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Into the Fire
by Pam and Del

Three faces wears the doctor: when first sought,
An Angel's; and a god's the cure half-wrought;
But when, the cure complete, he seeks his fee,
The Devil looks less terrible than he.

--Author Unknown

PART TWENTY-EIGHT: "Body of Evidence"

 

"Nothing here," Ferguson reported, carefully replacing a pile of shirts in the wardrobe.

"Nor here," Rory echoed, as he softly shut the nightstand drawer.

They had been searching Minard's lodgings for the last hour: Carmichael, Archie, Rory, and Ferguson. Their quest so far had proven largely fruitless. Records of patients had been straightforward enough, although sparse--another team would search the doctor's office this evening--there were very few personal papers about, and Minard was, as far as anyone knew, unmarried.

Rory had convinced the old oak desk to yield up one secret: a concealed drawer--but it had been completely empty. "Nothing found is nothing proved," Archie had commonly heard in the early days of his training. As Ferguson had said, playing devil's advocate, given the age of the desk: if it had been purchased second- or third-hand, it was even just slightly possible Minard himself did not know of the secret drawer's existence.

Archie grimaced in frustration, glancing down below the window where the floorboards met the outer wall. The agents had examined them already, there were no loose boards here, and no chance of any secret door from this direction. Discontentedly, he ran his fingers up around the window, which they had closed carefully after entering. Up, across, down . . . he felt no hidden knobs or sliding boards. But as he slid his fingers along the last corner of the sill, something small rolled off and dropped onto the floor.

Archie picked it up: a very small, short nail. Something prickled on the back of his neck; suspicions alerted, he searched the wood again and found the nail's twin still in the frame, and the broken human hair that had been tied between the two nails still in place.

"One of the very oldest tricks," Carmichael had told him, in those first months. A spy's classic tell-tale, to show a room had been entered.

"Come see this," he heard himself say aloud. Carmichael joined him at the window. The commander's mouth tightened at Archie's exhibit.

"Froggy doctor knows a bit more than he should," he said briefly, frowning. "Two-to-one there's another just outside the door. Let's leave him something to put the wind up him, then." He pulled the second nail out of the wood and handed it to Archie, then cautiously raised his voice to the others.

"Looks like we'll be leaving the same way we came in, lads."

*****

"My dear!" Kitty greeted Medora as the younger woman entered her dressing room. "You are positively aglow today! Composing music must agree with you."

Medora smiled as she took Kitty's outstretched hands, but said nothing to correct her assessment. As good a friend as the actress had become, she could not comfortably confide in anyone about Archie's resurrection, nor their subsequent meetings. This morning's tryst had been wonderful and they had tentatively set up another for tomorrow, but for now, it was back to work for both of them.

"Mr. Kelly is pleased with the pavane," she reported. "And he's approved some incidental music for 'King Henry the Eighth' as well."

"Splendid," Kitty declared. "Do you know, I find myself quite looking forward to this production! We lost Mr. Kemble and Mrs. Siddons to Covent Garden last year, but I fancy we can put over this play quite well even without them."

"I am certain you will make an excellent Queen Catherine," Medora said loyally. "When do you open?"

"Next week, if all goes well. Miss Smith," Kitty gestured towards the far corner of the room, where the dresser sat stitching away at a lapful of brocade, "is already slaving away at the costumes."

The aforementioned Miss Smith glanced up from her labors, smiled briefly at both Kitty and Medora, and resumed her work.

"Who will be playing Anne Boleyn?"

"Mary Howard plays most of our young ladies' parts now," Kitty reported. "Mind you, no one was certain whether she would be able to do so until a week ago. She thought she and her husband might be expecting a child and she'd prefer not to tread the boards while she's increasing." Her blue eyes glinted mischief. "Mind you, I told Mary that the real Anne Boleyn was no better than she should be, and her being enceinte might add a touch of authenticity to our production. I fear that she did not find my observation amusing!"

Medora stifled a giggle, then glanced self-consciously towards the dresser's corner.

Kitty followed the direction of her glance and shook her head. "Oh, I have no secrets from Miss Smith--not after all these years! As I was saying, Mary's suspicions proved to be premature, so she'll be taking the role and the Lane needn't worry about having a gravid Lady Anne! Covent Garden, however, may have to replace the lead dancer in their new production--unless she stops casting up her accounts at inconvenient times."

Medora blinked as the implications of this remark became clear to her. "Are you saying that Madonna Florinda is -- ?"

"Unless I miss my guess."

"And the father?"

"Let me just add that the child will have some blue blood running in its veins!" Kitty paused, her gaze reflective. "I wonder if -- the father even knows at this point."

"Difficult to tell," Medora replied. "That is, if we are speaking of the same gentleman. But I dined at the DeGuises' last night and observed nothing that would indicate his knowing -- or not knowing."

