Into the Fire
by Pam and Del

 

.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to min' ?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne?

--Robert Burns, "Auld Lang Syne"

 

PART SEVEN: "Undercurrents"

 

Footsteps went by in the passage. Archie turned over on the bed, frowning. After the conference had ended, Smitty and Carmichael, their expressions identically stormy, had gone off together, ostensibly to arrange the later meeting Kilcarron had mentioned, but also, rather obviously, to continue their argument. The rest of the assembly had disintegrated into small buzzing clumps of agents. Feeling he had nothing to add to speculative discussion, Archie had taken uneasy sanctuary in his quarters. He had attempted to read, but found concentration impossible; sleep had eluded him as well. What preyed upon his mind now were Kilcarron's words: a highly placed traitor in the Admiralty. More than one. One had been revealed already, the earl had said. But one was still in place. Threatening countless lives--how many good sailors and seamen were imperiled by this unknown man's treachery?

Archie felt his hands clenching into fists. Men risked their lives against the sea as a matter of course; men in the service battled not only the sea and the elements but also their fellow man, for the sake of their country. To think that someone with whom he had served, or at whose side he had fought, had been endangered by a spy secretly placed into that very institution set in power over them, intended to lead and direct them to victory . . .

Horatio. Pellew. Good honest seamen like Matthews and Styles. All at risk because of an enemy that would not show its face or its hand--unless it was to stab someone in the back. And for what Judas-reward? Gold? A position of power and influence?

Of course, one need not be a traitor to sow chaos and discontent on merely one of His Majesty's Ships, Archie acknowledged with a grimace. One had only to be an incompetent . . . or a madman.

A knock roused him from the unwelcome and uncomfortable memories that had begun to stir at this conclusion. Rising from the bed, Archie quickly straightened his clothes and went to answer the door.

A fair-haired man, perhaps in his early forties, stood on the other side. "You're Agent Lennox?" Eyes of an indeterminate shade between brown and grey scanned Archie from top to toe.

"I am," Archie replied, returning the scrutiny: the newcomer was not much taller than he, but thin and elegant as a stiletto and probably just as dangerous. Handsomely turned out as well, without being ostentatious. "And I have the honor of addressing--?"

"The Honorable Ralph Barrington--but 'Agent Barrington' will suffice," the man said crisply. "There's been a slight change in plans--I've been sent as your escort. We're still waiting on m'lord--word will be sent to the common room when he returns but he wants us there expecting him."

Archie nodded acknowledgement, closed the door behind him, and followed Barrington down the passage to the stairs. The London agent paused briefly before descending, regarding his charge through narrowed eyes, and again Archie was aware of the quick, calculating study.

"Oh, yes," Barrington said at last, "you'll do. You'll do admirably."

"What will I do?" Archie could not keep back the question. He had identified his escort now--this morning, he had been on Smitty's side of the table, no more than a few seats away. And even without the "Honorable," he would have been able to identify Barrington's origins as well, from the moment those cut-crystal tones reached his ear. The scion of an aristocratic family, certain sure, perhaps of a rank comparable to Archie's own.

"For working in London," Barrington clarified. "You should suit quite well indeed." He began to descend the stairs, Archie at his heels.

"You've not been down here before, I trust?" the older man continued, as they reached the landing. "Where have you been posted, and for how long?"

"Overseas," Archie replied, not wanting to reveal too much. "Ireland, mostly. A little more than two years."

Barrington clicked his tongue. "Up north all that long? Well, the Lady was certainly much before your time--you'd not have run across her before--"there was a sudden, uncomfortable pause.

"I believe I never did have that pleasure," Archie said warily.

"Well, you've picked a fine time to hear all about her. And to start working a London post! Nothing but turmoil here ever since that bloody disaster three weeks ago." The light voice was tinged with unmistakable peevishness. It's possible m'lord will send you to the larger division--he'd been planning for some time to put reinforcements there. They'll have a lot to answer for, I can tell you! Losing their commander and bringing that damned north-countryman down on us all!"

