I saw mama L’Orly’s red car as soon as I came in sight of the farm. It was parked directly in front of the house, but there was no one in sight nearby. I slowed down, drifted past in low gear and then turned back. Still no one in sight. Mama and Brigitte must have gone indoors.
I spotted a dirt track about a hundred yards from the house, pulled in off the road and left the car hidden behind a tall hedge. I waited for a good ten minutes, just in case, then got out and closed the car door as quietly as I could. Instead of walking back up the road, I dived behind the hedge and followed it until I came within a hundred yards of the house. By then I was back in the spot where I’d first seen Brigitte swimming in the pool.
Beautiful images floated back. Images of Brigitte swimming in her tight little swimsuit with the high cut legs and the low cut top. Images of Brigitte drying her breasts and Mama scolding her. But that was the past and this was now. Today, looking down into that same garden, I could see nothing to lust over. It was just a quiet domestic scene. No mama, just Brigitte and the young L’Orly baby, the sort of scene that’s shown in ads on television. The ones designed to appeal to the older woman. It makes them go ‘ah’ and draws out their maternal instinct.
Right away I knew something was odd about this scene, but the reason didn’t immediately figure. My brain must have been overcooked in the bright sun. Brigitte was sitting in a canvas chair alongside the pool and she had the infant in her arms, feeding it with a bottle. She was cuddling the baby and ever so gently rocking her arms.
A voice came to me faintly across the distance, the voice of Brigitte singing to the child as she fed it. When it was satisfied, the baby pushed the bottle aside and reached for the nearest breast, which just happened to be Brigitte’s. Such good taste at such a young age! The girl laughed, lifted the baby to her face and kissed it. It was all good domestic stuff, but the obvious bit still didn’t hit home. In fact, it was such a peaceful scene that several minutes passed before the full implications sank in.
When the truth finally hit me I went suddenly weak all over. As if I’d been socked with a good left hook and was mentally sprawled out on the canvas. Unlikely to make it on a count of ten. God, why hadn’t I seen it sooner? How could anyone have been so dumb as to not see it?
These two kids were not siblings - they were mother and daughter!
I sat down amongst the ferns. I’d misjudged mama, she probably had higher moral values than I’d credited her with. Maybe I’d also misjudged Brigitte, maybe she was more adult than I’d allowed. She was a young nympho, for sure, but with more experience of life than I’d thought.
Shortly after that, mama came out onto the patio carrying a tray of food and the rest of the L’Orly family followed, each bearing a bowl or tray or something to make up their lunch. Brigitte put the baby down into a crib and the quiet scene began to erupt into a noisy family occasion. This was the moment for me to shrink away from the garden and make my way back to the front of the house. With the family fully occupied in their noisy eating maybe I could get another look inside the place. I shook my head sadly as I backed away, firmly berating myself.
The front door was open as I sidled up to it. I detected no sounds from inside so I crept into the dark hallway. I’d already had a look in the lounge last time I came calling, so this time I took a door opposite it which was partly ajar. It was a dining room, quite empty apart from a big table, eight chairs, a sideboard and a bookcase. All good quality solidly built furniture, which must have set them back a franc or two. It was a dark inside, but all the windows in that farmhouse seemed to be small, so all the rooms would be starved of the sort of light we tend to expect in modern American homes. There was a bookcase against one wall, filled with expensive books which most likely had never been opened, but looked good to a visitor. And there was a writing bureau alongside it, the lid pulled down to reveal a neat stack of writing implements, but no untidy letters.
And there was a shotgun mounted on one wall.
Oh hell! They had a gun!
They had the means to kill!
I stood there, rooted to the spot, staring at the weapon. Then logic kicked in. Viola’s injuries were not consistent with a shotgun blast. I knew that from my time with the US Air Force and the horrific things I saw in Bosnia. Viola had been killed by a bullet from either a pistol or a rifle. I considered it for a moment. Maybe the L’Orlys had other weapons as well as the shotgun. I seemed possible. If so, there was no way I could eliminate Brigitte and her mama from the list of suspects. They certainly had the opportunity and they may well have the weapon. But did they have a motive?
As I stood there, Brigitte’s voice echoed in from the rear of the house. She seemed to be making her way back indoors. Mama’s bellowing followed her.
