Crooks in the Sunshine - E. Phillips Oppenheim - ebook

Crooks in the Sunshine ebook

E. Phillips Oppenheim



This is another great collection of short stories by Edward Phillips Oppenheim, the prolific English novelist who was in his lifetime a major and successful writer of genre fiction including thrillers and spy novels, and who wrote over a 100 of them. He was the self-styled „prince of storytellers., generally regarded as the earliest writer of spy fiction as we know it today, and invented the ’Rogue Male’ school of adventure thrillers. This volume is a collection of 10 mystery and investigation short stories of Commodore Jensen, a beloved Oppenheim character.

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“Any one else for the board? Last time of asking.”

The little company of gloriously bronzed young men and women, lying on the two rafts moored outside the rocky Paradise of the Cap d’Antibes’ bathing enclosure, bestirred themselves lazily. Passing at a snail’s pace only a few yards away was the speed boat they had been admiring half the morning. Ben Richmond, the presiding genius of the place, who had been careering round the bay for the last twenty minutes and had just slipped off the plank, came swimming towards them with long easy strokes.

“Glorious, you fellows!” he exclaimed enthusiastically. “My, that old gentleman has some engines on her. I’ll swear we were doing forty at the bends.”

“How many times did they lose you?” a fair-haired girl enquired.

“They tricked me off once,” the young man confessed. “Not so bad. The fastest aquaplaning I’ve ever had.”

The elderly gentleman in smart nautical costume leaned over the side of the launch and repeated his invitation.

“Any one else for the board? Last round before lunch.”

Ned Loyd, who had been lying prone on his back, his face upturned to the sun, rose to a sitting posture, and, all unaware that thereby he was making history in the criminal records of the world, held up his hand to signify his acceptance of the invitation.

“Guess I’ll have one turn,” he decided lazily. “Makes you feel like a porpoise lying here all the morning.”

His sister Caroline, stretched out by his side, turned halfway towards him. She held up her hand as though to shield her face from the burning sunshine, but in reality to hide the faint shadow of trouble in her eyes. She looked steadily out towards the launch, a very magnificent affair piled with red cushions and with all the appurtenances of nautical luxury. Two very smartly dressed young women in bathing costumes and peignoirs were lying in wicker chairs heaped with voluptuous-looking cushions. A third, in pyjamas of the latest cut, was leaning over the side, smoking a cigarette. The obvious owner had turned aside for a moment to speak with the engineer.

“I wouldn’t go if I were you, Ned,” the girl on the raft begged. “We can’t tell who the crowd are in that boat,” she went on, under her breath, “and it isn’t worth while risking anything. Seems queer, if you come to think of it, that they should be inviting strangers to go aquaplaning all the morning.”

Her brother, however, was already in the water, swimming to the place where the board was floating. He turned on his back and waved his hand.

“I signalled I’d go,” he said, “so I’d better have a short turn. The skipper’s a harmless-looking old duck, anyway.”

It was too late now for anything further in the way of intervention. Caroline Loyd, sitting on the edge of the raft, watched her brother clamber on to the board, listened to the roar of the engines as the launch started off, and still watched as, skilfully manipulating the ropes, he rose cautiously but expertly to his feet. In a moment they were off, Ned Loyd a graceful, swaying figure firmly established upon the board, the nose of the boat, large though she was, slightly out of the water, and a long trail of white, churned-up sea already behind them. The girl kept her face averted from her immediate neighbours, for although she had no idea why, fear, for almost the first time in her life, had come to her.

“Who owns that boat, anyway?” she asked presently. “Does any one know?”

Apparently no one did. There were a variety of rumours passed back to her from one or another of the loungers upon the rafts. A newcomer, who had just swum over from the shore, brought the latest information.

“Commodore B. Jasen, he calls himself,” the latter announced, as he clambered up the steps and sank into a prone position. “They say that he is a multimillionaire and that he has taken the Château d’Antibes for the season.”

A young bond salesman from Wall Street pricked up his ears.

“Commodore B. Jasen,” he repeated thoughtfully. “Well, he didn’t make his money down our way or I should have heard something of him.”

The girl seemed to have forgotten her sun-bathing. She stood on the edge of the raft–a magnificent figure in her scanty but elegant swimming costume–shading her eyes with her hand. Not once did she look away from the boat. She watched it take a shorter run than usual towards Cannes, watched it sweep round, leaving behind a trough of water and a long trail of foam, watched the swaying figure of the man who, tense and alert all the time, gripped the cords of the plane to which he seemed somehow or other to have become permanently attached. The boat, travelling at great speed, was almost opposite, now about quarter of a mile away. She waved her arm–a significant and imperative signal–but she realised, almost as she did it, that there was scant chance of any one aquaplaning at thirty or forty kilometres an hour looking to the right or to the left. Exactly what she had dreaded happened. The boat failed to make the usual turn. It swept on towards the long tongue of land known as Mosque Point, wheeled round it and out of sight. That was the last any one ever saw of Ned Loyd, better known amongst his college friends and the new world into which he had made tentative entrance as “Lord God Ned.”

