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Dragon's Skin

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New York City
Spring 1965

 

“You incinerating something?” Napoleon called when he came into the living room still towelling his hair.

The door to the balcony was open, the spring breeze bringing a singed aroma with it.

“Not deliberately,” Illya replied.

Napoleon tightened the belt of his bathrobe and stepped quickly out into the leafy shade. There weren’t many things Illya did accidentally.

Napoleon glanced at Illya, sniffed and followed the direction of Illya’s intent look.

Upon the seat of the nearest wrought iron garden chair the polished rose quartz geode they had recently liberated from a THRUSH research facility in Switzerland sat like a giant Easter egg. Below it, the metal of the seat was glowing a dark red.

“What were you doing?” Napoleon asked, leaning forward and grabbing one of the coffee mugs on the table.

Without turning his eyes from the geode, Illya replied, “Other than having my second cup of coffee, I was wondering if I could affect the traffic below.”

“Mr Waverly might not be amused at a pile-up in front of an UNCLE apartment building,” Napoleon offered.

Illya glowered at him. “Traffic’s relatively sparse this morning, and I was planning to choose a suitable opportunity. A lone car, stalled for a moment or two, before I allowed it to go on.”

“You think you can control it that precisely?”

“It worked with the toaster.”

Over the rim of his coffee cup, Napoleon looked at the empty plate on the table littered with crumbs and a smear of jam. “So, you wanted to try for bigger game, as it were.”

“As it were,” Illya said and snatched the towel from around Napoleon’s neck. He wadded it up, dropped it to the floor and pushed it under the chair with his foot. “In case the metal gives way.”

Napoleon grabbed Illya’s hands and examined the palms.

Illya pulled them away. “It started a few minutes after I set it down, not long before you came out.”

Napoleon eyed the chair. “That’s quite a jump in temperature. Must have been the approach of my magnetic personality.”

The seat of the chair glowed a brighter shade of red. “Yes,” Illya agreed.

As they watched, the egg began to rotate. The iron beneath it groaned. The egg stopped, its narrow end oriented towards the park across the street. The vines of the flowering plant withdrew from the railing directly facing it.

“Binoculars,” Illya said as he crouched near the opening.

Napoleon ducked inside and grabbed the pair in the drawer beneath the coffee table, handed them to Illya and peered over his shoulder. There were a number of people strolling and sitting in the park, but they appeared to all be giving a wide berth to one man in a drab raincoat sitting on a bench facing away from the street.

“Perhaps he hasn’t showered this morning,” Napoleon quipped.

Illya grunted as he adjusted the focus on the binoculars. “I’m not getting even a glimpse of his face from this angle.”

“Is that a wisp of smoke?” Napoleon asked.

Illya turned his head slightly. “Yes.”

The man rose from the bench, hat low over his face and heavy leather satchel causing him to list slightly to one side as he headed across the lawn towards the sidewalk. A thin trail of smoke followed him. At the edge of the lawn, he stumbled, then bent over.

“I’m surprised the leather held out that long.” Napoleon nudged Illya. “He’s got a friend.”

A woman in blue coveralls with a long, blonde braid emerged from a white van parked a few yards away, its gold and black gothic signage proclaiming it to be the property of Architectural Antiques, Ltd. She opened the rear doors and motioned to the fellow with the satchel, whose shout of pain carried well in the relative quiet of an early Sunday morning. Several people near the pond turned their heads before moving further away. The man peeled off his glove and shook his hand back and forth.

“What is it about THRUSH operatives that inspires such instinctive antipathy?” Napoleon asked.

“Their fashion sense?” Illya leaned closer to the railing. “It’s another egg. Nearly the same size, darker, with a metallic sheen and apparently quite hot.”

The man was attempting, with his foot, to roll the egg back into the satchel, which was lying on the grass, gaping hole positioned towards it. After a moment, he began hopping on one leg and cursing. A couple families hustled their children out of earshot.

