Asylum by Jeannette De Beauvoir is a thriller set in Montreal narrated by the city's Director of Public Relations as a series of murders unfold (available March 10, 2015).
Martine LeDuc is the director of PR for the mayor's office in Montreal. When four women are found brutally murdered and shockingly posed on park benches throughout the city over several months, Martine's boss fears a PR disaster for the still busy tourist season, and Martine is now also tasked with acting as liaison between the mayor and the police department. The women were of varying ages, backgrounds and bodytypes and seemed to have nothing in common. Yet the macabre presentation of their bodies hints at a connection. Martine is paired with a young detective, Julian Fletcher, and together they dig deep into the city's and the country's past, only to uncover a dark secret dating back to the 1950s, when orphanages in Montreal and elsewhere were converted to asylums in order to gain more funding. The children were subjected to horrific experiments such as lobotomies, electroshock therapy, and psychotropic medication, and many of them died in the process. The survivors were supposedly compensated for their trauma by the government and the cases seem to have been settled. So who is bearing a grudge now, and why did these four women have to die?
Not until Martine finds herself imprisoned in the terrifying steam tunnels underneath the old asylum does she put the pieces together. And it is almost too late for her…
The woman sitting in the backseat shivered and drew the child closer to her side. But it was a warm morning, promising summer.
“Just over there,” said the man sitting next to the driver, the man wearing the clerical collar. “Pull over here; the gate’s just ahead.”
The car shuddered to a stop and for a moment no one inside moved. The sun was just about to come up, the eastern sky behind them streaked with bits of pink cotton candy; but inside the taxi the dark of night lingered.
The woman spoke to the child. “You have your bag?”
“Yes, maman.” Large eyes looked up at her, round with fear. The little girl had been awakened and made to dress in the dead of night. “I don’t understand. Why do I have to, maman? I don’t want to go!”
The woman blinked back the tears suddenly flooding her eyes. “You have to,” she said, her voice unsteady. She took a deep breath. “You have to go. This is your new home, mon chou. I can’t come with you.”
“But I don’t want a new home! I want to stay with you! No!”
The priest in the front seat turned and looked back at them. “It’s time,” he said unnecessarily.
“No,” the little girl said again, but this time she said it without hope.
The woman opened the door and got out, extending her hand to the child, who followed obediently. A tall wooden green-painted door loomed ahead of them. “You have to go,” the woman said again, looking not at the child but at the door.
The girl cried out, something incomprehensible, and the woman turned and sank to her knees so that their eyes were level. She dashed at the tears and forced herself to smile. “My dearest love. You must. It is for the best, it truly is.” She put her arms around the child and pulled her close. “Don’t forget me. Don’t forget that your maman loves you.”
“I love you, too, maman.” Her voice was trembling, heavy already with loss.
The woman didn’t relinquish her hold. “Gabrielle, je t’aime…” Her words were muffled against the child’s brown hair.
There was the sound of the car door opening and the priest’s footsteps crunched across the gravel toward them. “You must let her go now,” he said to the woman, not ungently. He put his hands on her arms and pulled her back from the child; she stumbled against him as she stood up. “It’s for her sake,” the priest said. “They’ll take good care of her. We’ve been over this, Lucienne. It’s the best thing you can do for her.”
“Yes,” the woman said again, but there was nothing in her voice but pain.
The priest took the child’s hand and pulled the chain beside the door; from somewhere inside came the sound of a bell pealing. A few moments later the door opened and a nun stood framed in it. “Good morning, Sister,” said the priest.
Her eyes took in the woman, standing shivering by the car; the priest; and finally the little girl. “Yes?”
“This is Gabrielle Roy, Sister,” the priest said. “I’ve written Mother Superior about her.”
The nun nodded and opened the door wider as the priest transferred the child’s grip from his own hand to hers. “Come along, then, little one,” she said.
The girl looked back. “Maman?”
The woman stood still, sobbing, her hands to her face. The priest turned and put his arm around her shoulders, pulling her away, steering her back to the waiting taxi.
Behind them, the green door closed with a click.
