6357 words (25 minute read)

Chapter One

Friday, the 31st of October, 1924.

Hallowe’en began, for Eric Peterkin, with meeting his sister Penny as she drove into London in the family motor car, and then immediately seeing her off as she departed again for a week’s visit with friends in Dorset. Eric had also been invited, but he had work to do: a new manuscript for his evaluation, which Eric hoped to return to the publisher with his comments in time for the 5th—Guy Fawkes—at which point he would join his sister and their friends for the festivities of Bonfire Night.

Eric didn’t exactly need work. He had enough from his investment income to just get by, if he lived frugally. But Eric was a young man with an interest in the world, and that sort of thing costs money—to say nothing of his membership at the Vet. Family connections had landed him this job evaluating manuscripts for a small publishing house, with an income sufficient to his wants. It wasn’t the sort of work he particularly cared for, but he was allowed to conduct it from the comfort of the Vet lounge, where silent attendants were on hand to salve his brain with whiskey from the nearby bar if the manuscripts were really bad.

Eric was halfway through the third chapter when Mortimer Wolfe—sleek, dapper and elegant, hair slicked down and gleaming like mahogany—dropped into the armchair facing him.

"Feet on the floor, Peterkin. Are we six years old?"

Normally, Eric would have responded with a good-natured "sod off, Morty," but tonight he uncurled his legs from under him and slid his stockinged feet back into their shoes. The gesture was not lost on Wolfe, who said, "My goodness, is it very bad, what you have there? Your moustache is drooping dreadfully." Wolfe’s own moustache was a pair of perfectly symmetrical triangles; they might have been printed on his upper lip with a stencil.

Eric straightened his moustache and said, "No, this fellow writes like an angel. The problem is, he has no idea what he’s on about."

"And you do? Let me guess: it is the inscrutable wisdom of the Chinese ancients, passed down to you from your most honourable ancestors."

For some people, a Chinese mother was simply a mother like any other. Wolfe was not one of those people, but Eric had no intention of taking the bait. "I’ve spent some time around his exotic settings, I can say that much."

"If you’re such an expert," Wolfe replied, "I know a fellow in Churston who’s looking for someone to go hunt down Chinese antiques for his collection. That might be more your cup of tea than reviewing manuscripts."

Was Wolfe baiting him again? Eric couldn’t tell. But the prospect of dropping this dull evaluation work for actively running after exotic artifacts was tempting. On the other hand.... "I’ve promised to finish reviewing this one, at least. Perhaps after it’s done, I’ll go look up this antique collector friend of yours."

"Suit yourself," Wolfe said with a shrug. "A good man is so hard to find these days. A good gentleman’s gentleman, especially ... the world really needs more valets, Peterkin. You simply have no idea."

Eric relaxed. He’d been wondering when Wolfe would get around to the all-important subject of Wolfe—and stop trying to stir up trouble for others. Wolfe went through his valets the way a compulsive smoker went through matchsticks: burning them out in quick succession and discarding them without a thought. Eric could never quite picture Wolfe in Flanders, knee-deep in the mud and filth that he himself had grown to loathe even in his short service; he supposed that Wolfe must have somehow commandeered the entire British supply of soap and hot water for the duration of the War.

Then again, the tales of Captain Wolfe’s exploits did not exactly paint him as such a useless dandy: he’d been captured on several occasions, but had always managed an escape in under a day. Patrick Norris, that irrepressible wag, had once described Wolfe as "more fox than wolf, all slippery-sly in his perfect little black socks."

"Such a tiresome business," Wolfe sighed, when Eric failed to shut him up immediately. "You simply cannot get a good man these days—not that I shouldn’t have seen it coming, what with the War and all. I’ve had to settle now on a fellow with no references whatsoever. I suppose I’ll have to train him and not expect too much. It will be just the same as the raw, rotten batmen I had in Flanders. I suffer, Peterkin; decidedly, I suffer."

Eric suppressed a smirk. Wolfe was one of the few Army officers who habitually spoke of his batmen in the plural: he’d gone through them then the same way he went through his valets now. The position of batman was normally an enviable one: a comparably soft job with all the benefits that came with being close to one’s superior. Wolfe’s men actively feigned incompetence to avoid catching it.

"And speaking of batmen," Wolfe drawled, "here comes one now."

