“Well, Arthur, what do you have for us this evening?” Ruth smiled toothily at the retired detective who sat at the head of the table.
Ruth Agu, MP for Chipping Barnett, had the imposing appearance and personality of a Nigerian queen. She was dressed in an ornate gold headwrap, nude lipstick, a luxurious gold necklace and wide gold bangles. Her gown was similarly shiny and extravagant.
“Ah yes, I forgot I was to sing for my supper,” said Arthur Allen, who suddenly looked like a mournful Airedale terrier. “This cake is excellent, by the way. What is it?”
“Charlotte aux fraises, but don’t dodge the issue,” Ruth replied crisply. “I promised my guests you’d have a juicy one for them over coffee. They’ll be very disappointed otherwise.”
The guests aforementioned were Claire Cooper, a shovel-faced Oxford professor specializing in medieval British manuscripts, and Rashid Sharif, a plump dandy known for his wine expertise. They smiled apologetically at Arthur.
Arthur cleared his throat and patted the corners of his mouth with a gaudy napkin. Then he bowed to his hostess.
“When Beauty sounds the clarion, Age must heed her call” he said gallantly. “Let’s see now,” he said as he saw Ruth’s manicured fingers start tapping impatiently. “In honour of this excellent French cake, I will relate one of the most perplexing cases of my career, which happened in France, in the town of Chamonix.”
“Ah,” Rashid smacked his lips, “Home of the Altesse grape and the Rousette de Savoie. A sensory foray into the mountains, an immersion in the fragrance of rock-warmed herbs, honey and hazelnut.”
“It was,” Arthur continued, “The summer of 1994. The first week of June. We had a call from the Gendarmerie Chamonix-Mont Blanc, Superintendent Arnand Favre, who told me that Sarah Mills had disappeared. At that time, you see, I was head of homicide in Redbridge, where Sarah and Gerard Mills lived.”
“Why were they in Chamonix?” asked Claire Cooper, frowning.
“Let me begin again. Gerard and Sarah Mills were a newly married couple from Redbridge who had decided to have a holiday in Europe that summer. They’d set off on June 1st, crossed France with no incident until the night of June 12, which is when Sarah was last seen alive.”
“So the husband did it,” Claire said, pushing her spectacles back up the nose down which they’d slid.
“Well,” Arthur nodded, “It does tend to be the way. Nine times out of ten the culprit is the husband or romantic partner, certainly. It was our working assumption when we got the news. And, indeed, Gerard Mills confessed.”
“So far this isn’t much of a mystery, Arthur,” Ruth frowned, swirling her glass dangerously.
“Pardon me,” he said, “I seem to be having trouble getting started. Perhaps I had better tell you the timeline as Arnand Favre told it to me. It will become clearer...”
Sarah Mills disappeared on June 12. On June 13, according to her husband’s statement, he spent the day looking for her without success. On the afternoon of Jun 14, he reported her missing. According to Superintendent Favre, Mr. Mills was visibly distraught—unshaven, rumpled, shadows under his eyes, barely coherent.”
“Murderers often make good actors,” Claire Cooper said. In addition to being one of Britain’s leading authorities on the Lindisfarne Gospels, was also a True Crime aficionado.
Arthur nodded. “My colleague was not unduly moved by the show of grief. He immediately obtained a statement from Mr. Mills as to his activities on the previous two days and later shared this statement with me.
“Mr. Mills’ account was as follows: On the afternoon of June 11, he and Sarah had arrived at a campground on the outskirts of Chamonix. They’d spent the evening settling in, showering, settling the camping fee. They’d gone into town, shared a meal and a bottle of wine at a restaurant, then returned to the campground at around 10.30 at night. These times were later confirmed by a waiter and their neighboring campers, a Dutch couple. Incidentally, the couple heard the Mills have a noisy argument that night. In fact, the next morning they asked to move to a new site.
“The following day, the Mills slept late. Sarah said she’d do some laundry and Gerard went into the town to do some grocery shopping. Before visiting the grocery store, he obtained a shovel at the local hardware store.
“Ooooh,” Rashid said, “Not good.”
“That clinches it,” Claire agreed.
When Gerard returned to the campground at three o’clock, he says that Sarah was lying on the bed reading. She told Gerard that she’d broken a ceramic bowl and that they needed a new one for their breakfast cereal. Gerard said he was tired and didn’t feel like going back to town, but she was insistent. So, for the sake of keeping the peace, he went back.
