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The Third Girl
The Luckiest Woman Ever
The Prisoner of Castillac
Also by Nell Goddin
Nancy Drew Does it Again
A Prequel Short
About the Author
She was being ridiculous, no question about it. Yes, it had been years since she studied French, and she hadn’t exactly been a top student, but surely she could muddle along well enough to buy a pastry to have with her afternoon coffee. The shops were there to sell their wares, not judge her accent; and with that thought Molly Sutton perched a straw hat (brand new, véritable Panama the sign had promised) on her wild curls and marched down her short driveway and into the village, determined to get her first éclair, having moved to Castillac just three days before.
Three days had not been long enough to learn her way around the rabbit warren of narrow streets, but Molly had a good sense of direction and she was having one of those moments of elation that ex-pats sometimes experience—when they are not in the grip of their adopted country’s bureaucracy or finding out they have just eaten something like lark pie. The golden limestone of the buildings was warm and lovely. It was the end of summer but there was no chill in the air, and she kept up a brisk pace, peering into windows and backyards, drinking it all in. She had no idea where to find a pâtisserie but steered towards the center of the village.
Interesting how everyone seems to hang all their underwear on the line—doesn’t it dry hard as cardboard, she wondered. She stopped at the backyard of one house and looked at the clothes strung out on the line, dancing rather gaily in the breeze. She was tempted to hop over the fence and touch a pair of those expensive-looking panties to see just how soft they were, but maybe trespassing to touch the neighbor’s underthings might not make the best first impression.
She could see that the underwear was La Perla. Soft, well-cut, très cher and probably worth every penny, she mused. I think if I had underwear that nice, I wouldn’t hang it out in the baking sun. It deserves hand washing at the least and should be, I don’t know, dried by the beating of hummingbird wings or something.
Molly stood at the fence, looking at the three bikinis and a cami, neatly clipped with wooden clothes pins. The alley was so quiet. No sound but the steady hum of cicadas. She looked to see if anyone was around and slowly leaned against the fence and reached her fingers towards a pair of bikinis with a pink ribbon running around the top.
Someone shouted something she didn’t understand. Molly jerked her hand back and looked around to see who had spoken. The man next door had come into his backyard and was talking to his neighbor over the fence.
Quickly she ducked her head and trotted around the next turn. A street of shops was just ahead. A bustle of people out doing errands, having a midmorning petit café, and gossiping with neighbors. Molly wandered along looking at the unfamiliar shapes of the rooftops, at the signage in windows; listening to French but not catching a single word; smelling roasting chicken that smelled so good it brought tears to her eyes.
Everything was not what she was used to, and she loved everything if only for that.
The street curved around to the right, and then straight ahead was a large fountain. Several students from the art school were perched on the rim with drawing pads and serious expressions as they sketched. Molly walked up and sat on the rim herself, people-watching, until she remembered the éclair and went off to look for a pâtisserie in earnest. She had loads of work to do—the cottage on her property was nowhere near ready for guests and she had her first booking coming in a matter of days. She should be shopping for sheets and pillows and giving the place a good scrubbing, instead of wandering around hunting for sweets. But she was feeling indulgent: after the couple of years she had just been through, she was in France seeking pleasure and calm. And she was going to wallow in it, savoring every delicious moment.
She found herself in front of a small shop painted on the outside in red enamel, with gold lettering over the doorway in a flourishing script, PâtisserieBujold. The smell of butter and vanilla practically grabbed her by the shirt and pulled her inside.
“Bonjour, Madame,” said a small man behind the counter.
“Bonjour, Monsieur,” said Molly, her eyes wide. Under the glass, row after row of pastries so beautiful they looked like jewels. Delectable, mouth-watering jewels, arranged by a true artist, color-coordinated and symmetrical as a parterre. Should she go for the mille-feuille, with its bajillion layers of crisp pastry sandwiched with custard and a swirly icing on top? She leaned forward, nearly pressing her nose on the glass. The strawberry tarts looked amazing, but they were out of season and probably didn’t taste as good as they looked. The cream puff with whipped cream spilling out of it was calling to her. But she had so dreamed of an éclair….
Molly snapped out of a sort of trance. She took a deep breath and gathered her courage. “The pastries, she pretty,” she said, wincing at her horrible French.
The man smiled and stepped out from around the counter. His eyes went straight to her chest and lingered there. Molly sighed.
Then, so quickly as to verge on rude, she made her choice, paid, and left with a small waxed bag and a silly grin on her face.
She was in Castillac, her new home, about to eat her first real French éclair in almost twenty years.
I’m finally here.Finally in France, for good.
“Yes, Mademoiselle, how may I help?” asked Thérèse Perrault, who had only joined the tiny Castillac force a few months ago.
“It’s, well, I’m at Degas,” the young woman said, meaning the prestigious art school in the village.
Perrault waited. She was already so weary of dealing with nothing but traffic violations and lost dogs, she hardly dared hope this call would turn into something more intriguing.
“My roommate is—she’s missing. I haven’t seen her since yesterday, I’m getting worried.”
“May I ask your name?”
“And your roommate’s name?”
“Her name is Amy Bennett. She’s British. And she’s the most responsible student in the whole school. That’s why I’m so worried. She just wouldn’t run off without saying anything to anyone.”
Perrault was scribbling notes, trying to get the student’s phrasing exactly. “I understand. Have you notified anyone at the school?”
“I—I mentioned it to one of the teachers this morning, Professeur Gallimard. She didn’t show up to his class.”
“Exactly how long has she been missing?”
