The Breton Belle had been long enough moored at the canal bank and I was getting impatient. After listening to Williamson’s revelations, I was even more determined to confront Ali Hassim about what had happened to Viola. So, for equally valid reasons, was Williamson. Not surprisingly, he was anxious to tag along with me to discover what had happened to the girl he was supposed to be minding. I started up the engine while Williamson cast off the mooring line. When he came back into the saloon I swung away from the bank and headed on upstream towards la Gacilly.
“Nice little craft, this,” Williamson commented without much enthusiasm. He was using conversation as a decoy, a ploy to hide his own sense of distress. He lit up a cigar while standing beside me, his face still holding a tired, tense look. “Hassim sold it to raise some ready cash and Viola was taking it down to La Roche Bernard for the buyer to inspect it. Did you know that?”
“Not the whole story,” I replied. If it was true, it explained a lot. “Viola told me she was taking it down river for Hassim. You’re sure it’s the buyer who was to meet her at La Roche Bernard?”
“Absolutely, old chap. I imagine that Hassim will want to be there also. I mean, he’ll want to negotiate a good price for the boat, won’t he? And he’ll want to pocket the cash, or whatever currency they use. But the chances are that at the moment he has little idea when the boat will arrive.”
“It all seems a bit strange to me. Why didn’t Hassim try to get in touch with me? Why hasn’t he tried to find out what I’m doing with his boat?”
“Does he know that Viola is dead?”
“I’ve no idea.”
“Well, there’s your answer, old boy.” Williamson paused, looking at my casual clothes as if I was some sort of scruff-bag. It was the look of a pukkah British officer on parade, inspecting his troops and it made me feel damned uncomfortable. Eventually, he added, “Maybe he thinks Viola is still alive, still navigating the boat down to La Roche Bernard. It’s what was agreed after all.”
“Possibly. If he thinks she’s still alive.” I had my doubts about that particular conjecture. “But he’d know when she planned to get there.”
“Maybe not. The truth is, Viola wasn’t too sure herself. She told me she might stop off at la Gacilly to see Hassim at the chateau. I tried to persuade her not to, of course. I thought she might come to some harm, don’t you know.”
“That figures.” It seemed my initial judgment of Viola was far from accurate. She hadn’t even told me the truth of her plans for the journey.
I had the boat running smoothly down the middle of the cutting, slicing easily through the still waters which reflected the long green avenues on either bank. Williamson still had a lot more explaining to do and this seemed to be an appropriate time for me to persuade him to open up. Besides, I judged that he needed to talk to unburden his sorrows.
I sat back in the steering seat and said, “Now we’ve got the time, how about you give me the low down on another matter. You prowled around on board this boat the night before we left St. Malo. Why?”
“Just keeping an eye on things.” He coughed uneasily, then pulled himself together before he went on, “Viola came to see me late that night, after you were asleep in your cabin. She wanted to let me know who you were in case I got the wrong idea. She wasn’t entirely stupid, you know.”
“A matter of opinion.”
“Maybe. Anyhow, on her way back to the boat Jacques Hassim jumped her again. Did you know he attacked her on the marina at le port des Bas Sablon?”
“Saw it happen.”
“Did you really? Well, I managed to put paid to his attack on that occasion and I managed to beat him off the second time. But not before Viola got hurt, yet again. I went back to the boat with her, just to be sure there weren’t any further attacks.”
“I saw your cigar butt next morning. You should be more careful where you drop those things.”
“Sorry, old boy.” There was that appraising look again, like I had dandruff on my collar. “Anyhow, I stayed up watching the boat most of the night and went aboard once or twice just to be sure Viola was safe.”
“Minding the baby?”
“You didn’t think I might attack her?” I queried.
“I must admit I was a bit suspicious at first.” He shook his head. “You don’t exactly look like an officer and gentleman, if you don’t mind my saying so. But after Viola told me who you were, I checked you out through my contacts. Sorry to hear about what happened to your wife, by the way.”
