The Count, a novel by Camilla Monk

ONE - Sight Unseen

 

A Map of the South of France, from the Count, by Camilla Monk
You can click to zoom!

 

“So, you are from where, in America?”

Delivered with a thick French accent and a slight quiver, the question comes from the young paralegal hugging his briefcase in my passenger seat. I guess he doesn’t like my driving, but like my driving, especially on a sunny afternoon like this, cruising on a narrow country road to the hot tune of cicadas.

“The South,” I volunteer, barreling past a sign that says 70. My Wrangler’s speedo says 100. Close enough.

Jean-Kevin Bernard—that’s his actual name—sucks in a sharp breath. “Ah, like here. You have the sun and the good life.”

Not sure about the good life, but it’s true that the burnt grass and sparse pines flashing by feel strangely like home. The same dry heat scorches everything under a big, empty blue sky, and here, too, people make their money grow: back in my little corner of Georgia, it’s mostly cotton and corn. Here in Aude, it’s vineyards everywhere you look and, once in a while, the buttery yellow of a canola field. “Yeah, I guess your South and mine have a few things in common.”

“And the accent. You have an accent, right?”

That causes my eyebrows to jolt under my aviators: I didn’t expect him to be able to tell one American accent from another. “You bet I do,” I reply, thickening my drawl for the benefit of my rapt audience of one.

His head bobs along a couple potholes in the road. “Yes, just like us!” Indeed, his southern lilt is on full display, stretching the end of every word to a lazy uh. He studies me with renewed interest. “Mr. Pouillerolles said you speak very well French.”

“Je me débrouille.” I can manage.

All right, I am pretty good at the language of love and socialism—no bragging. I learned seven years ago, for a job in Djibouti that I don’t care to remember too vividly. I was given twelve hours’ notice before being dropped over the Red Sea with a one-page conversation guide tucked in my tactical vest. By the time I touched shore, the only thing I could confidently say was, “Bonjour, Salut, je suis Virgil.” Good times.

I’ve gotten fluent since, largely thanks to French for Dummies and a few stints in Paris. Even so, some subtleties of the language still elude me, like why French words need so many letters no one bothers to pronounce. To me, that’s the linguistic equivalent of wearing fringe: you’ve got useless letters dangling everywhere and getting caught in your tongue every time you try to say, ‘yeux.’ For the record, it’s pronounced, ‘zee-uh’ and that makes zero fucking sense.

“Ah, we’re almost there.” Jean-Kevin points to our destination: a smattering of sunbaked, tiled roofs in the distance. Puigdarcas—yet another French-Occitan name booby-trapped with random letters—boasts 139 souls, a 12th-century Roman church, and a medieval castle from the same period in its 4.16 square miles perimeter.

That last item is what we’re here for, by the way.

I can feel my grin stretch wider as I slow down along the village’s narrow main street, a tight row of medieval houses with colorful shutters and wisteria crawling up the walls. This place is so French I expect to grow a beret any moment now.

Jean-Kevin motions to the distant silhouette of a square keep flanked by four turrets as it flashes between two houses about my ten o’clock. “Ah, you can see the castle already.”

I can, and that simple glimpse awakens the little boy in me. I haven’t been this excited since my big brother got me a PlayStation 2 for Christmas when I was eight. He threw in NASCAR 2001 to top it off, and I damn nearly shit myself when I opened the box. I ended up with calluses from hammering at that PS2 controller, and that used to be my best memory . . . until today.

Okay, drum roll: today, I, a humble country boy from Georgia, who used to do duster in the back of a banged-up Econoline on Big K’s parking lot, have peaked.

At thirty-three—age of the Christ—I’ve actually managed to:

– Leave Georgia (That alone ain’t no easy feat: last time I checked, some of my high school buds were still on that lot.)

– Retire (Got injured on duty. Just a flesh wound.)

– BUY A CASTLE IN FRANCE (with that sweet, sweet retirement bonus) . . . and, wait for it, the goddamn title to go with it. Not too sure about the technicalities: Mr. Pouillerolles—the notary—said I’m not allowed to call myself Comte d’Arcas on ID papers or pass on the title to my kids (don’t have any, not planning to), but anything else is fair game. Which means that Monsieur le Comte will soon be cruising along the French Riviera, drinking Rosé from the box on pristine beaches, and banging rich and emotionally insecure women—I’m a simple man with simple needs.

I shake off a giddy sigh as I hit the gas again: we’re almost there, and I’m counting the seconds until I snatch the keys from Jean-Kevin and start planning where I’ll dig my pool.

“Take to the left on Route de Lérins,” Jean-Kevin quips, parroting my GPS.

The wheel is already spinning in my hands when the door of a bakery on the street corner slams open. A juicy brunette in a hot pink apron bursts out . . . and jumps in the middle of the road. The Jeep’s tires screech as I hit the brakes, or maybe that high-pitched squawk was Jean-Kevin’s. A couple of seconds pass while the woman I nearly killed and I gauge each other through the windshield. Late thirties, with tan skin and bold North-African features. No visible weapon, but she’s holding a bag of cookies or something. Her thick eyebrows knit together. She flips a black snake of a braid over her shoulder and marches to my side of the car.

I roll down my window to ask what the hell her problem is, but she strikes first, with the kind of accent you hear on the other side of the Mediterranean from Marrakesh to Tunis. “C’est toi le nouveau comte?” Are you the new count?

Damn, news travel fast around here. I lower my sunglasses to give her my best blue-eyed asshole grin—was never as blonde, as tall, or as jacked as my brother, but that’s one thing I’ve got going for me: a mugshot most women like. “Indeed, Ma’am. People call me Virgil,” I reply in my most polished French.

“Don’t call me Ma’am. The name’s Khadidja.” The mugshot thing worked: a good-natured smile softens her gaze as she shoves her bag of treats in my lap, along with a pink business card. I pick up a whiff of frying oil and orange blossom from the sticky, diamond-shaped pastries. Makrut. Neat: I haven’t had good ones since a job in Algiers a couple years ago. “You’re gonna need it,” Khadidja adds ominously.

Not sure what to make of that last part, so I just say, “Thank you. I appreciate that.”

I pop a makrut in my mouth and hand out the bag to Jean-Kevin, who’s turned the same gray as his suit. He digs in nonetheless and nods in appreciation. He’s right: they’re perfect: pure honey and diabetes ooze out from every bite, and they’ve got that elusive flavor that reminds me of my gram’s fried peach pies—the trick is to always reuse the frying oil.

Meanwhile, Khadidja casually reaches to pat the business card that’s now resting in my shirt’s breast pocket. “I do French and Algerian pastries, bread, and sandwiches. I also do catering for weddings. You call: my husband delivers.”

I glance at the red storefront behind her and the sign above it that says, La Mie D’Oran. “I’ll make sure to remember it.”

Her intense black gaze darkens once more as she steps away from the car with a final flip of her braid. “Good luck up there.”

Is it me, or this sounds like the start of a Scooby-Doo episode? Next to me, Jean-Kevin is still tearing his way through my bag of makrut in awkward silence while I start the engine. We leave the last houses behind us as we drive up the steep hill that overlooks Puigdarcas. “What did she mean by that?”

