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THE SHEEP AND THE WOLVES
By Max Afford
BOOK ONE—THE CASKET
“I’VE READ SOMEWHERE,” observed Elizabeth Blackburn, “that the gentleman should always rise when a lady enters the room.”
Jeffery, stretched full length on the couch, reached out and took her fingers. They were warm and soft and faintly sticky. He said casually, “Dame called Edith Post wrote it. Along with something about a lady never perspiring.”
“Then that lady never opened a garden party at Staines on an August afternoon!” Elizabeth freed the hand and dragged at her hat, shaking her head to release the blonde curls. “Darling, you are the complete bottom! At least you might have come with me.”
“Nuts!” grunted Jeffery. “How was the clambake?”
“Rather a wash-out. Endless fuss and only fifty pounds raised.”
“Sounds quite a set-up!” She was clicking her lighter. “To cap everything, when I got outside, I found the Rover had a flat.”
“How did you get back?” Elizabeth Blackburn blew a perfect smoke-ring. “Mr. Stewart-Riggs drove me in his Bentley.”
There was, she noticed, a half-filled liquor bottle partly concealed under the couch. A brittle hardness crept into her tone. “Nobody you know.”
“Just as well.” His mouth twisted. “Sounds another pansy-pants to me.”
It was coming. She knew it was happening again and she strove to keep her voice steady, almost casual when she replied. “As a matter of fact, I’d never met him myself until this afternoon. He’s an acquaintance of Ella Halversham’s—they met in Switzerland just after the war. He’s travelled a lot. Now he’s come to England to settle down. Bought a big estate in Kent—place called Holmedale near Sevenoaks.” She reached for the ash-tray as she added, “He asked me down there.”
“Matey sort of guy, isn’t he?” She gave a hard little smile.
“Darling, Mr. Stewart-Riggs hasn’t the slightest interest in me.”
She rose and crushed out her cigarette, striving to keep the irritation out of her voice. “Aren’t you being just a little childish, Jeffery? Taking a dislike to a person you’ve never seen.”
He muttered. “The jerk attends garden parties—that’s enough for me!” He stood up, swaying a little. “What’s this guy like, anyhow?”
She was reaching for her shoes. Now she looked up. “Know those men of distinction in the whisky ads? That’s Stewart-Riggs to the life. Fiftyish, well-dressed and greying in the polished diplomatic manner.” Something of the old flippancy came back into her tone. “And so very well-bred that our drive home was duller than a choir-girls’ picnic!” She had crossed to him. Now she reached up and tweaked his ear. “Jeffery.”
Moodily he turned.
“I cleared the afternoon mail as I came up.” She tossed four envelopes on to the table and took up the drinks. As she handed one across she noticed he had retrieved the bottle from beneath the couch. She raised her glass. “Here’s to crime!”
He stood with his drink in his hand, not tasting it. “Baby?” At the term, her eyes came up. He went on. “How would you like to see New York again?” He saw her face tighten.
“So that’s the reason you’ve been giving at the seams lately! You’ve still got that she-wolf clawing at your heart.”
He frowned. “Don’t get the meaning.”
She slapped the envelopes together almost irritably. “Who else but Muriel Armarti!”
He said shortly, “You’re on the wrong beam.” He drained his glass and held it, caressing the smooth surface with his fingers. “Muriel Armarti doesn’t figure anywhere in this. That’s all in the past.” He reached out for the bottle and tilted it over his glass. Then, very deliberately, he downed his drink and tossed the empty glass on to a chair.
He was almost to the door when the girl cried out. “Where are you going?”
But she was in front of him, the letters fallen and splayed across the carpet. “Darling, what’s the matter with us?”
Face set, lips compressed, he stared at her without speaking. “We’ve got to have this out,” she said desperately. “Everything will seem all right, just as it was when I first came in. And I think, ‘Thank God, we’re back on the rails again.’ Then suddenly this bickering starts and goes on and on.” Under the black bars of his brows, the glitter had died.
