A Criminal Gang Was at Large—There Was a Single Clue
I KNEW that something was wrong the moment I parked my car under a cluster of eucalyptus and palm trees and advanced to the picturesque entrance of the best restaurant upon the Riviera. Louis met me as usual upon the threshold, it is true, but what a Louis! Up till a month before, when I had last seen him, he was, as he had always been, the predominant spirit of the place, suave, bland, with the smile and voice of an ambassador. To hear him suggesting a luncheon was a poem, a dinner an epic. And now! I shook hands with him, as was my custom after a somewhat prolonged absence, and, although his eyes seemed to be begging me to ignore his changed appearance, I felt compelled to refer to it.
"Why, what's the matter, Louis?" I asked.
"Influenza, sir," he replied—"a nasty bout of it. You wish your usual table, sir, of course—after the cocktail."
He departed for a moment, returning with a menu. I could scarcely remove my eyes from him. His complexion was gray; he had lost flesh. There was a stoop about his neck, a haunted look in his eyes. His clothes were as faultless as ever, but they fitted him no longer. He was like the ghost of himself.
"The whitefish are good, sir," he suggested, "or there is a small lobster. And I have some breast of lamb I was keeping specially—too small for more than one person—some early strawberries and red wine, and a cheese from our own dairy."
"That sounds all right, Louis," I assented, trying not to look at him too curiously.
"The Montrachet 1914, of course, sir," he concluded. "Will it be the lobster or the whitefish?"
"The lobster," I decided. "I will be there, say, in ten minutes."
"Everything will be ready, sir," Louis promised, making his escape.
I turned to the barman.
"What has happened to Louis?"
"We are all wondering that, sir," the man replied. "He had a bout of influenza, but nothing that ought to have pulled him down like that. Looks as though he were being worried to death."
"But what worry can he have?" I persisted. "He must make a large income, he's a single man, and he doesn't even gamble, so far as I know. Why, last time I saw him, he was thinking of buying a new limousine."
"There's other things besides money, sir," the man observed enigmatically. "It isn't my business, anyway, and we're all fond of Louis, but there, you see what he is, and you remember what he used to be. I wish you would get him to talk to you."
I presently made my way to my table. The Madrid, notwithstanding its great reputation, is not a large restaurant. There were barely a score of people in the room. A table exactly opposite to mine was evidently prepared for an expected arrival. A great bowl of pink roses had replaced the ordinary restaurant flowers; caviar, with its et ceteras, was already upon the table, and a small gold-foiled bottle stood in an ice pail. I inquired of the waiter who served me—Louis seemed to be keeping a little in the background—as to the whereabouts of the proprietor.
"Monsieur is in Paris," he confided. "Louis is left in sole charge. Monsieur is negotiating for the purchase of a restaurant in the Champs Elysées."
I began my luncheon. Presently the arrival of another guest attracted my attention, and I looked up. She made her way to the table already prepared, ushered in that direction by Louis—a very tall, fair woman, large almost to ungainliness, florid of complexion, elaborately dressed, making those efforts that always possess a leaven of the pitiful to retain the freshness and air of youth. She leaned upon a stick, and a colorless-looking maid who followed her carried a small Pekingese. Louis placed a chair for the dog, as Madame somewhat ponderously seated herself. She thanked him with a gracious smile, motioned him to lean down, and began a whispered conversation. Louis fidgeted a little, bowed, and hurried off to obey the summons of an imaginary client. Madame commenced her meal.
It is not my custom to watch the gastronomic efforts of my neighbors at a restaurant, but I must frankly confess that I watched the progress of Madame's meal with unpardonable curiosity. She ate at least three times as much caviar as I found myself able to consume. She followed that with a dozen oysters, after which she had three lamb-cutlets, peas, a soufflé of some sort, and wound up with cheese. She finished her pint of champagne early in the meal and called for another, and, after each course, she summoned Louis. Even at that short distance, and although I was frankly disposed to play the part of eavesdropper, I could hear nothing that passed between them, for her voice rose scarcely above a whisper. One thing, however, was obvious. So far as it was in her nature to be gracious, she was gracious to Louis. She patted him upon the arm, there were little gestures, smiles and meaning glances that clearly indicated her predilection. Louis forced smiles to his lips, replied with almost ghastly politeness to her confidential speeches. Each time he escaped the proximity of her chair, it seemed to me that he avoided meeting my eyes. When I left, Louis was lurking just outside, behind the orchestra.
