The Celestial Thief
by Paul Halter
Translated from the French by John Pugmire
It is my custom, in my narratives, to highlight the many good qualities of my friend Owen Burns, art critic and detective extraordinary, it goes without saying. But, if weighed in the balance, his faults are equally remarkable. That is, if anyone had weighed them in the past. For today, the balance has tipped noticeably to the bad side. To be frank, Owen was becoming unbearable in his old age. Several years had passed since the end of World War II, and the two of us had just joined the septuagenarian club. To celebrate the event, we had decided to leave the polluted air of London and breathe the far more invigorating air of Nyons, in the department of Drôme in the southeast of France. It is a beautiful spot, fragrant with the aromas of Provence, with an astonishing variety of landscapes, from sun-drenched craggy peaks to deep gorges and refreshing waterfalls. Naturally inclined to laud the beauties of nature, Owen surpassed himself this time, making the bus taking us to the capital of olive oil stop regularly so that he could admire the scenery, much to the annoyance of the other passengers. In the same vein, on the previous evening, whilst we were attending a soirée organised by a local lord of the manor, he had literally swooned as he was conversing with the lady of the manor—a very pretty woman, it must be said. A wave of panic had spread amongst the guests as he lay stretched out on the floor, inert. When he regained consciousness, he murmured to his hostess as she was leaning over him: “You are too beautiful, madame. My eyes and my soul were unable to withstand the shock.” After a moment’s hesitation, our hosts made a joke of it, but I’m not sure they appreciated the audacious behaviour.
Now we were sampling a bottle of Clairette de Die, feeling rather weary after a day clambering over the rocks and hills to the east. It had been a beautifully sunny day and Owen had paused many times to contemplate the landscape. He observed once again:
“Ah, my dear Achilles, what a remarkable day. Is there any beauty purer than a luminous sky?”
“Last night’s hostess, perhaps?” I hazarded.
“A trivial response, which doesn’t surprise me, Achilles. I was speaking of the supreme beauty which surrounds us, the mysterious blue colour that bathes our planet.”
I replied pompously with a phrase which had often crossed his lips:
“‘While the light lasts.’”
“Yes, old friend,” agreed Owen, looking emotionally at the glass of Clairette in his hand. “The worst thing for me would be if the candles in the sky all went out.”
Someone spoke from just behind us:
“You never said a truer thing, messieurs. I personally witnessed such a phenomenon a few years ago. . . .”
Owen remained perplexed for a few seconds, then turned around. The young man in his twenties who had addressed us in French—he had realised we spoke the language when we had addressed the waiter—had tousled hair and a frank and open look in his blue eyes. His casual dress and fresh face were indicative of a life outdoors, probably a farmer or a shepherd.
“What do you mean?” asked Owen, frowning.
“The sky suddenly blacked out. The night sky, that is. The moon and the stars vanished, as if an immense black veil had been drawn across it, or a gigantic flying object was hovering over our heads. It lasted several minutes, and then the stars began to shine again, as quickly as they had disappeared!”
Owen nodded, staring with an amused and perplexed air at the glass he was holding delicately in his fingers, as if its contents could have impaired his hearing.
“I know something about mysterious disappearances, young man, but I confess I’ve never heard about anything like that. If I understand correctly, the heavens suddenly went dark?”
“That’s exactly right. And during that short time another event, just as mysterious, occurred. . . .”
After a very intrigued Owen had invited our neighbour to join us, the young man, whose name was Henri Favier—a shepherd, as I had surmised—began his strange story.
* * *
“I was fifteen at the time and was still living in the village where I was born, La Charce, a tiny place with about a hundred inhabitants, about sixty kilometres from here, to the east. It’s even wilder than here, and more mountainous. Before I talk about anything else, I need to tell you that surprising events had occurred there a few weeks earlier. A farmer in the area had had the disagreeable surprise of finding some of his cows dead in a field one morning, one or two of them mutilated. A pack of marauding wolves? An act of vengeance? No logical explanation seemed to fit the facts. A few days later, a kid claimed to have seen an enormous unidentified flying object shaped like a saucer, at twilight. And a few days after that, an old man reported seeing the same thing.”
