The Kerala Princess
by Ian Roumain
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
In the southeastern quadrant of France, in the Department of Haute-Savoie in the Rhône-Alps region, sits the nondescript village of Sansnom. In the shadow of Mont Blanc itself, rare visitors always deem the town idyllic, but they fail to detect what its inhabitants have understood from childhood, that it is a fringe place, an isolated post on the borderlands not only between France and Italy, but also between civilization and a wild and inhospitable region that zealously guards its secrets.
A narrow, solitary road leads from Sansnom to the edge of the thick forest that marks the start of the foothills. At its terminus there is a small gendarmerie where Chief Inspector Jean-Paul Grenier sits at his desk, engrossed in his paperwork.
Being Chief Inspector of Sansnom means command of a three-man law-enforcement team; himself, Yves Dabain, and Sebastian Malcorps. Grenier had achieved such an exalted position by the ripe age of twenty-five, when his predecessor succumbed to a heart ailment. Then Deputy Chief Inspector, Grenier, knowing everyone in town (all 256 souls) as well as a host of people in Chamonix, the nearest urban center of note some sixty-five kilometers away, had been the obvious choice.
He loosens his tie, glances out the window. Their sole official police car, a hulking black Citroen 15CV, is parked outside. Above it, the late afternoon sun paints the nearby snowcapped mountains orange. It’s been one of those bitterly cold and cloudless January days, the kind that make your lungs sting if you inhale too deeply.
As Jean-Paul caps his fountain pen and organizes his papers into neat piles, he hears voices from the front room. Yves is speaking with someone. Jean-Paul takes a final drag on his Gauloise, stubs it out in an overflowing ashtray. He then kicks the radiator beneath the window, silencing the irritating clanging that it periodically makes like a discordant gong. Someone is supposed to repair it soon, but he’s sure they’ll make it through all of winter before the problem is addressed. He then walks into the front office to see what is going on.
The office is an open space boasting two desks; a flattering picture of round-spectacled President Vincent Auriol, current leader of the Republic, hangs on the wall. Lieutenant Yves Dabain sits at his desk near the front door, puzzlement on his face, a worn canvas bag before him. Jean-Paul has just missed someone’s exit; the bell on the door is still rattling.
“Who was that?” Grenier asks. Yves is doughy and sports a failed attempt at a moustache that makes him look younger, precisely the opposite of its intended effect. His coloring is albino crossed with carrot, and he owes his rank entirely to the shallowness of the local manpower pool.
“It was him, Inspector,” Yves utters reverentially. Grenier peers out the window by the front door, catches a glimpse of a man’s back heading toward the mountain. Bundled up in worn coats, with a large fur-fringed hood over his head, he always reminds Grenier of an Eskimo.
“It was the American,” Yves confirms unnecessarily. Grenier watches the figure vanish into the trees. It is cold out, the Chief Inspector thinks, and getting colder as night approaches.
“What did he want?”
“I don’t know. He said something in English and left this bag on my desk.” Yves looks certain it contains a viper.
“Open it,” the Inspector orders, confident there is no danger. Yves is only twenty; he was only fourteen when the war ended. To him, the American who lives up on the mountain is a quasi-mythological figure, a hermit the children of Sansnom speak of only in hushed tones.
In reality he is most likely a deserter who threw his uniform away and stayed after his countrymen withdrew from Haute-Savoie. If he has any family back in America, they no doubt believe him killed in action by the Germans.
Grenier has occasionally considered tracking the man down; he is almost certainly in the country illegally. But Jean-Paul feels a vague kinship with the man, who was a wartime ally of France and, more importantly, the most likely outcome of searching for him would be to scare him across the border into Italy, stirring up that hornet’s nest. And for what? The American doesn’t bother anybody, and he gives the children something to whisper about.
“What are you waiting for?” Jean-Paul asks as Yves continues to stare vacantly, mouth breather that he is. He nearly jumps out of his skin when the telephone rings. He greets the caller, nods twice, and hangs up.
“Malcorps. He’s still sick and can’t come in.”
No surprise there. Jean-Paul saw Sebastian two days prior. He had been oozing snot and coughing like a backfiring truck.
Yves moves the sack and inadvertently straightens one of its sides, revealing the words AIR INDIA printed on it in clear black letters. Even dull Yves knows about the Lockheed Constellation that crashed into Mont Blanc the previous November. She had been travelling from Bombay to London via layovers in Cairo and Geneva, and was descending towards that Swiss city when she had found all 4,807 meters of Western Europe’s highest peak directly in her path. Since then the mountain periodically offered up more evidence of the air disaster. An Italian patrol had recently discovered part of her landing gear on their territory.
“The Kerala Princess?” Yves asks, impressing the Inspector by remembering the airplane’s name. The hermit must have discovered the bag in his incessant wanderings and decided to turn it over to the authorities. It is a surprising act of civil responsibility from an individual who has elected to eschew society.
“Continue,” Jean-Paul orders as he digs a matchbook out of his pocket, lights a fresh Gauloise from the pack he always keeps on hand. Yves pulls two items from the bag: a gray, zippered pouch, and a thick envelope with writing on it. Since the writing is in English, and knowing that Jean-Paul’s mother was American, Yves hands him the envelope.
“To Whom It May Concern,” Jean-Paul translates, but before he can open it, Yves gasps in surprise. He has unzipped the pouch and twelve cut and polished gemstones are now scattered across his desktop. But eleven of the stones pale in comparison with the twelfth, a rock the size of a man’s clenched fist. It is flawless, each green facet smooth as glass.
“Emeralds,” Grenier observes, feels his pulse quicken. They must be worth a fortune, especially that massive one! It’s a good thing Sebastian Malcorps is out sick, because he has a big mouth. If he knew about the emeralds, the entire village of Sansnom would know in a matter of hours.
