I turned over with a sigh. I’d thought that second bottle of red would help me sleep this time, but all I’d achieved was insomnia with a headache.
The moonlight creeping in round the edge of the blind illuminated the bold, minimalist prints on the walls and the simple, spartan furniture that was so at odds with the balmy, luscious countryside outside.
Gerrard had always liked his surroundings…controlled. Even the washing powder was the same brand he’d used in the flat at home, so the sheets smelled like him.
I pushed them back with a frustrated grumble then wandered into the living area. I stared at the open laptop on the desk, the piles of journals and drifts of paper surrounding it. I shook my head, returned to the bedroom, dressed then left the villa.
The cool night air felt good against my flushed skin. I strode along the seafront boulevard where the cafe and boulangerie shopfronts were bleached shades of grey in the moonlight. I took deep breaths, inhaling the smells of salt and dried seaweed.
I checked my phone. It was getting on for two-thirty. I rubbed my face, admitting I wasn’t feeling much better than when I’d left the villa—no better than when I’d stepped off the plane a week before, either. I sat on a bench and gazed out over the deserted beach. During the day, the sand was so light and the sea so blue that it was almost tropical. Even at night it was beautiful, all shifting shadows and pale sand under a sky so vast and crowded with stars that it was like it belonged to another world.
I’d never visited France before. Hell, I’d never ventured outside the UK, apart from that one—and best forgotten—trip to Majorca with Gerrard for our anniversary. But I had to admit that Ruéier was picture-postcard perfect—small, unspoiled, off the beaten track, so not overrun by tourists and the inevitable high-street chains that followed them. It was everything Gerrard had said it was—the perfect place to get some distance and write my book.
So why can’t I sleep?
I stood, thinking to walk the long way home and avoid analysing the question too deeply but stopped when the sound of voices rippled the easy quiet of the night. Stepping out from the shadow of a tree, I saw one of the boats in the harbour had its cabin light on. It illuminated the wide deck and a tall wheelhouse. Several figures were aboard and another on the pier, loading large bags into the hold.
I wasn’t sure what made me look closer. There had to be plenty of reasons for loading a boat at night. But something about the way they moved and the low urgency of their muttered French raised the hairs on the back of my arms.
When the figure on the pier handed over the last heavy-looking holdall, his jacket lifted and I glimpsed a gun tucked in his waistband.
I stepped back into the shadows just as the hooded face turned my way. I held my breath. The voices went quiet but then the roar of the boat’s engine tore through the silence.
I swore silently to myself. I’d come to Ruéier to get away from suspicious figures with guns. I held my breath for several more heartbeats before daring another look. The boat was heading for the harbour mouth and the figure from the pier was coming up the stairs less than five meters away. I ducked behind the tree and held still. I could hear his footsteps now, coming right for me.
He walked right past, heading south, down the boulevard toward the ferry port. His shoulders were hunched, his hands in his pockets and his head moved left to right as he scanned the shadows on either side.
I didn’t breathe again until he’d turned a corner and disappeared.
* * * *
I woke the next morning, groggy and with a foul taste in my mouth. I moaned as I eased myself from the sofa, then groaned again when I saw the empty wine bottles on the coffee table. My head pounded. My stomach churned. And none of the memories, either those from the night before or the more painful ones from home, were any duller. I was now just hurting and hungover…again
Smart move, Seb.
I muttered to myself, shambled through the open-plan kitchen-dining area to the bedroom, avoiding tripping over the clothes scattered all over the floor, stripped and got into the shower.
When I was clean, dressed and in some semblance of order, I set the coffee machine going then sat at my laptop and began searching for the number for the local police force, silently berating myself for choosing to drink rather than deal with this mess the night before.
I sipped my brimming mug and tapped the number into my phone then hesitated. What exactly was I going to say? I was out in the middle of the night, on the wrong side of a couple of bottles and saw people getting onto a boat? Sure, I’d registered suspicious behaviour flags, but would the local gendarmerie care about my analytical body language profiles? The British police certainly hadn’t.
