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Charlotte! Where have you been? You make me cry with frustration." The vendor leaned on his cart and added a lewd gesture, leaving no doubt of his interest.
His French was of the gutter and Charlotte Parnell answered with the same accent. "Later!" she called, smiling over her shoulder and tossing her skirt so a little ankle showed. She took Georges's arm as further proof she was already occupied.
They turned down an alley and left the crowded streets behind them.
"That man is harmless, madame."
"Few men are harmless, Georges," she said, and was annoyed when a shiver came with the thought.
"The winter light is fading. Will you be warm enough with only that shawl?"
"Yes," she snapped, then closed her eyes and drew a deep breath. "My apologies, Georges. This is a complicated venture and I am . . ." she hesitated, "uneasy. You are taking a chance and I am not sure the man is worth it."
"We are both taking a chance, madame. We do it because the money is too great a temptation to resist."
"You are so practical," she said with a little laugh. "And you are right. We will rescue a man who will be hanged as a traitor so that we have the money to save others."
"Madame," Georges began and then cleared his throat, "if he has betrayed England for France, how is it that he is in a French prison?"
"It is curious, is it not." Charlotte waved to the flower seller, who waved back. "Perhaps he has managed to offend the French as well as betray the English, or it is some political game the French are playing. In fact, Georges, I do not care as long as we are paid."
"If both sides are angry at him, the chances of his safe return are lessened. I hope that your patron agreed to pay even if this man does not survive."
"Is it murder to allow a guilty man to die in order to save ourselves?" Charlotte asked as she stopped to look at him.
"I am not sure what murder is anymore." Georges gestured to the everyday scene around them. "Despite the fact that we still eat and sleep, Napoleon has embroiled us in a fight for our lives since 1793. These last twenty years all of Europe has suffered. Even England and Russia, Austria." He ticked off the list on his fingers.
"And our small corner of the world here in Le Havre," she agreed. "We are all living in hell." Charlotte watched a man and a young woman cross the street. The girl looked back at her with curious eyes. Her companion pulled hard on her arm. "Most often a hell of our own making," she added when the girl stumbled a little as she turned away. "As for the terms of this contract, my patron and I have agreed that he will pay us a thousand pounds for the effort and double that if the man reaches England safely."
Georges nodded. They made their way past neighborhood shops competing with the vendors, who were as much entertainers as salesmen.
Charlotte paused at one shop to smile at a toddler sitting on a cushion just on the other side of the window. "It is as though we are his personal theater." Charlotte tapped her fingers on the glass.
When the tot saw her watching him, he laughed, slamming his little hand flat against the glass. Charlotte kissed her fingers, then pressed them against the pane and his hand on the other side.
The boy's mother came to him, took one look at Charlotte and Georges, scooped the child up and turned her back on them.
"Children see so much more clearly than adults," Georges said.
"And adults see exactly what I wish them to see." With a glance at her reflection she moved on. Her hair was so bright a red that anyone would know it for a wig. She loved it anyway. The color and the tousled curls always attracted attention.
As they moved out of their neighborhood, Georges dropped her arm and drifted away.
A man whistled and she did no more than wave a hand in his direction.
Charlotte did her best to move at more than a promenade and less than a hurry, not on parade to attract customers, but like a woman with a destination in mind.
At the next corner she had to wait for a cart to pass. She made a show of wrapping her shawl around her shoulders and under her arms. The trick accented the decolletage of her gown even if it did little to protect her from the cold. She would be warm enough if she kept moving.
A few steps more and a man walked up to her. This one was not as easily discouraged as the others, and with a glance, Georges was at her side once again.
She took Georges's arm, acting the lady. A curtsy gave the man an excellent view down her bodice, a reward for her dismissal.
The stranger was ready to fight for her, but Charlotte knew Georges's stare would convince him otherwise. The man settled for an insult and moved on.
"Il n'y a pas de quoi, comme toujours, madame."
You are welcome as always, madame. It was one of the most generous phrases anyone had ever spoken to her. The men in Le Havre had been attentive. Georges was the only one who had been kind as well as loyal. He had endured the nightmare with her, lived its consequences and never once complained.
As they rounded a corner, Georges turned from her again and went down an alley as she moved into the main thoroughfare. She attracted less attention here. Charlotte picked up her pace, entering the same alley from the other end, meeting Georges in the middle.
"This place is disgusting." The smell made her gag.
"Yes, madame," he said with pleasure, opening a barrel tucked into a doorway. The scent of lavender filled the air as he handed her a brown robe. "No one uses this alley but the night carts. You can play your role with confidence that this will be here when you return." They put the robes on over their clothes and Georges closed the lid on the lavender scent.
They left the alley together, this time attracting no attention at all. Charlotte drew a deep breath of the clean evening air, not only to clear her head, but also to prepare herself for what was to come.
Gabriel Pennistan considered himself a man of science. Not a spy. Not a murderer. Now he was all three.
Seven men executed because he had not been an effective agent. Not taken away or put on trial, but murdered in front of him. At times like this, when his memory heard the cries, smelled the horror, thought of families who were grieving, he wished he had been one of them instead of carted off as the place was set afire.
Who would think to look for him in Le Havre when he had been taken in Portugal? By his best estimate it had been eight months since the cell door slammed behind him here. Had he been forgotten or was this part of a plan?
A plan where he was left to rot with nothing to show for it but a trio of rats he had named, three failed escape attempts, an impressive beard and itchy, watering eyes, no doubt due to some damned infection.
Rational conversation brought him nothing but a spit in the face, which led to anger, which gave them an excuse to beat him. He'd learned that fast enough.
