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12: L’Hirondelle

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Author Topic: 12: L’Hirondelle  (Read 31 times)
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« on: April 18, 2023, 08:26:40 am »

FOR two solid hours that afternoon Meredith sat at the table in his hotel bedroom poring over the notes and depositions that he and the Sergeant had brought back from the Villa Paloma. The heat, which seemed to slither into the half-darkened room through the slats of the closed shutters, was shattering. Although Meredith had yanked off his coat, rolled up his shirt sleeves and loosened his collar, he was still perspiring profusely. Even the glass of iced lager at his elbow brought little relief.

But for all his bodily discomfort, his mental processes were ticking over with their customary smoothness and precision. Little by little he was sorting out the relevant data from the disjointed scraps of information that he and the Sergeant, like a couple of scavenging hens, had picked up from the various members of the Hedderwick household.

One point stood out sharply from this welter of facts. Latour had “moonlighted” from the villa---presumably some time during the course of the previous twenty-four hours---i.e. Sunday. Admittedly neither Mrs. Hedderwick nor her niece had seen him since Saturday evening, but both the cook and the parlour-maid had heard him coming down the back-stairs just before lunch on Sunday. Lisette, the maid, had actually seen him crossing the yard to the back-gate. According to the Sergeant’s excellent notes, the girl was convinced that Latour wasn’t portering any form of luggage. So much for that.

But late last night, or rather during the small hours of the morning, Miss Pilligrew had wakened from an uneasy slumber with a touch of indigestion. Unable to get off to sleep again she’d switched on her bedside lamp and started to read. A few minutes later she’d heard sounds coming from Latour’s studio, which was directly above her own room. She thought little of it because Latour often sneaked into the house during the small hours and went up to bed via the back-stairs. According to Miss Pilligrew the time when she’d heard these noises was just after one a.m. Although there was no other witness to corroborate this statement, Meredith felt certain that Miss Pilligrew’s evidence could be accepted as reliable. So Latour had left the villa shortly before lunch on Sunday and re-entered it some time after midnight. And there was little doubt that on his return to the villa he’d immediately packed his belongings and cleared out of the place as quickly as he could.

But why? That was the real teaser.

Even if he were a member of the counterfeit gang---as Meredith now firmly believed---what had driven him to make this sudden flit? Presumably something that he’d learnt between noon and midnight the previous day. Some move on the part of the police, perhaps, acting as a straw in the wind. But if so who had warned the fellow of the investigations that were afoot? Had he made this discovery for himself or had the information been handed on by A. N. Other? Bourmin, perhaps? Not that Meredith had any proof that Bourmin and Latour were acquainted. Strang’s enquiries among the domestic staff, in fact, had clearly revealed that Latour had never made contact with the chauffeur when he was over at the villa on Fridays. Moreover, as far as Meredith knew, Bourmin had no inkling that he’d been tailed in Monte Carlo. Nor did he know anything of their visit to his rooms above the Colonel’s garage. Unless, of course, Malloy was double-crossing him---a theory that Meredith flatly refused to consider. Besides, would Bourmin have had the opportunity to get in touch with Latour after their interview with Malloy on Sunday morning? Well, a ’phone call to the Villa Valdeblore would soon settle this little point. At the same time it would be just as well to find out how Malloy had made first contact with Latour. After all, it was the Colonel who’d introduced him to Mrs. Hedderwick---presumably in all good faith. He decided to ring Malloy there and then.

Ten minutes later he was back in his room with the answers, so to speak, in his pocket. Malloy’s explanation of his chance meeting with Latour in a Nice café seemed perfectly feasible and above-board. There was absolutely no suggestion that, when he’d introduced the fellow to his old friend Mrs. Hedderwick, he’d any inkling of Latour’s real character. So much for that. His statement concerning the chauffeur’s movements was equally clear and convincing. Bourmin hadn’t left the Villa Valdeblore, except when on duty at the wheel, during the course of Sunday afternoon or evening. Malloy was emphatic. Bourmin had spent the afternoon chatting with the maids in the kitchen. In the evening he’d driven the Colonel and his wife over to Antibes where they were dining with friends. They hadn’t arrived back at Beaulieu until well past eleven. So what? That was one cat, at any rate, that wouldn’t jump.

