“Bugger me!” Williamson screamed. It was the only time I ever heard that man swear with real conviction.
I froze for all of two seconds.
Then I changed down into first gear and tried to gun the car back into the L’Orly’s driveway. Shock and automatic reaction must have caused me to pull the wheel savagely, too savagely and we hit a thick hedge square-on as the car swerved off the road. At that moment my foot was flat down on the accelerator, trying to ram it through the floor. I couldn’t find the right brain signals to make me ease off. I aimed for reverse once again but misjudged the gear change and we slipped into neutral. Then the engine stalled and we came to a halt, half on the driveway and half inside the hedge.
I glanced back down the road and saw the Mercedes racing off into the distance. Williamson sat ramrod straight in his seat, staring straight ahead at the hole in the smashed windscreen.
The sudden silence lasted two or three seconds, but felt like a full year.
“Good God!” I glanced at Williamson.
He whispered, “I rather think I may have wet myself, old boy.”
“Let it all out, Charlie. As long as it’s not blood.”
A movement outside the car caught my eye. Brigitte was scampering across the driveway towards us, still with the baby in her arms. I jumped out from the car and waved her back to the house. Her sister had come to the door, looking quietly puzzled.
“For God’s sake, get back inside. Both of you. Someone’s taking pot-shots at us. Get inside!”
Brigitte stopped just in front of the car and I saw tears streaming down her face. Her eyes were widely dilated. Her face deathly white. It had to be shock.
I ran towards her and grasped hold of her tightly. Then I led her away to the house. I don’t know who was the worse affected by the attack. Brigitte or me. Her sister backed away in front of us, face white with fear, now gabbling in French.
Williamson came after us, eyes darting from side to side and using his hands to cover the wet patch on his pants.
The Mercedes was well out of sight by now and there wasn’t any evidence that the driver aimed to come back so he could take a second shot at us. But my blood pressure was in top gear and refusing to abate. I knew that was bad for me. Palpitations rippled down through my chest.
“Reckon you can rustle us up a drink,” I said to Williamson as we went into the house. “Take the younger kid with you and see if you can calm her down a bit.”
He grunted and wandered off, seemingly looking for the lavatory where he could finish emptying his bladder. I pointed at him and the younger sister took the hint. She stopped gabbling and chased after him. Maybe she trusted Williamson more than me.
I led Brigitte through to the lounge and sat her down, still tightly clutching the baby who had lived through the entire episode without so much as a single complaint. The sign of a contented child.
“Who would have done that, Brigitte?” I asked in as gentle a voice as I could muster. The words came out quavering because I hadn’t yet got my gyros back on line. Brigitte said nothing, she just sat there staring into space. The baby gurgled in her arms.
When Williamson came back from the lavatory he was still wiping at the stain in his trousers. The younger girl was quiet now and stood behind him in the doorway. Williamson’s moustache hadn’t stopped quivering and he wiped at that also.
“Found a kettle in the kitchen, old boy. The young lady’s going to make us a nice cuppa. You are, aren’t you?” He turned and nodded at the younger girl who backed off towards the kitchen.
“Great.” It wasn’t what I had in mind, but it was probably the best thing for Brigitte. Williamson could pretend he spilled his tea in his lap. “Wash your hands before you drink anything, Charlie boy.”
He came closer and peered down at Brigitte. Then he turned to me and asked, “Do you think we should go straight to the police now? Phone them, maybe.”
“Not straight away. They already think badly of me. We need to think this through.” I nodded towards the hallway and led him away so that we could be out of Brigitte’s hearing. “It’s the second time someone has taken a pot shot at me. To tell you the truth, Charlie, I’m just getting a bit peeved by it.” I went on to tell him about the previous occasion.
“That could be significant,” he said. “I don’t mean to be cruel, old chap, but I do hope it’s you they’re after and not me.”
“Thanks, Charlie. Thanks a bunch.”
We went back into the lounge when we saw the younger girl appear with a tea tray. She offered me a dainty china cup and, as there seemed to be nothing better on offer, I drank it greedily. My cup was half empty before I noticed that Williamson’s hands were shaking. He was gulping down his tea like it was root beer.
“I needed that,” he said. “What now?”
“We’ll discuss what to do later, Charlie. Just don’t wet yourself again, eh!”
By the time we had finished the tea Brigitte was gathering her senses and cooing gently to baby Pierre.
“How are you feeling now,” I asked, sitting down close beside her.
Williamson handed her a cup of tea and she released the baby onto her lap so she could sip at it. “I thought they had killed you.”
“Who? Who might have killed us?”
She shook her head.
“Tell us, Brigitte.”
Could not or would not. I turned to Williamson. “She knows. Sure as hell she knows but she’s not talking.”
“Steady, old chap. Don’t torture the poor girl. She’s been through enough already. The question is, what do we do now?”
I thought about it for a moment. “We can’t leave these kids here like this. Hell of a shock to their systems. And mine.”
“You want to wait until their mother returns?”
“Not particularly.” I jerked a thumb towards the door. “Come on, we’ll get the car back on the road. We’ll hang about for a while to make sure the kids are okay and take off as soon as mama comes in sight.”
