Read sample: Sight Unseen
by Alfred Boudry and Julie Mornelli
© Alfred Boudry & Julie Mornelli – All rights reserved.
CHAPTER 1. OUT OF THE BLUE, INTO THE NIGHT
I know you said you wanted some time off: time away from me, from the business, from everything in general. Believe me when I say I am trying to give you space you so obviously need, but really, this is not working. I am okay with taking care of your business while you’re, as you so nicely put it, “exploring a new dimension within yourself,” whatever that means. But you can’t leave me holding the bag without at least telling me what’s in it. I’ve got people calling, you know, and I sound like an ass because I don’t know what to tell them.
I am not a field guy. I’m a digger. I do best by myself, one-on-one with a computer screen, endlessly searching, tracking, unearthing, in the relative safety of the digital realm. Why, then, you picked me, of all people, to replace you, the quintessential real-life, real-world investigator, is beyond me.
I wish I had paid more attention to what it is that you do, or did. Maybe I would have learned something useful, for a change. I do remember how you said, “People who come to me always swim in murky waters. If their case is simple, they don’t need me.”
Talking about that..
Meet Ms. Eleonore Edelmann, who prefers to be called Nellie. Mid-to-late twenties. A hottie by all standards, but unaware of it, or pretending to be. Soft-spoken, mild-mannered, yet I couldn’t shake the feeling of, how should I say, guarded aloofness. Your “murky waters,” I guess, only hers must be cold as ice. During the entire conversation, I couldn’t get a read on her. I am not you. Then again, we both know that.
She called me last week and I met her at the Starbucks on 14th and Park, just off Union Square. I showed up early, and she was already there. I had no trouble spotting her, the girl in a gray hoodie sweater with a red bird on the front, just as she described herself.
She went straight to the point and handed me a folder. “I want you to find out what happened. Or at least, provide me with a substantiated, plausible explanation.”
In it, very little: a couple of pages from an old, French newspaper and a list of URLs for me to look at later. “This is pretty much all there is,” she said. “You may have to go there in person. Of course, I’ll pay your fee and expenses.” She pulled out her wallet, thick and fat, and handed me a stack of hundreds. This girl is loaded. She’s also careless, or foolish, or both: common sense rule, never hand out cash to a stranger in a public place. Fortunately, no one was paying attention to us.
I looked over the newspaper article quickly. My French is a bit rusty, but I got the gist of it: about 30-odd years ago on Christmas eve, a family of four vanished into thin air from a small village near Cognac, in Charentes. Despite an extensive search and a purported lengthy, thorough investigation, the police came up empty; they found absolutely nothing. No trace, no clue, no witness, no explanation whatsoever, not even a shadow of a speculative theory. Nada.
I asked Nellie – Ms. Edelmann – what her interest was in this case. “Do I need one for you to take the case? Here’s one: I’d like to buy their house, and I want to know what happened to its owners. Here’s another one: I’m a writer for a studio, and I am looking for a story line.” All that, very matter-of-fact, she remained cool and collected while looking at me straight in the eyes as if to say, “Why the fuck do you care, as long as I am paying you?”
So I took the case.
And now I am sorry for it.
Because I don’t know where to start.
Sure enough, I checked out the URL links she gave me. Not much there. Threads, no more. So I did research of my own, and found more bits and pieces of information here and there. It really does not amount to a lot (the fact that this is such an old case does not help; who cares about an unsolved mystery from last century in a world where last week’s news is considered old?), but with a bit of cross-checking, here’s what I have managed to establish:
On Christmas Eve, 1983, the Chaudiers family (husband Alain, wife Paula, and their two kids, Frédéric, eight, and Charles, three) left their home in Le Bouquet village to have dinner with their friends, the Laniers, in a suburb outside of Saint-Laurent-de-Cognac. It was, by the Laniers’ account, who are the last persons on record to see them alive, a pleasant dinner; everybody was in a festive mood, nothing out of the ordinary, except maybe for Alain, who seemed, at times, moodier than usual. But that could be interpretation after the facts, from the Laniers’ standpoint. The Chaudiers left around 2:00 am, never to be seen or heard again.
Eric Chaudier, Alain’s brother, alerted the police on January 2nd, 1984, surprised and worried that he hadn’t heard from his brother in days. Alain always called his younger brother to wish him a happy New Year. The scene at Le Bouquet was an eerie one: nothing had been touched. It looked like the owners had just left, and would be back any time now. The gifts lay, all wrapped, under the decorated tree, its lights still twinkling. A traditional holiday fare of oysters, turkey, and chilled champagne waited in the fridge. Checkbooks, jewelry, IDs, clothes, small change.. everything was still there. The police declared it was a safe assumption that they left with every intent to come back, yet never made it back home.
