Sunday, 28 July 2013

Naked Grief last chapter


Chapter Twenty-three

 

  

Viola’s funeral in England was a quiet affair but I was glad I went.

Afterwards, as the family was leaving the graveside, Lord Bracewell approached me. He was a slim, silver-haired man with an erect bearing. Clear blues eyes locked onto me from a distance and, close up, showed only a trace of the inner hurt he undoubtedly felt. The control of rational decorum over outright emotion kept him from displacing that inner hurt to any public gaze. His manner was, in a word, typically English.

“Mr Bodine.” He offered me his hand. “I’m so glad you could come.”

“It was the least I could do.” His handshake was warm and firm. “I liked Viola and I’m so sorry her life had to end in such a tragic manner.”

“Yes, well… er, hum…” His composure wavered and then settled back onto its even keel. “I just wanted to thank you for the part you played in catching my daughter’s killers.”

“It seemed to be the right thing to do.” They were totally inadequate words but I was at a loss for anything more erudite.

“Quite so.” He wiped the corner of his eye. “Excuse me if I seem a trifle upset. This morning I had to attend to Major Williamson’s funeral. He has no family and I thought it my duty to make the arrangements. It’s been a difficult time for all of us.”

“I understand,” I said. “I suppose in hindsight I should never have left the major alone on that boat.”

“Don’t blame yourself, my boy. I hired Williamson and I thought he would be able to look after himself. If anyone’s at fault, it’s me.”

“I believe you knew him well.”

“Knew him extremely well,” Lord Bracewell put his hand once again to the corner of his eye. It was still damp. Then he coughed and compressed his lips to help him once again mentally recompose his bearing. “Same school, same regiment when we were younger. His father was a Captain in the Indian Army in the days when there was a British Empire. Married a beautiful Egyptian woman and tried to raise his son in the same mould as himself, but it didn’t work. Young Charlie inherited his mother’s dark skin, but he didn’t inherit his father’s brains. It was only the old boy network that kept him in business these past few years.”

“Nevertheless, he didn’t deserve to die like that.”

“No. No one does.” Again Lord Bracewell coughed awkwardly and then changed the subject. “What will you do now, Mr Bodine?”

“Take things easy. I thought I might stay a bit longer in Europe. There are places to see and… well, someone special I want to spend some time with.” I grinned. “The airline I work for can do without me for another week, so I thought I might go back across to France for a few more days.”

“Really? Would that be wise?” His lordship raised his eyebrows enquiringly. “In the circumstances?”

“Probably not, but being wise isn’t exactly my strong suit.” I nodded to where Simone was waiting for me by her car. “That’s a very special young woman over there. Someone very special. I first met her when I was in France and we need to spend some time together. Get to know each other. You know what I mean?”

“I think I do, my boy.” He clapped my arm and turned to leave. “It’s a great pity Viola didn’t meet you before she met Hassim.”

I didn’t reply to that.

*

Simone and I arrived at the L’Orly farmhouse late one warm afternoon. The L’Orlys were expecting us and a couple of the children spotted our car as it turned in off the road. They ran back into the house, announcing our arrival with a loud chatter. We followed them in without bothering to knock.

Seeing Brigitte fully dressed caught me unawares. I didn’t immediately recognize her hidden inside a summer dress, short and revealing though it was. I didn’t need to. She jumped out of her seat as soon as we entered the gloomy sitting room and threw herself at me.

Simone was right behind me and there was no way I could hide from her the fact that Brigitte was pleased to see me. How do you explain such things without incriminating yourself? Especially when a sensual youngster wraps her arms about you and kisses you full on the mouth?

I tried. And failed.

“Brigitte, this is Simone.” My intention was to put some emphasize into the words that followed. “Simone is now the most important lady in my life.” But I suppose I must have laid it on a bit too thick because Brigitte immediately pulled back, and looked at me rather hollow-eyed like a puppy that’s just had its favourite bone withdrawn. That’s when Simone showed her lady-like qualities.

“I am so pleased to meet you, Brigitte.” She kissed the girl lightly on the cheek. “I hope we can be good friends. After all, we have so much in common.”

“We do?”

“But yes.” There was a sparkle of mischief in Simone’s eyes but not one hint of malice. “After all, we’re both been attracted to Henry, haven’t we? We must both have the same good taste in men.”