The woman strode over to her colleague, pulling on a pair of what looked to be asbestos gloves as she walked. She tossed her head in the direction of the van and the man left. She scooped the egg into what remained of the leather bag and carried it by its sides back to the vehicle, slammed the back door shut and got into the driver’s side.

“How fast can you dress, Napoleon?”

“Is there time?”

There was a scraping sound and the egg fell through the seat of the chair and landed on the damp towel. The smell of scorched cloth rose from it.

“I think I can delay them a while...” Illya watched a red sports car turn onto the street. He extended his leg behind him until the toe of his shoe bumped against the geode and focussed on the car. The driver appeared to be looking for a parking spot. The car stalled next to the white van. Illya moved his foot. The driver tried restarting. The engine caught, then Illya tapped his shoe against the geode, and the engine died. “…if you’re fast.”

Napoleon smiled as he slipped into the living room. “Time me,” he called over his shoulder.

The grating sound of an ignition failing to catch wafted up to the balcony. Illya smirked.

On the street, the THRUSH agents were offering to help push the sports coupe out of the way. When they succeeded, Illya lifted his foot from the egg. The Mustang gave a roar and reversed, ready to seize the space left by the van.

The THRUSH agents climbed into their vehicle. Illya tapped the geode. The van wouldn’t start. The Mustang’s driver leaned on his horn.

***

The top of their black convertible was up and the visors of their flat caps were down, when Illya lifted his gloved forefinger from the geode nestled in the ceramic bowl beside him on the front seat. The blue streak pouring out of the cab stalled at the corner ceased. The taxi’s tires squealed as it made the turn onto the Avenue of the Americas. The Architectural Antiques vehicle followed behind, pony-tail girl hitting a tattoo on the side of the van where her arm hung out the open driver’s side window. Napoleon stood by the convertible’s open front door, leaning lightly on the canvas top, chewing on a cigar.

“Temper, temper,” Napoleon tutted. He cheeks puffed up above the cigar as the van passed. A faint ting reached his ears. He slipped into his seat with a smile and shut the door.

When the van was a few car lengths beyond the intersection with East 58th, Illya pulled away from the curb.

Napoleon adjusted the cutting board beneath the salad bowl and the folded bathroom rug between it and the back of the seat. He held his hand above the dish.

“I’d keep us warm when the heater is cranky in the winter,” he said. In the bowl, the narrow end of the egg shifted left.

Illya followed the van onto East 56th and the egg realigned itself to point straight at the dashboard. “I’ve never seen or heard of a dragon’s egg acting like a tracking device.”

“They like their own kind?” Napoleon suggested.

“Anthropomorphism, Napoleon?”

The egg shifted in its towel nest as the van turned north onto Lexington Avenue.

“Let’s just say I understand attraction.”

Illya rolled his eyes and proceeded onto Lexington as well.

“A lot of eggs in your grandparents’ neighbourhood?” Napoleon asked.

“I never knew anyone else who admitted to having one, but certainly at one time most of the homes in their area would have kept one.” Illya stopped at a traffic light. “Since people often carried the small ones, if they become burning hot in proximity to one another, I would have thought that would have made its way into the tales.”

“But they disrupt magnetic fields, right?” Napoleon asked.

“True, and it would have been a useful way to ignite a fire,” Illya replied, his gaze on the van sailing through another green light that was likely to be red when he reached it.

“You said the THRUSH egg looked metallic. Maybe they’ve coated it with something to direct the magnetism, focus it, magnify it.”

The light turned green and Illya drove on, being stopped again, as he had expected by the red signal at the next intersection. “Nothing in the lab notes we took in Switzerland indicated such an approach, and that man certainly didn’t act like he expected it.”

“Maybe they had more than one research facility working on them?” Napoleon said. “Or another scientist in a different lab at the chateau, the one Dr Brannigan was shouting down the phone at.”

Illya scowled.

“It would seem their egg led them to our apartment building. Perhaps we’re following them into a trap?” Napoleon suggested.

