Saturday, 6 July 2013

Naked Grief Chapter Three


Chapter Three

 
 

The shooting on the quayside at le port des Bas Sablon made the papers the next morning, but it was all in French so I ignored it. I had other things on my mind.

After breakfast I told the hotel receptionist I would be staying a day or so longer. Then I walked down to Bas Sablon with Simone: intent on enjoying what we expected to be our last moments together. Simone had an hour to spare before the tour bus took the group to the cross-channel ferry and I had no real idea what I was going to do next. It was enough that I would be free of all those happy couples. My only regret was that I had to say goodbye to Simone.

The whole marina was strangely quiet after the excitement of the previous evening. We stopped at the café overlooking the quayside boat park and I ordered two coffees. In that early morning period of relative quiet, Simone gave me a list of phone numbers: the various hotels the group would be staying at in England.

“Just in case,” she said.

“In case of what?”

“Just in case,” she repeated without elaborating.

I thanked her and kissed her, but nothing could make up for what she had done for me the previous night. I couldn’t even find the right words to say how grateful I was to her. Maybe, I thought, one day we might meet again. I hoped so.

“You still don’t know where you’re going next?” she queried.

“Suggest something,” I told her.

She thought for a moment. “Nantes would be nice. Not too far away but interesting. You could visit the Chateau des Ducs de Bretagne and the Basilica of Saint Louis.”

I knew nothing about Nantes but decided to accept the suggestion for want of anything better in mind. “Okay. Nantes it is. I’ll send you a postcard. How do I get there?”

“You could go by train, I suppose. Unless you can find a boat heading down the River Vilaine towards the Atlantic Coast.”

“A tour boat?”

“No. I don’t know of any tour boats. It would have to be a private cruiser or a yacht.” She shook her head. “On reflection, you’d best go by train.”

“I’ll pick up a ticket from the station this morning.”

“Glad that’s settled.” She grinned and blew me a kiss across the top of her coffee cup. “Just be careful with any women you meet along the way.”

“You think they might rape me?”

“They wouldn’t need to. Rape happens when the victim is unwilling.”

“I’ll try to defend my honour.”

It was about then I caught sight of Viola some yards away, wandering between the on-shore boats. She was topless again, which didn’t surprise me one jot. Her long, auburn hair cascaded around her shoulders like diaphanous curtains framing a classical portrait.

“See that girl?” I said to Simone.

“Too young for you, Henry.”

“Yep. Far too young. I need a more mature woman.” I winked at her. “That’s the girl I told you about. Her name is Viola… something. Bracewell, that’s it. She was trying to fix an outboard engine, so I gave her a hand.”

“Just a hand?”

I ignored the innuendo. “Is there anything about her that strikes you as odd?”

“Apart from the fact that she’s half naked?”

“Yes. Half naked, and yet she looks so innocent, doesn’t she. But last night she was involved in that shooting incident. The gunman must have come close to hitting her.”

Simone sipped at her coffee before shaking her head. “The gunman wasn’t after her, Henry.” She pointed to a newspaper lying on an adjacent table. “The police have identified a man who was in the vicinity at the time. One of the café owners recognised him. He’s a known drug dealer and he was seen running away after the shooting. The police are certain he was the target.”

I recalled the wiry little man. In hindsight it made more sense for a drug dealer to be the target. “They caught him?” I asked.

Simone finished her coffee and pushed the cup away. “Not according to the police reports. Not yet. But they will, now that they know who he is. They think someone had a grievance against him. A user, maybe. Perhaps he sold on some poor quality drugs. Anyway, it wasn’t anything to do with the girl. She was just in the way. Innocent, as you said.”

“Too innocent, maybe.” I turned my attention back to Viola. “Look at her face, Simone. It’s so school-girlish. And yet she seems to be in charge of that expensive cruiser.” I pointed to the Breton Belle, tied up at the pontoon. “Isn’t that odd in itself? Doesn’t it make you suspicious?”

“Suspicious of what?”

“Damned if I know…” I was about to say more when a scruffy figure in torn jeans and dirty vest bounded across the quay, bellowing loudly. Directly towards Viola.

He was huge, six feet six if he was an inch, with a barrel-like chest, and yet he had a distinctly childish face. His forehead protruded like Boris Karloff’s portrayal of the Frankenstein monster. His thick, dark hair looked like it hadn’t been washed. Ever. And his arms were unusually long, as if they belonged on a gorilla. Despite his size, something told me he had yet to reach full manhood: it was his shrieking voice. It was high-pitched, totally out of keeping with his frame. Just like the voice I heard in that misty courtyard.

Before I could gather my senses, he started laying into Viola. He screamed at her and pounded at her with his fists, huge fists that would have been more at home on a boxer.

