Trapped, Episode Four

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The next morning there was a meeting in the mayor’s office. As I said, in general the mountain goes to Mahomet: in this case, the police were reporting in to their boss’ boss. The mayor was, as they say, “taking an interest,” though I didn’t know how many people yet were aware that Philippe Aubert had been Spencer Clark’s godson.

But there was no question about his taking an interest.

I looked around the small conference room. Julian was here, of course; he’d become lead detective on the murder. Two guys in plainclothes I didn’t know; they’d investigated the case originally, when Philippe was just a missing person. Somebody representing the provincial police, though that was a cover-your-derrière gesture; there was no reason to believe that any crime had been committed off-island. I was the only woman.

I’m often the only woman.

The mayor closed the door behind us—personally, he was setting precedents left and right—and he sat down and looked around the table, wasting no time. “What do we know?”

Julian cleared his throat. “Monsieur le maire--

The mayor lifted his hand. “In this room today,” he said, “we’re going to dispense with formalities. I’m calling you all by your first names, and I expect the same from you. It’s the only way to get anything done.” The guy from the provincial police looked at the mayor as though he’d just coughed up a hairball. You ain’t seen nothing yet, I thought.

Julian goes with the flow. “Thank you, Spencer,” he said easily. “The last time that Philippe Aubert was caught on camera was when he went to the bank beside the convention center and withdrew sixty dollars. These guys—” he jerked his head at the other two city cops “—went over the footage with the video specialist.” He turned to them. “René?”

The one called René—who was well-dressed enough to give my deputy, Richard, a run for his money—nodded. He turned his laptop so that we could all see the video on it, black and white and grainy. “Here you go," he said. "He's speaking with someone,” he pointed out. "There, you see? Off to his left.”

On the screen, a shadowy Philippe paused and then turned. “He’s smiling,” I said.

“Yes,” affirmed René. “He does not seem in any way to be distressed, as you can see.”

Onscreen, Philippe laughed and nodded. He waited for his cash and his receipt, and carefully placed both into a small wallet. I caught Julian’s eye. “Were there sixty dollars in the wallet?”

He shook his head. I reminded myself that nobody kills a child for sixty dollars. Nobody sane, anyway.

Philippe was still talking, and gestured now to his right, toward the convention center. He laughed again, and nodded again, and then turned decisively to his left and walked out of the frame.

“That’s it,” said René, swiveling the laptop back.

“Someone he knew,” said Spencer.

“Someone he knew,” agreed René. “We followed it up. We questioned every school friend, his teachers, everyone associated with the train club, friends of his parents, neighbors.”

“I remember,” said Spencer. Of course, I thought: as Philippe’s godfather, Spencer could have initially been a suspect in his disappearance. The tape was clear that this was no stranger abduction. And Philippe had been totally at ease with whomever he was talking to.

“And it was probably an adult,” said the other cop unexpectedly. His French accent was thicker than René’s, but his name was Bob. Another of Montréal’s puzzling paradoxes. “In the film, you see that he is looking up to speak and to listen. A very tall classmate? Perhaps. But we found no one of that size.”

René added, “It was close to the end of the event at the convention center. It is unclear why he needed to withdraw that money at that time. He could have re-entered the convention hall, perhaps to purchase something, but then he abandoned that plan and left with this person instead. There must have been a very strong motivation.”

Julian said, “René and Bob conducted an extremely thorough investigation.” He hardly needed to defend them—when a child disappears, everything else stops, it would have been one of the best investigations on record—but I liked him for it, for his loyalty.

The mayor frowned. “And found…?”

René shook his head, lifted his shoulders. “Nothing, monsieur le maire.” I wasn’t the only one having difficulty in responding to the mayor’s request for informality. “There were alibis for everyone concerned. And no one observed the boy leaving the environment of the convention center. It is very busy there, of course. But people wished to help, and no one could.“

“So that leaves us where, now?”

Julian cleared his throat. “We’re still analyzing everything found in the tunnel with the boy,” he said. “And going back over the old statements, and taking new ones. If we find out where the cheese packets and juice were purchased…”

“It will lead to some Provigo market and they’ll have erased their footage years ago,” said the mayor impatiently. “What else?”

I said to René, “I’m thinking about what you just said, about Philippe’s motivation for leaving the event before he’d spent the money he'd just made a point of getting. It must have been something amazing: that's a lot of money for a kid." Hell, it was a lot of money for me, an adult, several years on. "And for that matter, why didn’t he come with the money? Surely he knew there might be something there he’d want to purchase?”

“His mother said that he was not always good at looking ahead,” he answered. “We asked her that question. She said that if his friend, Frédérique, had been along, they would have stopped at the cashpoint first. She said it would be in keeping with his personality to see the object first and get the money second.”

