At ten forty-five that night a big Renault saloon swung out of the short side road leading from the Commissariat and sped east along the main coast road.
In the car besides Beghin and myself were two plain-clothes men. One was driving. The other I had recognized as he had sat down beside me in the back. It was my friend of the limonade gazeuse. He refused steadfastly to remember me.
The clouds had gone. The moon, high in the sky, shed a light that made the beams of the headlamps seem pale. As we left the outskirts of St. Gatien, the hum of the engine rose in pitch and the tires slithered on the wet road as we rounded the “S” bends beyond the Reserve headland. I leaned back on the cushions, trying to resolve the chaos of my thoughts.
Here was I, Josef Vadassy, a man who, not two hours before, had been resigned to the loss of his work, his liberty, and his hopes, calmly sitting in the back seat of a French police car on its way to catch a spy!
Calmly? No, that was not quite true. I was anything but calm. I wanted to sing. And yet I was not quite sure what I wanted to sing about. Was it the knowledge that tomorrow, in almost exactly twenty-four hours’ time, I should be sitting in a train nearing Paris? Or was it that soon, tonight, I was to learn the answer to a question, that my problem was to be solved for me, without a pencil and paper? I worried over these alternatives.
I think that all this was part of my body’s reaction to the tension of the last three days. All the evidence points to that conclusion. My stomach rumbled incessantly. I was very thirsty. I kept lighting cigarettes and then pitching them out of the window before I had smoked them. Also, and this was most significant, I had that curious feeling of having forgotten something, of having left something behind in St. Gatien, something that I should need. All nonsense, of course. I had left nothing in St. Gatien that could have been the slightest use to me that night in Toulon.
The car hummed on through moonlit avenues of trees. Then we left the trees behind and the country became more open. There were plantations of olives, their leaves a silvery gray in the light of the headlamps. We flashed through villages. Then we came into a small town. A man in the square shouted angrily at us as we shot past him. “Soon,” I thought, “we shall be at Toulon.” I had a sudden desire to talk to someone. I turned to the man beside me.
“What was that place?”
He removed his pipe from his mouth. “La Cadiere.”
“Do you know who it is that we are going to arrest?”
“No.” He put his pipe back in his mouth and stared straight ahead.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “about the lemonade.”
He grunted. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
I gave it up. The Renault swung to the right and accelerated along a straight road. I stared at Beghin’s head and shoulders outlined against the glare of the headlights. I saw him light a cigarette. Then he half turned his head.
“It’s no use trying to pump Henri,” he said. “He is discretion itself.”
“Yes, I see that.”
He threw the match out of the window. “You spent four days at the Reserve, Vadassy. Haven’t you any idea of the man we’re going to arrest?”
He chuckled wheezily. “Not even a guess?”
“Not even a guess.”
Henri stirred. “You’d make a bad detective.”
“I sincerely hope so,” I retorted coldly.
He grunted. Beghin chuckled again. “Be careful, Henri. Monsieur has a forked tongue in his head and he is still angry with the police.” He turned to the driver. “Stop at the poste at Ollioules.”
A few minutes later we entered the town in question and pulled up outside a small building in the square. A uniformed agent was waiting at the door. He walked over, saluted, and leaned through the window of the car.
“They are waiting for you at the junction of the main road and the road from Sablettes, Monsieur. The car from the garage at St. Gatien returned five minutes ago.”
We drove on again. Five minutes later I saw the rear light of a stationary car on the road in front of us. The Renault slowed and came to a standstill behind it. Beghin got out.
A tall thin man was standing by the side of the car in front. He walked towards Beghin and they shook hands. For a moment or two they stood talking, then the tall man walked back to his car and Beghin returned to the Renault.
“That is Inspector Fournier of the dock police,” said Beghin to me as he climbed in. “We are going to his territory.” He slammed the door and turned to the driver. “Follow the Inspector’s car.”
We moved off again. Soon now the lines of trees through which we had been driving since Ollioules thinned and we passed a factory or two. Finally we swung on to a brightly lighted road with tram tracks down the center and cafes on the pavements. Then we turned to the right and I saw the name “Boulevard de Strasbourg” on the corner building. We were in Toulon.
