Rick Montoya is looking forward to a break from his translation business in Rome—a week of skiing in the Italian Alps with old college buddy Flavio. But Rick’s success helping the Italian police with a murder in Tuscany sends the Campiglio cops his way. An American banker working in Milano is missing. The man’s sister, an attractive and spoiled divorcée, has no idea where he could be, nor do the locals who saw him on his way to the slopes. With the discovery of a body, Rick and Inspector Albani widen their list of suspects. Picturesque resort Campiglio harbors old rivalries, citizens on the make, and a cutthroat political campaign. Why would these local issues, any of them, connect to the missing banker? The investigation doesn’t keep Rick and Flavio from enjoying perfect ski conditions in the Dolomites and glorious after-ski wines and bowls of fresh pasta. As for women—Rick has to wonder if the banker’s sister is just hitting him up for information. The action heats up, testing laid-back Rick whose uncle, a Roman cop, keeps urging him to make the police his career. As in Cold Tuscan Stone, Death in the Dolomites immerses us in the sights, smells and tastes of Italy, this time in a picture-perfect Alpine town with a surprising negative side.
It had snowed most of the day, but a new and stronger system had begun blowing over the mountain from the north, diving into the valley. Snow was always welcome in a ski town, especially the clumped flakes that now cast ever-larger shadows on the ground under the streetlamps. The cement of the sidewalk and the parking lot, barely visible an hour before, was now covered. Bad news for Campiglio’s street crews but not for the skiers who had left Milan the previous afternoon to climb into the Dolomites, skis snapped to racks on the roofs of their cars.
They had been rewarded with an excellent day of skiing, and with this snow, tomorrow would be even better. If it kept up through the night, the base could last for weeks. The local merchants were likely standing outside their shops right now, letting the flakes fall on their grinning faces.
At this moment the man’s interest was not in tourists, but in the stained canvas duffel at his feet. He pulled his wool cap down over his ears and adjusted a small backpack before looking once more around the large lot. It was deserted save for a few cars of the remaining employees at the far side. His eyes moved to the bulky building and the thick cables that ran out of one side toward the mountain. On its top, the last weak rays of late afternoon sun, long gone from the valley below, outlined the station at the high end of the cable line.
It was time.
With a grunt he wrapped the strap of the duffel around his gloved hand and began to drag it toward the building. His burden slid easily through the accumulating snow and occasional patches of ice, like an injured skier on a ski-patrol sled. The last few meters would be inside on the loading platform, but the snow sticking to the bag would help it slide. This would be even easier than he’d planned. Halfway he stopped to catch his breath, pulling up his jacket sleeve to check his watch. Perfect,he thought. There would be one more run of the gondola before its cables stopped for the night, and he would be on it.
On the mountain the cleaning crew was finishing its duties. Given the number of skiers who had passed through the snack bar on their way to the piste during the day, the workload was heavy. The floor was now clean of slush and mud, and four black garbage bags, almost as tall as the women who handled them,had been loaded into the waiting gondola. It would be the same story the next night, especially with the snow now falling. One of the workers—a woman who had been doing the late afternoon shift for more years than she would admit—put down her mop, walked to the window, and peered out at the falling snow. She shook her head and returned to her job. A few moments later the crew stood in a silent clump near the door while the supervisor made a final check of the room. The woman closest to the door slid it open, letting in a light gust of wind and snow. The others, now in parkas and wool coats, instinctively pulled them around their necks in anticipation of the cold. The supervisor finally nodded and the group began to file onto the platform to the waiting gondola, snow already covering its roof and the windows on one side. When they were all inside, the supervisor closed the latch on the door and took a silent head count before picking up the black phone hanging near the door.
“Guido, siamo pronti,” she said.
Below, the man in the control room hung up his phone while keeping his eyes on the last sentences of a story in Gazzetta dello Sport. Guido knew it was not going to be a good year for his team, and again wondered why last season’s star player had been sold. To make it worse, the bastard would now play for their biggest rival. He folded the paper in disgust and pulled the long wooden lever, never glancing at the platform below. The huge dynamo came slowly to life and the cable above the long window shuddered and began to move.
The man was crouched on the floor of the gondola, well below its ski-scratched windows, when it swung slowly and lurched upward. Neither he nor the sack were visible from above, even if Guido had taken his eyes off the newspaper and looked down from his seat in the control room. As the huge metal box was dragged from the dim light of the lower station into the darkness, the man inside it heard the snow slapping softly against the glass windows above his head. He slowly got to his feet and looked down at the base station, now fading quickly as the cable picked up speed. In a few minutes its lights would be hard to distinguish from those of the other buildings at the northern edge of Campiglio.
