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The Brutal Telling
By Louise Penny
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2009 Louise Penny
All rights reserved.
"All of them? Even the children?" The fireplace sputtered and crackled and swallowed his gasp.
There was silence then. And in that hush lived all the things that could be worse than slaughter.
"Are they close?" His back tingled as he imagined something dreadful creeping through the woods. Toward them. He looked around, almost expecting to see red eyes staring through the dark windows. Or from the corners, or under the bed.
"All around. Have you seen the light in the night sky?"
"I thought those were the Northern Lights." The pink and green and white shifting, flowing against the stars. Like something alive, glowing, and growing. And approaching.
Olivier Brulé lowered his gaze, no longer able to look into the troubled, lunatic eyes across from him. He'd lived with this story for so long, and kept telling himself it wasn't real. It was a myth, a story told and repeated and embellished over and over and over. Around fires just like theirs.
It was a story, nothing more. No harm in it.
But in this simple log cabin, buried in the Quebec wilderness, it seemed like more than that. Even Olivier felt himself believing it. Perhaps because the Hermit so clearly did.
The old man sat in his easy chair on one side of the stone hearth with Olivier on the other. Olivier looked into a fire that had been alive for more than a decade. An old flame not allowed to die, it mumbled and popped in the grate, throwing soft light into the log cabin. He gave the embers a shove with the simple iron poker, sending sparks up the chimney. Candlelight twinkled off shiny objects like eyes in the darkness, found by the flame.
"It won't be long now."
The Hermit's eyes were gleaming like metal reaching its melting point. He was leaning forward as he often did when this tale was told.
Olivier scanned the single room. The dark was punctuated by flickering candles throwing fantastic, grotesque shadows. Night seemed to have seeped through the cracks in the logs and settled into the cabin, curled in corners and under the bed. Many native tribes believed evil lived in corners, which was why their traditional homes were rounded. Unlike the square homes the government had given them.
Olivier didn't believe evil lived in corners. Not really. Not in the daylight, anyway. But he did believe there were things waiting in the dark corners of this cabin that only the Hermit knew about. Things that set Olivier's heart pounding.
"Go on," he said, trying to keep his voice steady.
It was late and Olivier still had the twenty-minute walk through the forest back to Three Pines. It was a trip he made every fortnight and he knew it well, even in the dark.
Only in the dark. Theirs was a relationship that existed only after nightfall.
They sipped Orange Pekoe tea. A treat, Olivier knew, reserved for the Hermit's honored guest. His only guest.
But now it was story time. They leaned closer to the fire. It was early September and a chill had crept in with the night.
"Where was I? Oh, yes. I remember now."
Olivier's hands gripped the warm mug even tighter.
"The terrible force has destroyed everything in its way. The Old World and the New. All gone. Except ..."
"One tiny village remains. Hidden in a valley, so the grim army hasn't seen it yet. But it will. And when it does their great leader will stand at the head of his army. He's immense, bigger than any tree, and clad in armor made from rocks and spiny shells and bone."
The word was whispered and disappeared into the darkness, where it curled into a corner. And waited.
"Chaos. And the Furies. Disease, Famine, Despair. All are swarming. Searching. And they'll never stop. Not ever. Not until they find it."
"The thing that was stolen."
The Hermit nodded, his face grim. He seemed to see the slaughter, the destruction. See the men and women, the children, fleeing before the merciless, soulless force.
"But what was it? What could be so important they had to destroy everything to get it back?"
Olivier willed his eyes not to dart from the craggy face and into the darkness. To the corner, and the thing they both knew was sitting there in its mean little canvas sack. But the Hermit seemed to read his mind and Olivier saw a malevolent grin settle onto the old man's face. And then it was gone.
"It's not the army that wants it back."
They both saw then the thing looming behind the terrible army. The thing even Chaos feared. That drove Despair, Disease, Famine before it. With one goal. To find what was taken from their Master.
"It's worse than slaughter."
Their voices were low, barely scraping the ground. Like conspirators in a cause already lost.
"When the army finally finds what it's searching for it will stop. And step aside. And then the worst thing imaginable will arrive."
There was silence again. And in that silence lived the worst thing imaginable.
Outside a pack of coyotes set up a howl. They had something cornered.
Myth, that's all this is, Olivier reassured himself. Just a story. Once more he looked into the embers, so he wouldn't see the terror in the Hermit's face. Then he checked his watch, tilting the crystal toward the fireplace until its face glowed orange and told him the time. Two thirty in the morning.
"Chaos is coming, old son, and there's no stopping it. It's taken a long time, but it's finally here."
The Hermit nodded, his eyes rheumy and runny, perhaps from the wood smoke, perhaps from something else. Olivier leaned back, surprised to feel his thirty-eight-year-old body suddenly aching, and realized he'd sat tense through the whole awful telling.
"I'm sorry. It's getting late and Gabri will be worried. I have to go."
Olivier got up and pumping cold, fresh water into the enamel sink he cleaned his cup. Then he turned back to the room.