“I could stop their van right now and we could go ask them.”

Napoleon leaned back in his seat. “If we lost sight of them, would our egg be able to lead us to them anyway?”

Illya pulled over into the nearest loading zone, observed the van a couple blocks ahead. He looked over at Napoleon. “Is the tracking device you attached to the van functioning?”

Napoleon opened the glove compartment. On the inside of the door, a small circle moved along the map of Manhattan displayed on the screen there. “George’s latest adhesive break-through appears to be holding firm to the outside of the van.”

The reek of scorched cloth filled the car. The geode shifted in the bowl. “Drive,” Napoleon said, rolling his window down.

Illya sped from the curb and through two amber lights. Idling at a traffic signal, the van came into view, it’s blinker flashing. Illya turned onto East 64th right behind it.

Napoleon’s hand hovered over the geode. “It’s cooling down,” he said, waving his hand to dispel the stench. “It didn’t like the added distance.”

Illya glanced at Napoleon and back to the road and the van.

Grey clouds were rolling across the river. The sky was half obscured by them when the convertible slipped onto the FDR. A rain shower that had not reached Central Park, had left the pavement dark; narrow puddles dampening the shoulder. The taxi directly ahead changed into the left lane leaving the van visible well ahead in the right. Through the windows, the hiss of tires was audible in the unnatural quiet of the road’s holiday morning emptiness.

***

They turned into a side street when the van stopped in front of an old warehouse. Illya did a deft u-turn and parked the car close enough to the corner that they could watch.

The woman came around from the driver’s side and helped the man from the van. She held his wrists instead of his hands as he descended the two high steps and said something. The man shook his head. The woman walked ahead and unlocked a wooden door next to a large, barred window, above which ornate white letters on the red brick proclaimed, “Architectural Antiques.” She helped the man inside and returned to the van. From the back, she took out the satchel, holding up its sides like a sling for the egg. Setting it on the pavement, she locked the van, then carried the egg inside.

Napoleon tilted his head towards the door. “Shall we?”

They were across the street in a thrice. A quick survey of the goods in the window revealed a marble mantelpiece with wrought iron fire basket and bright brass fire irons. Above it hung a framed, mountain landscape done in stained glass.

Napoleon gave a double rap to the door and opened it.

Startled, both occupants looked at him for several seconds before speaking.

“I do hope you can help us,” Napoleon began in his most charming tone. “Hardly anything is open and we are in urgent need of a present for our uncle.”

The woman straightened up from where she was bending over the satchel she had placed on the floor. She glanced at her father.

“I’m sorry, we’re…”

“Please don’t say you’re closed. The door was open and we saw such lovely things in your window, I’m sure you’d have the kind of present we need.”

The woman didn’t finish her sentence. Her hand went up to her hair and Napoleon smiled.

“We won’t take long. We…” He gestured at Illya, who was admiring an antique safe displayed on a sturdy table by the door. “…my cousin and I, need to bring the present with us to dinner.” He consulted his watch. “At two, which doesn’t leave much time for us to get home and change and head out again.”

Illya watched the woman’s posture alter. Despite his hasty dressing, Napoleon looked his usual, dapper self, although he had foregone a tie.

“Most of what we have is architectural,” she explained. “Like the repaired stained glass sidelight I delivered to a client this morning.”

Napoleon nodded attentively.

“They were having guests later today. It was something of an emergency.” She smoothed down the front of her overalls. “I don’t usually deliver on a Sunday.”

“You do repairs, too,” Napoleon said.

“Only glass things and when Papa’s visiting,” she said, indicating the man seated by the side of a grand oak desk and following the conversation intently. “He is an artist…in glass. One of the finest.”

Illya and Napoleon turned their attention to the seated gentleman.

He bowed his head at his daughter’s compliment. “Familial pride,” he said and stood. “Auguste Salviati and my fair daughter, Lisle.”

