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Cover Photo: courtesy Pat Stefanchuk. Photographer Kevin Dennis Pat Stefanchuk wrote: "The ruins are a part of my family history. The deMerle ruins were a fortress for the deMerle family in the Middle Ages. It is located in southern France. They were French Huguenots who were basically run out of France around 1500 & fled to England where they took up residence around Shakespeare’s residence, along the Avon River. Less than 50 years later a branch of the family emigrated to New York. Of course when they got to England they changed their name to Merrell so they wouldn’t be taken for French Catholics. After Robert Merrell got to the USA his extended family moved around. Some went to New Jersey, others to the New England area. That branch became United Empire Loyalists during the American Revolution & fled to Nova Scotia & finally to southern Ontario where they had fruit orchards. My dad’s grandfather brought his family of 20 to Manitoba (Wawanesa) in the late 1800’s."
Oprah Winfrey 2002. O Magazine. "Worry is a misuse of imagination.".
BARBARA J. BECKER writes and edits stories. She lives in Winnipeg. Recent works are the Measured Words trilogy, and assorted articles to the Manitoba Genealogical Society magazine, Generations, editor David Farmer. Barbara wrote the same introduction to all of the Covid Caper stories and then let them happen. PAT STEFANCHUK turned to writing fiction and poetry after retiring as principal at Margaret Park School. She was also the music (arts) consultant in the Seven Oaks School Division. Originally from Flin Flon, her stories often focus on her years growing up in this northern mining community. LAURIE GYDE lives and writes in Winnipeg. She enjoys writing mystery fiction. JULIANNE DANNER in addition to her marvelous singing voice, Julianne, originally from Portage La Prairie, also enjoys writing stories and poems. Some of her poetry is published in Absolutely Barbados, editor Julian Armfield.
The steps did not go straight up. There was a curve, ever so slight, to the right. You had to place your foot squarely in the center. The edges collected moss and did not offer a solid footing. The air was damp and heavy to breath. The light from a single torch ricocheted off the stone wall, swirling and dancing in the surrounding gloom. A splayed hand tapped the stair wall for purchase keeping time to the roll of numbers off the tongue. …twenty-seven…twenty-eight…twenty-nine…thirty… thirty-one…thirty-two…. The landing was small and rectangular – flat grey slate, barely large enough for a small person. Rock walls formed two sides with a solid heavy wood door directly ahead. An ornate serpent handle controlled a slotted closure. With a heavy pull the door swung open. A further five steps and it was done. The door slammed shut.
Gasping for air, she slumped down onto the damp stone floor and removed her Joseph Ribcoff mask, which had been hampering her breathing. Within seconds her breath and heart beat slowed dramatically. She could still hear the wind howling outside the medieval castle walls. How had she ended up in this situation? She had wanted to explore her roots in rural France and that is what brought her to this remote region in Provence. Everyone told her she was foolish to travel abroad during the pandemic, but she reasoned that she would be safe away from the crowded cities as long as she followed the rules. “Wash your hands frequently, stay by yourself, and wear a mask.” Renting a car was easy but navigating the rural countryside was quite another matter. Why hadn’t she realized that the GPS system would be in French? Her high school language class had not been strong on conversational French, but rather, focused on conjugating verbs instead. Nevertheless, she managed to find the deMerle castle amongst a forest of trees, high up on a hill. She guessed the castle was positioned that way to keep enemies at bay in the 1300’s. The sign at the front gate welcomed visitors but cautioned them about the dangers of exploring the ruins, especially alone. A person could lose her footing and fall a great distance. It might be days before anyone discovered you. She was determined to see the ruins and take pictures from every angle. Besides, she had sturdy hiking boots, and her knapsack was full of snacks. She spent the afternoon walking through rooms with no windows and marveling at the primitive furnishings, dirt floors and rough-hewn steps leading to other floors. A sound startled her. Turning quickly, she saw a figure lurking in the shadows. Suddenly, she was terrified for her life. That’s when she spied the tower just ahead of her.
