"THIS is a pleasant strip of land, though small," Paddy Collins, the wanderer, meditated, gazing out of the window of his friend's villa at La Turbie. "The whisky is agreeable, and the cost of living moderate. I'm thinking of taking up my abode in your vicinity, Peter."
Peter Hames shook his head.
"You are too restless, Paddy," he observed. "Leaving out the gambling, which you don't care much about, there's not enough here to interest you."
"Lord bless my soul!" the Irishman replied. "Five pretty good rows, two broken heads, a shot in my shoulder blade, a dozen very near drunks, and a lovely cousin found in the bosom of the mountains. What are you talking about, man? It's a place after my own heart."
"You're luckier than I," was his friend's gloomy comment.
Paddy Collins rose from his seat in the studio and went across to the easel.
"You spend too much of your time, Peter, slapping paint on those old canvases. You're a good nightbird all right when there's something calling, but that's all there is to you. You don't need to paint for your living, lad. You don't help anyone else in life by spoiling good, honest canvas like that. Come down with me now to the center of the world, and we'll take a couple of dry ones with Francis."
Peter Hames knocked out his pipe.
"You're not a flatterer, old chap," he observed.
"Though I've the tongue of an Irishman, I'm a truthful man," Paddy Collins avowed. "I'd sooner have one picture from that chap whose home you saved up in the mountains than a dozen of yours. Quit it, lad. Let's go and see the town."
"Against my will I am persuaded," was the regretful reply. "Wait until I take off this smock, and I'm with you..."
They drove down to the Royalty Bar and, being early, found a table out in the sunshine. The Irishman leaned across toward his friend.
"Peter," he said, "you mind the little lass up in the mountains there?"
"I do indeed."
"Well, cousin or no cousin, I'm going to marry her. We're going to build up that farm into something worth while, spend a month or two a year there, and when we go away to jog around a bit, we'll leave it in charge of her father. What do you think of that for a scheme?"
"You're a lucky man, Paddy," his companion declaimed.
"And what's the matter with you that you can't find a girl of your own?" Paddy Collins demanded. "There's many of them about in these parts, and one I have seen—"
"That'll do, Paddy, old chap," his friend begged.
Just then a waiter hurried out from the closed part of the bar.
"There's a lady who desires to speak with monsieur upon the telephone," he said, addressing Peter.
The latter hastened in, picked up the receiver, announced himself, and listened. The voice which answered him was the voice of a stranger.
"It is Monsieur Peter Hames?"
"I speak for Mademoiselle Christian. She left word that I was to ring you up at your villa, at the Hôtel de Paris, the Royalty Bar, and afterward at the Café de Paris. Mademoiselle desires that you come to her at once."
"Certainly," Peter Hames agreed. "Where is she?"
The woman's voice became a little troubled.
"But monsieur—monsieur would know that."
"How the mischief could I know?" was the anxious rejoinder. "I have not seen Miss Christian for a week. If you are ringing up for her, you must know where she is. Tell me, and I will go there immediately."
The woman's voice was still uneasy.
"Mademoiselle never allows her whereabouts to be spoken of, but one would imagine that monsieur knows where she spends much of the latter part of the night—"
"Good God!" Peter Hames exclaimed. "Do you mean the—"
"Monsieur is probably right," the voice interrupted. "Monsieur will search for mademoiselle there?"
"I should say so," he replied, putting down the receiver.
He strode out to where his friend was waiting for him.
"Gone all thoughts of our peaceful gossip, I'm afraid, Paddy," he sighed. "Come along. Have you got a stout heart in you this morning?"
"Aye, and a fist that's spoiling for a bit of work," Paddy Collins declared, swiftly downing the gin and tonic which the waiter had brought. "Drink your own, Peter. You'll be none the worse for it."
But Peter Hames had other thoughts. He was already in his car.
"Is it a long way we're going?" his friend inquired as he settled himself down by his side.
"Less than half a mile. It's to the little night café at Beausoleil."
"Is it trouble we'll be finding there?" Paddy asked hopefully.
"I can't tell you anything," was the dazed reply. "I only know that a young woman I'm interested in was probably there last night and hasn't returned. I just heard from her maid."
PETER HAMES drove without concealment to the front of the café. The door was inhospitably closed, but it yielded to firm treatment. A sleepy-eyed youth in blue overalls was making languid efforts to tidy up the place.
