Thursday, 25 July 2013

Naked Grief chapter twenty-one


Chapter Twenty-one

  

 

Shortly after breakfast the next morning we motored the Breton Belle away from the moorings at la Gacilly and headed back down river. Cherie stood on the pontoon deck in a saucy nightie, watching us cast off and turn away from the town. She waved and just before we lost sight of her she blew a kiss. I wasn’t too sure who it was aimed at, me or the major.

Williamson was rather quiet, as if he had things on his mind he didn’t want to discuss so I left him to his thoughts. He had tried again to phone Lord Bracewell, but without success. In his shoes I would have had a mind so full of problems I would probably have wanted to run away to a monastery to contemplate my future.

My thoughts were again fixed on Simone and that single night we had spent together and my heart went out to her. I longed to see her again more than I dared admit. Something about Simone had stuck in my head and my heart and I couldn’t get rid of it. Maybe she was the one person who could take Penny’s place. But this murder business had to be concluded first.

We saw the Hassim chateau between the trees as we came around a sharp bend. It sat at the heart of its estate, framed between the foliage and looking proud and noble like Lizzie Bennet’s vision of Pemberely when she first saw the great house. But there were no affable English gentry waiting for us in this edifice. Moments later we lost sight of the grand building and I pulled in alongside the bank at what I judged to be the river end of Hassim’s private woodland. From that point we could neither see the chateau, nor be seen from it. Fortunately the river was marginally wider here and other boats would be able to pass us easily.

Williamson hopped ashore and moored the boat to the bank. When we were secure, I killed the engine and, quite suddenly, sensed a heavy silence all about us. Just one lone bird was singing somewhere in the distance and even he didn’t sound too pleased. Maybe it was something about this place, or the owner, that even the local wildlife didn’t like.

Williamson came back aboard and gave me a short nod. “You ready, old chap?”

“Sure, Charlie.” I gave him a stern look. “But this is going to be my game plan from here on. I’ll go ashore and you can stay here and mind the boat.”

His jaw dropped. The major was not used to taking orders from a civilian. “Sorry, old chap. No joy. This is more my problem than yours. Hang it all, I was hired to look after Viola, not you.”

“And I was the one who was with her when she died. Don’t let’s argue about this, Charlie. It was me who found her body, me who called in the police at Rennes, me who followed up on the L’Orlys, me who checked out Colette. And it’s me who has hold of Viola’s money.” I drew a short breath. “I believe I have a good claim to take the first look up there in the chateau.”

“It’s my job…”

“That’s a matter of opinion, Charlie. You were hired to mind Viola when she was alive. You weren’t asked to investigate her death.” I tried to sound agreeable. “Anyhow, you can’t mind her any more so your job is, technically ended.”

“But…”

“No buts, Charlie. Look, I’d take it as a favour if you’d let me have the first scout round by myself. You can do your bit later, if you really have to.”

“You don’t trust me?” He looked a shade crestfallen. Like an English public schoolboy who’s been told he’s not suitable for the school cricket team.

“There are two things about this you should keep in mind, Charlie. One, someone should be here to guard the boat and be ready for a quick getaway. Two, we can’t afford both of us getting caught prowling about on Hassim’s land. Now, I’m the younger man, so let me do a short recce up through the estate. When I get back we’ll decide on our next plan of action.”

“You’re the youngest, old boy, but not the fittest.” Was that a hint of malice in his voice? “Who was it that got you out of trouble with those hoodlums from Redon?”

“Don’t remind me.”

“I can handle this…”

“Yes, I’m sure you can, Charlie. Quite sure you can. But we don’t know what we’re up against so we can’t afford to take chances. Look, we don’t know what’s up there and we don’t want another killing, do we? It’s best if only one of us breaks into the grounds. Less chance of being caught. The other should stay back here as the safety pilot. Now, don’t let’s fall out over this, eh?”

I think he saw the sense in my argument, but I could tell he wasn’t happy about it.

“If you say so, old chap,” he conceded. “But don’t do anything rash. What?”

“That sure as hell ain’t my plan, Charlie.”

Before he could change his mind I hopped onto the riverbank and set off up through the woodland that led to Hassim’s chateau. The air felt chilly and I shivered despite the weak sunshine now filtering down through the greenery. The sky was beginning to cloud over, the sun occasionally dipping behind small, fluffy bursts of cumulus, lining up like they were ready to lead a grand parade of thick nimbus waiting in the wings. There were no easy signposts, so I followed a steep path up through the overgrown wood, hoping I had guessed right and that I was heading towards Hassim’s chateau. I had no clear plans in my mind about what I’d do if I met Neanderthal man along the way. A simple claim that I’d lost my way would be just too obviously bogus to hold water even to a birdbrain. I slowed my pace when the gray coloured chateau came into sight between the trees. Again, I felt a chill atmosphere tingle my skin.

