ALSO BY KATHY REICHS
BREAK NO BONES
DEATH DU JOUR
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2007 by Temperance Brennan, L.P.
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Library of Congress Control Number: 2007002405
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For those buoyant, bighearted, bodacious Acadiens.
On ouaira quosse que d’main nous amèneras…
As usual, this novel was a team effort. Let me introduce the team.
I owe massive thanks to Andrea and Cléola Léger, without whom this story might never have been written. Andrea and Cléola introduced me to the warm, generous, and effervescent world of the Acadian people. Merci. Merci. Mille mercis.
I am enormously indebted to all those who welcomed me during my stay in New Brunswick. This list includes, but is hardly limited to, Claude Williams, MLA, Maurice Cormier, Jean-Paul and Dorice Bourque, Estelle Boudreau, Maria Doiron, Laurie Gallant, Aldie and Doris LeBlanc, Paula LeBlanc, Bernadette Léger, Gerard Léger, Normand and Pauline Léger, Darrell and Lynn Marchand, Fernand and Lisa Gaudet, Constable Kevin Demeau (RCMP), George and Jeannie Gaggio, and Joan MacKenzie of Beaverbrook House. Special thanks go to those in Tracadie, especially Claude Landry, MLA, Père Zoël Saulnier, and Raynald Basque and the staff at Cojak Productions. Soeur Dorina Frigault and Soeur Zelica Daigle, RHSJ (Les Hospitalières de Saint-Joseph), generously opened their archives and provided a tour of the museum and cemetery at the former site of the lazaretto.
Robert A. Leonard, PhD, professor of linguistics and director of the Forensic Linguistics Project, Hofstra University, interrupted his busy schedule to provide guidance on forensic linguistics. (You were really a founding member of Sha Na Na? Yes, Kathy. No way. Yes, Kathy. Awesome!)
Ron Harrison, Service de police de la Ville de Montréal, provided information on guns, sirens, and a variety of cop stuff.
Normand Proulx, Directeur général, Sûreté du Québec, and l’inspecteur-chef Gilles Martin, adjoint au Directeur général, adjoint à la Grande fonction des enquêtes criminelles, Sûreté du Québec, provided statistics on homicides and information on cold case investigations in Quebec.
Mike Warns, design engineer, ISR, Inc., fielded endless questions and coached me on techie stuff. A true Renaissance man, Mike is also largely responsible for the poetry.
Dr. William C. Rodriguez, Office of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner, and Dr. Peter Dean, HM Coroner for Greater Suffolk and South East Essex, helped with details of skeletal and soft tissue pathology.
Paul Reichs provided valuable input on the manuscript.
Nan Graham and my Scribner family made the book a lot better than it might otherwise have been. Ditto for Susan Sandon and everyone at Random House UK.
Jennifer Rudolph-Walsh supplied countless intangibles and the usual unflagging support.
A useful resource was Children of Lazarus: the story of the lazaretto at Tracadie by M. J. Losier and C. Pinet, Les Éditions Faye, 1999.
BONES TO ASHES
This is the forest primeval; but where are the hearts that beneath it Leaped like the roe, when he hears in the woodland the voice of the huntsman?
Where is the thatch-roofed village, the home of Acadian farmers.
—from “Evangeline” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
B ABIES DIE. PEOPLE VANISH. PEOPLE DIE. BABIES VANISH.
I was hammered early by those truths. Sure, I had a kid’s understanding that mortal life ends. At school, the nuns talked of heaven, purgatory, limbo, and hell. I knew my elders would “pass.” That’s how my family skirted the subject. People passed. Went to be with God. Rested in peace. So I accepted, in some ill-formed way, that earthly life was temporary. Nevertheless, the deaths of my father and baby brother slammed me hard.
And Évangéline Landry’s disappearance simply had no explanation.
But I jump ahead.
It happened like this.
As a little girl, I lived on Chicago’s South Side, in the less fashionable outer spiral of a neighborhood called Beverly. Developed as a country retreat for the city’s elite following the Great Fire of 1871, the hood featured wide lawns and large elms, and Irish Catholic clans whose family trees had more branches than the elms. A bit down-at-the-heels then, Beverly would later be gentrified by boomers seeking greenery within proximity of the Loop.
A farmhouse by birth, our home predated all its neighbors. Green-shuttered white frame, it had a wraparound porch, an old pump in back, and a garage that once housed horses and cows.
My memories of that time and place are happy. In cold weather, neighborhood kids skated on a rink created with garden hoses on an empty lot. Daddy would steady me on my double blades, clean slush from my snowsuit when I took a header. In summer, we played kick ball, tag, or Red Rover in the street. My sister, Harry, and I trapped fireflies in jars with hole-punched lids.
During the endless Midwestern winters, countless Brennan aunts and uncles gathered for cards in our eclectically shabby parlor. The routine never varied. After supper, Mama would take small tables from the hall closet, dust the tops, and unfold the legs. Harry would drape the white linen cloths, and I would center the decks, napkins, and peanut bowls.
With the arrival of spring, card tables were abandoned for front porch rockers, and conversation replaced canasta and bridge. I didn’t understand much of it. Warren Commission. Gulf of Tonkin. Khrushchev. Kosygin. I didn’t care. The banding together of those bearing my own double helices assured me of well-being, like the rattle of coins in the Beverly Hillbillies bank on my bedroom dresser. The world was predictable, peopled with relatives, teachers, kids like me from households similar to mine. Life was St. Margaret’s school, Brownie Scouts, Mass on Sunday, day camp in summer.
Then Kevin died, and my six-year-old universe fragmented into shards of doubt and uncertainty. In my sense of world order, death took the old, great-aunts with gnarled blue veins and translucent skin. Not baby boys with fat red cheeks.
I recall little of Kevin’s illness. Less of his funeral. Harry fidgeting in the pew beside me. A spot on my black patent leather shoe. From what? It seemed important to know. I stared at the small gray splotch. Stared away from the reality unfolding around me.
The family gathered, of course, voices hushed, faces wooden. Mama’s side came from North Carolina. Neighbors. Parishioners. Men from Daddy’s law firm. Strangers. They stroked my head. Mumbled of heaven and angels.
The house overflowed with casseroles and bakery wrapped in tinfoil and plastic. Normally, I loved sandwiches with the crusts cut off. Not for the tuna or egg salad between the bread. For the sheer decadence of that frivolous waste. Not that day. Never since. Funny the things that affect you.
Kevin’s death changed more than my view of sandwiches. It altered the whole stage on which I’d lived my life. My mother’s eyes, always kind and often mirthful, were perpetually wrong. Dark-circled and deep in their sockets. My child’s brain was unable to translate her look, other than to sense sadness. Years later I saw a photo of a Kosovo woman, her husband and son lying in makeshift coffins. I felt a spark of recollection. Could I know her? Impossible. Then realization. I was recognizing the same defeat and hopelessness I’d seen in Mama’s gaze.
But it wasn’t just Mama’s appearance that changed. She and Daddy no longer shared a pre-supper cocktail, or lingered at the table talking over coffee. They no longer watched television when the dishes were cleared and Harry and I were in our PJs. They’d enjoyed the comedy shows, eyes meeting when Lucy or Gomer did something amusing. Daddy would take Mama’s hand and they’d laugh.
All laughter fled when leukemia conquered Kevin.
My father also took flight. He didn’t withdraw into quiet self-pity, as Mama eventually did. Michael Terrence Brennan, litigator, connoisseur, and irrepressible bon vivant, withdrew directly into a bottle of good Irish whiskey. Many bottles, actually.
I didn’t notice Daddy’s absences at first. Like a pain that builds so gradually you’re unable to pinpoint its origin, I realized one day that Daddy just wasn’t around that much. Dinners without him grew more frequent. His arrival home grew later, until he seemed little more than a phantom presence in my life. Some nights I’d hear unsteady footfalls on the steps, a door banged too hard against a wall. A toilet flushed. Then silence. Or muffled voices from my parents’ bedroom, the cadence conveying accusations and resentment.
To this day, a phone ringing after midnight makes me shiver. Perhaps I am an alarmist. Or merely a realist. In my experience, late-night calls never bring good news. There’s been an accident. An arrest. A fight.
Mama’s call came a long eighteen months after Kevin’s death. Phones gave honest rings back then. Not polyphonic clips of “Grillz” or “Sukie in the Graveyard.” I awoke at the first resonating peal. Heard a second. A fragment of a third. Then a soft sound, half scream, half moan, then the clunk of a receiver striking wood. Frightened, I pulled the covers up to my eyes. No one came to my bed.
There was an accident, Mama said the next day. Daddy’s car was forced off the road. She never spoke of the police report, the blood alcohol level of 0.27. I overheard those details on my own. Eavesdropping is instinctual at age seven.
I remember Daddy’s funeral even less than I remember Kevin’s. A bronze coffin topped with a spray of white flowers. Endless eulogies. Muffled crying. Mama supported by two of the aunts. Psychotically green cemetery grass.
Mama’s relatives made the trek in even larger numbers this time. Daessees. Lees. Cousins whose names I didn’t remember. More covert listening revealed threads of their plan. Mama must move back home with her children.
The summer after Daddy died was one of the hottest in Illinois history, with temperatures holding in the nineties for weeks. Though weather forecasters talked of Lake Michigan’s cooling effect, we were far from the water, blocked by too many buildings and too much cement. No lacustrine breezes for us. In Beverly, we plugged in fans, opened windows, and sweated. Harry and I slept on cots on the screened porch.
Through June and into July, Grandma Lee maintained a “return to Dixie” phone campaign. Brennan relatives continued appearing at the house, but solo now, or in sets of two, men with sweat-looped armpits, women in cotton dresses limp on their bodies. Conversation was guarded, Mama nervous and always on the verge of tears. An aunt or uncle would pat her hand. Do what’s best for you and the girls, Daisy.
In some child’s way I sensed a new restlessness in these familial calls. A growing impatience that grieving end and life resume. The visits had become vigils, uncomfortable but obligatory because Michael Terrence had been one of their own, and the matter of the widow and the children needed to be settled in proper fashion.
Death also wrought change in my own social nexus. Kids I’d known all my life avoided me now. When chance brought us together they’d stare at their feet. Embarrassed? Confused? Fearful of contamination? Most found it easier to stay away.
Mama hadn’t enrolled us in day camp, so Harry and I spent the long, steamy days by ourselves. I read her stories. We played board games, choreographed puppet shows, or walked to the Woolworth’s on Ninety-fifth Street for comics and vanilla Cokes.
Throughout those weeks, a small pharmacy took shape on Mama’s bedside table. When she was downstairs I’d examine the little vials with their ridged white caps and neatly typed labels. Shake them. Peer through the yellow and brown plastic. The tiny capsules caused something to flutter in my chest.
Mama made her decision in mid-July. Or perhaps Grandma Lee made it for her. I listened as she told Daddy’s brothers and sisters. They patted her hand. Perhaps it’s best, they said, sounding, what? Relieved? What does a seven-year-old know of nuance?
Gran arrived the same day a sign went up in our yard. In the kaleidoscope of my memory I see her exiting the taxi, an old woman, scarecrow thin, hands knobby and lizard dry. She was fifty-six that summer.
Within a week we were packed into the Chrysler Newport that Daddy had purchased before Kevin’s diagnosis. Gran drove. Mama rode shotgun. Harry and I were in back, a midline barrier of crayons and games demarcating territorial boundaries.
Two days later we arrived at Gran’s house in Charlotte. Harry and I were given the upstairs bedroom with the green-striped wallpaper. The closet smelled of mothballs and lavender. Harry and I watched Mama hang our dresses on rods. Winter dresses for parties and church.
How long are we staying, Mama?
We’ll see. The hangers clicked softly.
Will we go to school here?
At breakfast the next morning Gran asked if we’d like to spend the rest of the summer at the beach. Harry and I gazed at her over our Rice Krispies, shell-shocked by the thundering changes rolling over our lives.
’Course you would, she said.
How do you know what I would or wouldn’t like? I thought. You’re not me. She was right, of course. Gran usually was. But that wasn’t the point. Another decision had been made and I was powerless to change it.
Two days after hitting Charlotte, our little party again settled itself in the Chrysler, Gran at the wheel. Mama slept, waking only when the whining of our tires announced we were crossing the causeway.
Mama’s head rose from the seat back. She didn’t turn to us. Didn’t smile and sing out, “Pawleys Island, here we come!” as she had in happier times. She merely slumped back.
Gran patted Mama’s hand, a carbon copy of the gesture employed by the Brennans. “We’re going to be fine,” she cooed, in a drawl identical to that of her daughter. “Trust me, Daisy darlin’. We’re going to be fine.”
And fine I was, once I met Évangéline Landry.
And for the next four years.
Until Évangéline vanished.
I WAS BORN IN JULY. FOR A KID, THAT’S GOOD NEWS AND BAD.
Since my summers were all spent at the Lee family beach house on Pawleys Island, my birthdays were celebrated with a picnic, then an excursion to Gay Dolphin Park on the Myrtle Beach boardwalk. I loved those amusement park outings, especially the Wild Mouse ride, white-knuckling up, down, and around narrow tracks, heart banging, cotton candy rising in my throat.
Good stuff. But I never got to bring cupcakes to school.
I turned eight that summer after Daddy died. Mama gave me a pink jewelry box with a music player and pop-up ballerina. Harry crayoned a family portrait, two big and two little stick figures, fingers spread and overlapping, no one smiling. Gran’s gift was a copy of Anne of Green Gables.
Though Gran prepared the traditional picnic of red velvet cake, fried chicken, boiled shrimp, potato salad, deviled eggs, and biscuits, there was no postprandial roller-coaster jaunt that year. Harry got sunburned and Mama got a migraine, so I stayed alone on the beach, reading about Anne’s adventures with Marilla and Matthew.
I didn’t notice her at first. She blended with the white noise of surf and seabirds. When I looked up she was less than two yards from me, skinny arms spiking from palmed hips.
Wordlessly, we assessed each other. From her height I guessed she had a year or two on me, though her waist was still child-thick, her faded swimsuit still flat on her chest.
She spoke first, jabbing a thumb at my book. “I’ve been there.”
“Have not,” I said.
“I’ve seen the Queen of England.” Wind danced the dark tangle on her head, lifting and dropping strands like shoppers deciding on ribbons.
“Have not,” I repeated, immediately felt stupid. “The queen lives in a palace in London.”
The girl dragged wind-forced curls from her eyes. “I was three. My grand-père held me up so I could see.”
Her English was accented, neither the flat, nasal twang of the Midwest, nor the vowel-bloating drawl of the Southeastern seaboard. I hesitated, uncertain.
“What did she look like?”
“She wore gloves and a lilac hat.”
“Where was this?” Skeptical.
The guttural r sounded excitingly foreign to my eight-year-old ear.
“Never heard of it.”
“‘This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks.’”
I squinted up at her, unsure what to say.
“It’s a poem.”
“I’ve been to the Art Institute in Chicago,” I said, feeling the need to match poetry with an equally high-brow response. “They have lots of famous pictures, like the people in the park painted with dots.”
“I’m staying with my aunt and uncle,” the girl said.
“I’m visiting my grandmother.” I didn’t mention Harry or Mama. Or Kevin. Or Daddy.
A Frisbee arced to earth between the girl and the ocean. I watched a boy scoop it and send it sailing with a backhanded toss.
“You can’t really go to Green Gables,” I said.
“Yes, you can.”
“It’s not real.”
“It is.” The girl worked one brown toe in the sand.
“Today is my birthday,” I said, at a loss to come up with anything better.
My school in Beverly had offered French, the pet project of a Francophile nun named Sister Mary Patrick. Though my exposure had gone little beyond bonjour, I knew this girl sounded nothing like the language teacher who’d come to my first-and second-grade classes.
Lonely? Curious? Willing to listen to anything that transported me from the gloom in Gran’s big house? Who knows why? I bit.
“Was the prince with her?”
The girl nodded.
“What’s this Tracadie place like?” It came out “Track-a-day.”
The girl shrugged. “Un beau petit village. A small town.”
“I’m Temperance Brennan. You can call me Tempe.”
“Wanna see my presents?”
“I like your book.”
I settled back in my chair. Évangéline sat cross-legged in the sand beside me. For an hour we talked of Anne and that famous farm on Prince Edward Island.
Thus the friendship began.
The forty-eight hours following my birthday were stormy, the daytime sky alternating between pewter and sickly gray-green. Rain came in windblown bursts, streaming salty wash across the windows of Gran’s house.
Between downpours I begged to be allowed on the beach. Gran refused, fearing undertow in the swells breaking white on the sand. Frustrated, I watched from inside, but caught no sign of Évangéline Landry.
Finally, blue patches appeared and elbowed back the clouds. Shadows sharpened under the sea oats and the boardwalks traversing the dunes. Birds resumed discourse, temperatures rose, and the humidity announced that unlike the rain, it was not leaving.
Despite the sunshine, days passed with no sign of my friend.
I was biking when I spotted her walking along Myrtle Avenue, head tortoised forward, sucking a Popsicle. She wore flip-flops and a wash-faded Beach Boys T-shirt.
She stopped when I rolled up beside her.
“Hey,” I said, one sneaker dropping from pedal to pavement.
“Hi,” she said.
“Haven’t seen you around.”
“Had to work.” Wiping sticky red fingers on her shorts.
“You have a job?” I was awed that a kid be permitted such a grown-up pursuit.
“My uncle fishes out of Murrell’s Inlet. Sometimes I help out on the boat.”
“Neat.” Visions of Gilligan, Ginger, and the Skipper.
“Pfff.” She puffed air through her lips. “I scrape fish guts.”
We started walking, me pushing my bike.
“Sometimes I have to take care of my little sister,” I said, seeking to establish parity. “She’s five.”
Évangéline turned to me. “Do you have a brother?”
“No.” Face burning.
“Me neither. My sister, Obéline, is two.”
“So you have to clean a few fish. It’s still cool to spend the summer at the beach. Is it really different where you come from?”
Something glinted in Évangéline’s eyes, was gone before I could read it.
“My mama’s there. She got laid off at the hospital, so now she works two jobs. She wants Obéline and me to learn good English, so she brings us here. C’est bon. My aunt Euphémie and my uncle Fidèle are nice.”
“Tell me about this forest primeval.” I steered from the topic of family.
Évangéline’s gaze drifted to a passing car, came back to me.
“L’Acadie is the most beautiful place on Earth.”
And so it seemed.
All that summer Évangéline spun tales of her New Brunswick home. I’d heard of Canada, of course, but my childish imaginings went little beyond Mounties and igloos. Or dogsleds mushing past caribou and polar bears, or seals perched on ice floes. Évangéline spoke of dense forests, coastal cliffs, and places with names like Miramichi, Kouchibouguac, and Bouctouche.
She also spoke of Acadian history, and the expulsion of her ancestors from their homeland. Again and again I listened, asked questions. Astonished. Outraged at the North American tragedy her people call le Grand Dérangement. The French Acadians driven into exile by a British deportation order, stripped of their lands and rights.
It was Évangéline who introduced me to poetry. That summer we stumbled through Longfellow’s epic work, the inspiration for her name. Her copy was in French, her native tongue. She translated as best she could.
Though I barely understood the verse, she turned the story to magic. Our childish minds imagined the Acadian milkmaid far from her Nova Scotia birthplace. We improvised costumes and acted out the tale of the diaspora and its ill-fated lovers.
Évangéline planned to be a poet one day. She’d memorized her favorites, most French, some English. Edward Blake. Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The New Brunswick–born bard Bliss Carman. I listened. Together, we wrote bad verse.
I preferred stories with plots. Though the English was difficult for her, Évangéline tried my favorite authors: Anna Sewell. Carolyn Keene. C. S. Lewis. And, endlessly, we discussed Anne Shirley and imagined life at Green Gables farm.
In those days I hoped to become a veterinarian. At my instigation we kept notebooks on egrets in the marsh and on pelicans gliding high on the wind. We constructed protective walls around turtle nests. We trapped frogs and snakes with long-handled nets.
Some days we staged elaborate tea parties for Harry and Obéline. Curled their hair. Dressed them like dolls.
Tante Euphémie cooked us poutine râpée, fricot au poulet, tourtière. I can see her in her ruffle-strapped apron, telling stories of the Acadian people in broken English. Stories she’d heard from her father, he from his. Seventeen fifty-five. Ten thousand forced from their homes.
Where did they go? Harry would ask. Europe. The Caribbean. America. Those in Louisiana became your Cajuns.
How could such things happen? I would ask. The British wanted our farms and dikes. They had guns.
But the Acadians returned? Some.
That first summer, Évangéline planted the seed for my lifelong addiction to news. Perhaps because hers was such an isolated corner of the planet. Perhaps because she wanted to practice English. Perhaps simply because of who she was. Évangéline’s thirst for knowing everything was unquenchable.
Radio. Television. Newspapers. We absorbed and comprehended in our limited way. At night, on her porch or mine, June bugs banging the screens, transistor radio sputtering the Monkees, the Beatles, Wilson Pickett, the Isley Brothers, we spoke of a man with a rifle in a Texas tower. The deaths of astronauts. Stokely Carmichael and a strange group called SNCC.
At age eight, I thought Évangéline Landry the smartest and most exotic being I would ever know. She was beautiful in a dark gypsy way, spoke a foreign language, knew songs and poems I’d never heard. But, even then, despite the sharing of secrets, I sensed a reserve in my new friend, a mystery. And something else. Some hidden sadness of which she didn’t speak and which I could not identify.
The hot, muggy days rolled by as we explored our little Lowcountry island. I shared places familiar from previous visits with Gran. Together, Évangéline and I discovered new ones.
Slowly, as it inevitably does, my pain receded. My thoughts dwelled on new things. Pleasant things.
Then it was August and time to go.
Mama never returned to live in Chicago. My life settled into a new comfortableness in Charlotte. I grew to love Gran’s old house in Dilworth, the smell of honeysuckle crawling the backyard fence, the leafy dark tunnel formed by willow oaks arcing our street.
I made friends, of course, but none as exotic as my summer soul mate. None who wrote poetry, spoke French, and had seen Green Gables and the Queen of England.
While apart, Évangéline and I exchanged letters containing news of our winter lives, our poetry, our preteen impressions of current events. Biafra. Why didn’t other countries feed these people? My Lai. Did Americans really kill innocent women and children? Chappaquiddick. Do celebrities have such troubles, too? We speculated on the guilt or innocence of Jeffrey MacDonald. Could any person be bad enough to kill his children? The evil of Charlie Manson. Was he the devil? We counted the days until summer with hash-marked calendars.
The school year ended earlier in Charlotte than in Tracadie, so I’d arrive first at Pawleys Island. A week later, madame Landry’s rusted Ford Fairlane would roll across the causeway. Laurette would spend one week at her sister and brother-in-law’s small house on the marsh, then return north to her jobs at a lobster cannery and a tourist motel. In August, she’d repeat the long trip.
In between, Évangéline, Obéline, Harry, and I lived our summer adventures. We read, we wrote, we talked, we explored. We collected shells. I learned about fishing for a living. I learned some bad French.
Our fifth summer unfolded like the previous four. Until July 26.
Psychologists say some dates remain permanently fixed in the mind. December 7, 1941. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. November 22, 1963. President Kennedy assassinated. September 11, 2001. The World Trade Center in flames.
My list includes the day Évangéline disappeared.
It was a Thursday. The Landry children had been on the island six weeks, were scheduled to remain for another four. Évangéline and I planned to go crabbing early that morning. Other details remain as fragments.
Pedaling through a misty dawn, crab net angled across my handlebars. A car passing in the opposite lane, male silhouette at the wheel. Oncle Fidèle? One backward glance. One silhouette in back.
The tic tic tic of pebbles winged onto Évangéline’s bedroom window screen. Euphémie’s face through a barely cracked door, hair bobby-pinned, eyes red, lips dead white.
They are gone. You mustn’t come here again.
Gone where, ma tante?
Go away. Forget.
They are dangerous now.
Pedaling hard, tears streaming my cheeks, watching a car swallowed by fog on the causeway. Gone? No warning? No good-bye? No “I’ll write”? Don’t come back? Forget?
My friend and her sister never summered on Pawleys again.
Though I returned over and over to the small house on the marsh, begging for information, I was always rebuffed. Tante Euphémie and Oncle Fidèle never spoke to me except to repeat “You must go. They are not here.”
I wrote letter after letter. Some came back undelivered, others did not, but there was no response from Évangéline. I asked Gran what I could do. “Nothing,” she said. “Events can alter lives. Remember, you left Chicago.”
Distraught, I swore to find her. Nancy Drew could do it, I told myself. And I tried, as much as a twelve-year-old was able in the days before cell phones and the Internet. For the rest of that summer and into the next, Harry and I spied on Tante Euphémie and Oncle Fidèle. We learned nothing.
Back in Charlotte, we persisted. Though the libraries within our small orbit kept no phone directories for New Brunswick, Canada, we managed to obtain an area code for Tracadie-Sheila. There were more Landrys in the region than the operator could sort without a first name.
No listing. Thirty-two L. Landrys.
Neither Harry nor I could recall mention of Évangéline’s father’s name.
Realization. Through all those long days and nights, Évangéline and I had talked of boys, sex, Longfellow, Green Gables, Vietnam. By some unspoken agreement, we’d never ventured into the subject of fathers.
Using a pay phone and coins from our banks, Harry and I phoned every L. Landry in Tracadie. Later we tried the surrounding towns. No one knew of Évangéline or her family. Or so they said.
My sister lost interest in sleuthing long before I did. Évangéline had been my friend, five years Harry’s senior. And Obéline had been too young, half a lifetime Harry’s junior.
In the end, I, too, gave up searching. But I never stopped wondering. Where? Why? How could a fourteen-year-old girl be a threat? Eventually, I grew to doubt my recall of Tante Euphémie’s words. Had she really said “dangerous”?
The emptiness left by Évangéline was a void in my life until high school crowded out reflection and regret.
Kevin. Daddy. Évangéline. The ache of that triple whammy has faded, dulled by the passage of time and displaced by the press of daily living.
But, now and then, a trigger. Then memory rears up in ambush.
I’ D BEEN IN MONTREAL A FULL HOUR WHEN LAMANCHE PHONED. Until then, my June rotation to the recently thawed tundra on the St. Lawrence had gone swimmingly.
The flight from Charlotte and the connection from Philadelphia had both operated on time. Birdie had given me minimal grief, protest-meowing only during takeoffs and landings. My luggage had touched down with me. Arriving home, I’d found my condo in reasonably good shape. My Mazda had started on the very first try. Life was good.
Then LaManche rang my mobile.
“Temperance?” He, alone, rejected the more user-friendly “Tempe” employed by the rest of the world. My name rolled off LaManche’s tongue as a high Parisian “Tempéronce.”
“Oui.” My brain kicked into French mode.
“Where are you?”
“So I thought. Your trip was good?”
“As good as it gets.”
“Air travel is not what it was.”
“You will come early tomorrow?” I sensed tension in the old man’s voice.
“A case has arrived that is…” Slight hitch. “…complicated.”
“I think it best to explain personally.”
Disconnecting, I felt a vague sense of trepidation. LaManche rarely phoned me. When he did, it was never good news. Five bikers torched in a Blazer. A woman facedown in a senator’s pool. Four bodies in a crawl space.
