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Chapter 22

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« on: February 01, 2023, 07:02:54 am »

IT WAS almost closing time at the Minoan, which, in wartime, expected its clients to eat early and be thankful. The little room on the first floor which had seen so much of the story already was well shuttered, and the light hanging from the ceiling made a bright pool on the red tablecloth. Half in and half out of the pool sat Mr. Pirri, while Stavros lurked in the dusk behind him. Both partners were unusually quiet.

Mr. Campion, whose cheekbones were beginning to show prominently beneath dark circles behind his spectacles, sat before them.

"It's a fair offer," he said.

Pirri spread out his wide hands. "We've told you all we know," he said, his shrill, angry voice rising.

"All right." Mr. Campion rose. "Party's over. We'll go the long way round. I can identify the taxi and I can swear you drove it and attacked me. My word may not convict you but it'll give you a hell of a run for your money."

The full brown eyes nearest him flickered. "That will be inconvenient," suggested Mr. Pirri.

"Very," Campion agreed. "Police everywhere worrying everybody. There must be somebody who saw the cab go out. And someone knows where the juice came from. That should be traceable these days."

Pirri reflected, and presently his teeth appeared in a brief smile. "You are not a vindictive man?"

"I'm prepared to forget and forgive a little matter between friends."

"Very good."

"I agree. Magnificent, as far as it goes. Pirri, when you kidnapped me, what were you looking for?"

He did not reply, but Stavros touched him.

"What does it matter?" he murmured. "Both poor girls are dead..."

"Women!" said Pirri, with sudden fury. "Always you think of nothing but women. I alone do the work. It is I who concentrate on the business. But for me we should be in the street. And what happens when I exert myself--when I go perhaps a little too far? You try to knife me because you think I have attacked your woman. I who did nothing but strive to help our business."

He turned to Campion almost in tears. "These restrictions, this scarcity," he said. "How can one progress? How can one supply one's patrons? At last people are willing to spend and I--I have nothing to sell."

In any other situation his rage must have had an element of the comic. His entire energy went into the exposure of his intolerable grievances. They poured from him in an avalanche of emotion.

"Since I was a child, a boy, a little helpless boy, I work to sell, and no one has a sixpence," he repeated. "And now they wave five-pound notes at me and what have I to give them? Nothing at all. It has made me a little mad, you know, and naturally."

Mr. Campion could see any brief explanation of the relationship between scarcity and cash would fall upon that soil in which such seeds proverbially wither and die. Pirri was more than ordinarily infuriated.

"It was an opportunity," he said, "and I went for it with my head bald. At first I was circumspect; afterwards I let it get me, you understand. It obsessed me, it made me wild."

Campion was abominably tired. His physical weariness was hampering and he pulled himself together irritably. He saw there was no chance of getting a coherent story here and that he would have to rely on questions if he were to find the one vital lead which would take him to the truth. He made a guess.

"Mrs. Stavros obtained a few bottles of Les Enfants Doux from Miss Chivers, and brought them to you to sell," he suggested. "Is that right?"

"That was the beginning," agreed Stavros wretchedly. "My wife came in here, sold me three bottles for a fair price and said there was a chance of getting me some more. It was all in the way of business, perfectly fair. And then," he added with sudden fire, "then, Pirri, you got hold of it."

"And why not?" said Pirri fiercely. "I sold one to an old customer one night. He sent for me, 'Pirri,' he said, 'this is superb. You're undercharging me, I bet you don't know that'--some such pleasantry. He made me taste it and I saw it was indeed excellent, and I realized I had made a discovery. Here was a chance at last; a real chance of making a little profit."

He spread out his hands again and his long, miserable face was pathetic in its resentment. "We were acting with complete honesty. Stavros found a good client, a nice American boy with plenty of money. We were doing nothing wrong. We offered him good stuff and he had the cash to pay for it. He said he would buy all we had and would give a little party, maybe. Very satisfactory. Then that Theodore Bush came round enquiring. But we do not want to drive any bargains, we have our client already fixed. All is arranging itself very well, and then--this--this Mrs. Moppet."

"No." Stavros protested. He was pleading rather than objecting. "Do not speak of her so. Poor girl, she's dead."

Pirri raised his eyes to heaven, where, presumably, he received inspiration, for his better nature asserted itself.

"I regret it," he said, "I'm sorry for you. I sympathize, but I have a bitter heart and I was so wild."

"You thought she was double-crossing you, I take it," said Mr. Campion.

"Naturally," said Pirri calmly. "She told so many stories. First she could get it and there was a raising of the price; then she couldn't. More talk, more persuasion from us both. Still it was impossible. On and on it went until she was one day quite definite. It could not be. She could get no more of the wine and wanted to take back what we already had. I became incensed, I admit it. I thought, I brooded, I persecuted myself, and at last I decided."

"You formed a plan," translated Mr. Campion for his own benefit.

