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Authors: John Creasey

An Affair For the Baron (6 page)

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Mannering studied photographs of the two pieces. The gems were expertly graduated, the middle stones particularly fine specimens. Even in black and white they stirred him; to Mannering there was fascination in beautiful jewels.

An hour slid by, and there was still no telephone call.

“He isn't going to ring,” Ethel said. “He thinks he's got more patience, and you'll ring him. I—”

She broke off abruptly, at a sharp tap at the door.

Almost on the instant, the telephone bell rang.

Chapter Seven

Visitor

At Pennsylvania Station, Ethel had seen the bewildering speed with which Mannering could move, and now she had another demonstration. He seemed to sweep her to him with one arm and snatch up the telephone in the same movement. Into the telephone he said quite calmly: “Please call again later.” To her, he said: “Stay behind the door. Don't move.” He replaced the receiver and thrust her to a position in which she would be hidden when the door opened. All this, before there was another tap, even sharper.

“Just a minute!” Mannering flattened himself against the wall, opening the door while still standing on one side.

A man spoke in a voice so sing-song and unfamiliar that English ears could barely understand it.

“Waal, how
about
that?” The timbre of the voice seemed to swell in and out of the room, up and down the passage. “Did this door open by itself, d'you think? I'll be goddarned if it isn't enough to give me the heebie-jeebies.”

In his most English accent, Mannering said: “I can imagine that, sir.
Do
come in.”

At the first sound of the stranger's voice, Ethel had started violently. Now she stared at the doorway in blank astonishment, as the door opened to admit their visitor, young, tall, good-looking in an angular, hawk-like way, wearing a wide-brimmed Stetson and a pale beige-coloured suit of some smooth textured material which looked like mohair. He was so immaculate he did not seem real – nor did the gesture with which he thrust his hand at Mannering.

“Good morning, sir. Do I have the pleasure of addressing Mr. John Mannering?”

“My name is Mannering.”

“The
Baronial
Mr. Mannering? The dealer in antiques?”

“I deal in antiques,” Mannering agreed.

The other man gripped his hand firmly.

“It is a great pleasure to meet you, sir, it surely is. It's one of the
great
pleasures.” He gave Mannering a broad, warm smile, let his hand fall, and glanced round as if by chance. He saw Ethel. His eyes rounded, his lips dropped, he stared as if looking at an apparition, but before Ethel or Mannering could speak, he recovered, and went on: “Waal, how
about
that? Two great pleasures at one and the same time. Miss Ethel, it sure is a pleasure to meet you.”

He stepped towards her, both hands outstretched, took hers and drew her very close to him; for a moment Mannering thought he was going to embrace her.

“I'll be goddarned,” he went. “Your father certainly told me he had a beautiful daughter, but he didn't tell me you were
that
beautiful. Mr. Mannering, you be a witness, now. Isn't Ethel Alundo just about the prettiest young female you ever did set eyes on?”

“For goodness sake!” protested Ethel.

“Yes indeed,” answered Mannering, beginning to enjoy himself, but still wary.

“You see?” The stranger drew Ethel even closer. “You wouldn't disbelieve a gentleman with such a reputation as the Baron Mannering, now would you, Honey? You certainly are the
prettiest
thing.”

Ethel drew her head back, the only part of her she could move freely, and said in a clear, cold, carrying voice: “And you certainly are the most ill-mannered person I have ever met. Please let me go.”

He stared into her eyes, then dropped her hands as if they were hot coals.

“Miss Ethel,” he said as if heartbroken, “I cain't tell you how sorry I am. I just cain't tell you. The last thing I would want to do to a beautiful woman like you is to cause any offence. I surely do apologise.” He turned to Mannering. “Mr. Mannering, will you be good enough to bear witness to my apology.”

Nothing in his expression or his tone of voice suggested that he was being facetious.

“I will,” Mannering said. “If you'll tell me who you are and what you're doing here.”

“Doing, sir?”

“Yes.”

“But, the Professor—” The stranger broke off. “He promised to call you to say that he could not come and see you in person but had asked me to stop by instead. Didn't he call?”

