Love, like a mountain-wind upon an oak, falling upon me, shakes me leaf and bough.

Sappho

 
 
 
 
 
Tác giả: Sidney Sheldon
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Chapter 22
t was the handwritten invitation. Tracy decided later, that changed her life.
After, collecting her share of the money from Jeff Stevens, Tracy checked out of the Savoy and moved into 47 Park Street, a quiet, semiresidential hotel with large, pleasant rooms and superb service.
On her second day in London the invitation was delivered to her suite by the hall porter. It was written in a fine, copperplate handwriting: "A mutual friend has suggested that it might be advantageous for us to become acquainted. Won't you join me for tea at the Ritz this afternoon at 4:00? If you will forgive the cliché, I will be wearing a red carnation." It was signed "Gunther Hartog."
Tracy had never heard of him. Her first inclination was to ignore the note, but her curiosity got the better of her, and at 4:15 she was at the entrance of the elegant dining hall of the Ritz Hotel. She noticed him immediately. He was in his sixties, Tracy guessed, an interesting-looking man with a lean, intellectual face. His skin was smooth and clear, almost translucent. He was dressed in an expensively tailored gray suit and wore a red carnation in his lapel.
As Tracy walked toward his table, he rose and bowed slightly. "Thank you for accepting my invitation."
He seated her with an old-fashioned gallantry that Tracy found attractive. He seemed to belong to another world. Tracy could not imagine what on earth he wanted with her.
"I came because I was curious," Tracy confessed, "but are you sure you haven't confused me with some other Tracy Whitney?"
Gunther Hartog smiled. "From what I have heard, there is only one Tracy Whitney."
"What exactly have you heard?"
"Shall we discuss that over tea?"
Tea consisted of finger sandwiches, filled with chopped egg, salmon, cucumber, watercress, and chicken. There were hot scones with clotted cream and jam, and freshly made pastries, accompanied by Twinings tea. As they ate, they talked.
"Your note mentioned a mutual friend," Tracy began.
"Conrad Morgan. I do business with him from time to time."
I did business with him once, Tracy thought grimly. And he tried to cheat me.
"He's a great admirer of yours," Gunther Hartog was saying.
Tracy looked at her host more closely. He had the bearing of an aristocrat and the look of wealth. What does he want with me? Tracy wondered again. She decided to let him pursue the subject, but there was no further mention of Conrad Morgan or of what possible mutual benefit there could be between Gunther Hartog and Tracy Whitney.
Tracy found the meeting enjoyable and intriguing. Gunther told her about his background. "I was born in Munich. My father was a banker. He was wealthy, and I'm afraid I grew up rather spoiled, surrounded by beautiful paintings and antiques. My mother was Jewish, and when Hitler came to power, my father refused to desert my mother, and so he was stripped of everything. They were both killed in the bombings. Friends smuggled me out of Germany to Switzerland, and when the war was over, I decided not to return to Germany. I moved London and opened a small antique shop on Mount Street. I hope that you will visit it one day."
That's what this is all about, Tracy thought in surprise. He wants to sell me something.
As it turned out, she was wrong.
As Gunther Hartog was paying the check, he said, casually, "I have a little country house in Hampshire. I'm having a few friends down for the weekend, and I'd be delighted if you would join us."
Tracy hesitated. The man was a complete stranger, and she still had no idea what he wanted from her. She decided she had nothing to lose.
o O o
The weekend turned out to be fascinating. Gunther Hartog's "little country house" was a beautiful seventeenth-century manor home on a thirty-acre estate. Gunther was a widower, and except for his servants, he lived alone. He took Tracy on a tour of the grounds. There was a barn stabling half a dozen horses, and a yard where he raised chickens and pigs.
"That's so we'll never go hungry," he said gravely. "Now, let me show you my real hobby."
