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Authors: John Creasey

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22
OFFICES BY NIGHT

 

The square of Lincoln's Inn Fields was full of shadows. A few street lamps burned; some windows showed yellow; here and there a crack of light showed through curtains; but most of the houses were in darkness. The stars were out, and with the street lamps spread a glow on the new, pale buildings in one corner – where Toby Plender had his office. The older buildings seemed black. Round the fence of the garden in the middle cars were parked, one with parking lights left on by a thoughtless driver. There was good space for parking; by night the Fields were little used.

Mannering and Levinson approached on foot from Kingsway. The sound of cars, and the hum of their own taxi faded into the distance. A motor scooter, its light pale and weak, came wobbling towards them; as it passed a girl pillion passenger giggled.

“Damned fool,” muttered Levinson.

The offices of Hebble, White, and Hebble were in the far corner from here, on the left – in one of the Georgian buildings. A caretaker and his wife lived on the top floor, but as Mannering approached, no light showed up there. A clock from the Strand boomed midnight; it was late enough for Mannering's purpose, not so late that it would be surprising if anyone saw them. A man came hustling out of a doorway on the right; on the other side, from the new buildings, a door opened, light streamed out, and a woman called: “Thanks for a wonderful time, darling!”

“Come again soon.”

“Come and see
us
!”

There was laughing and shouting, followed by the noisy revving of a car engine.

Mannering stepped into the area outside the Hebble, White, and Hebble building; the name showed up beneath a street lamp, black on pale coloured glass. He knew exactly what he wanted to do, and had briefed Levinson thoroughly; the younger man seemed to understand. Mannering stepped boldly up to the front porch, keys in hand; he used the skeleton key quickly, while Levinson stood back. Metal scraped on metal, until the lock turned. Mannering drew the key out and tried the door. It was held by a bolt in the middle – the position where a bolt was easiest to handle.

He took out a thin saw, with a sharp point, and thrust it between the door and the door jamb. As he did so he made a little hiss of sound with his lips, warning to Levinson that this was the time to be extremely careful. Levinson lit a cigarette. Mannering felt the point biting into the old wood, and soon was able to move the saw to and fro, feeling the teeth bite. He had the teeth facing downwards. Soon, he felt a harder pressure, and a faint squeak of metal on metal sounded. A car came crawling past them, swaying, its headlights full on; as it reached the doorway, the headlights went out. The car passed. In the moment that it took to go by, Mannering squeezed oil from a small tube onto the saw, and pushed it back again; he was still sawing metal, but there was no squeaking.

“How long will it take?” whispered Levinson.

“Fifteen or twenty minutes.”


That
long?”

“Go for a stroll,” Mannering said. “Stay within easy reach.”

“I'm all right here.”

“Don't argue, David.”

Levinson moved off, his cigarette glowing. Another car passed. Mannering, half hidden by the shadows of the porch, worked faster, and made more noise. He heard David's footsteps, to and fro, and wondered how the youth would stand up to this strain. In the years that were past Mannering had thought nothing of spending an hour, sometimes longer, forcing his way into a house like this, and taking just as big a chance as he was tonight. He knew the measure of the risk, and that was probably worrying Levinson now. If they should be caught, they would have no defence; a benevolent motive would not count as extenuation. This was burglary, and could ruin them if they were caught.

Levinson came back, and whispered: “
A policeman's coming along
!”

“Right,” Mannering said. “You keep going. Walk right round the square.” He slid out the saw, put it into his pocket, waited for Levinson to go past, and heard the plodding footsteps of the policeman. He turned with his back to the door, made a thud of sound with his heel, and walked briskly from the porch. He stepped onto the pavement a few paces ahead of the policeman, turned towards him and walked past. The man's glance was casual and incurious. Mannering went across the road and hid between two cars until the policeman was out of sight. He went back to the porch, his saw already in hand, squeezed a little more oil, and started work again.

Levinson came back. “That was a narrow squeak!”


Narrow
?” echoed Mannering. “He didn't give us a thought. Now, I think—”

There was a faint snapping sound; the bolt was severed.

Mannering pushed the door, and it moved. He pushed it wider and stepped inside. Levinson took a last look up and down the square, and joined him. They closed the door. Mannering switched on a pencil torch, and the thin bright beam shone on shiny black paint. The floor was carpeted, it was easy to deaden sounds.

“You know the drill,” Mannering said. “A blast on that whistle if there's any danger.”

“I know,” Levinson said.

“All right?”

