Best Served Cold – part 4
Friday 29th April
The Richmond Mansion
"While we are waiting for Charlotte, how about I apply myself to
this other mess." Heather reached for her laptop. "Carlin Kardecki
seems to have done plenty of research on you guys, but how much have you done
"Because if she's prepared to use bluff and blackmail on you guys,
let me see what I can find out on her to use back in return."
"Hey, you really are a genius," Caroline smiled.
"So they say," Heather started typing and reading what came up
on the screen. "Okay she's 49 years old, but admits to only being 42... Born in Chicago... Polish Immigrant family... High School then University of
Illinois-Chicago... started modelling
when she was 17... some local success...
moved to NYC when she graduated... signed with Crest Models... Little success
either here or in Europe... started designing for Vidor in Paris... and that she WAS good at... pretty instant success... the models revolt... yada, yada, yada."
"Well there isn't a lot there." Caroline stood up.
"I know, which is why I now dig 'under' the surface." Heather started typing again as Caroline looked over her shoulder. “While I do this, want to sort some coffee? And what did you do with Sharon?”
“Oh – she went with her father down to Washington today. He needed someone to help as an assistant with some research he’s doing for Janine and Helen.”
“Fair enough,” Heather said as she looked at the screen, while Caroline made a fresh pot of coffee and poured two out.
"Now THIS is interesting…"
“What is,” Caroline said as she placed a mug of coffee next to Heather.
As she sat up straight, "It seems Carlin's parents died in a car
wreck. The car was being driven by Carlin's sister, who lived, but was left
paralyzed from the waist down."
"Not nice Heather, but your point is?"
"Seems Carlin's sister was over the limit, she went to
prison...well basically a secure facility for 18 months after the
"Yes...I can sense an and coming Heather."
"Seems Carlin rightly blamed her sister for the accident, and has
shut her out of her life ever since...They haven't spoken in long years."
"Well,” Caroline said as she sat down, “I can see right and wrong on both sides."
"But it seems to have left Carlin with a phobia about people in
wheelchairs. A couple of people over the years have tried to sue her for
discrimination in not-hiring them."
"Ah, that at least explains why she hasn't asked BS to model."
"Exactly. Petty, but that must be the reason." Looking at her watch, she then said “Paula should be at the airport now. Are you sure you don’t mind them coming back here at first to talk?”
“Of course not – the girls and Pippa will be coming here anyway, so it makes sense. What else can you find?”
“Well, apart from just how much the modelling fraternity hate and admire her in equal measure… Oh.”
“That scar on her cheek – I knew I had seen it somewhere before…”
Grace had never seen Paula so nervous, as she stood with her friend.
"I'm willing to bet she has been planning this for years."
Paula shuffled from foot to foot as she awaited her daughters clearing customs
"You don't know that for sure Paula..."
"Oh don't I Grace,” Paula said as she looked at her friend. “I'll bet her entire design career has led to
this one moment when she knew she had a collection so good, so irresistible,
that it would be a honey trap for the people at Complete Style."
"Is anyone that driven to gain revenge?"
"Don't ask me...Go ask her."
“Actually, scratch that – I think…”
“There you two are,” Paula said as Eve and Aileen came out from the gates, both girls wearing jumpers, jeans and sneakers while Eve was pulling a case behind her. “How was the flight?”
“Interesting – and we swapped seats so I could watch a film they had blocked on my set,” Aileen said.
“Straight Outta Compton – Aunt Grace, you look good.”
“So do you two – listen, we’ll get you to the hotel, get you settled in, and then we’re going to go and see a few friends, talk about what’s going on.”
“Sounds good,” Eve said as they made their way out.
The Richmond Mansion
As Heather accepted the incoming call, she smiled as Charlotte appeared in the window.
“Hey,” she said as Caroline sat next to her, “how are you feeling now?”
“Oh I don’t know – confused, scared, not quite sure what I’m going to find out next…”
“Exactly how I felt that day in Boston,” Caroline said, “when I met Karen for the first time in decades. All Madame said was you had run into her in Maseilles – what really happened?”
“What didn’t happen? I met up with the agents we sent to deal with the drug source…”
“Nice job on that by the way,” Heather said, “now we can move at this end.”
“Anyway – I was told that they had teamed up with an old friend of Eleanor Ball in Marseilles who was looking at the problem from another angle. She came out – and there, standing in front of me, was my mother.”
“But you always said your mother was dead.”
“Well, she was to me and my dad – especially my dad, as it turned out. Before I flew over, I found a bunch of letters and cards from her he had kept. I always thought she had walked out on us, but…”
“She was working for Western Intelligence in South Africa when she met my dad, married and I came along. Then five days later, Uncle John caught her paying off someone for military secrets – she was kicked out of the country, and my dad disowned her.”
She saw her two friends look at each other, before Caroline said “and now?”
“Black Ops for Italian Naval Intelligence – Il Pesce Diavolo.”
“Oh,” Caroline said quietly, “her I have… Actually, that explains a heck of a lot about you Charlotte. Like Mother, Like Daughter?”
Charlotte stared at the screen for a moment, and then burst out laughing. “Point – I’ll give you that one Caroline.”
“Want to educate me?”
“When Charlotte says her mother is a Black Ops operative, we’re talking very black. So, what are you going to do now?”
“Well, Bev and I are going to join them for a drink in a little while – I get the feeling there is a lot still to talk about. Madame called to say we’re flying to NY on Monday for some reason, so I’ll see you then. I’ll be working out of the office, checking some IT things as I do.”
“We’ll talk then – until then, I can only give one piece of advice Charlotte.”
“And that is?”
“Talk to her – you have that one over me. See you Monday.”
As the line went dead, Heather said “the devil fish?”
“Oh yes – she’s up there in terms of the fear factor in the security community as I am as Dominique. Seems little Charlotte had strong genes from both sides of the family…”
“Hey you two – why the thoughtful faces,” Jeannie said as she wheeled herself in with Doc and Pepsi.
“Oh we were just considering something,” Heather said. “Carlin Kardecki.”
“Yeah – want to tell me the secret for talking her down Caroline?
"Another time. Jeannie we
seem to have discovered why she won't add you to the list."
"Because of her sister Caroline..."
"...How the hell did you know that? I only just found out this
"I got Doc to look her up online for me."
“Want to compare notes,” Doc said as she looked at Heather, the older woman nodding as she went to make more coffee.
"So your reaction Jeans?"
"I don't like it, but in a way I can understand that if she blames her sister for killing their parents, then discriminating against the disabled would be a form of revenge."
“A lousy reason though,” Pepsi said as the main bell rang. Heather went to answer it, returning with four more people.
“I know I don’t normally come on a Friday,” Grace said, “but I needed to get these three here for a chat with Pippa and others.”
“Hey Eve, Aileen – you’ve heard then?”
“Oh yes,” Eve said as they back door opened, and Sands came in with Katy.
“Aileen! Don’t tell me you’ve come over to be part of the melee?”
“Maybe, maybe not. How did you react?”
“I said bring it on – but I’ll also stand by whatever everyone else decides.”
“Did I see you at the hotel yesterday Caroline?”
“Yeah – sorry I didn’t have time to chat,” Caroline said, “but I was telling Miss Kardecki what she could do with her invitation to Ama.”
“And she accepted?”
Caroline merely raised an eyebrow as Paula laughed.
“Hey – it’s getting crowded in here already,” Barbara said as she came in, Sandy coming from her office.
“Yeah – Sandy, can we use your office for a few minutes, bring these two up to speed with what we found?”
“Go on – I’ll play hostess,” Sandy said as Heather indicated to Paula and the girls to follow her. They sat in the chairs Sandy used for thinking and looked over the information both Doc and Heather had uncovered.
"Mummy - look I may be way out of line here, but I think you and your friends have been over-thinking this." Eve Gaunt finished reading Heather and Doc's research.
“In what way,” Heather said.
"She's acting like a spoiled schoolgirl, and you've been reacting
"What else are we supposed to do darling?"
"Get down to her level," Aileen smiled, "and fight fire
"My God,” Paula said, “where did you learn such a vulgar expression darling?"
"Watching Irish sitcoms Mummy," Aileen's smile turned to a grin. “Or should I say Mammy?”
"What Aileen is basically saying,” Eve continued as she shook her head, “is that if she's behaving like a school bully, react like we do at school..."
"If you can remember that far back," Aileen laughed as a well-aimed
cushion hit her in the chest.
"I'm not that old Miss," Paula joined the laughter. "So
given your theory what do we do?"
"We make her look ridiculous in front of the whole school..."
"Or in this case the entire fashion world Aileen," Eve nodded.
"Well for starters use her anti-disabled views to shame
her...Arrange a meeting between her and those models she wants to use that we
can get to New York quickly."
"And then Eve?"
"Ask Jeannie how many wheel chairs she can find...I sort of want to
see her face if all the girls turn up in chairs."
"Now that IS an interesting idea."
"Be an even better idea if say Jeanne Beckman was there to report
it." Aileen added.
"You girls have DEVIOUS minds." Paula shook her head.
"Well stealing her clothes and painting her in school colours is an old favourite Mummy?”
“That’s not possible,” Heather said, “but if the idea is to confront her with her sins, there is something else we can do. Place a call to Chicago. Before that however…” Heather got up and left the room, returning with Abby and Jeannie.
“Heather says you two have an idea,” Abby said.
“Yeah,” Eve said, “where’s Aunt Jeanne at the moment?”
“In the air back to New York – why?”
“Mum, get her to come and see us when she lands. Abby, can we find out from the current list of models who can get to here by Sunday afternoon?”
“Shouldn’t be a problem, and then?”
“Jeannie, we need wheelchairs, and a place to meet. Any chance you can get Danielle Sheypuk to take part in what we’re planning as well?”
“Danielle…” Jeannie grinned as she said “oh, NOW I see where you are going…”
9.30 pm CET
L’Hotel Metropole, Monaco
“Hey,” Charlotte said as she knocked on Bev’s door, “coming down?”
“Be there in a little while,” Bev called back, Charlotte nodding as she walked down to the bar. To her surprise, the only person there was Marianne.
“Where is everyone else,” she said as she sat down.
“They all had some calls to make,” Marianne said, “you’re on soft drink from now on right?”
“Dammit, I guess I am,” Charlotte said with a grin as the waiter came over. “Can you do a St Clements?” “Of course,” he said as he went off. “So,” Charlotte continued, “how was dinner?”
“Tense – we still have a lot to talk about. You?”
“I started to read some more of the letters, and I talked to some friends in New York.” She thanked the waiter as he brought the drink over, and then said “I did notice one thing that I thought was important Aunt Marianne.”
“And what might that have been?”
“Looking through the cards and letters, she addressed the first couple of letters as Francesca Gordon, it was only after then that the return address on the envelopes is changed to Francesca di Cambrello.”
Marianne nodded as she sat back. “That would have been after the divorce…and when she finally gave up hoping he would leave South Africa.”
“What were the grounds for the divorce Aunt?”
“Well, Charlotte, the grounds were desertion…”
“Oh like Uncle John and the government gave her a choice in the matter.”
“I know,” Marianne said quietly, “but it was pretty much pro forma, she didn’t argue anything, she just sent back to the court everything she was asked to sign.” Looking past the young woman, she said “Charlotte will you give me a few private moments with your mother?”
“Sure – I’ll just go and…”
Marianne nodded as Charlotte went to the restroom, then stood as
Francesca came in, wearing the same tailored trouser suit she had worn in the
restaurant. "Francesca, you look as
stunning as ever," she said as she kissed the Italian, "You know I
never really knew what true style was till I met you."
"Oh it's true I was a girl from Bulawayo, that great cosmopolitan city...NOT!" Marianne laughed. "Even in Pretoria women dressed more for comfort then fashion. You really did teach me everything I know today."
“Well I’ll say you were a good student then, and you continue to put the lessons to good use.”
“Don’t you remember that article about power couples in Pretoria Magazine featuring James and you? And your marvellous sense of style?”
“No,” Francesca said as they sat down, “unfortunately that was what we were going to buy that very afternoon I was detained by your husband. I never saw it.”
“Oh my God,” Marianne put her hand to her mouth. “I’d forgotten that, it was why I was worried that you were doing too much simply because you wanted to just read a silly article.”
“What happened, happened,” the Marchesa shrugged her shoulders.
"Well thank you darling for still wanting to be my friend, and I
mean that sincerely."
"Are we going to be the only ones?" Francesca looked round.
"No but I wanted to talk privately to you about Charlotte
first...You don't mind do you?"
"No not at all. Where is she?"
“She’s gone to the powder room for 10 minutes. Look, Francesca, John is in a very strange mood, and while I can try and keep him calm…”
“I’m not surprised Marianne, after all I was the one he caught. But why the word in private?”
“How much,” Marianne said, “do you know of Charlotte’s role in the Sisters of Maisha?”
“Only what I discerned yesterday – she is their leader, they call her Little Mother.”
“She is more than that,” Marianne said quietly. “She has led them in battle, and been involved in fighting herself. I feel there is far more of you in her than you or she realises – she is a leader and a fighter.”
“I had figured that much out – there are not many I know of that Eleanor Bell shows reverence to, but Charlotte was one of them. I take it she keeps that quiet?”
“Yes – so as you get to know her, bear in mind she may not be showing everything.”
“Surely now that…”
“No – I understand she is not going out in the field, and besides – her friends would stop her. Ah – there you all are.”
“How are things at home,” Francesca asked as Eleanor came in with Veronica.
“Interesting – and in Pretoria John?”
“Quiet, praise god,” John Vosloo said as he sat down, Charlotte joining Bev as they came over. “Bev, this my Uncle John and Aunt Marianne, and you already know Eleanor apparently.”
“Beverly provided some security for my granddaughter recently,” Eleanor said. “Bev, this is Francesca and Veronica.”
Bev nodded silently as John opened a bottle of wine, and poured it into six glasses. “Another St Clements,” Charlotte said as the glasses were handed round, John drinking half a glass in one gulp.”
“Before I forget,” Eleanor said, “I talked to Shirley. She has offered her private jet to take me and Veronica back – and she wondered if you three would care to accompany us for a couple of days?”
“Wot – New York?”
“Indeed – she’s sorted out the hotel bookings for a week, so that you can attend the Kentucky Derby as well, and she’s already called Piet. He’ll come out and join you on Wednesday, Charlotte.”
“Well, that gives me a couple of days,” Charlotte said as she accepted the drink.
“For the next seven months – but I refuse to drink diet coke,” Charlotte said with a smile.
“We would come, but I have a meeting next week,” John said quietly. “Hennie asked me to pass on his greetings.”
“Is he still your boss?” Francesca said with a smile, John merely nodding as he refilled his glass.
"John,” Francesca said quietly, “what was it that initially put you
onto me? If I'm not being rude by asking."
"One day just after you found out you were expecting,” John said
after he had taken another drink, “you asked me to get something from a drawer
from you, and by accident I found a compartment full of pictures of you as a
Midshipman at the Naval Academy in Livorno, as well as Your Masters Degree
certificate from the academy in Law. I knew you'd told James you had gone to
university in Pisa, so why did you have all that I asked myself... Why did a self described 'typist' have a
masters degree in law?"
"Ouch darling,” the Italian noblewoman said, “it was casual of me
that you found those."
"Indeed it was Francesca...I thought about it for a couple of days,
and then I asked our embassy in Rome if they could get me a full workup on
"John, she was my best friend." Marianne looked at her
"But I agree it was bad trade practice on Francesca's part to have had those things with her in South Africa." Eleanor smiled slightly. “Reminds me of the time I nearly got caught out in Paris – but that’s another story…”
“Anyway,” John said, “when Hennie offered me a commission, and a move from the Transvaal Scottish into Military Intelligence I took it like a shot. But just as I'd felt as an old Rhodie I had to be twice as good a soldier to earn sergeants stripes as a native South African, the same when I joined MI, I was determined to be the best spy-catcher they ever had and earn those shoulder pips."
"And you got lucky in that I was James’ wife and you found my pictures and certificate, eh?"
"Well MI knew that the NATO countries were somehow getting
information out of our key ministries. Hennie had put me to work trying to work
out the depth of penetration as my first job." John paused and looked across
the table, "which must have given you a big laugh Francesca that night
when I told you all?"
"Actually,” Francesca said quietly, “it scared me shitless John to
use the vernacular."
"Yeah well fancy - I was confiding in my friends over dinner, and
it turns out you were actually the spy-mistress...” Shaking his head, he took another drink. “I felt such a chump when I worked it
"John darling, remember you've always said this wasn't
personal," Marianne patted his hand gently.
“I know what I said – but… You
know what the worse thing was Francesca?"
"No but I'm sure you will tell me."
"Having to question and arrest James as a potential suspect after
we deported you. I had to put my best friend through three days of sleep
deprivation and hostile examination until Hennie was satisfied he'd known
nothing of your activities."
"And what about me?" Charlotte asked.
“I'd taken you and Hannah home with me." Marianne answered, “she fed both you and Alicia at the same time, one from each breast."
“No wonder I’ve never had a racist bone in my body,” Charlotte tried to lighten the confrontation between John and Francesca.
“A true picture of South Africa working together,” Veronica said, the others grinning and shaking their heads.
