In everyday life, we tend to believe that we control our own destinies and make our own decision, but I figure that’s often not the case. Other people frequently control the way we behave. Last night my behaviour had been cunningly manipulated by a mere teenager and I felt ashamed that I had allowed it to happen.
I told myself angrily that it wouldn’t happen again, and I resorted to a mug of black coffee to help set me up for whatever further stress the day had in store. And there was no doubt in my mind that stress would appear on my horizon before the day was out. God! This was supposed to be a vacation to help me relax!
First problem: where had Viola’s body been taken? No one could have carried it far in the time it took me to walk into Rennes and back, unless there had been a vehicle waiting nearby. Looking about, I could see a dozen places where a body might be hidden or where someone might have been lying in wait before killing Viola. Bushes, trees, the farm buildings: it was all there. If I had to choose an ideal spot for an assassin to strike, it would be somewhere like this.
Damn it, the killer could be still out there watching me right now.
Disjointed thoughts wandered out of nowhere, testing my resolve to continue with the journey. Was it worth confronting Hassim? The guy who owned the boat would have to appear in my list of suspects, but for no sound reason. I thought the days when a guy killed his ex-fiancée out of pique had gone with the wind. Then again, the Europeans seemed to go a bundle on crimes of passion. Besides, what the hell did I know about Hassim anyway?
I knew even less about the swarthy skinned watcher who, I was convinced, had been dropping his cigar butts inside the cruiser. But I couldn’t finger a suspect for murder just because he drops his filthy ash on the floor, much as I would like to.
Neither was I clued up on the girl who’d been languishing in Viola’s bunk when I brought the French cops into the act. In fact, all I knew about her was bundled up in the visual appeal of her body. Even aside from her shapely figure, there was still very good reason for me to keep her in mind. She just had to be somehow tied up in the crime, but was she the murderer? If not, that left only the L’Orly family—who were unlikely to be all they seemed—and those two youngsters who had moored just downstream from the Breton Belle.
The big youth and his girlfriend certainly had the opportunity to carry out the murder, but for what motive? I suppose my principle reason for including them on my list of suspects was the fact that I didn’t like the guy or his foul attitude. And he had already assaulted Viola in St. Malo. Even so, it wasn’t a sound reason to suspect him of murder. It wouldn’t have got a conviction in court.
As for the L’Orly family, it seemed inconceivable that mama or Brigitte could kill in cold blood, but they certainly had the opportunity to do it. And what did I really know about them, beyond the fact that Brigitte had a delicious body and freely gave me the use of it? Oh, God! Why did I give in to her so easily? And why was life being so cruel to me right now?
I needed a period of quiet reflection, but in the past few days four women had bared themselves naked in front of me and I’d had sex with two of them. Further feelings of guilt threatened to swamp my analysis of the situation, so I forced myself to turn my attention towards a viable plan for the day.
The sun was already high in the sky when Brigitte staggered out from her cabin into the short corridor. She yawned, looked at a bulkhead clock indicating ten thirty, and then put a hand to her mouth. So much for the image of a hard-working farmer’s daughter.
“Shouldn’t you get dressed?” I said.
“Pah! Why?” Nevertheless, she dipped back into her cabin and draped an open shirt round her shoulders before returning to the saloon.
“You want some coffee?” I asked. “The water’s hot in the kettle.”
“Oui. I will have the coffee and then I will make you the breakfast.”
I suddenly woke up to the fact that I hadn’t eaten that morning. Mind too preoccupied with the question of Viola’s death and what I could do about it. Brigitte’s offer had a certain appeal to it.
“Sounds like a good idea.”
My immediate culinary expectations were, however, quickly put on hold. There were other things on Brigitte’s mind. Apparently in no great hurry to feed my stomach, she sat down on the nearest seat, sipped at the coffee mug thoughtfully and asked, “Will you go on down the river today?”
“Possibly, later. I still want to know what happened to Viola.”
She eyed me sullenly for a full minute. Then she drew back her head and said, “You told me the police were at the boat. What did they say to you?”
“They didn’t believe what I told them. Why do you ask?”
She shrugged her shoulders. “I just wondered.”
“What did they say to you, Brigitte?”
She held the mug to her lips a few seconds too long, probably to disguise the fact that I had caught her on the hop. Eyes lowered, she began to reply, “I told you…”
“You told me that they didn’t speak to you. But I don’t believe you. They did speak to you, didn’t they?”
She shrugged and then grinned. “It is easy to tell the lies to someone like you.”
“Really? So tell me the truth, what did they say to you?”
