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15: The Shuffling Cockney

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Author Topic: 15: The Shuffling Cockney  (Read 43 times)
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« on: April 18, 2023, 12:43:25 pm »

BACK once more in Gibaud’s office the little group of officials went into another extended huddle. They still had to decide on the best scheme for the arrest of the wanted men. In Meredith’s opinion it would be fatal to pull in Shenton and Bourmin before they’d discovered the whereabouts of Latour and the elusive “Chalky”. It was certain the couple would get to hear of the arrests, and, the moment they had, they’d melt away like a couple of snowflakes on a griddle. True, Latour had already cleared out of the villa because he suspected the police had learnt something of the gang’s activities---but even Latour had no precise idea of just how much the police had succeeded in finding out. After all, hadn’t he taken the launch out after his flit from the villa? And hadn’t Shenton collected the latest batch of forged notes only that morning? Latour and Cobbett might be on their guard. They might even lie low for a period. But it was obvious that, at present, they’d no intention of abandoning their very profitable enterprise. As for Bourmin and Shenton, they were still blissfully ignorant of the fact that they’d come under suspicion. They had absolutely no reason to suspect that they’d been linked up either with the racket or with each other.

“So what is it you have to suggest, mon ami?” asked Blampignon, after an exhaustive discussion of this somewhat ticklish problem.

“Well, it’s not for me to say, my dear chap. The actual arrests are your pigeon. But weighing up the pros and cons I’m against any immediate action. Risky, I admit. If we postpone the arrests of Bourmin and Shenton, say, for forty-eight hours, then we stand a chance, in the interim, of laying our hands on Latour and Cobbett. On the other hand if Bourmin and Shenton do happen to find out that we’ve got a line on ’em, then this very delay would enable them to get cracking while the going’s still good. There’s always a chance that they might pick up information about our recent investigations in the district---our interest in the Hirondelle, for example. It boils down to this. If we delay a couple of days we stand a chance of pulling in all four of ’em---or, if our luck’s out, of allowing the whole boiling to slip through our fingers. That’s our problem in a nutshell. But I must leave the final decision to you and Gibaud.”

Eh bien,” nodded Blampignon, still obviously vacillating. “What is your idea about this, Gibaud?”

Gibaud shrugged.

“Two birds in the hand are worth four in the bush,” he declared with an oracular air. “On the other hand . . . I’m pretty sure Meredith’s got the right idea. Yes---take it all round, I’m for delaying the arrests.”

Bon!” exclaimed Blampignon, his good-natured face suddenly wreathed in smiles. “Then I will agree to it. We will allow ourselves forty-eight hours in which to find Latour and Cobbett. It is what you call a long shot, eh? But, tiens! That is how we will decide.”

Unrealized by the little group in Gibaud’s office, it was a decision that was to bear in its train many unexpected and unhappy consequences.


Before separating for lunch the Inspectors decided on the line of their future investigation. Gibaud made himself responsible for the day and night watch that was to be kept on L’Hirondelle. He’d already drawn up a duty roster and detailed a couple of plain-clothes men from the local force to carry out the job. The extended search for Latour and Cobbett was to be undertaken by Gibaud himself, in concert with Meredith and Strang. They arranged to meet at the Commissariat at two o’clock.

After a hasty lunch, therefore, the Englishmen found themselves once again in Gibaud’s office deep in discussion.

“I don’t know how you feel about it,” said Meredith, “but in my opinion, we ought to make a house-to-house comb-out along the waterfront. At least, for a start. After all, if ‘Chalky’s’ been making frequent trips aboard the launch, it’s pretty well certain that he must have his hide-out in the vicinity of the harbour. Far easier and far less risky if he was more or less on the spot. Agreed?”

Gibaud nodded.

