2-7: Farmhouse

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I

With Emmeline removed, they sat forward on their respective chairs and she explained, ‘The girls were sleepers. Not working for le Roux, someone higher. They sort of grew into our Section and their credentials were impeccable. What fooled Mademoiselle was that she’d known these girls from Melun – they’d been planted there years ago – it’s a very worrying trend.

Alana did it well but Mademoiselle noted Emmeline didn’t follow procedures properly. There were little things – her reaction to our tragedies was strange, her insubordination with Nikki was another factor, Nikki put it down to her age and yet we have a strict hierarchy in the Section which stops that sort of thing. We think they killed Melanie but we’ll have to wait till tomorrow to be sure. Pretty girls, didn’t you think, Hugh?’

‘Ah, I’d better be careful what I say in front of you,’ he smiled and she returned his smile. His phone now went. ‘Oui, Moineau – oui, she’s here.’ He handed her the phone and could hear the conversation in dribs and drabs, ending with Nadine handing him back the handset.

‘Oui, Moineau?’

‘Nadine cuddly, is she?’

‘We’re going to discuss Nadine when we meet.’

‘Oh, you can be sure of that, lover.’

.o0o.

Hugh noticed that it was visiting time and he wasn’t going to be able to visit. He hoped like crazy Franka would have her mobile on and as it turned out, she did.

‘Hugh! Bebe!’ She almost shouted but then thought they might come and take her mobile. ‘I can’t hear well – bandages. Yes, that’s better – speak.’

He told her everything except Melanie and she was stunned by all the drama, from Emma to Emmeline but as she lived for such drama, it was putting her in good spirits – the nurse had noticed but she’d also noted Franka’s joy and had let it go. Franka was appalled by Emma and also him but his ‘punishment’ had her chuckling, she was loving it.

‘And that, darling Franka, is why I can’t actually get to you today. When do they say you can go? A few days – OK, I’ll try but we’re having constant drama just now. Keep your mobile charged during visiting hours. I’ll try to come but assume I can’t, OK?’

.o0o.

Just after lunch, Geneviève appeared. Her head was back together and she was more in control of herself. They got down to business.

‘Let’s look at the Emmeline and Alana question, all right?’ began Geneviève. ‘I’d thought our selection procedures were pretty good – we’d chosen Nicolette, Nadine, Melanie –’

‘But also Elaine, Emmeline and Alana, I have to remind you.’

‘Yes, yes, that’s what worries me. We need better procedures.’

Nadine put in her contribution. ‘We need to check records better and check the checkers as well. Expand our database.’

‘That’s so but you weren’t selected solely on your record, Nadine – it was Geneviève here who decided to take a chance with you. The ability to sniff out talent and danger is everything in the final analysis – data goes only so far.’

‘But that’s unreliable and it makes one person indispensable,’ protested Nadine.

‘That’s the eternal dilemma. But after a long period of time, even if you’re an unwise person, which describes me perfectly, sheer experience helps you pick up certain things but you can’t do it alone, this is the error many leaders make, they don’t listen to the middle ranks.’

‘Example?’

‘If an enemy wants to infiltrate, he’ll use sleepers who’ll get past your guard at the recruitment stage, then act perfectly normally for a long period of time, allaying your fears – they’ve studied you, know your weaknesses, they know the general system – you really must have others in there as well who can give advice from the side so to speak.’

‘Mademoiselle is good at picking up anomalies.’

‘She is, it’s her strength but she picks up certain kinds of anomalies she’s sensitive to, I’m the same, so is anyone, there’s no shame in this. For example, you and Nikki saw that this Emmeline was insubordinate to Nikki, but there might be other anomalies.’

‘Such as?’

‘This Emmeline’s manner was closed, too intense, too internalized. Plus she had a stud in her nose.’

Nadine huffed. ‘What does that have to do with it?’

‘Nadine, do you have a stud in your nose or a nail through your eyebrow?’

‘No.’

‘Why not?’

‘That’s my business.’

‘Why don’t you just say ‘because I don’t want to’?’

‘All right – I don’t want to.’

‘You’re a certain type, brought up in a certain way – this Emmeline was far more cavalier, less careful in her ways, I’ve watched you make the coffee and I’ve watched her.’

‘I don’t accept it.’

‘I do,’ Geneviève chipped in. ‘I’ve had my eye on her for quite some time and that coffee was one example.’

‘Why, Mademoiselle?’

‘The boys Emmeline hung around with were rough. Stupid, yes?’

‘No,’ said Hugh. ‘Exactly the opposite. You know the saying, ‘You’ll know them by their fruits?’ Each little anomaly, on its own, may mean nothing, might be inconclusive. But when certain anomalies of a kind are combined, then that’s possible danger. In normal life, we can ignore it but in a Section like this – it can’t be ignored.’

