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Authors: Peter Mayle

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Chapter
4

“Sam, I can't believe it—I forgot to tell you.” Slightly late and slightly flushed, they were on their way down to join Reboul for dinner when Elena stopped at the top of the stairs. “It's the house. They've finally agreed to sell it, thanks to Francis.”

Sam picked her up, whirled her around, and kissed her before putting her down. “That's wonderful. What did he do?”

“I think he got their
notaire
drunk, and told him that we were looking around at other places. The owner's coming down from Paris in the next few days to sign all the papers. Isn't that great?”

“It certainly is. You know something? That's going to make you a
châtelaine
.”

“Will I like that?”

“Sure you will. It means you're the lady of the manor. I'll get some T-shirts printed.”

Reboul was waiting for them on the terrace, busy with corkscrew and ice bucket. He looked up and smiled when he saw two beaming faces. “I can see that you've told Sam the good news.” He came over and kissed Sam on each cheek. “So you're my new neighbors. Congratulations—I think that house will make you both very happy.”

Elena and Sam toasted Reboul, and they all toasted the house, life in Provence, and the joys of friendship before Reboul proposed one final toast to the last of the season's asparagus, which was to be the main event of a light supper. “And with the asparagus,” said Reboul, “we shall have one of Alphonse's special treats—a
sauce mousseline,
the undisputed queen of the mayonnaise family. If you ask him nicely, he might even tell you how to make it.”

Alphonse had been the chef at Le Pharo for many years, during which time, so Reboul said, he had never been seen without his apron. A rotund, jolly man, he was passionate about eating according to the seasons. Not surprisingly, he was an enthusiastic supporter of a growing movement in France, perhaps one day a law, that would oblige all restaurants to declare anything on their menus that had been deep-frozen and reheated. “That,” he was fond of saying, “would sort out the chefs from the amateur firemen.”

Alphonse was hovering—if such a solid figure could be said to hover—as they took their places at the table.

“Now then, Alphonse,” said Reboul, “what's all this? You said it was just asparagus, but the table is laid for a feast.”

“Oh, but Monsieur Francis, man does not live by asparagus alone.” Alphonse beamed, and patted his stomach. “And so we have a little fish to follow—
daurade,
caught this morning and served with new peas and those baby potatoes that you like—and then, of course, cheese. And to finish I have made
panna cotta”
—a brief pause here while Alphonse kissed his fingertips—“topped with a layer of liquid caramel, lightly salted,
bien sûr.

Alphonse clapped his hands, and his young assistant, Maurice, came out with the asparagus and, quivering with promise in a deep white bowl, the
sauce mousseline.
It was thick—so thick that the silver serving spoon that Alphonse plunged into it remained upright.

“You see?” he said. “That is the test of a true Provençal
mousseline.
” With the care of a surgeon performing a delicate operation, he arranged asparagus and sauce on their plates, wished them
bon appétit,
and bustled back to the kitchen.

After a short period of devotion to the creamy excellence of the sauce, Reboul broke the silence. “Right. Now I want to hear what you two have been doing. Sam, how was Jamaica? I've never been there.”

“It was fine.” Sam's account of his trip, interrupted by a second helping of asparagus, took them through to the next course, and then it was Elena's turn.

“Well,” she said, “I don't want to spoil a lovely evening, so I'll spare you the details of my totally useless visit to see those robbery victims in Nice. Let's just say it wasn't much fun. The wife was in tears, the husband was a little pain in the ass, and I spent the whole afternoon finding absolutely nothing.” She shrugged. “So I guess Knox will just have to pay up.”

Reboul was frowning. “No clues? No damage? No signs of breaking in?”

Elena shook her head. “Nothing. They gave me a copy of the police report, but it's way beyond my level of French.”

“Why don't I ask Hervé to take a look at it?”

Hervé, who had been a friend of Reboul's ever since they had discovered a mutual interest in fine wines and Marseille's soccer team, was a senior figure in the city's police force.

“Won't he have seen it already?”

Reboul laughed. “My dear Elena. What you must remember is that Marseille and Nice might as well be two different countries, each with its own police force. So I'd be surprised if that report has been anywhere near Hervé. Let me show it to him, and see what he thinks.”

—

The evening ended, as so many other evenings had ended, with a nightcap on the terrace, the velvet sky above, the dark, tranquil expanse of the Mediterranean stretching below them.

“This is heaven,” said Elena.

