I must have stood looking at the body for all of thirty seconds before I turned and raced back up the steps to the deck. I just got to the side of the boat before retching violently. I hung there for some minutes, alternately spewing my guts down into the water and staring at the obnoxious mess which floated on the surface.
When I stood back and wiped my mouth clean I was ready to do murder. There was no reason or sense to it but, come what may, I was going to find the psychopath who did this and I was going to extract horrible revenge. Controlling the deep-seated urge to vomit again, I went back down below to find a weapon to protect myself.
Just keep your eyes away from the horror of the bloody mess, I told myself, look anywhere but there, stare into the distance, but don’t look at the crimson mess on the floor.
When I went back to my cabin I saw that the wall mirror had been removed and the drug packets taken. Whoever did this must have wanted that shit real bad.
I took a large bread knife from the galley and left the scene of the crime as quickly as I could. Pray God I don’t have to go back there again.
The clouds darkened and it began to rain as I raced up through the woods. Sharp thorns dragged at my clothes and branches slapped at my face. There was no sound of the dogs baying and I had no cares about who might see me. Dammit, I wanted someone to see me! I wanted the killer to see me now that I had a knife to protect myself and inflict harm in the way harm had been done. Two people had died on that boat, Viola and now Charlie, and someone was going to pay the price for it.
The rain was falling heavily when I burst out of the woods and ran across the gardens towards the chateau. There was no one in sight and no dogs came bounding across the lawn towards me. In a way, I wished they had. I would have killed them without a second’s hesitation.
I slowed down to approach the chateau cautiously, ignoring the rain even though my clothes were by now soaked. The grass squelched beneath my feet, like the sound of trampled blood and guts. Bile rose in my gullet.
I went round to the side of the building close to the main gate and found the front entrance door. I pushed it open. Inside was a large hallway, empty and echoing. It would once have been an imposing introduction to the chateau, but now it looked cold and frigid. My shoes made heavy wet prints on the black and white pattern marble floor, squelching damply with each step.
“Hassim!” I called out. I was in no mood for polite behaviour. It was cool inside the building and I began to shiver in my wet clothes.
There was no immediate response so I opened the nearest door which led into a long, almost empty library. I peered inside. Empty bookshelves ran down each wall, big floor-to-ceiling shelves still strapped to the walls but totally bereft of any purpose now that the books had gone. Neither was there any furniture, just marks on the floor where it had once been. As I stood there in the hallway I heard a sudden, sharp sound behind me.
I spun round to see Ali Hassim coming towards me from the direction of another open door. I held the knife firmly in front of me and said, “Where are your dogs?”
“My dogs are my concern.” He stopped in his tracks and eyed the knife with suspicion written all across his face. I had him where I wanted him, but I was unsure of my next move. I hadn’t thought that far ahead.
“You and I need to talk,” I said.
“There’s nothing for us to talk about.”
“Think again, Hassim. Get in here.” I stood aside and gestured into the library with the knife.
“Because I’ll gut you if you don’t.” He took the hint and went in ahead of me. I felt safer in a room with only one entrance; less chance of someone else sneaking up on me. I shut the door behind me and stood facing him with the knife blade directed at him.
“Now we can talk without interruption.”
“You have no business here. And no business threatening me!” He rounded on me suddenly once the door was firmly shut. “I ordered you off my land.”
“Sure you did!” I gritted my teeth and stood my ground. “And you also ordered me off the boat. You threatened me with violence.”
“I take exception to people invading my privacy.”
“Really? And did you take exception to the other man on the boat? Well, did you?”
He frowned, his dark brows knitting together. “What other man? I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Don’t give me that, Hassim. The man is dead!”
“Dead? Who is dead?” Hassim took a step backwards. He was shocked, that much was obvious. It was too good to be an act.
“His name was Williamson, Major Williamson. Lord Bracewell hired him to keep an eye on Viola. He was with me on the boat when I arrived here. Now he and Viola are both dead. Both killed on that same boat.”
“I don’t understand.” His face was suddenly noticeably whiter. “How did this man die?”
“Killed,” I snarled at him. “He was savagely murdered. His throat was ripped open, probably by vicious dogs. Like the ones you threatened to set on me.”
“But my dogs are never allowed off this estate.”
“The boat was moored at the riverbank, right alongside your estate. Come on, Hassim, don’t try to cover it up. You’ll sure as hell have a lot of explaining to do when the police get hold of this. You might as well tell me now. Why did you do it?”
