Crouched low for speed, he felt the wind like a wall at his face, all but pushing him back into the oncoming wall of white death behind him. He was not going to outrace it, no matter how close he hugged his poles to his body or how much he ducked his head. He looked up instead, seeking perhaps his last glimpse of the clear blue sky.
It was a shock to see something cutting across that sky: a streak of azure, limned with fire. It circled back to come around behind him, streaking past his head and off to the left.
"Follow him!" his dæmon cried, poking her head out from inside his jacket. "She's guiding us!"
With no time or reason to dispute this assertion, he did just that, and almost instantly found himself skiing on air. Then he was falling, down, into snow, into dark… but not into cold.
George and his snowmobile were waiting for them when they arrived. The snowmobile was a new, deluxe model and a big one, with more than enough room for the driver, two agents, their dæmons and their luggage. George himself was a gangly youth, skinny as a beanpole and a bit awkward. His manner, as he greeted them and loaded their bags, was utterly guileless and his smile disarming. He seemed, to Napoleon at least, to be a rather unlikely Thrush operative, and his chipmunk dæmon, perched unobtrusively on his shoulder, added to that impression.
"I dunno what your friends told you about this job," he said once they were under way. "But it's basically to do whatever my aunt or Mr Abernathy tell you to do."
"The notice said light housekeeping and maintenance, bartending and kitchen help," Illya commented. "Is there anything else we'll be expected to manage?"
"Well, Kent—that's Mr Abernathy's younger son—he wanted to know if Mr Kaminsky has any experience with bodybuilding," George said. "I know your resume says you do ski instruction…"
"I can do some basic fitness coaching, certainly," Illya said, laying his accent on a little more thickly as Pavel Kaminsky, disgraced, former Olympic skier.
"And Mr Iverson," George continued, steering the skimobile around a switchback. "Your resume says you have some bartending experience. Do you think you can tend bar at a private party Mr Abernathy is giving in a couple of days? He likes to invite a lot of really rich fat cats over, and they can be pretty demanding."
"Catering to demanding fat cats is my middle name," Napoleon declared affably. "But you can call me Grant—that's my first." Illya rolled his eyes, which was not out of character for his dour, embittered cover persona.
"I thought your middle name was 'will-sleep-with-rich-old-bats-for-Italian-shoes'," Illya quipped.
"I have a lot of middle names," Napoleon said without batting an eye.
The lodge soon came into view, standing above the snow covered hillside with rustic elegance. The broad, steeply sloped eaves extended out over a wide front porch, keeping it free of snow. George parked the snowmobile in front and ushered Napoleon and Illya in through the wide double doors into the lodge, following after them with their bags.
Napoleon glanced around the interior as Saphina padded ahead of him onto the tasteful shag carpet, finding everything one expects in a ski lodge, without any of the excesses too often found in such places. There were a couple of mounted elk heads on the walls, but that was it. The stone fireplace was grand, but not overstated, and the rough hewn log interior was not too dark or dingy, even up in the exposed rafters.
Saphina's body language, as she sniffed discreetly around the perimeter, told Napoleon that she'd encountered nothing suspicious. Illya and Pasha seemed likewise satisfied, so the four of them followed George across the main hall, down a corridor to the left, and into a dorm style room, with a quartet of bunk beds set up along the back wall.
Once they'd parked their bags, George led them back out to begin a tour of the premises, starting with the bathroom across the hall and the kitchenette next door. "You'll eat dinner with my aunt and me, in the dining hall, down this way," George explained, leading the way back towards the main hall. "And we'll provide lunch and breakfast too, but you'll have to arrange with her how you want those. I'll take you to meet her next."
George was just leading them across the main hall towards a corridor that lead off to the right when an imperious voice came down from the grand staircase at the back of the main hall, calling George to wait.
"Is that the new staff?" said the heavyset man descending the stairs. Napoleon did not see his bat dæmon until it fluttered up from where it had hung from the lapel of his charcoal grey suit jacket. "I'll take them from here. Your aunt needs you in the kitchen to help prepare dinner."
"Mr Abernathy, I presume," Napoleon smiled with polished charm. "Grant Iverson. I believe I'm really going to enjoy working here." Abernathy's handshake was clearly meant to dominate and Napoleon let him.
"And you must be Pavel Kaminsky," Abernathy said, turning to Illya.
"Pleased to meet you, sir," he answered as they shook hands.
"You've been shown your room already?" Abernathy asked, which Napoleon and Illya confirmed. "Then let me show you around the rest of the place, while I explain what's expected of you."
They began by going up the stairs to the second floor, where there was a large room for entertainment and four large bedrooms, two with an ensuite bath. There was a third bathroom off the hall, across from the entertainment space. This room had a an immense television on one wall, a large fireplace on the other, and a bar at the back.