His answering shrug is a poor attempt at casual. “It’s a big property. There’s a lot of work to maintain it, I guess.”

Right. I’m not sure I’m satisfied with that answer, but Castle d’Arcas bursts into view the moment we clear the top of the hill, and its medieval glory shushes the warning bells at the back of my head. Now that’s what I call a bachelor’s pad, with its low ramparts cinching a 100-foot-tall keep studded with arrowslits. Actual arrowslits. Will I test them? Absolutely: I’ve got a sick, 505 FPH crossbow waiting in my trunk just for that.

I’m still grinning stupidly and rapping my fingers on the wheel as I pull over on the trail leading up to the castle. The keep dominates the hill, overlooking a three-story tower-house and ramparts walls—five to six feet thick, with a twenty-feet tall gateway leading into the courtyard.

Now, I’m not exactly a medieval History buff—I mean, I cleared high school, and I rewatched Kingdom of Heaven and Just Visiting to give myself a few pointers—but there’s a stillness in the air here that even I can feel, a sense that I didn’t just buy a thousand-years old crib sight unseen, but maybe a piece of time itself. I know, big words for a guy who’s lived on his boat until now—when I was off-duty, which wasn’t that often anyway.

I shake off that unbidden bout of lyricism as I stop the car in front of the closed gateway. The wood looks rotten in places: gonna need to reno that.

“I, uh . . . I’ll go open it,” Jean-Kevin says, producing a set of jingling keys from his briefcase. Some look recent, but most are old-fashioned iron keys. A thrill skims down my spine: my keys.

I watch him scramble to the massive doors. He’s sweating too much even for today’s 80 degrees weather. His hands are shaking a little. I don’t like this. Plus, dude plundered my makrut when I wasn’t looking, I realize, glancing at the near empty bag in the passenger seat. I snatch one before he returns to finish the job.

It seems to take all of his strength to push the gates open just wide enough for my Jeep to drive through. I’d crack a joke about skipping arm day, but I can hear the groan of rusty hinges from here: add buying grease to my rapidly growing to-do list.

I draw a slow breath and drive through the gates, taking in the hulking tower-house that faces the keep. It leans against a 17th century wing and a small chapel: I think most of the lavish interior pictures I saw online were taken in that north wing: the previous count apparently lived there with his wife, and the rest of the castle was open to visitors until the mid-2000’s. The old man probably grew tired of tourists and wanted some privacy.

Structurally speaking, I see nothing wrong with the building from the outside: the grout seems recent in places, probably less than fifty years old, and there’re no cracks. Nothing’s smoking and the tower-house’s elegant lancet windows appear to be in okay shape. I can’t speak for what’s inside the north wing since all curtains are drawn, but I’d say things are looking good so far. Now that we’re in the courtyard though, I can see that an entire section of the ramparts collapsed at some point, leaving the space wide open to the left. How much does it cost to rebuild ramparts? Will need to ask on Reddit: there has to be a sub for that.

At any rate, I guess the open field beyond is my new lawn. Perfect: that’s where I’ll dig my pool, and next to it, I’ll build a grill gazebo with an outdoor kitchen.

The last of the makrut is melting on my tongue as I step out of the car and life is sweet, indeed. Mostly. “What’s that smell?” I ask Jean-Kevin when my nostrils pick up a slight funk wafting over to us. I sniff harder and assess the direction of the wind. It’s coming from the north wing, and by my guess, there’s either a gas station restroom or a dead body in there.

Speaking of dead people: Jean-Kevin is decomposing before my eyes. He makes a jerky motion to my trunk. “It’s, uh—I need my bag.”

“Sure.” I keep my expression genial as I unlock the trunk and watch him retrieve the duffel bag he brought with him. I have a feeling I’ll be getting answers very soon. And if I don’t, I’m pretty good at prying those out.

The sound of the bag’s zipper seems suddenly thunderous in the empty courtyard. Even the cicadas grow quiet as Jean-Kevin fishes out . . . a pair of gas masks and plastic coveralls.

“What the hell is this?”

His reply comes muffled as he secures a mask over his face. “I’m sorry, sir. The house needs a little of cleaning.”

“A little? You’re. Wearing. A. Hazmat.” There’s a thrumming tension in my muscles that I recognize as a combination of mounting dread and anger. It’s in moments like this that I’m grateful for my years of training: it’s the only thing keeping me marginally cool as I watch Jean-Kevin zip up his suit. He offers me the remaining mask. I decline with a single shake of my head. All that’s left from the smile I wore moments ago is a twitch in my jaw, and I can tell from the tremor in Jean-Kevin’s fingers that he doesn’t like my resting bitch face. He’s gonna like it even less if he doesn’t get a move on and show me what’s in there. I jerk my chin to the massive transom doors of the north wing. “Open it. Now.”

I grind my molars at the irritating jingling of the keys in his hands. How long does it take to pick a goddamn key and turn it in a lock? The click of the latch rents the air like a gunshot. I register a low groan as Jean-Kevin opens the doors, and I make a mental note to grease those hinges, too. The house belches a cloud of dust, and that’s when the stench truly hits.

The first intake of fetid air nearly knocks me off my feet, carrying with it a thousand olfactive memories. A sick kitten my brother found on the side of the road, that didn’t make it through the night; the smell of that small, decaying body as I helped Josh bury it in our backyard. Other, countless bodies, too many of them. Open sewers in Manila, an overcrowded Turkish jail . . . My stomach lurches as I blink into the darkened lobby. I gag, fighting a surge of bile and honey at the back of my throat: the makrut are coming up.

I feel the wall at my left for a light switch and flip it on. There’s a soft click, followed by a splash of bleak, yellow light. This . . . this is Château d’Arcas?

Jesus fuck.

TWO - William Tell

“He had depression.”

Jean-Kevin’s muffled voice filters through my stupor. I can’t see the floor. Scratch that: I can’t see the damn walls, or even the stairs. Everything is covered in . . . trash. Old books and magazines, dirty clothes, rotten—desiccated—food and, I’m pretty sure, dog shit. At least I hope it’s dog shit. I glance down at my boot to see that I stepped in it when I walked in—left foot. Khadidja’s warning echoes in my mind: Good luck, indeed.

I’d laugh, but I’m pretty sure I’ll throw up if I do.

“He was a hoarder,” I eke out, assessing the scope of the disaster. Peeling wallpaper, mountains of garbage, years and years of dust and grime on every discernible surface. By my estimate, the entire first floor rests under one to five feet of trash. Good thing the place is huge: a smaller house would have been filled to the ceiling.

Jean-Kevin releases a raspy sigh through his mask. “It began after his wife died. Then he had a heart problem and he stopped leaving the castle. His dogs were old, too, and he wasn’t walking them anymore, so . . .”

Yeah, I don’t need the details: the smell alone is worth a thousand words. It takes me a battle against my masseters to unclench my jaw. “Those pictures Mr. Pouillerolles sent me . . .” The pictures I skimmed through before I made the impulse-decision to sink over a million dollars in Chateau d’Arcas. Sight. Unseen.

Jean-Kevin takes a cautious step back. “They were from after the renovations of 2002.”

