Friday, October 11, 2013

A Coffin for Dimitrios by Eric Ambler (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard 1939)

‘I was idle at the time, Mr Latimer; idle and a little restless. I had my books, it is true, but one wearies of books, the ideas, the affectations of other men. It might be interesting, I thought, to find Dimitrios for myself and share in Visser’s good fortune. It was not greed that prompted me, Mr Latimer; I should not like you to think that. I was interested. Besides, I felt that Dimitrios owed me something for the discomforts and indignities I had experienced because of him. For two days I played with the idea. Then, on the third day, I made up my mind. I set out for Rome.

‘As you may imagine, Mr Latimer, I had a difficult time and many disappointments. I had the initials, which Visser, in his eagerness to convince me, had revealed, but the only thing I knew about the hotel was that it was expensive. There are, unfortunately, a great many expensive hotels in Rome. I began to investigate them one after the other, but when, at the fifth hotel, they refused, for some reason, to let me see the bills for 1932, I abandoned the attempt. Instead, I went to an Italian friend of mine in one of the Ministries. He was able to use his influence on my behalf and, after a lot of chi-chi and expense, I was permitted to inspect the Ministry of Interior archives for 1932. I found out the name Dimitrios was using, and I also found out what Visser had not found out – that Dimitrios had taken the course, which I myself took in 1932, of purchasing the citizenship of a certain South American republic which is sympathetic in such matters if one’s pocketbook is fat enough. Dimitrios and I had become fellow citizens.

‘I must confess, Mr Latimer, that I went back to Paris with hope in my heart. I was to be bitterly disappointed. Our consul was not helpful. He said that he had never heard of Señor C. K. and that even if I were Señor C. K.’s dearest and oldest friend he could not tell me where he was. He was offensive, which was unpleasant, but also I could tell that he was lying when he said that he had no knowledge of Dimitrios. That was tantalizing. And yet another disappointment awaited me. The house of Madame la Comtesse off the Avenue Hoche had been empty for two years.

‘You would think, would you not, that it would be easy to find out where a chic and wealthy woman was? It was most difficult. The Bottin gave nothing. Apparently she had no house in Paris. I was, I will confess, about to abandon the search when I found a way out of my difficulty. I reflected that a fashionable woman like Madame la Comtesse would be certain to have gone somewhere for the winter sports season that was just over. Accordingly, I commissioned Hachettes to purchase for me a copy of every French, Swiss, German and Italian winter sports and social magazine which had been published during the previous three months.

‘It was a desperate idea, but it yielded results. You have no idea how many such magazines there are, Mr Latimer. It took me a little over a week to go through them all carefully, and I can assure you that by the middle of that week I was very nearly a social-democrat. By the end of it, however, I had recovered my sense of humour. If repetition makes nonsense of words it makes even more fantastic nonsense of smiling faces, even if their owners are rich. Besides, I had found what I wanted. In one of the German magazines for February there was a small paragraph which said that Madame la Comtesse was at St Anton for the winter sports. In a French magazine there was a couturier’s picture of her in skating clothes. I went to St Anton. There are not many hotels there, and I soon found that Monsieur C. K. had been in St Anton at the same time. He had given an address in Cannes.

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