Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Naked Grief chapter seven


Chapter Seven

 


 

I looked around helplessly. There wasn’t a soul to be seen anywhere, although someone had to be hiding nearby, unless the killer had vanished into thin air. For certain, there was a gunman was out there somewhere. Hell! He could be aiming to shoot me next.

Holding back the nauseous bile rising inside my throat, I jumped down into the canal and grabbed at the body. It was still warm despite the cool water. As soon as I turned her face-up she coughed and her eyes flickered open. The gunshot wound was in her chest and it was still pumping out blood.

She wasn’t dead. Not yet.

“It’s mine,” she mumbled. “He gave it to me.” Then her eyes rolled back up into the sockets.

“Hang on there, kiddo! Just hang on, will you?” I dragged her onto the canal bank and felt her pulse. It was weak, almost gone. I gathered her into my arms to lift her onto the boat. When I got her to her cabin I laid her down on top of her own bunk.

The chest wound looked bad, and by now it had stopped pumping blood. I checked her pulse again and found nothing.

I stared at her cold, white face. “Come on, Viola! Come back to me!”

I tried mouth-to-mouth with no joy. Then I tried pumping at her chest, all the time calling to her, begging her to live. But she was beyond help. If she had drowned there might have been a way of resuscitating her, but she hadn’t drowned. It was the end of her story. Eventually I stood back and told myself it was no use trying anything else. I covered her with a clean white sheet because it seemed the decent thing to do.

Who the hell did this? The big bruiser? The swarthy guy?

I went back out on deck and scanned around. Still, there was no one in sight.

I called out, “Is anybody there?” but no one answered.

I shouted again. “I know you’re there somewhere. I know what you’ve done. Come on, where are you?” And, once again, no one owned up. What the hell made me think they would?

Still in a bit of a daze, I went back to my cabin and changed out of my wet clothes. Then I made myself a mug of instant coffee and sat in the saloon staring into space. I’d worked out that there was no immediate hurry for me to do anything because no one could save Viola now. She was dead and nothing would bring her back to life. Meantime, I was the only person in the vicinity, the only one with her when she finally died, and that didn’t look good for me. If the French police wanted a suspect I was right in the firing line.

I needed time to think.

By the time I’d finished the coffee my brain was sufficiently back on line to figure out what I had to do next. There was every prospect that I was going to get myself into one whole heap of trouble over this, but the French police had to be brought in on it and there was no point in prolonging the act. If they put the finger on me I’d just have to argue my way out of it as best I could.

I tidied up the saloonjust delaying the inevitableclosed the hatch and headed off towards Rennes in search of the nearest police precinct. I could have motored on into the town, but I assumed the police would want the boat to remain at the scene of death until they had examined it.

So I walked.

It was hot and sticky but the countryside was quiet. Like a graveyard? No, just peaceful like nothing violent ever happened round here. I rounded a gentle curve in the canal and there, a few yards away, I saw a girl sitting on the canal bank, lazing in the sunshine. A yacht was moored to the bank near where she sat and I assumed she was just a summer visitor. In any other circumstances it would have been just another pastoral scene. As I came closer to the girl, I saw that she was pensively chewing on a straw while she dangled her bare feet in the water.

She had long red hair which would have made her a dead ringer for Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara, except for the rest of her appearance. She wore a sleeveless vest and a denim mini skirt which would never have looked right on any Southern Belle. A pair of sharply pointed breasts looked like they were trying to bore their way out through the thin vest material and the skirt was drawn high up to reveal her thighs. Definitely not suited to life at the Tara plantation!

As I came closer a big guy climbed up out of the yacht’s cabin. He turned towards me and a shock wave hit me when I saw who it was. I found myself staring at the young gorilla from St. Malo. It took me a few seconds to register that he looked a little different. His skin was still parchment-coloured, but his eyes were duller, deeply sunk within dark rings, and his cheeks were now very obviously hollow.

