celine walked up the straight paved road. the trees on the side began to thin out.
the day was bright, and she could see clearly up ahead.
she saw a checkpoint gate, and a small guard’s booth, with no one in it.
she looked around to make sure there was nobody in sight, and walked around the gate and kept going up the road.
she saw a car parked up ahead. a limousine - surely the one described by the girl stephanie - but it too seemed unoccupied.
the girl’s story was checking out so far. not that celine had doubted it, but you never knew.
she passed the limo, walking as casually as she could. a quick glance inside - it did not look like anybody, alive or dead, was in it.
as the girl had described, there was a small airstrip - and a small plane on it. the bright sun was shining on the plane’s windows and on its insignia, the insignia celine recognized as parthia’s.
the airstrip was so short any plane on it would have to be capable of almost straight vertical takeoff.
she shielded her eyes to try to see if there was anybody or anything inside the plane and suddenly it’s engine roared to life.
celine stepped back toward the limo.
the plane was turning on the strip, facing away from her. the engine revved up for another ten or fifteen seconds and the plane shot into the sky at almost a 180 degree angle.
so that was that. celine was sure that there was nothing left behind worth looking for or finding, but she checked so that she could say she did.
there was a wooden shack. empty. not a scrap of paper, or a phone or radio, or anything else
there were a couple of cigar butts on the ground outside the shack. she wished she had a plastic bag to put them in, but she didn’t so she put them on a shelf in the shack, in case anybody wanted to check them for dna or whatever.
she approached the limo. might it be wired in some way? it seemed unlikely. she would just as soon have left it alone but she had to make sure the girl’s sister was not in it.
she tried the handle on the driver’s side. it was unlocked.
there was nothing in or under the seats. nothing in the glove compartment. nothing at all except a faint whiff of cigars. and no keys in the ignition.
she popped the trunk. she walked around and found it as empty as she expected.
as she closed the trunk she heard a car behind her. her own blue car, with priscilla at the wheel.
priscilla pulled up, and got out. “i heard the plane, “ she told celine. “i had to make sure you were not on it.”
“no, i timed it perfectly. a few minutes earlier, and i might at least have had to tell someone a story.”
“you always time things perfectly,” priscilla laughed.
“yeah, right. let’s get out of here. if davis wants to check this place out he can send somebody.”
stephanie had gotten out of the car. “what about laurene? did they take her?”
“they must have, honey,” celine told her. “she’s not here. she’s not in the car, she’s not in that shack over there. look around, where else would she be?” she did not add, they did not have time to bury her anywhere.
“they brought her here to take her somewhere, and they did,” priscilla added. “you were the lucky one - the cool one - getting away.”
“i guess,” stephanie agreed.
“let’s get out of here,” celine repeated. she got behind the wheel of the blue car.
none of them spoke until they were off the road to the airstrip and back on the highway.
“do you want us to take you home?” celine finally asked stephanie.
“do i want you to take me home?” stephanie exclaimed. “why, where else would you take me?”
“oh, we will take you home if you want to,” priscilla quickly reassured her. “no problem there.”
“are you in a hurry to get home?” celine asked.
stephanie didn’t know what to say. she didn’t really want to go back and explain to joanie lee what had happened.
joanie lee would have a million questions stephanie could not answer, and when she couldn’t answer then joanie lee would get mad and blame her for - blame her for something , anything, because that was the way joanie lee was.
maybe joanie lee wasn’t even there. maybe the servants were not there, maybe nobody was there, and she would never see any of them, including her father, “the prince”, “ again.
“i’m not in any hurry,” she told celine.
“good. we will find someplace we can have a little talk.”
“as i said before, my dear,” priscilla said. “we were - are - quite impressed with your cool demeanor.”
“yes, indeed,” celine added.
priscilla turned around and faced stephanie. “now if we take you back to your home, with the war on, what do you think will happen to you?”
“you tell me.”