“You know, you never told me what happened to them,” Charlotte said. “I mean, Hannah worked as our housekeeper for a while, then…”
“Hannah went to work for Fergus,” Marianne said, “in fact, she runs his townhouse in Munich. As for Alicia…”
“She works for the government,” John said quietly. “You have no idea how much pain I went through for those three days, or how long it took for James to trust me again.”
"John,” Francesca said quietly, “back then I could work with a
perfectly clear conscience. Yes I was deceiving my husband and friends, but I
knew the importance of my work to NATO...and can I stress that word NATO John,
we were the good guys, not those damn Chinese and Cuban bastards, or the Old
Man and his regime up in Zimbabwe, or countries like Mazengwe that South Africa
was starting to call friends and allies."
"Be that as it may Francesca,” John said as Marianne looked at him,
“you were still a spy undermining MY countries national security and
John was starting to look angry, and Francesca was starting to flare her
"I was FORCED to pay a price for what I did John, I lost my husband, my daughter, and my self-respect...I became what I am today...a killer...a monster...IL PESCE DIAVOLO for heavens sake." Francesca breathed deeply to calm herself, "can you imagine my degree of self-loathing?"
“I can imagine – you had no idea how torn I was, how… How…”
"You know wet-workers John,” Francesca said, “we aren't really
leading glamorous lives like James Bond. People in the business regard us as
the lowest of the low. It takes a little
bit out of you every time, a little bit of you dies…"
Charlotte could see Eleanor and Veronica nodding as Bev said “I’ve heard this word – wetworks – what does it mean?”
“Well Bev,” Eleanor said quietly, “the intelligence community is not all glamour and glitz. More often than not, it can get very dirty and very messy – and you have to descend to the lower levels to take care of things. When that happens, it is known as wetworks, because it gets wet.”
“With blood,” Francesca said quietly.
“Ah – sorry I asked,” Bev said as she looked at her wine.
“To ask a different question,” Charlotte said quietly, "how did you
become an admiral Mother?"
"It was basically a huge joke; someone thought it would be fun to give the navy a beautiful admiral to use in pictures. That the world thinks I'm an empty headed wastrel was part of the joke. It's why I say 'can you imagine they made ME an admiral of all people?'"
"That wasn't nice." Eleanor commented.
“In reality, I am still plying my trade for my masters,” Francesca said quietly. "I was sent here, basically, to kill whoever the source was shipping drugs and immigrants from here into Genoa. After all except those with exceedingly long memories, who remembers I once had a serious career in my country's and the West's service?"
The Italian woman paused and took a drink, “I can’t even resign my commission and practice law, even though I’m a fully qualified advocate. Simply because to the world I’m this “Idiota Biomba’. Who would take me seriously arguing cases?”
“Boohoo, poor Francesca,” John said as he poured more wine, “and tell me didn’t you have that huge inheritance, that huge pair of palazzo, and your handful of castles to sustain you?”
“Yes I did…”
“While James lost his job teaching at Tukkies, and had to eke out a living as a consulting engineer until Thank God the big companies realised what a great mines man he was.” John looked daggers, “so don’t go on how bad it was for you Francesca, just think what your betrayal did to him.”
“John…NO!” Marianne intervened.
“Don’t worry Marianne, he is quite right… Yes I’ve never known poverty, I’m a rich woman, but James had one huge advantage over me… At least he could look at himself straight in the mirror and have pride in both himself and Carlotta.” Francesca blew her nose to stop crying. “I have had no pride in myself ever since that damn day. In South Africa I could at least take some pride in having done my duty...When James refused to forgive and follow me with Carlotta..." Francesca fought hard to restrain the tears, "then I basically gave up living...if I'd known that Charlotte wasn't even seeing my mail, I'd probably have killed myself."
“Damn you Italians are just so melodramatic.” John sighed.
"Answer me this John,” Francesca said angrily,”what pride can my daughter have in her mother?"
"Which Mother?" Veronica mumbled.
"Good question Commander...The airhead, bimbo, joke admiral?" Francesca looked round the table, "or should she be proud her mother is an assassin with a penchant for torturing her victims?"
“Or the bitch who betrayed her husband and her friends?” John spat out the words, “and perhaps I’ve been lying to myself and you all these years Marianne, perhaps it was personal?” John looked daggers at Francesca, “you devastated the best human being I ever knew…Do you know that? And you wonder why he didn’t want your daughter to have anything to do with you?”
“You think I haven’t known that pain for the last twenty five years!! I may be a sadist and a killer, but I am still a human being!”
“Colonel Vosloo, I’ve done my share of wet work,” Eleanor at last spoke, “Indeed I’ve worked a few times with Francesca. We know some of the same people, dear lord we’ve even slept with some of the same men, but I’ve always known that what she presented to the world was a hollow shell. Now I know that even the sadistic enforcer that I thought she really was, was nothing but another illusion.”
“Explain Captain,” Marianne was the one to reply.
“We both operate in a world where we have to wear masks,” Eleanor said, “and so do you John. The difference is you can let the mask slip in your work – we cannot. A few months ago, I wanted to break up the relationship my son was in – not because the woman he as seeing was unsuitable, but because I had to keep this mask of the hard-nosed Jewish mother and naval officer. That nearly cost me him – but when Katy was in danger, I was summoned to offer my help, and I had to let the mask slip. Francesca wears that mask very well – perhaps too well, because she has hidden behind it to hide her own hurt.”
John looked over the table as Veronica said “Look, I’ve never done – until recently – what Eleanor or Francesca do, but I have had to do things I’m not proud of to make sure my country is kept safe. So yes, I can understand why she did what she did all those years ago, and why you did what you did John.”
“Of course I hurt him,” Francesca said, “but I…”
“Does anyone want to know what I think about all this?” Charlotte asked very quietly.
“Of course we do,” Marianne said quietly as John and Francesca stared at each other.
“Goddess knows, I cannot judge anyone round this table for what they may have done in the past,” Charlotte said, “after all, I’m not exactly purer than pure.” She looked over at Bev, who had raised her eyebrow, and said “above your pay grade, Bev. Point is, I know in a war, and in the shadow world, things are done that people will disapprove of.”
“What sort of things have you been involved in,” Francesca said as she laid her hand on her daughter’s. Charlotte smiled, and shook her head as she said “let’s just say I have killed for the greater good. But I did so for the right reasons – Uncle John, can’t you see that on this one, you are both right and both wrong at the same time?”
John looked at Charlotte, and the others, before he said "You know
another thing that has long rankled in my brain Francesca...I had you
pinpointed as Bruin..."
"Oh my god, that's a name I haven't heard in a long while,"
she laughed as she shook her head.
"Bruin?" asked Charlotte.
"Bruin was we knew the case officer for Nato working a Pretoria
based spy ring." John took another sip of his wine. "We had the
codename but not a clue who it covered."
"Okay I understand."
"I do think Giancarlo Pietri was your principal agent, sitting
where he was in the Ministry of Defence's Financial Comptroller's office he
must have seen an awful lot."
"You might say so," Francesca took another sip.
"And he was the man who recruited and trained your other
agents...thank you for confirming that by the way...” Draining his glass, he said “they reported to
him, and he paid them off... They would
never even have known you were their case officer if you had used good
"Which by and large I did, only one of my other agents knew who I
"How were they recruited?" Veronica asked as everyone at the
table looked at her... "Just
professional interest," she explained.
"They were all people with Italian connections and I had them in
place while Apartheid still ruled. Basically they were all Liberals with a
conscience. When things started to change, I simply switched them to gathering
intelligence on all things that might affect my masters’ interests militarily
and economically...NATO was able to put what they found out to excellent
"It cost Pietri his head." John took a fresh bottle of wine and opened it. "No conscience about that Francesca?"
“Tell me John,” Francesca said, “can you say in all conscience you have never had to sacrifice someone to ensure an operation went according to plan?”
John stared at her for a moment, and then said “no, no I cannot.”
“So is this anger to me because of the hurt I caused, and believe me when I say I now know just how much that has cost, or is it because I betrayed you?”
John stared at the table for a few minutes, before he slowly nodded. “Catching you meant I was secure, I had done my job,” he said quietly, “but I have never been able to forget your face when I put you on the airplane seat, the ways those eyes pleaded with me, and I had to be hard, I had to put my country before you. I had to… I had to…”
“John?” Marianne looked at her husband as he started to cry, and said to Charlotte “forgive me my child – if I had been more like Fergus, you may have actually had the chance to know your mother and know the truth… I may have discharged my guilt over what happened… I might have…”
As he started to cry, Marianne held him. “All those years I have carried round one simple truth – that I was responsible for destroying my best friend, and condemning you to a life without a mother, a life I could do nothing to replace. And I did it not to stop a crime, but to secure my own position and prove I could do the job. When I found out about the Sisters, and about your role, I saw both James and Francesca side by side in one…”
“L'ammiraglio non si può essere così duro con se stesso” Bev said the words quietly. “Tu sei una gran signora, e Charlotte è una donna straordinaria troppo. Si dovrebbe essere entrambi immensamente orgogliosi di ogni altro.”
“You are a Neapolitan Beverley?” Francesca looked carefully at the young woman.
Bev looked over and laughed as she said “Wot me?”
“You speak Italian with a Neapolitan accent…”
“Well that’s because me dad was from there, but I’m a Londoner born and bred…and I meant from where I sit both you and Charlotte is pretty special.”
“I am sure your family is just as special Beverley?” Francesca smiled.
“You ‘ave to be joking? My old man fucked off wiv some bitch when I was 10. My Mum is a useless tool who works behind a till in Safeway. I got one brother doing a five stretch in Brixton, another is doin’ time in Bedford, and me sister went on the game silly bitch and is banged up in ‘Ollaway…Oh yeah we are pretty special.”
Sipping her drink, she said “You Charlotte – yeah you did not haf a mother, but you grew up a good, strong woman. Yer Ladyship, you did what you did fer your country. Same fer you Elenor and you Veronica. Trust me, compared to me yer’ all very lucky indeed. I grew up in a dump, I ran with a gang until I joined Shirley’s company, and now I’m pulling myself up. So yeah, yer all lucky…”
“Charlotte,” John said quietly, “forgive me. I was the one who caused this pain, this hurt…”
“Uncle John, you did what you had to do, as Mother said. I think we may be more alike than we realise…” Standing up, she hugged John and said “thank you.”
“John – I know you did what you had to do,” Francesca said, “but can we start again?”
“Yes – yes I’d like that,” John said quietly, “but tomorrow. I need to…”
“I’ll make sure he’s all right,” Marianne said as she took John by the arm and helped him to the stairs.
“I’ll turn in as wel’” Bev said, “I’ll see you all in the morning.”
“Good night,” Francesca said as Bev stood up and walked out, and then joined Eleanor and Veronica in looking at Charlotte.
“I’ve killed a man,” she said quietly, “when I was a young girl Dad and I were attacked by bandits, and we had to fight side by side. He taught me to shoot and hunt – and I fought with him. Then, when he was killed, I wanted to come and kill Old Man Kimba, but wiser heads prevailed. Instead – you remember how he eventually died?”
“He was killed by someone – a member of a team who broke in when that whole scandal broke in New York,” Veronica said.
“It was Maisha,” Eleanor said, “she killed him for the mothers, daughters, sisters. It was some of them who formed the Sisterhood.”
“Well,” Charlotte said, “I was there – I provided sniper cover, for the team that went in. I also fought side by side with those who liberated the mines in Mazengwe, and killed the oppressors alongside them. Mother, Eleanor, Veronica, I can sympathize because I am just like all of you.”
Francesca stared at Charlotte, before she said “Carlotta, you did it for the greater good…”
“Just like all of you. Mother, you still seek penance, correct?”
As Francesca nodded, Charlotte said “then join us – as you have seen, we have Sisters in many places, working in the recognized agencies and elsewhere. I think with us, you may begin to find that peace you seek, as others have done.”
Nodding, Francesca said “do you know, I think you may be right – if the Sisters will have me.”
“Oh I think they will, we can talk more of it in New York – Bev is not a member, so we cannot talk of it here. For now, let’s just enjoy a relaxing weekend before Monday morning’s flight.”
Janine looked up to see Helen standing by her desk. “Yeah – I was talking to Marina about the latest order. We finally got it out of customs, thanks to a push from Alan Kennedy. He’s due to call in a little while, and update us on what’s going on.”
“Did she tell you the results of the inspections?”
“Yes – both the Hong Kong and Tokyo factories have been a clean bill of health. So the question now becomes, as we suspected, why us?”
Between Washington and New York
"That's heavy looking reading darling?" Alan glanced at the
cover of the paperback his daughter was reading as she sat next to him on the
"I'm trying to get my head round concepts like 'free trade', 'fair
trade', 'etthical trade', and 'protectionism' Dad...And besides this is on my
college reading list as well."
"Well,” Alan said, “it's good to see you preparing in this fashion. So – what did you think of what you heard?"
"This Senator basically is trying to win votes for his re-election
in the fall by taking a stand that companies like Alice's should buy only from
US suppliers thus protecting the jobs of US workers...right?"
"Put simply...but yes that's the basic idea."
"While APCO would argue that if they can import a better quality product, cheaper, from an overseas source then they have the right to do so?"
"And its hard luck that American textile workers lose their jobs?"
"It's more complicated then that sweetie, but yes you are on the
"And this Senator by putting obstacles in Huntingdown's way is
"Some might say just trying to save his own political career by
standing up for people he really doesn't care for. Others – such as the presumptive Republican
candidate – would say he was right to stand up for American jobs, and support
"Are politicians really that cynical?'
“Sharon,” Alan said quietly, “have you seen any of the debates? I have a horrible feeling we are in for a very, very dirty election season, and we may need to listen to a lot of vitriol. But yes, yes politicians in many cases are in it for the glory and the cash. Tom Morse is a real rarity.”
Nodding Sharon sat back. “So politicians are still carpet baggers in the majority.”
“’fraid so kiddo – welcome to the wacky world of politics and finance…”
Saturday 30th April
8 am CET
L’Hotel Metropol, Monaco
As John and Marianne came out of the lift, the doors in the next lift opened and Francesca came out.
“I’ll give you a minute,” Marianne said as she headed to the powder room, John rubbing the back of his head as he stood there.
“Good morning John,” Francesca said with a smile, “I trust the hangover is not too bad?”
“Not too bad,” he said as they walked into the breakfast room, and sat at a large round table. The table was already laid with glasses and jugs of freshly squeezed juice, as Francseca poured some into a glass.
"Francesca I need to apologise for my behaviour last night,"
John poured himself a glass of orange juice, "I said many things that were
"No you spoke from the heart John...maybe there is hope for you
Northern Europeans after all...you let your emotions come out like a true
Italian." Francesca smiled, "now come have breakfast with me old
"Are you sure?"
"Totally. I see they have a full buffet laid out."
As she spoke, Charlotte and Bev came into the room, smiling as they joined them at the table. All three women were wearing blouses and shorts, as were Marianne, Eleanor and Veronica as they came in.
“Ah now this is the thing,” Francesca said, “hot coffee and pastries before we have some meats and things. Double espresso, if you please?”
“Cappuccino,” Charlotte said, the others nodding except for Bev. “Caffe latte for me,” she said, the waiter nodding as he went off. “Cor – these cornetto look good.”
“Some miniature crostata as well,” Marianne said as she picked the tart up, and bit into it. “Apricot – just what the doctor ordered.”
“So how are you feeling this morning,” Eleanor asked Charlotte as her coffee arrived.
“I’m good – I think I got out of my system all that anger, so I can start with a clean slate. How are you feeling, mother?”
“Good actually – and this coffee makes me feel even better,” Francesca said with a smile. “So, what plans do you have for today?”
“Shoppin,” Bev said, “or at least, visiting the stores.”
“Veronica and I had the same idea – why don’t we head to Le Metropole together. And don’t forget – we are going to the casino tonight.
“All of us.”
“I may see you there,” Marianne said as she bit into a biscottate, “John needs to come and get his wallet out.”
“My penance,” John said with a little smile as he drank his coffee. “I’m going to the buffet – come with me Charlotte?”
“If you insist – but I’m off the cheese,” the redhead said as she followed John.
“I’m presuming,” he said as he selected some hams and vegetables “that you would rather your relationship with Francesca was not widely publicised for the moment?”
“You presume correctly Uncle John – let the two of us work things out, and we’ll take it from there. But I will introduce Piet to her next week when he joins us. We’ll do this one step at a time – Shirley already knows, as do a couple of my friends.”
“Well, that’s good – but let me know when Liz knows. One more secret to keep from her for now.”
Charlotte nodded as they walked back. “So what do they have there,” Francesca asked.
“A nice haunch of capicola, cacciatore, spalla, three forms of pancetta, and culatello, with good black and olive breads. Nice cheeses too, but not for me?””
“Right – ladies, let us dine like queens,” she said as she pushed her chair back, the others following as the coffee cups were refilled.
“Now dis is a good way to spend Saturday morning,” Bev said with a smile, “Tracy’s idea of breakfast at de weekend is Sausage and Eggs.”
“Me flatmate – we live together and work in the same team.”
"Look Francesca,” John said quietly, “speaking in purely
professional terms, can I say a few things?"
