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Heroine

Chapter 9

 

The moment they stepped foot off of the great ship and onto their native soil, bidding adieu to The King George, the remaining explorers were inundated by the eager British press. Challenger, Roxton and Marguerite were open and congenial, answering as many questions as possible, but they were also weary.

Challenger excused himself abruptly when the London Zoological Society representatives approached to take custody of his precious dinosaur eggs but he thanked the reporters for their attention.

Marguerite, dressed smartly in royal blue, was as charming as ever and selling her product well. Roxton observed her closely and was not surprised that the woman was sought after even more then himself, the famous hunter and Lord of Avebury. She smiled radiantly, with a natural charismatic appeal, and stood tall while speaking in a tone that was direct but also enigmatic. Marguerite even managed to remain unfurled when a few of the less gentlemanly reporters indicated that it might be a bit below a true lady's station to not only fund such an exploration, as they had been on, but to journey herself. Roxton nearly rose to Marguerite's defense but need not have been concerned.

Smiling audaciously, Marguerite simply replied: "Trust me, kind sirs, my manners were impeccable during the entire exploration -- as were the men on our mission."

Roxton was aware, although others seemed oblivious, that Marguerite flashed a brief glance in his direction as she spoke.

This was all in startling contrast to their final week on the great ship.

The explorers had kept quietly to themselves. They generally ate breakfast together and also had an occasional supper in each others company as well but, most of the time, they chose to be recluses. In their cabins they wrote and read the speeches that would be expected of them, rehearsing their lines for that time when they returned home and had to face a demanding media.

They contemplated and grieved in private.

Malone's death had been a blow to all but - strangely - they could not really talk about it with one another. Later, during a quiet moment alone together, Roxton would tell Marguerite it was almost as if they had somehow felt they failed the young journalist, not to mention Professor Summerlee, in the worst way possible. Guilt upon guilt pummeled the explorers, sinking deeply into their psyches, and none of the remaining three were immune to its influence. It didn't matter that none of it could be helped, that Summerlee was beyond saving and Malone had lived up until they delivered him into the capable hands of medical experts.

"Do you believe in divine retribution?" Roxton asked her weeks later. "With Malone, the loss of William is visited upon me yet again." and she would never forget the expression on his face; the pain, struggle and self loathing displayed. Deep inside Roxton actually felt he was being punished by the Almighty.

Marguerite wished she possessed the magic vocabulary which would make him feel better but, even in Paris, the words never came …

>>>>>

Over the next month she toured all over Europe. Professor Challenger even joined Marguerite on a couple of her engagements until he was called away for some unexplained reason. 'Probably something to do with those bloody eggs or a second journey to the plateau.' she decided and took his abandonment in stride.

Miss Krux became reacquainted with old haunts and the people who lived and died in them. She read the newspapers local and afar - as she was doing now - and pondered over some of the misrepresentations of she and her companions. Most were obsequious so she did not fume but every once in awhile she would read something unflattering about Challenger and his arrogance or Roxton and overindulgences that would just make her bristle.

One of the first newspapers to announced the return of The Challenger Expedition had a photograph of the explorers before they left for South America. Malone and Summerlee looked so alive and well back then and Marguerite was not able to stop a deep sigh as she now traveled by train to Marseille. So strange to miss them, as well as Veronica, when she had strived hard to reject them while on the plateau.

Roxton had sent her an American newspaper last week - the headlines screaming about some countrywide flu epidemic - and Marguerite wondered why he would do such a thing until she saw the headline of a small paragraph circled in red on the society page:

NEWSPAPER HEIRESS TO WED LAWYER. Right below the announcement was a photograph of Gladys Norris and Richard Kuchar. Marguerite bit the inside on her lower lip. She new it. Poor Malone. Gladys hadn't even waited until he was cold in the grave.

Lord Roxton was obviously as disturbed as herself or he would not have bothered to send the newspaper …

John. Try as she might to exorcise him from her thoughts Marguerite could not help drifting, remembering his heroics on the plateau, his kindness and concern while they traveled through the catacombs … and that lovely but indecent encounter in the Amazon while she bathed in the pond ... Why had they fought so much at the beginning? Yes, Marguerite had purposely pushed Roxton away but, for some reason, it ran deeper than a man and a woman at odds. It was almost as if they were fighting a connection to one another. They still were.

Marguerite wondered, when not besieged with his duties as the Lord of Avebury, if Roxton thought of her as well. Then she smiled. He did send the newspaper ... and, upon reflection, while in Geneva a couple of weeks ago, some mysterious benefactor had paid for her sumptuous room and meals.

