FACE VALUE: A STORY OF THE WORLD-FAMOUS DETECTIVE
by Eric Fayne ©
"Can I trouble you a moment, Mr Blake?"
Sexton Blake looked up with a pleasant smile as the manager of the Greyhound peered into his room. The detective had been spending a brief fishing holiday at this comfortable riverside hotel at Marlow, and he was on the most cordial of terms with the portly manager and his staff. Blake was reading his correspondence when the man put his head round the door, but he dropped the letters on one side and waved a hand in welcome.
"Come in, Mr Moss."
The manager entered the room and closed the door behind him. There was a slightly worried expression on his plump face, which Blake noted.
"Could I ask your advice, Mr Blake? It may be nothing - it probably is - but still—"
Blake indicated a chair, but Mr Moss shook his head.
"I won't sit down, sir. It's just about a young fellow who signed in here late last night. The American gentleman. I'm a bit worried about him.”
"Would that be the youngster who was talking so loudly and volubly in the dining room at breakfast? I thought he was a newcomer."
"That's the feller, sir. He doesn't look much more than a boy, but he's twenty-three. Been in the American Air Force — or so he says. He rang up last night about ten o'clock and asked for a single room. I'm never very happy about receiving new guests as late as that, but he said he had just arrived in Marlow from the States. He had an American accent—"
' "An accent you could cut with a knife!" remarked Blake.
"Quite so, sir! At any rate I told him we could accommodate him, and he turned up about twenty minutes later — on foot."
Blake raised his eyebrows.
"No taxi? What about his luggage?"
"That's the point, sir. My porter informed me that the new guest had brought no luggage, so I made it my business to go up to his room. I saw the young man — I found him pleasant, well-dressed, and very American — but all he had in his possession was a small brown paper parcel. It seemed irregular, but he paid me in advance for three days' accommodation. When I enquired about his luggage he said it had been delayed at Plymouth when he caught the boat train to London."
Blake rubbed his chin thoughtfully.
"It might be true," he commented. "I only observed him superficially this morning, though his accent struck me as rather overstressed at times. At any rate, you're on the right side if he has paid in advance for three days. Don't let him run up a bill."
The manager shifted uneasily.
"I certainly shan't, sir, but that isn't all. He went out about five minutes ago, and I was a bit curious about him. I went up to his room to see if I could find out what he carried in the parcel. I was astonished, Mr Blake! His only personal possessions are a coat-hanger, a china ornament, and a copy of yesterday's Daily Telegraph. No pyjamas, no shaving gear, no raincoat, no nothing—"
Blake whistled softly.
"Travels light, doesn't he? A bit odd, certainly, Mr Moss. How did he sign the register?"
"Would you come and look at it, sir?" asked Mr Moss, diffidently.
Down in the vestibule Blake scrutinised the hotel register. The young man's signature was scrawled; Marlon Varro; 1954 Beverly Square, San Francisco, U.S.A.
The detective turned to the manager who stood watching him.
"I should imagine that your new guest is something of a phoney, Mr Moss, though there may be no ulterior motive. No cause for alarm, probably."
Mr Moss said, in a low voice:
"Do you think he could be a deserter from the army, on the run — or some criminal escaped from prison?'
Blake smiled faintly.
"If the young man is still out, I should like to have a look at his room, Mr Moss."
A few minutes later Blake and the manager were in the comfortable bedroom which had been allotted to the mysterious new visitor at the Greyhound. A quick look round showed Blake that what Mr Moss said was true. The only personal possessions of Mr Marlon Varro were three in number — a china ornament of a prancing horse, which stood on the table beside the bed, a coat-hanger constructed of wood and wire, and a copy of yesterday's Daily Telegraph.
Blake turned over the ornament. It was ugly in its tawdry cheapness. He examined the innocuous coat-hanger. In the corner of the article, printed in pencil on the wood, was the word COATES.
"I saw that!" volunteered the manager. "Doesn't spell very well, does he?"
"Why should anyone want to print coats on a coat-hanger, in any case?" murmured Blake.
He picked up the newspaper which was lying on the dressing table. Written on the top corner, obviously by a newsagent, was the address: 6 Lime Gardens. Blake replaced the paper as he had found it,
"Is there a Lime Gardens in Marlow?" he enquired of the manager. Mr Moss scratched his head.
