Trapped: a Martine LeDuc Novella, Episode One

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The phone rang just as I was getting ready to leave the office. Later, I would remember how I’d felt before it rang, how calm I was. They say that people have premonitions when things are going to go drastically, earth-shakingly wrong, but apparently I leave a lot to be desired in that regard. I was completely clueless.

And the voice on the other end was familiar and friendly enough. “Ah, Martine,” said Dr. Pierre LaTour, curator of Montréal’s Pointe­-à­-Callière archaeological museum down in the Old City. “I was hoping I might catch you.”

“Only just,” I said. “How are you, Pierre?”

Bien, bien,” he said briskly, though the words seemed automatic. “I thought I should let you know, after what happened last year—“

I bit my lip. Last year, a graduate student had found a skeleton down in one of the tunnels being excavated by the museum, and had been killed because of it. Anything that began with “after what happened last year” wasn’t going to be good news. “Oui?” I prodded him.

A sigh. “I’m sorry, Martine. We have another one.”

“Another what?” But I already knew.

“A skeleton,” Pierre said. “And this time--je suis désolé, Martine—it is a child.”

***

I should say here that he wasn’t just calling me out of courtesy. After the police and the mayor’s office, I’m pretty much next on the list of people who Need To Be Notified when anything untoward happens in Montréal; I’m the city’s PR director, and so anything that can cast us in a bad light passes over my desk at some point.

Bodies fall into that category. Especially children’s bodies.

I sat down again behind my desk; I wasn’t going anywhere for a while. “Old?” I asked. The one we’d found last year dated from the Second World War.

“Too soon to say,” Pierre answered. “But from what I saw, probably not more than nine or ten.”

“Wait,” I said. “The age of the bones, or the age of the child?”

“Very possibly,” he said, “both.”

***

My stepson, Lukas, answered the house phone, for the excellent reason that his mobile had been confiscated the night before due to a complicated story having to do with missed curfews and a friend who might be considering the joys of smoking pot. “Belle-Maman,” Lukas said, with a tangible lack of enthusiasm. “Dad isn’t home yet.”

“Never mind that,” I said. “Homework?”

“Done,” he said. Too fast.

“I see,” I said. “Okay, I’ll look when I get there. If it isn’t, it’s another night without your mobile.”

“When are you coming home?” Probably calculating whether he could get the work done between hanging up the phone and my arrival. As it turned out, he was going to have plenty of time. I sighed. “I don’t know, mon lapin. Looks like I have to work late tonight.”

His voice brightened. “That’s all right, Belle-Maman,” he said generously. “I’ll save you a plate from dinner.” At ten, he was already well on his way to becoming a serious charmer—when he could be bothered.

Fighting back the thought of another ten-year-old, one I was going to have to meet in a few minutes, I said warmly, “That would be lovely. Will you tell your father and Claudia that I’ll be late?”

“Of course. Um--how late, do you think?”

“Late enough,” I said sternly, “for you to finish whatever homework you haven’t done. I’m checking it, no matter what time I come in.”

There was a click on the line. “I have to go, Belle-Maman, that’s the call I’m waiting for—“

“As long as it’s not Yves,” I said. Yves was the possibly-pot-smoking new friend.

“No, it’s Mom,” he said, unexpectedly. Lukas and Claudia—my husband’s children from his first marriage—had only been living with us in Montréal for about a year, since their pediatrician mother had gone to work for Doctors Without Borders. “Then go,” I said, and disconnected the line myself. Margery didn’t get to call all that often.

Mothers and sons, I thought, and then wondered about the little boy in Pierre’s tunnel. A boy, he had said. About nine or ten. I blinked at the tears that were suddenly in my eyes. “Let’s go, then,” I said, to no one in particular, and reached for my purse.

***

“I should have known it would be you,” I said.

Lieutenant Julian Fletcher straightened up slowly, the bright police arc-lights throwing his shadow, huge and hulking, across the curved tunnel wall behind him. Julian scored double in the black-sheep sweepstakes: both his family and the city police for which he worked often wished he would just go away. The former didn’t disown him because Fletchers didn’t do that sort of thing; the latter didn’t fire him because he was so successful.

We got along. Sort of. Sometimes.

“Worried about bad publicity?” he asked politely. We didn’t kiss each other’s cheeks; Anglophones in this linguistically and culturally divided city generally didn’t. I was Francophone, but I’d been married to Ivan long enough to know the other side’s customs. “Only if you tell me this isn’t archaeological,” I said.

“This isn’t archaeological,” he said.

I stared. “You’re kidding.” I’d somehow assumed that it would be.

Julian shrugged. “We’ll test the bones,” he said, “but I can tell you what it’s going to say. We’re way ahead of that already. He’s got dated material on him.”

“What kind of dated material?”

He glanced at his notebook. “Tickets to a Canadiens game,” he said. “And the expiration dates on some cheese packets and juice boxes.”

“Cheese packets?” This was feeling surreal. The lights, the shadows, the bones, and… cheese?

“Slices,” Julian said. “Individually wrapped in plastic.”

I thought about that for a moment, watching the crime-scene techs in their boiler suits moving about silently in the harsh lighting. Scraping. Photographing. Documenting.

I shivered. “Could he have come down here exploring?” I asked. Kids do that. “That’s what the cheese points to, right? And the juice? Packed a lunch, gotten confused…” My voice trailed off as I saw the expression on his face. “What?”

Julian said, gently, “He was locked in, Martine. Look,” and he flicked on his heavy-duty cop’s flashlight, pointed it to an opening in the wall. Techs were all over it like ants. There was a gate open, an iron barred gate, a big padlock hanging off. “It’s a cage,” I said. My stomach churned.

“Plenty of them along here,” said Julian. “It wasn’t created for him, or anything medieval like that. Storage, back in the day when this tunnel was in use. Didn’t keep the rats out, but—“

I’d turned away, stumbling as far away from the scene as I could get in the seconds I had before I threw up.

Julian waited. He knew me better than to offer sympathy; but he did offer a pristine white handkerchief. “Sorry. I meant about rats getting into the storage. And this was all pretty dry then. They were storing obsolete machinery—you know how it is, no one wants to get rid of anything. But they stopped using this area after it flooded the second time.”

“When was that?” I folded the used handkerchief and thrust it into my raincoat pocket.

“Nearly twenty years ago. But that’s the thing: the tickets and cheese? They’re from seven years back. So this place was closed off when he got here, but he was still locked in.” He sighed. “Sorry, Martine, but this one’s deliberate.”

I swallowed hard. “How did he die?” The pathologist had clearly already come and gone.

“Not enough of him left to say for sure,” Julian said gently. “But chances are—well, dehydration, starvation. There was enough cheese and juice containers for about a week, I’d say, more if he stretched them out.”

“Which he wouldn’t have done.” I knew; I had a ten-year-old at home.

“Which he wouldn’t have done,” Julian agreed. He consulted his notebook, Julian’s way of marking time; he always knew what was there by heart. “One other odd thing,” he said.

“What?”

“It wasn’t just the cheese and the juice. There were packets of aspirin.” He paused. “A whole lot of packets of aspirin.”

I stared at him. “Someone didn’t want him to suffer,” I said slowly.

He nodded. “Looks that way, doesn’t it?”