The Garden of Emily Washburn
The Garden of Emily Washburn
Copyright © 2012 by Barry Dean
All rights reserved.
EMILY Washburn is one of those large and imposing women who cast a shadow over their surroundings and engulf the light like an old fig tree in a garden; the type of woman that no one wants to know but everyone wants around to organise things for them. To the unknowing she appears to be no more than an overweight frump, but she is much more than that. Emily is a gardener and every year, at the same time, she purveys her collection of flowers to an admiring smattering of men. She doesn’t sell to the glittering peacocks with reconstructed wives or the men with the jawlines of fate, but to those insipid souls who flounder for affability and want nothing more than to be seen in the presence of beauty.
Her collection does not consist of ordinary beauty, the kind that may turn heads for an instant, but embodies ethereal beauty that transcends the imagination and lasts for an aeon. Men would queue for days if they were allowed, but it is not possible for a man to choose to buy from the collection. It is far less egalitarian than anything that one can imagine. To be eligible to purchase, one needs to be a member of the conscripted few who have been afforded the honour of being nominated for glory. To those, a gold embossed invitation is hand delivered to their place of residence two months before the event. This invitation is their opportunity to drink at the well of the exalted.
Many readers may not have heard of Emily Washburn. This is not surprising, as she, arguably, only exists in legend. For those who believe in the legend, it is said that she shuns publicity and only surfaces when it is time, once again, for the annual three-ring extravaganza of photo calls, publicity stunts, and otherwise serious promotion of film known as le Festival international du film de Cannes or, to English speakers, the Cannes Film Festival.
At all other times, it is impossible to find any knowledge of the whereabouts of Emily from any reasonably reliable, or even unreliable, source. There are those who whisper that she lives in a castle above a small village in Italy. Others expound that she resides in southeast England and still more say that she lives in a tiny village in southern Belgium. None can provide any detailed information and, when questioned, they all admit that their knowledge is speculation, at best. What they do know, however, is that for the two weeks leading up to the festival, Emily resides at a very exclusive hotel which overlooks Cannes’ Boulevard de la Croisette and has its own private swimming pool. Not that Emily would ever use the pool, but it is widely rumoured that she likes to engage in naval gazing with the pool as a backdrop. You see, whilst she can cater for the number of positive replies to her invitations, her product is delivered on a first in best-dressed basis. The upshot of this is that sometimes she is required to make a decision concerning delivery and, at those times, indulges herself by looking at the faces of the applicants with the serenity of the pool as a backdrop. This is a necessity that is driven by the unfortunate fact that all of the applicants have faces that are at best unattractive and most have the personality of a dead mullet. If they were lacking these fine attributes, they would not be in need of her services.
You have seen the men of whom I speak. They appear at every self-congratulatory media event from every corner of the globe. The Oscars, Baftas, Emmys and Logies all have examples. You look at your television screens and see them on the red carpet. They are not the actors or directors or producers who share the limelight with a beautiful woman at their elbow. These men are the other categories who look lost in the glare of floodlights. You see the beautiful woman on their arm and wonder “how the hell …”
You may be wondering why I am telling you about a woman in whom you have no interest, and a festival that allows the French to overindulge their sense of worth, but the reason for this little story is to tell you of events, which plagued the life of this poor writer, following the strange demise of one Peter Mortimer.
Again, you might say that you do not know anyone named Peter Mortimer. This may be true, but the man in question is generally recognised as having the shortest lifespan, after receiving the award, of any recipient of a Cannes Film Festival leaf. After receiving his award, Mortimer lived for only one hour and fifteen minutes and it is for this reason, and the fact that his death thwarted his one and only shot at savouring fame, that I bring you this tale.
Prologue – The Unpublished Book Club
PETER Mortimer stood in the centre of the room looking at the moth eaten lounge and praying that seeing it move had been an aberration. Leaning forward, with arm extended, he shoved an empty pizza box sideways and stared at the accumulated spillage from lost weekends. He thought of microbes lurking within the never washed lounge covers and decided that the floor would be a much safer bet. He dropped to the floor, tucked his legs in and rested his chin on his knees before returning his attention to the face on the television screen that had mesmerised him since he walked into the room. The face looked as if someone had taken pale and mixed it with chalk until there was nothing left but bright red lips on a whitewashed background. He watched as the mouth movement reminded him of the pursed lips of gawping fish in his mother’s fishpond. It seemed that the woman on screen was saying something but all he could hear was the sound of coffee beans being tortured in an adjacent room.
