2-3: Pigalle

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I

Elaine Cabrel was twenty seven as he was soon to find out and Guiscard immediately felt the aura of raw sensuality gushing from her.

Tallish, with wispy, fairish hair, she projected a sort of nakedness even from beneath her overcoat, her slender, pink, raw finger tips were provocative, her lips were provocative, her smile was provocative – how on earth Geneviève Lavaquerie found and employed such women was more than he could fathom.

She emerged from behind a car park pillar and climbed into the back of the Citroen with him. The driver switched on the microphone, got out of the car and strolled over towards one of the pillars to light a cigarette.

Mlle Cabrel draped herself over the back seat and she and the Inspector conversed for the best part of ten minutes, with her absent-mindedly resting a light hand on him from time to time.

Georges returned.

‘So, Elaine,’ Guiscard used her first name, ‘you have my mobile number and I have yours. I’ll phone you later in the afternoon, all being well. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.’

One shapely leg emerged from the car, followed by the other and then the sinewy body followed that, her stilettos moved once more into the shadow of the pillar and Georges grinned at the Inspector, who was wiping his brow and letting out his breath. What was it that that American author had written? ‘It was a blonde, a blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.’

Guiscard gave a short laugh. ‘Georges, she must be given enough rope, n’est ce pas?’

Georges understood the logic but he also understood someone like Elaine Cabrel, he said nothing as Guiscard got into the front passenger seat. ‘Rue de Bercy and fast, M. Jensen’s apartment.’

.o0o.

With the car now tearing down boulevard Voltaire, Jean-Claude phoned the tail he’d put on Nicolette and heard the report. He nodded to himself. Oui, it fitted, all right. ‘Hurry,’ he said to Georges who was already bent over the wheel.

Next he phoned Hugh. ‘Allo, Jean-Claude Guiscard ici. Have you eaten yet? Non? Could you make room for one more guest, by any chance? Yes, we know she is visiting you, I mean me too. You could? We’re on our way now.’

.o0o.

When he arrived, the Inspector was full of bonhomie, as if he’d just won a million Euros, and Hugh was intrigued. Nicolette had arrived with Geneviève, the places had been set, the mood was frenetic.

With him propped up in bed, the others sat at the table they’d lifted over near him, the repast passed their lips, the side-salads were distributed on small plates.

The buoyant mood now became more subdued, with little desultory conversation, everyone seemed to pick up on this. Hugh would have given a lot to know what everyone was thinking at that precise moment.

Geneviève distributed the torte, Nicolette went for the coffee, she returned, it was poured and as Hugh lifted the cup to his lips, she clumsily fell against him, spilling much of it over his bedclothes.

‘Pardon, désolé, désolé,’ she cried, running to the kitchen for a cloth. Guiscard did not move a muscle.

Then, taking Hugh’s cup, he called for her to bring him two containers of some kind from the cupboard, she returned with them, the Inspector poured the dregs of Hugh’s into one and a little of his own coffee into the other, sealed them with their plastic lids and turned to Geneviève.

‘Could you be ready in five minutes, Mademoiselle?’

To the surprise of the other two, she did not protest, but looked at them all, rose and went to get her things. When she returned, Hugh and Nicolette were too stunned to comment.

Geneviève paused at the door and shot Hugh a glance. ‘Well Hugh, are you going to save me now, my love?’

He went to get up but Nikki laid a restraining hand on his arm, then they were gone.

‘All right, Nicolette – the regression to the formal hurt her – if you didn’t try to poison me, then who did? Louise?’

‘Louise Bonnet is guilty. She knew all about Mademoiselle.’

‘She tried to poison me?’

‘Non, but she was guilty of une affaire avec Philippe, avec Jean-Baptist aussi, those men used her.’

‘For what?’

‘To hurt Mademoiselle.’

‘I don’t believe a word of it.’

‘Bebe, it’s the truth. Elaine told Louise about Mademoiselle’s early life. Traitre!’

‘I understand your French but not your logic.’

‘Our lives depend on Mademoiselle – the whole Section was created by her, it’s terrible, impossible! Louise told Philippe and he told Jean-Baptist.’

‘Told what?’

‘About Mademoiselle’s early life, I’ve told you that already.’

‘What about her early life?’ Nikki clammed up. ‘All right,’ Hugh went on, ‘why did she tell them?’

‘Ha – she believed those men loved her.’

‘Why did Jean-Baptist want this information?’

‘Chantage.’

‘He was blackmailing someone?’

‘Non.’

He looked at her and a thought occurred to him. ‘There’s a man we can’t identify in this and I think he had une affaire with Mademoiselle, Jean-Baptist heard about it and decided to blackmail her.’

