Chapter 12 here ... Chapter 14 here
Emma looked across at him, Francine as quiet as a mouse on the footstool at the end of the bed.
'This was always going to happen, Hugh. At your place, when Nikki took you in her mouth and I then took your thing in front of her, it started something,' Francines's eyes popped out again, 'and so I came to you another day and was going to take your thing in my mouth and you pulled away and then we kissed and then at the Farmhouse, when I left Francine, went to the room and you were kissing Francesca,' Francine was now just staring, 'and I tried to say that you were really kissing Francesca but it was nothing but then you and I started kissing and that was not light like Francesca, not at all and you and I both told Nikki all of it and made her unhappy - I regret making her unhappy very much.'
'Me too. That's what I warned Nikki of before this. I said there'd be sex but not intercourse and she still insisted. Why? It was always going to happen. And you saying I could resist and me showing you that is not possible once a man reaches a certain point - men and women will never agree on that because we are different species.'
'The greater guilt was mine this time, Hugh but I had to bring this to its logical end. Do you love me?.'
'You know I do.'
'Have you fallen in love with me?'
'Do you still want Nikki?'
'If she'll still have me.'
'It was pretty bad what we did. Talk to me about that, I want to know how it felt for you. I know how it felt for me.'
'Why are you asking this now? We were both overheated, you know that. You said to put it in your mouth and not argue with you, you knew where else it would have gone, you angled your throat so I could slide in and out and that was that. I don't know how you didn't drown in all that liquid.' Francine was goggle-eyed. 'You then held me in there and I came and came and came and look what I've done to you.'
Emma stroked his cheek and looked at him lovingly. She kissed his cheek. 'Never mind what you did to me. You did no more than I made you do. What about Francine and Jacques?'
'Hell, we have to get out there.' She held him in place. 'No, we're still early, I know the time, trust me. Just lie here and talk to me - it's very, very important to me that you lie here with me now, more important than you can know at this moment. Please? Do it for me?'
He subsided. 'Hell Emma, I think I love you.'
'So, what about Francine and Jacques?' Francine went bright red. 'They were acting strangely.'
'He was porking her, wasn't he? Probably good for Francine at this time.'
'Yes, I agree. Some hard sex is probably what she needed just now.' Francine was shaking her head.
'You know how I love you, Hugh.' Her voice was like honey. 'And we're hardly in any position to say anything to Francine and Jacques. All the same, I'm glad Francine never saw any of this over my face and in my hair. She was always the most faithful of all of us and I looked up to her. She was the moral one everyone admired and now she's no better than -'
'Well ... yes.'
'I don't know, we put people on pedestals, don't we? Don't you dare tell Francine we did this, please, Emma - she'll never speak to me again.'
'I promise I won't tell her - if anyone tells her, it will be you.'
'Yes, I'll probably tell her eventually. She frightens me, Franka does.'
'Would you make love to her?'
'Emma, what is it with you this morning? Anyway, it's not a case of what I want - I don't think she actually approves of me. Not after I went with Nikki. If she knows I've done this with you now she'll think I'm the lowest person on the planet.'
'And are you the lowest person?'
He thought about it. 'With you, there's history. Something was always going to happen. Your hand in the forest.'
'When I went deep in the forest with you and kept touching your hand and then you took my hand and we met Mademoiselle on the way back.'
'I've never understood how all that happened with you and me. Didn't seem logical. If Francine and I did it, Emma, it would be recreational, an experiment, just to know what it was like and I hope both she and I have moral scruples about that. Besides, she's a big girl who needs a larger man.'
'I had Michel.'
'Yes, that's true.'
'But you do like her.'
'Francine? Like her? I adore her. Emma, I owe that girl so much and don't forget she was Nikki's partner too, through thick and thin. She was the key person there when Ksenia ... departed. She was the beginning of my sojourn in France. She was so ... human ... she was everything ... and her kindness with the Lodge ... but she's so ... fierce too ... she's frightening at times.'
'That's the second time you've said that. You're frightened of a woman?'
'Franka's so ... correct all the time. I just can't measure up to her standards.'
'You respect her that much? Do you find her beautiful?'
'She's classically beautiful.'
'What, even after her tragedy? I really want to know this.'
'I thought you of all people would understand where beauty comes from. How can I fall hopelessly for a pregnant woman? Same with Franka - her beauty doesn't depend on a few marks blemishing the surface.'
'Yes but could you really make love to her as she is now or are these just words in the wind from you? I don't mean I want you to make love to her but could you? Would her injuries put you off?'
