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6: Meredith in Monte Carlo

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Author Topic: 6: Meredith in Monte Carlo  (Read 32 times)
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« on: April 17, 2023, 11:47:15 am »

“LOOK here, sir,” protested Sergeant Freddy Strang, “duty’s duty and all the rest of it, but if you force me to down another bottle of this darn Vichy water I’ll be airborne!”

“Sorry, Sergeant,” chuckled Meredith. “You’ve all my sympathy, but it wouldn’t do to hang about in these places without ordering something. And if you think I’m going to let you spend your day knocking back double brandies and shoving ’em down on the expenses sheet, then you’re a bigger optimist than I am.”

“But three days of it, sir! I never want to swallow another mouthful of the poisonous stuff. And it isn’t as if we’ve got anywhere. Not a sniff of the chap we’re looking for. It’s absolutely depressing.”

“Well, that’s how it runs. No good getting impatient. But I promise you this much. If we haven’t pulled a rabbit out of the hat by ten pip-emma this evening, then we’ll call the hunt off.”

“Sounds fair enough to me, sir,” said Freddy, hastily raising a hand to his mouth to cover an indiscretion that had been plaguing him ever since this Monte Carlo roundabout had been set in motion. “Sorry, sir. Can’t help it. Afraid it’s getting a bit out of control.”

Although Meredith had taken good care to conceal it from his subordinate, he too was feeling pretty down in the mouth. For nearly three days now they’d been haunting the more exclusive cocktail bars and cafés frequented by the foreign tourists. Blampignon had drawn up an appropriate list for his English confrères. In particular Meredith had kept a watchful eye on the Manhattan and Mirimar, the bars where this smooth-tongued foreigner had made contact with the two Englishmen. And from all these boring, fruitless hours he’d culled only a capful of further information. Discreet enquiries among the staffs of these various establishments elicited the fact that at six of them, including the Manhattan and Mirimar, this Dutchman or German was known to them by sight. For the most part Meredith and Strang had worked separately, coming together only at mealtimes to compare notes.

But at that moment---about six o’clock on the third day of their vigil---they were seated opposite each other at a little glass-topped table in a far corner of the Bar Mirimar. A few minutes earlier, in conversation with one of the many garçons attached to the place, Meredith had stumbled on a curious bit of evidence. According to this fellow, who luckily spoke English, he’d last seen the moon-faced gentleman come into the bar the previous Thursday. And thinking back, he was prepared to swear that the gentleman never patronized the Mirimar except on a Thursday---adding in explanation of this astonishing claim:

“You see, M’sieur, we are quick to remember faces. It is part of our job to do so. And this particular gentleman . . . he always order vodka. We do not often serve vodka in the Mirimar, so when he come in I think ‘Ah, here is the gentleman who always drink vodka!’ So I go up quick to him and say ‘Vodka as usual, M’sieur?’ And, naturellement, he is so flattered because I remember that he give me a most handsome tip. Mais oui—always Thursdays, M’sieur. I think you will find I am not wrong about that. And since it is Thursday today . . . perhaps later . . . you follow, M’sieur?”

Meredith followed perfectly. Recalling that the statements he’d taken from the two Englishmen were in his wallet, he took them out and hastily scanned them. He smiled to himself. Exactly! They too had met the fellow on a Thursday. So what? Didn’t it suggest that he worked the Monte Carlo bars only on that particular day of the week?

---

It was about half an hour later when they saw him come in. There was no mistaking his identity. Every detail of his appearance tallied exactly with the description given by the Englishmen. Meredith threw a quick, meaning glance at Strang and muttered:

“O.K., m’lad. This is it. Stay here. I’ll try and nab a bar-stool next to him.”

In this Meredith was unlucky. After ordering his customary glass of vodka, the man glanced up and down the length of the bar and, after a moment’s hesitation, sidled on to an empty stool between a snowy-haired, dandified old roué who was doddering, half-asleep, over a half-empty bottle of Veuve Clicquot, and a brassy-haired, middle-aged woman, whom Meredith judged to be English. Edging his way cautiously through the crowd, the Inspector took up his position as close to the group as he dared.

For five minutes or so nothing happened. Then suddenly the moon-faced foreigner jogged his elbow against the Englishwoman’s arm just as she was about to take a sip from her cocktail glass. The liquid slopped on to the bar-top. Instantly the fellow was all apologies. Whipping out a large silk handkerchief he began to dab up the mess and, in a few seconds, the couple were engaged in animated conversation. Too far away to catch what they were saying, Meredith was perfectly content to bide his time. This, he realized, was merely the opening gambit in the little game that was about to be played.