There were three towers ahead . She wanted to experience the heart of one of them. But a man’s strained voice kept whispering behind her. As she listened, her palms and forehead started to sweat out of sheer fear. Remembering some of the “ Spirit Talker” tv shows, she asked her ghost to reveal himself to her. “Guide me…family…” was what she heard. She looked back with a vacant face, not seeing a soul. Knowing the history of religious communal family feuds centuries ago, she decided to move forward and head to the middle tower. Handrails were placed for visitors, and she needed them for support as her playful character was being tested. Her legs wobbled worse than a café table on cobblestones. Upon reaching the tower, the door flung open on its own revealing a huge medieval clock in the foyer. She began to hear the bells. Twelve indicated it was noon. Like a showdown in a bad Western, pictures of witchcraft appeared engraved in the ancient walls. She immediately thought of Sage used in ceremonies to ward out the forbidden. It was evident lots of murders occurred here. A feudal fortress, the last place of refuge for many before her. Families ravaged apart in this region that even Van Gogh once travelled. She continued on with this “presence” following her. Alas, there was a back door, which she exited and found herself in a garden full of roses. Such a contrast. And the smell of lavender filled vineyards lined up in equal rows down the hill. She dug down deep into her knapsack and felt her camera. Before her was the picturesque Curious Provence. She prayed wine tasting tours were aligned along the ancient ruins. She would magically turn a rose into a rosé right about now. But that was not all that developed from her knapsack. All of the sudden she looked down and screamed.
She heard the hiss before she saw the snake start to slither out of the knapsack. She stumbled backwards, still holding the strap of the bag. She felt herself starting to fall so flung the knapsack over her head and down an embankment she didn’t realize she was so close to. Dazed, she watched as the snake freed itself from the bag and was tumbling head over tail down, down the steep hill, hopefully to its death. Beside it was her summersaulting knapsack containing her water, her snacks, her hand sanitizer, her film, her passport … my passport … oh God! She quickly reached around her neck and found the strap to the money holder which she had decided to wear under her tee shirt that morning. There she sat, gulping for air, with tears streaming down her cheeks, as she clutched the money belt that held her money and her passport to her chest. “Thank you, Mom! Thank God, I listened to you this morning! Your voice came through loud and clear,” she cried. “Oh Mom, how I miss you! Thank you for watching over me.” Nicole’s mother had passed away from cancer the year before. As a single mom, she had been a beacon of strength for her family, especially Nicole. She had been working on the genealogy of her father’s family for years, and she and Nicole were to make this trip together. Determined to make her mother’s dream come true was why Nicole had come here in the first place. She stood up, dusted off her jeans, and realized how close she had come to falling over the embankment herself. She shuddered, remembering the warnings, then turned and looked at the three towers. That snake must have gotten into my bag in that dark, damp staircase. No wonder there was a serpent handle on that huge door! I’m not going back that way if I can help it. She looked around and decided to go down the hill through the garden and the lavender fields. Maybe she could find a road, or a human being for that matter, to help her back to the entrance and her car. Maybe they could even help her find her knapsack! The rose garden was beautiful and in full bloom. The smell was intoxicating, soothing her shattered nerves. She stopped to smell their scent, and take some macro shots of them with her camera. Knowing she only had only a few shots left, she picked up her pace, and headed for the lavender fields. The grass under her feet was thick, mossy, and uneven as she moved along what seemed to be a path. The sun had disappeared, the air cooled, and the wind had changed direction. She looked up at the sky, saw the dark clouds moving in, and knew it would soon rain. “Damn,” she mumbled. Then, as she picked up her pace she tripped. Suddenly, she found herself face down on the grass. What the …? Not again! She pushed herself up, caught her breath, and kneeling, she pulled the grass off the rock she tripped over. She gasped. This was not a rock; it was a tombstone! She looked around at the lumpy sod everywhere and realized she was in an ancient cemetery. “Keep looking … family …,” said the voice.
