briand moved the thin beam of the flashlight back and forth over the painting. as he moved it over the head of the empress irene she seemed to peek through the hands she had over her face, and as he moved it over the face of the archangel gabriel he seemed to smile - a sure sign, in my view, that the painting was indeed by aristide moreau.
i pointed this out to briand.
"interesting," he said, "but look, when you shine the light on the face of tamerlane, he doesn't show the trace of a smile. he doesn't even flinch."
"yes. maybe i'm wrong then."
"we have some more in this style in the attic, perhaps you'd like to see them?"
"josephine, our guest would like to see the paintings in the attic. lead the way, please."
i didn't argue. at least we would get out of the cold corridor. josephine led us up two flights of stairs with the flashlight. the second floor was completely dark.
when we passed it josephine pushed a unpainted wooden door open and fanned the light across a dusty wooden floor. there was a cot pushed against the far wall with a figure lying on it, with its back to us. josephine moved up to it and shone the light in its averted face.
"it's mademoiselle cecilie," she said to briand, who was taking some paintings which were stacked against another wall and bringing them into the center of the attic. she turned to me. '"it looks like we won't be needing your services, sir. the
duc was hiring you to find mademoiselle cecilie, but lo and behold, here she is, safe and sound and snug as a bug in a rug."
mademoiselle cecilie might have been as snug as a bug in a rug but there was no heat in the attic at all and i was freezing.
"josephine, get that light out of my face and bring me some tea."
"but leave the light," briand told her. "i want to show our guest these paintings."
"i don't know what he's going to pay for them with now." josephine answered. "the duc isn't going to pay him to not find mademoiselle."
"just leave the flashlight and bring the tea, josephine," briand told her.
"could i have some tea too," i asked. "or something, anything hot?"
"of course," said briand. "josephine, bring a complete tea service."
"in the dark?"
"don't bring anything," cecilie said. she still had her back turned to us. "serve them tea or whatever in the drawing room with pater. after you bring me my tea. and take the light if you think you need it."
"yes, mademoiselle." and then, right in front of me. a complete stranger to the household, josephine did the unthinkable. bold as brass, she stuck her tongue out at monsieur briand.
i was starting to get the idea the d'avignon establishment wasn't the best regulated or maintained in the universe.
with a sigh, briand started picking up some of the paintings and putting them under his arms. he nodded at the paintings and at me to do the same, and like an idiot i went along.
the paintings were covered with dust and dirt, i was still a little wet, and my last good suit ended up looking like it was used to wash a fleet of trucks.
i followed briand and josephine back down the stairs. it was a little warmer back on the first floor. my teeth stopped chattering.
there was a light on in the drawing room, and a fire going in the fireplace. i started to follow briand into it.
"hold on, hold on!" josephine shouted. "you can't let this fellow into the drawing room. he looks like he just crawled out of a sewer. am i not right, monsieur?" she asked the duc d'avignon, who was sitting in front of the fire by himself and leaning on his cane. he looked up at us with a bored expression.
"ah, this must be the detective, mister mean, is it not? i appreciate your coming, sir, but josephine is right, you certainly can't sit down in here looking like that."
"i'll stand," i said. "in front of the fireplace."
"and block the heat? no, no. josephine, bring him something to wrap himself in, a tarpaulin, newspapers, whatever you can find."
"we've burned all the newspapers," josephine told him.
"how about a blanket?" i asked.
"of course, an excellent idea, most resourceful. josephine, go out in the stables and get a blanket."
"but not before you get my tea," came a voice from the doorway. mademoiselle cecelie was standing there shivering.
it was the first time i saw her face. i couldn't decide if she reminded me of a spider, a cobra or a piranha.
whatever she was, she was a mind reader. "i was born under the sign of the piranha," she told me, as she took a chair by the fire. "my mother was a spider, and a cobra saved me from drowning."
i was keeping as close to the fire as i could, without blocking the heat from the duc.
"but you are in my way," cecelie told me. i moved aside a little bit. the flames were starting to dry me, and some clods of dirt fell off me and landed on the flagstones, kicking up dust.
"how extremely disgusting," drawled cecelie. "briand, where do you get these people?"
briand, who had somehow not gotten a spot of dust on himself while bringing his share of the paintings down, had also drawn a chair up to the fire. "wait until josephine brings him his horse blanket," he told cecelie.
"indeed." cecelie stared into the fire. "you think things can't get any worse, but they always do, don't they?"
josephine returned with a tea service and poured cups for the duc, cecilie, and briand.
"i could use one too," i told josephine, she looked shocked.
"you can't drink tea standing up in the duc d'avignon's drawing room," said briand. "where do you think you are, standing in front of a bodega with a bottle of orange soda in a paper bag?"
"oh, don' t tease the poor chap." said the duc, as took his first sip.
"weren't you going to try to sell him some of those wretched paintings in the attic? give him a cup, by all means.
we get very bored here, sir, " he addressed me. "we will have our little jokes."
"speaking of the attic," josephine told the duc, as she handed me a steaming cup with a broken handle , "we found mademoiselle cecelie in the attic. she might have been there all the time."
"all what time? was she lost?"
"but yes." josephine answered. "isn't that why you were hiring this detective?"
"of course not. what does anyone care what happens to cecelie? i am hiring him to look into this fairweather fellow." the duc took another sip of his tea and looked over at me. "how are you holding up over there?"
"very well, monsieur," i croaked. the tea was hot enough. it was burning my throat and almost warming me up. "would it be permissable to lean against the fireplace?"
"of course, you are my guest. josephine, leave off pouring the tea and get the chap his blanket."
"but not out of the stable, please." cecelie added. "take one off somebody's bed if you have to."
'not mine!" cried briand.
josephine looked at cecelie. "oh, take one of mine." cecelie told her. "cassie will let you."
"are you sure?'
"i'll send her a message right now."
josephine scowled and moved off after giving me the evil eye. at this point i thought that things couldn't get any stranger but cecelie quickly proved me wrong. she reached into her pocket and took out a silver cigarette case.