“Qu’est-ce que vous voulez boirre?”
“Un verre de vin blanc!”
“Du Muscadet ou Gros Plant?”
Even my severe lack of French wasn’t going to cover the fact that Brigitte had come into the house in search of a bottle of wine. Muscadet is Muscadet in any language. I didn’t know where they kept the wine, so I beat it quickly back out the front door before I could be seen. I made it with seconds to spare.
There was no point in prowling round the farmhouse any longer, so I hurried back along the road. My brain was still scrambled. Thoughts in turmoil. Brigitte was the mother of the baby! I just couldn’t get it out of my mind. Brigitte was an unmarried teenage mother. At least, I assumed she was unmarried. In my present frame of mind I was ready to be knocked flat by yet further revelations about her. Surely she wasn’t married!
No, but she might be the murderer!
Once I was back inside the car I sat turning over my options. Should I go back to the police and tell them all I now knew? Should I march in on the L’Orly family and confront them straight up? Or should I just give up and head off hotfoot to England and make passionate love to Simone?
And Simone. Ah, what a blissful thought. How I missed her.
But going back to Simone now would be to abandon Viola. And who else was prepared to take the time to figure out what had happened to her? Not the French police, that was for sure. It was a pretty straight choice between Viola and Simone. Again, my thoughts drifted. The attraction of going after Simone was pretty strong. But… no. I had to see this through. Simone must wait. But would she wait? Would she bide her time for a Yank who was already out of his depth and sinking fast?
The more I sat there, the more indecisive I became. Whatever course of action I thought up, there seemed to be a damn good counter argument for doing something else.
About half an hour later, Mama’s red Renault pulled out onto the road and headed off, with the engine revving fast in low gear and the tail end lost in a cloud of exhaust fumes. Whoever was driving didn’t know how to drive economically. It didn’t look like they were any too safe on the road either. Anyhow, it was the moment to stop pondering and bring a bit of real action into play. I started up the rental car and set off down the road a discrete distance behind the L’Orlys.
There were two people in the Renault, but it wasn’t until I had to pull up right behind them at a traffic junction that I was able to pin down the identity of the occupants. Brigitte and… well, it looked like it might be mama. Probably was, in fact. They were outlined in silhouette and the driver was somewhat overweight. Brigitte was turned to her left, wagging a finger at the driver and talking, or shouting, quite vociferously. I caught her profile quite cleanly. Then the driver reached into the back of the car to pick up a handbag and I knew for sure it was Mama L’Orly. It seemed like she had no qualms about leaving the younger children to mind the farm.
I sat low in my seat trying to avoid being recognized, but the women were too tied up in their argument to notice me. It was blazing hot by this time and most European cars don’t have air conditioning, probably because most of them don’t need it. Anyhow, I was soon feeling fatigued and drowned in sweat. I was wearing a plain white shirt and light cotton pants and both were sticking to the car seat. And me. On top of that I knew just how long a drive I had in front of me. In fact, I knew within half an hour where we were heading.
Right back to St. Malo.
For most of the journey the road was none too busy and I kept well back behind the Renault. I only closed the gap when we went through towns or villages, which was a mistake because mama was even more lethal in urban streets. The Renault seemed to be either speeding or stopped with no gradations in between. And when she opened up the throttle it seemed like the car had been fired off from a steam catapult with the engine in full reheat. But I didn’t want to lose sight of the car in traffic so I tucked myself in behind and occasionally peeled myself off the front windscreen.
As we came into St. Malo, I slowed down to keep at least one car between me and the red Renault. I’d learned by now that it was safer. At the same time I couldn’t afford to get too far behind. Mama knew the town far better than me and she knew where the hell she was going. I caught a momentary recall of that day it all began: Viola and the big youth on the marina quayside at le port des Bas Sablon—and the fracas. Then the L’Orlys pulled into a large parking lot near the St. Malo sea front. I turned in behind them and found a vacant parking spot well clear of where they had stopped.
Both mama and Brigitte got out of the car. They disgorged from opposite sides like they were parachuting from a blazing airplane. Mama was wearing a heavy brown dress that must have been hell in the heat inside the car. Brigitte was wearing very short shorts and a tight fitting tee shirt that looked just a trace more comfortable. And seriously erotic.