“How dare you accuse me!” He paused, as if weighing up how far he could go. His hands were tightly clenched, but his tone lowered slightly. “I have killed no one. No one.”
“Well, someone’s hands are dirty. When did you last see the dogs?”
“I…” He unclenched his hands and then drew then tight shut once more. “Oh, my God! Colette… Colette and Jacques.”
“Colette and Jacques? They took the dogs?”
“Colette said they were going to exercise them. They went across the lawn into the woods.”
That set the seal of guilt on two of my suspects. No big surprise, really. But there was another name on the list.
“Aimee D’Albret. Is she here?”
“She was. She’s gone now.”
“Where was she when the other two went off with the dogs?”
“Here in the house with me. We had some business to attend to.”
“Nothing to concern you.”
This wasn’t getting me far. I took a deep breath and tried again. “So, only Colette and Jacques went off with the dogs. Your two children?”
A silence settled over us, heavy and cloying. Watching his face I could feel his anguish and knew that he was telling the truth. Eventually I broke the spell by asking, “Did you know what happened to Viola?”
“No, I…” He was lying this time, plain as the dangerous look in his eyes. “If I knew I would have told the police.”
“Not if you had a hand in it.”
The point hit home and his lip quivered.
He thought before he replied. “Do you think I would kill Viola when I loved her so much? Do you think I would be so stupid as to have a hand in killing anyone on that particular boat? It doesn’t make sense. Give me more credit than that.”
That didn’t all sink in at first so I tried turning it over in my mind. Then the fog cleared. He was only partly telling the truth. He didn’t love Viola as he claimed, probably never had. But he was right when he said it didn’t make sense for him to kill her on the Breton Belle. My grip on the knife relaxed.
“You must realize I am innocent,” Hassim pleaded. “I had nothing to do with Viola’s death.”
He looked utterly pathetic and I no longer felt anything for him except pity. Pity and disgust. He hadn’t pulled the trigger on the gun that killed Viola, but it was plain to me now that he knew who the killer was.
“Don’t think of leaving, Hassim.” I shouted at him as I backed away. I threw open the library door and stepped out into the hallway. “When the police come, you’d better come clean with them.”
He made to follow me. “The police are not coming here.”
“They will,” I snapped back at him. “One of us has to phone them and tell them what happened to Major Williamson. You want me to do it? Or will you finally do the decent thing?”
The fight was gone from him now. “Have I a choice?”
“None. And you’d better have some explanations ready.”
I was almost at the main door when another side door opened and a huge figure appeared. It was man mountain, the heavyweight bodyguard who had confronted me at the gates. He wore the same bulging suit and he gazed at me with the same pig-like eyes.
“You!” I looked at him in amazement.
“You know Voissone?” Hassim asked, stepping up behind me. He seemed surprised that I recognized the man.
“He came to the boat when it was moored near Rennes.”
“Ah, yes. Of course.” Hassim was quieter now.
“You want to explain, Hassim?”
An ornate chair was placed by one wall and he sat down with his eyes dropped to the floor. “Viola telephoned me the night before she died. She said she had the money from the sale of her ring. There was some nonsense about Madame L’Orly wanting the money.”
“Did she say why?”
“Maybe. She was babbling and I didn’t take it all in.”
“But you decided it was time to get your hands on the money?”
“I considered it to be my money. The next morning I sent Voissone to collect her and take her to a bank where there was an arrangement to cash the cheque. He had instructions to bring the money back here, but…”
“But Viola wasn’t on the boat.”
“Yes, Voissone told me that. I didn’t know where she had gone.”
The story rang true and everything now fitted into place, the last trace of doubt removed. If Hassim had sent the big man to collect Viola, he must have believed that she was alive at the time. Ali Hassim did not kill Viola, and he could not have been at the scene or known about the killing until some time later.
Suddenly, I was able to picture how Viola had died. And I finally knew who had killed her. I had assumed all along that Viola’s death was down to one person, but now I was sure that more than one culprit had had a hand in the killing.
Hassim sat, face lowered, silent. I needed no more evidence, but I rounded on him anyway. “Mr Hassim, how long has your son been using narcotics?”
“He… that’s none of your business!”
“Oh, but it is my business, Mr Hassim.” I pressed home the point. “You did pay for his drugs, didn’t you? Who did you buy them from?”
“I…” He flustered and then shook his head.
“There was a drug dealer on the marina at le port des Bas Sablon at the time of a shooting. The police went after him. I figure he was in St. Malo with the aim of recovering his dope before the boat was sold. Am I right?”
