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10: Picture Puzzle

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Author Topic: 10: Picture Puzzle  (Read 35 times)
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« on: April 18, 2023, 06:55:59 am »

DIRECTLY after breakfast the following morning Meredith received a ’phone call from Inspector Blampignon. The news that he had to impart was sensational but puzzling. A coastguard cutter, patrolling some two miles off Cap Ferrat, had actually succeeded in intercepting the cruiser-launch before it had made contact with the smaller craft that had put out from various points to meet it. The crew had been arrested, the contraband impounded by the custom’s authorities, and the launch, itself confiscated. According to Blampignon this ill-fated trip had resulted in a dead loss of some ten million francs to the gang who’d sponsored it. He was convinced that the racket, at any rate for the time being, had been broken wide open.

“But you see what we have to ask ourselves now, mon ami? If the launch we see at Cap Martin has no connection with this smuggling, then what precisely was it up to?”

Although they discussed this enigma for some minutes, Meredith had to admit that he was as nonplussed as Blampignon himself. They did advance one possible theory. Had the launch been “borrowed” without the owner’s permission? But, as Blampignon pointed out with devastating common-sense, along that crook-infested coast nobody but a fool would leave the engine-casing of his boat unlocked. And apart from this elementary precaution there were a dozen other equally effective methods of immobilizing such craft when lying at their moorings. Meredith concluded:

“So take it all round, we’ve got to admit we’re flummoxed. Well, thanks for ringing, my dear chap. If anything further turns up in this counterfeiting business I’ll let you know on the nod. But don’t expect miracles, because at the moment we seem to be bogged down. Depressing but true. However, we’ll do our best. Can’t say more. Au revoir, old man.”

---

Later that day Meredith was to reflect on this particular statement and chuckle. But that was just how it always ran. Long periods of frustration and inactivity, suddenly alternating with short, sharp bursts of progress.

It was only a few minutes after Blampignon had rung off, in fact, when a totally unexpected development put just such a jerk into his investigation. It was a ’phone call from the local police station that first whipped Meredith and Strang out of the doldrums in which for so many days they’d been becalmed. Some information had just come in---significant information. Inspector Gibaud was anxious that his English colleagues should have the details without delay. Could they call round at once?

“Can a duck swim?” exclaimed Meredith, delighted. “Expect us in three minutes. No---cancel that, and make it two!”

Inspector Gibaud, whom Meredith had already met, was waiting impatiently for them in his office. He was the perfect counterpart of Blampignon---a tough, wiry little man, with quick brown eyes and a pair of magnificent handlebar moustaches that he chewed fiercely during moments of reflection. From Meredith’s point-of-view Gibaud had one outstanding virtue---he could speak English like a native. The outcome, no doubt, of a long-ago holiday at Folkestone where he’d fallen in love with the receptionist at his hotel and eventually whisked her back over the Channel as his wife.

Waving them to be seated, Gibaud announced brusquely:

“I’ve some good news for you, Inspector. Some of those counterfeit notes have turned up here in Menton. They were brought along early this morning by a tobacconist called Guillevin. And that’s not all! Guillevin was able to identify the particular customer who passed these notes over the counter.”

“The devil he was!” exclaimed Meredith. “And where exactly does this M’sieur Guillevin hang out?”

“At the far end of the Rue de la Republique—near the Old Town.”

“I see. And the customer who passed the notes?”

“An odd little fellow by the name of Jacques Dufil. Apparently he always buys his tobacco at Guillevin’s. At least,” amended Gibaud with a smile, “when he can afford it. Guillevin’s known the fellow for years. He lives somewhere up in the Old Town in a single room and ekes out a precarious sort of existence as a painter.”

“Jacques Dufil, the artist?” broke in Strang excitedly.

Meredith broke in with a sardonic glance.

“Don’t tell me you know the fellow!”

“Well, not exactly, sir. But there was a picture of his in the exhibition I visited the other morning. Pretty duff in my opinion. But, of course, all this ultra-modern, surrealistic stuff leaves me cold.”

“Good lord! Just listen to it!” snorted Meredith. “These highbrow boys from Hendon!” Adding as he caught Gibaud’s expression, “Anything worrying you, Inspector?”

“No, no. I’m surprised to hear that Dufil’s showing one of his canvases at the gallery---that’s all. No idea he had any standing as an artist. It certainly doesn’t fit in with the facts.”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, at one time, according to Guillevin, he made a pretty sketchy sort of living touting his masterpieces round the tourist cafés during the holiday months.”

Meredith’s interest quickened.

“Tourists, eh? You know, Gibaud, I wouldn’t be surprised if we hadn’t got something here. Has it occurred to you that this picture hawking would provide the perfect alibi for a little shady dealing . . . er . . . on the side, as it were?”

“Black Market francs, eh? The point had occurred to me. But I’m afraid that cat won’t jump.”

“Won’t jump---why?”