He jumped ashore and stood beside the girl, still staring at me. I felt an unusual queasiness ripple through my guts. It wasn’t the sort of physical nausea I’d experienced over what had happened to Viola. It felt like the effect of something far more sinister, as if anything could be more sinister than murder. There was something about this pair that didn’t fit the bill, something real bad. I fixed a sharper focus on the big youth’s childish face and registered a look of barely-suppressed belligerence. Right then his gullet looked just about perfect for a bunch of fives to be stuffed down inside it.

Stress, they say, is that state of mental unbalance which comes from suppressing an inner desire to ram one’s fist down the throat of someone who deserves it. And that young gorilla deserved it. So my stress level rose to overload proportions and that set my heart palpitating. This was doing me no damn good at all.

My first intention was grab the youth by the throat and demand he tell me what had happened to Viola. That lasted about two seconds, until a stronger sense of reasonor lack of reasontook over. There was no question in my mind that the guy belonged in a police cell, and that was best achieved by getting the local cops out here as quickly as possible, before these two beat any sort of hasty retreat. To my mind the cops could dispense with any official enquiries or forensic evidence as long as they scooped up the youth, locked him up and rearranged the shape of his balls. But first I had to get to the police precinct, or whatever they called it over here.

As I made to pass by, the girl gave me an enquiring look which brought me up sharply. My mind was suddenly filled with a deep and absolute certainty that these two were somehow tied in with Viola’s death, and I just couldn’t make myself walk on by.

Bonjour, Monsieur.” The girl was obviously French.

“You speak English?” I asked her.

Oui.

“In that case, can you tell me how to get to the local police precinct?”

There was a momentary pause. A shadow fell across her eyes before the girl responded. She wasn’t that bad looking when you got up close. Only her company put her on my personal list of undesirables.

Oui. There is a gendarmerie in Rennes.” She abruptly threw away her straw and swung her feet up out of the water. She gave a very self-assured image, unlike the big youth. He just stood there and scowled at me. The more I saw of him the more I wanted to push his teeth all the way down into his intestines, preferable to meet his testicles coming up the other way.

“There’s been an accident at our boat.” I instinctively decided not to reveal too much to start with, certainly not when I intended to have the youth locked up in the town jail. Having his fingernails pulled out one by one seemed like another good idea, but one that was somewhat less likely to be accomplished. I pointed back along the canal. “Someone has been hurt… killed.”

“Oh, that is terrible, Monsieur. How did it happen?” The girl stood up and her breasts rattled loose inside the vest. Didn’t any of these French girls know about bras?

“An accident, I guess.” I searched for some sort of vague reply, something to avoid revealing my suspicions. “Must have hit her head on something while she was swimming.”

“Are you sure she is dead?”

I gave her a firm gaze. “Quite certain.”

“I am very sorry.”

“I suppose you didn’t hear anything?” I turned and looked directly at the youth. He picked at his nose and flicked something towards me. I felt yet another serious urge to relocate parts of his face down into the lower reaches of his body.

Non.” The girl replied, at the same time motioning the youth to stay back. Of the two of them, she was the natural leader and it was clear that they both knew it.

The young gorilla took a step towards me, ignoring the girl, but she was not the sort to take no for an answer. She gave him a stern look, which wouldn’t have been out of place on the face of a nightclub bouncer. When he looked like he might argue the point, she put out a hand to restrain him. A female David restraining a young Goliath.

“I will take this man to the gendarmerie in Rennes.” Aware that her look of disapproval was not taking full effect, she slipped her arms round the youth’s thick waist. “You must stay here with the boat. But do not wake Aimee.” With that she kissed him briefly. As she untangled her arms, he gave me another surly look.

“Come along, Monsieur.” The girl set off along the path, walking at a brisk pace despite her bare feet. “If your friend is dead, we must get to the police right away.”

“Have you been sitting there long?” I asked, hurrying to keep up with her. “On the canal bank, I mean.”

“A little while, perhaps.”

“Surely you must have heard something? You must have heard what happened to my friend on the Breton Belle. There was enough noise going on.” I made no mention of the gunshot.

Non. We heard nothing.” She kept her face looking straight ahead and she didn’t fall into my crude trap.

“Did you notice anyone coming away from the boat? Coming along the towpath, maybe?”