He thought. 'Do you remember Genie's scars? I still kissed her body between the scars. The issue is not the physical with Franka - the issue is loyalty to Nikki and Franka would be appalled if I suggested anything like that. I want to be a good man, Emma, so people will respect me but I'm not doing a very good job of it.'
'Coming back to what you said about her size, I have to disagree with you. I think my throat couldn't have taken much more of you.' Francine was rivetted to the spot, her jaw dropping, Emma was grinning.
'With Francine, I always wanted to do the right thing because she looks at you that way, as if to say, 'Oh yes, what's all this then?' She has this way of walking in when I'm doing something with someone.' Francine was smiling. Emma tried not to.
'Tell me about how you see Jacques and her as a couple.'
'Emma, what's with Francine and you? You're not lovers, you two are you? I did wonder at the farmhouse.'
'Not really and I don't really care if you were. Jacques is a philanderer, that's the problem. I'm not sure if he'd be serious with her, that he would revere her. Franka's also been with the wrong person in Jean, I don't think she chooses well - Jean doesn't appreciate her though he does love her in his own way - there's a lot of history with those two. Perhaps Francesca should be with Jean and Franka with a sort of Jacques that she's trained into appreciating her. I think every one of us wants that to happen - for someone to appreciate her for what she is.'
'Maybe Franka would be good for you.'
'You're angling for a night with Jacques, aren't you?'
'I can tell you right now I am not angling for a night with Jacques. Now I'll tell you what all this about Franka is. I've been trying to tell her but she's very stubborn, that her accident wouldn't stop a real man, a good man, wanting her but she thinks I'm just mouthing words. I keep telling her over and over that she's beautiful and she won't listen to me but now you, a man, have just confirmed it and I think you know women quite well. I think your opinion counts on this.'
'Well, was anyone in any doubt about her? She's a classic beauty, so what? Has someone been saying she's not? Anyway - she thinks I'm someone who crawled out from under a rock.'
'Oh, I think that if that was what she was thinking and I don't believe it was, that opinion might change now, I just get this feeling. She actually likes you a lot but she did not like all the womanizing, as she saw it, such as we're doing now. I think she could easily make love to you though.'
'Well it's academic anyway - Franka would never want me.'
'Yes she would,' said Francine and he spun round so quickly, he almost cricked his neck.
'Oh merde.' He lay back on the bed. 'I see, I see, I see, I see.'
'Yes, Hugh ... and I see too.'
'Emma, you're s-o-o-o wicked. You're an incredibly wicked, naughty girl, you know that?' She was beaming. 'You do want that night with Jacques, don't you?'
'I have to look to my future and that of my child. There is no recreational pleasure in what you and I did, you know that. Nor would there be with Francine. I would only ever suggest something which would make someone feel better.'
'I'm going back on duty,' said Francine suddenly. 'I'll make the coffee. Also, thirty minutes before you come on duty, is that all right?'
The Niedelmeier story had a particular piquancy to it.
This was the real name of an investment banker from Vienna who, they were seemingly reliably informed, was one of the council they’d been trying to infiltrate through their backers. At least, everything pointed to him being one. He was the one visiting the conference and the one who’d be in that hotel on the required day.
Jean-Claude and Hugh were working on the details of the kidnap plan and it occupied maybe two and a half hours or so each day.
Geneviève One2Oned Hugh about the funding question and wanted Nikki brought in on it. Nikki suggested that they run another publicity campaign, appealing for donations to help Section Sophie-Fleury, listing their achievements and saying they were dangerously close to disbanding.
This would give the enemy joy but might also allay their fears. Then they could do the kidnap, taking them off balance. But even this was going to require funds, funds, funds and more funds.
Nikki also suggested they pull a stunt whereby they’d invite selected press, at ultra-short notice, to a conference in a basement somewhere and invite questions – the key to the conference being that all fourteen would be present in the one place at the one time.
That might also give the press good copy for a few days.
Emma came up with the idea that, with the cash diminishing, they may have to abandon the safehouse idea altogether and work in pairs, billeted out for a week at a time to supporters and sympathizers. The risk, of course, was that sooner or later they’d be caught this way.
It was the Anne Frank story again.
This Conference was already a huge logistics problem so they thought that, as they were treading on thin ice, they might as well dance and combine it with a safehouse changeover; It was still possible to travel within the EU boundaries - it had just got a bit tricky, that was all. Well done, France, Denmark and Ireland for their results.
It had helped SSF no end.
