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Authors: Leslie Charteris

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Chief Inspector Teal’s
ruminant jaws continued their
monotonous mastication. The
logic of the Saint’s argument
was irrefutable, but there
was in Mr Teal an ineradicable
scepticism, founded on
years of bitter disappointment, that
fought obstinately
against the premises from which that
logic took its
flying start. The Saint might for once be
telling
the truth, but there had been many other occasions when he had been no less
plausible when he was lying. All
of Mr Teal’s prejudices
fought back from the dead end
to which credulity
inevitably led.

“That’s all very
well,” he said doggedly. “But you’re still
working
on something. And when did you stop thinking
about
money? Suppose you get this evidence—what’s going
to
happen?”

“I wouldn’t turn it
over to you. I don’t imagine it would
help you. I only
want it to make perfectly sure—to find
out
just how much there is behind this racket. I could deal
with Luker and Company today without it. Mind you I
don’t want to put any ideas into your head, although there
must be lots of room for them, but if Luker for instance
should meet with a minor accident, such as falling off the
roof of his house into Grosvenor Square——

The telephone bell rang
while the Saint was speaking.

He went over and picked it
up while Teal watched him
with broody eyes.

Simon said
“Hullo,” and then his eyebrows lifted. He
said:
“Speaking… . Yes… . Yes… . Yes… .”

Darkness gathered on Teal’s
face. Something leaden crept
into his light blue eyes, like clear skies
filling with thunder.
Sudden brilliance
flashed across them like the snap of light
ning as a storm breaks. He came out of his chair like a
whale breaking the surface. Surprisingly quick for
his adi
pose dimensions, he plunged
across the intervening space
and
snatched the phone out of Simon’s hand.

“Hullo!” he
bawled. “Chief Inspector Teal speaking.
.
. . No, that wasn’t me before… . Never mind that,
go
on… .
What? … What’s that? … Yes…
. Yes… .
.”

An indistinguishable mutter
droned on from the receiver,
and as Teal listened to it
his cherubic round face grew hard and strained. His eyes stayed fixed upon the
Saint, hot and
jagged with a seethe of violent emotions of which the most
accurately identifiable one was wrath rising to the
tempera
ture of incandescence. His
mouth was a clenched trap in the lurid mauve of his face, which now and again
opened just
sufficiently to eject a
sizzling monosyllable like a blob of
molten
quartz.

“All right,” he
bit out at last. “Stay there. I’ll be round
presently.”

He slammed the instrument
back on its bracket and stood
glaring at the Saint like a
gorilla that has just got up from
sitting down on a
drawing pin.

“Well?” he
snarled. “Let’s hear what you’ve got to say
about
that.”

“What have I got to
say?” Simon’s voice was the honey
of
spotless innocence. “Well, Claud, since you ask me, it
does seem to me that if you’re going to turn this place
into a club and tell your low friends to ring you up here
you oughtn’t to mind my having a bit of fun out of——

“I’ll see that you get
your fun!
 
So you thought you were taking
me in with all that slop you were giving me. You’ve
been
… You’re …”

“You’re getting
incoherent, Claud. Take a deep breath
and speak from the
diaphragm.”

Chief Inspector Teal took
the deep breath, but it came
out again like an
explosion of compressed air.

“You heard enough on
the telephone——

“But I didn’t. It just
looked like getting interesting when
you so rudely
snatched it away. Apparently one of your minions had been out trying to
persecute somebody who
wasn’t at home.”

“I sent a man round
to interview Lady Valerie Wood
chester,” said Mr
Teal, speaking like a locomotive ascending
a
steep gradient. “I thought she might know more than
she’d told anyone. No, she wasn’t at home. But her maid
was, and she’d already been wondering whether she ought to call the
police. Apparently Lady Valerie went out last
night
and didn’t come back. When the maid came in this
morning,
her bed hadn’t been slept in, but the whole flat had been turned inside out and
there were pieces of rope
and sticking plaster on
the floor as if someone had been tied up. It looks exactly as if she’d been
kidnapped—and if she has been I’ll know who did it!”

The Saint had sat down
again on the edge of the table.
He came off it as if it
had turned red hot under him.

“What!” he
exclaimed in horrified amazement. “My
God,
if anything’s happened to her——

“You know damn well
what’s happened to her!” Teal’s
voice was thick with
the rage of disillusion. “You’ve
told me enough to
make that obvious. That’s why you were so sure I couldn’t get her information!
Well, you’re wrong
this time. I’m going to see that you’re
taken care of till we
find her.”
Unconsciously Teal drew himself up, as he had
done in those circumstances
before, if he could only have
remembered, so
many fruitless times. “I shall take you into
custody——

Perhaps after all, as Mr
Teal had so often been driven
to believe in his more
despondent moments, there was some
fateful interdiction
against his ever being permitted to com
plete
that favourite sentence. At any rate, this was not the
historic occasion on
which completion was destined to be
achieved.
The sound of a bell cut him off in mid-flight, like a gong freezing a
prizefighter poised for a knockout punch.

