General Fiction posted April 12, 2019 Chapters:  ...49 50 -51- 52... 

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Chapter 51: Charles exhibits a little bravado

A chapter in the book The French Letter

The Worm Turns

by tfawcus

Having acted as an assassin for MI6, Charles returns to the crime scene, where he steals a painting. The following morning, he is threatened with blackmail to coerce him into another assignment.
Closing paragraphs of Chapter 50

"Would you like a lift to the embassy? I believe you have an appointment there this morning."

"No thank you. I'll make my own way."

"Please yourself, Mr. Brandon. I'll see you there later anyway. Shall we say eleven o'clock? All will become much clearer to you when we meet with the new Air Attaché."

As she [Madame Durand] let herself out, she added, "You won't forget to bring your passport, will you?"

Chapter 51

My first reaction was one of anger. How dare these people threaten me. I was damned if I was going to dance to their tune. If I did decide to serve my country, it certainly wouldn't be because I was blackmailed into it.

I looked at my watch. It was still shy of nine o'clock. Two hours to go before the meeting. What if I didn't go? Having expended so much time and effort on setting me up, they would hardly just hand the photos over to the French police. I decided to call their bluff. If they wanted my help, it would have to be on my terms.

I reached under the sofa and pulled out the painting, placing it on the coffee table. It took a little time to arrange angles so that there were no reflections or shadows while I photographed it. The next step was to properly protect it with bubble wrap and to make a secure parcel before slipping it back into the Galeries Lafayette bag.

It occurred to me that my apartment was probably being watched. Sure enough, when I looked out of the window, I could see a man
leaning against the railings a little way up the street, reading a newspaper. It was going to be interesting to see if, in my new role of master spy, I could shake him off.

Rue Gabrielle is a narrow, cobbled street. Most of the houses abut the pavement, leaving few convenient recesses for a tail to duck into. If this man followed me, I would soon know. I set out at a brisk pace towards the eastern end, which eventually narrows and becomes a pedestrian access to a stairway leading to the Sacré-Coeur funicular railway. It was easy to melt into the shadows at this point, and to look back down the street without being seen. My suspicions were confirmed.

I ran down the steps to the lower station, reaching it seconds before a large group of Japanese tourists swarmed around the entrance, blocking my pursuer. I scrambled aboard the carriage just before the doors closed and had the satisfaction of being able to turn and wave to him as we started our rapid ascent.

There were two or three taxis parked near the entrance to the Sacré-Coeur Basilica. My branch of t
he Banque Nationale de Paris was in the Latin Quarter, in the shadow of Notre Dame Cathedral, a taxi ride of less than quarter of an hour. By ten o'clock, the painting was safely deposited, along with Helen's journal and my diplomatic passport.

The main business of the morning now complete, I found a cheerful café in the sunshine and ordered myself a celebratory glass of Pastis. While waiting for it to arrive, I rang the direct line to the embassy that Smith, alias Caruthers, had given me during my briefing at Babylon-on-Thames.

"Hello? Put me through to the Air Attaché, please. Tell him that it is Mr. Brandon."

"Just a minute, sir. I'll see if he's available."

The waiter appeared at my elbow with a small jug of water and a glass containing a finger of Pastis. As I poured water into the glass, the amber liquid turned cloudy and yellow, giving off a pleasant aroma of aniseed. I thought the metamorphosis an apt metaphor for my own situation.

"Group Captain Bamforth here. Is that you, Brandon?"

"Hello, David, old chap. Congratulations on your promotion. A step up the ladder, what?"

"Look, Brandon, I'm a busy man. Can't this keep until our meeting?"

"Terribly sorry, old chap. 'Fraid I shan't be able to make the meeting. Some French tart burst into my apartment this morning and threatened me with blackmail. Quite upset my applecart. Not cricket. No, definitely not cricket."

There was a pregnant pause at the other end of the line before the Group Captain gave birth to a response. His tone had changed remarkably.

"Don't be too hasty, my dear fellow. Things aren't quite as they might seem. What Madame Durand said this morning was beyond her brief. Obviously, the last thing we'd do is hand you over to the French police. Being an intelligent man, you'd know that, of course."

"I don't respond well to threats. Never have and never will. If you want my cooperation, it will need to be on an entirely different basis."

"Of course. I quite understand. I'd have been disappointed if you'd said anything else. Take it as a little test of your mettle. We have to be sure that you're up to the task."

I took a leisurely sip of my aperitif and waited for him to continue.

"What we have in mind is a matter of extreme national importance. Many people's lives hang on it. I hope that you will at least give me the chance to explain. After that, the decision is yours. You'll be free to walk away, if that's what you decide. I give you my word on it."

Call me a fool if you like, but I heard myself replying, "All right then, I'll give you that chance."

Despite my show of bravado, I knew that they had me by the balls. Nonetheless, I felt better for having asserted myself. It doesn't do to let people walk all over you, and I was clear in my own mind that I wasn't about to start taking orders from Madame Durand. Not insignificantly, there was also the temptation of working with Helen. As I drained my glass, I decided that I liked that idea.

It was a pleasant half-hour walk along the banks of the Seine to the embassy in Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, a little to the north of the Place de la Concorde. Coincidentally, the embassy was also close to the Paris Stamp Market.  Only a week or two ago, I had been happily browsing there
without a care in the world. I could not, in my wildest dreams, have imagined then where my purchase of a tattered old envelope addressed to Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin would lead.




Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Ian 'Bisto' Kidman - an ex-RAF friend of Charles's.
Wing Commander Bamforth (alias Sir David Brockenhurst) - an intelligence officer with MI6
Helen Culverson - a woman of some mystery, also a travel writer, whose relationship with Charles is complicated by her relationship with Jeanne Durand.
Kayla Culverson - her older sister, who disappeared somewhere in Bangkok and has surfaced again in Paris.
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor, who was involved in a serious accident, and seems also to be involved with international drug trade.
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman (now deceased)
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Dr. Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Francoise Gaudin - an intellectually disabled woman living in Versailles.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious letter of 1903 was addressed.
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - of whom we may hear more later.
Gaston Arnoux - Owner of an art gallery in Paris, recently assassinated by Charles
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