They'd considered a return to Barbizon, the Anglican Chapel at Fontainebleau as their venue but ruled it out as just too costly and crazy at this point in time. No, the conference would have to be somewhere accessible, easy to get away from and not overly policed.
Then the thought had struck them - why not go right into where it was the most heavily policed? Following that, they'd disperse to the new safehouses. This was going to take time to set up.
Nicolette and Jean had their arrangement, they'd had their sleep and she was more than grateful to have actually got some sleep.
He was bored and wanted Francesca with him. She now asked him if he'd like Francesca permanently or just as a bit of meat?
Rather than make him angry, it made him think. She suggested that Franka might go with Jacques. He thought back to those years together, the fights, the good times, the fun, the not so fun. The fact that he was thinking it through carefully was highly significant to Nikki.
She was well aware that Francine's scarring was an issue, though no one would admit it. She was also aware the only two who would take Francine as she was would be Jean-Claude or Hugh, both of whom were taken.
She tried to nut it out, shuffling a few names around and came up with Emma - Thierry. Interesting.
She got up, went to do as she had to, went along to the communication point and sent a long One2One to Hugh.
Jean-Claude and Sophie-Fleury were discussing the future. Both knew, as many were aware, that the Section could not continue without funding. They had about a year and a half in them if they were to part-fund Section Sophie-Fleury but considerably less if that money was to go to their family, should it ever come.
It was clear to both of them that they'd not be allowed to live a calm life together somewhere, that the enemy would wish to finish the job on her, if only for her namesake - their Section. They couldn't really touch Jean-Claude although they'd tried that once and he had been on the general list for the Noel extermination.
They couldn't yet come up with any adequate idea but they were thinking on it quite often. They did not want to abandon the Section but the Section needed to be doing more than it was. Niedelmeier was a positive step.
Francine looked at Hugh, he looked at her. Emma had got her way. At least she'd got Jacques and where were the other two going to sleep?
The kiss was never going to be the issue with Francine - all those years, all that water under the bridge, all that time at the Lodge. It was never going to be an issue.
In each other's arms, the kiss even felt natural and he began to recount the things he really appreciated with her, if women love through their ears or not, who knows but Francine did.
He murmured, 'I've always loved your brown and green motif, you know, the forest, the wildflowers, the Lodge - that's so you. I adore your Lodge, all it represents, the memories it brings back. Ksenia loved it too. I remember the moment you came in and everything about you, even this little gesture with thumb and forefinger and your 'Ciao'.'
'You remember that?'
'Not only. You know the funniest thing of all? It was when you left me there with a key and a note. Then I went into your half of the house, to the fridge and you'd left a note to have the container 'called' Hugh. In English, that's very funny. We'd say 'with Hugh written on it' or similar. It was quaint and I liked you.'
'Nikki fears you'll leave her when you get tired of her.'
'That could never be. It's far too deep. There are all those small things she does, the way she is - I'm crazy for it, for her - it doesn't depend on her behaviour. She knows it too and that influences her. All she's ever wanted was someone's heart and she has mine.'
'I don't want you upset with me but Hugh, you say she has your heart and yet you're in bed with me.'
'Yes I am and there's nothing I can do about it. All right, scenario - Nikki is in tears in two days. 'Did you sleep with Emma? Yes. Did you have sex? In her mouth, yes. But that was always a possibility, I say her, I warned you, Nikki and still you sent me. Nikki, I slept with Franka. No, no, tell me it is not so. My best friend, my partner, the one person who knows right from wrong. What did you do with my friend?
I held her through the night, talked, kissed and came very close to making love, right on the edge of it. What is this edge of what you speak? We stopped as I was about to penetrate her. Why? Because the only important thing was to hold her and kiss her and je regrette rien about that. You know why exactly I did that, Nikki. But the easy part, putting my thing in her, no, we did not do that because we both love you.'
She was quiet, weighing it up, then said, 'Oui, it is the only way I can see. She will still be unhappy but not as unhappy as if we had not decided that. All right, Hugh, we have decided.' She smiled. 'So?'
He began and it was easy to pour his feelings into her because of all the things from the past, all the appreciation, dare he say love. And she responded to his feverishness, most surprised, most gratified and he was delighted as her body began to shift, as he kissed her neck, her chest, her side, her thigh, he'd make things go up against her privacy again and again 'by accident' - a wrist, the top of his head but not his lips, his upper arm would rub her there while he ate on her thigh and above her knee, that sort of thing, so that she had well and truly opened up and was ready. He didn't know how he was going to stop because he was hot too, suddenly she solved it by grasping it and furiously working it until it was everywhere, he shuddered and shuddered and when it was done, he lay again beside her, her long arms all over him and her lips pressed to his.
