COME in, Inspector, come in! What can I do for you?”
“I have been asked to refer to you, Mr. Polhallow . . .”
“You’re looking very serious this morning. That was quite a party we had at the port offices last night.”
“Yes, sir. I don’t mind admitting I wish I were on some other duty. There are three passports I have to show you.”
“What’s wrong with them?”
“Well . . . for one thing, very old and dirty.”
“I see, Inspector.”
“Shall I get you a drink, Mr. Polhallow?”
“No, no, Inspector. It was a shock. But I shall be all right. I’m glad it was you who came, and not some ass I should have to beat about the bush with. Very well, sit down and take my statement.”
“There must be some mistake, sir.”
“There’s no mistake, I’m afraid. I shall resign, of course, on the grounds of ill health.”
“But you’re the best chief we ever had, sir!”
“I must, my dear fellow. We could never keep it out of the papers if I had to be sacked. You surely see that. Can’t find your pencil? Here, take this one.
“During the war I was a military security officer in Syria. That was how I got into this racket. Cross that out, Inspector! I mean that my experience was considered to fit me for similar employment by Her Majesty in a civilian capacity.
“Syria was not as it is today. It was full of Europeans in uniform. Besides our own troops and the French, there were contingents of all sorts of romantic allies — Greeks, Poles, Yugoslavs, and anything else you can think of. They were the remnants of the fighting men from countries which had been occupied by Hitler. It was one of my duties to keep a discreet eye on their movements and political sympathies.
“A detachment of mine brought in three Albanians who had been walking along the coast in the general direction of Turkey and living on the chickens of peaceful citizens. Their names were Mitsi, Pitsi, and Ugo. That at least was what we called them. You had better look at those passports, Inspector, and get them right.”
“I can’t begin to pronounce them, sir.”
“Nor could we. Albanians seem to use the letter x in such improbable places. But they spoke Greek, and so do I. I wish I’d never heard of the damn language!
“I got their story. They had been soldiers in the Greek brigade and then distinguished themselves by theft, insubordination, and the attempted murder of an officer. They were regretful but satisfied. They hadn’t any sense of shame whatever. Of all the three voluble, self-admiring little bast — Express that differently, Inspector.
“The Greeks court-martialed them and drummed them out of their army in disgrace. The only documents they had were certificates stating that they had been discharged as infamous characters. They seemed offended that these couldn’t be accepted as free passes to anywhere. They wanted to go to Istanbul, where Mitsi had once been a cook, Pitsi a waiter, and Ugo a dishwasher.
“Having no lockup of my own. I handed them over to military police to be kept on ice while I checked their story.”
“But they were plainly civilians, sir!”
“Were they, Inspector? Were they indeed? The trouble with you policemen is that you think life is simple.
“I remonstrated with the Greek commander. He had no right at all to turn his incorrigibles loose on the civil population. He quite agreed. He assured me that he would have executed all three if we didn’t make such a fuss about allied death sentences. He said that if only I could get him permission, the whole company in which those Albanians had served would be delighted to turn out and shoot them.
THEY bounced out of the lockup yelling for their consul. They had no consul. Nowhere. Not even in New York or London or Cairo. Albania had had no official existence ever since the Italians annexed it. I suggested to them that they might be treated as Free Italians. They wouldn’t hear of it. They hissed with fury, especially Ugo. He depended entirely on gestures to express himself. If he hadn’t greased his hair back he would have looked very like Harpo Marx.
“Mitsi and Pitsi were slender and dark, with little narrow heads and little mustaches. They had a certain catlike grace, Inspector. They were able to go through life trading on the humanity of the non-Albanian world, and carrying Ugo with them. As soon as he had stopped feeling insulted — which always took him half a minute longer than the others — all three knelt down before me and threw themselves under the protection of the great British Empire.
“How could I resist that? I agreed to do what I could for them. They promptly demanded a pension for the duration of the war.
“I explained in my politest Greek that it was beyond my powers. But alternatively would they work for the British Army as cook, waiter, and dishwasher? They replied that the proposal honored them. Inspector, from that moment I was doomed. I got them jobs at the transit camp, and I gave each of them a temporary pass which would just about keep him out of jail and no more.
“They stayed at work till the first payday, behaving as if they had been trained in the Ritz. Then they insisted on a 50 per cent raise, spat on the orderly room floor when they couldn’t get it, and walked out. The camp commandant seemed to think they had learned their manners in my office.
