We had a late lunch aboard the Breton Belle, more a snack than a full meal. Williamson rustled it up, straight out of a tin can, and it tasted like it was better left in there. Surprisingly, I don’t think he noticed.
In different circumstances I would have bought some fresh local food, taken some time over its preparation, savoured the eating of it, lingered over a good French wine. Then I would have finished up with cognac and coffee: fresh ground coffee and not the instant muck Williamson seemed to prefer. But I sensed that there was something important to be learned from Cherie Dubois’ aunt and uncle, something more important than good food. So I endured the tinned sausages, baked beans and instant coffee.
“Had enough, old boy?” Williamson asked. He was first to finish his snack and even gave the impression he quite enjoyed it.
“More than enough. Where did this stuff come from?”
“Found it in the fridge in the kitchen.” He meant the ice box in the galley but I didn’t argue.
“Leave it there next time. Are you any good at real cooking?”
“Passable, old chap. Why? What’s wrong with this?”
“If you don’t know, it doesn’t matter.”
He coughed, a small apologetic cough and smiled nervously. “Back at home the memsahib used to tackle all the kitchen chores.”
“Good for her. Double her pay when you get home.”
“She’s no longer with us, old chap.” He raised his eyes upwards. “Gone to the great kitchen in the sky, don’t you know. Miss her terribly at times.”
“I’m sorry.” For a full minute I was at a loss for words, recalling disturbing images of Penny. Then I asked him, “Do you work alone?”
“Pretty much.” He twirled his moustache thoughtfully. “Had a partner once but we didn’t exactly hit it off. Now I employ a woman to mind the office.”
His face lit up, the result of some sort of obtuse but pertinent happy thought. “Yes, well, something like that. Pretty little slip of a thing, she is, but I can’t afford to pay her too much.”
“So she works more for love than money?”
“Depends on how you look at it, old chap. She’s widowed, don’t you see, and she needs the job.” He lowered his voice. “And the company.”
“Oh.” I didn’t catch on immediately. Then the penny dropped, as the English say. “You can’t afford to pay her much, so she works for love and money.”
“Yes… quite. Dashed good of her to agree to the arrangement.” He drooled and a gob of spittle stuck to his moustache. “Mrs Applebloom—that’s her name—she appreciates my fringe benefits. Dashed cold feet though.”
“How awkward.” I decided it would be prudent not to pursue the matter, but Williamson was clearly less inhibited.
“Yes,” he went on. “I used to take her with me on trips abroad, but the finances just won’t stretch to it nowadays. Tax officials, you see. They’re dashed unsporting about things like that. Time was, you could take your secretary with you and call her your wife. Now they’ve changed the tax laws and it’s cheaper to take your wife and call her your secretary.”
“How interesting,” I said, although I saw no immediate application that would suit my own circumstances. “And did you ever take Mrs Williamson with you on these trips? As your secretary, I mean?”
“The memsahib? Good heavens, no, old boy.” His eyebrows arched. “What are you thinking of?”
“No point in taking her. She couldn’t type at all, poor soul.”
“How about warm feet at night?”
“No.” He shook his head sadly. “Cold as Mrs Applebloom’s.”
We left the dirty dishes on the table and hurried out to collect Cherie. By now I’d almost got over that ‘maybe I should just pack up and go home’ feeling. Not that it ever really suited me anyway. I was too keen to find out just what happened to Viola Bracewell, and who the hell did it. But there was still that little niggly inclination in some deeper recess of my mind which said it would be great to be back home in my own apartment, relaxing with a drink in my hand. Feet up, television on, throat wet, mind dull.
One thing I had discovered in the past few days was that although the English are, generally speaking, much of a paradox to any right-thinking American, they’re totally transparent compared with the French. To start with, a Frenchman doesn’t so much talk to you as try to make love to you with words: words few Americans are able to properly pronounce and which demand to be acted rather than spoken. That’s the worry I had in mind as I set out with Williamson to collect Cherie before meeting her aunt. Was there any real chance we would be able to communicate with them? I’d learned that Williamson had more French under his belt than me, but even he admitted to being at a loss when the words came out thick and fast. Which they most often did in country areas like this.