With heat out of it somewhat but both knowing the bodies wanted the end of it also, they dropped into conversation again about everything, how to solve the world's problems, about art and fashion.
Eventually silence reigned, of course and she looked into his eyes. 'Keep speaking about anything, Hugh, I like hearing it and I need conversation so much - oh, you can't know how much. I miss all this, discussing interesting things, talking about the latest scandal. This is your greatest gift to me tonight after showing me what you wanted to show me.'
'Did I show you?'
'We might not mention the messy bed after it though.'
'No, we'll leave that part out.' She reached down to her lower stomach where it was still wet and dabbed a finger in it, brought it to her lips and tasted it. 'We'll not mention what I just did either.'
Nicolette was well aware of the danger with those two in there. She'd assured Jean that it was not his fault in any way, she explained the past history of that family and then told him that it would not go on in there as she was going to stop it and that he'd need to take his time with Francesca. Could he be understanding?
She got up, approached their room, tapped on the door, walked in immediately and though it was expected, the scene still upset her. The way Chessa freely kissed him in ways daughters generally don't, the way he was connected to her - these things were offences against nature.
She dropped her robe and stepped onto the bed, which had the effect of forcing him onto his back, which disconnected the coition, she straddled and lowered herself onto him, with Francesca still lying in one arm.
Nicolette now proceeded to give the full service in a way Francesca never could at this age, she tried to join in from the side but it was clear she was surplus to requirements and the ultimate insult was that they inadvertently pushed her off the bed.
She stood beside the bed and demanded, 'Papa,' but he clearly didn't want to acknowledge her, he knew exactly what Nikki had done and why, he conceded this completely and just wanted Chessa to go now.
Nikki paused and said, 'Chessa, you knew it couldn't have been. Your lover is in the other room and he’s worried sick about you. Please take care of him.'
She watched the girl go out, heard her go into the other room. Turning to Thierry, she asked, 'Why are you making love to Chessa and me, when Mademoiselle is waiting back there?'
He was gobsmacked, so she went on. 'Don't worry, make the most of this now because it's the last time. Put all you have into this now, Thierry, I'll give you the full treatment now and thank you for all you've done in the past.'
He was dazed, he didn't know whether to or not, she said, 'Don't waste time, there's no issue with Hugh if this is once, I want it too, so get going.'
He didn't seem to want so she lowered her breast to his mouth and that was nice, she had lovely breasts, Nikki. He began the rhythm again.
It was over. The ten days had ended and they were on the move again. Packed and ready in each house, the convoluted signal came, they moved off.
The arrangement was that they'd combine the operation they'd planned, which suddenly became possible due to the changed plans of their target, together with the changeover.
All eventually found themselves at Vevey, their transport converging and the venue an old warehouse, once used by the Nestle Company but now abandoned.
First in were Geneviève and Paul, closely followed by Jean-Claude and Sophie-Fleury, Francine and Jacques, Emma and Hugh, Nicolette and Thierry, Jean and Francesca, Olivier and Gemma.
After all the embracing, they got down to pairs, giving themselves five minutes only to finalize them. Geneviève chaired it, made it clear she actually loved Thierry, he drifted that way, which ruined Nikki's list, Jacques stuck with Francine and Jean with Francesca which Thierry was actually happier with, Olivier was stuck with Gemma, the other pairs were as expected but sadly, this again left Emma and Paul partnerless.
If they wished it to be so, of course.
The bonhomie bubbled over, as did the bubbly; each had brought a packet of some foodstuff - strudel, cheesecake, whatever, the kissing and cuddling was rampant and they'd agreed their colleagues would later hand the champagne glasses to passing strangers on the Vevey embankment, telling them they were presents from Section Sophie-Fleury and that the section would meet again in Thun in four days.
Now they moved into the second room and there were two trestle tables set up end to end, covered in white cloths. Cameras were on tripods and the small press contingent was in place.
They sat quickly in their seats, Geneviève stood and welcomed them, mentioning the next conference in four days, [disinformation of course] and then invited questions.
Gemma received the most, then Francesca, Olivier, Jean and the rest were evenly spread. Geneviève got the political points across - why they were being hunted and who the people were chasing them - in general terms of course. Also why.
Precisely at the fifteenth minute, it was over, Geneviève thanked them in her Ségolène manner and the press were asked to remain in the room; refreshments would be served.
