It is evident from the way the stones are set into the slope of the hill that industrious hands once toiled to make this pathway. It is overgrown now, the shallow impression of a ditch on one side. He makes his way carefully down towards the remains of the village, pursued by the oddest sense of treading in his own footsteps. And yet he has never been here.
The silhouette of a broken-down drystone wall runs along the contour of the treeless hill above him. Beyond it, he knows, a crescent of silver sand curls away towards the cemetery and the standing stones on the rise. Below him, the footings of blackhouses are barely visible among the peaty soil and the spikes of tall grasses that bend and bow in the wind. The last evidence of walls that once sheltered the families who lived and died here.
He follows the path between them, down towards the shingle shore where a ragged line of roughly hewn stones vanishes into waves that cast their spume upon the pebbles, frothing and spitting. They are all that remain of some long-forgotten attempt to build a jetty.
There were, perhaps, ten or twelve blackhouses here once. Thatched roofs curved over thick stone walls, leaking peat smoke through cracks and crevices to be whipped away on the icy edge of winter gales. In the heart of the village, he stops and pictures the spot where old Calum lay bleeding, his skull split open, all of his years and heroism erased by a single blow. He crouches down to touch the earth, and in doing so feels a direct connection with history, communing with ghosts, a ghost himself haunting his own past. And yet not his past.
He closes his eyes and imagines how it was, how it felt, knowing that this is where it all began, in another age, in someone else’s life.
The front door of the summerhouse opened straight into the living room through a fly-screen door off the porch. It was a large room occupying most of the downstairs footprint of a house that the murdered man used for guests who never came.
A narrow corridor at the bottom of the staircase ran off to a bathroom and a small bedroom at the back of the property. There was an open fireplace with a stone surround. The furniture was dark and heavy, and took up most of the floor space. Sime thought that although the house itself had been remodelled, this must still be the original furniture. It felt like stepping back in time. Generous old armchairs with antimacassars, worn rugs strewn across uneven but freshly varnished floorboards. Heavy-framed oil paintings on the walls, and every available space cluttered with ornaments and framed family photos. It even smelled old in here, and made him think of his grandmother’s house in Scotstown.
Blanc fed cable off into the back bedroom where he would set up his monitors, and Sime lined up two cameras on tripods to focus on the armchair facing the window, where the newly widowed woman would be well lit. He set his own chair with its back to the window so that his face would be obscured to her, but every micro sign to flit across her face would be evident to him.
He heard floorboards creaking overhead and turned towards the staircase as a policewoman came down into the light. She looked bewildered. ‘What’s going on?’
Sime told her they were setting up for the interview. ‘I understand she’s upstairs,’ he said. The officer nodded. ‘Send her down, then.’
He stood by the window for a moment, holding the net curtain aside, and remembered the words of the sergeant enquêteur who had met them at the island’s only harbour. Looks like it was her that did it. Sunlight caught his face so that it was reflected in the glass, and he saw his familiar lean features beneath their tumble of thick blonde curls. He saw the fatigue in his eyes, and the shadows that hollowed his cheeks, and he immediately jumped focus to gaze out across the ocean. The longer grass along the cliff’s edge was dipping and diving in the wind now, white-tops blowing across the gulf from the south-west, and in the distance he saw an ominous bank of dark cloud bubbling up on the horizon.
The creak of the stairs brought his head around, and for a moment that seemed like an eternity his world stopped.
She stood on the bottom step, her dark hair drawn back from the delicate structure of her face. Pale skin stained by dried blood. Her bloodied nightdress was partially covered by a blanket draped around her shoulders. He could see that she was tall and holding herself erect as if it were a matter of pride not to be cowed by her circumstance.
Her eyes were a dark, crystal-cut blue with darker rings around the pupils. Sad eyes filled with tragedy. He could see the shadows of sleeplessness smudged beneath them as if someone had drawn charcoal-stained thumbs across the skin.
He heard the slow tick, tick of an old pendulum clock on the mantel, and saw motes of dust suspended in the light that slanted through the windows. He saw her lips move, but there was no sound. They moved again in silence, forming words he couldn’t hear, until he became aware suddenly of the irritation in her voice. ‘Hello? Is there anyone home?’ And it was as if someone had released the pause button and his world wound back up to speed. But the confusion remained.