Presently the man ordered another round of drinks and the conversation became not only more animated but far more intimate. Ten minutes later the Englishwoman, after visible protests from her companion, returned the compliment. Thereafter their voices dropped to a conspiratorial murmur and their heads came closer and closer until they were almost touching.

Then, abruptly, the ill-assorted couple seemed to come to a decision. With a polished, practised gesture the man draped the woman’s sequin wrap about her plump, naked shoulders, helped her from the bar-stool and ushered her obsequiously towards the revolving-doors.

In a flash Meredith swung round on Strang, still seated at the corner table, and jerked his head towards the exit. Strang rose, joined his superior and, without a word, they strolled across the bar and thus out into the broad moonlit square. The lamps were already gleaming among the exotic trees and flowering shrubs, where the beautifully-tended gardens sloped down to the fantastic towers and cupolas of the floodlit Casino. The warm, caressing air was redolent of the scent of heliotrope and, somewhere in the half-dusk under the palms, a fountain was plashing. But the romantic magic of the Mediterranean night left Meredith unmoved. His eyes were fixed on the couple, now a little way ahead, as they moved at a leisurely pace towards the Casino.

“Looks as if they’re going to make a night of it, eh, Strang?”

“Wouldn’t be surprised, sir. Probably going to try their luck at the tables.”

“No---hang on!” exclaimed Meredith, puzzled. “They’re not going into the Casino. They’re heading for that car-park to the left of the main-entrance. Here, step lively, m’lad, else they’ll give us the slip.”

Quickening their pace the two officials were just in time to see their quarry clamber into the rear seat of an immensely dignified and old-fashioned Rolls Royce that was parked close to the pavement. Meredith turned excitedly to Strang.

“You parked our own car somewhere nearby, didn’t you?” Strang nodded. “O.K. Then nip along and get the engine started. I want you to re-park on the far side of the road just opposite. That’ll give us a chance to make a quick follow-up if this chap pulls away in a hurry. Get me?”

“Yes, sir. And then?”

“Sit tight in the driving-seat with the engine running.”

No sooner had Strang dashed off when Meredith, with a studiedly casual air, strolled slowly past the Rolls and took up his position under a nearby lamp-post. Pulling a newspaper from his pocket, he began ostensibly to scan it. As Meredith had anticipated the light from the lamp cast a reflected glow into the interior of the car and he was able to see quite clearly all that was taking place in the back-seat. It was just as he’d expected. From a voluminous spangled handbag the woman pulled out a cheque-book. Coincident with this her companion whipped out a fountain-pen and almost thrust it into her outstretched fingers. Then, as the woman was filling in the cheque, the man took out a fat wad of notes and began hurriedly to count them. A few seconds later the exchange was made and, after a brief conversation, the man opened the car door and with a short bow helped the woman to alight. A final flourish of his hat, another little bow, a quick furtive glance around and the man jumped into the driving-seat, slammed shut the door and started up the engine.

At that moment Meredith saw the little black “sports” come to a standstill on the far side of the road. A few seconds later he’d ousted the Sergeant from the wheel and the chase was on.

---

It was an exciting, not to say hair-raising, experience swinging round the outer bends of that tortuous road, with only a six-inch kerb between comparative safety and certain destruction. There were times, in fact, when the Corniche de Littoral, skirting some rocky promontory, seemed to hang poised over the sea. Meredith thanked his lucky stars that the Rolls hadn’t followed one of the higher Corniche roads, for the fellow ahead handled the car with superb assurance and faultless judgment. More than once, hitting a straight and level stretch, the Rolls drew away. But always Meredith, tense and grim behind the wheel, was able to put on a spurt and bring the car once more into the rays of his headlamps.

“Hell’s bells, sir!” breathed Freddy, who throughout the drive had been frantically pressing his foot against the floor-boards. “He’s certainly cutting it out. Talk about the movies . . .”

“Do, if you want to,” snapped Meredith. “I’m busy.”

“Where d’you think he’s making for, sir?”

“Nice, by the look of it. Or maybe Beaulieu. We’re just coming to the outskirts of the place.” Meredith peered ahead and suddenly jerked out: “By heaven, yes---he’s slowing up. Looks as if he’s turning off here to the right.”

Jamming on his brakes Meredith succeeded in swinging the “sports” off the main road into the long plane-tree avenue where the Rolls had now come to a stop. Pulling up sharply, the inspector shut off the engine, switched off the headlights and rapped out:

“Come on, Strang---just an easy stroll. Light up a cigarette and talk like hell. Don’t take the slightest notice of the chap as we pass the car. But, for Pete’s sake, see if you can spot the name of the house.”

“Good enough, sir. I’m with you.”