“I had dinner with her last night. Then I went out with my boyfriend and she went back to the studio to work on a drawing that’s due. She never came back to the dorm and I haven’t seen her all day,” the young woman said, her voice catching.
“It’s not even twenty-four hours,” said Perrault, her tone not dismissive but sympathetic. “And I’m afraid the gendarmerie only actively searches for missing minors—can you tell me how old Amy is?”
“She’s nineteen. I’m sorry,” said Maribeth. “I don’t know what the missing-persons procedures here are or anything. I’m just—I don’t want to sound like a flake, Officer—but I…I have a bad feeling.”
Officer Perrault told her that almost always these situations resolve themselves happily. She asked if Amy had a boyfriend, if she had a car, if she had access to money—and she carefully wrote down Maribeth’s answers in her notebook.
Before calling her boss, Chief Dufort, on his cell, Thérèse Perrault took a moment to think through everything Maribeth Donnelly had told her, and to fix the young woman’s voice in her head. It was only an impression, and she did not have enough experience to be able to know yet whether her impressions tended to be correct—but Perrault trusted Maribeth Donnelly, and did not think she was a flake, or unstable, or anything but a concerned friend who had something legitimate to worry about. Then in quick succession she grinned and looked chastened, as she felt thrilled that something had finally happened in the village of Castillac now that she was on the force, and then felt guilty for being so excited about someone’s else’s potential tragedy.
Like everyone else in the village, Perrault knew about the two other women who had disappeared without a trace, but those cases had been several years ago. The first one, Valérie Boutillier, had actually been part of the reason Perrault had pursued a career in law enforcement. She had been eighteen when Valérie disappeared, and while she had not known her personally, in the usual way of Castillac, she had friends who had known her, and family members who knew Valérie’s family one way or another. Perrault had followed the investigation closely and tried to puzzle out what had happened—she still thought of it from time to time, and wondered whether new evidence would someday turn up that would allow the young woman’s abductor to be identified.
No body had ever been found, nor even any evidence of wrongdoing, but Thérèse had no doubt someone had killed Valérie Boutillier, no doubt at all.
Valérie had not been the only one. And now there was another.
It had taken a full year for Molly to find her new home, La Baraque. On the day her divorce was final, she was handed a check for her half of the proceeds from the sale of their house. The check was big enough for her to buy a house all her own, and she had had no doubt whatsoever that she wanted that house to be in France. She had been extravagantly happy there as a twenty year old student, but for one reason or another, unable to return since. In that weird, post-divorce phase, when her life was collapsing around her and she felt alternately morose and exhilarated, she spent hours every day looking at websites and reading about different regions of France, learning about notaires and contracts and cooling-off periods, and reveling in the stunning photographs of old stone houses and manors and even châteauxthat were for sale. The endlesspages detailed the most glorious habitations ever made, and depending on location, they were sometimes cheaper than a ranch house in the suburb where she lived. It was about the best house porn ever.
After a good friend had been held up at gunpoint and a cousin had nearly been raped in her own living room, Molly had accepted that life, where she lived—a place that until then she had not thought of as a hotbed of mayhem—had become dangerous. Part of the appeal of the French house porn was imagining living in a place where crime was lower and people weren’t getting shot every three minutes. She could retire the canister of mace she carried in her purse, and just relax. Of course France wasn’t crime-free, no place was these days, but still she felt she would feel safer there. Chill out, garden, eat some magnificent French food, and put her bad marriage and dangerous outer Boston neighborhood far behind her.
A fresh start in a place she adored. What could go wrong?
It never occurred to Molly to see if she could find actual crime statistics for the places she was considering moving to. It was grotesquely naive, she realized later, but she had simply assumed that a village with a pretty historic church, a Saturday market where old people sat in folding chairs selling mushrooms, where fêtes were organized several times a year in which the whole village sat down to eat together—she had assumed that all of that charm and community spirit translated to almost complete safety. And how, she wondered later, when it was too late, how can you correct a faulty assumption if you don’t even realize you’re making it?
She spent months considering the vast array of house choices and locations. Her check would cover a house a shade better than modest (for which she was extremely grateful), but one big house would take it all. In her new life as a thirty-eight year old divorcée, Molly needed an income, and so she looked for places that had at least one separate building that she could rent out. If that went well, and she could find a place with enough old barns and stables to convert, she could expand and run her own vacationer’s empire, with a whole flock of gîtes (France’s closest equivalent to a B & B) just waiting to be filled by joyous travelers.
Well, empire might be overdoing it just a little. But she hoped before too long to at least be able to cover her bills. The trick was finding a house that wasn’t already renovated (too expensive), restored (way too expensive), or in such a ruinous state that it would take more money than she had to put it in working order.
While the glossy websites had incredible pictures, she suspected she might find something more affordable if she looked deeper into the less shiny corners of the internet, and in fact one day she saw an interesting listing on a stray ex-pat blog. The blog itself was sort of sketchy and she wondered whether the writer even lived in France: the grammar was iffy, the design poor, and the posts about French life had a strangely wooden quality about them, as though they were fifth hand or possibly fictional. The photographs of La Baraque were blurry, but she could make out the golden limestone the Dordogne is famous for. She could see outbuildings galore, even though some, like the ancient pigeon-house, appeared to be crumbling. She could imagine herself there, in the garden, drinking kirs and eating pastries.
Molly fell in love, hard.