Twenty years ago. Just recent enough that the quality wouldn’t arouse a potential buyer’s suspicions. Anything older would have predated the all-digital era: the pics might have been visibly scanned and prompted me to ask when they’d been taken. Was I that drunk the night I called Pouillerolles? I was at Josh’s, and we hit a bottle of rye whiskey, but we didn’t kill the entire thing. I told him I needed to do something big and stupid with the rest of my life. I showed him the pics: he said go for it.

And I fucking did.

It’s as if everything I ever learned over the past ten years flew out the window that night. Analyze the data; run it against competing intel; assess the reliability of your sources; check for potential corruption or forgery. Never press the trigger until you’ve got a 360 of the field and the players. For God’s sake, I’ve put more research into buying confetti cake mix for my birthday than I did for d’Arcas!

Gram would tell me there’s no point in crying over spilled beans, so I follow Jean-Kevin outside, breathe out my anger, and breathe in a smile that certainly won’t reach my eyes. “You and your boss fucked me over.”

The interested party lifts his mask. His face is drenched in sweat, and he’s probably gonna need to breathe through a paper bag soon. “No! I mean, I didn’t do anything.”

“You didn’t say anything either.”

“It’s not my job to comment a transaction. Besides . . .”

“Besides?” I repeat, nostrils flaring.

His gaze avoids mine to land on the Jeep’s hood. There’s a hint of defensiveness in his stance that I didn’t expect: I thought he’d have just unraveled completely by now. “No one buys a castle they’ve never seen. Only Americans and Saudi do that.”

Oof. That’s actually a solid burn right here: I can respect him for that if nothing else. The corner of my mouth kicks up as some of my initial anger turn into dark amusement at the literal mess I dug myself in. It’s five forty already, too late to get anything done, and my right thigh has been throbbing steadily since I stepped out of the car—probably worked out too hard yesterday. All right, Let’s try to at least salvage something of my first day as a homeowner.

I make my way to the still-open trunk and unlock the bulky t-shaped case housing my brand-new crossbow. Hot damn, she’s pretty: love the sleek lines and light polymer body. I take it along with a quiver full of bolts.

As expected, Jean-Kevin’s eyes pop out like ping pong balls the moment he sees the crossbow. “Oh Putain! Listen sir, I know you’re angry, and I can understand, but—”

Fuck, indeed. I prowl toward him, relishing his expression of primal panic. “Hey, JK, you know what that is?”

He scrambles back, holding out his palms in either defense or surrender—I’m sure even he doesn’t know which it is. “Sir, I’m gonna have to call the police. Please don’t do this.”

I take a bolt from its quiver and nock it for show. “It’s a TenPoint Nitro 505. Fastest crossbow on the market right now. The scope ain’t the best: it’s just a freebie they give you. I think I’ll try to switch it for my March 8-80 . . . Anyway, this baby shoots 505 feet per second. That’s more muzzle energy than a .22: did you know that?”

It’s when I see him unzip his hazmat and fumble for his cellphone that I decide I’ve toyed with him enough. That moron might actually manage to call the cops and make my day even worse. I lower the crossbow with a chuckle. “Hey, hey, chill out. It’s not for you.”

His fingers pause in their search. “Is it for Mr. Pouillerolles?”

“No.” I point to the keep behind with a bolt. “I just want to test the arrowslits. That’s why I bought it.”

“The . . .” He cranes his neck back, tension ebbing from his limbs. Guys like him are so easy to read, it’s like playing with a puppy. His breath is still coming in short pants, but he manages a brittle laugh. “The arrowslits. Oh merde, you scared me.”

“You’re not off the hook yet, JK,” I warn. “Tell Pouillerolles I want to see him, and that if he can’t clear his schedule, I’ll drive over to Marseille and I’ll clear it for him.”

“With the crossbow?” He ventures with a uneasy smile.

I shake my head as he leads the way to the keep. “Don’t tempt me, I—”

Whatever I was about to said gets knocked off-track by the realization that there’s someone at my six. It’s been a while since anyone has been able to catch me unaware. I spin around the shadow that just materialized in the courtyard, ready to aim my crossbow at the intruder . . . only to find myself face-to-face with a bust of Nefertiti—or the closest thing to it. Long-limbed, golden-brown skin, feline features, and short-cropped, curly hair. But the most important part is I’m almost sure she wasn’t there five seconds ago.

I think, ‘okay, what, now?’ but I say, “Hey there, can I help you with something?”

“It’s me, Ted.” BBC accent, spoken barely above a murmur. Her perfectly symmetrical face is void of any expression. Her dead, brown eyes seem to stare right through me without registering my presence. Is she stoned? For a country that bans weed, France boasts the highest consumer rate in Europe, but I don’t think that’s what it is. Her eyes aren’t red, and her posture is steady. Autistic maybe?

“Ted who?” I probe.

“From Airbnb.”

It doesn’t escape me that she blatantly failed to provide a last name when prompted to. As I ponder this fact, Jean-Kevin’s eyes light up in apparent understanding. “Oh, it was still listed?”

“What? That?” I motion to the Dark Souls level awaiting us on the other side of the north wing’s now closed doors. D’Arcas can’t possibly have been on Airbnb. That would have ended up with blazing one-star reviews and a couple of lawsuits after the first week.

“No, the outbuilding.” Jean-Kevin points to a small stone house leaning against the ramparts across the courtyard. “Where the groundskeeper lived.”

I hold my palms up and take a second to process this new level of mindfuck. “It’s habitable?”

He nods eagerly. “Yes, of course.”

“The old count didn’t—” I tip my head at the north wing. No need to air my dirty—nasty—laundry in front of Ted.

Jean-Kevin answers my implicit question with a shrug. “No.”

“You’re telling me he lived in there . . . while there was a perfectly good house a hundred feet away? And he leased that one out instead?”

“I think he needed the money after he closed the castle to visitors.” Jean-Kevin trots over to the outbuilding, apparently expecting the two of us to follow. Ted obeys the unspoken command with perfectly metered steps, her arms hanging loosely at her sides.

I seize this opportunity to scan the rest of her out of habit. 5’8”, 140 lbs, give or take five depending on muscle mass. Lean and mean, judging by the shape of those legs under worn gray leggings. Black t-shirt, black backpack. The hands are clean, but the knuckles are rough and the nails blunt: never a good sign.

Then there’s her attitude—or lack thereof. By now, any ordinary tourist would have expressed at least a modicum of concern at the sight of Jean-Kevin’s hazmat or the putrid smell lingering in the courtyard. I search her empty gaze, determined to fish something out of those deep, dark pools. I’ve got nothing: it’s almost as if she’s a toy that’s been switched off. For now?

“Voilà!” Here!

My scrutiny of Ted is interrupted by Jean-Kevin’s enthusiastic reveal of the only livable quarters on the estate: the first floor is a dim living room with an open kitchen along the wall. The range looks my age, but hey, as long as it works. We’ve got a dining table, four chairs—good. The sofa is an eight-legged, brocade monstrosity whose gilded frame seems completely out of place in this Spartan crib: I’m guessing it came from the castle.

“What’s upstairs?” I ask. Once burned . . .

“Two bedrooms and a bathroom.”

