French Girls - New Fiction by Amie Barrodale

New fiction by Amie Barrodale about runaways, crooks, liars, and other people in varying degrees of trouble.

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Nov 6 2014, 5:00am

Illustrations by Jonny Ruzzo

VICE has always introduced its fiction pieces, a tradition that I have never quite understood. Usually I write these introductions. My name is Amie Barrodale. I'm the fiction editor of VICE, and I wrote this story.

I tend to get excited in the intros, even though before writing them I always say, "Why do we do these, again?" and then the managing editor, Ryan Grim, generally ignores the question, wisely, and I send him my exuberant introduction. But this time, since it's my story, it's different.

Lately, for some reason, I've been writing weird stories that make me uncomfortable as a writer. I don't mean "weird" as in "plotless," or "subjective," or "imaginative." I mean "weird" in the sense that they are plot-driven and tend to lack what the best teachers of short stories call an "emotional question." (I don't say "the best teachers" with any irony.) I didn't set out to write this kind of story. I never really set out to do anything. It just sort of happened. This is the first time I'm publishing a story that is plot-driven, with no emotional question (I could pretend it has one, but I'd be lying), and I'm scared because I feel like this kind of story is totally out of fashion. I feel like I am wearing bell-bottoms in the 80s or a polo with the collar up today, or whatever would be really outré. In the world of fiction, publishing this kind of story is like farting in the TV room around your mother-in-law.

My husband, Clancy Martin, and I were in Cuba two summers ago. We were on a ferry, and a French girl caught my eye. She was about 13 or 14 and was traveling with her family. She wasn't beautiful, but she was very attractive, and she knew it. She had that attraction of being totally unbeaten by the world. I couldn't stop staring at her, and her sister, or it could have been her friend, who seemed less fearless. When I got home I started writing about them. I couldn't get that girl out of my head. It wasn't one of those lightning-strike, inspired stories. It was more like one thing led to another, and now here we are.

Paul Lemercier touched the broken crown with the tip of his tongue. The metal underneath the porcelain felt rough. His Cuban dentist had installed a crown on the upper incisor on the right side of his mouth. The crown was a bit too big, and Lemercier could see her hesitate to use it. She popped it in, took it out, and filed it over and over again before cementing it into place. Two days later, Lemercier bit into a slice of pizza with the new crown, and the veneer of a French crown on the other side of his mouth cracked. The French crown was in back, a molar. The break was on the inside, only visible at unusual moments, but it made talking awkward. Lemercier lisped very slightly.

He had his hand inside his left desk drawer. He gripped his can of pepper spray, ran an index finger along the upper right corner of the envelope. Everyone in foreign service had "escape routes," "parachutes," "fuck-you money." His money was gone, so his way out was more elaborate. He played with the tape on the corner of the envelope.

At the club, he had met a boy who took diamonds to the airport every week. The boy kept trying to give Lemercier "K-max," the Cuban mix of speed and ecstasy, and he talked a lot. "I'm addicted to ecstasy," he said. "I've done more X than anyone I know. I don't need you to buy my drinks. I have money." He took out his wallet and opened it. "I have diamonds, too," he said, and took seven tiny little diamonds from the inside pocket of his wallet and said, "I am the dragon!"

***

The teenager on the other side of Lemercier's desk, the self-described criminal, had a knee under her chin and a sandaled foot on his armchair. She had been trying for several minutes to peel her big toenail. She said, "I want to see a lawyer."

"You don't understand," Lemercier said as he closed his desk drawer. "There is absolutely no cause for anything of that nature. I am protecting you from an interrogation by the Cuban authorities, which I can assure you would not involve any kind of lawyer, and I am trying to arrange-"

He stopped short, because it was not an extradition, precisely: The French government was not interested in pressing charges. Yet Violaine had said the first priority was to identify the two girls and find their parents. She had the other girl in her office. Both were traveling under stolen French passports, both spoke fluent, Parisian French, and both regarded their presence in the embassy as a police interrogation. Now the teenager was picking her nose. Right in front of him. Inspecting it and wiping it under her chair.

