If you walk east along the boulevard, the wide sandy beach running alongside eventually comes to an abrupt end at a point where a rocky promontory juts out into the sea. This marks a boundary of sorts between the resort and the old town; on the other side of the promontory a cluster of white-washed houses, shops and cafés straggled up the hillside above the harbour. I was vaguely irritated to note that Felicity was right in so far as a little time spent wandering the shady streets and secluded squares here did wonders to soothe my agitated nerves. I stopped and enjoyed a delicious seafood lunch at a rustic little tavern before heading off to find Captain Dupree.
There were fishing boats of all shapes and sizes scattered around the harbour and I spent quite some time aimlessly wandering up and down the network of narrow wooden gangways that connected them to the shore before I located the Elise. She was a rather weather-worn but sturdy-looking vessel, about forty feet long and wearing what appeared to be just the latest in a very long line of coats of green paint. A skinny young sailor in a striped t-shirt was swabbing unenthusiastically at the deck. I called up to him, explaining that I had business with the Captain, and he invited me on board and directed me down a steep flight of stairs into the cabin where I found Captain Dupree.
The Captain could not have looked more like a Mediterranean fisherman if he had been ordered direct from central casting. He was about fifty, with a grizzled, sunburnt face adorned with a thick beard and despite the sweltering heat he was dressed in a heavy ribbed sweater and a black cap. He kept an unlit pipe clamped between his teeth at all times and this only served to make his speech, which was conducted for the most part in grunts and mumbles anyway, all the more unintelligible.
I began by handing over the envelope from Felicity. “That’s five thousand francs now, the rest will be paid when we reach our destination,” I told him.
The Captain held the envelope in his outstretched hand for a moment as though he were checking the contents by its weight and then, apparently satisfied, he tossed it casually aside.
“Is everything set for tonight?” I asked.
Captain Dupree grunted in the affirmative.
“The location of the pick-up?”
The Captain beckoned me over to a map that was laid out on a table beside the radio. He jabbed a thumb at a deserted stretch of beach a few miles out from the hotel.
“We will be waiting from eight,” replied the Captain.
“Three flashes of the torch.”
“How long before we reach our destination?”
“Four hours, maybe five,” shrugged the Captain.
I glanced around the low tight cabin, trying to picture Sid, Michael, Felicity and myself sitting here in just a few hours, sailing away to freedom with the Dirwali rubies in our possession.
“Well, that all seems satisfactory,” I finally told Captain Dupree. “I guess I’ll see you tonight.”
He grunted amiably in reply and, leaving him nestled contentedly in a dark corner, I climbed the stairs back up towards the bright sunlight outside.
With a farewell nod to the skinny sailor in the striped t-shirt I scrambled down from the Elise and turned to make my way back along the narrow pontoon towards the shore. I had taken scarcely a couple of steps before I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of an unexpected figure standing on the quayside ahead of me.
I paused for a moment to take in every detail. Leaning against the harbour wall and gazing out to sea, he could have been posing for a catalogue, displaying the latest in stylish summer-wear for the slightly more mature man-about-town. The hair was smoothed away from the forehead in a style I wasn’t quite used to and the beard appeared a little darker than I remembered but there was no mistaking those sharp blue eyes.
This time I was absolutely sure. The man on the quayside was most certainly Sturridge.
“Sturridge!” I instinctively yelled out.
The face swivelled slowly and his eyes met mine with an expression of vague curiosity as though I were some distant colleague whose features he couldn’t quite place. Then, without any further word or sign, he simply turned and walked away.
“Hey Sturridge! Wait!” I cried out.
But it seemed Sturridge had no intention of waiting for me. He didn’t pause to acknowledge my cry in any way but continued to stride away across the harbour at a steady pace.
I darted forwards to go after him but the gangway I was on was narrow and slippery and my progress was impeded by a fishing boat unloading lobster pots a little further along. By the time I scrambled up the ladder onto the quayside Sturridge had already disappeared from view amongst the twisting cobbled streets of the old town. I ploughed across the harbour and darted into the nearest street in pursuit.