“Put them back in the pouch,” Jean-Paul orders, doing his best to sound nonchalant. Yves obeys and Jean-Paul takes it.
“What are we going to do with them?” Yves wonders.
“Tomorrow,” Jean-Paul replies, cigarette clenched between his teeth, “I will drive to Chamonix and find out about returning them to the airline. They will know who the owners are.”
“What if they died in the crash?” Yves scratches at his thin moustache as Jean-Paul heads back into his office.
“This bag is not luggage, Dabain. It’s a shipping bag. The owner of the stones was not aboard the flight.” Inspector Grenier returns, hands empty once again. “In any case, I will get to the bottom of it tomorrow. Why,” he asks casually, pointing at his wristwatch, “don’t you go home early? I bet Beatrice would appreciate the surprise.”
Beatrice is the little pinch-faced girl Yves married the previous summer. Somewhat smarter than Yves, she keeps him like livestock: for breeding purposes, and to be shot for emergency meat if she’s ever faced with a harsh winter.
“I’m not off for another hour,” Yves protests.
“Go,” Jean-Paul insists, then tries to blunt his tone with a forced smile. He wants Lieutenant Dabain to get lost so he can dedicate some time to examining the gemstones.
“But what about covering for Seba? Remember, he’s not coming in.”
“I will cover for tonight. Go. And not a word to anyone about the American or what he brought us. Understand? Not a word.”
Yves nods, rises to his feet, crams his uniform cap onto his head, takes his long coat from the hook by the door, says goodnight, and reluctantly leaves.
Jean-Paul watches him through the window by the door as he starts his twenty-minute walk back into the village, a cloud of visible breath enveloping his head as he goes.
Ecstatic, Jean-Paul locks the door, goes into his office, unzips the pouch, and allows himself another quick glance at the stones — the big one is truly amazing — before putting them all in the safe behind his desk, alongside his loaded Walther P38. He closes the heavy door and spins the dial, sealing them in.
He then returns to his desk, slices the envelope with a letter opener, and carefully extracts the thick stack of papers within. They’re in English, and dated at the top, in the Anglo-Saxon manner with month preceding date, followed by year: 1/8/51. Yesterday, so the hermit is doing a good job of keeping track of time, in addition to somehow obtaining stationery.
Grenier leafs through the pages, eager to see if the hermit’s ramblings contain any concrete information about the enormous emerald. He considers opening the safe once again, to take another look at the gemstones... and dismisses the idea. He knows they are there, safe, in the dark within. He lights a fresh cigarette, starts reading:
You are now in possession of the sack I recovered from the mountainside, previously belonging to an airplane that met its demise some months ago. Why, you’re wondering, have I decided to surrender the stones instead of keeping them in my possession, given their obvious value? These pages will endeavor to explain my actions, and more importantly, allow you to take necessary precautions.
The last sentence appears to be a warning. Maybe. Grenier’s English is rusty; he can’t remember the last time he read anything in his mother’s native tongue. It’s clear from the writing that the American is an educated man; perhaps he was a teacher, or a newspaperman, before the war.
It was the airplane engines that first pulled me from sleep. It was snowing, but they were audible above the wind. And then, suddenly, the impact — the sickening sound of the fuselage broken against rock. My eyes detected a flash of light, and then utter silence.
In an instant I decided that my voluntary exile from mankind should not prevent me from being of possible help to unfortunate travelers, so I set off in the direction I believed the craft had fallen.
Like a long-abandoned bad habit, Grenier’s English is returning quickly. The words are coming faster, and in his head, at least, they are pronounced correctly. To him, English sounds like American movies and his mother’s California, not like the British. In this case that happens to be correct for the hermit, although he has no idea where the man is from. Maybe he has an accent from the southern United States, or New York.
The radiator suddenly erupts into its damned incessant clanging. Grenier kicks it into silence. As he returns to his desk, footfalls creaking the floorboards, he notices that outside both daylight and the temperature are diminishing. Clouds are moving in; it’s going to snow. He savors a drag on his cigarette, eyes the papers. For some reason, he is hooked on the mysterious American’s narrative.
Mont Blanc is vast, its great flanks covered by thick alpine forests and gorges, and it is a virtual labyrinth at night, one where up and down become uncertain, and where you must place each boot carefully for fear of falling into a concealed crevasse or triggering an unexpected rock slide.
That night proved a particularly bitter example of its kind, especially considering the date on the calendar, and before long not only was my search frustrated but I began to grow concerned for my own survival. My face and ears went numb, and I soon felt cold and damp insinuating themselves into my boots and infiltrating my gloves.
Still, I pressed on. I had been searching for the crash site nearly two hours when I sensed it. At first I dismissed it as a trick of the mind, but soon realized it was much more than that.
I am referring to a sense of unbridled and intense fear that gripped me like a claw around my heart. My brain froze with terror, my veins and nostrils constricted, my insides were suddenly colder than my outside. I was paralyzed. I could not even blink.
There was no one present beside myself, yet I knew I was not alone. Someone, or something, was nearby. Its proximity filled me with the dread I have already described, and its odor assailed my nose. Musky and coarse, the stench was so powerful it actually seemed to have texture.
And then the terror left and the smell evaporated so completely that I wondered if they had been imaginary. Unsettled by the lurker (as I dubbed the unseen presence in my mind), and thwarted by the increasingly inclement weather, I returned to my hut without finding the wreckage.
This is a piece of information. The hermit has built a hut somewhere on the mountain, and since the man in charge of the Italian side, an officious twit surnamed Dusi, hadn’t found it yet, it must be in French territory.
As for the hermit’s description of this unseen terror, this lurker, the man was obviously losing his grip on reality.
Copyright © 2016 by Ian Roumain