When he returned to the campground, Sarah was gone. When she didn’t appear for several hours, he thought that she was angry with him after their argument about the bowl (he didn’t mention the big fight they’d had the previous night). Full of remorse, he spent a sleepless night and early in the morning he went about looking for her. Thinking she’d spent the night in a hotel, he checked all the establishments in town, showing receptionists a photograph of her. He asked the campers and one of them said he’d seen her the previous afternoon, at about four o’clock, walking along a trail near the campground. She was wearing a knapsack. His impression was that she was going for a short hike. Another woman based in the campground said she’d seen Sarah coming out of the bushes on the edge of the campground at around three o’clock. She’d noticed her because she looked a bit furtive, and she’d thought it was odd.
Gerard worried that she’d had an accident while hiking and spent the rest of the day roaming about the trails, stopping other hikers to ask if they’d seen her. Invariably the answer was ‘No.’
The next day, after another sleepless night, Gerard went to the police.”
“By which time more than 24 hours had passed since the last time she was seen.”
“Yes, assuming the witness who saw her on the trail was reliable, it was 41 hours after that.”
“Plenty of time to tidy up,” Claire said wryly.
“When asked if anything was missing from the campervan, he said that the clothes she was wearing, her purse, the shovel and a map of the area. She’d also taken her usual hiking knapsack, which contained a bottle of water, a red rainjacket, a headlamp and a couple of chocolate bars.”
“He actually mentioned the shovel?” Rashid cried in disbelief.
“Well,” Claire said, “The local shopkeeper had mentioned him buying it, of course.”
“Superintendent Favre immediately organized search parties. There was some concern that she might have gone to climb Mont Blanc, so an emergency helicopter scoured the slopes. Members of the community lent a hand. And eventually, a little way off the trail where the woman had last seen Sarah Mills, they recovered her purse, whose contents were scattered on the ground, and the clothes which she had been wearing. There was some blood on her T-shirt, which was torn. Then the shovel was found in the brush near the campground. It had dirt on the blade—it had clearly been used—but there was no evidence of disturbed earth in the form of a grave anywhere nearby, only a small cut in the ground.
“What about in the area where they found her clothes?” Claire asked.
Arthur shook his head.
Nothing. By this time, of course, it had been reported in the newspapers and public suspicion fell on Gerard Mills. The police took him into custody, largely for his own safety. It was at that point that Superintendent Favre called me, since he suspected even then that there would need to be some international cooperation to solve the case. He told me what had happened, much as I have just told you, and he added some interesting pieces of information in addition—things that helped put a new light on the situation.
He told me that staying at the campground at the same time as the Mills was a man who attracted some attention—quite tall, with dark hair, thick bushy eyebrows, very muscular. He was alone, very unfriendly, and he spent most of the day in his tent drinking beer. He had a silver Renault, fairly expensive looking. On the occasions when he did emerge, he drew some attention to himself by staring at other campers…particularly Sarah Mills. And he happened to check out of the campground at three o’clock on July 12, the same day that she went missing. He’d registered in the camp’s log book with the name of Mirko Joviḉ.
“Serbian?” Ruth asked, frowning. “
“Yes. The Gendarmerie drew up a likeness according to the campers’ description and it was posted all across Chamonix and, indeed, Savoie. Seeing the image, an old lady living in the center of Chamonix, an insomniac who spent hours looking out of her window, saw a car stop and the passenger get out to use an ATM at around midnight early on June 13. The car was a silver Renault answering to the description of the one belonging to Mirko. From what the old woman could see, the driver looked like the man in the poster. The passenger was much smaller, though. He was wearing a baseball cap and had a dark beard. According to the old lady, he saw her staring at him and stared straight back at her, as if in challenge. She says it annoyed her at the time. She got the feeling he was trying to frighten her and she’d survived World War Two. But afterwards, hearing what had happened to Sarah Mills, the memory made her blood run cold. As it turned out, at 12.15am on June 13 Sarah Mills’ credit card had been used at that very spot. The old lady had been looking straight into the eyes of a murderer!”
“So what did the superintendent want you to do?” Ruth asked.
He wanted me to find out whether Gerard Mills had a criminal history and he also wanted to know more about Sarah Mills, particularly her former boyfriends or whether she’d ever reported being stalked. So we searched the Mills house and interviewed their friends and family to find out about any marital strife. Thanks to this search, we got a fuller sense of Gerard Mills. He’d been arrested three times as an adolescent, twice of engaging in a fray outside a club—typical teen stuff—and once on a charge of domestic violence.