Brigitte hesitated, not sure if she was actually hearing what she thought she was hearing. She looked at me and I tried to give her a reassuring grin but that fell somewhat lop-sided. I was unexpectedly wrong-footed, even more than Brigitte.

“So, now we’ve met.” Simone took a seat, as cool as you please, knees pressed primly tight together and chin held just high enough to denote confidence without being aggressive. “Let’s talk about what we came to talk about. And then Brigitte can show me her baby. Henry tells me he’s such a contented little boy.”

The ice was broken although I knew for sure that I’d have some apologizing to do later. For the moment it was important to take advantage of the opportunity, which Simone had dealt so neatly into my lap.

I sat directly opposite Brigade, close alongside Simone and said, “We want to talk about Viola’s death, Brigitte.”

“I have told the police.”

“Yes. We know what you told the police. We want to talk about what really happened.”

“But I told them…”

I didn’t allow her to continue because I had no time for half-truths. I said, “It’s mostly guesswork, but I think I know what happened, Brigitte. I think I know now what really happened that day on the canal bank.”

She looked crestfallen. “I told the police…”

“We’re here to talk about what really happened. Not what you told the police.”

“Oh! You know?” Her chin quivered. “But it was not me who told you. I did not tell you anything.”

“They threatened you, didn’t they? What did they say? Did they say they would do something to your baby if you told anyone what really happened that morning?”

She nodded slowly and silently.

“You haven’t told me anything important. I worked it out by myself, you see. I presume that you went to the boat that morning to beg Viola not to take your baby. But you saw three other people already by the boat.”

Oui.

“It was Jacques, Colette and Aimee D’Albret, wasn’t it?”

Oui. They came to our house very early in the morning and they told mama that they wanted the money Monsieur Hassim gave us. But mama, she was very angry and sent them away. Jacques was very bad with the drugs and he said that he would kill my baby because Pierre is the bastard, and he said he would kill Viola also because she had the boat, and it was not hers.”

“Did you believe him?”

She frowned. “He was very angry.”

“And later, when you were down there by the canal, you saw that one of them had a gun. That’s what happened, isn’t it?”

Oui. I was behind the bushes and I heard what they were saying.”

“Let me see now. As I see it, Colette wanted the ring and Jacques wanted the boat. So which of them threatened Viola? Colette or Jacques?”

“It was Jacques. He wanted the boat. He said she had to give it to him because it was his papa’s boat and his papa should not have signed it over to Viola.”

“But Viola insisted that the boat was hers. That’s right, isn’t it? She said, ‘but he gave it to me’, didn’t she?”

Oui.”

I paused for effect. “But Jacques didn’t actually kill her, did he? You told the police he did, but he didn’t really. Did he?”

Brigitte sank back into her seat and shook her head silently.

“Tell me what really happened, Brigitte.” I put a hand gently to her arm. She was shaking. “No one is going to harm your baby now. So tell me everything.”

She didn’t respond at first, too emotionally screwed up. But then it started to come out, a bit at a time until the whole sordid story was just unfolding in front of me.

*

Brigitte clenched and unclenched her hands as she hurried towards the canal. Tension, release, tension, release. She wanted to keep herself under control but there was an uncontrollable anger welling up inside her like some vast tide surging unstoppably towards a bleak shore. In part it was an intensity that was directed towards mama because she wanted to sell Pierre. But most of all it was a fierce, physical anger directed towards Viola Bracewell who wanted to take the baby from her. Two strands of the same anger, two objects of the same brooding. And what could she, Brigitte, do about it? Nothing, except to continue pleading with mama and Viola. Pleading for the sake of her own baby. So she hurried towards the boat where she would find Viola.

As she came near the canal she heard sounds of a scuffle on the towpath and she suddenly grew wary. She slowed her pace and pricked up her ears. Jacques Hassim and the two girls, Aimee D’Albret and Colette Hassim, had arrived aboard their yacht sometime during the night. She had seen the yacht from her bedroom window earlier that morning and, shortly after that, they had called at the farmhouse. And now they were near the Breton Belle.

Brigitte knew that those three were making their way downstream from St. Malo. They were trailing the Breton Belle because Jacques had his own reasons for hating Viola and so did Colette. Brigitte knew them well, and she did not trust any one of them. Suppressing her anger long enough to think a little more rationally, she crept quietly across the last few yards of grass that led down to the towpath. Then she crouched low in the lee of a bushy hedge.