I took him by the shoulder, and made him pass across the threshold with me.
"What is the matter with you, Louis?" I asked bluntly.
"The grippe—" he began.
"Don't tell me anything more about that grippe," I interrupted. "There's something on your mind, man. You're ill mentally. What is it?"
"It's nothing, monsieur," he assured me.
"Who Is that terrible old woman?"
"It is Madame la Comtesse de Granent. Very nice—very nice indeed. She has taken a suite to the hotel. She has a servant to wait when she dines in her salon, a maid for herself, a maid for the dog, two chauffeurs, and a secretary. She is very rich—a wonderful client!"
"A widow?" I inquired.
Louis inclined his head. Some visitors bad just arrived. He seemed to welcome the chance of escape.
"You will excuse me, sir," he begged. "I hope we will see you again before long."
Three days later I approached the restaurant. For once, Louis was not upon the threshold to meet me. I gathered the reason as soon as I entered. I was a little later than on my previous visit, and Madame la Comtesse was already monopolizing his attention. Upon the cushioned chair by her side sat her Pekingese, opposite her a thin, sallow-faced youth, foppish and bejeweled, and by his side an elderly man, carefully dressed and possessing a distinctly legal and slightly pompous air. Presiding over the service of the feast—and from what I could see it was indeed a feast—was Louis, who scarcely found time to cast a glance in my direction.
"And how is he today, Monsieur Louis?" I inquired of the barman.
"Just the same, sir," the man replied, pouring out my cocktail.
"Madame la Comtesse has company," I remarked.
Charles looked down the room.
"That Is her secretary," he confided. "He generally has his meals in the hotel, but occasionally Madame invites him to lunch. The gentleman opposite is her lawyer. He comes over once a week from Marseilles."
I caught the upward glance of Madame as Louis bent toward her, and saw his little shiver of aversion as he turned away.
"Why, Charles," I demanded, "does Louis allow himself to be worried to death by that woman?"
The barman spread out his hands.
"If I were Louis, I should go mad. She sends for him at all hours of the day and night. She will not be served by anybody else. It is true that her bills are enormous, but it is not Louis who gets the profits."
"I suppose she gives good tips," I ventured.
Charles became impressive,
"Every Monday morning there are two hundred-franc notes for me. What Louis gets, no one can imagine, but besides money he has had, I know, a gold cigarette-case, a platinum watch and chain, and two sets of studs. It is a conquest Louis has made, sir. without a doubt."
"A conquest that seems to have cost him something," I remarked dryly.
Just at that moment Louis caught sight of me, and, with a menu in his hand, came hurrying forward. The change in him was more obvious than ever. His smile of welcome was forced. I noticed that the fingers that held the menu were trembling.
"Well, what have you for me today, Louis?" I inquired.
He suggested a simple luncheon, as usual, with due regard to my tastes.
"Not often I lunch with you twice in a week, Louis." I continued, as he showed me to my table. "I rather hoped to find you less busy today, so that we might have a little talk."
"One is always busy here, while the season lasts," he remarked evasively.
"How long is Madame la Comtesse staying with you?" I asked.
"As long as she is satisfied, I imagine, sir," he replied, "or until the end of the season. If she wishes to stay on, I suppose Monsieur Léon will keep the hotel open. She is not an ordinary client."
"So one perceives," I conceded. "Why do you let her worry you so, Louis?"
"Worry me?" he repeated, with a startled air.
"Don't be a fool, man!" I enjoined. "Do you think one doesn't notice?"
He gave an order to a subordinate who was hovering around, and then he leaned a little nearer to me.
