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Authors: John Creasey

An Affair For the Baron (15 page)

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“I'll call you every half-hour, on the half-hour,” Mannering promised. “Don't let me down.”

He called five times, from five different call-boxes.

Each time, his heart beat very fast, at near suffocation point, he was so affected by the tension.

It was not until the sixth call that he heard the welcome words: “Sir Donald would like to speak to you now, sir. Please hold on.”

Chapter Seventeen

Catastrophic

“John,” Hennessy said, “we know that two copies of those films existed. You've just told me that you think Ballas has one copy; and that Alundo had the other but that you removed it from Ethel Alundo's briefcase and put it in a locker at the Conrad Hilton. Enough is known about the nature of this discovery to enable the experts to check if the film you have is genuine. And it's on an Italian film seldom used in England.”

“Good,” said Mannering. “You'll be able to prove that I'm not lying. Where can it be checked?”

“Here in Chicago. An F.B.I, team and two of the War Department experts are on their way from Washington. Where will you meet them?”

“Am I free to move about?”

“The hounds are off you, but tell me where you are, and you'll be looked after.”

“Donald,” Mannering said, “this isn't so simple, and I can't explain why. I want to meet the F.B.I, team where it's impossible for me to be followed without knowing it.”

“Where?”

“Why not a station on the elevated?”

“Why not? Which station?”

“Chicago Avenue. If they wear a red flower in the left lapel and carry a newspaper in their right hand, I'll recognise them.”

“At ten o'clock,” Hennessy promised. “What are you going to do meanwhile?”

“Eat.”

“For God's sake be careful.”

“I'll be careful,” Mannering said. “Thanks, Donald.”

He put down the receiver and stepped out of the box. The pale glow of his watch dial showed eight-thirty. He got into the car and drove downtown, watching the lights of every car behind him. None followed – of course none followed, who would possibly recognise him? Yet he was on edge. He turned into a car parking lot on a corner of State Street, with the great girders of the elevated railway and the huge pillars supporting them overhead. A train rumbled above. The sound was deafening, but dozens of people walked by as if they did not hear it. Getting out of the car, he strolled along the brightly lit street, one of hundreds but still very watchful. Now and again he had a mental picture of Ricardi in his mind's eye. Poor devil.

What kind of a man had Ballas become? And what had possessed him, Mannering, almost to warm to the man?

He turned in to a drug store, bright with neon lighting, filled with cheap goods. The pharmaceutical section was at one end, a long soda fountain bar along one side. He bought some simple make-up accessories, as if a present for a woman, and went out. Next he bought a postcard of the Planetarium, begged an envelope, and wrote on the postcard:

If I'm prevented from keeping my appointment ask the Room Clerk at the Conrad Hilton for the key given to him by Mr. Mendelsohn. It is for a locker in the lower lobby.

He signed this with his own name, and sealed the envelope, addressing it to the Chief of Police, Chicago, then pushed it quickly into a posting box. Seeing a men's room, he slipped unobtrusively inside, unwrapped the make-up he had just purchased, and worked steadily on his face for twenty minutes. He was still wearing the Western-style clothes – and when he had finished with the make-up, John Mannering, to all outward appearances, had disappeared.

Still checking carefully that no one followed him, he left the drug store, and turned in to a restaurant with a charcoal fire glowing in the window and half-a-dozen steaks sizzling on the bars. A huge notice read STEAK DINNER ONE DOLLAR NINETY-FIVE CENTS. ALL YOU CAN EAT. He had a table for four to himself. A pert waitress put a double portion of butter into his baked Idaho potato, hovering invitingly as she refilled his coffee cup. The steak was good, but he made himself eat slowly.

At five minutes to ten, he walked up the iron steps to the station. A dozen people were standing about, forlornly. No one who might be his men were there. He stood at a corner of the shelter, then, as he waited, saw first one, then another well-dressed man appear. Each had a red carnation in his left lapel, each carried a newspaper in his right hand. So far, so good. Mannering made no move towards them as they began to walk to and fro, showing no interest in him or in anybody.

Caution warned: wait.

Mannering waited.

