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HE PUT HIS FINGERS--SPLAYED, AS IF PLAYing a harpsichord--on the chill library window, and watched the fine mist collect upon the glass around each fingertip. He could see it clearly against the dark dawn sky. Then he removed his hand, and blew upon the marks he made. His breath obliterated the fingertip mist in a large, round circle of gray, then the winter chill outside the window permeated, and made it all disappear.
The glass clear again, he stared out of it, watching the city awaken with a shivering, hesitant movement. Bakery boys' feet slipped on the wet cobblestones, and the voices of tradesmen shook or groaned while hawking their wares. How very active of them, the man thought. And so very ordinary. A thought that ordinariness would be welcome at some time in his life strayed into his mind, but he shook it off, as well as the accompanying fatigue. A day of rest, and he would be ready for another assignment.
His lips twisted. There was no rest for one such as himself. Rest meant time to contemplate life and other ordinary things, and contemplation was only for fools. It was no use contemplating his life. He'd done enough of that already.
A closer sound, the tread of firm footsteps, came from behind him, but he did not turn around. It was, no doubt, Sir Robert Smith; a worthy and solid soul, as solid as the sound of his footsteps.
The steps hesitated for a moment, perhaps because the library was dim, lit only by the fire in the hearth and a brace of candles. The man by the window allowed himself a smile. Sir Robert was also wise. One did not walk boldly into dark places.
"I am here, Sir Robert." The mancould hear Sir Robert walk toward him, and at last he turned around.
There was no hesitation in Sir Robert's steps as he came closer, but certainly there was in his eyes. My reputation, oh, my reputation, the man thought, amused.
"About Marat," Sir Robert said, still watching him. The name was a statement, not a question.
A pause, then a small shrug as the man glanced out the window at the lightening sky. "You have access to the papers," he said. "You know whatever you need to know about me and my assignments--and Marat." He walked to the window again, placing his fingers on the glass as he did before and blowing on the finger marks.
"Except what I am to call you." Sir Robert moved to the desk and brought out a packet of papers from his coat pocket. His eyes held curiosity.
The man almost smiled. He had carried out Sir Robert's orders for almost a year now, and it amused him not to reveal his name. It was safer that way; the less anyone knew of him, the less hold on him they had. He had even rented this town house under an assumed name through a third party, and he had entered it unnoticed. He turned. "You may call me whatever you wish."
Sir Robert frowned, irritated. "Yes, and since I know all I 'need' to know about you, I also know you like playing games with your name, Mr. Whoever-you-are."
This time the man laughed, a soft sound. "You must allow me some amusement, Sir Robert," he said. He rested his chin on his hand, and tapped his index finger on his lip, as if in profound thought. "You may call me Corday."
Sir Robert's hands paused in the straightening of the papers before him. "Corday." He gazed sternly at the man. "As in Charlotte Corday. I do not find the use of that name amusing."
"Try to see it as a tribute to a job well done," Corday replied flippantly.
"We do not pay you to have someone else complete the assignment."
"Ah, but I did complete it." Corday's voice cooled. "Your papers will tell you I have been very successful." He almost sighed. He did not regret what he had done; it was his occupation, and he did it well. He did regret that Mademoiselle had been such a zealot that she went eagerly to her death to prove her point, rather than leave with him. But she had fancied herself a martyr, and there was nothing one could do to convince such people into prudence.
Sir Robert stared at him, pursing his lips thoughtfully. "Usually," he said. "When it pleases you to be successful."
"True," he replied. He leaned next to the window with a negligent air.
"Hmph." But a small smile crossed Sir Robert's lips before he drew his brows together, looking at the papers before him. He glanced at Corday. "This time, however, you will be successful, whether it pleases you or not."
Corday said nothing and looked out the window, allowing a long silence between them.
"These are serious affairs," Sir Robert said at last, his voice grave and perhaps a little rebuking.
Corday did not move. "My assignments always are," he said. "I have never thought differently. I deal out death, do I not? And death is always serious."
