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Authors: Ariel S. Winter

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BOOK: The Twenty-Year Death
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This meant that there could be any number of people who would want to kill him.

The only problem was the last note taken down in the young officer’s looping hand.

Marcel Meranger had been arrested thirteen years ago and sentenced to forty years in prison.

The prison was Malniveau.

3.
The American Writer

Letreau rushed into his office, leaving Pelleter holding the paper with the message. Once there, he picked up the phone and could be heard barking, “Hello...Get me Fournier...”

Pelleter approached the young officer who had taken the message, still seated at the front counter. He pointed to the phone. “May I?”

The young officer, surprised that he had even been asked for permission, nodded, and managed a “But of course.”

Pelleter spoke to the operator and hung up.

Letreau could be heard saying, “This is a problem, and it’s your problem...”

“Has anyone ever escaped from Malniveau?”

The young officer was startled again at having been addressed. He had clearly been eavesdropping on the chief’s conversation. “Not in my memory and I’ve lived here my whole life,” the young officer said. “But when we were kids they used to talk about the three great escapes since the prison’s been open.”

“Three?”

The officer nodded. “In the 1820s sometime a man faked consumption. He coughed and coughed for days. Then he cut his fingers on the rocks and used the blood to stain the front of his shirt so that it looked like he’d been coughing up his lungs...
Of course the warden didn’t want to infect his whole population enclosed like that, so he ordered that the man be brought into town where he was to be quarantined in an old shed... He escaped as soon as he was in town. There was no train here then so he had to go on foot or get a ride and he didn’t want to risk getting a ride, so he didn’t get very far before they caught him...He was in solitary for good after that.”

Pelleter looked across to Letreau in his office, who was pacing as he spoke, the phone cord making a mess of the papers on his desk.

“And the other two?”

“The second wasn’t really an escape. One of the men who worked in the laundry hid himself among the sheets that were to be discarded. Rather typical, I guess. Of course, the sheets were checked before they were taken out the front gate and the man was found, so he didn’t even make it beyond the prison walls.”

Letreau was shouting now in the other room. “You listen, Fournier. You better find a way to get in touch with your boss, because he’s looking at a scandal that may lose him his job!”

The young officer ignored the commotion behind him, flattered at the attention the chief inspector was giving him.

“The last escape was during the war. By then the prisoners were allowed some exercise time outside in the courtyard. Three men got together and planned their escape...They arranged themselves so they would be the last out in the courtyard with a guard just behind them...As the last man stepped out into the fresh air, all three fell back and overpowered the guard, taking his gun and forcing their way back into the prison using the guard as a hostage. They made their way to the front gate, but the warden had a chance to arrange a team of guards
outside. They killed two of the prisoners on sight, and the third one surrendered claiming that they had just wanted a chance to serve in the war. He was sent to the trenches and killed there. If he’d just waited that would probably have happened anyway.”

“So none actually made it.”

“Never.”

“Do you think that one could have now?”

“Not without help.”

“That’s what I think too.”

Pelleter touched his hand to his mouth.

“Chief Inspector?”

Pelleter focused on the young officer.

“You went to see Mahossier...I mean, you caught Mahossier. You know the man. What kind of a man could do—?”

Officer Martin broke off, and Pelleter realized that he was glaring at the young man.

Martin swallowed, but to his credit did not look away. “I just wanted to know if you could tell.”

Pelleter tried to relax his pose. The Mahossier business had been big news at the time of the killings and was perhaps not as forgotten as Pelleter sometimes hoped. Officer Martin was just the right age that he had no doubt followed the story avidly, perhaps even deciding to become a police officer because of it. And now here was Pelleter, and there was a murder to be solved.

Pelleter shook his head, trying to soften his expression. “You never can tell. Later, afterwards, of course, and then you wonder if you always knew.” He considered his words. “Men are capable of anything.”

This upset Martin. “But what Mahossier did, I mean—”

Pelleter put a hand on the young man’s shoulder wishing he could honestly relieve his anguish.

Martin said, “I just want to be ready.”

“If you saw the man now, you would know,” Pelleter reassured him, which of course was not quite the same as knowing in advance.

Martin was slightly relieved, and Pelleter forced a close-mouthed smile, thinking of the power Mahossier wielded now because people knew what he had done. He tried to remember the first time he interviewed Mahossier, when he was just a suspect, if he had known then. He really couldn’t say.

Letreau slammed the phone down in his office, drawing everyone’s attention. He was breathing heavily, trying to get control of himself.

The phone on the counter rang and Pelleter picked up. “Yes...Chief Inspector Pelleter...I need you to pull the file on a Marcel Meranger...All known associates, family, friends, accomplices, enemies, anyone...How long will it take...Good, then I’ll wait...”

Letreau came out of his office. His face was red, but he otherwise seemed to be under control. He watched Pelleter on the phone.

Pelleter said, “Wait...Actually I’m going to put another officer on, you give the information to him...He’ll wait for it...Thank you.” Pelleter handed the phone to Martin. “Write down everything he tells you.”

When Pelleter turned to Letreau, the chief of police’s face went a deeper shade of red before he even started talking. “Fournier said he’d look into it.”

“I see.”

“I could—”

Pelleter stepped forward and took Letreau by the arm, leading him towards his office. All eyes were on the two senior men. Once in the office, Pelleter closed the door, and then stood watching Letreau pace once again, working himself up over the situation.

Letreau stopped and looked at his friend. “I’m sorry. We haven’t had an unsolved homicide in this town in thirty years.”

