Tuesday, May 5, 2009

France 24 - Masquerade


Chapter 23 here ... Chapter 25 here

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I

The presence of strategically placed Level 2s at various points of the building was not lost on Sophie, as she finally stepped through to the garden in the centre of the complex. It was also not lost on her that she'd been allowed to view the inside, given that she was still not fully trusted on Albus and Belus and that she might well use what she knew against them.

Hugh came forward and ushered her, dressed in white robe and sandals, to a garden chair, Sally came through and asked what she'd like to drink; there were smiles on both Hugh's and Emma's faces.

He began immediately. 'I am not Albus. This person does not exist. Nor is Emma Belus. It was useful for us at times because they believe in it - the Seven.'  Sophie winced but said nothing. 'Sophie, you might still have a personality inside you which needs to kill us and we know that Sophie herself might not be able to stop this person. We've invited Sophie here this evening, not this other person.'

'Why?'

'We need your help very much.' Almost imperceptibly, one eyebrow was raised. He began to explain about the masquerade ball, about the Loire, about the notion that there might well be an attempt to kidnap not only them but the PM as well.

She never asked why they were divulging all this to her, she knew they were taking one enormous risk in trusting her and frankly, she was enormously flattered. They must really want her help. But how, she asked.

'We think there might be members of the Seven present and the only person who knows them is you.'

'Their faces were always hidden.'

'I appreciate that but everyone has mannerisms, idiosyncrasies. You're not a fool and you would have noticed much. We wish to take one or two of them to put pressure on the power to allow our PM to remain in office and to hold off Mr. Jamieson who is one of them. It's vital because the PM has plans to free up the society and put in place programmes the people have been asking for over a long time. I know that's not your issue -'

'It is my issue. You helped me out of all of that, the PM seems a good man, unlike some and I owe you much. I don't know how much I can help.'

'All it needs is recognition. Perhaps you won't be able to. Perhaps you'll see it as your ticket home - you do know the state of that home, don't you?'

'I can imagine.'

'Perhaps that personality wants to rejoin them. I don't know. What I do know is that if you can make an identification, we can act swiftly and that will be worth everything. We've had reports back from the Section and they say you're intelligent, almost fearless and insist on professionalism. How could we ask for more than that, except maybe one day ... your friendship?'

She was most definitely taken aback by this. She looked over at Emma, who'd been looking down during the explanation but now she looked at the girl and nodded her agreement. As for Sophie, she saw her chance to get away, back to them - a sort of security in a way, in a very twisted way but then she saw this life, where she was a person of value, a person they were begging to help them, instead of making her do things, awful things which gave her headaches and nightmares.

She explained that she was so long away from them now that the headaches and nightmares had all but gone, that she was aware of a personality which spoke when Genevieve's back had been turned but she'd been able to suppress that and it hadn't reappeared.

'I - I really want to help, if I can ... um ... M. et Mme. Jensen.'

II

Four days to go. Janine was in earnest conversation with Hugh in a garden attached to Little Stenthorpe church and she was running over the programme. He was asking question after question, in fine detail, about the exact movements of all major parties.

Then he ran through the potential weaknesses. The day before, he'd made a deal with two known but as yet unconvicted heisters to spend some days, for a certain remuneration, at their home in the outer wing, they’d be incommunicado and under surveillance until after the event and on that basis, allowed to view the whole mock-up.

In return, charges would be dropped.

Each was to hypothesize how they'd do the kidnappings - would Janine authorize that? She couldn't but she walked away for some minutes, came back and said yes. She also passed on that the PM’s double was already causing consternation by running through personnel documents on Richard Jamieson and other known moles for Europe - the double had had a good run and so far seemed to have passed muster.

.o0o.

The two men were satisfied with the deal, they were now taken through to the mock-up of the Loire, the top floor able to be removed and various ground floor segments also able to be lifted out, revealing plumbing and lots of little defects reported by employees over the past month - they went through their plan of how to go about it.

One was elaborate and as he outlined the planning, the build up, the personnel required, the obstacles, the security and so on, it became obvious that split second timing would be required - this was a game requiring immediate projection of an image only long enough to enable the move to be made. He stressed that the control of the CCTV, the secondary target system using tags electronically embedded in the back hems of clothing during the security procedure shakedowns, the stream of disinformation, the alarm due to a furphy - all of that was important, as well as control of the key spaces above the ballroom and below.

