A Better Man – Louise Penny

What’s happened to Clara Morrow? She used to be a great artist. #MorrowSucks Are you kidding me? They let him back into the Sûreté? #SûretéSux “Merde.” “Merde?” Myrna Landers looked over her bowl of café au lait at her friend. “I’m sorry,” said Clara Morrow. “I meant to say fuck. Fuckity fuck fuck.” “That’s my girl. But why?” “Can’t you guess?” “Is Ruth coming?” Myrna looked around the bistro in mock panic. Or maybe not-so-mock. “Worse.” “That’s not possible.” Clara gave Myrna her phone, though the bookstore owner already knew what she’d find. Before meeting Clara for breakfast, she’d checked her Twitter feed. On the screen, for the world to see, was the quickly cooling body of Clara’s artistic career. As Myrna read, Clara wrapped her large, paint-stained hands around her mug of hot chocolate, a specialité de la maison, and shifted her eyes from her friend to the mullioned window and the tiny Québec village beyond.

If the phone was an assault, the window was the balm. While perhaps not totally healing, it was at least comforting in its familiarity. The sky was gray and threatened rain. Or sleet. Ice pellets or snow. The dirt road was covered in slush and mud. There were patches of snow on the sodden grass. Villagers out walking their dogs were clumping around in rubber boots and wrapped in layers of clothing, hoping to keep April away from their skin and out of their bones. It was not possible. Somehow, having survived another bitterly cold Canadian winter, early spring always got them.

It was the damp. And the temperature swings. And the illusion and delusion that it must be milder out, surely, by now. The forest beyond stood like an army of winter wraiths, skeleton arms dangling, limbs clacking together in the breeze. Woodsmoke drifted from the old fieldstone, brick, clapboard homes. A signal to some higher power. Send help. Send heat. Send a real spring and not this crapfest of slush and freezing, teasing days. Days of snow and warmth.

April in Québec was a month of cruel contrasts. Of sublime afternoons spent sitting outside in the bright sunshine with a glass of wine, then waking to another foot of snow. A month of muttered curses and mud-caked boots and splattered cars and dogs rolling, then shaking. So that every front entrance was polka-dotted with muck. On the walls. On the ceilings. On the floors. And people. April in Québec was a climatological shitstorm. A mindfuck of epic proportions.

But what was happening outside the large windows was comforting compared to what was happening on the small screen of Clara’s phone. Clara’s and Myrna’s armchairs were pulled close to the hearth, where logs popped and sent embers fluttering up the fieldstone chimney. The village bistro smelled of woodsmoke and maple syrup and strong fresh coffee. Clara Morrow is going through her brown period, Myrna read. To say her latest of erings are shit is to be unfair to ef luent. Let’s hope it is just a period, and not the end. “Oh,” said Myrna. Putting down the phone, she reached for her friend’s hand. “Merde.” “Tabernac.

Someone from Serious Crimes just sent a link. Listen to this.” The other agents in the conference room looked over as he read off his cell phone, “This is Armand Gamache’s first day back at the Sûreté du Québec after a suspension of nine months following a series of ill-advised and disastrous decisions.” “Disastrous? That’s bullshit,” said one of the officers. “Well, it’s bullshit retweeted by hundreds.” Other agents and inspectors scrambled for their phones, tapping away while glancing out the open door. To make sure … It was eleven minutes to eight, and members of the homicide department were gathering for the regular Monday-morning meeting to discuss ongoing investigations. Though there was very little “regular” about this meeting. About this morning. The room was electric with anticipation.

Now heightened even further by what was blowing up on their phones. “Merde,” muttered an agent. “Having achieved the pinnacle of power as Chief Superintendent of the Sûreté,” she read, “Gamache promptly abused it. Deliberately allowing catastrophic amounts of opioids onto the streets. After an investigation, he was demoted.” “They have no idea what they’re talking about. Still, that’s not too bad.” “It goes on. He should have been fired, at the very least. Probably put on trial and thrown in prison.

” “Oh.” “That’s insane,” said one of the senior officers, grabbing the phone and reading it for herself. “Who’s writing this crap? They don’t even mention he got the stuff back.” “Of course they don’t.” “I hope he doesn’t see it.” “Are you kidding? He’ll see it.” The room fell silent, except for the soft clicking from each device. Like the sound of near-dead tree limbs in the breeze. Words were muttered under their breaths as they read. Words their grandparents had considered sacred but were now profane.

