At first it was believed that top Hollywood producer Josh Beckmeier had simply fallen asleep at the wheel. The 20 hour flight from LAX to Nice had certainly taken its toll. He’d flown first class, naturally. But Beckmeier hated flying, whatever cabin he was in. It always required a lavish combination of sedatives and booze to get him through that hell in a tin can, as he called it. In fact, whatever substances he had used or abused on this flight, he failed to snatch much real sleep, instead tossing and turning in a dazed, hallucinatory trance.
He could open and close his eyes at will. Whenever he closed them, he was plunged into a strange nightmare, which ran like a movie in the private viewing theatre of his mind. Whenever he opened them, it was the living nightmare of long haul flight, which no amount of complimentary champagne and canapés could mitigate.
Eyes closed. A band of shadowy assassins, the Men of Mist, were after him. One of them worked for the airline. The dream movie showed this bearded lowlife plant a bomb in the hold.
Eyes open. The male flight attendant was leering over him. Nothing more sinister than offering a refill. Beckmeier nodded. He wondered briefly if the air steward might be a Man of Mist. His fake tan and blond highlights were too obvious. It had to be a disguise. But maybe not. Most people were walking stereotypes, Beckmeier reflected. Himself included. That’s why the movies work.
Eyes closed. He was looking down at himself reclined in his Air France La Première bed-seat. He acknowledged an inner sneer at the paltriness of his dreaming imagination. To dream of himself flying, while he was… flying. Great! Just as he registered the dissatisfaction, there was the flash and boom of explosion. He saw the cabin ripped apart, heard the wind scream. Now when he looked down at himself, he saw a metal strut embedded in his stomach. Blood streaking his face. And he was spiralling through the empty air.
Eyes open. The toilet ENGAGED sign lit up.
After a time, he could no longer be sure when his eyes were open and when they were closed. In its own way, each was as bad as the other: dream, reality, he hated them both.
He picked up his hire car – a Lexus RX 450h – at the airport, Nice Côte d’Azure. He was travelling alone. Beckmeier was a loner, a Hollywood outsider. He preferred to drive himself than suffer the presence of a chauffeur. And he kept the blacked out windows up, with the air conditioning on full.
On the road to Cannes, he thought again about the Men of Mist. Maybe there was the idea for a film there. He would set up a meeting with the right people as soon as he hit town.
Beckmeier wondered if it was really possible that someone might want him dead. It was true that he had made a few enemies in his time. Also true that he had few friends. Correct that: no friends. Plenty of associates and acquaintances, but no real friends, not since the untimely death of his former business partner Rick Warner from a drug and whore overdose a decade ago.
Beckmeier told himself this was the way he wanted it. You couldn’t trust people, least of all friends. You were better off without them. They only went and killed themselves, reminding you of the godless horror of the universe and your own filthiness, just when you thought things were going pretty well.
He reached his hotel – the Carlton on La Croisette – without incident. He handed the car keys to the bellhop while he checked in.
Beckmeier’s Cannes routine varied little from year to year. He’d get into town a day before the festival opened. Shower, make a few calls, set up some meetings, then take a short nap. In the afternoon, after an abstemious, solitary lunch, he’d get back in his hire car to drive himself along the Corniche d’Or, south to St-Raphael.
By now, the booze and barbiturates from the flight were more or less metabolised and he could enjoy the heart-lurching beauty of the Esterel Cliff Road with a clear head. And yet, it was on this twisting stretch of road that Josh Beckmeier lost control of his rented Lexus and plummeted to his death on the volcanic rocks of the Esterel massif.
The question that has to be asked is, if he really did just fall asleep at the wheel, why did it happen now, when he was refreshed and recovered? Why not on the drive from the airport, when he was jaded and still dogged by paranoid fantasies?
The fact that he had vomited in the car before his death possibly indicated an unexpected attack of food poisoning, which may have caused him to lose his concentration at a crucial moment. But all he’d had for lunch was an omelette and salad, washed down with freshly squeezed orange juice.
And there was the presence of that jar lid in the mangled engine wreckage. So easy to overlook, impossible to explain. If it hadn’t been for the diligence of the investigating magistrate, its significance would have been missed. But Jean-Jacque Picard had one of those peculiar minds, the sort that dislikes anything it can’t understand.
The Avis mechanic swore blind that the jar lid had not been there when he had conducted his mechanical check, immediately prior to Beckmeier collecting the car. The only other place it could have been inserted was at the hotel.
There was no trace of the bellhop who had parked the Lexus, a casual temp brought in for the festival. The name and documents he had lodged with the hotel turned out to be false. The employment agency that provided him was registered to a non-existent address.
The jar lid was sent away for analysis. Molecules of diethyl ether were discovered on the inside. It seemed that the shallow receptacle had been filled with ether and placed under the bonnet. In the heat of the engine, the ether evaporated and the fumes found their way into the car. Whether they were enough to knock him out cold, or simply cause him to lose control as he struggled against the onset of a strange inebriation, will never be known.
The feature film Men of Mist went into development in the autumn. It is currently in its seventeenth rewrite. A sequel, The Assassin’s Return: Men of Mist 2, is already planned.