2-2: Apartment

apartement

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I

Geneviève poured the coffee and repeated, ‘Well Hugh – are you as bad as Philippe?’

‘Look, I agree that women aren’t saints and good men get absolutely nowhere – three years and a deadline which passed before you finally decided.  All things come to those who wait though, yes?

I know that women forever waste their time trying to make bad men good and end up in a mix of sex and tears for their pains but using that as a justification to go behind the back of someone who’s besotted with him – that’s just wrong. No, I don’t do that.

Everyone makes mistakes or suddenly falls – happens all the time but to turn it into a system to assuage your ego – no, I can’t accept that from either a man or a woman. If you don’t want a person, then for crying out loud – stop playing with them!’

‘Someone really hurt you in the past … didn’t she?’

‘Yes. And in the present.’

‘I do hear you.’ She pondered. ‘What was the proposition Philippe put to Louise?’

‘For her to tell him about you and me, to have definite dirt on us both.’

‘And what was the carrot?’

‘That he’d leave you and go to her.’

‘I see.’

‘Let’s be fair though – I have no particular reason to like Philippe but I know the man would never do such a thing. With you he was always onto a winner.’

‘But what was in it for you? And why would Philippe come to you in the first place, at the hospital?’

‘He was fishing for snippets, of course – trying to put two and two together about you and me. I told him to ask Louise directly, to lay the ghost to rest. How did you know he visited me anyway – did he tell you?’

‘I think there’s something you’d better hear.’ She walked across to his answer machine and wound it back three or four messages, pressed ‘replay’ and some work related messages came up.

Then the one from Philippe. She scrutinised him carefully as he listened but he was smiling.

There was one new message immediately after it, a cultured voice, not Philippe’s, and yet somehow familiar to her. ‘Hugh, she’ll be taken care of, same terms as last time, all right?’

Geneviève remained silent, he was thoughtful. Finally, she spoke. ‘All right, I’m ready to hear it.’

‘I was thinking, why would Philippe bother phoning me, knowing I was in the hospital?’

‘And the second message?’

‘That? Oh, that’s a clear set-up, isn’t it? Same terms as last time? What last time? Also, think about it, Genie – I’m in hospital – let’s say I’d made a deal with this man. You can gather his level of intelligence and breeding, you think he’d leave such a message on an answer machine, a message I’d have no opportunity to erase?’

‘He can’t have known I’d be bringing you home.’

‘And just who else was going to bring me home? Who else had my keys and the run of the flat, a known factor?’

She stopped and thought that one through. ‘Of course, it could be you behind it, Hugh, I mean – you have the intelligence and you have the mischievous mind.’

‘From the hospital, yes? To what end?’

‘To make me yours.’

‘I can’t see how a head-on collision with a truck is a good scheme for achieving that end. I can’t see how those two messages now, which clearly make you worry, would be part of my cunning plan to get you. Also, at the risk of being arrogant, I thought I was doing reasonably well with you, I thought we may have crossed that line – think it through, Genie.’

She smiled. ‘So, do you have a theory?’

‘Yes, I do – seems to me it’s aimed at unsettling you and rendering you ineffective. With the girls you’ve recently lost and now with me supposedly plotting against you, that person or persons is trying to isolate you from your support base.’

‘And yet you’ve had two attacks and I’ve had none as yet, touch wood.’

‘And neither had Emma and neither had I, except when we were close to you – have you thought about that one, my love?’

‘What must we do, in your opinion?’

‘Phone the Inspector of course and tell him what we’ve planned.’

‘Is that wise?’

‘I’d say it’s vital. We’re under surveillance anyway, so best to state our case up front and get it into the open, rather than try to solve it ourselves. Personally, I trust that man.’

She looked at him and reached for the phone, there was a lot of oui-oui-ing, she hung up and thirty minutes after that, the lights were turned out, Hugh remaining on his recliner in the front room, as it had the angle his upper body required and Geneviève was in the bedroom.

He drowsed off.

.o0o.

Forty minutes after that, he vaguely heard her mobile ring next door.

Not thirty seconds after that, he could feel her choked breathing near him in the living room, standing in her lace underwear in the middle of the rug, hands loose by her sides. He managed to push both blankets onto the floor and ordered her to put them around her. She appeared to be in shock and he could barely move.

‘Genie!’ No response.

‘Genie!’ Still no response.

‘Damn it, Genie, come here!’

She said, woodenly, ‘Louise is dead. Come next door.’

With her help, he stood up on the operational leg, placed his arm over her shoulder, keeping as much weight off her as possible and half hopped the twenty or so paces to his room. She had to pile pillows up to make the angle right but still pain shot through him from time to time.

She was sobbing half the night.

.o0o.