Cherie was waiting for us, now dressed in a very short white skirt and a revealing cotton blouse which was tied loosely beneath her pendulous breasts. She was sitting on the Playful Petunia’s front cabin roof, one leg raised and bent at the knee. Her boyfriend was lounging in the stateroom, nursing a glass of cognac and smoking one of those dreadful French cigarettes. He didn’t seem at all concerned that his girlfriend was making off with two older men.
Smiling wickedly, Cherie jumped to her feet and led us the few hundred yards to the apartment where her aunt and uncle lived.
“Your own boat?” I asked as we walked away from the moorings. I nodded back towards the Playful Petunia.
“Non. It belongs to my uncle, but he lets me use it. He does not mind if I bring my friends to stay on the boat.” She winked at me again and I was left wondering what hidden meaning it conveyed. There were no illusions in my mind that she might possibly view me as a potential sexual conquest. But I could have been wrong.
“Why does it have an English name?”
“It was an English boat. My uncle bought it from M’sieur Hassim. He had several boats, you know. This one came to France from the River Thames, my uncle told me. It’s only a river boat, you see, not like the Breton Belle.”
I frowned. “Really? When did your uncle buy it?”
“A few months ago.”
“I see.” Things were beginning to make some sense. Hassim had been aware of his impending financial collapse before anyone else cottoned on. He’d been disposing of assets before they could be taken from him.
“Do all the local people moor their boats here?”
A slight shrug. “I do not live here, M’sieur. But I imagine so.”
“You’ve been here before, though?”
“Oui. I have stayed at the apartment of my aunt and uncle many times. And I have stayed on the Playful Petunia several times. Also, I have seen your boat here before. Does it not also belong also to M’sieur Hassim?”
“Yes, I does. We’re taking it down river for a friend of his.”
She puckered up her cute little nose. “It is strange then that you have not met him. I saw the boat once when he was bringing it up here to la Gacilly with some of his friends. It was last summer, I think.”
“You saw who was on board?”
“M’sieur Hassim, he was on board. I did not know him then, but my aunt told me it was him. She was with me at the time. I did not know the other people with him.”
“Could there have been a young girl with him? About your age.”
“Oui.” She slipped her arm through mine as we walked and I felt that old tingle begin to return. “There was a girl on the boat. But I cannot remember much about her. It was so long ago.”
Cherie’s face seemed to be perpetually lost behind that glowing smile. I slipped a glance across to Williamson and saw what can best be described as a look of extreme lust. There was simply no mistaking it and it told me the old fool was human after all!
We entered an old stone building which housed several small shops at street level. It was typical of a number of buildings in the town. Cherie led us up two flights to a landing off which were two apartments. It didn’t look too luxurious from the outside, considering her uncle owned such an expensive cruiser. The name tag on the aunt and uncle’s apartment told me their name was Baudelot.
Cherie rang the bell.
Uncle Baudelot answered the door. He looked about fifty going on ninety. Fat in all directions with a shiny bald head and tiny piggy eyes that peered from out of a red bloated face. He was wearing worn denims which might have looked at home on a cardboard city drop-out, but not on him. And this man owned the Playful Petunia? He probably had money stuffed away in a mattress, I decided, and saw the boat as a safer investment than a bank account.
Cherie introduced us to her uncle in thick French running on full afterburner. When Uncle Baudelot replied, it was at more at the pace of a leaking airship but equally indecipherable. And it was acted as much as spoken.
Cherie treated us to another helping of her smile and announced, “They are both at home and will talk to you. Please, go inside.”
The room was just as I expected it to be. Well decorated, carefully furnished and lit by bright sunlight coming through big windows. Aunt Baudelot was sitting by open French windows which led out onto a sunny balcony. She was just as old as Uncle, dressed all in grey. Like Madame Defarge, she was endlessly knitting. But for the knitting, she could have been a double for Whistler’s mother.
Again, there were voluble introductions from Cherie while Uncle Baudelot went to a sideboard and fetched a bottle of brandy and some glasses. He seemed keen to talk to us. It was a pity he had no English. Aunt Baudelot, on the other hand, could converse with us haltingly and she brightened up immeasurably when she got going.
We accepted the drinks from Uncle, took seats either side of Aunt Baudelot and then Williamson got down to business. “We understand, Madame, that you have met Mr Hassim. From the Chateau.”
