Into the Fire
by Pam and Del
And if a house be divided against itself . . .
PART TWENTY-FIVE: "The Frog Who Came In from the Cold"
Archie sat with his quill poised over the inkwell, waiting. Upon entering the small library, he had seen the writing implements laid out upon a side table; he had glanced briefly at Carmichael, who had nodded assent.
The more senior agents--Carmichael, Barrington, Arundel, and Latour--had silently arranged themselves in careful proximity around the center of the room, where Parillaud sat by Colonel Kendal-Jones, across the desk from Kilcarron himself. A decanter stood at the earl's elbow, and while glasses had been passed to his two "guests," Kilcarron had abstained, his demeanor as cool and expressionless as ever, if not even slightly more so.
But it was Parillaud who was speaking now. "And I had received a letter from my colleague Major Cotard, warning me of certain rumors that have come to his ears. A Bonapartist agent is being sought in London . . .and my name is on a list of those suspected, because of my family connections."
"Your kinsmen have risen high in the service of Napoleon," Kilcarron commented neutrally.
"That I do not deny. And it is true that blood is blood. But I have not written to those members of my family--nor they to me--for many years, as you and your kind doubtless already know," he added, his keen eyes fixed on the earl, who simply inclined his head in acknowledgement. "But I swore an oath of honor to my king and his army, long ago. Then later on, I took a further oath to *your* king, as well as my own."
"Times change," Kilcarron murmured.
"C'est vrai, monseigneur, and I have heard some say that honor changes with them. But that is not for me." Again, he paused. "Also, my man Jacques LeBrun tells me he believes himself followed as he goes about London."
"Indeed," the earl murmured again. Archie saw Barrington's brows lift, and he winced slightly himself: whoever had been careless enough to be noticed would soon have that fault made clear to them in no uncertain terms. He hastened to continue writing as the French officer resumed.
"And so," Parillaud was concluding, "I asked advice of my fellow colonel."
"Who brought me not to the offices of the Admiralty, as I had expected, but to you, monseigneur. May I ask the nature of your authority?"
Kilcarron leaned back in his chair, steepling his fingers. "Let us say--the Admiralty and I both answer to the Crown, if you would. My connections, however, are sometimes--more discreet."
"Ah. You spy for them."
"We engage in many forms of intelligence. I do assure you, colonel, that any statements you wish to make here will reach the right ears--and only those ears."
"I see." The words signified acceptance. "Then I may offer you my . . . assurance that I have not in any way changed my allegiances? The oaths to my king and yours remain intact."
"That is commendable, sir--though I regret to say it does not completely resolve the matter."
"I have given you my word, monseigneur . . . as one man of honor to another. What else would you have from me?"
"Perhaps--a fuller explanation." Kilcarron leaned forward. "Jacques LeBrun was not followed only in London--other surveillance was kept upon him when he left this country for the continent. As he passed the ports on his return, colonel, it was clearly ascertained that he was traveling on your business."
"It seems you know a great deal more about my affairs than I have been informed." Parillaud was frowning deeply.
"And yet, colonel, you have still not explained your purpose in sending correspondence abroad."
Quill poised to take down the French officer's reply, Archie found himself tense at Kilcarron's tone. Parillaud himself appeared taken aback, briefly hesitant.
"Eh bien," he conceded at last. "I must confess all to you, I see. It is this way . . . I have heard nothing from my brother for years now, you understand, even during the Peace. And we had parted on bad terms, when he wished to cast his lot in first with the republic, then with the Emperor."
"But you had news of him recently?"
"One of our sisters married a Swiss. I had a letter from her that my brother's wife had died last autumn. And so, as you say, monseigneur, I did send my man abroad, with a message for my brother. It was first to offer my condolences--his wife was a sweet and lovely woman--and second to, how do you say it, reconcile with him, if only a little."
"'A little'?" The skepticism in the question was very evident.
