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Authors: Peter Mayle

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Chapter
12

After his lunch with Sam at Chez Marcel, Philippe found himself with conflicting thoughts. He felt that there was next to no chance of Sam succeeding where three police forces had failed. Yet over the years he had seen his friend plunge into several unpromising situations—a couple of times in Marseille, and once in Corsica. Each time, he had come out on top. Why not this time? And, Philippe had to admit, it would make a hell of a story. A
Salut!
exclusive, syndicated worldwide, wherever diamonds were worn and stolen. It certainly wouldn't hurt his career.

There was, of course, the problem of his regular job as chronicler of the fabulous activities of
les people.
The season had begun, and before long the usual mixture of wretched excess—drunkenness, cocaine overdoses, fornication in the men's room—would start to yield promising material. He couldn't afford to miss that, as he had pointed out at lunch. Sam had been most understanding, although a little flippant. Who am I, he had said, to interfere with the sacred bond between journalist and reader? So they had agreed that
Salut!
came first, and Philippe's duties as interpreter and collaborator would have to fit in.

As a first step Philippe decided to pick the brains of Louis, a trusted contact from his previous job as a newspaper reporter for
La Provence
. Louis was one of those old-fashioned policemen who believed in old-fashioned methods. He preferred face-to-face conversations to e-mails and phone calls, and claimed that there was nothing more effective, when gathering information, than pounding the streets, collecting gossip picked up from bartenders and ladies of the night, and generally, as he put it, “sniffing the air.” It was a technique that had served him well during his twenty-seven years on the force.

He and Philippe had agreed to meet at the Bar Saint-Charles, near the train station. It was dark and discreet, and the bartender's generous hand when pouring
pastis
had made it a popular spot for Marseille's thirsty policemen. When Philippe arrived, Louis was already leaning against the bar, studying a copy of
L'Équipe
to see if the Tour de France was likely to be won, yet again, by an impertinent foreigner.

“Loulou! Sorry I'm late. How are things?
Ça va?”

The big policeman straightened up, smiled and nodded. “
Oui, oui, ça va.
Good to see you. Now, is this business or pleasure?”

“Business,” said Philippe. “So I'm buying. What's it to be?”

Loulou allowed himself to be persuaded to have a
pastis,
and the two men settled at a table in the corner.

Philippe went through it all—the three perfect robberies, the lack of clues, the baffled policemen, and his friend Sam, the insurance executive from the States—while Loulou listened intently.

“So that's where we are at the moment,” said Philippe. “We're going to get the crime scene reports, but I don't think they're going to tell us much. So I'm wondering if you know one of the guys in Antibes or Monaco or Nice who could help. We'd love to talk to someone involved with the investigations.”

Loulou grunted. “That's like asking if I know any of the guys on Mars. We usually stick to our own turf. God knows there's enough trouble here without getting involved in other people's problems.” He rubbed his chin, looked at his empty glass, and sighed. “Evaporation. The older I get, the more quickly it happens.”

A second
pastis
was ordered, which seemed to stimulate Loulou's memory. “Come to think of it,” he said, “I did have some dealings with some guys in Nice a couple of years ago. I'll make a few calls.”

—

Sam reread the letter that had just arrived, written on official Knox Insurance paper and signed by Frank A. Knox, identified as the president. It was a small masterpiece of bureaucratic pomposity, instructing Sam to use his best efforts to establish the precise details of the robberies that were causing “such concern in American insurance circles.” Perfect. He made a mental note to have a case of Champagne delivered to Knox. Now that he had his fake credentials, he could start work.

He showed the letter to Reboul, who shared Sam's fascination with the robberies. “This letter is fine,” he said, “but it would help if we had something official from the French side. How would you like a letter from a senior officer of the Marseille police requesting that his colleagues provide you with all possible information and assistance?”

“Hervé? Would he do that for me?”

Reboul grinned. “He'll do it for me. And you could show your gratitude in a way that he'd find most acceptable. Those cigars that you brought back from Jamaica and we put in the humidor in the wine cellar?”

