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Claudine settled back against the worn leather upholstery, letting her body relax into the swaying rhythm of the vehicle. Once or twice she glanced out of the window. Although it was still only early evening, the February rain had discouraged people from venturing abroad so the streets were quieter than usual. In truth she had no great desire to be out of doors either, but, on this occasion, it was unavoidable. Besides, it had been her choice to come to Paris and her choice to take up this post. One took the rough with the smooth. The risk had been part of the attraction. At the start of her career, this had been minimal. Since then it had increased significantly; not foolish dare-devilry but calculated risk taken for a good cause. What better cause than the service of one's country?
If her London acquaintance could see her now She smiled wryly. It wasn't hard to envisage their shocked reactions. Her relatives would probably disown her. Most of them already viewed her actions with disapproval. The knowledge ought to have been disturbing but, instead, all she felt was a curious sense of detachment. She had been a pawn in their game for long enough. Independence had been hard won and she intended to keep it. For better or for worse it was she now who made the choices that affected the course of her life.
The fiacre turned off the main thoroughfare and into a quiet side street, eventually pulling up outside a house on the left-hand side. A lamp illuminated the number on the pillar by the door. With its stone frontage and shuttered windows there was little to distinguish this building from the others round it but, for the clientele who visited the establishment, its discreet appearance was part of its attraction. Discretion was the watchword of its proprietress too, and that made the premises useful for very different reasons. Even so, it wasn't a venue Claudine would have chosen. Her smile grew mocking. In her old life it would have been unthinkable to have gone there at all. 'But that was in another country,' she murmured, 'and, besides, the wench is dead.' She was someone else now.
Her hand moved involuntarily to the reticule in her lap, feeling the familiar shape of the pistol hidden there. It was a precaution only. Thus far she had never needed it but its presence was always reassuring. Drawing up the hood of her cloak she stepped out of the fiacre and paid the driver. He grunted an acknowledgement and then urged the horse on. As the vehicle rumbled away. Claudine hurried up the steps to the front door and reached for the bell pull.
The door was opened by a manservant whose appearance suggested that he had been hired on the grounds of size and strength rather than physical beauty. The broken and flattened nose was indicative of its owner having once been a prize fighter. He scrutinised the visitor closely for a moment and then, recognising her, greeted her with a nod and permitted her to enter. Claudine stepped into the lighted hallway and heard the door shut behind her.
'Who is it, Raoul?' The voice came from the staircase opposite. It was followed by a soft laugh. 'Well, well. Who'd have thought it?'
The speaker was a woman who stood on the upper landing surveying the scene below. Gown and coiffeur were elegant and the face carefully made up. In the subtle lighting that softened the hard lines about her mouth Madame Renaud passed for less than her forty-two years. However, despite the dulcet tone of voice, there was nothing soft about the eyes surveying her visitor. Even more disconcerting was the glint of private amusement visible there.
Claudine ignored it. 'I am here on business, Madame.'
Aren't we all, my dear?' Madame Renaud jerked her head towards the landing. 'You'd better come up.'
Claudine joined her a few moments later. Appraising eyes took in every detail of her attire from the fine cloak to the gown just visible beneath it, estimating their value to the last centime. The total was quietly impressive, a fact which only served to increase Madame Renaud's curiosity.
'I thought maybe you'd reconsidered my offer,' she said.
'I told you. I'm here on other business.'
'Pity. With your looks you'd earn a fortune.' Madame glanced through the doorway into the room behind them where half a dozen girls in gauzy and semi-transparent gowns were laughing and talking among themselves. However, it was early yet: the clock on the mantel showed ten minutes to eight.
'You mean I'd earn you a fortune,' replied Claudine. The words were spoken without rancour and merely stated as a matter of fact.
Madame nodded. 'You'd get a fair share of the profits, I swear it.'
'If ever I decide to go down that road you'll be the first to know. In the meantime I suggest we stick to the present arrangement.' Claudine handed over the purse concealed in the pocket of her gown. 'Is he here yet?'
Madame palmed the purse, mentally weighing the contents, and then smiled faintly. 'This way.'