“But that still doesn’t answer why he abandoned the plan so willingly,” I said. “He’s clearly pleased to go off with this other person. What would be more important than trains? It wasn’t the typical lure that pedophiles use, saying the child’s mother is hurt, something like that. He’s clearly happy about it.”

“So it had to be trains,” said the mayor.

He was quick enough, I’d give him that. “It had to be trains,” I agreed.

“All right,” Spencer said. “I want a report every day.” He looked at Julian. “Personally,” he added.

Julian nodded. Whether or not he’d actually do it was anybody’s guess.

I caught up with him in the corridor. “Hungry?”

He raised his eyebrows. “Always,” he said slowly. “What do you have in mind?”

Poutine,” I said. That was nothing new; I always have poutine on my mind. “Care to share one?”

He grinned. “Can’t wait.”

***

Poutine, for those sad few who do not know, is the richest, most decadent food in the world. Forget chocolate. Forget caviar. Fry up some crispy French fries, cover them in cheese curds, then pour some sort of brown sauce over it all, and you have Québec’s contribution to heart disease. You can dress it up with truffle oil, add protein and more fat by putting in le smoked meat, do a dozen things to it; but for me the original is still the best. Why I don’t weigh three hundred pounds is anyone’s guess.

Julian and I headed over to Montréal Poutine on rue St.-Paul in the heart of the old city, snagged a table, ordered poutine and beer (what else?) and tasted a little of each before finally speaking again. “Here’s what I’m thinking,” I said at length, wiping my greasy fingers on my napkin. “If your boys did such a great job when Philippe disappeared—and I’m not saying they didn’t,” I added hastily as he drew breath to respond, “then what we have to do is go with what’s new. What we know that they didn’t. Like that we know what happened to him.”

“That possibility,” said Julian in his best upper-crust drawl, “had not escaped me.”

I ignored him. “And yeah, think about where the stuff came from, sure, but isn’t it important where he was? Isn’t that, like, a major component here? How many people know about the tunnels?”

“The museum’s restoration project’s been all over the news,” he reminded me. He took a swallow of beer and put the glass down, slowly, deliberately, before adding, “And there’s that other thing, too.”

That other thing was a situation we’d both been rather too closely involved in the year before, during which a skeletonized murder victim was found in an underground storeroom along with some missing pieces from Britain’s crown jewels. The woman who’d found them was killed and her death reverberated throughout the city…all the way back in history to the concentration camps of Europe. And for a very short time, my stepkids had been at risk, something I wasn’t likely to forget anytime in the next millennium. Yeah, “that other thing” had definitely brought the disused tunnels to the public’s attention.

But they hadn’t needed the news to know what was down there. Being underground is no stretch for most Montréalers. We practically live there, in a complex warren of streets and shops and subway routes, for most of the winter.

“Still,” I said doggedly, “Most people wouldn’t know where to go to keep a prisoner, would they? I mean, would you? I sure wouldn’t. Places where workmen might come at any moment, or places where no one’s going to be checking into for years, who’d know how to tell them apart, even if they did know how to get down there? There are disused tunnels…and then there are disused tunnels.”

“Urban explorers would know,” Julian said. He’d found my wavelength with a click. “And they’re usually pretty young. Might have some crossover with the train set. You know, old railroad tracks, the lot.”

I nodded. “And then there’s the museum,” I said. Where this had all started for me, with the call from Pierre LaTour at the Pointe­à­Callière archaeological museum. “They know the tunnels, Julian.”

He finished chewing, washed the poutine down with his beer. “Maybe,” he said, but he didn’t sound very interested. “We got some urban explorer to help last year, didn’t we?”

“I just can’t picture a kid doing this,” I said. I’ve reached the age where anyone under twenty-five qualifies as “a kid.”

“I can,” said Julian grimly.

“Okay, so maybe you know more about that than I do,” I said placatingly. And truthfully, for that matter. My experience with murderers is limited, though not as limited as I’d like it to be.

“Some of them,” he said, “do it just to have the experience. To know what it feels like. They might have visited a whole lot of times, just for the thrill. To watch him die.”

I shook my head. “That’s not who put him there, Julian,” I said. “Remember the aspirin? Someone didn’t want him to suffer. They wanted him to have the option of overdosing.”

“On aspirin?”

“Well, that’s a clue, then, too, isn’t it? It’s someone ordinary. Someone who wouldn’t have access to morphine or oxycodone or something like that…maybe the aspirin was the best they could do. But they tried, don’t you see? They tried to make it easier for him.”

“Doesn’t make them less of a murderer,” Julian reminded me.

“Makes them more of a human, though,” I said.

“We’ll see,” he responded, “about that.”