ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

 

The True Pretender

Chapter 10

 

     “I realize the topic may be a painful one, but we must follow all potential leads.”

     Epione nodded, thinking that at least she should be thankful that the Bow Street investigator was not proposing marriage—although to be fair, it was still early in the conversation. She had come in to work this morning to discover two fresh crises:  Madame was nowhere to be seen, and this grey-eyed Bow Street investigator was waiting on the doorstep, seeking an interview with her with respect to the recent string of murders.

     They now sat together in her workroom; he’d declined her offer of tea, and Epione was doing a rapid assessment of how much she should reveal and how much she could conceal in good conscience. Her natural inclination to be helpful was tempered by the knowledge that de Gilles did not trust the British, and it seemed he had a fair point, if Tremaine’s marriage proposal was all a charade.  The investigator’s questions had seemed innocuous thus far, focusing on her background and current situation, but now he was venturing into the family treachery, and she mentally girded her loins.

     “You are aware your sister was passing information to Napoleon’s supporters?”

     “Yes, sir.”

     The grey eyes rested on her for a thoughtful moment. “Are you acquainted with Comte deFabry?”

     This was unexpected, but she answered readily, “Yes—I met him a few times, at my sister’s residence. I do not know him well.” 

     “What can you tell me of him?”

     She raised her brows in surprise. “Do you believe he was involved in—in what my sister was doing?”

     But he was to reveal no insights. “If you would tell me your opinion of the man, please.”

     With a puckered brow, she brought to mind what she knew of the Comte. “A quiet man; he kept to himself—I don’t believe he attended many social events, within the émigré community.”

     “Yet he was familiar with your sister.”

     The statement held a hint of innuendo, and she stared at him, rather shocked. “They were—they were lovers?”

     He watched her reaction, his expression unreadable. “Perhaps; it is not clear. Is it possible?”

     A bit taken aback, she stammered, “I—I don’t know.”  It seemed incomprehensible—that a woman lucky enough to be married to Sir Lucien would have an affaire.  On the other hand, Marie had always craved attention, and when she had a bit too much wine she tended to flirt with whoever was at hand.

     Her inquisitor kept his grey-eyed gaze steady upon hers. “I ask because the latest victim—the instructress—is also believed to have had a liaison with the Comte.”

     Astonished, she exclaimed, “Then you think the Comte deFabry is the murderer—can it be possible that he killed Marie?”

     But her companion cautioned, “You must not leap to conclusions, Miss; we are only testing out possible connections between the victims.  Do you happen to know of the Comte’s political views?”

     Slowly, Epione shook her head. “I’ve no idea.” She was made uneasy by the question, though; de Gilles had intimated that the murders were connected to the various plots which were going forward with respect to the French succession, and it appeared that this investigator was in agreement with him. “I am sorry; I wish I could be more helpful.”

     He paused for a moment, and flipped over a page in his occurrence book. “I understand you injured yourself the other night, and that a gentleman offered you his assistance.”

     A small alarm went off in Epione’s head; it didn’t seem that her interactions with de Gilles should have anything to do with the murder investigation—unless de Gilles was a suspect, and that seemed unlikely, as he’d plenty of opportunities to murder her.  Which meant—which meant that perhaps the man seated before her was yet another who was not at all what he seemed.  To stall for time, she smiled. “You have been speaking with Madame Reyne, my landlady.  She was smitten with the gentleman, I think.”

     “Can you tell me the gentleman’s name?”

     “He did not reveal his name to me.”  This was not exactly an untruth; at that time he hadn’t, and as de Gilles had been kind enough to warn her about the illicit search of her rooms—perhaps conducted by this so-called investigator, himself—the courtesy should be returned. “I believe he was an émigré—I know he was French. He was very kind, and took a look around my rooms to make certain all was well, before he left.”  She added with an innocent air, “He took me up on his horse, which made me a bit nervous—I haven’t much experience with horses.”

     “Did he mention where he stayed, or how long he would be in town?”

     “He did not, I’m afraid. Is he a suspect?” She allowed a hint of skepticism to creep into her tone.

     But her companion was not about to be put on the defensive, and cocked his head in a gesture of admonishment. “You may wish to be a bit more cautious in the future, if you don’t mind my saying so, Miss.”

     “Yes—I suppose that is true.” This advice was rich, coming from the illicit-searcher-of-rooms.

     Bending his head, her questioner studied his notes for a moment.  “You have worked at this shop for—six months, I believe.”

     “Yes sir.”

     He raised his head to give her a look of warm approval. “Quite a plum position.  And you are self-taught, I believe.”