Silence hung between them again, and Corday smiled to himself. Perhaps he had shocked the respectable Sir Robert with his bluntness. Corday wondered if Sir Robert would protest, or bluster, as his predecessors had done.
"Yes," Sir Robert said instead, his voice holding a certain pity. "Yes, you do."
Quick irritation shot through Corday, surprising him, and he turned, his feet making only a whisper against the carpet. He stared at Sir Robert, who regarded him calmly, his expression unafraid. His new superior fither was a fool, or had no regard for his life or his loved ones. Corday could kill him here, now, and no one would be the wiser about who had done it. He could cause the death or ruination of Sir Robert's wife. Sir Robert should know by now with whom he was dealing.
They watched each other, unmoving, tension stretching between them. Sir Robert also knew much about Corday; how much, Corday was not sure. But Sir Robert gave a small nod, almost a bow, as if acknowledging the danger inherent in both their positions.
"And this is another time we wish you to 'deal death,' " Sir Robert said. He sighed as if he was reluctant to give this assignment; perhaps he was, for Sir Robert, by all accounts, was a decent man. But Corday never assumed anyone was decent, or could not be corrupted. This assumption, after all, was the soul of espionage. Sir Robert glanced at the papers before him on the table, and shifted them apart with his hand. "There is a man, someone we wish you to eliminate," he said.
"Kill, you mean," Corday said pleasantly.
"Kill," said Sir Robert, and his lips twisted in a wry smile. Corday began to like him, reluctantly, for he admired anyone who was frank with him, and this was not the first time Sir Robert had been so. "Although in truth, if you could eliminate the man without killing him, I would be just as pleased. However"--his smile disappeared--"this man is too dangerous for us to consider anything but the most extreme measures."
"Meaning myself." Corday began to feel bored. While there had been some difficulties in his assignments, they had been overcome. He smiled inwardly. Indeed, he had more difficulties overcoming his whims than any challenges his enemies had decided to throw his way.
"He killed Johnson and Bramley," Sir Robert continued.
Bramley . . . Johnson. Two highly skilled men. Even Corday had come to respect them, for they, at the beginning of his career, had helped train him. They were even comrades of a sort; he and they had traded jokes both practical and verbal--the former could be dangerous and was frowned upon, but their superiors in their branch of government intelligence had little humor, after all.
No humor now. Corday looked at Sir Robert. "How?"
His superior shook his head. "Knifed and mauled, both of them."
"No. There is no mistake."
"Someone they knew." It was a statement. No one could have come that close to the two men else, Corday thought.
Sir Robert's brows drew together, and his eyes showed worry. "It's possible. The Revolution in France grows apace, and they'd spread it to England if they could, if only to chase down the aristocrats who escaped. There is no law but the agents of the revolution now." He pressed his lips together and his eyes met Corday's.
Infiltration. Sir Robert didn't have to say it; it was necessary at least to consider the possibility. Corday managed not to show the irritation he felt. Some idiot bureaucrat probably got himself in a wedge and had no choice but to put his head through a spy's collar and leash.
"Shall I search out the corrupted one for you, Sir Robert?" Corday asked, watching him again.
Sir Robert grimaced, showing distaste. "I would prefer it, but I want you to find the man behind it. I'm not as good as you are, and the man in France is far more dangerous."
"Flattering me, Sir Robert?" Corday grew still, watching for minute changes in his superior's expression.
"Yes." Sir Robert grinned suddenly. "I don't want to leave my very comfortable wife and home, thank you very much. Besides, you know the French tongue better than I do, and that's a fact." He gave Corday a curious look.
Corday gazed at his superior, and wondered if it was he. Perhaps. He almost chuckled. No doubt Sir Robert wondered the same thing about him. Such fearful insanity, this game of espionage. Corday would have his contacts watch Sir Robert's activities nevertheless. A man on a leash would bite where he was told, although it would be a pity if it were his superior, he thought. He had begun to like Sir Robert, and it would be disappointing to have to eliminate him, too, if he were ordered to do it some day.
"Very well, then," he said.
His superior raised his brows, and Corday repressed a smile. Did he think the agreement came too quickly? Sir Robert had little choice but to send him, Corday, after all. There were few others who could do the job.
