Into the Fire
by Pam and Del

 

They say no more of Death or of the Lady.

--George Gordon, Lord Byron, Don Juan

 

PART SIX: "The Quarry"

A quarter past eight.

Archie glanced about the great library before taking a seat. Two tables had been placed end to end to form one long one, which now dominated the center of the room: a gleaming dark expanse around which all three divisions were uneasily gathered. There were perhaps an additional dozen or more agents present than had been down in the common-room the night before, but none of them--perhaps fortunately--evinced any sign of being "sent for." What the new arrivals did show in their appearance was diversity; nearly all levels of London's population seemed duly represented. From domestics to tradesmen to merchant's clerks to fashionable sprigs of polite society-- a most varied assortment indeed!

Not only was the assembly diverse in appearance, but its members seemed, of their own volition, to be differentiating themselves. Archie's companions from the Edinburgh division were seated all on one side of the table: Caillean Dunbar and Laura Grant still close together, no sign yet of Carmichael, the other agents unspeaking, their faces nearly expressionless. As Archie sat down beside Rory, he noticed a further schism in the ranks: the agents whom he guessed to belong to Smith's division, seated by her, and the ones who--by process of elimination--had worked under Commander Seaton.

Smitty, with every appearance of social decorum, was sitting across from the Edinburgh contingent, her expression alert and businesslike, those of the agents about her, completely unreadable. But directly opposite her, a chair was vacant . . . and the agents to Smitty's left--who filled out that side of the table and took up a few places on the other--all seemed to avoid looking at that chair if they could help it. Moreover, some two or three stragglers--obliged by their tardy arrival to sit on Archie's side of the table--refrained from eying not only the chair but their Edinburgh colleagues as well.

By now Archie had learned much more about keeping his own face under control--but there were alternate ways, as well, to gauge another man's state of mind. Some faces in the third group might seem impassive; others even uninterested. But about the majority of them hung an air of--defeat? Even shame, perhaps? A blunder had occurred, and they knew it, and knew as well that they would be held accountable for it. A certain--hangdog--attitude seemed prevalent in their ranks. There was no talking--not even the slightest of exchanges--between neighbors, and as Archie looked again between the two London divisions he saw the cool, almost inimical glances with which Smitty's agents were regarding their unfortunate colleagues.

Irresistibly, his mind slipped back to the encounter on the stairs, just before he had entered.

"It would put the cat among the pigeons, right enough," Jamieson had been saying to Ferguson, as Archie reached the landing, and looked curiously at the senior agents.

"What news?"

"It's more than likely Carmichael's to take charge of Seaton's division, for now." Jamieson, usually laconic, seemed grimly amused at this possibility; Ferguson, generally far more voluble, remained silent.

Archie considered this development. Their commander -- to temporarily replace a fallen one. Quite customary, in the Service, not even unusual for intelligence work but--

"But--" he heard himself starting to voice his objections aloud.

"They won't be liking it much." Jamieson finished the thought for him. "And he's in no mood to tolerate folly."

Considering the memory anew, Archie realized there were two "he's" who could have been the subject of that statement. Assessing the faces nearest him, he realized that the Edinburgh agents were regarding the leaderless division in an equally unforgiving manner: no quarter was to be allowed for the loss of a veteran commander whom many of them had known personally. And for Carmichael to be placed in command over them . . .

As if conjured by the thought, the Edinburgh commander promptly appeared, taking the vacant seat beside Caillean and opposite Smitty. A ripple of reaction ran through Seaton's division, only to be immediately suppressed. There was no exchange of words or glances between Smitty and Carmichael at all, and silence fell as the entire room heard the chiming of the clock.

Half past eight.

Slightly to Archie's surprise, the entire company rose to its feet as their leader entered. Nicholas Crawford, Earl of Kilcarron, was noticeably tall, but it was not stature alone that drew attention to him. Rather, he conveyed a sense of cool, controlled power, the same intense authority that Archie thought of as the air of command, that he remembered as belonging to Captain--now Admiral, he had heard--Pellew. And Kilcarron's chosen adversary on the other side of the Channel was said to possess a similar presence. Archie lowered his eyes briefly as another memory, sharp-edged to the point of pain, resurfaced. Would Horatio have that air one day? It seemed quite possible.

