Hugh took a sip and continued the horror story:
‘The next day, Nikki and I were kissing very deeply – Nikki knew Emma had a key to the door and that she was to visit. Emma saw it all, Nikki was naked, nue, we all talked over coffee and Emma said she couldn’t understand why you, Genie, were acting as you were, that there was very real danger here – phone Emma now to establish that.’
‘Emma asked me to talk to you the next day, she said you would not be back that night. She asked Nikki and I not to do anything sexual and we agreed. Then Emma took my thing in her hand on the bed. She did it one more time but as she went to fellate me, I put my hand over it and she ran from the flat.’
‘Emma! That’s adultery, Hugh. Tell me the rest and do it quickly.’
‘Nikki brought Francine here today, with two disks and they weren’t good.’ He explained that episode.
Geneviève lay her head against the antimacassar. ‘She showed you those … and Francine helped her?’ He nodded. ‘This is hell on earth. You’d better tell me the rest of it, all of it, now.’
‘While you and Philippe were having sexual intercourse at your apartement, so were Nikki and I here.’
She jumped up and backed away. ‘Don’t you come near me.’
When she saw he had made no move at all to do so, that was worse, she subsided against the wall cabinet and there was nothing he could do to fix any of it.
‘Sex,’ moaned Geneviève You did that – you had actual sex – with my longest friend from childhood, in revenge for what I’d done?’
‘No, not revenge and that shows you’re not listening. I made it clear that, to me, you and Philippe were not the important factor here – you’re the one trying to make it important. The issue is dishonesty with us all, not listening to what we have been trying to tell you for so long and thinking it would be all right – that’s the issue.’
She began to almost wail. ‘I don’t think I can take this, I don’t know where to turn. I feel … betrayed, you never thought to call me, to ask me?’
‘I did call you,’ he said quietly, ‘and you know I did. More than once. Do you want to hear what Nikki said about that?’
‘No. All right, yes.’ She buried her face in her hands.
‘She said, ‘Mademoiselle is not going to answer your call this evening because I know where she is and what she’s doing. Today Mademoiselle broke the trust, broke the ties, not just with you but with all of us.’
She kept her head in her hands about a minute. Then she appeared to have come to a decision. ‘I do see it, my foolishness. I knew Nikki was dangerous because she was alone but never, ever, did I think she’d betray me – and as for you, you disgust me, that you could do something like that with my very best friend after all I’ve … and then you speak like this and think it’s all right.’
‘It’s anything but all right. And the worst part is that you’re still trying to justify your own actions. I fully accept what we did, I take responsibility for those three women and Anaïs – you have every right to expel me from Paris now, to tell me to get out. But Genie, when your closest people resign from the Section – surely that is something you should look at, non? Do you remember your top people resigning, starting with Francine?’
‘Francine? Did you have sex with her that day?’
‘Ask her, call her. No, Francine and I were in bed naked that day to provoke you – you know about that. Genie – there was no sex with Francine that day.’
‘Did you do have sex with Nikki that first afternoon?’
‘No, in fact she laughed that I was ever the English gentleman, I kissed her hand.’
‘You knew I wanted you.’
‘No Genie, I did not know that, not in this last year. The night Anaïs and I first made love, where were you? Did you want me then? The afternoon Nikki and I made love, where were you? You had been having sex with Philippe the night before, We all saw then that you were playing a game with me and continuing it long after it should have stopped. The Section and I were a low priority in your eyes at that time -’
‘I never said that.’
‘You did not say it but that is what your main people believe.’
‘I was making my mind up.’
‘That is not the way to do it. I know you have issues in your head and we have to try to solve them -’
‘Yes, me, plus Nikki, Emma, Francine – this is our job, it’s still our job now.’
‘I want to die.’ Her lips were a tight line. ‘Who is the … er … who is the most angry? Nikki?’
‘It was Nikki who made it clear to me that you did not really care for me, not deep down. She said, ‘I’m not saying you would not one day have become number one with Mademoiselle but with me, since the day we met, you have been number one.’ ’
‘She said those words? Nikki said that?’
‘Where is she now, if you’re permitted to divulge that?’
‘She asked if she could go with Francine to Avenue Jean-Jaures for a chat.’
Geneviève smiled grimly, ‘Oui, that’s their favourite café, those two. You have left me, haven’t you? Just as I was ready to accept you.’
‘Unless you do something massive to redeem this situation, unless you come to your senses, unless you stop trying to blame everyone but yourself, unless you become a true partner to your man, there’s a huge danger of that. I have given Nikki a commitment, she said and I agree – all the women agree in fact – that you must have your chance … if you still want that chance.’
She was utterly shocked but also gratified for that last olive branch. Now she seemed to switch off, the administrator took over. ‘Just as a matter of interest, what was Francine’s reaction? She would have been horrified by Nikki and you after … well … after you and her.’