"Monsieur Forester," he begged, "do not, please, have any wrong ideas. I am not in good health. Madame la Comtesse is very gracious; she is a wonderful client We are all—the whole staff— myself included—very grateful to her."
After that there was no more to be said to Louis. He avoided me for the rest of the meal, serving a wonderful banquet at the table on my right hand. Madame ate with the appetite of a grenadier. The legal gentleman from Marseilles, with his napkin tucked under his collar, was already flushed with his efforts. The secretary ate rapidly, drank whenever his glass was filled, and remained entirely unmoved. The three conversed incessantly, their heads almost touching.
The lawyer had apparently brought news that was interesting to both his companions. Once he drew from his pocket a sheet of paper covered with figures, at which they all looked, and raised 1heir glasses. I gathered that some of Madame's investments had prospered, and that this was a feast of celebration. Anyhow, when I left, at three o'clock, they were still there.
I COMPLETED my business in Nice, dined at a small restaurant in a back street, famous for its wines and food, but, alas, now known to all the world, and made my way to the Casino. Without being in any sense of the word a gambler, I enjoy my occasional games of chemin de fer, and this evening was no exception. I won a little over a mille, turned in at the bar for a final whisky and soda, went in search of my car, and started off for Monte Carlo.
As a rule, I take the lower road, but that evening, remembering that it was opera night, and warned by the lights flashing all the way ahead of me along the curving road, I turned up to the left just short of the hospital and made my way on to the Middle Corniche, which at that time of night was almost deserted. Arrived at the highest point in the road, I paused to admire the view—the blaze of lights from one of the dark-hulled men-of-war in Villefranche Harbor, the long arm of Cap Ferret stretching into the sea, the glitter of the waning moonlight on the Mediterranean. Presently I lit a cigarette, and proceeded on my way.
I had scarcely gone another two miles when I met with adventure. I had turned a sharp corner, just short of the tunnel, when I saw a couple of cars drawn up, and two or three men standing in the middle of the road. At the sight of my lights, one of them started at once to meet me, holding out his arm. I slowed down, imagining an accident, and came to a standstill at his gesture. A moment later I regretted it, for underneath his slouched, black hat the man who had accosted me wore a mask, which he had at first concealed with his hand, and a few feet from my head I found myself looking down the barrel of an automatic pistol.
"Stop your engine!" the man ordered, speaking In husky English, but with a decidedly French accent.
I obeyed promptly. There have been times in my life when I have been forced Into adventure, and I have never unduly shrunk from it. I fully realised, however, that this was an occasion when discretion was called for.
"What else do yon want from me?" I inquired, thinking with some dismay of that mille note in my pocketbook.
"Nothing," was the curt reply. "Descend from your car, and remain at the side of the way there. Par ici! Bien!"
I obeyed, and glanced curiously down the road to where the other men were standing. An animated discussion was in progress, but I could only speculate as to its nature. My companion kept guard over me, although occasionally he glanced toward the others.
"A hold-up!" I remarked, making an amicable attempt at conversation. "Are you not a little venturesome? We are within the limits of the police patrol from Monte Carlo."
The man made no reply. He moved his position slightly, so that he was able to keep watch on me and still cast frequent glances at his companion.
"You permit that I smoke a cigarette?" I inquired, taking out my case. He had swung suddenly round, and I certainly have never disliked the look of a weapon more than his. At the sight of my harmless cigarette-case, however, he relaxed.
"Monsieur is not afraid?" he asked.
"Horribly," I confessed. "However, you have never hurt anyone yet, have you, if you are the same gang who robbed the Duc de Nîmes and Monsieur de Falleron a few weeks ago?"
"It is the wish of the Chief that we should carry on our affairs without violence," the man announced, with a faint sneer, "but we should never hesitate to use force toward unreasonable people. There is a gentleman in the car there who narrowly escaped a bullet through his head. I think he has seen wisdom now."
