(being the first chapter of
“The Return of Inspector Pirat: His First Book”)
When John Holmes got to the top of the main chair-lift from Klochers Village to the summit of Mount Mlosc, he found a large group of people gathered around the top of another chair-lift to his right.
Knowing it would be wiser to ignore the situation completely and to continue to the main skiing pistes to his left, he nevertheless sauntered off towards the crowd, perhaps through idle curiosity, perhaps because of the professional interest of a police officer on holiday. “Plain ruddy nosy” would have been the phrase, suitably bowdlerised, his staff would have used.
The chair-lift was stopped, and a rather plump lady in a striking pink-and-white ski outfit was lying on the ground underneath one of the chairs. Someone with at least some medical experience (perhaps another meddlesome professional on holiday, John thought to himself) was crouched over the body, examining it in a rather brisk, perfunctory manner. It seemed dead.
Suddenly a swathe was cut through the crowd as a police officer and his entourage arrived. He quickly questioned the medical person, then the chair-lift attendant, and then, surprisingly, turned to John.
“You must be a policeman from England on holiday, I think?” he asked rhetorically. John hadn’t realised that it was so obvious, but then conceded that he could probably have pulled the same trick had he met this foreign police officer in Britain. He nodded. “Can I be of any assistance?” he asked unenthusiastically.
“I am sure you will be valuable,” replied Inspector Vasilev (as his name turned out to be). “Mrs. Wolf here is English. Most of the tourists here are English. My English is perhaps not so good in conversation. You could perhaps help me out if anyone from England needs to be grilled.”
John had usually found that most of the inhabitants of holiday resorts that catered mainly for British tourists invariably spoke reasonable English, at least within the spheres of their respective trades. However, that rarely seemed to apply to the local police force. He assumed that the reason was that the officers had to act and speak as representatives of their country’s law at all times, and could therefore never even contemplate making the slightest error. Surprisingly therefore, Inspector Vasilev seemed happy to converse in English, even if he had obviously learnt most of the technical terms from old American detective films.
John waited whilst the Inspector finished his enquiries with the chair-lift attendant and the medical gentleman (who turned out to be a chiropodist).
The Inspector took him aside. “It looks shut-and-open,” he confided. “Mrs. Wolf has been stabbed to the death. The knife, from one of our hotels in the Village I am afraid, was in her chest up to the hilt. But she was alone on the chair-lift when she arrived up here. Petko here,” he indicated the young chair-lift attendant, “Says he had just started up the lift, and there had been only one other passenger, a young girl who had been about five chairs in front of Mrs. Wolf. Petko stopped the lift to get poor Mrs. Wolf off, but he checked with the lower station that there weren’t any others still on the lift, otherwise he would have restarted it and let them off.”
“The knife was well hidden under Mrs. Wolf’s ski jacket, so nobody could have thrown the knife at her. We had better go on down to the lower station and have a chat there. I suppose someone could have sat alongside Mrs. Wolf, killed her, and then jumped off the chair-lift near the top. It would have been quite a jump, but just possible at one or two points where the chairs run fairly close to the ground. Based on my experience, I would have said that it could have been suicide, but that the position of the knife made it unlikely. Are you coming?” Inspector Vasilev asked as he paced off towards the chair-lift. John realised his answering in the negative had not even been considered.
The fatal chair-lift was one that served a fairly short isolated red run of medium difficulty that started out from the top of the main chair-lift, but which lay in the opposite direction to that of the majority of the ski runs. As Klochers was an East European ski resort ‘manufactured’ (and renamed) largely for first-time inexperienced British skiers, the slightly more difficult runs were not usually very popular until at least the middle of the week, certainly not early on Monday morning. This particular red run was rarely used much until at least the morning ski tuition classes had finished, or the more foolhardy skiers had awoken from their après-ski-induced sleep.
Just after the lift had started, Inspector Vasilev pointed out an area of disturbed snow below them. “If we are looking for a murderer, I am sure that that is where he would have jumped off. But it’s on a curve in the piste below, so the snow could have been churned up” (Inspector Vasilev was clearly pleased with this phrase) “by yesterday’s skiers.”
For the rest of the short journey down, the Inspector extolled the virtues of his homeland and its scenery. As he became more emotional, his command of English became less proficient. Occasionally, he flung out both arms in a gesture of overwhelming pride: John felt forced to cling tightly to the security bar for safety.