‘So, why didn’t you pick her?’ persisted Nadine.

‘Because I observed but then dismissed what I saw.’

‘What did you observe?’

‘Emmeline was about 167cm, hair tied back severely, hands large but arms skinny like the rest of her – almost 20 years old, dressed to appear more childlike than she was, made up darkly, steady gaze from the eyes betrayed something other than innocence.’

‘And?’

‘While I didn’t fall for her little girl beauty, I missed seeing the viper lurking behind the eyes. She was pretty – that’s how they got me in Russia.’ Hugh sat back in the chair and sipped his now cold coffee.

Geneviève had been listening carefully. ‘So are you saying we should be more vigilant?’

‘Yes and no. Yes, we should always be vigilant but we should always do things in conference – someone might have seen something we didn’t. And don’t forget they are trying to make you ineffective, they lay troubles on you, plus you lay troubles on yourself, such as me and so it does need those extra eyes and ears.’

‘Emmeline and Alana?’

‘Emmeline and Alana were designed to get past your guard, Genie, that’s why they were placed. Secondly, your own antennae weren’t picking up clear signals due to your own troubles and that was factored in – to make you less effective. Thirdly, those girls were only bit players, on the peripherique. And there is a fourth point.’

‘Go on.’

‘Sometimes we’re blinded by close association with people. On the grounds that we’ve been working with them for a long time and that they appear to be our kind of people, we make the logical jump that they are, therefore, good people. We don’t really know that – we don’t know who has what hold over them. Are they more likely to betray that or to conceal it?’

‘Example?’

‘Philby, Burgess and Maclean, especially Philby. There’s a less high profile example from London. My immediate boss and I interviewed a young woman for a teaching post and he asked what I thought of her. I said I really liked her – I have a bit of a problem with pretty girls, yes I know you can’t understand that – her methodology was sound, she was personable and the children responded to her.’

‘So you gave her the job?’ asked Nadine.

‘My boss refused, he said she was wearing denim at the interview.’

‘Pardon?’ Nadine snapped.

‘Denim – she was wearing a denim jacket.’

‘Yes? And what?’

‘To an interview.’

‘So?’

‘That was my reaction too at the time. Turned out though that he was 100% correct – the girl had been trouble. Tiny point but he’d picked up on it.’

‘But how could he have known?’

‘Firstly, he was a naturally suspicious character. Secondly, it was only the faintest of suspicions. The rest was easy – checking the database.’

‘Did this boss of yours ever get it wrong?’

‘We both did. Another absolute little dream came for a job interview, exactly my type of girl, and we gave her the job. She was the front girl for a gang of thieves – that is a true story by the way.’

‘All right – wearing denim and excessive prettiness, you claim,’ said Geneviève. ‘What other things would warn you?’

‘They’ll sound crazy and Nadine will go beserk when she hears them but I swear they’re indicative, they’ve been borne out by long experience, I myself ignored most of these or dismissed them in the early days.’

‘Go on.’

‘Any form of body piercing beyond earrings, a ring worn on the thumb, tattoos, dressing a la mode, excessive attention to make-up, arriving late for meetings, not apologizing for things, speaking of ‘doing’ a country you’ve visited, excessive travel, beach worship, nightclubbing more than once a week, loudness in general demeanour or the opposite – excessive shyness, uncompromising attitude on certain issues, primaeval tendencies such as heavily rhythmic musical preferences, very personal questions early in conversations – I could go on and on. Remember – no one item is indicative, they’re only indicative in combinations’

‘What’s wrong with wearing a ring on the thumb?’ Nadine protested.

‘Nothing in itself as I just mentioned. But if you also club, wear clothes a bit on the immodest side and your speech is coarse, then that’s very much a sign. And certain combinations do often go together. We had to know these things professionally in one of my jobs.’

‘I still can’t see it.’

‘I can,’ said Geneviève. ‘I see it very clearly. Any other factors?’

‘Any number of them, Genie – taking yourself too seriously, unreasonable habits like being in a car and realizing you forgot your compact and expecting the driver to turn around and go back for it, a man who uses come-on lines to a woman instead of natural conversation, excessive internet usage at night, general secretiveness, feeling things are unfair or that you’re not getting your fair share, coming up with new plans the whole time while not finishing the others and so on and so on.’

‘I’d appreciate it, Hugh, if you’d write those down and discuss them with me at a later stage. Any others?’

‘Hedonistic lifestyle, suntan in winter, beach worship, excessive muscular development in a guy, narrowed eyes, glazed eyes, feeling your business will break down without your presence, being a natural rebel rather than a natural loyalist, having no time for simple pleasures, doing only leisure activities which require money, inability to control personal finances, excessive shopping.’

