A Better Man (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache #15)

“I see.”

And yet, thought Gamache, Agent Cameron knew that Vivienne was going to have a baby.

Now, how was that?



* * *



As they got closer to the farmhouse, the wipers pushing the wet flakes off the windshield, Agent Cloutier did what she always did in times of extreme stress.

Two times four is eight.

Three times five is fifteen.

Her times tables. Laid out neatly, in rows and columns.

Five times four is …

Her meditation. Her happy place. No chaos could survive in the tightly packed numbers. Everything in its place. In its home. Safe. Predictable. Known. Every question had an answer.

Twenty.

Terrible things did not happen to the pregnant daughter of an old friend, in the times table.

Six times six is …

Only, Cloutier knew, something had happened. And it was up to them to find the answer.

… thirty-six.

Thirty-six hours Vivienne was now missing.





CHAPTER SIX


“What do you think?” Gabri asked Clara as they stood on the stone bridge and looked into the Rivière Bella Bella below.

He had to speak up, over the roar.

The water rushing beneath them, so clear and gentle in summer, was seething. Frothing with brown foam and great chunks of ice and tree limbs swept into it in the spring runoff.

All very natural. All very predictable.

But there was a problem.

There was too much of it. Too much water. Too much ice. Far too much forest swirling in the waters.

Gabri and Clara turned around and looked downriver.

“Damn,” muttered Clara, and then, raising her voice, she turned to Gabri. “A dam is forming. I think it’s time to start sandbagging.”

“Did someone say sandbagging?” asked Ruth as she joined them on the bridge.

She’d put a moth-eaten woolen scarf over her short white hair and tied it at her chin, so that she looked like an elderly Victorian gentleman with a toothache. And a duck.

“Now, Ruth.” Gabri spoke with exaggerated patience. “We’ve been through this before. When we call for volunteers to sandbag, we don’t mean to hit each other over the head with sand-filled socks.”

“Shit,” said Ruth.

“No,” said Gabri. “Not shit either, as we learned last spring.”

Clara had returned to the other side of the bridge and looked at her garden, which backed onto the Rivière Bella Bella. The river had risen rapidly in the last hour and was now just inches from the top.

“I’ve never seen it so high so early,” said Gabri, joining her.

“Are you talking about the river or Ruth?” asked Clara.

Gabri laughed, then regarded their neighbor more closely.

Ruth looked fairly sober, somber even. Though the duck looked bleary. But then, ducks often did.

“What do you think, Ruth?” Gabri asked, raising his voice so she could hear over the rushing waters and her natural inclination to not listen.

She was the oldest resident of Three Pines. But how old was a matter of some debate.

“We found her under a rock,” Gabri’s partner, Olivier, was fond of explaining. And she did appear more than a little fossilized.

She also happened to be the chief of the volunteer fire department. Not because she was a natural leader but because most villagers would rather run into a burning building or a river in full flood than face Ruth Zardo’s sharp tongue.

She tipped her head back and looked into the sky. It had stopped snowing but was still threatening moisture of some sort. Exactly what they did not need.

“I think we should order more sand,” she said, dropping her eyes to consider the river below. “I checked yesterday, and we have enough in the pile behind the old railway station for a normal flood, but this doesn’t look normal to me.”

If anyone had a knowledge of abnormal, it was Ruth.

“I’ve only seen it this high once before,” she said. “Yes, I guess it’s time.”

“For what?” asked Clara.

“Another hundred-year flood.”

“Oh, shit,” said Gabri. “Fuckity fuck fuck. Merde.” Then he paused. “What’s a hundred-year flood?”

“Surely the name is a giveaway,” said Clara.

They followed Ruth as she turned toward the bistro.

“A hundred-year flood happens every hundred years, right?” Gabri whispered to Clara.

“I’d have to say yes.”

“Then how could Ruth have seen one before?” He dropped his voice still further. “How old is she?”

“Not a clue. I’m still trying to figure out how old the duck is,” said Clara.

Just then Rosa, in Ruth’s arms a few paces ahead, turned her head 180 degrees. And glared at them.

