A Rule Against Murder
By Louise Penny
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2008 Louise Penny
All rights reserved.
In the height of summer the guests descended on the isolated lodge by the lake, summoned to the Manoir Bellechasse by identical vellum invitations, addressed in the familiar spider scrawl as though written in cobwebs. Thrust through mail slots, the heavy paper had thudded to the floor of impressive homes in Vancouver and Toronto, and a small brick cottage in Three Pines.
The mailman had carried it in his bag through the tiny Quebec village, taking his time. Best not to exert yourself in this heat, he told himself, pausing to remove his hat and wipe his dripping head. Union rules. But the actual reason for his lethargy wasn't the beating and brilliant sun, but something more private. He always lingered in Three Pines. He wandered slowly by the perennial beds of roses and lilies and thrusting bold foxglove. He helped kids spot frogs at the pond on the green. He sat on warm fieldstone walls and watched the old village go about its business. It added hours to his day and made him the last courier back to the terminal. He was mocked and kidded by his fellows for being so slow and he suspected that was the reason he'd never been promoted. For two decades or more he'd taken his time. Instead of hurrying, he strolled through Three Pines talking to people as they walked their dogs, often joining them for lemonade or thé glacé outside the bistro. Or café au lait in front of the roaring fire in winter. Sometimes the villagers, knowing he was having lunch at the bistro, would come by and pick up their own mail. And chat for a moment. He brought news from other villages on his route, like a travelling minstrel in medieval times, with news of plague or war or flood, someplace else. But never here in this lovely and peaceful village. It always amused him to imagine that Three Pines, nestled among the mountains and surrounded by Canadian forest, was disconnected from the outside world. It certainly felt that way. It was a relief.
And so he took his time. This day he held a bundle of envelopes in his sweaty hand, hoping he wasn't marring the perfect, quite lovely thick paper of the top letter. Then the handwriting caught his eye and his pace slowed still further. After decades as a mail carrier he knew he delivered more than just letters. In his years, he knew, he'd dropped bombs along his route. Great good news: children born, lotteries won, distant, wealthy aunts dead. But he was a good and sensitive man, and he knew he was also the bearer of bad news. It broke his heart to think of the pain he sometimes caused, especially in this village.
He knew what he held in his hand now was that, and more. It wasn't, perhaps, total telepathy that informed his certainty, but also an unconscious ability to read handwriting. Not simply the words, but the thrust behind them. The simple, mundane three-line address on the envelope told him more than where to deliver the letter. The hand was old, he could tell, and infirm. Crippled not just by age, but by rage. No good would come from this thing he held. And he suddenly wanted to be rid of it.
His intention had been to wander over to the bistro and have a cold beer and a sandwich, chat with the owner Olivier and see if anyone came for their mail, for he was also just a little bit lazy. But suddenly he was energized. Astonished villagers saw a sight unique to them, the postman hurrying. He stopped and turned and walked briskly away from the bistro, toward a rusty mailbox in front of a brick cottage overlooking the village green. As he opened the mouth of the box it screamed. He couldn't blame it. He thrust the letter in and quickly closed the shrieking door. It surprised him that the battered metal box didn't gag a little and spew the wretched thing back. He'd come to see his letters as living things, and the boxes as kinds of pets. And he'd done something terrible to this particular box. And these people.
Had Armand Gamache been blindfolded he'd have known exactly where he was. It was the scent. That combination of woodsmoke, old books and honeysuckle.
"Monsieur et Madame Gamache, quel plaisir."
Clementine Dubois waddled around the reception desk at the Manoir Bellechasse, skin like wings hanging from her outstretched arms and quivering so that she looked like a bird or a withered angel as she approached, her intentions clear. Reine-Marie Gamache met her, her own arms without hope of meeting about the substantial woman. They embraced and kissed on each cheek. When Gamache had exchanged hugs and kisses with Madame Dubois she stepped back and surveyed the couple. Before her she saw Reine-Marie, short, not plump but not trim either, hair graying and face settling into the middle years of a life fully lived. She was lovely without being actually pretty. What the French called soignée. She wore a tailored deep blue skirt to mid-calf and a crisp white shirt. Simple, elegant, classic.
The man was tall and powerfully built. In his mid-fifties and not yet going to fat, but showing evidence of a life lived with good books, wonderful food and leisurely walks. He looked like a professor, though Clementine Dubois knew he was not that. His hair was receding and where once it had been wavy and dark, now it was thinning on top and graying over the ears and down the sides where it curled a little over the collar. He was clean-shaven except for a trim moustache. He wore a navy jacket, khaki slacks and a soft blue shirt, with tie. Always immaculate, even in the gathering heat of this late June day. But what was most striking were his eyes. Deep, warm brown. He carried calm with him as other men wore cologne.
"But you look tired."
