‘Oh, the customer’s always right,’ said the young man. ‘I’d hardly do much business if I thought otherwise.’
‘Even so… To come here in person.’ Albert Roncet glanced at his visitor appreciatively. ‘Have you come far?’
‘I live in the south. But I was up here anyway, so it wasn’t a lot of bother. But it took me longer to find than I thought. The SatNav sent me miles off course. Or perhaps I entered the name of the village wrongly. Technology. You either get it or you don’t.’
‘And you’re young. What about me? I wouldn’t know where to begin with one of those. It’s all I can do to switch on a computer.’
‘Well, you managed to send me those messages all right. Unless you got someone to help you.’
‘Oh, no, all my own work.’ Albert struck a note of pride. His sister, Elsa, had shown him how to browse but that was a while ago now, and if truth be told, blasting off emails was child’s play. ‘I hope they didn’t upset you too much.’
‘Not at all. I wouldn’t be here otherwise.’ The young man smiled pleasantly. ‘It’s all my own fault. I should have checked. But these things happen, I’m afraid. One of the hazards of the game.’
‘Well, the messages had the desired effect, anyway. A personal visit, no less.’
‘No problem. As I said, I was in the area.’ He opened his hands in a gesture of apology. ‘I hope I didn’t scare you just now. I wanted to arrive before nightfall.’
‘Not at all,’ said Albert truthfully. He almost added, ‘Glad of the company,’ but that would be going too far. He’d found that since becoming a widower almost five years ago, there was very little company he was glad of. This young man was personable enough, but he was, after all, a complete stranger. And making polite conversation, even with someone who’d come all this way on a mission of good will, was something Albert could very easily forego.
But the man seemed in no hurry to leave and Albert hesitated. Perhaps it would be the decent thing to invite him to sit and offer him a drink after all. It was almost nine-thirty, and he might have been driving round in circles for hours trying to find the place. Supper was out of the question, but he wouldn’t be putting himself out too much by suggesting a glass of beer.
‘Well,’ he said, ‘Would you…’ No. It wasn’t in his nature to be hypocritical. Why pretend he enjoyed being with other people when in fact they ended up annoying him? As a rule, he found, the only topic anyone ever wanted to talk about was themselves. That would be fine if the world was full of fascinating people, but it wasn’t. Boring or boorish or both – those were the sort of people the world was full of.
‘Well, I ought to say thank you and let you be getting on your way.’ Albert smiled awkwardly, the extent of his own politeness striking him as ridiculous. He’d already said thank you twice, and it wasn’t as if he’d been chattering away, preventing the man from leaving. Did he have to spell it out? They’d been standing here in the corridor for almost ten minutes, so surely it should be clear that his hospitality wouldn’t be extending any further than that.
He was about to open the door to usher the visitor out when he said, ‘Look, I’m awfully sorry to bother you, but I need to make a phone call and my battery’s flat. I think I left my address book in the hotel. It’s got all my contacts in it.’ And seeing Albert’s hesitation, he added, ‘I’ll pay you for the call.’
But that wasn’t why he’d hesitated. He had a contract which gave him an hour of calls per month, which he never used up. No, it was just that having decided that their talk was over, this was unwelcome. Furthermore, it would mean inviting the man into his sitting room, and that felt like an invasion of his privacy. It was where he was writing his book, and he didn’t like the idea that anyone should even know he was writing a book, let alone see the evidence of it, the scattered notes and exercise books and tea mugs which he used in a special order, only washing them up when there weren’t any clean ones left in the cupboard.
But still, he could hardly refuse. ‘All right,’ he mumbled, and led the way. ‘Where was it then you were staying?’
‘Mulhouse. I must have left it on the bedside table. I dare say the chambermaid’s found it but I’d like to check.’
‘There you are, then.’ Albert pointed to the phone and then stood without moving till the man turned to look at him, as if to say that he’d rather be on his own. Albert found that strange. It wasn’t as if a call to a hotel was an intimate affair.
He moved away and picked up a couple of mugs, glancing at his latest writing as he did so. He’d reached one of those awkward points, between battles. Austerlitz was last December, Jena next October, and he had to find something for his hero to do in the meantime. At first he used to deal with it in just a few lines: Louis Ragolin would go into town with some mates, get drunk and visit a brothel. Then the order would come to march elsewhere, and another battle would begin.
Living and Dying for Bonaparte. A simple title, straight to the point. But writing the book itself was not so easy. Albert’s ambition was to describe each clash of the Napoleonic wars through the eyes of Ragolin, his humble hero, plunging the reader into the thick of the action whilst neglecting no detail – the weaponry, the uniforms, the terrain, the ebb and flow of the fighting. It was, without a doubt, a monumental project.
But those interludes between battles were annoying. He wasn’t sure whether to invent some romantic interest or to scrap them altogether. Nor had he quite decided if Ragolin, in the end, would survive. Probably not. Probably he’d be the very last victim of the war, a weary, battle-scarred veteran cut down by an English bayonet at Waterloo. That would be a challenge of course. He could just about imagine the tumult of battle – in fact he’d discovered quite early on that one battle’s tumult much resembles another’s – but what was it like to be pierced by a bayonet?
Perhaps it would be better to let Ragolin survive, aloof and bitter, a prey to too many memories.
He was thinking about this as he put the mugs in the sink, and he realised then that he hadn’t been listening to what was being said on the phone. He didn’t even know the man’s name. He must have said it, but Albert had been too absorbed with his hero’s fate.
It struck him suddenly that he’d been foolish. An old man, living on his own, letting a total stranger into his house? Perhaps he had a mate outside in a van, and this was the call to say, yes, come in, he’s alone and defenceless, we can take whatever we want.
There was something else that was odd as well, but he couldn’t put his finger on what it was. One can never be too careful, he thought, as he grabbed a kitchen knife and tiptoed back to the living room.
‘302, yes… It’s blue… On the bedside table, I think… What, nothing? But I’ve searched in the car – are you sure?’
Albert looked at the knife in his hand and shook his head with a wry expression, rebuking himself for being so suspicious. He put the knife back in its drawer.
He stood in the doorway. ‘No luck?’
The man was standing with his back towards him, apparently hunched in thought. ‘Afraid not.’ He turned round and stood with his hands behind his back, legs slightly apart. ‘You don’t mind, then?’
‘Living out here on your own. At your age. Not that I’m saying you’re foolish, mind. Don’t get me wrong.’
That was definitely odd. Suddenly switching the topic of conversation like that. And what’s more, hitting upon the very thing that Albert had been thinking himself. Did he know how to get into people’s minds, or what?
‘Oh, you can call me old’, said Albert. ‘I am. I’m seventy-two. But I’m fit and I’m big and I’m not afraid of anyone. So no, I don’t mind.’ He took a step forward. ‘Why do you ask?’
‘Curiosity.’ The man’s voice was mild. ‘There can’t be many that would live on their own like this.’
