by Barry Wiley
It is with sadness that I must announce that the author of this story, Barry Wiley, recently passed. We here at KRL have reviewed his books and published his short stories for many years. He was an excellent writer, and someone always lovely to work with. He will be missed. I would like to dedicate the publication of this story to his memory and send our condolences to his family and friends.
“Se non è vero, è ben trovato”
[An Italian expression roughly rendered as: “If it isn’t the exact truth, it’s at least a valid lie.”]
“My name will be Karolina Falconer,” the fashionably dressed young woman answered, shimmering green flowing skirts with darker green accents, her large brimmed black hat worn with the swagger of a cavalier, the egret plumes fluttering at each move of her head.
She spoke fluent English, but in pronouncing her own name she couldn’t help giving it a strong German edge. That was, after all, the first, the language of her mother. English was the fourth, with French and Basque in between. There had been others since, as business required. Even with Britain’s aggressive imperialism, French still continued to be the universal commercial tongue even to now, 1913. But her father taught that only knowing the actual language of the thoughts of her competitors would provide the understanding necessary to establish the strongest possible negotiating position. He had been proven right many times — but still, still she yearned, but only in private, to hear his voice again, to draw from his counsel, his firm kindness to a willful daughter.
Henri Tibourg looked up from his documents. His English was flawless, but as the senior London partner of her father’s Paris bankers, Mariage Frères, that was to be expected.
“There is more, is there not?” He cleared his throat.
She nodded. They had never met face-to-face before. “But I only use that name for my most personal affairs. The rest can bring too many unwelcomed public attentions.”
“I understand completely. Your title could create fear in certain financial and political circles. I may then address you as Miss Falconer without offense?”
Karolina nodded again.
“You will, Miss Falconer, under your father’s last testament, together with his quite specific directions to his bankers, assume to the direct control of your family’s estates and holdings on your next birthday, three weeks hence.” He slid the top layer of documents to one side on his cluttered desk.
“Yes. I will be twenty-three.”
Nodding, he continued. “During his lifetime, your father was the most remarkable man in Europe. It has been a great personal honor for me and my firm to serve him.” Using both hands, he ceremoniously removed his gold-framed pince nez, letting the glasses dangle, swinging by their silk ribbon from his right hand as he leaned forward on that elbow. His eyes did not quite focus on her, but somewhere behind her head, as if he could see through her hat. “Will you require a full audit prior to your assumption?”
“Certainly, Monsieur. I have been given no reason to believe that your firm, and that of Mr. Charles Bruce in Rome, has not been fully faithful to my father’s directions and to the preservation of the family’s capital. However, I am not a sentimental woman. With the growing uneasiness throughout Europe, and the present stupid drift toward war on the continent,” — he flinched back, replacing his glasses — “that could seriously impact my family’s holdings, I must have the most accurate accounting of my positions as I begin planning to shift them out of the reach of ignorant politicians and ignoble Kaisers. Yes,” Karolina said firmly, “an audit … a full audit.”
Both Henri Tibourg in London and Charles Bruce in Rome were dead within the week. Karolina recalled that her father had said she could have a most acid tongue, and needed to be more circumspect and sensitive to the impact of her words.
Karolina stood, walked to the window to look down on snarled London traffic. Tragic suicides, the police in Rome and London had reported to her, one by knife — how like Verdi — and the other by small-bore pistol — how thoroughly British. But on the same day? Patently absurd! Plain official foolishness! Little wonder governments play with war in the higher circles, if they condone such muddled thinking in the lower. Fools who have had no contact with unforgiving commercial reality, as I have had as the family’s agent in the ports of the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. Such protected creatures have no pride in genuine accomplishment, only in their thinning family blood, and being procedurally ‘correct’.
