I’m away at a conference this week, but was encouraged to write a serial for the daily newsletter. I went for four parts, knowing that the newsletter editors sometimes get squeezed for space, although the last part is longer than the others. It’s not my best work, but doing something that would fit the theme of the conference seemed to me to invite a crime story – it’s intended as a pastiche of one. I’ve stolen the name of the actor who plays Montalbano in the TV series, based on Andrea Camilleri’s books, and it runs to 1300 or so words.
A Case for Inspector Zingaretti
Inspector Zingaretti climbed aboard the shuttle bus and slid into a window seat. Some of the passengers slunk in like himself, others made dynamic entrances, greeting old friends, back-slapping, and kissing with a holiday air. Zingaretti noted one odd pair, an Irishman who appeared fluent in Danish, and a tall gangly traveller from Amsterdam. They acted suspiciously, even doing nothing.
He gazed at the autoroute, the hills, then the flat roads and lagoons on the way to the wooded hillside of Presqu’ile de Giens, but his mind was on his assignment. A Mafia tip-off involving a top scientist, blackmail, and smuggling; whether that was guns, drugs or humans he had no idea. Looking again at his travelling companions, Zingaretti could well believe it. A suspicious lot. Their cover story was an energy efficiency conference. Surely they could think of something more realistic? Smuggling, no doubt, under the guise of “exchange of information”.
He continued to watch his companions as they were processed by the efficient hotel staff, and picked up their conference bags and IDs. Someone had gone to a lot of trouble to stage this. Up in his room, he put his newly acquired name tag – Luca Zingaretti, Consultant, Sicily – through his portable scanner. As he suspected, traces of industrial alcohol and other chemicals including biphenols were detected. Someone was trafficking suspicious chemicals.
He sat through the plenary, paying great attention to the keynote speaker. Here was a target – a prominent local dignitary. So when screams from the dining room disturbed the assembly, he made sure she was carefully secured before he left the theatre to examine the murder victim.
The French Surete had completed their investigations with admirable efficiency. Zingaretti entirely agreed with their conclusions. Death was too good for a sous-chef who dressed fresh gamba with a mustard sauce. He sympathised with the chef’s explosion of rage, just a shame the cleaver was so close to hand. This was not a Mafia plot, though.
He wandered out through the bar, avoided a few lingering Swedes and headed for his apartment. He leant on the balcony rail for a few minutes, timing the pattern of lights from the island across the strait. It was just a lighthouse, he thought, as he climbed into bed, but his dreams were disturbed by lights and boats. He woke as the sky was barely touched by rosy streaks, convinced that he had seen messages the night before, messages about a boat landing tonight at the nudist beach. Where was that? He checked his conference timetable and wondered whether he had time to ‘case the joint’ before the morning sessions. A title caught his eye on the programme for Panel 5: Hidden Killers in Social Housing – the Case of Bad Neuheim. Was this code? Would the author, Professor Malthius, be under threat?
He focused his attention on Panel 5 all morning and learned more about smart houses than he ever wanted to know. But the Bad Neuheim paper was presented by a colleague, not the author. Zingaretti hovered next to her afterwards as questions from participants detained her from the lunch buffet. Like bees round a honey-pot, he thought; why is someone so glamorous here, rather than on the red carpet a few miles away. Then he recalled all the really attractive women he met who were like black widow spiders, mired in deceit and treachery. The crowd thinned a little and he stepped in, offering his card.
“Perhaps we could discuss your paper over lunch?” he suggested.
“I’m sorry, I have to prepare for an informal session with my colleagues. Perhaps another time?”
Informal session, Zingaretti thought. That sounds highly suspicious. Where was the scientist, and why was the glamorous goddess avoiding him?
Zingaretti spent the afternoon checking the informal sessions, the beaches, the plenary and tried not to upset an excellent dinner by looking for suspects.
He could see the eminent scientist’s glamorous assistant laughing and chatting, surrounded by Brits, Germans, Hungarians, Danes and a quiet Japanese chap who kept checking his phone. Gradually his attention switched to an argument behind him. An Italian was passionately defending his country’s progress on building codes against a Parisian and an Austrian. Building codes! Suspicions aroused, Zingaretti put the clues together as an American with links to Qatar joined them: Middle East plus US support, Vienna, the old route for trafficking everything black market, Paris, the destination of thousands of North African migrants, and Italy, bearing the brunt of the trafficking across the Mediterranean, especially through Sicily and Lampedusa.
The argument broke up, but Zingaretti was close enough to hear the arrangement to rendezvous at 21:30 at the boules park. Zingaretti nodded to himself; the set-up – expect packages from the sea tonight, and all disguised by the excitement of the boules contest. Zingaretti returned to his room, checked his pistol was safely stowed, changed into black clothes, and took a circuitous route to the beach.
Now, all he had to do was wait for the motor launch. It was good to be one step ahead of the criminals.
The inky water lapped on the rocks. A little motor dinghy moored a little way off the headland, and Zingaretti counted two splashes, presumably of divers. There was no sign of goods being loaded, nor of larger boats further out. Unless it was drugs, he thought. Drugs were often small packages.
Zingaretti became aware of black logs floating on the surface, like aliens of the deep. He reached into his pocket for his gun.
With a roar of water rushing off his back, a diver stood up in the shallows. He took out his mouthpiece, letting it dangle past his chin, and pushed the facemask up onto his forehead. A second diver replicated the movements.
“Wowzer, did you see the size of this one?” a female voice with an antipodean accent pierced the silence of the night.
“Yes, that’s a beauty!” her companion replied.
Zingaretti stowed his gun again and moved forward, stubbing his foot on a rock. “Have you enjoyed your dive?” He managed to ask, frustrated at their interference.
“It was great!” the woman replied. “There’s so much stuff here. It’s fantastic!
“Anything that shouldn’t be there?”
“Well, we picked up this package,” she said, holding up a long narrow case sealed in thick, smooth black plastic. “It was a bit odd, tagged and attached to a stake. Are you looking for it?”
“I am,” Zingaretti improvised, “shall I take it?”
“Well, it’s addressed to Professor Malthius. He’s been doing some marine research here; it’s probably his data recorder. He said he’d lost one.”
“Then why was it tied to a stake?”
“Well, not exactly tied, more snagged.”
“Can I see it?”
The woman handed it over. Zingaretti took off the outer covering and realised he could see nothing until he got a decent light on it.
“I’ll see he gets it. Thank you,” he said, turning to scramble back up the cliff path before the woman or her companion could object.
Safely back in his room, he treated the package for booby traps, explosives and narcotics. It was clean. He stared long and hard at it before reaching for the lock. It wasn’t locked. He unzipped the container and drew out a sheaf of papers.
A refutation of the theory of climate change, he read; noting the author’s name, Dr A S Keptic. He read on. This was dynamite! No wonder it had been consigned to the sea. This single document could ruin every climate scientist on the globe. This was meant to be found, possibly for blackmail, or just for release to the press. This was the secret Mafia information. He lit a match and held it to the paper, dropping it in the waste bin out on the balcony. Zingaretti had foiled the plot! Thank God, now he could go home.
© J M Pett 2015