“Oui. I have met him.” She spoke with a tiny, squeaky voice. It could have been a voice-over for a French Minnie Mouse. “Most people here have seen him, but I have actually spoken to him. I used to take perfume to his chateau for his wife before she died. Poor lady, she was not well for many years, you know. Monsieur Hassim bought perfume for her but he did not treat her well. The servants told me that.”
It was a start, a good start. I jumped in at that point. “We’re interested in knowing more about Mr Hassim and we’d appreciate anything you can tell us.”
“You are police?”
“Good heavens, no. Far from it. Newspaper reporters.”
She gave me a suspicious look and I hoped she didn’t know the difference between a reporter and an outright liar.
I let Williamson take up the threads again. “When was the last time you saw Mr Hassim, Madame?”
“Not long ago. He was at the factory buying perfume for a girl. The young girl who was at the Chateau with him.”
“Young girl? How young.”
“Nineteen. Maybe eighteen. I cannot be sure.”
“What was her name, Madame?”
She screwed up her face. “I am not so good with remembering these days. I cannot be sure…”
I couldn’t contain myself. I asked, “Viola. Was she called Viola?”
“Non. It was a French name. Ah, I have it. She was called Brigitte.”
I felt Williamson jerk upright. “How long ago was this, Madame?” he asked.
“Not long. A few weeks. Three or four maybe.”
“Why was he buying her perfume?”
The old lady winked. “It is amour, Monsieur. It does not have to die in the older men. It can linger, waiting to be rekindled. The girl had brought him comfort, you see. Since his wife died, poor woman.”
I nodded. “So Mr Hassim had a young lady friend called Brigitte to comfort him?” There was no mistaking what we both meant by comfort.
“Ah, Monsieur, you understand. Many people do not. You have French blood in you, non?”
“No, Madame. But I do understand. Have you seen Brigitte often?”
“But of course. She has been Monsieur Hassim’s companion for a while now. Since Madame Hassim died. She once worked for him at the Chateau, you know.”
“Yes, Madame. I know.”
We talked on for another half hour and then we were treated to coffee, the thick gooey type which they serve in tiny cups. Rather like sludge in a thimble. When I saw that there was nothing more to be learned, I diplomatically wound up the visit and edged towards the door. Both Aunt and Uncle Baudelot followed us, beaming as they waved us off the premises. They probably had visions of their interview appearing in Paris Match. It seemed a shame to fool them.
“Bon sejour a la Gacilly.” Aunt Baudelot waved to us and remained at her door until we went out of sight down the stairs.
Cherie hung back to talk to her aunt and uncle.
We went a few steps from the building, blinking in the bright sunshine, before I spoke. “Seems like Hassim has been cheating on Viola. Stringing her along while taking his sexual pleasure with Brigitte L’Orly. Lord Bracewell was right.”
“We can’t be sure of that, old boy. He could have been with Brigitte for quite innocent reasons.”
“Possibly.” But I doubted it. Strongly doubted it. “Anyhow, it’s time we found out.”
We cut short our speculations at that point when Cherie came running after us. She fell in step beside me, again and slipped her arm in mine. “Did they tell you enough?”
“Yes, they did. Thank you for introducing us.”
“They like you. Will you send them a copy of your story?”
“Of course.” I coughed to hide my embarrassment and then turned to Williamson. “How about we go up to the chateau tonight?”
Before he could reply, Cherie cut in. “M’sieur Hassim will not be at his chateau now. At least, I do not think so.”
“I saw him drive away this morning. They say in the town that he goes to St. Malo often these days and does not get home until late.”
I looked at Williamson. We both knew why.
“Thanks, Cherie. In that case we’ll wait until the morning.” I undid her arm from mine as we approached the boats at the pontoon. There was no knowing what sort of person her boyfriend was, except that he was horny.
That evening Williamson and I sat in a bar off the main street sampling the local ale and discussing where we stood with Viola Bracewell’s murder. Apart from that, they served better food than Williamson could rustle up. By the time we got back to the boat it was late and we’d both downed a skinful. The Playful Petunia was in darkness but we could hear the moans and gasps of pleasure coming from inside. Cherie’s boyfriend was at it again and she was playing along with an appearance of conviction.