There were signs of a breaking-up of the little party ahead. Two of the men, both in evening dress, and one whose figure was, I fancied, familiar to me, stepped back into the car headed for Monte Carlo; two of the others entered the limousine pointed in my direction; a third man planted himself a few feet from the chauffeur of the former car.
A moment later there was the roar of a powerful engine, and the limousine, starting at a tremendous speed, dashed past us. I could see nothing of the two men inside, but I know something about automobiles, and the lines of this one intrigued me. It was out of light almost at once.
"And now?" I asked.
"You can go in a few minutes," my guardian conceded.
Apparently convinced of my reasonableness, he strolled away to where a couple of motor-bicycles were propped against the bank, turned on the lights of one, and started the engine. He wheeled it to the aide of my car, and stood leaning upon it.
"As a matter of curiosity," I Inquired, "What would happen, if another car came up?"
"There are not many who use this road at night. If a car should came, what we did would depend upon you. If you attempted to hail it or signal to it in any way. I should first shoot you in the leg—not to make too serious an affair of it—afterward I should shoot through two of the tires of the ear, and bid you a good evening."
"An amiable program," I observed. "And supposing any of the occupants of the car were armed?"
The man shrugged his shoulders. "One must risk something," he admitted.
The minutes passed. He took out his watch. I, too, glanced at the dial with fascinated eyes. As soon as he had satisfied himself as to the hour, he slipped it back into his pocket, whistled down the road, sprang on to his bicycle, and left me. I watched him make mad progress toward Nice, his exhaust open, his light flaring down the road. Soon his companion followed. Directly they had disappeared, I started my car and drove slowly on to join my companions in misfortune. They were very frightened men, both of them, very angry. The one I recognised first was Van Nestos, an Armenian millionaire, the other, an American motor manufacturer, also enormously wealthy.
"Did they get away with it?" I asked.
"A hundred thousand from me," Van Nestos confessed.
"And more than that from me," the American grunted. "Say, where's the police station at Monte Carlo, Major Forester?"
"In Monaco." I replied. "We can be there in ten minutes. Come along."
I went first to show them the way, and we arrived at the Commissariat in little more than the time mentioned. My companions told their story, and I mine. The listening functionary was intelligent, and gendarmes were out on their motorcycles within half an hour. Afterward Van Nestos, who was still shaking with fright and anger, insisted that I stop in at the Hotel de Paris for a drink.
"Tomorrow," he announced, "I shall offer a fifty thousand francs reward. If the police in this part of the world are worth a dime, we'll have them."
I made my adieux.
"The police here are clever enough," I assured them, "but so are the criminals."
OF COURSE, there was nothing else talked about from one end of the Riviera to the other for the whole of the following week but this sensational robbery on the Corniche Road. There had been two previous attempts.
This time the robbers' plans had been perfectly laid, and they seemed, so far as one could gather, to have disappeared from the face of the earth.
Van Nestos's fifty thousand francs reward remained unclaimed. I found myself studying the bills announcing the reward. Fifty thousand francs was a very useful sum of money. Yet, but for one circumstance of apparently trivial import, the criminals might as well have driven their car over the side of the road into the Mediterranean for any clue they had left behind them.
As soon as the excitement of my adventure had in some measure abated, I found myself lunching again at Beaulieu. Conditions at the famous restaurant seemed unchanged. Madame, with her enormous appetite, was still there, lunching alone this time. I sat her out, waited until her maid had departed with the Pekingese, and she herself had taken her leave, passing down the room between a little row of bowing waiters. She lingered at the door to talk with Louis for a few moments, but, as soon as he returned, I took him, by the arm and led him out on the terrace.
"Look here, Louis," I said, "something la preying upon your mind. Do you mean to tell me that you are allowing that woman to make you miserable?"
"Monsieur is mistaken—" he began.
"No more of this, Louis," I interrupted firmly. "Tell me why you permit yourself to be worried almost to a shadow by that outrageous female"
He looked around to be sure that we ware not overheard.
"Go on, Louis."