He'd paid particular attention to the possible access points in the walls and floors of the building. He asked if the builders had been interviewed and was gratified that they had. He pointed out one weak spot and Hugh confirmed that that had been confirmed by one of the bricklayers. He mentioned the airconditioning system and the net access - all key points needed to recover from takeover. They needed to be unsecurable by a hostile team.

Hugh confirmed that they'd already done a touch of sabotage in that direction, which of course made it easier for the enemy to take those places in the first instance. The man asked him to assume that the other side had also bought much of this information. 'They're bankrolled far better than you are.'

The second had listened to all this and agreed on the key points in the building. His method was far more cavalier and also involved image projection but also momentary tricks of the light. All the foregoing about meticulous preparation went without saying. Had anyone shown any great interest in these matters, either through the architects, builders or local planning authorities?

Yes, Hugh answered - they had a list of those interested who'd be at the Loire on Saturday evening. He mentioned the ships which had left port in Europe and Ireland in the last days - the power of the state here had helped immensely. The man grilled Hugh mercilessly for thirty more minutes and then concluded: 'You'd be taken.'

The other concurred. Hugh wiped his brow, another round of refreshments was brought, Emma went to take care of nature, returned and then the two were asked to explain.

They hadn't taken Europe into account - the SRP harmonization of intranet, the closed net systems which effectively gave power to some little man in the Hague to pull the plug on the communications or to jam them for a limited time until the auxilliary could kick in. Every government with officials there and many of the shadowy figures were going to demand a slice of the pie, the right to run over the systems.

They already had, Hugh said.

Some of their boffins were the best in Europe - they could take in a system within a second or two and know how to run code which would make the communications do surprising things. Mr and Mrs Jensen might have been gifted amateurs but they couldn't, in themselves, circumvent everything at once. And what of a number of agendas being played out at the same time?

So, what was the solution, Hugh wanted to know?

Ideally, both men agreed, trusted deputies - and that was the whole issue - with enough autonomy to follow the game plan but to alter it quickly, in response to changed circumstances. A hive mentality.

Hugh thanked them both and they were shown to their quarters - they knew they were bugged, everyone knew it.

.o0o.

In bed, Emma asked if he was going to follow their advice.

'To a point,' he murmured. 'There was some sound advice in there.' Then he whispered in her ear.

'No,' she grinned. 'You won't get away with that.'

'Time will tell.'

III

The day of the masquerade.

Despite none of the dignitaries having arrived by 11:00, Hugh was still covered by armed Praetorians in his once over of the complex, every nook and cranny was noted and had someone looking after it. This part was basic ops, with backup in case it went pearshaped, with a failure to signal in particular ways being a sign of attack.

There were many such routines, with a staff of 28 looking after it within the complex. Access and egress had a team of 212 in various locations, including from every dignitary's embarkation point. Guy thought it too few on the ground at Loire but Hugh took the point of view that the trouble could be better nipped at the source. All VIPs were to be scanned at exit, changeover, disembarkation and entry to Loire, by people who'd had experience of them before.

This was all the more reason, he felt, that they'd try it on. The real action was to be on one of the 37 entry routes, somewhere along the way.

.o0o.

16:00 - A few of the things which might have gone wrong had already gone wrong and it was gratifying that news had come through. This, Hugh felt, was just a feeler, a tester  - the real scam would come later.

He made adjustments.

The Citadel net connection [not the intra but the one used for the public] had seen sockpuppet sites springing up in the last days and they contained much personal info on high-ups, including Hugh and Emma - quite scurrilous and actionable, using material which had only come the way of the enemy by turned, so-called former friends.

The bottom line was that though this was nasty and no one wishes to see his private life spread across the net publicly, there wasn't anything particularly illegal or nefarious in their former private lives and so this could only have a limited run.  In fact it was useful because it now outed various parties.

.o0o.

19:00 - an hour before the first guests would arrive. All had been accounted for and were either in their hotels, still on the way or were known-knowns in their inability to attend.

19:14 - first report through from neighbours near the farmhouse where one of Hugh's clones was stationed. Scenes of the farmhouse being stormed and a standoff with the two opposed forces. 

This was mortifying because two groups, both dressed in the uniform of special services for the same country were now opposed - there were, effectively, two governments now giving orders through commanders.

There was the question of how they'd known 'he' was there in that location but more unclear was if the enemy were aware he was the clone, whether they were just taking precautions or whether they wished to neutralize all the Hughs.

19:17 - first attempt at takeover of the control room of the complex, images revealed gunfire but seemingly silenced, control room cam out - so that one was now down to the plan for the recovery, just prior to the masque. Almost simultaneously report of enemy taken out in the carpark and that in loyalist hands for the moment.

