by Frank Chadwick
Munich Bavaria, aboard the (landed) Hochflieger Ost
December 10, 1887, late afternoon
Gabrielle Courbiere finished pinning up her hair and looked in the stateroom mirror to be certain she was presentable. She was. Men told her she was more than simply presentable, that she was in fact strikingly beautiful. If asked to describe her own appearance, she would have said it was ordinary in every respect—not unusually tall or short, figure neither exceptionally heavy nor thin, facial features very regular. It occurred to her, and not for the first time, that it was odd how men found the average of feminine characteristics so exceptional. She accepted this judgment on its face; she had no means of judging its validity as she did not find women sexually arousing herself.
Gabrielle had difficulty understanding any emotion which she did not herself experience, and so the feelings of others remained generally elusive, and their behaviors often surprising and seemingly irrational. Despite the potentially fatal consequences of such a disability in a spy, the men who headed the intelligence apparatus of the Democratic and Social Republic of France had given Gabrielle this covert assignment of a most critical nature. They had done so because she, who until then had worked only in the research department, asked for it and provided an extensive list of arguments as to why she was the correct choice, a list which would have been tiresomely long coming from any other aspirant but which her male superiors had listened to with the appearance of rapt attention, although in truth few of them would afterwards have been able to tell you even a fraction of what she had said.
Her assignment, while requiring both discretion and brazenness in turn, did not seem difficult to her. She was to contact an anarchist agent and exchange one leather document tube for another. They would make the exchange on the Hochflieger Ost, the enormous and luxurious commercial zeppelin which linked Berlin to Istanbul by way of Munich, Vienna, and Budapest. Gabrielle had boarded the zeppelin in Berlin early that morning and the other agent was to board here, in Munich. Once aloft over Austria and the Balkans, legal jurisdiction would be problematic and they could make the transfer with greater safety, at least from the authorities. The presence of hostile agents was always a danger to be guarded against, of course.
Gabrielle opened her purse and made sure the small LeFaucheux revolver was where she had positioned it. She pursed her lips. She would far rather have brought a shotgun for protection, but it would surely have been confiscated upon boarding. As this unsatisfactory toylike revolver was all she had managed to conceal, it would have to do.
Gabrielle did not know what the anarchist looked like. She only knew he would be travelling on a British passport and he had been told to contact the attractive blonde French lady travelling alone. Gabrielle hoped the agent’s notion of an attractive female corresponded to that of her superiors. She thought that aspect of the plan troublesomely vague.
Among the qualifications she had listed for the assignment was her fluency in both German and English, although she had omitted the fact that her English was learned from books and so she had little grasp of conversational idioms. Gabrielle had already decided that, to the extent feasible, she would conceal her knowledge of foreign languages in the hopes of provoking a loose comment or admission. Mentally reaffirming this part of her plan, she finished dressing quickly and left her cabin for the main salon, where she believed she stood the best chance of contacting the agent among the throng of boarding passengers.
“Do you have any firearms or incendiaries?”
“Certainly not! Do you take me for the anarchist?” Etienne Villon—who was in fact exactly that—declaimed these words with what he imagined to be the outraged arrogance of an Englishman. He waved the folded document in his hand at the corpulent Bavarian customs clerk. “I have the passport Britanique!”
The official took the forged passport from him but eyed him with suspicion.
“Forgive me …” He paused to read the name on the document, “Herr Le Marchant, but you do not sound English, nor does your name sound English.”
“English? I am a subject of the British crown, but certainly not English. I am Dgèrnésiais, from the island of Guernsey.”
The official frowned and read the passport more carefully. “Gernezey? I have never heard of this.”
“Dgèrnésiais,” Etienne repeated impatiently, his pretended anger beginning to give way to the real thing. “From Guernsey.”
“Ach, ja. It says here you are from the island of Guernsey.”
“Yes, Guernsey, you great . . .” He choked off the expletive and took a breath to calm himself. It would do no good to enrage this representative of the German state apparatus. Frowning, the customs official spread the forged passport on his counter and selected a large and forbidding-looking rubber stamp from the rack in front of him.
“We have the long and glorious tradition of service to the Anglaise,” Etienne added hastily. “My grandfather was a general, Jean Le Marchant.”
The official stamped the passport and handed it back. “You may board now,” he said.
“He commanded Wellington’s cavalry at Salamanca. We thrashed those despicable Frenchies that day!”
“Ja, ja. Move along, bitte,” the official said, his attention already on the overweight lady and her bored daughter standing next in line.
Etienne, who was short and not particularly strong, puffed with exertion carrying his valise and the vitally important document tube up the folding metal stairway to the zeppelin’s boarding hatch. Perspiration suddenly ran down his face, and not simply from the physical labor. That was close! he thought. Ever since he had taken this assignment, his life had hung by the most slender of threads. The slightest misstep or mistake would surely lead to exposure, arrest, torture, and death. But what did it matter? The cause, only the cause mattered. What was his life compared to the cause of freedom? Nothing! His life was nothing and he would gladly give it for freedom. For freedom and justice.