For some moments an awkward silence filled the boat, broken only by the gentle lapping of the water outside. Brigitte pulled her shirt tighter round her chest, as if that alone would protect her from my questions. Then she responded with carefully considered words. “They asked about you and Viola. They said you told them Viola was dead.”
“And what did you tell them?”
“Nothing. I do not like to talk to the police. In fact I do not like the police.”
“You don’t like them, eh?” Cynicism was now bursting from my mind. I just couldn’t hold back from poking fun at her. “I suppose you’re the one who dug the big hole outside the police station?”
“The police are looking into it.”
“It’s a joke.” Or so I told her. It didn’t sound so funny in hindsight.
“That is a joke?” She wasn’t laughing. In fact she was sitting there, staring at me all po-faced, with the sour expression of an aged nun who’s suddenly realized she’s missed out on what life is really all about. Below the neck, the simile was quite out of order.
“A sort of joke,” I assured her, following up with a sigh of exasperation. “Don’t worry about it. Do you believe that Viola is dead?”
Brigitte set her mouth in a firm line and nodded. She turned away, avoiding looking at me as she replied. “I expect she is dead.”
“Why do you believe that?”
“She was frightened when she came to the farm.”
“Now we’re getting somewhere. Frightened, you say?”
Brigitte turned back to me and nodded again. “She said she was being followed and someone… how do you say it in English? Someone had it in for her.”
Someone sure as hell had it in for her, poor kid. “Tell me more about it.”
“Cannot or will not?”
“Cannot.” She pouted before adding, “Will not.”
“Okay. So tell me about the coloured girl. The one who was here on the boat when the police arrived, stark naked in Viola’s bunk.”
“Tell me, Brigitte.”
“Non, non, non!” She suddenly jumped to her feet and ran back into her cabin.
After that I had to make my own breakfast, so I settled for what I could find in the way of eggs and ham, which I fried to a frazzle. Brigitte didn’t reappear from her cabin and I decided to let her be. Maybe she would talk again when she was ready. In the meantime, there was one man I knew who had spoken to Viola. Marcel in the marina office at St. Malo.
More in desperation than anticipation, I pulled myself together and set off down the canal path to Rennes where I found a public telephone. After some confusion with the operator, I eventually got through to the marina office at le port des Bas Sablon. The Frenchman who answered didn’t understand a word I was saying, but fortunately he went away and fetched Marcel. I had already decided to say nothing about Viola’s death. The police didn’t believe me, so why should Marcel?
“Monsieur Bodine?” Fortunately, this was a Frenchman who could speak passable English.
“You remember me, Marcel?”
“Oui. You are the American who was here two days ago?”
“That’s right. I need to talk to you about Viola Bracewell, the girl who—”
“Ah, I remember, the girl who is taking the Breton Belle down to La Roche Bernard.”
“Yes. Well, she was on her way down river. Right now she’s disappeared and I don’t know where the hell she is. That’s why I’m phoning. Look, can you tell me any more about her? Do you know any of her friends? What about this man, Hassim?”
“That is a lot of questions, Monsieur Bodine, and I do not know all the answers. But why do you ask? What has happened to her?”
“It’s not an easy story. The fact is she’s… well, she’s just plain missing. Isn’t there anything you can tell me about her?”
“Not much, I do not know the young woman. I have seen her once or twice with Monsieur Hassim.” He paused, as if thinking. “There was one strange thing—”
“She came to see me early that morning you left St. Malo. She said someone was… how do you say it in English… someone was on her tail. She said that was why she agreed to let you go along with her. I think perhaps she was afraid, you see, of whoever it was. She thought you might help her. Protect her.”
Protect her? She had been depending on me to protect her? Damn! Further feelings of unreasoned guilt came rumbling out thick and fast.
“Someone was on her tail, you say?” I bit my lip and felt the pain. “You mean someone was actually after her? God sakes, Marcel, who was after her?”
“She did not say.”
“What did you do about it?”
“Me?” I pictured him shrugging. “It is not my business to do anything, Monsieur.”
“So you didn’t tell the police?”
I gritted my teeth. “Okay. So, tell me again what she said about this person who was after her.”
“She did not say a lot. She just told me that someone was on her tail. And there was something about a ring, but I was busy at the time and I did not take much notice.”
“Hell! What about the ring?”
“I do not know.”
“Why did she tell you all this?”
“Who knows? Perhaps she was frightened? She sounded frightened.”
“And you did nothing about it?”
