Sunday, 10 November 2013

NaNoWriMo Day 10 Word count 1749

John remained silent as she took a sip from the drink on the table between them. She was becoming tired of the need to keep secrets, but it was gradually becoming second nature to her to scan through everything she was about to say to identify any potential pitfalls or phrases that might lead to her being committed to the Bethlehem hospital.

“There is an individual – an Englishman by birth – who was in France and caught up in the war. Bonapartist soldiers discovered he had some ideas for weaponry and have taken him to develop their own arsenal. James has seen some of their developments as a result of his presence and they have been reported to the British government who are responding.

“Their response, however, is predicated on an assumption which I know to be false but cannot disprove except through circumstance. For the next few weeks or months, the British government will attempt to assassinate this man. If they succeed, we have no problem. They will not succeed.

“The only options that I perceive at this point are to leave this man in his position and risk that his developments will continue to improve the French strength, or to intervene ourselves and extricate this man. We have thus far made two attempts. The first failed due to the removal of the man from the area we expected him to be kept. The second journey was to confirm his location and form a plan.” Her eyes hardened and her lips tightened as she stared into the distance for a few seconds. She recouped quickly and looked straight at Mr Harper. “We were successful in the sense that we have the required information, but we lost a man unnecessarily.”

He nodded. As James' cousin he probably had heard some highlights before this meeting. That was unsurprising. Anyone who knew James at all could see the impact his recent experiences had on him and she respected this stolid man all the more as she knew that James was now safeguarding his privacy. Somehow this man had convinced the newly fervent James to break his new core rule and – observing him now – she suspected it was a result of the genuine concern and protectiveness he held for his cousin.

“Having heard the outline, do you feel willing to contribute to our effort?”

He thought for a few minutes, his facial features not reflecting any of the opinions moving through his mind. “I believe your interpretation of the danger this man poses to the war effort is accurate, particularly if there is additional government action responding to it. This will endanger several people I hold dear and so I will aid you in any manner I am able in order to remove this man from the French hold.”

She nodded and touched the bell on the table beside her. The door opened immediately and Mary made a curtsey. “Thank you, Mary. Could you inform the boys that they are welcome to rejoin us? You may, if you have an interest, join us as well.” Mary nodded as she bobbed out of the room again and retrieved the other three boys from the front parlour where they had retired.

When the full group were assembled, Melissa informed them of the current state of affairs, their goal and their current resources. The addition of John gave them a valuable history of experience working in hostile territory – John had been a soldier in the Peninsular wars a short time previously and had retired only on the death of his elder brother which left him the unexpected heir to his invalid father's position.

But as she unveiled the more particular details of the plan, the specific details of the role he was required to play became clearer. It wasn't one that sat well with him initially and his disapproval was clear. Nevertheless, after some persuading of the importance of his task, he agreed to it and the party disbanded.

The next day in the mid afternoon, John was sat smoking in the bay window of his club. A passing gentleman spied him and entered, coming straight to his seat. “John.”

“Phillip!” John reached out a hand and waved his friend to the seat facing him. “Deuced glad to see you.” His sombre tone and unfocused eyes rather belied his assertions, but his friend did not challenge them. Instead he took the seat offered him and extracted a cigar from the box proffered by the waiter. Once both men were wholly settled, Phillip looked at his friend with narrowed eyes. John seemed to feel his scrutiny because he turned his head and, for the first time, looked his friend in the eye. Still, he hesitated before asking the question weighing on his mind:

“You know about this business James has mixed himself up in, I suppose?”

Lord Phillip Penthvere nodded, eyes still sharply focussed on his friend.

“Then you'll know it's run by a woman. Intelligent and resourceful woman, I grant you, but she's sending James and his friends out there while she stays here.”

There was a silence of a full thirty seconds as John rolled his cigar between finger and thumb and tapped the excess ash. Phillip continued his steady observation.

