Authors: John Creasey
Mannering's taxi slowed down as it approached Gentian House. The beautifully wrought iron gates were open, and Mannering saw his Bentley in the light of the lamp in the middle of the courtyard. He was feeling grim and gloomy, because of the way things were working out, but at least Lorna was here with Gentian; she might have had more luck with him.
“Drop me here,” he said.
He paid the cab off, and walked quickly across the flagged courtyard, seeing exactly the same view as Lorna, and getting the same kind of impression; that he was walking out of one London age into another. He saw the bell, a press button in the middle of a brass circle, and pressed. He waited for a few seconds, fancying that he could hear people coming inside; but the door didn't open. He pressed again. He began to feel alarm because Lorna was here, and he couldn't understand the situation. Why didn't someone answer? He pressed again. Quick, sharp footsteps sounded on the stone floor inside. At least someone was hurrying.
Lorna opened the door.
“John, thank God it's you!”
Mannering stepped in very quickly, and she let the door slam, she was so agitated.
“Sara's on the roof,” she told him. “They're afraid that she'll throw herself down. It's like a madhouse here.”
He remembered how calm and quiet everything had been outside.
“Where are they?”
“They went this way,” she said. She led him across the circular hall to a door opposite the one from which Claude Orde had come when she had been upstairs. This door, standing open, led to a passage towards a secondary hall, where lights blazed. Mannering saw people moving about as he stepped ahead of Lorna and pushed the door open.
It opened onto a square courtyard, surrounded on all four sides â a way of making sure that every room in the building had daylight. A dozen windows were bright with light, a lamp â like the one outside â stood in the middle, surrounded by a rockery on which the flowers had been robbed of colour by the bright lights. Mannering saw three people, one of them Gentian.
Orde was calling out: “The ladder's broken!” He seemed to be gasping for breath. “Talk to her, for God's sake â don't let her jump.”
“Sara,” Lord Gentian called in a clear voice, “we want you to unlock the doors up there, and to come down here at once. We want to help you.”
There was no answer; nothing to suggest that anyone was on the roof.
“Sara, all we want to do is help you,” Gentian called again. His voice echoed in the courtyard. “We don't want you to hurt yourself.”
Suddenly, a beam of light shot out. Orde held a powerful torch, and swivelled it upwards. The beam flickered on windows, shone on the white stone facing of the house, shone on a stack pipe and some guttering, and then onto the stone ledge which went right round the roof. This was patterned, almost castellated, and even from here it was possible to see how thick the stone was. The beam reflected from it, brightly. Orde moved it round, very slowly, as if he had no idea where his quarry was.
“I've got to try to get up to her,” he said roughly.
He switched off the beam, and hurried through an open doorway.
Mannering took Lorna's arm and they went towards Gentian. He turned round, showing no surprise at seeing Mannering.
“I'm afraid there's nothing we can do,” he said.
“You can send for the fire service,” Mannering said sharply.
“No, not yet. No, Mr Mannering, we want to tryâ”
“Go and call 999, darling,” Mannering said. “Ask for
and tell them what's happened. With luck they'll be here in five minutes.”
Lorna began to move.
“Mrs Mannering!” Gentian called sharply. “I do not want you to call for official help until all chance of reasoning with my niece has gone.”
“Rather see her jump to her death?” demanded Mannering.
“I am sure she will listen to reason.”
“Lorna, will you call 999?” Mannering said. “Go to a âphone outside, if necessary. I thinkâ”
A curious sound cut across his words, followed by a loud crash. Pieces of stone flew about the courtyard. A moment later, another missile came crashing down, and Mannering saw it in the faint light from a doorway. It wasn't stone, it was a roof slate. It smashed into hundreds of pieces, and one piece cut into his leg.
“She'd like to kill us,” Gentian called in a strained voice. “If she throws any more of those downâ”
Another slate crashed.
“I'm afraid this is the end,” said Gentian. “We had hoped so very much to avoid a scandal, but now everyone must know that she isâunhinged. You're quite right, Mannering â except for one thing. If anyone climbs up onto that roof, she is almost certain to throw herself off. How will that help?”
