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4: Second Encounter

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Author Topic: 4: Second Encounter  (Read 31 times)
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« on: April 17, 2023, 10:27:34 am »

THAT morning Inspector Meredith had driven over to police-headquarters at Nice for a pow-wow with his opposite number, Inspector Blampignon. They’d already met a couple of times since Meredith and Strang had settled in about a week earlier at their unpretentious hotel in Menton. Despite differences of language and temperament, the two men were already firm friends. Luckily Blampignon had a fair command of English and Meredith a smattering of schoolboy French. In consequence, after a certain initial embarrassment, they were soon able to chatter away pretty fluently.

Inspector Blampignon took life as it came, and accepted what did turn up with tremendous gusto. With his dark, humorous eyes, rotund figure, and easy rumbling laugh, he was a true Provençal. But behind that tolerant, comfortable personality was a quick intelligence and an astute practical mind. When the need arose Blampignon’s plump and rather loose-limbed body could jerk, with surprising agility, into swift and decisive action.

As Meredith greeted him that morning in the cool, half-shuttered office on the second storey of the massive building, he sensed at once that Blampignon was worried. In a few moments the cause of this worry bobbed to the surface of their conversation. During the last few days information had come in about the resurgence of a well-tried racket that Blampignon and his colleagues had thought to be conclusively scotched. For a time it had proved to be one of the most profitable rackets along the Riviera. The details, as the Inspector pointed out, were simple. American cigarettes, which could be bought in Algiers and other North African ports for as little as sixpence a packet, were smuggled in fast motor-launches across the Mediterranean to suitable lonely spots along the coast-line and then sold on the Cote d’Azur at four shillings a packet. The profits on a single trip could run as high as ten million francs---about ten thousand pounds!

Hélas!” sighed Blampignon. “So far all we find out is that the contraband is being put ashore somewhere between here and the Italian frontier.”

“You mean these Yank cigarettes are being marketed only along this end of the coast?”

Blampignon nodded.

“It is like these counterfeit notes, mon vieux. They also are only making their appearance in the more easterly towns along the Midi. For that reason, of course, I settle you at Menton.”

“I suppose there’s no chance that the two rackets are being worked by the same gang?” asked Meredith.

“No---I think not. The currency racket demands a fixed headquarters on land---a place where they can set up their printing machine. But in this other game . . .” Blampignon threw wide his hands. “It is---how do you say?---fluid. And it does not do to join up something that is fluid with something that is fixed. You agree, M’sieur?” The inspector moved to his desk, opened a drawer and slapped a small wad of notes into Meredith’s hand. “You see, mon ami, we have added to our little collection. Most of these notes we pick up in Monte Carlo. We have warned the . . . the . . .” Blampignon clicked his fingers irritably. “Les boutiquiers to be on the watch for such thousand franc notes.”

“The shopkeepers, eh?” Meredith examined the notes minutely and nodded his admiration. “Beautiful work---we’ve got to admit it. Except for the two microscopic deviations spotted by your lab wallahs at Lyons, the darn things might be genuine.”

Blampignon chuckled and with a flamboyant gesture whipped a sheet of paper from his desk.

“Now here is the list of shopkeepers who hand over these notes to us. We question them one by one and in all cases it appears that they were passed over by English customers. But in two cases we have much luck. The shopkeeper sees in time the little errors we have warned him to watch out for. You follow, mon ami? He realize, immédiatement, that the note is fake. So he say to his customer ‘Please to let me have your name and address, for the police desire to find out how these fake notes come to you.’ Then I think to myself, this is a . . . a . . . une besogne for Meredith. He shall question these Englishmen, perhaps. That is why I ring you this morning and ask you to come over. It is possible you can do this?”

“My dear Blampignon,” laughed Meredith, “it’s what I’m here for. Let me have those addresses. I’ll get over to Monte at once.”


By midday Meredith had succeeded in interviewing the two Englishmen who, in all innocence, had tried to pass the spurious notes. At first both men had been disinclined to talk. After all, the purchase of francs on the Black Bourse was technically a criminal offence and they weren’t at all sure how far Meredith was prepared to go. But a few broad hints soon reassured them. The French police were anxious to arrest the gang who were putting about the counterfeit notes. As Meredith pointed out with a withering look, they weren’t concerned with a bunch of damfool, unpatriotic Englishmen who, in any case, had been very neatly diddled. Thereafter he got his information and at once Meredith realized that he’d picked up his first real clue.

Both Englishmen, who were unknown to each other and staying in different hotels, had bought their Black Market francs off the same man, and in both cases this man had struck up a conversation with them in one of the many cocktail bars in the town. He spoke English fluently but with a very strong foreign accent. Neither of the men believed him to be French. One suggested he was German; the other, Dutch. But their descriptions of the man tallied exactly---tall, stooping, iron-grey short-cropped hair, moon-like face, deep voice, urbane in manner and faultlessly dressed.