“She tells me that you are sending men out to France to assassinate this chap.” Another nod. “She's convinced it won't serve, you know. She won't say why, and she isn't posing or dramatising the situation which is, I think, why James and his friends have been so swayed by her.” Phillip stayed quiet, but his eyes became somehow less guarded and yet more focussed. John was staring off past his left shoulder, replaying the memories of the meeting he had with the group.

“Phillip, she's sending James back out. There's another going with him – Michael Castleford. Have you heard of him?”

“We've looked into his background. A kid just up from Cambridge who had a chance meeting with Andrew Fitzpatrick. Spent a few nights playing cards and drinking, then met your cousin. His father is a baronet: not especially wealthy, but sufficiently well off and reliable that he's an unlikely candidate for any kind of blackmail. If the kid is in a dangerous place, it's not visible. The only real explanation is that a chance meeting led to a boyish adventure.”

“And if only it had stopped at one,” ground out John, “I wouldn't care. Unfortunately James is involved now, with no way out that I can see and I'm not altogether pleased about the danger he's in.”

Phillip once more contributed nothing to the conversation and instead mimicked John in rolling the cigar he held and tapping the ash. His eyes remained on John's face. There was an element of sympathy in his gaze.

John turned his gaze towards Phillip and spoke with peculiar intensity: “I'm not going to pretend she hasn't asked me to interrogate you. I'm going to ask you some questions at the Wayton's soiree on Thursday which you may choose to ignore. But for now, as a friend, can you please tell me that James will be safe? Michael will be coming to see you and exchanging information about what they're looking for in the hopes that you will tell them where your assassins will be placed. They anticipate that they can predict the likely location of their target by that information. If you can give him some inaccurate information – perhaps something that will guide them into a safer area – while you assassinate your man, I can be easy.”

There was a moment of silence. Phillip stared at John who seemed at first merely concerned and then agitated. “You've already seen him.”

Silence and stillness entirely from Phillip, then he sighed and nodded. John leaned forward and broke impetuously into speech; “Can you... Phil, please, just tell me he's going to be out of the line of fire.”

Clearly considering his phrasing and the implications of what he was saying, Phillip paused before speaking, then began in a hesitating fashion. “I was anticipating that the lady had some subterfuge behind the questions Michael put to me. My responses were as restricted as possible given the circumstances. I cannot promise that he will be safe or out of the line of fire. I have given him the location of some of the men I have sent, which will give him a safe spot to find in the event of danger. I cannot say more.”

“One safe space is better than none.” John lapsed into a dark, brooding silence.

Phillip didn't appear especially happy with the outcome of the conversation either and the two men brooded in quiet companionship.

When John's cigar died, Phillip still had an inch or so remaining and John kept his seat. As the two of them watched the world go by one or other would make a social observation. After some time, Phillip made to leave. As he indicated his intention, his friend caught his eye once again. “Don't forget Thursday evening. If you don't show at that soiree I'll have the deuce of a time tracking you down.”

Phillip nodded, smiled and returned to his role at the War Office. There he spent his day in meetings, information consolidating and consultations.

The following Thursday, as John had prophesied, Melissa attended the soiree. Lord Penthvere was there as his friend had requested and convinced himself that the scan he made of the assembly to locate her was simply part of his job. When John arrived to interrogate Phillip, he was surprised at how oblivious she remained. After several minutes of intense, to the point questioning – no dissembling here – John bade Phillip farewell and retreated. Still Melissa neither glanced their way nor interrupted her social frivolities.

Phillip frowned and watched her floating around the room. He was sure he was missing something but couldn't identify any specifics. A full hour after John had spoken with him, Phillip observed him at Melissa's side, finally. At that point, Phillip realised he had severely underestimated Melissa. He had assumed that her disinterest indicated oblivion, but she had glanced at a clock three times in the five minutes before John arrived at her side and it was clear now that it was only rigid self control that kept her from hurrying the information he carried out of John.