This time it was not the
telephone, but a subdued and decorous trill that belonged unmistakably to the
front door.

Teal looked over his
shoulder at the sound. And as the
Saint started to
move he moved faster.

“You stay here,”
he flung out roughly. “I’ll see who it is.”

Simon sat down again philosophically and
lighted another
cigarette. His first smoke
ring from that new source was
still
on its way to the ceiling when Mr Teal came back.

After him came Mr Algernon
Sidney Fairweather.

2

Mr Fairweather wore a dark
suit with a gold watch
chain looped across the
place where in his youth he might
once have kept his
waist. He carried a light gray Homburg
and
a tightly rolled umbrella with a gold handle. He looked
exactly as if a Rolls Royce had just brought him away from
an important board meeting.

The Saint inspected him
with sober admiration mingled
with cordial surprise; and
neither of those expressions conveyed
one per cent of
what was really going on in his mind.

“Algy,” he said
softly, “what have I done to deserve the
honour
of seeing you darken my proletarian doors?”

“I

er——
Um!” said Mr Fairweather, as if he
had not made up his mind what else to say.
Teal interposed himself between them.
“I was just about to take Mr Templar under arrest,”
he explained grimly.

“You were——
Um! Were you? May I ask what the
charge was, Inspector?”

“I suspect him of
being concerned in kidnapping Lady
Valerie
Woodchester.”

Fairweather started.

“Lady——
” He swallowed. “Kidnapped? But——

“Lady Valerie
Woodchester has disappeared, and her
apartment has been
ransacked,” Teal said solidly. “I’m
glad
you came here, sir. You may be able to give me some
information.
You knew her well, I believe?”

“Er—yes, I suppose I
knew her quite well.”

“Did she ever say
anything to make you think that she
was afraid of
anyone—that she considered herself in any
sort
of danger?”

Fairweather hesitated. He
glanced nervously at the Saint.

“She did mention once
that she was frightened of Mr
Templar,” he affirmed
reluctantly. “But I’m afraid I
didn’t pay much
attention to it at the time. The idea seemed
so——
But you surely don’t think that anything serious
has really happened to her?”

“I know damn well
that something has happened to
her—I don’t know how
serious it is.” Teal turned on the Saint like a congealed cyclone.
“That’s what you’d better
tell me! I might have known
you couldn’t be trusted to tell
the truth for two minutes
together. But you’ve told me too
much already. You told me
that Lady Valerie had some
thing you wanted. Now
she’s disappeared, and her place
has been ransacked. Ralph
Windlay was murdered, and
his flat was ransaked. In
both places someone was looking
for something, and from
what you’ve told me the most
likely person is
you!”

The Saint signed.

“Of course,” he
said patiently. “That’s what they call
Deduction.
That’s what they teach you at the Police Col
lege.
I’m looking for something, and therefore everyone who is looking for something
is me.”

Teal set his teeth. The
suspicions which had been held
in check at the beginning
of the interview were flooding
back on him with the overwhelming turbulence of
a typhoon.
In all fairness to Mr Teal it must
be admitted that there
was some
justification for his biassed viewpoint. Mr Teal
could make allowances for coincidence up to a point; but the swift
succession of places and people where and to whom violent things had happened
in close proximity to Simon
Templar’s
presence on the scene was a little too much for
him. And there was the curdling memory of many other
similar coincidences to accelerate the acid
fermentation
of Mr Teal’s
misanthropic conclusions. The congenital run
away tendencies of his spleen were aggravated by the recol
lection of his own recent guilelessness.

“Lady Valerie didn’t
stay with you very long last night,”
he
rapped. “Why did she leave you so early?”

“She was tired,”
said the Saint.

“Had you quarrelled
with her?”

“Bitterly. I may be
old fashioned, Claud, but one thing
I will not allow
anybody to do is to be rude about my
friends. They may
have figures like sacks of dough and
faces like giant
tomatoes, but beauty is only skin deep and
kind
hearts are more than coronets and all that sort of
thing,
and just because a bloke is a policeman is no reason
why
any girl should make fun of him. That’s what I told
her.
I said: ‘Look here, Lady Valerie, just because poor
old
Claud Eustace has fallen arches and a bay window like
the
blunt end of the Normandie——

“Will you shut
up?” roared the detective.

Simon shut up.

Mr Teal took a fresh grip
on his gum.

“Why was Lady Valerie
frightened of you?” he barked.

The Saint did not answer.

“Had you been
threatening her?”

Simon remained mute. He
made helpless clownish
motions with his hands.

The detective’s complexion
was like that of an overripe
prune.

“What the hell’s the
matter with you?” he bayed. “Can’t
you
even talk any more?”

“Of course not,”
said the Saint. “You told me to shut
up.
I am an oyster. Will you have me on the half shell,
or
creamed in white wine?”

Chief Inspector Teal looked
as if he had swallowed a
large live eel. His stomach
appeared to be trying to reject
this refractory diet, and
he seemed to be having difficulty
in keeping it down.
His neck swelled with the fury of the struggle.

BOOK: Prelude for War
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