As the carriage slowed, Karolina smiled, as she recalled while resting after one of their early morning fencing sessions, her father once telling her that one reason he was glad he had married her mother was that he would never have to face her sword. Though he had taught her at first, before the birth of Karolina’s older sister, Kristianna, Mother had been truly born to the blade, and was astonishingly swift, sure, and relentlessly lethal. The family never took up the sword for sport. And it had been her mother’s long fingers, which had pressed a sword into her hand when Karolina was four. With steel she was her mother’s daughter — and according to her father, much like the grandfather she had only glimpsed once. She shook her head. Would that she had inherited her mother’s patience and graceful gentleness — rather than her father’s hot temper and lustful eagerness for competition; a lust that had led her to duel ‘a outrance, to the death, five times before her twentieth birthday. Young men who came about at parties and teas were at a loss as to what to do with her. Not so with her older sister, Kristianna, who began to draw suitors, it seems, when she first began to walk as a baby. Karolina so missed her now. Kristianna always could calm the heat of her temper as no one else could — and her temper was now on a rolling boil.
Mincing Lane was clear of people. The yellow gas flame of the closest streetlight, on the opposite corner, was struggling against a strengthening chill wind off the nearby Thames. A light drizzle was becoming thicker, heavier, the drops thudding against the pavement. It was going to be particularly cold, naßkalt, a wet-cold. Karolina wiped her chin dry. She wouldn’t have to be here in the damp, were it not for the conditions of her father’s will. Until her twenty-third birthday she could not make decisions affecting the family’s business holdings. Her father wanted her early impulsiveness to mature, to cool. Only M. Tibourg or Mr. Bruce could take legal action. In the case of the death of one, the other would assume to complete control of the family holdings. Obviously, no one could have anticipated they would both die on the same day! Consequently, the police would not allow her access to M. Tibourg’s office and papers, as, to them, she, Karolina Falconer, had no legal rights. Her solicitors assured her that getting swift court action would require three to four weeks, when it would no longer matter anyway.
How so like bankers, who are equally like police, never available when needed.
The deaths were a tragic coincidence; she had been firmly assured this morning by Chief Inspector Thomas Sullivan of the legendary Scotland Yard. Tragic, sadly tragic. He had patted her on the hand as though she was one of his mindless English aristocratic females rendered faint by death. Karolina held back, wanting to slap the condescending smugness off his overfull red face. He had politely dismissed her request for help, and courteously refused her entry to the Tibourg offices and papers.
So now I have to stand in the wet-cold because of the legendary Scotland Yard. God curse their bureaucratic souls!
At least, in response to her question, the Inspector had gently explained that Mr. Bruce had died first, about seven in the morning, Rome time, and that a recent communication from him to Mr. Tibourg, found on Tibourg’s desk, had mentioned a growing, desperately complicated romantic situation. Sullivan had shrugged, smiling. So Italian, he had said.
How very intuitive — but Charles Bruce was a Scot.
“It is looking more clean, Madame,” her maid Camellia said, pulling her cloak more tightly about her. She spoke her native Basque, good Castilian Spanish and execrable English. Though uneducated, she was intelligent, intensely loyal, and had the most critical characteristic needed for their relationship — a broad sense of humor.
Karolina responded to her mixed English in whispered Basque, and began to unbutton down the side of her skirt. Camellia quickly knelt to help. The Tibourg offices were two floors above on the corner. As Tibourg had several other wealthy clients, all building entrances were sealed and closely watched by the police pending the coroner’s inquiry. The side of the building could not be scaled long-skirted, and so Karolina wore black trapeze tights and a black sweater under the more acceptable fashion. Trapeze slippers were in her coat pocket. She froze, hissing sharply at Camellia. A bobby had suddenly appeared across the street!
He walked slowly, his cape and helmet polished by the rain, reflecting the yellow of the gaslight as he paused, saw the two women, hesitated, looked carefully about himself into the shadows, then crossed toward them.
“Madame,” he said, courteously saluting, touching the bill of his helmet with his truncheon. “What are you doing here?”
