The Ace of Spades - Dell Shannon (7 page)

"It's nothing at all, of course. No, I wouldn't
be surprised if Skyros sails a little close to the wind in business,
but so what? Even if Domokous had somehow got hold of proof, I don't
see Skyros doing murder over it, do you? More likely to buy him off.
And that kind of murder— a very pro business .... Of course,
there's such a thing as cover. And maybe he's running more businesses
than one. Like Mr. Bratti. Yes, a couple of little points in what
these other clerks said. I have an idea that Mr. Skyros, shrewd a
businessman as he may be, underrates us just a little, you know. He
didn't think we'd check up far on what he said about Domokous— and
evidently he didn't know about Katya Roslev and her grandmother. But
nothing much to get hold of in all that."

Hackett agreed. "By the way, what did that
obnoxious insurance fellow want? I was sorry to miss the snubbing
you'd hand him."

Mendoza grinned. "Why, Art, you know we're
trained these days to be as polite as can be to civilians. I never
said a cross word to him."

"I'll bet," said Hackett. "I gathered
he's an insurance investigator? Mendoza regarded his lighter
meditatively. "If the head-doctors are right in some of their
theories— which I frequently doubt— our Mr. Driscoll must have a
king-size inferiority complex. Overcompensating, as they say, like
mad. He's read all the paperback mysteries about the smart-as-paint
private eyes— quite a fad lately for making them insurance
detectives, you know— and he knows just how he ought to act. I'll
bet you fifty to one he religiously wears a shoulder holster and
drinks five Martinis before dinner whether he likes them or not, or
could hit the side of a barn with a shotgun. And addresses every
female under forty as Beautiful— and,
Dios
,
how he'd like to have everyone think they all fall for him in rows
and he's never slept alone for the last twenty-five years, since he
was a precocious teen-ager."

Hackett laughed. "I read him the first look too.
What was he after?"

Mendoza snapped the lighter and lit his cigarette.
"I'm damned if I know. And also damned curious. What he wanted
to know was why Skyros had been here yesterday. And when I told him
and asked why he was interested, he came out with a couple of
smart-aleck unfunny wisecracks, said it was private firm business and
I wouldn't be interested anyway, and swaggered out. Private eyes, you
know, they always act that way with these stolid stupid regular
cops."

"You don't say— interested in Skyros? So maybe
it's an insurance racket— this piece of crookedness that's going to
be worth a lot of money? I wonder if Skyros ever had a warehouse burn
down or something like that, and the insurance company's a little
leery of him, looking into his private life?"

"Which bright thought crossed my mind too. I've
got Landers looking into it. I also attached a tail to our Mr.
Driscoll. After all, he asked for it .... No, nothing in Domokous'
stuff, I didn't think there would be. Maybe there never was, or maybe
somebody got there first. One thing, I want those two letters
translated pronto. And— " Mendoza sat up and called Sergeant
Lake. "Has Higgins called in on Skyros? Where is he now?"

"Just a little big ago. From the Beverly-Hilton—
looks like Skyros is fixing to have lunch there with some dame."

"Well, well. Could
this also be the same dreary old tale, tired middle-aged businessman
cheating on his wife? I think I'll go and take a look— you can hold
down the regular table at Federico's, Art."

* * *

Higgins was propping the wall just outside the main
dining room of the hotel, looking a little seedy in comparison with
most of the guests and visitors in this haunt of sophisticates. When
he saw Mendoza he stepped out to meet him."

"It's 0.K., Lieutenant, he can't see us from
where they're sitting, and there's only one entrance— I looked. The
dame kept him waiting quite a while, and I grabbed a sandwich at the
bar where I could keep an eye on him. Six bits for a cheese
sandwich!"

"Well, it goes on your expense account,"
said Mendoza.

"It's the principle of the thing. Highway
robbery. This looks kind of N.G. to me— he's just been ordinary
places, home and work— and if he's stepping out on his wife, it's
not exactly illegal, you can't arrest him for that. Me, I never can
figure out why they bother. Go to all that trouble, thinking up lies
to tell the wife and so on. I don't say there isn't any female worth
it, but I do say they'd be the hell of a lot smarter to get rid of
one before they take on another."

