Chapter 4 here ... Chapter 6 here
Francine awaited her answer. She could see he had no answer but asked again anyway: 'What about Mademoiselle?'
'That's the big issue,' he finally said. I've tried speaking with her, to tell her there are serious issues to discuss but she's always doing something else. I've spoken directly to her and she's spun words around to put me off. You might call it weak but there are two reasons I haven't pushed hard.
One is that she is under immense pressure, another is that she said the more I push, the less likely she is to decide, plus there hasn't been the real necessity until now for me to push. Then I did push by giving her a time limit and now we're past that.'
'I know. She just thinks you're hers and doesn't understand how serious this is, she thinks the other issues are a higher priority for now. She expects you'll just wait, as you always have done.'
'When the time limit was up, it dislocated her and she clearly did not wish to leave Philippe. Then she did. She knew she was now with me and what did she do? She sent Nikki to me. Did she think Nikki was a robot?'
'I know, I know, I know. We all know.' She threw up her arms. 'She's indecisive - I think it's that rather than her not wanting you. She ticks off lists and sending Nikki was clearly one item on the list. She's been very silly and yet I still think she must have her chance.'
'Oh, she'll have that all right. Today if she comes back.'
'And after Nikki, forgive me, Hugh but who will it be - maybe Nadine or Melanie or someone else? Sorry to mention it.'
He just looked at her. She added: 'I'm sorry, I do understand, Hugh, I really do and thanks for being open with me. Shall we return to Nikki?'
They came back out, Francine still numb. ‘I can’t get this into my head, seriously. Nikki, you of all people! You eat men as a rule.' She turned to him. 'You don’t know how haughty this little one can be, Hugh. My goodness - my own partner.’
Then she smiled at Nicolette and that meant everything.
‘May I go out with Francine for a while? I just want to talk about things, girl’s talk, you know. I need to.’
‘You don't need permission from me.’
‘We’ll be at Avenue Jean-Jaures, 19ème arondissement, here's the number. Don't use the mobile. You know.' She pulled out a scrap of paper and wrote the number on the phone pad. 'See you early evening. And while I'm out, I'll ... er ... tell Francine about Nadine.’
'What about Nadine?' demanded Francine anxiously.
'At the cafe. Come on, let's go.'
Everything she had was now poured into her farewell kiss and the way she held him, running her hands over his back, was watched with disbelief by Francine.
Then they were gone.
Geneviève reached the apartment about 19:00.
Soon sitting in her favourite armchair, facing the window, eating croissants and enjoying the coffee - he did the serving for once - she half-sat in the Moineau chair and had a speech to make.
‘Hugh, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking. I haven’t been with you in person, I’ve been quite busy but my thoughts have continually been with you.’
Something was clearly wrong with him, so she tried, ‘Do you remember the Lodge and the things we said?’
‘Every word, Genie, every word.’
‘Good.’ She relaxed a little. ‘Hugh, I’m going to hurt you now. I had to test out my remaining feelings for Philippe and I … um … stayed with Philippe; that’s why you couldn’t reach me but I could never have moved forward otherwise.'
Then she said more rapidly, 'I wanted you to give me time and you gave me that time.’
Still he didn't answer nor was there any sort of expression on his face. She asked, 'Well aren't you going to say something?'
'I'm going to say many things.'
Her mouth went dry, she needed to know how bad the situation was, she thought of blustering, thought of standing on her queenliness but somehow knew none of that was going to wash this time round. There was nothing for it but to brace herself and hear him out.
He began. 'Later this evening, when you reflect on what happens in the next thirty minutes, it doesn't alter the fact that I do love you, that I would never hurt the Section and our position, at this moment, is still the same.' She audibly relaxed, too soon. 'Yet certain things have changed forever.'
'Oh?' she parried.
'Let's drop this shadowboxing, Genie, this holding of our cards close to our chest because the time for that is now over.' She was shocked at the tone, a tone only someone who had nothing to lose would adopt. He'd never once spoken harshly to her and she didn't like it. 'You were on a promise to decide by a date and on that date, we went to Cafe de Paris. You did not honour your promise but when Philippe betrayed you one last time, crossing that line, you ended it like that.
Did it result in us becoming one? No. As Nikki says, there was definitely love there and we do love each other - I love you right now, that love is no less - and yet you did not seal the deal, as we say. Francine said you took me for granted, knowing I was going nowhere and I did not want to push you. You thought you could plead all these other matters you must deal with but the one with you and me you did not take seriously enough. You were too comfortable with me but if you look at my history, you would not be so comfortable with that.
I understand how you see it. Here are you, here are your girls, here is your work, here are your funders, here is me, waiting for you to come home, as you've done now. I do see it and I should have shocked you out of that complacency.
