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13: Clue on Cap Martin

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Author Topic: 13: Clue on Cap Martin  (Read 35 times)
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« on: April 18, 2023, 10:54:29 am »

DURING the next twenty-four hours, after the week-end spurt, Meredith’s investigations dropped, so to speak, into bottom gear. No further developments. No further information. No word of the missing Latour, for whose apprehension a general call had gone out to all police stations in the district. Yet Meredith was far from idle. A further exhaustible interview with Mrs. Hedderwick had enabled him to draw up a series of fairly comprehensive case-histories of the various members of her household. All the womenfolk and this fellow they were always bumping into, Bill Dillon, seemed, on the face of it, to be utterly beyond suspicion.

But in the case of Tony Shenton, Meredith hesitated to make up his mind. He had no real reason for this hesitation, just a hunch that the fellow, whom he’d cross-questioned on his first visit to the villa, was a bad egg. There was something shifty and slick about him; a decided whiff of the playboy that immediately put the Inspector on his guard. He had the curious impression that the young man’s face was familiar. But if so---why? Meredith smiled to himself. Well, whenever a C.I.D. bloke claimed to recognize a face it was usually because the chap in question had a criminal record. A cynical admission, perhaps, but that was how it ticked.

Was it worth, he wondered, following up this hunch and air-mailing a photo of Shenton to the Records Department at the Yard? Time and again he’d known these long shots in the dark to find their billet. What was it his old mentor “Tubby” Hart used to say? “The conscientious detective leaves no stone unturned and no avenue unexplored in the interests of his investigation.”

Meredith argued thus:---Latour had been living at the villa under false pretences. Now he was suspected of having a tie-up with a forgery gang and, having been tipped the wink concerning the recent activities of the police, he’d scapa-ed in a hurry. A young man living in the same villa has a face that seems familiar to a member of the C.I.D. And if that didn’t add up to something pretty significant then pigs had wings!

By midday that Tuesday morning, a photo of Shenton, together with the Inspector’s covering remarks, was on its way to the Yard. The matter was marked----Urgent.

---

For Acting Sergeant Strang that particular Tuesday marked a blissful and memorable hiatus between two slices of high-pressure activity. Meredith, engrossed in a routine check-up of the evidence now to hand, was more than tolerably disposed to let his subordinate off the official leash. Much as he appreciated the lad’s keenness and efficiency there were times when his high-spirited chatter and unbounded zeal were a trifle distracting. Perhaps, too, a certain deep-bedded sentimental streak in the Inspector’s make-up was partly responsible for his decision to let Freddy have a day off-duty. A day that Freddy was determined to devote entirely to Dilys Westmacott. Provided, of course, that she was prepared to co-operate.

After their prearranged meeting on the terrace of the Menton Casino their resuscitated friendship got away to a flying start. And with Dilys’ co-operation assured, they agreed to meet directly after lunch and take a walk out to Cap Martin.

The cloudless weather was still holding. The air had a sparkle in it like a dry and tingling wine. The blue waters of the Mediterranean, shading to exquisite purples and greens close inshore, lapped at that sun-drenched coastline as gently as a kitten at a saucer of milk. Beneath the umbrella pines the shadows lay cool and heavy, with here and there a band of brilliant light scored across the undulating road along the edge of the cape. Clear of the pines the couple deserted the road and began to clamber out over the rocks to where the tip of the headland plunged like a dagger into the sea. A few fishermen were perched like large black gulls here and there along the waters edge. Chancing to notice them, Dilys enquired anxiously:

“Are you keen on fishing, Freddy?”

“Me? Good lord, no!” retorted Freddy scornfully. “I’m all for an active life. Can’t see the point of sitting on a large damp rock, baiting a hook with a large damp worm in the forlorn hope of catching a small damp fish. Besides, I haven’t got the right temperament---far too impatient. Daresay you’ve noticed it.”

“Wouldn’t ‘impetuous’ be a better word?” smiled Dilys. “But I’m glad you’re no angler. Tony’s mad about it.”

“Tony?”

“Tony Shenton---you met him yesterday when you were asking all those questions up at the villa.”

“Oh, I get you---the big blond chap who runs that crimson Vedette. Honestly, Dilys, I can’t say I liked the cut of his jib.” Then suddenly recollecting the scene he’d witnessed in the garage-yard, he added unthinkingly: “Of course he’s a fisherman. I remember now. He had a rod and creel with him at the time.”

