Tuesday, May 5, 2009

2-6: Barbizon



Chapter 5 here ... Chapter 7 here

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I

Hugh got back to the flat around 15:45 and Nicolette wasn’t home. Genie was, though.

‘Care to talk?’ she asked.

‘Very much so.’

Subsiding into Nikki’s armchair, extending the left plaster outwards and resting his crutch at an angle, they sipped in silence. He saw before him a woman at the crossroads. ‘Genie, may I be direct with you?’

‘I’m not sure but try.’

‘With you, it’s not all straightforward, there really are anomalies.’   He felt her tense up.   ‘Why did that man have the power to do as he did to you?    That question won’t go away - he’s alive and as long as he is, he has that power.    Then there’s your business itself – sending young girls into the arms of older men who cheat on their wives.   How did all that start?'

She got up from her chair, went over to the window and looked out.   The light had faded now and the streetlamps had come on outside.   There was no light inside the flat so she went across to the table lamp and switched it on, turned and looked at him, then returned to her favourite armchair.

He took the kitchen chair he found easier for his gyps over near the window, placed it and sat, ready to listen.

‘Yes ... well ... in Barbizon, our two families grew up close by one another.   You have to understand how deep in our souls Fontainebleau is, Barbizon.’    She took a sip.   ‘I hardly noticed Nikki during school time but after school we’d go and do things together - silly things girls do – picking paquerettes, flirting with boys.  She was always quick, quick, quick, laughing and giggling.   I was slower and more serious but enjoyed her – she always made me laugh, Nikki.

When we were twelve, both families moved to Melun, as you know. Her father was a jeweller, is a jeweller still – the name is an illustrious one in the trade.

One day, when we were seventeen, a man came to Nicolette’s home, from Paris, and I was with her in her room upstairs.   He was talking to her Papa about business, I don’t remember all that was said but her Papa asked us to come downstairs and meet the man.   You have to remember what I told you about myself in my childhood – naïve and angular, Nikki was always pretty-pretty.   I expected the man to compliment her, but he started on me instead.

I was confused – no one had said those things to me.

We had to kiss him, as we do in France and he sat, drinking beer, with one of us on either side.   What her Papa was thinking of, I don’t know.   The man had an offer of work – important work, in Paris.   He asked to speak with my Papa.   I fell head over heels for him – he was tall, dark, handsome, with a manly face and he always got what he wanted.

My Papa was equally impressed and I found myself in Paris, as his secretary.  Very quickly, he showed his true character and I had no defences.   He’d have me anywhere – even in dark doorways.   I’d seen his daughter – at least, I thought it was his daughter – come in and out of the office at odd times and hadn’t given her much attention.

One day, he took me to a building with columns.   We went inside and climbed marble stairs, along stone floors and into a room with a translucent blue ceiling.   It looked special, for some sort of functions.   There were just the daughter, about 14, and me.   These were middle-aged men, you realize, with their faces hidden.   Need I say more?’

‘No, I’ve got the picture. I’m so sorry.’

‘She never was his daughter, which I suppose was something to be grateful for – her name was Elaine.’

‘Ah.   And Nikki?’

‘He made me get her up from Melun, on promises again.   I was so far in and they had painful ways if you didn’t do as they said.   Nikki didn’t know what she was letting herself in for but here’s the thing, Hugh – she was stronger than me, stronger than I ever was – strong Geneviève.’

‘Let’s stop.’

‘No, I’ll finish.’

Nicolette had taken to coming in silently now, the new lock made no noise in the turning and Geneviève missed her completely in the hallway, as she was facing the window, preoccupied and speaking.

‘Go on, Genie,’ encouraged Hugh.

‘Well, as I said, Nikki was stronger than me, stronger than I ever was.   She resisted le cochon from the start and her moral nature was outraged; she was going to kill him but I stopped her.   He knew he had no way through to her and that made him want her all the more but then Elaine became pregnant and the thing was, we couldn’t be sure if it was his, you have to understand – it was from those nights at that place.’

‘That’s appalling.’   Nicolette froze in the hallway but said nothing.   ‘Go on, Genie.’

‘Things happen to girls, Hugh, things that never happen to most boys - it’s a different life.   Don’t feel too badly about that and I’m so happy to have told it to you; seriously, it’s like a release.’

‘But you haven’t finished yet, I think.’

