Sexton Blake sat at the desk of his office in Berkeley Square and stirred his mid-morning coffee with an abstracted, thoughtful expression on his lean, incisive face.
In one hand he held the latest edition of the Daily Post and the puckered frown of his dark, satanic eyebrows was focussed on a front page article headed:
TERRORISM INCREASES IN MALIBA
PRESIDENT NONALES TO SEEK US AID
The Rebel Army of Juan Callas last night struck a new blow at the Government of the trouble-torn island of Maliba, where a party of the "People's Commandoes" pulled off a well-planned raid on the Carabanos Army garrison, only a few miles from the Carabanos Army garrison, only a few miles from the capital of this latest Caribbean trouble spot. Charles Fleming reports:
A spokesman of the island's government said tonight: "This is the fifth successful raid by subversive infiltrators this month. In view of these increasing outrages, the President, Doctor Nonales, is to consult with American representatives with a view to seeking US aid to defend our national sovereignty."
The spokesman claimed that this latest attack, like others preceding it, was communist-inspired and accuses Cuba of interfering in Maliba's domestic affairs.
After the attack tonight the city lay under the an uneasy silence and the streets were deserted except for the rumbling of army tanks as security forces patrolled the capitol...
Blake's eyes ran to the bottom of the column where it said: "See pictures on page 3. More about Maliba in Around and About, p. 6."
Blake frowned thoughtfully and turned to page six.
Around and About was the column written and compiled by his old friend Arthur "Splash" Kirby, one of the Post's top journalists.
The column ran along usual lines. Blake swiftly scanned through reports of social gossip and bright observations on London life before coming to the sub-heading which read:
From the latest Caribbean trouble-spot of Maliba comes this report on the latest events in the life of the famous "boy-professor" and marine biologist Hoddard Curtis. Curtis is the man who perfected a new kind of bathsphere in the United States some months ago.
Two of the professor's assistants took the bathysphere out for a joy-ride in the deep, yesterday morning -- while Professor Curtis was away on a trip to Florida. Although they hadn't their boss's permission to use the deep-sea sub, they thought that a quick trip to the ocean-bed and back would do no harm.
Just how wrong they were is shown by the fact that they failed to come back.
Investigating the loss of his bathysphere, Curtis risked his life in an untested deep-sea diving suit and located his brain child more than a thousand feet down.
Then came shock number two for the young professor. When he shone his under-sea torch through the port-hole of the bathysphere, one of its two occupants had disappeared -- leaving the other with a knife in his back!
Experts agree that no-one could escape alive from the bathysphere at even half the depth.
How one man came to be stabbed in the back and the other spirited away, presents a mystery worthy of a Holmes or a Blake.
Maliban authorities have so far refused to comment, and in view of the blanket of silence our diplomatic correspondant points out that a political motive might well be involved.
Sexton Blake allowed himself a brief smile at the reference to himself, but as he came to the end of the article his smile became a puzzled frown.
For a moment his fingers drummed thoughtfully on the top of his desk. Then he picked up the telephone.
The company's telephonist and receptionist, Marion Lang, came on the line.
"Yes, Mr. Blake?"
"Marion, get me splash Splash Kirby's office at the Post, will you?"
"Right away, Mr Blake!"
Blake replaced the receiver on its cradle and glanced up as his secretary came in.
Paula Dane was the epitome of everything the perfect secretary should be -- and more.
She was tall, sophisticated and extremely beautiful.
The blue, summer dress she was wearing had a wide skirt which swayed gently from the hips of her fine, well-moulded figure as she walked.
Her well-groomed, honey-blonde hair glowed softly in the morning sunlight, and the scent of fresh lavender came in with her as she entered the office.
Deep, the china-blue eyes studied Blake with an air of expectancy: "Ready to dictate?"
Before Blake could answer the telephone rang. He nodded to Paula to take the chair beside his desk, and scooped up the receiver. "Hello?"
"Kirby here," came the bright, breezy voice of the columnist. "What's the problem, sleuth?"
"Good morning, Splash," said Blake. "Listen, I've just been reading your item on Maliba--"
"Ah! The bathysphere mystery? I thought that would hook you? Have you solved it yet?"
"No, I haven't," Blake grinned. "I'd like some more information..."
"Shoot," Kirby invited.
"Why did you write it?" Blake asked.
There was a pause. "What's the matter? Don't you like it?"