“She’s safe now,” the priest said. “You did the right thing, Lucienne. She couldn’t have lived in the village. The children there would have tormented her. She’s safe now.”
“Yes,” the woman said again, but her heart was as empty as the clear bright sky.
It was Ivan who started it all.
My husband is an avid consumer of the morning news, but does not ascribe to the time-honored spousal mealtime practice of hiding behind a newspaper; he has his electronic tablet at the breakfast table, where he scans news in two languages: the Montréal Gazette, the Globe and Mail, and, on occasion, CNN, while scarfing down rolls and orange juice. Me, I’m not ready to face any of these options—morning is not exactly my finest hour—and so I generally sip coffee and just listen to his running commentary.
“They’ve found another body,” Ivan said that Friday morning, his voice somber.
I looked up from my café au lait. “Another woman?”
He nodded. “On another park bench, over on the Plateau,” he said.
I didn’t have to ask what he was referring to. Montréal had been experiencing a spate of apparently random killings that summer—three, to be exact—that were now spilling into fall with number four. The police, the news outlets assured us, were following leads. In the meantime, women all over the city were advised to take precautions: not to take the bus or Métro alone, to purchase extra locks for apartments and lofts, to ask service people for identification.
I leaned so I could read over Ivan’s shoulder. One Danielle Leroux, thirty-four, apparently hadn’t taken enough of those advertised precautions.
I shuddered and put down my coffee. “I should get ready for work,” I said. But I didn’t move, fixed in the moment, fixed to the spot. It was as though Danielle Leroux’s tragedy had, for a passing shivering instant, become my own.
And then the moment was over and I met Ivan’s quizzical dark eyes. I shrugged. “It just sucks,” I said, using one of the many English-language colloquialisms at which I have become so proficient since marrying Ivan, an Anglophone living in a predominantly Francophone city.
He nodded. “You’re being careful, right, Martine?” No husband likes to hear about other women being murdered, especially this close to home.
I stood up from the table and carried my bowl to the sink. The ghost of Danielle’s presence paused, lingered, and then disappeared, a bright shimmer in the air. “I’m being careful.”
Ivan got up and stood behind me, slipping his arms easily around my waist. “It’s just,” he said, “that I’ve gotten used to you. I’d hate to have you disappear, too.”
I twisted around so I was facing him, our bodies still touching. “Used to me? That’s the best you can do?”
Ivan smiled, pulling me closer to him. “We Russians,” he said softly, his lips millimeters from mine, “are the masters of understatement.” And then he kissed me.
Ivan, it has to be noted, consistently makes something of a show of his Russian heritage; but the truth is that it was his great-grandparents, aristocrats, who fled St. Petersburg for Paris a week before the October Revolution, not Ivan himself. To the best of my knowledge, no one in his family has ever gone back. His father was raised in France and spoke some Russian at home; but my father-in-law left Paris for the United States right after earning a degree at the Sorbonne, to take a post teaching at MIT, and Ivan’s own accent reflects the academic corridors of Boston far more than it does the tea rooms of Moscow.
Which doesn’t keep him, of course, from appropriating any Russian attribute that he cares to claim when the occasion arises.
I held him for a moment, tightly, then released the pressure in my arms. Ivan immediately let go and turned back to the table, folding his tall body back into the chair. “So what’s on your plate for today?” he asked, his voice casual, an undercurrent of the kiss we’d just shared still running through it.
I cleared my throat and turned back to the sink. “Meeting with the mayor et compagnie at ten,” I said, briefly, glancing at the clock. “The usual check-in to make sure that the world still thinks well of our fair city.” My job is to make sure that it does; my title is directrice de publicité—publicity director—for the city of Montréal, so I’m responsible, in an odd way, for everything from street performers to press releases. Anything that can make Montréal look good—or bad—passes across my desk at one time or another.
I alternately adore and detest what I do; but one thing I can say for sure: it’s never dull.
“Sounds like a summons to me,” Ivan remarked, taking the last swallow of his espresso. The beep of his e-mail sounded and he frowned down at the tablet display.