"He's a commander," Archie ventured, deciphering Barrington's reference without any difficulty.

"He's also a--" The Honorable Ralph used a word Rory would have recognized. "I can remember when he first got here--nothing but a common bumpkin! Clever enough to suit my lord, but taken right out of the ranks, and still reeking of the gutter. And as for the women!" He shook his head with evident disapproval before continuing. "And now--the London command? That brogue will go thick as mud and he'll be worse than ever! Do everything short of eating with his knife, I shouldn't wonder! Mind you, it's not as if I don't know why all you lot are really here!"

Archie blinked at this cryptic utterance but did not have time to challenge it before they reached the common room. There were fewer agents in evidence than there had been the night before; for a moment, Archie could not see any of his Edinburgh colleagues, then he spotted Jamieson and Caillean, at the table where Carmichael had lost so notably at cards, deep in conversation with a slim, brown-haired man. The room was also noticeably quieter: those attempting to engage in private conversations did so in hushed half-tones, while anything said at normal volume was immediately audible to the entire assembly.

"No word yet." Smith was standing just inside the door. Her eyes scanned Archie briefly. "You'll be Agent Lennox?"

Archie nodded acknowledgement; she returned his nod and went out.

"Wonder how much longer," Barrington mused aloud.

"I've heard he's back already!" A dark-haired, fashionably dressed man, close to Barrington's age, spoke up. "But he's closeted off with that rustic again--as if some northern clod could direct a London operation!"

"And we can all see how successful the rest of you have been so far, Agent Petrie!" Caillean's eyes were narrowed, her voice poisonously sweet.

Petrie frowned at her. "You can stay out of this--"

"And overlook the shining example of craft and competence you've provided for us?" The honey in the Edinburgh agent's voice was laced with acid.

"That will do!" Barrington broke in. "From both of you!" He glared at the Londoner, the extent of his vexation becoming increasingly evident. "It's true enough though, Petrie--none of you has shown any reason why m'lord should promote you to the Lady's command. And as for the countryman--he's right about one thing: he was sent for. And if you lot haven't gone as soft as he says, you've certainly gone thick at the least!"

"What're you saying?" Petrie demanded, glaring back.

"Why else send for so many from Edinburgh? I heard this morning--the rest of them are expected down by sea, before the week's out."

Archie blinked at this unexpected revelation; Barrington went on, his tone no longer peevish but sharp and accusatory.

"If you've failed to add it up by now, you have gone soft and thick! All this time and you haven't realized what m'lord has in mind? Call him a clod if you like, but I'll wager the countryman knows it! Losing Jacques and the Lady on the same night? Damned stupid, damned incompetent--or somebody's turned!"

After a moment's shocked silence, the room exploded in a furious hubbub.

"That will be quite enough!" Smitty's voice, louder than any that Archie had ever heard used by Kilcarron's agents, rose above the din. "There's no evidence for anything--m'lord's only choosing to be cautious. And he's ready to resume the conference, in a new location," she announced, holding up a folded note. "All Edinburgh agents, as well as," she paused, picking the rest out by eye. "Bainbridge, Hartnell, Amhurst, Fielding, Stephenson--he mentioned you specifically, too--and the rest of my division . . . with me, please."

Her voice had returned to its normal volume but the lingering frostiness of her tone held the common-room silent as the specified agents followed her out the door.

*****

The room into which they were led resembled the library in some particulars--the presence of books, tables, and chairs--but had a slightly less formal atmosphere. A private study, perhaps? Archie wondered as he filed inside with the others. This time, Kilcarron was already there, along with Carmichael and the remainder of the Edinburgh contingent, but he did not uttered a word until the new arrivals had taken their seats, again around the longest table in the room.

