By Tom Sheehan
(A chapter from Murder from the Forum, an NHL mystery: Harry Krisman is a private detective)
Ah, what a place to look for clues, thought Harry Krisman, as he steered the car into the parking lot of the rink in St-Cyrille-de-l’Islet. How many places had he stopped in Canada, in the States, for this case, the unsolved murders of two former NHL referees?
Around him, noisily, from the different vehicles spilled a parade of young boys in hockey gear, sans skates, sticks over their shoulders, parents carrying jackets to be worn on the way home, and the inevitable hockey bags whose vile odors he knew were accepted at times as perfume, an incense that came with the caste. With his window rolled down Harry could hear the melody of young voices and their excitement. All of it in French, all of it concerning hockey sur glace.
It brought all the echoes of his own back to him: Andre! Ici! Henri! Ici! Harry! Ici! the calls of teammates screaming for the puck as they skated on an open wing or curled unseen behind a sleepy defenseman or had set themselves up beside the goalie. For two years Brother Pierre had enrolled him in a small school at St-Placid-de Charlevoix, St. Martin’s. It was not very far from Lac Saint-Michel. It was at St. Martin’s where he had played ice hockey, only at an intramural level, played ice hockey which proved to be not his game but one of his everlasting loves nevertheless.
Harry walked across the parking lot. The air was cooling still, and rippled and nipped at his ears. Young teammates in padded red and blue jerseys and pants rushed toward the rink, each one clumsy with knee pads in place, jerseys puffed by elbow pads and by shoulder pads, and each one gloved. The one great admirable grace of born hockey players would come to some of them the very instant they stepped on the ice. Harry could feel the ice rush under his feet. He could feel the adrenalin moving in his veins. A breath of the cool air he took down to his toenails. A slashing sound, like sticks at sabers, came from behind him. A parent yelled. Another yelled. The wooden sabers went silent, the Christians, the Northlands, the Kohos, the Sherwoods, the branded names fighting for a place in his mind.
Nothing has changed, he said to himself. At least, it doesn’t appear to have changed.
But the metaphor of the broken chain reasserted itself, the link collapsed, the connection severed. He stepped into the rink, hidden under the shape of a Quonset hut, the type he had seen a hundred or more times.
A red-faced man was driving the Zamboni on its endless chore of cleaning the ice and making new ice by laying down a thin layer of water, which in places shined with the satin of a mirror. He wore an old-fashioned brown stocking cap on his head, and an old Nordiques jacket, the one with the great and now-gone logo. Harry surmised the man would never let go of that jacket and would wear it into oblivion. But the Zamboni was a new breed Zamboni, an electric one, and was not pumping out carbon monoxide fumes. Another smell was in the air. It was sweat cut by hard, cold air, and old hockey bags, and black tape, and wet pads still clinging to a game long over and done with, and pizza and coke and coffee steamed into the woodwork, into the beams and the boards, and the smell of hockey ghosts.
The man smiled and waved to the young boys strapping on their skates and chattering at him from their benches, telling him to hurry up, there was such little time between now and the next time that ice would be remade for them. There’d be supper and sleep and a whole night and half a day or more before they could get back to skate again. It was all projected so, until the outside waters froze up for the long winter, and the skating could become endless—only the need for sleep holding it off.
Five minutes later the man from the Zamboni walked out of a utility room with a cup of coffee. He waved to the boys going on the ice with their coaches. Looking at Harry he raised his quizzical eyebrows and walked towards him.
“Cafe, monsieur? The cup was steaming in his hand. The man smiled a warm smile and showed gold in two upper front teeth. A thickness of gray hair hung below the edge of the brown stocking cap. He looks to be about sixty, thought Harry, and in damn good shape. His waist was slim for his age. Probably still skates like the wind, thought Harry again as he tried to make other assessments.
“Coffee? Yes,” said Harry, letting go a smile that the man had drawn from him.
“So you prefer Anglais. That’s jake with me, my friend. I am Gabon Prideaux. I am the manager of the rink and do all the odd jobs, as you can see.”
“My name is Harry Krisman. I’d like to talk to you.”
Gabon Prideaux motioned for Harry to follow and they entered a small office. It had a desk, two chairs, and a small table. A month’s schedule of hockey games and practice sessions hung on one wall. The sheet was about two feet by three feet.
He poured a cup of steaming coffee from a Mr. Coffee canister. On the balance of the walls of the office were at least two hundred or so pictures of hockey players. Many of them were faded, some were very new, and some were the bubble gum card type, but showed youngsters in favored poses. Two or three of them, it appeared to Harry, were NHL cards. They stuck out like the Sphinx on sand. He thought of Maxine, the accountant, working on the odds on how many boys who had ever skated in this rink would ever skate in the NHL. Harry knew he couldn’t count that high, the downside of that statistic.