"Every day," he confided miserably, "it is the same. You see what she is like, monsieur—a terrible woman! She seems to have taken some absurd fancy to me. My life la becoming a horror," the man went on. "When she sends for me I have to arrange to be fetched in a few minutes on important business. She is always asking me to dine with her at Nice. I shudder when I hear the telephone from the hotel, or when the page comes across. If she doesn't soon it me alone, Monsieur Forester, I must go—although I am earning more money than ever before in my life and I am devoted to Monsieur Léon. He will never forgive me, if, by any chance, she should be offended and should leave."
I leaned across the table.
"Is this the whole truth, Louis?" I asked him earnestly.
The man's honesty was transparent.
"What more could there be?" he exclaimed.
"Louis," I advised, "keep your mind from dwelling upon the situation. She'll give it up in time. What if I promise to bring another admirer along, and distract her attention?"
"I should be Monsieur's grateful slave." Louis declared dejectedly, "but it will not happen. Many of my clients here, knowing who she is, and of her wealth, have been more civil to her than I can bring myself to be. She is simply rude to them. There is another gentleman from Nice who visits her frequently, but she never brings him in here. Her smiles are for me, and me alone."
AT my usual time—a few minutes before one—five days later, I arrived with my guest. Monsieur Desrolles, of Monaco. It seldom happens, but the tables were mostly occupied by men lunching with a solitary male vis-à-vis or in parties. A few of the usual habitués of the place were there, and Mademoiselle la danseuse of the moment was in a corner with her latest admirer.
At Madame la Comtesse's table were seated her secretary, her lawyer, and a third man—a Parisian, to judge from his appearance. Madame was wearing mauve, with a small hat and a tulle scarf. Her little Pekingese, too, was adorned with a bow of the same color. Louis caught me looking toward her, and glanced away.
We were half-way through our meal when a note was brought in to me. I passed it to my companion. He read it carefully, permitted me to glance at the few words, and tore it absently into pieces.
The sight of those few lines had stirred me curiously. I looked around the place almost as one might look upon a scene in a film or a descriptive chapter in a story, not altogether sure that I myself was one of the little company. There was the tall, dark, rather melancholy violinist, playing a waltz a few yards away from Madame, accompanied by his little orchestra; there was Charles in his white linen coat, leaning over the bar counter to catch a glimpse of a passing steamer through the window. Down the curving semicircle of the room, men and women were engaged in the usual business of lunching, with here and there a staccato note of flirtation. There was a party of four men, apparently absorbed in their food, yet with every now and then a curious watchfulness in their demeanor. An American, precisely dressed, in a plain gray business suit, with a shirt and tie of alien characteristics, was entertaining two or three ladies who had apparently just landed from some steamer. The waiters passed up and down the room, swift-footed, eager and attentive.
As usual, Madame and her party were lunching profusely, and demanding a great deal of attention from Louis, from his subordinate maître d'hôtel, their fable waiters, and the leader of the orchestra. The whole service of the place seemed almost to center about them, and with the opening of that third bottle of champagne Madame's cheeks were more flushed than ever. My companion glanced out into the gardens. Another party had arrived.
There were loungers in front of the hotel entrance, more loungers examining the miniature aviary just outside the restaurant. Monsieur Desrolles suddenly addressed me in a lowered tone, and I realised the thing was about to happen.
"Monsieur will excuse me for a moment," he begged. "It is better, perhaps—Monsieur will understand."
He rose to his feet and approached the American, who was just paying his bill. He whispered a word in his ear, to which the departing guest listened in blank amazement. Then he passed on to another group, where a man was entertaining two ladies, and finally paused before the table of Mademoiselle la danseuse, and whispered also in her ear. Then he returned to me.
His movements had bean so unobtrusive that scarcely anyone seemed to have noticed his little detour, but he had scarcely regained his seat before the American and his party hurriedly took their leave, before Mademoiselle la danseuse, with her arm through her companion's, moved to the bar, and the man entertaining the two ladies was clamoring for his bill. My friend summoned the cellar man.
"The wine is becoming too cold," he said. "Please remove it from the pail."