When the earl finally spoke, it was as if the lapse of several hours had never taken place. "Earlier I made mention of Napoleon's belief that the sad disposition of the French naval forces is the result of foreign acts of espionage, and of M. Fouché's stringent measures in response. My sources at the Admiralty fear that Bonaparte has focused on the Royal Navy as the other key impediment to his invasion plans. To increase his chances of success in this endeavor he, or Fouché, may have given orders for the maximum possible disruption in our domestic chain of command. When I spoke with the heads of Admiralty, they again voiced their conclusion that there is a highly placed French infiltrator in their midst. Further, my contacts have admitted there are two suspects under close observation. Unfortunately, they would not divulge their names to me at this time."

A rumble of dissatisfaction was heard. Frowning, Kilcarron held up a hand, and a reluctant silence again descended.

"And there are other disturbing developments. An Admiralty agent assigned to this operation disappeared last week. His body was pulled from the Thames yesterday. He was Commander Seaton's contact, I believe."

Smitty looked stricken. "Lieutenant Baxter, sir?"

"The same," Kilcarron confirmed. "From confidential documents he left behind, it seems the lieutenant was devising his own gambit to reveal the traitor. He also had forged some personal connections within the Drury Lane vicinity and believed he was on the trail of the Bonapartists. The Admiralty believes that at least some of these contacts are highly placed within the ton, and thus have access to top-ranking Admiralty officials--in ways that do not arouse immediate suspicion. They wish us to retrace the lieutenant's investigation, re-establish communication with his informants, and discover the Imperial agents and their liaisons who are sending the stolen information abroad." His gaze traveled thoughtfully around the table. "To achieve that end, a number of you will be infiltrating London society--at its highest level." Again, the sharp blue glance assessed his subordinates. "Agents Ferguson and Grant, you will be resuming your established identities from previous assignments. For the nonce, you will report to Commander Smith. And further," another brief, thoughtful pause, "the agents known as Munro and Lennox."

With a start, Archie recognized his new working alias. He had best get used to it, he reminded himself. The London division had been calling him by that name in any case, since his arrival.

"You are also temporarily assigned to Commander Smith's division."

No response seemed required beyond a nod of acquiescence, which Archie and Caillean provided.

"Although, as a consequence," the earl's gaze rested on the other commander present. "With your indulgence, Commander Smith . . . Agent Barrington, I will require you to assist Commander Carmichael as he assumes the temporary command of Seaton's division."

"My lord." Barrington's tone was colorless.

"Sir." Carmichael's voice likewise gave nothing away.

Oil and water, Archie could not help thinking; indeed, it would have been hard to say which taut face looked more dissatisfied at the prospect.

"Now that those specific dispositions have been made," Kilcarron resumed, "there is pertinent information to which all parties here may be made privy. Commander Smith, I believe you noted earlier that you had the names of the three suspects originally brought to Commander Seaton's attention, through the information provided by Jacques."

"The traitor could be any one of three people--two of them are French émigrés. The third is an Englishman," Smitty reported. "All three have access and apparent connections within the Admiralty although they are not employed there in any formal capacity. The Englishman is the Honorable Justin Ainsley, youngest son of the Earl of Wrenbourne. It seems that in the past he did indeed directly serve the Naval offices in some way, as an assistant to the under-secretary--"

"Second Secretary Barrow," Kilcarron corrected; Smith acknowledged the amendment with a nod.

"But he left that position for reasons to this day undisclosed. In private life, he is known to be a notoriously heavy gambler."

Archie needed no further detail to follow that statement to its conclusion; nor, he suspected, did the rest of his colleagues. A man with a taste for high-stakes gaming might soon find himself in frequent need of large sums of money--the selling of information could appear a source of lucrative income, if one were willing to compromise his honor.

"Second: Colonel Armand Parillaud," Smith resumed. "He rose very speedily in the Royalist Army at the beginning of his career, but he comes from a large family. Sources say that at the start of the Revolution there was much political dissension among them, and with Bonaparte's rise, they became even more bitterly divided, so that half the family are now royalists, and the other half zealous Imperial partisans, including the colonel's own brother and two of his cousins, who have all become ranking officers in the Emperor's army. The colonel may find his loyalties are somewhat--torn."