Behind them, there was the faint clatter of something dropping to the floor. Both women instinctively glanced in the direction of the sound to see Miss Smith retrieving her scissors.

"Sorry, ma'am," the dresser murmured to Kitty, straightening up and resuming her work.

Kitty reached for her hairbrush, began to apply it vigorously to her dark curls. "I wonder how he will take it: becoming a father again if he doesn't expect it. It would be far more surprising for him than for her." She paused at Medora's curious glance. "You hadn't heard before? The Madonna already has a child."

"Not by the Vicomte?" Medora could not conceal her surprise.

"Oh, indeed, no! The tale made the rounds soon after she came to England--the father was a young soldier, or some such, perhaps even her real husband--the details have always been a bit sparse. But he was killed, it seemed, when Boney's army invaded Italy, and she took the babe and fled."

"And the child?"

"She had found a safe home for it in the country when she first came to Drury Lane. Everything very discreet, of course."

"Of course," Medora said somewhat dryly, remembering her own child, left behind in Cornwall, safe from gossip and prying eyes.

"Oh, I imagine she sees the child when the Season is over. This year, I expect she'll be making an extended visit!" Kitty paused, hairbrush still in hand. "I must say, the timing works out uncommonly well for her. She can be off to the country before she starts to show too much and by the time she's back in London next spring, she'll likely have regained her figure and no one will be the wiser."

"No one?" Medora echoed with an ironic lift of her brows.

"No one outside the theatrical world, anyway!" Kitty put down the hairbrush and examined her reflection in the mirror. "A good thing she commands a decent salary--she'll need every farthing!"

"You don't think the father will support her and the child?"

Kitty shrugged. "Perhaps, or perhaps not. But it's said the entire family's upkeep comes from his wife's money. You've met her -- can you imagine her agreeing to part with a sou to maintain one of her husband's side-slips?"

Medora considered the matter, then shook her head. The Vicomtesse might be indifferent to the Vicomte as a man, but that did not mean that she would not object to providing for a second, rival household. What wife wouldn't, regardless how she felt about her husband? For all Medora knew, the Vicomtesse's languid mien concealed a truly vindictive nature. Assuming the Vicomte was aware of his mistress's condition, he might be well-advised to conceal it from his wife as long as possible. Love might be of no consequence to the DeGuise marriage, but money clearly was!

*****

All in all, Archie reflected as he stared out his bedroom window at the slowly darkening sky, it had been a singularly unproductive afternoon. Still, one couldn't expect clues to just drop into one's lap for the asking.

Sighing, he returned to his desk and sat down. He had been considering a way to get a message to Medora, perhaps in a book, to confirm their meeting place for tomorrow. Paper, pen, and ink all stood ready at his hand. Picking up the quill, Archie dipped its neatly cut end into the inkwell -- but instead of writing Medora, he found himself idly scribbling down the list of erstwhile suspects instead.

LeGrande: Discovered as a fraud, though not exposed.

Cotard: Exonerated by no less a connection than Pellew himself.

Parillaud: Now an ally and valuable contact.

Ainsley: Missing. Nothing proved against him except his notorious debts. And that declaration by Grant that she had seen him talking to the French doctor, Minard.

Archie scowled, adding the physician's name to his list. Their search of his lodgings has provided so little in the way of new information--but the tell-tale they had discovered sent a small, intuitive prickle down the back of his neck. The group that had searched his office had equally found nothing of use: either he was truly no more than he seemed, or he had a secret bolt-hole elsewhere that the agents had not yet discovered.

Minard and Ainsley seen together . . . then Ainsley disappeared. Minard -- the only link between any two of the original suspects, for there was no doubt of the doctor's connection to the only remaining member of that list: the Vicomte DeGuise.

Minard had been present to sign the death certificate of the Vicomtesse's sister in Calais. And when the Vicomtesse had been overcome with faintness at some after-theatre party that Grant and Ferguson had attended, Archie remembered, Minard had been summoned to treat her . . .

Archie frowned. Could that connection itself be a convenient disguise? In attendance upon a patient of delicate health, required to examine her frequently, surely such visits allowed the physician opportunity to communicate with the Vicomte . . . and receive stolen information from him? All the while maintaining the guise of social respectability? It would appear perfectly unexceptionable in the eyes of the world, for an attending physician to converse with his patient's husband.

Frown deepening, Archie drove his pen in slow, nonsensical curves through the names he had already listed. So obvious, now that he had learned to think like an intriguer. He was sure at least two of his colleagues must have reached the same conclusions that he had, only much sooner.

That left one remaining thread for which the other London agents had been searching -- and the London commander had told Archie he was now to join them: Jacques. The late Commander Seaton's informant, from whom no one had heard since the night of her death.

Archie drew a series of herringbones across his now illegible list, matched them going the other way, then crumpled the paper impatiently into a ball. Jacques. One Jacques, in all of London. He sighed, tapping the end of the quill on the table and staring into space.