At one and the same moment the telephone rang again. Mannering and Ethel glanced towards it; and the young man, seizing his opportunity to catch Mannering off guard, lunged forward, gripping Mannering's wrist and twisting him round so swiftly and savagely that pain shot through the arm from hand to shoulder. Mannering found himself held in a hammerlock so tight that he could move neither to left nor right without danger of his arm being broken.

Ethel, who had swiftly snatched up the receiver, was saying: “… oh, all right, Daddy.”

The young man spoke sharply into Mannering's ear: “You keep exactly where you are, Mr. Mannering, don't you try no tricks now.”

The telephone gave an abrupt ‘ting' as the girl rang off.

“Ethel,” Mannering said, “don't trust this man. He's probably as dangerous as Ballas.”

“Miss Ethel, you go pick up that packet your father wants, and you go wait for me in the lobby while I have an accommodation talk with Mr. Mannering.”

“Ethel—” Mannering began.

“He
is
a messenger from my father,” Ethel said in a low-pitched voice. “We'll have to give it to him.” She moved, stepping into Mannering's sight – and in sight of his case, which was on a luggage stand. She tried to open it, but it was locked, so she turned to face him. “Where is the key?”

If Mannering refused to answer she would join the stranger in searching him, and there was no point in making that inevitable. With his free hand, he touched his hip pocket. Without a word, Ethel drew nearer, dipped her fingers inside, drew out his keys and turned away. Mannering watched as Ethel found the right key, opened the case, and lifted her own briefcase from the top.

“Is that it?” the young man asked eagerly.

“Yes, of course.”

“Is the packet inside?”

She felt along the edge quickly, and said “Yes.”

“Take it, Miss Ethel, and—”

“I'm not going to leave you here with Mr. Mannering,” Ethel said in a very precise voice. “You take the case to my father, wherever he is. I owe too much to Mr. Mannering to let anything happen to him.”

“But Miss Ethel, your poor father said—”

“Remind my father I am over twenty-one.”

The grip on Mannering's arm did not slacken. He might break the lock, but it was probably better to pretend that he could not free himself. He sensed the tension between the two who were now both out of sight behind him. Before he could recover from his surprise at the girl's attitude, he was released, pushed heavily in the back and sent staggering forward, one arm outstretched to try to save himself from crashing into the wall. He did not see what happened but heard the thud of footsteps and the opening and the slamming of the door.

Mannering took more time than he really needed to recover. It would be futile to rush after the young man, and would only make him look foolish. When he spoke to Ethel again he wanted to be in full command of himself, if not of the situation. So, he leaned heavily against the wall, flexing the muscles of the arm which had been held in that expert hammerlock. Then, slowly, he turned round.

Ethel was at the window, once again gazing out over the lake. The reflection of the sun on the water gilded her face and hair, making a breath-taking picture. Her head was high, her shoulders squared, her lips set. Even when she heard him approach she did not turn her head.

“There can't be another girl quite like you,” Mannering said with quiet admiration.

That broke through her reserve, making her glance round.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean – thank you.”

“Do you think I did the right thing?”

“I think you did what you thought ought to be done, in the best possible way.”

She looked at him squarely.

“Mr. Mannering, I am very grateful for your help. When he knows what you did, my father will be, too. Now I think the best thing is for you to look after your own affairs.”

“And leave you to look after yours?”

“I shall return to England.”

“And wash your hands of your father?”

“I've done what he asked me to do.”

Mannering studied the young, grave, troubled face, the grey eyes shadowed with thought. He needed no telling of the intensity of her feeling, or of her anxiety, and he felt a strange kind of compassion for her as he asked: “Did he tell you to go straight back home?”

After a pause, she answered: “Yes.”

“And are you satisfied he can fend for himself?”

“I'm satisfied that he doesn't want help from me.”

“As distinct from needing it?”

She drew in her breath, sharply, in annoyance. “My father is a man of over sixty, and
quite
capable of making his own decisions.”

“So having made his bed, he can now lie on it.”