Tabernac. Câlice. Hostie. One senior officer put his head in his hands and massaged his temples. Then, dropping them, he reached for his phone. “I’m going to write a rebuttal.” “Don’t. Better if it comes from the leadership. Chief Superintendent Toussaint will set them straight.” “She hasn’t yet.

” “She will. She trained under Gamache. She’ll defend him.” Off in the far corner, one agent was staring at her phone, a deep line forming between her brows. While the others were pale, she was flushed as she read not a text or tweet but an email. Though in her mid-forties, Lysette Cloutier was one of the newer recruits to homicide, having been transferred from the Sûreté’s accounting department. She’d spent years quietly keeping track of the budget, now surpassing a billion dollars, until Chief Superintendent Gamache had noticed her work and thought she’d be helpful tracking down killers. While she couldn’t follow a DNA trail or a suspect to save her life, she could follow the money. And that often led to the same place. Everyone else in that conference room had worked hard to get into the most prestigious department in the Sûreté du Québec.

Agent Lysette Cloutier was doing her best to get out. And get back to nice, safe, predictable, understandable numbers. And away from the daily horrors, the physical violence, the emotional chaos of murder. Cloutier always chose the same seat at these meetings. Making sure her back was to the long whiteboard, on which were tacked photographs. She considered the email she’d just received, then typed a response and hit send before she had time to reconsider. “What do you wanna bet some of these tweets are from Beauvoir?” said one of the younger agents. “You mean Chief Inspector Beauvoir?” All heads turned to the doorway. And then there was a scramble and a scraping of chairs as everyone got to their feet. Isabelle Lacoste stood, cane in hand, staring at the young agent.

Then her expression softened to a smile as she looked around at the familiar faces. The last time she’d been in the Monday-morning meeting, she’d chaired it, as head of homicide. Now she entered limping. Her injuries, though almost healed, were not completely gone. And never would be. Officers and agents crowded around, welcoming her back, while she tried to explain she wasn’t really back. Promoted to Superintendent, she was in the building for meetings to discuss the timing and conditions of her return to active duty. But it was no coincidence, everyone in that room knew, that she was there this Monday. Not just any old day. Not just any old meeting.

She took a chair by the head of the table and nodded to the others to retake their seats. Then she looked at the young agent who’d made the comment about Chief Inspector Beauvoir. “What did you mean by that?” Her voice was calm, but she sat unnaturally still. Veteran homicide agents who’d served under Chief Inspector Lacoste recognized the look. And almost pitied the foolish young agent who found himself in her crosshairs. “I mean that we all know Chief Inspector Beauvoir is leaving the Sûreté,” he said. “Moving to Paris. But not for another couple of weeks. What happens before then? With Gamache coming back. I’d rather be in a firefight than be Chief Inspector Beauvoir walking into this meeting today.

I bet he feels the same way.” “You’d lose,” said Lacoste. The room grew quiet. He’s young and foolish, Lacoste thought. Probably longing for some desperate glory. She knew this agent had never been in a so-called firefight. Even using the ridiculous phrase gave him away. Anyone who’d actually raised a weapon, sighted another human, and shot. Again, and again. And been shot at.

Would never consider that glory, nor call it a firefight. And would never, ever wish to be there again. Those in the room who’d been on that last raid were looking at the agent. Some with outrage. But some almost wistfully. Remembering when they’d been that young. That naïve. That immortal. Nine months ago. They thought back to the summer afternoon.

In the pretty forest by the Vermont border. How the sun broke through the trees and they could feel the warmth on their faces. That moment that seemed to hang in midair before all hell broke loose. As weapons were raised and fired. And fired. Cutting down the saplings. Cutting down the people. The screams. The chocking, acrid stench of smoke from the weapons. Of wood and flesh burned by bullets.

Chief Inspector Lacoste was one of the first to fall. Her actions giving Chief Superintendent Gamache that one moment he needed to act. And act he had. Isabelle Lacoste hadn’t seen what Chief Superintendent Gamache had done. By then she was unconscious. But she’d heard about it. She’d read the transcripts of the investigation, after he’d been suspended. Gamache had survived the events that day. Only to be cut down by his own people. And the attacks were continuing, even as he returned to work.