‘She said, if I recall rightly, ‘I still can’t get this into my head, seriously. Nikki, you of all people!’ ’
‘My thoughts exactly.’ Tears began to well. ‘Hugh, I loved you so much, I still do love you but you’ve betrayed me with my dearest friend, despite what you say – I – I can’t cope with it. You’ve hurt me more than you can know.’
He was about to agree when he saw what he’d missed earlier – she didn’t seem to be wearing a brassiere, which she almost always did. Getting up and hobbling over to her chair, he sat on the armrest, resting his crutch beside her then, without warning, he pulled down the left shoulder of her brown frock, revealing the top of the ugly scarred weal which reached as far as the shoulder.
She quickly went to replace it but his look was an accusation. ‘Who did this?’
She was saved from replying by Nicolette now coming in and removing her boots. Nikki took in the scene, came through, looked at the marks, then at Geneviève and was beyond furious. ‘This is Elaine’s doing, I knew it, I knew it! How could she allow this? Why did she not kill him?’
‘She had no choice. You know that.’
‘Who did it?’ Hugh repeated.
‘Don’t tell him, Nikki, I forbid you. Hugh will go all cavalier and try to kill him, I know it.’
‘You lied to us, Mademoiselle – to Francine, to Hugh and to myself. You l-i-e-d to us!!!’ Her voice was bitter and Geneviève, Queen of the Section, knew she was in very deep trouble when Nikki got like this – she’d only seen it twice and did not wish to see it again. And yet, here it was. ‘Nadine looked after you in the hospital … didn’t she?’
This was too much. She dissolved into hysterical sobbing, Nikki immediately cradled her, then said, ‘I’m making supper.’ He took over the cuddling, which she resisted at first but knew it was the thing she wanted most of all at this time and as she calmed down, she murmured, ‘You were so harsh, so harsh.’
‘I’m sorry, Genie, it wasn’t easy telling my woman that, shaking her up. I’m here now. We eat supper together, the three of us. You two will take the bed tonight and talk, I’ll be on the recliner. This mess won’t be sorted out for days, so let’s leave it for tonight.’
Early December, 2006
Whenever Jules asked Jean-Claude to leave things in his hands, culinary delight was bound to follow.
Le Roux, seated at his customary table, was more than intrigued, Guiscard was an ancient name and he was calling the restaurateur by his prenom. No matter, he’d have it checked out later.
To call that simple lunch ‘a lunch’ was like calling Moliere ‘a scribbler’ and the genius of Jules Colbert was more than apparent in the meal’s very simplicity. It was the easiness, the blending and the contrasting of the flavours and aromas that demonstrated this genius.
It was not food as the ordinary mortal knew it. *
Any pretender could offer up a bizarre menu, but Jules, on the other hand, altered perceptions, while remaining true to the spirit of the ingredient. The intention of Jules Colbert was to confound expectations; he challenged you to reassess what it was you were actually consuming.
The meal consisted of 17 miniscule courses, some no more than a spoonful, others of close to normal size. It began with a margarita in a block of ice with a hole in the centre. On top was a foam of olives, with shards of margarita ice underneath.
Next came the olives, one on each spoon. Except that they weren’t olives, they were olive jelly, most sensuous. Next came a foam of caramelised liquid pumpkin, dusted with gold leaf.
Le Roux’s eyes were by now popping out – shaved dried foie gras, almonds and cocoa, butter ravioli, white asparagus with olive oil gnocchi – and the wine changed with every course. On and on and on it went and with the simple ‘ice-cream’ dessert, if you could have called that meringue concoction simple, also came Jules Colbert.
Jean-Claude touched him on the forearm and commented, ‘You are without peer, except perhaps for Ferran Adrià and El Bulli.’
It was enough. The restaurateur beamed from ear to ear but now confessed, ‘This was not original today, Jean-Claude – it was my tribute to Ferran but it had my embellishments and signature, all the same.’
Jean-Claude nodded and they got down to the tacky, mundane business of the true purpose behind his presence there today.
Pierre le Roux had not received similar treatment and was, accordingly, more than miffed. And yet, he had to use Café Noir as his headquarters – it was – well, it was his address in a manner of speaking. As Jules Colbert eventually headed back to the kitchen, Le Roux called him across and with his best attempt at bonhomie, enquired about the pumpernickel moose, playfully suggesting such a combination might be forthcoming for him at his next sitting.
Jules bowed a curt bow and displayed the respectful demeanour of one in the presence of greatness, very flattering, Pierre felt, and yet it did not quite match the close camaraderie so obviously enjoyed by this Guiscard and the celebrated restaurateur.
‘If Monsieur would care to visit Le Froid, in the 19ème arrondissement, close to Le Parc des Buttes Chaumont,’ Jules explained in as close to an obsequious tone as he could manage, ‘it would perhaps suit you to perfection. This place here, Café Noir, Monsieur,’ he shrugged in a self-deprecating manner, ‘it’s just a café, after all, a place to eat for the itinerant office worker in the 12ème arrondissement.’
