Somewhere near the Swiss border
Napoleon stood, eye to the crack between the jamb and the door, and peered out into the hall. All was dark, all was silent, but his skin prickled and he did not intend to ignore it. Lady Luck’s apparent favour had more to do with his finely honed senses, including the ones that he never mentioned to anyone, than benevolent deities, ancient or modern. He heeded the warning signs.
He glanced over his shoulder. Above the antique desk that crouched on its claw feet on the far side of the room, a faint glow illuminated a fold of the tapestry behind which they had located the safe. Illya had cracked it like it was a child’s toy, but inside there had been a strong box that was resisting his attentions with unusual success.
Napoleon extended his gloved fingers through the narrow opening between door and frame. A chill ran up his arm. Soundlessly, he shut the door and turned the large brass key in the lock. They would need to find another exit; the corridor through which they had come was no longer secure, despite the stillness and the dark.
He crossed the Persian carpet that covered most of the floor. His shoes sunk into it. The sense of unease faded as he walked further from the door.
Behind the desk, velvet-lined trays of jewels twinkled next to Illya’s kneeling figure. A sheaf of documents bound with a black ribbon drooped against the wall, half covering two small leather-bound books.
Illya had the large box balanced against his thighs, the torch clamped between his teeth, its light focussed on the box’s lock.
“Can’t we take the whole box?” Napoleon whispered, peering over Illya’s black-clad shoulder.
Illya took the torch out of his mouth. “Hold this,” he said and settled cross-legged on the carpet with the steel chest across his knees.
Napoleon sat on the edge of the desk and aimed the torch at the lock.
“It’s too heavy. The lining must be lead. Hopefully, not because there’s radioactive material inside,” he replied. “The lock is unlike any I have ever seen.”
Napoleon leaned forward and rested a hand on Illya’s shoulder. “Got the better of you, has it?”
The lock clicked.
“Start loading your pockets with the baubles and the papers,” Illya said, holding his hand up for the torch.
Napoleon dropped it into Illya’s palm and crouched. Jacket open, he scooped up a handful of rings and brooches and poured them into one of the garment’s inner pockets. They tinkled musically as they cascaded into their new hiding place, the gems refracting the torch’s light as they fell. “There’s not a stone less than three carats here,” Napoleon murmured.
“Most of the older jewels are from museums looted during the war,” Illya said, exploring the contents of the lead-lined box. “I recognised several from the post-war list of missing treasures. I imagine the newer ones were in personal collections.”
Napoleon held up a necklace of huge sapphires ringed in diamonds. “They’d match your eyes,” he said as he slipped it into another pocket.
Illya rolled his eyes in reply. “That one’s been stolen before. A colonial acquisition from India.”
“Ah,” Napoleon said and added a gold chain studded with immense emeralds to his cache. “I’m surprised these haven’t been split up and recut.”
“They have historical value,” Illya said, “private collectors will pay a lot for something some crowned despot wore. These may have been intended for the auction in Hong Kong next week.”
“Well, we’ll just siphon off a bit of their cash flow at the source,” Napoleon said, unzipping his collar and slipping a ruby tiara between its padded sides.
There was another click. Illya lifted the lid of an inner compartment. Leather padding covered additional lead lining and a thick piece of wood divided the box into two sections. The front half was full of large, loose diamonds, the rear one contained one item cushioned by wads of crumpled red silk.
Napoleon glanced over at the polished, egg-shaped rock nestled in the case. “Another collector’s item?” he asked.
Illya pressed a button on his watch and passed his wrist over the box’s contents. “They aren’t radioactive,” he said. He looked more closely at his watch. “However, the rock is highly magnetic.” He peered at the edge of the lid. “There’s a layer of a nickel-iron alloy inside the lead lining.”
Napoleon looked sideways at Illya as he folded the legal papers and tucked them into yet another pocket of his jacket.
“Used as shielding for magnetic substances,” Illya explained, “but we didn’t find a radio transmitter in this room. There isn’t even a telephone.”
“Is it powerful enough to interfere with communications elsewhere in the château?” Napoleon asked, leafing through the small books. “Ledger and code book. How accommodating of THRUSH to provide,” he said and added them to the pocket with the papers. He dropped a long rope of large pearls in after them.
“I don’t know precisely how strong a field it’s generating; the reading surpassed the calibrations on the gauge,” Illya said.
Napoleon filled his final two pockets with the remaining bracelets, pendants and a jewel-encrusted cigarette case, reattached his collar, zipped his pockets and stood. “I hope we don’t have to do any swimming on our way back,” he said.