"I formed a plan," agreed Pirri obligingly. "I said I would follow her and I would frustrate her. I would get what is mine by right, and I did. For a day and a night I followed her; she was here on Sunday quarrelling with Stavros about the stuff, and when she left I was behind her."

"My hat!" said Mr. Campion in astonishment. "In that cab?"

"Why not? It is an excellent disguise, a taxi-cab."

"So I should imagine. Rather dangerous, wasn't it?"

Pirri shrugged his shoulders. "I was wild," he said again as if that were sufficient explanation.

Campion considered. "You must have used that cab before," he said at last.

Pirri looked at him coldly. "We speak now only about the business in which we are interested," he observed.

"Yes, of course. All right. I was only checking up. And so you watched her. Where did she go?"

"To Carados Square. I waited there. I waited all night."

Campion sat up. "You waited all night?" he repeated.

"Certainly. I was determined."

"Did you see anybody?"

"No one of importance. She went into the house and a long time after another woman came out; a big woman, young, healthy, strong."

"Miss Chivers?"

"I imagine so. I don't know. She carried nothing, that was all I saw. No one else went in or out until the morning. I went on waiting. About nine o'clock the big girl came back and afterwards a lady called with some flowers, letting herself in with a key. She had been there for some time when the first woman went out again. I was tired, sleepless, hungry, but I was enraged. Still I waited."

He made it an intensely dramatic story, but looked at it all, as far as Mr. Campion could see, from entirely the wrong angle.

"You're sure you only saw these two women?"

"I'm sure. And neither of them was carrying anything heavier than flowers. Imagine my exasperation."

"I think I can--just. And then?"

"Then the older woman came out once more. She was in distress, I could see that. She went across the square on foot. The morning passed and lunch-time, and I was in danger of discovery. But I was so angry that I persisted and at last, towards evening, I was rewarded, or so I most tragically thought." Pirri was working up to his story, and was putting his soul into it. "I saw the elder woman return. Again she let herself in with her key. After a while an ambulance drove up. In my position I could not see what was loaded into it, and I dared not get out to watch, but I thought I knew. 'This is a ruse,' I said, 'and a clever one. That Moppet has seen me from the windows, and has guessed why I am here. She's attempting to deceive me but I shall not be deceived.' By this time I was in a fever, you understand. My resentment, my hunger, and my weariness were on top of me. I thought to myself, 'Here is my chance--'" He paused and peered at Campion across the table.

"You comprehend my state of mind?"

To Mr. Campion's surprise, he found that he did. The picture was horrific but convincing.

"Yes," he said, "I do. You followed the ambulance, I suppose?"

"I did, and as it turned into the cul-de-sac off Piccadilly the lights were against me." Pirri's disgust was vivid. "I dared not disobey them for fear of being questioned. By the time I and another taxi-cab entered Bottle Street, the ambulance was empty and unattended. Again I waited. Many people came to the door, some of whom I recognized, and I felt 'Ah, I am getting warm. It is to be all right. My time will come.'"

Mr. Campion suddenly saw the end of the story, and despite his exhaustion, nearly burst out laughing. "You thought Madame Stavros had sold me the wine and that it was in my two wooden cases?"

Pirri leaned forward. His shirt-sleeves rode up his bony arms and his face was woebegone. "You have my regrets," he said, "my deep regrets. You suffered, I know it. I could not revive you in the garage, but I had to take you to a little place I use sometimes where you could recover at your leisure. You were found there in the morning. I'm sorry; you were badly treated--but even you admit that the dirty laugh is on me."

In the circumstances it was most handsomely said, and Mr. Campion appreciated it. His smile escaped him. "I'm almost sorry you were disappointed," he said.

"I was not disappointed, I was annihilated," said Pirri. "After such a vigil my chagrin was unspeakable."

Stavros turned towards the door. "You will both excuse me," he said briefly. "I do not care, you see."

The note he struck was unexpected and Pirri was almost sobered.

"I'm sorry for him," he said as the door closed behind him, "but most deeply I am sorry for myself. That Moppet was a difficult woman, a worrying, nagging, importunate woman. She bothered someone so much they killed her, I expect."

Mr. Campion nodded. "I fancy you're right there," he murmured. "That's just about what did happen. Someone started to sell her that wine before they realized what it was. Then they tried to stave her off, she discovered there was a secret and tried to blackmail the stuff out of them, the secret was more important than she realized, they were desperately afraid and they killed her."

"When you say 'they' you mean Miss Chivers," said Pirri.

"Why do you say that?"

The restaurateur rose. "It follows. No one else was there."

There was a silence between them until Pirri said finally:

"It is a bad business, but not my affair. After I followed you to Bedbridge Row I gave up."

Mr. Campion stirred. He felt frustrated. Pirri's story was enlightening so far as it went, but it took him no further. He got up wearily. "Thank you," he said. "That is the end then. You can rely on me not to raise the subject again."

Pirri went to the sideboard without speaking and produced glasses and a bottle. "You think trade gets better soon, eh?" he enquired blandly, as he proffered the drink and raised his own.