“Jumpy as a cat, but I'll get by.”

Mannering moved along a narrow passage by the side of the stairs; in these old buildings there was no lift. He passed two doors, and shone the light on them: one said:
Mr William Hebble, Mr James Hebble,
the other had the names
Mr Guy White, Mr Josiah Hebble.

These, he knew, were the younger generation of the firm.

A door, facing him, was marked:
Strictly Private.
He tried and found it locked, but the skeleton key opened it in a second or two. He stepped into a little lobby, with several doors leading off it. Each door had a single name:
William Hebble, Senior, Benjamin K. Hebble, Justin White.
A fourth door said:
Secretary.

Mannering found the doors all locked.

He went into William Hebble Senior's room, and it was like stepping into the past. As his torch beam swept round he saw big, shiny black leather armchairs, massive bookcases which stood almost as high as the ceiling, a huge desk – and in the far corner, another door which had no lettering on it. The shelves were filled with black deed boxes, and with files tied round with grey-looking tape. Curtains were pulled back at the tall windows. Mannering drew them, then crossed the room and switched on the light. It was not very bright. He rounded the big pedestal desk, sat down, and worked on the locked central drawer. It took him five minutes to force, and the only sound was the scrape of metal on metal. He pulled it open at last, and saw what he most wanted – a set of keys.

He took these out, then walked back to the outer door, and opened it.

“All right, David?”

“I'll tell you if it isn't.”

Mannering turned back. His heart was thumping, and it was easy to imagine how Levinson was feeling, but with luck the job would be over in five minutes. The place was silent. He backed to the door in the corner, and tried three keys; the fourth worked. He pushed the door open very carefully. Except for documents, nothing of value was likely to be kept here, there was probably no need for extreme precautions or burglar alarms – but there was always the possibility that he might come across one.

He saw no sign of electric wiring, nothing to suggest that one of the new electronic machines operated here.

The room into which he stepped was small. Two big, tall safes filled up one wall. Shelves round the other walls were packed with deed boxes – and more bundles. He switched on the light. A moment's scrutiny told him that the boxes and the bundles were arranged in alphabetical order. He found Galloway . . . Gall . . . Galson . . . and at last Gentian. One box was marked “Lord”, one was marked “Sara”. Now his heart thumped. He took Sara's box off the shelf; it was locked with a small padlock, but one of the keys on the ring would be the master. He selected and tried it – and the padlock sprang open. He gulped as he raised the lid of the shiny metal box, which was cold to his touch. There was very little inside here, but there was a safe deposit slip. He picked this up, and read:

 

One leather sheathed jewelled sword, deposited on Miss Sara Gentian's behalf with the National Security Safe Deposit Company, Fenchurch Street, E.C.3.

 

Now Mannering knew what had happened to that missing sword. Sara had taken it – but was stolen the word?

He found nothing else in this box, so opened Gentian's. Inside this were a pile of documents, each strung round with red tape, and on top was an envelope on which was pencilled:
Sara G.
2. He picked this up, felt a key inside, took the key out, and turned to the safe nearest him.

One of the keys on the first ring opened this. Inside were several more boxes, one marked
Lord Gentian,
white on black. He drew this out. The key fitted the lock, and it turned silently. He raised the lid stealthily, as if afraid to make a sound.

Inside was a large, sealed envelope; great blobs of sealing wax glistened red in the light.

Mannering hesitated before picking up this envelope. There was no way of opening this without leaving traces, so he might as well be both quick and bold. He used a letter opener, slit the envelope, and shook out the contents.

The first thing to catch his eye was a beautiful colour plate of the Mogul Swords of Victory. The two were shown, crossed, and beneath them, at the point where the blades intersected, was a picture of the miniature sword. On the back of the colour plate was a brief description of each sword, a list of the precious stones in it, and a history of their possession by the Gentian family.

Mannering set this aside.

He picked up a thick document, unfolded it, and read:

 

Report of Coroner's Inquest.

 

It was written in a copper plate handwriting, was dated forty-nine years ago, and the place was: Babwe, Southern Rhodesia. The story was very simple. James Arthur Gentian had been drowned in the Zambesi River, and the body had been discovered two days later, badly mauled by crocodiles.

 

Evidence of identification,
read a note,
was given by his brother, Lord Eustace Gentian.

 

Mannering laid this aside, too, and found several yellow newspaper cuttings of the tragedy, like those which Chittering had shown him; this had been the sensation which he and Bristow remembered.