19:21 - Marie-Ange entering the foyer - or ante-room under different circumstances - and the camera in her mask would feedback every costume and person under it through Sophie to Guy and Hugh. First picture showing Paul Rainsford by the foot of the great staircase on Guy's side, meaning Guy was now taken - the PM's own countermove, one of three.

Hugh breathed more easily. They'd suspected Guy but had needed him to make a false move. Sad.

19:34 - here come the guests. Though the theme is Commedia dell'Arte, there's a sprinkling of other costumes as well. 

First through is Ambassador from the Netherlands in a Bauta, roughly of his nation's colours and his wife in a Moretta - the oval mask layered with black velvet - neither one particular character or the other.

They compliment Marie-Ange's Columbina and hope to see Arlecchino and her on the dance floor later. Marie-Ange doing the registration. Signal now from her confirming it's still her. CCTV seems to have her gait correct.

Coming in thick and fast now, Marie-Ange and helpers have their work cut out to register guests. Various Harlequins, Pantelones, Pierrots, Columbinas, Scaramouche, a few Capitanos and one Volpina.

19:37 - from Sophie: keep an eye on the Volto Larva and the Arlecchino with the red blemish on the forehead, just above the diamond pattern of red, green, and blue - the one with the slightly turned-in right foot. Can't be sure but might be Jannes. Female she wouldn't know. Hugh thinks, 'Celeste?'

19:39 - from Sophie again: watch the Scaramuccia in the black velvet mask with the thin, pointed and disproportionately extended nose and partner, a Dottore Peste with the hooked beak, long, trailing, black robes with white collar, floppy hat in one hand - they seem a gay couple and as a Dottore is an aristocrat in the Commedia, this could well be one of the Seven - from his deportment, Sophie suspects Jambres.

19:41 - guests milling in the ballroom, around the edges, early music playing by l'Arcapeggia - all in keeping, now come Pulcinella and a Gatto, the former in loose-fitting white overalls and beak mask, the latter in feline costume and even accompanying it with noises and gestures - a playful one, Sophie doesn't recognize either.

19:43 - up to 210 guests so far, according to Marie-Ange, another 23 to go, many are stragglers but she'll stay there, with support coordinated by Paul Rainsford, whom everyone concedes is the security honcho - a display of respect by the PM, festivities about to begin, bar doing a roaring trade, they've five people in there, all reporting back at this stage. Sophie views bar footage and confirms Jannes.

20:01 - orchestra strikes up, meanwhile control room hit by friendly forces.

20:04 - CCTV back on, they detected other tapes inserted, this one is messy, some bodies hauled into the back room, too much noise in the great hall to overly worry, Paul orders Marie-Ange's support to remain for the 17 still on the way, Marie-Ange [Emma] to go upstairs to the ante-room to meet up with Hugh.

21:02 - that was a quiet hour, all units reporting in, time for the first roving check of those units. PM's lot monitoring who's speaking with whom, who's dallying with whom, for diplomatic purposes. First time Hugh doubts he can pull this off - too many agendas coinciding, though he has people looking out for each.

21:07 - first systems anomaly: unit reporting in but it was enemy, all codes to second phase, all change, all units report in, except the janitor's, janitor's about to be hit. Demonstration dances about to begin as per programme, then the VIPs take to the floor.

21:08 - late report from Marie-Ange. Had to neutralize the 'Hugh', not right, will be examined in one of the siderooms, doesn't seem theirs at all. Hugh has Paul detail someone to watch Marie-Ange. Too much trust needed in Paul, no choice at this stage. PM and wife taking Jannes and partner for drink - is that his move, the sly old dog?

21:10 - message to Marie-Ange: look for Jambres, as described by Sophie, seems to have gone AWOL.

21:15 - time for [clone] Hugh's dance with Emma [actually Marie-Ange], Jambres can't be found by any units, nor his partner, ‘Hugh’ dances too well, damn it, Marie-Ange superb, great applause, they go backstage, Marie-Ange stops, according to CCTV but 'Hugh' goes on as planned, Paul - get someone there now.

21:17 - Jannes not with PM, quick scan to bar - empty, quick scan to 'friendly' medical room - yep, out like a light, one good thing at least, Jambres a worry, 'Hugh' has not reappeared anywhere, real Hugh to Paul - deal with it please.

21:18 - first from the road: key man of PM's taken en route behind the Swiss party earlier, report from backstage - no 'Hugh', check roof, nothing, no helicopters, no one came that way this evening, had to have been got out or else is somewhere on premises - simple logic, find him.

