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Authors: John Creasey

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Chapter Four

Coincidence?

At last, the whole story was told.

Mannering had listened without interruption, watching Ethel's alert young face, understanding something of her emotions; yet he remained a little puzzled. She was obviously greatly worried about her father; on the other hand she seemed to disapprove of him. She was affectionate towards him, but there was a note of exasperation in the way she spoke, as when she said: “There's absolutely
no
telling where he'll be off to next.” When she had finished she leaned forward and stretched out her hands.

“Will
you
help, Mr. Mannering?”

“Yes, of course,” Mannering said. “Let me go over what you've told me, to make sure I have it right.”

“That's a good idea.”

Mannering stretched his legs out as he, in turn, began to talk. The story went back for six months, to the April of that year, when Professor Alundo had come to America to give a series of Peace Lectures at most of the major cities of the United States. Some of the lectures were at universities, some at political meetings of both Democratic and Republican parties. The one in San Antonio was to be at the Political Centre of the exhibition known as the HemisFair, which was due to open in a week's time. As far as Ethel had known, he had left England with no particular anxieties. A widower for several years, a Doctor of Philosophy who had gradually acquired a worldwide reputation for idealism with a strong leavening of practical commonsense, he had learned to live and travel by himself.

A letter written from Los Angeles, three weeks before Ethel had flown to New York, had given the first hint of trouble. The Professor had said “… I am a little worried by some telephone calls, obviously from people who have little goodwill towards me, and I cannot imagine what I may have said or done to create such malice.”

Mannering quoted, word for word.

Ethel leaned forward: “What an incredible memory you have!”

“It works sometimes,” Mannering said dryly. “After that you had a card from San Francisco, which said nothing of this anxiety, only where he would be next. Then came the telephone call last night.”

“At half-past ten. It's hard to believe it
was
only last night, it seems weeks—” She broke off. “I'm sorry.”

“You hadn't expected the call. You were at your London flat, working late on some designs for magazine pictures, and were exasperated by the interruption – until you realised who was calling.” Or even after she had realised, Mannering reflected. “Your father sounded agitated, and asked you to get a packet from the safe at his flat in Knightsbridge, the keys of which were already in your charge. He told you to go to the Grand Park Hotel, on Park Avenue, near 51st Street, and said that he had already booked you in. Almost as soon as you arrived, he telephoned for you to bring the briefcase to Chicago. You are to call a number he gave you as soon as you get there.”

Again, Ethel said in a wondering voice: “You remember
every
detail.”

“Is this right, so far?”

“Absolutely.”

“What did he sound like on the telephone today?”

After a pause, Ethel said: “Preoccupied.”

“Is that normal?”

“Oh, yes,” said Ethel. “Unless he's lecturing, or talking shop, he's the most preoccupied man imaginable. Exasperatingly so, sometimes! He kept breaking off, and—well, he sounded as if he was thinking about two things at once and finding it difficult to keep them separate in his mind. He even kept me waiting for a few moments while he checked the telephone number.”

“What is the number?”

Ethel opened her bag, took out a slip of paper, and read: “Whitehall 4-31495.”

“Whitehall 4-31495,” Mannering echoed. “That's pretty near, if it's not inside, the Loop.”

“The Loop?”

“It's easier to show you that, than explain it,” Mannering said. “It's an area surrounded by Chicago's overhead railway. Did he say why he wanted you to go by train?”

“No.”

“Was he in Chicago?”

“Yes. He said he was staying there for a few days before flying to San Antonio.”

“Was he due in Chicago on his itinerary?”

“I don't think so – at least, not until after San Antonio. But I'm not certain. Oh, what a fool I am!”

“In what way?” inquired Mannering, lightly.

“For not bringing a copy of the itinerary with me. Not that it would help if I had,” Ethel added ruefully. “My bags are still in New York.”

“We'll get them sent by air to Chicago,” Mannering interrupted. “That won't be difficult. Let's go on. While you were in your New York hotel room, Enrico Ballas came to see you.”

