Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Naked Grief chapter twenty

Chapter Twenty



“Look, Charlie, I don’t want to appear to be waving my snout around too much inside your trough, but don’t you think you should have phoned Lord Bracewell by now?” I tapped my beer glass on the table as I spoke. It was intended to emphasize the point I was making.

I had taken the rental car back to the garage and told them we’d been hit by a stone thrown up from a truck. While they fitted a new screen, we sat at a pavement table outside the bar in la Gacilly. The heat of the day had taken on an intense sullen quality and was wrapping itself tight around us. As a form of counter-attack, we were doing a similar act with a couple of beers. If it wasn’t for the intrigue in which we found ourselves it would have made the setting for a great vacation. But vacations and dead bodies don’t usually mix.

“You think so, old boy?” Williamson sat ramrod straight in his seat, staring into the distance. Who knows what thoughts were struggling for supremacy inside his brain. “Let his lordship know what’s going on, eh?” he mused, nodding slowly as if the message was just sinking in.

I upended my glass, soaked my throat in cold beer and then said, “You might just think of something important to tell him.”

“About Viola?”

“Right first time.” I sniffed, endorsing the speed at which his brain worked. “Like the fact that she’s up there somewhere sporting angel wings and we don’t know why. Nor do we know where to find what’s left of her down here.”

It must have been the mental image of Viola’s dead body that brought his attention back to earth double quick. He turned and stared at me as if I was the bearer of bad news, which I probably was. Yesterday’s bad news.

“Rather wait until we can be sure that she’s dead,” he muttered.

As an argument, it didn’t have any ring of truth about it. There had to be more and I knew what it was. He was scared of the reaction he would get from his lordship. Well, what can you expect when you’re hired to guard the daughter of a real-life English lord and the poor kid gets shot? There would be no MBE in this one for Major Charles Williamson. No visit to Buckingham Palace to be congratulated by the Queen. He’d be lucky if he wasn’t blackballed from his club.

“You can be sure Viola’s dead,” I told him, as if it needed telling. “You don’t hang around on this earth too long with a bullet hole in your chest. Hang it all, Charlie, Lord Bracewell should be told.”

“I suppose you’re right.”

“Course I’m right. Besides, you don’t want him to learn about it from someone else, do you?”

He sipped at his beer, filtering it through his moustache. His eyes darkened. “Who did you have in mind, old boy? Who else would tell him?”

“The police, Charlie, the French police. I told them the girl was shot. The gendarmes just might take it into their heads to have a chat with their English counterparts to see what truth there may be behind the story. And the Scotland Yard cops might just decide to get onto Lord Bracewell and tell him about reports that his beloved daughter has been topped.”

“Yes, you’re right.” He nodded sagely. “And we really should have told the police about that shooting yesterday, you know. About the attempt on our own lives. Criminal offence and all that.”

“You’re probably right, Charlie. Maybe we should’ve told them. But let’s save it for the moment, eh? Until we find out what the hell is going on. The fact is, I’ve already had a dose of French police hospitality and it didn’t go down well with me. I don’t feel too confident about French gendarmes. I know that the English and the French are supposed to be living in an age of entente cordiale, but they might just get the wrong idea about what’s going on and lock up the wrong people. Like you and me, for instance? Now, how about you go and make your phone call?”

Williamson rose slowly from his seat, tried to think of an excuse to put things off, failed and then strode away manfully to find a telephone. The ramrod back wasn’t quite so ramrod straight now. It was clear to me that he hadn’t been the same since the shooting at the farm. Somehow it had affected him worse than the news of Viola’s death. Perhaps it made him feel that much closer to meeting his maker. God knows how they had coped with him in the British army.

While he was gone I ordered two more beers and settled back to watch the world go past, at least, that small part of it visible from the la Gacilly cafe. A fair selection of tourists strolled around the town, easily identifiable by the way they peered into the numerous craft shop windows. But most of the world seemed to be comprised of grey-haired languid old men in baggy trousers and berets and pretty young girls in revealingly short summer frocks. Maybe it was just the way my mind worked. A spot of life crept into the atmosphere when Cherie and her boyfriend wandered up from the moorings and came across to where I was sitting.

