The warm air felt suddenly clammy, as if some sort of evil was closing in on me. I stared at Brigitte and my whole body went tense.
The younger sister reached out her arms to take the baby, but Brigitte angrily waved her away. The sister grimaced, burst into machine gun patois and spread her arms in exasperation. I didn’t understand what she was on about, but I guessed it was probably along the lines of an angry criticism of Brigitte’s continued nudity. Whatever it was, it had no measurable effect so, with a loud snort, the sister turned and went back into the house.
I moved in closer to Brigitte. “Why did Viola offer you the money?”
Brigitte lowered her eyes to the baby who was clutching at her breasts. “I told you. She wanted to have my baby. She would give me the money if I would let her have Pierre. She said she would adopt him.”
“Adopt him? For God’s sake! A youngster her age! She must have known she had no chance of being allowed to adopt your baby. Why on earth did she say that?” A sudden thought hit me. I recalled Viola’s words: there are other ways to have a baby.
Brigitte sniffed and put a caressing arm about the baby’s head. “Because this is Monsieur Hassim’s baby. Pierre is his baby and he is my baby.” There was something pathetic about the way she spoke, as if she genuinely cared for both Hassim and the baby. The latter was a sign of good motherhood, the former was just plain stupidity. Which was pretty much par for Brigitte’s course.
“Why should that matter to Viola?” I asked calmly.
She looked at me through half closed eyes and pouted. “She thought she could persuade her own father to let her marry Monsieur Hassim if she had his baby.”
“She thought…!” God! I slapped my head in anger. “Was she going to pass it off as her own?”
“I do not know. Maybe.”
Whatever Viola’s plan, it was plain idiocy. A forlorn hope. The last desperate act of a girl who knew she had lost the man she thought she loved. Big city men like Lord Bracewell were rarely influenced by such naiveté. Only a foolish girl like Viola could have been stupid enough to believe in it.
The damn idiotic child! The stupid naked virgin!
“Were you willing to let her have the baby?” I asked.
She frowned as if it was a moronic question, which it probably was. “Non. But mama said it was the best thing for Pierre. We had many fights because I do not want to give the baby away. But mama said I should do it for the money.”
“Two hundred and fifty thousand pounds?” I looked about at the luxury farm and conjured up an image of mama. An evil image—an image of a woman who was willing to sell her own grandson for money, when she already had all of this. “You were going to sell Pierre for two hundred and fifty thousand pounds?”
“Non. Mama said that two hundred and fifty thousand English pounds was not enough. She told Viola it must be three hundred thousand. I do not think mama understood how much an English pound is worth.”
“Hell! Did you ever think of selling mama instead?”
“Nothing. Where would Viola get that sort of money?”
“From selling the ring. It is not her ring anyway. I should have had that ring. It was me that he loved, not her! It was me that had his baby, not her!”
“She sold that ring for two hundred and fifty thousand pounds.” I paused to chew on a lip and think it through. “But you said that it was not enough. Where would she get the rest?”
“She was going to sell the boat as well. The Breton Belle was worth that much money and some more. Monsieur Hassim said so.”
I felt my jaw go slack. It made speaking difficult. “But it wasn’t her boat. She told me so. How could she sell it if it wasn’t her boat?”
“It was her boat! But she did not want people to know it in case it made trouble for Monsieur Hassim. He could not sell the boat himself, you see, because he had problems with his bank. So he gave it to Viola. And he gave her the papers that said she owned the boat. Then he told her how she could sell it and give him the money. He said that there was a man in La Roche Bernard who wanted to buy the boat.”
“So he gave Viola the boat to put it out of the bank’s reach. But, really, he wanted the money for himself.”
“Oui. He did not know that she wanted to keep the money and use it to buy my baby. When I tell him, he was very angry.”
I gave a loud snort. “Hardly surprising. It was a damn stupid idea in the first place.”
