We continue on to Beluga and Sevruga. The bottle of vodka is finished before we reach the Sevruga. We move on to champagne. It’s Cristal. I can hear Bill pronouncing “disco” in my head. Yes, of course, this is the oligarchs’ choice in oh-so exclusive nightclubs, discos, from Saint-Tropez to New York City.

The last of the Sevruga devoured, Bill stands and makes a toast: “To our new home!” I brighten up, so does René. Serge and Janine look vaguely surprised, but you could only read that in their eyes; their glasses are up, and we all cheer.

We are drunk.

We are in the Town Car being transported back to our hotel. “Did you sign papers?” There has been silence in the car. Janine breaks the ice.

“I signed papers for Hany, giving him the right to sign for me tomorrow with the notaire.”

“You’re not all going to the notaire?”

“Hany will go. The notaire is Yevgeny’s man.” Janine looks at Bill perplexed. “It’s fine, Janine. I have the house, the apartment. We all now have a place in the history of Villa Belza.” Maybe it’s the alcohol, but the look of satisfaction on his face appears forced.

I’m amazed at Janine’s clarity of elocution. I don’t speak; I’m afraid I’d slur. I’m just praying that I can make my way properly with all of us up in the elevator and to my room. I’m on the verge of passing out.

Yevgeny told us a wild and maybe wonderful story of how and why he bore the name Beliankine.

My stomach growls because it’s very empty. I feel hollow. I could open my eyes, but why?

A young man who resembled Yevgeny’s chauffeur and who I only heard speak Russian with Olga arrived to set places for Bill, Hany, and Yevgeny, that is, the same large bowls of crushed ice in which sat a smaller porcelain bowl for the caviar to come.

I think another bottle of Stolichnaya arrived with this servant? Or not. As he drank shot after shot of vodka, Yevgeny told the story of his ancestor Beliankine. Grégoire Beliankine was the brother-in-law of Igor Stravinsky. He rented the Villa Belza from an elderly French woman recently widowed. I picture Igor in round wire-rimmed glasses, long sharp nose, because I have no image for Grégoire. Yevgeny knows the stories around the parties at Château Basque. I’m waiting for Yevgeny to then announce how Beliankine purchased Villa Belza outright from the widow, but I’m disappointed. Beliankines remained in Biarritz until the Nazi Occupation, or did they? Yevgeny was vague. In fact, why would they have left? As White Russians, their sympathies would not lie with Hitler’s new enemy Stalin. There was a fire in the Villa Belza. When was that? Did Yevgeny say? I’m realizing now that Yevgeny is implying that maybe his mother’s family was Beliankine and that they continued to live in at least part of the Villa Belza.

I have no idea. At that point the vodka was destroying thousands of little brain cells by the minute.

Olga and Yevgeny played ping-pong with anecdotes about the wild goings-on in the Château Basque. Names were dropped like that of Edward VIII, but everyone knows the playboy Prince of Wales was part of the partying elite set here in the twenties. Did either Olga or Yevgeny drop any juicy detail that you couldn’t get from Google?

I don’t think so. I don’t remember.

Ah, but there was finally more food after all the caviar had been consumed. What did we eat? Plates of beef Stroganoff and noodles? More vodka, more Cristal.

Luckily, I took a 400 ml tablet of ibuprofen and drank two glasses of water before I threw myself into this bed. Otherwise, the bit of nervous edge I was feeling would be crashing and thumping on my poor brain.

I can imagine eating. I can imagine enjoying breakfast.

I let the duvet slip down and open my eyes. Pale sunshine is filtering along the edges of the great curtain that I had the presence of mind to shut before collapsing.

Yevgeny and Olga were making all those stories up. What’s to prove that he even has the middle name of Beliankine?

Did I put my iPhone beside the bed? I reach over blindly and touch it.

Oh! It’s nine o’clock!

Is breakfast at Suite Bill and René still on? And at what time? I’ll risk it, but I’ll wait for a half hour, time to hit the shower and maybe shave, but I will make my appearance in my bathrobe, assuming that Bill will be in his Coromandel. Hany has the meeting with the notaire, not Bill. Like Janine, I find this odd.

René opens the door for me. He smiles at me still in my bathrobe. He’s in his trackpants and hoodie. “I thought you were Émilie.” And then he bursts out laughing. With a sweeping gesture he ushers me in. “No. Seriously. She’s gone. You won’t miss her, right?” I ask him what he’s talking about. “Looks like she seriously went shopping. Empty boxes, maybe, like, ten of them?” We’re moving into the living room. “Jimmy Choo. Gucci. Louboutin.”