"Where's John?" Peter Hames demanded.
"Gone," was the brusque reply. "I'm the new barman."
"And Madame Lapouge, the patronne, where's she?"
"Gone, too. Everyone's gone."
"Where's the patron?"
"Gone out to get his coffee. If you want a drink, I'll give you one. We're not ready for customers yet."
"Was there a young lady here last night—Mademoiselle Anna?"
The barman shrugged his shoulders.
"How should I know?" he asked. "My first evening. There may have been."
Peter Hames took hold of the youth by the back of his shirt and the seat of his trousers, and lifted him out of the way.
"I'm going to search this place," he announced.
The young man flung his broom at this unpleasant visitor and escaped into the back premises. They could hear him shouting in patois. Almost simultaneously, a familiar figure entered from the back door of the place. Coatless and unshaven, he presented a very different appearance, but it was undoubtedly Monsieur le Marquis de Verrais, sometimes known as François Legrande, who confronted them.
"What do you want, making a disturbance in my café at this hour of the morning?" he asked, with an angry flash of his white teeth.
Peter Hames stared at the speaker, and that vague sense of apprehension which had been with him since the ringing of the telephone suddenly deepened.
"Since when has it been your café?" he questioned.
"The papers were signed yesterday, if you must know. It is my café, and I am free to serve whom I please. I don't wish for anything to do with you or your friends. Be so good as to leave without disturbance."
"On the contrary," Peter Hames told him fiercely, "I am going to search every inch of your premises from cellar to attic."
"Search my premises, indeed! For what?"
"Stand out of the way!" Peter ordered. "The last time I knocked you down on the Corniche Road—rather a surprise, wasn't it? I hurt you a little more than you expected. This time, it may take you a little longer to get over it."
Legrande's fingers slipped into his waistcoat, and he produced, not a weapon, but a whistle. He blew it long and furiously.
"That is for the police," he mocked them. "Now we shall see whether they will allow strangers to trample through my premises."
"Not quite strangers, Monsieur le Marquis," Peter Hames reminded him.
"I've never broken the law anyhow," the other replied.
Legrande held out his hand, pointing toward the door in a triumphant gesture. With official bearing, but very unofficial haste, a sergeant of police, attended by a gendarme, was crossing the threshold.
"Monsieur le Sergeant," he complained, "these two men—I do not know them—they are not friends of mine—arrived here just now, assaulted my barman, and announced their intention of breaking open my doors and searching every room of the house. They should be removed at once. I charge them with assault."
"What have you to say about this, monsieur?" the sergeant demanded, turning toward Peter.
"A young woman, who is accustomed to spend an hour or so here several nights a week," Peter Hames recounted, "was here last night and has not returned to her, home. I happen to know that this fellow Legrande, who tells me he has purchased this café, besides being a thorough scamp has a grudge against the young woman. I admit I told him that I intended to search the place to look for her. Since you are here, Sergeant, you will perhaps spare me the trouble."
The sergeant looked at him sternly. "What reasons have you, monsieur, for believing that the young woman is on these premises?" he asked.
"I received a telephone message asking that I should come to her assistance," he replied.
"You're making a mistake, sir," the sergeant declared, addressing Peter Hames. "Monsieur Legrande is, so far as we know, an honest man, and there is no evidence whatsoever making it necessary for us to search his premises."
Peter Hames sighed as he produced his pocketbook.
"No, Sergeant," he said gently, "you need not fear or hope that I am about to offer you a bribe. Be so good as to glance at this card."
He passed it across. The sergeant glanced at it at first superciliously, started as he read the name, and wilted as he read the few lines of writing. He handed it back and saluted.
"Monsieur is at liberty to search the premises," he announced. "My gendarme and I are at your disposal."
"What?" Legrande scowled. "Sergeant, what is this?"
"I believe you to be an honest man, Monsieur Legrande," the sergeant said. "My sympathy is with you, but monsieur has a card there which permits him special license in the Principality, and by courtesy in the immediate neighborhood. I cannot interfere."
"Stop!" Legrande cried. "It was a young woman for whom monsieur was inquiring? There was one here last night, for a very short time. She arrived drunk, and asked leave to lie down upstairs. I had forgotten her. It is perhaps the young woman of whom monsieur is in search. Wait!"
