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Authors: Ariel S. Winter

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BOOK: The Twenty-Year Death
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When he finally reached Letreau, Pelleter said, “Our case just got a lot more complicated.” He did not want to mention the details of the five bodies in front of Servières, although it was unlikely that the man had not seen the loaded-down truck make its way through the square towards the hospital.

“I can’t be concerned with that now,” Letreau said. “Meranger is dead. Those boys might still be alive. You can search or meet up with me in the morning.”

Pelleter nodded once. Letreau was right that if the boys were alive, that was the priority.

“I’ll search.”

Letreau nodded, but he had already turned back to his junior officers.

The square had emptied out and taken on its normal sleepy quiet. The only thing out of place was the occasional raised voice a block or two away that indicated that the town was not at rest.

“I’ll search with you,” Servières said.

Pelleter looked at him, and then started away. “Fine.”

“What about our third?”

Pelleter turned back. “You,” he called to Officer Martin.

Martin looked around him to see if Pelleter had meant someone else. Then he jogged over to Pelleter. “Sir?”

“Have you been assigned a duty?”

“No, sir.”

“You’re with us. Lead the way to Benoît’s house. I want to see where you found Meranger’s body.”

6.
Hansel and Gretel

The three men walked in silence down the center of the street. Martin led the way, a half a pace out in front, and Pelleter and Servières hurried side by side. The chief inspector walked with his head down, an unlit half-smoked cigar clenched in his teeth, his jaw moving in contemplation. Servières watched him.

The air was heavy with moisture, and a slight breeze was enough for a chill to cut through the men’s clothes.

The occasional call, “Georges! Albert!”, echoed in the streets.

“Should we be looking?” Servières said.

They had passed two other search parties on their route, each deliberately examining the alleys towards the center of town.

Pelleter said, “If those boys are to be found, they’re not going to be found in plain sight a few blocks from the square.”

Servières did not reply.

They were in a completely residential area now, a quiet street at the edge of town lined with two-story homes built much closer together than necessary. There were no streetlamps. The few lit windows in the surrounding homes did little to light the street.

Martin stopped, looking at the ground. He then looked at the house which they were standing in front of. “This is the spot,” he said.

It was exactly as it had been described to Pelleter, complete
with the details he had filled in himself, such as the broken trellis beside the baker’s front door. If there had been anything to see, it would have long since been washed away by the rain. He could just see the tracks of mud on the baker’s driveway, where the water had streamed from the street into the house.

“Spread out. Look around,” Pelleter said.

Martin started for the opposite side of the street.

“What are we looking for?” Servières said.

“The children.”

Even in this residential district, it was as Pelleter had said. There were no places where the children could be hidden for long. The spaces between the homes were little more than alleys, and the houses on the neighboring streets backed up almost to the rear stoop of the houses in Benoît’s street.

Pelleter took special care to examine any external basement entrances, but most were locked.

Servières began to call “Georges! Albert!” and soon Martin took up the call as well. No one would get much sleep in Verargent tonight.

Pelleter was three houses down from the baker’s now, using the back alley for passage. He found an unlocked basement, and looked up at the house. There were no lights on. He knocked on the back door, and then, satisfied, he pulled open the basement, folding the hatch back onto the ground.

“Hello!” he called. The basement was pitch black. The dank smell of wet earth and mildew rose to meet him. There were no children’s voices.

He took a few steps down, and ducked his head to enter the small space, the earthen floor soft beneath his shoes.

As his eyes adjusted, he could see why the door had been left unlocked. There seemed to be nothing in the shadows. He lit a
match to be sure, and used it to light his cigar. Nothing. Not even a coal box or a modest wine rack.

He shook out the match, and stood for a moment in the dark, enjoying the warmth of the cigar. If nothing else, it was as if he had seen Benoît’s basement. But there was nothing to be learned here. He needed to get a medical examiner to come and work on those bodies. He needed to talk with the prisoner who had been stabbed that morning. He needed to find out how Meranger got out of Malniveau. Only if he went back to his hotel to get the sleep he needed for the next day, then Servières would be all too happy to report in the
Vérité
, Inspector Pelleter uninterested in saving lost boys.

He forced his mind to pass over his instinct to link the missing children to the dead bodies.

There were too many people missing—the warden, Madame Rosenkrantz... Who else?

Pelleter made his way back to the gutter where Meranger had been found. Away from Servières, he squatted to see if he could find anything that had been missed, even in this low light. He paced the edge of the street, still squatting, but there was nothing out of the ordinary grit and grime.

Martin returned. “No sign of them, sir.”

Pelleter did not answer.

“Did you find something?”

Pelleter stood to his full height, stretching his back. “I didn’t expect to. But I still wanted to see.”

“It was raining really hard,” Martin said. “The water pooled around him, about here.” He pointed. The young officer wanted to know that he had not missed something crucial, that he had not made a mistake.

“It’s okay,” Pelleter said. “There’s nothing here.”

Servières called from halfway down the block, hurrying towards them, “What are we doing now?” He did not want to miss anything.

“We keep moving,” and this time Pelleter led the way, away from the town center, passing Servières before he had a chance to turn around.

The Benoîts were really at the edge of town. Only a few houses away from the baker’s, the paved road gave way to a dirt road cut through fields. There was enough light from the stars to see by.

“Were we even looking for the Perreaux children or are you still continuing your murder investigation?” Servières said.

“You take that side of the road,” Pelleter said to Martin, ignoring Servières. “Keep your eye on the ground and ahead, but don’t leave the road.”

“Because it seemed to me like you were awfully interested in that patch of ground, and it was clear that there weren’t any children there.”

Pelleter turned to Servières, “You take that side.”

Distracted by the command, Servières dropped to the side of the road, scanning the darkened field beside him.

