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Authors: John Creasey

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At last some small noise caught his attention.

The man named Cyrus appeared from one of the rooms leading off the hall from which Mannering had previously emerged. The sunlight showed him alert and smiling.

“Good afternoon,” said Mannering. “Does Mr. Mario Ballas live here?”

Cyrus's smile stayed, unaltered in expression.

“Come in,” he said, and stood aside. As Mannering stepped over the threshold, a light came on above his head; more lights followed, and as the door closed behind him, hall, staircase and landing were all transformed. Cunningly placed spotlights shone on the paintings, revealing their beauty; Mannering could recognise a Rembrandt, a Gainsborough, a Titian. What he had thought to be a cupboard proved to be the reredos from some old church – a crucifixion scene, showing hundreds, perhaps a thousand, exquisitely carved figures, each one he looked at perfect in execution.

Mannering stood quite still, glancing about him.

“You needn't waste your professional acumen looking too closely,” Cyrus said dryly. “All that you see has been bought on the open market. This way.”

Mannering went ahead of him, up the stone staircase leading to the half-landing. The Persian runner here was of soft, warm colours; there were two Rubens and a Reynolds on the walls. Glancing up at the ceiling, Mannering saw a crucifixion mural worthy of any cathedral; it looked more modern than classical – possibly Mexican, he thought.

They reached the landing. Two men were stationed there, incongruous in their modern clothes. One of the men was standing, heavy and truculent, against a dark, solid-looking door. It was Tiger O'Leary. He moved aside with obvious reluctance as Cyrus brought Mannering towards him.

That taxi driver had certainly known what he was talking about.

“All right, Tiger,” Cyrus said.

“I tell you you're crazy,” O'Leary growled.

“Then Mario's crazy.”

“If you ask me, you're
all
crazy.”

Cyrus shrugged, and tapped at the door.

Mannering felt as if he were standing in a film set under the glare of cinema cameras, so unreal did the whole scene appear to him. Only O'Leary's heavy breathing and undisguised hostility gave the touch of real and pressing danger. They waited for a few moments, and then he heard a movement at the door. He sensed rather than saw a peephole open, heard it slide to. Another sound followed. Immediately, Cyrus turned the handle and pushed the door open. He went in first, and stood aside.

Mannering entered the room.

It was remarkable, not only for its size but for the fact that it was less a room in a private house than a church turned into a museum.

For the second time since he had recovered consciousness, Mannering stood astounded.

He had entered from the middle of one of the long sides. How long, he wondered? At least fifty feet both right and left. The walls looked like those of an ancient Spanish mission, uneven, plastered, patched. In innumerable niches, and on as many small shelves and brackets, were
objets d'art
from all four corners of the world.

Between these were paintings of so great a beauty that now the collection outside seemed almost trivial. At intervals were small windows, deeply recessed, showing the thickness of the walls – four feet at least. Above, were heavy beams, dovetailed in such a way that each appeared to form part of a cross; some were thrown into relief by spotlights illuminating carvings as beautiful as those on the reredos.

These things, by themselves, would have made this the most remarkable room which Mannering had ever seen – but the remarkability was heightened by the bizarre occasion of his seeing it, shanghaied and drugged as he had been, and guarded now by such a brute as Tiger O'Leary.

His first astonishment over, Mannering noticed with delight that every inch of space was crammed with
objets d'art,
antiques, paintings and sculptures; and that against the walls were show-cases, in which scintillated countless gems.

There was order of a kind in the arrangement; and gradually Mannering became aware of this. The centuries were gathered together – Byzantine, Egyptian and Babylonian, Grecian and Roman – through to the Middle Ages, the Rennaissance, and even to modern art, which was represented by a fantastic abstract; a Picasso, unless Mannering was mistaken, but one of which he had never heard.

At one end of the room was a desk, delicately inlaid with enamel; and behind the desk, a chair that was like a throne, composed entirely of bejewelled gold. From a narrow, brass-studded door a man entered. He did not glance towards Mannering or Cyrus, but went towards the chair, moving with the slow deliberate movements of the very old or infirm. He was small, and slightly built, dressed in a beautifully cut suit of black velvet, with short Spanish-type jacket and tight-fitting trousers. His shoes were traditionally those of a bygone Spain. His eyes were hooded, his features a little too smooth and regular. Noting this, and the brilliance of his eyes and lips, it occurred to Mannering in a macabre flash of prevision that he was like a corpse, made up for the last respects of relatives and friends.