We don't really talk, you and I - I mean really talk - and anyone can tell you that's a bad basis for a relationship. At first I thought it was because you suspected me of being the enemy but then I thought about it and realized it was not that. I concluded, Genie, that it wasn't that you suspected me at all. It was that you had things you didn't want me to know ... about yourself.'
He saw that that one had hit home and was chagrined.
'Yet I already knew many of them. Nikki says this and that, Emma does too, Francine does too - none of them tell me much in themselves but as you would know, putting together what each has said, it gives me a very good picture of you. The most upsetting thing is not that you slept again with Philippe but your dishonesty in the morning before you left.'
'I beg your pardon?'
'Dishonesty, Genie. When you left here, you wouldn't look me in the eye but tried to fool me with a light manner. I knew you weren't being straight and thought it could only be one of two things - either it was the troubles in your mind - or else it was Philippe. Nikki later confirmed that it was Philippe and said that this was not due to your troubles but due to your dishonesty in this matter.'
Her jaw dropped open. 'Nicolette - said - that? My Nikki?'
'Geneviève,' he spoke low and in earnest, 'you must understand what's been happening in the Section. The business with Philippe does not worry me as much as it does your three closest people. I personally knew there was always going to be something with Philippe, he was always your first choice but they feel you've not been straight with them and that you broke your faith with them.'
'Ask them, Genie. Phone them now.' She shook her head.
He took a sip and went on. 'When you sent Nikki to me that afternoon, you crossed a line. Francine told me it was your way - you have a checklist and tick each point off one by one. My fidelity was one of those things and you knew the best test was the card you'd kept back - Nikki. Forgive me for saying this but I'm not sure you fully understand the dynamics of human interaction. There is immense power in male-female chemistry. Do you wish to hear the rest?'
Her mouth was dry and raw. 'Go on.'
'She and I kissed that first night, you know that, you saw the end of it. Nikki has said since then and so have I, that her task became less clear after that, that this was no flirtation - it was serious. It frightened her and that is no lie. It frightened me too.'
'We did kiss again but besides that, there was a lot of conversation going on too. A lot. Emma came into the flat and saw us kissing - Nikki knew Emma had a key to the door and expected she'd come in.
We all talked over coffee and Emma said she couldn't understand why you were acting as you were, that there was very real danger here for the Section, that you'd lost touch with your girls and that you were the last one to realize it. Will you phone Emma now to establish that I am not lying, not twisting her words?'
'Emma asked me to talk to you immediately, Francine begged me to, Nikki demanded I talk to you and of course I was ready to but then you did not reappear. I left a message on your answering machine. I begged you to talk. Then all the other things happened and that was tragic - they weren't your fault at all - it was just how it happened. I do understand those things completely.
Nikki and I spoke of you in every third breath. I don't need any lectures on everything I owe you - I know them already. I owe you my life. I owe you everything in Paris. Nikki has a fierce love for you too, you know that. Nikki brought Francine here today, with two disks and they weren’t good.’
‘Really?’ She was once again uneasy.
‘The first was of her, with various men - her work - and the second was with one particular man she was in love with, in her early days. They sent that disk to her.’
Geneviève lay her head against the antimacassar. ‘She showed you those … and Francine helped her?’ He nodded. ‘If Nicolette showed you those,' she said quietly, 'then she’s not flirting with you, Hugh. This is a nightmare.’
'It gets worse.'
'I don't think I want to know.' Yet her quick look said otherwise and he went on in that light.
'It all happened so quickly. Francine saw you in Philippe's car and phoned Emma. Nikki had been watching her and knew it was about you, she got it out of Emma, she was absolutely furious - have you ever seen Nikki like that before?' Again, no response. 'Nikki came storming into this flat and said it must be this way and I nodded.'
'Tell me plainly what you're trying to say.'
'I shall, in one moment. I'm phoning her now to ask for permission.'
'Permission? Who from? Nicolette? Whatever does she need to give you permission for?'
'Please may I use your mobile?' She rummaged for it and handed it over. 'Allo, Nikki? I can't hear you in that place. Excuse?
Ah, that's better. Look, I have Genie here and I'm about to tell her, as we agreed. May I also mention the night you kissed me at the recliner? Sorry? Yes, I do mean that. Yes, I know, so it's your decision. Of course I could, not a problem but it's your decision now. I thought you might say that. Will you also tell Francine? You have? I agree, it's going to come out anyway, isn't it? Yes it is, it is the right thing. I know you do, I've just told her I love her too.
Pardon? Francine's looking at you strangely? That's nothing to the look Genie's giving me. Look, when you speak with her later, you'll no doubt hear from her every word I said today. Do you want a word with her? Yes, I understand, only after I've told her. I'm not sure she'd want to speak to you until she knows everything. Nikki, I have to get off the phone, I have to begin.'