He led Tracy to a cote full of pigeons. "These are homing pigeons." Gunther's voice was filled with pride. "Look at these little beauties. See that slate-gray one over there? That's Margo." He picked her up and held her. "You really are a dreadful girl, do you know that? She bullies the others, but she's the brightest." He gently smoothed the feathers over the small head and carefully set her down.
The colors of the birds were spectacular: There was a variety of blue-black, blue-gray with checked patterns, and silver.
"But no white ones," Tracy noticed.
"Homing pigeons are never white," Gunther explained, "because white feathers come off too easily, and when pigeons are homing, they fly at an average of forty miles an hour."
Tracy watched Gunther as he fed the birds a special racing feed with added vitamins.
"They are an amazing species," Gunther said. "Do you know they can find their way home from over five hundred miles away?"
"That's fascinating."
The guests were equally fascinating. There was a cabinet minister, with his wife; an earl; a general and his girl friend; and the Maharani of Morvi, a very attractive, friendly young woman. "Please call me V.J.," she said, in an almost unaccented voice. She wore a deep-red sari shot with golden threads, and the most beautiful jewels Tracy had ever seen.
"I keep most of my jewelry in a vault," V.J. explained. "There are so many robberies these days."
o O o
On Sunday afternoon, shortly before Tracy was to return to London, Gunther invited her into his study. They sat across from each other over a tea tray. As Tracy poured the tea into the wafer-thin Belleek cups, she said, "I don't know why you invited me here, Gunther, but whatever the reason, I've had a wonderful time."
"I'm pleased, Tracy." Then, after a moment, he continued. "I've been observing you."
"I see."
"Do you have any plans for the future?"
She hesitated. "No. I haven't decided what I'm going to do yet."
"I think we could work well together."
"You mean in your antique shop?"
He laughed. "No, my dear. It would be a shame to waste your talents. You see, I know about your escapade with Conrad Morgan. You handled it brilliantly."
"Gunther... all that's behind me."
"But what's ahead of you? You said you have no plans. You must think about your future. Whatever money you have is surely going to run out one day. I'm suggesting a partnership. I travel in very affluent, international circles. I attend charity balls and hunting parties and yachting parties. I know the comings and goings of the rich."
"I don't see what that has to do with me---"
"I can introduce you into that golden circle. And I do mean golden, Tracy. I can supply you with information about fabulous jewels and paintings, and how you can safely acquiree them. I can dispose of them privately. You would be balancing the ledgers of people who have become wealthy at the expense of others. Everything would be divided evenly between us. What do you say?"
"I say no."
He studied her thoughtfully. "I see. You will call me if you change your mind?"
"I won't change my mind, Gunther."
Late that afternoon Tracy returned to London.
o O o
Tracy adored London. She dined at Le Gavroche and Bill Bentley's and Coin du Feu, and went to Drones after the theater, for real American hamburgers and hot chili. She went to the National Theatre and the Royal Opera House and attended auctions at Christie's and Sotheby's. She shopped at Harrods, and Fortnum and Mason's, and browsed for books at Hatchards and Foyles, and W. H. Smith. She hired a car and driver and spent a memorable weekend at the Chewton Glen Hotel in Hampshire, on the fringe of the New Forest, where the setting was spectacular and the service impeccable.
But all these things were expensive. Whatever money you have is sure to run out some day. Gunther Hartog was right. Her money was not going to last forever, and Tracy realized she would have to make plans for the future.
o O o
She was invited back for more weekends at Gunther's country home, and she thoroughly enjoyed each visit and delighted in Gunther's company.
One Sunday evening at dinner a member of Parliament turned to Tracy and said, "I've never met a real Texan, Miss Whitney. What are they like?"
Tracy went into a wicked imitation of a nouveau riche Texas dowager and had the company roaring with laughter.
Later, when Tracy and Gunther were alone, he asked, "How would you like to make a small fortune doing that imitation?"
"I'm not an actress, Gunther."