Sir Robert glanced at the papers before him again, and for a brief moment tapped his fingers on the table, as if in thought. He sighed as if he had come to some reluctant conclusion and gazed again at Corday. "The last communication we had from Johnson located our target's base." He grimaced. "Paris, of course. Where would such a man as he have more influence? None of it is overt. A word here, a rumor there, a discreet killing or accusation--it amounts to the same thing. But a pattern, nevertheless."
"Where in Paris?"
Sir Robert gave him an apologetic look. "The docks on the Seine, or close to them. That is all we know."
"That's hardly 'located,' Sir Robert."
A shrug. "It's the best we've been able to do. We thought your contacts--"
"Will have to do more work, and therefore it will take more time and more risk," Corday said.
"You will be compensated, of course, half in advance," Sir Robert replied cordially. "Deposited at the usual place."
"Excellent." It was easy to deal with Sir Robert in these matters, Corday thought. He hoped the man was not an infiltrator; it would mean a change of management if Sir Robert's superiors determined it was necessary for him to be eliminated, and that in turn usually meant having to deal with someone new and unfamiliar. An inconvenience, and Corday disliked inconvenience in his dealings.
"We will need you to leave soon, tomorrow morning," Sir Robert said. "I imagine you will leave for Margate." He raised a questioning brow.
Corday smiled at last. "Imagine nothing, my dear sir. I will arrange my own transport, as usual."
Sir Robert shook his head, lips pursed in disapproval. "As usual. For your own safety, we should know where you are."
"You implied an infiltrator." Corday gazed at him coolly. "For my own safety, no one should know where I am."
His supervisor grimaced. "True." He sighed, and rubbed his brow with his hand. "I will be glad when this is over."
I, too, Corday thought, as he rose and left, after a short bow in Sir Robert's direction. Fatigue touched him again. A little sleep, and he would begin the assignment. It was all he required, until the ultimate rest all men slipped into at the end. He was familiar with that kind of rest, and sometimes envied the men he aided to it. It was, after all, a tiring thing to be an assassin, and it would be pleasant, for once, not to be one.
But there was only one kind of true rest for assassins, and that was death. And he was not quite ready for that, yet.
The small yacht that left from a hidden shore was sturdy and slim, and cut through the water like a knife. Corday watched as the dim white shores faded into gray in the night. He closed his eyes for a moment, breathing in the dank salt air. The cold wind scored the skin of his face with icy fingers and lifted his hair from his scalp. He should go belowdecks and stay as warm as he could, but he always stood on deck when leaving England. Pulling his coat closer around him, he shrugged his shoulders, then thrust his hands in his pockets. How sentimental. But he supposed, after all these years of leaving, he should be allowed some sentimentality.
He watched the faint gray in the distance turn dark at last, then walked across the deck to the stairs that led to his chambers below. As he entered his room, he could hear the shush-shush of the water against the creaking hull, and the footsteps of sailors above; oddly soothing sounds. Perhaps it was because he was relatively safe here; it was a small reprieve before pulling on the cloak of wariness and sensitivity to danger once he went ashore. Safe . . . He must be getting on in years, to be thinking of such things. Better to think of the assignment before him.
Opening a small chest, he pulled out the papers Sir Robert had given him, as well as notes collected from his various sources. He brought near the lantern he had left lit in his room, then examined the papers.
Sir Robert had been very thorough, which Corday appreciated; his supervisor had detailed each movement, each incident thought to relate to the man Corday was to seek, as reported by Johnson and Bramley. He read on, and his shoulders tensed as he noted the condition of these agents' bodies. Bloodied, broken, and the faces so scarred as to be nearly unrecognizable. Luckily, the clothes had been easily identified as belonging to the two men, and though it looked as if the murderer had tried to cut off Johnson's finger so as to dislodge his signet ring, the ring still remained, and it was, indeed, Johnson's. Corday massaged the back of his neck and shrugged his shoulders to release the tension that had gathered there. He should try to sleep as well as he could before the yacht landed. Being tired at the start of his mission was not a good way to begin.