The cafes were full. Groups of French sailors strolled along the pavements. There were many girls. A handsome young colored woman with a picture hat and a tight black dress walked serenely across the road in front of us, causing our driver to brake hard and swear. An old man was wandering along in the gutter playing a mandolin. I saw a dark, fat man stop a sailor, say something to him, and receive a shove that sent him cannoning into a woman with a tray of sweets. Farther down we passed a naval patrol going in and out of the cafes warning the sailors that it was time to get down to the tenders waiting to return to the warships. Then we came to a less frequented part of the Boulevard and the car in front slowed down and turned to the right. A moment or two later we were threading our way cautiously through a network of dark, narrow streets of houses and steel-shuttered shops. Then the houses became less frequent and there were whole streets lined only with the high blank walls of warehouses. It was in such a street that we eventually stopped.
“We get out here,” said Beghin.
It was a warm night, but as I stood on the damp cobbles I shivered. It may have been excitement, but I think that it was fear. There was something eerie about those blank walls.
Beghin touched me on the arm.
“Come on, Vadassy, a little walk now.”
Ahead of us the Inspector and three other men were standing waiting.
“It’s very quiet,” I said.
He grunted. “What do you expect at this time of night among a lot of warehouses? Stay in the rear with Henri and don’t make a noise.”
He joined the Inspector and the three men fell in behind him. Henri and I brought up the rear. The drivers remained at their posts.
At the end of the walls we turned into a street that twisted out of sight a few meters farther down. On the right-hand side was the end wall of the warehouse alongside which the cars were drawn up. On the left was a row of old houses. They were three stories high and mostly in darkness. Here and there, however, slits of light gleamed through closed shutters. The moon cast indeterminate pools of shadow along the cracked stucco walls. Somewhere, in one of the upper rooms, a radio was croaking out a tango.
“What happens now?” I asked.
“We just pay a call,” whispered Henri. “It’ll be quite polite. Keep your mouth shut now or I’ll get into trouble. We’re getting close.”
The street had narrowed still more. As we rounded the bend I felt the cobbles begin to slope downwards. Dimly, I could see that there were once more high blank walls on both sides of us, walls reinforced with tall concrete buttresses. Suddenly, in the shadow one of the buttresses, I saw something move.
My heart leaped. I gripped Henri’s arm.
“There’s somebody there!”
“Keep quiet,” he muttered. “It’s one of our men. We’ve got the place surrounded.”
We walked on a few meters. The ground became level again. Then I saw a gap in the wall on the right. It looked like the entrance to one of the warehouses, a way for trucks. The men ahead melted into the shadows. As I followed, I felt the cobbles give way to cinders. I paused uncertainly.
“Get into the side,” hissed Henri, “to your left.”
I obeyed cautiously and my outstretched hand encountered a wall. There were no longer any movements in front. I looked up. The walls rose like the sides of a deep canyon to a wedge of starry sky. Suddenly the beam of a torch cut
through the darkness ahead and I saw that the others were standing before a wooden door in the side of the left-hand wall. I moved forward. The torch lit up the surface of the door. On it were painted the words: AGENCE MARITIME, F. P. METRAUX.
Beghin grasped the handle of the door and turned gently. The door swung inwards. Henri prodded me in the back and I moved forward after the others.
Inside the door was a short passage terminating in a steep flight of bare wooden stairs. A naked electric light on the landing above cast a cold glare on the flaking plaster wall. The Agence Metraux did not appear to be very prosperous.
The stairs creaked as Beghin began slowly to walk up them. As I followed, I noticed that Henri, just behind me, had taken a large revolver from his pocket. The call was evidently not going to be quite as “polite” as Henri had prophesied. My heart thumped in my chest. Somewhere in this drab, smelly, sinister building there was a man I knew. Not half an hour ago he had walked up these stairs, the stairs beneath my feet now. Soon, in a moment or two perhaps, I should meet him again. That was the part that was so frightening. He could do no harm to me and yet I was frightened. I wished suddenly that I had a mask to conceal my face. Stupid, yes. And then I began to wonder which it would be. I saw their faces as they had stood watching me when I had been “arrested”-scared, shocked. Yet one of them, one of them…
Henri prodded me in the back and motioned to me to keep up with the man in front of me.