Napoleon bent over Lisle Salviati’s hand and shook her father’s. “Napoleon Solo and my cousin, Illya.”

Illya stepped forward and shook hands with them both, noted the father’s wince. “A pleasure,” he assured them and looked curiously at the egg on the satchel on the floor. “That might suit our needs.”

Salviati looked down and shook his head.

“Is it broken?” Illya asked, crouching down beside it. He rested his hand on the smooth surface, which he realised now was glass.

“Don’t, it’s hot!” Salviati exclaimed.

Illya glanced up. “Warm,” he said and lifted the object. “Was it by a radiator?” He held it out for Napoleon to see.

“Beautiful craftsmanship,” Napoleon remarked. “An example of your work?” He raised his eyebrows at Salviati.

The artist nodded. “It was a commission, but when the time arrived to collect the piece and pay, my client did not come. When I enquired, I was told he had moved away without forwarding address.”

“Unconscionable,” Napoleon tutted. “It is the sort of distinctive bibelot our uncle likes to collect.

Illya stood. “It’s heavier than I expected. Is it solid glass?”

“No, inside there is stone. Not what I would normally use for a decorative piece, just an ordinary bit of limestone that had been roughly hewn into an egg shape.” Salviati began to warm to his subject. “I had to smooth it before I could encase it in glass.”

“Not a geode?” Illya asked, standing.

“No, the kind of limestone of which many houses and garden walls are built. Weathered a bit. Maybe some spare stones kept for repairs at the chateau. Definitely, not a geode.”

“Chateau?” Napoleon asked, taking the egg and turning it slowly. The glass had not cracked when it fell.

“In Switzerland. It’s where I live and work for part of the year. My older daughter and her husband run the workshop in my absence.”

“A family of artists!” Napoleon exclaimed, handing the egg back to Illya.

Salviati smiled, reaching out to pat his daughter’s arm. “Lisle is the one who has followed in my footsteps, glass mosaics are her speciality. But we have only photos, because they are installed in homes and churches and such. Lisabetta and her husband are the scientists. They design and make glass for laboratory and medical use. Fortunately, the last order from the chateau had been paid for before our contact disappeared.”

“A business failure?” Illya asked. “They are far too common these days.”

Salviati appeared to consider. He shrugged. “Perhaps. Or perhaps it was the fire, although it wasn’t very big. No one from the village who worked there was hurt, but there was damage in some part of the main building.”

“So, buyer absconding, you brought your art to sell in New York, and here we are.” Napoleon held out his open palms.

Illya avoided his eyes.

“Actually, my contact’s business card had another address here in New York, but he doesn’t seem to be there either. The concierge had no information about him…that he was willing to share, at least.”

“You have been more than diligent,” Napoleon said. “Unless that lump of limestone had some sentimental significance, I doubt the person who commissioned it is going to come looking for it out of the blue now.”

Salviati shook his head. “Nothing special about that, as I said, although easy to shape than many stones.” He pursed his lips and looked up at the ceiling. “What might have been special is the glass I made.”

“Well, yes, of course,” Napoleon agreed. “It is a beautiful colour.” He looked over at Illya. “And an intriguing design. Almost organic, like snakeskin.”

Salviati chuckled. “You know the way to an artist’s heart, I think.” He waved a forefinger at Napoleon. “Doctor Bra…I mean my client, gave me a quantity of sand that he wanted incorporated into the glass shell. It’s that that produced the colour you are admiring.”

“Left from when he shaped the limestone?” Illya asked.

“No, it would have had a different result. The sand he gave me had a lot of quartz in it, faintly pink, which gives a hint of violet to the blue.” He lightly tapped the egg in Napoleon’s hand. “I added copper for the green, and, of course, the gold that you see.”

“The doctor gave you a design to work from?” Illya enquired.

“Heavens, no! He wanted the limestone coated in glass made using his sand, with the stone inside lending it shape. That was where his interest stopped. He specified nothing else.” Salviati’s fingertips glided over the egg. “But in the process of making glass, you get a feeling from it. Each time it’s different. When it’s glowing hot, it talks to you. That’s when the idea for the pattern and the colours came to me.” Slowly, he withdrew his hand.