‘No, no, I haven’t.   Nikki always speaks of the man who hurt her.   Yes, Hugh, it was him, the same one who did this to me; he raped her in his office.’

‘Badly?’

‘Brutally. She was kicking and fighting him the whole time, biting and using her nails but then he pinned her hands to the floor.’

‘Le Roux?’

‘Who do you think?    The crazy thing was, he could always bring me in like a fish, with certain phrases, certain word repetitions he’d use.   Elaine knew of them too but then again, hers were different.   When these phrases started, it was like a light in the brain and something awful at the base of the skull started.    You knew if you did what he said, the awful thing would stay away and the light would remain - very primaeval, Hugh.   Aren’t you going to say I’m a crazy woman?’

‘Not at all, I know enough about this stuff myself.’

‘You do?’

‘Oui.   Are you cured?’

‘Non.’

‘I see.   He must be taken out, you know that.’

‘Not by me, not by you and not by Nikki if we three are to survive.   If you don’t care about yourself, at least care about us.’

‘You speak of surviving but do you know what’s required to do that, Genie?   He’s planning to do away with us.’

She paused, setting down her coffee cup. ‘He’s near the centre but he’s not the power itself – the power’s not visible.   He’s just the coordinator, the clearing house.’

‘Jean-Claude and I were speaking of this.   Look, your Section has always been non-combatant but now we have no choice but to arm, to allocate cash to buy the necessary weaponry and body armour and to organize the training.'

‘Hugh, I can’t think of such things now.’

‘I sympathize, truly I do but I also know you to be a practical woman and that you know, deep down, that we must think of such things no later than tomorrow.   We need carbines, pistols, flexible body suits and we must learn paired strategic response tactics.’

‘And can you deal with such things?’

‘Some old army colleagues and I – oui.’

‘Prepare a list of what we’ll need and I’ll have it approved ... once you explain it to me, of course.’

‘We’ll need to integrate it with your own extant contingency plan.’

‘Oui, Hugh – take care of it please, I intend to keep our people alive and well.   Prepare it and show me the details.’

She was silent for half a minute then her mind drifted back to Elaine.   ‘Elaine had the child, Rachelle she called her but I wouldn’t let the shame fall on her.   She saw that the child had to bear my family name.  One day, Rachelle had an accident.  Elaine was minding her, he came, Elaine just got up and went with him.   I’m not saying any more about that.’

‘You’ve explained why you have reason to be grateful to Nikki but not why Nikki is so grateful to you.’

‘Ah, I was wondering when you would get to that.’

‘Well?’

‘I stabbed le cochon – I came into the office while he had Nicolette down on the floor, and I stabbed him in the back with a letter opener, leaving it in his back.  We got out and offered ourselves to le Surete; they thought we were crazy but they put us onto a woman who made it possible to form the Section.   You know her, of course - Carly.’

‘Ah, the pieces fall into place.   And are all the girls rescuees?’

‘All of them.’

‘Plus you and Nikki.’

‘All of the women but not the men, of course.   Hugh, we hate betrayal and that’s why I was able to leave Philippe so quickly; one moment and he was gone.   Not infidelity but betrayal.   They are two different things.’

Hugh noted that and asked, ‘Do you think Nikki betrayed you?   Tell me the truth.’

‘The truth?   Non, Nikki didn’t betray me; I was too slow making up my mind.   I was sure she could seduce you but I was depending on her not falling for you herself.   That’s what’s shocked us all.   But Nikki is becoming tired of me now, I’m like a giant toad, squatting in your flat and she can’t get to you.’

‘You’re nothing of the kind.’

‘I love Nikki but I don’t want her to have you.   I’d just finished getting it all clear in my mind and suddenly I find it’s not clear and if it continues this way, it’s only going to destroy us all.   You don't help by being indecisive.’

'Do you think I'm playing a game of having two lovers?   Do you really think that possible?    You want it clear yourself and as for Nikki - she demands 100% or not at all.  I might even need to leave altogether.   What would you do if I just left France?'

'I'd have Philippe, I suppose.'   She thought about it.   'Not really.   There's Marc.   Nikki has Thierry.’

‘Thierry?’

‘Oh dear, she’ll have to tell you about him.   Hugh, I’m getting worried about her, she’s been gone a long time.’

‘Maybe you should phone her and see if she’s all right.’