There was a short silence on the line and I caught a mental image of Marcel shrugging again, a typical Gallic gesture. It was, after all, none of his business.
“Did she say it was a man who was tailing her?” I went on. As I spoke I had visions of the big youth who had attacked her.
“I cannot be sure… I think she just said someone was after her.”
“All right, Marcel. Thanks for your help, anyway.”
“There is one other thing.”
“Monsieur Hassim phoned this office yesterday. He wanted to check that the boat had left St. Malo.”
I stiffened. “Oh? Why?”
“I do not know.”
“I figure you need to ask more questions, Marcel.”
Next I telephoned Simone at the number she’d given me in England. The truth was that I needed her, needed her company and her good sense, and yet I had slept with that young nymphomaniac, Brigitte. I tried to hang tight onto my guilty feelings and hoped she wouldn’t be fooled.
Uncomfortable words rattled round inside my head: you went to bed with a teenager!
But I couldn’t help myself.
A feeble excuse!
“Henry! Don’t tell me you’re missing me already?” Simone sounded pleased I had called. There was a magical tone in her voice and it only added to my problems.
“You bet I am, sweetheart. I miss you more than you can realize. But, right now, I need your help.” Before the conversation could stray in the wrong direction, I briefly outlined what had happened to Viola, adding in the detail of her death because I knew Simone would believe me.
“Good God! You’ve certainly got yourself into a right mess, Henry. What do you want me to do?”
“Find out what you can about Viola Bracewell. There must be people you can ask. And see what you can dig up about this man, Ali Hassim. He’s a big noise in banking so he shouldn’t be difficult to trace.”
“I’ll do what I can. How will I contact you?”
“You can’t, Simone. Wait for me to call you again.”
“All right. You have the numbers of the other hotels.”
“Sure. And I’ll call you back in a day or two,” I told her.
“Okay, Henry. But take care.” She sounded really concerned.
“You bet.” I told her again that I missed her like hell and I said absolutely nothing about Brigitte L’Orly. She blew me a kiss down the line and I wished it was for real.
I set off back towards the canal, but I hadn’t gone more than a few yards along the highway when a police car pulled up alongside me. I recognized it straight away.
“Monsieur Bodine. Bonjour.” Inspector Le Fevre leaned from the passenger window. The same junior cop was at the wheel, but he sat silently staring into space like a Trappist monk.
“Yes?” I snapped back.
“You are still here?”
“Yeah. That certainly seems to be the case.” I pointedly looked down at myself. “Yep, I really am still here.”
“Don’t try to make a fool of me, Monsieur Bodine. I could make things very difficult for you. If you have any sense you will get back on your boat and get out of Rennes as quickly as possible. We do not like troublemakers here.”
“Really? So I take it you don’t like me too much?”
“Not at all, Monsieur. I do not like you at all. Did you find your missing dead body?”
“I thought not.” He retreated back into the car and stabbed a finger at the road ahead. The junior cop gunned the car’s engine and it took off in a blaze of burning tyres and screaming clutch plates.
“And I don’t care too much for you.” I said to the empty space where Le Fevre had been.
When I got back to the boat Brigitte was sitting on the side, dangling her feet in the water. She was wearing that same swimsuit she had worn the previous day. I got the impression it might have been her favourite.
She gave me a sultry look. “Where have you been?”
“Making a couple of phone calls.”
“I was going to make you the breakfast, but you left without telling me where you had gone.”
“Didn’t think you were in the mood to talk.” I jumped aboard the boat and slipped down the companionway. “Or to cook my breakfast.”
Brigitte followed me into the saloon. “I will cook you something now?” She seemed persistent as if she wanted to make amends. Maybe I had misjudged her.
“No thanks.” Whatever her motives, I had no stomach for another meal. Neither was I particularly keen to hang about here any longer, waiting for something to happen. While walking back to the boat I had made up my mind what to do next, so I gave the engine its daily check over and prepared to motor on down stream in the direction of La Roche Bernard. Okay, so maybe I was deserting Viola if she was hidden somewhere nearby, but the girl was dead anyway, what more could I do?
Brigitte went off to her cabin announcing pointedly that she was going to take a shower. She seemed to be in something of a bad mood. Just because I didn’t fancy her offer to cook breakfast? No, there was probably more to it that that.
Down the corridor, the shower cubicle door slammed shut.
