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"Deep and grand and altogether extraordinary....Miraculous."
—The Washington Post
- The New York Times Book Review
“A Great Reckoning succeeds on every level."
—St. Louis Post-Dispatch
#1 New York Times bestselling author Louise Penny pulls back the layers to reveal a brilliant and emotionally powerful truth in her latest spellbinding novel.
When an intricate old map is found stuffed into the walls of the bistro in Three Pines, it at first seems no more than a curiosity. But the closer the villagers look, the stranger it becomes.
Given to Armand Gamache as a gift the first day of his new job, the map eventually leads him to shattering secrets. To an old friend and older adversary. It leads the former Chief of Homicide for the Sûreté du Québec to places even he is afraid to go. But must.
And there he finds four young cadets in the Sûreté academy, and a dead professor. And, with the body, a copy of the old, odd map.
Everywhere Gamache turns, he sees Amelia Choquet, one of the cadets. Tattooed and pierced. Guarded and angry. Amelia is more likely to be found on the other side of a police line-up. And yet she is in the academy. A protégée of the murdered professor.
The focus of the investigation soon turns to Gamache himself and his mysterious relationship with Amelia, and his possible involvement in the crime. The frantic search for answers takes the investigators back to Three Pines and a stained glass window with its own horrific secrets.
For both Amelia Choquet and Armand Gamache, the time has come for a great reckoning.
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A Great Reckoning
By Louise Penny
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 Three Pines Creations, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Armand Gamache sat in the little room and closed the dossier with care, squeezing it shut, trapping the words inside.
It was a thin file. Just a few pages. Like all the rest surrounding him on the old wooden floor of his study. And yet, not like all the rest.
He looked at the slender lives lying at his feet. Waiting for his decision on their fate.
He'd been at this for a while now. Reviewing the dossiers. Taking note of the tiny dots on the upper-right corner of the tabs. Red for rejected. Green for accepted.
He had not put those dots there. His predecessor had.
Armand placed the file on the floor and leaned forward in his comfortable armchair, his elbows on his knees. His large hands together, fingers intertwined. He felt like a passenger on a transcontinental flight, staring down at fields below him. Some fertile, some fallow and ripe with potential. And some barren. The topsoil masking the rock beneath.
But which was which?
He'd read, and considered, and tried to drill down past the scant information. He wondered about these lives, and he wondered about the decisions of his predecessor.
For years, decades, as head of homicide for the Sûreté du Québec, his job had been to dig. To collect evidence. To review facts, and question feelings. To pursue and arrest. To use his judgment, but never to judge.
But now he was judge and jury. The first and final word.
And Armand Gamache realized, without great surprise, that it was a role he was comfortable with. Even liked. The power, yes. He was honest enough to admit that. But mostly he appreciated that he was now in a position not simply to react to the present, but to actually shape the future.
And at his feet was the future.
Gamache leaned back and crossed his legs. It was past midnight, but he wasn't tired. A cup of tea sat on his desk beside a couple of chocolate chip cookies. Uneaten.
The curtains of his study fluttered and he could feel a cold draft coming in through the slightly open window. And he knew if he drew back the curtains and turned on the porch light, he would see the first snow of the season swirling in the light. Falling softly and landing on the roofs of the homes in this tiny village of Three Pines.
It would cover the perennial gardens and leave a thin layer on cars and porches, on the bench in the middle of the village green. It would be landing, softly, on the forests and mountains and the Rivière Bella Bella that flowed past the homes.
It was the beginning of November and this was an early snow even by Québec standards. A tease, a portent. And not enough, yet, for children to play in.
But soon, he knew. It would come soon enough. And the gray November would be transformed into a bright, sparkling wonderland of skiing and skating. Of snowball fights, and snow forts and snowmen, and angels made in snow that had fallen from the heavens.
But for now the children slept and their parents slept. Everyone in the small Québec village slept, while the snow fell and Armand Gamache considered the young lives that lay at his feet.
Through the open door of his study, he saw the living room of the home he shared with his wife, Reine-Marie.
Oriental rugs were scattered about the wide-plank flooring. A large sofa sat on one side of the large stone hearth and two faded armchairs on the other. Side tables were piled with magazines and books. Bookcases lined the walls and lamps filled the room with pleasant light.
It was an inviting room and now Gamache stood up, stretched, and walked out into it, their shepherd Henri following him. He poked the fire and sat in one of the armchairs. His work wasn't done yet. Now he needed to think.
He'd made up his mind about most of the files. Except that one.
When he'd first seen it, he'd read the contents then set it aside, in the rejected pile. Agreeing with the red dot of his predecessor.
But something had niggled at him and he kept returning to that one file. Reading and rereading it. Trying to work out why this one dossier, this one young woman out of all of them, was troubling him.
Gamache had brought the file with him, and now he opened it. Again.
Her face stared at him. Arrogant, challenging. Pale. Her hair jet black, shaved in places, spiked in others. There were unmistakable piercings through her nose and brows and cheek.
She claimed to read ancient Greek and Latin, and yet she'd barely scraped by in high school and had spent the past few years doing, from what he could tell, nothing.