His moved his eyes from the screen as his friend Billie Squires entered the room carrying a wooden tray with two porcelain cups and a jar holding four coolies. ‘Not listening, huh?’
‘Is this it?’ Mortimer asked, pointing at the screen.
Squires leaned between two lounge cushions and extracted a remote control unit. He flicked crumbs from it as he aimed at the screen. ‘Yeah, this is the show I was telling you about. That’s Vera on screen now. She’s Chicka’s girlfriend.’
‘You know him. The bloke from the pizza shop down the corner.’ Squires pointed at the pizza box and read the logo ‘Chicka’s Rolls and Pizzas.’
Mortimer was sure that the box moved of its own accord.
Squires pressed the remote again, turning up the volume. ‘It’s about to start.’
‘And welcome to this month’s edition of the Unpublished Book Club.’ The words emanated from the speakers with modulated tones that Mortimer placed somewhere between nasal congestion and a full-bodied head cold. ‘And now our host…Vera Michelidis.’
The canned applause of an audience of thousands made Mortimer laugh.
Vera smiled at her sole camera. ‘Our first panellist today is Josephine Harridan. Josephine, as you are all aware, is the granddaughter of the famous author Vernon Harridan, who had two essays published between 1940 and 1970. Josephine works on the cosmetics counter at David Jones in the city but has taken the afternoon off to be with us again.’ Vera waited for more canned applause as the camera turned its lens toward a pasty looking woman with short cropped red hair and a spider’s web tattooed on her right shoulder.
Josephine smiled and acknowledged the applause as the camera zoomed in on her left breast.
Vera continued, ‘Our second guest is Bryce Forsyth. Bryce is a regular guest on the show and is the C.E.O. of Ponsie Publishing.’
The camera turned to Forsyth, whose coiffured silver hair reflected the light from the single umbrella floodlight that was slung from the light socket in the middle of the room. His roll necked jumper and suede jacket gave him the appearance of an eighties art critic. He acknowledged the applause.
‘What is this crap?’ Mortimer asked, as he wiped coffee froth from the side of his mouth.
‘Just wait and see.’ Squires lit two coolies and passed one to Mortimer, who sucked languorously on his smoke before relaxing and leaning against the lounge.
Vera waited for the applause to die and smiled at the camera. ‘Our third guest couldn’t make it today, so Joe Biggins from next door has agreed to stand in.’
A man wearing sunglasses bumped the table beside Forsyth and staggered before he sat down. Mortimer was about to comment on his clumsiness when he saw a guide dog enter from screen right and sit at the man’s side. The man patted the dog’s head.
‘What’s this all about, Billie?’
‘Community television. This is the tenth episode of the show. Chicka told me that Vera only expected it to last for one.’
‘Where are they?’
‘At Vera’s mother’s place. She’s got a Resitec unit in Balmain. The show’s filmed in the lounge room.’
‘Looks like it,’ Mortimer said, as he studied the décor. He hadn’t seen three flying ducks on flock wallpaper for years.
A balding man of around forty-five walked into shot and sat on a chair opposite Forsyth and Harridan. An elderly woman, resplendent in an auburn rinse and a blue floral dress, entered the scene and sat beside him. She straightened the man’s collar as he wiped his spectacles lenses with a handkerchief. Obviously no one had bothered to tell them that they were on air.
Vera waited until the man perched the glasses on the end of a bulbous nose and pushed them into position with his forefinger before refocusing on the camera. ‘Our author today is John J Johnson and he is presenting his first unpublished novel. Beside him is his harshest critic, his mother Joan.
Vera continued, ‘John wants to publish his novel, My Life in Bexley. It is an account of his life in the one suburb from birth until the present. The story tells of the exciting challenges that he encountered when being bullied by the girls at primary school and his memorable high school excursion to Jenolan Caves where the bus broke down twice.’ Vera scanned her notes, ‘John has never married and lives at home with his mother and father, John J Johnson Snr… Josephine, you have read the manuscript, tell us what you think.’