“The Belicosos Finos?”

“Hervé loves a good cigar. A box would make him extremely happy. And cooperative.” Reboul shrugged. “We all have our little
faiblesses
.”

As it happened, Hervé didn't need much persuasion when he came by that evening. He had already met Sam and liked him, and he found Sam's interest in the robberies amusing, even if his ambitions of solving them were wildly optimistic. But then, he was American, and it was well known—and perhaps envied by the pessimistic French—that all Americans were optimists.

The
rosé
was served. Sam produced and opened a box of cigars, and passed it to Hervé, who chose a cigar, inspected the band, squeezed the cigar gently, and sniffed it. Then he held it up against one ear and rolled it between his fingers. “Listening to the band,” he said. “One can always hear if a cigar is too dry. This is excellent.” He trimmed off the end and lit the cigar, inspecting the tip to make sure that it was an even, glowing red. The ritual concluded to his satisfaction, he leaned back, wreathed in smiles and fragrant smoke.

Sam went through his story, with Hervé nodding but saying nothing, which gave Sam the feeling that he was somehow being interrogated. He finished by showing Hervé the letter from Knox. “Francis suggested that I could use another letter, perhaps from an eminent senior member of the Marseille police, requesting cooperation.”

Hervé nodded again. “I see. And you feel that would make a difference?”

“Absolutely. It would establish me as someone to be taken seriously here in France.”

Hervé took a long, thoughtful pull of his cigar.

Well, I'd be happy to do that, as long as you keep me informed of any progress that you make. To be frank, I don't think you'll get anywhere.” He shrugged. “But if you should turn up anything, I want to be the first to know,
d'accord?”

“I promise,” said Sam. “And I hope you will accept these cigars as a mark of my gratitude for your help.”

The beam on Hervé's face was answer enough.

—

It was lunchtime on Cap Ferrat, once the domain of King Leopold of the Belgians, and now, after Monaco, the most expensive real estate on the coast. Kathy Fitzgerald had invited Coco to come over, and there were many important subjects to discuss. First, the houseguests would need to know the names of the support group that was so essential whenever and wherever the rich go on vacation: hairdressers and manicurists, the latest fashionable chef, tai chi instructors, masseuses, and, most crucial of all, a doctor who spoke English. There was also an obligatory update on the Riviera gossip, and finally, the guest list for the upcoming party.

Monique, the Fitzgeralds' cook, had prepared what Kathy called a
snack de luxe
lunch: roasted mixed vegetables with rosemary and thyme, and a mousse of goat cheese with balsamic vinegar. Thus fortified, the ladies turned their attention to the main business of the day, the party. Coco went through the list she had prepared of possible guests: Armand and Edouard, a charming gay couple who worked in the world of fashion in Paris; Nina de Montfort, a serial heiress, and her latest youthful admirer; the Osbornes, Coco's young English clients; Alain Laffont, who played eight-goal handicap polo when he wasn't busy selling high-end real estate, and his girlfriend Stanislavska, the Czech model; Hubert, a cosmetic surgeon, and his wife Éloise (known rather unkindly to some as Madame Botox); Coco's father, Alex, of course; and Elena and Sam. “Sounds like a fun group,” said Kathy. “And they all speak English? I don't want any French wallflowers.”

Coco laughed. “Don't worry. They all speak English, and none of them except my father is over forty. Oh, and Nina—her real age is a state secret; she's been thirty-nine for years. I think you'll really get on with Elena and Sam—they're American, and I'm fixing up a little house they've bought near Marseille. So they're almost neighbors.”

“That's great. Could I ask you to take care of the invitations? For the twenty-third?”

“Of course.”

—

Later that afternoon, Coco started making her calls. The combination of Cap Ferrat and wealthy Americans appealed, for different reasons, to all the names on her list, and by the time she called Elena she hadn't had a single refusal.

“I'm sure you'll have a good time,” she said to Elena. “Kathy and Fitz are nice people, and the other guests are—well, they're interesting. I know all of them, and it should be an amusing evening.”