He said, ‘I’m sorry. You are . . . ?’
He saw her consternation now. ‘Kirsty Cowell. They said you wanted to interview me.’
And out of his turmoil he heard himself saying, ‘I know you.’
She frowned. ‘I don’t think so.’
But he knew he did. Not where, or how, or when. But with an absolute certainty. And that feeling he had experienced on the plane returned to almost overwhelm him.
Hard to believe that just a few hours ago he had been lying in his own bed over a thousand kilometres away in Montreal, arms and legs tangled among the sheets, sweating where they covered him, freezing where they did not. His eyes then had been filled with sand, and his throat so dry he could barely swallow.
During the long night he had lost count of the number of times he had glanced at the digital display on his bedside clock. It was foolish, he knew. When sleep would not come, time crawled with the unerring pace of a giant tortoise. Watching its painful passage only increased the frustration and reduced the odds of sleep even further. The faintest of headaches lay just behind his eyes as it did every night, increasing in its intensity towards morning and the painkiller that would fizz furiously in his glass when it was time at last to rise.
Rolling over on to his right side he had felt the empty space beside him like a rebuke. A constant reminder of failure.
A cold emptiness where once there had been warmth. He could have spread himself across the bed, warming it from the heat of his own body, but he felt trapped on the side where he had so often lain in simmering silence after one of their fights. Fights, it had always seemed to him, that he never started. And yet through all the sleepless hours of these last weeks, he had begun to doubt even that. Harsh words endlessly replayed to fill the slow, dark passing of time.
Finally, at the very moment he had felt himself slipping off into darkness, the trilling of his cellphone on the bedside table had startled him awake. Had he really drifted off? He sat bolt upright and glanced at the clock, his heart pounding, but it was still just a little after three. He fumbled for the light switch, and blinking in the sudden glare of the lamp grabbed the phone.
From his riverside apartment in St Lambert, it could take anything up to an hour and a half during rush hour to cross the Pont Jacques Cartier on to the island that was Montreal City. But at this hour the huge span of arcing girders that straddled the Île Sainte Hélène fed only a trickle of traffic across the slow-moving water of the St Lawrence River.
As the lights of empty tower blocks rose up around him, he swung on to the off-ramp and down to Avenue de Lorimier before turning north-east on Rue Ontario, the dark silhouette of Mount Royal itself dominating the skyline in his rear mirror. The drive to 1701 Rue Parthenais took less than twenty minutes.
The Sûreté de Police was housed in a thirteen-storey tower block on the east side of the street with views out towards the bridge, the TV station and the mountain. Sime took the elevator up to the Division des enquêtes sur les crimes contre la personne on the fourth floor. It never failed to amuse him how the French language needed nine words where one in English would do. Homicide, the Americans would have said.
Capitaine Michel McIvir was returning to his office with a coffee, and Sime fell in beside him as he walked along the corridor past framed black-and-white photographs of crime scene investigations from the fifties and sixties. McIvir was barely forty, just a handful of years older than Sime, but wore an air of authority that Sime knew would never be a fit for him. The capitaine glanced at his sergeant enquêteur with shrewd eyes.
‘You look like shit.’
Sime grimaced. ‘That makes me feel so much better.’
‘Still not sleeping?’
Sime shrugged, reluctant to admit the extent of his problem. ‘Off and on.’ And he quickly changed the subject. ‘So why am I here?’
‘There’s been a murder on the Magdalen Islands, out in the Gulf of St Lawrence.’ He called them by their French name, Les Îles de la Madeleine. ‘The first in living memory. I’m sending an initial team of eight.’
‘But why me? I’m not on the rota.’
‘The murder took place on l’Île d’entrée, Sime. Better known to its inhabitants as Entry Island. The Madelinots are French-speaking for the most part, but on Entry they speak only English.’
Sime nodded, understanding now.
‘I’ve got a light aircraft standing by at St Hubert airfield. It’ll take about three hours to get out to the islands. I want you to lead interrogations. Thomas Blanc will monitor. Lieutenant Crozes is your team leader, Sergeant Superviseur Lapointe on admin and logistics.’ He hesitated, uncharacteristically. It did not go unnoticed by Sime.