Josephine shuffled papers on the table, looked directly at the camera, discreetly coughed twice then returned her gaze to the lens. The camera operator went to a close up of her right breast before backing off and refocusing on her tattoo. ‘Vera, I know that I have had the manuscript for a month but I’m afraid that I’ve only had time to read the first paragraph of the synopsis. From this first reading, however, I have concluded that if the synopsis reflects the rest of the novel, the manuscript may not be fully developed. Unfortunately, what I have read doesn’t seem to have been spell checked. There are typing errors throughout the paragraph.’
Vera turned to Johnson. ‘Did you check the work?’
Mortimer could sense the man’s embarrassment as he watched him squirm into his seat. His face suffused a pinkish hue as if he had just realised that he was on a shark’s menu. Mortimer sucked the cocaine from his coolie and drained the last of his coffee as he felt something crawling across his back. He slapped at it over his shoulder. Whatever it was died on impact.
‘Another?’ Squires pointed to the coolie jar.
Mortimer nodded as he waited for Johnson to answer Vera’s question.
Johnson thrust his chest forward. ‘I did check the spelling. It is correct.’
‘No it isn’t dear,’ Mrs Johnson chimed in. ‘I told you not use add to dictionary. I told you to use change.’
Johnson sighed and glared at his mother. ‘Mum, I told you that I was happy with the story. If I hit change the computer would have changed what I wrote. I didn’t want it to do that.’
‘Change is how we correct spelling errors John. It doesn’t rewrite the story,’ Vera interjected.
‘Ohhh!’ Johnson’s face flushed red.
Vera turned to Bryce Forsyth. ‘What did you think Bryce?’
Mortimer could hear something happening off camera. Crashing crockery, childish wailing, a slap. ‘I told you to behave while mummy’s on television Sean. Look what you’ve done now you little bastard. You broke my best tray.’
The television screen went blank.
Mortimer stood and reached over his shoulder. He removed a black mass with a red spot in its centre from inside his shirt. He counted the legs. He shuddered as he flung remnant spider across the room.
The screen returned to show Vera looking into the camera lens.
‘You were saying, Bryce,’ Vera said, as if nothing had happened.
Forsyth removed a sheaf of papers from a briefcase. As he spoke his top lip curled in a theatrical snarl. ‘I think that Josephine is wrong, as usual. I have sent the manuscript to one of my best readers and we at Ponsie Publishing believe that the work has great merit. After all, this is Mr Johnson’s first novel and it is incumbent on us to treat the novel with the respect due to a wannabe writer. With this novel under his belt, Mr Johnson can be assumed to have mastered his craft, and in our eyes, this novel stands out as his best work produced to date. I strongly believe that it will find its rightful place in the pantheon of unpublished novels and will become a leader in that market. We are impressed by the work. So much so, in fact, that we are prepared to offer Mr Johnson a self-publishing contract.’ Forsyth paused for effect. Canned applause sprang forth. He nodded his head to acknowledge the faux audience. ‘I have the contract here and Mr Johnson can sign as soon as the show concludes.’ He waved papers at the camera and slipped a copy of the paperwork across the table to Johnson. Johnson smiled and scanned the pages. He showed part of a page to his mother.
‘Come in sucker,’ Squires said, as he re-entered the room.
Mortimer grabbed at another coolie and lit it from the butt end of the one he was smoking. The cocaine-laced cigarettes were taking the edge off the day. ‘How so?’
‘Vera showed me a typical contract. The amount at the bottom is how much the sucker has to pay to the publisher for the galleys. At first glance he will think that he’s about to receive the money as an advance.’
‘Surely that’s taking advantage of the poor bloke’s aspirations?’
‘No, not at all. It’s a legitimate contract.’
Mortimer noticed traces of powder around Squires’ nostrils. ‘You’re cheating, you bastard. You’ve been snorting blow without me.’
‘No…just a bit of left over from last night. Not enough for two.’ Squires rubbed his right index finger across his nostrils then sucked on its side. He slumped onto his lounge and turned up the volume as Vera cleared her throat on screen.
