…this is the best deal we were able to effect on your behalf for the sale of your diamond ring…
I went through those words again and again, wondering at the possibilities. Where did the ring come from? Why did Viola sell it? What had it to do with her death?
Then again, there was the possibility that I could so easily read into it a false meaning, sending me along the wrong path entirely. Maybe the letter was nothing whatsoever to do with her death, maybe it was totally innocent and easily explained by people who knew Viola’s private business. The problem was that I did not know her business and I had no other clues on which to form an accurate picture. I had to take the information as it stood.
I put the letter and the cheque in my pants pocket, figuring it was safer with me than left lying around in a drawer. As I stood there, weighing in my mind a variety of possibilities, I heard a movement behind me and I turned to see Brigitte staring at me from the doorway. She wore a complex facial expression, a mixture of surprise and accusation, as if she had caught me in the act of getting too deeply involved with another woman.
In a sense, she had.
“What are you looking for?” she asked. She stood with her legs apart and her arms folded. The stance conjured up images of Barbarella, although Brigitte was far too young to know that. And modern kids think they invented fantasy fiction.
“Nothing to concern you, Brigitte.”
“You are looking for something. Why are you searching my cabin?”
“It’s Viola’s cabin,” I pointed out.
She conceded the point with a loud sniff. “All right. Why were you searching her cabin?”
“Thought I might find something useful.”
“What? What did you expect to find in here?”
“Something to help me find out what happened to her.” I gathered up the letters and put them back in the drawer. When I again looked up into Brigitte’s face she gave me a stern, silent reprimand, squaring her shoulders as if she was ready to wrestle with me. The thought alone made me tingle.
“You have found something?”
It was time to change the subject, before she asked questions which hit too close to the mark. “Brigitte, do you have many boyfriends at home?”
“A few. Why do you want to know?” She curled her lips into a sultry look which hinted at what was left unsaid. There was no doubt she was a child of nature, a follower of what came naturally. Raw, earthy and sensual. Like her mother, perhaps?
“I bet they like your figure, huh? Your boyfriends.”
“Of course.” She unwrapped her arms, pulled down the top of her swimsuit and thrust her chest towards me. “You like my tits, eh? So why should other men not like them?”
“Why not, indeed? And does your mother allow you to go around naked in front of your boyfriends?”
“Non!” she snorted loudly. “Of course not. Mama is very strict. She tells me off whenever I undress by the swimming pool. She says she will tell the priest to excommunicate me.”
“I tell her, hah! I have seen the new younger priest looking at my tits. And when I go to the confession he asks me to go in the same side of the box with him. I sit on his knee and he strokes me. So I tell mamma to let the priest excommunicate me and I will tell the bishop!”
She had guts, you could say that about Brigitte! She sure knew how to stand up for herself. But I decided to ignore the underlying story. As a lapsed Catholic I knew of similar tales back in the US.
“That’s no concern of mine, Brigitte. But what about mama? I take it she doesn’t approve of you taking your clothes off.”
“Hah! Mama shouts at me too much.”
I frowned and caught a quick recollection of mama scolding the daughter who towelled her breasts in the sunshine alongside the pool. In one sense it figured. Mama was strict about such things. But in another sense it just didn’t add up. Mama was not that strict, surely. She must have been playing the field herself after papa died in order to produce the youngest member of the L’Orly family. Perhaps it was a case of double standards.
“What about mama’s friends?” I asked. “Does she have any… well, you know… men friends?”
Brigitte laughed openly and regrouped her arms across her chest. “Men friends? Mama? Hah! There is Father Roget, the older village priest. He comes to the farm every week to see mama since papa died. And there is old Monsieur deBois at the hotel in Rennes, but he is ninety next winter.”
“No one else, huh?”
She gave it a cursory thought. “Just people who live nearby. Why do you ask?”
“No reason.” I bypassed the question and tried to sound casual. “How about Mr Hassim? Does your mama know Mr Hassim?”
Brigitte dropped her arms and shrugged her shoulders. Her breasts rose and fell in rhythm. “She has met him but she does not like him.”
“But he’s been to the farm?”
“Oui. But mama does not like him.”
“Okay, I think I’m beginning to get the picture.” In fact I must have been getting a little too sure of myself because I was lying. The truth was I didn’t have any sort of clear picture of what was going on.
“Look, Brigitte, I think you should get dressed before we reach Redon.”
She moved closer to me, slowly swinging her arms from side to side. “You do not like to see me some more? You do not like to feel me again?”
She reached down and stroked the front of my shorts.
The tantalizing bitch!
“That really is not the point, Brigitte.” I could feel myself getting too hot.
“But you do like me?”
She was close enough to brush her breasts against my chest and it set my blood racing, heart thumping. She knew exactly what she was doing.
“I like you, Brigitte.” I could tell instantly that my voice had risen an octave. “But we are going to have to motor on down the river and into the marina at Redon. I think you should put some clothes on.”
