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Authors: John Creasey

An Affair For the Baron (9 page)

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Mannering said quietly: “Very closely.”

“I don't intend to get involved with Ballas,” the taxi driver went on. “But you're a stranger. So whatever you have on him today, forget it. Don't try to work on Mario Ballas. He's everything I've told you and more. You want some advice?”

“I'll listen,” Mannering said.

“Get out of Chicago—quick.”

Mannering said: “I might, at that.”

“You'll be crazy if you don't,” the driver said. “You'll be dead crazy.” He gulped. “So don't say I haven't warned you. You want to walk?”

“Can you take me to State Street?”

“No, sir, I'm not taking you any place,” the driver said. “You can get plenty of cabs over by the Planetarium, you won't have to walk.” He leaned across and opened the door.

Mannering said: “Where does Ballas live?”

“He's got a place in Chi, and a place in Mexico.”

“Whereabouts in Chicago?”

“You can ask someone else, mister.”

Mannering shrugged.

“If that's how you feel.” He took out his wallet, and extracted fifty dollars, two twenties and a ten, and handed them over the back of the seat. He noticed the police licence and photograph of the driver: Peter Gulack, No. 43124. The man took the bills and tucked them away.

“I'm sorry, mister,” he said. “I've got to live.”

Mannering nodded. Standing by the side of the taxi, he felt unexpectedly cold, despite the warmth of the sun. The children were laughing with carefree abandon. He tried to fight off a mood which was not far from depression as he set out at a brisk pace towards the road. Two or three taxis were pulling up outside the main entrance of the Planetarium. A notice board extolled the wonders of the skies. He hailed a taxi but it drove past, the driver covering the flag of the meter with his hand. Another passed, hailed by a middle-aged man. A third pulled up. Mannering got in, dropped heavily on to the back seat, and said: “Marshal Fields, in State Street.”

The driver grunted, and Mannering leaned back, watching the scene. The taxi was moving very fast but he took little notice until he realised they were swinging off the main highway. He was thrust against the side by the sway of the car, then sent lurching forward as the driver jammed on his brakes. On the instant he knew what had happened – he had allowed himself to be fooled by one of the oldest tricks of all, a stooge taxi. The road was narrow, running through rows of small trees, and before he could do more than realise his danger, the car-jolted to a standstill. Almost at once, two men appeared. Slowly they began to close in, and when Mannering looked through the opposite window, he saw two men closing in on this side also.

Everything he had ever heard about Chicago gangsters screamed through his mind.

The taxi driver sat motionless, staring ahead.

“A thousand dollars if you drive straight on,” Mannering said in a clear voice.

The man didn't answer.


The man muttered: “You're wasting your time. Tell them what they want to know.”

Mannering saw sweat on the man's upper lip, and knew that he hated the situation almost as much as he did himself.

Almost …

The four men were very close; each was powerful and thickset, and each looked menacing. One of them was Tiger O'Leary; Mannering did not think he had ever seen an uglier face.

Chapter Eleven

Mario Ballas

The four men were now within a few feet of the taxi. The driver's breathing came in heavy, laboured gasps. He stared straight ahead. Mannering, very tense but curiously unafraid, opened the nearside door, and climbed out. As he straightened up, the taxi engine snorted, the driver jammed his foot on the accelerator, and the cab shot off in a cloud of dust. Immediately the four men, adroit and deadly, surrounded Mannering, shutting off all possibility of escape.

O'Leary stood nearest to him.

Mannering said: “Good morning,” firmly and clearly. No one could guess the speed at which his mind was working. If only he could find it in time, there must be a way to lessen the danger; perhaps even to turn the situation to his advantage.

O'Leary, an inch or two taller and much heavier than the others, banged into him, obviously by intent. Another man was at Mannering's other side, the shortest of the four, and the smallest. He had narrow, rather fine green-grey eyes and a well-cut mouth.

“Are you John Mannering?” this man asked. He almost said ‘Man'ring', and his voice was hard but low-pitched.

“Yes,” Mannering said pleasantly. “Are you from Mario Ballas?”

The speaker looked startled; one of his companions smothered an exclamation.

“What do you know about Mario Ballas?”

“Not enough,” Mannering said.

“A goddamned sight too much,” growled O'Leary. “Cyrus, you can't—”

“I'll do the talking,” said the man named Cyrus, his glance unwavering.

A very slight feeling of relief touched Mannering. In those few critical seconds he had called on all his subconscious ingenuity for a tactical approach to turn the situation to advantage, and he believed he had found one; certainly the first reaction could be accounted good. It was a relief to find O'Leary rebuked; he seemed the most hostile. Mannering showed none of this relief, nor did he overdo the nonchalance. The remarkable thing was, that he still felt quite untroubled. He waited while Cyrus studied him, as if trying to make up his mind what to say next; and Mannering judged him to be a man not likely to be often in doubt.

“Did you put a knife into Enrico?” Cyrus asked at last.

“No,” Mannering said.