It was half an hour before uneasiness manifested itself in action, during which time there was no sign of the return of the mysterious launch or its aquaplaning passenger. The blue sea was as unruffled as ever, the sunshine as fierce, the faint breath of westerly wind still gentle and imperceptible. The majority of the bathers had taken no note of the incident at all. They were either in the sea again, or were lying on the rocks anointing themselves, or had clambered up to the restaurant above. The two who were more deeply concerned–Caroline Loyd and Ralph Joslin, a slim dark young man with the complexion almost of an Indian, who had been lying a little apart from the others and had spoken to no one–were already making their way along the beach through the pine woods towards the other side of the point. The young man was only mildly puzzled. He failed to understand his companion’s emotion, or to grasp why, through the wonderful tan of her cheeks, the pallor of fear had begun to show itself.

“What’s your worry, Caroline?” he asked. “Aquaplaning is child’s business to Ned.”

“What made them drive on straight past the point?” she demanded almost fiercely. “They always set down passengers near the rafts.”

“Well, I don’t see that that amounts to anything,” he argued. “If the old man’s taken the Château d’Antibes, why they’ve probably gone round there for a drink. Seems natural enough to me. Every one takes a fancy to the lad–you know that. What are you scared of, Carrie? You’re not afraid of Ned taking the glad eye from the women?”

“Not I,” she scoffed, although there was a sob in her throat. “That isn’t my business, but I’ve got a queer hunch, Ralph. I expect I’ll be laughing at it in a few minutes. You saw the cable about looking out for the Lebworthy Gang?”

“Yes, I saw that,” he admitted. “What about it?”

“Seeing that they were supposed to be coming out here,” she went on breathlessly, “I think Ned might have thought twice before he picked up with a strange crowd.”

Her companion laughed reassuringly.

“It’s a hell of a long way from Rimmington Drive or back of Broadway to Antibes here.”

“They are all such a social lot at the hotel,” she went on, almost as though she had not heard him, “but no one seems to know anything about these people at the Château. Still, it isn’t likely–it isn’t likely, Ralph, is it?”

“What isn’t likely?” he demanded almost roughly.

“It isn’t likely that these people should have anything to do with the Lebworthy Gang?”

“You’ve been reading too much crime fiction, Caroline,” he expostulated. “That crowd have had me guessing more than once, but I’m not figuring about seeing any of them just in these particular parts. Save your breath, kid. It’s rough walking, this.”

They scrambled across a stretch of shingle through somebody’s garden and on to another beach. Then something like a tragedy confronted them. They were on the other side of the point now, but nowhere in sight of them was anything resembling a motor launch, nor was there anywhere to be seen the bobbing head of a swimmer!

“Don’t you start worrying,” Ralph enjoined cheerfully, as their eyes swept the empty space simultaneously. “The Château’s just round the next corner. We’ll have to make our way there somehow or other. There’s a wall to climb and somebody else’s garden to cross. Guess we’d better have telephoned.”

They scrambled forwards. To avoid the wall, they entered the sea and swam–side by side and without a word to each other–the man with strong, fierce strokes and the girl with almost frenzied speed. Presently they reached a long broken cluster of rocks, over which they clambered and dropped down on to the next beach. Right ahead of them was a small harbour in which the motor boat was lying, silent and apparently deserted. By its side was also a small sailing craft and a dinghy, both moored to floating buoys. They hurried along, the girl breaking into a little run whenever there was a strip of sand. In less than ten minutes they had reached the launch. The passengers had evidently all left, for the decks were deserted and the cabin also was apparently empty. They hurried down the wooden dock and stepped on board. In response to Ralph Joslin’s shout, a man in blue overalls–apparently a mechanic–thrust his head out from the cabin.

“Hello,” he challenged. “Wot yer looking for?”

“Where’s the man you took aquaplaning?” Ralph Joslin demanded.

The mechanic displayed a little more of himself and stretched his long limbs.

“Ask me another,” he replied. “He waved his hand and slid off the plane just after we rounded the point.”

“Why didn’t you stop?”

“Why the hell should we?” was the surly retort. “We were only thirty yards from the shore. He got off of his own accord.”

Hope shone once more in the girl’s eyes. On the other hand, her companion did not appear to share her relief.

“If your passenger got off at the point,” the latter remarked, “we should have met him.”