‘Non, Jean-Baptist – he’s nothing, no one.’

‘It was someone higher?’ Her lips were sealed. ‘All right, Nikki darling – she was so relieved he was back to that – why would a man who’d had an illicit affair with Geneviève want to blackmail her about it? He’d lose more than she would.’

‘Non, non, you don’t understand … oh, I can’t say.’ She turned for the kitchen.

‘Nikki, stay, I’ll tell you what I think, shall I?’ She turned and nodded. ‘There’s a child mixed up in this somewhere – Mademoiselle’s child perhaps? It’s the only blackmail I can think of.’ He paused and she said nothing. ‘All right – do you know the whole story yourself?’

She nodded, observing him closely through two narrowed eyes.

‘Sit with me, Nikki, just one more minute – please?’ She perched again. ‘I understand why Mademoiselle had to deal with Louise but why would she have to deal with me as well?’ No response. ‘I don’t see any reason Genie would want me killed.’

‘Of course she didn’t.’

‘All right, I think someone else wanted me dead – did Louise have to die?’

‘Traitre.’

‘Right, so she did. And Philippe? And Jean-Baptist?’

‘Oui, all of them.’

‘If you’re the big bad killer yourself, then why would the Inspector leave you here alone with me?’

She just smiled and he decided to change tack. ‘Would you tell me something which puzzles me?’ She nodded. ‘Why does Geneviève only employ alluring seductresses?’

The smile continued to play on her lips, she gradually sat up, drawing her hands slowly up between her legs, until she was sitting bolt upright on the edge of her chair. ‘It’s our work.’

‘What’s your work?’

‘We stop corruption.’

‘You set up key figures and blackmail them.’

‘Non, non, we don’t blackmail them, we destroy them. They come in like lemmings, one after the other, and we destroy them.’

‘Do you know I never once asked Francine about her work? How did Geneviève find you?’

‘Our families were close.’

‘So she only chooses girls she knows?’ She nodded and he continued. ‘Was I one of your jobs … when you … did that?’

‘You allowed me.’

‘Yes I did, it was indescribable, but it disturbed me all the same.’

‘It disturbed me too. Did you mind me doing it though?’

‘Mind?!’

She smiled again at that response. ‘Not everyone would accept it … darling man … not done that way. You’re one who would accept me and my silly ways … and that disturbs me … I don’t have control of myself.’

He got back to the poisoning. ‘The only person it could have been then was you.’

‘I saved you … I would always save you.’

‘I know you would and I’d always save you too. All right, tell me about yourself – things I haven’t already found out.’

‘What do you want to know?’

‘Everything.’

‘Everything is a big word … darling man.’

‘Well, from your childhood onwards then.’

She flashed another killer smile and gathered herself. ‘My first years were in Barbizon, then we went to Melun.’

‘When you and Geneviève were six.’

‘Mademoiselle told you?’

‘Some things.’

‘When I was seventeen, Mademoiselle asked me to join her – in her work.’

‘You didn’t want to marry and have children?’

‘It was too early and anyway, I was – um – hurt by one man.’

‘Oui?’

‘Oui.’ And that was all she’d say on that topic. ‘Darling?’ Wow, this was a major move.

‘Yes?’

‘I know all your moves, all your tricks … because they’re my tricks too. You make me feel so very comfortable. Some people say I’m unusual, they say I’m flighty, I suddenly get angry, they’re not sure about me … but you are. That means a great deal to me.’

He opened his mouth to speak and just couldn’t find a response, she was highly amused. ‘I disturb you badly … don’t I?’

He looked up at the ceiling. Finally he managed, ‘Let’s have coffee and watch the film Genie gave me – do you want?’

‘Yes but I’ll get some things for the evening first, from the patisserie, and then I’ll watch the film with you.’

She left with her shopping bags and her numbered key. He hauled himself across to the computer, turned it on, accessed the e-mails and made a call to the Inspector. ‘Nicolette’s gone out for pastries. How’s Geneviève?’

‘As well as can be expected, M. Jensen. She’s keeping her own counsel.’

‘May I talk to her?’

‘At this moment she’s being asked questions – nothing terrible.’

‘Later then?’

‘Probably.’

‘So you’ll tail Nicolette?’

‘We’re already doing so. I’ll be in touch, Monsieur.’ There was something enigmatic in his tone as the phone went dead.

For his part, Jean-Claude was amused at M. Jensen’s assumption that they were somehow colleagues on this case, that he was in no way a suspect. Still, it was useful at this point.

.o0o.

By the time Nicolette returned, Hugh had been sent what he’d been looking for – good girl, Anya, he knew she’d find out. He’d reciprocated by doing a few tasks for her, correcting a few errors in one of her submissions, sent them, then switched off the computer.