“Maybe I will, maybe I won’t.” She stepped back suddenly, gave me a wicked smile, then turned and wiggled her bottom at me. As she left, she called back over one shoulder. “If you do not like me maybe I let someone else feel me. Non? There are other men who will like to get their hands on me.”
“I’m sure there are, Brigitte. Lots of them.”
“Hah!” She departed in a blaze of dissatisfaction.
Left alone once more, I breathed a sigh of relief. There was now little doubt in my mind that Brigitte was tied up more deeply in the death of Viola Bracewell than I had first thought. And the news that Mama L’Orly had had dealings with Hassim seemed to be significant. Was Hassim her lover? Surely not! The idea of any man jumping into bed with Madame L’Orly was enough to set the mind boggling.
I went back up on deck, cast off and then set the boat nosing on along the river. Alone again, I allowed my thoughts to wander back to what had happened on this strange journey and Viola’s voice came into my brain to haunt me all the way into Redon.
“It isn’t yours! He gave it to me!” she had said.
If she had been referring to that ring, I felt sure I was onto something important. But who had she been talking to? One thought stuck firmly in my mind, who else would try to claim ownership of a diamond ring, except another woman? And at the time of the murder the nearest woman had been the young gorilla’s companion, a girl about Viola’s own age. That girl, whoever she was, had lied to me, lied to the police and was strongly tied up with the young bruiser who had attacked Viola. As a suspect, she began to rise up from out of the pack.
Then again, did Madame L’Orly have some sort of claim to the ring? Or even Brigitte? However unlikely, it was possible and I had to keep in mind every possibility until the truth emerged. By now, my thoughts had drifted away from the swarthy faced watcher and I had even begun to discount the coloured girl from my calculations.
It was evening when we reached Redon, a market town where I had already decided to spend the night. I pulled out a river guide to find the route into the marina near the town centre. By then Brigitte had changed into tee shirt and shorts so I had no qualms about the natives catching sight of her. That was a relief because I could do without any hassle from the police in Redon.
The town sat astride the River Vilaine and I judged from the charts that there would be good moorings where I could fill up with fresh water. I also needed groceries and it seemed like a good idea to get the boat as close as possible to the stores. Beyond the river barrage, I swung the Breton Belle through a sharp right-hand turn that led into the marina and found a quiet mooring alongside an empty pontoon. It was too late to visit the local stores that evening so I asked Brigitte to see what she could rustle up. She wasn’t too co-operative at first but eventually she agreed to cook us the French equivalent of a stew. She knocked it together out of what she found in the galley ice box, cooking in a pregnant silence. In the event, it turned out to be a passable meal, but Viola would have done better. So would Simone.
Dear Simone, I was missing her more and more as the days and hours passed.
After the meal, I walked into the town, leaving Brigitte to her own resources. I could do without her company for an hour or so. The streets were quiet and I was glad to be on my own to think about what I was going to do next. I had been wandering for about an hour and had strayed onto the edge of an area of parkland when I came across a group of youths hanging about listlessly in an ugly group. Yobs like that are a pretty common sight in any major town back home in the States—in fact in any major town in any country—so I had no trouble sizing them up straight away. A bunch of layabouts with nothing better to do but smoke pot and drown their tonsils in cheap booze. At a conservative guess, there would be about half a dozen active brain cells shared between the lot of them. On reflection, that seemed like a pretty generous assessment. I turned away, following a path which led to the river and within an hour I was back at the marina.
Brigitte was sitting in the salon, reading a paperback book. She eyed me suspiciously when I went back on board, but she said nothing and, not long after, we both turned in for an early night. That suited me fine.
I wasn’t surprised when Brigitte came again to my cabin that night, but this time I was prepared. Mentally, if not physically. She stood in the doorway and slowly slipped her night-dress over her head, letting it fall in a bundle on the floor. Then she took up a silent seductive pose, smiling at me with dancing eyes. One hand twisted a strand of her hair fringe across her face. It was a pretty good parody of Salome tempting Herod. I’d long had the idea that Salome’s dance had nothing to do with nimble footwork and one hell of a lot to do with a naked romp in bed, and that was certainly what Brigitte had in mind. Her problem was that I wasn’t cut out to be any sort of ancient King. Tempted, yes, but stronger-willed.
“No, Brigitte.” I set my teeth and spoke firmly. “I was wrong to take advantage of you before. It won’t happen again.”
“But I want it!” She pouted and crossed to my bunk where she sat with her legs slightly parted, and her upper arms gently squeezing her breasts together. By heaven, she knew how to tease a guy!
“No, Brigitte.” But how difficult it was to say that.
“Merde! You Americans have no amour. In France a girl needs the loving like you Americans need your Southern Comfort.”
Oh God! It would be so easy to give in. She was so delicious.
“But I need it!”
“Brigitte, what would mama say if she knew you were doing this?”
“Why you ask that? Mama is not here. What has mama got to do with it?”
“A lot. Because whatever mama would say, that’s what I’m going to say.”
“Merde!” She jumped up and leaned over me. “You have no heart. You have no passion.” She flared her nostrils. Rebuffed passion turned suddenly into outright anger. A quick bit of feather-smoothing was called for.