"Maybe, sir. There's a Lime Avenue, I know, just off Riverclose Road. What do you make of all this, Mr Blake?"
Blake shook his head.
"Not much, at the moment. There's something a bit odd certainly, and I can only advise you not to give this young man any credit. It may all be harmless. Can you put Mr Marion Varro at my table for lunch?"
Mr Moss eyed him doubtfully.
"I daresay we can think of some excuse to put him, there, Mr Blake, if you don't mind having him with you. Do you think you can find out something about him?"
Blake smiled, without replying.
The detective had started his soup when Mr Marlon Varro entered the dining room, and the head waiter immediately ushered the young man to Blake's table.
"We have a couple of tables out of use this morning, Mr Blake," said the waiter. "Would you mind if Mr Varro joined you?"
"A pleasure!" said Sexton Blake politely.
Marion Varro seated himself. Well-dressed, rather handsome, and youthful, Mr Varro soon engaged in conversation and was chattering away about himself. Unobtrusively, Blake was watching him as he rattled on. He was twenty-three years of age, he had served in the American Air Force, and had been awarded a medal.
"My kite came a purler, so they sent me to this li'l ole country for a vaycation. Mighty good of them, considering I smashed up their kite!" he informed Blake.
Blake agreed, obviously much impressed.
"I believe the management of the hotel wondered at your arriving here without luggage," he observed, casually.
"Sure, I reckon they did," chuckled Mr Varro. "But it would be unusual to cross the pond with a stack of trunks under your nose, wouldn't it? A guy doesn't travel around with a lot of gear in each hand."
It occurred to Blake that it was just as unusual to arrive at an hotel with nothing but an ornament, a coat-hanger, and an old newspaper, but he did not say so. He let the loquacious Mr Varro chatter on.
When coffee was brought, Mr Varro produced a red packet of Fifth Avenue cigarettes. He shook one out of the corner of the packet and Blake accepted it. Both lit up, and Mr Varro went on talking.
Mr Varro was a much-travelled young man.
He had been in every corner of the world in his twenty-three years, and his father was an important official in the American Embassy in Ceylon.
"You know Ceylon well?" queried Blake, with interest.
"Like the back of my hand!" said Mr Varro heartily.
"Then you'll be interested in this," remarked Blake. He drew his wallet from his pocket and extracted a photograph. The picture, taken earlier in the year, showed Tinker and himself standing under an immense archway over which was printed in ornamental letters "Tiger Balm Garden." Palm-trees and a seascape formed an attractive background.
"Ye gods, yes!" ejaculated Mr Varro. "Not very far from the American Embassy, this place! Many an hour my old man and I have spent here. So you've been around, too, Mr Blake?"
"Here and there," admitted Blake.
That afternoon Sexton Blake visited Lime Gardens, which he found to be a turning off Lime Avenue. It was a pleasant neighbourhood of largish, semi-detached houses. The homes of people who were moderately well-to-do, Blake decided.
He knocked at the door of No. 6, but there was no response. He rang the bell and knocked again but the interior of the house remained silent. Frowning slightly, Blake went to the adjoining house, where his ring was answered immediately. A tall, middle-aged woman opened the door, and Blake raised his hat.
"Excuse me, madam," he said. "I wonder if you could tell me who lives next door at number six? I have a message for the occupant, but can get no reply."
"I see!" The woman regarded him doubtfully. "Mrs Coates will be at home, but she rests in the afternoon. You would probably get an answer if you came back about four."
"Thank you, I will do that," said Blake courteously. "Would Mr Coates be at home then, do you think?"
The woman's look became suspicious.
"If you're just selling washing-machines—"
"I assure you I'm not selling anything, madam. Something has been found bearing Mrs Coates's name, and I am anxious to return it to her, that is all."
"Oh, you're from the police!" Her brow cleared. "There isn't a Mr Coates. Her husband has been dead many years. Mrs Coates lives quite alone."
"Is that so?" Blake nodded. "Do you happen to know whether Mrs Coates has had any male visitor recently?"
"Male visitor!" The woman bridled. "Most unlikely, I should think. Mrs Coates has a middle-aged son who lives in Cornwall, but his visits are very few and far between."
Sexton Blake spent the next hour in sauntering in the neighbourhood. For a time he strolled round in a large fairground near Lime Avenue — there was nothing of the snob in Blake's make-up. There was not a lot to see, however. The main activity of the fair would occur in the evening. By four o'clock he was back at No. 6. This time, after he had knocked twice, the door was opened. An elderly woman, frail and white-haired, stood on the threshold, eyeing him.
