Category: Crossover – Eroica/Lupin III. Has a sequel “Thoughts Contingent On The Wrong Box”
Rating: We’ll say R
Notes: Published in the Guns and Red Roses 2 Fanzine.
Summary: Take one famous French thief. Add one famous English thief. Then add one bad-tempered NATO officer. Result…?
By: V.M. Wyman
Illustrations by: V.M. Wyman.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
London had its own ambience at night. It was different from the ambience of Paris, Rome or New York. Paris sparkled; Rome glowed; New York sparkled with an avant-garde brilliance. But London shone. Softly. Her street lamps haloed by her frequent fogs.
It was September and the moderate warmth of the London summer had yet to surrender to the approach of fall. The days were still warm, but the nights had begun to develop a cold edge. Add rain to the mixture and you had fog. Yellowish, very English fog which came rolling in off the Thames in billowing clumps as thick as dotted cream. Knots of white vapor curled through the streets, making street lamps flicker like candle flames. People out walking in their long coats as insubstantial as ghosts
I stood in the clock tower, staring out at a city whose foundations were lost in mist. The rain had stopped, but the roof of the building still gleamed wetly. Its neoclassical stone grotesques still drooled with the run-off. Moisture still permeated the atmosphere, leaving jewels of crystal on everything it touched.
My hair was limp. The folds of my kimono and hakama were damp against my skin. And the cold, which I had been doing my best to ignore all evening, was finally working its way into my bones.
“Ssh!” Jigen hissed.
I gave him my very best cold glare.
“Now, now,” Lupin soothed, trying to defuse the situation. “Play nicely, mes enfants. Neh?” Behind me in the portico of the clock tower, which was scarcely a meter wide and designed only to house the tracks of the mechanical angels which rang the bell at the top of every hour, crouched two figures dressed in black. Black, quilted utility vests covered tight black sweaters and equally tight black pants. Soft-soled shoes, like dancer’s slippers, covered their feet and kidskin gloves with palm and finger surfaces carefully roughened covered their hands. Each figure had a bulge around its midriff. Those were combat belts equipped with many pouches. They were also black. In fact, the only break in the monotony was Jigen’s hat, which was a soft, and somewhat gray.
Having been urged by Lupin to behave himself, Jigen Daisuke slouched against the stone railing of the portico and tugged his tired gray hat lower in an effort to telegraph his dissatisfaction. He was in a foul mood.
For that matter, so was I. Neither of us was pleased with the ambiguities surrounding this particular caper. We both had a lot of unanswered questions. Questions likely to remain unanswered since this heist hadn’t been Lupin’s idea.
While Lupin stole mostly for his own benefit and satisfaction, he could be hired to steal if the fee was high enough. Hiring Lupin, however, was a difficult maneuver. He was hard to locate, harder to convince and nearly impossible to control once the theft was in progress. Men who hired others to do their dirty work usually shied away from unpredictable individuals and Lupin had a reputation for being a loose cannon. Therefore, contract thefts almost never came his way.
Men willing to hire Lupin were either too desperate or too arrogant to care about his reputation. They had to be rich, too, since Lupin didn’t come cheaply. Combine sincere desperation (or arrogance) with an abundance of loose cash and you had a situation as potentially dangerous as a case of sweating dynamite.
Both Jigen and I had a deep, instinctive dislike of contract thefts. They were almost always more complicated than they seemed. We were particularly leery of this one because of the way in which it had started. It began with a message which was hand delivered to our flat in London’s East End.
There was no reason to suspect the messenger, who was a grubby boy of eight with a raspberry buy and a runny nose. There was also no reason to suspect the message, since it was addressed only to “Occupant”. In fact, Lupin was convinced it had to be a mistake. He tried to give the envelope back to the boy.
“You’re Mr. Phineas Barnum, aren’t you?” the boy asked, taking another lick of his lolly. Indeed, that was the name Lupin had used when he rented this flat. “Then that’s for you, Mr. Barnum, I was even given two quid to deliver it.
When questioned about the sender, the child merely shrugged, so Lupin gave the boy another pound and sent him on his way.
When the envelope was opened, it produced only two items: One was the key to a locker which was stamped 813B. And the other was an embossed card bearing the instruction:
There was no signature. No clues to the sender’s identity. Not even a watermark. I believe this was when I started having reservations. If someone had wanted to set a trap for Lupin, he couldn’t have primed it with a better piece of bait.
I mentioned the possibility of Zenigata’s involvement.
“C ‘est imposible Goemon,” Lupin told me. “If dear Zeni knew enough about my whereabouts to have a message hand-delivered to my door, he wouldn’t bother laying a trap for me at Heathrow Airport. ‘Totsan would just kick down that door and stomp on in. Zenigata-keibu has a lot of faults, but subtlety isn’t one of them.”
To spite my objections, Lupin dressed as a holiday traveler and went trotting off to the airport. He returned with a padded envelope under his arm.
There was 40,000 pounds in that envelope! All in used bills! Along with a photograph of a small metal box, a set of plans for the Thornedyke Library and the following printed note:
We have need of your services. Please view the contents of this envelope as a retainer.
In September of this year, there will be an exhibition of Art Nouveau at the Thornedyke. Among the items on display Will be a small metal box in the shape of a reclining woman. This is the object we would like you to acquire on our behalf
Once that theft is complete, an additional 60,000 pounds will be placed in a Swiss account bearing the number 21-764-09-8-FR. You need only make a single phone call to assure yourself that this money has been transferred.
Once you are satisfied, we ask that you place the box in a mailing pouch identical to this one and return it to the locker at Heathrow. Leave the key in the trash barrel north of the main entrance.
However, if you are not interested in our proposal simply return this envelope to the locker and place the key in the ashtray in front of the ticket counter for Air France. You may keep 5,000 pounds for your trouble. We will trust you for the rest.
At last we had a signature, but it didn’t comfort me much. Whoever “Dreyfus” was, he knew who we were, where we were, and what needed to be done in order to capture Lupin’s attention. I urged Lupin to forget the offer and put the envelope back where he found it.
Lupin refused… and it wasn’t just because of the money, handsome though that payment was. Lupin was intrigued. He had decided to play this hand out and see where it led him. If it led only to a bank account in Switzerland, Lupin would just shrug and take the cash.
Which was why, in spite of misgivings and inclement weather, we found ourselves sitting up in a clock tower on a damp September night.
“One hundred thousand pounds for a brass box the size of my hand Jigen sighed for the umpteenth time as he stared down at the fog-shrouded city.
“Bronze,” Lupin corrected, nursing a final cigarette.
“Bronze-schmonze! It ain’t worth no hundred thousand pounds! There has got to be something screwy about this!”
Lupin shrugged, passing what was left of his cigarette over to Jigen. He exhaled a milky cloud of smoke. “Eccentricity is the privilege of the wealthy. Maybe the box is worth a fortune and maybe it isn’t. It hardly matters to us, does it? After all, we’re being paid.”
“It’s gonna matter a hell of a lot if it gets us all killed!” Jigen argued, taking the butt. I watched the lit end of it glow in the darkness as Jigen took a quick puff. “I don’t trust this situation! This guy Dreyfus has to be a pretty powerful goon to know as much about us as he does. And he’s damn sure of himself if he’ll trust you with that much money. I wish to God we’d never taken this gig!”
“Why do you say that? Mr. Dreyfus has done nothing but treat us with respect.”
“He’s done nothing, period, but leave an envelope full of money in an airport locker! And maybe he’s been spying on us. Ever since this thing started, I’ve had the feeling we’re being watched.”
“I have to agree with him, Lupin,” I said. “There’s more to this contract than meets the eye. And I find it extremely unsettling that Mine Fujiko chose this morning to come sniffing around!”
“She wasn’t ‘sniffing around’!” Lupin complained. “She came to see me!”
“Grow up, Arsene!” Jigen growled. “The only time that woman comes to ‘see’ you is when she wants something!”
“Of course she wanted something! She’d just changed her hair and she wanted to make sure I approved!”
I snorted with disgust! Of all the infantile, self-serving logic! While Fujiko was given to changing her hair-color occasionally, she did it only for two reasons: One, she was on assignment. Two, she was bored and looking for some trouble to get into. At no time did she need Lupin’s approval in anything! If she’d dropped by to flaunt her freshly bleached locks, it was because she was wondering what we were up to.
At any time, Fujiko’s presence was likely to make me paranoid. When she showed up unexpectedly, my paranoia doubled. And when she showed up with her usually brown hair dyed a dazzling golden blonde, I experienced a wild desire to grab Lupin and head for the hills! Such a radical change was sure to mean trouble.
There was trouble all right, but of the mundane variety. Lupin was enchanted by Fujiko’s golden hair. He tried to “enchant” Fujiko right out of her dress! He became so insistent the woman was finally forced to retreat. She smacked his face and took off running.
Lupin moped for an hour, then went back to work. He totally forgot the incident. It never once occurred to him Fujiko’s sudden appearance might mean that someone else was interested in the box.
There was a movement behind me. I whirled around with sword drawn and came face-to-face with a huge bronze angel carrying a hammer. I was greatly taken aback by the apparition until I realized what was happening. It was midnight. The angel was on his way to strike the hour.
I sheathed my sword and gave him room to pass.
“Ear plugs!” Lupin ordered.
We set our plugs and sank back against the stone.
The angel continued its advance, its actions minored by a companion on the other side of the bell. At the stroke of midnight, both angels reached their objective and stood, waiting, while a carillon of smaller bells pealed out a preparatory tune. The end of this overture marked the passing of the hour. Then Justice with his Sword and Fortitude with his Hammer struck the large central bell six times each.
The noise was deafening!
BONG! BONG! BONG! BONG! BONG! BONG!
BONG! BONG! BONG! BONG! BONG! BONG!
His duty done, Fortitude wheeled around on his track and retreated back towards his cubby. He nearly ran me down on his way home. Overwhelmed by the noise, I didn’t hear him coming.
“Sweet Jesus...” Jigen sighed, removing his plugs and sinking back against the stonework. “There has got to be an easier way to make a living...”
Lupin wasn’t paying attention. He was already hard at work. He removed a “spider-piton” from a pouch on his belt and slapped it down against the weathered oak which formed the floor of the portico. I felt rather than heard the piton fire, the explosive charge sinking its eight barbed points into the wood. Lupin tugged on it to make sure it had seated properly.
Meanwhile, Jigen removed a coil of knotted rope from the duffel lying at his side and clipped it to the piton’ Then Jigen tugged on the piton too.
Lupin looked over at me. “Mimasu ka, Goemon?”
I looked down at the foggy ground which was fourteen floors below us. The library’s main entrance, with its pair of reclining lions, was just barely visible.
“Goemon’s gonna be lucky if he can see anything in this soup!” Jigen grumbled. “It’s thick as mud out there tonight!”
“Yes,” Lupin replied. “Fortunately.”
I didn’t join the conversation. I kept my eyes fixed on the ground below.
The Thornedyke Library was shaped more or less like an enormous letter “H” with its clock tower located dead center on the crossbar. Between the front arms of this “H” was the parking lot with its special accommodations for staff. At the moment, only a half-dozen vehicles were parked there.
In about five minutes, I saw the doom of the main entrance swing open and a small, rain-coated figure come into view. It was followed almost immediately by another.
“Lupin! Ikitte yo!”
“Twelve-oh-five on the dot!” Lupin exulted. “God love the British! They are so punctual!”
It took another ten minutes for the rest of the staff to leave and the parking lot to empty. When everyone was gone, they switched off the front lights, plunging the stone lions into darkness.
Lupin stood and heaved the coil of rope over the side. It fell, unfurling as it went, until it slapped the roof two stories below us. Lupin turned and gave me a pat on the back. “Keep watch, Goemon. We’ll be back shortly.”
“Use caution,” I advised him as he swung out over the edge and hung there, dangling. “The slate will be slippery after all this rain and the angle of the roof is steep.”
“I know,” Jigen agreed, shouldering the duffel. He waited until Lupin was down on the roof before taking the plunge himself. “One false step, and we play Peter Pan without the fairy dust.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll make sure he’s careful.”
“Don’t make promises you can’t keep,” I warned, watching him lower away. “Lupin is never ‘careful’.”
Jigen gifted me with a lopsided grin, then finished lowering himself into the darkness. They were both down safely in half a minute.
According to the plans we’d been given the Thornedyke had an unimaginative security system.
All its doors and windows were wired. The same was true of the passages leading to and from its clock But for some reason... because of some oversight in the distant past... two of the six roof access-ports were left out of the security-grid. Perhaps that was because they were no longer used and had been bolted shut. It would take a bolt-cutter or an acetylene torch to get through them. Perhaps the planners of the security system believed that with so many other, easier points of entry scattered about no one would bother with a pair of sealed doors.
They hadn’t counted on Lupin III, who never did anything the “easy” way.
Easy... I thought as I saw the dim, blue flame of an acetylene torch flower on the roof near the Northern Access. Lupin was preparing to cut his way in.... This is just too easy for the money we’re being paid! That stupid box can’t be worth half that!...
Lupin finished cutting the bolts and Jigen pried the access open with a wrecking-bar. Another quick look, another carefully placed piton and they had vanished inside. I was now alone with my misgivings.
The crossbar of the library “H” was twelve stories high. A full story taller than either of its arms. This extra story housed the executive offices and a long central gallery called the Emily Thornedyke Exhibition Hall. While not a gallery in the strictest sense of the word, this hall was used to display items of interest given over to the library’s care. These pieces, usually loaned or donated by Associates of the Thornedyke, were rarely of any great value, so the cases in which they were displayed were not wired. For internal security, the owners of the Thornedyke relied on their external system and on their guards (eight of them) who patrolled the halls at night.
Since Lupin had chosen the sealed access, he had already bypassed the external system. Now if he could just keep himself from being spotted by the guards, there was a good possibility this theft wouldn’t even be noticed until the library opened again, on Monday.
“Easy!” I grumbled to myself. “Why did Dreyfus need Lupin? Why didn’t he just take the thing himself?”
But no one answered my questions. Silence descended, ribboned by curling tendrils of mist. Stonework gleamed as water gurgled in copper gutters behind ornate cornices. Gargoyles slavered and saints wept. And the fog rolled on, conqueror of all, coming without arms to take command of the city.
I sneezed again and wished Jigen was still there to shush me.
Out on the southern tip of the crossbar, on the side opposite Lupin’s, I saw a shadow dart quickly between the stone grotesques. It happened so fast, I was scarcely sure I’d seen it. I stood, heart thumping and muscles tensed, waiting for it to move again. When it didn’t, I began to wonder if my paranoia wasn’t making me crazy.
Then I saw another slight shift of movement. There, crouching in the shelter of a gargoyle’s wing, was a figure dressed in dark clothing. I watched it working to draw up the line it had used to scale the south wall.
Having secured that line, it then shrugged out of its climbing harness and stood up. I saw it silhouetted against the distant glow of the street lamps. It had a great mane of golden hair...
Fujiko! The woman was here! I knew her appearance today was no accident!
I took the tiny comlink out of my sleeve and pressed the “talk” button. “Lupin! Fujiko ga kimasu yo!”
The tiny radio crackled at me, mute except for static.
“Lupin!” I insisted, pressing harder, then gasped as I felt a stabbing pain in my thumb. The damn link had shorted and shocked me!
Meanwhile, Fujiko padded quickly across the roof, heading for the South Access. She was going to do as Lupin had done. She was going to cut her way through it!
I squeezed the comlink again and heard a faint crunch. I’d just crushed the link like a peanut.
I cursed my bad luck. Now I had a problem. I could either warn Lupin or intercept Fujiko. The broken ‘link made it impossible for me to do both
I decided to warn Lupin. The roof was wet and Fujiko might struggle. Lupin would be furious with me if anything happened to that woman. It would be better if I just let Lupin handle her.
I caught hold of Lupin’s rope and lowered myself to the roof, making for the North Access as fast as I could.
According to the plans, the room directly below the North Access had been converted into a small office. When I reached the trap-door, I found myself looking down into a tiny cubicle containing a desk, a swivel chair and a trash-bucket. There was a note lying or that desk, penned p in a hand large enough for even me to read. It said: Buffer to Darcy’s on Monday!
The metal ladder which had once given access to the roof had been cut away to make more room. The only avenue of access was Lupin’s rope, which hung down into the room like a bell-pull.
I decided to forego the rope. It was only a ten-foot drop and I was in a hurry. I jumped.
Unfortunately, I didn’t land well...
I failed to take two things into account. One was the library’s age: The Thornedyke had been built during a more opulent time and even this office was floored in marble. The other was the temperament of the sole occupant, who was a compulsive neat-freak. He took pains to keep a high polish on his floor, hence the note to himself to return the buffer to Darcy’s on Monday. When my wet sandals hit that shiny marble, it was like landing on ice. My legs went out from under me and I sat down with a thump. I hit my head on the back of the swivel-chair.
I don’t recall making noise, but I must have. When I looked up again, it was into the barrel of Jigen’s Magnum.
He stared at me in surprise, then shifted the gun aside, easing his grip on the trigger. “What’re you doing here?”
I sat up, experiencing a twinge of pain as I did so. I’d bruised my coccyx. “I came to warn you,” I said. “I saw Fujiko up on the roof.”
“Why not just call us on the ‘link?”
“I couldn’t. It’s broken.”
“Are you through banging around?” Lupin appeared in the doorway, wearing an indignant expression. “Fortunately, the guards should be off checking the stacks. I don’t think they heard you.”
“Not me,” Jigen protested, holstering his gun. “It was Goemon. He fell.”
“Fell?” Lupin wondered, looking at me. “Are you all right, Goemon? What happened?”
“He came to warn us,” Jigen reported before I could speak. “He saw Fujiko up on the roof. I told you so, Lupin! That dame never shows up unless she wants something! Today she wanted to check out the competition! Looks like we’re not the only ones interested in that box!”
Lupin glanced back at me. “Are you sure it was Fujiko?”
“Absolutely!” I insisted, regaining my feet and nursing my bruise discreetly. “Even in this dim light, that bleached hair of hers stands out like a beacon!”
“What was she doing?”
“Last I saw her, she was preparing to cut her way into the South Access.”
“Then she doesn’t know we’re here...?”
“It would seem not,” I agreed.
Suddenly Lupin smiled. That devilish, slightly crazy smile which was the bane of my existence. The smile Lupin always wore when he was thinking about Fujiko. “That little minx! Maybe it’s time taught her a lesson: It isn’t nice to fool Lupin-sansei!”
And he went darting away down the hall.
“Shit...” Jigen sighed, turning that one word into a litany of weary acceptance. Jigen knew there was no point arguing. Lupin wouldn’t listen. The only thing Jigen could do was follow along and pick up the pieces once the fiasco was over. “C’mon, Go. Let’s get this over with.”
“Shouldn’t I return to the clock tower?”
“No use. The worst has already happened. Besides we only had two ‘links and yours is busted.”
“So!” I agreed and we both ran in pursuit of our suicidal leader
The interior of the twelfth floor was arranged more or less like a racetrack. An ellipse shaped outer concourse of offices surrounded an oval exhibition hall Elevators were situated at the ends of the floor and the Grand Staircase in its middle. This huge stair, with its grand balustrades of oak and bronze, emerged right in front of the gallery leading directly to the president’s office. This was the largest and finest of the passages leading from the outer concourse to the inner hall. There were three other passages, but they weren’t as fine as this one.
And they didn’t offer as nice a view of the stairs.
For this reason, we went directly to that gallery and knelt in the shadow of a huge Chinese vase while Lupin reconnoitered.
The Emily Thornedyke Exhibition Hall was an enormous room with oak-paneled walls and a coffered ceiling. Large oak display cases were arranged at points around those walls and formed a two ranks down the center of the hall on either side of the staircase. The huge room was almost dark, lit only by the lights in the cases. In the dimness, the open mouth of the staircase yawned like a Stygian pit. I could see nothing there but darkness.
“Can you see her?” Jigen asked.
“No.” Lupin sounded disappointed.
“Good. Let’s grab the thing and get outta here. We can discuss this with Fujiko later.”
Lupin was about to protest when I grabbed him, pulling him back into the shadows. I’d seen a glimmer of light on the floor below.
Lupin grinned. “Why, Goemon! I didn’t know you cared!”
“Quiet!” I growled. “Someone’s coming!”
“Haints!” the somebody said, his voice echoing along the gloomy corridors of oak and marble.
“Ghosties and ghoulies and things that go boump in the night! With you, it’s always something!”
“I heard a noise!” a second voice protested.
“What sort of noise, I’d like to know!”
“I don’t know. A heavy noise. Like a body falling...”
“A body falling!” scoffed the first guard. I could see him now. He was a heavy-set man standing at the foot of the stairs down on the eleventh floor. “It’s those terrible penny-dreadfuls you keep reading. Those things aren’t healthy for a man’s mind! They set him to imagining all sorts of things, ‘specially when he’s got a job what we got!”
“I’m not imagining things!” complained the second guard, who was a thin young man with ears like the handles of a sugar bowl. He reached his companion and they began their final ascent together. “I heard a noise!”
“It was you what saw the ghost in periodicals, too, wasn’t it? Yor’re due for holiday, Patrick!”
“I never said I saw a ‘ghost’!” Patrick protested as they reached the top of the stairs. “I only said I thought I saw something moving! It was Mrs. Ellerbee what thought it was a ghost!”
“Dammit, Jack! You’ll have everyone thinking I’m crazy!”
“Ssh?” Jack hissed and his torch beam darted, searching the far wall. “I thought I heard something...”
“That’s just fine!” Patrick fumed. “It’s all right for you to ‘hear’ things, isn’t it?! Nobody thinks you’re crazy!”
“Will you hush?! There’s something over by that far case...”
Patrick was finally silenced and Jack went to investigate. In the interval which followed, we, too, heard a faint noise. It was a grinding sound followed by a tinny rattle.
“What the bloody hell...?” Jack wondered, rounding the central rank of cases and reaching their far side. He was staring at the floor in front of him. While his companion Patrick maintained a discreet distance, Jack dove down behind the case and came up holding something in his hand. He displayed it triumphantly for Patrick’s benefit. “Here’s your ‘body’, boy-o!” he cried. “An escapee from a bloody battery commercial!”
What he was holding was a toy rabbit covered with pink fur and carrying a tiny, tin drum. While we watched, the rabbit waggled his ears and beat on his little drum happily.
Patrick was suitably embarrassed. “What’s that doing here?!”
“Who knows?” Jack sighed calmer now that he knew he didn’t have a real ghost to deal with. He brought the toy back to where his friend was waiting. “Some child probably lost it while his mum was up here looking around. We’ll drop it by Lost and Found. Likely someone will be by on Monday to claim it.”
As the two men bent to examine the toy, the rabbit did something which proved it wasn’t a toy at all: It threw back its head and sprayed both guards with a cloud of blue vapor. The men looked stunned for a second, then slumped to the floor.
We three flinched back, trying not to breathe, but the rabbit’s knock-out gas was short-lived and dissipated quickly. All it left behind was an acrid sweetness, like the smell of decaying roses. “Trojan Rabbit,” Jigen remarked. “Cute.”
“It was cute,” Lupin agreed. “Quiet now. She ought to be along in a moment.”
Lupin was absolutely right. Soon as the guards were prostrate and snoring, Mine Fujiko arrived on the scene--I must admit her appearance surprised me. I couldn’t believe what she was wearing!
Up in the clock tower, it had been difficult to see. The light was dim, the distance great, and reflections from the wet roof played tricks with the shadows. I had determined Fujiko’s identity primarily from her long, currently blonde hair. I wasn’t able to see her face or figure. Now I could see how much detail I’d missed and it gave me an unsettled feeling. I began to wonder if r was mistaken.
Fujiko usually wore jump suits when she was on a heist. Tight, black things which displayed her curvaceous figure. Tonight she was dressed in a thigh-length black cape which completely hid her body. The only parts of her visible (aside from that long, golden hair) were her legs, which were gloved in black hoots of soft leather. She looked like someone out of a costume novel! This didn’t fit Fujiko’s Modus Operandi at all. The doubts I was having turned serious.
Not that I could tell anything from the intruder’s behavior. She certainly seemed to know what she was doing as she crept down the aisle on the far side of the gallery. But, again, the light was dim. The figure was no more than a shadowed shape and the hair a golden halo. It went right to the case where the box was being kept and knelt in front of it. Then the intruder shifted her cloak back out of the way and I saw her hands for the first time. Those hands were gloved in black kidskin...but her arms were clothed in billowed sleeves of teal blue silk, with ruffles of lace on the cuffs.
That convinced me. I’d made a mistake. This wasn’t Fujiko.
I turned to tell Lupin, but Lupin wasn’t there. He was already creeping down the near aisle on our side of the display cases, intent on what he still thought was his quarry.
I suppose I could have called out, thrown something or otherwise tried to get Lupin’s attention. Instead I crouched where I was, unable to move, watching Fate unfold in front of me.
The intruder didn’t hear Lupin. She was still focused on the task of picking the display case’s lock, which was old and therefore troublesome. I heard both a click and the stranger’s sigh of satisfaction. She returned the pick to a pocket in her left cuff and lifted the lid, reaching for the box nestled in its hollow of red velvet.
The slim, black shadow that was Lupin-sansei sprang over the intervening rank of cases and fell on the intruder from behind. There was a brief, wild scuffle as Lupin wrestled the stranger to the floor and threw himself on top of her. The intruder, blinded by the tangles of her own golden hair, was unable to do more than utter a yelp of dismay before Lupin had her pinioned. Then Lupin, his eyes already closed in anticipation, nuzzled his way through the mask of hair to deliver his coup de grace: He kissed the intruder soundly!
“Holy shit!” Jigen gasped. “That’s a guy!”
So it was. A tall, slender young man who was very blond and very startled at that moment. He had blue eyes, an aristocratic nose and a face which was lean and clean-shaven. He lay sprawled in a tangle of black and teal silk, trying desperately to understand what was happening.
When the man finally did understand, he didn’t react in the way I’d expected. With a sigh of appreciation, he surrendered to the assault! He put his arms around Lupin and began to kiss back! He put both body and soul into the effort!
There was another sigh. This one from Lupin. Lupin hadn’t expected Fujiko to be so... accepting. Now that “she” had accepted, Lupin decided to play while he could. His hand slid under the blond’s shirt and began to grope around gently.
...Lupin didn’t find what he was looking for...
...When he didn’t, Lupin went looking again. Again he came up, er, empty-handed...
It finally began to dawn on Lupin that something was definitely wrong. The person beneath him didn’t act like Fujiko or feel like Fujiko. He decided to see what the trouble was. Lupin opened his eyes...
There was a noise. A high, thin keening. It was the sort of noise a banshee makes... or a thief, when he finds himself in desperate trouble.
That thief started struggling to escape.
But his blond partner was reluctant to end their encounter. He clung to the struggling Frenchman. When they finally parted, the effect was explosive. Lupin flew backwards and whacked into the case. I heard the thing jolt with the impact.
And there Lupin squatted, eyes wide and a hand clapped over his mouth. He was absolutely speechless with horror.
The blond recovered more gracefully. He sat up, removing the hair from his face with a practiced toss of his head, and smiled at Lupin gently. “That,” he said in a soft, very cultured English voice, “was absolutely splendid...”
It took Lupin a second to recoup. He did and swallowed heavily. “Who...who are you? What are you doing here?”
“I might ask the same of you, mightn’t I?” the blond thief replied. He got to his feet and shook out the folds of his cape, neatening the points of his costume daintily. “After all, I’m the victim of this assault. You grabbed me, not vice versa. Not that I minded, darling. It isn’t often I’m swept off my feet. I rather enjoy it when it happens. Especially when my assailant is so… attractive.”
Lupin did something I’d never seen him do: He blushed.
There was a guffaw from beside me...
Jigen Daisuke had recovered from his shock and decided this whole unfortunate mess was hysterically funny. He sat down with a thump behind the Chinese vase and began to roar with laughter.
Lupin was outraged. He sprang to his feet with fire in his eyes as his blush deepened from pink to purple. “Shut up!” he roared.
Jigen was beyond caring. He collapsed onto his side, howling with uncontrolled mirth.
I thought Lupin was going to have a stroke. “Shut up, Jigen! I mean it!”
“Jigen…?” The blond man wondered. He peered back into the gallery and spied both Jigen and I immediately. When he did, I saw the flame of recognition light his blue eyes. That he recognized us didn’t surprise me one bit. Our reputation was widespread and our appearance was singular. We were easily recognizable, we three, when you put us all together.
The man turned back to Lupin fairly bursting with enthusiasm. “This is a piece of good luck! I’ve always wanted to meet you!”
He touched Lupin’s arm. Lupin nearly leapt out of his skin. “Huh?”
“Monsieur, may I say it’s a great pleasure to finally make your acquaintance!”
“I’ve read so much about your exploits, I almost feel I know you!”
