Armand Gamache slowed his car to a crawl, then stopped on the snow-covered secondary road.
This was it, he supposed. Pulling in, he drove between the tall pine trees until he reached the clearing.
There he parked the car and sat in the warm vehicle looking out at the cold day. Snow flurries were hitting the windshield and dissolving. They were coming down with more force now, slightly obscuring what he saw outside. Turning away, he stared at the letter he’d received the day before, lying open on the passenger seat.
Putting on his reading glasses, he rubbed his face. And read it again. It was an invitation of sorts, to this desolate place.
He turned off the car. But didn’t get out.
There was no particular anxiety. It was more puzzling than worrisome.
But still, it was just odd enough to raise a small alarm. Not a siren,yet. But he was alert.
Armand Gamache was not by nature timid, but he was a cautious man. How else could he have survived in the top echelons of the Sûreté
du Québec? Though it was far from certain that he had survived.
He relied on, and trusted, both his rational mind and his instincts.
And what were they telling him now?
They were certainly telling him this was strange. But then, he thought with a grin, his grandchildren could have told him that.
Bringing out his cell phone, he listened as the number he called rang, once, twice, and then was answered.
“Salut, ma belle. I’m here,” he said.
It was an agreement between Armand and his wife, Reine-Marie, that in winter, in snow, they called each other when they’d
arrived at a destination.
“How was the drive? The snow seems to be getting worse in Three Pines.”
“Here too. Drive was easy.”
“So where are you? What is the place, Armand?”
“It’s sort of hard to describe.”
But he tried.
What he saw had once been a home. Then a house. And was now simply a building. And not even that for much longer.
“It’s an old farmhouse,” he said. “But it looks abandoned.”
“Are you sure you’re at the right place? Remember when you came to get me at my brother’s home and you went to the wrong brother?
Insisting I was there.”
“That was years ago,” he said. “And all the houses look alike in Ste.-Angélique, and, honestly, all your hundred and fifty-seven brothers
look alike. Besides, he didn’t like me, and I was fairly sure he just wanted me to go away and leave you alone.”
“Can you blame him? You were at the wrong house. Some detective.”
Armand laughed. That had been decades ago, when they were first courting. Her family had since warmed to him, once they saw how
much she loved him and, more important to them, how much he loved Reine-Marie.
“I’m at the right place. There’s another car here.”
Light snow covered the other vehicle. It had been there, he guessed, for about half an hour. Not more. Then his eyes returned to the farmhouse.
“It’s been a while since anyone lived here.”
It took a long time to fall into such a state. Lack of care, over the years, would do that.
It was now little more than a collection of materials.
The shutters were askew, the wooden handrail had rotted and gone its separate way from the sloping steps. One of the upper windows
was boarded up, so that it looked like the place was winking at him. As though it knew something he did not.
He cocked his head. Was there a slight lean to the house? Or was his imagination turning this into one of Honoré’s nursery rhymes?
There was a crooked man, and he walked a crooked mile,
He found a crooked sixpence against a crooked stile;
He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse,
And they all lived together in a little crooked house.
This was a crooked house. And Armand Gamache wondered if, inside, he’d find a crooked man.
After saying goodbye to Reine-Marie, he looked again at the other car in the yard, and the license plate with the motto of Québec stamped
on it: JE ME SOUVIENS.
When he closed his eyes, as he did now, images appeared uninvited. As vivid, as intense as the moment they’d
happened. And not only the day last summer, with the slanting shafts of cheerful sunlight hitting the blood on his hands.
He saw all the days. All the nights. All the blood. His own, and others’. People whose lives he’d saved. And those he’d taken.
But to keep his sanity, his humanity, his equilibrium, he needed to recall the wonderful events as well.
Finding Reine-Marie. Having their son and daughter. Now grandchildren.
Finding their refuge in Three Pines. The quiet moments with Friends. The joyful celebrations.
The father of a good friend had developed dementia and died recently. For the last year or so of his life, he no longer recognized family
and friends. He was kindly to all, but he beamed at some. They were the ones he loved. He knew them instinctively and kept them safe, not
in his wounded head but in his heart.
The memory of the heart was far stronger than whatever was kept in the mind. The question was, what did people keep in their heart?
Chief Superintendent Gamache had known more than a few people whose heart had been consumed by hate.
