Life’s a pig, they say, and then you die. It certainly seemed that way that night.
Driving back from the L’Orly farmhouse I felt like a bag of anxiety contaminated with excessive guilt. Why the hell had I given in to Brigitte once again? Trying to draw my mind onto other things, I kept telling myself it could have been a whole lot worse. Mama could have caught us in the act. That was a thought that didn’t bear thinking about, but it was not the real reason for my sense of my guilt. I had promised myself I would resist Brigitte’s sexual attractions and I had failed. Failed miserably.
I parked the car alongside the Redon marina basin with the aim of handing it back next day. It must have been well past midnight, my eyes were half closed and I was ready to go straight to my bunk and flake out, tired and exhausted after such an eventful night. How often does a man get shot at, and then go on to have sex with a teenage nymphomaniac. All in the same night? And which of the two incidents was the more worrying anyway?
Lights were showing all around the marina and people were still strolling about even at that late hour. One man stood, half in a shadow, just a few yards away from the marina basin, looking down at the Breton Belle, and there was something immediately familiar about him.
I must have been more exhausted than I thought because it took me a few minutes to recognize him. When I did finally lock onto his ID, my blood pressure went suddenly and explosively into overdrive. It was the swarthy-faced man, the one who came to Viola’s aid on the quay at St. Malo. Tired or not, I couldn’t retreat off to my bunk just yet, this was one man I had to talk to. I got out of the car rather hurriedly, slamming the door noisily behind me. In hindsight I should have been quiet about it, but tiredness meant I wasn’t thinking straight. The man must have heard the door slam shut. He swung round, spotted me and then made off at a fast pace, legs pumping like steam pistons. Whoever he was, he kept himself fit.
I made to set off after him, but my body went into disagreement mode. Damn! An intense fatigue—the sort of real fatigue that locks your muscles into neutral and refuses to re-engage drive—set in fast and I just knew it was going to be beyond me to chase after him any distance, so I let him go. To hell with him anyway!
That night I dreamed vividly about Brigitte L’Orly. I don’t usually remember dreams—not the way I remember nightmares— but this one was still in my mind when I woke up. If I’d made it with her in reality as many times as I did in my dream I’d scoop all the Oscars as the world’s best super-stud. The odd thing was that the girl in my dreams had Brigitte’s voice and body but Simone’s face. As the dream faded, I couldn’t make head or tail of it. Then, as usual, the niggling voice of conscience snapped into play.
It was the sunshine glinting off the cabin’s gleaming brass-work that woke me that morning. I didn’t get up straight away in case the act of getting up caused the dream to fade even faster. But, within a few minutes, it drifted off into reality anyway, so I staggered out to the galley, cooked myself an unhealthy fried breakfast and then sat out on deck with a mug of coffee to ponder over my next move. Daylight was, once again, monotonously overdone as it had been throughout my time in France. A bright blue firmament overhead, multi-coloured reflections down below and shafts of invisible cancer-provoking radiation linking the two. What the hell, I ate my breakfast and basked in it.
What should I do next? Pursue the elusive Hassim at his chateau, or simply get on with the trip down to La Roche Bernard? In truth, the idea of going up to la Gacilly was beginning to wane, in fact I was getting pretty fed up with the whole damned business. In the sharp light of day I could see that unless I took special care of myself I could end up as dead as Viola Bracewell. Not a very enticing thought.
So, was I going to live for ever?
Right then, all I wanted was to live long enough to seal a relationship with Simone de Valieur. A lasting relationship, maybe? But what good would I be to anybody if the gunman—or gunperson—got his—or her—aim sorted out and hit the target next time? Maybe it would be better for all if I gave up this hopeless task and went straight back to Simone.
Perhaps I should go to the police again? Would they believe me this time if I told them about the shooting? It seemed unlikely. Thinking of that guy, Le Fevre, I wondered if he would charge me with wasting police time. Somehow I just didn’t fancy taking the matter back to the French gendarmerei until I had some more substantial evidence. There was no real evidence that I had been shot at any more than there was evidence that Viola had been killed.