She looked uneasy as she nodded.

“He wanted to know why you were in America, whether you had brought anything for your father,” Mannering went on. “You told him you'd come to see friends, that your father had no idea you were here, and you thought you'd persuaded Ballas that this was true. As soon as he'd gone, you yourself left carrying only the briefcase. Is that right?”

“Yes—but it didn't fool him.”

“No,” Mannering agreed. “Enrico wouldn't work alone, and he would have had you followed. I haven't any doubt he realised you were on your way to Pennsylvania Station – or heading that way – and rushed after you. Do you know what's in the packet?” he added, almost casually.

“I haven't the faintest idea.”

“Did you know your father had any secret? Or any valuable documents?”

“No.”

“Have you any idea at all what this is about?”

“No,” Ethel answered. “I can't begin to imagine. Those malicious telephone calls he said he had didn't really surprise me – he's always saying things which annoy people. He annoys me sometimes. Fanatics can be so blind, and he
is
a fanatic. But—well, I'm completely in the dark over this. Didn't you say
you
looked in the package?”

“Yes.”

“What was in it?”

“A box containing some lecture notes which in turn contained some microfilm.”

“Microfilm! But I thought—” Ethel broke off.

“That such stuff was only for spies,” Mannering said dryly. “There are a thousand-and-one uses for it, practically all important. Your father's film had been cut in strips, each strip packed close to the margin between each sheet of the notes. They couldn't be seen until I pulled the sheets apart. Did your father always prepare his lectures and have them typed out?”

“Yes—he—Mr. Mannering!” Alarm flared through Ethel.

“What's the trouble?” asked Mannering.

“You said: ‘
did
he'.”

“Did I?”

“Yes. In the past tense.”

“Oh,” said Mannering, blankly; then he went on quickly: “Yes, I did – but it was a slip of the tongue. I haven't the faintest reason to believe that anything serious has happened to your father. I told you the simple truth, Ethel. I came after Ballas because I wanted to get some jewels back from him. They were stolen a week ago from this client of mine, and I had good reason to believe that Ballas was the thief. It all fitted in very nicely, actually, because I was coming to America anyway.”

Ethel looked her ‘why?'

“There's to be a display of pre-Columbian artefacts at the San Antonio Fair, and I've a small collection myself,” Mannering said. “The authorities asked me to lend it for the Fair, and invited me to go with it.”

“So you and Daddy will be there at the same time,” remarked Ethel. “It's a remarkable coincidence, isn't it?”

“That I should be after Enrico Ballas and he should be after you?” Mannering pondered. “In a way, I suppose it is, but I've known many stranger ones.” He paused before going on: “Except that I know of your father's reputation, this is all absolutely new to me. Enrico Ballas is well-known as a very clever jewel-thief. I knew he was in London and this particular theft had his hallmark. I simply put two and two together.”

Ethel laid a hand on Mannering's arm. “You
will
help him, won't you? My father, I mean. He's a really remarkable man, quite remarkable, but he's so—so
pig-headed
over wanting peace at any price that nearly everyone hates—” She broke off, and tears welled up in her eyes.

“Hates this alleged belief,” Mannering said gently.

“You know him well enough to say ‘alleged'?” Ethel asked, her voice changing with new interest.
“He
swears he
doesn't
believe in peace at any price – but most people think he does.”

“I only know that I don't care much for many of the people whom I know oppose him most strongly.”

“That's one way of looking at it,” she said, broodingly. She frowned in concentration. “
Microfilm
?”

“Yes.”

“Could he—” The words were almost inaudible.

“Could he have become so frustrated by events that he would do something outrageous for what he believes in?” Mannering asked gently. “Do you think that he might, Ethel?”

She said very slowly: “It wouldn't really surprise me.”