"I'll be having a few people over on Saturday, and I want to offer full bar service," Abernathy said. "It should be fully stocked but you'll need to do an inventory by tomorrow, Iverson. Will that be a problem?"
"No sir," Napoleon said, watching Saphina prowl around the elegant burl-wood bar, taking in the many and varied bottles filling the shelves behind it. "It does look pretty well stocked, but I'll make sure it's not missing anything."
"During the day this floor belongs to my sons, and their young ladies," Abernathy explained further, leading them back to the staircase. "What they say goes here. The next floor is mine."
They ascended the stairs to the next level and emerged into a small library with bookshelves extending to the ceiling and a single study desk. Two doors led out of the library, on the left and right.
"You'll hardly ever be asked to serve up here," Abernathy explained, leading them through the library to the left side door. "George is occasionally asked to deliver food or firewood, so the only time you'd come here is when we have business dealings."
This room was a large comfortable study, with another fire place, a small dining table, and a broad and stately work desk. The bat fluttered up from where he had lain on Abernathy's shoulder, to hang from a bracket set on the wall just above the desk. Abernathy himself crossed to stand behind it, gesturing his two new hires to the two chairs in front of the desk. When he sat, they did as well, dæmons taking their places beside them.
"These are your contracts, gentlemen," Abernathy said, handing them each documents from a folder lying on his desk. "I believe you'll find that the pay is, as advertised, quite generous, and your duties clearly delineated. Failure to perform those duties will result in your immediate termination. Any questions?"
"No sir," said Napoleon, signing his persona's name with a flourish. Illya took the proffered pen and appended his own terse scribble at the bottom of his contract. Abernathy took them both and tucked them away in his file folder.
Napoleon stood to gaze out the tall windows taking up one wall. The view they encompassed of the surrounding mountains, the peak of Mt Hood predominating the whole scene, was more than impressive.
"Sure is a peach of a place you've got here, Mr Abernathy," he said. "This a family property?" In fact, Napoleon knew that Abernathy had come up from Arkansas sharecroppers, but was curious to know what the question might provoke from the man.
"Family," Abernathy muttered with a snort. "Certainly not. I won this little gem a couple of years ago for a song. Had an inside line on the situation for the previous owner. He was in need of some quick cash; I just happened to be looking into vacation property investments. This place had everything I was looking for, and it's nearly paid for itself already."
"How fortunate for you," Illya said blandly. Abernathy did not miss the barb.
"I'm not gonna hear any sort of Commie talk from you, am I, rooskie?" he warned.
"Certainly not, sir," Illya replied. "I am well aware how fortunate I am to be allowed to live in this great nation and not the land of my birth." Beside him, Pasha laid his ears down and stared ahead with narrowed eyes.
Abernathy nodded in approval. "You're both off duty for the rest of the evening, to get yourselves settled in and familiarize yourself with this." He now laid two phone directory sized manuals on his desk with a thump. "It's the first three chapters you'll need to know for your daily duties, but you'll need every chapter eventually, and the sooner the better. You're free to go."
The two UNCLE agents made their exit, dæmons obediently following at their heels. Before he closed the door behind him, Napoleon heard Abernathy calling down to the kitchen on an intercom, ordering the dinner that George would bring up in an hour. They descended the stairs to the social room on the second floor, then Pasha let out a sigh.
"That man positively reeks of the sort of small minded ambition, typical of Thrush stooges," he said with distaste.
"No, I'm not expecting any surprises from that one," Napoleon said as they descended the grand stairs back down to the main hall. As they turned down the last flight, both their dæmons lifted their heads to sniff the air, and a moment later Napoleon and Illya did the same. The delicious scents of cooking meat with onions and spices was emanating from the corridor opposite to the one which led to their quarters.
"This would seem to be the way to go," Napoleon said, heading down the corridor.
"I have a feeling I'm going to enjoy this mission," Illya said, striding ahead purposefully.
Their noses led them all to the kitchen and dining room which they found at the end of the corridor. George was there preparing the tray he would take to Abernathy and paused to introduce them to his aunt.
"Pleased to meet you, Mrs Wong," Napoleon stepped up first to take her hand. Her left still held a wooden spatula, and there was no nonsense in her grip, nor in her piercing gaze as she shook hands. "Grant Iverson, at your service."
"Pavel Kaminsky," Illya introduced himself. "I am very much looking forward to this meal, madam."
Mrs Wong planted her fists on her hips as she looked the two agents up and down, the badger dæmon at her feet doing the same. "You boys hungry?" she asked.
"Yes, ma'am," answered Napoleon as Illya nodded.
"Then you help get ready," she commanded. "Wash hands, get serving dishes, set table! Chop chop!"
