Thursday, 11 July 2013

Naked Grief Chapter Eight


Chapter Eight

 
 

I was about to scramble off the boat onto the towpath when a snap sense of caution took over. A nagging voice sounded deep inside my head: Viola got herself killed by some sort of madman. You could be the next target if you’re not careful. Think about it. You’re caught up in a brutal murder, not a gentle game of boule in a French village square, or cricket on an English village green.

That set off a tangent thought. I could have been over there in England right now, supping real English ale with Simone beside me. Tall and graceful Simone. Cool and sophisticated Simone, with not a stitch of underwear beneath her uniform.

The voice in my head spoke again: you’ve been hoodwinked once already today and you don’t want it to happen again. If the farm owners are involved in this, it would be best not to confront them outright. Play things close to the chest to start with.

The more I thought about it, the more concerned I became. Oh God! Maybe it was one of the farm workers who had shot Viola. Certainly they had all the space they needed to hide her dead body in one of the out-buildings. They could easily hide my dead body as well if I played my cards too loose.

Think carefully before you act, the voice warned me.

I stood on the foredeck, mind in a turmoil. Maybe I could ease my way into the farmhouse on some sort of false pretext, as an American tourist, perhaps. False pretext? Let’s face it, I was an American tourist and I was well out of my depth here!

I ran back to my cabin, grabbed a camera and binoculars from my luggage, locked up the boat (I was learning fast) and then headed across the fields towards the farm. Convinced by now that I had to play it ultra safe, I made my way towards the rear of the building in the cover of hedges, bushes and anything else that would keep me out of the sight of the occupants.

When I was close enough to see into the rear garden I settled back and took a long, steady look. The house was brightly painted and the rear garden was filled with neatly arranged beds of exotically coloured flowers. There was an air of precision about everything, as if the lawn was expertly manicured rather than simply mowed, the flowers professionally cultivated rather than allowed to grow free of their own accord. The whole scene spoke of better than average income, even amongst the over-indulged community of French farmers. In the centre of the lawn, surrounded by a wide-paved sunbathing area, was a large swimming pool in which an attractive young girl was breast-stroking lazily up and down. As I watched, the girl climbed out of the water and began to towel herself vigorously. She wore a bright blue, one-piece swimsuit cut high above her hips and low across her cleavage.

I stared harder.

She was quite short, no more than sixty inches at the most, even on tip toe, but she was perfectly formed. She was clearly a youngster, but her figure was fully developed. Very well developed. Tight, smooth skin wrapped about firm, rounded body tissue. After towelling her hair she pulled down her swimsuit top and rubbed her well-formed breasts, leaving me in no doubt about the quality of her physical assets. I began to feel uncomfortably hot and it wasn’t just because of the bright sunshine. At that moment I would have given anything to be in there with the girl, cooling off in that swimming pool.

A sudden movement at the rear of the house drew my attention. The kitchen door opened and a grossly obese woman wearing a floral pattern apron shuffled languidly out into the sunlight. I refocused the binoculars on her. The movement brought me round to the direction of the sun and the stabbing light suddenly stung my eyes. I lowered the binoculars and rubbed my sleeve across the tears which streamed down my cheeks. When I again looked towards the back door, the woman was standing on the patio, alternately staring up at the sky and then rubbing the back of her sleeve across her sweating cheeks. I used the binoculars again, but it took a couple of minutes for my eyes to fully readjust.

Whoever she was, she was a broad, bulky woman with rough, red hands. Her eyes were a muted, almost lifeless. Her skin was equally dull; ridged and folded like a relief map of a dry desert region. Her greying hair, odd ends of which dangled lifelessly below her ears, was tangled and weathered. She breathed in deeply and folded her arms together beneath her rounded bosom as she eyed the young girl. Words passed between them, but I was too far off to hear what was said. Besides, my small smattering of French phrases useful to tourists wasn’t anywhere near good enough to keep up with the fast rattle of the local patois. The meaning was clear howeverthe girl shrugged and then pulled up the front of her swimsuit.

