Operations kicked off the next morning with another room change for Felicity. Before breakfast she called down to the desk to complain that her sleep last night had been ruined by the comings and goings at the casino next door and, despite the best assurances of the deputy manager about the thickness of the walls and windows, she refused to be placated by anything other than an offer to move her further away from the source of the noise. So, later that morning, the suitcases were re-packed, a fresh phalanx of porters was summoned and the whole procession traipsed up two floors to Room 418.
Once everything had been laid out in the new suite to Felicity’s satisfaction it was almost time for my date with Eduardo. We had arranged to meet by the staff locker room at 2pm but I had a little business that I needed to conduct first so I was downstairs shortly after half past one. The time had been chosen quite carefully. Those on the morning shift like Eduardo did not finish until two but the afternoon shift were expected to be at their posts by half one to ensure the changeover ran smoothly. That left a period of about thirty minutes when, barring any mishaps, I could count on the locker room being empty. If anyone did come along I could play the eager young woman who simply couldn’t wait for the hour of her date to come round but I was really hoping that such subterfuge would not be required for I was going to need a bit of solitude to complete my task.
There wasn’t a soul to be seen as I slipped inside the locker room just after one thirty. I choose to start my work in a quiet corner furthest from the door, all the while keeping an anxious ear open for any hint of an interruption. Fortunately the lockers were not particularly robust and the quick lesson on lock-picking I’d received from Sid proved more than adequate to enable me to open them at will. I had to rifle through a dozen or so before I found all that I needed but that still gave me time enough to nip back upstairs in order to stash my bundle beneath the mattress in my room and still be back to meet Eduardo at the appointed hour.
Eduardo arrived ready armed with a picnic basket and somehow we succeeded in loading it, together with the pair of us, rather precariously onto his Vespa and headed off down the coast road. We rode for about thirty minutes before pitching up at gorgeous little cove where we ate the food, went for a swim and chatted (yes, chatted thank-you very much!) the afternoon away. Eduardo was a lot of fun and I still fondly recall those sun-drenched hours like a series of snapshots from a holiday romance.
But part of the bittersweet charm of holiday romances is that they are necessarily brief and all too soon it was time for us to pack up our things and head back to the Hotel Majestic so that Eduardo might be ready for his evening shift. In the end we made it with about twenty minutes to spare. It seemed unlikely that we would find an opportunity for a second date and so, finding the locker room an altogether too public sort of space, we retreated to a handy little nook in the storeroom between the dried goods and the vegetables for a suitably romantic finale to our afternoon together. Things were in danger of becoming really quite sentimental when we were rudely interrupted by a piercing scream from somewhere very close by.
Hurriedly putting one or two items of clothing in order, we both darted out to see what was going on. The source of the scream we soon identified as a junior chef, apparently engaged in a fit of hysterics. He was standing in front of the open door to the enormous walk-in refrigerator where the hotel stored meat and fish for its restaurant. Unable to get any sort of sense from the chef himself we followed the direction of his agitated gestures and looking inside the fridge we soon spotted the cause of his distress.
Two men were seated on top of a crate of shellfish, huddled together in a stiff and awkward pose. There was nothing especially remarkable about their appearance except for the dusting of frost on their clothes and their hair and the agonised expressions on their faces. What business they might have had inside the refrigerator was not immediately clear but the outcome of their visit was. Both of them had quite obviously frozen to death.
There was barely time to take in the unpleasant scene in front of me before footsteps and voices sounded behind me. The junior chef’s scream had been piercing enough to be heard right throughout the kitchens and I turned to find that quite a crowd had quickly gathered in the narrow space around the refrigerator door. Everyone was pushing and jostling and all asking questions at once, eager to know what all the fuss was about. As Eduardo seemed momentarily as frozen as the men inside the fridge and the junior chef was still hyperventilating wildly I felt it was perhaps incumbent on me to say something to explain the situation and persuade somebody to call the relevant authorities. But then I caught sight of what appeared to be a familiar face on the edge of the crowd and the words died on my lips.
He stood barely a few feet away from me, leaning quite casually against a shelf with a dispassionate expression that was quite a contrast to the hubbub occurring all around him. But it wasn’t just the calmness of his demeanour that left me speechless. It was the fact that, according to everything I knew, there was simply no way for that particular person to be standing in that spot at just that moment.
I gawped uncertainly at him for several seconds before a startled cry finally escaped from my lips and I made a move towards him.
Unfortunately Eduardo mistook my cry for a delayed reaction to the scene inside the fridge and, finally springing into action, he threw his arm around me and pulled me into a comforting embrace. By the time I had managed to wriggle sufficiently free of his manly grasp to lift my head over his shoulder I discovered that the space by the shelf was now empty. The impossible person had disappeared from the crowd as quickly as he had appeared.