“Has he ever suggested—”

“Before he left England he was more evasive than I'd ever known him,” Ethel declared. “And he got angrier than ever with people whom he said didn't understand. But I wasn't deeply interested. Not really. I feel a beast, saying so, but I hadn't much patience with him, or rather, with his ideas. I tried not to show it, but he knew. I thought he spent too much time and money he couldn't afford worrying about the world's problems. He writes letters by the hundred, is forever having pamphlets printed. He always seems to think he's the
only
one who can solve the world's problems.”

“I know the feeling,” Mannering said quietly.


You
do?” she marvelled. “But I thought you were just a wealthy dealer in precious things who liked play—” She broke off, embarrassment in her voice.

“Playing at being a detective,” Mannering finished for her, his eyes crinkling. “Actually I don't like detecting as much as all that. I find myself acting detective for people who can't do it for themselves but don't want to go to the police. It fills a need.” He stopped, watching her intently and questioningly.

Slowly, Ethel said: “
You
take on
other
people's problems, too.”

“That's what my wife always says. I don't really agree with her. I agree with your father – any man who sees a thing is wrong ought to try to put it right. Your father's taken on the world and I've taken on a few spendthrift millionaires who break the rules, and really don't deserve help.”

Almost shocked, Ethel said: “But you've never met him!”

“Not until we meet in Chicago!”

“And you know him better than
I
do!” Ethel sprang to her feet. “Oh, I feel
dreadful.
He's always been on his own. He's had to fight and fight and fight. All the
right
people call him a Communist and all the Communists call him a warmonger. And he hasn't even been able to rely on help from me. No one's really helped him since my mother died.”

“Nonsense,” Mannering said.

“It isn't nonsense. At least I know myself.”

“I doubt it,” said Mannering. “When he needed help he called on you and you dropped everything to do what he wanted. He was quite sure you would. Enough of this wallowing in guilt,” he went on briskly. “We'll see him in the morning, and our only real problem is what to do with Enrico Ballas. I ought to send a telegram for your baggage, too. Do you know Chicago?”

“I've never been there.”

“We'll have to find time for you to look around,” Mannering said. “But don't expect a gangster round every corner!” He raised his head. “We're slowing down, it may be for a station. Stay here in my compartment – and bolt the door.”

It wasn't until she had actually pushed the bolt that Ethel realised the implications of the command. Although Mannering had already mentioned the possibility of Enrico Ballas having an accomplice on board the train, the significance of this had not, at the time, struck home. It was clear to her now that Mannering suspected she may be the victim of yet a second attack.

Mannering waited to hear the bolt shoot home before moving away. Reaching the end of the car, where the Pullman porter was waiting to open the door, he slipped a notepad out of his pocket. The dark, round face relaxed into an approving smile at sight of him.

“Are we going to take on passengers?” Mannering asked.

“Yes, sir.”

“How long will we be here?”

“Two or three minutes, sir, no more than that. You won't have time to leave the train.”

“Will there be a Western Union office on the station?”

“There sure will, sir, but you won't have no time—”

Mannering was opening the notepad.

“If I write out a cable, will a red-cap hand it in for me?”

“Sure be glad to, sir.”

“Fine,” said Mannering. He drew back, wrote in block lettering: PLEASE FORWARD MY BAGGAGE AIR FREIGHT TO CONRAD HILTON HOTEL CHICAGO, ETHEL ALUNDO, wrapped the message inside a five-dollar bill, and, as soon as the train stopped, jumped out. A porter holding a trolley with two passengers beside it, was almost opposite. The two porters handled the baggage, and Mannering said: “Send this cable for me, will you? And keep the change.”

“Why yes, sir! I'll be glad to do that for you.”

Mannering jumped back into the train, and almost immediately it moved off. He stood on the swaying platform between two cars, for a few minutes. Enrico Ballas almost certainly had an accomplice on board, but looking for him would be a waste of time. There was another way to work; the accomplice would probably soon come to look for Enrico, and the most likely place for him to look was in Ethel's compartment. Mannering passed this on the way back to her, tapped on the door of his own compartment, and went in as Ethel opened it. The porter came shuffling along.

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