He hurried out of the place.
IN LESS than three minutes Peter Hames, at any rate, had the surprise of his life. There was the sound of the banging of a door, light footsteps outside and, through the back entrance to the bar, a cigarette in her long holder, a queer little smile upon her lips, came Mademoiselle Anna.
"But what a commotion!" she exclaimed. "The police, too!"
"Is this the young person?" the sergeant asked Peter Hames.
The latter nodded.
"Mademoiselle Anna," he went on, turning toward her, "the sergeant is here to know if you have any complaints—in plain words, whether you have been detained here against your will?"
Monsieur Legrande, who had followed softly down the stairs, stood irresolute by the side of the counter. Mademoiselle knocked the ash from her cigarette.
"Complaints?" she repeated. "What complaints should I have? I stayed here, too, last night and fell asleep."
Peter was watching Legrande's face. His expression of fear had changed at first into one of blank bewilderment; afterward to one of relief.
Mademoiselle Anna tossed away her cigarette. Standing there in the full glare of the morning sunshine Peter Hames marveled more than ever at her amazing make-up. There was scarcely even a suggestion of Sybil Christian either in her features or coloring.
"Oh, la la!" she exclaimed. "I want my déjeuner! Bon jour, Monsieur Legrande. My two friends, since you are here, you will accompany me, I trust?"
They left the place together. Mademoiselle Anna, walking between them, took an arm of each and led them a little way up the street. As soon as they were out of hearing of the café, she paused and summoned a passing carriage.
"Remain mystified until one o'clock, dear friends," she begged. "Lunch with me then at the Pomme d'Or."
She sprang lightly into the vehicle, waved her hand with a gesture half impudent, half friendly, and drove away—Mademoiselle Anna at midday as perfect of her type as at midnight.
THE Pomme d'Or, which was truly French, was not prepared to offer cocktails, but over their glass of Dubonnet, served whilst the lunch which Sybil Christian had ordered was prepared, she told her story.
"You knew, of course," she began, "that up till yesterday, the Café Régal belonged to me?"
"So I understood," Peter Hames admitted.
"Madame Lapouge was the ostensible owner. A few days ago she told me that she had had an offer for the place. It has been of little use to me since we ran it respectably, as all the gamins of the neighborhood stay away. I wasn't keen to sell, however, until she divulged the name of the would-be purchaser. Legrande, if you please, with Fifine living in the place as the wife of the patron! I didn't hesitate for a minute. I told her to sell, with a proviso that the room on the next floor where I have the microphone and the cupboard was reserved entirely for my use. Madame Lapouge told Legrande that I had taken it for a year and paid for it in advance. He believes that I wish it for resting in, to put my clothes in, or to keep rendezvous with my lovers—"
"Stop!" Peter Hames interrupted. "Are you telling me that Legrande has not recognized you?"
"That is the point of the whole thing," Sybil explained. "He suspects I'm a spy of some sort, but he doesn't know for whom, and he actually has not connected me in any way with Sybil Christian; neither, although she is vaguely suspicious, has Fifine, who now patronizes me. Last night, I knew that Legrande meant to entertain a few of his criminal friends in the salon. I pretended a headache and went up to my room to lie down for a time. While I was there I heard the handle turn, but I had had brass bolts fitted to stop any enterprises of that sort and to prevent anyone coming in while I was using the microphone. Half an hour later, I heard the key, which I had foolishly left in the lock on the outside, turn, and I knew that I was locked in."
"But how did you telephone?" Peter Hames marveled.
"Wait!" she begged. "I am convinced that when Legrande locked me in, he thought that I was probably asleep, and that, at any rate, he was making sure of me. Half a dozen men had a little meeting in the salon, and most of what they said I heard. That's another story. I'm only explaining last night for the present. It was quite worth waiting for, quite worth listening to. I feel sure that Legrande really forgot to turn the key again; forgot that I was there, locked in. This morning, I withdrew the bolts, slept for a little time, and waited. Soon after you arrived, I suppose, I heard the key turn. Then I came out."
"What about the telephone?" he asked.
"That was a blunder," she admitted. "Some time ago, I told Christine, my maid, if ever I should fail to return, to telephone to you. I felt safer like that, for, as you know, queer things have happened at the Café Régal."