Wow! This is too spooky. Plopping herself down on a grassy patch next to a raised tombstone, Nicole began to get her bearings after distinctly hearing, for a second time, a voice speak, “Keep looking … family …”. Someone was trying to convey something to her. She felt it in her bones. She reached over and brushed her hand over the ancient marker. Pieces of moss stuck to her hand, but she was able to clear the stone enough to read a faint inscription. It read Noah Ricard – infant 1348-1350. She felt a sudden sadness that children were buried in this remote place. Had he died of some horrible plague or been a casualty of warfare during the Hundred Years War between France and England? It would be interesting to explore the history of this region during the middle ages. I think I was meant to explore this medieval cemetery further, she reasoned. Bending down to get a closer look at the stones she passed, she began to wonder if any of her ancestors had been buried here. And if she discovered a stone with the deMerle name how would she feel? All of a sudden, she heard sounds a few feet from where she was standing. Looking to her left she spied a young man crouching over a stone. What was he doing? She watched as he sprayed water over the front of the gravestone. He took what looked like a large pink sponge and brushed it over the stone. Chunks of dirt, moss, and leaves came off on the sponge. Then he drew a large piece of what looked like rice paper from his knapsack and duct taped it to the front. Reaching further into the knapsack he pulled out a fat waxy crayon and started to colour over the entire paper. Low and behold, what was etched on the stone came through clearly onto the front of the paper. Nicole couldn’t resist. She had to know what he was up to. Being careful not to startle him she loudly cleared her throat from a socially distanced vantage point. The fellow turned to see who his visitor was and gave Nicole a huge smile. “What are you doing?” she asked, realizing he might not speak English. “I’m making gravestone rubbings,” was his reply. “I’m studying French History at the Université de Provence in Aix-en-Provence, and need visual proof of historical figures who are buried in Provence.” Nicole was pleased that he spoke English so well. “Why don’t you just take photographs? Wouldn’t that be the same?” “The rubbings tend to look three dimensional. The photos are not as authentic. What brings you to this part of our beautiful country?” Nicole decided to tell him about her adventures so far this day. After all, he said he had a car nearby and would be able to take her back to the entrance to the deMerle castle ruins. But first he had to finish his etchings and invited her to tag along.
As Nicole watched this student etch, she asked his name. “Gerard,” he responded. “I, too, speak some French, she added, and asked if they could speak in his native language as it would give her more practice of the French language in her solo travels. Gerard agreed and soon they were enroute, driving carefully on isolated stretches of highway. They approached an almost communal-like village near Correze; 30 homes all very similar in structure, very Stonehenge in appearance. It reminded her of the Mennonite and Hutterite colonies set in her hometown near St Pierre-Jolys. It was here that they learned they could take a ride to view the area on a boat tour. As they found a seat on the river cruise, it was announced the tour would take an hour and if anyone had to use the washroom, to do so, before departure. Nicole decided to freshen up, while Gerard waited, conversing with family as to what he was doing with this tourist he had met. The washrooms were archaic. The air freshener was lavender which reminded her how much that scent was associated with France. As she washed her hands, she looked in the mirror to coiffe her hair. The moisture in the air from yesterday’s weather made it look wild and curly. The reflection behind her looked familiar. As she dried off her hands with a cloth one of the bathroom attendants gave her, in return for a few francs, she turned around to see engraved in the wall a series of Blackbirds. The signature was DM. “Oh, mon Dieu,” she blurted. “Ca c’est l’oiseau de ma famille!” Nicole ran out to find Gerard. When she finally caught her breath, she told him that her family name, DeMerle, which stood for blackbird, was on a washroom wall. Gerard asked more about her family as they found their seats on the tour. Still gasping, Nicole again felt the presence of her mom and looked up to heaven. “Mom, I think I am on the right track,” she exclaimed. With her head in her lap, sobbing, the boat captain asked what was wrong. When she revealed her family name was etched in the washroom, he pondered momentarily, then turned to the familiar features in her face. He stopped. Looked up and said, “Ca c’est la non de ma famille, aussi!” How could this be? Meeting someone in France, on a tourist boat, who could be a relative!
