The rain on the avenue des Champs Elyssés was getting heavier this late October evening.
A taxi drew up at le Café de Paris, towards the Place de la Concorde end, the rear door opened, a thirty-something lady in a navy coat first opened her umbrella, then made a dash for the entrance.
Inside, a balding male stood up, went to meet her at the door, took her coat and umbrella to the stand, then escorted her to her seat. Leonard Cohen’s ‘Dance Me to the End of Love’ could just be heard over the hubbub.
She flung back her long auburn hair and more than a few eyes strayed from tables across the room.
‘Geneviève, I was beginning to wonder, you know.’
‘I said I’d be here, didn’t I? Philippe was being impossible this afternoon, I’ve only just seen him off to Nice an hour and a half ago. Well, you wanted ‘open and honest’ … so here we are.’
He took her hand now that she’d recovered her breath and her chest had settled down. ‘Shall we order first?’
The waiter took their orders quickly – her favourite saumon fumé and for him, his tournados, the rest followed on from those. The wine waiter did his job and she began.
‘I really don’t know why we’re bothering with this, you know, we could have had a lovely meal at the Lodge … for our … ah … auspicious occasion. I would have cooked and we could have avoided getting wet.’
‘Genie, it’s called ‘going out’, marking an occasion. We both agreed the end of October.’ She was saying nothing. ‘Does the occasion not signify?’
‘You know it does and you know why I’m nervous. Sorry, sorry, bad start, I’ll be the perfect partner this evening.’
‘Look my love, if this evening’s too stressful, we can always have a luncheon down at the Lodge tomorrow. Let’s not see Suspicion this evening, though I know you like Marceau – I can change the tickets – we can eat now and then relax on the journey back.’
‘Ah, well that’s the thing – I might not go to the Lodge tonight, I know I said I might.’
‘I’m working, Hugh, I’m under pressure up here, there are things I have to sort out.’
‘Now the real reason.’
She leaned back in her chair and sighed. ‘You know why.’
‘All right, let’s at least have our meal, we’ll take a taxi back, drop you off –’
‘Non, Hugh, I’ll go alone from here.’
He looked at her. ‘As you wish, Ms Lavacquerie.’
They ate and sipped, the mood decidedly mellowed but still she didn’t stay for the dessert, instead she asked him to call for a car outside. He left enough on the table to cover it and then some, went to get her outer gear and his own, he went out and indicated to the driver first in the rank, she shuffled out quickly, not even bothering with the umbrella but holding her bag over her head.
Francine stretched her long legs out in bed and stared at the ceiling, Jean watching the auburn hair over the pillow and the dark expression on her brow. ‘It’s a stand off, Jean – you’re trying to avoid this ultimatum over Charlotte and you don’t think I’m serious.’
‘That makes it worse.’ She looked straight into his eyes and he looked away. ‘How old are you?’
‘Not again -’
‘You’re 31 and how old is Charlotte?’
‘That has nothing –’
‘She’s 16 – you were there today at 15:00.’
‘Oui, I dropped in on the way to the airport.’
‘This is going to break us, Jean, it’s going to break us one week from tonight, I warned you – you’re treating me like a fool, pretending, pretending.’
‘What do you want me to do?’
‘Be honest. I’m giving you one week to be honest with me.’
The fire had gone out of the dispute and in that moment, something else worrying had taken its place. ‘Jean, wasn’t Mademoiselle coming down this evening with Hugh?’
‘Last I heard, yes.’
‘They should have been here by now.’
‘I will.’ She scrambled across the bed and dialled. ‘Allo? Mademoiselle? Oui. Listen, did you go out with Hugh as planned? Then how come you’re there and no one’s here? Well, of course Jean is but Hugh isn’t. All right but call me back.’
Francine went and made coffee.
Twelve minutes later, the phone rang. ‘No, no sign at all. You’ve phoned his apartement? Well, if he’s not there, where is he? What time did you go home? Uh-huh. Will you or I phone the others? You will, tell me what happens.’