Even as I set about systematically scouring the streets for some sign of the enigmatic writer in my heart I sensed it was a hopeless task. The straggling warren of lanes, alleys and courtyards that comprised the old town might have been purposely designed for concealment. And as I darted frantically this way and that in the intense afternoon sunshine the same questions kept running through my head.
How on earth had Sturridge managed to escape from the complex prison that the Explorer’s Club had set up for him? What was he now doing hanging around the seafront of a Riviera resort? And, perhaps most curious of all, why did he seem so bloody determined to avoid me?
It was getting rather late by the time I returned, sweaty, irritable and without the slightest reward for a long afternoon’s hunt around the old town, to the Hotel Majestic. Just exactly how late was brought sharply home to me when I spotted Michael standing in front of the concierge’s desk in the lobby and realised that the final phase of the plan to steal the Dirwali rubies had already swung into action.
My immediate instinct was to rush up and tell him all about the latest Sturridge sighting but before I could dart over Michael had already engaged the concierge in conversation and I realised it wouldn’t do to interrupt him in the middle of his rather delicate business. So I perched myself on the edge of a nearby sofa and waited somewhat impatiently for the exchange to be completed. I was a little too far away to catch the actual words of their discussion but I was quite familiar with how the script was meant to go and so could easily follow the gist of it by means of their gestures and expressions.
Michael was dressed in a sharply tailored dinner jacket, his hair styled a little more slickly than was usual and a light waxing of his moustache had given a rather rakish aspect to his whole appearance. He leaned toward the concierge with a smoothly ingratiating air. This was all very awkward, I could sense him saying, but he found himself in momentary need of the concierge’s help. You see, he had an engagement this evening with the lady in suite 418. A quick glance at his watch. In fact, he was due to pick her up from her room any minute. Only there had been a slight misunderstanding at his lodgings which had seen him rather precipitously ejected and now he found himself saddled with this large suitcase at a most unfortunate moment.
The concierge leaned over the desk and cast a disdainful glance at the big battered suitcase at Michael’s feet.
Of course he couldn’t possibly lug the suitcase around with him all night, Michael went on with a hopeless gesture. Which led him to wonder whether the concierge might not help him out by agreeing to stow it behind his desk for a few hours. Michael assured him he would collect it again once his date was over later that evening. Or – a sly little smile – early the next morning at the very latest.
The concierge drew in a long thoughtful breath. It was not really hotel policy to take in the luggage of non-residents and he wasn’t generally inclined to put himself out for smooth-looking chancers who clearly couldn’t afford to pay the bill at their own hotels. On the other hand the lady in Suite 418 was a resident, and a particularly well-off resident to boot. It was part of the concierge’s job to ensure his guests were happy and, tipping his head to one side, he seemed to judge that the man standing before him had all the qualities necessary to make the lady in 418 very happy indeed. It would not perhaps be a lasting happiness but by the time the cracks started to appear the couple would probably be wintering in St Moritz and the public rows and smashed furniture would then be a problem for some Swiss concierge to deal with and no concern of his.
So, after due consideration, the concierge finally agreed to take custody of Michael’s suitcase for a few hours with a brief nod. There was a slight look of surprise at the weight of the thing when he picked it up but he stashed it beneath the desk nonetheless and handed Michael a note of receipt.
Michael took the receipt with an effusive gesture of thanks and turned to leave. I leapt up from my seat and collared him by the foot of the grand staircase.
“Everingham! Where have you been?” he exclaimed in surprise. “You should be dressed and ready by now.”
Ignoring the remark I pulled him into a discreet nook by the end of the reception desk. “I’ve seen him again!” I announced excitedly. “At the harbour by the old town. It was definitely him!”
“Who?” asked Michael, puzzled.
“Sturridge!” I told him. “He’s here! He’s definitely here!”
