Into the Fire
by Pam and Del

 

All art is at once surface and symbol.
Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.
Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.

            --Oscar Wilde, "Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray"

 

PART THIRTY: "Jacques' Trail"

 

"Daubigny," Smitty said grimly, as a mixed gathering of Edinburgh and London agents sat in the small library.  "I never knew anything but his surname, but I heard about that.  Miss . . . well, one of my employers, even mentioned it, to take precautions after dark."

She shook her head as if disgusted with her lack of perception.

"That's not what matters now," Carmichael took up the thread.  "It's a cold enough trail . . . how fast could we find his lodgings?  Who's your contact with this artist lot, then?"

Archie blinked at the silence that fell, then saw Edinburgh agents staring at their London colleagues, who had all mutely turned to gaze in one direction.

The object of their regard coughed deprecatingly, then polished his quizzing-glass against his azure-and-silver-brocade waistcoat.

"I believe . . . I might be able to render a small degree of assistance in that area," Tiverton said, and coughed mildly again.

*****

Soho had an amazing resemblance to a foreign port, Archie thought; he did not recall ever venturing into this part of London.  The crowded, bustling streets were filled with the babble of many strange tongues; signs in French and different, unknown languages were prominent in shop and restaurant windows, and odd, intriguing smells wafted from the doorways of the latter. Tiverton, acting the guide, seemed unmoved by the aboundingly colorful chaos, and led his party--Archie, Arundel, and Madeleine Dubois--away from the businesses into a quieter street that appeared to be mostly boarding-houses.

"The London property," he said with satisfaction as they approached a modestly sized residence.  "Let's see what Auguste knows."

The outer door proved to be unlocked, opening into an entry hall where a short, curved stair ended in a wide landing and a door.  A second door was opposite the stairs, just to the left of where they had entered.

Tiverton drew a set of keys from some hitherto concealed pocket of his brocaded waistcoat and ascended the stairs.  He rapped smartly on the door.  "LaFond?  Auguste?  Are you there?"

There was no answer.  Tiverton unlocked the door, vanished briefly inside.  Archie, waiting below, looked curiously at his companions, but before he could frame a question, Tiverton had reappeared, looking ruffled and slightly put-out.

"Not in," he reported, and pulled a watch forth on its chain to check the time.  "It's past noon, the Heavenly Twins should be stirring by now."

Clattering down the stairs, he unlocked the second door and went in, leaving it ajar.

"'Heavenly Twins'?" Archie heard himself repeat aloud, bitten by curiosity.

"Over here."  Madeleine Dubois beckoned, and Archie joined her by the staircase.  There were perhaps a dozen paintings and sketches of various sizes hung along the wall there, with a variety of settings and backgrounds, but a surprising repetition of central theme.

A young man and a young woman, both dark and exotic -- and incredibly similar in appearance.  In Shakespearean dress, as a reunited Sebastian and Viola. In a classical setting:  Narcissus, gazing at his reflection in the pool, while in the pastoral green background a shadowy feminine shape suggested the love-stricken nymph, Echo.  Another classical piece: two pairs of twins, one male, one female, lay nestled together, eyes closed as if sleeping, their bodies curled as if within a giant egg; the placard below thie picture read "Leda's Children".

And in still another piece, the two figures stood posed provocatively against a background of rich hangings. Despite visits to other fashionable salons and museums, Archie felt his face heating.  This painting was obviously meant for some purchaser's bedroom, no doubt of that!

He stepped back, hoping neither Arundel or Dubois had noticed his bemusement, heard Tiverton's approaching voice.

"Only the bakery, then, and *not* the tavern?  Very well, thank you, Angelique."

Quite unlike the languid, mincing creature Archie was used to seeing, Tiverton nearly bounded back up the stairs, the door he had exited closing behind him.

"Just wait there," his voice floated down to his fellow agents.  "I'll be right down again--"

Arundel was laughing silently; his words echoed Archie's thoughts.  "He seems--remarkably vigorous today."

Madeleine Dubois smiled indulgently.  "What would you expect?  It is, after all, well past the noon hour."

Before Archie could ask his own questions there was a slight creak, and all three agents turned to regard the slowly opening door.

