Armand Gamache slowed his car to a crawl, then stopped on the snow- covered secondary road.
This was it, he supposed. Pulling in, he drove between the tall pine trees until he reached the clearing.
There he parked the car and sat in the warm vehicle looking out at the cold day. Snow flurries were hitting the windshield and dissolving. They were coming down with more force now, slightly obscuring what he saw outside. Turning away, he stared at the letter he’d received the day before, lying open on the passenger seat.
Putting on his reading glasses, he rubbed his face. And read it again.
It was an invitation of sorts, to this desolate place.
He turned off the car. But didn’t get out.
There was no particular anxiety. It was more puzzling than worrisome.
But still, it was just odd enough to raise a small alarm. Not a siren, yet. But he was alert.
Armand Gamache was not by nature timid, but he was a cautious man. How else could he have survived in the top echelons of the Sûreté du Québec? Though it was far from certain that he had survived.
He relied on, and trusted, both his rational mind and his instincts.
And what were they telling him now?
They were certainly telling him this was strange. But then, he thought with a grin, his grandchildren could have told him that.
Bringing out his cell phone, he listened as the number he called rang once, twice, and then was answered.
“Salut, ma belle. I’m here,” he said.
It was an agreement between Armand and his wife, Reine-Marie, that in winter, in snow, they called each other when they’d arrived at a destination.
“How was the drive? The snow seems to be getting worse in Three Pines.”
“Here too. Drive was easy.”
“So where are you? What is the place, Armand?” “It’s sort of hard to describe.” But he tried.
What he saw had once been a home. Then a house. And was now simply a building. And not even that for much longer.
“It’s an old farmhouse,” he said. “But it looks abandoned.”
“Are you sure you’re at the right place? Remember when you came to get me at my brother’s home and you went to the wrong brother? Insisting I was there.”
“That was years ago,” he said. “And all the houses look alike in Ste.- Angélique, and, honestly, all your hundred and fifty-seven brothers
look alike. Besides, he didn’t like me, and I was fairly sure he just wanted me to go away and leave you alone.”
“Can you blame him? You were at the wrong house. Some detective.” Armand laughed. That had been decades ago, when they were first courting. Her family had since warmed to him, once they saw how much she loved him and, more important to them, how much he loved
“I’m at the right place. There’s another car here.”
Light snow covered the other vehicle. It had been there, he guessed, for about half an hour. Not more. Then his eyes returned to the farm house.
“It’s been a while since anyone lived here.”
It took a long time to fall into such a state. Lack of care, over the years, would do that.
It was now little more than a collection of materials.
The shutters were askew, the wooden handrail had rotted and gone its separate way from the sloping steps. One of the upper windows was boarded up, so that it looked like the place was winking at him. As though it knew something he did not.
He cocked his head. Was there a slight lean to the house? Or was his imagination turning this into one of Honoré’s nursery rhymes?
There was a crooked man, and he walked a crooked mile, He found a crooked sixpence against a crooked stile;
He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse,
And they all lived together in a little crooked house.
This was a crooked house. And Armand Gamache wondered if, in-side, he’d find a crooked man.
After saying goodbye to Reine-Marie, he looked again at the other car in the yard, and the license plate with the motto of Québec stamped on it: je me souviens.
When he closed his eyes, as he did now, images appeared uninvited. As vivid, as intense as the moment they’d happened. And not only the day last summer, with the slanting shafts of cheerful sunlight hitting the blood on his hands.
He saw all the days. All the nights. All the blood. His own, and others’. People whose lives he’d saved. And those he’d taken.
But to keep his sanity, his humanity, his equilibrium, he needed to recall the wonderful events as well.
Finding Reine-Marie. Having their son and daughter. Now grandchildren.
Finding their refuge in Three Pines. The quiet moments with friends. The joyful celebrations.
The father of a good friend had developed dementia and died re-cently. For the last year or so of his life, he no longer recognized family and friends. He was kindly to all, but he beamed at some. They were the ones he loved. He knew them instinctively and kept them safe, not in his wounded head but in his heart.
The memory of the heart was far stronger than whatever was kept in the mind. The question was, what did people keep in their heart?
Chief Superintendent Gamache had known more than a few people whose heart had been consumed by hate.
He looked at the crooked house in front of him and wondered what memory was consuming it.
After instinctively committing the license-plate number to memory, he scanned the yard.
It was dotted with large mounds of snow, under which, Gamache guessed, were rusted vehicles. A pickup picked apart. An old tractor now scrap. And something that looked like a tank but was probably an old oil tank and not a tank tank.