‘Oui, oui.’   She straightened herself, pulled her mobile out and phoned.   Nicolette’s mobile rang behind her with those unmistakable ringtones and she swung around, confused.

Nicolette said, ‘I think we have things to discuss.   Could you get one of your interesting suppers ready, Hugh?’

They disappeared and he got to work – firstly bringing the packets into the kitchen and putting things away, then starting on the supper.    Thank goodness she’d bought quiches and the like, meat to be sliced and so on.    It wouldn’t be too difficult.

.o0o.

When they returned and saw the ‘supper’ on the table, they both stared at it then laughed.

‘You need a woman,’ grinned Nicolette, finally removing her boots and he breathed a great sigh of relief.   They repaired his supper and the coffee was even better.   It was Nicolette who tapped him on the arm to follow her to the bedroom.

Geneviève made the recliner ready for herself.

In the bedroom, having made their preparations, she began. 'For a start, Mademoiselle didn’t fool me for one moment, ‘accidentally’ telling you about Thierry.   All right, Thierry Villeneuve is a dentist.   That’s where I go each December and also in May and September - this was the last major thing I needed to tell you.   We sleep together when I visit and I do mean that we make love, sometimes for days.

I'm not apologizing for that, Bebe because it's the only love I've known for years.   Thierry wants me to marry him and settle there with his family.   I find that stifling, étouffement, which is why I go down for two weeks at a time, three times a year and that’s all I can take.   I enjoy his children and they enjoy me - Francesca’s almost eighteen and Olivier’s two years younger.   Now I have to think of a way to tell him this will be the last time.'

‘We can work a slow way out with Thierry; we’re in unchartered territory here.  If I am taking time with Genie, you can also ask for time.   He should be trying to find a more permanent love if you won’t commit yourself - I can even sympathize with him.’

'You can?'

'Just for now, you understand.    All three of us here know this has to end this way.   There is going to be a decision day.'

'The thing is, Bebe, I go to Melun tomorrow, and Mademoiselle will be here with you until December 12th, which is when I return ... if you'll still have me.’

'Ah ... I see ... and when were you planning to tell me this?'

'Tonight.   As I have done.   I'm so sorry it wasn't a few days ago but you know what's been happening.'

'Just that?'

She deflated.   'No, I couldn't bring myself to tell you.   I thought I'd lose you.'

'Yet you showed me those disks.'

'Yes.'   She lapsed into silence.   Then she continued.   'One year, I go early and she goes late, then next year, it's the opposite.   I'm the early one this year.'

'What, she also stays with Thierry?'

'No, with her family. She also goes down to the Lodge with Francine and Jean.'

'Right, Nikki, you go to him tomorrow and do what you must, find out where your future lies.     I hate the idea of you two making love but as you're long time lovers and I'm the new boy, I can't say much.    Also, I must know if you'll still come back to me after being there.   Now it's my turn to say it - I'm frightened of losing you.’

She looked at him and touched his cheek. 'If I had chosen Thierry, I would be his wife by now.   I do need this time with him, to close things off properly.   It is a last embrace.'

'As Genie had with Philippe.'

She breathed evenly.    'Tell me not to go then.   Go on.   I promise I will stay with you and never see him again.'

'No, you know I can't ask that.   We both know that.'

'You are a problem yourself, you know.'

'Oh?'

'Mademoiselle.  You did not question at all whether Mademoiselle would be sleeping with you or not in these next two weeks.   You just expected she would.'

'Ah.'

'Yes, ah.   Do you think I am happy about that, that I can stand it?  Nicolette is 100% remember.   If I was happy sharing you with Mademoiselle, then why would I be marrying you?    Think about it.

And why do you think I've said nothing to you?   You promised that once Mademoiselle told you her intentions, you would decide ... but you have not decided, Hugh ... I could have told you Mademoiselle would never tell you how she felt - I did tell you she would keep the time rolling - she wants to keep the question open and her reason is very easy to see - it is that I go to Melun and she knows this gives her a chance.

I also knew that it was one last chance to see Thierry and I admit that's why I didn't demand you decide.   You know you can't have both of us for much longer - the Section won't accept it and neither will we.   You have just said it yourself.   I wouldn't like to be in your position but that's where you are.   And you could still lose both of us.   Then where would you go?'

That one hurt and she regretted it, cuddling up to him. 'Just remember one thing Mademoiselle said today - that if you left Paris, she could go to Philippe or someone else.

