The day of the murder
Sunday december 16
It was half past six in the morning. Verbier’s Palace was in darkness. Outside, it was still dark and it was snowing a lot.
The doors of the service elevator opened on the sixth floor. A hotel employee appeared in the hallway with a breakfast tray and went to room 622.
Upon arrival, he realized that the door was ajar. Light filtered through the crack. He announced his presence, but received no response. In the end, he took the liberty of entering, assuming they had left the door open for him. What he discovered made him scream. He fled to warn his companions and call an emergency.
As the news spread through the Palace, the lights went on in all the floors.
A corpse lay on the carpet in room 622.
Part one before the murder
In the early summer of 2018, when I went to the Palace de Verbier, a prestigious hotel in the Swiss Alps, I was far from imagining that I was going to spend my holidays solving the crime that had been committed in the establishment many years before.
My stay there was supposed to be a long-awaited respite after two small-scale cataclysms that had occurred in my personal life. But before I tell you what happened that summer, I have to go back first to what gave rise to this whole story: the death of my editor, Bernard de Fallois.
Bernard de Fallois was the man to whom he owed everything. He had achieved success and fame thanks to him.
They called me “the writer” because of him. They read me thanks to him.
When I met him, I was an author who had not even been published: he made me a writer read all over the world. With his elegant patriarch appearance, Bernard had been one of the most prominent personalities in the French publishing world. For me he was a teacher and, above all, despite being sixty years old, a great friend.
Bernard passed away in January 2018, at the age of ninety-one, and I reacted to his death as any writer would have done: I launched into writing a book about him. I gave myself to it, body and soul, locked in the office of my apartment on 13 Alfred-Bertrand Avenue, in the Chapel district of Geneva.
As always when I was writing, the only human presence I could tolerate was Denise, my assistant. Denise was the good fairy who watched over me. Always in a good mood, I organized the agenda, selected and classified the correspondence of the readers, and reread and corrected what I had written. When the case came, I filled my fridge and replenished my coffee supplies. And finally, he took on the duties of a ship’s doctor, showing up in my office as if he were getting on a ship after an endless journey, and he gave me health advice.
-Get out of here! He ordered me affectionately. Go for a walk in the park to air your ideas. He’s been locked up for hours!
“I went for a run this morning,” I reminded him.
“The brain has to be oxygenated at regular intervals!” He insisted.
It was almost a daily ritual: I obeyed and went out onto the terrace of the office. I filled my lungs with a few puffs of the fresh February air and then, challenging her with a joking look, I lit a cigarette. She protested and said to me in a shocked tone:
“Joël, I don’t think I’m going to empty the ashtray. This way you will find out how much you smoke.
Every day I imposed on myself the monastic routine that I followed when I was dedicated to writing and which consisted of three essential stages: getting up at dawn, going for a run and writing even at night. So, indirectly, it was through this book that I met Sloane. Sloane was my new landing neighbor. She had recently moved and since then all the residents of the building talked about her. For my part, I had never had a chance to meet her. Until that morning when I came back from my daily sports session for the first time. She also came from running and we entered the building together. I understood immediately why all the neighbors agreed when talking about Sloane: she was a young woman with a charm that left you without resources. We just greet each other politely before each one of us get into his house. I was shocked behind the door. That brief meeting had been enough for me to start falling in love.
Before long, he had only one thing on his mind: meeting Sloane. I tried a first approach taking advantage of the fact that we were both running. Sloane did it almost every day, but without fixed hours. I spent hours wandering through Bertrand Park until I lost hope of meeting her. And suddenly he saw her fleetingly down an avenue. As a general rule, it was impossible for me to reach her and I was waiting for her at the door of our building. I grew impatient in front of the mailboxes and pretended to be picking up the mail every time a neighbor entered or left, until she finally arrived. He passed in front of me, smiling at me, and I melted and was so disturbed that, before I could think of something smart to say, he had already gone home.
It was the caretaker, Mrs. Armanda, who informed me about Sloane: she was a pediatrician, English on her mother’s side, and her father was a lawyer, she had been married for two years but it did not go well. I worked at the University Hospitals in Geneva and altered the day and night hours, that’s why it was so difficult for me to understand their routine.
After the failure of not agreeing with her when she went running, I decided to change the method. I entrusted Denise with the mission of watching the hall through the peephole and letting me know when she saw it appear. As soon as I heard Denise’s voices (“She is leaving the house!”), I ran out of the office, wandering and perfumed, and stood on the landing, as if by chance. But the most we did was greet each other. She used to go down on foot, preventing any conversation. And even though I was on his heels, what good was it to me? As soon as Sloane reached the street, she disappeared. The very few times I took the elevator, I was speechless and an awkward silence reigned in the cabin. In both cases, I would go home empty-handed again.