“And our Number One Priority, I imagine, is the Maison Turini. We know Latour’s been making contact there with old Madame Grignot, the concierge. And since birds of a feather----”

“Exactly,” cut in Meredith. “There’s a fair chance that ‘Chalky’s’ been very successfully tucked away in one of the apartments---either by himself or with some unsuspecting family in the tenement. Well, there’s our starting-point, my dear chap. If we draw a blank there, we’ll damn well search every likely house and café along the quayside.”

A swift run in the car brought them to the Quai de Bonaparte, and a few minutes later, after a further exhaustive cross-examination of Madame Grignot, their search of the building was under way. It was a long and arduous task demanding infinite tact and patience. The onus of the work naturally fell on Gibaud since all the various interrogations had to be carried on in French---but Meredith and Strang were by no means idle. Not only was it necessary to cross-question the inmates of the various apartments, but a thorough search of every likely hiding-place was equally essential. After all, Latour might have bribed some occupant to keep his or her mouth shut about the presence of the wanted man, and their knock on the door might have sent the fellow scuttling into some prearranged place of concealment.

From the first floor they moved up to the second; from the second to the third and fourth; from the fourth to the extensive cellars that formed a kind of semi-basement to the building. En route Mam’selle Chounet was, for the second time, put through the hoop. But she, like Madame Grignot and every other occupant of the place, swore that she’d never seen anybody answering to “Chalky’s” description either in or near the Maison Turini. At the end of three hours’ solid and unremitting labour they were forced to admit that they’d got precisely nowhere!

Dropping into a nearby café for a hasty snack and a well-deserved apéritif they set out to extend their enquiries along the Quai de Bonaparte. Two hours later, depressed and wilting, they moved along to the Quai Laurenti. But always to be met with the same blank stares and emphatic headshakes; the same negative answers and infuriating irrelevances. For a chap who must have been passing constantly up and down the quayside on his way to and from L’Hirondelle, probably for weeks on end, “Chalky” Cobbett appeared to have taken on the miraculous attributes of the Invisible Man! In brief---nobody had seen him in the district, far less spoken to him or made his acquaintance. What was more, nobody had ever heard any gossip about the fellow.

It was this last factor that really puzzled Meredith. “Chalky” may have been a topline forger, but he was certainly no linguist. It would be utterly impossible for him to conceal the fact that he was English, or at any rate a foreigner. Moreover, “Chalky” was a pint-sized sort of chap---a little over five feet in his socks---with that dead white complexion which had originally earned him his nickname. And if an undersized, white-faced little rat of a foreigner could have been wandering about this district for weeks on end without causing comment then something was very definitely screwy. There seemed to be only one logical answer to the enigma. “Chalky” hadn’t been noticed along the waterfront for the very simple reason that he’d not been living near the harbour. In short, their investigations had been a damnable waste of time!

It was long after dusk before the three officials retraced their steps along the Quai Laurenti and headed for the parked car. Jaded, leg-weary, and disheartened, they spoke little as they jogged by the garishly-lit little shops and cafés that shouldered each other along the gently curving waterfront. Even for a Mediterranean night the air was exceptionally clear and balmy. Quite a number of people were strolling up and down the broad pavements or sitting over their drinks at the little marble-topped tables outside the cafés. Pausing a moment to light his pipe, Meredith temporarily dropped behind his companions, who, busy with their own reflections, plodded on towards the car.

The Inspector was just flicking out the spent match, when a small boy, chased by an irate, gesticulating woman, shot out of a nearby pâtisserie like a greyhound from a trap. In view of the lad’s violently masticating jaws, it was pretty obvious that the owner had caught him pilfering her stock-in-trade. His precipitate appearance on the pavement resulted in a head-on collision with a bent, wizened little man who was shuffling by the shop with his eyes seemingly fixed on the ground. The outcome of the impact, from Meredith’s point-of-view, was startling. In a flash of ill-temper the little fellow made a wild attempt to fetch the urchin a clout on the head.

“ ’Ere! Watch aht!—blast yer!”