They passed along the landing and down a passageway with doors on either side. From behind some of them Claudine could hear muffled voices, male and female, and other more disturbing sounds too, sounds that sent an unwonted shiver along her skin. She had often wondered what it must be like to lie with a man but, hitherto, her imagination had always explored that thought in the context of marriage. Her governess had left her in no doubt of a woman's duty in that regard, and, being a widow, Mrs Failsworth was qualified to speak.
'Intimacy is an unavoidable aspect of matrimony, my dear, and while no woman of good breeding could possibly find pleasure in it, she must be obedient to her husband's will in all things.' She proceeded to explain, with as much delicacy as she could, what that obedience involved. 'The procreation of children is the entire point of matrimony, and it is the duty of a wife to give her husband heirs to continue his line. Of course, childbirth is a painful and hazardous business. Many women die in travail or else suffer a fatal haemorrhage. Others die of childbed fever afterwards '
Claudine listened wide-eyed and with increasing disquiet. She had sometimes wondered what happened after marriage but her imagination had never gone further than holding hands and kissing and then, after an interval, the birth of a child. Never in a million years could she have envisaged the awful possibilities that Mrs Failsworth had described, yet it seemed to be an inescapable fate.
Society regarded marriage as the only career open to women, or women of good birth at any rate. It was essentially a business arrangement, as Claudine knew very well, and one that took no heed of personal inclination or feelings.
Certainly she'd been given no say in the matter. In her father's house his will was absolute. She'd only been informed of her forthcoming marriage when everything had been signed and sealed. Of course it was a long time ago and she had been a mere child then. In any case the marriage was dead—in all but name. In the years since, she had seen married women who seemed content enough with their lot, some even happy. Were they happy or were they pretending to be and putting a brave face on things?
That a woman might actually choose to yield herself nightly to the will of different men was something Claudine had never considered until circumstances had confronted her with the reality. Did Madame Renaud's girls find pleasure in what they did or were they driven by economic necessity? Claudine knew about the unsuspecting country girls who came to the city to seek their fortunes and whose innocence made them easy prey for the unscrupulous. Yet that didn't quite seem to fit here. Mrs Failsworth said that only women of a certain kind enjoyed intimacy with men. Was it possible to enjoy carnal union at all, never mind outside of marriage? Could any woman enjoy it, knowing she might conceive a child? Surely no woman wanted to endure childbirth, especially not an unmarried woman for whom the consequences were shame and disgrace. All the social conventions said not. It was confusing.
Madame Renaud's sphere of operations was a world completely removed from anything Claudine had ever experienced before. She hadn't known what manner of premises she was visiting that first time; all she had been given was the address and the name of the person she was to meet. It wasn't until she was inside that she realised the truth. While she hadn't baulked at being sent to seedy inns and gaming houses or masked balls held in distinctly disreputable surroundings, this was beyond all bounds. She had expressed her indignation to her employer when next they met.
Paul Genet had surveyed her with amused surprise. 'I did not think you squeamish. Claudine.'
'I'm not squeamish. I merely thought you might have told me beforehand what to expect.'
'Perhaps I should have. At all events you'll be prepared next time.'
'Yes.' Seeing her expression he hurried on. 'You need not let it concern you, my dear. You will be there for a few minutes only; just long enough to meet your contact and retrieve the information we need.'
'Why there when there must be a dozen other places?'
'Because Madame Renaud can be relied upon to keep her mouth shut.'
'Even so, I cannot like it.'
'You are not required to like it.'
'Just as well, isn't it?'
He sighed. 'All right, I admit it's not the most reputable establishment in Paris, but it's safe and the information that we obtain is vital to the British war effort. Besides, you're an experienced and trusted operative.'
She shook her head. 'Save your flattery for someone who will appreciate it.'
'It wasn't flattery. I employ you because you're good at what you do.'