‘And the crime scene investigator?’ He posed it as a question, but already knew the answer.
McIvir set his mouth in a stubborn line. ‘Marie-Ange.’
The thirteen-seater King Air B100 had been in the air for over two and a half hours. During that time barely a handful of words had passed among the eight-officer team being sent to investigate the Entry Island murder.
Sime sat on his own up front, acutely aware of everything that set him apart from his colleagues. He was not an habitual member of their team. He had only been attached because of his linguistic background. The others were all French in origin. Each spoke English, to a greater or lesser extent, but none was fluent. Sime’s heritage was Scottish. His ancestors had arrived speaking Gaelic. Within a couple of generations the language of home had all but died out, to be replaced by English. Then in the 1970s the government of Quebec had made French the official language, and in a mass exodus half a million English-speakers had abandoned the province.
But Sime’s father had refused to go. His great-great-grandparents, he said, had carved out a place for themselves in this land, and he was damned if he would be forced off it. And so the Mackenzie family had stayed, adapting to the new francophone world, but holding on to their own language and traditions in the home. Sime supposed he had much to thank him for. He was equally at home with French or English. But right now, aboard this flight to investigate a murder on a distant archipelago, it was what set him apart. The thing he had always wanted to avoid.
He glanced from the window and saw the first light in the sky to the east. Below them he could see only ocean. They had left the tree-covered Gaspé Peninsula behind them some time ago.
The stooped figure of Sergeant Superviseur Jacques Lapointe emerged from the tiny cockpit clutching a sheaf of papers. He was the man who would facilitate everything. Accommodation, transport, all their technical requirements. And it was Lapointe who would accompany the body of the victim back to Montreal for autopsy in the basement of 1701 Rue
Parthenais. He was an older man, somewhere in his mid-fifties, with big-knuckled arthritic hands and a spiky black moustache shot through with silver.
‘Okay.’ He raised his voice to be heard above the roar of the
engines. ‘I’ve booked us into the Auberge Madeli on the Île du Cap aux Meules. That’s the main administrative island, and it’s from there that the ferry leaves for Entry. About an hour for the crossing.’ He consulted his notes. ‘The airport’s on Havre aux Maisons, linked to Cap aux Meules by bridge, apparently. Anyway, the local cops’ll meet us there with a minibus, and it looks like we’ll be just in time to catch the first ferry of the day.’
‘You mean they’d have sailed without us?’ Lieutenant Daniel Crozes raised an eyebrow. The team leader was almost the same age as Sime, but a little taller and possessed of dark good looks. Somehow he always managed to maintain a tan. Quite a feat during the long, cold Quebecois winters. Sime was never quite sure if it derived from a bottle or a sunbed.
‘Not on your life!’ Lapointe grinned. ‘It’s the only way of getting a vehicle over there. I told them I’d sink the fucking thing if they didn’t hold it for us.’ He inclined his head to one side. ‘Still, it looks like we won’t be disrupting the schedules. And it does no harm to keep the locals on side.’
‘What do we know about Entry Island, Jacques?’ Crozes asked.
The big man pulled on his moustache. ‘Not a lot, Lieutenant. Main industry’s fishing. Dwindling population. All English-speakers. Fewer than a hundred, I think.’
‘One less now,’ Crozes said, and there was some muted laughter.
Sime glanced across the aisle and saw Marie-Ange smiling. With her short, brown, blonde-streaked hair and lean, athletic figure, there was something almost boyish about her. But nothing masculine in her liquid green eyes, or the full red lips she stretched across the white teeth of that disarming smile. She caught him looking at her, and the smile immediately vanished.
He turned back to the window and felt his ears pop as the small aircraft banked to the right and began its descent. For a moment he was dazzled by a flash of red sunlight reflecting off the ocean, before the aircraft banked again and he saw the Îles de la Madeleine for the first time. A string of big and small islands linked by causeways and sandbanks, lying on an axis that ran from south-west to north-east. Oddly, it formed an overall shape not unlike a fish-hook, and was perhaps around sixty kilometres in length.
As they turned to make their final descent towards the airstrip on the Île du Havre aux Maisons, the pilot told them that if they looked out to their right they would see Entry Island sitting on its own on the east side of the Baie de Plaisance.