At the time Marguerite thought it must have been the grateful gemological society, not knowing who else it could be, but then - thinking deeper - decided it must have been Roxton. She told him in the catacombs, just to make conversation, that she liked Swiss chocolate … and while in Geneva it had been delivered to her, wrapped in tissue and white ribbon, twice during each day she visited.

Challenger told Marguerite he kept in sporadic contact with John. Perhaps it was he who told Roxton where she would be that weekend. It wouldn't surprise Marguerite to learn that Roxton had been following her right along … He did tell her once he had connections ….

The door to Marguerite's compartment opened without ceremony and a small Chinese gentleman in an inelegant but serviceable robe entered. He sat across from her in the private car and they looked at one another.

The clacking of the train's wheels against the level track made for an interesting serenade.

"You have it, Miss?' he asked after a few moments.

"Yes," Marguerite said, "I do." She laid the newspaper beside her crimson skirt and settled back, looking at her visitor through the veil of her hat.

"Give it to me, please." he requested.

"Of course." Carefully, she reached into her black handbag and pulled out a thin, white envelope. She passed it to the man who took it eagerly from her.

Puzzled, he opened the envelope and saw a piece of paper with instructions and a code number. "This is not what Master Xan was expecting."

"That is a location in Vienna where the item is being kept safe. You go there, give them the code number, and they will give you what Master Xan desires -- plus a few very valuable gems to show my appreciation for his understanding. I attempted, with great difficulty, to get what he required but could not. I doubt it was there in the first place."

"He will be disappointed. The master had already sent one of his best men to find you."

'Callum, no doubt.' Marguerite thought with a sneer. "Have him send another agent more up to the task than myself."

"He will be furious."

"Better half an orborous than none at all, I say."

The exotic man stood to leave.

"Tang," Marguerite's voice was a warning as she looked up at him. "If something were to happen to me between the time you leave here and go to Vienna to pick up Xan's merchandise, the mediator has been instructed to misplace the item in question." Marguerite and the man's eyes met. "It would be most unfortunate if you were to return to Shanghai with nothing."

"I understand, Miss Smith … but do not believe for an instant that you have heard the last of our most worthy Master. He does not easily forget those who have been disloyal."

"Of course." Marguerite averted her eyes, "Yet, from what I understand he is very ill and may not be with us much longer." she stated coolly.

"How do you know this?"

"I still have loyal connections too, Tang."

The man nodded uneasily before leaving, "And Master Xan has a devoted son." he reminded, "I would not rest too soundly if I were you, Miss Smith."

When the sliding door shut between them Marguerite allowed a small smile.

Yes, she knew Xan's son, Jiang Kuan, very well. He had been a young man of seventeen - too naïve, spoiled and undisciplined - when she last saw him. Yet, Marguerite knew a potential ally when she encountered him and followed Jiang Kuan one evening into the slums of Hong Kong. He had fallen in with the wrong crowd; gambling away much money and, with her help, had escaped being killed by angry men who did not know who he was. Xan knew nothing of his son's extra curricular activities; his women and opium use -- and Marguerite promised she would never tell as long as he tried to look respectable in the eyes of his father. Jiang Kuan had been grateful and promised Marguerite that if ever she needed a favor all she had to do was ask.


Marguerite's smile widened.

>>>>>

"Oh, it's not just in America, Miss Krux." Mademoiselle Marceau twittered excitedly, passing Marguerite a proper glass of French Champagne. "I hear tale that this sickness has spread to Germany, Switzerland, Scotland … Even as far as the orient."

Marguerite had just finished a speech in front of two hundred distinguished French men and women at the Grobet-Labadié Museum and Auditorium and now stood in the lobby, speaking amicably in the circle of her wealthy admirers. "Does anyone know where this sickness came from?" Marguerite asked.

"Probably some filthy, diseased paysan from either Africa or Asia." the woman muttered, fanning herself with a stiff theatre program.

"From India no doubt." M. Anouih disagreed. "Whatever the circumstance, it seems quite a few cases have shown in England as well. It's highly contagious. But it reacts on people differently. Some become ill and die a few days after infection and others can be sick for weeks before they succumb."

England Marguerite thought. She hadn't been back to London in so long. She missed it terribly.

"Enough of this morbid talk." Madam Racine intervened, "Where are you off to next, Miss Krux? Another dangereux and fascinating exploration?"

Marguerite smiled mildly, "No, not for awhile. I'm going to Paris next then home to London."

She chuckled at their disappointed expressions. Marguerite had set out to what she intended. In six weeks time she had traveled extensively and made a small fortune. The money she earned for her speeches coupled with the wealth of diamonds brought back with her from the plateau would keep her comfortable for quite sometime.

But something of even greater worth awaited Marguerite in London. At least, if Jiang Kuan was as good as his word, she hoped it was waiting for her. It was only a piece of paper but Xan, as mad as he was, had been correct. There was great value in a name.

