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Authors: John Creasey

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20
FIRE

 

Sara screamed again.

Lorna cried: “John, he's here! Don't come any further!” she called to Orde, and banged the telephone down, leaving it off its cradle. “Go downstairs at once.”

Orde was staring at Sara.

“Orde! Go downstairs at once.”

“I'll go downstairs when I'm ready,” Orde said. He put a hand on top of the newel post, and jumped up. He towered above Sara, who was backing away, eyes rounded in terror – as if she knew that he had come here to kill her.

Lorna shouted: “
John
!” so that she was bound to be heard over the telephone.

She swung round, for a weapon. There was nothing at hand except a piece of heavy gilt picture frame. She snatched it up. Sara backed away until she reached a spot where her head touched the sloping ceiling, and she could go no further. Her hands were held out in front of her as if she hoped that she would be able to fend Orde off. Lorna moved forward with the wooden framing held in front of her.

“If you touch her I'll break this over your head,” she threatened.

Ethel was strangely silent; the telephone was silent, too. John had guessed Orde might come, and might already have alerted the police. But if she missed when she struck at Orde she might throw away their only chance.


Orde
!” she cried.

She raised the piece of picture frame. As she did so, Orde swung round, ducked and threw himself at her. The weapon struck him a glancing blow on the shoulder. He crashed into her bodily, and she staggered back. He snatched the frame from her and brought it down on her head. She felt a streak of pain, felt her body quiver, felt her legs give way. She did not lose consciousness, but could not prevent herself from falling. She heard Sara scream again. Orde turned round as the girl rushed to the head of the loft ladder, and before she reached it, Orde snatched at her and caught her arm.

He pulled her back roughly.

Lorna lay with one arm bent beneath her, pain throbbing in her head. She could see what was happening in all its horror but couldn't do a thing to stop it.
Oh God,
she prayed,
let me get up.
She tried desperately, but collapsed again; the pain which surged through her head was agonising.
Let me get up.
Orde had pulled Sara to him. He had his hands round her neck. He
was squeezing; squeezing. He was choking the life out of her.

Oh, God; let me get up.

He was killing her. Her head was bobbing to and fro. Her eyes were rolling.

Lorna managed to get up on one elbow, but could not raise her body, could not call out.
Why didn't Ethel come up?
Something thudded downstairs. The blood pounded through her ears, and the effect of trying to get to her feet made pain much worse. She saw everything through a pale red mist. She saw Sara's long legs sag. She must do something—something! She caught sight of the weapon which Orde had snatched away so easily and flung down. If only she could get at it! She stretched out her hand.

Orde flung the girl away from him, and she fell heavily and lay crumpled up, without moving. Orde, gasping for breath, moved quickly, swinging round and staring at the northlight above the easel, and at the shelves by it. There Lorna kept her paints, her varnish, the cleaning spirits, the turpentine, her rags, her brushes. Orde ignored her, and strode towards the shelves. He had one hand in his pocket. He snatched it out, and Lorna saw something glisten. The miniature sword? He picked up a bottle of turpentine in his free hand and smashed it on the edge of a shelf.

Somehow, Lorna got to her knees. There was nothing at hand for her to touch, so as to help herself up; she had to do everything by herself, and her head was aching so much, she thought she would fall again. The sharp stench of the turpentine stung her nostrils. The liquid spread about the shelves, dropping to the floor, spreading as far as other bottles, the paints, the paint-soiled rags.

A flame leapt from his hand.

He had a cigarette lighter, and was flicking it.
Click, click, click, click.
It would catch the turps, the rags, the wood; if he set light to it the whole place would be ablaze in a few minutes.

No!

The flame appeared again, still tiny, and this time it did not die out, although it faded to a flickering flame. Orde sheltered it with a great fat hand. If she could move, if she could throw anything at him, if only she could blow on the flame it would go out. He was shielding it, and carrying it towards the rags – some of them now soaked with the inflammable turps. He meant to set the place on fire as if to hide the traces of his crime.

There was more thudding sound downstairs.

If she could only
blow
out that flame.

She saw it catch one of the rags; a fresh, sudden ripple of fire followed. Orde stood back, watching. Gloating? He swung round. The light of the lighter itself died away, but the rags were beginning to catch and blaze up.

“Put—” Lorna gasped. “Put—”

He jumped across and pushed her. She went sprawling. He swung away at once, obsessed by the fire. Lorna's vision was blurred with tears of pain, but she could just make out the flames and see them leaping upwards. Orde backed away. A flame seemed to run along a shelf towards a tin of varnish. Orde stretched out his long arm and pushed the tin over. The varnish spilled out, sluggish, sticky. For a moment it seemed to put out the creeping flame, but suddenly there was a bigger flare, and the whole of the shelves seemed to be on fire.

