Sexton Blake spent the night in a police cell. It wasn't the first cell he'd slept in, but that didn't make it any more pleasant. Besides, he had work to do, and every hour he lost could have ominous consequences.
At first the detectives had tried to remonstrate with his captors -- challenging them to prove his guilt. But his repeated demands for an explanation were greeted first with polite evasion and finally with unconcealed indifference.
The police attitude was simple; a man had been found murdered -- and a suspect had been pulled in. In due course the suspect would be tried and executed. The fiction of Maliban justice would be maintained. What more was needed?
Grimly, Blake realised that Captain Tarratona was no more convinced of Blake's guilt than the detective was himself.
But it wasn't simply a case of Blake having been the easiest suspect. In view of earlier events that day, this explanation was too much of a coincidence -- and so was the convenient appearance of a dead body in his car.
Tarratona obviously had another reason.
Worple's death had only been the pretext -- a useful exercise for throwing Blake into jail.
Someone wanted Blake out of the way -- badly. Either Tarratona himself or someone who had a lot of influence at police headquarters!
Someone who had been prepared to frame him on a capital charge -- and commit murder to provide the evidence.
Who was it?
Who was Blake up against?
One thing not in doubt was the person's ruthlessness. Because whoever it was was doing his level best to make Blake's life as difficult as possible.
* * *
It was shortly after dawn when Blake was roused by the sound of a key turning in the lock of his cell door.
The door swung open. Two armed escorts stood there.
Blake rose from the filthy, naked mattress that served as a bed amd stepped out of the cell, eyeing the pair bleakly.
"Do I go to the wall without even the pretense of a trial?" he demanded acidly.
The police guards made no reply except to urge him forward along the corridor. "March! Quickly! Hurry!"
He was hustled out of the cell block and up a narrow flight of stairs.
Suddenly, he realised his whereabouts -- he was in the police headquarters main adminstrative-block directly outside the office of Captain Tarratona himself.
Even as he grasped this, the guard in front opened Tarratona's office door and Blake was marched in.
The freshly-shaven face of the police chief looked up from the desk as he entered.
"Ah, seņor Blake..." A sleepy smile of welcome lit up Tarratona's face. "Please come up and take a seat." He rose and brought a chair forward for the detective, dismissing the two guards with a nod.
"I hope your stay here last night was not too uncomfortable, seņor..." He wore a look of genuine concern.
"Let's cut the comedy," snapped Blake. "What's all this?"
A pained expression spread across the police chief's features. "Seņor, believe me, I apologise for the way you have been treated -- I apologise sincerely! But--" he shrugged massively, "you could have saved yourself all this unnecessary discomfort, if only you had been frank with me in the first place!"
Blake frowned. "Oh?"
"Si, seņor--" Tarratona nodded vigourously. "Why did you not explain that you were looking for the young Englishman, Peter Sellingham? Last night you were seen fraternising with rebels and subversive riff-raff at a notorious den of vice in the filthiest part of the city! We had no reason to account for it, so clearly your behaviour aroused deep suspicion... we were obliged to conclude that you were a subversive infiltrator -- a political agitator -- a communist; the kind of person who would not hesitate to murder an innocent European..."
"You mean you've now changed your mind?" Blake demanded bleakly.
"But of course, seņor! Now the situation has been fully explained!"
"Only yesterday," Blake interrupted harshly, "I took the trouble to come here to you with a special letter of introduction from Sir Gordon Sellingham--"
"Si, si!" exclaimed Tarratona. "But you did not tell us you had been sent here to locate his son! Now I can understand what you were doing in that iniquitous part of the city. Your friend has explained everything!"
"My friend?" Blake frowned suspiciously.
"Se, seņor! The lady who has just arrived to vouch for you and is now waiting for you in her car outside -- Miss Amelia Tucker, Sir Gordon Sellingham's personal representative in Maliba!"
* * *
It was, Blake realised, only to have been expected. As he walked down the stairs, a free man, after leaving Tarratona's office under an effusive shower of apologies, he recalled that Francesca Cardenez had told him she would shortly be seeing Miss Amelia Tucker.
And once Francesca had convinced the English woman of Blake's bona fides, it was only a matter of time before the surprisingly resourceful Miss Tucker could have been expected to take action.
He found the woman waiting in an open car, outside the police headquarters gates.
She greeted him with a smile and opened the door for him.
"Good morning, Mr. Blake! Please get in. I owe you an apology."
Blake got into the car. Amelia Tucker started up the engine and they drove off without a moment's pause.
The woman drove skilfully. Within half a minute she had negotiated the traffic in the centre of town, and they were heading out of Carabanos towards the refinery.
Once on the main road, she threw him an anxious glance and asked: "They didn't treat you badly in there, did they?"
Blake smiled. "I've known worse places."
"I bet you have!" said Amelia Tucker. Then she confessed: "The truth is, I've just realised who you are. You're the Mr. Blake, aren't you? I knew you were a private detective, of course, but knowing Sir Gordon I wasn't sure I could trust you, until the police framed you for that murder last night..."