Non. Was there someone else?”

“I don’t know.” I was reluctant to divulge too much of what I knew. Not yet. “Maybe someone else saw or heard what happened. You’re quite sure you didn’t see or hear anyone?”

“Quite sure. We saw no one and we heard no one.”

She paused and an awkward silence ensued. Awkward enough for her to want to break it. “It is a very nice boat.” She looked over her shoulder towards me and I noticed for the first time that she had the deepest blue eyes. I decided she was probably a bimbo, but a cute one. Even a bimbo would be one jump ahead of the youth.

“So, you did notice the boat. Didn’t you see a girl swimming from it earlier?”

Non.

“But you saw the boat?”

“We saw it as we came down the canal last night. We passed by it.”

“Oh. And your yacht has been moored there at the canal bank for a while?”

Oui. We came here late last night.”

“And you didn’t see a girl swimming this morning?”

Non. How could we?”

This was getting me nowhere fast. “But your friend knew her. They were together in St. Malo. I saw them.”

She stared straight ahead, refusing to meet my accusation face on. Her voice dropped down an octave. “I think you are mistaken, Monsieur. We have not been to St. Malo recently.”

I damn well wasn’t mistaken, and we both knew it, but I held my tongue. There was something nasty festering away in the background here, that was for certain. We walked into the town in silence until the girl pointed ahead to where a French tricolour flew from a pole outside the local gendarmerie.

“That is it,” she said. “You can talk to the police now. They will help you.”

“Thanks. I’m obliged to you.”

She said nothing more, but moved off and quickly blended in with the local populace. I paused in the street, gathered my breath and strode into the building.

Inside it was cool and the air stank of stale garlic. A young gendarme sat behind a counter, quietly sipping coffeereal coffee by the look and smell of it. He raised an eyebrow to me and set down his cup with an air of precision. Junior cops are the same the world over and you get to spot them instantly.

Monsieur?” His fresh little face looked like it should have been behind a school desk.

“Do you speak English?” I asked.

Pardon?

“Do youoh, hell. Is there someone else I can talk to?”

Monsieur?

“Is… there… someone… here… who… can… speak… English?”

Anglais?” His eyes lit up suddenly. He turned with a neat pivoting action and walked away. Moments later he returned with an older man who was busily doing up his tunic buttons. This guy was tall, grey-haired with deep-set eyes and parchment-like skin. I recognized his type immediately. He was the street-wise cop who’d seen it all in busier towns when he was younger. Now he was settled back into the quieter life of Rennes.

“You have a problem, Monsieur?” He had a brisker manner than the office junior, and my hopes began to rise.

“You bet I do.” I leaned towards him. “A girl’s been killed out on the canal.”

“Killed, Monsieur? You mean she has drowned?” This time I caught his breath and I knew where the garlic stink had come from. I took a step backwards.

“Drowned, killed, murdered? What does it matter how she died? She’s dead. I found her dead in the water. Now, can you get some of your guys to come and deal with it? Please.”

“Murder?” He shook his head, picked up a pen and addressed a book in front of him. “You are an English visitor, non?

“American. I’m a guy who’s shocked, upset, distraught, thoroughly pissed off and completely and utterly American.”

“Ah.” He nodded sagely and briefly looked up at me. Another draught of garlic breath came my way. “We do not get many Americans here. Your name?”

I told him. Then I had to spell it out for him. His pen didn’t work so I lent him mine. He licked his thumb, flicked over a page of the book and began to write with what seemed like exaggerated precision.

“Your passport?” He held out his free hand, his gaze still fixed on the book.

I gave him the passport, but it might as well have been a porn book for all the notice he took of it. He kept his head lowered when he handed it back.

“So, Monsieur, what exactly happened to the girl?”

“She’s been killed, dammit! I found her in the canal!”

He looked up and made an impatient gesture with his head. The hairs protruding from his nose quivered. “So you said. And how did she die?”

“She was shot in the chest! Look, can’t you just come and see for yourself?”

He hovered my pen over the book. “Name?”

“I told you. Henry Bodine.”