There was a copy of James Arthur Gentian's will. He left all his estate including
his
Mogul Sword to his only son, James. So Gentian had lied about that. Mannering read on with increasing excitement, beginning to hope that the flash of intuition he had felt in his flat would be vindicated. The other sword had belonged to Gentian's brother, who had left it to his son.

There were birth certificates, too – one of them Sara Gentian's, granddaughter of the original brother James, daughter of the second James, rightful owner of the second Mogul Sword of Victory. There were also death certificates, of Lord Gentian's wife and infant son, and of Sara's mother and father, who had died in a motor car accident when she had been five years old.

First, a death by drowning in the crocodile infested Zambesi.

Next, a double death by accident on the roads of England.

Now – attempted murder, not once but several times.

Mannering stood staring down at the documents, his thoughts darting from one possibility to another. He heard a hiss of sound, and at first it meant nothing; then he heard it again – and it jolted him out of these moments of intense reverie.

That
hissing
was the noise made by the alarm whistle.

He swung towards the door which led into the old solicitor's office, and saw Levinson framed in the next doorway.

“A car's just pulled up outside,” he breathed. “It's a Daimler – I
think
Lord Gentian's getting out.”

 

23
INHERITANCE

 

Mannering pushed the documents back into the deed box, thrust the box into the safe, and closed the safe; it locked automatically. He went into the next room, closed and locked the first deed box and put it back on its shelf; all his movements were quick and decisive. He heard a bell ring. He placed the keys back in old Hebble's drawer, and relocked the drawer with his skeleton key, then stepped to the door.

Levinson was just outside.

“Someone's coming down,” he said. “He's bound to notice that the bolt's damaged.”

“Don't panic,” Mannering said. “Let's get into one of the other rooms.”

As they moved, a man appeared at the foot of the stairs, with his back to them; there was no reason why he should turn round. A glow shone from the landing above him, and suddenly he put on the hall light. He looked old as he padded along to the front door. Mannering and Levinson stepped inside the room chosen for sanctuary. Almost at once, the front door opened, and a man said in a clear voice: “I am sorry to worry you so late, Arthur. Lord Gentian wishes to get some papers from his deed box.”

“That's all right, Mr Hebble,” the caretaker said. “I wasn't asleep – Bessie was, but bless you it would take more than a ring at the bell to wake her up.” He stood aside, and an old man, a big old man who walked like a lad, came bustling along, with Lord Gentian by his side – the poor old man who was supposed to have been in a state of collapse. Mannering watched them pass. Levinson, just behind him, was trembling. Mannering could just see the caretaker. Once he realised he had not drawn the bolt, and saw it sawn through, he was bound to raise the alarm. He was looking down at it. Suddenly, he exclaimed: “
My goodness. We've had burglars!

He turned round and hurried after the other two, who had disappeared into the inner offices. As he reached an open doorway, he called out: “Mr Hebble, sir – Mr Hebble!” Mannering opened their door wider, gripped Levinson's arm, and led the way out. They were on the porch with the door closed behind them before Hebble, Gentian, or the caretaker appeared again.

A big old Daimler stood at the kerb, but no one was at the wheel or standing by it; one of the old men must have driven the car.

“Turn right, David,” Mannering ordered. “And then go straight home. I'll see you in the morning. I think we're going to see this thing through nicely.”

 

Alone, Mannering walked towards Soho, where he was most likely to get a taxi; and one came along behind him while he was still in Holborn. He said: “Gentian House, off Park Street,” and sat back. He lit a cigarette, and closed his eyes, to relax after that tension. He had no doubt that Hebble and Gentian had discovered the opened envelope by now; Hebble was probably talking to the police by telephone. The drive through the empty streets was very fast, and the taxi pulled up outside the gates, which were open.

“This okay, sir?”

“Yes, thanks,” Mannering said. He paid the man off and walked across the courtyard. The lighted centre lamp showed everything clearly. He did not press the bell or attempt to get inside, but sat in a window ledge, hidden by a corner of the building, and lit another cigarette. He was there for a little more than half an hour before the Daimler appeared, turned into the gates, and drove towards the side of the house where Mannering was sitting. It stopped short, the engine cut out, the lights were switched off. Lord Gentian stepped out of the driver's seat, and walked past Mannering, without seeing him. Mannering followed a few paces behind. Gentian opened a side door, without a key. Mannering reached it as it closed, listened for any sign of the bolt shooting home; he heard it. He heard Gentian's footsteps, too. He hurried round to the front of the house and pressed the bell as he had done when he had first come here. He kept his finger on it for several seconds, took it off, pressed again. While his finger was still touching the bell push, there was a sound at the door.