In the morning, they were both washed out as she announced, ‘I have to go down to identify her at 10:00, then meet the Inspector, I’ll come back later with food or else I’ll send Nicolette.’

His eyebrows hit the roof. ‘Pardon?’

‘Nicolette – you know,’ she tried to pass it off.

‘You mean the one you’ve kept hidden away for nearly three years?’

She ignored that. ‘If I can’t come, someone else will have to.’

‘Does she speak English?’

‘Rudimentary, like mine.’

‘You speak excellent English, especially as you hardly need it in your work.’

‘Speak a little of your classic French with her at first, all right? I have to go.’

‘Help me to the recliner first.’

.o0o.

Alone at last, he was able to put in one or two phone calls of his own, not realizing that the destination of those calls had been logged at 15 rue de Villiers. Geneviève had left nothing to chance.

II

Jean-Claude Guiscard had not been idle, he welcomed Geneviève and she noticed the dossier on his desk was beginning to bulge.

He was a tidy man. Dressed immaculately, his swept back greying hair and craggy, drawn look spoke of many storms weathered out on life’s ocean – with his fair share of female admirers along the way she warranted.

‘Mademoiselle, you’ve just come direct from the morgue – desole,’ he said, with unfeigned sympathy. ‘You haven’t been back to your own apartement since yesterday?’

‘Non.’

‘May I ask about your intentions towards M. Jensen? I keep returning to this question, Mademoiselle, for good reason. In return, I’ll play fair with you and tell you what we have so far.’

Geneviève composed herself. ‘He’s close to me, we’re long term lovers and I myself need him now.’ To Guiscard’s frozen expression, she replied, ‘I have to decide on him very soon.’

‘Did you detail M. Martin to watch over your apartment last night?’

‘No, why?’ She was genuinely surprised.

‘M. Martin was seen entering your apartment block about 23:00, twenty minutes after the time of –’

‘Oui.’

‘Does M. Martin have a key to your downstairs door?’

‘Not that I know of – I certainly never gave him one.’

‘Who does have both keys?’

‘Nicolette Vasseur, my … um … assistant. Philippe did have a set, of course, but the locks have been changed. What does Jean-Baptist say?’

‘We didn’t apprehend him, Mademoiselle – we just observed.’

‘I see.’

‘Tell me about Mlle Vasseur – have you implicit faith in her? Has she been with you long?’

‘That’s two questions, Inspector.’

‘Take your time then.’

Geneviève gave the inspector’s questions due consideration. ‘As far as one can, I trust Nikki. She’s personally put herself out for me more times than I care to remember, and technically, she’s been working with me almost ten years, though I’ve known her for far longer than that.’

‘Mademoiselle, I know of your Section, how it began, when it began. You were very young at that time.’

‘We were almost twenty.’

‘That’s considerable trust placed in ones so young.’

‘Philippe and a lady who is still operational helped in the early years, we wouldn’t have succeeded otherwise.’

‘Where do you consider Mlle Vasseur’s loyalties are, apart from to yourself? Does she get on with M. Legrand, was she friendly towards Mlle Bonnet? Can you give me anything on that?’

‘Honestly, I haven’t yet analysed that aspect of it. All I can say is she’s been incredibly supportive through my – er – breakup and I think she’d tear Philippe limb from limb, were he to reappear today.’

‘She was in your flat when M. Martin entered the building.’

‘That’s so. I asked her to stay there, I wanted to see if Philippe would come back and try to break in.’

‘But M. Legrand did not return to your flat, in fact Mademoiselle Bonnet was visited by a dark blue BMW Series 7.’

She paled. ‘No, Inspector, I can’t believe Philippe killed her.’

‘But it’s his car, his registration, we have M. Legrand in custody.’

‘May I – er – see him?’

‘This evening only, after 19:00. Phone my mobile about 18:30 if you’re still interested. Mademoiselle, do you plan to stay at your own apartment tonight?’

‘A very good question.’

‘May I strongly advise against it? M. Jensen’s apartment was guarded last night and will be so tonight as well – take Mlle Vasseur and the two of you can stay there.’

‘Administratively convenient for you, Inspector?’

‘There are a number of reasons, some of which may also have crossed your mind – one of them is that I’d like to see your flat empty tonight, it should tell us much.’

III

Nicolette took the call on her mobile. ‘Oui? Really? Now that is interesting, isn’t it? Oui, I have enough money. Me? I’m fine, he didn’t hurt me much, he ran out almost immediately. M. Jensen will speak a little French? I see – non, I won’t laugh. Mademoiselle, I promise to keep a straight face.

How do you want me to ring his doorbell? Je comprends, je comprends. No, no one called here – oh yes, Elaine did, she wants me to meet her later. Right Mademoiselle. Je comprends, OK? Comprends, d’accord.’