Lupin’s confusion became infectious. The blond man frowned. “I’m not mistaken, am I? You are Lupin III...”
“He was last time he looked,” Jigen volunteered, gasping with exhaustion. “At the moment, though, I don’t think he’s too sure.”
Lupin scowled blackly at Jigen, then moved to pick up the pieces of his shattered composure. He turned to face the blond man, all dignity. “Lupin the Third at your service, sir. Whom have I the honor of addressing...?”
“You don’t know?” the man asked, feigning distress. “How terribly disappointing! I thought I had something of a reputation!”
“Consider me ignorant. Enlighten me.”
“I am Eroica, Monsieur Lupin. I am...how shall I say?... a specialist in objets d’art. And you certainly aren’t ignorant, darling. Not in any way that matters.”
Jigen succumbed to another spasm of laughter and I saw the blood rouge Lupin’s cheeks again. But Lupin kept his eyes fixed on Eroica, studiously ignoring Jigen. “Objets d’art, n’est-ce-pas? Such as in objets in the case behind me?”
There was a wavering tone in Lupin’s voice and Eroica, being an observant man, was quick to recognize it. “Have I intruded?” he asked. “I’m so sorry! I never meant to. In fact, I require only one item out of the contents of this entire gallery. Let me take that one item and I will leave you to your pleasure.”
“One item....” Lupin echoed. He opened the case and removed the bronze box, displaying it for Eroica’s benefit. “This item, I presume.”
Eroica grew wary. “Why... yes. How did you know?”
“Simple deductive reasoning. This little thing seems to be the focal point of a great deal of interest. And, somehow, I’ve the feeling you don’t want it for yourself. Might I ask who hired you to steal it?”
“You might ask; I mightn’t answer. Besides, what makes you so certain I don’t want it for myself? I might have seen the piece while it was on display and thought it was amusing.”
“So amusing you’d break in and steal it?”
Eroica tossed his blond curls and shrugged. It was a gesture as graceful as it was incongruous. “What can I say? I’m a shameless eccentric.”
“You’re also a shameless liar, my friend, and not a very good one.
To emphasize his point, Lupin tossed the box up and caught it. The lid, which was not fastened shut snapped closed with a rattling clack.
Eroica blanched at the sound. “Careful! You’ll damage it!”
“No great loss,” Lupin decided cavalierly. “As an object of art, this sorry little piece barely qualifies for the distinction. Frankly, I have my doubts it is even bronze. Bronze doesn’t go ‘clunk’ like that.”
“You’ve been in the business a long time, Monsieur. You know as well as I do that material alone does not make a piece of art. History and circumstance are also deciding factors.”
“I disagree,” Lupin insisted. “What makes art valuable is desire. No one would pay a farthing for Van Gogh if someone hadn’t decided he was worth it. What makes a Van Gogh worth a fortune is that two people want it and are willing to contest each other for possession. Art isn’t a matter of history, circumstance or material. It is a question of desire. And two people desire this box. Very, very badly.”
Again Lupin tossed and caught the box. Again the English thief flinched at the sound of colliding metal. Eroica’s eyes hardened and his posture became formal. He was no longer playing.
He took a step towards Lupin and I noticed for the first time how tall he was. He had a good two inches on Lupin. “This is not a game. Monsieur. It’s a very serious matter.”
“Yes,” Lupin agreed. “I’m beginning to see that.”
“Lupin!” I cried. “There is a light on the stairs below! Someone’s coming.”
“That doesn’t surprise me one bit! Considering the unholy amount of noise some of us are making!” Lupin levelled a poisoned glare at Jigen, who had managed to draw his gun and stumble to his feet.
In that moment of confusion, while Lupin was distracted, Eroica decided to try a sneak attack. The English thief need for the box was obviously great and he was desperate. Desperate enough to try a frontal assault even though he knew Lupin was stronger. He sprang at Lupin, grabbing for the box, and they both went tumbling over.
The box hit the floor and went skittering away. Both thieves went diving after it.
“‘Alt!” screamed the guard on the stairs, made edgy by the sounds of combat. I brought my katana up just as he fired his gun. Zantetsu-ken rang like a temple bell as the bullet was deflected. In that same second, Jigen fired and I saw the guard’s hat go flying. The guard, who was a nervous son, decided his direct charge had been an ill-considered move. He immediately retreated, diving into cover behind the oak balustrade.
A second bullet went whistling past my ear. “Lupin! Hayaku!”
But Lupin wasn’t in a mind to be “quick” about anything. He and Eroica were tussling on the floor. They rolled into and over the two unconscious guards in a great tangle of black cape, grasping, growling and grunting.
“Lupin! Damn you!”
A third bullet shattered the glass case to the right of me. The fourth bullet (fired by Jigen) ricocheted loudly off the balustrade, driving the guard further back into cover. There was a momentary cessation of hostilities.
In that interval of calm, Eroica tore his way out of Lupin’s grasp, sacrificing his cape to the effort. Blond hair flying and clothing disarranged, the English thief took off at full gallop.
“God!” Jigen cried. “Did he get it?!”
Lupin rolled quickly to his feet again, still holding the black cloak. “He will in a moment. Monsieur Eroica! Look!”
Eroica looked. There was no reason for him to look, but look he did. He swung about in mid-stride and stared back at us. Lupin threw the cloak aside… revealing the small, bronze-colored box grasped in his hand. He still had it.
Which, of course, made the blond thief wonder what he was holding. He looked down at his hands... and saw a fuzzy pink bunny with a little tin drum. He barely managed to squeak “Bloody hell!” before the rabbit went off and gassed him.
Eroica dropped like a stone. “Touché, Monsieur,” said Arsene Lupin. On the stairs the fire-fight started up again.
“Can we go home now?” Jigen wondered. “I’m getting tired of this.”
“Of course, my friend,” Lupin replied. “As soon as I tie up a few loose ends. Give me a hand with him, Goemon.”
“Our blond friend here. He’s coming with us.”
“What for?” This from Jigen, who was so shocked he forgot to keep tabs on the trigger-happy guard. He flinched as part of the Chinese vase suddenly exploded into fragments.
“I’ve got a few questions to ask him,” Lupin replied as he pocketed the box. He grunted as I helped him hoist the Englishman into a fireman’s carry. “I think he’ll be able to provide me with some interesting answers.”
“That much dead weight is just gonna slow us down!”
“He’s not dead. Merely... indisposed. You know what I mean!”
Smash! The rest of the Chinese vase evaporated with a great crash, leaving Jigen’s position uncovered. The gunman was forced to retreat. “C’mon dammit!”
Jigen’s retreat offered encouragement to the guard. Since he’d seen Jigen fall back (and since he could no longer See me) he assumed that the top of the stairs was unguarded. He left his cover and came bounding up the steps two at a time, his gun at the ready.
“Stop!” the man screamed. “Stop or I’ll.. urk!”
The guard went ‘urk’!” because he suddenly found himself holding only the butt of a .32 caliber pistol. The rest of the pistol was on the floor in about fifteen pieces. In the next moment, my katana swept back, hilt first, and slammed into the back of his skull. The guard went over, unconscious.
“Bravo, Goemon!” Lupin cried. “Come along now! Hurry!”
With my help, Lupin wrestled Eroica’s unconscious weight up onto the roof. I bound the Englishman across Lupin’s back while Jigen used his Magnum to fire a grappling line to a building across the parking lot. Line secured, we rode slides to the ground. We hit the pavement and took off running.
Lupin’s Austin-Healy slid out of the fog, turning left onto Chelsea Road from a side-street. It passed two police cars with their lights ablaze and their sirens howling, on their way to the Thornedyke Library. They didn’t give us so much as a second glance.
All his professional life, Lupin has maintained what he calls “Nests”. These are safe houses; homes or flats stocked with everything necessary for survival. Lupin maintains several dozen permanent Nests and just as many temporary ones. They can be anything, from well-appointed showplaces to threadbare shacks. They can exist anywhere, in slums, in rural wildernesses, even in quiet suburban neighbourhood. Anywhere the police are least likely to look for us. All these Nests are different, and yet Lupin strives as best he can to keep their layout the same. This way, there’s very little confusion. We can walk into a place we’ve never been before and know where everything is.
We did not return to our flat in the East End of London. Instead we went west, to a place south of Swindon. Lupin kept a tiny cold-water walk-up there in case of emergencies.
This little house, just one of a sagging rank of identical gray stone hovels, had been part of a project intended to house workers from a nearby mill. But the mill had gone bankrupt after the turn of the century and the workers had all moved on. The project was almost deserted. Parts of it were even condemned. But that didn’t stop some people from living there. Singularly incurious people, who didn’t so much as raise an eyebrow when one of the supposedly “vacant” houses started showing signs of life.
This Nest was small. Two rooms downstairs. Two rooms and a bath upstairs. The roof leaked, the walls were smoke-smudged and pealing, and the floors were graying under an accumulated eighty years of grime. There was no hot water. There was also no furniture to speak of. Just three mattresses and a couple crates upstairs, a card table with folding chairs and a sagging couch below. The place was astonishingly well-stocked, though. There were certain creature comforts Lupin lust couldn’t do without. There was always plenty of food, plenty of American cigarettes, and plenty of expensive liquor. Lupin always insisted on eating well and drinking well even when he was in hiding. Lupin always had his cognac, even if he had to drink it from a paper cup.
We reached Swindon Nest just after three in the morning. By that time it was raining again. We stowed the Austin in a shed behind the house and carried the unconscious Englishman inside. We took him upstairs and laid him on one of the mattresses, using the handcuffs kindly donated to us by Detective Zenigata to secure him to an exposed water-pipe.
Our captive restrained (and still snoring) Lupin searched him while Jigen and I stood in attendance nearby. Lupin removed a dizzying array of articles from Eroica’s cuffs, belt and boot-tops. There was an assortment of knives, several lock-picks, and a couple of items I didn’t recognize. Lupin passed them to Jigen for his inspection.
“Huh,” the gunman observed. “Blondie’s a professional.”
“Not necessarily,” Lupin argued. “I tend to think he’s a gifted amateur. A professional wouldn’t have brought so much.”
“So what do we do with him?”
“Right now, we let him sleep. But I don’t think we should let him sleep unattended.” Lupin clapped me on the back. “‘You take the first turn at guard duty, Goemon! I have work to do.” He went downstairs.
Jigen lingered for a moment, favoring me with a sympathetic half-smirk. ‘We’ll be up to check on things inna hour. Be good till then.”
Jigen vanished, too.
I sighed, resigned to my place as third monkey on the totem pole. If there was an uninteresting job to do, I usually got stuck with it. That was just the way things were.
I went to the mattress nearest the blond thief’s and sat down.
Absolutely nothing happened. The Englishman stirred once, groaning in his sleep. Cornsilk-fine hair shone as his head turned on the pillow. I studied his face because I’d nothing better to do. Odd face for a thief. Very narrow and refined, with high cheekbones and a long, oddly prominent chin. The nose was prominent, too. Very Medician in an English sort of way. It was at odds with the mouth, which was full and expressive and almost as soft as a woman’s. That mouth was at odds with every feature except his eyes. They were large, slightly slanted eyes hidden behind a wealth of golden lashes.
There was a strange, nagging familiarity about this face. I knew I’d seen it before. Not on this man, for I had never met this man, but on someone or something else. His was so classic and contradictory a face, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see it sculpted into a work of art.
Then it hit me. His was the face of Donatello’s David! The resemblance was startling.
I got this sudden, crazy image of Eroica as David, completely nude except for a porkpie of a helmet and a pair of elaborate boots. He stood, resting his foot lightly on Goliath’s severed head, the left wing of Goliath’s helmet caressing the soft skin of his inner thigh, his golden hair falling in decadent ringlets over his shoulders as he toyed gently with his sword. He was smiling that same strange, closed, dreamy sort of smile the David had, as if his thoughts were a million miles away.
The sound of someone coming up the stairs snapped me back into focus. I turned in time to see Lupin appear in the doorway, carrying a tray. “No rest for the weary,” he commiserated, smiling. “But there is food. Bon appetit, Goemon.”
“Domo,” I said, accepting the tray. On it was a bowl of rice with side dishes of smoked eel and pickles, accompanied by a mug of hot tea. I fell to with gusto. It had been a long night and I was famished!
Lupin pulled up a crate and sat next to me, keeping quiet while I ate. To distract himself, he studied the sleeping Englishman. He didn’t speak again until I’d belched and pushed my tray aside.
Then Lupin tossed me something. It was the bronze box.
“Opinion,” he requested.
I studied the thing before I tendered one. It was little, not much bigger than a pack of cigarettes. On the top, which overhung the sides a bit, lay a minuscule woman dressed in a diaphanous gown. She was lying on her back, her body folded into an uncomfortable-looking “C” shape, her legs tucked under and turned to the side and her right arm stretched out away from her. Her hair spilled loosely across the center of the lid, tangled with bits of seaweed and a garland of flowers which had come undone. Petals, shells and other pieces of flotsam decorated the front edge, leading the eye around to that forlorn little hand, which was resting on a plank engraved with the name Andora.
The sides of the box were irregular. Adorned with more sea shells and flotsam. Tangles of seaweed spilled down in places to form four little feet.
I shrugged. “It’s not worth the money.”
“I agree,” Lupin said. “Pretty, but not High Art. Certainly not worth more than a casual notice. But keep looking, Watson! Greater surprises await! Have a look inside...”
I did. For the most part, the inside was uninteresting. Just a lumpy reverse of the decoration outside. The bottom was unusual, though. It was flat and highly decorated with a motif of sea pinks. The wild flowers covered that bottom from wall to wall.
Also interesting was the shiny patch in the lower right corner. Someone had used solvent them to remove the years of oxidation and grime. They’d also removed the dozen or so coats of carefully-applied lacquer. A patch of shiny, grayish metal lay exposed.
“It’s not bronze,” I observed, not because I had a penchant for stating the obvious, but because this was what Lupin wanted me to say.
“No,” Lupin agreed with a tight smile. “It’s probably an alloy of tin. Antimony, perhaps. The bottom appears to be bronze, though, and etched instead of engraved. That difference is probably important, but I’m not sure why.”
“I doubt it. A forgery is valuable only if you can substitute it for something of importance. That’s not the case here.” Lupin climbed to his feet and stretched like a cat. A fine, sinuous movement. The box is an minor example of a secondary artistic genre. Art Nouveau...” a term which has become over-used in the past decade. It should apply strictly to a decorative style used in France around the turn of the century. There were many imitators, of course, but its soul was French. Because of that, Art Nouveau has come to be regarded as one of the most sensuous artistic styles ever produced. Even if some scions of Higher Culture denigrate it as merely ‘ornamental’.”
We looked over and saw the thief Eroica smiling at us. “Good morning,” said he. “It is still morning, isn’t it? I haven’t slept past noon?”
“About four-thirty in the morning,” Lupin agreed. “How do you feel?”
“Dreadful! I’m dizzy and my head aches. I really will have to rethink that formula. It’s far too strong.”
Eroica moved on his bed and found his mobility restricted by the handcuff on his right wrist. He tugged on it once, listening to it scrape against the water-pipe. “Oh dear!” he groaned, and glanced pleadingly at Lupin. “Is this necessary?”
Lupin spread his hands. “I’m afraid so.”
“What if I promised to be good?”
“Would you believe me if I promised to be ‘good’?”
“Not for a moment, darling. And I would be so dreadfully disappointed if you were. I much prefer it when you’re naughty!”
Lupin’s cheeks flushed pink again and he glanced quickly at me to see if I had any comment. I was diplomatic and said nothing. Coughing roughly, Lupin turned away from the English thief.
“I have a couple of questions I’d like to ask you...”
“And if I don’t answer them to your satisfaction, you’ll let me languish here until my bones have turned to dust!”
“Don’t be so melodramatic! I won’t...”
“Yes you will! You’ll have me beaten unmercifully and ravished by Turks!”
“Sorry,” said Jigen. He’d come up from the kitchen and was now lounging in the door. “We’re fresh outta Turks. Y’want some coffee instead?”
Lupin glowered at him. “Are you quite through?”
“Why? What’d I do?”
“I’m trying to interrogate this man and you’re interrupting me!”
“Oh, would you two rather be alone? Goemon and I can always go to a movie...”
Lupin’s answering glare was withering. After enduring it for only a moment, Jigen surrendered with a shrug and went back to leaning against the door frame with his arms folded. He was silent.
Lupin then turned his baleful eye on me. I ignored him, directing my attention to the little box I was still holding. I examined it from all angles, even turning it over. The underside was surprisingly smooth. It had been ground flat and polished. A couple of wipes with a buffing cloth and it would have shone bright as a mirror.
“I thought you were going to ask me questions,” Eroica pouted “I don’t hear any...”
Neither did I, come to that. I looked up and saw Lupin staring intently at the overturned box. He seemed completely distracted, as if he’d forgotten the rest of us.
Lupin held out his hand and I gave him back the box. He studied the bottom, the top and the inside. Then he dropped it back in his pocket and turned to face Eroica.
“You were hired,” he said. “I know this because I, too, was hired. We are the catspaws someone is using to grab their chestnuts out of the fire. Before I get burned, I’d like to know what I’m grabbing for. Wouldn’t you?”
“I suppose so,” Eroica replied with a shrug. He sat up, gingerly resting his silk-clad shoulders against the grimy wall. “But before you ask, I’ve no idea what makes the box so important. As you already know, it has no particular value. It appears to be Art Nouveau...and I’ve no doubt it’s from the period... but it’s not French. From what little I’ve seen, I’d say it was English. On top of that, the subject matter in morbid. The poor lady on the lid appears to have drowned.”
“In a shipwreck,” Lupin concurred, “if the other decoration on the box is accurate. You claim to be an expert, Monsieur. Do you know of any English artist who specialized in motifs of this kind?”
“Not really. Although morbid subjects were in vogue during the period. It was a moody time.”
“Did you hear what I told Goemon?”
“That the box was antimony and only the bottom bronze? Indeed I did. Again, I’m at as much of a loss as you are. I have no idea why the artist would use the more expensive material on that pan of the box least seen.”
“Then you’ll agree it’s a custom job?”
“What can you tell me about the owner?”
“Mrs. Ellen Daub-Worthington. Formerly of Landcaster, Texas. Presently of Sedgewick in High Gate. Married into oil money some years ago. Matronly woman, good natured, but desperate to break into the ranks of Polite Society. She hopes cultivating the Thornedyke will do that for her.”
“Then her family didn’t commission the box?”
“Heavens, no! It was part of an estate the late Mr. Worthington purchased in Sedgewick. A massively ugly old place called ‘Tolerance’ on Hempsted Downs. The previous owner was a German named Whitty. Called himself ‘Count’ Whitty. Seems he married a minor member of the Russian aristocracy just before the Revolution. I can’t be more specific than that. The man died twenty years ago.”
“Was this Count Whitty a wealthy man?”
“Not particularly. Comfortable, perhaps. Left no grand estate, if that’s what you’re thinking. Debts and taxes absorbed everything but the house and grounds. The place was in default when Worthington bought it. He got the old thing for a song.
“Not a one.”
“Whatever happened to Countess Whitty?”
“I’m afraid I don’t really know. Died young, I think. I only met the old man once. He was nearly ninety and dotty as a loon by that time. Had a great horror of water, as I remember it. Had all the ponds on his estate drained.”
“Thank you, Monsieur l’Earl. You’ve been most helpful.”
“Not at all, sir. You’re most wel-”
Eroica started and I saw an expression of alarm cross his face. He turned quickly to stare at Lupin.
Lupin smiled. “It took me a moment,” he confessed, “but I finally put all the pieces together. You said you had a reputation. You said you specialized in objets d’art. And your sexual preference is painfully obvious. I’d heard rumors of an English art thief with ties to the Nobility. I even caught rumor of a name. But I didn’t put all this together until I started talking to you. You talk about the elite of British Society as if you knew them all personally... which, of course you do.”
Eroica blushed. “Bravo, Monsieur.”
“Wait a minute,” Jigen injected. “You mean this guy’s an earl?”
“Dorian, Earl of Red Gloria,” Lupin announced grandly. “Last of his line and Heir to the British Peerage. Gets his jollies running around dark museums at night.”
“What was he doing at the Thornedyke.”
“The same thing we were. Completing a contract. Now he’s going to tell us who gave him that contract. That’s something I’m just itching to know!”
“Then you must itch, Monsieur,” the Earl said. “I’m afraid I can’t betray a confidence. While there is little honor among common thieves, among Gentlemen Thieves such honor is implicit.”
“Ah, there is a subtle, but intrinsic difference between Gentlemen Thieves... and thieving gentlemen. Dabblers need not apply.”
I do believe Eroica was offended. “Dabblers, Monsieur? Let me assure you I am nothing of the kind! At gardening, I dabble! In matters felonious, I am a seasoned professional! I ask only that you treat me as one!” Then the Earl’s expression softened and he leaned forward, wrapping his free arm around his knees. “I’m quite experienced in other matters as well,” he added, flirting. “If you’ll permit me, I’ll be happy to show you.
Lupin shot him a look that would have melted case-hardened steel.
“I think not...”
“And you won’t say who employed you?”
“No. So sorry. Professional ethics and all that.”
Lupin sighed, shoulders slumping with disappointment. “What a shame. You force me to play my trump card. I will wait. Eventually your employer will come to me. After all, I have something he wants.”
“Me...” Dorian raised his right arm, letting the ‘cuff scrape the pipe again.
“No, sorry. I have every intention of letting you go. I was referring to the box.”
“Oh...” The Earl seemed deflated. “Then I suppose you hope I will rendezvous with my colleagues and lead them back here.”
“Not necessary. They’re already on their way.”
The Earl’s surprise was genuine. He stared as Lupin raised his right hand, then extended the index finger. On the tip of that finger was a smear of brownish clay. Embedded in that clay was a tiny... and I do mean tiny... homing transmitter. It was no bigger than a single grain of rice!
The Earl Red Gloria had to strain even to see what Lupin was talking about. When he did, he reacted with shock. His blue eyes widened and some of the color drained from his face. “Monsieur Lupin, I had no idea!”
There was a harrowing clatter from behind the house. It sounded as if someone had upset a crate of aluminum cans. It brought me to my feet in an instant.
“Ah!” cried Lupin. “Our other guests have arrived! I knew to expect them the moment I saw this little gadget on the underside of the lid.” He tossed the tiny homing device to the floor and crushed it with the toe of his shoe. “Jigen. Goemon. Why don’t you go invite our guests in? It’s a perfectly dreadful day. I’m sure they’ll be glad to get out of the rain.”
Jigen was through the door before I was, but I caught up with him on the stairs. I took the flight in two long jumps while he ran down the hard way.
“Take the back,” he called. “I’ll cut through the place next door and see if I can slip in behind them.”
I swung left, cutting back through the kitchen. I killed the light with one swipe of my katana as I dashed for the door. Reaching the back entrance, I slid the bolt softly, turned the knob and gave the door a gentle push.
It swung open without a sound.
Outside, it was dark. The rain was falling with a weary intensity, showing no signs that it would ever letup.
Immediately behind the house was an overgrown area which had once been a small yard. It was separated from the alley beyond by the shed in which we’d parked the Austin and from the equally dismal yards on either side by two dubious gray stone walls. The walls were eight feet in height and wigged by two thick mats of ivy. Our intruder had come over the north wall. A large patch of ivy had been torn away there. The vines had been ripped out and down in a green avalanche, covering several cardboard boxes filled with rubbish. The intruder had landed on those boxes which, being thoroughly soaked, had burst on impact. The yard was littered with pieces used aluminum.
While I watched, the tangled mat of ivy at the base of that wall erupted with another clattering sound and a figure emerged...or tried to. He was still badly snarled in the ivy and he had a biscuit tin wedged on his foot. He stumbled around frantically, trying to free himself, tripped over an abandoned broom and sat down with a splat.
“Jesus wept!” I heard him sputter as I leapt from the back stoop and padded silently across the drenched grass to reach him. “The things I don’t do for that man.”
“Please don’t move,” I said.
The heap of ivy jumped in alarm and whipped around to face me. I say “face” because that ivy had suddenly acquired a pair of large, blue eyes. Those eyes goggled at me in bewildered fear. “Gawd!” he cried. “Where’d you come from?”
Zantetsu-ken sang out in a blur, shredding the ivy as if it were tissue. The tangled vines fell away, revealing a small, dark man in a worn tweed suit. The little man felt the cold wind of my sword’s passage and his face turned the color of oatmeal.
“Please don’t kill me!”
“Then behave yourself.”
“Yessir! I’ll be as good as gold, sir!”
“Absolutely, sir! I’ll be quiet as a mouse, sir! As I was telling his Lordship the other day...”
The little man fell silent with a whimper.
I noticed a bulge in the man’s left breast pocket and went after it. I expected to find a gun, but what I came up with was a calculator.
Not a very good calculator, either. It was stuck together with masking tape!
“T-tool of the trade, sir.” the little man explained. “I’m an accountant.”
There was a noise in the yard next door. It consisted of two distinct, oddly-muffled pops. I was so distracted, it took me a moment to recognize them as gunfire.
I dropped the calculator and grabbed the little man by the collar, dragging him to his feet. This took me about a second.
In that second another shot rang out. This time I didn’t have any trouble recognizing what it was. It was the roar of Jigen’s Magnum.
I went to help, pulling the little man with me. He slowed me down. The sounds of gunplay scared him stiff and the tin wedged on his foot caused him to stumble. I practically had to carry him!
There was a fourth shot. Again from Jigen’s Magnum. I heard the bullet ricochet off the back of the derelict house next door. The ruined house surrendered several bricks from its upper right-hand corner. Those bricks fell on someone. I heard him grunt with the impact. There was a heavy plop.
“Jigen! Daijobu ka?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
The south wall had a rotted gate which was badly overgrown with ivy. I cleared it with three strokes of my katana. Two more cuts and the rotted gate fell, too. It dropped out and down like a drawbridge.
I pulled my captive through the opening.
On the other side was a yard identical to ours. Perhaps a little cleaner. Jigen was standing in the center of it holding his Magnum and forlornly examining his hat. As I approached, Jigen looked up. He thrust the hat towards me, poking his finger through the hole it had acquired.
“He shot my hat!” Jigen complained.
“Never mind your hat! What about your head?”
“Still on my shoulders, no thanks to Dagwood here...”
I looked to my right and saw a second man lying on the ground. He was a tall man, powerfully built wearing jeans and a heavy brown sweater under a muddy trench coat. He was sprawled face down in the grass with a brick lying beside him. It had hit him a glancing blow and knocked him colder than a tuna.
“I should check him,” I decided, pushing my captive in Jigen’s direction. “Watch this for me will you?”
“No problem,” Jigen decided, plopping the injured fedora back on his head. He brought his Magnum up level with the little man’s nose and the accountant froze as if fixed by the glare of a Gorgon.
I knelt by the man on the ground. He’d been armed. There was a Luger lying by his right hand.
I confiscated it before going any further.
A complete search didn’t turn up much else. A set of car keys, some money and a walkie-talkie-sized device with a liquid crystal display. It looked to be a monitor of some sort.
The Earl had interesting friends.
I took these things, too, and turned the man over.
He had a stern, no-nonsense sort of face. Hard and lean with high cheekbones and a sturdy-looking chin. His nose was straight, thin and aristocratic. His brows were heavy and black, used to being glared out from under if the tiny crease between them was any indication. This was a grim man very accustomed to getting his way. If someone had told me he was an officer, I would certainly have believed it.
Only officers in anyone’s army rarely had shoulder-length hair. This man did. Black hair, straight and shiny.
The cold rain striking the man’s face started to revive him. He groaned, shifting on the wet grass. “Scheisse...”
I stood, resting the point of my katana in the hollow of his throat. I pricked him once, just to get his attention. His eyes came open. Dark eyes, confused and unfocused, but without fear.
“You have been disarmed,” I told him. “You will offer no resistance. If you do, I will cut you.”
The dark eyes turned in my direction. The man frowned. “Samurai...?”
“So,” I agreed. “Do you understand what I’ve said? Or would you like me to repeat it?”
“You needn’t repeat yourself. I understood you.”
I withdrew the point of my sword and stepped back. “You may sit up now,” I said. “Please keep your movements slow and your hands where we can see them.”
“We...?” The German turned his head to see who was with me and gasped with pain. His hand went to the black of his skull and massaged that area gently.
“Sit up, please,” I insisted.
He did, dragging himself up with a resolute courage. He was a strong, well-disciplined man. I would have to be careful with him.
“I’m surprised,” he grunted. talking to buy himself a little time. “I didn’t think a Japanese would work for Mischa... “
The question was Jigen’s. At the sound of a second voice, the German reacted, turning his head to look. The sudden movement caused him so much pain, I thought he was going to faint. He swayed where he sat, clutching his throbbing head with both hands. “Mein Gott!” he hissed. “You almost broke my neck, you verdammt idiot!”