As he sat down, he watched Mannering impassively; then beckoned. Cyrus dropped behind, as if to make sure Mannering was now very much on his own.

Mannering stopped a few feet in front of the desk.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Ballas,” he said.

“So you are John Mannering,” said Mario Ballas. His voice was soft, with a noticeable, quite attractive accent; there was even the hint of a lisp. “I have often wanted to meet you, but there is so little time. So very little time.” He made the words sound like a sighing: “So ver' leet'el time”. He smiled, as if with great effort; then raised his hands, which had the same wax-like appearance as his face, in a gesture which encompassed the whole room and all that was in it. “Now we have met it is on a very serious matter. I wish you to understand, Mr. Mannering, that if it were necessary, I would give up every single thing in this room –
every one,
Mr. Mannering – for the microfilm which Professor Alundo owned and which you now possess. It is so exceedingly valuable to me.” He paused, then added with curiously steel-like emphasis: “You understand, no doubt, how determined I am to obtain that microfilm.
No one
is going to prevent me from getting it. No one—and nothing.”

Chapter Twelve

Bad Man With a Cause

Mario Ballas stopped speaking, but did not look away.

Mannering felt the impact of the words, the threat implied, the ultimatum. Nothing and no one was going to prevent this man from getting that film.
Why?
Why could it be so precious to him? Why was he so sure of its value? And how was Professor Alundo involved in this strange battle for possession?

“Do you understand me?” Ballas demanded softly. “I would give up every one of the rare and priceless things in this room for the microfilin.
Do
you understand?”

“Yes,” Mannering said; yet he did not truly understand.

“Where is the microfilm, Mannering?”

Mannering countered, after a pause: “Why do you want it, Señor Ballas?” The ‘Señor' came quite naturally. He heard a rustle of movement behind him but paid no attention.

“That is my business,” Mario Ballas said.

“If I knew why you wanted it I might help you to find it,” Mannering answered quietly.

“You know where it is. You will help me to get it.”

Mannering smiled faintly.

“You think I do, Señor. But must we waste time? I assure you in all earnestness that I won't lift a finger to help you find the microfilm, until I know what is in it.”

He heard Cyrus catch his breath, and saw Ballas glance towards the man as if forbidding any kind of interruption.

The wax-like hands were placed palm downwards on the table; the lean body did not change position.

“And if you know this, you will help me?”

“If I like your reason for wanting it, yes,” Mannering told him.

“Mr. Mannering,” said Mario Ballas, “no one knows that you are here in Mexico. No one will ever see you leave, whether you are alive or dead. It would be very easy to kill you, and the dying could be very, very painful.”

Mannering said: “I see.” He shifted his position, and heard another rustle behind him. The older man watched. There was no other sound in the room, no distraction. “Señor Ballas,” Mannering went on, “you have a reputation for being a cold-blooded killer. You are hated and you are feared. But
I
don't hate you – and I don't fear you. And there is no way you can make me do anything I do not wish to do.”

After a long, tense pause, Ballas stirred.

“You know so much,” he said.

“I know enough.”

“You would talk, as everyone else has talked.”

“It wouldn't help you,” Mannering said.

“Explain that, please.”

“I cannot tell you where to find the microfilm. I can only help you to find it. If you kill me, you will lose every chance you have, because”—very softly and deliberately Mannering made his final throw—”
only
I can help.
Only
I know the clues.”

“You speak as if this were a game.”

“I carry out all my investigations as if they were games. It is far more absorbing that way.”

“So very English,” Ballas said. “English enough to be the truth. And I have heard that the famous John Mannering never takes anything seriously.” He appeared to brood, and Mannering believed he was making up his mind whether to try to make him talk – by torture, beyond any doubt – or whether to take his word. So much of what he had said was true that all of it might be convincing. If this old man, so used to having his own way and to having men cringe before him, could listen to reason, Mannering believed that he might win.

It was almost as if no one else was in the room.

