Thierry was waiting at the bottom of the staircase effectively blocking John’s exit into the cellar. ‘Excuse me, Thierry.’ John pushed past him. ‘We have a need to talk.’
John turned before he reached the centre of the cellar, Thierry had his back to the stairs. Ximene appeared on the stairs behind him. John cleared his throat. ‘When we last spoke Thierry, you were on your way back to Port Vendres. As I understand it you have permanent role with “Les Etoille”. Is your visit to us now part of that role?
Thierry answered slowly apparently reluctantly. ‘In a way yes, because I volunteered to rescue Don Fernandino, a deputy took over my role in Port Vendres. Then when I left you as we approached Foix, I was tracked by a Guillam, who was subsequently accepted by Don Fernandino as a friend and former colleague.’
‘Guillam left with Don Fernandino without letting me know where he was going. I have no means of knowing whether this person Guillam was actually a friend, although Don Fernandino greeted him well enough. It is possible that Don Fernandino is still in danger.’
John waited patiently, he knew that at least this part of Thierry’s story was true. From behind Thierry, Ximene nodded, which John took to mean some form of approval.
Thierry continued. ‘My superior in ‘Les Etoiles’ gave me the task of finding Don Fernandino and perhaps rescuing him yet again… or reporting his unfortunate demise. I have been given an appointment in the security branch of ‘Les Etoiles’. In theory I now work for Don Fernandino…that is if he ever returns’
John’s eyes opened wide at the thought that both Thierry and himself were in the same business. However this left more than one question unanswered. He chose to pursue the most obvious one. ‘How did you find us here?’
Thierry now responded willingly. ‘I was on the dockside when Don Fernandino was first attacked. Waiting for him was a gypsy wagon drawn by gypsy horses. When I first rescued him he was very keen to keep the wagon and a huge array of gypsy merchandise safe. From this, I concluded that he intended to use a gypsy identity, as cover during his escape. I also knew that he would have been using back routes during his escape plans and concluded that either he or Guillam or perhaps both of them would have tried to position themselves somewhere on the escape route.’
Theirry scratched the side of his nose. ‘Guilliam had taken the wagon but I replaced it. I hired a gypsy, who knows the Romany language, loaded the wagon with the merchandise and came north through the Gorge d’Algy.’
‘All this was just conjecture?’
‘Yes but I had to start somewhere. I had discovered that there are two gypsy festivals during the summer months. The really big one is at Les Trois Maries, near Marsailles but that is too far away to be relevant. The second one is, however, at Rennes Les Bains, just down the track from here. That would have been where Don Fernandino would have joined the gypsies.’
‘ If you had worked in security, you would know that you have to back your own intuition.’
John bristled ‘You have, yourself, on your own admission, only worked in security for a matter of weeks.’
Ximene pushed past Thierry ‘Boys! Boys! Thierry, please stick to the story.
Thierry responded with unbridled aggression. ‘But he keeps interrupting me.’
Ximene sighed. “ He is actually just checking his understanding of what you are telling him, but I agree he is doing it in an unnecessarily aggressive manner.’
John raised his eybrows.
Ximene continued somewhat coldly. ‘I have personal knowledge, which John has never shared, which confirms the validity of your story so far. It was whilst you were unconscious John. I heard Guillam and Don Fernandino discussing the original plans for escape.
‘Oh. Oh!’John softened the tone of his voice but was determined to keep control. ‘Please continue Thierry’
Thierry glaced at Ximene. She nodded, ‘It was just after the festival at Rennes les Bains there were streams of gypsys going south. Many of them were heading for Perpignan, a big enough town for them to peddle their wares. We became like a roadside warehouse enabling them to replenish their supplies. We drove a hard bargain, they would have been suspicious otherwise.
All the time we were bargaining I made sure we talked about the festival and what they had done there. Eventually one family told me that they had camped on the plain above Rennes les Baines and that they had seen a most unusual sight. A young man and woman riding naked on two magnificent grey thoroughbred horses. They had followed them, part out of curiosity part to see if there was a chance of stealing the horses. However they lost track of them close the summer palace of the Bishops of Albi – Château Mazerou.
