The Girl in red - Brenda Lee O’Ryan - ebook
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A cold case comes up by a young girl who speaks with the dead people.Marine Thibeau has a strange new pupil in her class. A chubby and timid little girl of Irish descent, Gwendolyne communicates with a teenager who’s been dead for twenty years!Realizing that her pupil is ostracized because of her paranormal powers, the teacher takes the girl under her wing, defends her against bullies and believes in her frightening psychic premonitions. But how to reveal to the authorities that a series of murders, all foreseen by Gwendolyne, are very real and that they originate in the same long-forgotten cold case?Gendarme Thomas Moreau, assisted by the teacher, by the girl with second sight and by a weird bird watcher, embarks in an investigation that involves victims scattered in various regions of France. However, the associates must act quickly to get ahead of the killer who is about to strike for the fourth time and to murder the last man involved in the old and terrible unsolved case.Discover this panting thriller at the frontiers of paranormal.EXTRACTThere was, however, one notable exception. One girl seemed to be excluded from these talkative little coteries. As a result, the child wandered around the periphery of the groups, perhaps gleaning a word here and there in the conversations, but was never allowed to participate. Or else she simply leaned against the huge plane tree in the center of the yard, or against the chain-linked fence, and stared with envy at the animated circles of youngsters who sometimes shrieked with laughter at some remark. To start with, most of her classmates had popular and contemporary Christian names such as Louane, Manon, Lola, Lina or Chloé. The girl’s admittedly beautiful but ancient Celtic first name, Gwendolyne, was considered old fashioned and funny. Unfortunately, in these days of styles and rigid uniformity among children and adolescents, her long mass of tightly curled carrotred hair, her very round and freckled face and her chubbiness, added to her out-dated clothes, ostracized her instantly; her peers also laughed at her bulky homemade sweaters and her old scuffed shoes. Discreetly, Marine approached one of the chattiest groups in the schoolyard. Among the laughing friends, she had spotted one of her best students.ABOUT THE AUTHORLike many other Anglo-Saxon children, Brenda Lee O'Ryan was brought up on stories of ghosts that rattle their chains and haunt Scottish castles, of ladies in white, holding high a lamp, who roam the corridors of London homes and foretell imminent deaths, and of malicious leprechauns, those elves of the Irish forests, who hide the shoes of disobedient children during moonless nights. As a teenager, she turned to the crime novels of elderly English ladies in which the investigations were led by private detectives, sometimes of noble birth, stylishly dressed with or without bowler hats, who always found the assassin before the often incompetent police officers in frumpy clothes. Once an adult, she decided to write more contemporary whodunits that would combine the supernatural element that used to make her shiver as a child, with her own type of investigator – a sort of young, attractive and modern Miss Marple, in love with a, no less attractive, French police officer. Brenda Lee O’Ryan (the pen name of a well known published author) spent a great deal of her life in the United States. She learned to speak French in Quebec and loved France, which she discovered during her numerous trips to Europe. One day, she decided to set down her suitcases for good. Today she lives in French Catalonia, on the Mediterranean coast, near Perpignan.

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Couverture

Page de titre

To the dear friends, both American and French, who believed in me and were always there, with their aid and moral support.

“How often have I told you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle,

The Girl in red

Well, now I know. I’ll never be able to go back home! But, I’d been happy to go and meet that boy in secret. He made me promise not to tell a soul, coz I only just turned fifteen and he was already past eighteen. He said that the other boys, especially those in my class, if they knew about our date, they’d be spitting mad and sooooo jealous! It was better not to mention it. He said he wanted me all to himself. I’d been glad about that part; coz it must have meant he loved me. Anyway, I loved him and that was for sure! Trouble is, once I got there, things went wrong. Very wrong! So I tried to run away. Only, somebody pushed me. I don’t remember who. Then, like in the movies when they make the picture go into slomo, I felt myself falling, slowly, so slowly. And then I died. Afterwards, the birds came and ate me. And that’s why I can never go home, ever again.