Dilys dumped herself down on the nearest rock and stared at him in bewilderment.

“What on earth are you talking about? I’d no idea you’d met Tony before yesterday. Am I allowed to ask where you met him, or is that another of your wretched professional secrets?”

“Oh good lord, no!” protested Freddy breezily. “It’s all quite simple and above-board. You see, I happened to be----” He gaped like a gaffed pike, swallowed hard and looked at Dilys with an expression of anguished dismay. “Oh heck! I’ve properly put my foot in it this time. Don’t quite know what to say. It’s damned awkward. You see, I shouldn’t actually have been there . . . I mean, eavesdropping like that . . . quite definitely a bad show. But the point is . . .”

And courageously taking the bull by the horns, Freddy blurted out a full confession of his early morning patrol in the Avenue St. Michel. And realizing that he’d been there, not by chance, but in the hope of seeing something of her, Dilys was naturally flattered and delighted. Profoundly relieved to find that she wasn’t going to tear a strip off him, Freddy regaled her with the full story of what had transpired outside the garage.

“You mean that all Tony had got in that basket was an ordinary lump of rock?” asked Dilys incredulously.

“Just that. Curious, eh? The poor mutt must be ga-ga or something. Does he often nip out during the early hours for a spot of fishing?”

“Oh, about once or twice a week. It’s always puzzled me. Fishing and Tony don’t seem to go together.”

“How long has he been interested in this odious form of sport?” asked Freddy, idly picking up a small pebble to throw at an empty wine bottle that was stuck up precariously on a nearby rock.

“Oh, it’s quite a recent fad of his.”

Freddy groped round for a second suitably-sized missile.

“How do you mean by recent?”

“Well, it must have been about a couple of months ago when he started----” Dilys broke off and glanced at Freddy suspiciously. “Look here, you wretch, are these questions the outcome of natural curiosity or are they part of a very subtle cross-examination?” She sighed. “You’re a bit of a trial, Freddy. Can’t you ever forget that you’re a policeman?”

“Sorry,” grinned Freddy. “Force of habit, I’m afraid.” He picked up a third pebble and this time, more by luck than judgement, hit the wine bottle square amidships. He uttered a whoop of triumph. “Got it! Third go. Not so duff, eh?”

“But terribly thoughtless,” pointed out Dilys practically. “Now there’ll be hundreds of nasty jagged bits of----” She broke off and stared at him in alarm: “Freddy! What is it? What’s the matter?”

He was standing there transfixed, his eyes glued to a spot a few yards ahead of him across the intervening jumble of grey, water-smooth boulders. With an effort he withdrew his gaze from the object that had so unexpectedly riveted his attention and said with a reassuring smile:

“Oh . . . er . . . nothing really. Just an odd little idea that came into my head. Nothing to do with you, I assure you. Just something that started up a pretty startling train of thought.”

“The great detective at work!” exclaimed Dilys teasingly. “I shall have to get used to these moments of inspired revelation, Freddy. At present I find them rather shattering.” She raised her hands to be helped up from the rock. “Now what about concentrating on me for a change.”

With an amiable chuckle, Freddy grasped her hands and hauled her to her feet.

“I’m a whale of a chap for doing anything that comes easily! As a matter of fact . . .” he glanced around cautiously, “if it wasn’t for these wide open spaces . . .”

He made a hurried attempt to snatch a kiss but, losing his balance, slipped sideways and sprawled in undignified embarrassment at his enamorata’s feet. A bungled performance, to say the least of it, but one that Freddy more than redeemed by a masterly and highly successful repeat performance under the screening branches of the umbrella pines. Thereafter he saved shoe leather. For as they returned, tired but happy, along the sun-baked promenade, Freddy walked on air.

---

Taking reluctant leave of Dilys outside the Villa Paloma, Freddy hurried back through the town to the Hotel Louis. Racked with impatience he went up to Meredith’s room and rapped on the door.

Qui est là?” sang out Meredith in his stubbornly insular accent.

“Strang, sir. Can I have a word with you?”

“O.K. The door’s not locked.”

Meredith, coatless, with his shirt-sleeves rolled up, was sitting in an aura of tobacco smoke, poring over the various documents that littered the table before him. On seeing Strang he grinned broadly.