Ethel flushed.

“You are insufferably rude.”

“And you are either being childish, or else you are very frightened.”

Enunciating each word carefully, Ethel said: “Mr. Mannering, will you please leave me to look after my own affairs, and make my own judgements?”

“No, I will not,” Mannering said. “In the first place, you and I have a mutual interest in the life and death of Enrico Ballas, and the police inquiries into his murder. We know he stole the microfilm from you – I believe he also stole some jewels from a client of mine. He may well have done both things for the same purpose – in which case your affairs are mixed up with mine and I don't trust your judgements. Don't interrupt!” he added sharply, as Ethel opened her mouth. “In the second place, whether you're frightened or not you have plenty of reason to be, and I don't want your life on my conscience. But I'll tell you what I
will
do.”

She gave no sign of approval, but at least she was silent.

“I'll pretend to leave you on your own but keep an eye on you and see what happens. My guess is that Texas Tommy will be back for you soon –
he
won't want you to go home, even if your father does. You're much more likely than I am to find out if he's genuine.”

Ethel looked troubled, but said nothing.

“Did your father say who his messenger was?”

Ethel hesitated. “He—he just told me to give him the packet and then to go home. Seriously,” she added earnestly, “don't you think it would be better if I did go home, and you forgot all about this?”

“Nothing could make me,” Mannering said. “Go down into the main lobby, Ethel. I'll bet T.T. will approach you within minutes.”

“But if he took the packet to Daddy—”

“Try doing what I say,” Mannering suggested.

Ethel moved to the dressing-table for her handbag, then to the door, opened it and said: “I'm sorry if I behaved badly. I'm really very grateful.”

Mannering smiled at her as she went out.

He waited for a moment, then locked the door on the inside, and turned to his suitcase; the key was still dangling from the lock. He opened it, lifted out the neatly folded clothes and accessories, until the case appeared to be empty. He pressed a fingernail against a spot in one corner, and there was a click – the unspringing of a metal fastener which held a false bottom into place. This gradually moved up the sides of the case, like overhead garage doors, leaving the secret space open.

Inside were Professor Alundo's lecture notes and the enclosed microfilm.

Mannering lifted them out, refastened the secret compartment, locked the case, then pushed the manuscript between his waistband and his shirt, so that it was secured by a leather belt. Covered by his jacket, the manuscript did not show.

He went out. No one was in the passage or in the lift waiting-hall. Down in the main lobby he saw Ethel looking in a shop window. He stopped a bellboy.

“Are there any lockers where I can check a parcel?”

“Yes, sir, downstairs in the arcade.”

“Thanks.” Mannering went down a wide flight of stairs, and came upon a row of metal lockers. He put a twenty-five cent piece into a slot at one of these, placed the manuscript inside, closed the door and took out the key. The door had locked automatically. No one appeared to take any notice of him. He made special note of the position of the locker, then went to a writing desk on the main lobby, wrapped the key in a sheet of paper and sealed it in an envelope, then took it to the main desk.

“Put this with the mail for guests who haven't arrived yet, will you?” He used a slow, drawling, American voice.

“Yes, sir. What name, please?”

“Mr. Mendelsohn,” Mannering said. “It's a little gift for my wife – I don't want her to collect it when she comes for her key.”

“I understand, sir.”

Mannering waited for a few seconds, then moved away, satisfied no one had watched him; the mail “awaiting arrival” box was the last place where anyone would expect to find anything belonging to guests who had already registered. He sauntered back to the spot where he had seen Ethel.

She was still there – talking to Texas Tommy.

Chapter Eight

“Texas Tommy”

The girl was arguing indignantly, and although the man kept his voice low, that remarkable intonation made a lot of people look round. They were arguing as young lovers might, Mannering reflected dryly. He walked past them, out of the side entrance, where there was a line of taxis. He approached the first driver and spoke in a drawling but natural-seeming voice.

“If I hire you for the day, will you do exactly what I tell you?”

A pair of deep-set, intelligent eyes studied him for a few second. Then: “Sure. If it's legal.”