Eric looked up. Near the bar, Edward Garrett, one of the elected club officers, was talking to a tall, rather lumpish-looking fellow whom Eric did not recognise. The stranger was nodding and looking around with vaguely bovine interest; his straw-coloured hair flopped loosely across his forehead, and his tie was crooked.

"One of yours, Wolfe?"

"Towards the end of the War, Peterkin. Private Patrick Benson—I suppose if I wanted to rub elbows only with the commissioned, I shouldn’t have joined the Vet, eh? Between Mainwaring and Bradshaw, we’ll let anybody in now ... even the Chinese Labour Corps, as you of course know."

"I wasn’t with the Chinese Labour Corps," Eric replied hotly. "I was with—"

"I never said you were." But the malicious glint in Wolfe’s eye betrayed him. As Eric coloured and choked on the idea of having taken the bait after all, Wolfe continued, as if nothing had happened: "Benson was more competent than most, at any rate. He’d been an orderly at a war hospital somewhere in Sussex before he gave up his conscientious objector status to join us in the active fighting. And say what you like about hospital orderlies, they understand the meaning of spit and polish; and thankfully, they do not actually spit when they polish. My goodness, he’s let himself go, hasn’t he? He was never this untidy as a soldier."

Eric swallowed his pride and forced himself to observe the new man. "He gave up his conscientious objector status? I didn’t know you could do that."

"It was nearing the end of the War, and soldiers were in short supply. You’d be surprised at the amount of fudged paperwork that got men into the trenches then—and Benson had Bradshaw, the Empire’s champion maker of fudge."

Jacob Bradshaw was the club secretary, and the longest-standing member of the board. White-bearded and genial, he had seemed to Eric, when they first met, like a modern Father Christmas. Rumour had it that he was not simply a socialist, but a Socialist—with a capital S, a member of the party—and that his extensive connections had paved the way for the Labour Party coming into power early that year. But there was no denying that he got things done—those extensive connections were very useful indeed!—and after all, a man’s politics were his own business.

Edward Garrett, by contrast, was a stiff-backed, stiff-necked Conservative with a reputation for irritability. Even in the soft lighting of the club lounge, his glasses glinted like diamond: hard, cold, and uncompromising. He was speaking just a shade more slowly than was his habit, as though Benson were an idiot child. Ordinarily he wouldn’t have had the patience, and Eric supposed therefore that either Benson was too important to snub, or Garrett was in a better mood than usual tonight.

On the other hand, if Benson needed such patience, that seemed out of keeping with Wolfe’s grudging acknowledgement of Benson as "more competent than most"—Eric knew Wolfe would never tolerate the sort of man who needed things explained twice.

Benson and Garrett were soon joined by Bradshaw himself, who smoothly took charge of Benson from Garrett. Garrett, with some evident relief, withdrew to the other side of the bar where a black cloud of gloom signaled the presence of club president Oscar Mainwaring. Black-browed, black-bearded, with black gardening dirt under his fingernails, he was ruminating over a drooping meerschaum pipe and a beer. Eric wasn’t sure how the man had convinced the voting body of the Vet to elect him to the position, having skipped that particular meeting, but he supposed nobody else had wanted it. The Vet was notoriously apathetic when it came to the election of its board of officers.

Garrett, Mainwaring and Bradshaw together ... Eric cast about and caught sight of a fourth club officer: Oliver Saxon, lounging by the doors with a half-eaten apple in one hand and his shirt-tails hanging, as usual, halfway to his knees.

"Are the officers having a meeting tonight?" Eric asked, turning back to Wolfe. "It looks like they’re all gathered, except for Norris."

"I’m not the one who keeps the officers’ schedules, Peterkin, but I’d guess this is one of those ’secret emergencies.’ There’s some question about Benson’s application, and they’re meeting for a formal discussion and vote. That doesn’t happen too often."

"I suppose someone’s taken issue to him having been a conscientious objector?"

Wolfe snorted. "You did hear me when I mentioned his rank, right? Egalitarianism may be a wonderful thing in theory, but in practice ... well, in practice you know the only reason Saxon’s in here at all is his father’s the ruddy Earl of Bufferin, and thank goodness he prefers not to use his title because I couldn’t even begin to dream of addressing a slovenly, unshaven mess like him as Lord Anything. And as for Patrick Norris...." Wolfe rolled his eyes.