And truth! Truth was the most important cause of all, he thought, as he pocketed his forged passport.
Gabrielle took her place at a small table in the salon, chosen for its excellent view of the doors at either end of the long room. She ordered café au lait and thought through the mission.
A member of a covert anarchist organization called the Chevaliers Autonome de la Peuple (Independent Knights of the People) had stolen a complete set of engineering drawings of a new and quite advanced design of British aether battleship, to be christened the Prince of Wales. Unfortunately, the theft was discovered almost at once and all traffic across the Pas de Calais closed to prevent the agent’s escape to France. He had instead made his way by fishing boat to Norway and then had been helped to Munich by Volksritterbund, the German branch of his organization, generally known simply as der Bund. Once they made contact, she would exchange a sheaf of charcoal-sketched landscapes of the French countryside for the aether battleship plans, each rolled up in identical brown leather carrying tubes.
“I beg your pardon, Miss, but are you bound for Istanbul?”
Two middle-aged gentlemen—one lean and one portly--occupied the table to her left. The heavier man, who sat closest to her, had asked the question in English.
Although she understood him perfectly, she gave him a puzzled look. “Pardonez moi?”
“Ah. French,” he said to his lean companion, whose attention seemed more on his newspaper than the conversation. “Well damn me. Eighteen months ago in Belgium we and the Huns were shooting them down like swine, and now Frogs ride on the zepps as pretty as you please.” He turned back to Gabrielle and spoke slowly and loudly.
“YOU…” And he pointed forcefully at her several times, “GO…” Making a motion in the air back and forth with his left hand, perhaps representing the passage of the zeppelin although Gabrielle could not be sure . . . , “IS—TAN—BULL?” he finished and put his forefingers pointing up from the top of his head, like a bull’s horns. Gabrielle laughed.
“Ah, oui! Istanbul.”
“Jolly good,” he said and then turned back to his companion. “Nothing like a French tart to liven up the landscape.” His friend lowered the newspaper and looked at Gabrielle for a moment, nodded politely to her, and then went back to his reading.
“Best keep your mind on our business,” the slender man said.
“Well damn me, speak of our business and in it walks,” the first man said. His companion again lowered the newspaper and the two of them watched a new arrival carry his bags through the entryway and toward the bar. “Armbruster,” the portly man added, and his lip curled in a sneer as he said it.
“That chap behind the Prince of Wales mess?” his companion said, folding his newspaper and now clearly interested.
“That’s the one. A bounder for certain. We’d best keep an eye on him.”
The Prince of Wales! The name of the stolen aether battleship plans. Gabrielle felt a surge of excitement. Had she, by sheer chance, taken a seat by the very British agents she would have to guard against on this mission? And had they already identified the agent she was to contact? Trying not to show any particular interest she followed their gaze and saw a tall man shouldering his way through the crowd. He certainly dressed as an Englishman, in tweeds, and he carried a circular leather document tube over one shoulder! It was not exactly the same as hers—larger and a lighter shade of brown leather—which was inconvenient, but how was der Bund to know the exact dimensions and color of the case she would bring?
Without looking at the two British agents beside her she recalled their exact words—another of her particular talents— and combed through them for any additional clues. Most of the words she understood, but what was a bounder? The English always mispronounced foreign words, sometimes she thought as a matter of pride. Could he have meant a member of der Bund? And the lean British agent had described this new arrival as a chap. What was a chap? Some sort of code perhaps? What could it—Ah! Of course. Chevaliers Autonome de la Peuple. Ch-A-P!
The tall man stopped by the salon bar, lowered his valise and document case to the deck, and ordered a drink from a steward. Maintaining an appearance of outward calm, Gabrielle finished her café au lait and left a ten-pfennig coin beside the saucer. She rose and crossed the crowded salon toward the man who, whiskey glass in hand, now watched her approach. He raised an eyebrow in quiet inquiry and she answered in kind, bringing a knowing smile to his face.
Aware that the British agents would be watching, she did not look at him or address him directly when she reached his side, but instead stood with her hands on the railing beside the large glass windows which overlooked the landing ground and, stretching away behind it, the city of Munich. Her eyes on the crowd below, she said in a quiet voice meant only for his ears, “Bonjour, Monsieur. You are perhaps interested in a French lady traveling alone?”
Before answering he took a large swallow of whiskey.
“You must have read my mind,” he replied in a low voice.
“I hardly think that necessary. Your accent, it is quite good by the way.”
“Well, why wouldn’t it be?” he said.
That was true, she thought. An agent passing for British would have paid special attention to this detail. “Do you perhaps have some pictures to show me?” she asked.
“Pictures?” he repeated and then smiled. “Why yes, I have some very fine etchings in my stateroom I think you may find quite interesting.”
“Bon,” she answered. Below the window the ground crews made ready to unmoor the zeppelin. Their shadows stretched behind them, rendered long and grotesque by the angle of the setting sun. The ship would be aloft in a few minutes. Gabrielle made a quick calculation as to how long before they would be safely over Austrian air space.