With this description jotted down in his notebook, Meredith rang Blampignon at Nice. Was this Dutchman or German known to the police? Had he, by any chance, ever been through their hands or, at any time, come under suspicion? Blampignon was desolate. There wasn’t, he claimed, a single big-time racketeer along the coast with whom he wasn’t familiar. It was a thumping big boast, of course, but it wasn’t, perhaps, far short of the truth. In Blampignon’s opinion this man was either a stooge, a hired nobody working for the Big Shots, or he’d only recently turned up on the Cote d’Azur from his own country.

“Good enough,” said Meredith. “You leave it to me. I’ll get over to Monte for the next day or two and drift around the likely bars. With a detailed description like this we ought to get on to the fellow. And with any luck----”

Blampignon broke in with a throaty chuckle:

Ah précisément! How shall we say? The pilot-fish might lead us to the shark, eh?”


Twenty minutes later, after a brisk drive along the Moyenne Corniche, Meredith was back at the Hotel Louis where he’d arranged to meet Strang. As a change from hotel meals they often lunched out and they decided that morning to try their luck at Le Poisson D’Or, a nearby café that had been recommended by a fellow-guest at the Louis. It proved to be a casual, charming little place, with gaily-painted tables and chairs set out in a shady courtyard in the centre of which was an outsized aquarium stocked with goldfish. Meredith, who was beginning to find his way around the local menus, ordered a bottle of Château de Cremât and, later, over their bouillabaisse, brought the Sergeant up-to-date with the morning’s events.

“For the next day or two, m’lad, we’re going to hang around the more fashionable bars at Monte Carlo. Any objections?”

“No, sir, of course not,” said Freddy, glumly realizing that his assignation with Miss Westmacott had abruptly gone up the spout. “All in the day’s work, I guess.” He added tentatively: “Do we . . . er . . . get our evenings off?”

“We do not!” snapped Meredith.

“No, sir . . . quite, sir,” said Freddy hastily. “I only asked because----” He broke off and stared out across the sun-splashed courtyard as if he’d seen a ghost. “Well, of all the . . . !”

“What the devil’s wrong with you?” demanded Meredith irritably.

“Take a look there, sir---the table under that orange tree. Do you see who I see?”

Meredith took a cautious glance, hastily concealed his surprise, and admitted with a chuckle:

“O.K., Sergeant---you win! You said we’d bump into him again and, by one of those crazy coincidences that are always cropping up in this benighted existence, we have. What’s more he’s just spotted us. Leave the talking to me, m’lad. He’s coming over.”

“Well, well, well!” exclaimed Bill Dillon breezily. “I never expected to see you chaps again. I thought you were making for Paris.”

“We were . . . on business,” said Meredith glibly. “But now, due to an unexpected turn of events, our business has brought us down here.” He indicated an empty chair drawn up at the table. “Take a pew, Mr. - - - -?”

“Dillon---Bill Dillon.” He looked at Meredith enquiringly. “Funny thing, but I can’t help feeling your face is familiar. It struck me that morning in Dunkirk. Are you the sort of chap who hits the headlines, by any chance?”

“Good heavens, no! Sales agent for an engineering firm---that’s me. Meredith’s the name. This is my assistant, Mr. Strang.”

“Engineering!” exclaimed Dillon. “I’m in the same sort of line myself. What’s your firm?”

“Er . . . Whitley-Pilbeams,” said Meredith, mentioning the first name that came into his head. “Maybe you know ’em?”

“I’ll say I do. Finest constructional engineers in the old country.”

“Thanks,” said Meredith drily. “And you . . . who do you----?”

Dillon broke in:

“Oh, since the War I’ve been working in the research department of the Hawland Aircraft Co. Not a bad job as jobs go. But not much chance of promotion. So I’ve just cut loose. Want to start up on my own when I get back. Garage or something. Don’t much care as long as I’m my own master.”

“And in the meantime you’re treating yourself to a slap up holiday down here, eh?”

“That’s about it,” nodded Dillon. “Couldn’t really afford it, of course. First time I’ve been abroad since I was demobbed in ’46.” He rose abruptly and thrust out a hand. “Glad to have met you chaps again. How long are you staying?”

“Well, that depends,” said Meredith vaguely, “. . . on business. A couple of weeks---perhaps more, perhaps less.”

“Maybe we’ll be able to get together for a pint some evening. I’m staying at the Bandol. If ever you’re at a loose end look me up.”

“O.K.,” nodded Meredith. “We will.”

“Well, cheerio.”

“Cheerio,” said Meredith.

“Cheerio,” said Strang, opening his mouth for the first time since Dillon had joined them.