“Mr. Mannering,” Ballas said, “you are an English gentleman.” He paused. “You were
born
an English gentleman.” The second pause was longer and Mannering could not guess what was to follow; could it be the axiom that an Englishman's word was his bond? Or that they should reach a gentleman's agreement? “In politics, you are an Independent – you see how closely I have checked on your history. Are these things true?”

“Yes.”

“What do
you
mean by ‘Independent'?”

“Freedom from any political party,” Mannering said, trying to understand the reasons for this new subject. “There's so much bad and too little good in party thinking – and that goes for all parties.”

“For them
all
?” echoed Ballas. “
All
?”

That was a remarkable moment. For the first time his voice rose as if in incredulity, and his eyes glinted. There were spots of glowing red on his cheeks. Mannering had seen such manifestations before – had seen them in fanatical politicians who went almost mad when they were discussing politics, who lost their self-control the moment their opinions were contradicted. He had a prickly feeling at the back of his neck, knowing that something very startling was simmering in the mind of this strange man.

“For them
all
?” repeated Ballas. “You
mean
that?”

“In some you have to look a long way to find the good,” Mannering conceded.

“Ah ha!” exclaimed Ballas, in the tones of one who has spent much time and trouble in endeavouring to trip up his opponent and has at last succeeded. “Are you telling me that you, an English gentleman, born in the tradition of British freedom, a man from the land of the Mother of Parliaments, a man in whose land the Magna Carta was signed, believe there is
any
good – however little – in—
Communism
?”

In that last word there was deadly venom which came out as if ejected by a snake. Mannering was astounded, and very watchful. He was fully aware that he was still groping for the truth, that if he said the wrong thing, the result could be disastrous.

Ballas sat, his arrogant indifference fallen from him, his fingers interlaced and strained white at the knuckles. Mannering tried not to show the tension he himself was feeling, by standing in an easy and relaxed position; in point of fact, he had never wanted to sit down more.

“Answer me,” Ballas said at last. “Do you see
any
good in Communism?”

“In its intent,” Mannering said, cautiously.

“You are a fool. There is only evil in it!”

Mannering said: “It was born out of evil conditions, Señor.”


Are you defending it
?” hissed Ballas.

“I'm condemning the conditions which gave it birth,” Mannering said. He was sweating.

“It is evil, I tell you. Evil, corrupt, horrible! It will suffocate mankind.”

Ballas sat back in his golden chair, surrounded by the riches and beauty won by his crimes, his ruthlessness – and his lips trembled and his voice quivered; even his hands shook on the desk, his jewelled cufflinks tapping a menacing tattoo.

Mannering said: “But at least it tried to let all men breathe.”

“You are playing with words!”

“I always play, remember,” Mannering said. “I never take anything seriously. You told me so.”


Mannering
!
Are you a Communist
?”

“I certainly am not.”

“Then why are you helping Communists in their foul work?” Ballas raised his hands from the desk and slapped them down on it, furiously. “Answer me! If you are not one, why do you help them? Answer me, or you will wish you had never been born!”

The lost youth of the man, the uncouthness of his early upbringing, the latent savagery in him, all showed in what he said and the way he said it; the veneer of culture melted away and the ugliness beneath was left exposed. In an instant he might give the order which would throw Mannering to the vicious cruelties of his trained thugs.

Mannering, though fearfully conscious that danger hung over him by a thread, became increasingly aware that something else lay beneath this anger.

There was some other, finer quality in this man – and Mannering felt kinship with that quality. He understood and shared his passion for the
objets d'art
about them, that knowledge of their need for care, in fact, for love. There were two, at least two, aspects in Mario Ballas; ugliness and beauty went side by side, in places overlapping. Mannering could not hope to influence the evil in the man except through that which was good.

“Mannering,” Ballas said with ominous calm, “I am waiting for your answer.”

“I wonder,” Mannering said, “whether you have ever been to Russia – to Moscow.”

Hatred sparkled in Ballas's eyes, but he did not speak.

“In the palaces of the Kremlin, the cathedrals and the. Armoury, they have treasures which would not be out of place in this room. They venerate them, too. When are you going to learn that nothing is all bad?”

“It is a foul regime!”

“So was Britain's, a thousand years ago.”

Voice quivering, hands now clenched, Ballas spat: “You
are
a Communist.”

Very levelly, Mannering said: “I am no more a Communist than you are an honest man.”

Again Cyrus caught his breath; fear and tension were in the room.