Six months later she was bumping down the driveway of La Baraque in a taxi, having sold almost everything from her old life except a small crate of her most treasured gardening tools and kitchen equipment. The sale had gone through without a hitch, and although what was left of her family and most of her friends thought she was insane, she shipped the crate over and booked a one-way ticket to Bordeaux without looking back.
Castillac was a large village with a weekly market and a lively square. It had the orange-tiled rooftops, narrow streets, and ancient stone buildings she loved so, but no particular attraction like a château or cathedral, so while a few tourists were drawn to its quiet charm, the streets were not deluged with visitors, which Molly thought might get tiresome if you lived there full-time. Southwest France was known for its caves, its duck and mushrooms, its truffles; the weather was temperate and the pâtisseries plentiful. The perfect place to recover from a marriage turned bad.
She’d had two and a half days to get things ready for her first guests which was not remotely long enough (time management not being one of Molly’s particular talents). Those two and half days had gone by in a flurry of sweeping and painting and scrubbing, when she received a text saying the guests were forty-five minutes away.
Molly managed to get the cottage looking spiffy in time, but barely. The old stones were beautiful, but they seemed to exude dust so quickly that everything was covered again before she had even put away the vacuum cleaner. The windows were small and she rubbed them violently with newspaper and a vinegar solution so that they let in all the light they could. When she was done, she tried to stand back and look at the place critically.
Well, she thought, I hope nobody sues me after smacking his head on that beam. But it is charming, in its way. I think. Maybe.
She staggered out with a mop and pail, sweaty and grubby and looking forward to having a shower and a drink before doing any greeting.
She was just pouring the white wine into some crème de cassis and admiring how the dense purple color swirled up when she heard a car honking.
Not much of a praying woman, nevertheless she looked heavenward and said to herself: Please don’t be loud people. Or pushy. Or too chatty or quiet. Or scary. And, um, please don’t let this entire idea have been a huge mistake.
“Bonjour!” Molly said as the couple climbed out of a grimy-looking taxi. The taxi driver pulled himself out of the car and nodded and smiled. “I am Vincent,” he said, grinning. “I know English, Molly Sutton!”
Molly was taken aback by this stranger knowing her name, but she managed to say “Enchantée,” and then “Welcome, Mr. and Mrs. Lawler!” She was glad they were American, so at least on the first time she didn’t have to struggle to communicate. Plus they’d be as jet-lagged as she still was.
Mr. Lawler strode up and shook Molly’s hand vigorously. “So happy to be here,” he said. “And please, call us Mark and Lainie.”
Mark shook hands with the taxi driver and paid him. “Now give us the grand tour!” he said to Molly.
Molly smiled and chattered away as she showed them around La Baraque and got them settled. But underneath her bright expression, she was wondering what the deal was with Lainie Lawler, who never said a single word the entire time, and whose face was apparently so Botoxed that she appeared to be frozen in a state of childish astonishment.
Not for me to judge, thought Molly. Repeat 60,000 times. And really, this is a good way to have an income. A little chat, some handshaking—easy peasy. I just need to get enough bookings that I can hire a cleaning woman and leave the dust-busting to her.
A day. That could be everything. Or nothing.
Chief Benjamin Dufort of the three-person Castillac gendarme force walked around his desk and picked up the phone, then put it down again. He looked at Perrault and pressed his lips together, his thoughts inscrutable. “Maron!” he called, to the officer in the adjoining room.
Gilles Maron appeared in the doorway, an easy expression on his face although he did not like the way Dufort barked at him. He was in his late twenties, an experienced officer, having moved to Castillac from his first posting in the banlieue of Paris. Dufort had been pleased at his arrival and happy with his performance so far.
“Bonjour, Maron. Perrault took a call at 3:00. Student at the art school, said her roommate was missing. Perrault judged the caller to be level-headed and not just drumming up drama the way students that age sometimes do.” Dufort paused, rubbing a hand over his brush cut. “Unfortunately, as you know, we no longer search for missing persons unless they are children.”
“Stupid bureaucracy,” Perrault muttered under her breath.
“I happen to agree with you,” said Dufort. “I had a case a few years ago, a woman came in to report her husband was missing. Do you remember, Perrault? It was in the papers and on local television. Turned out the poor man had been put on a new medication and the stuff was giving him delusions. Three days later we found him in a cave, up off the road that goes up by the Sallière vineyard.
“People think if their doctor gives it to them, it’s perfectly safe whatever it is. They don’t question anything.” Dufort shook his head. “At any rate, that’s another subject. We found the man and got him home unharmed.” He pressed his palms together, then clapped his hands.
“Bon, I don’t see why we can’t keep our eyes open in regard to this art student. Just don’t neglect your other duties.”
He did not mention the two older cases of missing persons, the first of which occurred just after he was posted to Castillac. He had investigated both and solved neither. Doubtless Perrault and Maron knew all about them, as unfortunately, they were now part of the lore of Castillac. When he was by himself again, Dufort reached into his drawer and pulled out a small blue glass bottle and a shot glass. He uncorked the bottle, which contained a tincture of herbs prepared for him by a woman in the village, and poured himself a careful ounce. He grimaced as he tossed it back. He did not like this news of the girl. Somehow, he could sense something was wrong, even though he had not been the one to take the call and had no idea where the bad feeling was coming from.
But it was there, no question about that. It was there. Same as the other times.