“I will come to your cabin at eleven this evening. What is the number?”
He took another swallow of whiskey and then fetched a key from his pocket.
“One seven nine,” he said.
“One seven nine,” she repeated. “Eleven this evening.” Without looking at him she turned and left.
Waldo Armbruster watched her leave, watched her walk the length of the salon, and felt a glow in his lower body not entirely the result of the whiskey. How could he be so lucky with women and so damned unlucky at baccarat? That was a mystery which sometimes plagued him, but wouldn’t trouble him much tonight, he imagined
He picked up his valise and the cylindrical leather fly rod carrier and set off to find his stateroom.
A few minutes later Etienne Villon--aka Etienne Le Marchant—entered the salon and found a prominent place in the center of the room where he would be clearly visible to the French agent, and where he might pick her out as well. How many attractive French ladies would be traveling alone on the zeppelin? Not many, he hoped. He waited for an hour, waited as the crowd gradually thinned. He felt more and more exposed and alone, more and more as if he had walked into a trap. Soon he became certain of it.
Very well. If the English had trapped him then he would at least show them how a man of ideals, a man of principles, could die with dignity. Although his stomach churned with anxiety and he felt slightly nauseous, he squared his shoulders and looked around the room with an expression of haughty disdain.
Ten minutes later the steward’s staff asked him to leave so they could set the tables for supper. To his surprise, no one attempted to arrest him when he did so.
Later that evening . . .
Waldo Armbruster rose from his chair in response to the knock at his stateroom door. He examined his pocket watch and his eyebrows went up.
“Almost an hour early,” he said to himself. “The young darling must have been particularly captivated by my charm.” He drained the brandy and soda—his third—and walked somewhat unsteadily to the door. Throwing it open he prepared to greet the delicious French lady but his smile vanished. “Oh. I can explain.”
At eleven o’clock precisely, Gabrielle turned the corner in the corridor which led to stateroom one-seven-nine and saw a small crowd of a dozen or so people in the passageway talking among themselves. As she grew near she realized the crowd milled before the open door to the very stateroom she wished to visit.
“You must clear the passageway,” a white-coated steward said in German, and made pushing motions with his hands. “All passengers will please return to their cabins at once, by order of the Hauptzahlmeister.”
Gabrielle wondered what would have brought the Hauptzahlmeister—the vessel’s chief purser—here. “What has happened?” she asked in German of a couple turning to leave.
“A murder!” the woman answered. “Quite ghastly, they say. A great deal of blood.”
Gabrielle pushed on through the thinning crowd of passengers and saw the two British agents leaving in the opposite direction. Were they behind this? What else was she to think? When she reached the doorway, the steward held out his hands as if to stop her.
“No, my dear lady, you must return to your cabin at once.”
“But I have important business with the man in this cabin. If there has been foul play, I may know the reason why.”
“Foul play?” she heard a deep voice from inside the stateroom repeat. A tall, stout, handsome man of middle age, dressed in white tie and tails, appeared beside the steward. He was clearly not a member of the crew and yet the steward immediately deferred to him.
“Baron Renfrew,” the steward said, “this lady says she had business with the deceased.”
“What sort of business?” the baron asked.
Gabrielle opened her handbag and retrieved one of the business cards her superiors had provided as a cover for her mission. It read:
Mme. Gabrielle Courbiere
Commisaire-priseur de Beaux-Arts
13 Rue Madeleine, Le Havre, France
“Appraiser of fine art?” the baron said. “I did not suspect Armbruster’s tastes ran to that.”
Gabrielle instantly noticed three things: the baron had no difficulty in reading French, he apparently knew the agent, and the agent’s assumed name was Armbruster.
“As to his tastes I have no opinion, having met him only once and briefly,” she said. “He corresponded with me and said he had a number of previously unknown charcoal sketches of the French countryside by Jean-François Millet.”
“Millet?” the baron asked.
“Oui. Millet was one of the founders of the school Barbizan. If the landscapes are authentic they are quite valuable. I paid Monsieur Armbruster a considerable sum in advance, with the balance to be delivered if I could determine their authenticity. I have a proprietary interest in them, you see? He carried them in a cylindrical leather case. Was such a case found?”
The baron’s expression flickered in surprise. “Cylindrical case? You’d better come in,” he said, and the steward immediately stood aside and bowed. “Wait out here and see that we are not disturbed,” the baron added to the steward.
Etienne Villon closed the door of his stateroom behind him and leaned against it, his head reeling. His aimless wandering, looking for the French agent, had led him to the crowd at the murder scene and there he had seen the woman who must be his contact—the overheard discussion of the landscape charcoals, her French accent, and above all her dizzying beauty, left no doubt in his mind.
He had not dared to make contact with her in public, but now he seethed with anxiety. He saw her talking with Baron Renfrew, saw her enter the stateroom and the door close behind her. Was it possible she did not know she stood face-to-face with the very embodiment of everything they fought against? No! Surely a French agent would know this man on sight and understand the terrible menace he represented. But she had walked into unspeakable, terrifying danger without a trace of fear, or even of hesitation. This was bravery of an order he had never witnessed before.
