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Authors: John Creasey

An Affair For the Baron (8 page)

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Chapter Ten

Two Fires

William Bristow would not talk like this for the sake of it; he was really worried.

Mannering, while listening intently to the Superintendent's words, was, at the same time, acutely aware of the indignation, the anger and even the distress on Alundo's face. The man stood only a foot or two away, one hand outstretched, as if to wrench the receiver from Mannering's grasp. There was no sound from outside, no sound in the room except their breathing.

Bristow asked, heavily: “Did you hear me?”

“Yes, Bill,” Mannering said. “You advised me to come back to England while I'm safe. But there's something you've forgotten.”

“What's that?”

“Not what. Who. Professor Arthur Alundo.”

“Where does he come into this?”


Mannering,
” Alundo called in an urgent whisper, “
if you tell him anything about me, I
will
shoot you
!” He moved surprisingly quickly as he spoke, and snatched the gun from the table. As he pointed it at Mannering, his hand seemed very steady, and there was open menace in his expression.

Mannering's whole body went tense, partly from the sudden danger, partly from this change in the old man; a few minutes before, he had dropped the gun as if in horror.

“Are you still there?” An urgent note came into Bristow's voice.

“Sorry, Bill, there was an interruption. Alundo doesn't come into this very much yet, but he's made himself some enemies.”

“Including Ballas, you say.”

“Yes.”

“The Ballas gang doesn't do anything without a good reason. If Alundo is in any danger, make him go to the police,” Bristow urged. “If you become involved in any crime over there, you'll be a bloody fool.”

“You could be right,” Mannering agreed. “If you get any news about Ballas's activities, let me know, will you?—care of the Conrad Hilton Hotel, Chicago. Thanks, Bill. Goodbye for now.”

As he put the receiver down, Alundo replaced the gun on the table.

“I—I'm sorry about that,” he muttered. “I don't
like
using threats, but—”

“You'll make them if they keep getting you what you want,” Mannering said coolly. “I'd like to know whether you're a knave, a fool, or a hypocrite.” He moved past the old man, picked up the gun, and slipped it into his pocket. “At least you won't be able to get at that again.”

“Knave! Fool! Hypocrite!
Me
?” Alundo's voice rose.

Mannering looked him boldly in the eyes and said: “Yes.”

Somehow, he felt it was a moment of truth and of testing. The old man's gaze was as direct as his, and for a few seconds they seemed as if they were playing the childhood game of staring each other out. Hostility was bright in those clear eyes; and accusation as clear in Mannering's. But even as they stared at each other, Mannering could not make up his mind what he really did believe.

A sound in the passage broke the tension.

Mannering could see the door beyond the other's shoulder, and once again he saw it slowly opening. He found himself gripping the gun inside his pocket – until he saw the pink varnish on the fingernails which appeared at the door.

“All right, Ethel,” he said.

“Ethel!” Alundo spun round.

The girl came in, looking tired and pale but very relieved. Almost at once, there was a call as of alarm from the sitting-room, followed by heavy movements. A moment later, Ricardi came into sight, his hair rumpled, his jacket creased; he looked as if he had just woken up.

“What—what's going
on
here?” he demanded. Then: “I'll be goddamned if it ain't Mr. Mannering!”

Alundo was fussing over his daughter, showing more solicitude than Mannering had expected. Ricardi came fully into the room, and suddenly Ethel said crossly: “Oh, Daddy, for heaven's sake!” She eyed Mannering very steadily. “I suppose you'll gloat, now. The briefcase was stolen from us as soon as we got here, we would have been wiser to leave it with you. We had hardly got inside the flat,” she added, bitterly angry with herself. “A man was waiting just inside the door. He snatched the case, jabbed a needle into me—”

“And into
me,
by golly!” Ricardi put in.

“If you'd had your wits about you, you would have stopped him,” Ethel said scathingly. “Well – we might as well give up, I suppose.”

“Give up?” echoed her father. “You're out of your senses. We've got to get that film back.”

