Assignment on the Midi
Bill Dillon turned up the collar of his tweed overcoat and thrust his hands deeper into his pockets. Five a.m. of a frosty morning in late February, he thought, was a devil of a time to be dumped off a boat on to a confoundedly draughty quayside. There were about a dozen other cars lined up in the customs-yard awaiting the attention of the little group of officials, who were now sorting through their papers under a naked light-bulb near the passport office. The night-ferry, from whose maw the train had already been disgorged in the direction of Paris, loomed up, gently swaying, against the starlit sky. A few strings of street lamps and a score or so of lighted windows were all that was visible of the shattered and martyred town beyond the oil-dark waters of the harbour. Bill lit a cigarette and began to pace up and down, his footsteps echoing on the pavé, his thoughts on the rove. He was thinking back to that night, nearly ten years ago, when he’d last set eyes on Dunkirk; so many splintered impressions that stabbed out in his memory like gun-flashes. The red, roaring inferno that was the town; the spangled web of tracer shells slung over the sea and beaches; the orange blossoming of bombs; the noise; the heat; the indifference to danger that stemmed from an exhaustion that had almost deadened fear. In the maelstrom of defeat he’d no longer been an individual. Just a worn, obedient cog in a relentless machine—Lance-Corporal Dillon of the 6th Southshires—one of the dust- specks that added up to the miracle of Dunkirk.
There was a shuffle of feet at his side, a discreet cough. “Anything to declare, M’sieur?”
Bill came out of his reverie with a jerk. “No—nothing.”
The sleepy-eyed official stuck his head through the car door and flashed his torch around the interior. Then he opened the rear door of the saloon, flicked back the clasps of Bill’s unlocked suitcase and dabbled around with an expert hand. He moved round and tried the handle of the boot.
Bill pulled out a bunch of keys and unlocked the boot. It contained the usual paraphernalia—a couple of pairs of shoes that wouldn’t go in his case; a rucksack; an old military gas-cape; a half-gallon can of oil; dusters; cleaning-rags; and foot-pump. The douanier eyed the collection, nodded, and carefully closed the lid. It was all very polite and very perfunctory.
“O.K.?” asked Bill.
The Frenchman beamed broadly.
“Oui, oui, M’sieur—O.K.! O.K.!” He flicked a hand towards the invisible hinterland of France. “En avant, M’sieur! Et bon voyage.”
“Thanks,” said Bill.
Inwardly he heaved a sigh of relief. It was not that he had anything to declare, but there was one object aboard the car that might have caused comment. And once interest had been aroused an explanation might have been demanded. And at that ungodly hour of the morning Bill felt disinclined to discuss technicalities with a man whose knowledge of English was obviously limited, and who, in any case, would fail to grasp the finer details of his exposition.
Once off the quayside Bill realized that the small hours of a bitter February morning was not the ideal time to weave one’s way out of Dunkirk. Presumably there had been roads between the rubble heaps and undoubtedly, before the holocaust, they’d led somewhere. But now there was nothing but a maze of treacherous, pot-holed tracks meandering aimlessly between a network of railway-lines and flattened buildings.
After a bit, utterly flummoxed, Bill braked up and studied his map. The first sizeable place on his route was Cassel. But how the devil was he to break out of this shambles on to the appropriate road? So far he hadn’t noticed a single sign-post. He remembered that road all right. The long hellish strip of pavé down which the disintegrated but undaunted B.E.F. had jerked its way towards salvation. Sitting in his pre-war but still serviceable Stanmobile Ten something of the desperate hopelessness of that nightmare returned to haunt him. The scars of memory never really healed, he thought.
There was a screech of brakes and a small black “sports” slithered to a stop beside him. A head thrust itself out from beneath the hood.
“Pardon, M’sieur…à Cassel?”
Bill, no linguist himself, was swift to recognize a fellow sufferer. He chuckled:
“Don’t ask me! I’m heading for the same road. Not a damned signpost anywhere.”
“English, eh? Got a map?” “Sure,” said Bill.
“Same here. Let’s take a look at the darn thing in our headlamps.”
Bill glanced at the man who joined him on the road—tall, athletic, aquiline features, something decisive in speech and movement that marked him down as a man of action. A reliable fellow in a tight corner, he thought. His companion, hatless, in belted raincoat, a muffler slung round his neck, was far younger though equally well-built. He seemed to treat the elder man with the respect that was due from a subordinate to a superior.
Barely had they gone into a huddle, however, when an early workman in a shabby overcoat and the ubiquitous blue beret, evidently intrigued by the set-up, jumped from his bicycle and crossed over to them.
“Est ce que je vous aide, Messieurs?”
Bill explained in halting French that they were anxious to get on to the road to Cassel.
“Ah! That is simple, M’sieur. Follow me. I will ride ahead.
You keep me always in your headlights.”
Ten minutes later the good-hearted fellow, who had been pedalling like a madman, slowed down and indicated with a violent wave of his arm the route they were to take. Bill leaned out and yelled his thanks, glancing back to see if the second car was following. A few hundred yards farther up the road it drew abreast and for a brief time the two cars ran level.
“O.K.?” shouted Bill. “Yes, thanks.”
“Where are you making for?”
“Paris!” came the answering yell. “And you?”
“Rheims first stop. After that down the Rhone valley to the Cote d’Azur.”
“Well, I hope it keeps fine for you. Good hunting.” “Thanks. And the same to you.”
With a lifting drone the little black “sports” suddenly drew ahead and a few seconds later vanished behind an enormous camion that was lumbering with infuriating complacency down the very centre of the highway.