“I hoped they had started on another walk to Turkey, and I gave instructions to my detachment on the frontier that if there were any chance of pushing them quietly over, it was to be taken. A first step in crime. How often we have seen it begin with some betrayal of trust!”
“We must have a bit of give-and-take in the regulations, Mr. Polhallow. You’d do the same today.”
“I hope not, Inspector. I sincerely hope not. You know and I know what that sort of thing leads to.
“They were not on their way to Turkey. Two days later I had a call from the D.A.P.M.—my opposite number commanding the military police. He told me that his men had arrested three Albanians who were creating a disturbance in an establishment the nature of which I need not specify and waving passes signed by me.
“ ‘Whose army are they in?’ he asked.
“ ‘Then why are they wearing uniform?’
“ ‘Because they haven’t any other clothes.’
“ ‘But they can’t wear uniform if they are civilians.’
“ ‘Then take their uniforms off them and hand them over to civil police!’ I said, and hung up.
“The military police could never understand a problem until it was presented to them in concrete form.
“That was my sole intention, Inspector; to force those Albanians into civil life and allow the rest of us time to get on with the war. How was I to guess that I had stepped into our now familiar world of bowler hats and umbrellas? I was a simple Soldier. And civilians from ministries — even generals are terrified of them.
“He carried an umbrella. I swear it. But no hat at all. He drove out from Damascus wearing a beautiful cream-colored suit, specially to see me. His name was Potts-Dalton.
“I asked him to have a drink. It was five in the afternoon. He looked at me as if I were a confirmed alcoholic and suggested tea.
“ ‘I am advised,’ he said, ‘that it was you who ordered the military police to hand over to civil administration three Albanians with no clothes on.'
“ ‘No clothes at all ” I asked, trying to sound as if some appalling mistake had occurred.
“‘Their sole possessions, Major Polhallow, were coarse military underclothing and passes signed by you.’
“ ‘You can beat ‘em up,’ I suggested, ‘just the same.’
“He was shocked. He explained to me that he had nothing to do with the police. He had been posted by the Foreign Office to Syria in order to help the high command upon obscure questions of nationality.
“Then he read me a lecture on the unwisdom of settling problems on the spot instead of passing them through the usual channels. He was courteously grieved. He told me that one should not be too ready to take responsibility.
“I had learned that already. I asked him what the civil police had done with the Albanians.
“ ‘I gave instructions they they were to be brought back to you in a closed car. No doubt they will be here by now, should you still desire to lock them up.’
“ I shouted for my sergeant major, who entered so promptly that he must have been listening at the door.
“ ‘They ‘avc been ‘ere, sir,’ he said.
“ ‘Where are they now, sergeant major?'
“ ‘In the road, sir.’
“We looked out of the window of my office. Mitsi, Pitsi, and Ugo were sitting in the dust and weeping.
“ ‘Took me eyes off of ‘em, sir,’ he explained, ‘and there was that Pitsi makin’ away with one of the office typewriters under his singlet, sir.
“I said helplessly that it seemed very short for that.
“ ‘He’d pinched Corporal Wilson’s spare pair of trousers as well, sir, And there’s plenty of room in them for that Pitsi and the portable, sir.'
“I had the three Albanians brought before me. In honor of Potts-Dalton the sergeant major provided them with army blankets. They were as dignified as three red Indians come to treat for peace — until, that is, the sergeant major barked at them. They sprang smartly to attention, and he had to pick up the blankets.
“I told them in real bootblack’s Greek what I thought of them. Mitsi and Pitsi screamed back. Ugo ground his teeth loudly. I never before saw anyone grind his teeth.
“Potts-Dalton held up an outraged hand and asked what was the tenor of the conversation. I explained that they had the damned impertinence to demand compensation for being brutally handled by the military.
“ ‘I should imagine they might well have a case,’ he said.
“Those Albanians understood his tone of voice. In an instant they were round him, pulling at his clothes and shouting for justice.
“I spoke to them quietly and they behaved. Potts-Dalton was much impressed by the promptness with which they deserted him and wanted to know what I had said.
“ ‘That you were the public hangman come to measure ‘em up,’ I answered with some relish.
“I must say he did begin to understand the difficulties. But lie refused to wave his wand and make them civilians. He insisted that, in the absence of any Albanian authority, iL was quite impossible. My passes, he was good enough to say, would suflicc for all practical purposes.