They seemed to be arguing; in fact they probably had been since they left the farm. I didn’t envy mama none. If she was lucky, maybe the rest of her family would be easier to get along with. Brigitte leaned back into the car. Her head was inside and her bottom was stuck out into the sunshine, stretching the seams of her shorts. She pulled out a beach bag and threw it down to the ground. Boy, she was in a really foul mood. Then she peeled off her tee shirt. Mama was at the opposite side of the car wagging a finger at her and shouting non-stop. But Brigitte just carried on undressing until she was down to a small, bright red bikini which she had been wearing under her outer clothes. She picked up the beach bag and stormed off with mama following on behind. The row between them continued as they walked through the car park. They paused and split up just as they got to the main road. Mama headed off towards the town while Brigitte crossed the road to get to the beach. There was no missing her in that red bikini so I followed at a fair distance.
I was sweating profusely by now, but not entirely because of the weather. A crowd of young French girls in their brief swimsuits and bikinis had their part to play. The sun was still high in the sky and it felt like it was around ninety degrees in the shade. Possibly even higher. It was mid-afternoon by now and I hadn’t eaten since breakfast, but I had no appetite in that heat. I decided to wait until it got cooler after dark.
As I walked along the sea front I wiped a hand across my dripping brow and flicked the glistening beads of sweat to the ground where they evaporated almost instantly. Like small droplets of liquid silver, the moisture globules flashed in the sun and then suddenly disappeared from sight.
Of course I was doing my best to look inconspicuous, but that was not an easy task in the circumstances. But it was essential if I was to avoid being seen by Brigitte L’Orly. I tailed her until she went down onto the beach and then I waited until I saw her set herself down onto a vacant patch of sand. She was half way down the beach facing towards the water. She took a towel from her bag, spread it out on the sand, lay down on her back and then removed her bra top. It looked like she was going to be there for a while.
There was nothing to be learned from watching Brigitte sunbathing. I already knew the ins and outs of her body so it seemed a fair bet that I should go looking for mama in the town instead. What was her purpose in coming here?
I headed away from the beach and up into the shopping area inside the walled city. The clothes I’d set out in were getting soaked in sweat so I stopped at a shop near the old city gates to purchase something more comfortable. My French was not up to the task, but a few expressive gestures were enough to indicate to the sales girl what I wanted. A brightly coloured beach shirt, shorts and a pair of shades. Then I went back to the rental car to change. I must have spent an hour or more after that just wandering around the town keeping my eyes open for Mama L’Orly, but saw no sign of the heavy brown dress covering that bulky frame.
When I got back to the beach, I first stopped to check I wasn’t walking into a confrontation with Brigitte. I stepped to the edge of the sea wall and looked towards the clear, tepid water which was running about half way up the beach. Most of the surface was a shiny flat calm, broken only where young people were splashing about wildly, swimming or lying on air beds. No immediate sign of Brigitte but it seemed safe enough so I strode purposefully down a concrete path that led towards the sand. At the bottom of the path I paused beside a wooden seat.
Still no sign of Brigitte, but the tide was coming in, tantalizingly close. I went on down a couple more steps onto the sand and walked towards the water’s edge. All about me sun lovers were sprawled about on the heated stretch of strand like so many toasting lumps of meat.
I’d heard that people came here in their hundreds during the week, and in their thousands at weekends. Old and young, families and singles, all determined to pack in as much excitement and fun as they could in their summer break from the toils of life. I watched them and felt sad and frustrated.
A beach air bed drifted into view a few yards from the shore, a bright yellow plastic float moving lazily on the surface of the water. A young girl lay face up on the float. I thought her eyes were closed behind her reflective sunglasses and I was surprised when she pushed the glasses onto her forehead and stared back at me. Taken aback somewhat, I looked away while the girl shouted at me in a shrill voice. French words spoken so quickly I didn’t understand any of it. Why couldn’t they speak at normal speed?
She waited to see if she was having any effect on me and then shouted again in voluble French. She stared at me like I was stupid not to understand.
I spread my arms. “Pardon me?”
She frowned and paddled close in to the shore. “Qu’est-ce que vous voulez?”
“I don’t speak French very well.” I shook my head. “In fact I don’t speak French at all.”
“You are English?”
“Huh! You have had a good look at me, have you?”
