murder on the mediterranean (capucine culinary mystery)

Also by Alexander Campion

 

 

THE GRAVE GOURMET

 

CRIME FRAÎCHE

 

KIILLER CRITIQUE

 

DEATH OF A CHEF

 

 

 

Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation

MURDER ON THE MEDITERRANEAN
ALEXANDER CAMPION

KENSINGTON BOOKS

www.kensingtonbooks.com

All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.

Table of Contents
Also by
Title Page
Dedication
CHAPTER 1
CHAPTER 2
CHAPTER 3
CHAPTER 4
CHAPTER 5
CHAPTER 6
CHAPTER 7
CHAPTER 8
CHAPTER 9
CHAPTER 10
CHAPTER 11
CHAPTER 12
CHAPTER 13
CHAPTER 14
CHAPTER 15
CHAPTER 16
CHAPTER 17
CHAPTER 18
CHAPTER 19
CHAPTER 20
CHAPTER 21
CHAPTER 22
CHAPTER 23
CHAPTER 24
CHAPTER 25
CHAPTER 26
CHAPTER 27
CHAPTER 28
CHAPTER 29
CHAPTER 30
CHAPTER 31
CHAPTER 32
CHAPTER 33
CHAPTER 34
CHAPTER 35
CHAPTER 36
CHAPTER 37
CHAPTER 38
CHAPTER 39
CHAPTER 40
CHAPTER 41
Copyright Page

As always, this one is dedicated to T. Without her support and insight there would have been no book. In addition, without her strength buoying the author through a seemingly eternal stretch of bad health, there would have been no author either.

 

The book is also dedicated to the Toronto General Hospital Lung Transplant Team who tirelessly applied their infinite skills to ensure that all the moving parts continue to hum and tick as intended.

CHAPTER 1

T
he cramps seared without mercy. On the lee side of the cockpit she contorted into a fetal twist, feet tight against buttocks, knees hard under chin. Like synchronized dancers, the twin wheels of the helm gyrated back and forth in the grip of the autopilot. Two women sat huddled on the other side of the cockpit, ostracizing her with their whispers. She glared at them, as if their rudeness was the source of her pain.

Another spasm wrenched her lower abdomen in a vise grip. She grunted. On the horizon a static of lightning was followed by a dull bowling-ball rumble of thunder. Greasy, fat drops of rain began to fall out of the sooty sky. She stood up, grabbed a foul-weather jacket from a heap at the foot of the settee, slipped it on, and inched across the sloping deck toward the bow.

Another spasm stunned her. A torrent buckled down, aimed only at her, soaking her to the skin. She couldn’t manage to pull the jacket closed. Drenched, her T-shirt stuck to her breasts and stomach. Shuddering, she continued to fumble with the jacket. It wasn’t hers. She must have picked up one of the women’s.
Great.
Now, on top of everything else, she was going to get an earful when she got back to the cockpit. Even in the downpour, those rich bitches would get their noses all out of joint if one of them had to wear her taped-up, oil-stained piece of shit.

A violent spasm heaved at her bowels. Only one thing mattered, getting to the bow before it was too late. Doubled over, she shuffled along the heaving, sloping nonslip surface of the deck, her bare feet skating through the cascading water. The pain intensified. She wasn’t going to make it to the bow.

The top of her head rammed into the wire cable of the forestay. She gasped a sob of pain and relief. The surprise loosened her grip on her muscles, and she felt the contractions of unstoppable peristalsis take charge. She ripped off the foul-weather jacket, threw it down on the deck, shrugged her shoulders out of the elastic suspenders of her foul-weather pants, pushed them down to her knees with the panties inside, gripped the forestay with both hands, swung herself out over the bow pulpit railing. The action unleashed the full force of the eruption. She was sure the explosion of her intestines could be heard in the cockpit, forty-five feet away, despite the din of the storm.

The relief lasted only seconds. She convulsed in pain again. And once again. And yet again. A figure emerged from the sticky darkness. Bound to be one of the two bitches, who’d come to see what was wrong. For a brief second, her embarrassment overrode the anguish of her gut. Hoping to keep from being seen in her mortifying position, she bleated out, “It’s nothing. I’ll be back in a second. Don’t worry about me.” Another spasm. Another spurt.

But it wasn’t a woman.
Oh God, not now.
He was back. This was absolutely too much. She hurled insults. Strong hands grabbed her naked ankles and shook her legs. Her colon pumped out a weak but satisfying spurt. She relaxed her grip on the forestay, felt herself shoved hard forward, toppled off the bow pulpit, fell butt first into the sea.

She tried to tread water, but the pants around her ankles held fast. As she squirmed to kick off the foulie pants, she felt the slick hull of the boat rub against her arm. She scrabbled, grabbing for a handhold on the slick gel-coated side of the boat. In an instant the boat was gone, its tiny white stern light no more than a pinprick in the blackness.

She thrashed, but the bagging pants dragged her deeper and deeper the more she struggled. She swallowed a mouthful of salt water, gagged, coughed, swallowed more.

Her last thought was that drowning was supposed to be the most peaceful of deaths. How could everyone have been so wrong about that?

CHAPTER 2

“C
apucine, I don’t know how I let you talk me into this escapade. The thought of tossing helplessly over the waves of the open sea in your tiny walnut shell has been keeping me awake for days.”

Police Judiciaire
commissaire
Capucine Le Tellier smiled at her erstwhile boss,
Juge d’Instruction
Inès Maistre, from under mischievous eyebrows and tilted her head back to swallow the sugary dregs of her demitasse of
café express.

“The
Diomede
is hardly a nutshell, and she’s definitely not mine. She’s a bareboat charter. A fifty-five-foot Dufour with four cabins and all the room in the world. Much bigger than my first apartment after I graduated from Sciences Po. Look, you can see her over there.”

Capucine pointed at a substantial yacht docked on the other side of the marina. The mainsail furled on its boom was sheathed in a navy-blue cover lettered
MEDITERRANEAN ANCHORAGE YACHTS
.

Inès peered at the boats over reading glasses perched on the tip of her nose, shrugged her shoulders in Gallic resignation. With an effort Capucine twisted her frown into a smile. The women were almost the same age, still south of their midthirties, and had worked together often in the antediluvian era, a few years prior, when Capucine was still a reluctant hotshot in the fiscal brigade. Capucine had never been entirely at ease with Inès. Her neurotic obsession with putting corporate criminals behind bars was as unsettling as it was captivating.

Capucine had blurted out her invitation two weeks earlier, when an unexpected surge of camaraderie had washed over her during a luncheon meeting. Inès wanted Capucine to work with her on a case. Even though Capucine now had her hands full with her own brigade in the tough working-class Twentieth Arrondissement, the thought of lending a hand on an intricate financial problem had produced a thrill.

A waiter—an eighteen-year-old who was obviously paying for his summer in the sun by working tables—came up with menus. He had a hard time tearing his eyes away from Capucine’s décolleté. She concluded she might just have gone one button too far with her white linen shirt.