“Such a surprise, too. She hardly looked the type,” says Janine. “Bonjour, chéri. Tu as bien dormi?” Yes, slept very well. I scan them all. None of them look hungover. I take as seat.

Café au lait?” asks Bill. I nod. What else. But Janine and Serge are drinking tea with milk.

René takes his seat. “I should be worried, but I’m not. I don’t think she’s been kidnapped. I’ve texted her but no answer. Her bag is gone. She’s gone. What I wonder is where all the money came from to go crazy on shoes. There was also a box from Chanel. Maybe this was, like, a souvenir of Biarritz?” His eyes open wide; his lips form a hoop. He chuckles. René definitely does not look upset. Bill is just smiling.

Je crois qu’elle a reçu une rémunération d’une certaine source.” Serge’s voice is gravelly: at last, someone who shows signs of wear-and-tear from last night.

Hany frowns. “Why would Yevgeny give her money?”

“Why is Yevgeny giving you money?” adds Bill. Hany scowls.

“I’m a broker. Émilie is no broker.” Hany stands. “I’ve got to go and get ready. You can come with me, Bill. It’s just that you don’t have to. I’m not even sure Yevgeny will be present.”

“I’m glad to let you handle it. Don’t forget to read the fine print.” Bill chuckles but doesn’t smile. Hany looks to me like he just wants to get the hell out of here. Has he argued with Bill about his fee or something? That would not be like Bill.

“Are we meeting somewhere for lunch. I’ve arranged for a jet back home around five. Don’t you think we should celebrate?”

“Hit and run? I thought you might stay a bit longer.”

“Time is money. Maryse wants me back. Plus, I need to make some arrangements for Yevgeny in New York as soon as possible. He won’t move to Cannes until it’s done.” What is “it?” But Bill seems to know.

“You’re right. I’ll see what I can come up with?” Bill is looking up at Hany. Finally, he’s smiling. Hany grins. “I’ll text you. I’m thinking Pim’pi, but I should make an effort to find something more with some Michelin stars. It’s not every day…”

Serge nudges Janine. “And, Bill, we should be getting back home. We’re running out of clothes.” Bill is set to interrupt. “No, mon cher, think that we came here only expecting to be overnight in Paris. But…” she glances at Serge and then comes back to Bill, “we could join you when you’ve moved next door. To the Hôtel du Palais? I’m very curious…” Bill’s face goes from disappointment to pleasure.

“That’s a great idea. I don’t think we’ll be moving into Villa Belza immediately.” Bill looks at me. I’m about to ask him what he’s up to.

“Sounds like a plan. I’m off.” Hany looks at Janine and Serge. “We’ll say our goodbyes at lunch then.” We watch as he bolts toward the door. I don’t see his hurry. He’s fully dressed: that white shirt again. But then I suppose there’s packing to be done, a taxi to be called?

Bill stands. “Let’s all meet back here at noon. I already have the perfect idea for a restaurant. Not far from the airport and a swing further down to the train station.” I’m staring at my half-eaten pain au chocolat. What’s the rush? I look up at Bill. “Oh, finish your breakfast. I’m just going to pop into the bedroom and start making arrangements. René is your host.” Bill gives me a grin and is gone.

René gets up and goes to the sliding glass doors out to the balcony. He opens it a crack and then shuts it. “Brr. It’s windy. It’s so sunny out, it looks warm, but it’s not really. It’s a shame it’s too cold to sit outside.” René has turned to us. He sounds forlorn, but he’s smiling.

“Aren’t you worried about your friend Émilie?” René is on stage; we’re all staring at him. Janine has asked him the question we all want to ask. Émilie has been a presence, mostly irritating, that is René’s doing. René now shrugs and comes back to the table and sits down. He pours himself some juice. Ah, I could use some too. I hold up my glass, and he fills it. I sip: passion fruit again. I’m not complaining.

“I know I should be worried, but I feel nothing. I’m glad she’s gone. It was a mistake inviting her. I barely know her.” He looks confused. “I don’t know why I invited her. I guess, well, she was so wildly enthusiastic.”

“Ah, mon cher René, you were caught up in a wildfire. Les femmes, ça peut être comme ça.” And there sits Serge in her fedora explaining the mysteries of life to a young man and she is pausing to reflect. “I don’t think she just happened to meet Olga in the spa. I think it was a rendez-vous.” Serge’s eyes glow. Her smile is canny and suddenly reveals her age: Her jawline has had work, as they say. How old could Serge be? I start to calculate. Let’s say she was at least in her twenties in the heyday of the Russian presence in Egypt. That would make her older than Bill and me. “I think Émilie is more the Russian than the Israeli.”

