Into the Fire
by Pam and Del

Cry 'Havoc!' and let slip the dogs of war.

                        --William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

 

PART THIRTY-SIX: "Springing the Trap"

 

The lively strains of "Newcastle" met Archie's ears as he eased open the french windows and escorted Medora back inside.  Fortunately, no one paid them much heed as they strolled along the perimeter of the ballroom, pausing when they came to a row of chairs set against the wall.

Archie bowed over Medora's hand, for the sake of any curious onlookers. "Thank you, madam--that was delightful.  Perhaps, later this evening, you will honor me with a second dance?"

He spoke lightly but he knew he could promise nothing better than perhaps, and that Medora knew it too.  After what she had told him on the balcony . . .

Medora inclined her own head.  "Perhaps," she conceded, as modestly as a young girl attending her very first ball. Raising her fan, she held it half-open over her face to signify "we are being watched." Her eyes, however, conveyed a message that required no translation: be careful.

Archie gave her what he hoped was a reassuring smile, bowed again, and then strolled away, deliberately not looking back.

Meanwhile, his thoughts and pulse-beats ran like a watchmaker's wheel as he considered the various implications of what he had just learned. Perhaps the most astonishing thing was that he was less astonished than he might have been.

What had Daubigny's letter said?  "Preposterous . . . incredible . . . like something in a play." And yet, as Archie considered the details along with Medora's information, more and more plausible.  Could it be . . .?

But whether the theory was plausible or not, its importance was not for Archie to judge.  His thoughts came into sudden focus and he looked up, scanning the ballroom for Kilcarron.

He saw Barrington first, followed the other's gaze and saw the earl himself, his stride deliberate, approaching . . . there was Minard, in dark evening clothes with an expression to match.

Damn!  From his position at the edge of the ballroom floor, Archie began an unobtrusive retreat.  He already knew what would be said--Kilcarron, no doubt, had already anticipated Minard's reaction.  This initiated the period of greatest hazard to the earl:  for the rest of the evening he would be under the most intense scrutiny from Minard and whatever supporting agents Minard had present in the crowd.  Anyone in contact with Kilcarron would likewise be kept under close watch.  In this present setting, Archie could not approach him now, not unless he wished to jeopardize their entire enterprise.

One o'clock.  In the great library.  The second drawer of the writing-desk. Archie must get to his post but there was a chance, on the way . . .

Edging his way past the romping dancers and gossiping guests, he slipped out of the ballroom at last and found the side-stairway. He paused on the landing for a moment, to assume a bland, faintly confused expression--that of a mildly bosky guest unfamiliar with the house, looking for the necessary--and descended the stairs at an appropriate pace.

Another passage, a back-stairs this time, closer to where the footmen were about their business . . .

"Need a bit of help, sir?  Fresh air, perhaps?"

Precise to the minute.  Archie exhaled with relief, took Carmichael's cue.

"I do feel . . .a trifle unwell, my good fellow," he replied, trying to sound as amiably vacuous as he looked.  "If you would be so kind as to show me the way . . ."

"No sooner said than done, sir."  Carmichael touched Archie's shoulder as if to guide him along; his other hand thrust the familiar weight of a pistol into Archie's grasp.  Archie slid it carefully into the waistband of his trousers.

"Take your post."  Carmichael's voice was softer than a whisper.

"Wait."  Archie licked his lips, felt his throat dry with urgency. "I've found something out--can you get a message to him?"

"To Old Nick?"

"Yes."  Quickly, Archie recounted what he had learned--and guessed.

Carmichael's eyes narrowed when he was done. "You're sure of this."  Not really a question; Archie nodded confirmation.  "Then I'll see he hears it.  Get down to your post." Raising his voice, Carmichael resumed his role.  "It's just down that way, sir.  Mind your step."

*****

The library was in darkness, save for a faintly smoldering fire in the grate and a shaft of moonlight slanting in through the lone window, where a massive desk stood.  Where the exchange would be made.

Easing the door shut behind him, Archie scarcely breathed as he surveyed the room. Recessed alcoves held tall bookcases, a long reading-couch nestled against an adjoining wall, and three armchairs were clustered before the fireplace.  A pair of Chinese screens, gleaming with lacquer and mother-of-pearl even in the dim light, flanked either side of the hearth.

"Rory?" The query was not so much whispered as breathed.

"Here."  The response was as hushed as his own voice had been, and came from . . . above?  As Archie's eyes adjusted to the near-gloom, he heard Rory move, slightly, and saw him at last, in a shadowy alcove, muffled in dark clothes to blend into the shadows, lying prone on the top of the tall bookcase.

Archie suppressed an exhalation of surprise. "Are you -- all right up there?"

Rory's nod was barely visible in the darkness; his bright hair was covered and his face liberally smeared with soot. "Higher or lower's less easy to spot, coming in."

Archie stored that detail away for future reference, then cast about for a hiding place of his own.  Not for the first time he regretted the spare, classical style of most furniture, which offered little in the way of concealment.

