I could hardly give you a worse gift. He reached down beside the table in the sunny kitchen. A platter of bacon and scrambled eggs with melted Brie sat on the small pine table.
The cat leapt to the ground and found a spot on the floor where the sun hit. Beauvoir lifted it into plain sight. Happy anniversary. And I got you nothing. Annie took the plunger. You are full of it, after all.
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She thrust the plunger forward, gently prodding him with the red rubber suction cup as though it was a rapier and she the swordsman. So like Annie. Where other women might have pretended the ridiculous plunger was a wand, she pretended it was a sword.
Of course, Jean-Guy realized, he would never have given a toilet plunger to any other woman. Only Annie. As he spoke he looked at Annie. Her eyes never left him, barely blinked. She took in every word, every gesture, every inflection. Enid, his ex-wife, had also listened. But there was always an edge of desperation about it, a demand. As though he owed her. As though she was dying and he was the medicine. Enid left him drained, and yet still feeling inadequate. But Annie was gentler. More generous.
Like her father, she listened carefully and quietly. With Enid he never talked about his work, and she never asked. With Annie he told her everything. He told her what they found, how they felt, and who they arrested. Beauvoir nodded and chewed and saw the Chief Inspector in the dim cabin. Whispering the story. So as the two homicide investigators deftly searched, Chief Inspector Gamache had told Beauvoir about the bathmat.
And somehow deciding a bathmat was the perfect hostess gift. Her mother never tired of asking either. Her father, on the other hand, decided I was an imbecile and never mentioned it again. That was worse. When they died we found the bathmat in their linen closet, still in its plastic wrapping, with the card attached.
Beauvoir stopped talking and looked across at Annie. She smelled fresh and clean. Like a citron grove in the warm sunshine. No makeup. She wore warm slippers and loose, comfortable clothing. Annie was aware of fashion, and happy to be fashionable. But happier to be comfortable. She was not slim. She was not a stunning beauty. But Annie knew something most people never learn. She knew how great it was to be alive. It had taken him almost forty years, but Jean-Guy Beauvoir finally understood it too. And knew now there was no greater beauty.
Annie was approaching thirty now. Had made him part of the team, and eventually, over the years, part of the family. Though even the Chief Inspector had no idea how much a part of the family Beauvoir had become. She held up the plunger, with its cheery red bow. Would die together. In a home that smelled of fresh citron and coffee. And had a cat curled around the sunshine. But hearing it now, it just seemed natural. As though this was always the plan. To have children. To grow old together. Beauvoir did the math. He was ten years older than her, and would almost certainly die first.
He was relieved. But there was something troubling him. Annie grew quiet, and picked at her croissant. Just us. You know? He could never stop them, but it would be a disaster. The Chief and Madame Gamache will be happy. Very happy. But he wanted to be sure. To know. It was in his nature. He collected facts for a living, and this uncertainty was taking its toll. It was the only shadow in a life suddenly, unexpectedly luminous. But in his heart it felt like a betrayal. She leaned toward him, her elbows and forearms resting on the croissant flakes on the pine table, and took his hand.
She held it warm in hers. My father would be so happy. Seeing the look on his face she laughed and squeezed his hand. She adores you. Always has. They think of you as family, you know. As another son. She just held his hand and looked into his eyes. Annie paused, thinking. Dad spends his life looking for clues, piecing things together. Gathering evidence. Too close, I guess. One of the first lessons he teaches new recruits. The phone rang. Not the robust peal of the landline, but the cheerful, invasive trill of a cell.
He ran to the bedroom and grabbed it off the nightstand. No number was displayed, just a word. He almost hit the small green phone icon, then hesitated. It managed to be both relaxed and authoritative. It was on a Saturday morning. An invitation to dinner. A query about staffing or a case going to trial. This was a call to arms. A call to action. A call that marked something dreadful had happened. And raced. And even danced a little. Not with joy at the knowledge of a terrible and premature death. But knowing he and the Chief and others would be on the trail again.
Jean-Guy Beauvoir loved his job. But now, for the first time, he looked into the kitchen, and saw Annie standing in the doorway. Watching him. And he realized, with surprise, that he now loved something more. And just the two of us for now. Should she come? Just to organize the Scene of Crime team and leave?