She closed the mobile and sat down.

So, here it was at long last, after all those years – she already knew him intimately and he knew her, she’d heard his voice loud and clear, his terms of endearment, she’d used her Melanie impersonation to reply, she’d liked what she’d heard but hadn’t liked his sexual behaviour.

This was going to be a most unusual première rencontre. Mademoiselle had just made a major strategic mistake, her second after treating Hugh that way at that Paris cafe.

Nicolette’s eyes narrowed and she was frightened she’d be disappointed, yes, but more that he’d be disappointed in her. What would she wear? This might be her future here, it might not. She would take no chances, she didn’t want to overdo it … from what she’d heard, from their setting her up with Anaïs, he liked plain, simple, honest girls and she, Nikki, could be one of those if she tried.

It called for something restrained and understated but nonetheless stunning … in a quiet kind of way of course.

IV

Geneviève drove home along rue de Reuilly to collect her things, she adored the last section of this drive. In spring and summer, the greenery and shaded paths were soothing although not so much now of course.

She swung off into her lane, past the little square, the cars were banked up and down the lane, making it a tight squeeze but she found space not far from the apartment, got out, blipped the alarm and strode towards the downstairs door.

A man stepped out and blocked her way. About 180cm and stocky, he looked quite a handful, she let her hand steal towards the clip of her bag in which she kept the mace.

He smiled, ‘No need for that, Mademoiselle.’ He took out his wallet and showed his badge.

‘Sergeant, why can’t I go into my flat?’

‘You really want to meet M. Martin in there?’

‘He’s in there – again?’ She was shocked.

‘Mademoiselle, please drive away, now, it might already be too late if he’s seen you. You have M. Guiscard’s number? Good, phone in about an hour and a half and all will be explained.’

V

Hugh took the call from Genie about 13:00.

‘I’m delayed, Hugh – I have to speak with the Inspector, Nicolette will be there in about fifteen minutes, she’ll be wearing a dark blue fur-lined coat, kidskin boots and her hair will be worn up. She’ll ring on the doorbell this way -’

She imitated the morse code ring with her voice, much to his amusement. ‘She’ll use my keys to come in, she knows the difficulty with your door. She’ll work about the place and discuss food shopping with you, I’ll give her some cash and we can settle later when you’re up and about. By the way, would you mind Nicolette joining us for a few days? Thanks, you’re a darling.’

She rang off before he could register a response, he looked at the handset a few moments, then put it back.

He was struggling to control his heart rate, he was having breathing trouble. The mysterious Nicolette, this long, long tryst of separation the two of them had agreed to.

.o0o.

Nikki realised she had to prepare her mind for this meeting. She and Hugh – just listen to her – she and Hugh knew what Mademoiselle’s plan had been, what it was hiding and they’d both played along with it to the hilt. Francine had reported to her, Nikki, today, that Hugh was terrified of meeting her and while she was enormously flattered, she understood that terror herself.

Francine had also said that when he was frightened of a woman, he acted formally, super-politely, as a gallant, he might even have trouble breathing.

Francine and he had been full-on lovers too and had reported, as had Anaïs, that he may not have been prepossessing, physically, but he was no slouch in the romantic stakes and he had a certain something to him, something which Nikki was probably going to like.

For her part, she’d bided her time, she’d seen the whole drama unfold, the various women along the way, the various disappointments, but of course he’d not met her yet – she smiled at her own arrogance. Oh yes, this was going to be a most interesting cooking and cleaning afternoon. Cooking and cleaning!

She laughed out loud and negotiated his outer gate, then the underground carpark. She told herself she must not judge by what she first saw, it apparently was not impressive until he smiled or spoke, she had to be patient.

All right, she would be patient, she would control her nerves too.

.o0o.

She rang the bell to warn him the way it had been agreed, turned the key in the lock, got it right fairly quickly, gulped and suddenly there he was over there, and here she was in the hallway.

For his part, he looked over and truly gasped, he wasn’t prepared for her to be quite like that, she was way out of his league. She was carrying three bags of supplies and a sports bag of clothes which she now placed on the hallway floor, she turned to him, dropped her eyes and delivered, in her version of sultry: ‘M. Jensen, bonjour, enfin, enfin, nous nous rencontrons.’

Then she hit him with her nervous smile, not contrived in the least.

‘Oh my goodness, now I know why, now I know why, oh my goodness,’ he thought he’d murmured to himself but she’d heard every syllable from the hallway. Her English was good and her ears even better, now she did the very last thing she’d wanted to do – she blushed burgundy red.