The young man who faced them stood no more than medium height, dressed in a shirt not yet buttoned down the front and was, as Archie suddenly remembered an elderly nursemaid saying, "far too pretty to be up to any good". This impression was only heightened by the languid diffidence of his greeting, which proved him not merely foreign, but French.

"Ah . . . bon jour.  You must be friends of Reggie.  I am Damien, and my sister is Angelique."

He was undoubtedly the original of the paintings, and the dark-haired young woman wrapped in a dressing gown and half-draped over his shoulder, uncannily his image.  As she covered a discreet yawn with one hand, her brother caressed her upper arm and shoulder with a slow deliberation that Archie suddenly suspected was meant to provoke uncomfortable thoughts in the onlooker.

"We are," the youth continued with a flourish, "'les Jumeaux Celestes'."

The Heavenly Twins, Archie translated to himself.

Arundel had crossed his arms.  Madeleine Dubois, herself of French extraction, pursed her lips and raised eloquent eyebrows.

The silence stretched out further and further until the young man finally grinned.

"Voyons, you must be very, very special friends of Reg's!  A thousand pardons.  I am Jean Lejeune and this is my sister Jeanette."

"Jean et Jeanette?" Dubois' voice remained as skeptical as her eyebrows; she was answered with an elegant Gallic shrug.

"What would you?  Our mother had not chosen a name for a girl, nor even expected to bear twins."

"And you," Arundel gestured toward the paintings, "are models, of course."

"Of course," Jean Lejeune agreed.  "Usually we work for Gus."

"M. LaFond?" Archie asked, remembering the name Tiverton had used.

"Oui.  Auguste.  He likes to paint us both, as you see."  Grinning, the young man indicated the artwork along the wall.  "But we have posed for others, too, singly, when Gus has other commissions.  And so, as you would say, we make our living."

"A pretty tale," Dubois remarked.  "Does he have many . . . commissions?"

"In the old days, few.  But with Reggie to speak for him--and sometimes for us," the young man's grin broadened, "things are, as you say, looking up."

"But surely," Arundel gestured at the paintings, "these are very fine."

"Merci du compliment, monsieur, you are, of course, of the most discerning taste!"  The young woman spoke, laughing, for the first time. "But it is true, before Gus had a patron, times were difficult."

"Tiverton?"  Despite his attempt to maintain discretion among his companions, Archie could not conceal his surprise.

"Oui. Reggie found him two years ago, sketching in a tavern, and admired his talent.  And so Gus--and ourselves--became his protegésJust in time, for Gus."  Jeanette LeJeune curved the inner three fingers of one delicate hand and mimed a drinking gesture.

"Ah," Dubois remarked.  "Liqueurs?"

"If that were all!"  Jean remarked feelingly. "Liqueurs and brandywine--when Gus has finished a painting, he will visit the cafes for a day or two, and drink, and sketch, and gossip, and take no harm. But that time, long ago, when he was in despair because it seemed he could sell nothing."  His face darkened.  "La fée verte.  Disgusting stuff!"

"And dangerous," Arundel added. "Run goods--it's smuggled in.  Absinthe. I've heard a few other tales as well--it would be risky, for an artist, to acquire the taste for it."

"The taste--perhaps not yet.  But the temptation--it is why we are all so grateful to Reggie."

"And why he was so happy to hear LaFond had only gone to the bakery," Archie mused.

 Jean Lejeune assessed him quickly with sharp, bright eyes.  "As you say, m'sieur.  I was glad of it as well," his gaze fell to his still-unfastened shirt, and he began to button it.  "Had he intended to go to the tavern or the cafes, I should have had to accompany him!  Or Reg would have had my skin--and in no pleasant way, after all!"

Jeanette Lejeune laughed this time, in a gamine, charming fashion, and Archie realized that despite their earlier diffident and provocative posing, the twins regarded Tiverton with genuine respect.

"How long ago did he leave--" Archie began, when Tiverton reappeared at last, actually dashing down the stairs from the studio, and flung open the lodging door.

"He must have seen Gus through the window," Jean Lejeune remarked in explanation, and Archie followed his fellow agents to the threshold.

Tiverton was in the midst of a somewhat garbled conversation with a slender, slightly disheveled-looking man wearing a loose, paint-stained shirt and carrying a covered wicker shopping basket.  As the pair entered the hall, the other man set the basket hastily down upon the nearest table, gestured as if to direct all within to follow him, and plunged out of the house again, toward the street.