Nicole was shaken but determined to continue her search for her Paternal ancestors. The Captain asked her if she would like to join him on the bridge and they could talk while they cruised the Rhone Valley. “That would be great!” said Nicole, excitedly. Oh, how she wished she had her journal and family history papers with her now! They were in her knapsack at the bottom of that stupid hill! She excused herself from Gerard, who seemed to be having a good time talking to others on the boat, and turned to follow the Captain. The bridge was bright, roomy, and quiet. The first officer mumbled, “Bonjour,” to them as they entered, and then, after a banter of nautical talk between the two, the boat was underway. She marveled at the view, taking a few pictures as they cruised along. Then she asked the Captain if she could take his picture and he easily obliged. He also handed her some paper and a pen, that she had asked for, so she could jot down any interesting tidbits for her deMerle history book. He started by telling her that the name, deMerle, was quite common in this part of France. “Somewhat like Smith, or Jones, in America,” he chuckled. He told her he was born in Marseille; lived in Avignon, not far from here; had a ski chalet in the mountains, near Chamonix, and was a retired Cruise ship Captain. He was married to his third wife, Florence, an American woman he met on a repositioning cruise to Miami, a few years ago. Nicole studied him as he talked, in perfect English, with that charming French accent. He was tall, had a moustache and a beard, weathered skin, beautiful dark brown eyes, and a great smile. It was hard to see any resemblance to her family under all that hair! When she asked about his family, he said his mother was Italian, and his father had met her during the war, and that he, Richard, was the youngest of four children. Again, she wanted to know more about his ancestry, his grandparents, etc. but the hour had flown by, too fast for her to get anything concrete, except that he knew the deMerle castle had many records in the Library in Avignon. Now they were back at the dock where they had started. He gave her his business card and she gave him her e-mail and promised they would get together in Avignon, once she got her car back. Most everyone had disembarked from the boat when she came down from the bridge. She looked for Gerard, but he was not where she had left him. She asked a few people as they were getting off, “S’il vous plait? Le juene homme Gerard-----?” Damn, she didn’t even know his last name! How could she have been so stupid just to go ‘along for the ride’ and not know that? He had promised her he would take her back to the Castle to pick up her car! It was starting to get dark, and her stomach was not only hungry, but it was starting to do flip flops as fear set in. She could not find him in the group of people on the shore and everyone was dispersing quickly. She assumed he probably was waiting for her at the car, so she headed to the parking lot. To her horror, his car was gone.
Nicole became frantic as she quickly realized her dilemma. How was she going to get back to the castle ruins to retrieve her car? Wait. Captain deMerle could help me, she thought. She turned and bolted for the riverboat, scrambling up the gangplank while the ship’s crew was busy securing the vessel before disembarking. “Whoa,” a ship’s officer shouted as she climbed the flight of stairs to the bridge. “All passengers must be off the ship!” “I must see Captain deMerle,” pleaded Nicole. “Okay, I’ll just take a look and see if he is still aboard. Please stay by the gangplank”, the young officer replied. It took a few minutes but finally Captain deMerle emerged with a huge smile lighting up his face. “Nicole, what brings you back to the riverboat?” “Captain, I thought I had a ride back to my car with Gerard, but neither he nor his vehicle are anywhere to be found.” “Do not worry, ma chere amie, I will drive you to your car. It is on my route.” It was a pleasant drive from the river, up into the high hills surrounding the region. They were soon approaching the gates of “Place des Dombes,” the ancestral ruins of the deMerle castle. Captain deMerle and Nicole had a pleasant conversation as they wound their way up to the castle. Mostly they discussed how strange it was that the two would meet by coincidence