He closed off the phone and handed it back, with thanks. She was looking at him with a mixture of horror and expectation. 'Go on, Hugh. I think I have the idea but now you'd better say it. I'm ready.'
'While you and Philippe were having sexual intercourse at your flat, so were Nikki and I here.' He looked down.
She tried to speak, her mouth opened but all she could do was shake her head from side to side. 'Nikki? My Nikki? Nikki! You were both ... doing that? Sexual intercourse? You went that far? No, no, this is not so. This is my Nicolette you speak of.'
He looked into her eyes. 'You will speak to her later, so I'm hardly likely to lie, am I? When she phoned you at 00:25, I was beside her on the bed and heard her message to you.'
She jumped up and backed away towards the curtains. 'Stay away from me. Don't you dare come near me.'
When she realized that he'd made no move to do so, that worried her all the more. She subsided to the flat surface of the wall unit, almost hyperventilating and there was nothing he could do.
‘Sex. Sex! You did that with my longest friend, from childhood, in revenge for what I'd done?’
'There was no revenge. You need to see the context. I'll tell you if you'll hear it.'
She began to almost wail. 'I don't think I can take this. I don't know where to turn. I feel ... betrayed. You never thought to call me, to ask me?'
'I did call you,' he said quietly, 'and you know I did. More than once. I said it was serious. Nikki came back to the room and heard my message to you. Do you want to hear her answer?
'No. All right, yes.' She buried her face in her hands.
'’Mademoiselle is not going to answer your call this evening because I know where she is and what she's doing. Today Mademoiselle broke the trust, broke the ties, not just with you but with all of us.’'
She kept her head in her hands about a minute. Then she appeared to have come to a decision. 'I do see it, my foolishness. I knew Nikki was dangerous because she was alone but never, ever did I think she'd betray me. And as for you - you disgust me - that you could do something like that after all I've ... and then you speak like this and think it's all right.'
'It's anything but all right. And the worst part of it is that you are still trying to justify yourself in this matter. I accept what we did and we take responsibility for that - that's what we're doing now. She is telling Francine at this moment, I'm speaking with you and Emma already knows.'
'Emma knows?' she asked in a croaky voice. 'How much does she know?'
‘Emma knows all of it. She was there during part of it. Come and sit down please.'
She did not respond at first but then got up and stumbled over, in half in a daze, placing her bottom on the chair. He went on, more gently. 'Nikki has not betrayed you, Genie. She came in that night to do exactly as you asked but the dynamics did something.'
'She fellated me. Quickly, just the once. Then she kissed me and walked into you at the door.'
'That's ... that's absolutely disgusting. What are you doing to my girls?'
'I did not reject her. That's my crime. I gave her a barrage of observations in the afternoon. As your man, I should not have gone so far with those comments.'
'Did you ... do anything ... that afternoon?'
'No. In fact she laughed that I was ever the English gentleman. That kiss at night was the first touch of that kind and that’s where it went insane.'
'But you knew I wanted you and still you went ahead.'
'No Genie, I did not know that. Now this is important. Nikki had a long talk to me the next day -' despite the situation, Genevieve couldn't help but smile, she knew those 'long talks' of old - 'and she said how all the girls saw there was love with you and me but that we didn't talk. They weren't to know why. They said we didn't act as a normal man and woman would. They were of the opinion that you were just keeping me on the side and that's why I gave you that year. The year passed and you said what you said that evening at the cafe.
And now comes the critical part. With that deadline gone, instead of coming together with me and us talking as we are now, you withdrew into your work issues. I know that was partly because you were confident you had me but look at it through my eyes here - your response was to send Nikki. I concluded from that you were finding a way to get out of your promise to me.'
'N-o-o-o-o! That is not so. You said yourself you knew I had to be sure.'
'That's not how it looked at that moment, I’m sorry. 1. You were not talking. 2. You sent Nicolette. 3. You knew we’d kissed and never gave me anything more than a mild request to give her up. I concluded you’d lost interest in me as your partner and I needed to talk to you but you wouldn’t talk. I couldn’t get to my own woman.'
'Ah, I see it - so when you thought I didn't really want you, you saw that Nikki was available and you changed women ... just like that.' She snapped her fingers. 'You're nothing but a ... a horse changer.'
'I may well be a horse changer,' he said calmly, 'I may even be a terrible person but in saying that, you insult Nicolette. Nikki would never steal another woman's man, never, ever and certainly not yours, not unless she was sure it was over with that other woman. And Genie - it certainly did look that way. I’m sorry – you refused to talk to me –’
‘I did not refuse.’
‘Yes but it looks that way, it really does and all the women thought so too. May I tell you what I think happened with you and me, for what it's worth?'
She indicated for him to go on.