I retrained the binoculars directly onto the youngster who was standing at the pool-side, once again briskly towelling her hair. The woman said something, a jabbing finger directed at the girl. She replied by dropping the used towel in the middle of a wet patch right alongside the pool and pouting back towards the old woman. All the body language signs signalled that it was the defiant behaviour of a petulant teenager.

She was, I guessed, about seventeen or eighteen. No more, maybe less. She had a round, rosy-cheeked face with a hair style which was a passable imitation of an early sixties Beatle cut; black with a cute fringe across the front. Her lips were full and drawn together as if in a permanent state of pouting.

I widened the scope of my vision. There was something not right about the whole picture in that garden. I couldn’t immediately put my finger on exactly what it was, but everything smelt too strongly of unearned wealth for this to be a genuine French farm. Was this really how the rural French lived? No, this had to be well beyond the average farmer’s lifestyle. Or were the French even more piratical than I had assumed? The more I watched, the more the swimming pool, patio and general air of leisure just didn’t hang easy with me. That uneasiness grew as another thought struck home. Was this all connected with Viola’s murder? Was the expensive boat somehow connected with an expensive farm lifestyle?

It was time to get closer to the family and find out what was going on here.

I backed out from the undergrowth and went round to the farmhouse front door. It stood open, probably to allow a breath of air into the dark interior. I knocked and the obese woman came shuffling towards me from out of the gloom. Close up I realized that she wasn’t as old as I had imagined. She was probably mid or late forties, well worn by life and child-bearing. It was the surplus weight which made her look older.

“Good afternoon, madam.” I did my best to smile disarmingly. “My name is Henry Bodine. I came here with Miss Bracewell aboard the Breton Belle.”

The woman looked at me as if I were a demented fool. Perhaps I was. After all, it’s just a matter of how you view life. One person’s genius is another person’s idiot.

“I came with Miss Bracewell,” I repeated, louder and somewhat slower because it was quite plain she didn’t understand me. “Miss Bracewell?”

I was, I suddenly realized, making the classic error the English make when they’re abroad. Someone once told me that they rarely bother to learn to speak other people’s languages because it’s much simpler to raise your voice and speak slowly to a foreigner, as if talking to a congenital idiot. The French respond either by refusing to learn English or by pretending not to understand a word while privately laughing up their sleeves. I cursed myself for falling into the trap.

The woman sniffed and replied in a thick torrent of French, which was quite beyond me. When I gave her an expression of complete mystification, she turned up her nose, eyed me with a suspicious look, and shuffled back into the house. A few steps away from the door, she swung round and beckoned me to follow her. She led me into a large living room at the back of the building. It was dimly lit by a small amount of sunlight, which forced its way in through one tiny window. Although dim, the room was very well appointed with expensive reproduction furniture. Nothing seemed to have any great age to it. That puzzled me and spoilt my pre-conceived notion of what a traditional French farmhouse should be like.

Seven children sprawled about the room, a miscellaneous mixture of boys and girls. I didn’t register the exact proportions of the sexes. All but two were fully dressed in identical tee shirts and blue jeans, which made visual identification somewhat difficult. The exceptions were a baby and the oldest girl who was still wearing her wet swimsuit and was sprawled out across a deep leather armchair. The ages of the children appeared to range down in steps from the oldest girl to the baby lying in a pram. Six of the children were watching a television programme, while the baby alternately gurgled and sucked on its dummy.

The woman addressed the swim-suited girl in fast French. Once again, translation of her words was impossible.

“Can I help you, Monsieur?” The girl got out of her chair and approached me. She spoke with halting, imperfect English and a sensual accent rather like Bardot in her early television interviews. She wiggled her pert little ass provocatively as she moved, adding to the young Bardot image.