“You don’t have one yet.”

“Fournier said that he would look into whether or not they were missing a prisoner, but that he thought he would know by now if the man had been missing over twenty-four hours.”

“He should. Did you say we would come down there?”

“He said that wasn’t necessary, because he’d be tied up trying to find out what happened and the warden, of course, isn’t there, so if we want to, we should come tomorrow. I told him that perhaps the warden would want to know about this. He said there was no way to get in touch with the warden at the moment, but that he would have everything under control, and that if we felt it was necessary, we could come tomorrow.”

From the outside, it was impossible to read Pelleter’s expression, it appeared to be so calm, but in fact, he felt exactly the same way as Chief Letreau.

“I could kill that man Fournier. He’s so cool. It’s not natural,” Letreau said.

Pelleter had thought the same thing earlier in the day. The man acted as though nothing could surprise him. And the warden rushing out of town like that was a bit convenient too.

Letreau said, “I guess I’m going to go see Benoît again. Take a look at his basement.”

“The baker?”

“I need to do something, damn it!” And Letreau went red once again. “We didn’t know it was a murder when we saw him this morning. Maybe we missed something.”

Letreau went to the hook behind the door to retrieve his overcoat. He pulled open the door. An old woman stood in the public space of the station holding a small soaked dog under her right arm as though it were a handbag. A young man who had not removed his hat was standing next to her, and they were both talking at the same time to the two police officers who normally occupied the desks. The noise of the argument filled the small space of the station, creating an increased sense of tension. Martin was still on the phone, his left hand pressed against his free ear.

Letreau crossed the station, ignoring the scene. Nearly at the door, he said to Pelleter, “Are you coming with me?”

Pelleter said, “Go ahead.”

Letreau went out, the sound of the rain momentarily blending in with the noise of the argument before the door slammed shut.

Pelleter sat down in one of the waiting room chairs watching the scene. There was nothing to do but wait.

The officers managed to get the two parties separated, and the story unfolded that the young man had nearly hit the old lady’s dog with his car as he parked it on the square. The young man claimed that the dog had been in the street. Nobody was hurt.

Pelleter wondered what it would be like to be a policeman in such a town. The weather had everyone on edge.

“Chief Inspector!”

It was Martin at the counter. He had hung up the phone. Pelleter went up to him. “Got anything?”

The young officer handed over a list in the now familiar handwriting. “Here’s the list. It’s a long one.” He was proud of his work, and watched Pelleter expectantly as the inspector scanned the names.

There were at least ninety names on the paper written in small even lines. It was a lot of names to go through, but it could be done if it had to be. Pelleter scanned the list and recognized a few of them from many years ago, but for the most part they meant nothing to him. Many of them were probably also in prison or dead.

“Chief Inspector,” Martin said, and he stood up from his stool to lean over the counter. He pointed to a name on the top of the list. “I thought I recognized that name,” he said.

The name was Clotilde-ma-Fleur Meranger, and a note beside the name identified her as the dead man’s daughter.

“It’s such an unusual first name, I figured how many people could there be? So I had the person on the phone look up whether or not Mademoiselle Meranger had since been married, and it turns out she is. She’s married to Shem Rosenkrantz, the American writer. She’s now Clotilde-ma-Fleur Rosenkrantz.”

The woman with the wet dog had been appeased, and the group was now talking jocularly in more normal tones.

Martin waited for a reaction from Pelleter, and then he said, “They live here in town.”

Pelleter registered this new piece of information. Meranger’s daughter lived in town. If anyone knew anything about this, it would be the daughter.

“Where?”

The Rosenkrantz home was on the western edge of town on the Rue Principale where the houses were spaced further apart before giving way wholly to farmland. It was a small two-story wooden house painted a faint olive green with white shutters. The low fence surrounding the property was more decorative than anything.

The rain was holding steady, but Pelleter had refused a ride to the house, preferring to see the town on foot. The baker’s house where the body had been found was in another quarter of the town, to the north, but that didn’t mean anything. The town was not very large. Meranger could have been on his way to see his daughter, or he could have already been there. And there was still the matter of who had helped him out of the prison, and who would want to.

Pelleter let himself in through the front gate. The house was well maintained, and somehow managed to look cheery even in the rain. At the door, shielded by the overhang, the remaining water streamed off his hat and coat before settling to a steady drip. There were no lights at the front of the house, but he could see that there were some lit towards the rear. He knocked.

A car passed in the street, on its way to town, not yet slowing its country pace.

There was no response from the house. Pelleter knocked again, looking up and around him as if he could gauge if the house was empty.

It was possible that the Rosenkrantzes were out, although in this rain it seemed unlikely. And Pelleter thought they would not have left any lights burning if that were the case. He was thankful for the overhang, but he was growing tired of the
sound of the rain, of the weight of his coat, of the clammy feeling of the weather in general.

He knocked again with great force and the door shuddered a little in its frame.

A figure appeared from the back of the house, a silhouette blocking the light, visible through the window in the door. The man came up to the door with quick strides, and pulled it open violently. “What do you want?”

He was about Pelleter’s age. His French was almost unaccented, but something still gave him away as a foreigner. Perhaps it was his manner.

Pelleter showed his papers. “Is Madame Rosenkrantz at home?”

“No. What’s it about?”

“I’d like to speak to her directly.”

“Well, she’s not here. And I’m trying to work. So sorry.” He made no motion to close the door, but by his stance it was clear that he was about to.

BOOK: The Twenty-Year Death
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