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20: The Bar St. Raphael

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Author Topic: 20: The Bar St. Raphael  (Read 48 times)
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« on: April 19, 2023, 07:50:06 am »

AFTER an excellent dinner at the Hotel Louis, Meredith suggested that the three of them should forgather in his bedroom for a brief, informal pow-wow before the party broke up. To this Gibaud readily agreed, but as they were crossing the hall en route for Meredith’s room they were waylaid by the reception-clerk.

“M’sieur Gibaud?”

“That’s me,” nodded the inspector.

“You’re wanted on the telephone, M’sieur.”

“Thanks.” He turned to Meredith. “It’s probably the Desk Sergeant. I told him where he could get in touch with me. I’ll be up in a moment.”

Once in his room, Meredith asked:

“By the way, Strang, what about the effects collected from the body?”

“I’ve listed the articles as you said, sir. Practically nothing in the pockets---unmarked white handkerchief, small pocketknife, matches and a packet of French cigarettes. That’s about the lot.”

“And in the rucksack?”

“I’ve got it in my room, sir. Empty quart-sized Thermos, two or three screwed up paper-bags and some pieces of orange peel.”

“Umph---tidy-minded chap, eh? Wasn’t going to litter up the countryside. Funny he should think of a practical thing like that a few moments before he chucked himself over that precipice.” He swung round. “Ah, come in, my dear Gibaud! Not been called away, I hope. I’ve had this bottle of cognac sent up especially in your honour.”

“No, it’s nothing exactly urgent. The Desk Sergeant, as I anticipated. I’d set one of my worthies on to a routine check-up round the Menton bars and cafés. He’s just slammed in a pretty hot report.”

“A check-up---on what?”

“Shenton,” replied Gibaud tersely. “It struck me that when he left the villa after dinner last night he might have headed for one of the local high-spots.”

“And he did?”

“The Bar St. Raphael.”

“Where’s that?”

“A small chromium-plated dive off the Rue Partouneau. According to the proprietor it’s one of Shenton’s stamping-grounds. He showed up there about ten past nine, so I reckon he must have driven straight there from the Villa Paloma.”

“But how exactly is this going to----?”

“Wait!” cautioned Gibaud with a smile. “I haven’t come to it yet. About twenty to ten a fellow came in and joined Shenton at the bar. They had several drinks and left the place together at about ten-thirty.”

“But, confound it!” said Meredith testily, “I still don’t see----”

“Don’t you?” grinned Gibaud with irritating complacency. “Then, let me put you wise. The fellow who joined Shenton at the bar was unquestionably young Dillon!

“Dillon!” exclaimed Meredith and Strang in unison.

“Now do you get the implication? Shenton drove Dillon back to the villa in the Vedette and then parked the car, for some enigmatic reason, at the corner of the Avenue St. Michel. When Picard passed the car about eleven, Shenton was sitting inside it. Why? Was he waiting for somebody? If so, who? Dillon? Dillon’s wife? The Westmacott girl? And why in the name of thunder did Dillon meet Shenton, presumably by appointment, in the Bar St. Raphael?”

“I think I can answer that one,” said Meredith promptly. “Dillon had arranged to meet Shenton to discuss their relationship in regard to Kitty. He probably went there to find out if Shenton was prepared to marry the girl, once her divorce had gone through.”

“Something in that, I admit,” put in Gibaud. “The proprietor mentioned a pretty heated discussion. At one time he thought they were going to fly at each other’s throats. Shenton was evidently in truculent mood. No doubt that by the time he left the bar he was a trifle lit up.”

“Perhaps that’s why he didn’t go straight into the villa, sir,” suggested Strang. “He parked the car so that he could sober up a bit. Maybe when that Picard chap saw him he was sleeping it off.”

“It’s an idea, Sergeant. But as far as we know he never entered the villa last night. The next thing we heard of the Vedette was of its discovery out on Cap Martin.”

“Hey! Wait a bit,” chuckled Gibaud. “I haven’t quite finished putting in my report. The Desk Sergeant was just going to ring me about the Bar St. Raphael incident when a call came in from the local constable at Monti.”

“Monti? Where the devil’s that?” asked Meredith.

“A small mountain village half-way between Menton and Castillon.”

“Well?”

“Shortly before two a.m. in the early hours of this morning a crimson Vedette, with its hood up and side-screens in place, passed through Monti on its way down to Menton.”

Meredith whistled.

“You’d put out a general call for information on this point, eh?”