“Ah, yes.” I was slightly wrong-footed by the raw, earthy essence of her appearance close up: full, sultry lips, penetrating eyes and fully formed, well-rounded breasts—truly a child of nature. I coughed to give me time to collect my thoughts. “I came here with Miss Bracewell. Miss Viola Bracewell. I believe you know her?”

Oui.”

“I wondered if you may have seen her of late.”

“She was here at the farm yesterday. We gave her eggs and milk. We have not seen her today.”

“No.” Take care how much you divulge, I kept urging myself. “You wouldn’t have seen her,” I said. “She’s missing.”

“Oh.” The girl didn’t seem to be put out in any way. Not the slightest trace of guilt or nervousness. Either she was innocent of any misdoing or damn good at covering up her blacker emotions. “You are looking for her?”

“Yes.”

“She is not here.” She spread her arms and shrugged while looking at me with clear, smiling eyes.

I tried a different tack. “You probably noticed the police over at the boat today. I had to call them.”

Non. We did not notice.”

Again, her words held not a trace of undue emotion and yet I found her response a bit hard to swallow. In any backwoods area of the States the locals knew instantly what was going on when the cops were called out. The countryside here was somewhat different to the American backwoods, but I figured the principle would still be the same. The girl had to be lying. Damned clever at it, but lying nonetheless.

“So you didn’t know there was any trouble on the canal?”

Non. What trouble?” She stared at me so innocently and with such an appealing expression I was almost inclined to believe she knew nothing.

But I didn’t.

I chose not to answer her question. “My name is Henry Bodine. I’m over there at the canal, on board the Breton Belle. Would you let me know if you get any word about Viola?”

Oui.

I hesitated before I added, “I’m afraid I don’t know your name.”

“Brigitte.” Her face slipped easily into a broad grin. “I am Brigitte L’Orly.”

“And this lady…?” I nodded towards the woman who was standing nearby. “This is your mother?”

Oui. That is mama.”

I nodded, smiling, towards the old woman who scowled back at me. She was obviously aware that we were talking about her, but oblivious of what was being said.

“I see.” Somehow, the term Happy Families just didn’t sit too well around here. “And your father? Perhaps I could speak to him?”

“Papa died four years ago. There is only mama and us to run the farm.” As she said ‘us’, Brigitte gestured round, taking in the children who had barely registered my presence. French television must have something going for it.

“These are all your family? Mama’s family?”

Oui.”

Something didn’t quite figure in that statement, something important, and this time I picked it up straight away. If papa died four years ago, how did mama become pregnant with the youngest child? The only logical explanation was that Mama was as earthy as her eldest daughter. Perhaps it was a way of life in the French countryside.

I thanked Brigitte, nodded to mama who continued to watch me suspiciously, and made my way back out into the early evening sunshine. Brigitte followed me out of the house, but mama remained behind.

“Where are you going, Monsieur?” she asked when we were outside.

“Back to the boat…”

Non. I mean where are you taking the boat?”

“Oh, I see. Well, Viola was ferrying it down to La Roche Bernard. I just came along for the ride. I’m here on vacation.”

“And you will still be on the boat, going on to La Roche Bernard?”

“That’s the plan. I suppose I owe it to Viola.”

“That is good.” She turned back towards the farmhouse, lips parted in a sensual grin. “I expect I will see you later.”

I should have checked what she meant by that remark, but I left it too late. Too late, also, I registered that she never did ask again what trouble that brought the police to the canal.

Little or no way closer to solving the problem, I went back to the Sunseeker and put my feet up while I considered my next move. I was in a damned mess, good and proper, and there was no clear way out. I couldn’t just abandon the boat and take off. I felt I owed it to Viola to find out why she was killed, and what happened to her body. I couldn’t call on the French police again, that was for sure, but who could I trust?