“She grew up in Tel Aviv.”

“Ah, so she says. So she told you. There is no doubt that she is Jewish.” I don’t like Serge’s tone of voice there and I can see that René feels the same. Serge shrugs. “Oh, I am sure that Émilie is an Israeli citizen.” Serge seems to be placating, softening her inuendo. “But so many are.” Serge lets a flash of anger out. “There would be no Netanyahu without these people.” We sit in silence then. War in Ukraine and now horror in Gaza: To us they have been relegated to headlines we see daily but don’t talk about. Except now. Serge has broken the taboo. I look down and see that there is still a piece of pain au chocolat and pop it in my mouth.

Janine sees me do this and chuckles: “Tu es toujours le gourmand, mon cher. Moi je n’ai plus faim.” Janine finishes her tea. “Serge, I think we need to pack.” She slides her chair back.

“Pack what?” But then Serge gets up. Janine follows. “I will be very curious to learn what has happened to your friend Émilie. Please keep me posted, René!” And then out of nowhere Serge bursts out laughing. “Bill is going to find us something very special and very nice for our farewell lunch. My ESP is twitching.”

I hear a rustling sound and turn. Bill, still in Coromandel, enters the room. “It’s done. AHPÉ. Bib Gourmand.” He looks at Janine: “There is a Michelin star for lunch, but, sorry, we ate there the day we flew in, Janine.” Janine puts two fingers below her eyes and mimics tears flowing; she blows him a kiss. Bill looks disconcerted. “Anyway, we will have a big car almost as nice at the one Jean-Pierre drives. It will take us to the restaurant. It’s south of the center. And then it will swing over to drop Hany at the airport and then…” he opens his arms wide, “there is a train for you and Janine at five-thirty. You’ll be back in Paris by ten. You’ll have a night… or as long as you want… at Place Saint-Georges.”

Janine laughs. “Emperor Bill has planned our lives for us.”

I suppose this is a kind of limo, but it reminds me of those old black cabs in London: We are seated facing each other in, three in a row.

I haven’t asked, but I think René will be on his own train back to Paris in a few days. Wasn’t this their spring break? It should be over soon. That will leave Bill and me, alone. It would be nice if we could move next door to that suite he keeps talking about in the Hôtel du Palais. I’m not going to replace René in his one-bedroom suite at Miramar.

Bill is telling us about the restaurant. Its name means Automne, Hiver, Printemps, Été, so very, very Basque seasonal. The ambiance is laid back, he adds.

“No chandeliers? No hovering waiters? No champagne?” Hany’s stab at humor doesn’t go over well with Bill. Hany earns a frown.

“This is France. There is always champagne.” Bill has never sounded more humorless.

“Rightly so, mon vieux,” immediately adds Janine. This brings out a smirk on Bill’s face. The only reason I can think of for Bill’s on-going cranky mood today is that he is suffering from a lingering hangover. And then I think again. I see the look on Bill’s face as he, Hany, and Yevgeny joined us in our orgy of caviar in the Villa Belza.

Hany was late. Last minute phone call? I’d turned to catch him speeding toward us across the lobby, doorman just managing to open for him in time.

Hany was jubilant. He grabbed Bill, exchanged bisous and then bearhugs. Bill was now the proprietor of the apartment in Villa Belza. And then gradually that joy, that grin of exuberance, which has been so characteristic of Bill since he got off the train in Rotterdam, seeped away like puddles in a desert after a burst of rainfall.

I will need to ask him what has happened, but I won’t until we’re alone together. I’ll soon be alone with Bill; this new mood is insufferable. René, though, is taking the change in Bill’s mood in stride; I guess he knows what’s troubling Bill. Their relationship has become much deeper than I expected. Why, why am I so surprised?

I look out the window at this now familiar hilly residential part of Biarritz and gage how that is making me feel. Happy for Bill. Happy then that I’m off the hook? Or maybe that hook was a figment of my imagination all along.

“Bill.” I look over; Serge has also been looking out the window, but now, “you are part of history now. You are helping bring to an end Biarritzgrad.”

Hany is staring, not at Serge but at Bill, watching, waiting for his reaction. There is none, at least not immediately. “Bill, I think Madame Serge is being overly dramatic.” He then adds a chuckle to urge, to push an expressionless Bill in his direction. Bill only shrugs and says nothing. He turns away from us. He stares out the window. The back of Bill’s head tells me nothing of what’s going on in there.