At the bottom of the lift, another, almost-identical, attendant was lounging against a barrier, clearly bored. His name was Petko too, it seemed. Although he was probably only accustomed to using English in the few sentences relevant to his particular job, he was happy enough to conduct the conversation in English for John’s sake.
John was surprised to see that Inspector Vasilev already had a Polaroid photograph of Mrs. Wolf. He had seen one of his team using a rather large and cumbersome piece of equipment, but had assumed it to be some forensic laboratory apparatus rather than the very old instant camera that he now realised it was.
Vasilev explained briefly what had happened, and of their suspicions. He showed Petko the photograph.
Petko nodded, “Yes, yes, I am recognising this lady. Before Petko told me to switch off the juice, I had only two chairs in operation. She got on the chair alone.”
Both Inspector Vasilev and John asked simultaneously, “You’re sure she got on alone?”
Petko was most definite, “Yes, yes, she was on her own in the chair.” He frowned a little, and added, “But if she had been murdered, she would have been seen, surely?”
Back in the chair-lift on their way back to the top, the Inspector turned to John, “Look, if he insists that she got into the chair on her own, it must have been suicide. I will continue my investigations, of course, but I can’t imagine any reason why the two attendants here might have lied. I can’t think there would have been any collusion, either: the staff here don’t tend to mix much with the tourists.”
“Anyway, I’m sure you want to get on with enjoying your holiday,” the Inspector continued with rather more consideration than John had thought him capable of. “If you would care to do me a favour, perhaps you would keep your ear to the floor with the English tourists. If you hear of anyone who’s been in Klochers before, or who has some sort of relationship with anyone here, then please inform me r.s.v.p. In return, it will be my pleasure to let you know how things are progressing from up my end.”
And indeed John did manage to have a good holiday. It was his first time skiing, and the resort perfectly suited his total lack of ability combined with his rather high level of dignity. In fact, he began to enjoy himself so much that he avoided the après-ski after around nine o’clock in order to get an early night and be up on the slopes as early as possible in the morning.
Inspector Vasilev kept to his word, and sent an officer round each evening to “keep him postered.” The Inspector had since questioned the two chair-lift attendants again, but they still maintained that Mrs. Wolf had got on alone and had arrived at the top of Mount Mlosc both alone and dead. He felt certain that there was no reason to consider that they might be involved in any way.
Mr. Wolf he had also “grilled.” Not a very nice man, he thought. Mr. Wolf was a relatively successful car dealer from North London with an agency for some imported Oriental cars made not far from Japan: however, he hankered after a BMW agency. When asked if he thought his wife might have any reason to take her life, he suggested that their rapidly-disintegrating marriage might have been at the back of her mind. No, he didn’t do it, he said. He didn’t have an alibi, but, there again, from what he had heard, he said he thought he wouldn’t be needing one.
John did try and ask around to see who knew Mr. and Mrs. Wolf, but few had seen much of them as they had kept apart from the rest of their group. He only learnt that they hadn’t seemed to like each other very much at the beginning of the holiday, and that there had been some arguments. However, they had seemed to be getting closer as the week wore on. Mr. Wolf was apparently seen by some as being very charming and persuasive, whilst others thought him unpleasant and not to be trusted, in short, the archetypal car salesman. However, John was aware that his policemanly manner was at such variance with the holiday atmosphere as to deter most people from really opening out to him.
And so John tried to forget Mrs. Wolf, and concentrated on perfecting his skiing technique: at this stage, this consisted of staying upright as much as possible for as long as possible, even if this did usually involve his clutching at other people (some of them quite nice, he thought).
And one of the quite nice people to whom he had clung (not altogether randomly) was Jackie from Sunderland, with whom he was getting quite friendly.
But it was on Wednesday that some things began to fall into place: not with his skiing of course, for that was beyond redemption.
Wednesday morning, Jackie had a slight hangover, and so stayed at the hotel for an extra hour or so. She said she was not going to be good company for at least a while, and so suggested that John go on ahead of her.
At the top of the main chair-lift, he turned to his left, away from the red run that had messed up his holiday to some degree (and, for that matter, Mrs. Wolf’s as well, he thought). To his surprise, he saw Jackie ahead of him about to descend an easy run back to the village.
