“It’s been eight years,” I pointed out. “I’m sure they’re doing everything that they can—“
“Yes, yes,” he interrupted, his voice suddenly brisk. He tipped his chair back forward and ran a hand over his already spotless desk. How did people manage to work and never have an errant paper on their desktops? My deputy did the same thing. It never ceased to amaze me. “So—what can I do for you?”
“Well, it is about Philippe, in a way,” I admitted. “Not news. Just—I’m trying to get a better picture of him.”
“He was ten years old,” the mayor said. “Ten-year-old boys aren’t that deep, Martine.”
“It’s that box his friend had,” I said, wondering how foolish I was about to sound. “It had photos of the boys, and—I don’t know, lots of stuff from that summer. Almost like a time capsule.”
“Was anything helpful?”
“I don’t know,” I said again. Like he’d said, ten-year-old boys just weren’t that deep. “There were photos, which I think is a little weird, because everyone does digital and—“
He held up a hand. “Jean-Luc, Philippe’s father, he’s a camera geek,” he said. “They have a darkroom. Philippe always did his own photos and developed them. It was something they did together, a kind of father-and-son sort of thing. What else?”
One mystery solved. I felt oddly unsatisfied. Maybe I’d put too much faith in that being the key. Maybe I was just grasping at straws. I shrugged. “Nothing that jumps out at me,” I said. “I thought maybe I’d let my stepson have a go at it—he’s ten, Philippe’s age, maybe he’ll see something there. And of course you can look through it, sir. Frédérique says he doesn’t want it back, but I expect he’ll change his mind.”
He nodded. “Let me know what your son says.”
I was reviewing the contents in my mind. “There are ticket stubs there from movies, and a visit to the museum at Pointe-à-Callière,” I said slowly. “The boys probably went there for the shrunken heads from the Pacific; that’s one of Lukas’ favorites,” I said.
The mayor shook his head. “That could be, but also Marcel—Frédérique’s dad—is on the board,” he said. “He helped with the drive for more funding for clearing out additional tunnels under the museum,” he said. “What else?”
“In the box?” I shut my eyes to visualize it. “Oh, right. Postcards.” I opened them again and focused on my boss. “This was a little weird, too, or maybe not, but Frédérique said they were all from his dad. Places he went for work. Only none of them had been mailed.”
He gave it as little weight as Ivan had. “I do the same thing myself,” he said. “Unless your hotel does all the stamping and mailing for you, it’s a colossal time-waster. And Not Marcel’s style.”
I sighed. It felt like that was all I was doing. “Tell me about the Auberts,’ I said, finally. He wanted me to investigate; fine, he could help me investigate. “Especially their friends,” I added, remembering that the person Philippe had been speaking to was taller than himself. There had to be an encounter before that; we all agreed it had been someone he knew.
The mayor got up and walked to the window, standing with his back to me. “They’re pretty private people,” he said, doubt in his voice. “I don’t think there are that many outside their professional circles. You know, Soizic at the university, and Jean-Luc here.”
“In city government.” He turned back from the window. “Frankly, it was Jean-Luc who inspired me to go into politics. He was convinced I could make a difference.”
“And how do you know him, sir?”
“University. Isn’t that how most people meet?”
“Not in Montréal,” I said doubtfully. We have four universities and a smattering of colleges in the city, and they’re all firmly divided along linguistic lines. Not for the first time, I wondered how my Anglophone boss had become so close to a Francophone.
“Well, that’s Jean-Luc for you,” he said. “He did his undergraduate at UQAM, but went to McGill for graduate school. He figured the city’s bilingual, and so should he be.
The city isn’t actually bilingual—unlike the rest of Canada, Québec has one official language, and it’s French—but this didn’t seem to be the time to point that out. I cleared my throat. “And was he married then?” I asked.
“At McGill? No. He already knew Soizic, though. They planned on getting married from the beginning, those two. They planned out everything. Everything except—“
“And their families?” I asked quickly. “Are their families close?”
He seemed to be getting hold of his emotions. “Not very,” he said. “Her family’s mostly passed on, and Jean-Luc never had much in common with his. The obligatory holiday visits, that sort of thing. That’s all. Really, when you think of it, they were like a little island out there. They had their work, and they had Philippe.”
“And they had the Richard family,” I added.
“Right. Jean-Luc and Soizic lived there, and the Richards moved in—oh, I don’t know, when the boys were five or six? Something like that. The two families don’t have that much in common, but the boys brought them together. Inseparable, they were.”
I remembered the hole between the two bedrooms, the easy intimacy of that friendship. “I am gathering that,” I said. “But they always got on, the parents? Never any conflicts between them?”
“Of course not.” He was back to gazing out the window. “Funny, I’d forgotten that, how it was Jean-Luc inspired me. He loved this city so much.”
“I’m sure he still does,” I said. But I wondered. How can you love a city that allowed this to happen to your child?
“Funny, he and Marcel were so different,” said the mayor. “But you’d look at them together, at the kids’ hockey games, you’d have sworn they were brothers, not friends. Intense, both of them.” He turned back to the desk, opened a drawer, withdrew a folder. He flipped through it without actually looking at any of the papers inside. “I have a meeting,” he said.
