Miss Jane Neal met her maker in the early morning mist of Thanksgiving Sunday. It was pretty much a surprise all round. Miss Neal’s was not a natural death, unless you’re of the belief everything happens as it’s supposed to. If so, for her seventy-six years Jane Neal had been walking toward this final moment when death met her in the brilliant maple woods on the verge of the village of Three Pines. She’d fallen spread-eagled, as though making angels in the bright and brittle leaves.
Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Quebec knelt down; his knees cracking like the report of a hunter’s rifle, his large, expressive hands hovering over the tiny circle of blood marring her fluffy cardigan, as though like a magician he could remove the wound and restore the woman. But he could not. That wasn’t his gift. Fortunately for Gamache he had others. The scent of mothballs, his grandmother’s perfume, met him halfway. Jane’s gentle and kindly eyes stared as though surprised to see him.
He was surprised to see her. That was his little secret. Not that he’d ever seen her before. No. His little secret was that in his mid-fifties, at the height of a long and now apparently stalled career, violent death still surprised him. Which was odd, for the head of homicide, and perhaps one of the reasons he hadn’t progressed further in the cynical world of the Sûreté. Gamache always hoped maybe someone had gotten it wrong, and there was no dead body. But there was no mistaking the increasingly rigid Miss Neal. Straightening up with the help of Inspector Beauvoir, he buttoned his lined Burberry against the October chill and wondered.
Jane Neal had also been late, but in a whole other sense, a few days earlier. She’d arranged to meet her dear friend and next-door neighbor Clara Morrow for coffee in the village bistro. Clara sat at the table by the window and waited. Patience was not her long suit. The mixture of café au lait and impatience was producing an exquisite vibration. Throbbing slightly, Clara stared out the mullioned window at the village green and the old homes and maple trees that circled the Commons. The trees, turning breathtaking shades of red and amber, were just about the only things that did change in this venerable village.
Framed by the mullions, she saw a pick-up truck drift down rue du Moulin into the village, a beautiful dappled doe draped languidly over its hood. Slowly the truck circled the Commons, halting villagers in mid-step. This was hunting season and hunting territory. But hunters like these were mostly from Montreal or other cities. They’d rent pickups and stalk the dirt roads at dawn and dusk like behemoths at feeding time, looking for deer. And when they spotted one they’d slither to a stop, step out of the truck - and fire. Not all hunters were like that, Clara knew, but enough of them were. Those same hunters would strap the deer on to the hood of their truck and drive around the countryside believing the dead animal on the vehicle somehow announced that great men had done this.
Every year the hunters shot cows and horses and family pets and each other. And, unbelievably, they sometimes shot themselves, perhaps in a psychotic episode where they mistook themselves for dinner. It was a wise person who knew that some hunters—not all, but some—found it challenging to distinguish a pine from a partridge from a person.
Clara wondered what had become of Jane. She was rarely late, so she could easily be forgiven. Clara found it easy to forgive most things in most people. Too easy, her husband Peter often warned. But Clara had her own little secret. She didn’t really let go of everything. Most things, yes. But some she secretly held and hugged and would visit in moments when she needed to be comforted by the unkindness of others.
Croissant crumbs had tumbled on top of the Montreal Gazette left at her table. Between flakes Clara scanned the headlines: ‘Parti Quebecois Vows to Hold Sovereignty Referendum’, ‘Drug Bust in Townships’, ‘Hikers Lost in Tremblant Park’.
Clara lifted her eyes from the morose headlines. She and Peter had long since stopped subscribing to the Montreal papers. Ignorance really was bliss. They preferred the local Williamsburg County News where they could read about Wayne’s cow, or Guylaine’s visiting grandchildren, or a quilt being auctioned for the seniors’ home. Every now and then Clara wondered if they were copping out, running away from reality and responsibility. Then she realised she didn’t care. Besides, she learned everything she really needed to survive right here at Olivier’s Bistro, in the heart of Three Pines.
‘You’re a million miles away,’ came the familiar and well-loved voice. There was Jane, out of breath and smiling, her laugh-lined face pink from the autumn chill and the brisk trot from her cottage across the village green.