“And you nearly blew my head off,” Jigen agreed. “I figure that makes us even. Answer the question: Who is Mischa?”
“If you don’t know, it isn’t my place to tell you.”
“Wrong answer. On your feet, Dagwood. We’re going inside.”
“We’ve already got Blondie. That makes you, Dagwood. Get up. If you can’t make it on your own, Baby Snooks will help you.” Jigen nodded at the little man.
At this suggestion the accountant unfroze. He glanced over at the German and frowned. “Do I have to?”
“Yes, you ‘have to’! I ain’t askin’, Snooks! I’m tellin’! Go over there and help Dagwood to his feet. If ya don’t, I’ll give ya back to the Samurai!”
The little man was reluctant, but the threat of being given back to me was enough to inspire him. He went limping over to the German and offered him his hand. “Come along, Major,” he grumbled. “We’d better do as they say.”
The “Major” slapped the hand aside, “IDIOT! What are you doing here?!”
“And where else would I be, I’d like to know? I’ve got more of a claim to him than you have!”
“Little fool! Always interfering! You have no idea what’s at stake here!”
“Damn me if I don’t! It’s his life ‘at stake’, isn’t it?! Not that you care! No, not you! He’s not as important as your thrice-damned duty!”
The discharge of Jigen’s Magnum split the air like a crack of thunder. The two combatants jumped. The German Major swung around with a bemused expression on his face. The accountant took a step backward, tripped over his own feet and sat down in the mud again.
“Y’wanna fight?” Jigen asked. “Fight inside, I’m cold, I’m wet and I’m tired of standing in the frigging rain! You, Baby Snooks: Get Dagwood on his feet. You, Dagwood: Keep your trap shut!”
Neither was happy with his orders, but both obeyed. The little man extended his hand and, this time, the German took it. The Major made it to his feet with barely a wobble.
“Good!” Jigen admonished with a half-grin. “Let’s hear it for peaceful coexistence! Now droogs and droogies, let’s go co-exist inside...before we start attracting attention.”
We got our captives upstairs without further incident. Lupin was waiting for us in the bedroom wearing a crooked grin. He bowed to the two sodden men as if they were his honored guests.
“Gentlemen!” he cried, “Do come in! Make yourselves comfortable!”
The Earl called Dorian sat forward as they filed into the room. “Klaus! James! Are you all right? I thought I heard gunfire...”
“Everyone’s fine,” I told Lupin. “The only casualty was Jigen’s hat. The German shot it.”
“German!” Lupin wondered.
“The one in the trench coat. I took these from him.”
I passed Lupin the Luger and the other things I’d confiscated. I took particular care to show him the monitoring device. I thought that might interest him.
Nor was I wrong. The minute Lupin saw the thing, his eyebrows rose. He examined the device carefully and gave a low whistle of appreciation. “Very nice! This is the parent monitor to that homing device. Toshiba; liquid crystal display; range of about five miles; fits neatly in a coat pocket. Someone’s given our German friend some very expensive toys to play with!”
The German didn’t react. He picked a spot on the far wall and leaned against it. Using this wall to steady himself, he slid down to squat on his haunches. He said nothing.
Lupin lifted an eyebrow. “Does our friend have a name?”
“Dunno,” Jigen admitted. “But he’s got a rank, I heard the little guy call him ‘Major’.”
“Nuisance!” snapped the accountant. The one Dorian had called James. James plopped himself down on the floor next to the Earl and proceeded to tug on the biscuit tin stuck on his foot. When that tin finally came free, little James went flying over backwards. He struck his head on the wall. “Damn!”
The Major grunted with satisfaction, but didn’t smile. He continued glaring at the floor as if it had done him a personal injury.
The English thief tried to soothe temper’s all ‘round. He gave a half-hug consolation to the little man and tried to smile encouragingly at the Major. “Klaus, love, you’re absolutely soaked! Why don’t you think about taking those wet things off? I’m sure they have something you could...”
The Major’s roar came close to rattling the floor-boards. He turned a glare on the Earl that would have incinerated cinder block. James cringed back out of harm’s way, but Dorian only pouted.
“It’s not my fault you know.”
“Of course it’s your fault! Everything is always your fault!”
“I was only trying to help!”
“You’re always trying to ‘help’! Especially when no one’s asked you! Help me! Help him! Mostly you just ‘help’ yourself! You think the whole verdammt world would stop, but for your ‘help’!”
“They do a lot of this,” Jigen explained. “Dagwood, there. He’s not a mellow kind of guy.”
“Would you please stop calling me that? My name is von Eberbach! Klaus von Eberbach!”
“He’s a Major with NATO Intelligence,” the Earl added, then flinched as the German nailed him with a positively scalding stare. “I didn’t think you were making a secret of it... this time.”
“NATO?” Jigen wondered. “You mean as in North Atlantic Treaty Organization? What’s that got to do with us?”
“Everything, Jigen-chan!” Lupin exclaimed. “NATO is Eroica’s employer.” The Earl shifted, uncomfortable. “I’m afraid that’s not exactly true...”
“No. NATO didn’t actually hire me to steal that box. I heard they had an interest in it and decided, quite voluntarily mind you. That I would pinch it for them. I thought they might be grateful for my efforts,”
“Then you never really had an employer...”
“Not this time, no.”
“You don’t have to tell him anything,” the German growled.
“But, Klaus darling, it’s pointless to deny it. He’s already reasoned most of it out. Besides, there’s the matter of professional courtesy. After all, he’s Arsene Lupin III. ..”
“I know who he is! I know what he is! Famous or not, he is just another thief! And if he’s working with Mischa, he’s a traitor!”
Until this moment, Lupin-sansei had been inclined to treat this matter as one enormous joke. Suddenly it wasn’t funny anymore. He scowled at von Eberbach. “I’m not a traitor, Herr Major!”
Major von Eberbach smiled at the sound of indignation he heard in Lupin’s voice. It wasn’t a pleasant smile, either. “But you’re not a patriot, are you? You probably like to define yourself as ‘apolitical’. You have no social philosophy, no party affiliations, no moral obligations at all. You are answerable to no one and nothing. --But you can still become a traitor, Herr Lupin. By associating with people who are diametrically opposed to the way of life you enjoy and exploit so readily. It makes you guilty by association. How do the Americans put it? ‘You lie down with dogs; you get up with fleas.”
“I have no ‘fleas’, sir!”
“On the contrary, Herr Dieb. You certainly do. You got them when you lay down with Mischa!”
“There’s that name again!” Jigen Daisuke was still cold, still wet and still tired. All this verbal fencing was only serving to annoy him. “Will you quit farting around and just tell us who this guy is? We don’t know him!”
“Comrade Mischa is a KGB operative,” said the little man called James. “He’s their chief operative in this area.”
“A spy?” Lupin’s voice was terse now. More flippant than angry. He was trying to sound amused. “Then you needn’t worry. Major. I don’t associate with spies. They aren’t my sort of people.”
“You think not?” The Major pierced the French thief with a look as cold as crystal. “From what I’ve read in your ICPO file, I would have thought otherwise. You’ve an appetite for intrigue, Herr Dieb. Especially when there’s plenty of money involved. Say, forty thousand pounds to start, plus sixty thousand more when the job is finished.”
“Shit...” Jigen whispered because he knew where this was going. I knew where it was going. Even Lupin knew. He just didn’t want to admit it.
But then he hadn’t looked, had he? He’d just jumped in. He’d been attracted by the money, the ease of the theft and the mystery’. Now we were stuck up to our asses in guano.
Still Lupin couldn’t admit his mistake. He had to be led, as a child is led, to confront the truth of the matter. “Must I repeat myself? I do not associate with spies! I’ve never met this ‘Mischa’, whoever he is! The man who hired me...”
“...is called Dreyfus,” Major von Eberbach finished for him. “Well, let me tell you, Monsieur Lupin-sansei. Dreyfus isn’t a man at all. It’s a code name used by agents in the KGB’s London operations. Dreyfus is Mischa, you poor fool! You’re working for the KGB! “
The look on Lupin’s face might have been comical if the situation hadn’t been so serious. He had this bewildered, half-horrified expression, as if he’d bitten into an apple and found only half a worm.
It wasn’t often that I saw Lupin so completely nonplused. He was a facile man, as quick and as cunning as a mongoose. It was a rare thing when a cobra got the better of him. But, this time, the “cobra” was Lupin’s own stupidity. And stupidity, which is quicker and cleverer than any French-born mongoose, had bitten Lupin right on the ass.
“...KGB.” Jigen’s voice wasn’t exactly an echo of Lupin’s. Lupin had asked a question; Jigen had given the answer. And Jigen’s answer had a sense of finality about it, as if he were reading a verdict passed down by a jury or making a pronouncement of doom. “You took a contract from the Russian secret police?!”
Lupin shook his head. “This doesn’t make any sense! Why would the Russians want a cheap bronze box? Not even bronze! Tin!”
“Who knows?!” Jigen snarled. “Maybe they got a thing for bad artwork! That isn’t the question! WHY is the question! Why did you do it?! Didn’t you see how much deep kimchee we’d be in?!”
“I didn’t know!”
“You didn’t look, did ya?! You just grabbed the first thing that came along! You were bored and you were lazy! Now we’re stuck up shit’s creek without a paddle! Hell, Lupin! We ain’t even got a boat!”
“It’s not that bad...”
I suppose Lupin was just trying to soothe Jigen by minimizing the situation. That didn’t work. It only made Jigen angrier.
The gunman caught Lupin by the shoulder and spun him around, pushing him towards the door. “Watch ‘em, Goemon,” he barked at me. “We’re gonna talk,”
(Yell was more like it.)
I positioned myself in front of the door with my katana at the ready and glowered darkly at our three captives. The little man called James looked nervous. The Earl Red Gloria was cultivating a carefully neutral expression. And as for Major Klaus von Eberbach, he looked, well, satisfied. As if he’d just thrown a hornets’ nest into a Kremlin washroom and watched the entire Central Committee come running out without their pants.
I edged closer so that I could hear what was going on out on the landing. Not that I had any trouble, Jigen was angry and Lupin was indignant. They didn’t speak in whispers; they spoke in growls.
“How dare you treat me like that!” Lupin snarled. “I’m not a child and I’m not a dribbling idiot! I’m your boss!”
“You still don’t get it, do you?” Jigen’s voice was low and thick and crackling with tension, like the rumble of a summer storm. “We took a contract from the Russians, We stole for them. Now we’ve got something they want.”
“But we don’t have to give it to them...”
“No, we can keep it ourselves or we can give it to Major Dagwood. How do you suppose the Russians are gonna feel about that?”
“Not very good. I imagine.”
“Right! They’re gonna be very pissed-off. And they’re not Interpol, Lupin. They’re not ICPO. They’re the KGB! They don’t give a damn about your civil rights! They’ll hang you up by your balls until you give them that box, or they’ll just blow your head off and take it!”
“But I can’t give it to them! If I do, NATO and the Western Allies...”
“...will string you up from the nearest tree! Get it now?”
“I’ve landed us in the middle of a Cold War...”
“Looks that way, don’t it?”
Lupin sighed. “I don’t understand. Why do the Russians want a worthless box? And why would they hire outsiders to steal it for them? Surely they have their own competent people. Why take the risk?”
“Who knows?” Jigen’s voice was quieter now. He’d vented his spleen; his anger was cooling. He was making himself ready for action.
Lupin was already there. “I know someone who might. I think I’ll ask them...”
When Lupin reached the doorway, I knew it. I felt this wave of concentration wash my back. Gone was the discomfiture and the confusion. The mongoose had been bitten and he was smarting. He had his teeth bared now.
I moved out of his way.
Major von Eberbach looked up as Lupin approached him His dark eyes remained dear and cold as Lupin stopped in front of him and stood, looking down. He would refuse to give Lupin anything, even if threatened with death Lupin must have known this, yet he continued to stand, staring at the German, for a full minute.
Then he spun around, snatched up the crate he’d been using as a chair and raised the box over his head in a single, violent gesture. He stepped forward...
...and set the crate down gently in front of the Earl Red Gloria. Lupin then sat on the crate. He rested his elbows on his knees, his chin in his hands, and smiled expectantly at the Englishman.
He didn’t actually say anything.
The Earl burst into bright peals of laughter, surprised by the sudden redirection of Lupin’s focus. “Bravo, Monsieur! Well done!”
Lupin still didn’t speak. He attempted to look as woebegone as possible. He looked like a child whose toys had been taken away.
Dorian roared, rocking on his mattress. He laughed so hard, he started to cry. Tears glistened in his blue eyes as he paused, gasping for breath. “Please don’t look at me like that, darling! I don’t know anything! Honestly I don’t!”
Lupin did a perfect imitation of Stan Laurel crying. “But you knew NATO wanted the box...”
“Yes! But I never knew why! I don’t think NATO knows why! They only want the thing because the Russians do!”
The Major was incensed. “Stop it!”
“I can’t help it, love! He’s killing me!”
Jigen’s harsh whisper cut across the other noise in the room like a sword. The gunman was crouched by the front window. One of two narrow, dirt-grayed windows which peered from the upper story of this sagging rowhouse like a pair of myopic eyes. Outside was a bare square of yard, grassless and littered, and a pitted macadam street sluicing with rain.
Lupin whipped around, his stupid imitation of Stan Laurel forgotten. “Nan da?”
“A dark, four-door Jag just passed us, going slow. It stopped for a second about a block up the street. I think someone got out.”
“But you’re not sure... “
“Couldn’t see. I only know they stopped because I saw the red flash of their brake lights on the pavement Don’t know what else they’d stop for, though. Don’t know what a car like that is doing in this neighbourhood.”
Lupin turned to face von Eberbach. He took a set of car keys out of his pocket. The same keys I’d taken from the German earlier this morning. He let the Major see them. “What make?”
Von Eberbach smiled at little. “Mercedes, of course.”
“Sedan. Coupe’. What?”
The Major’s smile widened. “Why?”
“Because my own vehicle is shut up in a shed behind this house. Because I like to know all my options. Because I just crushed your homing-device like a bug, so if the Russians do get their hands on the box, you’ll never see it again. Your superiors will be very angry and we’ll all be out of luck. Neh?”
“I tell you where my car is, and I’ll never see you or the box again.”
“Not likely, Major, since you’re coming with us.”
Von Eberbach was surprised. “What...?”
“You don’t think I’d leave you to the tender mercies of the KGB, do you? Mais non, Major. I have need of you.”
The German’s dark eyes narrowed as he reappraised the situation. “In the alley,” I heard him say. “Three houses up.”
“Merde! The Austin’s closer!”
There was a change in the air. Just the subtlest decrease in pressure. Just a hint of fresh dampness in an atmosphere pervaded by the twin reeks of staleness and mildew.
Zantetsu-ken slid free of his scabbard He glittered in the shadows, expectant and shivering, like a stallion ready to run.
“Lupin, there’s someone in the house...”
“Kitchen, I think. There’s more than one.
“Dandy!” Jigen grunted. “They’re between us and both cars.”
“A temporary problem, Jigen-chan,” Lupin said. “They have to come upstairs if they’re to get what they’ve come after.” Lupin’s hand disappeared into his pocket. When it reappeared, it was holding a gun. Not the Walther P-38 which was Lupin’s weapon. It was holding von Eberbach’s Luger. He dropped that gun into the German’s hand. “Tell me. Major,” Lupin said softly. “Do you believe in Karma?”
Von Eberbach didn’t say anything at first. His pointed the gun at Lupin. Then, slowly, he turned the Luger away, pointing it at the door.
“I have a certain belief in pre-destiny, if that’s what you mean.”
“Not exactly, but it will do.”
I heard a board creak. The intruders were stealthy and well-trained, but they couldn’t account for the decrepitude of an old house. They were in the entryway, at the bottom of the narrow flight of stairs.
The word hung suspended in the room. Neither a demand nor a question. Both.
Turning my head a little, I saw the one called James kneeling by the Earl’s mattress, but the Earl himself was gone. Only the empty handcuff hung there, dangling from its rusted water pipe.
Dorian Red Gloria stood next to Lupin. “Knives,” he repeated in a low, gentle voice.
“So sorry,” Lupin replied, eyeing the empty ‘cuff. “I’m afraid I left them downstairs.”
“Here.” Jigen tossed the Earl something. It was a folded pocket knife with a horn handle. “Not great, but better than nothing.”
“Quite,” Eroica agreed.
Another board keened in distress. This one was a stair-tread. The intruders were on their way up.
“Jigen! Goemon! Hyaku!”
We took up positions on either side of the door. Jigen on the right; I on the left. Dorian, James and von Eberbach withdrew to positions along the walls as Jigen killed the light. Only Lupin remained in the open. He moved to the middle of the floor and crouched there, illuminated by the yellow oblong of light shining in from the landing. He looked like a dancer poised in the middle of a dark stage.
Below, on the stair, I heard the first intruder hesitate. This wasn’t the reception he’d been expecting. It worried him.
Sweat slid, droplets of tension. Silence hung quivering in the empty air.
Then the stair creaked again and I knew we’d won. The intruder’s need to complete his assignment was greater than his sense of danger. He started up the stair again.
When he reached the landing, he hesitated again. I watched with my mind’s eye as he peered about the stark, empty landing, through the yellowed banister, through each door one at a time until his eye rested on Lupin. I knew exactly when he saw Lupin because Lupin smiled.
The man on the stair reacted with surprise. Again this wasn’t the reception he’d expected. He fell back a step as he trained his weapon on Lupin.
Lupin’s smile grew wider. He slowly raised one hand while the other disappeared carefully into his jacket pocket. It came out holding the little bronze box. “This is what you’ve come for, non?”
“Give h’it ‘ere!” It was a bark and a Cockney bark at that.
“Ah, ah, ah! Not so fast, my friend. First there’s the little matter of sixty thousand pounds.”
“First there’s th’ lettle matter h’ov yer ‘ead, which’ll be h’in sexty thousand pieces h’if yew don’t give that ‘ere!”
“But my deal with Mr. Dreyfus...”
“Wuz called h’on occount h’ov rain! Give!”
To give his demand added weight, the Cockney fired his weapon. There was a zipping sound and the knit collar of Lupin’s sweater gave a spasmodic jerk as the bullet passed close to his throat. The gun was silenced and the man was good.
Lupin’s smile faded. “Well! If you’re going to be that way about it, I don’t suppose I have any choice. Do I?”
And Lupin gave the box a gentle, underhand toss. It flew out in a low arc, hit the floor just short of the doorway and slid, winding up on its side. I heard the intruder gasp. Chances were, his orders were explicit that nothing should happen to the box. Now he might be called to account if Lupin had done any damage.
This broke the man’s discipline. He left the cover of the stairway and ran two steps forward, grabbing for the box.
The second the intruder’s shadow appeared in the doorway. Jigen moved, swinging up hard with the butt of his pistol. He hit Cockney just south of the throat, at the juncture of the collarbones. With a great whoosh of surprise, the heavy Brit went bowling over backwards. I heard another zipping sound as his gun discharged randomly.
I disabled the gun with one cut of my katana and cleared the man’s thrashing body in a single leap. I cleared the banister in another, dropping down into the stairwell.
The second intruder was about half way up. He was a little man with curly hair and a narrow, pointed face. He never had a chance. I kicked him in the chest and he went flying backwards. We both went crashing down the staircase with me on top.
There was a third intruder in the entryway, but he managed to leap aside before we hit bottom. I saw only a flash of him as he ducked back into the kitchen. He was a blond man in a dark suit carrying something larger than a pistol. It was an ugly weapon. Box-like and awkward with a long, dangling clip.
I spared a half-second to look at the little rat-faced man beneath me. If he was not unconscious, he was the next closest thing. The fall, combined with my weight, had slammed all the air out of him. I cut his gun and went dashing after the blond.
Above me there was a ruckus as Jigen finished subduing Cockney and Lupin retrieved the box. This was followed by the sound of trampling feet on the stairs. The avalanche had started.
I turned the corner into the kitchen and was greeted by hailstorm of shots. Two I deflected with my sword, one smacked into the wall beside me and the rest murdered the folding table to my left. Dirty dishes went crashing to the floor as the table tumbled over on its side. I was bushi, not stupid. I ducked behind the counter.
By this time, Lupin had gotten the others downstairs. “Front door!” I heard him bark at Jigen. “Then cut around back!”
“Which one you want? Austin or Benz?”
“Take the Benz. I’ll get the Austin. With this many, we really need two.”
A bullet shattered the flour container sitting on the counter above me. A cloud of flourparticles showered down on me like micro-fine snow. I sneezed.
“God bless you,” Lupin whispered. He was beside me now, crouched low with the Walther drawn. The front door was hanging open. I could smell the wet freshness of the outside air and hear the patter of rain. It was pouring. “Domo...” I replied. “How many have we got?”
“One, with a semi-automatic. Ingram, I think.”
“End of the counter on the right.”
“Okay. I’ll go left. You go right. And I’ll be in Scotland a’fore ye. Or Cornwall, I think. Yes, definitely Cornwall.”
“Sea pinks grow in Cornwall. Haven’t you ever read Mary Stewart?”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
BANG! Another shot ripped into the counter top, peppering us with splintered wood. With its explosive percussion still echoing in our ears, Lupin dove around the corner of the cupboard with me hard after him. He went left, dodging into cover behind the stove. I went right, planting myself tightly against the grease-darkened cabinets. We held our weapons ready, but there was no one to answer our assault. There was only the sad sound of rain falling. The back door hung open, still swinging gently to and fro with the force of the man’s retreat.
“Austin!” Lupin hissed at me. “Quickly!”
We stopped at the rear door only for a moment, peering cautiously out into the yard. It looked much the same as it had earlier this morning, only now it was raining harder. It looked as though a gray curtain had been drawn across the world.
There was no sign of the man with the Ingram.
Lupin was first through the door with me a fast second. The rain hit us hard, like thousands of icy pellets. We were drenched in three strides. The sodden ground sucked at my feet, threatening to deprive me of my sandals.
I heard a sound. I can’t say what kind of sound. It was the sort of thing a Warrior feels rather than hears. I spun with my sword up, moving to protect Lupin’s back, and saw the blond with the Ingram standing under the eave of the house. He raised his gun...
...then howled in pain and dropped it, grabbing at his arm. The horn handle of a pocket knife was protruding from a spot just south of his elbow. With a strangled gasp, the man reached over and pulled the knife free.
When he looked up again, I was in his face. The butt of my katana followed. It caught him on the chin and he went down like a sack of rice.
I used my scabbard to retrieve the Ingram. It was too dangerous to leave lying around.
I turned ...and saw the thief called Eroica standing on top of the greystone wall. The English Earl was wet through to the skin. His soaked shirt -was plastered to his body and his long hair was hanging in ropes of dripping gold.
“Nice throw,” I acknowledged.
“Not so nice,” he demurred, leaping down. “The balance was perfectly terrible. I was trying for his wrist.”
“I suspect he and Klaus have reached the Mercedes by now. I’ve sent James along with them. I heard gunfire and doubled back to see if I could be of any help.”
“Aa, domo. Your arrival was most opportune.”
“And where is Lupin-sensei?”
That threw me for a moment. He said “sensei” instead of “sansei” and I wasn’t at all sure if it was a mistake.
The throaty roar of the Austin’s engine broke my distraction, reminding me of the matter at hand. “Garage!” I told the Englishman. “Come quickly!”
We dashed towards the shed.
Lupin gunned the engine again as I tumbled into the back seat and Dorian took possession of the bucket up front. He grinned at Lupin. “Bonjour, mon cher! Fancy meeting you here!”
Lupin was surprised. “Where’d you come from?”
“Where did I come from, Lupin dear? Out of the nowhere into the here. Where all good little bandits come from.”Out of the nowhere into the here. Where all good little bandits come from.”
“Well,” Lupin decided with a sudden maniacal smile, “that’s not where all good little bandits are going! Hold onto your title, your Lordship! It’s going to be a hell of a ride!”
Lupin threw the Austin into reverse and floored the accelerator. We went flying - backwards ...right into the shed doors, which Lupin had neglected to open. Fortunately, the doors were no more solid than the rest of this decrepit community. They exploded backwards in a shower of wood-rot, crashing into the windscreen of a black Jaguar which had been chasing a gray Mercedes up the narrow alleyway.
The Jag nosed into the opposite wall, cracking its grill and losing half a fender, as Lupin whipped the Austin around and went racing after the Benz.
The Mercedes turned right at the end of the alley, so Lupin also turned right. We fishtailed wildly across the wet macadam as Lupin threw us mercilessly into the turn.
While Lupin recovered from the skid, I glanced back and saw the driver of the Jag smashing the rest of the glass out of the windshield frame as three bedraggled figures came running out of the shed. Cockney was dragging the blond man, who was still as limp as a rag doll, while the little ratty man came stumbling along behind.
That reminded me. I passed the Ingram to the Earl. “Presento da,” I explained.
“Oh. Thank you.”
“You know how to use one, neh?”
“Quite. You point the thing and shoot. I much prefer knives myself. Quieter, you know, and a great deal more elegant.” He glanced back at Lupin. “Where to now, darling? Back to London?”
“Cornwall,” Lupin replied.
“‘Sea pinks grow in Cornwall,”‘ I quoted nastily. “‘Haven’t you ever read Mary Stewart?”‘
“We’re going to Tintagel Castle,” Lupin explained patiently, as if his harebrained logic should be obvious to anyone. “Just south of Bude Bay. You see, England is an island...”
Dorian, the Earl of Red Gloria stared at Lupin III as though he’d suddenly found himself in the presence of a madman. “Ah, yes. I’d rather noticed...”
CRASH! The rear windshield evaporated as a bullet went smashing through it, showering me with glass. The same bullet exited through the front windscreen and left a chrysanthemum-shaped hole webbed with spidering cracks.
I ducked down, reversing myself in the seat, and glowered at the black car following us. The Jag was back in the race. “If we’re going to Tintagel, shouldn’t we tell Jigen?”
“We will,” Lupin agreed, “as soon as we get rid of that persistent bastard clinging to our tail. Monsieur l’Earl, you said you knew how to use that gun. Might I prevail upon you to do so?”
Dorian reversed himself in the front bucket, kneeling on the seat. He rested his elbows on the back to steady his aim and pointed the Ingram at the grill of the black car following us. He pulled the trigger...
...and the gun emitted a dry click...
“What’s the matter?” Lupin demanded.
“I’m not sure,” Eroica replied. “I think the gun may be wet. It’s raining, you know.”
We could see that. The street was running with water. Every gutter was a torrent and every pothole a pond. The gray Mercedes went left, roaring across a lake of accumulated run-off like a speedboat. Cocktails of dishwater-gray spume blinded us as we turned to follow. The Austin skidded dangerously, hydroplaning like mad.
“Eject that shell and try again!”
“I’m trying, darling! The bloody thing is jammed!”
We left the deluge fishtailing crazily and side-swiped a lorry parked by the side of the road. Pieces of tail-lamp and part of our rear fender went bouncing down the lane. The Jag swerved to avoid them as it opened fire on us again.
Another jagged chrysanthemum of glass appeared in the front windshield.
Dorian seemed to conquer his problem. He tore the clip off and rammed it home again, forcing another bullet into the chamber. He aimed the Ingram again, his blue eyes narrowing. He pulled the trigger...
The Austin hit a bump which sent it flying. We grounded again with a shudder that made the whole car groan. The rest of the rear window crumbled, showering me with more glass.
“Why don’t you give him the damned Walther?” I snarled at Lupin. “The Ingram obviously doesn’t...”
Another bullet pierced our car. The retort was also piercing, confined as it was to the interior of our vehicle. Dorian had just blown a fist-sized hole in our roof.
“There!” the Earl announced cheerfully, “I think that’s got it!” Lupin said something in Japanese I’d rather not repeat.
But Dorian didn’t speak Japanese, so he took this to be a growl of encouragement. He grinned, shouldered the gun and started blazing away.
I hit the deck. Like I said: I’m bushi, not stupid. With the Earl Red Gloria riding shotgun, I figured the safest place for me to be was on the floor!
Turns out I was right. Dorian hit the top of the rear seat at least as many times as he hit the Jaguar. To be entirely fair, I’m sure Lupin’s wild driving and the wet roads did nothing to improve the Earl’s aim. Still, it was more by luck than by design when he finally shot out one of the Jag’s front tires. The Jag spun out spectacularly, crashing into a trash dumpster. Cans and bottles flew as the black car finally retired from the chase.
Eroica was exultant. “C’est fini, Monsieur! I’ve got them!”
“Excellent!” Lupin agreed. “Now if you’ll just return...”
Lupin-sansei turned his head as he spoke and suddenly found himself nose-to-muzzle with the still-smoking Ingram. With a cry of alarm, he grabbed the body of the gun, forcing it away from his face. The weapon lurched in the Earl’s hands and his finger inadvertently tightened on the trigger. The gun discharged, blowing out the side window. The bullet passed within an inch of Lupin’s nose.
