“This doesn’t feel right, patron.” Isabelle Lacoste’s voice in his earpiece was anxious, verging on urgent.
Chief Inspector Gamache looked out over the roiling crowd, as the noise in the auditorium rose to a din.
A year ago a gathering of this sort would have not only been unthinkable, it would have been illegal. They’d have broken it up and gotten everyone tested. But thanks to the vaccines, they no longer had to worry about the spread of a deadly virus. They only had to worry about a riot.
Armand Gamache would never forget when the Premier of Québec, a personal friend, had called him with the news that they had a vaccine. The man was in tears, barely able to get the words out.
As he’d hung up, Armand had felt light-headed. He could feel a sort of hysteria welling up. It was like nothing he’d ever felt before. Not on this scale. It wasn’t just relief, it felt like a rebirth. Though not everyone, and not everything, would be resurrected.
When the pandemic was finally, officially, declared over, the little village of Three Pines where the Gamaches lived had gathered on the village green where the names of the dead had been read out. Loved ones had planted trees in the clearing above the chapel. It would be called, from that day on, the New Forest.
Then, to great ceremony, Myrna had unlocked her bookstore. And Sarah had opened the doors to her boulangerie. Monsieur Béliveau put the Ouvert sign in front of his general store, and a cheer rose up as Olivier and Gabri unlocked their bistro.
Banks of barbecues on the village green grilled burgers and hot dogs and steaks and a cedar-plank salmon. Sarah’s cakes and pies and butter tarts were placed on a long table while Billy Williams helped Clara Morrow lug over buckets of her homemade lemonade.
There were games for the children and, later, a bonfire and dancing on the village green.
Friends and neighbors hugged, and even kissed. Though it felt strange, and even slightly naughty. Some still preferred to bump elbows. Others continued to carry their masks. Like a rosary, or rabbit’s foot, or a St. Christopher medal, promising safe passage.
When Ruth coughed, everyone stepped away, though they probably would have anyway.
There were vestiges, of course. That dreadful time had a long tail.
And this event, in the former gymnasium at the University a few kilometers from Three Pines, was the sting in that tail.
Chief Inspector Gamache looked across the large space to the doors at the far end, where spectators were still streaming in.
“This should never have been allowed,” said Lacoste.
He didn’t disagree. In his opinion everything about this was madness. But it was happening. “Is everything under control?”
There was a pause before she replied. “Yes. But…”
From the wing of the stage, he scanned the room and found Inspector Lacoste off to the side. She was in plain clothes, with her Sûreté du Québec ID clearly visible on her jacket.
She’d climbed onto a riser, where she could better monitor the swelling crowd and direct agents to any trouble spots.
Though only in her early thirties, Isabelle Lacoste was one of his most experienced officers. She’d been in riots, shoot-outs, hostage takings, and standoffs. She’d faced terrorists and murderers. Been badly wounded, almost killed.
Very little, at this point, worried Isabelle Lacoste. But it was clear she was worried now.
Spectators were jostling for position, trying to get a better view of the stage. Confrontations were flaring up around the large room. Some pushing and shoving was not unusual in a crowd with divided loyalties. They’d handled worse, and his agents were trained, and quick to calm things down.
Even before Isabelle said it, he’d felt it himself. In his gut. In the tingle on his skin. In the pricking of his thumbs …
He could see that Isabelle was focused on an older man and a young woman in the middle of the hall. They were elbowing each other.
Nothing especially violent. Yet. And an agent was making his way through the crowd to calm them down.
So why was Lacoste so focused on these two especially?
Gamache continued to stare. And then he felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise.
The man and woman wore the same outsized button on their winter coats that declared, All will be well.
It was, he knew, a play on the word “well.” Since the pandemic, that word had taken on several meanings. Not all of them, in Gamache’s view, healthy.
He grew very still.
He’d been at many demonstrations and more than a few riots in his thirty-year career. He knew the flash points. The harbingers. And he knew how quickly things could spin way out of control.