Not me, Hugh.    If you went away from Paris, I'd find out where you were, I'd travel to that place and ask you one last time to be mine.   I'm proud - Francine called me haughty - and I would only ask you that once, never again.'

She deemed it time to lay off.    The rest she did physically.   

Quite physically.

II

Pierre le Roux turned to the girl in his bed and stubbed his cigarette out on her shoulder, bored with it all.

‘Ay-ee. What you do that for?’ She jumped up and rushed for the bathroom.

His mobile went. ‘Oui? Vraiment? Quand? Noel? How do you know? She phoned you? Merci.’ He snapped the mobile shut and came close to a smile. Good – he could bring it forward and hoped that didn’t inconvenience anyone.

The girl came back and immediately started to dress.

‘Where do you think you’re going?’

‘Tu es un bete!’

‘So? Get back into bed.’

‘Non, non. I’m going.’

‘O, oui – where to, ma cherie?’

She stopped. She hadn’t thought of that. Most fifteen year olds wouldn’t have.

III

It was about 06:30 when, still basically asleep, he became aware of a warm, wet feeling down below and the sickening thought sunk in that he'd had an accident during the night.

Slowly, the realization of what it really was crystallized in his mind and shocked him to the core.    Now he could distinctly feel her mouth enveloping him, he opened his eyes and took it in, she paused and her eyes looked up at him quizzically; he murmured, 'You're insane.'

She slowly withdrew and dabbed her lips with the floral handkerchief she always had at the ready.   'Emma tells me that.    I just wanted to know if you enjoyed that sort of thing.   You're not ... angry?'   At his smile and arched eyebrow, she relaxed.   'Thierry didn't like it the morning I did it.'

'I'm not Thierry.   Thanks, Nikki.    For the farewell, I mean.   You know I won't be able to get that out of my mind now.'

'That was the idea,' she grinned.   She swooped and took him in again, working him furiously with tongue and lips until she pulled away suddenly and watched him disgrace himself.

She jumped out of bed and said, grinning and wiping her mouth, 'You have all day to clean that up.' She pirouetted and headed for the bathroom. Geneviève saw her on the way out, looked at her relaxed face and something on one side of her hair and was dismayed.

.o0o.

Nikki's departure was uneventful, taking Nadine’s car which Nadine had left downstairs – amazing how the girls swapped cars, as they would clothing - Geneviève and he decided to spend the day together, touching a few bases and Emma was today’s driver.

First stop was the hospital and Francine. The swelling had gone down in many places, both her eyes were operational and though she was far from well, she was alive and improving – a woman of that age and metabolism always would. Better than that, she was speaking. ‘You’re at home, Mademoiselle?’

A pointed question. ‘How’s Elaine?’ she now asked. The question was like a bolt from the blue. ‘Did I say something wrong?’

‘Francine,’ Geneviève began, then stopped. Francine covered her face with her hands and Geneviève quickly added, ‘It was quick. You suffered far more.’

Francine lay there and her breathing became raspy, Geneviève went for the nurse, who came over, checked the pulse and administered a sedative. Geneviève took Francine’s hand and said, ‘We’ll come back tomorrow, with better news.’

The next stop was Café Noir. Melanie was working but would come off duty in the next half hour and would wait with her car at the end of the mall. Outside the double doors, Hugh supported Geneviève’s arm and asked, ‘You sure you want to go through with this?’

‘I must find out if I’m strong enough. If I’m not, I may have to hand over to Nikki.’

‘You’d do that?’

‘You’ve already seen it – our hierarchical flexibility is our strength.’

‘It is indeed.’

‘If I start to wilt, Hugh, get me out of there, would you? He – he has a way. Don’t try anything physical – you’re in no condition and the man trains three times a week.’

They went inside Café Noir and Geneviève swept straight up to le Roux’s table which was laden with entrecote and trimmings, staring into his eyes, confronting him.

Hugh hobbled up behind.

Le Roux smiled back at her and observed, ‘Brought the cripple today, did you, Anasu?’ The man completely ignored Hugh and started mouthing some dialect under his breath, which had Geneviève swaying; Hugh shuffled up to him, leaned his elbows on the table, looked into his eyes, smiled and spoke in a low voice, ‘I haven’t started on you yet, Le Roux because I’m still a little incapacitated, as you so kindly pointed out. It’s really a question, I suppose, of who gets to you first – your masters or me.’