"You underestimate yourself. There's a jewelry firm in London--- Parker and Parker--- that takes a delight in--- as you Americans would say--- ripping off their customers. You've given me an idea how to make them pay for their dishonesty." He told Tracy his idea.
"No," Tracy said. But the more she thought about it, the more intrigued she was. She remembered the excitement of outwitting the police in Long Island, and Boris Melnikov and Pietr Negulesco, and Jeff Stevens. It had been a thrill that was indescribable. Still, that was part of the past.
"No, Gunther," she said again. But this time there was less certainty in her voice.
o O o
London was unseasonably warm for October, and Englishmen and tourists alike took advantage of the bright sunshine. The noon traffic was heavy with tie-ups at Trafalgar Square, Charing Cross, and Piccadilly Circus. A white Daimler turned off Oxford Street to New Bond Street and threaded its way through the traffic, passing Roland Cartier, Geigers, and the Royal Bank of Scotland. A few doors farther on, it coasted to a stop in front of a jewelry store. A discreet, polished sign at the side of the door read: PARKER & PARKER. A liveried chauffeur stepped out of the limousine and hurried around to open the rear door for his passenger. A young woman with blond Sassoon-ed hair, wearing far too much makeup and a tight-fitting Italian knit dress under a sable coat, totally inappropriate for the weather, jumped out of the car.
"Which way's the joint, junior?" she asked. Her voice was loud, with a grating Texas accent.
The chauffeur indicated the entrance. "There, madame."
"Okay, honey. Stick around. This ain't gonna take long."
"I may have to circle the block, madame. I won't be permitted to park here."
She clapped him on the back and said, "You do what you gotta do, sport."
Sport! The chauffeur winced. It was his punishment for being reduced to chauffeuring rental cars. He disliked all Americans, particularly Texans. They were savages; but savages with money. He would have been astonished to learn that his passenger had never even seen the Lone Star State.
Tracy checked her reflection in the display window, smiled broadly, and strutted toward the door, which was opened by a uniformed attendant.
"Good afternoon, madame."
"Afternoon, sport. You sell anythin' besides costume jewelry in this joint?" She chuckled at her joke.
The doorman blanched. Tracy swept into the store, trailing an overpowering scent of Chloé behind her.
Arthur Chilton, a salesman in a morning coat, moved toward her. "May I help you, madame?"
"Maybe, maybe not. Old P.J. told me to buy myself a little birthday present, so here I am. Whatcha got?"
"Is there something in particular Madame is interested in?"
"Hey, pardner, you English fellows are fast workers, ain'cha?" She laughed raucously and clapped him on the shoulder. He forced himself to remain impassive. "Mebbe somethin' in emeralds. Old P.J. loves to buy me emeralds."
"If you'll step this way, please...."
Chilton led her to a vitrine where several trays of emeralds were displayed.
The bleached blonde gave them one disdainful glance. "These're the babies. Where are the mamas and papas?"
Chilton said stiffly, "These range in price up to thirty thousand dollars."
"Hell, I tip my hairdresser that." The woman guffawed. "Old P.J. would be insulted if I came back with one of them little pebbles."
Chilton visualized old P.J. Fat and paunchy and as loud and obnoxious as this woman. They deserved each other. Why did money always flow to the undeserving? he wondered.
"What price range was Madame interested in?"
"Why don't we start with somethin' around a hundred G's."
He looked blank. "A hundred G's?"
"Hell, I thought you people was supposed to speak the king's English. A hundred grand. A hundred thou."
He swallowed. "Oh. In that case, perhaps it would be better if you spoke with our managing director."
The managing director, Gregory Halston, insisted on personally handling all large sales, and since the employees of Parker & Parker received no commission, it made no difference to them. With a customer as distasteful as this one, Chilton was relieved to let Halston deal with her. Chilton pressed a button under the counter, and a moment later a pale, reedy-looking man bustled out of a back room. He took a look at the outrageously dressed blonde and prayed that none of his regular customers appeared until the woman had departed.