Gamache put on his tuque and was about to put on gloves when he hesitated and picked up the letter yet again. There wasn’t much to it.
Just a couple of clipped sentences.
Far from being threatening, they were almost comical and would’ve been had they not been written by a dead man.
It was from a notary, asking, almost demanding, that Gamache present himself at this remote farmhouse at 10:00 a.m. Sharp. Please. Don’t be late. Merci.
He’d looked up the notary in the Chambre des Notaires du Québec.
Maître Laurence Mercier.
He’d died of cancer six months earlier.
And yet—Here was a letter from him.
There was no email or return address, but there was a phone number, which Armand had called but no one had answered.
He’d been tempted to look up Maître Mercier in the Sûreté database but decided against it. It wasn’t that Gamache was persona non grata at the Sûreté du Québec. Not exactly, anyway. Now on suspension pending the outcome of an investigation into events last summer, he felt he needed to be judicious in the favors he asked of colleagues. Even Jean-Guy Beauvoir. His second-in-command. His son-in-law.
Gamache looked again at the once-strong house and smiled. Feeling a kinship toward it.
Things sometimes fell apart unexpectedly. It was not necessarily a reflection of how much they were valued.
He folded the letter and placed it in his breast pocket. Just as he was leaving the car, his cell phone rang.
Gamache looked at the number. Stared at the number. Any sign of amusement wiped from his face.
Dare he take it?
Dare he not?
As the ringing continued, he stared out the windshield, his view obscured by the now-heavy snow, so that he saw the world imperfectly.
He wondered if, in future, whenever he saw an old farmhouse, or heard the soft tapping of snowflakes, or smelled damp wool, this moment would be conjured and, if so, would it be with a sense of relief or horror?
The man stood by the window, straining to see out.
It was distorted by frost, but he had seen the car arrive and had watched, with impatience, as the man parked, then just sat there.
After a minute or so, the new arrival got out but didn’t come toward the house. He was standing beside his car, a cell phone to his ear.
This was the first of les invités.
The man recognized this first guest, of course. Who wouldn’t? He’d seen him often enough, but only in news reports. Never in person.
And he’d been far from convinced this guest would show up. Armand Gamache. The former head of homicide. The current Chief
Superintendent of the Sûreté du Québec, on suspension.
He felt a slight frisson of excitement. Here was a celebrity of sorts. A man both highly respected and reviled. Some in the press held him up as a hero. Others as a villain. Representing the worst aspects of policing. Or the best. The abuse of power. Or a daring leader, willing to sacrifice his own reputation, and perhaps more, for the greater good.
To do what no one else wanted to do. Or could do.
Through the distorted glass, through the snow, he saw a man in his late fifties. Tall, six feet at least. And substantial. The parka made him look heavy, but parkas made everyone look heavy. The face, not pudgy, was, however, worn. With lines from his eyes, and, as he watched, two deep furrows formed between Gamache’s brows.
He was not good at understanding the faces faces made. He saw the lines but couldn’t read them. He thought Gamache was angry, but it could have been simply concentration. Or surprise. He supposed it could even have been joy.
But he doubted that.
It was snowing more heavily now, but Gamache had not put on his gloves. They’d fallen to the ground when he’d gotten out of the car. It was how most Québécois lost mitts and gloves and even hats. They rested on laps in the car and were forgotten when it came time to get out. In spring the land was littered with dog shit, worms, and sodden mitts and gloves and tuques.
Armand Gamache stood in the falling snow, his bare hand to his ear.
Gripping a phone and listening.
And when it was his turn to talk, Gamache bowed his head, his knuckles white as he tightened his hold on the phone, or from incipient frostbite. Then, taking a few steps away from his car, he turned his back to the wind and snow, and he spoke.
The man couldn’t hear what was being said, but then one phrase caught a gust and made its way across the snowy yard, past possessions once prized. And into the house. Once prized.
“You’ll regret this.”
And then some other movement caught his attention. Another car was pulling in to the yard.
The second of les invités.
The smile of recognition and slight relief froze on her face as she took in his expression.
His movement as he’d turned to face her had been almost violent.
His body tense, prepared. As though bracing for a possible attack.
While she was adept at reading faces and understood body language, she could not quite get the expression on his face. Except for the most obvious.
But there was more there. Far more.
And then it was gone. His body relaxed, and as she watched, Armand spoke a single word into his phone, tapped on it, then put it into his pocket.