Le Roux started violently at Hugh to see him flinch but Hugh slowly leaned even further forward; for Le Roux, it was going to be either a case of assault and being barred from this café forever or of controlling himself.

Hugh lowered his voice and looked the man in the eye.   ‘Pierre, if you touch any of these women again, I'll take you out.   Do you understand me?   If you've already had me checked out, you'll know you'd not be the first.   Good day, enjoy your entrecote.’

Hugh turned to Genie and helped her away, under le Roux’s gaze, the man’s mockery vying for precedence with rage but halfway to the door, Hugh turned, noticed the steak knife he might have to use, Le Roux saw him eyeing it, he called over the top of the few diners in the café, ‘Oh, Pierre?’

Le Roux watched evenly as Hugh grinned and touched his cheek with his finger, then made that beckoning gesture, inviting le Roux to attack, which caused the man to jump up from the table, then exert all the self-control he could muster and sit down again. Hugh stuck two fingers up, grinned again and helped Geneviève from the cafe.

He tried to walk her over to Chez Louis, across the rain-spattered mall but she was almost impossible to move.   He had to use strength to get her though the door of Chez Louis.   Two waiters rushed over and Hugh ordered brandy and water.   The waitress went to fulfil the order – surprise, surprise - it was Melanie.   The colour began to return to Geneviève’s cheeks, the brandy helped and it wasn’t long before she could say, ‘I’m OK, Hugh.   Time for lunch.’

They had soup and salad, with a house Chablis. That revived her some more. ‘Not good,’ she smiled weakly.

‘Only for now, Genie, only for now.’

Le Roux was problematic, no doubt of that. Even the way the prawn remains were left littered over the table bore testimony to his style and he had to concede the man had great physical strength, incrementally more as a result of his complete lack of restraint - he would have had only a split second to knife him in the stomach if attacked.   A nasty customer all right.  

Also, Geneviève had shown herself to be at a total loss in le Roux’s presence - incantations were somehow involved.   ‘You need deprogramming.’

‘They’re legion, Hugh, part of a vast network, funded by so much money.’

‘If we employ vigilance, mobility, firepower, public sympathy and a bit of prayer, we can make it difficult for them.'

‘The public know nothing of us.’

‘They will, soon enough, as the situation deteriorates.   It will start with losses to us, it already has but gradually, little victories will come our way.   It's always been like this, each and every time.’

‘You’re full of laughs today, Hugh.’

‘Aren’t I just?   But still, let's prepare, Genie.’

'What did you say to Pierre?'

He told her and she was mortified.   'He'll kill us, he's insane.'

'He's planning to anyway, Genie.   You need to wise up on this.   I'll take him out if he comes near you again.   No compunction.    I think he does understand that now.'

She sighed, he called for the bill, paid up and they strolled around the mall a little – Melanie, who was picking them up from the end, would not be there yet.

They entered the latest filial of Un Dimanche a Venise and Geneviève poked around while Hugh looked through a brochure.

Then they strolled out, along the nouveau cobbled walkway to the end of the mall. There was Melanie ahead, in the car. Hugh opened the back door and Geneviève climbed in, passing comment but there was no reply.

Puzzled, she tried again: ‘Er -Melanie? Bonjour? Anyone home? Eh!’

She poked the girl in her back and the head fell forward over the steering wheel, lying in a grotesque position, a puppet cast to one side, no longer wanted.

Geneviève couldn’t scream, she wanted to retch but couldn’t do that either. She shrank back against the seat, as if that offered her some comfort. Hugh flung open the front passenger door and looked in, sniffed, checked the seat, checked the girl’s seat.

‘Give me your mobile, Genie. Genie!’

Huffing, he had to back out from the gap between the two doors and hobble around to her, where he fished in her bag and removed the mobile, interested to note she had no security code, found the Inspector’s number easily – it was at the top of the list – Number One.

‘Send brandy as well,’ Hugh finished the call.

Senior-Sergeant Fournier arrived first, took in the situation and phoned on the secure channel. The heavy boys needed to be in on this. Meanwhile, Hugh sat in the back, bringing Geneviève around, rubbing her wrists, trying to get the blood moving, speaking with her.

.o0o.