“It was then that I realized, Inspector, that Mitsi, Pitsi, and Ugo were a grave menace to my army career. My sanity they had already affected.
I DRESSED the three in the cheapest cotton suits I could buy. That cost me a tenner, but saved them from the attentions of the military police. Then I got them well-paid employment in a local restaurant, with a good room over the kitchen.
“A fortnight later, when f was just beginning to think of them without unkindness, Inspector, as if they had been destructive puppies which I had placed in a good home, I was visited by a scoundrelly and obliging Algerian who had set himself up as the district’s trades union boss. He wouldn’t come to the point at first. Then he asked me if I had three Albanians among my secret agents.
*T denied them so hotly that he suspected I was lying. He told me apologetically that the secretary of his catering union had requested Mitsi, Pitsi, and Ugo to join it. Unions were then unknown in Albania, so they took the demand as blackmail— which it probably was. Mitsi tossed a pot of soup over the secretary. Pitsi added a lump of slush. And Ugo rubbed the lot in with his dishcloth.
“ ‘Where are they now?’ I asked, knowing the answer.
‘At the police station. I wondered whether you would like my man to withdraw the charge.'
“I arranged with him that he should put his most accomplished perjurer in the box and get them the longest sentence he could. But it didn’t work. The Albanians were all injured innocence and persuaded the magistrate that they had been badly treated. He gave them only fifteen days, and considered it his duty to pass censure on the military who released their so-called criminals into the law-abiding population and took no steps to provide them with proper documentation.
“Everyone decided that I was the proper scapegoat to be blamed. That I had been, in fact, the only person to give them any papers at all was entirely overlooked. So I was summoned to an interview with the general. He chose to call the affair a typical Polhallow — whatever the devil he meant by that!—and demanded that my Albanians should be brought before him when they came out. My Albanians, Inspector!
“I advised him against it. No use! He told me he had never seen the man he couldn’t handle. Courtesy in listening and firmness in decision; nothing else was needed to reclaim the most incorrigible soldier.
“I produced Mitsi, Pitsi, and Ugo before the general. They hadn’t any money and their clothes were filthy. I couldn’t have them cleaned because they had no others. So that cost me another complete outfit, just shirts and shorts this time. I knew how the general would carry on if they weren’t decently dressed.
“He got a Greek interpreter from the bazaar. He wouldn’t use me. So the Albanians had a clear run. They put over a spirit of proud and untrammeled manhood. The general had once spent a week in Albania. He declared that it was a sturdy little country, the liberation of which was among the first of his personal war aims. Mitsi and Pitsi replied with appropriate gestures that he was fit to be an Albanian chieftain and that they were willing to die at his lightest word. Ugo kept jumping to attention and shouting Albanian war cries.
“And then, before I could do anything to stop him, the general hired the three as his personal servants. I tried to save what I could from the disaster and suggested that he might make out passes for them himself. But he was too wily a bird to be caught that way. He said very politely that he was sure my pass would carry more weight with the police than his own.
“Inspector, it was plain that whatever was going to happen to the general’s life and emotions would be my fault. I tried hard for a sudden posting to some other theater of war. Meanwhile I collected all available information from the general’s private villa. But I only learned that the dear old chap was looking a little harassed, that lunch guests were enthusiastic, and that Mitsi, Pitsi, and Ugo had graciously consented to wear white jackets pending the arrival from Egypt of Albanian national costume.
“After three weeks while I hardly dared answer the telephone, the general’s A.D.C. came to see me. You’d have liked him. Inspector. He was that rare type which is both gay and responsible.”
“I could put my hand on another one, sir.”
“Thank you, Inspector. It’s good to know that you will miss me. Where were we? Ah, yes, the A.D.C. I couldn’t allow him to be sacked. I won’t mention his name. He’s a prominent politician.
“ ‘About those Albanians you sent us.’ he said.
“I had given up denying anything. In the eyes of the world they were my Albanians. But I did venture to point out that the general had brought it on himself.
“I know, Polhallow,’he said kindly. ‘But it’s my business to see that he brings nothing on himself.'
“He was quite right. A good A.D.C., Inspector, is nothing but a nanny to his important charge.
“I was informed for a start that when Pitsi called the general with his early morning cup of tea he used to sit on the bed and try to teach him Albanian.
“ ‘Is that all?’ I asked.
“No, they had been stealing the cigars. But mere crime could be covered up. They had also discovered the A.D.C.’s private stock of whisky. That, too, nanny was willing to put up with, so long as the child’s peace was not disturbed. And then they had thrown mixed parties in the kitchen. Nanny had quietly evicted the guests.