“What makes you so sure?” Mannering demanded. “She seems to want to injure Orde more than herself, and she thinks he is here.” He waited but no more slates came crashing. “How many servants are here?”
“They are the only resident servants,” Gentian said. “You forget that this house is closed much of the time. They are completely trustworthy, butâwhy do you ask?”
“I wondered why the place wasn't buzzing with people. Is there a ladder?” As Mannering asked, Orde came striding from the doorway.
“I can't get up,” he said hoarsely. “Has she been throwing things?”
“Yes,” Gentian replied. “Sheâ”
“Is there a ladder handy?” Mannering demanded.
Orde echoed: “Ladder? Well, yes, but something's gone wrong with the sliding mechanism. I can't get more than halfway up to the roof. Not that I'd go up that way. She'd crack my skull like an eggshell.”
Mannering said: “Do you know where she is?”
“Notânot for sure. At each side there's a wide ledge â a service ledge, from which you can get at the chimneys and the stack pipes. She's crouching behind one of those â the one up there, I think.” Orde pointed across the courtyard. “My God, it's time she was put away.”
“We have tried so hardâ” Gentian began.
“Orde, try running the ladder up on the right,” Mannering said. “Don't worry whether it's working or not, make it sound as if it is. She can't do much harm if you're over there and she's where you think she is.”
“What'sâwhat's on your mind?” demanded Orde.
“I think I can climb up on this side while you're distracting her attention.”
?” echoed Gentian.
“Why, that's suicidal!” Orde exclaimed.
“Put the ladder up,” Mannering said; and it was an order.
“Mannering, you must not take such a risk!”
“Risk? When you tell me that your niece is likely to throw herself down?” Mannering said scathingly.
He moved towards the nearest window, reflecting that the tops of windows should give both hand and foothold. In the past he had taught himself to climb at much greater peril, but it was a long time since he had tried. He stepped onto the lowest ledge, stretched up, found that he could get a hold at one side of the window; narrow ledges ran all round, so it should not be too difficult.
Gentian said something in a low-pitched voice to Orde. Footsteps sounded, and Orde called out: “Try that ladder again.”
Mannering hauled himself up to the top of the window; it gave reasonable foothold. He had to press closely to the stonework, which rubbed his knees and tore his nails, but he did not let that slow him down. He was able to get a hold on the next windowsill, above him; provided that he kept his balance there should be no difficulty. The house was only four storeys high and he was halfway up already. The well of the courtyard seemed a long way below; if he let himself think about what would happen if he fell, he could easily lose his nerve. He did not glance down, but stood poised on the narrow ledge above the first floor window. He stretched up again, found a hold with his fingertips on the ledge above this window, where there was ornamented stonework. Now the strain on his arms was much greater, and there was more pain in his fingers.
Slowly, he hauled himself up.
He should have gone as far up in the house as he could and then climbed out of the window, of course â but that might have lost precious time.
He felt as if every muscle in his body was being torn; as if he could not make any further effort. Then suddenly he found a small ledge with his right toe, and it took off some of the pressure. He got his feet to the ledge above this window and paused for a moment, to get his breath back. The noises made by the others were muted, but he heard Lorna's voice, clear and sharp with alarm: “
Gentian's voice travelled upwards. “We warned him.”
She mustn't call out again, Mannering thought desperately; he must not have any distraction. It was bad enough knowing that she was down there, fearful in case he slipped.
One more window . . .
Sweat was dripping from his forehead, into his eyes. The back of his neck and the small of his back felt cold and wet. He groped upwards again. Now he was almost within reach of the guttering, because the top windows were set back from the main walls.
There were noises in his ears, and his pulse was pounding. It puzzled him that he heard no outside sounds from up here, nothing to suggest that the girl knew that he was coming. She hadn't thrown down any more slates although she must have known that the ladder was being erected again. What had made her quiet all of a sudden? He eased himself up, very slowly. At least the attack of nerves had gone, he was no longer in fear of falling, just saw this as a job which had to be done quickly. It did not occur to him that he might slip. He stood precariously on the top windowsill, within arm's reach of the guttering, and noticed that the window was open at the top. That was unusual for a top floor window â they were usually open at the bottom, surely. Or was he guessing? He thought he saw a faint light, inside â and could just make out the shape of a doorway in the room beyond.
