Passport to Crime

The Fires of Hell

by Paul Halter

Translated from the French by John Pugmire

 

The Hades Club was not, as the name might imply, a sanctuary for Satanists; on the contrary, it housed scourges of evil, Londoners versed in mysteries and sophisticated puzzles, such as the celebrated criminologist and private detective Dr. Alan Twist, a tall septuagenarian who was by now practically part of the furniture. Unhurried, he lit his pipe in a quiet corner of the large room. His thin features were briefly illuminated in a golden glow as he struck a match and brought it to his face. Sensing someone looking insistently at him, he turned to consider his neighbour, a man in his fifties with an upright bearing, salt-and-pepper hair, and a superb set of moustaches rather like his own ten or more years ago.

“Please excuse the intrusion, my dear sir,” said the other, with an apologetic smile. “It was the flare of the match which drew my attention . . . rather like a child looking at a Christmas window display.”

“I’m flattered by the comparison,” replied the detective with good humour, “but I fear that the display has lost much of its glamour with the passing of time.”

“I hope I haven’t offended you.”

“Not a bit. Man is fascinated by everything that shines, and his fascination with fire is as old as . . .” He paused to look up at the bust of Hades on the mantelpiece above the hearth. “. . . Prometheus.”

“You’re telling me!” sighed his neighbour.

“You’re from the Continent somewhere, I think. Let me guess: France, perhaps?”

“Indeed, nothing escapes you.”

“Your accent is barely discernible, but I know that country very well.”

“Very few people have noticed, in fact. Allow me to introduce myself: Martin, Colonel Martin.”

“The most common name in France,” observed Twist with a slight smile.

“You’re very well informed, Dr. Twist. Yes, I know who you are. People have told me about your amazing powers of deduction. I’ve had to change my name, but no matter. That’s not directly relevant to the mystery I’d like to tell you about, if you’re interested. . . . An astonishing mystery, worthy of your talents.”

“You flatter me and intrigue me into the bargain. There’s no better antidote to the grey despondency of this town at the moment. I presume it’s something to do with fire: pyromania, perhaps?”

Colonel Martin nodded his confirmation. Then, having taken a cigaret out of his packet, he struck a match. The yellow flame illuminated his deeply-furrowed features and the distant gaze in his eyes.

“Yes, inexplicable fires which broke out as if by magic. It’s a story which dates back to the nineteen twenties. As for the location and the identities of the protagonists, I feel obliged to change them, out of discretion.

“It happened before I joined the army, as I was fairly young at the time and had joined the gendarmes as an auxiliary corporal. I’d been posted to a small town near the Spanish border, in the department of Ariège, where almost nothing ever happened and the disappearance of a dog was considered a major event.

“Then one day a young couple moved into an auberge they’d just purchased overlooking a lake in Saint-Lizier, a nearby hamlet. They were originally from Switzerland but had spent several years in America. She, Marina Villemore, was extremely pretty, with large, dark eyes, and always ready with a laugh whenever there was a man around. It was thanks to her, undoubtedly, that business at the auberge started to boom. He, Charles-Alexandre Villemore, on the other hand, was a very strange bird. Tall and thin, with unkempt hair and a permanently miserable expression on his face, he seemed wholly unsuited to his charming and exuberant wife. Love is a funny thing.

“He was far from being an insignificant fellow, however. He possessed one strange gift, capable of bringing great joy to all the police organisations in the world. Charles-Alexandre Villemore was a clairvoyant and wasn’t shy about communicating his ‘visions’ to the authorities whenever they concerned criminal activities. At first, no one believed him. We only had the couple’s word that it was true and we believed, at Saint-Lizier, that they’d made it up in order to give the otherwise self-effacing Charles-Alexandre an air of importance.

“One day, however, he came into the station to warn us that, in the near future, there would be a series of fires with quite severe consequences. He was, however, unable to tell us more for the time being. After he’d left, my boss, Max Picard, a strapping red-bearded fellow, couldn’t stop howling with laughter. The man had seemed as ridiculous as the message he’d brought.

“He laughed even louder when the innkeeper paid us another visit the following week, to inform us that it was the Morels’ farm which would burn the day after next, at nightfall. He’d ‘seen’ the facts and, according to him, the fire was inevitable. Personally, I would have thought it more prudent to warn the Morels, who owned a farm on the other side of the lake, but Picard formally forbade me. ‘It would be as if we were adding credence to this charlatan’s tall tales.’ He added, solemnly: ‘The credibility of agents of the Republic must not be put at risk.’