LaManche had been a forensic pathologist for over thirty years, directed our medico-legal division for twenty of that. He knew I was scheduled back today, and that I’d report to the lab first thing in the morning. What could be so complicated that he felt the need to double check my availability?
Or so gruesome.
As I unpacked, shopped, stocked the fridge, and ate a salade Niçoise, my mind conjured up scenarios, each worse than the last.
Climbing into bed, I decided to bump my arrival to 7:30 A.M.
One upside to air travel is that it wears you out. Despite my apprehension, I drifted off during the eleven o’clock news.
The next day dawned as if auditioning for a travel brochure. Balmy. Breezy. Turquoise skies.
Having commuted to Quebec for more years than I care to admit, I was certain the climatic fluke would be short-lived. I wanted to bike in the country, picnic on the mountain, Rollerblade the path along the Lachine canal.
Anything but face LaManche’s “complicated” issue.
By seven-forty I was parked at the Édifice Wilfrid-Derome, a T-shaped high-rise in a working-class neighborhood just east of centre-ville. Here’s how the place works.
The Laboratoire de sciences judiciaires et de médecine légale, the LSJML, is the central crime and medico-legal lab for the entire province of Quebec. We’ve got the building’s top two floors, twelve and thirteen. The Bureau du coroner is on ten and eleven. The morgue and autopsy suites are in the basement. The provincial police, La Sûreté du Québec, or SQ, occupies all other space.
Swiping my security card, I passed through metal gates, entered the restricted LSJML / Coroner elevator, swiped again, and ascended with a dozen others mumbling “Bonjour” and “Comment ça va?” At that hour, “Good morning” and “How’s it going?” are equally perfunctory no matter the language.
Four of us exited on the twelfth floor. After crossing the lobby, I swiped a second security card, and passed into the lab’s working area. Through observation windows and open doors I could see secretaries booting computers, techs flipping dials, scientists and analysts donning lab coats. Everyone mainlining coffee.
Past the Xerox machines, I swiped again. Glass doors swooshed, and I entered the medico-legal wing.
The board showed four of five pathologists present. The box beside Michel Morin’s name said: Témoignage: Saint-Jérôme. Testimony in Saint-Jérôme.
LaManche was at his desk, assembling the case list for that morning’s staff meeting. Though I paused at his door, he remained hunched over his paperwork.
Continuing along the corridor, I passed pathology, histology, and anthropology/odontology labs on my left, pathologists’ offices on my right. Pelletier. Morin. Santangelo. Ayers. Mine was last in the row.
More security. Good old-fashioned lock and key.
I’d been away a month. The place looked like I’d been gone since we occupied the building.
Window washers had displaced the framed pictures of my daughter, Katy, and all other memorabilia from the windowsill to a filing cabinet top. Floor polishers had then placed the wastebasket and two plants on the conveniently emptied sill. New CSU coveralls and boots had been heaped on one chair, clean lab coats draped on another. My laminated Dubuffet poster had nosedived from the wall, taking out a pencil holder.
My desk was mounded with materials forwarded from my mail slot in the secretarial office. Letters. Fliers. Ads. In addition, I could identify the following: an updated list of personnel telephone extensions; four packets of prints from Section d’identité judiciaire photographers; two sets of antemortem X-rays and two medical dossiers; a copy of Voir Dire, the LSJML gossip sheet; and three demande d’expertise en anthropologie forms. Three requests for anthropological analysis.
After collecting the upended pens and pencils, I dropped into my chair, cleared a small section of desktop, and scanned the first form asking for my expertise.
Pathologist: M. Morin. Investigating officer: H. Perron, Service de police de la Ville de Montréal. SPVM. Formerly known as the Service de police de la Communauté urbaine de Montréal, or SPCUM, the SPVM are the city boys. Same force, new spin. Nom: Inconnu. Name: Unknown. Skipping over the LSJML, morgue, and police incident numbers, I went straight to the summary of known facts.
Skeletal parts had been bulldozed up at a construction site west of centre-ville. Could I determine if the bones were human? If human, the number of persons? Time since death? If recent, could I ascertain age, sex, race, and height, and describe individuating characteristics for each set of bones? Could I establish cause of death?
Typical forensic anthropology stuff.
The second form was also SPVM, city police. Emily Santangelo was the pathologist, and therefore coordinating all expertise concerning the cadaver. This case involved a house fire, an incinerated corpse, and a denture melted beyond recognition. I was being asked to establish congruence between the charred remains and the ninety-three-year-old man reported living at the address.
Third form. A bloated and badly decomposed body had been dredged from Lac des Deux Montagnes, near L’Île-Bizard. Beyond the fact that the victim was female, the pathologist, LaManche, could determine little. Teeth were present, but there’d been no hit when dental information was entered into CPIC, the Canadian counterpart of the American NCIS. Could I ascertain age and racial background? Could I check the bones for signs of trauma?
Unlike the first two, LaManche’s case was SQ. The provincial cops.
One town, two police agencies? Sounds complicated. It’s not.
Montreal is an island, part of an archipelago trailing from the confluence of the Ottawa and St. Lawrence rivers. Its southern tip is wrapped by the fleuve Saint-Laurent, its northern by the Rivière des Prairies.
The small island is only fifty kilometers long, and varies from five to thirteen kilometers in width, narrowing at its ends and thickening at its center. Its dominant feature is Mont Royal, an igneous intrusion rising a proud 231 meters above sea level. Les Montréalais call this tiny bump la montagne. The mountain.
For policing purposes, Montreal is parceled out according to those particulars of geology. On the island: SPVM. Off the island: SQ. Assuming there is no local PD. Though rivalries exist, in general ça marche. It works.
My eye fell on the name of the investigating SQ officer. Detective-Lieutenant Andrew Ryan.
My stomach did a wee flip.
But more of that later.
Pierre LaManche is a large man in a grandpa-was-a-lumberjack hunched-forward sort of way. Favoring crepe soles and empty pockets, the man moves so quietly he can appear in a room with no warning of approach.
“I apologize for disturbing you at home last evening.” LaManche was standing in my doorway, clipboard in one hand, pen in the other.
“No problem.” Rising, I circled my desk, gathered the lab coats, and hung them on a hook on the back of my door.
LaManche lowered himself into the chair. I waited for him to begin.
“You know maître Asselin, of course.”
In Quebec, coroners are either physicians or attorneys. Odd system, but ça marche. It works. Michelle Asselin was a lawyer, thus the title maître.
“Maître Asselin has been a coroner for as long as I’ve been with this lab.” LaManche stroked his jaw, as though verifying he’d shaved that morning. “She is close to retirement.”
“The complicated case is hers?”
“Indirectly. Maître Asselin has a nephew who farms near Saint-Antoine-Abbé. Théodore Doucet. Théodore and his wife, Dorothée, have one child, a daughter. Geneviève is thirty-two, but has special needs and lives at home.”
LaManche seemed to study the placement of my wastebasket. I waited for him to go on.
“Dorothée was a regular churchgoer, but stopped attending. No one is certain of the exact date. Though the family was known to be reclusive, neighbors grew worried. Yesterday two parishioners visited the Doucet farm. They found Dorothée and Geneviève dead in an upstairs bedroom. Théodore was downstairs playing Silent Hunter on his computer.”
LaManche mistook my quizzical look. “It is a computer game. One does something with submarines.”
I knew that. I was surprised LaManche did.
“You went to the scene?” I asked.
LaManche nodded. “The house was a nightmare, rooms crammed with useless trash. Oatmeal cartons. Newspapers. Tin cans. Used tissues. Feces in ziplock baggies.”
“Théodore is being held for psychiatric evaluation?”
LaManche nodded. He looked tired. But, then, the old man usually looked tired.
“Both women were fully dressed, lying on their backs with bedding pulled to their chins. Their heads were tilted and touching, and their arms were entwined.”
I was wondering what this had to do with me. Unless dismembered, mutilated, or stripped of identifiers such as fingerprints or teeth, fresh corpses were rarely my domain.
“My feeling is that Dorothée has been dead for at least two weeks,” LaManche continued. “I will confirm that today. Geneviève is the problem. Her body was lying beside a heat vent.”
“With the fan blowing on her,” I guessed. I’d seen it before.
LaManche nodded. “PMI will be difficult.”
Mummified corpse. Uncertain postmortem interval. Yep. That would be me.
“Signs of trauma?” I asked.
“I saw nothing during my external examination of Dorothée. Geneviève’s body is far too dehydrated. I saw nothing on the X-rays of either mother or daughter.”
LaManche nodded. Then the hound-dog eyes locked onto mine. “I’m confident this can be handled discreetly and compassionately.”
Unlike the Doucet women, few who rolled through our doors had died in their beds. Ours were the murdered, the suicides, those whose lives were cut short by bad timing, bad judgment, or bad luck.
LaManche understood my commitment to the dead and to those left behind. He’d witnessed my interactions with families, and with journalists seeking footage for the five o’clock news.
LaManche knew the words he’d spoken did not need saying. The fact that he’d voiced them revealed an uncharacteristic level of emotion. The old man cared deeply for Michelle Asselin.
Administrative issues discussed, cases assigned, staff meeting wrapped up by nine. Returning to my office, I donned a lab coat and crossed to the anthropology lab. The bones found at the construction site covered two worktables.
One glance told me the case wouldn’t need detailed analysis. After eyeballing each element, I wrote a one-line report.
Les ossements ne sont pas humains. The bones are not human. Twenty minutes. Done.
Next, I instructed my lab technician, Denis, concerning cleaning of Santangelo’s incinerated cadaver. Burned bodies can be fragile, requiring careful disarticulation of the skeleton and removal of soft tissue by hand.
Then it was on to the morgue.
Clipboard. Calipers. Skeletal autopsy forms.
I had my hand on the doorknob when the phone rang. I almost ignored it. Should have, perhaps.
“D OC BRENNAN?” THE VOICE WAS BARBWIRE DRAGGED ACROSS corrugated tin. “C’est moé, Hippo.”
“Comment ça va?” As in the elevator, a formality. If queried sincerely, I knew the caller would respond in detail. Though I liked the guy, this wasn’t the time.
“Ben. J’vas parker mon char. Chu—”
“Hippo?” I cut him off.
Sergent-enquêteur Hippolyte Gallant was with L’unité “Cold cases” du Service des enquêtes sur les crimes contre la personne de la Sûreté du Québec. Big title. Easy translation. Provincial police. Crimes against persons. Cold case squad.
Though Hippo and I had worked a case or two since the unit’s creation in 2004, I’d never cracked his accent. It wasn’t the joual of Quebec’s Francophone working class. It was definitely not Parisian, Belgian, North African, or Swiss. Whatever its origin, Hippo’s French was a mystery to my American ear.
Fortunately, Hippo was fluently bilingual.
“Sorry, doc.” Hippo switched to English. Accented, and slang-heavy, but intelligible. “I’m downstairs parking my car. Got something to run by you.”
“LaManche just handed me an urgent case. I was heading to the morgue.”
Already my watch said 9:45.
“Come on up.” Resigned. Hippo would find me, anyway.
He appeared twenty minutes later. Through the observation window, I watched him work the corridor, pausing to exchange greetings with those pathologists still in their offices. He entered my lab carrying a Dunkin’ Donuts bag.
How to describe Hippo? With his extra poundage, plastic-framed glasses, and retro crew cut, he looked more like a code programmer than a cop.
Hippo crossed to my desk and parked the bag on it. I looked inside. Doughnuts.
To say Hippo wasn’t into healthy living would be like saying the Amish weren’t into Corvettes. A few members of his squad called him High Test Hippo. Ironic, since the man’s stomach was perpetually upset.
Hippo helped himself to a maple syrup frosted. I went with chocolate.
“Figured you mighta skipped breakfast.”
“Mm.” I’d eaten a bagel with cream cheese and a half pint of raspberries.
“That your urgent case?” Hippo chin-cocked the construction site lamb chops and poultry.
“No.” I didn’t elaborate. It was already past ten. And my mouth was full of chocolate and dough.
“Want your take on something.”
“I do have to get downstairs.”
Hippo dragged a chair toward my desk. “Ten minutes, I’m outta here.” Settling, he licked sugar from his fingers. I handed him a tissue. “It’s not something you gotta do.”
I hand-gestured “Give it to me.”
“It’s bones. I haven’t seen the actual stuff. This comes from an SQ buddy. He’s been with the provincial police for eighteen years, and was just transferred from Rimouski to Gatineau. We had a few beers when he was passing through Montreal.”
I nodded, really thinking about the doughnuts. Had there been another maple syrup frosted in the bag?
“Me and Gaston, that’s his name. We been buds since we was kids. Grew up in a spit little town in the Maritimes.” Finally, an explanation of Hippo’s accent. Chiac, a vernacular French similar to joual but specific to some of the Atlantic provinces.
“There’s this skeleton’s been bugging Gaston for a couple years. He’s half Micmac, you know. First Nations?”
I nodded again.
“He’s got a thing about the dead being buried proper. Thinks your spirit’s screwed if you ain’t planted six feet under. Anyway, some SQ dick at Gaston’s last posting keeps a skull in his desk. Has the rest of the skeleton in a box.”
“How did this detective come to have these bones?” I lifted the bag and held it out. Hippo shook his head. I looked inside, barely interested. Yes! One maple syrup frosted. I set the bag down.
“Gaston doesn’t know. But his conscience is kicking ass because he didn’t do more to get the bones buried.”
“No grave, no afterlife.”
“This is where I come in.”
“Gaston asked me if I’d heard of some bone lady here in Montreal. I said, you kiddin’? Doc Brennan and me is sympathique.” Hippo raised and joined two nicotine-stained fingers.
“He’s certain these bones are human?”
Hippo nodded. “Yeah, and he thinks it’s a kid.”
“Gaston should call the local coroner.” I reached in and took the maple syrup frosted, casual as hell.
“He did. The guy blew him off.”
“These bones ain’t exactly fresh.”
“They’re archaeological?” Maple syrup wasn’t bad, but chocolate still ruled.
“As I understand it, they’re dry, and there’s cobwebs in the holes where the eyes used to be.”
“Cobwebs would suggest time spent aboveground.”
“Bingo.” Hippo liked the word. Used it a lot. “Coroner said the stuff had been kicking around too long.”
I stopped chewing. That wasn’t right. If the bones were human, technically they were unidentified remains and fell within the coroner’s mandate. It was up to a forensic anthropologist to determine if death had occurred recently enough to be of forensic interest.
“Who is this coroner?” I reached for paper and pen.
Hippo patted his jacket, which is worth mentioning. The fabric had yellow and orange lines running vertically and horizontally through a russet background. With its gold polyester pocket hanky, the garment would have been haute couture in rural Romania.
Locating a spiral pad, Hippo flipped several pages.
“Dr. Yves Bradette. Want the number?”
I nodded, jotted.
“Look, Gaston doesn’t want to jam anybody up.”
My eyes rose to Hippo’s.
“OK, OK.” Hippo pointed two palms in my direction. “Just be discreet. The stuff’s at SQ headquarters, Rimouski.” Hippo looked at his notes. “That’s the District of Bas-Saint-Laurent–Gaspésie–Îles-de-la-Madeleine.” Typical Hippo. Too much information.
“I can’t get to this right away.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Pas d’urgence.” Not urgent. “Whenever.”
When a body clocks out it trips one of three pathways: putrefaction, mummification, or saponification. None is pretty.
In a warm, moist setting, with bacteria, insects, and/or vertebrate scavengers looking for lunch, you get putrefaction. Putrefaction features skin slippage, discoloration, bloating, eruption of the abdominal gases, caving of the belly, rotting of the flesh, and, way down the road, disintegration of the bones.
In a warm, dry setting, with bugs and critters excluded, you get mummification. Mummification features destruction of the internal organs by autolysis and enteric bacterial action, and muscle and skin dehydration and hardening due to evaporation.
No one’s really sure, but saponification seems to require a cool setting and poorly oxygenated water, though the water can come from the corpse itself. Saponification features the conversion of fats and fatty acids into adipocere, a cheesy, stinky compound commonly called “grave wax.” Initially white and soaplike, adipocere can harden with age. Once formed the stuff lasts a very long time.
But decomp’s not as simple as door A, B, or C. Putrefaction, mummification, and saponification can occur separately or in any combination.
Geneviève Doucet’s body had lain in a unique microenvironment. Air blowing from the heat vent had been trapped by blankets and clothing, creating a mini-convection oven around her corpse. Voilà! Door B!
Though head hair remained, Geneviève’s features were gone, leaving only desiccated tissue in the orbits and overlying the facial bones. Her limbs and chest were encased in a thick, hard shell.
Gently raising Geneviève’s shoulders, I checked her back. Leatherized muscle and ligament clung to her spine, pelvis, and shoulder blades. Bone was visible where she’d been in contact with the mattress.
I took a series of backup Polaroids, then crossed to the light boxes lining one wall. Geneviève’s skeleton glowed white amid the gray of her tissues and the black of the film. Slowly, I moved through the X-rays.
LaManche was right. There were no obvious signs of violence. No bullets, bullet fragments, casings, or metallic trace. The bones showed no hairline, linear, depressed, or radiating fractures. No joint dislocations. No foreign objects. For a complete examination of the skeleton, the body would have to be cleaned.
Returning to the autopsy table, I started at Geneviève’s head and worked toward her feet, seeking indicators of illness, injury, or insect activity. Anything that might clarify time and/or manner of death.
As with the X-rays, nada.
Next, I tried cutting into Geneviève’s belly. It took some doing, since the overlying skin and muscle had become so hard. My scalpel finally broke through. As I enlarged the incision, a stench seeped out and permeated the room.
With some effort, I created an opening approximately eight inches square. Using a small flashlight, I held my breath, leaned close, and peered into Geneviève’s abdomen.
The internal organs had been reduced to a dark, viscous paste. I spotted not a single maggot, egg, or puparial casing.
Straightening, I removed my goggles and considered.
Observations: Outer tissue dehydration. Skeletal exposure. Visceral breakdown. Absence of fly and beetle activity.
Deduction: Death had occurred the previous winter. Long enough back to account for tissue destruction, at a time when insects weren’t out and about. Geneviève Doucet had died months before her mother.
Welcome to reality, TV crime show buffs. No date, hour, and minute of death. The condition of this body allowed no greater precision.
I didn’t linger on the implications. Geneviève blow-drying in her bed. Dorothée joining her months later. All the while, Théodore commanding U-boats on his PC.
After giving instructions for the cleaning of Geneviève’s remains, I changed from my scrubs, washed, and returned to the twelfth floor.
The old man was again in his office. He listened, face a taut replica of the one he usually wore. LaManche knew what the future held for Théodore Doucet. And, by association, for Michelle Asselin.
There was an awkward silence when I’d finished. I said I was sorry. Lame, I know. But I’m lousy at commiseration. You’d think in my business I’d have honed some skills. You’d be wrong.
LaManche raised, dropped both shoulders. Life is hard. What can you do?
Back in my lab, Hippo’s bag was still on my desk. A lone pink doughnut remained. Pink? There’s something wrong there.
I looked at the clock: 1:46 P.M.
The sheet with Hippo’s coroner contact information caught my eye. Grabbing it, I crossed to my office.
The mound of papers hadn’t diminished. The wastebasket and plants hadn’t relocated themselves to the floor. The CSU supplies hadn’t disappeared, neatly folded, into a locker.
Screw housekeeping. Sliding into my chair, I dialed Yves Bradette.
His answering service picked up. I left my name and number.
A stomach growl warned that doughnuts hadn’t sufficed.
Quick lunch. Chicken salad in the first-floor cafeteria.
When I returned, my red message light was flashing. Yves Bradette had phoned.
Again, I dialed Rimouski. This time Bradette answered.
“What can I do for you, Dr. Brennan?” Nasal. A bit whiny.
“Thanks for returning my call so quickly.”
I relayed Hippo’s story, mentioning no names.
“May I ask how you came to know of this?” A cool and very formal vous.
“A police officer brought the situation to my attention.”
Bradette said nothing. I wondered if he was trying to recall Gaston’s report of the bones, or formulating a justification for his failure to seize them.
“I think it’s worth a look,” I added.
“I have investigated this matter.” Even cooler.
“You examined the skeleton?”
“I went to SQ headquarters. I concluded these bones are old. Perhaps ancient.”
“In my judgment, the remains are those of a female adolescent.”
A coroner or pathologist orders a textbook or takes a short course, and Sha-zam! He or she is a forensic anthropologist! Why not score a copy of Operative Cardiac Surgery, hang a shingle, and start opening chests? Though it’s rare that an underqualified person attempts to practice my profession, when it happens on my turf, I am far from pleased.
“I see.” I matched Bradette’s cool with arctic.
“Under questioning, the officer admitted to having had these bones for many years. Furthermore, he stated that they originated in New Brunswick. New Brunswick is outside the scope of my authority.”
Months, perhaps years pass with no thought of Évangéline Landry. Then, unexpectedly, a synapse will flash. I never know what the trigger will be. A forgotten snapshot curling in the bottom of a box. Words spoken with a certain intonation. A song. A line from a poem.
Hippo’s chiac accent. New Brunswick. The skeleton of a girl, dead many years.
Irrationally, my fingers tightened on the receiver.
“I WANT THOSE BONES CONFISCATED AND SENT TO MY LAB.” MY voice could have carved marble.
“In my professional opinion, this is a waste of—”
“Pierre LaManche must submit an official request form.”
“Give me your fax number, please.”
I wrote it down.
“You will have the paperwork within the hour.”
After completing the form I went in search of a signature.
LaManche was now at a side counter in the pathology lab, masked and wearing a plastic apron tied behind his neck and back. A sliced pancreas lay on a corkboard before him. Hearing footsteps, he turned.
I told him about Gaston’s skeleton. I didn’t mention Évangéline Landry or her disappearance from my life almost four decades earlier as something that was prodding me to look more closely at adolescent remains from New Brunswick. I didn’t really believe there could be any connection, but somehow I felt I owed it to Évangéline to explore the identity of the New Brunswick skeleton.
Yet the tightness in my chest.
“Nouveau-Brunswick?” LaManche asked.
“The remains are currently in Quebec.”
“Might they have come from an old cemetery?”
“You will be very busy this month.”
Spring to early summer is high season in my business in Quebec. Rivers thaw. Snow melts. Hikers, campers, and picnickers sally forth. Tada! Rotting corpses are found. LaManche was gently reminding me of this fact.
“The construction site bones are nonhuman. I’ll begin Dr. Santangelo’s case now. Then do your Lac des Deux Montagnes vic.”
LaManche gave a tight head shake. “Old bones kept as a souvenir.”
“PMI is unclear.”
LaManche said nothing.
“Dr. Bradette’s attitude offends me. A skeleton is lying ignored within our jurisdiction. No human being should be treated with such cavalier disregard.”
LaManche gazed at me over his mask. Then he shrugged. “If you think you will have time.”
“I’ll make time.”
I lay the form on the counter. LaManche stripped off a glove and signed it.
Thanking him, I hurried to the fax machine.
I spent the rest of that afternoon with Santangelo’s fire victim, a ninety-three-year-old man known to smoke in bed before removing his dentures and turning off his bedside lamp each night. The kids and grandkids had repeatedly warned, but the old geezer had ignored their advice.
Gramps wasn’t smoking now. He lay on stainless steel in autopsy room four.
If it was Gramps.
The skull consisted of charred fragments collected in a brown paper bag. The torso was an amorphous black mass with upper arms and legs raised due to contraction of the flexor muscles. The lower limbs were shriveled stumps. The hands and feet were missing.
No fingers, no prints. No teeth, no dentals. And the false choppers looked like a blob of Bazooka.
But one thing simplified my task. In 1988, the presumed vic had treated himself to a brand-new hip. Antemortem X-rays now covered the light boxes previously occupied by Geneviève Doucet.
Gramps’s prosthesis glowed white in his upper right femur. Postmortem X-rays showed a similar neon mushroom positioned identically within the burned right leg.
Making an incision along the outer pelvic edge, I peeled back charred muscle and tendon, manipulated the device from the hip socket, then buzzed through the proximal third of the bone with an autopsy saw.
Further cleaning revealed the serial number. Crossing to the counter, I checked the antemortem orthopedic records.
I photographed, bagged, and tagged the specimen, then returned to the body for a full skeletal exam. Although the implant made the ID a slam dunk, anthropological data would provide useful backup.
Cranial fragments showed large brow ridges and mastoid processes, and an occipital muscle attachment the size of my sneaker.
Male. I made notes and moved on to the pelvis.
Short, chunky pubic bone. V-shaped subpubic angle. Narrow sciatic notch.
Male. I was recording my observations when the outer door clicked open then shut.
I glanced up.
A tall, sandy-haired man stood in the anteroom. He wore a tweed jacket, tan slacks, and a shirt the exact startling blue of his eyes. Burberry. I knew. I’d given it to him.
Time to discuss lieutenant-détective Andrew Ryan, Section des crimes contre la personne, Sûreté du Québec.
Ryan works homicide for the provincial police. I work corpses for the provincial coroner. No-brainer how we met. For years I tried maintaining professional distance, but Ryan played by different rules. Libertine rules. Knowing his reputation, I didn’t sign on.
Then my marriage imploded, and Ryan high-geared the legendary charm. What the hell? I gave dating a whirl. Things went well for a while. Very well.
Then fate played the family obligation card. A newfound daughter barreled into Ryan’s life. My estranged husband, Pete, was shot by the village idiot in Isle of Palms, South Carolina. Duty didn’t call. It pounded on the door in full battle gear.
To add further complication, Pete’s brush with death resurrected feelings I’d thought long dead. They didn’t look dead to Ryan. He withdrew.
Was the lieutenant-detective still leading-man material? Definitely. But the casting couch had grown a bit crowded. Ryan and I hadn’t spoken since parting the previous month.
“Hey,” I said. Southern for “hi” or bonjour.
“Car fire?” Ryan pointed at Gramps.
“Smoking in bed.”
“A sign of our increasingly complacent society.”
I gave Ryan a questioning look.
“No one bothers with labels.”
The look held.
“Big bold font on every pack. ‘Cigarette smoking is dangerous to your health.’”
My eyes rolled skyward.
“How are you?” Ryan’s tone went softer. Or did I imagine it?
“I’m good. You?”
The dialogue of middle-schoolers, not former lovers. Were we? I wondered. Former?
“When did you arrive?”
“Landed on time.”
“Better than early and sudden.”
“You’re working late.”
I looked at the clock. Isolated in room four with its special ventilation, I hadn’t heard the autopsy techs depart. It was now six-fifteen.
“Indeed.” God, this was strained. “How’s Charlie?”
“Bawdy as ever.”
Charlie is a cockatiel whose early years were spent in a brothel. A Christmas gift from Ryan, we share joint custody of the bird.
“Birdie’s been asking about him.” I wondered if Ryan was there to see me, or to talk about LaManche’s Lac des Deux Montagnes case. I didn’t wonder long.
“Had time to look at my floater?”
“Not yet.” I kept the disappointment from my voice. “What’s the story?”
“Fisherman was trolling off L’Île-Bizard yesterday. Thought he’d snagged the big one, reeled in a body instead. Guy probably has his bass boat on eBay right now.”
“I haven’t gotten to it yet.”