“I’ll get over it.” I suddenly realized that I had temporarily forgotten that I was here in France to help me get over the loss of Penny. In a sense, that’s just what this trip had done: taken my mind off Penny. A bad way to get the desired effect, I decided.
I shook my head sadly. “You obviously put in a lot of effort to find out about me. Pity you didn’t take so much trouble over Viola.”
“Don’t rub it in, old chap.”
“I saw you again the night before Viola died,” I said as the river opened out into an idyllic green-banked stretch. “You were on the canal bank and you were arguing with someone. It was Viola, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, that’s right.” He blew out a long stream of cigar smoke. “I did meet Viola that night. She saw me watching the boat and told me to go away. Said I was… what was the word she used? She said I was bugging her. Not exactly how I would have described my task.”
“Dammit all. A chap like me doesn’t bug young women. I was there to protect her.”
I began to understand why the major was no longer in the employ of the British military. He would have been better employed in some Public Service Office handing out forms. Unimportant forms with lots of meaningless words.
“What was Viola doing in Rennes that night?” I asked. “She said she was shopping, but she didn’t want me along with her.”
“She went to phone Hassim. Wouldn’t tell me why though. She really did have some strong feelings for him, even though she was forced to break off the engagement. Maybe she was letting him know what progress she was having shifting his boat. She had to do it somewhat carefully, you know, in case the police caught on to what was happening.”
“The police?” Suddenly my ears pricked up. “Why? What was happening?”
“Dodgy business, old chap. She was moving the bankruptcy assets of a London bank with a view to an illegal sale. The boat, you see: it’s worth a bob or two. And Hassim needs every penny he can lay his hands on at the moment.”
“You didn’t spill the beans?”
“I say, old chap. Steady on. It wasn’t my job to land young Miss Viola in trouble with the police. It was as much as I could do to keep track of her.”
I scratched my chin and it wasn’t an itch that brought it about. “So, this boat is part of the assets which Hassim ought to surrender to the administrators. And Viola was trying to help him sell it. Good God, what a mess! That puts her in the role of an accomplice. She could have been picked up along with Hassim. That’s right, isn’t it?”
“Legally, yes.” Williamson took a sip of tea before going on. His little finger was carefully extended. “But a lot depends on whether the administrators know what Hassim was doing. In this sort of situation a felon will try to get away with as much of his liquid assets as he can cram into his trouser pockets. Sometimes they get away with quite a lot.”
“It gets worse by the minute, doesn’t it?”
“How right you are, old chap. According to Viola, Hassim was selling the boat in what you might call an under-the-table deal, but it is possible the buyer doesn’t even know he’s being dragged into an illegal purchase.”
“God, what a mess,” I repeated. “Shouldn’t we surrender the boat to the French police? I don’t plan on spending the rest of my vacation inside a French jail.”
“Technically, I suppose we should. But Hassim hasn’t actually been arrested yet and we can say that we’re just innocent bystanders doing the decent thing by returning the boat to its owner.”
Not so innocent, I thought.
A light suddenly flickered somewhere inside the darker parts of my brain. “Hold on there! I think I may know why Viola would have phoned Hassim that evening.”
“Really? What’s that, old chap?”
Instead of answering his question, I asked him, “What do you know about the ring Viola sold?”
“She sold her ring? You mean her engagement ring?”
“I don’t know what ring, but I do know she sold a ring.”
“How do you know?”
“I just do.” I wasn’t yet ready to produce the cheque as evidence. “So what do you know about it?”
Williamson stared ahead through glazed eyes for a couple of minutes. Then he shook his head and said, “When they got engaged Hassim gave her a very expensive diamond ring. He didn’t buy it especially for her of course, not when he was all-but bankrupt at the time. It was the one he bought for his wife when he was on the top rung of his financial ladder.”
“That could be it. Why would Viola sell it?”
“To raise cash for Hassim, I suppose.” Williamson shrugged his shoulders. “If she gave the ring back to Hassim it would have to be set against his debts. But if Viola sold it and gave him the money…”
“That’s it! No one else need know that he had the money. So Viola could have been helping him to get round the bankruptcy rules with the ring as well as the boat.”