They both paused by the table and Cherie smiled at me. I could really get to like that smile. It reminded me one helluva lot of Simone. “Hello, M’sieur Bodine. You have been to see M’sieur Hassim?”

“Not yet, Cherie.”

“But you will see him?”

“Not today. We weren’t exactly made welcome at the chateau yesterday. We were sent packing at the gate by some sort of Neanderthal ape. He tore up our gilt-edged invitation cards.”

The joke was lost on her. She frowned and said, “M’sieur Hassim does not take kindly to uninvited guests.”

“It shows. Have a seat and I’ll buy you both a drink.” I figured I owed her one after her previous help and I could hardly ignore her boyfriend.

Cherie accepted with good grace and a beaming smile, but her boyfriend seemed anxious to be some place else. He scowled and they argued for a couple of minutes in voluble French before Cherie explained, “Andre has arranged to meet a friend in another cafe. I have said I will join him shortly.”

I nodded appreciatively to Andre as he sidled off and Cherie took a seat opposite me. She sat forward in her seat so that her chest was seen to best advantage and she ran her tongue lightly about her lips. I soaked my throat again, hoping the cool beer would sink down to my loins and have some sort of dulling effect down there. Meanwhile the sun glowed on Cherie’s short white skirt and light cotton blouse, a brilliant contrast to her gently tanned skin.

I bought her a Martini and we chatted for some minutes about nothing in particular before Williamson came back.

“Did you tell him?” I asked. “His Lordship?”

“No.” He sat down between Cherie and myself. “He wasn’t at home. I’ll try again later.” He picked up the beer without a thought about how the glass had been replenished in his absence. Only then did he acknowledge Cherie. “Morning, young lady.”

“So you didn’t leave a message?” I persisted.

“Not the sort of thing you can pass on second hand, old chap. Is it?”

That was true enough. I nodded. “You’d better just make sure you do it later, Charlie.”

“I seem to be interrupting something, M’sieur Bodine,” Cherie said. Was that a spot of irritation in her voice because she hadn’t commanded our total attention? “You want me to come back after you have finished your private business?”

“No, no. Don’t mind old Charlie. He’s just a bit upset about something.” I put a reassuring hand to Cherie’s arm and changed the subject. There was more interesting conversation to be drawn from Cherie than from Williamson. “We were wrong to ignore you. I’m sorry. Tell us something about yourself. You speak good English as well as being very attractive.”

“Thank you, M’sieur Bodine. You are very kind.” The sunshine in her face broke out again.

“Call me Henry. And you can call him Charlie. The guy with the long face and the big moustache. Seems friendlier to use first names, eh?”

Oui, I will call you Henry. You know, I first learned to speak English at school in France, but I went to University in Great Britain and that is where I learned how English people speak. I studied Medicine at Edinburgh.”

“Edinburgh?” Williamson raised his eyebrows. “That’s Scotland. Different ball game entirely, my dear lady.”

“Ah yes, of course. But they speak English.”

He grimaced. “Sometimes. A sort of English.”

“Oh?” Cherie gave me a puzzled look and then turned back to Williamson, as if enticing him into further conversation. “I am sorry you are so unhappy, M’sieur Charlie. What is the matter?”

“Nothing to worry your pretty little head about, my dear.” Williamson angled his moustache towards her with an inquisitive expression. He was searching for some way to change the subject once again. “The name is Charles, by the way. I let our friend here call me Charlie simply because he’s helping me with a spot of business.” He coughed to hide his embarrassment.

“Then I shall call you Charles.” Her voice seemed to tinkle with amusement.

“It would be so nice to stay here all day talking to you, Cherie,” I announced, anxious to get back to the important matter in hand. “But we’ve got other things to attend to. For a start we need to talk to your uncle again. We need to find out more about this guy, Ali Hassim. Would you take us along to your uncle’s house again and translate for us?”

She looked puzzled and just a little peeved. “You want to see him now?”

I glanced at my watch. “Well… we don’t want to disturb your aunt and uncle right now. They’ll be into their siesta time. Give us an hour to grab a bite of lunch ourselves and then we’ll call at your boat for you.”

Cherie stood up with a sort of sniff, which probably said, ‘okay sonny, if that’s all you want’. In French, of course. She wiggled her chest, gave Williamson an encouraging look and went off to join her boyfriend.