"Agents." At Kilcarron's word, the assembly was seated once more, the earl taking his own chair at the head of the table. His level blue gaze assessed the room, but his face revealed no trace of his private considerations. To his left sat Doctor Latour, his own countenance no less inscrutable.

"As you are already aware, this conference is to address many matters. The first and most vital of them: Bonaparte still thinks to invade England." Kilcarron's voice remained cool and unmoved, but Archie sensed the roomful of agents around him all coming to attention.

"He has continued to muster troops, munitions, and supplies at the port of Boulogne. We know there are long-standing orders for the construction of a convoy fleet to transport men and horses. His boast has been that, should he be granted only a few hours to cross at the straits of Dover, in five days he could hang the flag of France from the Tower of London."

Yes, the whole nation was invasion-mad, and rumors abounded of Napoleon's preparation of his forces on the other side of the Channel. Some of the stories, Archie had learned from his colleagues, were wildly exaggerated, but -- not enough of them? He studied Kilcarron, trying to gauge the degree of the earl's concern for his own pronouncement, but as usual, had to admit defeat: the spymaster's face was a masterpiece of stony impassivity as he continued.

"At this time, however, the condition of the French Navy prohibits his realization of that ambition."

Archie lowered his gaze again, this time to hide a sudden flash of amusement. "No power on earth can withstand the might of the British Navy!" Captain Pellew had roared on the day Archie and Horatio had joined the company of the Indefatigable--and indeed, over the years, the Frogs' unsuccessful attempts to match their enemy's dominance at sea had become something of a joke among the ship's junior officers. Indeed, a few had even speculated as to whether some of the French admirals were secretly working for England!

Kilcarron was still speaking. "He still lacks adequate vessels and appropriate armaments for them. We have accounts of ships constructed in other ports for the invasion fleet never reaching Boulogne; others that do arrive have cannon of the wrong caliber, making them unsuitable for Bonaparte's purpose. What concerns us more is the cause to which he is assigning the blame for these impediments: namely, foreign agents who have infiltrated his forces."

And to what degree was this hypothesis accurate? Archie wondered, with a certain black humor, knowing even he himself was not fully aware of the scope of Kilcarron's operations abroad.

"In accordance with this belief, the forces of M. Fouché are known to be engaging in massive investigations of all persons whom they may consider to be even potentially involved in espionage. The merest breath of suspicion is considered grounds for immediate incarceration--an actual denunciation is tantamount to an order for execution."

He referred most directly, Archie suspected, to the Enghien affair. But the naming of the French head of secret intelligence caused another ripple about the room; Carmichael looked up.

"And our agents in France, my lord?"

"Securely placed, Commander Carmichael--they should be able to remain above suspicion." The earl paused. "The next matter of concern to us," abruptly, Kilcarron paused again. "As you know, nineteen days ago we lost Commander Seaton."

A grim silence fell over the room. Kilcarron continued, his expression bleak. "For the time being her post will be filled by Commander Carmichael of the Edinburgh division."

There it was! A small buzz began within the assembly; Archie glanced sideways, saw his commander's set expression--like that of a man considering a battlefield--and realized that Carmichael had already known of this step before the meeting started, and was not inclined to be lenient towards what he might view as either gross negligence or an outright violation of established procedures.

"Thank you, my lord." Carmichael rose. "And as my first order of business: may we be informed of all particulars regarding the loss of Commander Seaton?"

Archie winced inwardly. No, no mercy at all.

Kilcarron was continuing, smoothly. "As you request, Commander Carmichael--though I assure you, I already had every intention of addressing the matter." He paused as Carmichael reseated himself, then turned to address the head of the other London group. "Commander Smith, I know you and your division were not working directly under Commander Seaton for these last two months or more--nevertheless, you had indicated to me you felt you could shed some light on the issues at hand. You were examining the notes left by Commander Seaton, I believe?"