Pausing just in the cover of the woodland, I listened for sounds of voices. But there was nothing, no longer even the reassuring sound of birds. The solitary creature I’d heard earlier must have given up and struck out for somewhere more inviting. I stepped cautiously out onto the level garden, which surrounded the chateau. Spread out on either side of me was a wide panorama of overgrown flowerbeds, lawns, fishponds and flowering shrubs. A gravel path led off towards the chateau, which, now that I was close to it, looked gloomier than I had expected. It would once, not so long ago, have been an imposing mansion but now it looked bleak and forbidding. Dark, crenulated turrets, capped with dunce-cap roofs would have set light to the imagination of any Hollywood filmmaker with a Gothic bent, but they left me cold.

As I came closer to the building, the sun slid completely behind a large cloud mass and the gray walls of the mansion turned suddenly grim. Most of the windows were shuttered and a vague sense of despair hung over the whole place. It was the cold, clammy atmosphere that really set the scene. Nothing I could put my finger on, just a feeling. Dead leaves were blowing gently across the path behind me. No one seemed to be in attendance here and it felt wrong.

“What do you want?”

I swung round towards one end of the building where a dark figure now stood. It was Jacques Hassim, the young long-armed gorilla. He looked as brain-dead as ever, his threatening image enhanced by a pair of large Dobermans, one sitting menacingly either side of him. But he also looked somehow less powerful, as if something had gone out of him. His skin seemed even more parchment-white and… was he really looking thinner? I couldn’t be sure. He had a rifle clutched in one hand and he slapped it lightly against the leg of his scruffy jeans.

“Hello.” I tried to smile but failed miserably. My heart just wasn’t in it.

“I asked you what you want here, American.” Jacques Hassim’s voice was slurred. He took a few unsteady steps forward and the dogs followed, matching him pace for pace. It didn’t take much in the way of perception to see that something was wrong with the big youth. He had difficulty keeping his balance.

“I called to see Mr Ali Hassim.” I replied, standing my ground. There weren’t too many options open to me at that moment and none of them promised any guaranteed protection from the dogs. Anchoring my feet to the ground seemed the better bet.

As he came closer I noted that the youth’s eyes were dull, like someone boozed out of his mind or high on drugs. Or was it something more than that? The look in his eyes wasn’t just dope. Hell, whatever it was, he was likely to be dangerous in that state. I should have noticed it before, which only proved that I wasn’t cut out for this sort of thing.

“Go away.” Jacques Hassim took another lurching step towards me and aimed the rifle at my chest. His hand was unsteady and his body swayed one way as the gun swayed the other. He growled at me, “Just go… go away before I set the… set the dogs on you.”

I eyed the two Dobermans and decided that I didn’t trust them any more than I trusted young Jacques and the rifle. Maybe discretion would be the best course of action here. I backed away slowly, eyes firmly on the weapon. I notched my fear down a shade when I saw that the gun’s safety catch was on, but I continued to edge across the lawn, aiming my backside at the path that led back down through the woods.

“I’m going.” I said, “Just you keep those dogs at bay.”

“How did you… you get in here?” He shuffled after me, the rifle wavering in his unsteady hand. In this state, the creep was incapable of shooting anyone except by accident, but that was little comfort at the time.

“I came up river on the boat. Left it moored down at the riverbank.”

“The Breton Belle?”

“Yes.”

“Why…?”

“Well… actually…”

“Jacques!” A woman’s voice pierced the quiet air, abruptly putting paid to Jacques’s questions. I looked up and saw Colette running across the lawn from the chateau. She looked different. This was not the tartly dressed Colette I had seen on the riverbank, nor the half-drugged young woman I had visited in the Redon marina. This was an elegant young lady wearing a formal two-piece suit. Designer label, by the look of it. The pleated skirt just reached her knees and her white blouse was set off with a ruffed collar. Her face was made up like some sort of model.

She slowed as she came closer, ran her hands down her neat attire and stared at me with venomous eyes. “What are you doing here?”

“Jacques already asked me that,” I replied as coolly as I could manage. “I came to see Mr Ali Hassim.”

“No!” She stopped suddenly, heels digging into the lawn, and roared at me. “No! You must go away.”

“Why? What are you hiding here, Colette? It doesn’t look like I’ve gate-crashed into some sort of private picnic. So, if it isn’t that, what is it? Papa entertaining the village priest? Or are you afraid I might find out what really happened to Viola Bracewell?”

