The Kerala Princess
by Ian Roumain
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Outside, night has fallen. Grenier can make out the Citroën only by the light that emanates from his office window.
Unconsciously, Jean-Paul swivels his noisy chair and eyes the locked safe. He stares at it for nearly a minute, as if his gaze might eventually penetrate the metal and offer him another glimpse of the massive green stone.
The phone on his desk rings. It takes Jean-Paul a moment to will his blood pressure down before he lifts the receiver.
It’s Dabain, calling to see if all is well. Grenier reminds his subordinate that there is no need for him to check on a superior officer. No, the gemstones do not require extra security since no one but the two of them, and the American himself, even know about them. Jean-Paul hangs up and eyes the safe again, is gripped by the desire to re-check its contents. He succumbs to the impulse, sees that all is well, and immediately feels foolish. He re-closes the safe.
He eyes the hermit’s papers, pulls a fresh Gauloise from his pack, lights up:
During the following week I kept an even lower profile as both gendarmes and Italians invaded my mountain to search for the crashed plane. Re-emerging only once the search parties had finally been called off, I came across a cave I had never detected before. Its mouth appeared to have been customarily cloaked from view by strategically placed branches and underbrush, but on that occasion they had been left to one side, for reasons unknown. Had I discovered the unseen lurker’s lair?
This talk of a lurker and the hidden cave is vaguely amusing and recalls tales that have been part of Grenier’s mental furniture since youth. Feral werewolves, known as loups-garou, were said to live in the remote Alps. But those are tales meant to frighten disobedient children.
It is clear that the American has been on the mountain too long, exposure causing some kind of mental infirmity. That would explain why he discovered a bag full of emeralds and decided to turn it over to the police.
Outside, the wind is audible against the exterior of the gendarmerie. He can feel tendrils of cold seeping into the building.
Inside the cave I discovered the Air India sack. But I almost didn’t, because once my eyes adjusted to the darkness within, I noticed that the floor was strewn with bones. The leavings of a predator, there were skeletons from a wide assortment of animals: birds, deer, squirrels, even dogs.
Unwilling to meet the cave’s denizen, I was about to leave when I spotted the sack amongst the discarded bones. I grabbed it and discovered that beneath it was a skull – a human skull! I stepped back in surprise and heard bones crunch beneath my left boot. I was standing in a human ribcage. My mind whirled in a hundred directions at once. Could it be from a survivor of the crash?
Jean-Paul scoffs. There are no cannibals in Europe, not even in the wilds of Mont Blanc, nor had there been any since at least the waning days of the Romans.
The radiator explodes into a cacophony of clanging. Jean-Paul jumps to his feet and kicks the damned thing, silences it once again. He returns to his creaky chair, picks up the papers.
That was when the oppressive, terrifying sensation seized my mind again. That horrendous, putrid stench would surely follow. Clutching the Air India sack close (still ignorant of its contents, I nevertheless felt certain it was worth hanging on to), I fled the cave.
I took a circuitous route to my hut in case someone, or something, was following me. I reached it as night fell, tucked into a fold in the mountainside I had selected to best conceal its presence. Once I regained the hut’s interior, I lowered the beam to lock myself in. For once I was happy about its lack of windows.
Feeling reasonably safe, a new desire overwhelmed me, that of examining the contents of the Air India sack. That’s when I first discovered the emeralds, and THE emerald. You’ll agree that its size defies description. Its value must be incalculable.
Jean-Paul’s eyes rise from the pages, go once again to the safe. The safe that holds the emeralds. Including THE emerald. His emerald? Perhaps...
I also found documents attesting to the stone’s provenance, and have included them, along with the shipping documents.
Jean-Paul finds a document, both official and officious in the British Imperial fashion. It dates from several decades earlier. Each emerald is described in detail, including size, weight, and place of discovery. They all hailed from a particular mine in someplace called Rajasthan. From there they had travelled to Jaipur, and then Bombay, where they had been cut and polished.
A second paper identifies the stones as the property of a certain Corduner & Sons, English gem dealers in India, and details the sale of said gemstones to another firm, in London, named Sillitoe & Litefoot. Jean-Paul declines to pronounce those names, even in the privacy of his head.
Grenier checks his watch; nearly 1900 hours. It gets dark early in January; it already feels like midnight. He crosses the room to a small bookshelf, finds the thick Levasseur Atlas, flips through its dated pages until he finds the subcontinent. Pakistan and India are nowhere to be found. Instead, the enormous region is simply labeled Le Raj, an immense colonial territory once the envy of imperialists everywhere.
After a few minutes he discovers Rajasthan in the northwest, alongside a place called the Thar Desert. He can think of no more exotic location, and images of India swirl through his mind. The emeralds had come a very great distance to wind up in the safe. In his safe...
Grenier opens his bottom desk drawer, pulls out a small glass and a bottle of red wine he’s saved for special occasions. He extracts the cork with a satisfying pop and pours himself a generous glass. He takes a swig, rolls it around his tongue. A good Bordeaux, in his judgment. Growing impatient, Grenier skims a few paragraphs until his eye catches on the following:
There is someone, something, living here on the mountain besides myself. As to the origins of this being, I remain wholly ignorant. I freely admit that I have so far failed to see it with my eyes, but all of my other senses assure me that it is real.
The wind, gathering strength, strains against the walls of the isolated gendarmerie and it groans like an old galleon at sea. Grenier glances out his window, sees the outline of the Citroën, swirling snowflakes, and little else.