And then Bill turns; he is back: “This is a matter of finance. Hany is my agent. I love the apartment. I bought it. Politics has nothing to do with it.” Bill is directing this to Serge.

No, no, Bill is not that naïve. And no one else, I feel, thinks he is. Serge is intent on looking away from Janine who is scowling at her. Still, the fedora cannot hide that saturnine smile on Serge’s face.

Think: Last night we feasted on contraband caviar and vodka. Whether we like it or not, we were all a part of what Serge calls Biarritzgrad. I decide to speak up: Biarritzgrad began to disintegrate when Putin invaded Ukraine and the EU applied sanctions on Putin’s pals. I add that we don’t know whether Yevgeny even knows Putin.

My last remark evokes a phlegmy guffaw from Bill. “Oh, surely he does. How couldn’t he?”

Serge is back and smiling at Bill. “Ils se connaissent tous.” Serge’s four words are a hiss. Her eyes dance. Yes, I suppose they do all know each other. Oligarchs of all stripes. Maybe even billionaires of all stripes. And then it hits me: This is what is making Bill cranky. He is face to face with the fact that he, as Billionaire Bill, may well be fundamentally compromised. A hunch on my part. A good hunch. I give Bill a knowing smile; he gives me a dark look: Don’t go there. Okay. I think, yes, not now. Not now.

But Bill will go there with me in due time. That’s what I’m good for.

I turn to enjoy the changing view of chalets, villas, hedges in this idyll of residential Biarritz.

Ah, I think we’re here. I think. The area is flat now and is made up of fairly wide streets with broad Basque-style houses with sloping red roofs. It is not urban; it is maybe suburban, but walkable, unlike most American suburbs, with nice sidewalks. We are at a crossroads where there’s a pharmacy, a large florist shop with a yard of outdoor plants for sale. The limo stops. The chauffeur opens first on my side. I get out. There’s a “store” for pompes funèbres, funerals. There’s a tabac, a typical French shop selling tobacco products and newspapers and probably lottery tickets. All the buildings look recent. There’s our restaurant on the corner; I read the sign. It feels all wrong. This can’t be the place where we are going to celebrate Bill’s new residence in Biarritz and the departure of our friends. Bill gets out and looks around. “This is it. I guess.” We have a reservation inside, in the dining room. There’s deli section. Bill suggests the chauffeur order whatever he likes there and take his time. We’ll be a couple of hours. The car is already in a parking space almost in front of AHPÉ. I don’t see any parking meters anywhere. Curious, I pull out my iPhone and see that it’s 13:35. Hany sees what I’m doing: “Relax. I’m not sharing my plane with anyone. When we’re ready to head to the airport, I’ll give them a call.” He then looks around and throws his arms up in the air and stretches. “This is wonderful, Bill. I feel like I’m in LA.” Bill frowns at him.

Janine bursts out laughing. This is because both she and I don’t think that this place is exactly what Bill was expecting. Serge looks uncomfortable. She is in high heels and a black silk dress, both of which I imagine she wore to the opera. She looks like she’s trying to hide under her fedora. René is grinning in black jeans and another hoodie, this one emerald green. He must have known this place was not formal; why didn’t I pick up on this earlier? Bill and I are both in black cargo pants, turtlenecks, and jackets. But our attire would be acceptable even in a posh fine-dining venue.

“Why are we standing around outside here, Bill?” chuckles Janine.

“Right.” Bill turns toward the door of the restaurant.

I don’t need a nap, but I’m happy to be back in my room with my feet up. I read my email, I check the headlines in the New York Times. I begin to get upset at the sheer stupidity of these Americans that think the old shyster Trump is good for another presidential term while facing a mountain of criminal charges and treason. I wonder who these people could be? I personally have never encountered any Americans like that. And then I hear myself snicker because I think it may all be a media hoax to keep people clicking and assuring advertising revenue until the November elections. I disengage.

I did nap. I dozed off. My iPhone is on the bed next to me. I pick it up. Quarter to seven. Oh! Did Bill arrange dinner plans? I don’t think so.

We dawdled over lunch at the restaurant. It was a very laidback atmosphere. The staff was funny and dedicated to food: very Basque. Intense. Amazing vegetables, too fresh to imagine, except we learned they were picked fresh that day from a garden plot out back. I wonder if in this residential part of Biarritz, a lot of people don’t grow their own veggies out back. It’s a benign climate.

We drank two bottles of Irouléguy.

Hany was deposited at the airport first. He did just call ahead.  I remember thinking that he called like ordinary people call for a taxi. Earlier, he had arranged for his departure, so, okay, it wasn’t quite like Uber. Still. I marveled and still marvel at this life that huge amounts of money afford one.