As nice a put down as he could have devised and one Pierre le Roux was neither going to forgive nor forget, he was going to break this pompous little mountebank. Jules noticed it, dismissed it and returned to the kitchen, not worried in the least by le Roux. There were higher things deep within the psyche of Paris and le Roux knew that full well.
Hugh Jensen now came in on his hospital crutches and Jean-Claude felt the gasp and rush of activity behind him, as sweet-petite Jeanette rushed across, in as dignified manner as she could muster, slowing down and patting down the back of her skirt before reaching him, whilst the other two girls raised their eyes to Heaven.
Jeanette was so gauche, but Hugh would not be served by anyone else and she brought the soup and petit-pains forthwith, without one word from him. Jean-Claude nodded on approvingly and felt that Hugh had digested the second Parisienne rule set in stone, after one’s personal appearance.
Hugh now saw him, broke into a big grin, Jean-Claude came over, which stunned both le Roux and Jules who’d come out to see who’d come in, Eric sprang into action, transferring all the paraphernalia and tidying up behind.
‘That girl likes, you, M. Jensen,’ smiled Jean-Claude, sitting down.
‘And I like her, Inspector – she’s the best there is and like you, I only ever accept the best.’ Jeanette heard every word, even from three metres away, went scarlet and scurried away to do some tidying up. Guiscard smiled at what Hugh had been pulling there.
‘M. Jensen, perhaps you can see that there are people who wish you well, who wish for you to find true love and if she’s French, so much the better.’
‘I really think you mean that, Inspector.’
‘I’m a not disinterested party.’
Jean-Claude’s answering smile was enigmatic and Hugh continued, ‘So it would be to everyone’s advantage if Nicolette and I sealed the deal, oui?’
Jean-Claude said nothing. If both he and M. Jensen could find happiness with the right one, it would be more pleasant all round. And he was lonely, more lonely than he cared to admit. Hugh seemed to have tuned in to these thoughts because his next comment was to the point. ‘It’s not easy though … is it Inspector?’
Guiscard replied, ‘We can’t afford to be islands … Hugh.’
There, the Rubicon had been crossed. ‘What may I call you, in return?’
‘By my name – Jean-Claude.’ Good, they’d got that out of the way. ‘Tell me … which of the Mesdemoiselles it is to be?’
‘You know which way.’
‘Let me just say one thing. Mlle Vasseur, it seems to me, came to you on her own terms … you might consider that.’ He saw that the point had been well made, he had to get back to work, he wiped his hands, went in and said his farewell to Jules, then to Hugh, and left.
Presently, Jeanette brought over a glass of brandy, with the compliments of M. Colbert. That was nice, what had he done to deserve this? Then M. Colbert himself came out and graced Hugh’s table, Le Roux observing all with narrowed eyes.
‘This honour is more than I deserve, M. Colbert.’
‘Monsieur, you have frequented this establishment for some months, in all seasons, and your custom is greatly appreciated. Jeanette speaks highly of you but I confess it’s true that it was only when M. Guiscard sat with you now that I appreciated whom I had under my roof. He does not do that with just anyone.’
‘Monsieur, this is too much,’ laughed Hugh, nervously. ‘I’m just a humble professor of English – no more than that, I fear you mistake me.’
‘There’s no mistake, Monsieur. Your background is known. Including Russia.’
‘M. Colbert is too kind and this Calvados Adrien Camut is far too subtle for my palate.’
Colbert was bemused. ‘Then how did you recognize it, Monsieur?’
‘The cigar spice and almond of course – there’s no secret in that. But I must set the record straight – I really couldn’t tell a Reserve de Semainville from a Reserve d’Adrien.’
‘The hint of walnut on the nose, M. Jensen, but still, that’s admirable.’
‘How came this bottle, M. Colbert, to this café?’
‘Ah, yes. I was two weeks ago in the Pays d’Auge – a small favour I did for Emmanuel Camut. I served the same to Inspector Guiscard just now.’
‘I know the Inspector’s name itself is quite ancient.’
‘He and I are distantly related. His family needed to … er …’ the restaurateur chuckled, ‘redorer leur blazon, shall we say, some centuries ago. After all, I am a Colbert.’
Francine got back to the Lodge about 23:00, Jean was at his mate Christien’s tonight and she preferred not to know what they’d get up to.
As she was scheduled for an 08:00 start, she wasn’t in the mood for phone calls about the Nicolette/Geneviève/Elaine business – it had taken it out of her. Maybe it was the weather too which was the problem, plus approaching the festive season she so detested.
Bursting into her side of the Lodge, she threw off her coat, shuddering in the cold, took off both boots and flung them in the corner, then went through to the kitchen to fix a coffee and have a banana. She took the tarte out and cut a corner. Staring at it, she cut herself another corner, then put it away. Suddenly she realized she was not alone.