The Breton Belle was just a few yards away. Jacques, Colette and Aimee were only feet from her. They seemed to be in considerable disarray, arguing with Viola on the boat, but they held their voices low. Why? Brigitte couldn’t guess why, but then she remembered. There was a stranger on board the cruiser. Viola had told her so when she called for the milk. The Hassims must also know about the stranger, whoever he was.

Jacques was brandishing a hand gun and, at the same time, struggling with one of the young women. Aimee had hold of his gun arm and was trying to remove the weapon from his grasp. Colette stood behind both of them and was telling Aimee to leave Jacques alone. She put a hand to Jacques’s back and tried to push him closer to the boat. He stumbled, broke free from Aimee’s grasp and took a couple of halting steps closer still to the Breton Belle. He stopped suddenly, turned and pointed the gun threateningly at the two women.

In a low voice he hissed at them to stay back. It was doubtful if he had any idea what either of the young women were doing, his brain was most likely numbed with the effects of whatever drug he had been able to get his hands on. They both obediently stood back. With a gun pointed directly at them they had no option, and the fear in their eyes told its own story.

It was only then that Brigitte turned her attention to Viola. She stood naked on the front deck of the boat, silently watching the fracas between Jacques and the two girls. She made no effort to cover her breasts but held her hands demurely crossed in front of her waist. It was her only concession to modesty. Brigitte looked at the total perfection of Viola’s figure and hated the girl.

“What do you want now?” Viola called out to Jacques.

He turned to face her and hissed at her in English, speaking through gritted teeth and in the same low voice. “The boat! You must give me the boat. It rightly belongs to me. My father intended that it should be mine.”

But Viola was clearly in no mood to give in to Jacques’s demands. Casting aside her limited modesty, she shook her fist at him and shouted, “It isn’t yours! He gave it to me.”

Jacques took a step closer, the gun now aimed at Viola’s chest. His voice was still suppressed in volume, but filled with venom. “He never intended to give it to you. Not until you forced him to sign it over. You persuaded him to sign against his better judgment, didn’t you? You forced him to sign some piece of paper that says it’s your boat so that you can sell it and take all the money. Well, I want that piece of paper my father signed. I want it!”

Brigitte was in no doubt that Jacques would do anything to get his hands on that paper, it was all that stood between him and Viola over the ownership of the boat. One way or another, he had to destroy the paper in order to get the boat. Still hidden behind the hedge, Brigitte felt her whole body go tense.

Viola had her eyes trained firmly on the weapon. “I haven’t got it with me. I told you that before!” There was an element of alarm in her voice.

“You’re a liar! You’ll give me the paper. I want it right now, and this gun says you’ll do as I tell you.” Jacques waved the gun so that it swung down to her abdomen and them back up to her head. He stepped closer, as if drinking in the extent of Viola’s fear. “Afraid of guns are you? Your brother isn’t afraid of guns, is he? Not when he’s sitting in his fast fighter plane and shooting at poor Iraqis on the ground. Your brother killed many of my father’s countrymen in the Mother of all Battles.” His eyes bored into her. “Maybe he killed my own brother! So, what do you say now, you little English whore? Do you want to pay for what happened to my brother in my father’s country?”

Viola now had both hands held straight out in front of her. There was no mistaking the tense, deep-seated fear in her face. She knew that the argument was changing, no longer simply a dispute about ownership of a boat. “Put it away, will you. It frightens me. The whole thing was nothing to do with me. I wasn’t there. How could I have been there?”

But all reason was now gone from Jacques’s voice. He was a desperate young man demented. “You didn’t have to be there. Your brother was there and he killed my father’s countrymen. One of my father’s family died, so now one of your father’s family can die. In our country, that is justice.”

Jacques didn’t appear to notice Aimee creeping up behind him. When he did, it didn’t seem to occur to him that she might try to stop him. But she did. There was a short scuffle, she grabbed the gun and tried to wrestle it out of his hand.

“Let him do it!” Colette said. “It’s best this way.”

“No.” Aimee kept hold of Jacques’s arm. “This is wrong. Help me stop him.”

