Authors: John Creasey
Bristow said: “You didn't have time to go to Quinns from Hillbery Mews, you probably came straight here. I can get a search warrant on the strength of what I know. Want me to?” After a pause, he went on, still aggressively: “Or are you going to give me that miniature sword?”
Mannering thought: Between the time that I left the mews and the time the police searched the writing desk, that miniature disappeared.
Bristow would not lie; and Bristow believed that the miniature had been stolen.
But except for Sara Gentian, the house had been empty.
Mannering thought uneasily: there couldn't have been anyone else hiding there, could there?
Bristow was glowering. This was the man of earlier days, with whom Mannering had had many a clash, the Bristow who knew what desperate chances Mannering was prepared to take when the mood and the situation demanded it.
“Now give me that sword,” Bristow ordered.
Mannering was wondering whether he had been seen; whether the girl would identify his appearance as well as the sound of his voice; whether by any chance one of the detectives had seen and recognised him but deliberately let him get away. A low ranking officer might well have thought it better to leave a man of Mannering's eminence to Bristow.
“Mannering, if you don't give meâ”
“Cut it out,” said Mannering roughly. “I haven't any miniature sword. Neither Sara nor her uncle told me that one existed. If you want to search me or look round here, go ahead.”
“That can only mean it isn't here, so you got rid of it on the way.”
“It means I've never had it. Why don't you stop trying to throw a scare into me, and tell me what you've come about?”
“I've told you.”
“I don't believe half of it,” Mannering said. “Another drink?”
Bristow said slowly: “No. No, I don't think so. John, listen to me.” He became very earnest, and moved close to Mannering. “I don't know whether you've been involved in this case for some time, or whether you've just come in. I do know that you will be in trouble unless you do what we want. If you try to play one Gentian off against another, if you start lone wolfing for the sake of Sara Gentian's pretty eyes â you'll be asking for trouble. Don't forget it.”
Mannering didn't speak.
“I'll give you twelve hours to think it over,” Bristow said, and turned on his heel.
“Bill,” called Mannering.
Bristow looked round. “Well?”
“You want one Gentian or the other to come to you, is that it?”
“I want one or the other or both, and when they come I want them to tell me the whole truth, instead of a lot of half-truths and evasions.” Bristow opened the study door himself and stalked out. Mannering let him go.
Ethel was singing in a muted voice, and the kitchen door was closed. Bristow opened the front door. It was nearly six o'clock and Mannering wondered whether Lorna was on her way up, but he heard nothing. He went back into the big front room, a beautiful room of golds and greys and blues, stepped to the window, and peered down. In a minute, he saw Bristow appear, as if stunted. A man standing by a big black car opened the door for him, and Bristow climbed in. As far as Mannering could see, no other police were in the street. That did not mean that none were watching; they may have concealed themselves at good observation points.
Mannering went back into the study.
Either someone had been hiding at the mews flat without his knowledge, or Sara Gentian had lied about the miniature being stolen. He could not believe that anyone else had been there, but he had been looking for small things â anything which would help to get a clearer picture. Instead of becoming clearer the picture was much more confused, but at least there was no doubt of the danger to him. If the police
convinced that he had been at the mews, if they could prove itâ
Had he left any fingerprints?
He tried to remember. He had taken precautions when he had first arrived, because David Levinson had broken in, but once realising the emergency, had he maintained that caution? He couldn't be sure. The Yard could easily get his fingerprints. If they found a trace of one of his at the mews, they could prove that he had lied to Bristow.
Had Bristow really come to enlist his help? Or had he come to show his teeth? It was now obvious that the trouble with the Gentians had been going on for a long time; Bristow probably believed that Mannering had known about it for a long time, too â might suspect him of activities of which he knew nothing.
The telephone bell rang.
He crossed to it as the front doorbell rang; it was surprising how often that coincided. Ethel appeared, flushed, eager.
“I'll answer the door, sir.”
It wouldn't be Lorna; she had a key. More police or Bristow back again? Mannering plucked up the telephone.
“Oh, my sweet, you do sound severe,” Lorna said. “Are you so disappointed because I'm late?”
Mannering paused for a split second, angry for giving his mood away to her, knowing that if she didn't sense it at once, she would soon realise that something was wrong. Then he forced a note of lightness into his voice: “I'm furious,” he said. “You're going to be late, are you?”