‘And now you Joe.’ Vera looked at Joe Biggins.
‘I wasn’t supposed to be on today, Vera.’
Vera smiled at the camera as if taking the audience into her confidence and asking for tolerance. ‘But mum said she gave you a copy when she asked you to stand in.’
‘Oh…are we doing that book? I understand now. Yes, yes, yes. It is an excellent work. It’s one of the best books that I have ever read. It’s my favourite Tolstoy.’
Vera smiled, as if apologising to mall shoppers for a screaming child. ‘Not War and Peace, the book that she gave you this morning.’
Biggins nodded. His guide dog emulated the action. ‘I couldn’t read that one. It wasn’t in Braille. I’ve tried to tell your mother before that I wear sunglasses and have a guide dog because I’m blind. She thinks I’m trying to look cool and love pets. You need to remind her to give me a Braille copy, so I can read it.’
Vera looked at her watch then smiled at the camera. The camera operator zoomed in on her lips. ‘Time to vote, people in television land. What should John do? Sign the contract with Ponsie Publishing or wake up to himself and leave home. The answer is in your hands.’
Telephone numbers flashed onto the screen as Vera talked in the background with her panellists.
Mortimer sat down on the lounge, atop the open pizza box. ‘What next?’
‘They grill the poor guy a bit more then ask for more votes on what he should do.’
‘What’s the point of it? Why did you get me over here to watch it? It looks to me to be purely exploitative entertainment…if you can call it that. I don’t see how anyone can put themselves into the hands of such a gormless panel. I feel really sorry for Johnson.’
‘Doco my friend. Doco. I talked to Chicka and he talked to Vera and she talked to her boss. They’ll let us do a documentary on the show. It’ll be great.’
Mortimer closed his eyes and watched his brain work. Its machinations made him smile. ‘A documentary on a piss poor show on community television?’
‘No…a documentary on the next big thing. Believe it or not, the show’s going gangbusters. They pull in fifty grand every time it’s on. The viewing audience is estimated at around a hundred thousand. All the aged care centres and hospitals get it live and it’s a hit with the unemployed couch potatoes. Everyone wants to give the poor author advice on what to do and no one’s ever reads any of the books. It’s a winner.’
Mortimer went on to make his documentary and, to his surprise and the wonderment of all who knew him, his short epic was nominated for an award at le Festival international du film de Cannes. In fact, not only was the film nominated but it was awarded the gold leaf in its category.
MELONCHOLY sat over the school like low hanging cloud. It was one of those days that starts off well enough but deteriorates as the minute hand on the school clock creaks from cog to cog on its ancient wheel. It should have been raining but it was early spring and the sun generated that aft winter warmth that invigorates the senses and makes one feel alive, despite some remnant chill. It was not the type of day that should bring tragedy and loss. I remember it well.
I was standing in the foyer of the school’s Administration building staring at a buff envelope that had been delivered to my pigeonhole and attempting to predict its contents. There was time when I looked forward to receiving my list of upcoming work assignments but that was before the enlightened owners of the European based assortment of boarding schools decided that the taking of sickies by their teaching staff should be more predictable and decreed that one cannot be sick without notice. That single edict turned my world from one of exotic travel across the length and breadth of Europe to a monotonous pattern of knowing exactly where I would be at any given time. Where once I sensed the beauty of the unknown and unpredictable I now tend to notice the stucco peeling from the walls of the ancient buildings, when I stare at them from the same window as the year before. But that is the way of life of an itinerant part time teacher with an international boarding school corporation. Some say I’m lucky to have a job at all. Maybe they are right.
I closed my eyes and read the letter’s contents across the rear of my eyeballs. From June end: Florence to replace Signor Luigi Vespucci, who suffers from a heart condition that will flare up on 1st June and render him incapable of carrying out his duties as language master at L’institut Arnaque Firenze until 16th June. Followed by six weeks of holidays. I ripped the seal from the envelope and opened my eyes to read the contents. Clairvoyant at least.
I was reading the part that advised that they would, as usual, be prepared to pay me a small sum to live in my own apartment in the Val d’Arno when I noticed Pierre Lacoste, school caretaker and wearer of green monogrammed tee shirts, calling from the window of the school minibus. ‘Did you hear what just happened?’
