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9: The Maison Turini

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Author Topic: 9: The Maison Turini  (Read 39 times)
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« on: April 18, 2023, 04:40:32 am »

AT six o’clock, punctual to the minute, Inspector Blampignon’s car drew up outside the Commissariat de Police in Menton. Meredith and Strang had already been there some minutes chatting with the Duty Sergeant. Blampignon greeted them boisterously.

“Ah, this is a great pleasure, mes amis! It is good that we should all work arm in arm, as you say. Much may happen tonight. Much may not happen. But in our profession it is necessary always to be an optimist.” He pivoted on the Duty Sergeant. “A room where we can be alone, perhaps?”

The Sergeant pushed open a door that led out of the main office.

Voila, M’sieur L’Inspecteur!

Once the door was closed, Blampignon swung round on Meredith and announced with a melodramatic flourish:

M’sieur---we have it!”

Meredith looked blank.

“Have what?”

“The information you wished for . . . about the little sketch on the envelope. The moment you had rung me off, I collected all the necessary maps. I say to my staff ‘Find this place or I cut your throats!’ Mon vieux---ten minutes before I leave Nice, they find what we look for. Those young men have good sense, eh?”

“You’re telling me!” exclaimed Meredith elatedly. “Well, my dear fellow, what’s the answer?”

With a flamboyant gesture Blampignon whipped a large-scale map from his pocket and slapped it down on the little table in the centre of the room.

“See here---a street map of Menton.” He snatched a pencil from another pocket and stabbed it down on the map. “Here, see . . . the harbour. And here, a road running beside the harbour. You note its name, Inspector?”

“Quai Bonaparte,” read Meredith.

Exactement! To the left of the little triangle, you remember... the letters ARTE. Now we have it! To the right QL. Please to read again.”

“Quai Laurenti.”

Blampignon shrugged.

“It is simple, eh? All we need to do now is to walk down to the harbour and find out, précisément, what this cross, marked C.C. 6a, is meant to indicate. You have an idea already, perhaps?”

“Just a hunch,” nodded Meredith.

“A hunch---what is that?” asked Blampignon, puzzled; then with sudden inspiration: “Ah! I have it. A box in which you keep rabbits. But why should this cross represent a----”

Meredith broke in with a laugh.

“Hold hard, my dear chap, or we’re going to get in a tangle. A hunch is a . . . is a . . .” Meredith glanced despairingly at Strang. “Good lord, Sergeant, how the devil would you describe a hunch?”

“An intuitive guess, sir,” said Freddy promptly.

“An intuitive----?” began Blampignon, more puzzled than ever.

“O.K. We’ll let it pass,” cut in Meredith hastily. “But if my theory’s correct then I’ve a pretty shrewd idea that X marks the spot.”

“The spot?” demanded Blampignon, still hopelessly at sea.

Meredith nodded.

“The spot where ‘Chalky’ Cobbett has his hide-out. The spot where he and his little playmates print off their dud notes.”

Blampignon whistled.

Eh bien, I admit it is possible.”

“Well, if C.C. doesn’t stand for ‘Chalky’ Cobbett,” contested Meredith, “then I’m losing my grip. The 6a is probably the number of the house or flat.”

“Quite, M’sieur. And this evening before we turn our minds to this other little business, it would be as well for us to take a walk down to the quayside. Always it is like this. For days no progress, then . . . zut! . . . Everything happen at once.” Blampignon refolded the map and thrust it back in his pocket. “Maintenant, á nos moutons, mes amis . . . to tell you what I propose about the little expedition we make tonight. It occur to me that . . .”

---

It was nearing dusk when the three officials, having parked the car just beyond the market, found themselves sauntering along the Quai de Bonaparte. To Meredith, who’d greatly enjoyed this unique and colourful episode in his long professional career, it was a sobering and nostalgic moment. Within the next half-hour, it was more than possible that his investigations would be at an end. With “Chalky” Cobbett under arrest and the illicit press out of action, the whole counterfeit-cum-currency racket would, ipso facto, die a natural death. And it wouldn’t be easy, he realized, to take leave of this sunlit, sparkling coast with its terraced vineyards and olive groves, its palms and oleanders, its fantastic cacti, its mimosa-scented streets and impossibly blue seas. He thought of the Old Kent Road on a wet February night and shuddered.

But there it was. Duty was duty. He’d come south to pick up “Chalky” Cobbett and, once he was pulled in, he’d be forced to write Finis to the case, pack up his traps and clear off back to England, Home and Beauty.

It was, therefore, with mixed feelings that Meredith heard Blampignon’s announcement:

“That triangular grove of palm trees a little way ahead---that is the place we look for. We turn off here at the left. This is not a good district. It is very poor and very . . .” Blampignon delicately held his nose. “You have noticed it, mon ami?”