'You and I both liked the idea of being together, there was love, there was passion. There still is love and that's what complicates this. Philippe was the one you'd set your heart on and he was also the reason for the Section, that was fair, while you were the one I'd set my heart on. You and Philippe had half a relationship, he went away quite often and you did too. You always resented how little attention Philippe gave you and you were right but if you'd had all that attention, I don't think you'd have coped - not with the Section too.
What you needed was a man with his own life, with his own business and then, like a King and Queen, you'd both come together every few days. Philippe's demands on you were far less than mine were, particularly in gyps and laid up in bed here, doing nothing. You couldn't cope with all the other demands and mine as well. I don't think it was anything more than that.'
'I had decided to accept you,’ she said, ruefully. The next words really cost her and she rolled them round in her mind first before she eventually spoke. 'You're actually leaving me, aren't you? In your heart of hearts, deep down, Hugh, you're leaving me. You've left me already.'
'I think there was a path you and I were on. We could still get back onto that path and without Nikki, we could probably find that path again, especially now that we both know exactly how things are and Philippe has finally gone. Love is love, Genie and we still have that, even now.
However, Nikki did say one other thing and that is what I think allowed me to move from you in my heart and no, Genie, it was not horse-changing. Do you want to know or not?'
'I think this is verbatim. 'You were always number two to Philippe but you've known that for a long time. You are not number two in my eyes – in my eyes, you were always number one.'
'I'll kill her.' Her lips were a tight line. 'Go on, go on, get it all out.'
She said: 'I'm not saying you would not one day have become number one with Mademoiselle but with me, since the day we met, you have been number one. I'm better for you than her and I think you know it. You're also better for me than for her - what you need, what she needs - they're two different things.''
'She said those words? Nikki said that?'
'You have left me, haven't you?'
'The answer is no. I don’t lie. It was always going to depend on you stating your case, what you wanted and from who. I don't think you understand just how important you are in this. So no, no decision has been made.'
She looked calmly at him. 'All right, where did you call to, if you’re permitted to divulge that?’
‘She asked if she could go with Francine to Avenue Jean-Jaures for a chat.’
Geneviève smiled grimly, ‘Oui, that’s their favourite café, those two. I do see it, Hugh – she is sure you’ve agreed to be her man and yet you say that neither of you made any commitment?’
‘Genie, we made love, that part worked, we made our feelings clear and I can see a life with her - I really can - but it depends on you -’
'How we see our partnership, what it means to us. I have my ideas, you two each have other ideas. We spoke of you, how you are more like a Queen who needs a King to be off doing what he does, then they come together every so often. They're like a family firm and each has a place in it.'
'Nikki has a different concept. She's going to devote herself and she demands that in return. It's a 100% commitment with her. Not every man could give that. She has strange ways,' Genevieve smiled at that, 'you are actually less demanding but recently, you've demanded too little. So all of that needs thinking through and deciding on.'
'Yes but could you still make a life with me now - having been with her?'
'If Nikki was not in the equation, it’s not even a question. I was with Anya, Ksenia, both full on, 100%. At the Lodge, you and I agreed that when the decision is made, whoever we are with is the only one. I did not spend this two and a half years because I don’t want you.'
'Just as a matter of interest, what was Francine’s reaction?’
‘Same as Emma's. She said, if I recall rightly - and she said it in front of Nikki: ‘I still can’t get this into my head, seriously. Nikki, you of all people!’
‘My thoughts exactly.’ Tears began to well. 'Hugh, I loved you so much, I still do love you but you've betrayed me with my dearest friend, despite what you say. I - I can't cope with it. You've hurt me more than you know.'
He was about to reply when he saw what he’d missed earlier and that was that she didn’t seem to be wearing a brassiere, which she almost always did. Getting up and hobbling over to her chair, he sat on the armrest, resting his crutch beside her then, without warning, he pulled down the left shoulder of her brown frock, revealing the top of the ugly scarred weal which reached as far as the shoulder.
She quickly went to replace it but his look was an accusation. ‘Who did this?’
She was saved from replying by Nicolette now coming in and removing her boots, this time with little fuss. Nicolette took in the scene, came through, looked at the marks, then at Geneviève and was beyond furious. ‘This is Elaine’s doing, I knew it, I knew it! How could she allow this? Why did she not kill him?’
‘She had no choice. You know that.’
‘Who did it?’ Hugh repeated.
‘Don’t tell him, Nikki - I forbid you. Hugh will go all cavalier and try to kill him, I know it.’
‘You lied to us, Mademoiselle – to Francine, to Hugh and to myself. Nadine looked after you in the hospital, didn’t she?’
This was too much. She dissolved into hysterical sobbing, Nikki immediately cradled her, soothing her the best way she knew how, then said, 'I'm making supper.' He took over the cuddling, which she resisted at first but knew it was the thing she wanted most at this time and as she calmed down, she murmured, 'You were so harsh, so harsh.'
