The Mountain Bike Touring Trip
An Inspector Rousseau Adventure
Aaron had arranged a trip with his various cycling friends from around the country. Everyone was to ride cross-country for a week along a trail through the Western mountains, carrying all their gear on their mountain bikes, camping out at night. and cooking their own meals.
Hank was the first to arrive. The meeting point was at the parking lot at the trail head. Aaron had asked him to be second-in-command and to help the others out as much as possible. So, as people arrived, he introduced himself, and he made sure everyone had the correct gear and supplies. It seemed to be a good idea for him to pull everyone together, as they all arrived separately and didn't seem to know each other. Their ages spanned the range from 20 to over 55.
After everyone had arrived and it was time to go, there was still no sign of Aaron. Then Hank's cell-phone rang. It was Aaron. "Hank, I hope everything is all right up there. Listen, I've gotten into a little trouble down here in Acapulco, and I won't be able to clear it up soon enough to make the trip. Please take over for me and make sure that everyone has a good time." The phone went dead. Hank turned to the assembled people explained the situation. There were some groans and comments about Aaron not being there, but none were loud enough to be considered a formal complaint. Hank made several suggestions about last minute preparations and also suggested that they get started in half an hour. During that time, he wrote down everyone's name and got a phone number for the next of kin, in case of an accident.
It took longer than thirty minutes for everyone to get ready, but that was the nature of a group of this size. Thirteen people were traveling on this trip. After five miles, they came to a high viaduct which crossed the river. Most of the riders enjoyed looking down into the gorge, but Brandy, who came last, seemed very nervous. "Are you afraid you're going to fall in?" Charlie yelled to her as he passed her going across. Finally, everyone was across except Brandy, and they all stopped their bikes to watch her finish. Suddenly, there was an explosion, and Brandy disappeared. As soon as the smoke cleared, the cyclists hurried forward, but there was noting left of Brandy or her bike to be found. An entire span of the viaduct was missing, making it impossible to return.
Hank pulled out his cell-phone to make a 911 call, noticing that everyone else was doing the same thing. However, his phone was dead. Opening it, he discovered the batteries missing. He looked around and discovered that everyone else was having trouble too; everyone's batteries were missing. "How could all of these cell-phone batteries have disappeared?" Hank asked. "You ought to know," Charlie exclaimed, "as you were the only one who was into everyone's bags!" Hank resented the remark, but decided that he ought to ignore it. "Does anyone have some spare cell-phone batteries?" People dug around in their panniers, but no one found any spares.
"The only thing we can do is to complete the trip and report this incident at the other end," Hank announced. "What!" Charlie cried, "So you have a whole week in which to kill us?" Hank ignored the jab and pointed out, "This trail is not likely to receive any more visitors within the week; we have to go on." There were some grumblings and inaudible comments, but finally the group started getting ready to leave.
Charlie rode in front and Hank towards the rear. Then Charlie stopped by a giant cactus, and everyone started passing him. When Hank got close, he could hear Dora say to him, "Putting a chain back together is a killer." "Nah," Charlie replied, "It'll just take me a few minutes." "What's up?" Hank asked, hoping Charlie wouldn't make another scene. "I just popped a rivet in my chain. I've got a chain tool and spare links, and I can catch up with everyone in a few minutes."
Not long after passing Charlie, they came to a nice rock amphitheater with a good view, so Hank suggested a lunch stop. Half an hour later, they were ready to go, but Charlie hadn't yet arrived. Hank asked a couple of the fellows to go back with him to check on Charlie. They found Charlie with the chain around his neck, fastening him to the cactus. Some large spines penetrated his body. It was impossible to tell whether he had been choked to death or killed by the spines, but there was no question that his death was a murder. The fellows wanted to take his body down, but Hank told them not to, as they would be destroying evidence. "But no one will be back for over a week!" one of the men exclaimed. "We don't know that, and we don't want to destroy any evidence," Hank replied. They grumbled, but they finally moved on.