And as he waited, two more men appeared. One of them, looming massive and brutal in the poor light of the station, was Tiger O'Leary.

It was useless to ask
how
Ballas's men came to be here; they were an ever-present threat. It was obvious that Ballas ran a kind of ferry service between La Racienda and Chicago, and as obvious that O'Leary would like nothing better than to kill him, Mannering.

If there were two of Ballas's men, would there be others?

As Mannering waited, listening to the growing roar of an approaching train, O'Leary passed within a yard of him. Mannering was more than ever aware of Ricardi as he had last seen him, his face bloody and battered. The train roared nearer, blaring into sight, great headlight blazing. Mannering walked towards the platform edge, as if ready to board the train. He had a sense of great urgency; a sense that every second counted. He stood within a foot or two of O'Leary, knowing the man was waiting for the passengers to alight, his whole attention diverted from those round him. The train ground to a standstill. Suddenly, unexpectedly, he swung round on O'Leary for the second time, and brought his knee up into the pit of the man's stomach. O'Leary gasped. His eyes rolled and he collapsed on to the platform, but his companion's right hand flew upwards, moving towards the gun in his shoulder holster. Mannering struck him beneath the chin, hard enough to lift him off his feet and rock him against the side of the train. A few people were jumping off, others were getting in, no one but the F.B.I. men appeared to see what was happening. Mannering spun round towards them.

“They came from Ballas,” he said, distinctly. “Catch me up – I'll be in the drug store across the road.”

He turned and ran down the steps, footsteps clattering, still not sure that there
was
none of Ballas's men on the other side of the track. The train began to move out, drowning the sounds he made. He raced across the street through a gap in the traffic, and into the doorway of the drug store. Two or three people watched him curiously, but no one showed any active interest. Almost at once, the two men with the red carnations appeared. They were held up by a stream of traffic, but no one followed them down the steps.

Mannering waited for them to cross. The first one touched the kerb, saying: “Get in the Buick.” He pointed.

A black sedan stood just round the corner, a driver at the wheel. Mannering reached it a few yards ahead of the two men, turned to watch the station, was reassured, and got in. The others almost fell on top of him, and the car moved before the door was closed.

“Nice to know you can hurry,” Mannering said.

One of the others eased himself into a more comfortable position before saying grimly: “What's got into you, Mr. Mannering?”

“Ballas's man, O'Leary,” Mannering said. “I'd met him before.”

“Why didn't he recognise you on the station?”

“He recognised
you.


What
?”

“Must have, Ken,” interpolated the second man. He was very thickset, with heavy features relieved by a smile which played about his lips all the time. The other man was taller, thinner, grimmer. The peak of his hat pushed back, showing a frontal baldness. “We were picked up and followed.”

The man named Ken asked: “Did he come on to the station behind us?”

Mannering nodded.

“Don't fight the odds, Ken,” the shorter man said. “We led them to Mannering and Mannering led us away. Glad to know you, Mr. Mannering.”

“Do you think we can feel safe now?” Mannering asked gruffly.

“No one followed, and this time we were looking.”

“Where do we go?” asked the man named Ken.

“Gentlemen,” Mannering said, “may I see your identification papers, please?”

Ken, the lean one, stared then broke into a laugh. Each man took out a card. The tall man was Kennedy J. Silver, the short one Piet Vandorn. Each had a photograph attached to the card which was signed by J. Edgar Hoover. As they tucked them away, Mannering said: “You go to the Conrad Hilton, and …” He told them how to get the manuscript. “How long will it take to check the film?”

“Maybe two hours.”

“What I would like to do is go to my hotel room and sleep,” Mannering said. “I've a lot to catch up. But not the Conrad Hilton – one of Ballas's men may have been there. I've booked in at the Palmer House.”

Ten minutes later, the F.B.I. men walked out of the Conrad Hilton and stepped into the car, Ken carrying the manuscript. He handed this to Mannering, who ruffled through it, feeling a momentary panic lest the strips of microfilm had disappeared. But they were still there.

With a sigh of relief he handed it over. “Don't lose it.”

“We won't lose it, and we won't lose you,” Ken said. “You're coming with us, Mannering.”

