"i don't feel like driving through the tunnels," annabelle told tania. "let's take the long way round - the scenic route."
"it's up to you." tania leaned back.
"i think the duc is more likely to be there if we arrive a little later. it's just a feeling i have."
"my first thought, " mike went on, "was that is wasn't really the duc d'avignon, that someone was playing a joke on me. but i thought about it and realized i didn't have any enemies.
i hadn't cracked a case in a while."
"had you ever cracked a case?" chappie interrupted.
"look, do you want me to tell an old-fashioned human story the old=fashioned human way?
then don't interrupt."
"sorry," chappie answered. "but take your time. it looks like the others are slow today."
"the elevator was broken. i went down the six flights of stairs to the street to wait for
the car the duc was sending to pick me up.
the street was empty. i could see sammy the newsboy's kiosk down the street but i couldn't see him through the fog.
a long black limousine suddenly drifted up beside me. i figured it must have been waiting around the corner for me.
i got in the back seat. it was bigger than my office. i had a companion, a guy in a black three piece suit and a bowler hat. he was leaning back against the upholstery with a rolled umbrella in his lap with the tip pointing straight at me. it looked like a weapon. i nodded to him but he didn't nod back. the situation seemed to call for silence.
i settled back for the ride."
"so far, so bad, mr detective," chappie interrupted again. "no snappy dialogue. and no deadly dames! your fellows must be impatient for some deadly dames."
"hey," barbarian told him. "we'll be the judge of that . just let him tell the story, all right?"
"of course. apparently the situation calls for silence."
"i really just like to drive out this way," annabelle said. "look at the trees and stuff."
a few trees with mostly bare branches were spaced along the sidewalks and dividers on the streets leading to the old houses.
tania just nodded.
"i think it looks kind of sad, don't you?" annabelle continued as they cruised along.
"all these old houses looking so run down now."
"not really," tania answered, looking out the window, "have you been out here before?"
"you mean to the old houses? of course i have."
"no, to the duc d'avignon's."
"once before. don't worry, i'm not lost."
"that's all i was asking."
"it's the next left. then around a big circle."
"you're from here yourself, aren't you? from one of the old families."
"we weren't that old," tania answered. "we were still kind of upstarts."
"but you weren't some slob from the districts or the slagheaps."
annabelle made the left and started around a wide circle bordered on both sides with high but scraggly lawns.
there were no houses in sight.
"this is the way to the duc d'avignon's, all right," tania said.
"see, home sweet home."
"you never come out here any more?"
"only if i have to. i mean, i don't mind coming here. it's just another place."
"well, here we are." the road dipped suddenly and a broad driveway appeared on their right. annabelle glided up it and stopped in front of a large house, which looked neither bright or decrepit.
"i hope he's here," tania said.
"i told you, i have a feeling he will be."
"let's get out and find out."
there were two cars in the driveway. "our car is nicer than either of those," annabelle noted.
"why not? we're the police."
the front door opened as soon as annabelle released the old fashioned metal knocker.
a stout woman in a maid's uniform stood before them, smiling politely.
"good afternoon. and you are - "
"police," annabelle answered with a smile.
"here to see the duc d'avignon."
"of course." she gestured to them to enter. they were in a bare and shadowy corridor. there were barely visible traces on the walls where paintings had hung and annabelle looked at them attentively.
"my name is briand," the man in the bowler hat finally said to me, after about an hour in the car.
"pleased to meet you," i answered.
he took the umbrella and put it point down on the floor and leaned on it.
"i want to go on record as saying i find this situation totally absurd. you seem to have no qualifications whatever to assist the duc in this matter. interviewing you seems to me an admission of pathetic desperation on his part."
"have you been doing much business lately?"
"not much. it's been tough since the public directories were shut down. nobody can find me now but the police - "
briand laughed. "and they are not clamoring for your services, eh?"
"i still have a connection on the force. he throws a little something my way."
"a little something? you mean actual police cases?"
"he treats me to a meal sometimes. and he talks to me."
"talks to you!" briand laughed again and looked out the window.
there wasn't much to see because the fog was getting thicker. we went on in silence for a while. i could hear rain beating lightly on the roof...
at this point mike looked up at chappie.
chappie had fallen asleep, with his hands folded across his chest.
"does anybody else want to hear this?" mike asked.
"sure, sib, keep going," hongwu told him. "unless your throat is dry."
mike swirled his can of warm orange drink in his hand. it was still half full. "no, i'm good.
so we ride on a little longer and briand says to me -
"i'm surprised you can operate at all - i would have thought you went out with the lawyers."
"i guess we weren't worth bothering about."
"we found an old directory. there were eighteen private detectives listed. you were the last and the only one who answered. but here we are."
we got out. it was dark, and raining a little harder. i guess i was expecting something really grand, but the place was so dark i could hardly see it. i don't know what briand's umbrella was for, but it wasn't for keeping either of us dry because he didn't open it and we were both pretty wet by the time we reached the front door.
a chubby girl in a maid's uniform opened the door as soon as we reached it.
briand shook the rain off like a dog and the chubby girl jumped out of his way. i just stood there like a chump, dripping.
we were in a dark corridor.
i could just make out some paintings, taken down and propped up against the wall.
briand saw me looking and pointed to them. "would you like to buy one - or two?"
i didn't know what to say. "i can't even see them," i told him. "besides, i thought i was here to see the duc."
"he isn't going anywhere. josephine, bring a light. our guest would like to see the paintings."
josephine went off and didn't come back any time soon. there was no light, and the only sounds were the drops of water falling off me on to the floor, and my teeth chattering. i was almost dry by the time she got back with a flashlight.
"look at this one." he shone the light on the first one he picked up. "possibly an early guillaume potvin, but more likely by one of his students." it showed the archangel gabriel consoling the empress irene during the sack of byzantium by the mongols. tamerlane is shown glowering at them from behind a curtain.
"what do you think?" briand asked me.
"that's the archangel gabriel. i know him well.'
"i meant, do you think it's a potvin?"
"it might be aristide moreau. he had a period where he did pastiches of the earlier style."
"it looks like there used to be some paintings there,'" annabelle said to the maid.
'indeed there were," the maid answered. "but they've been gone for a while."