"Are you thirsty?" he asked.

"I want to see a lawyer. Advocate. Attorney. You know these words? I believe in your eyes I am a criminal? And so I have rights?"

"Let's start with the basics. This passport is forged. You are Parisian, aren't you? Why travel with a fake passport?"

She frowned. She returned her attention to her nose.

Without meaning to, he had fallen back into the role of interrogator. The situation called for delicacy and calm. He needed a walk. He needed to clear his head. The phone call back to the family attorney in Paris had been a mistake. It had shaken his confidence. He stood.

"I am going to get a cup of coffee. Would you like for me to get you something as well? Coke, coffee, or water? Maybe some biscuits. Have you eaten? I am sure something can be arranged."

"Coke Light if you have it."

"Of course."

"Well, how do I know? It's not like I've been here."

Lemercier excused himself.

"Mr. Lemercier, what is happening?" his secretary asked.

He sniffed in answer, his chin tucked. Outside, finding the hallway empty, he took a moment to lean against the cool marble wall.

He could do this. At 4 PM every Thursday, the boy went to a certain building and carried out a parcel of cut diamonds in a knapsack.

Lemercier replayed the conversation from their last date in his mind.

"But seriously. Why is anyone cutting diamonds in Cuba?"

"They smuggle them into the country and out of the country, so there's no question of import taxes. They're close to the United States, and it's cheap labor. Plus they hired some famous diamond cutter who did something back in Switzerland, and he's, like, hiding out here. It's all very secret. But I guess some government people are in on it. I don't know. I shouldn't talk about it."

"It's very impressive. Why do you take the risk? Isn't it very dangerous?"

"I can take care of my whole family. It's a really cool job. Plus they trust me. It's always done like that. It's not like the movies, with the briefcase handcuffed to your wrist. Man, I shouldn't be telling you this, but this is how much they trust me. My normal run is about thirty carats, all small stones. Like fifty of them in a packet."

Lemercier had his arm around the boy's shoulders, and he pulled him in for a long kiss. He worried about his breath because of his tooth. "This is fascinating."

"No, listen to this. Next week I'm carrying stones that just came in from the Netherlands. Seventeen diamonds, over ten carats each. In one shipment. Next week I'm actually flying them to London. They got me a suit made, some shoes-like spy shit, undercover. I get to stay in a hotel. They told me it's worth, like, I don't even know. A million US dollars?"

Lemercier had nodded. Two of those diamonds were probably worth a million dollars. But 17? He was going to leave this country.

***

Alone in Mr. Lemercier's office, Sophie got up and walked around the old man's desk. She sat in his swivel chair. She picked up a pencil and put it down, read the return address on an envelope. She opened the middle desk drawer and riffled through rolls of accountant tape, a money bag full of yellow pencils, and a journal. She flipped it open and read out loud, with an exaggerated lisp: "My father taught me a man must always have four things. Very expensive shoes, and they must be polished. An expensive belt, polished, a very expensive blazer, tailored, and if you are not wearing a tie, you must have a pocket square." She snorted. She opened the left-hand desk drawer and several bottles of prescription pills rolled forward. She picked up one, read "Doxycycline," and put it down. She picked up a second bottle, read "Hydrocodone"-"Cool," she said-and took the bottle.

When Lemercier returned, he found the girl resting her feet on his bookshelf. He put the crystal tumbler of TuKola Light on a coaster. He walked around the desk, straightened some papers, moved a yellow pencil, and sat. He looked at her. He needed to find the question that would convince her that she could trust him.

She said, "I was looking at your books. You can learn a lot about a person from their bookshelves, you know. You like American literature and self-help."

"The self-help books were gifts from María, my secretary. I keep them out of good manners. But the novels are my own. Are any of them of interest to you? Are you a reader?"

She took a sip of her TuKola and put the glass onto the surface of his Louis Quinze desk. "How old are you?"

"I'm forty-five."

"I thought you were, like, sixty. Nice pocket square, by the way. Nice belt."