Dorian’s face turned the color of spoiled cream. “God!” he cried. “I’m so sorry! I’ll put the safety on immediately! There! All done.”
Lupin didn’t say anything. He continued to stare at the drenching road. There was a dark smudge of expended powder on his left cheek. The flesh there was already starting to redden.
Dorian repositioned himself in the seat properly. He was completely contrite. “Darling...?” he ventured after a moment. “You are all right, aren’t you? I didn’t mean that. Honestly. It was an accident.”
More silence. “Darling...?” Lupin let the breath leave his body in a long sigh. “Mrs. Petticaris, you’re a lot of trouble...”
I didn’t mean to fall asleep. I didn’t think I’d be able to sleep if I tried. I was wet through to the skin. There was hardened flour and bits of glass in my hair. The broken rear window let a cold draft in on my back and Lupin was still driving like a madman.
Yet sleep I did. Deeply. Darkly. Utterly. Immersed in the blackest kind of oblivion.
I awoke to feel a blaze of warmth on my shoulder. A shaft of sunlight had pierced the window and puddled like molten gold on my back. It felt so good, my body felt impelled to wake me, so that we both could enjoy the treat.
I lay in the gritty world of half-consciousness, trying to collect myself.
The car had stopped moving. Its engine was quiet; the world was still. A freshening wind blew through the broken window, heavy with the salty smell of the sea. There was no rain in it. The storm was over. The only sound I could hear was the distant breaking of surf against the rocks.
This must be Cornwall. I vaguely remembered Lupin shouting something about Cornwall to Jigen just before I fell asleep.
I sat up and looked around.
The Austin was parked in a bowl-shaped depression rimmed with gray rocks. Those rocks were mottled with patches of greenish lichen and brownish moss. Clumps of denser vegetation huddled in the crevasses as if frightened to venture out into the light.
I saw no sign of Jigen or the Mercedes.
I got out of the car and the breeze hit me, smelling of salt. I followed my first instinct and headed for the sea.
It was a dizzying fall to the water. The shore was built of enormous rocks. Rocks which were a dark greenish-gray from the continual lapping of the surf. The sea boomed whitely amongst them, sending up streamers of spume. The water itself was dark, turgid with sand, and crisscrossed by patterns of foam.
The sky above was like the sea, still shadowed from its morning of rain. The clouds boiled, white on grey, as the sun shone golden between them, turning the wrinkled sea into a blue carpet scattered with diamonds of reflected light.
To my right, I could see Bude Bay, its waters littered with the white, triangular sails of small ships out to take advantage of the breeze.
To my left stood the castle once called Tintagel. It was little more than a broken tower now, its bastions reduced to mere sidewalls of crumbling rock. The tops of those walls were streaked with whitened guano. The fortress of Gorlois’ power had become a roost for birds.
That’s where I saw him. He was standing on a jutting spar of rock staring out at the maddened sea. His hands were in his pockets and his red jacket was flapping around his body like a flag. Dressed in the colors of a battle-pennant, Lupin-sansei held a staring contest with Eternity.
“‘O Merlin in your crystal cave deep in the diamond of the day, will there ever be a singer whose music will smooth away the furrow drawn by Adam’s finger over the meadow and the wave?”‘
The voice was melodious, drifting up from below. It conquered the cacophony of the crashing waves without really trying. I looked down and saw Dorian, Earl of Red Gloria, sprawled on a ledge some fifty feet above the maddened surf, basking in a pool of golden sunshine.
I climbed down to join him.
“’Or a runner who’ll outrun Man’s long shadow driving on, burst through the gates of history, and hang the apple on the tree?’” he continued quoting as I neared him. “‘Will your magic ever show the sleeping bride shut in her bower, the day wreathed in its mound of snow, or Time locked in his tower?”‘ He paused for a moment, studying Lupin. “He loves this sort of thing, doesn’t he?”
“Ee,” I agreed. “It’s mother’s milk to him. Where are the others?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea.”
“You’re not concerned?”
“Of course I’m concerned, darling, but I must be philosophic. Klaus von Eberbach is a big boy. He can take care of himself. As for James ...Well, if Klaus doesn’t kill him, I’m sure he’ll be just fine.”
I nodded at Lupin. “How long has he been out there?”
“About an hour, I should say.”
“Did he say anything else?”
“About the box? Not really. He again assured me that England is an island and that sea pinks grow in Cornwall. I, on the other hand, assured him that I had indeed read Mary Stewart and that I failed to see what any of this had to do with the price of tea in China.”
“What did he say to that?”
“My reaction exactly, darling, but he wouldn’t elaborate. He just smiled and went off to stand on the cliff, staring out at the water like Penelope waiting for Ulysses to return from the sea.”
I heard the rumble of an engine, followed by a car door’s slam. Thirty seconds later, a figure appeared at the crest of the bluff. A lean, bearded figure wearing a battered hat.
He waved at me, but didn’t start down the path until he’d been joined by two other figures. One was a small man in a limp tweed suit. The other was a German in a muddy trench coat.
They began the descent en masse.
“Where were you?” I asked once Jigen had reached our ledge.
“Got lost,” he explained, flopping down tiredly next to the Earl. “Took a wrong turn and wandered around for a while. Not surprising. I’m absolutely beat! Where’s Lupin?”
“Out by the castle,” I said. “Looking out at the sea.”
Jigen’s eye followed the direction of my nod and spotted Lupin immediately. He leaned forward, making a megaphone of his cupped hands. “YOU! YOU WITH THE FACE! GET YOUR ASS OVER HERE!”
Lupin heard him. He waved at us and started back.
“So,” grunted von Eberbach, “why are we here?”
“Sea pinks,” I explained.
“A flower indigenous to the southwestern coast of England, but also prevalent in Wales,” the Earl recited. “A relative of the heather family preferring rocky soil and a warmer, southwesterly breeze. Marked by tiny, star-shaped flowers which bloom in clusters. These flowers are, of course, pink.”
The Major was angered. “What do these verdammt flowers have to do with the KGB?”
“More than you can possibly imagine!”
Lupin slid down the rocks to join us, grinning like a thief. He’d washed the smudge of expended gunpowder off his cheek, but the pale pink crescent of the powder-burn still marked him.
“It would be very nice if you explained that,” James said.
“I will explain all ...or at least all I know ...shortly. But first I have to ask the Earl a few more questions. If you will indulge me, your Grace?”
“Would you happen to know Count Whitty’s given name?”
“Yes. It was Alaric.”
“And his wife’s?”
“Oralia, I believe.”
But Lupin just giggled. He put his hand on the Major’s shoulder and grinned at all of us. “Sit down, everyone! I’m going to tell you a story!”
I might have argued, but there wasn’t any point. Lupin had his own brand of logic. Trying to defy that logic, let alone understand it, was an exhausting business and I just didn’t have the strength.
I sat. James sat. Everybody sat but the Major, who stood glaring at Lupin. “Herr Dieb, this had better be good!”
“Excellent, Major! You will hang on every word!”
“If I don’t, rest assured that you will!” The German leaned back against the cliff with his arms folded. He wasn’t willing to make the ultimate sacrifice and sit down.
Lupin was undaunted. He smiled at all of us indulgently and then turned away, beginning to pace the narrow ledge.
“Once upon a time,” he said, “there was a man named Alaric Whitty. He married a Countess named Oralia. Since he was a commoner and she a noble, it would be easy to believe this marriage was a vehicle for Alaric’s advancement, but this was not so. He loved the Countess Oralia. When revolution swept Mother Russia in 1917, Alaric packed Oralia up and took her away to the safety of the British Isles. Unfortunately, his beloved Countess lost her life but a year later, drowned at sea. Alaric was heartbroken. He was so devastated by his loss, he couldn’t bear the sight of water. He had all the ponds on his estate drained. And...”
Lupin’s hand went into his pocket and came out holding the box.
“...he had this made to commemorate the tragedy. The lady on the lid is the unfortunate Oralia and, as the evidence indicates, she was lost in a shipwreck. The name of the ship was Andora and she sank right off this coast in 1918.”
“How do you know that?” James wondered.
Lupin opened the box, displaying its interior. “Sea pinks,” he replied. “Eighteen of them. Sea pinks for Cornwall; eighteen to mark the year.”
“That’s a fantastic leap in logic,” the Major observed, “and it doesn’t answer my principle question: Why does the KGB want the thing?”
“Treasure,” Lupin explained simply. “The box is a treasure map.”
“Really?” Little James’ eyes were aglow in the sunlight. “A lot of treasure, do you think?”
“As much as a Countess may have had,” Lupin agreed. “And probably a bit more, if Alaric could arrange it. The nobility lived a notorious lifestyle under the Tsar and the last days of 1917 were fraught with confusion. An enterprising man could have made off with, say, several million in jewelry and gold.”
Lupin paused to give all of us time to contemplate that possibility. We contemplated, all right. We did a lot of heavy thinking. James particularly. I thought his eyes were going to fall right out of his head.
“As to why the KGB should want this money...” Lupin continued, his sense for drama satisfied. “In order for you to understand that, I’m going to have to tell you another story. That story goes something like this:
“Once upon a time there was a man named Gorbachev, who had two very unusual ideas. One was called perestroika and the other was called glasnost. Everybody in the Kremlin pooh-poohed these ideas as being just too radical. Would the Soviet Union ever open herself to the inspection and the ideas of her rivals? C’est impossible! It could never be so!
“Yet the years passed and Gorbachev didn’t go away. His ideas of perestroika and glasnost stayed set in the flesh of the Central Committee like two cancers eating at its soul. Those old Party bosses ...those Old Guard conservative Communists who thought that no one and nothing would ever be able to threaten their grasp on power ...started to feel the cold wind of political mortality. This was particularly true of the KGB, who had more to hide then most. They became scared to death. They suddenly found themselves in crying need of money. Money which couldn’t come from the Central Committee. Money which mustn’t come to the attention of Gorbachev. Free money, which they could use to bolster their conservative position or to feather nests in Cuba, should worse come to worst.
“In addition, they needed to acquire said money in a way that couldn’t be traced back to them if something went wrong. They hired outsiders. They hired the single most notorious sneak-thief they could find. They hired me.
“And they wanted me to steal this,” Lupin finished, gesturing with the box. “The key to a Russian fortune. A treasure not as conspicuous as the treasure of the Romanovs. A treasure few knew about and no one would ever miss.”
“Supposition,” the Major decided. “You’ve no proof that this ‘treasure’ exists.”
“But it has to exist!” Lupin argued. “That’s the only theory which makes any sense! Why else would the Russians want this box? It’s absolutely worthless! It’s not even true Art Nouveau! It was made ten years after the fact!”
“It could be a mule.”
“You mean they might be using it to smuggle things? Microfilm perhaps? Micro-chips? Secret decoder rings? Not a chance, Major! I checked this box over very carefully and the only thing I found was your homing-device!”
“Supposing the box is a treasure map,” the Earl speculated. “How does it work? How can it tell us what to look for?”
“Oh, I already know what to look for. We look for a sunken ship. I already know which ship and I know approximately where and when. Now all I need do is ask a few discreet questions. Once I’ve determined where the poor thing foundered, I’ll know exactly where the treasure is!”
“Smashing!” James cried.
“Huh,” grunted Jigen Daisuke. “It looks like this isn’t a total loss after all.”
“It’s a bunch of verdammt theory,” the Major decided, “but it’s more than I had when I started. If there’s any truth to this shipwreck business, my operatives should be able to ferret it out.”
Lupin sighed. “I’m so sorry, Major, but I can’t permit you to contact your operatives. You still are, technically speaking, my prisoner.”
“I’m a prisoner with a gun, Herr Dieb, unless you now plan to take that gun away from me.”
“No. You may keep it. This is a dangerous situation and I haven’t got time to baby-sit you.”
“Generous of you.”
“Not generous; desperate. I’m a very desperate man. I’m stuck between two rocks which are big enough and strong enough to grind me into powder. If I cooperate with the KGB, NATO will be angry. If I cooperate with NATO, the KGB will be angry. I don’t know how much money Count Whitty smuggled out of Russia, but however much it is, it isn’t enough for me to buy my way out of this. If I let you contact your agents, this Mischa may hear of it. If he does, he may conclude that I’m cooperating with NATO. It would be better if you let me handle this on my own. If Mischa thinks I’m running scared, he may not be as anxious to kill me. He’ll only want to get the box back. The longer I can keep him dancing, the better the chance you can catch him in a slip. You may be able to prove he’s digging around for money behind Gorbachev’s back. If you can do that, you’ll have him in a thoroughly compromised position. Wouldn’t that be worth a little faith on your part?”
The German’s eyes narrowed as he appraised Lupin coldly. His face remained set as he considered the idea. Then, abruptly, he nodded. “You have forty-eight hours.”
“What about the treasure?” James demanded. “What if we actually find it? Who gets to keep it then?”
Klaus von Eberbach’s baleful gaze redirected itself, focusing on the little man in the threadbare tweed. It must be said to James’ credit that he endured this black stare and didn’t bat an eye. When it came to money, he had the heart of a lion.
“What if we do find it?” he insisted. “We ought to be able to keep it! After all, we’re the ones doing all the work!”
Dorian chuckled. “Easy now, Stingy Bug. First we have to find the treasure before we can divide it.”
“Right!” Lupin agreed. “First thing’s first! And the first thing I want is a bath, followed by a shave, a nap, and dinner. After that, it’ll be time for me to do a little pub-crawling. Memories are long in a seaport town and shipwrecks are always big news, even when they happened seventy-one years ago!”
We ditched the Austin. In its present condition, it was likely to attract attention, so we found a deserted stretch of cliff and pushed it into the sea. Then we all piled into the Mercedes and headed for the tiny coastal town called Alynporth.
Alynporth was a village on Port Issac Bay, just north of Portgaverne. Alynporth had once been a fishing village, but the people there didn’t fish much anymore. They’d traded that industry for another. They catered to tourism now. But Alynporth still had its own fleet in the large number of pleasure boats and private charters which docked there. This kept it an active port.
We choose Alynporth for three reasons: One, since it was still an active port, its citizens were likely to be privy to the legends of the area. Two, it was small and easily overlooked. Three, it was a tourist town, so the sudden arrival of six strangers wasn’t likely to attract that much notice.
We stopped at an inn outside of town first to refresh ourselves, then rested, washed and laundered, we drove down to the docks.
By the time we got there, it was after nine and we were all famished. We selected a place called the Spyglass which was right on the wharf and settled in for a late meal.
The food was perfectly awful! Their broiled fish was served swimming in butter, with a side order of rice which had been cooked to the consistency of mush. This was accompanied by something called “pickle relish”. Well, if these were pickles, they were no pickles I knew and I didn’t “relish” them one bit! But I was hungry and hardly in a position to be picky about my food. I ate the slop and was glad for it.
Lupin bolted his dinner, then took his glass of Guinness and went off to make the rounds. Major von Eberbach was forced to abandon his meal in order to accompany him. When it was evident that they weren’t going to return anytime soon, James started mooching tidbits from the Major’s plate.
“James!” the Earl reproved. “Where are your manners?”
James pouted. “It’s perfectly good food! It shouldn’t be left to go to waste!”
“Yes, but it’s Klaus’s food, darling twit, and I don’t recall his inviting you to partake of it.”
“You always take his side!”
Family squabble. I’d lived through plenty of them myself. This didn’t stop me from being embarrassed by it, though. I tried to divert James by pushing my roll in his direction.
It worked like a charm. James eyed the roll, then pounced on it.
“Thank you,” Dorian said for him.
“He has a frugal nature,” I observed.
“He’s tight as a tick, if that’s what you mean. He can’t help it. It’s the Scotsman in him.”
“Sumimasen, but I am confused. What is he to you?”
“I’m his financial advisor,” James replied, chewing. “I manage his accounts, his estate, what have you.”
“And you accompany him on thefts...?”
“Someone has to inspect, catalogue and fence the merchandise. Why not me? Besides, someone should be there to look out for Dorian when he gets himself involved with the Major.”
I looked at the Earl. “So you do occasionally work for NATO...?”
“Occasionally,” he agreed.
“With von Eberbach?”
“With him, because of him, in spite of him. Our relationship is... how shall I say? ... divinely complex. Klaus would say we were associates. I would have to admit that we are, unfortunately, just friends.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Sometimes Klaus requests my help. Sometimes I volunteer it. Sometimes I’m off on other business altogether and we just happen to meet. It amuses me to think we’re star-crossed. I find I’ve developed a certain affection for him. He is, after all, a very dashing man.”
“Dorian has a soft spot for the Major,” James grumbled, “right between his ears!”
“I’m afraid James doesn’t like Klaus,” the Earl remarked, giving his companion a reproving glance. “They quarrel constantly.”
“You mean fight,” Jigen observed. “Dagwood doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy to ‘quarrel’ about anything.”
Jigen finished his boiled beef and sat back in his chair with a sigh. He took out his pack of Pall Malls and tapped it until a cigarette protruded. “One thing puzzles me,” he continued, putting that cigarette in his mouth. “If Snookums doesn’t like Dagwood, why were they traveling together?”
“We weren’t ‘traveling together’!” James protested. “I was working the Thornedyke with Dorian when I saw you bring him out. I tried to follow you, but you lost me in the fog. Then I saw the Major. I decided he had to be part of this bloody great botch, so I followed him. He didn’t even know I was there until you captured us’.”
I looked up and was surprised to see Lupin returning to our table with the Major in tow. He dropped into his chair, set his nearly-drained jar of Guinness by his plate and turned to Jigen. “Gimme...” was all he said.
Fortunately, Jigen understands “Lupinese”. He gave Lupin the cigarette thus requested. “That was fast,” he observed.
Lupin concentrated on lighting his cigarette.
“Mr. Lupin’s theories are garbage,” von Eberbach explained, resuming his seat and his now icecold meal. “That’s why he’s in such a good mood.”
“What happened, darling?” Eroica insisted. “Wasn’t there a wreck in 1918?”
“There was a wreck in 1918,” Lupin replied, breathing out a cloud of milky smoke in a long, disgusted sigh. “And the name of this wreck was Andora. She was a mail steamer which used to make the rounds between the mainland and the isles of Scilly and Lundy. She ran aground during a storm on a shoal south of the Isle of Lundy in November of 1918. The waves beat her to pieces before help could arrive. All aboard were lost.”
“Then the wreck’s south of Lundy...?” James ventured hopefully.
“It was,” Lupin morosely corrected. “The Andora was salvaged to her keel just six months later. They took everything right down to her boilers. There’s hardly a scrap of her left.”
“There’s no treasure?”
“Nobody mentioned treasure,” the Major injected. “And they would have, if there’d been any. The proprietor of this place is Joseph Kittery, grandson of the late Thomas Kittery, captain of the Andora. If there was treasure aboard, he’d have known about it.”
“Not necessarily, love,” the Earl reflected. “When traveling with a fortune, it hardly pays to advertise. Besides, there’s no reason to assume the poor woman had the treasure with her. After all, we’ve mislaid an entire year.”
Lupin frowned. “I don’t understand.”
“The Bolshevik Revolution occurred in 1917. The Andora sank in November, 1918, a full year later. What happened during that year? And why was the Countess traveling alone? She had to be, if the Count survived her.”
“That’s right,” Lupin agreed. “All aboard were lost.”
“I think it unlikely that it took the Count and Countess a full year to travel from Russia to England, especially if they had a great deal of money. Even if they dawdled and took that full year, there’d be no reason for either of them to be traveling on a mail steamer which never ventured further than the Irish Sea. In addition, why would the Count then purchase an estate riddled with ponds and watercourses if they were only going to serve to remind him of his drowned wife?”
“He’d already bought the house,” the Major decided.
“That’s a reasonable assumption,” Dorian agreed. “Since it is, we are faced with two possibilities. One, the Count had already come to England and purchased his house. He then sent for his wife to join him and she died en route.”
“On route from where?” Jigen wondered. “You just said that boat never traveled farther than the Irish Sea.”
“Exactly, darling! Which leaves us with the second possibility: Both Whittys were already in England and had just purchased their house. Suddenly the Countess took it into her head to go traveling alone, either for her own amusement or out of necessity. I tend to think it was the latter. After all, it was 1918. Married ladies, especially noble married ladies, rarely traveled without an escort.”
Jigen shrugged. “Maybe she and Alaric had a fight. She took off to be by herself for a while and got herself drowned. Maybe that’s why Whitty was so bent out of shape. He felt guilty.”
“Or...” Lupin injected, grinning like a thief, “she was traveling alone because noble married ladies never traveled alone. She was traveling incognito!”
“I propose an addendum to my theory,” Dorian continued. “I propose that Alaric was an exceptionally cautious man. I also speculate that he feared retribution at the hands of the Bolsheviks. Therefore, I believe he hid his purloined fortune outside his estate so that he could plead poverty whenever it was convenient. If so, then he probably carried no large amounts of money with him. Buying ‘Tolerance’ over-extended him. He was forced to dip back into his cache. He thought it prudent if someone else was to do the dipping and the only one he trusted was his wife. He sent her and she drowned. The poor Count never forgave himself:’
“The treasure’s on Lundy!”
James’ voice was louder than any of us would have liked.
“Hush, darling twit!” Dorian reproved. “I never said that! The steamer made any number of stops before it reached Lundy Isle. The treasure could be hidden at any of them.”
“But if the Countess had already reached her cache, then she’d have had it with her when she was found.”
“Not necessarily,” said Lupin. “For one thing, we’re not talking about a fortune payable in pound notes. It was probably mostly jewelry, since that’s easier to transport and conceal. For another, the Count was conservative. He wouldn’t have wanted his wife to take much. If we’re talking about a necklace or a couple of bracelets, there’s no saying the salvage team would have found them. Something so small is easy to overlook. Besides, I don’t recall anyone mentioning that they found the woman’s body. That may be another reason the Count was so upset.”
“Snookums has a point, though,” Jigen reflected. “The cache’s got to be offshore. If not, why take a boat?”
“Alas,” Dorian sighed. “Which island, darling? There are over fifty in the Scilly chain alone.”
“This will tell us.” Lupin fished the box out of his pocket and held it in front of him, smoothing its contours with his thumbs. “This has to be more than a memorial to the man’s dead wife. It’s too oddly and deliberately made. There’s got to be something about it I’ve overlooked.”
“I’ll tell you what you’ve ‘overlooked’,” von Eberbach decided, filching one of Jigen’s cigarettes. ‘“That’s the possibility there is no treasure. The Andora sank in 1918. The Count died in, what? 1968?” Dorian nodded. “That’s fifty years ago. What’s to say he didn’t empty that cache in the meantime?”
“If there wasn’t any treasure, Uncle Mischa wouldn’t be interested.”
“Providing he knows it’s empty. There’s no saying he does.”
Lupin’s attention returned to the box. He ran his fingers over it gently, as if his touch could tell him something his eyes could not. The jostling it had received in Lupin’s pocket had proved a hardship on that box. The lacquer had begun to wear off at certain high points in the design. The gray metal underneath was showing.
‘“There has to be treasure!” James argued. He wasn’t talking to anyone in particular. He was just trying to convince himself.
“Why?” the Major wondered sourly. “Because you decree it?”
Flash! A bright golden light dazzled in my eyes, nearly blinding me. Lupin had turned the box over in his hand. The friction of his pocket had had a buffing effect on its under-surface, too. It had polished that under-surface to a mirror-like luster.
No one else at our table noticed. James and the Major were glowering at each other and Dorian was concerned with their budding argument. Jigen was interested in something happening outside the front window. None of them saw a thing.
I couldn’t help but notice. “Lupin, if you don’t mind...”
But Lupin only stared at me as though I’d suddenly grown a horn in the middle of my forehead. “Heads up, people,” Jigen murmured. “We’ve got company.”
“Who?” asked von Eberbach.
“Somebody who’s been hanging around outside the front window for at least ten minutes. I’m not sure, but I think it’s one of the clowns from this morning. He looks nervous enough.”
“Describe him, please.”
“Short, with curly hair and a pointy nose. Looks like a weasel with gas-pains.”
“Boat!” Lupin suddenly announced, re-pocketing the box. “We’ve got to get a boat! How much money do you have?”
Jigen was surprised. “About five hundred pounds. What good is that gonna do you? All the charters are closed. ‘Sides, we got company.”
“Forget him for the moment. Gimme.”
Jigen passed Lupin his cash. Combined with Lupin’s holdings, it made for about nine hundred pounds. Lupin ordered the bills neatly. “Goemon,” said he, “go to the bathroom.”
“I need to know if it has a window. If it does, stay there. If it doesn’t, come back.”
“How long do I wait, providing there’s a window?”
“Until we need you. Go along now.”
I sighed. Again, there was no point arguing. I got up from the table and went off to find the john.
I found it behind the kitchen, in an extension to the building which jutted out into the back alley like an afterthought. It was a tiny room with a single stall and a dingy, rust-spotted sink. It was clean enough, yet odors lingered, trapped by the damp air.
There was a window. It was of the casement variety, equipped with a crank and installed at shoulder-level. It was frosted with salt and the paint on its casement had bubbled, indicating that the metal underneath had been corrupted by the sea air. It would take a cut from my katana to free it.
I settled in to wait, peering out into the alley just to be on the safe side. Where the extension intruded, the alley was painfully narrow. A big man would have to turn sideways to get through. When the alley reached the kitchen, it abruptly widened. I could just see the steps leading to the back door and the trash cans standing in their neatly ordered row.
Lounging against the trash cans, having a cigarette, was a blond man wearing a navy peacoat with the collar turned up. He might have been one of the cooks on his break, but somehow I didn’t think so. I especially didn’t think so when he looked up the alley in my direction and I saw the dim light from the kitchen fall across his face. He had a great, sprawling bruise along his chin. I was willing to bet he had a bandage on his right arm as well.
That made two of four. Cockney and his wheelman had to be around someplace.
I heard the sound of Lupin’s voice. He wasn’t too far away, either. Probably in that narrow passageway next to the kitchen. He was talking to someone. His voice was low. Suggestive. I couldn’t hear what he said.
The other person (a woman) said stiffly: “I’m sorry, sir, but you’re mistaken. I don’t know this man.”
Lupin was insistent.
The woman got angry. “I said I don’t know him! If you’ll excuse me, please?”
Lupin said something else. Whatever it was, it incensed the woman. She put her tray down with a thump. I heard the glasses on it clink.
“Oh, he said that, did he? Where is he now?” Lupin told her.
“We’ll just see about this!” the woman decided. “I’ve got my good name to think of, you know!” Her heels clicked on the floor as she walked away.
My curiosity got the better of me. I peered out the door and saw Lupin. Sure enough, he was standing by the kitchen.
“Oi... Lupin... “
He turned, saw me and put a finger to his lips. When I beckoned, he came closer. ‘“There’s another one stationed in the alley.”
“The blond with the Ingram.”
“Well,” Lupin decided with a grin, “don’t worry about him. He won’t be there much longer. Stay where you are.”
He moved back toward the kitchen.
A bell rang as the front door slammed. An argument erupted outside not two seconds later. I could hear the woman’s voice, loud and indignant, screaming at someone outside the front window. The fracas attracted immediate attention. Conversation in the Spyglass died away. One of the staff stuck his head out of the kitchen door to see what the trouble was. When he did, Lupin tossed something into the kitchen. Something round and small, like a marble.
I ducked back into the bathroom.
Out in the alley, the blond I decided to call “Ingram” was now in a quandary. He’d been told to stay where he was, but he could hear the argument happening out front and it bothered him. He wanted desperately to know what it was about. Abruptly he came to a decision. He threw his cigarette down and took off at a brisk walk, his hand in his jacket pocket. I saw him disappear around the corner.
All hell broke loose in the kitchen. There was a crash, then somebody screamed: “FIRE!!”
Forget civilization. People are still primitives where fire is concerned. This is particularly true if the cry of “Fire!” is accompanied by gouts of evil-looking smoke. Flames don’t have to be visible. Most sane people won’t hang around long enough to see if there are any flames. Smoke alone will send them packing.
Chairs overturned and crockery broke as everybody bolted for the exits. The back door exploded open and the kitchen staff came dashing out, followed by a horrifying billow of plumcolored smoke.
Ingram came sprinting back around the corner with a wild look in his eye. He saw the people standing around and quickly determined that we were not among them. This led him to the conclusion that we’d gone out the front. He drew out his pistol and headed off at a dead run.
By now, smoke had invaded my sanctuary. I could smell the faint cordite stink in it. Lupin would be along any moment.
I drew sword and positioned myself in front of the window.
James was first to arrive. “Gawd!” he announced as he was thrust through the door by a tearyeyed Earl, “there was no call to burn the bloody place down!”