The man obeyed, and placed the bottle upon the table. Afterward I knew that this must have been a signal, for the scene that followed, notwithstanding its evidences of magnificent organization, its swiftness, its unexpectedness, resembled pandemonium. Monsieur Desrolles stepped behind my chair, threw his unneeded pince-nez upon the table, and cast a lightning-like glance up and down the room. The four men who had been lunching alone, and the two others from a distant corner, sprang to their feet. Outside, the newcomers who had been watching the aviary closed around the door, and, before I could realize it the whole company had encircled the table of Madame.
Two men had gripped the shoulders of the avocat from Marseilles, two the secretary, two the visitor from Paris, and. even before their knives and forks had fallen clattering upon their plates, even before the cry had altogether escaped from the startled lips of any one of them, there were handcuffs upon their wrists.
But, if these men, her myrmidons, had seemed to become easy prey to the officers of the law with whom the room appeared unexpectedly to swarm, it was otherwise with Madame. She had risen at the first alarm, and she seemed veritably to swell in her place as she stood there doing battle for her liberty. She kicked the chair away from behind her, her huge, muscular arms suddenly freed themselves, as though by some magical effort, from the unnatural constraint of her tight gown. The first man who had laid hands upon her lay senseless upon the floor.
With a sudden dive, she seized hold of the other, and, gripping him in her arms to shield herself from the bullets that threatened, she dashed down the room, to the amazement of the scattering company, only to find herself face to face at the door with the guard Monsieur Desrolles had posted there.
For the first time she must have realized that the game was up. What followed we saw, wedged together, in our frantic rush from behind. She held out the struggling man she had been carrying to shelter her from the threatened attack, and then, bending one knee, she flung him straight, in the faces of the nearest of her antagonists. He fell upon the path and lay there unconscious. There was something terrifying in the sight of the man, who, with his disguise abandoned, and with his feminine trappery hanging around him in rags, stood dauntlessly facing certain death or capture. Not even the displaced flaxen wig, the patchy complexion, the shreds of his undignified masquerade, could make him ridiculous.
One great arm swung out, and laid low a man who had foolishly approached within reach. He stood there, counting the chances against him, and finding them overwhelming. The next moment his right hand had momentarily disappeared, the sunlight flashed no longer up on the diamonds but upon something more sinister gripped in his fingers. He collapsed among them all, but the hand that had rid the world of her most notorious modern criminal had been his own.
FOR over a week the restaurant was closed. On the day before its reopening I found it still under surveillance, but there was access to the bar. and Louis was wandering about the grounds. He greeted me warmly, and the change in his appearance was marvelous.
"You're much better, Louis," I remarked.
"Monsieur will admit that the situation for me was terrible," he pleaded, "and the curious part of it is that I, who was so much the subject of her pretended whims, never had the least idea but that she was indeed a woman. She imposed upon everyone, and she made a fool of me to keep up the illusion. There was no other disguise, I suppose," he went on "that could have concealed the face and figure of Martin Fynes. There were descriptions of him at every police center, but as a woman—a great, muscular fellow like that! Who would have believed it?"
"I sat opposite to him three times," I acknowledged, "and I never had a moment's suspicion."
"Except for Jean, who was one of them," Louis went on earnestly, "there was not a soul connected with the place who had the slightest, suspicion. The man who I told you used to visit her— was herself. The police found in her room a whole wardrobe of masculine attire, and, naturally, when there was an expedition on foot, she went as a man. You see, the hotel being in the grounds, no one sees who comes in and out, and Madame as a man had become quite a familiar figure, and was accepted as one of her friends. What we are all curious about, monsieur," Louis concluded, after a moment pause, "is how the police discovered the first clue that led them to the truth. All the time I have been here has never been a single inquiry concerning the bona fide of either Madame or any member of her entourage."
The fifty thousand francs was already in my pocket, but I hesitated about letting Louis know the truth. It seemed strange that a momentary glimpse of the secretary's oblong platinum watch should have brought to justice one of the greatest of international criminals, so I kept my secret.