Elizabeth Peters'
THE CAMELOT CAPER
The Lethal Stuff of Legends...
 
 
 
 
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THE CAMELOT CAPER
Chapter One
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The book was small, a paperback edition, with a cover done in shades of blue. In the foreground was the figure of a beautiful young girl, disheveled black hair streaming over her shoulders. She was in genteel dishabille and in considerable distress; her eyes, looking back over her shoulder, were fixed in terror upon the distant outlines of a ruined castle, perched on a cliff, under a darkening sky.

Jessica glanced down at the book, half concealed in her lap by her clenched hands. What ghastly danger from the haunted ruins threatened the poor heroine? A man, of course; it was always a man-either a dark-browed hero, whom the vapid heroine suspected of villainy, or a dark-browed villain whose plot the girl had just discovered. She hadn't read the book yet, but she had read a number of similar volumes, and the plots had a monotonous kinship. She suspected she would never read another such thriller. Fictitious terrors lost their charm when they recalled a real fear.

Jess glanced back over her shoulder, not at a ruined castle or Charles Addams house, but at a prosaic stretch of black-topped road. There was not much traffic, and no car remained for long behind the bus, which was jogging along at a leisurely twenty miles an hour.

Reassured, Jess transferred her attention to the side window, where the view was prettier. For more years than she could remember she had looked forward to that view-the green hills of England, looking newly upholstered in their fresh spring grass, dotted with grazing white sheep, covered over with a sky of china blue. This was the England of which the poets sang-almost. The month was May, not April and, Browning notwithstanding, May was warmer and more pleasant. The first day Jessica had delightedly identified the prickly bushes along the roadside, with their blazing yellow bloom, as gorse. She had found bluebells in the lanes, and smelled the lilac.

That had been yesterday-before the fear began.

Compulsively, her head turned again, her eyes found the road still innocent. The fat lady next to her was looking at her curiously; the plump pink face remained expressionless, but the eyes behind the round, gold-rimmed glasses were shrewd and hostile.

The fat lady's bundles were jabbing her in the hip. Jess slid over another fraction of an inch. She was already squeezed into the farthest corner of the long back seat, and she wondered, irritably, what had prompted the other woman's buying spree. She also wondered how she had found so many worthwhile bargains in the unexciting shops of Salisbury. But "unexciting" was a relative term; judging from the tiny villages this very local bus had passed through, the sleepy cathedral town of Salisbury might look like a metropolis by contrast.

Jess let her aching head rest for a moment against the cool glass of the window. Salisbury...the cathedral...Sunday morning. A strange time and place for the beginning of the threat which had driven her, in unreasoning flight, onto a bus going she knew not where, arriving she knew not when. She didn't dare ask anyone where she was going; her aim was inconspicuousness, and that question would certainly attract attention. She was conspicuous enough by her very foreignness. Odd, how obviously American she looked; even she could see the difference, and it was not defined by anything so obvious as makeup and short skirts. The English girls she had seen wore skirts which made hers look Victorian, and their false eyelashes outdistanced hers by a good quarter of an inch. The cut of her clothes, perhaps? Her yellow wool suit with its short jacket and straight skirt probably hadn't cost any more than the plaid outfit and purple sweater the girl two seats up was wearing, but it looked...well, it looked different. And whatever had possessed her to select yellow? It stood out like a neon sign.

The bus lumbered up a rise and through a copse of trees; Jessica's features, palely limned against the dark background of foliage, made a pallid pattern on the window glass. The blue of her eyes hardly showed; only the fair skin, bleached by a long winter in the office, and the light-brown hair. The effect was spectral; she closed her eyes, too tired to turn for another look behind.

Being afraid was fatiguing. She could understand now why a hunted man might suddenly stop running and surrender himself to his pursuers, even when capture might mean death. In her case, terror was increased by bewilderment. She did not know why she was being threatened, which meant that she had no clue as to how to defend herself.

As she looked back now, a number of incidents fell into place, making a pattern which had not been visible until the one key incident occurred and gave meaning to the whole. A pattern-but only in the sense of consistent behavior. The motive still remained obscure.

But there was no doubt in her mind now that the man who had taken her suitcase at Southampton had not done so by mistake. It had been a close call. She had looked away for only a moment, to hail a taxi. Her two big suitcases had been sent on; they had arranged that for her on the boat, and as soon as she cleared customs she had simply carried her one remaining bag out of the building and had stood by the street looking for transportation. The man who brushed by her was only one of many; there was a crowd near the quay, people embarking and disembarking, seeing friends off, and meeting them. When, having obtained her taxi, she looked down to find her bag gone, her first assumption had been that it had been kicked or pushed away.


THE CAMELOT CAPER
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