Orde turned again, went over to Sara and bent down. He took her ankles and began to drag her along the floor, towards the flames. When she was only a few feet away from the shelves, he let her go. Her head was towards the fire, spread out like a golden mop. If once the flames caught that long, corn coloured hair . . .

Orde strode across to Lorna.

“Your turn,” he said savagely. He bent down. Lorna struck at him ineffectually. He brushed her hands aside with brutish strength, then twisted his hands so that he could grasp her wrists. He pulled her to a sitting position, let her go – and made a swift forward movement, his fingers crooked. He clutched her round the neck. He was going to do the same with her as he had with Sara – choke the life out of her, and leave her here. Oh, God. The pressure was so great, the pain so awful, the fear worst of all. She seemed to hear the burning behind her, as if the whole of the row of shelves was roaring.

She could see Orde's face, a round pale moon, only a few inches away from her. The pressure of his fingers seemed to grow and grow, to become more and more painful.

Then, suddenly, the face was not there any longer.

She had not lost consciousness. She was aware of sounds, of movement, of voices. Orde's face disappeared from her as if he had toppled backwards. The roaring might be of burning, or might be the sound of blood in her ears. Suddenly, a man appeared. Another face was close to Lorna's for a second, before she felt hands beneath her arms, felt herself pulled first to her feet, to rest against a man, and then hoisted in his arms. As he carried her towards the stepladder, she tried to speak.

“Sara,” she tried to say. “There's Sara!”

The man's face was just above her. He had big, pale lips. She saw his teeth – he was smiling. Why should he smile? He was reassuring her, of course, actually saying something. She was half conscious, dazed, frightened. Sara. How was Sara? Had Sara's hair been burned? Had she been hurt?

 

Mannering jumped out of the taxi before it stopped in Green Street, thrust a ten shilling note into the driver's hand, called
“Wait!”
and ran into the house. Two police cars stood a few yards along, and he heard the ringing of a fire tender's bell, but had no idea that the tender was on the way here. A uniformed constable stood just outside the front door.

“Is anyone hurt?”

“There's been a bit of trouble,” the constable announced. “Don't know much about it myself, sir.” He opened the door of the little automatic lift, and Mannering stepped inside. The lift crawled up. He kept hearing that scream in his mind, just as he kept hearing Lorna as she shouted at Orde.

He had dialled 999 and raised the alarm; the cars outside showed that the police had acted quickly, but had they been quick enough? This damned lift. At last it stopped. He flung the iron trellis work gates back and stepped out. The front door of his apartment was open, and he saw a pair of nylon-clad legs stretched out from a chair. Small, stocky legs – Ethel's. Ethel was lying back in an armchair, arms flopped over the sides, head turned round while she stared at him.

“It was awful,” she said hoarsely. “It was awful. He—he nearly killed me. It was
awful.

Mannering said: “You'll be all right. We'll look after you.” He felt as if he were choking.

Suddenly, he smelt fire, and rushed towards the passage leading to the studio.

Then, like balm, he caught sight of Lorna. She was sitting against the wall of the bathroom, with her eyes closed. No one was with her. Footsteps sounded above Mannering's head as if several men were up there.

He stepped into the bathroom.

“Lor—” he began.

She looked pale, as if she desperately needed rest, but she was all right; he could see her even breathing. He moved out of the room, thoughts switched to Sara Gentian and what might have happened to her.

A burly man appeared from the kitchen.

“Mr Mannering?”

“Yes. Is Miss Gentian—”

“The other lady who was in the studio is in a bedroom, sir. She'll be all right,” the man assured him. “Not to worry. Mrs Mannering's all right too, sir – the Fire Service are on the way, just to check. Everything will be all right, though. Not to worry.”

Almost at once, firemen appeared at the open door.

Mannering carried Lorna into the main bedroom. She was dazed, and did not talk, but obviously she recognised him. A police surgeon was already here, young, brisk, sleek – a Dr Norris. Mannering left Lorna on her bed, and looked in on Sara Gentian, who was unconscious. A policeman was in the room with the girl.

“Nearly choked the life out of her,” the man said. “We pulled her round though.”

“Yes,” Mannering said. “Yes. I'll find a way to say ‘thanks' later. Where is—the man who did it?”