“When I told Monsieur Hassim that Viola wanted to buy Pierre, he was very angry and he said that Viola Bracewell was stealing the money from him. He said he would not really have married her anyway because she was a stupid little English fool. And he told me I must not sell the baby.”
“What did mama think of that?”
“She was cross. Monsieur Hassim had the big argument with mama in St. Malo. He said some very bad things to her. He said he would kill her. They had the big fight.”
“I bet they did. Pity he let her live. Pity they didn’t shoot each other.”
“Mama shouted at him. She tell him that he is the wicked man to make me pregnant and he must pay us more money, but he will not do it. He said he cannot do it because he is not the rich man now.”
“We know that. When did you tell Hassim about Viola aiming to pay you all that money in return for your baby?” I asked. “Was it a couple of days ago. In St. Malo?”
“How do you know?”
“Never mind. I want you to think carefully, and tell me this: when did Viola tell you she would sell the boat and give you the money in exchange for Pierre? Was it that last time you saw her? Just before she died?”
“Oui.” Brigitte hung her head, her voice subdued.
Things were starting to fall neatly into place. “Okay, Brigitte, now let’s get down to the real meat of the matter. What the hell actually happened on the canal bank that morning? The morning Viola was shot. You know it all, don’t you!”
She pouted and the pout turned slowly into a protracted sob. Morphism at its best.
“Come on, Brigitte. tell me!”
“Non!” She sniffed to hold back her tears. Real tears. “I tell you nothing! Nothing, you hear me!” She swung on her heels and stormed off into the house with the baby clasped close to her chest. “I cannot tell you! I will not tell you!”
Williamson came closer at that point, but neither of us had anything to say. We sat down together on a seat at the poolside and I put my head in my hands. This was all getting to be too much to take. My head was aching like mad.
I shouldn’t be caught up in this. I should have gone to England with Simone. None of this would have happened if I had gone on with her, enjoyed making love to her, maybe started a new life with her. I needed time to myself. I needed time to recover.
And I needed a stiff drink.
When you’re in a strange situation and your mind isn’t working too fast, you can easily get the wrong idea about what’s up and what’s down. I’d originally assumed that Viola Bracewell was just an innocent abroad, a naked virginal innocent. I’d assumed she had no faults of her own which might have helped precipitate her death. So I’d been aiming all my feelings of anger at the obvious suspects. Like the Hassims. Like Brigitte and Mama L’Orly. Like the young gorilla and those two broads with him.
It was time to wake up and see Viola for what she really was, now that Brigitte had put me right. She was not the innocent I imagined her to be. She was stupid, yes, very stupid but she was also selfish—planning to double cross Hassim and sell the boat for her own gain. Planning to buy another young woman’s baby against that young woman’s will. All of which was pure malicious badness. She was cheating Hassim, cheating Brigitte and cheating the administrators of his failed bank. Lord Bracewell would not have been pleased. Hell, that touched on another difficult point. His lordship still had to learn the truth about his daughter and he wouldn’t be too pleased when he did.
While all this was going through my mind I was not paying close enough attention to Brigitte, and there was more to be learned. A damn sight more. So I followed her into the farmhouse. The poor kid was out of her tiny mind. She had set the baby into a carry cot, but remained bent over the child, like she was some sort of naked statue. When she eventually straightened up and turned towards me she had tears in her eyes.
Keep your distance, I decided, this could mean trouble.
But Brigitte had other ideas. She suddenly lunged towards me, wrapped her arms round me and hugged me really tight. Beneath it all she was weeping inconsolably. I could feel her deep-seated sobbing running in ripples through her body and that was the reason I did no more than hold her. Hell, I did have some moral standards.
“I did not… want to… sell Pierre.” The words came through her sobs in slow, uniform bursts. “I came with you… on the boat… because I was… very sad and very angry with mama. I was going to see Monsieur Hassim to… to tell him what had happened. I wanted to go and live with him and Pierre so that we could all be together.”
“I understand all that, Brigitte.” I paused before asking, “How did you feel when Viola was killed?”
