I posted a chapter a day from my novel Naked Aggression. Here's the first chapter from the sequel.
The killer had no scruples. The victim had no shame.
I didn’t want to show my grief.
Public grief is sentimental, self-indulgent. It serves no useful purpose. Not in my opinion. I wanted to move on, put the past behind me. I wanted to appear strong, acting like a man in control of his feelings.
No, I didn’t actually want to show my grief. But I did.
I just couldn’t help it.
In a strange sort of way, a teenage girl I met in France played a small part in helping me put it all to rest. I was sorry she had to suffer so much. She didn’t deserve it, but that’s life for you. Sometimes the wrong people get all the shit.
I’d spent most of the evening at a small bar near the centre of St. Malo, drinking alone in a room full of noisy people.
It was nothing new.
When I staggered out into the night my head was dulled with the effects of the bar’s warm, smoky air and too much Jack Daniels. The vague sound of French chatter escaped through open windows as I made my way back to the Hotel de Chemini. Some of the voices were laced with a smell of cooking which lingered, trapped in a mist that had crept up from the sea. It eddied around the buildings in ghostly swirls. I took it slowly, afraid of falling in the gutter. I could hold my drink up to a point, but I’d passed the point. The noise of other late-night drinkers followed me until I came to a narrow alleyway that linked the Grand Rue with the back entrance to the hotel. The town noises receded as I stumbled along the alley, my footsteps echoing in the mist. Then I heard a loud shriek. And the sound of a scuffle.
I stopped suddenly.
The noise came from a courtyard off a nearby building. The scuffle continued. Voices yelled in machine-gun French. One was male, harsh and yet strangely high-pitched. The other was a female cry, but nothing I could pin down into words. It was no cosy conversation; that was certain. Intrigued, I walked towards the courtyard and pushed at a wooden gate that swung open drunkenly on squealing hinges. A single lamp, diffused in the mist, gave the place an eerie sensation, like the set for a horror movie. About ten feet ahead of me two people were struggling. I saw them only in hazy silhouette against the light.
“What the hell’s going on?” I took a step closer to the fracas. Stupid thing to do in my inebriated condition.
One of the pair—a giant of a man with long arms—turned and shouted back at me in French. Again, his shrill voice struck me as odd. I guess I must have spooked him because a moment later he raced towards me, a dark shadow looming out of the mist. He was well over six feet tall, with the build of a heavyweight boxer. I saw all that in outline, but his face was hidden in deep shadow. To make matters worse, the whisky made me a bit slow in reacting. He threw out a hand at me as he ran past and I fell flat on my butt. By the time I got back onto my unsteady feet, there was no sign of him.
There was no sign of the woman either. I had no idea who they were, or what they looked like. Or what they were arguing about. I didn’t particularly care by then.
I walked farther into the courtyard, wondering what the hell it had been all about. Then I spotted a lady’s handkerchief on the ground directly beneath the lamp. I bent to pick it up and saw that it had a bloodstain.
And the letter V embroidered in one corner.
The mist had long dispersed when I ventured out the following morning. I’d donned shorts and tee shirt, intent on a walk along the shore, away from the crowds in the walled city. I needed fresh air to clear my head after the previous night’s drinking, and I needed to get away from my fellow tourists at the Hotel de Chemini. They didn’t tell me when I booked the vacation that I would be the only single man amongst a dozen couples: a lone widower caught up amongst those happy all-American twosomes. After three weeks of pretending to enjoy the tour, I was on the verge of making off on my own. The courier probably suspected something was wrong. She had been eyeing me at odd moments—a strange, puzzled look on her face—and I wondered if she had any inkling of what was going through my mind.
I suppose I must have wandered a couple of miles along the shore, deep in thought, still wallowing in memories of Penny despite all my efforts not to. And that’s when I came across the girl. She had her back to me, kneeling on the fine, white sand while trying to fix a small outboard motor. She wore nothing but a pair of miniscule pink panties.