“Up in the attic – the studio, sir.”

Mannering said: “Thanks,” as he turned away. Firemen were already on the stepladder, and it was several seconds before he could get up to the studio. As he put his head through the hatch, the stink of burning was very strong, and the studio was filled with smoke and with big men. There were four in all, in addition to Orde. Orde was standing by one of the upright beams, and Mannering saw that he was handcuffed to it; the police certainly did not mean to take any chance that he would try to escape.

He glared at Mannering.

One of the big men turned round. This was Hickson, the Cockney, who gave a rather tense smile.

“Just got here in time, Mr Mannering.”

“Thank God you did!”

“The Division sent two chaps along as soon as you called, and Belling and me come straight over from the Yard,” Hickson said. “That swine was actually trying to strangle your wife. Had to be pulled off. What's it all about, Mr
Mannering? What
is
it all about? Why should he hate you as much as this?”

“I think I got in his way,” Mannering said. He was staring at Orde. “Has he talked?”

“Not a squeak. Just looks as if he hates our guts.”

“Perhaps he hates the world,” Mannering remarked.

He had been right about Orde's purpose in running away. Could he be right in thinking that Gentian had known what he was going to do, and had helped him to get away?

“What's on
your
mind, Mr Mannering?” Hickson asked.

“Orde told me he stole the miniature sword, and I can show you how he got into and out of Miss Gentian's flat without you knowing,” Mannering said. “Just now I'm worried about my wife and Miss Gentian.”

“Is that all?” demanded Hickson.

“Isn't it enough?”

“It would be too much for some people,” Hickson agreed, “but that doesn't mean that it's everything.”

He spoke almost as if Bristow had put the words into his mouth, but before he could go on, an ambulance arrived and Sara Gentian was taken away.

 

“We'll save her life all right,” the police surgeon said, when she had gone. “I'm not so sure that we can save her mind.”

 

21
ONE HOPE

 

“i still don't think you've told us everything,” Bristow said to Mannering. It was half past six that evening, and he had been at the flat for half an hour. “I think you're trying to help or to shield someone. If you go on doing it, you're crazy.”

Mannering did not speak.

“It's no use sitting in that armchair and looking up at the portrait Lorna did of you,” Bristow said irritably. “Lorna nearly died today – remember? If my chaps had been five minutes later I doubt whether we would have saved her. She's all right now she's had a sedative, and with luck she'll wake up tomorrow with a few bruises on her throat and a sore head – but she was within minutes of death. Your
wife
was, John. So was Sara Gentian – and if it comes to that, so was the maid. You're taking risks you've no right to take.”

“I haven't taken any risks that I could avoid, and there's nothing you don't know.”

“I don't believe you.”

Mannering, a whisky and soda by his side, was sitting relaxed in the big armchair. He looked at the Yard man with a faint smile. He felt much better, but the flare of fear for Lorna had taken a lot out of him. He was still desperately anxious for Sara Gentian, who was at St George's Hospital, under a sedative. There was no danger to her life; that had been confirmed. It was anyone's guess what her mind would be like when she came round.

“I can't make you believe me,” Mannering went on, “but it's the simple truth. This is one case where I haven't kept anything of importance back.” He had told Bristow about the talk with Orde, and Bristow himself had seen the kitchen cabinet “doorway” between the two flats. The charge against Levinson would be withdrawn, at least that much good had come of the day's activity. Just now, Mannering read the scepticism in Bristow's eyes, and went on: “You didn't believe that I'd been at the mews flat, after Levinson – I hope you do, now.”

“Oh, I'm convinced about that. But why should Orde try to kill Lorna?”

“Because she could have stopped him from killing Sara,” Mannering reasoned. “Hickson didn't talk about a special hate, but any hatred for me or Lorna is because we got in the way of the attempts to kill Sara Gentian. You may never prove it, but those so-called suicide attempts were really attempted murder.”

“No need to press those particular charges,” Bristow pointed out. “We've got Orde for the attempted murders here. Our own men actually saw him in the act of strangling Lorna. Oh, we've got Orde – but we haven't got the motive yet. We need it before we can be sure that the case is over.” When Mannering made no comment, Bristow stood up and began to walk about the room. “There's no reason at all why you should hide anything from us for Gentian's sake.”

“No reason, and no chance that I shall,” Mannering said. “I'm not holding any brief for Gentian. Bill – you're the one who's been holding out.”

Bristow stopped just in front of him. “Don't be an ass!”

“Fact,” insisted Mannering. “You told me that you had reason to believe that Sara Gentian's life might be in danger. Why did you think so?”

