They came calling a week later.
It was Sunday afternoon, and for the past three weeks I had closed the cr^eperie on Sundays. The Snack-Wagon too was closed-he followed my own opening hours almost to the minute-and Paul and I were sitting in the yard with the last of the autumn sun warming our faces. I was reading, but Paul-never a reader in the old days-seemed content to sit doing nothing, occasionally looking at me in that mild undemanding way of his or maybe whittling at a piece of wood.
I heard the knock, and went to answer the door. It was Laure, businesslike in a dark-blue dress, with Yannick in his charcoal suit behind her. Their smiles were like piano keyboards. Laure was carrying a large plant with red and green leaves. I kept them on the doorstep.
“Who’s died?” I asked coolly. “Not me, not yet, though it isn’t for want of both of you bastards trying.”
Laure put on her pained look. “Now, Mamie,” she began.
“Don’t you ”Now Mamie‘ me,“ I snapped. ”I know all about your dirty little intimidation games. It isn’t going to work. I’d die rather than let you make a penny out of me, so you can tell your brother to pack up his grease cart and clear off, because I know what he’s up to, and if it doesn’t stop right now, then I swear I’ll go to the police and tell them exactly what you’ve been doing.“
Yannick looked alarmed and began to make placating noises, but Laure was made of tougher stuff. The surprise in her face lasted for maybe ten seconds, then hardened into a tight, dry smile.
“I knew from the start that we’d be better off telling you everything,” she said, with a flick of a contemptuous glance at her husband. “None of this is helping either of us, and I’m sure that once I explain everything you’ll understand the value of a little cooperation.”
I folded my arms. “You can explain what you like,” I said. “But my mother’s legacy belongs to me and Reine-Claude, whatever my brother told you, and there’s nothing more to be said about it.”
Laure gave me a broad, hateful smile of dislike. “Is that what you thought we wanted, Mamie? Your bit of money? Oh really! What a dreadful pair you must think us.” Suddenly I saw myself through their eyes, an old woman in a stained apron, sloe eyes and hair dragged back so tightly it stretched the skin. I growled at them then, like a bewildered dog, and grabbed hold of the doorpost to steady myself. My breath came in gasps, each one a journey through thorns.
“It isn’t that we couldn’t do with the money,” said Yannick earnestly. “The restaurant business isn’t doing well right now. That last review in H^ote & Cuisine didn’t help. And we’ve been having trouble-”
Laure quelled him with a glance. “I don’t want the money at all,” she repeated.
“I know what you want,” I said again, harshly, trying not to let my confusion show. “My mother’s recipes. But I won’t give them to you.”
Laure looked at me, still smiling. I realized that it wasn’t just recipes she wanted, and a cold fist tightened around my heart.
“No,” I whispered.
“Mirabelle Dartigen’s album,” said Laure gently. “Her very own album. Her thoughts, her recipes, her secrets. Our grandmother’s legacy to all of us. It’s a crime to keep something like that hidden away forever.”
The word wrenched from me, and I felt as if it were taking half of my heart with it. Laure started and Yannick took a step back. My breath was a throatful of fishhooks.
“You can’t keep it secret forever, Framboise,” said Laure reasonably. “It’s incredible no one found out before this. Mirabelle Dartigen”-she was flushed, almost pretty in her excitement-“one of the most elusive and enigmatic criminals of the twentieth century. Out of the blue she murders a young soldier and stands by coolly while half her village is shot in retribution, then she just walks off without a word of explanation-”
“It wasn’t like that,” I said in spite of myself.
“Then tell me what it was like,” said Laure, taking a step forward. “I’d consult you on everything. We’ve got the chance of a wonderful, exclusive insight here, and I know it will make a fabulous book…”
“What book?” I said stupidly.
Laure looked impatient. “What do you mean, what book? I thought you’d guessed. You said…”
I felt my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth. With difficulty I said, “I thought you were after the recipe book. After what you told me-”
She shook her head impatiently. “No, I need it to research my book. You read my pamphlet, didn’t you? You must have known I was interested in the case. And when Cassis told us she was actually related to us. Yannick’s grandmother-” She broke off again to grasp at my hand. Her fingers were long and cool, her nails painted shell-pink like her lips. “Mamie, you’re the last of her children. Cassis dead, Reine-Claude useless…”
“You went to see her?” I said blankly.
Laure nodded. “She doesn’t remember anything. A complete vegetable.” Her mouth was wry. “Plus no one in Les Laveuses remembers anything worth mentioning-or if they do, they won’t talk-”
“How do you know?” Rage had given way to a cold feeling, a realization that this was much worse than anything I had previously suspected.
She shrugged. “Luc, of course. I asked him to come over here, ask a few questions, buy some rounds at the old anglers’ club, you know what I mean.” She gave me that impatient, quizzical look. “You told me you knew all that.”
I nodded in silence, too benumbed to speak.
“I have to say you’ve managed to keep it quiet for longer than I would have thought possible,” continued Laure admiringly. “No one imagines that you’re anything but a nice Breton lady, la veuve Simon. You’re very much respected. You’ve done well for yourself here. No one suspects a thing. You never even told your daughter.”
“Pistache?” I sounded stupid to myself, my mouth yawning like my mind. “You’ve not been talking to her?”
“I wrote her a few letters. I thought she might know something about Mirabelle. But you never told her, did you?”