"About me and James?"
"No about 'Bruin'," John allowed himself a little laugh as he
cut into his pancetta. "Your 'legend' was excellent if you'd kept strictly
Smiling, Francesca said "You mean I was a convincing airhead
heiress working in a relatively trivial job in my country's embassy?"
"Yes,” John said, “but that story looked a bit silly when anyone
got to really know you... you were far
too intelligent... and Assistant Third
Secretary for Cultural Affairs? That just sounded too phony."
"Yes a high enough rank to give you diplomatic immunity, but a
title that vague...when we thought back later it was too obviously a cover. In fact, it smacked of the positions KGB
officers held during the Cold War."
"Then how come "Bruin' was able to operate for over three
years John dear?"
"Because - as you know damn well Francesca - you were quite unlike
anything Pretoria had seen before," Marianne's voice came from across the
table, "your style, your wealth, your ability to out-party anyone..."
"Who in their right mind was going to take you for a spy
"But you did John?"
"Only after you did something you shouldn't have done...you fell in
“Yeah,” Francesca said as she looked at Charlotte, "My superiors in
Rome and Brussels were definitely not happy about it, but I was providing such
good intelligence there was no way they were going to pull me out."
"So you married Doctor James Gordon, the rugged, handsome,
assistant professor of mining engineering at the University of Pretoria."
Marianne said, "And you were a 'golden couple'."
"But you were stupid enough to keep souvenirs of your 'real life'
in the house, in that hidden compartment..."
"It was my bureau...James never touched it." Francesca smiled some more, 'he always called it 'that huge, ugly, monster'."
"It was a valuable antique, and for all his teasing I think he respected that darling." Marianne smiled.
"I always regretted losing it," Francesca shook her head.
"Is it a huge dark oak thing?" Charlotte’s voice came as if
"That is it darling...why?"
"It's in his office...It's where I found your letters to me, but I
didn't spot a secret drawer."
"My bureau is here in Monaco?" Francesca asked slightly
stunned. "I thought James would
have destroyed it in revenge, he knew how precious it was to me."
"No I think he had it in storage for years, I didn't know he had
had it shipped here." Marianne spoke.
"Well I'll be glad to be reunited with it...It's a 17th century
family heirloom." Francesca smiled, "It should be restored to where
it always lived in Castel San Michelloro."
"Well we will go fetch it later," Charlotte smiled, "after we have all had a good breakfast. Let me call Andre and get him to have it at reception for me."
“Listen,” Francesca said, “let me and Charlotte take care of this – the rest of you have a day off.”
“You sure Charlotte,” Bev said, John raising an eyebrow.
“Yeah I’m sure,” Charlotte said as she ended her call.
10.30 am CET
Institut pour l'Etablissement des pratiques minières éthiques en Afrique
“Charlotte,” Andre said as he saw her come into the reception area, “I was surprised to receive your call. Is there something wrong… Mon Dieu!”
“Andre, Comte D’Amo, allow me to introduce Francesca, Marchesa di Cambrello – my mother.”
“Forgive me,” Andre said quickly, “I had seen the photo on James’ desk, but he always said you were dead.”
“I know – it is good of you to allow us to claim one more thing from the office. It is a family heirloom – had Charlotte known, she would have taken it as well. Is it still in his office?”
“It is – we haven’t started work on clearing it yet. If you would like to follow me?”
The two women followed Andre as he walked them to the room, and then unlocked the door. As Francesca walked in, he said “I’ll let you have a few minutes, and then we can discuss how it will be shipped out.”
“Of course,” Charlotte said as Andre closed the door, and then she looked at her mother. “Okay – why see it here?”
"Charlotte I have a good reason for not letting your Uncle John
look too closely at my bureau."
"And why might that be Mother?" Charlotte stood hands on her slim hips. "Hold on... seventeenth century... Oh Goddess, it's got more than one secret compartment hasn't it?"
"Yes, and I know what should still be in them...” Francesca knelt in front of it as she said “contrary to what I said about 6 agents like I told your uncle last night when I was pretending to be drunk, I was in fact operating three cells of 6 people, this bureau should still contain a lot of things that even after well over 20 years your uncle and his friends would kill to see."
"SHIT!" Charlotte shook her red hair, "you did take risks
"I thought it was safer and less obvious then a safe," Francesca threw her arms up in the air, "I was pretty sure James had burned it. So, unless he explored it…" She opened the doors wide, and took a drawer out before she reached into the gap, and pressed on the top, smiling as a hidden drawer sprang open. “Is that an incinerator bag there,” she said as she saw a blue bag.
“Yeah – don’t show me, just get it in here,” Charlotte said as Francesca drew out a set of manilla folders and dropped them straight in. She then pressed again, and replaced the drawer, before she felt down the inside of one of the doors, and eased open a second hidden area.
Inside this area were several notebooks, which Francesca also dropped into the bag, as well as several strips of microfilm. Closing the panel, she then pulled the bureau out and opened a third panel at the back, taking out photos and record books and dropping them in, along with envelopes sealed and labelled.
“Are you destroying state secrets?”
“Well out of date secrets – and I will not betray any of them,” Francesca said quietly as she checked the rest of the drawers. She then opened a final hidden drawer, and stopped for a moment.”
Francesca took out a brown envelope, and said “Charlotte, can you see to it that bag is incinerated immediately?”
“Sure – leave it with me. But what’s that?”
“It’s… It’s a letter,” Francesca said as she showed Charlotte the letter, ‘Francesca’ written on the front.
“But – that’s Dad’s handwriting. I’d know it anywhere.”
“Yeah – yeah.” She looked at Charlotte, who nodded as she left the room, while Francesca sat down, opened the letter and took out several sheets of paper. Takign a deep breath, she started to read.
I’m sitting here, in my little office, looking at the picture I kept of you as I write this. Do you know, even now I do not know why I kept it – perhaps as a reminder of what could have been, of what Charlotte and I lost? Or perhaps because now, after all these years have passed, I’ve begun to realise that you really were just following the orders of the people you worked for.
I still remember when John came to tell me what had happened – I was sitting in the front room, wondering where you had got to, when he came in and asked Hannah to take Charlotte out. He then sat down and told me he’d caught you paying off one of his officials, and him giving you confidential documents – that you were a spy, and he had arrested you. He also told me that I was under suspicion, and I was going to be placed under house arrest until a decision was made about what would happen to you.
Looking back now, I know I was in shock, unsure what was going on – and then you had left the country, I later learned that the government had in fact thrown you out with no regard that you had a five day old baby at home. Hannah had taken Charlotte and her baby to stay with Marianne, and me… I had the opportunity to see what John really does for three days and nights. That was an experience I never wanted to endure again – and when I came out, I have to admit I had only two thoughts on my mind.
The first – to protect our daughter from the fallout of what you had done. I still after all these years want to ask you why? I’m guessing you were probably already running a spy ring before we even met, but how did you ever think you could make it work in the long term? Why did you ruin my life by ever coming into it Francesca?
And the second… To my eternal shame now, the second of my thoughts was to write that letter to you. Francesca, what I wrote then I wrote in a rage – I was angry, I had been humiliated, lost my job, unsure of what I was going to do to keep a roof over our heads, and I needed to lash out at someone. You got everything I felt at that time, and I sent it without thinking of the effect it may have on you. John and Marianne both to their credit said that if I loved you as deeply as I’d always said that I should take Charlotte and follow you to Italy. Looking back maybe I should have.
One thing I suppose I should apologise for is having her christened as Charlotte in my faith, and not as Carlotta in your faith as we had agreed. It was just another little way of getting back at you for what I thought you had done. I felt betrayed at a deeply personal level that you had simply used my love as a way of further concealing your activities. Can you understand how it feels to know the woman you were so deliriously happy to be in love with didn’t really exist?
Over the years I have heard many bad things about you that had confirmed in my mind that I did exactly the right thing in depriving you of Charlotte. Your wild partying, your constant supply of fresh men in your bed, all convinced me that you were definitely not the woman I’d been in love with. Recently though Fergus has talked to me long and hard about you, and introduced me to two acquaintances of yours, the Countess Buchenwald, and her niece the Baroness von Manschen, both of whom are relatives of his. The Baroness saw your picture and told me that she’d met you once and that you and she had a very detailed discussion on maritime law, and how impressed she had been having heard you were incapable of holding two thoughts in your head at once. The Countess also told me that she knew you, she wouldn’t tell me how, but she told me that you had hidden depths that no one appreciated. This has caused me to think a lot, if you were here Francesca I’d ask you face to face if this is all an act as well, and if you are still a spy? Fergus though says if you were, just as then you couldn’t tell me.
By the way talking of Fergus, I need to tell you that I guessed from Charlotte who his mysterious ‘sister’ was who had played with her at Bavaria whilst I was out at the mine. She couldn’t work out why the strange lady called her Carlotta, and not Charlotte. What was I to tell her? That the strange lady was her mother? I could tell how special it must have been to you, for you take the risk of going to Zimbabwe. I guessed you had put yourself through the emotional mangle though, especially when one of the maids described your copious tears when you had to leave. I knew then how much you truly loved and wanted to be with our daughter, but even knowing that though, I still wanted Charlotte to have nothing to do with you, so I did the most shameful thing I have ever done in my life – the cards, the letters, the presents, everything you have ever sent to her I stopped, and hid away. As far as I was concerned, you were dead, and I tried to make sure that as far as she was concerned you were as well.
Francesca, I realise now by doing that, I may not just have hurt you, but Charlotte as well. You should see her though – she has grown up to be a confident young woman, small, but bright, and she is now going to university, studying mining engineering. She’s going to study under Ken Howlett, just as I did, and since I know you liked Ken, I’m sure you’d approve. I was so proud when she graduated from Roedean, and part of me actually wishes you had been there as well to share in the happiness.
I suspect, however, you have seen photos of her – just as Fergus occasionally has sent me photos of you, I’d be prepared to bet he has sent photos of her to you as well. She has grown up on the road with me, and I, John, Marianne, Fergus, we have all done our best to make sure she grew up happy and well. She’s tough and self-reliant, and people underestimate her because of her size. I’m pleased with her though and I’m pretty sure you would be too if you knew her.
I suppose my only concern is with her dating young Pieter van der Byl. Did you ever meet his family? They are Joburg folk, so I’m not sure if you did. Anyway thanks to early investments in De Beers and Cons Gold, they are almost as wealthy as you are. Young Piet is finishing up at Wits in journalism, but I’m concerned the poor boy has too much going on in his life to give Charlotte his full attention. She is a girl who hates to think she’s being ignored you know.
As I said, John, Marianne, Fergus and I have done our best for her but there was always a gap there we could not fill – a gap that only a mother, her real mother could have filled, and tonight, as I’m sitting here, I feel I need to say sorry. Sorry to her, that I lied for these last eighteen years, but also sorry to you that I let my wish for revenge cloud my judgment for so long. She should have at least been able to come see you in Italy, I should not have hardened my heart as I did towards you, and in recent years I think the hatred has started to fade a little.
Two years ago, I even got your old bureau – the huge, ugly monster as I always called it – out of storage and I had it brought over here. I’ve used it to store the photos I got from Fergus, and a few other things. All your letters and cards to Charlotte are in there – someday, soon, I will let her see them and tell her the truth. And when that day comes, I hope she will forgive me. If you are reading this letter though Francesca it probably means I’m dead, and that you found this where I’ve hidden it in a place that only you could find here in the bureau as you came to reclaim it.
Try not to judge me as harshly as you might Francesca, for I’ve forgiven you, as I hope, in some small way, you will forgive me as well. You hurt me, but I feel I have hurt you even more, and despite everything you did you not deserve that. Somewhere, deep down inside, I think I still love you, but I know we can never be together again.
She called me before I started writing – Charlotte – and told me she was going out with friends. She also told me she was looking forward to seeing me soon. I told her I was as well – and I fear that was another lie. Not that I do not want to see her – I do with all my heart and soul – and if I am honest, I want to see you one last time.
But… Tomorrow I fly to Mazengwe, to look into some of the mine workings there. We have heard dark rumours of what they are doing there, and we need to investigate. I’m going because I speak the languages, and know the workings. But everyone knows Old Man Kimba is the real power in the country – and he is almost as bad as Mugabe.
Francesca, I fear I will not be coming back this time. I hope and pray I do, but if it happens I am already regretting not having left instructions for Charlotte to have the bureau sent to you. Maybe one day you and it will be reunited so I’ll hide this letter where you hid the other documents, then when you find it, you can hear my last confession.
My darling Francesca, deep down, I know now I have never stopped loving you, and I hope when you read this, you will reach out to Charlotte and try to rebuild the bridges with her. If I am to die, I do not want to do so without saying this, and without saying one more thing.
Well, I need to finish now – the plane leaves early tomorrow. Pensa a me con affetto e amore la nostra figlia come me, per tutti e due.
Francesca looked up, her eyes red with tears, as Charlotte looked in the doorway.
“I… I made sure the bag was incinerated myself… What’s wrong?”
“This letter… It is from your father, asking my forgiveness for the things he did. He said he was going to tell you everything, give you the letters, the next time he saw you, but…”
“But he was on his way to Mazengwe – I remember when I spoke to him that night, he said he was proud of me, and that we would talk soon. A week later, he was dead…”
"Oh James, what a mess I created, I ruined both our lives, and what
for in the end?" Francesca's tears poured out as she sat shaking with the
letter in her hand.
"Is his letter that bad Mother?" Charlotte asked tremulously.
"No in fact it’s that good Carlotta darling."
"Good, but why are you crying so hard then?"
"Because I think at the end he had actually forgiven me, and just
reading his words like that reminded me just why I loved him so much."
"I always knew that above all he loved all people regardless of
skin colour, of class, of nationality...that was the Dad I knew, the man
determined to fight inhuman mining conditions on his own continent. I can't
think harshly of him even with what he did to you."
"Yes for years, just as he writes he only hated one
"Well as you say in the end I even think he was forgiving
"I hope so Carlotta...sorry Charlotte, I will I promise get used to saying that, I just hope that in heaven he at least is not too cross we found each other again."
“And we could have been reconciled – but even from that, something good came.” Francesca put the letter in her purse, and said “I need to arrange shipping to the castel.”
“Ah Andre,” Charlotte said. “We need to make arrangements for this to be shipped to Naples.”
“At my expense,” Francesca said quietly, “can we go somewhere to arrange this?”
A short time later, as they sat in the lobby, Charlotte said “so, what is this title?”
“Well, the first Margravio was created in the 11th century, and I am his last direct descendant. The title though can be passed via the female line though, so that is why one day you will be the Marchesa Carlotta.”
“Alright,” Charlotte absorbed the information, “now I’ve got to ask a really important question Mother…
“And that is?”
“Who are you really? You aren’t the woman Dad thought you were, you aren’t the woman your friends thought you were. You aren’t the party girl, and Eleanor, whose judgment I trust, says you aren’t really ‘Il Pesce Diavolo’… Mother who is the real you?”
Smiling and shaking her head, Francsca said “Honest answer darling?”
“You know I’ve lived under cover so long,” she said quietly, “I’m not sure I can even remember the real me.”
“Okay – Well first, why the Naval Academy?”
“Ah now that is easy. Your grandpapa, his papa, and his papa all went there, girl or not Papa was determined that I’d attend.”
“And why a law degree?”
“I didn’t want to be a line officer, and I did rather like the idea of being a Judge Advocate General, so I studied law in the Supply division of the academy.”
“Alright,” Charlotte said, “and you became a spy…why?”
“And you became the leader of a group of highly skilled women who fight for justice why?”
“Okay, I asked for that one,” Charlotte whispered, “but seriously – why?”
“I was talent spotted by someone in the Naval Ministry, my grades were exceedingly high…I led my class…I was approached about doing Intelligence work, and yes it had appeal. I trained for an extra year, then served in various places for a year more, then I was offered Pretoria, a chance to run my own agents, I took it.”
“But your ‘legend’ as you call it?”
“Was faked up, they erased my grades at Livorno from all records, made me a graduate of the University of Pisa who had started art history, created a whole identity for me as a party girl.”
“But why did they put you back in the navy after you were outed?”
“Oh that’s easy - to keep me bound as a serving officer by my oath of loyalty, and by the secrets act.”
“Or to basically keep you under control.”
Nodding, Francesca said “I think in that you are right….so instead I became known as the airhead of the Italian Navy.”
“All the while transitioning to wet work?’
“Yes darling. The perfect cover, you might say.”
“So, under all that,” Charlotte said, “what was the real Francesca di Cambrello like?”
"What was the real me like Charlotte? I suppose I was just like most other upper-class Italian girls. Private schools in both Italy and then Switzerland, which is where I got to know Natalya Buchenwald, Fergus's aunt - she was a head girl when I was in my first year. I did my bows at the Opernball in Vienna, and then I went to the Naval Academy. I adored Papa, but I was really close and maybe even best friends with Mama.”
"When did they die?"
"While I was embarrassing them as the party girl of the navy.