Early the next morning, Molly walked into the village to get croissants for the Lawlers’ breakfast. She could feel a nip in the air and wore a sweater for the first time, and shoved a cap over her red hair which was crazier than usual that morning. About halfway to the village, on the other side of a road, was a small cemetery. Molly hurried past its mossy wall with only a glance at the mausoleums on the other side. She took a peek at the neighbors’ gardens to see what kind of fall vegetables they had put in, and admired the cauliflower and ruffled kale. The French way of gardening was so neat, so orderly, so un-Molly. She passed one garden and stopped for a moment to appreciate its late-summer lushness, cucumber vines overrunning a trellis, zinnias in a profusion of orange and red, and the slight yellowing of leaves hinting at the end of the season.
She had big plans for her own garden, but had been too busy with the house to do anything yet; the real work was going to have to wait until spring. A neglected potager was right off the kitchen with an ancient rosemary in the corner, and a perennial bed along the stone wall in front of the house had a few sturdy things—black-eyed susans and coneflowers mostly—in fact, maybe she could find an hour to spend in that bed this afternoon, just to get some of those nasty-looking vines out. It would be bliss to kneel in the grass and get her hands dirty.
She had been up and had coffee, but never minded having another, so she took a seat at the Café de la Place in the center of the village and ordered a café crème from the very good-looking waiter whom she heard the hostess call Pascal. And well, why not just get the breakfast special, a tall glass of freshly squeezed orange juice and a croissant to go with the café crème? Why not, indeed.
Pascal set down the oversized cup of coffee. It had a deep layer of milk froth, and Molly beamed at it and then at Pascal, who smiled back and then disappeared into the kitchen. She sprinkled a little sugar over the froth and drank deeply, in a state of ecstasy, moving from coffee to juice to croissant. Some Brits at a nearby table started talking loudly enough for her to eavesdrop, making her breakfast even more delightful.
“I really think we ought to consider taking Lily home right now.”
“Come on, Alice, you’re overreacting. Lily is doing well and this is her dream, remember? Her work has been quite impressive here, don’t you agree? Degas is doing an excellent job.”
“Don’t tell me not to mind it, that girl’s been missing nearly two days.”
“Oh, I really wouldn’t worry, my dear. Girls run off for a million reasons, don’t they. Probably nothing. A boy, I’ll wager.”
“I heard she is a very serious student. Not flighty. And if she had gone off with a boy, she’d have contacted her mates! You know they text each other every minute. Someone would have heard from her.”
A family with two young children sat at the table next to her and Molly had to stop herself from shushing them so she could hear the rest of what the couple were saying. But they had moved on to an aunt’s lingering illness and Molly stopped listening.
For a moment she wondered about the missing girl, and which parent was right—nefarious abduction, or romantic getaway?
She didn’t want the Lawlers up and about, hungry and unattended, so she washed down the last of her breakfast special, gathered her bag of croissants, and headed back down the cobblestone street to La Baraque. She was flooded with memories from twenty years ago, when she had been a young student in France. There had been that weekend with Louis, the one with green eyes and the sly sideways look, who could make her laugh like no one else….
The officers usually met unofficially in Dufort’s office about an hour after arriving at work. Dufort had come in early after a run even more punishing than usual, wanting to clear his desk so that he could focus on the missing art student.
“Bonjour Perrault, Maron. I’ve just spoken to the school and listened to a list of platitudes, help any way we can, blah blah blah. I’m afraid the president over there is more concerned with the school’s reputation that with what has happened to the girl.”
“You do think something has happened? Other than she went off on some lark?” asked Maron.
“You know the percentages,” said Dufort quietly. “She’s too old for this to be a custody matter or something of that sort. Either she’s taken off by herself without a word, or there’s been an accident or abduction. Perrault, I want you to make some calls—airports, hospitals, car rental agencies, etc. Maron, you go around town, talk to people, look around, see what you can find out. We’ve got a description from the roommate. If it comes to that, I will call the parents and we can get a photo from them. But I don’t want to call them just yet. They can’t help beyond the photo and we’re not even supposed to be investigating this.” He paused. “First we need to find out something about her movements that night. Make sure you check the bars,” he said to Maron, even though from the description the roommate had given, it did not sound as though Amy Bennett would have been in any of them.
Dufort headed to L’Institut Degas. He walked through the village, greeting old friends and acquaintances, taking his time, keeping his eyes open. Sometimes information came from unexpected sources and he wanted to make himself available to it. On one side of the main square were three places that stayed open late: a wine bar that served “small plates”; La Métairie, an expensive place that hadn’t yet earned a Michelin star but was trying hard for it; and a bistro called Chez Papa that was run by a much-loved inhabitant of Castillac, which is where Dufort turned in.
“Alphonse!” he shouted over the din of pop music. Alphonse was mopping with his back to the door. “Bonjour, Alphonse!”
Alphonse startled and turned around. “Bonjour, Ben! I would offer you some lunch but the hour is all wrong, and I can see besides that something is the matter. Tell me!”
“You tell me,” said Dufort, with a faint smile. “What about last night? Anything unusual?”
Alphonse leaned on his mop. “A Dutch family was here with twelve children, if you can believe that. You don’t see big families like that anymore, do you?”
“Not so much. Many students? From Degas?”
Alphonse looked up at the ceiling and thought for a moment. “Oh, I don’t know,” he said finally. “I hate to admit it, but my memory isn’t what it used to be. The nights, they start to run together.” He shrugged.
“I understand. I wish I could sit and have a glass with you, but I’ve got some work that can’t wait.” And with a wave, Dufort was back on the street, alert, looking around for anything out of place, anything calling out to him, no matter how subtly.