The lounge doors slammed open to admit Patrick Norris, the last of the club officers. He was a wiry little terrier of a man, with the scruffy charm of an unrepentant ne’er-do-weel, and about as much respect for standard protocol as Wolfe had for his valets. He greeted the others with a hearty thump on the nearest back—Saxon’s—and trotted off in the direction of a meeting room. All this while the attendant was still, no doubt, formulating an offer to open the door for him.

"At least Patrick Norris had the grace to make NCO first," murmured Wolfe as the other officers drifted along in Norris’s wake. "Not that that’s very much better. In my opinion, an officer of the club should at least be an actual commissioned officer. We tolerate Bradshaw because he gets the job done, and a Warrant Officer is at least a cut above an NCO even if he’s not actually commissioned; but there is absolutely no reason for Norris to be on the board."

Meanwhile, Bradshaw had stopped to guide Benson over. "Peterkin! Wolfe! Wonderful to see you chaps. May I introduce Mr. Patrick Benson, our newest member? Benson, meet Morty Wolfe and Eric Peterkin. They’ll show you any ropes I missed. Won’t you, boys?"

Benson mumbled a barely audible greeting and settled heavily into a chair. His straw-coloured hair fell across his eyes, and Eric had the impression of an ungainly sheepdog padding about among sleek greyhounds.

"I’m trusting you two not to scare the fellow off, now," said Bradshaw as he turned to follow the other officers. Mainwaring had put out his pipe and was waiting at the meeting room door for him.

"We’ll do our best," Wolfe said smoothly, but Bradshaw had already hurried off.

Black-bearded, melancholy Mainwaring; white-bearded, genial Bradshaw; stiff-necked Garrett, with glasses glinting; slovenly, disagreeable Saxon, half-eaten apple in hand; and rakish, roguish, rascally Norris ... that was the lot of them. The meeting room door shut behind them, and an awkward silence descended.

"Well," said Benson, clearing his throat and addressing Wolfe, "this is a surprise, sir. I suppose I should stop calling you sir, sir?"

"Oh, don’t worry on my account!"

"And I’m pleased to meet you too, Mr. Peterkin," Benson continued, turning to Eric.

Eric roused himself. Wolfe clearly had no intention of making things any easier for Benson, and so it fell to him. "It seems you two already know each other! From the War, I’m guessing?" He studiously ignored Wolfe’s icy glare and focused his attention on Benson instead.

"Yes," Benson replied. "Captain Wolfe was my commanding officer; I was his batman for a while, but I suppose you’d best hear about that from him rather than from me. Not my place, after all." Here Benson flashed an ingratiating smile at the still-frosty Wolfe. "For my part I’d say the Captain was very kind."

That was not the sort of endorsement Eric expected to hear from one of Wolfe’s former batmen. "You must not have been under his command for very long," he couldn’t help saying. "I mean, Wolfe here has a bit of a reputation."

"I only expect what I’m due," Wolfe murmured, examining his nails.

Benson said: "Oh, I wasn’t in the trenches very long at all. I just got in at the tail end of the War ... I guess I was lucky, eh?"

"And now, here you are," said Wolfe. "Isn’t it amazing what a month or two in Hell can do for one! I must confess I am quite surprised to see you here among us bloodthirsty war hounds. You never seemed like the type." Eric, who’d been suddenly struck by the similarity of Benson’s service to his own, couldn’t help but wince. But Benson seemed oblivious.

"Mr. Garrett suggested it. I’d come into some money, you see, and I really didn’t know what to do with it. I took it to Mr. Garrett at the bank, and he suggested all kinds of investments and things to put it into, so that it would grow without me having to so much as look at it, and all I’d have to do is pick up the interest. It’s more than I understand, really. And then he said that I should consider joining a club, because it was the sort of thing a fellow in my position should do, and he said he’d put in a word for me here. So here I am." Benson shrugged. "These gents’ clubs always looked so imposing from the outside. I’ve no idea what to do or where to begin."

"Well, for starters," said Wolfe, eyeing the untidy knot of Benson’s tie, "I know you can tie a better knot than that. Did I teach you nothing?"

"It’s hardly a requirement," Eric said quickly. "You could loosen it or take it off entirely, if you prefer. You may have noticed that Mr. Norris loosens his as soon as he steps in the door, and Mr. Saxon rarely wears one."

"Oh yes, Patrick Norris and Oliver Saxon, what shining examples. I can’t think why more of us don’t follow in their hallowed footsteps."

Eric forced himself to ignore Wolfe’s sarcasm. "Most of us come here to unwind after a day’s work. Play a game of billiards, perhaps, or cards. But I’d avoid cards with Wolfe: he’ll let you win a few hands for sport, and then he’ll fleece you utterly."