I ground my teeth.
There was the gun, of course… I did see a gun, right? I rubbed my eyes, trying to remember. Had there been guns? Or was I just channelling memories I seemed to be having trouble leaving behind?
While I was musing on this, an email popped in from my publisher.
Dear Mr. Conway,
It has been several weeks since we received your proposal. We would very much like to assess your progress on the project so far.
I blanched, forgetting all about the boat, hurriedly opened all my draft files and forced my bleary mind to engage.
I made myself work all day. That was what I was here for, I reminded myself. And Daisy was counting on me.
By lunch, I was physically recovered enough to open more wine and eat bread and cheese with one hand whilst typing with the other. As evening began to creep in, I finally found myself with a structure plan and two opening chapters that I thought were heading somewhere. I took a breath, wrote a brief email to the publisher then sent it all off.
I opened another bottle just as there was a knock on the door.
I glanced at the clock on the wall, frowning. It was getting on for eight p.m. and the cleaner, the only visitor I had, wasn’t due until the next day.
The knocking came again, more insistently.
The voice was muffled by the wood, but the words were distinct. I muttered to myself, put my glass aside, opened the door and promptly stopped breathing.
The man standing on the doorstep wasn’t someone who would normally take my breath away. He was tall, sure and his shoulders broad, like I liked. But his suit was dull, unfashionable and did not fit well. The washed-out grey did not complement his sun-warmed complexion and his fair hair was cut short, a functional style that, to me, looked like a quick fix for the slight curl.
His jaw was firm but not chiselled. He was clean-shaven, his lips thin and without expression—and the man was also, undoubtedly, law enforcement. It was obvious from the way he stood, the way he took me in, assessing every detail—middle grade, no one special, too old to be on his way up, too young to be on his way out.
But it wasn’t that which had the blood rushing through my body. It was his eyes. They were the deep, dark grey of a storm cloud, a colour I’d never seen in human eyes before. I was normally so good at reading people—or at least able to recognise when they were hiding something, which people nearly always are. But these eyes were so open, so expressive and so…charged that it caused my heart to clench in my chest. It was like looking out to sea on a stormy night, all beauty, wonder and natural forces clashing, with a dash of danger mixed in.
I cleared my throat and nodded. “Yes, how can I help?”
“English, yes?” he said, his accent swaying around the words like waves rolling along the shore.
I hurriedly suppressed the thought. “That’s right.”
He produced a badge. “Gendarme Antoine Damboise, Gendarmerie Nationale…and my superior, Adjudant Delphine Rayne.” A woman in a smarter suit but with a grimmer expression joined him on the step, examining me keenly thorough thin-rimmed glasses. He murmured a few words to her in French, and she nodded and gestured for him to continue. “We are the police.”
“Yes, I know what the gendarmerie is. What do you want with me?”
“We would like to ask you a couple of questions, if we may.”
Damboise smiled slightly—a pleasant expression, though it didn’t brighten the darkness in his eyes. “Can we come in, Monsieur?”
Rayne watched me closely as I showed them into the living room. They took in the desk scattered with books and papers, a half-drank mug off coffee next to the laptop and the open bottle of wine next to that.
I retrieved my glass and moved to top it up, feeling their stares on my back.
“So, what’s this about?”
Rayne murmured more French and Damboise asked, “Are you here on holiday, Monsieur?”
“No. Well, yes. Well…no…”
“Which?” Rayne asked, her accent thicker than Damboise, the word weighted more carefully and harder in tone.
“I’m here to work,” I said, gesturing at the desk. “But not my…usual work.”
“What is your usual work?” Damboise again.
“I work for a private medical practice,” I hedged.
“Doctor?” Rayne asked.
“Not clinical, no…”
Damboise translated for her, and she nodded. “What is this work?” she said, nodding at the desk.