Neither of them could fathom what had happened to their serious scholarly
daughter. They, like the public, just knew I'd been expelled by Pretoria, they
never cottoned on I'd been spying. They hated me for deserting you and James,
who incidentally they adored. I never told them the truth, especially what I
was by then doing. I think they thought that just maybe that it was postpartum
depression that had turned me into this bimbo...they had strokes within 24
hours of each other, so they went to their graves together, just as they
had been in actual life. They had had a life just like the life Mama had
predicted for me and James on our wedding day."
"Oh Mother that sucks!"
"Funny thing was, so many relatives all but spat at me and blamed
me for their deaths. If I had been
allowed to attend your father’s funeral, I probably would have got worse."
"Oh my Goddess...how did you react?"
"Giggly...just like I was drunk...I had a cover to protect remember."
"But your friends must have remembered the old you?"
"It's funny how people forget the past when they know the current reality.” Rubbing her eyes, Francesca continued “what with the alterations to my official records, I'm not sure with the exception of Natalya there is anyone left who really remembers me as the tall skinny blonde with the huge glasses that I once was."
"So you weren't always a fashion plate?"
"Oh no I always adored clothes, but it was only navy food that really gave me this figure...I gained Midshipman kilos as they call them...and I got contacts."
Charlotte shook her own head as Francesca smiled. "There are so many things that I had
looked forward to doing with you Carl...Charlotte."
"Like what Mother."
"Oh things like teaching you to ride..."
"Aunt Marianne taught me."
"Well she was a better rider then me anyway." Francesca
sighed, "Who taught you to swim?"
"Aunt Marianne again."
"To ride a bicycle? To drive a car?"
"Dad did both those. It was
him who taught me to shoot as well."
"And I suppose he read you bedtime stories, taught you little songs
to sing, and how to cross the street."
"Yes," Charlotte looked down.
“And was it Marianne or him took you for your first bra, saw to your
first period, helped you dress to go on your first date, and all those other
"Aunt Marianne pretty much.
There are some things a man cannot do…"
"Oh I so envy her," Francesca again burst into tears.
"She was there a lot of the time, so was Hannah, but neither of them was a real Mummy. I remember they day I started primary school, Miss Piggot the teacher told us after classes we should wait inside till our Mummy's came to the doors, and I was the girl who had to say that I didn't have a Mummy." Charlotte joined Francesca in tears as they held each other.
After a short while, the music they were hearing faded and a new tune started. "Oh God James are you sending me messages," Francesca looked skywards as Louis Armstrong came on as background music in the lobby of the Institute.
have all the time in the world
Time enough for life
To unfold all the precious things
Love has in store
We have all the love in the world
If that's all we have you will find
We need nothing more
Every step of the way
Will find us
With the cares of the world
Far behind us
We have all the time in the world
Just for love
Nothing more, nothing less
Every step of the way
Will find us
With the cares of the world
Far behind us, yes
We have all the time in the world
Just for love
Nothing more, nothing less
"What is wrong with that Mother?"
"It was 'our' song, the first thing your father ever took me out to
do, was to go see a rerun of 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service' at the Carlton
Cinema in Pretoria."
"It was?" Charlotte smiled, "did he know something do you
"NO!" Francesca shook her head, but listen to those
words...about being together for ever...We even danced our first dance to
"Isn't that also the one where Bond gets married?"
"Yes to Tracy, played by Diana Rigg...and just to add to the
unhappiness she gets killed at the end."
"Oh dear Goddess was someone up there trying to send you both a
"I have a spooky feeling your father is trying to tell me something
here....Right now." Shaking
herself, Francesca dried her eyes and continued "So who are your friends
other then Piet Charlotte?...and listen I got it right. That time."
"Yeah, well – Carlotta sounds nice too.” Looking at her mother, she said “well, my
best friends are Caroline Jameson..."
"She I do not know."
"Heather is actually a nanny and the partner of Sandy Richmond, one
of the richest women in New York. And, I
guess, Annie Kelly who is a schoolteacher from New York, and who is currently
VERY pregnant, as well as Katy Carter's mother Janice. I climb with them all
other than Heather when I'm in America."
"A couple of ladies who relate to the fashion industry...see you
did get some genes from me." Francesca smiled for the first time in a
"I guess I did...But Heather is a computer freak, and so am I...now
where do I get those genes from?"
"Well certainly not from me...I have always hated those machines."
“Maybe it was just dumb luck,” Charlotte said with a smile. “Listen – let me introduce you to them next week. After all, Janice’s partner is Adam Ball.”
“Eleanor’s son… Ah, so she is the mother of the girl Bev provided protection for?”
Charlotte nodded as Andre came out. “That is all in order, Marchesa. The firm will collect, and it will be delivered by the end of next week.”
“Excellent – thank you,” Francesca said as she and Charlotte shook hands with the Comte, and then went out, hailing a cab.”
“You know Uncle John will intercept it,” Charlotte said.”
“Let him – everything that could incriminate has gone now.”
1 pm CET
L’Hotel Metropole, Monaco
“I’ll see you later, Charlotte,” Francesca said as they got out of the car, “I need to be seen as the Admiral for a little while.”
“Of course,” Charlotte said, watching as her mother took a deep breath and somehow transformed herself, smiling and giggling as she walked to the mall. Going into the hotel, she sat at the bar and said “Iced water and a menu please.”
As the barman poured the drink, Charlotte looked at her phone, and the text that had arrived from the US. She sat for a moment, wondering if she should, and then she dialled the number.
“Hello? How may I help you,” the German woman said.
"Is this Countess Buchenwald?"
"It is. May I ask who is
"Hello my name is Charlotte Gordon, I can't remember if we have
met, but I'm a friend of your niece Carina."
"Ah yes – we met at Klaus and Juliette’s wedding in passing. I know very well who you are Charlotte, you
are the daughter of a very dear friend of mine..."
"Yes, well… That I now
know...I finally met my mother over the last couple of days."
"Ah,” the voice said quietly, “so you and Francesca have finally
been re-united, that explains much."
"Countess,” Charlotte said, “can you help me make sense of all
this? In 36 hours, I’ve seen so many different sides of her, I'm desperately in
need of someone impartial who can explain my mother to me..."
"Charlotte,” Natalya said quietly, “where are you dear?"
"I'm in Monaco with Mother, Uncle John and Aunt Marianne, and some
"When do you leave?"
"Monday, Shirley Xavier my boss has arranged that then we can use
the company jet to fly to New York."
"Alright Charlotte,” Natalya said quietly, “keep everyone there, I'll be with you in 4 hours."
“You can be here that quickly?”
“For this yes. Do not tell Francesca I am coming – I want to talk to you first, help you to understand the person your mother became.”
“All right – we have a casino tip tonight, but if we can talk before then…”
“I am on my way Charlotte – wait for me…”
“Last one in buys the drinks,” Aileen called out as she, Katy and Sands ran from the changing rooms to the pool side, Eve and Ama watching from the side as they jumped in and started swimming.
“Hey,” Doc called out, “was that a challenge?”
“Why – think you can’t beat us,” Aileen called out.
“Not me you need to think about beating you – she’s coming in now,” Anna said as Pepsi and Abby came out with Jeannie, lifting her into the pool and waiting as she kicked off, Aileen watching as her mouth opened.
“Fast, isn’t she,” Erica said as she and Jess swam past.
In the café area, Grace and Caroline were sitting at a table, watching down into the pool.
"You know, you look at them splashing round in there,"
Caroline smiled as Ama brushed water into Aileen's face, "and I think to
myself how nice it would be to simply go back to the simplicity of how we saw
the world when we were children."
"Like before poor Charity got your Mum hooked on worse drugs then
she could handle Caroline?"
"Yes Aunt Grace," the teacher smiled at the younger woman's
use of language.
"Stella just had an addictive personality darling, I guess while
Karen and I both had the sense to see how we were distorting and destroying
reality, she needed both the artificial highs the drugs and booze gave her, and
the validation she got from him..."
"Yes," Grace murmured, "the old he hits me therefore he
must care thing?"
"Darling I know, I've read enough books on unusual behaviour trying
to understand myself that I've learned a few things."
"I'm just glad that you were level-headed enough to keep yourself
going after her death, and not do anything silly like try to get revenge on
Caroline smiled again.
"Ask Pip, she knows how seeking revenge can destroy you as a person."
“Still, she turned out all right in the end, didn’t she?”
“True – eventually,” Grace said with a smile.
“And speaking of revenge… I hear there is mischief afoot.”
“Oh yes – they’re explaining it to Linda later…”
4 pm CET
“Good afternoon Madame,” the receptionist said as the tall, grey-blonde haired woman put her carry bag down, “how may I help you?”
“You have a late reservation – Baroness Natalya von Buchenwald?”
As she checked her computer, she said “ah yes – I am afraid we only have a premier suite…”
“That will be fine,” Natalya said as she filled out the card, smiling as she accepted the card and turned round – to be faced by John and Marianne Vosloo as they walked in, John carrying bags in both hands.
"Baroness Buchenwald,” John said with a smile, “it has been a very,
very, long time."
"Since the wedding Colonel Vosloo," Natalya kissed him on the cheek then Marianne. “May I say you both look well?”
"Thank you.” Marianne looked at her as she said “What I may ask brings you to Monaco?"
"I'm pretty sure you know Mrs Vosloo... I got a phone call from Charlotte, explaining
she had at last met her mother, and could I maybe talk to her..."
"So you flew here straight from Germany?"
"Actually no Colonel,” Natalya said, “I was in Geneva, I flew to
Nice, then got a car to bring me here."
"Does Francesca know you are here?" Marianne asked.
"No, and in a way I'm glad of that, I think it is maybe long since overdue that you and I had a talk...You know by the way I am Fergus's aunt?"
"I do remember that." John nodded.
"Good that helps, because you'll realise that I had a stake in both sides in that unholy mess. May I suggest we take the time to deposit our bags, and then you join me for coffee?"
“That sounds a plan,” Marianne said as they made their way to the lift together.
Ten minutes later, the three were sitting round a table in the bar as coffees were brought over.
"A few truths first I think," Natalya said as she sipped her
"That sounds good to me," John nodded.
"I believe you know of Francesca's visit to my nephew all those
many years ago?"
"Well,” Natalya said quietly, “I accompanied her, I was the person
who literally had to pull her up off the floor and to hit her to stop her
crying at our hotel in Bulawayo, after she spent that afternoon with Carlotta.
She was devastated at having to leave her again."
"Oh dear Lord," Marianne mumbled.
"But… She shed not a tear
when I took her to be deported."
"Nevertheless, she cried every inch of the way once the plane took
off for Rome. Colonel, she was too proud though to show you
John shook his head sadly. "And
I thought at least for a while it was because her damn 'work' was more
important than her family."
"Never think that Colonel,” Natalya said, “I cannot count the
number of times I have had to be the one to go comfort her when she has broken
"She's had breakdowns Countess?" Marianne asked quietly.
"Four, maybe five...each time though she has eventually righted
herself and picked up the pieces and staggered onwards." Natalya took
another sip. "Another truth is that with her banned from your country, I
attended James's funeral on her behalf."
"I never spotted you?"
"No I suppose you were too busy looking for Francesca Colonel, Fergus arranged for me to stay in the background. I will say it was a moving ceremony – and that was when I first saw Charlotte, standing by you two and Fergus.”
“Did you know he had been killed by – well, we thought it was the rebels, but now we know it was Kimba behind it all.”
“I had heard rumours,” Natalya said quietly. “But she has had to become hard, and lost something of herself. Therefore, and if what Charlotte hinted at is correct, we need to work together to make sure they are reconciled, and Francesca can begin to rediscover herself.”
“Tell me about it,” Marianne said.
Taking another drink of her coffee, Natalya put her cup down. "I'm probably the only person who chooses
now to remember Francesca as she was. I was Head Girl of Xeta House at
Esperance House School in Lausanne when she arrived at age 12. I saw her start
crying when her parents left and I took it upon myself to help her."
"That was good of you."
"Not really Colonel,” Natalya said with a slight shake of her head,
“I just remembered how scared and alone I'd been on my first night in Lausanne,
and I couldn't ignore this poor young girl."
"So you looked out for her and became friends?"
"Indeed, and I found out what a huge intellect she had, how proud
she was of being Italian, and most of all how much she loved her family. After I graduated I attended the University
in Lausanne, and we stayed friends."
"I remember,” Marianne said, “you were one of her
"I was indeed Mrs Vosloo, but that was a very different Francesca
to the one I knew... It didn't take me a
whole lot of thought to put two and two together and make five."
"Meaning Colonel that it was blazingly obvious to me that she was
living a cover, and that she was probably involved in espionage... There was no way that a girl with an IQ of
165 could be like she was."
"Did you ask her?"
"Of course I did, and in a roundabout way without admitting anything, she let me know that she was involved in intelligence work...but she also told me how deeply and truly she was in love with James. It was obvious to me both were true, but equally that sooner or later the two halves of her life would come together."
“And I was the one that caused that,” John said quietly.
“You were doing your job, Colonel – you did not know what would happen next.”
“Still, I cannot help but feel responsible for what James did.”
"I can understand how angry he was,” Francesca said, “but he became
determined to erase every trace of Francesca.
James somehow to knew just the scabs to pick... I was to have been Carlotta's godmother when
she was baptised... despite everything
you see the Francesca I've always known is quite devout... and when James changed her name like that,
and had her raised as a protestant, well that was yet another strand of her
heart that he broke."
"We tried to tell him to go follow her to Italy Countess."
"I know you did,” Natalya said, “I flew to South Africa to plead
with him, and he wouldn't see me...worse he wouldn't let Dona Carlotta who
accompanied me see her granddaughter."
"Oh my God...That he never told us." Marianne brushed a tear
from her eye.
"Dona Carlotta went to her grave convinced both that her daughter had become an imbecile, and without the comfort of having ever met the future in Carlotta. Something I hope to help both of them deal with."
“John, why did he do that,” Marianne asked.
"By then, I think the anger had consumed him,” John said, “but I
cannot apologise for what I did. I did
my duty Baroness...” Putting his empty
cup down, John continued “Francesca was a foreign spy... I knew it...
I proved it... What else was I
supposed to do? I'd even tried subtly to tell her that I knew to warn
"So she has often told me."
"And do you know about her life now?"
"If you mean do I know she's a government assassin Colonel...well
then yes I do?"
"You do?" John looked shocked.
"Don't be surprised Colonel,” Natalya said. “Marianne might have been her best friend, but I was the one who has always been there for her... Even assassins sometimes need share that secret, and she knows I'll go to the grave without having told a real 'outsider' the secret."
“And how do you feel about that?”
Natalya smiled as she said “I know our governments do things in the name of national security normal people would find repulsive, but I am a realist Colonel. My concern now is helping Francesca and Charlotte come together as mother and daughter.”
“I’m glad to hear it.”
Natalya looked round and stood as she saw Charlotte there. “How are you child,” she said quietly.
“Still confused – can we go to my room and talk?”
“Of course – Colonel, Mrs Vosloo, I hope we will talk more later.”
“So how do you want to do this,” Charlotte said as they walked to the lifts.
“Let us retire to your suite, and we can invite your mother to join us there. We have much to discuss, and I need to persuade your mother to do something she should have done a long time ago.”
As they entered, Natalya went to pour three drinks into glasses, and then sat down. She waited as Charlotte dialled Francesca’s room, before she said “We have a few minutes.”
“Good,” Natalya said, “because there are things I need to say. Carlotta, your Mother has degraded herself,
and then degraded herself further to punish herself."
Nodding, Charlotte said "I know she loved my father with all her
"If he had only seen me and your grandmother when we flew to South
Africa, and understood she was doing her duty to her country as she saw fit,
then brought you and himself to Italy this might have all been avoided, and she
would probably be a judge by now."
"My Grandmother came to see me..."
"Yes,” Natalya said, “but your father barred the door, he wouldn't see either of us, he never even let Dona Carlotta get one view of you...I think he also broke her heart."
“I wish I had known them…”
“They would have been proud of you,” Natalya said as they heard Francesca say “Eleanor, darling, of course I’ll be coming to the casino – I want to have fun!” She then knocked and came in and said “Carlotta darling, what can I… Natalya? What brings you here?”
“Close the door, Francesca,” Natalya said, “Charlotte called and asked if I could help her to make things clear in her mind, so I came. How are you feeling?”
Charlotte watched as her mother sat down, rubbing her head as she said “still confused as heck, given everything that’s happened. Have you seen John and Marianne?”
“I have – I told them a few things that happened, such as the fact I went to James’ funeral.”
“I kept to the back, but I was there,” Natalya said, “as I have always been there for you. And I am here now – because you have a choice to make Francesca.”
"We make our choices in life Natalya, we live with the
"Which means what Francesca?"
"That if somehow I could go back in time and turn down Admiral Amberllini's pitch to me to work in intelligence, just think what would change. I'd never have gone to the embassy in Pretoria, I would never have met James, and if I'd never met James there would not be a Charlotte Gordon...and her existence alone is my one comfort for this whole evil life that I have led."
Charlotte looked at Natalya as she nodded. “It is often the case that out of great tragedy can come great beauty, Francesca. Great fires in old forests can lead to new growth – I think the time has come for you to allow that growth, and burn away the dead wood.”
“You’re speaking in metaphors,” Francesca said quietly.