The last expression to leave that familiar face, before the veneer of civility covered it completely, was something that surprised her even more.
And then the smile appeared.
“For God’s sake, Myrna. What’re you doing here?”
Armand tried to modulate his smile, though it was difficult. His face was numb, almost frozen.
He didn’t want to look like a grinning fool, overdoing it. Giving himself away to this very astute woman. Who was also a neighbor.
A retired psychologist, Myrna Landers owned the bookstore in Three Pines and had become good friends with Reine-Marie and Armand.
He suspected she’d seen, and understood, his initial reaction. Though he also suspected she would not grasp the depth of it. Or ever guess who he’d been speaking with.
He had been so engrossed in his conversation. In choosing his words. In listening so closely to the words being spoken to him. And the tone. And modulating his own tone. That he’d allowed someone to sneak up on him.
Granted, it was a friend. But it could just as easily have not been a friend.
As a cadet, as a Sûreté agent. As an inspector. As head of homicide, then head of the whole force, he’d had to be alert. Trained himself to be alert, so that it became second nature. First nature.
It’s not that he walked through life expecting something bad to happen. His vigilance had simply become part of who he was, like his eye color. Like his scars.
Part DNA, part a consequence of his life.
Armand knew that the problem wasn’t that he’d let his guard down just now. Just the opposite. It had been up so high, so thick, that for a few crucial minutes nothing else penetrated. He’d missed hearing the car approach. He’d missed the soft tread of boots on snow.
Gamache, not a fearful man, felt a small lick of concern. This time the consequences were benign. But next?
The threat didn’t have to be monumental. If it were, it wouldn’t be missed. It was almost always something tiny.
A signal missed or misunderstood. A blind spot. A moment of distraction. A focus so sharp that everything around it blurred. A false assumption mistaken for fact.
“You okay?” Myrna Landers asked as Armand approached and kissed her on both cheeks.
She could feel the cold on his face and the damp from the snow that had hit and melted. And she could feel the tension in the man, rumbling below the cheerful surface.
His smile created deep lines from the corners of his eyes. But it did
not actually reach those brown eyes. They remained sharp, wary.
Watchful. Though the warmth was still there.
“Fine,” he’d said, and despite her disquiet she smiled.
They both understood that code. It was a reference to their neighbor in the village of Three Pines. Ruth Zardo. A gifted poet. One of the most distinguished in the nation. But that gift had come wrapped in more than a dollop of crazy. The name Ruth Zardo was uttered with equal parts admiration and dread. Like conjuring a magical creature that was both creative and destructive.
Ruth’s last book of poetry was called I’m F.I.N.E. Which sounded
good until you realized, often too late, that “F.I.N.E.” stood for “Fucked-Up, Insecure, Neurotic, and Egotistical.”
Yes, Ruth Zardo was many things. Fortunately for them, one of the
things she was not was there.
Armand stooped and picked up the mitts that had fallen off Myrna’s substantial lap, into the snow. He whacked them against his parka before handing them back to her. Then, realizing he was also missing his own, he went to his car and found them almost buried in the new snow.
The man watched all this from the questionable protection of the house.
He’d never met the woman who’d just arrived, but already he didn’t like her. She was large and black and a “she.” None of those things he found attractive. But worse still, Myrna Landers had arrived five min-utes late, and instead of hurrying inside, spouting apologies, she was standing around chatting. As though he weren’t waiting for them. As though he hadn’t been clear about the time of the appointment.
Which he had.
Though his annoyance was slightly mitigated by relief that she’d shown up at all.
He watched the two of them closely. It was a game he played. Watching. Trying to guess what people might do next.
He was almost always wrong.
Both Myrna and Armand pulled the letters from their pockets.
They compared them. Exactly the same.
“This is”—she looked around—“a bit odd, don’t you think?”
He nodded and followed her eyes to the ramshackle house.
“Do you know these people?” he asked.
“Well, whoever lives here. Lived here.”
“Non. I haven’t a clue who they are or why we’re here.”
“I called the number,” said Myrna. “But there was no answer. No way to get in touch with this Laurence Mercier. He’s a notary. Do you know him?”
“Non. But I do know one thing.”
“What?” Myrna could tell that something unpleasant was about to come her way.
“He died six months ago. Cancer.”
She had no idea how to continue, and so stopped. She looked over at the house, then turned to Armand. She was almost his height, and while her parka made her look heavy, in her case it was no illusion.
“You knew that the guy who sent you the letter died months ago, and still you came,” she said. “Why?”