“I needn't stay, John, but Lucy has asked me to dinner. Tom's out, and sheâ”
“You stay,” said Mannering.
He heard voices at the door; David's and Chittering's. David's was deep, Chittering's quick, rather light timbred. Ethel murmured something in a tone which Mannering had not noticed her use before.
“John, I don't really mind,” Lorna was saying. “If you'd rather I came homeâ”
“It doesn't matter a bit,” Mannering assured her. “Give my love to Lucy.”
“All right, darling.” Lorna sounded doubtful as she rang off.
Mannering went to the study door, to find David and Chittering standing in the entrance hall, and Ethel glancing at David with her eyes rounded and huge-looking. David was the kind of young man who would look wonderful in a naÃ¯ve girl's eyes; there was a musical comedy star glamour about him. Chittering, shorter by several inches, had fair curly hair going almost white, although he had the look of a cherub. His grey eyes had a deceptively innocent look, too. The impression that butter wouldn't melt in his mouth was wholly false; he was as hardbitten and tough as any Fleet Street man. He had been a friend of Mannering for many years, was extremely loyal and reliable, but when necessary, he could be ruthless.
Chittering shook hands.
“What does it feel like to make yourself the obvious suspect?”
“Suspect for what?” inquired Mannering. “Come in and have a drink.” He led the way into the study, pressed a bell, and was at the court cupboard when Ethel arrived, glancing again at handsome David, her colour higher than ever.
“Mrs Mannering won't be in to dinner, Ethel.”
“Oh, I see, sir.”
“Bring some cold tonic water and bitter lemon, and some ice, will you?”
“Oh, yes, sir!” Ethel ducked out.
“What will you have, David?” Mannering asked.
“Whisky and soda, please.”
“John,” Chittering said. “Don't pretend to be so blandly unconcerned. You're in deep.”
“Usual gin and tonic?” inquired Mannering. He proffered cigarettes; Chittering's fingers were stained brown, but Levinson didn't smoke.
There was a clink and clatter of bottles as Ethel came in with several on a tray, and ice in a vacuum bowl. She was all fingers and thumbs, and had not thought to wipe off the frosting from the outside of the bottles. Mannering poured out Chittering's drink.
“Here's to swimming,” he said.
“You couldn't swim through this if the sea got rough,” declared Chittering. “Here's to you reaching the shore in good time.” He drank deeply.
“What's he talking about, David?” Mannering inquired.
“He won't tell me very much,” Levinson replied. He looked at Chittering sourly as if badly out of temper. “I asked him to tell me all he could about Claude Orde and about the Gentians. He told me nothing that you can't read in the newspapers, and behaved as if I was inquiring about the dead.”
“What's on, Chitty?” asked Mannering.
Chittering said: “I didn't know how much you wanted Levinson to hear.”
“There's nothing he needn't hear about this.”
“Right!” Chittering became brisk. “To the first question â Claude Orde. He is not what he seemed. He seems a pudden-headed, pudden-bellied ass. In fact he is a very sharp-witted, quick-witted individual with a lot of contacts in the City. He is also Lord Gentian's manager-cum-secretary. He looks after Gentian's interests when his lordship is away, which is much of the time. He behaves very much like the poor relation, but I think he carries much more influence than anyone generally believes. Because he represents Gentian, he is a man of real importance in the City.”
“You mean, among the financial experts in the City.”
“The big money boys,” agreed Chittering. “The takeover tycoons. Yes. Gentian owns some chunks of the City and the West End â not big chunks, but all very well situated. He has been sitting tight on them â through Claude Orde. He's had a lot of offers, but has refused each one. The value has doubled in ten years, and is likely to double again in the next two. There isn't much property left in the heart of London for development, and Gentian's land prevents several major projects. I'm not suggesting that anyone would bump him off, but certainly it would help some people if he were dead.”
“Why won't he sell?”
“Search me,” said Chittering. “Some believe he sees himself becoming a multi-millionaire by holding on long enough. They think he's a Machiavellian old devil who stays out of the country and leaves the thick end of the job to Orde. Others think he's a high-minded, high-souled English gentleman who does not want to see all of the centre of London given over to glass and reinforced concrete edifices with imitation Epstein sculptures at the front doors. Take your choice. The fact remains that Gentian is now in the middle of strong pressure. Two rival big money groups are determined to force him to sell. They haven't been able to do so individually; there are rumours that they are thinking of joining forces.”