“What are we doing?” Servières said in a loud voice. To have any kind of conversation spread out along the road as they were required them to raise their voices.

“Searching.”

The fields here were of wild grass as high as a man in places. Off in the distance, black blotches were islands of trees rooted in the otherwise open expanse. Leaving the road at night would be foolish, but if the boys had not been located by the morning, those small patches of woods would have to be searched. If Georges and Albert had gotten that far away from town, they would have likely stopped at the edge of the woods for shelter.

“Georges!” Martin cried. “Albert!” The sudden noise left the night silent.

“When those boys are found, they’re going to have a lot of people angry at them,” Servières said.

“If...” Pelleter started.

“If what,” Servières said, looking at the chief inspector.

Pelleter said nothing. The end of his cigar burned a bright orange and then faded.

“Oh.” Servières had put it together. “Georges and Albert went missing on Tuesday night—” Servières took out his notebook and held it close to his face to take notes.

“That’s the same night Meranger was found,” Martin said, excited now that he had caught on too.

“So we
were
looking for the children,” Servières said as he wrote. “Because if they had seen something, like who dumped Meranger’s body...”

“Keep your eyes on the side of the road,” Pelleter ordered.

Servières brought down the pad in surprise, then put it away without comment. He really was not a bad sort. He was just a man who loved his job.

There was a tense silence for a moment, and then it passed into the silence of a shared task. A cry of “Albert!” came from the distance behind them. The moon was high in the sky. It must have been near to midnight.

“It poured that night,” Martin said, almost to himself. Then he called, “Georges! Albert! Georges! Albert! Your mother is worried for you! Call if you hear me! It’s Officer Martin!”

There was nothing.

The damp had gotten into their clothing, and Pelleter hunched his shoulders against the cold.

“You probably think this is a bit below you,” Servières said.
“In the city, you have a whole team of men to do this kind of thing for you. Didn’t I just read you solved a case because your wife had found the suspects?”

Pelleter said nothing.

“A double homicide solved by your wife.”

“It’s still the chief inspector who organizes the investigation and must take the responsibility,” Martin said, rising to Pelleter’s defense.

“I asked the chief inspector about responsibility last night, and he got very angry with me.”

“Reporters!” Martin said, as though he had been troubled by reporters his whole career.

“What were you doing in Verargent before Meranger had even been murdered?” Servières asked Pelleter suddenly in the hard tone he had used in the café before. “There’s something happening here, and you knew something before anyone else.”

“Perhaps it was a coincidence,” Pelleter said.

“It was not a coincidence. You went out to the prison to see Mahossier. I know that. I also know about the other two times you came to see him, and the two cases that were solved, the bank robbery and the woman murderer. You see I’m not as provincial as you thought. I know some things.”

Martin was watching the two men as they walked. No one was searching the side of the road anymore.

“What did Mahossier tell you?”

Pelleter did not like to be questioned, least of all by a reporter. It was his job to interrogate people, not to be interrogated.

“Tell me. I’ll find out anyway.”

Pelleter stopped and pivoted towards Servières. “Watch the side of the road!” He then raised his chin and cried, “Georges! Albert!” and continued on.

The two other men fell into place to either side of him, once again scanning the flowing gray grass.

“Did...” Martin started, but then shook his head.

Servières was still smarting. “You have no call to yell at me,” he said. “I apologized about last night.”

“What happened last night?” Martin said, forgetting himself.

“I posed as a hotel guest and I asked the inspector some questions about Mahossier. About what it was like.”

Martin did not respond, perhaps embarrassed that he had also asked Pelleter about the case the day before, but his own curiosity was apparent in his silence.

“This was big news here,” Servières said. “I know it was big news everywhere, we followed the case like all the other papers, but when it became clear that Mahossier might end up in Malniveau...We followed it long after everyone else had dropped it...People were angry. They know it’s a federal prison over there. They know that there are bad men who have done bad things. But they don’t stop to think about it. It’s vague. What this man had done could not be ignored.”

“But they ignore it now.”

“Except when you show up.”

“And why would anybody know when and why I showed up?”

“The people have a right to know.”

“Are you going to hide behind that again?”

Servières did not respond. His face was turned away, scanning the side of the road for any sign of the missing children.

Pelleter softened his voice, and tried a different tack. “Do you pay attention to what’s going on out at the prison then? My understanding was that there wasn’t much intercourse between the town and prison.”

“We don’t report on every little incident out there if that’s
what you mean. Half of the
Vérité
is devoted to the school’s football scores and the church’s bake sale.”

“And the train station,” Martin said.

“There’s never going to be a train station.”

“The town officials love it when you point that out.”

Pelleter blew a plume of smoke, thick in the night air. “So Fournier...”

“The assistant warden?” Servières said, trying to read Pelleter’s expression. “What about him?”

Pelleter made a theatrical shrug. “What about him?”

“He keeps to himself. He practically lives at the prison. We did a profile on him when he first moved here, but it was a dry c.v. He took his degree here. He worked at this shipping firm. He worked at this prison. There was nothing interesting about the man, and he has not made any attempt to get to know any of the people here since. He seems like a particular administrator and nothing more.”

Pelleter nodded, but only because Servières’ description fit his own idea of the man. If anything, it was more banal, not taking into account how violent Fournier’s particularity was. But a violent passion was different than a violent man, and sometimes the reverse, as Pelleter knew all too well. Still, he did not like that the assistant warden had kept him from interviewing the stabbed prisoner or that he was in control of what information was at hand. He turned to Martin. “What do you think?”

Martin stood up straighter, wanting to please and forgetting to scan his section of the road. “The Assistant Warden? He seems very good at his job. He knows everything that’s supposed to be done, and what’s actually getting done.”

BOOK: The Twenty-Year Death
11.09Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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