Was there any possibility that Sara had come down from the roof?
He stood in that position longer than he had intended, partly to get his breath back, partly because he was surprised both by the light up here and by the open window. He put it out of his mind, stretched up and clutched the guttering. It seemed firm. He tested it with most of his weight, standing on tiptoe; nothing suggested that the guttering would give way. In a second or two he should be able to hoist himself up and climb over; he needed to make only one final effort.
He tensed his muscles, and was about to haul himself up when he heard a different sound at the window. He glanced down and saw a hand stretched out â a hand holding a knife. Light from below shimmered on the blade.
Mannering felt a spasm of fear, realised what was happening, knew that the knife would stab into his legs at any moment â and kicked out. He felt the toe of his shoe strike something hard, heard a gasp, felt a sharp pain on his left knee, and kicked again. This time, he kicked through the air and brought his right knee up against the bottom of the window, sharply. Glass boomed. The sudden movement put too much weight on his fingers; his right hand slipped. He hung, top-heavy, over the paved courtyard, looking up at a patch of sky cleared of scudding cloud. If his assailant struck again he wouldn't have a chance.
He stretched up desperately, clutched the guttering again, and heaved. He thought he heard a sharp sound at the window, but now his legs were above window level, with elbows bent he was breasting the guttering. Fear injected the convulsive strength and speed he needed. He swung one knee over, stayed for a moment half on and half off the roof, then made the final effort. He reached safety.
He lay on his stomach, gasping for breath, his left knee very painful.
“John?” called Lorna in a low-pitched, carrying voice.
“He's all right,” Gentian said, quite firmly.
Mannering edged towards the guttering, and waved with his right hand; Gentian called: “
!” Gradually Mannering got to his knees. His head was aching and he felt dizzy; that was from the shock of the attack from the window. Who had done that? Sara? It was unthinkable, but Sara Gentian
to be doing a lot of unthinkable things.
He managed to get up to a crouching position, and studied the layout of the roof, the chimneys and the stack pipes. A ledge ran right round, wider at some parts than others, and there were some windows set right back on the roof â attic windows. Outside of these were the areas, and there it would be easy to move about. Each area was at least ten feet by ten. He smelt smoke, sharp and acrid, being blown from one of the chimneys; up here he was suddenly aware of the wind. He heard no movement to suggest that the girl was on the point of falling or jumping. No one was close to the edge.
He walked slowly past the first area towards the second. He could not see far from here, would have to wait until he reached the second service area. He kept thinking of that knife attack, wondering if it were possible for the assailant to try again, from up here. He began to wonder why the attack had been made, and pushed the thought aside; he could worry about that later.
He reached the corner of the next area, and peered round.
He saw Sara.
She was lying on her side, her head towards the guttering, her legs spreadeagled, her hair blown in the wind. He could not see her face at all. He held his breath for a moment, because it looked as if she was dead.
Slowly, fearfully, he moved forward. She did not stir or look round. He reached her and bent down, feeling for the pulse of her left wrist; her arm stretched almost straight out from her body, as if she had been thrown or had fallen here. The light was too bad for him to see her face clearly, so he took a pencil torch out of his pocket, and switched it on. The intense brightness of the light showed the pallor of her cheeks. Her lips had been wiped clean of lipstick, and looked grey in this light. But her eyes were flickering, and her pulse was beating.
He straightened up, and called down: “She'll be all right. She's fainted.”
Before any reply came from below, he heard the ringing of a fire alarm bell, and the deep-throated roar of a powerful engine in a hurry.
Within ten minutes, the firemen had run a ladder up to the roof, a fireman carried Sara Gentian down, and Mannering climbed down after him. Now the tension was over he felt hot and shivery with the reaction; at least twice it had been touch and go.
And someone had tried to make him fall, remember; had tried to kill him.
He reached the courtyard and turned round and found Lorna only a few feet away. Neither spoke, but they looked into each other's eyes in full understanding. Mannering turned round as Gentian came up and said very quietly: “I shall never be able to thank you enough, Mr Mannering.”
“I hope she's all right,” Mannering said.
“I am sure she is.” They turned towards the fireman who was still carrying the girl. Orde was with a small group of people, several of them in fire service uniform, and his deep voice was suddenly raised.