Dufort had grown up in Castillac, and his mother and Alphonse were old friends. He could remember how Alphonse would come to dinner on Sundays, and make his parents laugh themselves sick with his imitations of other villagers. He brought homemade gooseberry jam that was Dufort’s all-time favorite. Most people in the village were known to Dufort his whole life, except of course for the tourists who passed through and the occasional new person such as the American woman who had apparently bought La Baraque and moved in recently.
It had taken some doing, getting himself posted to his hometown; officers in the gendarmerie were routinely moved from place to place precisely so that they did not get too close to the communities they served. At first he was told it was impossible, but Dufort had a way of convincing people to do what they did not necessarily want to do, and in the end, he got sent to Castillac. Perhaps he suffered from nostalgia, or was just a man who belonged in one place, but he had been happy there for the last six years.
When young Perrault had gone off for her training, she begged him to figure out a way for her to come back too, and he had called in some favors and pulled some strings, and Perrault was allowed to come but only for six months. They both expected to be posted to another village by the first of the year; their time in Castillac among the people and places they had grown up with was coming to an end.
L’Institut Degas was a short ways out of the village, just a little over a kilometer, and Dufort covered the distance quickly. He was not a large man but he was fit and athletic, and he arrived at the main building where the administration offices were without breaking a sweat. He did not call ahead, and he did not expect to get much help.
The Lawlers only stayed for two nights, and then Molly was back in the cottage for another round of dusting, scrubbing, and mopping. At least they weren’t slobs. And oh look, a tip for the maid!
Molly snatched up the five euro bill and shoved it in the pocket of her jeans. More bookings were coming in every day, but she needed to sit down and write a budget before running out to hire a cleaner. She went back to the house and got her phone and some earbuds, and listened to Otis Redding while she worked, singing along with “These Arms of Mine,” her voice cracking in a satisfying way. She hoped the neighbors couldn’t hear.
When she turned to leave, an orange cat was standing in the doorway looking at her.
“Hello, little puss!” Molly was happy for the company. “I’ll get you a little saucer of cream if you come with me.” The cat not only followed but wound itself in between Molly’s legs, nearly causing her to trip and split her head open on the slate walk. She put her cleaning stuff away in a closet and got together a saucer with a bit of cream and set it down. The orange cat looked at her, then walked slowly over to the saucer as if it didn’t really care one way or another, and took a lick. Then the tail went straight up but with a little kink at the end, and the cat polished off the cream in under a minute.
“Thought so.” Molly smiled and reached out her hand. The orange cat bit her on the finger and ran into the bushes. “Fiend!” she called after it.
The house was still unfamiliar and exciting, and she spent some time not accomplishing anything but wandering through its rooms, most of which had low ceilings with ancient beams. The original structure had been added onto several times so that the building was something of a hodgepodge, stuck together at odd angles. The staircase turned almost in a spiral, its treads worn, and Molly wondered at how many families had lived here, how many feet had trudged up to bed stepping just where she stepped.
She thought of walking around in the meadow behind the potager, but decided she had better get some more work done, so she spent the next hour at her desk, confirming bookings and emailing friends at home, sounding a little sunnier than she actually felt.
Back in Massachusetts, after the divorce, she usually ate lunch at the sink, or even just crammed in any old thing while standing in front of the refrigerator with the door open. But in her new French life, she was trying to change her habits, and pay more attention to the small ceremonies of the day. She took a butter lettuce out and washed a number of leaves, broke up some goat cheese she had gotten at the market that morning along with the lettuce, sliced some carrots, opened a can of sardines and crumbled those in along with a few little potatoes from last night’s dinner. For a dressing she chopped up plenty of garlic and whisked it together with lemon juice, an egg yolk, more mustard than seemed right, and lots of salt and pepper and olive oil.
She stepped out the kitchen door to the garden, searching for herbs, but there was nothing besides rosemary. How can a French garden have no tarragon? What sort of infidels used to live here, anyway?
After tossing the salad and pouring herself a glass of rosé, she went out to a terrace off the living room, pulled a rusty chair up to a rusty table, and had a long, luxurious, lonely lunch.
Jet lag had finished having its way with her, so she didn’t feel like a nap after eating. Instead she put her dishes in the old porcelain sink and went out to the garden. Just inside the garage was the crate she had sent from home, minus the kitchen equipment which was unpacked and put away. She selected a tool whose name escaped her. It had a sort of fork on one end and a pick on the other—great for weeding out the nastiest garden invaders. Molly knelt in the grass and got to work on a patch on the side of the house, more Otis Redding coming out through the window, the sun on her back. That sort of weeding can be a kind of meditation, and as the pile of ripped-out vines and grass grew, her thoughts quieted down until she wasn’t having any at all, nothing but the sound of Otis and the smell of plants and the feel of dirt on her hands.
Startled, Molly sprang to her feet and turned around. Standing at the stone wall that separated her property from the neighbor’s was, well, the neighbor. A small bird-like woman dressed in a housecoat, her white hair flying out from a bun.
“Bonjour Madame,” Molly answered, her hands becoming clammy at the prospect of a conversation in French. It had been too long since college, when she’d studied it last.
“I would like to say hello and welcome you to Castillac,” the neighbor said.
Okay, I actually understood that, Molly thought, feeling a little surge of optimism.“Thank you very much,” said Molly. “She pretty.”
The neighbor nodded vigorously and then spoke so quickly, and with a stutter, that Molly was hopelessly lost. “S’il vous plaît,” she said, “Speak slow?”