"Mrs Coates?" queried Blake.
"I am Mrs Coates. Can I help you?"
It was the voice of a gentlewoman. Blake assessed her age as well over seventy.
"There are one or two things I wish to ask you, Mrs Coates."
"Yes? Excuse my not asking you in. I live alone, you see."
"I have no wish to come in." The detective spoke pleasantly. "Do you happen to know a young man named Marion Varro?"
The elderly woman shook her head decidedly.
"A young man who says he is twenty-three years of age, but looks younger," persisted Blake, "Medium height, fair, rather nice-looking—"
The elderly woman shook her head. Her mild eyes were troubled. "I have no acquaintance with anyone like that."
Blake regarded her thoughtfully.
"Last night, Mrs Coates, a young man calling himself Marlon Varro, and claiming to have arrived recently from America, registered at the Greyhound Hotel. He had no luggage, and the only items in his possession were a china ornament of a horse, a coat-hanger bearing the name Coates, and a newspaper with your address pencilled in the corner. It seemed to suggest that Mr Varro had been here."
"Quite a mistake!" said Mrs Coates firmly.
"Do you happen to have lost an ornament or a coat-hanger, madam?"
For the first time, a smile curved the old woman's lips.
"I have no ornaments, and I haven't lost a thing. It is nothing to do with me, I assure you. Good afternoon."
Blake turned away. At the gate, he looked back. The front door was closed.
Back at the Greyhound, Blake left a message at the reception desk, asking Mr Varro to visit him in his room when he, Varro, returned to the hotel. It was nearly six before a tap came at his door, and Mr Varro looked in. The handsome young man was smiling.
"They said you wanted to see me, Mr Blake." The American drawl was very pronounced.
Blake nodded. He lay back in his chair and lit his pipe.
"Come in. Close the door. I thought we could continue our jolly chat that we started over the lunch table."
Marion Varro came in. He sat down opposite the detective, and lit a Fifth Avenue cigarette.
"This is mighty good of you, sir," said Mr Varro.
"The pleasure is mine," replied the detective. "I think we might get better acquainted. You know me as Mr Blake, but my full name is Sexton Blake. Does that mean anything to you?"
An alert gleam shot into the youngster's eyes.
"Sexton Blake — the private dick? Well, what a surprise!"
"I thought it might be," Blake said dryly. "So now you know that my name is Sexton Blake, while I know that your name is not Marion Varro."
The young man sat bolt upright.
"You're a liar!" he said angrily.
"Then a fellow feeling should make us wondrous kind," said Blake politely. "Your name is Coates."
The youngster rose, but Blake was ready for him. The detective crossed the room, and stood with his back to the door.
"You're not going yet, Mr Coates."
"My name isn't Coates!"
"I've been talking to a lady, who, from your facial resemblance to her, is your grandmother," murmured Blake.
"With a grunt the youngster sat down on the side of Blake's bed. He stared resentfully at the detective.
"Did she tell you about the raincoat? She bought it for me. She gave £12 for it, but she wouldn't give me any money. Usually she will, but yesterday she was hard as nails."
Blake looked stern. He said: "What's your christian name?"
Coates shrugged his shoulders "Vernon!"
"How old are you?"
"Seventeen — all but a month."
"You've run away from school?"
Vernon Coates grinned sheepishly.
"I left school three months ago. My parents find me a nuisance — they're only interested in one another — and I hate the sight of them. I ran away from home as soon as I finished with school. I got to London and took a job as a waiter. I've been doing well, but money goes like water. Only Gran knew where I was. I told her. She wouldn't give me away to the old folks at home. Besides, I can usually get her to cough up a bit of cash. She's got plenty."
Blake refilled his pipe and lit it again, watching the young fellow shrewdly as he did so. Then he said:
"I'll tell you what I think you did yesterday, Vernon Coates. You visited your grandmother at Lime Gardens. She welcomed you, I daresay, but she refused to give you any more money. You took from a wardrobe the raincoat which she had bought you, with the coat-hanger still in it. You packed it up in brown paper, with or without her knowledge. You carried this parcel, and also her daily newspaper, when you left her last evening, promising, maybe, to go back to your parents or to return to your job as a waiter in London.
