Arnie Wilson goes skiing with an award-winning thriller writer
I DIDN'T LIKE THIS at all.
We'd gone to bed early after a wonderful dinner of "Walser" dumplings, risotto with apples, walnuts and local Fontina cheese, stewed venison with polenta and mash, followed by apple fritters and canestrelli (little basket-shaped doughnuts).
And now Peter James, one of Britain's top thriller writers, was shaking me awake soon after dawn with a glint in his eye.
"It's a stunning day" he said. "Why don't we nip over to Alagna?"
"What about everyone else?" I whispered, anxious not to waken Vivianne, my wife.
"Oh, never mind them" said James. "They'd never keep up. This is just the two of us."
We had been invited here to a birthday party by Kerstin, a mutual friend. The birthday girl and her family, plus the other 30 or so party guests were still slumbering.
"Come on" said Peter more urgently. "Don't be a wimp!"
This was a challenge I couldn't resist. And yet...there was something slightly sinister about the look on my old friend's face.
The last time we'd skied together, I'd beaten him in a race. It was in the City Ski Championships, at Courmayeur, not far away from where we were now at Gressoney, in the heart of the Monte Rosa ski area.
Peter, who'd once trained with the English ski team, had been furious when I'd clipped a second or so off his time in the Giant Slalom. He wanted revenge. I knew it. A dish best served cold, I remembered. And it was cold outside. Cold but invigorating. Deep down I was suspicious of his motives. But I didn't want to let on.
As quietly as I could, I got ready for skiing. We each grabbed a coffee and a croissant, and made for the ski room. As soon as the lift at the back of the Romantik Hotel Jolanda Sport whirred into action, we crunched our way towards it on snow that had yet to soften up. Peter's skis glinted in the early morning light. They were new. The edges flashed like cutlass blades. Soon we were on our way to try the long run all the way down to Alagna.
We didn't speak much as we rode the various lifts. Peter seemed tense and surly, and it was a relief when I was able to ride the occasional Poma lift alone, keeping my thoughts to myself. What was his game?
Finally, after a variety of lifts, we found ourselves in a lunar landscape, well above the tree line, at Passo Salati (9,750ft) gazing down in awe at the long , sweeping piste leading all the way down to the sleepy village of Alagna in the next valley.
But Peter didn't seem to be interested in the scenery. "Right" he said, his lips curled into just the hint of a snarl. "Now we'll see who's the best skier! You go first. I'm going to give you a five second start and then I'm going to whip your ass!"
He wasn't joking. As he lowered his goggles, I could see his eyes narrowing menacingly. "But Peter" I started to say nervously, "this really isn't necessary - we both know that technically you're a better skier than...." But he interrupted, almost savagely. "Just get going, you creep."
I skied off.
Sure enough, it wasn't long before I heard the harsh clatter of a skier creeping up on me on the black Olen run. I half turned, careful to ensure that I didn't lose concentration and veer off the piste into the rocks. It was Peter all right, his black ski jacket flapping in the slipstream like Dracula's cloak, with an almost manic expression on his face, tail-gating me so closely that the slightest hesitation or deviation on my part could have send us both tumbling to our doom. This was Holmes and Moriarty on skis, engaged in a violent death struggle. I moved to one side to let him through, but he ignored the gesture and stayed right on the tails of my skis. Faster and faster we went. Terrifyingly fast. Everything became a blur.....for goodness sake, Peter, just overtake me. I don't care if you beat me down!.......
.....And then suddenly, there was my wife, drawing the curtains of our room, letting the sunlight glint in, and saying: "We'd better be quick - breakfast is almost over." On the floor by my bed, half open, was a copy of Want You Dead, Peter's latest Roy Grace detective novel.
"I've had the most extraordinary dream, darling", I said, sweating profusely. "I dreamt that Peter was chasing me down a mountain and trying to kill me."
"You shouldn't read Peter's books last thing at night" said Vivianne. We went down to breakfast to find Kerstin and her husband Norman just finishing their coffee. Peter was just folding up his napkin. "Morning you two" he said Peter with a beaming smile - a lot friendlier than he'd been in my dream. "Vivianne why don't you ski with Kerstin today? I thought Arnie and I could whip over to Alagna. It's quite a long way and we'll to ski quite fast. You up for it, Arnie? I'll race you down!"
"In your dreams" I said.