“Not so loud. The American on the boat will hear.” Colette came forward and put her hands to Aimee’s shoulders. She tried to pull Aimee away from Jacques. Her voice hissed, low and insistent. “Leave him be. It is best this way.”

Brigitte could never afterwards be sure exactly what went through her mind at that point, or why she reacted the way she did. She had been content to remain in hiding while Jacques was threatening Viola, even wishing he would shoot the girl and so remove the threat of losing her baby. But when Aimee and Colette began to wrestle with each other Brigitte jumped out of the bushes and ran directly into the fray.

The pistol was still in Jacques’s hand, still pointed directly at Viola. The two young women were struggling with each other, their eyes averted from Brigitte as she dashed up to Jacques and reached out for the gun. Brigitte’s hands clasped about Jacques’s own hands, skin against skin, cold metal touching the ends of her fingers. There was a brief, very brief eerie silence and suddenly that silence was broken by the thunderous roar of a gunshot.

Viola cried out and then fell forward into the canal.

For a full two seconds no one moved. Then Colette grabbed at Jacques who was standing with his hands at his side, face quite blank. There was no resistance from him now as Colette pulled him back from the Breton Belle.

Brigitte felt a moment of blind panic. She stumbled away from Jacques, her hands shaking and her heart palpitating. What had they done?

Jacques seemed to be in shock, but not Aimee. She pointed to the boat and firmly reminded them that there was someone else aboard. Colette looked stunned for a few seconds before she also recovered her composure. She indicated soundlessly towards the bushes and, with Aimee’s help, she heaved Jacques into cover. Brigitte followed them just before that other occupant of the boat appeared on deck.

It was the American.

They remained in hiding and watched while the man recovered Viola’s body from the canal. No one moved until he took the body below deck.

Aimee was the first to break the silence. “He killed her!” she hissed “It was Jacques! He killed her.”

“We’ve got to get away from here!” Colette turned on Brigitte. “You get back to your farm. And don’t tell a soul about this. Not if you know what’s good for you.”

While Brigitte edged away, Colette and Aimee hurriedly took Jacques back towards the yacht. Somewhere along the way the gun was thrown into the canal. Brigitte heard the solid sound of it hitting the water.

Brigitte remained rooted to the ground for some minutes in the cover of the bushes when the others returned to their yacht. Then she turned and ran back towards the farm. What should she do now? Tell mama? No, she could not do that. She stopped before she came to the house and sat in the shade of an old barn. She sat there for all of ten minutes, thinking about the death of Viola Bracewell.

A terrible thing had happened back there and she had played a part in it. A very precise part. Whatever happened next, she must stay quiet and tell no one what happened. But could she trust the people on the yacht to say nothing? She had to find out. Forcing some reluctant energy back into her limbs, she went back to the tow path by the same route, quietly in case someone should hear her. Voices drifted up from the direction of the canal and she recognized them. At first she wanted to go straight to them but then caution cut in, a caution which reminded her that she could not trust anyone now. Not now.

She crept close enough to see Aimee and Jacques through the entangled mesh of the hedge. They were speaking in French, discussing what they should do next. Brigitte quickly learned that Colette had taken the American into Rennes to contact the police. In his absence, Aimee was about to board the boat and search for hidden drugs.

Jacques seemed incoherent, troubled by what had happened. He needed a fix, needed it badly. Aimee told him to go back to the yacht. She said that she would find the drugs. The American would be sure to return with the police and he must not be seen in the vicinity. If they came back before she was able to recover the drugs she knew how to make sure he was made to look an idiot.

Brigitte watched Jacques slink away. Then she saw Aimee board the Breton Belle. A few minutes later, the girl came back on deck with a purse. She studied its contents before she threw it away into the bushes. She looked angry as she stormed back into the bowels of the boat.

Brigitte knew that these were dangerous people and she could not reveal herself to any of them. She quietly walked back to the farmhouse.

*

Brigitte was shaking as she came to the end of her story. Emotion poured out from her in the only way it could.

I spoke, quietly, trying not to spook her. “It was Jacques who held the gun when it went off. Wasn’t it?”

Oui. He said that he would kill Viola, but I think it was an accident. There was a struggle, you see, the gun went bang and Viola fell into the water.”

“And, later on, you told mama about it?”

“I could not help it. I was frightened and I did not know what to do. Mama made me tell her all what happened.”