“Any news on your suspect?” Capucine asked Inès.

“He’s a bit more than a suspect. He’s guilty as hell. All we have to do is prove it.”

“Would you like me to explain about the dishes?” the young waiter asked, eyes still glued to Capucine. Capucine ignored him as if she hadn’t heard.

“And he was released two days ago, but that was only to be expected.”

The situation was straightforward. The guilty-as-hell man in question was the young grandson of the chairman of a venerable family-owned Paris investment bank, Tottinguer & Cie. The house was so ancient, the name was pronounced differently from the way it was spelled. Nevertheless, Inès was convinced the bank’s management, including the grandson, were inveterate financial miscreants. She had been after them for years and had never been able to produce even the slightest simulacrum of a case.

But now she might have found a chink in their armour. André Tottinguer, the grandson, a
gérant
of the bank and also a known philanderer, had been arrested for assaulting his wife. Inès had explained that Tottinguer had arrived home, returning from a tryst, at four in the morning to find his wife pressing the barrels of his Purdey shotgun up against his nose, her finger white tight on the trigger. Fortunately, the silly woman had left the safety on. He grabbed the gun, chased her down the stairwell, fired one shot into the ceiling and another through the lobby’s interior glass door after she’d run out. The wife, in her bathrobe and pajamas, managed to find a cab and get to her sister’s. The concierge of the building called the police, who arrested Tottinguer.

“And why did the police let him go?”

“That was my idea. No prosecutor would have even tried to present a case of attempted manslaughter. Charges might have been brought for
tapage nocturne,
creating a disturbance in the night, but all you get for that is a fine.

“No, I want to use this incident for an investigation of domestic violence. With your experience in the Twentieth, you’re an expert. Once I have him solidly behind bars, the wife will cooperate with me and get me all the fuel I need for the financial prosecution of the whole family.”

Capucine didn’t know what to say. She twisted her mouth in the tight French frown that could mean either assent or incredulity.

“Capucine, I’m going to get him this time. Believe me. He’ll go up for twenty years. And the rest of the family will follow right after. Just watch me.” Inès gripped the edge of the table so hard, her knuckles paled.

There was an awkward silence. The tintinnabulation of steel halyards rattling against aluminum masts became audible.

Inès made a valiant attempt to put the conversation back on an even keel.

“Tell me more about this boat trip of yours.”

“We leave on the morning tide tomorrow morning and sail straight for Bonifacio. You’ll love it. It’s the most beautiful town in Corsica, built high up on a white cliff so eroded by the sea that the town overhangs the water and looks like it might collapse at any moment. Then we spend a few days exploring the east coast of Sardinia and sail straight back here.”

“And who else is there going to be?”

“There’ll be nine of us in all. Six others besides you and me and my husband, Alexandre. My cousin Jacques—he’s with the Ministry of the Interior—is coming, too. And one of Alexandre’s cronies, Serge Monnot, who owns a number of very popular bars in the Marais, will be the skipper. He’s an avid sailor, and he’s the one who chartered the boat. Then there’s Angélique Berthier and her husband, Dominique. Angélique was a classmate of mine at Sciences Po. She’s doing very well as a partner in a head-hunting firm. Actually, we’ve drifted a bit apart since school, but we used to be very close friends. Her husband, Dominique, is wonderful, a charming marine watercolorist. And there’s a woman I don’t know, Florence Henriot. She’s a friend of Serge’s and is in charge of one of the imprints at Hachette. She used to be a famous professional racing sailor. Twice she won the Route du Rhum single-handed yacht race to Guadeloupe.”

Inès grimaced and shuddered histrionically. “How could anyone want to do that? God knows how long she was alone on a boat without really sleeping or having a proper bath.” She looked up sharply at Capucine. “There are bathrooms on this boat, aren’t there?”

“Of course. There’s one attached en suite to each of the cabins. Except on a boat they’re called heads, not bathrooms.”

Inès snorted and shook her head slightly. “That only makes eight people. Who’s the ninth?”

“The professional crew member Serge hired. A young girl, apparently. She’s on board to cook and clean and help him when he maneuvers the boat, so all we have to do is lie around in the sun and eat delicious meals.”

“Good. We’ll put the time to good use. We need to brainstorm about Tottinguer.”

“And unwind a little. Let’s not forget about that part. You’re going to be enchanted by Bonifacio, and the Costa Smeralda in Sardinia is the most beautiful coast in the Mediterranean.”

“Maybe, but my main objective is to keep you fully in my sights until you’re formally assigned to me. If need be, I’ll handcuff our wrists together.”

Capucine laughed over politely at the joke.

Inès frowned at Capucine over her reading glasses. “Capucine, I need to get this man. Without the quality of the police work you can bring to my team, I’m dead. Just dead.”

CHAPTER 3

F
ive miles away in Saint-Tropez, Alexandre also sat at a restaurant table overlooking the inimitable azure of the Mediterranean. He had asked for the check, and the maître d’ had arrived with thimble-size glasses of
liqueur de framboise
and the assurance that the honor of Monsieur de Huguelet’s presence at the restaurant Pétrus was far more compensation than the establishment deserved. He was, after all, the undisputed doyen of restaurant critics.

“When was the last time you actually paid for a meal in a restaurant,
mon cousin?
” Jacques asked with a smirk.

Despite himself, Alexandre was invariably amused by Jacques, the son of Capucine’s father’s brother. The two had grown up together as brother and sister. Jacques never tired of hinting that there might have been something a bit more than purely fraternal to the relationship. Jacques also took unrestrained joy in the fact that he held an ill-defined, but apparently exalted, post with the DGSE, France’s intelligence service, which occasionally cast him in the role of éminence grise in Capucine’s cases.

Alexandre sipped his bone-chilling
alcool.
He would not allow himself to be baited. The meal had been excellent. They had both had Mediterranean spiny lobster. Jacques had chosen less well and had ordered his sautéed on a door-size teppanyaki grill, while Alexandre had chosen his presented in delicate fresh pasta
ravioles
with a creamy sauce of liquefied fennel bulbs, shallots, mustard, and just a hint of orange juice. Far more than satisfactory.

The restaurant Pétrus had recently opened at the north end of Saint-Tropez’s fabled quai Jean Jaurès and was fast making a name for itself not only as a fashionable,
dans le vent
restaurant
,
but also as the purveyor of reference of prepared meals to the mega yachts that populated the quai. Alexandre decided he would write something upbeat about the Pétrus in his blog on
Le Figaro’
s website.

The framboise downed, hands shaken, promises to return made, favorable mentions in the press hinted at, Alexandre and Jacques set out on their postprandial stroll down the quai Jean Jaurès.

The Saint-Tropez port was immutable, crammed with wide, porch-size fantail decks of gigantic yachts berthed stern to quai, invariably decorated with an ornate vase of flowers on a table, swarming with young, tanned, obsequious, athletic crew in shorts and T-shirt uniforms.

“We have only one boat slave, it seems,” Jacques said languidly, aping a disappointed moue. “I hope she makes up in pulchritude what we lack in quantity.”