It came to him then what else was odd. That whole business with the SatNav. How could it send him off course? It wasn’t as if Wallenheim was that hard to find. It was barely thirty kilometres from Mulhouse and yet this man, armed with a SatNav, got lost?
‘Shame about the address book,’ said Albert. That was odd too. Didn’t they use their phones for addresses these days? Even Elsa did that. ‘But still, you’d better be getting on your way. Maybe if you went back to the hotel, they’d have another look.’
‘You weren’t happy, then?’
‘With what?’ Albert made his voice stern. ‘Look, I said you’d better be going.’
‘With what I sent you. What was it you said? I’m a bastard. A cunt. Oh, yes, you used some very naughty words, remember? And not just words, either. If ever you meet me, you’re going to give me a hiding. That’s what you said, isn’t it?’ The man spread out his arms, inviting. ‘Well, here I am. You’re big, you’re strong, like you said. Come on then, here’s your chance!’
Albert was angry not just with the man but with himself. He should have gone with his instinct, not even let him inside. But he wasn’t about to be intimidated by this raving, half-baked nutter – if he wanted a fight, by God, he was going to get one!
He thought of returning to the kitchen to get the knife, but he didn’t want to let the man out of his sight. So instead he snatched a marble bookend from the dresser and strode towards the intruder.
A couple of yards away, he stopped, his attention suddenly drawn to something unexpected. The man was wearing skin-coloured rubber gloves.
It took him a second or two to understand. The man who had seemed so kind and apologetic when he first entered was here to empty the house of everything he could lay his hands on. A professional burglar, no less! The effrontery of it had Albert seething with rage, yet at the very moment when he could have lunged forward and struck the bastard with the bookend, he suddenly became calm, almost uncaring. What did he have worth stealing, after all? The only thing of value was Living and Dying for Bonaparte – and that was utterly worthless to a burglar.
‘Go ahead,’ he said. ‘Take whatever you want. If you’ve come all this way to get rich, I’m afraid you’ve come to the wrong place.’
For a moment the man seemed disconcerted, as if Albert was departing from the script. Then he pulled himself together. ‘Rich? You’ve got the wrong end of the stick, old man. I don’t want your money. I don’t even want an apology. It’s too late for that. A hiding, you say? I’ll show you what a hiding is!’
Albert barely had time to take a step back. There was a flurry of movement and something appeared in the young man’s hand and only when Albert felt a pain in his stomach did he realise he’d been stabbed.
He dropped the marble bookend and looked down and saw that his shirt was soaked with blood. He didn’t understand. He wanted to ask the man why he was doing this, but all he could manage was a grunt.
Then he thought he needed to defend himself and he sank to one knee and fumbled for the bookend. Just as his hand closed upon it, he felt another pain to the side of his neck. He was aware of an arc of blood that spurted across the room. He fell onto his back. He saw the man’s jeans and the pale blur of his face.
The light began to dim, as if someone was turning a knob. He opened his eyes wide, trying to let more light in, but everything kept getting dimmer.
So this is what it was like, he thought, as the battle’s roaring tumult faded to nothing.
When Magali’s husband walked out, the only response, she decided, was to have a nervous breakdown. She didn’t go into work, took up smoking again and carried a crate of wine into her bedroom. She cried more or less non-stop, with the shutters closed, for the next five days.
Xavier Borelly, to whom she’d been married for twenty-six years, had taken a straightforward approach to the announcement. Never one to beat about the bush, he came down to breakfast one day and said into his cup of coffee, ‘I’m leaving you.’
It took a full ten seconds to register. ‘How long have you been cheating on me?’ she asked. ‘I’m not going to discuss this,’ he said. ‘And emotionally loaded vocabulary is not going to do you any good. Go and find treatment. There’s a number of colleagues I can recommend.’
On the sixth day, she took stock. It wasn’t a breakdown at all. It was an attempted breakdown, a self-indulgent diet of drink and depression. And it wasn’t working.
She opened the shutters and threw away the remaining cigarettes. She allowed herself one glass of wine before she phoned her son.
‘Your father’s left me.’
‘Last weekend. Sunday morning after breakfast. He already had his bags packed. There wasn’t a big discussion. He just said, “I’m leaving” and he left.’
She hadn’t been sure that she should announce it quite so brutally to her only child, whose phone now transmitted noises of suffocation. But he’d have to know sometime, and it wasn’t as if, at his age, it was going to stunt his development.
‘I’m coming over,’ he said when he was finally able to speak.
‘What on earth for?’
‘To… You need to talk things over. What are you going to do?’
‘Listen, Luc, stay where you are. Enjoy your weekend. When I need you, I’ll call you, OK?’ She did need him eventually for various practical arrangements. There’d be a divorce, which meant the house would have to be sold, so he helped her with that, and when it had all gone through, he hired a van and drove her out to the charming village of Sentabour, where he’d convinced her to rent a house a few minutes’ drive from his own. She’d liked the house straightaway. Though somewhat shabby, it was large enough to accommodate plenty of furniture, including her piano. It also came complete with the welcome assets of a garden, a garage and a cat. But she hesitated: would Sophie, she asked, take kindly to a lonely mother-in-law battling with depression just a few miles down the road? Luc said not to worry, Sophie was the understanding sort and it wasn’t as if they’d be seeing each other daily. Even as she let herself be persuaded, Magali determined to keep well out of their way – if there was one thing they didn’t need, it was her coming round at regular intervals to unload a pile of problems.
As it turned out, the despondency she’d braced herself for never came. On the contrary, a couple of months after settling in, she was sitting on the patio on a glorious summer evening, sipping a glass of wine as Toupie purred contentedly round her ankles, thinking that she was no less contented herself. This was surely better than supper in front of the television with a husband who seldom acknowledged a word she said. Perhaps, looking back through the lens of anger, it all seemed bleaker than it was, but honestly, they might as well have been waxworks in a museum. Nor would she miss the sex, of which there’d been virtually none for several years. Well, he, of course, had been getting plenty elsewhere, but she’d never brought up the topic or imagined that something was wrong, because it wasn’t as if it had been that great in the first place.
Emotionally, then, she’d not only survived but was actually, for the moment at least, and touching wood, better off. The problem though – there always had to be one – was that once she realised she was free to do what she wanted, she did something very silly.
‘What?’ said Luc when she told him. ‘You’re kidding. I don’t believe you.’
‘I’ve got money,’ she said. ‘Why shouldn’t I?’
‘Because you need ten times as much at least. Did you give it a moment’s thought?’
‘My job was a pain, Luc. You can’t imagine.’
‘Mum, you were helping people. OK, so it wasn’t great, but chucking it in was… It was dumb. There’s no other way to describe it.’
She smiled. He was perfectly right and dumb was an understatement. In fact you could call it perverse. When she didn’t need to work, she did, and now, when she needed a job more than ever, she quit. ‘You’re being so sensible,’ she said. ‘It’s not a question of money, it’s psychological.’ She couldn’t help laughing as she thought of the splutters her remark would have set off in Xavier.