“I hope not.” But he was probably correct. The mayor only noticed my existence when something was going wrong. And another murder certainly qualified as being very wrong indeed. Calling in the troops in order to spread the blame among them was pretty much his style.
Ivan was scanning e-mails. He was already moving away from me, his mind skimming across the river to the casino and its own set of myriad unique problems. Ivan is the director of poker operations for the Montréal Casino and, in some ways, his job is not unlike mine. Making sure that people are happy, that operations are running smoothly, that those who come to our fair city to play are playing both well and fair.
Every day is a special day for those of us whose professions are to provide fun and frolic to others.
I knew better than to interrupt. Instead, I ducked into my own study and assembled the papers and accoutrements I’d need for my day, replaced the ballet slippers I wore at home with the heels I was wearing to the office. In the hallway I stopped for a last check in the mirror, putting on my lipstick, smoothing my often-rebellious thick black hair, adjusting the scarf around my neck. By the time I was ready, Ivan was wearing his raincoat, preparing to leave through the back door to pick up our Volvo in the mews where we kept it garaged. “Gotta run, love.”
“D’accord.” I leaned into him for our ritual good-bye kiss. We had agreed, when we first were married, that we’d never part without one, and we were pretty good about keeping the commitment. It was Ivan’s idea: his own first marriage had died from lack of—what? Oxygen? Rituals? Passion? Whatever it was, he was going to make sure it didn’t happen a second time. “Be good, be happy.”
“Be good, be happy,” I echoed, and he was gone.
I managed to snag a seat on the Métro and peered over the shoulder of my neighbor, reading the Gazette’s French-language version of the news about the new murder. There wasn’t much more than what Ivan had shared with me. This victim was young, pretty. Too young, too pretty. I gave myself a mental shake as I got off the train. Starting the day depressed didn’t bode very well for the rest of it.
I work out of City Hall, down near the port, in what’s called the “old city,” le Vieux-Montréal, a warren of twisting cobblestone streets and ancient secrets, art galleries and tourist attractions.
Every time I’m down here—which is, of course, every day—I’m convinced that it’s the prettiest section of Montréal, but in reality I’m deeply and passionately in love with the whole city. Every quartier has its charms: Chinatown, the Plateau, Little Italy, Gay Village, the mountain itself with the city spreading up its slopes to the Oratory at almost eight hundred feet, even the chrome-and-glass and massage parlors of the official downtown area.
I love that we have municipal bicycles to grab and use at regular intervals, that there are bike lanes crisscrossing the city, that we take being green to heart. I love that we’re all bilingual, often in the same sentence, shopkeepers’ greetings usually consisting of “ bonjour, hello.” I love all the neighborhoods, with their odd and twisting outside staircases and their brightly painted doors and window boxes, the heat of Montréal’s summers and the cursed snowbanks of its winters.
But maybe what I do love best of all is this small section of my city, this place where I work, the original Iroquois village by the life-giving river, once called Hochelaga and then Ville-Sainte-Marie when the French moved in … where now tourists are taken about in calèches, the clopping of the horses’ hooves echoing off the buildings in the narrow streets, where Rollerbladers skim along the waterfront, and museums guard the past and welcome the future.
I flipped my ID badge to the security guard in the lobby of the (even I have to admit) extremely impressive hôtel de ville and took the elevator up to the fourth floor. My administrative assistant, Chantal, looked up from her computer screen as I came in. “Did you see the news?”
“I did,” I agreed grimly. “Any messages?”
“You know there are,” she said, handing me the stack of pink slips. “And Janine from the mayor’s office called twice to remind you about the meeting this morning.”
“As if I could forget.” I sighed and hooked my foot around the door, closing it behind me, my hands full. Even a moment of solitude would help before facing the politicos for whom I worked.
My office has a decent view of the old city, with the coveted south-facing orientation that enables me to see the river and the beautiful island called the Île des Soeurs, the nuns’ island; if I went right up to the window and peered in the right direction, I could make out the casino. Sometimes, when I was feeling lonely or romantic, I’d go and look over there and whisper erotic messages to Ivan. He’s never given any indication that he received any of them. Apparently my extrasensory communication skills are a little subpar.