“Yes---together with the number and description of the car.”

“But what does it mean?” asked Meredith bewildered. “Did the constable notice if there was anybody in the car apart from the driver?”

“Just,” grinned Gibaud. “It evidently came through the village like a hurricane. Just one man at the wheel---that’s all.”

“No hope of a description?”

“None.”

“I see,” mused Meredith. “So after hanging about at the corner of the Avenue St. Michel Shenton must have suddenly taken it into his head to drive up into the mountains. Why?”

“Well, sir,” put in Strang tentatively, “there may not be anything in it . . . but if he was on the Castillon road----”

“The Col de Braus!” broke in Meredith excitedly. “Of course, Sergeant. But what would Shenton be doing up there in the small hours of the morning? I just don’t get it. Strikes me, the more we learn the less we know! Is Shenton alive or dead? That’s the first outstanding question. If dead, then was it Shenton’s body we found at the foot of the Col de Braus? Or was it, as we naturally assumed, Dillon’s? Did Dillon commit suicide after murdering Shenton? Or did Shenton murder Dillon? Or did Latour murder Shenton?” Meredith chuckled ironically. “Good heavens! I could go on like this all night.” He gestured to the glasses set out on the table. “Well, suppose we have a drink and settle down to a further analysis of the known facts. We might in the long run evolve a theory that won’t fall down every time we breathe on it!” He raised his glass. “Well, here’s to us and the solution to this damned tantalizing problem!”

---

Before Meredith was half-way through breakfast the following morning, he was called away twice to answer the telephone in the manager’s private office. The first call was from Blampignon at Nice. He’d been in touch with the Assistant Commissioner at the Yard and the A.C. was quite ready to extend the duration of Meredith’s assignment on the Midi. Had Meredith made any further progress in the case of the missing Shenton? If so could he drive over later that morning to Nice and put in an up-to-the-minute report?

The second call was from Gibaud. Could Meredith get round to the Commissariat at the double? Information had come in that very definitely knocked one of Meredith’s pet theories slap on the head. Which theory? demanded Meredith. But with an irritating laugh Gibaud hung up and left him crackling with suspense.

Hurrying back to the dining-room, the Inspector swallowed down a final cup of coffee and hustled Strang out to the garage to fetch the car. Ten minutes later they were seated in Gibaud’s office, waiting on tenterhooks for the Inspector to hand on the information that had just come in.

“Sorry to drag you round here so bright and early, but it looks as if we’ve managed to pick up a really sensational bit of evidence. About an hour ago police H.Q. at Monte Carlo rang through to ask us if we’d heard anything of a suicide incident up on the Col de Braus. I explained that we’d already been informed and had the matter fully in hand. I asked them how they’d got to hear about the affair. And this, my dear fellow, is where I began to sit up and take notice.”

“Well, go on,” urged Meredith impatiently.

“They claimed to have an informant with them at that moment who’d actually witnessed the incident!”

“What!” cried Meredith. “You mean to say----?”

Gibaud nodded.

“A young chap by the name of Edouard Hamel. They’re sending him over to us at once. But I thought you’d like to have the main details of his deposition before he showed up. The young man, by the way, is a keen amateur botanist. I reckon that’s why he was up near the Col de Braus yesterday morning.”

“But why has he only just reported the incident?” asked Meredith, puzzled.

“I’ll come to that in a minute. The main point is that at the time Hamel was sitting about a couple of hundred yards above the spot where Dillon went over the edge. He was taking a look at the view through his field-glasses. He could see the outer edge of the road below. The inner side, of course, was blocked by the buttress of rock round which the road has been built.”

“So Hamel could see nothing of the parked car---is that what you’re getting at?”

“Exactly,” nodded Gibaud. “So when Dillon came into view on the far side of the road Hamel thought he was alone. He’d no idea the girl was sitting beside the car on the near side. You follow?”

“I’m ahead of you!”

“Right! Well, to cut the cackle and come to the goose. Hamel wasn’t particularly interested in Dillon until he saw him climb the fence. Even then he wasn’t exactly perturbed. But with very natural curiosity he levelled his glasses on the spot and brought the figure into focus. He saw the fellow turn, look back for an instant, then throw up his arms and leap out over the cliff. Now this is the point. As he turned, Hamel got a clear view of the fellow's features---a close up view, in fact, through his binoculars. Now do you see why I referred to this unexpected bit of evidence as sensational?”