Psychological? Raving mad, you mean. Luc, bless him, merely sighed.
She’d worked at the local Job Centre, where they put her in charge of ‘difficult’ cases. There was nothing official to this – it just seemed to happen that those of the unemployed that were actually unemployable ended up at her desk. Magali suspected all the same that it happened as the result of some unwritten but tacitly recognised policy.
‘You have empathy,’ said her boss when she brought it up. ‘You’re good at listening.’ Magali took this to mean she was a handy target for other people’s rants. Her clientele – as official parlance would have it – consisted of school drop outs, uncouth and unskilled, who demanded that she find them work, and when, inevitably, this didn’t happen, insulted her. Or else of jaded fifty-somethings, usually with a drink problem, who didn’t blame her personally, but told her to stop pretending that her job served any purpose. The official policy was to urge them to be proactive, but for some reason the message never seemed to get through.
She took up art. It wasn’t to make money and she stopped well short of claiming to be an artist, but she had gone to art school long ago and still knew a thing or two at least. When they first met, her bohemian friends and flow of creativity were a whole new world to Xavier, who was bowled over. For a while, anyway. By the time Luc came along, he’d begun to say it was very well being an artist, but couldn’t she try now and then to be a bit tidier?
She didn’t admit her hobby to Luc. He was a graphic designer, while outside the Sentabour post office was a sculpture by Sophie Kiesser – she sensibly kept her maiden name for her work. Magali therefore wasn’t in any hurry to show them her own efforts. In fact she would have kept them hidden for longer if Sophie hadn’t come round one morning unexpectedly when Magali had just slipped into a pair of paint-spattered dungarees.
She took Sophie into the garage, which she wasn’t yet bold enough to call her studio. The previous occupant had kept a vintage sports car there – Magali’s easel was a less spectacular presence, standing stiffly in a corner, doing its best, she thought, to dissociate itself from the Provencal landscape it had been recruited to display.
‘It’s good,’ said Sophie. She glanced at the other paintings, all in similar style. ‘Will you be selling them?’
‘Oh, no. I’m only just starting out.
‘I’m sure there’s some demand for this sort of thing. Especially round here, a good imitation of Cézanne, tourists will love it.’
It wasn’t spoken with condescension – her daughter-in-law was simply being honest. And Magali readily conceded that her talent, such as it was, went no further than imitation but still, it wasn’t exactly what she’d been hoping to hear. ’I could always try flogging them round the markets, then,’ she said. ‘When I’m down to my last penny.’
‘Ah, yes.’ Sophie grinned. ‘Luc was flabbergasted when you packed in your job. But hats off to you, I say – go for it! I’m sure something will turn up.’
Magali looked at her gratefully. The understanding sort. She didn’t really know her that well, but when it came to falling in love, Luc, she thought, had made a pretty good choice. ‘Shall we go back to the house?’ she said. ‘Would you like to stay for lunch?’
And a few days later, something indeed turned up: a plastic bag on the doorstep containing two bronze plaques. She’s crazy, Magali thought, as she read the note from Sophie: Wishing you all success in your new careers.
They’d talked about ways of making a living, from bus driver to beautician, and seeing the plaques, Magali laughed out loud and put them in the garage. She knew from her son that when she was twelve, Sophie had lost her parents in an accident, a trauma which according to him had made her resilient but also prevented her from taking anything seriously.
Later that day, though, she thought that since, after all, Sophie had gone to the trouble of making them, the least she could do was go along with the joke. So she found a wooden plank which she sanded and varnished, nailed the plaques onto it, and fixed it by means of a chain round the stone pillar at the entrance to the drive. They looked so good that she almost believed them herself.
When a man rang her bell a few weeks later and asked to make an appointment, Magali was baffled. ‘I think you must have the wrong place.’
He jerked a hand in the direction of the pillar. ‘Aren’t you the psychotherapist?’
‘Oh… I’m sorry, yes, of course.’ She’d totally forgotten. A profession, Sophie had said, for which you need no qualifications, just a lot of patience and a couch. ‘I didn’t really… I wasn’t…’ She wanted to say the plaques were there for a laugh, but the man didn’t look as if he’d think it was funny. She stepped aside. ‘Do come in, Mr…?’
‘My name’s Paul Daveney.’
‘And you just happened to see the sign and thought…’
‘My mother saw it. She said I should make an appointment.’
‘Your mother?’ Magali couldn’t prevent her voice from striking a note of disbelief. The man was in his mid-forties. But then that, she supposed, was why he needed a therapist.
He glanced at her warily. He was tall, stooping, with a rugged but gentle face, and eyes that seemed to melt into sadness when he looked at her. ‘She said it would be better than medication.’
His features went from wary to hopeful. Drugs versus therapy. This, she suddenly realised, was not a joke any more. His whole personality was at stake. ‘Well, if there’s one thing I can say straightaway, it’s to keep taking your medicine. At least until we’ve had time to explore the matter further.’ She clasped her hands together. ‘Agreed?’
‘My mother says it’s not natural.’
‘Well, maybe not, but if it’s helping you to cope, you mustn’t stop. Not now.’
Paul Daveney took a deep breath. ‘All right.’
‘Good.’ Magali smiled brightly. She went to her desk and pretended to consult a diary. ‘When shall we start then? Next Tuesday?’
Just a few days to tidy the sitting room and gain some self-assurance. She wouldn’t be tackling Freud’s collected works, it was more a matter of Psychotherapy for Dummies. But with a bit of luck, she could make a decent go of it.
She was polishing the piano a couple of days later when the doorbell rang again and a woman was there on the steps asking to speak to her. She was about Magali’s age, but slim and well-dressed, and Magali, in comparison, felt dowdy and shapeless.
‘I happened to notice your sign,’ said the woman. Her eyes had the haunted look of someone worn down by anxiety or stress. ‘I’d like you to help me if you can.’
Magali hesitated. She couldn’t hoodwink anyone else, she had a sense of ethics, after all. ‘Well, I… Actually, I’m thinking of winding up my practice. There’s not much call for therapists in Sentabour.’
The woman was taken aback for a moment. ‘No, I mean the other plaque. I was surprised, in fact, to see you do both. But perhaps they’re complementary?’
The other plaque. Ah, yes. Sophie was pleased with that one. Again, she claimed, no need for qualifications, you just go out and do it.
‘Uh… In a way, yes.’ Magali attempted a smile.
‘In which case,’ said the woman, ‘Since you’re a private detective, I’d like you to find the person who murdered my son.’
Magali’s first impulse was to come clean. Say straightaway it’s a joke and the matter would go no further. The woman would be upset, possibly angry, but if Magali promised to remove the plaque immediately, she might escape a visit from the police.