The three of us make our way up narrow and creaky stairs to what used to be an attic. The ancient rafters look sturdy—no woodworm holes. The rooms are a bit dusty, but nothing’s crawling or rotting in here either. Like the kitchen, the bathroom probably dates back from the nineties. Washer, sink, vintage square tub: the bare essentials.

Okay, time to be a dick. I turn to Ted with my most sympathetic smile. “Look, it’s been great meeting you, but I’m gonna have to cancel your booking.” Because I want to lick my wounds in here alone and get thoroughly wasted—I hope there’s something left in the wine cellar; I’ll take rubbing alcohol at this point.

Neither her face nor her voice registers any emotion as she replies, “I’ll file for a refund.”

“Absolutely, you do that. You can tell them there’s been a change of owner.”

“But where is she going to sleep tonight?” Oh, for the love of . . . The last thing I need right now is Jean-Kevin appointing himself as my shoulder angel.

“I’m sure Ted can find something else.” Or sleep rough for all I care. I whip out my phone and perform a quick search on AirBNB for show. “See? There’s another house west of the village: ‘Private room. You will enjoy my house and the very peaceful area. Women travelers welcome. Good breakfast for free. Share the bathroom.’ And for twenty bucks: a total steal!” I conclude, injecting as much enthusiasm as I can muster for a sixties prison cell with brown wallpaper and approximately five inches of orange shag pile.

Jean-Kevin peeks at the screen over my shoulder. “Ah, Mr. Bidoufle. Yes, I heard that he’s back in his mother’s home. He’s doing Airbnb now.” I detect a wince in his voice that I’m in no mood to investigate right now. Bidooflu or whatever sounds good as long as it gets Ted and her line of red flags off my property.

She produces a rugged smartphone from her inner pocket and swipes to open the app, studying the listing with unblinking eyes. Her forefinger hovers over the glass surface for an excruciating two seconds, before she taps, ‘Reserve,’ and turns on her heels without another word.

I indulge in a small sigh of relief at the sight of Ted’s retreating back. Here’s at least one of my ninety-nine problems solved. As for the ninety-eight remaining ones . . . After we’ve watched Ted disappear down the trail, Jean-Kevin offers me his spare gas mask once more. “Keep it. You’ll need it.”

Just taking the mask feels like a small defeat, but he’s probably right. I’m gonna have to face this devastation and assess the damage pretty soon, and I guess I’ll need equipment for that. For now, though . . . “Weren’t you gonna show me around the keep?”

“Ah, yes.” He darts a sideway look at my crossbow. “You are seriously going to use it?”

“Hell, yeah.”

“No, move it to the left!”

“Here?” Jean-Kevin yells from the courtyard as I gaze seventy-five feet down out one of the keep’s arrowslits. We found a straw bale in a neighboring field and stole borrowed it, for science. JK was tasked with adjusting our target while I got in position to shoot it.

The keep is inhabitable as it is—raw stone walls, no windows, and those spiral staircases were apparently built for hobbits—but I have no regrets right now. I own the best pillow fort ever, and I intend to enjoy it as a count should. The rope’s cocked; The enemy’s in the crosshairs and he’s here to conquer my castle: not today. Definitely not today.

“Clear the field!” I shout, watching JK run for safety through the scope.

This thing’s so fast that the 400-grain bolt seems to materialize in my target before I’ve even pressed the trigger. JK lets out an overexcited whoop as the bolt tears through the bale like butter and lands in the ground right behind it. I shoot another couple bolts to work off the afternoon’s steam, each press of the trigger sending a pleasurable jolt up my arm. By the time I’m done and I’ve jogged back downstairs, my head feels clearer and the pain in my thigh has dulled. I can take this. I’ll tackle the north wing’s cleaning and renovation one step at a time, and I’ll make Pouillerolles pay for it. Down. To. The. Last. Cent.

For now, though, I’ve gotta drive JK back to Carcassonne. His earlier enthusiasm seems to dim as he shimmies out of his hazmat. He sighs, his gaze set on the distant pink and ochre hues of Puidarcas’s roofs. “Do you think we should call the police just in in case?”

I put the crossbow back in its case and lean against the Jeep’s side. “In case of what?”

“You know . . . for that girl.”

“Ted? Why do you want to signal her? She’s done nothing wrong in my book.” Maybe I’m not being entirely honest here: I do get a sketchy vibe from Ted, but that’s none of JK’s business.

“No, I mean—” His voice goes down a notch even though there’s literally no one a mile around. “Because of Bidoufle.”

“The AirBNB guy? What’s the deal with him?”

His face pinches in disbelief. “You haven’t heard about the murders?”

“I’m sorry. Come again?”

THREE - Bruce Leed

You gotta be shitting me.

My eyes slowly widen as I skim through Narcisse Bidoufle’s Wikipedia entry on my phone: a solitary bus driver turned serial killer, our boy boasts six confirmed victims between 1988 and 1991—out of fifteen suspicious disappearances between Carcassonne and Perpignan. The girls where first raped, then strangled, except the ones that he put down with a bolt gun. Wow. I mean, I’ve killed a lot more people than that, but never disabled girl scouts, for fuck’s sake! And dude actually got paroled after twenty-seven years on a life sentence for . . . good behavior? What is this, Canada with baguettes?

Okay. I don’t know Ted—and I don’t really want to—but my grandma raised me right: you don’t hit girls; you don’t rape them either unless they’re really into that kind of role play and they’ve got a weird safe word like, ‘Schnitzel’; and if it turns out that you accidentally drove a fine young lady to book her Airbnb from Ted Bundy, well . . .

“Jump in, JK. You and I are gonna make sure Ted is having a five-star experience over there.”

He hugs his briefcase like a shield. “Uhm, I don’t know. I have to get back to my hotel. I was supposed to see friends tonight, and—”

“I’ll drive you back once we’re done.” I flick my fingers as I jog towards the Jeep. “Hurry up.”

By time I’m behind the wheel, Jean-Kevin has yet to budge. “I think I’ll call a taxi.”

“Suit yourself. Have a good one.” I slam the door without looking back. I don’t have any time to waste on making a man out of him. If he’s not up to shooting an obese sixty-three-year-old guy, fine: I’ll do it.

Approximately three minutes later, I’m handbraking my way through Puigdarcas’s needle’s eye streets, still wondering how the hell the best day of my life devolved into the worst in the space of, what, two hours? I give my GPS a quick check as the Jeep rattles across an old bridge. I just cleared the river and I’m speeding along a vineyard on Rieux road, a quarter mile away from the target, so . . . Yeah, pretty sure Bidoufle’s lair is that corrugated roof peeking through a copse of trees to my right.

Better park on the side of the road at some distance from the house so that the sound of the engine won’t alert our model host to my random inspection. I always keep a loaded CZ 75 under each front seat—force of habit, plus you never know who might show up at your door to mess with a defenseless retiree. Still, I did not expect I’d need a gun today: I’m not even wearing a holster, so I end up tucking my CZ in the back of my waistband like I’m out to rob a liquor store.