“You could be right.” Williamson compressed his lips and then sighed. “It’s sad, but she was very much in love with him. How much did the ring raise?”
“Two hundred and fifty thousand pounds sterling.”
He whistled between his stained teeth. “Not a lot when you’re a millionaire several times over, but a tidy sum when you’re on the verge of being bankrupt. You think she went to phone him that night to say she had the money?”
“That would make sense.” Williamson scratched his chin. “And she wouldn’t want you to hear her talking to Hassim. She wouldn’t want you to know what she was up to.”
The river was wider now but still flat calm, just the stern wave drifting off behind us. It felt so peaceful, I could have grown to like that place.
“All right, major,” I said. “Now tell me the rest of the story. Why weren’t you minding the baby on the morning Viola died?”
He shook his head. “This is going to be the ruination of me. I don’t know how I’ll break it to his lordship.”
He took a deep draw on his cigar. It was no cheap smoke, but a real King Edward. He cleared his throat before answering. “I drove back to St. Malo very early that morning to talk to the people in the harbour office and to phone my report through to Lord Bracewell. While I was there I learned that Ali Hassim was also in St. Malo that day so I decided to stay a while and see what he was up to.”
“And what was he up to?”
“Visiting the local branch of the bank handling his French assets. Nothing untoward, so far as I could tell. He’s been there several times of late, desperately trying to tie up some sort of rescue plan. It’s all quite useless, of course. He really is doing his best to get money—any money—out of anyone who ever owed him a favour. And some who didn’t.”
I scratched my chin, remembering what I had seen in St. Malo while I was tailing Brigitte L’Orly. “Tell me what this Ali Hassim looks like.”
He did and the description sounded familiar. Chillingly familiar because it could have been the man Brigitte and her mama had met in St. Malo. Hell! Was that really Ali Hassim? If it was, he was too old for Viola Bracewell. But then, some girls were turned on by older men.
“You were in St. Malo when Viola was killed, looking for Hassim, yes?”
My mind was working overtime and this gave me another thought to dwell on. “Could Hassim have driven through Rennes the morning when Viola was killed, on his way to St. Malo?”
“Easily. In fact that’s probably when he would have been driving through Rennes.”
“Which means he had the opportunity to murder Viola? I mean, he was probably in the area at the time.”
Williamson turned up his nose. “Hmmh, yes. That’s quite likely how things panned out. But why would Hassim want to do such a thing? Viola was actually doing something to help him at the time.”
“Damned if I know, Charlie. I’m damned if I know. But someone did the foul deed that morning, and it wasn’t me.”
“Never thought it was, old chap.”
“And I’ll assume it wasn’t you.”
“I say, old boy, steady on.” His face dropped, an indication that his sense of grievance was genuinely felt. The sense of guilt over the loss of his charge was clearly weighing heavily on his mind.
“You did make some rash moves, you know.” I wasn’t going to let him off scot free.
“Well, yes. I suppose I did. But to think that I could actually kill her…? Good heavens, old boy!”
“Don’t get your knickers in a twist, major.” I said, pulling out one of those cute English expressions with the most reassuring tone I could manage. “Like I said, you’re no longer on my list of suspects. We’ll need to get our heads together on this one and we’ll need to have our wits about us. It could be a ticklish business. Can you look after yourself if the going gets rough?”
“I rather think I can.” The stiff upper lip mentality began to make itself apparent. “Military training and all that, don’t you know. But what about you?”
Good question. I caught a quick recap of the way he had dealt with the big youth on the marina quay, and decided I was probably a little less fit than Williamson.
“I’ll take it as it comes,” I said.
We cruised on along the wider part of the canal, which now looked more like a small lake. At the far end we branched off down a much narrower tributary river that led to la Gacilly. At first it was so narrow I thought we might be heading into a dead end. Reeds closed in on both sides, clawing at the boat’s hull, leaving me no visible way out for some minutes. Then, just when I thought we were about to come to a nasty full stop, the clawing ceased.
