by Michael E. Lloyd
The next morning, Arthur left Julia fast asleep after her latest long evening’s work and hurried out for his nine o’clock telephone rendezvous with Inspector Simon Hardy.
‘Well, Arthur, it looks as though I may be able to get some of that reward money winging its way to you, sooner or later. But don’t hold your breath.’
‘Yes. And I think you can safely assume that Carne knows absolutely nothing more about Emilie. I’m convinced he would have responded to my very gentle enquiries if he did ...’
‘Hah! OK, thank you for doing that. Really.’
‘How did I guess ...?’
‘Meanwhile, we still want you to sit tight and see what happens next. I’ve cleared it with the powers-that-be, and we’re ignoring all your little “obstructions” for the time being. If our mastermind does exist — and you know I’m still convinced of that — he may pick up the news of Carne’s arrest and start to get fidgety. Especially if the underworld grapevine starts wagging its tongue, if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphor. He may even decide you really do have the money. But of course you don’t, do you ...?’
‘Of course not, Simon.’
‘So, carry on as normal, Gardien Narone. But call me anytime you need to, OK?’
‘And watch your back.’
The rain had come in now, so Julia and Arthur spent the rest of the day tucked up in bed at home. He did a lot more thinking, while she continued reading L’Obsédé. And when she finally sighed deeply and put the book down with the predicted tears in her eyes, she agreed out loud with him about how chilling an experience it had been.
At six o’clock she went back out to the club as usual, glad that this was the end of her working week and the next two evenings would be all theirs. And a little later, Arthur popped out himself and tried again to call Giuseppe Hauvert. But by that time the guy had already come in from work and gone straight back out for the night.
‘Perhaps a little earlier tomorrow evening, signore?’
* * *
Julia helped Arthur celebrate the start of his twenty-ninth birthday in dazzling style for much of Tuesday morning. But he had already warned her that he would have to disappear well before twelve o’clock and could then be very busy all afternoon. Since it was still raining, she had simply warned him in return that it was the first of her lovely days off, that she would be doing no housework whatsoever, and that she might well still be in bed when he returned. ‘And later on, we’re going out for the evening, chéri. The restaurant’s booked. My treat!’
At noon, Arthur was ready and waiting for Xérus’ next call. But it did not go quite as he had expected.
‘This is Narone.’
‘The word on the street is that Ruford has been arrested!’
‘You haven’t heard about it?’
‘No. So how did you?’
‘There must have been another police leak. And so much for your famous network of contacts! I’m not at all happy about this, Narone. You know I wanted some time on my own with Ruford before the flics got their hands on him!’
‘It’s not my fault if they suddenly get smart for once, is it?’
‘I’m not so sure about that. But there’s something else ...’
‘I’ve also heard he’s been insisting that you took the cash when he left the second getaway car. And that he’s been talking to you ever since you left prison, dammit! And that you have now found the money again ...’
‘Your sources are very well informed, aren’t they?’
‘Just tell me if they’re right, Narone!’
‘They are wrong. I never had that money, X, and I have no idea where it is.’
‘I don’t believe you.’
‘But it’s true.’
‘I know where you’re living now.’
‘Well, I don’t care. I have nothing of value there.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘All right then. Tomorrow night Pureza Seles’ bookshop goes up in flames ...’
‘... and soon after that your precious Emilie Courbier will have her pretty little face permanently readjusted.’
‘You’re the only one who can stop it happening, Narone.’
‘Do you really know where Emilie is?’
‘You’d better believe it. But if you’ll admit to knowing where the money is, and you hand it over to me, maybe I’ll then tell you what you want to know about her — rather than paying her a little visit myself.’
‘All right, X. I give in. Yes, I do know where it’s hidden.’
‘But listen — it’s not stored in Nice, and it will take me some time to travel to ... well, to wherever I’m keeping it. And ... well, I’d better take a holdall full of old newspapers with me, so it will look as if I’m going off on holiday. Then I’ll need to wait for the opportunity to go in and collect the cash, and then hole up with it and bring it back in the bag at the end of my “break” and stash it somewhere safe ready for you to collect or whatever ...’
‘So how long will you need?’
‘Four days at least. But we’d better allow a week, in case I hit difficulties. I can guarantee to have it back here by the twelfth. Want to call me again at noon that day?’
‘But look, I really don’t feel it’s fair to make me give the whole lot up to you, after all the work I’ve had to do. I reckon we should split it fifty-fifty, OK?’
‘Don’t even think about it, Narone. You will hand over every single note that was in that bag when you received it.’
‘No, I definitely want my fair share, X. If you won’t agree to that, I’ll leave Nice this afternoon, and collect the cash, and disappear off the face of the earth and keep it all for myself. Remember, I could have done that at any time in the past year, but I’ve stuck with you — to try and help you find Ruford, and in the hope that you would help me find Emilie. But all you’re doing is continuing to threaten her. Pah! And if you do decide to torch Pureza’s shop, you’ll certainly never see me or the money again, either. And where will that leave you, eh? So, do we have a deal?’
‘Not yet. But you go and get the money, and I’ll think about it in the meantime. We’ll work something out in the call on the twelfth. Honour among thieves. Satisfied?’
‘And you’ll do nothing nasty to Pureza or Emilie in the meantime?’
