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Authors: John Creasey

An Affair For the Baron (5 page)

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Chapter Six

Chicago – Chicago

Mannering felt Ethel's fingers tighten on his arm, and glanced down at her. She was looking straight ahead, pale but unfaltering. One of the plain-clothes detectives glanced her way, but it was the glance any man might turn towards an attractive girl. They passed.

A woman close beside them said in undertones to the man with her: “What do you suppose those police are here for, honey?”

“I don't want to know,” the man replied.

Ethel looked up at Mannering, and said in a low voice: “Do you think they've found him?”

“If they had I doubt if they would have let any passengers off the train,” Mannering answered. “I wouldn't be surprised if they were there to pick up Ballas. If they've any grounds for holding him over the jewel robbery, this would be a good place.” As Ethel's grip relaxed, he slid his arm under hers, and thrust her along towards a subterranean taxi stand. A small group of people, were waiting, and several cabs drew up. No one took any notice of Mannering and Ethel. A youthful-looking coloured taxi driver pulled up alongside them.

“The Conrad Hilton,” Mannering said.

“Yes sir – that's the one on Michigan Avenue, I guess.”

“Yes.” Mannering helped Ethel inside, stood his suitcase on the floor, then climbed after her. No one followed them as they were driven past big, grey buildings, over big grey bridges, beneath a clattering roar of a train or tram going over a ‘bridge' which stretched high above their heads in each direction.

“That's the elevated railway. We're in that Loop I was talking about,” Mannering said, as if he were thoroughly familiar with Chicago. He glanced out of the rear window. “It's all right, Ethel. No one's following. Sit back and relax.”

He expected her to echo, indignantly: “
Relax?
How could anyone?”

Instead, she shot him a sidelong glance, then stretched out her legs and allowed her body to sag. He saw how intently she observed the shop windows, the people on the sidewalks, the big taxis, the policemen. Soon, they were driving along a wide thoroughfare, with buildings on one side, parkland on the other. The taxi pulled up, a porter opened the door and took the bag.

“Have you a reservation, sir?”

“Yes.”

“But—” Ethel began, but stopped abruptly.

“I'll bring your bag to the desk, sir.”

“You can't let it out of your sight!” Ethel breathed into Mannering's ear.

“It's as safe with him as it will be with us,” Mannering told her. “He won't get a tip if he loses it!” He led the way towards the right, through a throng of people all wearing little lapel badges. “Some sort of convention,” he went on, glancing towards them, “and a pretty big one, too. It's a good job I booked!”

“You didn't book for me.”

Mannering looked down at her, with a dry smile. “There was a mistake. I booked for one, I should have booked for two.”

“But—” Ethel began, but didn't finish. They reached the desk.

“Have you a reservation, sir? … Mr. Mannering? … A room for one person …
Two
persons, sir? The reservation said one … I'll see what I can do, sir … A twin-bedded room or one bed … Twin-bedded, very well, sir … I doubt if we have one overlooking the lake … You specified lakeside? … It doesn't say so on the reservation slip but I will see what I can arrange, sir.”

He disappeared behind a wooden partition.

“You know, if I hadn't heard so much about the Baron I might think you were a wolf,” Ethel remarked without a change of tone.

“What does a child like you know about wolves?”

“Any child like me who doesn't know about wolves comes to grief very quickly,” Ethel retorted.


Here
we are, sir, I've found one overlooking the lake, room Number 1515, I'm sure you'll like it.”

Soon, they were standing by the window of Room 1515, and Ethel was looking out with an expression of plain disbelief, her eyes glistening, her lips parted. The vast lake, an inland sea which stretched far out of sight, lay shimmering in the morning sun. On a breakwater near them were half-a-dozen flags; inside the breakwater two or three hundred tiny boats bobbed. Between this window and the lake were wide thoroughfares dotted with cars, a railway line, bridges—

“It's magnificent,” Ethel said, huskily. “I always thought Chicago was an
ugly
city.”

“Only some of the things that happen in it,” Mannering remarked.

That drew the light from her expression. She turned from the window, her eyes swerving away from the twin beds. She looked tired now, tired and very young.

