Authors: John Creasey
“Shall I make up your bed, sir?”
“Yes, please,” Mannering said. “I'm going to have a drink in the club car. Ready, Ethel?”
The porter showed no sign of surprise at Ethel's presence.
Half-an-hour later, in an armchair in the club car, she stifled a yawn.
Mannering said: “You'll take my compartment. I'll fix another with the porter.” He didn't give her time to argue but guided her back along the corridor, took his pigskin case from the foot of the bed, and carried it along to her original cabin. He opened the door and stepped inside.
Enrico Ballas still lay there.
Mannering pushed a chair into position, and sat down, pondering all that the girl had told him. He thought of the microfilm, too, and began to recall more vividly all he knew of Professor Alundo, then to reflect that it
a coincidence that he, the Baron, in an effort to recover Freddy Fentham's family jewels, should be pursuing Ballas, only to find him involved with Alundo. Was Enrico doing two jobs at the same time? Or was he himself wrong in suspecting him guilty of the theft of the jewels?
Now and again footsteps sounded outside the door, and Mannering paused expectantly, until they had passed on.
He began to feel drowsy, repeatedly jerking himself upright. On one such awaking, a spot of dark crimson on the sheet, caught his eye. It stood out vividly against the white, and he wondered how he could have missed it. He leaned forward, eyeing it, and even as he did so the red spread quite perceptibly.
Suddenly, he realised that it was blood.
With this realisation came another!
Someone had come into the compartment, and used a knife on Enrico.
“Did You Kill Ballas?”
Mannering moved towards Enrico Ballas, staring searchingly, reaching for his right arm and the pulse. It was still. The wrist was warm, but there was a hint of the chill of death, and Mannering had no doubt of the truth. He lowered the limp arm carefully, then eased the body so that he could see the position of the wound. Whoever had come in here had pushed the helpless man on to his side, then thrust the knife to the heart. The awful, the unspeakable thing, was that Ballas must have been aware of what was happening. Unable to move or shout, he must have waited for the thrust of death. Even for a killer, that was a dreadful fate.
Until the final realisation came to him, Enrico must have believed that help against Mannering was at hand.
Chilled by the horror of these facts, Mannering backed to the farthest point.
There was no way of disposing of the body unless he carried it to one of the other compartments, and the risk of being seen was too great. Yet thoughts of taking the chance passed in and out of his mind, with other, inescapable facts. This was Ethel Alundo's compartment. Once the body was found here, there would be a hue and cry for her. It might be best to send for the porter now and make a clear statement â that the girl had been frightened by an intruder, that he, Mannering, had exchanged rooms with her to try to settle her fears, and had come along and found the body. He could say that he had had nothing to do with tying the man up, and Ethel would surely support himâ
Or would the fact of murder unnerve her?
Quite suddenly, Mannering was faced with a host of questions, none of them easy to answer. Yet there was little time. Was Ethel's story true? Could he rely on her in a crisis? Could he be sure that her father was innocent of espionage, or some other crime? Obviously he couldn't â as obviously, he had no proof that she, either, could be trusted. Yet the fact that such a man as Enrico Ballas had threatened her and taken the briefcase, was surely an argument in her favour.
Nonsense; he wasn't thinking clearly, the shock of discovering that murder had been done had confused him. First things firstâ
get the body out of here,
change the sheet and mattress; the police must not suspect him or the girl too soon, whatever the truth about her and her father. Yes, first things first. He leaned over and eased the mattress from the far side, finding that even with the body's dead weight, he could lift it. He let it fall slowly, then stepped into the corridor; no one was in sight. Two compartments along, the door was open, the bed made, but Mannering could see no baggage or clothing. He slipped swiftly into the compartment and lifted the mattress, bedding and all. Clasping the whole conglomeration to his body, like an enormous shield, he stepped boldly back to the dead man's compartment, holding his breath. He had to fumble for the handle, but at last opened the door and managed to get inside unseen.
Breathing hard, he let his load slide to the floor, then, turning round, he hoisted the dead man and the blood-stained mattress, hugging the body to him. He had to bend his head to one side, both to see and to breathe. Staggering into the corridor with this second load, he made his way towards the empty room, but tripped and lost his balance as he squeezed through the doorway. He came up against the window, pressing tightly against the dead man as he did so, squeezing the breath out of his own body.