From Le Poisson D’Or Bill Dillon returned direct to the Bandol and went up to his room. There he lit his pipe and sat down at the table by the window to write a letter. For a whole week now he’d put off writing this letter, hoping he’d run into Kitty somewhere around the town. But although he’d kept a sharp look-out along the promenade and the more fashionable shopping streets so far he’d drawn a blank. On several occasions he’d even strolled up to the Villa Paloma and hung around in the vicinity on the off chance that Kitty would emerge. It would, he felt, have been better that way---a casual, unexpected meeting . . . alone. That’s why, even when he’d found out her address, he’d deliberately refrained from writing to her. But if it wasn’t to work out like that then he’d darn well have to storm the stronghold and be damned to the consequences.

After all it was Kitty who was chiefly responsible for this Mediterranean jaunt. Admittedly the mountainous country behind the town had something to do with it. He needed those mountains, but not as much as he needed Kitty. A casual conversation with a mutual friend in London had enabled him to pin-point her present whereabouts. It was a lucky chance that, when Kitty had decided to walk out of his life, she’d decided at the same time to walk into Nesta Hedderwick’s villa on the Riviera. Lucky because he knew Nesta Hedderwick; lucky because directly behind Menton reared the Alpes Maritimes. And since his future was inextricably bound up with Kitty and the presence of high mountains, he realized that in coming to Menton he’d very successfully brought off a right-and-left.

After a moment’s reflection, he took up his pen and wrote:

Dear Mrs. Hedderwick,

I don’t know if you remember me. I was one of the Airborne crowd stationed near Larkhill Manor who used to descend on you at week-ends during ’44. I shan’t forget in a hurry the grand time you gave us. Your hospitality was terrific and your patience inexhaustible! I expect you remember the crazy night when those Raff types showed up from Landsdown and we played an eight-aside rugger game with a cushion in your lounge-hall. At halftime you couldn’t see across the room for feathers!

I remember you telling me that you had a villa at Menton and that after the War you intended to give up Larkhill and live permanently on the Riviera. You kindly suggested that if ever I came that way I should look you up. Well, I’ve just taken the chance to slip down here for a short holiday. I’m staying at the Bandol. So if your offer still holds good perhaps you could give me a ring and let me know if and when it’s convenient for me to come along.

I look forward to seeing you again after all these years.

Yours sincerely,
Bill Dillon.

P.S.—I was the fair-haired, rather hefty three pipper who once had the misfortune to spill a glass of sherry down your dress.


The following morning, during breakfast on the sun-dappled terrace, Nesta announced:

“I’m having a young man along to dinner this evening. I want you all to be here. Such a nice boy. I met him at Larkhill during the War.” She jerked a glance at Miss Pilligrew who, indulging a little weakness of hers, was furtively nibbling a lump of sugar. “You must impress on cook to make a special effort. Understand, Pilly?”

“Yes, dear.”

“I suggest soupe au pistou followed by ratatouille.”

“Yes, dear.”

“Not that it matters to me, of course.” Nesta gave a hollow laugh. “I shall merely sit and watch other people enjoying the fruits of my hospitality. Mon Dieu! What a life. It is a life, isn’t it, Pilly?”

“Oh definitely, dear.”

“Then we might have, say . . . estocaficada. And for sweet----”

Miss Pilligrew suggested timorously:

“What about tourta de Blea, dear?”

“Don’t be stupid! You’re so unhelpful, Pilly. I had in mind robina fritters and—”

“Oh for crying aloud!” broke in Tony with a surly look. “Why all this fuss? Is it somebody we’re supposed to impress?”

“Don’t be hateful, Tony. Of course it isn’t. But he wrote such a charming letter and the least----”

“Do I know the fellow?”

“No, darling, I don’t think so. His name’s Mellon or Dillon or something of the kind.”

“Dillon!” exclaimed Kitty, suddenly flushing beneath her tan.

“Yes---Captain Bill Dillon.” Nesta sighed. “Such a handsome creature, with one of those nice bristly moustaches that----”

“Bill Dillon!” gasped Kitty. “But . . . but----”

“Don’t tell me you know him!” cried Nesta, a shadow of disappointment passing over her heavily handsome features.

“No, of course I don’t. But . . . but I once knew a Bill Dorman and it sort of struck a chord. You see how I mean, Mrs. Hedderwick? Dillon. Dorman. They’re something alike and . . . for the moment . . .” With a little titter, Kitty swung on Tony. “Got a cigarette, Tony? Oh, thanks. Well, if you’ll excuse me . . . I’ve got some letters to write. See you later, Tony.”

A brief silence followed Kitty’s hurried exit into the house. Nesta exchanged a meaning glance with everybody in turn and observed tartly:

“How very odd. She seemed quite upset. An unbalanced, neurotic type. She ought to see a psychiatrist. Don’t you agree, Tony?”

“No, I don’t!” said Tony shortly. “Kitty’s had a tough time, poor kid.” He gulped down the remainder of his coffee and got up abruptly. “Well, I’ll be seeing you . . . I’ve got a job to do on the Vedette. I’ll be out to lunch. Kitty and I are driving over to Monaco.”

And with a brisk nod he stalked off through the garden to the garage-yard.

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