“The vic is female. LaManche thought he spotted some unusual patterning around the neck, wasn’t sure because of the severe bloating and discoloration. No signs of gunshot on the body or the X-rays. No hyoid fracture. LaManche has requested a tox screen.”
“Has Bergeron charted the teeth?” Marc Bergeron is the lab’s consulting odontologist.
Ryan nodded. “I entered her dental descriptors into CPIC, got zip. The odds may improve if you nail age and race.”
“She’s next on the docket.”
Ryan hesitated a beat. “We’re looking at some MP’s and DOA’s that may be connected.”
“Three missing persons. Two bodies, both unknown.”
“You’re thinking serial?”
“We’re considering the possibility.”
“Female. Early to late teens.”
I felt the usual anger and sadness. Fear? Could some predator be using Quebec as his killing field?
“You suspect the Lac des Deux Montagnes woman could be vic number six?”
“First thing tomorrow?”
Ryan started to leave, turned back at the door.
“Recovering nicely. Thanks for asking. Lily?”
“Good.” God. We were doing it again. “I’ll pick Charlie up,” I said.
“No need. I’ll deliver him.”
“You don’t have to do that.”
“Serve and protect.” Ryan snapped a salute. “I’ll give you a call.”
After rewrapping the burned nonagenarian, and rolling his gurney into its bay, I cleaned up and headed home. Birdie met me at the door.
While changing to shorts I explained that Charlie would be joining us soon. Bird was thrilled. Or bored. With cats it’s hard to be sure.
Following dinner, Birdie and I watched a Sopranos rerun, the one in which Adriana gets whacked. Throughout, I kept picking up the land phone. Checking for a dial tone. Tossing the thing back onto the couch.
Ryan didn’t phone. Nor did he appear at my condo that night.
Though Birdie and I were in bed by eleven, sleep didn’t come for a very long time. Thinking back on our exchange in autopsy room four, I realized what was bothering me. Ryan had scarcely smiled or joked. It wasn’t like him.
Don’t act like an insecure adolescent, I told myself. Ryan’s busy. Concerned about his daughter. About a serial killer. About ear wax buildup. About the mustard spot on his tie.
I didn’t buy it.
I USE A HOME-RIGGED SYSTEM FOR CLEANING CADAVERS. ORIGINALLY designed for institutional cooking, the apparatus consists of water intake and discharge pipes, grease filtration gear, a compartmentalized boiling tank, and submersion baskets, the kind used to deep-fry potatoes or fish.
In the square baskets I simmer small body parts—dissected jaws, hands, feet, maybe a skull. In the large, rectangular ones I reduce the big stuff—long bones, rib cages, pelves—once defleshing has been done by morgue technicians. Heat water to just below boiling, add enzyme detergent to minimize grease, stir. The recipe’s a hit every time.
Unless the bones are too fragile, of course. Then it’s hand laundry all the way.
That morning the “cooker” was full to capacity. The Lac des Deux Montagnes corpse. Parts of Santangelo’s charred bed smoker. Geneviève Doucet.
Putrid, sodden flesh means quicker turn-around time. And Ryan’s floater had gone in first. Denis was removing those bones when I arrived following the morning staff meeting.
First, I opened the brown envelopes containing the Lac des Deux Montagnes scene and autopsy photos. One by one I worked from recovery through autopsy completion.
It was obvious why LaManche needed help. When dragged from the river, the body looked like a marionette wrapped in moss-colored Spam. No hair. No features. Large areas of flesh devoured by crabs and fish. I noted that the woman wore only one red sock.
I began constructing the requested portions of the biological profile. It took all morning. Though I’d left word to call the minute anything arrived from Rimouski, no one phoned or popped into my lab.
That no one included Ryan.
At lunch, I told LaManche what I was finding out about the Lac des Deux Montagnes woman. He told me that Théodore Doucet had undergone the first in his series of psychiatric interviews.
According to the doctor, Doucet was oblivious to the deaths of his wife and daughter. Delusional, he believed Dorothée and Geneviève had gone to church and would be home shortly to prepare supper. Doucet was being held at the Institut Philippe-Pinel, Montreal’s main legal psychiatric hospital.
Back in my lab, I found the fire victim’s pelvis and upper arm and leg bones spread out on a counter. Gloving, I transferred the remains to a second worktable and began my exam.
Though severely damaged, sufficient structure remained to confirm the gender as male. The pubic symphysis, coupled with advanced arthritis, suggested a skeletal age consistent with ninety-three.
Age and sex consistent. Orthopedic implant serial number a match. Known resident at the address. Known bed smoker. Good enough for me. Now it was up to the coroner. By three I’d completed my report and delivered it to the secretarial office for typing.
It isn’t protocol to notify me of a skeleton’s arrival. Normally, a case goes to one of the lab’s five pathologists, and via him or her, to me. But I’d asked for a heads-up on the bones Bradette was sending from Rimouski. On the chance they’d forgotten, I checked with morgue intake.
Geneviève Doucet’s were the third set of remains that had simmered overnight. Using long-handled tongs, I fished out her skull, pelvis, and several long bones, then spent an hour teasing off flesh. The stuff was resilient as gator hide, so I accomplished very little.
I was lowering Geneviève’s basket back into its compartment when my lab door opened. I turned.
Of course. Ryan has a knack for showing up when I’m looking bad. I waited for a crack about steam-lank hair and eau de poached flesh. He made none.
“Sorry I didn’t bring Charlie last night.”
“No problem.” I settled the stainless steel cover over the well and checked the temperature gage.
“Lily,” Ryan sort of explained.
“Nothing serious, I hope.” Backhanding hair from my face with a lab coat sleeve.
“I’ll come by tonight.” Ryan jabbed a thumb at the skeleton laid out behind me. “That my floater?”
“Yes.” I stepped to the table, holding wet, greasy gloves away from my body. “She’s young. Fifteen to eighteen. Mixed racial background.”
“Tell me about that.”
“Except for the front teeth, I’d have said she was white. Nasal opening is narrow and spiked at the bottom, nasal bridge is high, cheekbones aren’t especially flaring. But all eight incisors are shoveled.”
“There’s a high probability she’s part Asian or Native American.”
“Or Japanese, Chinese, Korean. You know, Asian?”
Ryan ignored the dig. “Show me.”
I rotated the woman’s skull so her upper dentition was visible. “Each of the four flat teeth in front has a raised border around its outer perimeter on the tongue surface.” Picking up the jaw, I indicated a similar raised ridge. “Same with the lowers.”
I set down the jaw.
“I took cranial measurements and ran them through Fordisc 3.0. Metrically she falls in the overlap region for Caucasoid and Mongoloid.”
“White and Indian.”
“Or Asian.” A teacher correcting a dull pupil. “Any interest in age indicators?”
“Hit me with the high points.”
I indicated a roughened area on the base of the skull. “The basilar suture is fused.”
“The wisdom teeth aren’t fully out,” Ryan observed.
“Correct. The third molars have emerged but aren’t yet in alignment with the tooth row.”
Moving farther down the table, I ran my finger over an irregular line curving below the upper edge of the right pelvic blade. “The iliac crests are partially fused.” I picked up a collarbone and pointed to a similar irregularity on the throat end. “Same for the medial clavicular epiphyses.” I waved my hand over the arm and leg bones. “Growth caps on the long bones are in various states of fusion.”
“She stood about five foot three.”
I nodded. “No abnormalities or anomalies. No new or healed fractures.”
“LaManche thought the hyoid was intact.”
Ryan referred to a tiny U-shaped throat bone often damaged during manual strangulation.
I gathered a small ovoid disc and two slender spurs in the palm of one glove. “At her age the hyoid wings and body aren’t yet ossified. That means there’s elasticity, so the bone can undergo considerable compression without breaking.”
“So she could still have been strangled.”
“Strangled, smothered, poisoned, gut-stabbed. I can only tell you what the bones tell me.” I replaced the hyoid.
“She wasn’t shot or bludgeoned. I found no bullet entrance or exit wounds, no fractures, no cuts or slash marks anywhere on the skeleton.”
“And the autopsy revealed zip.”
LaManche and I had discussed his findings at lunch. There hadn’t been much to discuss.
“The lungs were too far gone to know if she was breathing when she went into the water. Marine scavengers took care of her eyes, so there’s no way to check for petechiae.”
Petechiae are red pinpoint hemorrhages caused by leaky capillaries under increased venous pressure. Since sustained compression of the neck causes the backup of blood returning to the heart, the presence of petechiae on the skin of the face, and particularly around the eyes, is strongly suggestive of strangulation.
“So she could have been dead when she went into the water.”
“I could try playing around with diatoms.”
“I know you’re going to tell me what those are.”
“Unicellular algae found in aquatic and damp terrestrial habitats. Some pathologists believe the inhalation of water causes penetration of diatoms into the alveolar system and bloodstream, with subsequent deposition in the brain, kidneys, and other organs, including the bone marrow. They see the presence of diatoms as indicative of drowning.”
“You sound skeptical.”
“I’m not convinced diatoms can’t make their way into any submerged body, drowned or not. Neither is LaManche. But there is another application. Many diatom species are habitat specific, so assemblages found in or on bodies can be compared with assemblages found in control samples taken from different locations. Sometimes specific microhabitats can be identified.”
“Use diatoms to narrow where the body’s been. Salt water. River bottom. Swamp. Estuary.”
“That’s the general idea. But it’s a long shot.”
“Before boiling I removed bone samples for DNA testing. I could have a marine biologist check the marrow in those. Also the sock.”
Ryan spread both hands, palms up. “Case practically solved.”
I raised questioning brows.
“The girl died near the river or someplace else. She was alive or dead when she entered the water. If alive, she fell, jumped, or was pushed, so manner of death is suicide, homicide, or accidental.”
“Unless she had a stroke or heart attack,” I said, knowing the only categories left were “natural” and “undetermined.”
“Unless that. But this is a teenager.”
Ryan did show up that night. I’d showered and blow-dried my hair. And, yes, I confess, applied mascara and lip gloss and a spritz of Alfred Sung behind each ear.
The buzzer warbled around nine. I was reading about FTIR spectroscopy in the Journal of Forensic Sciences. Birdie was performing his evening toilette on the far end of the couch. Losing interest in intertoe spaces, he padded along to the foyer.
The security screen showed Ryan in the vestibule, birdcage at his feet. I buzzed them in, welcomed both warmly. After greeting and ear scratching the cat, Ryan accepted my offer of a beer.
While I poured Moosehead and Diet Coke, Ryan settled Charlie on the dining room table. Birdie assumed his sphinx pose on one of the chairs, head up, paws in-curled, every sense fixed on the cage and its occupant.
Charlie was in top form, perch hopping, seed spewing, head cocking right then left to eyeball the cat. Every now and then he’d fire off a line from his repertoire noir.
Ryan took Birdie’s end of the couch. I took mine, feet tucked under my bum. Again, we established that our daughters were good. Lily was waiting tables at Café Cherrier on Rue Saint-Denis. Katy was doing a summer Spanish course in Santiago, Chile.
My Montreal condo is small. Kitchen, bedroom, den, two baths. Only the main living area is spacious. French doors open from opposite sides, the north set to a central courtyard, the south to a Lilliputian-sized patch of grass.
Stone fireplace. Glass dining table. Yellow and blue Provençal sofa and loveseat. Cherry-wood moldings, window trim, and mantel.
As we talked, Ryan’s eyes roved from object to object. Pictures of Katy. My younger sister, Harry. My nephew, Kit. A ceramic plate gifted from an old woman in Guatemala. A giraffe carving purchased in Rwanda. Rarely did his gaze meet mine.
Inevitably, we drifted into shop talk. Safe, neutral ground.
Ryan had been working special assignments since the death of his partner several years earlier. He described his current investigation.
Three girls missing. Two others found in or near water. And now there was the Lac des Deux Montagnes floater. Six in all.
I told Ryan about the burn victim, the Doucets, and the Rimouski skeleton en route to my lab. He asked who was responsible for the latter. I described my meeting with Hippo Gallant.
Ryan said Hippo was inputting on his missing persons and DOA’s. Thus, we drifted into the inevitable Hippo stories. The time he left his gun behind in a gas station men’s room. The time he pulled a suspect from a culvert and ripped his pants up the ass. The time a collar took a dump in the back of his cruiser.
Conversation was genial and friendly. And brotherly as hell. No mention of the past or future. No body contact. The only references to sex were those made by Charlie.
At ten-thirty Ryan rose. I walked him to the door, every cell in my brain screaming that what I was debating was a lousy idea. Men hate being asked what they’re feeling. I hate it, too.
Not for the first time, I ignored the advice of my instincts.
“Talk to me, Ryan.” I laid a hand on his arm.
“Right now Lily—”
“No,” I blurted. “It’s more than Lily.”
The cornflower blues refused to meet mine. A beat passed. Then, “I don’t think you’re over your husband.”
“Pete and I have been separated for years.”
Ryan’s eyes finally locked home. I felt something hot coil in my belly.
“Operative word,” he said, “‘separated.’”
“I hate lawyers and paperwork.”
“You were a different person when you were with him.”
“The man had been shot.”
Ryan didn’t reply.
“My marital status never mattered in the past.”
“No. It didn’t.”
“I hadn’t seen you together.”
“And now that you have?”
“I realize how much you care.” Before I could speak Ryan added, “And how much I care.”
That stunned me. For a moment I could think of nothing to say.
“I’m trying to get by it.”
“How’s it going?”
With that he was gone.
As I lay in bed, emotions battled inside me. Resentment at the feeling that Ryan had suckered me in. All the asking. Then the striving to keep things light.
Annoyance at Ryan’s cowboy-done-wrong act.
But Ryan had one valid point. Why didn’t I divorce Pete?
I take offense slowly, store insult until the end of time. Ryan is the opposite, affronted quickly, but quickly forgiving. Each of us reads the other well.
Ryan was light-years beyond feeling slighted or piqued. His signals were unmistakable.
So, mostly, I felt sadness. Ryan was pulling away.
A tear slid from the corner of one eye.
“OK, wrangler.” Spoken aloud in my party-of-one bed. “Adios.”
H ARRY HAS LIVED IN TEXAS SINCE DROPPING OUT OF HIGH SCHOOL her senior year. Long story. Short marriage. Her concept of phone etiquette goes something like this. I’m up. I want to talk. Dial.
The window shade was oozing toward gray when my cell phone sounded.
I squinted at the clock. Six-fifteen. Like a pilot whale, Harry needs approximately five hours of sleep nightly.
“I am now.”
My sister once had this motto printed on a T-shirt: Never complain, never explain. While she’s lax on the front end, she’s crackerjack on the back, following her whims and offering no apologies for the outcome.
She offered none now.
“I’m going to Canyon Ranch.” Harry is blond, leggy, and trying hard to look thirty. Though that checkpoint was cleared a decade ago, in kind light, in the right clothes, she succeeds.
“That makes how many spas this year?”
“Rump’s dragging, tits are starting to look like thirty-eight longs. Gotta eat sprouts and pump iron. Come with me.”
“I’m selling the house.”
The abrupt shift left me off balance. “Oh?”
“Butt-pie was an egregious error.”
I assumed Butt-pie was husband number five. Or was it six? I dug for a name. Donald? Harold? Gave up.
“I think I hinted the man wasn’t a girl’s dream come true.”
“You hinted he was stupid, Tempe. Arnoldo isn’t stupid. Problem is he’s got just one string on his fiddle.”
Harry loves sex. Harry is also easily bored. I didn’t want to hear about Arnoldo’s violin.
“Why sell the house?”
“It’s too big.”
“It was too big when you bought it.”
Husband number something was an oil man. I never quite learned what that meant, but their brief nuptials left my sister well oiled, indeed.
“I need a change. Come help me look at real estate.”
“I really can’t.”
“Working on a juicy one?”
I considered, decided against mentioning the Rimouski skeleton. Once ignited, Harry is nonextinguishable. Besides, there was no evidence of an Évangéline Landry connection.
“It’s my busy season.”
“Need sisterly support?”
Please, God. “You know I love your visits, but right now I’m so slammed we wouldn’t be able to spend time together.”
Silence hummed across the line. Then, “What I said about Arnoldo’s not really true. Fact is, I caught the bastard coyoting around.”
“I’m sorry, Harry.” I was. Though I wasn’t surprised.
“Yeah. Me, too.”
After slipping into jeans and a polo, I fed Birdie and filled Charlie’s seed and water dishes. The bird whistled and asked me to shake my booty. I moved his cage to the den and popped in a cockatiel-training CD.
At the lab, there was nothing in my mailbox. No flashing light on the phone. A mini-avalanche had taken place on my desk. No pink message slip lay among the wreckage.
I called down to the morgue. No bones had arrived from Rimouski.
OK, buster. You’ve got until noon.
At the morning meeting I was assigned one new case.
The purchasers of a funeral home had discovered an embalmed and fully clothed body in a coffin in a basement cooler. The previous operators had closed their doors nine months earlier. The pathologist, Jean Pelletier, wanted my input on X-rays. On the request form he’d written: All dressed up and nowhere to go.
Returning to my office, I phoned a biology professor at McGill University. She didn’t do diatoms, but a colleague did. I could deliver the Lac des Deux Montagnes specimens late the next afternoon.
After packaging the sock and bone plug, and preparing the paperwork, I turned to Pelletier’s lingering corpse case.
Antemortem-postmortem X-ray comparisons showed the deceased was a childless bachelor whose only living brother had moved to Greece. The man’s funeral had been paid for by money order two years earlier. Our ID chucked the ball into the coroner’s court.
Back at my lab, Geneviève Doucet’s bones had finally come out of the cooker. I spent the rest of the morning and well into the afternoon examining each with my new Leica stereomicroscope with magnified digital display. After years of bending over a dinosaur that I’d had to herniate myself to position, I was now equipped with state of the art. I loved this scope.
Nevertheless, magnification revealed little. Lipping of the interphalangeal joint surfaces of the right middle toe. An asymmetrical raised patch on the anterior midshaft of the right tibia. Other than those healed minor injuries, Geneviève’s skeleton was remarkably unremarkable.
I phoned LaManche.
“She jammed her toe and banged her shin,” he summarized my findings .
“Yes,” I agreed.
“That didn’t kill her.”
“No,” I agreed.
“It is something.”
“Sorry I don’t have more to report.”
“How do you like the new microscope?”
“The screen resolution is awesome.”
“I am happy you are pleased.”
I was disconnecting when Lisa entered my lab carrying a large cardboard box. Her hair was pulled into a curly ponytail, and she was wearing blue surgical scrubs. Wearing them well. Firm glutes, slim waist, breasts the size of the Grand Tetons, Lisa is very popular with cops. And the best autopsy tech at the lab.
“Say you’re bringing me a skeleton from Rimouski.”
“I’m bringing you a skeleton from Rimouski.” Lisa often used me to practice her English. She did that now. “It just arrived.”
I flipped through the paperwork. The case had been assigned morgue and lab numbers. I noted the latter. LSJML-57748. The remains had been confiscated from agent Luc Tiquet, Sûreté du Québec, Rimouski. In the case overview cell, Bradette had written: adolescent female, archaeological.
“We’ll see about that, hotshot.”
Lisa looked a question at me.
“Jerk thinks he can do my job. Are you busy downstairs?”
“All autopsies are finished.”
“Want to take a look?” I knew Lisa liked bones.
As I collected a case report form, Lisa set the box on the table. Joining her, I removed the cover, and we both peered inside.
Bradette was right about one thing. This wasn’t a grown-up.
“It looks very old,” Lisa said.
OK. Maybe two things.
The skeleton was mottled yellow and brown and showed lots of breakage. The skull was misshapen, the face badly damaged. I could see spidery filaments deep in the orbits and in what remained of the nasal opening.
The bones felt feather-light as I lifted and arranged them in anatomical alignment. When I’d finished, a small partial-person lay on my table.
I took inventory. Six ribs, most of the finger and toe bones, one clavicle, one tibia, one ulna, and both kneecaps were missing. So were all eight incisors.
“Why no front teeth?” Lisa asked.
“Each has only one root. When the gums go, there’s nothing to hold them in place.”
“There’s a lot of damage.”
“Peri- or postmortem?” Lisa was asking if the injuries had occurred at the time of or following death.
“I suspect most is postmortem. But I’ll have to study the fracture sites under magnification.”
“It’s young, yes?”
Flashbulb image. A girl in a swimsuit on a Carolina beach. Carrying a small white book with pale green lettering. Reading poetry aloud with an odd French accent.
I pointed to a proximal right humerus, distal right ulna, proximal left fibula, and distal right femur. “See how some long bones look normal on their ends, while these look corrugated and incomplete?”
“That means the epiphyses weren’t yet fused to the shafts. Growth was still ongoing.”
I lifted the skull and rotated the base upward.
Running between dunes. Dark curls dancing wild in the wind.
“The basilar suture is unfused. There are no wisdom teeth, and the second molars show minimal wear.”
I exchanged the skull for an innominate.
“Each hemi-pelvis starts out as three separate bones: ilium, ischium, and pubis. Union takes place around the time of puberty.” I indicated a faint Y trisecting the hip socket. “See that line? Fusion was just wrapping up when she died. Given the teeth, the long bones, and the pelvis, I’d estimate she was around thirteen or fourteen.”
Évangéline Landry, eyes closed, hands clasped, blowing out candles. There were fourteen on the cake.
“And the pelvis shows female?”
“Was she white?”
“Race is going to be tough since the face is smashed and the palate is history, including the incisors.”
I picked up the skull. And felt a flicker of relief.
“The nasal aperture is wide and rounded. Its bottom edge is broken, but it looks like the nasal spine was small. Those are non-European traits. I’ll know better when I’ve cleaned out the dirt.”
“Why does her head look so”—Lisa floated a palm, searching for the English—“odd?”
“In adolescence, the cranial sutures are still wide open.” I referred to the squiggly gaps between the individual skull bones. “Following brain decomposition, with pressure, the bones can warp, separate, or overlap.”
“Pressure, as in burial?”
“Yes. Although skull distortion can result from other factors, expo sure to sunlight, for example, or to extremes of heat and cold. The phenomenon is very common with children.”
“There’s so much dirt. Do you think she was buried?”
I was about to answer when the desk phone shrilled.
“Can you check the box for anything we might have missed?”
“How’s it hanging, doc?” Hippo Gallant.
I skipped pleasantries. “Your buddy Gaston’s skeleton arrived from Rimouski.”
“My preliminary exam suggests it’s an adolescent female.”
“There’s a good chance her racial background is mixed.”
“So it ain’t all that ancient?”
“The bones are dry and devoid of odor and flesh, so I doubt death occurred in the last ten years. Right now that’s about all I can say. She needs a lot of cleaning and it will have to be done by hand.”
“Crétaque. She got teeth?”
“Some. But there’s no dental work.”
“You going to do DNA?”
“I’ll retain samples, but if no organic components remain, sequencing will be impossible. There’s soil deep in crevices and in the medullary cavities, suggesting burial at some point. Frankly, I suspect the coroner up in Rimouski may be right. The remains may have washed out of an old cemetery or been looted from an archaeological site.”
“How about carbon fourteen or some fancy gizmo?”
“Except for a few specialized applications, C14 dating isn’t useful on materials less than hundreds of years old. Besides, if I report that this girl’s been dead half a century, the powers that be won’t pony up for DNA, radiocarbon, or any other type of test.”
“Think you’ll be able to sort it?”
“I’m going to try.”
“How ’bout I talk with the mope that had her. Get his story.”
“That would be good.”
Replacing the receiver, I returned to Lisa.
“Why does that one look different?” She pointed to the second right metacarpal.
Lisa was right. Though dirt-encrusted, one finger bone seemed to be a misfit.
Brushing free what soil I could without causing damage, I placed the odd metacarpal under my fabulous new scope, increased magnification, and adjusted focus until the distal end filled the screen.
My brows rose in surprise.
T HE BONE’S OUTER SURFACE WAS A MOONSCAPE OF CRATERS.
“What is that?” Lisa asked.
“I’m not sure.” My mind was already rifling through possibilities. Contact with acid or some other caustic chemical? Microorganism? Localized infection? Systemic disease process?
“Was she sick?”
“Maybe. Or maybe it’s postmortem. There’s still too much impacted dirt to be sure.” Taking the metacarpal from the scope, I moved toward the skeleton. “We’ll have to clean and examine every bone.”
Lisa looked at her watch. Politely.
“What a dope I am. Already I’ve kept you too late.” It was five-twenty. Most lab workers left at four-thirty. “Go.”
“Shall I lock up?”
“Thanks, but I’ll stay a bit longer.”
That “bit” turned into two and a half hours. I might have worked through the night had my mobile not sounded.
Setting aside a calcaneus, I lowered my mask, pulled the phone from my pocket, and checked the screen. Unknown number.
I clicked on. “Brennan.”
“Where are you?”
“I’m great, thank you. And yourself?”
“I’ve been calling your condo since six.” Was Ryan actually sounding annoyed?
“I’m not at home.”
“There’s a news flash.”
“Guess I slipped out of my ankle monitor.”
A moment of silence. Then, “You didn’t mention you had plans.”
“I do have a life, Ryan.” Right. Teasing dirt from bones at 8 P.M.
I heard the sound of a match, then a deep inhalation of breath. After quitting for two years, Ryan was back on cigarettes. A sign of stress.
“You can be a pain in the ass, Brennan.” No rancor.
“I work on it.” My standard reply.
“You coming down with a cold?”
“My nose is irritated from breathing through a mask.” I ran my dental pick through the cone of dry soil that had collected on the tabletop in front of me.
“You’re in your lab?”
“Hippo Gallant’s skeleton arrived from Rimouski. It’s female, probably thirteen or fourteen years old. There’s something odd about her bones.”
Tobacco hit, then release.
“So who’s the loser working after hours?”
“These MP and DOA cases are getting to me.”
“Want to come up?”
“Be there in ten.”
I was back at the scope when Ryan appeared, face tense, hair bunched into ragged clumps. My mind shot a stored image: Ryan hunched over a printout, restless fingers raking his scalp. So familiar.
I felt sick. I didn’t want Ryan to be angry. Or hurt. Or whatever the hell he was.
I started to reach out and stroke his hair.
Nor did I want Ryan controlling my life. I had to take steps when I decided steps needed taking. I kept both hands on the scope.
“You shouldn’t work alone here at night.”
“That’s ridiculous. It’s a secure building and I’m on the twelfth floor.”
“This neighborhood’s not safe.”
“I’m a big girl.”
“Suit yourself.” Ryan’s voice wasn’t cold or unfriendly. Just neutral.
When Katy was young, certain cases at the lab caused me to rein in her personal life. Transference of caution. It wasn’t her fault. Or mine, really. Working a child homicide was like taking a step into my own worst nightmare. Maybe these missing and dead girls were making Ryan overly protective. I let the paternalism go.
“Take a look.” I shifted sideways so Ryan could see the screen. When he stepped close I could smell Acqua di Parma cologne, male sweat, and a hint of the cigarettes he’d been smoking.
I nodded. “She’s a pip.”
“What are we seeing?”
“Looks funny. Pointy.”
“Good eye. The distal end should be knobby, not tapered.”
“What’s that hole in the middle of the shaft?”
“For the passage of an artery supplying nutrients to the bone’s interior. Its presence is normal. What may be unusual is the size. It’s huge.”
“The vic took a shot to the foot?”
