Tatiana Stregova has recognized Grazia Rosetti at the ball, and has resolved to steal Balthazar’s letter from her. In the meantime, Capt Harry Blackpool maintains his watch over proceedings. Chapter 14 of The Crimson Garter, by Lucire travel editor Stanley Moss, writing pseudonymously as Lovejoy, commences some miles from the Palais Schluysen-von Holstein
Miles away from the celebration at the Baron’s ball, in the heart of the city of Paris, on the Left Bank, a few blocks from the Galerie Misha Stefan, a dark clad figure crept noiselessly across the lambent rooftops. He carefully navigated around a parapet, hesitated by a skylight, and stood motionless, his eyes scanning the periphery for any undue movement. Once he had satisfied himself he was alone and unobserved he wiped a small circle of grime from a slanted skylight pane and stared downward into the cavernous space below. There appeared on his face an expression of professional satisfaction. Then with the agility of a tightrope walker he sashayed the length of a narrow ledge to a drainpipe, which he nimbly shimmied down until he reached a window. In a matter of seconds he had sprung the window catch, and in one cat-like move slipped through the narrow aperture, positioning himself on a thick rafter inside the warehouse, above a sea of crates and draped objects.
The man was dressed in all black, and from over his shoulder and under his arm he removed a length of lightweight, amazingly strong silken rope, also coloured black, which he expertly looped around the rafter. This he secured with a knot and an ingeniously crafted metal ring, and testing it once more, climbed down the considerable length of rope, arm under arm, until he easily dropped to the floor with barely a whisper. At first the man stood in a half crouch, slowly rotating on the balls of his feet, as he waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. Above and around him loomed the ghostly forms of rectangular crates counterpoised with strangely packaged objects. The man knew precisely the shape of the object he sought and in a methodical way he inventoried his surroundings, puzzling over the order of his search. He soon decided on a course of action and prepared to go about his task, when a small and wiry figure in a cloth cap stepped out from behind one of the massive crates he studied. The figure was also clad in dark attire, but slouchier, baggier, and not so concerned with trim and neatness. The cap concealed a generous head of red and curly hair, and in pulling up the bill of the cap the other man revealed a pugnacious face, with a button nose punctuated by two mischievous blue eyes.
‘Sure, ’tis a lovely night for a stroll out on the roofs, wouldn’t you agree?’ he asked in a delighted tenor.
‘Pleasant enough, except for a loose tile, which nearly cost me a broken neck,’ the black-clad figure answered in a dissatisfied way. ‘How did you get in here?’
‘The back door gave in rather easily,’ the redheaded man replied with a chortle. ‘I suppose I could have come in through the skylight, but it seemed far too much trouble to climb all the way up there just to have to come all the way back down here. I might have used the sewers, but such foul and stinking tunnels turn a man’s stomach. Not to mention the matter of an iron grate, which asks for my heavy tools, makes the muscles ache and wants a powerful lot of time.’ He looked about him in a disinterested way. ‘So the back door ’twas, and for its cooperation I am truly thankful.’
The man in black brushed some sawdust off his immaculate black trousers, delicately removed his black Florentine leather gloves, and looked at his redheaded compatriot. ‘The fact is you never could bear heights. Admit it: there is no faster way for getting about Paris than the rooftops. I thought someone of your skill would surely be enticed by the incredible jewels present at Schluysen-von Holstein’s tonight. What brings you to this icy catacomb with so much opportunity present elsewhere?’
‘This you know the same as m’self,’ said the redhead, who was named Henry ‘Three Fingers’ Gilhooley. ‘The Baron has flatfoots and crowd-watchers everywhere. Only a person touched by the fool would dream of such acts of daring on a night like tonight. And while the rest of Paris is blessedly empty,’ he added. ‘Opportunities elsewhere, don’t you see?’
‘It is a long drive out to the palace,’ the black-clad man agreed, speaking with some authority, for he was the famed cat burglar Jean Lafitte, known popularly as ‘l’Oiseau.’ It was reported that he could easily scale any vertical surface and live to tell about it; he possessed a combination of skill and daring, and was known as a master locksmith. ‘Not to mention the unpatrolled stretch back through the Bois, which can be dangerous, even for our kind.’
‘One could be home early tonight after a good night’s work,’ Gilhooley nodded. ‘Do a bit of business, curl up between warm sheets, that’s what I say. Fancy meeting you in this lonely old warehouse. Is there some lovely prize you know about? We could easily divvy the profits from it. You aren’t here for those gilded tables from the palace of the Princess Bertrande, are you?’
‘Baf!’ l’Oiseau sniffed, crunching his nose in a singularly Gallic way. ‘Those tables are clearly inferior reproductions, absolutely worthless. I would never sully my hands on them! But I suspect you intend to remove two famous T’ang dynasty urns before the night is over.’