Unless it was the grinding of teeth at the thought of another hot month in Florence, the answer was in the negative. ‘What?’
‘Monsieur Knight, Taro’s father…there’s been an incident at the river.’
An image of a fourteen-year-old snivelling weasel entered my mind’s eye. I shuddered. It had no right being there. I had been trying to rid myself of any image of the brat ever since he scalped tickets to the free screening of his father’s latest film in the school gymnasium. Not that he was selling tickets to the screening per se. It was more the fact that the buyers received a free photo of his scantily clad stepmother with each purchase. ‘Where?’ I called to Lacoste, as he pulled the bus into a parking bay.
‘The punt crossing at Duclair,’ he said, jumping from the driver’s seat and sliding back the side door to allow access to the trays of meat, fruit and vegetables that he would flog to the staff to supplement his meagre income.
‘I assume it’s still happening. I saw Knight open the driver’s side door of his car into the path of some old geezer on a bike. Granddad hit the car door, flew over the handlebars and hit the ground like a poleaxed boxer.’
‘Was he hurt?’
‘I saw him getting up in my rear view mirror. Looked fairly pissed off.’
‘You think they might have got into it?’
Lacoste shrugged, handed me a tray of mandarins, and then stacked another two on top. ‘Give me a hand will you. Just across to the staff room. I need to get everything sorted before the lunch break.’
‘What’s my cut?’
Lacoste thought for a moment. ‘My cousin in Hondaribbia may not be feeling well in June.’
I imagined a breeze billowing sails in northern Spain. ‘I’m booked for Florence.’
Lacoste shrugged again. ‘Bunch of grapes?’
I was making the final crossing from the bus to the staff room when I noticed a local gendarme and an obviously distraught woman heading for the Principal’s office. I recognised the woman as Jeanette Culver, an Englishwoman who was the personal assistant to the British film director Sir Lucian Knight. I had known her for some time as she often visited the school to play nanny to Taro Knight. I headed for the office to find out what was going on and I found our revered Principal standing stiff legged with knotted fists pushed into the laminate of his desktop, berating the gendarme.
‘What’s happening?’ I asked
The Principal glared at the gendarme. ‘Sir Lucian Knight has drowned in The Seine. This is a fucking disaster.’
‘I can imagine,’ I said, struggling for something to say.
‘A fucking disaster,’ the Principal repeated. ‘He hasn’t paid for Taro’s next semester yet. And this clot of a policeman has brought a burbling woman onto school premises. If I could speak French I’d give this oaf a piece of my mind.’
‘Un petit morceau,’ the gendarme said.
The Principal glared at the gendarme. ‘What did he just say?’
‘He said that he would be pleased to have a small piece of your mind…but he is concerned that his intelligence may lessen.’
‘He said all that?’
‘He’s right though. He would gain more intelligence if he took English lessons.’
The gendarme smiled. The principal’s brow furrowed.
‘He agrees,’ I said. ‘I’ll see him out, if you like.’
‘What happened to Knight?’ I asked the gendarme, once we had reached his car.
‘The matter is under investigation. Too early to tell.’
‘I’m afraid I don’t know. I was called to escort Mademoiselle Culver to the school and explain to your head that Monsieur Knight had died. That’s all I know.’
I found Jeanette Culver and young Taro in one of the small anterooms just along from the Principal’s office. She seemed to be trying to explain the horrific news to her charge, by telling him that his father would not be available to buy him the latest iPad on the day of its international release. Obviously she knew the boy well enough to have discerned his priorities. He began to join her in sobbing but I was sure that the cause of the distress differed. However, seeing them shedding tears piqued my interest. I remembered that I had the afternoon as a student free period and decided to take advantage of the fine weather and drive the few kilometres into Duclair to perform the role of sticky beak.
I arrived to find chaos. There were cars on both sides of the riverside road, parked like shirts in a specials bin. Shopkeepers had set up stalls on the pavement and the patisserie and ice cream vendors displayed inflated prices. There was even a riot police van. I noticed that the car ferry was moored on the southern riverbank and, on the northern side, old men in berets stared blankly into the water.