“Two days later, at ten o’clock at night, a roaring inferno broke out at the Morels’ farm. Everything went up in smoke and they were lucky to save their cows, trapped in a stable surrounded by flames. Max Picard, on hearing the news the following day, was no longer laughing. Nor did he laugh when, a week later, Charles-Alexandre turned up at the station again to tell us he’d ‘seen’ the Lefebvre’s sawmill, situated on the other side of a hill ten kilometres from the lake, go up in flames. According to him, the fire would take place the following afternoon. This time my boss decided to take charge himself.

“That very afternoon we went to the mill in order to warn the Lefebvres of the danger. We checked the various warehouses and woodpiles, trying to imagine how and where the eventual fire might start. Max Picard judged it prudent to ask for reinforcements, in order to improve the surveillance.

“The next day, at around noon, there were half a dozen gendarmes spread out over the premises. Two hours later, the woodpile located inside the main hangar suddenly caught fire without anyone able to explain how. The hangar itself was in flames in the blink of an eye and set fire to all the surrounding warehouses whilst we watched the disaster helplessly, unable to do anything. My boss was beside himself with rage.

“How had the fire started? All by itself, according to all the witnesses. It seemed almost impossible that a malicious hand could have escaped our surveillance. We had cordoned the place off and nobody except an acrobatic pyromaniac, apparently, could have done it. But that didn’t explain Charles-Alexandre’s premonition.

“The clairvoyant had another one a few days later. But this time he contented himself with writing a letter. We barely had time to set our trap, for the fire was predicted for the same evening at another farm in the area. Unfortunately, our vehicle lost a wheel on the way and we only reached the premises late in the day. We could only stand and watch, because the fire ‘started itself’ a mere quarter of an hour after our arrival. Happily there were no victims. But, once again, it was determined that it was absolutely im- possible for anyone to have got into the hay barn where the fire started. It appeared for all the world like spontaneous combustion.

“The next day at the station, Max Picard took stock. Slumped in his seat, his feet were on the desk as if he were playing at being sheriff. Max—his real name was Maxime, but he preferred to be called Max—loved stories of the Wild West and had always dreamt of going to the United States one day. But he was almost fifty and his illusions had faded with the passage of time. Behind him on the wall were two large illustrations of the Rockies and the Statue of Liberty. The Villemores had had the chance to go there, and I believe he bore a grudge against the clairvoyant because of that.

“‘There are only two possible solutions to the problem, Martin,’ he declared, after lighting a cigar and blowing a smoke ring into the air above him. ‘Either we’re dealing with a genuine clairvoyant, in which case there’s not much we can do other than thank him for his warnings, which have allowed us to limit the damage and save people’s lives. Or else Villemore is an impostor with a specific objective, such as achieving sufficient notoriety that people will come to him for consultations. In the second case—which is the one I favour, by the way—he must have an accomplice, because he has a cast-iron alibi for the last fire, having spent the afternoon and evening serving behind the bar. At no time could he have slipped out to get to the scene of the fire. Several witnesses are prepared to swear as much.’

“‘So he’s working with an accomplice?’

“‘No doubt about it. I’ve tried pushing him around to get him to talk, but he’s tougher than he looks.’

“‘So what exactly does this accomplice do? On almost every occasion, it’s been shown that no human intervention was possible.’

“‘Almost being the operative word. There must be some kind of trick, as surely as two and two make four. Personally, I don’t believe in ghosts or paranormal happenings. I never have, and I’m not going to start today. When you’ve lived as long as I have, Martin, you’ll know that there’s no limit to human ingenuity, especially in the cause of evil! One of these days, you’ll remember what I said.’

“‘What do you plan to do in the meantime?’

“Picard leant forward with his elbows on the desk and looked me in the eye:

“‘That’s where you come in, Martin. You’re going to be staying in Saint-Lizier for a while, paying particular attention to the auberge. Be there every minute of the day. Pretend to be drunk, do whatever you need to do, but don’t let that pseudo-fakir out of your sight. Try to find out how he warns his accomplice, for there’s no doubt in my mind that he has one. And he gives him his instructions after he’s told us about his latest “vision.” Villemore’s our pyromaniac!’