That night, everyone was very quiet in the camp. The day had been hot but the night was chilly. They gathered around the fire for companionship, but they were all lost in their own thoughts. Hank thought it might be good to find out how they had met each other, but no one seemed to know any of the others. The only thing they had in common was knowing Aaron.
"Aaron's quite a fellow," one of them finally said. "I've known him all my life. He was at my bar mitzvah over forty years ago." That statement raised a howl of protest. "Are you crazy," another voice said, "He's not yet 20 years old." "Besides that," another voice said, "He's Catholic and in the seminary." "In the seminary?" another voice cried out, "He's a member of the Nation of Islam!" The argument quickly got out of control. Aaron was young, middle aged, or old; White, Black, or Hispanic; Roman Catholic, Jewish, or Moslem; tall, short, fat, or thin. There was even disagreement as to whether he had won purple hearts or was a pacifist. Everyone had a different opinion. Finally, they all turned on Hank, since Hank was Aaron's special friend, his right-hand man. "Well, actually, I don't know." Hank responded, "I communicated with him for several years over the internet, but his age, race, religion, and the rest never came up." Then everyone had an additional reason to be angry at Hank.
In the morning, though, everyone had calmed down and seemed back to normal. People's fears had quieted down during the beautiful night and morning. Hank announced that they would have a chance to have a swim at Dave's Ditch, about 25 miles down the trail. Everything seemed to be going smoothly, and everyone was getting to know everyone else. A few miles before the stop, Dora announced that she was pushing on ahead, as she wanted to be the first one in the water. Ernie said to her, "Now don't jump in the water while you're still hot; you might get a stomach cramp or something. Everyone else, though, maintained a comfortable pace, and arrived at the water hole after Dora was already in the water. Someone called to her as soon as they arrived, but she didn't answer. Then they noticed that her head was under water.
Once again Hank took charge and insisted that they leave her just as they found her. "Her body will last longer under the water, and it's important that any evidence is not disturbed."
Once again, everyone was in a poor mood. They reached a climb, and Frank warmed Ernie about the dangers of falling. Shortly after that, Ernie's bike slid off of the trail, and he felt onto a sharp rock's edge that split open his stomach. Again, Hank ordered everyone to keep moving.
That night in camp, any conversation was very low, and no one was talking to Hank. They all acted as if he was responsible. At the same time, he was sorting through the possibilities, trying to decide who the murderer must be. He suspected Frank, as Frank had been close enough to have pushed Ernie off of the trail and yet had been out of sight on all the other occasions.
In the morning, Frank was trying to get his stove started, and he was getting angrier and angrier. Glenda warned him to cool down. He evidently though the stove was out, because he began to pour more gasoline on it, when suddenly it flared up, and the flames went right into Frank's face and eyes. He screamed, accidentally pouring the rest of the gasoline on himself, and turning himself into a burning inferno. No one was brave enough to dash into the flames, so they all had to watch Frank die.
Later in the day, Glenda wanted to push ahead of the others. Imogine warned her to stay with the others, but Glenda went ahead anyway. The others soon came across her bike and body at the bottom of a gully. Someone had stretched a wire across the trail, and it had caught her neck as she rode down into the gully at high speed.
Hank, isolated from the others, had had plenty of time to think. "It can't be any of these people," he thought. And then he realized who it might be. It might be Aaron who was silently stalking them all.
In the camp that night he expressed his new idea, but was greeted with silence. It was obvious that they saw him as being the one responsible, so he spoke out and asked them how he could possibly be responsible for the various people's deaths. Imogine responded, counting off each of the deaths and providing good, clear explanations of how he could have been responsible each time. "Frank's death could be due to something as simple as a missing gasket," she said, "And you could have traveled ahead at our last rest stop to stretch the wire that killed Glenda." Jack spoke to Imogine, "Now that you've criticized him, you're likely to be the next victim, so watch your insulin."