“I hope that's the truth – for your own sake.”

“I don't answer any question more than once,” said Mannering shortly. “How soon can I see Mario Ballas?”

“What makes you think you can see him?”

Slowly, very deliberately, Mannering said: “Do you really believe he would approve of this waste of time?”

O'Leary rammed an elbow into Mannering's ribs, with intentional brutality, and Mannering wondered if he had goaded him too far. No one spoke, until Cyrus said: “I don't waste time. Why do you want to see him?”

“I'll tell him that,” Mannering said.

“Cyrus,” O'Leary said with harsh, menacing certainty, “why not
the guy talk?”

This time, Mannering did not ignore the interruption but turned towards O'Leary and looked at him. A quiver of apprehension returned. O'Leary's bloodshot eyes were hot, glassy, lowering, and the ugly lips were brutally square.

Cyrus was human; O'Leary was nearer the savage. His jutting chin and big ears had an aggressive cut.

“I will talk only to Ballas,” Mannering said. “It wouldn't take much to make me tell him I think you are a punk.” They held each other's gaze for a full minute before O'Leary's wavered. Cyrus broke in, almost as if to pacify O'Leary.

“You'll do what you're told,” he said harshly. “And the first thing is, you'll walk with me.”

He half-turned, and Mannering joined him. The others followed, O'Leary very close behind. For the first time since he had got out of the car, Mannering was able to look about him. This was a secluded spot among trees, and no one else was within sight, although he could hear the distant hum of traffic and the faint shouts of children. He guessed that he was walking towards the main highway which led from the promontory on which the Planetarium was built. Two grey squirrels were leaping from branch to branch, the leaves rustling in a gentle wind.

The sinister little party of men broke through the trees to a clearing where two cars waited, the green Impala which Mannering had seen outside the apartment block, and a Ford station wagon. A man was standing by the side of each. Mannering walked easily, without glancing behind him, and O'Leary no longer touched him. Cyrus led the way to the Impala, and the man beside it opened the rear door. Mannering got in. O'Leary moved swiftly to the far side, to make sure he could not bound straight through the car and run for safety, but Mannering settled himself comfortably in one corner.

“Your friend doesn't seem to believe that I want to see Ballas,” he remarked easily, as Cyrus got in beside him.

“Who said
believed you?” Cyrus demanded. “Don't get this the wrong way round, Mr. Mannering. Mario Ballas sent for

A smile hovered about Mannering's lips. “Did he indeed?”

Leaning back in the car, he was aware of Cyrus's curious gaze, of the fact that he had them all puzzled. Then O'Leary took the seat next to the driver, and the car started off. Mannering, intent on memorising the route they took, peered out of the window, wondering where Mario Ballas lived, whether they would go straight to him, what the man would be like. He was reminding himself that Enrico Ballas had been murdered, and it now seemed as if Ballas as well as the police suspected him, when he felt a sharp, pricking pain on his hand. He jerked it upwards, turning towards Cyrus, and had time for a swift, alarming glimpse of a sardonic smile.

Then he began to lose consciousness.

When Mannering woke, he was alone.

He was lying full length on a narrow bed. The room was small, with a high window of thick, frosted glass. As consciousness came back, he looked about him. The furniture was old, and of carved oak – it had an un-English, more a Spanish look. In a corner was a decorated hand-basin, and some of the biggest brass taps, intricately shaped, he had ever seen. There was one door; it was opposite the window, and looked almost impregnable.

In five minutes or so, he felt quite clear-headed; whatever form of knockout drops they used had no after effects. Everything Ballas used would be good. And could be deadly. It was easy now to understand how the man could strike such terror into his fellow human beings. Getting off the bed, he went towards the hand-basin. Clean, snowy-white towels hung on the brass rail. He washed his hands and face, dried them and turned to the door much fresher and able to think swiftly. He tried the big, ornate brass handle, but the door was locked.

Near the hand-basin was a chair, and he pulled it towards the wall beneath the window; it was so heavy, he had to exert considerable strength. He climbed up on to the chair, not expecting to see anything through the frosted glass, but had a welcome surprise; two or three smooth patches showed a clear blue sky. He shifted his position and then saw land; he was so astounded that he nearly slipped off the chain

Rocky, almost barren ground stretched to the horizon, which was broken by a range of mountains. He stared for what must have been several minutes, but nothing moved;
The sun was vivid, burning the earth to a hard, grey surface.

They had flown him here, of course. But where was ‘here'?

The question was hardly in his mind before he remembered the taxi driver telling him that Mario Ballas had a house in Chicago and another in Mexico.

This certainly wasn't Chicago – and the old oak furniture was almost certainly Mexican.

Slowly, he climbed down from the chair. He felt almost stupefied, for he must be a thousand, perhaps two thousand, miles from Chicago, and consequently, very much more helpless.

Trying not to think about this, he ran through his pockets and found everything in place, even the knife with the special blades. Men who worked for Ballas would know what that was for; so they had deliberately allowed him to keep the tools with which he might be able to force this lock.