“Just one more thing, major,” I said as the reeds opened out and the river boundaries became more solid. I eased on more power. “How come you sneaked aboard again when we were moored near Rennes?”
“Same reason as the first time, old chap. Trying to make sure Jacques Hassim hadn’t done anything rather silly.”
“But…” I pulled at my chin, thoughtfully. “That was the night after Viola was killed. Someone had already done something rather silly!”
“I didn’t know she’d been killed, did I? I didn’t know until you informed me! She’d told me I was to stop bugging her so I had to resort to checking up on things while she was asleep.”
“You didn’t think it suspicious when you didn’t see Viola on board? Just how far did you check the cabins?”
“Good heavens, old boy! I didn’t go into her cabin. It’s not the sort of thing a gentleman would do, is it?” Beneath the surface veneer of his strict military bearing he seemed deeply perturbed. “I assumed she was asleep at the time. Everything looked in order so I went on down to Redon to wait for the boat to go through the town. Assumed you would moor there to take on water.”
“Which I did. Without Viola.” This was looking more and more like a Comedy of Errors. Hell! Even I wasn’t coming out of it smelling of English roses.
“I kept my distance from you so as not to upset Viola,” Williamson said. “I reckoned she was probably getting a bit fed up with me tagging along everywhere she went.”
“Meanwhile, Viola was dead and missing.” Stating the obvious was probably not advancing the situation, but I did it anyway.
“But I didn’t know that!” Williamson was getting tensed-up once more. It seemed to be his natural reaction to stress.
“Major, are you sure you’re up to this business of minding people?”
“It’s my job.”
“It was your job. An English guy called Captain Smith had the job of taking the Titanic across the Atlantic. That was his job. He wasn’t any more successful that you.”
“Don’t rub it in, old boy!” The moustache was visibly quivering by now. He lowered his voice. “Don’t know what they’re going to say when they hear about this at my club. Could be a bit awkward. Chaps have been asked to resign for less, you know.”
It’s at times like this you begin to understand why all those English soldiers died so needlessly in long past wars: the Peninsular war, the Boer War, the 1914–18 war. They all had their share of incompetent officers armed with nothing but bravado and bluster. Williamson was a man out of his natural time, which was probably to his benefit in the long run. It meant less chance of him leading yet another charge of the light brigade.
The river was beautiful here, at times completely shielded by overhanging trees. It was also so narrow in places I hoped we didn’t meet another craft coming the other way. But the beauty of the scene wasn’t the main thing on my mind.
“I assume it was because of her father that Viola told Hassim the engagement was off. It was, wasn’t it?” I asked.
“Yes. His Lordship ordered it. Most insistent, he was. He knew the truth about Hassim, you see. Well he was bound to find out, wasn’t he? The dubious stock market dealings, the seriousness of the financial collapse, the rumours of how he beat his first wife. How could he not know?”
“Beat his wife? God, this gets worse.” I shook my head despairingly. “And to think Viola loved a creep like that!”
“Viola was a very trusting young woman.” Williamson sighed again before going on, “Possibly a little foolish. Possibly a little short on understanding of human nature. She didn’t believe the stories of his violent temper.”
“He beat her, so I heard!”
“Only once. And she didn’t put much importance to it. She thought she could see some good in him. That’s what she told me. She thought he would be good to her once they were married.”
“Christ! She really must have been living in cloud cuckoo land. And he was too old for her.”
“Some young girls prefer the maturity of an older man.” Williamson pulled at his moustache, like he was preening himself. “In my time I’ve had one or two young fillies look my way, you know.”
“You don’t say.” I kept my thoughts on that score strictly to myself. Visions flitted by, visions of wrinkly old Gandhi sleeping with naked young virgins. “Could Hassim have killed Viola in a fit of pique?”
“I don’t know. He had the opportunity. Despite what Viola thought of him, I certainly wouldn’t put a bit of rough play past him. He had hit other women, you know.”