As she’d been doing every evening after dinner for over a year now, Mademoiselle Marine Thibeau was correcting papers. She was a newly appointed primary school teacher. In fact, according to the recently modified French administrative jargon (supposedly more status enhancing) she was now a “professor of grade schools.” The young woman found this title pompous. Ridiculous, actually. What did the new job description change? Not her salary, unfortunately! Her young nine and ten-year-old students, who in the past had affectionately called her “teacher,” Maîtresse or Mademoiselle, were now meant to address her as “professor.” They hardly ever did and she never corrected them!

The papers she was grading, for the most part embellished with her comments or annotations in red ink, formed well-organized piles on the dining room table where she worked. The silence in the room was periodically broken by the “hmpffs” “awwws” or “bfffs” which involuntarily escaped her lips. The sight of “pearls” of wisdom, naïve gifts candidly offered by some of her pupils and with which they repeatedly adorned their exercises, prompted her murmurs of surprise or annoyance. Add to their errors or misconceptions the fact that their papers were often stained – with God only knew what candy or jam – the task was sometimes trying on her nerves. She had to remember their age and be patient. However, the memorable “The twelve labours of Herkules were laborius and were also done by Ulisses” was too much!

— Aw, for God’s sake! I’ll bet you that Leo is doing it on purpose! He knows this is only my second year teaching a class and he’s testing me; he wants to see just how far he can go!

The comment had been thrown up in the air and was probably not directed at Madame Meunier, but the woman sitting across the table from Marine, took it as an invitation to exchange experiences. She had respected her companion’s silence up until now, concentrating on her own activity, a particularly arduous crossword puzzle.

— These kids do come up with the strangest things, don’t they? Yesterday, in the catechism class I teach, I heard a good one!

Marine had picked up a new paper, nodding her head as she read so as to assure her landlady that she was listening. Louise Meunier eagerly continued.

— I was talking to them about Easter, most particularly about the Resurrection, and I asked them: “In your opinion, what exactly is the Resurrection of Christ?” Well, would you believe it, one of them answered: “It’s the second season, the return of Jesus.”

— A bit like The Return of the Jedi, murmured her lodger without raising her eyes.

— The what?

Marine shook her head, as though to say that the remark was of no importance, and she continued correcting. Suddenly, with a disgruntled cry of dismay, she boldly underlined, in red, a sentence that would have made Homer shudder: “Penelope would stay home and knit sweaters while she waited for Ulysses to return from his business trips.”

The next day, while observing her pupils strolling around the yard during recess, she had the same thought that generations of teachers had had before her: “Ten year old kids don’t play the same games anymore!” Nowadays, no more hopscotch, blind man’s bluff or tag. Long gone, those old games! You might perhaps still see two or three of the younger boys playing marbles against the wall, or a couple of little girls making elastic bracelets or jumping rope but, generally, the majority of the children gathered in small groups to compare and exchange secrets about who loved whom. Sometimes they discussed the latest “battles” on the TV show The Voice Kids, or they exchanged views on Justin Bieber’s latest outrageous escapades.

There was, however, one notable exception. One girl seemed to be excluded from these talkative little coteries. As a result, the child wandered around the periphery of the groups, perhaps gleaning a word here and there in the conversations, but was never allowed to participate. Or else she simply leaned against the huge plane tree in the center of the yard, or against the chain-linked fence, and stared with envy at the animated circles of youngsters who sometimes shrieked with laughter at some remark. To start with, most of her classmates had popular and contemporary Christian names such as Louane, Manon, Lola, Lina or Chloé. The girl’s admittedly beautiful but ancient Celtic first name, Gwendolyne, was considered old fashioned and funny. Unfortunately, in these days of styles and rigid uniformity among children and adolescents, her long mass of tightly curled carrotred hair, her very round and freckled face and her chubbiness, added to her out-dated clothes, ostracized her instantly; her peers also laughed at her bulky homemade sweaters and her old scuffed shoes. Discreetly, Marine approached one of the chattiest groups in the schoolyard. Among the laughing friends, she had spotted one of her best students.

— Tell me, Lisa, why doesn’t Gwendolyn ever take part in your conversations?

— The witch? Well, we don’t let her. She scares us with stories of her weird dreams.

Marine shot her a stern look.

— Witch? I don’t ever again want to hear such a nasty word, Lisa!

