So the police did what the police do, and I went home. Until we could identify the child whose remains were in that room, there wasn’t much that I could do—besides get in the way.
And I had my own ten-year-old to contend with.
Ivan had already handled dinner: rotisserie chicken from St. Hubert, the closest thing Montréal has to healthy fast food. There was even a salad, and I smiled gratefully. Some days I think I married the right man; other days, I’m quite sure of it. “Tough one?” he asked as he ladled out my plate.
“You could say.” Me, I was reaching for the wine; St. Hubert is all well and good, but my day demanded something a little stronger.
Ivan got another wineglass and sat down beside me at the table. Bisou, the cat, wound her way around our legs. Everything should have felt peaceful. “Kids are doing homework,” he reported, pouring himself a glass as well. “And Lukas ate salad.”
All this was nothing short of miraculous. I gazed at him over my wineglass. “What did you do to our children, and when are they coming back?”
He smiled, Ivan’s easy smile that I liked so much. That I found so reassuring, “Bribes,” he said, reaffirming my sense that the world hadn’t actually gone off its axis. “Eat,” he added, gesturing at my plate.
I picked up my fork and knife and cut into the chicken, automatically, and then suddenly all I could see were those empty plastic packets. Packets of cheese. Cartons of juice. I put the cutlery down, abruptly, and reached for the wine again, but this time I couldn’t see it very well because I was crying. “Someone locked a little boy up in one of the tunnels,” I said, and burst into a torrent of tears.
Ivan moved over and put his arms around me, and I sobbed into his shoulder. For some reason, it felt that this story couldn’t wait. “They kept him there, they kept him alive,” I said, my shoulders heaving.
“Shhh,” said Ivan comfortingly, stroking my head.
I ignored him. “They left him food and drink for a while, and they left him pain relievers, too. Probably so he’d just go to sleep. They wanted him dead but they didn’t want him to feel it. They didn’t want to feel guilty about it.”
Which probably made a nice change from the crazy people who very much wanted their victims to feel it, but there was something stark and deliberate about how this kid had died that was tugging at me. There had been time. There had been time to figure out another way. “Autopsy is tomorrow,” I managed to say before a fresh wave of sobbing hit. “Ivan, he was ten years old.”
There was a quiet gasp from the doorway and we looked up to see Lukas, our own ten-year-old, standing watching us.
I dropped Claudia off at school the next morning on my way to City Hall. Lukas had elected, once it was on offer, to go to work at the Montréal casino with his father; he’d survive a day away from school, and I didn’t really trust him not to talk about the body we’d discovered. I’d be grateful enough if I hadn’t given him nightmares already.
We’d talked a lot, last night, about how something like that could happen and the very slender chances that it would ever happen to Lukas or to any of his friends; but he was shaken, and I was beating myself up about it. This stepmother thing? It never got easier.
Claudia was twelve and considered herself above such concerns; her attention focused around the complex and complicated social structure at her school and where, on any given day, she fit into it. “I heard your mom called yesterday,” I said by way of starting a conversation that had nothing to do with either dead bodies or Mean Girls.
Claudia pulled her ear bud from one of her ears with an exaggerated sigh. “What, Belle-Maman?”
“Your mother,” I said, undeterred. “How is she?”
A shrug. “The same. You know, some people dying, some people living.”
I glanced over at her. “That’s a little flippant.”
“That’s life with Doctors without Borders,” she said and replaced the ear bud firmly. Okay.
Julian called me before I got to the office. “Are you going to the autopsy?”
“Not if I can avoid it,” I said. I hadn’t been to one yet and this wasn’t the one I wanted to start with if I had to. “You’re a grand garçon, I’m sure you don’t need to me hold your hand.”
“I expect,” he said levelly, “I just might manage.” A pause as he reassessed his approach; he probably hadn’t expected me to be so snippy. “I can meet with you after,” he said.
“Will they have the ID?” DNA sequencing takes a long time, even if there’s a rush put on it; I probably had a few days before I needed to get involved again. A few days to come to terms with it.
Julian shattered my plans. “They already do,” he said. “Clothes match a missing boy’s. Also the ticket to the game. DNA’ll confirm, but we know who it is.”
I swallowed, looked around me at Montréal’s bright morning traffic. “Okay, I’ll meet you,” I said. “The family knows?”
“Not yet. Just the detectives from the missing-child case. We want to be careful about telling them. Something like this…” his voice trailed off.