'I'm sorry, Genie, I was but that’s because I was facing a difficult task. I'm here now. We eat supper together, the three of us. You two will take the bed tonight and I'll be on the recliner. OK? This mess won't be sorted out for days, weeks, so let's leave it for tonight. There's really no urgency.'
Whenever Jules asked Jean-Claude to leave things in his hands, culinary delight was bound to follow.
Le Roux, seated at his customary table, was more than intrigued, Guiscard was an ancient name and he was calling the restaurateur by his prenom. No matter, he’d have it checked out later.
To call that simple lunch ‘a lunch’ was like calling Moliere ‘a scribbler’ and the genius of Jules Colbert was more than apparent in the meal’s very simplicity. It was the easiness, the blending and the contrasting of the flavours and aromas that demonstrated this genius.
It was not food as the ordinary mortal knew it. *
Any pretender could offer up a bizarre menu, but Jules, on the other hand, altered perceptions, while remaining true to the spirit of the ingredient. The intention of Jules Colbert was to confound expectations; he challenged you to reassess what it was you were actually consuming.
The meal consisted of 17 miniscule courses, some no more than a spoonful, others of close to normal size. It began with a margarita in a block of ice with a hole in the centre. On top was a foam of olives, with shards of margarita ice underneath.
Next came the olives, one on each spoon. Except that they weren’t olives, they were olive jelly, most sensuous. Next came a foam of caramelised liquid pumpkin, dusted with gold leaf.
Le Roux’s eyes were by now popping out - shaved dried foie gras, almonds and cocoa, butter ravioli, white asparagus with olive oil gnocchi - and the wine changed with every course. On and on and on it went and with the simple ‘ice-cream’ dessert, if you could have called that meringue concoction simple, also came Jules Colbert.
Jean-Claude touched him on the forearm and commented, ‘You are without peer, except perhaps for Ferran Adrià and El Bulli.’
It was enough. The restaurateur beamed from ear to ear but now confessed, ‘This was not original today, Jean-Claude - it was my tribute to Ferran but it had my embellishments and signature, all the same.’
Jean-Claude nodded and they got down to the tacky, mundane business of the true purpose behind his presence there today.
Pierre le Roux had not received similar treatment and was, accordingly, more than miffed.
And yet, he had to use Café Noir as his headquarters – it was – well, it was his address, in a manner of speaking. As Jules Colbert eventually headed back to the kitchen, Le Roux called him across and with his best attempt at bonhomie, enquired about the pumpernickel moose, playfully suggesting such a combination might be forthcoming for him at his next sitting.
Jules bowed a curt bow and displayed the respectful demeanour of one in the presence of greatness, very flattering, Pierre felt, and yet it did not quite match the close camaraderie so obviously enjoyed by this Guiscard and the celebrated restaurateur.
‘If Monsieur would care to visit Le Froid, in the 19ème arondissement, close to Le Parc des Buttes Chaumont,’ Jules explained, in as close to an obsequious tone as he could manage, ‘it would perhaps suit you to perfection. This place here, Café Noir, Monsieur,’ he shrugged in a self-deprecating manner, ‘it’s just a café, after all, a place to eat for the itinerant office worker in the 12ème arondissement.’
As nice a put down as one could have devised and one Pierre le Roux was neither going to forgive nor forget. He was going to break this pompous little mountebank. Jules noticed it, dismissed it and returned to the kitchen, not worried in the least by M. le Roux. There were higher things, deep within the psyche of Paris and le Roux knew that full well.
Hugh Jensen now came in on his hospital crutches and Jean-Claude felt the gasp and rush of activity behind him, as sweet-petite Jeanette rushed across, in as dignified manner as she could muster, slowing down and patting down the back of her skirt before reaching him, whilst the other two girls raised their eyes to Heaven.
Jeanette was so gauche, so undignified but she knew M. Jensen’s tastes to a T, he would not eat anywhere else nor be served by anyone else and she brought the soup and petit-pains forthwith, without one word from him. Jean-Claude nodded on approvingly and felt that Hugh had digested the second Parisenne rule set in stone, after one’s personal appearance.
Hugh now saw him, broke into a big grin; Jean-Claude came over, Eric sprang into action, transferring all the paraphernalia and tidying up behind.
‘That girl likes, you, M. Jensen,’ smiled Jean-Claude, sitting down.
‘And I like her, Inspector – she’s the best there is and like you, I only ever accept the best.’ Jeanette heard every word, even from three metres away, went scarlet and scurried away to do some tidying up. Guiscard smiled, knowing exactly what Hugh had been pulling there.
‘M. Jensen, perhaps you can see that there are people who wish you well, who wish for you to find your true love and if she’s French, so much the better.’