Mannering moved for the first time, sideways and slightly backwards, to a carved wooden chair with tapestry back and deep red velvet seat. He lowered himself, fingers resting lightly on the delicately chiselled figures of snakes and animals which formed the two arm-rests. He moved with great deliberation and did not once take his gaze off Maria Ballas. As his body slackened, he realised how tense he had been, and how afraid he was, even now. But nothing of this showed. He did not know how long he sat watching, sensing that Ballas was fighting some strange battle within himself.

The man named Cyrus looked on, as if mesmerised.

Cyrus Lake was unbelieving.

This Englishman had talked to Mario Ballas as no one living had ever talked to him. For less, for half as much frankness, he had waved his hand and by so doing condemned men to their ruin; to their death. For a quarter of a century he had assumed the position of absolute ruler within his own sphere. He had built a wall about himself which had virtually put him beyond the law, and had amassed a fabulous fortune; because of this he had been fawned upon and almost worshipped. Cyrus Lake knew that there was a hideous quality in him, yet also a magnetic one which attracted men so that they not only served him loyally but believed in him.

Now, expecting an outburst of terrible wrath, Cyrus watched the conflict that was taking place; and he sensed an unbelievable thing – that for once in his life Mario Ballas was torn by doubt. Watching the struggle between good and evil, he knew only that for Mario it was like a struggle between life and death.

Whereas Mannering—

The remarkable Englishman who had quelled Tiger O'Leary with a contemptuous word, was leaning comfortably back in a chair in which no one but Mario ever sat, looking calm and unperturbed.

Slowly, awfully, the silent storm died down.

Slowly, Ballas raised his right hand. Daring to move at last, Cyrus went swiftly to an Elizabethan corner cupboard, taking out a decanter of whisky and silver bowl of ice. He brought two glasses to the desk, poured whisky over three glistening ice cubes and gave the glass to his master. Mario took it and waved again, this time to Mannering.

Cyrus said huskily: “On the rocks, Mr. Mannering?”

“No, thanks. Straight.”

Whisky gurgled. Cyrus gave Mannering his drink, but did not pour one for himself. Ballas was already drinking. Mannering, sipping, dared to hope, even to believe, that the crisis was past. The old man drank slowly, the spots of red still glowing brightly in his cheeks. When he spoke again his voice was mellowed; in a way he looked older.

“How much do you know about me, Mannering?”

“As much as the British police and the American newspapers know.”

Ballas smiled faintly, perhaps contemptuously, perhaps with pride.

“Don't you think they know everything about me?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“They don't have a good word to say for you,” Mannering answered.

Ballas stared expressionlessly for a long time – then broke into a dry laugh.

Mannering glanced at Cyrus Lake, whose eyes were cast down, as if such a revelation was improper for him to witness.

“So they don't have a good word for me – but
you
do. Is that it?”

“I have a good word for anyone who can surround himself with these things, no matter how he got them.”

“I
bought
them.”

“I know – I supplied some of them.” Mannering pointed to a Genoese figurine. “That, for instance. And the Ming vase. And the Egyptian goblet.” He mentioned ten of the pieces before him, including an Aztec jewelled axe. “I didn't realise they were for you, you use several buying agents, don't you?”

“Certainly.”

“So that you don't let the world know how wealthy you are?”

“They can guess,” Ballas said, with a shrug. “They cannot know.
You
know. Probably more than anyone living, you know the value of these possessions of mine. Do you remember what I said just now?”

“That you would exchange them all for the microfilm.”

“Yes,” Ballas said. “And that is the truth.”

“How can the microfilm be worth so much?”

“That is a good question,” Ballas said, and went on slowly, as if intent on making every word meaningful and true. “Mr. Mannering, you are an Englishman and I am an American. You do not have to approve of the way I have made my money or the way I live. You do not have to believe, as I do, that some men are kings and some are cattle, and that the lives of the cattle are unimportant. But you will be a fool if you believe that the Russian or the Chinese way of life is as good as ours. I
believe
in America, Mr. Mannering. Just as Hitler believed in Germany and Caesar believed in Rome, I believe in America. I will give all I have to preserve it. I hope you believe me; I hope you believe that.”

Mannering drew a long, slow breath, surprised and yet not surprised; and, in a strange way, deeply touched.

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