I parked with the other shirts, locked the car and made my way along Avenue President du Coty to the ferry crossing. As I approached, I saw the reason for the traffic jam. The police had closed off the entry road to the ferry. This meant that both ferry and through traffic had to use a very narrow road section. It didn’t explain the presence of the riot police, but then I saw their van was in line to catch the ferry. I made my way to where the police had cordoned off a small area and joined the other men staring at the water and listening. It soon became evident that this was the spot at which the incident had occurred.
A young gendarme was taking measurements with a laser device and transcribing into an electronic notebook. I leaned across the cordoning tape and asked him what had happened. His initial reaction was a Gallic shrug, accompanied by the sneer of his best fuck off expression. I explained to him that I was a teacher of the son of the dead man. He told me that I could have explained with half the words and returned to his measuring. I told him that the boy might have to survive without a new iPad and he seemed to understand that I might have an interest in what happened, on counselling grounds alone.
He took time to explain that the initial investigations indicated that there had been a minor altercation between a French bicyclist named Jean Claude Ronin and Knight. During the altercation, Monsieur Ronin dismounted his bicycle and hit Knight across the side of the head with his luncheon baguette. Knight had toppled backwards into the river and was swept downstream, to the cheers of the old men who fished from the landing. While the men stood around, a young woman was seen to dive into the river in order to assist Knight. She was able to drag him to the riverbank but unable to revive him.
I asked if Ronin had been charged with anything and was told that he would be charged with either wasting food or common assault, pending the result of the autopsy on Knight and the official report. It sounded more like a vaudeville sketch than a real incident. Maybe it was just too French for me to understand
I noticed that there was a black Mercedes S400 within the cordoned off area. The gendarme told me that it was Knight’s car. I asked what was happening with the car and offered to drive it to the school for Ms Culver. He said that he didn’t really care what happened to the car, but it would have to be moved soon, to allow traffic flow for the mid-afternoon peak. I thought for a moment and realised that I, too, had no interest in the Knight car, so returned to mine and drove back to the school.
During the journey I envisioned of a man being hit with a baguette and then toppling backwards. It seemed impossible, even with a flute. A full blow to the side of the head with a flute might render the opportunity for a bad pun but it would be unlikely to make you topple anywhere. There had to be more to it.
On returning to the school, I decided to have a chat with Jeanette Culver. I found her still in the anteroom, weeping noisily and smudging her makeup with tissues but, other than that, she seemed to have her emotions under control. I sat opposite and asked if she needed anything. A cup of tea, perhaps? She thanked me and nodded.
‘Is Taro coping?’ I asked as I returned with tea and biscuits from the secretarial stash.
‘Yes, I think so. The Head told him that he had to be a man and stop crying. He told Taro that when he was at school, during World War II, boys were told every day that their fathers were dead. They took it like men and got on with life. He said that he expected Taro to do the same and sent him back to class.’
Very sympathetic; especially from a man who wasn’t born until the nineteen seventies. ‘I’ve been down to the river. I noticed your car is still there. Could I give you a lift to pick it up?’
Jeanette nodded as she blew her nose with a small handkerchief.
During the short drive, she consumed a box of my tissues but managed to relate the events as she saw them unfold. She related how she and Knight had arrived at the dock and pulled off into the lay-by to wait for the ferry to cross from the other side. Knight wanted to stretch his legs and opened the driver’s side door. As he did so, the car door came in contact with the front wheel of a bicycle that was passing. The rider tumbled over the wheel and landed on the road with the grace of a dead bird. The man regained his feet and began to yell at Knight, in a foreign language that she couldn’t understand, and shook his fist in Knight’s face. Knight said something back to the man, which she understood but wasn’t prepared to repeat, and a scuffle broke out when the man removed his beret and hit Knight across the shoulder with it. Knight laughed at the man and called him a stupid frog, or something like that. Then the man leaned over and picked up a baguette from the handlebar basket of his shattered bike. He swung the baguette at Knight and hit him. Knight staggered backwards, tripped over a low wall and fell into the river.
No way, I thought. ‘I’m sorry to ask but did Sir Lucian stagger or was he driven backwards by the force of the blow?’