I should have looked away… should have walked on by.
But I didn’t.
I guess she must have heard me because she glanced back over her shoulder and gave me a sudden frightened look. It quickly turned into a ragged smile that was about as genuine as a healthy beef-burger. She was slightly built— delicate like a piece of Dresden china—and I guessed she was in her late teens. She had an elfin face and long, auburn hair. And she had a sticking plaster across the back of one hand. The skin around it sported a large bruise. But for that small imperfection she might have come fresh out of the tissue paper inside a china doll’s box.
I glanced away in an effort not to be mesmerised by her. A dinghy floated smoothly on a calm sea a few yards from the shore. I assumed it was hers.
“Didn’t mean to interrupt you,” I told her, belatedly wondering if she understood.
Once she’d sloughed off that initial look of fear, she didn’t seem afraid of me, which was odd in view of her lack of clothes. Instead she stared with her mouth half open, as if she was trying to place where she might have seen me before. Most girls of her age would have run a mile on being caught out by an older guy while alone on a beach, half-naked. She looked like a school kid while I was just turned thirty-three and had enough experience of women to fill a book.
“You speak English?” Her voice caught me unawares. It was the elegant voice of a princess taking tea in the Queen’s palace garden.
“I try to.” I still felt distinctly uneasy. Kept my hands in my pants pockets.
“Oh. You’re American?” It sounded like an accusation.
“Didn’t get a choice,” I said.
“Never mind.” She suddenly applied full reheat to her smile and it lit up a morning that was already bright. “I’m having rather a spot of bother here.”
“You want me to take a look?” I took a hesitant step closer.
“I’d be awfully grateful.” She stood up and turned to face me. Venus rising up from the waves. Her juvenile breasts were anchored to her chest like limpets clinging firmly to a smooth rock face. She made absolutely no attempt to cover them.
“Ain’t got any tools with me,” I said.
“Oh, it’s all right. I came fully equipped.” She picked up a greasy torque wrench and gestured to the dismantled engine parts spread across the beach. An open tool box sat next to the main block.
“That don’t look too healthy, kiddo.” I grimaced, imagining what the sand was doing to the vulnerable engine parts. “For a start, you’ve got a cracked distributor cap. That bit there. Reckon you ought to get a proper mechanic to look at it.”
“How jolly inconvenient. I was on my way back to the harbour when it cut out on me.” She knelt down again and picked up a length of thin pipe. “I thought there might be a blockage in the fuel line. I tried blowing through it, but still it wouldn’t start.”
“You know something about engines?”
“Not a lot actually,” she admitted.
“That figures. Who taught you how to dismantle one?” I looked at the girl, perplexed and yet intrigued. There was something about her that brought back more sad memories, memories of a time long before I met Penny. This girl’s youthful figure reminded me of Carrie-Ann, my high school date who died when I crashed my dad’s car near LA. I still blamed myself for what happened to Carrie-Ann.
“My brother showed me how to take an engine apart,” she said. “He’s jolly good with anything mechanical.”
“Didn’t he teach you how to reassemble it?”
She waved a hand dismissively. “Maybe, maybe not. I must have lost interest when he got to that bit.”
“Mechanic, is he? Your brother?”
“No. He’s an RAF pilot. He flies fast jets. I think he must be awfully brave, don’t you?”
I changed the subject at that point in case in case I said too much. I didn’t want to admit I once flew US Air Force jets. And killed people. That was a sore point with me; the killing bit. It was a part of my past I’d happily wipe clean from my memory. If I could.
I pointed to the plaster on the back of the exposed hand. “Hurt yourself, did you?”
“Oh that!” She hastily shrugged it aside. “That’s nothing.” It wasn’t a convincing brush-off and, just for a second, I wondered what her voice would sound like when she screamed.