Embarrassed by her slip of the tongue, the youngster blushed in confusion.

— I’m sorry, Mademoiselle. You’re right it’s not nice. It just came out. Actually, it’s one of the boys who first started calling her that when she told him to be careful coz he was going to fall down the stairs. The next day, he really did fall, so he accused her of putting a spell on him. She said that she’d had a dream and seen the accident coming. She’d only wanted to warn him.

— Did she ever have other, let’s say, premonitions?

— Oh, sure! Lots! One day, she came up to Cathy and wanted to hug and kiss her. I knew that was a real bad idea coz Cathy hates her. “Why d’you want to kiss me for, you stupid thing?” Cathy asked her. Gwendolyne said “It’s because I feel so sorry about what’s going to happen to you tomorrow.” Well, the next day, sure enough, Cathy’s new puppy ran out in the road and got hit by a car. So now you see why we avoid her! Like I said, she scares us.

— All right, Lisa. You can go back and join your friends but, from now on, it’d be nice if you’d all try to include Gwendolyne in your games. Look at her, she’s always alone and she looks so sad.

The bell rang shortly thereafter. Recess was over and the pupils ran back in noisily. In spite of the request made to Lisa, they ignored Gwendolyne who lagged behind, solitary, as usual. “Without a doubt,” thought the young teacher, “kids can be pretty darn cruel!” She decided she would probe into this business of “scary dreams” and try to find out more about this very lonely and rejected child.

Marine had arrived in Le Caylar the previous September to start work in the village school, her first teaching post. Following the advice of the mayor, she had immediately rented a room in Louise Meunier’s house. The arrangement, which was to be temporary until Marine found herself an efficiency apartment, had been tacitly extended for an undetermined period; both parties being perfectly satisfied with the present situation. The landlady’s home was located near the school, and her exuberant flower garden and large veranda with comfortable armchairs provided pleasant havens of peace and quiet after hectic days spent in the classroom. Louise was willing to share her kitchen and living room with the young boarder. The spacious bedroom with its en suite bathroom was well lit, pleasantly furnished and offered a splendid view of le roc Castel, the impressive ruin that dominated the small town. The landlady, a spry widow in her sixties, was discreet, friendly, and in obvious need of company. Marine was single and had no family. Rapidly, in spite of their age difference, bonds of friendship had formed between the two women. Louise had always lived in Le Caylar; she knew every resident, including those living in the outskirts. Understandably, Marine turned to her to begin her informal investigation. That evening, during the dinner they now always shared, she served her friend before putting down the hot casserole and taking her seat.

— Do you know little Gwendolyne Sezneg, by any chance?

— The eldest of that Breton couple? Yes, I had the poor child in catechism. Her parents are very strict Catholics and have quite a flock of children!

— Why do you say “the poor child”?

— Oh, for several reasons, I suppose. First of all, the girl is strange. Because of that, she’s necessarily a loner who’s never had girlfriends. I always felt sorry for her. And yet she’s a capable little kid. No dimwit, far from it! And yet, the other children always made fun of her, of her plumpness, her kinky red hair and her homemade sweaters. They teased her especially about her bright green eyes. You remember the old nursery rhyme… “Blue eyes go to heaven, black ones go ring God’s bell, brown eyes go to paradise, but green ones go to hell!” I used to catch them at it, muttering that awful saying to her in the back of the class.

Marine remembered the cruel old adage. She nodded, reached over, and helped herself to the zucchini au gratin she had just concocted. Every other day it was her turn to prepare the evening meal.

— You also described her as strange. Why is that?

Louise put down her fork and thought for a moment before answering.

— Well, among other things that come to mind, let’s say an object went missing during my class, like my notebook or my key ring. That child would go straight to the spot and find it immediately! She’d turn her head and look to see who was arriving, seconds before the doorbell even rang! Once, she announced that so and so was going to become seriously ill. The next day we all learnt that the person in question had suddenly been hospitalized!

— One of my pupils used the term “scary dreams.”

— Yes, that’s right! In the beginning, she’d tell us about her strange premonitions and about the voices who sometimes spoke to her. The other kids made such fun of her that from then on she hardly ever spoke another word!