She swung round and confronted three men in dark leather jackets.
One was about 185 cm, solid, maybe 30 years, with a leer on his face. The second was about 175 cm, thinner, maybe 25 years, also with a leer. The third was older, maybe 35, and thick – about 180 cm in height and 110 cm in girth.
Their intentions were clear – her experience told her that – she felt her mouth go dry, as she reached for the carving knife. The young one jumped her and smashed her wrist on the counter, probably breaking one of the bones but she grimaced and didn’t scream.
She decided on the latter and launched a stinging attack, seizing the initiative. That surprised them and the young one had to go to the kitchen to get the knife to cut her clothes away. She struggled for another thirty minutes until she had no more strength to resist.
Then they went to work on her.
Done at last, they let themselves out and their driver took them to their next destination – Elaine Cabrel. They’d been given clear instructions – two executions, two maimings.
Jean phoned from Paris about midnight and the line was dead. He phoned the mobile and it was shut off. Nicolette took a call about 00:10 on her mobile from a barely alive Francine and immediately woke Geneviève, who woke Hugh, who phoned Jean-Claude Guiscard.
Guiscard got to Hugh’s flat at 01:15, with Sergeant Julien Dupre and four of the girls – Alana, Melanie, Nadine and Emma, within the next forty minutes. It was Geneviève who was inconsolable and it was Nicolette who took to directing the girls, with short, curt commands. Jacques Fournier was already on his way down to the Lodge, the ambulance already there.
Guiscard was impressed how Nicolette seemed to have grown in stature. The doctor arrived, took one look at Geneviève, sedated her, then left Nicolette with instructions and departed.
‘You feel up to the journey, Hugh?’ asked Jean-Claude. He nodded. ‘Go with Julien to Elaine – I have no other men to spare. We have all girls but her covered.’
‘Take Nadine as well,’ said Geneviève, through her shock. ‘There must be a girl there she recognizes, we have procedures.’
‘Let’s go,’ said Dupre.
He drove at a fair pace. Nadine knew where Elaine was probably hanging out, they were enroute for the 11ème, via the inevitable Boulevard Voltaire, to a small street off rue de la Fontaine au Roi – a seedy hotel which let rooms by the hour.
Hugh took in the other occupants of the car – first the Sergeant, one of the Fournier school of beefiness and a nice chap, plus he could drive. Hugh glanced back at Nadine – a honey in a green raincoat and floral patterned shirt, with an oval face, harp lips, masses of long, fairish, wavy hair and an earnest manner.
They passed Leonidas’ Belgian Chocolates – he had fond memories of that shop – then, after le Place de la Republique, they took many sidestreets and the area became seedier, less well lit, more threatening and even the atmosphere seemed to become colder – damp and chilled.
They stopped at the hotel – a real dive – Dupre slipped inside, to re-emerge a minute later with a worried look. Hugh made out most of the conversation with Nadine and she supplied the other details soon afterwards then, switching to near perfect English, which surprised him. ‘Elaine’s not here – we’ll find her.’
What followed was a virtual tour of the 10ème and 11ème arrondissements, even venturing north onto Boulevard de Magenta and into Pigalle, until they came back near Canal St. Martin, which is the tip off they’d received from the manager in the first place. Elaine had gone with three men, so it seemed, and one had thought it amusing to mutter that they were going for a short stroll down the canal – not ‘to’ the canal but ‘down’ it.
Nadine’s lips were drawn in a tight line – it was not the most salubrious area late on a Paris evening. There was a small crowd on the pathway near rue le Blanc – mainly derelicts and other such like who moved aside when Dupre pulled up, ordering Nadine and Hugh to stay in the car.
From the car, they could see him pull his police mobile out and make a call, then he indicated to Nadine to join him, but Hugh was to guard the car – the keys were in the ignition.
He saw Nadine clatter over, saw the crowd part, saw her swoon, stagger, turn and retch.
She came, half hopping, half shuffling, back to the car, Hugh got out to catch her and helped her into the front passenger seat, he went to Dupre and the sight of Elaine crumpled on the pavement, wearing only a torn coat and boots, bereft of life, her legs splayed at a grotesque angle – it nauseated him as well.
He came back to the car, borrowed Nadine’s mobile and phoned #2 for Nicolette. He gave her the news as softly as such news could be given, then she asked in return, ‘Where’s Nadine?’
Hugh heard a weak voice at the other end, behind Nicolette’s. ‘Let me speak with Nadine.’ He held the phone out to Nadine. ‘It’s Mademoiselle.’
‘Allo, Mademoiselle? Oui. Oui. Oui!’
This last caused a burst of uncontrolled grief and the hand holding the mobile slipped towards the seat.
Hugh took the mobile back. Damnation. ‘We’re returning now, Nikki. Expect us,’ he glanced at the Sergeant, who’d returned and indicated how long, ‘in an hour and a quarter. And sedate Geneviève now. There are sleeping pills in the medical kit under the basin.’