“Enlarged nutrient foramina can result from repetitive microtrauma. But I don’t think that’s it.”
I exchanged the first metatarsal for another.
“That one looks scooped out on the end.”
“Lots. But most of her foot bones are missing so it’s hard to choose.”
“Give me some ‘for instances.’”
“Rodent scavenging, with subsequent erosion of the surrounding bone surfaces. Or maybe the feet lay in contact with something caustic. Or rapidly running water.”
“Doesn’t explain the big holes.”
“Destruction of the toe bones accompanied by enlargement of the nutrient foramina could result from frostbite. Or rheumatoid arthritis. But that’s unlikely, since the joints aren’t affected.”
“Maybe she just has really big holes.”
“That’s possible. But it’s not just her feet.”
I placed Lisa’s oddball metacarpal under the scope. “This is a finger bone.”
Ryan regarded the pockmarked surface in silence.
I switched the metacarpal for one of the two surviving hand phalanges. “So is this.”
“That hole looks large enough to accommodate the Red Line metro.”
“Foramina show a range of variation in size. As you say, it could be that huge was normal for her.” Even to me, I didn’t sound convinced.
“What about the rest of the skeleton?” Ryan asked.
“I haven’t gotten past the hands and feet. And there isn’t much left.”
“Increased blood flow to the extremities. Maybe. Deformity of the toe bones. Maybe. Cortical destruction on a metacarpal.” My hands floated up in frustration. “Localized infection? Systemic disease process? Postmortem destruction, either purposeful or natural? A combination of the above?” The hands dropped to my lap. “I don’t have a diagnosis.”
Though far from high-tech, my lab is adequate. In addition to the worktables, boiler, and sprightly new scope, it is equipped with the usual: overhead fluorescents, tile floor, sink, fume hood, emergency eye wash station, photo stand, light boxes, glass-fronted cabinets. The small window above the sink overlooks the corridor. The big one behind my desk provides a view of the city.
Ryan’s eyes floated to the latter. Mine followed. Two ghost images played on the glass. A tall man and a slim woman, faces obscure, superimposed translucent over the St. Lawrence and the Jacques-Cartier Bridge.
A strained silence crammed the lab, a void begging to be filled. I acquiesced.
“But this skeleton looks pretty old.”
“LaManche isn’t going to pull out the stops.”
“No.” I switched off the scope light. “Would you like to talk about these cases you’re working?”
Ryan hesitated so long I thought he wouldn’t answer.
“Sure.” It was the last thing I needed. My fourth cup sat cold on my desk.
Habitat 67 is a modern pueblo of stacked concrete boxes. Built as a housing experiment for Expo 67, the complex has always engendered strong feelings. That’s an understatement. Montrealers either love it or hate it. No one’s neutral.
Habitat 67 is located across the St. Lawrence from the Vieux-Port. Since Ryan lives there and my condo is in centre-ville, we decided on a coffee shop halfway between.
Ryan and I both had cars, so we drove separately to Old Montreal. June is peak season, and, as expected, traffic was snarled, sidewalks were clogged, and curbs were bumper to bumper.
As instructed by Ryan, I nosed my Mazda into a driveway blocked by an orange rubber cone. A hand-painted sign said Plein. Full.
A man in sandals, shorts, and a Red Green T-shirt came forward. I gave him my name. The man lifted the cone and waved me in. Cop privilege.
Walking downhill through Place Jacques-Cartier, I passed old stone buildings now housing souvenir shops, restaurants, and bars. Tourists and locals filled the outdoor terraces and wandered the square. A stilt-walking busker juggled balls and told jokes. Another played spoons and sang.
Turning onto cobbled Rue Saint-Paul, I smelled fish and oil wafting off the river. Though I couldn’t see it, I knew Ryan’s home was on the far shore. My view? Habitat 67 resembles a huge cubist sculpture, like the cross on Mont Royal, better appreciated from afar than up close.
Ryan hadn’t arrived when I entered the coffee shop. Choosing a rear table, I ordered a decaf cappuccino. Ryan joined me as the waitress delivered it. In moments she was back with his double espresso.
“You planning an all-nighter?” Nodding toward Ryan’s high-test selection.
“I brought files home.”
No invite there, cowgirl. I waited until Ryan was ready to begin.
“I’ll take it chronologically. For the cold cases, there are three missing persons and two unidentified corpses. This week’s Lac des Deux Montagnes floater raises the un-ID’d body count to three.”
Ryan stirred sugar into his espresso.
“Nineteen ninety-seven. MP number one. Kelly Sicard, eighteen, lives with her parents in Rosemère. March twelfth, one-forty A.M., she leaves a group of drinking buddies to catch a bus home. She never makes it.”
“The buddies checked out?”
“And the family and the boyfriend.”
Ryan sipped. His hand looked jarringly male holding the tiny white cup.
“Nineteen ninety-nine. DOA number one. The body of an adolescent female is snagged by a boat propeller in the Rivière des Mille Îles. You worked the case with LaManche.”
I remembered. “The corpse was putrefied. I estimated the girl was white, age fourteen or fifteen. We did a facial reconstruction, but she was never ID’d. The bones are in my storage room.”
“That’s the one.”
Ryan knocked back the remainder of his espresso.
“Two thousand one. DOA number two. A teenaged girl is found in Dorval, on the shore below the Forest and Stream supper club. According to LaManche, the body’s been in the river less than forty-eight hours. He does an autopsy, concludes the girl was dead when she hit the water, finds no evidence of shooting, stabbing, or bludgeoning. Pictures are circulated throughout the province. No takers.”
I remembered that case, too. “The girl was eventually buried as a Jane Doe.”
Ryan nodded, moved up in time.
“Two thousand two. MP number two. Claudine Cloquet pedals her Schwinn three-speed through a wooded area in Saint-Lazare-Sud. Claudine is twelve and mildly retarded. The bike is found two days later. Claudine is not.”
“An unlikely runaway.”
“Father’s sketchy, but alibis out. So does the rest of the family. Father’s since died, mother’s been hospitalized twice for depression.
“Two thousand four. MP number three. September first. Anne Girardin disappears from her Blainville home in the middle of the night.” Ryan’s jaw muscles bulged, relaxed. “Kid’s ten years old.”
“Pretty young to take off on her own.”
“But not unheard of. And this was a streetwise ten-year-old. Again, the old man’s a loser, but nothing’s found to tie him to the disappearance. Ditto for the rest of the household. A canvass of the neighborhood turns up zip.”
We both fell silent, recalling the massive search for Anne Girardin. Amber Alert. SQ. SPVM. Tracker dogs. Local volunteers. Personnel from NCECC, the National Child Exploitation Coordination Center. Nothing was found. Subsequent tips all proved bogus.
“And now I’ve got DOA number three, the Lac des Deux Montagnes floater.”
“Six girls. Three recovered in or near water. Three missing and unlikely to be runaways,” I summarized. “Any other links?”
Again, a tensing in Ryan’s jaw. “We may have a fourth MP. Phoebe Jane Quincy, age thirteen. Lives in Westmount. Missing since leaving home for a dance lesson day before last.”
Ryan took a photo from his pocket and placed it on the table. A girl mimicking Marilyn in The Seven Year Itch, dress ballooning around her. Backlighting outlined the thin figure through the diaphanous white fabric.
“Who took this picture?”
“Parents have no idea. Found it hidden in the bottom of a dresser drawer. We’re looking into it.”
I stared at the photo. Though not overtly sexual, the image was disturbing.
“Her friends say she wants to be a model,” Ryan said.
She could be, I thought, studying the slender form, long hair, and luminous green eyes.
“A lot of little girls want to be models,” I said.
“Kelly Sicard also had runway dreams,” Ryan said.
“Slim lead.” I slid the photo back toward Ryan.
“Slim beats none,” Ryan said.
We discussed the cases for a few more minutes. Mostly, I listened.
Ryan isn’t rattled by violence or death. He sees both frequently, has learned to mask his emotions. But I know the man. Know that the abuse of those powerless to protect themselves affects him deeply. It affects me, too. I was keenly aware of my feelings at that moment, having spent the past hours with the bones of a child.
Though Ryan claimed only fatigue, I could see through to the sadness and frustration. Fair enough. Comes with the job. But did I sense something else? Was some further factor contributing to Ryan’s agitation, robbing him of his usual lightheartedness, goading him to smoke? Was I being paranoid?
After a while, Ryan signaled for a check.
Returning to the lot, I started my Mazda and pointed the headlights for home. I needed to rest. To shower. To think.
Needed a drink I couldn’t have.
Turning west onto René-Lévesque, I lowered a window. The air was warm and moist and unnaturally heavy, the sky a black screen on which occasional flickers of lightning danced.
The night smelled of rain.
A storm would soon break.
T HE NEXT DAY PASSED WITHOUT WORD FROM HIPPO OR RYAN. Harry was another story. Little sister had made appointments to view a downtown Houston penthouse, a horse ranch in Harris County, and beachfront property at South Padre Island. I suggested she take time to ponder what she truly wanted post-Arnoldo, instead of impulsively chasing around southeast Texas hoping for inspiration. She suggested I lighten up. I’m paraphrasing.
I slogged through the mess in my office, then resumed teasing dirt from the Rimouski remains. I often give nicknames to my unknowns. Somehow, it personalizes them for me. Though he’d been only marginally involved in the case, I’d come to think of the skeleton as Hippo’s girl.
The more detail I revealed about Hippo’s girl, the more puzzling the picture became.
Around eleven, a skull came in from Iqaluit, a pinpoint on the Quebec map a zillion miles north on Frobisher Bay. I looked the place up. Though I wanted to stay with Hippo’s girl, I stuck with my promise to LaManche, and started on the new arrival.
Leaving the lab around five, I delivered the Lac des Deux Montagnes bone plug and sock to the biologist at McGill, then stopped by Hurley’s for my version of a pint: Diet Coke on the rocks with a twist. It wasn’t for the soft drink, of course, but for the contact with friends the pub would provide.
As I passed through the game room, I glanced up at the wall-mounted TV. A classic school portrait showed as a backdrop to a grimfaced anchorman. The young girl’s eyes were green and mischievous, her hair center-parted and pulled into shoulder-length braids. Phoebe Quincy.
A small group of regulars was gathered around the downstairs bar: Gil, Chantal, Black Jim, and Bill Hurley himself. They greeted me, faces somber, then recommenced airing their views on the Quincy disappearance.
“Sweet mother o’ Jesus, thirteen years old.” Chantal shook her head and signaled for another pint. A Newfoundlander, she could outdrink the best of the best. And often did.
“Hope to God she’s just gone walkabout.” Black Jim’s accent changed with his story of the moment. No one knew where Jim really originated. Every time someone asked, he produced a different tale. Tonight he was speaking Aussie.
“How long’s she been gone?” Bill signaled the bartender and a Diet Coke was set before me.
“Three days. Went to dance class. Sufferin’ Jesus.” Chantal.
“You involved?” Bill asked me.
“Where is Ryan? You finally manage to lose that slug?”
I sipped my Coke.
“It doesn’t look good, does it?” Gil resembled an aging French version of the Fonz.
“She may turn up,” I said.
“They think some bugger nipped her?” Black Jim.
“I don’t know.”
“Can you imagine what her poor parents are going through?” Gil.
“They catch the bastard, I’ll volunteer to cut off his dick, bye.” Chantal.
I stared into my mug, rethinking my decision to delay going home. I’d wanted to shed the mantle of sorrow and death, arrive home diverted and refreshed, but it seemed there would be no relief tonight.
What had happened to Phoebe? Was she out there on the streets, alone but stubbornly following her own play? Or was she being held in some dark place, helpless and terrified? Was she even alive? How were her parents surviving the endless hours of uncertainty?
And what about the corpse from Lac des Deux Montagnes? Who was she? Had she been murdered?
And the other girl in my lab. Hippo’s girl. When had she died? An irrational leap of thought. Could the skeleton be Évangéline Landry? Where was Évangéline?
I realized Bill was talking to me. “Sorry. What?”
“I asked where Ryan is.”
Obviously, word hadn’t reached the pub that Ryan and I had split. Or whatever it was we’d done.
“I don’t know.”
“You OK? You look beat.”
“It’s been a tough couple of days.”
“Fuckin’ hell,” said Chantal.
I listened to the conversation a few minutes longer. Then I downed my Coke and set out for home.
Friday morning brought no new anthropology cases. I was composing a report on the Iqaluit cranium when Ryan showed up in my lab.
My left hand did an automatic hair-behind-the-ears tuck, then I realized Ryan’s remark was directed at the skull. It was sun-baked white, its crown capped with dried green moss.
“It’s been lying on the tundra a very long time.”
Normally Ryan would have asked how long. He didn’t. I waited for him to get to the point of his visit.
“Got a call from Hippo Gallant this morning. Guy named Joseph Beaumont is doing a nickel to dime at Bordeaux.”
Bordeaux is the largest of Quebec’s correctional facilities.
“Last night the CFCF six o’clock aired a story on Phoebe Quincy. Included footage on Kelly Sicard and Anne Girardin.”
“Only those two?”
Ryan raised palms in a “who knows why?” gesture. “Beaumont caught the report, requested a sit-down with the warden. Claims he knows where Sicard is buried.”
“Is he credible?”
“Beaumont could just be a con looking to better his life. But the guy can’t be discounted.”
“What’s he saying?”
“Let’s make a deal.”
“We’re negotiating. Wanted to give you a heads-up. If the tip’s legit, a team will go out immediately. We’ll want to move before the press scents blood.”
“I’ll be ready.”
I was checking my field kit when Ryan phoned.
“CSU truck’s already on the move.”
“Meet you in the lobby in five.”
Ryan took Autoroute 15 northwest out of the city, cut east, then north toward Saint-Louis-de-Terrebonne. Midday traffic was light. He briefed me as he drove.
“Beaumont settled for getting his mail privileges reinstated. Three months back the dolt received a copy of Catch-22 with LSD mixed into the binding glue.”
“Creative pals. What’s his story?”
“Six years ago, Beaumont shared a cell with a guy named Harky Grissom. Claims Grissom told him about a kid he’d waxed back in ninety-seven. Said he picked her up at a bus stop in the middle of the night, took her home, abused her, then smashed her skull with a socket wrench.”
“Beaumont could have read about or listened to reports of Sicard’s disappearance.”
“Grissom told Beaumont the kid he killed was crazy for NASCAR. Claims he lured her with promises she’d meet Mario Gosselin.”
I watched the yellow center line click up Ryan’s shades.
“The bit about Sicard liking stock car racing was dead-on.” Ryan glanced at me and the yellow dashes slid sideways. “And never made public.”
“Where’s Grissom now?”
“Paroled in ninety-nine. Killed in a car wreck the same year.”
“He won’t be of any help.”
“Not without a séance, but he wouldn’t have helped in any case. We have to rely on Beaumont’s memory.”
Ryan hung a right. To both sides lay woods. In moments, I saw what I’d been expecting. Pulled to the side of the asphalt were the LSJML crime scene truck, a black coroner’s van, an SQ patrol unit, an unmarked Chevrolet Impala, and an SUV. Apparently the speed and stealth had worked. No cameras or microphones were present. Not a single poised pen. For now.
Hippo was talking to a pair of uniformed cops. Two morgue technicians smoked by their van. A guy in civvies was filling a bowl from a canteen for a border collie.
Ryan and I got out. The air hit me like caramel syrup. That morning’s Gazette had called for rain and a high in the nineties. June in Quebec. Go figure.
Walking toward Hippo, Ryan explained the lay of the land.
“According to Beaumont, Grissom described an abandoned barn off Route 335, in woods backing up to a horse farm.”
I followed the compass of Ryan’s hand.
“The highway’s behind us. The Parc équestre de Blainville is off through those trees. Saint-Lin-Jonction and Blainville lie to the south.”
I felt a heaviness in my chest. “Anne Girardin disappeared in Blainville.”
“Yeah.” Ryan kept his eyes straight ahead.
We reached the group. Hands were shaken, greetings exchanged. Maybe it was the sticky heat. Maybe unease over what we might soon unearth. The usual humor and banter were absent.
“Barn’s about ten yards in.” Hippo’s face was slick, his pits dark. “Good wind will bring her down.”
“What’s been done?” Ryan asked.
“Ran the dog through,” Hippo said.
“Mia,” the dog handler cut in.
The collie’s ears shot up at the sound of its name.
Hippo rolled his eyes.
“Her name is Mia.” Sylvain was embroidered on the handler’s shirt.
Hippo is famous for loathing what he dubs “hot-shit” technology. It was clear cadaver dogs got the same fish eye as computers, iris scanners, and touch-tone phones.
“Mia didn’t seem overly impressed.” Hippo took a tin from his pocket, thumbed open the lid, and palmed antacid tablets into his mouth.
“The place is full of horseshit.” Sylvain’s voice had an edge. “Throws her off scent.”
“GPR?” I truncated the exchange with a question about ground-penetrating radar.
Hippo nodded, then turned. Ryan and I followed him into the trees. The air smelled of moss and loamy earth. The thick foliage hung undisturbed by even a whisper of movement. Within yards, I was perspiring and breathing deeply.
In thirty seconds we were at the barn. The structure rose from a clearing barely larger than itself, leaning like a ship in an angry sea. Its planks were gray and weathered, its roof partially collapsed. What I assumed had been its main double doors now lay in a heap of rotten lumber. Through the opening, I could see dimness pierced by shafts of dust-filtered sunlight.
Hippo, Ryan, and I stopped at the threshold. Crooking two fingers, I pulled my shirt by the collar and flapped. Sweat now soaked my waistband and bra.
The barn’s interior was ripe with the mustiness of moisture and age. Rotting vegetation. Dust. And something sweetly organic.
The CSU techs looked like astronauts in their masks and white coveralls. I recognized each by movement and body form. The daddy longlegs was Renaud Pasteur. The Demster Dumpster was David Chenevier.
Hippo called out. Pasteur and Chenevier waved, then resumed their tasks.
Chenevier was guiding a three-wheeled apparatus in parallel paths back and forth across the barn floor. A rectangular red box hung below the rig’s main axle, its bottom inches from the ground surface. A small LCD screen rested on the handlebars.
Pasteur was alternating between shooting stills and video, and clearing debris in front of Chenevier. Rocks. Soda cans. A length of rusted metal stripping.
Drew the short straw, I thought, seeing Pasteur pick something up, examine it, then toss it aside.
Forty minutes later Chenevier was covering the last and farthest corner of the barn. Pausing, he made a comment. Pasteur joined him, and the two discussed something on the monitor.
A chill replaced my hotness. Beside me, I felt Ryan tense.
Chenevier turned. “We got something.”
R YAN AND I PICKED OUR WAY ACROSS THE UNEVEN GROUND. Hippo zigzagged behind. He was wearing a shirt that could only have been purchased at a discount store. A deep-discount store. Shiny penguins in mufflers and berets. The fabric looked flammable.
Chenevier and Pasteur opened a space to allow us a view of the monitor. A layer cake of colors squiggled across the screen. Reds. Greens. Blues. Centered in the cake was a pale gray hump.
GPR isn’t as complicated as the name implies. Each system includes a radio transmitter and receiver connected to a pair of antennae coupled to the ground.
A signal is sent into the soil. Since a subsurface object or disturbance will have electrical properties different from those of the surrounding dirt, a signal reflecting off that object or disturbance will bounce back to the receiver slightly later in time. A different wave pattern will appear on the monitor.
Think of a fish finder. The thing tells you something’s down there, but can’t tell you what.
“Could be an animal burrow.” Chenevier’s face was soaked with sweat. “Or a trench for old piping.”
“How far down?” I asked, studying the inverted gray crescent.
Chenevier shrugged. “Eighteen or twenty inches.”
Deep enough for a hurried gravedigger.
Mia was summoned and led to the spot. She alerted by sitting and barking once, sharply.
By noon I’d marked off a ten-foot square with stakes and string. Ryan and I started in with long-handled spades. Pasteur shot pics. Chenevier sifted.
Hippo stood to one side, mopping sweat and shifting from foot to foot. Now and then one hand would go into a pocket. The jangle of keys would join the click of Pasteur’s shutter and the hiss of soil trickling through mesh.
The barn floor was rich with organics, easy to dig, easy to sift.
By twelve-thirty we’d exposed an amoeba-like splotch visibly darker than the surrounding earth. Soil staining. A sign of decomposition.
Ryan and I switched to trowels and began scraping dirt, both anticipating and dreading what we’d find beneath the discoloration. Now and then our eyes would meet, drop back to the hollow we were creating.
The first bone turned up in the screen.
“Got something.” Chenevier’s voice cut the silence.
“Gaubine!” Hippo popped antacid.
Chenevier crossed to me and extended a hand.
Sitting back on my heels, I took what lay in his palm.
There are 206 bones in the adult human skeleton, all varying in size and shape. Singly, they yield few clues about a person’s life story. But together, like interlocking puzzle pieces, they say a lot. Age. Sex. Ancestry. Health. Habit. The more bones, the more is revealed.
Chenevier’s find, however, disclosed the jigsaw solo.
Slender and less than ten centimeters long, the bone looked like a pin that might be worn to keep a topknot in place. Thicker at one end, it tapered to a subtle knob on the other.
I looked up to eight curious eyes.
“It’s a baculum.”
Four blank stares.
“A bone found in the penis of most mammals. I’d guess this one comes from a large domestic dog.”
Still no one spoke.
“The os baculum aids in copulation when mating must take place during brief encounters.”
Pasteur cleared his throat.
“When animals have to perform quickly.” I adjusted my mask.
“Pour l’amour du bon Dieu!” Hippo’s expletive suggested the same emotions swirling in me. Relief. Bewilderment. Hope.
I handed the bone to Pasteur. As he photographed and bagged it, Ryan and I resumed digging.
By three, Grissom’s “victim” lay fully exposed. The snout was broad, the cranium rugged. Caudal vertebrae snaked between hind legs seemingly too short for the torso.
“Some kind of pit bull mix.”
The testosterone set seemed inordinately interested in the dog’s heritage. I couldn’t have cared less. I was sweaty, itchy, and desperate to shed my Tyvek coveralls. Designed to protect wearers from blood, chemicals, and toxic liquids, the things reduced air circulation and were hotter than hell.
“Whatever his breed, the guy was a player.” Pasteur held up the ziplock containing the dog’s penis bone. Chenevier raised a palm. Pasteur high-fived it.
Already the jokes had begun. I was glad I hadn’t told them that the os baculum is sometimes called a hillbilly toothpick. Or that best in show goes to the walrus, whose males occasionally reach thirty inches. It was going to be bad enough as it was.
During graduate school a fellow student had studied the os baculum of rhesus monkeys. Her name was Jeannie. Now professors and respected researchers, my old classmates still tease her about “Jeannie’s penies.”
By two the dog’s bones had been packaged and placed in the coroner van. Probably unnecessary, but better to err on the side of caution.
By six Ryan and I had taken the entire ten-foot square down twenty-four inches. Nothing had turned up in the pit or the screen. Chenevier had resurveyed the barn and surrounding field, and found no indications of additional subsurface disturbance.
Hippo approached as I was peeling off my coveralls.
“Sorry to drag you out here for nothing.”
“It’s the job, Hippo.” I was ecstatic to be out of the Tyvek. And relieved that we hadn’t unearthed Kelly Sicard.
“How long since Old Yeller strutted his stuff?”
“The bones are fleshless, odorless, and uniformly soil-stained. The only insect inclusions I found were dried puparial casings. Buried at that depth, inside the barn, I’d estimate the dog’s been dead at least two years. But my gut feeling says more.”
“Could have belonged to Grissom. Or Beaumont.”
Or Céline Dion, I thought.
Hippo looked off into the distance. Grime coated his lenses, making it hard to read the expression behind them. I suspected he was scripting a chitchat with his erstwhile informant.
“You want to hang around a few, I’ll give you a lift.”
I looked over at Ryan. He was talking on a cell phone. Behind him, heat shimmered mirage-like above the blacktop and the vehicles parked along it.
Catching Ryan’s eye, I gestured that I’d ride with Hippo. He flicked a wave, continued his conversation.
“Sure,” I said.
“I’ll fill you in on Luc Tiquet.”
I stared at Hippo.
“Sûreté du Québec, Rimouski? My buddy Gaston’s bones?”
“What’s his story?”
“I’ll tell you in the car.”
Climbing into the Impala was like climbing into a pottery kiln.
As Hippo turned onto the highway, I maxed the AC and held a hand to the vent. Hot air blasted my fingers.
“L’air conditionné est brisé.”
On Hippo’s tongue the word for broken came out “breezy.” Hardly.
Static erupted from the radio. I peeled damp hair from my neck as I waited it out.
“Have you checked the coolant?”
“Pain in the ass.” Hippo waved dismissively. “Heat won’t last. Never does.”
I bit back a comment. Useless. Coolant was probably a mystery to Hippo’s mind.
When I lowered my window, the smell of fertilizer and fresh-mown fields flooded the car.
I slumped back, shot forward as scorching vinyl contacted bare skin. Crossing my arms, I eased into the seat, closed my eyes, and let the wind whip my hair.
I knew from past experience that riding with Hippo was like riding “El Torro” at the Rodeo Bar. I gripped the armrest as we hurtled through the countryside at neck-snapping speed, Hippo’s boot slamming gas pedal then brake.
“This Tiquet’s not a bad guy.”
I opened my eyes. We were looping onto the fifteen. “What did he tell you?”
“Says he got a call reporting a disturbance at a quarry maybe five, six years back. Busted a couple kids for trespass and destruction of property. Geeks claimed to be spray-paint artists creating timeless works of beauty.”
I braced against the dash as Hippo swerved around a pickup. The driver gave him the finger. Hippo’s expression suggested a rejoinder in the making.
“The skeleton?” I brought Hippo back on point.
“Turned up in the trunk when Tiquet tossed their car.”
“Where was this quarry?”
“Somewhere near the Quebec–New Brunswick border. Tiquet’s vague on that.”
“Did he remember the kids’ names?”
“No, but he pulled the file. I’ve got them written down.”
“Fair enough. He got the skeleton in a bust. But why did he keep it?”
“Says he contacted the coroner.”
“That’s the guy. Bradette dropped in, took a look, told him he should call an archaeologist. Tiquet didn’t exactly have one in his Rolodex.”
“And he never got around to looking one up.”
A pothole launched us both toward the ceiling.
“What explanation did these kids give?”
“Claimed they bought the bones from a pawnshop operator. Planned to do some sort of spray-painted sculpture with them.”
“Nice. Where did the pawnbroker get them?”
“Tiquet didn’t know.”
“Where was the pawn guy from?”
I turned and looked out the window. We were back in the city now, and exhaust fumes had replaced the smell of turned earth. An auto body shop flashed by. A seedy strip center. A Petro-Canada station.
“Where is Miramichi?”
“It’s a big province, Hippo.”
Hippo’s brow furrowed. “Good point, doc. Miramichi’s a city of eighteen, maybe twenty thousand. But the name also refers to the river and the region in general.”
“But where is it?”
Fighting back an eye roll, I wiggled my fingers in a “give me more” gesture.
“Northeast coast of New Brunswick.”
“Deep in the heart.”
I listened to blacktop whump under our tires. Beyond the windshield, a layer of smog was buffing up the sunset, bathing the city in a soft, golden glow.