"On the contrary," Blake smiled. "I'm fascinated by it. But by the same token, so will millions of other readers. I mean, why wasn't it handled by the news boys? This is front page material isn't it?"
Kirby paused again. "You've asked the million dollar question. You're right of cause, and we all agree -- but the problem is the story's reliability. Our man in Maliba is having his trouble getting his stuff through. The police hamper him at every stage. There's a lot of unofficial censorship going on and we haven't been able to get confirmation."
"Why the censorship?" Blake asked.
"I don't know," Kirby admitted. "It's hard to see how this can have a political angle -- but presumably it must have. As soon as we get confirmation we'll make a bigger story of it, but in the meantime the Editor's playing safe, and gave it to me to handle as a piece of harmless gossip."
"So you know nothing else about it?"
"Not a thing, old chap! I had to pad it out as it was. As soon as I have any more facts. I'll let you know. Okay?"
"Okay, Splash." Blake thanked him and hung up.
He turned to his secretary, glancing at the notebook, which she held poised above her knee.
"What's on the programme?" he asked.
"A letter to the solicitors and one to Acme Life and Property about last month's fake-suicide investigation."
"Can they wait until this afternoon?"
"I can handle them by myself if you're busy," Paula suggested. "But your next appointment isn't until eleven when Sir Gordon Sellingham's due to arrive."
"I know," Blake nodded. "I want to see the file on Maliba before he gets here."
"Maliba..." Paula rose and went get the file.
She was back a few moments later with a thin manilla folder which she laid on the desk.
"Why the sudden interest in Maliba, chief? Has Sir Gordon Sellingham got something to do with it?"
"He owns several sugar refineries there," Blake replied.
"Is that what he wants to see you about?"
"I don't know yet. But I imagine he must be worried about them. If he isn't he ought to be. Anyway, I'll go through these cuttings until he arrives. Show him in as soon as he gets here, will you?"
"All right," said Paula, "and I'll handle those letter myself." She whisked elegantly from the office.
Twenty minutes later there was a discreet tap on the door and Paula stepped in, followed by a tall man who stooped slightly and carried a briefcase.
He was unnaturally pink -- a striking feature, since he was far from being fat. His face was as pink and blank as one of his own famous cheques.
He wore pince-nez and was quite bald, with a pink, shiny scalp. The hands which held the briefcase and an expensive looking hat were also pink.
Blake half-expected the man's clothes to be pink, but they weren't. They were sombre, charcoal grey.
"Sir Gordon Sellingham, Mr. Blake," Paula Dane said formally.
Blake rose and shook hands over the desk. "Sit down, Sir Gordon."
Sir Gordon Sellingham dumped himself into one of Blake's comfortable chairs.
"Thank you," he said in a surprisingly deep and throaty voice.
Blake opened his monographed silver cigarette box and offered it to the millionaire.
"I've got a case for you, Mr. Blake," he announced as he leaned forward to take a light.
Blake allowed himself a faint smile. "You'll appreciate that I don't accept every case that is brought to me..."
"You'll accept this one!" Sellingham said firmly. "I've studied your reputation; I can promise you this has all the ingredients to interest you!"
Blake smiled again. "Tell me about it."
"I want to to undertake a highly confidential investigation, Mr. Blake," said Sellingham. "It concerns large sums of money, the life of a man... and a new troublespot in the cold war."
"Maliba?" suggested Blake.
Sellingham looked momentarily deflated. "Yes, Maliba," he grunted.
"That's a promising start," Blake admitted. "Perhaps you'd like to fill in some details."
"Well," Sellingham said seriously, "this all hinges on the current political set-up in the Caribbean. You know, I suppose, that I own a great deal of the Maliban sugar industry?"
"I've read as much."
"Well the situation in Maliba is this: Doctor Nonales, the President, is the head of a corrupt administration, mainly made up of ex-army officers. The police are more or less synonymous with the army. Crooked as cork-screws, the lot of 'em!"
"They sound as though they deserve to be deposed," Blake said larconically.
Sellingham shook his head. "You'd think so -- but it's just where you're wrong. If the rebels got into power with their high-flown ideologies the country will be paralysed. Everything will grind to a standstill. That country runs on corruption. You can't take away a hundred-year tradition of corruption without bringing the machinery to a halt -- any more than you can take away the ball-bearings of a centrifuge in a sugar refinery."
"Is this your personal opinion?" Blake asked.