"Then let me be blunt. Francesca darling, like that very first night at Esperance House, it's time to stop the tears and deal with the reality."
"It's what I'm going to try and do Natalya."
"What do you mean Natty?"
"You know you are the only person who calls me that," the
Countess smiled, "what I mean is that it has to end?"
"The pretending...the lying...the legend...You have to tell your
masters in Rome no more, that you resign."
"Do you really think they will let me, and if they did what would I
do, as I said to the others I'd be a joke if I tried to practice law."
"You are wealthy enough that you don't need work."
"Natty you know me better, even partying, I've been working in some
way or other, I would not know what to do with myself if I just lived on my
"Francesca you will still be working...You have the most important job of your life to do...Building a relationship with your daughter."
“Please, mother,” Charlotte said, “I have no intention of losing you again now that I have the chance to find you…”
Nodding Francesca said “there’s only one problem with that Natty – would they let me? Or would they…”
She made a motion across her throat with her hand, as Charlotte paled, before saying “excuse me” and heading into her room.
5 pm BST
Shirley looked at her phone, and then switched on her laptop, before putting the fob on her keys to her eyes.
“Charlotte,” she said as she saw the face on the screen, “is something wrong?”
“Yes… No… Madame, I contacted Natalya von Buchenwald to come and talk to me, apparently she knows my mother of old.”
“She does? How interesting?”
"Madame I need to ask a huge question?" Charlotte whispered
into the secure computer link.
"And what might that be Charlotte?"
"I have been talking to Baroness von Buchenwald with my Mother,”
Charlotte said quietly, “is it true that the Italian government might kill her
rather then let her resign?"
Shirley take a deep breath as she looked at the young woman’s worried
"All that she knows, all that she has done...it is entirely
possible they would have her shot Charlotte."
"Oh my dear GODDESS! So she
either stays an assassin or else?"
"That is how they would see it Charlotte."
"Is there nothing we...I mean you can do Madame?"
“That is a – difficult question Charlotte.”
"But why Madame?"
Shirley thought for a moment, before she said "Wet Workers are
"The lowest of the low." Charlotte murmured.
"What was that?"
"Oh nothing Madame, please go on."
"Well people like your mother tend not to live a long life...many
are killed, more kill themselves...someone as experienced and feared as your
mother is, then they will be very reluctant to let go."
"Please Madame...and I'm pleading, please rack your brains for
something...anything that we can do, so she and I can at least have some few
years together. She has shown interest
in the Sisterhood as well…"
"I will see what I can do Charlotte,” Shirley said, “but I will warn you it is a very slim chance she will be allowed just to leave the service."
"Madame just tell them she has a grandchild on the way, and I want
that grandchild to know her as I never got the chance to do so."
"You think that will sway them Charlotte?" Shirley paused,
"there is also another question, she has for years been a killer..."
"Are either of us in a position to pass judgment Madame...I have secrets
I must keep from her as she has from me."
"Be that as it may Charlotte, can you really hope she can ever
become again the woman who would have raised and nurtured you."
"With help....yes I'm hoping so Madame."
“Very well – go and be with her Charlotte. I return to New York on Wednesday – we can both talk with her then.”
“Thank you Madame,” Charlotte said before she ended the call. Shirley sat back for a moment, and then looked through her contacts.
6.10 pm CET
“Are you all right,” Francesca said as Charlotte came back in.
“Yes – it was just the shock of you admitting they may kill you, in that matter of fact way.” She sat next to her mother and hugged her.
"Charlotte… I quite literally know where too many of the bodies are buried." Francesca hugged her daughter as she talked slowly and sadly. "My masters will never just let me walk out. Not unless a miracle happened."
Charlotte swallowed as she said "but aren't you entitled to a life after all you have done for them...all that you sacrificed."
"I told her she should have resigned after Pretoria," Natalya said
quietly as she swirled her cognac in its glass. "Instead she volunteered
to train for what she still does."
"Natalya we have talked this over too many times already...what
choices did I have...after..."
"After what Mother?" Charlotte looked up at her mother’s face.
"What I call the awful letter from your father..."
"She doesn't tell anyone,” Natalya said, “but she also had a
breakdown, and she was hospitalised in a secure military mental hospital."
"Well you didn't even tell your parents that did you? She was in
such a state Carlotta I'm still not sure she was legally mentally competent to
agree to training as a killer." Natalya paused, "She just knew it was
hard, dangerous, dirty and de-grading...The perfect self-punishment for
deserting you and James as she saw it."
"Oh my Goddess Mother,” Charlotte said quietly, “the more I hear
the worse this tragedy gets."
"You want to know what Francesca was really like," Natalya reached in her bag and brought out a DVD. "This I got transferred from VHS, its part of a media project I did as part of my degree, and its about your mother...as she really was."
“OH dear god,” Francesca said, “this could be interesting.”
Walking to the large television set, Natalya switched it on, and then fed the disk into the side of the set. A few minutes later, they saw Francesca on the screen – but the sixteen year old Francesca, in her school uniform and wearing glasses.
"Natty I can't act," the tall gangly girl on the TV screen
"I don't want you acting Francesca, I just want you to talk about
yourself," the voice from behind the camera spoke with a slight German
"What should I say?"
"Well that you have a genius IQ?"
Smiling, Francesca said "Mama always taught me that I should never
"Well talk about your Mama then."
"Well I'll try," Francesca paused then began. "My mama’s
name is Dona Carlotta, the Marchesa di Cambrello and she is the finest person I
know. She's not tall...she always says that this height of mine comes from that
original Viking who settled in Sicily a thousand years ago and founded the
family line of which I'm the last descendant."
"That is good Francesca...more please."
"Well we live in the Palazzo di Cambrello in Rome, my father is a
retired naval officer who nowadays manages the family lands and businesses. He
is probably the 'youngest' old person I know, and he's even been to a few
concerts with me...not many papa's do that.. my Mama says that is why she loves
him, that inside he will always remain the devastatingly handsome young man in
his navy uniform that she fell in love with."
"Now about you Francesca?"
"Well I'm tall, but I'm so thin people say I blow over in a strong
wind...I adore fashion, but this rake like cadaver doesn't always show even the
most stylish things to their best advantage."
"What are your ambitions?"
"I guess to meet as lovely a man as my father, and to give him and Mama a whole host of grandchildren they can spoil until the day they die." Francesca smiled at the camera, "I'm going to be in the navy, but that will only be something I do till I have all my bambinos."
"Good Goddess I'd forgotten I ever said that," Francesca started to sob lightly.
"Are you a virgin Francesca?" Natalya's voice was heard to ask
from the camera.
"Yes," the reed like girl blushed, "and my husband will
be my very first lover on the night of our wedding."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes I promised the Virgin Mother..."
"And she kept that promise," Natalya whispered to Charlotte.
"I did Carlotta darling."
"But all the men since?"
"Not love, purely an 'animal' thing to both satisfy and punish this body in its sins, and to suit my cover."
“Where do you see yourself in ten years time Francesca?”
“Well, I was for a while,” Francesca said, “but is that girl still there?”
“I believe she is, deep down,” Natalya said, “but she will only start to come back when you have got your life back.”
“And I have someone working on that,” Charlotte said quietly.
5.30 pm BST
Shirley hummed quietly to herself as she waited for the call to be connected, before a man with an Italian accent said “hello? Who is this?”
“Good evening, S – I trust I find you well?”
There was a moment’s silence, before the voice said “who are you and how did you get this number?”
"Oh please – I always know how to contact the important people when they are needed… And don't ask who this is S... you know very well who I am."
"Yes I do Madame," the accented voice showed no emotion. "But how can I serve you, I am out of office...a lot of people say I'm disgraced."
"Because you are capable of doing what needs to be done,” Shirley
said. “I want 'Il Pesce Diavolo'
released from her bonds S."
There was a quiet chuckle, before he said "and how, pray tell, am I
supposed to do that Madame, as I said I'm out of office."
"Yes but you still have huge influence...” Swirling her drink around, Shirley took a
sip, before saying “Get Italian MI to let her quietly resign and slip into a
well-deserved private life, or I might just reveal how you used a state
assassin to cool down shall we say some of your personal scandals..."
"That is blackmail Madame."
"It might be," Shirley silently heaved a huge sigh of relief that her guess as to past events was true...her bluff had worked..."So what is it to be?" she asked coolly.
“You ask a great deal – she is a highly prized asset…”
"She has sacrificed her life for Italy and Nato S. Her daughter
never has known her own mother, her parents never knew their only grandchild,
and went to their graves believing that Francesca had gone mad. Italy owes it
to her and her daughter who is going to become a mother later this year to say
enough is enough, you've done your duty, you've paid your debt...now go and
don't look back."
"Many powerful people would not agree with that Madame.”
“But you will persuade them – because you know what I will do if you do not. Who knows, maybe they will ask her then to give you her special attention…”
“You need say no more,” the voice said. “I will see what can be done.”
“Good – do not fail me S, or you will regret it at her hands, for be sure, I will tell her.”
6.30 pm CET
L’Hotel Metropole, Monaco
“Excuse me a moment,” Francesca said as she made her way to the bathroom, while Charlotte looked at Natalya.
“You understand, Charlotte? For both of you to be able to build that relationship a mother and daughter need, she needs to find herself again, and you need to accept her.”
“You know a lot about this area?”
"Carlotta,” Natalya said, “I was never lucky enough to have
children, or maybe if you look at in a certain way it was lucky for the world I
never had any."
"That you never had a daughter like Carina?"
"Ah,” she said quietly, “so you know some of our family
"I do Countess, but I also know that in my case my mother was
robbed of her life, she was robbed of me as I was robbed of her, and she was
robbed of the other children and the happiness she and Dad should have
Natalya sat back and smiled. "Who are you really mad at Carlotta? James? Italian Military Intelligence? The Vosloo's? Or are you really just mad at her? You have to understand, there is no going back, you must deal with this reality, and put aside grudges and revenge. You and she must determine what you both really want from each other."
“Yeah – yeah you’re right,” Charlotte said as Francesca came back in. “Mother – let’s start afresh. Why don’t we get ready for the casino?”
“Now that is a good idea,” her mother said with a smile. She looked again at the screen as the teenager said “When I have a daughter, I hope she thinks of me as I think of Dona Carlotta, and if I have a son I hope he stands as proud as my papa.”
“So do I,” Charlotte said with a smile, “so do I.”
“And what do you think of me now, Carlotta?”
“You’re not the killer – not really – and no, you’re not that girl either. I’d like to find the real you, and get to know her – if you’ll let me?”
Francesca nodded silently as they embraced again, and Natalya smiled. “Well,” she said, “I understand we are going to the Casino tonight, and I must go to prepare. Let us all go together – as one group.”
“I know that girl is still in there somewhere Mother – and I want her to come out as well,” Charlotte said as on the screen, Natalya said “so come on Francesca – who is he going to be?”
“Tall, handsome, and intelligent,” the young Francesca said, “so that I can look him in the eye and talk to him…”
In the next room, Veronica and Eleanor had a different task in hand.
“Beverley, my dear,” Eleanor said, “if you are going to the casino at Monte Carlo, you need to dress the part. What did you pack?”
“Well,” Bev said, “ay got this dress wif Lily’s help.” She held up a classic cream coloured shift dress.
“Good start,” Veronica said, “but we need to accessorise… I think we have a few things that will make you stand out, Beverly. Eleanor?”
“Let’s start with some make-up,” she said as they sat the young girl down, and started to work on her face. When they had finished, Bev looked at herself in the mirror, her hair drawn back, subtle eyeshadow and blusher highlighting her eye as cheeks, and whispered “what the…”
“See, that is the sort of look we need you to have,” Eleanor said. “Now we need to make you stand out in other ways. Have you ever worn elbow gloves?”
“Nah,” Bev said as Veronica went to her case, and took out a pair. “We’re about the same arm length, and white goes well with that – try them on.” Both women watched as Bev carefully pulled on the gloves, and looked at her hands.
“Dis is… different,” she said quietly as she looked at the other two. “Will you be wearing glufs as well?”
“Oh yes – it’s required,” Eleanor said as she fastened a necklace, made of gold with diamonds, round Bev’s neck. “You can borrow my necklace for tonight, and I’ll wear my pearls. What about a jacket?”
“I fought we were walking?”
“Beverly, there is walking, and there is WALKING,” Veronica said. “I have a fur wrap you can borrow for the night. Now, you wait here while we get ready…”
"Well it sounds like a plan to me." Linda smiled as she said “actually, it really does sound like it might work…”
"We thought you might approve Mother." Paula Gaunt sipped her coffee.
"I've been working the model grapevine along with Katy and we
should have virtually every girl on that list here in New York by the
morning... I know Orion O’Ryan is flying
"Not to mention a few angry parents Abby," Missy looked
happier then she had in days.
"Hey I told you not to mention parents!"
"Someone hit her...PLEASE!" Linda groaned, "that joke is older then I am."
“Still – Orion’s aunt is in, so is Katherine, as well as Doc’s mother. A few of them are meeting at Juliette’s place now, hearing the plan themselves.”
“Taking care of something for us.”
New York Mobility, W 37th Street
The bespectacled brunette smiled as she looked up, the door opening in to allow Jeannie Brewster to enter.
“Miss Brewster – what brings you to us today,” she said as the young girl came over.
“Well, Mrs Himmerveen,” Jeanne said, “I have a little event that we need your help with – it’s a bit hush hush, but you were a great help last time.”
“Well, if we can help, what do you need?”
“I need to hire forty wheelchairs for the weekend – delivery today, return Monday.”
The woman stared at Jeannie for a few minutes, before she said "Let
me get this straight Miss Brewster - you want to hire 40 wheelchairs for the
"Please," Jeannie smiled.
"You know I'm not sure that even we at the New York Mobility
Company can lay our hands on that many, that quick...Is this for another film
"No Mrs Himmerveen, it's not, and I'd rather not say what they are
"Well,” Mrs Hmmierveen said, “I can maybe ask our suburban branches
if they have some we can call in."
"Just try your best please, and try to get them delivered to the
Waldorf-Astoria by this time please." Jeannie handed the woman a note.
"All I can say is that I'll try."
"That's good enough for me." Jeannie extended her hand to shake, "just put the bill on my credit card, and if you need extra ring the number on that paper, and they will get the cash to you."
“And you won’t say what it is for?”
“It’s a surprise…”
The Huntingdown Apartment
"Okay let’s go down the list one more time" Juliette spoke to
the assembly of women sitting in her drawing room.
"Do we have to Mom?" Carina questioned.
"Accommodation for the girls and parents?" Juliette shot her
daughter a glance.
"All arranged." Mary
smiled as she said “a lot of the local girls have opened their doors for this
Juliette smiled in return. “Good
– the last thing we need is Carlin getting wind of who is coming in. Wheelchairs?"
"Jeannie is hiring them as we speak," Barbara said
consulted her pad as she said “Jeanne will come and see you later tonight,
ostensibly for an interview of Pippa taking over.”
"Ditto. Alexis has talked to
Jane, and she is spreading the word."
"Our surprise guest?"
"That's in hand Ju. She’s going to arrive tomorrow lunchtime, and I’ll look after her."
“Thanks Barbara – right, Pippa will be telling her later today. Who’s first to arrive?”
“The rest of the Irish contingent – Katherine is on it now…”
“Hey,” Katy said as she waved, Orion O’Ryan waving back as she came through the Arrival doors with her aunt. While she was wearing a brown leather jacket over stylish jeans, Brenda O’Dowd was wearing a camel coat over a floral dress that came to her knees.
“Hello Brenda,” Jan said as she hugged the older woman, “Thanks for coming over for this.”
“Oh I would not miss this for the world – Orion explained everything that had been discussed on the flight over.”
“Katy, can you two stay here while I go and bring the car round,” Janice said, “Katy nodding as she stood with the trolley, looking at her friend.
"Are those the Sharemel jeans Orion?"
"They are...” Orion said as she posed in them, “so what do you think?"
"That the buzz underestimates how hot they will be." Katy let out a low whistle while she watched.
"Well,” Orion said, “I have a dozen pairs in my luggage that we can
share among your friends."
"Including extra long for Abs?'
"Now what I forget Abby Katy?"
"Mom and your Aunt should be here with the car so we can load it in
a few seconds."
"Sounds good...” As Orion
and Katy pushed the trolley out, the Irish redhead said “now how are you
"You mean after being snatched?"
"Like I'd like to rip his guts out in revenge,” Katy said quietly as Janice pulled up, “but the law will see to him."
“Right girls,” Brenda said as she got out, “bags in and back to Kate’s place.”
The Huntingdown Apartment
“Orion’s here,” Abby said as she looked at her phone, “and Jeannie’s taken care of things. Let’s split now and meet up tomorrow as planned.”
“Thank you everyone,” Juliette said, “make sure your guests are comfortable, and there in time tomorrow.”
As the women talked amongst themselves, Klaus went to see who was knocking on the door. As he opened it, he stared at the tall, well built man who turned and said “Your highness – I came to collect Jennifer.”
“Of course - Mr. Stallone it's a pleasure to make your acquaintance..."
Klaus said as they shook hands.
"The pleasure is all mine sir, and my friends call me Sly."
"Well mine call me Klaus."
"Okay Klaus it is."