that day and discover their kinship. They exchanged email information so that they could continue to get to know one another and Nicole snapped a couple of selfies of the two of them in front of the entrance to the ruins. Her car was right where she left it. She checked that her luggage was safely stowed in the trunk but was very discouraged that she would be leaving her backpack at the bottom of an embankment behind the middle tower. She made a last trip to the visitor centre to use the washroom facility. She hadn’t expected a person to be working in the small building but there she was, a middle-aged woman in a drab brown uniform, her hair swept up in a messy bun held together by a bright fuschia scrunchy. Quite a contrast from the uniform! Nicole immediately walked toward her desk, hoping that she spoke some English. “Did anyone return a knapsack to the Visitor Centre earlier today,” she inquired. “Oui, yes. What colour was it?” “It was navy with white piping along the sides.” The woman reached under the counter and retrieved a knapsack that was clearly Nicole’s. “A rather interesting gentleman dropped it off about two hours ago. He said you might be back to retrieve it.” Nicole thanked the woman for keeping it safe and immediately headed for the car. She wanted to see if all the contents were still in the bag, minus the snake, of course. And yes, her snacks, hand sanitizer and extra film cartridges were still there. But alas, the two films she had already taken were missing. I knew I should have just brought my digital camera. What was I thinking, bringing the old Nikon? Yes, I know. It takes much better quality photographs and besides, I like to develop my own. She pondered this development. Were the films taken out deliberately, or did they fall out and roll down the embankment with the snake? And what did the visitor centre clerk mean, “an interesting gentleman” dropped off my knapsack? While these questions bubbled around in her head, she quickly set her GPS to Avignon. She couldn’t wait to search through the archives to discover what skeletons were buried in the deMerle family history.
Nicole anticipated her drive to Avignon to be peaceful as she experienced twisty roads and the pine scented glory along the way. But one thing was gnawing at her. Was she betrayed? Were the two characters, Gerard, and Captain Richard, who she befriended, not who they said they were? It seemed so complex now. As she approached Avignon, she felt someone following her. Her rear-view mirror clearly proved that. It was Gerard. Upon arriving at the archives, Mont-de-Piété, originally a medieval pawnbroker institution, she hesitated to step out of her car. She paused for a moment and held the cross she was wearing. Gerard stood waiting as Nicole approached him and questioned what her suspicion had been all along. “Take off your disguise” she exclaimed. “Who are you?” Tell me before I go to the Police. “Je suis la Police,” he responded. “A jostle for power,” Nicole continues. “I have been betrayed. Someone is my enemy!” Gerard further explained. “When I met you, I was just a man in a cemetery. When I found out you were a deMerle, I had to protect you from Captain Richard from the boat tour.” Gerard went on to explain who stole her film and revealed that some of the selfies with the Captain would be useful down the road. “You seem like a modern-day Robin Hood, Gerard. Explain.” She listened in disbelief. Gerard began to chain smoke; tousled hair, old raincoat, looking somewhat Columbo-ish. “The Captain has had three wives, do you recall, Nicole?” “Yes,” she nods. His current wife was posing as the attendant in the Visitor Centre. I thought returning your knapsack would be useful in continuing your ancestral journey. I was hiding to make sure ‘she’ didn’t hurt you.” This explained the grungy uniform, and “oh Mon Dieu, was it you who stole my camera film? Was it?” “Yes, she wanted to keep any photos of you and the Captain to protect his whereabouts that day, but I beat her to it. You see her husband is a suspect in a recent slaying. There is a series of similar events that go way back in history that we’ll discover when we step inside.” Nicole was embroiled. And confused. Would the archives provide answers to the family background? Or would she leave with disturbing family history she would want to bury in her mind forever?