Nicolette seemed a little bit put out, as if something had not quite gone the way she’d wanted.

On pure speculation, he asked, ‘This is not meant the way it sounds and I’m talking about a woman, not a man – but did you meet anyone you knew while you were out?’

One of the bags of groceries slipped from her hands. ‘Oui,’ she answered honestly. ‘I met Elaine at Café Choise.’

‘I see.’

‘To discuss it all, to discuss you – girl’s talk.’

‘And what conclusion did you come to?’

‘We couldn’t – agree.’

‘Ready for the film?’

He had absolutely no idea what it was about – it was in French and way too rapid for him – Reine Margot or something. She drew her chair up near the recliner to watch the computer screen, he watched her eyes during the weepy bits and liked what he saw – she could feel, this one. If she could kill, it would most likely be out of fierce loyalty.

‘Nikki, honey … that’s not comfortable.’

He moved over to the far side of the recliner and placed his second pillow on his chest. There were four metal legs down each side of the recliner so it was not going to tip with him on the edge and she was so light she’d barely trouble her side.

She stared straight ahead at the computer screen, deciding, then crossed the line, removed her skirt and folded it, putting it on her chair, same with her white blouse – he just adored the way she even did that – then she thought long and hard, he could see the cogs turning, she dropped the straps of her bra, brought it round to the front and undid it then, fully facing him, dropped and wiggled her knickers to her ankles and just stood there, letting him have his fill, kicked the knickers into the air and caught them with one hand, folded and placed them on top of the other clothes.

Now she shifted to the recliner, gingerly sitting her bottom down on it, finding it supported her. She gradually allowed herself to lie back, her head settling into the pillow but she was poised like a coiled spring, he could feel every muscle movement.

The instant he touched her cheek, she suddenly flipped over through 150 degrees, one leg and arm across him. Looking directly into his eyes, she murmured, ‘Your penis was in my throat – you’ve avoided talking about that and what it means. You also have a completely naked woman on top of you right now.’

He opened his mouth a couple of times and closed it again – yet again she’d done that. ‘I … er … I … um … I’d die if I was just a game to you. What you did -’

She noted his moist eyes. ‘How did it feel to you?’

‘As if you came in with a plan, you began it, you were unsure, you dropped the plan and just did what came into your head.’

‘That was exactly how it was. Those things in the afternoon, then Mademoiselle asking me to do that again in the evening, and me not being clear in my mind. And now I too must know – do you want me just for sex?’

‘You heard what I said to Anaïs about that. But there is a longer answer, a more complete one.’

‘Then give it.’

‘We always suspected we were suited and were going to meet -’

‘But the time was not right to do this before, we had to wait for the right moment.’

‘Précisément. Mademoiselle knew that too, so did Franka. They feared we would find common ground in so many ways, not just sex.’

‘Anaïs began with sex, Franka and you began with sex.’

‘Yes, but I didn’t know it was going to start like that with either of them, you know that, I thought the whole point was to set me up with Anaïs for life, to leave Genie. And as for Franka – no one, not even we, thought it would happen quite like that. You did not like Franka doing that and I tell you that she had no control over it – these things have their own power.’

‘Yes, that is so. Hugh, if your eyes are forever for me 100%, then my eyes are forever for you 100%, it’s as simple as that. If your eyes are for me 50%, then my eyes are for you 0%.’

‘I hear that loud and clear. Anaïs said the same but she got it from you.’

‘Can you give up Mademoiselle?’

‘In one minute?’

She knew the reference. ‘No, it will take time to make this adjustment, she will be so wounded, I know what we must do but it must happen slowly, in a natural way, she will still need time with you and I want you to do that. Do you fear we will be pulled apart during that time?’

‘No.’

‘Nor do I.  Now, continue with this long explanation.’

‘Genie acts like a Queen,’ she hid a smile, ‘she sees me as the King to occasionally come home to -’

‘Correction, she sees Philippe as the King, sorry to hurt you.’

‘All right, but the moment you said you were Nikki ‘who comes here, goes there, does this and fixes that’ … that was the moment you captured my heart.’

‘Vraiment?’

‘Vraiment.’

You think you are too ordinary, I know that, but Nikki, that sort of ‘ordinary’ is what real men would give all the riches in the world to secure.’

‘Vraiment?’

‘Vraiment. And now a question – why the Opium?’

Her turn to be gobsmacked, then she chuckled. ‘I shall answer you but I want to test what you know first.’ He indicated for her to go on. ‘Yes, it’s not my usual – so you tell me what you think my usual is.’