She watched his face relax. “I’ve told you how it is. This place is driving me psycho—I’ve got to get free. Guess I’m not built to stay penned up in an expensive apartment. Some guys maybe, but not me.”
Across his broad back, she could see the material of his coat crushed and wrinkled where he had lain in it all the afternoon. “It doesn’t need a crystal ball to figure what’s gone out of life. I’ll give it to you in one word—excitement!”
She said quietly, “And you expect to find it in New York?”
He wheeled on her. “What do you figure I did in Moratti’s agency? Played kiss-in-the-ring?” It came out before she could check it. “Surely that depended on the sex of your clients!”
He jerked savagely at the curtains and the westerning sun poked a finger into Elizabeth’s hair, turning it pure gold. She stood smoothing her frock over her small neat breasts.
And then she spoke. “I’m sorry I said that, Jeffery.” There was no answer. “But if I you’re sickening for the El Morocco and the view from the Rainbow Room, you’d better get it out of your system pretty soon.” She swallowed something in her throat. “When do you want to leave?”
He turned. “We go together.”
“I told you I didn’t like New York.” She lowered her eyes, avoiding his dark face. “In your present mood, it’s much better if you fly solo.” She hesitated before she asked, “When would you like to go?”
He gave her a glance that was as curt and cold as his reply. “A plane leaves tomorrow afternoon.”
“All right—you’ll be on it.”
“What will you do?”
“Stay with Mother and Dad at Chippingmarle.” Her tone was determinedly casual. “It’s months since I’ve been home.”
A short silence. “Beth,” he began.
But she held up both hands, palms outward. “Let’s not talk about it any more, Jeffery. We’ve made a decision—it isn’t going to do either of us any good to go back on it.” Her eyes were still on the carpet and for the first time she seemed to see the four white rectangles patterned across it. Abruptly she stooped. “Whom do we know staying at the Dorchester?”
She straightened and held out the envelope, a finger underlining the embossed address. She was beginning to tear at the gummed flap when suddenly she paused. “Do you mind?”
“Don’t give it a thought! Muriel Armarti can’t afford to stay at the Dorchester either!” Elizabeth Blackburn said quietly, “All right, Jeffery. Now we’re quits!” She slit the flap and drew out a sheet of furry note paper. It rustled luxuriously when she opened it.
Jeffery took the letter. Attached by clip pin to the top corner was a card. It bore an address: “Fosdyke Museum of Antiquities, 86th West Street, New York City” and beneath it a name—“Otis T. Peterson, Representative.” Under the engraved address of the hotel, the message ran.
“Mr. Otis Peterson would be very grateful if you could call the above address at your earliest convenience. He has a proposition which he thinks may interest you. He also requests that you keep this correspondence in the strictest confidence.”
It was signed—“Henry Lessing, private secretary.” He looked up. “Know anything about this guy Peterson?”
Elizabeth said promptly, “He’s a buyer or a collector for the Fosdyke family. Travels around the world picking up bits and pieces for the museum. That’s why he’s in London—probably trying to bid for the Crown Jewels!”
Jeffery turned the letter over in his fingers. “I wonder if the old bird would be interested in buying a few antiques from this family? A .45 automatic, rusty through disuse, an unused set of brass knuckles and an out-of-date private eye, sound in wind and limb except for a pickled liver!”
“Why not give the secretary a buzz now?”
“And get an assignment routing among the junk stores in Kensington Church Street?”
“Don’t be a fool, Jeff!” She came close to him, looking up and seeing his face etched strongly against the light. “Peterson wouldn’t bother you with anything like that.”
He had crushed out his cigarette and was standing loosely, fingers scraping his jaw, his whole attitude one of irresolution. For just another few minutes his wife hesitated, then she crossed to the telephone. “Why is it I can never remember the number of the Dorchester?”
He said, “No, baby. I’m leaving for the States . . .” But beyond that, he made no movement to restrain her as she picked up the directory and began flicking through the pages.
“There’s all tomorrow morning to put in somehow,” she reminded him. “The plane doesn’t leave until the afternoon.”
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