But that first thought was elbowed aside by a second, and although in the days and weeks that followed, honesty would make attempts to reassert itself, it never really stood a chance. As with Daveney, the truth should have been told straightaway. When other ideas start getting in the way, it’s already too late.
‘Come in,’ she said. ‘Take a seat. Some coffee?’
Harmless enough on the surface. But what she really meant was that she was going to listen, and the more she let this woman talk, the more difficult it would be to confess.
She remembered now what she’d said when Sophie, delighted, saw the plaques hanging at her gate. ‘It’s just to see what happens. You never know, it could add some spice to my life. Tracking down master criminals.’
‘What’s the name of that woman in Agatha Christie? Miss Marple. Did you ever read those?’ Which led to a discussion of books, and their mutual admiration for Jane Austen, before Sophie returned to the topic. ‘Most of the time it just means sitting in a car taking pictures of some guy cheating on his wife.’
Most of the time, no doubt. But not this time. Her very first case and it was murder.
The woman’s name was Charlotte Perle. Her son’s name was Enzo. Her voice was calm when she spoke, but she sat on the edge of the chair and her body was tense and you could see she was having to struggle to keep herself under control.
‘It happened in March. The 10th, they think. That’s a Thursday. He wasn’t discovered till the following Monday.’
‘Five months ago.’ Magali raised her eyebrows.
‘They’ve found nothing. That’s why I’m here. It’s as if… They say they’re still looking, but…’ She made a helpless gesture and shook her head.
Magali thought: And she expects me to find something when the police haven’t? Five months after the event?
‘Where did it happen?’ she asked gently.
‘In the Cévennes. The middle of nowhere, more or less. The nearest place is a village called Mannezon. Then a bit further there’s Padignac. But even that’s out of the way.’
‘I know it. I’ve travelled the area a bit. Remote, as you say.’
‘But beautiful. He has a house down – had a house.’ She paused and took a deep breath, looking off to the side. ‘He loved it there. He was doing up this house. He was good that way. Good with his hands. I don’t know where he got it from. Certainly not from me. Not from his father either. But he was good at many things. Music. Cooking. Relating to people. Music, especially. That was his career, if you like, or the one he was planning on. He was working on a film score.’
‘I assume he must have been… quite young?’
‘Twenty-four.’ Charlotte Perle looked at her directly, her eyes moist, and nodded. ‘Twenty-four,’ she repeated, and the figure said it all: a world that had fallen apart, become a world of absurdity and never-ending pain.
The woman’s grief seemed unendurable to Magali, her expectation too great. Or perhaps, in fact, she wasn’t expecting anything. Perhaps this too would turn into therapy, and after a while, once she had let out the rage and despair, she would find some sort of closure and be able to carry on.
But of course it could never be that simple. Twenty- four. Two years younger than Luc. Magali found it impossible to imagine what it was like, but she knew what it was like to have a son, and for an instant she was filled with the dread of losing him. Then there came a rush of relief as she realised he was safe, and the normal world was neither absurd nor cruel.
In Charlotte Perle’s world, though, there couldn’t be any closure till the killer was found. ‘He lived on his own?’ she asked. It seemed a young age to go off to the country to become some sort of hermit.
Charlotte Perle nodded. ‘He had a girlfriend, Isabelle. They were quite serious when they were living in Paris, but in the Cévennes… She made a go of it, tried it out, because I think she was really keen on him, more than the other way round perhaps, but when the autumn came along it was just too much for her. They didn’t actually say they were splitting up. I think there was still this idea that it might work out. But I don’t think it would have.’
‘So he was there on his own. Through the winter.’
‘He came back to Paris for Christmas. He wanted me to go down there, but I said no way. It was freezing.’
‘Did he speak to you about the people he knew there? People from the village, neighbours?’ She’d said he was good at relating to people, so surely he couldn’t have been entirely alone.
‘A little bit. There was a woman, Brigitte, I know that. Married.’ She put a sombre emphasis on the word. ‘He actually went out with Isabelle again at Christmas, but it was really… I think they were just deciding that it was over. He didn’t go into details with me. He was never very forthcoming about his relationships and I didn’t push him. It was his personal life and I didn’t really –’ Suddenly Charlotte stopped, turning to Magali with a curious smile. ‘You’re asking me these questions. Do I take it that means you’re accepting to take this on? Shouldn’t we be talking first about a contract?’
Magali was taken aback, but managed to recover quickly. ‘It was just for a little background information. One can’t commit to a case without knowing something.’ Not bad, she thought. She was almost convinced herself.
But Charlotte Perle looked at her steadily and her smile became broader. ‘Of course.’ She left a pause, long enough for Magali to feel uncomfortable. ‘And now,’ said Charlotte, ‘with the background information, what do you say?’
‘Well, it won’t be easy. Five months old and very little to go on, from what I gather.’
‘Practically nothing, according to the police.’
‘Well, I…’ Magali felt herself flounder. She’d put up the plaque, now all she needed was the confidence to go with it.
‘Do you know why I’ve come to you?’ Charlotte Perle leaned towards her. ‘Because as a private detective you haven’t got the slightest bit of experience.’
Magali was confused, then indignant, then scared – all in quick succession. She assumed that Charlotte Perle had been playing her along and now was about to arrest her. She tried to think of an appropriate answer. She couldn’t. She gaped and said nothing.
Sophie had been stretching it when she said there were no regulations. Magali had looked it up – in fact she’d been downright wrong. Yes, there was a time when anyone could do it, as long as they had no criminal record, declared on their honour that they were law-abiding and upright, and waded through the paperwork imposed on the self-employed. But in 2005 a decree came out saying you had to be qualified, you had to take a course. To be a private detective, you had to have the certificate to prove it. And you weren’t a detective anyway. You were a ‘Research Agent’.
The decree was signed by six different ministers including the Minister of the Interior at the time, Nicolas Sarkozy. Magali had not the slightest respect for the man who went on to become the President of France, but even so, it felt odd, and a little disturbing, to contravene so brazenly a document to which he had put his signature. Especially when the reason behind it was precisely to prevent people like her from doing what she was doing.
The woman in front of her didn’t look like at all like a police officer, but Magali fully expected her to pull out a pair of handcuffs. Regulations, I’m afraid. Just slip these on and come quietly. But her accuser, although not quite laughing, appeared highly amused. ‘I met your son and his wife. They told me all about it.’
‘You met Luc? What for?’
‘I work for a company that makes documentaries. We had someone doing the credits on one of our current productions but he’s dropped us and gone to Canada. I came down to see if Luc could replace him.’
‘And can he?’
‘His work’s good and he’s cheaper than the people in Paris. So, yes, there’s a chance.’ ‘Well, I’m glad about that.’ Magali spoke cautiously, not quite ready to give full rein to her relief. ‘So how did my name crop up?’