‘I really think you mean that, Inspector.’
‘I’m a not disinterested party.’
Jean-Claude’s answering smile was enigmatic and Hugh continued, ‘So it would be to everyone’s advantage if Nicolette and I sealed the deal, oui?’
Jean-Claude said nothing. If both he and M. Jensen could find happiness with the right one, it would be more pleasant all round. And he was lonely, more lonely than he cared to admit. Hugh seemed to have tuned in to these thought processes because his next comment was to the point: ‘It’s not easy though ... is it Inspector?’
Guiscard replied, ‘We can’t afford to be islands … Hugh.’
There, the Rubicon had been crossed. ‘What may I call you, in return?’
‘By my name – Jean-Claude.’ Good, they’d got that out of the way. ‘Tell me … which of the Mesdemoiselles it is to be?’
‘You know which way I'm leaning.'
'Let me just say one thing. Mlle Vasseur, it seems to me, came to you on her own terms ... you might consider that.’ He saw that the point had been well made, he had to get back to work, he wiped his hands, went in and said his farewell to Jules, then to Hugh and left.
Presently, Jeanette brought over a glass of brandy, with the compliments of M. Colbert. That was nice; what had he done to deserve this? Then M. Colbert himself came out and graced Hugh’s table, Le Roux observing all with narrowed eyes.
‘This honour is more than I deserve, M. Colbert.’
‘Monsieur, you have frequented this establishment for some months, in all seasons, and your custom is greatly appreciated. Jeanette speaks highly of you but I confess it’s true that it was only when M. Guiscard sat with you now that I appreciated whom I had under my roof. He does not socialize with just anyone.’
‘Monsieur, this is too much,’ laughed Hugh, nervously. ‘I’m just a humble professor of English - no more than that, I fear you mistake me.’
‘There’s no mistake, Monsieur. Your background is known. Including Russia.’
‘M. Colbert is too kind and this Calvados Adrien Camut is far too subtle for my palate.’
Colbert was bemused. ‘Then how did you recognize it, Monsieur?’
‘The cigar spice and almond of course – there’s no secret in that. But I must set the record straight - I really couldn’t tell a Reserve de Semainville from a Reserve d'Adrien.’
‘The hint of walnut on the nose, M. Jensen, but still, that’s admirable.’
‘How came this bottle, M. Colbert, to this café?’
‘Ah, yes. I was two weeks ago in the Pays d’Auge - a small favour I did for Emmanuel Camut. I served the same to Inspector Guiscard just now.’
‘I know the Inspector’s name itself is quite ancient.’
‘He and I are distantly related. His family needed to … er …’ the restaurateur chuckled, ‘redorer leur blazon, shall we say, some centuries ago. After all, I am a Colbert.’
Francine got back to the Lodge about 23:00, Jean was at his mate Christien’s tonight and she preferred not to know what they’d get up to.
As she was scheduled for an 08:00 start, she wasn’t in the mood for phone calls about the Nicolette/Geneviève/Elaine business – it had taken it out of her. Maybe it was the weather too which was the problem, approaching the festive season she so detested.
Bursting in to the main building, she threw off her coat, shuddering at the cold, took off both boots and flung them in the corner, then went through to the kitchen to fix a coffee and have a banana. She took the tarte out and cut a corner. Staring at it, she cut herself another corner, then put it away. Suddenly she realized she was not alone.
She swung round and confronted three men in dark leather jackets.
One was about 185 cm, solid, maybe 30 years, with a leer on his face. The second was about 175 cm, thinner, maybe 25 years, also with a leer. The third was older, maybe 35, and thick – about 180 cm in height and 110 cm in girth.
Their intentions were clear – her experience told her that – she felt her mouth go dry, as she reached for the carving knife. The young one jumped her and smashed her wrist on the counter, probably breaking one of the bones but she grimaced and didn’t scream.
She knew there were two diametrically opposing rules of reaction and that she had to decide quickly. Either she didn’t resist at all and passively let them have their way or else it had to be tooth and claw attack – there was no middle way. She decided on the latter and launched a stinging attack, seizing the initiative.
That surprised them and the young one had to go to the kitchen to get the knife to cut her clothes away. She struggled for another thirty minutes until she had no more strength to resist.
Then they went to work on her.
Done at last, they let themselves out and their driver took them to their next destination – Elaine Cabrel. They’d been given clear instructions – two executions, two maimings.
Jean phoned from Paris about midnight and the line was dead. He phoned the mobile and it was shut off. Nicolette took a call about 00:10 on her mobile from a barely alive Francine and immediately woke Geneviève, who woke Hugh, who phoned Jean-Claude Guiscard.