“No fire,” Lupin assured him, ushering Jigen and the Major into the room. “Just smoke. Smoke is more useful.” He grinned at me. “Onegai, Goemon!”
A flash of steel and the window was parted from its casement. A tip from my sword sent it crashing to the alley floor. Given the present unholy din, I doubt anyone heard it.
“Which way now, darling?” Dorian asked.
“Up,” Lupin instructed. “To the roof of the building next door. With any luck, our friends will be too busy counting heads to notice.”
Dorian and the Major went first, with James sandwiched between them. Jigen was next, followed by me. Lupin was last. He tossed a second smoke bomb into the washroom to make sure our retreat was covered.
The building across the alley was a half-story taller than the Spyglass. It had a sharply sloping roof adorned with a ramshackle chimney. The sky above was that absolutely magnificent deep teal blue it sometimes was in autumn. The stars were bright as diamond-chips and the moon was a dazzling silver. There wasn’t a cloud to be seen.
There were, however, several plumes of murky smoke rising from the Spyglass. On this cloudless, moon-washed night, they attracted immediate attention. A crowd had gathered in the streets, gibbering like monkeys. From a long ways off, the mournful howl of a siren announced the impending arrival of the local fire-brigade.
Lupin slapped my back. “No time for sightseeing now, my friend. The marina is this way.” He took off along the peak of the roof, nimble as a cat.
We were quick to follow.
Funny thing about small towns. Anything that happens in them is a matter of community interest. And if part of one decides to burn itself down ...Well, that’s almost a social occasion. People in Alynporth left their tellies and their firesides to go have a look. When we descended to ground level again, some nine or ten houses over, there was no one around to see us do so. The outlying streets were deserted.
The marina was deserted, too, although the watchman had been thoughtful enough to secure the gate with a padlock before he left to go watch the carnage. That padlock was no deterrent to Lupin. He was through it in two seconds flat.
He opened the gate and peered inside. “All clear,” he told us. “Come on.” We came.
Alynporth’s marina was almost larger than the town. It consisted of a triple pier of boat-slips, protected from the open bay by a breakwater. It was further protected by a flat jut of rock which transformed the only entrance to the harbor into a sharp dog-leg turn. Perched on that jut of rock, like an old curmudgeon on a roadside stump, was a salt-grayed refueling shanty.
It was mid-September and late in the season, but there were still several dozen ships at anchorage here. Lupin moved quickly among them, inspecting everything large enough to take the six of us.
He stopped in front of a slip containing a large motor launch. She was a big thing, coarse and blocky, with a flying bridge and a rack for scuba tanks bolted to her cabin bulkhead. She was altogether the ugliest boat I had ever seen and very much in contradiction with her own name. That name was Arabella.
“This one,” Lupin decided. “We’ll take this one.”
“Fine,” Jigen agreed, eying the dock. “I don’t see anyone around to object. I’d better check, though. You guys wait here.”
Jigen drew his Magnum and slipped aboard the Arabella for a quick gunpoint inspection. Von Eberbach frowned at Lupin. “You realize I can’t approve of your stealing this boat.”
“Ah?” Lupin wondered with a slight smile. “You had no objection to my stealing a box.”
“How so? Theft is theft. Someone wins, and someone loses. The loss of a worthless trinket can be just as painful as the loss of a priceless artifact. Sentiment is a thing beyond value. But your disapproval is noted, never fear. If necessary, I can testify that you were suitably outraged. In the meanwhile, you are my helpless prisoner. Try to relax and enjoy it.”
I glanced over my shoulder. Smoke from the Spyglass was dissipating quickly. The “fire” was almost out. They’d check the car first. Then, when they decided we’d abandoned it, they’d do a quick, thorough check throughout the town. There were only four of them, but they were proficient. Our advantage wasn’t that great.
Jigen reappeared and waved at us. “She’s got a full tank and a stocked larder. Y’got great taste, Lupo. This baby’s ready to roll.”
“And the ignition?”
“Self-starter. Shouldn’t be any harder than hot-wiring a car.”
“Good. Get on it. Monsieur l’Earl, would you be so kind as to take the helm? Goemon, get aboard and be ready to cut us loose. James, go help Jigen. And as for you, dear Major, I must insist you help me. This is a big girl. It’ll take two strong backs to launch her.”
The German smiled. Just a little. “How can I refuse? I am your ‘helpless prisoner’.”
We didn’t wait for Jigen. Under the circumstances, Lupin thought it best to launch immediately. On a word from him, Zantetsu-ken flashed out like a comet, parting mooring ropes fore and aft. The ropes gone, Lupin and von Eberbach heaved with all their strength, fighting against the weight of the boat and the oily inertia of the water. For a moment, the bulky Arabella hesitated, then slowly she began to move, nosing out into the harbor.
Lupin and von Eberbach kept pushing until they ran out of dock. They gave one last mighty push and then hung for a moment, toes trailing in the water, before pulling themselves on board. Now all we needed was Jigen, but the business of “hot-wiring” the Arabella wasn’t as easy as he’d thought. His first attempt to start the engine resulted only in a sizzling pop, a yelp and a long stream of enraged Italian.
“I thought it was no harder than hot-wiring a car,” James remarked. “Aw, shut-up,” snarled Mr. Daisuke.
The Arabella lurched as the ebb-tide took her, rubbing up against the piling with a creak. Lupin, von Eberbach and I hurried to push her away from the post as Dorian worked to steer us into open water.
Another snap, another yelp of Italian, this time followed by a deep sub-vocal gurgling as the twin engines of the motor launch finally kicked over. Dorian put them in gear and eased the throttle open.
We’d soon left the boat-slip behind. “WAIT!” someone cried. “Come back here!”
I looked and saw a boy about nineteen come sprinting down from the gate. His booted feet thumped loudly on the wooden pier as he raced to intercept us. He reached the empty slip in ten long strides, but we were already too far out. Even if he’d tried to jump, he’d have ended up in the harbor.
There wasn’t anything the boy could do but holler. So holler he did. Loudly. “You can’t take Arabella! She belongs to the harbor master!”
We weren’t worried about the boy, but we were concerned about the noise he was making, so Lupin moved immediately to cover. He stepped up into the stern of the boat, withdrew his wallet and proudly displayed his credentials. --The wallet was only a wallet, of course, and the “credentials” were nothing more than an ordinary (and forged) British driver’s license, but it was too dark for the boy to see that.
“Official police business!” Lupin barked, using Zenigata’s voice. “We’re commandeering this boat! Don’t interfere!”
The lad was stunned. I don’t know what the boy expected to hear, but this wasn’t it. “P-police...?” he stammered, staring. “But why...?”
“Smugglers!” Lupin snapped, returning the wallet to his pocket. “Very dangerous men! If you see any strangers in the area, report them to your local constable immediately!”
“Yes, sir...” The boy was limp now, hamstrung with confusion. “But I can’t just let you take the harbor master’s boat. He was going to do some diving, come Sunday...”
“That so?” Lupin pondered, rubbing his chin. “Well, don’t worry about it! We’ll pay him for - the inconvenience! Just have him send the bill to me, Detective Koichi Zenigata, care of ICPO Headquarters, Paris! Mark it ‘urgent’! I’ll see to it personally!”
“Er...yes, sir. How do you spell that?”
“Z-E-N-I-G-A-T-A! Tell him to charge whatever he likes! We’ve a budget for this sort of thing!”
“I will, sir. Thank you!”
Lupin tried desperately hard not to smile. “Not at all. My pleasure.”
Dorian opened the throttle. The sub-vocal gurgling rose in pitch as the twin screws pushed us out into the channel. We left the boy standing alone on the dock, scribbling furiously on a piece of paper he’d taken from his pocket.
The Earl chuckled as the sea caught us, rounding us gently into the palm of the outgoing swell. “That was shameless, darling! Brilliant, but absolutely shameless!”
“I think it’s a shame,” Jigen reflected, scratching his beard. “I think it’s a damn shame we won’t be around to see old Zeni’s face when he gets that bill.”
Lupin grinned at the thought, then glanced over at von Eberbach. “No recriminations, Major? Surely you must disapprove of this, too.”
“Of course,” von Eberbach grunted, “but what good is my disapproval going to do me? You are a man wholly without scruples. Self-gratification is your only goal. Who am I to argue with such complete self-centeredness? You are a thoroughly selfish man, Herr Lupin, and you don’t give a damn about anything.”
Lupin’s grin faded. He cleared his throat. “Of course I care,” he protested softly. “If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be in so damn much trouble.”
“Believe that if you like,” the Major replied with a click of his heels and a dip of his head. “I happen to think the only thing you care about is your own self-preservation. -Excuse me. I would like a cigarette. I’m going to see if our unwitting host was thoughtful enough to provide them.”
He vanished below.
“Don’t mind him, darling,” Dorian said gently. “He’s like that with everybody. He’s a driven man and it bothers him that everyone isn’t as driven as he is. He doesn’t mean anything by it. - Nor is his opinion shared by everyone here. I, for one, think you’re perfectly charming.”
Lupin’s smile returned, but it was an odd smile. Uncharacteristically thoughtful. “Mrs. Petticaris, you’re a lot of trouble...”
“Well,” Jigen decided, turning to watch the harbor drift by. We were nosing into the dog-leg now. The refueling shanty, with its darkened pier and vacant windows, was passing us to starboard. ‘Now that we’ve got this tub, are we going anywhere with it? Or are we just gonna keep chugging ‘til we hit New York?”
“We’re going to the Scilly Isles,” Lupin said. “Specifically, we’re going to St. Mary’s, largest island in that chain.”
“Any reason why?”
“You were correct when you observed that Count Whitty had to have hidden his treasure on an island. If he hadn’t, there’d be no reason for his wife to take that boat. St. Mary’s is the largest island. That means the Andora had to have stopped there. Some records must still exist which can tell us which other islands she visited, if any. I thought that would be a good place to start.”
It did, and that surprised me. Lupin was a creature of sudden inspirations. Careful thought wasn’t his usual style.
I didn’t have time to wonder long. I heard a zipping sound and saw the Earl’s long hair suddenly lifted and pulled back. The thing doing the pulling was a bullet and if it had been any closer it would have grazed Eroica’s skull.
The Earl gasped, sinking down in his seat. The rest of us hit the deck as I saw the faint flame of discharged powder blossom in the shadows of the refueling shanty. A second bullet hit the railing where (moments earlier) Lupin had been standing.
After that, the sniper confined his attacks to Dorian, since he was the only one the sniper could see.
I intervened, intercepting a slug intended for the Earl. It ricocheted off my katana and shattered the front windscreen, showering the foredeck with diamond-bright shards.
Jigen rose to give us a covering fire as Major von Eberbach came scrambling up from below with an unlit cigarette clenched in his teeth. He dove and rolled, coming up beside Jigen with a gun in his hand.
“Next to the boat house. Behind a buncha empty oil-drums they probably use as markers. We’ve got two. One is that Cockney bastard from this morning. The other is a bigger guy I haven’t seen before. Probably their wheelman. Cockney has a Remington Model Seven. Wheelie hasn’t started shooting yet. I don’t know what he’s got.”
“Whatever it is,” Lupin decided, “it’s better than anything we’ve got. As I recall, we left the Mach 10 in the car. It was too bulky for dinner wear.”
“Yeah. Damn shame.”
Three shots in rapid succession as we rounded the curve and headed for the open sea. Three ringing retorts as my blade caught all three of them. Two went harmlessly out into the water, but one smacked into the deck south of James’s nose. James spun, diving for cover below decks. He’d decided the galley was a better place to be.
“Not to be pushy, your Lordship,” Lupin called between shots with his Walther, “but couldn’t you hurry things up a bit?”
“Love to, darling, but I can’t. The tide is out and the channel is narrow. If I hurry, I might tear our bottom out or strand us on some rocks.”
The firefight continued as we came abreast of the boat house. In a second, we’d be as close to the shanty as the channel would force us to come. As we reached this point, I noticed something. The wheelman, or “Wheelie” as Jigen had named him, seemed to have disappeared. Only Cockney was left, and his tactics seemed more defensive than offensive. I got the impression he was trying to keep our minds off his absentee friend.
I looked around quickly and finally spotted Wheelie. He was wedged in between two barrels with something long and heavy in his hand. As we came level with him, I saw what it was and my blood ran cold within me. He was holding a big over/under shotgun. The kind meant to fire two rounds almost simultaneously.
I was an excellent swordsman. In fact, I may have been the best in the world. But there was no way I could stopped hundreds of pellets of rocketing lead! The first round would tear me to pieces. - The second would kill Dorian dead.
With a kind of cold abstraction, I watched Wheelie shoulder his weapon. “Lord have mercy...” Jigen whispered.
I thought he said this because he’d seen the shotgun, but that wasn’t it at all. Jigen had probably seen the shotgun, but it didn’t concern him nearly as much as the other thing he’d seen: The low, fat cylinder snuggled up against the back of the shanty.
The refueling dock was vacant now, but during the summer months it was probably manned all day, both to dispense fuel and to keep an eye on the harbor, which was much busier in-season. Isolated out on its spar of rock, it would have been difficult for its crew to leave it for lunch, or for a cup of tea. Therefore the management was thoughtful enough to provide them with their own cooking facilities: A stove fueled by gas. Possibly methane, but more probably butane or propane. If there was any gas left in that tank...
“Run!” Jigen shouted at the Earl. “Fuck the channel! RUN!”
Dorian didn’t even venture an argument this time. He gunned the throttle. The deep chugging of Arabella’s engines rose to an alto wail as the big launch bottomed down, kicking for open water. Daisuke-sama adjusted to the roll of the boat, standing in the stern. He took very careful aim. Wheelie reacted to this plainly suicidal gesture with surprise. He hesitated, staring, his gun half-raised. Cockney was surprised, too. He glanced over at Wheelman, saw the cylinder and realized what Jigen was doing. He screamed something at his companion and took a running dive off the pier.
Bright blossoming of fire, flame upon flame, expanding. Red and amber, murky yellow and bright, bright white. A noise unlike any in my experience. A physical smashing of sound into the flesh.
The force of the explosion picked Jigen up and threw him back into me. We slammed into the deck. Lupin, von Eberbach and James (all sheltered from the explosion) fared better. The same was true of Cockney, whose wild dive had placed him below pier-level at the time of the blast. The same was not true for Wheelie, who was launched skyward as the tank went up. He flew, tumbling end over end, until he smacked into the sea.
The shanty was set ablaze. Its roof was blown off and scattered across the mouth of the harbor.
Its marker-buoys were pitched into the bay. Cockney surfaced, surrounded by rubble, found his’ floundering companion and started pulling him towards the opposite shore.
I lay on my back on the pitching deck, watching a black ball of smoke rise into the heavens, underlit by tongues of orange fire. I was next to the pilot’s chair and I could see Dorian, draped half-across the helm. As I watched, he sat up a little and stared back at the fire. He looked tousled, but uninjured, his face gilded by the golden light.
“Krikey...” he murmured.
I think he said “krikey”. I don’t really know. I didn’t hear so good just then. “Jigen? Goemon? Daijobu ka?”
Lupin’s voice was louder. At the sound of it, Jigen moved. He rolled off me and sat up. “Yeah...” he decided. “I’m fine.”
Actually, it felt kind of good to lie there. It’s amazing how sore you feel after you’ve been blown up. Even if you weren’t that close. Even if you weren’t hit by anything. It’s as if your body is stunned by the outrage of it. Afterwards, you can ache for days.
And yet, I couldn’t just lie there. That would have been very bad form. So I did as Jigen had done. I rolled over and sat up. “Ee, kizu ga gozaimasen, Lupin. Yokatta da.”
“Are you sure...?”
I saw James peering at me out of the galley. He had a smear of something purple on his nose. Looked like jelly.
Major von Eberbach was last to move. He rose onto one knee, his body still tense, his weapon still ready. Very much prepared to continue the fight in spite of the explosion, the officer from NATO took a careful inventory of the scene.
The fire was dying back a bit, but the narrow dog-leg of the channel was still strewn with burning wreckage. It wouldn’t be safe to navigate until tomorrow morning, when the harbor crews would be able to see to remove the debris. We’d certainly be the last boat out tonight.
I could see Cockney. He’d reached a niche in the breakwater and guided his injured friend into it. Wheelie clung weakly to the rocks as Cockney glowered in our direction. He shook a fist at us. There wasn’t anything else he could do. He and his companion had lost their guns in the blast. Von Eberbach smiled, climbing to his feet. “Well,” he decided as he tucked the Luger in his waistband. “It looks as though that detective friend of yours is going to get a hell of a bill.”
We traveled south along the coast until we reached that southwestern-most part of Britain called Land’s End. From there, we set course almost directly west, heading out towards the Scilly Isles.
It was a journey of some seventy miles and the Arabella was no racing yacht. It took us most of the next day. By the time we turned west, dusk was starting to settle.
Actually, this was the most restful part of our Odyssey. The weather was clear, the sea calm and the sun warm as melted butter. We saw no one. Only the odd sailboat or stray commercial jet. There was plenty of food and water and no one to bother us. We napped and nursed our bruises, conserving energy for what was to come.
As for myself, I spent all day perched on the bow of the Arabella, lazing in the golden sun. Mostly I kept watch, but occasionally I drowsed. I drifted, like the tide, on the near-edge of unconsciousness, restoring my ki.
When dusk came, the air grew chilly. It penetrated the many layers of my drowsiness and finally woke me up. I looked out across the water into a sunset peach and golden and stretched luxuriantly.
Lupin had climbed out onto the foredeck and now knelt alongside me, offering a mug of hot tea.
I took it gratefully. “Aa, domo...”
“Quiet day, neh?”
“Very. I found it an interesting contrast to the way you usually live your life.”
Lupin smiled. “Contrast is important,” he agreed, sitting next to me. “Without texture, life is formless. It has no flavor. No ...zing!”
I sipped the tea. Its warmth infused me, driving out the chill. “You’ve turned us west. We’re heading for the islands now?”
“Yes. We ought to make St. Mary’s by morning.”
“So? Are you so certain you can find your way in the dark? I hadn’t noticed you were that good a navigator.”
“Good enough, never fear. Leave the matter to me. I win a game always.”
“Oh? I hadn’t noticed that, either.”
Lupin chuckled. His hand fell onto my shoulder, squeezing gently. “Always the skeptic, eh, Goemon? Never mind. You’re good for me. Overconfidence is the subtlest poison of all.”
And he rolled away, getting to his feet. He climbed aft towards the cabin.
I remained on the foredeck, nursing my tea, watching the golden blaze of sunset slowly extinguished by the deeper blue of night. The stars came out, bright and sparkling, dimly echoed by the glow of phosphorous in our wake. There was no moon. Not yet. And only a thin band of clouds on the horizon. It was going to be as peaceful tonight as it had been today.
From astern of me came snatches of conversation. I couldn’t hear any actual words over the constant thrumming of the engines, I could only guess the identity of who was speaking. I heard von Eberbach’s business-like growl and Jigen’s unhurried replies. Lupin’s childish giggle and Eroica’s melodious laugh. And then there was James, constantly bickering James, squalling at the Major like an ill-tempered child. How comforting it seemed, sitting out on the bow of the Arabella. A drone heard only when listened for, like the beat of one’s own heart.
I was so soothed by the circumstance and the tea, I failed to notice the sounds had stopped for some considerable time.
Then the silence slowly penetrated. The throb of the engine started sounding empty and I began to wonder why. I listened for the voices and didn’t hear them.
I sat forward, swinging around for a quick look back. I saw von Eberbach. He sat sprawled on the aft bench with his head back and his mouth open. James lay on the bench with his head on the Major’s thigh. I couldn’t see Jigen, but I could see Lupin. He was lifting Eroica out of the pilot’s chair. The Englishman’s body was completely limp, as boneless as a rag doll’s.
While I watched in cold astonishment, Lupin eased the Brit into a fireman’s carry and started to take him below. As Lupin turned, he saw me and smiled, beckoning to me.
I looked at the mug of tea in my hand. With a snarl, I pitched it overboard. “It’s all right!” Lupin yelled.
“I didn’t doctor yours! Come on! Help me!” He carried Eroica below.
Help him?! I’d “help him” all right! I’d “help him” down the road to Hell!
I caught the rail of the flying bridge and swung around to land on the afterdeck. By the time Lupin came up from below, I was waiting for him with sword drawn.
Lupin’s been on the “business end” of me a couple of times. He backpedalled immediately. “Chchotto mata, kudasai, Goemon!”
“BAKARU! You have ten seconds to explain! Starting now!”
Lupin frowned. “I can’t explain in ten seconds! It took me longer then that to get in this mess and it’ll take longer then that to get out! Stop snarling at me and lend a hand! It’s going to be cold tonight and I don’t want these poor people to catch pneumonia!”
This said, he shouldered past me. He’s the only person who’s ever been brave enough (or stupid enough) to dismiss me out of hand.
With a sigh, I sheathed the katana. “What are you doing?”
“Trying to save our collective skins. Mostly yours, mine and Jigen’s.”
“Where is Jigen?”
“In a berth below. He’s the first one I took down.”
“Absolutely. He’s going to be damned peeved at me when he wakes up tomorrow. You take James. I’ll get the Major.”
I lifted the little Scot. He was small. He weighed almost nothing. “Where are you taking us?”
“Like I told you,” Lupin grunted, struggling under the Major’s weight. “We’re going to St. Mary’s Island. It’s the key to everything.”
That was such a remarkable reply, it silenced me. I didn’t speak again until we’d carried both men down into the forward cabin and put them to bed. Then I asked: “Why me?”
“Because you’ll understand.”
“I understand none of this, Lupin.”
“Not yet, but you will.”
He went up deck.
With a sigh, I followed him.
The rest of the night passed like that. Lupin didn’t say much and I didn’t press him. I knew when it was appropriate to ask questions and now was not appropriate. He’d explain when it was time.
It was in that gray period three hours before dawn, that we came to St. Mary’s Island. Actually, we didn’t quite reach the island. Lupin stopped us two miles out. He steered into a stretch of water that was relatively shallow and dropped anchor. We cut engines and drifted, silent, tugging at the end of our chain.
Lupin went below to check on the others.
I stayed topside. I could see the island. It was a low, black mass on the northwestern horizon. Lights were twinkling along its eastern shore. Directly west, on a point of land, I could see the powerful, intermittent blink of a lighthouse, making the entrance to a cove.
Lupin stayed below a long time. I started to worry about it.
When Lupin finally reappeared, my worry increased. He’d shed his clothes. Now he was wearing a wetsuit two sizes too large for him with a package tightly wrapped in plastic taped around his waist. He set the mask and swim-fins down on the after bench so he’d have both hands free to pull on the diving-hood.
“Not a bad fit, don’t you think?” he asked me once he had the hood in place. “A little on the roomy side, but beggars can’t be choosers. Can they? Even with the tank-rack riveted to the bulkhead, there was no guarantee the owner would have everything I’d need. As it is, he has everything but the tanks. And that’s okay. I don’t need them.”
“I have to,” Lupin replied lightly, pulling on the mask. “I’ve got promises to keep.”
“And you’re going to swim ashore?! That’s insane, Lupin! It’s suicidal! It’s at least two miles to the island and it’s dark! If you tire, the currents sweeping through these waters will carry you out to sea!”
Lupin shrugged. His voice was soft: “There’s always the possibility of that, I suppose. It really doesn’t matter. Obligation brooks no arguments and recognizes no obstacles. You know that.” I did know that. “Lupin ...You said you would explain...”
“No. I said you would understand. That’s not quite the same thing. But I won’t leave you empty-handed. I will tell you this: I have done a very stupid thing. In my carelessness, I have endangered everyone who is dear to me. Now only I can set things right. I must do this regardless of what it costs me. If it costs my life, I have to pay.” He smiled at me. “You understand.”
I did. I also understood why he chose me. Jigen would never have let him go. “There’s nothing I can do to help...?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact.” Lupin’s hand disappeared into the toe of one swim-fin and brought out the little metal box. It was bound shut with a doubled rubberband. “You can hold this for me. Don’t let it out of your sight.”
I took it. “Of course not.”
“Tomorrow,” he continued, pulling on the fin, “when the others wake up, I want you to take this boat into the port of Old Town, St. Mary’s. You will go to the finest hotel and rent two rooms. To do that, you’ll need this.” Lupin’s hand went into the toe of the other fin. It came out with a folded wad of money, also bound with a rubberband. It looked to be nine hundred pounds. Everything he had, plus what Jigen had given him. He gave it to me. “After that, you wait. You will wait until five o’clock this evening. If I haven’t contacted you by that time, you may assume the worst. Then, and only then, you may break the seal and open the box. Not a moment sooner. Wakarimasu ka?”
“Yes, I just knew you would..:”
Lupin tugged on the other fin and sat on the rail for a second, staring at the lights twinkling on the island. He swung his legs over the side.
I almost grabbed for him. Almost.
“Au revoir, Goemon-chan,” he told me. “If I don’t see you again in this life, I’ll wait for you in the next one. You’ll know me. I’ll be the one with the stupid laugh.”
He pushed off, entering the water with a muffled splash.
I watched until I could no longer see him, then went up onto the bow and sat on the foredeck, waiting for dawn to gray the sky.
Billows of cloudy steam rose from the first real bath I’d had in two days. It condensed in glittering drops on the tile. Those drops fattened as more steam rose, finally trickling down to form puddles on the porcelain surfaces below.
Jigen wasn’t speaking to me. He was very angry. Angry at Lupin for having drugged him and angry at me for letting Lupin go.
At seven-thirty this morning, Jigen had come stumbling up from the cabin aboard the Arabella, looking green. After staggering to the rail and paying his respects to the sea, he sat on his haunches and looked around. He discovered Lupin was...
“Gone where?” demanded Major Klaus von Eberbach. He, too, had come stumbling up from below. He looked just as green, just as haggard as Jigen, but he was too stubborn to make the same quick trip to the rail.
“How should I know?” Jigen snapped. “He’s not on deck and he isn’t in the cabin. That spells ‘gone’! I don’t know where!”
“He went to the Isle of St. Mary’s,” I told them as I climbed down from the flying bridge. “He swam ashore five hours ago.”
Jigen looked over the rail again and saw there was indeed an island to starboard. A green and gray island now, shimmering under a pearly veil of mist.
“God! It must be two miles!”
“Almost,” I agreed.
“Is he nuts?! He’s not a marathoner! He’ll drown!”
“He’s a very determined man,” I soothed. “And he’s done unlikely things before. If anyone could make it, he can.”
Jigen was silent for a moment, staring at the island, then he cleared his throat: “What else did the note say?”
“Note?” I wondered.
“Yeah. The note he left saying he’d gone over the side at two this morning.” “There was no note, Jigen. I was there.”
I could have been gentler about it, I suppose. When I saw the look on Jigen’s face, I almost wished I had been. The information hurt Jigen deeply. It wasn’t a simple statement of fact; it was a condemnation. I was there; he wasn’t. I was alert; he wasn’t. I was trusted...
The idea that Lupin didn’t trust him cut into Jigen like a sword. He felt betrayed. Wounded. All that hurt and betrayal balled itself up into four little words and came flying back at me: “You didn’t stop him?!”
“How could I stop him? It was a matter of obligation. He felt responsible for getting us into this mess, so he...”
“So he decided to take the treasure for himself,” von Eberbach concluded with a sour smile. “That makes perfect sense.”
“Lupin wouldn’t do that!!”
Jigen was so hurt, he was dangerous. He sprang to his feet, confronting the Major with fists clenched. “If Lupin felt he had to go, then he had to! If he thought there was something he could do about the Russians, then he’ll do it! He didn’t just bug-out, Dagwood! We’ve been together for eighteen years!”
The Major’s sour smile widened. “Eighteen years...” he pondered. “Perhaps that’s long enough.”
“...You son of a bitch...”
“He did leave instructions,” I injected quickly, hoping to defuse the situation before it came to blows.
It worked. Jigen’s dangerous chain of thought was broken. He glanced over at me. “Like what?”
“He said we were to continue on into the port of Old Town. There we were to rent two rooms in the finest hotel. If he doesn’t contact us by five this evening, I’m to open the package he left for us.
I showed them the metal box bound shut with its doubled rubberband. The Major was surprised. “He left it?”
“Of course he left it!” Jigen said ferociously. “I told you he didn’t bug-out!” Von Eberbach ignored him. “Open it,” he told me.
“No. Not until five.”
“I must insist.”
“So must I.”
“Don’t argue with him, Dagwood,” Jigen advised. “He’s more stubborn then you are, I guarantee it. Besides, you said you’d cooperate with Lupin. That means all the time. Even when he’s not here.”
“I said I would cooperate for forty-eight hours;” the German corrected, glancing at his watch. “That promise is scheduled to lapse at approximately five this evening. I suppose I’m content to wait until then. Afterwards, however, it becomes my game. With my rules.”
