As the canal meandered south, we passed through several locks with ease. I was beginning to enjoy the lazy life aboard the boat. This is the sort of thing I needed to help me relax.
Late in the afternoon we came to a village called Evran and moored the Breton Belle at the quay. The adjacent landscaped picnic area made it a choice place to stop and three other boats were moored nearby. We were in sight of a cluster of rural houses and I hoped that would give us some small measure of security in case an assailant decided to put Viola in his sights. We also had a view of the town’s strangely shaped church tower.
Viola seemed easier in her mind as we secured the mooring lines. “We’ll stay here tonight. I don’t want to get to get to Bazouges-sous-Hede until tomorrow. There’s a staircase of water which we have to climb and it’ll take some time to get through it. Eleven locks in all. We should tackle it in the morning, while we’re still fresh.”
I stood on the deck and studied each of the other boats in turn: two yachts and a river barge. They seemed innocent enough. “Sounds like a steep climb. You want me to get out and push?”
“Stop teasing me.” Her dark expression told me she wasn’t amused. “It’ll take us all of four hours just to get through that series of locks.”
“So we’re in for a busy ride?”
“Fortunately the locks are all manned. And the lock keepers have some lovely flowery gardens.” She smiled at me. “You like flowers?”
“No. They remind me of weddings and funerals.” Stupid remark, it put me in mind of Penny… our wedding… her funeral.
Later that evening I decided to delay going to sleep. If an assailant did turn up I wanted to be awake and ready for him. I pulled out a paperback copy of The Maltese Falcon and lay on my bunk fully dressed, which was a bit pointless as it turned out. No one came calling and I fell asleep fully dressed.
I didn’t sleep well and I felt tired the next day when we had to tackle that long line of lock gates at Bazouges-sous-Hede. My own fault, I suppose.
The second evening was upon us when we moored about a mile or so north of Rennes at a peaceful spot against a grassy canal bank. Trees and hedges lined the adjacent footpath but failed to fully blank our view of the town. Fields stretched off into the opposite distance with only a quiet farm nearby to spoil the vista of open country. I assumed that had to be the farm where the family knew Hassim.
I went ashore and pegged down the mooring ropes. Despite my tiredness, I told myself it was just the sort of quiet spot I’d have chosen for myself. When I looked up I saw Viola standing on the foredeck, a thoughtful expression across her face which was pointed in the direction of Rennes. The ugly bruising on her skin was still evident even from a distance.
“I want to go into the town to pick up some groceries this evening,” she said casually, almost too casual for my ear. In the aviation business you soon get to know when someone is slipping you a bum steer. Air traffic controllers are past masters at pulling the wool over the eyes of pilots, which is why some lesser jet jockeys end up at the back of the landing queue every time.
“I’d like to come with you,” I told her. I had this feeling that something was wrong and I ought to find out what it was.
“You don’t have to.”
“It’s not a matter of having to. I want to.”
“Please yourself if you want to go into the town.” She didn’t sound too keen. “But I’m going there alone. You can do the same. On your own.”
“Thanks for the hospitality.” I instantly regretted the acid tone, but she seemed not to have noticed. Clearly, her mind was elsewhere.
Ten minutes later she changed into jeans and a tight sweater and went across the fields to the farmhouse. Her face wore a dark look as she set out, and that should have rung some warning bells for me. Half an hour passed before she came back with eggs, milk and butter. I was sitting on the forward cabin roof at the time, but she barely looked at me as she came on board. Her face was still fixed with that same dark expression. Something wasn’t right—I was certain of it now—but I told myself to let it be. This wasn’t a time to stir up trouble. Dammit, neither the boat, nor the girl was my responsibility. Why couldn’t I accept that?
Viola set off towards the town soon after we had eaten a rather sparse meal. At least, I ate it while she just pushed odd bits of food around her plate. Somehow her heart wasn’t in the cooking that evening, which left me feeling more than a bit pissed off. She had even taken to ignoring my attempts at making conversation.
I allowed ten minutes to pass after she left and then I closed up the hatches and set off along the canal bank towards Rennes. There was no point in letting her think I was tailing her, even if my mind was filled with dark suspicions. I had gone barely half a mile before I noticed two people some way ahead. They were talking quite heatedly although I couldn’t make out what they were saying.
I stopped and moved into the shadow of a tree on the canal path. Eventually one of the figures stormed off towards the town. I had the vague impression that it was Viola. The other figure turned and came towards me. I instinctively moved back and hid behind a tall, overhanging hedge.