‘Shopping?’

‘Shop-a-holics are sad people – not much inside them as people and compensating with external things.’

‘Like Louise?’

‘Yes, we keep coming back to her, don’t we? Incidentally, she wore a ring on her thumb.’

‘Yes, she did.’

Nadine had been listening to all this and was near-apoplectic. ‘But almost everyone I know does those things,’ she exploded. ‘Suntanning on the beach, for example – are all those people dangerous?’

‘You’re forgetting that it is the combinations which count, Nadine, not single items. And not necessarily dangerous but sometimes just unreliable – it might not matter in everyday life but in our work – it does. Also, if they continue that tan into the winter – yes, they’re possibly unreliable. Not because of that itself but because of the mindset and the other things which go with that mindset.

You think this is outrageously wrong, don’t you, Nadine, because it attacks things in your age range which you accept as normal? I’m sorry, we can’t afford to worry about who’s upset about what – we need to be sure and so niceties don’t come into it. It’s not a foolproof method by any means but experience often bears it out and if that’s combined with things like your opinion on things, it gets pretty close.’

‘You’re sad. May I ask you something – are you happy in your life?’

‘Right now I am.’

‘You do have a penchant for provoking people, Hugh. All right, so where do we start?’ asked Geneviève.

‘With the fruits, of course – always the fruits. Take the specific of Emmeline – go into her flat at her invitation and observe. Go round with her for 24 hours, on some pretext, listen to the language coming from her lips, look at and listen to her friends.’

‘We do that already but I think we need to be better organized.’

She sent Nadine out for supplies and used the time to speak further.

‘When Nadine comes back, she’s taking me to Melun and then coming back for you. I understand that you are packed?’ He nodded. ‘The reason for the two trips is that it’s best you’re not in the car when I go to Thierry’s. I am also packed and my things are in the car.’

‘Ah.’

‘Yes, lover, after two years and seven months, we finally call time on ‘us’. It couldn’t have gone on, not after Nikki entered the picture. But as you see – by me leaving Philippe, this has brought on what I expected. They’re trying to get me back in for ‘retraining’ but they won’t get me. Will you hold me and kiss me this last time as your woman?’

It was emotional.

II

‘They jumped one and stun-gunned the other,’ reported the elegant secretary with the swept back hair.

The smallish man with the expensive suit spoke, his voice silky smooth but dangerous in its intensity. ‘That’s not so good, Sophie-Fleury, it’s a little worrying what they’ll say before we get to them.’

The woman knew better than to interrupt his train of thought. He rested his elbows on the armrest of his swivel-chair, finger tips together, then swung round and gazed out of the window, frowning. He swung back and spoke. ‘All right, I’ll have to use up yet more favours. Contact Russia and get it started.’

He rose and came to the door with her, moved up close and looked deeply, searchingly into her eyes. She knew the cue. Locking the door significantly, she glided back, shrugged her jacket to the floor, and fixed him with an enigmatic smile.

‘Good, good, ma petite,’ he whispered.

Le Roux would have to find himself a new secretary.

III

Hugh had phoned Franka once Geneviève had departed and they were sending her home later that day, so he’d best get to her quickly, otherwise Jean would be taking her back to the Lodge. Don’t bring anything, she said, just a kiss or two.

Emma phoned and heard what he was doing, she was stunned but if Hugh could get himself downstairs, she’d collect him in fifteen minutes and take him. She’d phone Nadine and tell her to delay the Hugh pick-up till late afternoon. And Hugh, shall I tell Nikki you’re going to the hospital?’

‘I’ll do it. Remember last time you acted for me?’

.o0o.

Emma was waiting at the kerb on cue, he shuffled his way into the back seat and lay down, away they went.

‘Hugh,’ she called over her shoulder, ‘I’ve got you into so much trouble, haven’t I – I’m really, really sorry, seriously. I don’t know if you can forgive me.’

‘This drive now is all the atonement you need, us visiting Franka this way will help.’

.o0o.

In one way, Francine was over the moon to have both of them there but in another, she’d really hoped to get him alone. However, he killed that fear off immediately by dropping into as close to a kiss as he could with a mummy, then smothered her hand in kisses and held her hand, fingers entwined with fingers – Emma was stunned.

‘We’re not your ride home, Franka – that’s Jean – we’re rogue visitors and we need to get back for procedural reasons.’

‘I know. This has been … just great. Come over here, Emma.’

.o0o.

Emma was initially quiet in the car but then spoke. ‘How much do you really love her?’

‘Francine? You saw it.’

‘Should Nikki be worried?’

‘No. Franka knows exactly how it is and knew it even before what happened to her. I’m susceptible to her but she would not try anything. There’s one other person I do have a genuine issue with though, I’m a bit frightened of her.’