Karolina held her now completely unbuttoned skirt up with one clenched hand, her coat closed with the other, and turning her side to him in order to keep the prying wind away. “My maid and I are walking to reach a friend’s. We stopped to regain our bearings in the rain. I am unfamiliar with London’s so twisting streets.” She colored the English with a marked German accent.
She gave an address to his request, which he immediately pointed out with precise directions. Karolina nodded thanks, and the two women started to walk away. He watched closely — Karolina could feel his suspicious eyes.
Traveling alone, with my blonde hair, has often brought unwelcome attention from men who want to know my price. Blonde and alone equals prostitute. God curse them!
She walked close to Camellia to keep her skirt from blowing away, whispered to her maid to stay near. They rounded a corner after walking about twenty meters, and then stopped to listen for the policeman’s following footsteps. There were none. The rain was faltering, but the stones on the side of Tibourg’s building were going to be like polished marble.
The bobby had returned to the other side of the street and was walking away from them. Karolina waited a few more cold minutes. She reached under her sweater to pull out a pair of thin gloves with a coarse horsehair surface on the fingers and palm, still warm from body heat. They now had to move quickly. Karolina was stiffening in the cold chill.
Camellia had backed into a black doorway, holding hat, rolled coat, shoes, and skirt. A small leather bag of necessities hung at Karolina’s waist, with a double-edged black handled Italian anlace at her hip. She had already killed with it — Mediterranean ports do business in sudden ways, without procedural formalities. Pulling up the black hood of her sweater, she became only a shadow against the dark stone wall.
Karolina moved slowly up the corner edge of the building, squeezing the wet rocks like a passionate lover between her thighs. Pulling up, the tips of her coarse gloved hands gripping the crevices, the odd edge, until her knees could get a grip, then reaching and pulling again. There were few toeholds, even for her feet. The first few meters were difficult, the rock having been smoothed to prevent people from tearing their clothes brushing against it as they walked by. Above that it was the strengthening rain and the wind that tore at her. Her shoulders were beginning to ache with the strain.
During Karolina’s earlier visit she had observed that there were no locks on Tibourg’s narrow windows, only simple latches. He had dismissed her comment as Mincing Lane was well patrolled, and no one could reach the windows anyway.
I hope his business judgment was less trusting.
She slipped a thin steel jimmy between the window frames, levered back the latch, and then pushed the narrow paneled window open. Throwing a leg over the window frame, she stepped into the office, elbowing the heavy velvet curtains aside. She shook her arms and head to be rid of some of the rain carried in with her.
The light from the desk lamp momentarily dazzled. Blinking, Karolina quickly turned down the wick.
Inside police patrols?
She quickly took a coat from a wall-rack and stuffed it across the bottom of the door to block the light. The door itself was locked from the outside.
Where to start? The family papers were kept in a separate cabinet, but she stopped. The police had questioned her as one of those who had seen Tibourg on his last day regarding his apparent state of mind. Who else had they asked? She went to his desk.
His red leather appointment book was at the left edge of the desk under a stack of London and Paris newspapers. The last page showed two visitors before her own ten-thirty meeting: James Taylor at nine and at ten, Mary Twining. Twining was a representative of a London charity in which she knew Tibourg had always taken an interest. Taylor, however, was something else. He had been a former employee of Charles Bruce in Rome, who had left that firm a few months ago to join a private London bank, Whittard’s.
Did Taylor appear anywhere else in the book?
She quickly thumbed through the pages forward and backward. James Taylor was scheduled for another appointment next week, and had been late for a meeting last week. Obviously displeased, Tibourg had written in the margin ‘LATE’ in red and double underlined. She had been the last scheduled visitor for his last day.
Karolina replaced the steel pick in the leather bag at her hip. Opening the lock on the cabinet had been simple enough — but, a step at the door! She froze, hands filled with family files. The doorknob was twisted and shaken, then the step retreated. Karolina needed to move more quickly. Camellia must be freezing below.