Extraordinary bravery and celestial beauty combined in one woman, and all of it dedicated to their common cause. A woman truly worth dying for!
He must find a way to rescue her.
“It seems to me the man simply fell and hit his head on the corner of this small table,” the slender ship’s doctor said as he polished the lenses of his pince nez glasses. Beside him the chief purser nodded rapidly but with a look of clear distress on his ruddy, black-whiskered face. Gabrielle could imagine numerous reasons why he would prefer an accident to a murder.
She took a step closer and examined the body. Armbruster lay on his stomach with the small wooden table beside him. A corner of the table top was jaggedly broken off and the left side of the man’s skull was cracked open, brains exposed.
That was quite interesting. She had never before seen a man’s brains.
There was also, as the lady in the corridor had suggested, a considerable amount of blood which had begun to coagulate but was by no means dry. Much of it had puddled on the hardwood deck around the dead man’s head but she also saw evidence of a fine spray of blood, probably from the impact with the table. She noticed that no one had stepped in the blood, so that aspect of the scene was certainly undisturbed.
“Perhaps he fell,” she said. “Or perhaps it was staged to look this way, n’est ce pas? If this was an accident, the drawings will still be here.”
The doctor forcefully put his pince nez glasses back on and scowled, clearly annoyed to have his opinion contradicted. The chief purser shook his head in alarm.
“No, you must leave this to us, Madame Courbiere,” the purser said, but the baron cleared his throat and the two other men immediately turned to him.
“Considering the strained international situation,” the baron said slowly, his voice serious, “and the delicate relations between Germany and France, the zeppelin line may prefer you to exercise a special consideration for this lady’s business interests.” Although to Gabrielle’s ear the baron offered this as if solicitous advice, not a command, the chief purser straightened to attention.
“Of course, Herr Baron. Danke schön! Now let us find this case.”
For the next ten minutes the four of them—Gabrielle, the baron, the doctor, and the chief purser—searched the small cabin for the leather document tube but found nothing but a half-empty bottle of brandy, a small book of salacious photographs, slightly more than twenty pounds sterling in British currency, and Armbruster’s clothing and toiletries.
“He had the leather case with him when he boarded this afternoon,” Gabrielle insisted.
“The lady is unfortunately correct,” the doctor told the chief purser. “I saw it myself.”
The chief purser stared in appeal at the doctor for a moment but then his shoulders sagged and he shook his head.
“Ach! A murder. Never before has there been a murder on Der Hochflieger Ost. When we land in Vienna later today the authorities will want to know everything. Our passengers will be detained. It will be a great embarrassment to the firm. You, Baron, of course, will not be inconvenienced.”
The baron nodded his acknowledgement of what was apparently obvious to everyone but Gabrielle.
“You are perhaps the owner of the line?” she asked.
He gave her a quizzical smile in return. “I have no formal association with the zeppelin firm. The chief purser allowed me to be present as a courtesy. Armbruster was a fellow countryman, and… an acquaintance.”
He did not say friend, Gabrielle noticed. “A countryman--you are English? Your German is quite good.”
“Not exactly English. Welsh, I suppose.” He paused and smiled again as if at a private joke. “My family is originally from Germany. I still have relatives there.”
“Ah, très bien. Now, as to the murder: the chief purser is concerned with the delay and scandal, oui? But if we discover the criminal ourselves before we reach Vienna, all will be well. The man who has the missing case is surely our murderer.”
The man . . . or men, she thought.
“But how shall we proceed?” the chief purser asked, and looked at the others in desperation. The doctor answered in a voice clearly accustomed to giving commands.
“I see no alternative to a polite but insistent search of the passenger cabins for the missing tube.” The chief purser began to object, but the doctor waved him to silence and pressed on. “Surely the Viennese police will do the same, and with less consideration for our passengers and less discretion.”
The baron frowned in thought for a moment and looked up when he realized the other men were waiting for his opinion. “Yes, I do not suppose there is a good alternative.”
Gabrielle took one last look around the floor of the stateroom to see if anything was amiss, a button perhaps fortuitously lost from the murderer’s coat, or something dropped from a pocket, but she saw nothing out of place. She did notice that the baron’s shoes were polished almost to a mirror brightness, but that there were three very small dull dots on them, three spots where they did not reflect the light.
Dried blood? Surrounded as she was by the baron’s allies, she chose not to reveal what she had just noticed.
Etienne watched through the narrow crack of his partly open stateroom door as the young French lady, the baron, a ship’s officer and an older gentleman passed in the corridor. Once they were gone he entered the hallway and, walking in the opposite direction, soon came to the door guarded by one of the stewards. Etienne walked up to him as casually as he could manage.
“Quite some excitement, eh?” he said.
“Yes, sir,” the young steward answered.
“And that woman . . .” He touched his fingertips to his lips.