Parillaud stirred, as if uncomfortable. "I wished to tell my brother that, should we meet in opposition on the field, I would not actively seek his life. That, although we have chosen different allegiances, I do not -- hate him. He is my only brother, and we were close as we grew up. As I said before, blood is blood, and one's family's blood the dearest of all. Yet also there is honor. I wanted to assure him that I have come to respect his choice--and hope he will respect mine. But though I will not take my brother's life, I would never betray the lives of those who share my allegiance to the king, and upon that you have my word." Parillaud's final words held an unmistakable challenge.
A brief but charged silence fell in the library. Archie found he was holding his breath. The colonel's words were blunt, but their sincerity seemed evident. Could he be believed . . . even trusted? Covertly, Archie glanced at his fellow agents, then at Kilcarron.
After what seemed an eternity, the earl spoke. "Colonel, I believe you a man of integrity--and I will take your word."
Archie exhaled quietly and sensed a similar slackening of tension in the room. Parillaud also seemed to relax.
The earl continued. "I will pass your statements along, as you wish, to those who are required to know such things. In addition, though . . ."
"You want something more from me," the colonel guessed as Kilcarron paused.
"It would be appreciated as a courtesy were you able to assist us in our further inquiries."
Parillaud's face darkened. "I have accounted for myself--do you now ask me to turn informant? To denounce others as la canaille did in the days of the Terror?"
"Say rather," Kilcarron replied, seemingly oblivious to the Frenchman's mounting anger, "that the opportunity is yours to exonerate certain of your countrymen--to vindicate their honor as yours is now vindicated."
Silence again descended. This time it was Parillaud who broke it at last.
"Long ago," he said, almost conversationally, "someone described you to me as a most dangerous man. I see they were not mistaken, nor did they exaggerate. Alors--ask what you would of me, monseigneur. I am sure there are many questions."
It seemed to Archie that the entire room breathed again. Barrington, who was closest to the door, crossed to it and gave brief orders to someone outside.
"In truth," Kilcarron began, "the names we have are not all those of Frenchmen. To begin--"
Archie dipped his pen again, writing as quickly as he could to keep up with the progress of the questioning. Matters proceeded apace for some minutes, then there was a brief pause as Barrington again opened the door, bore a large coffee service to a side table, and silently poured.
"Barrow," the earl prompted, taking up the thread again.
Parillaud shook his head. "Some think him astute--others have called him a fool. I cannot speak from experience. It is said that he perseveres mightily at his job."
Kilcarron continued, referring to a list of names Archie did not recognize. Perhaps the Admiralty had only now supplied them? But some, Archie suspected, were decoys--agents and officials whose loyalties were proven beyond doubt but used to test the colonel's own veracity. His ears pricked up at a familiar name.
"Ainsley? A young sprig, is he not, with a name as a gamester? I know little of him but his reputation--though they said recently that he has disappeared, due to the greatness of his debts. One or two rumors even have him down as murdered, but surely that is nonsense! For how could a dead man pay money that is owed?"
How indeed, Archie wondered, and then realized that, unless some message had come with inhuman speed, even Kilcarron did not know of the attack at Covent Garden. But this was no time to bring it up; Kilcarron had now begun on names among the emigre community. Archie pulled a new sheet of paper from the stack and continued writing. Another familiar name soon surfaced.
"LeGrande? That peacock--with a laugh like a donkey's? No, I know nothing of him, save that he was never in the army."
"We have ascertained the same." Kilcarron's voice was dry, revealing nothing more of what else the agents had discovered of LeGrande. "And the Vicomte Henri DeGuise?"
"DeGuise? Un nom tres ancien. There was a cadet long ago, the second son, but he died young. As to le Vicomte, he is another who never served. *He* has a son." The colonel paused. "Again, never in the army. But he is of good reputation here in town: Edmond DeGuise. His father, cependant, is another matter."
"Not of good reputation?"
"As well you know already, monseigneur. He games for very high stakes, and is often heard to be lamenting his great losses. Yet he never seems to be wanting in ready funds. I think it suits him, in some way, to play the fool."
"You find him deceitful?"