“I’m writing a book.”
“Ah, you’re an author?” Damboise said, pulling a notepad and pen from his pocket.
“An academic,” I said, shutting the laptop with a click as the detective attempted to read the screen.
“You came to Ruéier to write a book?”
“Is that so hard to believe?”
Damboise shrugged, examining his notebook. “Our holiday makers are usually…older. Here for the sea, the quiet.”
“I need quiet too.”
Damboise scribbled more notes. “Have you been here before? Maybe writing other books?”
“No,” I said, impatience beginning to sharpen my words. “This is my first time…first book.”
Rayne asked something in French, and Damboise translated whilst watching me closely. “And what made you choose Ruéier, Monsieur?”
“Look… I don’t know what this is—”
“Please, just answer the question.”
I sighed. “It was recommended by a friend. This is his villa.”
“Who?” Rayne again.
“Why does that matter?”
“Maybe it does not,” Damboise said in a conciliatory tone, glancing at Rayne, who pursed her lips. “And how long are you planning to stay?”
“I don’t know, exactly.”
“No return flight booked?” Damboise said carefully, his grey gaze on my face.
“I’ll leave when the book’s done. Am I in some sort of trouble?”
“We’re just asking everyone in the area the same questions.”
“There have been reports of some burglaries in the area. Holiday homes, mostly. Have you had any trouble?”
“You keep your doors and windows locked at night?”
“Forgive me…” Damboise had a dimple when he smiled. It transformed his face, making it appear almost boyish, though he must be approaching forty. I was not prepared for the thrumming it started in my nerves and hastily swallowed more wine. “It might seem like a silly question, but Ruéier is a quiet town. Some of our, how you say, ‘older’ people are not used to locking their doors.”
“Times change, I guess.”
“Quite correct,” Damboise replied, regret weighting his words. “Unfortunate…but correct.”
“Is that it?”
“Not quite.” Damboise looked at Rayne, who swiped at her phone then showed me the screen.
“Have you seen this man, Monsieur?” she asked.
The man who glowered out of the photo was thin, pale and with a rough scruff along a jaw that was all hard lines and defiance. His hair was buzzed close to his head and there was a tribal tattoo on his neck. Something about his stance, the defiant set to his shoulders tickled at the back of my mind. But then nearly every criminal I’d ever known stood like that in their file photos—the guilty ones, anyway.
I shook my head. “No.”
“You’re sure?” Damboise asked.
“He’s pretty distinctive. Is this your burglar?”
“We don’t know who is behind the break-ins,” Damboise said. “But this is a person of interest. You’ve not seen him around?”
“As I said, no.”
Damboise nodded. “Have you seen anything else suspicious?”
I turned my back to fill my glass again. It was easier to focus when I couldn’t see his eyes, but I still couldn’t quite put my finger on what was making me so uneasy. Damboise, certainly. His unremarkable face was doing rather remarkable things to me that I really didn’t have time for. It must be the wine, I said to myself—that and the sexual frustration. I took a breath and fought through nervousness snaking over my back and turned to face them again.
“Well…there is one thing.”
“What?” Rayne asked.
“I thought I saw something odd at the harbour last night.”
“At the ’arbour?” Rayne said.
“Le port,” Damboise translated and Rayne’s eyes hardened. “What did you see?” Damboise asked, his pen poised.
“I’m not sure,” I said, taking a large mouthful of wine in an attempt to drown the prickling in my belly. “It’s probably nothing.”
“Monsieur, please,” Damboise said, his expression intent. “Anything could be important.”
I sat in the armchair, staring into the empty fireplace. “I saw a boat launch, which isn’t that weird, I guess. But it was after two in the morning…”
Rayne asked something, frowning in a frustrated way. Damboise chattered back to her, and I caught the words bateau and deux heures du matin.
“Pêcheurs de nui,” Rayne said with a dismissive wave of her hand. “Night fishermen,” she said, slowly. “Many small boats fish in the night.”