There was a tap at the door, and Mannering called, “Come in.” A porter appeared, with the case. When he had gone, Ethel stared at it without speaking, and Mannering took out a bunch of keys, unlocked, and threw back the lid.

Ethel's briefcase lay on the top. She could not look away from it.

“Ethel,” said Mannering.

“Yes?”

“Why was Enrico Ballas so desperate to get that briefcase? He is a jewel-thief, I've never heard he was involved in espionage.”

She continued to look at it.

“I've never heard that my father was, either.
Nor
in jewels.”

“The truth, please,” Mannering insisted.

When she raised her eyes, her gaze was very direct.

“I have no idea at all why Ballas wanted that briefcase.”

“He must have thought it very important.”

“Obviously!”

“Did your father give you any hint at all about the cause of his alarm?”

“None.”

Mannering locked the case and slipped the keys into his pocket. Sitting on the side of the nearer bed, he lifted the telephone. Ethel made no attempt to stop him or to protest, even when he said into the mouthpiece: “I would like Whitehall 4-31495, please.”

He held on, during odd noises on the telephone. Ethel moved so that her back was to the window. For one so young, she had remarkable poise and self-control. She knew he was about to speak to her father, her mind should surely be seething with anxiety and uncertainty, mused Mannering, yet she said nothing.

The bell went on ringing, the low-pitched note very different from the English
burr-burr! burr-burr!
Ethel's fingers began to clench, while Mannering asked himself what he could do next if her father did not answer.

He was on the point of hanging up when the ringing stopped, and a man said agitatedly: “Ethel! Ethel! Is that you?”

“No, Professor Alundo,” John Mannering said very carefully. “Ethel is with me, but before she speaks to—”

“She's all right? She
is?
Oh, thank God, thank God!” The voice rose suddenly. “You're not lying to me! This isn't some dreadful trick.
Please.
Is my daughter—”

“She's here, she's well, and she's not in any immediate danger,” Mannering said. “Supposing you tell me why you think she is.”

There was a pause. Ethel drew nearer, her eyes beseeching Mannering to allow her to speak, but he held her back with his free hand.

Then Professor Alundo said: “Has she got the notes? Has she got them? I must know—I must know whether she has them—”

He broke off abruptly, and Mannering had a sudden fear, that someone had come into the room and made the old man stop. He was aware of Ethel, watching with increasing tension; and he heard heavy breathing on the other end of the line. Then Alundo spoke in a calmer voice: “Who
are
you? If you harm my daughter—”

“Your daughter will be all right once you've told me what you've done to make an enemy of Enrico Ballas.”

The other man did not speak.

Ethel pressed closer and put out a hand to touch the telephone. Mannering did not let her take it, hardly knowing why he began to feel antagonism towards Alundo.

Ethel whispered: “Please let me speak to him.”

“Before I tell you anything, I wish to speak to my daughter,” Alundo said brusquely, and something of Mannering's hostility melted. “Kindly put her on the line.”

Mannering relaxed his hold on the telephone. Ethel took it eagerly, seemed to take a very deep breath, and then said: “Are you all right, Daddy?”

Mannering moved away, torn between waiting to hear every word, in case any had special significance, and wanting the girl to have at least a sense of privacy. For a few minutes she talked reassuringly, and then her tone changed. She called: “Mr. Mannering.”

He looked round to see her covering the mouthpiece with one hand and looking at him.

“May I give Daddy your name?”

“Yes, of course.”

She took her hand away.

“I'm with Mr. John Mannering, the antique dealer … Yes, Mannering … Well,
he's
heard of
you …
Yes, he's been a very great help … Yes, I do … Well, I
think
I can … Oh, Daddy!” There was exasperation in her voice. She listened for a long time, and then spoke quite sharply: “We haven't any choice … For goodness sake, can't you believe me?” During all this she was looking across at Mannering, and he was amused by her expression, as well as with the way she had lost patience with her father. Suddenly she burst out: “Oh, you're impossible, you really are! … Very well,
he
has the packet, I haven't, so we've
got
to trust him.”

Mannering chuckled.