The front yard is one busted jerrican away from becoming a legit dump yard where a handful of chickens peck away at the ground, unfazed by my presence. The house, too, has seen better days: a drab, yellow stucco two-story with a roof that’s half-tiles, half-tin. Silence hums all around me, streaked with soft clucking and the rustle of the evening breeze in oak leaves—horror movie vibe, honestly. I’m tempted to just go ahead and knock at the front door, but I’m intrigued by the stillness of this little house. No visible movement inside, not a goddamn sound even though an AirBNB guest supposedly just arrived.

Ted can’t be dead already, right? She left d’Arcas not even an hour ago. I don’t like this, and I like even less that I do care a little if Bidoufle bolt-gunned her and buried her in his backyard. All right, let’s head to the back and see if I can clear this place. It’s a short walk around the building, to a single door I’m guessing must lead to the kitchen. I creep along the wall—with a chicken strutting on my heels—and try the handle. Finding the door unlocked, I nudge it ajar and do a quick recon.

It’s Ted I see first, standing near a toppled dining chair. There’s blood on the sink behind her. That single splash of red sends me on autopilot. Speed, surprise, violence: I mentally tick-off each item of the universal close-quarters combat protocol as I draw out, kick the door open hard enough that it goes flying off its hinges and muzzle-sweep the perimeter, barking something along the lines of, “Are you okay? Stay back!”

Ted remains perfectly still while the chicken runs away in a flurry of feathers and panicked clucking. The faint groan that answers me isn’t hers.

By the time I’m done circling the table, I lower my gun in sync with the rise of my eyebrows. The first sound that makes it past my lips is a low whistle.

Fuck me.

Narcisse Bidoufle—pretty sure it’s him with that yellowish-red hair—lies on his kitchen floor with his pants down. He’s got this weird, tiny lump of fat under his—my bad: that’s his dick. Ted appears unharmed, and thus in better shape than Bidoufle, whose left knee is bent backward at a ninety-degree angle. Right arm is broken in two different places—Elbow and wrist. The side of his face is completely busted, and I count at least three broken front teeth: that must have something to do with the blood-stained crack in his farm sink.

I tuck my gun back into my waistband and kneel to check his pulse—still alive. Good: that knee is gonna hurt like a mofo when he comes around. Unless his belt accidentally dropped along with his pants, I think I’ve got a fairly good picture of what went down in here. I look up at Ted’s impassive features. “Did you do this?”

“Yes.” Her voice is a soft, robotic murmur. She’s staring at a point past my shoulder like I’m not even in the room. I’d say she’s shell-shocked, but she was already in that semi-catatonic state back at the castle, and she just admitted to folding Bidoufle like an origami—without breaking a sweat, by the way. That begs the question: what the hell is wrong with that chick, and more importantly, do I want to find out?

“Nice job. Where did you learn to fight?”

She stares ahead and offers no reply. The chicken strutted back into the house while I wasn’t looking. Its head jerks left and right between me and Ted as if it, too, expects an answer.

“All right, let’s get out of here.” My fingerprints aren’t in any database—and if Ted’s are, that’s her problem, not mine—so let’s call it a day and leave Bidoufle to agonize in his kitchen until either a neighbor walks by or his chickens peck him to death.

I’ve got one foot out the door already when furious clucking erupts in response to the sound of an approaching car. I round the house to check on the navy-blue SUV that just parked in front of Bidoufle’s house. Triple white stripe, blue and orange flashing lights. Aw, come on . . . Will this day ever end? Someone—probably Jean-Kevin—called the cops.

I tuck my shirt over the gun still sticking out from my waistband and summon my best concerned citizen face as two men and a woman step out the car. They’re all wearing baby blue polo shirts and navy fatigue pants: not exactly cops, then, but rather gendarmes, a local species that’s part local sheriff’s office, part military and it all somehow makes sense to the French. I count two side caps and a peaked one: that one’s the officer, a black guy my age who sizes me up with a shuttered expression.

Bonsoir monsieur. Gendarmerie Nationale. Est-ce que Monsieur Bidoufle est chez lui?” Good evening sir, National Gendarmerie. Is Mr. Bidoufle home?

Time for me to sound suitably distressed in my best French. “Merci d’être venus si vite: il a glissé!” Thank you for coming so fast: he slipped!

I can tell from the slight narrowing of the officer’s eyes that he’s growing suspicious—my English accent probably doesn’t help in a country where everybody hates Brits or any rando who could be misconstrued as one. He motions for his grunts to follow and strides past me. “Il est où?” Where is he?

“In the kitchen,” I reply.

Ted hasn’t moved since I barged in. The gendarmes take in her blank stare, the broken door, Bidoufle’s injuries, and the chicken that’s now idly pecking at his dandruffs. He lets out a whistling groan, prompting the two grunts to rush to his side while the officer calls the SAMU—French 911, same as ours, down to the part where sometimes the dispatcher just laughs at you and you die. Once he’s done with his call, the officer turns to me, his jaw tight. “That’s one big fall. Did you witness it, sir?”

“No, actually . . .” I walk over to Ted and slip an arm around her shoulders, inwardly praying that she won’t seize it, break it, and round-kick me all the way to the living room. She remains in a standing coma: thank the Lord for small blessings. “My friend here booked her room from Mr. Bidoufle on AirBNB. She called me, and I came over immediately . . . to help.”

A thick southern drawl takes over his next question. “Et le pantalon, il a glissé aussi?” And his pants? Did they slip, too?

Ted gives a single nod, which I back with a sheepish wince. His seething gaze zeroes in on me. “What’s your name? Are you British?” Another wrinkle just appeared on his brow. Man, these people really do hate the Brits.

“American,” I correct, handing him my driver’s license. “Virgil Stiles.” Not the name I was born with, but the one I chose for myself eight years ago as I stood on my own grave.

“And hers?”

Excellent question. Ted, please don’t screw this up for me. We’re doing great so far: we haven’t been arrested yet; Bidoufle is moaning under a shock blanket; and the distant whine of a siren outside suggests that the SAMU did actually show up and will soon take him away.

Ted blinks once, twice, searches the inside of her jacket, and produces a goddamn British passport—Oh, for . . . Really? She hands it over to the gendarme, who barely conceals a sniff of disdain at the sight of the golden coat of arms gracing the cover. I can’t resist the urge to peek when he opens it. The first page identifies her as Ted Danson, and I’d laugh if I wasn’t surrounded by three soldiers on edge and a blood-thirsty chicken.

Ted shows no sign of hesitation as the gendarme scans her passport’s MRZ with his phone. Those two lines of gibberish and code will determine her fate: if they’re fake, the officer will know it as soon as he runs the data against European custom databases. I don’t think they are, though. I’ve got a hunch that this blatant forgery is, in fact, 100% authentic, which would make Ted one of the rare buyers who can not only afford one, but know where to get it. It pains me to say that this girl is becoming more and more intriguing by the minute.

The officer checks the feedback on his phone screen and gives a sharp nod. Her passport is as real as my driver’s license. When he looks up, I detect the slightest softening at the corners of his mouth: Ted and I have been moved from the suspects box to the victims one. He tilts his head at her. “Is she all right? Do we need to take to the hospital, too?”

She gives a single shake of her head. No other part of her body moves, not even when three  SAMU responders rush into the kitchen pushing a stretcher.