“Just like an attack of Martians,” observed Owen, with a gleam of irony beneath his heavy eyelids.
“You can laugh, messieurs, just as I did at the time. I was assuming some form of collective hallucination, engendered by the mysterious aggression against the cattle . . . Until I personally was a witness to the inexplicable phenomenon, in the company of two friends. . . .”
With a distant look in his eye, he continued:
“I was sensible and well-behaved at the time, and quite reserved, particularly in comparison with Gaspar, who was a year older. He was more self-confident than I and more boisterous, and the terror of our tiny village. There was no end to his escapades: his petty thefts and his vandalism, from overturning flowerpots to graffiti on buildings, to the great displeasure of our mayor, M. Hérault, a man devoted to the community. Gaspar was also a great womanizer, which had got him into trouble, including one serious incident. Young Clarisse had been found at the bottom of a cliff one day, having had a fatal fall from the Saint Romain heights, north of the village. Was it an accident or suicide? Impossible to tell, but the fact was that Gaspar had just dropped her for another girl in the village. That said, he was pleasant enough company, and we youngsters feared him and admired him at the same time.
“Then there was Pierre, who was fifteen, like me. He was the opposite of Gaspar: serious, a brilliant student and passionate about everything, including astronomy. For several weeks, he had been making a telescope, after having found a sufficiently large mirror. One day, he announced proudly that he had completed the instrument and invited us to join him for a demonstration. It was at the end of August and every day was beautiful. Before I go on, I need to describe the setting. La Charce is a rather special place, perched on a rocky prominence, cut off to the north and the south by rushing streams. The east part of the town is dominated by the ruins of a castle once inhabited by Philis, a historic figure of the Dauphiné region, renowned for his courage. Farther east, behind the ruins, a long path leads to a mountain. After about one hundred metres, the path forks, with the wider part descending to pass in front of a cemetery, and the narrower part continuing as a rocky footpath towards the mountain. It was this intersection that Pierre had chosen for his observation post. It was an ideal spot, even though the horizon was masked by trees and bushes. The telescope was so big and so heavy that we had to borrow a farmer’s iron cart to transport it. At the intersection, opposite the start of the footpath, stood the metal frame of a canopy which had been used for the village fete during the summer, but had been moved out of sight of tourists on orders from the mayor. So as not to interfere with through traffic, the telescope was installed on the path leading to the mountain, which, as Pierre explained, gained us a couple of metres in height, allowing us to observe the moon, even though he predicted it would be quite low over the horizon.
“To ensure optimal darkness, we agreed to meet at midnight. It was a remarkable night. The stars shone brilliantly, like so many diamonds in the sky, and the moon, almost full, showed itself as a silver disk between the branches. Even Gaspar, not a romantic soul, seemed to be dazzled. Then, cavalierly, he placed himself behind the telescope aimed at the moon, which—according to Pierre’s calculations—was fully visible at that spot.
“‘It’s incredible,’ gasped Gaspar. ‘You can see every detail, like the craters. . . .’
“Whilst he continued to watch, Pierre enumerated in scholarly fashion the names of the remarkable zones. After a few more minutes, Gaspar deigned to allow me to look. New explanations came from Pierre as I described what I saw. And if I overlooked some detail, he encouraged me to concentrate harder, so as not to miss the spectacle. It was a magical sight. . . . I’d never had the opportunity to see the moon’s surface so clearly. Then Pierre indicated that he’d like to take a turn on his own telescope. I gave way, and that’s when it happened. . . .
“A cry shattered the silence. It was Gaspar, who had moved some distance away from us:
“‘Help! What’s happening? I can’t see anything! The stars have suddenly disappeared! It’s not possible . . . Tell me I’m dreaming. Do you see anything, you two?’
“‘No,’ stammered Pierre, standing just next to me and grabbing me by the shoulder. ‘What about you, Henri?’
“‘Absolutely nothing,’ I murmured in astonishment, my eyes raised to the heavens, where I couldn’t see a single star shining. ‘What the devil—?’