In the circumstances this censure was admittedly justifiable but why the devil, wondered Meredith, had the old man lashed out in English? English, moreover, that had about it the unmistakable clipped and nasal twang of the Cockney? He swung round sharply and took a closer look at the elderly white-bearded figure. Then he suffered a shock. There was no mistaking the man’s features as, muttering under his breath, he started off again on his interrupted shuffle along the brightly-lit footpath. It was M’sieur Grignot---the half-witted husband of the concierge at the Maison Turini!

So Grignot could speak English, could he? Cockney English! And when the need arose his mind could work as quickly and clearly as the next man’s. What the deuce did it mean? That Grignot’s insanity was assumed? That the fellow, for all his mumbling and chuckling and head-nodding, was merely laying on an act?

And then, like a bolt from the blue, Meredith hit on the explanation for the old fellow’s behaviour; a startling theory that whipped him into a mood of ever-mounting excitement. Good God, yes! It all added up. The simulated craziness; the inarticulate babblings; the uncomprehending glances---what better alibi for a man who wished to conceal his identity? Frenchman by name but Englishman by birth, eh? Simple to hide the fact that he couldn’t speak or understand a word of French behind this façade of idiocy. And hadn’t Latour been in the habit of paying regular visits to M’sieur and Madame Grignot in their little glass-fronted cubby-hole? And wasn’t the Maison Turini within a stone’s throw of the harbour? Above all, wasn’t this M’sieur Grignot a pocket-sized little chip of a chap, who displayed, in moments of forgetfulness, an easy command of Cockney vituperation?

By heaven, yes! There was absolutely no doubt about it. The search for the elusive “Chalky” was at an end. He could be picked up now whenever they wished at the Maison Turini!


By ten-thirty that evening, after a dash over to Nice, concerted plans had been worked out for the arrest of the wanted men. The dead-line was fixed for ten-thirty the following morning. Blampignon was to pick up Bourmin at Beaulieu, and a ’phone-call had been put through to Colonel Malloy at the Villa Valdeblore asking him to make sure that the chauffeur would be on the premises at the appointed time. Meredith, Strang and Gibaud were to deal with Cobbett at the Maison Turini; and, immediately after his arrest, they were to go direct to the Villa Paloma to pull in Shenton.

Over the providential and unexpected discovery of “Chalky’s” whereabouts Blampignon was jubilant.

“You have no doubt about this, mon ami? There is no chance that we arrest an innocent man?”

Meredith shook his head emphatically.

“None whatever! The devil only knows why I didn’t rumble the trick before. Of course the beard and the olive-skinned complexion helped to pull the wool over my eyes. His assumed craziness did the rest. Clever, you’ll admit. Latour knew he could trust the old woman, and I imagine when he fixed for her to take up that concierge job at the Maison Turini, he kidded the owners of the place that she was actually married to this halfwit. All ‘Chalky’ had to do as a preliminary was to let his beard grow and darken that dead-white pan of his with some suitable stain. The idea of acting ga-ga, of course, was to overcome the lingo difficulty and prevent people from asking awkward questions. Ourselves included! Neat, eh? Naturally when we made enquiries this afternoon to find out if anybody had seen or heard anything of a five-foot, white-faced Englishman in the district we drew a blank. But I’ll wager every darn witness we questioned had seen Madame Grignot’s crazy ‘husband’ shuffling and muttering around the streets. If you ask me, ‘Chalky’ had hit on the all but perfect alibi. If it hadn’t been for that youngster . . . well, the chances are we’d still be groping. Bourmin, Shenton and now Cobbett. Three in the bag, eh? A pity we can’t lay our hands on Latour. Can’t bear to have loose ends lying around and Latour’s one of ’em. However . . .” Meredith lifted his shoulders, “this looks like the wind-up of my assignment down here. And I don’t mind telling you, my dear Blampignon, that I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. The entente cordiale, eh? I shall miss your sunny, Provençal smile back at the Yard!”

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