21:19 - report that the Swiss are leaving, let them depart and note any other departures or any other moves in the building, car to be stopped five km down the road. Trouble is the guests in their break time, swarming into the bar, all eyes on all guests from control room please, as yet no move to retake room, one camera loaded with false disk, now fixed, empty but might have been missed action.

21:53 - Jambres and partner reappear in great hall - 'twould be nice to have him too - he found a place the friendlies were not able to penetrate - someone was shielding him, someone's lying about not finding him.

22:00 - an hour until the unmasking and the whole thing is going swimmingly as an event, sudden opportunity - Jambres' partner going to loo, Marie-Ange coming out of hers, dart and partner slumps to floor, friendlies swoop and take to friendly medical room, making out he's drunk.

22:12 - Jambres worried on main floor, speaking with the Germans but nervous gestures he thinks he's concealing. Assuming he's communicating in that mask, check all points and report in.

Reports now of movement in the corridors - all arrested over next few minutes bar two who are now at Sophie's room, CCTV shows splintering of gunfire through door, no great noise, seems to have ceased, Sophie coming out from under counter, she nods at message received and makes OK gesture to camera.

22:44 - Jambres calls people to him in great hall and they make to depart - many gestures of apology to the PM, man won't be impeded, can't be, their things brought upstairs, they enter lift to roof, helicopter arrives, can't be stopped, they depart.

22:45 - Too long a delay from Paul - one too many in Jambre's party, 'Hugh' might be one of them.  Paul onto it but it’s one of the Austrians.  Damn, already happened - the Austrians were correct numbers about 17 minutes ago.  Austrians eh?

Evening's events might now be over but still on alert.

23:00 - the big unmasking for those still present, lower orders, Sophie scanning intensely, no one she recognizes at all, not the woman Idune nor anyone else, Paul does though and has made some moves on the top floor with some costumed women with Columbinas in their hands, targetted guests resisting, playing it down, some now going - keep an eye on that.

Supper now coming out, handed around, waitresses mingling, PM and wife taking their leave, now the critical part occurs, he goes through and there - there the switch is made, we did it - excellent, 'PM' continues to lift and up to the roof.

23:07 - pitched battle on roof, 'PM' shot from the helicopter, how to explain this one now, mayhem in silent motion through cameras, helicopter swinging up and away, no attempt to shoot down. Wild grief from [real] wife now rushing from lower left of camera, falls at 'PM's' side on her knees, she's woken up to the ruse, shot herself by dart, stretchers, bustled away.

23:11 - great hall almost empty now, all procedures begin, all reporting in, the slow shutdown commences.

.o0o.

In the night, a fine night with the chill in the atmosphere and a clear view of the stars, the far door in the rendered cement wall opened and a goatee-bearded figure strode through, still in his costume.

'Hugh.'

'Prime Minister.'

'All right, let's kip down now and we'll talk in the morning. 05:00 too early for you?'

Hugh smiled - he knew the PM's penchant for early starts and had caught a few hours just after 16:00. 

All was in order, the PM went into his room and did his things, Hugh turned in as well, the light was doused and that was that.

.o0o.

Other than those two, Sally was the only extra in this underground complex and she now cleared the breakfast dishes. It might have been a concrete wasteland down here but it was a well served concrete wasteland.

They got down to business. The PM opened. 'How would you rate it?'

'Not happy to lose 'me' at all - I'd spoken with him for some time and he was a nice chap. They'll use him to bargain for the other two.'

'They can't. Different levels. Not a direct swap. I'm afraid it might be nasty for your alter-ego, Hugh.' The look on Hugh's face showed he understood only too well. 'Do you want to bargain for him?'

Hugh's face was chagrined. 'Can't - he knew the danger. Terrible about your double as well.'

'Yes. I made the error of getting too close to him - he'll be sorely missed but there was no family. Yes.  Thought we might have protected him on the roof.'  

He moved on.  'Excellent work on the part of your girl at the loo - they weren't expecting that and I don't think we were either.  The one you call Jannes - that was a great coup, a set piece and one wonders at how easy it was.'

'I did too.'

'Our regulars will examine him but I suspect we'll not get much out of that one, except as a bargaining chip.'

'Bargaining chip for what, may I ask?'

'You may ask.' And that's all he was saying.

'Ah ... right, sir. Your own little negotiations.'