Reboul laughed. “It's a good thing you like it, because you're going to have just about the same view. That reminds me—I must call the
notaire
tomorrow to see if we can set a date for the signing. Luckily, from what he's said, it should be pretty straightforward.”

“Is that unusual?”

“It depends. Sometimes the seller wants a chunk of the sale price in cash, to reduce taxes. It's illegal, of course, but it happens. And when it does, there's this ritual dance—we call it
la valse des notaires
—just before the actual signing. Obviously, the
notaire,
being a man of the law, can't be involved in anything improper, so when the moment comes to sign, he has to take a call in another office. Or go to the bathroom. Or whatever—the important thing is that he's not present when the cash is checked and counted.”

Sam was grinning. “So how does he know when to come back?”

“Well, you can count a lot of cash in five minutes. If it needs to be longer, a hint will be dropped. Anyway, you won't have to worry about all that. The owner has said that she'll be quite happy with a check.” Reboul stood up, yawned, and stretched. “I'll call the
notaire
in the morning.”

—

It was a call with surprisingly rapid results. The owner, having procrastinated and dithered for several months, was now anxious to sign as quickly as possible, for fear of losing the sale. “I don't know exactly what the
notaire
told her,” said Reboul as he put down the phone, “but it was certainly effective. She's taking the train down from Paris tonight, and the signing has been scheduled for 10:30 tomorrow morning.”

Elena and Sam went to meet with the manager of Reboul's bank, who had been called in to supervise the transfer of funds from Los Angeles dollars to Marseille euros. Naturally, the manager told them, with such a substantial sum, certain safeguards had to be observed before a certified check could be issued: passports had to be produced, studied, and photocopied. A receipt, in triplicate, had to be signed and witnessed. No “i” remained undotted. But eventually, with the certified check folded and stowed safely in Elena's handbag, they were able to have a celebratory glass of Champagne in one of the bars overlooking the Vieux Port.

“Now I know what it's like to be arrested,” Elena said. “I was half-expecting them to take my fingerprints. I almost felt guilty when they gave us the check.”

Sam raised his glass. “Here's to domestic bliss. Are you excited?”

“I know we're going to love it. But Sam—we're going to want to spend a lot of time here.”

“That's the general idea, isn't it?”

“Sure. It's just that if we do, I'll have to quit my job.”

Sam leaned forward and took Elena's hand. “Listen to me. You haven't been happy in that job for the past couple of years. It's time to move on. Like I said, you can send me out to work. We'll get by.”

Elena's eyebrows went up. “Mr. Levitt, are you suggesting that I should become a kept woman?”

Sam beamed. “You bet. Another glass of Champagne?”

—

The final nail in the coffin of Elena's insurance career came that evening, in the form of a call from Frank Knox in Los Angeles. After questioning her, more in hope than expectation, to hear what she had discovered, there were a few moments of silence before Frank spoke again.

“I'm sorry about this, but I need you back here right now to help us tie everything up. Just for a couple of days.”

There were sighs from Elena and more apologies from Frank before it was agreed—as soon as the signing was completed, Elena would take the shuttle to Paris to pick up the flight to L.A. And on that flight, she promised herself, she'd write her letter of resignation.

Chapter
5

Reboul had offered to go with Elena and Sam to the signing—for moral support, so he said, with perhaps a little interpreting on the side. And so, promptly at 10:30, the three of them presented themselves at the offices of Maître Arnaud, in a well-worn building in the 6th arrondissement, a neighborhood favored by several of Marseille's army of
notaires
. A secretary showed them into the waiting room—dark and cramped, equipped with half a dozen hard chairs and a selection of magazines that dated back several years.

Elena was leafing through an ancient copy of
Paris Match
. “Do you think these guys ever wait in their own waiting rooms?”

Reboul smiled. “It's an old tradition. If it looked like they had money to spend on modern waiting rooms with comfortable furniture, their clients would think they were charging too much.” He shrugged. “I've seen worse.”

They were warned by an approaching cough. The door opened, and there was Maître Arnaud himself, a large, untidy man with a large, untidy moustache and impressively overgrown eyebrows, smiling and apologetic as he explained that he had been detained by a phone call. “But all is well,” he said. “Madame Colbert has recovered from her voyage down from Paris, and she's waiting for us.”

He led the way to his office. Clutter had been allowed to flourish there unchecked, with every surface hidden beneath piles of documents and reference books. An oasis of order had been created to accommodate a semicircle of chairs precisely arranged in front of Arnaud's desk, and Madame Colbert had already installed herself in the central, and thus most important, chair.