"Oh yes." Benson grinned suddenly. "Some of the boys in my platoon warned me about that, I remember. It’s all right, though, if you shuffle the cards under the table."

"Excuse me?" This was new information. Eric darted a glance at Wolfe, who looked annoyed.

Benson cheerfully elaborated: "He’s got an amazingly quick eye. They say he can track an ace through seven shuffles of a deck, just by watching." Turning to Wolfe, he said, "You got out of Gerry’s hands once by challenging their commanding officer to a few rounds of Pinochle, didn’t you? Won the uniform right off his back, and nearly got his medals too: that’s the story I heard."

Wolfe grimaced. "The rank and file will insist on spreading the most outlandish tales," he said. "There’s not a word of truth to that one."

A discreet cough at their elbows drew their attention to one of the club attendants, who handed a small key to Benson and, with a slight bow, disappeared back into the shadows.

"That’s a key to one of the club’s safe deposit boxes, if I’m not mistaken," said Wolfe. "Already making full use of the club facilities, I see."

"Mr. Garrett said I could. He said it was safer than the Bank of England."

"Garrett thinks that, does he? I’d wager fifty pounds that whatever you’ve got squirreled away there, I could have it out of the vault and on this very table by this time tomorrow."

"You’re having me on! I’ve seen the vault. You can’t get in without the combination, and then there are all the keys—"

"Oh, can’t I? Is it a bet, then?"

Benson darted a look at Eric, who shook his head. "I’ve learnt the hard way not to take up wagers with Wolfe unless you’re prepared to lose. Wolfe never makes a bet on his own exploits without first carefully considering how he might pull it off."

"Are you suggesting our new friend here doesn’t have fifty pounds to put on the table, Peterkin?"

"Not in the least. I’m suggesting that you’re taking advantage of the poor fellow."

Benson might very well have turned down the wager, if Garrett had not chosen that very moment to walk by. Eric hadn’t noticed the meeting room door opening, so engrossed was he in the conversation, but it appeared that the meeting had concluded and the officers were now gathering at the bar.

"Another one of your silly wagers, Wolfe?" Garrett chuckled. "I heard some of it, and I think you’ve bitten off more than you can chew, this time."

"You’ll take it, then? Our lily-livered friend here won’t."

"Certainly. Fifty pounds against your ability to sneak into the vaults and lift something from a safe deposit box whose number, by the way, Benson here is not going to tell you." Garrett gave Benson a wink. "Nor is he going to tell you what’s in the box. Is it agreed?"

"Make it a hundred pounds, and I’ll have the mystery prize on this table before noon."

Inspired by Garrett’s confidence, and perhaps stung by Wolfe’s aspersions on his courage—Eric himself had fallen for that more than once before—Benson joined Garrett in taking up the wager.

"There’ll be no brutality, of course," Garrett said, shaking hands with Wolfe. "I know you, and I know you’d rather die than leave a mess behind, but it still bears saying. Peterkin here will act as referee, of course?"

"By all means," said Eric, pleased to be a part of things. "I’ll be here at noon tomorrow, and if Wolfe hasn’t made good on his claim by then, the two of you win. Benson, in the interest of fairness, I think I had better have a look at what you’ve got in there—just so I know what Wolfe’s supposed to find."

"A wise decision, Peterkin. I was about to suggest something along those lines myself." Garrett clapped Benson on the back and turned to join the other officers, while Benson stood to lead the way down to the vault.

As Eric left the lounge, he observed Wolfe leaning back in his chair and lighting a cigarette. The man was obviously very sure of himself, and Eric was glad he had not been talked into taking the wager. Garrett, meanwhile, appeared to be in an uncommonly good mood. Eric wondered which of the two would still be in such a good mood when the clock struck noon on the next day.

Benson hesitated out in the main hall, and Eric took over the lead. They descended to the lobby, then walked down the corridor past the club president’s office and the porter’s office; near the end of the corridor was a nondescript wooden door, which was unlocked and opened on request by the porter—a man serendipitously named Ted Porter, but called "Old Faithful" behind his back. Behind the door, a narrow staircase led down to a windowless antechamber, where both members were advised to stand back while Old Faithful busied himself with the combination lock on the steel door of the vault. This door finally swung inwards, triggering the illumination of a single bare bulb overhead.