“Don't be silly,” Mannering said.

“We're not going to let you out of our sight.”

“Do you ever want to get Mario Ballas and
his
copy of the film?” Mannering asked heavily, “or do you like him where he is?” When neither of the others answered, he said: “If Ballas knows there's been a switch of Alundo's film, I won't have a chance to see him again. If he thinks I've still got it and will deal with him, he'll make the deal. And when he's made it, he'll either cut my throat, or release me. If he releases me, I'll report to you. In either case, get the Mexican police to raid him and find the film already in his possession.” He paused for a moment, then added: “Didn't Sir Donald tell you the conditions?”

“He told us,” Ken said.

“There's one thing you forget,” said Vandorn.

“I didn't kill Enrico Ballas, if that's what you mean.”

“We're not worried about Enrico Ballas at this stage. We want you alive.”

“I'm alive.”

“At the moment; but we'd like you to stay that way. You'll never get into the Ballas house and escape a second time.”

Mannering said: “There's always a risk.”

“This is a thousand-to-one against risk.”


You
don't have to take it,” Mannering said. “
I'm
taking it.”

Piet Vandorn said quietly: “Why should you, Mannering? Why stick your neck out?”

“What's in this for you?” Ken asked, cynicism redolent in his voice.

Mannering leaned back in the car and closed his eyes, then said almost wearily: “You should first hear what Alundo has to say. And you should then hear what Ballas had to say. Each in his own way thinks the end of the world is coming. For myself, perhaps I think the same thing, but in a different form and a different kind of world. In my world, a man does his job because it's his job. I'm a dealer in
objets d'art
and precious stones.
And
I'm a consultant – what you call a private eye. I've dealt for years with Lord Fentham, and when he told me that he'd been robbed of some family jewels and asked me to get them back, I came here to do just that. I think he was robbed by Enrico Ballas, and I think the jewels may be in Mario Ballas's house. I want to find them. And at the same time I want to find out who killed Enrico, because until we know, I'll be under suspicion.”

Ken said, acidly: “So you want to save your neck.”

“Don't pay any attention to this guy, Mannering,” Vandorn said. “I'll fix it.”

“Fixing it” took a few minutes by radio.

They drove back to the Palmer House Hotel, and Mannering stripped down to singlet and trunks, and stretched out on the bed. He lay on the verge of sleep, dreaming of all the things which had led him here, the past as well as the present. There wasn't much to add to what he had said to the F.B.I. men.

He was half asleep when the telephone bell at his side rang, and for a moment he did not know what it was. Then he sat up abruptly, and lifted the receiver.

“Hallo.”

“John.” It was Hennessy, speaking at his most deliberate. “I've news for you.”

“Let's have it.”

“You will probably be decorated by Washington
and
the Kremlin.”

Mannering's heart seemed to turn over, and then beat very fast.

“Did you hear me?” Hennessy asked.

“I—yes, I heard.”

“A wonderful job, John.”

“Er—it's all right, so far.”

“John.”

“Yes?”

“Don't go back to Ballas.”

“My dear chap—”

“You've done more than enough.”

“Not yet, Donald.”

“You don't have to be twice a hero.”

“I have to know who killed Enrico and I have to know where Fentham's diamonds are.”

“I'm begging you not to go ahead, John.”

“I'll tell you another thing,” Mannering said. “Professor Alundo is preparing his big speech for the United Nadons. He'll do a better job if he knows his daughter is safe. She's at La Racienda. Do you think the Mexican police would find her if they went there?”

“No,” said Hennessy, heavily. “I don't. And in any case, they'd want a lot of evidence before they
would
raid Ballas. They might do it if you could prove he'd broken Mexican law – or if we told them about the microfilm. But that's the one thing no one must know about.
No one,
” repeated Hennessy urgently, “not even for the girl's sake. Once it was common knowledge that such a film existed—” He broke off.

There was a moment's silence – broken, at last, by Mannering.

“You haven't found out how Ricardi is, I suppose?”

“He won't die,” Hennessy said gruffly, “but he's still unconscious. Poor fellow. John—”

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