The file of current family correspondence contained her letters, copies of his responses, and some letters with the British Foreign Office regarding three bankrupt tea estates in the Ratnapura district in Ceylon, about 90 kilometers east of Colombo. Karolina paused. They had discussed the prospective purchase of those estates for the family holdings. There appeared to be, in Tibourg’s judgment, a unique opportunity to profitably establish the family in the tea trade at a sound price, just as the consumption of Ceylonese tea was accelerating in the English market, largely due to Mr. Thomas Lipton’s successful promotional efforts. The colonial government had set a time limit for bids on the estates due to lender nervousness, local labor pressure, and the continuing decay of the fields.
In such matters, Tibourg always consulted with Mr. Bruce, as her father had preferred, before any major undertaking — certainly entering an entirely new business was major by any measure. She had been informed of the potential investment, as a matter of courtesy, but the final decision and negotiations could not be hers. Bruce had sent two of his people to Colombo to see the estates and make local inquiries. Tibourg had informed her that, as a result, Bruce had recommended the investment.
According to a Foreign Office letter, the government time limit was — in two weeks! And I can do nothing — nothing!
With both her father’s principal bankers dead, she was paralyzed for the next three weeks. Angry, Karolina dropped back into Tibourg’s chair, beating silently on the desk with her fist.
Who was in the bidding for the estates? There was nothing in that file. She returned to the cabinet as a small clock chimed twelve. Camellia had to be freezing, and the bobby might return. She had to hurry. Karolina thumbed rapidly through the cabinet drawers; finally finding a file marked Bruce/Ceylan.
Only one bidder, the Whittard Group. Two British-Indian companies had inquired, but had not followed up. Apparently there had been severe problems with the harvest yields on the estates that had scared off other potential investors, but not Bruce nor Whittard. The lenders were not happy with so few serious bidders.
But Tibourg had not yet submitted the family bid — and I can’t!
She slapped her hand against the file, which instantly boomed like a bass drum. Now she had no choice — she had to move.
Karolina replaced all files, locked the cabinet, then blew out the desk lamp, re-hung the coat, and moved rapidly back to the window. As she pulled back the velvet curtains, she stopped. When James Taylor left Bruce he had joined Whittard’s. He had certainly learned about Bruce’s suicide at his meeting with Tibourg at nine in the morning. Bruce had been dead for at least three hours by then. M. Tibourg was dead of a single pistol shot at about four in the afternoon when no one was in the outside office — and the tea estates were now Whittard’s to take at whatever price they wanted. Taylor may have even known what price Bruce had recommended. She pushed open the window, and swung her leg out into the rain. Camellia would forgive — but Tibourg was a devout Catholic. He could never commit a mortal sin as suicide. Karolina shook her head. That was an emotional thought, a suspicion, not a fact. Swinging outside into a driving rain, she lost her grip on the window frame. Clawing at the cracks, she desperately squeezed the rocks with her thighs to brake her slide. Then slowly pulled herself back up to the window, closed it, and pushed the latch back into place with the jimmy. Her shoulders were beginning to shake and throb. Karolina started down, but couldn’t help dropping faster than she wanted. She fell the last meter, her right ankle exploding in a shot of pain as she hit the pavement. She bit off a cry, but had to gasp out a loud sob as she sprawled out on the sidewalk. Camellia was there immediately, kneeling down, whispering the bobby was just around the corner.
Karolina pushed herself up to reach her ankle. It was twisted, but didn’t seem broken.
But it hurt like the blazes of hell!
As she held tightly on Camellia’s shoulder, the maid raised her to lean against the wall, the pain in her ankle immediately increased. Camellia helped dress her as quickly and silently as possible, then grasped her mistress about the waist, supporting her as they hobbled slowly back the four blocks toward their waiting carriage on Cable Street, hoping no police would intercept.
God, the pain! But I must visit Mr. James Taylor tomorrow — after I get some questions answered.