She was small, birdlike, neatly dressed, and carefully made up. As Elena, Sam, and Reboul were introduced, she inclined her head and smiled, but kept her hands clasped over the ivory handle of her walking stick. Arnaud settled himself behind his desk and separated one pile of documents from the rest. He cleared his throat.

There followed a long, dreary hour and a half of his monotone as he read aloud through every line of the sale documents, pausing occasionally to cock his eyebrows at Reboul to confirm that this vital information was being heard and, with a bit of luck, understood. On and on it went, with Elena and Sam nodding wisely from time to time while Madame Colbert remained motionless and impassive. Finally, Arnaud was finished. The sale documents could be signed—on every page, naturally—and the certified check could be closely scrutinized by Madame Colbert. A bunch of rusting keys was handed over, and Elena and Sam were the proud owners of a house in Provence.

Reboul had insisted that there was only one suitable way to celebrate the occasion: lunch. Lunch in their new hometown, overlooking the Mediterranean. And so he had made reservations at Chez Marcel, a restaurant with, as Reboul put it, two irresistible attractions: a magnificent view of the Vieux Port, and a talented young chef who was a native of Marseille, and who therefore understood fish.

During the short walk down to the port, Reboul did his best to explain why buying a house in France was such a prolonged and exhausting process. “The French find it very difficult to trust anybody when it comes to business, particularly property transactions. I suppose one can't really blame them, because every old house has its history, and it's not unusual down here to find that one room, or an outside toilet, or a part of the garden, still belongs to a distant relative who might easily cause trouble. Obviously, this has to be foreseen, and dealt with legally. But perhaps just as important is the French love of bureaucracy. We may throw up our hands and complain about it, but in the end we accept it. I think we find it comforting. Anything simple and fast would be deeply suspicious.”

Reboul led them along the Quai du Port until they came to an unmarked door, painted dark green and set back from the street, with a discreet intercom set into the wall next to it. “Here we are,” said Reboul. “As you can see, the owners feel they can do without advertising—apart from the best kind, which is word of mouth. Most of the people who come here are regulars; in fact, it's more like a club.” He pressed the buzzer, murmured his name, and the door clicked open.

A flight of steps led up to the narrow, light-filled restaurant. At one end was a visible kitchen, separated from the rest of the room by a wall of glass. The other walls were dedicated to the memory of Marseille's favorite writer and filmmaker, Marcel Pagnol. Giant black-and-white photographs of the great man and famous scenes from his films shared the space with posters:
Manon des Sources, Fanny, Jean de Florette, La Femme du Boulanger,
and half a dozen others.

“Let me guess the chef's name,” said Elena. “Marcel?”

Reboul grinned and shook his head. “Actually, it's Serge. But Pagnol is his great hobby. Ah, here comes his lovely wife.”

A young woman with a broad smile and a fan of menus made her way through the tables to greet them.

“Julie!” said Reboul.

“Francis!” said Julie.

Embraces, kisses, and compliments were followed by introductions, and then Julie took them across the room and out onto the terrace. There were no more than a dozen tables, each with the same magnificent view: the boats of the Vieux Port, the glittering water, and, on the crest of a hill in the distance, the bell tower and the golden statue of the Madonna and Child crowning Notre-Dame de la Garde, a magnificent basilica built in 1864 on the foundations of a sixteenth-century fort.

Reboul settled himself and raised the flute of Champagne that had magically appeared. “In all good restaurants,” he said, “one of the best appetizers is anticipation. A glass of something chilled and delicious, a menu of temptations, delightful company—there is no better way to put your taste buds on the
qui vive
. What shall we have? The
tartare de coquilles Saint-Jacques
? The homemade
foie gras?
Or the chef's pride and joy, the
bouillabaisse maison?
Decisions, decisions. Take your time, my friends, take your time.”

—

While Elena, Sam, and Reboul were making up their minds
,
Coco Dumas was making do with a club sandwich on the high-speed TGV train to Paris. She was going to see her father, Alex, who had set her up in business more than fifteen years earlier. A self-made man and proud of it, Alex Dumas had made a great deal of money from business activities—which he never discussed—that took him from Belgium to Paris, often via Africa. He doted on his daughter, and, having recognized the talent she showed during her early years in architecture, he had thought of a way she could usefully fit in with his own business plans. He had been more than satisfied with the results, but now he was ready to retire; not, however, before making sure his precious Coco was set up for life.