She replied angrily, hissing through gritted teeth. “I was glad she was killed because then I did not have to sell Pierre. Not when Viola was dead. But I was still angry with mama and I wanted to leave home and live with Monsieur Hassim.”
“So, that’s why you hitched a lift on the boat? To get to Hassim?”
“Oui. I knew that Monsieur Hassim would be good to me.”
“And me? Why did you seduce me?”
“Because I like you, and I needed the loving. I needed someone to hold me and love me.”
I began to feel just a touch of sympathy for Brigitte, but no more than a touch. At base level, she was only an immature youngster and she’d been given a raw deal. Other people, including her own mother, had been making use of her. Even so, she had retained enough adult composure to come to my bunk and take what she saw as her rights of pleasure.
I kept my voice calm and reassuring. “No one can make you sell your own baby, Brigitte. It’s illegal in any European country.”
“But they would have made me do it: mama and Viola. I had to go and see Monsieur Hassim and tell him that they were bad to me. I thought he would be at La Roche Bernard when the boat got there.”
“How did mama take to that?”
“Mama was angry. When she came after me, she said that I must not cause the trouble now that Viola is dead. The police might think that we killed her.”
I took a moment to think be fore I asked my next question. “Did you? Did you kill her?”
At first she said nothing, just lowered her head.
“Non.” She spoke with little conviction. She was involved, I was certain of that, but I was fairly certain she had not pulled the trigger. Was it that I didn’t believe she killed Viola? Or that I didn’t want to believe it? Maybe I wanted to believe that she was innocent because I really did feel sorry for her.
“Why did mama need the money?” I asked.
“She does not need the money.” Brigitte’s sobbing eased off and she drew back to wipe her eyes. I kept my arms about her for her own comfort. At least, that’s what I told myself. “Monsieur Hassim has given us all the money we need to live here. Mama is the greedy one.”
That figured. What it all boiled down to was that Brigitte was as much a victim of what was going on as Viola. Alive, but still a victim. I must have been confused at the time because I didn’t pick up on the comment about Hassim providing the family living expenses. The brain goes like that at times, it picks up on the fact of one murder but misses the extra corpse lying in the rubble. Maybe I was distracted by having that nude teenage body clamped inside my arms.
Eventually I gently disentwined myself.
“Okay, Brigitte. You’d better get dressed now.”
“I do not want to.” Childish obstinacy was creeping back. “You cannot make me.”
I went outside to find Williamson. He was sitting by the pool staring down into the water. His shoulders were hunched like he had a million tons of trouble loaded on them.
“You know what this all boils down to, Charlie?” I sat down beside him. “The battle of the vixens, that’s what. Two naked vixens in a fight to the death. Two mistresses who’ve been fighting over the same old goat. Both imagined that they had some sort of emotional hold over him. One had his baby and the other had access to what was left of his money. The one with the baby was forced to go for the money by her mama. She’s an easily-led child and her mother is nothing more than a greedy old bitch. Meanwhile, the one with the money wanted the baby because she thought it would increase her chances of holding on to the relationship.”
“Not much chance of that, was there?”
“Absolutely none at all, but I reckon Mama L’Orly got together with Viola and did a deal anyway. The money-grabbing bitch! The baby was to be sold for a pot of gold.”
“Sounds like a plausible theory, old chap.”
“More than plausible, Charlie. More than a theory. And it would have happened if someone hadn’t put the boot in. Or, to be more precise, if someone hadn’t put the bullet into Viola’s chest. Didn’t you know what sort of a fool she was?”
“I suppose I did,” he conceded. “But it wasn’t my business to judge her. I was there simply to keep an eye on her. She comes from a very good family you know. Her brother is in the RAF. He flies Tornados and the word is that he’s destined for high office. He was decorated after the Gulf War. They say he did more than most to make a mess of Saddam’s army.”
“The Iraqis must love him.”
“Someone had to do it.”
“That doesn’t alter the fact that his sister was an immature idiot.”