‘I would say that when you were younger, you were more chypre or a light floral,’ he paused and she nodded, ‘I think now maybe a light but complex floral for your everyday but you do not use parfum, you use eau de parfum or eau de toilette because you do not wish to overpower anyone.’

‘Very good, you’ve left out some small details but that’s good, please go on.’

‘Well, as you know, there are three notes – floral is top, there’s a base note but I confess I have not concentrated on the mid-note enough. Opium though was a high risk for you -’

‘Not really -’

‘Aha … that means it changes with your body chemistry -’

‘Clever boy -’

‘Plus you did not dab beneath your jawline – you kept it away from the action so that there was just a hint -’

‘Even eau de parfum is strong -’

He thought for a few moments. ‘So you really did set out to seduce me.’

‘Guilty, you have caught me out.’ She smiled sweetly. ‘Did I succeed?’

‘Phew! Not only that, but your general body fragrance, plus the fragrance of your private parts on my shoulder – all those lay with me afterwards.’

‘And you did not dislike that?’

‘It entered my soul. That fragrance mix stayed with me, I could not get you out of my mind.’

She was pleased. ‘If you only knew what a great relief that is to hear – that I can go to that trouble and you would actually notice what I was trying to do.’

‘I don’t notice everything, mind. I’m a typical man in so many ways.’

‘I know that. Just now and then is enough.’

‘I have only one more thing to say – if I was shown a huge building, a palace, and inside were many labyrinthine rooms and passages, filled with gold and jewels and other precious things … and then I was shown a second building, smaller, elegant, and inside was nothing, a bare floor and in the middle was you, just you, in a white robe and nothing else and I was told, ‘Choose -’ ‘

She was already smothering him, squeezing the life out of him, kissing him like there was no tomorrow. And that was another surprise – that amazing wiry strength in one so slender.

.o0o.

About seven minutes later, the outer door lock turned, they heard it, she raised her head, came to a decision, murmured, ‘Ne pas rien,’ and returned to their kiss.

Emma now stood in the living room looking down at them, transfixed, dismayed at nue Nikki, but his boxers were still up … and yet she was dismayed all the same.

She gave a little cough and Nicolette did slowly stop, looked hard into his eyes, placed her palm on his cheek for some seconds, carefully climbed off the recliner and to Emma’s astonishment, half in a daze, took her hand and led her to the kitchen.

Emma just stared at nue Nikki leaning against the bench, gazing out of the window, chest rising and falling, Emma stared some more, dismayed at how alluring Nikki actually was when roused.  She shook her head. ‘Why?’

‘I want him.’

‘Casual or serious?’

‘Read my body, this may be the one.’

Emma whistled low. ‘Oh dear.’

‘Oui.’ They didn’t have to discuss the implications and some of those implications were for Emma herself.

‘You – you know I won’t -’

‘Of course I know that, I knew it was you with the keys.’

Emma slowly released her breath, stunned. ‘Does anyone else know? Francine?’

‘It’s only just happened – you’re actually seeing it live. Go in and talk to him, Em, I’ll make supper for the three of us. I’d … I’d like you to stay awhile … would you?’

Emma smiled and went through, pulled the chair up to the recliner and awaited the explanation.

‘What can I say, Emma? You saw it. I love her.’

‘And Mademoiselle?’

‘Yes, I love her too but we know everything about that. And I love you too, you know that is true.’

Emma gave that low whistle again, which Nicolette could hear from the kitchen. ‘This is serious, I fear for the Section, Hugh. There are those who think you came here to destroy us. I just want to say that I once did … but not now. You just have no resistance – good for us, not so good for you.’

.o0o.

Nicolette came through with supper on a tray and poured the wines, Emma walked about the room, making calls to various people.

She then turned and said, ‘I have two more hours. If Nikki stays here tonight, Hugh, what’s going to happen? Mademoiselle will not come here tonight – please call her now.’

He took his phone and did just that, on her home number. Nothing, just the automated message and the tone was coming up. ‘Er, Genie, I hope you’re OK and see you tomorrow, all right? I love you.’

He called Guiscard. ‘Inspector, Nicolette is staying here overnight. From where you stand, do you see any problem with that?’

‘Your moral dilemma is your own affair, M. Jensen.’

‘I mean – do you feel it might be strategically unwise?’

‘We have two men stationed in your building. One, Senior-Sergeant Fournier, whom you met earlier, has Mlle Lavaquerie’s key to your flat – don’t bolt the door tonight.’

‘Were you aware, Inspector, that Nicolette met Mlle Cabrel in Café Choise earlier?’

‘Bien sûr. And in turn, do you know the subject of their conversation?’

‘Nicolette and Elaine? They were discussing killing both you and me, I’ve known it was Elaine for some time.’ Emma’s eyebrows shot up, she swung round and glared at Nicolette, whose jaw had dropped open.