When Elena passed on the news to Sam, he immediately thought of Philippe. “High society on the Riviera,” he said. “They might like to see themselves in
Salut!
What do you think?”

Chapter
13

Sam's nostrils twitched, and he opened one bleary eye to see, on the bedside table, a tray with a large cup of
café crème
and a plump croissant.

Elena emerged from the bathroom, dressed and brisk and clearly impatient for the day to begin. “In case you were wondering,” she said, “I was the breakfast fairy. I went down to the kitchen when I woke up.”

Sam sat up, took a bite of his croissant, and reached for the coffee. “You're a princess. Tell me, are we in a hurry, or is it just that you couldn't sleep?”

“We have an early meeting with Coco, remember?”

He saw that Elena was tapping her watch. “OK, OK, I'm coming.”

They had fallen into the habit of walking from Le Pharo to their house, a twenty-five-minute stroll, mostly along a narrow, rocky path. It was still too early for the sun to be any more than pleasantly warm. The sea was without a wrinkle, and the Marseille seagulls—as big as geese, the locals would tell you—were wheeling and floating in the deep blue sky.

“This beats commuting,” said Sam. “What's on the menu this morning?”

“Coco wants to show us an antique front door she's found, and she'd like you to see the finish she's suggesting for your shower. Then there's the usual stack of details to go over for the kitchen. And I have to decide where I want the bidet in my bathroom.”

As they got closer, they could hear their house being worked on before they could see it—the rasp of a stone-cutter trimming a flagstone, the grumbling monotone of the cement mixer, the occasional shout from the workmen, snatches of music coming from a radio.

“You're enjoying all this,” said Sam. “I'm glad you and Coco are getting along.”

“She's terrific. She explains everything, and she's great on all the details. I think we got lucky.”

They arrived at the house to find Coco, dressed for work as usual in white dungarees, supervising two workmen who had unloaded the antique door from their truck and were now leaning it up against the wall next to the empty doorway. Coco was considering it, head cocked to one side, when she realized that her clients had arrived.

“I think that works,” she said, coming over for the exchange of good-morning kisses. “Do you like it? My father found it in Paris. He's taking quite an interest in my work recently.”

It was a simple, substantial door that dated, so Coco thought, from the late eighteenth century. The years had been kind to the wood, a rich, dark blond oak, and it might have been made to complement the sun-bleached walls of the house. Elena and Sam both loved it.

“By the time you come again we'll have put it up. But it was missing one thing,” said Coco. She went over and picked up an object that was propped against the door. “Here—a little housewarming gift.” It was a bronze door-knocker in the form of a slender female hand, hinged at the wrist, holding a bronze ball. “It's a bit later than the door—I guess nineteenth century—but I think they go well together.”

The rest of the morning passed in a pleasant blur of details and suggestions, all of which were covered in a list that Coco had prepared for them, and by the time they were getting ready to go and find some lunch they had, once again, mentally moved in.

Elena took a photograph of Sam holding up the doorknocker to see how it looked against the door. “I can't believe how fast the work is going,” she said. “Are you happy with everything?”

Sam nodded and grinned. “Especially your bidet. I'm thrilled with your bidet.”

—

Philippe's call came as they were finishing a café lunch down by the Vieux Port. “Here's a bit of luck,” he said. “My friend Loulou knows one of the guys in Nice who worked on the Castellaci case, so I'm hoping we can make a start there. He's going to get us all the paperwork.”

“Very good,” said Sam. “How are you fixed for time?”

“This week's shot. There's a new nightclub opening in Cannes, a charity ball in Monte Carlo, and then down to Saint-Tropez for a swimsuit-and-Champagne fashion show on the beach, where there's always a good chance of accidental nudity.”

“Accidental?”

“You'd be amazed how often accidents happen when there's a camera around. Anyway, the week after that should be less busy. I'll call Loulou's guy and see if I can make an appointment for us.”

Sam was shaking his head as he finished the call. “I think Philippe's found his vocation. He's now a student of accidental nudity.”