Karolina leaned back against the chair, the only light in her room, the fire in the grate, was burning low, the room darkening. She had ordered Camellia immediately to bed, but couldn’t sleep herself. Her throbbing right ankle was immersed in a cold salt solution filling a blue and white Chinese basin. She wrapped her tiger skin robe tighter, letting her chin drop to her chest, her loosened heavy blonde hair fell across her face.
There were times when her name was a burden, the expectations too much. Her mother had understood, she had had to learn to carry the name as well. Always there were those who wanted to test her. She pursed her lips. Tests she never failed. But there were times, like now in the silence, when she could see the tear-stained face of the majordomo again, bringing her the news of her entire family lost in a train buried under an Alpine avalanche in Switzerland. She would have been with them, but for a severe bout of influenza. Karolina had so gallantly insisted her mother still go on the planned ski vacation, when her mother had wanted to stay to nurse her. Now there had been no one, for eight years. Karolina brushed her hair across her eyes to wipe away the welling tears. No one…
Karolina doubted she could learn anything in the offices of the Whittard Group as they had several locations, and she did not have the time to limp to each one. Her solicitors would be aghast if they knew what she was doing, but her father had warned her many times about the feckless opinions of lawyers.
When no one answered her knock, Karolina slipped the appropriate carefully ground steel pick into the lock, pressed, twisted, and heard the bolt snap back. She smiled.
The lock was a new brass Chubb, so like a dressed-up cavalry officer — bright polish, but no bite.
James Taylor had rooms in St. Martin’s Lane near London’s West End theatre district. A few inquiries had told her that he was very fond of the ladies, which is the best thing for any man, but actresses were so easily available Karolina had wondered at what challenged him. But then she should talk. If a servant had answered Taylor’s door, Miss Karolina Falconer was going to be one of those vapid actresses who just had to wait for the dear Mr. Taylor, who was presently at the theatre according to the concierge downstairs. He also eagerly accepted the five-pound note placed in his palm to assure his silence.
She limped to what appeared to be Taylor’s study. Book-lined, leather, crossed Zulu spears on one wall surrounded by photographs, a large fireplace with pipes and tobacco on the mantle. Very masculine — she liked the atmosphere and the lingering aroma of the rich tobacco. His desk faced the fireplace.
Karolina took out her set of lock-picks and began to open the desk drawers. The documents may all be at his office, but she thought that anything that might suggest improper conduct would more likely be locked in his own rooms, since the Whittard partners would necessarily have keys to his office files.
God curse him!
Taylor did know what price Bruce had recommended. It was written in a very small hand on a sheet headed Cey-B, together with dates, notes on probable improved harvest yields — it was a very concise summary of the key aspects of the Ratnapura tea estates situation, all obviously from the Bruce files. And obviously, Taylor was taking credit at his new employers for the work, then, with Charles Bruce’s sad suicide, Taylor saw an opportunity to make the Whittard bid a certainty — and took the chance, eliminating Tibourg.
“Good evening, Mademoiselle.”
James Taylor was quite tall, with deep large eyes, heavy dark brown mustache, thick dark oiled hair, exquisitely styled striped Savile Row suit. He held a glistening silver-headed cherrywood cane. She could see how he could plough such a wave through the ladies. Quite prepossessing — his crânerie, his pronounced swagger…quite. She stood, backing gingerly away from the desk, out toward the center of the room.
“You killed Henri Tibourg, Mr. Taylor,” she said, stabbing a finger at him. “There is certain proof in that drawer.” At least she thought there should be.
“I see you limping. Not a serious injury, I trust, Miss Falconer. That is what you are calling yourself in public is it not?” He placed his high silk hat on a chair, and moved closer, a sweet cloying fragrance filling the room. “I doubt there is proof that I did any harm whatever to poor Tibourg. You don’t bluff well at all. I should enjoy very much playing cards for your charms.”
She blushed, and immediately felt a girlish fool.
“How very charming, Miss Falconer.” He held his cane casually, tapping it against the palm of his left hand. “But then, how did you come to be here, and how did you come to be in here? You have broken the law, Miss Falconer, and should be…punished.” He smiled widely, and stepped closer. “Punished.”