“you will probably be set to work rolling bandages or blankets for soldiers or some such nonsense - something from the last wars that most likely won’t mean anything in this one,”
“ha!” said celine. “more likely she will be put in an army as a soldier herself.”
“does that sound like it would suit you?” priscilla asked.
“not much,” stephanie agreed.
“well then, stick with us and we will find something a bit more interesting for you. we can always use someone young and with a head on her shoulders.”
“will i get killed?” stephanie asked.
“ha! ha! right to the point,” priscilla glanced over at celine. “well, you might be. we certainly can’t make any guarantees. but at least you won’t be doing the same thing every day.”
“and you will get to sleep late, most days,” added celine.
“all right,” said stephanie. “i will hear what you have to say.” she looked out the window.
there was a line of heavy traffic going in the other direction.
as crazy as the whole thing sounded as she was telling it, neither of the two women expressed any surprise or amazement at it. the older one, still seated in the car, seemed attentive, but the younger one continually glanced at her phone and at the sky.
“so she is lampeduse’s daughter,” the older one said, when stephanie finished.
“that is all very well,” the younger one replied, “but where is lampeduse? and does it matter now?”
“yes, but we can’t be sure what they meant,” the older woman replied.
the younger woman started toward the dirt road. “you say there were two planes up there?” she asked stephanie.
“we only saw one go.”
stephanie shrugged. “i saw two.”
“and how many people - altogether?”
“i’m not sure, “ stephanie answered uncertainly. but the young woman held her hand up before she could go on.
a light had flashed on the phone in the young woman’s hand. she quickly pressed it close to her ear.
“yes - yes - yes - right,” she answered at intervals. “yes - of course we understand - later.” she took the phone away from her ear and slipped it into a pocket.
“and - ?” the older woman asked.
“it’s on. just a couple of minutes ago.”
“ah.” the two women just looked at each other.
“should we go up and check out this mysterious landing strip? “ the older woman asked.
“not much point, do you think?”
“what about my sister?” stephanie asked. “she should be back by now - if they didn’t take her.”
“well, there you go,” the younger woman said. “they must have taken her with them.”
“maybe they shot her,” stephanie said. “maybe she’s lying up there bleeding to death right now.”
“you know, celine,” said the older woman, “maybe we should go up and see what is there. if we don’t and it turns out - “
“you are probably right.” the younger woman turned to stephanie. “do you want to stay here and wait, or come with us?”
“um - go with you.”
“get in the back seat, then.”
stephanie got in the back of the blue car and celine got back behind the wheel and maneuvered the car onto the dirt road.
“what was that phone call about?” stephanie asked, when they were fairly on to the dirt road.
“nothing much,” celine replied, with a little laugh. “just that war has been declared.”
stephanie did not know what to say. she had been hearing talk about “the war” for so long - almost her whole life - she hardly paid attention to it. “by who? against who?” as soon as she said it, she expected the older looking woman to say - “against whom” - but she did not.
the younger woman, celine, said “everybody against everybody,” and both women laughed.
“you seem to think it’s all quite jolly,” stephanie said.
“not really,” the older woman told her, “it’s just that - we’ve been waiting so long, it does seem a bit of a relief.”
they were now off the dirt road. celine drove a little further and then pulled over.
there was a thick clump of trees on the opposite of the road and she turned the car around so that it was in the shade of the trees and facing back down the road toward the highway.
celine opened the glove compartment and took something out of it that stephanie could not see - a gun? she got out of the car without a word and started up the paved road toward the airstrip.
the older woman moved over behind the wheel.
“was that a gun she took?” stephanie asked.
“yes - but it was just a little one.”
“ha ha. you know, i didn’t mean to get anybody killed.”
“don’t worry about her. she can talk her way out of anything. and into anything.”
“what is your name, by the way?’ stephanie asked.
“my name? my name is priscilla - miss prue to you.”
“you mean you want me to call you ‘miss prue’?”
“no, that was just my little joke. you can call me priscilla.”
“well, priscilla, what is all this about? if you don’t mind my asking.”