Meredith most certainly had! A potpourri of garlic, sewerage and dank rottenness that rose like a miasma from the airless alleyways that zig-zagged in mounting terraces from the waterfront. An atmosphere of poverty and depression hung over the district. Even the little group of palms, beneath which were a few uncomfortable, iron-slatted seats, had the moulting bedraggled look of worn-out feather-dusters.

They had no difficulty in pin-pointing the building that Bourmin had marked with a cross in his little map. It was evidently a kind of tenement-house, and possibly due to wartime neglect the property was sadly in need of repair. Scabs of plaster were peeling away from its sickly green walls and its lop-sided shutters and skimpy iron balconies were rotting and rusting for want of paint. The whole façade was festooned with lines of gaily-coloured undergarments, slung between the balconies like tattered flags. It looked as if a puff of wind would bring the whole place crashing to the ground.

Maison Turini,” read Strang from the chipped stone plaque let into the wall. “Heavens above, sir! What a rabbit warren. I reckon we’ll need a ferret to flush ‘Chalky’ out of this lot.”

Blampignon pointed out:

“Remember we have what is no doubt the number of the apartment in which you hope to find your friend. Number 6a was it not? Alors! We make an enquiry.”

In response to the Inspector’s jerk on the rusty bell-push, an aged crone, with a black shawl over her head, her feet encased in carpet slippers, flip-flapped out of a glass-fronted cubby-hole just inside the entrance. She hadn’t been alone in the little room. Seated at a table over a bottle of cheap red wine was a wizened, white-bearded little fellow with a face the colour of a walnut. He was chuckling and mumbling to himself with all the unselfconscious naivety of a child in the throes of some imaginary adventure.

Pardon, Madame—you are the concierge here?” asked Blampignon.

“Yes, M’sieur.” Then catching the Inspector’s sidelong glance she added in explanation: “Hélas, M’sieur, my husband is no longer able to carry out his duties. He is just a little . . .” She tapped her forehead significantly. “You understand? Eh bien, what is it you wish, M’sieur?”

With the natural politeness of his race, Blampignon explained the reason for his visit and, with the greatest discretion, began to cross-question the old woman. At first she seemed reluctant to talk, but soon---obviously flattered by the charm of the Inspector’s approach---her answers grew more and more voluble. As she spoke a kind of patois Meredith was unable to grasp even the gist of her remarks. But to judge by the ever-broadening smile that spread over Blampignon’s honest, sun-kissed countenance, he was getting the information he was after, plus a full measure of irrelevant gossip! As the old woman’s evidence continued, Blampignon’s smile gave way to a grin; the grin to a chuckle; and the chuckle to a slowly-mounting roar of laughter that shook his portly frame from head to foot.

“Good heavens, man!” exclaimed Meredith, bewildered by his confrère’s reaction. “What the devil’s the matter? What’s the joke?”

“We are the joke, mon ami,” gasped Blampignon, the tears trickling down his cheeks. “Perhaps I should be in a bad humour because we have come on---how do you say?---the chase of the wild goose? But sometimes it is better to laugh than to curse.”

“You mean we’re too late?” shot out Meredith. “Chalky’s given us the slip, eh?”

“He was never here, mon ami.”

“Never here!”

Blampignon dabbed his eyes and, still chuckling, shook his head.

“C.C. eh? We think, naturellement, that it stand for ‘Chalky’ Cobbett. But this is where we go wrong. I have enquired of Madame who live in apartment number 6a.”

“Well?”

“A young woman, M’sieur, by the name of Celeste Chounet. I ask Madame when and how this young lady came to be here. She tell me some two months ago a middle-aged foreigner engage the rooms for her. I ask her to describe this man.” Blampignon shrugged. “Eh bien, it is Bourmin without a doubt. She says he come here once or twice a week to visit his little friend upstairs.” The inspector winked. “I think perhaps I should have a few words with this Mam’selle Chounet myself, eh? Madame here has been most explicit but always it is wise to check up on such a statement. You will wait here, perhaps?”

“O.K.,” chuckled Meredith. “But business before pleasure, remember!”

After Blampignon had ascertained the whereabouts of the girl’s apartment and plodded away up the narrow spiral stairway, the concierge returned to her cubby-hole. Meredith and Strang began to pace idly up and down the dingy corridor, discussing in low tones the unexpected outcome of this little expedition. Whatever his superior’s reactions may have been to this setback, Freddy was elated. Despite the snub that he’d received early that morning outside the Villa Paloma, he still felt that given time and opportunity he could win Miss Westmacott over to a more co-operative frame-of-mind. And with “Chalky” still at large there could as yet be no question of their return to London.

Ten minutes later Blampignon rejoined them. He announced with an expressive roll of his dark and luminous eyes:

Tiens! Our friend Bourmin has unquestionably the eye of a connoisseur. A very charming and sensible young woman.”

“And her story tallies with that of the old woman?” asked Meredith.