Chilton said, "Mr. Halston, this is Mrs.... er...?" He turned to the woman.
"Benecke, honey. Mary Lou Benecke. Old P.J. Benecke's wife. Betcha you all have heard of P.J. Benecke."
"Of course." Gregory Halston gave her a smile that barely touched his lips.
"Mrs. Benecke is interested in purchasing an emerald, Mr. Halston."
Gregory Halston indicated the trays of emeralds. "We have some fine emeralds here that---"
"She wanted something for approximately a hundred thousand dollars."
This time the smile that lit Gregory Halston's face was genuine. What a nice way to start the day.
"You see; it's my birthday, and old P.J. wants me to buy myself somethin' pretty."
"Indeed," Halston said. "Would you follow me, please?"
"You little rascal, what you got in mind?" The blonde giggled.
Halston and Chilton exchanged a pained look. Bloody Americans!
Halston led the woman to a locked door and opened it with a key. They entered a small, brightly lit room, and Halston carefully locked the door behind them.
"This is where we keep our merchandise for our valued customers," he said.
In the center of the room was a showcase filled with a stunning array of diamonds, rubies, and emeralds, flashing their bright colors.
"Well, this is more like it. Old P.J.'d go crazy in here."
"Does Madame see something she likes?
"Well, let's jest see what we got here." She walked over to to jewelry case containing emeralds. "Let me look at that there bunch."
Halston extracted another small key from his pocket, unlocked the case, lifted out a tray of emeralds, and placed it on top of the table. There were ten emeralds in the velvet case. Halston watched as the woman picked up the largest of them, as exquisite pin in a platinum setting.
"As old P.J. would say, 'This here one's got my name writ on it.' "
"Madame has excellent taste. This is a ten-carat grass-green Colombian. It's flawless and---"
"Emeralds ain't never flawless."
Halston was taken aback for an instant. "Madame is correct, of course. What I meant was---" For the first time he noticed that the woman's eyes were as green as the stone she twisted in her hands, turning it around, studying its facets.
"We have a wider selection if---"
"No sweat, sweetie. I'll take this here one."
The sale had taken fewer than three minutes.
"Splendid," Ralston said. Then he added delicately, "In dollars it comes to one hundred thousand. How will Madame paying?"
"Don't you worry, Halston, old sport, I have a dollar account at a bank here in London. I'll write out a little ole personal check. Then P.J. can jest pay me back."
"Excellent. I'll have the stone cleaned for you and delivered to your hotel."
The stone did not need cleaning, but Halston had no intention of letting it out of his possession until her check had cleared, for too many jewelers he knew had been bilked by clever swindlers. Halston prided himself on the fact that he had never been cheated out of one pound.
"Where shall I have the emerald delivered?"
"We got ourselves the Oliver Messel Suite at the Dorch."
Halston made a note. "The Dorchester."
"I call it the Oliver Messy Suite," she laughed. "Lots of people don't like the hotel anymore because it's full of A-rabs, but old P.J. does a lot of business with them. `Oil is its own country,' he always says. P.J. Benecke's one smart fella."
"I'm sure he is," Halston replied dutifully.
He watched as she tore out a check and began writing. He noted that it was a Barclays Bank check. Good. He had a friend there who would verify the Beneckes' account.
He picked up the check. "I'll have the emerald delivered to you personally tomorrow morning."
"Old P.J.'s gonna love it," she beamed.
"I am sure he will," Halston said politely.
He walked her to the front door.
"Ralston---"
He almost corrected her, then decided against it. Why bother? He was never going to lay eyes on her again, thank God! "Yes, madame?"
"You gotta come up and have tea with us some afternoon. You'll love old P.J."
"I am sure I would. Unfortunately, I work afternoons."
"Too bad."
He watched as his customer walked out to the curb. A white Daimler slithered up, and a chauffeur got out and opened the door for her. The blonde turned to give Halston the thumbsup sign as she drove off.