Claudine eyed her companion steadily. She guessed him to be in his mid-forties. Soberly clad, he was a short man with a form tending towards corpulence and a head that was almost bald. What hair remained was light brown and close-cropped. The round, clean-shaven face was unremarkable save for those small and piercing grey eyes. In a crowd of people he would have gone unnoticed. Yet she knew he had originally been recruited and trained by William Wickham, and the old spymaster had only ever chosen the best. The fact that Genet held her in regard was flattering whether she cared to admit it or not. 'All right. I'll go.'
'I knew you wouldn't let me down.'
'I have never let you down.'
'That's why I employ you,' he replied.
A series of ecstatic male cries recalled her attention abruptly. Claudine darted a glance towards the closed room that was the source of the sounds and then looked quickly away. Madame Renaud smiled.
'Estelle always knows how to please a man,' she observed. Then, seeing the look of embarrassment on her companion's face, the older woman raised an eyebrow. 'You can hardly be shocked. You're a married woman after all.' She nodded towards the wedding ring on Claudine's hand. 'The only difference is that we get paid for what we do.'
Claudine made no reply. She might be a married woman but she had no notion of what it meant to please a man in that way. What subtle arts could elicit the kind of pleasure she had heard from behind that door? Likely she would never know. With an effort she dragged her mind back to the task at hand, annoyed that she had allowed herself to be sidetracked in that way. Respectable women did not think about such things, much less discuss them. But then respectable women weren't found in bordellos either. The knowledge did nothing for her peace of mind.
They reached the end of the passageway and Madame Renaud gestured to the door on the right. 'In there.'
The room smelled of stale perfume and sweat. It was simply furnished with a large curtained bed, a wash stand with a mirror hung above, and a chair. Two wall lamps provided soft light but its range was limited and the edges of the room were in shadow. The window opposite was closed and shuttered. The silence felt charged. Claudine frowned.
The shadows stirred and a man moved into her line of vision. Claudine's heart leapt towards her throat. It was certainly not Alain. For a start he was a head taller than the person she had come to meet and the lithe, powerful figure bore not the least resemblance to the stocky frame she had been expecting to see. As he turned she drew in a sharp breath. The face with its almost sculptural lines must once have been handsome. However, two jagged scars marred the left side of his brow. Below it the eye and the cheek were concealed by a patch of dark leather. He seemed to emanate a dangerous virile power whose effect was both striking and unnerving.
With an effort she gathered her wits. 'Forgive me, monsieur. I must have mistaken the room.'
Her expression and the indrawn breath had come as no surprise to the man opposite. He was accustomed now to the way others regarded him; in fairness his appearance was hardly calculated to reassure.
'I think not, madame.'
He moved further into the room so that he could see her properly. The result gave him a visceral jolt. In the first place she was much younger than he had expected; twenty or a little more perhaps. In the second she was stunning. The soft light fell on glossy brown curls whose colour reminded him of newly hulled chestnuts. They framed a lovely face dominated by huge dark eyes and the most seductive mouth he had ever seen. She was just above the average height for a woman and her figure slender. The details were hidden beneath her cloak. For a second or two he indulged the fantasy of removing it. Any man would want to do the same. he thought. Genet was clearly growing more subtle in his recruitment. In keeping with French tradition he employed women as well as men for intelligence work, but the women in question didn't usually look like this one. Nor was her manner that of a courtesan. No doubt he utilised her beauty and apparent innocence in higher spheres. After all, government ministers and foreign ambassadors were no more immune to female charm than any other man. Several of them patronised Madame Renaud's establishment. The connection was all too evident. He took another pace towards her. 'You came here to meet Alain Poiret.'
Claudine's heart thumped. She used to think she was tall but this man towered over her. In the confined space he was altogether an intimidating presence. However, she couldn't afford to let him see that. Lifting her chin she met his gaze squarely. 'What do you know of Alain? Who are you?'
'My name is Antoine Duval.'
She guessed it was assumed: real names tended to get people killed.
'You must be Claudine.' he continued.
'Perhaps. Where is Alain?'
'Fouche's men arrested him last night.'
Claudine paled. The name of Napoleon's Chief of Police was well known and with good reason. The ramifications filled her with silent horror. 'Arrested?'