‘I really don’t know. All I remember is that when he was hit, Lucian was standing with his hands on his hips telling the man that Waterloo wasn’t a French victory and neither would there be one at Duclair.’
‘He was off balance then?’
‘I couldn’t tell. I was in the car and could only see him from his knees to his elbows.’
‘You didn’t see the impact of the baguette then?’
‘No. I just saw the man swing it.’
‘What happened next?’
‘The man threw the bread roll into the water and yelled at Lucian that he hoped he drowned.’
I was puzzled. Moments before, Jeanette had said that the man spoke in a foreign language. ‘Did he say that in English?’ I asked.
‘No. In his own language, but I’m sure that’s what he said. I could tell by the look in his eyes.’
After dropping Jeanette at her car, I returned to the school to find that Taro Knight had been sent to his dormitory for upsetting the tenor of his afternoon class by listening to the teacher. I was a little surprised that he could be so stupid but I accepted the teacher’s decision and looked in on Taro in his dorm room. He was sitting on his bed shaving his head. I decided not to disturb him.
I felt that I had to do something. There was a question without an answer; a physics conundrum that defied logic. After some thought, an idea made its way to the head of the line. I went to the school canteen and ordered three flute baguettes. They were fresh and their aroma sent a note of solicitation to my stomach. I walked them to my small apartment, placed two on the table and took the other on a visit to my old landlord and neighbour, Gerard Duplus. I chose Gerard because he is a crotchety old bastard of seventy and built like an anorexic pigeon. He has a bad heart and holds himself upright with the aid of a walking stick. I figured that if he could survive the impact of a baguette then anyone could.
Half an hour later he was ready. He stood before me with a wide grin displaying his half mouthful of wine stained teeth and a crumb guard that he had fashioned from a piece of cardboard and attached to the side of his head.
I leaned back and let fly. The baguette pounded into the crumb guard and fell apart. Gerard didn’t move. He just laughed at me and told me I would have to do better. I laughed with him and handed over the half case of wine that had been the basis of his agreeing to the stunt. Phase one was complete.
Two days later I picked up my second baguette. It had attained the consistency of granite. I thumped it into the palm of my left hand. It hurt. My idea could work. Gerard crossed my mind but I couldn’t afford more wine. I tried to think of someone who was both daring and cheap. No one came to mind so I decided to use an inanimate object and film the experiment.
Fifteen minutes later, I was ready. I set my digital camera to movie mode and pressed the go button. I stood back and drove the baguette into the side of a fence post. The baguette shattered like glass and crumbs flew helter-skelter.
I downloaded the film and examined it, pausing in appropriate places. The baguette had shattered on impact. Once the surface tension was broken it had acted as expected; it was just a stale bread roll. It wasn’t a weapon.
I slept on the problem that night. Something had made Knight stagger and that thing was a baguette. The answer dawned at sunrise. I could turn a baguette into a weapon. I could also, very easily, dispose of the evidence.
At eight thirty I was in my local boulangerie. At nine I was in the manual arts department of the school. At nine fifteen I had a weapon in my hand. It was a very fresh flute with a fifteen-millimetre pipe inserted along its length. At ten, I was talking to the young gendarme that I had met at the scene. I had seen the look on his face before; when we had first met. He tried to explain that there was no motive and no planning. He reminded me that one does not purchase baguettes complete with iron pipes. This was, at worst, a case for assault: a small fracas gone wrong, with incalculable results.
If I was right, there had been premeditation. How could that be? Knight was a tourist who was about to visit his son at school. The gendarme was right, of course. There could be no premeditation. I had espoused some scatterbrain scheme that had no basis in logic. My problem was that I believed that it did have logic. In fact, logic was the only virtue my idea possessed. The nagging question was why.
I returned to the ferry dock and stared into the middle distance across the river. If I was right, there would be a pipe of some sort lying at the bottom of the river, resting on the silt. I considered diving in to find out but remembered how the ferry needs to turn into the current to prevent their heading downstream. Diving in would be both futile and dangerous.
‘You have done well. Mr Mawson.’