Emma pulled the car over, put on the handbrake and looked back at him lying there. ‘I want you to know that I’m a danger only if things change, if Nikki ceases to want, if you cease to want, if Franka stays with Jean, if Michel does not improve.’

She got out, went round and opened the rear door, leant in and placed a kiss on his lips, leaving it there for about ten seconds. Then she closed the door, went round and resumed driving.

.o0o.

At his place, she said, ‘I’m not coming upstairs, I’m not allowed. I’m not kissing you again today either, it’s a problem for me.’

.o0o.

Four hours later, Francine was standing at the window of the Lodge, looking out on the droplets falling from the eaves and from the branches – there were so many trees on their patch of land which led into the forest that the falling droplets resembled rain.

The mobile went and she glanced down – text message. She pursed her lips reading it, went and put on the coffee, then came back and woke Jean on the divan. He went to the bathroom and some minutes later they were sipping on coffee, both sitting adjacent on the divan and looking at one another.

‘Jean, I just had a message.’ He raised an eyebrow enquiringly. ‘A coded text from Mademoiselle. We’re on alert. We’ve also been weapons training, in case you didn’t know.’ He was amused. ‘Yes, very funny but you won’t be laughing in a moment.’ The smile disappeared from his face.

She refilled their cups. ‘I’m going to give you a fair chance here. You see, Jean, I have to go away.’

‘Francine, non, I haven’t seen Charlotte for weeks, I’ve been good.’

‘Oh I’m not even talking about that. When we go on group alert, which this is, it’s something pretty special, something major, we’ve only ever done it once. That and the weapons training do mean there’s trouble. All I’m saying is you can stay on here at the Lodge and keep it maintained for a while until you find your own place or you can come with me. The Lodge will be sold.’

He shuffled uneasily and asked, ‘Where are you going?’

‘If I knew that, I’d tell you. I don’t know for how long or if it’s forever. If we’re in danger, Jean, we just go. I’m saying that you might not find me here tomorrow. So you must decide – stay here for a month or two while I sell the place from a distance … or come with me.’

IV

‘Where are we headed, Nadine?’

‘Chatelet-en-Brie. You’re about to experience some of the best cuisine you’ve had since you’ve been here.’

‘Er – who exactly am I staying with?’

‘Nikki’s grandparents.’

‘And you?’

‘I’m staying with you for now.’

.o0o.

The drive across the bridge to the left bank and then out of Paris was heavy and yet a delight – the city lights progressively diminishing until they finally found themselves in a night as black as pitch, careering along a country road in the direction of the unknown … unknown to him anyway.

Drops of rain fell lightly and the wipers swished rhythmically, he could see the ghostly curve of Nadine’s jaw reflected in the green light from the instrument panel, he could see her through the mirror. The way the corners of the French lips pointed down – it was the language which had a lot to do with that, how they used their facial muscles, the English looked more like Wallace in Wallace and Gromit.

.o0o.

It took some time to get to their destination but it felt as if they had all the time in the world. Eventually they turned down a lane and pulled into the small gravel area in front of the farmhouse.

They got out – he with difficulty – he collected his bags from the boot, Nadine led the way into a small foyer area, she went straight through to the house proper but what stopped him dead in his tracks was the form of Nicolette who slapped his face a second time, just symbolically this time, he dragged her to him, she pulled away semi-violently but not so violently that he couldn’t drag her back again, she broke free again, he glanced down at her bare legs and skirt, then up at her face and grinned, she grinned back, he pulled her hard to him but she said quietly, ‘Stop one moment – are we past all that now, am I now yours, are you now mine?’

‘Of course you are, but after my behaviour, will you be mine?’

‘Yes. Now, we have about five minutes – make love to me standing here.’

.o0o.

When she eventually led him through, hastily cleaned up as best they could, he was soon seated on one side of a long table with bench seats either side and with a view through to the car. Introductions were done.

Through the paned window, he saw Nicolette run out in her navy coat and furry hat, carrying a half full sports bag, she threw it in the back seat and went to the driver’s side. The old lady rested a hand on his arm and the old chap on the other side of the table handed him an aperitif.

So, it had all been arranged. Well, fine, he accepted that, he knew he had to be gracious with his hosts and they knew he knew the game too. He smiled his appreciation and they toasted to something he couldn’t quite pick up in French but it sounded honourable.

Nadine came through, having donned Nicolette’s big fluffy slippers, with Nico and Lette woven across them, instantly smelt it on him, she then recovered and faltered, ‘I’ll … um … um … translate when necessary but try your French anyway, Hugh – it’s a compliment to your hosts.’

Of course he would – there’d never been any question about it.

.o0o.

