "'Much suspected of she,/ Nothing proved can be," she misquoted with an ironic smile.

"Indeed." Kilcarron steepled his fingers beneath his chin. "At this point, it would be difficult to determine whether the Vicomtesse is with child. The current fashions conceal certain parts of the body entirely too well, and even such a one as Minard is bound by the confidence that exists between doctor and patient. Nonetheless, I shall consider your theory too, Agent Grant--along with the possibility that Ainsley might be fleeing from personal, as well as financial, woes. Perhaps in the domestic contingent someone might become--companionable--with the Vicomtesse's femme de chambre.

"In the meantime," his tone grew crisp and authoritative, "I think we must devote what resources we can to the next meeting between suspects: the Thornes' musicale. And what agents were assigned to monitor Ainsley's social activities, I now wish to redistribute. That would be Agents Munro and Lennox." He glanced briefly at Archie and Caillean. "The two of you are to accompany your colleagues to the Thornes' tomorrow night--I will pass along your names to the host. Perhaps you might keep your attention upon LeGrande on this occasion."

"You can see if the Vicomtesse makes a move on *him* as well," Carmichael murmured, sotto voce, to Archie.

"About the Vicomte, my lord, " Arundel began thoughtfully, "do we know anything regarding his debts? With both a fashionable wife *and* a mistress--he may easily find himself pressed for funds."

"We are even now investigating this matter, Agent Arundel," the earl replied. "And paying particular attention as to whether the Vicomtesse's dowry is being used to support her husband's way of life. Or whether he has resorted to--other means. In any case, a report on the Vicomte's finances should be forthcoming within the next day or so.

"For now, however," Kilcarron continued, "I believe our business is concluded, ladies and gentlemen."

On that, the meeting began to break up, Kilcarron taking his leave. Rising to his feet along with the others, Archie wondered what--specifically--he should do next, between now and tomorrow evening.

With Ainsley gone missing . . . well, the earl had suggested that Archie and Caillean pay attention to LeGrande. Tiverton was the most likely person to have the information on the man; he had not been present at this morning's meeting--indeed, he had sent a note informing Kilcarron of his plans to breakfast with Monsieur le Baron. He might be around later in the day, however, to give the earl an account of that meeting. If Archie intercepted the London agent then, perhaps he could learn more about the suspect to whom he had been reassigned. Foppish Tiverton might be, but there was a sharp mind behind all those airs and graces.

Smitty might know when Tiverton was likely to report in to headquarters. Glancing speculatively towards the London commander, Archie found her in a brown study; curious, he followed the line of her gaze and saw without too much surprise that it was concentrated upon Carmichael, now talking to Latour. Peace had been established between them at last: that was evident to everyone, Archie suspected, despite the absence of touches, warm glances, or even such extravagant gestures as they'd displayed the night Carmichael had arrived in London. There was little in Smitty's demeanor even now to recall the lover, yet the unwavering focus of her dark grey eyes upon her colleague made Archie feel slightly uneasy.

Did she fear for him so much, then? It seemed strange, given Carmichael's knack for wriggling out of tight spots and returning little the worse for wear. And yet, Archie reflected somberly, there were no guarantees of safety in this profession. Perhaps the late Commander Seaton had believed herself safe as well.

Suddenly loath to disturb Smitty, he turned to speak to Barrington instead.

*****
INTERLUDE

London 1804

 

Smitty opened the door of the small parlor and noticed it right away: a small posy of bright spring flowers set neatly in a vase by the window.

"Good afternoon, ma'am." From the chair opposite Seaton's, Lieutenant Baxter--their Admiralty liaison-- rose to his feet.

"Good afternoon." Smitty nodded a casual greeting to her fellow commander and pulled a chair over to join them. "What news?"

"No progress of any significance, I fear," Baxter reported. His dissatisfaction was clearly visible. "For the third week in a row. We can't afford a stalemate when it's said freely elsewhere that Boney's on the move. I have been proposing to Miss Seaton that a new plan of attack may be in order."

"And just what are you suggesting?" Smitty asked, yielding to her curiosity.

Baxter's eyes narrowed, revealing an almost predatory gleam. "I've a mind to start beating the coverts and see what manner of fowl can be flushed out of hiding."

"In just what way, precisely?" Seaton inquired.

"Something of a ruse. If I let it be supposed I have come upon some information of value, but yet have no notion of its significance, then our quarry may decide to obtain it from me. And so the hunted reveals himself as the hunter--and will shortly become the hunted once again--having finally left a new trail to follow. But an even sweeter possibility is that he might be caught in the act itself."