I made a brief effort to go after him but it very quickly became obvious that any pursuit was futile amid the tumult of the scene. The hotel manager soon appeared and began to slowly impose some sort of order on the chaos. The majority of the curious onlookers were sent back about their business but Eduardo and I, as pretty much the first on the scene, were ordered to stick around while the police were summoned. We answered the local inspector’s questions as diligently as we could but there was little we could say to throw any light upon the affair. Neither of us had any idea who the dead men were or how they had come to meet their unfortunate end.
The strange thing was that nobody else seemed to know the answer to these questions either. It was soon established that the men were not staff but neither were they hotel guests. What they might have been doing poking around in the refrigerator in a quiet corner of the hotel storeroom was, for the moment at least, a complete mystery.
In any case the priority of the hotel manager seemed to be to ensure that news of the grisly discovery did not prevent the rest of his guests from enjoying their expensive holidays. Having arranged for the bodies to be discreetly removed he persuaded the police to continue their investigations elsewhere and set about swearing those of us in the know to the utmost secrecy.
As a matter of fact the manager’s earnest exhortations were rather wasted on me – I was hardly inclined to go spreading idle gossip in the bar. And in truth the dead men in the refrigerator were really only a small part of my worries. The fact is that when I finally returned to my quiet little room on the fifth floor I spent far more time musing over the unlikely face I seemed to have spotted in the crowd. For while corpses in the meat locker were undoubtedly disturbing, the presence of an impossible person in the hotel threatened to have consequences that would extend far beyond our time at the Majestic.
It was much later that evening, long after the sun had set, when I retrieved a single item from the stolen bundle from beneath my mattress, exited my room and headed down the rear staircase. Though it was just after midnight there were still plenty of guests out on the terrace, enjoying a cocktail or two in the warm night air. The noise of their chatter faded as I pressed on towards the swimming pools but as I stopped in front of Felicity’s bathing cabin I was still careful to check there was no-one nearby before I knocked on the door with the pre-arranged code – two double taps followed by two singles. Without waiting for an answer I slid my key into the lock, opened the door and slipped carefully inside.
It was a good job I remembered to take care as I entered for the interior of the once smartly-decorated cabin now resembled a mini building site. All the furniture had been piled up in one corner, a huge mound of earth filled another and a large gaping hole now loomed in the centre of the floor. I stood on the edge of this hole, peering curiously into the blackness, when Michael’s voice came wafting up from somewhere deep below. “Is that you Everingham?”
“Be with you in a tick,” he added once I had confirmed that I was indeed me.
So I pulled a deckchair from the pile of furniture, set it up on the small strip of uncluttered ground that remained within the cabin and sat myself down.
I didn’t have long to wait before Michael’s head suddenly popped up from within the hole at my feet, slowly followed by the rest of him as he laboriously hauled himself above ground. He looked like a miner emerging from a long shift at the coalface, glistening with a thick layer of sweat and grime. He made an ineffectual attempt to wipe off some of the worst of this with a damp towel but soon gave up and dug instead into a bucket of mostly melted ice to come up with a couple of cool-ish beers. “Drink?” he offered with a cheerful grin.
“Thanks. Is Sid still down there?” I asked.
“No, he’s on a rubble run,” said Michael, pulling a deckchair of his own from the stack of furniture and setting it up opposite mine. “As you can see it soon piles up.”
“When he gets back could you give him this,” I said, handing over the bright red security guard’s jacket that I had acquired from the locker room that afternoon. “I had to judge it by eye but I think it should be a pretty good fit.”
“Looks alright to me,” confirmed Michael, giving the coat an appraising glance before setting it aside. “Did you have any trouble getting hold of it?”
“Nah, those lockers were a cinch,” I breezily replied.
Michael grinned. “I knew you’d take to this criminal lifestyle. You’re rather enjoying all this, aren’t you?”
“I don’t know if I’d go that far,” I cautioned. “Rifling lockers is kind of fun but playing professional dogsbody to Felicity is hardly my idea of a good time.”
“She taking her role a little too seriously, is she?” asked Michael with a sympathetic air.
“Let’s just say she’s something of a method actress.”
“If it makes you feel any better, digging around beneath ground all day in this heat is no picnic either,” offered Michael.
“I’d still swap with you,” I decided after a moments consideration.
“It’s a generous offer but I’m not sure I’d make a very convincing lady’s maid,” returned Michael.
“Call yourself an actor?” I challenged. “Besides, you needn’t be a maid. I’m sure Felicity would happily settle for some form of valet or manservant.”
“Well, it’s too late to reassign roles now,” said Michael just a little too quickly.
“Coward!” I taunted him.
“Anyway, I don’t suppose you’ve been under Felicity’s thumb the whole time,” said Michael, ignoring the jibe.
“No, I did have a very nice afternoon out at the beach today,” I conceded and I went on to tell him all about my date with Eduardo, up to and including the gruesome finale. To my surprise and slight disappointment it turned out he already knew pretty much everything there was to know about the dead men in the refrigerator.
“How did you find out about that?” I demanded. “We were all sworn to secrecy.”
“Hotel gossip will always find a way,” replied Michael with a shrug.