He recovered, regained his hold, hoisted and pushed the mattress roughly into position, straightened the body on it, then stepped out and closed the door.
As he did so, a man turned into the corridor â stubby cigar jutting from thick square lips. He was tall and heavily built, and wore a tightly fitting suit. Mannering thought he detected an Irish look about him â and perhaps a wary one.
They squeezed past each other, the tobacco foul in Mannering's nostrils.
The man had not glanced into Ethel Alundo's compartment where the clean mattress and bedding lay in a heap on the floor. Mannering closed the door of this compartment from the outside, then went back to the other. It was only a matter of a moment or two to adjust the mattress and the body on it. The blood had spread a little farther on to the sheet, but there was none on the floor; nothing to show â as far as Mannering was able to judge â that the murder had not been committed here.
He returned to Ethel's room, put the clean mattress on the bed, rumpled the sheet, and punched the pillow; at first sight, it now looked as if the bed had been slept in.
This done, he had to go and see Ethel; and in a matter of seconds he had to make up his mind whether to tell her the whole truth, or whether merely to say that he had moved Enrico Ballas from her room to another.
One fact emerged clearly; Ethel was sure to find out about the murder on the train before long. So if he didn't tell her everything now, when she did find out, she might believe that he was the killer. For all he knew, she might believe this even if he did tell her now.
He tapped at the door, calling in a low voice: “It's me. John Mannering,” and in a few moments it opened. Ethel had obviously been asleep. Her hair was tousled, her nose shiny, and she had such a look of youthful innocence that Mannering caught his breath, and for a moment stood with the door open. As he did so, he heard a movement, stepped back into the corridor, and saw the porter, black face lugubrious, big eyes heavy with tiredness, lips set in reproach.
“You want me to make up your room, sir?”
“Leave it,” Mannering said. “I've some work to do.”
“Are you sure, sir?”
The porter looked puzzled; and when the police questioned him about the passengers in the car, he would remember the Englishman who had sat up working all night. Mannering watched him shuffle away to an empty room and his own sleep, then went into the compartment.
Ethel had curled up in one of the armchairs. She looked innocence itself.
Mannering chose that moment to remind himself that she could have gone into the other bedroom, and killed Ballas.
The very thought came as a shock, and staring down at her he actually formed the words: “
Could she have done that
?” Acutely aware of the gentle curve of her cheeks, the sweeping lashes, he asked the question again:
Could she have killed Ballas?
And he made himself answer the question as a policeman would: Yes, she had had the opportunity, when he had been arranging for the cable to be sent; she might even have a motive â in fact she
a motive, for the dead man had threatened her father.
Watching the rhythmic rise and fall of her bosom, he realised she had gone back to sleep.
Mannering took off his tie, slipped off his shoes and loosened his belt, then sat back in the other armchair. It wasn't exactly comfortable, but soon the jolting of the train and the sound of the wheels on the rails, strangely muted, began to make him feel drowsy.
Now and again, he stirred, but he did not wake until daylight showed at the cracks by the sides of the blind. He straightened up, feeling a crick in his neck, and then looked towards the girl. She was curled up in her chair, just as she had been last night, but her eyes were open, and she was staring at him.
He ran a forefinger over his stubble, and moistened his lips. It was warm in here â too warm for him, although the girl seemed fresh and bright-eyed.
“Good morning,” Mannering said. “I'm afraid I'm not at my best in the morning.”
“Aren't you?” She smiled, unexpectedly. “You look very good to me.”
It was one of the few occasions when Mannering was at a loss for words. He shifted his position and stretched a hand towards the window.
“Can you stand a little more light?”
Raising the blind, he looked through the dusty glass on to a vast stretch of flat land, dotted with trees and one lonely farmhouse. Turning towards Ethel, he saw that she had already combed her hair and straightened her clothes. She was studying him in a speculative way he found a little worrying. She could be most disconcerting, and again he thought fleetingly of the fact that she could have killed Ballas.
Almost as if she âsaw' the name in his mind, she asked: “Shouldn't one of us go and see that man?” Mannering straightened up, hesitated, and decided that the best approach was the direct, even the brutal one.