“I didn’t finish my sentence. We heard Gaspar’s voice again, more shrill than before:
“‘Ho! What is it? Leave me alone . . . I . . .’
“He was quiet for a moment, then we heard rapid footsteps as he raised his voice:
“‘Get away . . . Who are you? . . . Help . . . No . . . I . . . Help me. . . .’
“More footsteps, fresh cries for help, then the deep rumble of a rock fall. More cries for help from our friend, then other sounds, possibly of a fall, then nothing. In the pitch darkness, we called out desperately to our friend, to no effect. Then a dazzling flood of white light cut through the darkness. Pierre had just switched on his powerful torchlight. We immediately started in the direction of the cemetery, where Gaspar appeared to have fled. To our left, just beyond the cart which we had parked on the right-hand side of the path earlier, we could see a pile of rocks which I swear hadn’t been there that afternoon. Something had provoked a partial collapse of the rock face there. We searched feverishly with the torchlight. To the right of the path the ground dropped steeply into a pile of brambles and rocks, and that was where we found our friend, in very bad shape. Fortunately his body had been sheltered somewhat by a large rock. We heard him groan, which reassured us slightly. His nose had been bloodied and there were numerous severe grazes on his body. Whilst I was examining him by the light of the lamp and calming him, Pierre observed that the moon and the stars had reappeared. I looked up and found what he was saying to be true. But I was too anxious to think about the apparent miracle, because Gaspar was babbling incoherently. I couldn’t be sure, but it sounded like: ‘Attacked . . . they pulled me . . . pushed me . . . I couldn’t see anything . . . I . . . I . . .’ At which point he lost consciousness again. We decided to go for help immediately. Logically, only one of us should have gone and the other should have stayed behind with our injured friend. But neither Pierre nor I suggested it, overwhelmed as we were by fear of the unknown. We made our way to the village.
“Twenty minutes later we were back, accompanied by the mayor, M. Hérault, and M. Passepoil, a retired gendarme. The teacher, Jacques Lambert, and Charles, a farmer, joined us soon after. Passepoil, a sturdy fellow, listened to our account whilst he examined the victim.
“‘What kind of a story is that? If Gaspar had told me, I wouldn’t have believed a flipping word! But you two are more sensible. Well, it’s not going to be a piece of cake getting him out of there without doing more damage. . . . Jacques, can you go and get your car? And Charles, can you notify the authorities?’
“‘His pulse is regular,’ commented the mayor. ‘Gaspar, can you hear us?’
“Our friend mumbled a few words about a great shadow in the sky, then fell back into a coma. Not without difficulty, the ex-gendarme and the mayor managed to lift the injured boy to the side of the road. That’s when they noticed the pile of rocks opposite.
“‘What’s all this circus?’ they growled.
“‘We did tell you about it,’ I replied timidly. ‘And we even heard—’
“‘Silence! Speak when you’re spoken to. Go and wait for us by the telescope.’
“I was doing what I was told when there was another deafening noise not far from me. It sounded like the fall of something metallic. Questions came from all sides, trying to establish the origin. Several minutes passed before Pierre noticed the absence of the cart from the side of the road. It was found at the bottom of the slope, being held by bushes and rocks, just like Gaspar. After swearing volubly, Passepoil decided it was of no importance. That was when we heard a car approaching. It was Jacques, who drew up close to the injured Gaspar. They laid him on the back seat and drove him back urgently. But, alas, not soon enough, because he died on the way.