‘You know that?’ asked Guiscard. He was impressed. ‘Well, Monsieur, remember what I told you and have a pleasant night.’

He put the phone back, smiled sweetly at both and asked, ‘Would you help me to the bathroom after supper?’

.o0o.

They’d eaten, looking at one another, not speaking, Nicolette still naked, things now went into the kitchen and were washed, dried and put away. They came back for him, he got up and the hobble to the bathroom began.

Holding on to the door post, then hopping to the basin, he was able to work the taps. The next part was quite tricky, they knew it too, he couldn’t get the boxer shorts down, Nicolette came through and took them down, then he sat on the bath rim. She now just straddled his lap, her privacy within centimetres of his, washing him with her wet hands, washing herself, washing him. He was as hard as a rock and she was working it.

Emma gave a little cough again. ‘There are no words. You must both speak with Mademoiselle, tomorrow. In fact, I’m going to ask you both something I have no right to ask – would you not actually … er … do it … until Hugh can have that talk with Mademoiselle?’

‘I think we’ve already agreed on that,’ Nicolette confirmed.

.o0o.

They half carried him to the bedroom and dumped him, Emma gazing at that thing still rock hard, Nicolette saw the transfixed eyes and didn’t say a word as the other stepped forward, fighting herself for maybe 10 seconds then, reaching out with one hand, she took it between fingers and thumb, making it lose a bit over her hand, he pulled his hips away, she let go and moved back to the door, confused.

Nikki made not a move, Emma went over and took it in her hand again, which now became sticky, he moved his hips away again.

‘I have to go,’ said Emma, ‘this is too much for me to handle.’ As if belying her words, she was dragged forward again, but as she bent to place her lips over it, he covered it with his hand.

She ran from the flat.

‘You were struggling … weren’t you?’

‘Yes.’

‘But you did make that effort. I wonder if I had not been here.’

‘I hope it would have been the same.’

II

Inspector Guiscard visited Hugh’s flat about 17:00 Monday.

He observed the homely scene in the living room, Nicolette was busying herself with jobs, rug rolled back, mopping the floor, Hugh had the ironing board near the recliner, on the lower notch, he was propped up there, happily ironing away, including her things and as Guiscard ran fingers through his greying but immaculately groomed hair, he wondered.

Hope sprang into his mind. He looked about and saw changes she had brought in and he’d obviously approved,  they were low key and probably necessary but they were also stamping her character on the apartement in small ways and he knew that strategy too.

Nikki was preparing herself to go out on a shopping mission, she kissed him in front of the Inspector, negotiated the boots once more and took her leave. The Inspector smiled and looked about the apartment with approval – it looked a picture.

‘Why did you take Geneviève away?’

‘To bring Mlle Vasseur out. I’d hoped she’d tell you the truth.’

‘Just that?’ The Inspector smiled an enigmatic smile, Hugh continued. ‘She was never going through with it, despite appearances. Will you arrest Mlle Cabrel?’

‘Non. I shall have a word to Mlle Vasseur though and let her see the seriousness of her position. M. Jensen, between you and me, does Mlle Lavacquerie have anything to fear from Mlle Vasseur, with regard to you?’

Hugh sighed. ‘I’m afraid so. It might even be terminal.’

‘Would my advice be of any use?’

‘From you, Inspector, it would be most welcome.’

Guiscard inclined his head graciously. ‘Mlle Lavacquerie has inner strength, she is straightforward. Mlle Vasseur is skilled in intrigue, is more fiery in temperament and l’amour is one of her specialist subjects.’

‘It had crossed my mind as well.’

‘On the other hand, man to man, has it also crossed your mind that Mlle Vasseur is more, shall we say, domestically inclined than Mlle Lavacquerie? Not only that but there is open affection in her for you – she seems very happy at this moment.’

‘Yes, I’d like to make her happy.’

‘One last thing,’ the Inspector said. ‘We don’t know the full extent of what these ladies are involved in. You know quite a bit and I’ll know more, shortly. Their business is to intrigue and trap.’

‘I know their brief is to prevent corruption in high places.’

‘They have countless acquaintances, countless contacts, most of them men. Not every husband would put up with that.’

.o0o.

They heard Nicolette returning from downstairs, she burst in with the evening groceries, plonked them on the floor and went through her routine of disrobing, Hugh wondered if he could send her out on another mission, just once more, just to watch her do that all over again.

The Inspector called out, ‘Mlle Vasseur, may I have a word?’

In rapid French, she called back that she’d first put the frozen goods away, top up the coffee, then come over.

.o0o.