He nodded. “The police are still looking for him.”
That was no consolation and I gave him a snort to let him know what I felt. “But he didn’t get the stuff, did her? The gunshot frightened him off. So you asked Aimee to recover it. Except that she didn’t have time to get to it. She sneaked aboard the Breton Belle when I went to the police after Viola’s murder. But she hadn’t time to get to where the stuff was hidden before I returned.” I was sure of my facts now. Aimee had been caught out when I arrived with the cops so she did a neat bit of quick thinking. She whipped off her clothes and lay down in Viola’s bunk. When Hassim didn’t reply I added some pressure. “That was your bit of business with her, wasn’t it? You wanted her to try again.”
“The truth…” he hesitated.
I pressed him harder. “The truth is, Hassim, you’d been buying the dope from that dealer to feed it to your own son!”
He snapped back at me then. “Jacques would have come off it in time. It was only a matter of time.”
“But you didn’t have the time. When you went bankrupt, Jacques was left high and dry with no one to bail him out. Did he start taking risks with dirty needles? Is that why he’s dying?”
Hassim’s face was now a picture of resigned dejection. “Jacques found it difficult. Aimee said she would try again to find the drugs when the boat got to La Roche Bernard.” He leaned forward and sank his head into his hands, a broken man. I had nothing more to fear from him. “But you are wrong about Jacques using dirty needles. He discovered he had AIDS a year ago.”
I nodded, recalling the pale skin and deep-set eyes. It figured. “I hope Aimee made him use a condom when she screwed him. What made her stick with a no-hoper like that?”
“She said she would stay with Jacques until we got the cash from the sale of the boat. I owed her a lot of money, you see.” The truth seemed to come from him more easily now.
I decided to press a bit further. “It wasn’t just the boat you needed to sell, was it? You also needed to sell your wife’s ring, and you got Viola to do it for you.”
“Who else would do it for me?”
“I suppose it came hard to tell your son that you needed the money as much as he did. Needed it so much you had to get Viola to do your dirty work for you.”
Hassim went silent again. What could he say now that the truth was out? For the moment I had to guess the rest. But it was an easy guess. Neither Colette nor Jacques knew Viola had already sold the ring and they both wanted what it was worth.
“Your son is a killer, Hassim. He killed Williamson, the man on the boat, as surely as if he did it with his own hands.”
“No. You mustn’t believe that.”
“Don’t fight it any longer, Hassim. You know the truth and you might as well admit it.”
“Oh, my God! My poor boy.” He wept out loud. “My poor boy has killed…”
“With help from Colette.”
“No. Not Colette.”
“Yes, Colette!” I made no allowances. “Jacques wanted the drugs he had hidden on board the Breton Belle. I made the mistake of telling him the boat was moored at the riverbank so he and Colette went down there with the dogs. They most likely expected to find the boat empty and instead they found Williamson. So they set the dogs on him before they recovered the drugs.”
“Jacques was such a good boy.”
“Like hell he was. It was the most vicious attack I have ever seen in my life, Mr Hassim. Your son is a particularly evil psychopath. And so is Colette. She had a hand in it too. That’s the nature of your offspring, Hassim. They’re evil!”
“Jacques wouldn’t have known what he was doing. He would…”
“Would have been out of his mind? That figures. But Colette knew what they were doing.”
“I don’t know what to do,” he whimpered.
“Where is Jacques now?” I asked.
Hassim looked pale and dejected. He spread his hands despairingly. The bottom had fallen out of his world.
“He and Colette took a car, but they did not say where they were going. Most likely they have gone back to Aimee’s yacht. It is at the Redon Marina.”
“They went together?”
“Yes, I saw them go. Jacques does not drive, so Colette…”
And Colette was the driver who twice tried to kill me at the L’Orly farm. Another piece of the jigsaw slotted into place. God, what a family! A son who got stoned out of his mind and a daughter who was riddled with evil intent.
“I’d better get after them before there’s another murder. There’s been too much killing and it has to stop.”
Hassim broke down at that point. “What should I do?”
“You can stay here. Call the police and tell them to meet me in Redon. It might help to ease your conscience if nothing else. Have you another car nearby?”
“Yes. In the garage.”
I swung on the huge henchman. This was no time for civilities. “Voissone, get the car out! And wait for me.”
Man mountain looked at his boss, and Hasssim nodded back to confirm my order. He had little option. “Go with him, Voissone. It is all over now. There is no hope for us.”