The vault had walls of bare concrete. A plain, wooden table stood in the middle of the room; the bank of deposit boxes lined the far wall, an array of little steel doors set into a solid sheet of steel. Benson unlocked door number 13 and withdrew the snugly-fitted steel box behind it. He set this on the table and opened it.

"These are rather private," Benson muttered, lifting out a bundle of letters, "and I’d really appreciate it if you don’t actually read them."

"Let me at least see what they are." Eric took the letters and glanced through them. They were addressed to someone named "Gussie", and were dated sometime in the last century. Eric counted twenty-seven pages in all: eleven letters covering a period from May 1890 to October 1893. True to his word, Eric avoided the actual content and handed them back to Benson as soon as he had ascertained their nature and quantity.

Looking back into the box, Eric found a yellowed bill from a boys’ boarding school in France, a copy of a duty roster from a training camp in Sussex, and an old photograph.

"This is a rather curious collection," Eric said, picking up the duty roster. This was the Company Routine Orders for the 21st of July, 1918. Eric’s eye was instantly caught by the name at the bottom: Warrant Officer Jacob Bradshaw, the Company Sergeant Major, signing for his Officer Commanding. "Oho! Is that our Bradshaw? Where’d you get this?"

"That’s from the camp I was trained at," Benson said. "It’s ... not important."

But important enough to be locked away in a vault, thought Eric. It was known that Bradshaw had spent the latter half of the War training new recruits, and it was also known that his superior officer through the last year of it had been Captain Edward Garrett. If Benson had been trained under Bradshaw in the final months of the War, he must have been familiar with Garrett from that time as well. Eric said so, and added, "I was under the impression that you’d only just met Garrett within the past month or so."

"I was just one of many recruits passing by under him. He knew me by face, at the time, and that was all. We never actually spoke until we met again over my inheritance."

Eric thought even a prickly fellow like Garrett would make some effort to know something of the men under him, but that was neither here nor there. Instead, he turned his attention to the boarding school bill. He raised a brow. "You were educated in France?"

Benson nodded. "My father sent me there after my mother died. He seemed to think you couldn’t get a good ... a good education of this sort in England."

Eric looked back at the bill. Benson had been educated by a religious order, it seemed. The headmaster was a French monsignor by the name of Jean-Pierre Breuleux. It was an expensive education, not the sort one associated with the rank-and-file. But there was just enough patriotic fervour in Eric that the slight on English schools rankled. "What did he mean, ’a good education of this sort’? What sort?"

Benson shrugged. He looked uncomfortable. "I don’t know. I ... I’ve never met him, you see." He seemed unwilling to go on, and Eric didn’t press him.

The last item was the photograph. Benson made no protest as Eric picked it up, and Eric sensed a subtle alteration in Benson’s manner: he seemed more watchful, more interested in Eric’s reaction to the photograph, whereas he’d seemed a little embarrassed at the other contents of his deposit box.

This photograph was of a pair of VAD—Voluntary Aid Detachment—nurses, standing in the portico of a stately manor house. Eric scrutinised their faces. "She looks familiar," he said, indicating the taller girl. "Who is she?"

Benson looked away. "No one important," he said, his voice strangely soft. "A distant cousin, I suppose."

"Well, Benson, it seems to me you’ve got quite a personal collection of things here. Are you sure you want to risk having Morty Wolfe—who, if I may be honest here, doesn’t particularly care whom he hurts—discover these things and parade them around for all to see?"

"Maybe I didn’t think this through," Benson muttered. "What do you think I should do? Should I go back and tell them the bet’s off?"

"Not with Garrett also in the picture. And, let’s face it, Wolfe will ruin you if you do. Here, I’ll tell you what, I’ll take out the next box and you can keep the more private items in there until after noon tomorrow."

Benson agreed. Five minutes later, Eric was opening up box 16—the next box, 14, was already taken, and the key to 15 was missing. Benson put the letters and the school bill in it, and they locked it up. All that remained in Benson’s box was the photograph and the duty roster.

"I wouldn’t mind knowing what Captain Wolfe thinks of these two, come to think of it," Benson mused.

"What do you mean?"

"Nothing. A joke, that’s all." The vague, slightly stupid look he’d affected earlier was gone: there was a steely set to his jaw and, for a moment, Eric recognised Benson as a knight on a quest. Then the hair fell into his eyes, the bland look returned, and Benson was once again the oafish lump who needed things explained extra slowly.