What else had they done the previous day? Met Blampignon, of course, at the local Commissariat to discuss plans for that night’s coastal patrol in connection with the smuggling racket. And, by Jove, yes! That visit to the tenement-house near the Quai de Bonaparte---the “chase of the wild goose”, as Blampignon had voiced it---that had led them, not to “Chalky” Cobbett, but to Nikolai Bourmin’s mistress! Was this where Latour had picked up his information? Was it Mam’selle Chounet who’d tipped him the wink? True, Blampignon had given her no hint of the business that had brought them to the Maison Turini, but she was probably quite intelligent enough to put two and----

Meredith swore under his breath. What the devil was he blethering about? Hadn’t Blampignon satisfied himself that the girl knew nothing of Bourmin’s criminal activities? Which included, ipso facto, the counterfeit racket. And what Blampignon held to be true Meredith was unprepared to refute. Was this just another obstinate cat that wouldn’t jump?

He thought: “But hang on a minute! What about the old woman in the carpet slippers, the concierge? She must have guessed from our interrogation that the police were interested in Bourmin. Was she responsible for the leakage? More than possible, eh? It all boils down to this. Did Latour visit the tenement yesterday some time between noon and midnight? Better check up on this. Get Gibaud to come down with me this afternoon and make the necessary enquiries.”

---

With the cunning and sagacity nurtured by long experience of criminal investigation, Meredith suggested that Gibaud should refrain from questioning the old woman until he’d interrogated other, presumably disinterested, witnesses living in the building. Before leaving the Villa Paloma that morning he’d obtained an excellent photograph of Latour from Mrs. Hedderwick. As they neared the Maison Turini Meredith handed this photograph over to Gibaud.

“I’m going to sit down under these palm-trees, my dear chap, and smoke a pipe. Point is if I show up the old girl’s bound to recognize me, and at the moment we don’t want to put her on her guard. All you’ve got to do is to walk slap by her cubby-hole and start making enquiries round the ground-floor rooms. Find out if anybody’s seen Latour hanging about the place. If they have then rejoin me here and we’ll tackle the concierge together. Agreed?”

Gibaud, who was in plain clothes, wasted no time. Making straight tracks for the building, he mounted the steps and disappeared swiftly through the open door. Five, ten, fifteen minutes passed. Meredith shifted uncomfortably on the iron-slatted seat, trying to curb his impatience. A great deal, he felt, depended on his colleague’s enquiries. If only it could be proved that Latour was in the habit of----

He glanced up quickly. Gibaud was almost trotting up the road towards the oasis of palms. Long before he reached the spot Meredith could see that he had a grin on his ferret-like features worthy of the Cheshire Cat. He jumped up and hurried forward eagerly to meet him.

“Well?”

“We’re on to something here!” shot out Gibaud. “I found no less than four witnesses who’re prepared to swear that they’d seen Latour about the place.”

“The devil you did!” exclaimed Meredith, unable to conceal his elation at the news. “And yesterday?”

“He turned up about ten p.m., stayed chatting for about twenty minutes with the old woman in her cubicle and then left in a hurry.”

“It’s always the old woman he comes to see?”

“Yes---invariably. None of the witnesses I questioned has ever actually spoken to the fellow---just noticed him in conversation with the concierge as they were entering or leaving the building.”

“What about the girl---Celeste Chounet?”

“I asked about her. They were certain Latour had never gone up to her room. They’ve never seen them together at any time.”

“I see. Well, it’s obvious what we’ve got to do now. Stick that photograph under the old woman’s nose and ask her point-blank if she can identify the fellow. If she hedges or denies that she knows Latour, then, by heaven, we’ve got her in a cleft stick!”

And five minutes later that was just where they’d got the old biddy. Quietly but relentlessly, in the little glass-fronted cubby-hole, Gibaud grilled her to a turn; breaking off every now and then to put Meredith au fait with the progress of his interrogation. Throughout the interview her husband sat at the table, chuckling and nodding and talking to himself in some strange, incomprehensible lingo.