Eventually she did, placing her bottom on the edge of the second plush leather chair, hands on the armrests, slowly sliding back into it. The Inspector was more than curious how it had got this far so quickly. ‘Mademoiselle, would you relate to us exactly, in all details, the meeting with –’

His mobile rang.

‘Oui. Oui. Vraiment? D’accord. Merci, Jacques.’ He snapped the mobile shut.

‘Mademoiselle,’ he started again, ‘would you explain to us exactly, in all details, the meetings with Elaine Cabrel?’

The sudden use of the plural made her look at him sharply. ‘Meetings, Monsieur?’

‘Yes, Mademoiselle, if you please, I’m including your meeting of not twelve minutes ago. In fact, Mlle Cabrel will be joining us in a minute or two, accompanied by my Senior-Sergeant. Before she arrives, would you care to tell us why it was necessary to meet Mlle Cabrel twice in one day?’

Nicolette clammed up.

.o0o.

They waited and waited, then finally came the doorbell. The Inspector went over, checked who it was and let them in. It was the first good look Hugh had had of Elaine and the word which sprang to mind was ‘raunchy’.

This was confirmed a few moments later, when her fur was dramatically peeled off, dropped and caught by the Senior-Sergeant, revealing the skimpiest little slip, then it became clear that she and Nicolette had attended the same school of boot removal – painfully elongated and attended by soft cursing.

Elaine swept across on her reddish tiptoes, the arches of her long feet springy, and took the place graciously relinquished by the Inspector, who himself took up a position by the curtains behind Hugh’s recliner. It could have been a scene from one of Christie’s drawing room plays but considerably more sensual.

‘Nikki,’ Elaine acknowledged with a grin.

Next, she gave Hugh a curious look and a winning smile, then swung her gaze back to the Inspector, raping him from head to foot. The Senior-Sergeant remained at the outer door.

The bell rang, the door was opened and in came Geneviève, looking tired and drawn. Once disrobed, she came through to the living room and accepted the kitchen chair the Senior Sergeant had now brought through, clasping her hands on her lap and indicating that she was ready for the play to commence.

The Inspector gave a little cough and began. ‘Mlle Cabrel, you and Mlle Vasseur will now tell us the details of your two meetings at Café Choise. All the details, please, ladies.’

Elaine lay back in her seat, slowly stretched out her long legs and arched her back languorously, which had the effect of accentuating her considerable bust and narrow waist. All men present were painfully aware that she was wearing nothing but a translucent slip, close-weave netting skirt and no underwear. The bare-toed, peasant-girl feet, about one metre apart, tapped first inwards, then outwards. The feet were not clean.

Nicolette suppressed a smile, Hugh was equally bemused, even intrigued, Geneviève raised her eyes to the ceiling and sighed, the Inspector also sighed and asked, ‘Well, Mademoiselle?’

She was reluctant to begin, so the Inspector started it for her. ‘We know, Mesdemoiselles, that you both discussed Mlle Lavacquerie’s little secret, how much I knew and how much I would tell M. Jensen –’

Geneviève was indignant. ‘No!’

‘The thing is,’ continued the Guiscard, ‘it’s not exactly her little secret, is it?’

‘Inspector, this is unfair,’ stammered Geneviève, losing her composure.

‘It’s going to come out tomorrow, whether you want it to or not, I’m not betraying anything you told me, I found this out for myself and M. Jensen already knows of it.’ Geneviève shot Nicolette a glance. ‘It’s on the record now, in fact. I’m giving you a chance to clear the air.’

She sat, immovable, not prepared to say one more word. Suddenly, Elaine spoke. ‘The child was mine, her name was Rachelle.’

‘You needn’t, Elaine,’ advised Geneviève.

‘Non, Mademoiselle, it’s gone on long enough.’ She gathered herself, drew her long legs into a more refined position and spoke. ‘I was under-age at the time, Mademoiselle took on the role of mother.’

Jean-Claude nodded, then turned to Nicolette. ‘You knew too, didn’t you?’ She didn’t reply, but the tears welled up.

He again addressed Elaine. ‘You were fourteen, weren’t you, Mademoiselle? Désolé. I know you were a willing partner and yet, you were fourteen, after all, you’d had a difficult childhood, your father never touched you but your mother did not have an easy life.’

Elaine’s lips tightened and her fingers clenched, then straightened out again, by sheer willpower. Guiscard was soft-spoken, compassionate, understanding all. ‘Though you were born in Narbonne, you moved to Paris, that’s where you met Mlle Lavacquerie.’

They both looked sharply at him, wondering both how much he really knew and how much he intended to reveal at this meeting. Geneviève could see that the only damage control, at this point, was to remain silent.