Illya turned the rock. The smooth surface ended in an irregular opening revealing the red inner surface of the egg. “A dragon’s egg,” he said.
“A ruby geode?” Napoleon asked, angling his head for a clearer view.
“Quartz,” Illya said, twisting to look around the room. “We’ve missed something.”
There was a whirring sound.
Illya switched off the torch, pulled the tapestry down over the emptied safe. Napoleon ducked back behind the desk and drew out his gun.
A bright vertical line appeared on the adjacent wall.
“What the bloody hell are you doing down there? The tapes started running backwards a minute ago and now the machines are spewing smoke,” a man’s voice shouted. He paused. “You’re lucky we made back-up tapes this morning or you’d be missing more than your dinner this evening.”
The line broadened into a rectangle. The silhouette of a man appeared holding a telephone to his ear, its cord pulled taut. The stench of melted plastic poured into the room.
“Just get your underlings out of the…” The man held the receiver away from his ear, jabbed at something on the wall once, then again. The high-pitched whine did not stop. He slammed down the receiver and stepped into the office, lab coat besmirched.
A woman in a well-cut suit holding a handkerchief to her nose followed him.
Through the open doorway, a wall of computers could be seen, red lights blinking through wisps of smoke.
The man turned to his companion. “I apologise, Doctor. Our operation usually runs much more smoothly, I assure you.”
The woman waved the handkerchief in front of her face. “So your reports would lead THRUSH Central to believe,” she replied, a trace of French in the shape of her English words.
They reached the door to the hall. “That’s odd,” the man said.
“What is malfunctioning now?” the woman enquired, sighing.
“I don’t remember lock…”
The specials discharged simultaneously. The scientist and the doctor crumpled.
Napoleon slipped around the desk, relieved the woman of her weapon, the man of his keys.
Illya rushed into the lab. His laughter wafted out into the office on a cloud of white smoke.
“What’s so funny?” Napoleon asked, plucking a dark cloth from his trousers’ pocket and tying it over his nose. He aligned the man’s body with the bottom of the door, tucking the lab coat into the gap between the floor and the door and discharged another tranquiliser dart into each of the slumbering Thrush.
“Bring the dragon’s egg,” Illya said.
“The…ah,” Napoleon said, turning towards the laboratory and holstering his gun. He side-stepped around the desk and retrieved the geode.
“Where would you like this?” he asked from the lab’s doorway.
Illya looked up from the file cabinet drawers he was rifling and pointed to a tall metal box on the table in the centre of the room with one hand and held up two notebooks with the other. “Original lab notes,” he said and tucked the notebooks under his arm. “Put the geode in that crate and double up your handkerchief. They’re really going to stink as they melt.” He unlocked another drawer with a pick.
“I guess you don’t need these,” Napoleon said, holding up the key ring.
Illya waved them away. “Pathetic locks,” he scoffed, “unlike the one inside the safe.”
Napoleon flipped open the crate and nestled the point of the egg in the centre hole of the top reel of tapes. “What are these?”
“Dr Brannigan’s back-up files,” Illya chuckled, pulling out more reels of tape that he tossed towards Napoleon.
Napoleon caught them and stacked them on the table.
“According to the lab notes that’s the name of the man in the outer office, the chief scientist in charge of this research facility. Put those on top of the crate and grab the briefcase under the table. Dr Egret appears to be THRUSH’s quality control officer for science projects,” Illya continued.
“You think that’s Dr Egret in there?” Napoleon asked, taking the briefcase and stepping back from the smouldering pile on the table.
“That’s what the documents in the case indicate, but she’s fooled us before,” Illya said, closing the top drawer and bringing several more tapes to heap on the table. Green flames licked up the side of the crate. Liquid plastic oozed from one of its bottom corners. He set the new reels in a puddle of it. They sizzled.
“Pity we can’t take her with us,” Napoleon said from the office. He finished binding the wrists and ankles of the putative Dr Egret with the ties from the drapes and plucked the tranquilizer darts from both bodies.
“It’s going to be difficult enough climbing down from the balcony with all this,” Illya said, sliding the lab notebooks into his jacket pocket and zipping it closed.
Napoleon raised an eyebrow.
“Well, you’ve piled our THRUSH friends in front of the door to the hallway,” Illya said. “I conclude you don’t like that route anymore. The balcony’s the only other exit I see, unless there’s a secret staircase you haven’t told me about.”
“No-o,” Napoleon said and took several photographs of the recumbent scientists with his lighter.
Illya picked up the briefcase from next to Napoleon, slipped the shoulder strap over his head and collected his torch and the rest of his tools from behind the desk.
