On this cool, damp Sunday afternoon in spring, with clouds and rain showers sweeping in from the Atlantic a hundred miles to the west, Bruno Courrèges had his day off. He could think of few better ways to enjoy it than to accompany the local women’s rugby team in the regional final.
The players were all between sixteen and nineteen years of age, and had been coached by Bruno over the past decade. Teaching wasn’t part of his remit as town policeman of St. Denis, but he relished his involvement with these young people and he was deeply proud of the team. Women’s rugby was a relatively new sport in France and there were many who thought the game was too rough for the fairer sex. But few could maintain that prejudice once they had seen the girls play. They tackled one another as hard as the men, but they ran and passed more, played a faster and more elegant game, and kicked the ball ahead with as much skill and more finesse. They were seldom bogged down in the muddy, grinding mauls that often marked the play of the male teams. If Bruno had to sum up their style he’d have said they played with more grace.
That was not how it looked on the field this afternoon. The ball was slippery in the drizzle and most of the players were so smeared with mud that it was hard to tell one team from the other. The score was tied. The opponents came from the much bigger town of Mussidan, and they had been champions of the Dordogne département the previous year. Few, except Bruno, gave the St. Denis girls much chance.
Suddenly the mobile phone vibrated at Bruno’s waist. He tried always to be reachable even when he wasn’t on duty. But with only ten minutes left to play, the St. Denis team was fifteen meters from the opponent’s goal line and pressing hard so he ignored the call. The ball was loose after a scrum, and two players, one from each side, were wrestling for possession. St. Denis won out and the ball went out toward their winger. Then Bruno groaned as a foul was called. The referee blew his whistle and called for a formal scrum. Bruno took the opportunity to glance at the screen of his phone. It was Pamela, a former lover who was now a close friend. He decided he’d better take the call.
“Bruno, dear, I need your help” came the familiar voice. “One of my cooking school clients who was coming from Bordeaux by train failed to turn up at the station as planned. And she’s not answering her mobile phone. I tried to check with Bordeaux airport whether she’d been on the plane but they pleaded security and refused to tell me. I’ve got her photo. She sent one so that I could recognize her at the station. Can you help?”
“I’m tied up but I’ll see what I can do later this afternoon,” he said quickly. “Send me a text message with the name and flight details and email me the photo.” After a brisk but affectionate farewell he closed his phone.
Bruno turned his attention back to the match, where the two squads, each of eight forwards, advanced like warriors from some far-distant age. The front rank of three had their arms around one another’s shoulders and they were crouching, ready to duck their heads and slam into the interlocked shoulders of their opponents. Behind them the remaining forwards ducked down, locked into place, and began to push. On each side were the flankers, and Bruno’s eyes were on the nearer of the two, Paulette. About to turn nineteen, the daughter of the town florist, she was the nest natural athlete and player he’d ever coached, male or female. Bruno knew one of the scouts for the national team was somewhere in the stand. They always watched a regional final, looking for promising new players. Paulette was the first player he’d worked with who could reach the supreme level of playing for France.
Pushing from the flank, Paulette added her strength to the St. Denis forwards as the two squads slammed together, all of them shoving hard. Paulette’s head was down to watch where the ball was going, and as soon as she saw it being heeled back away from St. Denis, she began to peel off from the scrum and anticipate the next move when the ball would emerge into open play.
It was a matter of delicate judgment. If she got ahead of the ball, Paulette would give away a penalty. If she hung too far back, an opponent would have time to pass the ball back to a teammate who could kick it safely up the field and out of play. The rule in rugby was that a passed ball flew faster than a human being could run. But in this instance, Bruno thought, the opposing fly half was standing a little too close.
Paulette timed it perfectly. She hit the opponent a second after the pass was received and wrenched the ball free, then she sidestepped and accelerated toward the goal line with only one player to beat. She dropped the ball onto her foot, punted it neatly over the player’s head, caught the ball as it dropped and had time to run behind the posts for a score. Along with every other spectator except the Mussidan team’s sullen coach, Bruno leaped into the air with excitement and admiration for a dazzling piece of play.
“Well played, St. Denis,” he called out. “Now, don’t let up.”
“Mon Dieu, that girl’s a marvel,” said Lespinasse, owner of the St. Denis garage and this year’s chairman of the rugby club, who was standing at Bruno’s side. “They never saw that coming. She’ll play for France one day, you mark my words.”
