A Fatal Grace

By: Louise Penny

For my brother Doug and his family, Mary, Brian, Roslyn, and Charles, who showed me what courage really is. Namaste.





ONE


Had CC de Poitiers known she was going to be murdered she might have bought her husband, Richard, a Christmas gift. She might even have gone to her daughter’s end of term pageant at Miss Edward’s School for Girls, or ‘girths’ as CC liked to tease her expansive daughter. Had CC de Poitiers known the end was near she might have been at work instead of in the cheapest room the Ritz in Montreal had to offer. But the only end she knew was near belonged to a man named Saul.

‘So, what do you think? Do you like it?’ She balanced her book on her pallid stomach.

Saul looked at it, not for the first time. She’d dragged it out of her huge purse every five minutes for the past few days. In business meetings, dinners, taxi rides through the snowy streets of Montreal, CC’d suddenly bend down and emerge triumphant, holding her creation as though another virgin birth.

‘I like the picture,’ he said, knowing the insult. He’d taken the picture. He knew she was asking, pleading, for more and he knew he no longer cared to give it. And he wondered how much longer he could be around CC de Poitiers before he became her. Not physically, of course. At forty-eight she was a few years younger than him. She was slim and ropy and toned, her teeth impossibly white and her hair impossibly blonde. Touching her was like caressing a veneer of ice. There was a beauty to it, and a frailty he found attractive. But there was also danger. If she ever broke, if she shattered, she’d tear him to pieces.

But her exterior wasn’t the issue. Watching her caress her book with more tenderness than she’d ever shown when caressing him, he wondered whether her ice water insides had somehow seeped into him, perhaps during sex, and were slowly freezing him. Already he couldn’t feel his core.

At fifty-two Saul Petrov was just beginning to notice his friends weren’t quite as brilliant, not quite as clever, not quite as slim as they once were. In fact, most had begun to bore him. And he’d noticed a telltale yawn or two from them as well. They were growing thick and bald and dull, and he suspected he was too. It wasn’t so bad that women rarely looked at him any more or that he’d begun to consider trading his downhill skis for cross country, or that his GP had scheduled his first prostate test. He could accept all that. What woke Saul Petrov at two in the morning, and whispered in his ears in the voice that had warned him as a child that lions lived under his bed, was the certainty that people now found him boring. He’d take deep dark breaths of the night air, trying to reassure himself that the stifled yawn of his dinner companion was because of the wine or the magret de canard or the warmth in the Montreal restaurant, wrapped as they were in their sensible winter sweaters.

But still the night voice growled and warned of dangers ahead. Of impending disaster. Of telling tales too long, of an attention span too short, of seeing the whites of too many eyes. Of glances, fast and discreet, at watches. When can they reasonably leave him? Of eyes scanning the room, desperate for more stimulating company.

And so he’d allowed himself to be seduced by CC. Seduced and devoured so that the lion under the bed had become the lion in the bed. He’d begun to suspect this self-absorbed woman had finally finished absorbing herself, her husband and even that disaster of a daughter and was now busy absorbing him.

He’d already become cruel in her company. And he’d begun despising himself. But not quite as much as he despised her.

‘It’s a brilliant book,’ she said, ignoring him. ‘I mean, really. Who wouldn’t want this?’ She waved it in his face. ‘People’ll eat it up. There’re so many troubled people out there.’ She turned now and actually looked out their hotel room window at the building opposite, as though surveying her ‘people’. ‘I did this for them.’ Now she turned back to him, her eyes wide and sincere.

Does she believe it? he wondered.

He’d read the book, of course. Be Calm she’d called it, after the company she’d founded a few years ago, which was a laugh given the bundle of nerves she actually was. The anxious, nervous hands, constantly smoothing and straightening. The snippy responses, the impatience that spilled over into anger.

Calm was not a word anyone would apply to CC de Poitiers, despite her placid, frozen exterior.

She’d shopped the book around to all the publishers, beginning with the top publishing houses in New York and ending with Publications Réjean et Maison des cartes in St Polycarpe, a one-vache village along the highway between Montreal and Toronto.