The English is taxing his mind. The hermit occasionally uses words Jean-Paul doesn’t know. His thoughts return again to the gemstones. There is a fence in Chamonix who is always on the lookout for valuable merchandise, but the big emerald, Jean-Paul feels certain, will exceed his pocket. Perhaps a trip to Marseilles will be necessary. Or even Paris.
At that point the power goes out. Merde, Jean-Paul announces to himself. It isn’t surprising. Winds and weather this time of year frequently result in outages. He checks the telephone, confirms what he already knows: the line is down as well.
He lights a match and makes his way to the front room and the shelf behind Dabain’s desk where the canisters of diesel are stored. All he has to do is grab one, go outside to the generator, fill it up, and get it running. But when he grabs the nearest canister, he instantly knows it’s empty. So is the second one.
Irritated, he wraps his fingers around an oil lamp also on the shelf. The wind raises its crescendo as he lights it with a fresh match and adjusts the knob to regulate the flow of oil. The flame flickers, casting a forest of dancing shadows around the room. He spots a piece of paper beneath one of the canisters - a note from Dabain to himself: “Buy diesel.” Incompetent ass!
As Grenier makes his way back to his desk, his mind digs up a word from his youth that he’s been unconsciously fishing for: Tatzelwurm. German, of course, the name of a dragon that is supposed to dwell in the Alps, resembling a big iguana with a cat’s head. Another creature imagined to cow children.
Jean-Paul creaks back into his seat, places his lamp on the desk. It creates a nice pool of light in which he can continue reading. He does so as soon as he finishes pouring himself a fresh glass.
Since I discovered the gemstones, I have noticed a marked change in my behavior. I’ve become loath to the idea of putting distance between the emeralds and myself. Bizarre, don’t you think? To covet inanimate objects which do nothing beside sparkle in the correct light.
Slightly irritated by the American’s increasingly (and inexplicably) negative view of the beautiful stones, Jean-Paul lifts the bottle only to discover that it has run dry. Remembering that Dabain has a similar stash in his desk, he seizes the lamp and goes into the front room to search for it.
Before he can locate Dabain’s bottle, a loud thud fills the air. It is not the pesky radiator. This sound is different, perhaps from the front door? Could it be coming from above, on the roof? Grenier freezes in place, ears straining. He raises the lamp high in order to cast the light further and is rewarded only by the sight of snowflakes being blown against the window by the door.
Jean-Paul’s reason reasserts itself. The winds, coupled with the American’s increasingly ludicrous story, are playing tricks on him. The disturbing thud is part of the gendarmerie’s general complaint against the wind. He finds Dabain’s bottle, happily untouched.
Jean-Paul returns to his desk, quickly pours himself an even more generous glass than before, and discovers, with great satisfaction, that it is superior to the previous bottle.
I am no longer able to ignore the obvious; the emeralds have somehow infected my mind, and for this reason I have decided to part with them. But I can’t just toss them into the snow; their grip on my mind will remain. Distance, I feel, is the key to severing their grasp. Furthermore, the documents do indicate the rightful owners and I am hoping you gendarmes will be able to get the stones to their intended destination. But you must beware their power to trigger an unhealthy and illogically covetous nature.
Jean-Paul scowls. The instinct to put those stones in his safe and protect them is logical. A layman can see that the stones, especially the giant one, are of enormous value. Only a fool would ignore that. And that is what the hermit is, of course: a fool, one broken by the war. The American has been reduced to lunatic status, throwing away gemstones and imagining unseen monsters.
And beware the lurker; I believe it is not immune to the gemstones’ power. My elusive rival has discovered the location of my hut and has repeatedly sought to gain entrance. I have managed to keep it at bay for weeks, but it won’t give up; the stones won’t let it. I believe the creature, which moves surreptitiously during daylight, may be observing my movements and—
A loud bang startles Jean-Paul and he knocks his glass over, spills red across the papers. He yanks the glass up quickly enough to save most of its contents, then snatches the papers up and holds them over his trashcan so that the spilled wine runs off into it. More banging resonates through the gendarmerie, this time accompanied by the ringing of the bell. Something, or someone, is pounding very hard on the front door.
Jean-Paul quickly opens the safe, pulls his Walther P38 pistol from it, checks its eight-bullet clip. He then extinguishes the oil lamp, plunging himself into darkness.
He sits perfectly still, allows his eyes to adjust. The pounding has ceased. Grenier’s ears strain to detect further evidence of the intruder, but the darkness amplifies the sounds around him. The wind and the sighing of the gendarmerie both seem louder. How sound is the structure?
Minutes pass during which he scarcely dares to breathe, lest the lurker outside hear him. And then Jean-Paul laughs. The lurker? He’s allowed the weather and the crazy man’s narrative to get the better of him, and now he’s sitting in the dark in his office clutching his pistol. Thank God he is alone and unwitnessed. He strikes another match and is about to re-light the lamp when a great, cacophonous racket fills the air and sends his heart into somersaults. He drops the match and it fizzles out.
It’s the infernal, unrepaired radiator.
Furious, Jean-Paul strikes yet another match, relights the oil lamp. With it in hand, he crosses to the troublesome radiator, pulls his foot back in order to give it a swift kick — and looks up at the window, now only a few centimeters from his face. As he does so he lifts the oil lamp towards it, and there, illuminated briefly, is... the lurker!
Copyright © 2016 by Ian Roumain