“More than fair,” von Eberbach decided. “I have been willing to tolerate Mr. Lupin’s shenanigans because I gave my word I would do so. That doesn’t mean I approve or condone any of them. It also doesn’t mean I think he’ll succeed. This is a game for professionals, not self-serving amateurs. - However, I must confess I admire his enterprise. He seems prepared for anything. Even to carrying sedatives with him wherever he goes.”
“He doesn’t carry sedatives,” Jigen grunted. His voice was tired. As battered and gray as his old hat. “You don’t know Lupin. He can make a mickey out of anything. Even aspirin and shaving cream.”
Von Eberbach went below, presumably to check on Dorian and James, who were still sleeping. Jigen went forward to draw the anchor up. That was the end of their conversation, both between themselves and with me. Jigen didn’t say a dozen words to me the rest of the day. For all that his anger had cooled, he was still hurt. And he was still very, very worried about Lupin. He dealt with his anxiety by taking it out on me.
Jigen was still giving me the silent treatment ... even now that we were safely entrenched in the Tariff Arms, finest hotel in Old Town.
The door to my sanctuary came open, fanning a wing of cool air across my sweating face. I hoped it was Jigen come to re-establish contact, but found it was only Dorian, come to examine his hair. I’m not shy about my body, though I might have been with Dorian. However, I didn’t feel the least bit embarrassed. I lacked the energy to feel much of anything. I’d been stewing in water hot as I could stand it for twenty minutes. There wasn’t a bone in my body any harder than melted wax. The Earl was dressed in a new outfit he’d purchased downstairs: A red polo shirt over white slacks, with white topsiders and an apricot scarf tied loosely about his neck. He finished fussing with his hair and paused to examine his face, paying careful attention to his blue eyes.
He glanced over at me. “Am I still green?”
“No more than usual,” I replied.
“God!” Dorian sighed, looking back at his reflection. “I’ve never been so bilious in my life! Whatever concoction he fed us, it was truly foul! When I see Monsieur Lupin again, I’m going to give him a piece of my mind! - Provided I’ve any left to lend.” He paused for a moment. “You know, it’s almost five.”
“I know. I will wait until it is time.”
I glanced at the little box sitting on the edge of my bathtub, still bound with its doubled rubberband. I hadn’t let anyone else touch it. I’d see my last order from Lupin was strictly observed.
Just as he knew I would...
A cold ache sprang up inside of me in spite of the infusion of warmth. If I lost Lupin, I would lose Jigen, too. The gunman would never forgive me for letting Lupin go.
“It’s all right...”
The voice was Dorian’s. The tone gentle, meant to comfort me. But to save me incalculable face, the Earl spoke only to his reflection in the mirror, as if I wasn’t even in the room.
“It’s going to be all right,” he said, half-smiling at himself. “We must have faith. All is well.”
There was another breath of cold air as the door came open again. This time it was Jigen. He loomed in the doorway wearing a dark gray suit. “Ten minutes...” was all he said.
He shut the door again.
“I’ll wait with the others,” Dorian decided, retrieving his brush. He saw himself out.
I got out of the tub, dried myself and dressed. By the time I’d put myself in order, it was five on the dot. With a sigh, I picked up the little box and went out into the adjoining bedroom.
They were waiting for me. Jigen leaned up against the wall with his arms folded. Dorian was seated on the bed next to James, who still wasn’t feeling very well. Major von Eberbach was sitting in a chair across the room with his feet propped up on the farther bed, a half-consumed cigarette in his hand. Jigen was grim, James green, Dorian hopeful, and the Major impassive. The faces of my destiny.
I tucked the katana under my arm and proceeded to open the box, I didn’t cut the rubberband. I unwound it.
Inside Count Whitty’s box was a small piece of folded paper. When I unfolded it, I saw only two lines of cramped hiragana written in Lupin’s erratic hand. They read:
But ...I didn’t ...I didn’t “understand” at all!
“What’s it say?” Jigen demanded.
I told him.
“What’s that supposed to mean?!
“I don’t know!” I snapped. “I’m not a mind reader!”
“Easy, darlings,” Dorian soothed. “Think it through. I know enough Japanese to know that ‘Wakarimasu ka’ means ‘Do you understand’. What does the rest of it mean?”
“Shakudo,” I explained, “is a form of metallurgy. Specifically, it refers to an alloy of copper and gold. This alloy was developed in Japan, where it was used for making...”
I stopped, staring at the box. Yes...YES! I did understand! And they were both brilliant! Both Lupin-sansei and Alaric Whitty! Both brilliant men!
We’d thought the bottom of the box was bronze, but it was shakudo hidden under a layer of lacquer and dirt. The layer had rubbed off in Lupin’s pocket, exposing the shakudo. That’s what Lupin had seen when the reflection flashed in my face!
“The box is a mirror?” the Major wondered, frowning.
“A magic mirror,” I agreed.
“I still don’t understand.”
“You will observe that the interior of this box is etched,” I began, showing him. “Lupin thought this was important, but he didn’t know why. Now I do. The bottom was first polished, then etched with a design in order to cover something intrinsic to the mystery of this box.
“Mirrors made of shakudo are very special. The gold in the alloy gives them a luster that will never tarnish. The copper in it gives them strength. It also causes the alloy to react just the same as any other copper alloy would: It becomes harder as it is worked. If you place a chasing-tool on a sheet of shakudo and then strike it, you leave a mark in the metal which is harder than the rest. Several marks, several places where the metal is harder. These marks are indelible unless you remelt the metal. Even if you clean off the design, then cover the field with an etching, those marks will still be there.”
“So the design is under the etching,” Jigen growled. “How’re we supposed to see it?”
“You have changed the character of the metal by striking it,” I continued. “If you then buff the undersurface to a mirror-like luster, you wear away the metal in different degrees. Where the metal is soft, it will abrade easily. Where it is harder, it will resist. The result is a very, very faint relief of the design which was pounded into the back of the mirror to begin with. This relief - is invisible to the naked eye, but shine a light off the mirror and the original design is revealed in the dazzle of its reflection. Observe...”
I up-ended the box, pointing it towards the nearer bedside lamp. The light struck the polished under-surface and the message appeared in letters of gold, reflected on the wall:
THIRD FROM TOP
DOG ISL. LT.
S. St. MARY’S
“My dear God...” whispered the Earl Red Gloria.
“A ‘ghost’ image,” I concluded. “An image where no image exists. That’s why the mirror is ‘magic’.”
The phone rang.
“Thank Christ!” Jigen growled, pouncing on the phone. “It’s about time, you bastard! Where ARE you?!”
Whatever answer Jigen got, it wasn’t the one he wanted. The relieved anger drained from his face, replaced by a cold emptiness. After a moment, he offered the receiver to von Eberbach. “It’s for you...”
The Major was surprised. He took the phone. “Yes?”
The person on the other end of the line couldn’t have said more than a half-dozen words before a grim smile of recognition spread across the German’s face. “No,” he confessed. “I’m not really surprised. I knew it was only a matter of time before you were forced to dirty your hands. You really shouldn’t hire amateurs, tovaritch. They only muck things up.”
“Mischa...” James whispered.
“Uumm?” von Eberbach wondered, still engrossed in his conversation. “Now why would I do that? What could you possibly... Ah. I see. Oh, would you really? Damn nice of you, comrade, I must say. I suppose I’ll have to, won’t I? Yes, I suppose that will do.” He glanced over at Dorian with a half-smile. Dorian smiled back. “I don’t have to remind you to be civil about this, do I, comrade? No, I thought not.”
I heard the click of the other receiver clear across the room.
Von Eberbach set the phone aside and took one last, long draw on his cigarette. “Well, well, well,” he mused, crushing that cigarette in an ashtray on the table beside him. “You two can stop wondering what happened to Mr. Lupin. Mischa’s got him. He’s had him since ten this morning, when his mercenaries found Mr. Lupin on a beach south of here. They’ve been holding him ever since.”
“He all right?” Jigen’s voice was cold; blued gun-metal gleaming.
“He’s alive, if that’s what you mean. He has to be alive because Mischa wants to trade. Mr. Lupin in exchange for the box. He wants to meet and arrange it.”
“Will you?” I asked.
“Trade?” the Major wondered, getting to his feet. “Probably. Depends on the circumstances.”
“If they want the box, give it to ‘em!” Jigen argued. “It’s no good unless they know the secret and they don’t!”
“You hope they don’t.” The Major removed a blue wind breaker from the back of his chair. A new one, bought just this morning. “Mischa’s operatives have had seven hours to interrogate Mr. Lupin and I doubt they were gentle about it.”
“They don’t know,” I said. “If they did, there’d be no need to trade. If you have the secret, you don’t need the box.”
“Point taken,” von Eberbach agreed. He took the Luger out of his waistband and examined it. “Of course, they might only want to confirm what he’s already told them, but I doubt they’d waste their time.” He examined the clip, slapped it home and flicked the safety back on, returning it to its place. He covered it with his sweater. “There’s a restaurant on the wharf called Willowby’s. Mischa has asked that I meet him there in fifteen minutes. He wasn’t specific in regards to the rest of you, so I will assume that the invitation was general. Please try to behave yourselves. Mr. Lupin won’t be there and I’m certain Mischa has at least four men who would be happy to slit Mr. Lupin’s throat if anything unpleasant should happen.”
“I don’t get it!” Jigen fumed. “How’d they find us? How’d they get here before we did?”
“They knew we’d taken a boat,” Dorian reasoned, fetching his new navy jacket from the closet. He spent a moment fussing with its lining before he put it on. “And we stayed within sight of the shore until we turned west toward Scilly. Perhaps someone saw us. As for how they got here ...St. Mary’s is a large island. It has its own airfield.”
“Who holds the box?” James wanted to know.
“The same man who’s been holding it,” the Major decided on his way to the door. “If Mr. Ishikawa could keep it away from you, he should have no trouble with Mischa. We have thirteen minutes, gentlemen. Komm.”
Willowby’s turned out to be an upscale place with an impeccable reputation. Lots of immaculate woodwork painted a deep Sherwood green. Lots of blue-and-white wallpaper in an imitation of Delft tiles. Dark oak floors covered with Persian carpets. The furniture French, upholstered in powder blue brocade. The atmosphere dim, discrete, heavy with the muffled wash of conversation.
The maitre d’ reacted with recognition when the Major introduced himself and guided us quickly back into a private dining room.
This private room was not large. It didn’t need to be. It contained but a single individual. He was a big man, bearish and bald as an egg, with broad, common features and thick-fingered hands. He was wearing a finely tailored suit of dark blue Irish wool and a pair of sunglasses. This man didn’t acknowledge us as we were ushered into his room. His concentration remained focused on the plate before him, which held a helping of shrimp covered with a thick, green sauce.
Major von Eberbach gave the maitre d’ something for his trouble and dismissed him, saying we’d order later. He took a place at the table.
Slowly the rest of us moved to do the same.
The bald man still didn’t acknowledge us. He continued to enjoy his appetizer. He speared a curl of shrimp and lifted it, watching the green sauce glisten on the tender pink-and-white flesh. “Crevettes d’Henri,” he suddenly announced. “Shrimp freshly steamed and served with a rich pesto sauce, made with garden-fresh basil. Specialty of the House. I recommend it.”
The Major smiled, pulling the glass ashtray towards him. He took out his pack of cigarettes and tapped it until one protruded. He took that one, then offered the pack to Jigen. Jigen shook his head.
“You should watch yourself,” the German decided, lighting up. “You’re starting to sound like a Capitalist. Someone will accuse you of becoming decadent.”
Mischa shrugged, devouring his shrimp. “But I am decadent;” he confessed, chewing. “We all have our little foibles. Yours seems to be consorting with thieves.”
“A bad habit you seem to have picked up yourself ...lately.”
“Yes...” The Russian dabbed his lips with his napkin, then took up his water glass. Candlelight glittered on its faceted curves. ‘Not my own choice, I assure you. Still, times being what they are...” He shrugged again and took a sip.
“What time is is short. Regardless of who decided to hire outsiders, it was done. Now it’s gone to hell and everything’s in pieces. You have one piece. I have the other.”
“Bluntly put. How--German-of you, Klaus.”
Mischa finished the shrimp and pushed his plate aside. “He’s been a very naughty boy,” the Russian decided. “We didn’t ask much of him and we paid him very well for his efforts. All he had to do was follow instructions. But did he do this? No. He went gallivanting off on his own, causing everyone involved no end of trouble.”
“He’s good at that.” Jigen’s voice was soft and calm, grim with a crystallized humor. It sounded almost friendly to the inattentive ear, but listen closer and you heard the venom. “Lupe’s a loose cannon and everybody knows it. All ya had to do was ask. It’s not fair of you to go blaming him because you didn’t do your homework.”
It was the first time Mischa had acknowledged anyone other than von Eberbach. He smiled at Jigen. “True,” he conceded. “It’s not always possible to defy one’s own nature, is it? After all, an ass cannot help but be an ass...”
A crack appeared, splitting the cold shell of Jigen’s armor. It flashed in the dimness like the facets on the water glass. Jigen didn’t move, though. He didn’t break discipline.
I don’t know if the Russian was disappointed. With his face hidden behind those dark glasses, he was impossible to read. He continued studying Jigen for another second, then turned to study me. I could feel his cold appraisal, so I gave him nothing. I turned a lacquered surface to the world. Mischa refocused on von Eberbach. “Business,” he decided. “Business,” the Major agreed.
“Might I see the ‘piece’ you’re holding? Just to satisfy myself as to its genuineness of course.”
“Of course. Mr. Ishikawa...”
I put the box on my plate.
Mischa reached for it. To do so, he had to stretch his arm across Eroica’s place at the table. The Earl was between us.
Bang! The place settings jumped as our table was jarred. A thin needle of a dagger about eight inches long had suddenly materialized, point downwards, between Mischa’s two middle fingers. Dorian’s hand was still on the hilt.
The Earl smiled at him. “It’s not polite to grab, darling. If you want to see, just ask. I’ll get it for you.”
“Of course...” The Russian withdrew his hand, casually examining the skin between his fingers to see if Eroica had nicked him. Eroica hadn’t. “If you would be so kind?”
Dorian picked up the box and held it out for inspection, first displaying the lid, then the etched interior. He kept the underside of it covered with his palm.
The Russian frowned. “It seems a little the worse for wear.”
“We’ve had a busy two days,” the Major said, flicking an ash off his cigarette. “I doubt the incidental damage detracts too much from its intrinsic value. Besides, I fully expect the piece you’re holding is in a similar condition.”
Mischa chuckled. “Point taken, my friend. I must confess the piece I’ve got is a little the worse for wear, too. As I said before, he’s been a very naughty boy. He’s thoroughly frustrated my associates and put one of them in the hospital. They’re none too pleased with him.”
Jigen shifted. He rested his elbow on the arm of his chair with his hand dangling loosely. Meanwhile he eased his body around so that his Magnum was more accessible. “You’ve seen our cards;” he decided. “Let’s see yours.”
Mischa lifted his napkin and set it on the table in front of him. Then he sat back in his chair. It was left to Dorian to do the unwrapping. This Eroica did, using the point of his dagger.
The napkin contained a Walther P-38, sans ammunition clip.
“Not very personal, I have to confess,” the Russian continued. “Unless you know the actual serial number, it’s no proof of my claims. If you’re doubtful of it, I don’t blame you one bit. Just say the word and I’ll arrange something better. A finger perhaps, or an ear.”
“Not necessary,” Jigen grunted. “I know the serial number. I’ve cleaned the thing often enough.”
The gun was passed to Jigen, who conducted the obligatory inspection. When he was through, he nodded to von Eberbach.
Mischa watched the exchange with obvious satisfaction. When it was over, the Russian pushed his chair away from the table and stood up. “You may keep that, if you like,” he told us. “Call it a gesture of good faith.”
“Where?” the Major wanted to know.
“There’s an estate west of here with a frontage on the Cove. The house burned down some years ago and was never rebuilt. Its pier is in good condition, though, and it’s isolated. I suggest we meet there.”
“How can I find this place?”
“It was called Gundel’s Retreat. Just ask anyone about it. It has a reputation for being haunted, you see.”
“Say midnight. On that pier. Since you have the boat, I will insist you approach from the seaward side. I will also insist that Eroica conduct your side of the exchange, since he is the least of all available evils.”
Mischa smiled. “Always a pleasure doing business with you, Klaus. You’re such a sincere pragmatist. -- Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve arrangements to make. Please feel free to remain and enjoy yourselves. Order anything you like. You are my guests.”
“You’re too kind.”
“Auf Wiedersehn, Major.”
“Dos vedonnya, comrade.” The Russian headed for the door.
“Tovaritch...” Jigen’s voice was still soft, still calm, still dripping with half-concealed venom. “If anything happens... If you screw this up, or if we don’t get him back in one piece, it’ll be all over. I’ll be on you like ugly on a Cossack. You’ll think a Russian Winter has landed on your head.”
“You mistake me, comrade,” Mischa replied, smiling. “I truly enjoy winter. I find it ... stimulating.”
“Sure you do...”
Mischa’s smile widened. “Good evening, gentlemen. Enjoy.”
The Earl shuddered, returning the dagger to his sleeve. “Such an unpleasant individual!” he observed. “Every time I deal with him, I feel as if I’ve been bathing in cold oil!”
Jigen looked at von Eberbach. “It’s your party. What now?”
“We eat!” James decided. “It’s free food!”
“We don’t eat,” the Major countermanded, crushing out the cigarette and getting to his feet. “There’s no time.”
“But it’s free food!”
“And our meeting is at midnight. We have to find this ‘Gundel’s Retreat’. We also have to fuel and stock the Arabella. We’ve got only six hours to do this.”
“Besides,” I concurred, replacing the box in the inner fold of my kimono, “it is never a good idea to take a gift from your enemy. It leaves you indebted to him, even if it is only in your mind. I want nothing from Mischa-kun.”
“Me, neither,” Jigen agreed. “Let’s split.”
Mischa was right. We had no trouble finding the burned-out estate called Gundel’s Retreat. It was across the Cove from Old Town, in an isolated pocket on the western shore. It had once been the property of a wealthy eccentric who’d become obsessed with the figures in Madam Tussaud’s Wax Museum. He’d “retreated” to St. Mary’s to have a hand at making his own wax sculptures and had accidentally set fire to a vat containing two hundred gallons of liquefied paraffin. That was how Gundel’s Retreat burned down.
The house had never been rebuilt and it did indeed have a reputation for being haunted.
Haunted by vagabonds, discreet lovers and mischievous children out for a bit of fun. Everyone we spoke to was quick to admit that they’d heard the house was haunted, but they were equally quick to point out that none of the “ghosts” they’d seen were anything less than flesh and blood.
The old house certainly looked haunted. It was a fire-blackened hulk of crumbling walls and vacant windows, covered by a graying mantel of knotted vines. The pier was a single weather-ravaged finger of wood poking out into the Cove a distance of forty feet. The night wind keened a melancholy dirge around the pier’s gaunt skeleton as waves slapped wetly against its posts. On shore the trees dipped and nodded, whispering with the dry murmur of rustling leaves.
The moon was almost full, covered only by the occasional gauzy streamer of ragged cloud. The shore was bathed in the pallid wash of its silver light, but I couldn’t see anybody. The frontage was deserted. The pier was empty except for an overturned fruit-crate set halfway along its length.
“What time is it?” Jigen asked.
“Five to twelve,” replied von Eberbach.
“Cuttin’ it kinda close, ain’t he?”
The Major grunted in response, though whether in agreement or amusement I couldn’t tell. “Comrade Mischa has a taste for the dramatic. He likes everything properly staged.”
“No kidding. There’s no cover on that pier. Once Blondie gets out there, he’ll have nowhere to go but down.”
“That’s quite all right, darling,” said the Earl Red Gloria. “I can swim.”
“Yeah, but can he?”
I steered the Arabella onward. Her engines throbbed softly. Her screws turned slowly, easing us towards the pier. The pier remained empty and the shore deserted. The house stayed a darkened, cadaverous ruin surrounded by whispering trees.
The electronic timer on the Major’s watch beeped, telling me it was midnight.
A light flickered into existence on shore, waved slowly left to right, then blinked off again. Major von Eberbach returned the signal with our flashlight.
“Good evening, Klaus!” The voice was Mischa’s. “How kind of you to be so prompt!”
“I’m always prompt when dealing with you!” the Major called back. “I never trust your better nature! I know you haven’t any!”
A roar of laughter boomed out across the water, explosive as a cannonade. I thought the Russian was going to show himself, but he didn’t. “Absolutely, my friend! I’ve no ‘better nature’ at all! If you force me to, I’ll prove it! Have you got the item in question?”
“Of course. Have you?”
There was a disturbance in the brush to the left of the pier and two figures stepped out into the open. One was a big man wearing a heavy sweater and jeans. The other was a half-head shorter and a good forty pounds lighter, wearing a rumpled jacket and a pair of dark pants. The jacket was open down the front and I could see that the smaller man was bare-chested. His hands were tied behind his back.
The big man was Cockney. The smaller one certainly looked like Lupin, though it was impossible to be sure.
Jigen sighed. “Well, if he’s walking, it can’t be too bad.”
“Oh yes it could,” James whispered. “Comrade Mischa is KGB. He knows his business. - Damn him.”
The wind gusted, shivering the trees and feathering the waves. It disarranged the Earl’s golden hair and Dorian took careful measures to repair the damage. That angered me. I didn’t think Lupin was going to care if the Earl was properly coifed!
“What now?” the Major demanded.
“Now you will deposit Comrade Eroica on the far end of the pier. -Without his jacket, if you don’t mind. Your friend has a nasty habit of keeping cutlery up his sleeves!”
“Of course, koshka!” the Earl cried, stepping up onto the stern of the boat. He slithered out of the jacket with a shrug and tossed the discarded garment to James. “Never can be too careful, can you? Perhaps I ought to get rid of the shirt, too. And the trousers. You never know what they might be hiding!”
Dorian didn’t bother waiting for confirmation; he just stripped, throwing the clothing at the thunderstruck James. The little man was so utterly shocked, he didn’t even try to catch it. The shirt ended up on the deck in front of James. The pants wound up on his head.
Eroica wasn’t wearing underwear...
We were all appalled, of course, but no one was more appalled than the Major. “You idiot!” Dorian ignored him. The Earl posed vivaciously on the stern of the boat, dressed in nothing but his scarf, his smile and his white topsiders. “How is this, koshka? Disarmed enough for you?” Dead silence. Not a soul on shore spoke. Then I heard a high, silly laugh break the ominous stillness. A stupid kind of laugh, halfway between a guffaw and a giggle.
“Bravo, Petticaris!” cried Lupin III. “Encore!”
Apparently Cockney didn’t think it was funny. He used the butt of his pistol to strike Lupin high across the back, smashing the thief to his knees.
The laughter stopped.
“Get your pants back on, idiot!” von Eberbach raged. “This isn’t a verdammt game!”
“No!” Mischa’s reply was clear and cold. “If he doesn’t mind the night air, neither do I. Take him to the far end of the pier and leave him. Then I must ask that you back away. Put at least fifty meters between you.”
“Twenty!” the German argued.
“Eighty!” the Russian snapped. “That childish prank cost you the right to bargain. Refuse me again, and I’ll call this game a draw. Everyone loses, but no one more than Lupin III!”
Jigen growled. A low, inarticulate sound of absolute anger. There was a stiff slither of new fabric as his hand slipped under the tail of his jacket, reaching for his Magnum.
“No, please!” Dorian whispered. “Please trust me, darling. I know what I’m doing. I’m not a complete fool, really.”
“You’re a fool,” the Major growled. “One day, you’ll be a dead fool. But not tonight. Not when there’s still a chance I can strangle you personally! - All right comrade! Your game; your rules! I play!”
I eased the Arabella’s throttle open. The throbbing of her engines rose in pitch as she drifted forward. The gaunt skeleton of the abandoned pier loomed closer, black against the moon-washed night.
Dorian stood balanced on the stern as I brought the boat around, then, as the pier passed within reach, he jumped. The moon outlined his dancer’s body in pale shades of silver. For a second I saw this shadowed flash of power defined by burnished muscles. Then he was up, quiescent and poised in the light of the moon, his hair streaming out like a banner.
He took a second to smooth it.
I turned the boat and took us out the requested eighty meters. That done, I cut the engines back and we drifted, waiting.
“Now!” Mischa decided. “Let’s see that box!”
I experienced a queasy moment of uncertainty. I’d already given Eroica the box, of course, but I hadn’t seen it for some time. I was concerned he might have discarded it with his clothing. But no, the thing miraculously appeared in Eroica’s hand. From whence it came, I know not.
“Here it is, koshka! What now?”
“You see that crate in the middle of the pier?”
“I wish you to go and set the box on that crate. Then I would like you to return to your place. Simple enough, yes?”
“Dazzlingly. But what about Monsieur Lupin?”
“We’ll discuss Monsieur Lupin when you’ve done as I’ve asked.”
“Of course,” Eroica sighed. “How impulsive of me to think you’d do otherwise. All right, koshka. I’ll do as you ask. I’m going now...”
The Earl walked forward, bare as a faun. He went to the crate set at the center-point of the pier, put the box down on it and returned to his place. He actually turned his back to Mischa as he did so and I found myself wondering why. It didn’t seem the gesture of contempt some might have taken it to be. It appeared to be more of a display, as if the Earl was parading his nakedness.
Parading it for whom was an excellent question, too, since when he reached the end of the pier, he stood for a moment smiling at us. I was reminded again of Donatello’s David, replete with apricot scarf and white topsiders. Dorian turned to face the shore again and, as he did so, the wind caught in his hair, lifting it just a little. In that instant, I saw the briefest, faintest glint of something metal. It was supported by the scarf and concealed by his hair.
My heart began to pound.
While this was going on, the big man pulled Lupin to his feet in a way that caused the Frenchman to shudder all over with pain. Lupin didn’t cry out, but only just. Once up, he stood shivering visibly.
“Now we will discuss Monsieur Lupin,” Mischa decided amicably. “My associate will escort him out onto the pier. When they come even with the crate, and when that associate has assured me this is indeed the box in question, Monsieur Lupin will be allowed to continue out to you. You, on the other hand, will not move. If you do, or if Monsieur Lupin tries in any way to interfere with that box, I will have no alternative but to kill you both. He understands that. Do you?”
“All right then. Begin!”
Cockney thrust Lupin forward, using his superior weight to muscle the French thief along. Lupin went meekly enough, still pinchfaced from whatever Cockney had done to hurt him. They shambled across the overgrown lawn and out onto the pier. I heard the heavyfooted clump of their shoes on its wood as they continued advancing.
When they reached the halfway point, they paused so that Cockney could examine the box sitting on its weathered crate. He did and seemed satisfied that the article was genuine. He picked it up, held it above his head and waved to his confederates on shore. Then he placed that hand, with the box still in it, in the middle of Lupin’s back and gave him a violent shove. Lupin staggered forward a couple of steps, stumbled over a piece of uneven planking and went down on one knee with a grunt. He stayed like that, breathing heavily.
“H’up!” Cockney insisted.
But Lupin didn’t get “h’up”. At least not right away. He lifted his head, though, and looked at Eroica. I saw him smile.
“H’on yer feet, yew thrice-damned cod!” Cockney raged, gesturing with his pistol. “H’on yer feet h’or I’ll shoot yer meself! Right ‘ere! Right now! Move!”
They would shoot Lupin anyway I suddenly realized. Mischa’s “game” was rigged. As soon as Cockney pocketed that box, he would bail out over the side, leaving those on shore free to open fire. Both Lupin and Eroica were weaponless and completely exposed. We were too far away to help them.
There was a click as Jigen’s Magnum cocked. And another as von Eberbach readied his Luger. Little James huddled shivering in the cover behind the helm, clutching Dorian’s discarded clothes. I heard him start praying.
“Damn yer, yew smart Frog bastard! Get h’up! I’m not gonner tell yew h’again...” He didn’t have to. Lupin struggled to his feet and continued walking towards Eroica.
The British thief now dared to move, but only a little. He extended his arms forward and out in half a welcoming embrace. Mischa permitted him this. Probably because the gesture seemed so harmless. After all, the Earl’s hands were empty. His nudity suggested he was helpless.
Cockney certainly thought he was. Once Lupin was on his way again, I saw the big Brit smile and drop back a step, trying to put the box in his pocket. Unfortunately for him, his heavy sweater covered the pockets of his pants and made life difficult. After two unsuccessful tries to lift the sweater and pocket the box, Cockney looked down to see what the trouble was.
And in that flashing instant, when Cockney’s eyes left Lupin’s back, Dorian Red Gloria made his move.
