Authors: Peter Mayle
Led by Coco, who gave a running commentary in both French and English, the guests were taken through the house, making appropriately complimentary noises as the various architectural triumphs and decorative touches were pointed out, with a charming mixture of pride and modesty, by Coco.
Elena and Reboul brought up the rear, taking their time to appreciate what had been done. Elena, as she was about to acquire a property herself, was fascinated, taking photographs with her phone of everything from the old stone fireplaces to the sleek granite work surfaces of the kitchen, from lighting fixtures to shutters to the polished concrete of the floors. “She's done a great job, Francis, don't you think? The layout works, and the colors she's chosen are just right.”
Click click click
went the phone as more photographs were taken. “I'm impressed.”
Reboul nodded. “She has a good eye, and Tommy's the perfect client. He has excellent taste and he's happy to let her do what she wants. And he's obviously delighted with the result. See him over there? He's like a dog with two tails. Let's go over and congratulate him.”
They spent a pleasant ten minutes with Van Buren before Reboul saw Coco coming over to join them. He looked at his watch and, with a start, reminded Elena of their plans to meet friends for dinner in Cannes.
On their way back to the car, Elena was frowning. “You didn't tell me we had a dinner date.”
“We don't. You'll have to forgive me, but I don't think I could have handled the rest of the evening dealing with Coco. She still makes me a little uncomfortable. I hope you understand.”
Elena laughed. “Of course. She's a piece of work. You know what? I wouldn't be surprised if there was something going on between her and Tommy. Women sense these things.”
Reboul was silent for a moment. Like him, Tommy was wealthy, and a bachelor. “Not this time, I'm afraid,” he said with a smile. “I've known Tommy for nearly forty years, and I can tell you he's not a ladies' man.”
The day after the party, Coco Dumas was taking a meeting in her apartment in the Hotel Le Negresco in Nice, a landmark since 1912 on the Promenade des Anglais. It had been built by Henri Negresco, a Romanian businessman who had spared no expense. Among many other decorative touches throughout the hotel, there is an astonishing Baccarat chandelier, with 16,309 crystals, that had been commissioned by Czar NicholasÂ II. Alas, the small matter of the October Revolution had prevented its delivery.
Coco's meeting took place on her terrace. Her business manager, Gregoire, was at her side, opposite James and Susie Osborne, a young English couple who had sold their Internet business for a great deal of moneyâ“squillions,” as Susie saidâand were now having fun spending it. Their current project was the renovation of a fine old mansion they had bought on Cap d'Antibes. A friend in Monaco had put them in touch with Coco, and they were here to see what she liked to call her new business presentation.
Gregoire, a dark, precisely dressed young man with a rugby player's physique and broken nose, opened the proceedings by removing his sunglasses to deliver a cautionary tale. It was an unfortunate fact of life these days, he said, that many architects, not content with their legitimate fees, expected to receive kickbacks from their suppliers. Carpenters, plumbers, stonemasons, electriciansâit was the same for all of them: they had to pay up if they wanted to stay on the job. Consequently, their prices to the client went up to help cover the bribes. Gregoire shook his head sadly, and paused to let this shocking revelation sink in.
Luckily, he said, chance had brought them to the Cabinet Dumas, an oasis of financial rectitude that was well known along the coast for never demanding any inducements from suppliers. In fact, Coco had gained a reputation for this, something that could be verified by asking any of her clients. The Osbornes nodded their approval, and Gregoire went on to explain the Dumas terms of business before handing over to Coco for the creative part of the presentation.