I felt my face redden. My leg muscles loosened up and I began to walk away. In the space of seconds, I felt myself become an old man. When, a moment later, I swung back towards the sea, I saw that the girl had turned onto her face and was paddling away slowly across the silvery surface.
Then I spotted Brigitte.
She must have moved as the tide came in and now she was just fifty yards away, face down into the sand. She seemed to be asleep. My mind was raging with confusion. Why had I followed her here? Because I was hoping to find out what the hell she and her mama had to do with the death of Viola Bracewell. That’s why! But all I’d discovered so far was that most French girls were as uninhibited as young Brigitte.
Once again the thought hit me that I should not have come here to the beach. I should have headed across to England to be with Simone. The more I thought about her the more I realized she was growing on me, slowly beginning to take Penny’s place in my thoughts.
I sighed and walked back up to the road that overlooked the beach. I was just standing there, wondering what to do next when I saw mama coming along the sea front. She was with a tall, grey-haired man who looked a bit older than her. He had a deep, protruding brow and a barrel chest but there was something imposing about him, something that made him stand out from the crowd. He had the bearing of a man who was used to being admired by all around him. A bit like Omar Sharif in one of his later films: grey and mature, but still good for a few years’ useful service.
There was also something distinctly unsettling about him, and something else, something I couldn’t put my finger on. He was dressed in thick woollen clothes that were as out of place as penguins at a beach barbecue. It probably left him sweating like a pig. But that wasn’t what puzzled me.
From the top of the path that led to the sand, mama stood and roared down at Brigitte. The effect was instantaneous. The girl sat up, looked towards mama and then stood up. She left her towel and beach bag on the sand and went up to meet mama and the man. Mama was scolding her severely long before they got close to each other.
I just stood and watched. They didn’t notice me, not then nor afterwards while the three of them sat on the sea wall, arguing volubly with constant waving of hands. It was more of a row than an argument. After a while, the man stood up and stormed off towards the town. Even from a distance I could see he was really hacked off.
I saw no point in tailing Brigitte and her mama any longer, so I followed after the grey-haired man until he was swallowed up by the crowds in the city. Then I just hung around until I found a cafe where they served me a decent meal and a long cold beer.
By then I needed both.
I had been sitting there about half an hour when Brigitte came up to me from out of the blue. One moment I was idly staring into space, and the next moment she was standing right in front of me.
“What are you doing here?”
“Eating.” I couldn’t think of a more suitable response, not immediately.
“In St. Malo? You are supposed to be on the river at Redon.” She sat down, uninvited, directly opposite me. Her breasts were quivering and bouncing beneath a flowery tee shirt.
“I came to talk to someone at the marina office.” It was a spur of the moment idea, but a good one. “He spoke to Viola before we left here, you know.”
“What did he tell you?”
“Nothing much,” I lied. “You want something to eat?”
“Non. Mama and I have eaten.”
“So, what are you doing here in St. Malo?”
“Mama brought me. She wanted to see someone.”
“That is nothing to do with you.”
I accepted the point and gestured to a waiter. “Are you sure you don’t want something to eat? Or a coffee?”
“Hmmmh. I will have the quick one.”
“You mean a coffee, I hope?” I ordered cappuccinos for both of us before she changed her mind.
She eyed me with a sour look. “You say things I do not understand, Henry. Viola was the same. She was too clever.”
“Not too clever, Brigitte. She allowed someone to get the better of her… someone who killed her.”
Brigitte pondered over that for a few seconds before she asked, “Do you want to have the loving with me again? I know somewhere…”
“No, Brigitte. Not now. Not again. Not ever again.” And I meant it.
“Pah!” She shrugged then let her shoulders and arms fall in a gesture of defeat.
“Tell me what you know about the ring.”
Her eyes flashed wide. “Ring? What ring?”
“Viola’s ring.” I stared into her eyes, countering her evasive look. “You know about her ring, don’t you?”
Her voice rose an octave as she looked away. “No! I know nothing about her ring. Nothing!”
“Yes you do!”
She jumped to her feet like the seat had suddenly turned red hot. “You are impossible!” she shouted. “I offer you the loving and all you do is talk about another girl’s ring! Maybe I will not go to your bed again!” Then she turned and stalked away without a backward glance.