"Try behind there--you'll see the drop."  Rory gestured towards one of the Chinese screens.

Archie grimaced to himself, irresistibly reminded of The School for Scandal and Lady Teazle, exposed by a falling screen at a crucial moment in the play.  Fortunately, on examining the screens more closely, he discovered them to be much sturdier than they appeared, unlikely to blow over at a sudden draught.  Glancing about the room again, he weighed the option of visibility versus greater proximity to the transaction point, then slipped behind the screen closest to the desk.

Pulling the pistol free of his breeches, he lowered himself to the carpet, with the weapon still close to hand.  A considerable wait lay before him; to keep his mind alert and engaged, he mentally reviewed their plan of action, along with the most recent piece of the puzzle.

First, Minard.  He should be on his way here--would he be alone or with reinforcements?   From the accounts of the other agents assigned to observe their previous meetings, the doctor had played a lone hand: there had been no sign of anyone trailing him or preceding him to the rendezvous with Archie.  And yet before there had been mention of the Grey Man; Rossignol had witnessed the contact between Minard and the criminal's underlings.

Archie remembered the attack on Latour.  It would appear that that alliance had dissolved.  Minard had somehow fallen into the Grey Man's ill graces--perhaps over Ainsley, as the roof-walker had suggested--but no agent of any competence would undertake tonight's action alone.

Which led to -- the Vicomtesse, at last.  An ally close at hand for Minard and--if Archie assumed the worst, as he had been trained to do--an experienced, Bonapartist agent, successfully infiltrated into respectable society, above suspicion.

Not the fashionable social ornament on display in polite circles--and not the pious, fragile, former invalid of her family history.  What had Parillaud said?  "Most beautiful, but of a coldness . . . she would often speak as if she received letters from abroad, and could send messages there."  Were they communications--or orders--from abroad?

And how had they missed that other odd, incongruous note:  the virtuous, obedient Marie-Lucille, to have initiated an extramarital intrigue, with a man not known for dalliance with married ladies?  Why had the liaison even taken place?  Had she learned of the hunt for the Bonapartist and wished to spread suspicion and misdirection?  Had she been under orders to ensnare the colonel?  Or had she been recruiting on her own initiative?

One thing was certain: the Vicomtesse was more dangerous than perhaps anyone suspected.  Those with great secrets to keep generally were. Which made it imperative that Kilcarron be put in possession of the facts Archie had learned tonight.  Carmichael had promised that the earl would hear of this, and Archie knew that the Edinburgh commander's word could be trusted entirely, though he could not help but wonder how many others would become links in the chain of information.

For now all Archie himself could do was wait.

*****

From behind the screen, he heard the door open, then a step and a rustle of -- cloth?  Yes--like a skirt or a petticoat.  One of the housemaids, come to tend the fire? Or was it --?

Archie tensed, straining to listen and hardly daring to breathe. Above him, a single point of light--as from a candle flame--danced upon the ceiling.  But neither the steps nor the light seemed to be coming towards the hearth. Instead, both seemed headed towards the window . . .

Then he heard it:  the sound of a drawer being opened.  Minard--or his agent--was in the room. Pistol in hand, moving as stealthily as he could, Archie risked a glance around the left-hand edge of the screen -- and saw the Vicomtesse DeGuise, standing at the desk, the moonlight turning her gown to the color of old blood.

Minard had enlisted the lady herself?  But then the sketches were of her and her twin -- why would he not have informed her of that? And if the Vicomtesse was indeed what they suspected, she might easily have a more active part in the proceedings.  Who, after all, would question her movements in her own house?

Now she loosed the string of her reticule, removed something from its depths--a roll of banknotes, perhaps?--and then placed it deep in the drawer, which she closed with a single smooth motion. All her movements were graceful and unhurried; watching her, one might think that paying off blackmailers was something she did every night. Leaving the candle behind, the Vicomtesse turned from the desk and glided from the room, the red-and-gold train of her gown gleaming in her wake like an elaborate fishtail.

Archie exhaled shallowly. He'd have paid money to see Rory's expression, but the reckoning was almost here and he put all else from his mind. Any moment now, Kilcarron would be making his own entrance--and if Minard intended an ambush of his enemy, it would be most likely to happen then.

It was longer than Archie expected--more than a quarter of an hour, perhaps--when he heard the cautious, familiar step and the opening and closing of the door.  Archie slipped back again to the edge of his concealing screen, risked another look. Kilcarron strode deliberately and nearly noiselessly to the desk, then paused there.  Putting forth one gloved hand to the second drawer, he opened it quite slowly, as one would if expecting some concealed trap.  In the same meticulous but gradual fashion, he removed what the Vicomtesse had left from the drawer, slid it shut.  Straightening, he reached into the breast of his waistcoat and produced a thin packet, which he laid upon the desk.

There was a click as the door opened behind him. Archie dropped into a crouch to avoid notice, but kept his feet under him.

Minard came forward but did not close the door.  Behind him glided the Vicomtesse, moving into flanking position--a small pistol visible in her hand, leveled at Kilcarron.  The earl stood unmoving--and to all appearances, unsurprised, as Minard turned back to close and lock the door.