“So where’s your headache now, Jackie?” he yelled loudly, for once coming to quite a professional stop alongside her. His superb manoeuvre was wasted: as the girl turned around, he saw that it wasn’t Jackie at all. Admittedly, she had similar hair, but that was all: in all other respects she was totally unlike Jackie.
Being a cheap resort with few difficult runs, Klochers attracted first-time skiers who were not as yet committed: hence, they spent less on their ski outfits than those who regularly visited the more professional (and expensive) resorts. Most were kitted out by a well-known chain of clothing stores, and pink was the ‘in’ colour this year.
Both Jackie and this girl were wearing identical outfits. And he had mistaken this girl for Jackie. After all, only part of the face and some hair were visible.
He wondered if one of the chair-lift attendants had made the same mistake as he had.
He remembered a comment from the lower Petko. He wondered why he was so sure that Mrs. Wolf couldn’t have been murdered without having been seen. Had he seen others on the slopes below? There couldn’t have been anyone else on the chair-lifts who could have seen anything, surely? The upper Petko had said that there had been a girl alone in the first occupied chair, and his namesake from the bottom chair-lift station had said Mrs. Wolf had got on alone also. As Mrs. Wolf had been to the rear, surely the lower Petko wouldn’t have expected her to have been observed by the girl in front.
John was still getting nowhere with his unofficial investigation, so he tried to clear his mind and get on with his skiing.
But Petko’s words were obviously still whirling around in his head, for he concentrated less and less on his skiing, and, surprisingly, began to ski better. He found himself positioning his body more as his instructor had suggested, and less as his terror dictated he should. He stopped leaning backwards, as only the children seemed to be able to get away with that. When traversing, he began to lean towards the bottom of the slope instead of away, as some internal sense of preservation usually told him to. And, most surprisingly, he even forgot to feel embarrassed when he fell over.
His preoccupation with Mrs. Wolf’s airborne demise thus helped his skiing proficiency immeasurably. It would be unfortunate if he should solve the problem, as his ability to remain vertical on the slopes would probably diminish rapidly.
But it was on Thursday, in mid-traverse, that everything finally fell into place and he realised what must really have happened.
Well, most of it anyway.
The next day he had a chat with Petko at the lower chair-lift station, and then sought out Inspector Vasilev.
He said he was all ears.
“There was only ever one real suspect, but I now know that Mr. Wolf murdered his wife.”
“But how?” interrupted Inspector Vasilev. “The chair-lift attendants are adamant she got on alone, and that she was alone when she reached the top. Are you suggesting some collusion between the husband and the attendant at the lower station?”
John shook his head.
“No. Mr. Wolf must have gone skiing down that red run early on the first day. He probably had little to persuade him to stay with his wife in the hotel. He spotted a girl with the same build as his wife, wearing exactly the same outfit: he may even have thought it was his wife at first. He got chatting to her, and found that she intended to start skiing there at the same time the next day as well. He may even have arranged a rendezvous with her.”
“On the fatal morning, he managed to convince his wife that she should accompany him skiing: their relationship seemed to be improving, and he could be very persuasive. He waited for this other girl to ski ahead of them down the red run: if he had arranged a rendezvous with her and she had seen him, he would have merely pointed at his wife, mouthed some silent apology, and ignored the girl from then on. The tricky bit, as far as he was concerned, was how to induce his wife to get onto the chair-lift without her ski jacket: surprisingly, it rarely seems cold here, but he would have had to be have been pretty persuasive to get her to remove it. Perhaps he had some sort of bet whether she could stand the cold, or perhaps he was holding it whilst she adjusted the rest of her clothing. He would have thought of something, I’m sure.”
“The girl would have got onto the chair-lift first, alone of course. The chair-lift attendant would later testify that Mrs. Wolf, actually someone wearing the same ski outfit as she had, had got on alone.”
“Mr. and Mrs. Wolf then boarded the chair-lift about five chairs after this lone girl. The attendant wouldn’t have bothered to mention the woman without a jacket who got on later with a man who was carrying her ski jacket inside out.”
“Once Mrs. Wolf had put her jacket on again, her husband stabbed her, and then jumped off near the summit (a reasonably easy feat, as we’ve agreed).”
Inspector Vasilev shifted thoughtfully in his seat, “O.K. If we have a word with our friend Petko and go over things in more detail, I’m sure we’ll be able to match what you say happened with his statement. We shouldn’t have too much trouble hunting for this girl in pink, either.”