"Yes, my lord." Smitty's voice was equally composed.

"Then we shall come to them in due course. But first, a word of caution to all here." Kilcarron sounded very slightly vexed. "The Admiralty has finally chosen to admit what has been evident from the first---the undeniable presence of Imperial agents in London and in other crucial locations."

And not before time. Archie felt his mouth draw into a thin, tight line as he remembered the price paid at Quiberon for the lack of that very admission.

The earl continued, "What concerns them most now, however--and in fact, must concern all of us assembled--is their new belief that there is such an agent somewhere within the highest levels of the Admiralty itself. Within the last year, one such traitor has already been revealed, and dealt with, but the Admiralty believes that another agent still remains, with orders to learn not only the plans and positions of our armed forces, but those of our covert operatives as well. While I have not made the Admiralty privy to the identity of our agents abroad, it nonetheless has records of those agents in our organization who are working with them on English soil. With the death of Commander Seaton, it seems possible that these agents may have become targets in a campaign of elimination. Napoleon is no less concerned about our intelligence than we are about his--still, this is a move that smacks of surprising recklessness."

Recklessness. Archie laced his fingers together, bit one knuckle as he remembered training.

"No more force than necessary," Carmichael said to Archie and Rory in the study, where a rain-filled day had led to a course of what the commander called "London lessons". "And simply to have marked one man as a Frog agent doesn't mean we shoot him out of hand." Tawny eyes fixed on Archie. "You tell me why."

Archie bit his lip, thinking. "Because--we could trail him back to his superiors? Find the bigger fish?"

"That's one reason," Carmichael approved. "And think of this, then---we know who he is and we can watch for him, even mislead him as we want. But eliminate him," he shrugged. "The Frogs'd have a new man in place within a week---and we'd have to find him all over again."

Reckless, indeed. Archie studied his hands again. Insofar as one could consider a band of spies to be bound by rules of engagement, this approached a tactical blunder.

"And now, as to other particulars: Commander Smith?" Kilcarron, surprisingly, was yielding the floor. Smith rose, faced the assembly.

"Just after the beginning of the year, we received information from several sources: that there was a new and secret cabal in support of Bonaparte concealed among the emigre population, and that there was an organized network--perhaps working in tandem, or perhaps not--to pass along information. The latter is based in the Drury Lane-Covent Garden area."

The theater district, Archie realized. An ingenious device--all London went to the theatre, no one from any walk of life would seem out-of-place. And in the multitude of vendors and tradesmen that abounded in the region, no transaction would seem unusual.

Smitty was continuing. "Under Commander Seaton's order, my division and I commenced surveillance and investigation of Drury Lane and its surrounding environs. Meanwhile, she had begun her own inquiries with regard to the émigrés. She had many prior connections within those particular circles." Smith paused, appearing slightly ill-at-ease; here, too, Archie discovered, was another long-standing colleague of the slain commander.

"I--have been reviewing Commander Seaton's notes from the past two months," Smitty resumed, but her voice was distinctly unsteady. "The names of her contacts were recorded, of course, in her own personal cipher. As the investigation progressed, her chief informant was referred to as 'Jacques'."

The sigh that went through her audience was almost a groan. Archie hid a sympathetic grimace. To find one "Jacques"--among the entire émigré population of London! If there were no other means of identification, such a search appeared daunting, if not impossible.

"It seemed there were three major suspects among the émigrés," Smitty was adding. "Using Commander Seaton's cipher, we have been able to discover their names--"

Kilcarron, unexpectedly, broke in before she could finish. "Those particulars can wait until a later meeting, Commander. Pray continue to the circumstances surrounding the -- incident."

That was--strange. Of course, most members of the London division might already be privy to that information but even so . . . frowning to himself, Archie noticed other signs of perturbation in the agents around him. Uneasiness in some, surprise showing openly among only one or two; an odd expression of grim ferocity on Carmichael's face now. Smitty blinked, startled, then composed her own face again and took up the summary of events.