In the morning, Imogine was the only one who didn't get up. A look at her confirmed that she had gone into insulin shock during the night. Her needle and insulin were out. Someone had deliberately overdosed her.
Hank traveled separately from the others during the day. It was obvious that they both blamed and feared him. Perhaps they even thought the trip had been arranged to give him an opportunity to kill them one by one.
The trail at one point was climbing alongside the mountain. As a bit of a break from their worries, the bikers saw a wild burro scrambling along the rocks. Jack, who was leading, was the closest to the animal, and Kathleen urged him to be careful. The burro tried climbing to get away from Jack, but the rock wall was too steep, so suddenly he jumped in the opposite direction, landing on Jack and then bounding away. The others approached Jack in shock. The animals hooves had killed him.
That night, there were only four people left besides Hank. Hank thought about reminding them that only three days were left on the trip, but then he changed his mind, recognizing that since two people were dying each day, there might not be anyone left at the end of the week. The four had all become quite close with each other but were very distant from Hank. They probably followed his orders now only because they wanted to keep him in sight at all times. One of the reasons for their conviction must have been the deaths of those most critical of him. No one would criticize him now, but they also were very sullen about cooperating with him.
Hank was convinced that the murderer was Aaron. Aaron must be secretly following them on the trail, sometimes ahead, sometimes behind, and sometimes slipping into the camp at night. He noticed how the others were sleeping in shifts. They weren't worried about Aaron; they were worried about Hank.
The next day at lunch, Kathleen was fixing her sandwich and couldn't find her knife. Larry warned her not to ask Hank, but she announced to the group, "Could someone toss me a knife?" Almost from out of nowhere, a knife flew towards her and stuck in her stomach. She died without a word,
Larry was frantic the rest of the day. He felt it was his turn to die, and he wanted to do something, anything to break out of that pattern. As they crossed over a bridge above a railroad track, they could hear a train approaching. Larry started arguing with Marilyn that flagging the train was the one way they could be rescued in time. Larry started climbing frantically down to the tracks. He dropped down onto them right in front of the train. Undoubtedly, the engineer could not see him, as the train never slowed. His body was hurled from the tracks and lay there broken.
That night, Marilyn and Neal lay in one another's arms. It may have seemed to be an odd romance, as he was a young man and she was over 50, but they were holding each other purely out of fear, all other passions gone from their minds. They no longer were thinking logically as their minds were in a blind panic.
The next morning, as they passed a small bluff, a cougar sprang at Marilyn, killing her with one blow, and then tearing her body. Neal just seemed to go to pieces, shouting a warning as the animal jumped, but then collapsing on the ground. After Hank had scared away the cougar and determined that she was dead, he went back to Neal. Neal was dead also, with a hypodermic needle stuck in his neck. He evidently had injected himself with something as a means of committing suicide.
Hank traveled the rest of that day and then nearly until dark the next day without encountering any more dangers. He rode into the town of Harmony and headed towards the police station. There he told his unbelievable story to the detective. It was too late in the evening to send a helicopter back along the trail to collect the bodies, but the detective did call Acapulco to confirm that part of the story. After the call, the detective said, "We're booking you for murder. Aaron is still a prisoner in a Mexican jail and could not have been responsible for those crimes. You are the only one that was there."
However, a couple of hours later, someone else arrived, and Hank was taken back to the office. He found himself face to face with the famous detective, Inspector Rousseau. It seems that Roseau had come to entirely different conclusions both from the Harmony detective and from Hank.
"Both of you are overlooking the obvious," he said to them. "Think for a minute. Why would Hank have bothered to show up here if he were guilty? No one here even knew he was on that trip or that a group of cyclists was supposed to have arrived. He could have just taken off, and no one would have even known who the killer was. Likewise, how could Aaron or anyone have stalked the touring group, at times behind and at times ahead? You could see for miles in those desert conditions, and it would have been impossible for him to remain hidden at all times. How could anyone have found all the cell-phone batteries? How could anyone make a cougar spring or a burro jump?"