"I'll be back soon," he smiled.
"Let me give you something," said the Hermit, looking around the log cabin. Olivier's gaze darted to the corner where the small canvas sack sat. Unopened. A bit of twine keeping it closed.
A chuckle came from the Hermit. "One day, perhaps, Olivier. But not today."
He went over to the hand-hewn mantelpiece, picked up a tiny item and held it out to the attractive blond man.
"For the groceries." He pointed to the tins and cheese and milk, tea and coffee and bread on the counter.
"No, I couldn't. It's my pleasure," said Olivier, but they both knew the pantomime and knew he'd take the small offering. "Merci," Olivier said at the door.
In the woods there was a furious scrambling, as a doomed creature raced to escape its fate, and coyotes raced to seal it.
"Be careful," said the old man, quickly scanning the night sky. Then, before closing the door, he whispered the single word that was quickly devoured by the woods. Olivier wondered if the Hermit crossed himself and mumbled prayers, leaning against the door, which was thick but perhaps not quite thick enough.
And he wondered if the old man believed the stories of the great and grim army with Chaos looming and leading the Furies. Inexorable, unstoppable. Close.
And behind them something else. Something unspeakable.
And he wondered if the Hermit believed the prayers.
Olivier flicked on his flashlight, scanning the darkness. Gray tree trunks crowded round. He shone the light here and there, trying to find the narrow path through the late summer forest. Once on the trail he hurried. And the more he hurried the more frightened he became, and the more fearful he grew the faster he ran until he was stumbling, chased by dark words through the dark woods.
He finally broke through the trees and staggered to a stop, hands on his bent knees, heaving for breath. Then, slowly straightening, he looked down on the village in the valley.
Three Pines was asleep, as it always seemed to be. At peace with itself and the world. Oblivious of what happened around it. Or perhaps aware of everything, but choosing peace anyway. Soft light glowed at some of the windows. Curtains were drawn in bashful old homes. The sweet scent of the first autumn fires wafted to him.
And in the very center of the little Quebec village there stood three great pines, like watchmen.
Olivier was safe. Then he felt his pocket.
The gift. The tiny payment. He'd left it behind.
Cursing, Olivier turned to look into the forest that had closed behind him. And he thought again of the small canvas bag in the corner of the cabin. The thing the Hermit had teased him with, promised him, dangled before him. The thing a hiding man hid.
Olivier was tired, and fed up and angry at himself for forgetting the trinket. And angry at the Hermit for not giving him the other thing. The thing he'd earned by now.
He hesitated, then turning he plunged back into the forest, feeling his fear growing and feeding the rage. And as he walked, then ran, a voice followed, beating behind him. Driving him on.
"Chaos is here, old son."CHAPTER 2
"You get it."
Gabri pulled up the covers and lay still. But the phone continued to ring and beside him Olivier was dead to the world. Out the window Gabri could see drizzle against the pane and he could feel the damp Sunday morning settling into their bedroom. But beneath the duvet it was snug and warm, and he had no intention of moving.
He poked Olivier. "Wake up."
Nothing, just a snort.
Nothing. Dear Lord, was he dead?
He leaned in to his partner, seeing the precious thinning hair lying across the pillow and across the face. The eyes closed, peaceful. Gabri smelled Olivier, musky, slightly sweaty. Soon they'd have a shower and they'd both smell like Ivory soap.
The phone rang again.
"It's your mother," Gabri whispered in Olivier's ear.
"Get the phone. It's your mother."
Olivier sat up, fighting to get his eyes open and looking bleary, as though emerging from a long tunnel. "My mother? But she's been dead for years."
"If anyone could come back from the dead to screw you up, it'd be her."
"You're the one screwing me up."
"You wish. Now get the phone."
Olivier reached across the mountain that was his partner and took the call.
Gabri snuggled back into the warm bed, then registered the time on the glowing clock. Six forty-three. On Sunday morning. Of the Labor Day long weekend.
Who in the world would be calling at this hour?
He sat up and looked at his partner's face, studying it as a passenger might study the face of a flight attendant during takeoff. Were they worried? Frightened?
He saw Olivier's expression change from mildly concerned to puzzled, and then, in an instant, Olivier's blond brows dropped and the blood rushed from his face.
Dear God, thought Gabri. We're going down.
"What is it?" he mouthed.
Olivier was silent, listening. But his handsome face was eloquent. Something was terribly wrong.
"What's happened?" Gabri hissed.
They rushed across the village green, their raincoats flapping in the wind. Myrna Landers, fighting with her huge umbrella, came across to meet them and together they hurried to the bistro. It was dawn and the world was gray and wet. In the few paces it took to get to the bistro their hair was plastered to their heads and their clothes were sodden. But for once neither Olivier nor Gabri cared. They skidded to a stop beside Myrna outside the brick building.
"I called the police. They should be here soon," she said.