“Our uncle would appreciate that,” Napoleon said, bringing the egg closer to his chest. “I think I know what piece he would display it with.” He glanced at Illya.

Illya nodded. “I think I know what he would call it, too: Dragonskin.”

Salviati stared at Illya. “It speaks to your imagination, too. Is your uncle as imaginative?”

Napoleon raised his eyebrows. “Even more so.”

“Very well. I agree to sell it to you, but I must warn you, it gets hot sometimes, and I have no explanation for it.”

Napoleon nodded slowly, regarding Salviati. “Tell us your price.”

***

The rain had held off, but the clouds had remained heavy in the sky. The sun had passed its zenith and begun to descend as they drove down the FDR.

Napoleon held the cool, glass egg in his lap.

“Why don’t you put it in the bowl?” Illya said, resting a couple fingers on the dragon’s egg.

“It’s not going to explode or black out the electric grid of New York, is it?”

“I don’t think so,” Illya replied, moving his hand away.

Napoleon settled the glass egg among the folds of the towel in the bowl. "Pleased to have your other half back?" he said to the dragon's egg.

Illya snorted. “So Brannigan worked in New York, too.” They passed the exit that would have led most directly back to the south side of the park.

Napoleon’s eyes slid across to Illya. “Are you thinking about that THRUSH facility we haven’t yet concocted a scheme for infiltrating?”

Illya smiled. “What were the coordinates exactly?”

***

“How are you, Carlo?”

Mr Waverly leaned back in his desk chair. “The entire facility, yes.” He took a thoughtful puff on his pipe. “Not a single one, holiday weekend, you know. Air conditioning failure in their labs apparently. Lots of combustible fluids that needed to be chilled.” He nodded. “Rubble and ashes.” He nodded again. “The City Fire Department have been finding some strange residue on the site…indeed. We’ve lent them some personnel from Section VIII.” He chuckled. “All right, I’ll say it. It was a good idea to let him keep it.” He nodded. “Yes, they make a good team.” A cloud of smoke rose from his pipe.

A machine along the wall whirred.

“No, I hadn’t heard.” Mr Waverly glanced over his shoulder. “Wait a moment, Carlo.” He rested his pipe in the ashtray on the table. Swivelling about in his chair, he watched a paper drop into the tray beneath a small, blank screen. He turned back to the table reading it.

“I see,” Mr Waverly said into the phone, paper still in hand. “Dreadful business. Arthur must be furious he didn’t get to them first.”

Mr Waverly pushed the paper aside and listened. “It’s true, Arthur Hawthorne’s always been stubborn that way. Perhaps you should call him before I do. Plant the idea.” He nodded, pressing his lips together. “Yes.”

***

From the balcony, Illya looked out over the city as the lights winked on at the edge of the park and the last of the daylight faded.

Napoleon came out from the living room with two glasses in his hands. He nudged Illya’s arm with one of them. Illya half turned to accept it.

“We made quite a dent in THRUSH plans last week,” Napoleon said.

“Getting restless?”

“Getting sick of the paperwork.” Napoleon took a sip of his scotch.

“It’s been interesting down in the labs. They’ll be analysing debris for months.” Illya downed his vodka. “Some of the notebooks we took in Switzerland have proved very useful in that regard.”

“I wonder what THRUSH has made of their mishap.”

Illya held up his empty glass. “Me, too.”

***

Mr Waverly ended the call from Geneva and pressed the intercom button. “Miss Rogers, kindly book tickets to London for Mr Solo and Mr Kuryakin for tomorrow.”

***

Napoleon wrapped his hand around the glass. “Shall I bring out the bottle?”

Illya turned and caught Napoleon’s eye. “We could just go inside where the bottle is.”

Napoleon eased the glass away and smiled. “We could.”

***