“The Devil Duck,” whispered Gabri. “If her head spins all the way around, I’m running for the hills.”

But Rosa just turned back and nestled into the crook of Ruth’s arm. And went to sleep.

Unaware of, or unconcerned about, the rising waters.

But then, thought Clara, as they entered the bistro, ducks could fly. And people could not.



* * *



Their tires spun in the thick mud, and the car slewed sideways on the hill.

The spring thaw had once again brought hope and muck. It was a beautiful filthy season.

“Stop, stop,” said Gamache. “Arrêt,” he commanded when Cloutier gunned it one more time. And the car slipped a few more feet sideways, toward the gully.

Up ahead, Cameron’s patrol car was sliding backward. Toward them.

“Back up,” said Gamache. “Slowly.”

He kept his voice calm and level, even as he watched Cameron’s vehicle gather speed on the steep slope.

“What you want to do,” he said, “is—”

“I know, I know.”

As he watched, she put the car in reverse and touched the gas. Nursing it backward. Gamache braced, watching Cameron’s car coming at them even as Cloutier applied gas and theirs sped up.

There was a small thud as the S?reté vehicles met. Cloutier expertly nursed the brakes as both slowed down and came to a halt on the shoulder.

She’d executed the maneuver perfectly. Gamache doubted he could have done nearly as well.

“Formidable,” he said, and saw her smile.

“Please don’t ask me to do that again.”

He laughed. “Believe me, Agent Cloutier, if that ever needs to be done again, you’re the one I’ll call.”

Cameron had gotten out and was sliding toward them, gripping the cars as he went. Finally stopping at Gamache’s window.

“That was impressive. Merci.” Bending in, he looked at Gamache. “What now?”

“Now”—Gamache grabbed his hat and gloves—“we walk.”

Cloutier looked up the hill. “It’s at least half a kilometer to their place.”

“Then we’d better get going,” said Gamache, already out of the car and looking around.

The plump April snowflakes had stopped, and the air was cool and fresh. He took a deep breath and smelled sweet pine needles and musky leaves and mud.

And heard—

“What’s that?” asked Cloutier, cocking her head.

“A river,” said Cameron. “It must’ve broken up. The spring runoff’s started.”

Gamache turned toward the sound coming from deep in the woods.

While the river could not be seen, it could be heard. The waters rushing down the side of the mountain. It was a sound as familiar to those in the Québec countryside as sirens were in the city.

When he’d left Three Pines early that morning to get into Montréal, all had been silent. Except for the gentle tap-tap-tapping as the huge flakes landed on the trees and homes and vehicles.

But something had broken, something had woken, in the meantime. Something not at all gentle.

He took another deep breath, but with less pleasure.

All sorts of things woke up in the spring. With the warmer weather. Bears. Chipmunks. Skunks and racoons. And rivers.

They came to life.

There were few things more powerful, or destructive, or terrifying, than a hungry bear or a river in full flood.

Gamache knew exactly where the river was heading. While he’d never been along this road before, he knew the area. They weren’t all that far from his own village.

Which meant the roar they heard was the Rivière Bella Bella, heading straight into Three Pines.

He took out his phone to call Reine-Marie, to warn her and find out how things were, but Cameron was right. There was no signal.

He clicked the phone off, put it back in his pocket, and turned to look up the muddy road.

“Come on,” he said, and started the climb.



* * *



“The lottery ticket,” said Isabelle Lacoste, looking over the file at Jean-Guy Beauvoir.

“What?”

Lacoste was between meetings. She’d dropped by to chat, and instead he’d put her to work, tossing her files and saying, “Take a look at these and tell me what you think.”

The two sat in companionable silence, reading about sometimes gruesome, sometimes straightforward, always tragic murders. Every now and then, Superintendent Lacoste had asked a question. Or made a note. Or a comment.

“In the Anderson case,” she said. “The victim was found with a lottery ticket in her pocket.”

“Oui. A group of co-workers were in a pool.”

“Which she organized.”

“Yes.” He leaned over so he could read the file she was holding. “But it was a losing ticket.”

“Doesn’t matter.”

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