It was nothing short of cowardice, pure and simple, but I was in no frame of mind to confront Mama L’Orly. Not yet. Not with my blood pressure still running up through the safety limits. Given a gun in my hands, I would have had difficulty in preventing myself from taking a pot shot at her.
“Clothes, old boy.” Williamson nodded down to where Brigitte was once again staring into space. “Can you get her to put on some clothes?”
“Sounds like a good idea.” I hadn’t noticed that the poor girl was shivering. The effects of delayed shock. “But she don’t seem too inclined to get dressed.”
“You work on it, old chap. I’ll see to the car.”
Williamson had the car on the road and was running up the engine when he saw mama’s car returning. I stayed with Brigitte long enough to make sure she was not going to collapse. Finally I managed to persuade her to pour her body into some clothes and then made a dash for the car. We passed mama in the road just outside the farm.
We drove only a mile or so back towards la Gacilly and then we stopped at a small country village where we found a cafe with outdoor tables. Warm air was shimmering over the sidewalk. People were strolling by as if nothing in the world was wrong. A couple of old men were playing boule on a grassy area beside the cafe. Three young girls in summer frocks were sitting on a wall nearby, eating ice creams and giggling. It all seemed so peaceful.
I downed one whiskey and ordered another while Williamson was sipping at a small pink gin. Then I ordered another whiskey and Williamson had a large pink gin. After that we just sat and, when we felt somewhat relieved, we had ourselves a meal.
Then we had another drink.
“Any guesses, old boy?” Williamson was on his third pink gin. A rosy tinge was working its way into his cheeks.
“Not mama,” I said. “Wrong sort of car.”
“Possibly. Or his henchmen. Or his huge son. Or Colette. Or Aimee.”
“But not Brigitte.”
“Definitely not Brigitte.” Guilt does strange things to you. It makes you want to go back and change the past. I felt guilty for misjudging Brigitte, but there was no way to change what I still didn’t fully understand.
“Why did they try to kill us?” Williamson asked.
“Maybe we know too much,” I replied. Or, I thought to myself, maybe it’s because I have a cheque which someone else wants. Someone like Ali Hassim, or Jacques or those two girls he hung around with.
I ordered another drink.
“Maybe we have something they want,” I finally mused aloud.
“We? What do we have? I haven’t kept anything back from you.”
“But I’ve kept something from you, Charlie.”
He looked at me suspiciously, moustache quivering. So I told him about the cheque which was still in my wallet. After what had happened, I figured he had a right to know.
He looked at me with a distant look brought on by the gin. “You think they’re after it?”
“Could be. Or the boat. Almost the last thing I heard Viola say was, ‘It isn’t yours. He gave it to me.’ That could mean the boat or the ring. She also said, ‘The whole thing is nothing to do with me. I wasn’t there. How could I have been there?”
“Any ideas what that meant?”
“None at all. But I have this feeling she was talking about the boat when she said, ‘He gave it to me!’”
“Or her ring? You said yourself…”
“Yeah, yeah. Could be, Charlie.”
“So it could be the ring, which she had already sold, or the boat which she was going to sell. But someone else wanted it.”
“And we have the money from the ring and we still have the boat.”
“You have, old chap. You have the money and I’m only a passenger on the boat. None of it belongs to either of us, anyway.”
“Safe keeping, Charlie. They’re in my safe keeping until they get to their rightful owners.”
The afternoon just passed us by and then we went for a walk about the village until one of us felt fit enough to drive back to la Gacilly. Williamson reached a state of semi-sobriety first, so he drove. It couldn’t have been easy with a broken front screen.
It was almost dark when we got back to the Breton Belle, but was still uncomfortably warm with hardly a breath of wind. The main canopy of the Playful Petunia was raised up over the stateroom and there was a light inside. I glanced through the side window. The occupants were stretched out across the seats, the girl underneath and her boyfriend on top.
I left them to it.
“Fancy a drink before bed, old boy?” Williamson looked about the cabin with an air of residual shock now bordering on despair.
“You bet. What have you got in mind?”
“How about we call at the bar in the town and get ourselves a stiff one before we turn in? They’ll still be open.”
It seemed like a damn good idea. “Lead on MacDuff.”
Actually, that one stiff drink turned into several and it was after midnight when we staggered back to the Breton Belle.
The next morning I woke up with a blinding headache. I took a couple of aspirins to clear it before I cooked up a fried breakfast, but I just couldn’t eat it. Williamson joined me about half an hour later. He looked as bad as I felt and didn’t feel like eating anything either.
“What do you think we should do now, old boy?”
“We’ve got to get at Hassim.” I glanced into a bulkhead mirror. The wretch that stared back was haggard, with dark rings beneath his eyes.
“But his bodyguard—the big fellow—he won’t let us through the gate.”
“You’re right there, Charlie.” I needed another stiff cup of coffee. “I reckon our best bet would be to motor back down the river and moor up alongside the estate. We could climb up through the trees to get to the chateau.”
“You mean, now? This morning?”
I gave it a moment’s thought. It still felt like I was recovering from a severe case of terminal exhaustion. “Tomorrow. We’ll take a day to make some more enquiries locally.”
Privately, I just needed a day to settle down on my body systems.
“And the police?” Williamson asked.
“Stuff them. They wouldn’t believe us anyway.” Privately, I’d had all I could take from the French police.