She had on the table half a dozen leather-bound albumsâone for each of the properties she had worked on over the past few years. Each album contained a “before and after” photographic record of the transformations she had achieved, from Marseille to Monaco, and it quickly became clear that the Osbornes liked what they saw. Susie was particularly vocal, finding things that were, in her words, fabulous or awesome on almost every page. They were also impressed to hear that Coco prided herself on taking care of every detail, no matter how tiny: positioning a bidet so that it had a sea view, installing eye-level dishwashing machines to do away with the need to crouch, using slip-proof marble for the shower floorsâthose small but important touches that are so often neglected. The compliments came in an enthusiastic torrent, Coco was the essence of charm, and Gregoire sent the three of them off to lunch confident that the Cabinet Dumas was about to add to its client list.
The British Airways flight from Jamaica's Norman Manley Airport to Gatwick took off on the dot of 5:50Â p.m. Once on board, Sam collapsed into his seat with the relieved sigh of a man who had survived a hectic week at the office. It could have been a difficult few days, but it was saved by the unexpected rapport that Sam had established with Clyde Braithwaite, who ran several of Kingston's most efficient protection rackets. When he discovered that Sam lived in Hollywood's Chateau Marmont (Sam neglected to tell him it was a hotel) he was impressed at having met one of L.A.'s most distinguished residents. The rum had flowed, generous helpings of jerk chicken had been consumed, and the two men had reached a mutually profitable understanding that was acceptable to both Braithwaite and Sam's friend Nathan, the cigar smuggler. Sam's reward was everlasting gratitude, a handsome check, and a regular supply of BolÃvar Belicosos Finos, the ultimate Havana.
It was off-season in Jamaica, and business class was pleasantly uncrowded. For Sam, long-distance flights had always provided a welcome chance to think, as he found it easy to resist the dubious allure of airline food and airline movies. He settled back and considered his most recent conversation with Elena. She had clearly been extremely frustrated by her meeting in Paris. Her French colleagues had done their homework, both with their client and with the police. But the thief had given them nothing to work with, and they were left with an empty safe, no clues, and no ingenious theories. It was a situation that piqued Sam's curiosity, and he decided to put himself forward as Elena's unofficial technical adviser. Helping out on the side of law and order would make a change from doing deals for a cigar smuggler, and change was what made Sam's professional life interesting.
It had been many years since boredom and an increasing resentment at having to get up early had made him resign from a well-rewarded job on Wall Street, and he had since made some unorthodox career moves. Some of these, as he would cheerfully admit, were not quite legal. But he had developed a comfortable relationship with criminal activity as long as it involved intelligence rather than violence. And before too long, outwitting crooks had turned into a lucrative hobby.
As the view from his seat changed color from Caribbean blue to Atlantic gray, Sam's thoughts turned to his last trip to Marseilleâa trip that had ended with him flat on his face, feigning death, in the Corsican countryside. He smiled at the memory. This visit, he was sure, would be less eventful. From what Elena had told him, the robbery had been a thoroughly professional job, and by now the stolen diamonds would undoubtedly be in Antwerp, where they would be reworked and given a new identity. Effectively, the originals would have ceased to exist.
Sam rubbed his eyes and yawned. He was still feeling the effects of a little too much Jamaican rum, and sleep came easily.
Elena, in the cheerful company of Reboul's chauffeur, Olivier, was on her way to Nice to see Madame Castellaci, the victim of the diamond robbery. Elena's years in the insurance business had drastically reduced her capacity for optimism, and she didn't hold out much hope of discovering anything that the police had failed to discover; but, as Frank Knox had said, all the boxes had to be ticked. What a waste of a beautiful day.
For Olivier, however, it promised to be anything but wasted. Elena had told him to take the afternoon off, and he had arranged an assignation. He had a seemingly endless supply of aunts scattered along the coast, and, in his words, he liked to keep in touch with them. The two aunts that Elena had met on previous trips had been strikingly good-looking young women, and she had no doubt that this would be another one. How Olivier managed to juggle them all was one of life's minor mysteries.