“We certainly have to do just that,” Ricardi said. “Baron Mannering, sir, I have been hearing plenty about you, I certainly have, and according to Ethel here you're a big-shot detective. Will you find that microfilm if I pay you a mighty big fee in advance? Say, ten thousand dollars?”

Mannering did not speak, but was acutely aware that all three were staring at him expectantly. When he did not answer, Ricardi said eagerly: “So ten thousand isn't enough. Will you settle for
twenty
thousand?”

If he were serious, and all the indications suggested that he was, then the microfilm was worth at least twenty thousand dollars to him. The realisation startled Mannering. What could the film contain to make it worth so fantastic a sum?

More slowly, Ricardi said: “Twenty-five.”

“Mannering—” began Alundo.

“You can't possibly afford—” Ethel began.

“Don't worry about what I can afford,” said Ricardi. Quite suddenly he seemed more mature and completely sure of himself. “I've a hundred thousand acres of Texas range, and a steer on every ten acres on top of it. Underneath that, I've got the oil. You don't have to worry about dollars, honey.”

Mannering thought: I really believe him. Ethel looked dumbfounded.

Then Mannering wondered: If he isn't in this for the money, what
is
that microfilm about?

Before he could hope to make any progress, he must have time to think; meanwhile he must appear to be persuaded by the size of the fee. Then he recalled his own reputation, and suddenly made up his mind what to do.

“Is it a deal, Mannering?” Ricardi demanded.

“Ten thousand dollars,” Mannering said, “with another ten if I find the film.”

“There's no ‘if about it!” cried Alundo. “That film
must
be found.”

“Mr. Mannering,” Ricardi said, stepping forward with his hand outstretched. “You're a gentleman.” He had a cool, firm hand.

“When are you going to start? Do you know the thief? Where—” began Alundo.

“Daddy,” interrupted Ethel, exasperatedly, “sometimes I think you will
never
grow up.”

“I know where I might find the man who took the briefcase,” Mannering said. “I'll be back in an hour, and I'll want to know all you can tell me – where you got the microfilm, why it's worth so much to a Texan millionaire, when the attempts to steal it began, and”—he moved across to the battered briefcase whose lock he had forced, opened it, picked up one of the bundles of abusive letters and held it out—“when these letters started to come, and whether the telephoned threats on your life were because you preach peace at any price or because you had the microfilm.”

He put the bundle of letters in Alundo's hands, and went through the door, closing it carefully behind him.

Outside, he paused and listened, but none of the others spoke, and none seemed to move. He walked slowly along the passage, paused again, but was not followed. Stepping into Ricardi's bedroom, he opened the sliding door of a wardrobe; it was filled with clothes, including two jackets rich in colour and extravagance. He slipped into one and then found a linen cap, in wine red. Putting this on carefully, he hurried to the sitting-room, opened the main apartment door cautiously, and peered outside. No one was in sight. Nevertheless, he felt on edge as he waited for the elevator, which whined softly on its way up. The door slid open, and he stepped inside. He felt increasing uneasiness, as if his warning antennae were picking up danger signals; it might be because of what had happened here, it might be because of what Bristow had said.

No one was in the main lobby.

Still cautiously, Mannering reached the street doors – and started with alarm when he saw the doorman in deep conversation with one of the detectives who had been at the railway station. The doorman was talking with great earnestness. Mannering looked round and saw a telephone under a hood on the wall. He stepped to this, put in a ten cent piece, and began to dial Whitehall 4-31495. As the ringing echoed in his ear, footsteps sounded in the lobby.

“Sure, he was a big guy,” the doorman was saying. “Said she was his daughter.” The voices faded as the men reached the elevator.

Why didn't someone answer?

Almost on that instant, Ethel answered: “Hallo?”

“Ethel,” Mannering said, “the police are on their way up. I think they want to talk to you and to me. You mustn't know anything about the murder on the train – just say you don't know a thing about it.”

