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'What I would like from you, Mr Howell,' I went on, 'is a brief, simple recital of the facts of the case as you know them. Not a reply to the charges - most of them are fantastic anyway - not an argument, not a polemic, but a dispassionate statement of the facts.'
He beamed at me. 'Mr Prescott, I always try to think ahead. The statement is already prepared. Teresa has it there ready for you. I dictated it when I knew that you were coming to see me.'
Miss Malandra handed it to me solemnly. Her eyes meeting mine over it were quite expressionless. She really is extraordinarily beautiful.
The statement weighed at least two pounds. It was well over a hundred pages long. I opened it at random and read an estimate of the Agence Howell's losses the previous year, item by item, on the Green Circle dry-battery operation. I shut it again.
'What I had in mind Mr Howell, if I may repeat myself, is a brief, simple recital of the facts. On three or four pages, say.'
He pursed his lips. 'Bare facts are not truth, Mr Prescott. You want the truth, I take it. There it is.'
'I see what you mean, Mr Howell. I'd like to take this away, then, and read it if I may.'
'That was the idea. Keep it for reference, Mr Prescott. I have other copies. But read it and then, if you have any questions, I will gladly answer them.'
'Thank you. But speaking of questions, Mr Howell, there is one that I would very much like to ask you now, if I may.'
'Did you kill Salah Ghaled?'
He thought about it for a moment and then smiled. 'Teresa says that sometimes I am not one man but a committee. Why don't we ask her?' He turned his smile in her direction. 'Teresa, my dear, have you ever noticed among the committee members a murderer?'
She returned the smile but I thought that there was an appraising look in her eyes. 'No, Michael. No, I can't say that I've ever seen a murderer.'
'There is your answer, Mr Prescott.'
'Not quite, Mr Howell. I didn't ask if you murdered him. I asked if you killed him.'
'I am not a man of violence, Mr Prescott.'
No wonder he had trouble with newsmen.
'That still doesn't answer the question. Did you or did you not kill him, Mr Howell?'
'Intentionally, you mean?'
He blinked. That's a strange question to ask a man in his own house.'
'The question has been asked outside.'
'And answered in an Israeli court.'
'I think not, Mr Howell. In Israel three men were on trial for piracy. You were not even called upon to give evidence.'
'I made a deposition.'
'Relative to the piracy charges, yes. You were not cross-examined on the deposition and you didn't answer any ques- tions. No wonder there's a cloud, Mr Howell.'
'Let me explain how it was,' he said.
But he had taken off his glasses and was polishing them on the tail of his sports shirt. Only when he had replaced his glasses did he go on.
'When the Israelis didn't intercept us off Caesarea but gave us that new course to steer instead, I guessed that they might have found a way of dealing with the bomb threat. As it turns out they had. That piece you showed me about the explosion confirms that. But I did not know, at least not for certain. How could I? Nor did I know for certain the effective range of that transmitter in the musical-box. Well, after Ghaled had shot Captain Touzani he went straight to the box. So I went after him with Touzani's revolver in my hand. When I saw that he was setting the box up to transmit I fired at it to put it out of action. I fired at it three times.'
'But two of the bullets hit Ghaled in the chest.'
'How many bullets hit the box?'
'I can't be sure. It was smashed anyway. The Israelis took it away. They may know.'
'Are you saying that the shots that killed Ghaled ricocheted off the box?'
'I haven't the slightest idea, Mr Prescott.' He leaned forward, glass in hand, his eyes wide with candour. 'I know nothing about such things. You see I had never before in my life fired a revolver. Indeed, I had never fired a gun of any kind.'
'The musical-box was a small target to begin on. Ghaled was a large one. Your feelings towards him at that moment can't have been very friendly.'
'My feelings towards him were never at any time friendly. I detested him.'
'And he had just shot your Captain.'
'And young Aziz was shooting at the First Mate who was shooting back at him. A lot of shooting went on in a very short space of time.'
'It just happened that the gun you were holding accidentally shot Ghaled?'
'It could only have been an accident, Mr Prescott. I was aiming at the musical-box.'
'In other words you hit the small target by design and the big one by accident,'
'Mr Prescott, it was all an entirely new experience for me, an experience that I do not intend to repeat. Does that answer your question?'
I sighed. 'I guess it has to.'
His smile began to return. 'I do assure you, Mr Prescott, that I am not a man of violence.'
'Luncheon is served, Michael,' said Miss Malandra.
She gave me a lovely smile as we went in, a smile full of sympathy and understanding.
It was some consolation; and I must say the lunch was excellent.