From where she stood, he was fine, what was Francine rabbiting on about, he’d obviously scrubbed up for this and his smile was kind, the gyps did not signify and there was a vibrant sharpness which surprised her, although she should not have been surprised, knowing his history back to front. She noted the mischievous eyes in particular but they were overwhelmed at this moment by the sheer look of drop-jawed shock on his face at what he had on his hands and she felt herself go very red again, her cheeks were burning.

He recovered his speech and dropped into the formal. ‘Bienvenue, Mademoiselle – ench-chante.’

Good, she liked that but she herself was also not fully in control and she hated being like this in front of him.

Having removed her scarf in a flurry of unwinding and having hung it up, it now fell down. She stared at it in shock for a second or two, immobile – the sheer temerity of the scarf to fall down like that – she broke free from herself and bobbed down, turning ever so slightly on the balls of her feet, picked up the scarf, rapidly rewinding it and placing it on the hall table, she removed and hung up her coat, holding it briefly on its peg, willing it not to fall down.

Satisfied, she spun round and bobbed down again to remove her boots, acutely conscious that he was drinking all this in.

When the zip at the top of her right boot refused to budge, she frowned and cursed softly in French, making the situation worse …

… and worse …

… and worse … in a silent, slow-motion, Clouseau comedy of errors. The flat was utterly, utterly silent, other than for this.

‘Secours, Mademoiselle?’ he almost whispered.

‘Non, merci.’  Her face scrunched up, as if that would release the zip.

Finally she did it, saw slippers – he continued the Russian tradition of many pairs for guests – she lightly pounced and put the fluffiest on.

‘Je suis scié – voila un missile de Geneviève,’ he breathed.

‘Pardon, Monsieur?’ She affected not to hear even though she’d heard exactly what he’d said and had now blushed badly again.

Anyway, it gave her her entrance, she came through and stood on the small rug, far too close, way too close and her floral fragrance filled his mind, along with the thighs under that navy skirt, the fingers, those lips. ‘Pardon?’

‘Rien, rien,’ he croaked and she saw that he really was quite seriously incommoded, he was fighting it with everything he had.  The effect on her own brain had her breathing starting to tighten too – this was so ridiculous.

‘Un café, Mademoiselle?’ He’d found a way out of it.

She gazed down at him evenly, those big, grey-blue eyes not mocking, not in the least, those big eyes refused to go away and leave him in peace. Sweet mercy, his own eyes involuntarily narrowed and he suddenly wished they hadn’t because when he opened them a half-second later, a smile was playing at the corner of her lips.

‘Er – v – voulez-vous un café?’ he repeated, passing off his embarrassment and she was well aware he couldn’t keep his eyes from the bulges under her cream coloured blouse – the one with the lace yoke, which only had the effect of hardening the ends of those bulges, which only had the effect of transfixing his eyes – and he in turn had got under her guard with the ‘vous’ – ‘vous’ to her, Nicolette?

‘Non, merci,’ she breathed, ‘je dois me mettre au travail, Monsieur.’ Housework? In that outfit? ‘Avez-vous besoin de quelque chose?’ she asked. Her efficiency was back, her defence mechanism.

Something about need or needing – besoin – he hadn’t quite caught what she’d asked. ‘Vous avez parler, Mademoiselle, de ‘faire mes besoins’?’

She stood stock still, staring at him, then burst into giggles. Why? What had he just said? ‘Oh Hugh,’ she dropped into lilting English, dabbing at her eyes and dropping all formality, ‘you just asked me about going to the toilet.’

‘Oops. Non, juste bavarder. Je veux bavarder.’ He just wanted to converse with her.

‘D’accord, si vous voulez,’ she gave him a bit of the old ‘vous’ too. She had this habit of pronouncing words distinctly, the sibilant ever so slightly drawn out and her way of speaking went straight through him – it was both girlish and mature, a strange mix.

‘Vous me permettez vous appeller Nicolette?’

‘Pourquoi pas? Je m’appelle Nicolette. And Hugh,’ she dropped into good English, let’s drop all this formality now – do you not recall me listening to you and my reply, pretending to be Melanie?

We go now to ‘tu’ in French … and in English, I am Nikki, you’ve always known me as Nikki, you speak with Francine about me the whole time as Nikki,’ he gasped again, ‘and you are Hugh … or Bebe if you’ll permit.’

He was totally without words.

She now turned, well pleased, most pleased, vindicated in fact, went to the hall and picked up the supplies to stow in the kitchen, then spoke further in English, ‘We can speak in English, you know.  I liked your French – maybe we can speak un peu d’un, un peu d’autre.’

‘Nikki … honey,’ oh she liked that one very, very much, ‘please make coffee and join me here before you start your work. Please? I beg you, je te supplie.’

‘D’accord,’ she grinned and went to prepare it.

.o0o.

‘Let’s not pretend, Nikki – the atmosphere in here now is electric, you’d agree?’

