“Okay,” I said, as gently as I could. I wondered what it would be like to lose your best friend at a time in your life when best friends were everything. Frédérique was handling it about as well as I could imagine anyone doing. “I’ll bring it all back to you,” I promised.
“You don’t have to,” he said. “It’s not important.”
I didn’t say all the things that sprang into my mind—you might not think so now, but someday you will; you need to remember Philippe; you’ll regret it if you ever throw any of this away—and just nodded. “D’accord.”
Downstairs, Cécile and Ivan both looked relieved to see me appear. “You will give my best regards to Spencer?” she asked.
“Of course.” I glanced at Ivan. “Thank you, madame. Your son has been very helpful.”
She looked a little surprised. “He seems to wish to forget Philippe. No, that’s not it: he has forgotten Philippe. He has other friends, other interests. I think that’s very sad.”
I said, gently, “I think that the gap between being ten years old and being eighteen is one of the biggest in life. He is not the same person he was when he was a child, madame. I think that to him, it’s as if it all happened to another person.” I wouldn’t tell her about the anguish I’d seen in Frédérique, or my sense that he would have become a different eighteen-year-old if Philippe had still been his best friend next door.
Or not. One never knew.
“So,” said Ivan as the front door closed behind us. “Looks like you hit the jackpot.” He gestured at the shoebox in my hands.
“He couldn’t face sorting it,” I said. “I think he just wants to draw a line under the whole thing, you know?”
He nodded. “You were right, what you said in there,” he said. He unlocked the car and we got in. “I remember when I was ten, all I could think about was baseball. I sucked at it, but I loved it. I had Red Sox posters up all over my room.” He started the car. “By the time I was in college, I wouldn’t have been able to name anybody on the roster, I hadn’t been to Fenway Park other than just to walk by it. It’s a huge gap.”
I couldn’t even remember what I was doing when I was ten years old. Did I have a passion, like baseball, or trains? Who were my friends? It was annoying to think that I’d lost the child I’d been through sheer forgetfulness.
Ivan didn’t ask where I wanted to go; if you’re out for poutine, even if you’re dressed for a concert, the only place is La Banquise near Parc LaFontaine. Diner atmosphere, bright colors, always open, and lots of selections of poutine for every taste—I’m a bit of a purist, so it’s all pretty much lost on me. Ivan, however, ordered the version with three meats. He caught my look. “What?”
“Just wondering,” I said, “what I’ll wear to your funeral after your heart attack.”
“You have a warped sense of humor.”
I’d brought the box in with me. “So,” I said, creating piles. “A note from Philippe. Report card from school—studious kid. Something from the father.” I looked up. “There’s something off about the father,” I said.
“You caught that, too?”
“Why? What did Cécile say?”
“He’s something of an enigma to her,” Ivan responded. “She said he was the best father ever but in the same sentence complained that he’s gone too much of the time. Some high-up consultancy job.”
“Yeah, Frédérique said that he’s in New York a lot, at the United Nations.”
“He seems to have irons in a lot of fires,” said Ivan. “All of them financial. He does international consultancy, New York, London, even the Gulf States sometimes. But he also does investing. I didn’t follow it all.”
“Right,” I said. Ivan went to Harvard and MIT. If there was anything he couldn’t follow, I had yet to discover it.
He shrugged. “She’s not a happy woman,” he said. “She’s alone a lot of the time. No other children, a husband who’s away a lot. They talk to each other on Skype. Maybe I was just hearing her take on things. But I wouldn’t bet on the strength of that marriage.”
“They’ve held together this long,” I said, losing interest. “Look. Photos.” Photos of the boys together, a Christmas, another train show. “I wonder why they’re printed,” I said suddenly.
“What do you mean?”
“Hey, I know how old you are. When we were ten years old, cameras had film, remember? And you got it developed at a print shop and they printed it out for you. You have to pick sizes, remember? But when these kids were ten, it was already all digital. Kids keep photos on their phones, not in a shoebox.”
“So he printed them. What does that mean?”
I felt a little deflated. “I haven’t got a clue.”