They could hear the sirens about ten minutes later and, once they’d arrived, Dupre went through the formalities.
Geneviève, Nicolette and Nadine slept in the bed, Emma and Alana took the recliner and Melanie slept on the chair cushions on the floor. He slept in the bath.
In the morning, Jean-Claude Guiscard arrived about 09:00 and Geneviève immediately demanded to be taken to see both girls.
‘Come in my car with Nikki,’ said Emma. ‘M. Jensen too, if he wishes.’ Soon they were en route for Hopital Saint-Antoine, on rue Fauburg Saint-Antoine.
They parked close to the hospital and the three ladies went inside, Hugh minded the car.
Geneviève found the ward, spoke with the senior nurse, showed identification and the three made their way to Francine’s bed. Nothing could have prepared them for the disfiguration, Francine was now just a blubbery face, a body on a drip, swathed in bandages. Her uncovered eye watched Geneviève, who was now racked with guilt at having left le Roux alive, doping him rather than finishing him off.
She had little doubt that this was his doing.
She approached the Senior Nurse to ask the diagnosis. The girl hadn’t lost her sight, thank Heaven, but the bones were broken in seven places and she had severe internal damage. They’d been thorough.
Genie walked back to join the others and phoned Hugh, who had Emma’s mobile, they stayed with Francine the best part of an hour.
When they returned to the car, Hugh had bought croissants and juice. Nobody was hungry but they nibbled and nibbled and eventually polished them off.
Next stop was the morgue.
Pierre le Roux snapped the mobile closed and went to his 12th floor office window, overlooking the Seine.
The last call had not been a happy one, he’d done badly, in fact. The first had escaped completely, due to the Jensen pest, the second had been rubbed out satisfactorily, the third had also escaped by chance and the fourth had been maimed, as ordered, but she was not as important in the scheme of things.
Jean-Baptist needed to be taught a lesson for his bungling, as well. Le Roux very much feared he’d have to bring in professionals from outside and that was a huge expense, what with passports, travel arrangements and so on – he wasn’t state security, for goodness sake. 32 hadn’t offered the ready either – it would have to come out of his own pocket.
Worse, 32 was beginning to see him as a liability. He licked his dry lips. Yes, the next attempt would need to be coordinated. That was going to take a month and a half to set up – he’d schedule it for January 1st, when all were at their most vulnerable.
That should buy him an extension with 32.
In the midst of all of this, they still had to eat.
Hugh and Jean-Claude had agreed some time back to make their Thursdays at Café Noir more regular and the meeting today now took on a particular edge, especially given the circumstances in the Section but they did not wish to interrupt it and the senior staff in the Section agreed.
Jules wanted to trot out his specialities but Jean-Claude stopped him immediately, restricted him to soup, salad, main course and coffee and to Jules’ protestations, replied that if he was half the chef he was reputed to be, then this would be his greatest challenge – to create what he could within a severely limited format.
Seen in that light, Jules took up the challenge with relish and the result was this meeting every Thursday at one o’clock sharp. Not Hugh, not Jean-Claude nor Jules himself would have altered it for the world.
The previous week’s highlight had been the Gratin de Coquilles St Jacques – Hugh didn’t like seafood, as a rule, but this man could seemingly do anything. Today they’d reached the Emincé de Volaille, avec le sauce Roquefort et pommes de terre sautées and the conversation turned to danger.
‘If we continue to eat like this every Thursday,’ observed Hugh, ‘we’re sitting ducks, we need a convoluted method of getting into the café and getting out again.’
‘Bit complicated for a simple luncheon.’
‘You call this a simple luncheon?’
‘C’est vrai. What’s happening with Geneviève? You needn’t say if you don’t wish.’
‘She’s stationed at my flat but goes everywhere with Nikki and Nadine. Nikki sleeps with her, I sleep on the recliner.’
‘So, nothing is … resolved?’
‘Not at the moment.’
‘Don’t leave it too long … as Geneviève did.’ He went onto the next item of business. ‘We have a source. It might be a good source, it might not. It’s quite recent – a woman with a youngish voice, she tells us a major assault is being planned for January 1st, designed to wipe out the Section, you and myself.’
‘Does this source check out?’
‘No. We either take it on trust or ignore it.’
‘Works for le Roux?’
‘Higher, possibly quite higher.’
‘Why is this source endangering herself?’
‘Maybe jealousy or anger with a man, maybe she was just appalled by the injuries to a fellow woman – Mlle Martinais was in all the papers, don’t forget.’
‘Then this woman herself is in mortal danger.’
Sophie-Fleury was the perfect secretary – slim, tanned, efficient – they all said so, they raved about her beauty and so did Pierre, her new boss. She knew they said she’d sleep her way up to le President, given half a chance. People were cruel.