She nodded. ‘Très chargé électriquement. I think we both know very well why we are like this, we are neither of us fools. We know how our histories have led to this meeting and I suspect we both know the implications too. I suspect you know why I have waited so very long, watching everything you have done, in minute, fine detail.’

‘Yes. But I was truly not expecting who actually came through that door, you’ve seriously destroyed all my defences in one blow – déchire ses défenses.’

That one, in turn, hit her amidships and she had to sit down.

‘Nikki,’ he asked, ‘étais-tu nerveux, si nerveux, comme moi, en attendant notre rencontre?’

‘I was talking to myself in the car about it, I was rehearsing it.  Oh Bebe, I was terrified.’

He sighed. ‘Same here. You want to know my first impressions? I mean, may I record them before we move onto something else? Would you be interested?’

Her smile answered that. He was babbling in a way he couldn’t recall doing before, nor could she recall anything quite like this.

‘Firstly, as we both know very well, we understand exactly why you’ve been kept away from me, we know every detail, you even know how I go to the bathroom and make love,’ she grinned at that, ‘but don’t you think I know also know everything Francine and Anaïs told me? And I asked them in very fine detail, even how you sat, spoke, walked, your idiosyncrasies … I had to know everything. Why would I do that?’

She pulled the armchair up close to the recliner and in doing that, the skirt rode up just a little, enough to accentuate her thighs, which she knew full well as she’d practised it often enough and he had to will his eyes away. ‘Continue.’

‘Sweet mercy, Nikki, that move is cruel in front of my eyes, everything about you is an assault on the senses.’ She smiled that smile again. ‘The second thing was that you went red when you couldn’t undo your boot.’ She blushed again. ‘You show me things you intend for me to see such as your thighs now, those fabulous thighs,’ she blushed yet again, ‘but then there are things you detest, like blushing. But Nikki, I must say to you, darling girl,’ oh she just loved that one, ‘those things you detest in yourself – those are precisely what steals a man’s heart clean away.

You said let’s stop being formal – OK, so let’s stop being formal, let’s say what we think. I need no sexiness from you, no enticement from you, no strategies – just you walking into this room enslaves me, I mean that. Twenty years from now, when you wake up in the morning and smile at me because I hope I’ve treated you well, I will still be unable to escape your spell.’

She was in total shock. ‘Hugh – Bebe – enough.’ She looked away, really quite confused.

He was relentless. ‘I do see the Nicolette they all talk about, I do see the haughty femme-fatale, the efficient head of Section but I also also see ce que j’avais désespérément espéré et je m’attendais à ce qu’il en soit ainsi – a person who cares, who can be anxious, who wants everything to be just right and who has the kindest heart. I cannot tell you how relieved I am that every single word Francine said was true. Let me give you an example – I know that when you walk into a room, you always stop and think first, then quickly skip across to wherever you’re going, you do it in cafes.’

‘You know that sort of detail?’

‘I’ve studied you because I knew a long time ago that this day was going to happen.’

She just stared at him, totally lost, gone, seriously not knowing how to reply. ‘You have finished?’ she tried, desperately not wanting it to be so of course.

‘Your dress sense too – not loudly expensive, just beautifully cut and the colours very much you. You think things through, this is what cuts through me, you take such care, you make it so simple, elegant and alluring.’

She was just numb.

Finally, she could speak. ‘Bebe,’ then she thought she’d try the ‘darling’ bit and her voice was shaky, ‘darling man, I think you don’t know much about me if you think I am all those things – to everyone else, I am just Nikki who comes here, goes there, does this and fixes that. You pay me all those compliments, so why am I still alone?’

‘Because we have only just met.’

Her turn to gasp. ‘Bebe, I can’t cope any more, I seriously can’t, I … I have to … I have to do some work.’

‘D’accord.’

.o0o.

He tried valiantly not to, he genuinely did but his eyes followed everything she did – the way she wiped, for example, the living room window sill had him lost for words, he’d follow those bare arms and beautiful fingers, she’d hold the cloth on her open palm, approach the sill, stare at it a moment or two, then bend from the hips and wipe from end to end, in an arcing motion, step back, survey her handiwork, wrinkle her nose, then do the same from the other end, using about two dozen muscles in the process.

And that voice again – he’d now tumbled to why he loved it. As well as the long sibilant ‘ssss’, it was the way she held the last syllable of a sentence until it had sort of settled onto her listener – he was hungry for her, she knew that, because most men were, but there was one crucial added thing he’d made her believe and this was the moment she was having all her questions answered at once.

She was almost delirious with hope that this which had augured so well for so long might just actually be the real thing at last … possibly, maybe, she was too scared to think about it. Such an unlikely couple, such a special brew.