A flash of annoyance invaded his voice. “The girl’s name, Monsieur Bodine. The one you say has been killed.”

“Oh. Her name is… was… Viola Bracewell.”

“Viola Bracewell?” He stopped suddenly, pen hanging in mid air. “Viola Bracewell, you say?”

“Yes.”

“An American girl, Monsieur?”

“English.”

Anglais?” He spat out the word as if it were a bad taste on his tongue. “But you are American. And you were together?”

“Yes.”

“Just the two of you?”

“Yes. We were cruising down the canal.”

“You were alone on a boat?” His face instantly betrayed his thoughts. “Just the two of you?”

I could see the way his mind was working, and we hadn’t yet got to the point of Viola being naked. I put on my best ‘trust-me-I’m-a-pilot’ look. “There are ways of checking us out, if you really want to. There’s a guy in the marina office at St. Malo who can vouch for us.”

He stared at me for some seconds and then the trust-me look began to work. A resigned expression began to spread across his face. Maybe he wasn’t such a dumb cop after all.

“The harbourmaster?”

“Could be. Why don’t you ring him. His name’s Marcel. I don’t know his other name.”

“All right, Monsieur.” He picked up the pen. “We may call him later. So, the girl’s name was Viola Bracewell. Now, how old was she?”

“I don’t know. Look, for God’s sake why won’t you come and see for yourself? You want to investigate this, don’t you?”

“Of course. You think we would choose not to investigate a murder, Monsieur?”

“So, come and look!”

He regarded me with a dark expression. “Wait one moment.”

He put down my penwhich I hastily recovered before it was taken into police custodyadjusted his uniform and then walked quickly away while the young junior smiled at me in anticipation. This might turn out to be the lad’s first big murder case, but he didn’t seem aware of it. Seconds later, two guys came through a door beside me, the uniformed cop and a plain clothes policeman.

The plain clothes man now took charge. He was a bit younger, mid-forties maybe and but he was grey-haired and he had a hard, craggy look about him. The cragginess extended to his rumpled grey suit.

Monsieur Bodine?”

“Yes.”

“You will come with us and show us where this killing has happened,” he said without any attempt at formalities. “We can talk in my car.”

I looked at the older of the two uniformed men, but it seemed like he’d finished with me. He nodded to the younger cop to go with us and then he took up the empty space behind the desk.

His car turned out to be a powerful Citroen and we had precious little time to talk as we sped back in the direction of the canal. The young guy drove and the older guy and I sat in the back. That was something of a disadvantage as the close confines of the car did nothing for the plain clothes cop’s foul breath. Dammit! Had they been over-dosing on the stuff in the confines of their gendarmerie?

The plain clothes guy’s name, he belatedly told me, was Inspector Le Fevre. That was, in fact, all he told me because the rest of the conversation was mostly one way from me to him. His contribution was a series of short, terse questions.

We left the car as close to the canal as we could get, and had to stride across a farm field to get back to the boat. In that time I managed to fill him in with everything I’d learned about Viola Bracewell, including her broken engagement to the man called Ali Hassim. I noticed Le Fevre raise his eyebrows at that point, but he said nothing.

“And this is the boat?” Le Fevre said with a precise air as we came onto the canal path. “The Breton Belle?”

“This is it.”

“And where is the body of the girl?”

“Inside.”

“You took her inside?”

“She was alive at first. I had to carry her

“You were with her inside the boat when she died?”

“Yes.”

He frowned and pulled at his chin. “You did not tell me that.”

“I suppose I wasn’t thinking too straight,” I said and jumped aboard to open the main hatch into the saloon. “Her body’s down below.” A twinge of alarm hit me when I saw that something was wrong. I hadn’t locked the hatch, but I had closed it, and now it was very slightly ajar.

The gendarmes boarded the boat and I led them to Viola’s cabin. Like a damned fool, I opened the cabin door and gestured for Le Fevre to go inside. Didn’t take a look myself, first. That was one more mistake in a list that was growing rapidly.

Le Fevre stopped suddenly and precisely in the open doorway. His eyebrows arched and his mouth fell open.