I pat her shoulder as they attempt to move a now screaming Bidoufle. “Nah. She’s a bit shocked, but our Ted is a fighter, right?”

One nod—as expected.

Apparently inured to the slaughtered pig noises rising behind us, the officer looks back and forth between us, his arms crossed. He eventually releases an uneasy sigh and pulls me aside, lowering his voice. “Listen, I get it, and I probably would have done the same, but we’re gonna have to question him when they’re done fixing him. So, if you’re not a hundred percent sure he’ll confirm your version of events, you need to tell me now.”

I glance over my shoulder at the interested party. They managed to lift Bidoufle on the stretcher after the emergency doctor injected him with something strong enough to shut him up. He’s now alternating between wheezing and gurgling breath under his blanket, blinking his good eye at Ted to no avail: she’s still staring fixedly at the wall behind him. There’s nothing there though, just chipped cupboards and her backpack that’s still sitting on the counter.

Returning my attention to the officer, I flash him a confident smile. “I think he’ll confirm.” Actually, I’m damn sure he ain’t gonna press charges against Ted—not if he wants to keep his parole.

The gendarme gives a decisive nod. “Very well. Just stay in town in case we need to speak with you again.”

“Not going anywhere. I just bought a place that needs a lot of work.”

His eyebrows shoot up. “Oh. You’re the one who bought the castle? I heard it was a Brit.”

“Close enough,” I concede with a shrug. “And I’ve got my work cut out for me.”

His jaw tightens in a quasi-wince. He seems about to comment on my real estate woes when a series of high-pitched groans interrupts our little chat. We turn around at the same time towards Bidoufle, who’s jerking against his restraints as the paramedics attempt to cart him away. His wild, one-eyed glare is still set on Ted, who—Fuck me, she’s moved. At some point during the past two minutes, she made her way to that cupboard she kept staring at, and . . . I guess she’s raiding it? Bidoufle’s oinking grows frantic as Ted casually clears an entire shelf of candy bags and cookie boxes. Nice: I love those chocolate muffins, and she snatched a whole bag of Pierrot lollipops, too: excellent pick, especially the caramel ones.

Still, there’s an awkward beat of silence among the gendarmes and SAMU dudes as they watch Ted cram her loot into her backpack while Bidoufle keens and turns a weird shade of purple under his bandages. Once she’s done, her hands pause on the zipper, and for the first time since I entered the kitchen, her eyes meet mine—if only briefly. She averts her gaze to the bag of mini Kinder Buenos topping her haul and with that crisp British accent of hers, tells me, “He said I could have them.”

Classic pedo. Too bad for him that Ted is a grown woman who seems to take things a smidge too literally. I have to fight the quirk of my lips as I walk over to Bidoufle: the hate and agony simmering in his bloodshot eye are a balm to my soul after that shitty afternoon. “Thank you for everything, Narcisse,” I tell him in French. “You’ve been a great host and a good friend. I’m sure Ted will give you a five-star review.”

“No.” She zips up her backpack and shrug it on without a glance for him as they finally cart him out. Mental note: Ted understands French, although she doesn’t seem willing to speak the language.

I clasp my hands together and tell the officer, “All right, I think Ted and I will be on our way. Thank you again, sir.”

As the gendarmes escort us out, I can almost taste the end of this hellish day, until I realize that the incident has attracted a small crowd of onlookers. A few cars are now parked haphazardly along the road, and a group of locals watch Bidoufle being loaded into the ambulance while whispering to each other. One of them, a middle-aged guy who looks like a cross between Joe Exotic and Dog the Bounty Hunter, calls out to the officer. “Hé Yannis! Il s’est passé quoi?” Hey, Yannis! What happened?

The man I now know as Yannis, waves Dog Exotic off. “Rien du tout. Faut circuler, là.” Nothing at all. Now, clear the road.

The thing is, while Yannis seem determined to cling to his military duties and preserve the secrecy of an ongoing investigation, his underlings are somewhat less bent on formality. The female gendarme tips her head at me. “L’anglais, il a pété la gueule à Bidoufle.” The Brit beat the shit out of Bidoufle.

Before I can protest my innocence—or my citizenship—Dog Exotic lowers his biker shades and gives me a cautious once over, imitated by a small group of teens and a sixtyish woman wearing a flower-print blouse and capri jeans. I can almost see the equation writing itself in their brain.

Bidoufle = bad. Brits = bad.

Assaulting Bidoufle = good. Brits assaulting Bidoufle = . . . good?

Dog slams his fist on the hood of his Kangoo minivan, signaling that an important decision has been made. The rest of the gang hold their breath as he slowly nudges his shades back up. “Tu viens dîner chez moi.” You’re dining at my place.

The tone brooks no opposition, but I don’t even know where that guy lives, or why I should eat with him in the first place. I look around for help, but Ted is just standing there staring into space, and the gendarmes are already pulling down Bidoufle’s driveway after the ambulance.

I’m alone. And kinda hungry. How bad can it get?

FOUR - Mazout

Dog loaded the granny and one of the teens in the back of his Kangoo and told me to follow him, so I did. Ted somehow ended up in my passenger seat, staring listlessly out the window as the sun sets over Puigdarcas’s vineyards. There seemed to be a general understanding among the villagers that she was my girlfriend and that, as such, Dog’s invitation extended to her. She made no attempt to correct them and instead climbed into my Jeep without even looking at me. Apparently, I’m an Uber Driver in a toxic relationship now.

I can’t help but steal glances at her delicate profile as I drive over the old bridge and back into the village. The slope of her nose and her skin tone remind me of Eastern African features. Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan: I wonder if she’s got roots there. At any rate, she’s beautiful—if necrophilia is your kink. Barely a breath or a blink. Her hands rest on her lap, palms up, fingers half-curled as if she were unconscious, but her eyes remain open, reflecting the horizon like dark mirrors. Is it weird if I check her pulse?

“Hey, Ted.”

One blink. No answer.

“Ted. You still alive?”

“Yes.”

“Good. So how about you tell me a bit about yourself?” I wait in excruciating silence, trying to pay attention to the road as we follow Dog along the riverbank towards the church.

Ted now blinks repeatedly, which suggests she’s actually processing my question. I hold my breath.

“No.”

I sigh, my fingers tightening around the wheel as I wrestle with a vague sense of irritation. I honestly expected nothing, but I’m still disappointed. “That’s not gonna cut it, Ted. Is that even your name? Your passport’s fake.”

“It’s real,” she murmurs. No hint of defensiveness here, just that same flat tone.

“Sure, as real as all of mine. Answer me: what’s your actual name?” I’ve dropped the nice guy act: it’s totally wasted on that chick.

“Ted.”

I victoriously refrain from banging my forehead against the wheel as Dog parks on the church square in front of Puigdarcas’s only watering hole: a tiny bar squeezed into a crooked medieval house. The sign above the door reads, “Le Penitencier.” The Penitentiary: just what I needed tonight. Meanwhile, Dog is motioning for us to follow him inside; I guess my interrogation will have to wait. I pull the handbrake under the boughs of a centenary beech tree. “I’m not done with you, but let’s get something to eat first.”

“Yes.”