“Using a few tricks to change my appearance, I hung around the hamlet for about a week, posing as a casual worker looking for a job but more inclined to drink than get his hands dirty. I learnt quite a few things, and not just about our suspect. Charles-Alexandre ran the bar, in his taciturn fashion, in the late afternoon and evening. Otherwise he never left his residence. As I’d suspected, it was Marina who drove the business. She was always on the move, always smiling, and with a good word for everyone. Several of the customers flirted with her, discreetly when her husband was present, and more directly when he wasn’t there. Marina had no equal at turning them away tactfully. There was one suitor, however, who was more successful than the rest: a sales representative of about the same age and not bad-looking at all.

“One evening I spied them together sitting by the lake. They didn’t notice me because I was behind a fishing barge. I wouldn’t have tried to eavesdrop if I hadn’t been on duty. The man, a certain Martinez, was certainly a smooth-talker. He recounted his life, his ambitions, his regrets—including, needless to say, that of not finding the companion of his dreams. How he would love to take the place of  Charles-Alexandre Villemore! How he dreamt of going through life with such a ravishing creature as Marina by his side, someone so capable and intelligent, who deserved better than to be stuck with you-know-who . . .

“Eventually, out of discretion, I withdrew. Although I didn’t follow the conversation to the end, I got the distinct impression that Marina was not insensitive to what Martinez was saying. I saw them from time to time over the next few days and, from the glances they exchanged, I was pretty sure there was something between them. Charles-Alexandre, on the other hand, seemed oblivious. Even so, I detected flashes of jealousy in his usually lifeless eyes when the lascivious looks of certain customers languished for too long on the delicious curves of his fellow innkeeper. And that’s about all I learnt during my stay in Saint-Lizier.

“In the meantime, and just before I returned to make my report to my boss, he’d received another message from Charles-Alexandre Villemore. I confirmed that he had no accomplices, nor any particular friend. As to discreet messages exchanged at the bar, I’d paid particular attention to that and seen nothing. Two days later the fourth fire occurred, in circumstances just as baffling as in the previous incidents. The conflagrations started as if by magic, despite more and more rigorous surveillance.

“And the inexhaustible Charles-Alexandre kept turning up to announce more visions. Each visit was greeted with dread. Max Picard became more and more downhearted and began to believe, like most in the region, in the miraculous nature of the phenomena and the astonishing powers of the clairvoyant. His pre-dictions seemed like fate, a fate inescapable until better days returned. The phenomenon of the ‘burning bushes,’ to quote one local journalist, became widely known in the region.

“Nevertheless, on two occasions the ‘miracle’ didn’t happen. And in these two cases, the sixth and eighth in the series, there were reactions which surprised me. Charles-Alexandre had ‘seen’ another sawmill in the area burning but, at the appointed time, nothing happened. Absolutely nothing. Not a single puff of smoke. Garcia, the owner, who had been highly agitated before H-hour, curiously manifested no relief once the danger had passed. On the contrary, he appeared vaguely upset, as if he were secretly bitter about something. I noticed a similar attitude from one Cartier, a businessman specialising in the construction of chalets, near Montgaillard. No doubt both individuals had been a bundle of nerves after a prolonged and anxious wait. Nevertheless, their reactions surprised me a great deal. I told Picard as much, but he paid very little attention. The absence of new ‘burning bushes’ was, to him, a victory—and who could blame him?

“Our favourite clairvoyant an-nounced a ninth fire, which would occur despite the most stringent precautions. Picard took the news very badly. The next day, after stamping on his packet of cigars, he swore he wouldn’t smoke again until the whole business was finally wrapped up.

“‘Believe me, Martin,’ he ranted, ‘if this sinister series isn’t stopped soon I’ll go mad. Up until now I’ve done everything to keep the investigation on the rails, hoping to bring it to a conclusion. I’ve scornfully rejected all offers of help, from amateurs as well as professionals, not to mention scientists, specialists in the paranormal, and other experts. But now it’s got to end, Martin, do you hear me?  It has to stop. And soon.’

“‘I agree. And, for what it’s worth, so does everyone in the region.’

“‘In fact, we’re at this point because of you.’

“‘Excuse me?’

“‘Yes, because of you. If you’d done your job properly and watched the suspect instead of ogling his wife, you’d probably have worked out how he communicated with his accomplice.’

“‘So,’ I replied in astonishment, ‘we’re back to that theory?’

“‘Yes, because there can’t be any other. The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced. Don’t forget these mysterious fires coincide with his arrival.’

“After a pause, I declared:

“‘In my opinion, the means of communication with the accomplice isn’t the main concern. What’s far more difficult to understand is how the pyromaniac sets the fires without being seen.’

