A Stranger in Soho
In that inexpressibly comfortable little Soho café, owned and managed by that dignified Italian lady, the Signora Lucia Spadoglia, Inspector McCarthy sat and waited.
A neighbouring clock had just chimed out the hour of eleven upon a night which might easily have given birth to Henley’s immortal line “black as the pit from pole to pole,” for in the considered opinion of the inspector—not to mention a few million other human gropers at that moment in the metropolis and its environs—it was all that, and blacker. Outside the cheerful walls of the signora’s oasis the blackout was in full blast, and whatever helpful gleam of light there might have come from the skies in the broader main thoroughfares, the narrow, built-in streets of dingy Soho got none of it. In that truly cosmopolitan area it was, to use the truly expressive term of the good Father O’Hara, creeping about upon his nightly round of visits to the sick and ailing, as “black as the hobs of hell!”
Inspector McCarthy had had what he considered to be his fair share of it that night. For the past three hours, and by the doubtful aid of a dimmed torch, he had been paying visits to those cheaper cafés, and in particular delicatessen shops, in the Charing Cross Road and adjacent thoroughfares, which the Austrian and German refugees were wont to patronize. Harmless people who had suffered miseries almost beyond belief for the greater part, and who were filled with nothing but an immense and overflowing gratitude towards the land which had given them shelter in their hour of direst need. Still objects of pity to the soft-hearted McCarthy, notwith- standing the obvious improvement in their condition since arrival here.
But—and it was a very large “but”—there were others; those ugly little black sheep who creep into every flock and, indeed, are there only for their own ulterior purposes. Gentry, and, sad to say, ladies, who could do incalculable harm if their activities were not speedily checked. Hence the number of Special-Branch operators, expert linguists, he had observed mingling unostentatiously among the patrons of such places.
It was with almost the ecstasy of a devout Moslem gazing for the first time upon the walls of Mecca that he had fum- bled his way into the well-blacked-out doorway of Signora Spadoglia’s premises and blinked at its well-lit warmth and comfort, generally.
The signora, as has been written elsewhere, was a protégée of Inspector McCarthy. Time was when the premises were occupied as a pin-table saloon, the rendezvous of as tough a gang of thugs as Soho could show. It was run then by certain Semitic gentry—who combined business in nearby Berwick Street, with horse-racing and, additionally, Detective-Inspector McCarthy proved later, a side line in certain well-camouflaged and extremely payable “fencing” activities. The inspector having piloted these gentry successfully, first through the Marlborough Street seat of Justice, and then the Old Bailey to durance vile, the place closed down and for a long time it was the home of nothing but cobwebs. Which, as it stood upon the corner of two busy streets and was unquestionably an excellent business stand, seemed a pity. It was after it had remained in this condition for several months that the Signora Spadoglia, whose evening cooking of spaghetti, macaroni and other cereal edibles beloved of the Italian palate was famed from Soho to Clerkenwell, had her great idea, upon which she consulted the Soho-born Inspector McCarthy.
She had been, she informed him, a saving woman whose personal wants were few. To her had come the idea of redecorating the pin-table blot upon the Sohoan landscape and opening it as a café for the respectable tradesmen of the neighbourhood, where cooking of the best, and wines of a sound quality, would be procurable at a price to suit the pockets of her neighbours.
McCarthy hailed the idea with enthusiasm; interviewed the landlord upon the signora’s behalf and knocked the rent down by nearly fifty per cent, after expatiating at some length to that gentleman upon what a splendid thing it would be for him to realize that he owned at least one piece of property which the police would unhesitatingly class as eminently respectable. So very different to the rest of his possessions in the quarter, which authority relegated to a totally different class, and which might quite easily become the object of unheralded police investigation at any moment.
The inspector’s argument worked like a charm. In less than one month from that conversation all traces of the disreputable pin-table dive had disappeared and the Café Milano (Lucia Spadoglia, Ltd.) opened its hospitable doors. But there was one fly in the signora’s ointment, though the knowledgeable inspector had foreseen it: the erstwhile patrons of the pin-tables saw in the signora’s enterprise a magnificent opportunity for free, and unlimited meals. Here was an establishment which to them was as manna from Heaven! Only a woman in charge; not even a doorman to be dealt with—though he would promptly have been given the “broken glass” treatment had he shown any sign of obstreperousness.
Upon the opening night the “boys” were there in full strength and soon were well under way. The respectable patrons present to honour the occasion looked askance; some stole quietly away before the trouble started. The signora, as became a woman of courage and enterprise, faced it all without the move of a muscle.
Then suddenly arrived a supper party of sixteen, headed by Patron Number One, Detective-Inspector McCarthy. His guests were composed entirely of units of the personnel of New Scotland Yard and a hard, splendidly-conditioned lot they looked. The fall of a pin would have sounded like a thud in the silence which reigned as the inspector and his party took their seats at two tables reserved for them nearby the cash desk at which the signora presided.