“Well, Monsieur?” He stepped back and rubbed a hand across his face. He looked like he wasn’t sure whether to kick my ass or take another peep inside the cabin. Either way, he didn’t look too pleased. “Is this a joke? Is this why you brought us here?”

“What do you mean?”

I peered into the cabin and there it was. A girl’s body was spread out on the bunk, totally naked. Only it wasn’t Viola Bracewell’s body and it certainly wasn’t dead.

At first I couldn’t speak because I couldn’t find the words to express the confusion I felt. A young, nubile Afro-Caribbean girl of some considerable beauty was stretched out across the top of the bunk, calmly painting her finger nails in a variety of day-glow colours. The girl, whoever she was, looked quite comfortable in the bunk, as if she had some genuine right to be there. Which, of course she hadn’t. She was grinning at me like a cat who’d just got away with the whole cream ration, which made me feel angry as well as confused. At least it offered a new twist to the age-old mystery of the disappearing body. A dead body that comes alive and changes colour!

I shifted to one side while Le Fevre took another look.

Bonjour.” The girl beamed at the cop without a trace of embarrassment.

Pardon, Mademoiselle.” Le Fevre drew himself upright, as befitting a police officer, and then backed away again into the corridor. He stood silently for half a minute, his face registering a variety of expressions. Maybe he was still confused because he took yet another look at the girl before he pulled the door shut. I wondered if he felt a trifle upset at catching a girl naked in bed. Maybe he wasn’t so French after all.

The younger gendarme seemed even more put out by the girl in the bunk. He opened the cabin door, took a look and then quickly retreated back into the saloon, his face crimson with embarrassment. Maybe his mom hadn’t yet told him what girls looked like without their panties.

“Well?” Le Fevre stared at me like I was stupid.

“I’m confused.” That was putting it mildly. I was totally out of my depth.

“Where is the dead body, Monsieur?”

“It was in there.” I pointed to the cabin door. “It was lying on that bunk. I put it there.”

“And now it has come to life again?”

I scowled at him, letting my frustration spill over. “That’s not her! Dammit all! That girl is not the one who was killed. That’s not Viola Bracewell. That girl in there is not a corpse!”

“That much, Monsieur, seems certain.” Le Fevre coughed, wafting the smell of stale garlic into my face. “This other girl… the one who is now in the cabin… she is a friend of yours?”

“Like hell she is! I’ve never met her before.”

The cabin door opened just about then and halted a conversation which was getting absolutely nowhere. Le Fevre and I both stepped backwards as the dusky-skinned girl stepped nimbly out, now wearing a floral summer dress. In one hand she carried a small bag which I assumed held her nail varnish gear. Her eyes sparkled and her silky-dark cheeks glistened like they were painted with oil.

Le Fevre fixed his eyes on me while I kept my gaze on the girl. Neither of us said a word.

She whispered, “Pardon,” as she squeezed between us and padded on towards the saloon where the young policeman was waiting. Half way down the narrow corridor she paused and wiggled her backside at us. Then she turned to face me and said, “Au revoir, mon amour,” in a highly seductive voice, like she really knew me. After that she went on her way, still wiggling her ass.

“Who is she, Monsieur?” Le Fevre asked. His voice was thick with the tone of a difficult police interrogation. Like a tired cop on a rough day.

“I don’t know!”

“But she seems to know you.”

I could feel my mouth gaping open with no words escaping. It was as though my brain had gone into premature retirement and it took some concerted mental effort to bump-start it back into working life.

“Hey there! Hang on a minute, will you.” I ran after the girl, but she hurried on through the saloonwhere the rookie cop made no effort to stop herand out onto the deck. Without a single backward glance, she hopped across onto the canal bank.

“Who are you? What are you doing here?” I stood on deck and shouted across to her, but she took no notice. Just took herself off down the towpath, swinging her shapely ass from side to side.

I was about to follow after her when an angry voice wafted up from inside the boat. “Monsieur!” It was Le Fevre.

“The girl!” I shouted back. “We must go after her. Must stop her.”

“Why? What has she done wrong?”