"Has my wife informed you what the plan is?"
"Yeah, and Jennifer and I agree with it."
"Did you explain it all to Sistine?"
"We did. Could be interesting."
“I’m glad I’m going to be here to see this,” Carina said as she sat with Abby, “sets me up for finals.”
“On another matter the Cyborg rang me earlier, those bastards are planning
to crash another party tonight and try the same trick," Abigail whispered
"Now are they?" Cari looked round, "did Celia give you
the where and when?"
"She did, but I'm tied up with all this crap."
"Don't worry,” Carina said, “I think Gale and I can maybe handle
this, and no one will notice our absences with so much going on."
"Remember this is deterrence only Cari, we don't do anything serious
till we are given the go-ahead."
"And there you go spoiling my fun...But yes I'll make sure they are still left healthy for someone else in the future." As Abby nodded, Carina took out her phone. “Gale? Carina – want to go to a party?”
8.30 pm CET
Casino de Monte Carlo
The doorman smiled as he opened the door to the party walking towards the entrance. John was wearing a black dinner jacket and pants, white shirt and bow tie, while Marianne had on a black evening gown with long gloves, and a black coat.
Francesca, Charlotte and Natalya followed, the three women wearing long black dresses with gloves and high heels. Francesca giggled as the doorman saluted her, Charlotte shaking her head as she did so.
Finally, Bev came in with the fur wrap round her head, while both Eleanor and Veronica wore short jackets over their knee length dresses, with pearl necklaces and earrings. As they approached the twin marinates that looked down from the front of the building, Bev smiled as she said “I ain’t in Tottenham any more, am I?”
“Smile and enjoy yourself Bev,” Veronica said as they walked in, depositing their coats and wraps at the cloakroom as they gathered in the marbled entrance hall. A gallery ran along the three sides to the side and opposite the door, as the white floor gleamed, the white and dark stars shining under the candelabras.
“All right,” Francesca said with a smile, “let’s go and try to break the bank.”
“How are you, Little Mother” Eleanor said as she walked with Charlotte.
“Still in a bit of shock – Natalya played a film she made with a young Francesca, and that’s the woman I want to see come through in that way. I know it’s going to be a long road though – I just want her to walk it.”
“Did you talk to Shirley?”
Charlotte nodded. “I’m hoping she can use whatever influence she has there to persuade them to let her go, and not…”
“I understand – and if anyone can do it, Madame can,” Eleanor said quietly. “I’ve known her for twenty years, Charlotte, and I’ve never seen her so scared as she has been since you walked in.”
“She and me both.”
“I have a suggestion,” Natalya whispered, “Knowing him as I do, which is
only slightly, but knowing that he is at this present time staying with
Valeria get Father Alexander to drive all night from Bordeaux to here...She hasn't
confessed in 25 years, and I think its time Francesca made a confession and was
welcomed back to her faith."
"It would be a good first step," Eleanor spoke. "I'll ring him, I have his number."
“Good – now, let us enjoy ourselves.”
“Ladies, gentlemen,” the smartly dressed security man said, “I am required to see your papers before I may grant you admittance.”
“Of course,” John said as they handed their passports over, the man checking each one and nodding.
“Enjoy your evening,” he said as he allowed them to enter, Bev looking round at the gold walls, the tables around the room as groups of people sat playing cards or roulette.
“This,” Eleanor said, “is the Salle des Ameriniques, the main gaming room for the casino. The serious players go elsewhere, the slots in the hall over there, but to experience the true atmosphere of a casino, this is where you need to be.”
"'Onestly the welf and luxury of this place," Bev shook her head, "this is bleedin' amazin'."
"Remember the accent Bev." Marianne smiled at her.
"I know, I 'ave...I mean I have been training on it with Penny...I
have to concentrate hard though so not to keep dropping me aitches."
"So what do you want to try first?" asked Eleanor.
"Well I'd like to say that just once I played roulette 'ere."
Bev smiled, "but ultimately just find me a nice friendly poker game."
"Are you any good Bev?" John Vosloo asked.
"I might not beat Pru Stratton without real luck in the cards, but
I've played with people who 'ave, and they say I'm nearly as good."
"Do they now?" Veronica looked interested, "this could be enjoyable to see."
“What do you mean?”
“Because,” Charlotte said with a smile, “Pru Stratton is playing at that table over there.”
The group looked over to one of the tables, where the statuesque model was sitting playing.
"We should have stayed at the Hotel de Paris so you could have rubbed Louis XIV's statue for luck Bev."
"I don't believe in luck Charlotte, and I'm surprised a computer geek like you does."
"Oh you just think everything is a matter of odds and mathematics
"Not entirely Marchesa...sorry Francesca...but I do believe that most winnings are generated by people not being able read your face 'cross the table."
“Well, let’s play the roulette table for a moment, and then we can see if a seat comes free – where did Natalya and Eleanor go?”
“To get some chips, I think…”
9 pm CET
Chateau de Ros
Alex looked up from his seat as the maid said “a telephone call for you Sir – the Baroness von Buchenwald wishes to talk to you.”
“Natalya? I wonder what she wants?”
“You had best go and see,” Valeria said as Alex stood up and went to the hallway. Taking the handset, he smiled as he said “Good evening Baroness – how can I help you?”
“My apologies for disturbing your visit, Father Richmond, but I – well, to tell the truth Charlotte Gordon needs a favour from you. Can you drive to Monaco – tonight?”
"Can I drive to Monaco tonight?" Alex scratched his head,
"can you tell me why?"
"You need to hear a long overdue confession Father."
"Father Alex… Charlotte has met her mother while visiting here.”
“Her mother? I thought her mother died giving birth to her?”
“That was what she wanted everyone to believe, but they are – beginning
to understand each other. Alex, Charlotte's
mother has not said confession for 25 years...she has much to get off her
"What about a local priest? I can recommend a friend."
"No in the circumstances I think it has to be you Father Alex...you
might be the only priest alive who can understand."
"Can understand what Baroness?"
"What Francesca has to say...she has led a very shall we say
'unusual' life, just as you became a priest via an unorthodox route, let me say
she has pursued an interesting path back to her child."
"Well it sounds a riddle Baroness, but you have me intrigued."
"Good and just to make it worth your while I'll throw in 6 bottles
of that vintage Tokay you so enjoyed at the wedding..."
"Hold on I'll just grab the car keys," Alex laughed at his own joke, "but seriously I'll be there by breakfast."
“Thank you Father – we may be found at the Metropole. Enjoy your evening.”
9.10 pm CET
Casino de Monte Carlo
“He is coming?” Eleanor asked as Natalya ended the call.
“Alex will be here tomorrow – come, let us join the others.”
As they walked over to the roulette table, they saw Charlotte and Natalya standing behind Francesca, as she laid some chips on the table and watched.
“Eighteen Red, Eighteen Red,” the croupier called out, Francesca smiling as she collected her winnings and then left the table.
“Always quit while you are ahead,” she said as Veronica and Bev made their way over to where Pru Stratton was sitting. The model was wearing a silver lame dress, her chest held barely in place, and it was obvious she was ahead. One of the players nodded and stood up, Bev smiling as she said “is it all right if I take this seat?”
“Of course,” Pru said as Bev sat down, placing her chips in front of
her. “The game is Texas Hold Em. We've met haven't we?" Pru continued as
she extended a hand across the table.
"I'm not sure Miss Stratton," Bev smiled as they shoot,
"but we do know some of the same people."
"I'm an old friend of Kylie Mitchell's, I know Katy Carter quite
well, I know Susan Walker, from way back, and I work for the same
"Oh you run with that set do you, it would explain where I've seen
you then." Pru smiled, "are you any good?"
"Oh not in your league Miss Stratton, but I'm here to have fun...win or lose."
“Well, fun is the thing to have – cut the deck?”
She handed the deck to Bev, watching as she quickly separated, shuffled and cut the deck, and then handed it back over. “Right then,” Pru said, “let’s play…”
She dealt the cards round the table, as Bev look carefully at her cards and the ones in front of Pru, before starting the betting…
“How are you doing,” John said as he brought a drink over to Marianne.
“A little ahead – how about you Charlotte?”
“Roughly even,” she said as Natalya watched with Francesca.
“I take it nobody here at the moment knows you?”
“Not so far Natty – which means I can be myself for once. Whatever that may be.”
“Just remember that sixteen year old and let her come back out for a little while,” Natalia said, “it’s time she appeared again.”
“I know – it’s just taking a while for her to come out,” Francesca said as she watched Charlotte play, “but watching my daughter sit there…”
Charlotte smiled as she won again, while on the poker table Eleanor and Veronica shared a look as Bev took another pot. Pru was watching her closely as well, as the dealer shuffled and dealt the cards out.
“Nothing… Two jacks… Possible straight… Two tens… Possible flush.”
Bev looked at the king and queen in the dealer’s hand, and then at the three cards face down in front of her. Putting a fifty in, she said “one card,” throwing one over as the dealer sent a fresh card her way. Pru looked at her own cards, and then round the table before she said “I’ll see you, raise you fifty.”
“Dealer takes a card,” the bow tied man said, as he placed a second nine next to the nine and Jack.
"Come on give me sumfing..." Bev looked intently at the man opposite.
"I'll raise..." he spoke, but as he did Bev saw his cheek twitch oh so slightly.
"Gotcha!" Bev chuckled inwardly as she matched his raise and added more to the pot. "Fancy trying to bluff me," she thought silently.
Pru smiled as she raised the pot again, the other players dropping out as Pru said “shall we?”
The dealer nodded as Pru turned her cards over. “Two pairs, nines and jacks.”
“Not bad,” Bev said as she turned her cards over, the dealer saying “full house, nines over eights.”
Pru smiled as Bev took the pot, and then said “nicely played, my dear.”
“Thank you, Ms Stratton,” Bev said as the cards were played again, this time Pru taking the pot.
“I have news,” Veronica whispered into Eleanor’s ear. "The Algerians have made multiple arrests
on their side. Looks like a lot of
sacrificial lambs will be thrown to the wolves."
"Well you can be sure it won't be any of the real high-ups, they'll
simply regroup and end up finding someone else this side of the Med to work
"Are you sure you aren't really Italian Eleanor darling,"
Francesca whispered from where she stood on the other side of Eleanor,
"you are cynical enough to be you know?"
"No, good central European Jewish blood is all I have
"It's not a permanent cure ladies, but at least we temporarily have made things better, and that's the best we can hope for ever." Veronica smiled as Bev took a small pot, "well she's holding her own eh?"
"Bev is holding her own," Francesca nodded to John Vosloo.
"Indeed she is," John smiled, "she and Pru Stratton are
winning consistently...not huge amounts, but enough that one or two other
players are beginning to notice how much they are down."
"Do you remember us four playing cards?" Marianne asked.
"I do," Francesca smiled in happy remembrance, "but whist
and bridge were our games, not poker...and for VERY small stakes. Ladies like us didn't play poker back then, and
I’m no good nowadays when I do play, my colleagues say that I betray myself
with not being able to keep a poker face."
"You not keep a face," John laughed, "Francesca that sounds ridiculous."
"But I'm told it’s true," Francesca shook her head, "consider my past and explain why people say they can always tell when I'm bluffing at this game?"
"I don't know...it makes no sense." John sipped his wine.
"You know I still prefer our good Cape wines to these German
"Now that is a major change to 25 years ago...back then husband
dear you drank nothing but Castle beer."
"James was almost the same." Francesca remembered.
"Well it was you introduced us all to a bit of sophistication darling." Marianne smiled again.
"So what are you doing in Europe Miss Stratton?" Bev asked as
drinks were brought over.
"Call me Pru darling...the whole world does."
"Alright what have you been doing in Europe Pru?" Bev smiled.
"The girls have been working," Pru glanced at her own chest.
"I was shooting bra and lingerie ads in Rome, and had to do a few public
appearances...a night here is my reward from my husband."
"Nice reward..." a man grumbled quietly, "and I'm paying
"What are you doing Beverley?"
"I came over to help Charlotte Gordon from my company clear out her late father's office." Bev sipped her glass of water. "This is her thanks for 'elping out."
“Quite a treat then,” Pru said, “Let’s play a couple more games, and then I’ll buy you a drink.”
“Well, I think I have had my fill of the table for tonight,” Charlotte said as she stood up, “I’m a little ahead, and a wise gambler knows to quit when ahead.”
“Indeed,” Marianne said with a smile, “why don’t you cash your chips in and join us in the Opera Bar.”
“Sounds good – will the others join us?”
“In due course,” Natalya said, “they are keeping an eye on Young Beverly.”
“Oh – is she in trouble?”
“Oh no – quite the opposite in fact. I think she is more than comfortable holding her own…”
“Well, I think this is a good time to stop,” Pru said as she collected the pot.
“I agree,” Bev said, “it is getting late, and I have a busy day tomorrow.”
“As do I – gentlemen, it has been a pleasure,” Pru said as two assistants collected the chips from Bev and Pru, taking them to be cashed as the crowd around the table applauded.
“You know Bev you really aren’t a bad player at all,” Pru sipped her drink, “where do you play?”
“Only really against other people who work for Xavier’s…Most of me friends say that I make more at cards then I do workin’.”
“You should consider playing a few tournaments, you really are good enough.”
“Oh I’m not bad, but I watch a pro like you…”
“Bev,” Pru said with a smile, “I got my start just like you did, sitting round playing games with other models while we were at work so to speak.”
“Yeah,” Bev said, “but I watch on TV, and I’ll admit I’ve learned a lot wotchin’ telly, and I think I just aint quite up to that standard.”
“Well I’m playing an event in Birmingham next month, can I get you a seat?”
“And I’ll stake you Bev.” Charlotte sat down with the poker players.
“Well you put it that way…well yeah I’d luv that.” Bev grinned, “just so long I don’t need dress up all like this…it aint really me.”
“No you can just wear jeans if you like.” Pru laughed.
“GOOD!” the London girl laughed.
“So changing subject, you have a lot of friends in the fash biz, but it’s obviously not your thing…what do you do Bev?’
“Well I got to know Katy Carter by being her bodyguard for a while.”
“Yeah, poor Katy,” Pru shook her head.
“Caroline Jameson has used me a few times doing security work…and back in England I help do security evaluations for Xavier clients, and help out a bit in employee team building training.”
“Bev is a bit of a jack of all trades, we are still finding exactly the right niche for her within the company.” Charlotte sipped her wine.
“Well I’m sure that you’ll find out soon just where you fit in Bev…Oh and changing subject again,” Pru said with a glint in her eye, “that is the Sultan of Armuz about to take a seat. He’s a fanatical poker player, but he’s not very good…shall we go separate him from some of his oil revenues?”
“Oh yes if you say so Pru,” Bev giggled, just a tad of heroine worship growing inside her.
“Well, that was fun – and it was a real education to play against you Pru,” Bev said.
“It was fun for me as well – you have a talent there,” Pru said as she hugged Bev, kissing her on both cheeks. “Say hi to Kylie the next time you see her – Enjoy the rest of your stay.”
“She’s nice,” Bev said with a smile as Pru sashayed off, and the assistant handed Bev an envelope. Looking in, she smiled and said “I might be able to do a little shopping in New York now.”
“Well, let’s join the others for a drink,” Eleanor said, “we’ll make sure you get that safely back to your room…”
“I’ve heard of this place,” Gale said as she and Carina slipped into the party, “but never been here before. Whose party is it?”
“A senior Nun – sorry, a Senior at Sacred Heart,” Carina said quietly. “Thanks for coming tonight.”
“Well, Tom said I deserved a night out after everything that has happened – but dressed like this?” Both girls were wearing sweaters and jeans with boots, as were most of the boys and girls in the room.
“Well, all the easier to blend in, and for us to identify the people of interest without attracting too much attention,” Carina said as they made their way to the bar. “After all, this is to remind them of what was said when they last tried this, not to fully punish them.”
“Slipping drugs to underage kids,” Gale said as she took a beer, “we should just turn them over to Tom and let them feel the full weight of the law.”
“Tempting – but not the way she feels,” Carina said with a smile as they looked round. Both women were wearing long auburn wigs as a further disguise.
“So, where are they?”
“Coming in now,” Carina said as Gale looked at the four boys and the girl who came in, “watch them, let me know if they start to approach any of the other girls.”
“What do you mean that’s all we’re going to get,” Kendall Janner said to Brewster Kingman as they looked round.
“Dad’s supply line got cut off – apparently there was a big police action at the course, and he’s cut all ties. So pick carefully.”
“Pick what carefully,” Celia said as she looked round. While she was also wearing a jumper and jeans, the boys were in polo shirts and smart trousers. Billy looked at her, smiling as he said “oh, just something to make some of the girls a bit happier, more eager to spend time with us. It doesn’t hurt them.”
“Sounds fun,” the stocky replied, her smile hiding the fact she wanted to deck him just for suggesting that. But she knew Abby had asked her to play the part, even as she resolved to make it as difficult as she could. Instead, she smiled as she followed the boys over to a bar.
“Who’s the big girl,” Gale whispered to Carina.
“A plant – she volunteered to get to know the boys and keep us informed,” Carian whispered back as they watched. “She is safe and off limits.”