“Absolutely, mon ami. Bourmin set her up in this apartment some eight weeks ago. They met one evening in a café at Monte Carlo.”

“Did you question her about Bourmin?”

“Yes---but I think it is certain she knows nothing of his criminal activities. Nor does she even seem to know who are his friends. It is clear that he does not come here as often as Mam’selle Chounet would wish.” Blampignon shook his head and heaved an elephantine sigh. “I think perhaps she is lonely sometimes. It is very sad, mon ami. The beauty of a woman is like that of a flower. It must be looked on often before it withers. Tout passe, tout change, as we say. Yes, yes . . . it is very sad.”

---

It was shortly after midnight when they spotted the ghostly outlines of the launch against the dark line of the land. For three solid hours the little police-boat had been patrolling about two hundred yards off-shore between the harbour at Menton and the outermost point of Cap Martin. For the first hour Meredith and Strang had enjoyed the novelty of this maritime beat, but as time dragged on and nothing happened their initial enthusiasm began to wane. Now it looked as if things, with any luck, were about to grow more lively.

It was evident that the launch had slipped into its mooring-place when the police-boat had been at the far end of its patrol, for they were convinced that it hadn’t been there when they’d last investigated this particular stretch of coastline.

Hastily throttling back the engine, Blampignon brought the boat round in a wide sweep and headed for a point about a hundred yards away from where the launch was lying at its moorings. He explained in swift undertones:

“We will get ashore, mes amis, and see what we can see, eh? But very silently, you understand. I think it is possible that so far we have not been noticed.”

Cutting out the engine entirely, Blampignon, with perfect judgment, brought the little craft gently to the shore. There, with surprising agility, the Inspector clambered cautiously on to the rocks and in a few seconds had securely tied off the painter. One by one he helped the others to disembark and silently, in single file, they began to creep towards the launch.

The foreshore at this point was tricky to negotiate in the dark. Beyond the fringe of rocks, a rough grassy bank mounted to the road that, for about half-a-mile or so, ran parallel with the sea along the eastern side of the cape. To make matters worse a canopy of umbrella pines shut out what little light there was, and their roots, thwarted by the stony soil, in many places projected above the ground. And it was in one of these, when they were less than a dozen yards from their objective, that Blampignon unfortunately caught his foot. Even as he measured his length on the ground a low whistle sounded ahead, followed by the scrape of boots sliding over the rocks and the sudden lifting drone of the launch’s engine.

Vite! Vite!” yelled Blampignon. “Before they cast off.”

“Come on, Strang,” snapped Meredith, hastily clicking on his torch. “At the double---but watch out for these confounded roots!”

“O.K., sir.”

Aided by the rays of the pocket-lamp they plunged forward, slipping and scrambling over the rocks until they reached the spot where the boat had been moored. But even as Meredith made ready to spring aboard, the launch swung clear of the rocks and, gathering speed, slipped swiftly away into the darkness. Meredith swore fluently.

“So that’s that, eh, Sergeant? A couple of seconds sooner and we’d have nabbed ’em.” Adding as Blampignon lumbered up out of the gloom gingerly rubbing his barked shins: “What now, my dear fellow? No good giving chase, eh? Too big a start.”

Blampignon shook his head despondently:

“It is hopeless, hopeless! But the launch . . . do you think you could identify it if you saw it again?”

“Sure of it. White-painted hull with two thin scarlet stripes just above the water-line. There was a name on her bows, but unfortunately she was too far out for me to read it.”

“A name!” exclaimed Blampignon. “That is very curious. It is usual for these racketeers to avoid such a simple means of identification. There is much about this business, in fact, that I fail to understand. If she was moored here to unload the contraband, why is there no car waiting to collect it?”

“Umph, you’ve got something there,” commented Meredith, slowly swinging the rays of his torch over the surrounding ground. “Nothing’s been dumped here either. Another odd factor, eh? After all, they’d have had plenty of time to start landing the stuff before we broke in on the party. As you say----” Meredith broke off and added with a chuckle: “Hullo! Here’s a bit of evidence they’ve left behind anyway. An empty wine bottle by the look of it.” He picked up the bottle and examined the label. “Nuits St. Georges, eh? Must have been making a night of it. I suppose we are right about this?”

“How do you mean?” asked Blampignon.

“You don’t think it was just a picnic party or a courting couple or something of the kind?”

“But if so why did they rush off in such a hurry?” demanded Blampignon. “Oh no, no. Of this I am sure. They were engaged in---now what is the expression?---some shady business, mon ami.”

“Quite---but what shady business?”

Blampignon shrugged.

“It is incomprehensible, M’sieur. But perhaps, in due course, we find the answer.”

“And now?” asked Meredith. “Where do we go from here?”

“Back to Menton. It is useless to continue our patrol. I think it is good time that we tie up the boat and get a little sleep. Tomorrow I will ring you and let you know if any of our patrols have better luck. I am still hoping it is so, M’sieur.”

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