Sime saw it for the first time, silhouetted against the rising sun and lying along the horizon with its two distinctive humps like some toppled Easter Island statue, almost lost in a pink early morning mist that rose from the sea. And quite unexpectedly he felt a shiver of disquiet down his spine.
Sime stood stamping on the quayside, breath billowing about his head in the early morning light as Lapointe reversed their minibus on to the Ivan-Quinn ferry. Flight cases packed with their equipment were strapped to the roof. Sime wore jeans, leather boots and a hooded cotton jacket, and stood a little apart from the others. Not a space that the casual observer might have noticed, but to him it felt like a rift as deep as the Grand Canyon. And it was more than just language that separated them. Blanc crossed the divide to offer him a cigarette. Had he known him better, he would have known better. But Sime appreciated the gesture.
‘Gave it up,’ he said.
Blanc grinned. ‘Easiest thing in the world.’ Sime cocked a quizzical eyebrow. ‘Is it?’ ‘Sure. I’ve done it hundreds of times.’
Sime smiled and they watched in silence for a while as Lapointe manoeuvred into the tight, two-vehicle car deck. He glanced at his co-interrogator. Blanc was six inches smaller than Sime, and carrying a good deal more weight. He had a head of thick, curly black hair balding on top, a monk’s tonsure in the making. ‘How’s your English?’ Sime said.
Blanc pulled a face. ‘I understand it okay. But I don’t speak it so good.’ He nodded his head vaguely beyond the harbour wall. ‘I hear these Entry islanders refuse to speak French.’ He snorted. ‘I’m glad you’re doing the talking.’ Sime nodded. Blanc would sit with two monitors and a recorder at the end of a cable in another room and take notes while Sime conducted the interviews on camera. Everything was recorded these days.
Lapointe was parked up now, and the rest of them walked up the vehicle ramp and on to the ferry, squeezing down a narrow corridor to the seating area in the bow. Sime let them go and climbed the stairs to the top deck, skirting the wheelhouse to make his way to the front of the boat. There he leaned on the rail beneath a torn CTMA flag, and counted three cruise ships berthed at various quays.
It was another ten minutes before the ferry slipped out of the harbour, gliding past the outer breakwater on a sea like glass, to reveal Entry Island in the far distance, stretched out on the far side of the bay, the sun only now rising above a gathering of dark morning cloud beyond it. The island drew Sime’s focus and held it there, almost trancelike, as the sun sent its reflection careening towards him, creating what was almost a halo effect around the island itself. There was something magical about it. Almost mystical.
None of them knew if the ferry was usually met by this many people, but the tiny quay was crowded with vehicles and curious islanders when the ferry berthed at the harbour on Entry Island. Sergeant Enquêteur André Aucoin from the Sûreté on Cap aux Meules was there to meet them. Middleaged but lacking experience, he was overawed by the arrival of real cops from the mainland, but enjoying his fifteen minutes in the sun. This was his first murder. He sat up beside Lapointe in the front of the minibus and briefed them on it during their bumpy ride across the island.
He pointed to a huddle of buildings above the road just past Brian Josey’s restaurant and general store on Main Street. ‘Can’t see it from here, but that’s the airstrip up there. Cowell had his own single-engined plane that he used to fly back and forth to Havre aux Maisons. There’s easy access from there by scheduled flight to Quebec City or Montreal for business meetings. He kept a Range Rover here at the strip.’
‘What business was he in?’ Crozes asked.
‘Lobsters, Lieutenant.’ Aucoin chuckled. ‘What other business is there on the Madeleine islands?’
Sime noticed the thousands of lobster creels heaped up against brightly coloured wooden houses and barns set back from the road and dotted about the rolling green pasture of the island interior. There were no trees, just telegraph poles leaning at odd angles, and electric cables looping from one to the other. A late cut of summer grasses had produced big round hay bales that punctuated the landscape, and in the distance he saw the spire of a white-painted wooden church, the long shadows of gravestones reaching down the slope towards them in the yellow early light.
Aucoin said, ‘Cowell ran half the lobster boats in the Madeleines, landing around fifteen million dollars’-worth a year. Not to mention the processing and canning plant he owned on Cap aux Meules.’