“What is it about you and women, old boy?” Williamson mused. “Two naked vixens and they both shared the boat with you? You seem to have some sort of charisma, don’t you think?”
I snorted and ignored the remark. “Brigitte made the decision to come with me in order to get to Hassim. She wanted to get away from mama once and for all and live with Hassim.”
“Didn’t she know he was destined to end up in gaol?”
“She probably didn’t want to know.”
“But, meanwhile, mama still wanted to get her hands on the cash?”
“Right. But she wasn’t the only one after the cash, of that I’ll be sure. That big hulk, Jacques Hassim, and his two lady friends were also after it.”
Williamson nodded. “Seems likely.”
“And I’m still not too sure exactly where those two bitches, Colette and Aimee, fit into the picture.”
That was when Brigitte came back out from the house. She had the baby in her arms once more and she sat down at the edge of the pool, right alongside me, and let her feet dangle in the water. I felt Williamson’s whole body stiffen as his own erotic thoughts kicked into play.
“Are you angry with me?” Brigitte asked.
I looked at her and shook my head. “Frustrated is a better word, Brigitte. Where do you get the money to keep this place going?”
She looked at me blankly. “It is a farm.”
“Like hell it is. This is no more a working farm than a nudist camp. In fact it’s a damn sight more like a nudist camp than a farm.” I watched her breasts heave as I spoke. “The fact is, Brigitte, this is a luxury country home that looks like it might once have been a farm. How many farms round here have swimming pools?”
“Mama looks after the money. She pays all the bills.”
Only a tacit admission that I was right. But it was enough.
“I bet she does,” I said. “She’s been blackmailing Hassim, hasn’t she? Threatening him with legal action over the baby unless he pays up?”
She nodded slowly. “When I knew I was pregnant, mama went to him and told him he should pay the price. He gave her money, lots of it because he was very rich and she said it was only fair that the whole family should share it.”
“I thought as much.” And later, I figured, when she saw Hassim facing financial ruin and her money supply at risk of drying up, she turned to the novel opportunity of selling the baby to Viola Bracewell. “Brigitte, did mama shoot Viola Bracewell?”
“Non! Mama did not want her killed!”
I considered that for a moment. That made sense, of course. Mama would not want Viola killed while there was a chance of selling the baby. But Brigitte had the motive to do the deed if it helped her keep the baby.
“Who did it, Brigitte?”
“Go away,” she snapped suddenly. “I will not talk to you any more. Go away!”
“Okay, Brigitte. But I reckon you’d better have a damn good story when the police catch up with you.”
She scowled at me and clutched the child tighter. “You had better go now. Mama will be back soon.”
“In that case, Brigitte…” I got to my feet and looked down at her slumped shoulders and bent head. “You’d better get some clothes on.”
Williamson was already on his feet and edging away fast. I made to follow. Brigitte stood up and trailed after us as we left, almost as if she was sorry we were going. Perhaps she was. Perhaps I was the only person who had actually seen her for the pathetic figure she really was.
She stopped in the driveway before we got to the car and then backed away to the big front door. Williamson kept looking over his shoulder as we walked to the car. It was pretty obvious that he couldn’t keep his eyes off Brigitte who stood holding her baby close to her chest. He never saw his memsahib unwrapped that far, he had said. What the hell had he been doing throughout his military career?
I’d left the car parked in the short driveway in front of the farmhouse. I didn’t see any reason why it should cause anyone any bother or that it would attract any unwanted attention. But it did.
I was just reversing out onto the road when a dark red Mercedes pulled out from the access to a narrow lane just fifty yards down the road. It accelerated rapidly and roared down on us at a high rate of knots. Just as it flashed past I heard a loud, echoing bang and something smashed through the front windscreen. The glass shattered and fell in on us like screaming hailstones. The bullet went in through the front screen and out again through the passenger side window just in front of Williamson’s head. It must have scared ten shades of shit out of him. Me as well.