I ran over a list of likely killers: the young gorilla and his lying girlfriend, the cigar smoking man in the background, or the L’Orly family. Who else? The nubile, coloured girl? Ali Hassim? Almost certainly there were other contenders of whom I knew nothing. It was no use; I was quite out of my depth. I didn’t know the motive for the killing or the location of the body. Maybe I should have got the hell out while I could.

It was around seven o’clock when I heard footsteps on the deck. I jumped to my feet just as a figure came down the companionway. I wasn’t entirely surprised when I saw that it was Brigitte L’Orly. This time she was dressed in a tight-fitting tee shirt and figure-hugging white shorts. She also carried an overnight bag.

“’Allo Monsieur.” She beamed at me.

“Brigitte? You have news of Viola?”

Non.” She shook her head. “But I am coming with you to La Roche Bernard.”

“You’re what?” This was rapidly getting quite out of hand.

“I must get down to La Roche Bernard. Monsieur Hassim is planning to meet the Breton Belle in the marina there.”

I studied her carefully. “How do you know that, Brigitte?”

She lowered her gaze. “Viola told me. Yesterday.”

“I see. And Mr Hassim’s plans involve you?”

She turned up her lips into a gesture of sensual reproach. “Of course. I am the close friend of his.”

“Really.” That gave me another connection to think about. “And you aim to meet him there?”

“I have to.” Her face creased into a frown. “It is most important.”

“I see.” I didn’t really see, but she wasn’t to know. “Is this anything to do with Viola being missing?”

“It is a private matter. Nothing to do with you.”

“Or Viola?”

“It is nothing to do with you,” she repeated. And that told me a lot.

It had already occurred to me that I was, for the time being, lumbered with the boat. But there was no reason for me to get myself lumbered with this earthy and sensual youngster as well. It could only spell more trouble. And yet I was already picking up the idea that I could learn a lot from her. She sure as hell knew far more than she was telling me.

Nevertheless, I wasn’t going to give in to her demands easily. “I’m not planning on going on down to La Roche Bernard until I find out what has happened to Viola,” I told her firmly.

“Oh?” She studied me like I was some sort of specimen under close observation. “But you must go on down the river at some time, non?”

“I suppose I have no choice. Eventually. But not yet.”

“Then I will wait until you do go on down the river and then I will come with you,” she said with an air of playful petulance.  

“Nice of you to ask first.” The sarcasm went un-noticed at first. When understanding finally took hold, she set her lips into a moist pout—a sign of youthful obstinate determination.

“You will take me anyway. It is important,” she said. “Monsieur Hassim will meet the boat at La Roche Bernard and I must see him. I must come with you.”

“I told you, I’m not going just yet.”

It does not matter as long as I am there when he meets the boat.” She dropped her bag and stood, legs apart, hands on hips in a distinctly defiant stance. “When the boat goes, I go.”

“I suppose your mother knows where you are?”

“Why do you ask?” A short pause followed in which I avoided replying. Eventually, she continued. “It is my decision to go with you, not mama’s.”

“If you say so.” I had already decided to give in, but for my own private reasons alone. I was certain now that Brigitte held more than a few answers in the mystery and, in any case, I needed someone who knew the language and the area. The hell with it, if she wanted to inflict herself on me, I would make use of her.

“That is good.” She picked up her bag and I showed her to Viola’s cabin where I left her to settle in. Shortly afterwards she reappeared wearing a very short cotton-print dress. Bare legs fell out from the bottom and most of her chest bulged out from the top. It left little to the imagination, but I was not surprised. She had already made enough of an impression on me to forestall any possible element of surprise. Had she suddenly turned into a six-foot alien with green skin, I would not have been surprised.

“You would like me to do the cooking for you now?” she asked.

“I ate earlier,” I replied.

“No matter. I will make you the supper. How about the nice soufflé? You would like that, non?”

It was in my mind to refuse because I still mistrusted her intentions, but my stomach held out for the soufflé. “All right,” I agreed. “You can cook the supper.”