“Well, my little Casanova, how’s life been treating you? To judge by the hectic flush and dishevelled hair I should say you’d had a very interesting afternoon. Nice walk, eh?”

Freddy smiled sheepishly.

“Bang on, sir---thanks. But I didn’t actually barge in here to worry you with my private affairs.”

“No worry, Sergeant, I assure you. As your superior officer I’ve naturally been following the progress of your little romance with the keenest interest. But if you didn’t come here to talk about that young woman, then what the----?”

Freddy broke in eagerly:

“Look here, sir, do you mind if I borrow the car?”

“What on earth for?”

“Well, sir, I’ve got a hunch and I want to follow it up. I may be right off the rails, but I’ve a sneaking idea that I’ve hit on the modus operandi of this forgery business.”

“The devil you have!” whistled Meredith. “Just like that, eh? O.K. Sergeant. Pull up a chair and give me the gen. Any sort of hunch at this stage of our investigation is just about synonymous with manna in the wilderness. Right---fire ahead!”

For some fifteen minutes Freddy talked and Meredith, save for an occasional pertinent question, listened intently. At the end of that time he sprang to his feet, rolled down his sleeves and reached for his jacket. Then, unhooking his hat from the door, he clapped it on his head and rapped out:

“Nip down to the garage, m’lad, and get the car out at once. I’m coming along with you. I’ve just got to tidy up these papers and get ’em under lock and key. Meet me outside the front entrance in thirty seconds. O.K.---jump to it!”

As Meredith was hurrying by the reception-desk in the hotel lobby, however, he was intercepted by the maître d’hôtel.

“An urgent ’phone-call for you, M’sieur. I’ve had it put through as usual to my private office. It’s Inspector Gibaud ringing from the Commissariat.”

“Thanks,” nodded Meredith. “I’ll take it at once. By the way, I want you to do me a favour.”

“Certainly, M’sieur---anything you wish.”

“I want you to dig out a bottle of Nuits St. George---an empty bottle. Can do?”

The maître d’hôtel goggled.

“An empty bottle, M’sieur?”

“That’s the idea,” nodded Meredith.

“Very well, M’sieur. It is certainly a strange request, but I will fetch it for you at once.”

When, five minutes later, Meredith, with the wine bottle under his arm, went through the swing-doors to where Strang was waiting in the car, the latter realized at once that something was wrong. The Inspector looked as if he’d just been forced to swallow the juice of an unripe lemon.

As Meredith clambered sullenly into the driving-seat, Strang asked politely:

“Anything the matter, sir?”

“The matter!” snorted Meredith. “I’ll say there is.” He slammed in a gear with a vicious jerk and let out the clutch. “I ought to have thought of it, Sergeant. I’m losing my grip. Anno domini, I suppose. Not that that’s any excuse.”

“I don’t get it, sir.”

“Don’t you? Then I’ll put you wise. Gibaud has rung through to say that he’s just received information from some blokes down at the harbour that the Hirondelle put out to sea last night about eleven p.m. His witnesses swear that one of the men to board her was Latour.”

“Latour!” exclaimed Strang. “But I thought----”

“So did we all!” retorted Meredith. “That’s just where we tripped up. We naturally thought Latour would have cleared out of Menton. Instead, like the sly devil he is, he’s evidently been lying low right under our confounded noses.”

“He was alone, sir?”

“He was not!” snapped Meredith. “He was accompanied by that curious chap in the long black cloak that I was telling you about last night. Heaven knows, I could kick myself. I ought to have got Gibaud to post a chap on the quayside to keep the launch under observation. That’s the second time we’ve let Latour slip through our fingers. At any rate I’ve fixed for a watch to be posted down there tonight.”

“But look here, sir!” cried Strang, as Meredith swung the car into the Avenue de Verdun and headed for the Promenade du Midi. “This unexpected bit of news ties up perfectly with this new theory of mine. I mean if Latour took the boat out last night, it would account for----”

Meredith cut in with a sudden lifting of his previous ill-temper.

“By Jove---yes! That particular point hadn’t occurred to me.” Adding with seeming irrelevance: “By the way, did you notice what had happened to the bottle we spotted on Saturday night? You must have passed the spot where the launch was moored on your walk this afternoon.”