“You learned of Mr. Bruce’s suicide,” Karolina said. “You knew the conditions of my father’s testament, and saw that you could virtually guarantee Whittard the tea estates at whatever price they wanted. I suspect that you would have given a high price to Whittard, while actually paying a much lower price to the court in Ceylon, pocketing the difference of many thousands of pounds after fixing some papers.” Now he flushed red. “I do know something of your financial condition, Mr. Taylor. I received a telegram from Rome this afternoon giving me the circumstances of your dismissal. Yours was not a voluntary resignation.”
His right hand twisted the silver head of his cane, sliding out a thin two-edged sword, a rapier without a hilt. Karolina limped back a step. Taylor dropped the hollow cane into the chair next to his hat.
“Now, Miss Falconer, your punishment. Not what I would have enjoyed, but silence is what I want to hear from you now, not your squeals and begging. Your impetuous headstrong ways will provide ample reason behind your body floating in the Thames.”
That arrogant impertinence — her temper hit a high boil. She searched the room, but nothing was nearby, so she limped backward toward the fireplace. She lifted up the hem of her skirt to keep from tripping on fashion.
Squeals! Me? God curse his soul!
He moved. She backed again; her right hand stretched behind her, trying to look frightened — to overfeed his confidence — which wasn’t actually hard to do, even as she was no actress.
“You know who I am…and you try this?” Karolina demanded angrily.
He laughed loudly, and flicked his sword again. He shouted, startled, when she suddenly parried his blade away with the poker. He had assumed what had always been customary in previous situations, that the two razor edges of his rapier would so terrify his opponent that no subtlety was required in his handling of the blade.
Taylor thrust and lunged; again Karolina parried, riposted, and cracked him across his shoulder with the steel hook of the poker. He snarled, as he chopped at her head. She ducked, hearing a piece of her hat sliced away, and swung the poker hard against his left knee. His leg buckled. Cursing loudly, he limped backwards, steadying himself. His dark eyes were wide, some white was showing — some sweat was trickling down his temples.
Karolina held the poker firmly, sabre style in tierce position. She could not thrust effectively as with an épée, but could slash and club.
Resolve returned to his eyes. Taylor took a deep breath. He ran a finger across his mustache, smiling grimly. “Enough now,” he snapped. His grip on the sword tightened, too much she thought, as it would make his wrist rigid, his arm slow.
His teeth bared, Taylor charged the four or five steps that separated them, slashing the sword like a scythe. Karolina dropped to the floor, and with both hands swung the poker at his sword hand. She missed, hitting his forearm, but still he lost his grip, the sword continuing its arc across the room to impale itself into some books. He bent slightly toward her, grabbing at his arm, snarling, spitting like a wounded cat. Again she swung for his oiled head, stunning him as he twisted away, stumbling backwards over an ottoman. Karolina jerked her skirts away, scrambling, limping to her feet, the poker raised. When he tried to rise, she brought the poker hard across the back of his head. James Taylor collapsed back, blood spurting across his starched white collar and down his jaw. He didn’t move.
Police appeared within a few minutes of their being called by the concierge, followed a few minutes later by a doctor. A uniformed sergeant took immediate charge.
“Your name, Ma’am?” His pencil poised over a slim black notebook.
“Karolina Mercédès de Falconer-Dantès.” She paused, pursing her lips. “I am the Countess of Monte Cristo,” she said softly.
The policeman’s eyes opened wide. “Monte Cristo!” He looked down at James Taylor, who, with the doctor’s assistance, was just stirring, then back at her. Cocking his head to one side, he said, half-smiling: “Never had a chance, did he?”
Karolina smiled slowly. The name always had that effect. Sometimes it was good.
[Note: Other than the heroine, all names and locations in the story have been borrowed from the remarkable three-century history of the European tea trade — itself a tale of wild adventure, senseless courage, murder, high stakes gambling, and massive wealth.]
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