We were at the edge of the lawn now, just a gravel path between me and the trees that led down to the riverbank. If I had to, I knew I could make it into the woods before the dogs got to me and the thought gave me some element of false courage.

“Jacques, take the dogs away, please.” Colette spun round on her pretty little high-heels and grabbed the youth by his arm. She suddenly slipped into French when he looked like he was about to argue and then she finished up with, “You know I don’t like it when you let the dogs loose. They might savage someone.” She was looking at me when she said that.

Jacques responded in garbled French, which left me completely at a loss. He waved his gun hand first at me then towards the chateau and I picked up the word, ‘Papa.’ Was Ali Hassim up there in the closed-up mansion? Despite Jacques’s anger, Colette persisted, clutching him tighter and arguing with him in equally voluble French. Finally she pushed him back.

Merde!” He jostled her as he swore, but the trick worked and he staggered off towards the mansion. His stance was still unsteady, but the dogs backed off with him and that was a relief.

“I will see that the American leaves the way he came,” Colette said calmly although it was a fair bet Jacques wasn’t listening. She turned to me and added, “You must go. Right now.”

I watched Jacques staggering off with the dogs obediently following. They seemed cowed by him and, for Dobermans, that was some feat.

“He’s dangerous, you know,” I said as the tension began to drain away from me. “What’s he on? Heroin or cocaine?”

“He has had a little too much to drink. It is of no consequence to you.”

“He may be boozed up, Colette, but there’s more to it than that. Damn it all, in the state he’s in, he could have killed me!”

“He would not have hurt you.” Colette shrugged. “Guns have frightened him since he was a child. It’s the noise, you see, the noise of them still frightens him. He never learned to shoot anything when he was younger and he isn’t going to learn now. He only carries the rifle for show. He is a child at heart and it makes him feel brave if he threatens people with a gun, but the safety catch was on. Didn’t you notice?”

“I still don’t trust him. Safety catches are easily flicked off.”

“For heaven’s sake!” She was getting exasperated now, but she held her bearing like she knew what she was doing. Stiff chin and a smart suit. “I told you to take the boat on down river. Why did you come here?”

I saw her suddenly in a new light, elegant and commanding. In hindsight, it fitted the commanding sort of image she had portrayed that day on the canal bank. Jacques had been no match for her then and he certainly wasn’t any match for her now. The incident aboard the yacht had shown her out-of-character. She’d been too doped up to be herself.

“I’m still trying to find out what happened to Viola Bracewell,” I said. Her eyes flickered and her gaze dropped. I knew that I had to tackle her now while we were alone. I went on, carefully and precisely, feeling for a flaw in her defence. “She really is dead, you know.”

“Yes, I know.” She replied in an equally calm tone, her anger quite dissipated.

I was stumped. I had expected her to protest that she had no knowledge of Viola’s death, but her self-control remained steady. When I recovered my own composure, I asked, “What happened to her?”

“Maybe it was an accident.” She paused, her eyes flickered again and then the anger returned. “It must have been an accident of some sort. For God’s sake! Why don’t you leave us alone?”

“Because there’s a little matter of law and justice involved. And it wasn’t an accident, so don’t give me that nonsense. People who witness accidents generally stop to help the victim, and no one stopped to help Viola. So why was she killed? You do know why, don’t you?”

Her teeth were gritted tightly together, her eyes blazing. But her mouth remained tight shut. It was beyond doubt now. She knew what happened that morning.

“Tell me, Colette,” I persisted.

She glanced across her shoulder as if she was about to speak and then something at the chateau had caught her attention.

“What is it, Colette?”

“Shhh!” She put a finger to her lips, then whispered, “It’s papa.” She pointed towards the far end of the building where another figure was now coming into view. A tall, grey-haired man in a dark lounge suit.

“Good.” I said defiantly. “I need to speak to him.”

“No! He will get very angry because I have spoken to you. You must go.”

“No way, Colette. No way.” I pushed past her and headed towards Hassim senior.

This was a golden opportunity and no one was going to stop me now. Who knows what I had been expecting the old guy to be likeprobably exactly what I sawbut that didn’t stop me getting that sudden twinge of angry realization. It was the same man from St. Malo all right. Imposing like he was some sort of lord. So he was the mirror of Omar Sharif in his prime? But what the hell were Viola and Brigitte thinking about when they got mixed up with him? And as for Brigitte hopping into bed with himthe mere thought of it sickened me.

He stared at me as I walked up to him, his dark eyes firmly focussed on my face. If he had any inkling of what I had in my mind he would have done well to call for assistance. But he didn’t, he just stared straight at me.