Back up in the lounge, the officers were still milling about at the bar. Garrett was talking to Mainwaring; from the way the two of them looked up when Eric and Benson returned, Garrett must have been filling Mainwaring in on the details of their bet. As Garrett and Bradshaw detached themselves from the bar to approach Benson, Eric observed Mainwaring turning towards Norris; his pipe waggled as he repeated everything Garrett had just told him.

Benson, meanwhile, exchanged only a few words with Bradshaw and Garrett; after shaking hands with them, he made a beeline for Saxon. The two spoke quietly, and began to make their way to the doors.

That was a surprise. Garrett, Bradshaw, and now Saxon ... Patrick Benson clearly had closer connections to the club officers than anyone might have guessed. Judging by Garrett’s expression, the Benson-Saxon connection was as much a surprise to him as it was to Eric. Eric glanced over to the corner where he’d left Wolfe, wondering if it was as much a surprise to him as well, but the man had gone.

Saxon and Benson were halted at the lounge doors by the entrance of Martha Garrett, Edward Garrett’s wife, who brushed by them without a second glance. "Edward," she was saying, "is your meeting quite over yet? There is only so much idle window-shopping a woman may do, and I was really hoping you would be home for at least some reasonable portion of the evening...."

Benson turned to stare as she sailed by, mouth open in astonishment. It was not simply because Mrs. Garrett was not in fact allowed this far into the hallowed halls of the Vet, no matter who her husband might be: it was, as Eric could see, that she was a dead ringer for the taller of the two nurses in Benson’s old photograph.

His surprise was only momentary: Saxon took him by the elbow and dragged him out of the room; as the doors closed behind them, Eric saw Benson shake his head, laughing off the incident.

The reaction was not lost on Mrs. Garrett, however, who’d turned around just in time to catch it. "What was that about? Is there something on my nose?"

"That was Patrick Benson," replied Garrett. "I told you about him, remember?"

"Oh! From the hospital, of course! Edward, we’ll have to have the fellow over for dinner some time; we have ever so much to talk about. I wonder how he knows Saxon...."

Garrett, looking very much as though dinner with Benson would be akin to a visit to an exceptionally ham-fisted dentist, steered his wife towards the doors and eventually managed to leave with her.

Back at the bar, Norris chuckled. "I love Martha Garrett. She has such a delightful effect on her husband."


Eric arrived at the Vet just a little later than his usual time the next day. His dreams had been filled with Chinese antiquities: terra-cotta warriors, porcelain urns from various dynasties, scrolls painted with yellow-robed monkeys wielding iron cudgels.... Eric had been brought up English by an English father, and had little contact with the Chinese side of his ancestry; these images felt to him both familiar and alien, like an adventure meant exclusively for him.

He breakfasted in the dining room and sat down in the lounge with his reading, but Wolfe’s tale of the antique collector in Churston occupied half his mind. The other half concerned itself with Benson’s bet with Wolfe. Knowing that Benson had spent the night at the Vet, Eric had expected to meet the man there, but there was no sign of him. It was entirely possible, Eric supposed, that Benson had risen very early and left the building to attend to whatever business he had in London.

At a quarter to twelve, Eric put aside his reading—somehow a book on the Ming dynasty had found its way into his hands, and the manuscript he was supposed to be reading was tucked away behind a cushion—and called for a helping of steak and kidney pie to be brought to him in the lounge.

As the attendant slipped away, Mainwaring let himself into the lounge. He had a copy of the Times under one arm, and the ever-present pipe was drooping from the middle of his overgrown beard. Seeing Eric, he trudged over and said, "Garrett suggested last night that I drop by. I’d like to see how this lark of Wolfe’s is going to turn out. Club security, you know. Garrett should be here shortly; I know he wouldn’t miss this for the world, but I imagine his work is keeping him busy as usual."

Eric glanced at the clock hanging over the bar. "Wolfe will appear at the very last minute, no doubt. He loves his little dramatic flourishes. I don’t know about Benson. I haven’t seen him all morning, but there’s no reason he should want to miss this."

"No reason at all. Old Faithful tells me that Benson took one of the rooms overnight. Perhaps he’s sleeping in."

"You don’t like Benson much, do you?" asked Eric, noting the slight change in tone when Mainwaring said Benson’s name.

The drooping pipe shifted as Mainwaring chewed the stem. "No. I don’t. The fellow has money, and that is about all. He is not a gentleman."