-And good? Denise asked me.
“Well, nothing,” I muttered.
“But Joël, how can it be so useless?” Let’s see if we try a little bit!
“It’s just that I’m a bit shy.”
“Come on, stop monsergas!” There is nothing shy on TV sets.
“Because the one you see on television is the Writer.” But Joël is very different.
“But let’s see, Joël, it’s not that complicated either!” You knock on the door, give her some flowers and invite her to dinner. Are you lazy going to the flower shop, is that it? Do you want me to take care of it?
Then that April night came when I went to the Geneva Opera, alone, to see the performance of Swan Lake.
And lo and behold, in the intermission, when I went out to smoke a cigarette,
I ran into her. We exchanged a few words and, as the notice to return to the room was already sounding, he suggested that I go for a drink together after the ballet. We meet at the Remor, a cafe a few steps from there. That was how Sloane entered my life.
Sloane was pretty, funny, and smart. Without a doubt, one of the most fascinating people I have ever met. After the night of the Remor, I invited her out several times. We went to concerts and to the movies. I dragged her to the opening of an exhumable modern art exhibition where she had a fit of laughter and we ran away from it to go to dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant she loved. We spend several evenings in his house or in mine, listening to opera, chatting and fixing the world. I couldn’t stop eating it with my eyes: I was prostrate before it. How he narrowed his eyes, how his hair was touched up, how he smiled slightly when something was troubling him, how he played with his painted fingernails before asking me a question. I liked everything about her.
It wasn’t long before I thought only of her. So much so that I temporarily parked the book.
“Oh, Joël, you are in the clouds,” Denise told me when she saw that she no longer wrote a line.
“It’s because of Sloane,” I explained in front of the turned off computer.
I couldn’t wait to be with her and resume our endless conversations. I never tired of hearing him tell his life, what he was passionate about, what he wanted and what he wanted. He liked the Elia Kazan movies and the opera. One night, after having dinner with a lot of wine in a brewery in the Pâquis neighborhood, we ended up in the living room of my house. Sloane gazed amusedly at the decorations and books on the shelves on the wall. He spent a long time looking at a painting in Saint Petersburg that had been my great-uncle’s. Then he gave another good time to the strong drinks from the bar cabinet. He liked the embossed sturgeon that decorated the bottle of Beluga vodka and I served it in a couple of glasses with ice. I turned on the radio, the classical music program I listened to many nights. He challenged me to identify the composer who was playing. Easy, it was Wagner. So he kissed me with The Valkyrie and pulled me close to her, whispering in my ear that he wanted me.
The relationship lasted two months. Two wonderful months. Throughout which, however, the book on Bernard was regaining ground. At first I took advantage of the nights Sloane was on duty at the hospital to get past him. But the further I went, the more I got into the novel. One night Sloane suggested that we go out: for the first time, I did not accept the offer. “I have to write,” I explained. To start with, Sloane was most understanding. She, too, had a job that sometimes kept her busier than anticipated.
And then I refused to go out a second time. This time, he did not take it badly either. You have to understand me: I loved every moment I spent with Sloane. But she had the feeling that he would be with her forever, that those moments of complicity would repeat themselves indefinitely. While the inspiration for a novel could fade away as quickly as it had arisen, and the occasion paints it bald.
The first fight occurred one night in early June, when, after going to bed, I got out of bed to get dressed.
-Where are you going? -I wonder.
“To my house,” I replied quite naturally.
“Are you not going to sleep?”
“No, I want to write for a while.”
—That is, you are coming, you vent and until next time.
“I have to bring the novel forward,” I explained, contrite.
“Don’t tell me you’re going to be writing all the time!” He exploded. You hang out with it all day, until late afternoon, and after dinner, and even on weekends! This is getting out of hand! You don’t propose to do anything anymore.
I noticed that our relationship was fading as fast as it had. I had to do something. So after a few days, the day before I left for a ten-day tour of Spain, I took Sloane to dinner at his favorite restaurant: the Japanese restaurant at the Hôtel des Bergues, whose terrace was on the roof of the establishment and had views of the roadstead of Geneva made the hiccups go away. It was a dream evening. I promised Sloane to be less of a writer and more of “us,” insisting over and over on how much she meant to me. We even started planning to go on vacation together in August to Italy, a country we both especially liked. Better Tuscany or Apulia? We would already investigate it when he returned from Spain.