Colette hurried on ahead of me and grabbed the man’s hand. Her voice was none too steady. “Papa, this is the American who was aboard the Breton Belle with Viola.”

“Name’s Henry Bodine, Mr Hassim.” I stuck out my hand as I reached him but he ignored it. I wasn’t too surprised or sorry.

“What do you want here?” Hassim spoke with a thick sort of Middle Eastern accent. There was something deeply offensive in his tone of voice, as if he was working on how to get my balls chopped off without incriminating himself.

“I came to bring your boat back to you,” I replied. “She’s moored down at the riverbank.”

“You were travelling on my boat?” His face twitched. “With Viola Bracewell?”

“Yes.”

“And you are the one who told Inspector Le Fevre at the Redon Gendermarie that she has been murdered?” The question was almost spat out at me.

“Yes. How did you know?”

“I make it my business to know everything.” He advanced closer to me with venomous eyes. “You will get off my land and you will get off my boat. Now!”

For all his age, it seemed to me that he was spoiling for a fight. That didn’t worry me unduly. He didn’t frighten me by himself, but there was always the risk of reinforcements being called in.

Colette was close beside him, trying to hold him back. “Papa! He doesn’t understand. He is just a foolish American visitor.”

“Then he can get away from here. He can take himself back to America!” Hassim’s face twisted acutely when he shouted. He glared at me lopsidedly. “Do not meddle in things that are no concern of yours.” The man was getting really nasty now, and that wasn’t going to do me any good. Certainly didn’t put him in a mood to talk easily.

“Okay. If that’s the way you want it.” I had learned nothing and it was plain that I was not going to learn anything. Once again I decided that a tactical retreat would be best. I backed off towards the woods with the idea of retreating to the boat. But Hassim was not having that.

“The main gate is that way.” He pointed towards the far end of the chateau. I saw then that his tongue was almost lost behind ranks of gold fillings.

“But, Mr Hassim, all my belongings are aboard the boat.”

“They will be returned to you. Get off my land now or… or I will bring the dogs back here and have them set upon you.”

“Okay, okay.” It was a persuasive argument. I changed direction.

“I will show him out, papa.” Colette came to the fore again and indicated for me to follow her. Reluctantly, I complied and we headed off towards the main gate. I glanced over my shoulder and saw Hassim senior snarling at me. Despite their different sizes, his face bore an expression that closely reflected the look of his son.

“He certainly isn’t too happy to see me,” I quipped as we passed round the corner of the mansion and out of Hassim’s hearing.

“You should have listened to me. I told you to keep away from him.”

“That’s right, you did.” I conceded. “I’ll remember next time.”

“There will not be a next time, Mr Bodine. I will not let you near him again. To me, he is a very special man.”

“Really?” I wasn’t convinced. The words were too contrived. “You know, it didn’t take you long to get back here once I told you that Viola had sold her engagement ring. Gave up trying to steal it from the boat, did you?”

“Get out of here.” Colette stood by the main gate and waited for me to leave. “Papa would have no hesitation in doing it, you know.”

“Doing what?”

“Setting the dogs onto you.”

“Nice chap.”

She slammed shut the heavy main gate behind me and hurried back to the chateau, leaving me standing alone in a leafy lane. A wind whistled along the river valley and the sky was now clouding over fast. I waited until the girl was out of sight and then I jogged a short distance down the lane until I came to a small village, nestled around the approach to a road junction. It was little more than a collection of old houses stretched out either side of a single highway leading up to a fork with no indication of where either road went after that. There was a church, a grocery store and a cafe and not much else, except a few people slowly winding their way along the street.

The cafe was nearest so I went in and asked to use their telephone, or tried to. The owner was a machine-gun-tongued, French-speaking guy who must have gone down a treat with any foreign visitors who strayed into the village. I waved a fistful of francs under his nose and made gestures to indicate what I wanted. Despite his severe lack of English, he readily agreed when he saw the colour of my money and he led me away to a private sitting room where I found a telephone and quickly got through to Simone.

“Henry? Am I glad to hear you.”

“No more than I am to hear you, Sweetheart. How are your investigations going?”

“I think I’m getting somewhere. I managed to telephone Lord Bracewell,” she told me in a rush of words. “In fact I spoke to him personally.”

“Good girl.”

“He knew nothing about what happened over there. Why wasn’t he told?”

“A long story, Simone. What happened when you spoke to him?”

“He was absolutely devastated when I said that Viola had been shot, not surprisingly really. It wasn’t easy breaking it to him, I can tell you. But he certainly isn’t going to sit back and wait to see what happens. You can take it from me that he’ll use all his influence to get things moving fast. You can expect the French police to believe you now.”