“Look, miss, I’ll put this thing back together for you, but I can tell you straight away it ain’t gonna work. At least, not until you get a new distributor cap.” I knelt down beside her and wished I hadn’t. She was so close and the sweet smell of her body was almost too much to bear. After fifteen months without Penny, the girl’s sensuality was too much.
“You’re not French,” I said, stating the obvious because my brain couldn’t come up with anything more sensible. Not with her slender body only inches away. I began collecting up the engine parts.
“No, I’m not French.” She laughed. “English as they come, but I like it here and I speak the language, which is jolly useful. Are you on holiday?”
I began reassembling the engine with the kit of tools. “Sort of. I thought I might get to see something of Europe. You know: Rome, Berlin, Paris. The usual sights for American visitors. Joined an organized trip. We’re supposed to be taking a ferry across to England tomorrow, but I probably won’t go.” I wasn’t sure why I chose to confide in her. Perhaps it was because, for all her natural sensuality, she had an air of innocence about her. A child of nature alone in a foreign land.
“You don’t like England?” she said.
“It’s not that.”
“Really?” She eyed me curiously as if she didn’t believe me.
The engine parts started to go together easily enough. I figured if I could reassemble the thing, we could put it in the bottom of the dinghy and paddle back to the harbour on that flat calm. Finding a mechanic in St. Malo would be no problem.
“Yes, really,” I said after a few moments. I dusted my hands together and focused on her face, homing in on her soft, appealing eyes. “It’s something else entirely.”
“You just want to stay here in France?”
“In a way. It’s the tour party. It’s a bit too overpowering. Too much noise and false bon hommie. Know what I mean? I prefer to be alone.” Her gentle gaze unnerved me so I looked away and pointed to the fuel line. “Hold that in place while I tighten the locking nuts.”
“What will you do?” She was persistent in her questioning, but nice with it. Her voice had that edge of friendliness that made it impossible to ignore her.
“Guess I’ll take off and see something of the country. See the real France, the bits tourists tend to miss.” I grabbed the engine cover and stood up to fix it in place. “You’ve got some oars for the dinghy?”
“Yes, but it’s at least a couple of miles to the harbour.”
“No problem. I’ll give you a hand. Pull the boat in to the beach, will you?”
I’d already decided she wasn’t fit to be left on her own. How would a fragile doll like that stand up to a determined assailant? And I was getting the picture that she’d already been on the receiving end of something nasty.
She splashed out into the shallows and came back towing the dinghy, her pink panties now thoroughly wet and translucent. She might as well have been wearing nothing. I turned away to pick up the outboard and hoped she would not notice my embarrassment.
“My name’s Henry, by the way,” I said by way of a belated introduction as I hoisted the motor across one shoulder. “Henry Bodine.”
“Viola.” She smiled back at me. “Viola Bracewell.”
Viola? Back in my hotel room there was a blood-stained handkerchief embroidered with the initial V, but I said nothing about it. It didn’t seem appropriate. Not then.
“Get into the boat, Viola. I’ll row you back to St. Malo.” Without waiting for a reply, I waded out to the dinghy and heaved the outboard over the transom and pulled myself aboard.
I took the oars while Viola sat in the stern, trailing one hand in the water. It was easy rowing and the exercise did me good. My head was almost back to normal service.
“Shouldn’t you put some clothes on before we get to the marina?” I asked as we glided along the coast.
She glanced down at her semi-nudity. “I don’t think so. The French don’t mind seeing girls topless. They’re nothing like as repressed as the English.”
“You often go around like that?” I asked. And I remembered Penny strolling around our home in LA, equally undressed. She had been older than Viola, but every bit as sensual. More so, on reflection, because Penny had been for real whereas this girl’s sexuality was straight out of a men’s magazine. Just for looking at.
The girl grinned sheepishly. “Quite often. And I always swim in the nude. It’s perfectly okay as long as you stick to the right beaches.” She ran a finger slowly down the cleft between her breasts. I wondered if she knew what the hell she was doing. “I just love being naked, but my parents simply don’t understand. They say it’s sinful. Can you imagine that? I think English people are so jolly silly about covering up their bodies on the beach. Don’t you? But not the French. That’s one of the reasons I like living over here.”
