Hardly a day goes by when nine year old Laurent Lepage doesn't cry wolf. From alien invasions, to walking trees, to winged beasts in the woods, to dinosaurs spotted in the village of Three Pines, his tales are so extraordinary no one can possibly believe him. Including Armand and Reine-Marie Gamache, who now live in the little Quebec village.
But when the boy disappears, the villagers are faced with the possibility that one of his tall tales might have been true.
And so begins a frantic search for the boy and the truth. What they uncover deep in the forest sets off a sequence of events that leads to murder, leads to an old crime, leads to an old betrayal. Leads right to the door of an old poet.
And now it is now, writes Ruth Zardo. And the dark thing is here.
A monster once visited Three Pines. And put down deep roots. And now, Ruth knows, it is back.
Armand Gamache, the former head of homicide for the Sûreté du Québec, must face the possibility that, in not believing the boy, he himself played a terrible part in what happens next.
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About the Author
LOUISE PENNY is the #1 New York Times and Globe and Mail bestselling author of ten previous Chief Inspector Armand Gamache novels. She has won numerous awards, including a CWA Dagger and the Agatha Award (five times) and was a finalist for the Edgar Award for Best Novel. She lives in a small village south of Montréal.
Read an Excerpt
The Nature of The Beast
By Louise Penny
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Three Pines Creations, Inc
All rights reserved.
Running, running, stumbling, running.
Arm up against the wiry branches whipping his face. He didn't see the root. He fell, hands splayed into the moss and mud. His assault rifle dropped and bounced and rolled from sight. Eyes wide, frantic now, Laurent Lepage scanned the forest floor and swept his hands through the dead and decaying leaves.
He could hear the footsteps behind him. Boots on the ground. Pounding. He could almost feel the earth heaving as they got closer, closer, while he, on all fours, plowed the leaves aside.
"Come on, come on," he pleaded.
And then his bloodied and filthy hands clasped the barrel of the assault rifle and he was up and running. Bent over. Gasping for breath.
It felt as though he'd been on the run for weeks, months. A lifetime. And even as he sprinted through the forest, dodging the tree trunks, he knew the running would end soon.
But for now he ran, so great was his will to survive. So great was his need to hide what he'd found. If he couldn't get it back to safety, at least, maybe, he could make sure those in pursuit wouldn't find it.
He could hide it. Here, in this forest. And then the lion would sleep tonight. Finally.
Bang. Bangbangbang. The trees around him exploded, ripped apart by bullets.
He dove and rolled and came up behind a stump, his shoulder to the rotting wood. No protection at all.
His thoughts in these final moments did not go to his parents at home in the little Québec village. They didn't go to his puppy, no longer a puppy but a grown dog. He didn't think of his friends, or the games on the village green in summer, or tobogganing, giddy, down the hill while the mad old poet shook her fist at them in winter. He didn't think of the hot chocolate at the end of the day in front of the fire in the bistro.
He thought only of killing those in his sights. And buying time. So that maybe, maybe, he could hide the cassette.
And then maybe, maybe those in the village would be safe. And those in other villages would be safe. There was some comfort in knowing there would be purpose to this. His sacrifice would be for the greater good and for those he loved and the place he loved.
He raised his weapon, took aim, and squeezed the trigger.
"Bang," he said, feeling the assault rifle thrust into his shoulder. "Bangbangbangbangbang."
The front line of his pursuers fell.
He leapt and rolled behind a sturdy tree, pressing so hard against it that the rough bark made a bruise on his back and he wondered if the tree might topple over. He hugged his rifle to his chest. His pulse pounding. He could feel his own heart in his ears. It threatened to drown out all other sounds.
Like swiftly approaching feet.
Laurent tried to steady himself. His breathing. His trembling.
He'd been through this before, he reminded himself. And he'd always escaped. Always. He'd escape today. He'd get back home. And there he'd have a hot drink and a pastry. And a bath.
And he'd soak away all the terrible things he'd done, and was about to do.
His hand dropped to the pocket of his torn and muddy jacket. His fingers, knuckles scraped to the bone and bleeding, felt inside. And there it was. The cassette. Safe.
Or, at least, as safe as he was.