Convinced it was best to forget about Brigitte for the time being, I started the engine. I was out on the bank untying the forward mooring rope when a heavyweight figure came bumbling down the path towards me. Heavyweight? This guy was even bigger than the obnoxious young gorilla. This was hulk of a man bulged in all directions. He was getting on for two hundred eighty pounds, and he moved with the lumbering gait of a bull elephant. He wore a sombre grey suit which would have covered me twice over, and his eyes were hidden behind dark blue shades. As he came closer he began shouting volubly in French and waving his arms. I hadn’t a clue what he was saying.
“Either speak English or go away!” I shouted back. I was in no mood for more trouble.
“Oh, clear off, will you!”
“You… stay… where… you… are!” This time he replied haltingly in heavily accented English.
“Why? What do you want?”
“I must… sp-speak with… Viola… Miss Bracewell.”
He came to a standstill right in front of me. “Where… is Miss Bracewell?”
“I don’t know.” I said, playing it cool. Or doing my best to.
“I have… a car… to wait… at road.” He jerked a stubby thumb. “She… must come… now.”
“Now look here, big guy,” I was getting a bit peeved by this time. “I don’t know where she is. So tell me what this is all about.”
“Merde!” His eyebrows shot up and he lifted his shades to reveal a pair of piercing little pig-like eyes. “She is… here!”
“She’s not here.” I repeated. “That’s what I said the first time and that’s what I meant. Who the hell are you anyway?”
“I will… search the… boat.” He pushed past me and I let him go. Judging by his size alone, he could have flattened me in an instant.
“You won’t find anything!” I shouted, but already he was diving down into the saloon.
I retied the mooring line, cut the engine and sat down on the canal bank to await developments. After some minutes I heard him hammering on the door of the shower cubicle. This, I thought, is going to be interesting. What followed was the sound of the door opening, followed by the distinctive screech of Brigitte giving the big guy a piece of her mind. She matched his voluble French word for word. There was a brief silence and then the shower door slammed shut once more.
I just sat and waited. Then, feeling more than a bit cheesed off, I wandered along the canal bank to see what was going on at the young couple’s yacht. To my surprise, it was moving off. The mast was stowed and the boat chugged away from the bank under engine power. The big youth was at the tiller, but I saw no sign of his companion. Whatever their business here at the canal bank, it seemed to be concluded.
I wandered back to the Breton Belle in time to see hulk’s head came up through the hatch.
He glared at me. “Where… is she?”
“I told you,” I said calmly. “I don’t know.”
Despite his weight, the hulk jumped onto the bank and approached me menacingly. “You lie! Where is she?”
I stood my ground and squared up to him. It was all bluff on my part, of course, but bluff was the only thing I had left. “Look, chum, I don’t know who the hell you are or what this has got to do with you, but I told you the truth. Viola Bracewell is not here.”
For some seconds he just stood there, his mouth open, his eyes glaring at me. Then, once again, he exclaimed, “Merde!”
“Call it what you like, big boy, it don’t help any. Now, are you going to tell me what this is all about?”
In reply he jammed his dark blue shades back over his eyes and stormed off down the path. The ground rumbled beneath the pounding of his gargantuan feet.
Brigitte came out on deck shortly after, again wearing her one-piece swimsuit. She gave me a sultry look. “What was he doing here?”
“Looking for Viola. You know him?”
“ Maybe.” She glanced away, a sure sign she was hiding something. “I have seen him before.”
“Who is he?”
“A stupid fool.” She went out onto the foredeck. “Just a stupid fool.”
“What do you know about him?”
“Nothing.” That, clearly, was another lie, but I figured it was as much as I was going to get out of her for the time being. She was in an uncooperative frame of mind and I hadn’t much idea how to change it.
There seemed to be nothing else to keep me so I started up the engine once again. Glad to be away from that place, I quickly cast off and aimed the Breton Belle out into mid-stream.
Brigitte spread out a towel on the fore-cabin roof, liberally doused herself in sun tan lotion and lay down on her back. At first she wore her swimsuit, but once we had passed beyond the populated area of Rennes and were surrounded by open countryside she pulled down the upper part to allow the sun onto her breasts. From the steering position I had no choice but to watch her.
Had I been so wrong to give in to her undoubted charms? History knows that I certainly wasn’t the first man to be taken by the attractions of a teenager. Casanova had a covetous eye for young girls. According to his memoirs, he had sex with twenty two different girls of fifteen years and under. The father of one of the girls had his daughter locked up in a convent for punishment, which was probably a good idea for those days. Undeterred, Casanova went to the convent and had sex with one of the nuns. That was sheer panache without a doubt. Then there was Chaplin, he loved young girls. Stories abound about his affairs with teenagers, Mildred Harris and Lita Grey. Some say he started grooming young Lita for films when she was only twelve and he made her pregnant when she was only sixteen. According some accounts of his sexual prowess, he made a veritable second career out of deflowering young virgins. Howard Hughes, they say, was obsessed with women’s breasts. He is reputed to have kept a large harem of women in a number of houses specially set up for his seductions and his favourites were teenage girls with large breasts.