‘Then came the tragedy of the – er – accident.’ At this, Hugh looked sharply at the Inspector who continued, ‘And yet, Mlle Lavacquerie remained officially recognized as the mother. We won’t discuss the father today, it’s not germane to the issue and as you both know full well, it’s not on the public record.’

Both looked with gratitude at him.

‘Mlle Vasseur had her own tragedy as well and that’s why both ces petites love Mlle Lavacquerie to distraction. You’d do anything to protect her, Mesdemoiselles, but without letting her know what you were doing. However, Mlle Lavacquerie could guess.

Knowing this, someone sent the message down, through various channels, that M. Jensen was the enemy of Mademoiselle – the story came through over and over until it appeared to be the truth, even Mlle Lavacquerie was convinced for some time. Naturally, her two guardians decided to eliminate the threat.’

‘Are you preferring charges?’ asked Elaine.

‘Non, even though your conversations at the café were overheard, Mesdemoiselles, it would be difficult to make the charges stick. Besides, we need you outside the prison, not inside, for your own safety.’

He paused, drew breath, then continued. ‘There are anomalies in how your Section is funded, Mademoiselle – the trail dries up, as I told you, whenever we try to follow it, but we know it has a connection with Russia.

We have our own sources and it seems there is documentation – if Mlle Lavacquerie marries, this documentation comes to light and certain parties do not wish for this. Therefore, the possibility of you marrying is of interest to these parties.’

The conversation lapsed, as none of the women seemed inclined to elaborate on what they knew, the Inspector sighed and now it was Hugh who piped up. ‘Mlle Cabrel, do you always dress that way?’

‘Hugh!’ admonished Geneviève and Nicolette was amused but not so amused when Elaine rose from her chair, drew herself up to her full height and mocked: ‘Do my clothes offend you, Monsieur? Would you help me to remove them, perhaps?’

The tone in her voice dismayed both the other women as they knew it of old, of the mania behind it. Elaine stepped across to the recliner and threw one long leg over it, taking Hugh’s hand and placing it on the lower hem of her slip which had already risen up above her hips. Not to be outdone, he promptly lifted it just short of her breasts and stared into her eyes, smiling, as hard as she was staring into his, not smiling.

‘Elaine, stop this now.’

She theatrically lifted her leg back to the floor, never taking her eyes away from Hugh’s, Guiscard coughed and said, ‘I’ll be in touch, Mesdemoiselles. Mlle Cabrel, will you ready yourself to come with us now.’

Elaine minced to the door and dressed, wrapped her arms around Geneviève in a languorous, completely over the top gesture and kissed her deeply on the lips, winked at Nicolette and the three departed.

Coming back through, Geneviève immediately scolded him, ‘That was wrong – it’s a job keeping her stable, Hugh and you hardly helped today.’

‘That woman plans to kill me, Genie, you know it, Nikki knows it. I therefore have an interest in her and that was what that was all about.’

Geneviève sighed, turned to Nicolette and said, ‘Let’s have supper.’

IV

Jacques Fournier had come up through the ranks, which is not to say he was lacking in leadership qualities – quite the opposite – it was a happy appointment being sent to Jean-Claude Guiscard and one of the things he’d learned was to be more keenly observant and to notice anything at all unusual.

He hardly ever looked for anything specific but if something happened, chances were he’d pick it up. Guiscard had taught him peripheral vision too, to broaden his viewing angle, with practice, from about 120 degrees to about 170. Thus it was that, working his triceps with the one arm overhead extension, he saw, through the slatted window leading to the café restaurant, an interesting table of gentlemen, using the term loosely.

He knew of Philippe Legrand, he knew of Jean-Paul Martin but he wasn’t sure about the tall, dark man with the cruel mouth. A woman now came in and she had ‘secretary’ written all over her. She didn’t wait for any instructions though but delivered a letter to M. Legrand.

V

Geneviève awoke in the morning, turned on her mobile, saw a text message and looked slyly across at Nicolette who was staring straight back at her, knowing that look of old. It was clearly a message from Philippe and he wanted to meet her. Her heart leapt and then her anger at Philippe also rose like bile, then her heart again.

Nikki watched her as she scrambled out of bed and hurried to the bathroom, there was a call on the landline which woke him in the other room but when he realized it had been taken by one of the women in the bedroom, he dropped off again. It was a problem with Labouche and he’d need to be dealt with. Elaine was too unstable right now, so Nicolette and Francine would have to do the job, with Nadine holding the fort at rue de Villiers.

Two more phone calls followed.

.o0o.

By 08:45, they’d still not explained to him about the flurry of activity but finally Nicolette stopped long enough to say she’d be on a job and Mademoiselle would need to be … er … at their workplace.