“We heard rumours from the Gentian servants that she had made several attempts to kill herself by taking overdoses of sleeping tablets,” Bristow said. “We couldn't be sure, but we
wondered if they might be murder attempts, not suicide. We knew that Lord Gentian
was – is for that matter – very conscious of his position, and would hate scandal. We had failed to make him talk, and hoped you would. According to what you say, he insists that his niece has been mentally unstable all her life.”

“That's it,” Mannering said. “That's what he calls the skeleton in the family cupboard.”

“Believe him?”

“I don't know. I don't believe you yet.”

“Now, John—”

“Bill,” Mannering interrupted mildly, “you told me about pressures on Gentian from the City. Chittering told me about them too. What kind of pressures? What have you done about them?”

Bristow sat on the arm of his chair.

“There isn't anything we can do,” he answered gloomily. “There are big financial interests who want to buy all Gentian's property – all but Gentian House, that is – and he's been holding out. We've discovered nothing at all to justify any theory of illegal pressure being brought to bear. Two big building corporations use sub-contractors, some of whom might have attempted to use threats and menaces or physical violence – we can find no evidence that any of them have. Orde has been known to visit certain financial houses and it is just possible that some kind of pressure has been used on him, but I'm beginning to think this is a family issue.”

“Ah,” said Mannering. “How?”

“On the surface – Orde wants to make sure that he has plenty to come into, and no one to share it with.”

Mannering said: “It won't wash, Bill.”

“What do you mean it won't wash?”

“If this were a matter of killing for inheritance, there would be no need for all the complications. Have you ever been able to get information from Gentian's solicitors?”

“Hebble, White, and Hebble, you mean?” Bristow smiled wryly. “No, I haven't. The three original partners are still alive – each of them is over seventy. They're the most reputable firm in London, and they won't breathe a word that isn't according to protocol. They each have sons, four of the younger generation are in the firm, and they're as sound and old-fashioned and rigid on matters of professional etiquette as the old men. I don't believe that they know anything to the discredit of Gentian. Even if they did—”

“They wouldn't say so?”

“They certainly would not.”

Mannering asked, musingly: “Supposing they knew something which put Gentian – or any of the Gentians – on the wrong side of the law. What would they do?”

“What would a priest do if he received a confession from a man guilty of a crime?” asked Bristow. “They might – in fact I think they would – refuse to handle any legal case if they knew for sure that Gentian was guilty; they might ask him to get someone else to represent him. And if they were in the witness box, under oath, they might say what they knew if they were asked questions on the specific subject. Other than that—” Bristow broke off. “Are you suggesting that Gentian has broken the law?”

“I don't believe that the only skeleton in the Gentian cupboard is Sara,” Mannering told him. “Gentian did his damndest to make sure that I couldn't stop Orde getting away.”

“So you told me. But he might simply have been giving Orde a chance to escape, it doesn't necessarily mean that he knew where Orde meant to go. I've spent ten minutes with Gentian. He's confined to his room, his doctor refused to allow me to stay any longer. He looks ill – and he still looks and behaves as if he's as proud as Lucifer. He says that he remembers nothing of what happened this afternoon – that he does not remember Orde talking to you, or making any admissions. You see what that means, don't you?”

“Yes,” said Mannering, very softly. “Yes, I see exactly what it means. It's my word against Orde's. The secret door at the mews might let Levinson out but doesn't necessarily put Orde in the dock. He doesn't know about the attempt to kill Sara and Lorna, does he?”

“No.”

“When he realises that he can't help Orde by keeping silent, he might regain his memory.”

Bristow said: “Do you really think so, John?”

After a long pause, Mannering said: “No, I don't.” He heard the front doorbell ring, and put his hands on the arms of his chair, to stand up; there was no one in the house to take Ethel's place. “I'd better see who that is,” he went on. “Meanwhile you can take it from me that I've told you everything I know.”

He left Bristow in the study, and went to the front door. He opened it. David Levinson stood outside, with Chittering. Before he could warn them that Bristow was within earshot, Levinson said very clearly: “It's been a wild goose chase, Mr Mannering. We haven't been able to find anything out about Orde. Nothing that helps, I mean.” Mannering made no attempt to stop him, and he came further in, while Chittering kept silent. “He's seen a number of the executives of the companies which want to buy the Gentian estates, but simply to discuss the preliminaries of a deal. It doesn't go any further than that.”

“A bit further, surely,” Chittering said.