We stayed on and ate at the cafe, a rather solemn meal as we once again went over the known facts of what had happened to Viola Bracewell.

It was around mid-afternoon when we collected Cherie from the Playful Petunia and walked back up to where her aunt and uncle lived. Cherie let it slip that Andre was asleep after a rather vigorous lovemaking session. She seemed to be quite unabashed about the whole thing. It made me wish, once again, that Simone was there to share a bed with me.

Aunt and Uncle Baudelot both seemed pleased to see us again, but uncle just didn’t have the words to tell us so himself. He sat in a big seat and grinned at us like a warm puppy between bursts of quite unintelligible French, which Cherie managed, somehow, to translate into English. Aunt Baudelot sat on the sidelines, beaming at us and interjecting in a mixture of French and English as befitted the occasion. To begin with, we kept the conversation informal. So informal that within minutes Cherie delivered the message, “Aunt says you must stay and eat with us.”

It seemed churlish to refuse so we nodded politely and Aunt Baudelot padded away to the kitchen. Ten minutes later, after we had exhausted our supply of pleasantries with Uncle Baudelot, she brought in a tray upon which were five dishes each set with the same curious lump of pale dough. It was, Cherie whispered to me (and I was glad of the advance warning) a soufflé freshly made by Aunt Baudelot herself. Actually it looked less like a soufflé than the stuffing from a worn settee, one sat upon by half a dozen sweaty heavyweight wrestlers. But, for the purpose of the meal, I did my best to regard it as a soufflé.

I toyed with the dough, carefully repositioning it around the plate between questions to Cherie, which she relayed to her aunt. During the course of the meal, my portion visited every part of the plate and ended up in exactly the same spot where it began and at exactly the same weighing-in dimensions. Williamson, on the other hand, devoured his meal with relish and even went so far as to accept a second helping. It said much for his own culinary prowess that he actually meant what he said when he praised Madame Baudelot’s cooking.

The conversation was, of necessity, a three-way affair with Cherie acting as the central pivot. When I felt the time was ripe to come to the real purpose of the visit, I said, “Would you ask your uncle about the boat. The Playful Petunia. Did Mr Hassim use it a lot?”

Cherie posed the question and the answer came back at machine gun speed. “Oui. Uncle told me that M’sieur Hassim loved that boat. But he could not afford to keep it. He had to sell it and uncle knew that it was a good boat, so he bought it. Uncle is too old to trust banks. He keeps his money in property and possessions because he is afraid that the banks will lose his money.”

Seemed like a wise decision. “Okay. Now ask him about the Breton Belle.”

“What do you want to know about it?”

“Anything at all. Just probe for whatever he knows.”

Cherie went back to her incomprehensible intercourse with uncle. The chatter lasted some three or four minutes before she nodded her appreciation at him and then told us, “M’sieur Hassim did not use that particular boat often of late. But his son, Jacques, used the Breton Belle often when his father did not use it.”

“Really?” That was interesting. “Did Uncle tell you anything about the background to the boat? Where it came from or anything like that?”

Oui. He bought it originally for his older son, Yussuf. That was a few years ago, and Yussuf died shortly after. M’sieur Hassim was very upset. He has only one son, Jacques, now.”

“Oh yeah?” That was something important to be filed away. “What else did your uncle tell you?”

“Only that M’sieur Hassim used the Breton Belle less than the Playful Petunia and much of the time Jacques was free to use it.”

“I see. Just one last question. What can they tell us about two young women called Colette and Aimee?”

Again the interchange in French, and then, “Colette is M’sieur Hassim’s daughter. Aimee is Jacques’s girlfriend. They do not know more than that.”

I almost jumped from my seat in surprise. Colette was Hassim’s daughter! Jacques’ sister! After a moment’s reflection, I saw that it should have been obvious by now. I cursed myself for not seeing it sooner. It was, after all, Aimee who’d been screwing Jacques on the yacht, not Colette.

We left the Baudelot’s flat in something of a thoughtful mood. I had this feeling that I was missing something important and yet it was staring me in the face. It had to be. Williamson suggested another drink at the cafe and Cherie readily agreed, but I wasn’t in the mood for it. I made up a story about a headache and went on back to the Breton Belle on my own.