‘I let…’ Charlotte Perle faltered, turning her head to the side. Then she continued softly, ‘Sometimes I find it hard… I can be in a situation and everything’s fine and then something will just… It was simply the way he suddenly rested his ankle upon his knee, the way Enzo did, and I more or less fell apart. So then I had to explain. And they mentioned you.’
Magali felt ashamed to have thought this bereaved woman might be trying to trap her. The pain was so raw, so urgent, that it got in the way of everything. She couldn’t have done anything devious if she’d wanted.
But how had they even dared to come up with the suggestion? Was it in all seriousness or a joke? Oh, Mum’s a private eye. She’ll sort it out in no time. A real Miss Marple, she is. No. Either way, it would be heartless. Neither Luc nor Sophie was like that.
‘They mentioned me? To you?’
‘A little reluctantly, yes. I said I was thinking of hiring a private detective and I saw them look at each other, and after a little prompting, they told me.’
Magali opened her hands as if to get a grip on the situation. ‘I’m not sure I understand. They told you I have no experience – that what I’m doing isn’t even legal – but you came to see me anyway?’
Charlotte Perle sighed. ‘The police have experience and they’ve found nothing. Perhaps it isn’t experience that’s needed most. Perhaps it’s a matter of looking at it differently. Thinking outside the box. As for the legality of it, that’s not my concern. I’ll turn a blind eye to anything as long as it gets a result.’
‘I’ll have to tread carefully, though, won’t I? I’ll hardly be able to throw my weight around.’ Professionally speaking she had none to throw – the actual kilos, she thought ruefully, were a different matter altogether.
Her visitor shrugged, ignoring the objection. ‘There’s another reason. When I saw your son… Well, he’s practically the same age as Enzo. An only child too, he said. I thought it might help, having someone who knows what that means. I don’t know but… To be frank, I’m clutching at straws.’ She bowed her head, clearly now having trouble to stop herself crying.
Magali left a respectful pause. But she couldn’t go giving false hopes. ‘I’m rather afraid you are. A fresh outlook is all very well, but I wouldn’t know where to begin. I’m sorry. It was wrong of me to have put up that sign. It’s not Sophie’s fault – she was only trying to help. It’s mine. It was irresponsible. I never imagined that the first person to come along would be… someone like you.’
The woman nodded. ‘I see.’ She took a deep breath, then stood up. ‘You’re probably right. Forgive me for putting you in this position.’
‘You had every right to. If the sign is there, it’s to attract customers, after all. It’s just that I didn’t… I’ll be taking it down straightaway.’
Charlotte Perle gave her a quizzical look. ‘Both of them? The therapy one too?’
‘Well, I…’ Magali ran a hand through her hair. Had Sophie told her the truth about that as well? ‘I don’t know, to be honest.’
‘They told me you had a client.’
‘Yes. Starting this week. Nothing serious, I think. A form of depression.’ Shit! Unprofessional, you dolt! No one goes talking about their clients.
The woman pressed her lips together. She knew plenty about depression, she must do. Or perhaps you don’t even go there – you’re plunged straight into a sort of madness and people call it grief. Magali had lost her father and she remembered the emptiness that followed, the meaninglessness of all that went on around her. But when the normal pattern is reversed and children are taken before their parents, you surely go to a different place altogether. What sort of landscape did Charlotte Perle see? Here she was in Sentabour, among the rocks and pines of Cézanne’s art, but how did they appear to her? Perhaps she wasn’t in Provence at all but in some private Hiroshima. Or else the pines were just the same but their very prettiness was obscene, the scent of the earth and the shimmering breeze a cruel affront to the senses.
‘Let me show you out,’ she said.
At the door, Charlotte Perle dipped a hand into her bag and gave Magali her card. ‘I’ll be staying in Marseilles till Tuesday. If ever you change your mind.’
‘Well, I’m not…’ Magali faltered, then accepted the card, knowing she’d do nothing with it, but not wanting to appear unfeeling or harsh.
‘I’ll understand if you don’t. And if that’s the case, I’m sure there are plenty of others I could contact – real ones.’ She smiled as she said it, touching Magali’s hand affectionately, removing all hint of reproach from her words. Then the careworn expression returned. ‘And I will. I have to. I’m sure the police are doing what they can, but I’m not involved and I need to be.’ She left a slight pause. ‘You can think of it as a form of therapy if you like.’
Magali stood on the doorstep, watching her leave. As she drove off, Charlotte Perle addressed her a brief, business-like nod. Magali raised a hand in acknowledgment, barely a couple of inches, a gesture meant to give her visitor strength. But to Magali it seemed she was conveying only helplessness and sorrow.
Relieved that at least she’d been honest this time, Magali went to the garage to work on her painting. The easel now was clutching a half-finished bowl of fruit, and it was terrible. In a deliberate attempt to get away from Cézanne, all she’d managed to do was imitate Matisse. She stood for a few minutes, paintbrush in hand, trying to find some point to what she was doing.
How could she stand here painting when that woman’s son had been murdered?
She threw down the brush and reached for her phone. ‘Antoine? Are you busy? Can I come over?’
When Magali arrived in Sentabour, one of the first things she did was join the Hikers’ Association. There were three advantages to this: you got fit, you discovered the surrounding countryside and you met other people. Not all the people you met were the sort you’d want to go on holiday with – nor even, to be honest, for a hike – but Antoine Pessini, the association treasurer, was an exception.
It was on their second walk, discussing their lives on the way to the Roquefavour Aqueduct, that Magali said she’d been married to Xavier Borelly, and Antoine replied,’ Really? The cosmetic surgeon? He operated on my wife.’
The coincidence wasn’t extraordinary, given that if, like Anne Pessini, you resented the folds of flesh in your neck, you were likely to call on Xavier. But it set the two of them chatting so deeply that when they got back to Sentabour, they could hardly remember the view they’d trudged all that way to admire.
‘But then we don’t need to,’ she said. ‘We’ve got Cézanne.’
‘Well, reproductions,’ he reminded her. ‘Besides, he was more into viaducts.’
She wondered if, for all his charm, he might not be a little bit pedantic.
Antoine had nothing but praise for Xavier, or at least for his skill with the scalpel, which delighted his wife no end. A dozen years later, though, she went under the knife again, with a different surgeon and for a different reason, and though the result was initially promising, the cancer eventually returned.
‘I’m sorry,’ said Magali lamely. It sounded so much better when they said it in films.
‘It shakes you up,’ said Antoine. ‘I thought I’d never get over it at first, and of course there’s a sense in which you don’t. Never. Such a large part of your life suddenly gone. But time does its work and you have no choice but to move on. At first I just worked to fill the void, but then I thought it could happen to me too, any time. I’d reached retiring age, so why was I still working? Might as well make the most of whatever time is left.’