***

For Marine, this second school year was beginning under more favorable auspices than the first. The stress and apprehension she had felt on arriving, the preceding September, had disappeared. She had adapted to the school. She now felt at home in the faculty room and had a good rapport with her fellow professors, enough to approach one of them and to ask her about the poor little “witch.”

— Tell me, Laura, you had the Sezneg girl in your class last year, didn’t you?

— Ah, Gwendolyne, the sad and chubby redhead with the kinky hair! Yes, I did. This year I have her brother Pierrick. And, unless I’m mistaken, there are at least three younger brothers and sisters coming along.

— What did you think of her?

— She was obviously stressed, full of hang-ups. About being overweight, I imagine. Nice little kid, poor thing, but unpopular. She made good grades for her written work but would never willingly participate in oral exercises. Two or three times during the school year she had dizzy spells. Never quite passed out, but was on the verge. Low blood pressure or sugar count… Who knows? I alerted the principal at the time. I had also noticed that the other pupils teased her a lot. You know how they can be when they target someone! I tried to make her react when they laughed at her. I wanted her to defend herself against certain bullies. She’d just look at me sadly, with those big green eyes of hers, and lower her head without answering. Then the kids laughed even harder. So, I stopped calling on her in class. I figured it was best not to draw attention to the child. Why do you ask? Are you having problems with her?

— No, I’m not. But I’m afraid that her own problems are escalating. Her classmates now call her “the witch” and they avoid her completely. Supposedly, she has premonitions or “dreams” that scare them.

Laura frowned and gathered up a few folders.

— Don’t you think she may have made that up so that they’d leave her alone? Or, maybe, invented these dreams of hers so as to attract attention and become “interesting” in their eyes?

— Who can tell? All I know is that she is pale and has gray smudges under her eyes. She looks exhausted. Something is distressing her but she doesn’t say anything. I’m going to keep her after class and try to make her talk. Maybe, without other kids around, she’ll have the courage to speak up and tell me what’s wrong.

The bell rang and signaled that classes were about to begin. The two colleagues parted, grabbed their briefcases and made their way in the packed corridors, accompanied by the habitual raucous but cheerful cacophony.

From time to time during the morning, Marine discreetly glanced at Gwendolyne. The pupil never raised her hand; as a rule, she’d only answer questions when directly addressed. The teacher noticed that, from her desk, the youngster never left off staring at her as she walked to and fro in front of the board. In the yard at recess, the young woman never approached the little redhead, but she felt those green eyes boring into her back. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see that the girl constantly observed her with what seemed to be a pleading look.

At noon, the bell rang again and the pupils jostled their way out, almost stampeding in an effort to hurriedly reach the cafeteria. The explanation was simple enough. Once a week there were French fries on the menu and today was the blessed day! The last one out, as usual, Gwendolyne ambled dejectedly towards the door. Marine called out to her:

— Wait a second, Gwen. I’d like to speak with you.

She leaned under her desk and brought out a small backpack.

— Look, I’ve brought chips, ham sandwiches, fruit and chocolate milk. We’re going to sit down here together, without your classmates around, and chat a bit while we eat. I’ve an idea that something is bothering you that you’d like to tell me about in private.

The girl heaved a great sigh of relief and, for the first time ever, a timid smile lit up her freckled face.

— I’ve been waiting so long for this moment, Maîtresse… though the voice had always said I wasn’t to worry coz you’d eventually show up and help me!

Marine shuddered and felt goose bumps crop up on her arms. Nevertheless, she retained her composure and invited the youngster to sit down at one of the desks. She, herself, sat next to her and began to unpack the lunch. The little girl, now completely at ease, contemplated her teacher with something that, curiously enough, looked like adoration! Marine smiled and in a soft voice, trembling with emotion, she gently spoke to her pupil.

— Apparently, you sometimes hear somebody’s voice in your head, right, Gwenny? This same voice told you that the puppy would get run over and that the boy would fall down the stairs, is that it? Did it also tell you where Madame Meunier’s keys had been mislaid?

Gwendolyne sighed again in relief, as though she had at last reached the end of a long road. With no sign of embarrassment, she answered.