"But then you're a very moral fellow," said
Mendoza.

"It's not my morals, it's my blood pressure,"
said Higgins. "I like a quiet life myself. You quitting the tail
on him?"

"No, you carry on." Mendoza went into the
dining room, glanced around casually for Skyros, was trapped by an
obsequious headwaiter, just as he spotted him, and ensconced at a
small table where all he could see of Skyros' companion was her hat.
It was a large hat, with a transparent stiff brim of black lace, and
sat nearly on the back of her head, effectively screening her profile
when she turned, and a good deal of Skyros across the table. Visible
below it were round white shoulders only partially covered by a
black-and-white printed gown, low-cut back and (probably) front, and
one round white arm bearing a wide gold bracelet, a scarlet-nailed
hand extravagant in gesture.

"Something to drink before lunch, sir?"

"No, thanks," said Mendoza, whose vices did
not include alcohol as one of life's necessities. He ordered at
random, an unobtrusive eye on Skyros. He would not be displeased if
Skyros happened to notice him: this whole thing was up in the air,
nothing to get hold of, and if Skyros was mixed up in it in any way,
it could be useful to give him the idea that they knew a bit more
than they did. Frequently that prompted a suspect to do something
silly and revealing.

Skyros, however, wasn't doing much looking around; he
seemed entirely occupied with the girl-friend. At the same time, he
didn't look quite like a man entertaining the extracurricular sex
interest. He wiped a perspiring brow frequently in spite of the
air-conditioning; he fidgeted with the cutlery, and his expression
was now unhappy, now falsely genial. The girl-friend was doing most
of the talking; he tried to interrupt several times and shrugged at
failure.

Mendoza ate an anonymous lunch absently, watching and
thinking. They had almost finished when he came in; they sat over
drinks of some kind— brandy, by the glasses— and as the waiter
whisked Mendoza's plate away, offered more coffee, Skyros got up. The
woman was more leisurely, sliding gracefully out of her chair,
smoothing her skirt— revealing a pair of eye-catching legs ending
in slim spike heels.

Skyros put a gallant hand on her elbow as they turned
for the door. And she was something to be gallant about, all right: a
very handsome piece of goods indeed, in exotic style. Black hair in a
smooth fashionable coiffure, dead-white complexion, sharply arched
brows, dark red lipstick, flashing stones at her ears and throat.

They had to pass within a few feet of his table to
reach the door, and Mendoza watched them steadily, willing Skyros to
look and see him: but Skyros was oblivious, wiping his brow again,
looking agitated. And she was scarcely, by her expression, bent on
exuding glamour; she looked very angry. They came past, the woman
still talking in an under-tone over her shoulder, and he caught a
phrase or two— not English: Greek, Russian? He also caught a waft
of powerful musky scent. And then they were out the door and gone—
transferred to Higgins.

"Will that be all, sir? A little cognac
perhaps?"

"No, that's all .... ¡qué disparate!"
said Mendoza to himself, reaching for his wallet. “
¡Bastante!
This is making up fairy tales with a vengeance." Alison's
black-eyed hussy in spike heels, smelling like a high-class brothel
.... "Impossible. Ridiculous. This is not one of Mr. Driscoll's
paperback thrillers!"
 

SIX

"But you must be sensible, dear madame!"
said Mr. Skyros. "These wild ideas— " He wiped his brow
agitatedly.

"I am surprised," said Madame Bouvardier,
"that a businessman should be so impractical. But two thoughts I
have about this also, and
n'importe
the second one. I find you irritating in the extreme, Mr. Skyros."