.o0o.

She finished up her work, cleaned up in the bathroom, packed her small bag and just before leaving, made a detour to his recliner and the tension immediately built to a wall.

The first physical touch.

There was no mechanism for this farewell, so he dropped right back into the gallantry, he held out his good hand, she took it.

‘Ever the English gentleman,’ she chuckled.

She looked straight through his eyes, searching, before turning, donning those boots without error, plus the rest of it … then she departed, clicking the lock behind her.

.o0o.

About 15:40, Geneviève herself appeared.

Nicolette had gone for the car an hour and a half earlier, in order to drive her to see Philippe shortly after 19:00 – later they’d return to Hugh’s place and make supper. Geneviève placed herself in what was fast becoming her favourite seat in the living room, facing the window.

He spoke first. ‘You’d agree, would you not, Genie, that there are anomalies in this accident business?’

‘Undoubtedly.’

‘And can a solution to the mystery be found if people continue to withhold information from each other?’

‘Ah.’ She’d let him run with the ball for the present.

‘You, the Inspector and I are all trying to solve this thing ourselves and we’re waiting for the others to open up, which the others are hoping we’ll do, we’re each holding pieces to the puzzle and refusing to lay them down. Now either we wish to solve this thing or we don’t. Do you see any flaw in that reasoning?’

‘None whatever,’ she answered non-committedly.

‘Genie, you’re holding out.’

She didn’t reply but went to the kitchen, switched on the coffee-maker, then came back to her armchair. ‘All right, Hugh – time to pool our resources. When I return from the Inspector, we’ll talk.’

VI

‘Hello, Philippe.’

Inspector Guiscard sat to one side of the room, engaged in lighting a seemingly uncooperative pipe.

Philippe made no reply.

‘All right, Philippe, I wish I could be 100% sure Louise Bonnet’s blood was not on your hands.’

‘Speak to my advocate.’

‘Philippe?’ For a moment she appealed to the old Philippe, the one who might still be present if she could only find him. Things might miraculously change for the better – they could always change for the better. ‘Philippe, I just wanted to see you one more time.’

After a few seconds, he glanced up but she’d already gone. In a state of emotional turmoil, she swept down the stairs to the carpark entrance where Nicolette was to wait, there was a searing pain through her skull and darkness closed in around her.

VII

‘Inspector?’

‘Speaking, M. Jensen.’

‘Could you tell me what time Mlle Lavaquerie left you?’

‘About 19:50, Monsieur.’

‘Neither she nor Nicolette have come back and they don’t answer their mobiles, no one answers at Genie’s apartment.’

‘Perhaps they went to the apartement of Mlle Vasseur?’

‘I don’t have that number.’

‘I do. It might be best, M Jensen, if I did the phoning. Can you move around at all? Could you secure your flat and not open it to anyone – especially to those two ladies? Open only to me, understood?’

‘Understood.’

‘If they come back to your flat, do they have the keys?’

‘Oui.’

‘Can you bolt the front door?’

‘Oui.’

‘I’m going to be at your apartment in just under an hour, I’ll phone you as I approach, you’ll give me some sort of code, some way of ringing the bell, to verify that it’s me.’

‘Understood.’

‘We have CCTV in our carpark, so it’s a starting point. See you soon.’

.o0o.

True to his word, he telephoned from his mobile about an hour later and Hugh went through a rigmarole with him to verify his identity. Then he asked the Inspector to give him about a minute and a half to get to the door.

.o0o.

First through was Guiscard, second was a most unwell Geneviève, her head swathed in bandages, tended by the ever-present Nicolette, followed by a nurse and finally, the Inspector’s burly Senior-Sergeant, Jacques Fournier.

It was a crowded flat at that moment.

There were no explanations, but Guiscard asked if he could use Hugh’s phone as his base for now. He was occupied for the best part of seven or eight minutes, whilst the nurse and Nicolette put Genie to bed in Hugh’s bedroom, the nurse giving her copious instructions as to Geneviève’s rest and recuperation.

Surrounded by this mayhem, the Senior-Sergeant attending to Guiscard’s barked instructions, Hugh lay on his recliner and couldn’t help but think that his guests were making themselves very much at home, not that that was a problem, of course.

Guiscard brought Hugh up to date on the current situation. ‘I can tell you the actual attack was by a small time criminal, M. Martin was also involved but he was under orders.’

Hugh heard the sound of the coffee maker and various other rumblings in the kitchen and eight minutes later, Nicolette reappeared with a light repast for all. Observing Hugh’s look, her eyes looked away and Guiscard turned quizzical eyes towards him.

‘Don’t ask,’ was Hugh’s rejoinder. ‘By the way, Inspector, where did you find the ladies?’