Guiscard got to Hugh’s flat at 01:15, with Sergeant Julien Dupre and four of the girls - Alana, Melanie, Nadine and Emma, within the next forty minutes. It was Geneviève who was inconsolable and it was Nicolette who took to directing the girls, with short, curt commands. Jacques Fournier was already on his way down to the Lodge, along with the ambulance.
Guiscard was impressed how Nicolette seemed to have grown in stature. The doctor arrived, took one look at Geneviève, sedated her, then left Nicolette with instructions and departed.
‘You feel up to the journey, Hugh?’ asked Jean-Claude. He nodded. ‘Go with Julien to Elaine – I have no other men to spare. We have all girls but her covered.’
‘Take Nadine as well,’ said Geneviève, through her shock. ‘There must be a girl there she recognizes. We have procedures.’
‘Let’s go,’ said Dupre.
He drove at a fair pace. Nadine knew where Elaine was probably hanging out, certainly not at home, but the unknown was whether she was in a self-destructive mood or a ‘man’ mood. If it was a man mood, it would be near impossible to track her down.
‘Keep trying the mobile and home numbers, Mademoiselle,’ called Dupre, over his shoulder. The police band crackled and voices were heard, but it was some incident in the 6ème arrondissement. They were enroute for the 11ème, via the inevitable Boulevard Voltaire, to a small street off rue de la Fontaine au Roi – a seedy hotel which let rooms by the hour.
Hugh took in the other occupants of the car – first the Sergeant, one of the Fournier school of beefiness and a nice chap, plus he could drive. Hugh glanced back at Nadine – a honey in a green raincoat and floral patterned shirt, with an oval face, harp lips, masses of long, fairish, wavy hair and an earnest manner.
They passed Leonidas’ Belgian Chocolates – he had fond memories of that shop – then, after le Place de la Republique, they took many sidestreets and the area became seedier, less well lit, more threatening and even the atmosphere seemed to become colder - damp and chilled.
Elaine was to be found here?
They stopped at the hotel – a real dive – Dupre slipped inside, to re-emerge a minute later with a worried look. Hugh made out most of the conversation with Nadine and she supplied the other details soon afterwards then, switching to near perfect English, which surprised him, ‘Elaine’s not here – we’ll find her.’
What followed was a virtual tour of the 10ème and 11ème arrondissements, even venturing north onto Boulevard de Magenta and into Pigalle, until they came back near Canal St. Martin, which is the tip off they’d received from the manager in the first place. Elaine had gone with three men, so it seemed, and one had thought it amusing to mutter that they were going for a short stroll down the Canal – not ‘to’ the canal but ‘down’ it.
Nadine’s lips were drawn in a tight line – it was not the most salubrious area late on a Paris evening. There was a small crowd on the pathway near rue le Blanc – mainly derelicts and other such like, who moved aside when Dupre pulled up, ordering Nadine and Hugh to stay in the car.
From the car, they could see him pull his police mobile out and make a call, then he indicated to Nadine to join him, but Hugh was to guard the car – the keys were in the ignition.
He saw Nadine clatter over, saw the crowd part, saw her swoon, stagger, turn and retch.
She came, half hopping, half shuffling, back to the car, Hugh got out to catch her and helped her into the front passenger seat, went to Dupre and the sight of Elaine, crumpled on the pavement, wearing only a torn coat and boots, bereft of life, her legs splayed at a grotesque angle - it nauseated him as well.
He came back to the car, borrowed Nadine’s mobile and phoned #2 for Nicolette. He gave her the news as softly as such news could be given, then she asked in return, ‘Where’s Nadine?’
Hugh heard a weak voice at the other end, behind Nicolette’s. ‘Let me speak with Nadine.’ He held the phone out to Nadine. ‘It’s Mademoiselle.’
‘Allo, Mademoiselle? Oui. Oui. Oui!’
This last caused a burst of uncontrolled grief and the hand holding the mobile slipped towards the seat.
Hugh took the mobile back. Damnation. ‘We’re returning now, Nikki. Expect us,’ he glanced at the Sergeant, who’d returned and indicated how long, ‘in an hour and a quarter. And sedate Geneviève now. There are sleeping pills in the medical kit under the basin.’
They could hear the sirens about ten minutes later and, once they’d arrived, Dupre went through the formalities.
Geneviève, Nicolette and Nadine slept in the bed, Emma and Alana took the recliner and Melanie slept on the chair cushions on the floor. Hugh slept in the bath.
In the morning, Jean-Claude Guiscard arrived about 09:00 and Geneviève immediately demanded to be taken to see both girls.
‘Come in my car with Nikki,’ said Emma. ‘M. Jensen too, if he wishes.’ Soon they were enroute for Hopital Saint-Antoine, on rue Fauburg Saint-Antoine.
They parked close to the hospital and the three ladies went inside. Hugh minded the car.