“What the hell!” I leapt to my feet, certain now that this was the bruiser I had encountered in the nearby courtyard while staggering back to the hotel.

Viola raised her arms to protect herself and she shouted at the guy in French, but no one seemed willing to help her. A small group of men emerged from a bar nearby and just stood around, doing nothing but watch, as if it was none of their business. With all the noise the girl was making, maybe they thought she was doing a good enough job without their help, but they were wrong. The young gorilla suddenly socked her right in the face.

By that time I was racing across the quayside towards the fracas, my fists clenched and ready to do battle. But someone else had formed the same idea. Before I got to the affray, a strange little man in tweeds with a well-tanned, swarthy skin came running out from nowhere and threw himself at the attacker. For a little guy he packed some persuasive grit.

To start with, it looked like an unfair contest. The burly youth was so much bigger and more powerful, and his arms had a much longer reach. But the little man knew how to fight. Before the opening bell had finished ringing, he grabbed the bruiser, put him in a martial arts hold and threw him to the ground. It was the work of someone who knew his trade. The young jerk went down hard on his butt and groaned while the older guy followed up with a powerful kick to the crutch, which turned the groaning into screaming.

And that just about wrapped up the whole thing before I could throw a single punch. I pulled up a few yards short of Viola. She was standing with her hands at her sides, sobbing so that her breasts heaved up and down rhythmically. Between sobs she was muttering something in English, but the little guy didn’t seem too sympathetic towards her. He grabbed her arm and dragged her off towards the pontoon like he was a schoolteacher none too pleased with an unruly kid. Could he be her father? It was only a guess. She was young enough to have a father about that sort of age.

With a few Gallic gestures, the rest of the watchers turned away, leaving the youth howling and writhing on the ground, his hands tightly clasped to his injured equipment. Close up, I saw clearly that he was a teenager with a premature growth problem. A child in a man’s body. And I noticed something else: his skin was parchment pale. His eyes were sunken and darkly ringed. As an advertisement for healthy living he was a big failure. I left him to his howling and went back to the café table where I called for another coffee.

No gendarmes turned up this time. Maybe it was their morning siesta time

“What was that all about?” Simone asked when I sat down.

“Dunno,” I said. “I could say it was none of my business, but I don’t like what’s going on here. That girl was almost killed by a shotgun blast last night, and this morning she’s attacked by a young brute. Just what the hell is going on?”

“Whatever it is, you’d do well not to get involved, Henry.” Simone looked at me from beneath lowered eyebrows. “But I was impressed by the way you were going to tackle that big lad all by yourself.”

“Somebody had to. Always did fancy a spot of George and the dragon stuff.”

“The girl looked very attractive.”

“So do you, Sweetheart,” I said, and gave her a look designed to silence her doubts. I finished my second coffee and tried to put Viola Bracewell from my mind. It wasn’t easy.

Ten minutes later I walked Simone back to the city hotel where the tour group was gathering beside the coach that would take them to the ferry. They all seemed cheery enough, excited at the prospect of visiting Merry England. Simone and I kissed goodbye in a quiet part of the foyer and I promised to get in touch with her, but made no mention of when. Some part of me, deep inside, was filled with sadness that I was not going with her. However, it was my decision to branch off on my own and it was too late to back out of my plans now.

I had a quiet lunch in the hotel and then walked to the railway station. I bought a ticket to Nantes and then strolled back to the quayside at le port des Bas Sablon. What was it about that place that drew me back? Was it the pleasant walk, or the memory of Viola Bracewell? Whatever it was, I figured on filling the afternoon there, maybe enjoying another quayside coffee while I watched the world go by. I had only just walked onto the marina when I saw Viola again, standing beside the Breton Belle. This time she was fully dressed, which was a surprise. With no clear plan in mind, I strolled along the pontoon towards her.

She was busy at the stern end of the expensive cruiser, a diminutive figure swamped by a huge shapeless jersey and baggy jeans. A torn patch pocket hung from below the jersey and flapped against her legs as she mopped the deck. There were tell-tale traces of bruising forming around her mouth, matching the bruise on her hand. She seemed to have covered most of the evidence with make-up, but enough remained to make the point. Again, I wondered why she had been attacked.

In a sense she looked almost comical inside her ill-fitting clothes, but her face wore an innocent faraway look which disturbed me. She was more complex than she looked, I decided. And, beneath all that innocence she was hiding something. Something important.

“Hi there.” I gave her a casual greeting.