Napoleon wiped the lighter on the hem of his shirt and pressed Dr Egret’s thumb and forefinger against one side of the metal lighter and the other three fingers to its opposite side. He pulled off his handkerchief and wound it around the lighter and tucked it deep into his trousers pocket.
Something gleamed on the carpet. Illya tutted and held up a large diamond earring for Napoleon to see before wrapping it up with his tools.
The lights in the laboratory flickered.
Napoleon pulled the knot in Dr Brannigan’s tie tight around his wrists and stood.
“Wires melting in there?” Napoleon asked, stepping over Dr Egret.
Illya tilted his head towards the balcony. Shouts could be heard outside. “Everything electrical should be malfunctioning in another minute or so, including alarms and electrical fences,” Illya said.
“Convenient,” Napoleon replied.
“The smell should confuse the guard dogs as well,” Illya added.
“Better and better,” Napoleon replied, parting the drapes enough to look out.
The lights in the laboratory went off. The rooms and the gardens lay in darkness for a moment before emergency lights buzzed to life and bathed the walls and the gardens in an eerie orange light. Then the generators went off.
“No wires. Very nice,” Napoleon murmured, pulling the drapes open further. A dull red glow reflected off the glass.
Napoleon dropped the curtain. They both glanced over their shoulders. The door to the lab was filled with a red light. “Something about to blow up in there?”
“No,” Illya said and dashed back to the laboratory.
Whistles and curses rose from the garden. In the lab, water splashed and steam hissed.
Illya returned juggling from hand to hand something swathed in a wet towel.
“Shall we?” Napoleon said, reaching between the drapes and unlatching the balcony doors.
Illya grabbed a newspaper off the desk, wrapped it around the damp towel and lifted the flap on the briefcase.
“After you,” Illya said.
Several Thrush raced under the balcony and into the house, arguing and swearing in three languages. A door banged shut behind them.
“They can’t find the batteries for the torches,” Illya whispered in Napoleon’s ear.
“Insufficiently versatile,” Napoleon murmured, swinging his leg over the balcony railing. “One back-up plan is not enough.”
Illya slid into the seat at the rear of the plane.
Napoleon handed him the glass of vodka he had been holding and lifted his glass of scotch. “Here’s to making it out of the château and Geneva HQ.”
“Mr Feranti did seem exceptionally pleased with our achievements,” Illya said.
Napoleon took a sip of his drink. “You don’t think he could talk Mr Waverly into transferring us, do you?”
Illya shrugged. “As long as he sent both of us, I wouldn’t mind being back in Europe.”
“If he could only have one of us, I think he would prefer you,” Napoleon said, swirling the scotch around in his glass. “That rock was a courting gift.”
“Rose quartz geodes don’t cost much,” Illya said, upending his glass, “even a nicely polished one this large.” He nudged the briefcase on the table that held several files and the well-wrapped geode.
Napoleon pulled a bottle of vodka from a pouch on the side of the bench.
Illya pushed his glass across the table.
Napoleon poured a larger measure than before, recapped the bottle and tucked it away. “Feranti called it a ‘dragon’s egg’, too. What’s the story behind that?” he asked and finished his scotch. “Some old folktale?”
Illya watched Napoleon pour himself another drink and swallow half of it.
“As folktales go, it’s not so very old,” Illya said. “It’s a tale of industrial sabotage.”
Napoleon looked up from his study of the whiskey in his glass, propped his elbow on the arm of the seat and his chin in his hand. “Do tell,” he said.
Illya’s eyebrow rose and a faint smile flickered across his lips. He took a sip of his vodka. “The sub-continent is rich in minerals,” he began, his voice pitched lower than usual.
Illya taunted in that tone and underneath the teasing there was always a thread of something else. Napoleon turned more in his seat, stretched out one leg between Illya’s calf and the bench.
Illya did not shift away.
“There were sapphires and rubies for princes and their merchant rivals, to be bought or stolen depending on their inclinations and abilities.” Illya took another sip of vodka.
A trace of the spirit shone on his lip.
Napoleon watched the play of muscles suppressing Illya’s smile.
“And lesser baubles for the soldiers and sailors to bring back to their wives and daughters or to keep for themselves as talismans for such men were often superstitious, luck playing such a prominent role in their lives.” Illya took another sip and held Napoleon’s eyes over the rim of the glass.
“It’s not all luck,” Napoleon protested, not looking away. He wondered what Illya knew without having been told.
