The party was in full swing when the tall, broad-shouldered man in the white evening jacket came through the door. He surveyed the room for a moment, then made his way through the crowd to the bar. As soon as he could get the bartender's attention, he ordered a Scotch.
"Peter Carl Faberge," he mused quietly to himself. "His workshop created some of the most beautiful – and expensive – jewelled Easter presents on earth. Of the 52 eggs made for the Russian Imperial family, only 46 remain – or is it 47? Just over there in the display case is a three inch high jewelled egg which is claimed to be the Mauve egg made for the Easter of 1897."
He turned toward the display case, currently surrounded by party goers who were being kept from approaching too closely by a heavy red rope slung between a row of gilded posts. His eyes lingered on an elegant young woman, her blonde hair piled high in an elaborate hairstyle. She was heading in his direction.
"I didn't realise you were a friend of Mr Farace," she said, "but maybe I shouldn't be so surprised to find the famous Simon Templar at this party."
The Saint smiled benignly and looked heavenwards. "I'm afraid you have the advantage of me," he said. "You are...?"
"Sharon McReady," she said, lowering her voice, "and I have to warn you – if you're interested in stealing the egg, you'd better forget about it. The security arrangements are really very good."
The Saint attempted to look innocent. "The thought had never entered my head," he said. "Giovanni invited me, and all I'm interested in is having a good time."
A tall, dark haired man was making his way across the room, weaving between chatting party goers. "Sharon...." he began, as soon as he was close enough to be heard.
"Jealous boyfriend?" the Saint asked quietly.
"Colleague," Sharon said coolly. "It's all right, Craig – Mr Templar was just leaving."
"Was I? I haven't even said hello to the host yet."
"It'll be best for all of us if you leave now," the American said. "Forget about the egg."
"You're surely not going to make a scene, in front of all these people?" the Saint asked.
The American scowled at him. "Stay, then – but you'd better believe we'll be watching you." He took Sharon's arm and steered her away.
"Do you know who that is?" Craig asked.
"Of course. I read the newspapers. That's Simon Templar," she said. "He's taller than I expected."
"You know we've got a file on him six inches thick back in Geneva?"
She smiled. "I can't say I'm surprised.." She looked back towards the bar, where Simon Templar was talking to Giovanni Farace.
Richard neatly swiped a canape from a passing waiter's tray and joined them. "Is that who I think it is?" he asked.
Craig nodded. "Trouble," he confirmed. "This whole situation just got a lot more complicated." He surveyed the room. "So, over at the bar is Simon Templar, otherwise known as the Saint. Just over there by the potted palm is Sir Charles Lytton, otherwise known as the Phantom. His speciality is diamonds, but you can see why this would interest him. And right by the display case is John Robie, otherwise known as the Cat, with his wife Frances. He's supposed to have retired, but even a retired jewel thief must find it hard to ignore something this big right on his doorstep. And those are just the ones we know about."
"This is quite an occasion," the Saint said aimiably. He had found the host of the party. "Indulge my curiosity, if you would, Giovanni – what's a nice Italian boy like you doing with an Imperial Russian Faberge egg?"
Giovanni laughed. "Do you mean to say I never mentioned that my mother is Princess Catherine Ivanova Romanov?" At the Saint's slight shake of the head, he went on. "She lives in Uruguay now, but – you know I got married earlier this year?"
"I was sorry I couldn't make it for the wedding," the Saint said. "In Paris, wasn't it? Where is the lucky lady?"
"Oh, Marie-Claude is over there, being the perfect hostess," he said. "Anyway, Mother came over for the wedding – and this was the wedding present! Can you believe it? She'd been keeping it secret for all these years, ever since she escaped to Sweden with it hidden in her luggage."
"So you're about to be fabulously wealthy," the Saint said. "Congratulations."
"You know I don't need the money," Giovanni smiled. "Being the Marchese di Villaforesta is quite enough for me and Marie-Claude. But I think it should be out of the shadows again, and on display somewhere."
"The Faberge Museum in Leningrad, perhaps?" the Saint asked. He was looking across the room to where a heavily set man in an ill fitting suit was standing, his eyes fixed on the display case. "He's the Soviet attache, isn't he?"