The two women worked hard for the next ten minutes, both of their brows beginning to glisten from the effort of communicating the simplest things, and by the time they said à tout à l’heure they at least had each other’s names, although Molly forgot the neighbor’s more or less instantly. What did stick in her mind was the mention for the second time that day of the girl, the art student, who was missing. The neighbor had looked solemn, and said it might be a good idea to lock her doors, living alone and all.
Molly was quite happy to be living alone, thank you very much, and she was not going to get frightened just because some young girl ran off with somebody else’s boyfriend. She stayed firm in her belief that her new country was much safer than her former one. Spitefully—although whom she was spiting was a little unclear—she left the French doors to the terrace not only unlocked but cracked open that night. The orange cat came in for a look around, but no other uninvited visitors crossed the threshold that night, unless you counted the spider and a couple of flies.
L’Institut Degas had either a sterling or an unsavory reputation, depending on whom you talked to. The school had been founded in the 1950s by an artist who had tried to ride the wave of Abstract Expressionism but found himself beached with not enough income to get by, and so turned to teaching. He was a much more gifted teacher than artist, and soon had more students than he had time for himself, so he brought on other teachers and L’Institut Degas was born. Over the years other talented teachers had come to the school, and some of their students had gone on to illustrious and sometimes very lucrative careers. This track record meant that applications were almost always steady, which meant the school could be choosy about the students it admitted and the tuition fees stayed hefty.
However, some of the teachers, including perhaps a few on the present faculty, had turned out to be capable enough as artists, and their classroom work was creditable, and yet, still, one might say that they were not precisely the best choices to mold young minds. That at least is what Jack Draper, head of the current administration, hinted to Dufort, when he was asked about the faculty and their relation to the students.
“It’s France, after all,” said Draper. “Some of the students, Americans in particular, they expect to have flirtations, maybe an affair or two. It’s part of the experience of studying abroad. You know how it is.”
Having an American remind him that they were in France might push a less seasoned officer right over the edge of annoyance, but Dufort merely gave a faint smile. It had not come naturally, but he had learned over the years to keep his feelings and reactions from showing in his expression; and, so without having to work at it, the urge to tell Draper he was a jackass passed without a trace.
“Are you saying, Monsieur le Directeur, that you believe Amy Bennett was romantically involved in some way with a faculty member? That there was a relationship beyond that of teacher and student?”
“Well, of course it’s possible. Here at Degas we do not follow those old rigid classroom models, where the teacher is all-powerful and the students are meek and never dare to express themselves. We are open. We make room for creativity—yes, for passion—to bloom.”
With some effort, Dufort kept his eyes from rolling.
“I am happy to hear that creativity is blooming here at L’Institut,” said Dufort. “Would you be so kind as to print out a list of Bennett’s classes, with the schedule and teachers’ names and cell numbers? I would be interested in talking with some of them, only for background, you understand.
“The most likely thing is that the girl has run off, for any of the reasons that young women find to do that. But at the same time, I wish to be thorough. You said that Bennett was a serious student, a conscientious one. That doesn’t quite fit with a flighty girl running off for romance, do you think?” Dufort’s expression was open and questioning, perhaps a bit slow-witted.
“Of course I will provide you with anything you ask for, anything at all,” said Draper. “As for flighty—who knows what lurks in these girls’ minds? Sometimes it is the most serious ones who have the biggest screw loose, am I right?”
“Are you suggesting Mademoiselle Bennett has a screw loose?”
“Not at all, not in the least. I’m only saying that girls that age, young women—they can be unpredictable. The students here are not studying to be bankers, Officer Dufort. They are creative spirits of a rather high order. And that means, yes, that we might see more, how to put it, instability of behavior and emotions than one would encounter at a school for, say, tax accounting. You understand?”
Dufort nodded. He understood that Monsieur le Directeur was saying that if Amy Bennett was missing, it was her own fault, not the school’s, and moreover, that her flightiness was just part of how very special she was. Dufort appreciated art as much as any Frenchman, and he also had a sensitive bullshit detector, which at the moment was letting off a piercing shriek.
The Wolfsons were due in two days, so after drinking her morning coffee and checking her email, Molly went over to the cottage to make sure it was ready, feeling pleased that she was staying organized and ahead of schedule.
Oh. Forgot to make the beds. Needs vacuuming again. Please tell me that’s not the faucet leaking. Or worse.
It was the faucet. Molly wasn’t completely useless as a handyman, and she managed to get the water to the cottage turned off and the faucet taken apart. It just needed a new washer. Hoping to avoid getting in the car and driving out to the big box stores, she glanced in a mirror to make sure she was presentable and hurried into the village to see what she could find. Perhaps there was some sort of general store, preferably in the vicinity of PâtisserieBujold.
The elementary-school age kids had Wednesday afternoons off, and the streets were thronged. They pushed each other, ran in circles, sang, held hands. Molly wondered if she would ever be able to look at a group of kids and not feel a stab in her chest. The bad marriage—that she could get over, and was most of the way there. But being nearly forty, without the children she had wanted so deeply…she wasn’t sure if there was any getting over that.
A world of regret and sorrow bubbled up in such moments. But Molly had learned to carry on anyway, and at the moment, that meant finding a washer and preparing for the Wolfsons, no matter how hard she was being jerked around by her emotions.
She found a hardware store, and by deft use of her pointer finger got what she needed to repair the faucet. While there she stocked up on some tools (a wrench, some decent pliers, a drill) she was clearly going to need to keep La Baraque from falling to pieces, and wondered how much local handymen charged, since she assumed before too long she would encounter emergency repairs that went beyond what she had learned from watching her mother fix stuff, or what she figured out from watching youtube.