As late afternoon faded into evening, the two of them sat in the living room of Dumas
père
's apartment in the Rue de Lille—decorated and furnished to perfection by Coco—and discussed some interesting possibilities. By the time they went across the street to Le Bistrot de Paris for dinner, an idea was forming. But the details, those all-important details, had to be worked out. Meanwhile, there were Coco's future plans to consider. When Papa retired, what would his daughter do? She was beginning to tire of clients, with their nagging and their indecisiveness and their reluctance to do exactly as they were told. She, too, was ready for a change. An apartment in New York, perhaps, with a place in the Bahamas to escape to during those brutal Manhattan winters. A fresh start. It was a prospect that Coco found immensely appealing.

—

With considerable reluctance, Elena boarded the flight that would take her to Paris and the connection to Los Angeles. She felt distinctly cheated. All she wanted to do was spend time with Sam exploring their new house. She had thoughts of picnic lunches on the terrace, with a glass or two of
rosé
in the evening to toast the sunset. But it was not to be. She opened her briefcase to go, once again, through the paperwork. And there, tucked into a side pocket, were a few notes she had drafted for her letter of resignation. Just looking through them made her feel better.

It was a somber Frank Knox who greeted her the following day. As she already knew, he had followed the prudent insurer's custom of splitting the risk among other insurance companies. But even so, he was going to be hit hard, and he wanted to be absolutely sure that Elena's visit hadn't turned up something that could be used to soften the blow. They spent several hours going over Elena's visit to the Castellaci house in Nice, room by room. They went yet again through the entire Castellaci file. They reviewed the precedent established in similar cases. But it was no good. Unless it could be proved beyond doubt that the owner of the stolen diamonds was also the thief, the claim was watertight.

Frank Knox sighed. “I guess that's it. Now we have to tell the other companies what they're going to have to fork out.” He took a glass and a bottle of Scotch from his desk drawer. “I'm really sorry, but we're going to have to go through all this again for them.”

The thought of dealing with a bunch of suspicious insurance agents stiffened Elena's resolve. “I'm sorry, too, Frank, but I've had it. When this is over, I'm quitting.” She took the letter of resignation from her briefcase and slid it across the desk.

Knox looked at it, sighed once more, emptied his glass, and shook his head. “Can't say I blame you.”

—

Elena's call woke Sam up. “I have good news and bad news,” she said. “I have to stay in L.A. for another couple of days.” She paused for a moment. “But the good news is I've quit.”

“Sweetheart, that's great. How do you feel about it?”

“Well, you know—sad for Frank, but otherwise pretty good.” She paused. “No, otherwise it feels fantastic.”

“I can hear you smiling.”

“Listen, while you're waiting for me to get back, why don't you take a look around the inside of the house to see what needs to be done? I'll expect a full report, okay?”

“Yes, ma'am.”

Sam decided to enlist the help of Reboul, a man who had a thorough grounding in the joys of renovation, having spent three years licking Le Pharo into shape. He was almost as excited as Sam, and on the twenty-five-minute walk over to the house he offered some basic advice on dealing with the Provençal architect.

“First,” he said, “establish a strict budget—never popular, but necessary. Next, get a firm completion date written into the contract. This is even less popular. Finally, and the least popular of all, there should be penalty clauses if the work isn't done on time. Oh, and watch out for
les petits inconnus.

Sam laughed. “I would if I knew what they were.”

“The little unknowns. They are every architect's best excuse—the unpredictable problems that delay the progress of the work and increase the price. This can be anything from a fractured sewage pipe to a colony of killer hornets in the roof. But—
quelle surprise!—
how were we to know?”

Reboul carried on with his litany of tips and warnings until the two men had walked up the narrow, stony drive and stopped in front of the house. “My friend, don't take anything I've said too seriously. This is a very special property.”

And no doubt it would be, but at the moment generous doses of optimism and imagination were required. There were windows, but they did their best to ignore the view, and they were small. So too were the rooms, with a tiny kitchen barely big enough to swing a saucepan, and a somber living room. Upstairs, one garret led to another—five in all—and the single bathroom, with a strong whiff of damp and a drip-stained bathtub, actively discouraged any thoughts of hygiene.

But once outside, everything changed. The terrace, although in need of repair, went around three sides of the house, giving the choice of sun or shade all through the day. And the view, in every direction, was incredible. It was this view, Sam and Reboul agreed, that had to be brought into the house, with much bigger windows and fewer, but larger and lighter, rooms. “Gut it,” was Reboul's advice, “and make it selfish—just for the two of you.”

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