Guiscard stroked his chin thoughtfully, on hearing the rest of the story. ‘I really don’t think it was wise to provoke him to that extent. He’ll be planning a grisly fate for all of us, no doubt, I know the type. As for the triggers, it’s not the first instance.’

‘Meaning?’

‘Meaning that the same motif was present with Mlle Bonnet, Mlle Cabrel and Mlle Aubertin.’

‘I’m not with you.’

‘They all died of brain aneurisms.’

‘But with Elaine, it was listed as ‘overdose of cocaine’.’

‘Oui.’

At that moment, her mobile went off in her bag in the bedroom. They heard her answer, then there was a commotion and they were just in time to stop her leaping through the glass window. She fought tooth and nail but they eventually subdued her.

Guiscard caught his breath and asked, ‘What now?’

‘Who knows? I’ll stay in here with her and if two officers could be spared to rotate through the night, in the other room preferably,’ Hugh smiled, ‘maybe we’ll get through the night. Seems to me though, that Le Roux was having a trial run today, just to flex his muscles and let certain people see what they’re up against.’

‘You mean us.’

‘You for example, Nikki, me.’

‘Why Mlle Vasseur?’

‘She left Paris today and all hell broke loose.’

‘You’re an untrusting sort, aren’t you, M. Jensen? You’d make a good officer.’ It was time to wind it up for the night. Guiscard had some words with the officers, then departed.

Hugh shuffled to the bedroom. ‘Hello, Genie.’

‘Hugh.’ She was kneeling on the bed in one of his big navy shirts and nothing else, knees apart. Why did women always steal his clothes? He huffed and puffed and climbed in beside her, laying the crutch by the bed, just in case.

‘Genie, are you aware that you tried to jump out of the window?’

‘Vaguely, Hugh. I tore my nail and couldn’t remember why. Then I remember being held by the men.’

‘Do you remember what triggered it?’

‘No.’

‘Your mobile.’

She became uneasy. ‘Oui. Oui. The mobile.’

‘Do you remember anything?’

‘I start to and then something bad is there, deep down and it says not to remember.’

‘Uh-huh.’

‘I can’t give it a name. We mustn’t ever give these things their names.’

‘Why?’

‘They’re signs, all of them.’

‘Now, your attire – I have no objection to the shirt but why no knickers?’

‘She looked down, as if for the first time, and was shocked, now jumping out of bed and searching for her knickers everywhere, with no success.

‘Wear my new ones – they’re still in their wrapper in the third drawer.’ She found them and they needed to stretch to go around the hips.

He was ashamed to admit he wanted her, her sexual defences had been lowered and that must be part of their process, one of their motifs. Ten minutes she’d now waited in that same position, but for what? Now, he observed, it was like a balloon deflating – she fell sideways and went to sleep.

Thank goodness for that.

He pulled the bedclothes up over her, looked down and murmured, 'Whatever happens, Genie, je t’aimerais continuellement et pour toujours.'

Suddenly, she sprang awake and was all over him, biting into his neck, hands squeezing the life out of him. 'Genie, stop it, stop it! Genie!' He tried one last thing. 'Papillon!

She subsided, he repeated it over and over but she really had hurt his neck - torn out a chunk, in fact.

‘Hugh?’ She looked at him, looked around the room and got her bearings. 'I don't feel well. There's something happening inside me.'

‘Can you sleep, do you think?’

She took some time to answer. ‘I think so.’

.o0o.

She did eventually drop off, the officers looked at each other in the next room and felt they could finally relax.    It was 02:37.

.o0o.

The Inspector arrived about 09:10.   The men departed, eyebrows raised to the ceiling and once they’d gone, Geneviève came out of the bedroom and curled up in the armchair facing the window – she loved that chair, which he decided, less than originally, to call 'the Geneviève Chair’.

Guiscard raised a quizzical eyebrow, indicating Geneviève, but Hugh was happy to speak in her presence.

The Inspector sat down in the Moineau Chair and spoke.    ‘No new information, except to confirm yesterday’s conclusions.’   He now told them about Melanie, Geneviève immediately saying, 'I have to see her.'

The Inspector had anticipated her. ‘Then dress, Mademoiselle.’

IV

So far Emma had lived a charmed life and no one had seemed to wish it any differently. Every so often, something or other would happen and she'd have a lucky escape but she was highly suspicious of these 'escapes' because they were amateurish.