That yes give me pause. Do I detect a hint of eagerness here? I don’t dare calling it enthusiasm from someone who sounds like she’s perpetually sleep-walking, but still . . . “You hungry?” I venture, remembering the way she raided Bidoufle’s cupboards.

“Yes.” And a firm nod to go with that! Maybe food’s the way through to Ted.

I cast my line as we get out of the car. “When was the last time you ate?”

This time, silence stretches between us on our way across the square. Her head lolls a couple times, like she’s in deep thought. “Yesterday.”

I frown. “Are you broke?”

“No.”

“Then why didn’t you eat?”

“I was walking.”

“You could have stopped.”

“I hadn’t arrived.”

My initial impulse is to follow up with, ‘Where did you walk from?’ but I suspect that Ted’s single-tracked mind might shut me out since the question would no longer be about food, so I instead, I ask: “And what was it, the last thing you ate?”

“A fenetra.”

“Isn’t that one of those almond cakes with apricot jam?”

“Yes.”

A predatory grin tugs at the corners of my lips. Gotcha. “It’s a Toulouse specialty, right?”

“Vous venez ou quoi?” Are you guys coming or what?

I could kill Dog for this. I had her; I know I did. But the interruption has short-circuited her. She stops on the bistrot’s patio and stands there for several seconds in silence, staring ahead.

“Ted?” I nudge her forearm cautiously. “You were telling me about that fenetra you ate. Was it in Toulouse? Did you walk all the way from there?” Toulouse, the nearest big city, is seventy miles away. That’s less than two day’s march for a soldier in top shape on easy terrain and without combat load. I’d say Ted checks the last three items on that list. First one though . . . that’s what I’d like to figure out.

So I wait.

She gives a sigh. “I’m hungry.”

Dammit.

“Then come in.” Dog shoves us both vigorously through the restaurant’s open door, killing my last chance at prying something out of her. He prowls over to the bar, an ancient structure of carved wood topped with a slab of chipped, black marble.  “Le plat du jour c’est cassoulet frites.” Today’s special is cassoulet with a side of French fries.

Sausage, duck, and beans slow-cooked in pure fat: excellent program. The granny with the pink blouse and the lanky, pepperoni-faced teen are already seated in the back and study us with attentive brown gazes. I hate to say it, but I can tell they’re related because satellite dish ears run in the family—although she skillfully hides hers under a silvery bob. Dog takes off his shades as he gets behind the counter before he sends a glass bowl full of peanuts sliding my way. “What are you drinking?”

“Cacolac.”

Our heads snap to Ted, whose blank gaze is now set on a row of brown glass bottles with yellow labels sitting in a cooler. I shrug to indicate that I’m buying and if the lady wants chocolate milk, who am I to refuse her?

I scan the shelves behind Dog as he pours Ted’s Cacolac. “What do you recommend?”

“Depends what you’re looking for. Soft, hard? Local flavors?”

“Hard and local sounds good.”

A broad grin pleats his tanned face before he grabs a bottle of pastis from the bar and a coke from the cooler. “Then I’ll mix you my specialty: Mazout!”

A cocktail called ‘fuel oil’: well that sounds promising. I watch with interest as Dog pours two—no, hang on, four fingers of 45% pastis—followed by about the same amount of coke. He finishes this wild blend with a black olive dropped straight into the glass, and, of course, a tiny-ass umbrella. Satisfied with his work, he slides the glass my way and crosses his arms over his leather vest as I take my first sip.

How do I put this? I once knew a guy who ran on a mix of polish vodka and cough syrup that he’d mix in a shaker—spoiler alert: his liver quit and he died. While Dog’s Mazout tastes nothing like that, its vaguely medical flavor of coke and anise manages to perfectly recapture the experience. This cocktail is the Proust’s Madeleine that will unlock the memory of every shitty drink you’ve ever had, from a binge of cotton-candy liqueur to a late-night mug of Jack tainted with Cheeto powder and chocolate sauce—I know that one sounds oddly specific, but that was over a year ago and I was going through a rough patch at the time.

Verdict: three point five stars for the nostalgia factor alone. I nudge my glass towards Ted. “Wanna give it a try?”

She never looks up from her Cacolac, but her lips release the straw just long enough to say. “No. It’s a sin.”

Didn’t expect that one. “You religious?” I ask, taking another gulp of Dog’s heinous brew. There’s enough sugar in this to power an entire season of one those Nailed The Bake-off shows or whatever.

The question seems to bother her: she stares down her half-full glass for several seconds and I could swear there’s the faintest pinch to her brow. She eventually resumes her sipping without answering. That’s yet another sticky note in my mental Ted file: she maybe sort of had a religious upbringing, but whatever is left of it sounds more like a Pavlovian reflex than actual fervor.

Meanwhile, Dog went to the kitchen to warm up a few plates of his cassoulet. He serves two to the granny and the kid and dumps the remaining two on the counter in front of us. The French fries land in a similar way shortly afterwards, nearly brown from being double—possibly triple—fried. Gram would approve. I’ve already started clogging my arteries with heartful bites of this greasy delight when the teen jumps up from his chair and squeaks to Dog, “Allume la télé!” Turn on the TV!

Dog growls something about saying ‘please,’ but produces a remote from under the counter and points it at a flatscreen hanging from the ceiling. A pair of very French anchors pops up on screen: you can immediately tell because the woman’s face is still visible through her makeup. She leans her right elbow on the set’s glass table to look super concerned as she announces that Narcisse Bidoufle has been transported to Carcassonne’s hospital “in a state of absolute emergency”—French journalists just love that phrase—following a fall in his kitchen.

They cut to a guy standing outside the hospital with his mic, who dutifully recaps Bidoufle’s crowded resume. His constipated expression never wavers as he adds that, “Law enforcement authorities have declined to comment on the incident, but contradictory rumors have been circulating, some mentioning a brutal altercation with a British tourist.”

A piece of sausage falls from my lips before I can swallow it. “Dude, I’m not British!” Three pair of eyes stare me in confusion while Ted keeps vacuuming her food in complete silence. I clarify in French, for the benefit of my audience. “Je suis pas anglais ; je suis américain.” I’m not English ; I’m American

Dog’s features freeze in shock, then prune up to a level of intensity that has me worried he’s gonna pull out a gun from under the counter. I brace my hands on either side of my plate of cassoulet as one of his eyes grows wider than the other. “You’re from America?”

I give a wary nod and that’s when I notice for the first time the route 66 sign hanging on the wall behind me, reflected in the bar mirror. There’s a pic of the Tennessee Theater next to it, and higher up, one of the Statue of Liberty. New York, LA, Vegas, Cadillacs and Harleys . . . How could I miss this when I walked in? Dog’s joint is more or less a giant postcard of the US. His wolfish grin returns as he motions to Ted. “And her, too?”

“Born and bred in Texas,” I assure him. That earns me a blink from Ted, but she’s apparently too busy tearing through her French fries to object.

Dog slams his meaty palms on the countertop, making our plates rattle. “So, you know Johnny?” When all I can offer in return is a puzzled look, he jerks his chin in the general direction of the granny and the kid. Every single pic hanging above their heads features an aging blond rocker, sweating buckets on stage as he yells mutely in his mic. My mouth hangs open in recognition: Dog’s fierce biker gear and bleached locks have nothing to do with my fave bounty-hunting trainwreck, or even that fucking legend Joe Exotic. Dog cloned his looks after the French Elvis, the biggest rock-star you’ve never heard of: Johnny Hallyday.

