Authors: Peter Mayle
Ariane Duplessis, president of the Knox Paris office, was waiting in the reception area to welcome Elena with two perfunctory air kisses and a somber expression.
“It was good of you to get here so quickly. Comeâthe others are in the conference room.”
As Elena followed Madame Duplessis down the corridor, she studied the slim figure ahead of her: thick, fashionably cut gray hair, a long cream silk scarf draped across the shoulders, a dark-gray flannel suit, high heels. Business might be going to take a tumble, thought Elena, but, this being France, a high level of chic must always be maintained. She sighed. The meeting was likely to be long and probably very depressing.
There were three men around the conference table, equipped with neat piles of documents and grave faces.
“OK,” said Elena, “tell me the worst.”
And they did. It seemed that the Castellacis had always paid their premiums promptly, which ruled out any hope of invalidating their policy. According to their sworn statement, they had taken all the necessary precautions before leaving their house on the evening of the robbery: the alarm system had been activated, the front door double-locked, the window shutters bolted. There were no signs that the wall safe had been forced, and the oil painting concealing the safe had been rehung.
“If that's all true,” said Elena, “they're pretty well covered. What about the police report?”
Madame Duplessis shrugged. “Nothing. No fingerprints, no clues.
the thief didn't leave his address.”
The rest of the afternoon was spent going through the insurance policy, line by line, seeking to find an escape clause that would stand up in court. But finally, Elena had to admit that they had come up against a dead end.
Madame Duplessis walked her back to the elevator. “It doesn't look so good, does it?”
Elena shook her head. “Unless I can find something when I see the Castellacis in Nice, I guess we're going to have to pay up.”
On her way back to the hotel, Elena noticed that it was nearly 6:00Â p.m. in Paris; that would be around noon in Jamaica. She'd call Sam, and then have a drink. Or maybe not: after the lousy day she'd had, she'd have a drink and then call him.
Whenever she stayed at the Montalembert, she felt herself relaxing as soon as she set foot in the lobby. The people were charming, the bar was inviting, and the prompt arrival of a glass of Champagne began to lift her spirits. She settled back, and called Jamaica.
“Sam, I need cheering up.”
“That bad, was it?”
“I've had more fun at a wake. The clients are on the phone every day, screaming for their check, and the police have nothing to go onâno prints, no forced entry, no clues. So right now, it feels like a wasted trip.”
“Do you know them, the clients?”
“No. Why do you ask?”
“Well, if there's no evidence of forced entry, if everything's as neat and tidy as they say, one obvious possibility is that it was an inside job. It's been known to happen. So I guess the first thing to do is meet the clients and get some idea of what kind of people they are.”
“I know. That's my next stop.”
“Oh, I spoke to Francis, and he's expecting you in Marseille. Just call and tell him when. I'll be there in a couple of days. By the way, where are you?”
“In the bar at the Montalembert.”
“Good girl. Don't talk to any strange men, OK? And try not to worry. I miss you.”
The next morning, having slept off most of her jet lag and treated herself to the indulgence of breakfast in bed with croissants and
Elena took the forty-five-minute flight down to Marseille. After the drab gray overcast of Paris, the ProvenÃ§al sky seemed almost shockingly blue. She had reached the arrival hall and was digging around in her handbag for her sunglasses when she heard someone call her name.
And there was her host, Francis Reboul, tanned and dapper in his pale linen suit, along with his chauffeur, Olivier. After enthusiastic embraces had been exchanged, Elena and Reboul waited outside in the sun for Olivier to bring the car around.
“I have some excellent news, my dear.” Reboul took an envelope from his pocket and passed it to Elena. “This is from my new best friend, the
who is dealing with your house. Everything is settled, and the sale can now go through. Congratulations!”
“Francis, that's wonderful. I didn't know that you and the
were friends. How did that happen?”
“I asked him to come to Le Pharo, gave him a grown-up serving of
pastis, et voilÃ .
I suggested that he tell his client in Paris that you had become impatient, and were considering other properties. That, and another
seemed to do the trick.”
Elena leaned over to kiss him. “You're a starâI'm thrilled. I can't wait to tell Sam.”
In the car going back to Le Pharo, Reboul was silent and pensive for a few moments, as though considering an important decision. When he spoke, it was little more than a chauffeur-proof whisper.
“I've been invited to this party,” he said, “by my old friend Tommy Van Buren, who I met when we were students at Harvard. A couple of years ago, he bought a property outside Cannes, and the party is to celebrate the finish of the renovation work. And this is where I need a little moral support.” He looked at Elena, eyebrows raised, brow furrowed.
“Of course,” said Elena. “I'm great at moral support. Ask Sam.”
Reboul smiled, and patted her hand. “My problem is that the architect, who's also the decorator, will undoubtedly be thereâa lady named Coco Dumas. Some years ago we had a relationship, which unfortunately ended badly. To be honest, I would much prefer not to go to the party.” He paused, and shrugged. “But I don't want to disappoint my old friend. And so I'm wondering if you would come with me to provideâhow can I put it?âsome social cover.” It was Elena's turn to pat his hand. “Don't worry. I'm good at social cover, too. When are we going?”