Isabelle Lacoste, and every veteran officer in that room, knew that the decisions Chief Superintendent Gamache had made were audacious. Daring. Unconventional. And, unlike what the tweets claimed, hugely effective. But it could very well have gone the other way. It had been a coup de grâce. The last desperate act of the most senior officer in Québec, who felt there was no other option. Had Gamache failed, and for a while it appeared he would, the Sûreté would have been crippled, leaving Québec defenseless against an onslaught of gang violence, trafficking, organized crime. Gamache had prevailed. But just barely, and at a cost.

Any reasonable person making those decisions would expect a consequence, no matter the outcome. The Chief Superintendent was reasonable. He must’ve expected to be suspended. Investigated. But had he expected to be humiliated? In their own coup de grâce, the political leadership had decided to save their own skins by putting Gamache’s career out of its misery. Though vindicated in the investigation, he would be offered a job he could not possibly accept. Chief Inspector of homicide. A position he’d held for many years. One he’d handed over to Lacoste when he’d been promoted to head of the Sûreté. After she’d been wounded, it was a job now filled by Jean-Guy Beauvoir.

It was a demotion, the leadership knew, that Armand Gamache could not agree to. The humiliation would be too great. The cut too deep. He would resign. Retire. Disappear. But Armand Gamache refused to go. To their astonishment, he’d accepted their offer. His fall from grace would be completed here. In this room.

Today. And it appeared he’d land, with a thump, right on top of Jean-Guy Beauvoir. It was seven minutes to eight. The two men would soon walk through the door. Both holding the rank of head of homicide. And then what would happen? Even Isabelle Lacoste found herself glancing at the door. Wondering. She didn’t expect trouble but couldn’t help thinking about what George Will called the “Ohio Event.” In 1895 there were only two automobiles in the whole state. And they’d collided.

No one knew better than Lacoste that the unexpected happened. And now she found herself bracing for the collision. “It’s your own fault,” said Ruth Zardo. “You should never have agreed to it, if you ask me.” No one had. “Listen to this one,” the elderly poet continued, reading off the phone. “Clara Morrow’s contribution is trite, derivative, and banal. They left out clichéd and pedestrian. Or maybe someone says that further down the thread.” “I think that’s enough, Ruth,” said Reine-Marie Gamache.

She glanced at her watch. Nearly eight. She wondered how her husband was getting on. It did not take a savant to know how Clara was doing. Her friend had dark circles under her eyes and looked drawn. And slightly painted. There were dabs of cadmium red and burnt umber on her face and in her hair. Clara was wearing her usual jeans and a sweater. Success as an artist had not changed her fashion sense. Such as it was.

Perhaps because recognition had come later in Clara’s life. In her late forties now, she’d been working in her studio for decades, creating works that went unnoticed. Her greatest success had been her Warrior Uterus series. She’d sold one. To herself. And given it to her motherin-law. Thereby weaponizing her art. And her uterus. Then, after an evening in the bistro with women friends from the village, Clara had gone back to her studio and started something different. Portraits.

Oil paintings. Of those women. She’d painted them as they really were, their lines and lumps and wrinkles. But what she’d really captured, in her bold strokes, were their feelings. The portraits burst onto the art scene, lauded as revolutionary. Bringing back a traditional form but revitalizing it. Her portraits were luminous. Joyous. Vibrant. Unsettling at times, as the loneliness and brute sorrow in some faces became apparent.

Her portraits of the women were challenging and bold and audacious. And now, this April morning, many of those same women had joined Clara in the bistro. They’d celebrated her successes here. Today they came to comfort. “They don’t know what they’re talking about,” said Myrna. “It’s just mean, malicious.” “But if I believed them when they loved the works, shouldn’t I believe them now?” asked Clara. “Why were they right then but wrong now?” “But these aren’t art critics,” said Reine-Marie. “I bet most of them haven’t even seen the exhibition.” “The art critic for the New York Times just posted,” reported Ruth.