The next morning was just hot as ever. We collected the rental car and drove up to the chateau with the aim of confronting Hassim on his own ground. It didn’t take long to find the place: a big stretch of landscaped estate spread out alongside a narrow country lane. The chateau wasn’t visible from the road, but we knew we’d come to the right address. The main gates were closed against us, so I parked the car nearby and we made our way inside through a small wrought iron side gate.
Our feet had barely touched the sacred soil of Hassim’s estate when a huge figure stepped out of the bushes alongside the drive and planted himself firmly in our path. I recognized him straight away. It was the elephant-size man who’d insisted on searching the Breton Belle when it was moored alongside the canal. All two hundred or more pounds of him, complete with his dark blue sunglasses.
“Ha! You are… the Anglais!”
“American,” I replied. “I told you that once before, big boy.”
“Huh? What… do you… want here?”
He had recognized me straight away. That was probably why he broke immediately into English. Unfortunately, English wasn’t exactly his strong suite.
“We came to see Mr Hassim,” I said as calmly as I could manage. It seemed like a good opener.
Big Boy had other ideas. “You… go now. Monsieur Hassim is… not here.”
“Oh, come on, buddy. Just let us go on up to the house. Eh?”
He advanced closer and I immediately dispelled ideas of any argument. Williamson must have got the same idea because we backed off together. Big Boy kept advancing until we were on opposite sides of the gate and then he just stood staring at us. Belligerently, like he could make just one meal of both of us.
“Well, that visit certainly didn’t last long,” I observed.
“Do you believe him, old boy? That Hassim isn’t here.”
“Could be. We know he’s been hopping off to St. Malo quite frequently.”
“Bit of bad luck, what?”
There seemed to be no alternative, so we continued to back away. Big Boy watched us closely as we made our way to the car. Probably didn’t trust us, and wisely so.
“What now, old boy?”
I scratched my chin. I hadn’t planned any clear strategy beyond getting past the gate. “No point in wasting the use of the rental car, Charlie.” I got back inside and reached for a road map. A sudden idea saved some small part of my self respect. “We’ll drive to the L’Orly’s farm and have another chat with Brigitte. There’s still a lot we can learn about her relationship with Hassim.”
Williamson grimaced. “I get the impression, old chap, that you might have had more than a nodding acquaintance with Brigitte yourself. Did she get the better of you on that trip down river?”
“Better or worse. She sure got something out of me.” I grinned straight back at him. “Don’t get jealous on me, Charlie. I can’t help the odd spot of weakness.”
Once I’d worked out the route, it didn’t take us long to motor back to the L’Orly farm. As we came closer, I said, “You know, I get this strange feeling that Viola may have stopped here at the farm deliberately. That time on the boat when we moored close to the farm, she came up here. Could be, she had some real reason other than fresh supplies.”
“You think she went to the farm especially to see the L’Orlys?”
“Yeah. Quite possible. She said she went to get some milk, but it could have been for another reason. I have this inkling it probably was.”
“To see Madame L’Orly. Or to see Brigitte?”
“Dunno that either. But I aim to find out.”
We were getting close to the farm about then. That was the point when mama L’Orly’s car passed us going fast in the other direction. We both ducked our heads, a bit late as it happened, but it seemed a fair bet that she didn’t spot us. We noticed a whole load of kids in the back seat and the chances were that she was tied up with them.
Once the car had gone past, Williamson raised himself in his seat. “Did you see Brigitte in the car?”
“Nope. Let’s hope she’s at home. At least we won’t have to deal with Mama L’Orly.”
“You know what Madame L’Orly is like?” he asked with a wry look.
“I had a brief encounter. It was enough.”
I parked the car close to the farm and we went in along the front drive. There was no answer to our knock on the door, so we made our way on round to the back garden. That’s when we spotted Brigitte in the swimming pool, holding the baby and splashing it in the water. The baby was squealing with delight. Both of them were quite naked, but that was nothing unusual for Brigitte. She seemed to spend more time out of her clothes than in them. No wonder old Hassim found her so alluring.
There was another, younger, girl also swimming in the pool. She was some yards off swimming leisurely on her back with her eyes staring into the sky. I was pretty certain she was a sister.