Two by two, the Section departed, Hugh and Nicolette the last and they'd got away with it, right under the noses of the enemy … but all the same, it wasn't something they were going to try again in a hurry.
Geneviève was in place on her transponder, checking in the pairs as they arrived, night having descended:
1. Sophie-Fleury - Jean-Claude, Jacques - Francine;
2. Nicolette - Hugh, Emma - Paul;
3. Geneviève - Thierry [coordinating], Francesca - Jean, Gemma - Olivier
... the latter in a large house with sufficient rooms. There was a lot had gone on. Francine had demanded to be in with Nicolette, not having demanded anything before, Geneviève was shocked and acceded immediately, Nikki was curious as to why, Thierry's extended family was all together, Jacques had gone back to Jean-Claude and sadly, Paul was the odd man out again. In fact, Hugh had been hoping for him to be with them.
It was not a good arrangement and the sexes were unbalanced. Paul, on the other hand, would have good company.
There was only one item on the agenda and it was time to put it in operation. This was to be their most audacious move yet.
It was the support people, the ones who’d made the Conference possible, who now came through again, this time in the lifting of Niedelmeier and it was they who held him, blindfolded, in a dark room in a warehouse, in the middle of the room, chained four ways to bolts in the floor. The concession was a comfortable armchair with cushions.
Niedelmeier wondered about this courtesy but was still a worried man. The chloroform compound had now worn off and he’d been administered tablets to relieve the nausea.
Now it was up to Jean-Claude and Hugh to do the rest.
Hugh had felt, in their preparations, that he’d do best by interviewing the man, presenting himself as Albus and seeing where that led. They had a feeling that this one, Herr Niedelmeier, was something just a little more special than they supposed but they’d like to know more.
Yes, he’d interview the man and Jean-Claude would take care of the arcane side, while Genie would provide him with names to sprinkle through the conversation, including those of the other Council member on whom they had a reasonable fix.
When Hugh entered the drawing room of the rented lakeside villa where they were holding Niedlemeier, he was impressed with the decor, of the glass, brass and crystal variety, in keeping with his Gianni Campagna, Caraceni suit and Tanino Crisci shoes but he was more impressed with his colleague.
An enormous smiled creased the former Inspector’s already craggy face. ‘Now, let’s get the whole thing straight again, before we bring him in.’
They sat in the armchair and went over it in detail, what they could expect Niedelmeier to reasonably know, whom he might really be, right up to Japhet and so on and so on. They sipped on coffee, nothing stronger. In the end they were ready and the hostage could be brought in.
Jean-Claude would be the mystic, silent observer, perhaps the one to decree life or death, dropping in the occasional observation or pointed question and he’d sit obliquely to one side.
Hugh would do the bulk of the talking.
The carved double doors at the far end of the long, rectangular drawing room now opened and the girl ushered in Niedelmeier who buttoned his jacket, licked his lips and had to negotiate the fifteen metre walk to where Hugh had now risen, smile on his face, as if it were a long lost friend who’d now reappeared.
It certainly relaxed Niedelmeier who saw nothing discordant thus far. The aristocrat in the armchair to the side - he did trouble Opinica not a little.
The second shock was Hugh’s greeting - it was one of their own handshakes and in acceding, rather than professing ignorance, Opinica knew he’d made his first mistake.
‘Herr Niedlemeier, delighted. I am so sorry for the way our people left you in that room and for the way you were brought here. I really do apologize. Perhaps we can make it up to you. Please be seated.’
Hugh indicated the best seat in the room, overlooking the panorama through the tall, panelled windows and yet allowing people to pass behind Opinicus’s chair – the latter knew the ploy from experience; he’d try a sense of outrage and see how it went.
‘I suppose you do realize that this will neither be forgotten nor forgiven, Herr -’
‘Albus, simply Albus if you don't mind, Aian Opinicus.’ Hugh smiled pleasantly and the other man's jaw closed like a steel trap; the ball was in Hugh’s court.
The girl now appeared with drinks and Opinicus was well aware of the less than modest maid’s outfit, not in the least in keeping with the austere freedom fighter image he’d formed of this rag-tag, as they were known in the higher echelons.
‘Forgive me, er, Albus,’ he played around with the word and found it sitting not as distastefully as it should have on his lips, ‘but would you mind telling me,’ his voice now rising, ‘what the hell you want? Who are you? You seem not to be unacquainted with our own station in life.’
He now glanced across at Jean-Claude, languorously sprawled in his chair, the perfect aristocrat, quietly taking in the proceedings.
