Emyla has reluctantly agreed to go to France with her brother, Alastair. They are trying to locate her old workplace, the Auberge de Saint-Lazare, somewhere that Emyla would prefer not to find…
Winding its westward way past tree-covered banks, the river Gardon flowed through the hot, sunlit valley. Birds circled over the rippling blue snake, which sparkled as the sun found surfaces for mirrors. At a narrower point in its course, the glimmers faded in the shadow of a colossal aqueduct.
The vertiginous structure commanded this section of the snake’s path, casting a three-tiered silhouette over the water, with large arcs on the lower two levels and smaller arches on top. Widening as it continued its journey toward the Rhône, the river was deeper here, shallower there, and in places flowed over rocks creating foaming eddies in the current.
The sapphire serpent basked in the late-summer sun, conserving energy before the annual storms. Nourishing September downpours would soon transform it into a raging demon, increased in size and intensity. Some years when the rains were particularly heavy, the dormant reptile burst its confines and crawled destructively over the land.
After the river retreated each year, arbitrary objects were often discovered in its wake, dashed on the rocks downstream or unearthed by floodwaters on land. The post-storm period was a tense time for those with buried secrets.
A kilometre to the north, a little red Peugeot sped along in the sunshine.
Emyla’s knuckles were white on the steering wheel. “Are you sure this is the right road?”
Alastair slouched in the passenger seat to her right, his grasshopper legs folded into the cramped footwell. He raised his cap an inch above his eyes and yawned. “Huh?”
“You told me to turn down this road. I don’t recognise anything.”
He peered at the blue dot inching across his phone screen. “Looks right.”
She squinted down the route ahead, barcoded with short sharp shadows cast by the mottled plane trees flanking the route. “I don’t think so. We’ll just have to find somewhere else.”
“I’m starving. How many courses did you say your place did? Seven?”
“That was the gourmet lunch offering when I was there but I’m sure things have changed in twenty-two years.”
“Were you there the whole summer?”
“Three months in ninety-four.”
“Do you think it will have changed much?” he asked.
She shrugged, and Alastair tapped her leg. “Come on, try to enjoy yourself now you’re here.”
“I’m just tired from the early start. I doubt we’ll find it anyway. Shame, it was a lovely old building. Posh too. The food was famous around here.”
He flicked her a sideways glance. “Memories coming back, are they?”
“Bog off, shrink.”
As the road became more familiar, her stomach tensed. She scanned the roadside ahead. Spotting a pair of solid, dark-green metal gates, she pushed her foot on the accelerator.
“Em, isn’t that something?” Alastair said, pointing at the gates.
“I don’t think so.”
“Yes, pull over.”
“Whatever.” Her foot jolted on the brake.
Alastair shot up in his seat. “Watch out!”
A yellow motorbike had appeared from behind at breakneck speed. The rider saw the little car just in time and swerved right to avoid an articulated lorry bearing down in the opposite lane. The bike skidded onto the dusty verge, passing an inch from the passenger wing mirror, and without slowing, bumped back onto the road. It disappeared in seconds, leaving dust and exhaust fumes rushing into the car through Alastair’s wound-down window.
Emyla slammed on the brakes, heart pounding. “Jesus! Do you think that was an omen?”
“Yes, that French drivers are nut jobs. Or that you need to use your mirrors.”
“It’s one thing not to look at yourself, and we all know who holds the record for that. It’s another to take your brother’s life in vain.” His stomach growled and he waved at the road. “Lighten up, I’m kidding.”
Her hand fidgeted with the gear stick. “Damn it! Why don’t they hire out right-hand drive cars?”
“Take a breath, pull over. Want me to drive?”
She nodded. “And I’ll navigate. Right mess you’ve made of it so far. I’ll find us somewhere to eat. I knew the auberge would be a lost cause.”
She eased the car off the road onto the verge, removed the car key out of habit and opened her door.
Alastair clambered out but made no move to swap seats. “What’s this?”
Emyla joined him. “What’s what?”
He pointed to a broken wooden board on the wall next to the tall green gates. “Doesn’t that say ‘Auberge’?
She took off her sunglasses and leaned forward. “There are loads of hotels and guesthouses around here. Doesn’t mean it’s the Auberge de Saint Lazare.”
“What colour were the gates?”
“Why would I remember that?”
“How about looking round? See if you can spot anything familiar.”
She thrust her sunglasses back on. “What a waste of time!”
“Humour me. Five minutes, then we’ll go. You’ll regret it if you don’t.”
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