“Because for the last six months our friend Dufil hasn’t been working the cafés. Apparently he’s found a patron who’s willing to buy his canvases. Not just an odd one here and there, but his whole output! I don’t say the poor devil’s made a fortune, but he’s certainly had a bit more to spend on tobacco.”

“I see,” mused Meredith; then, springing up, he added impatiently: “Well, what are we waiting for? We’ve got to have a word with Dufil. We’ve got to find out just how these dud notes came into his possession. Point is, until we’ve cross-questioned him, we can’t be sure he isn’t tied up with the racket himself. Where does he hang out?”

Gibaud chuckled.

“Although he’s a professional man, I’m afraid he doesn’t wallow in the luxury of a proper postal address. But Guillevin’s explained exactly how we get there. It’s off some alleyway in the Old Town. You’d like me to come along as interpreter, perhaps?”

“There’s no ‘perhaps’ about it,” admitted Meredith with a rueful smile. “I’d be sunk without you.”

“Good enough then,” concluded Gibaud briskly. “Let’s go.”

---

To walk from the broad avenues and sunlit shopping streets of the new town into the sunless chasms between the high shuttered houses of the old was to pass in a few moments from the twentieth century into the Middle Ages. Meredith, who so far hadn’t had time to explore this quarter of Menton, found it fascinating. The guide-books, tendering their customary bunch of shop-soiled adjectives, might refer to the Old Town as “quaint”, “picturesque”, “historic”; but, as they plunged into this labyrinth of narrow streets, it was the word “ageless” that came instinctively into the Inspector’s mind. This, one felt, was as it had always been. In these secret, tortuous alleyways nothing had changed. The bare-footed, brown-skinned old harridans gossiping on their doorsteps might well have squatted there when Napoleon’s Grand Army tramped along this twelve-foot highway on their victorious march into Italy. Here, felt Meredith, amid this amorphous red-tiled cluster of houses clamped so securely to the naked rock, time and progress had been kept at bay.

But Gibaud allowed his English colleagues little time to stand and stare. With an unerring sense of direction he hustled them briskly through this honeycomb of dark, squalid streets, turned into a vine-shaded courtyard and rapped imperatively on the rickety door of the hunchback’s one-roomed lodging. After a moment’s silence, they heard the painful shuffling of his footsteps on the creaking stairs and, an instant later, the door was cautiously opened and his head appeared round the corner of it like an apprehensive tortoise. Seeing Gibaud, who was in uniform, Dufil uttered a snarling cry and shrank back, a sullen, suspicious expression on his crooked features.

“What do you want? Why have you come here?” he demanded hoarsely.

“You are Jacques Dufil?” enquired Gibaud politely.

“Yes, M’sieur.”

“Very well---we want to have a talk with you.”

“A talk with me. What about, M’sieur?”

Gibaud gestured to the staircase.

“Shall we discuss that upstairs, my friend?”

The hunchback lifted his misshapen shoulders.

“But certainly---if it is necessary.”

Once up in the gloomy, stone-walled little room, Gibaud, wasting no time in small talk, got down to his cross-examination. At first, still apprehensive and ill-at-ease, Dufil refused to be drawn. But gradually, realizing the impersonal nature of the Inspector’s enquiries, his grunted monosyllables gave way to an ever-quickening stream of information. And bit by bit it all came out.

At the end of some fifteen minutes, Gibaud, who’d been hastily jotting down a summary of the hunchback’s evidence, turned with a satisfied chuckle to Meredith and demanded:

“Well, how much did you understand of that lot?”

“Not a damned word!” retorted Meredith. “But since you look like a cat that’s swallowed the canary, I guess you’ve learnt plenty. So you’d better give me the low-down, my dear chap. Then if I want to put any questions to our friend here you can tackle him before we leave. O.K.?”

“O.K.,” nodded Gibaud. “Well, this briefly is how it runs. About six months ago a fellow named Latour got in touch with Dufil after he’d seen him touting his pictures round the cafés. He asked Dufil if he was prepared, from then on, to sell him every picture that he painted. There was one stipulation. If Dufil accepted the offer he was to keep his mouth shut about this arrangement. At first Dufil thought the fellow must be a dealer and that he was buying in his canvases as a speculation. You know how I mean?---on the off chance that there might be a future vogue for the fellow’s work. But he soon realized that Latour had absolutely no knowledge of art. Mind you, our friend here wasn’t making a fortune out of this offer. Far from it! Latour made it clear from the start that he was only prepared to pay a cut-throat price. But the point was that the money came in regularly and on the nod. Dufil naturally asked himself why was Latour so anxious to buy up all his output? And why didn’t he want anybody to know about it? Well, our friend here may have a queer-shaped head but it’s screwed on the right way.” Gibaud paused and threw a sidelong glance at the hunchback, who, though not understanding a word of English, had been beaming and nodding as if in complete agreement with the Inspector’s narrative. “You’re a cunning little fellow, eh, Dufil? Far more intelligent than you look, I reckon.” The hunchback’s nods grew more emphatic and he chuckled hoarsely. Gibaud turned again to Meredith. “It didn’t take him long to dig out the answer to the mystery. Latour was buying in his pictures and fobbing them off as his own. In short, for some private and obviously nefarious reason Latour was posing as an artist. Realizing this Dufil made a few discreet enquiries in the town and soon discovered that Latour was living in the house of an eccentric Englishwoman—a wealthy widow by the name of Hedderwick. It seems that she owns a largish villa here in the Avenue St. Michel.”