She busied herself at the galley while I sat at the saloon table studying her shapely outline. Was I lusting again? Probably. What else was I supposed to do? I recalled what Simone had said to me in St. Malo when I told her about Penny. If a sexy young nympho can turn you on, you’re probably getting over the worst of it.

Maybe she was right.

To pass the time, I asked, “Did Viola mention me when she came to the farm yesterday? I mean, did she say anything about me being here with her?”

“I do not know.” Brigitte’s back was towards me so it was impossible to gauge her facial expression. “She spoke to mama while I was busy in the garden. Maybe she said something then.”

“And mama said nothing to you? About me, I mean.”

Brigitte shrugged again; a non-committal gesture that could be taken a number of ways. She waited a few seconds before asking, “How do you know Viola Bracewell? Are you her new lover?”

“No! Good heavens, no.” What a delicious thought, but I put it aside instantly. “I told you, I met her at St. Malo and she agreed to me stringing along for the ride. I’m only here in France on vacation.”

“Vacation?”

“Holiday.”

“Ah. And what do you do when you are not on holiday?”

“I’m an airline pilot back home in the States. I fly long haul jets.”

“The big jet pilot?” She turned to eye me critically. “You must be very clever to be the big jet pilot.”

“Thank you for the compliment. I am very honoured.” I tried the sarcasm again but it fell flat, much as I expected.

“I like men who are clever,” she said. “They get to the top. I think you will go far and be the top pilot one day.”

Her standing rose once again in my estimation. Just a touch, not enough to make her presence entirely welcome aboard the boat. “I’d like to think that,” I replied.

“That is good,” she said. “I am going to La Roche Bernard with the very important airline pilot. I will enjoy this trip.”

Her soufflé, when it came, was a success and my stomach thanked me for allowing her to use her culinary skills. I went off to my cabin early that night, not exactly tired but in need of some quiet reflection.

About an hour later I was lying in my bunk reading my novel, or doing my best to read it, when the cabin door opened. No knock or other warning. It just opened and there, framed in the doorway, was Brigitte dressed in a flannel nightshirt with a teddy bear motif across the front.

She smiled seductively. “You are awake? Non?”

Damn silly question. Of course I was awake.

“What do you want, Brigitte?” I asked, pulling the duvet up around my waist. She did not seem the sort of girl to be put out by my lack of clothing. In fact it was patently obvious that the discomfort was all mine.

“I come to see how you are. To make sure you are comfortable.” She gave me a sultry look, hanging on to the side of the door. “You are comfortable?”

“Yes. Very comfortable.” It was a lie, of course, but I consoled myself that I had been comfortable until Brigitte came to see me.

She stepped into the cabin and sat herself on the side of my bunk, as self-assured as if she had done it all before. “You sleep with Viola Bracewell?”

I shuddered at her forthright manner. “Is that a question or an accusation?”

“You think she is the nice person, so I expect you sleep with her.”

“She was a nice person.” I suddenly caught my gaffe. I had not told Brigitte that Viola was dead. I quickly added, “She’s missing. Remember?”

“But you sleep with her? You have the nice time with her?”

“No. I most certainly did not sleep with her. I was only thumbing a lift down to La Roche Bernard. Nothing more than that.”

“Thumbing the lift?” She looked puzzled.

“Working my passage.”

“No matter.” The pouting lips glistened. “You would like to sleep with me now? You would like to have the nice time with me?”

I sat up straight in the bunk. This was getting out of hand. “Hell, I don’t even know you, Brigitte. Look, you’re a nice young girl and you’ll make some young man very happy. But…” I searched round for an excuse. “I’m really too old for you.”

“No, you are not.” She stood up suddenly, Beatle-cut hair curling around her pink cheeks, and she slipped the nightshirt up over her head. “Don’t you like me?” Her breasts bounced into view and carried on bouncing for some moments after, while I struggled to compose myself. Her eyes focused on me from behind the dark fringe, which shimmered across her forehead.