Lemercier was confused. "I need cooperative answers to my questions. If I told you what they would do to you in a Cuban prison-"

"Threats! I should get a phone call."

He lifted the cradle of his phone. "Let me get you an outside line."

"I'm serious. I have rights."

"In fact it is very serious."

"In fact I am very bored."

"What is your real name?"

"Sophie."

"And your family name?"

She shrugged. "I'm a runaway. I've been on my own almost a year, but I'm not one of those fake homeless you see, the ones in Paris who get facial tattoos to prove they're for real. Can you imagine being that desperate to fit in?"

Lemercier squinted.

"They have homes! It's such a lie. Is this really Coke Light? It tastes like shit."

Lemercier placed two fingers over the End Call button on his phone. He arranged his features and waited.

Sophie said, "My father is American. His name is Michael Hunt. He works at a bank. I can give you the number. Mike will be happy to get a call, and then we'll see who needs a lawyer, Mr. Self-Help Books. What do those books teach you?"

She recited a number. Several moments passed, and Lemercier said, "Operator." He waited. "Operator." He said to Sophie, "I am on hold."

She said, "This country is so dumb. Did you ask to come here?"

Lemercier lowered his head and stroked the skin of his scalp with two fingers. "You don't have a cell phone?"

"Mike said I was too young. Mike always says I'm too young for everything. Mike says I'm too young for music; Mike says I'm too young to have a date. Mike is a dick."

Lemercier's head snapped up, "Yes, Mike Hunt please, the matter is very urgent."

Sophie laughed. Lemercier looked perplexed, looked at the phone, then hung it up. He nearly blurted something he might have regretted later.

Sophie lifted her head, looking out in the hallway. Lemercier followed her gaze. The hallway was empty. He turned back to her. She said, "My mother's name is Dominique Shaftes."

"Right. Your father's name is My Cunt and your mother's name is Dominique Shaft. You really are cracking me up. I am increasingly inclined to take you back to the jail I found you in this morning."

"It's true, dummy. Don't get so hyper." She recited a phone number and said, "Call that. That's my mom. Now I have to use the bathroom. Is that a crime?"

***

In the ladies' room, Paulette was leaning over the sink, splashing her face with cold water.

"You can't imagine what that bitch was like."

Sophie pushed her bottom lip up and tilted her head to one side. "Mine is an old homo. I tell you I learned more from that hobo pickpocket than anyone else-watch the things people touch, Paulette."

"Did you talk?" Paulette asked. She turned to Sophie and extended her arms. "Mine tortured me. She kept calling me a spoiled Parisian brat, the bougnat. She used phone books so it didn't leave a mark."

"It's not an interrogation. But no, I did not 'talk.' Were you crying?"

"The bitch gave me a tissue."

Sophie went to the window. It was a seven-foot drop onto a flat, lower roof. "Come on." She jumped, walked to the edge of the roof, and lowered herself onto the grass.

***

"Violaine? I'm sorry to interrupt your phone call. There is a small problem."

Violaine held up an index finger. She listened to the person on the other line, then laughed. "You can't be serious. I'm sorry, I'm laughing because it seems so ridiculous. My father managed the factory that manufactured rails for the TGV, so I have a very punctilious nature."

She put a hand over the phone. "I am on the phone."

Mr. Lemercier shook his head to say no. "The two French girls have run away."

Violaine placed the headset on its cradle. "My girl went to the bathroom. Check the bathroom, please. Her name is Paulette."

"The bathroom is empty. They are not on the grounds. We are already looking for them. But I don't want to call the police."

She stood, five foot two in patent heels. "I think I misunderstood you. What did you say?"

"The girls ran away."

She blanched. After Lemercier had repeated himself several times, had affirmed that they were gone, she said, "Well, I've never experienced anything like this. Not even in India. It's positively catastrophic."

"Yes."

"Paul, this is entirely your fault. Why did you bring the girls here? Why did you allow the girl to go to the bathroom alone, without even sending María? You were just letting them roam the halls of the embassy?"