“Hedderwick! The Avenue St. Michel!” cried Strang excitedly. “Good heavens! It’s all beginning to add up.”

“Have you gone crazy?” asked Meredith with a withering glance. “What’s beginning to add up? I suppose you couldn’t possibly let us know what you’re blethering about?”

“Well, you see, sir---Miss Westmacott mentioned that there was an artist living in the house. She didn’t actually tell me his surname. She just referred to him as Paul. But it must be this fellow Latour. It’s a staggering coincidence, but there’s no getting round it.”

“There are times, m’lad,” observed Meredith with a glare, “when I could take you by the ears and shake you silly. What the devil are you driving at? Who’s Miss Westmacott? Where did you meet her? And what the deuce do you know about the Avenue St. Michel?”

Realizing that he could no longer sidestep an explanation, Freddy flushed to the roots of his hair and, taking a deep breath, delivered a garbled and almost incoherent account of his meeting with Miss Westmacott at the exhibition and, later, his encounter with her outside the gates of the Villa Paloma.

“I see,” said Meredith at the conclusion of his subordinate’s romantic little saga. “The secret love-life of Acting-Sergeant Strang, eh? I thought you said that, on your present pay, wine and women were two of the luxuries you couldn’t afford.”

“Oh, but this is different, sir,” stammered Freddy. “Absolutely it is. Miss Westmacott’s a really decent type, if you know what I mean. There’s absolutely no----”

“O.K., Sergeant,” broke in Meredith with a twinkle. “No need to get hot under the collar. We’ll take your word for it. The point is you appear to know something about this set-up at the Villa Paloma and the knowledge might prove useful.” He turned to Gibaud. “You agree, Inspector?”

“Well, the Sergeant’s information certainly corroborates Dufil’s evidence concerning Latour. And from what M’sieur Strang has just told us, it’s evident why Latour was buying in these pictures.”

“You mean he’d persuaded this Hedderwick woman he was an artist down on his luck and needed these pictures to prove it?”

“Exactly. This Englishwoman was acting as his patron. Latour was . . . now how shall I put it?”

“Sitting pretty,” suggested Meredith. “And he was damn well going to make sure he went on sitting pretty. Yes, I see that---but how about these dud notes? Where do they come in? Are you suggesting that Latour’s been paying Dufil for these canvases in counterfeit money?”

“No, no---there was a further little twist in the relationship between Latour and our friend here before the counterfeit notes turned up on the scene. It all hinges on the exhibition that the Sergeant mentioned just now---L’Exposition de Peinture Méditerranée at the Menton galleries.”

“I don’t follow.”

“This way, my dear fellow. Dufil here has a great pride in his work. No doubt about that. He has, I think, the faith and integrity of the genuine artist. He puts into his pictures all that is best in himself, even though he’s never received the recognition that, in his opinion, is due to him. But Latour, you see, treated the poor devil as if he were a hack, a mere machine to turn out the goods for which he was prepared to pay. Naturally our friend here rebelled against this attitude, and when he heard that this local exhibition was being planned, he cocked a snook at Latour and submitted one of his pictures for the committee’s consideration.”

“And they accepted it?”

Gibaud nodded.

“With the result that a few days ago Dufil was approached by an art dealer from Cannes. The fellow had evidently taken a fancy to his work and was anxious to act as his agent.”

“I see!” whistled Meredith. “And Latour got to know about this, eh? He saw the picture in the exhibition, perhaps, realized that Dufil was now in a position to sell his work elsewhere and----”

“Precisely,” cut in Gibaud. “He paid Dufil a flat hundred thousand francs to turn the offer down. Of course Latour was furious with Dufil for submitting the picture, but he wasn’t in a position to do anything about it. At first he tried threats, but, as I said before, Dufil’s no fool. He knew he held the whip hand and Latour had to climb down. The one thing Dufil didn’t anticipate was that Latour would buy him off with a wad of utterly worthless notes. So it rather looks as if Latour gets the last laugh, eh?”

“But does he?” demanded Meredith with a meaning look. “Does he, my dear fellow? You see the implication? If Latour was able to lay his hands on a hundred thousand francs’ worth of forged notes, surely he must be tied up with the racket? And since we know just where to find him, I’ve a feeling that M’sieur Latour’s all lined up for a spot of third degree. I don’t want to appear unduly optimistic but, in my opinion, this looks like the beginning of the end.” He swung round on Strang. “Another couple of days, Sergeant, and I shouldn’t be surprised if we’re hitting the trail for home. Sorry to nip your little romance in the bud, but there it is. I daresay you’ll recover from the shock!”

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