“He was murdered last night,” he announced.
At first he thought she took the news too calmly â that she could not have done so had she not previously been aware of it. Then he realised that the significance of what he had said was dawning on her very slowly. The gradual change in her expression was quite remarkable: from a speculative one touched with disquiet about the man in her bedroom, to shocked disbelief, bewilderment, then horror.
She started up.
“You can't mean that!”
“I went to see how he was, and someone had stabbed him to death.”
All the colour was draining from Ethel's cheeks. Mannering half expected protestations and expostulations: It wasn't possible, it couldn't have happened, she didn't believe it!âall those, and more. Instead, she seemed to freeze. The train chugged on, past the unchanging land which lay so monotonously flat as far as the eye could see. A man walked along the corridor â two cars appeared, swift and unexpected, on a road running alongside the track.
Ethel said suddenly: “What did you do?”
“I put him into an empty compartment.”
“There's been no alarm, so presumably I wasn't; he can't have been found, either.”
There was another long pause, before Ethel asked: “Why didn't you call the police?”
“Because if I'd called them, I would have had to tell them your story as well as mine.” When she didn't respond, he went on: “And if I know policemen, both of us would have been held for questioning.” When she still kept silent, he hazarded “I'd prefer to go on to Chicago. Wouldn't you?”
“Yes,” Ethel said, almost explosively, “butâ”
She caught her breath.
“But what?” Mannering prompted.
“Ifâif we're caught now â won't it look worse?”
“If it could be proved we had known about it â yes.”
they prove it?”
“Possibly,” Mannering said. “It's a question of priorities. Doing our legal duty by the body of Enrico Ballas and society, or finding out what's happened to your father. It's quite likely that Ballas was killed by someone who knew he had lost the briefcase and feared he might be persuaded to give some secret away. His accomplices may not have trusted him, and dared not run the risk of him talking.”
A faint colour was seeping back in Ethel's cheeks. She gave a little shudder.
“You make it all sound so cold-blooded.”
Very slowly, the girl nodded.
“Yes, it is. It certainly is. What do you propose to do?”
“Get off the train as if nothing had happened. If the body's found, lie like a trooper. There's no reason why we should be associated with an American gangsterâ”
“Is heâoh, I suppose it doesn't matter.” She waved her hands, almost angrily. “There must have been dozens of people who saw him talking to me at the station.”
“That won't be discovered for quite a while â possibly not at all.”
to question us.”
“And if they do, we tell them that we were attracted by each other and decided to share a bedroom for the night. No one,” added Mannering with a faint smile, “could be surprised to learn that I had been attracted by you.”
She looked at him straightly.
“Nor me by you,” she rejoined, matter-of-factly. “Mr.âMr. Mannering,
are you taking such risks?”
“I would like to know what that microfilm's about, and I
sufficiently attracted by you not to want to see you in trouble with the police.” After a pause, while she appeared to be weighing up all he said, he went on: “And I'm prone to this kind of risk â it's like being accident-prone. Also, I was already interested in Ballas, soâ”
“I understand all that,” Ethel interrupted, as if it was a waste of time to go on talking. “Will you answer me one question?”
kill Ballas?” Ethel Alundo demanded.
After the first shock, Mannering was almost unable to restrain a laugh, because the question was so blunt, and the serious intentness of it so obvious. He checked the laugh but not a smile, and answered: “No.”
After a long pause, while Ethel appeared to be trying to divine the truth, she relaxed a little.
“I'll do whatever you say,” she promised.
“Then go along to the dining-car ahead of me,” said Mannering. “I'll join you for breakfast in ten minutes.”
They had breakfast â and no alarm was raised.
They returned to their compartments â and there was still no alarm.
The train began to slow down on the outskirts of Chicago, the ugly, dirty, dilapidated hovels and backyards which seem to line the railways of every big city. Soon there was a great stirring and calling out, and footsteps in the corridor. Ethel had rejoined Mannering, and now they both stood tight-lipped and silent in Mannering's compartment.
There was no alarm.
They passed the door of the compartment where the body lay, stepped down on to the platform, two among two hundred; and as they turned in the direction of the station hall, two men in police uniform and two men who were obviously plain-clothes detectives, came striding towards them.