Eric thought about Patrick Norris, an insouciant rascal if there ever was one, usually found hanging on to Mainwaring’s coat-tails; and then there was Oliver Saxon, who stalked about at all hours with his shirt tails half-in and half-out and his chin indifferently shaved, picking apples off the centrepiece displays in the dining room. Wolfe had said something about Saxon’s membership being entirely contingent on his father’s title, Eric recalled ... in a way, much as Eric’s own membership seemed to be contingent on his father’s popularity. At least I’m in good company, he thought, but aloud he said, "I’m surprised at you, Mainwaring. You’re the last person I expected to worry about that sort of thing. As far as class distinctions go, Benson’s hardly any different from, say, Patrick Norris."

Mainwaring gave him an icy glare. "There’s more to being a gentleman than mere accident of birth, Peterkin. I know Norris, and believe you me, Benson does not measure up."

"You hardly know the man."

"I have a nose for these things."

Garrett strode up to them before Eric could formulate a reply. "Are neither Wolfe nor Benson here yet? It’s nearly time."

Eric said: "I expect Wolfe to sweep in with fifteen seconds to spare, deposit the prize on the table, and then calmly sit back and light a cigarette while the rest of us squawk in wonder and consternation."

"That does rather seem like his style," Mainwaring said, letting out a low chuckle.

They turned to watch the clock, Garrett tapping his foot impatiently. As the second hand swept past the 9, the lounge door swung open to admit Mortimer Wolfe. He had a Cheshire cat smile on his face, and a small, linen-wrapped bundle tucked carelessly under one arm. Swaggering up to the gathered men, he dropped the bundle unceremoniously on the table, and threw himself into an armchair. "Benson not here yet?" he drawled as he lit up a cigarette. "That does rather spoil the effect."

Garrett eyed the linen-wrapped bundle and said, "I suppose I owe you a hundred pounds. Unless Peterkin here can swear that this is not what was left in Benson’s deposit box. Peterkin?"

"Let’s wait for Benson." It was only fair, though Eric could tell from the shape of the bundle that it was probably not an ancient CRO and a photograph. Wolfe was about to be taken down a peg, and Eric wanted Benson here for it.

"Bother Benson," said Garrett. "It’s past noon, and I’m fairly certain that nobody ever said anything about everyone having to be in attendance for the grand unveiling. Wolfe, let’s see what you’ve got there."

"As you wish." Wolfe stood up and whipped off the linen wrapping with a flourish, to reveal ... a grubby-looking medicine bottle, half-full.

Eric began, "That’s not—"

But Mainwaring had leapt to his feet and snatched up the bottle with a strangled oath: "Damn it, Wolfe, where did you get this?"

"Out of Benson’s safe deposit box, of course," Wolf replied, raising an eyebrow. If he thought he’d made a mistake, he showed no sign of it. "Is there something wrong? Perhaps you should be asking how Benson came into possession of this. Morphine, if I’m not mistaken. There was an old hypodermic kit as well, which I suppose he’d kept from his days at the hospital during the War. But the bet was that I should bring something, not everything; so I left the kit and brought the bottle. After all, a hypodermic kit is only a souvenir, whereas a bottle of morphine is definitely a touch of scandal."

Mainwaring turned to Eric and demanded: "Was this in fact what Benson had in his safe deposit box?"

"No, what he had was an old duty roster from a training camp, and a photograph."

"Rubbish," said Wolfe, darting a hostile look at Eric. "You people will say anything."

Mainwaring paid him no attention. "Get Old Faithful," he said. "We’re going to get to the bottom of this." He strode for the doors without waiting for the others. Garrett and Eric hurried after him, and Wolfe followed at a more sedate but no less astonished pace.

Old Faithful asked no questions. He scurried before them to the antechamber, and began turning the wheel of the vault door to its combination as Eric, Mainwaring, Garrett, and Wolfe crowded into the space behind him. At last, the vault door swung open, and a hush fell on the assembly.

Patrick Benson was stretched out on his side on the floor of the vault, mouth open in an expression of wide-eyed surprise, and he was quite, quite dead. He was barefoot; his shirt and trousers appeared to have been thrown on in haste, and his braces hung loose at his sides. Protruding from his chest was the decorative handle of ... a dagger of some sort?

Mainwaring pulled Old Faithful back before the latter could lay a hand on the corpse. "Don’t. Don’t bother; he’s clearly beyond help. Call the police."

Next Chapter: Chapter Two