Tiverton repeated the gesture.

"He doesn't know the direction himself, but he has heard that a Monsieur Luc D'Amboise has taken that residence, and there are always acquaintances of his at the La Bonne Chance two streets away.  Someone there should be able to tell us."

Archie hastened after his fellow agents.

*****

Sitting discreetly to one side of the cafe with Dubois and Arundel, trying to appear casually inattentive, Archie hoped that the murmured consultation taking place between Tiverton, LaFond, and the huddle of miscellaneous émigrés would soon prove fruitful.

But even if Tiverton's contacts could not provide their answer, Archie knew there were other possibilities.  Edinburgh division had turned out to have its own artistic connection in the form of Laura Grant, whose drawing-master father had lived with his family in Soho for several years.  She, Barrington, and Carmichael were now searching for any acquaintance of her parents who might have known Daubigny as well.

Still, Archie could hope for the best, if only to relieve the frustration that had built over the last day-and-a-half.  Uncovering Daubigny's name had been a short-lived triumph in comparison with the challenge of following a cold trail to his unknown direction, and the duty-shifts had been too heavy to allow him any chance to write to Medora.

He shifted restively, turned his head, and tried to understand the latest arrival:  a fair, burly man with a heavy beard.  His voice was gratifyingly louder than those of the others crowded around the table, but there was some thick, regional accent that made his words hard to distinguish.

"Quatorze . . . et vingt-et-deux . . . "

Surely those were numbers?  Was that the direction, at last? Archie looked up to see Tiverton and LaFond hurrying toward them.

"It's--" LaFond was saying, as he approached.

"Just beyond St. Martin's Lane, I know."  Tiverton nodded, tucking away the paper in his waistcoat pocket.  He clapped the painter on the shoulder. "A thousand thanks, Auguste!  Now, go back to the studio!" he ordered, and stood watching the painter turn homeward before leading his party out of the cafe.

They followed him along several densely crowded, winding streets; Archie could not help but wonder at the sheer size of the throng.  His thoughts wandered back to the discovery Medora had helped him make, some days ago: the Vicomtesse's vanished sister and his first, erroneous thought that she might be concealed in London.  Surely, in a population as large as this, anyone might find a way to disappear!

"Not too much farther now!" Tiverton called from ahead.

As they rounded the corner, Archie heard Arundel chuckle, and turned to see Grant and the Edinburgh party advancing on the opposite side of the street.

"A bit slow, were you?" the London agent called to them.

"Say rather that great minds . . . achieve the same results, eventually," Grant retorted, not slackening her stride as the two groups converged and made their way towards St. Martin's Lane.

******

Luc D'Amboise was a thin, wispy-haired figure of a man, a sculptor by repute.  He stood nervously in the doorway of the studio lodging, with flakes of clay under his fingernails and a few more scattered in his hair.  Behind him came the sound of an infant wailing, and a woman's voice--perhaps its mother's--trying to calm it.

At first it seemed that D'Amboise thought his tenancy was being questioned.

"Daubigny had told me long ago I might take the studio if I were in need of it and he was gone," he explained.  But when Grant elaborated further, the little man grew impatient.  "No, I've nothing of Jean-Jacques', I tell you.  How many times must I say it?  I told the other man the same."

Archie's head came up at that; he saw similar reactions among the other agents.  "Someone else has been searching for M. Daubigny?"

"Yes, a man came three days ago, asking just as you have. Where did Jean-Jacques leave his effects?  Is anything of his still remaining within?  Non, and non again!"

"What did he look like?"  Tiverton asked quickly. 

The sculptor frowned, then gestured with his hands as if trying to shape the previous visitor's face in the air.  "Well, he . . . "

"Wait," Grant interrupted.  "Your pardon, m'sieur, but was he one of these men?"

She held out a small pack of sketches. Archie craned his neck to see as D'Amboise shuffled through them.  Parillaud, DeGuise, Ainsley, LeGrande . . .

"Ah."  The sculptor paused in his rifling.  "This fellow."

With a start, Archie recognized Grant's likeness of Doctor Minard.

The sculptor continued, his nervousness evaporating.  "This is the man, I assure you.  You carry a sketch of him about--perhaps you are searching for him also, hein?"