Conviction was now setting in. There was only one way to go: I had to deliver the boat to La Roche Bernard and then get the hell out of France before someone killed me. I’d be deserting Viola, of course, letting the people who killed her get off the hook, but what the hell! That was someone else’s problem. After all, she was little more than a stranger to me. I reckoned three or four hours should take me down river to La Roche Bernard. What should I do with the boat when I got there? Abandon it or hand it over personally?
As I sat, considering my options, I saw a movement on the yacht opposite—figures moving about on deck. The big youth was going ashore, ambling off in the direction of the town, and he had the coloured girl with him. The youth was taking his time, but the girl looked like she had some positive purpose in mind.
Almost instantly the idea of deserting Viola was replaced with something more positive and constructive. There were two women on that boat, probably had been all along. One of them, the coloured one, was now out of the way so I might be able to speak to the other girl. She was likely to be still on board. Maybe I’d get something useful out of her, and the chance might not occur again. It was amazing how quickly I forgot about quitting. And they say women are fickle minded. Hell! This could be just the chance I needed.
I waited until the young gorilla and the coloured girl were out of sight and then raced around the marina basin to the yacht. I crept quietly onto the deck, slid back the hatch to the main saloon and made my way inside. In a case like this, there was no point in bothering to knock. It wasn’t intended to be a social call. The main saloon was empty, but a door to a fore-cabin stood half open. The smell coming from inside the boat was something like I would expect to find in an opium den. Not that I had ever been inside an opium den, but I had enough wit to know that the smell was not simply aftershave. I could have got high just by breathing too deeply.
I took a couple of steps back to the main hatch and took a deep breath of fresh air before I went inside again.
“Hello there. Anyone at home?”
There was no immediate answer, but moments later I heard sounds coming from the fore-cabin: the sound of someone moving about. I already had a pretty good idea who it was. I knew for sure I was on the right track when a female voice called out.
“Bonjour.” It was a voice I instantly recognized.
Silence followed for a few seconds, and then, “Who is that?”
“The name’s Henry Bodine. Mind if I talk to you?”
A few more seconds passed before the girl peeked around the door. The immediate image was of bare shoulders and surprised facial expression, closely followed by one of confusion. Her hair was in a bit of a mess and her eyes were bleary, and bloodshot. I got the impression I might have woken her from a drunken or drugged stupor. Her surprise at seeing me must have numbed her brain because she forgot I didn’t have much French under my belt.
“Qu’est-ce que vous voulez?”
“How’s that again, miss?”
“What do you want?”
“Just a chat. Sorry to get you out of bed.”
More of her came into view. The vanguard was a shapely chest barely covered by a dirty vest. The lower part of her wore nothing except a pair of white panties. She looked about the saloon, bemused and distant, like her mind was somewhere else, on another planet entirely.
She glanced back at me. “Is Jacques not here?”
“If that’s your big friend, he’s headed off towards the town. I saw him go a few minutes ago, along with the other girl.”
“Oh!” She rubbed here eyes and some degree of reality seemed to percolate into her brain. It was only then she cottoned onto her lack of decent clothes. “You’d better wait while I get something on.”
“Sounds like a good idea. Are you alone?”
“Hmmm. It seems so. Why do you ask?”
“I thought we might have time to talk. You feel like talking?”
She gave me a penetrating look, but didn’t answer the question. Instead she went back into the fore cabin where the sound of movement indicated she was getting dressed. When she finally came out into the saloon she was wearing a man’s shirt over white shorts and wiping the sleep from her eyes.
“What do you want?” she asked. More composed now, I noticed that her voice was just a trifle slurred. The smell inside the cabin completed the untold story.
“Words,” I said. “A few honest words. About what happened the other day when my friend was killed.”
“I have nothing more to say to you.”