John was now horrified. ‘We were not careful enough! How many other people saw us? If you were told that, they could have told other people.’
Thierry waved his hand dismissively ‘Relax, it would have just have seemed like a fairy story to anyone else. I would have been the only one talking to the gypsies who would have known the significance of what I was told. I knew it must be you, as I saw the grey horses on the ride from Muret to Foix, but naked?’ He gazed at Ximene.’
Ximene blushed. ‘But how did you find your way in here.’
‘I circled round the Château and saw little of interest. There are another set of modern stables against the northern wall but there were no grey horses. Then I came down here. I needed to thread my way through the pile of decrepit old waggons and various farm implements outside the doorway and it nearly put me off, but once I was inside, and I opened the cupboards… It was a give away. Clean empty shelves. There was not a speck of dust on them!’
Suddenly John felt very vulnerable. ‘If you could find your way in then so could anyone else!
Thierry turned to face John his half smile transforming into a snarl. ‘You underestimate me John. Don’t forget that I am a member of “Les Etoilles’ with considerable experience. We have many secret rooms in which we can, if necessary, hide people. I knew exactly what I was looking for. Generally speaking this is an extremely good safe house.’
John jumped on this last piece of information. ‘If you have been in Les Etoilles for a “considerable’ time then you would know how to prove your identity to another member of Les Etoilles?’
‘Ximene, we should ask Maurice to join us and find out if he knows how to identify a member of “Les Etoile.’
Ximene pulled him to one side and whispered urgently. ‘I don’t know John, another piece of information I gained when you were unconscious is that Maurice is not a member of Les Etoiles.
‘But he works with them he may know.’
After a tense hour, Maurice emerged from the tunnel and confirmed he had the skills and knowledge to identify a member of ‘Les Etoiles.’
He asked Ximene and John to leave whilst he performed the check. They retired to the upper room. He joined them within five minutes.
‘His credentials are first class’
John’s eyes narrowed. As far as he could remember that was the exact phrase Paine De Roet had used when he introduced Thierry at Muret. Did the phrase have some specific meaning?
Maurice continued speaking. ‘However, that only confirms that Thierry is a relatively high ranking member of “Les Etoiles”. It does not tell us anything about his current objectives or whether he has been “turned” by some external paymaster.’
Ximene started. ‘Oh. we may have achieved nothing. something else I overhear, whilst you were unconscious John. Don Fernandino no longer trusts the Etoilles organisation. He intends to break away, possibly has already broken away and all we have achieved is to prove Thierry is a member of that organisation.
Murice winced. you are right. Don Fernandino has discussed this with me. However, he believes it is the central organistion which cannot be trusted not individual members. Nevertheless, in the case of Thierry, we really don’t know.
We may all be in danger, never let him out of your sight. Let him sleep in the second chamber off the bathhouse down here. The screen can be locked from the outside’
Ximene thanked Maurice who departed. She turned to John.
‘We really could use him and what he told us had a ring of truth’
‘ I agree, but I want to ask one more question.’
They descended once more to the cellar. After informing Thierry that they were satisfied with his story, which John hoped would make Thierry relax, John suddenly asked the question. ‘How did you prove to Maurice that you were a member of “les Etoiles?’
Thierry gazed at John with an even, steady gaze.
“I don’t think you would really expect me to tell you that, would you?”
John was now totally satisfied. It was exactly the right answer from someone involved security!
“No, but with your experience in security, you will not be surprised to know that we will never let you out of our sight and you will sleep every night in a locked room!’
Once Thierry had been locked away, John threw his arms around Ximene. ‘I am sorry I don’t mean to cause problems but there is just something about that man. I learned when I first met him in Muret that he just assumes that all woman will throw themselves at him. That he is irresistible. I can see it now in the way he looks at you. I am jealous.’
‘He is very attractive, but jealousy does not become you, John, you must learn to live with it.’