— Yes. But, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Actually, I have what I call big dreams and little dreams. With the boy and the puppy or even with Madame’s keys, I don’t hear the voice. Those are just things that I know. I have little dreams; I see pictures in my mind. Like, I see where lost objects can be found and what accidents are going to take place. That’s been happening to me since I was little. Mom always told me I get that from my grandmother Bridey.

The child casually picked up a sandwich, and started to unwrap it, before resuming her explanation. Her teacher took care not to interrupt her.

— She would help people, my Granny. She’d find what they’d lost. Or she’d warn them about something bad that would happen to them. Just like her, I have these little dreams. But then one day, I started having my big dreams. Those are very different! First of all, when they start, I get sick. I get a bad headache; I feel like throwing up, I get dizzy spells… or worse! Once, I even passed out. That’s how I know the voice is going to speak to me or to show me something. It’s always the same voice. It’s the voice of a very pretty girl with long blond hair. She’s been coming to me for a long time now. She tells me that she’s so tired and that she desperately wants to rest. Then she says that a nice teacher is going to come… you actually! And that you and I will both help her.

Marine could feel the short hairs rise in the back of her neck. She had never been confronted by psychic phenomena, and immediately thought of a new friend, here in the village, who was very interested in this type of encounter. She couldn’t wait to tell her about this astonishing conversation. Meanwhile, most importantly, she had to reassure the little girl.

— You say that, long before you, your grandmother also had… visions? Do you think your mother might agree to come here and talk to me about that? I’d also like to know more about your own, uh, dreams. I’d like to help, if I may.

— Oh, Mom will come and see you all right. But she won’t be able to tell you much more about it. Apparently, I was born with “the veil” over my face, whatever that means, and God is the one who gave me this gift, same as he did for my grandmother. As far as the little dreams go, I’m willing to believe that. But for the big dreams it’s not at all the same. Nobody ever talked to Granny like the big girl talks to me. In fact, I think she’s dead, that pretty girl. I think she was murdered and she wants you and me to find out who killed her!

***

Madame Sezneg arrived at the end of the day; the bell was still ringing when she showed up at the classroom door, out of breath. This harassed mother of five was tall and stylishly thin. In spite of her workload, she appeared smilingly serene, a very beautiful woman. Her magnificent shoulder length hair, more wavy than curly, was a russet copper color with golden highlights. It was nothing like the orangey tones that were the norm for most other redheads, including her eldest daughter. Her offspring spotted her and ran into her open arms for a kiss. Marine rose to greet her and then turned to the little girl.

— Gwen, please go wait for us in the library, would you? I’d like to speak with your mother. We’ll go and join you there in a few minutes.

The youngster picked up her school bag and sauntered out happily enough, waving to them as she went.

— Thank you for coming so soon. Please sit down, Madame.

The teacher indicated her own chair. She, herself, sat on a corner of the large desk.

— As I indicated on the telephone, I’d like to talk to you about your daughter’s strange visions. We’ve reached the point where the other pupils are frightened of her. They call her “the witch” and they refuse to associate with her. According to Gwen, her grandmother also found lost objects and could predict events.

— What my daughter says is true. My mother’s Irish family settled in Brittany when she was a child. Years later, she met my father, a Breton that she ended up marrying. My husband’s parents are Bretons too. We’re all Celts, you see. With Gaël and the children, we came to live here several years ago because of his work. To get back to my mother, she had what is called second sight. It’s a gift God often gives to the Celts, you know!

At this point, the woman lowered her head and made a quick sign of the cross, before continuing her story.

— I have to admit that God’s gifts are not always a blessing, like in my little Gwendolyne’s case. But who are we to judge? In the beginning, just in case she might be ill, we’d taken her to see a child psychiatrist. He thought maybe she had schi… that she could have schizo…

— Juvenile schizophrenia? suggested Marine.

— Yes, that’s it. After several sessions with her, he decided that she was normal after all and that she would grow out of her “visions” and her imaginary friend. We never went back to see him. Long before that, I had already realized that Gwenny had just, very simply, inherited her grandmother Bridey’s gift. Mind you, she’s the only one of my five children who has it! On the other hand, my mother never told me that she heard voices.

— Just out of curiosity… Your daughter explained that she was born “with the veil over her face.” What is that all about?