"Personal opinion? Great heaven's, no! It's common knowledge. Ask anyone out there -- corruption is the only way you can get anything done! Industry thrives on it!"
Blake sighed. "Go on."
"I'm not a man to mince words, Mr. Blake. The position as it stands is favourable to me. I don't want to see it changed. If Juan Callas -- the rebel leader -- gets into power, there'll be a repitition of the Castro business in Cuba."
"You're worried about the rumours of communist infiltration?" Blake asked.
Sellingham shrugged. "Nonales says the rebels are getting finance from the communists -- and if it's true my refineries are as good as gone!"
Blake frowned. "This is all very well, Sir Gordon, but so far there's been no real evidence that the communists are behind this particular revolution."
"Maybe not," Sellingham said grudgingly. "But I don't intend to take any risks. I want to know what's going on out there!"
Blake was silent for a moment. Sellingham's "case" appeared to amount to nothing more than a nebulous request for information.
The detective frowned. "I believe you mentioned that a man's life is in danger?"
Sellingham pursed his lips, and something like embarressment turned his face a shade pinker.
"It's my son. My son Peter. That young idiot will be the ruin of me. I'm already a laughing stock in the City over this! I should have never sent him to Oxford. He's been living in cloud-cuckoo land ever since he graduated."
Blake's brow puckered. "I don't quite understand..."
Sellingham said tiredly, "My son Peter has got a headful of liberal ideas. But what's worse, he's got a bankful of money. And at this moment he's somewhere in Maliba spending it on guns for the rebels!"
"Your son isn't a communist, surely?" Blake's eyebrows arched.
"The young idiot doesn't know what he is!" snapped Sir Gordon Sellingham. "But the Communist movement has had the reason to be grateful for his cheque book before now! This is just one hobby horse in a long line of silly frivolities. A year ago he financed a movement for banning H-bombs. Before that it was a movement that ran about denouncing all my life-long friends as Fascists. Before that..."
Sellingham's voice tailed off in exasperation: "I want him brought back to England before he ruins me! I may not be able to do anything about the rebels -- but I'm certainly not going to stand idle while my own flesh and blood helps them steal my fortune. I'm going to stop that young fool giving them money!"
Blake said quietly: "Can't you simply cut off your son's allowance?"
"I did that year's ago!" said Sellingham. "But he still has half a million that he inherited from his mother."
"I see..." Blake was thoughtful. The position was becoming clear at last. Sellingham wanted him to go to Maliba and virtually kidnap his wayward son. The job really wasn't to Blake's taste.
With another frown he said: "What makes you think your son's life is in danger? Merely that he's playing with political dynamite?"
"No," Sellingham grunted sourly. "It's gone beyond that. He's disappeared. No-one's seem him or heard of him for days. My people out there have been keeping a close eye on him but he's vanished into the blue!"
The millionaire pulled sharply on his cigarette. "I can't make too much noise about it -- otherwise the rebels will be on to me like a ton of bricks -- 'CAPITALIST INTERFERES IN MALIBAN DOMESTIC AFFAIRS!' -- they'd have it on every front page in Latin America."
"So what you really want me to do is go to Maliba and make some discreet inquiries to find your son?"
"And bring him back!" Sellingham added firmly. "By force if needs be."
Blake smiled thinly. "I'm an investigator, Sir Gordon -- but I'm not a strong-arm man. Your son is presumably over twenty-one. I can hardly kidnap him..."
"Look--" Sellingham interrupted, "--all I want you to do is save his life! Even if he isn't already dead, he's caught between two fires. Either Nonales will rumble what he's up to and have him quietly rubbed out as a spy -- or the rebels will bump him off as soon as he's served their purpose. They'll hardly want to be associated with the son of a capitalist when the time comes for handing out medals!"
"I see what you mean," Blake said noncommittally. He was thinking hard.
"Will you take the case, then?"
"I shall have to give it some thought. Can I phone you back later and let you know?"
Sellingham rose to his feet. "I'm confident you'll make the right decision, Blake. You've been spoken very highly of, and I know you're the man for this job. Good day!"
He shook hands firmly, turned and marched from the office.
Blake sat back in his chair, smoking.
Young Peter Sellingham's life was certainly in danger if he was meddling in subversive activities, there was no denying that.
A trip to Maliba was a temptation, too, for it promised to be interesting.
A revolution was brewing, and in addition there was the stranger item -- the mystery of the bathysphere.
He was thinking hard as he turned once more to study the file on Maliba...