“I want to find out where a Texan in a pale brown mohair suit and a ten-gallon hat goes,” said Mannering. “I think he's a millionaire with designs on my daughter. If he comes out this way, you follow him, and I'll follow you.” While speaking, Mannering took out a ten dollar bill and passed it over; it disappeared as if by sleight of hand. “If he uses the other entrance I'll come to the corner – you pick me up as fast as you can.”

“You're taking a chance,” the taxi driver said, and the bill hovered into sight again.

“I know.” Mannering smiled, waving the money away. “Thanks.” He went back into the hotel, seeing the Texan and Ethel still in the main lobby, but now the man's hand was on the girl's arm. Almost as soon as Mannering dodged behind a pillar, they began to move towards the entrance from which he had just come. He turned and raced the other way, along Michigan Avenue and past bewildered passers-by.

When he reached the corner, the young man with the huge hat was moving off at the wheel of a Chrysler convertible. Ethel was beside him. The taxi driver was already following in their wake; as he caught sight of Mannering he winked. Ethel caught sight of Mannering, too, but her companion seemed interested only in the traffic ahead.

Mannering hailed another taxi.

This driver was as bright as the first, and soon caught up with him, staying a reasonable distance behind. They took two right turns, drove in the gloom beneath the elevated railway for several blocks, and then swung left along a wide street, jammed with traffic. There was nothing Mannering could do, so he sat back, relaxed, relying on the driver. Soon, they were among tall, red brick apartment buildings. Mannering saw the convertible turn into the driveway of a new block which seemed to be made of glass; both taxis passed, the leading one stopping two entrances along.

“Take the next right,” Mannering said.

This was only fifty yards away, and soon, Mannering was speaking to the driver he had first hired.

“Leave my daughter to me,” he ordered. “You keep track of Texas Tommy.”

The driver grinned with friendly knowingness.

Mannering approached the new glass building, noting the sign outside which read:

LAKE VIEW APARTMENTS
1½ : 2½ : 3½ : 4½ ROOMS
APPLY: OFFICE IN LOBBY

The Chrysler convertible had been left in a parking space at the side of the forecourt. Mannering strolled past it, and saw a small, discreet sticker on the windscreen: FOUR SQUARE RENTALS. He was mildly surprised that this was a hire car. He turned in the direction of the main entrance, remembering idly the driver's amusement. None of this situation was really funny, but it had amusing overtones; the way the young man with the sing-song voice had behaved had been almost farcical.

But Enrico Ballas hadn't been farcical, in life or in death.

Nor was Professor Arthur Alundo.

Nor was the obvious danger to Ethel.

And Mannering found it difficult to believe there was anything funny about the microfilm. Why, he kept asking himself, should a specialist in jewels and
objets d'art,
switch to microfilm?—unless, of course, the film showed the mechanism of some safe or strong-room.

And why had he limited the Fentham theft to one necklace and bracelet? Until Mannering had found the answer to these questions, he would not, he knew, be at ease over this affair. But how could he find out more without questioning Alundo? And who in England would know if any important microfilm was missing; and whether Alundo was suspected, had ever been suspected, of spying.

In the cold light of what he already knew, this possibility did not seem ludicrous.

All of these thoughts flashed through Mannering's mind as he approached a doorman in a uniform resplendent enough for the Waldorf-Astoria.

“Can I help you, sir?”

“I think my daughter just came in,” Mannering said easily. “I was to meet her here but I can't remember the number of the apartment. She was with a man in a pale brown mohair suit—”

“You mean they
just
came in, sir?”

“Two or three minutes ago.”

“That was Mr. Ricardi, sir – with the blonde young lady.”

“That would be her.”

“Apartment 1701, sir – the seventeenth floor and turn right.”

“Thank you,” Mannering said, handing the man a dollar bill. “I'd like to surprise them.”

He stepped into the elevator, pressed the button marked seventeen, and was taken up at a soundless speed; he was surprised when it stopped and the doors slid open.

