Luc turned one paper slightly on the table, put his glasses on again, and read it over carefully.
I took a sip of my épine. It was a lovely, honey-colored liquor, very sweet and with the pleasant taste of almonds. It was also very strong. I wasn’t used to drinking anything but wine or sherry, and with those I knew how much to drink without it having an effect. Épine was different. It kicked straight into my bloodstream and I set it down with care.
“OK,” said Luc, “I see. It’s not so complicated. Just forget about the interest and the price of stocks, it doesn’t matter. This is very simple. I can show you.”
He did just that, and in the way that I always found easiest when I was learning new concepts: by teaching with actual objects. Calling on Noah to bring him four cereal bowls, Luc set them on the table in front of us; designated them his warehouse, stock shares, lending bank, and marketplace, and proceeded to show me how a corporation like the one that Thomson worked for was supposed to operate. He used a handful of his own business cards in place of stock certificates, almonds for his merchandise, and coins from his wallet to represent cash, moving all of them round in the four bowls to show how things all ran smoothly until he began scooping out coins from the “bank” for himself. At first he was able to cover this by putting more “stock certificates” into play and selling the pawned items from his warehouse, thus earning more coins to cover his losses, but in the end Noah grew frustrated with him for messing things up.
Luc agreed it was all out of balance. “The more I try to make things right, the worse it gets, and if I keep on doing this my money will be gone, and then my warehouse will be empty, and the only thing that I’ll have left is lots of paper stock things,” he said, using Noah’s term, “that aren’t worth anything.”
“That’s silly,” Noah said. And giving up on things financial, he resumed his game of Robo Patrol and tuned us out while Luc, his lesson done, leaned back and calmly ate an almond.
I was processing.
He looked at me. “Did any of that help?”
“It did.” I thought I understood it now more clearly. “So the banker and the warehouse keeper, Thomson, and the other men in league with them, just helped themselves to money, only nothing new was going in the warehouse that could balance the amount that they were taking out.”
“And then they sold more stock to try to cover what they’d taken, and when people in the Parliament got wise to this and asked to see their books, they just ran off. Well, Thomson did. The banker, too.”
Luc said, “That’s what it sounds like, from that article you’ve got there.”
I was quiet for a moment while I processed this some more. I took a sip of my épine. “And all the people who’d invested money…”
“Their certificates were worthless. There was nothing left to pay them with.”
I gave a nod. I got it, now. Except for one thing. “But,” I said, “they didn’t only take a few coins, Thomson and the banker. The report said they took something like five hundred thousand pounds.”
“A lot of money,” Luc agreed. “Especially in those days.”
“Yes, but where did it all go? What did they do with it?”
Luc shrugged again, and reached for his own drink. “I would imagine only two men ever really knew the answer to that.”
“Thomson and the banker.”
With a nod he said, “And both of them are dead.”
* * *
He walked me back. It wasn’t necessary. Even with the darkness in the lane there was still light enough to see by, and it wasn’t far to go. But he’d insisted, and in honesty I hadn’t really argued. It felt nice to have him walking here beside me, hands in pockets, with his shoulder brushing mine. Men sometimes made me nervous but with Luc it was more simply being aware of him—very aware, as I’d felt in his house, when he’d sat with his arm on the back of the worn leather sofa, behind my shoulders, never touching me but simply there.
I’d nearly answered yes when he’d invited me to stay for dinner, but I knew Denise had been at work the past few hours cooking something fairly finicky. I didn’t want to disappoint her, so I’d said, “I have to go.”
His son had said, “Tomorrow, though. You’ll come tomorrow, won’t you?”
“You have to,” Noah had informed me. “It’s Epiphany. We’re having dinner here.”
“Yes,” Luc had promised him, “they’ll all be here tomorrow night.”
I must have looked a little undecided because Noah had sweetened the offer with, “We’ll have balloons. And a king cake.”
It had been years since I’d last celebrated Epiphany in the traditional French way. Or eaten a king cake. “I’ll be here,” I’d told him.
He’d hugged me in parting the way he’d done last night, and I’d hugged him back, trying not to look awkward. And Luc, as he’d lifted his coat from its peg, had said, “Go do your homework. I’ll just be outside in the lane for a minute.”
And now here we were.
I liked lanes. They felt close and embracing, like tunnels. This one had a high hedge, thickly green, on one side and the stepped concrete wall of Claudine’s garden running the length of the other, with bare-branched trees standing attentively all down it, screening the view of the château’s eclectic assortment of roof angles and the warm lights gleaming down from a few upstairs windows. The ground underneath us was level, a long strip of patchy green growing between the broad parallel tracks worn by car tires, so there was no reason I should have felt I was walking on something unsteady. I blamed the effects of my glass of épine. And the man walking next to me.