Jean chuckled. ‘M. Jensen has a companion, I think.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous, Jean, something’s happened.’
Philippe flew into Nice and there was Sophie-Fleury on the concourse to greet him, he kissed her and they went out to the car.
He drove and along the way, she took out a fruit juice and handed it to him. ‘You got Denis to sign?’ he asked. She nodded. ‘Right, take this down.’
She reached into the compartment, booted the device and took his dictation.
‘Now, a copy to de Marchant and le Roux, one to Dupuis and um … keep an extra on file. How about the beta carotine?’
‘They were asking too much. There’s a South Australian firm can do it better.’
‘Can we trust them?’
‘I think so. Indications are the bottom will fall out of the market by 2007.’
He glanced across at her. ‘You mean it will or we’ll make it?’
They continued on in silence until the car pulled into a gravel driveway with mudbrick walls either side. The villa was more Spanish hacienda than Provence but he liked it. He took the things from the boot, she was already inside and by the time he was done, she had the windows open and two glasses full.
As she handed him his, he murmured, ‘Petite,’ smiled and nibbled at her ear.
The phone call came at about 02:20. Francine snaked an arm out from under the duvet and thrashed around for the receiver.
‘Mmmm? Mademoiselle? Oui. Your number was in his pocket – oui. He’s where? 12ème arrondissement? Comprends. You’re going there now? Fine, call me if you need me.’
The taxi was below, Geneviève tore downstairs and climbed in.
At the hospital, she had some trouble getting to see the night doctor but finally ran him to ground and asked him about Hugh’s condition.
‘Serious but stable. He’ll pull through. Three fractures – the ribs, the left leg, the left arm, but they’ll heal, we’re not yet certain about the nervous system.’
‘May I – see him?’
‘He’s not conscious, Mademoiselle. If you phone the hospital tomorrow morning, well, actually – in a few hours, we can give you an update.’
‘Do you have his keys? I must go and take care of things.’
‘Are you related?’
‘I’m the closest person he has really.’
‘I see, the police will most likely want to speak with you. They haven’t contacted you yet?’
It was patently obvious they hadn’t. The doctor continued, ‘Well, I suppose someone has to deal with the documentation.’
She found the power of attorney in her bag and showed him. ‘I’ll do that. And his keys?’
‘You’ll return the keys later today?’
‘Certainly. Here are both my mobile and work numbers, just in case. When do you go off duty?’
The guests arrived about 14:00.
Sophie-Fleury had arranged the table with laptops, glasses and water, she took their coats as they came in and soon they were seated, each with an aperitif. Philippe came in and sat down.
‘Ladies, gentlemen, welcome. The anti-trust legislation. Is it for real?’
‘Window dressing, Philippe. Michel has five on the commission and we can stall it long enough to drop it off the radar.’
‘Maybe but our political masters are getting a little anxious about public sentiment.’
‘Three years and we won’t need to worry about that. Lisbon will take care of the problem. Baghdad is happy with the arrangement, Tehran won’t obstruct it.’
‘All right, we’ll monitor that. Jean-Ricard, bit of trouble, I hear, in St. Germaine.’
‘They can’t trace it, they’re running round in circles.’
‘Even so, we’re law abiding citizens, aren’t we?’
Two hours later, Sophie-Fleury announced lunch.
The flat was difficult for Geneviève to get into these days, his door lock was broken or rather – skewed – and he wouldn’t mend it, said it deterred naughty people. She was going to insist he repaired it, if only for his own safety.
She got in after twelve minutes and checked the answer machine – just messages from people wanting to consult him, the machine itself replayed some of the earlier ones – nothing special there.
The next forty minutes were spent at the computer, along the way finding the novels he was writing – the first chapter of the second book, set in France, chilled her. There, in black and white, was her name and the plot involved the main character kissing her, departing but some minutes later, an accident parted them forever.
She refused to accept the clear implication – she’d never believe that of him.
She sat there cogitating, examining her nails. Of course it had been an accident, he wouldn’t despair of her.