"There is only one person who could be responsible, and that party is flagrantly guilty. Look at the events in the story and how unbelievable they are. Do you know of any real-life cases of a group of people doing anything which causes them to all end up getting killed right after another? But this kind of thing occurs every day in poorly written stories, movies, and TV dramas. A squad of soldiers go into combat, and only one survives. We have to watch one of them killed after another, wondering if any will survive. A group of people, who don't know each other, visit a haunted house and, one after another again, they all are murdered in mysterious ways. Some teenagers spend the weekend in the woods, and one after another they are killed in gruesome ways."
"Evidently, authors get bored, run out of good material, or just let their sadistic side come out. The events in the story are improbable or even unbelievable, and the story elements don't hang in together well. Because the author's riding on a flat bike tire, important details are missing; there's no sense of suspense and no real surprise. The characters are poorly developed, and we just bounce from one killing to another."
"Well, that may be good and true for a lot of stories," said the Harmony detective, "but you've got no proof that the author is responsible here. The author could just be doing his very best to portray real events."
"Real events!" snorted Rousseau. "Just read a list of what happened during this story:"
Aaron was arrested in Acapulco.
Brandy was blown up on the bridge.
Charlie was chained to a cactus.
Deborah was drown in Dave's Ditch.
Ernie was eviscerated on the edge of a rock.
Frank was fried in a fire.
Glenda was garroted in a gully.
Imogine was injected with insulin.
Jack was jumped by a jackass.
Kathleen was killed with a knife.
Larry was lobbed by a locomotive.
Marilyn was mauled by a mountain lion.
And Neal was needled in the neck with a narcotic.
"In addition," Rousseau pointed out, "Each of the people was warned by the person who would die next."
Hank said, "What about me? Why was I skipped over?"
Rousseau replied, "Probably, in the first draft of the story, there were only seven or eight who went on the trip, but the author felt compelled to have the unlucky number 13, so your fate was delayed."
"Delayed! What was supposed to happen to me?"
"Don't you know?" asked Rousseau, "Hank was hung in Harmony! No lethal injection, electric chair, or life imprisonment in this state!"
"That's all just circumstantial evidence," said the Harmony detective, "not proof."
"Well, if you want proof," Rousseau paused, pulling a sheet out of his pocket, "Here is a print-out from the website showing the entire tale. Why do you think I came here? This author has written about me twice before, so I have been keeping a careful eye on his website for any story which happened to include me. Look at that big subtitle, "An Inspector Rousseau Adventure"! It's nice to get a promotion, but I never dreamed that I would be in such a frightful tale, although the author has stooped to murder topics before. If this goes to court, we should subpoena his computer. He probably has some rough drafts on it that would incriminate him beyond any doubt."
The Harmony detective studied the print-out. "This is very strong evidence that the author was responsible. However, we still have a problem. Nobody has ever been able to win a conviction against an author before."
"That's true," said Rousseau, "but we don't have to win a conviction. All we have to do is to contact the author and pressure him to rewrite the story."
"But we can't do that!" said the Harmony detective, "Then he'll just write us out of the story and end it whatever way he wants to! He's very likely just to get Hank killed before he ever shows up in Harmony."
"No," said Rousseau, "He's not likely to do that. He has already published the story on the internet. It would be too embarrassing to pull the story or to do a complete rewrite at this point. The best we can do is to get him to change the ending. Why don't we try to contact him on the telephone? He lives in a cabin in the woods without a phone connection, but I have the phone number of a friend that lives nearby."
Rousseau called the number and talked with the friend. Then he announced that there would be a wait, as the friend had to drive up to see the author, Ken Kifer, and then Ken had to ride down the mountain on his bike to the phone. After a wait of nearly half an hour, the phone rang. It was very clear from the buzzing in the phone that the author was very upset at being awakened in the night.