Gentian opened it – the pale, frail, silvery-haired man who looked as if he were at death's door.

“M-M-Mannering!” he gasped.

“I think we need to talk,” Mannering said, and stepped inside. “This afternoon you were supposed to be unable to speak to anyone, but tonight you can go rushing about London.”

Gentian stood aside. He muttered: “What on earth do you want?” but there was no strength in his voice. Mannering took his arm and led him across to a large oak settle, let him sit down, and stood in front of him.

“Why did you help Claude to get away?”

“M-M-Mannering, I am ill. I really
am
ill.”

“Why did you let him go? What influence did he have over you? Why could he frighten you so easily?”

“P-p-p-please, Mannering—”

“Gentian,” Mannering said, “nearly fifty years ago, on the side of the Zambesi river, your brother fell in and was drowned. He was half devoured by crocodiles. Isn't that true?”

“He didn't tell you that! He wouldn't tell—”

“The newspapers told me,” Mannering said. “They also gave evidence of identification. Gentian, did you kill your brother and then identify him as yourself?”

Gentian screamed: “
No
!”

“Did you?”

“No, no, no!”


Did you
?” repeated Mannering in a hard voice. “Tell me, Gentian, did you take your brother's place?
Did you
?”

“Oh, God,” gasped Gentian. “Oh, God. How did you find out?”

 

He looked like a man suffering from palsy. Mannering thought that he would collapse, that he might die from shock and shame. They stood facing each other, Mannering stern and still, Gentian shaking.

“Tell me,” Mannering said. “Tell me exactly what you did.”

“Oh, God,” moaned Gentian. “Yes, yes, I did it. I did it. I killed him. I wanted the title, but Eustace's little son stood in the way. I wanted the title and the swords. All my life I wanted—”

He began to cough, but when the spasm was over, he went on in a voice which Mannering could only just hear: “We—we were so alike. We always had been. Always. My wife was dead, and my own son was very young, and I was away so much. I—I meant as much to him as an uncle as I did as a father. Then Eustace's little son died, so I would have inherited anyway. But I was stuck with the impersonation. I stayed away for years, and most who knew me were dead when I came back. Years alter a man's appearance and no one suspected. Then I—I began to feel the burden. Do you understand? I began to feel a liar and a fraud, even to my own son. And—and to my only sister, Claude's—Claude's mother.
She
knew. I'm sure she knew. She died bearing her second child, who was stillborn but—I believe—I believe she knew what I'd done. And then—then my own son died in—”

“How did that accident happen?” asked Mannering softly.

Gentian's voice rose. “I didn't do it! I didn't know it was murder until afterwards—” The old man broke off. He still looked as if he might die before the night was out, his eyes were so sunken and his thin cheeks so grey.

“Was the killer your nephew Claude? Your only sister's only child?” When Gentian did not answer, Mannering went on quite gently: “Did his mother tell him, so that he knew the secret, and could force you to do whatever he wanted? Is that why you kept silent when he tried to kill your granddaughter – not your niece, your granddaughter? Is that why you stood by and let him try to drive her from sanity to madness and from madness to her death?”

Gentian was gasping, his teeth were chattering.

“Is that why you spent so much time abroad, and lived like a recluse with your guilt whenever you were in England? Is it why Orde managed your affairs? Did Orde want to sell the possessions murder had won for you?”

Gentian screwed up his eyes.

“God forgive me,” he said chokingly. “Yes, Mannering, yes. I killed my brother, I tell you. He was wealthy and I was poor. I saw the chance to take his place. Once it was done, it was done. Years later Claude told me he knew. I made a will in Sara's favour. He knew it, he tried to make me change it, and—and I defied him. I wasn't aware of all he was doing.” Passion strengthened the old man's voice. “I did not know that he was trying to kill Sara. I believed that she was sick, that the shock of her parents' death had affected her mind. I tell you I believed that she
was
deranged. But then—then I discovered what Claude was doing. So I brought the sword to you, with a manufactured story. Sara had taken the other one. I knew she had, and I made that my excuse to come to you – I believed that you would find out what Claude was doing. I hoped that he would be frightened of you and would stop. There was a risk that he would tell all the truth but he had for so long connived at my crimes I felt he would avoid that if he could. But he would not stop working, Mannering. He stood to gain too much. So very much,” the old man added, and his voice fell away to a whisper. “That is the whole truth, Mannering – that is the way I tried—I tried to make amends.”