When Halston returned to his office, he immediately picked up the telephone and called his friend at Barclays. "Peter, dear, I have a check here for a hundred thousand dollars drawn on the account of a Mrs. Mary Lou Benecke. Is it good?"
"Hold on, old boy."
Halston waited. He hoped the check was good, for business had been slow lately. The miserable Parker brothers, who owned the store, were constantly complaining, as though it were he who was responsible and not the recession. Of course, profits were not down as much as they could have been, for Parker & Parker had a department that specialized in cleaning jewelry, and at frequent intervals the jewelry that was returned to the customer was inferior to the original that had been brought in. Complaints had been lodged, but nothing had ever been proven.
Peter was back on the line. "No problem, Gregory. There's more than enough money in the account to cover the check." Halston felt a little frisson of relief. "Thank you, Peter."
"Not at all."
"Lunch next week--- on me."
o O o
The check cleared the following morning, and the Colombian emerald was delivered by bonded messenger to Mrs. P.J. Benecke at the Dorchester Hotel.
That afternoon, shortly before closing time, Gregory Halston's secretary said, "A Mrs. Benecke is here to see you, Mr. Halston."
His heart sank. She had come to return the pin, and he could hardly refuse to take it back. Damn all women, all Americans, and all Texans! Halston put on a smile and went out to greet her.
"Good afternoon, Mrs. Benecke. I assume your husband didn't like the pin."
She grinned. "You assume wrong, buster. Old P.J. was just plain crazy about it."
Halston's heart began to sing. "He was?"
"In fact, he liked it so much he wants me to get another one so we can have 'em made into a pair of earrings. Let me have a twin to the one I got."
A small frown appeared on Gregory Halston's face. "I'm afraid we might have a little problem there, Mrs. Benecke."
"What kinda problem, honey?"
"Yours is a unique stone. There's not another one like it. Now, I have a lovely set in a different style I could---"
"I don't want a different style. I want one jest like the one I bought."
"To be perfectly candid, Mrs. Benecke, there aren't very many ten-carat Colombian flawless"--- he saw her look--- "nearly flawless stones available."
"Come on, sport. There's gotta be one somewhere."
"In all honesty, I've seen very few stones of that quality, and to try to duplicate it exactly in shape and color would be almost impossible."
"We got a sayin' in Texas that the impossible jest takes a little longer. Saturday's my birthday. P.J. wants me to have those earrings, and what P.J. wants, P.J. gets."
"I really don't think I can---"
"How much did I pay for that pin--- a hundred grand? I know old P.J. will go up to two hundred or three hundred thousand for another one."
Gregory Halston was thinking fast. There had to be a duplicate of that stone somewhere, and if P. J. Benecke was willing to pay an extra $200,000 for it, that would mean a tidy profit. In fact, Halston thought, I can work it out so that it means a tidy profit for me.
Aloud he said, "I'll inquire around, Mrs. Benecke. I'm sure that no other jeweler in London has the identical emerald, but there are always estates coming up for auction. I'll do some advertising and see what results I get."
"You got till the end of the week," the blonde told him. "And jest between you and me and the lamppost, old P.J. will probably be willin' to go up to three hundred fifty thousand for it."
And Mrs. Benecke was gone, her sable coat billowing out behind her.
o O o
Gregory Halston sat in his office lost in a daydream. Fate had placed in his hands a man who was so besotted with his blond tart that he was willing to pay $350,000 for a $100,000 emerald. That was a net profit of $250,000. Gregory Halston saw no need to burden the Parker brothers with the details of the transaction. It would be a simple matter to record the sale of the second emerald at $100,000 and pocket the rest. The extra $250,000 would set him up for life.
All he had to do now was to find a twin to the emerald he had sold to Mrs. P.J. Benecke.