— Well, at her birth, after my water broke, large fragments of the sac remained temporarily attached to parts of her face, especially her eyes. In Brittany, that’s what we call “the veil.” It’s a sure sign that the child will grow up with second sight. Plus she was born on a Sunday, so… you see…!

No, Marine did not see at all but apparently, at least for Madame Sezneg, this second fact was tangible confirmation of the first. “The whole story is beyond me,” thought the bewildered young teacher. The two women chatted a bit more and Marine noted that the Breton woman didn’t seem at all perturbed by the paranormal phenomena that were experienced by her eldest child. In the Sezneg family, one did not contest God’s gifts; one accepted His will and His presents without question.

***

As had been the age-old custom in most French towns, an elm tree had been planted in the village square of Le Caylar at the turn of the last century. For eighty years or more, the tree had grown and prospered. In the heat of summer, like a great green canopy extended over the square, it had provided a cool and welcome shade for generations of villagers who liked to sit and chat beneath its thick leafy branches. However, at some point near the end of the nineteen eighties, a mysterious disease had killed off most of the elms in France, this one included. Rather than chopping down the leafless giant, the town council had had a better idea. It had cut off its lesser branches, stripped the elm of its bark and had commissioned a local artist to sculpt the now bare titan to give it a new lease on life. As a result, numerous embossed forms, both human and animal, along with carved creeping vines or flowers, entwined themselves around the huge trunk and rose to the fork of its truncated main branches. The giant was reborn. With benches arranged around the mammoth sculpture, the old tree once again became a favorite meeting place.

That Wednesday at noon, Marine had a rendezvous in the restaurant across from the sculpted tree. She was to meet her painter friend, Morgane. The new teacher and the talented artist had met the year before and had become fast friends from the start. Knowing the young woman to be a well-versed amateur in the study of dreams and their significance, Marine hoped to get a better insight from her on her pupil’s mysterious “visions,” whether real or imaginary. Morgane might know a rational reason for the child’s enigmatic dreams. Something in the little Breton’s personality might well account for her strange so-called gift.

Morgane had already arrived and automatically taken a seat at a table for two as she leisurely consulted her cell phone while awaiting her friend. Marine kissed her with the traditional kisses given in France and sat across from her, waving a friendly greeting to the owner as she did so. The two women were apparently well known in the establishment.

— No school today! I can indulge in an aperitif! What are you having for lunch?

She glanced at the day’s suggestions, scrawled in the owner’s inimitable script in white chalk on a small blackboard near the entrance.

Antoine, the heavyset proprietor, wandered over and approved their choice, recommending at length the appropriate beverage, in this case his ruby red house wine, a very decent Cahors.

The girls hadn’t lunched together for a few weeks; they caught up as they awaited their order. While savoring her Kir (a white wine aperitif laced with a splash of black currant liqueur), Morgane launched into a description of the tasks she was undertaking lately in preparation for her latest art exhibit, scheduled for the following month. She then asked how her friend’s new school year was progressing. The answer, rather brief and devoid of the many details she expected, surprised her. She was about to continue, sensing something unusual in her friend’s attitude, when Antoine arrived with a tray. He served their first course, along with the bread and the wine, taking the time to add his usual caustic remarks about the state of the country and the world in general. The lunch mates were barely into the savory appetizers when Marine suddenly put down her fork. She felt the polite chitchat had gone on long enough.

— Listen, I’ve got to talk to you about something very weird that’s bothering me these days.

She apparently had her friend’s entire attention, so for the next quarter hour she barely touched her food, describing the bewildering story of Gwendolyne, her strange new pupil. Morgane had listened attentively throughout and had steadfastly continued her meal without interruption. She now spoke up.

— I suggest you eat your lunch while you finish your account. Your dish must be stone cold by now. Look, the wonderful cheese sauce has congealed already! We’d better ask Antoine to reheat it.

— Have you even listened to a single word I’ve said? Something is scaring the wits out of me and yet you sit there eating, more concerned about the food in front of us than about the little girl I’m describing to you! Not only is this child clairvoyant but she apparently also sees and hears a ghost!

Morgane chuckled without malice.