"Then really," Peter Hames observed dolefully, "you didn't send for us and you were in no need of help."
"I don't think so," she meditated. "I have kept my room locked up all the time. The lock came to me from Paris, and I am perfectly certain the key could not be copied, so my wardrobe which contains the microphone can never have been examined. The proof of that is the conversation I heard last night. You can understand my attitude this morning now. I want to keep my position at the café. It was a bad place in old Madame's time. It seems to me, from what I heard, that it will be a much worse place under Legrande."
Luncheon was a somewhat silent meal, and immediately afterward Paddy Collins hurried off to meet his relative from the mountains.
"Why so depressed?" Sybil asked her remaining guest.
"Let me drive you up to the hills, well away from this place," he begged, "and I'll tell you."
"I should love it," she assented.
In a side road, which was little more than a cart track across a field, in the shadow of a small plantation of pines, Peter Hames brought his car to a standstill and answered his companion's question.
"I am depressed," he said deliberately, "because I hate the life you are living—this double life of social stunts and sordid adventures."
"I've had some fun out of it," she reminded him. "So have you."
"Let it go at that," he begged. "One can't keep on having all the luck. And I'm all the more depressed," he went on, "because I have a queer presentiment about the Café Régal."
"If they had meant mischief," she pointed out, "they had plenty of time between four o'clock, when the meeting was over, and half past seven."
"All the same," Peter rejoined, "Legrande swore that there was no one in the place when I came for you, and nothing would induce him to let me make a search. It was only the coming of the police that made him remember you, and let you out."
"Peter," she announced, "I'll make a bargain with you. I'll listen in once more, to the meeting tonight, and that shall be the end. If there's an adventure in what I hear, it shall be our last."
He took her hand.
"Agreed," he promised.
MADEMOISELLE ANNA, from her stool at the end of the counter that night, watched them slip out of the room one by one—these furtive-looking men, whom she had seen enter by twos and threes. She glanced at the little platinum and diamond wrist watch which, as a rule, she kept well concealed. Then she, too, slipped out by that back door, climbed the stairs, unlocked the door of her room and drew the bolts, locked it again from the inside, made her way into what seemed to be a little wardrobe in the corner, inserted another key, and let herself into its recesses...
It seemed to her that the instrument had never been clearer. She heard the demand of a stranger as to their plans. Then she heard Legrande speak, and there were little murmurs of satisfaction from the men who were listening to him.
"Paris, Marseilles, London, New York, Chicago, not to mention any other cities," he said, "have their criminal life organized. Crime is a profession like the others. It is only successful when worked by what the Americans call the 'gang' system, which is to say cooperation. Monte Carlo and Nice have been neglected as too small a field. I dispute that. I contend that there is more money coming and going between these two towns than any other territory of the same size in the world. It is our duty to see that more of it stays.
"Before we start serious operations," he continued, "there are one or two little affairs to be dealt with. We have been annoyed here—indeed, one of my own operations has been interfered with by the meddling of amateurs. One of them is an American painter, another a thick-headed Irishman, and the third a young woman—a very simple creature who belongs to good people but comes here nearly every night eavesdropping and posing as a courtesan. A fatuous young lady, my friends, but one who has earned the punishment that is coming to her."
The little ebony instrument nearly dropped from Sybil's nerveless fingers. Cold horror struck into her heart.
Her first impulse was escape, swift and speedily. She dashed to the door. The bolts still held bravely. She drew them back. Then she fitted in her key, and her heart sank. The lock had been tampered with. From her side, at any rate, there was no way of turning it. Well, it was to have been expected. She fled back again to her place and picked up the instrument.
"As for the Irishman," Legrande was saying, "he is disposed of for tonight. Fifine has taken him to Nice. She has just telephoned from the Savoy Bar there that he is hopelessly drunk. There remains mademoiselle, and with her I propose to deal."
It was one of the "Three Musketeers" who spoke. Sybil recognized his voice.
"One understands... the English world... well placed, not one of us. Is it not possible that trouble might come if our friend Legrande should treat her as she deserves?"
"There will be no trouble," Legrande said calmly. "She has aped the cocotte long enough. She has cut herself adrift from her people with this night life. She has her own bedroom here. What complaints from a young woman living such a life would receive attention? She has destroyed herself. I will deal with her."
"And the American?"