‘In Mlle Lavaquerie’s apartment, Mlle Vasseur had been chloroformed – it wasn’t a brilliant operation from them, really. Perhaps it’s a great impertinence, M. Jensen, but I’ve arranged for a locksmith to come round within the hour to change the main lock on your door – no need for any drilling. Will you authorise the change? Just quietly, I think your life might depend on it.’

Hugh nodded his assent.

.o0o.

The man came, the lock was changed, the three numbered keys were issued, the numbers registered on the card which Guiscard took away with him, along with the third key, the Senior Sergeant and the nurse went with him, bidding Nicolette and Hugh adieu.

The instant the door was closed, Nicolette turned and went straight to the bedroom, to reappear a few minutes later with Geneviève.

‘Hello, Hugh,’ she smiled weakly.

‘Are you in pain?’

She replied in the negative and Hugh asked, ‘Are you ready for some more shocks?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘After you went to identify Louise, I made two phone calls. One was to Anya in Russia, asking her to e-mail me the names of anyone Louise had been friendly with in Shadzhara. My second call was to your flat.’

‘My flat?’ She dropped into non-committal mode but they both heard the suppressed gasp from the kitchen. ‘Nikki, come here and tell Hugh about it.’

She entered the living room, removing a pair of rubber gloves. ‘Are you sure, Mademoiselle?’

‘Go ahead.’

‘I was in Mademoiselle’s flat, Monsieur Martin came to the door – the light was out – he opened it and came in.’

‘And?’

‘I hit him with a pan from the kitchen but it wasn’t hard enough. He didn’t hurt me much.’

‘You mean he touched you?’

She shrugged. ‘Men do that.’

‘The question now,’ said Geneviève, ‘is Jean-Baptist’s connection with Philippe.’

‘But why would Philippe allow such things to happen?’

‘He may have gotten into something too far.’

‘The Inspector was very quick to rescue you both.’

‘He was.’

VIII

In the middle of the night, he was uncomfortable on his recliner and his limbs were aching, plus he could hear one of the women moving about.

He drifted off again but a short time later became aware of a presence nearby and went into his customary wait-at-the-ready posture.

Then he saw her out of a half-opened eye.

She was standing in the middle of the rug where Geneviève had stood the night before, wearing one of his tops and that was all – it hardly covered her hips, there was nothing on her feet either and her bare toes were wiggling.

The first thought was that she had a nerve taking his shirt, the second was that he would revere that shirt from this day forward, the third was that she was taking unfair advantage, the fourth was that this was probably inappropriate … but who cared.

There was a most unusual situation going on here – Nikki was obviously making her opening gambit, a play he so desperately wanted her to make, but still …

She swiftly approached the recliner, knelt on the rug at an angle to him and as she leaned over and lowered her face to his, the lightest scent of Opium filled his senses from her body, he could sense her intense excitement too at this outrageous play and it rubbed off on him.

‘Nikki -’

She put a fingertip to his lips and left it there just a fraction too long – she was consummate, she was on a high.

Looking straight into his eyes, not breathing calmly, nor him by the way, she closed her eyes and lowered her lips, pulled back a second to decide, then lowered them again, this time full-on, tongue, all of it.

Now she sat back on her haunches and gazed at him, seemingly on the point of deciding something.

Suddenly, she shuffled her legs sideways along the floor, pulled the bedding down past his hips, pushed the elastic waistband of his boxers down, he’d been hard at attention since her wiggling toes anyway, she gently hauled down on the jewels and lowered her lips at the same time, he felt the wet heat as she first made contact, savouring it, then her lips continued all the way down to the end, she held her mouth down there for what must have been seven or eight seconds, quite unwilling to withdraw, she was making that quite clear to him and he was burning up, then she did begrudgingly withdraw, with one last smacking sound of her lips, shuffled back to the top of the bed on her knees and placed her lips close to his ear.

‘Anaïs told me,’ she breathed, none too evenly, ‘when I asked her for every single detail, that you did not start a relationship with sex. I thought at that moment that one day, if I ever had the chance, I would like to test that theory.’

She now lightly jumped up and the shirt swirled around, revealing that which had been planned to be seen all along and now, in the most obvious way, she nuzzled that soft privacy against his shoulder, leaving a dab of wetness on that shoulder, turned for the door and ran straight into the immobile form of Geneviève, head still in bandages.

‘Mademoiselle!’

‘Come to bed, Nikki, it’s late.’

.o0o.

He wanted her so, so badly … she’d just been so … outrageous … going in for the kill that way.

Sudden horror hit at what he’d actually just done, what he’d just allowed – Genie had every right to expect his fidelity even if she – well let’s not go into that. He knew in his heart she’d sent Nikki but it still didn’t excuse him.