Gale nodded as she watched the boys, and then looked along their line of sight. “They’re scanning the room – definitely looking for targets, and so blatantly as well. Have a look.” As Carina looked round, she suddenly stiffened and said “Goddess…”
“What is it?”
“Those girls – barely thirteen as a group I think. If they’re targeting them…”
“They’re just kids, Billy – why would you want them, when you can have me?”
Billy looked at Celia, and nodded as he said “I’m going to sit this one out guys – have fun on the hunt.”
“You sure Bingham?”
“After last time – yeah I’m sure,” he said as he and Celia went off into the corner, the other three smiling as they split up and walked towards the younger girls. Gale and Carina looked at each other, nodding as they made their way round the room.
“Well hello,” Kingman said to a young girl, with short black hair, “you’re not the birthday girl are you?”
“Oh no – she’s my best friend,” she said with a smile, “do you know her?”
“Family friend,” Kingman said with a smile, “can I get you a drink?”
“Yeah – I’ll have some of the punch,” the girl said. “I’m Edie – what’s your name?”
“David – let me get that drink for you,” Kingman said as he went to the drinks table, and poured some punch into two of the glasses. He looked round, and then slipped a tablet from a paper into one of the glasses, swirling it round as it dissolved.
“Oh forgive me – would you pour me a glass as well?”
He looked at the tall dark haired girl, and said “sure” as he grabbed a glass and poured some punch into it. As he handed the drink over, the girl said “thank you” as he picked up the two glasses and walked off – not noticing as she took the third glass and poured it into a potted plant.
“There you go,” he said as he handed Edie the drink, “see what you think of that.”
Edie smiled as she took the drink and sipped it, only to gag a little as she said “Ugh” and handed him the drink before she walked off. Kingman looked at her, then sniffed the drink and said to himself “vinegar?”
Dwight Elton smiled as he danced with the two thirteen year olds. They were twins, with short red hair, and giggled as he tried to talk them into joining him in the corner, just to talk to him. When they eventually agreed, he walked them over to the seats, and went to fetch them a drink, not noticing the small dark haired woman who quietly sat next and started talking to the girls.
He brought the two drinks back – only to be shocked as the two girls stood up, stamped on his feet and walked off again, making him drop the drinks in surprise as the small woman watched from the side. One of the girls turned and shouted “perv” before they stomped away, some of the adults looking at him.
“What on earth did I do,” Dwight said to himself as he looked round, seeing Brewster Kingman looking equally perplexed. From the other side of the room, Billy looked at both of them, about to join them before the Cyborg grabbed him and started to kiss him…
Kendall Jenner was standing by where the DJ was playing music, taking his time, watching the partygoers. He could afford to be patient – and besides, in some ways he was still recovering from the last time they had gatecrashed a party…
The memory of that night came back to him, the five women laying into them, making clear exactly how they felt. He knew they had been to the party that night, but when they had come to take the little chickadee away, it had been dark, and he had not been able to see them clearly.
Then he had not been able to see much at all – his abiding memory was of been kicked and beaten by one of them in particular…
He recognised the voice, freezing as she said “don’t turn around. We’re here as well tonight, and something tells me you do not want a repeat of that night. If you and your friends stick around, that is exactly what is going to happen – we warned you we were watching you.”
He felt a warm trickle down his leg as the female voice said “I see you remember. I’ll be generous – you have five minutes to get your little gang of child rapists together and get out of here, before I place a call to the cops and get them to come.
“Or would you rather we dealt with you again?”
Kendall slowly shook his head from side to side as the voice said “good – four and a half minutes.”
He turned round, but there was nobody behind him, so he shook his head and started to walk off. He knew he had pissed himself, but he was not going to let a woman boss him around again…
“Three minutes, asshole.”
He suddenly span round as he heard the voice, and saw the other two approaching him.
“What’s bugging you Jenner?”
“Those bloody girls – they’re here and watching us…”
“Shit,” Kingman said, “let’s get out of here before…”
All three then saw some of the parents coming towards them, as they beat a hasty retreat to the door, Billy and Celia quietly working their way round the room and following them out of the party.
“Nicely done,” Carina whispered to Gale.
“They got off light though.”
“Oh she is screaming at me,” Carina said, “but someone is coming who is as bad as us, and I have been told they will be able to help provide the final blow…”
“So – what do you think,” Mary said as she looked at the gathered Lardarn women.
"Oh God if the girls back at school could see me in these,"
Aileen checked herself out in the floor length mirror.
"I used to wear things like that..." Paula shook her head at
the sight of her middle daughter in the body hugging leather trousers and
stiletto heeled boots.
"Well with Andrea More doing our makeup, and yes Mummy I have heard
of her." Eve checked her own reflection, the soft leather hugging her
hips, "we should look just like Carlin Kardecki wanted to embarrass you by
having us look like."
"Except in just one way." Paula eased out a crease in Aileen's
"Oh of course, just that key difference."
“Ai – I’ll be there for this as well,” Mary said. “Right – get some sleep, all of ye. Big day tomorrow…”
The Huntingdown Apartment
“Thanks Celia – see you Monday,” Abby said as she ended the call, and rejoined Juliette and Diana in the drawing room.
“Ready for tomorrow ladies?”
“Oh yes,” Jeanne Beckmann said, “we put together a little story tape, and we’ll see how Carlin copes with the arrivals. Everyone who can be here here?”
“Oh yes,” Diana said, “all secured in various places in the city, and ready to report at the designated time tomorrow.”
“Well, I have the press corps lined up,” Jane Molloy smiled as she sipped her wine, “I just hope you’ve considered the possibility that she breaks down over this.”
“We have,” Juliette said, “which is why we have certain people standing by, just in case. But, with luck, the shock will help her to finally see some sense…”
Sunday 1st May
8 am CET
“Good morning,” Francesca said as she walked into the café, wearing a white blouse and slacks, “how are you both feeling?”
“We’re fine,” Charlotte said as she sat with Natalya, both women wearing sundresses and low heeled shoes. “You’re looking a lot happier today.”
“I feel a bit better,” Natasha said, “so what is on the cards for today?”
She saw the way Charlotte and Natalya looked at each other, before she said “what are you plotting?”
“I have asked a relative of a friend to come and talk to you this morning – part of the rebirth of Francesca di Cambrello.”
“And that person is?”
“Father Alexander Richmond,” Charlotte said, “he is coming to hear your confession.”
"Who is Father Richmond then and why would he understand my
confession?" Francesca asked.
"Well for starters he is the uncle of a friend of Diana du
Grechy...” Natalya sipped her coffee
before smiling and saying, “and I know you remember Diana."
"I do Natty."
"Well her friend’s uncle served in Vietnam as a ground officer, and
he saw plenty of the bad side of war...according to what I hear he came home
with two career options in mind, the priesthood, and life as a hitman."
"Oh?" Francesca raised an eyebrow.
"He opted for life as a priest, but according to Carina my niece,
who by the way is Diana's daughter Abigail's best friend, it was a close
"He sounds interesting."
"Well he's a wine expert, priest to New York's most socially exclusive parish, a member of one of that city's wealthiest families, and someone who understands the meaning of sorrow and revenge, and the depths to which a soul can reduce itself."
“In other words, uniquely qualified,” Francesca said.
"Precisely,” Charlotte said quietly. “Do you know what you are going to say to
"The truth darling...I just hope he can handle it...and trust he
respects the sanctity of the confessional."
"Well I've met him a few times, and yes I think you can trust
him...I know I do."
"I hope," Francesca smiled very weakly.
"Mother it's not like you have been a random killer...You were at
all times a serving naval officer taking orders, and doing your duty."
"It doesn't make it easier to say though that I've killed 27 people...does it?"
“No,” Charlotte said, "but he has probably killed more you
"Yes but he was a soldier..."
"And you were a sailor."
"True," the little joke at least got a smile, "but you
know very well what I mean?"
"I know that you both followed orders..."
"That's what those who served Hitler said you know?"
"I do, but answer me this,” Natalya said, “did you ever kill for
"Did you ever kill from prejudice against a certain type of
"Did you ever do anything in the hopes of personal gain..."
"No of course not Carlotta."
"Well then I at least think you have some reason to be able to ask forgiveness of God."
“So when do I meet this man?”
“Right now,” Natalya said as Alex walked in, wearing a black jacket and slacks with his shirt and white collar. Francesca looked at him, smiling as he said “Charlotte, Natalya, it is good to see both of you again.”
“Indeed – Alex, allow me to introduce you to Francesca, Marchesa di Cambrello. Francesca, Father Alexander Richmond.”
“A pleasure,” Alex said as he shook hands with the tall blonde, and then looked at Charlotte, an eyebrow raised.
“Long story for later – will you have some coffee?”
“Of course, and then we can talk somewhere private Francesca…”
Natalya waved the waiter over and waited as he poured coffee, before saying, “how is Valeria?”
“She is very well – deep in preparations for the end of next month and Abigail’s birthday party. I also took the liberty with discussing with the priest in Rosville the arrangements for the baptism.”
“Ah yes – young Pauline Maria. I had forgotten for a moment that would form part of the weekend. It should be a most entertaining weekend.”
“Indeed,” Alex said with a smile. “And to be greeted with coffee and croissant in such a wonderful setting.”
“Have you ever been here before Alex?”
“No, Charlotte – I can tick this place off my bucket list now, and it was an – entertaining experience to drive through the night to get here. Still, the arrival is worth the drive…”
They sat for a while, talking and sharing the coffee, before Alex said “So - How do you want to do this Francesca?"
"I'm not sure..." The blonde looked at the other two, unsure of what to say.
"Well we could borrow the confessional box at a nearby church...I know a local priest...if that makes you more comfortable."
"No I don't need that...I really just need somewhere quiet we can do this."
"Take my room...I'll stand guard outside make sure you aren't disturbed." Natalya offered.
"Will that be acceptable?"
"I guess so Father," Francesca nodded. "And even if we do it there though..."
"I'll be bound by my oaths just the same as if we were doing confession in any church." Alex smiled. "And don't worry Francesca I have heard some amazing things in confession."
"Probabilmente non abbastanza come questo, però." Francesca whispered to herself.
“I’ll be here when you’re done, mother,” Charlotte said, smiling as the trio stood and made their way out, while Bev came in.
“Father Alex? Wha’s he doin ‘ere Charlotte?”
“What he does best – order some more coffee please Bev, I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
“I’ll be outside,” Natalya said as she closed the door, Alex smiling as he said “well now Francesca – sit wherever you want, make yourself comfortable.”
Francesca nodded as she sat in one of two chairs, Alex sitting next to her as he said “do you wish me to hear your confession?”
He smiled as Francesca nodded, taking the other seat as he took a stole from his pocket, kissed it and placed it round his neck.
“Bless me Father,” Francesca said quietly as she wrung her hands, “for I have sinned greatly.”
“In what way?”
Francesca looked up and said “in what way have I not? In the service of my country, I have done terrible things, I have killed, I have maimed, I have ruined lives…”
“In the service of your country?”
Francesca nodded as she said “to the world at large, I’m an air headed bimbo who happens to be an admiral in the Italian Navy – a figurehead, someone to roll out at events to look good and make them look good.”
“And in reality,” Alex asked quietly.
“In reality – I am an assassin, I kill in the name of my country and my masters, and I do the work that has to be done to preserve the secrets of my country. And in doing so, I have to be something, had to become something I hated.”
“You specialise in wetworks, my child?”
Francesca nodded as she looked up.
“May I ask…”
Alex nodded slowly as he said “but in all cases, you did this at the orders of your commanders, correct?”
“That is true father, but I took each life, and each time I think a little bit of me died with them. And I wanted it to, because…”
Alex watched as Francesca buried her head in her hands for a moment, whispering “because I wanted to punish myself for what I had done to others.”
“May I ask how you came to this role?”
“Ah,” Francesca said, “I was an agent for NATO in South Africa, I fell in love, I had a child – and then I was discovered, and had to leave everything behind.”
Francesca nodded as she said “my darling Carlotta – five days old, and I was wrenched away from her, forced to leave her and my husband behind, and… and…”
Alex sat, saying nothing as Francesca started to cry again, before steadying herself.
“I was left feeling abandoned, unloved – and then I was asked, no, almost ordered to take on this role. I literally could see no other way of getting out of my hell…”
“I can understand,” Alex said quietly, “how being forced to abandon
everything can make you feel there is no way out… Tell me Francesca, did you draw any sense of
satisfaction from what you did?"
"Yes I did Father, and that is one of my main sins."
Sighing and looking up, Francesca said quietly "My codename is 'Il Pesce
"The Devil Fish." Alex translated.
"Yes," Francesca took a deep breath, "I have a
well-earned reputation in the world of shades for torturing victims..."
"Go on my daughter."
"I was taught initially to do so as a way to extract information,
and to create a reputation for myself, but I came over the years to enjoy what
Sitting back, Alex said "explain please."
"I came to enjoy hurting people...because...because..."
"It felt like I was hurting myself when I did those horrible things." Francesca blurted out the words. "I was doing those things to myself to punish myself...do you understand Father...or am I just totally insane?"
“No – I can understand my child, because… Francesca, I will tell you a story I have told many people about myself.”
“What is that,” Francesca asked quietly.
Leaning forward and putting his hands together, Alex said “In Vietnam my
unit had a good reputation for setting ambushes on North Vietnamese and
Vietcong units coming down the Ho Chi Minh trail. When we sprung those
ambushes, we...and I have to say I...killed men, women, and children...since
even 5 year old cute little girls were trained to use a Kalashnikov and shoot
at us...we had to do so. In the confusion where the enemy did not wear uniforms
or respect the conventions of war...we could not do anything else...do you
understand what I'm trying to say?"
"Not really Father."
"That to my personal disgust,” Alex said quietly, “I realized while
I was in Vietnam that I enjoyed killing people, I enjoyed hurting them."
"YOU did Father?" Francesca asked.
"I lost a lot of friends to enemy fire...several died in my
arms...initially I was killing for revenge, but as I said to my horror I
discovered I liked it."
"Someone said you came home divided on becoming a hitman or a
"Well, I had a third choice, the route was still open for me to play professional football in the NFL, but even that I realized my temptation to hurt people might be to great and I would end up seriously injuring someone, or even killing them. I had to make a choice, and I chose to seek a way to fulfil myself, to use my faith to help those I could help.”
Francesca nodded as Alex said “What I’m trying to say is this, Francesca – if I can find peace in my faith, despite what those experiences did to me, then there is hope for everyone – including yourself. But to see that, you first need to be able to start to forgive yourself. What you did, you did as an agent of your government, and you were following orders.
“So, with your permission, let’s talk about how you came to be in this position. You were working for NATO in South Africa, you were caught, you were deported. What happened next?”
“I had to explain myself, and then I prayed my husband and child would join me. But…”
“It did not happen as you had hoped?”
“An understatement Father - James my husband refused to come after and
bring Carlotta to me. He wrote a letter
– a terrible letter – and I… I had a
"That was his revenge on you?"
"He thought that you had betrayed him personally by both spying on
his country, and by keeping that secret from him?"
"Si," Francesca nodded.
"Answer me this question - Did you truly love him Francesca?"
Looking up, she nodded and said "with all my heart Father."
"And I guess he loved you just as much in return?"
"Yes...and it seems from a letter that I recently found that he
“Charlotte… We met two days ago for the first time since I was forced to leave. Words were exchanged, she made her feelings clear…”
“But it cleared the air?”
As Francesca smiled and nodded, Alex shook his head, saying "Ah,
what a tangled web..."
"I know the quotation Father," the Marchesa interrupted.
"In this case though I can only hold my head and cry as to the
sorrow that might have been prevented with the simple words, 'I forgive you',"
Alex sighed, "but to use another well tried phrase, ‘we can't cry over
spilt milk.’ Your James did an excellent job of taking revenge and withdrawing
the love that you needed to sustain yourself, you Francesca took further
revenge, but on yourself, by taking on a job that you knew would drain away
what little self-respect, pride, and love that was left inside you."
"Yes I did Father. And I did it because I felt I needed to be punished. But you are right in one thing – I was following orders, because I wanted to."
“And because you could see no other thing to do, right?”
Alex took hold of her hands as the blonde woman nodded.
"Francesca,” he said quietly, “you have committed mortal sins...God passed onto Moses the commandment, 'thou shalt not kill'."
"I know Father...and I freely admit my actions."
"But we have always recognized exceptions for those bound by oaths and the orders of others, especially when they are serving soldiers, or in your case a serving sailor."
“True – but I need to ask forgiveness, and accept my penance. Can I be forgiven, Father?”
“You are showing genuine remorse, my child – and if Christ could forgive those who killed him, he can forgive you.”
“But can I forgive myself?”
“Well, that is the real question – and one I can advise on, but first you need to pray for forgiveness. Would you like me to pray with you?”
As Francesca nodded, Alex took her hands, the two of them closing their eyes as Francesca spoke quietly.
When she had finished, Alex quietly laid his hands on her head, and said “Holy Father, receive the confession of your daughter, and grant her the peace that comes from your forgiveness. Give her the strength to step out from the darkness into your light, and the courage that you grant to your children to step forward and do what is right.”
“Amen,” Francesca said as she started to cry again – this time tears of relief.