He said this with the resigned air of someone about to be executed, but given, as she later learned, that both his parents were spritely ninety-somethings, their only concession to old age having been to cut down to ten cigarettes a day, Magali was confident that Antoine would be around for many years to come. His level of fitness confirmed it. He indulged in none of the vices himself and in spite of their difference in age, only gallantry prevented him from easily outpacing her up the steep slopes of the Hikers’ Association’s outings. Once at the top, he would stand, hands on hips, his breath barely audible, while she sat panting on a stone.
She was sure that to Antoine, as to anyone in fact, it must have seemed odd that she had been married to a specialist in body parts who took no care of his wife’s. Not that any had actually fallen off, but her figure, she felt, had become a law of gravity unto itself. Heaven forbid, though, that she should go down the path, which Xavier did indeed suggest a few times, of silicone and Botox. No, she just had to work out daily and lose about twenty pounds. All right, thirty. The municipal sports ground being ten minutes’ walk from her house, she applied herself to this immediately: five laps every morning before low-calorie lunch. She’d never thought that the day would come when she would of her own accord submit herself to torture.
Whether the two were linked she had no idea, but her body began to acquire a shape and Antoine invited her to dinner. The prospect filled her with more than a little alarm: her first date since the divorce. First since her marriage, come to that. Do couples date once they’re married, she wondered. Special occasions to keep the flame of romance alive? Xavier didn’t do romance, he did peremptory judgements. And his name, she’d decided, wasn’t Xavier any more, it was Dickhead.
She didn’t know what to expect. What are the rules when a widower woos a divorcee? How long before their fingers touch in the candlelight? And what do they do with their past, each one lugging a trunk full of memories, curios gathered and stuffed unsorted inside. Oh, do come in. Shall I take your coat? And we’ll just put that trunk under the stairs.
As it turned out, Antoine had no intention other than talk. He was good at this because, like her, he listened. Put two listeners together and you get an actual conversation. What’s more, their opinions overlapped on the weighty issues of the day and they took a similar interest in all things cultural. Yes, he could be pedantic, but he was good-natured, knowledgeable and if she needed help with anything, always eager to give it. Can you fix my boiler, Antoine? Can you give me a hand with this wasp nest? After a while, then, it seemed quite natural to wonder if this was not the man with whom to start a new life.
There was perhaps an issue of age, but in many ways, that could be seen as a bonus. Sixteen years isn’t that great a difference and far from unsightly, his white hair and wrinkles came across as kindly and wise. As for sex, she simply assumed it would be as scarce as with Dickhead. Unless he did Viagra, of course, but she didn’t think that particular topic would be cropping up for a while.
She was righter there than she’d imagined. The dinner date was six months ago now, she’d lost eighteen of the thirty pounds and her lungs no longer screamed for air when she did her rounds of the pitch. Slowly curves were coming back that she’d thought forever lost, but they seemed to have not the slightest effect on Antoine, who remained as courteously distant, for all their affinity, as he had been the first day they met. Eventually she realised he was after nothing more than friendship. There was, for a while, a slight disappointment, as she imagined a future that might have been. Then she decided she didn’t actually need a man in her life and besides, a friend you relied on, to whom you could come for advice, was a far more valuable boon.
‘Murder?’ he said, eyes popping. Much of his career had been spent as a school inspector. The most serious case he’d dealt with was that of a teacher who’d posted salacious pictures of his daughter on internet. ‘You’re not actually thinking of taking it on?’
‘I’m not thinking anything for the moment. I’m simply asking your opinion.’ Magali gave a mischievous smile. ‘Asking, in other words, for a good reason why I shouldn’t.’
Antoine was happy to comply. ‘Well, if that’s all you want, I can give you several. First, as you’ve said yourself, you have no experience. Which means you don’t know where to begin and no one will take you seriously. Second, you have no idea where it will land you. Murderers tend to be dangerous. And finally, you aren’t, in any case, a private detective. So it’s illegal. It’s as if I put up a sign saying I’m a doctor and started prescribing medicine to whoever came my way.’
‘Well, yes. I’ve thought of all that. They’re common sense arguments.’
‘So what sort of arguments do you want? Nonsensical?’
‘No, it’s just when you think of it… Enzo Perle murdered. Twenty-four years old. Where’s the common sense in that? His mother’s desperate.’
‘I dare say she is. But murders don’t get solved by abandoning common sense. Haven’t you read your Sherlock?’
Magali nodded. She hadn’t expected anything different from this eminently sensible man. But to hear the words spoken and see his worried, earnest expression brought it home to her how silly it would be. ‘I suppose you’re right. That’s why I came here. To have you talk sense into me.’
‘You’ve already set yourself up as a therapist. What next? A hedge fund manager? I don’t want to have to be visiting you in prison.’ Antoine placed a hand on her arm. ‘And one more piece of advice, if I may.’
‘Take that plaque down today. Before you get into trouble.’
When she got home, she prised the private detective plaque away from the plank with a screwdriver, then removed the nails with a pair of pincers. She put the plaque in the drawer of an old chest in the garage. Then she had a cup of tea before returning to the still life she’d been battling with for days. She worked for twenty minutes, Matisse an imaginary presence at her shoulder, sniggering. Nice apple, that. Just like the ones I did myself. The bowl could be a bit brighter, though.
She gave a sigh of exasperation and fetched the business card from her desk. She picked up her phone. ‘Madame Perle? This is Magali Rousseau. I wanted to let you know I’ve decided to take on your case.’
There was a momentary pause. ‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘And please. Call me Charlotte.’
All in all, listening to Paul Daveney wasn’t much different from the Job Centre, except easier. Daveney didn’t expect her to find him a job and never called her incompetent or useless. She didn’t actually use the couch, but installed him in an armchair, and she sat slightly behind him to his right, so he could turn to look at her if he wanted, but most of the time he’d be looking at the wall in front, at one of her pictures in fact, of a bright orange flower set against a lush green background.
Sophie had said there was something sexual about it, which was why Magali put it there: eventually it would work into Paul’s unconscious and all his Freudian hang-ups would spill out. Beneath the picture she put a heavy wooden statue from Borneo, primitive and phallic.
The first session didn’t quite work out the way she’d planned because he spent most of the time looking at his hands, which were clean and white and soft. Useless hands now, he said. He used to be a municipal gardener, but they were cutting costs and he was the first to go. He played with bits of string that he twisted round his fingers. ‘I gave up smoking,’ he said. ‘They help.’ He dropped them on the floor, then he’d take out another from his pocket. At the end of the session there were half a dozen or more, scattered at his feet.
His father, she learned, had died six years ago and the woman who was briefly his wife couldn’t cope with his moods and his dithering. So he moved back in with his mother. ‘To look after her,’ he said, apparently with no sense of irony.
He didn’t say much else in those first forty minutes and she chose not to prompt him. It was bound to take time, of course, but at the end of the session she felt a twinge of guilt at the only Freudian bit that happened, the handing over of 25 euros in cash. For the therapy to work, she’d read, the patient had to feel the cost, realise that it couldn’t go on for ever. Except that the cost, she suspected, came out of his mother’s savings, and Magali only managed to accept it by pledging to herself to hand it all back if the therapy failed. But even that was unsatisfactory, because how could she set a deadline? And how would she know if the therapy had failed or not?
