Hôtel La Source
It was one of those ideas she shouldn’t have entertained. But also one she couldn’t resist. So she went right ahead and let it in, where it picked the comfiest armchair in the house, poured itself a kir royal and sighed with contentment. ‘Nice place you’ve got here.’
Sophie’s ideas had a tendency to turn into squatters, protected by law throughout the winter, impossible to evict.
She was entertaining the present one on New Year’s Day as she drove back from her mother-in-law’s. She drove slowly, taking the time to prepare her arguments for Luc.
What’s so wrong in looking for a dog?
No, that wouldn’t work. He’d fill in the missing bit straightaway. You mean, what’s so wrong in abandoning your two-year-old daughter, who happens, incidentally, to be ill, to go looking for a dog? Huh! A spot of fever. The way he went on, you’d think Chloé was at death’s door. Besides, she wasn’t abandoning her. She’d be leaving her in the very capable hands of her father.
Ha, yes! Flattery. He’d never find a decent retort to that. All the same, she braced herself for the few irritating minutes it would take to break down his resistance. He always gave in eventually. She never understood why he didn’t say yes straightaway. It would save so much bother.
She didn’t make a good start, being so occupied with The Idea that she shut the front door too loudly, and Luc rushed into the corridor, finger to his lips. ‘She’s just gone for her nap.’
Sophie froze, waiting for the wail from upstairs, but none came and she tiptoed into the sitting room.
‘How’s Mum?’ asked Luc.
‘Fine.’ She took the plunge. ‘She’s going to employ me.’
‘What?’ He was instantly suspicious.
‘Oh, just for a couple of days, I should think.’
‘Ah. Some sort of art thing?’
‘Um… Not really.’
The suspicion increased. Art might have been acceptable: Magali painted, Sophie did sculptures, both of which he approved of.
‘More the other side,’ she said brightly, avoiding the actual word.
‘Detective work?’ The suspicion turned to alarm. ‘But you can’t do that. You’re not qualified.’
‘I’m not actually a detective. Just her PA.’
‘Her PA? What does she need a PA for? She hardly takes on any work.’
‘That’s the point. If something comes along and she doesn’t want to do it, I’ll be able to, sort of, help out.’
‘That’s vague to the point of…’ He threw up his hands. ‘Have you got a job specification? Is she declaring you? Has she done the paperwork?’
‘Give her a chance. We’ve only just decided. She’ll get onto it.’
Luc knew very well what that meant: Magali would take one look at the forms, sigh with dismay and stuff them in a drawer.
‘Seriously,’ he said, ‘you must be breaking the law in a dozen ways at least. What prompted this anyway?’ He narrowed his eyes, and Sophie found it hard not to giggle as the penny dropped behind them with an almost audible clatter. ‘Something’s happened, hasn’t it? You’re helping her already.’
‘Oh, don’t worry, nothing dangerous.’ She knelt on the floor, putting Daisy Diplo and her dinosaur friends into their box, along with a couple of stray cows.
‘What are you doing?’ asked Luc.
‘Tidying,’ she answered pleasantly, though she knew what he really meant: how come you’re doing it? Keeping the house in general, and Chloé’s toys in particular, impeccably in place was his pride and responsibility. ‘Not there,’ he said. ‘They’re cows. From Old McDonald’s. There.’
‘Oh…’ Sophie stood up, afraid that if she continued, it would only be counter-productive. Sometimes she found his addiction to order a tad OCD, but she wasn’t going to complain.
‘So what is it?’ he asked. ‘This… mission of yours.’
‘Nothing much. I’m just going to look for Zizou.’
She’d prepared herself for many reactions, but not what actually happened: Luc zapped through the news channels, demanding why no mention was made of such a momentous event. Had he been kidnapped? Were they asking for a ransom? Who was it? Sophie, bewildered, said they had no idea for the moment, but Zizou was worth a fair bit, to which Luc scoffed that she didn’t know what she was talking about – Zizou was worth millions. It must be Catalan separatists, he decided, Barcelona striking the old enemy.
Only when Sophie, afraid he’d suddenly gone mad, said, ‘Do be sensible, Luc. Why on earth would Catalan separatists be interested in a dog?’ did he switch off the television and turn to face her. ‘What?’
‘OK, not just any dog. A Lagotto Romagnolo. But I honestly don’t think it has anything to do with Spain.’