'As you say, Hugh, my own little negotiations. All right - from what I'm seeing here, we lost a few in the control room, a few on the roof, lost one 'Hugh', switched me at the right time - well done on keeping Patty out of it for those split seconds - and made our major gains in the moles being outed - hell of a lot of them.  Lost 'me' - not good.

Overall, I'd say very well done.'

He sipped on his coffee, Hugh relaxed and he continued, 'Your Emma reports that Sophie came through with flying colours but it was hardly a fair test. With her secreted in that room, Sophie had no real choice. So you're no further along with her.'

'Well, as time goes by, the advantage moves further towards us and less towards them.'

'Granted. Now, as I'm shot and critically near death, as hourly reports are put out and it's blamed on my enemies, with strenuous denials that Robert Jamieson was in any way connected with it, I myself am stuck down here with a kidnapped man.  How many days of that I can stand I just don't know - at least we have sufficient space down here to keep out of each other's way.   I trust you had those titles brought in.'

'Books are over in that cupboard.'

IV

Marie-Ange gazed at Emma in their redoubt on the far side of the country, noting her intense disquiet - shades of Finland crossed Emma's mind and with it, memories she preferred to forget.

She preferred to remember from the first day on the island through to the submarine docking in Portsmouth.   Subsequent days - the building of the Citadel, the daily grind - all those were fulfilling in their own way but it had certainly strained their closeness and she put that down to sheer tiredness on both their parts.

She sighed and Marie-Ange went for two wines. Emma looked at her. 'I'm not too sure, Marie-Ange, if I can take much more of looking at myself opposite me.'

The woman smiled. 'Different shape, different person.'

'You were fantastic, Marie-Ange. How you thought to do that ...'

'I couldn't see that we could lose on it. If he was the more important, then there was political value. If he was the lesser person or even the manservant, then there was the security value. They were expecting an attempt on the one you call Jambres.'

'That would have been nice too but he was too far beyond us taking him.  Tell me about France now.'

'We have become a surveillance society. My connection with you became known and we were at first brought in for questioning, like common criminals, then we were restricted in where we could go and at which hours and that was the point Marcel got me out. There are no children, as you know. My parents said to go and they would put up with the oppression - they'd known it during the war.

They insisted I go, Emma. Now I feel I must have a child, to perpetuate their memory but I know that is not a good reason. I feel it is time. Marcel is not my boyfriend, Bernard Dupoir was that man but that was no more some time back.'

'You will work with us. If we cannot be in France, then we bring France to us.

‘When you say work for you both, where will that be?  What work? Where will I live?’

‘Within the Citadel.  We need a new services manager, taking care of the fabric, I know you know these things.  You can sleep in the flat attached at the back as long as you wish.  This allows you to find a partner at one of the levels.  There are French on our payroll but you might like another too.’

‘I can’t thank you enough.’

‘Marie-Ange, I need to tell you this.  Whatever happens with Hugh and myself –things are good between us but all this has been a strain – do not enter into it.  Whatever happens, you must concentrate on your things and we on ours.  We might not seem happy but we are together and –’

‘Do not fear that.’

V

'Prime Minister?'

'Yes, Hugh.'

'Politically, diplomatically, how much breathing space did the masque buy us?'

'Jannes will buy us a gag on Jamieson for maybe a year. With the names which have now tumbled out, he's directly linked to them and rather than go public, I'll hold those over him, as long as they buy me something. That won't stop him because he must deliver to his masters but it will cramp his style long enough for me to implement a few measures of my own.

Jambres' offsider is far more useful. They can't know what beans will be spilled and he can never return to them, for obvious reasons.  He'll know that and will spill those beans more readily, especially if he knows it will free him from the questioning.  This will inconvenience them temporarily. 

Now let me ask you one. Emma is in her mid 30s and you -'

'- are older than that.'

'As you say.  Have you discussed a family?'

'Yes we have.  It needs the country to be a bit more secure than this, sir.'

'You can't leave it too much longer, man.'

'I know, I know. We're judging it by many things, including what you need of us. Emma feels the same - our place is doing as we're doing for now.'

'Thank you.'

VI

January, 2009

The Prime Minister woke from his sleep and stared at the ceiling. His wife woke, as if on queue and looked across at him. She placed her hand on his arm.

'I've betrayed them, you know.'

'Who?'

'Them - they who put me here and they know.  Their interest now is whether I can be turned back, dissuaded from my course.'

'And can you?'

'I think not.'

She looked at him, then at a point on the ceiling. 'I see.'

VII

February 2009

The Prime Minister eventually looked up at Hugh. 'A right Walsingham, aren't you?'