I sat inside, at the saloon table, and set out in front of me all my visible evidence. All I could do was stare at it as if the answer might jump out at me. It didn’t. There was the cheque for two hundred and fifty thousand pounds sterling and Viola’s purse. It was all the physical evidence I had and it didn’t amount to much. Not nearly enough to convince any jury that there had been a murder, let alone point the finger at any suspect. There had to be more to this whole damned shooting match than was catching me in the eye. And whatever it was probably had to do with the boat, the Breton Belle. Call it a hunch if you like, or call it sheer damn cusssedness to look for an answer where no one else was looking. Was Le Clerc looking at the boat? No. Was Le Fevre looking at the boat? No. But someone had been interested in the boat. And then it clicked. The wiry little guy on the quay at St. Malo. The drug dealer. He had been walking straight towards the Breton Belle at the time of the gunshot.

Now I knew what I was looking for and I was going to turn the boat over so thoroughly I’d find out where the cockroaches kept their change of underpants. I started in the main saloon. Not an obvious place to give up any secrets, too open to public attention. But it was a place to start. I pulled all the food out of the ice box and the galley cupboards and stacked it on top of the table. Then I pulled all the loose fittings from the seats and the walls. I lifted the carpet off the floor and dragged it up on deck. I even took the oven out of its mountings and searched the greasy crannies behind where it had been.

And, of course, I found nothing.

Next I went to the cabin I had been using. I removed all the bedding and dumped it in the saloon, taking up the space of all the things I had shifted out onto deck. I emptied the cupboard and I removed the carpet.

And, of course, I found nothing.

Next, I approached Viola’s cabin. I went in there with some degree of trepidation. I didn’t expect too much in the way of Jacques’s secret dealings, but there was a real chance I would discover more about Viola Bracewell. Something that would knock her once and for all from what was left of her ivory pedestal. Not that there was much knocking left to be done. I’d learned enough to know she was no saint and she was not too well up in the intelligence stakes. But, what the hell. The poor kid was dead and it seemed like some sort of sacrilege to uproot evidence against her now. I needed evidence against the dickhead who shot her, not against Viola.

I started with the obvious places. Drawers and cupboards. All I found was clothes, some intimate feminine items and those letters. Nothing that told me more than I already knew. Then I sat on the bunk and just drank in the atmosphere of the cabin, wondering what secrets still lay there.

My mind went back to my High School days and Carrie-Ann. She used to send me love letters which I hid from my mom and dad in case they got the right idea about what was going on between us. I hid them behind the mirror in my room, in the belief that mom and dad could look right at them and never see them. I later discovered other people had already had the same idea and it was the first place any self-respecting detective would look. But I just didn’t know it at the time. It was a pretty long shot, but it gave me another place to look. There was a mirror screwed to the bulkhead just above the bunk. I used my all-purpose knife to remove the screws and pull the mirror right away from the bulkhead.

Nothing. But it gave me another idea. There was a similar mirror in each cabin. I went back to my own cabin and removed the mirror I had been using each morning to shave.

And there it was.

I’d been staring at it each morning while I was shaving and didn’t suspect a thing, which proved the theory I’d had all those years ago. There were a number of plastic bags filled with white stuff and packed into a cavity hole which the mirror covered completely when it was in place. I didn’t remove the bags in case I got my finger prints all over them. I didn’t need to inspect anything, I had a pretty good idea what the white stuff was. Coke, crack or something like that. I didn’t need to know which brand of shit it was to know that it was shit. The sort that idiots like Jacques Hassim used. The sort of stuff that wiry little guy sold. And Jacques Hassim had once been given full use of the boat.

I put the mirror back and wiped my prints from the area around the screws. Now I had almost the full picture. Almost, but not entirely. There was still something important missing.

Then I recalled that shooting on the marina at le port des Bas Sablon. The guy who was hurrying across the boat park was a known drug dealer… and he had been heading towards the Breton Belle. Was there a connection? Did he want to recover this shit before the boat was sold?

Something else was bugging me. The boat was bought for an elder son, Yusuf Hassim, who was no longer alive. What was the significance of that?

And, of course, there was still the question of who killed Viola?

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