Once she realized that her denials were cutting no ice, Madame Grignot trotted out her explanation readily enough. The facts, as she related them, were simple. Thirty years ago, in an obscure little village on the outskirts of Dijon, she’d taken a position as nurse to the Latours’ three children. Paul, her eldest charge, was then three. She’d stayed with the family until Paul’s father had died; and then, since his mother could no longer afford to pay her wages, she’d taken another situation near Aix-en-Provence. Paul, who’d been devoted to her, was then fourteen and, although he’d seen little of her in the intervening years, he’d never failed to keep in touch with her. Just after he’d come to live at Menton, she wrote asking if Paul could find her a job and it was through his good offices that she’d eventually obtained the post of concierge at the Maison Turini. He often called round to have a chat with her about old times and to bring her poor demented husband a bottle of wine. Then why, demanded Gibaud, had she gone to the trouble of denying that she knew M’sieur Latour? Eh bien! That too was simple. Only the day before the Englishman had called round with an Inspector of police and they’d asked her many searching questions about a M’sieur Bourmin. And now, today, he was here again, and they were asking many questions about M’sieur Latour. Was it not natural that she should refuse to give to the police information which might cause trouble for poor M’sieur Latour? Was it not natural that she should pretend not to know him?

---

“Well,” demanded Gibaud, as they turned into the Quai de Bonaparte and began to stroll at a leisurely pace along the waterfront, “what do you make of our dear Madame Grignot? Do you think her explanation holds water?”

Meredith said cautiously:

“Well, yes and no. A subtle mixture of fact and fiction---at least, that’s how it struck me.”

“I don’t quite follow,” said Gibaud, unable to see how Meredith had arrived at this conclusion. “Her story seemed perfectly feasible. She certainly rattled it off without any hesitation.”

“Exactly!” exclaimed Meredith. “That’s just what makes it suspect. When Blampignon questioned her about Bourmin . . . well, you should have heard the old biddy! The facts were so thickly encrusted with embellishment that it was darn difficult to isolate the evidence we were after. She just couldn’t keep to the point. If you ask me, my dear chap, today’s story was a trifle too pat. Rather as if she’d learnt it off by heart, eh?”

“You mean Latour had more or less primed her with what to say in case we should ever question her?”

“Just that,” nodded Meredith. “I don’t say the general facts aren’t true. It’s quite possible that she was the family nurse. But I’m darned if I’ll accept her explanation for Latour’s recent visits. The old lady knows plenty and I’ll wager a week’s wages that it was she who tipped him the wink to get clear while the going was good. You see, our enquiries about Bourmin would naturally----” Meredith broke off and stood there in the middle of the pavement, his mouth agape, a look of wild incredulity on his aquiline features. “Well, I’ll be----!”

“What the devil’s the matter with you?” asked Gibaud, bewildered.

“That launch, moored over there against the harbour arm,” pointed out Meredith. “The one with the two thin scarlet stripes painted on its hull . . .”

“Well, what about it?”

In a few curt sentences Meredith described their Saturday night encounter over at Cap Martin. Gibaud whistled.

“And you think this is the same boat, eh?”

“Certain of it. Here, quick! Let’s take a walk out on to the breakwater. Somebody’s sure to know who owns the confounded thing.”

In this assumption Meredith was right. A group of swarthy, bare-footed fishermen were just swarming ashore off one of the many gondola-prowed fishing-boats tied off along the quayside. In answer to Gibaud’s enquiries they broke into voluble and concerted explanations. When at length the babble had died down, Gibaud turned to his colleague who’d been teetering with impatience at his elbow. Meredith rapped out:

“Well?”

“She’s a privately owned pleasure launch by the name of L’Hirondelle. A pretty roomy and luxurious affair according to these fellows.”

“But who owns her?” snapped Meredith. “That’s what interests me.”

Gibaud smiled.

“You’d better take a grip on yourself. You’re going to get a high-voltage shock.”

“Oh for crying aloud, man! Don’t keep me dangling.”

“Well, believe it or not, it’s that wealthy countrywoman of yours.”