Only later, when I’d had time to decipher what I’d seen, was I able to reconstruct exactly what happened: The Earl saw Cockney’s attention wander and sprang forward in a magnificent dancer’s leap. In that same instant, his hand went back, disappeared under his hair and drew forth the dagger he’d secreted in his scarf. While still in mid-leap, his lithe body whipped around as he sent that dagger flying. Then he touched down, grabbed Lupin by the lapels of his rumpled jacket and flung both Lupin and himself sideways off the pier. They hit the water about the same time the dagger hit Cockney.
Cockney was taken completely by surprise. He looked up and saw only a golden-haired blur. He brought his pistol around just as that golden blur seized Lupin and flung him sideways. About this same time, Cockney’s peripheral vision detected the sharp-edged glint of the dagger flying at him, but by then, it was too late. The dagger sank deeply into Cockney’s left shoulder. The big Brit screamed as the muscles of his left arm jerked convulsively in outrage. The box went flying from his nerveless fingers. Over the edge of the dock and into the drink. Cockney either fell or leaped in after it.
Jigen started shooting to cover. Von Eberbach thought this was a dandy idea. He started shooting, too.
The Arabella surged forward like a spurred horse as I threw her throttle open. Her bow smacked the waves as I put her helm hard over and she came about. The distance between us and the pier wasn’t really that great. We could clear it in less than a minute.
On shore, confusion was absolute. All three men and the box were now in the drink. The covering fire Jigen and the Major were laying down was enough to discourage any of Mischa’s other men from rushing out to see what happened. Left with damn few alternatives, Mischa ordered those men to start shooting back. Their return fire was no more discriminate than Jigen’s.
The pier loomed out at us, black and broken. I spun the wheel again, trusting the offshore action of wave and wind to absorb our momentum, and cut power to Arabella’s screws. Neither Dorian nor Lupin had surfaced yet and I didn’t want to risk wounding them.
Our port aft quarter whacked into the outside pilings of the pier with a thud.
The mayhem of fire and counterfire continued. Bits of rotted wood blew up in particulate bursts as stray shots peppered the planking. A couple actually hit the superstructure of Arabella’s flying bridge, but no real damage was done. Neither side had a clear target. Most of what was happening now was what Jigen called “hose down”. How effective it was (or continued to be) depended on the size of the “hose” you were using. Under the circumstances, I didn’t think we’d be able to keep it up long. Mischa had a bigger “hose” than we did.
I searched desperately for the two thieves, but saw only Cockney. He’d surfaced under the pier and was holding onto one piling with his good arm. He bared his teeth at me in a threatening ‘ snarl, but seemed unable to do anything more effective.
I heard a thump on the starboard side and turned to see James lunge past me with a cry of: “Thank gawd!” He dumped the Earl’s clothing and dashed for the starboard rail, where four white, wet fingers were clinging.
I went immediately to help him.
Dorian clung to the aft quarter, clutching Lupin against his body in a lifeguard’s hold. Lupin himself looked pale and drawn. His eyes were dark, his expression pinched and his face mottled with bruises. His arms were still bound behind him.
“Tape!” Dorian gasped.
This statement made no sense to me until I helped James heave the Frenchman into the boat. Then I saw what Dorian meant. They’d bound Lupin’s wrists with packing tape. A smart move. Handcuffs and rope Lupin could have discarded easily, but not packing tape. Too sticky.
Lupin came up over the side as limp as a sack of wet laundry. I pulled him in and dumped him quickly onto the safety of the afterdeck. There was no time to be more gentle.
Freed of his burden, Dorian hoisted his own bare, gleaming self aboard without assistance.
I left the rest of it to James and ran back to take the helm. Arabella’s engines gurgled angrily as I threw them into gear. With a recalcitrant buck, she wheeled around, kicking for open water. The Arabella was no racing yacht, but she could move fast enough when the mood struck her. We were completely out of firing range in two minutes. The firecracker-like pops coming from shore continued for another thirty seconds, then stopped altogether. By then we were out into the Cove and heading for the channel.
Jigen, who knew the absolute range of his Magnum, had stopped firing long before that. For him, a covering fire was one thing. The gratuitous wasting of ammunition was another. He considered it very bad form.
He glanced back at Lupin. “How is he?”
I had no idea. I turned to have a look myself, expecting to see Lupin sitting up now that the gunplay was over. Instead I saw Lupin was still lying on the deck, his eyes closed, Dorian kneeling alongside of him.
I caught James’ arm. “Helm!” I insisted. “What...?” he asked.
“Take the helm! I’ve work to do. I’ve got to go help with Lupin.”
James looked as if he wanted to protest, but didn’t. He took over the pilot’s seat and I bailed out, going over to kneel by Dorian. One cut of my katana freed Lupin’s arms, then the Earl and I carried him below deck, into the forward cabin.
We laid him on the bunk.
He was drenched, of course, and very pale. Purple bruises marbled the left side of his face, his belly and both sides of his rib-cage. But, all in all, it didn’t really look too bad. Not after what the Major had led us to expect. I couldn’t tell if I was relieved or angry.
“Oh dear Jesus...” whispered Dorian.
He held up one of Lupin’s hands so I could see.
The Earl had been pealing the remaining tape off Lupin’s wrists, so he was in a better position to notice what I had missed. Mischa had forgone the rest of Lupin’s person to concentrate on his hands. The nail-bed of each finger had been deeply pierced at least twice. All were marked by ugly, purple-black punctures.
Beating a man during an interrogation might have been a satisfying way for a torturer to gain information, but it wasn’t a very effective one. The chance of fatal injury was too great. Instead the careful inquisitor confined himself to methods designed to inflict the greatest possible pain with the least possible damage. That way, the victim was guaranteed to last for a while.
Mischa was a careful inquisitor. After allowing his thugs to thump Lupin just enough to satisfy their spleens, he’d gotten down to the real business of interrogation. He’d secured Lupin to a chair, then taken a sharp metal implement, like a needle or a probe, heated it to glowing and driven it deep into the quick under Lupin’s fingernails. The pain must have been excruciating.
And doubly effective, too, since it left Lupin temporarily lame. He couldn’t use his hands. Not to pick a lock. Not to grab a rope. Not to hold a cup of water if I brought it. Lupin would be nearly helpless until his wounds healed.
Dorian was speaking to Lupin. Low, gentle, meaningless words of comfort. I kept expecting Lupin to frown and open his eyes, but he didn’t. Not even when the Earl and I eased him out of his soaking clothes. It suddenly occurred to me he really did look pretty damn awful. He was being very quiet, too. Usually I was able to gauge the extent of Lupin’s injuries by the amount of complaining he did. The more he complained, the less I had to worry about. This time he didn’t say a word. Not a single, solitary word. That gave me a very uneasy feeling.
“I’ll get some ice,” I said, because it was the only thing I could think to do. I went aft to the galley.
The Arabella was a good-sized launch, but she wasn’t enormous. In fact she had only one cabin, a four-bunker up in her bows. This cabin was accessed by a single passageway. On its starboard side was her galley and mess. To port was her head, some storage compartments and her chart and radio alcove. It only took me three long strides to reach my destination.
There was a cold chest in the galley containing twenty pounds of crushed ice we’d purchased just this evening. I scooped some up in a plastic bowl and set about making several ice-and-water compresses using sandwich-bags.
The Arabella made a spasmodic lurch to the left, almost pitching me to the deck. Before I could protest this manhandling, I heard the enraged roar of the Major’s voice. He was shouting at James. Something about not watching where he was verdammt going.
A heavy thump in the passageway announced the arrival of someone in too much of a hurry to use the stairs. Jigen stuck his head around the hatchway. “How is he?”
“Hurt,” I replied, scooping the sealed bags of ice water into the bowl so they’d be easier to carry. “What happened?”
“Nothing much. Snookums tried to run down a marker buoy and Dagwood didn’t like that.”
“Are we being followed?”
“Not as far as I can tell. As a guess, I’d say finding that box is more important to them than settling with us. They’ll wait to even the score later. --When you say ‘hurt’, what do you mean? How bad is it?”
“Bad enough. He’s in a great deal of pain. But his life’s not in immediate danger and nothing Mischa did to him won’t heal. I’d say it’s going to be a week, though, before he’s back to being his own conniving, egocentric self. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve some ice-packs for him.”
But Jigen didn’t move. He frowned. Not at me. “Fucking Russian...”
“I agree completely.”
“What do you suppose we oughta do about him?”
“I think that’s for Lupin to decide. Excuse me.”
Jigen stepped aside and I moved out into the passage, where I was nearly creamed by a hurtling James. He’d just had his command usurped by von Eberbach and he didn’t half like it. Spoiling for some sort of fight, James came flying down the ‘tween decks ladder and almost into me. He stood glaring angrily. “Never mind the frigging Russian!” he abruptly decided. “What about Count Whittys treasure? What are we to do about that?!”
The voice had come from the forward cabin and it sounded brighter and more cheerful than I’d any reason to expect. In fact, it sounded almost completely normal, just a tiny bit ragged around the edges.
Jigen was transformed. “Lupin...”
The thief in question was now sitting up on the bunk, propped by pillows and wrapped in a woolly blanket. His sore hands were cradled in his lap, pillowed on a life-preserver. He smiled at us.
Dorian smiled at us, too. He was also wrapped in a blanket and seated on Lupin’s bunk, helping to support the Frenchman.
Jigen shouldered past me. “Hi, boss,” he said gently as he ducked into the cabin. “How do you feel?”
“Exactly like twelve miles of bad road,” Lupin replied, “but I’m not going to let that stop me. Le petit fou asked a very important question: What will we do about Count Whitty’s hoard?”
“Absolutely nothing,” Dorian decided, smoothing Lupin’s hair. “We’ll let that dreadful Mischa have it and count ourselves lucky to get you back in one piece.”
“We will do nothing of the kind!” Lupin insisted. “I’m not going to let some stupid, self-important Kojak of a Russian make a fool out of me!”
“He can’t possibly,” I snarled, elbowing my way into the cabin at last. “You’ve beaten him to it!”
I dropped onto the edge of the bunk, lifted one of Lupin’s hands and applied an ice-pack to it. Despite my brusque manner, I really was very gentle about it this time. Lupin flinched anyway. I felt his whole body shiver at the contact.
Dorian felt it, too. “That tears it, love. Your hands are clearly useless. You’re best well out of it.”
“No,” Lupin insisted, his voice tighter, not so cheerful now. “First it was a matter of obligation. Now it is a question of face. And face is very important. Even to a foolish thief.”
“So,” I agreed, applying another compress to the other hand.
“Okay,” Jigen decided, “so it’s important. So what do we do about it? I’m not really clear on what that mirror-thing said.”
“I am,” Lupin assured him. “I will start with the third line: DOG ISL. LT. means Dog Island Light. Around 1917, before the present channel was cut, larger ships had to steer a path south of the one which is presently taken. To help them find their way, a lighthouse was constructed on a tiny, windswept isle south of St. Mary’s. This little lump of land was called Dog Island because, in shape, it resembled a dog’s head. The lighthouse is still there, albeit in terrible repair since it is no longer used. It sits on a pinnacle of land called Windy Bluff, hence the second line of the message. The fourth line, S. St. MARY’S, should be obvious enough. As for the first line, THIRD FROM TOP ... I’m not too clear on that myself. I suppose I’ll have to figure it out when we get there.”
“Yes!” cried James. “We’ve got it!”
“Maybe,” Jigen said. “But first I wanna know where he got it. How’d you figure all that out, Lupo?”
“Elementary, Watson. I spent some time just reading charts for the area. It’s all clearly marked, if you know what to look for. New channel; old channel. New light; old light. Dog Island and Windy Bluff. The rest is sheer deductive reasoning.”
“Uh-huh. Something tells me I better fill Dagwood in on all this. See what he deduces. I warn ya, Lupe. I don’t think he’s gonna be happy.”
“He’s never ‘happy’!” James complained. “He was born with a sour expression on his face and never grew out of it!”
Dorian frowned reprovingly at James. “That might not be possible, Lupin love. There’s still Mischa to contend with.”
“Ah, but first he has to divine the box’s secret, and that will take time. Then he has to locate the lighthouse in question. That will take more time. Besides, did I or did I not hear a distinctive plunk while you and I were under the water?”
“You did,” I agreed. “Dorian’s dagger struck the Cockney. He dropped the box and it went into the sea. I doubt he’s had time to retrieve it.”
“There! You see? Before Mischa can do any of the above, he must first find the box. This he will undoubtedly do, but it will slow him up even further. So, Eroica-chan, we have a decent head start. We will certainly reach the prize before the Russians do, NATO Intelligence permitting.”
Jigen shrugged. “Okay,” he decided. “I’ll go ask it.” He left.
“I think I’ll go help him,” James declared. “It’s about time the Major listened to reason!” James vanished, too.
“Reason...” Dorian sighed after the little man was gone. “With my darling twit, it’s always more a matter of greed than reason. As for you, my Gallic love,” he added, turning to Lupin. “In your case I’d say it was more a matter of foolish pride. Ishikawa-san was absolutely right. You’re a fool and a very proud one.”
Lupin responded to this with an expression which was half-frown, half-smile. “Mrs. Petticaris...”
“I know. I’m a lot of trouble. Well, I happen to think you’re a lot of trouble, too. I’ve come to enjoy that ‘trouble’. I don’t want anything to happen to it.”
Lupin shivered again, and not from pain. “Then don’t fight me on this, Petticaris-chan. I need your help.”
“You’ll need more than that, I think.”
Major Klaus von Eberbach stepped into the cabin with a dark look on his face and Dorian’s discarded clothing in his hand. He frowned at Lupin. “What you need most, Herr Dieb, is a good explanation. I suggest you come up with one.”
Lupin was surprised. “Explanation?”
“For yesterday morning. I want to know where you went and why.”
Dorian was angry. “Don’t interrogate him, Klaus! He’s already had enough of that!”
“No,” Lupin said softly. “He’s certainly entitled to ask. Where I went, Herr Major, was after the treasure. Why I went was the vain hope I could somehow, by holding that treasure, convince Mischa to call off his dogs. I had no intention of simply handing him the fortune, so don’t misunderstand me there. Nor was I thinking of absconding with it and leaving the rest of you stuck. I went alone because I felt there was less chance of my being followed. And to be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure what I was going to do with that fortune once I had it. I simply felt I’d be in a better bargaining position if I did.”
“So you set out to swim to this Dog Island, wherever it is.”
“Exactly. Dog Island was about two kilometers east of the place we dropped anchor. It was my intention to swim there, find the treasure and then relocate it, since I couldn’t take it with me. Then I intended to swim back across to the main island and catch up with the rest of you in Old Town. Obviously I didn’t make it.”
“Mr. Ishikawa said you went over the side at three in the morning. Mischa said he picked you up at ten. That’s seven hours, Mr. Lupin. What were you doing during all of that time?”
“Trying not to drown,” Lupin replied, frowning. “Most desperately, I assure you. There are some very strong currents in these waters. One of them was absolutely dead-set on pushing me away from Dog Island. After struggling with it for what seemed a very long time, I gave up and changed course for St. Mary’s. Brilliant though I am, I’m not always successful. Some of my schemes fail miserably. Ask Goemon.”
“That’s absolutely true,” I had to agree. “Some of Lupin’s plans have been utter failures. They’ve left him looking just exactly like a horse’s ass.”
Lupin shot me a dirty look.
“But I don’t understand, love,” Dorian said. “Even if you had made it to Dog Island, what could you hope to accomplish by simply relocating the treasure?”
Lupin shrugged. “Men even if Mischa was able to get his hands on the box, he wouldn’t have found anything. If he still wanted it, he’d have to deal with me. This time on my terms and under my conditions. Perhaps then we might have maneuvered him into a position the Major could exploit.”
“That, Herr Dieb, is a very unlikely story...”
Lupin was offended. “You think I lie, sir?! Tell me what I’d gain by it! I don’t have the treasure. Neither does Mischa, or he wouldn’t have found it necessary to do this!” He held up his hand. ‘Now you know everything I know. You’ll quickly find Dog Island if you just look at a chart. You can take me there or not. You can help find the treasure or not. That’s up to you. I’ve said all I like on the subject!”
And he sank back against Dorian, who moved to cradle him protectively. “That’s really quite enough, Klaus! There’s no need to keep hammering at him!”
Von Eberbach fixed the Earl with the blackest kind of glare. “Enough, is it?! I’ll give you ‘enough’! ‘Enough’ is what I’ve had of you and your constant, half-lewd interference! You think this is some idiotic game! Some diversion for your amusement! It is not! It is a very serious business! One which, if it isn’t handled properly, will result in the world exploding with one enormous and ever-lasting bang! What I do not need are two spoiled and self-infatuated brats mucking with it! Especially when one such brat suddenly decides to strip off all his clothing by moonlight!” He flung the garments at Dorian.
The Earl caught them. “It worked, didn’t it?”
“Yes, it ‘worked’. But if this harebrained idiot hadn’t decided to go running off on his own, it wouldn’t have been necessary in the first place!”
“What will you do?” Lupin asked quietly.
“I suppose I’ll have to go to Dog Island, won’t I?” the Major shot back. “Regardless of what I think, I can’t afford to let Mischa get his hands on that money. So we’ll do what you want, Mr. Arsene Lupin. But don’t think I’m going to let you near that treasure. I don’t trust either of you that much!”
Tirade delivered, the German turned and stormed out of the cabin, nearly crushing an eavesdropping James in the process.
Dorian let the breath leave his body in a long, shaky sigh. “Petticaris...?” Lupin ventured gently.
“It’s all right, love,” the Earl replied. “I just get a little tired sometimes.” He paused, smoothing his wrinkled clothes. “Millions for defense,” he sadly reflected, “and not one farthing for tribute...”
By the time we reached Dog Island, it was almost sunrise and we’d groped blindly around most of the night trying to locate it. The island was tiny, the sea vast and the only person among us who’d ever actually been within sight of the place was sleeping the sleep of utter exhaustion. I was reluctant to wake Lupin and Jigen was dead set against it. When James suggested we do so, Daisuke-sama read him the riot act.
He didn’t suggest it again.
So we were forced to stumble around in the darkness on our own. Eventually, about five in the morning, we found it.
Fortunately, we weren’t followed. The moon had been bright and the sky was clear. It was possible to see for nearly a mile in every direction. If Mischa had sent a boat out after us, we felt certain we could have spotted it. Instead, we saw nothing. Not even a vagrant sea gull.
By five, the sky was a milky shade of gray with an eastern trim of lavender and russet. The wind had died and the sea had taken on a calm, oily look, reflecting the colors above it. Dog Island was a barren knob of rock jutting abruptly out of the sea like the end of a broken bone. Windy Bluff was a craggy cliff of ragged stone proceeding in giant steps down to the water. I could see the lighthouse sitting on top. Its windows were broken out and the glass protecting its lantern was missing. A cluster of outbuildings, looking like scraps of flotsam, lay clumped around its base. The flaking paint and sagging roofs told me they were in no better shape than the lighthouse.
“Doesn’t look like anyone’s been here in a long time,” Jigen remarked as he steered us past the Bluff into the tiny north-side bay, the only safe anchorage on the island.
“How to you suppose we get up there?” James wondered. “There’s a stairway of sorts,” Dorian pointed out. “Look.”
There was indeed. A precarious stairway of iron and wood bolted right into the cliff-face. It proceeded upwards in a series of seven long “steps”, each “step” being a leveled area in the rock designed to give the climber respite.
“They come straight down to the water,” the Earl observed. “Probably to a dockage of some kind. Hopefully a pier we can tie to.”
“If there’s anything left of it,” von Eberbach agreed. “How high do you make that?”
“About three hundred feet,” Jigen speculated. “There’s not much to this place, and what little there is goes straight up.”
Speaking of “up”...
“I’d better go wake Lupin,” I said.
“Can’t you wait until we’ve docked? The poor bastard is exhausted.”
“He’ll want to be included, Jigen. Even in something as simple as this. Besides, it will take time to prepare him. At the moment he can’t dress himself.”
“I guess that’s true enough,” the gunman reflected with a sigh. “Okay. You go do that.” I went below.
I expected to find Lupin dead to the world. Instead I found him wide awake. He’d even sat up and swung his legs out of bed. He looked far better than he had any right to.
He grinned at me. “Ah, Goemon. Good! Help me get my pants on.”
“Dorian’s old pants,” I corrected. “Yours are still wet. I’ve got his blue shirt, too. I think they ought to fit you:’
“Any storm in a port, I always say;” Lupin agreed cheerfully. “Any sign of Comrade Kojak?”
“Not a glimpse.”
“Excellent! Come along now. Help me.”
I did. The black pants were a little long, but they fit well enough. The blue silk shirt was so loose, it could have fit anybody. That was good, in a way. It made getting the sleeves over Lupin’s sore hands a lot easier.
For those sore hands themselves, there wasn’t much I could do. Just wrap them in mittens of soft gauze to keep the dirt out and encourage Lupin to use them as little as possible.
I didn’t have to repeat myself on that point.
By the time we’d come up from below, Jigen had steered the ArabelIa into the island’s tiny rockwalled harbor. Dorian was right. The long stairway did come down to a dock: a small, sorry, age-silvered pier with most of its planking missing.
Jigen nosed the launch in while the Major stood up on her bow with a ready line. When he was close enough, the German jumped, balancing lightly on the side timber. He made us fast to the nearest piling, then went to do the same with our aft line. When we were thus secure, Jigen killed our engine. Silence settled on the Arabella.
Looking up, I could see where the long, winding stairway began, but not where it ended. An overhang of rough, gray rock blocked the view.
Dorian was second off and James was third. Jigen held the boat as steady as he could while Dorian and I helped Lupin mount the side timber. Once Lupin was safely up, I made the jump myself, with Jigen close behind me.
Carefully, because the wood was gray-white with age and fragile as an old, bleached bone, we picked our way along the pier to the footings of the first great “step”. There was a brief platform of natural rock, then the metal-framed stairway began. The framing was galvanized iron, sunk into the rock with long bolts as big around as my thumb. The treads themselves were pitch-treated pine nearly two inches thick. In its youth, it had probably been sturdy, but now the iron was oozing rust and the pitch-treated pine was rotting. The prospect of climbing three hundred feet up this decaying walkway, with nothing but sharp rock and open water looming below, was a daunting idea even for the most adventurous of us.
Major von Eberbach ordered us to wait on the ledge, then climbed up about a dozen steps. Grasping both interior and exterior rails with his hands, he proceeded to bounce up and down on the span, shaking it for all he was worth. Since he was the tallest and heaviest of us, this made for a fairly good test and the walkway passed it with hardly a tremor.
“Humph,” he grunted. “It’s stronger than it looks. We’d better keep hold of the inner railing, though, just to be sure. It’s bolted to the cliff independent of the stair and might remain even if the rest of the span has fallen. One of you: Link arms with Mr. Lupin.”
I elected to be the one to do this. It seemed to have fallen to me to be Lupin’s official caretaker anyway.
We began our ascent.
The first of the seven “steps” was by far the longest, winding its way around a great, sharp intrusion of rock which thrust out into the air like the prow of a very large boat. By the time we’d reached the first landing, we were sixty feet up and around the bend. The landing itself was the top of a column of rock. The prow of the “boat” loomed above us.
Reaching this point brought us, once again, into visual contact with the rest of the stair. The eastern face of Windy Bluff with all its crags and guano-whitened scars was visible to our right. To our left crawled the wrinkled sea. The sun was just barely peeping above it now and the sky had changed from milky gray to a peach combined with salmon. The water below was a ruffled pink, marbled with tints of lavender and saffron. A large flock of seabirds had taken flight and was wheeling through the cool morning air, squawking at one another.
“Wait,” Lupin requested.
We waited, glancing over at him. He grinned back. “Let us consider...”
“Consider what?” the Major wondered.
“The first and last part of the puzzle, of course. The instruction which reads ‘Third from top’. The question, I’d say, is third from the top of what? From the top of the lighthouse? It appears to have four distinct floors. From the top of the bluff? I see five structures nestled there. Or third from the top of the stairway, which has seven clearly defined ‘steps’. What’s your guess, Major? Which would you say?”
Klaus von Eberbach squinted up at the remains of the lighthouse. “All,” he decided. “We’ll check them all, one at a time. The ‘step’ comes first, so we’ll start there.”
Lupin seemed disappointed. “How pragmatic of you, sir.”
This amused the German. “I am pragmatic,” he said. “Or so everyone keeps telling me. I must confess I like my facts in neatly ordered rows. If you want bright bursts of dazzling inspiration, I suggest you look to yourself. That appears to be your specialty.”
Lupin let a soft smile shape his still slightly swollen mouth. “Touche, Monsieur. I acquiesce. We will start with the ‘step’ as per your order.”
We started climbing again.
I’m not sure when it started, but, as we climbed toward the second landing, I began to feel oppressed by the quiet around me. As I mentioned before, the air was very still. The sea was as calm as I’d seen it. The whole of Dog Island seemed devoid of life except for the swarms of circling seabirds. Those birds wheeled through the open air to our left, their cries echoing off the rock. The muted crash of the sea was the only other sound, but I found myself listening anyway.
When the rock fell, I was ready.
We were two-thirds of the way up the third span, between the second and third landings from the bottom, when I heard this grating noise. I immediately grabbed Lupin and pushed him back against the cliff, pinning him to it with my body. He was safe by the time the rock reached us.
The boulder, which was as round and as big as a soccer ball, smashed straight through the stairway a half-dozen steps to our left, missing the Major by inches. I’d called out when I heard it go and von Eberbach was quick to take cover, but I saw him sag, his weight supported by the inner rail, as the step was smashed out from under him.
The rock cracked loudly on the crags below before plunging, shattered, into the water. “God!” Dorian gasped. “Klaus!”
But the Major was just fine. He pulled himself back up and straddled the hole, glancing almost casually down at the precipice below him. Then he lifted his head and scrutinized the top of the cliff, or as much of it as he could see from his angle. “My,” he remarked, “what a convenient accident.”
“Yeah,” Jigen agreed. “Wasn’t it?”
“But we didn’t see anyone,” James argued timidly. “Not all night.”
“That doesn’t mean anything. We hardly had the proper equipment to do a conclusive night reconnaissance.”
The little man shivered. “But Mr. Lupin said first they’d have to find the box, then they’d have to decipher it before they could even start looking for Dog Island. How could they have beaten us?”
“You are overlooking the obvious,” Lupin decided, shrugging himself out of my grasp. “This whole island is a weather-battered ruin. It is entirely possible that, convenient or not, the rockfall was an accident.”
The Major smiled. “I never overlook the obvious; I just don’t choose to accept it.”
“Then what would you have us do? We’re halfway up to our first goal now. It would cost us as much to go back as go forward.”
“That’s true. Either way, we’re exposed.”
“Then our best alternative is to go, and go quickly.”
Lupin took off, without waiting for me, without waiting for anyone. He dodged around the Major and the gaping hole, heading up the steps at a half-trot.
We were stunned. Lupin’s behavior was often erratic, even reckless, but it was never desperate. Suddenly I got the impression he was afraid we weren’t going to continue. That, after having come so far and put up with so much, we would just turn around and chuck it. That was ridiculous, of course, but Lupin was apparently unwilling to take the chance. He was determined we go up that cliff, even if he had to drag us.
I was angered, both by his childish behavior and his lack of faith. “Furanso-jin no baka!” I cried and took off after him.
The others were quick to follow.
Lupin heard the sounds of pursuit and paused momentarily on the third landing to grin back at us. Then, instead of waiting, he broke into a run. He cleared the intervening span of stone and started pounding up the flight of stairs to the fourth landing.
It was on that fourth flight, between the third and fourth landings, it happened. Lupin stepped down hard on one of the treads and it broke. He tried to jump back, but the other tread broke behind him. Lupin started to fall.
I was a good twenty feet behind Lupin when he broke through, but it felt like it was a thousand. Normally, I wouldn’t have been concerned, but Lupin’s hands were lame and even if he managed to grab something, I wasn’t sure he could keep hold of it. Survival instincts being what they are, Lupin couldn’t help but try. He whipped around as he started to drop, grabbing for the interior railing. He got at least one bandaged hand on it.
The railing groaned horribly as it took the weight, sheering two bolts off at the rock-face. It groaned again as it bowed outward and down under the strain, but it was the scream of pain which scared me.
What Mischa had done to Lupin wasn’t fatal, but it was agonizing. In the same way an abscessed tooth was agonizing. Trapped under the shell of the fingernail, the wounded flesh swelled with no place to go. Any pressure at all was painful.
And Lupin’s whole weight was now supported by his hands. The pain must have been terrible. Funny thing about excruciating pain: It drains you. It sucks the strength from your body like a vampire. And though Lupin was able to catch the railing and somehow hold on, he lacked the strength to pull himself back up. He hung there, a hundred-eighty feet above the ocean. “H-help...”
He didn’t have to ask twice.
I was belly-flat on the stairs with my arms around his body before he’d finished uttering the word. I made myself into a life-belt, but it was Dorian Red Gloria who came flashing past Jigen and caught hold of Lupin’s wrists. He dragged Lupe (and consequently me) back to safety.