“if we knew, we would not be here. we are trying to find out what it is all about.”
“are you spies?”
priscilla laughed. “what a quaint word. you must read old books, my dear.”
they both fell silent.
after a while, priscilla asked, “when we are through here - and i have every confidence we will be through here, do you want us to take you home - to your castle or whatever?”
“why, of course, where else would you take me?”
“oh, we will take you home if you wish, by all means. but when celine returns, maybe we can discuss other options.”
stephanie did not reply to this, and priscilla went on, “you showed quite some spunk, my dear, just walking off like you did. and a cool head, too. yes, a cool head.”
she expected at any moment to hear a car behind her.
but she did not hear anything.
if i don’t look, there won’t be one, she thought.
if i look back, there will be a car for sure.
or maybe somebody running after me on foot - she hadn’t thought of that!
maybe somebody would shoot at her - she had not thought of that either.
still running, she looked back over her shoulder.
the blacktop road was long and straight and there was nobody on it.
she took a deep breath, then picked up speed again.
the road was - naturally - a lot longer than it had seemed driving down it.
the road was lined with trees, but they were not so thick that they would hide much of anything - like a building - behind them.
she kept running - she ran regularly, and was in good shape.
she thought she could see the dirt road up ahead.
suddenly the air was filled with a loud roaring.
the planes! or one off them.
stephanie looked up and back at the sky.
sure enough, there was one of the planes rising up almost at a 180 degree angle.
quickly it was gone, leaving just the blue sky overhead.
was laurene on it? or had the ambassador and gustav followed through on “not much point on taking them now” and let laurene go?
stephanie hesitated. she decided there was no point is going back to the clearing.
if they had let laurene go, she might be walking back down the road now.
stephanie decided to go back down to the highway and wait to see if laurene showed up.
she started walking. she could now clearly see the beginning of the dirt road that led back down to the highway.
it was very quiet. somehow the silence made her feel that laurene was not coming down the road, and nobody else was either.
she reached the dirt road. the trees were thicker, and she heard a few birds snd some small animals in the bush on the side of the road.
then she heard the highway. it sounded busy.
she reached the highway. she found a large flat rock about ten yards from the dirt road, and sat down on it to wait for laurene. the road, she now realized, would be barely noticeable from the highway.
there was a steady stream of cars and trucks on the opposite side of the road, heading north, toward the airport.
an airport from which no planes seemed to be either taking off or leaving. the little plane that had left the clearing - with or without laurene on it - had broken a total stillness.
there were no vehicles going south - on the side of the highway stephanie was sitting on.
stephanie waited. she plucked a few blades of grass. she felt almost peaceful.
up until now she had regarded the coming war and collapse of civilization as unworthy of her attention and a bore.
laurene did not appear. stephanie started to feel sure she was not going to show up. should she try to get to the other side of the highway, where all the cars were? high dividers separated the two sides, and the cars going by filled the opposite lanes and were moving fairly swiftly.
before she could decide what to do, a car approached her. a nondescript blue car, of some indeterminate model - stephanie was not really up on the different makes of cars - and it passed by before before she could react in time to stand up and wave at it.
but then the car stopped. it pulled over halfway on to the dirt, and then backed up swiftly toward stephanie.
stephanie moved down toward it. as she did it crossed her mind that the occupants might be connected to the ambassador and gustav. but if they were, would they have overshot the dirt road?
there seemed to be two people in the blue car. a middle-aged woman looked out inquisitively at stephanie as she approached.
stephanie had never seen anyone like the woman in real life. she was tall, thin, with a long face and with her hair in a bun on top of her head. and dressed in brown and gray. she looked like a schoolteacher or governess in an old movie - like jane eyre or little women or something like that.
stephanie could make out a younger woman in the driver’s seat.
“would you like a ride?” the bun-haired woman ask.
“um - i am not sure,” stephanie replied.
“you are not sure?” the woman asked, with a smile that was friendly enough.