“If he won't sell, they can't make him.”
Chittering swirled his drink round in his glass, then tossed it down and held the glass out.
Mannering took the glass.
“What's made you as naÃ¯ve as David Levinson?” Chittering inquired. “That's what Bristow wanted to tell me. You forget the obvious. The big money men won't stoop to violence or threats or pressure, except economic ones. But all along the line are a lot of people with a stake in this. There are small land owners whose land is kept down in value until Gentian sells. There are the contractors who would get big orders once the land was sold and the projects started. There are individuals, like Claude Orde, who might make a fortune because they own a very small piece of land. Orde himself may need money desperately â he might be under pressures himself. Don't run away with the idea that Gentian isn't in danger. He could well be. There have been attacks on his life â didn't he tell you so?”
“No.” But Bristow had.
“Take it from me, John, he didn't come to see you about the other sword,” Chittering said, taking the glass. “Thanks. I believe he came to see you because he's scared, and thinks you might be able to help where the police can't. He probably doesn't want them to know everything, anyhow. He doesn't want you to know everything, either â he's made that clear â but if he can involve you in this Mogul sword business, you could become involved in the bigger issues. Finding out who is after his blood, for instance. Be warned, John. You can get between an immovable object and an irresistible force and be squeezed to pulp.”
“I simply don't believe this is possible!” Levinson interpolated.
“But you do, John, don't you?” Chittering asked. “You know what happens when this kind of situation arises. You deal in precious stones and miniatures and antiques and
not in high finance. You're going to keep out, aren't you?”
“I don't think he's right,” Levinson declared, as if trying hard not to shout. “I think he's making a sensation out of this, like any newspaperman. The Gentians obviously need help. Obviously,” he repeated, and he looked at Mannering pleadingly. “Don't you think so, sir?”ï¿½
“Yes,” Mannering said quietly. “The Gentians need help. Whether we're the people to help them is a different matter.”
“There speaks the voice of common sense,” Chittering declared.
“But Mr Manneringâ”
“David, let me think this one out,” Mannering interrupted. “The first thing is to talk to Gentian again. I might be able to find out what he's really after. The issue seems to be whether Gentian sees himself as a modern Croesus or whether he's really living in the past and wants to cling to it for as long as he can. Isn't that what you think?”
“Either way, he's in trouble,” Chittering observed. “You don't have to be.”
Levinson burst out: “I can't understand such an attitude on anyone's part. This is London in the second half of the twentieth century. We're not living in the sixteenth, we're not in danger from highwaymen and cut-throats. The way Chittering talks, anyone would think that highly respected men in the City are prepared to hire murderers so as to get Lord Gentian out of the way. It's nonsense.”
“Nice boy,” murmured Chittering.
“Don't be so bloody rude!”
“All right, David,” Mannering said. “I'll have made up my mind what to do by the morning. Will you be in all the evening?”
Levinson was scowling. “I suppose so.”
“David,” Mannering said mildly, “there are more ways than one of being bloody rude.”
Levinson flushed, looked at him straightly, and said in a chastened way: “I'm sorry, sir. Yes, I will be in this evening, unless something unexpected happens. Are you likely to need me?”
“Then I'll telephone you if anything unexpected crops up,” Levinson said. He moved towards the door, and hesitated as if there was something on his mind. Suddenly, he burst out: “Chittering tells me that Sara Gentian was taken to a nursing home this evening.”
“Some rumpus at her mews flat,” Chittering put in. “I don't know what it's all about yet, but the police were there for some time â still are there, as far as I know. Levinson.”
“Sorry if I riled you. I don't want Mr Mannering to land himself in avoidable trouble.”
“It's all right,” Levinson muttered. He flushed. “I don't know what's got into me over this affair. Good night, Mr Chittering. Good night, sir. I'll let myself out.” He went out of the room, but before the door closed, Ethel's voice sounded: “Oh, are you going, sir?”
“She was on the lookout for another glimpse of Adonis,” Chittering remarked. “I think you ought to buy him a one-way ticket to Hollywood. They would almost certainly keep him. John, don't get a lot of romantic notions about this. I'm serious when I sayâ”
“Can you stay to dinner?” asked Mannering.