“By heaven!” gasped Meredith. “Mrs. Hedderwick! Now what in the name of thunder . . . ?”

---

Thanking Gibaud for his help, Meredith parted from him at the steps of the Commissariat, and for the second time that day headed for the Villa Paloma. A dozen questions were queueing up in his mind demanding attention. If it was L’Hirondelle that they’d seen moored under the rocks at Cap Martin (and Meredith felt sure it was), had it made the trip with Mrs. Hedderwick’s permission? And who exactly had been aboard her? In the flurry of their attempt to detain the launch, Meredith had only caught a fleeting glimpse of the figure so frantically casting off. In the rays of his torch the man’s features had been indistinguishable. One thing was certain. There must have been at least two men aboard the craft, for even as the fellow in the stern was loosing the painter the engine had been started up amidships. O.K. Accept a maximum of two. The question remained---who? Latour? Bourmin? But could the latter have got over from Beaulieu? Latour then?

Meredith clicked his fingers. Heavens, yes! Hadn’t Miss Westmacott mentioned his mysterious, nocturnal sallies from the villa? And did Latour on these occasions make for the Hirondelle? Reason---he was tied up, not only with the counterfeiting gang, but with the cigarette racket. Perhaps Blampignon was wrong. Perhaps the same gang was responsible for both forms of criminal activity. Well, he knew what his next move must be. He’d get Mrs. Hedderwick’s permission to examine the launch in the hope of picking up a clue that would transmute his assumption into a proven fact.

Ten minutes later he was sitting opposite the widow in the Chinese room. Although somewhat surprised to see him back again so soon at the villa, Nesta answered his questions both promptly and frankly. The facts that emerged were these:---

1. Apart from herself, two other members of the household had the keys to L’Hirondelle’s engine-casing and cabins---Shenton and Latour.

2. Both had permission to use the launch when they wished, though if L’Hirondelle had been used at night Mrs. Hedderwick knew nothing about it. She certainly had no idea it was out on Saturday night.

3. Mrs. Hedderwick had a few guests in on Saturday night and the party hadn’t broken up until after 1 a.m. Shenton was present throughout. But Latour left the villa shortly after dinner.

So much for that, thought Meredith, as he strolled down the Avenue St. Michel on his way back to the harbour. Three people had keys of the launch---two had an alibi for Saturday night. So, ipso facto, everything pointed to Latour. And the man with him was either Bourmin or A. N. Other, who so far hadn’t come under suspicion.

But the question remained---what the deuce was Latour doing out at Cap Martin? Landing contraband? But no contraband had been dumped near the mooring-place, and the full cargo of illicit cigarettes had been found on the smugglers’ launch before they’d had time to split up the consignment among the smaller craft. Was there a woman in the case? Was the other member of the crew a female?

Still pondering over these tantalizing problems Meredith arrived back at the steps of the Commissariat de Police. Luckily Gibaud was still in the building and more than ready to accompany Meredith back to the harbour. On their way down through the cavernous alleys of the Old Town, Meredith brought his French colleague up-to-date with the progress of his enquiry.

“And what exactly do you want me for?” asked Gibaud, when Meredith had concluded his report.

“Well, it struck me that somebody may have seen the Hirondelle being boarded on Saturday night. Always a few loafers hanging around the quayside. We might be able to pick up a description of the crew who took her out of harbour. I reckon she left somewhere between ten and midnight. In the meantime I’m going to take a snoop round the launch herself. The old girl’s loaned me the keys and given me full permission to do as I please. I reckon her readiness to help places Mrs. Hedderwick beyond suspicion.”