Alexandre harrumphed. “The last thing we need on this cruise is a boat girl. Florence is a world-champion sailor. Serge is very competent. Capucine knows her way around boats. If you ask me, Serge took one look at that coffin-size forepeak cabin and decided it would be perfect for some minion he could boss around like Captain Bligh.”

At this point in their
flânocherie,
as Alexandre called it, they reached Sénéquier, the fabled café epicenter of the Riviera. Considering that the vacation ideal of every French person under the age of thirty-five was to spend the month of August with elbows propped up on one of Sénéquier’s red, triangular tables, it was not surprising that there were no seats available on the terrace.

Two girls, their long legs at the apricot beginnings of their summer tans, stood up to leave. Jacques pirouetted into a canvas director’s chair with the finesse of a dancer, and Alexandre followed suit by spilling into his. A waiter arrived, imperiously flicking his side towel in irritation. There was a queue inside, and he had already received copious tips in exchange for a table. Jacques looked blandly at the man, straightening the crease in his Lanvin white-linen trousers, revealing creamy soft, baby-blue suede Tod’s driving shoes. The waiter checked and respectfully stood up straight. Then he caught sight of Alexandre, felt he should recognize him, stood up straighter still.

“Messieurs?” he asked with exaggerated politeness.

“Pastis,” Alexandre ordered, glancing at Jacques, who nodded.

When the drinks came, they both fell silent, admiring the high-school chemistry trick of the clear golden pastis turning milky white when water was added.

“Actually,” Alexandre said after his first sip, “I really am in a pet about this boat girl of Serge’s. I’d planned on doing the cooking myself. Working on those tiny boat stoves is an exciting challenge. I have a whole folder of recipes and a carrier bag filled with basic necessities . . . tins of pâté de foie gras and a few jars of truffles and . . .”

Alexandre had failed to attract Jacques’s attention. Alexandre searched the terrace for the source of Jacques’s fascination. Jacques seemed captivated by some creature in the very depths of the terrace. This was unexpected, since Jacques never looked at women. A fact that, when combined with his immoderate interest in clothes, made the family wonder if he wasn’t, well, just possibly a soupçon fey. Then Alexandre focused on the woman, a translucent beauty with alabaster skin, silken pale blond hair, and ice-blue eyes. Even a woolly mammoth would have stared.

Alexandre caught sight of her companion and jumped up.

“Régis!” he exclaimed happily. “
Toi ici!
You’re the very last person I expected to run into in this crass temple of see and be seen. What on earth are you doing here?”

It was the work of a moment to whisk two chairs away from an adjoining table and make introductions. Régis de la Rochelle was a food photographer, well known for his commercials and his illustrations of pricey coffee-table cookbooks; the seraphic creature was called Aude Theve-noux and was, apparently, some sort of lawyer.

“Having an absolutely miserable time,” Aude answered for him. Her face revealed not the slightest trace of expression when she spoke. It was almost as if she were a life-size porcelain doll of exquisite delicacy equipped with a sound system operated by a third party.

“The plan was to come down here and charter a boat and go somewhere,” Régis said, “but everything is rented, so we’re stuck in our drab little hotel room up in the hills.”

“And the traffic jams are so bad, it’s an hour cab ride to drive the two miles into town,” Aude contributed with no more than a ventriloquist’s movement of her lips.

“I have the perfect solution,” Jacques said. “We have a boat chartered in Port Grimaud. We’re leaving for Corsica in the morning. Why don’t you come with us? We have plenty of room.”

Alexandre hiked his eyebrows. This was a whole new Jacques.

“We could put you up on the settee in the main salon,” Jacques said. “It can turn into a double bed. We’re going to do an overnight crossing straight to Bonifacio. We could drop you off there, and you could have your vacation away from the crowds, or at least the worst of them.”

Aude looked into Jacques’s eyes, mute. Even though not a word had been exchanged, the bargain was sealed.

More pastis was ordered.

Régis chatted at Alexandre about his current project as one of the photographers on Alain Ducasse’s latest tome. Jacques and Aude looked into each other’s eyes.

Lubricated by a series of pastises, they became steeped in conversations as the radiant sunshine bore through the umbrella over the table and the afternoon wore on. When the shadows lengthened, Alexandre’s thoughts turned to dinner. It was high time to find a cab and make their way back to Port Grimaud to hatch a plan for the evening meal with Capucine and that odd juge d’instruction friend of hers. He called for the bill, waving away any attempt from Régis to share. As they rose, Aude looked into Jacques’s eyes.


A demain,
” she said. Alexandre had a strong sense of their complicity.

“We’re at the Mediterranean Anchorage Yachts Marina in Port Grimaud,” Jacques said. “Our skipper wants to get going by ten tomorrow morning.”

Aude said nothing. She shook Alexandre’s hand and leaned forward to allow Jacques to kiss her cheeks.

CHAPTER 4

“Y
ou let Jacques do
what?
” Capucine glared at Alexandre, her spoon dinging loudly as she stirred her café au lait on the tiny terrace of their hotel room overlooking one of the myriad canals that had been constructed to provide Port Grimaud with a veneer of antiquity. The contrived mix of burnt siennas and red ochers intending to create the look of “the Venice of France” exacerbated Capucine’s irritation.

Alexandre was still partially enveloped in the arms of Morpheus. For him, seven thirty was hardly the hour for a levee. Left to his own devices, he would have begun his day at ten at the earliest. He looked balefully at Capucine from under lids three-quarters closed. It was clear that he would remain mute until he had taken the first sip from the split of champagne he had ordered, further escalating Capucine’s ire.

“All right, I admit I made a mistake, too,” Capucine said. “Inviting Inès was an impulse. I confess she intimidates me. And, yes, she may be a little too, well, intense, and, well . . .” Capucine lowered her voice. “Maybe just a bit too plebeian for this crowd.” Her volume returned to normal. “But still, we talked it over with Serge, and he had absolutely no problems with her. Remember? But inviting on the spur of the moment not one, but two, people you ran into at a café, and proposing that they sleep on the sofa of an already overcrowded boat, without even thinking of consulting anyone, well, my dear, that’s frankly quite over the top.”

Capucine’s tirade was interrupted by the arrival of room service.

The restorative power of the good monk Dom Pérignon’s sparkling wine on Alexandre was never anything less than astonishing. Halfway through his flute Alexandre’s ebullient bonhomie was fully restored.

He favored Capucine with his most fulsome smile. Capucine thawed, but only around the edges.

“Serge will be over the moon when he sees Aude. Trust me. And Régis is a good buddy and an excellent cook. Between the two of us our victuals alone will make the trip worthwhile.”

“That remains to be seen.”