On the first landing Beghin stopped in front of a heavy wooden door and tried the handle. It opened easily and the light revealed an empty room, the floor of which was strewn with slabs of plaster fallen from the ceiling. He paused to wipe off the sweat glistening on his forehead and neck, and led the way on up the stairs.
He had nearly reached the top of the second flight when he stopped again, and motioned us to wait. Then he and the Inspector stepped on to the landing out of sight.
In the silence I could hear the watch ticking on the wrist of the man in front of me. Then, as the silence intensified, my ears caught a faint murmur of voices. I held my breath. A moment later the Inspector’s head and shoulders appeared over the banister rail above, and he signaled us on.
The landing was a duplicate of the one below. There was, however, no light. Very quietly the men ranged themselves in front of the door. I found myself pressed against the wall beside it. The voices were louder now and, although the actual words were too indistinct to identify, I could hear that the owner of one of the voices-a man-was speaking Italian.
I saw Beghin’s hand go towards the handle, hesitate, then grasp it firmly and turn.
The door was locked; but the slight rattle of the handle had been heard inside. The voices stopped suddenly. Beghin swore under his breath, and rapped loudly on the door panels. There was dead silence from the room. Beghin waited a moment, then turned round quickly to Henri. Henri held out his revolver butt foremost. Beghin nodded and took it. Turning to the door again, he thumbed back the hammer of the gun, and put the muzzle diagonally against the keyhole. Then he squeezed the trigger.
The noise of the explosion was deafening. For a moment the door held. Then two of the detectives flung their bodies against it, and it flew open with a crash. My ears singing, I stumbled in after them.
It was a small room furnished as an office, but with an iron bedstead in one corner. There was nobody in it. On the far side, however, there was another door. With a shout the Inspector dashed across to it and flung it open.
The far room was in darkness; but as the door flew inwards the light from the pendant in the office flooded across to a window in the end wall. From the darkness a woman screamed. The next instant a man dashed to the window, threw it open, and flung his leg over the sill.
It all happened in the fraction of a second. The man was at the window almost before the Inspector had recovered his balance. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Beghin raise the revolver quickly. Simultaneously the man at the window turned, and his arm shot out. There was a flash and a roar. I heard the bullet thud into the Inspector’s shoulder a split second before Beghin fired. There was a tinkle of glass, and the woman inside the room screamed again. Then the window slammed. The man had gone. But in the instant that he had turned to fire, I had seen his face and had recognized him.
It was Roux.
I saw the Inspector lean against the doorpost, his face contorted with pain. Then I dashed after the others into the further room.
Cowering white-faced and whimpering in the corner was Mademoiselle Martin. Beside her, his hands raised above his head, stood a thickset bald-headed man protesting angrily in rapid Italian that he was an honest businessman, a friend of France and that, as he had done nothing criminal, the police were not entitled to interfere with him.
Beghin had gone straight to the window. His bullet had smashed one of the panes of glass, but of Roux there was no sign. Over Henri’s shoulder I caught a glimpse of the roof of an adjoining building about two meters below.
Beghin turned quickly.
“He’s got clear over the roofs. Duprat, Marechal, look after these two here. Mortier, you get down to the street, and warn the men there to keep watch on the roofs and shoot on sight. Then come back and see what you can do for Inspector Fournier; he’s wounded. Henri, come with me! You, too, Vadassy, you may be useful.”
Sweating and cursing, he heaved himself over the sill and dropped on the roof below. As Henri and I followed, I heard the Inspector weakly exhorting the detective, Mortier, not to stand there gaping like a fool, but get down to the street as he had been told.
I found myself standing on a low parapet running round the four sides of a flat roof with a skylight like a cucumber frame in the center. Around it rose the blank walls of the adjoining warehouses. In the shadows cast by the moon it looked as though there was no exit from the roof. But Roux had completely disappeared.
“Have you a torch?” snapped Beghin to Henri.