“Are you sure? Did you speak to him? What did he say?”
“Well, nothing,” I reluctantly admitted. “I shouted his name and he turned and looked at me. But then he just walked away.”
“He disappeared into the old town. I’ve been searching for him like mad but it’s a complete maze of streets…”
Michael looked at me dubiously. “Are you absolutely sure it was Sturridge?”
“Positive,” I insisted. “This was no casual glimpse in a crowded storeroom. He was standing there clear as day. And he definitely responded to his name when I called out.”
“So why did he walk away?”
“I don’t know,” I replied with an impatient shrug. “Maybe he’s trying to lie low. Maybe he’s got amnesia. We can ask him that just as soon as we find him.”
Michael looked at me sharply. “We can’t go after him now. We’re in the middle of a carefully orchestrated heist.”
“The clock has started ticking,” said Michael pointedly.
As if to add emphasis to his words just then there came the sound of a muffled explosion from somewhere above our heads. There was a moment of absolute stillness as everyone in the lobby stopped what they were doing and peered curiously upwards. But when nothing further was heard they soon dismissed it from their minds and went on with their business.
Only Michael and I knew better. We both turned and gazed expectantly along the reception desk. Sure enough, a few seconds later the telephone trilled and the receptionist answered it. From where we were standing we could hear the receptionist’s end of the conversation perfectly.
“I’m sorry sir, what did you say has happened…? I’m sure the toilet wouldn’t just explode… No, no, I didn’t mean… Of course sir, I’m very sorry… Whatever has happened, I’m sure we can get it fixed… Just stay where you are and I’ll send someone up right away… Which room did you say…? 210? Absolutely sir, we’ll be with you right away.”
The receptionist put down the phone and, still wearing a confused expression, hurried over to the concierge’s desk. There was a brief conference before the concierge hurried away up the stairs. Returning to his own desk, the receptionist picked up the phone again. “Housekeeping? You’re needed urgently in Room 210…”
Michael turned to me. “I need to go and collect Felicity. She doesn’t want to still be in her room when the third device goes off.”
“And you need to get into your uniform. Sid will have knocked through the last part of the tunnel by now. The water is rising.”
At these last few words we both turned instinctively and glanced across the lobby, our eyes fixing upon the floor in front of the jewellery display. The tunnel that Sid and Michael had been so diligently digging for the last couple of days was to create an underground link from the channels that fed the large seawater swimming pool direct from the Mediterranean to the foundations of the hotel itself. If Sid had knocked through the last section water would be rushing in to an underground chamber just below our feet at this very moment. Once the chamber was full the incoming tide would gradually force the water up through the floor of the lobby. And when that happened it would provide us with a narrow window of opportunity to carry out our plan.
Was that a dark stain I could see already on the carpet in front of the jewel case? It was a tricky business to manage precisely but if Sid had got his timings right then the dampness would swiftly and inexorably spread. And I would need to be ready and in position to fulfil my role in the carefully plotted scheme.
“But what about Sturridge?” I said despairingly to Michael.
“We can’t do anything about him now. We’ll have to search for him in the morning,” replied Michael.
“But by the morning we’ll be on the other side of the Mediterranean!” I protested.
“Then we’ll come back as soon as the coast is clear,” said Michael with a shrug. “You don’t want to let down Sid and Felicity, do you?”
“Hmmm,” I murmured noncommittally.
“And you don’t want to let all that careful planning and hard work go to waste, do you? I’m damned sure I don’t want to think I’ve spent two days digging all those tunnels for nothing!”
This, I had to admit, was a slightly more persuasive argument.
“Come on,” said Michael with a sly smile. “Aren’t you at least a little bit curious to see whether or not we can actually pull this off?”
“Alright then,” I finally conceded. “Jewels first but then we come back for Sturridge, no matter what.”
“Deal,” agreed Michael. “Now you’d better get upstairs and get changed quick before you miss your cue for action!”
To be continued…