His senses, honed and heightened, instinctively took in the musky scent of the forest floor, took in the shafts of sunlight. He took in the frantic scramble of chipmunks in the branches above him.
What he no longer heard were footsteps.
Had he killed or wounded them all? Would he get home after all?
But then he heard it. The telltale snap of a twig. Close.
They'd stopped running and were now creeping up on his position. Surrounding him.
Laurent tried to count the feet, tried to estimate the number by the noise. But he couldn't. And he knew then it didn't matter anyway. There would be no escape this time.
And now he tasted something foreign. Something sour.
He had terror in his mouth.
He took a deep breath. In the moments he had left, Laurent Lepage looked at his filthy fingers clasped around the assault rifle. And he saw them, pink and clean, holding burgers and poutine and corn on the cob and sweet, silly pets de soeurs at the county fair.
And holding the puppy. Harvest. Named for his father's favorite album.
And now, at the last, as he hugged the rifle, Laurent began to hum. A tune his father sang to him every night at bedtime.
"Old man look at my life," he sang under his breath. "Twenty-four and there's so much more."
Dropping the rifle, he brought out the cassette. He'd run out of time. He'd failed. And now he had to hide the cassette. Falling to his knees, he found a tangle of thick vines, old and woody. No longer caring about the noise approaching, approaching, Laurent Lepage parted the vines. They were thicker, heavier than he'd realized and he felt a spike of panic.
Had he left it too late?
He ripped and tore and clawed until a small opening appeared. Thrusting his hand in, he dropped the cassette.
It might never be found by those who needed it. But neither, he knew, would it be found by those about to kill for it.
"But I'm all alone at last," he whispered. "Rolling home to you."
Some glint inside the bramble caught his eye.
Something was in there. Something that hadn't grown, but had been placed there. Other hands had been here before him.
Laurent Lepage, his pursuers forgotten, knelt closer and bringing both hands up, he grasped the vines and yanked them apart. The creepers clung to each other, bound together. Years, decades, eons worth of growth. And concealment.
Laurent ripped, and ripped, and tore. Until a shaft of sunlight penetrated the overgrowth, the undergrowth, and he saw what was in there. What had been hiding in there longer than Laurent had been alive.
His eyes widened.
Isabelle Lacoste put her glass of apple cider on the worn wooden table and stared at the man across from her.
"You know I'm not going to answer that," said Armand Gamache, picking up his beer and smiling at her.
"Well, now that you're no longer my boss I can tell you what I really think."
Gamache laughed. His wife, Reine-Marie, leaned toward Lacoste and whispered, "What do you really think, Isabelle?"
"I think your husband, Madame Gamache, would make a great Superintendent at the Sûreté."
Reine-Marie leaned back in her armchair. Through the mullioned windows of the bistro she saw a ragtag mix of kids and adults, including her daughter Annie and Annie's husband, Jean-Guy, playing soccer. It was mid-September. Summer was gone and autumn was on the doorstep. Leaves were just turning. Brilliant reds and yellows and amber maples dotted the gardens and forest. Some leaves had already fallen onto the grass of the village green. It was a perfect time of year, when late summer flowers were still blooming and the leaves were turning, and the grass was still green, but the nights were chilly and sweaters were out and fires were beginning to be lit. So that the hearths at night resembled the forests in the day, all giddy and bright and cheerful.
Soon everyone would head back to the city after the weekend, but for her and Armand there was no need to return. They were already there.
Reine-Marie nodded to Monsieur Béliveau, the grocer, who'd just taken a seat at a nearby table, then turned her attention back to the woman who had joined them for the weekend. Isabelle Lacoste. Chief Inspector Lacoste, acting head of homicide for the Sûreté du Québec. The job Reine-Marie's husband had held for more than twenty years.
Reine-Marie always thought of her as "young Isabelle." Not, she hoped, in a patronizing, or matronizing, way, but because she'd been so young when Armand had found and recruited and trained her.
But now there were lines in Isabelle's face, and gray just starting in her hair. It seemed to happen overnight. They'd met her fiancé, and been at her wedding, and attended the baptism of her two babies. She'd been young Agent Lacoste for so long, and now, suddenly it seemed, she was Chief Inspector Lacoste.