What indeed? In hindsight, she could well accuse me of intruding on her privacy while she was in a state of nudity. Whoever she was. I went back down below to confront Le Fevre with no idea how I was going to explain away what had happened.

The English guyInspector Morsewould, within seconds, have formed a good idea of where the dead body was hidden. Me? I hadn’t a clue. Sherlock Holmes’ agile brain would already be working on a logical reason for someone removing the body. Me? My mind was just a blank. Sam Spade would have figured out who the dusky broad was. Me? I was at a total loss.

“Now, Monsieur. You told us someone has been killed. Where is the body?” Le Fevre asked. The young cop stood behind him giving me knowing looks.

“I put it in the cabin.”

“The same cabin as?”

“Yes.” I led Le Fevre back down the corridor, pushed my head round the cabin door and felt the older gendarme squeeze his upper body in behind me.

“This is where you brought the body?” Le Fevre snapped as he stared into the cabin at the empty bunk. “In here?”

I looked about the cabin. Nothing was out of place, nothing was obviously wrong, even the bunk sheets looked clean. I stepped back into the corridor and just stood there nonplussed. With no other answers to fall back on, I simply nodded.

“I think, Monsieur Bodine, we should have another little talk.”

It wasn’t so much a talk as a rant. Le Fevre went on at me for about half an hour, and I could tell that he no longer believed one word I said. As far as he was concerned, a stupid American visitor was wasting the time of the Rennes gendarmerie.

“Try the yacht moored just downstream,” I told him. “There’s an overgrown youth down there who had a right ding-dong with Miss Bracewell in the marina at St. Malo. Go and ask him. Maybe he knows something.”

He did. And he came back even more grim-faced. That, I suppose, was inevitable and I should have expected it.

“The young man and his girlfriend know nothing about Miss Bracewell,” Le Fevre told me with a deep expression of annoyance. “They have not seen or met your companion, either here or at St. Malo. They tell me they have seen no one else but you on this boat.”

“They’re lying!”

“Someone is lying, Monsieur Bodine.” He leaned close towards me and breathed yet another cloud of garlic in my face. “Have you been drinking?”

“No!”

“Are there any?” He gestured. “Any illegal substances on this boat?”

“Drugs, you mean?” By this time I was getting really pissed off with the French policeman and I suppose my attitude showed it. “Oh, come off it! Do I look as if I’m high on dope? I mean, do I?”

“Maybe we should have a look, eh?”

They did, but they found nothing incriminating. Finally they made to leave and I got another brusque warning about wasting valuable police time. I was left with the distinct impression that they would be glad if I would pull up the boat’s mooring lines and head off out of their area.

“What about the dead girl’s body?” I pleaded. But it all fell of deaf ears. As far as Le Fevre was concerned there was no dead body on the boat. And no body meant no foul play.

“Viola Bracewell’s body was there in the cabin,” I insisted. “I put it there!”

Monsieur, dead bodies do not get up and walk away. Maybe your friend was only injured.”

“She was dead!”

“So show me a body. A dead body, not a young woman who obviously knows you better than you pretend.”

“I can’t show you a dead body. Dammit! I don’t know what’s going on here!”

“In that case, Monsieur, I think Miss Viola Bracewell was only injured and she has left of her own accord. Just like your other lady friend. Assuming this missing girl ever existed in the first place. Maybe this is some sort of American joke, eh? Or maybe you have been taking something that has given you hallucinations.” He hissed another stale, garlic-tainted breath into the air. “I am going to let this matter rest simply because you are American and we do not want any diplomatic trouble with the United States. In the meantime I have more important things to attend to.”

“Nice of you not to charge me,” I said.

He glared back at me. “If you do find a dead body you will let me know. Eh?”

I should have shut up at that point, but I didn’t. “There is a dead body. Miss Bracewell was dead when I left her in that cabin.”

“A cabin which has not a single trace of blood? The bunk is not even wet. I think you are mistaken, Monsieur.” He said ‘mistaken’ but I figured he meant ‘lying’.