“Oh yes you do! You lied to me, young lady.” I had no idea how long the gorilla and his playmate would be gone so there was no question of allowing a long, drawn out chat. This had to be settled relatively quickly. I rounded on her and went in all guns blazing. I didn’t feel much like pleasantries anyway. “You told me your big friend wasn’t in St. Malo recently, but I saw him there assaulting a girl on the marina quayside. Saw it with my own eyes. He was attacking Miss Bracewell, the same young girl who was with me on the Breton Belle. The same girl I told the police about.”
“The missing girl?”
“Missing? She’s more than just missing. She’s been killed!”
“I do not know what happened to her.” The girl’s lips barely moved as she spoke but her eyes were twitching like hell. Drugs? Booze? Or just a guilty conscience?
“Really?” I snapped at her. “Or is that another lie? I don’t like lies when there’s a dead body lying someplace out there. Did your friend kill her?”
“No. Why do you come here asking these questions?” The girl recoiled back towards a seat, her teeth grinding, her fists clenched. She was like a lioness cornered. “His name is Jacques and he is not a killer,” she said weakly, eyes averted. Then she suddenly went loose and dropped into the seat. Her gaze lowered to the floor. As she sat down, I noticed how pale she looked. Cheeks ashen, eyes still twitching. The after effects of a night smoking pot? If it broke down her resistance it could work in my favour even though I was now breathing in the residue of the shit.
What the hell! The girl wasn’t the confident young kid I’d last seen with the youth. I had to take advantage of it while it lasted so I took a seat directly facing her across the saloon table. There was another seat close beside her, but I didn’t want to get too physically close in case the big guy came back too soon. Not that I was afraid of any rough play from him, I could handle myself in most equal situations, but there was something about that gorilla that gave me the shivers. As if just touching him might infect me with something bad.
“I don’t believe you,” I went on. “You told me you noticed nothing that morning on the canal, but there was a gunshot and you must have heard it. You were lying.”
She breathed deeply, as if she was thinking as fast as her addled brain would allow. “There is only your word that someone was killed.”
“You can take my word for it. As sure as hell, someone shot the girl who was with me. Perhaps it was you. Did you want her diamond ring? Eh?”
“Non!” Oddly she didn’t ask the obvious question: what ring? That was a mistake on her part and I made a mental note of it.
“If you’re lying again, you’ll regret it.”
The girl bit her lip anxiously. “You are a friend of Viola Bracewell?”
I jerked upright. “Ah, so you know her name.”
“You told me her name. A moment ago.” She grew suddenly flustered.
“I told you she was Miss Bracewell. How did you know her name was Viola?”
“Maybe I heard it somewhere.”
“Maybe. And maybe we’ll now get to the truth. So, tell me, who killed her?”
Her voice went suddenly hushed and she hissed at me. “I cannot tell you that. If you know what is best for you, you will go on down the river to La Roche Bernard. Leave the boat there and ask no more questions.”
“If I know what’s good for me? Are you threatening me?”
“Yes.” She tried to look defiant, but her soul just wasn’t in it, I guess. She was too far out of her skull to defy me with conviction.
“Maybe I’m just not built to take threats. Threats get me real hacked off.” I leaned towards her. “Now tell me: how did you know where we were heading?”
She looked confused. “I cannot tell you that. Please listen to me.” Her hands were set out on the table and their sharp shaking rattled a vibrant noise on the wood. “You must go on down river. You must!”
“In heaven’s name, why?” I could see she was getting rattled so I eased back on the aggro, reducing the threat. “Another thing: I don’t know who you are. What’s your name?”
“Colette. And I don’t know your name either.”
“I told you that when I came aboard. I’m Henry Bodine.” I decided to keep her guessing on my reason for being in France. “And I don’t take kindly to folks who order me about without giving me a good reason. Tell me what you know about Viola Bracewell.”
“Try. Try real hard, like your life depends on it.”
“No. I cannot.”
“Because…” Indecision suddenly changed into anger. Self-control went out the window like it never existed. From being the youth’s strong support, she suddenly became a frail, frightened kid. “Because Jacques will not like it! That is why.”