There'd been the day of her visit to the clinic to check on the baby. Her regular Dr. Dubois was not in attendance but the appointment had been with her and her alone and when she'd been asked if she minded seeing a Dr. Green, it was so OTT that she'd declined and had called Michel to collect her.

They'd avoided a crazy driver two streets away and that was the pattern of the 'attacks' - always well telegraphed, always possible to avoid. She really did wonder about it but she was also wondering about many other things - why she had not been on hand when all the disasters had happened - the real ones, that was.

And Elaine had been able to convince the girls that things had gone downhill once Hugh had come onto the scene but that wasn't true. She'd thought it through and realized that they always happened around the time Mademoiselle was due to go away for some time.

She was going to speak about it with Hugh.

V

Late in the evening, Nicolette prepared for bed. Thierry was coming upstairs from the surgery, supper was ready, he fell on it with gusto.

He was puzzled why he couldn’t get Nikki to settle – perhaps the role of stepmother did not suit although he was sure she loved the children.   Maybe it was too claustrophobic, his life, monotonous – the surgery, the drives over to Sivry on the weekend, where they’d do nothing much at all except enjoy the fresh air.

Nicolette finished up in the bathroom and came to bed, while he went to check on Olivier and on Francesca who’d been out with friends earlier.   He did what was necessary, went to the kitchen, poured two liqueurs and brought them through.

Wordlessly, Nikki took hers and they wound down.   Resting one broad hand on her shoulder, he let the back of his hand pass down her small cleavage to her tummy.   Her stomach contracted slightly and he knew it was not on for this evening; he knew Nikki and her body movements, her moods, even her monthly phases.

She was currently on edge.

Thierry was a patient man.   Nikki had helped him through his wife’s death from skin cancer and she’d made all the difference to the children, never once trying to be what she was not.   He’d always had a thing about Nikki, from his schooldays.

She lay back and knew it had to end, at least the sexual part.   He covered her with romantic pragmatism, as a player in life, smooth mannered, quiet, a great father in the eyes of his two, with none of the gung-ho intellectualism of Hugh.   Hugh was always so passionate for things and his susceptibility to the female was a worry.

Thierry was not without taste and he offered her a life free from worry, a restricted life maybe, but a life where money would never be a problem, the company was often large and the laughter went on into the night.   He would never cheat on her.

He was also French and understood her Frenchness.   There was something about one’s own countrymen, in the end.

Nikki made a decision – she was going to tell Thierry – tomorrow.

Or the next day.

When the time was right.

Meanwhile, she had to phone those two to see what was happening.  She got out of bed, went to the kitchen and phoned.

...

Hugh, picked it up, turned to Geneviève, who’d just returned from the bathroom and he asked, ‘How much can I tell her?’

Geneviève answered, ‘You can tell her everything.’

Nicolette heard that and asked quickly, ‘What’s happened?’ She caught her breath at the other end as he related Geneviève’s attempt on the window and her sexual frenzy. ‘Er- how did it start?’

‘She'd dropped off to sleep and I was looking down at her and I whispered,' here he cupped the phone and dropped his voice, 'Je t’aimerais continuellement et pour toujours,' and she -'

‘What!   Those words, Hugh, in that particular sequence, they’re a known trigger.   If I’d any idea you’d be saying them to Mademoiselle -’

‘Well, you used them with me.   Anyway, she was asleep, I tell you, I was just murmuring them to myself.’

‘Hugh, you must never – never mind.   How did you pull her out of it?’

‘I kept saying Papillon to her.’

‘Bon, bon, and then she calmed down?’

‘Just as she’s doing now.’

Nicolette said quietly, ‘I’ll try to get away tomorrow for some time – in the morning, if I can. Will you be there?’

‘No, I’ll be skiing at Valmorel.’

‘Hugh, be serious.  Mademoiselle will be going with the Inspector again tomorrow morning - to her office, to walk in the park, to fill in some time.   Do you object to that?’

‘Au contraire.’

‘Bon, bon.   See you tomorrow morning.’

VI

Emma threw back the ruffled duvet and climbed a little uncertainly out of bed onto her arched feet with their rounded toes.  She looked down, wiggled them and then looked at her tummy.

Michel had already left for work and she thought now was the time for that talk. Mademoiselle would be gone from Hugh's and Nikki would get there late morning, according to Nikki.

.o0o.