 

Nearly an hour late—after all, the physical elements of post-squabble reconciliations are not to be rushed—Capucine and Alexandre stood at the end of a long floating dock, facing the ample stern of a generously proportioned sailboat. Their friend Serge, transformed from his Paris persona, stood sixty-five feet away at the bow of the boat. In the City of Light, in trim Italian suits worn tieless, with the top two buttons of his silk shirts left undone, he seemed always prepared for a paparazzo to snap him for the lifestyle pages of the glossies, which seemed never to tire of him. Now he had recast himself into a Mediterranean sailing bum. Clad only in shorts and boat shoes, he was already deeply tanned, his cheeks stubbled, his hard, flat chest adorned with a luminescent jade juju hanging from his neck on a leather thong. He stood next to a fresh-faced young man in a blue polo shirt marked
MEDITERRANEAN ANCHORAGE YACHTS.
Both peered intently at a clipboard, checking off the boat’s inventory. Serge’s bubble of self-importance was palpable even from the dock.

Capucine and Alexandre greeted Inès, who hovered twenty feet from the stern. Exchanging inanities about the glory of the weather, the trio waited to be invited on board once the inventory was complete. A couple clanked down the aluminum ramp leading to the dock, their shrill argument far louder than the ringing of the metal plates under their feet.

“I saw the way you were hitting on that waitress! You’ve reached the point where you don’t even wait for lunch. You’re on the prowl even at breakfast. And you have the effrontery to do it right in front of me!”

It was hard to detect even a vestige of the sensitive Sciences Po Angélique in her current headhunter manifestation. The Modigliani face and shock of chestnut hair were still there, but her earlier delicacy had been overlaid by the intransient hardness of a top-of-the-line headhunter. On the other hand, Dominique, dreamy and placid in the storm of the harangue, remained the quintessential artist, concerned only with adjusting the knot of his fuchsia Liberty Print neck scarf.

Catching sight of Capucine, Angélique doused her rage. The females air kissed loudly, while the males thumped backs robustly. As this display of affection went on, a tall, wiry woman, face sunbaked brown as a saddle, clanked down the ramp with no more luggage than a diminutive backpack slung over one shoulder. Florence Henriot’s face was unforgettable. It had been plastered over every Saturday supplement for decades when she was the queen of the daring single-handed transoceanic yacht races that so captivated the imagination of the country. She seemed not to have aged a bit. Capucine supposed that was the result of having had her face embalmed by the sun as a teenager.

Puffed up as a blowfish, Serge appeared at the head of two-foot gangway connecting the boat to the dock.

“Hey, there’s no need to hang out down there. Come on board. I was just signing the inventory with the man from the charter company. Skipper stuff. You’re going to love this boat. She’s a total honey.”

On board there was a cocktail party scurry of introductions. As the commotion died down, all eyes turned to the dock, where Régis and Aude had arrived, Régis wreathed in winsome smiles, an expensive-looking camera hanging around his neck, Aude statuesque, her beauty even more ethereal than the day before.

Beaming, Alexandre waved them on board. The second round of introductions was interrupted by yet another loud clattering down the ramp. A muscular young woman in very abbreviated, oil-stained cutoff jean shorts, a man’s denim shirt tied in a loose knot under her breasts, and none-too-clean bare feet struggled with a grocery cart brimming with primary-colored packaged food products. Régis went to the rail and busily snapped pictures.

“That’s our
marin,
Nathalie,” Serge said. “I sent her out to buy provisions.”

Solicitous of all matters comestible, Alexandre hurtled down the dock to help Nathalie.

Capucine’s cousin Jacques had been one the first to arrive on the boat. As Capucine eyed the recent arrival with misgivings, Jacques whispered in her ear, “Not to worry. I understand that she’s to be chained in her forepeak dungeon, gnawing on bones, until she’s needed. Serge felt that the clanking of her fetters would add an erotic piquantness to the trip.”

By their side Dominique examined Nathalie with a knowing eye, clearly mentally removing her few garments. Angélique scowled and spat out an inaudible comment. Serge’s lips tightened. Capucine wondered if it was dismay at strife among his crew even before they set off or if he was jealous.

With a shrug of irritation Serge led the group below deck for a tour, leaving Nathalie to cope with her groceries as best she could. Régis brought up the rear guard, the clunk of his camera continuous.

“Do you always take pictures of everything?” Florence asked him.

“Good lord, no. This is for my blog. I’m avid blogger. I usually just post food pictures—I’m a food photographer by trade—but I have a special section for our summer vacation. I’m going to cover our progress day by day. It’s my summer treat to myself.”

He took a quick snap of Florence, who smiled tolerantly at him, and then wheeled and took one of Aude, hoping to catch her off guard. But she was as composed and expressionless as ever.

The boat’s salon was as large as a small living room. There was a sofa to port and a banquette wrapped around a table and two chairs screwed into the floor to starboard. Toward the stern was a large, well-equipped galley screened off from the main area by a long counter. Opposite was a navigation desk flanked by a row of switches and screens that would have been at home on a jumbo jet.

Serge explained it all in enough detail to make their eyes glaze over.

Next, they trooped single file to visit each of the four cabins, all roughly the same size and each with a tiny bathroom, which Serge made a point of calling a head. Once the stateroom doors were closed, the units became cozy dollhouse-size flats.

Back in the salon, they spread out, steeling themselves for Serge’s inevitable lecture. He boosted himself up on the galley counter, took a deep breath, and looked around the room to make sure all eyes were on him.

“Before we shove off, I want to lay out some ground rules,” Serge said in an authoritarian tone. Sensing that he had started out on the wrong foot, he attempted a charming smile, which came out as a forced rictus.

Still pedaling for the right note, he asked, “How many of you have been on a long cruise before?” All the hands went up with the exception of Aude’s, Inès’s, and Florence’s. They clearly felt the question was not worth dignifying with a reply.

“Great. We have lots of experienced talent. Let me tell you how I’ve allocated the cabins.” He checked himself again. “I mean, how I’d suggest we divvy them up.”

A frost settled over the group.

“I thought we could put Angélique and Dominique and Capucine and Alexandre in the two stern cabins, which have double beds, while Florence and Inès and Jacques and I can bunk down in the two forward cabins, which have two single bunks. Régis and Aude will bunk in the salon. Does that work for everyone?”

There were nods and murmurs of lukewarm assent. Capucine noticed that Angélique and Dominique held hands and winked at each other as their cabin was mentioned.

“Good. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about our cruise. We’re going to put to sea in an hour and head straight for Bonifacio. We will have a good, solid twenty-knot westerly all the way down and should make landfall in the early morning, by lunchtime at the latest. We’ll spend a day or two there, and when we’ve had enough of it, we’ll head south to Sardinia. We’ll map out our plan of attack for Sardinia while we’re in Bonifacio. How does that sound?” Serge asked with the enthusiasm of someone who expected a round of applause.

“Does that mean we’ll be sailing all night, in the dark?” Inès asked.

“Of course. It’s a straight shot from here. We crank in one fifty on the autopilot and tool on down. No problem.” He shot Florence a slightly nervous look, searching for approval.

This time the murmurs of agreement were more animated. The prospect of being in Bonifacio the next day was a pleasant one.