“As you can imagine, Pierre and I were questioned time and time again, and separately, which is why I remember everything so well. Passepoil thought we were embellishing, that we were victims of our own imagination, but the fact that our testimonies corresponded exactly left him perplexed and even more irritable than before. They were unhappy with our story, and I don’t blame them, particularly since the new incident followed the preceding attacks on cattle, etc. The authorities naturally wanted to avoid panic in the region, particularly since it wasn’t a simple story: It was complicated by strange phenomena, nonetheless real. The theory of a gigantic saucer in the sky, sent to approach silently in order to take Gaspar away, was what they wanted to avoid at any price. The medical examination of the victim didn’t shed any light. His body was covered with bruises and scratches, together with traces of more violent blows. Given that he had fallen onto rocks, it was difficult to establish whether or not he’d fallen from a certain height above the ground, as if a mysterious celestial force had grabbed him before releasing him. As for the precise cause of death, it was due to a violent blow to the head from hitting a rock. All of which steered the investigation towards criminal actions, otherwise how to explain the improbable happenings? Someone had taken advantage of those minutes of total darkness to attack Gaspar. But who? And how to explain the fall of rocks onto the side of the path? A coincidence? Difficult to believe. . . . I even think that, at one point, Passepoil suspected Pierre and me to have been the authors of the farce, in order for us to get rid of Gaspar for who knows what reason. But several years later he confided that he had thought us too intelligent to have created a smokescreen and invented such a fantastic story, just to deflect suspicion. Our strange testimony was set aside and attributed to adolescent nerves put to the test by the circumstances. The inquest concluded it was violent death caused by one or more unknown assailants. And the problem was, as you will readily understand, that those unknown persons could have been anyone from the village or surrounding area. Quite a few people detested Gaspar. . . . And now, gentlemen, you know just about all there is to know concerning this incredible story, which has kept me awake for many a night, I can assure you.”
* * *
There was a silence, during which nothing could be heard but loud conversations from nearby tables. Owen, a thoughtful finger pressed to his lips, was as still as a statue.
“Astonishing,” I observed. “Absolutely astonishing. Your case seems like a miracle, if we except the macabre aspects. Not an easy problem to solve, to say the least.”
“I’m not expecting anyone to solve it,” replied the young shepherd, his eyes lowered.
“Then you don’t know who I am?” exclaimed Owen in surprise.
“No, monsieur. Why, should I? It was only your remark about the sudden nightfall that prompted me to interrupt your conversation so rudely.”
Burns smiled indulgently, then turned to me:
“Achilles, would you please en-lighten the young man?”
My readers know that modesty is not my friend’s prime virtue. After clearing my throat, I made the introductions, stressing my friend’s exceptional qualities and the fact that Scotland Yard often called on him to help solve their most difficult cases.
“Well then,” stammered Henri, “it must be providence. Maybe you can eventually . . .”
“Solve your mystery?” asked Owen with a sphinxlike smile. “I confess that it’s interesting and worthy of an expert of my calibre. It might even justify our excursion into this magnificent countryside of yours. Stars which suddenly stop shining! It’s quite a choice morsel. . . . But, paradoxically—and this is fifty years of experience speaking—the more complex a problem appears, the simpler the solution tends to be. So simple, so childishly simple, that it’s laughably so. And your case, I fear, is no exception.”
The shepherd’s blue eyes widened in amazement.
“What?” he stammered. “Does that mean you’ve already solved the problem?”
Owen smiled equivocally.
“Perhaps. But I need to clarify a few points before pronouncing my verdict.”
“I see. . . . If you would like to visit the scene of the crime, that’s possible. I could take you there personally tomorrow morning, if you’re free.”
“I believe we are. Achilles, isn’t that so? Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to visit the picturesque village of La Charce, if your description is accurate. But now, I’m going to hand matters over to my friend Achilles Stock, who can’t wait to ask you a few supplementary details. He’s often helped me with my investigations, and I’m sure he has some good questions.”
“Yes,” I said, taken aback but not wishing to lose face. “Let’s start with what seems to be the most crucial point, the sudden darkness which descended on you. Your account hints at the appearance of an enormous object flying overhead and blotting out the sky. Was that really your impression at the time?”
“It’s difficult to be precise. . . . All I can say is that we could see absolutely nothing at that moment. Are you saying that there’s an extra-terrestrial explanation?”
“I’m just trying to get some idea. What was your friend Pierre’s reaction?”
“The same as mine. We talked about it later, of course. But we were soon caught up in the investigation, where everyone told us it was impossible, that we must have dreamt it. So I can’t describe exactly what happened.”
“Do you remember your relative positions when you observed the
“Yes . . . Gaspar had just cried out. He must have been on the path, about ten metres to the east of us, at a guess. That’s only an estimate, because we couldn’t see a thing. I’d just stepped away from the telescope and Pierre was standing next to me.”