“A real beauty,” the steward agreed with a smile. “And she is French, like you, sir.”
“Oh, I am not French!” Etienne corrected him. “I am Dgèrnésiais, from the island of Guernsey. We all love Queen Victoria there very much.”
The steward looked confused but Etienne forged ahead.
“Did you perhaps overhear her name? She seems quite charming.”
“Yes, uh, Gabrielle Courbiere. She deals in art.”
Etienne thanked the steward and walked back down the corridor in the direction he had just come. Gabrielle Courbiere! The name seemed to sing in his head. Gabrielle, he thought, and then shook his head. A woman this courageous and resourceful, this dedicated to their cause, would not be so frivolous as to go by her first name. Non. She would be simply Courbiere. She had the strength and majesty of . . . of a mountain, he thought. Yes, a mountain!
Mont Courbiere, he said to himself, and Villon repeated it, liking the sound of the name.
Now he must rescue her from her terrible danger, even if doing so cost him his life. First he would need to create a diversion.
Gabrielle found one thing in this affair puzzling. If Baron Renfrew had murdered the agent Armbruster and taken the stolen plans—which seemed increasingly likely—why had he agreed to a search of the cabins? One possibility was that he was considered above suspicion and so his cabin would not be searched. Another was that he had hidden the plans, and perhaps already disposed of the leather document tube. But why would he do these things? Why not simply turn Armbuster over to the authorities and recover the plans in that manner? Germany was an ally of Britain and would surely have cooperated.
Then she remembered that in her own stateroom was a leather document tube containing charcoal sketches of the French countryside, and rendered in the style of Millet. She hoped she was above suspicion as well. Otherwise explaining the presence of those items could prove extremely difficult.
“Oh my,” she said.
“I beg your pardon?” the baron said.
“I was just recalling that I forgot to lock my stateroom when I left it earlier. I hope nothing has been disturbed.”
“I would normally say you have nothing to worry about, but that seems patently untrue this evening.” He said this with wry humor, Gabrielle noticed. Despite the physical evidence, it was difficult for her to reconcile the man she observed standing beside her with a verdict of murder. On one hand he seemed genuinely puzzled by these events but on the other hand somehow amused by them, or perhaps entertained would be a better word. What sort of man is entertained by the events surrounding the murder of an acquaintance?
Another party of officers joined their group in the small passenger lounge they had appropriated as a headquarters. The chief purser raised his hands for attention and then explained the situation to the others. They would break into teams of two crewmen each, one a purser’s assistant with a pass key and one a ship’s officer for additional authority, and methodically search the passenger staterooms for the missing leather document tube. As the passengers would be asleep, they must wake them and conduct the search as politely as possible, and without alarming them, but with dispatch.
“What does this tube look like?” one officer asked.
“I believe I can help with that,” Baron Renfrew said. “I sent for my man Winslow and—right, here he is now.”
Gabrielle turned and saw a well-dressed man enter the lounge and he carried the very document case Gabrielle had seen with Armbruster. She nearly gasped with surprise but managed to restrain herself and maintain a look of outward calm.
“Madame Courbiere, going by your previous description it seemed this case of mine was similar to that carried by Mister Armbruster. Would you say that was so?” The Baron asked this with his eyes locked on hers and his expression intent.
Gabrielle stepped forward and looked at the case carefully.
“I would say it is identical.”
A murmur ran through the assembled officers.
“Of course, the case we are looking for contains rare art, doesn’t it?” the baron said. “This one contains only my fly rod.” He removed the lid and showed the officers its contents. Several nodded in appreciation of the obvious quality of the rod it contained. “Also, I doubt Mister Armbruster’s missing container will have my name on it,” he added and pointed to the engraved brass plate attached near the carrying strap. “A Christmas gift last year from my wife Alexandra,” he added.
He was very clever, this Baron Renfrew, Gabrielle thought. He had deflected any suspicion from having the plans by bringing Armbruster’s container here to display. Or perhaps it was the case’s double. Was he planning a switch of his own? But how would he know what the container looked like? No, unlikely. This must be the case itself. But why would Armbruster’s case have Renfrew’s name on it? Could the baron have affixed it to the case after stealing it? Perhaps.
“Are there any other questions?” the chief purser asked.
“I have two additional points to make,” Gabrielle added. The chief purser glanced to Refrew and, apparently having received the right nonverbal reply, nodded to her.
“First, the thief may have transferred the art to a different container, so look for any document tube.
“Second, and most importantly, you must under no circumstances open and examine the container. It contains very delicate artwork which is potentially priceless, both in its own right and for its historical significance. I have the equipment in my cabin to examine it and determine its authenticity, but none of you has been trained to handle such fragile items without damaging them. Such damage would be unconscionable.”
The chief purser, perhaps mindful of Baron Renfrew’s earlier advice concerning the delicate relations between France and Germany, reinforced her instructions not to open the containers, and then he sent the parties on their way, leading one himself. Gabrielle and Renfrew were left alone in the lounge.
Renfrew drew a cigar from the inner pocket of his jacket and fingered it idly.