I was lingering. Janine and Serge had already turned to climb back into the car. That’s how I saw Bill looking on as Hany and René went from bisous to exchanging a brief, intense tongues-down-throats kiss. I can’t say that Bill looked exactly pokerfaced; he actually seemed to approve and even take pleasure in what he saw. I turned away but too late. What was this elephant-in-the-room thing I’d invented? Time to fathom how this works for Bill.

Gare de Biarritz, so like a suburban train station. Nothing urban about it at all. But it did look like it had pedigree, dating back to Napoléon II, though I’m not quite sure. There had been another station erected in the city center that had rail service connecting it to this main-line station. From here the train proceeded to the Spanish border, Hendaye/Irun, where it ended, unable to continue as the rail-gauge was mismatched.

That more sumptuously urban station was now some kind of arts venue. I haven’t even seen the building. Much remains to be explored in Biarritz.

I felt a pang of regret at seeing Janine and Serge off. Janine has indeed adopted me. It’s just happened. I suppose it’s because we feel in cahoots when it comes to Bill. But maybe beyond this. I didn’t know her back then, but didn’t we share life in a Paris that now seems so long gone, disconnected to the present-day city so overcrowded that it at times grinds to halt?


Anyway, Bill and René are now in their suite together. I would feel odd getting up now and going next door to knock.

And then my smartphone rings. Bill.

Busy day. Momentous day? I’m sitting in a regular taxi next to René. René is in the middle. He’s very quiet. We’ve all talked about it. What I mean is that Bill and René have talked about it, with me listening in, sometimes making a remark, but it is their conversation, their situation. Maybe the situation had been vague before, although always an overriding possibility. René lives at Place Saint-Georges and attends Lumière. Bill is living, now for the most part, in Biarritz. Of course, Bill, being Billionaire Bill, could pop up to Paris at a whim to see René. René could visit for a weekend, a school vacation. The fact is, notwithstanding, that after we deposit René, see him off, at the Gare de Biarritz, Bill is now alone.

Except for me. Temporarily, except for me.

Yes, Bill still has me. Yippee for Bill.

Bill being Billionaire Bill has finagled with the Hôtel du Palais to move in to the suite a day earlier than the official opening, that is, later this very afternoon.

We’ve had a great lunch at Pim’pi. We are regulars. Bill told Léonore that he had bought the apartment in the Villa Belza.

She now has a name: Léonore. She was previously referred to as the “woman” at Pim’pi. Now we are all of us on first name bases.

I looked on as Leonie’s face had exploded with pleasure, joy, at this announcement. And then she’d sat down at our table and burst out laughing. “Monsieur Bill, douze points; Poutine, nul points.” The formula referred to the Eurovision Song Contest. Right. Putin big loser. Yeah. She began relaying secrets – no doubt just a few, closely held, that I would characterize as Basque gossip – about the subversive war being waged by les notables basques… to rid the city of Russian oligarchs. Okay, they had initially been welcomed with open arms. Nothing like oligarch money to replenish the city coffers. But that was before Ukraine. Punctuated with one Gallic shrug after another, she explained how generous these Russians had been, how they renovated dilapidated mansions, helped spruce up the city. Her face then lit up: “On n’a plus besoin…” She had literally cackled.

Cackled. I’m not inferring she is somewhat of a witch, but Léonie is a very strong woman with very strong opinions. We like her. We like her because we share her opinions… at least, so far. And isn’t she a kind of Basque Janine?


She’d stood and summoned Bill to stand up so that she could give him, not three, but four bisous. Bill was now to be considered family.

So, Léonore had been part of the farewell send-off lunch for René. Champagne had been on the house.

The taxi is now descending the familiar hilly route, plots of villas, houses, encapsulated in hedges and gardens, a street lined with trees that might be the famed Basque oaks. Ahead I see the simple elegance of the Gare de Biarritz.

René reaches over to pull Bill to him and plant a kiss on the mouth. “I’ll call when I get in. From the house.” The house. Home.

And then René turns to me: “Keep him out of mischief.”

“As if…” René turns back to Bill. It’s too late for me not to see Bill’s eyes well up. I turn away.

I turn back as René says, “You’re right. Like you said. I should pop down when you’re still in the Hôtel du Palais so I can have that experience. In a couple of weeks?”

“Oh, I’ll see you before then. That’s what jets are for.” Right: When you are Billionaire Bill, there are no real goodbyes, just “laters.” A factor like this still has the power to shock me.