“Max Picard sniffed noisily:

“‘I admit I still don’t understand how. But it’s incidental. Once we finally lay hands on the culprit, he’ll end up explaining it.’

“‘And are you sure the culprit is Charles-Alexandre?’

“‘Why are you asking, Martin? Do you have any other suspects in mind?’

“‘If we’re going to speculate, then yes.’

“‘I’m listening.’

“‘First of all, there’s the lovely Marina. A wife may have a thousand reasons for getting rid of her husband.’

“Picard looked askance at me:

“‘If I understand what you’re suggesting, it’s that she manipulated her husband by some unspecified means, in order that he spout out his “visions,” whereupon she carries them out somehow for the express purpose of him being accused instead of her?’

“‘Exactly. And she has a lover who goes along with it all in order to marry her, which will inevitably involve the elimination of the husband.’

“Max Picard stroked his beard:

“‘Why not? I hadn’t looked at things from that angle. Do you have anyone in mind?’

“I hesitated before replying:

“‘There’s this fellow Martinez . . . but frankly, it could be anyone. She has so many fervent admirers in the region.’

“My boss opened his mouth to speak, but froze suddenly. He stared at a point beyond the open window and at the same time I heard a footstep.

“‘Charles-Alexandre Villemore,’ he muttered. ‘What new disaster has he come to announce?’

*   *   *

“I had always been impressed by the personality of the clairvoyant.  His steely-grey stare had a peculiar quality to it, being simultaneously sad and unfathomable. Was it this that had attracted Marina? The man had a certain presence about him and he spoke unhurriedly in a solemn voice, with perfect diction.

“‘A new fire!’ exclaimed Picard, taking notes. ‘I don’t know whether you’re counting, Monsieur Villemore, but this will be the tenth.’

“‘I know.’

“‘That’s a lot. People are beginning to get fed up. They’d like to have peace and quiet again.’

“‘I understand. But what can I do?  I merely transmit images which intrude into my thoughts. I know nothing of the “force” which instills them, but we can only be thankful it happens. But for this extraordinary gift, the incidents would have claimed numerous victims.’

“‘That’s certainly true. But tell me: Did you already receive these images before setting foot on French soil?’

“‘Of course,’ replied the clairvoyant calmly. ‘But I must admit they were nothing compared to these recent ones. They were fleeting visions which occurred only occasionally. My sixth sense was in an apprenticeship, so to speak. And I’ve never seen anything so clearly as I do now. As you can testify, alas!’

“Picard winced.

“‘Let’s get back to your latest vision, Monsieur Villemore. And please be as specific as possible.’

“‘You ask me that every time,’ observed the clairvoyant, with a glint of humour in his eye.

“‘Yes, but this time it’s special. We need to know precisely where and when.’

“‘I won’t be evasive,’ replied Villemore solemnly, full of his own importance. ‘It will happen tomorrow night, around midnight, in a furniture factory in Saint-Girons. The fire will occur on the second floor, in the old part of the premises.’

*   *   *

“The next day, at around ten o’clock at night, we were all at our observation posts on the immense premises of Dupuis Enterprises. Since there was no other such establishment in the town, there could be no dispute about the location. But the furniture factory was vast and situated right in the center of town. Business had prospered, explained M. Dupuis, and they had bought up all the adjacent old houses as they became available. It was a veritable labyrinth which extended through the adjacent properties like the tentacles of an octopus. The lofts had been converted and sheds hastily built in backyards—mostly half-timbered. It was frightening to think of the consequences of a fire in the tangle of corridors and old buildings. All the firemen in the area had been summoned and were waiting anxiously in the nearby streets.

“It was pitch black and a gentle wind was blowing from the east. Through broken windows we could make out the tormented skyline of neighbouring rooftops. It had been a very hot day and we were suffocating in rooms with no air. Judged to be too run-down, they had been abandoned for more modern rooms on the ground floor. Based on the clairvoyant’s message, there seemed to be little doubt as to where the fire would start.

“I was hidden behind an open door in the roof space, at the end of a gangway leading to an office where Max Picard was ensconced, hiding like me in the darkness. On the floor below was a lieutenant from the Sûreté, Pierre Lenoir, sent to help us—in other  words,  imposed by the authorities! Picard had been unable to refuse his aid.

“He was a steely individual whose authority outranked that of Max, relegated to a subordinate role. His presence was immediately felt and I said to myself—as I’m sure Max did—that with him in charge, the days of the pyromaniac were numbered. During the afternoon we’d had the opportunity to refine our strategy and discuss the whole business.