"What will you be doing in Paris?" Mademoiselle Marceau asked.

"I've been asked to speak at the Théâtre équestre Zingaro … and I will also be visiting friends." and, Marguerite mentally added, ghosts …

>>>>>>

A week later Marguerite finished her obligation and simply wandered Paris, visiting quaint cafes and majestic museums. She watched comic street-performers and shopped in lovely specialized boutiques.

Yet, she was isolated and very much wished she wasn't.

Shaking off her melancholy, Marguerite found herself scrutinizing the urchins; those children who ran the streets begging to their elders, hoping for a stray copper or scrap of fresh meat. She had been one of them once long ago, so young when fate dealt her a blow which was both tragic and advantageous. Marguerite learned so much and had made friends she would never forget. She watched them grow to either live or die.

They made their choices and so did she. Marguerite had been educated in love in Paris, the physical pleasure of union, and the power it could give a woman. She wondered where was Françoise, her first lover, was these days. Did he still paint?

Marguerite looked upward, at the tall buildings of Montparnasse but could not recall where she and her best friend had roomed. The things Adrienne had taught her … to reach for the stars and moon and to not be satisfied with scraps when a bounty awaited those who were willing to reach out and take what was waiting.

"Oh, Adrienne." Marguerite whispered, sullenly. "All we did. Was it worth it?" she wondered.

The street was nearly empty, only a few people scurrying here and there, and for mid afternoon it was strangely quiet. However, the sky was growing dark above and a storm was threatening. Perhaps this was what kept the Parisians inside.

Suddenly, the hairs on the back of Marguerite's neck stood up. She felt eyes on her. The woman turned about nervously on the cobblestone of the street. "Only ghosts." she whispered. Adrienne was gone. All of her friends, her youthful family, were gone.

So distracted was she that Marguerite did not pay attention to the hard soled shoes that approached from her right side, out of a dark alley, as she passed.

"Do you still carry a pistol in your handbag, Baroness?" a voice whispered.

A rough hand took her upper arm and another clamped over her mouth. Before Marguerite knew what was happening she was being dragged into a shadowy area, away from the safety and light of the street. Then she was released and pushed roughly against a concrete wall, where she bounced once and fell to her knees.

Her handbag had been taken away and when her attacker saw no weapon, he tossed it aside, not bothering with the thirty francs inside

Slowly standing, brushing the alley dust from her black skirt, Marguerite looked at the dark cloaked man with a heavy mustache and beard. He was holding his own handgun now and appeared smug. "You are?" she asked, moving slowly.

"They call me Rolf." he answered in accented English, "I saw your performance at the Théâtre équestre Zingaro."

"I see." Marguerite straightened, "I take it you were not impressed?"

"On the contrary. I am der verehrer … an admirer. Your deceptions are legendary, Baroness. You fooled so many during the war. And do so now."

"The war is over." she reminded.

"No it is not. One day another will come and there will be glory for the fatherland."

"If you say so." Standing erect she asked, "Are you here to kill me?"

"Indeed. That was why I was hired. My predecessor failed miserably, I understand."

"I'm not sure I know what you are talking about." Marguerite said, her expression unchanging.

"I think you do but it does not matter." He lifted the gun. "As beautiful as you are, liebling, it is a job that must be done."

"Wait." Marguerite spoke quickly and lifted her hands, "I am now a very wealthy woman with much to offer. Whatever they're paying you I can get you double, Rolf." Her voice grew into a sultry purr when she realized he was looking at her with a more than casual interest. Marguerite moved in on him, stepping forward a little closer.

"Appealing." he admitted, eyeing her up and down. "but then I would not be able to return home."

"And I'm sure my fringe benefits," Marguerite continued to move in, "will well compensate you - my handsome friend - for your unfortunate displacement."

There was a pause as they looked into each other's eyes.

"Do you think I'm a fool?!" Rolf took Marguerite roughly by the throat and brought the gun up to the side of her head.

"Honestly, I have …" Marguerite began, her fingers struggling with the vice around her neck. Panic and fear pierced her to the core.

All semblance of camaraderie disappeared. He shook her, "Shut up! It is time for you to die, woman!"

Without warning, Rolf yelped then pitched forward and released Marguerite.

"I don't think so."

Marguerite looked from Rolf , laying unconscious on the ground, to an attentive well-dressed man who tossed down the heavy board he had smacked the German agent on the back of the head with.

"Roxton." Marguerite could not believe it, "How …?"

"It's going to rain." he said, looking up at the dim sky, "We better get to shelter."

He extended a hand and smiled when a confounded but obliging Marguerite took it.

Just like in The Lost World he was there to watch her back.

>>>>