Gilhooley cracked an elfish grin. ‘Tis common knowledge that those urns have long departed this warehouse. Perhaps you plan to pilfer the bust of Aphrodite from Herculaneum, which they say has the mark of the Master of Corinth.’
‘Can you imagine my carrying such a heavy object over the rooftops at this hour of the night, you lunatic? Certainly not. Let us get to the reality of the situation. We know why we are both here, for somewhere in this room resides the greatest prize in Paris, but whose whereabouts few—save you and I—surely know. In the past, your informants have been disreputable …’
‘And who’s hired you?’ Gilhooley chuckled. ‘Some equally respectable chap, eh?’
‘Let me remind you that the party who has deputized you is a complete idiot,’ l’Oiseau told him. ‘A man more indiscreet than your employer I have never seen in all my years.’
‘If you mean the joker who calls himself Humphrey, Earl of Pinckney, I won’t say you’re wrong,’ Gilhooley answered. ‘For never was I approached in such a blatant and incompetent way. It makes me think we engage in some form of legitimate business.’ Both men laughed politely, then regarded each other for a few moments.
‘Evidently we are both here for the same reason,’ l’Oiseau finally offered. ‘So I may as well be candid with you. Schluysen-von Holstein’s security could not prevent me from attending the ball. The truth is that the Baron himself is my employer, and he has offered me an immense sum to obtain the painting for him.’
‘Tis how immense a sum?’
L’Oiseau named a truly magnificent amount, whose mention was punctuated by a brilliant blaze of light overhead and the crackling sound of distant fireworks. Gilhooley whistled in admiration, and a sunny expression crossed his face. ‘My English Lord will need to empty his pockets to take his prize,’ he said delightedly. ‘For he has offered to double anyone else’s price. That is, if I can deliver what he asks.’
‘I suspect more people than our employers want this painting and are willing to pay a great deal of money for it.’
‘Now who else might be tossing in a bid?’ Gilhooley asked.
‘Henri du Lacnoir has arrived in Paris,’ l’Oiseau informed him. ‘And he, too, is making inquiries. I cannot deny I was already visited by an agent of his. This suggests a singular opportunity for two businessmen as clever as we.’
‘If that man is interested then we need the luck of the Blarney, for he only deals in serious goods. I don’t like fooling with him, though. If we get on his wrong side, our worries will be truly over, if you take my meaning, ha ha. I dearly love this life, to be sure, and don’t want it to end early.’
‘Then it is imperative we proceed cautiously. Clearly two minds with our combined experience and nerve could equal him, formidable as he is.’
‘Who do you reckon he is working for?’ Gilhooley removed his cap and scratched his mop of hair.
‘The rumour I have heard is that he is employed by an extremely wealthy foreign gentleman, and it is my opinion that it can only be the Maharajah of Jaipur, who will buy anything which costs an excessive amount of money. He nearly acquired that astounding strand of pearls in London last month, before his Dutch agents became squeamish at the last moment in the auction.’
Gilhooley snapped his fingers and pointed to his left eye. ‘Exactly my thought!’
Neither man spoke. Both mentally computed how very rich they could become, and considered the ways they could manipulate the situation to their own advantage. In the sky above Paris strange flickering lights danced on the skylights, and the sound of distant explosions interrupted the silence. The men considered their options.
‘’Tis clear we have an opportunity,’ Gilhooley finally stated.
‘You are so correct.’
‘But we haven’t much time before all of Paris comes back to life. If we are to profit from this at all we had better work together.’
‘I agree wholeheartedly.’
‘So get up off that crate, man, help me find this damned painting and sure we’ll put it some place where only we know its location. ‘’Tis then we can discover how much money really is to be made from The Crimson Garter.’
Captain Harry Blackpool followed Tatiana across the dance floor, and any fool could see it was Grazia she intended to observe. This simplified matters immensely, he thought, until a letter was passed to Grazia by Misha Stefan, which still was not a problem, until it all fell under the surveillance of Tatiana Stregova. The art dealer stole away seconds after the letter had left his hands, pursued by a small army of false gypsies, each vying for his attention. Blackpool followed Tatiana, Tatiana followed La Fragolina. It resembled a comedy of manners or a popular novel, he reminded himself, except that lives and fortunes figured.
La Fragolina set off in the direction of the lounges, with Tatiana fast on her footsteps. In a deft move the Russian ballerina jostled Grazia, Captain Blackpool clearly observed her slip her hand into her rival’s apron pocket, and with a quick and skilful jerk of her wrist remove the letter, unseen by Grazia. Now we will need to get the letter back for her, Blackpool thought. But he was forced to halt where he stood, for La Fragolina had entered the antechamber of the lounges, and no man would be allowed within, not even with the talents of Harry Blackpool; at the same moment Tatiana reversed her direction, determined to put as much distance between herself and Grazia as possible. Blackpool knew that panic would figure in Grazia’s future, for as soon as she realized the letter had disappeared she would frantically search for it, ignorant of the truth of her misfortune. He chose to follow Tatiana, who appeared to be headed for the terrace with great earnestness. He, too, was curious to discover the letter’s contents, and he was confident that he could recover La Fragolina as soon as the business with the letter was settled.