“And later still, they all put pressure on you to keep quiet about the whole incident. Mama and Aimee and the Hassims?”

Oui. Later they told me I must not tell anyone.”

“That’s when the Hassims threatened you?”

Oui. But I did not tell anyone.” She stuck out her chin defiantly. “I was not sorry Viola was dead because now she could not take away my Pierre. Was that bad of me?”

“Yes, I suppose it was. Bad, but understandable. Thank you for telling me all this.” I deliberately allowed the tension to ease off, watching Brigitte slowly recover her composure. When I spoke again, I kept my voice calm and easy. “Oh, by the way, what were you holding when the gun went off?”

“Holding?” She blinked.

I continued to speak slowly, carefully. “Where were your hands, Brigitte? On Jacques?”

“I was holding his arm. To stop him shooting.”

“His arm? And his hands also, perhaps?”

She turned defensive then, it showed in her eyes and the way she angled her body away from me. “Maybe I touched his hands.”

“Touched? You didn’t have your own hands wrapped around Jacques’s hands?”

“What is this? Why do you ask this?”

“I think you had your hands around Jacques’s hands.” I let that sink in before I continued. “You did, didn’t you? Colette and Aimee were struggling with each other, so they didn’t see what you were doing. They thought only Jacques had hold of the gun. But you also had your hands on it. Didn’t you?”

 Oui.” The reply came out slowly, hesitantly.

“So, Jacques was holding the gun, aiming it at Viola. Trying to frighten her but not intending to kill her. He was afraid if guns, you see, so he would never have fired it himself. He only intended to frighten Viola.”

“I suppose so.”

“But then something unintended happened. The gun fired and the bullet hit Viola.”

“He must have jerked his hand.”

“Or maybe someone jerked it for him? Someone who was standing right next to him. Someone who was actually holding his hands.”

There was a lengthy silence, one which I refused to break. Eventually Brigitte said, “Viola wanted my baby.”

“There were other ways to stop her.”

“You cannot prove I did anything wrong. Not now. Whatever you tell the gendarmes, I shall say it is completely untrue. I shall say that Jacques killed Viola and I saw him do it. The other girls will agree with me. That is what they believe.”

“But Colette and Aimee didn’t see what actually happened, did they?”

“They think they know what happened.”

“And Jacques?”

“He is mad so no one will believe what he says. You see? You cannot prove anything against me.”

“No. I don’t suppose I can.” I sat back in my seat, wondering whether anything could be gained by making formal accusations against her, accusations I could never hope to prove. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe it would be best if I don’t waste any more police time.”

“Yes. You see, you understand.” A smile quickly returned to her face. “I always thought that you were the nice man.”

“Depends what you mean by nice, Brigitte. Nice men don’t have sex with unmarried teenage mothers.”

“For you, I would do it again. And again.”

I glanced at Simone. “I think not, Brigitte. I wouldn’t allow it to happen again and besides, Simone would not approve.”

“That is the pity.”

I stood up and started to move away from Brigitte, then paused. “There is one more thing, Brigitte. Back in St. Malo, before Viola sailed the Breton Belle from there, someone let fly with a shotgun. Someone who might have wanted Viola dead. You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?” I glanced at the shotgun mounted on the wall.

An astonished look quickly filled Brigitte’s face and she jutted her chin at me. “You cannot prove anything against me. Nothing at all.”

“No. I can’t can I?” And I left it at that. If the police wanted to follow up on the matter that was their prerogative.

*

We were on the ferry back to Portsmouth. It was a bright, moonlit evening and we stood on the afterdeck watching the ship’s wake trailing off into the darkness.

I put an arm about Simone’s shoulders. “You knew all along what happened between me and Brigitte on the Breton Belle?”

“Of course. What sort of woman would I be if I couldn’t see something as obvious as that?”

“You’re angry.”

“No. If we were living together and you did that to me I would kill you. But we still have a lot to learn about each other. So I have no right to be angry. Yet.”

“For what it’s worth, I’m real sorry…”

“Don’t let’s talk about it, Henry. Don’t let’s spoil such a nice evening.”

I clasped my arm tighter about her and we stared out across the water. “Maybe I should have told the police.”

“Told them what? That you had sex with a teenage nymphomaniac? That much is true and anything else is pure conjecture. Let it be, Henry. Let it be.”

She was right, of course.

 

 

End

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