“Then don’t stand about. Get over to the skylight and see if it can be opened from this side. And for God’s sake hurry.”
As Henri jumped down on to the leads to obey, Beghin started walking round the parapet. I could hear him muttering curious oaths as he went. Then I saw what he was making for. In the shadow at the far corner of the roof there was a narrow gap between the converging walls. As he turned his torch on it, Henri called over that it was impossible for a man to escape through the skylight. A second after he spoke there was a stab of flame and a report from the darkness ahead, and a bullet smacked viciously into the brickwork behind me.
Beghin knelt down and lowered himself on to the leads. I followed suit. Bent double, Henri scuttled across to us out of the shadows.
“He is beyond the corner, between the two walls, Monsieur.”
“I know that, imbecile. Keep down, Vadassy, and stay where you are. Henri, get across to the wall, and work your way towards the gap, under cover. If you see him shine your torch on him. We’ve got him cornered.”
Henri hurried away and Beghin, revolver raised, started to walk slowly along the leads towards the gap. A small cloud obscured the moon for a second or two, and I lost sight of him. A second later there was the flash of a torch, and a moment after two shots crashed out in quick succession. The flashes came from the corner by the gap. As the echo of the shots died away, I heard Beghin calling to Henri not to go any farther.
Unable to resist the temptation any longer, I followed. As I reached the corner I nearly bumped into Beghin, who was peering cautiously into the pitch-black shaft between the walls.
“Did you see him?” I whispered.
“No. He saw us. You’d better get back, Vadassy.”
“I’d rather stay here, if you don’t mind.”
“Then don’t grumble if you get shot. He’s on an iron fire-escape about twenty meters along the wall round this corner. It’s the back wall of a warehouse in the street running parallel to the one we came along. Henri, you get back, and tell them in the street to get some men on to that warehouse. If the watchman is still asleep, tell them to break in. I want them to take him from the rear. And tell them to be quick about it.”
Henri crept away. We waited in silence. In the distance there were the sounds of a train shunting and of cars on the boulevard. Near at hand it was deadly quiet.
“Supposing he slips away before…” I began at last.
He gripped my arm. “Shut up and listen!”
I listened. At first I could hear nothing, then, a very faint grating noise came to my ears. It was an odd sound, hollow and metallic. Beghin drew in his breath sharply. I saw him edge forward to the corner of the brickwork. I bent down and moved forward until I could just see over the parapet. Suddenly the beam of his torch shot out into the darkness. The beam swept over the concrete on the opposite side of the shaft. Then it stopped and I saw the fire-escape.
Roux was nearing the top of it. As the torch caught him he looked round quickly, and half-raised the revolver in his hand. His face was white, and he blinked in the light. Then Beghin’s gun crashed out. The bullet hit the escape with a clang, and whined off into space. Roux lowered his gun and raced for the top. Beghin fired again, and ran forward along the guttering between the walls to the foot of the escape. I hesitated for a second before following him. By the time I reached the fire-escape he was halfway up. I could see his bulk against the sky, a shadow moving slowly across the wall. I went up after him.
A moment later I was sorry that I had done so, for I saw a movement against the skyline.
Beghin stopped and called down to me to go back. At the same moment Roux’s bullet hit the rail near my feet. Beghin fired back, but Roux was no longer visible. The fat man clattered up the last few stairs. When I caught up with him he was raising his head gingerly over the top of the ledge running round the roof. He swore softly.
“Has he got away?”
Without answering me, he stepped over the ledge to the roof.
It was long, narrow, and quite flat. Near us was a large water-tank. At the far end was a triangular structure containing the door leading below. Between was a forest of square steel ventilating-shafts. Beghin drew me into the shadow of the tank.
“We shall have to wait for reinforcements. We should never find him among those ventilators, and he could snipe us if we tried it.”
“But he may get away while we’re waiting.”
“No. We’ve got him here. There’re only two ways off this roof-the fire-escape and that door over there. He’ll probably try to shoot his way out. You’d better stay here when the men arrive.”
But there was another way off the roof, and Roux was to take it.