"Anyone but them," Giovanni said. "Mother would never forgive me." He smiled across at Marie-Claude. "My wife would like it to go to the Louvre, of course – that's the French representative over there, talking to the man from the Galleria dell'Accademia in Firenze. Of course I'd prefer it to go to Italy."
The Saint followed Giovanni's gaze to the elegant older woman talking to the short, dark man in a well-tailored suit. "Truly international," he commented. "I assume that man over there is from the British Museum?"
"That's right – Carstairs, and the one with the cocktail glass is Mr Lansdale from the Met in New York," Giovanni confirmed. "Over there enjoying the canapes we've got the representatives of the Prado in Madrid, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and even the National Museum of Brazil. It's going to be quite an interesting auction tomorrow morning."
He moved away then, to mingle with the other guests and the Saint stood for a moment, watching him.
"Ah, Monsieur Templar! I thought I would find you here."
The Saint sipped his Scotch. He had been aware of Colonel Latignant's presence, but the French policeman seemed very pleased to have sneaked up on him, so the Saint allowed him his little moment of triumph. "Why, Colonel Latignant! Fancy seeing you here," he said.
"But of course, for such an important occasion as this, I have been put in charge," the Colonel said. "I can assure you my men are everywhere in the grounds."
"I'm delighted to hear it, Colonel," the Saint said. "I'm sure you'll do an excellent job of keeping the egg safe."
"Ah, but you are mocking me, Monsieur Templar! And you are not the only jewel thief here tonight, you know."
The Saint placed his hand to his heart, as if deeply wounded. "If you remember the last time we met, it wasn't me who was the jewel thief! I assure you, I'm only here to have a good time."
"We shall see, Monsieur Templar – but in the meantime, I am very busy, and my eyes are everywhere!" He moved away across the room, the image of officious efficiency.
"So you're the Saint – I've been following your career with interest."
The Saint turned to face an American – or he assumed American. The man's accent seemed a little – blurred, somehow, as if he'd spent a lot of time on the Continent.
"I don't believe I've had the pleasure...?" he asked.
The American held out his hand. "John Robie – I've got a villa just up the hill from here. I doubt you'd recognise my name."
But the Saint was beginning to grin in delighted recognition. "You're the Cat!" he said, dropping into perfect French. "I remember the stories about you during the War." He shook John Robie's hand vigorously.
Robie looked slightly embarrassed. "We all did what we could, back then. Weren't you involved with the Resistance, in Paris?"
The Saint shrugged. "I was very young – but you! You were a real hero."
"Well, I'm strictly retired now," Robie said, reverting to English, "but you can't ignore something this famous when it's displayed right where you live!"
The Saint's smile faded. "Forgive me for being suspicious – but I wonder if Giovanni chose this location precisely to tempt you out of retirement?"
"Oh, nonsense!" The speaker was Mrs. Robie. "John's days of clambering over rooftops are well behind him."
Robie put his arm around her affectionately. "I'm afraid Francie's right," he said. "I don't need to take that kind of risk any more – but now you mention it, it's something to bear in mind."
"I don't think it's just you," the Saint said, indicating the man who was surveying the room from the shelter of a potted palm.
"Isn't he from the British Museum?" Francie asked.
"He's certainly acting very friendly with the man who claims to be from the British Museum," the Saint said, "but that's Sir Charles Lytton."
"Also known as the Phantom," Robie said.
"Oh, another jewel thief!" Francie said. "The plot thickens!"
"It certainly does. And the man over there who claims to be from the Met in New York? Just look at the way he's standing. I'm prepared to swear he's a military man."
Robie considered the man from the Met. "I have to admit," he said at last, "he doesn't look much like a museum curator to me. CIA?"
"Quite probably," the Saint said. "There's another American over there – the tall one with the blonde girl. I can't put my finger on what organisation they belong to, but they're not here just because they're art lovers. The more I think about it," he went on, keeping his voice low, "the more I think that there's something going on here which is nothing to do with jewelled eggs – and we all might get caught in the cross-fire."
Craig, Richard and Sharon had been summoned to Tremayne's office a few days before the party.
"I'm sending you to Nice," he said, as they settled down, "to keep an eye on an egg."
"Must be some egg," Craig commented.
"Hmm – well, don't get distracted by it," Tremayne said. "Thing is, I've been approached by several governments, all with the same request, which is unusual enough in itself. It seems that the son of a Russian Princess has announced that he is the possessor of a long-lost Faberge egg, and he has invited museums from around the world to come to Nice to bid for it. It's the Mauve egg, by the way – apparently smuggled out of Russia just after the Revolution by Princess Catherine Ivanova Romanov."
