Still Life

Still Life

Page 45

Before he could say more he tensed, slightly. A moment later Gamache heard it too. Suzanne opened the door from the basement which led into the kitchen and came in.

Suzanne Croft didn’t look well at all. She’d looked strained at the public meeting, but nothing compared to this. Her skin was almost translucent, except for the blotches. And a thin layer of sweat lent it a sheen, not unlike a reptile. Her hand, when shaken by Gamache, was ice-cold. She was terrified, he realised. Scared sick. Gamache looked over at Croft, who now wasn’t even trying to hide his own fear. He was looking at his wife the way one might look at a specter, a ghost with a particularly awful and personal message.

Then the moment passed. Matthew Croft’s face fell back to ‘normal’, with only a pall to the skin evidence of what lay beneath. Gamache offered Mrs Croft his seat but Matthew had grabbed a stool and sat while his wife took his chair. No one spoke. Gamache was willing Beauvoir not to speak. To let the silence stretch to breaking. This woman was holding on to something horrible and her grip was slipping.

‘Would you like a glass of water?’ Nichol asked Suzanne Croft.

‘No, thank you, but let me make some tea.’ And with that Mrs Croft leapt from her chair and the moment was broken. Gamache looked at Nichol, perplexed. If she had wanted to sabotage the case and her career she couldn’t have done a better job.

‘Here, let me help,’ said Nichol, bouncing off her seat and grabbing the kettle.

Beauvoir had allowed his face to show a flash of fury when Nichol spoke, then it too was replaced by his familiar, reasonable, mask.

Stupid, stupid woman, he cursed to himself, even as his face took on a benevolent half-smile. He stole a glance at Gamache, and saw with satisfaction the boss was also staring at Nichol, but not angrily. To Beauvoir’s disgust, he saw a look he took to be tolerance on the chief’s face. Will he never learn? What in God’s name drives him to want to help such fools?

‘What do you do for a living, Mrs Croft? Do you work?’ Now that the silence was fractured, Beauvoir figured he might as well grab back control. Even as he asked the question he could hear the insult. The easy assumption motherhood wasn’t work. But he didn’t care.

‘I help out three times a week at the photocopy store in St Rémy. Helps make ends meet.’

Beauvoir felt badly for the question now it was asked. He wondered whether he’d balled up his anger at Nichol and pitched it into Mrs Croft’s face. He looked around the room and realised all the homey touches were made by hand, even the plastic covers of the chairs were inexpertly stapled on, a few coming loose. These people made a little go a long way.

‘You have two children, I believe,’ Beauvoir shook off his momentary shame.

‘That’s right,’ Matthew jumped in.

‘And what are their names?’

‘Philippe and Diane.’

‘Nice names,’ he said into the gathering stillness. ‘And how old are they?’

‘He’s fourteen, she’s eight.’

‘And where are they?’

The question hovered in the air, as the earth stopped turning. He had been marching inexorably toward this question, as the Crofts must have known. He hadn’t wanted to surprise them with it, not out of delicacy for their parental feelings, but because he wanted them to see it coming toward them from a great distance, and to have to wait, and wait. Until their nerves were taut to breaking. Until they both longed for and dreaded this instant.

‘They’re not here,’ said Suzanne, strangling a teacup.

Beauvoir waited, looking steadily at her. ‘When are you having your Thanksgiving dinner?’

The swift shift left Suzanne Croft gaping, as though he’d suddenly switched to Pig Latin. Xnay on the erdinnaye.

‘I’m sorry?’

‘One of the great things I’ve noticed in my home is that the smell of the turkey hangs around for a couple of days. Then of course, my wife and I make soup the next day, and that’s hard to miss too.’ He took a deep breath, and then slowly, slowly scanned the clean counters of the kitchen.

‘We were going to have Thanksgiving yesterday, Sunday,’ said Matthew, ‘but with the news of Miss Neal and all we’ve decided to put it off.’

‘For ever?’ Beauvoir asked, incredulous. Gamache wondered if it wasn’t a little overdone, but the Crofts were beyond critiquing his performance.

‘Where’s Diane, Mrs Croft?’

‘She’s at a friend’s home. Nina Levesque’s.’

‘And Philippe?’

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