Oh, God. Oh, Pistache. I was in a landslide where every movement starts a new rockfall, bringing a new collapse of the world I thought steady.
“But what about your other daughter? When did you last hear from her? And what does she know?”
“You have no right, no right-” The words were harsh as salt in my mouth. “You don’t understand what it means to me-this place-if people get to know-”
“Now, now, Mamie.” I was too weak to push her away, and she put her arms around me. “Obviously, we’d keep your name out of it. And even if it got out-you have to face it, it might one day-then we’d find you another place. A better place. At your age you shouldn’t be living in a dilapidated old farm like this anyway-it doesn’t even have proper plumbing, for Christ’s sake-we could settle you in a nice flat in Angers, we’d keep the press away from you. We care about you, Mamie, whatever you may think. We’re not monsters. We want what’s best for you-”
I pushed her away with more strength than I knew I had.
Gradually I became aware of Paul standing silently behind me, and my fear blossomed into a great flower of rage and elation. I was not alone. Paul, my loyal old friend, was with me now.
“Think what it might mean to the family, Mamie.”
“No!” I began to push the door closed, but Laure put her high heel into the crack.
“You can’t hide away forever-”
Then Paul stepped forward into the doorway. He spoke in a calm and slightly drawling voice, the voice of a man who is either deeply at peace or a little slow in the head.
“Maybe you didn’t hear Framboise.” His smile was almost sleepy but for the wink he gave me, and in that moment I loved him completely and with a suddenness which startled away my rage. “If I’ve understood this right, then she doesn’t want to do business. Isn’t that so?”
“Who’s this?” said Laure. “What’s he doing here?”
Paul gave her his sweet and sleepy smile. “A friend,” he told her simply. “From way back.”
“Framboise,” called Laure from behind Paul’s shoulder. “Think about what we said. Think about what it means. We wouldn’t ask you if it wasn’t important. Think about it-”
“I’m sure she will,” said Paul kindly, and closed the door. Laure began to knock persistently upon it, and Paul drew the latch and put on the safety chain. I could hear her voice, muffled by the thickness of the wood, now with a high buzzing note in it.
“Framboise! Be reasonable! I’ll tell Luc to go away! Things can go back to the way they were! FRAMBOISE!”
“Coffee?” suggested Paul, going into the kitchen. “Make you feel…you know…better.”
I glanced at the door. “That woman,” I said in a shaking voice. “That hateful woman.”
Paul shrugged. “Take it outside,” he suggested simply. “Won’t hear her from there.”
It was as easy as that to him, and I followed, exhausted, as he brought me hot black coffee with cinnamon cream and sugar, and a slice of blueberry far from the kitchen cupboard. I ate and drank in silence for a while until I felt my courage return.
“She won’t give up,” I told him at last. “Either way she’ll keep at me until she forces me out. Then, she knows there won’t be any point in me keeping the secret any longer.” I put my hand to my aching head. “She knows I can’t hang on forever. All she has to do is wait. I won’t last long anyhow.”
“Are you going to give in to her?” Paul’s voice was calm and curious.
“No,” I said harshly.
He shrugged. “Then you shouldn’t talk as if you are. You’re smarter than she is.” For some reason he was blushing. “And you know you can win if you try-”
“How?” I knew I sounded like my mother, but I couldn’t help it. “Against Luc Dessanges and his friends? Against Laure and Yannick? It hasn’t been two months yet and already they’ve half-ruined my business. All they need to do is go on the way they began, and by spring…” I made a furious gesture of frustration. “And what about when they start talking? All they have to say-” I choked on the words. “All they have to do is mention my mother’s name…”
Paul shook his head. “I don’t think they’ll do that,” he said calmly. “Not at once, anyway. They want something to bargain with. They know you’re afraid of that.”
“Cassis told them,” I said dully.
He shrugged. “Doesn’t matter,” he said. “They’ll leave you alone for a while. Hope to make you come around. Try to make you see sense. They’ll want you to do it of your own accord.”
“So?” I could feel my anger reaching toward him now. “How long does that leave me? A month? Two? What can I do with two months? I could rack my brains for a year and it still wouldn’t do any-”
“That’s not true.” He spoke flatly, without resentment, pulling a single crumpled Gauloise from his top pocket and popping a match against his thumb to light it. “Do anything you’ve a mind to do. Always could.” He looked at me then over the red eye of the cigarette and gave his small, sad smile. “Remember from the old days. You caught Old Mother, didn’t you?”
I shook my head. “That isn’t the same thing,” I told him.
“It is, though, just about,” replied Paul, dragging acrid smoke. “You must know that. You can learn a lot about life from fishing.”
I looked at him, puzzled. He went on: “Take Old Mother, now. How d’you catch her, when all those others didn’t?”
I considered that for a moment, thinking back to my nine-year-old self. “I studied the river,” I said at last. “I learned about the old pike’s habits, where it fed, what it fed on. And I waited. I was lucky, that’s all.”
“Hm.” The cigarette flared again, and he breathed smoke through his nostrils. “And if this Dessanges was a fish. What then?” He grinned suddenly. “Find where he feeds. Find the right bait, and he’s yours. Isn’t that right?”
I looked at him.
“Isn’t that right?”
Maybe. Hope scratched a thin silver trail across my heart. Maybe.
“I’m too old to fight them,” I said. “Too old and too tired.”
Paul put his rough brown hand over mine and smiled. “Not to me,” he said.