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Authors: Evelyn Anthony

The Assassin

BOOK: The Assassin
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The Assassin

Evelyn Anthony

1

‘Could you give me the exact time, please? My watch has stopped.'

The desk clerk slid back his cuff, consulted his watch and said, ‘I make it twelve-twenty-five, Signorina Cameron.'

He gave her a warm admiring smile with the information. The Excelsior was the finest hotel in Rome; all its staff were helpful and polite to their rich clients. Being an Italian, the clerk paid the blonde American girl this special compliment because she was beautiful as well. He remembered her last visit eighteen months earlier. Her mother had been with her; the two of them were obviously devoted; unlike many women of her wealth and connections Mrs Cameron was a gentle, courteous person. Everybody liked her at the Excelsior where she had been a regular client for years. They had all been sorry when they read the news of her death in the newspapers.

‘Thank you,' Elizabeth Cameron said. She paused, adjusting her watch. There was an hour before she need start out for the airport. Outside the sun was shining, though the women huddled in fur coats. She had nothing to do but wait in the hotel lobby, and as always before a flight, she was nervous and unable to relax.

‘I'll go for a walk, I think,' she said. ‘It seems a lovely morning.'

The clerk watched her progress across the foyer. She was not very tall but she moved gracefully.

He enjoyed the way she walked, although it lacked the sexiness with which a Roman woman would have crossed the wide lobby to the doors. People were turning to look at her as she passed. They weren't just admiring a beautiful blonde girl in a fabulously expensive sable coat. They were staring after her because she was Huntley Cameron's niece.

Elizabeth stepped outside into the Roman street, and pulled her collar close against the sharpness of the air. It was a lovely morning, crisp and invigorating, the sunlight glittering on the shop windows of the Via Veneto, that most romantic of the city's avenues. She had always loved Rome. It was one of the few capitals where she wasn't so acutely aware of being lonely. It was so beautiful, so much a mixture of the splendid past and the exciting future; it gave the feeling that anything could happen and when it did it would be pleasant. She turned right and began to walk up the incline. Rome was a place that had to be enjoyed on foot, or else in the piratically expensive little carriages, drawn by a single, slow-paced horse. She had been tempted to come back there after her parents died, but it held too many happy memories, memories of her first visit with her mother when she was still a schoolgirl, the discovery of architectural treasures concealed down every narrow street, the overwhelming experience of her first sight of the Vatican. She had even gone there to get over her first and only love affair. It had been her mother's wisdom and sound sense which helped Elizabeth to heal her savaged pride. One lover, one let-down. It was such an ordinary occurrence; perhaps if she hadn't expected so much she would have seen it in proportion. When it began she was old enough to have shed the kind of adolescent illusion which made her mistake an adventure for a love affair. But she had been a fool. A fool to let a man like Peter Mathews seduce her in the first place, and an even bigger fool to be surprised when he took off like a rocket at the mention of marriage. Thinking about it she quickened her walk, impatient with herself. It had been over for nearly four years, and she had not made the same kind of mistake again. It was colder than she realised, and she hurried towards Donis, where she could sit in the warm and play the national game of watching for celebrities to walk by outside. But the place was full; every table held a couple, and suddenly Elizabeth felt conspicuous and uncomfortable being alone. She didn't want to go in and sit by herself. She crossed the street and went on walking. She had been very much alone since she had lost her parents in a hideous plane crash over Mexico City. Her father she had scarcely known and never really loved. He was too much of a Cameron, obsessed by money and under his elder brother Huntley's influence. But her mother had been her refuge, her companion, and her ideal. Without her, Elizabeth had been lost. She had everything and nothing; nothing to fill her life or give it purpose. Was that why, in spite of her initial doubt, she was on her way to the Middle East with a man she didn't really know who wouldn't tell her why they had to go there—was it just boredom, or was it really family feeling for her uncle which was the reason for this journey she was making? Eddi King was a friend of her uncle Huntley there was no complication in their travelling together. Perhaps that had helped her to decide.

She found a small restaurant, half-empty, and went in. She ordered coffee and lit a cigarette. King had asked her out to lunch. She had been a little wary of the invitation. He had never tried to see her on a personal basis before; he was amusing and an old family friend, but she couldn't think of him in any other way without a feeling of distaste. Over their lunch he had set out to make her laugh, gossiping about their friends, easing her into a pliant mood. And that was when he had suddenly told her Huntley Cameron needed her help. He, Eddi King, was going to the Lebanon, to Beirut. He had asked Elizabeth to come with him. She mustn't ask questions, she must go with him and take it all on trust. That was if she really cared about her uncle. King had leaned towards her, no longer playing the lightweight companion of a casual luncheon date. He had looked and sounded so serious that for a moment Elizabeth was frightened.