“After he’d heard all the facts, Lenoir had declared, with a reassuring calm:

“‘I don’t think that lighting the fire would present much of an obstacle for the criminal. It wouldn’t take much: for example, a hot piece of coal fired from a catapult. It’s compact enough to travel a considerable distance and light enough not to make much noise on falling. After that, it wouldn’t take much sawdust and broken wood to start an inferno . . . and there would be practically no trace.’

“‘Oh, I never thought of that,’ said Max Picard, with a studied nonchalance as he took another swig of beer, sweating like a pig.

“‘Well, you should have!’ the lieutenant shot back tersely. ‘And there are other methods, such as a candle placed on a mound of sawdust inside a perforated cardboard box: closed, but with aeration holes. All surrounded by dry wood, making a simple delayed-action fuse determined by the length of the candle.’

“‘Ingenious!’ I exclaimed. ‘As you said the other day, boss, there’s no limit to human ingenuity.’

“Max Picard didn’t appreciate my irony. He shot me a furious look which would have stopped a charging buffalo in its tracks.

“‘You should have directed your investigation towards the identity  and motive of the pyromaniac,’ said Lenoir, vehemently reproaching my boss.

“‘That’s exactly what I did,’ protested Picard, who was sweating more and more. ‘Ask Martin. We concentrated all our efforts on the principal suspect, Villemore, who had a solid alibi each time. And we also envisaged the possibility of an accomplice, without success.’

“‘Without success, indeed,’ said Lenoir caustically, finishing his beer. ‘But things are about to change,’ he added, getting to his feet. ‘Come, gentlemen, we have some serious work to do if we’re to catch our mysterious pyromaniac!’

“While the lieutenant was walking ahead of us, Picard, beside himself with anger, hissed:

“‘Upon my word, I’m the one who’s going to collar the villain. It’s personal now. I say, Martin, have you got a cigaret?’

“Eleven o’clock had just struck. The air was stifling under the tiles, which had absorbed the heat the entire day. My nerves on edge from the anguish of the wait, I was sweating profusely and could only imagine Max Picard’s state in that office of his. Fear must also have been gnawing at him. We’d obviously mapped out a fast escape route in case of fire, but with all those wooden buildings around us, it would be pretty much hit or miss.

“As the minutes went by in deathly silence, the various discussions of the afternoon came back to me. I had noticed a strange tension, and something told me the denouement of the extraordinary puzzle was imminent. Events were soon to prove me right, but I was a long way from guessing the identity of the criminal. Motionless, my hand on the grip of my revolver, all my senses at full alert, I peered into the darkness in search of the slightest untoward movement.

“Everything happened very quickly. I heard a sudden noise of breaking glass and several muffled blows. Thanks to my acute hearing, sharpened by the long, silent wait, I was immediately able to locate the source of the disturbing noises: the office on the other side of the gangway, which Picard was using. Without the slightest hesitation I ran there.

“I noticed the room was feebly lit and, as I burst in, I saw my boss with his revolver in one hand and his dark lantern in the other. The wavering light caught his haggard face. The window was wide open behind him, revealing the contours of the adjacent buildings. One pane was broken. On the floor lay a fallen shadow, motionless.

“‘It’s him,’ muttered Picard, still trembling with emotion. ‘Him, Villemore the pyromaniac, caught in the act. I surprised him just after he broke the window. When he saw me he tried to strike me with that truncheon.’ He indicated a white object on the ground with the tip of his revolver. ‘But I knocked him out with the butt of my revolver.’

“Frozen in the doorway, I said nothing. Picard, leaning forward, exclaimed:

“‘Look, there’s something next to him . . . a small box! Martin, hold the lamp, please.’

“I did as I was told, while he picked up a small cardboard box, pierced by several holes, containing a candle on a bed of wood shavings. It was exactly the ‘delayed-action fuse’ described by the lieutenant.

“‘There’s our proof!’ exclaimed Picard triumphantly. ‘It’s him, the pyromaniac! His presence here with this contraption proves it.’

“I might possibly have believed dear old Max if I hadn’t picked up the white stick—the culprit’s truncheon, according to my boss. It was indeed a truncheon, but not the sort used by bandits. It was the most standard of issues, used habitually by the gendarmerie. A strong suspicion started to form in my mind but, whilst I was holding the object close to the lantern, Picard must have read my thoughts. I slowly raised my head: He was pointing his gun at me with an unrecognisable smile on his face.