Freddy nodded solemnly.

“I did, sir. It was gone!

Meredith gave a long low whistle; then, with a sudden burst of optimism, declared:

“By heaven, Strang! I think we’ve got ’em. We’ve got ’em by the short hairs, m’lad.”

---

Cap Martin; the Villa Valdeblore at Beaulieu; then over to Menton and the Villa Paloma---it was long past dinner time when Meredith and Strang arrived back at the Hotel Louis. But a word to the maître d’hôtel and the couple were soon sitting down in the deserted dining-room to an excellent if belated meal. They were in a jubilant mood; a mood that gained lustre from the bottle of Beaujolais that Meredith had ordered to celebrate the occasion. Their evening’s investigations had brought in results that, in the light of Meredith’s previous depression, seemed little short of miraculous. It was Freddy’s hunch that had set the ball rolling, and their subsequent enquiries at the Villas Valdeblore and Paloma had increased its impetus. Suddenly, as if by magic, a series of uncorrelated clues had clicked together to form a clear and revealing pattern. Events which had previously baffled them could now be explained away with startling simplicity. It was always the case, thought Meredith---once one had discovered the solution to a problem it was hard to believe that a problem had ever existed.

But the Inspector was in no mood to waste time on an analysis of their good fortune. Although it was then past ten o’clock he was far too keyed-up to call a halt to the day’s investigations. Hastily finishing his coffee, Meredith nodded to Strang and together they hurried out to the car.

A three-minute dash through the emptying streets brought them down to the harbour. The constable whom Gibaud had detailed to keep watch on the Hirondelle was standing back in the deep shadows formed by the high stone breakwater of the harbour-arm, only a few yards from where the launch was riding at her moorings.

Eh bien?” demanded Meredith.

Pas de personne, M’sieur.”

Bon!” said Meredith curtly.

It wasn’t exactly a loquacious exchange but one, thought Meredith, that was well within the scope of his linguistic abilities. At any rate it told him all he wanted to know. He turned to Strang.

“O.K. Sergeant---let’s get aboard.”

To Meredith, of course, this exhaustive search was a repetition of his previous day’s exploration aboard the Hirondelle. But now, convinced that he’d overlooked some vital clue, his investigations were even more prolonged and meticulous. Flicking on his torch and ordering the Sergeant to do the same, he unlocked the cabins and, together, they got down to work.

At the end of half-an-hour, puzzled and dejected, they’d arrived nowhere. Meredith glared at Strang and shook his head.

“Can’t make it out, Sergeant. I could have sworn our theory was a winner. I’m damned if I can see where we’ve slipped up. After all, when I searched the launch yesterday I didn’t know what I was looking for. Just any sort of clue, eh? But now we’re looking for a specific object that, ipso facto, must occupy a specific amount of space. And that definitely limits the area of our search. It’s got me hipped. Don’t mind admitting it.”

“Going to call it a day, sir?”

“No, m’lad, I’m not,” retorted Meredith with a stubborn look. “We’re going to start all over again. Come on, let’s get for’ard and work our way back to the cockpit. We’ve all night before us.”

This wasn’t the first time that Meredith’s obstinacy and thoroughness had brought home the bacon. Some twenty minutes after they’d started their second examination they hit on the solution to the problem that had been puzzling them.

“Well, well, well!” chuckled Meredith, delightedly. “What do you know about that, Sergeant? Ingenious, eh? Must give the devil his due. You realize what this discovery means, of course?”

“That we’ve broken the racket wide open, sir.”

“Just that, I reckon. Blampignon’s now in a position to draw up the necessary warrants of arrest. A useful and highly satisfactory day’s work, m’lad. Except for one outstanding exception we’ve now got the gang more or less in the bag.”

“The exception being ‘Chalky’ Cobbett, sir?”

“Exactly, Strang. The man we were sent over here to trace and apprehend. Disappointing, eh? I hate having a loose end lying around in a case.” Meredith turned aside to lock the door of the for’ard cabin. “Still, sufficient unto the day is the progress thereof. We mustn’t expect miracles. Ready, Sergeant? Time we got back and caught up on our sleep. We’re all lined up for a pretty exhaustive pow-wow tomorrow with our good friend Blampignon. I guess he’s going to be tickled to death!”

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