“Good God---yes!” exclaimed Meredith, springing to his feet. “He’s in a position to identify the person in question. We’ve only got to confront him with photos of Dillon and Shenton to know, without any shadow of doubt, whose body we’ve got out there in the mortuary! But why the devil didn’t he come forward at once? It would have saved us a helluva lot of idle speculation.”

“Not his fault, poor chap. When he saw what had happened he naturally jumped up and started off down the slope at the double. But he’d only gone a few yards when he tripped over a rock and twisted his ankle. It must have been pretty painful because the poor devil passed out on the spot. He’s evidently picked up a nasty gash on the side of his head, so maybe he also suffered a touch of concussion. That explains, of course, why he never made contact with the girl. By the time he’d come to and hobbled down to the car, the girl was already on her way down to Menton. Unfortunately Hamel couldn’t drive, so he set off down the Escarene road to try and get help. It’s obvious that before you took the same road to search for the body, Hamel must have got beyond the point where you turned off along the mule-track. It also meant that he missed the American on the upper road. Well, to cut a long story short, he eventually fetched up at an isolated cottage and promptly passed out again. He stayed the night there and, this morning, the peasant who owns the place drove him down to Monte Carlo in his mule-cart. And that more or less----” Gibaud broke off, crossed to the window and glanced down into the street. “A police car, eh? This looks like M’sieur Hamel himself. Have you got the necessary photos to hand?”

“Yes---in my wallet. But hang on! I want to make absolutely certain that we can rely on Hamel’s identification. Can you rumble up, say, another half-dozen portraits from your local Rogues’ Gallery?”

“Yes, of course,” said Gibaud as he made for the door. “I’ll pick ’em up in the main office before I have Hamel shown in here. By the way, he doesn’t speak English, so I imagine you’ll want me to explain what we’re after.”

When Gibaud returned, Meredith set out the photos in a row on the Inspector’s desk and, a few moments later, Hamel, accompanied by the Sergeant who’d driven him over from Monte Carlo, hobbled slowly into the office. He was a frail, studious-looking chap, with bright intelligent eyes beneath a high forehead. It was evident by the way he contracted his pallid features at every step that his ankle was still paining him. With the help of two sticks and the Sergeant’s strong right arm, he crossed to the chair Meredith had placed ready for him and collapsed on it with a sigh of relief.

Meredith turned to Gibaud.

“O. K. Inspector. Fire ahead.”

In a few rapid sentences Gibaud explained to the young fellow why he’d been asked to come over to Menton. Would he make a careful scrutiny of the photos laid out on the desk and see if he recognized the portrait of the man he’d noticed up on the Col de Braus. With an effort Hamel twisted round in his chair and, one by one, closely studied the photographs. Then suddenly his arm shot out and he placed a finger on the third portrait from the right.

Voilà, M’sieur.

Meredith craned forward and exchanged a meaning glance with Gibaud.

“So my Shenton theory goes up the spout, eh? It was Dillon’s body at the foot of the crag, and the girl wasn’t lying. He’s absolutely sure about it?”

Gibaud levelled a few staccato questions at Hamel, who answered them promptly and emphatically.

“There’s no shifting him,” said Gibaud in English. “He’s convinced he’s right. And personally I’m prepared to accept his evidence lock, stock and barrel. Agreed?”

Meredith nodded dourly. He was asking himself, with justifiable chagrin, where the deuce do we go from here? This latest information had completely sabotaged the one promising theory left in the bag. It was certain now that Shenton had nothing to do with Dillon’s death. But was it still possible that Dillon had committed suicide after murdering Shenton? But if so---when? At 2 a.m. that morning Shenton had evidently been driving down off the Col de Braus in the direction of Menton. Or rather, en route for Cap Martin, since his crimson Vedette was found abandoned there at 6.30, some four and a half hours later. So if Dillon had killed Shenton the murder must have been committed sometime between two and six-thirty. Could Dillon have crept out of the villa and done the job? But how was he to know where Shenton was to be found? After all, the fellow seemed to have spent the night doing a hell-for-leather and utterly irresponsible Cook’s tour in and around the neighbourhood. Even if Dillon had made contact with and murdered Shenton, where was the body? Above all, what had taken Shenton on that enigmatic drive up into the mountains after his long wait in the parked car at the corner of the Avenue St. Michel?

In Meredith’s opinion he was faced with one of the toughest problems of his long and arduous career. Lashings of information. A plethora of first-rate clues. Evidence galore. And not a single theory on which to base the next phase of his investigation!

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