By the time they had worked their way through the clogged Nice traffic it was too late for anything more ambitious than a quick cafÃ© lunch. Elena sent Olivier on his way, and she took a table in the sun, a glass of
while she went over what she knew about the Castellacis. Madame and her husband, Ettore, a linguine tycoon from Milan, had what they called a simple holiday homeâan Art Deco house overlooking the sea on the Promenade des Anglais. In fact, Elena could almost see it from the cafÃ© where she was sitting. According to the Paris office, Madame Castellaci was pleasant enough, but her husband was someone whom Ariane Duplessis had described as a tiresome little man, prickly and self-important. Elena hoped that he had vital linguine business to attend to that afternoon, as she tried to summon up some enthusiasm about the meeting. But she gave up. She had to admit that the insurance business had lost any interest it might once have had for her. This visit, for instance, seemed like a total waste of time. What was she likely to find that a thorough police search had overlooked? What was she looking for?
On the short stroll from the cafÃ© to the Castellaci house, Elena seemed to see nothing but people on vacation, having a good time. Sunglasses, shorts, and summer dresses were the uniform of the day, making her feel completely out of place in her business black. As she reached the Castellaci house, she braced herself and practiced her smile before ringing the doorbell. The peephole in the door slid aside, an eye inspected her, and the door opened to reveal a uniformed maid, who led her into the living room and left to fetch Madame Castellaci.
She was a plump, well-preserved woman, swathed in sky-blue chiffon and wearing, as Elena immediately noticed, an elaborate diamond necklace, which she couldn't help but comment on.
“Ah yes,” said Madame Castellaci, “it's all that's leftâthe only piece the thief didn't get, because I was wearing it that night. Now I never take it off except in bed, when I put it under the pillow.” She beckoned Elena to follow her and led the way into the sitting room. From there, they made a brief tour of the house, with madame pointing out the sturdy window shutters and the alarm system, finally removing the oil painting in the bedroom of her husband's grandfather to reveal the wall safe. “There,” she said. “That's where they were.”
“It's American, top quality, with a million possible com-binations.” She tapped in a series of figures and opened the door. “You see? No signs of anyone trying to force the lock.” She turned toward Elena, wiping her eyes with a handkerchief, a picture of distress. “We thought everything was safe.”
Elena was still searching for a suitable reply when Signor Castellaci appeared from his study at the top of the house, bristling with indignation. “Finally you come,” he said. “I hope you've brought your checkbook. I've just been speaking with my lawyer in Milan. We've been over everything. The premiumâa small fortuneâwas paid on time. The police have made their investigation. So where is my check? My lawyer wants to know what the problem is. So do I. Well?” He stood in front of Elena on tiptoe, still a few inches shorter than her, his body rigid with anger. “Well?”
All good insurance executives are adept at finding reasons not to pay up, or at least to delay that painful moment for as long as possible. Elena was usually able to make this a little more palatable to her clients by using her natural charm and her genuine sympathy at their loss. But not this time. Try as she might to convince Castellaci of the need to check and double-check every possibility, he continued to fume as he followed her around the house, yapping at her heels like an outraged Pekinese. Lawsuits were mentioned, not once, but several times. Madame Castellaci was in tears. Elena felt like joining her. Finally, after a couple of fruitless hours, even Castellaci had run out of invective, and Elena was permitted to leave, promising to do what she could.
She went back to the cafÃ©, ordered a coffee, called Olivier and asked him to come and pick her up. When he arrived, slightly disheveled and smiling, she took one look at him and tapped the side of her neck with one finger. “Your aunt,” she said. “She's left something on your neck. Looks like lipstick.”
Hot, tired, and longing for a shower after the drive back to Marseille, Elena opened the door of the guest suite at Le Pharo and, in an instant, felt the cares of the day melt away. There was a man in her bed. His head was covered by the pillow, with one long arm dangling over the edge of the bed. Coming closer, she lifted the pillow, saw Sam's tanned, unshaven face, and kissed him on the nose. One eye opened. Half-grinning, half-yawning, Sam patted the side of the bed. “Care to join me?”