“I think perhaps you've succeeded,” said Mannering, still gently. “You'd better go upstairs and rest.”

Gentian said: “Go upstairs? But—but the police—”

“The police have Orde on a charge he can't wriggle out of,” replied Mannering. “He won't tell the truth about you if you say nothing more about him.” He could afford to be generous now, for this old man would soon, perhaps very soon, be dead. “I'll help you upstairs,” he added. As they went slowly towards the lift, he went on: “Where have you been tonight?”

“I went—I went to get some documents from my solicitor,” Gentian said. “Someone had been there before me. It must have been Claude. Claude, or a friend of Claude – Mannering! Mannering, others worked with him, others knew the truth.”

“I don't think he would risk telling anyone else all that he knew,” Mannering said reassuringly.

They reached the second floor, and as they stepped out of the lift, the old butler came hurrying, anxious, alarmed, eager to help.

 

As far as Mannering ever knew, Hebble did not report the burglary at his offices. The solicitor might not know for certain but undoubtedly he guessed the truth, and would do nothing which might focus attention onto it.

As Bristow had prophesied, the next day Lorna was herself again but for a few bruises on her neck, and a bruised head. The skin had not been broken, and she would be all right in a few days.

There was still uncertainty about Sara Gentian, but on the whole the reports of her were good.

Ethel turned up for work in the middle of the morning after all, bright and cheerful and rather excited by what had happened.

“And I actually had my name and my
picture
in the paper, sir!”

Chittering telephoned. “If you get anything else on this job, John, remember that I want to know quickly.”

“And you shall,” promised Mannering.

Bristow telephoned. “I'm told that Lord Gentian is very ill, John – I still haven't been able to question him. His doctor says that he isn't likely to live more than a few weeks. I'm beginning to think that the real motive was the obvious one – that Orde simply wanted to make sure that he inherited the estate. Old Hebble tells me that Lord Gentian's will leaves everything to Sara Gentian. I hope she's able to enjoy it.”

“John,” Lorna said, in the early evening three days later, “I talked to Sara this afternoon. I believe she's perfectly normal.” Lorna, lovely in a green suit, fully recovered and looking very young, held his hand. “The shock of what happened here seems to have made her better, not worse – and the knowledge that Orde is in prison and is likely to stay there for a long time has helped her. She talked very freely, too. She said that she had always been frightened of Orde, ever since she can remember – even as a child, just after the death of her parents, he used to call her mad, and tell her stories of how insanity could affect a person. I think she needs a long rest, with a feeling of absolute security. Where do you think she had better go?”

“I think she can take up residence at Gentian House,” Mannering said. “I fancy we can persuade her that it will soon belong to her, and that it's the only place for her to go. Tell her you want her to put on an exhibition of your paintings.”

“I wonder if you're right,” Lorna mused.

 

Two days later, “Lord Gentian” died of natural causes.

In the days which followed, a lot of questions were answered, some by Sara, some by Gentian's butler, some by the solicitors. The butler told how Sara had come to Gentian House after she had run away from the nursing home, and how Orde had given him some “aspirins” for Sara to have in some hot milk.

“She took them on trust, coming from the old man, but they were veronal,” Mannering said. “When she lost consciousness, Claude took her up on the roof, and closed all the means of access to it. He kept the keys, and he would have pushed her off the roof if—”

“If you hadn't climbed up,” Lorna said. “Did Orde cause that accident to Gentian?”

“We can take it that he did, as part of the scare campaign,” Mannering said. “He wanted a terrified old man completely at his mercy, but didn't quite succeed.”

 

Three months later, in late autumn, an
Exhibition of Drawings and Paintings by Lorna Mannering
was held at Gentian House, the main hall and the staircase, the ballroom and the library being used for it. Sara, beautiful in a powder blue dress which matched her eyes and in jewellery which seemed to put stars in them, welcomed the guests at the preview. The party met in the great circular hall, and Mannering saw that on one side, against the great staircase, a pair of blue velvet drapes concealed an exhibit. Sara moved towards this, and David Levinson stepped after her. He had been “on loan” from Quinns for several weeks, to help Sara organise the exhibition, prepare catalogues, make out lists for this preview. Many of the most exclusive art dealers, most of the private collectors and representatives from art galleries and museums were present when Sara stepped beneath a tasselled cord attached to the drapes.

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