Something like this. Something where care had been taken. Something where actual torture wasn’t the goal. It could have been done by someone close to him. It probably had. I swallowed hard. “What’s his name?”
It didn’t mean anything to me. I swallowed again. I was not going to get sick. I was not going to burst out crying. I also wasn’t going to discuss an autopsy over lunch, which I just knew was Julian’s next suggestion; I’ve worked with him long enough to know that nearly every meeting involves food. Which, generally speaking, was just fine with me. Just not today.
I also didn’t want to meet at my office; I wanted to get a handle on this before the mayor got wind of it and I lost complete control. I said, “Square Saint-Louis.”
There was a definite pause, and then Julian said, “Okay, fine. Eleven o’clock?”
“I’ll be there,” I said and disconnected as I sighted a rare parking place and went for it.
Up in my office, Chantal brought me coffee as I flipped through the morning’s emails. Nothing that looked to be building to a crisis, though one never knew. I waited until she was out of the room before pulling up Google and hesitantly entering the name into the search field.
I don’t know what I’d been hoping for; it was a ridiculously ordinary—and, it turned out, popular—name. And I didn’t have a program to break it down by age or… I turned away from the computer. This wasn’t my job. Julian would tell me what I needed to know.
There was a tap at the door, and Richard, my deputy, came in. Our daily nine o’clock meeting. Life did go on. I made myself smile and got on with it.
Square Saint-Louis is close to the Saint-Denis thoroughfare and the Latin Quarter, pretty much at the epicenter of Montreal’s most underrated places for taking a break from normal life. This is where all the most important cultural figures of Québec’s history used to live; it’s Montreal’s Saint-Germain-des-Prés; a district dedicated to political, social, and cultural debate, where cafés used to be packed with writers, dancers, and activists. Okay, to be fair, some of them still are.
The park itself is small and intimate, and small was about how I was feeling.
We sat on a bench and Julian pulled a folder out of his briefcase. “First of all,” he said, “there was no reason for this kid to die. He was in excellent health. He lived with his parents and three sisters on the Plateau. He got good grades at Saint Sebastian’s, and the teachers all liked him.”
“You’ve talked to all these people already?”
He shook his head. “Not me. Original investigation. We’ll go over it all again, of course, but I thought you wanted to know sooner rather than later.”
I relented. “Bien sûr. Sorry, Julian. Go on.”
He cleared his throat. “No money problems. No family problems. No marital difficulties. No creepy uncle or anyone like that taking an unhealthy interest in the boy. He had a limited, predictable life. School every day. Mass on Sundays. After school and Saturdays he spent with his friends—yeah, we’ll talk to them all again—but mostly they were into trains.”
He nodded. “Trains. Apparently it’s a thing. Spent their free time in one of the kids’ attics. Next-door neighbor. He had a whole train set up there, elaborate as hell. They spent hours at it.” He glanced at the file. “Okay, here’s a thing. The day he disappeared, he was down in your section of town.”
“The Old City. There was a train show at the convention center. Philippe got out of school at 2:30, took the Métro. Him and his friend Frédérique, they had discounted tickets through their train club. Who knew there were train clubs?”
“Why wasn’t the friend with him?”
“At home, sick. Had the flu, mother wouldn’t let him out. Apparently the boys had nine kinds of purple fits over it. Philippe promised to take pictures.”
“Did he make it to the center?”
“CCTV says yes. They had him coming and going. That’s what the notes say, anyway.” He caught my look. “It was a long time ago, Martine. Nobody keeps recordings that long.”
Of course they didn’t. I swallowed.
Julian was still looking through the folder. “So they did a good job, looks like. Checked with the parents. Checked with the friend’s parents—the two families are pretty tight. Everybody checked out at the time. We’ll run them all again, of course, but—“ A photo slid out of the file and I grabbed it before it could make it to the ground. “Is this him?”
He glanced over. “Yeah. Philippe Aubert.”
Ordinary-looking kid. Glasses. A train nerd. “What are his parents like?” Someone was going to have to go talk to them. I couldn’t begin to imagine it. How would they feel? Would they welcome the news? Would it be closure? Or the end of a cherished dream that he’d walk back in the door sometime?
“Driven,” said Julian. “Mother’s a professor at McGill. Father’s the head of an arbitrage firm. Sisters overachievers.”
“At least they can have a funeral, now,” I said.
It seemed like scant comfort.