Bruno nodded, distracted by the sight of Paulette bent over and retching and then dropping to one knee. The St. Denis trainer ran onto the pitch, squeezed a damp sponge onto the back of her neck and gave her a bottle of water. Paulette took a swig, nodded and then jogged back to join her teammates.
Only a few minutes of play remained and Bruno nervously watched the clock wind down until the final whistle went and the girls of St. Denis had won their first championship. Bruno danced with joy on the touchline as the two teams led past one another, exchanging handshakes in the traditional courtesy of the sport.
Cheering themselves and beaming with pride, their faces still flushed from the game, the whole St. Denis team then lined up to hug and thank Bruno in a great crush of muddied womanhood. Bruno had tears in his eyes as he slapped them on the back and told them how well they had played and how much they deserved to win the champions’ cup.
Then the parents and families gathered around to praise and embrace their daughters. They were followed by the mayor, who handed Bruno a flask of cognac, and he took a celebratory swig. Philippe Delaron, the town photographer who worked for Sud Ouest newspaper, was trying to round up the girls for a team photo, but they were all too excited to listen to his appeals until Bruno marshaled them into sufficient order for the photo. Somehow the mayor, with a politician’s skill, placed himself in the center of the picture. Finally, with the winning trophy held high, the young women tugged Bruno into their ranks for a last photo. As they broke up he noted that Paulette was looking unusually pale.
“Are you okay?” he asked her, trying to look into her eyes for any sign of concussion. “Did you get hurt in that tackle?”
“I’m fine,” she said briskly, avoiding his gaze. “Just something I ate. Don’t worry.” She turned and hugged him fiercely before greeting her parents, ignoring Philippe’s appeal for one final photo and then joining the rest of the team heading for the showers.
Bruno scanned the small crowd of spectators as they began to leave the stadium, hoping to spot the scout for the national team. A solitary man still sat in the stand, tapping away at a tablet on his knee. Bruno wasn’t sure if it was a sportswriter or the scout, but he knew better than to try to lobby the man on Paulette’s behalf. If he hadn’t been impressed by her skill and her sense for the game, he was in the wrong profession. Bruno knew that he would find out soon enough, when the French team announced the names of the thirty young women who would be invited to the summer camp to prepare for the next season. Now that women’s rugby was starting to be televised, money was available to invest in the sport.
Bruno heard the beep of an incoming message on his phone. Pamela had sent the information she had promised about the missing woman from the cooking course. Bruno called an old police academy friend who worked in the security section at Bordeaux airport and passed on the details of the missing client. She had messaged him the name of Monika Felder, who was to have arrived on the British Airways flight from Gatwick, adding a British mobile number and an address in Surrey along with the information that the cost of the weeklong course had been paid in advance. Bruno was promised a callback after his friend had checked the airport computer.
Suddenly someone from the clubhouse was calling Bruno’s name, asking if he could find a doctor. He trotted over to the tent, where his friend Fabiola, a doctor, and her partner, Gilles, were eating grilled sausages while waiting for the girls to dress and pile into the rented bus that would take them all back to St. Denis.
“There’s a call for a doctor in the clubhouse,” he told Fabiola. “Can you help?”
She nodded, her mouth still full of sausage, handed him the remaining half of her sandwich, picked up the medical bag that went with her everywhere and headed off. Bruno followed, waiting outside while Fabiola went in.
Paulette’s father, Bernard, came to join him and asked, “What’s this about wanting a doctor? Who’s it for?”
“No idea,” Bruno replied. “We’ll learn soon enough. Paulette played really well today.”
“We’ve been worried about her. She was sick after breakfast this morning. Said it was just nerves before the big game.”
Bruno glanced quickly at him and patted Bernard on the shoulder, trying to conceal his own sudden alarm. Then Florence, who taught science at the St. Denis collège and acted as team manager, came to the door of the changing rooms, looking flustered. She beckoned Bruno to join her.
“Paulette fainted in the showers,” she whispered, trying to ensure that Bernard couldn’t overhear. “She said she was a bit dizzy and not to make a fuss. Fabiola is looking at her now.”
Florence went back inside, and a few minutes later out came the players, some in jeans, others in short skirts and fashionable jackets, looking more as if they were coming from a disco than from a hard-fought match. Finally Florence and Fabiola emerged, Paulette between them and looking fine, if a little pale.