“Really! Kill you will he?” Now I was getting somewhere. “Like he killed Viola? Who the hell is that big creep… what’s his name… Jacques?”
“Please go, Monsieur. Jacques gets very angry, you see. Mostly I can control him. When he is sober I can control him. But sometimes he gets too angry and then he attacks people. He is just like his father. Sometimes they both hit me when they get angry.”
“Well, I’m sorry to hear that. He’s a big boy to go hitting people. Maybe you should ditch him before he does you some real damage. You don’t need a boyfriend like that.”
“He is not my boyfriend! How could he possibly be my boyfriend?”
I recalled then the unhealthy image of the gorilla being screwed by the coloured girl. The girl had a point. “Well, you sure as hell ought to get shot of him.”
“How could I get shot of him? That is stupid talk.” Her head was lowered again and now she was talking fast and soft. Not stopping to think, but letting it all pour out. Things must have been tightly pent up inside her head. “Jacques gets angry sometimes, but his father gets so angry also. He sometimes hit Viola when he was angry.”
“He hit Viola?” I jumped to my feet. My knees suddenly banged hard on the underside of the table and I cursed out loud. “Tell me more! Tell me why!”
“Now just look here, young lady… Colette. I’ve just about had enough of this. I’m not leaving this boat until you tell me exactly what the hell is going on! Who is this guy, Jacques’ father, the jerk who hit Viola?”
She looked at me with wide eyes. “Why, he is Monsieur Ali Hassim.”
I should have guessed. It had been staring me in the face all along and I hadn’t seen it! Now I knew what it was about Hassim that had been bugging me from the time I first saw him in St. Malo with Mama L’Orly. It was his prominent brow. His son, Jacques, had the same feature. More pronounced, yes, but still a family likeness. I should have spotted it sooner.
I was convinced now that Ali Hassim was somehow caught up in Viola’s death. Whoever did the foul deed was probably connected with the Hassim family. Could it have been Jacques, the son? The big gorilla had been close by when Viola met her death. And the older Hassim wasn’t out of the picture. He beat Viola! Father and son were both girl-beaters! I’ve met a few harmless creeps in my time. Even the odd weirdo or two. Most of them I could pass by and instantly forget. They didn’t cause me to lose any sleep. But if there’s one kind of creep I can’t abide, it’s the sort who beat up women, especially women who claim to love them. That makes me real angry.
I stood there in front of Colette and remembered the bruising on Viola’s face that first morning when we were cruising down the Rance. Then my blood pressure began to rise. I should have kept my temper, I suppose, but I was pretty mad by this time. I struggled round the cabin table, grabbed Colette by her arms and yelled at her as if she’d done the dirty on Viola herself.
Maybe she had. But my anger was directed more towards the Hassims.
“This guy, Ali Hassim, beat up Viola Bracewell. Is that what you’re telling me? The bastard beat up Viola!”
The poor girl flailed her arms about a bit, trying to back away from me. Her eyes flashed, her teeth were bared and she spat at me. “Let me go!”
“No! Not until you tell me the truth. Why did Ali Hassim hit Viola Bracewell? Why?”
“He was angry.”
“I don’t know. Leave me alone. Maybe it was because she would not sleep with him. Maybe it was because she broke off their engagement.”
“Broke off their engagement? She broke it off?” I pulled her close to me, so close that I was staring right into her eyes. “When did it happen?”
“A week ago.” She suddenly went limp and her voice dropped a whole bag of decibels. “It was when Viola was staying at his chateau. He was so upset. She said she had to leave and he begged her to stay but she wouldn’t.”
“So he hit her? A fine way to show that he cared about her.” I grasped Colette’s arms more tightly and she winced with pain. “I don’t like thugs who beat up young women; it makes me very angry. So tell me the rest of the story. Who killed Viola? And where is her body? What happened to her?”
Colette’s face contorted like she was wrestling with some internal conflict and her voice wound itself back up into top gear. “Please let me go! Please!”
“Not until you tell me what happened to Viola.”
“I can’t tell you. I can’t!”