"Our sergeant of police, who is with us, carries always a loaded revolver," he confided. "I myself can deal with six men's lives in six seconds. There is nothing to fear. The American will come after her. He will get what he deserves. The Irishman will be too drunk to do anything for days.
"First of all, I intend to deal with Mademoiselle Anna. You will excuse me, gentlemen, for, shall we say, half an hour? The champagne and brandy are on the sideboard at your disposal. Descend, one of you, if there is something else needed. Let no one mount."
There was a little chorus of what seemed to Sybil in those swooning moments the lewd exultation of a chorus of satyrs. Then there were footsteps outside—heavy, deliberate footsteps, the click of a key fitted into the lock on the other side of the door.
PADDY COLLINS was, or appeared to be, gloriously and magnificently drunk. He sat in an easy-chair at a famous bar in Nice, his arm around Fifine, who sat in an adjacent one, a bottle of whisky, a tumbler, and a bottle of perrier on his own small table, a bottle of champagne in front of Fifine.
"We will not go back," she whispered. "It will serve François right. He sends me out to take care of you while he takes for himself another mistress. He is a beast. We will stay here. We will go anywhere you like. I have kept my word. I brought you away. Very well, I will stay with you. You shall be my man, Monsieur Paddy Collins. You are a very fine man. I like you much."
Fifine was not singularly observant, and she also was very nearly drunk. She did not notice the sudden stiffening of every muscle in her companion's body.
"Ho, ho!" he exclaimed. "So Monsieur Legrande has plans tonight!"
"It serves that silly little fool right," Fifine declared, caressing him more ardently. "She plays at being a cocotte. François will make her one—and it will serve her right. She spies. I hate spies. Monsieur Paddy, I love you, but I hate spies."
"So do I—like hell," Paddy Collins agreed, lumbering to his feet.
"Where are you going?"
"Not far from you, sweetheart," he answered amorously.
He gulped down the rest of his tumblerful of whisky and staggered across the room. She leaned back and laughed—she was earning her money and, after all, it was not so bad. He was a fine figure of a man, this Irishman. She sat and waited for his return—and waited—and waited...
Into the blackness of the night, Paddy Collins stumbled, and for a moment things were blurred for him. The pavements seemed to rise. People stared curiously. Then he set his teeth, drew himself up, stiffened every muscle, and became a man again. In Peter Hames' borrowed car, he glided off into the Promenade des Anglais, narrowly escaped overturning two protesting gendarmes and flashed like a streak around the corner, past the harbor, into the Middle Corniche. It was the drive of a lifetime, and he paused, panting, at last, with shrieking of brakes and blasting of horn before the villa on the hillside at La Turbie. Peter Hames was at the door before he reached it.
"Your gun, Peter!" he shouted. "We've been fooled."
They were in the car together. The last part of the rush came.
"They fooled us, Peter," the Irishman repeated, keeping those stern gray eyes of his fixed upon the road, and his hands gripping the wheel until the veins stood out like whipcord. "Sybil put you on your honor. They sent me off with the little Fifine to Nice. These blasted women! They always blab. A bottle or two of wine in her, and out it came. Sybil never bluffed them. They knew. They're for her tonight. They've got a plan for us tomorrow."
They sat, face level to face, eyes set, nerves tense, blood on fire, but the fight of all the ages never came, for when they flung open the door of the Café Régal, Mademoiselle Anna was sitting on her accustomed stool, smoking a cigarette in her long holder. No other soul was in the place. She looked round, and remained staring at them. They saw in front of her a revolver.
"Paddy!" she exclaimed. "Peter! You, after all! How did you know?"
"Paddy told me," he cried. "Is all well with you, Sybil?"
"I killed him," she confessed. "I had to. The others were afraid when they knew. They skulked away like rats."
Not a sound in the place, no barman in the bar, emptiness and solitude everywhere. They took her out and helped her into the car.
"I had to kill him," she moaned. "Peter, it was my fault. I should have listened to you."
THEY were over the frontier by eight o'clock, with a visa on their passports which brought them many salutations. They raced away into Italy. Paddy Collins leaned over.
"Peter, my lad," he confided, "this is a strange country to me. Do you know of a place near by where perhaps a bottle of Irish whisky might be bought?"
"I'm looking for a place with an English chaplain," Peter Hames replied, "but maybe the two won't be so far apart."