"It sounds as if his letters would bear watching," Jamieson mused aloud. "Has someone seen to it, m'lord?"

"Two agents under Seaton's command," Smitty elaborated. "But the movements and correspondence of all suspects have been kept under close watch, I assure you."

"Bollocks."

The single word, coldly spoken, came from Carmichael. Archie saw Barrington's eyes narrow at the barracks-talk; Smitty herself seemed impervious.

"Thirdly, there is the Vicomte Henri De Guise, one of the lesser aristocrats among the émigrés. He bears quite an old name, but the fortunes of his branch of the family had been dwindling even before the fall of the monarchy. He has also been known to be in frequent need of funds--he has a taste for the fashionable life, including a mistress in Curzon Street. For the last year he has been borrowing money against the payment of his second wife's dowry--an arranged affair, by her family. Their betrothal was of very long duration; before the marriage she was known for an extremely delicate constitution and has spent more than two years abroad, recovering her health. She has only joined him in London since the end of last autumn--and seems quite taken with the fashionable life herself. There is a son, Edmond, from the Vicomte's first marriage, who is negotiating a match with Miss Julia Pearson, a young English lady with expectations of her own. The Vicomte may have felt the need for further monies to impress her relations and garner their approval."

"I may now add to that list," Kilcarron resumed, after Smitty had concluded. "At the Admiralty today, my sources provided me the names of two additional suspects: Guillaume LeGrande, and Major Andre Cotard. What we know of LeGrande is mostly rumor--it is said that his family was wiped out during the Terror but prior to that they held lands and estates in France. Another recent rumor suggests that he has been approached by Bonapartists attempting to suborn his loyalties in exchange for some restoration of the family fortunes. Cotard had been considered a loyal and trustworthy member of the royalist forces, but he was sent on a mission reported to be of the utmost urgency, and although he is known to be alive, has not returned to his usual post."

"It is thought that, despite all hindrances, Bonaparte hopes to stage his invasion well before the end of autumn and the storm season. There are rumors afoot of how he plans to position both Admiral Gauteaume in Brest and Admiral Latouche Treville in Toulon. Should his landing strategy succeed, there may not be sufficient British forces to withstand his imperial troops. So you see," Kilcarron concluded, "it is imperative that we find the traitor with the utmost dispatch."

*****

With the preliminaries settled and the most vital information exchanged, the meeting began to break up. Before the room quite emptied, Kilcarron held a sheaf of papers out to Carmichael.

"Here is a list of the current duty assignments for Commander Seaton's division," he announced. "You may wish to review them and make alterations as you deem appropriate. However," the earl paused, regarding the new London commander quizzically, "I trust I may rely on your--discretion?"

Archie had a sudden image of Carmichael rousting the London division from their beds well before dawn and making them undergo a forced march through the City, with heavy packs strapped to their backs. And glancing at his superior officer's face, he could not help wondering if Carmichael was indeed envisioning such a scenario and deriving no small satisfaction from it. But if those were indeed his thoughts, the senior commander kept them to himself, only replying, "Thank you, m'lord," as he accepted the papers. Rising from his own chair, Archie prepared to follow his colleagues from the room, but was stopped by the familiar, dry voice.

"Agent Lennox--a further word, if you please."

Archie sensed Carmichael's speculative look as the rest of the agents departed from the library. Turning back, he seated himself again, hoping he had concealed his apprehension. For a moment, the earl's blue eyes scrutinized him in their customary, probing way, then Kilcarron abandoned preliminaries to come to the point.

"Knowing of your history, I have ordered the investigation of certain matters which may have been causing you some concern. Lady Langford and her husband are not in residence in London at present--they have gone to Scotland to attend to some family business, I believe. So you should not fear to encounter them."