PâtisserieBujold was only about four blocks from the hardware store, practically right on the way, so she swung down that street, her mouth already watering. No art students out by the fountain today even though the weather was perfect, but more throngs of schoolchildren and their happy chatter.
She decided not to take her pastry home but to enjoy it there at the shop, with a petit café. There were only two tiny tables outside and she sat at one, waiting for her coffee with her face turned up to the sun, freckles and skin cancer be damned, the bag of new tools at her feet. Her sadness had faded, and the pain au chocolat was brilliantly sweet and salty, the outer layers shattering in an explosion of buttery flavor and the inside moist and dark and delicious.
Life was good, if sometimes annoying and never perfect, and she sat back and watched people going about their errands and stopping to have long conversations with their friends and neighbors. It felt so much less busy here, somehow, even though she had plenty to do. Or maybe it was simply that she felt less rushed, less like everything had to be done yesterday.
She would get the drippy faucet fixed before the Wolfsons arrived. And eventually, no matter how long it took, she would get the potager in the back of the house producing again, and the borders in the front free of vines and bursting with sweet-smelling color. Her gîte business would continue to grow. She would read good books and eat more pain au chocolat; and the loneliness she felt from not having children or a partner would simply be part of the fabric of her life, and not its defining tone.
Molly ventured into Pâtisserie Bujold again before heading home, with the idea that she would be so happy to wake up the next morning knowing there was a pastry waiting for her, even if it was a little bit stale.
Chief Dufort closed the door to his office and passed his hands over his face. Stress was part of his job; it was inevitable and expected even in a village where the crime rate was low. He had handily withstood a number of extremely stressful situations: a sea of blood from car accidents, several attempted suicides, a chase or three in which he was pushed to his physical limit. Yet making a call to inform parents that their child was missing filled him with dread.
He was going to be firm in his reassurances and of course do his very best to believe his own words. But he and the parents knew the percentages—everyone who reads the paper or watches television knows them. All three would feel the dark abyss opening in front of them, even if they didn’t speak of it. Dufort had been born in Castillac and never lived anywhere else, but in a moment like this, he wished he lived and worked in a big city where he imagined getting lost in the crowd, even as a cop, somehow always too busy to be the flic who had to make the call.
He sat at his desk for some long moments looking at the sheet of paper with the Bennett’s phone numbers. Always the possibility loomed that a parent was involved in a case like this. Mental illness, personality disorders, family dysfunction—they could all lead to a parent doing something unimaginable, and he would have to listen for any indications of that when he spoke to the family.
Another woman, vanished. The third time. Will it be like the others, with no evidence, no trace, no resolution?
A little part of his brain, the weaselly part everyone has, wondered if perhaps it might be better to call later, first thing in the morning being not so convenient after all. Why ruin their day right at the start, why not give them several more hours of blissful ignorance? Dufort chased the weasel away and took a deep breath, then slowly tapped the numbers into his cell.
Jack Draper should be making this call. Dufort had no official responsibility for Amy Bennett, but he knew the call needed to be made and he did not trust Draper to do it.
“Hello, I’m looking for Sally or Marshall Bennett,” he said, in passable English.
“This is Marshall Bennett.”
“I am Benjamin Dufort, chief gendarme of Castillac,” he said. He knew the word “gendarme” would send a chill through Bennett, and he paused a moment even though he knew Mr. Bennett would not have time to recover from it.
There was not enough time in the world to recover from it.
“I call because your daughter Amy is reported missing from L’Institut Degas, and I am hoping you have some information about her location.”
“What?” said Marshall Bennett, his voice sounding far away.
“Amy’s roommate called my office to say that Amy was not seen. We have looked, but not found. Mr. Bennett, I am sorry for my English.”
“I’m going to get Sally. Please hold on.”
Dufort sighed. He took another deep breath and let it out slowly, but felt just as tense. He had the strong sensation of wanting time to stop and then roll backwards, zipping back to the place where Amy was still with her roommate, at which point time could reverse again, this time everyone being careful not to let Amy out of their sight until the moment of her disappearance was safely past and the awful mistake was corrected.
He could only imagine how deeply the parents would wish for this, if the feeling was so strong for him when he had never even met the girl.
“Hello?” said Sally Bennett.
“Hello Madame, I am Benjamin Dufort of the gendarmerie de Castillac. I spoke to your husband about your daughter. I wonder if you have heard from her in recent days?”
“I don’t understand. Amy is in school, at the L’Institut Degas. She is a painter.”
“The school tells me she is a good student, Madame Bennett. I am calling you because she is not seen, her roommate does not know where she is. I wonder if you have these informations?” He closed his eyes and smoothed his palm over his face.
Silence on the line. Dufort heard a strangled sort of grunt, then Mr. Bennett came back on the line.
“We have not heard from Amy since last week,” he said. There was a long pause. “She works very hard. She is not in touch every minute the way some girls her age are. Are you saying…what exactly are you saying, Chief? Is that what I call you, Chief?”
“Oui, that is good. What I say is that your daughter is reported missing. This is not an official phone call because in France the gendarmes do not investigate missing adults. But, Monsieur Bennett, the roommate of Amy called my office, and I do not want girls missing from my village, if you understand me. I want to know where she is, and I’m sure you do too.”
“I appreciate your concern.”
There was another long pause. Dufort tried to imagine what it was like, receiving a call such as this one. He knew that there was never any preparation, never a way to know how you would react until the thing actually happened to you. He suspected the Bennetts were in shock, and there was no guessing how long that phase would last.