Then he mellowed. 'I apologize for that - Walsingham did right, although it didn't endear him to the Queen but then again, he wasn't being paid for endearing himself, was he?'

'If there'd been any other way ...'

'I know, I know.' He sat up straight, then leant back and put his hands behind his head, his eyes moist. 'I did know it had to be.  She came to me as one of them, we married on that basis, in the days of the unprincipled politician. I'd hoped that all these years might have ... well, no matter. We live and learn in this game and what I had on the drawing board had to be reported to them. 

Things are going to get hot around here now, Hugh. Jamieson will come storming back with insufferable self-righteousness.'

'He'll go public on your plans?'

'Not in the least - they'll not want that splashed across the tabloids. No, he'll come back hard because he knows Europe will now back him. Doesn't pay to strike a blow for your own country, Hugh.'

'Yes it does, sir. In the end, it does.'

'In the end. Yes. There's a disconnect, man, between any Prime Minister and the people. It's in the very nature of Westminster politics, from the preselection to the appointment to Cabinet. If he wants to be a man of the people, he has to remember what it was like to be of the people but he only remembers his version of it. 

In my world, especially in Europe, there are no moral absolutes, nothing cannot be negotiated or revised. It's all to do with the maintenance of power in the right hands.

If you aid and abet that, you are promoted and feted, with high sounding rhetoric. If you genuinely aid the people, it is the end. This is the end of me, Hugh, not immediately but somewhere down the line here. I might even build a coalition to face them down for some time, maybe even for a couple of years more but the end result will be the same.

Emma and you will have to do some serious thinking now - whether to cut and run, whether to ease yourselves out, whether to stay and fight alongside me and go down with me. I can't ask that of you.'

'You know the answer already, sir.'

'Thank you again.  Leave me now, we'll do the review next Tuesday - could you come down here then?'

Hugh nodded and rose, his last image that of a broken man as he went out, straight into the form of Janine. To her enquiring glance, he took her forearm and led her to one side.

'I've just told him about his wife. The horrible woman. It was her who turned Guy and who told the other 'Hugh' to go up to the roof at that moment, probably saying it had come from her husband.’

‘I suspected.’  She squeezed his forearm, nodded and went through.

IX

Easter 2009

Geneviève and Jean-Claude had come to a decision or rather, Geneviève had come to a decision and Jean-Claude had gone along with it.

They knew no one, Emma and Hugh were up north and though they communicated, this was hardly enough and besides, those two up there seemed to be right into the whole Citadel business.

Jean-Claude had begged her to think further ahead than a dream - what did she hope to do back in France?   He put out feelers to his old contacts and had predictable responses - what, was he crazy? Whatever was he thinking of?  

When it appeared he was serious though, a compromise was reached and they'd be allowed safe passage for one week, no longer.   They'd have around the clock support for that time.

Jean-Claude knew he'd used up a lot of credit on this one.

X

The PM seemed to have recovered some of his old humour and the colour had come back to his cheeks - or so it seemed to Hugh, sitting in the chair the other side of the great desk.

'Request here from your colleagues. Seems they wish to return to Paris for a week.' He observed the eyes of the other man go up to the ceiling. 'So, shall I approve it?'

'Protection?'

'M. Guiscard apparently has that in hand - very little we can do from this end. De Marchant must still rankle with Paris though.'

'It's madness in one way but in another, if she goes and sees for herself, she might then settle down again for some time - maybe for a year or so. If Jean-Claude can arrange for that protection - and I'm sure he can - and if you'll underpin them both, diplomatically, then it might work to our advantage.'

'Our?'

'I was given to understand that their work has been useful.'

'Ah yes, Quite, quite. So, I'll approve it, eh?' Hugh nodded. 'Now, to a little expansion of your Section I had in mind, let's call it a streamlining of communication between the Praetorian and yourselves.'

XI

When Jean-Claude saw the trunks she'd had packed by Anita, he put his foot down. 'One week, Genie, one week - that's all we're protected for and even then, it's not guaranteed.'

'Are you trying to frighten me, Jean-Claude?'

'I'm trying to get you to see reality, Genie and how, by placing yourself outside of reality, you endanger many people.'

She was shocked, utterly shocked that he'd spoken to her this way but she knew, from experience, that when he occasionally did this, he'd been driven to it, much as she could not always see the line of reasoning going on in his head. It was better just to go along with him for now - after all, he had arranged the trip and for that she was eternally grateful. She'd reduce it by one trunk. 'We'll repack straight away.'

He kissed her.

.o0o.