“These boys all played here, at one time or another. All passed through here, including Jacques, here, and Raymond.” He pointed out the two of the three that Harry had tabbed as authentic NHL players at first sight. “You are not a scout, I know. I do not suppose you are visiting relatives, so you are looking for information or directions.”
He handed Harry the cup of coffee.
“Have you heard about Albert Jarreau?” Harry said.
“Mon Dieu!” said Gabon Prideaux. “What a crime. I read about it in the papers. It’s been on the television. What a sin. Le Tigre. This is him here, even before I came here.” He pointed out a faded picture of a fierce looking skater who looked to Harry like a tight end off the Patriots squad. A big boy. Real broad in the shoulders. Mean looking even as a youngster.”
“How old was he then?”
“He was about thirteen then, I’d guess, and big.” He held out his hands as if measuring a huge pair of shoulders.
“A year later, they tell me, he was skating halfway across the country. He almost made it to the big time. Three tries. Detroit, then Chicago and then Montreal. A bad leg eventually kept him out of the NHL. But he lived in Montreal for a long time, or near Montreal. Worked in or at hockey he did. He was a referee and linesman for a while, but the skating had to be cut way down, the knee was so bad. At the Forum for a long time though. There’s no family here now that I know of. Not any more. Such a shame. Such a tiger, they say. Still they talk about him, the real old ones, like me, but they are the old veterans of the ice wars of St-Cyrelle-de-l’lslet. They were all here then. I came after my wars, after the rink went up in ‘64.”
“I came out of Dien Bien Phu on a stretcher in early March of 1954. Mon dieux, one of the lucky ones. Then I was with General Massu’s parachute troops in Algiers in 1957. For a few years after that I was in the Foreign Legion, the dark side of a dark life, but I walked away from that with another injury. I came back here when the rink was started. I was born here and left at fifteen. I came back at thirty an old man. I’ve been here ever since, as an old man.”
Gabon Prideaux paused, looked off as if he could see the last of the sunset closing down on the edge of a prairie or across a distant field, smiled a warm grin. It was as if he had seen another sundown, one he hadn’t seen or remembered in a long time. His breath was still for a moment.
Harry was continuing to warm up towards him.
“Pardon, monsieur,” he said, “I talk your ear off, but you know what they call me around here in St-Cyrille-de-l’Islet, don’t you? It’s Gabby. You are some kind of a detective, aren’t you? I don’t know much more about Le Tigre. It happens that way. You go away from your home. You leave one history and start another one. Sometimes they don’t get connected. He was like that, I would guess.”
Harry liked the directness in Gabon Prideaux. And his openness. The man’s eyes were dark and reserved, but were not cold, held no threat in them. He poured more coffee in Harry’s cup without asking. The statement about the histories not being connected did not go unnoticed by Harry. It was logged in its importance, starred, a hard asterisk placed beside it.
Gabon Prideaux was looking off at another sunset, thought Harry, when Harry said, trying to connect two murders with one known element, “Have you ever heard of Campus de Fleurs-de-Lys?”
The rink manager, survivor of Dien Bien Phu, old legionnaire, paratrooper, turned slowly to face Harry. His dark eyes had gotten darker. On his face was a puzzled look.
“Monsieur,” he said, “you bring back the soft voices to me. Voices I have not heard in years. Sounds I have not heard in years. It is as if I have shut them out all this time.” The puzzled look was authentic and hard in place.
Harry Krisman was straight up in the chair. “You have heard the expression before? You know of it? What can you tell me of Campus de Fleurs-de-Lys?”
“Monsieur, you wake old ghosts for me. I have heard the name before. A long time ago. A very long time ago. But I know nothing of it. Nothing except it was around me. All around me. Nothing more than a whisper, sometimes a silence, but it was around me.” His eyes were still dark. That old sunset was forgotten.
Harry was standing, the cup still full in his hand. “When did you hear about Campus de Fleurs-de-Lys? Where did you hear about it? Can you tell me about it?”
“Oui, monsieur, but it is strange. It is indeed waking old ghosts. It is shaking out the sheets from other years, other histories, the ones I have mentioned.” A thoughtful and searching look crossed his face.
”In Dien Bien Phu was the first time, and in whispers I swear. Always in whispers. I vaguely remember the man’s face, but his voice I remember. Colonel Turcotte it was. Henri Turcotte. A real soldier. A brave soldier. Down in le couchettes, the bunkers of Dien Bien Phu. He was wounded. Oh, very badly, monsieur, very badly. He knew he was going to die and did not cry or wail, he was such a soldier. A warrior. But he did say, whispered he thought, when he really had no control of whispering, to another wounded officer, ‘Campus de Fleurs-de-Lys.’ Distinctly I heard it. They spoke about something a number of times. They did keep their voices down after a while. They were both dying, we could see. And we left them alone. Let them be. At least I did. And they did die. Both of them. Within hours of each other. Others too. Many others. I was lucky to come away from there.”