Julian would, I thought, and called him the next day. “Before you get all huffy,” I said, “the mayor asked me expressly to go without any police.”
“People who generally don’t break the law think that when they do, it’s the end of the world,” said Julian. “What, did they think I wasn’t going to look up everybody involved? That I wouldn’t see if anyone had a record? The kid got caught smoking pot at school when he was fifteen.” He sounded exasperated.
“His father’s a big deal in international finance,” I said soothingly. “Maybe that sort of thing is more important to people in those circles than it is to the police.”
He made a snorting sound. “So what’s the news?”
I shrugged, then realized he couldn’t see it over the telephone. “Frédérique kept this box full of stuff,” I said. “It’s everything, Julian: notes from Philippe, ticket stubs, receipts, photos, everything jumbled together and there’s no order. I looked through it last night but you probably will want to see it.”
“Why?” He still sounded annoyed. “Unless there’s a note saying I’ll meet you outside the convention center and whisk you away, I’m not keen. The mayor isn’t letting this one go. He’s already been on the phone twice this morning, and I have leads to follow up.”
“So this is a lead,” I said as persuasively as I could. “Julian, there’s something about the father.”
He was interested again. “Jean-Luc? What?”
“No, not Philippe’s father. Well, there may be, but if there is I don’t know about it. I mean Frédérique’s father.” I took a deep breath. “For one thing, there were a dozen or so postcards in the box from him, but they hadn’t been mailed. Frédérique says that he always just brings things home with him, presents, postcards. Isn’t that a little weird?”
“It might be if it were his son who’d disappeared,” said Julian. “But I can think of a lot of reasons someone who’s abroad on business might not have time to chase down a stamp and a post office.”
“There’s a connection between these two families,” I said. “I’m sure of it.”
“Well, of course there’s a connection! They live next door. The boys were best friends. They’re in and out of each other’s homes like an episode from Friends, and believe me when I tell you that’s weird enough in itself. But remember that Fred was down with the ‘flu on the day Philippe disappeared. No connection.” He paused. “Martine, this case is going to get solved through routine police work. Motive. Opportunity. All that. Give your little box to the mayor and let him reassure the family that we’re all working very hard on solving this.”
My little box? “Fine,” I said coldly. “I’ll do that.”
I disconnected when he was halfway through saying something else. I sat back in my office chair, swiveling it around to look out the window. I love the view from my window. I love the Old City. I wasn’t seeing any of it. What I was seeing was a boy in a tunnel with cheese and water and pain relievers.
Julian could talk all he liked about motive and opportunity and all that, but it seemed to me that this was the most important point, the crux of it all. This had to be somebody who knew Philippe. I was willing to bet that this person didn’t even want to kill him, that they’d been forced into it… somehow. By something Philippe saw, something Philippe knew, something Philippe did. But they cared about him enough to not want him to suffer. They wanted to think he’d taken the pain relievers and drifted off into a coma—which one had to doubt would have happened, but it was a fantasy, wasn’t it? Philippe would be all right. Philippe would take the pills and go to sleep. Philippe wouldn’t have to suffer.
Philippe had suffered a great deal, and it was somehow even more monstrous that this person had tried to delude themselves otherwise. The height of selfishness, of self-centeredness. The ability to partition off that bit of one’s life. Go to a dinner party, perhaps, and not think about the child in the tunnel.
I wanted that person. More even, maybe, than Julian did. More even than the mayor or Philippe’s own parents, who’d had years to get used to the idea that he was gone. I’ve heard my stepchildren cry, and every time it’s broken my heart. Now all I could hear was the sound of that little boy’s tears, echoing through empty subterranean tunnels. Dying under the busy streets of Montréal.
And I couldn’t believe that it didn’t somehow have something to do with the two quiet houses on the quiet street where nothing unusual ever happened.
I swiveled back to my desk, picked up my office phone, and buzzed my administrative assistant. “Chantal? Can you call up to the mayor’s office and make me an appointment, please?”
If Julian wasn’t going to go there, I would.