“Aha!” Claire said and took a gulp of wine.
But the charge was almost immediately dropped. We interviewed the lady in question, who admitted she’d called the police because Gerard, having had a few too many Bacardis, would not stop playing his new Ace of Bass CD at top volume. When she’d complained to him, he’d told her she could go ahead and call the cops if she didn’t like it. So she did. In fact, she narrowly avoided getting ticketed for wasting police time.
It seems that once Gerard met Sarah, he cleaned up his act. He stopped drinking Bacardis, stopped fighting, started up a garage for luxury cars together with a friend of his named Billy Ragg—a very successful enterprise. So successful, in fact, that he was able to indulge a new passion for collecting art. At the Mills’s home we saw an original Clara Porter...
“Gosh!” Rashid exclaimed. “One of hers went for a couple of mill at the last Christie’s auction!”
“Somehow I wouldn’t have picked them for art lovers,” Claire said
Everyone we talked to said the same thing—he was a devoted husband. He and Sarah were planning to have a family. They’d been saving for a house and had been house hunting in the months before going on holiday. Gerard’s mother said the trip had been Sarah’s idea—she’d wanted one last adventure together—just the two of them before they started their family. Gerard had been against it at first but, as usual, he quickly fell in with her wishes.”
“A bit of mother-in-law friction there, it sounds like,” said Ruth.
“Yes,” Arthur said, “There was no love lost between Mrs Mills senior and her daughter in law. She called her all sorts of names, the upshot being that she had Gerard wound around her little finger.
“Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that Sarah’s version of events was completely at variance with what Sarah Mills’ colleague Alice told us. The two worked together at a beauty salon and had not been particularly close, which is why Alice was rather surprised when Sarah confided in her, about a week before she and Gerard left for their European holiday.
“She told Alice that she didn’t want to go but that Gerard insisted. Alice scoffed and said, ‘Why not let him go on his own then?’. Sarah shook her head and whispered that she was scared of him. She then rolled up the sleeve of her blouse and showed Alice a lurid bruise. She then carefully rolled the sleeve down again. Alice was shocked. She said that Gerard had always seemed to her the Prince of Mildness and wouldn’t have believed him capable of that sort of brutality.
“Oh, you can never tell though,” said Claire, “The charming, sympathetic types are often the most vicious.”
Alice urged Sarah to go to a women’s shelter to call the cops but Sarah shook her head. She said, rather cryptically, ‘It’s too late. I’m in too deep. But if I don’t come back from the holiday…remember what I told you.’
Alice replied that she’d have a hard time forgetting and that she’d much rather sort it out now and put the bastard behind bards. At that point, Sarah became very agitated and even swore at Alice and threatened her with a pair of scissors so that she’d put down her cellphone. At that point, Alice decided that if Sarah Mills wanted to be a punching bag, who was Alice to stand in her way? Frankly, she suspected that Sarah was being a bit overly dramatic. Of course, now that she’d been murdered, Alice felt remorseful.”
“So what it seems to come down to,” Rashid mused, “Is that one party was lying—Gerard or Sarah.”
“What about the search of the house?” Ruth asked. “Find anything?”
Arthur sipped his sherry and nodded.
“We found something quite damning on Sarah Mills’ dresser drawers. This was a letter written by Sarah. I have a copy with me, as I knew our gracious hostess wanted me to tell the story.”
Ceremoniously, he reached into his inner breast pocket and produced a folded piece of paper. He unfolded it and started to read:
To Whom it May Concern,
If you are reading this, it means that I did not return from holiday. I have probably been murdered by my husband Gerard P. Mills. Do not be fooled by his meek face he is a monster. Goodbye cruel world.
“Meanwhile, back in Chamonix, the Gendarmerie had alerted all of Europe to be on the lookout for two men in a silver Renault. A week later, they found a licence plate dumped by the side of the road near Marseille. The car, with different plates, was found parked at the port.”
“So they left by ferry?” Rashid asked.