“Stories began to grow around the various trinkets, rough or polished, carved or plain. Bits of tales from one place mixed with fragments of stories from another and attached to this shaped rock or that coloured stone. It passed the time on the long voyages, helped the more entrepreneurial-minded sell their samples and enhanced the allure of those given as gifts.” Illya held up his nearly empty glass and Napoleon reached for the bottle. “I had a great-great-grandfather who sailed those seas and he brought home such a memento for his young daughter...”
Napoleon replenished Illya’s glass and stowed the bottle.
“…and the story that went with her egg-shaped stone with a fiery core was encompassed almost entirely in the name attached to it: dragon’s egg. Over time, attributes were expounded upon, such as dragon’s not liking man-made counterfeits of their powers, like locomotives and steam-powered machines, to be near their nestlings.”
“Ah,” Napoleon said, leaning his shoulder against the back of his seat, loosening his tie and unbuttoning his collar.
Illya smiled. “There were those to whom these trinkets made their way, who did not care for the railroads that cut across their fields or the factories that belched black smoke over their villages, blighting their crops and taking away the livelihoods of craftsmen and artisans.”
“The eggs with the blood red hearts made a good symbol,” Napoleon said.
Illya tilted his head in acknowledgement. “Those who acted to thwart the spread of the industrialisation took to leaving an ‘egg’ at the scene of a proposed intervention. Workers came to understand the warning and would not come to work. Owners ignored the superstitious nonsense.”
“And went boom,” Napoleon said, spreading the fingers of one hand.
“Something like that,” Illya said.
“Owning one must have started to be a problem,” Napoleon surmised.
“People took to hiding them and the stories grew,” Illya replied. “It was rumoured that explosives were not needed to destroy the machines; an egg in the right place would do, even one the size of a quail’s egg would suffice for a factory. The machines would seize up, the furnaces would not burn. The stories grew wilder.”
Napoleon lifted an eyebrow.
“There were tales of those who could communicate with the eggs, so their own small, say, sawmill, would work, even with a stone in the sawyer’s pocket, but the machines in the new textile factory at the edge of town would jam and break,” Illya continued.
“Any sawyers in the family?” Napoleon asked.
“My grandmother’s father,” Illya replied.
“Did she have a red-hearted geode the size of a quail’s egg?” Napoleon asked.
Illya smiled. “My mother inherited it.”
“Should I be worried that we have one the size of an ostrich egg on a plane?” Napoleon asked, gesturing towards the briefcase with his drink.
Illya leaned forward and laid his hand on the egg. The plane climbed steeply. He lifted his hand and the plane dropped back to its former altitude.
“Sorry, gentlemen. A bit of unexpected turbulence there, but we’re fine,” the captain said over the loudspeaker.
Napoleon glanced out the window at the azure sky. “Are we fine?”
“I don’t want the plane to crash,” Illya said.
“No, no, I suppose not,” Napoleon said. He finished his drink. “Feranti knew, but felt foolish to say. That’s why he gave you the egg.”
Illya shrugged. “I haven’t thought about the eggs in years.”
“But when you were young, you…used the little egg,” Napoleon said with a wink and a nod.
“I liked staying with my grandparents, my mother’s parents. They lived on the verge of a forest and there was much to see and do. In our flat in Kiev, there was hardly anywhere to climb,” Illya said.
“Up the side of the building,” Napoleon offered, picturing it.
“I did, but the neighbours complained to my parents,” Illya replied. “So, one spring holiday when my mother came to fetch me home from my grandparents', I told her I wanted to stay.”
Napoleon raised both eyebrows.
“Indeed,” Illya said. “She was not pleased. She was even less pleased when the taxi arrived to take us to the station and its engine stalled and wouldn’t restart until it was too late to catch the last train to Kiev that night.”
“A coincidence?” Napoleon suggested.
“That’s certainly how I always explained it to myself when my grandmother would re-tell the story. She was fond of it,” Illya said. “My mother was not.”
“And now?” Napoleon asked.
“Now, I think I might like to study the phenomenon…independently,” Illya said.
“Without the help of Section VIII,” Napoleon stated.
Illya nodded, his eyes fixed on Napoleon’s.
“But perhaps with the aid of a partner?” Napoleon's gaze dropped as he reached out to smooth a wrinkle from Illya’s lapel. He pinched the edge of the fabric between his fingers before letting go.
Illya’s hand went to the spot. It was a gesture Napoleon often employed. On strangers, he was frequently planting a surveillance device. Illya had found that the place Napoleon touched always seemed warm afterwards.
The cloth was hot beneath his fingertips.
Napoleon raised his eyes.
“Perhaps with a partner,” Illya replied.