The misunderstanding had at least one positive outcome: when the actual facts were made clear to him, Luc was so relieved that she wouldn’t be confronting a group of terrorists that he nodded absent-mindedly and raised no objection at all. Indeed, he seemed more concerned that his wife didn’t know that Zinedine Zidane, France’s greatest footballer, captain of the World Cup team of ’98, born and bred just down the road in Marseille, was affectionately known to all his fans as Zizou. Sophie said that of course she knew, it had simply slipped her mind. After all, she wasn’t a fan of Zizou or any other footballer, she’d only been six when they won the World Cup, and she had no idea that he’d then gone on to play for Real Madrid. Luc completed her education by giving her a detailed account of Zizou’s career, talent and worth, and once they’d agreed to disagree about his importance, they returned to the matter of the real Zizou, the dog.
‘He’s very talented too. He digs up truffles. Which you have to admit is far more useful than kicking a ball.’
Ignoring the last remark, Luke said, ‘So Mum’s roped you into this. What for? Can’t she handle it on her own? I mean, she’s caught a serial killer, surely she can find a dog.’
‘She’d rather get on with her painting. They’re starting to sell, as you know, whereas my sculptures…’ She put on a sorry expression. ‘As you also know.’
‘You mean…’ He narrowed his eyes again. ‘She’s leaving you to it? On your own?’
‘Oh, she’ll help, of course. But she won’t actually be coming with me.’
‘With you where?’
‘But that’s, like, an hour and a half away. We’ve only got one car.’
‘She’s lending me hers. She says she can manage without.’
‘Right. Which means she’ll be asking for ours.’ He sighed, hands on hips. ‘And when’s this… dog hunt beginning?’
‘Right now. Obviously. There’s no point waiting, is there?’
‘Now? It’ll almost be dark by the time you get there.’
‘Well, tomorrow for proper. But I might get some clues today if I’m lucky.’ She started towards the stairs. ‘I’ll just pick up some clothes.’
‘What? You mean you’re staying overnight? What about Chloé?’
‘What about her?’
‘She can’t go to the crèche tomorrow. Unless she’s suddenly better.’
‘Mmm.’ Sophie kissed him on the cheek. ‘It’s just the one night. I’ll assess the situation, report back to Magali. Then we’ll see if it’s worth pursuing.’ She kissed him again, more earnestly. ‘You’ll look after her ever so well. Such an angel! If only all men were like you.’
Chloé was still asleep when Magali came round to pick Sophie up, staying just long enough to dismiss the objections which Luc, faced with the sudden reality, now presented as numerous and insuperable. No, Magali told him, she’d hardly be needing the car at all, and yes, of course she’d look after Chloé if needed, and no, it wouldn’t last more than a couple of days, and honestly, he made it sound as if Sophie was going off to the North Pole. Luc grumbled some more, Sophie gave him another kiss, repeated how lucky she was to be married to such a man, and the two women drove back to Magali’s house. After being filled in on a few more details, Sophie got back in the car, lowered the window and said, ‘Right. All set. Anything else I should know? Any parting advice?’
Magali gave it a moment’s thought. ‘People lie. And appearances are deceptive. A corollary of which is that you mustn’t hesitate to resort to a little deviousness yourself.’
Sophie knew, of course, that appearances can deceive, she’d known it since kindergarten, but the information wasn’t entirely superfluous – she was the first to admit that she’d never quite incorporated it into her outlook. Behind an appearance, in her view, lay precisely what the appearance announced: happiness for a smile, anger for a scowl, sadness for tears. And life, on the whole, confirmed that her supposition was right. Not all the time admittedly, but it wasn’t worth changing your outlook – spoiling it, in fact – just to be on your guard for the few occasions it didn’t. As for her own appearance, it was generally all too transparent – being devious wasn’t her strongest skill.
‘And don’t be afraid,’ Magali added, ‘to use your feminine charms. It’s worked for me and I’ve got far less of them. Or at least, they’re hardly charms any more. These days I have to make do with a disarming smile.’
Thus equipped, brimming with anticipation, Sophie set off for Bordumont. Motherhood was an incomparable joy, and Chloé the cutest girl in the world, but this little jaunt was a much needed breath of fresh air. Tomorrow she’d leap through the forest like Katniss Everdeen, pounce on Zizou, and return triumphant with the €800 reward. Reinvigorated, she’d rediscover the scope of her creativity. She’d inject some ambition into her sculptures, which were getting smaller and smaller, and now were nothing more than miniature figurines like jelly beans or Smurfs, costing five euros a piece instead of 500. This, she reflected, would hardly matter if she didn’t feel herself getting smaller too, even as Chloé grew bigger and Luc, the IT wizard, swelled almost visibly into his role as breadwinner. What better antidote to this gradual diminishment than hunting for a truffle-hunter?