Most innkeepers would have exclaimed, "But you look lovely." "Mais, voyons, you never change, you two." Or even, "You look younger than ever," knowing how old ears never tire of hearing that.
But while the Gamaches' ears couldn't yet be considered old, they were tired. It had been a long year and their ears had heard more than they cared to. And, as always, the Gamaches had come to the Manoir Bellechasse to leave all that behind. While the rest of the world celebrated the New Year in January, the Gamaches celebrated at the height of summer, when they visited this blessed place, retreated from the world, and began anew.
"We are a little weary," admitted Reine-Marie, subsiding gratefully into the comfortable wing chair at the reception desk.
"Bon, well we'll soon take care of that." Now, Madame Dubois gracefully swivelled back behind the desk in a practiced move and sat at her own comfortable chair. Pulling the ledger toward her she put on her glasses. "Where have we put you?"
Armand Gamache took the chair beside his wife and they exchanged glances. They knew if they looked in that same ledger they'd find their signatures, once a year, stretching back to a June day more than thirty years ago when young Armand had saved his money and brought Reine-Marie here. For one night. In the tiniest of rooms at the very back of the splendid old Manoir. Without a view of the mountains or the lake or the perennial gardens lush with fresh peonies and first-bloom roses. He'd saved for months, wanting that visit to be special. Wanting Reine-Marie to know how much he loved her, how precious she was to him.
And so they'd lain together for the first time, the sweet scent of the forest and kitchen thyme and lilac drifting almost visible through the screened window. But the loveliest scent of all was her, fresh and warm in his strong arms. He'd written a love note to her that night. He'd covered her softly with their simple white sheet, then, sitting in the cramped rocking chair, not daring to actually rock in case he whacked the wall behind or barked his shins on the bed in front, disturbing Reine-Marie, he'd watched her breathe. Then on Manoir Bellechasse notepaper he'd written, My love knows no —
How can a man contain such —
My heart and soul have come alive —
My love for you —
All night he wrote and next morning, taped to the bathroom mirror, Reine-Marie found the note.
I love you.
Clementine Dubois had been there even then, massive and wobbly and smiling. She'd been old then and each year Gamache worried he'd call for a reservation to hear an unfamiliar crisp voice say. "Bonjour, Manoir Bellechasse. Puis-je vous aider?" Instead he'd heard, "Monsieur Gamache, what a pleasure. Are you coming to visit us again, I hope?" Like going to Grandma's. Albeit a grander grandma's than he'd ever known.
And while Gamache and Reine-Marie had certainly changed, marrying, having two children and now a granddaughter and another grandchild on the way, Clementine Dubois never seemed to age or diminish. And neither did her love, the Manoir. It was as though the two were one, both kind and loving, comforting and welcoming. And mysteriously and delightfully unchanging in a world that seemed to change so fast. And not always for the better.
"What's wrong?" Reine-Marie asked, noticing the look on Madame Dubois's face.
"I must be getting old," she said and looked up, her violet eyes upset. Gamache smiled reassuringly. By his calculations she must be at least a hundred and twenty.
"If you have no room, don't worry. We can come back another week," he said. It was only a two-hour drive into the Eastern Townships of Quebec from their home in Montreal.
"Oh, I have a room, but I'd hoped to have something better. When you called for reservations I should have saved the Lake Room for you, the one you had last year. But the Manoir's full up. One family, the Finneys, has taken the other five rooms. They're here —"
She stopped suddenly and dropped her eyes to the ledger in an act so wary and uncharacteristic the Gamaches exchanged glances.
"They're here ... ?" Gamache prompted after the silence stretched on.
"Well, it doesn't matter, plenty of time for that," she said, looking up and smiling reassuringly. "I'm sorry about not saving the best room for you two, though."
"Had we wanted the Lake Room, we'd have asked," said Reine-Marie. "You know Armand, this is his one flutter with uncertainty. Wild man."
Clementine Dubois laughed, knowing that not to be true. She knew the man in front of her lived with great uncertainty every day of his life. Which was why she deeply wanted their annual visits to the Manoir to be filled sith luxury and comfort. And peace.
"We never specify the room, madame," said Gamache, his voice deep and warm. "Do you know why?"
Madame Dubois shook her head. She'd long been curious, but never wanted to cross-examine her guests, especially this one. "Everyone else does," she said. "In fact, this whole family asked for free upgrades. Arrived in Mercedes and BMWs and asked for upgrades." She smiled. Not meanly, but with some bafflement that people who had so much wanted more.
"We like to leave it up to the fates," he said. She examined his face to see if he was joking, but thought he probably wasn't. "We're perfectly happy with what we're given."
And Clementine Dubois knew the truth of it. She felt the same. Every morning she woke up, a bit surprised to see another day, and always surprised to be here, in this old lodge, by the sparkling shores of this freshwater lake, surrounded by forests and streams, gardens and guests. It was her home, and guests were like family. Though Madame Dubois knew, from bitter experience, you can't always choose, or like, your family.