Miramichi. I’d heard of the place. In what context?
Suddenly, I remembered.
T HE SUMMER I WAS TEN AND ÉVANGÉLINE WAS TWELVE, SHE described an event that had occurred the previous December. The incident had so troubled her, she’d been unable to write of it in her letters.
Entrusting Obéline to a neighbor, Évangéline’s mother had driven to a nearby town for groceries. That was unusual, since Laurette habitually shopped in Tracadie. Leaving the market, she’d directed her daughter to return to their old Ford and wait for her.
Curious, Évangéline had watched her mother round the corner, then followed. Laurette entered a pawnshop. Through the window, Évangéline saw her in animated conversation with a man. Frightened, Évangéline had hurried back to the car.
Laurette owned a single piece of jewelry, a sapphire ring with tiny white diamonds. Though unaware of its history, Évangéline was certain the ring never left her mother’s finger. When Laurette slid behind the wheel that day, the ring was gone. Évangéline never saw it again.
Our childish imaginations conjured stories of heartbreak and lost love. A handsome fiancé killed in the war. A Montague-Capulet feud, Acadian style. We wrote verse rhyming the name of the town. Peachy. Beachy. Lychee.
That’s how I remembered.
Évangéline and her mother had gone to Miramichi.
Did Hippo’s girl come from Miramichi?
“How far is Miramichi from Tracadie?” More crazy possibilities swept through my mind.
“’Bout fifty miles.”
Impossible. There was no reason to think Évangéline was not alive.
“Straight down Highway 11.”
Yet? Ask Hippo to run a missing persons check? Not realistic. She could have taken another name, now be living elsewhere.
Drawing a deep breath, I told Hippo the story of Évangéline Landry. When I finished, he was mute for so long I thought his attention had wandered. It hadn’t.
“You really believe something happened to this kid?”
That question had tortured me over the years. Had Oncle Fidèle and Tante Euphémie, tired of nurturing their two young nieces, simply sent them home? Or had it been the other way around? Had Évangéline grown bored with the Lowcountry? With my friendship? Had my summer soul mate merely outgrown me? I didn’t believe it. She would have told me she was leaving. Why Tante Euphémie’s remark about danger?
“Yes,” I said. “I do.”
We were crossing onto the island. I watched Hippo’s gaze slide sideways to the turgid water of the Rivière des Prairies. I wondered if he was thinking of the girl snagged by the boat in the Rivière des Mille Îles in 1999, Ryan’s DOA number one. Or the girl washed ashore in Dorval in 2001, Ryan’s DOA number two. Or the one found last week in Lac des Deux Montagnes, perhaps DOA number three in the chain.
“You say the skeleton’s of mixed race,” Hippo said. “Was your friend?”
“That’s my impression. But I haven’t had time to fully clean the skull. I never thought of Évangéline that way. I just thought she was exotic in a mysterious sort of way.”
Hippo took a moment to chew on that.
“You told me the stuff’s pretty beat up. You good with a PMI pushing forty years?”
I’d given the question of postmortem interval considerable thought. “I’m certain this girl was buried, then the bones were held for some period aboveground. The problem is, I’ve got zip on context. Buried how? In sandy soil? Acid soil? Shallow grave? Deep? Coffin? Fifty-gallon Hefty? Time since death could be ten, forty, or a hundred and forty.”
Hippo did some more mental chewing. Then, “How well did you know this kid’s family?”
“I knew Évangéline’s aunt and uncle, but only superficially. I didn’t speak French and they were self-conscious about their English. Laurette was at Pawleys very little, and wasn’t bilingual, so the few times I saw her it was mainly hello and good-bye.”
“You said there was a sister?”
“Obéline, eight years younger than Évangéline.”
Hippo turned onto Papineau. We were creeping now, with traffic bumper to bumper.
“Ben. You know the system, homicide cops gotta focus on fresh cases. They got time, they can look at old, unsolved ones. Problem is they never got time because people keep capping people. That’s where Cold Case comes in. We take files no one’s working.”
Hippo signaled a left, waited while three teens slouched through the crosswalk. Each wore clothing large enough to house the other two.
“Nineteen sixty to 2005 we got five hundred seventy-three dossiers non résolus in this province. Cold Case squad was created in 2004. Since then we’ve cleared six of those unsolved cases.”
Forty years. Six answers. Five hundred and sixty-seven victims’ families still waiting. That depressed me.
“How can so many get away with murder?”
Hippo hiked one shoulder. “Maybe there’s no evidence, no witnesses. Maybe someone screws up. Most investigations, you don’t score a viable lead the first couple days, the thing’s going nowhere. Years pass. The jacket fills up with forms saying ‘no new developments.’ Eventually, the detective decides it’s time to move on. Sad, but what’s one more unsolved killing?”
We were just blocks from the Édifice Wilfrid-Derome. I wondered if Ryan was somewhere behind us, returning to SQ headquarters. Wondered if he would stop by my office or lab.
Making a right onto Parthenais, Hippo kept talking.
“Some of these murder squad cowboys think we cold-casers been put out to pasture. That ain’t how I see it. My thinking, a killing’s no less important because it happened ten years back. Or twenty. Or forty. Ask me, cold case vics should be getting priority. They been waiting longer.”
Hippo swung into the Wilfrid-Derome lot, shot down a row of cars and braked beside my Mazda. Throwing the Impala into park, he turned to me.
“And you can double that for kids. The families of missing and murdered kids live in agony. Every year that anniversary rolls around, the day the kid disappeared or the body was found. Every Christmas. Every time the kid’s birthday pops up on the calendar. A dead kid’s just one big ugly wound that refuses to heal.” Hippo’s eyes met mine. “The guilt eats at ’em. What happened? Why? Why weren’t we there to save her? That kinda hell don’t ever go cold.”
“No,” I agreed, feeling a new appreciation for the man beside me.
Hippo reached through the space between us, snatched his jacket from the backseat, and dug out a small spiral pad. Taking a pen from the center console, he wet a thumb and flipped pages. After reading a moment, his eyes met mine.
“My main focus right now is this job with Ryan. And don’t get me wrong, forty years is a long time. Witnesses leave town, die. Same for relatives, neighbors, friends. Reports go missing. Evidence gets lost. Forget the crime scene, if you ever had one. You do manage to unearth something, no one’s gonna stop in their tracks to process it. No one’s gonna fork over money for fancy tests.”
Here comes the blow-off, I thought.
“But if nobody pushes, nothing gets done. That’s what I do. I push.”
I started to speak. Hippo wasn’t finished.
“You think someone messed with this Évangéline, that’s good enough for me. You think this skeleton might even be her, that’s good enough, too. If not, it’s still someone’s kid.”
Hippo’s eyes dropped back to his spiral. He thumbed again, scribbled, then tore a page free and handed it to me.
“This thing is a long way from dead. We got leads.”
I read what Hippo had written. The names Patrick and Archie Whalen, a Miramichi address, and a phone number with a 506 area code.
“Tiquet’s spray-paint artists?” I asked.
“Apparently the genre ain’t a rocket to upward mobility. Mopes are in their late twenties now, still living at Mom and Dad’s place. Give them a ring. I’m guessing they’ll be more open with you.”
Because I’m female? Anglophone? Civilian? Hippo’s reasoning didn’t matter. I couldn’t wait to get to a phone.
“I’ll call as soon as I get home.”
“Meantime, I’ll start working the kid and her family. Can’t be that many Évangélines and Obélines walking the planet.”
“Can’t be,” I agreed.
It was almost eight by the time I reached my condo. I could have devoured Vermont and still had room for dessert.
Birdie met me at the door. One sniff sent him under the couch. I took the hint.
As I stripped, Charlie sent wolf whistles down the hall.
“Nicest compliment I’ve had all day, Charlie.”
“The only compliment I’ve had all day.”
I started to answer.
It’s a cockatiel, Brennan.
After a long, hot shower, I checked the answering machine.
Four messages. Harry. One hang-up. Harry. Harry.
My freezer offered two choices. Miguel’s Mexican flag fiesta. Mrs. Farmer’s country chicken pot pie. I went with the pie. It had been a barnyard sort of day.
As my frozen entrée baked, I dug out the number Hippo had provided.
I phoned Harry. Thirty minutes later I’d learned the following.
Marital lawyers in Houston are plentiful. Divorce costs a bucket. Arnoldo’s parts aren’t zip-a-dee-doo-dah. A real ass-waxing lay in the man’s future.
After disconnecting, I ate my pie, then tried the Whalen brothers again.
Still no answer.
Disappointed, I clicked on the news.
There’d been a pile-up on the Metropolitan, one dead, four injured. A judge had been indicted for money laundering. Health officials had grown concerned about bacteria plaguing the beach on Île Sainte-Hélène. Police had learned nothing about the disappearance of Phoebe Jane Quincy.
The only good news involved the weather. Rain was on the way and, with it, cooler temperatures.
Disheartened, I killed the set and checked the clock. Ten-twenty. What the hell. I dialed the Whalens one last time.
“Your dime.” English.
“Am I speaking with Archie Whalen?”
“Dr. Temperance Brennan. I’m an anthropologist with the medico-legal lab in Montreal.”
“Uh-huh.” Wary or dull? I wasn’t sure.
“Am I speaking with Patrick Whalen?”
“Depends on what you’re peddling.”
“About five or six years ago, you and your brother purchased bones from a Miramichi pawnshop. Is that correct?”
“Where’d you get this number?”
“From an SQ cold case detective.”
“We bought that shit fair and square. Paid full asking.”
“Am I speaking with Patrick?”
“The name’s Trick.”
“Are you aware that trafficking in human remains is illegal?”
“I may pee my shorts.” No question about IQ versus attitude there.
“We might be able to let the charges slide, Trick. Providing you cooperate with our investigation of the origins of that skeleton.” I wasn’t sure who “we” were, but it sounded more official.
“Already I’m breathing easier.”
OK, asshole. Let’s see how tricky you are.
“According to the police report, you claimed to have purchased the skeleton from a pawnbroker.”
“Where did he get it?”
“I didn’t background the guy. We saw it in his shop, flashed on the idea of a death scene sculpture, something totally war zone, bones, bullets, lots of black and green paint.”
“You made no inquiries as to the source of the skeleton?”
“Guy said it came from an old Indian cemetery. What did we care?”
“Skulls, man. Rattlesnakes. Shrouds. Bleak mojo, know what I mean?”
A dead child. I tried to keep the distaste from my voice.
“You were arrested in Quebec. Why were you there?”
“Visiting a cousin. He told us about a quarry. We thought jazzing all that rock would be a real mind-fuck. Look, when that cop busted us we were as freaked as anyone. We’d totally zoned on those bones.”
“How long had they been in your trunk?”
“A year. Maybe more.”
“What do you do now, Mr. Whalen?”
There was a pause. I thought I could hear a television in the background.
“Work security.” Defensive. “Nights at the high school.”
“And your brother?”
“Archie’s a fucking junkie.” The macho tone now sounded whiny. “Do us both a favor. Arrest his ass and get him out of this shithole.”
I had one last question.
“Do you remember the pawnbroker’s name?”
“’Course I remember that dickhead. Jerry O’Driscoll.”
I’d barely disconnected when my cell phone rang.
His news rocked my world.
“L AURETTE PHILOMÈNE SAULNIER LANDRY. DOB MAY 22, 1938. DOD June 17, 1972.”
Death at age thirty-four? How sad.
I pictured Laurette in Euphémie’s Pawleys Island kitchen. My child’s mind had never slotted her age. She was simply adult, younger than Gran, more wrinkled than Mama.
“She died so young. From what?”
“Death certificate lists natural causes, but doesn’t elaborate.”
“You’re sure it’s the right Laurette Landry?”
“Laurette Philomène Saulnier married Philippe Grégoire Landry on November 20, 1955. Union produced two kids. Évangéline Anastasie, DOB August 12, 1956. Obéline Flavie, DOB February 16, 1964.”
“Jesus. I can’t believe you found this so fast.” In addition to my early telephone probes, I’d periodically tried the New Brunswick Bureau of Vital Statistics. Never had a hit.
“Used my Acadian charm.”
Hippo’s charm and a token would get him on the subway. I waited.
“Back in the sixties, the church handled most of the vital stats record keeping. Some parts of New Brunswick, babies were still being birthed at home, especially in rural areas and smaller towns. Lot of Acadians had no time for government or its institutions. Still don’t.”
I heard a soft whop, pictured Hippo downing several Tums.
“Got a church-lady niece at St. John the Baptist in Tracadie. Knows the archives like I know the size of my dick.”
I definitely did not want to hear about that.
“You found baptismal and marriage certificates through your niece?” I guessed.
“Bingo. Since I’m a homeboy, I started dialing for dollars. We Acadians identify ourselves by ancestral names. Take me, for example. I’m Hippolyte à Hervé à Isaïe à Calixte—”
“What did you learn?”
“Like I warned you, forty years is a long time. But the Acadian National Memory Bank’s got a whopper of a vault. Found a few locals remembered Laurette and her kids. No one would talk much, respecting privacy and all. But I got the drift.
“When Laurette got too sick to work, hubby’s kin took her in. The Landrys lived outside of town. Kept mostly to themselves. One old-timer called them morpions. Trailer trash. Said they were mostly illiterate.”
“Laurette had a driver’s license.”
“No. Laurette had a car.”
“She must have been licensed. She drove across the border.”
“OK. Maybe someone got paid off. Or maybe she was smart enough to read a little and to memorize road signs. Anyway, Philippe took off while Laurette was pregnant with Obéline, leaving her to support the two little girls. She managed for five or six years, then had to quit working. Eventually died of some sort of chronic condition. Sounded like TB to me. This guy thought she’d moved out toward Saint-Isidore sometime in the mid-sixties. Might have had family living that way.”
“What about Philippe?”
“Nothing. May have left the country. Probably dead somewhere.”
“And the girls?” My heart was thumping my rib cage.
“Obéline Landry married a guy named David Bastarache in eighty. I’m running him now. And following the Saint-Isidore lead.”
“What about Évangéline?”
“I’ll be straight. I ask about Laurette or Obéline, I get cooperation. Or at least what sounds like cooperation. I ask about the older sister, people go iceberg.”
“What are you saying?”
“I’m saying I’ve been at this awhile. I got antennae. I ask about this kid, the answers come too quick, too consistent.”
“No one knows shit.”
“Hiding something?” My grip on the handset was raising the cords in my wrist.
“I’d bet money on it.”
I told Hippo what I’d learned from Trick Whalen. The Miramichi pawnshop. The mojo sculpture. The Indian cemetery.
“You want I should call this guy O’Driscoll?”
“No. If you can get contact information, I’ll follow the bone trail while you chase the leads in Tracadie.”
“Don’t go ’way.”
Hippo put me on hold for a good ten minutes.
“Place is called Oh O! Pawn. Catchy name. Says we care.” He supplied a phone number and an address on the King George Highway.
Cellophane crinkled. Then, “You said you found something wrong with the kid’s skeleton.”
“You figure that out?”
“You willing to work on Saturday?”
The 82nd Airborne couldn’t have kept me from those bones.
By eight-thirty I was at Wilfrid-Derome. Contrary to reports, there’d been no rain and the weather hadn’t cooled. Already the mercury was pushing eighty.
I rode the elevator alone, passed no one in the LSJML lobby or corridors. I was pleased that I’d have no disruptions.
I was wrong. One of several misjudgments I’d make that day.
First off, I dialed O’Driscoll. The phone went unanswered.
Disappointed, I turned to the skeleton. Hippo’s girl. Before being interrupted by the Iqaluit skull and the dog exhumation in Blainville, I’d cleaned what remained of her trunk and limb bones.
Going directly to her skull, I cleared the foramen magnum and emptied soil and small pebbles from the cranial base.
At nine-thirty, I tried O’Driscoll again. Still no luck.
Back to teasing dirt. Right auditory canal. Left. Posterior palate. The lab thundered with that stillness possible only on weekends in government facilities.
At ten, I lay down my probe and dialed Miramichi a third time. This time a man answered.
“Oh O! Pawn.”
I gave my name and LSJML affiliation. Either O’Driscoll didn’t hear or didn’t care.
“You interested in antique watches, young lady?” English, with a whisper of brogue.
“I’m afraid not.”
“Two beauties just come in. You like jewelry?”
“Got some Navajo turquoise that’ll knock your socks off.”
Navajo jewelry in a New Brunswick pawnshop? Must be a story there.
“Mr. O’Driscoll, I’m calling about human remains you sold to Trick and Archie Whalen several years back.”
I expected caginess. Or lack of recollection. O’Driscoll was polite, expansive, even. And had recall like a credit card agency computer.
“Spring of 2000. Kids said they wanted it for a college art project. Said they were constructing some kind of homage-to-the-dead display. Sold it to them for sixty-five bucks.”
“You have an excellent memory.”
“Truth is, that was the first and last skeleton I ever traded. Thing was older than all the angels and saints. Lots of broken bones. Face smashed in and caked with dirt. Still, the idea of selling dead souls didn’t sit well. Didn’t matter if the poor devil was Christian or Indian or Bantu. That’s why I remember.”
“Where did you get the skeleton?”
“Fella used to come in every couple months. Claimed he was an archaeologist before the war. Didn’t mention which war. Always had this mangy terrier trailing him. Called the thing Bisou. Kiss. No way I’d have put my lips anywhere near that hound. Guy spent his time searching for stuff to pawn. Poked through Dumpsters. Had a metal detector he’d run along the riverbank. That sort of thing. Brought in a brooch once was pretty nice. I sold it to a lady lives up in Neguac. Most of his finds were junk, though.”
“Guy said he found it when he went out to the woods to bury Bisou. I wasn’t surprised. Dog acted a hundred years old. Old geezer looked like he could really use a lift that day. Figured I’d take a loss, but I gave him fifty bucks. Didn’t see any harm in it.”
“Did the man say where he’d buried his dog?”
“Some island. Said there was an old Indian cemetery there. Could have been hooey. I hear a lot of that. People think a good tale ups the value of what they’re offering. It doesn’t. An item’s worth what it’s worth.”
“Do you know the man’s name?”
O’Driscoll’s chuckle sounded like popcorn popping. “Said he was Tom ‘Jones.’ I’d bet my aunt Rosey’s bloomers he made that up.”
“Why is that?”
“Guy was French. Pronounced the name Jones. Spelled it Jouns.”
“Do you know what happened to him?”
“Stopped coming about three years back. Old duffer was frail and blind in one eye. Probably dead by now.”
After the call, I returned to the bones. Was there truth to Tom Joun’s Indian burial ground story? Could Hippo’s girl be a pre-Columbian aboriginal?
Cranial shape was distorted by breakage and warping. No help there. I rotated the skull and looked at the remnants of the face. The nasal spine was almost nonexistent. A nonwhite trait. Though dirt packed the opening, the orifice seemed wider than is typical of Europeans.
I went back to teasing dirt. Time passed, the only sounds in my lab the competing hums of the refrigerator and the overhead fluorescents.
The eyeballs are separated from the frontal lobe by the paper-thin bone forming the floor of the anterior cranial fossa. Clearing the right socket, I found jagged breaches in that floor. I moved on.
I’d emptied the left orbit when something caught my attention. Laying aside my pick, I dampened a cloth and swiped a fingertip over the orbital roof. Dirt came away, revealing pitted, porous bone in the upper, outer corner of the socket.
Now we were getting somewhere. Or were we? While cribra orbitalia has a fancy scientific name, and the lesions are known to occur most commonly in kids, their cause has yet to be satisfactorily explained.
I did one of my mental rundowns. Iron deficiency anemia? Vitamin C inadequacy? Infection? Pathogenic stress?
All of the above? None of the above? A and B only?
I was as puzzled as ever.
Findings to this point included modification of toe bones, enlargement of nutrient foramina in the hands and feet, cortical destruction on at least one metacarpal, and now cribra orbitalia. Abnormally pitted orbits.
I had plenty of dots. I just had to connect them.
One thing was becoming clear. This girl had been sick. But with what? Had the ailment killed her? Then why the caved-in face? Postmortem damage?
Using warm water, I cleaned the entire left orbit. Then I picked up a magnifying lens.
And got my second surprise of the morning.
A black squiggle crawled the underside of the supraorbital ridge, just inside the thickened upper border of the socket.
A root impression? Writing?
I hurried to the scope and balanced the skull face-up on the cork ring. Eyes on the screen, I jacked the magnification.
Tiny hand-lettered characters leaped into focus.
It took several minutes, and several adjustments, but I finally managed to decipher the inscription.
The quiet of the empty building enveloped me.
Had Jouns marked his skeleton with the name of the island on which he’d found it? Archaeologists did exactly that. He’d claimed to have been one in his youth.
I flew from my lab, down the corridor, and into the LSJML library. Locating an atlas, I flipped to a map of Miramichi.
Fox Island. Portage. Sheldrake. Though I pored over the map portions depicting the rivers and the bay, I found no Île-aux-Becs-Scies.
Back in my lab, I dialed his cell. He didn’t pick up.
Fine. I’d ask him later. He’d know.
Returning the skull to my worktable, I began freeing dirt from the nasal orifice with a long, sharp probe.
And encountered my third surprise of the morning.
T HE APERTURE RESEMBLED AN UPSIDE-DOWN HEART, NARROW AT the top, bulging at the bottom. Nothing spiked from the dimple on the heart’s lower edge.
OK. I’d been right about the wide nasal opening and reduced nasal spine. But the nasal bridge was narrow with the two bones steepling toward the midline. And I could now see that the periphery of the orifice looked spongy, indicating resorption of the surrounding maxilla.
The girl’s nasal pattern didn’t mean she was Indian or African. The spike had been reduced, the shape modified by disease.
Defects on the hands, feet, orbits, nose.
Had I missed something on the skull?
I examined every millimeter, inside and out.
The cranial vault was normal. Ditto for the base. What remained of the hard palate was intact. I was unable to observe the premaxillary, or most forward part of the roof of the mouth. That portion was missing, along with the incisors.
I rechecked the postcranial skeleton and found nothing beyond what I’d already spotted.
Hands. Feet. Orbits. Nose. What disease process would lead to that kind of dispersed bone damage?
Again, I considered possibilities.
Syphilis? Lupus vulgaris? Thalassemia? Gaucher’s disease? Osteomyelitis? Septic or rheumatoid arthritis? Blood-borne parasite? Infection due to direct extension from the overlying skin?
Diagnosis would take research. And with so much bone missing or damaged, I wasn’t optimistic.
I was pulling out Bullough’s Orthopaedic Pathology when Hippo came through the door. He was wearing a shirt festooned with bananas and red palm trees, gray pants, and a hat that would have made a drug lord proud.
Despite the “don’t worry, be happy” attire, Hippo did not appear to be having a good day. The bags under his eyes were heavier than usual, and he was frowning.
Hippo took a seat on the opposite side of the table. He smelled of bacon and stale deodorant.
“Saturday casual?” I asked, smiling.
Hippo didn’t smile back.
“I found the kid sister.”
“Where?” Suddenly Hippo had all my attention.
“I want you to hear me out.”
I settled back, elated, yet anxious at the same time.
“I did some poking into the husband.”
“Bastard would be more fitting. Your pal’s little sis married into a family of smugglers and bootleggers.”
“David’s granddaddy, Siméon, made a nice chunk of change running rum in the twenties, invested in real estate. Bars in Tracadie and Lamèque. A rooming house in Caraquet. David’s daddy, Hilaire, put his inheritance to good use. Turned some of the old man’s properties into ‘hides,’ safe havens for illegal booze and contraband.”
“Remember that proud moment in American history brought to you by the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act?”
“Nineteen twenty to 1933. Republican and Prohibition parties jumped in bed with the Temperance Movement.” Hippo gave a half grin. “That where you got your name?”
“But you’re a Pepsi hugger, right?”
“Diet Coke. Back to Bastarache.”
“As you will recall from your history lessons, some politicos and Bible thumpers may have taken the pledge, but a great many Americans did not. Familiar with Saint-Pierre et Miquelon?”
Lying south of Newfoundland, the little island cluster is the last remnant of the former colonial territory of New France. Essentially under French control since 1763, a 2003 constitutional reform changed its status from territorial collective to oversees region, like Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Caribbean, French Guiana in South America, and Réunion in the Indian Ocean. With its own postal stamps, flag, coat of arms, and sixty-three hundred fiercely Francophile souls, Saint-Pierre et Miquelon is the Frenchest of French outposts in North America.
“Americans still wanted their cocktails, and the French didn’t give a rat’s ass about Prohibition, so Saint-Pierre et Miquelon stepped up to the plate. In the twenties, the place was awash with booze. I ain’t just talking Canadian whiskey. Champagne from France. West Indian rum. British gin. And all that hooch needed distribution. That meant good times for many small villages in Atlantic Canada.”
Hippo misread my impatience for disapproval.
“A man could make more running one load of booze than he could freezing his ass all year in a fishing boat. What would you choose? Anyway, right or wrong, booze flowed down the eastern seaboard and into Rum Row.”
Hippo gave me a questioning look. I nodded again. I’d also heard of Rum Row, the flotilla of ships anchored beyond the three-mile limit off the U.S. East Coast, waiting to offload liquor for entrepreneurs such as Al Capone and Bill McCoy.
“You know the outcome. Twenty-first Amendment pulled the plug on Prohibition, but Uncle Sam taxed booze up the wazoo. So smuggling continued. Eventually, the States and Canada independently declared war on the Atlantic rumrunners. Ever hear the Lennie Gallant song about the Nellie J. Banks?”
“Maybe at Hurley’s.”
“The Nellie J. Banks was Prince Edward Island’s most notorious rumrunner. Also her last. Boat was seized in thirty-eight. Ballad tells the story.”
Hippo’s eyes wandered to a spot over my shoulder. For one awful moment I thought he was going to sing. Mercifully, he continued talking.
“The RCMP and Canada Customs still got their hands full. But it’s not like the old days. The slimeballs working the coast now mostly deal in drugs and illegal immigrants.”
“Your knowledge is impressive.”
Hippo shrugged. “Rumrunners are kind of a hobby. I’ve read up.”
“This has something to do with Obéline’s husband?”
“Yes. I’m getting to that. Hilaire Bastarache was second in line. Wanting to up the profits, after World War II, he added a new wrinkle.”
Hippo shook his head. “The skin trade. Titty bars. Whorehouses. Massage parlors. Proved very lucrative.
“David, the third in line, is a strange duck, kind of a cross between Howard Hughes and some sort of urban militiaman. Keeps to himself. Distrusts anything having to do with government or its institutions. Schools. Military. Health care. Guy’s never registered for social security, Medicare, voting. Was hit by a truck once. Refused to be taken to the hospital. And, of course, cops. Bastarache especially hates cops.”
“I can see why someone in vice would be wary of the police, but why the paranoia about authority in general?”
“Part of the blame goes to Daddy. Little David was homeschooled, kept on a very short leash for a very long time. Hilaire Bastarache wasn’t what you’d call gregarious. But it goes deeper than that. When the kid was ten he saw his mother gunned down in a botched raid on one of the old man’s warehouses.”
“Was she armed?”
Hippo shook his head. “Wrong place wrong time. Ruby Ridge kind of thing.”
Hippo referred to the 1992 siege of an Idaho cabin by U.S. Marshals. During the incident, an FBI sniper shot and killed a woman while she was holding her ten-month-old son.
