Some scenes reveal themselves at first glance. They lie spread out before you, ready to be consumed in a single gulp: here’s the bloodstain, here the tyre screech, here the ticket stub. But some are more subtle. They tempt you with innuendo, flirt behind a translucent veil. Their secrets need to be teased out of them with flattery and guile. This was one of those scenes.
A thick-haired, slender man in his mid 40s was slumped in an armchair, dressed for the aftermath of a formal dinner: black bow tie undone, draped unevenly either side of his gaping top button. One wing of his collar tilted up, one down. A dark burgundy stain splattered his crisp white shirt.
His eyes gazed straight ahead, staring unblinkingly across time and space. His mouth wide open in a frozen laugh, caught in a moment of infinite hilarity. A spot of long-dried blood on his cheek where his razor had slipped that morning; a loose lock of hair forever drooping over one eyebrow.
‘So,’ I said. ‘This was your husband.’
‘Was? I cannot think of him in these terms,’ said Madame de la Villeneuve. ‘It is too soon. We can at least keep up a pretence, no? For the sake of decency?’
I bowed slightly, a mere nod from the shoulders. ‘My apologies.’
M de la Villeneuve’s skin was pallid, all colour leeched out of it. On the table next to him stood a balloon-shaped brandy glass, its contents long evaporated. From cigarette between his fingers was suspended an inch-long tube of dead ash, forever poised on the verge of cascading to the carpet.
‘But you did divorce him.’
‘Non. He chooses this. He wants to divorce. I give him this nonsense, this divorce. But the madness passes. He returns.’
‘Technically, you are no longer married?’
‘C’est vrai,’ she said. ‘Since then, we live in sin. This is amusing, no?’
I tried to follow the direction of his eyes. He was looking upwards, at someone standing, not sitting at his level. He was staring not directly at me, but at a point slightly to my right, towards an antique drinks cabinet. Louis XIV, plenty of gold decoration. Vulgar, to my taste, but a lot of people like that sort of thing.
‘How long have you been married?’
‘We are married since nearly nine years,’ said Madame de la Villeneuve. She looked sharply at me. ‘What? You think this unseemly, an older woman and a younger man? You question his devotion?’
‘Not at all, Madame,’ I murmured.
The room was tastefully, expensively furnished. The table on which the brandy glass rested was Chippendale; the carpet an intricately woven Persian. Above the fireplace was a late Gainsborough, which I believed to be an original.
‘You were a wealthy couple,’ I stated, without emotion. ‘I’m sorry, you are a wealthy couple. Forgive me, but I must ask: the money is from your side, or his?’
‘Gaspard is from a proud family,’ she replied. ‘His grandfather fought with the résistance. His father was the maître d’hôtel at La Vespasienne.’ She gave me a contemptuous look. ‘You know La Vespasienne?’
‘I have not had the good fortune to dine at the establishment,’ I replied, ‘but of course I know it by reputation.’
‘You English,’ she said contemptuously, ‘you know nothing. You think my beau-père was a waiter, a servant. A menial. This is not so. To become the maître d’hôtel in one of Paris’s most exclusive restaurants, this is the sign of a man of substance.’
M de la Villeneuve showed no signs of subservience. He occupied his chair as a proprietor, not a serf. He gave all the appearance of a man used to being waited upon, rather than waiting. His formal attire was that of a diner, not a waiter.
‘And yet,’ I began tentatively, ‘Monsieur de la Villeneuve père did not make enough money to furnish his son with that Rolex,’ pointing to the distinctive glint of the crown logo visible just beneath the cuff.
Madame de la Villeneuve looked away, perhaps embarrassed for the first time.
‘I have the pleasure to supply mon amour with the trinkets that amuse him,’ she said. In return, he loves me. You think this absurd? That a man can love a woman in exchange for baubles? But yes, it is true. Ours,’ she continued, ‘is a marriage of understanding.’
I looked again at the motionless form sprawled in the overstuffed armchair.
‘And what exactly would you like me to do, Madame de la Villeneuve?’
‘Do?’ she exclaimed. ‘I think this is obvious, Monsieur. I wish you to find his murderer.’
I looked over the scene again.
‘So you’re convinced he was murdered.’
‘Of course he was murdered,’ Madame de Villeneuve said dismissively. ‘Or he would without doubt have returned to me.’
‘I’m not sure,’ I replied cautiously. When breaking bad news, especially to an aristocrat whose life has been blessed with good news, one has to tread with care. ‘I don’t think your husband has been murdered.’
‘No? Then what is your explanation for all this?’
‘In fact,’ I continued, picking my words slowly, ‘I’m not at all sure that your husband is dead.’
‘Pah!’ snorted Madame de la Villeneuve. ‘Of course he is dead. How else can you explain what has happened?’
‘Madame,’ I said, hesitatingly, ‘you have given your husband a great deal of money. You are, how shall we say? No longer as youthful as you were. Is it not possible that your husband was tempted by another?’
‘Absurd!’ she exclaimed. ‘What proof have you for such an outlandish suggestion?’
‘None whatsoever,’ I replied. ‘But this is my feeling. However, you have engaged, me, so I will do as you command.’
I took a final look at the photograph, then folded it and slipped it into the inside pocket of my jacket.
‘If I find your husband,’ I said, ‘I will do my best to persuade him to return to you.’