“Not a bad idea. But I shall warn you over every course and twice with the brandy.”
“That's what I was hoping,” Mannering said.
David Levinson walked out of the house into Green Street and turned towards King's Road. He and Chittering had come by taxi, but he was not likely to find one in Chelsea at this hour; a bus would take him to Sloane Square, and he could walk from there to Hillbery Mews. He wanted to go there again. He walked hurriedly, taking long strides. He noticed a man walking along the other side of the road, apparently immersed in a newspaper, and didn't give him a thought. He was worried and angry with himself because he had lost his temper with Chittering, and certainly should not have earned a rebuke from Mannering. If he did that kind of thing he might lose the job â and he knew of no job that he wanted more.
All old objects fascinated him; antique jewellery had a mesmeric effect.
He knew that Mannering needed an assistant who was not only an enthusiast at Quinns, but would act as a kind of house detective. Quinns was always liable to attack by thieves. Mannering himself, he knew, often became involved in investigations which led to violence or the threat of violence; like this one. When he had engaged him, Mannering had not minced words: “I need a man who won't be frightened if we're raided by armed thieves, a man who can hold his own in any fight, and who can be trusted absolutely. How far do you think you measure up?”
David Levinson had made the obvious response: “Try me, sir.”
He was not quite sure why Mannering had tried him. Possibly because he was the son â the long since orphaned son â of an old friend, who had been a dealer in a small way. Possibly because he had wanted a man with Eton and Kings behind him, even if he had only just scraped
through his Bachelor of Arts degree. Possibly because he had the right social background. And possibly because he was fluent in French and had more than a smattering of German, Italian, and Spanish. Whatever the main cause, he had held the job for six months, and had believed that he was living up to Mannering's hopes â until today.
What had made him so edgy?
At heart he knew, although he did not want to admit it. Sara Gentian was the reason. He had been intrigued by Lord Gentian, but the girl had affected him much more. Once or twice, when he had been in his teens, he had felt much the same about a girl, and each time the mood had died slowly. He had watched her walking towards the office, long-legged, eager, somehow defiant. Her colouring had attracted him; the careless way her hair was tossed back from her forehead; the red splash of her mouth; the way she had smiled when he had opened the door for her â all these things contributed. When he had got to her flat, and realised that she was in danger, he had almost lost his head in an unfamiliar panic. Nothing would have prevented him from breaking in to find out what had happened. He wanted to help her above everything else, and knew that he could do little without Mannering.
He felt almost that he hated Chittering.
He reached a bus stop as a bus growled up, went upstairs, and sat for ten minutes until the bus turned off at Sloane Square. He walked along Sloane Street towards Cadogan Square, then across to Hillbery Mews. He saw a police car drawn up at the corner, a uniformed policeman on duty inside the mews itself, near the blue painted door. Was Sara back? If not, what were the police doing? He walked past, hailed a taxi, and ordered: “Random Street, near Park Street.”
Random Street was very short, and there were only six houses in it. It led from Park Street to South Audley Street in the heart of Mayfair. The fourth house, one of the few left in London which stood back from the road in its own grounds, was Gentian House. It was early Georgian, beautifully proportioned, and painted black and white. An old black Daimler was drawn up outside the front door, but no one was in sight.
After passing here Levinson walked more quickly, heading for Soho. He had a two-roomed flat at the top of a building in Bloomsbury, where he preferred to live on his own. The exercise and the sight of the mews and of Gentian House had eased his tension, by the time he caught a bus at Oxford Street which would take him to within five minutes' walk of his flat. He arrived at half past eight. Clouds were gathering and it would soon be dusk.
This was James Street, with old Georgian houses on either side, some newly painted, some dilapidated. Here and there new yellow brick filled a gap torn into the terrace by bombs. He unlocked the front door, which served four floors of offices, and mounted narrow, creaking stairs to the little flat. At the front door of the flat, he fancied he heard a sound, but it did not alarm him; cleaners often worked at this hour in the offices. He inserted his key, vividly recalling how he had used the skeleton key at Sara Gentian's flat. The door squeaked because it hung badly on rusted iron hinges. He stepped inside, turned to close the door â and saw a man.