My desk holds the usual paraphernalia—art deco lamp, computer, framed family photographs. Pictures of Ivan and me summering in Nova Scotia, laughing in each other’s arms. A serious picture of him, alone, with the Jacques Cartier bridge in the background. And pictures of Lukas and Claudia, Ivan’s kids: on the rides at la Ronde, the permanent amusement park on the Île Sainte-Hélène that was now part of the Six Flags franchise; playing with sparklers on our rooftop terrace; eating crêpes down at the Old Port. Family stuff.
The buzzer on the desk sounded. “The mayor is ready,” said Chantal’s disembodied voice.
And on that happy note, it was time to go.
I suppose that there had been a life sometime before the orphanage, but I could never really remember it—not really, not as a whole. There were only scraps left, understanding a colloquial expression I couldn’t remember having heard before, a tune that wouldn’t get out of my head, a sense of something almost familiar lurking in my peripheral vision that disappeared as soon as I turned my head to look at it.
They say that you don’t remember anything before you’re four or five years old, but there are memories, I know there are, they just lack the clarity and specificity of more recent ones.
But there had been a time when I wasn’t at the orphanage. There had been a life. It was a small truth, but it was my only one. I had had a life, before.
And I knew that I was lucky in my truth. Some of the others, they’d been left with the sisters, the bonnes soeurs, as soon as they were born, baskets on the doorstep. No time for memories there.
I even knew my mother. At least for a while. Until she got married, and didn’t come to visit anymore, drawing with her absence a line plainly and firmly beneath who she’d been, so that she could become who she needed to be.
Later, much later, I recognized how brave that was, her coming to visit me, being willing to see me at all. The sisters never tried to hide their disgust at—and contempt for—the moral lapse that had resulted in my conception, and I’m sure they made her continued presence in my life very difficult.
At the time, of course, all I knew was that I wanted her to return—but only so that she could take me away. Every time she came, I begged her to take me with her; I pleaded, crying, and she never did. I think—or maybe it’s just wishful thinking on my part, maybe I made this up so I could feel better, feel loved—that her plan was to marry someone who would understand. Someone who could come with her to the orphanage and pluck me out of the long dormitory room under the eaves and take me back to Verchères, the village upriver from Montréal in the Montrégie district where I had apparently been born. He would adopt me; we could be a family together.
But there were few enough men willing to marry a fallen woman, and fewer still eager to raise her illegitimate child; after she married, my mother never came again.
I waited for her, of course; every time I could get to a window, I watched for her, waiting for my name to be called to the front parlor, disbelieving that she would abandon me. There had to be some sort of mistake. She would come again one day.
I don’t know that I ever really believed she wouldn’t.
I kept going back. For months, I kept going back, lurking by windows, hearing car doors slam and running with wings on my feet to see who had come. One of these days, it would be her; I was sure of it. One of these days she could come for me.
I couldn’t believe that I was something she needed to hide.
I should be grateful, I suppose, that she’d kept me away from the nuns for as long as she had. As long as she’d been able. Maybe she knew, in her heart of hearts, the lie behind the cloister door, that the bonnes soeurs —the “good sisters”—weren’t actually all that bonne.
Maybe she knew the truth behind that lie, that despite what parents and guardians were told in the polished front parlors, the children left with the nuns weren’t ever going to be put up for adoption, or educated, or really cared for at all.
It sounds like neglect, doesn’t it, when I write it like that? Like their sin (and trust me when I say that sin there was) was a sin of omission, not of commission. But not loving us, not caring for us—that was really only the beginning.
The rest was so very much worse.
Copyright © 2015 Jeannette De Beauvoir.
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Jeannette De Beauvoir is an award-winning author, novelist, and poet whose work has been translated into 12 languages and has appeared in 15 countries. She explores personal and moral questions through historical fiction, mysteries, and mainstream fiction. Home is an old sea captain's house on the tip of Cape Cod, although she spends some part of every year in Montréal and in Great Britain.