“Curiosity,” he said. “You?”
“Well, I didn’t know he was dead.”
“But you did know it was strange. So why did you come?” “Same. Curiosity. What’s the worst that could happen?” It was, even Myrna recognized, a fairly stupid thing to say.
“If we start hearing organ music, Armand, we run. Right?”
He laughed. He, of course, knew the worst that could happen. He’d knelt beside it hundreds of times.
Myrna tipped her head back to stare at the roof, sagging under the weight of months of snow. She saw the cracked and missing windows and blinked as snowflakes, large and gentle and relentless, landed on her face and fell into her eyes.
“It’s not really dangerous, is it?” she asked.
“I doubt it.”
“Doubt?” Her eyes widened slightly. “There is a chance?”
“I think the only danger will come from the building itself.” He nodded to the slumping roof and sloping walls, “and not from whoever is inside.”
They’d walked over, and now he put his foot on the first step and it broke. He raised his brows at her, and she smiled.
“I think that’s more the amount of croissants than amount wood rot,” she said, and he laughed.
He paused for a moment, looking at the steps, then the house. “You’re not sure if it’s dangerous, are you?” she said. “Either the
house or whoever’s inside.”
“Non,” he admitted. “I’m not sure. Would you prefer to wait out here?”
Yes, she thought.
“No,” she said, and followed him in.
“Maître Mercier.” The man introduced himself, walking forward, his hand extended.
“Bonjour,” said Gamache, who’d gone in first. “Armand Gamache.” He swiftly took in his surroundings, beginning with the man. Short, slight, white. In his mid-forties. Alive.
The electricity had been turned off in the house and with it the heat, leaving the air cold and stale. Like a walk-in freezer.
The notary had kept his coat on, and Armand could see it was smudged with dirt. Though Armand’s was too. It was near impossible to get into and out of a vehicle in a Québec winter without getting smeared by dirt and salt.
But Maître Mercier’s coat wasn’t just dirty, it was stained. And worn. There was an air of neglect about him. The man, like his clothing,
appeared threadbare. But there was also a dignity there, bordering on haughtiness.
“Myrna Landers,” said Myrna, stepping forward and offering her hand.
Maître Mercier took it but dropped it quickly. More a touch than a handshake.
Gamache noticed that Myrna’s attitude had changed slightly. No longer fearful, she looked at their host with what appeared to be pity.
There were some creatures who naturally evoked that reaction. Not given armor, or a poison bite, or the ability to fly or even run, what they had was equally powerful.
The ability to look so helpless, so pathetic, that they could not possibly be a threat. Some even adopted them. Protected them. Nurtured them. Took them in.
And almost always regretted it.
It was far too early to tell if Maître Mercier was just such a creature, but he did have that immediate effect, even on someone as experienced and astute as Myrna Landers.
Even on himself, Gamache realized. He could feel his defenses lowering in the presence of this sad little man.
Though they did not drop completely.
Gamache took off his tuque and, smoothing his graying hair, he looked around.
The outside door opened directly into the kitchen, as they often did in farmhouses. It looked unchanged since the sixties. Maybe even fifties. The cabinets were made of plywood painted a cheery blue the color of cornflowers, the counters of chipped yellow laminate and the floors of scuffed linoleum.
Anything of value had been taken. The appliances were gone, the walls were stripped clean except for a mint-green clock above the sink, that had long since stopped.
For a moment he imagined the room as it might once have been. Shiny, not new but clean and cared for. People moving about, preparing a Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. Children chasing one another around like wild colts, with parents trying to tame them. Then giving up.
He noticed lines on the doorjamb. Marking heights. Before time had stopped.
Yes, he thought, this room, this home, was happy once. Cheerful once.
He looked again at their host. The notary who did and did not exist.
Had this been his home? Had he been happy, cheerful, once? If so, there was no sign of it. It had all been stripped away.
Maître Mercier motioned to the kitchen table, inviting them to sit.
Which they did.
“Before we begin, I’d like you to sign this.”
Mercier pushed a piece of paper toward Gamache.
Armand leaned back in his chair, away from the paper. “Before we begin,” he said, “I’d like to know who you are and why we’re here.”
“So would I,” said Myrna.
“In due course,” said Mercier.
It was such a strange thing to say, both as a formal and dated turn of phrase and in its complete dismissal of their request. A not-unreasonable
request either, from people who didn’t have to be there.
Mercier looked and sounded like a character from Dickens. And not the hero. Gamache wondered if Myrna felt the same way.