“Of course.” I stood up. Hockey games? Maybe someone from that world… “When did they play hockey?”
“I can’t remember,” he said irritably. “Never liked it, either of them. Not athletic. All they really loved were those trains. Marcel bought the first set for Frédérique and after that it was off to the races, they ate, slept, and loved for those damned trains.”
“Marcel bought them? Did he share the passion?”
“Of course not. Marcel’s only passion is finances.” He glanced up from the folder. “He went to one of the Grandes Ecoles in France, did you know that? The Polytechnique. Brilliant guy. Flies all over the country, the world even, advising high-flyers on money issues. Soizic and Jean-Luc made some investments with him, and are still making money off them. Myself as well—not performing as well as theirs, but Marcel cautioned me that you have to be in it for the long term.”
“So I’ve heard,” I said cautiously. My only investment was in my city retirement account.
“He showed me a prospectus, but it was his attitude that sold me on it,” said the mayor. He caught my look. “Martine, I’m telling you, there’s nothing to see here. The Auberts are normal, their neighbors are normal, their life is normal. Once, just after they were married, there was an affair. Just the once. And they got over it. There aren’t any skeletons in the closet.”
“No, sir,” I agreed.
“So we have to look elsewhere,” he announced.
“An adult, they said, right? He was talking to an adult?”
“Or a tall kid,” I said doubtfully.
“So what about his teachers?” There was a knock at the door and his administrator stepped into the room. “I am sorry, monsieur le maire, but they’ve been waiting five minutes—“
“Yes, yes,” he said, flapping a hand at her. “Show them in.” He looked at me. “Look into the teachers,” he said. “Mark my words, that’s where you’re bound to find some sketchy characters.”
And with that singular vote of no-confidence in Montréal’s public schools, he waved me out of the room.
By the end of the day I could feel a headache building. I hadn’t given Philippe Aubert any more thought; we had a conference coming up in Ottawa and two of the performers we were sending to represent Montréal had taken sick. My deputy was convinced we could get someone from Cirque du Soleil to cover for them and his deputy—who was, not coincidentally, in law school—wanted to talk about suing the no-shows instead.
I got out of there an hour and a half late with my head throbbing and wanting nothing more than a long hot bath and a dark room. What I got was chaos.
“It’s Margery,” said Ivan when there was a lull in the noise level. Both kids were yelling—at each other, at us, it was all completely unclear to me—and from his expression it had been going on for some time.
“What about Margery?” The kids’ mother was due to visit in two weeks, having scheduled a vacation with Doctors Without Borders. She was planning on picking them up and taking them down to Boston for the school break. “She can’t come, or something?” I made it a joke; Margery was excellent at keeping her word.
“She can’t come,” he confirmed. I stared at him. “I was kidding,” I said.
The sound of something crashing came from upstairs. They clearly were not taking the news well. “For how long? What’s wrong?”
“She’s not coming at all this time. Next time they’re off, for sure. It’s not her fault; she’s been exposed to something unpronounceable and can’t travel until she knows she doesn’t have it. And by then the week’s almost up.”
Another crash. “I hate her anyway!” That was Claudia. “I hate you, too, Dad!” she screamed for good measure. She probably hated everyone in the world.
I couldn’t blame her. They’d been looking forward to this for months. And I couldn’t blame Margery, either. I sighed and looked at Ivan. “You remember, I never wanted children,” I reminded him.
“If that’s your way of saying that it’s up to me to handle this—“
Yes, it was. “No, it isn’t,” I said. “But for ten minutes? While I take something for my head?”
I locked the bathroom door behind me and pulled out my smartphone. “Julian? It’s Martine.”
“I knew you couldn’t stay away.”
“I’ll try to be less obvious.” The easy banter didn’t feel as easy. “Listen, I promised Spencer I’d talk to you. He thinks we should investigate Philippe’s teachers.”
“What a great idea! The police would never have thought of that.” His sarcasm cut through the line and irritated me even more. “Look, I’m just the messenger here,” I said. “I’m not trying to tell you how to do your job.”
“Only relaying someone else telling me how to do my job.” He was clearly also not having a good evening.
“Okay, never mind. I’ll talk to you later.”
“We looked into the teachers, okay? Back then when he was a missing person, and now. Looked at the janitor. Looked at the crossing guard. Looked at anyone with a pulse.”
“And found nothing,” I said resignedly.
“Only red flags were around the science teacher, but I don’t know. She’s a woman, and she didn’t have any motive for making a kid disappear,” said Julian. “Even less so to kill him. Red flags were around the amount of time they spent together outside of class, but she wasn’t ever alone with him, it was always him and Frédérique. That’s the thing, Martine, except for this one time that he went to the convention center, this kid was never alone with anybody. Not ever. It was always him and Frédérique.”
“I’ll tell the mayor,” I said. I was suddenly too tired to go another round with Julian. “Bye.”
I jerked open the medicine cabinet and grabbed the codeine I used when the headaches were really, really bad, and then stopped suddenly before tapping the tablets into my hand. This kid had been left with aspirin, presumably because whoever had left him there didn’t have access to anything stronger.
But that act of—kindness, I guess you could call it—was there. And wouldn’t that be more typical of a woman than of a man?