We did not have to wait long. Almost as soon as Beghin had finished speaking, gardes mobiles with rifles were pouring on the roof through the door. Beghin shouted to them to spread out, and advance towards us. They obeyed promptly. The line began to move. I waited with bated breath.
I don’t quite know what I expected to happen, but what did actually happen was unexpected.
The line of men had almost reached the last row of ventilators, and I was beginning to think that Roux must, after all, have given us the slip, when suddenly I saw a figure dart from behind the ventilators and make for the ledge opposite us. A garde shouted and raced in pursuit. Beghin ran forward. Roux leaped up on the ledge and steadied himself for an instant.
And then I understood. Between the roof on which we stood and that of the next warehouse was a space of about two meters. Roux was going to jump for it.
I saw him crouch for the take-off. The nearest garde was about twenty meters from him, working the bolt of his rifle as he ran. Beghin was still farther away. Then Beghin stopped and raised his revolver.
He fired just as Roux was straightening his body. The bullet hit him in the right arm, for I saw his left hand clutch at it. Then he lost his balance.
It was horrible. For one brief instant he struggled to save himself. Then, as he realized that he was falling, he cried out.
The cry rose to a scream as he disappeared, a scream that stopped abruptly with the dreadful sound of his body hitting the concrete below.
I watched Beghin walk over to the ledge and look down. Then, for the second time in twenty-four hours, I was violently ill.
When they reached Roux, he was dead.
“His real name,” said Beghin, “was Verrue. Arsene Marie Verrue. We’ve known about him for years. He is-was-a Frenchman, but his mother was an Italian. He was born at Briancon, near the Italian frontier. In 1924 he deserted from the army. Soon after, we heard that he was working as an Italian agent in Zagreb. Then, for a time, he worked for the Rumanian army intelligence service. Afterwards he went to Germany for some other government, probably Italy again. He came here on forged papers. Anything else you want to know?”
We were back in the office of the Agence Metraux. Inspector Fournier had been taken away in an ambulance. Detectives were busy transferring all the papers, files, and books in the office to a van that had been summoned for the purpose. One man was engaged in ripping open the upholstery of the chairs. Another was prizing up the floorboards.
“What about Mademoiselle Martin?”
He shrugged casually. “Oh! She was just his woman. She knew what he was up to, of course. She’s down at the poste now in a faint. We’ll question her later. I expect we shall have to let her go. The one I am glad to get is Maletti, or Metraux, as he calls himself. He’s the brain behind all this. Roux was never important, just an employee. We shall get the rest soon. All the information is here.”
He went over to the man at work on the floor, and began to examine a bundle of papers that had been found below the boards. I was left to myself.
So it was Roux. Now I knew why his accent had seemed so familiar. It was the same accent as that of my colleague Rossi, the Italian at the Mathis School of Languages. Now I knew what Roux had been talking about when he had offered me five thousand francs for a piece of information. It had been the hiding-place of the photographs that he had wanted. Now I knew who had hit me on the head, who had searched my room, who had slammed and locked the writing-room door. Now, I knew, and it did not seem to matter that I knew. In my ears was still that last agonized shriek. In my mind’s eye I saw Mademoiselle Martin and the dead spy standing in front of the Russian billiard table. I saw her pressing against him. But… Roux was never important… just an employee… she was just his woman. Yes, of course. That was the way to look at it.
An agent came into the room with a package in his hand. Beghin left his papers and opened the package. Inside it was a Zeiss Contax camera and a large telephoto lens. Beghin beckoned to me.
“They were found in his pockets,” he said. “Do you want to see the number?”
I looked at the camera in his hand. The lens and shutter mechanism were crushed sideways.
I shook my head. “I’ll take your word for it, Monsieur Beghin.”
He nodded. “There’s no point in your staying any longer. Henri is downstairs. He will take you back to St. Gatien in the car.” He turned once more to his papers.
I hesitated. “There’s just one more thing, Monsieur Beghin. Can you explain why he should have stayed on at the Reserve, trying to get his film back?”
He looked up a trifle irritably. He shrugged. “I don’t know. He was probably paid on results. I expect he needed the money. Good night, Vadassy.”
I walked downstairs to the street.
“He needed the money.”
It was like an epitaph.