Thierry was the consummate gentleman, implicitly understanding all and Geneviève concluded that when a Frenchman decided to pull out all stops, there were few women in the world who could resist. He knew precisely the right word, the right wine, the right topics of conversation to draw her out of herself and it would never dry up, that conversation, the children had taken to her and she knew there was a home beckoning her here.

But did she want such a home? It was not unlike being shunted into a railroad siding, admittedly with beautiful scenery and a happy cottage at the end of it, but that was the point – it would be the end. Hugh never had an end, and yet he was aging, despite his total failure to recognize the symptoms.

The moment had come to retire for the night and both she and Thierry understood how this was likely to end up.

.o0o.

Nadine was satisfied with how it had all gone so far. She felt power in her role as translator – certain replies of Hugh’s had needed slight modification to make them more acceptable to an elderly French couple and yet she’d stayed true to the essence.

Was she playing matchmaker? Well yes, she had to admit it – she’d already decided on Hugh for Nicolette and had set the wheels in motion. If only the Thierry-Mademoiselle connection could also be secured, some sort of solution could be found – she had a feeling deep inside, Nadine did, that it would need to be found soon.

Hugh made ready downstairs in the all-purpose guestroom and she made ready in Nikki’s former bedroom upstairs with its princess décor, a room the grandmother maintained in its former glory for when the granddaughter visited.

Nadine needed to speak to him about it all – what was coming, what had happened last time, what the latest intelligence was. She got up, tiptoed over to the cupboard and could see inside by the moonlight. She thought for half a minute, then replaced pyjamas with robe. She knew exactly what this meant and thought about changing back.

She gulped, slipped her feet into Nikki’s fluffy slippers and made her way on her toes to the door of the room.

Listening intently and hearing only a snore in the grandparent’s room, she made her way, gingerly, downstairs, knowing which creaky parts of the stairs to avoid, turned right at the bottom, saw that his door was slightly ajar, thought about knocking but listened instead. He’d probably only just fallen asleep – the train had left the station but had not yet built up a full head of steam and she had work to do, things to discuss.

She went through.

He’d only been snoozing and was now quite aware of her presence, she was aware that he was aware because everything had gone silent.

He whispered, ‘One moment.’

The bed was just a fraction narrower than a double and he now shuffled closer to the wall. Dropping her robe, she slipped in beside him and didn’t cuddle up, on account of being stark naked this time. She lay on her back instead.

‘I don’t want sex,’ she whispered.

‘Of course not.’

‘Just so that’s understood,’ she still whispered. ‘I’m here to talk about everything. I’m so glad you’ve decided to stick with the one woman.’

‘Yes, you’re quite right.’

In the silence, she couldn’t believe herself but she reached over and it was hard, she took it in her hand and started playing. Then she stopped, climbed out and put her robe on, making for the door.

She must have stood there for close to a minute in the silence, then slowly turned, came back and climbed under, pulled the bedclothes up and snuggled up to him. ‘You have to stop doing this with girls, Hugh, you have to make a stand for Nikki’s sake. I want you to change what you’re doing.’

‘I agree, you’re quite right.’

‘You must never let anyone in your bed but Nikki. Take it from a girl – you are un coureur de jupons, Hugh, and you’ll end up with no one.’

‘I know, you’re quite right.’ Their voices were near whispers. ‘Will you go back upstairs now?’

‘Are you sending me?’

‘No.’

‘See what I mean – you’re not even doing bad things, you’re being good to me … but it’s still wrong.’

They lay there for some time, his arm drew her more closely, she snuggled right into him.

‘Hugh, you’re going to be in real trouble for this, you do know that, don’t you? You will lose Nikki, I can tell you that now. Mademoiselle she understood, Emma she forgave but she’s never going to forgive you with me.’

‘But Nadine, we were in bed together at my apartement.’

‘I was on a mission and it wasn’t like this.’

‘This is not a mission?’

‘You know it’s not. Plus, I heard one person snoring upstairs, not two. I think it was a man’s snore.’

‘Ah.’ He thought about it. ‘What are you suggesting – we make love anyway?’

‘Do you want to?’

‘Of course I do, no question but you told me I had to stick with Nikki.’

She sighed. ‘It’s up to you now, I’m not going to start anything.’

.o0o.

Jean-Claude poured himself a cognac and settled into his armchair, opened le Figaro and checked the day’s news. Not the usual gazette for a policeman, he smiled.

The wall clock ticked and he put on Debussy to ease the silence. Policework was good in that it consumed huge chunks of your day. It was these nights, these silences which were not so good. He’d long since learned to put Francesca out of his mind because to think about her, to reflect on her presence in his bed beside him, brought untold pain.

Was he weak? He was a man and he knew she’d understand that, she’d always understood. There’d been twice he’d failed her and had come close to losing her.