“Despite his hang-ups, Bastarache manages to take care of business. Keeps himself insulated with layers of hired muscle. Granddaddy’s establishment in Caraquet got busted several years back. The current Bastarache hadn’t a clue the place was being used as a cathouse. Thought he was renting rooms to upstanding young women.” Hippo snorted derisively. “The court bought it. Prossie named Estelle Faget took the fall.
“Bastarache owns a strip club in Moncton off Highway 106. Le Chat Rouge. Shifted his base there in 2001. But I understand he’s spending a lot of time in Quebec City these days. Has a bar there called Le Passage Noir.”
“Why the relocation?”
“Got caught nailing a stripper. Turned out the kid was sixteen. Bastarache decided it was in his interest to leave Tracadie.”
“Christ.” My voice dripped with disgust.
Hippo pulled a folded paper from his pocket. When I reached out, he pressed it to the tabletop.
“My sources say Bastarache doesn’t payroll choirboys.” Hippo’s eyes locked onto mine. “Word on the street is his enforcers play very rough.”
“Real stud,” I snorted. “Cheating on his wife with a bubble-gummer.”
“Let me share a story. Guy named Thibault sold Bastarache a car back in ninety-seven. Bastarache complained the crankshaft was bad. Guy blew him off. Three days later, a body turned up under the Little Tracadie River Bridge No. 15. Had a crankshaft protruding from his rib cage.”
“Was Bastarache charged?”
“There was nothing to link him and no one would roll.”
“Could be coincidence.”
“Could be I’ll get drafted to play fullback for the Alouettes. Look, what I’m saying is, Bastarache is nuts, he’s mean, and he runs a rough crew. That’s a bad combination.”
I couldn’t disagree with that.
But why would Obéline have married such a loser? And why had he chosen her? What had happened to the little girl I’d known on Pawleys Island?
Hippo’s eyes dropped. Scooping up the folded paper, he began rotating it from corner to corner, tapping the tabletop.
“I got another story.”
I started to interrupt.
“Concerns your friend.”
The change in Hippo’s voice chilled me.
“Plot’s not original. Fighting. Husband getting liberal with the fists. Anonymous calls to the cops. Wife refusing to press charges. Finally, him breaking her arm. She’s in a cast, he’s slipping it to a pole dancer.”
Hippo nodded. “Unclear how she got him out of the house. May have threatened to prosecute this time if he didn’t leave. Two weeks later there’s a fire.”
“Third-degree burns over twenty percent of her body. Spent time in rehab. Came away pretty scarred.”
I pictured a peach-skinned toddler with chestnut curls laughing and chasing gulls in the Carolina surf.
On the medial surface of the mammalian brain, right beneath the cortex, there’s a nexus of neurons called the limbic system. This little hunk of gray matter cranks our emotions in and out of gear: wrath, fright, passion, love, hate, joy, sadness.
A limbic switch flipped, and white hotness seared my endocranium. I didn’t let my anger show. That’s not how I am. When that circuit trips, and true fury blasts the inside of my skull, I don’t scream or lash out. Au contraire. I go steely calm.
“Arson?” My voice was a monotone.
“Cops suspected the fire was deliberately set.”
“Everyone thought the turd did it, but there was nothing to nail him and no one would talk. Guy’s goons have everyone scared shitless.”
I held out a palm.
Hippo kept the paper clamped in his hand. “I know you like to do things your own way, doc. But I want you to steer clear of this guy.”
I curled my fingers in a “give it to me” gesture.
Reluctantly, Hippo slid the folded sheet across the tabletop.
Flattening the page, I read the number and address.
The room receded. The humming fluorescents. The skeleton. Hippo’s luau shirt. I was on a porch on a Lowcountry summer night. A transistor radio was playing “Ode to Billie Joe.” Évangéline and I were lying with arms crooked behind our heads, knees up, singing along.
Was it really so simple? Dial these digits and Obéline would answer? Perhaps solve the mystery that had troubled me all these years? Perhaps lead me to Évangéline?
I nodded, barely aware of Hippo’s question.
“Gotta boogie. Ryan’s waiting downstairs.”
I heard Hippo push to his feet, then the lab door open and close.
My eyes drifted to the bones.
Or would it go the other way? Would I provide answers to Obéline?
Seconds, perhaps epochs later, the door opened again. I looked up.
“Giving up Saturday morning cartoons?”
“Hippo told me you were up here.”
Hippo must have shared more than the fact of my presence. Ryan’s eyes were crimped with concern.
“A hale fellow.” I managed a weak smile. “He tell you about Obéline Landry being married to this sleaze David Bastarache?”
“He doesn’t want me to contact her.”
“But we both know you will.”
“Do you think Bastarache would shoot me just for phoning his estranged wife?”
“I don’t know. Just—”
Pointing a finger I finished Ryan’s sentence. “Be careful out there.” Hill Street Blues. The sergeant’s daily send-off was an ongoing joke between us.
Ryan hesitated, as though collecting his thoughts. Or choosing an opening.
“Listen, Tempe. There’s something I need to tell you.”
I waited, curious.
Ryan’s cell warbled. Giving a “sorry” face, he turned a shoulder and clicked on.
I heard a series of “oui.”
“Lousy timing.” Ryan waggled the phone. “But we may be catching a break on the Quincy kid.”
“I understand.” I kept very still. “Would you like to meet later?”
Ryan’s answer was a long time coming. “Sure.”
“Ben’s at seven?”
“Sounds like a plan.”
Troubled blue eyes scanned my face. As though memorizing detail.
Something sucked at my heart.
“Come here.” Ryan opened his arms. “Give me a hug.”
Surprised, I rose and pressed my cheek to Ryan’s chest. The embrace broke every rule I’d imposed about intimacy at work. I didn’t care. It had been too long. It was Saturday. The place was deserted.
Ryan’s arms enveloped me. His chin rested on my hair. I felt a flush climb my throat as warmth spread through me.
Breathing in the familiar scent of soap and Acqua di Parma, feeling the familiar muscles and hollows, I wondered if I’d misinterpreted Ryan’s look.
Then I heard the words, whispered, more to himself than to me.
“You’ll probably never do this again.”
I REFUSED TO LET MYSELF THINK ABOUT RYAN.
I refused to let myself rush to the phone. Before punching those digits, I wanted to rehearse what to tell Obéline.
Instead, I focused on bone pathology.
Though the metatarsal was slender and unnaturally pointed on the distal end, its outer cortex appeared normal on X-ray. Similar changes occur in advanced cases of rheumatoid arthritis. But with rheumatoid arthritis, the joints are also affected. The girl’s joints were fine.
Lupus can cause changes in the bones of the hands and feet. It can also affect the nasal spine and aperture and cause resorption of the premaxillary alveolar process. But lupus is an immune disease that attacks many internal organs and tissues. The damage to the girl’s skeleton was not that widespread.
Venereal syphilis leads to atrophy of the nasal spine and destruction of the anterior palate. But with syphilis, vault lesions are common. The girl’s vault had none.
On and on. Nothing fit.
At five, I gave up and headed home.
As I concentrated on traffic, my brain cells roamed free range.
Was Birdie due for a checkup?
You took him in March.
It was July.
Pull his shot record.
Go really short, like Halle Berry.
You’ll look like Demi Moore in G.I. Jane .
Not the point.
No guts no glory.
Or Pee-wee Herman.
What the hell, I was tired.
As with the previous topics, cerebral opinions were split.
Breakup, a cadre of pessimist brain cells predicted.
No way, an optimist faction countered.
The pessimists floated an image. Annie Hall. Alvie and Annie separating belongings.
We’d never lived together, but I’d spent nights at Ryan’s place, he at mine. Had possessions migrated? Did Ryan want to talk about reclaiming CD’s?
I began a mental list of objects at my condo. The wine opener. A toothbrush. A bottle of Boucheron aftershave.
He’s over the marital status thing.
He’s outta here.
Why the hug?
“That’s it.” I hit the radio.
Garou was crooning “Seul.” Alone.
I snapped it off.
Birdie greeted me by flopping onto one side, stretching all four limbs, and rotating to his back. Ryan called the maneuver his “drop and roll.”
I scratched the cat’s belly. He must have felt tension in my touch. Popping to his feet, he regarded me, eyes yellow and round.
Partly Ryan. Partly Obéline. And partly being afloat on coffee.
“Sorry, big guy. Got a lot on my mind.”
Hearing my voice, Charlie weighed in. “…love drunk off my hump.”
Black Eyed Peas. Good job with the training disc, Ryan.
But why that line?
When its battery dies, my smoke alarm shrills until a replacement is inserted. This occurred once on a weekend when I’d left Charlie alone. The cockatiel shrilled for the next three months.
It’s the rhythm, I told myself. Not the lyrics.
I popped in the cockatiel training CD, filled seed and water dishes, and fed the cat. Then I wandered from room to room, each time forgetting the point of my going.
I needed exercise.
Lacing on running shoes, I jogged up the hill, then turned west. On the opposite side of Sherbrooke sprawled the grounds of Le Grand Séminaire, recovery site of a dismembered body years ago. One of the first cases I’d worked with Ryan.
Still no rain, but the barometric pressure was at least a billion. Within blocks I was sweating and breathing hard. The physical exertion felt good. I pounded past the Shriner’s Temple, Dawson College, Westmount Park.
A mile and a half out, I looped back.
This time, no greetings from Birdie. In my hurry to be off, I’d left the door to the study ajar.
The cat and bird were eyeball to eyeball. Though feathers and seed casings littered the floor, neither feline nor avian looked particularly excited. But there’d definitely been action while I was out.
Shooing Birdie from the room, I hurried to the shower.
While I was drying my hair, the brain cells piped in again.
Mascara and blush.
Tart yourself up for yesterday’s news?
Smart looks, smart thoughts.
I spritzed Issey Miyake.
Le Maison du Cari is located in a basement on Bishop, across from the Concordia University library. Ben, the owner, remembers the preferences of each of his regulars. No question about mine. Ben’s korma is so rich it prompts a smile from the most jaded diner.
Descending the steps, I saw the top of Ryan’s head through the small front window. Dimly. Curry, brilliant. Tandoori, phenomenal. Windex, forget it.
Ryan was drinking Newcastle ale and munching papadum. I’d barely taken my seat when a Diet Coke hit the table. Lots of ice. Slice of lime. Perfect.
After hearing news of Ben’s daughter in Sweden, we ordered. Chicken vindaloo. Lamb korma. Channa masala. Cucumber raita. Naan.
Conversation launched from the neutral ground of Phoebe Jane Quincy.
“We may have a lead. Kid didn’t have a mobile, but the best friend did. Finally ’fessed up to allowing Phoebe to make calls she couldn’t make at home. Records showed one unfamiliar number. Dialed eight times in the past three months.”
“Photography studio. Low end, over on the Plateau. Rented to a guy named Stanislas Cormier.” Ryan’s jaw muscles bunched, relaxed. “Cormier was promising to make the kid a supermodel.”
“The friend told you?”
Ryan nodded. “Quincy pictured herself the next Tyra Banks.”
“You picked Cormier up?”
“Spent a lovely afternoon interrogating the dolt. He’s innocent as Bambi.”
“His explanation for the calls?”
“Claims Quincy found him in the Yellow Pages. Wanted a photo shoot. Upstanding citizen asked her age, heard thirteen, told her no go without a parent.”
“She called eight times.”
“Cormier says she was persistent.”
“You believe him?”
“What do you think?”
“Did he take the Marilyn shot?”
“Claims to know nothing about it.”
“Can you hold him?”
“We’ll find a charge.”
“Waiting for a warrant. Once it’s issued, we toss the studio.”
“What about LaManche’s Lac des Deux Montagnes floater? Anything pop with the new info I gave you on age and race?”
“She’s not in CPIC or NCIC.”
The food arrived. Ryan ordered another Newcastle. As we served ourselves, I remembered something from our earlier conversation.
“Didn’t you say Kelly Sicard also wanted to be a model?”
“Yeah.” Ryan forked curry into his mouth. “Fancy that.”
We ate in silence. Beside us, two kids held hands, eyes locked, food cooling on their plates. Love? Lust? Either way, I envied them.
Finally, Ryan got to it.
Wiping his mouth, he carefully folded and laid his napkin on the table. Smoothed it with a palm.
“There’s something I have to tell you. It’s not easy, but you should know.”
A fist grabbed my gut.
“Lily’s problems are worse than I’ve let on.”
The fist eased ever so slightly.
“Three weeks ago she was nailed boosting DVD’s from a Blockbuster outlet. I got a courtesy call because I’m on the job. I managed to talk the owner down, made restitution. Lily didn’t go into the system. This time.”
Ryan’s gaze floated up to the window, went through the glass to the darkness outside on Bishop.
“Lily’s addicted to heroin. She steals to feed her habit.”
I didn’t blink, didn’t look over toward the couple beside us.
“I own a big hunk of blame. I was never there.”
Lutetia kept her existence from you. I didn’t say it.
Ryan’s eyes came back to mine. In them I saw pain and guilt. And something else. The sadness of ending.
The fist retightened.
“My daughter needs medical help. Counseling. She’ll get that. But she also needs stability. A home base. The conviction that someone believes in her.”
Ryan took both my hands in his.
“Lutetia has been in Montreal the past two weeks.”
My chest turned to ice.
“We’ve spent hours wrestling with this.” Ryan halted briefly. “We think we can give Lily the safety net she needs.”
“We’ve decided to try to make the relationship work.”
“You’re going back to Lutetia?” Calm, and wildly out of sync with the turmoil inside.
“This is the most painful decision I’ve ever had to make. I’ve barely slept. I’ve thought of nothing else.” Ryan lowered his voice. “I kept remembering you with Pete in Charleston.”
“He’d been shot.” Barely audible.
“I mean earlier. He had his arms around you.”
“I was overtired, overwrought from so much work. Pete was merely calming me down.”
“I know. I admit when I first saw you two together I felt betrayed. Humiliated. ‘How could she?’ I kept asking myself. I wanted to see you burned alive. That first night, I bought a bottle of scotch, took it to my room and got drunk. I was so angry I threw my room phone through the TV screen.”
My eyebrows floated up.
“The hotel charged me six hundred bucks.” Strained smile. “Look, I’m not criticizing or casting blame. But I’ve come to understand you’re never going to cut Pete loose.” Ryan’s thumbs caressed the backs of my hands. “That realization made me reassess. Maybe the poets and songwriters have gotten it wrong. Maybe we do get a second chance to get things right.”
“Andrew and Lutetia. The way we were.” It was small and mean. I couldn’t help myself.
“This won’t affect us on the job, of course.” Another weak smile. “We’ll still be Mulder and Scully.”
“I want your help with these MP’s and DOA’s.”
I bit back a retort I would later have regretted.
“You’re sure about this?” I asked.
“I’ve never been less sure about anything in my life. But I’m sure of one thing. I owe it to my daughter to try. I can’t see her destroyed while I just stand by.”
I needed fresh air.
I didn’t offer reassurance. Or another Streisand line. Or a hug.
Molding my face into a smile, I rose and left the restaurant.
I felt leaden, oblivious to the Saturday night revelers with whom I shared the sidewalk. My feet rose, fell, moving me along without sensation. Then they stopped.
I looked up.
It wasn’t air that I craved. I’d run toward the old umbilicus. The ruby glow in the long-stemmed glass, the friction on my throat, the heat in my belly. The bullet train to temporary gladness and well-being.
All I had to do was enter and ask.
But I know myself. I am an alkie. The fling wouldn’t be brief. And, inevitably, the euphoria would give way to self-loathing. Hours, perhaps days would be gone from my life.
I reversed my course and went home.
Lying in bed, I felt totally alone in the universe.
My thoughts played like a danse macabre.
Dorothée and Geneviève Doucet, forgotten in an upstairs bedroom.
Kelly Sicard. Claudine Cloquet. Anne Girardin. Phoebe Jane Quincy. Vanished, perhaps molested and murdered.
Three young bodies, two bloated and grotesque.
Laurette, abandoned, dead at thirty-four.
My own mother, widowed, neurotic, dead at fifty-seven.
Baby Kevin, dead at age nine months.
A young girl’s skeleton, wrenched from its grave.
Obéline, battered and disfigured.
At that moment, I hated my job. I hated my life.
The world was wretched.
There were no tears. Only an overwhelming numbness.
I AWOKE TO THE SOUND OF THE PHONE. I FELT SLUGGISH AND FLAT and didn’t know why. Then I remembered.
Last night’s numbness reasserted itself. That was good. It got me through the call.
“Good morning, sugar britches.”
Pete never phoned me in Montreal.
Katy! I shot upright.
“Katy’s all right?”
“Of course she’s all right.”
“You spoke to her? When?”
“What did she say?”
“Buenos días. Chile’s the bomb. Transfer money. Adios.”
Leaning back, I pulled the quilt to my chin.
“How are you?”
“Where are you?”
“Charlotte. There’s something I want to tell you.”
“You’re engaged to Paris Hilton.” I was so relieved Katy was safe, I laughed at my own joke. It felt good.
Pete didn’t answer.
“I’m here.” Devoid of humor.
Apprehension rocketed through my war-torn nerves.
“Not Paris. Summer.”
“You want to get married?” I couldn’t keep the shock from my voice.
“You’ll like her, sugar britches.”
I’ll hate her.
“Where did you meet?” I tried to sound bright.
“At the Selwyn Pub. She looked sad. I bought her a beer. Turned out a puppy had been euthanized that day. She’s a veterinary assistant.”
“How long have you and Summer been dating?”
“She’s very bright, Tempe. Wants to go to vet school.”
Of course she does.
“How old is Summer?”
Pete would soon be waving hello to fifty.
“Three months is pretty quick.”
“Summer wants to tie the knot.” Pete laughed. “What the hell? I’m an old bachelor, kicking around on my own. Don’t forget. You turned me out, babe.”
I swallowed. “What do you want me to do?”
“Nothing. I’ll handle the filing. Irreconcilable differences. All we need is an agreement on the spoils of empire. We can do the actual dividing later.”
“Not many spoils.”
“North Carolina is a no-fault state, no need for accusations of anything.”
“How soon?” I gave up all pretense at brightness.
“You and I haven’t cohabited for years, so there won’t be any mandatory separation period. Assuming we agree on finances, the divorce should be granted quickly.”
“What’s your time line?” Lifeless.
“We’re thinking about spring. Maybe next May. Summer wants a mountain wedding.”
I pictured Summer. Barefoot, tan, head garlanded with daisies.
“Have you told Katy?”
“Not a topic for the phone. We’ll have a heart-to-heart when she returns from Chile.”
“Has Katy met Summer?”
A slight hitch. “Yes.”
“Katy finds fault with any woman I date.”
That was untrue. On occasion my daughter talked of her father’s exploits. For some, she felt the attraction was boobs. For others, it was garbonzas. Melons. Jugs. Hooters. A few of the ladies she liked very much.
“It could be awkward,” Pete said. “Summer wants kids. Katy may find that difficult.”
“I’d like your blessing, sugar britches.”
“Whatever.” The numbness was dissolving like fog in a hot morning sun. I had to hang up.
“You’ll like Summer. Really.”
I sat motionless, the dial tone buzz in my ear.
My estranged husband loves women in the way moths love a back-porch bulb. He likes to flirt and hover, drawn, but never willing to settle. I’d learned the hard way. And been burned. Marriage, any marriage, seemed out of character for him. When we’d been in Charleston, before the shooting, he’d seemed to want to explore reconciliation. But now Pete wanted to divorce me, marry Summer, and have babies.
Sad Summer. Very bright Summer. Twenty-something Summer.
Slowly, carefully, I placed the handset on the base unit.
Slid down the pillow. Rolled to my side. Tucked my knees to my chest.
And lost it.
I don’t know how long the tears flowed or when I drifted off.
Again, a phone jolted me awake. This time it was my cell. I glanced at the clock. Nine forty-three.
I checked the screen.
I couldn’t handle melodrama at that moment. I let it keep ringing.
Seconds later, the land line shrilled.
Cursing, I grabbed the handset and clicked on.
“What?” I snapped.
“Well now, aren’t we wearing our cranky pants.”
“It’s goddamn Sunday morning.”
“Just found a great recipe for kitten. Thought you might like to rustle some up.”
“You’re a scream, Harry.”
“Does our happy face need a little silicone injection?”
“This better not be round six on Arnoldo.” Tossing the covers, I headed for the kitchen. I needed caffeine.
“Out with the old, in with the new, right?” Harsh, but I wasn’t in the mood for tales of marriage gone bad.
That threw me. “My Pete? When?”
“Just now. Doesn’t sound like he’s yours anymore.”
“Why call you?” I pulled beans from the cupboard, filled the grinder.
“Thought you might need cheering up.”
“Well, isn’t that ever so considerate. I’m fine.”
“You don’t sound fine.”
I said nothing.
“You want to talk, I want to listen.”
I hit the button. Blades whirred. A warm, coffee smell filled the kitchen.
“It’s me. Baby sister.”
I dumped grounds into the Mr. Coffee. Added water.
Did I want to talk?
“Let me call you back.”
Ninety minutes later I’d unloaded everything.
Ryan. Lily. Lutetia. The cold case investigation of the dead and missing girls. Phoebe Jane Quincy. The Lac des Deux Montagnes floater. The Doucets.
My sister is flighty, volatile, and prone to hysterics. But she’s also a world-class listener. She didn’t interrupt.
Finally, I told Harry about Hippo and the skeleton I’d demanded from the coroner in Rimouski. Hippo’s girl.
“I’ve got no words of wisdom on Pete or Ryan, so let’s talk about this skeleton. Let me see if I have this straight. Hippo’s the cold case guy. He learned about the skeleton from his pal, Gaston, who’s also SQ. Gaston had spotted the thing in the company of a cop in the boondocks named Luc Tiquet. Tiquet had confiscated it from two spray-paint punks, Trick and Archie Whalen. They’d bought it from Jerry O’Driscoll’s pawnshop. O’Driscoll had fenced it off an old coot named Tom Jouns. Jouns had unearthed it from an Indian burial ground. That track about right?”
“If everyone’s telling the truth.”
“Life’s full of ifs.”
“Indeed, it is.”
“What kind of Indian burial ground?”
“I don’t know. Maybe Micmac.”
“So the girl was Indian.”
“I think she’s white.”
“You estimate she died at thirteen or fourteen.”
“Of some kind of disease.”
“She was sick, but I don’t know that the illness killed her.”
“I don’t know.”
“What kind of illness?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, there’s something we can put in the paper. How long’s she been dead?”
“I don’t know that either.”
“A long time?”
Harry made a clicking sound.
I drew a deep breath.
“Do you remember Évangéline and Obéline Landry?”
“Think I’m ready for the Texas State Hospital? ’Course I remember. I was nine, you were twelve. They disappeared from Pawleys Island and clean off the face of planet Earth. We spent three years trying to get a bead on them. Burned a busload of coins calling Canada.”
“This sounds a little far-fetched, but there’s a remote possibility Hippo’s girl could actually be Évangéline.”
“The Jouns-O’Driscoll-Whalen-Tiquet-Gaston-Hippo skeleton.”
I told Harry about Laurette and Obéline. And David Bastarache.
“Miserable sonovabitch. Give me a clear shot at his pecker, and that asshole won’t be setting any more fires.”
Harry could mix metaphors like no one I knew. I didn’t point out that this one redefined human anatomy.
Silence hummed across the continent. Then Harry said what I knew Harry would say.
“I’m coming up there.”
“What about selling your house?”
“You think I’m going to stay here diddlin’ with real estate? You’re a smart woman, Tempe, but sometimes I wonder how you pull your undies up in the morning.”
“What are you saying?”
“You’ve got Obéline’s address and telephone number?”
“Do you need a giant finger pointing down at burning shrubbery?”
I let her go on.
“I’ll get my heinie on a plane to la Belle Province. You book us tickets to New Brunswick.”
“You’re suggesting we visit Obéline?”
“For one thing, Hippo will be pissed.”
“Don’t tell him.”
“That would be unprofessional, and potentially dangerous. I’m not a cop, you know. I rely on them.”
“We’ll text him from the forest primeval.”
H ARRY’S PLANE WAS DUE IN AT TEN. I’D BOOKED A NOON FLIGHT to Moncton. Our plan was to meet at the departure gate.
Montreal’s main airport is situated in the west island suburb of Dorval. For years it was simply called Dorval. Made sense to me. Nope. Effective January 1, 2004, YUL was rechristened Pierre Elliott Trudeau International. Locals still call it Dorval.
By ten, I was parked, checked in, and through security. Harry wasn’t yet at gate 12-C. I wasn’t concerned. Dorval’s “welcome to Canada” immigration line usually makes Disney World’s snake-back-and-forth-through-the-ribbon-maze queue look short.
Ten forty-five. Still no Harry. I checked the board. Her flight had landed at 10:07.
At eleven I began to get antsy. I tried reading, but my eyes kept drifting to the tide of faces passing by.
At eleven-fifteen, I started running possibilities.
No passport. Maybe Harry didn’t know that a government-issued photo ID was no longer sufficient to enter Canada by plane.
Missing luggage. Maybe Harry was filling out forms in triplicate and quintuplicate. From previous visits I knew she didn’t travel light.
Smuggling. Maybe Harry was batting her lashes at some steely faced customs agent. Right. That works.
I went back to reading my Jasper Fforde novel.
The man to my right was beefy, wiry-haired, and overflowed a polyester sports jacket several sizes too small. He kept bouncing one knee up and down while tapping his boarding pass on the armrest between us.
Montreal is not Toronto. Unlike its stodgy Anglo neighbor to the west, the island city celebrates gender and sex. Nightly, bars and bistros host the pheromone ball into the wee, small hours. Billboards proclaim upcoming events with risqué double entendre. Along the highways, half-naked models hawk beer, face cream, watches, and jeans. The town pulses with hot blood and sweat.
But the Big Easy North is never prepared for my sister.
When wire-hair went motionless, I knew Harry had arrived.
She did so with her usual flamboyance, standing in the cart, arms spread like Kate Winslet on the Titanic bow. The driver was laughing, tugging her waistband to reconnect her rump with the seat.
The cart slowed, and Harry hopped out. In jeans tight enough to be mistaken for skin, rose and turquoise boots, and a pink Stetson. Spotting me, she whipped off and waved the hat. Blond hair cascaded to her waist.
Behind me, wire-hair remained frozen. I knew others were sharing his sight line. Others with a Y in each of their cells.
Harry bore down. The driver followed, a Sherpa pack-muling Neiman Marcus and Louis Vuitton.
“I was starting to wonder if you’d gotten lost.” Spoken from the con-fines of a spine-crushing hug.
Releasing me, Harry arm-draped the Sherpa. “We were parlay-vooing, weren’t we, An-dray?”
André smiled, clearly at a loss.
As though choreographed, a microphone voice announced the boarding of our flight.
The Sherpa combined two of Harry’s carry-ons and handed them to her, along with a saddlebag shoulder purse. The Neiman Marcus bag was offered to me. I took it.
Harry gave the Sherpa a twenty, a high-beam smile, and a big “mer-cee.”
André zoomed off, a man with a story.
The rental car I’d booked at the Moncton airport was somehow unavailable. An upgrade was offered at the same price.
What type of vehicle?
Spacious. You’ll like it.