She switched everything off and locked the flat after her, wondering if Hugh would have fallen for her had she been married to Philippe at the time. But she wasn’t and he had.
Francine saw Jean drive off about 07:40, ordinarily far too early for him.
There were things going on in his head she couldn’t fathom, couldn’t deal with, things which he’d either work through or he’d go further and further downhill, becoming more secretive, shutting her out. He didn’t even seem to care about her and Hugh.
If Charlotte was the issue, then what was he doing meeting her at this hour?
She was at a loss. Maybe she herself was the problem – pushy, demanding a maturity he did not yet possess, her work with Nikki did age a woman and neither suffered fools gladly. And those months with Hugh – she’d grown more, despite or maybe because of their irresponsibility.
One of Jean’s friends from Neuilly had described Francine not so long ago as high maintenance but she’d always lived at a certain level, her parents had an old name in the area and she’d never wanted for anything. When she’d been taken by Jean’s cheeky jesting, perhaps she should have looked at the whole person.
If she followed him, if she questioned him now, it was only going to make matters worse and yet it had been right for Hugh to push her to end it. She got up and went to the long mirror in the hall – many men had complimented that figure. Men, not boys and Hugh was a man.
Picking up the phone, she called a girl Jean worked with at the motorcycle shop.
‘Chantelle, hi, Francine. Something has come up here. Could I speak to Jean please?’
The girl spoke to someone and then did that deeply annoying thing – cupped her hand over the mouthpiece but Francine could still hear the gist, the girl took the hand away and apologized, Jean was out testing a new bike which had come in two days ago.
Uh-huh, she thought, said thanks, hung up and phoned Nicolette. ‘I need help.’
Geneviève phoned the doctor’s mobile about 08:00 and arrived at the hospital about 09:20.
Hugh was conscious but not what could be described as well. Lying on his back, covered by crisp linen sheets and with an empty bedside table beside him, devoid of flowers, he opened his eyes slowly, took her in, then smiled sheepishly.
‘Hello, Hugh.’ Awkward, this – she’d have to put her question quickly, before he relapsed. ‘I’m sorry to have to ask this but I have to know, you understand – did you – did you try to end it?’
He shook his head.
‘Because, you know, that book you’re currently writing –’
‘Was it completely an accident? Honestly?’
He nodded again.
‘There are things to be signed and arranged. Is that all right?’
‘I went to your flat and I’ll go back again this evening, to tidy up and do what needs to be done, with your permission.’
The doctor was standing at the cabinet at the end of the corridor. ‘He’ll need another week here, followed by some weeks at home. Once the plaster is eventually removed, Mademoiselle, he’ll need some regular therapy.’
‘Well, you have my number and that of the hospital. Will you look in again tomorrow?’
‘This evening – I know the visiting hours.’
‘If you don’t mind me saying, he’s a lucky man. Au revoir, Mademoiselle.’
She turned and made her way on foot the two blocks to 15 rue de Villiers, the disused warehouse used by her Section. Once through the coded doors, she walked up two flights of stairs to her office, Salles 3-16, the ladies all rose from their desks and she waved them down again.
‘Show me the list please, Nikki.’
‘Beauvoir, Binet, Coulon. Send Nadine and Emma for Beauvoir.’ She perused further and went white. ‘Is this a joke?’
‘The list came from Paul, Mademoiselle.’
‘But le Roux! What’s Pierre up to now? It’s de Marchant we really want to take out. All right, send Alana and Melanie for Coulon, we’ll hold the others for now.’
Nicolette made a note and directed her to another file, with Hugh’s name on it. ‘I’ll take care of this one.’
She received the slightest of smiles in return.
The rest of the morning was spent dealing with other matters.
Shortly before noon, she shut up shop and made her way to the Section canteen, a meeting with two former colleagues. Time to call in one or two favours.
Jean-Baptist Martin, shortish but personable, was bemused. ‘You want me to follow up on both vehicles? Rather a small task to call me in for, isn’t it?’