“And it's a good thing he's good-humoured about it. If it weren't for him heaven knows what would have happened to me.” She listened for a few more minutes with obviously increasing annoyance, and then said in a tone of finality: “
I
can't promise that. You must speak to Mr. Mannering.”

She thrust the telephone towards Mannering.

“He's
quite
impossible,” she declared. “You'd better talk to him.”

Mannering took the instrument and as he held it to his ear, Alundo was saying in a tone quite as sharp as his daughter's: “… you really must do as I say, Ethel. This is a matter of extreme importance to me. Surely you have sufficient ingenuity to take it when he is not looking.”

“Why don't you come and get it yourself?” suggested Mannering sweetly.

He heard Alundo catch his breath, and waited for an outpouring of apology. But none came.

“Mr. Mannering, that packet is mine. It is of value and of significance only to me. You have no right to it. If you are a man of integrity you will give it back to my daughter at once, and allow her to carry out my instructions. I insist that you waste no more time.”

“I'm afraid it won't be so easy as that.”

“If you want money,” Alundo interrupted coldly, “I must inform you that I am a poor man. My daughter has to earn her own living.”

“So I gathered,” Mannering said. “I will be in the coffee shop of the Conrad Hilton Hotel at eleven o'clock exactly, with your daughter. If you want to see—”

“Mannering! That is impracticable. I cannot possibly be there! I have to be here, so as—”

“Where are you?” Mannering demanded.

“That—that is beside the point. Mr. Mannering, I
must
insist that you do as I say, and at once. Give the packet to my daughter, and let me talk to her. This is”—he hesitated, then went on as if inspired—“a very personal, indeed, a
family
matter.”

“Professor Alundo,” Mannering said, “Ethel and I are in Room 1515 at the Conrad Hilton, and will stay here for the next two hours.”

He put the telephone down with enough noise for Alundo to hear. Ethel, only a little way from him, looked into his eyes.

“That's the only way to deal with him in these circumstances,” she approved. “He really can be the most stubborn man alive. I'm sorry. Of course he doesn't know yet what you've done for me, but”—she shrugged—“well, even if he did he would be much the same. All he seems to care about is the packet of microfilm. What on earth can it be to make him behave like this?”

“Ethel,” Mannering said quietly. “
Is
he a poor man?”

“Poor as a church mouse.”

“Obviously this packet might be valuable.”

“If you've got any idea that Daddy might be mixed up in something involving
money
you can forget it,” Ethel said with utter conviction. “He might have some fantastic idea that he's saving the world from damnation or destruction, but you can certainly rule out financial gain.”

“Unless he needs the almighty dollar to save the world,” Mannering said dryly.

He watched her expression, and thought, quite unexpectedly, that this possibility had entered her mind before and that she didn't like it. She spun round towards the window and the shining lake, but Mannering had a feeling that she was no longer aware of the view, or the boats, or the traffic.

“Do you think he will telephone?” he asked her.

“I suppose he's bound to,” Ethel said. “And I suppose all we can do is to wait. Unless—” she hesitated.

“Unless what?”

“You decide to let me have the packet, and I call him again and tell him I've got it.”

“Not on your life,” Mannering said with a chuckle. “Now that I'm involved, I'm going to stay involved. I want to know the reason, if any, for that coincidence.”

“Then we'll wait,” Ethel said.

They waited. Five minutes passed, then ten, then half-an-hour. Ethel sat in one of the two easy chairs overlooking the lake, her eyes closed but her lashes fluttering enough to betray her wakefulness. Mannering took a letter out of his pocket and began to read; it was in fact a summary of the details of the robbery at the Mayfair home of Lord Fentham, and a close description, and history, of the Fentham diamonds. Only two pieces, a necklace and a bracelet, had been stolen.

Mannering finished the letter, then glanced over some pencilled notes he had made; the most significant stressing the fact that the older Ballas, who lived here in Chicago, possessed a superb collection of some of the finest diamonds in the world. There was nothing at all surprising in any attempt to steal the Fentham jewels for him, but there was one mystery. The thief, or thieves, had stolen only two items of the Fentham collection, when the whole or a very much larger part of it could have been taken just as easily. Why had Enrico Ballas – if it had been he – stolen only the necklace and the bracelet?

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