Do I have a choice?
While I signed the rental agreement, Harry learned the following.
The agent’s name was George. He was forty-three, divorced, with a ten-year-old son who still wet the bed. Tracadie was a straight shot up Highway 11. Gas was cheap at the Irving station just past Kouchibouguac. Le Coin du pêcheur in Escuminac served a mean lobster roll. The trip would take about two hours.
The spacious upgrade turned out to be a shiny new Cadillac Escalade EXT. Black. Harry was pumped.
“Would you look at this bad buggy. Kickass engine, four-wheel drive, and a trailer hitch. We can boogie this iron pony uphill, downhill, and off the road.”
“I’ll stay on the pavement, thanks. Don’t want to get lost.”
“We won’t.” Harry patted her purse. “I’ve got GPS on my phone.”
We climbed in. The iron pony had that new car smell and an odometer showing forty-five miles. I felt like I was driving a troop carrier.
Though dead on about the sandwich, George had been wildly optimistic on the drive time north.
When we pulled into Tracadie my watch said seven-twenty. Eight-twenty local. Why so long? You guessed it. Harry.
The upside? We’d made friends with an RCMP constable named Kevin Martel, and with most of the residents of Escuminac. We also had snaps of ourselves arm in arm before Le plus gros homard du monde. Shediac was a detour, but how often can one pose in front of the world’s biggest lobster?
At check-in, the nice motel lady told Harry of a restaurant with traditional Acadian food and an outdoor deck. I waited while Harry blow-dried her bangs, then we headed to the waterfront.
Plastic tables. Plastic chairs. Plastic menus.
Nice atmosphere, though. We shared it with men in ball caps hauling on long-necked beers.
The air was cool and smelled of fish and salty mud. The water was dark and restless, flecked by white from a rising moon. Now and then an insomniac gull cried out, stopped, as though surprised by its own voice.
Harry ordered spaghetti. I went for the cod and potatoes. When the waitress left, Harry pointed to a newspaper abandoned on the adjacent table. L’Acadie Nouvelle.
“OK, chief. Background. Starting with where the hell we are.”
“Tracadie-Sheila.” I pronounced it Shy-la, like the locals.
“That much I know.”
“In the belly of L’Acadie, homeland to the distinctive, four-century-old Acadian culture.”
“You sound like one of those travel brochures in the motel lobby.”
“I read four while you were doing touch-up on your bangs.”
“They were greasy.”
“Except for the little jog into Shediac, we traveled north today, paralleling the Northumberland Strait. We’re now on the Acadian Peninsula. Remember driving past signs for Neguac?”
“The Acadian Peninsula stretches approximately two hundred kilometers up from Neguac, along New Brunswick’s northeastern coast, out to Miscou Island at the tip, then around Chaleurs Bay to Bathurst. There are about two hundred and forty-two thousand French speakers living in the province; about sixty thousand of those are right here on the peninsula.”
Our food arrived. We spent a few moments adding Parmesan and shaking salt and pepper.
“People here trace their unique brand of French, their music, even their cooking style back to Poitou and Brittany.”
“In France.” Harry was a master of the obvious.
“Ancestors of today’s Acadians started arriving in the New World as early as the late seventeenth century, bringing those traditions with them.”
“Didn’t they all move to New Orleans? Évangéline used to talk about that.”
“Not exactly. In 1755, the English ordered the expulsion of some ten thousand French speakers from Nova Scotia. Acadians call the deportation le Grand Dérangement. Lands were confiscated and people were hunted down and shipped off, mainly to France and the United States. Today, maybe a million Americans claim Acadian ancestry, most of those in Louisiana. We call them Cajuns.”
“I’ll be damned.” Harry pounded more cheese onto her pasta. “Why did the English want them out?”
“For refusing to pledge allegiance to the British Crown. Some managed to escape the sweeps, and took refuge up here, along the Restigouche and Miramichi rivers, and along the shores of the Bay of Chaleurs. In the late 1700s, they were joined by Acadians returning from exile.”
“So the French were allowed to come back?”
“Yes, but the English were still dominant and hostile as hell, so an isolated finger of land jutting out into the Gulf of St. Lawrence seemed like a good bet for a place in which they’d be left alone. A lot of them hunkered in here.”
Harry twirled spaghetti, thought working in her eyes.
“What was that poem you and Évangéline were always playacting?”
“‘Evangeline,’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It’s about a pair of doomed Acadian lovers. Gabriel is carried south against his will by the English order of expulsion. Evangeline sets out across America looking for him.”
“Things don’t go well.”
“Bummer.” Harry downed the pasta, retwirled another forkful. “Remember how I’d nag until you’d give me a part?”
“Oh, yeah.” I pictured Harry, skinny arms crossed, suntanned face a mask of defiance. “You’d last about ten minutes, start whining about the heat, then wander off, leaving us with a gap in casting.”
“I got lousy roles with no lines. A tree. Or a stupid prison guard.”
“Stardom doesn’t come overnight.”
Rolling her eyes, Harry twirled more pasta.
“I always liked Évangéline. She was”—Harry searched for a word—“kind. I also thought she was exceedingly glamorous. Probably because she was five years older than me.”
“I was three years older.”
“Yeah, but you’re my sister. I’ve seen you eating Cool Whip out of the carton with your fingers.”
“No, you haven’t.”
We smiled at each other, remembering a time of backseat car rides, roller-coaster birthdays, make-believe, and Nancy Drew searches for lost friends. A simpler time. A time when Harry and I were a team.
Eventually, conversation shifted to Obéline.
Should we call ahead, give warning of our upcoming visit? Obéline was barely six when we’d last been together. Her life since had been rough. Her mother was dead, perhaps her sister. Bastarache had abused her. She’d been disfigured by fire. We disagreed on the warmth of the welcome we’d face. Harry felt we’d be greeted like long-lost friends. I wasn’t so sure.
When we settled the check it was well past ten. Too late to phone. Decision made. We’d arrive unannounced.
Our motel was across the inlet from the restaurant. Heading back down Highway 11, I guessed we were recrossing the Little Tracadie River Bridge No. 15. I remembered Hippo’s story, pitied the hapless soul who’d stumbled onto the crankshafted corpse.
I had only one revelation that night.
When Harry wears jeans, she goes commando.
Harry insisted on pancakes in the morning.
Our waitress was squat, with maraschino lipstick and wispy hair somewhere between butter and cream. She provided copious coffee, advice on nail polish, and directions toward the address Hippo had given me.
Highway 11, then east on Rue Sureau Blanc. Right turn at the end of the green fence. Then another. What’s the family name?
Bastarache. Do you know them?
The wrinkled lips crimped into a thin red line. No.
That’ll be all, then?
Even Harry couldn’t cajole the woman into further conversation.
By nine we were back in the Escalade.
Tracadie isn’t big. By nine-fifteen we were turning onto a residential street that might have fit into any suburb on the continent. Well-tended flower beds. Neatly edged lawns. Fresh-enough paint. Most of the houses looked like they’d been built in the eighties.
Hippo’s address took us to a high stone wall at the far end of the block. A plaque gave notice of a residence beyond. An unclasped padlock hung from the rusted iron gate. Harry got out and swung it wide.
A mossy brick drive bisected lawn losing out to weeds. At the end loomed a brick, stone, and timber house with a weathered shingle roof. Not a mansion, but not a shack, either.
Harry and I sat a moment, staring at the dark windows. They stared back, offering nothing.
“Looks like Ye Olde Rod and Gun Club,” Harry said.
She was right. The place had the air of a hunting lodge.
Harry nodded. She’d been unnaturally quiet since rising. Other than a brief tête-à-tête concerning her aversion to underpants, I’d left her in peace. I figured she was sorting remembrances of Obéline. Bracing herself for the scarred woman we were about to encounter. I was.
Wordlessly, we got out and walked to the house.
Overnight, clouds had rolled in, thick and heavy with moisture. The morning promised rain.
Finding no bell, I knocked on the door. It was dark oak, with a leaded glass panel that yielded no hint of a presence beyond.
I rapped again, this time on the glass. My knuckles fired off a sharp rat-a-tat-tat.
A gull looped overhead, cawing news of the upcoming storm. Tide reports. Gossip known only to the Larus mind.
Harry put her face to the glass.
“No movement inside,” she said.
“Maybe she’s a late sleeper.”
Harry straightened and turned. “With our luck, she’s in Wichita Falls.”
“Why would Obéline go to Wichita Falls?”
“Why would anyone go to Wichita Falls?”
I looked around. Not a neighboring structure nearby.
“I’ll check in back.”
“I’ll cover the front, sir.” Saluting, Harry slipped her saddlebag purse from her shoulder. It dropped by her feet with a thup.
Stepping from the porch, I circled to my right.
A stone deck ran almost the full length of the back of the house. A wing paralleled the deck’s far side, tangential to and invisible from out front. It looked newer, its trim brighter than that on the rest of the structure. I wondered if I was looking at the site of the fire.
The deck held a patio set, a barbecue grill, and several lawn chairs, all empty. Climbing to it, I crossed and peered through a set of double glass doors.
Standard kitchen appliances. Pine table and captains chairs. Cat-cuckoo clock with a pendulum tail.
Center island. A paring knife, a paper towel, and a peeled apple skin.
I felt my nerves tingle.
Past an expanse of lawn stood a small gazebo-like structure. Past the gazebo, water, rough and gunmetal gray. An inlet of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, I presumed.
Strange columns flanked the gazebo’s entrance, tall, with projections forward and to the sides. Atop each was an unidentifiable shape.
Through the gazebo’s screening I could dimly make out a silhouette. My mind logged detail.
Small, probably female. Hunched. Still.
The maybe-Obéline woman had her back to me. I couldn’t tell if she was reading, dozing, or merely gazing seaward.
I moved forward, senses still logging information. A wind chime tinkling notes. Wet grass. Explosions of froth against a seawall.
Drawing closer, I realized the columns had been carved into stacks of zoomorphic creatures. The projections were beaks and wings. The shapes on top were renderings of stylized birds.
Then, recognition, prompted by anthropology studies of years ago. The gazebo had once been a sweat house, later modified by replacing walls with screening.
The assemblage looked thousands of miles out of place. Totem poles and sweat houses were built by peoples of the Pacific Northwest, the Tlingit, Haida, or Kwakiutl, not by the Micmac or other tribes of the Maritimes.
Ten feet back, I stopped.
The woman’s head snapped up.
“Quisse qué là?” Who’s there? Acadian French.
The woman didn’t reply.
“Tempe. From Pawleys Island.”
“Harry is here, too.”
A hand rose, hovered, as though uncertain of its purpose.
“We were friends. You and Harry. Évangéline and I.”
“Pour l’amour du bon Dieu.” Whispered.
“I knew Tante Euphémie and Oncle Fidèle.”
The hand shot to the woman’s forehead, dropped to her chest, then crossed from shoulder to shoulder.
“I’ve been looking for you for a very long time.”
Pushing to her feet, the woman draped a shawl on her head, hesitated, then shuffled to the door.
A hand reached out.
The woman stepped into daylight.
M EMORY IS CAPRICIOUS, SOMETIMES PLAYING STRAIGHT, SOMETIMES deceiving. It can shield, deny, tantalize, or just plain err.
There was no mistake or dissembling here.
Though I saw only half the woman’s face, I felt I’d taken a body blow. Dark gypsy eye, petulant upper lip swooping down to a diminutive lower. Brown blemish on her cheek in the shape of a leaping frog.
Obéline giggling. Évangéline tickling, teasing. Frog-freckle face! Frog-freckle face!
The jawline was sagging, the skin deeply etched. No matter. The woman was an aged and weathered mutation of the child I’d known on Pawleys Island.
My eyes welled up.
I saw Obéline, little legs churning, crying to be included in our games. Évangéline and I had read her stories, costumed her in sequins and tutus, built her sand castles on the beach. But, mostly, we’d sent her away.
I forced a smile. “Harry and I missed you both terribly.”
“What do you want?”
“To talk with you.”
“We’d like to understand why you left so suddenly. Why Évangéline never answered my letters.”
“How did you get this address?” Her voice was wire-thin, her breathing and swallowing measured, perhaps a product of speech therapy following the fire. “Do you work for the police?”
I told her I worked for the coroner in Montreal.
“This coroner sent you to find me?”
“It’s a long story. I’d like to share it.”
Obéline twisted the fabric bunched at her chin. The skin on her fingers was lumpy and waxy-white, like oatmeal congealed on the bottom of a pot.
“The horror comes real.”
“I’m sorry?” Obéline’s chiac accent was so strong I wasn’t catching all her words.
“The nightmare made truth.”
She ignored my question. “Harry is here?”
“At your front door.”
Her gaze drifted past me, lingered, I suspected, on a moment long past.
Then, “Join her. I will let you in.”
After sliding what sounded like a hundred deadbolts, Obéline admitted us to a foyer giving onto a wide central hall. Light diffusing through leaded glass windows gave an ephemeral cast to the large, empty space.
Ahead, I noted an ornately carved staircase; suspended from the ceiling, a faux Louis-the-something chandelier. The hall was furnished with carved and painted high-backed benches, more artifacts from the Pacific Northwest.
In spots, the floral wallpaper was marked by brighter rose and green rectangles, evidence that paintings or portraits had been removed. The floor was covered by a massive antique Persian Sarouk Farahan carpet that must have cost more than my condo.
Obéline’s shawl was now wrapped below her chin and tied at the back of her neck. Up close, the reason was obvious. Her right eyelid drooped and her right cheek looked like blistered marble.
Involuntarily, my eyes broke contact with hers. I wondered, How would I feel were I the scarred one and she the visitor from so long ago?
Harry said howdy. Obéline said bonjour. Both were restrained. Neither touched the other. I knew Harry was feeling the same pity and sadness as I.
Obéline indicated that we should accompany her. Harry fell into step, head swiveling from side to side. I followed.
Heavy pocket doors sealed off rooms to the right and left of the main hall. Beyond the staircase, regular doors gave onto other rooms and closets. A small crucifix hung above each.
Clearly, the architect hadn’t been tasked with bringing Mother Nature into the back of the house. Even so, the small parlor to which we were led was much dimmer than mandated by the paucity of glass. Every window was shuttered, every panel closed. Two brass table lamps cast a minimum wattage of light.
“S’il vous plaît.” Indicating a gold velveteen loveseat.
Harry and I sat. Obéline took a wing chair on the far side of the room, snugged her sleeves down her wrists, and cupped one hand into the other in her lap.
“Harry and Tempe.” Our names sounded odd with the chiac inflection.
“Your home is lovely.” I started out casual. “And the totem poles are quite striking. Am I correct in assuming the gazebo was once a sweat house?”
“My father-in-law had an employee whose passion was Native art. The man lived many years in this house.”
“The structure is unusual.”
“The man was…” She groped for an adjective. “…unusual.”
“I noticed the carved benches in your foyer. Do you have many pieces from his collection?”
“A few. When my father-in-law died, my husband fired this man. The parting was not amicable.”
“I’m sorry. Those things are always difficult.”
“It had to be done.”
Beside me, Harry cleared her throat.
“And I’m very sorry your marriage turned out badly,” I said, softening my voice.
“So you’ve heard the story.”
“Part of it, yes.”
“I was sixteen, poor, with few choices.” With her good hand, she flicked something from her skirt. “David found me beautiful. Marriage offered a way out. So many years ago.”
Screw small talk. I went for what I wanted to know. “Where did you go, Obéline?”
She knew what I was asking. “Here, of course.”
“You never returned to Pawleys Island.”
“Mama got sick.”
“She needed care.”
It wasn’t really an answer.
I wondered what illness had killed Laurette. Let it go.
“You left without saying good-bye. Tante Euphémie and Oncle Fidèle refused to tell us anything. Your sister stopped writing. Many of my letters came back unopened.”
“Évangéline went to live with Grand-père Landry.”
“Wouldn’t her mail have been sent there?”
“She was far out in the country. You know the postal service.”
“Why did she move?”
“When Mama couldn’t work, her husband’s people took control.” Had her voice hardened, or was it a by-product of the painfully recrafted speech?
“Your parents reunited?”
Several moments passed, awkward, filled only by the ticking of a clock.
Obéline broke the silence.
“May I offer you sodas?”
Obéline disappeared through the same door by which we’d entered.
“You couldn’t at least try English?” Harry sounded annoyed.
“I want her to feel comfortable.”
“I heard you say Pawleys Island. What’s the scoop?”
“They were brought back here because Laurette got sick.”
“She didn’t say.”
Harry rolled her eyes.
I took in the room. The walls were covered with amateur landscapes and still lifes marked by garish colors and distorted proportions. Cases of books and collections of bric-a-brac gave the small space a cluttered, claustrophobic feel. Glass birds. Snow globes. Dream catchers. White hobnail dishes and candlesticks. Music boxes. Statues of the Virgin Mary and her minions. Saint Andrew? Francis? Peter? A painted plaster bust. That one I knew. Nefertiti.
Obéline returned, face fixed in its same unreadable expression. She handed out Sprites, making eye contact with neither Harry nor me. Resuming her seat, she focused on her soft drink. One thumb worked the can, clearing moisture with nervous up-and-down flicks.
Again, I honed in like a missile.
“What happened to Évangéline?”
The thumb stopped. Obéline’s lopsided gaze rose to mine.
“But that’s what you have come to tell me, no?”
“What do you mean?”
“You came to say they’ve found my sister’s grave.”
My heart somersaulted. “Évangéline is dead?”
Unable to follow the French, Harry had grown bored and begun scanning book titles. Her head whipped around at the sharpness of my tone.
Obéline wet her lips but didn’t speak.
“When did she die?” I could barely form the words.
Two years after leaving the island. Dear God.
I pictured the skeleton in my lab, its ruined face and damaged fingers and toes.
“Was Évangéline sick?”
“Of course she wasn’t sick. That’s crazy talk. She was only sixteen.”
Too quick? Or was I being paranoid?
“Please, Obéline. Tell me what happened.”
“Does it matter anymore?”
“It matters to me.”
Carefully, Obéline set her drink on the gate-leg table at her side. Adjusted her shawl. Smoothed her skirt. Laid her hands in her lap. Looked at them.
“Mama was bedridden. Grand-père couldn’t work. It fell to Évangéline to bring home a check.”
“She was only a kid.” I was doing a poor job of masking my feelings.
“Things were different then.”
The statement hung in the air.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
I was too dejected to push.
No matter. Obéline continued without prodding.
“When we were separated, at first I wanted to die.”
“My mother and sister moved in with Grand-père. I was sent to live with a Landry cousin. But Évangéline and I talked. Not often. But I knew what was happening.
“In the mornings and evenings, Évangéline nursed Mama. The rest of the day she worked as a maid. A portion of her pay was sent for my support.”
“What was wrong with your mother?”
“I don’t know. I was much too young.”
Again, too rapid?
“Where was your father?”
“If we ever meet, I’ll make certain to ask. That will be in another life, of course.”
She nodded. “It was hard on Évangéline. I wanted to help, but I was so little. What could I do?”
“Neither of you attended school?”
“I went for a few years. Évangéline already knew how to read and do math.”
My friend, who loved books and stories, and wanted to be a poet. I didn’t trust myself to comment.
“Mama died,” Obéline continued. “Four months later it was Grand-père.”
Obéline stopped. Composing herself? Organizing recollections? Triaging what to share and what to hold back?
“Two days after Grand-père’s funeral, I was taken to his house. Someone had brought empty boxes. I was told to pack everything. I was in an upstairs bedroom when I heard yelling. I crept downstairs and listened outside the kitchen door.
“Évangéline was arguing with a man. I couldn’t hear their words, but their voices frightened me. I ran back upstairs. Hours later, as we were leaving, I saw into the kitchen.” She swallowed. “Blood. On the wall. More on the table. Bloody rags in the sink.”
“What did you do?”
“Nothing. What could I do? I was terrified. I kept it to myself.”
“Who was the man?”
“I don’t know.”
“What happened to Évangéline?”
“I never saw her again.”
“What did they tell you?”
“She ran away. I didn’t ask about the blood or whether she was hurt. She wasn’t there and I had to go back to the Landrys.”
Tick. Tick. Tick.
“I was eight years old.” Obéline’s voice was trembling now. “There were no safe zones or child abuse counselors back then. Kids had no one to talk to.”
“Do you? Do you know what it’s like to live with such a secret?” Tears broke from her eyes. Pulling a tissue from her pocket, she wiped them away, blew her nose, and tossed the wad onto the table. “Do you know how it feels to lose everyone you love at such a young age?”
Images competed for my attention. Évangéline reading by the light of my Girl Scout flashlight. Évangéline spreading peanut butter on graham crackers. Évangéline caped in a beach towel, off to rescue her lover. Kevin. Daddy. Hippo’s girl, long dead, lying in my lab.
Crossing to Obéline, I squatted, and placed my hands on her knees. I felt trembling in her legs, caught the soft scent of muguet. Lily of the Valley.
“I do,” I whispered. “Really, I do.”
She wouldn’t look at me. I dropped my eyes, unwilling to intrude on the ravaged face.
We sat a moment, heads bowed, a frozen tableau of grief. Watching tears darken her skirt in small, perfect circles, I wondered how much to reveal.
Should I tell her about the young girl’s bones? Could I have been off in my estimate of Hippo’s girl’s age? Could she have been as old as sixteen?
This woman had lost her mother, sister, and grandfather almost at once. Her father had abandoned her. Her husband had beaten, then left her, then tried to burn her to death. Mentioning the skeleton might raise hopes that would later be dashed.
No. I wouldn’t compound her pain. I would wait until I was certain.
And now that was possible.
“I’m very tired.” Obéline pulled another tissue, dabbed her lower lids.
“Let me help you to bed.”
“No. Please. The gazebo.”
Harry stood. “May I use the ladies’?”
Obéline answered without raising her head. “Through the kitchen. Through the bedroom.”
I translated again, then cocked my chin at Obéline’s soft drink. Harry nodded, understanding my silent direction.
Arm-wrapping Obéline’s waist, I eased her to her feet. She allowed herself to be supported through the kitchen, over the deck, and across the yard. At the gazebo, she stepped away and said good-bye.
I was turning to go, when a sudden thought stopped me.
“May I ask one more question?”
Obéline gave a half nod, wary.
“Évangéline worked as a maid. Do you know where?”
Her response stunned me.
“D ROIT ICI .” RIGHT HERE.
“In this house.”
“In this house?” I was too shocked to do other than ape her words.
“I don’t understand.”
“Évangéline worked for my husband’s father.”
Something flicked in her eyes. Surprise at the extent of my knowledge?
“The Landry and Bastarache families have been linked for generations. My father’s father and his brothers helped my husband’s grandfather, Siméon, build this house. When Mama got sick, my husband’s father offered Évangéline a job. Hilaire was a widower and knew nothing about laundry or cleaning. She needed work.”
“Ten years later you married his son.”
“David was generous, paid my support after Évangéline was gone. Visited me. His father died in 1980. He proposed. I accepted.”
“You were sixteen. He was thirty.”
“It was my only option.”
I found the answer peculiar but let it go.
“You’ve lived in this house ever since?”
“Are you all right here?”
Beat. “This is where I want to be.”
I started to ask how she was supporting herself. Then didn’t. I felt tight bands compressing my chest. I swallowed. Took her hand.
“I promise you, Obéline. I will do everything to discover what happened to Évangéline.”
Her face remained impassive.
I gave her my card, hugged her.
“I’ll speak with you again.”
She didn’t say good-bye as I walked away. Rounding the house, I glanced back. She was entering the gazebo, scarf tails dancing in the breeze.
Harry was waiting in the Escalade. When I got in, she smiled and patted her purse.
“You didn’t touch the rim, right?”
“Any moron with a TV knows better than that.” Harry grinned a grin that hoisted warning flags in my brain.
“You’ll be proud of your baby sister.”
Oh no. “Tell me.”
“I also bagged the tissues.”
Pleased, and relieved, I held up a palm. Harry high-fived it. We both grinned, the Brennan sisters sleuthing again.
“What now?” she asked.
“Once back in Montreal, I’ll ship the can and tissues and a skeletal sample to an independent lab. If they can extract DNA from the bone, and compare it to Obéline’s DNA, we’ll know if the skeleton is Évangéline.”
“Why send it out?”
“Our lab doesn’t do mitochondrial DNA.”
“And I’m sure that’s important.”
“With old bone, you’re much more likely to get mitochondrial than nuclear DNA. There are more copies in each cell.”
“It’s Évangéline,” Harry said.
“The chance is one in a billion.”
“Where do you get your odds?”
“OK. I made that up. But it’s highly improbable that Évangéline’s skeleton has just, out of the blue, landed in my lab.”
“Think what you want. That little voice in my heart is telling me it’s her.”
When Harry makes one of her extraordinary leaps of imagination, it’s pointless to argue. I started to do so anyway, stopped, remembering. Sometimes, illogically, my sister is right.
I looked at my watch. Eleven-ten. Our flight was leaving at six-something.
“Head toward Moncton?” I asked.
“How ’bout lunch?”
“We just ate five pounds of pancakes each.”
“I thought you were worried about your spreading derriere.”
“A girl gumshoe’s gotta keep up her strength.”
“You lifted two tissues and a soda can.”
“Fine. Then straight to the airport.”
Driving into town, my head reeled with images. Obéline’s dead eyes and disfigured face. Laurette on her deathbed. A blood-smeared wall and table. Bloody rags. Appalling visions of Évangéline’s last moments.
I was anxious to get to the lab to reassess the skeletal age of Hippo’s girl. To package and FedEx the DNA samples. I began formulating arguments to get my case bumped to the head of the line. I could think of only one that might work. Money.
Harry chose a brasserie on the Rue Principale. She liked the awning. The menu was uninspired. We both ordered burgers.
The conversation wavered between past and present. Obéline now. The four of us decades earlier on Pawleys Island. As we talked I saw flashes of Harry and myself, pillow fighting, cookie baking, school bus waiting, backpacks filled with our young lives and dreams.
Despite my sadness over Obéline, Ryan, and the dead and missing girls, I couldn’t help smiling. Harry’s enthusiasm for finding Évangéline surpassed even mine. Sitting in that booth, listening to her animated planning, I realized how very much I love my little sister. I was glad she had come.
Emerging from the restaurant, we saw two men lounging on the Escalade.
“Well, if it isn’t Cheech and Chong.”
“You gotta admit, those guys aren’t auditioning for the cover of GQ.”
Harry was right. The men were in total-body denim, boots, and black tees. Personal hygiene didn’t appear to be a priority. Though the day was overcast, both wore shades.
“Pretty buff, though.”
“Let me handle this.” I didn’t need Harry riling or seducing the indigenous folk.
“Bonjour.” I smiled and waggled the car keys.
Cheech and Chong remained butt-leaning on the Escalade.
“Sorry, but we need to motor.” Light, friendly.
“Thanks.” As I moved toward the driver’s side, Chong extended an arm, catching me at chest level.
“No fly zone, buddy.” Harry’s tone was a million light-years from friendly.
Stepping back, I frowned at Chong, then repeated what I’d said, this time in French. Still, the men didn’t budge.
“What the hell’s wrong with you boys?” Harry was glaring from Cheech to Chong, hands on her hips.
Chong smiled from behind his dark lenses. “Eh, mon chouchou. Big truck for little girls.” Chiac-accented English.