Gabe threw the rest of his cheese to the one rat brave enough to come close. The rat he had named Galileo accepted it with a bob of his head and a twitch of his whiskers, then scampered across the floor.
Relaxing against the wall, Gabriel closed his eyes and started naming each constellation and placing it in the night sky, courting the simplest of escapes. Sleep.
"Ce traitre maudit?"
He recognized the jailer's voice calling him a damned traitor followed by the sound of the key in the lock. Even as he leapt from the floor, Gabe glanced at the barred window, high above his head. His heart was pounding loud enough to be heard, the thrill of fear ratcheting up his senses. Think, Gabriel. Use your brain, it's the best weapon you have.
Had he fallen asleep? There was a gray light, but it was impossible to tell if it was dusk or closer to dawn. No matter the time, this was not part of the usual routine.
"Et il est anglais. Un sale cochon anglais."
No doubt he was the one the visitors wanted. He'd been told he was the only "English pig" in the place. Though probably not the only traitor.
Was this the guillotine? It was inevitable, but he would not go without a fight. He pushed the hair out of his eyes, ripped a strip from his shirt and tied it back.
He concentrated on slowing his breathing, lowered his hands. The guillotine was inevitable, but not necessarily tonight. Could it be a government representative? Jailers looking for some amusement? The scars on his back tingled at the thought.
Or could it be freedom? He shook his head, refusing the fantasy. Without taking his eyes from the door, he reached up to the ledge and took down the sharpened spoon that was his only weapon. Tucking it in the waistband of his breeches, behind his back. He waited, half-hidden, as still as the shadows around him.
He had lived this moment in his nightmares, in his daydreams and never realized how infuriating the unknown could be. Give me a clue of what's coming, damn it.
The jailer had trouble with the key. That meant it was the new guard. Turn the key to the left, then right and pull hard.
"I thought you only came to see the condemned." The jailer coughed the deep, long rumble of consumption. "There's been no day set for this one."
Gabriel's anxiety shifted, making way for an overwhelming sense of relief. Thank you, Maman, for insisting on a French tutor, Gabe thought as he checked a date with Madame Guillotine off the list.
When he heard a woman's voice, low and with a cultured inflection, he wondered if he was going mad.
"Pere Milogue visits the condemned. Brother Georges and I hope to find converts."
"But an Englishman? They don't even believe in God."
He didn't know prisoners were allowed spiritual guidance. Odd.
The jailer came in followed by two others, a nun and someone carrying a lantern. That was all he saw before the light, meager though it was, blinded him.
He squinted and relied on his other senses for information. No one spoke, the silence broken by the rats scrabbling in the corner. No one moved. What were they waiting for? Then he heard whispered words but could tell no more than the visitors did not agree with each other.
Brother Georges? Is that what the nun had said the other man's name was? Not a name he recognized.
He heard soft steps and deduced that the nun had come closer to him. Her perfume enveloped him, something blended of lavender and spice. It was a powerful distraction. Even more odd.
He clenched his fists.
His eyes had adjusted to the insult of the light and he opened them more fully. Was he overreacting? Who could be afraid of a nun and a priest?
She stood directly in front of him. Her eyes were some dark smoky color. He saw calculation rather than curiosity.
"Am I some specimen of manhood you have never seen before?"
She backed up a step. He gave her his complete attention. "Your perfume is not something I associate with religion. I can imagine a number of vignettes the three of us could act out, not one of which involves confessing my sins."
Still no reaction.
"Monsieur?" she said, whispering as if this were the exchange of a secret. "Parlez-vous francais, monsieur?"
"Un peu." He leaned closer and whispered, in French, for her ears alone. "Yes, I speak French, but only in the bedroom."
She twirled away from him and Gabriel swore. Why was he doing his best to irritate her? Because her dark eyes were not the eyes of a woman of virtue, much less a nun.
"He says he wishes to confess." She walked to the jailer. "Please, leave us alone. We must act with speed before the devil embraces him again."
Damn. Gabe looked from the nun to the man who held the lantern, as he put his hand behind his back, reaching for his weapon. What kind of game was this?
The jailer left with a friendly nod, pulling the door closed behind him. Didn't he think it odd that a woman was in charge? Or had they bribed him for privacy?
It was more than odd. It was wrong.
"Who are you and what the hell do you want?" he asked in French and moved more deeply into the shadows. He kept his hand on his weapon.
"Brother Georges and I have come to help you." She gestured to the man, who stepped closer and raised the lantern so the light spilled into the corner where Gabriel stood. The wall at his back was his only ally.
"You sound eminently reasonable and I still do not believe you. Your eyes give you away." Gabe swore and switched to French, repeating his words and adding, "If you expect money, you've come to the wrong cell. Do you think I would look like this if I had any?"
"Il ne faut pas nous payer, monsieur." The nun answered.
They did not want to be paid?
"Who are you?" he shouted, to the man this time, welcoming the surge of temper. Brother Georges remained silent. Was he deaf? Gabriel looked from one to the other, willing them to speak.
Gabe was about to ask a third time when the nun raised a hand to his mouth, laying her fingers against his lips. Oh my. The softness of her fingers, the feel of them against his lips was like a gift from an erotic gamester.
Her expression was as hard as her fingers were soft. "If you are a nun, then I am the Prince of Wales." He spoke in a whisper, ignoring the surge of lust that undermined his concentration.
"We will leave and then we will talk, monsieur."
Leave? They were going to leave? Even as he wondered if he had understood her correctly, it came to him. He had not heard the jailer turn the key when he left the cell. The door was unlocked.
He didn't need their help.
He could escape on his own.
From the Paperback edition.