“Yes, I know.” I scratched at my chin as I posed the next question. “Is it possible she was shot because she refused to hand over the money from the sale of the ring?”
“I rather think not. Not if Hassim was the murderer. She would have sold the ring especially to help him, so she would have given him the money willingly. No, he would need some other motive. But it’s very possible the ring was the motive if someone else was after it. The ring or the money from the sale of it.”
“Jacques or Colette?” I suggested.
“What about Brigitte L’Orly and her mother.”
Williamson pulled at his moustache. “Hmmmh. I’m not too clear about them. They certainly have had some dealings with Hassim. Not too sure exactly what.”
“Could they have killed Viola?”
“Hmmh.” His uncertainty showed through again in his unmelodic humming. “That’s what we want to find out, isn’t it?”
“It certainly is, major. It certainly is.”
Shortly after that Williamson went off to the galley to make himself another cup of tea. He brought it up on deck and sat staring at the passing green riverbanks, his private thoughts miles away. I judged that, like a fish out of water, he was mentally grasping at anything that could save him. I didn’t envy him having to explain all this to Viola’s father.
We saw Hassim’s chateau between the trees as we came around a sharp bend. It sat on a hillside, set in its own estate alongside the river although there was no landing stage anywhere along the boundary of Hassim’s land. At least, none we could see. Wherever he normally kept his boat, it certainly wasn’t here. There wasn’t even a footpath on that side of the river.
“It doesn’t look like we can go calling from here,” I said.
Williamson shook his head. “I don’t see any formal path up to the house. Maybe they never bring boats up here to the chateau.”
“If they do, they don’t berth them here. How far is the chateau from la Gacilly?”
“About a mile. No more.”
“And there are moorings at the town?”
“Yes, I’ve seen them from the road through the town. Rather pretty little spot, actually.”
“Really? In that case, we’ll go on to la Gacilly and moor there. You know if we can hire a car in the town?”
“I’d imagine so, old boy. Left my hire car in Redon. If I’d thought about it I could have driven on…”
“Never mind that now, major. We’ll get another and drive round to the chateau from la Gacilly. See what we come up with, eh?”
“Yes, quite. Jolly good idea.”
The river meandered into la Gacilly like a scene from a movie. Trees arched overhead for the last mile or so, making it seem like we were leaving a tunnel, moving from darkness into sunlight just as we came upon the town. The moorings consisted of a single aluminium pontoon at the side of the river. Just beyond it there was a bridge over the river and then a steep weir which made further navigation upstream impossible.
I eased up a few yards beyond the mooring pontoon and reversed back onto it alongside another cruiser. We nudged in gently and I cut the engine. Williamson went to the stern and jumped onto the pontoon to tie up. He came back with a strange look of embarrassment written large across his face, but he offered no explanation.
“What now, old boy?”
“Reckon I’ll go and look for a rental car,” I told him. It was well past noon so I added, “Think you can rustle up something to eat?”
“Certainly, old chap. Leave it to me.” His face loosened enough to tell me he was glad to have someone else take the lead.
“I’ll be back in half an hour or so. Don’t make a mess of the cooking.”
A neat, gleaming white river cruiser was moored directly alongside the Breton Bell, a bigger craft with wider side decking. There seemed to be no one about so I hopped across the narrow gap between the two boats and headed towards the pontoon. The centre cockpit of the other boat was slid fully back, sunshine pouring down into the recessed stateroom.
That’s when I spotted the occupants. Two of them. At first glance they seemed to be enjoying one hell of a vigorous screw. Then I noticed that all the action was coming from the guy. The girl was lying back and leaving him to it. She was slim and dark-haired—probably in her mid-to-late-twenties—wearing a bright flowery sundress. Her boyfriend was a muscular guy with a thick body and a tiny pair of swimming pants about his ankles.