The shock of this revelation made Archie catch his breath: so he was going to be among those set to infiltrate the ton! In the next instant, as the full implication of Kilcarron's words sank in, he experienced a sudden pang of loss. It had not occurred to him to approach Langford House openly: too many hazards still remained and, despite Carmichael's earlier assurances, he had still fretted over being recognized, even in disguise. It was heartening to have some small news of his sister, even as he could not help feeling relieved that he need not worry about meeting her while engaged in his intelligence-gathering rounds. And yet--that small scrap of information was like crumbs to a starving man.

It was a struggle to keep his face expressionless and his surging emotions in check, an even greater struggle not to beg Kilcarron for further news of his family and loved ones. To be so close . . . he glanced furtively at the earl, wondering if he had betrayed himself.

A silence had fallen. Kilcarron's own expression seemed oddly remote, almost abstracted. Perhaps if he were truly a bit off-guard . . .

"Was there . . . anything else, sir?" Any further connection from Archie's past that the spymaster might know about?

The earl roused from his brown study. "In that direction--no, nothing further."

This time the ensuing silence lasted so long Archie wondered if he were dismissed. He quietly pushed back his chair, was just about to stand up when the earl spoke at last.

"One--other matter."

"Yes . . . sir?"

Kilcarron did not appear to raise his eyes from contemplation of the tabletop. "The color--and the moustache--will be more than adequate, I think."

Archie ducked his head, wishing he could hide the flush that burned his cheeks. That beard again! "Very well, sir."

Rising quickly, he made his escape.

*****

Back in the passage, Archie paused to collect his whirling thoughts.

If Alice were not in London, then -- no one else would have reason to be, either. He did not know whether to be glad or sorry. Langford House, with his sister and her household fully in residence . . . now that he allowed himself to consider the possibility, it could have been so easy. To walk in and once more be "Archie Kennedy," to be surrounded by his loved ones, to see them, to touch them, to hear how life had gone for all of them in his absence. Even--although it was only a minor matter now and he could not be sure how much they had known about what happened in Kingston--to tell them he had never truly betrayed the service or disgraced the name he bore . . . the sudden rush of longing made his eyes sting and his throat tighten painfully. The two-years-old ache of loss had sharpened ever since they had reached London. But Alice was out of the City, the house no doubt shut up safely--better perhaps, that there be no opportunity for their paths to cross; the prospect was too close for comfort professionally, and too tantalizing, personally.

His sudden revulsion of feeling made him realize that he did not want to be alone, especially not with his current thoughts. Seeking distraction, he turned his steps toward the common room. Companionship would provide a welcome respite from the memories that threatened to overwhelm him.

To his disappointment, the room was nearly empty. Two agents, both unfamiliar to him, were at one table playing cards, but . . . there! Seated at another table by the window was Carmichael, frowning over the papers spread out before him. He looked up with a faint smile as Archie approached.

"What'd Old Nick want?"

"Just a trifle that had caused me -- some anxiety. But it's all settled now--and he said I could shave again."

The smile broadened with real amusement. "Right enough."

"It was . . . a bit curious." Archie seated himself on the other side of the table. "He seemed--almost distracted towards the end, as though his thoughts were quite far away."

"Well," Carmichael responded slowly, as if to himself. "That's not surprising, is it? Oh, wait--before your time, again," he amended at Archie's puzzled look, then resumed.

"Seaton's being killed--it would bring it all back." For a moment his gaze grew as distant as Kilcarron's had been, before he focused again and met Archie's eyes squarely.

"We had someone in common--Old Nick, Seaton, and I."

*****

INTERLUDE

Ireland, 1788

 

A chill day, misty and overcast--typical of Ireland during this season. Not for the first time since his arrival, he found himself grateful for the heavy woolen riding cloak he had purchased just before leaving England.

The scarlet jackets of the regiment showed up brightly in the gloom, however, and Ian was similarly easy to spot, stationed at the side of the road and mounted upon the same tall chestnut he had purchased two years ago. He appeared to be deep in conversation with an unusually young man in a sergeant's uniform, and as Kilcarron approached, he heard the very last of their exchange.

" . . . another hour on the road, and then we'll make camp for the night. See to it, sergeant."