"Perhaps."  Grant's voice revealed nothing.  "What did you tell him, monsieur, about the  . . . effects?  Did he ask about anything else, any unsold work, perhaps?"

D'Amboise shrugged.  "I did not keep his portfolios and I had no use for his paints.  As I told --that other," he nodded at the sketch, "it is Rossignol who was his bon ami.  I gave all Jean-Jacques' possessions to him."

"Hubert Rossignol?" Tiverton asked.  "The art dealer?"  He turned at D'Amboise's nod.  "Thank you, m'sieur.  I know where his shop is." He turned to address his colleagues.  "We must make haste!"

******

Rossignol the art dealer was not at first inclined to be cordial.

"Yes, I received Jean-Jacques' effects," he admitted bluntly, wiping his hands on his paint-stained smock.  "What business is it of yours?"

"We think-- he may have been the acquaintance of a friend of ours," Dubois explained.  "She was killed, monsieur . . . perhaps because of some message that was sent between her and M. Daubigny.  It would be a very great kindness if you could help us in this."

The art dealer's heavy features drew into a frown, but it was more thoughtful than angry.  "Your friend was killed, you say?  And Jean-Jacques was murdered, also.  Do you suggest there is a connection?"

"We cannot tell, unless you permit us to see his things, monsieur."

"Mmm."  Rossignol absently fingered his mustache; he appeared to be deliberating with himself.

Grant brought out her sketches.  "M. D'Amboise said this man," she picked out Minard, "had come to the studio asking about M. Daubigny.  Did he speak to you as well?"

"Tcha!"  Rossignol took the sketch between his thumb and finger, uttered a distinctly Gallic sound of disapproval.  "Oh yes.  That one was here."

"And you told him--" Archie prompted.

Rossignol snorted.  "Absolutely nothing!  Such stuff as he claimed to me!  Lies, all of it, and poor lies at that!  Saying that he was an old family friend of the Daubignys when it was I who helped Jean-Jacques escape from Paris at the last!  I knew all of his clients, all his London acquaintance--Jean-Jacques never mentioned this one to me!  I paid him back in his own coin, and said I had sent everything to Jean-Jacques' relatives in France.  He was not pleased at that, but there was nothing he could do. Scélérat!  From the first time I saw him, I knew he was up to no good."

An emphatic silence followed this thunderous pronouncement. After a moment, Archie cleared his throat and ventured another question. "Sir, you saw him again?"

"Heh!"  Rossignol tugged more forcefully at his mustache.  "You miss very little, monsieur.  Well."  He paused.  "Vraiment, I saw him again later that day, but he did not see me."

"What was he doing?"

"Talking with several of the canaille--you would call them 'ne'er-do-wells'.  And one other; when I saw him, I knew I had been right, for he was no kind of company for an honest man to keep."

"Who was he?" Dubois asked eagerly.  "Do you know his name?"

"That I do not.  But his reputation, c'est dégoûtant!  Filthy!  It is said that in fact he works for another, as rapacious as a very shark.  They call him 'L'Homme Gris'."

The Grey Man.

"That name--is known to us, also," Dubois said after an infinitesimal pause.

"I thought it might be," the dealer said shrewdly.

Grant rallied, her voice warm and fervent.  "Then you had the proof of your own eyes he was not to be trusted.  It was well-done, m'sieur! Now if you would be so good as to help us, please."

The ensuing silence felt like a great scale balancing the weight of the world; Archie held his breath, waiting for it to tip.

"Eh bien," Rossignol said at last.  "Come with me."

******

He led them all into the back of the shop, past wooden  frames of varying sizes propped against walls and blank canvases stacked in corners, into a large storeroom lit only by one small window.  By the inner wall stood three enormous trunks.

"Les voici," Rossignol said simply. "I've kept them out of sight, and with these doors double-locked at night should that one think to hire the canaille to break in."

"Most prudent," Arundel agreed.  "Have there been any such attempts, monsieur?"

"None of which I have heard.  And I, too, have those who will watch, if I make it worth their while."  The dealer's grin was slightly feral.  "I will trust you, messieurs et mesdames.  Search as you will, and may le bon Dieu assist you, if you find anything that will help catch the killers of Jean-Jacques or your friend."