With a kind of intuition borne of years following unconscious subjects Harry Blackpool stayed only a few steps behind Tatiana, expertly weaving through the teeming crowd, quickly discerning she meant to leave the palace via the garden. Seeking seclusion, she cut to the left as soon as she exited the dining hall. She positioned herself in a private alcove, bathed in golden light from the nearby windows, and Captain Blackpool stationed himself behind the base of a statue, his monk’s habit blending invisibly into the depths of shadow.
Tatiana Stregova nearly tore the letter open, and he saw her gasp, then laugh in delight when a red object dropped from the folds of the letter onto the terrace floor. She stooped to pick it up, and as she brought it closer to her face a beam of light fell on it and he recognized it as a crimson garter. His eyes narrowed, and he nodded to himself twice, intrigued, certain that another piece had fallen into the puzzle. Tatiana re-read the letter, a satisfied and calculating look came over her countenance, she folded it back up with the garter inside, and thrust it into her own pocket. Looking about to make certain she had not been seen, she headed back for the ballroom ready to exploit the letter to the greatest degree she could. Her mind filled with sable coats and emerald tiaras, which she intended to acquire once the letter had done its work for her.
To achieve this end she made a beeline for the indefatigable, bobbing, gold-turbaned head of the Earl of Pinckney, who was dancing with his thirtieth Fragolina of the night, giving much the same speech he had to all the others, in obvious pursuit of information about Balthazar and the scandalous painting. Tatiana would not wait for the end of the dance. Instead, she tapped him on the shoulder forcefully. ‘Please to dance with me right now!’ she insisted. The passion of her utterance did not escape Pinckney, who stammered excuses to the thirtieth Fragolina, and took up with Tatiana at once. When the dance allowed them to promenade side by side she leaned inward at him and coming as close to his ear as she possibly could she breathed, ‘Please to meet me in the gazebo when fireworks begin. I have wonderful information for which Englishman will pay handsomely.’ Pinckney gulped in surprise, but before he could inquire any further of her, Tatiana darted away. He bowed from side to side as he tried to keep up with her escape, albeit unsuccessfully. Owing to the number of couples engaged in the dance he was able to elude the gaggle of nobles who mistook him for Balthazar, and slipping between some conveniently placed hedges he slithered down a staircase and along the base of the terrace, stealthily tiptoeing to the gazebo, unaware of the continuing scrutiny of Captain Blackpool.
Although Grazia loved a display of fireworks and wanted to watch them, for they were expected to be spectacular, she knew that this particular moment might be her only opportunity to read the precious letter which Misha Stefan had passed to her a short time before. It would hold some clue as to the unknown events in which she had become unwittingly involved, and for that reason she had pushed her way through a throng of costumed women, into a private chamber of the lounge, where she intended to peruse the letter while the better part of the crowd stood outside on the terrace admiring the pyrotechnics. Now alone in the louvered closet she slipped her hand into the pocket where she was sure she had placed the letter, but the pocket was empty. Perhaps she had moved the letter into the other hand unconsciously amid the crowd, so she placed her left hand into the other pocket but found nothing, and went back to the first. Empty again, both empty. She looked for a moment into her bodice, thinking she had slipped it there in her confusion, and when the letter did not appear she removed her skirt entirely in a panic, shook it out, looked over every inch of the floor and as she re-laced the skirt around her eventually accepted the fact that the letter had disappeared, a most disturbing complication. The first suspect who came to mind was Tatiana Stregova, whom Grazia had picked out from behind her own mask, lurking among the crowd, putting on airs, fawning, moving in society as she had always done, with little subtlety or finesse. It was unlikely that the real Fragolina had been recognized, yet she did distinctly remember being jostled in the mêlée just after receiving the letter from Misha. Whether it had slipped out by accident or had been purloined she did not know, but she meant to retrace her steps hoping to discover it somewhere on the floor, and if it could not be thus recovered she would seek out Misha Stefan. If he was not to be found, then the only answer was Prague, and an interview with Count Kozlowski, whose name had been given her at the moment the letter was passed. She sensed a connection between Count Kozlowski and the painting, but she had no idea what it was. Balthazar, Robert Marsh, the Earl of Pinckney, Misha Stefan, Count Kozlowski: each man had some role in her personal drama, and she was fast becoming impatient with information these men withheld, lost, forgot or never spoke. And what of the monk she had noticed more than once lurking about in the crowd? As far as she could remember, no monk had ever appeared as a character in The Gypsy’s Daughter. It was yet another bizarre coincidence which she wondered if she would ever understand.