‘But I can't just go off to the Lebanon without knowing anything about it!' She could remember herself saying that, and the look of surprise he gave her.

‘Why not? If Huntley needs you, can't you just take it on trust? It isn't all that much to ask. To take a trip for a few days. It isn't dangerous or illegal, so you don't have to worry about that. But it will mean a great deal to Huntley. Incidentally, even if you don't come with me, he mustn't know I've asked you. It would ball everything up.'

‘But there's nothing he can't fix,' Elizabeth had protested. ‘He only has to raise a finger …'

‘Not this time,' King answered. ‘This time he has to depend upon his friends. And upon you, my dear. This time he isn't in a position to help himself. I'm leaving next Tuesday. Think it over and call me in the morning.'

Then he had changed the conversation, and nothing she said could make him reopen the subject. ‘Think about it, let me know.' He wouldn't say anything more. After he had dropped her at her apartment on East 53rd Street she had thought about it, as he said. She owed her uncle Huntley a good deal. After the accident he had taken her home to Freemont with him, shielded her from legal responsibilities for her father's huge estate, and offered the use of his complex resources if she felt a trip would help her get over the shock. He hadn't spent any time with her, or offered any personal comfort. But in his way he had been kind. And if she did go, Elizabeth thought suddenly, who was to miss her? What would an impulse journey mean beyond the cancellation of a dinner date with a man recently divorced who was conducting a bored investigation into his old girl friends, a couple of cocktail parties, and a tedious charity gala, of which she was a patron. She could pack now and go, without being missed. Even the terrier she had bought herself in a fit of grinding depression six months earlier had died of distemper in the Fall. She didn't wait till the morning to give King his answer. She called him the same evening and said she had decided to go with him.

Elizabeth looked at her watch and signalled for the bill. King hadn't stayed more than one night at the Excelsior with her. He explained that he had a meeting with a group of industrialists in Milan who might wish to part-finance an Italian edition of his political magazine. This would take him a day and another night. It was arranged that she would meet him at Rome Airport and they would catch the flight through to Beirut. While she had been sitting in the restaurant, Elizabeth had noticed a couple at a near table; he was middle-aged, the girl was young. They had been holding hands and whispering, intent and absorbed by each other. They looked fraught and unhappy. What was it? Elizabeth wondered. A love affair, a married man—whatever it was it must be different to her own experience. There had been no tenderness with Peter Mathews, no suggestion that what they did was connected with being in love. It was all sex for a laugh, and when it was over her self-contempt had helped to close the door on other men. The couple were going too; the girl clung to the man's hand, nuzzling it against her cheek. He put his arm round her. Elizabeth envied the Italians their emotional freedom, the naturalness with which they kissed their children, and showed their feelings for each other. She thought suddenly that all the Anglo-Saxons could express coherently was lust. Sex on the stage was the ironic consequence of impotence in the bedroom. Those two leaving the restaurant, hugging each other, the girl wiping away tears—they wouldn't need to sit in a theatre to get the vicarious thrill. When their affair ended, as it must if he were married, at least it wouldn't be as arid and void of significance as the one she had experienced. When
they
parted it wouldn't be with a wisecrack and a wave. Elizabeth held nothing personal against Peter Mathews, her one lover. She just wished he hadn't taught her how degrading it was without love. She stopped a taxi as it cruised down the street, directing it back to the Excelsior to collect her luggage and then go on to the airport. She had sat on in the little restaurant, thinking backwards, which was an unprofitable thing to do. But at least it had stopped her thinking forwards, about going to Beirut with Eddi King. He had said nothing more during the trip out; nothing during the evening they spent together before he went to Milan. He would tell her what she had to do when they arrived. He had said that with a smile, and squeezed her hand. She hadn't liked the squeeze, it was too firm, and the one second while their hands touched became two, and suddenly she was alarmed, alerted by some instinct deeper than a dislike of being pawed. She hadn't liked the incident and she insisted that it was from that moment, not before, that she began to worry about going to Beirut. In New York it had seemed logical, even though mysterious, a means to do something for somebody and escape for a while from herself. Speeding down the broad Roman highway towards the airport and Huntley's old friend Eddi King, Elizabeth Cameron admitted to herself that the logic, the mystery and the chance to help her uncle seemed much less convincing arguments further away from home. If it was legal and without danger, why couldn't King have told her what she'd have to do—why hadn't she insisted upon knowing, instead of being outplayed and overborne, as if she had no right to ask … But the cab had pulled into the airport entrance; her bags were being unloaded, and she was walking through to check her luggage. Eddi King was waiting for her. It was too late to turn back now.

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