I hadn’t heard anyone approach. I turned toward the French accented voice. A woman stood beside my car, face hidden in the shadow of a cowl. The image was tall and thin and stood motionless. I imagined a panther, toned to perfection, as leather pants and jacket moved seductively toward me. She pushed the cowl back to reveal long wavy hair and lipstick that matched the colour of her clothing. I had never seen anything so attractive in black in my life. Her face was narrow with a small, pointed nose, high cheekbones and wide expressive eyes with a hint of allure that belied her solemn expression. I realised that I knew the face. No, not the face, the eyes. I recognised the eyes. But larger…much larger than life and on a screen at the school in Lucian Knight’s latest epic. The test screening for a captive audience that gave Taro cred. Queen of the Night. This woman was Quenna Knight, Taro’s step mother and Lucian’s wife. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said, indicating that I hadn’t heard her correctly.
‘You have solved the mystery concerning what happened.’
‘An accident,’ I said, lamely.
‘Destiny, Mr Mawson.’
‘You had no reason to do anything, but you did. I thank you.’
A black Mercedes S400 pulled into the ferry by-pass. Jeanette Culver sat primly in the driver’s seat. A motor hummed and Taro Knight poked his newly bald head through the resultant opening of the rear window. ‘Goodbye, Mr Mawson, see you next term,’ Taro called, with the wide grin of someone granted an early holiday. ‘
‘That head needs a hat,’ I said, imagining a sunburnt scalp.
‘That head need a father.’
‘Yeah.’ I wrenched my foot from my mouth. ‘Lucky he has you and Jeanette Culver.’
‘I must be going,’ the woman said, leaning forward and kissing me on both cheeks. ‘Thank you again.’
I stood mesmerised as I watched her walk toward the car. ‘For what?’
She stopped and turned. ‘For being interested in what happened to my husband.’
A futile thought on a faulty premise, I thought.
‘Not at all. You will be vindicated.’
A futile thought on a faulty premise. I hadn’t said it out loud but she commented anyway. I looked at her eyes.
She blinked twice then smiled. ‘Just keep wondering. You will encounter much more on your journey. When you meet my mother tell her that I will be fine.’
‘What journey? What mother?’
‘You will know when the time comes. Au revoir et prendre soin, Scott.’
The car pulled away before I could say anything. I was left staring at Taro pulling faces at me through the rear window.
As the Mercedes pulled out onto the main road, a police van pull into the lay-by. I watched closely as two men donned scuba gear and another prepared some ropes. I couldn’t believe it. They were going to look; they would find the pipe. I stood to one side and watched them work. A short time later, another vehicle arrived and the young gendarme jumped out. He began to talk to the third man of the scuba team. He smiled, when he looked across at me, but said nothing. They both looked down into the murky waters of the river and waited.
After a few minutes a hooded head breached the surface, followed closely by another. They waved some sort of prearranged signal to the man on shore. He, in turn, began hauling on ropes. A box like container, which had been lowered into the water earlier, started to half float in the current. I waited to see what it contained and strained forward for a better view. I saw a rusty rod sticking out of the top of the box. My heart started to race. I had achieved something. I looked again. There were two rusty rods...no… three…no…six at least. My heart pounded but there was no elation. I shook my head in disbelief.
I watched as the divers unloaded more than a dozen rods and pipes from the box. Each one was marked, wrapped and placed into individual plastic bags.
The young gendarme approached me as soon as the divers finished loading. He was smiling and nodding his head. ‘Congratulations my friend. You were right. Ronin walked into the station this morning and confessed. He could not live with his guilt. He did it exactly as you said was possible.’
My breath expelled like a busted balloon. My shoulders slumped. It was more like defeat than victory. ‘Did he have a motive?’
‘Yes. That is why he confessed. He was preparing for a man in a black Mercedes whom he had seen leave his house and put his car on the ferry. His wife would not tell him who the man was. Monsieur Knight has such a car. He thought that the man opening the car door was to start a fight with him.’
‘He had the baguette prepared?’
‘Why are so many pipes?’
‘This ferry was sunk twice during the war. There are many more pipes down there to bring up. If we don’t get the needed DNA from these we will take more.’
The Police freely acknowledged my part in solving the case and the Media beat me up as a hero. The case became known as the Duclair Baguette Murder. That’s not its official name, of course but that name was the one coined by the media.
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