“You a fan?” I hedge, knowing full well that this man probably keeps a sealed tube of Johnny Hallyday’s authentic ball sweat in his nightstand drawer.

“Nah . . . it’s more than that.” His leathery jowls and bushy eyebrows drop somberly as he reaches for the TV’s remote. He switches from the news channel to Spotify. I shiver in awe at the sight of the dozens of Johnny playlists populating the screen. Dog has meticulously filed every phase of the singer’s nearly sixty years long career. Until the end: a playlist called ‘Requiem.’

Even Ted has stopped eating, attuned to the solemnity of the moment—or maybe it’s just that she’s done wiping her plate clean. The granny and the teen have left their seats and scuttled closer. Dog acknowledges their presence with a brooding nod and slowly lowers his shades back on his nose. “J’vais vous éduquer.” I’m gonna educate you.

It’s past 10 p.m. and I’m three—or was it four?—glasses of mazout deep. Damn, I hope it’s three: my tolerance ain’t what it used to be, and I’m probably gonna need a liver transplant soon if I keep going. Can buy one on Ali Express tomorrow, I guess. Carried by sad guitar notes, Johnny’s husky drawl drifts from the TV and croons something about Tennessee or whatever. I dunno. I’ve only been there once, and my understanding of French is further dissolving with each sip of mazout anyway.

Dog’s voice rings in my eyeballs as he recounts every second of a bike road trip he once took between Vegas and the Grand Canyon— riding a Harley just like Johnny. His actual name is actually Joël Roullier, and he’s no mere Johnny fan: for over twenty years he built a successful career as a Johnny lookalike, lip-syncing in small venues and performing in malls all over the country. Joël retired from the stage and bought the bar five years ago when Johnny died, because his soul died along with his idol. And now he’s here, living in his memories and waiting for death in a castle full of garbage. Or maybe that’s me. Shit, I think all that mazout gave me depression.

A few patrons came and went. The granny and the kid are still there, both staring at me while Ted eats her second banana split. Damn . . . that girl is a competitive eater. I can’t figure where she stores all that food and how she hasn’t thrown up yet.

Let’s call it a night.

I slink down from my stool and brace my hands against the counter. “All right, I think imma head . . . Je crois que je vais me rentrer.” Took me a good ten seconds to realize I was mumbling in English and needed to switch back to French. Sweet Lord Jesus I’m FUBAR.

Joël frowns at me. “You sure you can drive?”

“Definitely not. Gonna enjoy a nice, slow walk home under the stars and shit.”

“What about her? Can’t she drive?” He jerks his chin at Ted.

The cogs in my brain spin without biting for a while until it dawns on me that Ted and I are still a thing, because I canceled her booking at d’Arcas, and she, in turn, canceled Bidoufle. Fuck me, she’s got nowhere to sleep and, technically, I’ve still got two bedrooms in the outbuilding: she can hit the road again tomorrow. It’s almost tomorrow, anyway.

It takes me a couple tries to fish my keys out of my jeans pocket. “Can you?”

“Yes.”

“Great.” I toss the keys; she catches them effortlessly. “You’re the designated driver.”

She does that thing then, that brief pause, the slight tilt of her head as if she were an AI processing what I just said. She’s pretty when she does that. Her gaze drops to the keys in her hand. She nods.

The hundred feet or so we need to cover to my car feel like being the last man standing in the middle of a foam party: I’m never touching Joel’s mazout again. I’ve managed to sway in the general direction of the passenger door when I notice a quiet presence on our heels: the granny followed us. I glance over her head. The kid stayed behind: he’s watching us from Joel’s doorway, a stickman silhouetted by the coppery light spilling from the restaurant.

She’s still dissecting me with that patient, questioning gaze as I rasp in muddy French, “What can I do for you, m’am?”

She shuffles closer and sets a bony hand on my forearm. My spine stiffens in alert as her free hand reaches into a small purse dangling from her shoulder. All that comes out is her wallet. She releases me to tuck out a faded ID picture of a red-haired teenage girl. The kid is staring at the camera with an expression of surprise and vague outrage, like she never expected her pic would be taken. She’s got Down.

“That’s my daughter,” she says softly, showing me the pic.

I can tell where this is going even in my current state. I don’t want this. I don’t want to hear what she has to say.

But she goes on. “She’d take the bus every day to go to a special needs school in Carcassonne. She liked it there. No one saw her come off the bus that day . . . and she never came home.” She shakes her head, lost in her memories. Her gaze won’t meet mine. Her voice breaks down to a whisper. “He never said if he’d done it. The gendarmes couldn’t find her body.”

And that woman is what, grateful to me for having done absolutely jackshit? Bidoufle is still alive: I never even touched him in the first place. I keep swallowing but nausea climbs inexorably up my throat. Nothing I could say could fix this, and she wouldn’t be thanking me if she had any idea what kind of man I am. My gaze avoids hers and lands on Ted, who’s already in the driver’s seat, staring straight ahead in the dark. My door is open: I bet she’s heard every word so far. Did she know? Did she somehow Google Bidoufle and figure everything out? Or did she just react on instinct when that piece of shit dropped his pants?

“Look,” I begin. “I need to come clean. It wasn’t me: Ted can fend for herself just fine, and she fucked him up like you wouldn’t believe. He didn’t die, but his knee is pretty much ruined. He’ll spend the rest his life with a limp, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he needs facial reconstruction, too.”

The woman’s eyes slowly widen as she listens and peeks behind me at Ted’s statuesque profile. Ted turns her vacant gaze our way. “He had sinned,” she says. “He should have died.”

I see her again, standing over his broken body. She would have finished him, but I burst in. Fuck me, I saved that bastard’s life.

“I’m sorry,” I croak—to Ted or the granny, I’m not sure.

The latter shrugs with a grandmotherly smile. “What for? I can’t wish him dead: I’m a Christian, you know. Father Bère—oh you haven’t met him yet, he’s our priest—he says we find our peace in forgiveness.” There’s a flinty twinkle to the granny’s gaze as she returns her focus to Ted. “But I prefer her gospel to Matthew’s: it’s brought me more peace after all.”

“I bet it did.”

She pats my arm just like Gram would if I were home. “Now, go to bed Monsieur le Comte. You’re a mess.”

Am I? Yeah, definitely . . . I’m not fully aware of hauling my drunk ass into the Jeep as the granny waves us goodbye. That fourth glass of mazout kindly waited for me to slump in the seat to kick in, but now that we’re driving away it’s making the few remaining lights swish around me like I’m a blob of paint being smeared on a goddamn Van Gogh.

I didn’t ask Ted if she remembers the way to the castle, but she seems to be doing just fine behind the wheel. Trees flash by, white smudges in the headlights that brand themselves into my eyeballs. I squint against the blinding reflectors of a roadside post.  It’s only in the blessed darkness that ensues that I realize that my first day at d’Arcas is finally, finally over.

11 Comments. Leave new

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.
You need to agree with the terms to proceed