Drawing Room Revelations
The Agency vans hadn’t arrived yet, so they put Victoria in an empty room under guard. Lee had Georgia stay upstairs with Romano. Both of them had been through a terrible shock and needed to recover. The rest of them went back down to the drawing room to talk it over. Some of them nibbled on the French toast Cynthia’s staff had made for breakfast, but Worth and Gordon didn’t really feel like eating.
“I can’t believe it,” Worth kept saying. “Chris and Victoria!” He rubbed his injured arm.
Holding Victoria back had been a struggle for him, and Lee was amazed he’d been able to do it while his arm was still recovering from a gunshot wound. Worth had determination, Lee had to give him that.
Lee never ate breakfast anyway, so just sipped his coffee and listened to Amanda’s explanation.
“That’s why no one could figure out who the traitor was,” Amanda said. “No one bothered to take a closer look at Chris or his activities because he was dead.”
Gordon said sadly, “Victoria always seemed so calm, so together. Even after Chris’s death.”
“I think that was part of the problem,” Amanda said sympathetically. “She bottled it all up. All her hurt, all her anger. Then, I think she also bottled up her suspicions.”
“I wondered what you meant when you said that Victoria knew Chris was guilty,” Worth said. “I could understand why she might want to cover it up if she knew that, but why go after Romano and Georgia, if she knew that neither of them was the traitor?”
“It’s complicated,” Amanda said, “and I can’t be completely sure, but Victoria admitted to me that she and Chris weren’t together the night before the mission. She didn’t know where he was or what he was doing. That might have made her suspicious, but since he was the one killed and not Romano, that made her put all the blame on Romano instead. Then, there was her reaction to Chris’s ‘insurance policy.’ I don’t think it was insurance, I think the payoff from the smugglers arrived when Victoria was settling Chris’s estate. But she couldn’t accept the idea that he was the leak, that he would turn traitor for the sake of money. Even when the evidence told her that Chris was guilty, she tried to ignore it. It was easier for her to keep blaming someone else than to face the truth, even in her own mind. She loved Chris and wouldn’t have wanted to think of him as a traitor. She also would have blamed herself because she would have realized that she was the reason why Chris wanted the money.”
Lee was always amazed at how Amanda was able to get inside other people’s minds and understand their feelings.
“Chris was saving up money to leave MI6 and marry Victoria,” Worth mused. “A large payoff from the smugglers could have set them up nicely.”
“I knew that Romano wouldn’t have needed to turn traitor for money because his family was already wealthy,” Amanda explained. “Georgia told me that Romano didn’t really even need to work.”
“But how did you know that Victoria was the one who broke into Francine’s room?” Worth asked.
“It occurred to me when I saw her nightgown,” Amanda said. “But I wasn’t really sure until I looked at Francine’s door and remembered how difficult it is to read the names on the doors at night.”
“What do you mean?” Francine asked.
“You’re in the Peony room,” Amanda explained. “Romano was in the Phoebe room. At night, with those dim lights in the hall, the two names probably looked alike. Victoria probably heard Romano say which room he was in, but on that first night, she might not have realized that he was actually on the third floor, so she just looked at the doors on the second floor and picked the one that she thought said, ‘Phoebe.’”
“She could have killed me!” Francine realized. Worth reached out and took her hand to comfort her. This time, there was no ulterior motive, just concern.
“But you woke up, and she realized that she had the wrong room, so she ran off,” Amanda said. “The next night, she got the right room, but Romano fought her off. Then, she heard what Georgia said about being the one who gave Romano his necklace, and she decided to go after her. She already blamed Romano for Chris’s death, and in Victoria’s mind, the necklace tied Georgia into the plot. She set it up so that the window alarm in her room would go off and distract the guards long enough for her to attack, just like she did last night with the window in the west wing to get the guards away from the main part of the house while she attacked Romano.”
“Do you know what she used to do that?” Lee asked. “The magnetic contacts were attached with strong adhesive that no one should have been able to pry off with just their hands.”
“I think she used the nail polish remover,” Amanda said.
“The acetone!” Francine groaned, closing her eyes and putting a hand to her forehead. “That would probably do it.”
“That’s what I was thinking,” Amanda said.
Billy said, “You’ll have to explain that.”
“Nail polish remover is made with acetone,” Francine said. “Sometimes, it’s nothing but acetone.”
“And, like hairspray, it has many household uses,” Amanda said helpfully. “It’s a solvent. It can be used to remove all sorts of paints and inks and other stains that ordinary cleaners just won’t budge. But, you have to be careful how you use it because it will dissolve certain substances like Styrofoam or plastic-”
“Or adhesives,” Lee muttered.
“So, I think she just poured some on the window contact and waited for it to work,” Amanda said. “It evaporates pretty quickly. I don’t think she had to wait long. One time, I was trying to get some permanent marker off of one of Jamie’s toys-“
“Housewife,” Francine muttered.