“I tell you there's no need to!”
“We must, sir, I'm afraid,” a man said.
“But it's crazy! We can look after her here, she'll be far better off than at a nursing home. It's going too far, I tell you.”
“Surely they are not going to take the child away again,” Gentian said, as if anxiously. “They must realise that above everything else she must have rest and quiet.” He moved away, and his voice became firm and authoritative. “Who is in charge?”
A tall man in uniform said: “I'm the Fire Officer in Charge, sir.”
“I am Lord Gentian. I will be grateful if you will take my niece up to one of our rooms â Mr Orde will show you the way â and I will send for a doctor at once. She is subject to this kind of attack, and I know exactly what she needs. Claude, please showâ”
“I understand she is to go back to the nursing home which she left this evening,” the Chief Fire Officer said. “The policeâ”
Two men came into the courtyard, ushered in by the old servant. Both were in plain clothes. From the description that Levinson had given, Mannering recognised the two men who had arrested him; the same couple who had been at Hillbery Mews that afternoon, and had made Mannering himself run off. One of them, the Cockney, said: “Is she all right?”
“Yes, Jeff.” Obviously the fireman knew this man well. “Lord Gentian would like her to stay here, but when the Yard asked us to come they said take her back to the nursing home. Which is it to be?”
“The nursing home. Sorry, sir,” said the Cockney detective to Gentian. “I've had me orders. Nothing I can do about it. There's an ambulance outside.”
Gentian looked furiously angry. Orde started to roar: “It's all a lot of bloody red tape! Who's your boss? Before you move her I want to talk to him.”
“I fear that we shall have to allow the officer to carry out his instructions,” Gentian said coldly.
The peculiar thing, to Mannering, was that not once had Gentian looked at his niece; not once had he shown any real interest in her condition â only, in where she should be taken.
Mannering felt a trickle of blood at his left knee. It was sore and painful, but he could use it freely. Now that the issue of what to do with Sara had been decided, he could think more about himself, and about what had happened.
The obvious thing would be to question Orde and Gentian, but he did not, yet. The time might come soon when he would be able to ask the questions to better effect. He listened to the murmured thanks of Lord Gentian, the offer of more drinks, and could not fail to notice that Orde seemed to wish he would go.
“I understand from Mrs Mannering that you feel that you would like to know the situation at once,” Gentian said. “I wonder if we can meet tomorrow morning, Mr Mannering, at your office â instead of at luncheon. I have told Mrs Mannering something of the unfortunate family history, and I think this will enable you to understand the situation more clearly tomorrow. I must confess that I am very tired and â yes, I suppose badly shaken. I don't feel equal to a long discussion tonight.”
“It would be impossible,” Orde said roughly.
“I'll telephone you tomorrow,” Mannering said, coldly.
“And I will make an appointment then. Claude, please see Mr and Mrs Mannering to their car.”
Orde strode ahead; through the great house and into the outer courtyard. He opened the Bentley's driving door, and Lorna moved so that Mannering could get in.
“Will you drive?” Mannering said to her. If she was surprised, she didn't show it, but got in and took the wheel. Orde slammed the door, came round and slammed Mannering's.
“Good night,” he said harshly. “And Mannering â try to help instead of being a damned nuisance. My uncle's an old man. Sara's been an anxiety to him ever since I can remember. If this gets out into the newspapers it will be the end of him. He's not so tough as he looks.”
“And you're much tougher than you look, aren't you?” said Mannering. “Tell him that if I don't hear the whole story tomorrow, I'm going to tell everything I know to the police â including the fact that he claimed that the first Mogul Sword was stolen.”
?” gasped Orde.
“Is it worth pretending that you didn't know?” demanded Mannering. “All right, sweet. We'll go.”
“Mr Orde,” Lorna said, “why did you lock me into the room whenâ”
didn't lock you in,” Orde interrupted. “That door's got a trick lock â
might have wanted to keep the embarrassing situation from you.”
There was little more to say.