“You intend to smoke here?” Gabrielle asked.
Renfrew looked down at the cigar and then back to her with a smile. “No, I am not suicidal. We are surrounded by hydrogen gas cells and they are notorious for giving off a thin but constant stream of flammable gas. That is why all firearms and incendiaries are collected upon boarding, all the interior lights are Edison bulbs, and there are no carpets. Wouldn’t want to have someone shuffling along in their stockings and cause a static electricity spark. It’s a bother, of course. I rather enjoy a smoke now and then.”
Gabrielle realized with a sinking feeling that her own revolver would do her no good—unless she intended to incinerate herself and everyone else aboard, which she did not. Something still tickled at her brain. When had Renfrew’s name plate attached itself to Armbruster’s container?
“Your wife Alexandra, you are close to her?” Gabrielle asked. Renfrew frowned.
“An arranged marriage, and a complicated relationship. She is very dear to me, but in a distant sort of way. You have no doubt heard I spend considerable time with other ladies.”
“No, I know nothing of your personal life. How would I?”
He smiled at that, as if she had made a joke. Then he looked at her in dawning realization. “You are serious. You really don’t know who I am, do you?”
“I thought you were Baron Renfrew. Was that a lie?”
“It is one of my titles. I am Albert Edward, Baron Renfrew, Earl of Dublin, Duke of Cornwall and Rothesay, Prince of Wales, and heir apparent to the British throne.”
Gabrielle felt momentarily lightheaded as she realized the extent to which she had misinterpreted the situation in which she found herself.
“But . . . the name Renfrew—“
“Whenever I travel unofficially, I travel under that name, although everyone—everyone it seems but you—knows who I am. It is simply my way of making it clear I wish no fuss or ceremony.”
“Then, your relatives in Germany . . .?”
“Yes, you’ve probably heard of my nephew Willie. He’s the crown prince. As his poor father, my brother-in-law, is dying from throat cancer, I’ll wager Willie is Kaiser before the next year is out. That should prove interesting.”
Before Gabrielle could reply they both heard shouting in the hallway and the sounds of a tussle. The door burst open and two ship’s crewmen entered, holding between them a short, dark-haired man who struggled and shouted in English with a heavy French accent.
“I am the subject Britanique! You will release me at once! The prime minister will hear of this!”
“Now what’s all this?” Renfrew asked.
The chief purser entered behind the struggling trio and squeezed past them.
“This man was running in the corridor and pounding on doors, alarming the passengers with a story of a fire on board. It nearly started a panic but my men apprehended him. He claims to be English.”
“Dgèrnésiais!” the man practically screamed. “From the island of Guernsey!”
“Ah, oui, the Bailiwick of Guernsey,” Gabrielle said. “It is one of the Channel Islands between France and Britain. But you know, this man is not truly a British subject. The British passport is extended to them as a matter of courtesy, but he is a subject of the Baron Renfrew’s family directly, from before, when they still ruled Hanover, n’est ce pas?”
Most of the men, aside from Renfrew, looked confused by her explanation. The prisoner, his longish hair disheveled and nearly covering his eyes, stared at her like a wounded animal, as if somehow she had betrayed him. But how could she have? She had never seen him before in her life.
“Herr Hauptzahlmeister,” another crewman said from the open doorway, “we found this when we searched the man’s cabin.” He entered holding a leather document tube identical to the one in Gabrielle’s stateroom.
“Might this be the correct tube, Madame Courbiere?” the chief purser said, taking it from the crewman and handing it to her.
She stood holding the tube and looking at it as she thought. She looked up at the man being held by two crewmen in front of her, the man who spoke with a French accent and traveled under a British passport, and in an instant she understood everything. Well, nearly everything.
“I think you should take that tube to your stateroom and examine it, Madame Courbiere,” Renfrew said. When she looked at him she thought his eyes particularly serious and fraught with meaningful intent, although she could not determine the exact message he intended to convey. “If this is the artwork it will be quite valuable. Perhaps a man can accompany her.”
“Of course, Herr Baron,” the chief purser replied and gestured to the crewman who had brought the tube.
“Wait outside her door while she makes the examination,” Renfrew added.
That was convenient, she thought.
In ten minutes she returned to the lounge, having quickly verified that the stolen plans were in the leather tube and having exchanged it for the tube containing the charcoal sketches. Only Renfrew and the chief purser remained of the previous crowd. She assumed the young Frenchman had been placed under arrest and removed to a holding cell.
“So, are these the drawings?” Renfrew asked with a small smile.
“Oui, but unfortunately they are forgeries: quite good, but unmistakable to an expert, and without value. Would you care to examine them?” When he shook his head she handed the tube to the chief purser. “Evidence, I believe,” she said.
“Danke schön, Madame Courbiere,” the chief purser said and then, after a glance at Renfrew, he departed and closed the door behind him.
“They have taken the man from Guernsey away?” she asked Renfrew when they were alone.