"My dear lady, there is a saying, one cannot
have one's cake and also eat it. This insurance money, it is
obviously impossible to claim it when— "

"It is not impossible at all, and I see nothing
whatever criminal in doing so! I will most certainly not do as you
suggest, to give it back to them and tell this elaborate lie of how I
recover the collection! The company, it has insured the Lexourion
collection, has it not? The, what is the word, premium, it is paid—
all is good faith both sides— very well— the collection is
stolen, it is gone, so the company must pay. Why do they not pay me?
That is their business. Anything else to do with the collection, it
is my business. It belonged to my father, I am his only child,
naturally it now belongs to me. There is nothing difficult to grasp
here."

"But, my dear lady— you do not suppose the
insurance firm will pay, or allow you to keep the money, without
investigating— -when they find you again have the collection— "

"Naturally they investigate. There is a man
comes to see me only yesterday, a very unpleasant ill-bred man named
Driscoll, who does not know how to behave with a lady. But then he is
of course an American. I must say, I find it uncouth of these
insurance people that they should at once suspect there is
wrongdoing— but I am very gracious to him, I tell him he is welcome
to search, he can see I have not got it, they know from the police it
is truly stolen, and it has not been sold to anyone by the thieves—
the police watch, I daresay, the insurance men also, and it is still
vanished. Very well, then they must pay. I am not a fool, Mr. Skyros,
and I do not let it be at all obvious that I have got the collection
back! In Europe, there are men of honor who will pay me privately to
have the privilege to house it. But also, I do not allow myself to be
held up by gangsters! This— this Irishman, this Donovan, he is not
an honorable man and he is also much too greedy. In the nature of
things, a thief sells his plunder in secret, he is lucky to receive a
fifth of its value— this is well known. The bargain you say you
made with Donovan, for ten thousand of your dollars. And now he tries
to withdraw, he says it is not enough, he will have twenty. I think I
was a fool to trust you to make the bargain."


Dear madame, you surely don't suspect that I would
be dishonest with you? I protest— it's only a favor on my part, I'm
earning no profit— "

"Me, I am Greek too," she reminded him
darkly, "if I do live in France most of my life— we know each
other! Better to deal with this gangster directly. I am not afraid of
gangsters, I have seen them on the films. They are like little
children playing with wooden guns, behaving very tough as you say,
but stupid men without cunning. Well, there is another saying, two
can play at one game. He will keep the bargain he has made or he will
be sorry."

"I assure you, not children," said Skyros.
"I would not dream of allowing you to deal with such men— they
can be very dangerous— you know how they have already killed this
poor clerk of mine, because he overheard some talk— "

"Yes, but they would not offer harm to me, for
in that case they get no money at all! I will see that he keeps the
bargain, and after the insurance money is paid, all is accomplished,
and I take the collection home."

"All is not accomplished. You can't have it both
ways, we shall all be in trouble if you persist. It will be known you
have the collection again, the insurance people will call you a
thief— "

"That is very stupid and bad faith, they are
liable to pay when it is stolen, anything afterward is my own affair.
And besides— "

"But you can never smuggle it out of the
country— "

"Oh, that is easiest of all! But there is no
need to discuss that at the moment." Suddenly she produced a
gracious smile, reached to pat his hand. "You have done your
best, Mr. Skyros, to help me in this matter, and be sure I appreciate
it. It is only, perhaps, that I am one of those people, I never feel
a thing is properly done unless I do it myself! Do not worry about
me, my friend— I know my own business."

"But I do beg you to take care," he said
earnestly. "Do not be foolhardy, dear lady."

"That I never am, Mr.
Skyros."

* * *

Women! thought Mr. Skyros exasperatedly. Especially
these strong— minded ones. The deal had been set up— in a bit of
a hurry, admittedly, but a perfectly straightforward deal— before
he had met the woman, and he had never expected her to be so
difficult. And worst of all, he had a vague feeling that she no
longer trusted him as the innocent middleman.

He drove back to town, shut himself into his office,
and called Donovan. "She is obstinate, very obstinate. She
refuses to pay more, and my friend, I think we'd better leave it
there, isn't it? The profit's not so bad— and she has some crazy
ideas in her head, you know, get us all in trouble— "

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