Lorna switched on the lights, and turned the key; the engine purred. She drove smoothly towards the gates. A fire engine was moving slowly along the street, the last outward evidence of the trouble at the house. Two couples, both young and well dressed, stood on the other side of the road; there were always passers-by, always someone ready to gape. Lorna turned towards Piccadilly, and the rear walls of Buckingham Palace. A heavy gust of wind made a cyclist wobble; Lorna swerved. They were at Victoria when Lorna spoke, quite sharply: “How much longer are you going to keep it to yourself?”
“Eh?” said Mannering. He touched her knee. “Sorry. I've been trying to see beyond the mystery they're determined to make of it. What did Gentian say aboutâ”
“I'm not asking about Gentian, but why you wanted me to drive,” Lorna said. “How badly are you hurt?”
“Oh, just a scratch.”
“It's more than that.”
“A scratch,” Mannering assured her.
“Even if it is, you might have broken your neck.”
“It wasn't very likely.”
“But you nearly fell.”
“Yes,” Mannering agreed, and his grip tightened. “Yes, I nearly fell. Or was pushed.”
The car swerved again. Lorna steadied it, and for a few moments drove on in silence; suddenly she darted a look towards Mannering, with the road ahead quite empty except for the street lamps and the garish light and the shops which stood like derelicts on either side of the dead street.
“Are you serious?”
“Very serious,” Mannering assured her, and told her what had happened. “Who was down with you in the courtyard?”
Lorna said: “I thoughtâI thought they all were, but I was so busy watching you that one of them might have slipped away.”
“Orde, Gentian, and two servants,” Mannering said. “Is that what you mean by âall'?”
“Were they with you when I waved down?”
After a pause, Lorna answered: “I'm not sure about it, John. Orde
Gentian kept moving about, and as I say I was intent on youâ” She broke off. “How badly
“It's how badly I might have been,” Mannering assured her. “And also, why did anyone want to stop me from reaching the girl? To make sure that no one found out that she was drugged? Or to make sure that she couldn't be saved? She was lying close to the parapet. There was a broken coping stone which caught her dress, and I suspect it saved her from being pushed over. I don't think she would have lived long after a fall. She probably didn't throw those slates,” he went on softly. “She escaped, she reached Gentian House, Orde saw her, and she either ran up to the roof or was carried up there. The scene was set for another suicide. If she'd fallen from or been pushed from that roof there's a sound chance that a pathologist would have stated simply that she died from multiple injuries, and that he would not carry out a full autopsy â he might not have bothered to look for traces of a drug, for instance.”
They were slowing down at the approach to Green Street.
“Why didn't you say something about this at the house?” Lorna asked.
“Let âem guess what I suspect,” Mannering said.
“Do you suspect Orde?”
“Of a lot â yes. He could have drugged the girl, could have thrown those slates, could have tried to push me down.”
“Why raise the alarm before pushing Sara off the roof?” objected Lorna. “It would have been just as easy to send for the police after the event.”
“If she'd fallen off while we were there and he was supposed to be trying to save her, he'd be free from suspicion,” Mannering said. “Or he would think he would be. The police are on their toes, too. It's almost as if they suspect that Sara might be in danger at the house. Bristow said that he believed she was in danger but didn't tell me from whom the danger might come.” As Lorna stopped the car by the garage, he put a hand on the door handle. “If I'd tried to find out who was upstairs they would have been on the alert tonight, and without a thorough search it would be impossible to find anyone in Gentian House if they wanted to keep out of the way.”
“You could have told the police. They would have searched.”
“Would they have believed me?” Mannering went round to the other side of the car as Lorna got out. He was not in much pain, but limped a little. “What I called a knife wound might be a cut from a sharp edge as I climbed.”
“John,” Lorna said in a low-pitched voice, “I want to know why you didn't tell the police, and I want to know why you didn't say anything about this to Gentian and to Orde. If it were necessary you could have kept Orde up all night.”
“I admit it,” Mannering said. “Let's get up to the flat.” He walked along, still limping, feeling tired although his mind was teeming with thoughts. They went up in the small lift, let themselves in quietly, and went across to the bathroom. Mannering slid off his trousers. Blood had spread over the whole of the kneecap and trickled a few inches down the leg, but the wound looked more serious than it was. The knife had made a rather jagged cut; it would be stiff for some time, being on the kneecap, but it certainly wasn't serious.