She gave a small jump as she turned to face me and she raised her hand to her mouth in child-like surprise. Round eyes dominated her face with a look of passive alarm, like a tiny kitten facing Big Bad wolf. All the self-confidence I had witnessed the previous day was now gone, drained away to leave a vulnerable youngster alone in an expensive boat. Had the beating done that to her? Was that why she now looked so fragile?

“Are you okay now?” I said.

“Okay?”

“I saw what that big guy did to you.”

“Oh, did you?” Her voice dropped to a husky whisper.

“I would’ve given you a hand but someone beat me to it.”

She shuddered. “I’m all right now, thank you.”

“I’m pleased to hear that. Is your rescuer still around?”

“Mmmh.” She frowned and looked away. Maybe I had touched on something she didn’t want to discuss.

“And what happened last night? I was on the quayside when someone let fly with a shotgun.”

“That was nothing to do with me. The police said so. They’re looking for a drug dealer.”

“They interviewed you?”

“They had to check on me, I suppose.”

There was more I wanted to ask, but I decided to let the matter pass. If the cops were satisfied, why should I go against their judgement? I nodded at the Breton Belle. “This sure is a smart boat. You said she’s not yours.”

“Did I?” She wiped at her eyes and looked back at me. “Oh, yes, that’s right. I’m just taking care of her.”

“On your own?” I had a sudden burst of inspiration.

“Sort of.” She chewed at her lower lip. “I’ll be gone soon. I have to take the boat out along the river tomorrow.”

“You wouldn’t be heading down towards the Atlantic coast, would you?”

“Why do you ask?”

“I could be on the lookout for a boat heading in that direction. Looking to hitch a lift.” God knows why I came up with that idea after the girl had been seemingly shot at and beaten. I wasn’t her minder, was I?

She turned her head aside. “I’m very sorry. I can’t help you.” With that she swung away and hurried down into the Sunseeker’s saloon cabin. I was left standing alone on the pontoon with the hot air of France eddying slowly about me.

I stood there for a few minutes. I had a rail ticket to Nantes in my pocket, but was intrigued by the idea of finding a boat heading south to the River Vilaine. If I couldn’t get to Nantes aboard the Breton Belle, maybe another cruiser would be going that way.

With some small spark of hope, I wandered back to the shore and called in at the marina office. The air was cooler inside, a welcome counter to the heat of the day. It wasn’t too busy and a leathery-skinned old guy called Marcel took the time to talk to me. I never did hear his other name. He was fat and slow in his movements, but he seemed friendly enough. I asked about the intentions of the various boats in the basin.

“But, Monsieur, I cannot give such information to you,” he said, gesturing expressively, “It would not be right. You must talk to the owners of the boats yourself.”

“So point me in the right direction, Marcel.”

He looked at me with a gaze that was, at first, inward and pondering before he loosened up and grinned at me through dark stained teeth. “All right, Monsieur. You must start with the first boat you meet and work your way round the other boats in turn.”

“That’s it?”

Oui, Monsieur.”

“Thanks a lot.” I grinned back at him. “Say, just what do you know about that girl on the Breton Belle?”

“The…? Which boat did you say?”

I pointed from a window towards the marina. “Over there. The Breton Belle.”

Marcel spread his hands in silent gesture. It could have meant that he didn’t know or, more likely, he just wasn’t talking. I hung my hat on the latter option.

“How long is she staying here?” I asked.

“Who knows?” he said in his rich Gallic accent, lowering his eyes and confirming my suspicions that he knew more than he was telling.

“It won’t hurt anyone if you tell me when she’s leaving.”

“Maybe. Maybe not.” A very brief flash of resignation spread of across his face and was quickly gone. “She is here two days. She leaves tomorrow. She pays the mooring fee. That is all I need to know.”

“Where’s she heading?”

“I tell you no more. You must ask the young lady yourself.”

“Okay, I get your drift. But there’s something odd about her.”

Oui. Perhaps there is. But it is none of my business.”

“She says she doesn’t own the boat.”

Non? But I have seen it here before.” He grunted and scratched thoughtfully at one of his chins.

A sudden urge crept up on me, an urge to know more about a girl who had been involved in a late-night fracas, a quayside shooting and a viscous brawl. All within the space of twenty four hours. That had to be more than just bad luck, and yet no one seemed to be finding out why. I pulled out my wallet, withdrew a twenty franc note and casually dropped it on his desk. “You probably remember his name: the guy who owns the boat.”

“Ah, oui. It comes back to me now.” Marcel slipped the note into his pocket. “The boat is owned by a very rich gentleman called Monsieur Hassim. He comes with his friends. They make much noise when they are here.”

I could tell by the tone of his voice, and the easy lapse in his air of discretion, that Marcel didn’t approve of the boat’s owners.

“Is she one of them? One of Mr Hassim’s friends?”