Suddenly Nicole felt very tired, also lightheaded. She looked at her watch and could not believe it was after 8pm. She put her hand to her forehead and knew she had to get out of there, get back to the hostel and think about all she had experienced and heard today. She sighed, “Gerard, I’m tired, I’ve had enough for today. I’m going back to the hostel to get some rest; I need to eat …. “There’s a nice little café up the street,” stated Gerard, as he tried to take her arm. She jerked away. “No!” she said emphatically. “I need to go. I will meet you right here tomorrow morning at 9am, if you still want to help me with my De Merle history. Bon nuit.” With that she turned, took two steps, and stopped. Turning back to him, she put out her hand and said, “By the way, I want my films please.” Gerard, who had already lit another cigarette, stuttered. “Ah…, oh…, I,…. they are in my car. I’ll bring them in the morning, ok?” “No! I want them now!” she said emphatically, and started to walk towards his car. “Wait!” said Gerard, fumbling in his big pockets. “Ah…, (damn), here they are! I forgot I put them in my pocket.” He looked sheepish but agitated. Nicole grabbed them from his hand and quickly headed for her car. “Jusqu’à demain!” he hollered after her. “See you then.” She waved her hand without looking back. Once in the car, Nicole started to shake. Oh my God, what have I gotten myself into? Who should I believe? Who do I trust? Tears sprang to her eyes and she cried aloud. “Oh Mom, how I wish you were here!” Softly, but distinctly the voice came from behind her. Breathe, think, rest….you’ll know. She started the car, set her GPS, did a U-turn, and headed to the hostel. One good thing about COVID-19, only one person allowed per dorm. Once back in her room, she pulled out her snack bag from her backpack; bread, cheese, and some grapes, and she poured herself a tall glass of her Rosé wine that she bought the day before at the winery. Pen in hand, she began to write down all the questions she had about the events and discrepancies, she had of the day. Number one: Why, if Gerard wanted to protect me from Captain DeMerle, did he take me on the boat cruise in the first place? Number two: For the same reason, why did he leave me stranded in the parking lot? He could have taken me with him to find my knapsack. That did not add up. Number three: Why did he hide when I arrived at the castle? How long had he been there and why did he take my film? Any pictures taken of the Captain were in the camera still hanging around my neck! Not to mention, the woman behind the desk, dressed so weird. Who was she, really? Now that I think about it, she was no American. And last, but not least, I should kick myself! I still do not know his last name and I never did take a picture of him or us! She turned on her cell phone. It was dead. She plugged it in and headed for the shower. The hot water felt good. It soothed her aching body and calmed her nerves. Back in her room, she grabbed her phone again and turned it on. It had just enough juice to set her alarm. She crawled into bed, and was asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow. The next morning during breakfast she e-mailed the Captain and asked him if he would join her that morning at the “Mont-de-Piété” around 10:00am. Within minutes, he replied. Oui, mon amie, and may I bring my daughter Monique avec moi? I told her all about you and she’d love to meet you! We can be there at 10 o’clock. Nicole wrote back, “très bien, of course” and headed for her car. When she arrived in Avignon, she set her GPS to the nearest Police Station. It was not far away. Inside, she told the clerk she wanted to speak to the Chief of Police. “Un moment, Mademoiselle”. He pushed a button and said in French, “there is a young lady here to see you sir.” The Chief of Police opened his door and asked Nicole to come in. She explained why she was there and described Gerard as best she could but with little to go on the Chief doubted if he could help her, but he would make a few calls. “Also, sir, do you know if a Captain Richard DeMerle is suspected in a recent slaying in the area?” “Wait outside, please” he asked. She went back out and sat in the waiting room. She didn’t wait long. “I’m sorry, young lady, but none of my officers could help me with this man you described.. He could be undercover, but I do not have enough to go on. As for Monsier DeMerle, we could not find him to be suspected of anything. “Thank you, Monsieur,” said Nicole, and she went back to her car. When she got to the archives building, Gerard was waiting, leaning against the building, cigarette in hand. He looked like he hadn’t slept or shaved. At least he got rid of that ugly coat, she thought to herself. As she