Geneviève was the second he might let slip now, she’d caught his imagination – quiet, measured and mature was Geneviève.

He looked at his hands – the long fingers still supple and strong, they’d always been his strong point, the ladies had always liked his hands. My goodness he was lonely and he had to do something about it whilst he still could.

Francesca would surely understand.

V

Next morning, at Hugh’s flat, Emma went out for supplies.

Now free, Nicolette thought the place to start was at the computer. As Geneviève had discovered before her, it was a mine of information, she went through and then shut it down, pulled the plugs, took her screwdriver and removed the cover, then the hard drive, replaced the cover, then went through the apartement to make sure nothing had been left which was needed or personal or both.

.o0o.

Emma returned with the supplies and with a mighty strange piece of news which she’d tell Nikki on the way to her, Nikki’s parents.

.o0o.

Once out of the city, she explained.

The Inspector had had a phone call from that unidentified female again, warning him the Section was to be hit and as had happened once before, Emma herself was there, dropping off documents, he’d immediately put her on the line. The woman warned that the Section was now to be hit on Noel, not on New Year, just a few days away – how could the claim be verified? It couldn’t. She’d taken Emma’s direct number and had then rung off.

They were already on the move so maybe they had some time up their sleeve.

VI

Breakfast now over at the farmhouse, a French breakfast which always left him hungry, Hugh went and sat on the plush divan, Nadine came up and sat beside him. ‘What are you thinking?’ she asked.

‘I’m wondering about whether we’re ready, whether we’ve trained enough, I think it’s coming.’

‘You’re also thinking about last night.’

‘And that.’

‘I – I don’t know what to say -’

‘I do – say je regrette rien.’

She smiled, ‘Je regrette rien.’ Then anxiously, ‘You must really think me a -’

‘No I don’t, not in the least … because if I did, then I would be too.’

She gazed at him and then asked, ‘Would you like to go for a walk?’

VII

Jean-Claude clicked the mobile shut and thought about the message which had just come through. He took out the folded paper in his inside breast pocket and ran the message against the code.

Staring at the paper, he now had a major career decision to make. The first choice was to leave his position virtually for ever and throw in his lot with a group of people he liked immensely, where there were no guarantees but still – a tiny chance of securing the life partner he’d set his heart on.

Or he could take his chances, alone, in Paris. He phoned Jacques and found him at home.

VIII

Halfway to a gully on the edge of the property, Nadine observed, ‘It’s nearly over, isn’t it? For us I mean, as a Section.’

‘It looks that way. The last few days have been strange, abnormal, even calm.’

There was a noise some distance behind them, they turned and saw two figures emerge from the back door, in wellingtons – Nikki and Emma. He couldn’t stop his heart soaring – and then fear, all observed by Nadine. Emma beckoned her and Nikki pointed him towards the gully.

.o0o.

When they came together, she handed him a handkerchief and awaited his explanation. ‘Emma is getting it out of Nadine now and Nadine is a blabbermouth.’

‘You sent her to my bed at the apartement, you told me to cuddle her, this is what I did last night.’

‘She was not on a mission last night. Did you have sex?’

‘No. Were their any semen stains, was there a smell? I held her. She touched me the once at the start but not after that.’

She looked at him evenly. ‘You keep escaping. Emma took the end of your thing in her mouth, Nadine is cuddled for two nights, she even touches you. I’m giving you an ultimatum now, take it or leave it, or I’ll go back to Thierry – you do not get into bed with any woman for any reason, she does not get into bed with you, you have no sex in bed or anywhere else, nor on some rug. Don’t play the attorney here, are you clear about that?’

‘Crystal clear. Even if you sleep with another man.’

‘You know very well that that might save you. Nothing else but that. Now – news has come through Emma’s and Jean-Claude’s contact that we’re about to be hit, so we need to leave France as we’ve planned – but that complicates things. Francine, Jean, Mademoiselle, Thierry, Francesca, Jean-Claude and Jacques Fournier will arrive soon. Olivier wanted to stay with his grandparents, Michel can’t be seen to leave Paris until we’re ready tomorrow. Stefan – well, Mademoiselle did not invite him. We will be in safehouses in combat pairs – Nadine was the one who designed these pairs, she was the moral conscience of this Section … and then you bedded her too.’

He felt it wise not to comment.

‘Emma’s proposing a strange sort of tournoi à la ronde, one male will end up without a woman and the way I’m thinking, that will be you. Emma wants this charade to go ahead where we spend 45 minutes each with someone, trying to get them to be our partner or else saying goodbye. Do we tell Emma no or do we tell her yes?’

‘It’s not just us involved so it will have to happen. There’s one man only I’m concerned about with you.’