Soon she’d left the valley of the Durance behind her and was climbing up through the ruggedness of the Luberon Regional Park, its ancient white rocks sharp under a bright blue sky. Here and there she passed discreet, desirable properties guarded by wrought iron gates, but these did nothing to lessen her sense of awe and adventure. She didn’t go to Bordumont, the hotels there being on the pricey side, but to Sagnac, fifteen kilometres away. Here she checked into the Hotel La Source, at €38 a night.
‘Huh! Must be a dump at that price,’ Luc had said. ‘It’s only a night. You could go a bit more upmarket. We’re not paupers, you know.’
‘Oh, nonsense.’ Sophie had waved him away. ‘I’m sure it’s charming. Run by a sweet old lady who hasn’t kept up with the times. I’ll bet it’s the best bargain ever.’
At first she drove straight past it, dwarfed as it was by a garage on one side and a block of flats on the other. She parked the car and got out. It was several degrees colder here than in Sentabour. She put on her jacket, grabbed the suitcase and pushed open the door of the hotel.
‘Oh!’ In a dingy lobby smelling of chip fat, a young woman was sprawled on a grimy sofa reading a magazine. ‘You startled me.’
‘Ever so sorry.’ Sophie hesitated before advancing into what was unquestionably a dump. ‘It’s just that, um, I’ve booked a room. But perhaps I might –’
‘Ah, you must be Madame Kiesser.’ Tossing her copy of Closer onto the sofa, the woman stood up and put out her hand. ‘My name’s Marie. Welcome. Let me take your case. It’s quiet here in winter,’ she said as she led Sophie up a rickety staircase. ‘You’re the only guest in fact, so I’ve given you the best room. Have you come far?’
‘Only from Aix. Well, Sentabour, nearby.’
‘Oh, I worked in Aix for a bit. I wanted to be a hairdresser.’ She opened the door to a large, musty bedroom with hideous yellow wallpaper. ‘I trained and all, and went to work in this salon in Aix, you know, in the big Auchan shopping centre?’
‘Yes. I had my hair done there once.’
‘I only stayed four months. I didn’t like it. I mean, it’s very pretty and all but I got homesick. So I came back here. Worked in a shop for a while but it was only part time so I got this when it came up. The hotel belongs to Monsieur Thevenot but he’s hardly ever here so I reckon it makes me the manager. He wants to sell it actually, but no takers so far.’ She waved a disparaging hand round the room. ‘It’s nothing fabulous, I know, but I like it here. And at least I’m not living at home any more.’
‘I see. This is where you grew up?’
‘Yeah, my parents run the bakery on the square. Boulangerie Ligoux. My dad does really good pastries, he wanted me to work with them but I didn’t fancy it. Nothing but squabbles.’ She drew back the curtains. ‘There. Not a great view, I’m afraid, but it’s quieter than the other side. And plenty of room, see? Nice big bed.’ She sat down heavily on the mattress. ‘Doesn’t squeak, did you notice? Nearly all the others do. Just the one night, was it?’
‘Right,’ said Marie, getting up from the bed. ‘Well, give me a holler if you need anything. The cook’s off work, New Year’s Day and all, but I can fix you a sandwich for supper if you like. Or there’ll be a couple of restaurants open in town.’
‘Fine, yes, I’ll… wander round a bit. And the spring?’
‘La Source. The name. I thought there’d be a spring somewhere.’
‘Oh, it’s in the square further up. Worth a look if you’re going that way. But you’re better off going to Bordumont if it’s somewhere pretty you want.’ And wiggling her fingers in farewell, Marie withdrew.
Sophie opened the window to let in some air, then lay on the bed wondering if she might be feeling a little homesick herself. No, she decided a moment later, of course not. This was the Luberon’s answer to the tacky motels in American movies where private eyes hole up. La Source was a dump, but that was part of the deal. Seediness and detectives go together. And really, what more could she ask for? Of all the beds available, she had the only one that didn’t squeak.
Her resoluteness thus restored, Sophie quickly unpacked her case and went off to look for Zizou.