‘Opinicus, first things first, if you please. Now we know you prefer a simple schnapps to something more exotic and yet we’d like you to try one of Merovaeus’s own but the decision, of course, is yours.’
Hugh nodded to someone behind Niedelmeier. One scantily clad girl came forward to his left with a box of Havanas and another to his right with the drinks. A third came forward and placed a tray of devils-on-horseback on the sidetable to his right. The thighs and open cleavage remained in Niedelmeier’s line of sight by the armrest and the man could not resist tapping the girl’s thigh and thanking her.
‘Good, Aian Opinicus. She will remain in the outer room for now and you may take your pleasure later, as is your wont, of course.’
Hugh gave a knowing chuckle and took his own drink from a fourth girl, running his fingers lightly down her inner thigh. She remained in place until he indicated with a quick eye movement and all the girls left immediately, heads lowered.
Niedelmeier was definitely intrigued and still Jean-Claude made no move.
He took the schnapps which he immediately recognized as his own and nodded appreciatively. ‘This seems craziness, Albus. We clearly move in the same world or at least we have similar tastes. Why would you resort to tawdry kidnapping - surely the cash is not a consideration for you and you know the difficulties with shifting large amounts in the physical sense, the delays.’
‘Firstly, it would be a source of real distress for me, Opinicus, if you had not been accorded the attention appropriate to your station. Has your stay with us been to any extent displeasing, aside from the outrageous temporary curtailment of your immediate liberty?’
‘No, no, it’s all been fine. But what do you actually want, Albus?’
Hugh's smile dimmed and he shot a glance over Niedelmeier’s shoulder. The girl scurried forward, refilled his glass and stood by his chair once again inviting the man to paw her. Somehow he knew he mustn’t, he was being judged and yet the beast in him got the upper hand and he slid his hand between her legs.
Out of the corner of his eye he noticed Hugh had looked away and was listening to a few words from the laughably named Merovaeus. The pressure on Niedelmeier’s brain was intense and what he wished for at this moment simply couldn’t be.
As he sat back in his seat, knocking back his schnapps and grabbing at the snacks from the sidetable, Hugh’s attention once more came back to the man.
The girl withdrew and Niedelmeier heard the door close.
‘So, Opinicus, we need the following.’ A young man appeared, came to Hugh, took the thin file, walked across the white rug and handed it to Niedelmeier. ‘Take your time and we’ll be in the next room. Marie is here at your pleasure,’ Hugh paused at the desk, pressed the button and snapped, ‘Send her,’ then continued, ‘she'll attend to your needs. Please consider each request carefully and then we’ll return and negotiate.’
Jean-Claude arose and Niedelmeier noted that the man moved with poise - he was the more intriguing of the two but Hugh’s softly spoken manner also revealed breeding so what the hell had he fallen into here?
The two men disappeared.
Alone, apart from the girl waiting respectfully near the door, Niedelmeier looked about him with appreciation - what he wouldn’t give to own this manor house and its gardens. He could imagine himself retiring to such a place if - well - retirement was not something those such as he would ever reach. His world was genteel but his weariness was profound.
The file could wait. He stood, nodded for her to come over and smiled. Why should there be no pleasure mixed in with his confinement?
In the next room, Hugh drank another juice and Jean-Claude noted, ‘We have one of the bigger fish here, Hugh. He’s beyond my world. We're an old family but this man is something else – he’s of the families no one has heard of, in terms of their real significance. He represents so many generations that our treatment of him today has surely been wise. He’ll forget the demands long after – they’re business, after all - but he’ll not forget our treatment of him. This must remain impeccable to the end.’
‘Is he a gentleman? Could we trust his word?’
Jean-Claude smiled. ‘Not in the least. He’s a beast, pure and simple. They try to separate the lust and reserve it for the high ceremonies, maintaining a veneer of civility for the punters but as you put it, underneath they’re ravening wolves.’
‘How far is that stuff true then - the tearing apart of virgins, drinking them and all that claptrap?’
‘Let’s put it this way. Who or what has ever acted to curb their excesses? What moral giant has ever appeared in a thousand years to say, ‘No, this is unholy, unnatural?’ They serve another master and that master knows no restraint. He’ll be savaging Marie in there but she’s a strong girl.’
As if on cue, she burst through the door clutching between her legs and the two men went back into the main room.
Niedlemeier had recovered his breath and had slipped back into his veneer. Hugh noted, with a knowing smile, ‘Of course there’ll be time later for that, Opinicus. We really would appreciate if you’d devote the next twenty minutes to the documents and then we can all eat.’