"But on your way to the station you saw a fairground. You stopped at the fair. You spent some considerable time there. You won an ornament at one of the sideshows. You sold your raincoat for a few pounds to one of the loafers there who had an eye for a bargain. You used the brown paper to wrap up the ornament and the now redundant coathanger. You retained the newspaper which you had brought away from your grandmother's house. It was getting late, you had money in your pocket, and you decided to stay for a few days at this very comfortable hotel. So you rang up the hotel.
"That may be incorrect in a minor detail or two, but, broadly speaking, it covers your activities last evening, doesn't it?"
"How did the old girl know all that?" he demanded.
"She didn't! She denied all knowledge of the affair. She wasn't anxious about your welfare, though — she took that for granted — which shows me that similar things have happened before in your life story."
Blake gave a hard smile as he noted the look of surprised incredulity on the other's face. "You forget that I'm a detective. It's my business to find things out."
A sneer was twisting the boy's lips.
"And what now, Mr Private Eye?"
"Now, Mr Vernon Coates, you will give me the name and address of your parents, and I shall communicate with them."
"Not on your Nellie!" said Mr Coates.
"If you don't," said Sexton Blake gently, "I shall ring the police, and detain you here till they arrive to take you into custody."
For a moment Vernon Coates glared resentfully; then his face crumpled into a resigned grin. He produced a card from his pocket.
"That's the old man's telephone number," he said, handing it to Blake, "Tell me, Private Eye, how did you come to smell a rat?"
Blake took the card and glanced at it. It bore a Bodmin address.
"Several things, Mr Coates, several things. Your accent, for instance. Broad Yankee when you were careful, broad English west country when you were careless. Your name was a trifle too Hollywoodish to be genuine. You made an elaborate display of smoking Fifth Avenue cigarettes, which sound and look American but are actually manufactured and sold in this country by the firm of Abdullah. You signed the register with a number of nearly two thousand, Something Square. Even in the States, a square is unlikely to run to two thousand street numbers."
"Neat, very neat!" said Vernon Coates appreciatively.
"And," added Blake, "you claimed to have been all over the world, and you recognized the Tiger Balm Garden of Singapore as being near the American Embassy in Ceylon. Do you wonder I thought you odd?"
"We learn from experience," said Mr Coates urbanely. "I'll do better next time."
Some six months later Blake was dining with Tinker at the Savoy Hotel in London. They were enjoying an excellent meal and had reached the cheese and biscuits stage when Blake became aware of animated chatter from a table close by.
A young man wearing a smart dinner jacket sat with his back to Blake and Tinker. His companions were two middle-aged ladies, both expensively attired. The young men was doing most of the talking, and something in the tone of his voice touched a chord in Blake's memory.
"So that's how I won my decoration," the young man was saying. "It was nothing, really. I don't know why my colonel thought so highly of what I had done."
"I think you Canadian Mounties are wonderful," said one of the ladies with something like a sigh. "You're too modest, Mr St. Leger. I'm proud to have met a young man who could do something so brave. I should like you to meet all my friends."
She put out a heavily be-ringed hand, and touched him almost reverently on the arm.
The young men laughed pleasantly. He spoke in a slow American drawl.
"You're spoiling me, Mrs Murgatroyd. You mustn't give me a swollen head to take back with me to the Rockies. We Mounties just do our job. If it's dangerous at times, well, it's all in the day's work. We're a happy crowd."
"I think you're a hero — a real hero!" said the second lady emphatically.
"I shall never forget this evening, and I am so glad you were able to spare the time to be our guest."
"You're too kind!" said the young man.
"Mr St. Leger," said the first lady soulfully, "I have a favour to ask. I would dearly value a photograph of you in your Mountie uniform."
"I'll remember that!" promised Mr St. Leger. "Just as soon as I get back to the Rockies I'll look one out for you and mail it to you pronto. Gee, I guess I'll have a picture specially taken for you."
Tinker was regarding Sexton Blake with interest, watching the changing expressions on his chief's face.
"Do you know that young hero?" he enquired in a low voice.
Blake smiled wryly.
"We have met!" he said.
As Blake and Tinker left their table, they heard the trans-Atlantic drawl of Mr St. Leger.
"In the Mounties a man learns to be tough, Mrs Murgatroyd. It's no good being chicken when it comes to shooting the rapids—"
Vernon Coates was on his travels again.