“It was nothing,” she told her father, hugging him. “Just the excitement.”
“She’ll be fine,” said Fabiola, without smiling.
Bruno handed her the remains of the sausage sandwich, now cold and not looking at all appetizing. Fabiola tossed it into a nearby bin.
“I’d love one of those,” Paulette said. “I’m famished.” She set off with her father to the food stand.
“Is she really okay?” Bruno asked when they had gone.
“Mother and baby both doing well,” Fabiola said grimly. “She’s nearly three months pregnant. She hasn’t seen a doctor yet and hasn’t told her parents. She’s in perfect health but I don’t want her playing any more rugby this year.”
Bruno was about to say something about the trial for the national team but stopped himself in time and then closed his eyes and grimaced. There were now more important things in Paulette’s life than rugby. He sighed, thinking of the hours of practice he had put into refining her skills.
“Did the other girls hear? Do they know about this?” he asked.
“I took her into the trainer’s room for a quick exam so I don’t think they overheard anything,” Fabiola replied. “But her teammates aren’t fools.”
“Merde, merde, merde,” said Florence.
She had put as much effort into Paulette’s future as Bruno had, maybe more. Paulette had been a poor pupil, kept back one year after failing her exams to get into a lycée, and it had taken the combined influence of Bruno and the mayor to get the lycée to accept her. Bruno had called in some favors to secure a promise from a university with a special course for phys ed teachers that they would be happy to take her, if she passed the baccalauréat exam at the end of the two years at the lycée. Suddenly, what had seemed to be a very promising future for Paulette that matched her athletic gifts was now at risk.
“She must have known she was pregnant?” Bruno asked.
Fabiola gave him a pitying look. “Of course she knew, but she didn’t know what to do about it. I think she was hoping that with all the knocks from rugby it might just go away. But babies can be pretty resilient and Paulette is an extremely healthy young animal.”
Fabiola’s jaw tightened. She and her partner had been trying to have a baby for some time, but without success. Bruno knew from Gilles that Fabiola was starting to fret about it, despite the advice that she always gave to her patients that nature would probably take its course and they should avoid worry and simply enjoy the process.
“Does the father know? The father of the baby, I mean, not her dad,” he asked.
“I have no idea. She clammed up when I asked when her last period had been and refused to say another word. At least she promised to come into the clinic tomorrow so I can give her a full checkup and I’ll try to ask her then. At a guess I’d say the baby is due by October—when she was planning to go to university. If she decides to go ahead and have the kid, that is.” She shook her head sadly. “It’s so damn unnecessary these days. They get the sex education, they know there’s contraception available but they still make a mess of things.”
“It’s really too bad,” said Florence. “Still, she can always take a year off and go to university later. When you see her tomorrow, tell her she should feel free to come and talk with me about it.”
She could always go to university, Bruno thought, but the chance of a place on the French under-twenty team would not come again and he knew Paulette had set her heart on it. And a phys ed teacher who had played for her country would have a much easier career path.
It should have been a joyful ride home on the team bus with the championship cup aboard but Paulette had handed the cup to Bruno without a word before stomping up the aisle to sit alone on a rear seat, where she leaned back and closed her eyes. She didn’t speak or take part in any celebrations, and that put a damper on the journey.
Bruno took a call from the security desk at the airport. Monika Felder had not been on that day’s flight, nor had she booked it. She had, however, flown in the previous day on the same British Airways flight. Her passport had been recorded by the Police aux Frontières before she passed through customs. And she was booked to take the return journey to London Gatwick in a week’s time.
“Do you want the photo?” Bruno was asked. He knew that surveillance cameras had been installed at more and more airports and access points, so he quickly agreed. He could check it against the image Pamela had sent. He thanked his old colleague, ended the call and found Pamela’s email with the attachment. He clicked on it, expecting the drab near anonymity of a passport-style photo. Instead, it looked like a studio portrait, carefully lit, of a strikingly lovely woman. She had blond hair, artfully arranged to flatter her face and her large, dramatic eyes. Her cheekbones were high, her smile alluring while sufficiently restrained for the European passport regulations, which forbade facial expressions. Even through the photo her complexion seemed to glow with that soft perfection that so many Englishwomen enjoyed. It was a compensation, Bruno assumed, for living in that damp and foggy climate. She was standing slightly sideways while looking directly at the camera, a pose that showed off her long, elegant neck.