“Of course I like you, Brigitte.” My voice cracked and sounded like it was pitched an octave too high. “But I have someone else. Someone who’s very important to me at the moment.” I was promoting Simone rather rapidly into the role of a permanent partner, but it seemed like the best ploy.

“You are married?”

“No, but—”

“Then she cannot be important to you. It does not matter, anyhow, because she is not here and I am here. And I want you to give me the good time.” She sat down once again on the side of the bunk and leaned towards me. “Tonight I will make you happy.”

“But I’m already happy.”

“No you are not. You have things on your mind. But you are getting the horny, non?”

“For heaven’s sake! Don’t do this, Brigitte.”

“Why not?”

I struggled to find a why not? “Do I look like the sort of man who’d sleep with a girl half his age?”

Oui,” she said cutely. Her sultry gaze took the edge off my self-confidence.

“I’d need a damn good reason,” I said.

“So I give you one. I am what you want right now. That is your reason. You know of a better one?” She shifted closer. “Besides, I am the best.”

“Don’t brag about it, kiddo. It makes you sound cheap.”

“Cheap? That means I am not very good. I am not cheap, I am expensive. You could not afford me unless I do this for free.”

Something told me she was dishing up the truth. I sighed soulfully and conjured up a warning tone. “Brigitte, you remind me of my kid sister. She went astray, wasn’t too careful who she went to bed with.”

“What happened to her?” She looked suspicious.

“She died. Got herself into something she couldn’t control.”

A self-assured smile broke through her suspicions. “Then I am not like her. I know exactly how I will control you.”

Somehow, I just couldn’t come up with any more excuses. “You’ve done this before?” I asked.

“Silly man. Of course I have. And if you are very good I will put your name near the top of the list for next time. Top of the list: that is what another man told me. It is a nice thing to say, non?” She pulled back the duvet and closed in on me with a familiar sort of movement.

This time I made no effort to stop her.

Half an hour later, I was exhausted and lay back in the narrow bunk with Brigitte tightly packed beside me. My arms were wrapped about her shoulders and both of us were breathing heavily. Through half closed eyes, I looked along the length of her body. Her chest was gently rising and falling in time with her breathing.

“That was good, non?” Her head came up suddenly, eyes ablaze. Her satisfaction was obvious while mine was already becoming dampened by immediate feelings of guilt.

“We shouldn’t have done it, Brigitte.” Nevertheless I felt deliciously tired.

“Why not?” She sat up and shifted onto the edge of the bunk, looking straight at me. “You do not like to make the love with me?”

“It’s not that. You’re a teenager, Brigitte. I hardly know you and I’m nearly old enough to be your father. It was wrong.”

“Huh!” She shifted on the bunk and brought her knees up to her chest. Clearly, she needed no recovery time. “If you do not like what I do, you are the fool. Maybe you have been in America too long.”

“You think so? They do it back home, you know. It keeps the race going.”

“Is that all they do it for? I think that in America they must be so cold.” In the confined width of the bunk, she leaned towards me. The warmth and the smell of her were intoxicating, a fine wine to be enjoyed at leisure. “A girl like me needs lots of the loving, but the English say it is wrong because it exploits the girls. They call it the sexism. I think that they must say the same thing in America as well.”

“We don’t like to take advantage of girls, Brigitte.”

“Advantage? Huh! What about me? I think there is nothing French over there in America.”

“We have French fries.”

“Viola calls them the chips. Huh!” She puckered up her face. “How can food be good if you call it the chips?”

“I don’t know, Brigitte and I’m past caring.”

“You are tired, like an old man?”

“Exhausted.” I closed my eyes and, without another word, Brigitte curled her warm body back down into my outstretched arm. I began to doze.

Lying there with Brigitte didn’t seem so terribly bad. At least, I tried to make myself believe that. After all, better men than me had been in bed with young girls and kept their good reputations.