He clapped his hands. “Yes,” he said rather loudly. He seemed pleased.
John was less pleased. While he had spent all this time helping the Police with their enquiries, Jackie had switched her attentions to a chartered accountant from Hemel Hempstead.
Nigella Ingledew sought out her tutor, Tony Harrison, in a corner of the Students’ Union bar.
“Do you know Professor Guiteras well?” she asked.
Her tutor smiled. “I thought you’d be one of the ones he’d pick.”
Nigella’s face obviously registered her disappointment: “You know about it?”
He nodded and smiled, and then continued, “Every year, our Professor Guiteras winkles out those who show some interest in detective stories. He then invites them to what I’ve heard is a truly sumptuous buffet at this house for an evening in celebration of detective fiction. He’s had a few of his stories published in his native, er, Spain, I suppose. Everyone attending has to read out an original story they’ve written specially. Have you prepared yours yet?”
“Well, I’ve written it, but I’m not too sure about it. Couldn’t I just ‘borrow’ one from a book?” Nigella ventured.
“You’d better not. Some student tried it once. She borrowed a short story by Edmund Crispin based on the fact that ‘rowed’ and ‘rode’ have the same sounds. She didn’t seem to realise that our Professor Guiteras has read just about every detective story ever written: she would have had to have found something really obscure to have fooled him.”
“Anyway, he knew the story. He thoroughly humiliated her in front of all her fellow-students, and she left his house in tears.”
“Well, I’ve written a story about someone murdered at a ski resort. Can I read it to you?” Nigella asked. “You could let me know whether you think it’s good enough, Tony.”
Tony leaned back and closed his eyes.
“Read on,” he said.
Professor Guiteras lived in an old three-storey semi-detached house in a street consisting solely of similar buildings. All the others had long since been converted into flats for student accommodation, and his was the only one still intact.
Nigella could have located the house merely by examining the décor visible through the upstairs windows. Professor Guiteras’ was the only house to have paintings rather than large colour posters adorning the walls. The front door was wide open, and, by the sound of gentle conversation coming from the interior, she realised she was not the first to arrive.
Indeed, she was the last.
“Ah, my dear,” Professor Guiteras bestowed three syllables upon this last word, “Do have a drink. You’re the last, but not to worry. My wife is still preparing the table, and so perhaps we should start the entertainment. I think I’ve invited rather too many to my soiree, but it is such a good year, such a good year, and I didn’t want to leave any of you out.”
“I think you all know the reason for your being here. I adore detective fiction, and I think that all of you share my love. I feel sure that all of you are capable of constructing a fine story in the tradition of the Masters. As payment, I am afraid all I can offer is some fine food and some even finer wines.”
“So, who would like to make a start? Nigella, perhaps …?”
During the Professor’s opening speech, most of the students there had gradually started moving towards the far end of the room, as if subconsciously trying to recreate the same atmosphere as at his lectures, or perhaps just trying not to be chosen first.
As the last to arrive, Nigella had remained near the door, and decided it might be thought rude to move into the rear of the room until the Professor had finished his introduction. She was therefore nearest to Professor Guiteras when he selected her to read the first story. As with many people, she was never quite sure whether it was the best policy to be first, last, or near the middle, so the Professor’s deciding for her suited her.
She began her story.
She felt conscious that she was talking a little too fast, and perhaps not stressing the salient points as well as she should. When she had finished, she could sense that her fellow-students felt unsure what to do, as they were never expected to show any reaction after Professor Guiteras’ lectures. After an uncomfortable few seconds, the students politely and rather quietly applauded. Nigella thought that the later stories might receive louder applause, perhaps because the audience would feel more relaxed as the evening wore on, but more likely because of the wine consumed.
Her tale over, Nigella slowly moved towards the back of the room, determined to remain as inconspicuous as possible for the remainder of the evening, and just to enjoy the food and wine.
“Excellent,” Professor Guiteras said, rising to his feet: he had chosen a comfortable chair, which the students had supposed to be a favourite, and had avoided. “I think my wife is still not quite ready, so perhaps we can squeeze in another story before eating.”
“Simon …?” he entreated.
The Professor called upon Simon Woolway to ‘deliver his sermon’ as he put it (rather too tweely, Nigella thought).
Nigella wondered if ‘tweely’ were a real word.
Simon began …