A callow young man in suit trousers and bow tie but wearing no shirt, now carried through an ice bucket and wine. The young man poured Herr Niedelmeier a glass, returned the carafe to the ice bed and took the drink to him, looking straight into Niedelmeier’s eyes.
Niedelmeier’s face broke into an awful smile; he turned to Hugh and nodded once again.
Hugh replied with a knowing grin, equally as appalling, ‘Yes but that also must wait. The documents first please, if you would, Opinicus.’
Niedelmeier shrugged and sat down to study them whilst Jean-Claude and Hugh returned to the sideroom.
When the two re-entered the room, four armed men also appeared in combat greys and balaclavas, taking their places at strategic points in the room and then a lady appeared, holding a tray on which appeared to be an opened box of cigars but what turned out to be a box of - well Niedelmeier wasn’t sure but it looked eastern and nasty.
The lady placed them on the sidetable beside him, in full view, looked at Hugh who nodded and she withdrew.
Now Niedelmeier was aware of two presences behind him, one either side of him. He glanced behind to the left. They were oriental torpedoes, possibly Japanese and their eyes were fixed on the back of his head, standing patiently, awaiting orders.
Jean-Claude was lazing in his chair once again, sipping on his drink.
‘Do you know what is in that box, Opinicus?’
Niedelmeier licked his lips and stared at the box he'd been asked about.
‘They’re probes,' said Hugh [as Albus]. 'One is rectal, the second and third are for the ladies, the fourth is to tickle your heart and prolong your exquisite agony. Yes, we did get the idea for that last one from a film, let's admit it. Take a close look and then imagine the protracted pleasure you will enjoy at the hands of experts.’
Niedelmeier glanced at them and did not feel like drinking anymore.
‘Now to business, my friend. Have you considered our proposals and can you see your way clear to acceding on any points?’
Niedelmeier had determined to bluff it out but he now rapidly revised his strategy. He’d concede many of the smaller demands, shop one or two of the ones who’d stood in his way previously - gladly he’d do that. Japhet’s real identity was out of the question, of course but Jannes he’d consider.
Niedelmeier licked his lips and made his counter-offer.
Hugh gave a low cackle which unnerved the man and he patiently explained. ‘Opinicus, you know very well what your own people will do to you. You know that even now, according to our information, Jannes is moving in on Regus Oest - you can discover this for yourself when we release you - there are a nice few weeks prepared for you in Stockholm 8, during which you’ll be ‘debriefed’, shall we put it?’
Hugh paused to laugh at his own joke. ‘Or you can give us what we ask for. ‘Your decision.’
The man was sweating and snapped, ‘Points 1, 8 and 15 you know full well I can never give you. You know this.’
Hugh stroked his chin and was puzzled by 15. Now why was this a sticking point? He’d like to explore this more. No matter, they’d done well, so it was best to get this over and done with.
When all was done, Hugh thanked him and added, ‘We can discuss point 15 at our leisure, Opinicus.
‘Now for lunch. Would you, please?’ Hugh indicated the doors.
The places were set for five courses. They had the fish, which even Niedelmeier complimented and it was a relatively simple matter to serve him drugged wine, he was taken to the van, Hugh and Jean-Claude changed back to their normal attire, the girls and Kurt were paid, the Japanese were paid; Hugh and Jean-Claude were gone.
Jambres, whose task it was to assess the fallout, was reviewing Opinicus’ report, slightly puzzled.
‘They demanded so little. They didn’t push on points 8 and 11 but expressed interest in 15, one of your own side-ventures in armaments.’
Jambres would have to explore that one more.
‘4 and 7 should never have been conceded but what’s done is done. Hmmm. The feel of the thing is that we’ve been accorded great respect – Albus, for example, named Japhet but if he already knew this, then why hasn’t he used it before? They’re clearly not interested in our exposure, Opinicus and they play a gentleman’s game. It’s bizarre. They’re certainly no ragtag, if your description of Merovaeus is anything to go by.’
‘That was a fabrication, of course.’
‘Oh no, Opinicus, that's his correct epithet, so we’ve discovered.’
It was almost as though Richard Japhet’s own hand was behind the whole theatre, testing, through this misnamed rag-tag, the loyalties of the Seven. Jambres was sure now that SSF was simply the disgruntled chapter they’d thought all along; they could be given what they had demanded and brought back into the fold to serve the ends of the families; really, it was not such an insurmountable problem.