"So, Monsieur." It appeared Minard intended to be in charge of the scene.  "If you would stand aside a little--"

Kilcarron stepped away from the desk; the Vicomtesse drew closer, weapon raised.  Behind the screen, Archie grimaced with frustration.  Too close, she was too close, if she fired now he could do nothing . . .

Minard pocketed the pile of bank notes first, then reached for the packet. He regarded the earl coldly before speaking again.

"I have heard many tales of you, m'sieur, but I had not expected to find you so--reticent."

"I had thought to let you speak first, monsieur."

Damn!  Archie grimaced again, recognizing the code word.  "First"--in circumstances such as this it meant "wait."  He bit down on his lip, remembering the drill again.  Wait for it, wait . . .

Minard was opening the packet; Archie tensed.  Minard's attention was distracted--Kilcarron had predicted that--it should have been the moment for action but the Vicomtesse still held her weapon unswervingly on the earl.  He dared not move--a distraction was necessary, some diversion . . . he almost considered knocking over the screen, but then he thought he saw a flicker of movement high in the shadowy alcove where Rory lay concealed.

"Eh bien," Minard said, as if to himself, and closed the packet.  "Shall I inquire of you, monsieur, who else knows of these?"

"You may inquire whatever you like."  Kilcarron's cool, aggravating tone was very familiar; had the circumstances been less perilous Archie might have grinned to himself. 

Minard only scowled. "You think yourself clever, I am told, but tonight I believe you have--miscalculated. You shall tell me what I wish to know."

"Perhaps, monsieur, it is you who have miscalculated."

Within the alcove, a dark tentacle reached, coiled back, and then snapped forward, sending a heavy object hurtling towards the desk. It struck no one but landed with an audible thud upon the carpet.  Distracted, Minard and the Vicomtesse glanced towards the sound --  and in that split second, Archie moved, striding from behind the screen to press the muzzle of his pistol to the small of the Vicomtesse's back.

"Your weapon, ma'am," he said levelly, as she gave a start of surprise.

The pistol trembled slightly in her clenched hands. Archie could almost see the working of her thoughts as she calculated whether it was worth firing at Kilcarron -- and then the library door burst open to admit several men in the dark blue uniforms of the Navy, followed by Carmichael and Barrington.

"Drop your weapons, now!" ordered the foremost man, doubtless the senior officer in charge of the proceedings.

The Vicomtesse wavered a second longer, then with a hissed obscenity, dropped her pistol onto the desk.  Archie uncocked his own and replaced it in his waistband, before setting himself deliberately between the Vicomtesse and Kilcarron.

The Admiralty men came further into the room, their pistols drawn and at the ready.  Flanked by his subordinates, the commanding officer strode toward the two spies.

"Claude Minard and Marie-Lucille DeGuise, I arrest you in the name of--"

"Louise," Archie surprised himself by saying aloud. 

The officer broke off, frowning at him. "What's that?'

"She's Marie-Louise," Archie repeated, a trifle more loudly. "Not Lucille. Her twin."

The naval officer looked at Archie as if he were mad, but, "It's quite true, Lieutenant Hargreaves," Kilcarron put in smoothly. "I believe you will find that the imposture began even before the DeGuise marriage."

Minard, who had not moved since the arrival of the Admiralty men, showed no response beyond a narrowing of his eyes, but the Vicomtesse drew herself upright as though mortally offended.

"Bah! C'est impossible!" she snapped, all her assumed languor dropping away. "What absurdity is this?"

Minard's face darkened at that. "Hold your tongue, you fool!" he hissed at her, in French.

But the Vicomtesse was not to be silenced.  "I have never heard such madness! C'est fou! C'est dérangé!" Her fulminating gaze swept over the crowd. "You shall all pay for this insult!"

"Save your breath, cherie, s'il vous plait," a new voice drawled from the doorway.  Still glittering with his orders, the Vicomte DeGuise strolled into the room, and the Admiralty men stood back to let him pass. He paused a few feet from the desk, gazing at his "wife" with cool contempt.  "It is over. I have seen to that."

"You!" The Vicomtesse's voice rose to a near-shriek.  "Traitre! Scélérat! You think to save yourself, when you were a willing party to it all?" This last in furious, rapid-fire French.

"Your husband has promised his full cooperation in this affair, madame," Hargreaves informed her, not in the least confused by the change in tongues.

The Vicomte shrugged lightly and continued, also in French.  "Denouncing me will avail you nothing, cherie.  You were perhaps not clever enough, or careful enough when you searched my papers. Moreover," he added,  "I have others to provide for, now."

Eyes blazing, the Vicomtesse rushed out from behind the desk and lunged at her husband, eluding Hargreaves' grasp. In that moment, Archie saw Minard snatch up her discarded pistol and point it straight at Kilcarron.

Archie flung himself towards the earl, heard the report in his ears, and tumbled into darkness.

END PART THIRTY-SIX