And Armand was retired. Early retirement, certainly, but retirement.
Reine-Marie glanced out the window again. They were in their amber years.
Or perhaps not.
Reine-Marie shifted her attention to Armand, sitting back in his wing chair in the bistro, sipping his microbrewery beer. Relaxed, comfortable, amused. His six-foot frame had filled out. He wasn't heavy, but he was solid. The pillar in the storm.
But there was no storm, Reine-Marie reminded herself. They could, finally, stop being pillars and just be people. Armand and Reine-Marie. Two more villagers. That was all. That was enough.
And for him?
Armand's hair was grayer than ever, and curling just around his ears and at his collar. It was longer, slightly, than when he was at the Sûreté. More from not noticing than not caring.
Here in Three Pines they noticed the migration of the geese, and the prickly chestnuts ripening on the trees, and the bobbing black-eyed Susans in bloom. They noticed the barrel of apples outside Monsieur Béliveau's general store, free for the taking. They noticed the fresh harvest at the farmers market and the new arrivals at Myrna's New and Used Bookstore. They noticed Olivier's daily specials at the bistro.
Reine-Marie noticed that Armand was happy. And healthy.
And Armand noticed that Reine-Marie was happy and healthy too, here, in the little village in the valley. Three Pines couldn't hide them from the woes of the world, but it could help heal the wounds.
The scar at Armand's temple plowed across the other lines on his forehead. Some of the furrows were created by stress and worry and sadness. But most, like the ones showing now, were deep with amusement.
"I thought you were going to tell me what you really thought of him as a person," said Reine-Marie. "All those flaws you witnessed after years of working together." Reine-Marie leaned closer, in conspiracy. "Come on, Isabelle, tell me."
Out on the green, Lacoste's two children were fighting with Jean-Guy Beauvoir for the ball. The grown man appeared to be sincerely, and increasingly desperately, trying to control the play. Lacoste smiled. Even against kids, Inspector Beauvoir did not like to lose.
"You mean all the cruelty?" she asked, bringing her attention back inside the comfortable room. "The incompetence? We had to keep waking him up to tell him our solution to a case so he could take the credit."
"Is that true, Armand?" Reine-Marie asked.
"Pardon? I was snoozing."
Lacoste laughed. "And now I get your office, and the sofa." She turned serious. "I know the Superintendent's job has been offered to you, patron. Chief Superintendent Brunel told me in confidence."
"Some confidence," said Gamache. But he didn't look put out.
Chief Superintendent Thérèse Brunel, appointed head of the Sûreté after the scandals and shake-up, had visited Three Pines a week earlier. It was, supposedly, a social visit. As they'd relaxed on the front porch one morning over coffee, she'd offered him the job.
"Superintendent, Armand. You'd head up the division that oversees Homicide and Serious Crimes and the annual Christmas party."
He raised his brow.
"We're restructuring," she explained. "Gave the St-Jean-Baptiste Day picnic to Organized Crime."
He smiled and so did she, before her eyes turned sharp again and she studied him.
"What would it take to get you back?"
It would be disingenuous for him to say he hadn't seen this coming. He'd been expecting just such an overture since the leadership of the Sûreté had fallen into complete disarray, and the breadth and depth of the corruption he'd uncovered became clear.
They needed leadership and direction and they needed it fast.
"Let me think about it, Thérèse," he'd said.
"I'd like an answer soon."
After Thérèse Brunel kissed Reine-Marie good-bye, she took Armand's arm and the two old friends and colleagues walked to her car.
"The rot in the Sûreté has been removed," she said, lowering her voice. "But now the force needs to be rebuilt. Properly this time. We both know rot can reappear. Don't you want to be part of making sure the Sûreté is strong and healthy and on the right path?"
She examined her friend. He'd recovered from the physical attacks, that was obvious. He exuded strength and well-being and a kind of calmly contained energy. But the physical wounds, as grave as they'd been, hadn't been the reason Armand Gamache had retired. He had finally staggered under the emotional burden. He'd had enough of corruption, of betrayal, of the back-stabbing and undermining and venal atmosphere. He'd had enough of death. Chief Inspector Gamache had exorcised the rot in the Sûreté, but the memories remained, embedded.