A brilliant burst of coloured fire in the sky revealed two profiles nearly touching noses in the gazebo of the garden behind the Palais Schluysen-von Holstein. On one side sat the Earl of Pinckney, truly delighted, for this appeared to be his first real lead. Opposite him, her knees lightly grazing his, sat Tatiana Stregova, holding before her in her right hand the letter which Misha Stefan had passed to Grazia, and which she now possessed.
She elegantly elevated her left hand and her long fingers went for Pinckney’s curls just under the loose band of his golden turban. ‘Ah but dear English Lord, I cannot surrender letter for nothing. You have no idea how much it cost me. What must handsome English Lord have to do with humble ballerina, simple dancer like myself? Could be you do not want letter. I know someone else who does. But I have come first to handsome fascinating English Lord.’
‘Very good of you my dear, very good,’ Pinckney assured her in a panting rasp. ‘Not at all, not at all. I am perfectly happy to compensate you for the trouble you have gone to. But I cannot give you money for a letter whose contents I do not know. Perhaps this is a magnificent hoax crafted for my deception by some insidious enemy. How do I know you are not trying to—just what pray tell are you doing?’
Tatiana’s fingers had migrated southward, past Pinckney’s ear, down his neck, and now seductively stroked his throat. When the fingers reached his collarbone she said, ‘How dare you suggest I try to deceive you? You are such handsome English Lord and such elegant gypsy king, in golden scarf.’ She gingerly closed her fingertips over the Earl of Pinckney’s ruby pin at his throat. ‘Perhaps you wish to give me this as a memory of our friendship, something red for something red.’ From her bodice she produced a crimson garter and held it close to Pinckney’s quivering nose. It was unmistakable, the same garter as appeared in the notorious painting, and the Earl of Pinckney breathlessly reached for it. She held it aloft from him. ‘Not so fast, handsome English Lord. First ruby, then garter.’ Reluctantly, and with some resignation he unclasped his scarlet pin and offered it to her. He quickly forgot the unpleasantness of the transaction when she handed him the garter, and turning it around in his fingers his delighted demeanour returned.
‘Now something for letter,’ Tatiana cooed. She waved the folded sheet back and forth in front of him slowly, as if it was a butterfly borne by a flirtatious breeze. Overhead another brilliant fusillade of colour ignited, illuminating the panting pair in the gazebo.
From his post nearby, Captain Harry Blackpool could clearly identify the red object held by the Earl of Pinckney in his trembling hand. In the moment that followed a rather heavy coin purse found its way out of Pinckney’s vest pocket and into Tatiana’s grasp, and once again the letter changed hands, this time in the undulating light.
A vision of a gigantic cut glass bowl overflowing with grey caviar filled Tatiana’s mind. Tomorrow she would buy pounds of it and vodka, too. Captain Blackpool watched her plant a sloppy kiss on Pinckney’s mouth, then slink out of his grasping arms, striding back to the terrace as fast as her ballerina legs could carry her. She intended to find the monk next and sell him her knowledge of the letter, its whereabouts, and its contents. If all went according to plan, tomorrow a new sable coat would be the first of her rewards.
‘She is looking for me,’ thought Harry Blackpool. ‘Well, I will just follow the Earl of Pinckney for a while and try to remove the letter from circulation, no matter what it says.’ Captain Blackpool puzzled at the idea of Sir Robert Marsh retaining such a gadfly to act as his agent in Paris. Names were bound to figure in all this sooner or later. The Earl, inept, hopelessly honest and wealthy enough to be able to afford it, embarrassed himself constantly. There was no doubt Marsh had put him up to gathering information about his wife and the rumours which surrounded her. The man had raged about town making indiscreet remarks and extravagant offers, and had inquired of every character, high and low. All because Marsh wanted the painting removed from the public eye and any evidence of Grazia’s complicity eradicated. He was not alone. The Baron had hired someone else to find it, and Captain Blackpool had been deputized by Vittorio to recover it. Even the Fifth Maharajah of Jaipur had sent word he wanted the painting, price no object.
Inside the gazebo the gypsy in the gold turban experienced a shortness of breath as he wheezed in giddy delight at what Tatiana had just placed in his hands. He now possessed the letter, the actual letter written by Balthazar to La Fragolina, replete with protestations of high passion, not to mention hints of scandal! This indicated a deeper degree of involvement than Sir Robert had ever represented. The most unbelievable detail was the crimson garter, the actual crimson garter, which she had worn on her thigh. Pinckney thrust the garter into his vest, and read the letter again.
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