“No,” the baron answered. “The fellow shouted, ‘You will never torture her name from me!’ broke free, and ran. No one was much concerned, as there’s nowhere to run on a zeppelin a thousand feet in the air, but the fellow got out onto an observation deck and dove over the rail. Shouted a slogan of some sort as he went, but no one could make it out over the noise of the engines. You wouldn’t have any idea whose name he meant, would you?”
“He is dead? Really?” Gabrielle asked.
“I should think so. He would have to be the luckiest man on Earth to survive that fall and from what little I saw of him, he did not strike me as very lucky at all. So, you found the battleship plans and have them safely tucked away?”
Gabrielle again felt lightheaded, but retained her composure. Her first inclination was denial, but that would be pointless. The evidence would be easy to discover. Instead she took a moment to think.
“Had you wanted to arrest me,” she said, “I believe you would have done so while the chief purser was here. So you intend to allow me to keep the plans and return them to my superiors, oui? But your loyalty to Britain cannot be questioned. So I must ask, what renders the plans worthless?”
Renfrew smiled. “What do you think?”
“It may be that they are forgeries,” she answered, “intended to be stolen, but that would be discovered once they were examined by our engineers, so what would be the point? Perhaps they could be bait, to catch and eliminate whatever agents are involved. But for me that is too complicated to be believed. Or they could be authentic but simply of no use to us. This seems most likely. But then why is there such a fuss, closing the Pas de Calais crossings, and so close to Christmas?”
“Perhaps,” he answered, “because the men in charge of protecting them do not realize they will be of no use to you. Their job, after all, is simply to protect, and the less they know about the secrets themselves the better. As to the plans, this new class of aether warship relies for its superior performance on the use of an analytical engine of new design and enhanced function—the Improved Babbage, Model Three Hundred and Sixty. The place where the analytical engine will be installed is clearly marked on the plans, but without the device itself they will do you no good.”
“Ah. Three things remain unexplained,” Gabrielle said. “First, why do you not tell your security people to call off the fruitless and unnecessary search for the plans?”
“Because the head of security is a political opponent, and this failure of his will embarrass and weaken him. Your second question?”
“How did you know I was the spy?”
“Knowing Waldo Armbruster as I did, I knew he would never have come up with rare art or the idea of trying to forge it, so I concluded the entire story must be a fraud aimed at finding that case. But if it was the wrong case, as I knew it had to be, there must be a right one somewhere, and what might that hold of interest to France? The missing plans seemed the obvious candidate. It is gratifying to have my speculation confirmed. Your third question.”
“Knowing I am the French spy, why do you allow me to return with these worthless plans? If you intend to force me to be a double agent, I do not think you will succeed.”
“Nothing so dire as that, my dear. The truth is I wish your safe return to serve as a message to your superiors. There are times when the interests of Britain and those of France are actually congruent. Unfortunately, our governments can seldom work in accord in those cases while remaining publicly belligerent, and this prolonged state of public belligerence is too useful for too many politicians in both governments to be set aside. Do you understand?”
“You wish to open the door to discreet and unofficial cooperation with my department when our interests coincide?”
She thought about that for a moment. That explained almost everything, but left one critical question unanswered: was she standing in the presence of a murderer? If so, she knew she was still in profound danger.
“I cannot speak for my superiors,” she said, “but I will convey this desire to them. But I must repay my personal debt to you myself. For that I must ask one more question.” Renfrew smiled in warm anticipation. “Have you hired two body guards to travel with you?”
A look of surprise replaced his smile. “Bodyguards? No, nothing like that. I generally travel alone except for my valet Winslow.”
“Well then, I must tell you there are two men on board who harbor ill intentions toward you, and seem prepared to act upon them, although I do not know how they intend to do so.”
Gabrielle then explained the entire overheard conversation in the salon: the one man telling the other to attend to their “business,” and their attention on Armbruster as part of that business because he had been involved with the Prince of Wales in some sort of trouble.
“Ah, that would be baccarat,” Renfrew answered, “chemin de fer, to be precise. Armbruster introduced me into several games in London. He lost heavily, I’m afraid, and there was a row over his debts.”
“And this involved you? How?”
“Well, it was passed around that I was present, and baccarat is illegal in Britain.”
“Illegal? Really? A game is illegal? Why?”
“It can be very high stakes and anything which provides an opportunity for the wealthy to transfer their fortunes to their inferiors is generally frowned on. But as to these two chaps—“
“Chaps!” she interrupted him. “What does this word mean?”
“A chap is a fellow, that’s all,” he answered.
“Oh. And a bounder?”
“A bad sort of chap. Now as to these two men, was one thin and one heavy?”
Gabrielle nodded absently, her mind on her earlier mistakes. She did not reprimand herself. Her mistakes had been honest ones based on ignorance which had now been corrected. Still, she understood how remarkably fortunate she had been to escape disaster. In the future she would have to prepare more meticulously. But first she must finish the last bit of this affair. She noticed Renfrew was still talking.
“Pardonez moi?” she said.