Hope you remember how to do it. All the way from downtown? Beauvoir felt the world stop for a moment. Not much traffic. Gamache laughed. And he did, placing calls, issuing orders, organizing. Then he threw a few clothes into an overnight bag. Even for a woman who cherished reality, this was far too real. She laughed, and he was glad. At the door he stopped and lowered his case to the ground.
Once he was gone and she could no longer see the back of his car, Annie Gamache closed the door and held her hand to her chest. She wondered if this was how her mother had felt, for all those years. How her mother felt at that very moment. Was she too leaning against the door, having watched her heart leave? Having let it go. Then Annie walked over to the bookcases lining her living room. After a few minutes she found what she was looking for. She and Jean-Guy would present them with their own white bibles, with their names and baptism dates inscribed.
She looked at the thick first page. Sure enough, there was her name. And a date. But instead of a cross underneath her name her parents had drawn two little hearts. Copyright by Three Pines Creations, Inc. She could see shadows, shapes, like wraiths moving back and forth, back and forth across the frosted glass. Appearing and disappearing. Distorted, but still human. Still the dead one lay moaning. The words had been going through her head all day, appearing and disappearing.
A poem, half remembered. Words floating to the surface, then going under. The body of the poem beyond her grasp. The blurred figures at the far end of the long corridor seemed almost liquid, or smoke. There, but insubstantial. This was it. The end of the journey. How often had they come to the MAC to marvel at some new exhibition? To support a friend, a fellow artist?
Or to just sit quietly in the middle of the sleek gallery, in the middle of a weekday, when the rest of the city was at work? Art was their work. But it was more than that. It had to be. Otherwise, why put up with all those years of solitude? Of failure? Of silence from a baffled and even bemused art world? She and Peter had worked away, every day, in their small studios in their small village, leading their tiny lives. But still yearning for more.
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Clara took a few more steps down the long, long, white marble hallway. Her first dream as a child, her last dream that morning, almost fifty years later, was at the far end of the hard white hallway. He was by far the more successful artist, with his exquisite studies of life in close-up. So detailed, and so close that a piece of the natural world appeared distorted and abstract.
Peter took what was natural and made it appear unnatural. People ate it up. Thank God. It kept food on the table and the wolves, while constantly circling their little home in Three Pines, were kept from the door.
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Thanks to Peter and his art. Clara glanced at him walking slightly ahead of her, a smile on his handsome face. She knew most people, on first meeting them, never took her for his wife. Instead they assumed some slim executive with a white wine in her elegant hand was his mate. An example of natural selection. Of like moving to like. The distinguished artist with the head of graying hair and noble features could not possibly have chosen the woman with the beer in her boxing glove hands. And the studio full of sculptures made out of old tractor parts and paintings of cabbages with wings.
Peter Morrow could not have chosen her. That would have been unnatural. Clara would have smiled had she not been fairly certain she was about to throw up. Oh, no no no, she thought again as she watched Peter march purposefully toward the closed door and the art wraiths waiting to pass judgment. On her. But mostly she wanted to turn and flee, to hide. To stumble back down the long, long, light-filled, art-filled, marble-filled hallway.
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And this is where it led. Someone had lied. She walked down this corridor. Composed and collected. Beautiful and slim. Witty and popular. Into the waiting arms of an adoring world. There was no terror. No nausea. No creatures glimpsed through the frosted glass, waiting to devour her. Dissect her. Diminish her, and her creations. Had not told her something else might be waiting. Oh, no no no, thought Clara. What was the rest of the poem? Why did it elude her? Now, within feet of the end of her journey all she wanted to do was run away home to Three Pines.
To open the wooden gate. To race up the path lined with apple trees in spring bloom. To slam their front door shut behind her. To lean against it. To lock it. To press her body against it, and keep the world out. She realized she was holding her breath and wondered for how long. To make up for it she started breathing rapidly. Peter was talking but his voice was muffled, far away. Drowned out by the shrieking in her head, and the pounding in her chest. And the noise building behind the doors.
As they got closer. Clara opened her hand and dropped her purse. It fell with a plop to the floor, since it was all but empty, containing simply a breath mint and the tiny paint brush from the first paint-by-number set her grandmother had given her. Clara dropped to her knees, pretending to gather up invisible items and stuff them into her clutch. She lowered her head, trying to catch her breath, and wondered if she was about to pass out. Clara stared from the purse on the gleaming marble floor to the man crouched across from her.