He set three heavy keys down on the nearest trunk and departed for the front of his shop once again. Taking up the keys, the agents hastened to unlock all the trunks and throw back their sturdy lids.

Archie found himself on the receiving end of an enormous armload passed to him by Carmichael; he sat down hastily on the floor to avoid dropping everything and began to sift through the plunder.  Old letters, what looked like small account-books, torn and folded-over scraps of parchment, bits of colored pencils tied into bundles with broken charcoal-sticks, stiffly crumpled cloths stained with dried paint, remnants of sketch-books with only one or two remaining blank pages . . .

"But--where to start?" he heard himself ask rhetorically, feeling foolish for speaking aloud but unable to make heads or tails at first out of the jumble on his lap.

"Look for anything out of the ordinary," Arundel said, as he knelt beside another trunk, digging through its contents

"Anything that might connect Daubigny to any of our suspects," Barrington corrected, holding what seemed a twisted-up bundle of old clothes, thrusting his hands in and out of every pocket.

"Anything that would tell us Daubigny could be Jacques," Carmichael elaborated.

Archie nodded his understanding and began to sort out and classify his assigned pile.  As soon as he finished, he was passed another double armload and dealt with it similarly, then went on to a third.

"He was an artist, without a doubt," Arundel was commenting somewhere behind him.  "It's a lifetime's worth of drafts and sketches, here."

"Anyone we recognize?" Grant inquired.

"Not so far," Arundel replied.  "But some of these are quite old--he may have done them before he came to England."

Archie went back to sorting.  He had lost track of time, only estimating he was near the bottom of his fifth pile--or was it the sixth?--when there was a low growl from Carmichael's direction.

"Have you found something?" Archie asked

An irregularly folded piece of heavy paper was thrust before his nose. "Have a look."

The outside of the paper bore the half-finished, smeared charcoal sketch of a house that the artist had obviously abandoned in its incomplete state, but the inside . . .

The first line of words . . . no, not real words.  A string of five letters written together, then another five letters, then eight letters . . . five, and five again, and then three . . .

Archie looked up from the page.  "This is code," he said, with sudden certainty.

Barrington, looking over the younger agent's shoulder, took the paper from Archie's hand. "Indeed," he confirmed, a moment later.  "Though this variant is usually used only in French communications--"

He was interrupted by another growl.  "Bugger that.  He wasn't writing to a Frog."

The ice in Carmichael's tone silenced Barrington; the London agent handed the paper wordlessly back to Archie.

"It's one of ours?" he asked the Edinburgh commander, already suspecting what the answer would be.

"It's ours," Carmichael confirmed.  His face was pale, stony.  "And that line at the very bottom--I know the writing."

******

INTERLUDE 

London 1804

"My dear friend:

For once it seems I have been indiscreet.  A misplaced confidence--I had
thought him a safe listener when I brought forth my questions--but now I
fear I was mistaken.  You will no doubt think to yourself how often you
have warned me about such things, I am sure, but indeed, how was I to
know?  At first glance, the idea, it is preposterous, like something
from a novel, or a bad piece written for theater--c'est incroyable!

And yet, as I examine the details--and you yourself taught me that
trick, my friend!--how plausible it becomes,  when the facts are
considered!  Though a great deal of help must have been provided by
someone--and now I believe I know his identity, though I fear he has
discovered mine, in turn, or at least, suspects my knowledge, if not my
motivations.  It seems I should never have trusted him.  And yet--his
situation seemed so like unto mine--it did not occur to me to distrust
him until very lately.  As I go about my business, I cannot but feel I
am being watched--and I do not count myself among the most fanciful or
observant of men.  It may be that this began almost as long ago as our
last meeting.  At least two times, now, there have been accidents that
took place nearby--had I been less watchful the outcomes could have been
fatal.  But this third occurrence leads me to believe this is not mere
mischance.

Yet suspicions alone are not enough, I know--you must have evidence.
Proof.  It could be that what we need is even now under my own nose.
It is possible that within my own reach there is some tangible item that
will verify our suppositions.  Should I be successful in my quest, I
shall bring my findings with me to the appointed place, as we have
agreed.

                                                                                    Yours in haste,

                                                                                                Jacques

 

"At the appointed time.

                    S."

END PART THIRTY