He stepped into a wide, opulently furnished passage, coloured in blue and gold. As he did so, a man came out of a door three or four rooms along, on the right. He was tall and heavily built, and wore a tightly fitting suit, and under his left arm he carried Ethel Alundo's briefcase.

It was the man with the Irish look about him – the man Mannering had passed in the corridor of the Broadway Limited the night Enrico Ballas had been murdered.

Mannering stepped swiftly into an alcove, averting his face, but the Irishman passed without a glance in his direction, turning quickly into the elevator the other had just left. Mannering heard the doors slide to behind him. On that instant, he had a decision to make which was frightening in its possible importance.

He must either follow the man, or go to the apartment to find out what had happened there.

Texas Tommy – alias Ricardi – might simply have handed the briefcase over; or the big man might have been waiting, unsuspected.

He might be a knife-artist, too.

Mannering pressed the button of the second elevator, and heard a bell ‘ding' almost at once. There was no time to go to the apartment; the doors slid open and he stepped inside, the elevator sinking swiftly to the lobby floor. The doorman was loitering in the hall, but there was no sign of anyone else. Seeing a notice marked CAR PARK AND GARAGE, Mannering went towards it. He spotted his quarry at once, climbing into a green Chevrolet Impala, which stood near the Chrysler convertible in which Ethel and the young Westerner had arrived. Mannering leapt into the convertible – and saw his taxi driver sitting at the wheel just beyond the drive exit. He would understand a gesture to follow the Impala, but at this distance there was no way of warning him that the Irishman might be dangerous.

The man with the briefcase started his car and moved off.

Mannering, an expert with all locks and keys, was taking out his penknife which had a wire attachment – then noticed that the Westerner had been so preoccupied that he had forgotten to remove the ignition key. He started the Chrysler, stalled, started again, and went out slowly: the Impala turned right, and the driver was now out of earshot. The taxi driver put his head out of the window; that was the first time Mannering had noticed that he was cross-eyed.

“Okay?”

“The man in the Impala could be a killer.”

“So he could.”

“Can you find out where he goes, without getting involved?”

The taxi driver was already sliding forward. “For how much?”

“Fifty dollars.”

“Five hundred to my wife if I don't come back.” The man grinned, as if he could wring a wry amusement even from the thought of disaster. His tyres squealed as he moved off. Mannering turned back into the driveway, watched by the bewildered doorman.

“Park the car for me,” Mannering said, as he jumped out and hurried to the elevators.

It was not until he reached the seventeenth floor and was re-approaching Apartment 1701 that he began to feel really apprehensive. Until then, events had moved at a speed which had prevented anything but reaction; constructive thought had been impossible.

Now he began to fear what he might find inside the apartment.

He pressed the bell, but there was no response; when he pressed again there was still no sound of movement.

A strange change came over John Mannering in the few moments that he stood waiting; a kind of metamorphosis. It was a change that had come over him before, and would again – a change always the same and always of brief duration – one with which he was well familiar, even though he did not, at the time, realise it was taking place.

Many half-forgotten years ago, he had been an embittered man with a particular hate against society, and this hatred had turned him into a jewel-thief whom the world had come to know as “The Baron”. Gradually, he had found that the excitement of breaking into the houses of the wealthy had become more important to him than his hatred; as gradually, he had found himself robbing the rich to help the poor, and others who had been ostracised or victimised by society.

In those days he had learned the secrets of a burglar's trade; of disguising his face, his body, even his voice.

It was all so long ago; yet it was this that had led him to the love of jewels, of antiques, of
objets d'art,
that was now part of his life. And his business, at Quinns in London, Boston, Paris and New York, had really been built on all he had learned as the Baron.

This lock should not give him too much trouble …

No conscious thought of the old days entered his head, as he bent over the door of Apartment 1701; only fear of what he might find inside. He took out the knife which had many blades and small tools – a set of tools, in fact, which would have made any policeman suspicious.