“I can’t help your troubles,” the mechanic said sourly. “It’s my job to run this boat and I don’t worry about what happens to the passengers, especially when they’re fools enough to go riding on them slither boards. If he couldn’t swim the thirty yards between him and the point, he should never have got on the board.... Here’s the Boss. You can ask him anything you want to.”

The man withdrew his head and shoulders and disappeared. His questioners turned round. A very trim and precise-looking elderly gentleman, with white hair brushed back with almost meticulous care, a white moustache and benevolent expression, dressed in correct nautical attire, came hurrying breathlessly down the plank walk and stepped on board.

“What’s this I hear?” he asked anxiously. “They’re telephoning from the hotel to say that the young man I took aquaplaning has not returned.”

“That’s what we’ve come over about,” Ralph Joslin replied. “We saw you pass our landing places and round the point. He was holding on then and going strong. We waited but nothing happened. You didn’t bring him back and we’ve seen nothing of him.”

“Extraordinary,” the other exclaimed. “I should have dropped him by the raft, but I had called out a few minutes before and asked him to come round as far as the Château and have a cocktail. He seemed to me to accept, so we went straight on. When we got to the point, though, he waved his hand, let go quite in the manner of an expert, and dived. Naturally we came along home then. He was only a few yards from the shore.”

The girl’s eyes had never left the speaker’s face. She seemed to be weighing every word he uttered.

“We have just come across the point,” she said. “There wasn’t a soul anywhere about.”

The owner of the launch smiled reassuringly.

“My dear lady,” he explained, “the point is much longer than it seems, and if you came the direct way, you might easily have missed your friend. Besides, he may have taken the opportunity of staying to examine that queer building at the end. My own guests are always curious about it. You’d better allow me to send you back in the launch to your landing stage, and when you get there, you will surely find the young man waiting for you.”

“Might I enquire your name, sir?” Ralph Joslin asked.

“Certainly,” was the courteous reply. “Jasen–Commodore Jasen. I am very sorry if my offer to your friend has brought you any disquietude. Tim,” he went on, calling to the mechanic, “take this lady and gentleman back to the Cap landing. You can manage alone for that short distance.”

The man made his way towards the engine, rubbing his hands with a piece of waste. The Commodore stepped off the launch and beamed at his departing visitors.

“You’ll find him there, all right,” he called out cheerily.

There must have been something crazy in her blood that day, Caroline Loyd told herself fiercely. Looking back, it seemed to her that there was an almost satanic expression in that apparently bland, benevolent face, something menacing in the simple words. She swung around to seek consolation for her companion, but Ralph Joslin had none to offer. A memory had come to him–a memory touched with inspiration–and he knew, as well as though he could see it written in the flaming blue skies, that never again in this world would he see his friend and leader, Ned Loyd.

Caroline Loyd heard all the hours of early morning strike. The long night with its anxieties was past. It had become an accepted fact now that her brother had disappeared. When the first shiver of light came from the east, she found herself standing on the balcony of her room at Cap d’Antibes. The paling stars were fading into the sky, the moon was colourless. Away eastward the morn was strangely heralded by breaking lines of cream-coloured foamy clouds with the faintest background of saffron pink. It was the one hour of complete silence in the twenty-four. She leaned forward, listening intently. A pearly mist rode on the far seas. From somewhere behind that came the faintest sounds. She clutched the balustrade and listened. Every moment it became more distinct. Now she was sure. The break in the skies eastward became more pronounced. Soon twilight was to pass and a disc of the sun would be visible. Her beautiful eyes, strained and frantically searching, sought to pierce those mists. All the time the sound continued, the dull beating of a muffled engine. Even before the first gleam of sunlight had escaped, it had slid into sight. From some errand far southwards, the motor boat of Commodore Jasen was rushing homewards towards its harbourage.

Entirely at her ease, with scant signs of the tragedy weighing upon her heart, a tragedy which hung, in fact, like a cloud over the whole of the little community, Caroline, on the following evening, waited in the shabby magnificence of the library of the Château d’Antibes for the man whom she had come to see. Her eyes were dry. There were no longer any signs of the tempest which had swept over her. The first lesson she had learned, when she had embarked upon the life adventurous, was the lesson of self-control. She had lost a good deal of sympathy at the Hôtel du Cap d’Antibes during the last twenty-four hours; every one had thought her inclined to be callous. No one realised from what a battlefield of the emotions her hyperphilosophic attitude had arisen.

Hawk-faced, slim of features and of person, Jake Arnott came into the room with his usual stealthy tread, a pantherlike effigy of a man, notwithstanding his correct dinner attire, the monocle which hung from his neck and the signet ring upon his little finger. He closed the door carefully behind him.

“And what,” he asked, “does Caroline Loyd want of us?”

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