“He says in light of this disaster, he’s going to go back to your earlier works, the portraits, to see if he’d been wrong about them. Shit. He can’t mean the portrait you did of me, can he?” “Fuck, fuck, fuck,” muttered Rosa. The duck was sitting on Ruth’s lap and looked irritated. But then, ducks often did. “It’ll be fine,” said Myrna. “That I believe,” said Clara, running her hands through her thick hair so that it stood out from her head. Making her look like a mad madwoman. Perversely, Ruth, who almost certainly really was mad, looked perfectly composed. “The good thing is, nobody will see your crap,” said Ruth.

“Who goes to an exhibition of miniatures? Why in the world would you agree to contribute to a group show of tiny oil paintings? It’s what bored society women in the 1700s painted.” “And many were far better than their male counterparts,” said Myrna. “Right,” said Ruth. “Like that can be true.” Rosa rolled her duck eyes. “You paint portraits on large canvases,” Ruth persisted. “Why do tiny landscapes?” “I wanted to stretch myself,” said Clara. “By doing miniatures?” asked Ruth. “Bit ironic.” “Did you see Clara’s works?” Reine-Marie asked.

“Don’t have to. I can smell them. They smell like—” “You might want to take a look before you comment.” “Why? Apparently they’re trite and banal.” “Do you write the same poem over and over?” asked Myrna. “No, of course not,” said Ruth. “But neither do I try to write a novel. It’s all words, but I know what I’m good at. Great at.” Myrna Landers heaved a sigh and shifted her considerable weight in her armchair.

As much as she longed to contradict Ruth, she couldn’t. The fact was, their drunk and disorderly old neighbor in Three Pines was a brilliant poet. Though not much of a human being. Ruth made a noise that could have been a laugh. Or indigestion. “I’ll tell you what is funny. You crash and burn trying to do something different while Armand destroys his career by agreeing to go back and do the same old thing.” “No one’s crashing and burning,” said Reine-Marie, glancing at her watch again. The atmosphere in the conference room was crackling. “So how’s this going to work?” asked one of the agents.

“Are we going to have two Chief Inspectors?” They looked at the visiting Superintendent. “Non. Chief Inspector Beauvoir will be in charge until he leaves for Paris.” “And Gamache will be…?” asked another agent. “Chief Inspector Gamache. This’s a transition for a few weeks, that’s all,” said Lacoste, trying to sound more confident than she actually was. “This is a good thing. There’ll be two experienced leaders.” But the men and women in the room weren’t idiots. One strong leader was great.

Two led to power struggles. Conflicting orders. Chaos. “They’ve worked together for years,” said Lacoste. “They’ll have no trouble working together now.” “Would you be okay taking orders from someone who’d been your subordinate?” “Of course I would.” But despite her annoyance, Lacoste knew it was a legitimate question. Could Beauvoir bring himself to give orders to his former boss and mentor? And, more to the point, could the former Chief Superintendent take them? Gamache, as respectful as he might be, was used to being in charge. And in charge of Beauvoir. “But it’s not just that, is it?” said a senior officer.

“There’s more?” asked an agent. “You don’t know?” The officer looked around, intentionally, it seemed, avoiding the warning in Lacoste’s eyes. “Gamache wasn’t just Beauvoir’s boss. He’s his father-in-law.” “You’re kidding,” said the agent, knowing that the officer was not. “Non. He’s married to Gamache’s daughter, Annie. They have a kid.” While the personal connection between Gamache and Beauvoir wasn’t exactly a secret, neither did the two men go out of their way to advertise it. There was a snort from down the table, and an agent looked up from his cell phone.

“They’re really going after the man. Listen to this—” “Non,” said Lacoste. “I don’t want to hear it.” There was movement by the door. They looked over, then jumped to their feet. The senior officers saluted. The younger ones looked momentarily taken aback. Some in the room had never seen Armand Gamache in person. Others had not seen him in months. Not since that steamy hot July afternoon in the forest.

The air filled with the stench of gun smoke and the cries of the wounded. When it had cleared, they’d seen the head of the Sûreté, weapon in hand. Hauling a body through the pretty woods. Had Gamache known when he’d dressed that summer morning, putting on the clean white shirt and the suit and tie, that that was how the day would end? With blood on his clothing. And on his hands. He’d risen that sultry day the Chief Superintendent of the Sûreté du Québec. A confident leader. Unhappy about, but committed to, a dangerous course of action. He left the woods, late that afternoon, shattered. And now he was back.

A better man? A bitter man? They were about to find out.

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