She’d helped him out of a tight corner once over an illegal immigrant, he owed her and they both knew it. ‘I suspect, Jean-Baptist, that you’ll find it no small task, once you delve into it.’
She turned to her other former colleague, a taller, more spare-limbed specimen. ‘Paul, would you do a background on M. Jensen for me?’
Fougeres was puzzled. ‘That’s your own area of expertise, isn’t it?’
‘I can’t be seen to be involved, I’d be grateful if you’d pull out anything you can, Paul.’
Geneviève finally found herself with a few moments to catch her breath, check her compact and reflect. So, le Roux had resurfaced, had he? She’d have to keep an eye on Elaine – and on Nicolette.
Hugh was delighted to receive another visitor he recognized at once – that slender figure and that face which could have been pretty but tried too hard. What was more, she was bearing a tray of foodstuffs – early lunch, he supposed.
‘Didn’t expect me to bring lunch, did you, Hugh?’ she grinned. ‘Here, let me feed you, it will be easier. Can you prop yourself up? No? No matter. Turn slightly to the side. That’s right. I’ll hold the spoon.’
Hugh was puzzled.
‘I’m afraid this is a flying visit, must meet some people, but I’ll look in tomorrow if you don’t mind.’
He was looking at her in a peculiar way, which she put down to the road trauma.
Three minutes after she’d departed, he hit the emergency button on his side table and passed out.
The nurses ran from their cabinet, the emergency room was phoned, he was wheeled down through the rabbit warren of corridors and two sisters appeared, deputizing until a doctor arrived.
At 16:30, Luc Jourdain, senior medic, had visitors.
Jean-Claude Guiscard, of the Paris Surete asked him, ‘You say, M. Jourdain, that the analysis of the stomach contents was revealing?’
‘See for yourself, Inspector.’
‘Give me the abridged version, if you would.’
‘Medium to slow acting. It usually doesn’t make its presence felt, at that dosage level, for ten minutes or so. With M. Jensen, it did.’
‘If untreated, undoubtedly.’
Geneviève asked, ‘You say, doctor, that Louise Bonnet brought him the tray of food. From where did she collect it and why did they allow her to take it anyway?’
Germaine Paget cut in quickly, ‘She took it from the cabinet without authorization. There were three trays together – they usually send over the special dietary first.’
‘But how could she be sure which was the poisoned dish?’ asked Geneviève.
‘Naturally, she denies all responsibility,’ replied Guiscard, ‘and I’m inclined to agree with her. She asked one of the nurses the way to M. Jensen’s bed and the nurse suggested she take that particular tray, seeing she was going that way.’
Senior-Sister Paget drew her considerable figure to her full height and her short hair bristled. ‘I know each of my girls and not one of them would ask that woman to take that tray. Not one – it’s against procedure.’
‘Madame, no one is accusing your nurses.’
Mme Paget eyed him coldly.
‘Meanwhile,’ concluded Inspector Guiscard, ‘I’ll continue my enquiries, merci, everyone. Mlle Lavaquerie – might I have a word before you go?’
‘Bien sûr.’ She paused as the others went their separate ways.
‘Mademoiselle, please.’ He indicated the chair and she sat, hands on her lap. ‘Our sources indicate that there’s more to M. Jensen’s presence in this country than meets the eye. Can you throw any light on that?’
‘Unofficially, you mean, Inspector?’
‘My Section has certain connections and these smoothed the way for him.’
‘I thought as much – the security conference in Paris some time back, I believe. May I risk offending you by asking if you feel a certain ‘proprietary’ interest in M. Jensen?’
‘There’s a certain understanding – that’s true.’
‘What are you driving at, Inspector?’
‘What I’m driving at is that this so-called accident raises a number of questions and it seems to me that M. Jensen could do with a loyal friend just at this moment, you’re peculiarly well-placed in that direction.’
‘The thought had occurred to me as well.’
‘Can you tell me how you met him?’
‘In his home town in Russia, he liked me.’
‘And you – him.’