Detective-Inspector Meredith of the C.I.D. turned to his companion and observed sardonically:
“For Pete’s sake relax, m’lad. I’m not going to hit anything.” “It’s this right-of the-road rule, sir. Can’t get used to it.” “You will…after another eight hundred miles.”
“By the way, sir—what was the idea of telling that bloke we were heading for Paris?”
“Professional discretion, Strang. We’re over here on a job, remember. No point in advertising our destination.”
“But damn it all, sir, he’s also making for the Riviera. We’ll probably run against him. Look a bit fishy, won’t it?”
“There’s about fifty miles of that gilded coastline, Strang. Devil of a coincidence if we did meet again. In any case I doubt if he’d recognize us.”
“Decent sort of bloke, sir. Useful in a Rugger scrum, eh?
I wager I’d recognize him in a Derby Day crowd.”
“You’d be out on your ear if you couldn’t,” retorted Meredith bluntly. “Don’t forget, you’ve been trained to observe. I may be wrong but I’ve an idea that you’ve more than an aver- age eye for faces. That’s why the A.C. let you off the leash.”
“Thanks, sir. But I wish the deuce you’d—” Meredith broke in:
“You’re wondering what it’s all about, eh? O.K., Sergeant. I reckon it’s time that I put you wise.” Meredith took one hand from the driving-wheel, yanked a wallet from the inside pocket of his sports jacket and slapped it down on Strang’s knee. “There’s a photo in the first flap. Take it out and have a good look at it.” His curiosity aroused, Strang did as he was told and studied the print closely. He recognized it at once as an official photograph from the Rogues’ Gallery at the Yard—the regulation two profiles and a full-face. “Know who it is?”
“Well, that uninspiring phiz belongs to a little runt of a chap called Tommy Cobbett—‘Chalky’ Cobbett to his friends, on account of his dead white complexion. One of the world’s great artists, Strang.”
“He’s a painter, sir?”
“Not exactly. He’s an engraver, m’lad—an engraver of notes.”
“You mean he’s a forger?”
“I do. And one of the finest we’ve ever come against. He was pulled in just before the War after flooding the West End with spurious fivers. He got a six year stretch and came out about four years back. For a time he hung around his old haunts in the East End and, with our usual professional optimism, we thought he’d gone straight. Then eighteen months ago he vanished.” Meredith clicked his fingers. “Phut! Like that. Well, we knew darn well that ‘Chalky’ hadn’t gone into purdah for nothing. We felt absolutely certain that somewhere or other he was ‘working’ again. But the point was where and for whom?”
“And now you’ve got the answer, eh, sir?”
“Six weeks back we had information from the police at Nice that a top-line currency racket was being worked along the Riviera towns. You know the set-up? English visitors anxious to exceed their hundred quid travel allowance. Obliging Wide Boys equally anxious to help ’em out. Normal rate of exchange about 980 francs to the pound. Black Market rate, say, 780. Profit to the Wide Boys about 200 francs for every pound changed. Easy money, Strang, even if you don’t consider the profits spectacular.”
“But ‘Chalky’ Cobbett,” asked Strang still groping, “where does he come in? I don’t get it.”
“O.K. I’m coming to him. But there are a few other details I want you to cotton on to first. These currency blokes accept cheques on London banks, see? They’re forced to because, as you know, you can only take five quid’s worth of English notes out of the country. The Wide Boys have a grape-vine method of getting these cheques smuggled over to London and cashed as quickly as possible. So much for that. But the French police recently spotted a further complication in this racket. A flood of counterfeit thousand franc notes was appearing along the Riviera, and they soon traced some of these notes to our benighted countrymen who’d been diddling the Exchequer by their purchase of Black Market francs. In brief, the currency racketeers had been paying out their 780 francs to the pound in dud notes. Result, 980 francs to the pound profit, less overheads and, presumably, a rake-off for ‘Chalky’ Cobbett.”
“But how the heck did the French cops know that ‘Chalky’ was responsible for the faked notes, sir?”
“They didn’t. Nor did we at the start. As a matter of routine we got our forgery experts on to one of the specimen notes. And the experts recognized ‘Chalky’s’ touch at once—microscopic details of craftsmanship that had turned up in all his previous work. That’s why we’re heading south on this cold and frosty morning, m’lad. We’re going to snoop around and keep our eyes skinned and our ears wide open until we get a line on ‘Chalky’s’ hide-out. We’re over here at the request of the French police. So take a good look at that photo and keep on looking at it. I want you to get the details of ‘Chalky’s’ dial fixed firmly in your mind, Strang. It’s easier for me. I’ve seen ‘Chalky’ several times. Matter of fact I was responsible for pulling him in in ’39.”
Acting-Sergeant Freddy Strang carefully replaced the photo in his superior’s wallet. So this was the mysterious assignment that had miraculously whipped him out of the London murk and was now speeding him south to the warmth and glitter of the Mediterranean. Damned decent of the Inspector to pick on him as his assistant. There wasn’t another bloke in the C.I.D. he’d rather be working for. He said earnestly:
“I’ll do my best not to let you down, sir.”
“Sure of it, Sergeant. But I haven’t quite filled in all the gaps. ‘Chalky’s’ not our only concern. The French dicks have a very shrewd suspicion that the currency racket is being worked by an English gang or, at least, under English super- vision. Point is these men may be known to us at the Yard. That’s the second reason why we’ve been called in to help.”
“Quite a lot on our plate, eh, sir?” Meredith nodded.
“Enough to keep you out of mischief anyway, young fellow. What’s your particular weakness—wine, women or song?”
“Song, sir. It’s the only vice I can run to on my present pay. Like to hear my rendering of ‘Night and Day’, sir? It was a smash-hit at the last Police Concert.”
“God forbid!” breathed Meredith fervently.