‘Thank you,’ said Daveney, shaking her hand as he left. ‘I feel a lot better now.’
Magali wondered why she’d never stumbled on such an effortless source of income before.
‘Here are the keys. The big one for the front door, the small one for the back. It’s a nice place, you’ll see, or would have been if it got finished. I’ll be putting it on the market, of course, I mean, I should be. I just can’t seem to… I’ve cleared out some things, but I haven’t… A lot of his stuff is still there.’ As she passed the keys over, Charlotte Perle briefly clasped Magali’s hand in her own. ‘You can barely imagine how pleased I was to get your call. Thank you.’
‘I promise nothing.’
‘Of course. And we’ve agreed that if nothing is what you deliver, nothing is what you get. Except expenses.’
Magali put the keys in her bag. ‘Is there a time limit?’
‘However long it takes. Months, I imagine. Even years, who knows? I just don’t want to ever give up.’ She took out a cheque book. ‘I’ll need a regular account of what you’ve been doing and I’ll pay you accordingly. A thousand euros advance to start with – is that all right?’
‘Fine.’ She waited for the cheque to be passed over before saying, ‘Charlotte. I’m sorry – I need to know how he died.’
‘I should have known it.’
‘What’s happening now. That you’d take this on and drag me into it and I’d be too feeble to resist.’
‘You’re not feeble and you know it.’
‘Or else,’ said Antoine, ‘it’s out of some misplaced idea you need protecting.’
‘I do. You’re my knight in shining armour.’
‘Indeed?’ He pressed his lips. ‘I fear you’ve probably come to the wrong place.’
‘Only kidding. You’re someone for me to chat to on the drive. Plus, your car is comfier.’
‘I prefer that. Chauffeur. Suits me down to the ground.’
He hadn’t tried to talk her out of it, but he hadn’t shown any enthusiasm either. He was far too serious for that, not the sort to go leaping into the unknown. Did he ever leap anywhere, she wondered? Not into bed, at any rate.
She knew when she asked that he wouldn’t refuse, despite her disregarding his advice. She just had to call and he came. Her personal genie, no less, and very handy with the DIY, her house had improved no end. Adventure wasn’t his cup of tea, though. He got enough thrills from his power tools.
But she hadn’t been able to go on her own. Simply imagining opening the door to the house where Enzo Perle had been murdered made her realise she had to have a companion.
‘Do you think it’s exciting?’ he asked. ‘A murder case.’ Her motivations puzzled him. ‘There’s something of that. If I’m honest. I know that sounds terrible, but there is.’
‘Like in the movies. Except we’re not.’
‘I know. It shouldn’t be exciting, I agree.’
‘But it is.’
‘Don’t you think?’
He took a while before answering. ‘Whatever excitement it has is outweighed by the knowledge that it’s foolish.’
Magali sighed. ‘I’m sorry, Antoine. I shouldn’t have asked you to come.’
‘No, don’t say that.’ He looked upset. ‘I’m perfectly happy to be here. Better than being stuck in Sentabour all day.’
They drove along in silence for a while. ‘It’s not the main reason,’ she said. ‘It’s not like, “Oh, I need some spice in my life, let’s investigate a murder.” The main reason is I feel for her so much.’ She gazed at the passing countryside, then shook her head. ‘I don’t know how she manages.’
‘Madame Perle?’ Antoine shrugged. ‘One does, that’s all.’
‘Forgive me, but…’ She stared at him. ‘Losing a child like that. It’s not the same.’
‘Well… losing a spouse.’ Gaffe, big time. She saw him stiffen at the words. She reached out a hand. ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean –’
‘No, you’re right. I’m not comparing. One has to move on eventually, though, however hard it is.’
‘And how can you tell? When you’ve moved on. To where? What does it mean to move on?’
‘To nowhere special. Just to less pain, I think.’
‘Or to someone else?’
‘You move on to someone else. Another relationship.’
‘Or not, as the case may be. Obviously not, in Madame Perle’s.’
Magali let a few seconds pass. ‘And in yours?’
‘Mine? I’ve moved. I don’t know if I’ve moved on.’
‘Very intriguing,’ she teased. ‘What is one supposed to make of that?’
He pointed to a road sign. ‘Padignac. Not much longer now.’
Moved, but not on. Where, then? Away from the topic, that’s for sure, but apart from proceeding cautiously round another hairpin bend, climbing towards Padignac through countryside that glowed in the evening light of summer, Antoine Pessini kept his destination secret.
The tourist season was at its peak and the Hôtel du Clocher, where they’d booked, was full of elderly couples and hikers. Or so it appeared – but how many of the couples weren’t couples at all but private detectives with their chauffeur? And amongst the hikers, how many murderers were there? Or else the other way round: the couples killed and the hikers tried to catch them. Magali didn’t mention either possibility to Antoine. He would scold her, not unreasonably, for being flippant.
So they conversed sensibly and there was no candlelight and their fingers didn’t touch. And after taking a stroll round the town they said goodnight and went to their separate bedrooms.
‘Well, at least,’ he said as they set out next morning to Mannezon, ‘it’ll be your first and last.’
‘Case. Unless you’ve replaced the plaque with a full page ad in the paper.’
‘Not yet, no. But I have been thinking there’s nothing to prevent me going legal.’
‘And how would you do that?’
‘Take a course. There’s one in Nîmes. Ten months.’
‘I see. So it’s back to school.’
‘Well, I’ll see how it goes. But if I want to continue, I’ll have to.’
‘Indeed.’ His frown was one of incomprehension. How on earth does she come up with these hare-brained ideas?
‘I detect scepticism.’
‘Can I read you my notes? Based on what Charlotte told me.’ He hadn’t shown any curiosity, but she felt a strong desire to share what little she knew. ‘Maybe you’ll spot some fiendish connection and solve the case in a jiffy.’
He dipped his head. ‘I very much doubt it. But I’ve come this far. Might as well go the whole way.’
She’d already studied them many times on her own – they didn’t offer the slightest clue. But then, how could they? She wasn’t a real detective. ‘Two suspects initially. Loïc Bussert and Gilles Mattell. Both brought in for interrogation, both released for lack of evidence. Bussert is Brigitte’s husband – she’s the woman Enzo was having an affair with.’
‘So a crime of passion. Need we look any further?’
‘There’s nothing to prove that Loïc Bussert ever went into the house. No footprints, fingerprints, nothing. Plenty from his wife – prints on the taps, hairs on the pillow, you name it. Even her overcoat. At first she denied they were having an affair, but that wasn’t really tenable. Bussert maintains it came as a total shock but by the time of the murder, it was getting to be common knowledge. Several people in the village have said it was pretty obvious. Whether Enzo suspected that Loïc knew is unsure but they know from his mails to Brigitte he was trying to break it off. The couple are divorcing now.’