At Freddy’s instigation a discussion was started on the virtues of the English Test Team then touring Australia. As they drew level with the car they noticed that the driver had got out and was now opening the gates of a fair-sized villa set back a little way from the road. Clearly defined on the stuccoed pillars of the entrance was its name---Villa Valdeblore. Twenty yards further on Meredith drew up and glanced back. The Rolls was already disappearing through the open gates.

Ten minutes later Meredith was at the Beaulieu police-station trying out his schoolboy French on a bewildered and suspicious Duty Sergeant, who stubbornly refused to be impressed by the Inspector’s official credentials. At the mention of Blampignon, however, the fellow’s attitude softened somewhat and he agreed that Meredith should make use of the station ’phone to ring up Nice H.Q.

Inside another ten minutes, after Blampignon had exchanged a few terse sentences with the Sergeant, Meredith had the fellow eating out of his hand. Luckily Meredith could understand French far better than he could speak it so that he was able to grasp at least the salient points of the Sergeant’s evidence.

Mais oui! The Villa Valdeblore—he knew it well. It was in the Avenue de la Palisse and was owned by a certain Colonel Malloy.

“A compatriot of yours, Inspector, and very much respected in the town. I think he bought the villa in 1946.”

As far as the Sergeant knew he lived there with his wife. Mais oui, save for the domestic staff, alone with his wife. Was there not a Dutchman or German in the household? The Sergeant smiled.

“Ah, you are thinking, perhaps, of his chauffeur, Nikolai Bourmin. He is a White Russian. All this I learn because as an alien he has to report to us here at regular intervals. No---I know little of him. He behave himself. He does not get drunk or steal or commit a murder. That is all I care. Yes---it is about six months now since he first came to Beaulieu. I trust you have not discovered something about him that I should have found out for myself. If he is up to no good, it would not look well if I failed to comprehend it, Inspector. But I cannot believe that a man like Colonel Malloy would be easily deceived. It would not be like him to employ a rogue. If you think this Nikolai Bourmin to be a rascal . . .” The sergeant shrugged and added hopefully. “Eh bien, then perhaps you are wrong, M’sieur. You agree it is possible?”

Meredith could have expounded at length on the fallibility of assumptions that were not founded on proven facts, but playing for safety he said simply and conclusively:

Peut-être, mon ami.

Strang gazed at his superior in blank admiration.

---

On their more leisurely drive back along the Littoral road to Menton Meredith fell silent. Aware that he’d dropped into one of his “broody moods”, as Freddy called them, the Sergeant sensibly made no attempt to start up a conversation. As a matter of fact, Meredith was thinking fast and furious. He was analysing the evidence that had come his way during the course of that eventful evening.

So this fellow Bourmin was not the owner of the Rolls-Royce---he was merely chauffeur to this retired army bloke, Malloy. Now it was simple to explain away the fact that Bourmin only “worked” the Monte Carlo bars on a Thursday. It was, undoubtedly, his half-day off. It seemed equally certain that on these occasions his employer allowed him to make use of the car. This argued, of course, a pretty friendly and trustworthy relationship between the two men. But accepting this premise was it reasonable to assume that Malloy himself was tied up with the racket? Umph---difficult to say without having had the opportunity to make a personal assessment of the man’s character. The Beaulieu Sergeant spoke of him as being “highly respected in the town”, but that was just a general opinion. Somehow or other they must get a more definite line on Malloy’s past record and present behaviour.

For the moment it might be as well to make no move where the Russian was concerned. Strang could well take on the job of “tailing” the fellow on his Thursdays off in the hope that he might make contact with other members of the gang. As an alien, faced with the necessity of reporting regularly at the police-station, there was little chance of Bourmin slipping through their fingers even if his suspicions were aroused. Somehow the chauffeur had to collect the spurious notes as they came off the illicit printing-press. It was Bourmin, in fact, who might well lead them to “Chalky’s” hide-out.

As for this Colonel Malloy, Meredith determined to get in touch with the Yard without delay. They, in turn, could make contact with the Records Department at the War Office and cable the relevant information concerning the fellow’s bona fides and past history in the Service. If he appeared to be a sound egg then it might be a sensible move to take Colonel Malloy into his confidence. After all, as Bourmin’s employer, he was excellently placed to keep watch on the chauffeur’s activities. On the other hand Meredith couldn’t dismiss the fact that Blampignon and his colleagues suspected the racket was being organized by an Englishman. And to pose as a retired Colonel of the British Army was just the sort of alias that would appeal to a criminal in a foreign country. There was something solid and reassuring, almost sacrosanct, about a retired Colonel; particularly when he was to be associated with a wife, a handsome villa, and a chauffeur-driven Rolls!

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