Mannering raised a hand, and glanced at the door. Chittering looked surprised, Levinson began: “What—” and stopped abruptly. Chittering suddenly seemed to grasp what Mannering was getting at, grinned, and went on: “The latest offer for the estate is twenty-two million pounds. London Land Company told David that and said they didn't mind the figure being mentioned in the Press. So the
Globe
has a big scoop in the morning, and Gentian could be the richer by a lot of money if he would do a deal.” The newspaperman strolled towards the open study door, looked in, touched his forehead with mock humility, and asked: “Any idea why he doesn't, superintendent?”

Bristow came to the door.

“I thought you knew everything,” he said sourly.

“Not about this case,” Chittering countered. “And if you don't and I don't, it's up to John. Any bright ideas, John?”

“My mind is like yours,” Mannering said. “A complete blank.”

But as he spoke, a possibility crept into his mind, one so simple and yet so startling that he was afraid he would give away some inkling of his thoughts. He did not seem to. Chittering shrugged, and declared that he must hurry to get his story on the front page. Mannering saw him off, and Chittering added
sotto voce
: “Your David is all right – but he has a crush on Sara Gentian. She bowled him right over. Keep that in mind.” He raised his voice: “I'll be seeing you when it's all over!” He hurried down the stairs, ignoring the lift.

Bristow was next at the door.

“I must be getting along, John. If you find anything out – anything at all – let me know.” He turned to Levinson. “Mr Mannering's been able to put considerable doubt into my mind about the charge against you, and it might be very difficult to prove. Consequently, it may be withdrawn.” He stepped across to the lift, erect, dapper, earnest.

Levinson said eagerly: “Does he mean that?”

“He said a lot more than he should,” answered Mannering. “For a policeman our Bill Bristow has too much heart. Yes, he means it. Orde took that miniature and tried to frame you. Orde . . .”

He talked on and off for half an hour. Most of the time he moved about the kitchen, cutting ham sandwiches, making coffee, preparing the kind of meal that Lorna might on Ethel's day off. Ethel was at home, with her parents, probably too frightened ever to come back to the Mannerings. Now and again, Levinson asked a shrewd question, until by the end of the half-hour and the end of the meal, he knew almost as much as Mannering.

At half past eight Larraby arrived.

“All I want you to do is sit in until I get back,” Mannering told him. “I don't think my wife will come round. If she does, the sight of your angel face will stop her from worrying. You know who to send for if there seems any need, but I think she'll be all right.”

“I'll look after her,” Larraby promised.

Mannering went in to see Lorna, looked down at her, realising just how close a shave it had been for her. As he watched, tears stung his eyes.

He went out of the bedroom, and found Levinson waiting.

Levinson said harshly: “It may sound crazy, but that's how I feel about Sara Gentian. I've hardly seen her, I hardly know her, but the fact that she so nearly died—” He broke off.

“I've known a lot queerer things than that,” Mannering said.

“I expect you have, but—” Levinson hesitated, looked at Larraby, moistened his lips, and went on in a high-pitched voice: “Is she out of danger, now that Orde's under arrest? Is she safe, or—is she in danger from Lord Gentian as well? Is
he
involved?”

“That's what we're going to find out,” Mannering said. “If you'll take the risk.”

“I'll take any risk!”

“Mr Mannering—” Larraby began, protestingly.

“All right, Josh,” Mannering said. “I know you're going to tell me to be careful, but we can't afford to overdo caution. You'd better know what I intend to do, though. If I run into trouble, you will be able to give evidence of good intentions. I—”

“You keep saying ‘I'. Aren't
I
in this?” demanded Levinson.

“That's up to you,” Mannering told him. “I want to find out whether there is anything in the Gentian family history which might explain this. The solicitors won't talk. They can't even be asked intelligent questions until we know more than we do. But if they can't talk, their deed boxes can. I'm going to break into the offices of Hebble, White, and Hebble, in Lincoln's Inn Fields, and try to find the truth.”

After a long pause, Levinson said, bewilderedly: “But that's burglary!”

“That's right,” Mannering agreed. “My crime will be burglary. As you forced the lock at Hillbery Mews in daylight, yours was only breaking and entering. I can go alone, or I can take you along, to keep watch. With luck, no one will have any idea that we're there.”

Larraby said quietly: “Mr Mannering, it is exactly the kind of thing that Mr Bristow would expect you to do. It would not surprise me at all to find that he is having those offices watched.”

“It wouldn't surprise me, either,” Mannering said, drily. “Coming, David?”

“You bet I am,” Levinson said.

 

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