Over dinner that evening, Reboul was more forthcoming about his reluctance to go to the party. Some of the story Elena already knew, or suspected. He had been married to a woman named Mireille, whom he adored. She died young, of cancer, and Reboulârich, and suddenly on his ownâhad become an unwilling eligible bachelor. Over the years there had been several liaisons, most of which had ended amicably, until Reboul and Coco had met at a cocktail party. She was good-looking and amusing, he was lonely, and one thing led to another. But, to Coco's disappointment, it didn't look as though it was leading up the aisle to a permanent position as the second Madame Reboul. No matter how many hints she dropped, Reboul preferred to remain single. Coco's disappointment turned to anger, and after one final explosive row, the relationship was over.
“So you can see why I'm not looking forward to tomorrow night,” said Reboul. He smiled and shrugged. “Although Tommy tells me she's done a spectacular job with the house.” He looked at his watch. “And now, my dear, I think an early night would do you a lot of good. That flight from Los Angeles takes some time to get over.”
The evening sun was just starting its slide into the Mediterranean when Elena and Reboul left the
and headed for the hills, making their way through the tangle of suburban roads behind Cannes. Elena was looking at the gas stations and nondescript storefronts and billboards advertising Orangina and the local supermarket. “Seems like an awful long way from the Cannes Film Festival,” she said. Reboul smiled and nodded. “It gets better.”
They turned off the main road, passed under a stone bridge, and were now on a narrower road that climbed up into the hills, finally coming to a small gatehouse next to a barred entrance. A uniformed guard came out to the car, checked their names against his clipboard, saluted, and waved them through. “There are a dozen houses on the estate,” said Reboul. “Each of them set on about ten acres of land, and all of them with a fantastic view. You'll see.”
In fact, the view was what Van Buren had bought. It was a long, curving panorama that extended along the coastline from Cannes in the east toward Saint-Tropez in the west. The house had been less impressiveâa squat pink concrete barracks, devoid of charm or architectural interest. But that was before Coco Dumas got her hands on it.
The transformation was astonishing. Two wings had been added, and the roofline lowered. Windows had been enlarged, and the complexion of the building had been changed from pink to the color of faded limestone that looked as though it had weathered two hundred years of sunshine. The interior, originally a clutter of poky dark rooms, had been gutted and replaced by space and light. All this had taken nearly two years and had cost several million euros, but Van Buren was delighted with it, and it was one more elegant feather in Coco Dumas's cap.
Even before their car had reached the end of the pale gravel drive, it was obvious that this was no ordinary house. It glistened in the dusk, the courtyard lit by flaming torches, while white-coated figures moved among the groups of guests, making sure that nobody went thirsty.
Elena and Reboul paused at the entrance to the courtyard to watch the last glow left by the sunset over the Mediterranean, and the glitter of lights along the Croisette, the boulevard that follows the coastline of Cannes for two kilometers. A magical sight.
“And you thought you had the best view in France. You have to admit this ain't bad.” It was their host Tommy Van Buren, burly and smiling, the deep tan of his face set off by hair that was almost as white as his dinner jacket. He hugged Reboul and kissed Elena's hand before taking them into the courtyard, where a waiter met them with two glasses of Champagne. But before they had much of a chance to talk, another couple arrived and Van Buren excused himself.
Elena started to take a look, as discreetly as she could, at the women among the other guests. They were an attractive bunch, she thought, smart without being overdressed, and she was about to suggest to Reboul that they join one of the groups when she became aware that she was being watched.
“I get the feeling someone is checking us out,” she said. “Over there by the fountainâthe woman in the black silk suit.”
Reboul looked across the courtyard. “Ah,” he said. “That's her. Coco.” He sighed, and squared his shoulders. “Do you mind if we get this over with?”
As they were crossing the courtyard, Coco moved away from the group she was chatting with and aimed a wide (and, Elena thought, transparently fake) smile at them. She was in her midforties, with a slender body that had obviously spent many hours in the gym, glossy black hair, and lightly tanned skin. But what made her face memorable were the eyes. They were turquoise. The overall effect, Elena had to admit, was stunning.
“So. Francis. How nice.” Coco tilted her head to receive the obligatory cheek-kissing. “Tommy told me you might come. Now, you must introduce me to your friend.” She turned to Elena, smiling and extending a scarlet-tipped hand while giving Elena's dress a swift, appraising examination. “What an unusual color,” she said. “How brave of you to wear it. Tell meâhow did you two meet?”
“It was in Los Angeles,” said Elena. “Francis had some business with a friend of mine.” She gave Reboul's arm a proprietorial squeeze, and saw Coco's smile falter. Round one to me, she thought.
She was saved from further verbal fencing by Van Buren, who had made his way to the center of the courtyard, borrowed a spoon from a passing waiter, and was tapping the rim of his glass for silence.
“OK, everyone. First, I want to thank you all for being here tonight.” He raised his glass to his guests. “I hope this house will see you come back often, and I thought you might like to see what you'd be coming back to. So I managed to persuade Coco, who put it all together, to give you a guided tour.” He raised his glass again, this time to her. “Over to you, Madame Architect.”