Would they disappear with time? Thérèse Brunel wondered. Would they disappear with distance? Would this pretty village wash them away, like a baptism?
"The worst is done, Armand," she said, once they reached her car. "And now it's time for the best, the fun part. Rebuilding. Don't you want to be part of that? Or is this," she looked around the village green, "enough?"
She saw the old homes circling the green. She saw the bistro and bookstore and bakery and general store. She saw, Gamache knew, a pretty, but dull, backwater. While he saw a shore. A place where the shipwrecked could finally rest.
Armand had told Reine-Marie about the job offer, of course, and they'd discussed it.
"Do you want to do it, Armand?" she'd asked, trying to keep her voice neutral.
But he knew her too well for that.
"It's too soon, I think. For both of us. But Thérèse has raised an interesting question. What next?"
Next? Reine-Marie had thought when he'd said it a week ago. And she thought it again now, in the bistro, with the murmur of conversation, like a stream, flowing by her, around her. That one bedraggled word had washed up on her banks and set down roots, tendrils. A bindweed of a word.
When Armand had retired and they'd moved from Montréal to Three Pines, it had never occurred to her there'd be a next. She was still surprised and elated that there was a now.
But now had bled into next.
Armand wasn't yet sixty, and she herself had given up a hugely successful career at the Bibliothèque nationale.
She was, truth be told, still savoring here and still savoring now. But next was on the horizon, slouching toward them.
"Hello, you still here?"
Gabri, large and voluble, walked across the bistro he owned with his partner, Olivier. He hugged Isabelle Lacoste.
"I thought you'd be gone by now," said Myrna, arriving with him and taking the slender woman in her ample arms.
"Soon. I was just at your bookstore," Isabelle said to Myrna. "You weren't there so I left the money by the cash register."
"You found a book?" asked Myrna. "Which one?"
They discussed books while Gabri got them a couple of beers and chatted with customers before returning to the table. In his late thirties, Gabri's dark hair was just beginning to gray, and his face was showing crinkles when he laughed, which was often.
"How was rehearsal?" Reine-Marie asked Gabri and Myrna. "Is the play going well?"
"You'll have to ask Antoinette," said Gabri, indicating with his beer a middle-aged woman at another table.
"Who is she?" asked Isabelle.
She looked to Lacoste like her daughter. Only her daughter was seven and this woman must've been forty-five. The woman wore clothes more suited to an infant. A bow was in her spiky purple hair. She wore a flowered skirt, short and tight around her ample bottom, and a tank top, tight around her ample top, under a bright pink sweater. If a candy store vomited, Antoinette would be the result.
"That's Antoinette Lemaitre and her partner, Brian Fitzpatrick," said Reine-Marie. "She's the artistic director of the Knowlton Playhouse. They're coming over for dinner tonight."
"We'll be there too," said Gabri. "We're trying to get Armand and Reine-Marie to join us."
"Join?" said Isabelle. "Us?"
"The Estrie Players," said Myrna. "I've been trying to convince Clara to join too. Not to act, necessarily, but maybe to paint sets. Anything to get her out of that studio. She just stares at that half-finished portrait of Peter all day long. I don't think she's lifted her brush in weeks."
"That painting gives me the creeps," said Gabri.
"Isn't it a bit overkill, though?" said Reine-Marie. "Getting one of the top painters in Canada to do sets for an amateur production?"
"Picasso painted sets," said Myrna.
"For the Ballets Russes," Reine-Marie pointed out.
"I bet if he lived here he'd do our sets," said Gabri. "If anyone could convince him, she could."
He gestured toward Antoinette and Brian, who were approaching the table.
"How was rehearsal?" Reine-Marie asked, after introducing them to Isabelle Lacoste.
"It would be better if this one" — Antoinette jerked her head toward Gabri — "listened to my direction."
"I need to be free to make my own creative choices."
"You're playing him gay," said Antoinette.
"I am gay," said Gabri.
"But the character is not. He's just coming out of a ruined marriage."
"Oui. Coming out. Because he's ...?" said Gabri, leaning toward her.
Excerpted from The Nature of The Beast by Louise Penny. Copyright © 2015 Three Pines Creations, Inc. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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