‘If you mean Michel, he was a childhood dream but he belongs to Emma. Besides, if I work him loose from Emma, then Emma is on the loose if you see what I mean and that’s the last thing I want.’

‘Nikki, you’re not looking in the right direction for threats. Did Emma not tell you about yesterday?’ She was alarmed. ‘Emma took me to see Franka in hospital.’

She relaxed. ‘Well we know that.’

‘I kissed her hand and kissed her mummified form in front of Emma.’

‘What effect did it have on Franka?’

‘It calmed her down.’

‘Yes, I know what happened, you always escape, you always do good things to make up for the bad.’

‘I never set out to do bad things, Nikki, but the threat is not Emma, it’s Franka.’

‘But she would never -’

‘Of course she wouldn’t, nor would I, but if you ever tired of me, darling, it’s Franka I’d go to before Emma. Emma knows that.’

‘I see, I’ll bear it in mind. But the ultimatum still applies.’

‘Yes.’

.o0o.

Geneviève had just explained the tournoi à la ronde to Thierry too and predictably, he relished the chance of seeing Nicolette one last time, to make one last ditch attempt to persuade her but wasn’t at all happy about Geneviève having time with Hugh. ‘I don’t trust the man,’ he muttered.

She explained that he couldn’t have it both ways. If he gave up the chance to be with Nikki one last time, then she would give up the chance to be with Hugh.

He accepted with bad grace.

IX

The people had been arriving in dribs and drabs throughout the day, it was damp but not particularly chilly, the leaves were glistening, the farmhouse warm inside.

Those already there had lunched late, lunched well in fact and were now sitting in the main room, glasses in hand, Jean-Claude and Jacques arrived, they were ready.

Geneviève was about to open her mouth to address the assembled gathering when Emma’s phone rang, Emma snapped to attention and leaned forward, straining to hear every word and shooshing everyone with her hand.

‘Oui, je comprends,’ she told the caller.

With the other hand, she hurriedly demanded paper and something to write with – Thierry leapt up and supplied it from the kitchen bench. Hugh brought her a carving board to put under the paper.

‘Oui,’ answered Emma, scribbling as fast as she could, the lead broke and was given another pencil almost immediately. ‘Oui, oui? Uh-huh, j’ai ecouter. Quand? Uh-huh.’

Then the line went dead, Emma looked at her mobile for a moment and put it away.

‘Anything new?’ asked Geneviève.

‘Oui, details of exactly how they plan to do it.’ She showed the paper to Geneviève, who scrutinized it, nodded from time to time, then turned to expectant faces.

‘It’s worse than we suspected,’ Geneviève explained. ‘It will be simultaneous, involving eighteen people in six teams. They’re using standard issue rounds from our own Section and incriminating documents are to be planted to discredit us over our recent militarization.’

‘When’s it to be?’ asked Hugh.

‘On Noel, early morning. But there’s something else – I was to be killed in Melun and Nikki at your flat. Now isn’t that interesting?’

Silence was the response. Jean-Claude spoke. ‘How do we know she’s on the level, this woman or a more important question – what if they know of her and are feeding her with false information? We could be for it today.’

‘Well, that’s not one we’ll resolve here and now,’ said Geneviève. ‘I have some other contacts, one in particular who will never come to light. He agrees with this woman’s summation but there might be surveillance all the same. There are two people I suspect and they’ve been told we are convening tomorrow morning at a farmhouse down the road 15 km, derelict but owned by a sympathiser of our Section, one of Jean-Claude’s contacts. So, everyone, perhaps we’d best begin.’

Outside the six-paned farmhouse windows, the sun now struggled feebly from behind dark clouds but the atmosphere within the main room was both pleasant and warm – a company of good friends and good cheer, with only the imminent threat clouding the atmosphere.

Geneviève proceeded to outline Emma’s plan for 45 minute sessions, with people meeting who they wanted in each timeslot and no comebacks later – if there were partners already, then those partners had already laid down their personal rules.

.o0o.

‘So what you’re proposing is a general orgy,’ murmured Jean-Claude.

‘Non,’ said Geneviève, ‘not in the least, that’s not my vision of the process. Speaking for myself, I wish to hear what each man has to say to me and I want to feel him physically close to me. Of course, others may see it differently.’

‘Mathematically, at least one and maybe even more people are going to lose out by this process,’ Thierry commented. ‘Can we expect them to meekly accept this?’

Emma spoke. ‘No we can’t but that’s life anyway, isn’t it?’

Nadine put in, ‘So if we don’t accept your conditions for this game, that automatically leaves us alone and who decides who persuades who anyway?’

‘No one decides, Nada,’ Nicolette chipped in. ‘No rules, just how we feel, in many cases it’s just confirmation of what we knew anyway. If there’s any dispute, then Emma will be the final arbiter, agreed?’