“‘I see you’ve worked it out, Martin,’ he sneered nervously. ‘I congratulate you, but it’s a shame nevertheless. For it’s the kind of secret that can’t be shared.’

“‘I understand, Max, but not the whole of it,’ I said.

“‘It’s very simple. I was very impressed when, following Villemore’s first prediction, the Morel farm burnt down. I realised the potential that idiot had, who’d been right purely by accident. The next few times, it was I who started the fires which he continued to announce.” His sneering smile widened. “Think about it: Who but I, responsible for the surveillance of the premises, was best placed to set fire to them? It’s diabolically logical, don’t you think?’

“At that moment the victim on the floor emitted a groan. Then footsteps sounded on the stairs.

“‘Lenoir,’ I murmured, immediately regretting my words.

“As he continued to point his revolver resolutely at me, Picard mumbled:

“‘I’ll place the weapon in Villemore’s hand and say it was he who fired. . . .’

“I was faster. Picard should have known better. I was the best marksman in gendarmerie school. I drew my weapon at the same time as I leapt to my right, firing twice. I learnt afterwards that Picard had received two shots in the heart before he’d even had time to pull the trigger. He would have been well advised to have drunk less beer that afternoon.

“Lenoir arrived almost immediately, just as Villemore started to revive, and I explained it all to him:

“‘Picard was our pyromaniac. Don’t be fooled. He knocked Villemore out with a truncheon hit to the neck, having obviously arranged to meet him here under some pretext or other. Hearing you describe the delayed-action fuse this afternoon, he hastened to build one like it to make us believe that Villemore regularly used that method.’

*   *   *

Colonel Martin stopped suddenly and sighed:

“Damn! I let myself get carried away by my story. I wanted to ask you what you thought before divulging the identity of the miscreant!”

“Oh, I’d already worked it out,” replied Twist, looking amused.

“Really?”

“All I needed to do was apply an axiom of a celebrated master: ‘Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.’ In this case, only you and Picard were in a position to create those miracles. And since I assumed you wouldn’t be telling a tale which implicated yourself, there was only Picard left.”

“And what would his motive have been?” asked the colonel with a defiant air.

“I think we’re dealing with a classic case of blackmail, like the Mafia ‘protecting’ small businesses, with the implicit threat of wrecking them.”

“You’re on the right track, but could you be more specific as to Picard’s motives?”

“Perhaps his American dream? You mentioned that he was dying to visit the Wild West. He realised he was getting old, and unless a large sum of money fell into his lap, he would never get to follow the trails of the New World like a cowboy.”

“You’ve hit the nail on the head,” said the colonel in admiration.

“The arrival of Villemore gave him the opportunity he was waiting for. He set about using the strange powers of the clairvoyant and sowing panic amongst the businesses in the region. He was thus able to engage in subtle blackmail, through anonymous letters, of those enterprises menaced by the clairvoyant’s dire predictions. Either they forked over a considerable sum of money or the fruit of their labours would go up in smoke. You noted the strange bitterness of the two owners who escaped the flames, which was most revealing. Their businesses were saved, but they had to pay the villain.”

“That’s right,” agreed the colonel. “And when Villemore’s predictions were too vague, Picard helped him to have ‘visions’ about companies he’d targeted for his ignoble blackmail. Frankly, I would never have thought him capable of such a cunning plan—and so beautifully simple: All he had to do was light a match when our backs were turned! And, once he sensed there was no more low-hanging fruit, he decided to close the investigation by handing Villemore, bound hand and foot, to justice. Even alive, he would never have been able to prove his innocence, because no one would have believed him.”

“And Picard only had to find a sufficiently convincing pretext to lure Villemore into the trap.”

“I don’t know what it was, but it can’t have been difficult, because Villemore is quite naive. Maybe he persuaded him that his presence was needed in order to solve the mystery.”

After a brief silence, Dr. Twist declared:

“Be that as it may, Villemore himself remains a mystery. By the way, did he have any more ‘visions’ after that?”

“I don’t know. He certainly never announced any more of that sort after he learnt the truth. Afterwards, we never saw any more of the salesman Martinez . . . and I left the gendarmes to join the army.”

“I imagine the beautiful Marina might have had something to do with your decision,” said Twist mischievously.

“Perhaps,” admitted the colonel, with a frog in his throat. “She never left her husband. She even regarded him with a renewed fervour, as if Villemore, in one last prediction of fire, had rekindled her love for him. . . .”                    

 

Read the exciting conclusion in this month's issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2018. The Fires of Hell by Paul Halter; translation by John Pugmire