The route was a steep shot straight to the top of the mountain, suspended over a forest of tall pines. The only breaks in the thick covering of trees were the clearings around the pylons or a few spots where the stone core of the mountain had pushed itself through the dirt. The ski trails, in contrast, returned to Campiglio over a tamer terrain. They took their time to work through the softer hills of the mountain’s other side, carrying skiers to a choice of bases along the east side of town.
He walked to the other end of the gondola cabin and looked upward. In the swirling wind and snow he could not make out his gondola’s twin, but he knew it was rushing toward him and would be passing soon. He dragged the duffel toward the door and checked to see that the latch had not slipped closed. It had not. According to his calculations the best time would be after passing the second pylon, and just at that moment the cable carrying his gondola slipped over the first one. He flexed his knees as the floor bounced slowly while continuing its climb.Suddenly the other gondola appeared out of the storm and the man dropped to his knees to get out of sight. Through the howling wind he heard a laugh from one of the workers as the two gondolas passed each other. Seconds later the only sound was once more the hum of the cable and the increasing patter of the snow. He reached over and slowly slid the door open with his right hand. As the snow swirled inside he sat back on the floor, the sack between him and the opening.
When the next pylon passed he waited until the swinging stopped and firmly pushed the sack out the door with both feet.
As he got up to slide the door closed he heard the crack of a tree branch and then the soft thump as the sack hit the snow below. The sound meant that it had sunk in, and with the new snow it would be well covered. Once the door was closed he slipped the latch into place. Safety first.
A few minutes later the other gondola bumped slowly into its berth at the edge of the town, where it would stay until it took the morning crew up on the first run of the day. The workers pushed out, waving at Guido in the control room while they pulled the plastic garbage bags behind them. Guido nodded to the group leader but kept his eyes on the young body of one of the newer members of the crew. When they had all shuffled through the door below him, he switched off the motors and gathered his belongings—the newspaper and a thermos. He was always sure to straighten up so the morning shift would have no complaints. He turned out the lights and locked the door behind him. As he walked down the stairs to the streets he wondered what his wife would be serving for dinner. She had not made lasagna in a while, perhaps this was the night. After pulling on a wide-brimmed hat, Guido buttoned his leather coat and walked into the storm.
High above, the man stepped out of the gondola and slid the door shut. On the platform the footprints of the cleaning crew were already covered, as his own would be in a matter of minutes. He turned and looked down at the valley, its lights blending together through the prisms of the falling flakes.
After a moment of reflection he adjusted his backpack and walked on the deck that ran along the outside of the building. Its tables and chairs had been stacked and pushed against the windows under the overhanging eaves, but the protection was not enough. The morning work crew would need their shovels. Two steps led from the deck down to where the wide trail began, a relatively benign incline for the skiers to start their runs, but still often littered with fallen beginners. He could barely make out the trail, but it didn’t really matter, he could get down the mountain blindfolded.
He cleared away a patch of snow at the edge of the deck with his foot and put down his backpack before stepping off and walking around to the far side of building to a small storage shed. After bending over, he used his gloved hands to scrape away the snow under the shed’s door, revealing a small opening from which he pulled a pair of dark skis and poles. Even though the falling snow would do the job for him, he carefully brushed the snow back with his foot before hoisting the equipment over his shoulder and returning to where he had left the backpack. From it he took out a pair of ski boots whose dark plastic matched the skis. After the usual grunts he had the ski boots on his feet and the snow boots secured in the pack. He also had a pair of ski goggles over his cap. It took him only a few seconds to snap into the skis and strap the poles around his wrists. It was snowing even more heavily now. The clear yellow plastic brightened the view slightly as he pulled the goggles down over his eyes and squeezed the rubber grips of the poles. He straightened up, pulling back the sleeve of his parka to check his watch again in the little light that was left in the day. Yes, the ski patrol would already be at the bottom after their final run to catch any stragglers. He pushed off slowly and began to work his way left and right through the fresh powder, his boots always touching as he flexed his knees for each turn. The flakes swirled around his bare cheeks, but he did not feel the cold. He knew that by the time he reached the valley, his racks, as well as everything else on the mountain, would be shrouded in snow.
David P. Wagner is the author of Cold Tuscan Stone, the first Rick Montoya Italian Mystery. While serving in the diplomatic service he spent nine years in Italy where he learned to love things Italian, many of which appear in his writing. He and his wife live in New Mexico.