Again silence.

Geneviève interrupted their thoughts. ‘All right, do I hear any dissenting voices?’

It was Francesca who spoke up. ‘But why must I give someone else a chance to make love to the person I want?’

Thierry looked at her sharply but Emma replied. ‘Because that’s how it happens in real life, Chessa, only here it will be faster.’

‘The danger in that though,’ said Thierry, ‘is that some things really do take time to come to fruition – they can’t be forced into a 45 minute period.’

‘Agreed, Thierry and yet the main players today have already thought long and hard about all this and they’d like to hear one last time from various people. For some, it might even be a farewell time together, it’s not as if anyone is coming into this cold.’

‘I am.’

All eyes turned to Francesca and Thierry chuckled. ‘No, Chessa, I don’t think you understand, petite – this is about life partnerships.’

‘Oh really, Papa? You want me to end up an old maid, I see.’

‘Chessa,’ he replied, more abruptly, ‘it’s out of the question. With the greatest respect to the male company here today, it’s right out of the question, this is not a game.’

Seeing the suppressed fury in her face and the possibility of rebellion, he sighed and asked if the two of them could be excused for a few minutes, Jeanette-Fleur pounced on the opportunity to distribute refreshments, everyone sipped, nibbled and waited.

.o0o.

There were muffled sounds of raised voices from the other end of the house and then father and daughter returned.

Thierry announced, glumly, ‘Chessa’s in the game.’ She glared around for any signs of dissent and the silence was slightly embarrassing as she resumed her place. One man was implacably opposed, one was bemused, one considered it for a few seconds then put it out of mind and the fourth was stroking his chin.

All the females were assessing the danger level.

.o0o.

It was up to Emma now to give the exact timings. ‘Round 1 starts at 16:00 and a man and a woman can use either the first or second outhouse, the guestroom or Nikki’s old bedroom upstairs. That’s four rooms for four couples. At the end of Round 1, couples return to the main room here for refreshments and general talk.

Then, at 17:00, Round 2 starts, then at 18:00, Round 3 and the rounds finish at 18:45. From 18:45 to 20:00, anyone still not satisfied can have 15 minutes to put any last questions.’

She paused and looked across at Nicolette, who concluded the arrangements: ‘At 20:00, my grandparents invite you to dinner and then to stay overnight. The two outhouses are comfortable and warm enough for the boys, and the girls can stay in the main house. Is that impossible for any person here?’

Silence.

‘Breakfast will be at 07:00 and we depart for Melun at 08:00. At Melun, we disperse according to our secure procedures. All clear? All agreed?’

‘So let’s negotiate,’ said Geneviève. ‘Personally, if he still sees himself as a player for my hand, I’d like to hear from Jean-Claude.’

That surprised no one but some of the biggest surprises now came in a flurry of activity, with Emma, Francine and Nicolette observing all, the latter delaying her exit until she’d taken in the whole picture.

Francesca made a bee line straight for Jacques, which was hardly surprising but was beaten to it by Nadine who’d already manoeuvred herself over to him and now presented herself, but the shock to Nicolette was that, having seen off the younger girl, Nadine now turned and made direct eye contact with Hugh, mouthing, ‘Second round,’ and getting a smile in return.

If that one happened, then that was the end for Hugh but it was worse a moment later when Emma smiled across the room at him too – maybe she was just smiling at Nadine’s clumsy tactics but somehow Nikki thought there was something more there, then she dismissed it as ridiculous after what he’d said but now Emma caught Thierry’s eye and it was a flirtatious look Emma gave.

What on earth was Emma up to? What was worse, Thierry appeared to be looking curiously at Emma and now there was a smile at the corner of his lips. Oh, for goodness sake.

Chessa, pipped for her first choice, immediately made a move for her father who was already with Nikki, so now she strode over to Hugh and presented herself, which had Thierry taking a step forward but Nicolette rested a hand on his arm and said, ‘You needn’t worry about that – I can guarantee it.’

Thierry paused and accepted Nikki’s assurance with bad grace, Hugh now caught Nikki’s look of amusement at his discomfort, he looked back at Francesca and tried not to sigh.

Now it was his turn to be miffed as Jacques made eyes at Nikki and her own eyes must have opened wide because Jacques’ look now became a question. She was enormously flattered and must have gone bright red but a coquettish tilt of the head and pursed lips said, ‘Maybe, maybe not,’ Jacques smiled and then killed the whole effect by doing the same with Emma.

Nikki looked over at Hugh and saw he was not happy. Good, let him stew, she thought.

The last she saw was Hugh speaking earnestly with Francesca but now Thierry was getting impatient, thus it was with misgivings that she turned back to him and left the room.

Chapter 2-6 hereChapter 2-8 here

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