She'd earned the red dot.
So why did he keep going back to it? To her? It wasn't her appearance. He knew enough to look beyond that.
Was it her name? Amelia?
Yes, he thought, that might be it. She shared the name with Gamache's mother, who'd been named for the aviator who'd lost her way and disappeared.
And yet, when he held the file he didn't feel any warmth. In fact, he felt vaguely revolted.
Finally Gamache took off his reading glasses and rubbed his eyes before taking Henri outside for a last walk of the night, in the first snow of the season.
Then it was upstairs to bed for both of them.
* * *
The next morning Reine-Marie invited her husband to breakfast at the bistro. Henri came along and lay quietly under their table as they sipped bowls of café au lait and waited for their maple-cured bacon with scrambled eggs and Brie.
The fireplaces on either end of the long beamed room were lit and cheerful, conversation mingled with the scent of wood smoke, and there was the familiar thudding of patrons knocking snow from their boots as they entered.
The flurries had stopped in the night, leaving just a thin layer barely covering the dead autumn leaves. It seemed a netherworld. Neither fall nor winter. The hills that surrounded the village and seemed to guard it from an often hostile world themselves looked hostile. Or, if not actually hostile, at least inhospitable. It was a forest of skeletons. Their branches, gray and bare, were raised as though begging for a mercy they knew would not be granted.
But on the village green itself stood the three tall pines from which the village took its name. Vibrant, straight and strong. Evergreen. Immortal. Pointing to the sky. Daring it to do its worst. Which it planned to do.
The worst was coming. But so was the best. The snow angels were coming.
"Voilà," said Olivier, placing a basket of warm almandine croissants on their table. "While you wait for breakfast."
A price tag hung from the basket. And from the chandelier above their heads. And the wing chairs they sat on. Everything in Olivier's bistro was for sale. Including, he'd intimated more than once, his partner, Gabri.
"A bag of candy and he's yours," Olivier was heard to offer patrons when Gabri turned up in his frilly apron.
"That is how he got me," Gabri would admit, smoothing the apron he only wore, they all knew, to piss off Olivier. "A bag of allsorts."
When they were alone, Armand slid a file across the table to his wife.
"Could you read this, please?"
"Of course," she said as she put on her glasses. "Is there a problem?"
"No, I don't think so."
"Then why ...?" She gestured toward the folder.
He'd often discussed cases with her, before his early retirement from the Sûreté. He was not yet sixty and this was more of a retreat, really. To this village, to recover from what lay beyond the ridge of mountains.
He watched her over the rim of his strong, fragrant coffee, holding the warm bowl between his hands. They no longer trembled, Reine-Marie noted. Or at least not often. She always looked, in case.
And the deep scar near his temple wasn't quite so deep. Or perhaps familiarity and relief had filled it in.
He limped still, sometimes, when he was tired. But besides that, and the scar, there were no outward signs of what had happened. Though she did not need any signs. It was the sort of thing she would never forget.
Almost losing him.
But instead, they'd found themselves here. In the village that managed to be welcoming even on the dullest day.
Reine-Marie had known, even as they'd bought the home and unpacked, that the time would come when he'd want and need to go back to work. The only question had been, what next? What would Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, the head of the most successful homicide department in the country, choose to do?
He'd had plenty of offers. Their study was filled with envelopes marked "Confidential." He'd taken plenty of meetings. From heads of major corporations, to political parties anxious for him to run for office, to police organizations, national and international. Discreet vehicles had pulled up outside their white clapboard home and discreetly dressed men and women had knocked on the door. And sat in their living room, discussing "what next."
Armand had listened politely, often offering them lunch or dinner or a place to stay if it was late. But never tipping his hand.
Reine-Marie herself had found her dream job, after leaving her post at the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec as one of the head librarians. She'd volunteered to sort years of donations to the regional historical society.
It was a post her former colleagues no doubt viewed as a significant step down. But Reine-Marie wasn't interested in steps. She'd arrived at where she wanted to be. No more steps. She'd stopped. Reine-Marie had found a home in Three Pines. She'd found a home in Armand. And now she'd found her intellectual home, investigating the rich and disorganized collection of documents and furniture and clothing and oddities left to the region in wills.
For Reine-Marie Gamache, each day felt like Christmas, as she sorted through the boxes and boxes. And boxes.
And then, after much discussion between them, Armand had decided on his next step.
For weeks after, while she pored over piles of letters and old documents, he pored over his files, studying confidential reports, schematics, curricula vitae. Across from each other in their comfortable living room, they'd gone through their separate boxes, while the fire mumbled and the coffee perked and late autumn turned into an early winter.
But while she was opening up the world, he was in many ways doing the opposite. Armand was whittling down, honing, shaving, taking out the dead wood, the unnecessary, the unwanted. The rot. Until what he had in his hands was something very sharp. A spear of his own creation. And he'd need it. There could be no doubt who was in charge, and who held the power. Or that he was willing to use it.
He was almost there, she knew. But there seemed one thin obstacle.
They looked down at it now, sitting innocently on the table among the croissant flakes.
Armand opened his mouth to speak, then closed it and exhaled sharply, in irritation.