He had only a glimpse of the man leaping at him from behind the door, face covered by a scarf, right arm raised. Given a split second's warning, Levinson could have fought back, but before he fully realised the danger, he felt a heavy weight smash on his head. It did not knock him right out, just sent him staggering. Dazed, he banged up against the wall. Subconsciously, he realised the possibility of greater danger, and steeled himself to fight it off. No further assault came. He heard the door slam. Footsteps thumped on the stairs, getting fainter and fainter. By the time he could stand upright, hands pressed against his forehead, they had died away completely. His head throbbed with pain â where he had been hit now, and where he had struck it on the edge of the stairs at the mews. He seemed one great, throbbing ache from the neck up. He made himself move towards the bathroom, banging against a chair, and sent more thuds of pain through his head. God, it was
There was little light up here, even when he pushed open the bathroom door with his knees, for the bathroom overlooked a tall house in the next street. He ran cold water, dragged off his coat, collar, tie, and shirt, and gritted his teeth while he doused his head. The cold water stung with exquisite agony; gradually, that eased. He dabbed himself dry, and went into the living room. He dropped into a big, winged armchair, one of the few things he had inherited from his family, and leaned back against it, gingerly. He was not sure how long he sat like that; probably it was for twenty minutes. Now and again he opened his eyes to the comfort of increasing darkness.
At last, he muttered: “Must do something. I'm famished.” He got up. The pain was not so bad, although he could not move without a twinge or two shooting through his head. He went into the small kitchen and found himself comparing it with the spick and span contemporary style of the house in the mews. He had a few slices of ham in the small larder, cut bread, smeared on butter, and made some coffee.
Gradually, his headache eased.
“Who the hell was it?” he demanded aloud.
It had not occurred to him that he might have reported to the police, but now he began to wonder whether he should tell Mannering. A lot of use he was â knocked out twice in one day, when he was employed as a bodyguard. How far would Mannering be prepared to rely on him, if he admitted this fresh failure?
Why had it happened?
He put on a reading lamp, stood up, and began to look about the room. Everything seemed to be in order. His bedroom was, too. As far as he could see, the drawers hadn't been disturbed. He had obviously arrived before the thief had been here long. But â what could a thief reasonably expect to find here? No one could possibly think that he was wealthy? Certainly he kept no valuables. He had a few good pieces of old furniture and pleasant pictures, but nothing of real value. Could the man have thought that he brought things here from Quinns?
He would have to tell Mannering, he realised; it was the only sensible thing to do. If Mannering learned about it later, and it might have to come out, he would take a very dim view of it being kept from him. Satisfied that nothing was missing, Levinson stood up to go to the telephone, which was by the door. As he reached it, he heard a sound on the stairs.
His heart began to beat fast.
He replaced the receiver very slowly; it made a soft
! Could that be heard outside? He approached the door on tiptoe. It dawned on him that there were two people outside, and they were not making any attempt to hide the sound of their approach; they were simply walking up the stairs.
Could this be Chittering and Mannering?
Levinson stood by the solid wooden door, ears strained to catch the sound of voices. As he did so he asked himself how these men had got in. The street door should have been locked, for it was self-locking.
The newcomers reached the landing, and pressed the bell â a battery type fastened to the door, like that at Hillbery Mews. The harsh sound jarred Levinson's head. He hesitated, not moving, and heard a man say: “He's in all right.”
The voice was rougher than either Mannering's or Chittering's, and held an overtone of Cockney. Levinson stood to one side before opening the door; if there was another attack, he would be ready for it. In those few seconds he actually forgot the throbbing in his head.
Two men, both big, stood in the shadows of the landing.
“Mr Levinson?” That was the man with the Cockney voice.
“Good evening, sir,” the other man said. “We are from New Scotland Yard.” He held out a card. “May we come in and ask you a few questions? We have reason to believe that you may be able to assist us in certain enquiries.”
Levinson was so shocked that for a moment he stood gaping. The men stared at him. He gulped, stretched out his hands, and read the card. As far as he could tell it was authentic; the owner of the card was Detective Inspector Belling.
“I don't think I can help you about anything,” Levinson said as he stood aside. “But come in.”
He thought vaguely that they might be coming to ask questions about Mannering, or about the attack on Sara Gentian â if it had been an attack. He couldn't be sure. All he knew was that he must be very cautious while talking to them. They were tall, one of them massive and thickset, the other â the Cockney â thin and bony. When they were all three in the living room, it seemed crowded; Levinson felt a sense of danger, and of menace.