He was kneeling beside her, watching, his kind eyes life preservers thrown to a drowning woman. She held them. His voice was calm. This was their own private crisis.
Their own private rescue. Not missing her right away. Not noticing his wife was kneeling on the floor. Seeing his silky blond hair, and the lines only visible very close up. More lines than a thirty-eight-year-old man should have. Go back home. The dew heavy under her rubber boots. The early roses and late peonies damp and fragrant.
Not once had she imagined herself collapsed on the floor. In terror. Longing to leave. To go back to the garden. But Olivier was right. Not yet. Oh, no no no. They were the only way home now. Clara laughed, and exhaled. And in that instant the body of the poem surfaced. The rest of it was revealed.
I was much too far out all my life. From far off Armand Gamache could hear the sound of children playing. He knew where it was coming from. He sometimes liked to sit there and pretend the shouts and laughter came from his young grandchildren, Florence and Zora. He imagined his son Daniel and Roslyn were in the park, watching their children. Or he and Reine-Marie would join them. And play catch, or conkers.
But mostly he just listened to the shouts and shrieks and laughter of neighborhood children. And smiled. And relaxed. His wife, Reine-Marie, sat across from him on their balcony. She too had a cold beer on this unexpectedly warm day in mid-June. But her copy of La Presse was folded on the table and she stared into the distance. He was silent for a moment, watching her. Her hair was quite gray now, but then, so was his. He was glad. Like him, she was in her mid-fifties.
And this was what a couple of that age looked like. If they were lucky. Not like models. No one would mistake them for that. But that too would be a mistake. Books were everywhere in their large apartment. Placed in orderly bookcases. Just about every table had at least one book on it, and often several magazines. And the weekend newspapers were scattered on the coffee table in the living room, in front of the fireplace. The shelves were packed with case histories, with books on medicine and forensics, with tomes on Napoleonic and common law, fingerprinting, genetic coding, wounds and weapons.
But still, even among the death, space was made for books on philosophy and poetry. Not socially. Not academically. But he could never shake the suspicion he had gotten very, very lucky. Unless it was the extraordinary stroke of luck that she should also love him. Now she turned her blue eyes on him. It was five past five. Their son-in-law was half an hour late and Gamache glanced inside their apartment.
He could just barely make out his daughter Annie sitting in the living room reading, and across from her was his second in command, Jean Guy Beauvoir. Jean Guy and Annie were ignoring each other. Gamache smiled slightly. Gamache nodded and picked up the magazine, then he lowered it slowly.
Reine-Marie hesitated then smiled. Armand raised his brow in surprise. Awkward, gawky, bossy. And now he was nearing forty and she was nearing thirty. A lawyer. Still awkward and gawky and bossy. She looked as though she was genuinely glad to see them. As though they were important. Eyes shining. Only once. In the hospital. Fought through the pain and the dark to that foreign but gentle touch. That bird-like grip he would not have come back for. But this hand was large, and certain, and warm.
And it invited him back. And then he knew why. Because she had nowhere else to be. No other hospital bed to sit beside. Because her father was dead. Killed by a gunman in the abandoned factory. Beauvoir had seen it happen. Seen Gamache hit. Seen him lifted off his feet and fall to the concrete floor. And now Annie Gamache was holding his hand in the hospital, because the hand she really wanted to be holding was gone. Jean Guy Beauvoir had pried his eyes open and seen Annie Gamache looking so sad.
And his heart broke. Then he saw something else. No one had ever looked at him that way. With unconcealed and unbound joy. It was slightly citrony. Clean and fresh. Annie smelled like a lemon grove in summer. There were many humiliations waiting for him in the hospital. From bedpans and diapers to sponge baths. But none was more personal, more intimate, more of a betrayal than what his broken body did then. And Annie saw. And Annie never mentioned it from that day to this. That was how it had felt. The shove. Very, very slowly Annie lowered her newspaper.
And glared at him. And now he felt the words strike. Travel deep and explode. It was almost comforting, he realized. The pain. Your separation. As a lawyer you should know that. Then she nodded. It makes you think about your life. Would you like to talk about it? Talk about Enid with Annie? All the petty sordid squabbles, the tiny slights, the scarring and scabbing. The thought revolted him and he must have shown it. He searched for something to say, some small bridge, a jetty back to her. The minutes stretched by, elongating.
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