She could never come to terms with the way he’d slapped that girl across the face in his office – no more than a child, and when the street-girl, Francine or whatever, was splashed over Le Monde – she’d finally known what sort of a beast she had on her hands. She’d gone along with it all, she’d given the tray to the credulous Bonnet woman but this now was beyond the pale. Now she’d do all she could to prevent them, before they destroyed her too. Sophie looked across and was sure he hadn’t heard her phone call.
But she was still worried – they had ways of knowing.
Hugh got back to the flat around 15:45 and Nicolette wasn’t home. Genie was, though.
‘Care to talk?’ she asked.
‘Very much so.’
Subsiding into Nikki’s armchair, extending the left plaster outwards and resting his crutch at an angle, they sipped in silence. He saw before him a woman at the crossroads. ‘Genie, may I be direct with you?’
‘I’m not sure but try.’
‘With you, it’s not all straightforward, there really are anomalies.’ He felt her tense up. ‘Why did that man have the power to do as he did to you? That question won’t go away – he’s alive and as long as he is, he has that power. Then there’s your business itself – sending young girls into the arms of older men who cheat on their wives. How did all that start?’
She got up from her chair, went over to the window and looked out. The light had faded now and the streetlamps had come on outside. There was no light inside the flat so she went across to the table lamp and switched it on, turned and looked at him, then returned to her favourite armchair.
He took the kitchen chair he found easier for his gyps over near the window, placed it and sat, ready to listen.
‘Yes … well … in Barbizon, our two families grew up close by one another. You have to understand how deep in our souls Fontainebleau is, Barbizon.’ She took a sip. ‘I hardly noticed Nikki during school time but after school we’d go and do things together – silly things girls do – picking paquerettes, flirting with boys. She was always quick, quick, quick, laughing and giggling. I was slower and more serious but enjoyed her – she always made me laugh, Nikki.
When we were twelve, both families moved to Melun, as you know. Her father was a jeweller, is a jeweller still – the name is an illustrious one in the trade.
One day, when we were seventeen, a man came to Nicolette’s home, from Paris, and I was with her in her room upstairs. He was talking to her Papa about business, I don’t remember all that was said but her Papa asked us to come downstairs and meet the man. You have to remember what I told you about myself in my childhood – naïve and angular, Nikki was always pretty-pretty. I expected the man to compliment her, but he started on me instead.
I was confused – no one had said those things to me.
We had to kiss him, as we do in France and he sat, drinking beer, with one of us on either side. What her Papa was thinking of, I don’t know. The man had an offer of work – important work, in Paris. He asked to speak with my Papa. I fell head over heels for him – he was tall, dark, handsome, with a manly face and he always got what he wanted.
My Papa was equally impressed and I found myself in Paris, as his secretary. Very quickly, he showed his true character and I had no defences. He’d have me anywhere – even in dark doorways. I’d seen his daughter – at least, I thought it was his daughter – come in and out of the office at odd times and hadn’t given her much attention.
One day, he took me to a building with columns. We went inside and climbed marble stairs, along stone floors and into a room with a translucent blue ceiling. It looked special, for some sort of functions. There were just the daughter, about 14, and me. These were middle-aged men, you realize, with their faces hidden. Need I say more?’
‘No, I’ve got the picture. I’m so sorry.’
‘She never was his daughter, which I suppose was something to be grateful for – her name was Elaine.’
‘Ah. And Nikki?’
‘He made me get her up from Melun, on promises again. I was so far in and they had painful ways if you didn’t do as they said. Nikki didn’t know what she was letting herself in for but here’s the thing, Hugh – she was stronger than me, stronger than I ever was – strong Geneviève.’
‘No, I’ll finish.’
Nicolette had taken to coming in silently now and in the conversation, Geneviève missed her completely, facing the window as she was.
‘Go on, Genie,’ encouraged Hugh.
‘Well, as I said, Nikki was stronger than me, stronger than I ever was. She resisted le cochon from the start and her moral nature was outraged, she was going to kill him but I stopped her. He knew he had no way through to her and that made him want her all the more but then Elaine became pregnant and the thing was, we couldn’t be sure if it was his, you have to understand – it was from those nights at that place.’
‘That’s appalling.’ Nicolette froze in the hallway but said nothing. ‘Go on, Genie.’
‘Things happen to girls, Hugh, things that never happen to most boys – it’s a different life. Don’t feel too badly about that and I’m so happy to have told it to you. Seriously, it’s like a release.’
‘But you haven’t finished yet, I think.’
‘No, no, I haven’t. Nikki always speaks of the man who hurt her. Yes, Hugh, it was him, the same one who did this to me – he – er – raped her in his office.’
‘Brutally. She was kicking and fighting the whole time, biting and using her nails but then he pinned her hands to the floor.’
‘Who do you think? The crazy thing was, he could always pull me in like a fish, with certain phrases, certain word repetitions he’d use. Elaine knew of them too but then again, hers were different. When these phrases started, it was like a light in the brain and something awful at the base of the skull started. You knew if you did what he said, the awful thing would stay away and the light would remain – very primaeval, Hugh. Aren’t you going to say I’m a crazy woman?’
