Tuesday 10 February
The two lovers peered out of the hotel bedroom window, smiling with glee, but each for a very different reason. The heavy snowfall that had been forecast for almost a week had finally arrived overnight, and fat, thick flakes of the white stuff were still tumbling down this morning. A few cars, chains clanking, slithered up the narrow mountain road, and others, parked outside the hotels, were now large white mounds.
Everyone in the smart French ski resort of Courchevel 1850 was relieved—the resort managers, the hoteliers, the restaurateurs, the seasonnaires, the ski-rental shops, the lift companies, and all of the others who relied on the ski season for much of their livelihood. And, most importantly of all, the winter-sporters themselves. After days of blue skies, searing sunshine and melting snow, which meant treacherous ice in the mornings and slush and exposed rocks in the afternoons, finally the skiers and snowboarders, who had paid top money for their precious annual few days on the slopes, now had great conditions to look forward to.
As Jodie Bentley and her elderly American fiancé, Walt, put on their skis outside the boot-room entrance of the Chabichou Hotel, the falling snow tickled exposed parts of their faces beneath their helmets and visors.
Although a seasoned skier and powder hound, this was the financier’s first time skiing in Europe and he had been relying all week on his much younger fiancée, who seemed to know the resort like the back of her hand, to guide him.
They skied down carefully in the poor visibility to the Biollay lift, just a couple of minutes below the hotel, went through the electronic turnstiles, and joined the short queue to the chairlift. A couple of minutes later, clutching their ski poles, the wide chairs scooped them up and forward.
Walt pulled down the safety bar, then they settled back, snug in their cosy outfits, for the seven minutes it took for the lift to carry them to the top. As they alighted, the wind was blowing fiercely, and without hanging around, Jodie led the way down an easy red then blue run to the Croisette, the central lift station for the resort.
They removed their skis, and Walt, despite suffering from a prolapsed disc, insisted on carrying Jodie’s skis as well as his own up the ramp to the lift. As a red eight-seater gondola came slowly round, he jammed their skis into two of the outside holders, then followed Jodie in. They sat down and pushed up their visors. They were followed by another couple and, moments later, just before the doors closed, a short man in his fifties clambered in after them, wearing a smart Spyder ski outfit and a flashy leather helmet with a mirrored visor.
‘Bonjour!’ he said in a bad French accent. Then added, ‘Hope you don’t mind my joining you?’ He settled down opposite them as the gondola lurched forward. ‘Not at all,’ Walt said.
Jodie smiled politely. The other two strangers, both busy texting on their phones, said nothing.
‘Ah bien, vous parlez Anglais!’ The stranger unclipped his helmet and removed it for an instant to scratch the top of his bald head. ‘American?’ he said, pulling off his gloves, then removing a tissue from his pocket and starting to wipe his glasses.
‘I’m from California, but my fiancée’s a Brit,’ Walt said, amicably.
‘Jolly good! Beastly weather but the powder at the top should be to die for,’ the man said.
Jodie smiled politely again. ‘Where are you from?’ she asked.
‘The south—Brighton,’ the stranger replied.
‘Good lord, what a coincidence! So am I!’ Jodie said.
‘Small world,’ he muttered, and suddenly looked uncomfortable.
‘So what line of business are you in?’ Walt asked him.
‘Oh, in the medical world. Just recently retired and moved to France. And yourselves?’
‘I have a group of investment trusts,’ the American replied.
‘I was a legal secretary,’ Jodie said.
As the small gondola climbed, rocked by the wind, the snow was turning into a blizzard and the visibility deteriorating by the minute. Walt put his arm round Jodie and hugged her.
‘Maybe we shouldn’t go too high this morning, hon, it’s going to be very windy at the top,’ he said.
‘The powder’s going to be awesome up there,’ she replied, ‘and there won’t be too many people this early. There are some really fabulous runs, trust me!’
‘Well, OK,’ he said, peering dubiously through the misted-up windows.
‘Oh, absolutely,’ the Englishman said. ‘Trust your beautiful young lady—and the forecast is improving!’
As the gondola reached the first stage, he waited politely for them to alight first. ‘Nice meeting you,’ he said. ‘Bye for now.’
The other couple, still texting, remained on the gondola. With Walt again insisting on carrying Jodie’s skis, they trudged the short distance to the cable car. Normally jampacked with skiers squashed together like sardines, this morning the huge cabin was three-quarters empty. Along with themselves there were just a few die-hards. Several boarders in their baggy outfits, two rugged-looking, bearded men in bobble hats, wearing rucksacks, who were sharing swigs from a hip flask, and a small assortment of other skiers, one wearing a GoPro camera on his helmet.
Walt raised his visor and smiled at Jodie. She raised hers and smiled back. He removed a glove, jamming it between his skis, produced a chocolate bar from his breast pocket and offered it to Jodie.
‘I’m fine, thanks, still stuffed from breakfast!’
‘You hardly ate anything!’ He broke a piece off, put the bar back in his pocket and zipped it shut, then chewed, peering out anxiously.
The cable car rocked in the wind, then swayed alarmingly, causing everyone to shriek, some out of fear, others for fun. He put an arm around Jodie again and she snuggled up against him.
‘Maybe we should get a coffee at the top and wait to see if the visibility improves?’ he said.
‘Let’s do a couple of runs first, my love,’ she replied.
‘We’ll find some fresh powder before it gets ruined by other skiers.’ He shrugged. ‘OK.’ But he didn’t sound particularly enthusiastic.
He stared at her for some moments. ‘You know,’ he said, ‘you’re incredible. Not many people can look beautiful in a helmet and visor, but you do.’
‘And you look every inch my handsome prince!’ she replied.