The notary placed a pen on the paper and nodded to Gamache, who did not pick it up.
“Listen,” said Myrna, laying a large hand on Mercier’s and feeling him spasm. “Dear.” Her voice was calm, warm, clear. “You tell us now
or I’m leaving. And I’m assuming you don’t want that.”
Gamache pushed the paper back across the table toward the notary. Myrna patted Mercier’s hand, and Mercier stared back at her. “Now,” she said. “How did you rise from the dead?”
Mercier looked at her like she was the crazy one, then his eyes shifted, and both Gamache and Myrna turned to follow his gaze out the window.
Another vehicle had pulled up. A pickup truck. And out hopped a young man, his mitts falling into the snow. But he swiftly stooped and picked them up.
Armand caught Myrna’s eye.
The newest arrival wore a long red-and-white-striped hat. So long that it tapered to a pom-pommed tail that trailed down his back and dragged in the snow as he stepped away from his truck.
Noticing this, the young man lifted the end of the tuque and wrapped it once around his neck like a scarf before tossing it over his shoulder in a move so rakish that Myrna found herself smiling.
Whoever this was, he was as vibrant as their dead host was desiccated.
Dr. Seuss meets Charles Dickens.
The Cat in the Hat was about to enter Bleak House.
There was a knock on the door, then he walked in. Looking around, his eyes fell on Gamache, who’d gotten to his feet.
“Allô, bonjour,” said the cheerful young man. “Monsieur Mercier?” He put out his hand. Gamache took it. “Non. Armand Gamache.”
They shook hands. The newcomer’s hand was callused, strong. His grip was firm and friendly. A confident handshake without being forced.
“Benedict Pouliot. Salut. Hope I’m not late. Traffic over the bridge was awful.”
“This is Maître Mercier,” said Armand, stepping aside to reveal the notary.
“Hello, sir,” said the young man, shaking the notary’s hand.
“And I’m Myrna Landers,” said Myrna, shaking his hand and smiling, Armand thought, just a little too broadly.
Though it was hard not to smile at the handsome young man. Not that he was laughable. But he was affable and almost completely with-out affectation. His eyes were thoughtful and bright.
Benedict took off his hat and smoothed his blond hair, which was cut in a fashion Myrna had never seen before and hoped never to see again. It was buzz-cut short on the top then, at his ears, it became long. Very long.
“So,” he said, rubbing his hands together in anticipation and perhaps
because it was so cold. “Where do we begin?”
They all looked at Mercier, who continued to stare at Benedict.
“It’s the haircut, isn’t it?” said the young man. “My girlfriend did it.
She’s taking a stylist course, and the final exam is to create a new cut.
What do you think?”
He ran his hands through it as the others remained silent.
“Looks great,” said Myrna, confirming for Armand that love, or infatuation, was indeed blind.
“Did she also make your hat?” Armand asked, pointing to what was now a large red-and-white lump of wet wool at the end of the table.
“Yes. Final marks in her design class. Do you like it?” Armand gave what he hoped might be a noncommittal grunt. “You sent the letter, didn’t you, sir?” Benedict said to Mercier. “Now,do you want to show me around first, or should we look at plans? Is this your house?” he asked Armand and Myrna. “To be honest, I’m not sure it can be saved. It’s in pretty rough shape.”
Gamache and Myrna looked at each other and realized what he was saying.
“We’re not together,” said Myrna, laughing. “Like you, we were in-vited here by Maître Mercier.”
She brought out her letter, as did Armand, and they placed them on the table.
Benedict bent over, then straightened up. “I’m confused. I thought I was here to bid on a job.”
He put his own letter on the table. It was, except for his name and address, identical to the other two.
“What do you do?” Myrna asked, and Benedict handed her one of his cards.
It was bloodred and diamond-shaped, with something unreadable embossed.
“Your girlfriend?” asked Myrna.
“Yes. Her business class.”
Myrna handed it to Gamache, who had to put on his reading glasses and tip the card toward the window to have any hope of reading the bumps.
“?‘Benedict Pouliot. Builder,’?” he read out loud, then turned it over. “There’s no phone number or email.”
“No. Marks were deducted. So am I here to bid on a job?”
“No,” said Mercier. “Sit.”
More like a puppy than a cat, really, thought Gamache as he took the seat next to Benedict.
“Then why am I here?” Benedict asked.
“We want to know too,” said Myrna, ripping her eyes off Benedict and directing them back to the notary.