approached, he quipped, “Good morning. You’re late. Did you sleep well?” “I slept in,” she answered, and started up the steps. “Hey wait,” said Gerard. “I was thinking. Why don’t we go back to the Castle where they have archives …” Nicole cut him off. She looked him straight in the eye and said, “No Gerard, we are going in and you are going to show me all the crimes of the Captain, and the DeMerle family, remember? Are you coming?” Inside, they were taken to a desk with an ancient computer on it. The lady in charge noticed the look on Nicole’s face and said, “It’s slow but reliable. I’ll be at the front desk if you need me.” Gerard sat down, mumbling to himself and started typing. Nicole looked at her watch. It was 9:40am. She said a silent prayer. “What have you found?” she asked innocently. “This computer is from the dark ages,” mumbled Gerard. “Madame!" He said in a loud voice, "this computer is crap! Give us another one!” “Monsieur, they are all the same! Patience! The signal is just slow at this time of day.” “Let me try,” said Nicole. “Great, said Gerard, I’m going outside for a smoke.” As he got up, the front door opened and in walked Captain DeMerle and his daughter. They were early. Nicole looked at Gerard. He’d stopped in his tracks, turned white as a ghost and his eyes revealed his fear. The Captain and Monique also stopped short, gasped, and stared.. “Gerard!” they said in unison. “Mon Dieu! What are you doing here?” said the Captain, stunned. Gerard looked at Nicole, back at them and then bolted for the door. He was gone like the wind. Nicole, watching this all unfold, stood there, numb struck, shocked, and confused, and shaking. “You, you know him?” she stammered. The Captain came to her and put his arm around her. “Oui, ma fille, but first, are you ok?” “Yes, yes, I think so,” she breathed. “Come, let’s go for a coffee, and I’ll tell you all about how we know him.” Once inside the Café, with hot cups of café au lait and croissants de chocolat in front of them, Richard told his story. “Remember when we talked in the car on the way to the castle last night? I told you that my oldest brother, Rene, died a few years ago? Well, Gerard is his youngest son.” Nicole’s mouth dropped. “Yes, he is a DeMerle, the Captain continued. He has been trouble since he was young; drugs, petty theft, robbery, you name it. But my brother always bailed him out. Then, when he died, Gerard inherited quite a sum of Francs. Unfortunately, he squandered it away gambling, and he owed money everywhere. He came to me for help, and because I loved my brother, I stupidly got him a job on the Cruise ship I was Captain on.” “Not long after we set sail, passengers began to report things stolen from their rooms; jewelry, money, laptops, you name it. So, my police crew went to work, and a day later, they showed up in my office with Gerard, and all the stolen goods.” “Of course, we put him in the ships jail cell for the rest of the cruise, and when we docked in Marseille three weeks later, I had to turn him over to the authorities. He served some months in jail but not long enough. He hates me for what I had to do, and has tried to smear my good name. But to no avail.” “So, your wife, does she work at the Castle?” asked Nicole. “Pardon? Mais, non!" Richard threw his head back and laughed. Why do you ask me that?” So, I told them the whole story of how I met Gerard. Finally, the Captain said, “I’m so sorry, I hate to leave, but I have to go to work.” Monique turned to Nicole, put her hand on hers, and said, “I have the day off. Would you allow me to help you with your DeMerle family history? Dad told me all about you, and I’d love to spend a day with my newfound Canadian cousin!” Nicole was delighted, and said, “I’d love nothing better.” As they rose to leave, the Captain pulled a small box our of his pocket. He handed it to Nicole. “This is for you, ma Cherie. I want you to have it and wear it proudly. It will always remind you of your time in France, and that you are a DeMerle.” Nicole opened the box and let out a whispered cry. “Wow.” Inside was a brooch of a blackbird in flight, covered in black sequins and sparkling rhinestones. It was beautiful! She threw her arms around the Captain, and uttered a sincere, “thank you.” “De rien, no problem. I am so glad we met, and now I have a Canadian niece! May I say that, even though it may, or may not, be true?” “I’d love that, Uncle Richard?” They all laughed. That night, after a day filled with chatter, discoveries, a gazillion pictures, and photocopied sheets full of family history, Nicole lay in her bunk at the hostel, filled with gratitude and pride. “We did it, Mom,” she said. “You were with me all the time.” She heard the voice whisper, well done Nicki, je t’aime.