Paris didn't look much different, it hadn't been blighted by war or anything, the roads were still full, the airport perhaps not as crowded as formerly, the shops were still open in many places although there were an increasing number of boarded up properties and many For Sale signs.

The giveaway was in the people's faces. Parisiennes had never been noted anyway for frivolity in the commuter lines or in cafes but now the people seemed ... quiet ... not willing to divulge too much. She, on the other hand, in her delight to be back, was gushing with questions and anecdotes, reminiscences and reflections.

Her friends sat silently, politely and sipped on their coffees, having brought a small gift.

She was now in her own living room, a room in the hands of a worried woman who'd thought Geneviève had come to reclaim her property, the title of which had been signed into this woman's name so she needn't have worried anyway. When Jean-Claude had explained on the telephone that they were resident in Great Britain, that they were only here for a few days, that it had been Geneviève's dearest wish to see the apartment one last time, the woman had thawed and had invited them round.

Geneviève glanced at the window sill where her African Violets had stood. They weren't there but that wasn't to say the place had gone to rack and ruin.

In fact, in a way, this was worse because the apartment had been redecorated and redecorated well, in the lady's style. There were plants on the sill but not her own, there was a hall stand for hats and umbrellas but not her old one. The place was kept immaculately, even better than she, a working woman, had been able to maintain, especially after the beginnings of the troubles and now Geneviève saw that this apartment, this city even, were no longer hers.

Time for Barbizon.  They thanked her profusely and departed.

.o0o.

The owner, if that's what he could have been called, for the title had simply been signed over to him, was not at all keen that they should see the place and it had taken a lot of persuasion from Jean-Claude.

He'd warned his wife - straight in, view it, no comment, no turned-up nose or anything of that nature, all reactions afterwards. She'd agreed and now here they were - not in the carport, where she saw there was space but on the road, as a stranger would have done.

The man was not home and so they went back to the car and waited.

He turned up some twelve minutes later, acknowledged them and let them into Francine's half of the house. It was a pigsty. Dirty dishes piled up in the sink, the dirt was ground into the carpet, along with the cigarette burns, the fridge was making all sorts of noises and she asked quickly if she could see the other half, the part where she had stayed.

The man had to force the key to open the lock, it opened grudgingly and then the same happened with the other building. The sight made Geneviève burst into tears, not from nostalgia but from the state of it, from the neglect. It was mouldy, she could see the shower cubicle from where she stood, dirt and grease covered all surfaces but worst of all was that the original bedding was still on the bed, just as when she and Hugh ...

She realized, of course, that Francine would have washed it all many times over before the Flight into Egypt and if that bedding was there now, it was because it had been the turn of that bedding, in rotation, to be there. Nevertheless, it was an appalling sight, she whispered, 'Merci,' and Jean-Claude knew it was time to get her out quickly.

He said the right things to the man, left him with a small gift which he turned over in his hand, quite unappreciatively, then they were gone.

They sat in the back, Genie bolt upright and he held her hand.

.o0o.

Next stop was the English Chapel.

The Vicar was still there, they'd arranged to have a cup of tea with him and there were hearty greetings, which was one thing this day, at least. They spoke of many things, from the tragedy of Ksenia's wedding that hadn't been to the current political situation, at which point, the man clammed up.

Whispering low, he informed them, 'The walls have ears.'

So, it had come to this, thought Jean-Claude. He'd known one such time but never as bad as it was now. Hugh had once opined that the fish rotted at the head and this is just what seemed to have happened to modern France.

It wasn't even wartime but then again - it was. This was an internal war, where people died quietly, behind the scenes, where they were spirited away in the night, as in Soviet Russia - his old colleagues had been saying this although they themselves were relatively untouchable.

They asked if they might view the grounds again and the Vicar agreed, shaking their hand and thanking them for coming.

Geneviève went first to Ksenia's plaque and gazed at it for some time. Being a plaque of that nature, it at least had not deteriorated. Now they went round to the carpark and memories came back. She'd describe all this to Hugh when they got back.

Ah - when they got back. Were they going back? She didn't want to face that at this moment. She looked out over the carpark for the tree in the distance where the man had apparently been perched - it had been cut down.

There was nothing left here. There was just Chatelet-en-Brie and on the way back to Paris - Melun.

.o0o.

The Farmhouse was no more, of course. The rubble was still there, fragments of timber lay about and in places, corner pillars still stood. A section of Nikki's old room remained and in the ultimate horror, one of her soft bears lay almost buried, half the face visible, flecked with mud. Jean-Claude pulled it out, put it in the plastic bag they'd brought for just such a discovery, she then asked him leave to go for a short walk by herself.