“It’s all a bit disturbing,” I remarked thoughtfully.
“I imagine it must have been,” agreed Michael. “Though I suppose we can at least be grateful it takes another set of rivals out of the running.”
“Rivals!” I exclaimed. “You mean those guys were after the Dirwali rubies too?”
Michael nodded as though it were the most obvious thing in the world.
“But when the police questioned us nobody seemed to know who they were.”
“Maybe they didn’t but Sid got a look at the bodies as they were being loaded up onto the ambulance. He recognised them straight away. Apparently they are, or I should say were, a couple of highly rated cracksmen based in Berlin known as Bruno and Lang.”
“So how did they end up freezing to death in the hotel refrigerator?” I asked.
“That bit is still a mystery,” admitted Michael. “I suppose they may just have been hunting around, searching for a way to get at the jewels and somehow got trapped in the fridge.”
“Except that those don’t sound like the actions of a couple of highly rated cracksmen. That sounds more like Laurel and Hardy to me,” I noted.
“I guess that’s why it’s still a mystery,” suggested Michael.
There was a brief lull in the conversation whilst we both sipped our beers in silent contemplation before I suddenly remembered the other strange event of the afternoon.
“Actually, that wasn’t the only mystery inside the hotel storeroom,” I abruptly declared. “I can’t believe I nearly forgot! There was quite a commotion when those bodies were discovered – people came running in from everywhere. And when I turned round you’ll never guess who I could swear I saw standing by a shelf full of dried peas.”
“Who?” Michael obligingly asked.
I paused for a moment to give my announcement the full weight I felt it deserved.
“I’m telling you he was right there, looking cool as you like.”
Michael gazed dubiously at me for a few seconds as though he was trying to work out whether or not I was having him on. “But it couldn’t have been Sturridge,” he finally declared.
“Maybe it couldn’t have been but I’ll swear that it was.”
“Did you speak to him?”
“Well, no,” I somewhat ruefully admitted. “I tried to but I never got the chance. It was so chaotic. One minute he was there, the next he had gone.”
There was another long, thoughtful pause.
“It couldn’t have been Sturridge,” Michael eventually repeated.
“Why not?” I challenged.
“Because Sturridge is currently locked up inside an inter-dimensional prison,” said Michael with another searching look that seemed to be checking me for possession of my marbles.
“Are we quite sure about that?”
Michael looked at me sharply.
“Suppose he’s already escaped,” I went on. “Just suppose that while we’ve been blithely smashing down doors on one side of the landscape, he’s already nipped out of another door on the other side of the landscape without our knowing about it.”
There was a heavy silence while each of us gave rather reluctant thought to this idea. It was in fact something that had occurred to me almost as soon as I had spotted that face in the hotel storeroom but I’d been busy pushing it aside ever since. After all, it was not pleasant to feel obliged to contemplate whether or not our entire business here in the landscape might be a complete waste of time, especially when you threw in the risks that we were running on an almost daily basis. It was one thing to dice with death in the service of rescuing a friend from a terrible fate. But if I ended up being eaten by zombies or murdered by gangsters only to discover that said friend had been sunning himself on the Riviera all the while then I would certainly be considerably annoyed.
“Did you check the inter-dimensional travel drive?” Michael finally asked, interrupting my thoughts.
“Yeah, I looked. Everything appears just the same.”
“Well then,” said Michael. “If Sturridge really had escaped surely something would show up on there.”
“I don’t know…” I began slowly.
“Listen, isn’t it more likely that you simply saw somebody who looks like Sturridge?” Michael suggested. “You said yourself that you only saw this chap for a few seconds and that things were pretty chaotic. Couldn’t you just have been mistaken?”
I hesitated. It was a question I had asked myself again and again in the intervening hours. Yes, it had been only a fleeting glance in a crowded space. And yes, I was probably still reeling from the sight of the dead men in the refrigerator. And the truth is the more you chew over anything the less certain it becomes over time.
But when I looked back I couldn’t shake the conviction that when I had turned around in that storeroom, for that instant at least, I had been absolutely sure that the face in the crowd belonged to Sturridge and nobody else.
Yet when I looked up at Michael I found myself saying, “Well, I suppose it’s always possible…”
“There you are then,” said Michael. “A simple case of mistaken identity and nothing more.” His tone sounded quite satisfied but there was just the hint of a wrinkle across his brow to suggest a lingering element of doubt.
However, I decided not to push the issue. “Yeah, I guess so,” I said with a shrug.
We talked for a little longer of this and that before I finally finished my beer and declared myself ready to return to my bed. Neither Michael nor I said another word about Sturridge as we said our goodnights and wished one another luck for the following day. Completing this heist promised to be challenging enough without adding extra worries. But if everything went to plan then by this time tomorrow the Dirwali rubies would be successfully stolen and our obligation to Sid and Felicity would be over. And after that we would have all the time in the world to get back to worrying over the whereabouts of Sturridge.
To be continued…