"I brought them here because they are French citizens. Yours was already in the bathroom-"

She laughed. "Paul, I think you know better. Please. Two high school girls, counterfeiters, traveling under assumed names, with forged documents-I'm sorry, but I suspect there is more to it than that. Honestly, something has been going on with you for some time now, but this is of a whole new order. If I find you're involved with these girls in some way..."

"What an accusation."

"What else can I assume? Two teenage girls just escape without any assistance? Just walk out?"

Paul sat down in a chair in the corner of Violaine's office.

"I never intended to be in service," he murmured. "I had a vision of diplomacy from the movies."

He fiddled his broken crown with his tongue. He had resigned several times in the past. When his father was alive he had even composed and delivered a letter by hand. Marc had laughed and torn it up. But now Violaine was implicitly encouraging him to resign, and that would not do at all. A resignation would initiate formalities, and formalities would draw attention at a time when he had to be invisible.

He murmured, "I used to sing. In the small clubs, but my father didn't support me. He felt it was an embarrassment. I guess sometimes a friend, or someone's son, would see me. It wasn't like that. Not what you think. It was a Joy Division-style band. I resembled Ian Curtis. Everyone said so. I had a following."

"Paul!"

"I'm sorry," he stood up. "I was momentarily overwhelmed."

"Find those girls."

***

Lemercier drove home. He went to the sun porch of his Vedado mansion. He set his iPhone timer to half an hour. The day's dramatics-the escape of the girls, his resolution to commit the crime, the mysterious loss of the envelope-would not cloud his judgment. He sat according to the instructions in The Secret. He put his palms onto his knees, lowered his eyelids, and imagined a safe place.

He was safe beneath the water of his home pool in Paris, the breath expelled from his lungs as he sat cross-legged on the floor of the deep end, and everything was quiet. The girls had made their own bed, and they would have to lie in it. This was no longer his problem, though he had in fact tried to help. Surely they would be all right. Violaine would locate them.

He had gotten distracted. He returned to his safe place. He opened his eyes, but without his spectacles everything was an obsidian blur.

Why couldn't he be content? Why did he always-even in the situations when his dreams were almost realized-find a matter for concern? He could have been happy in Havana. Didn't people come to Havana from all over the world? Hadn't Hemingway made it his home? Even Violaine was not really so bad. What kind of adult devotes two years to the memorization of Robert's Rules of Order solely to undermine a superior-out of petty resentment? Why did he never rise above? Why hadn't he simply told María to accompany the girl? But it was not his fault after all. Violaine's suspect had also escaped. She had very conveniently forgotten about that. Why hadn't he been intelligent? If he'd just thought for a moment, he could have turned it on her, but he fell into the trap. Return to the pool floor, safe place, obsidian. Was it too late to get out? This was not a road he wanted to go down. Could he really just snatch a backpack full of diamonds? It would be so easy. My God, he could not survive in jail-and why was he blaming himself? He was not a police officer; he was a diplomat-a straight-A student with connections and wealth, or so he had been. His father's face took form in his imagination. "Come home to Paris, Paul. I need you now." A good son takes care of his parents. He thought about his mother's dog. That dog on its cushion by the outdoor firepit. What problems did Lulu have? He got lost in a memory of being young. He would cry when he had to leave his mother. He would call home during sleepovers, "to say hi." Later it was she who spent his final day in Paris with him. "You know you can always come home," she said. Then he heard his father: "A man needs four things."

"Motherfucker!" he shouted.

He had left the little bitch alone in his office. She had taken his envelope.

***

Sophie was leaning against the headboard. Paulette was passed out from champagne and hydrocodone; her headphones had fallen out of her ears, and her iPod was stuck to her chest. The hotel room had a picture window that overlooked the city. It was after midnight, and because of the light Sophie could see her reflection in the window.

Sophie had her cell phone pressed between two pointer fingers. She was trying to see how long she could bear to look at her reflection. She could sometimes do it long enough that her face changed shape and began to move.