“Sit down for a moment, Brigitte and tell me about yourself and your family.”
“You want to talk when I am offering you the loving?” She snorted, throwing out a loud burst of air between partially clenched teeth.
“Just sit down, damn it!” My annoyance was beginning to get through to her by now.
She sat again on the side of my bunk. There was more than a hint of reluctance in her voice. “Okay, American, first we talk. Then, maybe…”
“We just talk.”
She sniffed loudly. “Have it your way.”
“Good.” I shifted to try to make myself more comfortable. “Tell me about your family, Brigitte. Tell me about your father.”
“Papa?” She sighed deeply and the aggressive sensuality suddenly fell away from her like leaves from a tree in the fall. The abruptness of the change in her behaviour was so dramatic it had to be real. “Poor papa. He was good to us. He played the games with us and he always brought us the chocolate when he went to the shops.”
“He worked the farm himself?”
“With mama. And we all helped in the fields. But papa wanted me to have the good education because I was the eldest. I did not want to go away, but he said I must. So I went away to school. Papa died while I was away at school and I was very sad. I did not see him before he died. I cried much after that.”
“What happened then?”
“We did not have enough money to get more help on the farm.” She lowered her eyes sadly and fingered her long, varnished nails. “So I had to go to work. I worked in the kitchens at the big house near la Gacilly.”
I frowned. “Who’s big house?”
She shrugged. “Monsieur Hassim’s.” She said it as if I should have known. Maybe I should have guessed. But now I knew how mama had come into contact with Hassim and my muscles stiffened. One small hazy part of the big picture was beginning to clear.
“You still work there?”
“Non. Mama told Monsieur Hassim he had to find me other work. So I wait for him to find me other work.”
“Why? Why did mama say you had to have other work?”
Brigitte averted her eyes. “She was not happy.”
An odd sort of reply, but I didn’t follow up on why mama was not happy. Instead I prompted Brigitte to go further. “And then…?”
“I still wait for the other work. There is no hurry.”
“I guess mama must have some sort of influence with the guy.”
“She does not like him. She shouts at him when he comes to the house.”
Brigitte shrugged her shoulders once more. She wasn’t going to answer that question so I backed off. Mentally, I stored away the niggling unanswered questions to be pulled out at some later time when they were more likely to be fully answered.
“You miss your papa?” I asked.
“Oui. And I miss my family.”
Missed her family? Dammit, the girl had tagged along with me at her request, not mine. I didn’t even want her here. This didn’t make sense. Even stranger, the conversation was now having a marked effect upon Brigitte. Tears were dribbling down her cheeks and she brushed them aside with a surprising degree of irritation. I had never imagined she could be so easily upset.
“What about Viola Bracewell?” I asked. “What do you know about her?”
“She is the silly girl. I do not like her.”
She puckered up her nose in a gesture of distaste. “She thinks that she is the clever one and I am the fool. She looks down her nose when she tells me that her father is the big man in England. She says that he is the big English Lord with much money. And her brother is the air force pilot who flies the jets. She is the bourgeoisie and she thinks I am the poor nobody. So I do not like her.”
“Is that the only reason you didn’t like her?”
“It is not enough? You want to know more reasons why I do not like her?” Brigitte was getting herself highly animated now. “I tell you why! She is the silly girl. She boasts that she is the virgin and I am the village whore because I like the loving.”
I gave that some careful thought. Viola had tried to assure me about her virginity. Made a big thing out of it. Then I asked, “How did you first meet her?”
“What does it matter?” She pouted and then gave me a stern look of reprimand. “It is none of your business.”
“Will you tell me what’s upsetting you?” I asked. “It’s not just because I won’t let you into my bed. Is it?”
That was another question for which I would get no reply. Instead, she stood up suddenly and turned away.
“I will go back to my own cabin, now.” I heard a loud sniff and she wiped a hand across her damp cheeks. “You do not want me here.”
She hurried away and I heard her cabin door slam shut.
I allowed a pause to be sure she really had gone for the night and then I breathed a short sigh of relief. Just what the hell had all that been about? There was no obvious answer. I hadn’t even got to the crux of why she wanted to come along with me anyway. As for the tears, that was typical mainland European emotion running riot. At least we Americans are somewhat more restrained.
Even without Brigitte’s warm body to satisfy me, I slept soundly that night. More than that, I managed to conjure up a dream in which I enjoyed making love to Simone, and that was comforting. If it hadn’t been for the noise of vehicles on the road alongside the marina basin I would have slept late also. Even so, it was broad daylight when I staggered out of the bunk, yawned and set the kettle to boil on the galley stove.
There was no sign of Brigitte and I decided to leave her be. Still in my boxer shorts, I poked my nose out of the companionway hatch and took a sniff of the warm, sultry air.
Then I felt a sudden stab in the gut.
Moored at a pontoon, directly opposite the Breton Belle, was the young couple’s yacht. The young gorilla was sitting at the bow end and he was staring straight at me.