Reassured, Serge went on. “Good. We’re going to have watches of three hours each all the way down. The wind isn’t expected to change direction, so we won’t even have to tack and the boat will sail itself on autopilot. If we have to trim the sails at any point, Nathalie and I will handle it. It’ll be a piece of cake.” Serge smiled condescendingly at Inès.

“Now let’s get to the ticklish subject of the Achilles heel of all boats, the heads.” Looking at Aude, he explained, “This boat has the latest technology. The head and the shower are in the same cubicle. Make sure you flip the toilet seat down when you use the shower. Otherwise, you could fill up the holding tank. The heads themselves have two cycles. You pump water, throw a lever, and pump it out. There is a plate screwed to the bulkhead with very clear instructions. But the system can be a bit temperamental, and our rule is going to be ‘Never put anything in the head that you haven’t eaten first.’ ” Serge gave a snort of TV comedian’s laughter that invited the audience to join in. All he got was polite smiles and shuffling feet. It was a beautiful morning, and they were about to embark on an adventure. No one wanted to be cooped up below deck, listening to a pep talk about sewage.

The mood was broken when Nathalie thumped down the four steps of the companionway in her grubby bare feet with an armload of groceries. Alexandre and Régis jumped to help.

“Ah, yes,” Serge said. “Let me introduce Nathalie. She’s going to be our best friend for the next ten days, cooking our meals, cleaning up our boat, and giving me a hand on deck if she has any spare time.” He smiled at her with the tolerant affection people gave to scruffy old family dogs that had just wandered in with muddy paws. Nathalie ignored him.

“Nathalie bunks down in the forepeak cabin. The only way you can get to it is through the glass hatch at the bow.” He smiled at Nathalie again. Capucine was sure she saw a healthy dollop of lust folded into his patronizing smile.

The group dispersed, Serge and Florence to examine the rigging and the working of the sails, while the others chatted in the sunshine on deck.

Ten minutes later Serge was engrossed in explaining the complexities of the self-furling jib to Capucine, Inès, and Aude. Alexandre, with Régis in his wake, approached Serge with the grim solemnity of a parent about to tell his spouse that he has discovered their child engaged in an act of particularly bizarre self-abuse. Serge looked up in alarm.

“Your boat girl is depraved,” Alexandre said.

“Depraved?”

“Either that or she owns stock in the Panzani corporation. In any event, she plans to feed us the full range of their canned pastas.” Alexandre paused to let the full gravity of his statement sink in. Serge stared at him, slightly openmouthed. Capucine looked out over the bow pulpit, her back twitching from suppressed giggles.

“Canned pasta every day?” Serge asked lamely.

Régis chimed in. “Worse. Her menus are brightened up with Bolinos.” A guffaw eructed from between Capucine’s lips.

“Bolinos?”

“They’re little plastic cups,” Régis explained. “You pull the foil lid halfway back, fill the cup up to the mark with boiling water, wait three minutes, and stir with a spoon. Your dinner is ready. They come in four varieties.”

The explanation was greeted with silence.

“We just tried the shepherd’s pie. It was far worse than you can imagine,” Régis said.

“But there’s good news. Nathalie hung on to the receipt. Régis and I are going to the supermarket to return all that swill. We’ll be back in an hour. An hour and a half at the most. Since it will be lunchtime by the time we return, we’ll serve a light collation, and then you can shove off,” Alexandre said.

Serge nodded meekly, his skipper persona usurped in a bloodless palace revolution.

CHAPTER 5

C
apucine couldn’t help but feel sorry for Serge. He moped on the stern rail, waiting for Alexandre and Régis’s return, mournfully scrutinizing the sun’s inexorable climb to its zenith. Finally, a good two and a half hours after they had left, Alexandre and Régis arrived, clattering two shopping carts piled high with produce. Alexandre smiled up at Capucine triumphantly, a returning knight paladin who had saved the village from dire perdition.

Serge sprang into action, dispatching his crew to collect the groceries, turned the ignition on, let it shriek its warning for a full minute while the cylinder heads heated, jabbed at the starter button, ordered Nathalie and Florence to cast off the mooring lines, and gently eased the boat out of the marina, while Alexandre and Régis went below to stow their bounty. The notion of a quai-side wait for a “light collation” had volatilized.

To the beat of the throbbing motor, Serge eased through the postcard emerald greens and Tyrian purples of the coastal waters and in fifteen minutes reached the ink–dark blue of the open sea. Capucine sat on the bow pulpit with Inès, smiling at the early afternoon tropical sun. Inès, unnerved even by the gentle rocking of the boat as it glided across the glass-flat sea, clutched the pulpit rails with both hands.

Far behind them, at the stern, Serge, skipper once again, ordered Nathalie to take the helm and Florence to raise the mainsail. As Florence began to crank the halyard winch on the side of the mast, Alexandre stuck his head out of the hatchway like a jack-in-the box, blinking from the brightness of the sea sun.

“Pas si vite, mon ami.
Not just yet, my friend,” Alexandre said, his voice heavy with authority. “Lunch first, and then you can play with your boat to your heart’s content.”

Clenching his teeth, Serge forced a smile as Florence dropped the six inches of mainsail she had raised and clipped three shock cords to secure the sail in place on the boom.

Alexandre emerged from the hatch with a tray, followed by Régis, bearing another one. Serge’s smile climbed up his face and lit up his eyes. He went below and emerged with two bottles of chilled Tempier rosé and a stack of flimsy plastic glasses adorned with the charter company’s florid monogram. He was clearly far more at home in the persona of a host than that of a skipper.

“Look what Alexandre’s brought us. We’re in for a treat,” Serge said.

“Three different bruschette,” Régis said, striving for stage center. “One is made with fresh plums, Serrano ham, and ricotta. Another with sautéed chicken covered with yellow and red cherry tomatoes sliced in half, topped with slices of fontina, and then grilled. And a third is made with onions, carrots, zucchini, red beans, baby spinach leaves, sprinkled with
herbes de Provence
and coated with a spinach pesto sauce.”

Régis produced his camera and snapped pictures of the trays. Serge filled and distributed glasses. Forgetting he was intended to serve lunch, Régis rearranged the serving dishes, creating an expressionist tableau of summer colors.

“Do we have to wait until you’ve completely reclothed the model before we can partake?” Jacques asked. There were three beats of shocked silence before the cockpit rippled with laughter.

The wings of the table in the middle of the cockpit were raised, converting it into a cozy restaurant booth. The group scuttled around like schoolchildren gathering for their three o’clock
gouter.
Aude wound up at the stern end of the cockpit, inches away from Nathalie, at the helm. Angélique and Inès squatted, legs folded, on the sill of the hatch. The volume of chatter increased as the wine circulated. The contretemps of the morning evaporated as quickly as summer dew. The bruschette were perfect: light, flavorful, estival. As the serving dishes passed from hand to hand, Aude pivoted and glared at Nathalie’s feet, directly behind her, gray with the grime of Port Grimaud’s streets.

Elegant as a prima ballerina rising from a plié, Aude stood up, stepped onto the deck, and repositioned herself on the sliding cover of the hatch, towering over the group, a princess with her subjects assembled respectfully before her.