"Right away, sir."

As the sergeant moved smartly off down the road, Kilcarron noticed Ian shaking his head.

". . . As cool as if he's done this all his life," his friend was muttering dryly to himself as Kilcarron rode closer.

"Who?" the earl inquired.

"My new sergeant--he was only promoted last week," Ian replied, still gazing after the sergeant. Then, recognizing the voice addressing him, he gave a start. "What the hell are you doing here?"

"Observing the Irish," Kilcarron answered truthfully. "For the current government."

"Observing," Ian repeated. Bright hazel eyes narrowed, studying the earl. "You mean spying."

"The King's health is giving great cause for concern," Kilcarron temporized, without offering any direct answer. "We need to know how the Irish forces--political and military--may react."

Ian nodded, accepting the explanation without comment. "Come find my tent at the end of this march, and we'll talk. You can join me for supper."

He wheeled his horse around to follow the troops.

*****

"Speak of the devil indeed!" Ian greeted Kilcarron as the latter approached his tent at the end of the cavalry-lines. "I've had you in mind for a day or two, now."

"You didn't seem quite as surprised to see me as I had anticipated," the earl admitted. "Did your superiors tell you to expect me?"

"Not at all." As they ducked inside the tent, MacAlister indicated a basin of water, steaming gently, and a towel with an inviting gesture. After Kilcarron shook his head, the captain shrugged, splashed the water over his own face and hands, then dried himself. "I had a letter from Cecily three days ago," he said through the towel. "She's just had her second--a girl, this time."

Emerging from the folds of the towel, his rumpled hair on end, Ian began to re-fasten his shirtsleeves. "She always had quite a taking for you," he ventured, eyeing his friend sideways. "I used to think that one day you and she might---"

"Oh, no," Kilcarron said promptly, trying to sound casual. "She's far better where she is."

The curiosity in Ian's eyes was sharpening into suspicion, but before he could speak, a discreet cough was heard just outside the tent.

"One moment!" the captain called out, raising his hand to draw Kilcarron's attention, then dropped his voice a trifle. "Listen to this, if you like. I know I shouldn't laugh at him---but six months ago that brogue was thick as pease-porridge." Ian raised his voice again. "Enter."

A tall, uniformed figure obeyed, with another sharp salute. "Reporting for duty, sir."

Kilcarron's ear picked out the faint, north-countryman's burr while his eyes registered Ian's concealed amusement. The earl listened intently as his friend reeled off an almost improbably complex list of orders to the young man who--he remembered Ian's remark--had only been made sergeant the week before.

". . .And report back to me when the rest of the camp has been set up," Ian concluded. "That will be all for now, sergeant."

"Yes, sir." The fledgling sergeant gave MacAlister a crisp salute, nodded his respect to Kilcarron (who was, after all, not in uniform), and departed.

"That seems quite a good man you have there," the earl observed.

"You're not getting him," the captain said immediately.

"I was only remarking upon . . ."

"I know your games. Take that acquisitive gleam out of your eye."

"I'm sure there are many other capable--"

"You . . . can't . . . have . . . him," Ian declared with lethal slowness. "We suit each other too well for me to let you carry him off."

"Indeed." Kilcarron raised an eyebrow. "Has he been with you so very long?"

"He volunteered as a boy-soldier toward the end of the war with the colonies, and managed to stay alive, which tells you something already. He lied two years onto his age--and still thinks I don't know it. It's the only thing he hasn't learned in eight years."

"And you're sure there's no way I can--induce you to part with him?"

"No way in hell. He's smart as a whip, and he'll fight like the devil--that's what I need in a soldier."

"What if I were to offer him the choice?" Kilcarron challenged.

"You won't get him, Crawford." The use of name instead of rank went back to their school days. "I haven't forgotten your habits: you hired my sister's governess for your secret doings right there at my sister's wedding, under all our noses. Not again. You can talk to him, but you can't have him. Sergeant Carmichael stays with the company."

 

END PART SEVEN