Bruno gave a low whistle of appreciation, thinking that anyone seeing a woman such as this would not easily forget her. That should make finding her much easier. His phone gave the double-beep sound of an incoming message. It came from his friend at the airport, and even the gray surveillance-camera image of the woman waiting at the passport desk could not conceal her beauty. She was the woman in the photo Pamela had sent.
There could be any number of reasonable explanations for her failure to arrive as planned, Bruno thought. She may have missed the train, or decided to take a day off in Bordeaux, or been diverted by a sudden family emergency. Still, it was odd that she hadn’t called Pamela to warn of her late arrival. He called the English phone number that Pamela had sent him and heard the bland tones of a recording saying the subscriber was not available. He left a message with his own number.
As soon as he put his phone away his thoughts turned to Paulette’s pregnancy, wondering whether she would be more forthcoming with him than she had been with Fabiola. If not, he began to think how he might learn the identity of the father of Paulette’s child and whether he should somehow let Paulette’s parents learn of their daughter’s condition. Legally, however, Paulette was no longer a minor, which meant she was entitled to her privacy.
Bruno sighed as he contemplated the cheap brass cup sitting on the coach seat beside him, far less impressive and much less costly than the cup for the young men’s championship, which had been bought a generation earlier. Still, Bruno would ensure that it took pride of place in the club’s cabinet of trophies, despite the grumbles of the old guard, who could still not bring themselves to take the women’s game seriously. Perhaps the championship would change that but he doubted it. The old ways died hard in St. Denis and Bruno himself had at first questioned whether the girls should continue to play after puberty. It was the insistence of the girls that had converted him and made him increasingly proud of the young women he had coached. This should have been a day of triumph, but Paulette’s situation had cast a shadow. Bruno’s dream of watching her trotting out onto the pitch in the blue shirt of the nation at the Stade de France in Paris had turned hollow.
How would her family react? If she were to have the baby, the family would have some decisions to take. But the real choice would have to be up to Paulette. Bruno grunted to himself, thinking that more and more frequently he was faced with situations for which the police academy had left him wholly unprepared.
Perhaps he should consult his colleague Yveline, the impressive young woman who commanded the local gendarmes. An athlete who had been on the French Olympic field hockey squad, Yveline had taken a friendly interest in Paulette’s sporting prospects and she would have been at the match had she not been on duty. He’d visit the gendarmerie before going home. He could tell her about Pamela’s missing customer at the same time, and that thought reminded him that he should check with Pamela to learn if she had any news.
As Pamela answered his call, he heard in the background women’s voices and laughter. It was the time when her pupils would be preparing the classic Périgord dinner they would be eating that evening.
“What’s on the menu?” he asked her.
“Blanquette de veau,” she replied. “Since we have one empty place there’s going to be lots left over if you’d like to come and join us.”
“I’d love to but I need to see the rugby team home—you’ll be pleased to hear that they won the championship—then I have to check in with the gendarmes so I’ll call you after that to tell you if I can make it. Any news of your missing woman?”
“Not a word. Did she land?”
“Yes, but I’ve heard from the airport that she landed yesterday, not today. Could she have mistaken the date?”
“No, she emailed me two days ago to confirm her arrival at Le Buisson today. The plane was scheduled to arrive at eleven this morning so I explained how to take the airport bus to the Bordeaux gare and catch the train at two. She had lots of time, enough to get some lunch at the station. I was to meet her at four. Maybe she simply wanted a day sightseeing in Bordeaux. Do you think something might have happened to her, a sudden illness, perhaps?”
“I’ll check with the station,” he said.
As the homebound bus drew into St. Denis’s rugby club, Bruno closed his phone. He had learned that no woman had been taken ill at the Bordeaux train station, or on the airport bus. The train had been on time. He climbed out to congratulate the team once more and waved them o in their various cars. He called Yveline, but she was off duty that evening. Finally he phoned Pamela to learn that she and her cooking school pupils were about to sit down to dinner.
“The blanquette de veau looks perfect and I saved a place for you. We’re drinking that rosé from Château Briand that you like,” she added.
“I’m on my way.”
Copyright © 2018 by Martin Walker. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.