Solicitous of every crew member, topping up every glass when it was half full, serving every nearly filled plate with additional bruschetta, Serge was in his element. Capucine knew from Alexandre that Serge’s success with his restaurant-bar business stemmed from his ability to simultaneously animate the front of the house of five different restaurants, and not from his business acumen.

When Serge bent over Inès to pour wine, she fingered at his shirt.

“I couldn’t find a life preserver in my cabin. Isn’t it dangerous not having one? Shouldn’t there be one?”

As she spoke, her pluck on his shirt escalated into a crumpling grip. Alexandre felt the calm of the afternoon percolate away in an unpleasant sea change. High time for Inès to have the conversation nudged back ashore.

“Do you know, Inès, that we have a movie auteur on board so skillful, he could have made our mouths water even for the canned Panzani slop we so barely escaped?”

“Régis? I thought he was in advertising.”

“I hardly think of it as advertising,” Régis said, affronted. “I’m a
table
director, not a
movie
director. Trust me, that’s where the real skill is required. I work only with food. Take that TV ad for Charolais Allô that came out yesterday—you know, the one with the steam rising from a succulent
pavé de bœuf
and fries that look like they would melt in your mouth. It took me a whole week to pull it off.”

“Inès,” Dominique said, wresting the attention back, “there’s nothing to worry about. These boats are unsinkable. But I’m sure if you think you’d feel safer with a life vest on while you’re on watch, Serge would be happy to issue you one.”

He showed Alexandre and Capucine the sketch he had been working on. In the drawing the dumped mainsail had been morphed into something organic, perhaps the disemboweled colon of an animal. A blond woman, naked from the waist up, sat in the cockpit, contemplating the sail. All that could be seen of her was a shapely back, hair done up in a ballerina bun, a long and sinuous neck.

Angélique peered down at the sketch and screeched, “That’s not my breast. My breasts are larger.” She pressed her index finger hard into the pencil drawing, smudging the side of the torso, where the shadow of a breast might, or might not, have appeared. “And I know exactly who it is! It’s that filthy boat girl. Serge, if I’d known you were going to hire people like that, I’d never have come.” She pushed by her neighbors, stalked down the companionway, and slammed the cabin door.

Unperturbed, Dominique restored the offending breast with a few pencil strokes. Jacques made the merest moue at Aude and hiked his eyebrows microscopically. Aude produced the hint of a smile back at him. Capucine was sure she saw that.

His confidence restored, his belly full, Serge took over the helm and, with a sweep of his hand, motioned Nathalie to clear the dishes. With a plastic clatter she piled them up, stuffing the remains of half-eaten bruschetta into her mouth. The cockpit was quickly vacated.

The sails went up with a rattle of halyard winches, the boat heeled over, the engine stopped, and the sounds of the sea lapping at the hull became audible.

Capucine, Aude, and Angélique slipped below to put on bathing suits and reappeared on deck, Angélique with a pile of art magazines, Capucine with the latest Fred Vargas mystery, Aude with a slim volume of poetry. The women spread out on deck, removed the tops to their bathing suits, and lathered themselves with suntan oil.

Angélique sat at the masthead with Dominique, flipping through the pages of art magazines, as he observed the mandatory ritual of oiling his wife’s naked back. Alexandre joined Capucine on the bow. They sat, legs dangling over the side, heads ducked under the top wire of the lifeline to keep themselves vertical, admiring the receding coast. This was pure bliss, Capucine told herself. Why hadn’t they ever gone on a long cruise before? Capucine smirked when she caught Alexandre scrutinizing the breasts of the two women. Men and their inexplicable breast fetish. How odd it was. Aude, with her sculptured alabaster breasts, was indifferent, but Angélique caught Alexandre’s glimpse and arched her back, making her full breasts even larger.

Of course, women were even more caught up in the fetish than men were. Proud as she was of showing off her mammaries on deck, Angélique would be mortified if one of the males on board had come across her topless below deck. And all this over instruments the Maker had intended merely for the nourishment of offspring.

Half an hour later, just as Alexandre and Capucine were contemplating a short siesta in their cabin, Régis appeared on deck with a large pitcher and another stack of plastic glasses.

“Negronis,” he said. “My own variety. I make them with gin, Campari, Martini & Rossi, a healthy splash of Prosecco, and a wedge of orange. Since we’re heading for Italy, we may as well italianate ourselves.” The bubbly Negronis elevated the afternoon into something significant, possibly even transcendent.

Away from the land, the breeze stiffened to the promised twenty knots and backed to the south. Serge trimmed the sails flat and hard as iron, and the brave
Diomede
heeled well over, crashing aggressively into the intensifying chop. Sleek as the Dufour looked at her berth, Capucine realized that she really was a heavy bathtub of a boat, built stiff to make an inexperienced crew feel secure. She came alive only in a strong wind, and even then she was still unyielding, hanging on to the vertical with all her might, plowing through the waves instead of soaring.

Inès groaned and rolled her eyes. Serge motioned Angélique to the helm and went below. There was no doubt Angélique was a master at the wheel. Capucine snuggled under Alexandre’s arm and rejoiced in the afternoon. They were definitely going to go cruising more often.

A good bit later Alexandre went below to begin some culinary complexity that apparently was the sine qua non of dinner. Capucine gave the large deck a cursory look for Inès but didn’t see her. Just as she concluded that Inès had gone below to nurse her seasickness in her bunk, Capucine heard a retching sound and saw Inès’s skinny buttocks, clad in olive-drab shorts, peek out from under the taut genoa.

Capucine went forward to the bow and swung around the luff of the jib. Inès was kneeled over the lifeline, pathetically making an offering of Alexandre’s bruschetta to the sea. Capucine commiserated. There was no despair deeper than wrenching seasickness.

Her hand loosely around the lifeline, Capucine inched down the deck to join Inès, who looked up and smiled bleakly. Hidden behind the luminous backdrop of the enormous genoa, they were isolated in a magical world, sandwiched between the rushing sea and the glowing white expanse of Dacron.

A strong gust heeled the boat over more, putting the rail under water. Capucine clutched the lifeline as the water rose to her knees. Inès was slammed hard into one of the vertical stainless-steel lifeline stanchions and then began to slip under the lowest wire. She was inches away from being washed overboard. Capucine pushed through the water, folded one arm around Inès’s torso, locked the other around the lifeline, clenched her muscles.

The Dacron of the genoa crashed down on them like a falling brick wall. Capucine stretched, put her arm around the lifeline until her hands could clasp onto opposing wrists, locking Inès in her grasp. Capucine hung on for all she was worth. They both went under water for eternal seconds. The sail scraped roughly over their backs, tearing at their clothes until the boat’s angle of heel lessened. Capucine and Inès coughed and sputtered. Florence crossed the deck in long, sure-footed strides, picked them both up by the collars, dumped them none too gently onto the cushions of the cockpit. They sat in lumps, still gasping for breath, salt water streaming from their bedraggled hair.