"Here's to it, anyway," said Mr. Campion, and still had the glass at his lips when the door edged open and a bleary, unforgettable eye peered at him through the aperture.

"I was afraid you'd gorn, sir," said old Fred, betraying his vigil by his very timeliness.

Pirri swore at him but half-heartedly. Evidently the labour shortage was another curb on that urgent but single-minded spirit. Like the countryman he was, old Fred waited until the little squall had blown over him. Then he got himself cautiously into the room.

"That young lady," he began, addressing Campion as an old fellow-conspirator, "the one who was going to marry the lord, and who went about with the American officer, and came here with you--"

"Mrs. Shering. What about her?"

"Well, she's downstairs with him now. They've been having a bit of a meal together."

"With Lieutenant Evers?"

"That's right, and they'd like a word with you. We've been shut about half an hour and they're on their own down there, waiting. I thought I'd mention it."

He stood hopefully, his head held sideways, and one eye, bright and enquiring as a goose's, fixed on the other man's face, avid for any betraying signal there.

"Right. I'll go down," said Campion, disappointing him. "How did they know I was here?"

Fred looked mystified. "Can't think," he said, "unless I might have let it slip out."

It was so well done that Mr. Campion was on the verge of being deceived. He laughed and went down, Fred shuffling behind him, outwardly at any rate as casual, as ineffectual and as disinterested as an old brown leaf in the wind.

Susan and Don were at a corner table alone in the restaurant. As usual they were engrossed in each other, and Campion envied them. He came up without them noticing him, but having tapped Don on the shoulder he was received joyously.

"Say, you're the man we want." The boy's voice rose on the last word. "Sit down, will you?"

He was deliriously happy; they both were. Delight radiated from them in a warm and generous cloud. They sat and glowed at him, so that he caught the infection and laughed. "Things pretty good?" he enquired.

"Good? They're better than that. Congratulate us, we're all set, we're getting married." Don's voice was playing tricks with him, squeaking on unexpected words. Susan nodded; she looked frightened by her own content.

"It's all right. We've got an O.K. I can't quite realize it--it's a sort of miracle."

Mr. Campion took off his spectacles, always with him a sign of concentration. "Fine," he said. "Splendid. Just the job. How come?"

"Oh it's Johnny, of course." She was shyly proud. "He's--he's pretty jolly good."

"He's wonderful," said Don with that intense admiration which dies too young. "He's a great guy."

Mr. Campion saw a piece of bread on the table and ate a pellet of it absently. He felt slightly sick.

"Oh yes?" he said. "What's he done? Made a graceful gesture?"

"I'll say. But what a gesture!" Don was enthusiastic. "We got a note today. It was sent to Susan, but it was written to me, too. I'm going to ask Susan to let me show it to you. Can I, Susan?"

"I'd like you to. I'd like everybody in the world to see it," she said, adding sweetly, "everybody nice."

Campion took the sheet of notepaper which was stamped with the address of a famous club. He held it steady with an effort, and old Fred, lurking in the background and watching his face with an experienced yokel eye, felt that perhaps he was getting something for his trouble after all. The writing was firm and very well formed, both masculine and graceful.

    My dear Susan and Don,

    When you are genuinely in love and you're very young and you're at war, the only thing to do is to get married at once and get some kids. Don't let any consideration on earth stand in your way. I mean this, and if it sounds didactic, then it's because I feel I'm in a position to be didactic to you two.

    I think you'll want an explanation of this direction (and it is a direction, chaps, don't get me wrong) from me especially at this moment, i.e. "the evening before the wedding day." You, Susan, will want to know if I love you. The answer to that is, of course I do, who could help it, but (if you don't understand this, Don will be able to explain it, I think) the feeling I had for old Tom Shering was different, but very, very much stronger. Since you're the girl I know you are, Susan, you won't think me unduly ungallant for this, and as for you, Don, you'll follow me, I fancy.

    So there you are, my dears, get on with it. Good luck, and if by chance I don't get an opportunity to dance at your fête don't misunderstand me.
    Yours ever, and I mean that,
    Johnny.

    P.S. I took the liberty of spying out Don's reputation and reputed assets. Both are impressive. There again, Don will follow me if you don't, Susan. Love, my sweetie.

Campion put the paper down. Both young faces were turned to him eagerly. "It's so honest," said Susan.

"It's so strong," said Don.

Susan laid her hand over the boy's. "I'll always love Johnny as I do now," she said. "Ninety-five parts pure admiration. The only thing I wish he hadn't said was that he might not dance at our wedding."

"Oh that's all right," said Don easily. "That's just the Service. You get that uncertain feeling about promising to be anywhere at any given time. That's O.K."

Mr. Campion got up. He did his best in their delirium; they helped him by not observing him too closely. After the congratulations had been repeated and the adieux said, he went out and old Fred watched him go with wistful curiosity.

As Campion stepped out into the dark, he breathed deeply as if he needed the air. Miserably he looked up into the sky. It was a clear curtain, threadbare with stars--a wonderful night for flying.

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