The truth was there for both Hassim and me to see. Jacques was too much of a liability to leave him go free. He wasn’t a cold-blooded killer, just a doped-up psychopath who had little or no control over his own actions. I had a suspicion he had been stoned to the point where he had mistaken Williamson for me on the Breton Belle. But there was no such excuse for Colette.
Voissone drove madly along the country lanes as if his own life was in danger. The rain was falling heavily, hammering against the car’s windshield. In the distance I made out flashes of lightning spearing into the misty countryside and I picked up the heavy rumble of thunder. Hassim had stayed behind to await the arrival of the police. He was frightened for his son’s life, but I reckoned he must have known the truth, that he had made his son into what the boy had become.
We screamed around the turn that took us alongside the Redon marina and came to a halt with a smell of burning tires. I scanned about as I jumped from the car and then saw the yacht moored down to our left, at the same pontoon where I had last seen it. The dogs were out in the rain, tethered to a railing, jumping wildly and barking above the noise of the storm. My clothes quickly became plastered to my body as I hot-footed down the slippery steps leading to the pontoon, keeping well clear of the dogs. With one leap, I went from the pontoon into the yacht’s steering well. Before my legs could straighten, I yanked open the hatch into the small cabin. The boat rocked violently as Voissone’s heavy bulk followed me.
It was dark inside and heavy with sweet, perfumed smoke. A low moan met me. To my left Jacques lay on his back on a narrow seat, his wrists bound together with rope. Was that the only way Colette could control him? Damn the woman! The youth’s eyes were glazed over and he gave no indication he had even seen me. He was so stoned out of his mind the world could have come to an end without him noticing.
I barely saw Colette lying, smoking on the seat opposite until she let out another low moan. Her eyes were wild as she jumped to her feet a joint in one hand, a pistol in the other. The weapon that had killed Viola? Then another piece of the jigsaw slotted into place. It was the same weapon that had fired at me on two occasions at the L’Orly farm. Whether to kill me or to scare me, I couldn’t be certain, but I knew for sure that Colette had shot at me and scared two shades of shit out of me.
I lunged at her gun hand before she could take aim. She screamed and the weapon went spinning across the cabin, crashing into the far bulkhead. She threw herself at me, her arms flailing. She was still in her smart suit and the skirt hindered her movements, but her anger more than made up for it.
“Stop it!” I shouted. “It’s all over, Colette. Give yourself up.”
“Get out!” she screeched.
“We know the truth, Colette. Give yourself up.”
I put out my hands to calm her, but I wasn’t quick enough. Her flailing fist caught me across the side of my face and I fell back against the bulkhead. In a second she was past me and forcing her way out into the steering well. But she had reckoned without Voissone. In the time it took me to regain my balance and run after her, man mountain grabbed hold of her with his two pudgy hands and held her firm.
As I came into the rear well, there was a violent struggle on the deck and then a splash.
“What happened?” I shouted.
“You not… worry,” Voissone replied easily. “I throw her… in the water. She can swim… maybe.”
“Let’s hope she drowns.”
Colette was struggling, grasping for the side of the yacht while Voissone eyed her warily. She was no further threat to either of us so I went below again and reached for Jacques’s tightly bound hands. He stared back with wide eyes, totally devoid of any comprehension. On reflection I left him bound, the police would have less trouble with him.
I went back on deck.
“You’ll stand trial, Colette,” I shouted down at her. “For the murder of Viola Bracewell.”
“Idiot! I’d didn’t kill her!”
“You expect me to believe Jacques did it?”
“Jacques would not shoot anyone unless….”
“Nothing.” She tried to grab at a rope, missed her grip and disappeared. She came up again, splashing and coughing.
I waited for her to get her breath back. I wanted this to last a while longer. “What about you, Colette?” I called out. “You were there. You had the motive and the opportunity to kill.”
She finally managed to loop one arm onto a rope draped over the side. “So what if I had the motive and the opportunity. I saw her shot, damn you. But I didn’t do it!”
She grimaced and then spat at me. “No one murdered her. It was an accident!”
The French police found Viola’s body weighted and lying on the canal bed just where the yacht had been moored outside Rennes. I was there with Le Fevre when it was brought ashore but I felt no sense of satisfaction that I had been right all along.
“The Hassim family will pay for this,” Le Fevre told me. “The French police do get it right sometimes you know. We have them all in custody and they will pay the price for what they have done” There was half a smile on his face at the time, as if he was pleased with the outcome.
“Really,” I replied. But there I felt no conviction inside. As far as I was concerned, the French police still had not got it right.
At least, not all of it.