Ignoring them, Florence went to the port-side wheel, unscrewed a knob, and jockeyed the helm, looking sternly at the rigging and the sea. Like a rambunctious dog subjugated by the return of its master, the boat sailed placidly on through the brilliant afternoon, guided only by Florence’s two fingers lightly on the top of the giant wheel.

A drowned rat, Inès sputtered, wet strands of colorless hair covering her eyes. Her glasses were gone. Capucine smiled at her. “Why, you’re beautiful without your glasses.” She giggled. Inès giggled with her. It was the first time Capucine had ever seen her laugh.

People poured through the hatchway like circus clowns bursting out of a miniature car. Angélique was furious. She shouted at Capucine and Inès, stabbing at them with her index finger. She had been at the helm, doing quite a good job with such a big boat, when Serge had abandoned her to go below. The boat had been hit by a violent squall. Frightened as she was, she had had the presence of mind to do the right thing. She had edged the helm downwind and had eased the sails to reduce the list. She’d had no idea two people were sitting on the lee rail. How could she have? They should have told her. It was their fault, not hers. And she had been brave enough to stay at the helm until she had been relieved by Florence. No one appreciated her.

As Alexandre led Capucine below to the comforts of towels, hair dryer, fresh clothes, and a hot rum toddy, Dominique emerged on deck to the harridan shrieks of Angélique. “You had the nerve to leave me alone on deck while you were panting after that grubby, hussy boat girl, and just look what happened. Your incessant skirt chasing nearly killed two people.”

CHAPTER 6

W
hen the sun set with a kaleidoscopic show of brilliant reds and pinks spread out over the slate-blue sea, Capucine told herself the ultimate proof of the Dear’s divinity was His ability to keep such a garish show from being vulgar.

Most of the group was still on deck, chatting. A ship’s bell clanged. Régis stuck his head out of the hatchway.


Allez. Allez, les amis.
Dinner’s ready. Do you want to eat up here or down below?”

“It’s such a beautiful evening. Let’s eat on dec—” Dominique started to say.

He was cut off by Angélique, who sat at the bow with Capucine and Inès.

“Below, definitely, Régis. It’s starting to get cold.”

Régis gave Dominique a conspiratorial smile.

Without the horizon as a reference, the heel of the boat was far more apparent below deck. Capucine let the slope of the deck propel her to the galley console. Alexandre was at his diminutive stove, in the midst of one his cooking epiphanies. The stove, set on gimbals, was the only horizontal surface in the salon. Alexandre had found a wide strap that hooked into the counter at the sides of the stove, allowing the cook to lean back in complete comfort against the boat’s heel. On one burner he was making some sort of sauce; on another he was sautéing something that could have been miniature rugby balls. The salon smelled pleasantly of garlic.

At his side, Régis was enthusiastically taking pictures of Alexandre
à l’œuvre.

“Our first real meal on the boat,” he announced at large. “My blog entry is going to be fabulous. I’m going to write it right after dinner.”

With a flourish Alexandre wrapped a side towel around the handle of the metal skillet and put it in the oven. He undid one of the clips of the strap and climbed up the incline into Capucine’s arms.

“I’m so in love with youuu,” he sang. “And also so in love with this little stove,” he continued in his normal voice. “Cooking on that toy-size thing is a challenge. But you know what they say. The test of a deep-sea sailor is the ability to make perfect profiteroles in a gale-force storm. And I intend to pass that test before this cruise is over.”

Behind them, Régis laid a damp cloth on the table to prevent the dishes from sliding and then proceeded to lay the table. He tucked the knives and forks wrapped in paper napkins on the uphill sides of the plates and tested everything with his finger to see if it was secure against the list.

Six of the group inched their way up the hill onto the settees, those in the center sitting back as if in reclining chairs. Serge sat at one end and squeezed over to make room for Aude, who sat perfectly erect without any effort or apparent means of support.

Capucine sat in one of the three swivel chairs screwed into the floor and leaned far forward, bracing herself on the table with her elbows. The damp from the tablecloth was clammy and unpleasant on her elbows. The boat hammered through the chop with loud banging resonating through it from the bow. Still, Capucine told herself, the discomfort was part and parcel of the thing, more a testimony to adventure than a trial. They really were deep at sea, in their own private universe. The feeling could not be equaled.

With a flourish, Régis placed a large Plexiglas bowl filled with dark primary colors in front of Angélique. He shuffled downhill back to the galley area and returned with a small metal pot containing a dark liquid, which he poured with great care over the dish. He handed Angélique a Plexiglas salad knife-and-fork set and dropped back a few feet, his camera poised.

“Can you toss this and then serve, Angélique? It seems we have to eat it while the sauce it still hot.” The second Angélique’s implements touched the bowl, a bright flash and then two more dazed the diners. “Great shot,” Régis announced. “Now give me some action, Angélique. I want to see some real tossing. I need drama.”

Turning to face Alexandre, who had removed his little rugby balls from the oven and was covering them with aluminum foil, Régis asked, “What do you call this again?”

Alexandre pushed his way up the incline, smiling the proud grin of a three-star chef emerging from his kitchen. Capucine was sure he imagined himself in a foot-high, immaculate white chef’s toque.


Bagna cauda.
It’s a Niçois classic. Potatoes, baby beets, baby leeks, baby carrots, spring onions, radishes, bell peppers, endive, and many other things, but most importantly, properly trimmed baby artichokes. The sauce is made with anchovies and garlic in olive oil. But the point of the thing is that it has to be eaten hot. Hence the name.”

As always, Alexandre’s food had a mesmerizing effect. No one spoke for thirty seconds. The anchovies gave the delicate baby vegetables a piquancy that elevated them to the ethereal. Dishes like this never surprised Capucine when Alexandre made them on his enormous La Cornue stove in their apartment, but the fact that he was able to pull it off on a tiny stove on a heaving sea impressed her. She hoped they might have a serious storm so he could attempt profiteroles.

Capucine looked over at Inès to see how she was coping with her first in-cabin meal. She seemed to be relishing the bagna cauda.

“So tell us, Serge,” Angélique said with exaggerated cheerfulness, “all about Bonifacio. What time are we going to get there, and what’s it going to look like?”

Serge puffed out his chest like a carrier pigeon. “Bonifacio is one of the great natural harbors of the world. It’s at the end of a narrow gorge nearly half a mile long and cut into the rock. And high up on the rock, above the harbor, there’s a small town—”

Florence cut him off. “There are places where you can have lunch and lean out the window as far as you can and still not see where the sea meets the bottom of the cliff. I always move my chair very carefully.”

Serge jockeyed to regain the microphone. “We’ll arrive in the middle of the morning. We’re going to have a hard sail tonight, and so I’m going to tell you how I want to assign the crew—”

“Voilà,” Alexandre said, arriving with a platter, leaning forward against the incline. Régis’s incessant flashes lit up the room like a nightclub.