‘Not at all, I know enough about these things myself.’
‘From Russia and Britain. Are you cured?’
‘I see. He must be taken out, you know that.’
‘Not by me, not by you and not by Nikki if we three are to survive. If you don’t care about yourself, at least care about us.’
‘You speak of surviving but do you know what’s required to do that, Genie? He’s planning to do away with us.’
She paused, setting down her coffee cup. ‘He’s near the centre but he’s not the power itself – the power’s not visible. He’s just the coordinator, the clearing house.’
‘Jean-Claude and I were speaking of this. Look, your Section has always been non-combatant but now we have no choice but to arm, to allocate cash to buy the necessary weaponry and body armour and to organize the training.’
‘Hugh, I can’t think of such things now.’
‘I sympathize, truly I do but I also know you to be a practical woman and that you know, deep down, that we must think of such things no later than tomorrow, in the light of the intelligence coming in about what they plan. We need carbines, pistols, flexible body suits and we must learn paired strategic response.’
‘And you can deal with such things?’
‘Some old army colleagues through me – oui.’
‘Prepare a list of what we’ll need and I’ll have it approved … once you explain it to me, of course.’
‘We’ll need to integrate it with your own contingency plan you currently run.’
She smiled at that. There was none. ‘Oui, Hugh – take care of it please, I intend to keep our people alive and well. Prepare it and show me the details.’
She was silent for half a minute then her mind drifted back to Elaine. ‘Elaine had the child, Rachelle she called her but I wouldn’t let the shame fall on her. She saw that the child had to bear my family name. One day, Rachelle had an accident. Elaine was minding her, he came, Elaine just got up and went with him. I’m not saying any more about that.’
‘You’ve explained why you have reason to be grateful to Nikki but not why Nikki is so grateful to you, why she allows this ‘Mademoiselle’ thing, when you seem to be equals.’
‘Ah, I was wondering when you would get to that. Hugh, first of all, I am not ‘above’ her but we both worked out the hierarchical idea and as Nikki was the main designer of it, she uses ‘Mademoiselle’ for me so that the others fall in line.’
‘And her gratitude to you?’
‘I stabbed le cochon – I came into the office while he had Nicolette down on the floor, and I stabbed him in the back with a letter opener, leaving it in his back. We got out and offered ourselves to le Surete, they thought we were crazy but they put us onto a woman who made it possible to form the Section. You know her of course – Carly.’
‘Ah, the pieces fall into place. And all the girls are rescuees?’
‘All of them.’
‘Plus you and Nikki.’
‘All of the women but not the men, of course. Hugh, we hate betrayal and that’s why I was able to leave Philippe so quickly – one moment and he was gone. Not infidelity but betrayal – they are two different things.’
Hugh noted that and asked, ‘Do you think Nikki betrayed you? Did I? Tell me the truth.’
‘The truth? Non, Nikki did not betray me, I was too slow making up my mind. I was sure she could seduce you but I was depending on her not falling for you herself. That’s what’s shocked us all. And yes, I had – er – crossed the line with the girls. And yes, I do think you succumbed to her too fast. Enough on that. Nikki is becoming tired of me now, I’m like a giant toad, squatting in your flat and she can’t get to you.’
‘You’re nothing of the kind but we do need to make a final decision.’
‘I love Nikki but I don’t want her to have you. I’d just finished getting it all clear in my mind and suddenly I found it was not clear.’
‘I might even need to leave altogether. What would you do if I just left France?’
‘I’d have Philippe, I suppose.’ She thought about it. ‘Not really. There’s Marc. Nikki has Thierry.’
‘Oh dear, she’ll have to tell you about him. Hugh, I’m getting worried about her, she’s been gone a long time.’
‘Maybe you should phone her and see if she’s all right.’
‘Oui, oui.’ She straightened herself, pulled out her mobile and phoned. Nicolette’s mobile rang behind her with those unmistakable ringtones and she swung around, confused.
Nicolette said, ‘I think we have things to discuss. Could you get one of your interesting suppers ready, Hugh?’
They disappeared and he got to work – firstly bringing the packets into the kitchen and putting things away, then starting on the supper. Thank goodness she’d bought quiches and the like, meat to be sliced and so on. It wouldn’t be too difficult.
When they returned and saw the ‘supper’ on the table, they both stared at it then laughed. ‘You need a woman,’ grinned Nicolette and he breathed a great sigh of relief.
They repaired his supper and the coffee was even better. It was Nicolette who tapped him on the arm to follow her to the bedroom.
Geneviève made the recliner ready for herself.