He rang off without waiting for her reply, went to the side entrance, wondering how many police would be there, saw none, walked towards the front, and recognised a plain-clothes man standing by the side of a car which was not marked POLICE. Just beyond this, in the roadway, was a taxi and at the wheel the driver who had followed the briefcase thief. He saw Mannering, but gave no sign of recognition; and Mannering felt a surge of relief. Ricardi's jacket and cap were standing him in good stead.

He walked boldly past the man in plain-clothes, who glanced at him incuriously, then turned out of the driveway and towards the taxi. The driver seemed to be more interested in his clothes than his face. The driving window was down, and as he passed, Mannering startled the man by saying out of the corner of his mouth: “Meet me round the next corner in five minutes.”

The taxi-man waited a moment, then started off.

Exactly five minutes later he pulled alongside Mannering and opened the rear door without a word.

“Seen a ghost?” demanded Mannering.

“Would never have recognised you,” said the driver. His voice was subdued, it was obvious that something had disturbed him. “You want to talk here?”

“I'd rather go somewhere quieter.”

“We'll go to Grant's Park,” the taxi-man decided, obviously as anxious as Mannering to get away. “Near the Planetarium. Okay?”

“That will do very well.”

“Mister,” said the taxi driver, starting off, “you owe me five hundred bucks.”

“What cost you the extra four-fifty?” Mannering asked.

Without turning his head as he moved into the flow of traffic, the other answered: “An English gent like you would call it bloody scary.”

“Scary,” echoed Mannering, his tension rising. “What scared you?”

“Do you know who the big guy was?”

“No.”

“Tiger O'Leary,” said the taxi driver, and this time he turned his head, as if to judge Mannering's reaction. He gave the impression that he expected the name to have a sensational effect, but Mannering kept straight-faced, and asked: “Should I know Tiger O'Leary?”

“He's the chief trouble-shooter for Mario Ballas.”

“And should I know Mario Ballas?”

“You mean you've never heard of
him
?” The taxi-man whistled. “You really mean that?”

“You forget I'm an English gent,” Mannering said mildly.

“But he's the biggest big-shot criminal in the world!”

“Or Chicago?”

“In the world, mister. He's the Mafia, plus plenty. He's the biggest.” The man's voice was hoarse, and it was clear that he meant every word he said. His shoulders hunched over the wheel and in a strange way he looked older; even coping with the traffic seemed more difficult for him. A sleek red Thunderbird sped by, very close. They were on a road which threaded through parkland, sparsely wooded; one side were the tall buildings and, beyond them, the downtown skyline; on the other were the highways, the open grassland and the lake. Traffic hummed.

Suddenly, the driver went on: “I tell you he's the worst.”

“Why are you so sure?”

“That's the trouble, I don't know where to begin, mister. If you don't know—you read the newspapers?” he asked abruptly.

“Yes.”

“You see the headlines about the murder on the Broadway Limited.”

“Just the headlines,” Mannering said.

“The stiff was Ballas's nephew, and that will make Mario mad. Real mad.” The taxi driver drew in a sharp breath. “When he's mad, he'll be worse than ever. Mister—”

“Yes?”

“Did you cross Ballas up?”

“Yes,” said Mannering calmly. “But I didn't know who he was.”

“You know now. And you crossed him up. Make that a thousand bucks, mister.”

“No man can be as bad as that,” protested Mannering, but he began to feel cold.

“Some guys can be. Ballas
is.

They were slowing down near a huge car park outside the dome of the Planetarium. The taxi driver pulled into an open space. Some children were playing noisily a few yards away, a young couple sat very close together in an old blue car, not far off. In the distance a few people walked, over the lake the sun shone with glittering brilliance, and here and there a white sail showed. The scene was peaceful, almost idyllic. The taxi driver stopped the engine with great deliberation, and turned round. Mannering, puzzled by his expression, actually wondered for a moment if it was the same man.

“If he's as bad as that, why are you here?” he asked.

“Mister,” said the taxi driver, “I don't like guys like Ballas, no, sir, I don't like them. They still run protection rackets in Chi, and one of the rackets is in cabs. I'm an independent owner, and there aren't so many of us left; most of us were driven off the streets by Ballas or one of the other mobs. You following me?”

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