“And where were you with respect to the metal canopy frame?”
“It was right opposite us, five or six metres away.”
“And how high was it?”
“Three or four metres, I don’t really know . . . Is it important?”
“Yes, because that frame is the only object that could have been used to produce the miracle, by using a system of ropes to stretch a tarpaulin over your heads whilst you were scrutinizing the sky.”
“Remarkable, Achilles,” gushed Owen. “Are there no limits to your imagination?”
“The gendarmes had the same idea at first,” explained Henri. “But they soon abandoned it. There was nothing opposite the frame to which the tarpaulin could have been attached. And we would be bound to have noticed it, because it would have had to have been enormous to cover the sky above Gaspar’s head as well.”
“We’ll check that out when we visit the site,” I replied testily, irritated by Owen’s mocking smile. “In any case, it’s certain that the sudden darkness was arranged by the culprit, in order for him to carry out his plan with impunity. Attacking the victim would be easy. He was crying out and making all kinds of noise. . . . He would have been easy to locate. As for the rock fall, that was obviously ar-ranged. It’s not hard for the culprit to have gathered a bunch of rocks at the top of a slope, held them in place with a large piece of wood with a string attached, and stretched the string across the path. Then all he would have had to do was harass Gaspar so that he made off in the right direction. Then, surprised by the sudden rock fall, he would be projected so that he fell down the slope on the other side. Maybe the assailant’s idea wasn’t to kill him but to give him a fright, and it all went wrong.”
“Again, the gendarmes had the same idea. They weren’t able to find any tangible proof, such as the string you talked about, but they thought the rock fall could very well have been arranged.”
“So then,” I continued more confidently, “the principal question is to determine who. Behind which mask is the culprit hiding? And who had the opportunity? On that last point, given the very late hour, it could have been anybody.”
“Yes,” agreed Henri. “Anybody except Pierre and me, who were always together up until the discovery of our friend’s body. That is, if you accept that we weren’t lying, that we weren’t ourselves the joint instigators of the farce,” he added with a grimace.
“That’s true,” interjected Owen with an amused smile. ‘That would explain everything, but I don’t believe it to be true. First of all, because you wouldn’t have approached us if that were the case. And, just as Passepoil said, your account is simply too fantastic to be believed.”
“Then who?” I asked. “You’ll have to tell us more about the principal suspects, those with reasons to hate your friend.”
After a moment’s hesitation, Henri replied, “Curiously enough, they were the very people who were present at the scene. I mean those who came immediately after, the ones we dragged from their beds.”
“From a practical point of view, the culprit could very well be one of them,” I asserted confidently. “There’s nothing easier than sneaking surreptitiously back to one’s bed after the crime and feigning sleep. The individual obviously knew the area like the back of his hand. We have, as I recall, the mayor, M. Hérault, the ex-gendarme Passepoil, the teacher Jacques Lambert, and the farmer Charles.”
“Yes,” agreed Henri. “As far as the mayor is concerned, there was almost a permanent war between them. M. Hérault spent his energy on improving the village and Gaspar on making it worse. A creator on the one hand and a vandal on the other. To take one example, Gaspar once blocked the two streams providing water to the village, which deprived us of water for three days. And amongst numerous petty thefts he committed were precious icons kept in the church. Jacques, who organised Sunday service, almost had a heart attack when they suddenly disappeared. Suspicion fell on Gaspar, and Passepoil launched an investigation, but nothing could be proved. He was still convinced of Gaspar’s guilt, however, and had been waiting for an opportunity to get back at him. As for M. Charles, he is the father of young Clarisse, who had that deadly fall. He’s convinced that she killed herself after Gaspar discarded her. He couldn’t accuse him publicly, but the look in his eye whenever he saw Gaspar said it all.”
“So,” I cut in, “there was no lack of motive. In that case, maybe we should approach the matter from another angle. What do you say, my friend?” I asked, turning to Owen.
“I think it’s time to visit the scene of the crime,” he replied jovially. “I can’t wait to explore the little village!”
Copyright © 2021 The Celestial Thief by Paul Halter