“So it would seem,” said Arthur, “Though nothing was proved. Back in Chamonix, Superintendent Favre was becoming increasingly perplexed. ‘Arthur,’ he said to me one day, ‘It is too strange. There is no body. There is no motive. This husband, he tells me all of a sudden he wants to confess. We are happy. We ask him too many questions: How did you kill your wife? Where is her body Why did you do it? To all this, he say nothing. ‘It doesn’t matter, this,’ he insists, ‘I tell you, I am guilty.’ We reply that of course it matters very much. The parents of Sarah, for example, think of her mamán. The last rites, how cruel to deprive her parents of this last comfort. And so on .That day, he tries to—how you say?—suicide himself. The guard saves him. The next day, he comes to us and says, ‘Now I am ready. I tell you everything.’ Eh bien! ‘Wonderful!’ I say, ‘I am all the ears.'” Arthur paused and produced another paper from his pocket.
“This is a transcript of Gerard Mills’ statement, which Superintendent Favre faxed to me that day:
On the night of June 11, Sarah and I had a big argument. I was very angry with her and shouted at her. In fact I was so angry that I decided to kill her. I left in the morning and thought about how to do it. I bought a shovel so I could dig her grave. My previous statement, that she’d asked me to buy it, was a lie. Then I went to the grocery store and returned to the campground at about two o’clock in the afternoon. I pretended I was sorry for yelling at her the previous evening. She did not accept my apology. I pretended to leave for the shop but in fact I parked the car a short way from the campground to watch her and wait for my chance. Just as I suspected, she decided to go for a hike. I followed her and killed her.”
“At about this point, Superintendent Arnand Favre interrupted. ‘How did you kill her?’
‘I strangled her,’ the widower replied.
‘How long did it take?’
‘I wasn’t timing it.’
‘Approximately, let’s say.’
‘Did she struggle?’
‘No. I surprised her. She didn’t have a chance.’
‘Where did it happen? Can you show me on the map?’
[Mr. Mills points to a point on a walking trail leading to Mer de Glace]
‘OK, you strangled your wife. And then?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Sacre bleu! The body, monsieur. What did you do with her body?’
‘I took it back to the car.’
‘It was parked near the campground, non?’
‘Yes, that’s right.’
‘Bien, and when you brought her to your car, what did you do?’
‘I covered her with a blanket and drove her to Lake Gaillands. Then I waited until midnight and dropped her in the lake.’
‘And what time did you do this?’
‘It was about eight o’clock at night.’
Superintendent Favre later told me that at this point, he carefully put his pen down on his desk, folded his arms and stared at Gerard Mills for several seconds.
‘Monsieur,’ he said quietly, ‘Might I ask why you are wasting my time?’
‘What do you mean?’ said Mr. Mills.
‘I mean, your wife has disappeared and you are telling me this rooster-and-cow story that a child of seven would not believe.’
‘I’m telling you the truth!’ Gerard yelled. ‘I murdered Sarah!’
‘Pardon, but that is not the truth. Do you suppose every Frenchman is such an idiot that he will believe the moon is constructed of cheese? You think I will nod and believe you are a magician so that you can appear in two places at one time? Between two o’clock and eight o’clock you claim you were hiking in the forest and strangling your wife and disposing of her body. I have no witnesses to support this extraordinary claim, but I have at least three witnesses who say you were elsewhere. You were in the supermarket purchasing a dinner plate—I have video evidence, there is no use shaking the head—and after that you consumed wine at a tabaccheria.’ He held up a finger to anticipate Gerard’s interruption.
‘But, mon ami, that is not the most insulting part of this cockadoodle story. You expect me to believe you followed your wife here,’ he jabbed at the map where Gerard had claimed to have killed Sarah, ‘Which is an hour of hiking and that she did not notice your presence—you are a true Mohican, eh? And then you strangle her for ten minutes as she is calm as a feather and does not kick, does not bite, does not fight for her life. And then, when she is kaput, you, as you put it ‘take her to your car’, presumably carrying a tall woman in your arms down a popular hiking trail that is rather steep. You do not mention any difficulty in this extraordinary feat. And I do not ask because it is clear to me that it is something you did not do.’
‘I carried her. I’m used to lifting weights,’ Gerard insisted.
‘I do not doubt it. That is possible of course. Yes, perhaps you carry your substantial wife down the hill for an hour in your arms like the Bridegroom of Death. But me, I do not consider you so eccentric or (excuse me) bold that you would carry her naked, in broad daylight, down a trail where many people travel.’
‘I didn’t use the trail,’ Gerard retorted, but feebly.