It turned out to be even more difficult than Halston had anticipated. None of the jewelers he telephoned had anything in stock that resembled what he required. He placed advertisements in the London Times and the Financial Times, and he called Christie's and Sotheby's, and a dozen estate agents. In the next few days Halston was inundated with a flood of inferior emeralds, good emeralds, and a few first-quality emeralds, but none of them came close to what he was looking for.
On Wednesday Mrs. Benecke telephoned. "Old P.J.'s gettin' mighty restless," she warned. "Did you find it yet?"
"Not yet, Mrs. Benecke," Halston assured her, "but don't worry, we will."
On Friday she telephoned again. "Tomorrow's my birthday," she reminded Halston.
"I know, Mrs. Benecke. If I only had a few more days, I know I could---"
"Well, never mind, sport. If you don't have that emerald by tomorrow mornin', I'll return the one I bought from you. Old P.J.--- bless his heart--- says he's gonna buy me a big ole country estate instead. Ever hear of a place called Sussex?"
Halston broke out in perspiration. "Mrs. Benecke," he moaned earnestly, "you would hate living in Sussex. You would loathe living in a country house. Most of them are in deplorable condition. They have no central heating and---"
"Between you and I," she interrupted, "I'd rather have them earrings. Old P.J. even mentioned somethin' about bein' willin' to pay four hundred thousand dollars for a twin to that stone. You got no idea how stubborn old P.J. can be."
Four hundred thousand! Halston could feel the money slipping between his fingers. "Believe me, I'm doing everything I can," he pleaded. "I need a little more time."
"It ain't up to me, honey," she said. "It's up to P.J."
And the line went dead.
Halston sat there cursing fate. Where could he find an identical ten-carat emerald? He was so busy with his bitter thoughts that he did not hear his intercom until the third buzz. He pushed down the button and snapped, "What is it?"
"There's a Contessa Marissa on the telephone, Mr. Halston. She's calling about our advertisement for the emerald."
Another one! He had had at least ten calls that morning, every one of them a waste of time. He picked up the telephone and said ungraciously, "Yes?"
A soft female voice with an Italian accent said, "Buon giorno, signore. I have read you are interested possibly in buying an emerald, sì?"
"If it fits my qualifications, yes." He could not keep the impatience out of his voice.
"I have an emerald that has been in my family for many years. It is a peccato--- a pity--- but I am in a situation now where I am forced to sell it."
He had heard that story before. I must try Christie's again, Halston thought. Or Sotheby's. Maybe something came in at the last minute, or---
"Signore? You are looking for a ten-carat emerald, sì?"
"Yes "
"I have a ten-carat verde--- green--- Colombian."
When Halston started to speak, he found that his voice was choked. "Would--- would you say that again, please?"
"Sì. I have a ten-carat grass-green Colombian. Would you be interested in that?"
"I might be," he said carefully. "I wonder if you could drop by and let me have a look at it."
"No, scusi, I am afraid I am very busy right now. We are preparing a party at the embassy for my husband. Perhaps next week I could---"
No! Next week would be too late. "May I come to see you?" He tried to keep the eagerness out of his voice. "I could come up now."
"Ma, no. Sono occupata stamani. I was planning to go shopping---"
"Where are you staying, Contessa?"
"At the Savoy."
"I can be there in fifteen minutes. Ten." His voice was feverish.
"Molto bene. And your name is---"
"Halston. Gregory Halston."
"Suite ventisei--- twenty-six."
o O o
The taxi ride was interminable. Halston transported himself from the heights of heaven to the depths of hell, and back again. If the emerald was indeed similar to the other one, he would be wealthy beyond his wildest dreams. Four hundred thousand dollars, he'll pay. A $300,000 profit. He would buy a place on the Riviera. Perhaps get a cruiser. With a villa and his own boat, he would be able to attract as many handsome young men as he liked....
Gregory halston was an atheist, but as he walked down the corridor of the Savoy Hotel to Suite 26, he found himself praying, Let the stone be similar enough to satisfy old P.J. Benecke.