In the bedroom, having made their preparations, she began. ‘For a start, Mademoiselle didn’t fool me for one moment, ‘accidentally’ telling you about Thierry. All right, Thierry Villeneuve is a dentist. That’s where I go each December and also in May and September – this was the last major thing I needed to tell you. We sleep together when I visit and I do mean that we make love, sometimes for days.
I’m not apologizing for that, Bebe, because it’s the only love I’ve known for years and it’s kept me sane. Well,’ she smiled, ‘perhaps a bit more sane.’ His turn to smile. ‘Thierry wants me to marry him and settle there with his family. I find that stifling, étouffement, which is why I go down for two weeks at a time, three times a year and that’s all I can take. I enjoy his children and they enjoy me – Francesca’s almost eighteen and Olivier’s two years younger. Now I have to think of a way to tell him this will be the last time.’
‘We can work a way out with Thierry, we’re in unchartered territory here. If I’m taking time with Genie, and that must end very soon, then you can also ask for time. Anyway, he should be trying to find a more permanent love if you won’t commit yourself – I can even sympathize with him.’
‘Just for now, you understand, just for now.’
‘I go to Melun tomorrow,’ she came right out with it. Mademoiselle will be here with you until December 20th, which is when I return … if you’ll still have me.’
‘You’re going to Melun? To be with Thierry?’
‘That is the way we do it each year. Mademoiselle goes early one year, I do the next. I’m the early one this year.’
‘What, she also stays with Thierry?’
‘No, with her family. She also goes down to the Lodge with Francine and Jean. I go to Melun though.’
‘And when were you planning to tell me this?’
‘Tonight. As I have done. I’m so sorry it wasn’t a few days ago but you know what’s been happening.’
She deflated. ‘No, I couldn’t bring myself to tell you. I thought I’d lose you.’
‘Yet you showed me those disks.’
‘Yes.’ She lapsed into silence.
‘Right. OK, Nikki, let me come to terms with this. Are you asking permission or are you telling me you’re going?’
‘That depends on whether we belong to each other, doesn’t it?’
‘Yes. Do you think we do?’ She nodded. ‘Could I lose you to him?’
‘Not now. If I am not his wife by now, then I will not be.’
‘Yet you would like permission to have sex with him. All right, you go to him tomorrow, do what you must, say your farewells.’
‘Now, Bebe, I also have an issue. You did not even question whether Mademoiselle would be sleeping with you or not in these next two weeks, you just expected she would.’
‘This is why she is in this apartement, this is why she has made no move. She knew this time was coming. Could I lose you to her?’
‘Not now. I’ve watched and watched to see her make any major move and she has not. She has strategized as you’ve just said but there has been no major change. But I’m in the same position – I dearly love her and would like to say farewell. However, if you say no, then Genie must go back to her own place while you’re away.’
‘Remember I told you that I knew all your tricks because they’re my tricks too? Well this is one of those – you know very well I could not go to Thierry if you were not here with Mademoiselle. All right, Bebe, let’s be very clear, very honest. I know you hate the idea of him doing that with me, so why do you think I would not hate you putting what is for me into her? I’m 100%, remember? You need to consider that.’
‘Then tell me your decision, Nikki and that is the way it will be.’
‘She will stay with you but just remember one thing Mademoiselle said today – that if you left Paris, she could go to Philippe or someone else. Not me, Hugh, oh no. If you went away from Paris, I’d find out where you were, I’d travel to that place and ask you one last time to be mine.’ He looked at her sharply – ah, so she had overheard. ‘I’m proud – Francine called me haughty – and I would only ask you that once, never again.’
‘If I had to leave Paris and your work was here, what would you do?’
‘Not the slightest doubt – I would go with you.’
There was silence.
Then she spoke again. ‘In all seriousness, Hugh, there is very great danger in Mademoiselle being here with you. I’m not saying she will do it deliberately but she is getting caught up in crises and she will drag the man she’s with into those crises – I know this from experience, from past history.
She must have proper help and if you’re no longer her man, then we must find another man who can do that. One of the reasons I am going to Melun and not changing the arrangement is that I need to set Thierry straight about me and to introduce the idea of him and her as a couple. He knows of her troubles though and would not see that as a fair exchange.’
‘It sounds awful, as if no one wants her.’
‘I always knew it could happen like this, she is quite unaware – this game of two lovers was always going to come apart. I know Jean-Claude is very keen on her – most of those visits to the Surete were for that reason but she cannot see him in her life – only Philippe and you. People are like this.
She will start to hate me for taking you as well, unless she can be with someone who wants her. Give this some thought.
Now please make love to me, pour yourself into me, give me something to remember for two weeks. I plan to drain you of your essence, every drop, and give you me in its place. I plan to forge our souls together in this furnace.’
Put that way, he had little real choice, did he?
• The restaurant scene draws heavily on Stephen Pollard’s article in The Times about El Bulli and quotes slabs of his text in the description of the food. I was a devotee of Stephen’s on his old blog and that’s where I found the article. This is the only place in this trilogy where another writer’s article is quoted at length.