"I would judge him to be far deeper than he contrives to appear, more than capable of playing his own game, even a double one, as you have most carefully *not* stated to me. Well-known in the theatres, the gaming-hells, and in the racing-circles as well: he has a great many acquaintances most unsavory--perhaps even criminal."
Archie's hand tightened briefly around the quill; he forced his fingers to relax. He had let Medora go there, to the home of a titled man thought to have criminal ties?
A cup appeared, slid itself along the table to stop within reach of his hand. Archie breathed in the smell of coffee, looked up and met the tawny eyes of the donor.
"Steady," Carmichael said quietly. He drew back, leaving behind the steaming cup.
Archie bit his lip and ducked his head in a half-nod, thankful for the shadows in the corner that let him hide his burning cheeks. Damn this face, damn this face . . . practice before a looking-glass as he might, he still could not entirely conceal what was most important to him. Only a dinner-party, she had said, no reason to think her in any immediate danger, yet his thoughts would not be calmed. He considered the coffee, then decided against it, suspecting it might only increase his anxiety right now.
Parillaud was continuing. "And as for his menage. . .though for the truest account of it the old dowagers will say the most, and know the worst, without fail."
"A certain opera dancer . . . " Kilcarron remarked.
"And half-a-dozen before her! All of them once toasts of London . . . and another four or five when this lady's reign is over, I have no doubt."
"And the Vicomtesse? She has not escaped notice in certain quarters."
"La Vicomtesse." Parillaud fell silent.
"It was never true then?"
"It was -- une liaison," the colonel admitted. "But indeed, of a brevity . . . she was such a strange one! Most beautiful, as all London knows, but of a coldness, most odd! For it was she who made the advances, you see. I do not wage my campaigns among the married ladies. And just as suddenly," he shrugged, "she said it was fini!"
"Had she . . . taken a new interest, do you think?"
"Who can tell? She was flawlessly discreet, always--if there were another who caught her eye during our affaire, I noticed nothing of it. And yet," the colonel paused, seemingly lost in reflection. "There were times I had occasion to wonder if she had some long standing attachment and I was but the brief diversion. It was not her husband, of course, that was an arranged matter and she is but the second wife, as you know. If there should, indeed, be a paramour I would wonder if he is truly in England, or perhaps still resides in France--she would often speak as though she, too, received letters from abroad, and could send messages there."
"A foreign lover?" Kilcarron mused. "That might explain much."
"There is still talk, in London, of one Doctor Minard." Latour spoke for the first time, his voice was as neutral as the earl's.
Parillaud snorted. "Ah, that one! An annoying little insect of a man--as you would say, always buzzing around her, though she never discouraged him. He seems the kind of man women often collect--and one can never understand what they see in him."
The list of foreign names went on, became unfamiliar again, at least to Archie. He frowned down at his notes, part of his mind still chafing restlessly as it lingered on Medora. There would be hours of work ahead, further reports to make, no chance of any unobtrusive escape . . . but he would not rest easily until he saw her again.
"Did you kill him?" His confederate's voice was a low, frantic hiss.
"Calm yourself." His own voice was composed, ironic. "What put that thought into your head?"
"You heard . . .they're saying he's disappeared! Did you have him killed?"
"And if I had, what of it? You are far too squeamish."
The note of alarm changed to something colder and more inflexible. "I told you, I wanted no part of any more killings."
"Then you are not practical. There is but one way to make a man's silence permanent."
"And you are too careless! Dead men, they will draw attention, and that we cannot afford!"
"Again, calm yourself--such displays become you not at all." His voice was scornful now. "You forget to whom you speak. I am well-aware that we must avoid all notice--and of the need to hide the greater sin behind the lesser."
"Then, he is dead?" The other's voice had regained some measure of control.
"In truth, I do not know. I have done nothing to bring it about. Of a certainty, the puppy lives recklessly enough--if something has befallen him, it was not at my hands."
"So his disappearance cannot be traced to us, even if he is dead?"
"No, indeed. A matter most unfortunate--he might have made a useful tool, or even a scapegoat. Still, we shall contrive."
END PART TWENTY-FIVE