He was nearly sparkling with anticipation now, his warm brown eyes alight with enthusiasm for the hunt. As he leaned forward, resting his arms briefly on the table, Smitty half-expected him to run the back of his hand against his jaw, in another's familiar gesture, but Baxter only steepled his fingers together instead. She glanced at Seaton, who had not missed the young man's elevation of spirits.

"Be careful that you don't overplay your hand," the senior commander advised. "I see a risk if you offer yourself as bait: do not be so unwise as to throw all caution to the wind."

"I have no intention of doing so," the lieutenant promised. "But if we tempt our quarry into the open we must accept some risk as a necessary evil."

"As long as you do not become foolhardy in the pursuit of evidence," Seaton persisted.

Baxter shook his head. "The subjects of my surveillance will think me only a fashionable young fool. It is," he added, with a slightly impish smile, "a role I have enacted before."

"Then I urge caution upon you once more, wish you success in your endeavor, and will be waiting eagerly to hear what success you have achieved." Seaton rose to escort the lieutenant to the parlor door; Smitty followed them both. "And please accept my gratitude for the most charming bouquet."

"My most sincere pleasure, ma'am," he avowed. Taking Seaton's hand in his, he kissed it with a mischievous flourish that reminded Smitty, again,. of someone else. "And I shall expect to hear of your adventures this evening, as well!"

"Adventures, indeed!" Seaton reproved. "A simple exchange of information, nothing more." But she was smiling as he bowed himself from the room, closing the door behind him.

"Such a shameful flirt you are," Smitty chided in mock-reproach. "All alone in the parlor with such a dashing young man--and not a duenna in sight!"

"As if I should be concerned with chaperones?" Seaton inquired drolly.

"Quite right--you're not in the least concerned, but *totally* shameless. You'll bring scandal down upon us all--at your age! And with a navy man, yet! Whatever would your army beau say?"

"He'd have eyes only for you, if I remember correctly from the last time," her colleague replied.

"Oh, but you weren't keeping company with a handsome young sailor then! And m'lord's even sent for him, too--I heard it this morning. He'll be quite eaten up with jealousy--as green as a rifleman's jacket!"

Seaton chuckled softly; Smitty changed the subject, returning to their earlier discussion. "I wish you'd let me come with you tonight."

"No need for that," Seaton assured her. "I've done this at least a dozen times before. And it's not as if I'll be alone, after all."

"But you'll recall I've never been happy with your orders that the escort remain unseen. Your contact's no fool--he must know there's someone who comes along to protect you. I could send a message to the theater, simply tell them I've been taken ill."

"Nonsense," came the brisk retort. "You've your own affairs to see to--let me tend to mine. An old char-woman coming home from work or finishing her shopping--what could be more commonplace? Like a thousand others in London."

"Then two old women walking home together would be just as commonplace," Smitty insisted.

"Out of the question." Seaton clicked her tongue. "And your army man would be ashamed that you had even proposed it. Where's your strategy?"

"Two are safer than one," Smitty maintained. "Remember that strategy."

"My other escort will make two--or, rather, more than two. Three at least, if that satisfies you."

"It does not. Since you make them wait at such a distance--"

"You," Seaton said, with the governess-snap back in her voice, "would still be the least suitable escort of anyone. It's to put two commanding officers at risk that way--and if he's really coming down from Edinburgh, he'd have my hide if anything were to happen to you."

"You fight as dirty as he does," Smitty protested.

"Remember who taught him," Seaton advised her, holding up a forestalling hand. "Now, let's have no more of this, Commander Smith. My mind is quite made up."

*****

"And that," Smitty said into the darkness, "was the last time I saw either of them alive."

The lack of expression in her voice revealed everything to her lover as she lay with her head tucked against his collarbone, so close that she could feel his breath stirring her hair.

"Lass. It's an unchancy business and we all know the dangers."

"Don't." Her whole body tensed and the one word came out between her teeth. She half-expected him to pull away and resume their quarrel, but he only sighed.

"Nay, I know better, then. I've less than a prayer's chance in Hell of convincing you to leave this off now."

"Nor I, you!" Smitty responded in kind, knowing it was unwise to allow him even that much latitude.

Carmichael's arms tightened around her. "There's no more you could have done," he said at last. "You couldn't have stopped her--nor I, most likely--and the same for the other one. Better to find who killed them than to fret that you let it happen somehow."

"And is that what you're doing?" Smitty challenged, twisting a bit in his arms to glare at him through the darkness.

His embrace grew tighter again, and he was shaking his head as he pulled her to him. "What I'm doing--is to think on other matters for a bit, and I don't think she'd mind it."

Smitty's brows rose, but she was equally reluctant to return to disputed ground. "No," she admitted, snuggling closer and rubbing her cheek against his shoulder. "I don't think she would, either."

 

END PART FIFTEEN