"Three weeks ago," Smitty's voice faltered briefly, "Jacques had contacted the commander to arrange a meeting--her notes say that he had made an important discovery and would be bringing evidence of this to her. Their rendezvous was arranged in the theater district, two nights later, in Russell Street. We do know both Seaton and Jacques arrived at the appointed place but then--" Smith broke off.

"They were undoubtedly attacked." Doctor Latour rose in his turn, speaking for the first time. "Initially, we suspected some form of ambush, but there was no indication of any close-quarters struggle. It would appear in some way they were both struck at from a distance. Although we had witnessed his arrival, there was no sign of Jacques when we reached the scene. The commander, unfortunately, was beyond help. It would have been--very quick."

"How?" A growl from Carmichael.

"A single knife, straight to the heart," Latour said. "Death would have been instantaneous."

"But--from a distance?" Jamieson was frowning. "Could it have been thrown?"

Latour frowned. "Unlikely, but not completely impossible. The blade was not at the scene. That consideration would alter the distance to which the enemy had to approach in order to attack."

"And what about Jacques, then?" Carmichael's face was grim. "No one else has been contacted by him, or been able to locate him? Could he be the traitor?"

"That's also unlikely." Smitty's voice was bleak. "Seaton trusted him completely: she was very sure that his information would advance our inquiries further, either to eliminate a suspect or cast far more light on a particular one. She was--looking forward to their meeting."

"And you let her go? Just like that?" The northern accent was suddenly thicker; Archie blinked as Carmichael continued.

"Off with no one to watch her back? You lot aren't only soft, you're bloody careless." Tangible scorn and even greater anger were showing through the north-country brogue.

"There was someone with her." Smitty was responding, perhaps the only one in the London circle who dared. "She made them stay back so they wouldn't be seen."

"And so far back they couldn't protect her, or see who killed her! An old woman, to put herelf in harm's way while you pampered lot sat on your arses? You're not just soft, you're gutless!"

Smitty's face was furious now. "If she were here, she'd box your ears for saying that, and you know it!"

"But she's not here!" The explosion came as Carmichael surged to his feet to return the full force of Smitty's glare. "You lot mucked up and it's cost us all. There's an officer gone. And we've been called down to clean up after you!"

The commander of one division was tearing raw, bloody strips off another division, Archie realized, and was glad he was not in the London circle. But even in the service, this diatribe might raise some eyebrows; he was not surprised to hear Kilcarron's long-delayed voice.

"Commander Carmichael."

Several Londoners' eyes--but not Smitty's--turned to the earl.

"Sir." Carmichael's voice yielded nothing.

Kilcarron rose. "I don't believe I have a thing to add," he remarked devastatingly. "This conference is over. I shall be meeting with an Admiralty official late this morning to discuss further developments. Edinburgh division, be prepared to meet here again at two o'clock this afternoon. Good morning, ladies and gentlemen."

*****

INTERLUDE

Edinburgh, 1786

 

He found her sitting in her favorite armchair by the window, but for once, wholly engrossed in her reading, she did not appear to notice when he entered the room.

"You seem quite preoccupied, Miss Seaton."

She looked up from the pages on her lap. "Well, my lord, it is not every day one receives a letter from a former charge."

"Ah. Might I inquire whom?"

She smiled. "Lady Huntley. Our Cecily, of course."

"Indeed." He carefully schooled his expression into indifference. "And how are things with her?"

"Splendid, as it happens. She has written to inform me of the birth of her first child. A son."

"That is--happy news." He hoped the indifference of his expression was reflected in his tone, although he was forced to admit, if only to himself, that indifference was far from what he was feeling at this moment.

Cecily's child. Who could have been his son--their son. Drawing apart from the hearth, he tried to push the regrets away, focusing instead upon the tragedy that had made his denial--of her and all they might have shared--imperative.

The portrait in his uncle's study -- a very young woman, her expressive face open and vulnerable, her arms curved protectively around the swaddled, sleeping infant.