He stood in front of the door of the contessa's room taking slow, deep breaths, fighting to get control of himself. He knocked on the door, and there was no answer.
Oh, my God, Halston thought. She's gone; she didn't wait for me. She went out shopping and---
The door opened, and Halston found himself facing an elegant-looking lady in her fifties, with dark eyes, a lined face, and black hair laced with gray.
When she spoke, her voice was soft, with the familiar melodic Italian accent. "Sì?"
"I'm G-Gregory Halston. You t-telephoned me." In his nervousness he was stuttering.
"Ah, sì. I am the Contessa Marissa. Come in, signore, per favore."
"Thank you."
He entered the suite, pressing his knees together to keep them from trembling. He almost blurted out, "Where's the emerald? But he knew he must control himself. He must not seem too eager. If the stone was satisfactory, he would have the advantage in bargaining. After all, he was the expert. She was an amateur.
"Please to sit yourself," the contessa said.
He took a chair.
"Scusi. Non parlo molto bene inglese. I speak poor English."
"No, no. It's charming, charming."
"Grazie. Would you take perhaps coffee? Tea?"
"No, thank you, Contessa."
He could feel his stomach quivering. Was it too soon to bring up the subject of the emerald? He could not wait another second. "The emerald---"
She said, "Ah, sì. The emerald was given to me by my grandmother. I wish to pass it on to my daughter when she is twenty-five, but my husband is going into a new business in Milano, and I---"
Halston's mind was elsewhere. He was not interested in the boring life story of the stranger sitting across from him. He was burning to see the emerald. The suspense was more than he could bear.
"Credo che sia importante to help my husband get started in his business." She smiled ruefully. "Perhaps I am making a mistake---"
"No, no," Halston said hastily. "Not at all, Contessa. It's a wife's duty to stand by her husband. Where is the emerald now?"
"I have it here," the contessa said.
She reached into her pocket, pulled out a jewel wrapped in a tissue, and held it out to Halston. He stared at it, and his spirits soared. He was looking at the most exquisite ten-carat grass-green Colombian emerald he had ever seen. It was so close in appearance, size, and color to the one he had sold Mrs. Benecke that the difference was almost impossible to detect. It is not exactly the same, Halston told himself, but only an expert would be able to tell the difference. His hands began to tremble. He forced himself to appear calm.
He turned the stone over, letting the light catch the beautiful facets, and said casually, "It's a rather nice little stone."
"Splendente, sì. I have loved it very much all these years. I will hate to part with it."
"You're doing the right thing," Halston assured her. "Once your husband's business is successful, you will be able to buy as many of these as you wish."
"That is exactly what I feel. You are molto simpatico."
"I'm doing a little favor for a friend, Contessa. We have much better stones than this in our shop, but my friend wants one to match an emerald that his wife bought. I imagine he would be willing to pay as much as sixty thousand dollars for this stone."
The contessa sighed. "My grandmother would haunt me from her grave if I sold it for sixty thousand dollars."
Halston pursed his lips. He could afford to go higher. He smiled. "I'll tell you what... I think I might persuade my friend to go as high as one hundred thousand. That's a great deal of money, but he's anxious to have the stone."
"That sounds fair," the contessa said.
Gregory Halston's heart swelled within his breast. "Bene! I brought my checkbook with me, so I'll just write out a check---"
"Ma, no.... I am afraid it will not solve my problem." The contessa's voice was sad.
Halston stared at her. "Your problem?"
"Sì. As I explain, my husband is going into this new business, and he needs three hundred fifty thousand dollars. I have a hundred thousand of my money to give him, but I need two hundred fifty thousand more. I was hope to get it for this emerald."
He shook his head. "My dear Contessa, no emerald in the world is worth that kind of money. Believe me, one hundred thousand dollars is more than a fair offer."