We stayed at the table until the restaurant closed, at one in the morning. It was a warm late spring night. During dinner, I had the strange feeling that Sloane was expecting something from me. And just as we were leaving, when I got up from my chair and the employees began to mop the deck around us, Sloane said to me:
“What have you forgotten?”
“Forgot what?” -I asked for.
“Today was my birthday …
Seeing my panicked face, he realized that he was not mistaken.
He left in a fury. I tried to hold her back, making excuses, but she got into the only free taxi in front of the hotel and left me standing on the doorstep, under the humorous gaze of the valet. By the time it took me to get to number 13 on Alfred-Bertrand Avenue, Sloane was already home, had disconnected the phone, and refused to open me. The next day I went to Madrid and while I was there I sent him abundant text messages and emails that were not answered. I was left without knowing anything about her. I returned to Geneva on Friday morning, June 22, to find that Sloane had broken up with me.
It was the caretaker, Mrs. Armanda, who acted as messenger. It stopped me when I was entering the building:
“There is a letter for you.”
“It’s from your neighbor.” I didn’t want to put it in the mailbox because of your assistant, who opens the mail for you.
I opened the envelope on the spot. I found a note of a few lines:
It will not work.
See you soon.
Those words hit me square in the heart. I went home with my head down. I thought at least Denise would be there to cheer me up in the days to come. Denise, the charming woman whom her husband had left for another, an icon of modern solitude. Nothing better to feel less alone than to meet someone who is even more abandoned. But when I entered the apartment I found that Denise was apparently leaving. It wasn’t even twelve yet.
“Denise?” Where are you going I asked in greeting.
“Hello, Joël, I already told you that I would be leaving soon today.” My flight leaves at three.
—Joël! Don’t tell me you forgot! We talked about it before he left for Spain. I am going fifteen days with Rick Corfu.
Rick was an individual Denise had met online. Sure enough, we had talked about that vacation.
It was gone from my mind.
“Sloane has left me,” I announced.
-I already know it; I’m really sorry.
“How do you know that already?” I said, puzzled.
“The concierge opened the letter Sloane left for you and told me everything.” I didn’t want to tell him while I was in Madrid.
“And yet, is he going to leave?” -asked.
—Joël, I’m not going to cancel my vacation because his girlfriend left him! Also, you will surely find another in a mess. All women put eyes on him. Hale, see you in fifteen days. You will see how they pass quickly! And I have everything planned, I have gone to buy. Check it out! Denise ran me into the kitchen. Upon learning that Sloane and I had broken up, he had anticipated my reaction: I was going to be locked up at home. Clearly concerned that she would stop feeding me in her absence, she had made an impressive stock of supplies. From the cupboards to the freezer, it was all full of food. After which, he left. And I was alone in the kitchen. I made myself a coffee and settled into the long black marble counter, in front of all the high chairs that were lined up desperately empty. There were ten of us in that kitchen, but there was no one but me. I crawled into the office where I spent a lot of time looking at a photo of me with Sloane. Then I took a file and wrote “Sloane” and then the date of this dreadful day he had left me, with the entry “6/22: A day to be forgotten.” But it was impossible to get Sloane out of my mind. Everything reminded me of her. Even the sofa in the living room, in which I ended up dropping and that brought to my memory how, a few months before, in that same place and on top of that same upholstery, the most extraordinary relationship had begun, which I had managed to cast to sink.
I held myself back so I wouldn’t knock on the door of Sloane’s apartment or ring her. But in the late afternoon, when I couldn’t take it anymore, I settled on the terrace, smoking one cigarette after another, hoping that Sloane would also peek out and we would meet “by chance.” However, Mrs. Armanda, who saw me from the sidewalk when she went for a walk with the dog and when she returned, after an hour, noticed that I was still there, told me from the portal: “It is no use waiting, Joël. No this. He has gone on vacation.
I went into the office again. I felt like I needed to go. I wanted to get away from Geneva temporarily, get rid of Sloane’s memories. I wanted to be calm and serene. Then, among the notes on Bernard that I had on the table, I noticed the one that referred to Verbier. He loved going there. The prospect of spending some time there, of enjoying the tranquility of the Alps to focus, attracted me immediately. I turned on the computer and went online: I immediately came across the website of the Palace de Verbier, a mythical hotel; A few photos were enough to convince me: the sunny terrace, the jacuzzi overlooking magnificent landscapes, the dimmed light bar, the cozy lounges and the suites with a fireplace. It was exactly the environment I needed. I clicked on the reservations tab and started typing.
That was how it all started.
The enigma of room 622. Joël Dicker. Translation by María Teresa Gallego and Amaya Urrutia. 624 pages. Alfaguara in Spanish and La campana in Catalan. It is published on June 3.