At least he had not felt anything untoward in either Bennett’s voice. It was of course way too early to know for certain, but his intuition said that they were truly shocked by the news, and not perpetrators in any way.
“I would thank you if you would call me if you hear from her,” said Dufort gently. “I will give you my cell number and my email, please to use anytime at your convenience.” He really should get some tutoring for his English. It was excruciating to struggle so hard to make himself understood.
“Thank you for calling,” said Mr. Bennett. “I’m sure she’s off somewhere working on something and forgot to let her roommate know. Something like that, at any rate. We will let you know when we hear from her.”
After giving them his contact information and several exchanges of politesse and gratitude, Dufort ended the call and put his phone down on the desk. Even though he had no children, it was not hard to imagine the horror the Bennetts were in for if their daughter did not turn up soon.
He was thirty-five years old with no girlfriend at the moment, but had always assumed he would have a family someday. He wondered whether he might have resisted settling down because having a family, having children, meant never being able to avoid the possibility of something very bad happening, something so bad it would take everything in you to get past, if you even could. A loss of the very worst kind.
He was mature enough not to think in certainties, and not to be superstitious. But he could not forget the bad feeling he had from the moment he first heard Amy Bennett’s name. He knew the percentages, and he believed the calm of her parents was unfortunately going to be quite short-lived.
By that evening, just at dusk, Molly had more or less finished unpacking, and she wandered around the house at loose ends even though there were a million things she felt she should be doing. She went out to the garden and inhaled. A summer scent of mown grass with a hint of roses was still in the air, but the garden itself was so overgrown that it was overwhelming to contemplate how much work needed to be done. The orange cat sidled up and rubbed against her leg. Distracted by the garden, she reached down to stroke it and once again the cat bit her and ran under the hedge.
“Nasty beast!” she called after it, and then fled through the gate and into the village for a drink and some company, hoping to find at least one person who could speak English. It was Friday night and she hoped villagers would be out enjoying the nice weather and in a welcoming mood, tolerant of her subjunctive tense (which was utter rubbish).
Chez Papa looked promising. It was right on the main square with a large number of tables outdoors, and a small crowd seemed to be enjoying themselves, having apéritifs, drinking beer, and eating peanuts and potato chips from bowls on the bar. Three small dogs were underfoot. The place looked lively but not too intimidating. Molly made her way inside to the bar, and when the bartender gave her his attention, she pointed at the drink that belonged to the woman next to her and said, “Comme ça!” The bartender gave a short nod and took down a bottle.
Molly felt happily victorious for getting out a phrase and being understood.
“Let me guess—American, Massachusetts?” said an older man in probably the best-looking suit Molly had ever seen.
“Um, yeah?” she said, mystified.
“Lawrence Weebly,” he said, holding out a hand, then taking hers and kissing it. “I have a little hobby of guessing people’s accents. But I admit, yours was not much of a challenge.”
Molly laughed. “I’m Molly Sutton. But you only heard me speak two words of French! It’s not like I asked where I should pahk the cah or anything,” she said.
“That would be fish in a barrel. So thank you for providing the evening’s amusement by giving me only the two words, and not in English.”
“But seriously, how did you do that?”
Lawrence just smiled and sipped his bright red drink. “Now tell me, you are the new owner of La Baraque? How are you finding Castillac so far?”
Molly flinched. “It’s a little unsettling having everyone know who I am before I even meet them,” she said, managing a weak smile.
“That’s life in a village,” said Lawrence. “For better or worse. Even in the age of the internet, most of us find our neighbors make up a decent portion of our entertainment. We gossip, we pry, we want to stay informed of the latest. Another!” he said to the bartender, pointing at his empty glass.
“Well,” said Molly. “I may fit right in then.” She turned and surveyed the other customers with curiosity. “I’ve been called nosy. Once or twice,” she added in a lower voice.
“Here in Castillac we just consider that to be interest in humankind,” he said, taking a long swig of his fresh drink.
Molly nodded and smiled. She liked Lawrence Weebly. And it was really wonderful to speak English, face to face, after days of struggling to make herself understood or having only herself for company. Now that she had someone interesting to talk to, she could feel just how lonely she had gotten.
The bartender had placed her drink on the bar in front of her and she’d been too distracted to try it. She took a sip and nearly choked. The bartender grinned. “Cognac and Sprite,” he said in English, shrugging. “It is what you ordered.”
“But—” said Molly, pointing at the woman’s drink. “That’s what she’s having?”
“It is a fad,” said the bartender with a sigh. “Unfortunate, as most fads are.”
“Spoken like a true Frenchman, Nico,” said Lawrence. “And I couldn’t agree more.”
“You speak English like a professor,” said Molly to the bartender.
“I studied in America for three years,” Nico said, shrugging. “Your French will come along, now that you’re here. You’ll see.”
“Your lips to God’s ears,” said Molly. Then she turned to Lawrence. “What are you drinking?” asked Molly, looking at his red cocktail.
“Lawrence always, but always, drinks Negronis,” said a large man with an even larger belly who leaned over Molly’s shoulder to join the conversation, but in French.
“Bonsoir, Lapin,” said Lawrence.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a Negroni,” said Molly, pleased that she could make out the man’s French.
“Expensive way to get a buzz on, if you ask me,” said Lapin. And indeed, it looked as though Lapin liked to get a buzz on quite frequently, if his red-rimmed eyed and bloated face were any indication. “Hey, you’re la bombe who bought the big place down the rue des Chênes?”
“La bombe?” said Molly.