     There was the slightest pause. “Yes, sir, that is true.”  Here was confirmation beyond all doubt; this faux-investigator must have consulted with Tremaine before speaking with her. That she was self-taught was a little-known fact, as she’d allowed Madame to believe she’d trained as an apprentice in another shop.   She also noted that this man used the same tactics as Tremaine—he hadn’t made any headway by being firm with her, and so now he softened his approach with flattery.   I am heartily tired of trying to guess what-is-what, she thought with a sudden burst of indignation, and I’m heartily sick of being surrounded by spies. She lifted her chin. “I don’t suppose you can tell me what this is all about—something having to do with the pretenders to the French throne, I believe.”

     In the sudden silence, the grey eyes rested on hers for a long, expressionless moment. “We are merely gathering as much information as we can, Miss.”

     She made an impatient gesture. “Then at least tell me whether you think I am in danger.”  May as well solicit his opinion on this burning topic; de Gilles didn’t seem to think that she was in danger, as much as she was needed for some unspecified something.

     Thoughtfully, the investigator contemplated his notebook for a moment. “If there is an opportunity for you to leave the country for a time, I do not think it a bad idea.”

     Unable to help it, she laughed, and shook her head. “And marry Mr. Tremaine.”

     He frowned in puzzlement.  “Miss?”

     Leaning forward, she asked with all sincerity, “Can you not break your role, only for a moment? How I wish you could tell me, straight out, what is at play, here.”

     He regarded her for a moment, impassively. “I dare not take the chance.”

     She could see the wisdom in this—her family did not have a good record, after all. “No, I suppose not.”  She leaned back again, grateful for even this small glimpse of honesty.

     To the good, he’d apparently decided that he could drop his pose, and no longer take a roundabout route.  “Have you noticed anything out of the ordinary, lately, at the shop? Any unusual customers?”

     Almost with relief, she realized she could give him some information that might be useful without betraying de Gilles.  “Yes—there was something strange that happened the other day. The Comtesse Toray is one of our best customers, but now I am not certain the woman actually exists.”

     His gaze was sharp upon hers.  “Tell me.”

     Epione gave him an edited version of her experiences with the dressing maid, leaving out such minor details as the abduction attempt, and a rather enjoyable horse ride home—a ride which had, apparently, inspired tender feelings in her escort; enough to mention marriage as though it were already a foregone conclusion. Indeed, she’d had been unable to sleep last night, thinking about this unlooked-for turn of events.  With an effort, she brought her wandering thoughts back to the so-called investigator. “The maid was rather unpleasant.  She insinuated that she knew my mother, and she made a strange remark—that the Comtesse needed a hat to wear to a coronation.”

     “Did she indeed?”  This said rather grimly.

     Epione ventured, “What coronation would she mean? I didn’t know that England’s poor King—”

     But he interrupted her in a brusque tone. “Where is this woman, now?”

     “I don’t know,” Epione replied, skirting the truth. “She hasn’t returned.”

     “Describe her, if you would.”

     Epione complied, as best she could, and concluded, “She is rather a caricature of an aristo’s lady’s maid.”

     “With a mole above her eyebrow.”  He touched a finger to his own, indicating.

     Epione decided she truly shouldn’t be surprised. “Yes.”

     His brows drawn together, her companion thought this over. “What sort of hats does the Comtesse buy?”

     “All variety—it was rather strange, really, but I truly don’t believe anything was being smuggled in the hats.  I am the only milliner, and I box them up myself.”  She paused, and added carefully, “You may wish to ask Madame—the shop owner—what she knows about this; I would not be at all surprised if she knows a great deal.” She made bold enough to meet his eye in a significant manner.

     It seemed the investigator was willing indulge her in exploring this topic, and leaned back for a moment. “What do you know of Madame?”

     Epione clasped her hands in her lap, and admitted, “Very little, actually; she was not one who confided.  I do know she was very preoccupied yesterday, and that she has never before been absent from the shop, at opening.”

     “That is indeed very troubling,” he agreed in a neutral voice, his expression impassive.

     There was something about his tone that made her stare at him, and she faltered, “Have you—have you any information about what has happened to her?”

     “All investigations are ongoing.” He closed his notebook with a small snap. “Thank you, Miss; you’ve been most helpful.”

     He rose to leave, and so Epione was compelled to rise with him, but the shocking implication that Madame had been the murderer’s latest victim was enough to make her try to penetrate the mask he wore.  “Please, sir; I cannot help but feel that I am the bait, in some sort of trap.”

     After gazing out the window for a moment, he met her eyes. “Unfortunately, I know less than I’d like.  Mr. Tremaine, however, stands ready to see to your safety.”

     Nonplussed, she ventured, “It seems such a drastic course.”

     “These are drastic times, I’m afraid.” He crossed to the door, and paused for a moment. “If you will allow me to repeat myself, you are entirely too trusting, Miss d’Amberre.”

     She wasn’t certain if this was a veiled reference to de Gilles, but nonetheless answered in a tart tone uncharacteristic for her. “It is true that I cannot hold a candle to all the deceivers who surround me.”

     “Touché,” he conceded with a bow, and left without another word.