The girl suddenly looked across her boyfriend’s shoulder at me. Dark rounded eyes focused right on my face. She had one of those enigmatic faces: once seen, never forgotten. Broad, high cheekbones, soft white skin, lower part of the face narrowing to an almost pointed chin. Elfin-like and almost mischievous. She smiled and winked as I hurried by. Clearly, she was not totally impressed by her boyfriend’s performance, but I suppose the earth doesn’t always move for you when you’re on a boat. The boyfriend didn’t even notice me. Now I knew the reason for Williamson’s embarrassment.
I climbed a small wall to get to a path which led up towards the bridge and then into the town. La Gacilly was just a sleepy country place, but picturesque with it. The population seemed to be resurrecting after their mid-day siesta, the few people out of doors wandering slowly through a quiet, pastoral setting. There was one main street and the rest seemed to be a narrow and quaint stage backdrop. I found a garage at the far end of the main street where they understood enough English to hire me a small Citroen. It cost a bomb, but I presumed that once they heard my American accent they bumped up the price a notch or two. With no competition in the town there wasn’t much I could do about it. I paid up as cheerfully as I could manage and left the car at the garage to be collected later.
When I got back to the moorings I took care to jump aboard the Breton Belle and not stray onto the boat alongside. The name across the stern of the other boat said Playful Petunia. Voices drifted up from the sunken stateroom and I nodded briefly to the young couple as I approached them. They were sprawled out on leather cushions, drinking from long-stem wine glasses. The young woman was still in her sundress, the skirt back where it should be, and the guy had his pants pulled up round his waist.
Williamson stood on the Breton Belle’s deck chatting to them across the divide. He looked up when he saw me come back on board. “Henry, my dear fellow, any luck with a car?”
“Yes. I got us a small set of wheels for two days.”
“Excellent. I’ve been having a little chat with our neighbours here. They have relatives living in la Gacilly.”
“How nice.” Right then I didn’t particularly care if they had relatives in Buckingham Palace.
“Absolutely, old boy. And guess what. Those relatives have met Mr Hassim.”
“Really?” That was different. Now he had my interest.
I turned to the young couple. “Hello there, I’m Henry Bodine.”
The young woman smiled broadly and her boyfriend raised a hand in acknowledgement. He seemed somewhat less than enthusiastic in making my acquaintance.
Williamson took up the introductions. “This is Miss Cherie Dubois and Mr Andre Fontaine. They’re here on holiday from Paris.”
“Having a good time?” I asked, knowing full well that the boyfriend certainly was having one hell of a time. I wasn’t too sure about the girl.
It was Cherie Dubois who answered. “Oui, M’sieur. You also are enjoying a holiday in France?”
“More of a working vacation,” I replied. “Tell me more about these relatives: the ones who’ve met Mr Hassim.”
“That is my aunt and uncle. They live up there in the town.” She pointed towards a narrow street just up from the river. “They both work at the perfume factory. You know there is a perfume factory just outside the town?”
“I didn’t, but I do now.”
“M’sieur Hassim buys much perfume from the factory. He likes to give perfume as presents. That is what my aunt tells me.”
Not any more, he won’t, I thought but kept it to myself. Instead I said, “So they’ve both met Mr Hassim at the factory?”
“My uncle has only seen him briefly. But my aunt has taken the perfume up to the chateau. First it was for Madame Hassim and then for the other ladies who stay there.”
“Other ladies, eh?” There was likely to be some real mileage in this. “Would she talk to us, your aunt?”
“Oui. But why would you want to talk to an old lady?”
“We… we’re journalists writing about Mr Hassim.” It was a spur of the moment lie, but I had nothing else up my sleeve. “We want to know what the local people think of him.”
The girl’s eyes lit up. “You have a photographer?” I caught her meaning straight off. With a face and figure like hers, she had to be a sure-fire modelling opportunity for any perceptive photographer. Maybe he would get more than just photographs if he got his focus right.
“No. He’ll come later.” I hate lying. Especially to attractive women who are naive enough to believe me. “Look, could you take us to your aunt?”
“Oui. I will show you where she lives.”I glanced at my watch. We had been in la Gacilly just forty minutes. It was a good start.