The gang being at that time under the leadership of the well-known and rightly-feared Mo Eberstein, the inspec- tor invited that gentleman into an adjacent room for a few words. What exactly transpired has never to this day been made public by either party, but the appearance of the gang-boss suggested that he had not seen eye to eye with the inspector. Both his were bunged tight and rapidly assuming all the colours of the spectrum as McCarthy guided him to the door; the rest of his not really pleasant features were quite unrecognizable.
Before midnight the word had fairly swept through Soho that any member of the gangs who so much as looked cock- eyed at the exterior of the Café Milano, let alone the inside, could prepare for personal trouble from Detective-Inspector McCarthy, and in large and ever-increasing doses. It was plenty: from that night the enterprise of the signora had never looked back.
For some twenty minutes now the inspector had been waiting the coming of the person with whom he had a supper appointment, and had spent that interval studying the patrons, regular and casual. Of the former there were fewer than usual, since, nowadays, Soho does not live over its places of business to the same extent as of yore, and the tendency of the black-out was to send suburban dwellers home at the earliest possible moment.
Nor was the casual trade improved by the necessary gloom; to get through Soho streets from either Oxford Street or Shaftesbury Avenue to the well-advertised Café Milano, which was situated about midway between them, was a job, these nights, to make even the stoutest heart flinch.
There were, as in most places of the kind, a fair sprinkling of those refugees, mostly Austrians, drinking that coffee topped by a good inch of whipped cream so dear to the Viennese, two or three tables of Italian business men drinking flasked Chianti with their modest meal and, he could hear, discussing with profound relief the neutrality of the Italian government in the war.
There were also a few groups of sad-looking Germans, people he knew personally to be of long residence in this country, and for the greater part naturalized, and whose sympathy with the aims and ideology of Nazi Germany were absolutely nil.
And then his eyes fell upon one man seated at a single table alone, before him a liqueur which, by the look of his table, was the finishing touch to one of the signora’s most excellent suppers.
In appearance he was a rather singular mixture of colouring; olive-skinned rather than swarthy, with raven-black almost varnished-looking hair and exceptionally white teeth which he showed perpetually in a rather supercilious smile. Not that any of these physiological points were in any way uncommon in Soho. As far as they went McCarthy could have found a hundred similar in a five minutes’ walk. Nothing to hold the eye about them. But the eyes of the man were a totally different thing. They were, without exception, the very lightest shade of blue that the inspector ever remembered to have seen; they were an almost ice-blue, and from the angle at which he watched them they seemed to carry a greenish tinge.
As the man sat, apparently staring at the wall and lost in thought, they seemed to have no expression whatever. They struck him as being of a fixed rigidity—just as are the eyes of a snake who stares through glass with unblinking fixity at an interested visitor to the snake-house at the Zoo. So utterly expressionless did they appear to be, that for a moment McCarthy could almost fancy that the man was blind.
He was well dressed, exceptionally so in comparison with the company present, but to one who prided himself upon his knowledge of matters sartorial, his clothes were obviously not of English cut. There was about them that indefinable, but very definite difference which exists between the art of the best English tailors and their Continental brethren of the same status.
“Now I wonder who th’ divil you are,” McCarthy apostrophized the perfectly still figure. “You’re not Soho, or even temporarily resident here. I’ll stake my life on that.”
The theory that those queer, staring, and utterly expressionless eyes were sightless was exploded when their owner, snapping suddenly out of the deep reverie in which he had been sunk, beckoned to him one of the two little waitresses who were recent additions to the signora’s ménage. From her he took his bill, paid it with what, from the flush of pleasure which came into the girl’s face, must have been a handsome tip. He stood up and then took an overcoat which hung upon the wall near his table, down from its peg.
He was a tall man, six feet in his stockinged feet McCarthy would have put him down as, and had to stoop considerably before the little waitress could get the coat across the broad shoulders. A fine figure of a man, McCarthy granted instantly; clean limbed and as alert as they come, or he was no judge—for all those strange, unmoving eyes.
That he was gently-bred was proved by the bow he gave the girl as he took his hat from her, and also the military bend of his body he gave to the signora as he moved towards the door. There was something in the very leisureliness of his walk, as he moved along the carpeted passages between the tables, which was almost insolent; as if inwardly he was smil- ing contemptuously at the simple place in which he found himself, and the equally simple people who patronized it. Just for one moment he paused at the door—to take from his overcoat pocket a small torch which he switched on.
As his hand moved towards the handle, the door suddenly opened to admit the person for whom Inspector McCarthy had been waiting—Assistant Commissioner of Police (C) Sir William Haynes. The man with the strange eyes politely dropped back a step until Sir William had entered, then passed out into the inky night.