“In your statement, you did not explain why you removed her clothes. You did not explain removing her credit card. You did not explain why you bought the shovel if you did not use it. You explain nothing.’
Gerard stared furiously at the table in the interrogation room. Favre patted his head kindly.
‘This is some cauchemar for you, non? Your beloved wife disappears. You are accused of the crime. What would I do in your place? I would be angry, enraged. It would be my passion to find the true murderer and to put him in the jail. To exact revenge, to teach him a lesson. This you do not do. I ask myself why. I think and think and finally, it comes to me: you wish to protect the criminal, is it not?
Gerard directed his gaze in front of him, expressionless. Favre continued.
‘Monsieur, consider for a moment. This criminal did not wish to protect you, after all. Au contraire, she carefully laid a trap for you. This is worse than mere disregard, it is a diabolical malevolence. There is no longer any obligation for you to protect this monster, your wife.’
Gerard let his head fall into his hands and wept.
Favre waited patiently until Gerard was quiet except for whimpering noises.
‘Now, time to pour the beans, mon ami. I think you know everything. Why don’t you tell me?’
Gerard nodded and sighed.
‘It was that police sketch that made me realize,’ he said.
‘The sketch of Mirko Joviḉ, the Serb?’
Gerard snorted scornfully.
‘Serb my foot! It was Billy Ragg from Enfield.’
‘A man you know well, I believe you were friends?’
‘Couldn’t stand the git,’ Gerard spat.
‘And yet, he was a frequent visitor at your home, was he not?’
‘How did you know that?’ Gerard asked.
‘My colleagues in Britain, they asked about your friends and your business. Do you care to explain why it was that you so often entertained a man you disliked at your home?’
Gerard pursed his lips. The superintendent continued.
‘Was it perhaps a business relationship? I do not speak of the garage you were partners in, but of the smuggling operation you ran. Guns, drugs, sometimes people.’
Gerard shot him a look of deep dislike.
‘Perhaps, for example, this Billy Ragg was arranging a large shipment. Something that would pay the conspirators well, so well that you would be able to afford a lovely new house, education for your future children, multi-million-pound artworks…?’ Favre looked at Gerard.
‘Ah, we are like the clam now? Well, no matter. Let us continue with this imagining. What if Billy Ragg was using this promise to lure his partner into a trap? What if Billy Ragg was jealous of his partner’s wife and wanted to destroy him once and for all?’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ said Gerard.
‘Come, come There is no shame in being taken for a fool. After all, the racket had been lucrative in the past. This is how you bought your nice car, your house, your expensive artwork…This was just the same, but a much bigger prize. And, as had happened in the past, Ragg required some kind of deposit from you, to pay for expenses. A much bigger deposit.’
Gerard was turning purple. He yawned but according to Favre it looked more like a silent, angry scream.
‘So this Billy Ragg is clever. He extracts money from his mark and at the same time seduces the wife. He charms her with visions of fabulous riches, a new life somewhere sunny. He tells her he has connections in high places, people who will help create new identities for them both. And this is true. She is charmed by this trickster and by the prospect of a great exciting future. There is only one thing standing in her way—this husband. But they have a plan to deal with him. Such a clever but simple plan. They laugh about it together. They’ll frame him for her murder and then vanish.’
Gerard uttered an animal cry, leapt up and went to attack Favre, who sidestepped him easily. Two other gendarmes burst in to restrain the suspect.
‘Monsieur,’ said Favre ,’I tell you you are right to be angry. This is nature. What is not nature is to do suicide, to lie down for these heartless beasts. Strike back! That is the idea. And with my help, monsieur, you can strike back most well.’
‘How?’ Gerard gritted his teeth.
‘Billy Ragg is clever, yes, but he is not so anonymous as he hopes. Scotland Yard were close to arresting him for human trafficking some men who died in the back of a truck last year. Unfortunately, one of the witnesses was killed in a hit-and-run accident before the case went to trial. One of the reasons, indeed, that Mr. Ragg wanted to make a new life for himself What I propose, Mister Mills, is a species of exchange. The police are willing to overlook any…indiscretions on your part, for example receiving stolen art works and conspiring in smuggling. In return, you will tell a jury what you know of the criminal acts of Mr. Ragg, who is looking at perhaps twenty years in a prison.’
Gerard Mills looked at his hands, clenched his fists, then looked superintendent Favre in the eyes.
‘It will be a pleasure,’ he said.