They came for her in late August, on the island of Corsica. The precise time would never be determined—some point between sunset and noon the following day was the best any of her housemates could do. Sunset was when they saw her for the last time, streaking down the drive of the villa on a red motor scooter, a gauzy cotton skirt fluttering about her suntanned thighs. Noon was when they realized her bed was empty except for a trashy half-read paperback novel that smelled of coconut oil and faintly of rum. Another twenty-four hours would elapse before they got around to calling the gendarmes. It had been that kind of summer, and Madeline was that kind of girl.
They had arrived on Corsica a fortnight earlier, four pretty girls and two earnest boys, all faithful servants of the British government or the political party that was running it these days. They had a single car, a communal Renault hatchback large enough to accommodate five uncomfortably, and the red motor scooter which was exclusively Madeline’s and which she rode with a recklessness bordering on suicidal. Their ocher-colored villa stood at the western fringe of the village on a cliff overlooking the sea. It was tidy and compact, the sort of place estate agents always described as “charming.” But it had a swimming pool and a walled garden filled with rosemary bushes and pepper trees; and within hours of alighting there they had settled into the blissful state of sunburned semi-nudity to which British tourists aspire, no matter where their travels take them.
Though Madeline was the youngest of the group, she was their unofficial leader, a burden she accepted without protest. It was Madeline who had managed the rental of the villa, and Madeline who arranged the long lunches, the late dinners, and the day trips into the wild Corsican interior, always leading the way along the treacherous roads on her motor scooter. Not once did she bother to consult a map. Her encyclopedic knowledge of the island’s geography, history, culture, and cuisine had been acquired during a period of intense study and preparation conducted in the weeks leading up to the journey. Madeline, it seemed, had left nothing to chance. But then she rarely did.
She had come to the Party’s Millbank headquarters two years earlier, after graduating from the University of Edinburgh with degrees in economics and social policy. Despite her second-tier education— most of her colleagues were products of elite public schools and Oxbridge—she rose quickly through a series of clerical posts before being promoted to director of community outreach. Her job, as she often described it, was to forage for votes among classes of Britons who had no business supporting the Party, its platform, or its candidates. The post, all agreed, was but a way station along a journey to better things. Madeline’s future was bright—“solar flare bright,” in the words of Pauline, who had watched her younger colleague’s ascent with no small amount of envy. According to the rumor mill, Madeline had been taken under the wing of someone high in the Party. Someone close to the prime minister. Perhaps even the prime minister himself. With her television good looks, keen intellect, and boundless energy, Madeline was being groomed for a safe seat in Parliament and a ministry of her own. It was only a matter of time. Or so they said.
Which made it all the more odd that, at twenty-seven years of age, Madeline Hart remained romantically unattached. When asked to explain the barren state of her love life, she would declare she was too busy for a man. Fiona, a slightly wicked dark-haired beauty from the Cabinet Office, found the explanation dubious. More to the point, she believed Madeline was being deceitful—deceitfulness being one of Fiona’s most redeeming qualities, thus her interest in Party politics. To support her theory, she would point out that Madeline, while loquacious on almost every subject imaginable, was unusually guarded when it came to her personal life. Yes, said Fiona, she was willing to toss out the occasional harmless tidbit about her troubled childhood—the dreary council house in Essex, the father whose face she could scarcely recall, the alcoholic brother who’d never worked a day in his life—but everything else she kept hidden behind a moat and walls of stone. “Our Madeline could be an ax murderer or a high-priced tart,” said Fiona, “and none of us would be the wiser.” But Alison, a Home Office underling with a much-broken heart, had another theory. “The poor lamb’s in love,” she declared one afternoon as she watched Madeline rising goddess-like from the sea in the tiny cove beneath the villa. “The trouble is, the man in question isn’t returning the favor.”
“Why ever not?” asked Fiona drowsily from beneath the brim of an enormous sun visor.
“Maybe he’s in no position to.”
“But of course.”
“Had an affair with a married man?”
“Just twice, but I’m considering a third.”
“You’re going to burn in hell, Fi.”
“I certainly hope so.”
It was then, on the afternoon of the seventh day, and upon the thinnest of evidence, that the three girls and two boys staying with Madeline Hart in the rented villa at the edge of Piana took it upon themselves to find her a lover. And not just any lover, said Pauline. He had to be appropriate in age, fine in appearance and breeding, and stable in his finances and mental health, with no skeletons in his closet and no other women in his bed. Fiona, the most experienced when it came to matters of the heart, declared it a mission impossible. “He doesn’t exist,” she explained with the weariness of a woman who had spent much time looking for him. “And if he does, he’s either married or so infatuated with himself he won’t have the time of day for poor Madeline.”
Despite her misgivings, Fiona threw herself headlong into the challenge, if for no other reason than it would add a hint of intrigue to the holiday. Fortunately, she had no shortage of potential targets, for it seemed half the population of southeast England had abandoned their sodden isle for the sun of Corsica. There was the colony of City financiers who had rented grandly at the northern end of the Golfe de Porto. And the band of artists who were living like Gypsies in a hill town in the Castagniccia. And the troupe of actors who had taken up residence on the beach at Campomoro. And the delegation of opposition politicians who were plotting a return to power from a villa atop the cliffs of Bonifacio. Using the Cabinet Office as her calling card, Fiona quickly arranged a series of impromptu social encounters. And on each occasion—be it a dinner party, a hike into the mountains, or a boozy afternoon on the beach—she snared the most eligible male present and deposited him at Madeline’s side. None, however, managed to scale her walls, not even the young actor who had just completed a successful run as the lead in the West End’s most popular musical of the season.