"I am sure it is so, Mr. Halston," the contessa told him, "but it will not help my husband, will it?" She rose to her feet. "I will save this to give to our daughter." She held out a slim, delicate hand. "Grazie, signore. Thank you for coming."
Halston stood there in a panic. "Wait a minute," he said. His greed was dueling with his common sense, but he knew he must not lose the emerald now. "Please sit down, Contessa. I'm sure we can come to some equitable arrangement. If I can persuade my client to pay a hundred fifty thousand---?"
"Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars."
"Let's say, two hundred thousand?"
"Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars."
There was no budging her. Halston made his decision. A $150,000 profit was better than nothing. It would mean a smaller villa and boat, but it was still a fortune. It would serve the Parker brothers right for the shabby way they treated him. He would wait a day or two and then give them his notice. By next week he would be on the Côte d'Azur.
"You have a deal," he said.
"Meraviglioso! Sono contenta!"
You should be contented, you bitch, Halston thought. But he had nothing to complain about. He was set for life. He took one last look at the emerald and slipped it into his pocket. "I'll give you a check written on the store's account."
"Bene, signore."
Halston wrote out the check and handed it to her. He would have Mrs. P.J. Benecke make out her $400,000 check to cash. Peter would cash the check for him, and he would exchange the contessa's check for the Parker brothers' check and pocket the difference. He would arrange it with Peter so that the $250,000 check would not appear on the Parker brothers' monthly statement. One hundred and fifty thousand dollars.
He could already feel the warm French sun on his face.
o O o
The taxi ride back to the store seemed to take only seconds. Halston visualized Mrs. Benecke's happiness when he broke the good news to her. He had not only found the jewel she wanted, he had spared her from the excruciating experience of living in a drafty, rundown country house.
When Halston floated into the store, Chilton said, "Sir, a customer here is interested in---"
Halston cheerfully waved him aside. "Later."
He had no time for customers. Not now, not ever again. From now on people would wait on him. He would shop at Hermes and Gucci and Lanvin.
Halston fluttered into his office, closed the door, set the emerald on the desk in front of him, and dialed a number.
An operator's voice said, "Dorchester Hotel."
"The Oliver Messel Suite, please."
"To whom did you wish to speak?"
"Mrs. P.J. Benecke."
"One moment, please."
Halston whistled softly while he waited.
The operator came back on the line. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Benecke has checked out."
"Then ring whatever suite she's moved to."
"Mrs. Benecke has checked out of the hotel."
"That's impossible. She---"
"I'll connect you with reception."
A male voice said, "Reception. May I help you?"
"Yes. What suite is Mrs. P.J. Benecke in?"
"Mrs. Benecke checked out of the hotel this morning."
There had to be an explanation. Some unexpected emergency.
"May I have her forwarding address, please. This is---"
"I'm sorry. She didn't leave one."
"Of course she left one."
"I checked Mrs. Benecke out myself. She left no forwarding address."
It was a jab to the pit of his stomach. Halston slowly replaced the receiver and sat there, bewildered. He had to find a way to get in touch with her, to let her know that he had finally located the emerald. In the meantime, he had to get back the $250,000 check from the Contessa Marissa.
He hurriedly dialed the Savoy Hotel. "Suite twenty-six."
"Whom are you calling, please?"
"The Contessa Marissa."
"One moment, please."
But even before the operator came back on the line, some terrible premonition told Gregory Halston the disastrous news he was about to hear.
"I'm sorry. The Contessa Marissa has checked out."
He hung up. His fingers were trembling so hard that he was barely able to dial the number of the bank. "Give me the head bookkeeper.... quickly! I wish to stop payment on a check."
But, of course, he was too late. He had sold an emerald for $100,000 and had bought back the same emerald for $250,000. Gregory Halston sat there slumped in his chair, wondering how he was going to explain it to the Parker brothers.
If Tomorrow Comes If Tomorrow Comes - Sidney Sheldon If Tomorrow Comes