‘Was he from the islands?’ Sime asked.
‘A Madelinot born and bred. From the English-speaking community at Old Harry in the north. But his French was good. You wouldn’t have known he wasn’t a native speaker.’
‘And his wife?’
‘Oh, Kirsty’s a native of Entry Island. Hasn’t been off it, apparently, in the ten years since she graduated from Bishop’s University in Lennoxville.’
‘Not once?’ There was incredulity in Crozes’s voice.
‘So they say.’
‘So what happened last night?’
‘Looks like it was her that did it.’
Crozes spoke sharply. ‘I didn’t ask for your opinion, Sergeant. Just the facts.’
Aucoin blushed. ‘According to Kirsty Cowell there was an intruder. A guy in a ski mask. He attacked her, and when the husband intervened he got stabbed and the intruder ran off.’
He couldn’t hide his disbelief and his own interpretation slipped out again. ‘It’s pretty weird. I mean, I know you guys are the experts, but you just don’t get break-ins here on Entry Island. The only way on and off since the air service got cut is by ferry, or private boat. It’s unlikely that anyone could motor into the harbour and out again without someone noticing. And there’s only one other jetty on the island. A small private quay that Cowell had built at the foot of the cliffs below his house. But the currents there make it pretty treacherous, so it’s hardly ever used.’
‘Another islander, then,’ Sime said.
The look that Aucoin turned in his direction was laden with sarcasm. ‘Or a figment of Mrs Cowell’s imagination.’
They left the lighthouse on their right and turned up the hill towards the Cowell house. Most of the homes on the island were traditional in design, wooden-framed with shingle-clad walls or clapboard siding beneath steeply pitched shingle roofs. They were vividly painted in primary colours. Red, green, blue, and sometimes more bizarrely in shades of purple or ochre, window and door frames picked out in white or canary-yellow. Lawns were well maintained. A local preoccupation, it seemed, and they passed several islanders out with their lawnmowers profiting from the autumn sunshine.
The Cowell house itself stood out from the others, not only in size but in design. It was out of place, somehow, like an artificial Christmas tree in a forest of natural pines. It was not of the island. A long yellow-painted building of clapboard siding with a red roof broken by dormers and turrets and a large arched window. As they pulled around the gravel path at the cliff side, they saw that there was a conservatory built along almost the entire south-facing length of it, windows looking out across a manicured lawn towards the fence that ran along the cliff’s edge.
‘It’s bloody huge,’ Lapointe said.
Aucoin blew air through pursed lips, savouring the importance that his local knowledge gave him. ‘Used to be a church hall,’ he said. ‘With a bell tower. Over on Havre Aubert. Cowell had it cut in three and floated across on barges brought up specially from Quebec City. They reassembled it here on the cliffs, then finished it inside and out to the highest specs. The interior’s quite amazing. Had it done for his wife, apparently. Nothing was too good or too expensive for his Kirsty, according to the neighbours.’
Sime’s eyes wandered to a smaller property no more than fifty yards away. It stood a little lower on the slope, a traditional island house, blue and white, with a covered porch that looked out over the red cliffs. It seemed to sit on the same parcel of land. ‘Who lives there?’
Aucoin followed Sime’s eyeline. ‘Oh that’s her place.’ ‘Kirsty Cowell’s?’
‘You mean they lived in separate houses?’
‘No, that’s the house she grew up in and inherited from her parents. She and her husband both lived in the big house that Cowell built. They had the old place renovated. Used it as a summerhouse, or guest house, apparently. Though according to the folk we’ve spoken to, they never had any. Guests, that is.’ He glanced back at Sime. ‘She’s in there just now, with a policewoman. Didn’t want her messing up the crime scene.’ If he expected some kind of pat on the back, he was disappointed when it didn’t come. He added, ‘At least, not any more than she already has.’
‘What do you mean?’ Marie-Ange spoke sharply and for the first time. Suddenly this was her territory.
Aucoin just smiled. ‘You’ll see, ma’am.’ His importance to them would pass quickly. He was determined to make the most of it while it lasted.