I took a moment to think about that one. “There has to be more to France than getting your kit off. Is there another reason you’re here?”
Once again her face took on a frightened expression for just a fraction of a second, enough to hint at a dark, untold secret. Then she brushed aside my query with a silent shrug before she brightened up. “What do you do, Henry, in America?”
“I’m an airline pilot.” I made the admission while silently hoping it wouldn’t draw the conversation back to air force flying.
“Wow. That sounds exciting.”
“Not really. Mostly, it’s like driving a bus, but a bit higher off the ground.”
That seemed to puzzle her, but she grinned back at me and closed her eyes against the sun before speaking again. “Were you always an airline pilot?”
“Mostly.” I pointedly turned my head away from her then.
She seemed to accept my tacit need to say no more on the matter. Or maybe she was just too intent on enjoying the sea and warm sun. Either way, she lay silent in the stern of the dinghy while I watched her and wrestled with my emotions. I remembered again all the good times Penny and I had in the privacy of our marriage. And I kept on remembering until the city walls of St. Malo came in sight. On Viola’s directions, I rowed towards the marina at le port des Bas Sablon. It was farther from the walled city than the marina at Bassin Vauban, but it had no lock gates, making access so much easier.
“Not much farther to go,” I told the girl as we came close to the marina entrance.
She sat up suddenly and snapped her eyes open. A wary look crept into her face as she turned towards the shore and stared at it, mouth half open like a kid watching a scary cartoon. She chewed at her lower lip and put one hand to her chest.
“Looking for something?” I said.
She glanced at me briefly. “Should I be?”
“Not unless you lost a hundred dollar bill out there.”
“I didn’t…” But she kept on looking. And the damage to her hand caught my attention once again.
Viola’s tension seemed to ease as we came into the marina and moved slowly along the lines of small boats. She seemed to be relieved by the absence of something or someone. It was an idyllic summer’s day and the sun was at its height. In the distance I could vaguely make out holidaymakers and locals crowding the walled city. The blistering noon-day heat would have sponged them up from the beaches, wringing them out into those cool cafes where they drank cold lager beneath colourful parasols. Barely a breath of wind troubled the limp rows of sails hanging lifeless along the lengths of the marina’s pontoons.
“Where now?” I asked.
“Over there. You see that boat, the Breton Belle?” She pointed to a sleek motor cruiser; a Sunseeker Martinique with twin Volvo engines.
“That’s yours?” I gasped.
“Sort of.” She bit again at her lower lip. “Well, no not really… not exactly. The thing is, I’m taking care of it. Bring the dinghy alongside, will you?” Once again, a dark cloud invaded her face, as if she was hiding something.
I ignored the look and coasted up to the cruiser, twelve metres of pure luxury, and shipped the oars. Viola jumped up to the Breton Belle’s deck and took the dinghy painter from me.
“I’ll be fine now. I know where I can get the outboard fixed,” she cooed at me in that cute English accent.
I boarded the cruiser and took in the fine lines of the fittings. Money had been spent on that boat, lots of it, and it showed. “Nice craft. Bet you wish it really was yours. You must know the owners real well.”
Yet again, the same dark look made a mess of her face. She turned away as if a reply would be personal and awkward; too awkward and too personal. “Jolly nice of you to help me. I do appreciate it.”
“Enjoy the rest of your day.” She waved her hand. Beneath the sun’s rays the bruised skin showed up like a tattoo.
I took her words as a way of saying she didn’t want me around any longer so I crossed the deck and hopped over to the pontoon. “You get that engine properly fixed before you take it out again. Okay?”
“Okay,” she replied and gave me a shy wave. Then, without warning, her shoulders sagged. In the space of a few minutes any remaining self-confidence had faded. Finally, she was gone down into the cabin and I was left alone.