There was no real breakfast, except for petit-pains on the run, coffee scooped up and drunk down, much time in front of mirrors and before he knew it, Geneviève was at the front door.

‘Genie’ he called over to her. ‘We need to talk. I’ve asked you for days, will you please do it this evening?’

She stopped in the act of putting on her coat and came over, resting a hand on his arm. ‘I don’t know, Hugh, today is crazy, I’m trying to solve about five problems at once and I’m not well.’

Nicolette came out of the bathroom hurriedly, put a different pair of boots on, waved and was gone.

VI

Geneviève was at Philippe’s office.

As the clock moved closer to the agreed time, she became more and more nervous. This was stupid, having an assignation with her own partner of many years and yet she felt a cheat, on account of another man she hadn’t yet fully accepted.

.o0o.

Philippe’s meeting concluded, yet her presence in the outer office seemed to have caught him unawares which was strange, considering he’d phoned her in the first place. Maybe he’d forgotten about her.

It took her some time to realize what the source of the embarrassment was and then she saw it, in the form of his secretary – just a little too all-knowing, just a little too au fait with his every need, just a little too slow walking past him. How tacky.

Still, she had to go through with it. ‘Philippe?’ She dropped her eyes in the Nicolette manner. The sound of his name on her lips, in that fashion, startled them both, he looked at her dispassionately, then seemed to make a snap decision and stepped to his office door. ‘Sophie-Fleury, I’ll be out, cancel the Roland meeting, apologize to the Minister, say I’ve come down sick, phone Mlle Tessier and ask if we can reschedule it for tomorrow, maybe 19:00.’

The last one didn’t fool Genie one little bit – still, he’d cleared the way for twenty hours and that augured well, at least for her purposes.

.o0o.

Philippe knew how to entertain a lady, he knew the right place for every occasion, he maintained the veneer of a gentleman at all times but what he couldn’t have known was that, in taking her to the outrageously expensive Le Froid, the image of cool detachment, he might have inadvertently sealed her fate forever.

All of that was fine but it could not compensate for the simple fact that Philippe’s BMW Series 7 had shot past Jean’s Citroen along Boulevard Voltaire, with Francine onboard … and there was a mental snapshot of Mademoiselle before Francine’s eyes, seated in her rightful position beside Philippe in the front seat, as if she’d never been away.

She reflected that fate was a fickle lady. If it had been any of the other girls who’d observed it, then maybe nothing would have been said. However, as she’d seen it – President of the Anti-Philippe Club – she was on the line to Emma immediately. ‘Where are you, Emma?’

‘With Nikki, at Cafe Noir.’

Francine told her the news.

‘Is she crazy?’ Emma shook her head, puzzled. ‘What should we do?’

‘How should I know?’ offered Francine, ‘that’s your department.’

‘Problem?’ enquired Jean once the call had ended.

‘For Mademoiselle, it could be – I’ve just given Emma an open invitation to kill off any future for Mademoiselle and Hugh. I don’t like what I’m seeing, Jean. None of us do, it has to stop. Emma will think of the right way to approach this.’

.o0o.

Emma got off the phone and pondered.

Then she looked around and gulped when she saw Nicolette staring straight at her and as she, Emma, dropped into her legendary poker face, Nicolette was triumphant. ‘Ha! You’d only do that if there was something I shouldn’t know. ‘Is she crazy?’ you asked. That means Mademoiselle and that means Philippe too, does it not?’

Emma was without words, she was dismayed. Nikki proceeded to tell her, in turn, about the morning’s phone call, the sly look, the bathroom with the mobile. ‘Sorry, Emma, all promises are off – that was one step too far and if it wasn’t, then this one you’re covering up now is.’

‘Nikki, please, let’s not be hasty.’ She was horrified at the turn events had taken.

‘You’re a special person, Em, you really are. But this is just plain wrong and you know it.’

‘Do two wrongs make a right?’

‘There’s nothing wrong about starting a new life,’ Nicolette quietly replied.

Emma groaned – it was word-for-word what she would have said.

.o0o.

Emma swung the car into the entrance to the downstairs carpark at Hugh’s, rested one last restraining hand on Nikki’s forearm, felt the suppressed emotion and sighed.

Nikki hurried up the stairs, didn’t even get the zip stuck this time and he was taken aback. ‘Are you in a hurry?’

‘Oui.’

They hobbled next door, he heaved and moved until he’d found a comfortable position, gathering by this move that Genie was not returning and that something had happened, probably related to the morning.

She disappeared from the room, calling out that she was getting some things, he reached for the phone – answer machine. ‘Genie, I think you’d better get here now – there are serious issues at stake about you and me, immediate issues, urgent.  At a minimum, call me.’

Chapter 2-2 hereChapter 2-4 here

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