He tried to kiss her but the top of his helmet bashed against her visor. She giggled, then leaned closer to him and whispered, ‘Too bad there’s other people on here,’ running her gloved hand down his crotch. He squirmed.
‘Jeez, you’re making me horny!’ ‘You make me horny all the time.’ He grinned.
Then he looked serious again, and a tad nervous. He peered through a window into the blizzard, and the car yawned in the wind, then swung, almost throwing him off balance. ‘You have your cell with you, hon?’ he asked.
‘Yes.’ ‘You know—just in case we lose each other in this whiteout.’ ‘We won’t,’ she said, confidently.
He patted his chest and frowned. Patted it again, then tugged open a zipper. ‘Jeez,’ he said, and began to pat all over the front of his stylish black Bogner ski jacket. ‘I can’t believe it, how stupid. I must have left mine back in the room.’
‘I’m sure I saw you put it in—your top right-hand pocket—before we left,’ she said.
He checked all over again, and his trouser pockets. ‘Goddammit, must have fallen out somewhere—maybe when we were putting our skis on.’ ‘We’re going to stay close. Just in case we do get separated, then plan B is we both ski back down to Croisette and meet there. Just follow the signs for Courchevel 1850—it’s well posted all the way.’
‘Maybe we should ski straight back down and go and check it’s not lying in the snow outside the hotel.’
‘Someone’ll find it if it is, darling. No one’s going to steal it, not at that lovely hotel.’
We’d better go back down, I need it. I have a couple of important calls to make this afternoon.’
‘OK,’ she said. ‘Sure, fine, we’ll ski fast!’
Five minutes later, the cable car slowed right down, and a shadow loomed ahead. The car rocked from side to side, bumping against the buffered sides of the station, slowly sliding in, before stopping. Then the doors opened and they stepped out in their heavy ski books, onto the gridded metal walkway. They shuffled along it, then carefully down the steps and out into the ferocious blizzard, their faces stinging from the snow as hard as hailstones.
They could barely see a few feet in front on them, and the group ahead, ducking down and clipping into their boards, were little more than shadowy silhouettes. As they stood beside a sign mostly obscured with snow, Walt laid their skis down on the ground, kicked the ice away from the bottom of his boots, tapping them with his ski poles to make extra sure there were no lumps of snow stuck there, then stepped into his bindings and snapped them shut. As the silhouettes began to move away, Jodie said, ‘Hang on a sec, darling, I need to clean my visor.’
Walt waited, turning his face away from the wind as best he could, while Jodie tugged down one of her zippers, produced a tissue and wiped the inside of her visor, then the outside. ‘This is horrible!’ He had to shout to make his voice heard.
‘We’re almost at the highest point in the whole resort,’ she said. ‘As soon as we get off this ridge we’ll be out of the wind!’
‘I hope you’re right! Maybe we should start with something easy—is there a blue run back down? I don’t fancy anything too challenging in this goddam visibility!’
‘There is and it’s lovely. There’s one tiny steep bit to get to it, then it’ll be a glorious cruise. It’s my favorite run!’ He watched the last of the silhouettes disappearing as Jodie pulled her gloves back on, then stepped into her skis.
‘Ready?’ she asked.
She pointed to the right. ‘We go down here.’
‘Are you sure? Everyone else has gone that way.’ He pointed in the direction that the others who had been in the cable car with them had taken.
‘You want the hardcore black run down or a gentle blue?’ ‘Blue!’ he said emphatically. ‘
That crazy lot have all taken the black.’ She glanced over her shoulder and could just make out the cable car leaving the station for its return journey. It would be around fifteen minutes before the next load of skiers arrived. Right now, they were alone. ‘Blue?’ she said.
‘Are you sure? I’m sure you could cope with black.’
‘Not in this visibility.’ ‘Then we go this way,’ she said.
‘I can’t see any sign pointing this way, hon. There must be a sign-post up here, surely?’ With one ski pole, she began to brush away the fresh powder snow from the ground beside her. After a moment, tracks were revealed beneath it, frozen into the cruddy, icy surface beneath.
‘See?’ she said.
He peered at them. They led straight ahead for a couple of yards before disappearing into the swirling white blizzard. Looking relieved, he smiled. ‘Clever girl! I’ll follow you.’
‘No, you go first in case you fall over—I can help you up. Just follow the tracks. Bend you knees and brace yourself because the first fifty yards or so are a bit steep, then it levels out. Just let yourself go!’
She shot an anxious glance around her to make absolutely sure no one was watching.
‘OK!’ he said with a sudden burst of enthusiasm. ‘Here goes! Yeee-ha!’
He launched himself forward on his poles, like a racer out of the gate, and whooped again. ‘Yeee-ha!’
Then his voice turned into a terrible scream. Just for one fleeting second before it was swallowed by the wind. Then silence. Jodie turned round, then pushing with her poles, headed off in the direction all the other skiers had taken, oblivious to the wind and the stinging snow on her cheeks. ■
2016 Peter James, reprinted with permission from Pan Macmillan. Peter James is an international bestselling thriller writer. He is a New York Times bestseller, as well as having 11 consecutive Sunday Times No 1s, and he is published in 37 languages. His DS Roy Grace crime novels have sold 18 million copies worldwide. Prior to becoming a full-time author, he was responsible for 25 movies. In 1994 Penguin published his novel, “Host,” on two floppy discs as the world’s first electronic novel. He is Overseas VicePresident of International Thriller Writers in the U.S. His novels have won numerous awards, most recently the coveted 2016 CWA Diamond Dagger for sustained excellence, and he was publicly voted by WH Smith—Britain’s biggest book selling chain—The Best Crime Author of All Time. Visit him on YouTube: www.peterjames.com/youtube.