“She’s obviously got it bad,” Fiona conceded as they headed back to the villa late one evening, with Madeline leading the way through the darkness on her red motor scooter.
“Who do you reckon he is?” asked Alison.
“Dunno,” Fiona drawled enviously. “But he must be someone quite special.”
It was at this point, with slightly more than a week remaining until their planned return to London, that Madeline began spending significant amounts of time alone. She would leave the villa early each morning, usually before the others had risen, and return in late afternoon. When asked about her whereabouts, she was transparently vague, and at dinner she was often sullen or preoccupied. Alison naturally feared the worst, that Madeline’s lover, whoever he was, had sent notice that her services were no longer required. But the following day, upon returning to the villa from a shopping excursion, Fiona and Pauline happily declared that Alison was mistaken. It seemed that Madeline’s lover had come to Corsica. And Fiona had the pictures to prove it.
* * * * * *
The sighting had occurred at ten minutes past two, at Les Palmiers, on the Quai Adolphe Landry in Calvi. Madeline had been seated at a table along the edge of the harbor, her head turned slightly toward the sea, as though unaware of the man in the chair opposite. Large dark glasses concealed her eyes. A straw sun hat with an elaborate black bow shadowed her flawless face. Pauline had tried to approach the table, but Fiona, sensing the strained intimacy of the scene, had suggested a hasty retreat instead. She had paused long enough to surreptitiously snap the first incriminating photograph on her mobile phone. Madeline had appeared unaware of the intrusion, but not the man. At the instant Fiona pressed the camera button, his head had turned sharply, as if alerted by some animal instinct that his image was being electronically captured.
After fleeing to a nearby brasserie, Fiona and Pauline carefully examined the man in the photograph. His hair was gray-blond, windblown, and boyishly full. It fell onto his forehead and framed an angular face dominated by a small, rather cruel-looking mouth. The clothing was vaguely maritime: white trousers, a blue-striped oxford cloth shirt, a large diver’s wristwatch, canvas loafers with soles that would leave no marks on the deck of a ship. That was the kind of man he was, they decided. A man who never left marks.
They assumed he was British, though he could have been German or Scandinavian or perhaps, thought Pauline, a descendant of Polish nobility. Money was clearly not an issue, as evidenced by the pricey bottle of champagne sweating in the silver ice bucket anchored to the side of the table. His fortune was earned rather than inherited, they decided, and not altogether clean. He was a gambler. He had Swiss bank accounts. He traveled to dangerous places. Mainly, he was discreet. His affairs, like his canvas boat shoes, left no marks.
But it was the image of Madeline that intrigued them most. She was no longer the girl they knew from London, or even the girl with whom they had been sharing a villa for the past two weeks. It seemed she had adopted an entirely different demeanor. She was an actress in another movie. The other woman. Now, hunched over the mobile phone like a pair of schoolgirls, Fiona and Pauline wrote the dialogue and added flesh and bones to the characters. In their version of the story, the affair had begun innocently enough with a chance encounter in an exclusive New Bond Street shop. The flirtation had been long, the consummation meticulously planned. But the ending of the story temporarily eluded them, for in real life it had yet to be written. Both agreed it would be tragic. “That’s the way stories like this always end,” Fiona said from experience. “Girl meets boy. Girl falls in love with boy. Girl gets hurt and does her very best to destroy boy.”
Fiona would snap two more photographs of Madeline and her lover that afternoon. One showed them walking along the quay through brilliant sunlight, their knuckles furtively touching. The second showed them parting without so much as a kiss. The man then climbed into a Zodiac dinghy and headed out into the harbor. Madeline mounted her red motor scooter and started back toward the villa. By the time she arrived, she was no longer in possession of the sun hat with the elaborate black bow. That night, while recounting the events of her afternoon, she made no mention of a visit to Calvi, or of a luncheon with a prosperous-looking man at Les Palmiers. Fiona thought it a rather impressive performance. “Our Madeline is an extraordinarily good liar,” she told Pauline. “Perhaps her future is as bright as they say. Who knows? She might even be prime minister someday.”
* * * * * *
That night, the four pretty girls and two earnest boys staying in the rented villa planned to dine in the nearby town of Porto. Madeline made the reservation in her schoolgirl French and even imposed on the proprietor to set aside his finest table, the one on the terrace overlooking the rocky sweep of the bay. It was assumed they would travel to the restaurant in their usual caravan, but shortly before seven Madeline announced she was going to Calvi to have a drink with an old friend from Edinburgh. “I’ll meet you at the restaurant,” she shouted over her shoulder as she sped down the drive. “And for heaven’s sake, try to be on time for a change.” And then she was gone. No one thought it odd when she failed to appear for dinner that night. Nor were they alarmed when they woke to find her bed unoccupied. It had been that kind of summer, and Madeline was that kind of girl.