“I was just saying I think I’ve seen those men before. I should have been more alert. From what you say they wish to uncover some indiscretion with which to embarrass the royal family. Now that you’ve alerted me, I can take steps, and I am grateful for that.”
“But they are English. Are they hired agents of an enemy power?”
“Doubtful. I suspect they are minions of my domestic political enemies.”
“Oh. And now I will do you one more service of a more personal nature. Please follow me.”
Again smiling broadly, Renfrew did as she asked and they passed through corridors and down companionways until they reached the door to the engineering spaces. Gabrielle had never been here before but she had studied the layout of the zeppelin carefully and knew what lay below. These areas were prohibited to passengers but she passed through without hesitation. Two crewmen working on an electrical generator looked up but then, as she anticipated, bowed quickly to Renfrew, then smirked and nudged each other as they saw Gabrielle leading him.
They passed along a narrow corridor, flanked by tanks of compressed gas which Gabrielle took to be hydrogen, then down another companionway and through a door into the open night air. The air was cold and the drone of powerful engines to either side assaulted her senses—Gabrielle was sensitive to loud noise—but her attention was immediately drawn to the landscape stretched below them. A winding river shone silver in the moonlight and the scattered lights of small villages among the miniature grey fields and forests seemed like enchanted fireflies which never winked out. The sense of height made her dizzy and she was completely aware that a man of Renfrew’s strength could simply throw her over the railing and no one would ever question him about it. Still, this was the only place she could also find a measure of safety.
The prince stood beside her, their shoulders touching, and he followed her gaze downward.
“Yes, the view is different without a glass window, isn’t it?” he said. “Somehow more immediate. I’ve never been down this low on the ship before.”
“Neither have I, but I noticed this platform when I boarded.”
She walked down the metal steps to the catwalk below, holding the brass railings for safety. When they were both there she turned to Renfrew.
“Now my service to you. The hydrogen leaks, but as it is lighter than air it all goes up. We are below the gas bags here. You may safely smoke your cigar.”
Renfrew looked around doubtfully. “That makes sense, but are you certain?”
“Observe,” she said, and pointed to several stubbed out cigarette butts near the side of the walkway. Renfrew smiled and lit his cigar. Gabrielle shivered in the cold and although Renfrew offered the loan of his coat, she refused. Instead she fit both of her hands into her cloth handbag, for warmth she told him. But inside the bag her right hand curled around the small LeFaucheux revolver. Firing it here would be as safe as Renfrew smoking his cigar. She slowly cocked the hammer and she rested her hands on the railing, the concealed pistol pointed at Renfrew’s torso and only inches away from it. For several minutes the two enjoyed the view in silence.
“How did Armbruster die?” she said at last. “Or should I ask, how did his blood splash on your shoe when no one disturbed the blood in the cabin?”
Renfrew took another long draw on his cigar before answering. “As the doctor said. He fell and hit his head on the table. He was quite drunk and when we hit a patch of turbulence, over he went. Damndest thing, and there I just stood for a moment. Well, there would be awkward newspaper headlines if I stayed around to explain, so I took what I came for and left.”
“Your fly rod case,” she said.
“Yes, although what I really wanted was hidden down in the bottom: a diamond necklace I had made in Amsterdam—Christmas present for my wife, Alexandra. It’s quite valuable, which I suppose is why Waldo pinched the case. Would you like to see it?”
“Merci, non. I never wear the jewelry. Its weight feels peculiar, especially around my neck. My clothes feel almost a part of me when I wear them, but jewelry feels hard and alien.”
“You wear a locket,” he observed.
“It was my mother’s before she died. I am used to it.”
Inside her handbag, Gabrielle carefully lowered the hammer of her revolver.
Renfrew took another long pull on his cigar.
“I assume you will be getting off at Vienna, now that you have what you want. You are a very odd young lady, Gabrielle, but I certainly hope to see you again.”
“Yes, I do as well, although I do not believe there will be the romance.”
“No?” he said and smiled.
“Non. You are a very handsome man, despite your thinning hair and being somewhat heavy.”
“You are too kind,” he murmured.
“Not at all. When I say something, it is because I believe it is true, never to flatter. So you are handsome. But your eyes show no pain, only determination or amusement. Either you have never felt pain, in which case you are a monster, or you are able hide it completely, in which case you are dangerous.”
“I must say,” he said after a moment, “you are quite good at avoiding flattery. The truth is I am rather occupied with Daisy Greville these days, so a romance would be unlikely in any case. But I would value your friendship.”
Gabrielle looked out over the railing and saw the clouds above them already pink with the dawn and the land below turning from black to grey. Far below she saw a flicker of movement, the wing of a hunting bird in a dive, perhaps an owl making the last kill of the night. She shivered.
“Why would someone take his own life?” she asked.
“I honestly can’t tell you,” Renfrew answered. “I won’t pretend that life is always easy or pleasant. It isn’t. But it’s so damned interesting. I can’t for the life of me see why someone would just step away.”
“Nor can I,” Gabrielle said.
Copyright © 2013 by Frank Chadwick