“i’m waiting for my sister - maybe,” stephanie said.
“maybe?” the woman glanced over at the driver.
“i - it’s a long story,” stephanie told her, a little flustered.
the driver’s side door opened. the driver got out and came around toward stephanie.
she was younger than stephanie had first thought - not much older than stephanie herself, probably about the same age as laurene. she had a small phone in her hand, which she glanced at as she approached stephanie.
“so,” the young woman addressed stephanie, “what is this long story?”
“i - “ stephanie began. “i am - i am the princess stephanie de lampeduse - “
at this both women looked at each other. stephanie thought she saw a hint of amusement in the younger woman’s face.
“oh, i know,” stephanie said, flushing a little. “it’s ridiculous - everybody being a princess these days -“
“not so much as all that,” said the younger woman, glancing at her phone again.
“are you - the prince of lampeduse’s daughter?” the older woman asked.
“yes, i am,” stephanie replied. “now can i ask you a question?”
“of course,” the older woman told her.
“who are you?”
“just a couple of ladies out for a drive,” the younger one answered with a smile. “why don’t you go on with your story?”
ameline took the sheet of paper from the typewriter. it was very late.
she was alone in her room, but with a guard right outside her door.
soon it would time for breakfast. although ameline spoke little at the meals, she never missed them.
she got up and looked out the window. it was very dark. and quiet.
ameline, too, dreamed of escape.
she realized it would be difficult to even think of escape without some sort of help from the guards.
unlike most of the other contestants, she had not formed any friendships or attachments with her guards, although she was always polite and made no demands on them.
she had never formed friendships easily, not even with members of her own class.
the night was cold and windy, and when ameline entered the foyer of a————— hall - the most prestigious but also the oldest and draftiest at the university - she was in such a hurry that she almost did not look in her mailbox.
a——— hall, among its other luddite practices, had several rows of old-fashioned mailboxes inside its door, where paper notes and letters could be left.
and on this evening there was a small envelope in ameline’s box.
surely it was the note she was waiting for.
placing her armload of books carefully on the floor in order to free her hands, she extracted the note and slipped it in her pocket. she wanted to be alone when she read it.
hopefully the two young women she shared a room in the hall with would be absent - they usually were.
gathering the books back up, ameline quickly went up the three flights of winding stairs to her room, not wanting to wait for the ancient creaking elevator, or risk getting stuck in it.
neither of the roommates was in. ameline turned the light on, dumped the books on the sofa beside the door and took the note out of her pocket.
she opened it, almost ripping it in her haste.
she scanned the first lines. her heart leaped up.
she had been accepted into the bluestocking club!
how ridiculous, ameline thought - that my “heart leaped up”. but it had!
taking a deep breath, she read the note through - it was handwritten, in old-fashioned script -
by bettina crawford herself - the chairwoman of the bluestockings!
the brilliant bettina crawford, whom ameline had worshipped and wished to emulate since hearing her hold forth in professor m————————’s class on the history of women (a large class,which ameline was auditing, held in an auditorium big enough to play football in).
ameline almost swooned. she did sit down on the sofa.
the note told her that the next meeting of the bluestockings was on the following friday - but ameline already knew that.
but what was this? bettina invited her, ameline, to a private meeting in bettina’s rooms on tuesday - the next night - to “ask a few questions” and to “ perhaps get to know you.”
could anything be more felicitous?
and yet - along with her excitement, ameline felt a slight trace of fear.
tuesday evening arrived.
ameline did not dare to be late, and she had no desire to seem blasé about her meeting with bettina, so she arrived fifteen minutes early .
bettina lived in the town, in an apartment building on a street of its own, surrounded by large trees.
swarms of bats flew among the tallest branches of the trees.
ameline decided to take a walk down and around the street, rather than present herself to bettina so early.
but once out of sight of the apartment building, on the street with no lights, she found herself enveloped in the dark shadows of the trees, which were beginning to sway in a cold wind.