Why had she done that, Genie? To extract herself from him the easy way, by testing him so he’d fail?

And what was Nikki thinking next door?

.o0o.

Next door, both women lay facing away from each other, not speaking, deep in different thoughts.

Nicolette was disturbed, not by what had happened – that had been a nice surprise – but by how out of control she was.  Why had she gone that far?

Geneviève stared at the wall too. That kiss she’d just seen – she hadn’t liked it because it was far from the shy, tentative kiss they’d agreed upon.

.o0o.

In the morning, Geneviève felt physically better but she was quiet. She made the breakfast and sent Nicolette out shopping for replenishments.

On the way out, Nikki paused at the living room door, putting on her outerwear, looking over at him, putting her wrong boot on, then realising, blushing again, allowing him to watch the whole exercise – this sort of thing had been going on for thousands of years, she felt about 20 years old and he felt about … well … 35.

She kept looking at him, could think of no adequate words, turned and left.

Geneviève came through with the makings and set them out. ‘Will you speak first or shall I, Hugh?’

‘Ladies first.’

‘Do you think her kiss meant anything?’

He didn’t bat an eyelid. ‘Why did you allow it?’

‘She had no business in your room, at that time – and you just accepted it.’

‘Genie, stop. Stop. You’ve kept Nicolette well out of my sight for almost three years, an amazing thing in itself then, just as you’re about to decide on me, you play your most seductive card on a man with a past history of weakness for just such a lady, and were you furious with me, did you walk over and slap my face or tell me to get away from you? You set that whole thing up … didn’t you?’

He paused to let her get a word in but she was silent.

‘Nikki had countless opportunities to make herself unavailable yesterday. She could have failed to answer my stupid questions, she could have shown frustration and got on with her work, she didn’t do either of those things. Instead, she wiggled her toes, not to mention her bottom, she allowed her thighs to be seen – now why would she do that?’

Geneviève was tight-lipped but still did not wish to speak. He went on.

‘When she appeared in the night, I was sure you’d sent her, I knew I must not touch her but there’s no human defence against someone who did as she did, I’m not made of marble. I accept my guilt, I know I must pay for it … but still.’

She’d been considering her reply. ‘On the verge of accepting you, Hugh, I had to know. Yes, I kept her back from you. Yes, I suggested she flirt with you. That was no flirting though, was it? Nikki didn’t know you at all before today … so what on earth happened?’

‘Oh she knew me all right, as I knew her – from the comments of her own work partner, from your many comments over time, from what she’d picked up for herself too, from Anaïs, she’s sharp and that’s why you keep her close to you. I’m confused by it all myself.’

Geneviève came over and gingerly kneeled beside his recliner, not a position she was accustomed to.

‘That’s not comfortable for you – sit on the recliner.’

‘It’s fine. Let me explain about her, Hugh.  Nikki has a general distrust and distaste for men as a species because of certain things in her past, her work involves compromising corrupt men, her nerves are good and she has no respect for those men. Something happened in a very short time yesterday with the pair of you, then she came to you in the middle of the night, which I’ve admitted, and you just accepted what she offered without a word – that looks bad in my eyes. Please give Nicolette up.’

‘There’s nothing to give up, she just showed me glimpses of her power and she really does have power, doesn’t she?’

The doorbell rang, she got up, uncramped her legs and went to the spyhole.  It was Nicolette, carrying packets, Geneviève flung open the door and decided the two of them were going to have a little heart-to-heart.

IX

On Sunday, Inspector Guiscard took the call on his mobile. He detested being called away on his day of rest and now it looked as if he might have to.

A tall, rangy man, patient, thoughtful, a little pedantic in manner but quite astute, he had the reputation of never taking anything on trust. He was as tenacious as a French terrier and thorough too, which made for a fine officer and he’d risen through the ranks, insisted on doing it the hard way, in fact. There could have been strings pulled for him but he was having none of that. One thing which ability alone does not give you is a nose for the truth and Inspector Guiscard had that in full measure.

‘Oui? Oui? Right. Elaine Cabrel, you say?’

He wrote the name down on the pad with one of the dozen or so pencils he kept sharpened on his desk. ‘How can I help you, Mademoiselle? Are you sure? What proof do you have? Non, don’t tell me over the phone – can you come in, within the next hour? I see. D’accord, d’accord, I’ll be there in an hour. What are you wearing? I see. Me? I’ll be wearing my badge, Mademoiselle.’

He put down the phone, issued several rapid instructions to the two officers seated close by him and all three left the building. Rue de Clichy was not the place to drive to on a Sunday morning – people hobbling home, derelicts with no home, slumped on street corners, Pigalle itself – it was not the place for a Sunday drive.

Chapter 2-1 hereChapter 2-3 here

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