No one understood why he drove into the mountainside until forensics found traces of fine gauze on the bonnet of the wrecked car.
This was one of the most baffling cases the French police had ever had to deal with. For that reason, they called in two English detectives who had an international reputation for solving the most baffling of baffling cases. Detective Inspector Stafford and Detective Sergeant Ringer.
The dead man drove his Porsche at speed into a mountainside.
“Why’d he do that?” wondered DS Ringer.
“That’s what we’re here to find out, lad,” said DI Stafford.
The accident, if that’s what it was, happened at night on a remote stretch of road in the French Alps. Or rather, to be more accurate, just off a remote stretch of road.
The road itself curved away around the mountainside, but the deceased Porsche driver had carried straight on, ploughing into rock. The rock won.
“Who was he?” asked Stafford.
“Jean Luc Abelard,” said Ringer, who had read the file, which the local police had very thoughtfully translated into English for them. “A businessman. Ran a company based in Paris specialising in corporate events. He was on his way to see a potential new client.”
“How was business? On the rocks?”
Ringer ignored the grim pun. “Fine. He’d just secured a massive contract with Renault to stage the worldwide launch of their latest affordable hybrid hatchback.”
But Stafford was persistent. “Personal life? Marriage going through a rocky patch?”
“Give it up, guv. It’s not worth it. But seeing as you asked, also fine. Happily married. Beautiful wife who adored him. Two young kids. Everything to live for. Doesn’t look like it was suicide, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“No, not thinking suicide, Sarge. I’m thinking murder. I’m looking for a motive. A happy man might not kill himself. But he damn well makes other people want to kill him.”
“Envy, Ringer. Envy is the word. I’m surprised at you. A graduate.”
The annoying thing, for Ringer, was that he knew full well that the word was envy. He had chosen to say jealousy because he thought that was the word Stafford would use.
“Speak to his wife,” said Stafford. “Was he having an affair? Was she having an affair? That sort of thing.”
“Might be difficult questions to ask at the moment, guv. I expect she’s a bit upset.”
“Don’t worry about it,” was Stafford’s not entirely helpful advice.
“Even if someone did have a motive to kill him, how could they induce an otherwise sane and healthy man to drive his car into a mountainside?”
“Do we know he was otherwise sane and healthy?”
“I’m assuming he was, guv. There’s nothing in the file to indicate he wasn’t.”
Stafford thought for a moment. “I once heard of a case where an otherwise sane and healthy man walked over the side of a cliff and fell to his death. Wasn’t suffering from depression. Had everything to live for. Apparently, he ate some contaminated tomatoes that sent him loopy.”
“That’s what I heard.”
“You can’t believe everything you hear in the canteen, guv.”
“Yeah, well… the point is, you can get people to do anything.”
Ringer didn’t quite see how this was the point, at any rate not the one arising from the inspector’s dodgy anecdote.
“Are you talking about some kind of mind control?”
“Might be,” granted Stafford. But then he added: “Might not be.”
The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, thought Ringer.
“What exactly,” said Stafford, “is a corporate event?”
“It’s when they make a bit of a song and dance out of what they’re doing.”
“I see. And this feller, Jean Luc What’s-his-name, he was the one who got in the singers and the dancers?”
“Something like that. Though these days it’s all high tech. Laser shows. Holograms. You know.”
“Three-dimensional projected simulacra,” said Ringer.
Stafford raised first one eyebrow and then the other. Up until that moment he hadn’t known he was capable of such a feat. “This big contract he won, who else was in the running?”
And so they investigated Abelard’s business rivals. They discovered that competition for the Renault contract had come down to two companies, Abelard’s and one other in Paris – Le Rève et La Réalité, which had since gone out of business.
In fact, Le Rève et La Réalité had been the incumbent firm. It was losing the Renault business that had forced it into receivership, and pushed the owner, Michel Le Rève, over the edge.
He crumbled under Stafford and Ringer’s determined interrogation, though it was most likely their execrable French accents that cracked him. He confessed to rigging up a gauze screen just in front of the mountain side, projecting onto it a holographic image of a tunnel entrance lit up at night. It was not so much a confession as a boast. He seemed remarkably proud of his achievement, which he described as the best show he had ever put on.
A stationary observer might not have been fooled. But at the speed Abelard drove his Porsche, at that time of night, along an unfamiliar stretch of road, he didn’t stand a chance.
The call arranging the meeting with the potential client was traced back to Le Rève’s mobile. The fragments of gauze found in the mangled remains of the Porsche matched that used by Le Rève et La Réalité in the screens it used for holographic projections.
“Fait accompli,” said Stafford. “Or as you might say, job done. I don’t know. A university degree isn’t what it used to be, is it.”