An intense search party was launched, lasting several days. Rivers were dredged. Divers dove, dogs sniffed, searchers scoured every bush, field, farm or forest, hiking trails, refuges, riverbanks, anything that could yield a clue on a twenty-mile radius. What did they find? Nothing. Bodies were never recovered. The car was never retrieved. Nothing turned up, not even a footprint, a scarf, a letter, a hair strand. The Chaudiers had plainly evaporated, sight unseen, into the dark of night on Christmas Eve.
The investigation raised several questions that remain unanswered to this day. From the outside, the Chaudiers looked like an ordinary, trouble-free couple. You and I know that there is no such thing as a trouble-free relationship, but as far as ordinary goes, they were right on the money.
The wife was unhappy; she was carrying on an affair with her kid’s schoolteacher; the husband was distraught over the affair, and they’d been arguing lately. Paula had indeed mentioned the D. word.
Basically, Joe and Jane Average in all their boring, predictable, white-picket fence glory, à la mode française.
Eric Chaudier reported that his brother once told him that if Paula ever left him, there would be drama. Paula’s lover (who had a rock-solid alibi at the time of their disappearance) confirmed Paula intended to leave Alain but that he had nothing to do with her decision. They were just “passing time,” is how he described their relationship. Nice choice of words, more elegant than “We were just screwing”.. though the end result is the same, isn’t it? Anyway..
Financially, they were doing well, though nothing spectacular. They both had jobs. Paula was an accountant for a local Cognac wine producer. Alain had his own business and was making a decent living as a house contractor. He didn’t seem to be strapped for cash, but then again, appearances can be deceptive, and we both know that the construction business is a prime opportunity for black market economy. Though very little money was found in the house.
The case is still open. Periodically, a new inquiry starts, usually prompted by the discovery of bone fragments, or the remnants of a car. All dead ends, so far. The latest development dates back two years, when a hiker found a fragment of skull and a couple of torn ribs under a tree in a very damp forest, not too far from a river bend. The coroner established the bones belonged to a man in his thirties or forties, and that the remains are about thirty years old, give or take. DNA testing proved inconclusive: the official report says that while some markers are present to include the possibility that these could belong to Alain Chaudier, DNA has degraded to a point where formal identification is impossible. Not very surprising, in my opinion; exposure to heat, cold, and water, along with age, are all factors known to hopelessly degrade DNA samples.
Of course, I am supposed to solve this thirty-year-old riddle, when everyone else has failed.
I am completely clueless. I’m afraid the scenarios I came up with are lame (and that’s an understatement).
The accident: well, shit happens, occasionally, and it was a foggy night. It’s the simplest explanation. One false move and into the river. But there’s no tire tracks, and no skid marks anywhere on the riverbanks between the Laniers’ home and Le Bouquet.
Foul play: random killing, on Christmas Eve at 2:00 am, in the middle of nowhere; unlikely. Did I mention these people lived in the boonies? If planned, who could commit so perfect a crime that no one finds anything? That is quite impossible. Besides, what’s the motive?
Did Alain and Paula fight and argue on the way back? Did Paula tell Alain she wanted a divorce, and he took his life and his whole family with him? Is that the drama he had foretold? Possible, but there would be some trace, then, as with an accident. And I doubt Paula would have picked December 24th to make her announcement, smack in the middle of the school holidays, with the kids, and the gifts and festivities and all that jazz.
Did one of them plan to kill the other, and take the kids to a faraway land? Is it a crime of opportunity? The vanishing act is so complete, so absolute, so definitive, it is mind-boggling, really.
If the “recently” found bones do indeed belong to one of them – Alain Chaudier, since the bones are of an adult male – what of Paula, Frédéric, and Charles? Where are they? Are they still alive somewhere? Were they taken by whoever killed the other? Was some of it planned, some of it forced by circumstances? Was it all an accident, one that opened a window of opportunity?
My head is spinning.. I’m weaving a mesh of crazy scenarios. Going every which way, yet getting nowhere fast. Damn it! Nothing makes sense. And this gal Nellie who comes in and says “Why don’t you just tell me what happened?” What does it matter to her? Is she somehow related to the family? She wasn’t even born yet when the events took place. And we’re thousands of miles and an ocean away from Le Bouquet.
I now fully appreciate how enthralled you were, when you’d get intricate cases such as this one. It’s like a mind puzzle: you throw all theories up in the air, like chips, and see how they fall. But I don’t have your skilled mind, my dear. My pieces land facedown on the ground. I don’t know which one to turn over first. I need help. I need.. you.
Fancy meeting me in France? If you’re up to it. Or is it still too risky?
What happens next?