He looked at the crooked house in front of him and wondered what memory was consuming it.
After instinctively committing the license-plate number to memory, he scanned the yard.
It was dotted with large mounds of snow, under which, Gamache guessed, were rusted vehicles. A pickup picked apart. An old tractor
now scrap. And something that looked like a tank but was probably an old oil tank and not a tank tank.
Gamache put on his tuque and was about to put on gloves when he hesitated and picked up the letter yet again. There
wasn’t much to it. Just a couple of clipped sentences.
Far from being threatening, they were almost comical and would’ve been had they not been written by a dead man.
It was from a notary, asking, almost demanding, that Gamache present himself at this remote farmhouse at 10:00 a.m. Sharp. Please.
Don’t be late. Merci.
He’d looked up the notary in the Chambre des Notaires du Québec.
Maître Laurence Mercier.
He’d died of cancer six months earlier.
And yet—Here was a letter from him.
There was no email or return address, but there was a phone number, which Armand had called but no one had answered.
He’d been tempted to look up Maître Mercier in the Sûreté database but decided against it. It wasn’t that Gamache was persona non
grata at the Sûreté du Québec. Not exactly, anyway. Now on suspension pending the outcome of an investigation into events last summer, he
felt he needed to be judicious in the favors he asked of colleagues. Even Jean-Guy Beauvoir. His second-in-command. His son-in-law.
Gamache looked again at the once-strong house and smiled. Feeling a kinship toward it.
Things sometimes fell apart unexpectedly. It was not necessarily a reflection of how much they were valued.
He folded the letter and placed it in his breast pocket. Just as he was leaving the car, his cell phone rang.
Gamache looked at the number. Stared at the number. Any sign of amusement wiped from his face.
Dare he take it?
Dare he not?
As the ringing continued, he stared out the windshield, his view obscured by the now-heavy snow, so that he saw the world imperfectly.
He wondered if, in future,whenever he saw an old farmhouse, or heard the soft tapping of snowflakes, or smelled damp wool, this moment
would be conjured and, if so, would it be with a sense of relief or horror?
The man stood by the window, straining to see out.
It was distorted by frost, but he had seen the car arrive and had watched, with impatience, as the man parked, then just sat there.
After a minute or so, the new arrival got out but didn’t come toward the house.
He was standing beside his car, a cell phone to his ear.
This was the first of les invités.
The man recognized this first guest, of course. Who wouldn’t? He’d seen him often enough, but only in news reports. Never in person.
And he’d been far from convinced this guest would show up. Armand Gamache. The former head of homicide. The current Chief
Superintendent of the Sûreté du Québec, on suspension.
He felt a slight frisson of excitement. Here was a celebrity of sorts.
A man both highly respected and reviled. Some in the press held him up as a hero. Others as a villain. Representing the worst aspects of policing. Or the best. The abuse of power. Or a daring leader, willing to sacrifice his own reputation, and perhaps more, for the greater good.
To do what no one else wanted to do. Or could do.
Through the distorted glass, through the snow, he saw a man in his late fifties. Tall, six feet at least. And substantial. The parka made him
look heavy, but parkas made everyone look heavy. The face, not pudgy, was, however, worn. With lines from his eyes, and, as he watched, two
deep furrows formed between Gamache’s brows.
He was not good at understanding the faces made. He saw the lines but couldn’t read them. He thought Gamache was angry, but it
could have been simply concentration. Or surprise. He supposed it could even have been joy.
But he doubted that.
It was snowing more heavily now, but Gamache had not put on his gloves. They’d fallen to the ground when he’d gotten out of the car. It
was how most Québécois lost mitts and gloves and even hats. They rested on laps in the car and were forgotten when it came time to get
out. In spring the land was littered with dog shit, worms, and sodden mitts and gloves and tuques.
Armand Gamache stood in the falling snow, his bare hand to his ear. Gripping a phone and listening.
And when it was his turn to talk, Gamache bowed his head, his knuckles white as he tightened his hold on the phone, or from incipient
frostbite. Then, taking a few steps away from his car, he turned his back to the wind and snow, and he spoke.
The man couldn’t hear what was being said, but then one phrase caught a gust and made its way across the snowy yard, past possessions
once prized. And into the house. Once prized.
“You’ll regret this.”
And then some other movement caught his attention. Another car was pulling in to the yard.
The second of les invités.