Two headstones on the quiet hillside of an ancestral site: "Catherine Alicia Crawford, Countess of Kilcarron, Beloved Wife and Mother", "Richard Khaireddin Crawford, Beloved Son". His uncle's bleak eyes as he had recounted the story. A chance ambush, the world thought, a brutal robbery by highwaymen. The certainty of his uncle -- and his uncle's associates -- that there had been nothing random in the attack, that it had been organized and carried out by foreign agents with the Earl of Kilcarron as its true target. But no proof, despite all their suspicions. Only the burden of guilt and uncertainty that had weighed upon his uncle ever since that long-ago loss, that had made him cold, reserved, and withdrawn until Nicholas came of age enough to appreciate the odd apprenticeship for which he was destined.

And to see, undisguised, the murky waters of an intelligence career. One could never be completely sure that one's family and loved ones were safe and protected against all dangers. What seemed the merest misfortune to the world at large could be the result of a lethal plot when judged through a spy's looking-glass. Best to have as few ties as possible, to keep the hazard at a minimum. Kinsmen were unavoidable, but other connections--?

The shy light in a young girl's eyes as she smiled at him in the ballroom . . . the memory of the portrait had stirred, and Nicholas had taken warning. No hostages to fortune. Let her remain untouched, unexposed to the dangers he would face. Unaware of all that could have been

Seaton had returned to her letter. "He is to be christened David Alexander, and Huntley is most happy and pleased about the outcome."

"Then I am glad for them both." Even to his own ears, his voice was not as smooth or level as he would have liked.

Seaton laid the letter aside. "I remember what was said of Lord Huntley's customary habits. He would not usually have been in town during that part of the season. The time and occasion of their meeting seemed . . . oddly fortuitous. My lord, if it is not a presumption to say so, I have often wondered if you had something of a hand in it."

"I, madam?" The frost in his tone might have fooled his other subordinates but he had overlooked with whom he was dealing.

"In order to arrange just this result." Cecily's former governess--his former tutor--fixed him with a severe and probing eye. "Remember I was still in attendance on her that year. I had occasion to see you together the few times you called upon the house. And I had heard her confiding in Ellen as well: that from your long acquaintance she felt a certain -- partiality."

His suspicions had been correct . . . and Seaton was seeing far too much--if not from his face, then from his silence.

"How fortunate -- that her acquaintance soon became broadened."

"Well, fortunate for one of you," Seaton observed dryly. "Did you never consider making an offer on your own account?"

"Out of the question." Abruptly, he abandoned all pretense. "This life--my life--would expose her to far too many dangers. She's better -- safer--as she is."

As a happy new mother, and even more irrevocably out of his reach.

His mentor remained unmoved. "Do you not think it possible that, presented with the full circumstances, she would still have wished to make that choice herself? Or that you underestimated both her strength and her will? She might have been guarded easily enough -- you could have made that provision for her. Or she could have been taught to protect herself, if necessary. Even young women need not be helpless if they are trained and prepared. The pity is that so few of them are."

"And you believe--she would have agreed to a life that demanded constant vigilance?" He could not keep the incredulity from his voice.

"I believe that she would have been capable of far more than you think, if the situation required it of her. And that it was an . . . error on your part, not to allow her the chance to decide for herself."

"It does not matter now." He attempted to close the subject. "As Lady Huntley, such safeguards will not be necessary."

Seaton's expression told him she was not fooled. "You meant the best for Cecily, I am sure. And yet she might have wished it otherwise. It is possible, as well, that she would still have decided to accept Lord Huntley's offer. But it was a mistake, I think, to deny her the opportunity to choose her future. I would have taken a dim view of any suitor who denied that to me."

"I do not doubt it. Although, at the risk of answering presumption with presumption, I must inquire as to whether your stockings are -- blue, Miss Seaton."

Her glance did not waver. "They always were, Mr. Crawford."

For a moment longer, their gazes held; then, placing his hand over his heart, he sketched his deepest bow in a salute that was only half-ironic, as apprentice to master. Regal as a duchess, Seaton inclined her head in acknowledgement.

 

END PART SIX