She gave him another smile: "You see, it's been a rather tricky situation. Sir Gordon is very much in favour of the present corrupt regime, and the kind of detective he'd be expected to send here would be an out-and-out Fascist, by all normal expectations. Obviously I couldn't allow you to locate his missing son if there was any chance you'd try and meddle in the politics here. Things are too delicately balanced. It wasn't until I spoke to Francesca last night that I realised you have your own independant views about the revolution and what we're trying to do here."
She paused for a moment, her eyes on the road: "But then," she continued, "Francesca told me all about you, and it became clear that you really sympathise with us. It was only when we tried to find you, late last night, that we heard you'd been picked up and thrown into the city cooler. Francesca wanted me to come and get you out right away, but I didn't dare..."
She paused for a moment as an army truck roared by, then explained:
"My influence with the police can only last as long as they trust me. If I'd come along right away to get you out they'd have wanted to know how I knew about your arrest, and it might have been awkward because the information came from a rebel informer."
"I'm grateful you got me out when you did," Blake told her warmly.
"It's nice of you to say so," Miss Tucker smiled. "But if I'd used my brains I'd have realised the truth about you much earlier. I'm sorry I was wrong about you."
"Please don't be," said Blake. "The truth is I've been thinking equally nasty things about you."
"You must have had me figured for a communist..." Miss Tucker smiled faintly. "We live in a nasty suspicious world, don't we?"
"It's better than living in a nasty Nonales jail," Blake said grimly. "And I still think you did very well to get me out in less than twenty-four hours."
"No choice," Miss Tucker said tersely. "Once I knew the truth about you I simply had to get you out before the balloon went up. Police Headquarteds is the worst place to be when the shooting starts. I know -- I've see these revolutions before."
"You mean it's imminent?" Blake demanded.
Miss Tucker threw him a mysterious smile. "Did you notice that army truck we just passed?"
Blake nodded. "It was full of troops."
"Nonales has got the wind-up!" the woman grinned. "He's begun pulling his troops into the capital. His time's running out and he knows it!"
"When is H-hour?" Blake asked.
"That," said Miss Tucker, "is a closely guarded secret. But I can promise you it won't be for much longer. The signal will be the assassination of the old swine Nonales himself. When that happens you'll know it's over bar the shouting. Juan Callas will be on the air in minutes telling the population to stay calm -- the Liberation Army will march into the city -- and if everything goes according to plan the government troops will offer only token resistance. We may have to fight for the police station and the palace, but no-one else wants to shed blood for Doctor Nonales."
"Where are we going?" Blake asked.
Again Amelia Tucker threw him a confident smile. "You came to Maliba to find Peter Sellingham, didn't you? Well, I'm going to take you to see him -- at the rebel camp in the hills!"
* * *
A moment later the car reduced speed as the Sellingham sugar refinery loomed up ahead.
"I'm going to call in here first," Miss Tucker explained. "It will give you a chance to clean up, too, if you like. There's a bathroom adjoining my office and I think you'll find an electric razor there."
She drove the car into the Refinery compound and pulled up outside the main block. "I'm going across to the cable centre. If you go up to my office I'll join you in a few minutes. Help yourself to anything you need. If you want a cup of coffee ask one of the girls."
Blake thanked her and went up to her office, grateful for the chance of a wash and brush-up.
He found an electric razor in the bathroom and shaved off his twenty-four hour growth of beard.
A few minutes later one of the girls in the neighbouring office brought him a cup of coffee and some biscuits, and the detective sat down at Amelia Tucker's desk to await her arrival.
Miss Amelia Tucker, he decided, thoughtfully sipping the coffee, was a very remarkable woman. She had a lot of guts and a lot of brains. But above all, she had a lot of nerve, and Blake thought he knew why.
The detective still had a lot of questions to ask the woman -- and one question in particular. But before he asked her there was something he had to check.
Blake reached for the telephone.
He dialled the number of the British Consulate and asked to speak to the Vice-Consul. A moment later Henderson's voice came on: "Blake! Is that you? I've been waiting--"
"This is an open line," Blake cut in warningly. "Just answer my questions. What's the word on my two American friends?"
"Positive," came the reply. "Definately working on your side of the industry."
"And the price-list I gave you?"
"Your London office says negative. Repeat, negative. Trade references won't stand up. Regard it as spurious."
"Got it. Thanks, Henderson." Blake hung up.
He knew then.
In that moment he knew for certain that he'd been right all along.
He knew for certain, and beyond all doubt, that Peter Sellingham was dead!
* * *
Blake was standing by the window when Amelia Tucker entered the office. He did not turn around immediately. He was staring out across the compound of the refinery and was thinking was a marvellous set-up it was.
What a brilliant headquarters.
An island within an island. A state within a state.
It was a classic location -- one for the book. But his admiration would have to wait. Right now he had to ask his question.
Blake turned round and regarded Amelia Tucker with eyes that were cold and hard and blue. With a face that was grim and remorseless and in a voice that was bitterly taut, he asked his question:
"When," he demanded softly, "did you join the Communist Party?"