But, but in all his years as a senior officer in the Sûreté du Québec he’d never seen this.
These two people, the man and woman, were on the same side. Those buttons declared their allegiance. And yet they’d turned their ire, normally reserved for the “other side,” on each other. Anger had become free-floating. Falling on the nearest neck.
The atmosphere in the auditorium was stifling. Though dressing appropriately for the extreme cold outside, people were now inside and overdressed in parkas, heavy boots, scarves, and mitts. They were pulling off their woolen tuques and shoving them into pockets, leaving normally well-groomed people with their hair standing on end, as though they’d had either a great fright or a spectacularly good idea.
Standing cheek by jowl, the crowd was overheating physically as well as emotionally. Chief Inspector Gamache could almost smell the frayed nerve ends frying.
He looked in frustration at the tall windows behind Lacoste. They’d long since been painted shut, and there was no way to open them and bring in crisp fresh air. They’d tried.
The Chief Inspector’s practiced eye continued to move over the crowd. Taking in things seen and unseen. It hadn’t yet, he felt, reached the boiling point, the tipping point. His job, as the senior officer, was to make sure it didn’t.
If it came close, he’d stop it. But he knew that also had its risks. Never mind the moral issue of stopping a gathering that had every legal right to be held, there was, foremost in his mind, the issue of public safety.
Having his agents move in and shut this event down could ignite the very violence he was trying to avoid.
Managing a crowd so it didn’t turn into a mob wasn’t science. Strategies could be taught; he himself had instructed recruits at the Sûreté Academy on managing large, potentially volatile, events. But finally it came down to judgment. And discipline.
Officers had to maintain control of the crowd, but also of themselves. Once, as a cadet, Gamache had seen trained officers at a demonstration panic, break ranks, and begin beating fellow citizens.
It was horrific. Sickening.
It had never happened under his command, but Gamache suspected that, given the right circumstances, it could. The madness of crowds was a terrible thing to see. The madness of police with clubs and guns was even worse.
Now, one by one, he asked his senior officers for their reports. His own voice calm and authoritative.
“Inspector Lacoste, what’s your read?” he spoke into his headset.
There was a brief pause as she weighed her answer. “Our people are on top of things. I think at this point it’s riskier to stop it than to let it go on.”
“Merci,” said Gamache. “Inspector Beauvoir, how are things outside?”
He was always formal when speaking on an open frequency, preferring to use their ranks rather than just their names.
Despite his protests, Inspector Jean-Guy Beauvoir had been assigned, in his view banished, to the entrance.
In his late thirties, Beauvoir was slender, fit, though beginning to flesh out a bit. He shared second-in-command duties with Isabelle Lacoste, and also happened to be Gamache’s son-in-law.
“We’re going to exceed capacity, patron,” he reported from on top of the overturned crate he was standing on.
Jean-Guy held his gloved hand up to his eyes to cut out the glare from the sun bouncing off the snow. Those still in line were stomping their feet, rubbing their mitts to keep the blood circulating, and staring at him, as though Beauvoir were personally responsible for winter.
“I’d say there are a hundred and fifty, maybe hundred and eighty still to go. They’re getting pretty antsy. Some pushing, but no actual fights yet.”
“How many are in now?” Gamache asked.
“We’re at four hundred and seventy.”
“You know the cutoff. What’s likely to happen when you reach it?”
“Hard to tell. There’re some kids here, families. Though why anyone would bring a child to this…”
There were children in the auditorium now. Gamache had instructed his people to make them the priority, should the worst happen.
That was the nightmare, of course. People crushing the life out of others in a mad rush to get into, or out of, a place should anything happen. And the children were the most vulnerable.
Copyright © 2021 by Three Pines Creations, Inc.
Excerpt from “Waiting” from Morning in the Burned House: New Poems by Margaret Atwood. Copyright © 1995 by Margaret Atwood