In his later life the great Gandhi decided to give up sex with his wife. Instead, he took to sleeping with naked young girls to keep him warm and to ‘test his resolve’. You won’t see much of that in Attenborough’s film about him because it tends to tarnish the old boy’s public image. Personally, I think it makes him a damn sight more human than the conventional histories like to portray him. Enjoyment of the female form is so much more real than Godliness. I wondered how many American presidents wished they could be like Gandhi.

Forget Gandhi. What about Viola?

Oh God! In the bliss of post-coitial warmth, I’d forgotten about Viola. I should be searching for her body, not lying in bed with a young French nymphomaniac. I tried to wipe the extra guilt from my mind, but without much success.

Brigitte left me about an hour or so later. I awoke from a delicious dream to see her walking slowly from the cabin with her nightshirt draped over her shoulder. She glanced back and there was a big grin across her face.

“Good night, Monsieur.

“Good night, Brigitte.”

I switched off the cabin light and settled back down in my bunk, but I couldn’t sleep. There were images in my mind I just couldn’t erase. It began with painful memories of my sister, Marie. Then I thought about Penny, the stripper who helped me identify Marie’s murderer. Penny: the woman I married. The woman who died.

I tried to formulate happier recollections of Simone and finally I progressed on to images of Viola. Eyes staring out in horror from a dead face. Once Viola was firmly back into my thoughts I couldn’t shake free of her. A couple of times I got up and paced round the boat, wondering what I ought to do next. It must have been nigh on four o’clock before I fell asleep.

And that’s when an old nightmare came back to haunt me.

Why then? God knows. My mind should have been relaxed after sex with Brigitte, but something must have gone wrong with those damned synapses. I was back in my dad’s vintage Buick Skylark with Carrie-Ann, racing along the Interstate 405 west of LA. My high school date was laughing. Her long golden hair billowed out behind her. Then a drunken trucker pulled out in front of us and Carrie-Ann screamed. The whole scene froze inside my head; the image of Carrie-Ann moments before she died. Except that it wasn’t Carrie-Ann, it was a little girl in a bombed-out orphanage in Bosnia, a little girl with deathly white skin. Her legs were trapped beneath a large concrete beam. Another big beam creaked unsteadily about six feet above her. It looked like it was going to fall at any moment. A British Red Cross doctor sawed her legs off to get her free and I carried her away without her legs. Someone else screamed, another child, just before that beam fell and killed the doctor. And the child’s screaming went on while I was looking at a girl I thought was my sister, Marie, in a Belfast mortuary. She’d been killed by a bomb and her face was unrecognisable. Then I saw Penny in the hospital where she died. She was lying on the bed but her eyes were open staring at me.

“Your baby killed me, Henry!” She screamed at me. “You made me pregnant and your baby killed me! YOU KILLED ME, HENRY!”

I jerked upright in the bunk with the sound of that her screaming still ringing inside my head. I clamped my hands to my head while sweat poured down my cheeks and my whole body shook.

And it went on shaking.

Several minutes passed before I was able to calm down. Full daylight was streaming into the cabin. A glance at my watch told me it was half past eight. Birds were chirping out in the fields as I staggered from the bunk and peered through the cabin window.

The nightmare images slowly faded but never vanished completely. Then I remembered what I had done with Brigitte the previous evening and a voice inside told me I should be ashamed of myself. Dammit, I was ashamed. My mind was still filled with one whole mass of troubling thoughts when I went out to the galley to make myself a mug of coffee. It was instant, but that was all they had on the boat. I guess I was too bleary-eyed to notice at first that something wasn’t right. It wasn’t until I was sat down to wait for the kettle to boil that I spotted the main hatch was partly open. Then I saw something down on the floor near the hatch door.

A half-smoked cigar butt.

I picked it up and saw that it was still glowing.

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