‘And his alibi?’
‘None. At home, he claims. But the time of death isn’t entirely sure anyway. The autopsy put it sometime on Thursday, possibly Friday morning. Very likely the Thursday evening because Enzo was drinking a glass of wine and he never drank at lunchtime. There were two glasses, in fact, but one of them was untouched. He phoned his mother on Thursday afternoon, and also used his computer. There’s no trace of any activity on the Friday. He was making an omelette, again for two, but he hadn’t started cooking it so we’re looking most likely at Thursday evening, about half seven or eight.’
‘And this Bussert was at home then?’
‘On his own. He’d argued with Brigitte and she’d driven off to see a friend, Alice Perrin.’
‘Sounds a bit weak.’
‘He’s a shifty type, apparently. Got a bit of a reputation.’
‘He worked for the Forestry. He got sacked for stealing fuel.’
‘Well,’ said Antoine, ‘you’ve got your man, I should say.’
She glanced across. His face was deadpan but he had to be joking, surely? ‘It’s not enough, Antoine. He’d have been arrested if it was. Without any proof he was in the house, they’ve got nothing.’
He smiled. ‘All right. What about the other?’
‘Gilles Mattell. A local builder who was helping Enzo on the house. His van was seen there at 6.45 on the Thursday evening. He said he’d dropped in on his way back from another site and stayed no more than fifteen minutes. Possibly the last person to see him alive – apart from the killer.’
‘They’re one and the same. Never trust a builder, I say.’
‘Antoine!’ But now she saw he was laughing and she said crossly, ‘You’re not taking any of this seriously, are you?’
‘A murder is always serious.’
‘So what is it? Me? You really don’t think I should be doing this, do you?’
He didn’t think that required an answer. ‘So what’s the plan?’ he said. ‘You’re going to talk to them?’
‘The suspects? I don’t know. They’re not really suspects any more. The search has been widened to everyone Enzo knew before arriving, Facebook friends and so on. And I can’t… I’m just here to…’ She didn’t know how to finish.
‘I think if either of them had anything to confess, the police would have extracted it.’
‘Mmm. Me too.’
‘So if you’re ruling them out, we’re starting from scratch.’
‘I think that’s the best, don’t you? No preconceptions.’
‘And the police? Who’s in charge? We’re deep in gendarme territory here.’
‘The orders are given by the magistrate. The footwork’s done by a certain Vincent Darlier, a captain in the Padignac gendarmerie. Very thorough apparently but not very focused. That’s what Charlotte felt.’
‘Well, focused or not, you’re best off starting with him. If he wants to cooperate, that is.’
‘Why wouldn’t he?’
‘An amateur detective stepping in to solve it all for him? He might think he’s equally justified in telling you to get lost.’
Magali nodded slowly. ‘You know, that’s very encouraging, Antoine. Thank you.’
‘We’re in the movies, my dear. The chauffeur speaks unpalatable truths and the heroine stubbornly ignores them.’
‘I’ve seen some of those. The best are where she shoves her fist in the chauffeur’s big fat gob.’
Along with the four essential ingredients of a village – bakery, bar, war memorial, church – Mannezon boasted an art gallery, where Antoine gallantly declared her paintings to be far superior, and a general food store, where they stopped to buy some apricots. Enzo’s house was a further three miles, a hundred yards up a track off a narrow by-road.
A small old stone building, it looked out over the valley towards a range of hills in the distance. As they stood admiring the view in the warmth of the limitless sunlight, Magali had to remind herself why they were there. In the beauty of such surroundings, the very notion of murder was out of place.
But then they opened the door and it seemed that in an instant everything changed. The house was no less pretty inside than out, but this was the very room where Charlotte’s son had been killed – an iciness lurked inside.
She forced herself to concentrate. ‘A heavy blunt instrument.’ She didn’t need to look at her notes – she could still see Charlotte’s haunted features, her face drained of colour, as she told Magali the details. ‘An old pipe perhaps, or a piece of scaffolding, could have been picked up in a scrap yard. Or even just outside. It hasn’t been found. The killer must have taken it with him, no doubt tossed it away. It could be lying now at the bottom of a river.’
As she stood in the kitchen where Enzo had been cooking, she couldn’t prevent herself from shivering. Mushroom omelette, Charlotte had said, a detail that caused her to sob with grief in front of Magali, who didn’t know what to do and started crying too.
‘It feels spooky,’ she whispered. Getting no reply, she turned round. A wave of panic swept through her when she saw Antoine wasn’t there. She ran to the door: he was outside, hands in pockets, head bent.
He looked up at her. ‘I’ll wait outside, if that’s all right.’ He flashed a pinched smile in her direction. ‘Take your time, I’m not in any hurry.’
He didn’t want to know. Why should he? She had no right to drag him here and feed him gory titbits as if they were somehow instructive. Oh, and did I tell you, a single blow to the head was all it took? Just above the right ear. The second one crushing his face was just to make sure. Fascinating, don’t you think?
She went back inside. A feeling of helplessness swamped her. She cast her eyes round the kitchen. She didn’t know where to begin. In the beginning was the blow, and it felled him, and life was no longer in him. But what came before the blow? Who did he argue with? Or not argue with –there was no sign of a struggle. The blow came from behind, sudden and unexpected. He didn’t even have time to be surprised.
Therefore the killer was known to Enzo, who had let him in without suspecting anything. But Captain Darlier knew that already, as did Charlotte. What could Magali possibly find that was new?
She went upstairs. Two bedrooms and a bathroom. The larger room, where just a few months ago Enzo would have been making love with Loïc Bussert’s wife, was cluttered with books and clothes. Magali stood in the doorway and didn’t dare to enter. The untidiness reminded her of Luc. Artistic types. They’d have got on well. She put a hand to the doorframe to steady herself.
She went back down and stepped out into the sunlight. Antoine was waiting patiently on a low wall overlooking the valley. He didn’t see her straightaway and for a moment she stood looking at him. Slim, well-dressed, silver-haired. And this is my partner outside the holiday home we’re doing up. Lovely view, isn’t it?
He was right. It wasn’t a game of Cleudo. They shouldn’t be here at all, neither of them. He turned and Magali moved towards him, smiling uncertainly. ‘That was quick,’ he said.
She shook her head. ‘I’m sorry.’
She raised her arms helplessly. ‘I can’t do it.’
‘It was never a good idea. You’re not much of a Sherlock and I’m a terrible Watson.’
She attempted a smile. ‘I didn’t even bring a magnifying glass.’
Antoine moved closer and put his hands on her shoulder. It was all she needed. She burst into tears and fell into his embrace. Then with a startling suddenness, his lips came down on hers – but the kiss barely had time to get passionate before he broke off abruptly and with a brief, tormented look muttered an apology and strode to the car.
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