He looked about himself and then, when she returned, a little bleary-eyed, he took her hand and they were driven up to Melun, taking in all the views along the way, possibly for one last time.

The shock in Melun was that the dental surgery was still just that, with a new man ensconced - well, people still needed teeth attending to, no matter what else had happened. They hadn't asked to go inside, they could see the surgery from the door, she knew Thierry was looking on, it was enough.

'Can we change our flight, Jean-Claude, bring it forward?'

'Oui, it is possible. I reserved a time later today. I had a feeling it might be as this.'

She looked at him sharply, sighed and took his hand again. On the way through Paris, they took a detour and had a quick look at her office from the car, then Cafe Noir from the distance.

That was the end of it.

XII

The four of them were seated in cushioned garden chairs at Hugh’s and Emma’s redoubt in the north.  Over a pre-dinner cognac, they now relaxed and the two travellers were asked about France.

Geneviève recounted all they'd done, in the order it had been done - the brusque man at the Lodge, the tea with the Vicar and Ksusha's plaque, the Farmhouse and so on - bringing tears, at different points, to the eyes of all present.

Wrapping up, she stated what had to be stated. 'We had a Section in Paris which was doing good work. Jean-Claude had his life as well. We all did. Why aren't we there now? Why did we go round Europe, why did we have to sail half the world - nothing against the trip of course - but why?

Why could we not have just stayed where we were and have just grown older? Who wanted to stop us doing that? Have any of you three stopped and thought about why it had to change? I know people say things must change. Why? I can understand when money runs out or when someone loses a job but we weren't in that position.

We were working and there looked no end to the subsidy. Yet we had to leave Paris. Why?'

There was, of course, an easy answer but there was also a more complex one. The short answer was that there was to be a hit on them. But why, Hugh thought, had there been a need for such drastic action over a Section which was exposing only lower level functionaries? What had turned it sour?

Hugh asked this and added, 'Someone high up, someone above le Roux and even de Marchant decided that deaths had to occur. Perhaps this was because they'd lost Genie now and thus, in their eyes, the reason for the Section had also been lost. Their idea of severance was murder. That might have been all it was.

Ex-Inspector Guiscard made a reappearance now. 'The truth was that Hugh appeared about the time the Section was in its death throes. It was so, I'm afraid, Mesdemoiselles - they had lost control of Genie and therefore also the raison d'être for the Section. There were many people sustained by that Section - the girls, Nicolette, the three sitting here, but it was money which could only exist on the slavery of one woman. It had to end but nobody could see that. Perhaps, to an extent, Hugh saw it but his mind was occupied by other matters.

That was why, Genie, it wasn't sustainable. I'm sorry if I shatter illusions. We then did good work in Europe and money came in from other sources. That was positive but it was also not sustainable. None of us like change but we do grow older and can't return to that which we did years ago. Sad but a fact of life.'

Hugh and Emma nodded but Genie was having none of it. 'We had something good and now it's all gone. I would have continued if I'd known that that's why the money was coming in. I'd have continued to do that.'

'It was wrong for us to live off you like that, Mademoiselle. We did not know that that was what we were doing. It was wrong.'

Now, if there was one person in the world capable of curtailing Geneviève, she was sitting opposite her now and she'd just spoken.

The silence was deafening but those last three words had been like a clarion. Geneviève looked at Emma, the pity in the latter's eyes, the tears welling up, she rose and rushed for her bedroom.

Jean-Claude folded his serviette, gave a slight bow and went to her, Emma sighed and Hugh knelt by her chair, putting his arm around her and looking up into her eyes. 'You were right to do that, Fayette. You've always been right in these matters. I'm afraid it had to be said.'

She rested her hand on his arm and sighed again. 'A dream, Hugh - it was all a glorious dream. We were all so busy, we all felt of so much ... value. We were useful people and we were young.'

'You're still young and we're still very much useful, as you know.'

'It's Mademoiselle and Jean-Claude I'm concerned about. He could find some police work - there is still time but she's lost her raison d'être and that's far more serious than anything else. She might even ... relapse. I wonder why the Prime Minister did not allow them to come north with us. Perhaps he might now reconsider.'

'I'll put it to him but it's not charity Genie is looking for. It's purpose.'

'Oh yes, I know that and that's why I have a role in mind. We'll talk later on this.'


The others returned and apologized, drinks were brought, the hors d'oeuvres were brought.


Chapter 23 here ... Chapter 25 here

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