She nodded. ‘Then I met him again in Paris – the head of a security unit over there came for an official conference and he was her man.’
‘What were your first impressions?’
‘I liked him immensely and he clearly liked me.’
‘That’s important, Mademoiselle.’
‘Louise had her eyes on him but I never felt it was genuine interest. He just seemed to like me really. Louise was upset but no, Inspector – I don’t feel that’s a factor in this situation – she’s been on the receiving end of that kind of indifference many times before. She didn’t care enough to kill him – I’m sure of it.’
‘That’s how I read her as well. It’s the mystery nurse who seems a more likely starter.’
‘Anything else, Inspector?’
‘Not for now, I’ll be in touch and merci – for being so frank.’
Geneviève took her leave and called Nicolette. Nikki would have to look after matters of state tomorrow – she herself was going to be a little busy. On her way to the car, she reflected on Jean-Claude Guiscard.
For a start, that aristocratic name, the way he carried himself, that particular kind of easy assurance – it wasn’t the stuff of which inspectors were generally made. She thought she might explore that one a little further.
Jean came home around 20:00, expecting a volley from Francine. Instead, he found an empty house and Francine’s car was not in the carport.
This was rum. He phoned Nicolette and then Geneviève herself but they only said she’d mentioned she had plans to go out, hadn’t she told him? No she damn well hadn’t. Sorry, they both said, each in their own way.
Hmmm, he’d have to wait up for her … yet again. Not one for television as a rule, he flicked it on and endured a Brazilian soap he could have sworn he’d seen before.
Bored with that, he went to the bedroom, then the toilet, then the bedroom again.
He tried the living room again. For variety, he went through to the Gardener’s Cottage, looked about, saw nothing of note and went back to the main house.
About 22:00, he phoned Nicolette again. ‘Nikki, if Francine is with you, this is no joke.’
Nicolette was a tricky customer, slippery and devious but she was no liar – when she now said Francine wasn’t with her, he believed that much. What he didn’t trust was her seeming lack of concern for Francine’s disappearance. ‘Nikki, enough’s enough, if you know where she is, tell me.’
‘She said she was going out, she was meeting someone but she didn’t tell me who. No doubt she’ll tell me tomorrow. She’s a big girl, Jean, why don’t you just go to bed and stop worrying?’
He was about to respond but had the distinct impression that this was one of Nikki’s little wind-ups and that meant he’d get nothing further out of her, dammit.
About 23:30, he went to bed but left the hall light on.
At 10:15 next morning, Geneviève had three people in conclave in a spare room attached to a small café a few doors from 15 rue de Villiers. The first was Louise Bonnet, her ‘best friend’. Close to tears, Louise vehemently insisted it had been the nurse who’d suggested she take the tray.
‘Which nurse? What did she look like?’
‘Quite up-market for a nurse I thought – rouge pulp, Kelly bag, auburn hair swept back and pinned up – very pretty. And yet she was dressed as a nurse.’
Geneviève smiled at Louise’s assumption that nurses couldn’t wear rouge pulp, carry a Kelly bag or be pretty. ‘Could you pick her out if you saw her again?’
‘It shouldn’t be too difficult with that face.’
Geneviève turned to Fougeres. ‘Paul, any questions for Louise? Also, Jean-Baptiste doesn’t know the whole story.’
Paul cleared his throat. ‘For the record, Louise, as far as you know, what was M. Jensen’s business in Shadzhara?’
‘He was a professor with a university English Department, you know that, Paul, he had a private consultancy as well. He did some work for the government.’
‘Were you aware of any – financial difficulties he had?’
‘You were aware of that?’
‘Oui, he had some problems outside of Russia.’
‘Then why did he leave Russia?’
‘When his Ksenia was killed in Fontainebleau, just as they were about to get married – Genie was there as you know – he was fairly down after that. She helped him -‘ She now laid stress on the last two words: ‘a lot.’
‘What’s his business here in France?’
‘He’s doing roughly the same thing over here.’
‘How many hours a week does he work there?’