“It was a big boat,” I said. “And these weren’t fishermen.”
“No?” Damboise sat on the edge of the sofa, elbows on his knees, looking at me intently. “How do you know?”
“The way they moved. The tone of their voices. Their clothes.” I shrugged again. “They weren’t going fishing.”
Rayne muttered in French again, shaking her head.
“I know what I saw,” I replied, hearing disbelief in her tone. “And, well…”
“Yes?” Damboise said.
I took a breath, my skin chilling all over again. “I think they had guns—or one of them did, at least.”
Damboise pressed his lips together. “Are you sure?”
“It was dark,” I said carefully, “but there was a light in the cabin. I was going to report it, but I wasn’t sure—and I know you can get firearms licenses here. By the time I got back, I…” I trailed off, glancing at the line of empty wine bottles by the bin.
Damboise followed my glance without comment. “How many men were there?”
“Three, I think? Maybe four.”
“How big was this boat?”
“Quite big…with a tall wheelhouse. I didn’t see the colour or name.”
“And these men? They launched this boat and, what? Took it out to sea?”
“That’s right,” I said, seeing it all playing out in front of my eyes again, the uneasiness returning. “Well, all except one.”
“Yes. One of them stayed behind.”
“Where did he go?”
“He came right past me,” I said, suppressing a shudder. “Up the boulevard, toward the ferry port.”
“What did he look like? Where did he go?”
“I don’t know… I was behind a tree.”
“One of the big acacias along the sea front,” I said. “Outside the Café De La Mer?”
“Why were you outside so late, Monsieur?” Rayne put in.
“I couldn’t sleep.” I said, returning her look with a level one of my own.
“Merci beaucoup, Monsieur Conway,” Damboise said, tucking his notebook back in his pocket. “Thank you very much. If it is possible, I would like you to come to the station tomorrow to make a more detailed statement.”
Rayne chattered protests at him, and he replied calmly. She folded her arms and gave a stiff nod, then Damboise turned back to me. “Can you come?”
“You think they were dangerous?”
“We’re not sure,” he said, standing. “But an official statement would be helpful, if you please.”
“Of course,” I replied, also standing and taking the warm hand the detective offered. He had a firm grip, and his smile was pleasant, though his eyes seemed darker than before. “Anything I can do.”
Damboise opened the door, and Rayne proceeded him out into the night.
“Gendarme Damboise?” I said, making a shoddy job at pronunciation and ignoring the voice in my head with long-practiced ease. He paused. “I can help you.”
He raised his eyebrows. For one excruciating second, I thought he had guessed every inappropriate thought that had passed through my mind since he’d walked in the door, but I quashed any visible reaction.
“I often work with the police in the UK,” I said, “as a profiler.”
His eyebrows rose farther. “You’re a, how you say, psychiatrist?”
“Psychologist,” I corrected, a little archly, “with the West Midlands Police.”
“That is a very gracious offer, Monsieur,” he said, “but we could not involve a witness in an ongoing investigation.”
“I’m good,” I said. “And I know how to be discreet.”
“Good to know.” This time I was sure that there was something warmer in his expression, and my blood thrummed. “We shall see you tomorrow, Monsieur,” he said, holding out a business card. “Around ten would be good, if you don’t mind.”
After he had gone, I downed the remainder of my wine and opened another bottle, shaking my head as I filled my glass nearly to the top. What the hell am I doing? I wasn’t there to flirt with strangely attractive French policemen…even if he did stir something in me that had been dormant for a long time.
I swallowed some wine the wrong way then spent the next few minutes spluttering and coughing until my lungs were clear. With a string of curses, I grudgingly put the bottle back in the fridge. This was classic rebound behaviour—not that there was anything wrong with a no-strings fuck whilst getting my head round the consequential parts of life. But someone like Damboise was all strings.
That didn’t stop me from thinking about what he might look like under that shapeless suit as I climbed between the sheets.