Why? And—should he work on it?

He felt tired and badly shaken, depressed by the relentlessness of the land beyond. He went back to the bed, trying to relax, trying to keep his mind blank. As always when this happened, he pictured his wife's face. Lorna's. He had not seen her for over two weeks, for she had gone to Scotland to paint the portrait of the twin sons of a Scottish laird; and while she had known of his proposed visit to the HemisFair in San Antonio, she knew nothing of his second purpose in coming to America. She had known of the theft of the Fentham jewels, had known that Lord Fentham had been sufficiently troubled over their loss to enlist Mannering's help, but was as yet unaware that it was the pursuit of these jewels that had led Mannering to New York.

Mannering could picture Freddie's face as well as Lorna's; a face of dignity and kindliness, a lover as well as a collector of
objets d'art
and precious stones, a man reputedly of illimitable wealth. Why should the loss of these particular pieces – both of which were doubtless insured – appear to trouble him so much? That question had been worrying Mannering since he had heard Fentham's story. Now, he could almost imagine the sound of his voice.

“John, you're the only man in the world who knows, but this loss is a very severe blow”—who could doubt how much he meant that?—“and you're the only man in the world who might be able to get them back for me.”

Mannering had not wanted to be involved. Business at Quinns in London, New York, Paris and Boston was good, and kept him busy; these days he did less and less investigation into crimes, but for an old friend – and in view of his interest in the HemisFair in San Antonio …

Thought of that pulled him up with a start. Was Texas like the land beyond the window? West Texas, particularly – and the land near San Antonio? Texas and Mexico had a common border for hundreds of miles.

He forced his mind back to the missing diamonds.

Word had reached the manager of his Mayfair shop that Enrico Ballas was in London, and had been seen near Fentham's home. This kind of information seldom reached the police, but often reached Mannering. But for this, he wouldn't be here; but for Fentham, he wouldn't be here …

He could picture Lorna's wry smile, the hint of laughter in her grey eyes which touched her face with beauty. “But for
you wouldn't be there!” If he had never been the Baron …

He half-laughed at himself, much as Lorna would have done, and sat up again. Now he felt almost normal, his eyes and head free from pain. He went to the door, deciding to force it; obviously this was what he was expected to do. Before taking out his knife, he tried the handle again.

The door opened.

Could it have jammed before?

He felt sure that it had not, that this was part of the tactics being used against him. He opened the door slowly and stepped into a dark passage, on to a floor of uneven oak, leading to a hall which was furnished in the same way as the bedroom. Stained glass at the doors and the adjoining windows, added more than a touch of gloom. Several unlighted oil paintings hung on the walls – one, at a cursory glance, could have been an El Greco, and in one corner Mannering noted a huge, carved cupboard, rich with the bloom of centuries of polish. The big, square carpet looked Persian, but might be Indian; it was impossible to tell in so dim a light. A wide, stone staircase led up to a half-landing, and above this was a gallery. Everywhere, Mannering had an impression of dull lustre, of richness.

The front door was on his right, facing the foot of the stairs. He saw no chains in position and no bolts were shot home. He tried the handle, and it turned without difficulty.

he have been left alone in an empty house?

He rejected the thought as it came to him. Tactics, he told himself,
This was deliberate; they were virtually inviting him to run away. They would not let him get far, but obviously they were trying to prove something. What?

He thought he knew; they wanted
to prove that he really meant to see Mario Ballas, even to the point of rejecting a chance of escape.

He glanced over his shoulder. No one was in sight, nothing moved, there was no sound. Any dark corner, any doorway, might conceal a man – half-a-dozen men. He had the sense of being watched; of unseen but seeing eyes. He turned his back again and opened the door; he was almost afraid of being shot, but nothing happened. The door gave a sharp creak as it opened wide.

The flagged porch or patio stretched far to the right and the left. The house in which he was standing was one of four long, low buildings in Spanish style, which surrounded a paved courtyard, in the middle of which was a wrought-iron fountain. From cracks or gaps in the paving a variety of cacti grew, one a prickly pear, one like a yucca, one which looked almost like a sheep. Some of the cacti had branches or leaves, like broadswords. The sun beat fierce and vivid on to the courtyard.

No one appeared.

Mannering drew back into the shade, deliberating. He could not be sure but he was probably in an isolated spot, virtually in the middle of nowhere. He ventured into the courtyard, and found an old ladder, the rungs secured to the supports by leather thongs. He rested this against the nearest roof, and climbed up it. At the top, he had an uninterrupted view in all directions – but except for a huddle of tiny huts, he could see nothing but the barren, rocky land, across which an unsurfaced road ran out of sight. Nothing, that was, but three small aircraft beneath a raffia roof supported by corner posts. He stared at them for a moment, then climbed down the ladder and walked back to the door through which he had just come. Seeing a big brass bell-push, he placed his finger on it. Somewhere a long way off he could hear the reverberation of sound. He rang for much longer than was necessary before he took his finger away.

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