"There's something that's bothering me about this file and I don't know what it is."
Reine-Marie picked it up and read. It didn't take long. After a few minutes she closed the cover, laying a hand softly on top as a mother might on the chest of a sick child. Making sure of the heartbeat.
"She's an odd one, I'll give her that." She looked at the red dot in the corner. "You're rejecting her, I see."
Armand lifted his hands in a noncommittal gesture.
"You're considering accepting her?" she asked. "Even if it's true that she reads ancient Greek and Latin, that's not much use in the job. They're dead languages. And she might very well be lying."
"True," he admitted. "But if you're going to lie, why do it about that? Seems an odd sort of fabrication."
"She's not qualified," said Reine-Marie. "Her high school marks are abysmal. I know it's difficult to choose, but surely there are other applicants who deserve the spot more."
Their breakfast came, and Armand placed the file on the pine floor beside Henri.
"I can't tell you how often I've changed that dot," he said with a smile. "Red, green. Green, red."
Reine-Marie took a forkful of the moist scrambled eggs. A long thin string of Brie clung to the plate and she lifted her fork above her head for amusement, to see how long the string could stretch before it broke.
Longer than her arm, it seemed.
Armand, smiling and shaking his head, pulled it apart with his fingers.
"There, madame, I set you free."
"From the bondage of cheese," she said. "Oh, thank you, kind sir. But I'm afraid the attachment goes deeper than that."
"Do you think it's her name?" asked Reine-Marie. Her husband was rarely so indecisive, though she knew he also took his decisions seriously. They would affect people for the rest of their lives.
"Amelia?" he asked. And frowned. "I wondered the same thing. But it seems a huge overreaction on my part, don't you think? My mother's been gone for almost fifty years. I've met other Amelias —"
"Non, c'est vrai. But some. And while the name will always remind me of my mother, the fact is I didn't think of her as Amelia. She was Maman."
He was right, of course. And he didn't seem at all embarrassed to be a grown man talking about "mommy." She knew he was simply referring to the last time he saw his mother and father. When he was nine. When they weren't Amelia and Honoré but Mommy and Daddy. Going out for dinner with friends. Expected back to kiss him good night.
"It could be her name," said Armand.
"But you doubt it. You think it's something else."
"Oh God," said Olivier, coming over to check on them and looking out the window. "I don't think I'm ready."
"Neither are we," admitted Reine-Marie, following his gaze to the snowy village green, now white. "You think you are, but it always comes as an unpleasant surprise."
"And arrives earlier and earlier," said Armand.
"Exactly. And seems more and more bitter," said Olivier.
"Still, there's beauty," said Armand, and received a stern look from Olivier.
"Beauty? You're kidding, right?" he said.
"No, it's there. Of course, it can stick around far too long," said Armand.
"You're telling me," said Olivier.
"It gets old," said Reine-Marie.
"Gets old?" asked Olivier.
"But having the right tires helps," she said.
Olivier put the empty croissant basket back down on the table. "What're you talking about?"
"Winter, of course," said Reine-Marie. "The first snow."
"What're you talking about?" asked Armand.
"Ruth," said Olivier, pointing out the window at the elderly woman with a cane, and a duck, approaching the bistro. Old, cold and bitter.
She stepped inside and scanned the room.
"Yes," said Olivier. "The right tires would solve that problem."
"Fag," muttered Ruth as she limped by them.
"Hag," muttered Olivier as they watched the elderly poet take her usual seat by the fireplace. She opened the pine blanket box used as a coffee table and took out a handful of papers.
"She's helping me sort through the stuff we found in the walls when we renovated," said Olivier. "You remember?"
Armand nodded. Olivier and his partner, Gabri, had turned an abandoned hardware store into the bistro many years ago, and in updating the electricity and plumbing, they'd opened the walls and found all sorts of things. Mummified squirrels, clothing. But mostly they'd found papers. Newspapers, magazines, advertisements, catalogues used as insulation as though words could keep winter at bay.
Enough heated words had been hurled at the Québec winter, but all had failed to stop the snow.
In the chaos of the renovations, the papers had simply been dumped in the pine blanket box and forgotten. The box had sat in front of the hearth for years, unopened. Countless cafés au lait, and glasses of wine, and plates of regional cheese and paté and baguette, and feet, had rested on top of it, until the papers had been rediscovered a few months earlier.
"I doubt there's anything valuable," said Olivier, returning to the Gamaches' table after taking Ruth her breakfast of Irish coffee and bacon.
"How is that woman still alive?" asked Reine-Marie.
"Bile," said Olivier. "She's pure bile. It never dies." He looked at Reine-Marie. "I don't suppose you'd be willing to help her?"
"Well, who wouldn't want to work with pure bile?" she said.
"Once she gets a few drinks in her, she becomes simply nasty, as you know," said Olivier. "Please. Please. It's taken Ruth two months to get the pile down an inch. The problem is, she doesn't just scan, she reads everything. Yesterday she spent the whole day on one National Geographic from 1920."
Excerpted from A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny. Copyright © 2016 Three Pines Creations, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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