Max O’Brien is in a race against time ... and someone else’s past is catching up with him.
Max O’Brien may be a professional con man, but that doesn’t mean you can’t count on him in a bind. So when he hears that his old friend Kevin Dandurand is a wanted man over a seemingly racially motivated killing spree, he heads to Bucharest to try to make sense of what looks like an impossible situation.
The buried truths he uncovers reach back to the Second World War, the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, and an entanglement between a Roma man and a German woman whose echoes pursue O’Brien and Dandurand into the present day. But if they can’t escape the long shadows of the past, the two will find their present cut all too short.
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Screenwriter Mario Bolduc has written three novels featuring Max O’Brien, starting with The Kashmir Trap. Originally published in French, The Roma Plot, the second book of the series, won an Arthur Ellis Award in 2008. Mario lives in Montreal, Quebec.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Max O’Brien had headed straight to the Intercontinental Hotel to drop his bags off after coming in from New York City. An hour later he was off to wander through — and lose himself in — the streets of the Lipscani District, a maze of lanes filled with Bucharest’s citizens out for a bit of Christmas shopping. At some point he burst out of the maze of small commercial streets and onto Unirii Boulevard in front of the Palace of the Parliament. The sheer monstrosity of the monument startled him. Like a wedding cake with its top layer missing, crushing the capital around it, it was one of the largest buildings in the world. The dream of a megalomaniac tyrant, Nicolae Ceauşescu. The People’s House — though the people themselves had renamed it the People’s Madhouse. Around it, the Civic Centre, built over the ruins of a nineteenth-century neighbourhood. Twelve churches, two synagogues, and three monasteries, not to mention hundred of homes and shops, had been razed to build it. The destruction of a district twice as large as Le Marais in Paris. The Civic Centre was a city within the city, the place the dictator had ruled from to the end of his life. After the revolution in 1989, Romanians took over construction of the palace, which now housed the Parliament and various ministries. And yet it felt unfinished, as if it couldn’t ever be completed.
Max kept on walking.
He had a meeting on the other side of the fountain, near the pond that ran along the boulevard.
The past forty-eight hours had been dizzying. Max had learned from a newspaper in New York that the Romanian police were looking for his friend Kevin Dandurand in relation to the murder of twenty-three Roma. Max had tried in vain to get in touch with Kevin’s wife, Caroline, in Montreal. So he’d called Gabrielle, their daughter, who’d been living with her father since the couple had split. Kevin taught physical education at Collège Notre-Dame du Sacré-Coeur, but, according to the teenager, who’d been shocked by the news, Kevin had been on sabbatical since September. He’d been hiking the Appalachian Trail by himself. The trail ran from Maine to Georgia, the hike of a lifetime for an experienced outdoorsman. He could only be reached through email. And what about Caroline, what was happening with her? Gabrielle had explained that she’d locked herself in her house, refusing to answer the phone after being hounded by journalists following the accusations levied by the Romanian police.
Max had written a long email to Kevin, demanding an explanation, and left his cellphone number. Gabrielle had done the same thing — several times — earlier that very same day. As one might expect, Kevin hadn’t answered a single one of her messages. Gabrielle told Max that Josée, Kevin’s half-sister who worked as a lawyer in Paris, was already packing her bags for Bucharest. She was off to sort out the whole mess. She’d be there the next day.
In other words, total chaos. Kevin a killer? A murderer of twenty-three innocent Roma? Surely it had to be an error. Max would clear things up and get his friend out of whatever mess he was in.
On his way to Kennedy Airport, Max had left a message with Josée at her office on avenue des Champs-Élysées, setting up a meeting with her at the Intercontinental in Bucharest. He then reached out to one of his contacts in Prague, who put him in touch with a fixer. Max needed a guide and an interpreter. Someone for whom Romania and the internal dynamics of its judicial system held no secrets. Someone who might guide Max through the maze of Romanian society.
And so Max, feet frozen in his boots, now waited next to the fountain for the man. What about Romanian punctuality? Clearly, the fall of the Ceauşescu regime had wreaked havoc on good manners!
A crowd milled around Max: German tourists, their cameras strapped over their shoulders; older women negotiating with their tiny dogs at the end of taut leashes; teenagers on their skateboards, sporting esoteric tattoos, pants low on the hips, and enormous, untied running shoes. Those pimply teenagers were all amnesiacs, likely enough, completely unaware that the construction of the road they were risking their necks screwing around on had required the displacement of seventy thousand people.
Max circled the Christmas tree proudly displayed at the intersection. A gigantic tree that brought back memories of Kevin. Over the past two days, as he’d prepared for his trip to Bucharest, Max had relived the painful stages of their long friendship, all overshadowed by a horrible tragedy: the death of Kevin’s father, Raymond, and of his infant son, Sacha. Max could remember every fresco painted on the walls of Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bon- Secours in Montreal, a few days after Easter. Raymond’s family, his friends, and employees of Nordopak, the company Kevin’s father had founded in the 1960s. It had been an emotional ceremony punctuated by sobbing from Kevin, Caroline, Gabrielle, and Josée, each more bereft than the last. Caroline was in a complete state of shock, blaming herself for having left her child with her father-in-law that day. How could she have known that he would stop on his way to have a drink with his friends? The autopsy had confirmed it: traces of alcohol in Raymond’s blood. The businessman had been in no state to drive his Pathfinder.
Standing behind the crowd, Max had chosen to remain discreet. He’d surveyed the neighbourhood before coming, inspected the area surrounding the small church. Once inside, he’d quickly made mental note of lateral exits and his most likely escape route, if need be. Max had come to Montreal under a cloud: he knew the Quebec provincial police, the Sûreté du Québec, was after him, and had been for years. His crime? Fraud. His victims? Hustlers, the nouveau riche, takers who exploited those without the means to defend themselves. Max was constantly changing his identity, and his appearance, too. A perpetual lie that was becoming progressively harder to bear.
That day he’d run a risk by being there. But he couldn’t have stayed away; he just had to be present for his friend, to support him in this tragedy. In a way, Kevin and Max were responsible for these two deaths, the result of their mistakes.
After the funeral, once the rubberneckers had dispersed, Max made his way to Kevin’s place, finding Gabrielle in a state of shock. Caroline was exhausted, having cried every tear in her body. Sacha had been the blood in her veins. Sacha-the-Red, Raymond had called him, because of the large birthmark on the back of his neck. Caroline felt as if she had killed her son with her own hands. She was entirely blameless, of course, but how could you convince a grieving mother that she was an innocent bystander? Josée, meanwhile, seemed incapable of getting hold of herself. She had cried throughout the ceremony, and she was still crying, huddled in a corner. She’d adored her father. She’d moved to Paris recently, and they’d spoken several times a week, Josée telling her father about her heartaches and her challenges and her joys.
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