Without warning she began to struggle violently and her cries were getting hysterical. By this time I realized I’d gone too far and Colette was shouting too loud for comfort. I couldn’t risk attracting attention from other boats in the marina so I released my grip on her and allowed her to fall back onto the seat.
“I don’t believe you.” I said, breathing heavily. I backed off and rested my hands on the table so that I was looking down at her. “I think Ali Hassim and his son have a lot to answer for.”
She sobbed into her hands, but didn’t reply. When she looked up at me, I saw that her face was blotchy; a fair clue that she was pouring out real tears. They glistened heavily in her red-ringed eyes.
“Is the other fellow in on this also? The one who keeps watching me.”
“I don’t know who you are talking about.”
“The one with the swarthy face. I’ve seen him hanging about too often for it to be coincidence. He was here at the marina last night. Is he one of Ali Hassim’s thugs?”
“There are no thugs.” She took a tissue, which had been wedged down in the seat and she dabbed at her eyes. It came away soaking wet. “Well… not him, anyway.”
I tried to relax my stance. “You know who I’m talking about? Swarthy complexion like a…” I paused. Another sudden thought caught my imagination. “What nationality is this Ali Hassim?”
“Monsieur Hassim is French.” She was more composed now and she spoke with a calmer voice. The blotchy marks on her face didn’t go away though.
“Doesn’t sound French,” I observed.
“His father was Iraqi, but Monsieur Hassim has lived in France for many years now. He has French nationality.”
“Iraqi?” That didn’t sound good. Not the best sort of fiancé for Viola Bracewell.
“His mother was French and his wife was French.”
“Jacques’ mother I suppose. What happened to her?”
“It was very tragic.” A funny look came into her eyes at that point. There was something she wasn’t telling me. “She died of cancer.”
“I’m sorry to hear it.” I thought for a moment. “Let’s get back to Viola’s ring. What do you know about that?”
“What ring?” When Colette looked up at me through those damp eyes I could almost feel sorry for her. If I really tried, I could almost believe she didn’t know about the ring, but the constant image of Viola lying dead in the water kept things in perspective. Anyhow, I wasn’t in the mood to believe her.
“A very expensive diamond ring,” I said. “What do you know about it?”
I tried another line. “Why did Viola sell it?”
“Sell it?” That made her jump, a genuine reaction this time. Her eyes suddenly sprang wide. “She sold her ring?”
“That’s what I said.”
“Oh, my God!” She put a hand to her face. This wasn’t acting.
“So you do know something about it? Come on, Colette, tell me about it!”
“Non! You must go. Please!” She stood up suddenly and ran out onto the deck. I followed at a slower pace and found her standing up on the cabin roof, scanning the road as if desperate for Jacques’s return. She was upset, that was for sure, and it was no act.
“You’re hiding something pretty damn important,” I called out.
“Jacques will be back soon. Go away!”
“Jacques won’t be back just yet.” I had a sudden thought. “Your friend; the coloured girl, the one who left with him. Who is she?”
Colette paused and looked down at me. “Aimee? You mean Aimee?”
“Aimee D’Albret. This is her yacht.”
“Her yacht? But you and the big boy seem to be at home here?” I fixed her with a hard glare. “What was Aimee doing on board the Breton Belle after Viola disappeared? Why did she make a fool of me in front of those cops?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Yes you do. You know perfectly well what I mean.”
She stood there, struck mute with her eyes lowered.
“Lost your tongue?”
I started to climb up onto the saloon roof and was reaching out towards her, but I got no farther. She saw me closing on her, leapt down to the main deck and then made another wide leap right across onto the pontoon. That last jump was pretty neat for a girl still affected by pot. Next moment she was racing along the marina road, the shirt waving out behind her.
I let her go.
The damn fool didn’t know what she was doing anyway. Halfway along the road she collided with an old man coming out from a shop. The old boy was leaning on a walking stick and held a shopping bag in his free hand. One minute he was at peace with the world and the next he was flat on his back with a young girl lying on top of him.