"Are you sure about this?" Olivier stared at his friend and neighbor. She was big and round and wet and wearing bright yellow rubber boots under a lime green raincoat and gripping her red umbrella. She looked as though a beachball had exploded. But she also had never looked more serious. Of course she was sure.
"I went inside and checked," she said.
"Oh, God," whispered Gabri. "Who is it?"
"I don't know."
"How can you not know?" Olivier asked. Then he looked through the mullioned glass of his bistro window, bringing his slim hands up beside his face to block out the weak morning light. Myrna held her brilliant red umbrella over him.
Olivier's breath fogged the window but not before he'd seen what Myrna had also seen. There was someone inside the bistro. Lying on the old pine floor. Face up.
"What is it?" asked Gabri, straining and craning to see around his partner.
But Olivier's face told him all he needed to know. Gabri focused on the large black woman next to him.
"Is he dead?"
What could be worse than death? he wondered.
Myrna was as close as their village came to a doctor. She'd been a psychologist in Montreal before too many sad stories and too much good sense got the better of her, and she'd quit. She'd loaded up her car intending to take a few months to drive around before settling down, somewhere. Any place that took her fancy.
She got an hour outside Montreal, stumbled on Three Pines, stopped for café au lait and a croissant at Olivier's Bistro, and never left. She unpacked her car, rented the shop next door and the apartment above and opened a used bookstore.
People wandered in for books and conversation. They brought their stories to her, some bound, and some known by heart. She recognized some of the stories as real, and some as fiction. But she honored them all, though she didn't buy every one.
"We should go in," said Olivier. "To make sure no one disturbs the body. Are you all right?" Gabri had closed his eyes, but now he opened them again and seemed more composed. "I'm fine. Just a shock. He didn't look familiar."
And Myrna saw on his face the same relief she'd felt when she'd first rushed in. The sad fact was, a dead stranger was way better than a dead friend.
They filed into the bistro, sticking close as though the dead man might reach out and take one of them with him. Inching toward him they stared down, rain dripping off their heads and noses onto his worn clothes and puddling on the wide-plank floor. Then Myrna gently pulled them back from the edge.
And that's how both men felt. They'd woken on this holiday weekend in their comfortable bed, in their comfortable home, in their comfortable life, to find themselves suddenly dangled over a cliff.
All three turned away, speechless. Staring wide-eyed at each other.
There was a dead man in the bistro.
And not just dead, but worse.
As they waited for the police Gabri made a pot of coffee, and Myrna took off her raincoat and sat by the window, looking into the misty September day. Olivier laid and lit fires in the two stone hearths at either end of the beamed room. He poked one fire vigorously and felt its warmth against his damp clothing. He felt numb, and not just from the creeping cold.
When they'd stood over the dead man Gabri had murmured, "Poor one."
Myrna and Olivier had nodded. What they saw was an elderly man in shabby clothing, staring up at them. His face was white, his eyes surprised, his mouth slightly open.
Myrna had pointed to the back of his head. The puddled water was turning pink. Gabri leaned tentatively closer, but Olivier didn't move. What held him spellbound and stunned wasn't the shattered back of the dead man's head, but the front. His face.
"Mon Dieu, Olivier, the man's been murdered. Oh, my God."
Olivier continued to stare, into the eyes.
"But who is he?" Gabri whispered.
It was the Hermit. Dead. Murdered. In the bistro.
"I don't know," said Olivier.
Chief Inspector Armand Gamache got the call just as he and Reine-Marie finished clearing up after Sunday brunch. In the dining room of their apartment in Montreal's Outremont quartier he could hear his second in command, Jean Guy Beauvoir, and his daughter Annie. They weren't talking. They never talked. They argued. Especially when Jean Guy's wife, Enid, wasn't there as a buffer. But Enid had to plan school courses and had begged off brunch. Jean Guy, on the other hand, never turned down an invitation for a free meal. Even if it came at a price. And the price was always Annie.
It had started over the fresh-squeezed orange juice, coursed through the scrambled eggs and Brie, and progressed across the fresh fruit, croissants and confitures.
"But how can you defend the use of stun guns?" came Annie's voice from the dining room.
"Another great brunch, merci, Reine-Marie," said David, placing dishes from the dining room in front of the sink and kissing his mother-in-law on the cheek. He was of medium build with short, thinning dark hair. At thirty he was a few years older than his wife, Annie, though he often appeared younger. His main feature, Gamache often felt, was his animation. Not hyper, but full of life. The Chief Inspector had liked him from the moment, five years earlier, his daughter had introduced them. Unlike other young men Annie had brought home, mostly lawyers like herself, this one hadn't tried to out-macho the Chief. That wasn't a game that interested Gamache. Nor did it impress him. What did impress him was David's reaction when he'd met Armand and Reine-Marie Gamache. He'd smiled broadly, a smile that seemed to fill the room, and simply said, "Bonjour."
Excerpted from The Brutal Telling by Louise Penny. Copyright © 2009 Louise Penny. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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