"So why would Nemesis become involved in an art auction?" Richard asked.
"Because that's just the cover story," Tremayne said. "The world's press is distracted by an art auction while behind the scenes governments are actually bidding on something else. The son of the Princess is just a front man – he's working for Soviet dissidents who have smuggled certain microfilms out of the country. Now, we're not sure what's on these microfilms, but it must be something important – and now they've got half of Europe, and beyond, wanting to get their hands on it."
"So we're there to make sure everything runs smoothly?" Sharon asked.
"That's partly it," Tremayne said. "What I really want you to do is make sure that the microfilm ends up in the right hands."
"That's our hands, of course?" Richard said.
Tremaye nodded. "I'm not too worried about the representatives of the different governments trying anything. There is a complication, though, that the people who set this whole thing up don't seem to have considered – the announcement of a lost Faberge egg has also attracted the attention of every jewel thief in Europe, so you'll be keeping an eye on them while also trying to keep the representatives of half a dozen different governments from sparking a diplomatic incident that could be highly embarrassing."
"Must be Tuesday," Richard said, smiling.
Late after the party, the Saint pulled up his car on a side road with a good view of the villa Giovanni had rented. He had offered to give a lift to John and Francie Robie and, after dropping Francie back home, he and John had returned to stake out the villa - after taking certain precautions to ensure that the French police believed he was safely tucked up in bed in his hotel room.
The Cat had picked up a pair of powerful binoculars, and was using them now to scan the gloom. After a while, he passed them to the Saint. "Got him, in the garden – there's some movement that isn't the patrolling gendarme," he said.
The Saint could just make out a dark blur. "I think he's going to go over the wall just there," he said, pointing. He moved the binoculars to cover the hillside below them. "And there," he said, with some satisfaction, "is the getaway car." He pointed out a Citroen parked to one side of the same side road that they were on. "Shall we go down and find out if it really is our friend the Phantom?"
The Saint started up his Volvo and drove down the road. The Cat picked up the binoculars and trained them on the wall of the villa. "Here he comes now," he said.
When they arrived at the layby the Phantom was already in the car, but the driver had not yet started the engine. The Saint stopped his car at an angle across the road in front of the Citroen, preventing it from moving off.
They got out of the car and went over to the Citroen. The Saint tapped on the driver's window. "Good evening, gentlemen," he said.
Mr Carstairs wound the window down. "Mr. Templar," he said, stiffly, "and Mr. Robie. Good evening."
The Saint smiled cheerily.
The Phantom held up the Faberge egg and looked at it with disgust. "Take a look, gentlemen," he said. "I've been to all that trouble for a rather poor fake – and I had a buyer already lined up for it!"
"It looked pretty good in the display case," Robie said. He leaned in through the window to inspect the offending object under the car's overhead light. He frowned. "You know, I think you're right."
"More to the point," said Carstairs frostily, "it does not contain the surprise."
"But I thought the surprise from the Mauve egg was in the Faberge Museum," said the Saint.
"A different surprise," Carstairs said. "You were employed to bring me the surprise within the egg, and then the egg was yours. It's not my fault the thing's a fake."
The Phantom flicked open the catch on the little door on the front of the egg to show the two other jewel thieves. It was empty. "And it's not my fault that the microfilm wasn't in the egg. Fake or not, surprise or not, the risk was the same, old boy," he said. "And nobody 'employs' me – this was a gentleman's agreement, and you seem to be no gentleman."
"Wait a minute," said the Saint. "What microfilm?"
Carstairs sighed gustily. "I may as well tell you," he said. "After all, who would believe you if you told anyone? This whole auction is a front for Mr Farace to sell microfilm smuggled out of Soviet Russia to the highest bidder."
"So you suspected the egg might be a fake?" the Phantom asked indignantly.
"My dear chap, the provenance of the egg never crossed my mind one way or the other," Carstairs said. "It's just the microfilm we wanted."
"Without bidding for it," the Saint pointed out. "Whatever happened to international co-operation? I think you're right, Sir Charles – Mr Carstairs here is no gentleman."