“They’d better.” It was good news but, whatever I did now, I had to be quick to be one jump ahead of the police.

“One more thing you should know, Henry. Ali Hassim has an illegitimate daughter called Colette.”

Illegitimate daughter! Did that mean Colette had no legal claim upon the old man’s estate? It could explain a thing or two. I flustered out the words, “Yes. I’ve met her.”

“Well, just you beware of her. Lord Bracewell told me her mother was a prostitute in Marseilles and she only came to live with Hassim when his wife died. His Lordship thinks Colette had her eyes firmly set on Hassim’s fortune before Viola came along.”

“How come? Surely Jacques Hassim would have been the rightful heir to Hassim’s fortune?”

There was a pause before she said, “Seems not, Henry. Jacques has been mainlining with dirty needles. He’s dying of AIDS. He won’t see another birthday party.”

“Shit!” Understanding suddenly flooded in. That explained a lot. “Are you sure?”

“I got it from Lord Bracewell himself. He’s been looking into Hassim’s private life. Because of Viola’s… well, anyway, Jacques, is on the way out.”

She paused once more to let the words sink in and I conjured up an image of Jacques’s shaking hands. It hadn’t been the booze alone. Then she went on. “Illegitimate or not, the chances are that Colette would have got everything. There’s no other living relative with any sort of real claim on the estate. So Colette had every reason to hate Viola’s guts after the engagement.”

“She thought Viola would steal it all? Everything she thought of as her inheritance? But that’s all gone now, isn’t it? With the bankruptcy.”

“The bulk of it is certainly gone. The chateau will be sold to pay off some pretty hefty debts. But there’s bound to be money hidden away somewhere, money the receivers will have difficulty getting hold of. The sale of the Breton Belle, for example, and the sale of the ring. There’s that cheque for two hundred thousand and fifty pounds. Colette will want to get hold of that, one way or another.”

“Viola said someone was tailing her. She must have known all this.”

“It could have been Colette or Jacques tailing her.”

“It was both of them.”

“There’s something else you should know, Henry.” Simone added a thoughtful edge to her voice. “Hassim had two sons. One was killed: his elder son, Yusuf. He was killed in the Gulf War. The story is that he was a bit of a tear-away and he was taken in by Sadam’s rhetoric so he ran off and joined the Iraqi army when they invaded Kuwait.”

“That’s too bad. But I just don’t see the connection.”

“The sons were both in the same war. Lord Bracewell’s elder son is an RAF pilot. He flew in the Gulf War. He killed Iraqis.”

“You think it might have been retribution?”

“They say that Hassim was deeply upset when Yusuf was killed. Threatened revenge on the Western World at large and the Western military in particular.”

“I thought he made his money out of Western civilization?”

“Don’t look for rational answers. There are none.”

When the call was ended I went back into the cafe and ordered a coffee. It seemed the polite thing to do and it gave me time to think. Half an hour later I thanked the cafe owner and gave him a few more francs to keep him happy. Then I ran back down the lane and turned off into the woodland that bordered it. Despite Hassim’s threats, I had it figured out that I could make it back to the riverbank and then find the Breton Belle. No way was the Hassim family going to scare me off.

As I pushed through the dense undergrowth, I heard dogs barking in the distance. Probably the Dobermans. Heaven help the man who got the worst of those two hounds. I pushed on, my thoughts partly taken up with Colette. Before I went to the chateau, I had all but eliminated her from my list of suspects. I hadn’t been able to pin any real motive on her. But that idea was now wiped away because Colette had a very real motive.

Greed. Viola had something which Colette wanted.

It took me a good half hour to locate the riverbank and then make my way along it towards the Hassim estate. With so many overhanging trees and bushes at the water’s edge, I had difficulty reaching the spot where the boat was moored. I called out to Williamson as I came nearer, but got no reply. From outside, the boat looked deserted. The doddering old major was not keeping a good watch.

I hopped aboard and called out, “Charlie! Are you there?”

Again, I got no reply and I headed down through the open hatch to the saloon. The first thing I noted when I came inside was the appalling mess, as if someone had been deliberately wrecking the boat. Chairs were up-turned, books and papers lay sprawled about the floor. Even the curtains were ripped. I pushed aside the broken table and levered my way towards the far end of the saloon.

Then I saw Williamson.

He was lying face up on the floor, staring blindly up at the ceiling with a look of absolute fear spread across what remained of his face. His mouth hung wide open and blood ran from his neck down his white shirt front like a scarlet exclamation mark. The floor around him was still vividly red.

The dogs! He had been attacked by the dogs! His jugular had been savagely ripped open.

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