I looked back to where Brigitte was cooing gently at the baby. There was no denying that I felt more than a touch cheated by the certainty that the girl had been sharing the bed of a wizened old fool who had been two-timing Viola Bracewell. Had Brigitte seduced him the same way she had seduced me?
Williamson filled his mouth with air and blew it out in one long, echoing sound. We both stood watching the scene in the pool, both of us deeply affected by what we saw. Major Charles Williamson, being an officer and a gentleman, was even more taken aback than me. It seemed like adult women were one thing to the major, but he still had a sense of morality towards youngsters like Brigitte. And here were confronted by two young naked girls. Not the sort of thing an English gentleman would normally expect to have to deal with. He began to hold back.
“Hang it all, old chap,” he whispered, “Did you ever see the like?”
“Yes. And I’m sure you did too in your army career.”
“Not in this sort of circumstance. Not with kids that age, either. I did a spell in India. We had a private swimming pool and there were one or two… well… anyway I never ever saw the memsahib unwrapped as far as that. Not outdoors.”
“How long were you married, Charlie?”
“Twenty eight years.” He said it with an air of pride. “Would have been longer except that the poor soul died five years ago. Just as well she isn’t here to see this. Wouldn’t stand for it, you know.”
“Well, you just stand back and keep your hands in your pockets. Leave all the talking to me.”
“Glad to leave everything to you, old chap,” he said. And he obviously meant it.
As we came closer, Brigitte turned to face us. She gave a short gasp of surprise, but she made no attempt to cover her nudity. Her sister was a touch more circumspect. She swam to the side and pulled a towel about herself as she climbed out. She padded off towards the house leaving a trail of water behind her.
“Hello Brigitte.” I took a few steps closer to the pool.
“What do you want with me?”
“Just a few words.” I tried my best to sound cool. “That’s a fine healthy baby you have. What’s his name?”
She wrapped her arms tightly around the baby. “This is Pierre.”
I smiled at her and then went to the edge of the pool where I knelt down to be closer to her. “Your own baby, Brigitte?”
She looked at the child and silently kissed its head. Then she compressed her lips and nodded. “Oui. Pierre is my baby. But it is none of your business. And you will not take him from me.”
I tried to maintain as calm a manner as possible. I didn’t want to spook her. “We don’t aim to. Just tell me, who is his father?”
“I do not have to tell you that.”
“Jacques Hassim, maybe?” I raised my brows questioningly. “Or perhaps it was Jacques’s father, Ali Hassim?”
Brigitte lowered her eyes and made no reply. I knew then I was spot on target. Ali Hassim was the father of baby Pierre.
“Why don’t you get out of the pool so that we can talk to you, Brigitte? We promise we won’t try to take the baby from you. We only need to talk and find out what Mr Hassim is doing.”
“It is none of your business.” She sounded reluctant but, all the same, she set the baby on the poolside and clambered out from the water. Then she clasped the child once more to her chest. It was a protective mother act, and it looked quite genuine.
The water glistened on her body, bright in the warm sunshine. Even though he was some yards away, Williamson took a step backwards, caught off guard by Brigitte’s total lack of modesty.
“Why did Viola come to speak to you?” I had to get down to details, I decided, before I also succumbed to her physical charms.
“When?” she asked.
“Don’t play games with me, Brigitte.” There had been enough gentle lead-in, it was time to start getting a shade rough. “The evening we moored the boat near your farm, Viola came to see you. Why?”
“She wanted milk.”
“Now, just you stop playing games with me. What was the real reason she came here? Was it something to do with money? A lot of money?”
There was a short period of silence when Brigitte seemed to mentally wander off into her own world. Then the child gurgled in her arms and that brought her back to reality. She nodded. “She had a lot of money. She told me so.”
“And you wanted to get your hands on it?”
“Non! Not me.” She snorted angrily. “It was mama’s idea.”
“Mama wanted the money?”
“Why not? It was not rightly Viola Bracewell’s money. Besides, she was offering it to me.”
“Viola? Offering it to you?”
“Oui. She wanted my baby. She would give me the money if I would let her adopt my baby.”
Adopt the baby! What the hell…!
“Brigitte!” The younger girl, now fully dressed, came trotting out from the house. She called to her sister again and broke into a torrent of French. I cursed out loud and took a few steps back. Damn! This really was putting all my bright ideas out of phase.