she found herself at the end of the street, facing a dark wooded area - was it a park? there was no sign of benches, or fountains, or statues.
ameline decided it must just be a woods, untended. it was very quiet.
she retraced her steps. when she got back to the apartment building , she decided it was not too early to enter it.
she could not find a bell, but there was an old fashioned brass knocker on the door. it seemed to be in the form of a head, with curly hair, but the face had been worn away.
she raised the knocker and rapped as hard as she could with it. it did not seem to make much of a sound, and she was about to attempt to knock again, when the door opened.
a gray haired woman, obviously a concierge, looked out at ameline.
the woman nodded when ameline explained the nature of her visit. “yes, yes, you are expected. the third floor - ms crawford has the whole third floor.”
“thank you.” ameline could see the stairs behind the concierge - winding stairs very much like those in a————— hall, and she did not ask if there was an elevator.
“but,” the concierge continued, “ms crawford was called away a little while ago.”
“oh?” ameline did not know what to think.
“her friend, mlle de hautcourt, is up there expecting you.”
mlle de hautcourt! bethany de hautcourt… bettina’s toady and factotum. whose existence ameline had completely put out of her mind, in looking forward to her meeting with bettina.
not that ameline begrudged bettina a toady. any person as glamorous and courted as bettina needed a buffer between themselves and the importunate world.
and yet the thought of meeting bethany - alone - did not fill ameline with anticipation…
bethany must have heard ameline coming up the stairs, or perhaps the concierge had called her, because she was waiting at the door of bettina’s apartment when ameline reached the third floor landing.
ameline had made a conscious effort while climbing the stairs not to be annoyed or to think ill of bethany, but she felt a bit disconcerted at the sight of bethany’s silly face, framed by her ridiculous peasant girl - or were they hippie?- braids.
ameline and bethany exchanged their ritual courtesies, and bethany stood aside for ameline to enter.
the room which ameline entered was lit by a single large standing lamp. the light did not extend to the corners of the room. dark, very heavy looking curtains covered the one large window.
bethanty took ameline’s coat and hat and deposited them somewhere in the shadows of the big room.
a tea service with scones and little neatly cut sandwiches lay on a small table placed between two sofas. bethany gestured to one of the sofas and ameline seated herself .
“bettina should be back shortly,” bethany announced, as she sat down opposite ameline. “but you never know. she specifically said not to wait for us. would you like some tea now?”
“thank you, that would be very nice,” ameline replied politely. at least, she thought, bethany’s voice was not aggravating, but as melodious and civilized as the most refined listener might desire.
no sooner had ameline had this generous thought, than she noticed bethany’s ridiculous cloak and even more absurd beret thrown carelessly on a chair beyond the sofas.
and as bethany was pouring the tea ameline noticed something else - a large, thick notebook or loose leaf binder on the sofa bethany was sitting on.
ameline was finding the darkened room actually rather cozy, especially after the cold street outside.
“let’s give bettina fifteen minutes, shall we?” bethany said. “if she is not back by then i think we should get started.” she glanced over at the big notebook.
get started on what? ameline wondered. she did not know what to say. “yes,” she finally said, “i will leave that up to you.”
“it is best to be moving forward, don’t you think,“ bethany went on. “especially in times like these.”
in times like these? whatever was the silly creature talking about?
ameline nodded toward the notebook on the sofa beside bethany. “is that - is that the rules and regulations of the club?”
“the club? oh, you mean the bluestocking club. oh, no, no.” bethany laughed, and took a sip of her tea. “something much more important.”
ameline almost blurted out “more important than the bluestocking club!” but realized it might sound a bit pompous.
“not that the bluestocking club is not all very well in its way,” bethany continued. “if you like poetry and all that sort of thing. but you see - “ she looked ameline right in the eyes. “ the club is really just sort of - of a front, you might say, for other things. other things more attuned to - to - how shall i put it ? - “
“to times like these,” ameline volunteered.
“exactly. we will get started. but if i can’t explain things, bettina will explain everything. when she arrives.”