Rousseau held his hand over the phone and asked if he could continue the conversation in the next room, which had a glass window into our room. "Why?" asked the other detective, "We've got no secrets from each other." "He does." Rousseau replied. "Besides, I may need to use some strong language, and some little kid might end up reading this webpage."
Given permission, Rousseau went into the other room and begain talking. Rosseau's back was to the window, and not a sound came through, but it was easy to tell when Rousseau was speaking, as he would wave his free hand around frantically, and when he was listening, as he would stare at the ceiling. Finally, Rousseau hung up and came back into the room.
"It was a tough sell, but I finally convinced him," Rousseau explained to everyone. "I think the points I made about excessive violence on his website were the ones that convinced him. But the kicker was when I told him that everyone would consider him highly creative if he had the characters in the story talking with the author and influencing the ending. He says that he can't post a revision until in the morning. He'll be up most of the night revising it as it is. He says he can't go back and change a word because his readers would be too upset with him, as that part of the story has already been posted, so all he can do is change the ending. We'll have to wait until morning to find out the results."
Hank was escorted back to his cell. He protested a little, but the Harmony detective said, "You do want a place to sleep, don't you? Besides, we haven't seen the final revision yet, so you're not entirely off of the hook."
In the morning, he was awakened and escorted back into the detective's office. "Don't I even get breakfast?" he asked.
"No," the detective replied, "This author is writing a pretty threadbare story and hasn't bothered to include any of the extras. You'll just have to stay hungry like the rest of us. You notice that we don't even have any coffee or cigarettes."
Rousseau came into the room. "Nothing's happened yet. The author still must not have posted his revision yet. I hope he hasn't fallen back asleep, as I'm getting tired of this story. You know he didn't even bother to write a motel room into it for me."
Then the phone rang. Rousseau answered, listened for a few minutes, hung up, and said to everyone else, "The author must have gotten his act together, as things are starting to happen. I just got a call from Acapulco, and it seems that the three Aaron's are being released from jail, and all charges have been dropped against them."
"Three!" exclaimed Hank.
"Yes, one of them is 62. He's a short, skinny Jewish grocer in New York state, but he was a pilot in Vietnam and won two purple hearts. He married a Black woman, so his son is Black. The son is 43, tall and heavy, an engineer, and a Moslem, and lives in California, where he met and married a Mexican woman. The third Aaron is his son, 21, and he is short, fat, and Hispanic in appearance, language, and behavior, and he has converted to the Roman Catholic faith and intends to become a priest. He lives in Arizona."
Outside, they heard voices of a large group of people, even though no motor vehicle had arrived. They all went outside, and there was the group of cyclists on their bicycles, none of them harmed in any way.
"What happened to you!" Brandy exclaimed to Hank. "Why did you keep running out on us?"
"Running out on you?"
"Yes," Brandy continued. "By the time I got across the bridge, everyone else was gone. After a few miles, I caught up with Charlie, who was fixing his chain. Nobody waited for him either. Then later, we encountered Dora, who had been left soaking in a pool by herself, and so on. We nearly made it to town last night but decided not to ride in the dark, so we camped on the edge of the hills back there."
"What we want to know," continued Charlie, "Is why Hank kept running ahead of us back there. It's a poor trip leader who won't wait up for everyone and make sure that they arrive safely."
Hank turned to Rousseau. He said, "This isn't my fault, and you know it. Talk to the author again and get everything fixed."
"I'm afraid I can't do that," said Rousseau. "I've pushed this as far as I can go. If the author has to revise again, he will probably just tear up the entire story, and then what'll happen to you? No, be satisfied with what you've got, even if it isn't the best ending."
"You ought to be content anyway," he continued, "The author is most unlikely to ever use you in a story again. This is the third time he's used me, however, so I am likely to have to suffer through another one of his creations sometime again soon. Just hope that they never make a made-for-TV movie out of this!"