‘OK. What phone box shall I use ...?’
Arthur was reeling from the effort of playing so much by ear in so short a space of time. So he now stood quietly in the phone box for a couple of minutes, breathing deeply and recovering most of his usual sang-froid.
Then he tried to think properly again. And the first thing that struck him was, once more, the high quality of Xérus’ information. That was still very hard to fathom ...
But then he found he could not concentrate on any of the details of the real new action plan he would quickly need to develop. Because something else was bugging him — again. Just like after his call with Simon at the beginning of June. He had never worked out what that was all about. And what was going on inside his head now?
Aha! Xérus’ accent had been different during this latest call! Far more natural, rather than his usual, vaguely artificial half-and-half dialect. More natural — under stress. Now what did that remind him of? What, dammit?
Yes, that was it! That little joke he had made to Simon! ‘Surely you recognise my voice after all this time?’ But was he really recognising Xérus’ voice from some time in the past? Long before the man had made contact last year?
How could that be possible? And why was that voice only showing itself now, in this relatively stressful phone call.
Stressful situations. Arthur had been in plenty of those over the years. But then it wasn’t his own stress he should be thinking about, was it? It was Xérus’.
But he’d never met the man! Or had he?
Stressful situations .......
None of the people he’d come into contact with since leaving jail fitted the bill at all. Particularly those he’d met in “difficult” situations.
And he’d been in very few such situations during his two short stints in the Nice Maison d’Arrêt. So it wasn’t anything to do with that place.
What about all the times those stressed-out young teds in Marseilles Prison had tried to drag information out of him? No, it was none of those petty criminals either. Xérus was far too old and “cultured” for that. And anyway, he had never gone to jail for the robbery! Hah!
And before that? There was the trial in the Palais de Justice in Nice, of course. With all those bank employees and customers staring daggers at him and the other robbers, and then going one by one into the witness box to give their own personal accounts of what had happened that day .......
Him! Could it really be him? Surely not? But yes, that was undoubtedly the angry, emotional voice he had suddenly been hearing once again!
It was still very hard to believe. But the information he was hopefully about to pick up might just clinch it ...
* * *
He met Alain Revaur at their usual watering hole, half an hour before the student was due to start his three o’clock shift at the hotel.
‘Well, Arthur, I went into the bank for a few minutes at eleven-fifteen today, just as you suggested, and I did my best to identify the various members of staff, as distinct from the customers. Then I came back out and went for a coffee at one of the pavement tables at the café on the corner. I could see the bank’s entrance very clearly from there.
‘And just after eleven-thirty, the guy who had been working in the biggest back office came out of the front door.’
‘Seriously? OK, tell me exactly what he looked like ...’
‘Tall, mid-fifties probably, very conservatively dressed. And while I was inside I’d spotted he was wearing a hearing aid.’
‘Yes! OK, Alain, carry on ...’
‘Well, I stood up very calmly, and I was all ready to follow him on foot, as we’d agreed, but he walked a few paces to a smart car sitting in the only parking space beside the building, and he roared off up to the junction and down Rue Pastorelli.’
‘Yes!! But what make and model was it, Alain?’
‘No idea! I know nothing about cars! But it was light blue, and in very good condition.’
‘OK. I can check it out myself soon. Hmmm, I don’t suppose ...’
‘Yes, I wrote down the registration number for you. Here ...’
And he handed Arthur a small piece of paper.
‘That’s brilliant, Alain! And then ...?’
‘Well, twenty minutes later I went back into the bank, as you said I should if none of the staff had actually emerged, and I started browsing the leaflets and other stuff. And just before twelve noon, I made sure I was watching all the other employees as discreetly as I could. And nobody stopped what they were doing to make a phone call. I waited two or three minutes, and then I got out fast again.
‘I strolled back up to the café, and this time I had a beer. And at twelve-thirty precisely that manager guy pulled into his parking space and went back inside.’
‘Perfect! Exactly what I needed to know!’
‘But what does it all mean, Arthur?’
‘Don’t ask, pal. Just look forward to that whole evening out, on me, one of these days! But right now I really have to rush! And take it easy with bully-boy Billy, eh!’
Well, this was further, strong circumstantial evidence that Charles-Pierre Orceau actually was Xérus, thought Arthur as he hurried away, but it was by no means good enough. He needed something far more definitive — maybe several things — before he could consider either confronting the man himself or involving the police as he had with Luc. Perhaps Giuseppe Hauvert could supply something later today, if he finally managed to get hold of him! Meantime, he must check out Orceau’s car, and then try to establish some more basic information about the man.
He soon reached Rue Alberti and walked very cautiously up it until he could just see the vehicle parked in the space beside the bank, still some way further along on the other side of the street. Light blue, Alain had said. And so it was. A five-door Renault 16 hatchback. No more than two years old, of course. Arthur was fully back up to speed on his car marques now.
He turned on his heels and hurried back down to Rue de l’Hôtel des Postes and along to the imposing Post Office building. He found a copy of the local telephone directory and studied the residential listings carefully. But there was no mention of any Orceau in the entire Nice area, let alone a Charles-Pierre.
Oh, well. If Arthur did not yet know the man’s present address or phone number, it was at least quite likely that his family was not from this city. For what that was worth!
Copyright © 2012 by Michael E. Lloyd