‘About eight pairs, sixteen hours.’
‘And you think that that would be sufficient remuneration to survive in Paris?’
‘Well, really, it’s not my place -’
‘Non, non, of course not,’ Geneviève interrupted. ‘Merci, Louise.’ She went to the door with her, had a few quiet words, then returned to the shorter man with the bemused look. ‘So, Jean-Baptist, your opinion?’
‘Not so good. The lorry driver works for one of the Section funders.’
She gathered her thoughts. ‘Well, clearly it was no accident and I’m sure Hugh didn’t cause it himself.’ She turned back to Fourgeres. ‘Paul, anything you can add by way of explanation?’
‘We’ve known M. Jensen for some years now, he basically checks out. There was a security issue in Russia around 1996, which his girl dragged him into but that resolved itself in the end. Since he arrived here three years ago, he’d had a relatively free run until last Tuesday.’
‘So what changed?’ mused Geneviève.
Hugh was coherent the next day and answered each successive question Geneviève put to him.
‘Didn’t see her properly but she didn’t strike me as being a nurse at all.’
‘Looked too glamorous for mine.’
‘I felt I was being forced over into the oncoming lane, inexorably rather than sharply.’
‘The emergency button in the hospital – why?’
‘It was the look on Louise’s face – sort of determined, you know, and then when I started feeling woozy …’
‘You felt she was involved in this?’
‘I did, I’m afraid. For a start, there’s the question of how she knew about the accident.’ He was out of breath now.
Geneviève shuffled uneasily and he picked up on it. ‘Go on, ask it.’
‘Same question, Hugh. Were you culpable in this matter?’
‘Let me get my breath a moment.’ She placed a hand over his, he spoke slowly. ‘You went home by taxi … I ordered a cab for myself to go home … I’d thought of phoning Jean and Francine and saying I wasn’t coming down … then I thought I’d just drive down … to be honest, I thought it was more conducive down there to feeling sorry for myself.’ He paused for breath. ‘I packed a few things and headed south.’
‘Nothing unusual at that point?’
‘Nothing whatever but then again, I was preoccupied with you for obvious reasons … it was just after Orly that I saw this lorry coming up from behind … quite fast and I assumed he’d pass me … he should have gone into the middle but he honked and honked behind me … I put it down to his having a sort of momentum … not wanting to slow before hills.’
‘There are no hills just there.’
‘No, no there aren’t … so it did puzzle me and … I pulled out to the centre … you know the stretch where the barriers are down? That’s where he … pulled up against me and kept coming … I honked and honked … but had to keep my hands on the wheel … to hold my position … the barrier was starting again a couple of hundred … metres further on and I didn’t like the look of it.
Just before the barrier started again … he gave an almighty shove and there were two choices … keep the line and hit the barrier … or take my chance going to the other side … across the grass … I must have only been doing 60 kph … but the car which swiped me the other side … he was doing far more … lucky it wasn’t head-on … rest is history.’
‘Thanks.’ She bent and kissed him, then took her leave.
She took a taxi to his apartment, the traffic was relatively light and as they sped along the cracked asphalt of boulevard Voltaire, the tree-lined footpaths extending down either side, she had time to reflect on Shadzhara. She’d need to pay Louise a visit at home, but not today.
Maybe if she sat in Hugh’s flat for some time and mulled it over, something might come to mind.
Letting herself in, again with difficulty but now she was getting the trick, she made an instant coffee and took up a position in one of the armchairs. The telephone brought her back to life – first the automated message, then the beep then, to her shock, Philippe’s voice, emasculated, thin and reedy through the answer machine.
‘Hugh, Louise won’t buy it, so we’ll have to think again – I’ll phone tomorrow, all right?’
She replayed the message three times. Curiouser and curiouser, she thought. Louise – Philippe – Hugh?
She’d known something was possible with the first two but hadn’t realized there was some sort of bargaining going on, and how would Philippe know what Louise would or would not buy, if he was in Nice?
Perhaps she’d make that visit to Louise today.