“Blood? You want blood? I’ll show you blood.” On a sudden spurt of inspiration I went to the drawer where Viola had put her blood-stained handkerchief. I pulled it open with a flourish and checked inside. It was empty.

“You were saying, Monsieur?” Le Fevre tapped his hand on the saloon table.

“Nothing,” I conceded.

Le Fevre left without another word. He stalked off across the field with the young cop following in his wake. I stood on the deck and watched them go with a distinct feeling of desperation. Alone again, I went back to Viola’s cabin and gave it a thorough search. An odour of delicate perfume hung about the cabin. It was strange I hadn’t noticed it before. The coloured girl’s perfume perhaps? The bunk sheets had been changed since I left, that much was obvious. Whoever took her body had also cleaned up the place to remove any trace of blood. They had also removed my own wet and bloodied clothes.

I began another search of the cabin. I found Viola’s clothes in the cabin closet, including the jeans, the scruffy jersey and a pair of provocative panties. Why hadn’t I checked that when the cops were around? I carried on looking and in one of the drawers I found the usual female accoutrements: her make-up and her purse. And the handkerchief. It had been washed but was still wet. I also found a bundle of letters, but I just didn’t have the heart to read them. They were none of my concern.

Still as confused as before, I went back to the galley, made myself a sandwich and sat out on the deck to eat it. I’d added too much French dressing and it dripped down onto the deck. Then I decided I wasn’t really hungry anyway.

The sun was high in the sky, but it did nothing to lift my spirits. What should I do now? Go back to St. Malo? That wouldn’t serve any useful purpose. Stay here until I found Viola? It could be a long wait. Take the boat on down to La Roche Bernard? In the end I decided to stay put until the next day and then, if I still hadn’t found Viola’s body, I would head on down the river. It was a weak compromise, but at least I had made a decision.

My thoughts went back to the coloured girl. Logic said that she would know who had taken Viola. Common sense said she was an integral part of the plot. Whatever that plot was. But how was I to find her?

“Good day to you again, Monsieur.” A female voice called out from the canal bank behind me and I swivelled round suddenly. It was the young couple I had met earlier; the girl and the young gorilla. The girl was looking in my direction while the big youth stood behind her, scowling like a spoiled brat.

“Oh, it’s you.” I gritted my teeth and gave them a short wave.

“The police were able to help you? Non?” the girl continued.

“Not really.”

“Oh?” Was that a hint of a mocking smile I saw across her face? “Why is that?”

I thought carefully before answering. “The girl is missing.”

“You said she was dead.”

“Dead and missing. You told the police you didn’t see her.”

“That is true. We saw no one but you.” The girl’s head was bent forward, her whole stance just right to emphasize the curve of her jutting breasts.

“Maybe you’re mistaken. Did you hear anything? Like a gunshot?”

Non.”

I tried a different tack. “Did you see a coloured woman leave the boat and walk along the towpath?”

Non. Will you now wait here until you find your friend?”

“I suppose I must. A short while, at least.”

“I wish you luck.” Another hint of a mocking smile flashed between us.

“I’m sure you do.”

The young gorilla scowled at me again as they walked on past and I noticed that his hands were shaking badly. Like a junkie’s hands.

The afternoon passed slowly. I must have been out examining the grassy canal bank a dozen times and I went through Viola’s cabin again with a fine toothbrush. But I found nothing more to give me any clue about what had happened. Neither was there anyone I could contact to ask about Viola. No one but the rich and mysterious Ali Hassim who lived in a mansion near La Gacilly. And I knew little enough about him. Some instinctive sense of caution told me I’d be wise not to try to contact him. Not yet, at least.

It must have been around four o’clock when I suddenly hit on the idea of the farm nearby. That’s the way the brain works in an emergency, the good ideas often come a bit late in the day. Viola had been to the farm to fetch eggs and milk. They knew her. They also probably knew Hassim. Why hadn’t I thought of it before? Maybe that was where the coloured girl came from. Maybe there was some mileage to be gained here.

There was no point in waiting about on the boat when I could well learn something useful at that farmhouse just a short way off. So I prepared to set off to find out what the farm people could tell me.

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