“Anyway, it did the trick but damaged the toy,” Amanda said. “I realized there was something funny when I saw nail polish remover among Victoria’s toiletries but no nail polish.”
“I had some in my toiletries bag,” Francine said. “It’s missing now. I noticed it last night, but I assumed that you borrowed it. She probably stole it from me.”
“She certainly seemed to have an easy time getting into everyone’s room,” Billy said.
“Before she became my assistant,” Gordon said, “she was actually a field agent, like Chris. Her specialties were tailing and lock-picking. The locks here were probably no challenge for her.”
“And because she was always so quiet, always in the background, none of us really paid much attention to where she was and what she was doing,” Francine said.
“That’s why she was always so good at tailing,” Gordon said. “I should have known that things were getting serious between her and Chris when she wanted to come in from the field. Before that, the risks never seemed to concern her.”
“Romantic relationships get in the way in our line of work,” Baudin said. “That’s why I’ve decided to fire Romano and Georgia.”
Lee and Amanda looked at each other uncomfortably.
“Don’t you think that a little harsh, Rich?” Billy said. “After all, they weren’t responsible for what happened.”
“I know. I hate to do it, but complications like that can be deadly in our business. And this is the second time Romano’s been reprimanded for that kind of thing.”
“That’s why I think you should wait and let him work on the next mission with me,” Annette said suddenly.
“What?” Baudin said. “As I recall, you once said that you’d never work with him again if you could help it. You yourself called him immature and unprofessional.”
Annette took a deep breath and said, “I know that he and I had problems the last time we worked together. We were in a relationship at the time, and it wasn’t working out for either of us. But, I’m as much to blame for that as he was. In fact, I think I made it worse by trying to cover up for how I was really feeling until I finally just blew up at him. Romano is a good agent, and he has the experience we need to put together a new team for the next mission. Let him help one more time. After that . . . I have the feeling that he’ll move on to other interests. Being a field agent isn’t easy for a family man.”
Lee and Amanda gave each other another brief glance. Lee looked away first. He had been having similar thoughts, but he needed more time to think it over.
“We could use his help,” Baudin admitted.
“I’m going to need to assemble a new team as well,” Gordon said softly. “I’m ashamed that my own people-“
“It wasn’t your fault,” Amanda said sympathetically.
“I’m keeping Worth, of course,” Gordon said, looking over at Agent Worth. “You can’t go into the field again for this assignment because your face is known, but it might be good for you to put in more office time. Planning strategy can teach you a little discipline.”
Worth gave them all an embarrassed smile. Lee covered his own smile with his coffee cup. He hadn’t told Gordon about Worth’s stupid prank, and he wasn’t going to. It would be enough for him to acknowledge the prank and apologize to Amanda and Francine in private. Worth wasn’t a bad agent, and a dose of discipline might turn him into a better one. Francine would probably help with that.
“Now that we’ve solved the problem of the leak,” Billy said, “I’d be willing to lend you some manpower. I’ll put Francine in charge of assembling a suitable team.”
Francine smiled at that. Oh, yes. She’d be around to teach Worth a thing or two.
“I don’t suppose that you could give me Mr. Stetson, too?” Gordon asked. “He’s a good field man, and Emily Farnsworth would certainly be glad to see him again.”
It was an interesting offer, but even the prospect of seeing his old mentor again wasn’t enough to attract Lee to this assignment. The romantic complications of this group’s last mission and its tragic end still bothered Lee, and with his own romantic complications to consider . . .
“Mr. Stetson will be busy on other assignments closer to home,” Billy said. He was still giving Lee knowing looks, and Lee knew that he was going to have to talk to Billy at some point.
“Excuse me,” a voice said.
They all turned to see Albert standing in the doorway.
“I’m sorry to interrupt, but I just wanted to show this to the ladies before they leave.” Albert was holding a book in his hands.
“What’s that?” Billy asked.
“A book of Charlotte’s poems,” Albert said, beaming. “It’s a first edition. Since they enjoyed her portrait so much, I thought that I’d show them what she looked like in her later years, when her poems were first published.”
Amanda and Francine got up to take a look at Albert’s book. Lee got up, too, and peered over Amanda’s shoulder.
At the beginning of the book, which was printed around 1930, there was a picture of a little old woman with wispy white hair and very dark eyes that looked a lot like Cynthia’s.
“Huh,” Lee said. A nice, grandmotherly old woman, as nice old grandmothers went.
“Lee . . .” Amanda said.
“I think Mrs. Nicholson is right about Charlotte and the library.”
Lee and Francine stared at Amanda, not quite daring to say what they were all thinking in front of the others.
Francine finally murmured, “You really are a Scorpio.”