“Maybe.” He shrugged and I guessed I’d used up my twenty francs’ worth of goodwill. “That I do not know.”

“No, I guess you don’t”

I thanked Marcel for his help, turned and was about to leave when I caught a quick interesting glimpse through the office window. Viola was striding across the quayside boat park towards us. On a hunch I decided to bide my time and, sure enough, she came right into the office. She stopped as soon as she saw me, uncertain and worried. For a moment she looked pathetic in that mass of shapeless clothes. Then she pulled herself together, crossed the room and addressed Marcel. Her eyes wavered in my direction.

I just smiled back at her.

She greeted Marcel in fluent French and then slipped back into English. Clearly, it was her natural accentwhat the Brits call ‘southern counties’and it reeked of an upper class background. This time it conjured up an image of cricket on the village green. You could almost hear the accompanying crack of leather ball on willow bat followed by a round of polite clapping. God knows how those Brits get away with it.

“I need to check the Rance barrage opening times for tomorrow morning,” she said. That was a dead giveaway as only boats heading south would go through the barrier lock on the River Rance. After Dinan the canal D’Ille et Rance ran south to join the River Vilaine at Redon. Simone had told me that.

Oui,” Marcel responded, cautiously eyeing her bruised face. “I will get a list of the times for you.”

While he was turned away I sidled up closer to her. “I was just asking Marcel if he knew of anyone heading down the Vilaine in the next day or so. Anyone needing an extra crew member.”

“Oh yes?” She must have realized she had given away her own intentions because her voice developed a husky croak. But why was she now so obviously wary of me when, only yesterday, she had displayed such a casual air on the beach? Had I sprouted an ogre’s head overnight? Or did recent events have something to do with it?

“I’ve decided to do a bit of touring about and I’m aiming to get down to the Atlantic coast. I’m willing to work my passage in return for a ride down river.”

She started down at her feet. “I see.”

“And, if I understand correctly, you’re going my way.” That was my opening gambit. Common sense should have told me the girl was bad luck all round, but common humanity told me she shouldn’t be travelling alone. Or maybe I was just a sucker for a pretty face.

She kept her gaze lowered and seemed to be deep in thought. Then she asked, “You’ve done some boating?”

“Sure, I have. You name it, chances are I’ve sailed it.”

“Really.” She seemed to be thinking deeply before she came to a sudden decision. “I’m taking the Breton Belle down to La Roche Bernard. That’s not too far from the coast.”

“That’s great.” I had no idea where La Roche Bernard was, but if she was willing to take me there, I was willing to go. “I’d sure appreciate a lift, if the owners are happy about it.”

“Can I trust you?”

Trust me? It seemed an odd sort of question. Yesterday she trusted me enough to let me see her almost naked. And anyway, faced with such an interrogation who the hell was going to reply no?

I gave her a smiling nod. “You can check my credentials with Simone de Valieur at the Hotel de Cheminie. She’s a tour guide.” Simone would, by now, be crossing the English Channel, but there was no need for Viola to know that. The hotel receptionist would surely vouch for me and for Simone’s name.

“Simone de Valieur at the Hotel de Cheminie? Very well.” Viola straightened her body and looked me in the eye. “If she says you can be trusted, you can come. I’ll be leaving early tomorrow morning. You can sleep on board tonight.”

“Thank you.”

“I forgot your name. What is it?”

“Henry Bodine.”

She reached out and shook my hand timidly. “All right, Henry Bodine. Jolly good. Come over to the boat this evening. I must tidy up first.”

“That ain’t really necessary.”

“It is. And I’ll have something for you to eat when you come aboard.”

Marcel was silently watching us. He handed the girl a list of barrage opening times before she hurried out of the office. I gave him an enquiring look and he made another of his expressive gestures.

“She is English,” he said, as if that explained everything.

Maybe it did.

I went back to my room and tried to get my mind into a paperback novel for an hour, but somehow the words on the page didn’t seem to register. So I packed my bag and ambled down to reception to settle the bill. The receptionist told me that Viola had telephoned and asked more than a few personal questions about me. They assured me they had had nothing unhelpful to tell her, accept that Simone was now on her way to England.

The afternoon sun was beginning to wane when I got down to the marina and made my way along the pontoon towards the Breton Belle. I was almost at the cruiser when I looked back and saw the young gorilla standing on the boat park just a few yards off; the same thug who had set into Viola. He was watching me intently, a puzzled look across his pale, immature face. I wondered what was happening inside his brain, assuming he had one.

Strangely, the tweed-suited guy was about the same distance off in the opposite direction, also watching me. I nodded to them both as I climbed aboard. Neither of them made any acknowledgement.

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