Turning into the Quai Monleon, Meredith swung right to continue on his way along the harbour-arm, leaving Gibaud to start his enquiries among the many bars and cafés along the waterfront. A couple of minutes later Meredith was aboard L’Hirondelle and his investigations were under way. The Inspector was no nautical man. He’d only a layman’s knowledge of things maritime, but even he was able to appreciate the trim and graceful lines, the excellent finish and surprising roominess of the launch. Unlocking the door to the main cabin amidships, Meredith quickly began to examine the various bunks and lockers on the look-out for anything that might suggest some secret or concealed compartment. Gradually, with his customary efficiency and caution, he combed through every nook and cranny of the boat, until he was satisfied that every cubic foot of space had been accounted for. In the cockpit aft he sounded and took a dip of the twin petrol-tanks. In a gloomy recess off the for’ard cabin, discovering a fair-sized tank, he lifted the galvanized lid and flashed his torch inside it. But again there was nothing to rouse his suspicions. The tank, as one might have expected, was filled, not with packets of Chesterfields or Lucky Strike, but drinking water! He even thrust an arm down the bell-mouthed ventilators that projected through the cabin roof. But all to no avail. At the end of an hour’s meticulous, high-pressure search, he was forced to admit that there was absolutely nothing suspicious about the launch’s design or lay-out.

He stumbled, in fact, on only one small clue. Under a bunk in the for’ard cabin he unearthed a half-filled crate of empty wine bottles labelled Nuits St. George. And thinking back to Saturday night Meredith recalled that the empty bottle they’d noticed on the rocks at Cap Martin had borne the same label. Nothing startling, of course, but at least it helped to corroborate his belief that the launch lying up under the umbrella pines was the Hirondelle.

Relocking the cabin and engine-casing, he was just clambering up on to the quayside when he saw Gibaud coming at a brisk pace along the harbour-arm. Guessing from the Inspector’s hasty approach that he’d got something to tell him, Meredith hurried forward to meet his colleague.

“Well,” he demanded eagerly, “any luck?”

Gibaud nodded.

“The devil’s own if you ask me! Latour was seen by two witnesses boarding the Hirondelle about ten-thirty on Saturday night. I picked up the information from a couple of longshoremen in one of the waterfront bistros. No doubt about it. They’ve often seen and spoken to the fellow. As a matter of fact, they seemed to know quite a bit about him.”

“You mean this isn’t the first time they’ve spotted Latour boarding the launch?”

“Far from it. Apparently these nocturnal trips in the Hirondelle have been going on for about two months---at least once or twice a week.”

“The deuce they have!” exclaimed Meredith as they set off in step back along the wide stone pier towards the town. “Have your witnesses any idea why Latour chooses to put out of harbour after dark?”

Gibaud chuckled with cynical amusement.

“Well, I can tell you what he told them and leave you to judge whether he was telling the truth or not. Wasn’t it Hitler who said ‘the bigger the lie the greater the chance of it being believed’? Latour obviously works on the same principle.”

“How do you mean?”

“Guess what he told these fellows! That he was painting a series of pictures depicting the various coast towns at night---street illuminations and all that as seen from off-shore.”

“And knowing as we do now that he couldn’t paint a damn picture . . .” Meredith whistled. “No question that he was up to some sort of skullduggery. Tell me---last Saturday night---was Latour the only person seen boarding the launch?”

“No. He had a companion. According to my witnesses the same companion who always accompanied him on these shifty expeditions. An elderly, white-bearded man, in a long black cloak and wide-brimmed black sombrero.”

“Good heavens,” grunted Meredith. “Sounds like the villain in an old-fashioned cloak-and-dagger drama!”

“To you---yes,” agreed Gibaud with a smile. “But down here on the Midi we’re accustomed to this kind of sartorial eccentricity. Personally I don’t consider there’s anything really odd about the old fellow’s get-up.”

“And his identity?” asked Meredith eagerly.

“There, I’m afraid, we’ve run up against a blank wall. The longshoremen haven’t the faintest idea who he is. They’ve never been able to see his features under the shadow of his outsized hat. On the few occasions when Latour’s stopped to exchange a word with them, his companion’s always hurried on without speaking.”

“Puzzling,” commented Meredith.

“Not to a Frenchman!” retorted Gibaud with a twinkling glance. “You can guess what the locals have to say about it.”

Cherchez la femme, eh?”

“Precisely. The white beard, the long cloak, the sombrero---in their opinion the perfect disguise beneath which to conceal the . . . er . . . shall we say? tell-tale idiosyncrasies of the female form. And personally,” added Gibaud as they crossed once more into the Quai Monleon, “I think they’ve hit on a very possible explanation!”

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