"Now look here," spluttered Carstairs. "I'm following orders from the top, you know"
The Saint and the Cat looked at each other. "That wasn't a defence at Nuremburg," the Cat said quietly. "I think it's time you got out of the car and started walking. It's a pleasant evening for a stroll."
Early the following morning, the staff arrived to set out the chairs for the auction.
This was abandoned in a flurry of consternation when one of them looked closely at the glass case where the Faberge egg was displayed. Sitting on the stand was a large goose egg, with a white glove beside it, monogrammed with the letter P.
When the Saint arrived for the auction, he found the villa swarming with gendarmes and Colonel Latignant supervising matters while simmering with apoplectic fury. "He took it from right under our noses!" he complained, as soon as he saw the Saint in the entrance hall. "And of course, there is no trace of Sir Charles Lytton this morning!"
"So you don't suspect me this time, Colonel?" the Saint asked.
"Pah! You know very well we had you under surveillance in your hotel room all night," the Colonel said. "I know you have slipped away from us before, but this time I know you were there all night."
The Saint smiled, noncommitally. "I'll just have a little word with Giovanni," he said, soothingly, "and then I'll leave you to it. I'm sure you've got everything under control."
He lingered just long enough to hear a muffled "Pah!" as Colonel Latignant turned away, and headed for the room where the egg had been on display the night before.
Giovanni was sitting in a corner with his head in his hands. "It's a total disaster," he said, as the Saint approached, "and these French police – cretino!"
"Is there somewhere more private we can talk?" the Saint asked. "All these policemen around make me feel slightly nervous."
Giovanni led the way to a small private sitting room and closed the door. "So, what did you want to talk to me about, Simon?" he asked.
"Just that I had a little chat with the Phantom last night," Simon said. "He's a very disappointed man. I presume you knew that the Mauve Egg was a fake?"
"What? How did you - ? How did he know that?"
"Quite a pretty fake," the Saint went on, "but not something that he could pass off as real to his client."
Giovanni's look of shock was mellowing into a more rueful expression. "It was a bit of a romantic fantasy," he admitted, "thinking that Mother could have taken the time to pick up one of the Faberge eggs as she fled for her life. She doesn't know about this, by the way – it was all my idea."
But the Saint hadn't finished yet. "I talked to another very disappointed man last night," he went on, "the man who claimed to be from the British Museum, though I suspect MI6 would be closer to the mark. He expressed regret that the surprise wasn't in the egg."
Giovanni's face had reverted to his initial shocked expression. "He – told you that?" he asked.
"He also told me what the 'surprise' was," the Saint said.
Giovanni groaned, and put his head back in his hands. "So it really was a total disaster," he said. "I told Serge we should have put the microfilm in the safe!"
"This would be your friend from the Soviet Union?" the Saint guessed.
Giovanni groaned again, and nodded. "They were counting on the money from the auction to help the dissident movement inside Russia," he said.
"Just as a matter of interest," the Saint said, "were any of the representatives of museums at the party last night real, or were they all spies? I'm pretty sure the man from the Met was CIA, for a start."
Giovanni gave a sickly grin. "The man from the National Museum of Brazil was real," he said. "He was the only one, and I think that he was a bit confused that nobody else in the room wanted to talk about museum management with him. Marie-Claude managed to keep him busy so he didn't suspect anything."
The Saint cocked one elegant eyebrow. "So the question remains – who's got the surprise?"
"Well done, you three," said Tremayne. "I thought this job would suit your particular talents." He had opened the film canister that Craig had presented him with, and tipped out the rolls of microfilm onto his desk. "Have you managed to have a look at them yet?"
"We thought we'd wait," Richard said. "The equipment is better here, after all."
"We'll get these down to the lab straight away," Tremayne said, "and see what we've got."
"And then?" Sharon asked.
"Each of the governments that requested our help will get a copy, of course," Tremayne said, "and I'm sure you're aware that we have our own channels to groups of Soviet dissidents. I think we have the budget to ensure that they will be appropriately rewarded." He paused. "There is just one thing that puzzles me," he said. "Your reports are slightly hazy about how you managed to steal the microfilm without setting off the alarms...."
Craig, Richard and Sharon all had very similar innocent smiles on their faces. "Let's just say that Colonel Latignant was more co-operative than he realised," Richard said at last.
Tremayne snorted good-naturedly. "Well, if you're not going to tell me, you'd better get out of here," he said.