Lupin was ashen. His face was drawn and his eyes suddenly seemed dark and sunken. I remembered how cheerful he’d looked not a minute before and found the contrast horrifying. Horrifying because I suddenly realized I had been looking at a mask. A false face Lupin had put on to deceive us. He was a master of illusion and he’d wanted us to believe he was untouched by what had happened.
Now the mask was torn away and I found myself looking at a man who hadn’t had much sleep in the last two days, who had struggled in vain for hours against an uncaring sea and who, nearing exhaustion, was barely able to reach shore...where he’d immediately been set upon by Mischa’s thugs. After that there’d been no rest. Only cruel and calculating pain. Somehow Lupin had managed to survive it.
But just barely survive, from the look of him. Lupin was battered and spent, and not as young as he used to be. He shivered under the weight of his exhaustion and his responsibility like Atlas under the weight of the world, too proud to set that burden down, yet barely able to support it.
The sympathy I felt for him was killing.
But I was a Warrior, and a Warrior wasn’t always allowed to display his feelings. Expressions of tenderness or sympathy, while not forbidden, had to be carefully couched in ritual to prevent embarrassment. As such, it was possible for them to go unnoticed. It was again left to Dorian to do what I could not. The Earl was homosexual, so the Yin of his nature was very close to the surface. He didn’t feel chained to the same rock of male convention. Therefore he expressed himself just exactly as he liked. He put his arms around Lupin and held him.
And Lupin did nothing to resist it. He sat where he was, with his feet dangling down into space, trying to recover what little strength was left him.
Eventually the French thief lifted his head. “Merci...”
“That was a damn stupid thing to do,” von Eberbach admonished, not too unkindly. “We have to go on...” Lupin murmured.
“Of course we do,” the German agreed. “What the hell made you think we wouldn’t?”
Lupin shook his head. “I just want it over with ...I want it finished...”
“I know you do, love,” Dorian soothed. “It’s caused no end of horrors for you. We’ll soon have it done. We’re almost there. Just have a little patience with us and don’t go running off on your own. You’re not strong enough for that yet.”
“Yeah,” Jigen growled. “What he said!”
“Komm,” the Major decided. “If there’s someone on the cliff above, we shouldn’t stay here.” We got Lupin to his feet and continued on.
The fifth “step”, which was “third from the top”, was narrower than any of the previous ones. Barely twenty-six inches wide, it twisted around a bulge in the cliff like a donkey-trail. Only the presence of the exterior railing gave us any sense of security.
We were now two hundred feet above the water and the cliff here was scarred by a series of vertical fissures. Whatever cataclysm had forced this peak out of the sea had also cracked it. The cracks had widened as the mountain rose, turning what had once been thin lines into yawning wounds. These openings made excellent roosting places for birds and the ledge was thick with the whitened mortar of their droppings. Scattered feathers and bits of old grass stuck to everything. Occasionally we’d pass a hastily abandoned roost and the enraged tenants would scream at us, angry at their eviction.
One of the birds actually took a swipe at James, who stumbled backwards into Jigen. “Easy, Snooks,” he admonished as he caught the little man. “Let’s not go taking any high-dives.”
James looked down at the sea and turned sort of green. His interest in the treasure was momentarily superseded.
The Major reached the point where the rock bulged the furthest. He squeezed around this narrow corner with his belly to the cliff and abruptly stopped, frowning thoughtfully.
“What is it, love?” Dorian wanted to know.
Von Eberbach didn’t answer. I saw him reach out tentatively with one hand and take a step forward...
We were all edgy by this time. We’d taken one near-hit and two almost-tumbles. When von Eberbach vanished, it sent a tremor of anxiety quivering through our ranks. And no one felt it more than the Earl Red Gloria.
He scrambled forward. “Klaus!”
He reached the place along the cliff where the Major had vanished and he paused, too. Dorian stared for a moment, then I saw him smile. “Eureka...” he whispered softly.
Lupin immediately perked up. “Yes?”
“What is it?” Jigen asked.
“It’s an opening in the rock. Not a cave, really. A sort of cranny. It widens out after a meter or two, but the entrance is very narrow. If this is it, I’m not surprised the Count sent his wife. If he was a man of any size, he’d never have fit.”
“I’m small!” James volunteered, trying to push past Lupin and me.
“Behave yourself, darling twit! This is hardly a place for shoving! Besides, the Major’s already inside. He’ll ask if he needs assistance.”
“Let’s hope he doesn’t get himself stuck,” Jigen decided. “Strikes me this’d be a bad place for it.”
Dorian didn’t like this idea. His expression turned pensive. “Klaus?” he wondered. “How is it going? Are you all right?”
“Yes, but I’ve found someone who isn’t.”
Something came flying out at Eroica. Something round and yellow-gray. The Earl caught whatever it was and found himself holding a skull minus its lower jaw. It had a toupee of hardened guano.
Dorian immediately dropped it. “Damn you, Klaus! That wasn’t funny!”
“I don’t suppose he thought so, either.”
“Are you all right?!”
“Fine. You can come ahead if you want. Just be a little careful where you step. There’re other bits of our unfortunate friend scattered about in here.”
The Earl shuddered once, then stepped daintily over the discarded skull and disappeared into the fissure.
Lupin nudged me. “Come on.”
I obliged him. Frankly, I was a little surprised it had taken him so long to ask. He must have been very tired…
The fissure, when we reached it, ran off at an angle. It cut back into the bulge of the cliff and turned to the left. Glanced at quickly, it might have appeared to be nothing more than a simple crack. However, if you looked carefully, you could see where it started to turn. As it continued to turn, it continued to widen. By the time it reached its main chamber, it was six feet wide and perhaps twelve deep.
It wasn’t a cave. The Earl had been absolutely right about that. It was a chimney in the rock, narrowing first to a pinch about half a man across, then widening out into a great funnel whose walls were filthy with birds’ nests. The floor was a tumble of rocks coated with several inches of bird-droppings, decayed nests and dead chicks. The smell in there was fetid!
I eased Lupin through the opening, then stood with my nose wrinkled, almost wishing I’d stayed outside.
“That’s it!” von Eberbach called. “We can take no more! It’s tight in here already!”
“But, Major!” James cried. “I want to see!”
“There’s no room, I said! You will wait!”
“Is cool, Dagwood,” Jigen said. “A couple of us should wait outside anyway. - Just in case.” James continued to argue, but the Major no longer paid him any mind. He turned instead to Lupin. “What do you make of that?” he asked, nodding at something on the floor.
That something was what remained of a body. There was little left but bones now, shrouded in the tatters of a dark brown suit. The birds hadn’t missed much and what was left was fouled by their droppings. I could still make out part of one lapel, though, and two dark horn buttons.
“A friend of the Count’s I’d imagine,” Lupin replied. “I’m hardly an expert on this sort of thing, but from the style of his clothing, I’d place him about 1970. Perhaps as late as ‘75.”
“So would I,” von Eberbach agreed. “According to Dorian, that’s approximately the time the old Count died. Perhaps the old man told him the secret, or he found it out on his own. He came looking for the treasure and died here.”
“How did he die?” I wanted to know.
“His neck was broken. It could have been murder, I suppose. It might also have been a falling rock.” The German shrugged. “It’s a little hard to tell at this point.”
Dorian dared to look hopeful. “This is it, then? We’ve actually found it?”
“It appears we have,” von Eberbach decided, looking up towards the distant sky. “I don’t know of any other reason for this body to be here.”
“Then why don’t you look?” Lupin wondered, his enthusiasm returning. “I’d help you, only I find myself indisposed. However, I’ll gladly stand on the sidelines and kibitz.”
We searched. We searched everywhere. With Lupin’s droll banter to guide us, we inspected every cranny in the walls, turned over every tumble of rock, and dislodged a myriad of things I don’t even want to think about. After a good thirty minutes of this work, we were all filthy and disgusted. We had found absolutely nothing.
The Earl was dismayed. He looked at Lupin. “You don’t suppose Klaus was right, do you? About the treasure being gone? Could the person who murdered this man have taken it?”
“If the man was indeed murdered,” Lupin replied with a shrug. “We’ve no proof of that. Besides, I don’t think it’s time to despair just yet. The Major’s been saving the best for last.”
This surprised von Eberbach since he hadn’t been “saving” anything. He looked startled for a moment, then he frowned. “What are you talking about?”
“Why, the obvious of course. You said you never overlooked it. Since you’ve failed to notice it all this time, I thought you were choosing to ignore it.”
Major von Eberbach got to his feet and fixed Lupin with a glare that should have stripped the flesh from the thief s bones like a cauldron of boiling lye. “If you have a suggestion-make it!”
Lupin looked at the body on the floor. “Maybe it wasn’t murder...” he mused. “Maybe it was just an ironic accident. After all, which way is he facing?”
That body lay in the middle of the chamber, more or less on his right side. The birds had scattered the bones, of course, and our digging around had disturbed him, but it was still possible to see which way he was facing when he dropped. He lay with his head towards the door, as if he’d been felled on his way out.
Von Eberbach forgot Lupin existed. He dropped to his knees beside the sorry remains and began, almost tenderly, to move them. In seconds he had uncovered the handle of a moldy black leather satchel.
“Bravo!” Dorian breathed, radiant with excitement. “Bravo, Monsieur! Well done!”
The order echoed down from above, ringing off the stone and filling our tiny chamber with noise. It scared the hell out of the roosting birds, who exploded into flight with cries of alarm.
I looked up into the funnel and saw Comrade Mischa standing at the edge, grinning down at us. He was holding something in his hand the size of a potato.
“Please don’t move,” he pleaded. “I’d hate to have to kill you.”
The Major went white with rage. “Mischa...”
“What? No exclamations of disbelief? No incredulous cries of outrage? You’ve spoiled it for me, Klaus! I felt sure you’d want to know how I got here.”
“How did you get here?”
“Ah! Much better! But I will have to explain in a moment. I’ve some details to see to first. - Monsieur Lupin, would you kindly tell your companion outside ...Mr. Jigen, is it? ...to lay down his gun and surrender peacefully when my men reach him? If he doesn’t, I’m afraid I’ll have to drop this thing. Which, if you haven’t yet noticed, is a fragmentation grenade. In such a confined space, I daresay it would kill you all quite messily.”
“If you drop it,” the Major argued, “you shred the treasure.”
“I didn’t say I wanted to do it, did I? I just said I would if you forced me to. And if you do...” He shrugged. “Since it’s you, I imagine my home office will understand.”
Lupin sighed. He turned toward the door. “Jigen...”
“I heard him,” the gunman growled. “I’m doin’ it.”
“Splendid!” Mischa cried. “Always such a pleasure doing business with rational people! Now, Klaus, pick up that valise. I’d like you to bring it to me...”
With a snarl of fury, Klaus von Eberbach seized the handle of the satchel and ripped it clear. When he did, I saw uncertainty douse his expression of rage. He glanced at the satchel uneasily. Then, without saying a word, he got to his feet.
“When my men reach you,” Mischa continued, “you will place all your weapons on the floor of the cave and leave them there. Please don’t attempt to hide any. As you leave the cave one at a time, you will be thoroughly searched. If they find anything, my men have orders to pitch the offender into the ocean.”
“As you wish,” the Major conceded.
And it was as Mischa wished. All of it. Ingram and Rat Face reached us and took Jigen’s gun. Then they searched each of us thoroughly. After that, they took us up to the top of the bluff, where Comrade Mischa was waiting.
Cockney was also waiting there, his arm in a sling. He did not look happy.
“You needn’t worry about him,” Mischa said graciously, seating himself on a rock. He caressed the fragmentation grenade one last time, then tossed it over to Cockney ...who almost didn’t catch it. “He knows better than to disobey. -Now, Klaus, my dear old enemy, let’s see what you’ve brought me.”
Considering how angry the Major had been just minutes before, he seemed remarkably calm now. He had this cool almost-smile on his face as he stepped up, satchel in hand, to confront the Russian.
Abruptly he ripped the satchel open and up-ended it, dumping its contents on the ground. Blessed little came out of that thing. Just a dozen or so gold coins, two rings, an enameled pendant in the shape of a hen and a gold-link bracelet adorned with red stones. That was it. All that remained of Whitty’s treasure.
That’s why von Eberbach was so startled when he picked up the case. He’d felt it was almost empty.
He threw the valise at Mischa’s feet. And smiled. “Hardly seems worth all the trouble. Does it?’
Mischa’s face was carefully composed as he stared down at the pitiful heap before him. He moved the bracelet with his toe. “You searched them thoroughly?” he asked his men.
“Yes, sir,” Ingram agreed nervously. “Very thoroughly.”
“Then search the cave. Now!”
Ingram scampered off to do just that.
“You were going to tell me how you got here,” the Major gently reminded him.
“Hmm?” Mischa wondered, looking up. “Oh, yes. I was, wasn’t I? Well, I’m afraid I cheated a bit. After working with Monsieur Lupin for an hour, I knew he wasn’t going to tell me anything, so I decided on a different tact. I put a homing device in the hem of his jacket. Then I arranged to trade him back to you. I knew you’d be so distracted by his condition, you’d forgo any strip-search. After that, I had you tracked. When we were certain where you were going, we boarded a helicopter and flew in ahead of you. We landed about an hour before sunrise.”
“Then you didn’t need the box.”
“Not in the end. It’s still at the bottom of the harbor.”
“That was risky of you, wasn’t it, comrade? How could you be sure we knew where the treasure was?”
“I’m a shrewd judge of character, Klaus. If you didn’t know where the cache was, I was certain Monsieur Lupin did. A man rarely fights so hard or endures so much to protect nothing.”
Lupin laughed. A tired, threadbare sound. His fatigue was showing. “Not when he has a choice, anyway...”
“No,” Mischa agreed thoughtfully. “Not when he has a choice.” He glanced at von Eberbach. “I apologize for the rock, by the way. One of my men was clumsy and had a little accident. It won’t happen again. -Will it?”
“No, sir,” Cockney grudgingly conceded.
After a while, Ingram came running up from below. He was completely winded and slathered with birdshit. “I checked, sir,” he panted. “Checked aboard their boat, too. There’s nothing. Not a bloody thing. Anywhere.”
Lupin laughed again and sagged a bit. “Would you mind terribly if I sat down? I’m very tired.”
“Sit,” Mischa replied. “Don’t let me stop you.”
Lupin collapsed to the ground like a marionette whose strings had been cut. He sat there cross-legged with his sore hands cradled in his lap and stared at the remains of the Whitty fortune. “About ten to twenty thousand on the Black Market, I’d say,” he decided with a weary smile. “On a good day, and if the buyer is feeling generous.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” the Russian reflected, picking up the bracelet and the enameled hen. “If these stones are rubies, then this bauble’s worth at least twenty all by itself. And if this handsome little hen is what I believe it to be, then this batch may fetch closer to eighty thousand pounds. At public auction, of course. Since these are Soviet goods, rightfully returned to the Soviet people, there will be no reason to deal with the Black Market.”
He scooped up the rest of the booty and tucked it in his pockets, wiped his hands on a handkerchief and stood up. “Not as much as we expected to make,” he continued, ‘but hardly nothing. It might even cover our expenses.” He glanced at Lupin. “In your case, of course, this business is a total loss.”
“So I noticed.”
“How much of a loss?” the Major wanted to know. “Will you play out the game?”
“And kill you?” Mischa wondered, pursing his lips. “I suppose I could do that, couldn’t I? It would be terribly ironic: The great NATO agent von Eberbach dying for table scraps. That hardly seems an appropriate end.”
“Completely appropriate if I can take you with me.”
Mischa grinned. “You’d try it, wouldn’t you? Even here. Even for this.” He gestured at the empty valise. “Even with all the odds against you. God, Klaus! What a fine, big German wolf you are! One day you’re going to make a wonderful trophy for me. But not today. Today ... wolves are out of season.”
Von Eberbach’s expression didn’t change. He nodded at Lupin. “What about him?”
“Him?” Mischa wondered, glancing at the thief. “Rather sorry-looking specimen, isn’t he? I suppose you’ll be annoyed if I kill him?”
The Russian spread his hands. “Then what can I do? If we fight, my friend, let’s fight over something important.” He turned to Lupin. “You have your life, Monsieur, plus a few aches and pains to remind you. Take my advice: Stay out of my way. I’m not really feeling that kindly towards you.”
Lupin nodded. “I understand.”
Mischa smiled. “Yes. I think you do...” He motioned to his men. “Come along, comrades. Let’s leave these gentlemen to lick their wounds.”
They left. Cockney and company weren’t happy about leaving, but they went. Moments later, we heard the whistling beat of rotor blades and saw a helicopter rise above the island. With a smooth almost casual motion, it looped around and started heading back to the north.
It was only after they were gone that any of us found the energy to move. By now we were all pretty tired. But no one was more tired than Lupin. He slumped where he sat, eyes closed and breathing heavy.
“Nothing!” James raged. “We went through all this and we have nothing!”
“We’re alive,” Jigen reflected with a sigh. “‘That ain’t exactly ‘nothing’.”
Dorian knelt beside Lupin, gently rubbing his shoulders. “In a way,” he said, “it’s just as well there was no treasure. I don’t think Comrade Mischa would have been so generous if he’d thought he had something to fight for.”
“Not at all,” the Major agreed. “We were very lucky.” He glanced at Lupin. “And no one was luckier than you, sir.”
“I know,” Lupin murmured, lifting his head. “I’m well aware of that. And you needn’t worry, Major. I’ve learned my lesson. From now on, I’ll leave the Cold War to professionals.”
“You do that.”
“It’s a long way back, Lupe,” Jigen said. “You want to rest first?”
“No, that’s all right. I can sleep on the way to St. Mary’s. Right now, I’d just as soon we get down to the boat.”
“Sure. No problem.”
Dorian and I got Lupin to his feet as Jigen and von Eberbach proceeded down to retrieve our weapons. James trailed along behind us with a stormy expression on his face and his hands in his pockets, kicking at small stones like a dejected child.
The Earl frowned at him reprovingly. “He’s not a very good loser, I’m afraid,” Dorian apologized. “Especially where money is concerned.”
“Who is?” Lupin wondered with a half-shrug.
“Well ...you, for one. I must admit, love, you’re taking all this extremely well.”
“I’m alive,” the French thief replied. “Like Jigen said, that’s not exactly nothing. And I doubt seriously that the KGB will try hiring me again. Not after this fiasco. I am free, if slightly battered. You know, Petticaris-chan, sometimes it just falls to us to be content with what we have and not to brood about what we haven’t. No thief in the world is successful all of the time, no matter how good he is. That’s just the way of things. You understand, neh?”
Eroica smiled, gazing out over the water which was now a burnished orange-gold from the sun blazing low above it. “Completely, Lupin love,” he agreed. “I understand precisely what you mean. Sometimes the Magic works ...and, sometimes, it doesn’t.”
It was cold as hell in Washington D.C. in the December of 1989. Although it hadn’t snowed since before Christmas, gritty, graying lumps of the stuff still lay clumped about the city’s streets like piles of abandoned laundry. Rivers of brownish ice lay congealed in the gutters and the wind whipping out of the north on this post-Christmas night was enough to chill even the hardiest of us.
I wondered about Lupin’s choice when he’d told us he wanted to spend his Christmas in Washington. Normally he spent it in Paris, or in Kyoto, where he could throw coins at the New Year. This year in particular, I’d almost expected him to pick Berlin, where Walls were busy falling. But no, he was insistent on Washington and neither Jigen nor I wanted to argue. We’d been rather solicitous of him ever since September, when he’d run afoul of Mischa.
On his return from St. Mary’s, Lupin had spent two weeks in bed, fighting to heal the damage that’d been done him. Afterwards, he’d been unusually subdued. He’d stuck close to Chateau du Manoinco. He hadn’t traveled at all until two weeks ago, when he’d suddenly vanished without a word to anyone. A couple days later, he reappeared, determined to spend Christmas in Washington. When we asked what was going on, he only grinned and said he’d explain later.
Now it was ‘later’ and he still hadn’t explained, but this didn’t really surprise either of us. Lupin liked to “stage” his productions almost as much as Mischa did. Re wouldn’t show his hand until he was ready.
Jigen and I didn’t really have that much to complain about, all things considered. He’d gotten us a lovely suite at a very nice hotel called the Diplomat. It was one of those “home away from home” affairs and the main room even had a little fireplace. We had stupid little stockings, too, and a tiny live tree hung with exquisite blown-glass ornaments.
On this night in question, the suite looked particularly lovely. Lupin had arranged to throw a utile party and the main room was bathed in the scent of bayberry and the golden-soft glow from red candles. A fire burned merrily in the fireplace too, its mantel hung with ropes of real holly.
Jigen came out of the bedroom tugging at the stiff collar of a new white shirt. Re glanced at the dining table, which was laden with platters of vegetables in lemon-sauce, chaffing dishes heaped with salted prime rib and Oysters Rockefeller, and gave a long, soft whistle. “That’s a lot of food for the three of us,” he remarked. “Who else did you invite? Is Fujiko coming?”
“No,” Lupin replied softly, making sure the magnum of champagne was properly iced. “Not tonight.”
“You ask too many questions,” Lupin decided. “Look at Goemon. Is he making a pest of himself?
“No. He is content to sit by the fire and wait. Why don’t you do likewise? I’ll be happy to explain in a moment”
“You’ve been saying that for days now.”
“Tonight for sure, I promise.”
Jigen came over, but he didn’t sit down, unwilling to obey Lupin completely. On his way, he gave me a tired, exasperated look, as if to say: See what I have to put up with?
I sighed appreciatively by way of a reply. I understood his feelings completely.
There was a knock on our door.
Lupin glanced at the mantel clock and grinned. “God love the British,” he said. “They are so punctual!”
He went into the entrance alcove to answer the knock.
And in swept Dorian, Earl of Red Gloria, in a calf-length, spotlessly white chinchilla coat and a scarf in varying shades of purple cashmere wool. Behind him was the person named James, looking far less threadbare than usual.
“I’m be damned,” Jigen said. “It’s Blondie.”
“Merry Christmas, darlings!” cried the Earl. “How are you?”
“Great,” Jigen acknowledged. “Kinda surprised to see you so far from home. What’cha doing out in my neck of the woods? Ya slumming?”
“Not at all, darling,” Dorian replied as Lupin helped him off with his coat. Underneath he had on a white suit and a shirt of lavender silk with ruffles. “I was summoned. Two days ago, I received a packet by special courier. In it was an invitation to this party, two tickets to Washington on the Concord and following cryptic message: ‘You simply must come, Petticaris! If you don’t, I’ll be utterly shattered!”‘ He glanced at Lupin. “I had no desire to ‘shatter’ you, love. So I came.”
Lupin grinned. “You won’t be disappointed, I assure you.”
The Earl studied Lupin for a moment then I saw his eyes soften. “How are you, Arsene?” he asked gently. “Better?”
“Completely, Petticaris-chan. There was no need for you to worry. I come from very resilient stock. But I thank you, though, for asking.”
“How’s Dagwood?” Jigen asked, as Lupin whisked the coats away to the bedroom. “Is he coming?”
“No,” Dorian replied, stepping down into the sunken well of our living room to warm himself by the fire. “I’m afraid dear Klaus is a little distracted of late. He’s in Berlin tonight, walking around in a daze and wondering, I dare say, if he’ll even have a job in six months.”
“Things change pretty fast sometimes,” Jigen agreed. “Y’think he’s happy about it?”
“Are you joking, darling? He’s ecstatic!”
“Perhaps,” James commented, sneaking tidbits of food, “but not so much you’d notice.”
“James! Stop that picking, my darling twit! Wait until you’ve been invited!”
“We’ll eat in just a moment,” Lupin declared, coming out of the bedroom. “First, we’ll have some champagne! I’ve a cause I’d like to toast.”
The champagne in question was decanted and served.
Dorian beamed. “Splendid! What shall we drink to?”
“I will offer my toast in a moment,” Lupin said. “But first I’d better explain. Otherwise, you might misunderstand me.”
“I’d better sit down,” Jigen whispered to me. “I got a feeling this is gonna be a long one.”
Dorian sat, too. Only James remained standing, glancing hopefully at the food on the dining table.
But Lupin was oblivious. The Frenchman went to the fire and paused briefly to study it. Then he turned to face us. “In September of this year,” he said, “I did a very foolish thing. I got myself involved with the Russian KGB. It was not my intention to do so, yet that doesn’t absolve me of guilt. What I did was wrong. I freely admit it.”
“Once embroiled in the situation, however, I had no time for self-recriminations. I had one duty, and that was to get out of the terrible mess my foolishness had gotten us into. I thought very long and hard on the problem and finally came up with an idea. It was a desperate idea. A dangerous idea. But it was the only card I had, so I played it.”
“You tried to swim to Dog Island,” Jigen agreed.
“No, Jigen-chan. I did swim to Dog Island.”
“But I thought you said...”
“I lied. I’m sorry, my friend, but I had to.”
“You reached the island!” James cried. “You found the treasure, too, didn’t you?! And you stole it!!”
“Yes...” Lupin murmured. He was staring at Dorian, whose face was white and whose eyes were wide with confusion and pain. “I took it out of the satchel and back down to the dock. The water under that pier was only fifteen feet deep. Not too great a distance to free-dive. I hid the treasure in an old barrel someone had thrown overboard. Then I returned to the cave and repaired the damage I’d done. After that, I rested for a bit and swam the three miles to St. Mary’s. -That’s why I took off the way I did,” Lupin added, turning to Jigen. “Dashing up those stairs like an idiot. After all, I’d already been up and down them twice and they’d held my weight. I saw no reason not to trust them a third time.”
Jigen wasn’t particularly sympathetic. “So you swam to St. Mary’s. What then?”
“I was walking on the beach when Mischa’s men showed up. After offering them a token resistance, I let them take me.”
Dorian shivered. “Those terrible things they did to you...” he gasped. “You let them do it!”
“I had to, Dorian-chan. I had to fight very hard and endure very much. I couldn’t let Mischa know I was protecting nothing.”
Jigen was contrite. “Did you know about the homing device, too?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact. I heard them talking about it while they thought I was unconscious. Even if you had searched me, you’d never have found the thing. I’d tucked it into a sack under the aft bench while Goemon and James were helping Dorian out of the water.”
“Because I wanted them to follow us. I wanted them to see us ‘find’ the treasure. That’s why I couldn’t tell any of you the truth. I wanted your disappointment to be genuine.”
“So we found the loot and it was a bust,” Jigen decided. “The Russian had nothing to fight for, so...
“He let us go,” Lupin agreed. “He wanted us to live with our failure.”
The Earl shivered again. ‘“By God, dear heart! What a terrible gamble! You had no way of knowing Mischa would react the way he did!”
“No,” Lupin agreed with a shrug. “But when Fate deals you bad cards, what can you do? Bluff, and trust to Karma,”
“Karma-schmarma!” James insisted. “I want to know what happened to the money! Did you keep it?!”
“Oh, no,” Lupin replied. “I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t let any of you keep it, either. For all that Mischa had let us go, I was sure he’d be keeping an eye on us. If we’d suddenly had a large, unexplained influx of cash, I knew he’d get suspicious. So I had to dump the money. I had to dump it in a way that would profit none of us. A way the KGB would never connect to Lupin-sansei.”
“You threw it away?!”
“Or course not! Cavalier I am, but not wasteful! There were over ten million pounds in jewelry and gold in Count Whitty’s cache. I wasn’t about to throw it on an ash-heap!”
James went pale. “T-ten m-m-million...?”
“Give or take a hundred thousand,” Lupin agreed casually. “Less the paltry sum I let Mischa keep, just to make him happy.”
“So what’d you do with it?” Jigen wondered.
“Oh, I had to be very careful. I wanted to dispose of it in a way that was wholly unrelated to us and yet one which would do Comrade Mischa the greatest disservice. Suddenly an inspiration struck me about two weeks ago and I set about managing things. I must confess, I came up with a brilliant solution.”
“I donated the money. In my great-grandfather’s name. I gave it to his country.”
James was incredulous. “You gave it to France...?”
“No. My great-grandfather wasn’t French.”
“That’s Arsene Lupin I, of course,” Dorian said. “But I don’t understand, love. I thought he lived in Paris.”
“He did. He spent nearly all his adult life in that city. He was also of French descent. But he wasn’t actually born in France. Not by a long shot.”
A stunned silence settled on our group, then Jigen started to laugh.
“Ten million pounds,” Lupin continued softly. “To a superpower like the Soviet Union, a mere pittance. But to that poor, starving, little baby democracy...It might mean the difference between success and failure.”
Dorian smiled, aglow with new approval. “Bravo, Monsieur. Well done.”
Lupin met those approving eyes and I think he blushed a little. He cleared his throat. “Now I will propose my toast,” he said. “Gentlemen, I give you the flag. The one with the hole in the middle.”