"Here it is." She dangled an old brass key from a long keychain. "The Forest Room. It's at the back, I'm afraid."
Reine-Marie smiled. "We know where it is, merci."
One day rolled gently into the next as the Gamaches swam in Lac Massawippi and went for leisurely walks through the fragrant woods. They read and chatted amicably with the other guests and slowly got to know them.
Up until a few days ago they'd never met the Finneys, but now they were cordial companions at the isolated lodge. Like experienced travellers on a cruise, the guests were neither too remote nor too familiar. They didn't even know what the others did for a living, which was fine with Armand Gamache.
It was mid-afternoon and Gamache was watching a bee scramble around a particularly blowsy pink rose when a movement caught his attention. He turned in his chaise longue and watched as the son, Thomas, and his wife Sandra walked from the lodge into the startling sunshine. Sandra brought a slim hand up and placed huge black sunglasses on her face, so that she looked a little like a fly. She seemed an alien in this place, certainly not someone in her natural habitat. Gamache supposed her to be in her late fifties, early sixties, though she was clearly trying to pass for considerably less. Funny, he thought, how dyed hair, heavy make-up and young clothes actually made a person look older.
They walked on to the lawn, Sandra's heels aerating the grass, and paused, as though expecting applause. But the only sound Gamache could hear came from the bee, whose wings were making a muffled raspberry sound in the rose.
Thomas stood on the brow of the slight hill rolling down to the lake, an admiral on the bridge. His piercing blue eyes surveyed the water, like Nelson at Trafalgar. Gamache realized that every time he saw Thomas he thought of a man preparing for battle. Thomas Finney was in his early sixties and certainly handsome. Tall and distinguished with gray hair and noble features. But in the few days they'd shared the lodge Gamache had also noted a hint of irony in the man, a quiet sense of humor. He was arrogant and entitled, but he seemed to know it and be able to laugh at himself. It was very becoming and Gamache found himself warming to him. Though on this hot day he was warming to everything, especially the old Life magazine whose ink was coming off on his sweaty hands. Looking down he saw, tattooed to his palm, . Life Backward.
Thomas and Sandra had walked straight past his elderly parents who were lounging on the shaded porch. Gamache marvelled yet again at the ability of this family to make each other invisible. As Gamache watched over his half-moon glasses Thomas and Sandra surveyed the people dotted around the garden and along the shore of the lake. Julia Martin, the older sister and a few years younger than Thomas, was sitting alone on the dock in an Adirondack chair, reading. She wore a simple white one-piece bathing suit. In her late fifties she was slim and gleamed like a trophy as though she'd slathered herself in cooking oil. She seemed to sizzle in the sun, and with a wince Gamache could imagine her skin beginning to crackle. Every now and then Julia would lower her book and gaze across the calm lake. Thinking. Gamache knew enough about Julia Martin to know she had a great deal to think about.
On the lawn leading down to the lake were the rest of the family, the younger sister Marianna and her child, Bean. Where Thomas and Julia were slim and attractive, Marianna was short and plump and unmistakably ugly. It was as though she was the negative to their positive. Her clothes seemed to have a grudge against her and either slipped off or scrunched around awkwardly so that she was constantly rearranging herself, pulling and tugging and wriggling.
And yet the child, Bean, was extremely attractive, with long blond hair, bleached almost white in the sun, thick dark lashes and brilliant blue eyes. At that moment Marianna appeared to be doing t'ai chi, though with movements of her own making.
"Look, darling, a crane. Mommy's a crane."
The plump woman stood on one leg, arms reaching for the sky and neck stretched to its limits.
Ten-year-old Bean ignored Mommy and continued to read. Gamache wondered how bored the child must be.
"It's the most difficult position," Marianna said more loudly than necessary, almost throttling herself with one of her scarves. Gamache had noticed that Marianna's t'ai chi and yoga and meditations and military calisthenics only happened when Thomas appeared.
Was she trying to impress her older brother, Gamache wondered, or embarrass him? Thomas took a quick glance at the pudgy, collapsing crane and steered Sandra in the other direction. They found two chairs in the shade, alone.
"You're not spying on them, are you?" Reine-Marie asked, lowering her book to look at her husband.
"Spying is far too harsh. I'm observing."
"Aren't you supposed to stop that?" Then after a moment she added, "Anything interesting?"
He laughed and shook his head. "Nothing."
"Still," said Reine-Marie, looking around at the scattered Finneys. "Odd family that comes all this way for a reunion then ignores each other."
"Could be worse," he said. "They could be killing each other."
Reine-Marie laughed. "They'd never get close enough to manage it." (Continues...)
Excerpted from A Rule Against Murder by Louise Penny. Copyright © 2008 Louise Penny. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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