“A change of scenery will help you see things in a new light.” Even without telling her about Langley, Maxime or my father, Claire could see I had something on my mind. On Friday evening, she organized a surprise weekend trip to the Vendée, the region of her birth. Her plans included a birthday party with some of her friends and watching the start of the Vendée Globe sailing race Vendée Globe sailing race. I accepted automatically, without giving a thought to the birthday present. Luckily, I was able to send a last-minute contribution to the online Le Pot Commun cash pool using my mobile phone. The party was nice but my heart wasn’t really in it. At one point, I went off by myself for a moment to look for “Langley” on the Internet. Neither the search on Google nor Facebook turned up anything interesting. Then I called Maxime Blain to see if he’d received another message. All I got was his voice mail. I didn’t leave a message. I found Langley’s silence almost more worrying than his enigmas. I hate that feeling of unfinished business.
It was only this morning as I watched the spectacular sailing yachts competing in the Vendée Globe set out to sea that I began to forget the stress of the past couple of days. Claire was right; you need a change of scenery ever so often. I tried to call Florian to apologize for my behavior the last time we met. He seemed genuinely worried. Voice mail, again! I was about to leave a message when my mobile vibrated: an incoming video call, masked number. I answered and a landscape flashed up on the screen: a house built of stone behind a stand of trees. Nothing else was visible. In my headphones, I heard footsteps followed by a man’s voice.
— Hello, Eva. I see we’re both at the seaside… but you prefer the Atlantic while I went for the Mediterranean. We won’t be meeting up today!
Still no face on the screen. The camera moved and the picture became clearer: umbrella pines, radiant sunshine, and an unknown house.
— My name is Charles Langley. I preferred to call you directly this time. We’re beginning to get to know each another, aren’t we? In any case, I’m getting to know you better.
— What do you want? Leave me alone! If you don’t stop…
— … You’ll call the police? You’d be perfectly within your rights. But there’s no need to do that, Eva. I won’t bother you for very long.
As Langley walked around, filming the Provençal house, I moved away from the noise and commotion of the port.
— I knew your father. I was more than a friend to him, much more… I was his best enemy! Enmity creates a bond, you know? A stronger bond than people imagine.
— You worked with him?
— In a way.
At that point, I had a clear view of the Provençal farmhouse, the front door. In the headphones, I thought I could hear the sound of cicadas. Then their song was covered by Langley’s voice.
— When your father wanted to launch his last perfume, I was at the head of a rival group. I immediately realized that he’d hit upon a brilliant idea. I’m a businessman; I have a feeling for that kind of thing. He needed the support of a powerful laboratory, funding. I asked your father to work for me, but he had a strong personality… he was very independent to put it politely. He refused. So I did everything in my power to block his project. More than that, in fact, to destroy him. I don’t like people standing up to me. After a year, nobody was interested in his idea and your father gave up. I even bought the rights to the name and then the formula. And I never did anything with it. I ruined your father, Eva.
— You’re a…
— Undoubtedly, interrupted Charles Langley, his voice deeper. Of the worst kind! The kind of man who pursues his ideas – even his most dangerous ideas – to the bitter end!
I collapsed onto a bench. My legs suddenly seemed too weak to carry me. The picture became immobile on the screen of my mobile phone: the sky of Provence, a tiled roof and nothing else. All I could hear was Langley’s slightly labored breathing. Hang up! I had to hang up! Immediately. Get this whole business out of my head!
— But people change, Eva, he said. Even the very worst. I have now reached an age when you want to make amends for some of your mistakes. I know I can’t make your suffering disappear but I can try to alleviate it somewhat. And redress the wrong done to your father. I believe that the living are governed by the dead; you should never humiliate the dead. The perfume belongs to you, if you want it. I won’t stand in your way. Pick up where your father left off, Eva! Finish it!
— You’re crazy! My father was a genius! I don’t even wear Eau de Cologne!
— There’s someone who can help you. You already know him. He’s coming out of the house…
After a few seconds, the door opened. Maxime Blain appeared on the screen, rummaging in his pockets to find his keys. He walked out into the sun-drenched garden. I looked up his number on my phone but my hands were shaking, I called up the wrong pages, swiped the wrong names…
— Take this opportunity, Eva, continued Langley. And don’t waste time taking your revenge on me! Life will take care of it sooner than you think…
The house disappeared from my screen. The name of Maxime Blain appeared. “Pick up the phone! Just pick it up…”
— Hello, Eva?
— Langley! Langley’s standing in front of your house!
— What are you talking about?
— Quick, Maxime. He just called me. He’s outside your front door, in front of your house. Catch him!
I heard footsteps on the gravel, the sound of Maxime breathing.
— There isn’t anybody here, Eva. A few cicadas, that’s all!
— But he was there, just a few seconds ago! He was filming you. Look again! Try to…
Suddenly, my throat went dry; I couldn’t say a word. I understood; everything became clear. At last, I knew! The truth made the words catch in my throat. Blain couldn’t see Langley because he’s one and the same person! The message on the newspaper in the café, it was him! And the choice of Gauguin’s painting! Who else could have known about my father’s passion?
— Hello? Hello, Eva? Are you still there? Hello…?
I hung up, speechless, distraught, humiliated to have been so easy to manipulate. The bitter taste in my mouth had little to do with the sea air and the tears I was trying not to cry; it was the bitter taste of betrayal!
Illustrations: Karolis Strautniekas/Agent 002; Yann Le Bec/Illustrissimo
Photos: Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac ©Luc Boegly, Yvan Zedda/BPCE, Banque Populaire, Stéphane de Bourgies, CASDEN Banque Populaire, Caisse d’Epargne, Julien Crosnier/KMSP/DPPI, BPCE, DPPI/BPCE, Le Pot Commun, Neustockimages, Fidor Bank.
Getty Images: Btrenkel, picturegarden, Inimma-IS, Koraysa, Moodboard, Rachel Dewis, Peter Carlsson, Clu, Twohumans, Donal Husni-EyeEm, Nikada, egafoldo, Oscar Wong, Alija Izetbegovic, Uschools, Westend61, Bloom, milazvereva.
Shutterstock: Jacob Lund, EQRoy, Prostock, Diego Cervo, GaudiLab, Monkey Business Images, Travel Stock, Zhu Difeng.
Design and production: Havas Paris
Groupe BPCE, Corporate Communications Department.
Author of the short story: Jean-Pierre Montal.
Editorial consultants and drafting of the “Clues” pages: Information & Conseil.