General Fiction posted April 14, 2019 Chapters:  ...50 51 -52- 53... 

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Chapter 52: The mission

A chapter in the book The French Letter

The UK Embassy in Paris

by tfawcus

Charles, having been coerced into working for MI6, finds the net of intrigue tightening around him. He has an appointment at the UK Embassy in Paris to clarify what they want him to do next.
The concluding paragraphs of Chapter 51...

It was a pleasant half-hour walk along the banks of the Seine to the Embassy of the United Kingdom in Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, to the north of the Place de la Concorde.

It was also a couple of hundred yards from the Paris Stamp Market. Not so long ago, I had been happily browsing there without a care in the world. I could scarcely have imagined where the impulse purchase of my two-euro envelope would lead.

Chapter 52

The embassy presents a daunting façade on one of the most famous streets in Paris. It is adjacent to the Ambassador's official residence and just a few doors down from the Élysée Palace. Shortly after entering, I was met by the head of embassy administration who escorted me upstairs to the Air Attaché's office. He knocked discreetly before announcing my arrival.

"Mr. Brandon, sir."

"Thank you, James." Bamforth got up from behind his desk. "Ah, Charles. I'm delighted you were able to make it." He indicated two armchairs by the window. "Do come and sit down, won't you?"

Exuding charm and suavity, he ushered me towards my seat. "James, I wonder if you could arrange for someone to bring us a pot of coffee and some biscuits, almond macaroons for preference."

"Very good, sir. Will there be anything else?"

"Not at present. I'm expecting Madame Durand in half an hour. Please let me know when she arrives. I'll inform you when I'm ready to see her."

Hitching his trousers at the knee to avoid spoiling their immaculate crease, he lowered himself into the chair opposite me. "I think you'll enjoy the macaroons, Charles. They are exceptionally good."

I cast a quick eye around the room. It combined the elegance of classical French design with the warmth and comfort of a British drawing room. "You seem to have come up in the world, David."

He smiled urbanely. "Nothing compared with the Ambassador's residence. Bought by the Duke of Wellington in 1814 from Napoleon's sister, Princess Borghese, or so James tells me. She was quite a gal, apparently. Used to wander around naked at her soirées so that people could admire her beauty, au naturel."

I raised my eyebrows. "Really? How riveting, but maybe we could dispense with the history lesson and get on with the matter at hand."

"Right you are, old chap. Straight down to business, eh?"

I looked at him coldly, waiting for him to continue. I felt it important to assert myself, and not let him make too much of the home ground advantage.

"First of all, I owe you an apology for all the subterfuge and double dealing. It has been necessary to ensure your loyalty by making it impossible for you to renege on your commitment to us.  The stakes are too high to risk having you bring down the whole operation." He managed to make it sound as though this kind of coercion was perfectly reasonable and acceptable.

"I don't know what this top-secret operation is, and I'm not altogether sure that I care. The fact that you have made an assassin of me, then collected evidence that could be used against me by the French authorities, is outrageous. I should approach the tabloid press and expose this despicable affair for what it is."

"That would certainly be an option - but we would, of course, deny it. Unfortunately for you, if you did choose to do so, you would find we have overwhelming evidence to discredit you. You would undoubtedly spend the remainder of your days behind bars in Clairvaux Prison, which is, by all accounts, rather less salubrious than your present surroundings."

As if to reinforce the point, it was at this moment that our coffee was brought in on a silver salver. The china was a particularly fine example of nineteenth century Limoges.

"Here - try one of these macaroons. They are fresh from the Rue Poncelet market."

"Yes, I know them. One of Alphonse's specialities. I was in La Pâtisserie des Réves only the other day." My mind wandered back wistfully to those wonderful few days spent with Helen.

"The Pastry Shop of Dreams - what a delightful name. I was forgetting your reputation as a writer about gourmet food and travel."

"Well?" I said, changing the subject. "What is this affair of extreme national importance you keep talking about - and what did Gaston Arnoux do so heinous that you needed me to blow him to smithereens?"

"Not us, as a matter of fact. We have been working in cooperation with the French government. Gaston Arnoud was head of an ISIS cell here in Paris. He has been directly responsible for recent terrorist attacks, but too clever to enable the French to gather direct evidence to convict him. His network extends into all the major capital cities of Western Europe, including London."

"So now we are fighting terror with terror, are we?"

Bamforth looked at me as if I were a pre-schooler. "It is sometimes necessary to fight fire with fire. Let us just say that this has been a back burning operation. Cutting off the head of the monster gives us more chance of dealing with its body."

"If I remember my mythology correctly, cutting off the head of the Hydra caused two to grow in its place."

"We are not dealing with mythology here, Brandon. We are dealing with grim reality."

If the French wanted this man dead, then surely, they wouldn't want to go after me.

Almost as if he were reading my mind, Bamforth continued, "As you probably realise, it would be highly convenient for the French to have you as a scapegoat. It would keep their hands clean if they could pin the assassination on a foreigner. Perhaps they could even pass it off as an internecine killing within the organisation, branding you as another terrorist."

He took a sip of coffee and nibbled the edge of a macaroon, dusting the crumbs from his trousers before continuing, "Of course, as long as we can be assured that you are working for us, we will do our utmost to protect you and to ensure that never happens."

Bamforth's threat was subtler and more oblique than Madame Durand's, but none the less deadly for it. If there was a way of escaping the snare, I couldn't see it.

"So, what is it that you want me to do?"

"You alluded to the mythological Hydra just now. Perhaps you will recall that when Hercules hewed the last head from its body and cauterised its neck with fire, the monster was defeated."

I looked at him in amazement. "You're asking me to commit another murder?"

"Not exactly. The core of the problem lies in Pakistan. As you know, Miss Culverson is a Pakistani national. Naturally, she is fluent in Urdu. She is also familiar with several of the northern dialects.

"With your established cover as a travel writer and her intimate knowledge of the border regions of the Hindu Kush, we think you could successfully penetrate to the roots of the organisation. The fact that her sister, Kayla, was radicalised while living in Phuket is, in some ways, a bonus."

I couldn't believe what this man was saying. "Surely, you're not suggesting that Kayla is a terrorist. That is laughable."

"Not yet a terrorist, perhaps, but a sympathiser. We are watching her carefully and are most interested to find out why she came to Paris. We think it unlikely that it was purely in search of her sister."

An antique French mantle clock above the fireplace struck the quarter hour with the delicacy of fairy bells.
Autumn sunshine streamed through the window onto a vase of copper-coloured chrysanthemums turning them to gold. It was hard to believe what mayhem we were discussing in these civilised surroundings.

"Madame Durand will be here shortly. I'll ask James to bring her straight up. She can fill you in on many of the details, particularly those pertaining to the Culverson girls. She will also explain her part in all of this. I should make it clear that she isn't actually working for us, but our paths cross from time to time, and our roles can sometimes become inextricably linked."



The characters

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.
Group Captain Bamforth (alias Sir David Brockenhurst) - an intelligence officer with MI6 and Air Attache in Paris
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 Asserted to be leader of an ISIS network

Image credit: By Krokodyl - my own picture, CC BY 3.0,
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