In the passage, a low hum of voices--which he had dimly noticed in the last few minutes--became suddenly louder and clearer, as if the speakers were approaching or were now engaging in a dispute.

" . . . already answered that question of yours a long time ago!" That was a woman's voice, sharp with vexation. A brief fulminating pause ensued, then she resumed in a different tone, "Although, if you wish to speak of changing situations . . . "

An irritated masculine rumble cut across her words and the exchange became inaudible, but only for a few seconds.

". . . taking to all this quite well, like a duck to water," the first voice added with a distinct note of triumph.

". . . not getting him," the second voice said flatly.

Archie blinked. Through still somewhat faint, the second voice sounded familiar.

"You've said yourself how well he looks the part . . ."

"He's more than that--and not to be wasted on your London lot."

"He's with my division--"

"Only for temporary . . . you heard Old Nick as well as I did."

That was definitely Carmichael, and in a temper. The other voice belonged to . . . Smitty? Archie rose from his chair and stole to the door, cracking it open just enough to peer into the passage without being seen.

They were standing by the stairs. The other speaker was Smitty and she seemed . . . far less vexed than Carmichael.

"Possession," she said primly, "is nine-tenths of the law."

"Bugger your law!" Carmichael snapped. "He's my subordinate--"

"And that," Smitty interrupted, "was always the point at issue, was it not?"

Silence descended abruptly, and, turning on her heel, Smitty departed down the stairs. Glimpsing the furious, haunted expression on Carmichael's face, Archie withdrew into his room to avoid being seen. Aside from the words, of which he suspected he could make sense all too easily, he felt as if he had just witnessed the latest round in a very old argument.

******
INTERLUDE

London, 1795

 

Within the small parlor, the tension was almost palpable. Seaton looked from one agent to the other. Smith was pale and withdrawn; Carmichael, on the other hand, appeared more than ready to speak.

"She won't see sense." His voice was rough. "You could make her--if she'd listen to you . . ."

"I don't intend," Seaton said with some asperity, "to make her do anything. Though she does have to listen to me in any case. I will remind you she is my subordinate, not yours."

He turned on her, his tawny eyes bright with anger and frustration. "Old woman -- as if you'd ever known anything about it!"

The blow that promptly rocked his head to one side would have done credit to a far younger arm.

"That will be quite enough of your impertinence!" Seaton declared, in her best nursery tones.

This time, the silence was nearly explosive.

"Old woman," Carmichael said again, "if you were a man -- "

The blazing fire in his eyes suddenly banked itself; Seaton's own expression of stony fury did not change.

"You'd have made a soldier," Carmichael finished. He looked pointedly at Smitty, then back to meet Seaton's gaze. "Tell her I'll not come near her if she doesn't wish it."

He stalked out of the parlor; Smitty remained, standing quite still and looking silently into some remote distance.

Seaton sat down on her favorite chair by the hearth. "Have you been playing often with fire?" she inquired, in a conversational tone.

"If I have, I've been burned enough." Shivering slightly, Smitty approached the fire, hugging herself against the chill. "He wanted me to come with him to Edinburgh--m'lord is planning to make him a commander within the year."

"And more than that," Seaton continued, unhesitating, "he wanted to see you out of the game in the end, didn't he?"

Smith flushed. "I would never have agreed to that!"

"I know. Though he doesn't seem to understand it yet. Will you go to Edinburgh?"

Smitty's arms tightened. "I don't know, now. I didn't intend -- I mean, I never expected--"

"To find you could love him?" Seaton asked.

Smitty looked away from the question, the answer plainly revealed on her face.

"Why?" she burst out at last. "Why does he have to be so --" She stopped, unable to find a suitable word to express the full measure of her frustration.

Seaton considered her thoughtfully. "Remember he was a soldier. His first idea would be to put the women and children and defenseless things out of the way of danger."

"Defenseless?" Smith shook her head, incredulous. "When I've told him--when I did . . ."

"What you had to do. As he did, on the battlefield, though that in itself may be why he doesn't think you should be there. Commendable, if pig-headed."

Smith glanced at her in some surprise. "I thought you cared for him."

"I do. I also care a great deal for your peace of mind. Has he asked you anything beyond staying with him in Edinburgh?"

Smith looked bleakly amused. "If you mean, has he made me an offer--no, I don't think that's ever occurred to him. And--I don't even know what I'd say if he did," she ended with complete candor.

"Should you consider it," Seaton began, "you may wish to bear some details in mind. He has the right for now, as a lover, to care what you do, but no power--beyond that of affection--to compel you. Were you to marry him it would become a different matter: he would have legal authority over your actions."

Smitty tilted her head to one side, staring at her commander. "Precisely what are you suggesting?"

"You know what he wants. I think you should consider very carefully what it is you want."

 

END PART TWENTY-EIGHT