In bed beside her were the contents of Lemercier's envelope. Her phone chimed, and she looked at it, but she did not write back: Her mother had landed in Havana.

***

Lemercier's secretary was frantic, already speaking when he entered the office.

"I didn't know you would be coming in! I didn't know what to do. I took away the bonbons from your end table."

"What?"

"They were from France."

"María, you are not making any sense."

"The bonbons were from France, and she was eating them all! Dominique Shaftes. The mother of the girl, the French counterfeiter, is in your office, and she was eating these. I took them away."

"She is welcome to the chocolate."

"They were from France."

María did not look well. In fact she looked much more exhausted than he. Lemercier said, "Yesterday we had a trying day. You were right. You were right to protect my chocolate."

"I wasn't taking them for myself."

He paused. He took his pocket square from his pocket. He began to wipe his forehead, then saw that María was close to tears. He handed her the red and blue handkerchief.

"Please do not worry, María."

"Thank goodness you are here."

"I've come in only for a moment. I will have to leave it to you to babysit Mrs. Shaftes. Should you need assistance, please call Violaine."

"Mr. Lemercier?"

He held up a hand. "I understand. Please bring me a cup of coffee, and something to eat for Mrs. Shaftes."

When she had left the room, Lemercier went to the bottom of the pool. He told himself that there was no cause for alarm. He was safe. In his office, he had a worried mother-nothing more. He threw open his office door wearing his most reassuring smile.

"Mrs. Shaftes! What a pleasure."

Mrs. Shaftes was barefoot. Her support hose were draped over the edge of his sofa. She jerked her head up and said, "Uh-oh," and spilled cocoa down the front of her shirt.

"A pleasure," he said. "A pleasure."

"A pleasure?" Mrs. Shaftes echoed him.

"I'm very sorry. In these circumstances one always says the wrong thing. Please forgive me."

Lemercier casually opened his side drawer and reached back for the envelope-perhaps he had missed it the day before? No. It was definitely gone.

"Mrs. Shaftes, could I bring you some bottled water? Water with gas?"

"Yesterday when we spoke, you called me and said my daughter was here. You said she was in the bathroom, and you said it would be wise for me to stay put. I have not taken your advice. I have come here. I am a mother. But I don't understand your secretary's French. Can I see Sophie?"

"Yes, of course." He put his pepper spray into his jacket pocket and opened his right-hand drawer, hoping to find his envelope, but no, it was not there. "If you will give me a moment. You must be overwhelmed."

Mrs. Shaftes's phone chimed. "Thank God!" she said. She started to cry, and then to laugh. She turned her phone toward Lemercier.

He read a text from Sophie: "Yo. Let's meet for coffee."

"You wonderful man!"

Lemercier thought for a moment. He composed himself.

"Yes, of course it's all arranged. I will drive."

The jazz piano riffed again. Mrs. Shaftes said, "Oh, my daughter! Better and better! She's met a boy!"

She turned the screen toward Lemercier. He looked more closely. Without realizing what he was doing, he grabbed the phone out of her hand.

On Mrs. Shaftes's screen was a smiling picture of ChiChi, his boy from the club, the diamond courier, with his arm wrapped around Sophie.

Another text rolled up. "Why don't you both meet us here? We are at Paul's favorite pastry shop. Ask Paul. Tell him I say hi."

Another jazz riff. Lemercier read the text.

"Ask Paul to drive, he knows the way. Tell him we made an early pickup. Tell him we need his assistance with travel arrangements. Or else. He'll understand. Tell him ChiChi says hi."

***

On their way down the winding marble staircase Lemercier did damage control. He said, "We'll get this whole matter cleaned up right now. Don't worry about anything else, Mrs. Shaftes. I am managing the situation."

Violaine came out of the women's room. She said, "What situation?"

"This is a French national who has overstayed her visa," Lemercier explained. He took Mrs. Shaftes by the arm. "Mrs. Shaftes, this is Violaine, our director. Violaine, I introduce Dominique Shaftes. I'm afraid we're in a bit of a hurry."