Neither Harry or I answered.
“You pals with Obéline Landry?”
“I don’t believe that’s any of your business.” Harry was in war mode.
“We were childhood friends,” I said, trying to defuse the situation.
“Shame what happened to her.” Chong’s shades were now pointing at me.
I didn’t reply.
“You two are going to hoist your bony arses from that vehicle right now so my sister and I can be on our way.”
I crimped my eyes in a “cool it” warning. Shooting a hip, Harry pursed her lips and folded her arms.
“Mrs. Landry in good health?”
“She claiming Bastarache is one sick bastard?”
I didn’t reply.
Cheech pushed from the hood. Chong followed.
“You ladies have a good trip back to Montreal.” Unlike his partner, Cheech was Anglophone.
Harry opened her mouth. I hushed her with a hand.
Stepping onto the curb, Cheech made a gun of his thumb and forefinger and aimed it in our direction. “And be careful with those fine wheels.”
Driving off, I glanced into the rearview mirror. The men were still standing on the sidewalk, watching our departure.
On the plane, Harry and I again discussed Obéline, and speculated about our encounter with Cheech and Chong.
“Testosterone weenies trying to impress.”
“I’m not so sure,” I said.
“Probably amuse themselves making fart noises under their armpits.”
I wasn’t convinced that it was that casual.
The men knew we’d visited Obéline. Knew we’d come from Montreal. How? Had they been following us? Was Cheech’s parting comment a threat or merely a macho adieu? Not wishing to alarm, I kept these concerns to myself.
Back at the condo, Birdie remained hidden, cheesed off at having been left alone. I was dumping my overnighter on my bed when Harry called out.
“Your bird’s a Korn fan?”
“What did he say?”
“You don’t want to know.”
Though Charlie’s quips weren’t always approved for all audiences, I couldn’t help but admire the breadth of his material. I was transporting him to the dining room when my cell phone chirped.
Depositing the cage, I checked the screen. No caller ID.
I clicked on.
“How’s it going?” Ryan sounded tired.
“Got a minute?”
“Do you have everything you need?” I asked Harry.
She mouthed “Ryan?”
She arm-pumped “Yes!”
Shaking my head, I walked to my bedroom and closed the door.
“Do you listen to Korn?” I asked.
“Black Eyed Peas?”
“Someone there at your place?”
Ryan was good. Two queries in one casual question. Am I home? Am I alone?
“Unplanned trip?” Query three.
“She’s split with her husband.”
I heard a deep inhalation followed by a slow exhalation. Ryan was smoking. That meant he was anxious. Or angry. I braced for a rant about my trip to Tracadie. It didn’t come.
“I need your help.”
“Warrant came through, so we tossed Cormier’s studio. Took all friggin’ day to get through maybe an eighth of the file cabinets. Guy’s got crap going back decades.”
“He doesn’t store his images digitally?”
“Dickhead thinks he’s Ansel Adams. Claims digital can’t capture the same ethereal quality as film. Uses a Hasselblad that went out of production sometime in the eighties. The guy’s probably too thick to keep up with technology.”
“There are other photographers who agree with him.”
“Cormier does mostly portraits. Couples. Pets. Lots of women. Glamour shots. You know, heavy makeup, big hair.”
“You should try that. Maybe with a boa.”
“Is that what you called to tell me?”
“Cormier also did kids. Hundreds of them.”
“Phoebe Jane Quincy?”
I didn’t ask about Claudine Cloquet or Anne Girardin.
Ryan dragged smoke into his lungs, released it. I waited for him to get to the point.
“I want you to browse through the kiddie shots. See if you spot any of my MP’s. Or the kid recovered from the Dorval riverbank.”
“Her photo was circulated in 2001 when the body was found.”
“It was an autopsy pic. People tune out.”
Ryan was right. And I’d seen it go both ways. Next of kin giving a positive on a body that wasn’t a relative, or failing to recognize one that was.
“You know bones.” Ryan was still talking. “Facial architecture. You see someone resembling one of my MP’s or DOA’s, maybe at a younger age, maybe all vamped up, you could do that thing you do with surveillance tapes.”
Ryan was referring to a technique in which images are compared metrically, one of a known suspect, another of a perpetrator caught on camera. Measurements are taken between anatomical landmarks, ratios are calculated, and statistical probabilities are computed as to whether the suspect under arrest and the perp caught on tape are the same individual.
“I suppose it’s worth a shot. I could also dig out the facial approximation we did on the girl recovered from the Rivière des Mille Îles.”
“I’ll pick you up at eight.”
“You really think Cormier is dirty?”
“The guy’s a sleaze.”
“What about his home?”
“Judge says get something from that studio linked to one of these kids. Then he’ll cut paper.”
I opened my bedroom door. Coincidentally, Harry just happened to be passing by.
“Your evidence.” She held up her purse. Quickly.
“Are you suggesting I was eavesdropping?”
“I’ll get some ziplocks.”
When I returned from the kitchen, Harry was sitting cross-legged on my bed. Reversing each baggie over my hand, I removed the can, then the tissues from Harry’s purse.
“You’ve done some doggie-poop scooping,” Harry observed.
“I’ve got something else.”
Reclaiming her purse, Harry pulled an object from the side pocket and laid it on the bed.
The significance didn’t register at first. I picked the thing up.
And felt a buzz of excitement.
“Where did you get this?”
“Obéline’s bedside table.”
I WAS HOLDING A SMALL BOOK WITH A DELICATE GREEN RIBBON curling from the binding. The cover was red. The lettering was black.
Bones to Ashes: An Exultation of Poems.
“Looks like one of those sixties things quoting Mao,” Harry said.
“You stole this?”
“I liberated it.” Sanctimonious. “Mao would approve.”
I turned back the cover. The pages were grainy and yellow, the same cheap paper used in comic books. The print was faded and fuzzy.
No author. No date. No ISBN number. Besides the title, the volume’s only identifier was the name of the publisher. O’Connor House.
I flipped to the last page. Sixty-eight. Blank.
I opened to the ribbon. It was marking a poem titled the same as the collection.
“It’s poetry, Tempe.” Harry’s body language told me she was pumped.
“I’ve never heard of O’Connor House. Could be a vanity press.”
“A vanity press charges the author for printing and binding.”
Harry looked confused.
“A commercial publisher’s intended market is the general public. A vanity press’s intended market is the author him-or herself.”
The heavily mascaraed eyes widened.
“OK. That computes. Évangéline wanted to be a poet, right?”
“What if she’s the author?”
I looked at Harry’s excited face.
“We have absolutely no reason to believe that’s so,” I said, knowing I was about to hear one of my sister’s imaginative but virtually baseless hypotheses.
“Any guess why I snitched this particular little volume?”
I shook my head.
“Did you notice the books in that parlor?” She didn’t wait for my answer. “’Course not. You were parlay-voo-ing. But I did. There were dozens. Scores. Every last one in French. Same in the bedroom. Which, don’t get your gizzard twirling, I had to traverse to get to the loo. The one and only English book in that whole place was this one. And it was lying right by Obéline’s bed.”
“What’s your point?”
“One lonely little English paperback? Right there at her bedside?”
“That hardly means—”
“Maybe Obéline rounded up Évangéline’s poetry and had it printed. Like a memorial. You know? Her sister’s dream made real?”
“I suppose it’s a possibility. In that case it was very wrong of us to take it from her.”
Harry leaned forward, eager. “We’ll return it. It’s a clue. We run this publisher to ground, maybe we learn something about Évangéline. Maybe we tank. So what? It won’t hurt the book.”
I couldn’t argue with her reasoning.
“My thinking, it’s worth a look-see.”
“I have to help Ryan tomorrow. And I need to reexamine the skeleton.”
Harry scrambled from the bed, tossed her hair over her shoulders.
“Leave it all to baby sister.”
Ryan arrived at seven-forty. I buzzed him in, suspecting the early landing was geared toward a glimpse of Harry.
Sorry, buckaroo. The Starlet of Slumber won’t rise for four hours.
I pointed Ryan to the coffee, then finished my morning toilette, wondering if he and Harriet Lee actually had “hooked up” during her previous visit. Katy lingo. My prurient curiosity.
When I emerged from the bathroom, Ryan was deep in conversation with Charlie. Birdie was observing from the sofa back.
“Cheaper to keep her.” Sidestepping back and forth on his perch.
“Buddy Guy.” The cornflower eyes swiveled to me. “Charlie’s a blues man.”
“Charlie’s a cockatiel with a bawdy beak.” I forced my voice stern. “Are you using his training CD’s?”
“Religiously.” All innocence. “Aren’t we, pal?”
As though complicit, Charlie whistled a line from “Pop Goes the Weasel.”
“He’s picked up Korn lyrics,” I said.
“I told you. I’m not into Korn.”
Embarrassed realization. Pulling on his nose, Ryan looked away.
Something clicked in my mind.
New CD’s. New musical taste. Lutetia had already moved in with Ryan. I wondered how long it had been.
“Let’s go,” I said, unhappiness settling in my stomach like lead.
Cormier’s studio was in a redbrick three-flat near the intersection of Saint-Laurent and Rachel. The building’s first floor was rented by a dentist named Brigault. The occupant of the third offered something that required a reading knowledge of Chinese.
Ryan noticed me studying the nameplate.
“Ho. Does acupuncture and Tui Na.”
“What’s Tui Na?”
“I was hoping you could tell me.”
Hippo was unlocking Cormier’s studio when Ryan and I clomped onto the second-floor landing. At his feet sat a cardboard tray holding a white paper bag and three plastic-lidded cups.
During my brief absence in New Brunswick, Montreal’s heat spell had soldiered on undiminished. The cramped hall was cooking, the air reeking of dust and mildew.
Pushing open the door, Hippo pulled a hanky from his pocket and wiped sweat from his face. Then he looked at me.
“Jet-lagged?” he asked, not kindly.
Not waiting for an answer, he squatted, scooped the tray from the threadbare carpet, and disappeared into the flat.
“What was that all about?” Ryan asked.
I shook my head.
I’d telephoned Hippo from the Moncton airport, but as we were leaving, not when we’d arrived. His displeasure was apparent. He’d asked for detailed descriptions of Cheech and Chong, then rung off abruptly.
Cormier’s apartment was what Montreal realtors call a four-and-a-half. He used the large living-dining room in front for his shoots. Arranged next to the walls were various types of photographic equipment. Lights. Backdrops. Meters. Sheets of colored plastic.
One bedroom functioned as an office, the other was strictly for storage. I estimated the rooms held maybe forty file cabinets between them.
The larger bathroom had been converted to a darkroom. The source, I assumed, of the vaguely acrid odor permeating the flat. Curling irons, blow-dryers, and lighted mirrors suggested the smaller bathroom served as a makeup and changing area.
The tiny kitchen retained its original function. There, we had sticky buns and coffee, and discussed strategy.
“How are the cabinets organized?” I asked.
“They got drawers. Each drawer’s stuffed with folders.”
Ryan’s brows lifted at Hippo’s sarcasm, but he said nothing.
“Are the folders arranged alphabetically by client name? By date? By category?” I spoke patiently, a parent to a derisive teen.
“My best assessment, Cormier’s system went something like this. Done. Paid. Shove it in the drawer.” The rusty voice was cool.
“So he separated paid from unpaid accounts?”
“Convoluted, eh?” Hippo reached for his third sticky bun. “Probably take some air travel to crack this baby.”
Ryan jumped in. “Cormier kept an in-basket on his desk for open accounts. Otherwise, his filing doesn’t seem to follow any pattern.”
“The cabinets should at least reflect a rough chronology, right?”
“They’re not that old,” Ryan said. “At some point, Cormier must have transferred materials from elsewhere. Looks like he just shoved crap into drawers.”
The strategy we settled upon went something like this. Take a cabinet. Work from top to bottom, front to back. Pull any file in which the subject was young and female.
Who says detective work isn’t complex?
Though Ryan opened windows in the parlor and kitchen, little breeze penetrated to the windowless bedrooms in the back of the flat. Four hours into the task, my eyes itched and my shirt was saturated.
Cormier had stored many of his records in large brown or blue envelopes. The rest he’d placed in standard manila jackets, the kind you buy at Staples.
And Ryan was right. The guy was lazy. In some drawers he hadn’t even bothered to set the files upright, choosing instead to dump them flat in piles.
Most envelopes were marked with the client’s name in black felt-tip pen. Most file folders were labeled on their tabs. Both envelopes and folders contained contact sheets and negatives in shiny paper sleeves. Some contact sheets bore dates. Others did not. Some files held photocopies of checks. Others did not.
By early afternoon, I’d stared at hundreds of faces frozen in variations on “I’m so happy” or “I’m so sexy.” Some had caused me to linger, pondering that moment when Cormier clicked the shutter.
Had this woman curled her hair and glossed her lips for a disinterested husband? Was her head filled with hopes of rekindled romance?
Was this child thinking of Harry Potter? Of her puppy? Of the ice cream she’d been promised for cheerful compliance?
Though I’d set several folders aside, solicited the opinion of Hippo or Ryan, in the end, I’d added each to my stack of rejects. Some resemblance, but no match. The girls were not among the cold case MP’s or DOA’s of which I was aware.
Hippo was shuffling paper on the far side of the room. Now and then he’d stop to Dristan a nostril or swallow a Tums. Ryan was across the hall in Cormier’s office. It had been almost an hour since either had sought my opinion.
My lower back ached from lifting armloads of folders, and from leaning at an ergonomically inappropriate angle. Rising from the small stool on which I was balanced, I stretched, then bent and touched my toes.
The shuffling stopped. “Want I should order pizza?”
Pizza sounded good. I started to say so.
“Maybe phone Tracadie?”
“Give it a rest, Hippo.”
I heard the thup of paper hitting wood. Then Hippo’s face rose above the far row of cabinets. It looked parched and cross.
“I told you this Bastarache is a real piece of work. It would have been useful to have some people keep an eye on you from a distance in case things got close.”
He was right, of course. Hippo’s informants were legion. He could have kept track of us, and perhaps learned who else was doing so.
“Who’s the blonde?”
“My sister.” So he had gotten feedback. Probably after my call. “We talked to Obéline. That’s all. We didn’t do any prowling around.”
Hippo did the hanky thing on his brow and neck.
“Do you want to know what we learned?”
“Is the skeleton this kid you knew?”
“I’m holding out for the pizza.”
Hippo circled his row of cabinets. His shirt was so damp it was almost transparent. It was not a good look.
“Anything you don’t eat?”
“Knock yourself out.”
When he’d gone, I remembered. Ryan hates goat cheese.
Little chance, however, that Hippo would think outside the traditional sausage and cheese box. If he did, tough.
I got through another shelf before Hippo returned. I was right. Toute garnie. All dressed. Sausage. Pepperoni. Green pepper. Mushroom. Onions.
As we ate, I described my visit to Tracadie, repeating the encounter with the two thugs outside the brasserie. Hippo asked if I’d caught any names. I shook my head in the negative.
“Bastarache’s henchmen?” Ryan asked.
“Most of those guys are too stupid to hench.” Hippo tossed his crust into the box and scooped another slice. “That don’t mean Bastarache can’t jam you up.”
“All I did was visit his wife.”
“The wife he beat up and set on fire.”
I was determined to ignore Hippo’s bad temper. “I’ll send the DNA samples off tomorrow.”
“Coroner likely to cough up the dough?”
“If not, I’ll pay it myself.”
“You put skeletal age at thirteen or fourteen,” Ryan said.
“This kid was sick. If illness slowed her development, I could be low on my estimate.”
“But Obéline said her sister was healthy.”
“Yes,” I said. “She did.”
At five-fifteen, I heaved the last stack of files from the back of the bottom drawer of my eighth file cabinet.
The first was a glamour shot. Claire Welsh. Pouty lips. Pouffy hair. Pushy-up cleavage.
The second was a toddler. Christophe Routier. On a tricycle. In a rocker. Hugging a stuffed Eeyore.
The third was a couple. Alain Tourniquette and Pamela Rayner. Holding hands. Holding hands. Holding hands. The contact sheet was dated July 24, 1984.
Where was I the summer of ’84? Chicago. Married to Pete. Mothering Katy. Finishing a doctorate at Northwestern. The next year Pete switched law firms and we moved to Charlotte. Home. I joined the faculty at UNCC.
My eyes drifted to the double row of gray metal cabinets. I felt overwhelmed. Not merely by the thought of plowing through that immense repository of human stories, but by everything. The dead and missing girls. The skeleton I was calling Hippo’s girl. Évangéline and Obéline. Pete and Summer. Ryan and Lutetia.
Mostly Ryan and Lutetia.
Suck it up, Brennan. You were colleagues before you were lovers. You are colleagues still. He needs your expertise. If someone intentionally harmed these kids, it’s your job to help nail the bastard. Nobody cares about your personal life.
I opened the next file.
S CRAWLED ON THE TAB WAS THE NAME KITTY STANLEY.
Kitty Stanley stared into the lens, blue eyes rimmed with impossibly long lashes, amber curls sprouting from a black cloche hat pulled low to her brows.
In some shots, she sat with her arms circling a chair back, head resting on them. In others, she lay on her stomach, chin propped on interlaced fingers, feet raised, ankles crossed. Several frames showed tight facial close-ups.
The intensity. The heavy, straight brows.
Adrenaline flowing, I opened an evidence packet, chose a print, and held it beside Cormier’s contact sheet. The strips of images were so small it was hard to evaluate.
Dumping everything from my lap, I found a hand lens on a cabinet top and compared the faces under magnification.
Kelly Sicard. Ryan’s MP number one. The girl had lived with her parents in Rosemère, disappeared in ’97 after a night drinking with friends.
Both had blue eyes, amber hair, and Brooke Shields brows.
Kelly Sicard was eighteen when she disappeared. Kitty Stanley looked maybe sixteen.
I flipped the contact sheet. No date.
Back and forth. Back and forth.
After studying the images for a very long time, I was convinced. Though lighting and focal distances varied, the girls shared the same high cheekbones, narrow interorbital distance, long upper lip, broad jawline, and tapered chin. I didn’t need calipers and a computer program. Kitty Stanley and Kelly Sicard were one and the same.
Sicard looked so young. I wanted to launch my voice through the celluloid and speak to her. Ask why she’d come to this terrible place to pose for this man. Ask what had happened to her after that day. Had she gone to New York to pursue a dream? Had she been murdered?
And why the alias? Had Sicard hired Cormier without telling her parents? Lied about her name? Her age?
“I have Sicard.” It came out dead calm.
Hippo shot to his feet and reached me in three strides. I handed him the lens, the photos, and the contact sheet.
Hippo squinted at the images. He really needed a shower.
“Crétaque!” Over his shoulder. “Ryan! Get your ass in here.”
Ryan appeared instantly. Hippo passed him the lens and photos.
Ryan studied the images. He was also in need of soap and water.
“Sicard kid?” To me.
Ryan dialed his cell. I heard a faraway voice. Ryan asked for a woman I knew to be a crown prosecutor. There was a pause, then another voice came on the line.
Ryan identified himself, got straight to the point.
“Cormier photographed Kelly Sicard.”
The voice said something.
“No date. Looks like a year, maybe two before she went missing.”
The voice said something else.
Ryan’s eyes rolled to me.
“Yes,” he said. “I’m sure.”
By seven, we’d searched half of Cormier’s files. The three of us looked like Dorothy, the Cowardly Lion, and the Scarecrow, sweaty, dirty, and discouraged.
We were all cranky as hell.
Ryan drove me home. Except for a few exchanges concerning Cormier and my visit to Tracadie, we rode in silence. No mention of Charlie or Korn or Lutetia.
In the past, Ryan and I enjoyed challenging each other with obscure quotes in an ongoing game of “Who said that?” Goofy, I know. But we’re both competitive.
A one-liner rapped at my forebrain. “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”
Good one, Brennan.
I settled for congratulating myself.
We were pulling to the curb when Ryan got the call. A warrant had been issued for Cormier’s home.
Did I want to be included?
Sure. But I had to go to the lab first. I would drive myself.
Ryan gave me the address.
Entering my front door, I was slammed by the odor of cooking. Cumin, onions, and chilies. Harry was whipping up her specialty. It was not what I needed after a day in a furnace.
I called out a greeting. Harry confirmed that dinner would be San Antonio chili.
Inwardly groaning, I beelined to the shower.
In a way, Harry’s chili was therapeutic. What toxins I hadn’t sweated out at Cormier’s studio, I definitely offloaded at dinner.
Harry was jazzed about the poetry book. In all fairness, I had to admit I was impressed with her progress.
“You were right. O’Connor House was a press for frustrated writers wanting to self-publish. It was a family business, owned and operated by a husband-and-wife team named O’Connor.”
“Flannery and spouse.”
Harry’s eyes went round. “You know them?”
Mine went rounder. “You’re making that up. This woman wasn’t really named after Flannery O’Connor?”
Harry shook her head. “She was once she got married. Flannery and Michael O’Connor. The operation was headquartered in Moncton. Printing and binding were done elsewhere.”
Harry dropped a handful of shredded Cheddar onto her chili.
“Apparently self-publishing wasn’t the fast track to prosperity the O’Connors envisioned. The press folded after churning out a whopping ninety-four books, manuals, and pamphlets. Salad?”
I held out my plate. Harry filled it.
“Chili needs sour cream.”
While in the kitchen, Harry must have sallied on in her head. When she returned, she’d fast-forwarded a page or two.
“Of those, twenty-two fit the bill.”
“Fit what bill?”
“Twenty-two were books of poetry.”
“Get out! Did you obtain author names?”
Harry shook her head. “But I got contact information for Flannery O’Connor. She’s living in Toronto, working for an ad agency. I called and left a message. I’ll call again when we’ve finished supper.”
“How did you learn all this?”
“Books, Tempe. We’re talking about books. And who knows books?”
I assumed the question was rhetorical.
“Librarians, that’s who. ’Course, libraries are called bibliothèques here. But I found one with a Web site in the good old King’s lingo. Has a staff directory with names and e-mail addresses and phone numbers. You can’t imagine what happened when I dialed the reference desk.”
“A human being spoke to me. In English. Nice lady named Bernice Weaver. Bernice told me I should hike right on in.”
Harry swiped the dregs of her chili with a slice of baguette.
“Building looks like a big ole dollhouse.” Harry pointed the baguette in a vaguely western direction. “It’s just yonder.”
“Are you talking about the Westmount Public Library?”
Harry nodded, mouth full of bread.
Founded in 1897 in commemoration of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, the Westmount Public Library does, indeed, reflect the era’s architectural whimsy. Its collections are some of the oldest in the Montreal area, and its clientele is solidly Anglophone.
Good choice, Harry.
“So Bernice was able to identify O’Connor House, its owners, and its publication list?”
“Bernice is a pip.”
“I’m impressed. Really.”
“Not as impressed as you’re going to be, big sister.”
Harry took in my wet hair, tank, and drawstring PJ bottoms. Perhaps curious that I’d showered and jammied before dinner, she asked how I’d spent my day. Since Ryan’s DOA’s and MP’s and the Phoebe Jane Quincy disappearance had been all over the media, I could think of no reason for secrecy.
I told Harry about the cold cases Ryan and Hippo were investigating. The MP’s Kelly Sicard, Claudine Cloquet, Anne Girardin, and most recently, Phoebe Jane Quincy. The DOA’s from the Rivière des Mille Îles, Dorval, and now, Lac des Deux Montagnes. I sketched out my stint in the studio, without mentioning Cormier’s name, and described the photo of Kelly Sicard.
I agreed. Sonovabitch.
We finished dinner lost in our separate thoughts. Pushing away from the table, I broke the silence.
“Why don’t you give Flannery O’Connor another shot while I clear this mess?”
Harry was back before I’d loaded the dishwasher. Still no answer in Toronto.
She looked at me, then checked the time. Five past ten.
“Sweetie, you look rode hard and put away wet.” She took the plate from my hands. “Hit the hay.”
I didn’t argue.
Birdie trailed me to bed.
But sleep wouldn’t come.
I thrashed, punched the pillow, kicked off the bedding, pulled it back. The same questions winged through my brain.
What had happened to Phoebe Jane Quincy? To Kelly Sicard, Clau dine Cloquet, and Anne Girardin? Who were the girls found in Dorval, in the Rivière des Mille Îles, and in Lac des Deux Montagnes?
I kept seeing images of Kelly Sicard/Kitty Stanley. Why had Sicard used an alias? Why had Cormier photographed her? Was he involved in her disappearance? In the disappearances and/or deaths of the others?
And the skeleton from Rimouski. Hippo’s girl. What was the meaning of the lesions on her digits and face? Where was Île-aux-Becs-Scies? Was the girl aboriginal? Or contemporary? Could the bones be those of Évangéline Landry? Had Évangéline been murdered as her sister believed? Or was Obéline’s memory a childhood distortion of a frightening incident? Had Évangéline been sick? If so, why had Obéline insisted that she was well?
I tried to picture Évangéline, to visualize the woman she’d be today. A woman just two years my senior.
And, of course, Ryan.
Maybe it was fatigue. Or dullness from so many dispiriting developments. Or overload from the hundreds of faces I’d scrutinized that day. My mind floated dark curls, a blue swimsuit, a polka-dot sundress. Recall from snapshots, not real-time memories. Try as I might, I couldn’t live-stream an image of Évangéline’s face.
A great sadness overwhelmed me.
Flinging back the covers, I turned on the bedside light, and sat on the edge of my mattress. Bird nudged my elbow. I lifted an arm and hugged him to me.
Knuckles rapped lightly.
Harry opened the door. “You’re thrashing like a fish in a bass boat.”
“I can’t remember what Évangéline looked like. Not really.”
“That’s what’s keeping you up?”
“That’s my fixation of the moment.”
She was back in minute, a large green book pressed to her chest.
“I was saving this as a hostess gift, but you look like you could use it now.”
Harry dropped onto the bed beside me.
“Are you aware that your sister is the all-time champ-een in the recorded history of scrapbooking?”
Mock astonishment. “You’ve never heard of scrapbooking?”
I shook my head.
“Scrapbooking’s bigger than Velveeta cheese. ’Least in Texas. And I am the monster-star of the genre.”
“You paste stuff in scrapbooks?”
Harry’s eyes rolled so high I thought they might stick.
“Not just stuff, Tempe. Memorabilia. And you don’t just slap it in mishmash. Each page is an artfully crafted montage.”
“I didn’t know.”
“Temperance Daessee Brennan.” Harry’s voice was Ralph Edwards dramatic. “This is your life.” She opened the scrapbook. “But you can peruse the early years at a future time of your choosing.”
Flipping several pages, Harry slid her opus onto my lap.
And there we were, tan and barefoot, squinting into the sun.
Harry had penned Tenth Birthday beside the grainy snapshot. Sharing the page with Évangéline and me were a photo of Gran’s house, a napkin from a Pawleys Island fish camp, and a ticket from Gay Dolphin Park on the Myrtle Beach boardwalk. Sand dollar and dolphin stickers completed the artful montage.
“I love it, Harry.” I threw my arms around her. “Really, I love it. Thank you.”
“Don’t go all slobbery.” Harry stood. “Get some sleep. Even if he is a two-timing peckerwood, Ryan’s still a biscuit. You need to look perky on the morrow.”
My eye roll made Harry’s look amateur.