“Now,” Alex said, “your penance. I think you have punished yourself enough my child – so my charge to you is this.
“I’m sorry Father…”
“I suspect you wish to end this life, and fear what your masters will say and do. Put your trust in him who has forgiven you Francesca, and let him do a miracle in you. And then – you need to live. Get to know your daughter, and get to know yourself again. That was the advice I was given by my confessor at Georgetown, and now I give you the same advice. Live.”
Smiling Francesca said “will you bless me, Father Alex?”
“With great pleasure,” he said, “with great pleasure…”
Natalya looked round as the door opened, Alex holding it as Francesca walked out. “I will meet you downstairs when you are ready.”
“Thank you again Father,” Francesca said as she looked at Natalya. “Have you seen Carlotta?”
“She went to her room,” Natalya said as she watched her friend walk down the corridor. “Thank you Alex.”
“It was my pleasure – I wish more people realised the price we pay sometimes in the name of our countries. Allow me to make a phone call from here, and I will allow you your suite again before I join them downstairs.”
“Of course,” Natalya said as she closed the door, Alex sighing as he removed the stole, and then dialled a number. A rich Irish voice replied saying “Hello?”
"Your Eminence, its Alex Richmond."
"Alex! I heard you were over this side of the water...What can I do for you Alex m'bhoy?"
"Well first,” Alex said with a smile, “assure me please I'm not interrupting your morning nine."
"No you caught me in the clubhouse getting changed after early mass."
"Good...” Taking a deep breath, Alex said “Aidan, I need to ask for your help in freeing the ties that bind a soul."
"Unless my theology is as outdated as I think it is, I believe you
can do that via the confessional Father."
"Not those kind of binds Aidan...these are of the more complicated
There was a moment’s silence before he heard "Is this going to lead
me into a political fight Alex?"
"With which country?"
"They me bhoy,” the Cardinal said, “can be tricky."
"Even for the Grand Papal Officer of State?"
"You know as well as I do Alex," the Irish cardinal laughed “that
office can no longer just order governments around..."
"Ah the good old days." Alex joined in by laughing lightly.
"All I can do is make representations and suggestions to various
governments as to what they might try and do."
"Well can you 'ask' the Italians if they will just peacefully let
Francesca di Cambrello retire and be able to enjoy the remainder of her life
with her child, and such grandchildren as she may one day have."
"The Marchesa? Il Pesce
"Ah – now there I bow to your inside knowledge Aidan, I only found
that out when I took her confession this morning."
"She wants out?"
"After all I guess she's done..."
"Alex, did she tell you what she does?”
“That was why she wished to take the confessional – so yes, I do know.”
“She's even acted for the church, via her own military a couple of times
Alex...A lot of people will not be happy."
"Well I'll not be happy if she's not allowed quietly to retire, and
Aidan old chap, you know I know a lot of secrets that the church would rather
not let escape my lips."
"Blackmail is a sin father..."
Alex smiled as he heard the chuckle.
"Yes it is...now do I get an assurance of the Vatican's aid...I'll
e-mail you all the details in a minute."
"On principal Alex..."
"I need a firm yes Aidan...then you can go play your golf."
"Alright, alright,” the Irish voice said, “I'll do what I can to
assure that Francesca di Cambrello will be a civilian within 10 days."
"That's all I ask Aidan, and I'll forgive you ahead of time for the
bad words you will say on the fifth hole."
"Bastard!" the Irish cardinal laughed. "And you just be
glad we are such old friends."
"Hey what are friends for Aidan...Ciao."
Ending the call, Alex smiled as he composed and sent an email, and then headed out.
Charlotte looked over as she heard the knock on the door, and said “one minute.” Walking over, she looked through the spyhole, and then said “how are you feeling” as her mother came in.
“As if a great burden has been lifted,” Francesca said with a smile.
"What will you do this morning Mother?"
"Charlotte darling,” Francesca said as she looked at her, “my first
plan is to go to Mass and take communion, I have not done that since two
Sundays before you were born."
"Will you mind a Presbyterian joining you?"
"No I will not at all darling. Can you let the others know? Alex has offered to come with us."
“Let me get my jacket,” Charlotte said, “and then call next door.”
Five minutes later, Bev opened her door to see Charlotte and Francesca standing there.
“Oh – hey Charlotte,” she said, “wha’s up?”
“Mother and I are heading to Mass – will you let the others know?”
“Sure – we’re going to the ‘arbour to look round. Meet somewhere for lunch?”
“Text me,” Charlotte said, Bev watching as the two women headed to the lift. As the doors opened, Eleanor and Veronica came out, smiling as the other two went in.
“They look happy,” Eleanor said as Bev closed her door and joined them.
“Yeah – ‘ave you seen Natalya?”
“She’ll meet us downstairs – we both want to see if we can get a souvenir for our younger relations at the harbour.”
4 pm CET
“Now that’s a way to spend Sunday,” Veronica said as the group came into the lobby.
“Oh I agree – this is the most relaxed I have felt for years,” Francesca said with a smile.
“Well, I must return to Valeria and the preparations – do let me know what happens Marchesa.”
“Thank you Father,” Francesca said as he hugged each of them, and then headed off.
“Good – we managed to find you before we left.”
“I’m afraid so,” Marianne said as John went to check out, “I would say we’d love to see you at the house, Francesca, but…”
“It’s all right Marianne, I understand – but perhaps, one day in Naples?”
“That would be fun – in the meantime, good luck, and keep safe.”
“And you,” Francesca said as they hugged each other. “What is the saying, Charlotte?”
“When you meet, greet each other in the name of the Heart and the Strength.”
“Let’s do that,” Marianne said as John came over.
“Francesca – good luck,” he said as he kissed her on both cheeks.
“And you John – let’s meet as friends in the future, agreed?”
“Agreed – when do you head off?”
“Early tomorrow – we’re aiming to be in New York by mid-morning. A few things to do there.”
“Safe flights – and keep us up to date on the next generation,” Marianne said, the two of them waving as they headed to a waiting taxi.
“So what else can we do today,” Bev said quietly.
“Lounge by the pool – let’s go…”
As Carlin Kardecki walked into the lounge of the hotel, she was feeling very, very satisfied. The list of models had been approved, and even that bitch Paula Lardarn had agreed – which meant when her little angels appeared on that catwalk, dressed in virtually nothing, her revenge would be complete.
Well, her revenge on her at any rate, but all the others…
She could see Linda Evangelista sitting there with Juliette Huntingdown and Mary Thomas, drinking coffee and talking amongst themselves. This was going to taste so sweet to her…
“Ah, Carlin,” Juliette said as she saw the designer walking over, “I’m so glad you could join us today. Pippa is going to come later with Poppy, but we felt it was important that you meet with as many of the proposed models as possible today, so that you could share the information with them.”
“I think that’s a reasonable idea,” Carlin said as she sat down, “how many can make it?”
“Well, you’ll be surprised,” Mary said quietly, “Mother is here to make sure everything is above board, on behalf of all the models, not just the PTA members, and many of the parents and guardians will be here as well.”
As Carlin nodded, she said “of course – you look after all your chicks, don’t you Linda?”
“Oh you have no idea,” Linda said with a smile as she stood up. “Anyway, we’re meeting in one of the ballrooms. Shall we head in now?”
The four women walked across the lounge, as on the far side Jane Morrow and Jeanne Beckmann looked on. “They’re on their way,” Jane said quietly, Jeanne nodding as she sent a text.
“So have you given any consideration to where the show will be held,” Mary asked Carlin as they approached the doors.
“Possibly here, I shall let…” She stopped as they went in, and saw three people taking at a table at the far side. Missy Auerbach was in her usual outfit of a trouser suit, blouse and ankle boots, while Jeannie Brewster was wearing a black leather pinafore dress over a white jumper, a pair of black fabric boots covering her legs.
Barbara looked over as the doors closed, and said “Oh sorry – Jeannie and Missy were just discussing the plans for when we go to London next month. I hope you don’t mind we were in here?”
“No of course not,” Juliette said as they walked over. “Actually, I’m glad you’re here – I’d like to introduce you to someone. Jeannie, this is the designer Carlin Kardecki. Carlin, Jeannie Brewster and her mother Barbara.”
“It’s a real pleasure to meet you,” Jeannie said as the group walked over. “I know you don’t think I’m the right person to model your collection, but I always like to meet the top designers when I get the chance to.” She held her hand out, Carlin very slowly taking it, a forced smile on her lips as they shook hands.
“It’s – nice to meet you,” Carlin said quietly.
“Anyway, we had better be on our way,” Barbara said as she stood up – only to look to the doors as Diana came in, and said “ah good – we made it here before the others.” She then held the door open as Abby came in, wearing a tight black jumper and leather trousers – and wheeling herself in in her wheelchair.
“Hello Carlin,” she said as she crossed the floor, and then put the brakes on, “thank you for agreeing to meet with me and the others today.”
“Wh…. What happened to her,” Carlin said as she looked at Diana.
“Nothing,” Diana said with a smile as the door opened again, and Jan looked in. “Ah, I see we’re in the right place,” she said as she opened the door, Katherine and Brenda O’Dowd joining her.
“Carlin, this is Janice and Katherine Carter, and Brenda O’Dowd. If you are both here, that means Katy and Orion are here?”
“They are indeed,” Katherine said with a smile as she and Brenda opened the doors, allowing Katy and Orion to come in. Both girls were wearing Sharemel jeans with sneakers, and blouses – as they too wheeled into the room, Carlin staring at them.
“You must be Carlin Kardecki,” Orion said in her light Irish accent, “thank you for this opportunity.”
“Likewise,” Katy said as Carlin turned to look at Juliette.
“What is going on here,” she whispered in a low voice, as the doors opened again, allowing Doc to wheel herself in with Poppy, and their mothers following them in. “Sorry I’m late,” Pippa said as she joined the group, “but I had to make sure they made it here as well.”
Carlin could only stare as, either individually or in groups of two or three, the young models came in, all with their relatives, all in wheelchairs. Charlotte McCormick and Melissa Steel came over to join Abby, as their mothers went to the side of the room
“Hey – is dis the place we’re meeting?”
“It is, Sylvester,” Abby said as the actor looked in, “are they here?”
“They are indeed,” he said as he held the door open, Sistine and Scarlet Rose wheeling themselves in as Jeannie went to greet them.
“You – you put them up to this,” Carlin growled as she looked at Mother.
“Me? I have no idea what’s going on… Cindy, Darling!”
“Hello Linda,” the supermodel said as she came in, allowing Kaia to wheel herself in before she came to kiss her friend on the cheeks. Carlin stared at the girls – all in their makeup, all dressed fashionably, and all in the very thing she hated more than anything.
“You – you’re doing it to me again,” she said as she looked at Pippa, who smiled and said “I am doing nothing Carlin.”
The whole room turned now as Aileen Gaunt wheeled herself in, followed by Eve, both looking amazing as they went to join Katy and Orion in the small group. Carlin stared at them before Paula said “well, I asked them, and they wanted to show you how they could look. I trust they met your expectations?”
She turned slowly to look at Paula, who was smiling as she said “so, you have as many as we could get together – think they can still do justice to your collection, Carlin DARLING.”
“You… You put them up to this didn’t you? This is your idea of a joke?”
“Oh it’s no joke,” Juliette said.
“Nope,” Abby added as the turned and looked at the designer, “but we do think if we all have to wear these clothes, we have a say in how we model them – and this is how we propose to do that. Is that a problem, Ms Kardecki?”
“After all, we wish to show inclusion,” Eve Gaunt said with a smile, “and that is to be celebrated, isn’t it?”
“You… You cannot be serious… I will not… I CANNOT…”
“Cannot what, Carlin.”
The designer turned sharply round to see two more women in wheelchairs. Danielle was wearing a dark trouser suit, but it was the other woman, a few years older than Carlin, who looked at her and said “What is it you cannot accept?”
“YOU! What are you doing here?”
“I was asked to come, Carlin – because it is long past time I apologised to you. And it is long past time you let go of those past hurts.”
“You killed our parents…”
“Yes, I did,” Caroline Kardecki said, “and I have to live the rest of my life, confined to this wheelchair, with that fact. Believe me, Carlin, I know that – but I have had to move past that and go on. You… You’re still mad not just at me, justifiably, but at others for things you only believe they did.”
Carlin looked round at the others, and at the room – before she fainted.
“Is she all right,” Caroline said as Laura looked at her.
“Yeah – shock I think. Girls, thanks for everything, we’ll let you know what happens.”
“Right,” Abby said, “follow me, we’ll take the chairs back to the staging area, and a buffet lunch is there for you and your elders and betters.”
“Actually,” Eve said as she got out of her chair, “you’d better help me lift her in here first, so that we can take her somewhere for a little chat…”
“What…” Carlin slowly opened her eyes to see Paula and Juliette looking at her.
“You fainted,” Juliette said, “are you all right?”
“Am I all right? No I am NOT all right,” she said angrily, “what sort of stunt was that to pull?”
“The sort of stunt that might make you start to see sense, Carlin.”
“Get Doctor Strangelove out of here,” the designer hissed as she looked at her sister.
“No,” Juliette said quietly, “and, to quote Father Alex, you need to check the plank in your own eye.”
“What the hell do…?” Carlin suddenly realised she was sitting in a wheelchair and jumped out, only to jump again as she saw Jeanne Beckmann standing behind her, a cameraman filming.
“Carlin,” Caroline said, “why have you carried this anger around for so long? I mean, I understand it with me, but these others? And kids, for the love of God?”
“You lost the right to say anything to me when you drove that car,” Carlin snarled.
“Perhaps – but direct that anger to me, not to anyone else. I can only continue to say how sorry I am, and tell you how much that burden hates for me to carry every day…
“GOOD! I hate you, I never want to see you again, I don’t even know why you are here…”
“To show you that you were wrong, Carlin… What have those teenagers ever done to you to make you think this was the right thing to ask them to do? Or was this all because you wanted to get revenge for something that happened twenty years ago?”
“And why not? Why not seek to have my wrongs righted? You never tried to do that!”
“Because I knew I had done something terrible, and I needed to find a way to keep going,” Caroline said quietly.
“And YOU – YOU put those kids up to this,” Carlin said as she glared at Paula.
“Nope – but I don’t expect you to believe that, just as you don’t believe I am not responsible for your scar. I’ll admit I led the Models with that show in Cannes – but that is all, and I was not the only one.”
“I was there as well Carlin,” Jeanne said, “I know she is telling the truth.”
“YOU’RE BOTH LIARS!!”
“Nevertheless,” Jeanne said, “can I ask why you only wanted teenage models for this show – and in particular Eve and Aileen Gaunt. Surely for a designer of your reputation, you would want the very best, the likes of Jeannie Brewster.”
“No cripple will ever model my clothes!”
“Well, that is nice to know,” Jeannie said as she came in with her mother, along with some of the other girls. “We heard the shouting, wondered what was going on. Is there something you want to say to me, Ms Kradecki?”
Carlin looked at Jeannie – a look of pure hatred as Jeanne said “and then there was Katy Carter – recently kidnapped by an obsessed fan, facing the trial of said person, and you wanted to force her to dress in your most outrageous design?”
“It’s the image she projects, why not make use of it?”
“Bad timing, that’s why,” Janice said quietly. “And the others?”
“All of you,” Carlin said as she looked round, “all of you had what I never had.”
“Including us,” Eve said, “or was that pure vindictive hatred?”
Carlin looked at Laura, and whispered “I hate you. You took the chance from me for my first real success, and then you took my man from me…”
“Tom? Tom was never your man, Carlin.”
“Perhaps this would be a good time to run a potted history of your career,” Jeanne said as she motioned to an assistant, who came forward holding a player as Carlin watched a film of past experiences.
“Carli,” Caroline said as she saw the red in her sister’s face, “you have to forget, have to forgive, or it is going to consume you. I know – it very nearly consumed me.”
“It should have burned you to a crisp, you murdering bastard,” Carlin said.
“Well then,” Pippa said as she stood with Poppy, “I’m sorry Carlin, but we are turning down the offer to do this show – not just because it is a gross misuse of the talents of all these girls, but because it is been held for the wrong reasons. I promise all of you, however, we will do a feature with all of you, and make sure you are paid for that feature.”
“Your bosses will crucify you!”
“No they won’t – I met with them, explained the situation, and they have endorsed my decision. Your collection is amazing Carlin – I’m sure Anna and the Vogue group will do you right, but we won’t.”
“I’ll kill you! I’ll…” Carlin suddenly remembered she was being filmed, and everyone was watching her.
“It’s over Carlin,” Mother said quietly, “time for you to retire gracefully.”
“NO!!! I will never forgive
you...any of you." Carlin hissed as the cameras rolled. "You can't
treat me this way...I'm a genius...I'm the TRUE QUEEN of the fashion
"Oh dear Goddess she's losing her marbles," Diana whispered in Abby's ear.
“Carlin, please – you…”
“Don’t you dare talk to me, you psycho cripple bitch!”
Jeanne motioned for the cameraman to stop filming, as Carlin looked at all of them, and then stormed out of the room.
“This isn’t over, is it Mummy,” Aileen said.
“We’ll worry about that tomorrow – who’s for lunch?”