It looked like a straightforward Yale lock, and he selected one of the blades – a strip of strong mica which would gradually work through the key-hole, forcing the lock back once the pressure on each side was equal – and began to use it. Pushing it through seemed to take an age, and his heart was in his mouth when at last the lock clicked back. But nothing either slowed down or hastened the speed of his movements. He opened the door a few inches, stepped to one side, and called: “Ethel!”

There was no answer.

“Ethel!”

There was still no answer, no sound.

Mannering pushed the door wide open and stepped inside – then stopped in the grip of dread. For three people were in this lovely sitting-room of reds and blues and subtle greens, of beautiful furniture and luxurious carpets. Three people, all inert; two sitting, and one, Texas Tommy, half lying on a long, low couch, face downwards.

Ethel Alundo lay back in a small chair, her face pale, her lips parted. A man obviously in his sixties sat, hunched, in a larger chair. He had a lot of untidy grey hair, a fresh complexion, a very lined face.

Not one moved, nor seemed to breathe.

At least there was no sign of blood.

Mannering went first to Ethel. He stared at her lips, and thought he saw a faint sign of movement. He lifted her left hand; her pulse was beating, though faintly, and he felt a surge of relief. Turning from the girl, he bent hurriedly over each of the two men, making sure they too were still alive – then he lifted the younger one more comfortably on to the couch. As he released him, he grunted; Texas Tommy weighed all of thirteen stone, in spite of his leanness. Mannering straightened him out, then stood back to assess the situation. Knockout drops, he thought to himself, but which variety? On this would depend how long the three would remain unconscious. He examined the girl again, and found the tiny red mark of a puncture on her upper arm. Mannering knew that even a pin or needle-point smeared with pentathol could bring unconsciousness very quickly, and he did not try to picture what had happened here; he would find out soon enough.

Moving quickly past the inert bodies, he opened a door at the far end of the room, and found himself in a small passage. He stepped cautiously into the first room he came to, then stopped short, startled. This was not a bedroom as he had expected, but an office – and an unusual office at that. The whole of one wall was covered with enormous black and white aerial photographs, one showing a whole city spread out, with a section outlined by a wide white border. Over this section, composed of old houses, a few big buildings and a meandering river, was printed the word HEMISFAIR NINETY-TWO ACRES. Next to this photograph, on the same wall, was another, obviously an enlargement of the outlined section, yet totally unlike it. Here was a lay-out of an enormous exhibition, and written across or beneath most buildings were single word captions.

At the far end of the room, with just space enough to walk round it, was a table with a model, obviously to scale, showing exactly what the exhibition would look like; and preoccupied though he was with his own and the Alundos' situation, this caught and held Mannering's attention. He looked for JEWEL HOUSE, and found it leading off a big hall marked FOLKLORE SECTION. He half-smiled, but soon began to frown.

Why
had
Enrico Ballas been interested only in the Fentham necklace and bracelet?
Why
take only those and not the rest of the collection, which was worth at least as much again? And why did a jewel-thief suddenly develop an interest in microfilm?

“The quicker I see what the film's about the better,” Mannering mused.

There simply hadn't been time to investigate, but he must take time.

He cast a last, lingering look towards HEMISFAIR NINETY-TWO ACRES, then opened the door of the next room. This was a bedroom, and from the lecture notes and letters strewn about, it was obviously Alundo's. On a table near the bed were two telephones, one an extension of the Whitehall number.

Mannering retraced his steps along the passage, and listened for a moment at the door leading to the front room. But he heard nothing – its three occupants had obviously not yet recovered consciousness. Hurrying back to Alundo's bedroom, he picked up the telephone and put in a person-to-person call to Chief Superintendent William Bristow, of London's Criminal Investigation Department at New Scotland Yard. The overseas operator told him there would be a twenty-minute delay. He replaced the receiver, then began a detailed search of each of the remaining rooms. One large main bedroom – with a luxury bathroom in pale blues and greens – was obviously Ricardi's, for four suits, each in its way as Beau Brummelish as the first, hung in a built-in wardrobe; a dinner-jacket was of powder blue. All the accessories, such as hair brushes, combs and toilet containers, were flamboyantly designed and exceedingly expensive.

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