So, if the rich and famous could have their way with innocent young girls where was the harm in me lusting over someone so far removed from innocence as Brigitte? After all, she craved it!
Then I shook my head as I recalled the sound of Simone blowing me a kiss down the phone line. Dear, sweet Simone. I had betrayed her. The longer I was away from her, the more I thought about her and the more I wanted to continue what we had begun that last night in St. Malo. Maybe, I thought, something special could develop between us, given the right chance.
We had been in open, empty countryside for about half an hour when Brigitte rose from her sunbathing and crawled along the saloon roof towards me. Her mood seemed to have perked up somewhat since we had left Rennes. She was grinning again and I should have taken that as a warning.
“You are thinking,” she purred.
“Thinking and sinking,” I replied. “Sinking like a ship that’s lost with all hands.”
“Idiot!” She hopped down onto the deck beside me. “You are thinking about something. You have a thoughtful expression on your face. Maybe you are thinking of me. Non?” She moved closer and began to squeeze her body between me and the boat’s controls.
“No, Brigitte!” I snapped. This time I found it easier to refuse her.
“That’s what I said.”
“Fool!” She snorted and went back to sunbathe on the fore-cabin roof.
Farther on down the River Vilaine, well beyond Rennes, I caught up with the young couple’s yacht. The big youth was still at the tiller and he glowered at me as I came up behind and pulled out to pass him. He didn’t seem quite so big after the visit from the French hulk. The girl was sunbathing in a bikini on the cabin roof, eyes closed and apparently asleep. The guy swept his gaze from his bikini-clad girlfriend across to Brigitte and back again. There really was no contest and he must have known it because his eyes swung once again back to Brigitte and stayed there. I waved casually to him as we pulled past the yacht.
That creep gave me the willies.
Shortly after, as the yacht was fast slipping away behind us, Brigitte went back into the galley to fetch a can of cola from the ice box. As she strolled by me, she smiled, brushed against my arm and wiggled her bottom.
“Get back onto the roof, Brigitte!”
She laughed seductively.
Around mid-day I pulled into the riverbank at a quiet spot in the shade of overhanging trees. Even with a breakfast inside me, I was getting hungry.
“You want something to eat?” I called out to Brigitte.
She sat up, studied me thoughtfully, and then said, “I will make the lunch.”
“If you insist.” I had already decided that she might as well make herself useful. She could make up for her lack of diligence over breakfast.
I jumped ashore and moored the boat while Brigitte scampered down the companionway. When she came back on deck ten minutes later she carried a couple of plates stacked with sandwiches. I dived down to the galley to fetch a couple of cold beers stashed away at the back of the ice box. When I got back on deck my plate sat on its own beside the steering position. Brigitte had gone back to her towel and resumed her sunbathing. Not too concerned about the girl or her attitude problem, I sat at the Breton Belle’s stern and ran my thoughts over the mystery while I ate. Somewhere there had to be a family who cared about Viola Bracewell: but who and where were they? I hoped Simone would be able to get hold of their address.
The answer hit me smack in the eyes.
Of course! I jumped up and raced through the boat to the cabin Brigitte had been using. In one drawer Viola had left a bundle of letters, and letters always carried return addresses. This time I felt less reticent about opening them. The initial shock of Viola’s death had worn off. I spread them out on the bunk; about a dozen of them in all. The first couple of envelopes contained private messages from Hassim to Viola written on expensive velum paper with ornate letter heads. Just a few lines at random told me that they were extremely intimate. I began to wonder at Viola’s assurance that she was still a virgin.
The third envelope contained a letter from a London diamond merchant and a cheque for two hundred and fifty thousand pounds sterling. Hell! That was one whole lot of francs or dollars at even the worst rate of exchange.
I sat down on the bunk and read the short letter. It was written in pretty formal language and one sentence stood out like a sore thumb; “…this is the best deal we were able to effect on your behalf for the sale of your diamond ring…”
The ring! Marcel had said there was something about a ring. And who else would give Viola a diamond ring except a fiancé? Ali Hassim. Another memory suddenly sprang into focus. Viola’s voice that morning, shouting, “It isn’t yours. He gave it to me!”