"We're going to meet Sophie at her hotel," Mrs. Shaftes said. "I am the mother."

"The mother of who?"

"Sophie Shaftes, the French girl saved from prison by this man."

"Let's not get ahead of ourselves," Lemercier said. "We really have to go now. I will call you shortly."

Mrs. Shaftes reached into her pocket for her phone. "What a charming accent you have, Violaine. Is that Alsatian? I love those quaint little towns. She has texted me-well, the battery is dead. But we're so happy. Mr. Lemercier has solved everything. He put her in the nicest hotel. She even met a boy!"

Violaine looked back and forth between the two. She said, "I'm coming with you."

***

Lemercier suggested that Violaine drive. A block from the café, he said, "I will get out while you find a place to park, Violaine."

"I'll come along." Mrs. Shaftes began to open her car door, and he pushed it shut and waved. "All right, then. All right." He waved and smiled. Violaine looked at him, confused and suspicious.

"All right, then," he said, and smiled wider. He jogged across the busy street, dodging traffic.

Sophie, Paulette, and the boy were sharing a table. He marched to them. He needed to immediately control this dialogue.

"Sophie!" Lemercier said. "What a-"

"You know, from a certain angle, Paul, that tooth in back you have looks completely blasted out."

Lemercier was dumbfounded.

"Did you think people couldn't see?" Sophie asked.

"I find it charming," ChiChi said. "It's like a chipped teacup, or an old Grecian marble."

The boy smiled happily at Lemercier, who nodded. "It's nice to meet you, ChiChi. I'm Paul. It's nice to meet you."

"You just met?" Sophie asked.

"Yes, just met."

Sophie snorted.

Lemercier was still standing. Paulette was loaded on something. Lemercier sat down at the table.

"So," he said, "you have them? In the bag. The... you know.

"The diamonds?" Sophie suggested.

"Let me see them."

"Paul. As though we would give you my diamonds," Sophie said.

ChiChi looked confused. He took the backpack off the chair and held it in his lap.

"We shouldn't talk about my delivery. Paul, you look nice in a suit."

"We need you to arrange our flights."

"You know your mother is here."

"Yes, she texted me. I didn't answer."

"She's coming now. What do you want? What do you think you are doing?"

"I think we are a team now, and I want you to arrange our flight to Paris."

"I am going to London," ChiChi said. "I have a hotel."

"Yes, I can do that, Sophie. I'll give you a percentage. I offer ten."

"For what? Paul." She switched to French so that ChiChi could not understand them. "I have the stones, the envelope. I offer you ten."

Lemercier glanced for Violaine and Dominique. They were half a block away.

"I offer you twenty-five."

"I offer you ten."

She shook her head. "Ten is yours. It is non-negotiable."

ChiChi said, "I think we should all speak in English. You don't see Paul and me talking Spanish."

Dominique and Violaine were approaching the table.

"I think if we all spoke in Spanish it would be nicer," ChiChi said.

"Don't fuck with me," Lemercier said, and stood. "Violaine, Dominique. A pleasure."

Mrs. Shaftes went to Sophie. "Give your poor mother a hug. Paulette, how could you let her talk you into this one? This time you have really gone too far, sweet flappers."

Paulette seemed to hear the sound of her own name. Her eyelids fluttered.

Violaine said, "You all have your passports? Legal, correct passports? Of course you do not have passports. Who is this boy?" She turned to ChiChi and said in coarse, awkward Spanish: "You.

Leave, please."

ChiChi stood to go. Paul put a hand on his shoulder and pressed him back into the chair.

"Yes," said Paul.

Violaine frowned. "I am not asking you."

"We don't," Sophie said. She shot Lemercier a look.

Dominique said, "Violaine? Violaine?" She patted her on the shoulder pad. "Thank you for arranging this today. You and Paul have been so helpful. This is all just wonderful. Yes, I think we'd better leave. The thing is, you understand, well, my ticket from France cost a lot because it was last-minute. I had to fly first-class. Ordinarily it would be no problem. I may have to call my bank to extend my credit. Can I use your telephone? My battery is dead." She fished her phone out of her bag. "You see? Dead."