The main course was beautifully browned squid, bloated with a stuffing of crab, the squid’s chopped tentacles, onions, green peppers, red bell peppers, and a bit of garlic; seasoned with curry and hot mustard powder; and sprinkled with lime. It was accompanied by an elegant
tian
of thin slices of tomatoes and eggplant, topped with little pieces of fresh goat cheese, covered with the Midi’s ubiquitous herbes de Provence and a latticework of a truly excellent olive oil Alexandre had unearthed on his shopping foray. This all was served with an unctuous, round, honey-noted Ott rosé.

There was another moment of silence as the first bites were tasted. From her seat Capucine could see Nathalie scowling at them from her position at the helm. Even though the sun had set nearly an hour before, the dusk was still rosy bright.

Florence followed Capucine’s gaze.

“Serge,” Florence said. “Whose head is Nathalie going to use?”

“I, er, hadn’t—”

“It’s going to take more than a bathroom to scrape the filth off that girl’s feet,” Angélique said. “Someone needs to put a pressure hose to her.”

She glanced at Aude, hoping for an agreeing comment, but Aude just looked back, her porcelain face expressionless. Angélique smirked self-righteously, as if Aude had agreed with her vigorously. Capucine noted, not for the first time, that Aude’s blank face had a Rorschach quality of reflecting the mood and opinion of the person talking to her. It must be those all-knowing, preternaturally blue eyes.

Jacques also stared at Aude, the top half of his face deadly serious, but the bottom twisted into a wry smirk. “I wouldn’t be too quick with that pressure hose. Nothing is more erotic than a big-breasted wench seasoned with the soil of the earth. Think Tom Jones.” He shrieked his donkey bray, ear piercingly loud in the confines of the salon.

Obviously embarrassed by the turn the conversation had taken, Régis said, “Florence, tell us about your single-handed races. I just can’t imagine anyone sailing a boat as big as this all by herself.”

Florence smiled modestly. “Actually, most of the boats I sailed were more than twice as long as this one, and since they were three-hulled trimarans, they were a whole lot wider. Handling the boat is the easy part. You just take everything very, very slowly, very carefully, one step at a time. You win races by being lucky about the weather. The first Route du Rhum I won, I arrived a full day before the others because I took a southerly route and had a nice following wind for three days, while everyone else was stuck in a dead calm.”

“Don’t you get lonely?”

“No. If you’re not terrified in the middle of a storm, you’re numb from lack of sleep. It’s like being on drugs. Of course, you lose it a little. I can understand why so many of these guys who do the single-handed circumnavigation of the globe wind up nuts.”

Florence continued on with tales of loopy single-handed sailors. Capucine lost the thread. She wondered who had really been at the helm when they took their ducking.

With a clatter, Régis cleared the dishes and put new plates on the table, along with a selection of cheeses from the Midi, a big wedge of pale Moulis, three different goat cheeses, and a large slab of Bleu des Causses, which looked like a thick-crusted Roquefort.

“Be sure to try that,” Alexandre said to the group. “It’s Roquefort’s milder, more elegant cousin.”

Florence edged out of her seat and stood up effortlessly, despite the steep list of the floor. “Serge, why don’t you have a peek at our position and make sure we don’t have a course change? Shout it up to me if you want a new heading. I’m going to spell Nathalie so she can eat.”

“Yes, good thinking. I was just about to do that.” Serge stood up, limped his way to the navigation desk, and began poking at the electronic instruments and making pencil marks on the chart.

“Florence, we’re dead on course. Steady as she goes,” he shouted.

Nathalie’s bare feet thumped down the companionway steps. She swept the table with a rancorous look. She went to the galley area, where Régis was washing dishes. Two of the squid had been left in the foil-covered frying pan for her. She pulled off the foil and wrinkled her nose in distaste. The group at the table watched her out of the corner of their eyes.

“Here’s how we should divide up the watches,” Serge said.

Nathalie picked up one of the squid with her fingers, put it to her nose, sniffed it suspiciously. She made a childish moue of distaste. Alexandre frowned at her.

“The boat will be on autopilot, so there’s nothing to do except keep your eyes open and call me if there’s a change in wind direction. Is that clear?”

Nathalie took a deep, resigned breath and bit off a third of one of the squid. The stuffing oozed out, sticking to her upper and lower lips as she chewed. She swallowed with a loud gulp, wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, and stuffed in the rest of the squid.

“I’ll take the first watch with Alexandre and Aude. Then at midnight Florence will come up with Capucine and Jacques. At four in the morning Nathalie will take over with Angélique and Régis. How that?”

“Perfect,” Jacques said sotto voce to Capucine. “Angélique can get to work with her power hose.”

Nathalie appeared to approve of the squid. She grabbed the second squid in her fist and took a large bite. A blob of stuffing fell on her dimpled chin. She chewed on, swallowed with a gulp, scraped the stuffing off her chin with two fingers, then put them in her mouth and sucked loudly.

The people at the table made a great show of avoiding the spectacle. Capucine had not the slightest doubt that Nathalie was putting it on intentionally.

“Pure Antonioni,” Jacques said sotto voce with his Cheshire cat smile. “Only he fully understood the eroticism of the
belle fauve
—the beautiful savage.” He shrieked his high-pitched laugh. Capucine looked at Aude to see how she would react. She had turned her head toward Jacques, and Capucine was sure she saw a faint smile, but when she looked again, she thought she must have imagined it. Aude’s lips had remained as immobile, as if they had been cut from white Tuscan marble.

 

At one in the morning Capucine leaned back in the cockpit, her feet up on the now-folded table and her head resting on the back of a settee cushion, watching the canopy of stars gyrate lazily back and forth as the boat rolled. She thought of Ulysses, who had sailed these very waters in his adventures and misadventures. She thought of how this little sea, when you got right down to it, was the placenta of the Western world’s civilizations.

Florence was at the helm, a few feet away, her hand languidly draped over one of the twin wheels, eyes glued to the horizon, throwing an occasional glance at the compass in front of her, which cast a faint, candle-like glow on her mannish features. She had switched the autopilot off. The feel of the boat had immediately softened, the boat itself becoming responsive to the give and take of the sea. On long cruises Capucine was always amazed how, even when you were eyes-shut-tight asleep in your bunk, you could always tell who was at the helm. And you always slept far better with an experienced hand on the wheel.

The sky was solid with stars. There were so many, it seemed almost that the lighted dots occupied more area than the dark spaces. Harking back to her childhood summers on the beach in Brittany, she found the few constellations she could recognize. There was the Big Dipper, guiding her eyes to the North Star. She searched for her father’s favorite cluster of stars, the Pleiades, which he always liked to call “a little pâté.” Where was it? There it was. Fainter than she remembered, but very much present and accounted for.

Finding the Pleiades had always been her summer nighttime swan song. Her father would sit with her on the beach until they found it and congratulated themselves. Then—

“You know,
cousine,
you should do the wet T-shirt thing more often. You have the perfect
nichons
for it. It’s a look that suits you. Your juge chum, not so much. If the best you can muster is a fried egg, you should stay dry.”