“I told him that he seemed born to deal with Albanians. He shook his head. There was worse to come.
“ ‘They use the general’s lavatory,’ he said.
“It’s not funny, Inspector. You ought to know that none of this is funny. It all leads directly to the case you have been asked to investigate. Let me just say that in these days of humane and democratic generals you can do almost anything to them but that. Failure to salute will be forgiven. Disobedience will be excused if any excuse can be found. But such a mark of disrespect, no! Not under the rank of brigadier.
“ ‘How long have we got?’ I asked the A.D.C.
“He promised me that he would go on doing his best, but strongly recommended that I should have the Albanians out of there within three days.
IT WAS no good telling them they must go. Force had to be used to extract Mitsi, Pitsi, and Ugo from a soft job like that. And then what? They could never be allowed to return and report to the general that I had deprived him of his picturesque servants and brutally interfered with the work of reformation as well.
“Inspector, I kidnaped those Albanians. I lured them from the general’s villa with the aid of a Syrian dancing girl, and I was very glad to see that Pitsi came to the rendezvous with the general’s inscribed gold and gun-metal cigarette box in his pocket. Naturally I did not appear in the business myself. I was down a well, with just enough of me showing to superintend the staff work.
“They were taken to a remote Christian village in the mountains where the headman deserved a ten-year sentence for dealing in arms. I couldn’t prove it, but I let him think I could. So he obligingly confined my enemies in an upper chamber, as they say in the Arabian Nights, from which escape was difficult. I don’t think they wanted to escape. What with coy visits from the dancing girl and a regular supply of hashish and wine, that room must have come pretty near their idea of heaven.
“The general, of course, was very upset by their desertion and at once called for my advice. By this time I was considered to be an authority on Albanians. I told him that they were caged birds longing for their native hills and that they couldn’t be expected to behave like old retainers. Nanny backed me up, and we left him in a poetical and happy mood, drawing pictures of Albanian sea gulls on the blotting paper.
“That didn’t solve the rest of my problem. The expense of supplying the upper chamber was not what it would be here, but I could not keep it running long. The military insisted those Albanians were civilians. The civilians wouldn’t have them. So they were bound to come back to us. The only solution was to ship them out of Syria and over a frontier. But they had no documents upon which police or consuls could put a stamp.
“Now, take this down carefully, Inspector! I had a friend, an Austrian refugee, old, respectable, and an expert craftsman. He was a printer and bookbinder, producing — among more commercial items — limited editions for young Syrian poets with the money to pay for them. I told him what I wanted, and together we designed it.
“The Albanian coat of arms I knew. The goldstamped pale blue of the cover I invented, and also the seal of the Free Albanian consul in Calcutta. When the three passports were ready, I sent them round to the police and had them stamped with an exit permit. In person I presented them to the Turkish consul, who visaed them for travel to Istanbul. Nobody knew what sort of a passport a Free Albanian could be expected to possess. And of course documents of such imposing beauty were automatically accepted as correct.
“Then I put Mitsi, Pitsi, and Ugo on the Taurus express and told them they were free to win back their fame as cook, waiter, and dishwasher in neutral Istanbul. They were not anxious to go. I found the general’s cigarette box a useful argument.
“Inspector, the passports you have just placed upon my desk are those I forged.”
“I never suspected anything of the sort, sir.”
“But you looked very serious, damn it! You said you had been asked to see me about them.”
“I was, Mr. Polhallow. Just a question of whether they ought not to have been renewed. The passports themselves are quite correct for Free Albanians.”
“They can’t be! It’s impossible!”
“Well, it does seem odd, sir. But it’s my opinion that when things got organized again, nobody knew. And as Mr. Mitsi, Mr. Pitsi, and Mr. Ugo are always very positive that they are in the right, some person in authority took their passports for a model. There they are, properly visaed for residence in the United Kingdom by our consulate in Istanbul and the ministry of labor.”
“Inspector, if you really mean to allow those three thugs to land, for God’s sake, don’t tell ‘em I’m here!”
“I should not dream of it, Mr. Polhallow. No, while you were talking an idea kept recurring to me. I think I could arrange for them to be dispatched to the Foreign Office. Of course it may not be the same man, but there is a Mr. PottsDalton who recently wrote to Immigration asking for experienced kitchen staff.”