‘Damn,’ Louise expostulated as her phone rang. ‘Sorry, Genie, I have to go downstairs for a few minutes, pour yourself some more coffee.’
The moment she could see Louise below through the window, Geneviève sprang into action, pressing replay on the answer machine and hearing two messages from Philippe – both he and Louise had been remarkably careless. She settled back into her armchair and poured herself another cup.
Louise eventually returned and plonked herself in the big armchair, curling up like a child. ‘Sorry.’
‘Louise, dearest, have you seen anything of Philippe recently?’
‘Two Saturdays ago, at your place, of course,’ she lied straight into Geneviève’s face.
‘My best friend Louise,’ she laid particular emphasis on those words, ‘how would you like Philippe?’
‘How do I like Philippe? What do you mean, Genie? He’s –’
‘Non, non, Louise, you didn’t hear me correctly. I asked how you would like to have him – for yourself I mean, forever – I have no further use for him.’
The girl averted her eyes and felt her mouth going dry. No, she’d be able to ride this one out.
Geneviève put paid to that line of thinking. ‘You see, Louise, I know all about Philippe.’ The woman had no words – the ball was now firmly in Geneviève’s court. ‘How long has it been going on for?’
She’d spoken quietly and Louise appreciated the uselessness of denial with someone as lethal as Geneviève. ‘One year.’
‘I see. And did you plan to take Philippe from me?’
‘I – I don’t know.’
‘Why not, dearest?’
‘Because he might do to me what he’s been doing to you.’
‘And vice versa, oui?’ Louise didn’t reply to this but drank her coffee in one gulp.
In her sweetest, and therefore most terrifying voice, Geneviève suggested, ‘Tell me how Hugh comes into all of this.’
Louise weighed it up in her mind and then spoke directly. ‘Philippe suspects you and Hugh. Took him long enough, half of Paris knows about it.’
Geneviève smiled at this. ‘Considering it’s been the N1 topic of conversation in the Section and as you’ve been doing my man …’
There was a long silence between the two.
‘What are you going to do?’ Louise ventured.
‘Leave Philippe, of course – the pain now is too great. The flat’s mine, so I’ll stay on there.’
‘And finally go with Hugh, officially.’
Geneviève sighed. ‘Louise, that proposal Philippe put to you on Tuesday that he’d leave me for you – what exactly did he want in return?
The woman was unnerved now. ‘Just leave me alone!’ She buried her face in a chintz covered cushion.
‘Presently, my faithful Louise, my trusted friend. Did he perhaps want concrete information on whether Hugh and I were having that affair?’
‘That’s it. Out!’ she screamed, pushing Geneviève towards the door.
The tall, urbane gentleman with the dark suit, groomed hair and narrowed eyes poured himself another cognac with one hand and listened to the outpourings at the other end of the line. ‘Uh-huh. Uh-huh. No, I don’t think they’ve any way to trace it back to you.’
The voice went shrill at the other end and he held the mobile at arm’s length until she’d desisted. ‘Look, they have nothing, all right? Get a grip on yourself. Good girl, I knew I could count on you. Bye for now. Me too, Cherie.’
He clicked the mobile shut, turned to the stocky man by the door, and with a horizontal hand gesture across his throat, indicated what needed to be done.
The man nodded and left the room.
The scene with Philippe the following Sunday was painful. There were countless unnecessary words, not least about the traitor Jensen.
During the next ten days, after they’d been through the lock changing, the abusive phone calls from him, the solicitor’s letters and such like, after Geneviève had been an impervious, unforgiving rock, after he’d finally gone, actually gone and all his things as well, she allowed herself the luxury of crying a river for three days exactly, then pulled herself together and reflected on the incidental snippets she’d picked up along the way.
Philippe must have seen Hugh on the Tuesday and then Louise had refused their proposition. But why – because she couldn’t trust Philippe? Something didn’t add up in this business. Also, Louise’s malice was a little out of character – it wasn’t that she was incapable of malice, it was that she’d never cared enough about the affairs of any one else to involve herself in them.