An absolute honey was Emma Laurent, with that mop of hair and small, curvacious body he could imagine unparturient, with her cheeky smile but he also knew she was just that little bit too efficient for comfort, that she was calculating.

'Hugh, there's something worrying me and I would like to discuss it.'

'If it would help, go ahead.'

She made them both coffee and eats, brought the low table up to the recliner, poured and went through what was on her mind, how she was always elsewhere when it happened.  She went over to the phone pad, tore off a sheet, wrote her mobile number down and gave it to him.  'I'd like to know what you come up with.'

'All right, I'll do what I can.  I need to think it out.  Emma, why the phone number, why the presence? I love seeing you, don't get me wrong but why?  Why really?'

She sipped on her coffee, looking at him over the coffee cup, put it down, moved the low table away and stood by the recliner, resting a hand on his arm. 'I can't get some things out of my mind.  You and Nikki shouldn't have done that in front of me.  It hasn't been easy.'

'But Emma, you also -'

'That's what I mean.  I'm having trouble with it.' She stood there, running her fingers up his arm, then placed her hand over the bedding where his thing was.  She could feel its outline.  It was the curiosity which overcame his conscience, that which he knew he must not, under any circumstances, do.

For her part, it wqas his neutrality, the way he gave off no signals whatever and put it onto the woman.  And so she was fighting herself, as it had been last time.  In a way, it was an invitation and it was wrong.  She stared down at her own hand, she could feel his curiosity but there was also hers.  It was almost brinkmanship, to see who'd pull out first, who'd then give the moral homily.

With a slight gasp, she lifted the bedding back, then his boxers came down but his collusion was in lifting himself slightly, so this now spoke of guilt.  Plus the rigidity.  And there it was - not all that prepossessing but it there it was.  She didn't want to say beckoning.  It's the woman who should beckon, she thought.

It was a good thirty seconds before she rested her hand on it, then grasped it, then started working it, he wasn't looking at that but at her face, at her lips.  She could feel her knees buckling as she knelt down and brought her lips close to it, he pulled away and she was so relieved.

'You say it, Hugh, you say the words.'

'Wrong, married, child, Nikki, Genie, troubles, me trying to make a new life, now causing you to commit adultery.'

'We didn't.'

'I wonder if that nicety will count for anything on our day of judgement.  The guilt is all mine.  I could have given you signals.'

'Would you have given signals to, say, Nadine, Francine, Melanie?'

'They'd never have got close in the first place. Who do you know has ever got intimate with me?'

'Then why?'

'I don't know.  Your hand brushing mine in the forest.'

'You remember that?

'I remember everything about you - what you say, what you do.'

She was very quiet.  Then: 'But Nikki ...'

'Emma, would you do me a favour?  Would you go over to the top drawer on the left,' she went over, 'open it and you'll find a long leather wallet.'   She got it out. 'Take 2000 euros and if it's not enough, tell me and I'll give you the rest.  There's also a note there as to what I need and from whom.'  She read it and was stony-faced.  'I see.'

'You'll do it?'

'Yes, Hugh.  That makes what you let me do doubly bad.'

'Yes and I'll tell Nikki and give her the chance to cut our ties.'

'And go back to Mademoiselle?'

'No, I can't.  If Nikki doesn't throw me over, then I need to develop some sort of defences against you.  I have to work out a way.'

'You speak of me as some enemy.'

'Quite the opposite.  I refuse to play this game that I can see myself playing.  It's me I'm fighting, Emma. I need to have either Nikki or else no one, the wilderness.  I need those to be my two clear choices.  That's why I asked you to do that.'

'To humiliate me.'

'That's the last thing I'd consciously do to you.  I trust you more than anyone just now.  I need your friendship.'

She looked at him, looked some more, then brought her lips within range of his.  He kissed her, smiled, placed his hand on her cheek, as she did with him.  Then she sat back.

'If I choose the right moment - you say you trust me - may I tell Nikki about this and say you asked me to tell her?  It's better she's told while she's still with Thierry, while everything's still up in the air.  I don't want her to learn it later.  Good.  And Hugh?'  He looked at her. 'Je regrette rien.'

'I regret I led you astray. I do not regret you being here - the opposite.'


'You didn't lead me astray.  I knew this might happen.  I know what you do.  I didn't have to be here and I think you know that.'

Chapter 5 here ... Chapter 7 here

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