Geneviève found the ward, spoke with the senior nurse, showed identification and the three made their way to Francine’s bed. Nothing could have prepared them for the disfiguration; Francine was now just a blubbery face, a body on a drip, swathed in bandages. Her uncovered eye watched Geneviève, who was now racked with guilt at having left le Roux alive, doping him rather than finishing him off.
She had little doubt that this was his doing.
She approached the Senior Nurse to ask the diagnosis. The girl hadn’t lost her sight, thank Heaven, but the bones were broken in seven places and she had severe internal damage. They’d been thorough.
Genie walked back to join the others and phoned Hugh, who had Emma’s mobile. They stayed with Francine the best part of an hour. When they returned to the car, Hugh had bought croissants and juice. Nobody was hungry but they nibbled and nibbled and eventually polished them off.
Next stop was the morgue.
Pierre le Roux snapped the mobile closed and went to his 12th floor office window, overlooking the Seine.
The last call had not been a happy one. He had done badly, in fact. The first had escaped completely, due to the Jensen pest, the second had been rubbed out satisfactorily, the third had also escaped by chance and the fourth had been maimed, as ordered, but she was not as important in the scheme of things.
Jean-Baptist needed to be taught a lesson for his bungling, as well. Le Roux very much feared he’d have to bring in professionals from outside and that was a huge expense, what with passports, travel arrangements and so on – he wasn’t state security, for goodness sake. 32 hadn’t offered the ready either – it would have to come out of his own pocket.
Worse than this, 32 was beginning to see him as a liability. He licked his dry lips. Yes, the next attempt would need to be coordinated. That was going to take a month and a half to set up – he’d schedule it for January 1st, when all were at their most vulnerable.
That should buy him an extension with 32.
Hugh and Jean-Claude had agreed some time back to make their Thursdays at Café Noir more regular and the meeting today now took on a particular edge.
Once Jules had discovered what he had on his hands with this pair, he wanted to trot out his specialities but Jean-Claude had stopped him immediately, restricted him to soup, salad, main course and coffee and to Jules’ protestations, replied that if he was half the chef he was reputed to be, then this would be his greatest challenge – to create what he could within a severely limited format.
Seen in that light, Jules took up the challenge with relish and the result was this meeting every Thursday at one o’clock sharp. Not Hugh, not Jean-Claude nor Jules himself would have altered it for the world.
The previous week’s highlight had been the Gratin de Coquilles St Jacques – he didn’t like seafood, as a rule, but this man could seemingly do anything. Today they’d reached the Emincé de Volaille, avec le sauce Roquefort et Pommes de terre sautées and the conversation turned to danger.
‘If we continue to eat like this every Thursday,’ advised Hugh, ‘we’re sitting ducks. I had some experience of this in Russia. We need a convoluted method of getting into the café and getting out again.’
‘Bit complicated for a simple luncheon.’
‘You call this a simple luncheon?’
‘C'est vrai. What’s happening with Geneviève? You needn’t say if you don’t wish.’
‘She’s stationed at my flat but goes everywhere with Nikki and Nadine. Nikki sleeps with her, I sleep on the recliner.’
‘So, nothing is resolved?’
‘Not at the moment.’
'Don't leave it too long ... as Geneviève did.' He went onto the next item of business. 'We have a source. It may be a good source, it may be poor. It’s quite recent – a woman with a youngish voice. She tells us a major assault is being planned for January 1st, designed to wipe out the Section, you and myself.’
‘Does this source check out?’
‘No. We either take it on trust or ignore it.’
‘Works for le Roux?’
‘Higher, possibly quite higher.’
‘Why is this source endangering herself?’
‘Maybe jealousy or anger with a man, maybe she was just appalled by the injuries to a fellow woman; Mlle Martinais was in all the papers, don’t forget.’
‘Then this woman herself is in mortal danger.’
Sophie-Fleury was the perfect secretary – slim, tanned, efficient – they all said so. They raved about her beauty and so did Pierre, her new boss. She knew they said she’d sleep her way up to le President, given half a chance.
People were cruel.
She could never come to terms with the way he’d slapped that girl across the face in his office – no more than a child. And when the street-girl, Francine or whatever, was splashed over Le Monde – she’d finally known what sort of a beast she had on her hands.
She’d gone along with it all, she’d given the tray to the credulous Bonnet woman but this now was beyond the pale. Now she’d do all she could to prevent them, before they destroyed her. Sophie looked across and was sure he hadn’t heard her phone call.
But she was still worried – they had ways of knowing.
• The restaurant scene draws heavily on Stephen Pollard’s article in The Times about El Bulli and quotes slabs of his text in the description of the food. I was a devotee of Stephen’s on his old blog and that’s where I found the article. This is the only place in this trilogy where another writer’s article is quoted at length.
Chapter 4 here ... Chapter 6 here