They parked outside the house next to what was presumably Cowell’s Range Rover. Patrolmen from Cap aux Meules had hammered in stakes and stretched crime scene tape between them as they had no doubt seen in the movies. It fluttered and hummed now in the stiffening breeze. MarieAnge got her trunk down from the roof and changed into a suit and hood of white tyvek, slipping bootees over her trainers. The others pulled on plastic overshoes and snapped their hands into latex gloves. Aucoin watched with admiration and envy. Marie-Ange chucked him some shoe covers and gloves. ‘I know you’ve probably tramped all over the place already, but let’s try not to fuck it up any more than you already have.’ He blushed again and glared at her with hate in his heart.
The team moved carefully into the house through sliding doors that took them into a tiled sun room with a hot tub. They passed through it to the conservatory lounge, which was littered with recliners and glass tables, one of which was smashed. Shards of broken glass crunched underfoot. Then up two steps to the main living space, avoiding a trail of dried bloody footprints.
A vast area of polished wooden floor delineated a space that rose up into the arched roof. A large dining table and chairs stood off to the left, and at the far side an open-plan kitchen was partitioned from the main entrance by a standing dresser. A staircase dog-legged up to a mezzanine level on the right, and to their left another three curved steps led up to a sitting area with a grand piano and three-piece suite set around an open fireplace.
Almost in the centre of the floor a man lay on his back, one arm thrown out to his right, the other by his side. He was wearing dark-blue slacks and a white shirt that was soaked in blood. His legs were stretched straight out, slightly parted, his feet in their Italian leather shoes tilting to right and left. His eyes were wide open, as was his mouth. Unnaturally so. But the most striking thing was the way his blood was smeared across the floor all around him. In streaks and pools and random patterns. Bloody footprints seemed to circle him. Naked feet, which had left a trail leading away from the body towards the kitchen and then back, fading on the return before picking up fresh blood to track away to the conservatory and down the steps. The main body of blood was almost dry now, oxidised, sticky and brown in colour.
‘Jesus!’ Marie-Ange’s voice came in a breath. ‘When you said mess you weren’t kidding.’
Aucoin said, ‘This is how it was when we arrived. Mrs Cowell claims she attempted CPR and tried to stop the bleeding. Without success.’
‘Obviously.’ Marie-Ange’s tone was dry.
Aucoin shifted uncomfortably. ‘The footprints are hers. She ran over to the kitchen to get a towel to staunch the flow of blood. One of my men found it lying out there in the grass at first light. When she couldn’t revive him she ran down the hill to a neighbour’s house for help.’ He paused. ‘That’s the story she told them, anyway.’
Marie-Ange moved around the body like a cat, examining every pool and spatter of blood, every footprint and smear on the floor. Sime found it difficult to watch her. ‘There are other footprints here,’ she said. ‘The tread of a shoe.’
‘That would be the nurse. She came when the neighbours called. She had to ascertain that he was dead. Then she called us.’
‘If the wife attempted CPR she must be covered in blood herself,’ Crozes said.
‘Oh yes, sir, she is.’ Aucoin nodded gravely.
‘I hope you haven’t allowed her to wash or change.’ MarieAnge cast him a look almost as acid as her tone.
She turned to Lapointe. ‘We’ll need to have her photographed and medically examined, checked for fibres and injuries. I’ll want samples from beneath her nails. And you’ll need to bag her clothes and take them back with you to Montreal for forensic examination.’ She returned her attention to Aucoin. ‘Is there a doctor on the island?’
‘No, ma’am, just the nurse. There’s two of them. They come week about.’
‘She’ll have to do then. And I guess I’ll have to be the examining officer, since it’s a woman.’
Blanc said, ‘Was there any sign of a break-in?’
Aucoin’s laugh was involuntary. But he quickly caught himself. ‘No. There would be no need to break in. No one on the island locks their doors.’
Lieutenant Crozes clapped his hands. ‘Okay, let’s get started. Have you interviewed the wife, Sergeant Aucoin?’
‘No, sir. I took statements from the neighbours, that’s all.’ ‘Good.’ Crozes turned towards Sime. ‘Why don’t you and Blanc set up in the summerhouse and take an initial statement before we do the medical exam?’
Excerpted from Entry Island by Peter May. Copyright © 2014 by Peter May.
First published in Great Britain in 2014 by Quercus, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block, London, W1U 8EW.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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