Opinicus would be taken on the morrow.
Jean-Claude got to his new quarters next evening and Hugh the evening after.
Nicolette was propped up in bed with Emma as Paul patrolled out there. They'd agreed one on, two off and that gave Paul time on the bed talking with both of them in his time off. It had worked well.
Emma had not said what she and Hugh had done, except that Nikki was going to be upset. Intercourse had not taken place. Did Nikki want Emma in bed with her or should Emma go to the other end of the house? It was a foregone decision.
They heard Hugh come in, speak with Paul, the two women jumped up and put on robes, he went straight for Nikki and held her so close he nearly squeezed the life out of her and then kissed her with no mind for anyone else about.
Then he went over to Emma and carefully and deliberately kissed her lips. Emma told Nikki she'd go on duty now, Hugh having eaten and wanting to get together with Nikki as quickly as possible.
'What has Emma told you?'
'That something happened but not intercourse.'
'Yes. I placed it in her mouth to stop us doing that other thing.'
'I've already thought about this, I expected that's what you had done. What did we discuss at the farmhouse?'
'I know that very well, Nikki but this is not fair. I warned you not to send me to her.'
'And so you took advantage of that.'
'Speak to Emma now I'm here. She'll tell you all. I tried to get out of it. In the end, yes it was my guilt.'
'That's all I wanted to hear, that you took responsibility, did not put it on me. Does Emma take responsibility?'
'Yes, she says it is all her fault but I won't let her do that.'
'Very noble. and that was it, was it?'
'With Emma, yes.'
'What do you mean, 'With Emma, yes?' Tell me you did nothing with Franka.'
'I'm going to tell you what she and I decided.'
'She and you?' she asked, sharply.
'Listen to it first, hear it out. These ae the words I said to Franka and she agreed with it. 'All right, Franka, scenario - Nikki is in tears two days from now. 'Did you sleep with Emma? Yes. Did you have sex? In her mouth, yes. We are both guilty. Nikki, I slept with Franka. No, no, tell me it is not so. My best friend, my partner, the one person who knows right from wrong. What did you do with my friend?
I held her through the night, talked, kissed and came very close to making love, right on the edge of it. What is this edge of which you speak? We stopped as I was about to penetrate her. Why? Because the only important thing was to hold her and kiss her and je regrette rien about that. You know exactly why I did that, Nikki. But the easy part, putting my thing in her, no, we did not do that because we both love you.'
She did start to sob but that agreement had certainly saved them. The thing was, Nikki was the most active person in the Section at making her friends feel good about themselves. Hugh's transgression was that she had not authorized him to do this.
'I know, it was the last night, Jacques had been a beast, had mistreated her,' she clenched her fists, 'and Franka felt worthless, Emma was trying to keep her afloat. i knew you said my job was not to solve other women's troubles but this was clearly a way to do it. All the rest is just words. I knew you'd be upset but I thought if I can show Franka a man wanted her and still not penetrate her or do any sexual act, then it is a compromise and she feels good about herself after it.'
'I hate you. You always escape. I'm not letting you off like that, you must pay but you have also done a very good thing with Franka. Plus with Opinicus. And now I must confess.'
She got down to it, explaining about Chessa and Jean - when she'd found them, how she'd sent Chessa back to her father whose bed she'd just left and then -
'They had sex,' said Hugh. She hated the sound of that but it was the truth. 'And then,' said Hugh, you had to stop it ... and you did.'
She started crying, he held her. 'Nikki, I know part of those tears is because you think I think it's OK and will do it again. I don't think there'll be an again. I think we're near the end and so does Emma. You and I will probably have to go, to put our plan into operation we spoke of. This was a bad move going to Emma and Francine, it drove us apart and you saw that aspect of Thierry. You saw I can't keep away from Emma if she wants me. We have to start looking in towards each other because we're going to need each other now more than ever.'
'Yes. Yes. I know. I think so too. We've wasted so much time. Let's go on duty and let those two have time together.'
They went out, the other two finished up and headed for the other bedroom.
Sophie-Fleury lay on her side, Jean-Claude asleep, she gazed out at the wall.
The forgotten member of the team, she was still grateful and if Jean-Claude could only realize the pain for her, the physical pain. She began to think of whom she could be with, which male, one who would be understanding about less of the physical.
None of this company, that was for sure. The thought flitted through the mind that when all this did end, however it ended, she might just take up any opportunity she’d seen along the way.
And none of them were getting any younger, nor richer. This was unworthy, she felt. She’d stay with Jean-Claude no matter what.