The man was walking fast, head down, and was he almost by me before I recognized him as the swarthy skinned old guy I had seen on the harbour at St. Malo; the one who had gone to Viola’s rescue. He continued down the canal path and stopped beside the Breton Belle. For a moment I thought he intended to go aboard, but he had stopped only to light up a cigar. Moments later he kicked up his heels and hurried on down the path.
After that I lost interest in visiting Rennes. This whole thing was getting beyond me. I went back to the boat and wasted an hour lying on my bunk trying to occupy my mind with The Maltese Falcon. But Sam Spade went cold on me. It was close on midnight before I heard Viola returning. She went straight to her own cabin and, soon after, I heard sounds which made me suspect she was crying again, but I decided that it really was none of my business. Not an easy thing to do.
I slept uneasily that night.
The following morning I was woken by the sunlight streaming into the cabin and glinting on the burnished brass lamp above my head. I sat up dozily and pulled aside the curtain. The boat was still moored to the bank. For a full minute I sat there quietly, allowing the final effects of waking to take control of my body. The boat was silent except for the gentle slapping of the water against the hull. As total consciousness took over, I felt the urge to get outside and plunge into the cool water. I needed to clear my head.
I pulled on my swimming shorts and slipped quietly out of my cabin in case Viola was still asleep. She was probably in need of a lie-in, I told myself. As I crept into the saloon I heard a sound out on deck and glanced up through the half-open companion way. Viola was already awake and she was standing near the rear end of the boat with her back towards me.
There was something very sad about the way she stood with her hands at her side and her head bent forward. The unashamedly naked virgin. Would I ever begin to understand what the hell was driving her?
I stepped further back into the saloon in case she turned and spotted me, but she didn’t. She suddenly moved right to the stern of the boat and plunged over the side into the water in one graceful move. I stood there, alone for perhaps five seconds; deeply disturbed as I visualized her trim figure. Compared with the naked strippers I’d seen at that Blue Taboo club in Belfast, she really was an innocent. A sense of guilt crept over me and I turned back to my cabin.
Lying on my bunk, I picked up my paperback novel and tried to read, but it was impossible, not with that image of Viola so deeply implanted into my brain. Eventually, I picked out the sound of her wet feet padding across the deck. The sounds stopped suddenly.
“What do you want now?” Viola’s voice cut suddenly through the still morning air. She was apparently calling to someone near the boat. I looked through the cabin window but saw no one.
The response was almost inaudible. I couldn’t even make out if it came from a man or woman.
“It isn’t yours! He gave it to me!” Viola suddenly burst into shouting, sounding distinctly agitated.
I frowned and dropped the book. Something was very wrong outside and I had fears for the girl’s safety. I’d seen her in danger before, and I still had no idea who she was arguing with. I slipped my feet over the edge of the bunk.
“I haven’t got it with me! I told you that before!” There was a sharp element of alarm in Viola’s voice this time. Something was really wrong now. I went to the cabin door and listened, but I was unable to make out any other voice so I continued out into the short corridor.
As I came along the corridor, Viola’s voice was louder still. “Put it away, will you. It frightens me. The whole thing was nothing to do with me. I wasn’t there. How could I have been there?”
What the hell was she talking about? My sense of alarm intensified in the eerie silence that followed. No sounds when there should have been sounds. Suddenly the silence was broken by the thunderous roar of a gunshot. A voice—it sounded like Viola crying out—then a loud, heavy splash.
Then silence again.
“Viola!” I called out as I raced into the saloon. Too fast. I tripped over a floor mat and fell full length on the floor. Damn! I picked myself up and peered through the side windows. But I could neither see nor hear anyone on the canal bank outside. Still cursing, I hurried on up through the companionway hatch. On deck the sun hit me full in the face, momentarily blinding me. I blinked and shaded my eyes.
I stood there, unsure of myself, looking round for a sign of Viola and her visitor.
The sun was lighting up the roofs in the distant town. Leaves of nearby trees rustled in a faint breeze and then went silent again. A barn door creaked on the nearby farm. Even the canal water seemed to have gone strangely silent.
I saw no one until my gaze fell downwards. A sharp spasm of shock punched right through me. Viola’s body was lying face down in the water, her legs trapped by the reeds at the side of the canal. Her arms were outstretched towards the centre of the canal, her long, auburn hair drifting in the slow current.
A red stain of blood streamed away from her.