"I can escort you onto the plane. I'll tell Maricruz we're arriving. Please do not get off if you have any layovers, or it will be a nightmare for you. I'll drive them to the airport." Violaine stood and

walked away from the table. She talked briskly to her secretary.

Dominique was engrossed with her daughter. Violaine was barking on the phone about her father and the TGV. ChiChi was regarding him and Sophie with dawning understanding. Lemercier

reached into his pocket. He put his hand around the can of pepper spray.

He aimed squarely at Sophie. She threw her hands to his face, and he lunged for the envelope. The Cuban boy was beginning to stand, to defend himself. Lemercier sprayed his eyes and grabbed the backpack, and then, he couldn't say why, he paused to shoot pepper spray at Mrs. Shaftes. She had her head turned, as she was calling for the waiter, and he got her square in the mouth. Paulette, loaded on hydrocodone and champagne, would later have no memory of being sprayed.

Lemercier had the envelope and the bag. He would need to get to Santiago de Cuba and leave by boat. He started to run. Before he made it to the sidewalk he was tackled from behind. Violaine was cursing like the bougnat she was. "You stupid, crazy, dumb motherfucker. I got you now, motherfucker. You like that?" She punched him. He still had the pepper spray in his hand, and he managed to depress the trigger. Through squinted eyelids, with Violaine kneeling on his back and punching him in the back of the head, he saw Sophie pick up the backpack, find the curb, and hail a car. She used the Cuban method, of beckoning with two fingers, hand pointed down.

***

It was a beautiful day in the Massif Central. The sky was absolutely transparent, like a blue bowl overhead, and Lemercier was a master of toast. An aristocratic woman flagged him from a terrace table. In his first months at Lulu, he would have run over, absolutely intimidated, but now he was regaining some of his Lemercier hauteur. Also, and this surprised him, he took pride in being a good waiter. He had the instinct and triage; he knew what to respond to and what to ignore-even a woman who was clearly from one of the old families. The most important thing, the key to breakfast, was the toast. He brought the baguette-his baguette, the bread he made with his hands-to each table perfectly browned and steaming hot. He made two café crèmes while the baguette toasted, then arranged it in a gingham tea towel in a basket, and put it onto a tray along with orange juice, ice water, the two café crèmes, and several glasses of champagne. As he delivered these items, the woman continued to raise her head and follow him pointedly. Yes, yes, I see you and I will come, he thought. It was a glorious day. He wore a white shirt, a black vest, a black tie, his sleeves rolled-it was surprising how easily a good waiter, one who behaved as though he were indifferent, could get laid here in the provinces.

His mother's dog was at the woman's feet. "Mr. Lemercier? Mr. Lemercier!"

After the arrest, he had spent several days in a Cuban jail. Then his father's lawyer had used up the last power of the Lemercier name to arrange for his extradition. While waiting for a connecting flight from New York to Paris, he had seen Violaine on CNN. The skin around her eyes was red and swollen. She said, "He was unstable for a long time-this was well known-but we tried to keep him within the fold, because we knew a great deal of it was in response to the family shame. The truth is, I pity him. He needs psychiatric help. There were signs-disorientation, I believe he had joined a cult-but I am ashamed to say that I did not heed them. I'm just grateful he didn't have access to a gun. It might have been... well, I might not be here in Havana, the most chic destination in the Caribbean, speaking with you now."

Lemercier never saw the girls again. He had been tried and found guilty of assault, imprisoned for three months, and fined. It was money he did not have. The government put him onto a payment plan. The incident-Sophie's diamond theft-had gone unreported. The stone-cutting operation could sustain the loss, he supposed. Or perhaps they had killed her, he secretly hoped.

The woman raised her fork. "Paul, it's me! Dominique! In the lap of luxury, with you to thank."

He blinked.

"I wanted to give you this. It's from Sophie, really."

She handed him an envelope. Inside was 200,000 euros.