I had not yet been inside the house. It reminded me of my aunt’s mock-Tudor cottage: a central hall plan with two rooms at the front and a kitchen behind and a staircase that climbed from the back of the hall to the bedrooms above. I knew that the door at the back, at the foot of the staircase, led into the kitchen because of the smells of roast chicken and some sort of vegetable drifting out from it. The front entry hall was narrow and I felt the brush of Luc’s arm on my own as he swung the door shut again, then turned to me as though waiting for me to decide what the form of our greeting should be.
We had moved past the handshake, I thought, so I led with the bise. He was due for a shave and smelt faintly of Scotch, but it wasn’t unpleasant. “I wasn’t aware you wore glasses,” I told him.
“I need them for reading. I’m old.”
“Thirty-two isn’t old.”
“You’ve been learning my secrets.” He looked at the handful of papers I’d brought. “Do you need me to take you somewhere?”
“No.” As much as I wanted to physically follow where Mary had gone, it would not have been practical. Going to Paris was one thing, but driving across all of France was another. Besides, she was moving too quickly and not staying long enough in any village or town to make seeing those places of use to my work.
I said, “I need your help with a stock fraud.”
He honestly had the best smile. Through the frames of his glasses I saw his eyes crinkle a bit at the edges. “OK.” With a nod to the room just behind, he said, “Come have a drink.”
It was not a large sitting room, but it was cozy and comfortably furnished with lamps and a slouchy brown sofa and chairs and low tables that looked like they wouldn’t much mind if you set down a drink on them. Luc had been doing just that. On the table in front of the sofa he’d set a large Scotch glass beside a ring binder of papers. He closed the ring binder now, sliding it off to the side as he shifted a small stack of newspapers and a one-armed robot built out of LEGO bricks to tidy up. He had left me a choice between taking the armchair or sharing the sofa. I sat on the sofa.
He took off his glasses, still standing, and sliding them into the breast pocket of the plain white cotton shirt he was wearing, he asked, “What would you like? I have sherry or whisky or rum or épine…”
“It’s homemade, from the leaves of the blackthorn.”
“You made it yourself?”
“Noah helped. It’s not bad.”
I opted to try it and watched while he crossed to the drinks cabinet in the front corner beside the big window that looked to the front of the house. He must do something other than sit at a desk, I decided. He had to belong to a gym, or go running. Men didn’t stay lean with long muscles like that just by sitting around all day working with numbers. I knew. Every office I’d worked in was full of men glued to computers, and there was an obvious difference between those who did nothing else and the ones who stayed active.
I glanced round the room for a clue as to what sport he played, but I didn’t see anything, so I just asked him.
He shrugged and said, “Different things. Racquetball. Football. I walk. You?”
“I’m not good at sports.”
“You can walk, surely? We’ll take you walking some weekend,” he promised me, “Noah and I. When the weather is good.”
I was frankly surprised how appealing that sounded. “All right.”
“Now,” he said, coming back to the sofa and setting my glass down in front of me, “what is this stock fraud you’re needing my help with? I won’t go to jail for this, will I?”
The sound of electronic Robo Patrol music preceded the light creak of footsteps that came down the hall. Noah asked us, “Who’s going to jail?”
“No one,” Luc said. “Madame Thomas needs me to help with her work, I think.”
Noah greeted me very politely, but said as though he were correcting his father, “I help with her work.”
Luc said, “Well, come and help, then. But first get the red bowl of nuts from the dining room, will you? We might as well try to convince Madame Thomas we have a few manners.”
Obligingly Noah crossed over the hall and returned with a small dish of almonds and set it down carefully, and would have squeezed himself onto the sofa between us if Luc hadn’t told him to sit in the chair. I was grateful for that. I liked Noah, and I liked Luc, but I was feeling a little hemmed in and I needed my personal space.
“Now,” said Luc to me, “how can we help you?”
I set down my notes and attempted to put them in order. “The Charitable Corporation,” I said, “was a British corporation formed supposedly to make small loans to poor people who needed money. In exchange, the poor people put items in the corporation’s warehouse as security, and when they paid the loan back then their items were returned.”
“So, like a pawnshop,” was Luc’s summing-up.
“Exactly like a pawnshop, really. Only the directors of the corporation started running some sort of a fraud, taking money for themselves, and they were speculating with the shares and buying stock in this”—I showed another paper to him—“the York Buildings Company, and it all went bad and people lost their savings and the corporation’s banker and their warehouse keeper took off into France, and it’s the warehouse keeper, Thomson, who the woman in the diary is supposed to be protecting, and she’s really angry with him now for what he’s done, but I don’t have a clue exactly what it was he did.” I had to stop for breath. “They lost me,” I confessed, “in all the rates of interest and the price of shares, and…well, I just don’t understand it. And I thought, you’re an accountant, maybe you can tell me what was going on.”