Chief Inspector Schmied had had a full morning. There had been a political demonstration in front of Iberia Air Lines, three men detained for questioning. A fire of suspicious origin at a paper factory in Brunau. It was being investigated. A girl had been raped in Platzspitz Park. A smash-and-grab job at Guebelin and another at Grima, next to the Baur-au-Lac. And if that weren't enough, Detective Max Hornung was back, filled with some kind of nonsensical theory. Chief Inspector Schmied found himself starting to hyperventilate again.
"The elevator cable drum was cracked," Max was saying. "When it collapsed, all the safety controls went out. Someone - "
"I saw the reports, Hornung. Normal wear and tear."
"No, Chief Inspector. I examined the specifications for the cable drum. It should have lasted another five or six years."
Chief Inspector Schmied felt the tic in his cheek. "What are you trying to say?"
"Someone tampered with the elevator."
Not, I think someone tampered with the elevator, or, In my opinion someone tampered with the elevator. Oh, no! Someone tampered with the elevator. "Why would they do that?" "That's what I would like to find out." "You want to go back to Roffe and Sons?" Detective Max Hornung looked at Inspector
Schmied in genuine surpose. "No, sir. I want to go to Chamonix."
The town of Chamonix lies forty miles southeast of Geneva, 3,400 feet above sea level in the French department of Haute-Savoie, between the Mont Blanc massif and the Aiguille Rouge range, with one of the most breathtaking vistas in the world.
Detective Max Hornung was completely unaware of the scenery as he debouched from the train at the Chamonix station, carrying a battered cardboard suitcase. He waved a taxi away and headed on foot for the local police station, a small building situated on the main square in the center of town. Max entered, feeling instantly at home, reveling in the warm camaraderie that he shared with the fraternity of policemen all over the world. He was one of them.
The French sergeant behind the desk looked up and asked, "On vous pourrait aider?"
"Oui." Max beamed. And he started to talk. Max approached all foreign languages in the same fashion: he slashed his way through the impenetrable thicket of irregular verbs and tenses and participles, using his tongue like a machete. As he spoke, the expression on the desk sergeant's face changed from puzzlement to disbelief. It had taken the French people hundreds of years to develop their tongues and soft palates and larynxes to form the glorious music that was the French language. And now this man standing before him was somehow managing to turn it into a series of horrible, incomprehensible noises.
The desk sergeant could bear no more. He interrupted. "What - what are you trying to say?"
Max replied, "What do you mean? I'm speaking French."
The desk sergeant leaned forward and asked with unabashed curiosity, "Are you speaking it now?"
The fool doesn't even speak his own language, Max thought. He pulled out his warrant card and handed it to the sergeant. The sergeant read it through twice, looked up to study Max, and then read it again. It was impossible to believe that the man standing before him was a detective.
Reluctantly he handed the identification back to Max. "What can I do for you?"
"I'm investigating a climbing accident that happened here two months ago. The victim's name was Sam Roffe."
The sergeant nodded. "Yes, I remember."
"I would like to talk to someone who can give me some information about what happened."
"That would be the mountain-rescue organization. It is called the Societe Chamoniarde de Secours en Montagne. You will find it in Place du Mont Blanc. The telephone number is five-three-one-six-eight-nine. Or they might have some information at the clinic. That's in Route du Valais. The telephone number there is five-three-zero-one-eight-two. Here. I'll write all this down for you." He reached for a pen.
"That won't be necessary," Max said. "Societe Chamoniarde de Secours en Montagne, Place du Mont Blanc, five-three-one-six-eight-nine. Or the clinic in Route du Valais, five-three-zero-one-eight-two."
The sergeant was still staring, long after Max had disappeared through the door.
The Societe Chamoniarde de Secours was in the charge of a dark, athletic-looking young man seated behind a battered pine desk. He looked up as Max walked in. and his instant thought was that he hoped this odd-looking visitor did not plan to climb a mountain.
"Can I help you?"
"Detective Max Hornung." He showed his warrant card.
"What can I do for you, Detective Hornung?"
"I am investigating the death of a man named Sam Roffe." Max said.
The man behind the desk sighed. "Ah, yes. I liked Mr. Roffe very much. It was an unfortunate accident."
"Did you see it happen?"
A shake of the head. "No. I took my rescue team up as soon as we received their distress signal, but there was nothing we could do. Mr. Roffe's body had fallen into a crevasse. It will never be found."
"How did it happen?"
"There were four climbers in the party. The guide and Mr. Roffe were last. As I understand it, they were traversing an icy moraine. Mr. Roffe slipped and fell."
"Wasn't he wearing a harness?"
"Of course. His rope broke."
"Does a thing like that happen often?"
"Only once." He smiled at his little joke, then saw the detective's look and added quickly, "Experienced climbers always check their equipment thoroughly, but accidents still happen."
Max stood there a moment, thinking. "I'd like to speak to the guide."
"Mr. Roffe's regular guide didn't make the climb that day."
Max blinked, "Oh? Why not?"
"As I recall, he was ill. Another guide took his place."
"Do you have his name?"
"If you'll wait a minute, I can look it up for you."
The man disappeared into an inner office. In a few minutes he returned with a slip of paper in his hand. "The guide's name was Hans Bergmann."
"Where can I find him?"
"He's not a local." He consulted the piece of paper. "He comes from a village called Lesgets. It's about sixty kilometers from here."
Before Max left Chamonix, he stopped at the desk of the Kleine Scheidegg hotel and talked to the room clerk. "Were you on duty when Mr. Roffe was staying here?"
"Yes," the clerk said. "The accident was a terrible thing, terrible."
"Mr. Roffe was alone here?"
The clerk shook his head. "No. He had a friend with him."
Max stared. "A friend?"
"Yes. Mr. Roffe made the reservation for both of them."
"Could you give me the name of his friend?"
"Certainly," the clerk said. He pulled out a large ledger from beneath the desk and began to turn back the pages. He stopped, ran his fingers down a page and said, "Ah, here we are..."
It took almost three hours for Max to drive to Lesgets in a Volkswagen, the cheapest rental car he could find, and he almost passed through it It was not even a village. The place consisted of a few shops, a small Alpine lodge, and a general store with a single gas pump in front of it.
Max parked in front of the lodge and walked in. There were half a dozen men seated in front of an open fireplace, talking. The conversation trailed off as Max entered.
"Excuse me," he said, "I'm looking for Herr Hans Bergmann."
"Hans Bergmann. The guide. He comes from this village."
An eldely man with a face that was a weather map of his years spat into the fireplace and said, "Somebody's been kidding you, mister. I was born in Lesgets. I never heard of any Hans Bergmann."