It was time for Hugh to go home on the morrow, so Geneviève was suddenly going to become eminently available to that particular gentleman. Maybe they’d be able to see some light together.
Philippe watched his elegant secretary with the tied-back auburn hair button up her blouse, zip up her skirt and don her smart country weave jacket with the ruffled floral lapels, watched her taking down his instructions, she checked her face in the compact, reapplied her pale pink lipstick, unlocked the door through to reception and went out to deal with business.
She wasn’t getting anywhere with him. She was prepared to pay the price but when she’d insisted and insisted that he leave his partner, even threatening to move onto other employment, he’d promised and promised, but to no end.
And now she’d done the hospital job, not for him but for his boss – equally tall and personable but darker – much, much darker – the man had offered her a position as his PA, effective two weeks hence, she’d have to give it serious consideration.
Power intoxicated her. Not its possession but its proximity. A man with a mission was always a fascinating person who required others around to help make it happen and people such as her vicariously found her own drive in their common goal.
At least, that’s how she rationalized it.
The downside, she knew from history, was that women who attached themselves to such men often became as cold and heartless themselves and ultimately went down with the sinking ship.
It didn’t have to be so though.
Geneviève took Hugh back to his apartement and he was soon laid out on the recliner. She sank into the armchair diagonally opposite as a burst of late afternoon sunshine flooded the room.
Nicolette had kept the flat spotless – in fact, she’d assembled the recliner with its olive green cushioning and eight legs, an unusual design, he was home now and Geneviève wanted an answer.
‘Yes, Philippe came to see me,’ he said.
‘You knew Philippe was in Paris and didn’t tell me?’
‘What right did I have to tell you? Plus we still weren’t together again, we still might not be, no doubt you’ll inform me about that.’ She smiled. ‘I decided to raise it obliquely at the cafe instead.’
‘Because something he said when he visited me struck a chord, it was almost exactly what one of my clients in Russia once said and I told Philippe about it.’
‘I’ll tell you what the Russian said first, shall I? One day when he came for his regular consultation, he brought his girl with him – she was from another town. She had charm more than physical looks, she was cute -’
‘Yes, Hugh, are you coming to the point?’
He smiled. ‘The girl was devoted to him and it showed. Well, the next time he appeared – hair groomed, dressed to kill, I chuckled, ‘Ah, out to impress the beautiful Karina, da?’
He chuckled back and said, ‘I’m meeting someone after this.’
Over the next few sessions, I had no right to, but I urged him not to do this to Karina – she was obviously crazy for him, I just wondered why a man and a woman couldn’t simply be satisfied with one another – why did they have to go and put it about with others?’
Geneviève smiled. ‘Not unlike someone who won’t be named and a girl called Anaïs, yes?’
‘We were looking at making a life together, it wasn’t an affaire.’ Interesting that there was no mention of Francine.
‘Maybe, maybe not. And were we exactly faithful ourselves, at the Lodge?’ She gazed at him. ‘I think there’s more that this man said.’
‘He gave me a lecture, told me women are forever complaining about where all the good men are or why men don’t respect them but the truth is that they love the game – they try to tame the wolf and make him their little pet. That’s what they’re all about.
Once you’re docile, you’re no fun any more to such a woman. Pay attention to them, take them out, give them a good time but don’t believe anything they say, especially about devotion and all that rubbish – they’re as faithless as any man but they want you to think they’re saints, and they’re seriously not interested in nice guys – nice guys end up either with no one or else second class citizens in a marriage, behind the children and her.’
‘Oh, so you’ll never be alone then.’ He didn’t respond, so she asked, ‘And Philippe said this too?’
‘If I say ‘more or less’, I’m betraying my sex and shafting Philippe too. His reaction was to ask why I was trying to take his woman. I told him because of what he’d said, his attitude to women and especially to you. He said not to act the saint and that I agreed with him deep down anyway, that I was as bad as he was.’
‘And are you? Are you as bad as he was? It looked that way with Anaïs.’