—

Alex Dumas picked up a cab at Nice Airport for the short trip to Le Negresco. Thanks to Coco's influence, a suite had been made available to him for the price of a single room, and despite the fact that he was an extremely wealthy man, modest savings like this were important to him. He had never forgotten those early poverty-stricken days when he had struggled for every cent. His father, a minor civil servant, had died young, leaving Alex to supplement the small family income. He'd worked as a waiter and a bartender before striking up an instant rapport with one of his customers, an elderly antique dealer who promptly hired him as an assistant. The dealer felt he'd found a son. Alex felt he'd found a father. He subsequently inherited the business, and never looked back.

Coco had prepared the hotel staff for her father's visit, and he was treated like an old and valued client. The doorman, in his Negresco uniform of top hat and scarlet and blue frock coat, took Dumas's suitcase from the taxi and was evidently delighted to see him. So was the welcoming committee at the front desk. Even the bellboy who took the suitcase up to his suite seemed to have been counting the moments until his arrival.

As for his accommodation, he could hardly have hoped for anything better. The view alone—of the Promenade des Anglais and the endless blue of the Mediterranean—was, he thought, worth the cost of the suite. And someone had left an ice bucket and a bottle of Dom Perignon on the coffee table. How kind and thoughtful. Dumas opened the envelope that had been delivered with the Champagne. The note inside was from Coco:
Papa—Save some of this for me. I'll be with you about six-thirty. C xx.

In her office in another part of the hotel, Coco was on the phone to Kathy Fitzgerald. Their calls had become more and more frequent—they spoke at least once a day—as Coco did what she could to help Kathy with the preparations for the party.

“Something's come up,” said Coco, “which might be fun. I was talking to Elena and Sam, those nice Americans. They have a friend, Philippe, who is the Riviera correspondent for
Salut!
—you know, that glossy social magazine. Sam said he thought that Philippe would love to come with his photographer and do a piece on your party. How do you feel about that?”

Kathy hesitated for at least two seconds. “Wow! What a great souvenir of the evening. Could you fix that up?”

“Of course. I think Philippe would want to meet you before the party. Would that be OK?”

“Sure—and Coco, thanks so much for all your help. I really appreciate it.”

—

Sam's early-evening call found Philippe and Mimi in the empty gloom of Le Club Croisette, the most recent addition to the nightlife of Cannes. As Philippe had explained to the club's owner, Mimi always liked to take a quick look at the space before she came in to do the shoot. The owner was delivering a breathless, and seemingly endless, recital of all the celebrities who had been invited to the club's opening later that night. The call, brief as it was, came as a welcome interruption.

“Practicing your pole dancing for tonight? How's the club?”

“It's fine. But Sam, I'm a little busy right now.”

“I'll make it quick. Keep the evening of the twenty-third free. We've got a nice little gig for you. I'll call you later.”

Philippe turned back to the club's owner. “Do you think she's really going to come, Carla Bruni?”

When their reconnaissance ended, Mimi and Philippe were having an early dinner at Miramar Plage, a beach restaurant on the Croisette.

“Well,” said Philippe, “what did you think of it?”

Mimi took a sip of wine and looked out at the sun slipping down toward the horizon. “I don't know. Compared to this…”—she waved an arm at the view—“it's difficult to get excited about a dark hole in the ground, no matter how much they've spent tarting it up to make it look glamorous. These places are always depressing when they're empty; they look better when they're jammed with people. But don't worry—I'm sure I'll get some good shots.”

Philippe's phone rang. It was Sam calling back with a few details of the Fitzgerald party, and the guests whom Coco had invited. “Sounds like an interesting bunch of people,” he said, “and I know that Elena would love to see Mimi again, but you've been keeping her so busy lately. How about it?”

Philippe thought for a moment. The party sounded a little thin on major celebrities, but the glamour of Cap Ferrat was always a plus, and rich Americans having a good time would be a change from Europeans and Russians misbehaving. “OK,” he said. “Why not?”

BOOK: The Diamond Caper
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