“You heard nothing else? What did you think it was?” said Harry.
“I had no idea,” said Gabon Prideaux. “It did not bother me, a secret if it was a secret. Men have secrets. Men have histories. Leave one life and go into another. So different. So twisted can be this life of ours.”
“Did you think anything of it then, or later?” said Harry.
“Yes. It was in Algeria. Later on. When I was in the Legion. That was another history. You know, monsieur, in the Legion everybody has another history. Another page not to be read. A song not to be heard. A life not to be leaned on. It was there and then, in the Legion, when I heard the same name, the same strange name, Campus de Fleurs-de-Lys. It was the breath of a whisper each time. Every time. A breath of a whisper, I swear. At one time I thought it was some kind of a society for officers, restricted, off limits. Not for me, not for me to know. I was never an officer. I thought it was about them. For them. It did not bother me. I was not an officer and had no desire to be one. I did not have their responsibilities, nor wanted them. But it was a whisper, as I said. Which is not bad, if you think about it. In the Legion, nobody talks of another’s business. And dying in Dien Bien Phu, nobody talks about the dying when it is all around you, when it is inevitable. We were so busy trying to stay alive with that awful sense of death all around us. Nobody would carry another man’s tales. There just wasn’t time.”
Gabon Prideaux turned slowly to look at the pictures on the wall. There was no stoop to his body. No sign of an old wound or an old pain, the long-ago injuries fully hidden or healed. A grin slowly eased across his face. It was an honest grin. Harry felt the sense of belonging, the sense of comfort the old soldier must have been feeling. This was a place to hang onto, this hockey rink in St-Cyrille-de-l’Islet. This small place in the world. This was his root. Here he was surrounded by laughter and noise and quick wind sprints on the ice and the clatter of youngsters full of life and a coach yelling at them; out in the rink the pucks were banging off boards and glass and sticks as deep as Irish drums, and there came to his ears the whirring slash of blades cutting through the air as skaters pushed themselves off on their sharp edges. Harry marveled that the old soldier had found this Eden full of promise after all his horrors. It was as good as a pension, he thought, with a lot more therapy built into it than an outsider could realize.
As if they understood each other, Harry and the old soldier nodded to one another.
The soft grin of acceptance was still angling the corners of Prideaux’s mouth.
It was a long way from war. And murder.
Harry had decided that he liked Gabon Prideaux immensely. Much of him was like Brother Pierre. That would make anybody likable. He could be counted on. It was evident that he had a view on life that had arisen and developed in the heat of more than one crucible. Elements of the man’s life spun through Harry’s mind. All of them melded like a movie.
“I did not know Jarreau, Le Tigre, as I have said. His death bothers me because I feel the other one’s death, Graville’s, seems more than plain coincidence. Death has always been a strange ally. The soldier feels that way at times. It has taken friends from me who had no chance at life and pain was unthinkably bad at the time…when we had no morphine, no pain killers. When we had nothing. I have had comrades ask me to shoot them rather than let them be captured. I have found bodies in le couchettes with bamboo slivers inserted into every part of the body you can imagine. In the eyes, in the eardrums, up the penis, mon dieux, through the testicles, up under the armpits like threadless needles. It is strange to say so, but a bullet is almost godlike. These old hockey players went without the pain I can remember. Perhaps they never felt a thing. Such death would be good, if death is to come.”
Harry waited while the tormented soul of Gabon Prideaux eased itself.
Finally, sensing some composure coming over the old soldier, Harry said, “You never heard anything else about Campus de Fleurs-de-Lys? No word at all?”
“Only the whispers, monsieur,” he said. “The whispers from the shadows.”
It was for another sunset Gabon Prideaux’s eyes went searching.
Harry Krisman knew he had found a new page for the case he was building.
Sheehan served in the 31st Infantry Regiment in Korea, 1951. His short story collections are Epic Cures and Brief Cases, Short Spans, from Press 53, NC; and From the Quickening, from Pocol Press, VA, which also issued his memoirs, A Collection of Friends. He has18 Pushcart nominations, appeared in Dzanc Best of the Web 2009, and has 260 stories on Rope and Wire Magazine. He has appeared in 4 issues of Rosebud Magazine and 7 issues of Ocean Magazine. His novels include Vigilantes East, An Accountable Death, Death of a Phantom Receiver (an NFL mystery), and a manuscript, Murder from the Forum (an NHL mystery), is in the hands of a literary agent. His newest book, from Milspeak Publishers, September 2011, is Korean Echoes. The Westering, a collection of short stories, will be published by Milspeak Publishers in 2012, and will be followed by at least 8 more collections in the series. His work is in/coming in Ocean Magazine, Nervous Breakdown, Stone Hobo, Faith-Hope-Fiction, Canary, Subtle Tea, Red Dirt Review, Nontrue, Danse Macabre, Nashwaak Review, and Qarrtsiluni.