Napoleon and Illya started in with a will, and their efforts became more productive once George showed them where to find things. Before long the four of them and their dæmons were gathered round one end of the long table in the staff dining room. Among the serving dishes arrayed on the table were two bowls of meat and vegetables in a garlicky smelling sauce. They looked the same to Napoleon.
"What's the difference?" he asked, spooning rice onto his plate.
The bowl by you is for regular staff," George explained. "Auntie makes it 'home style' for the two of us."
"Home style?" Illya asked.
"More spicy," explained Mrs Wong. "Too spicy for you, yankee boy."
"I am no yankee!" said Illya said with a glower.
"Your temper, Pavel," Pasha whispered from under his chair.
"I will try some of your 'home style', if you please," Illya said, ignoring his dæmon.
Napoleon rolled his eyes and watched as George gave a sigh and served a small portion from the 'home style' bowl onto the rice on Illya's plate. Fearlessly, Illya took a large bite, and all at the table watched as his fair complexion went from its usual wintery pale to beet red in seconds.
Napoleon hid his smirk as he tucked into his food—a garlicky, smoky and pleasantly spicy concoction which spoke well of the chef's skill. Illya finished his small portion of 'homestyle' with the aid of two glasses of water and half the rice on his plate.
"How can you even taste this?" Illya asked George accusingly as he served himself from the 'staff' bowl.
George shrugged. "Grew up with it," he said. "Our family's from the south of China, Sichuan province. A lot of the food is spicy like this."
"If it's all as delicious as this, it's sure to catch on in the US," Napoleon said, mouth not quite full. "If you tone down the spice."
"You're not the first person, Mr Kaminsky, to run afoul of Aunty Alice's 'home style' spicing," George said. "Some people can't seem to resist a dare."
"Some people indeed," hummed Saphina from beside Napoleon's chair.
Once dinner was done and Mrs Wong ensconced back in her own sitting room watching her favorite Chinese soap operas, George delivered Mr Abernathy's meal, then returned to the table with the two UNCLE agents, nibbling on Mrs Wong's delightful almond cookies and discussing the typical schedule and duties they'd commence tomorrow. After dessert, the three of them worked together to wash up and put away the kitchen. Then George showed them the last parts of the lodge they hadn't seen yet.
They began with the a door at the end of the hall they were on, which led to a large garage, with the one large snowmobile and another older, smaller model currently parked there, and spaces for two more.
"Those are for Kent and Errol's snowmobiles," George explained. "They're out at the night skiing at Mt Hood with their girlfriends, and they'll be back around eleven."
"Will we be expected to do anything for them tonight?" Napoleon asked, assessing the space for useful tools and supplies, or suspicious ones.
"Not tonight, no," George answered. "At most, Kent or one of the girls might ask for a hot toddy or something, but you're not officially on duty till tomorrow."
From the garage they headed back inside and back down the corridor to a door at the rear of the main hall which took them to the basement. Here George showed them the laundry room, the trash incinerator, a weight room where Illya would be working with Kent, and a game room, with billiards, a card table, a dart board and so forth. There was a mini bar here as well, but George said that the Abernathys seldom used it.
Behind the mini bar was another door, with a wooden plaque showing a picture of a wine bottle on it, but George did not open it. "It's always locked," he said, leading them back upstairs. "When Abernathy wants wine with dinner, he goes in there himself, and he locks it behind him when he comes out with the wine. He says there's some valuable bottles in there, and he doesn't trust his staff or his guests. I have seen him go in with his sons, and sometimes with his guests, but he's never taken me or Aunty."
Napoleon exchanged knowing glances. This seemed an obvious ingress to the secret Thrush facilities. "And if we want wine with our own dinners?" Napoleon asked as they headed back upstairs.
"You'll have to buy your own in Government Camp," George answered. "It's the nearest place with a liquor store."
Back in their room, Illya and Napoleon settled into neighboring bunks to read the required three chapters from their employee manuals. From this they learned that breakfast would be served at 7am, and they would be expected to be on call from 8:30. At nine, Illya would meet Kent Abernathy in the weight room for training, while Napoleon would begin his bar inventory so that any shortcomings could be remedied by George when he went out to do the shopping after lunch.
The rest of their time would be spent on various domestic chores and maintenance work, depending on the day of the week and the demands of the Abernathys and their guests. They would definitely be working for their wages from Abernathy, but not by any means too busy to carry out their duties for UNCLE.
"I recommend we start by bugging the heck out of the whole place," Napoleon said, setting his employee manual aside. They'd come prepared to do just that, with dozens of listening devices and several recorders with miles of recording tape.
"Agreed," said Illya. "And what about that wine cellar? It seems almost too obvious, but…"
"But we really have to give it a look," Napoleon said. "Let's wait until we've got a better idea of everyone's routines. Then we'll be able to chose the safest time to investigate."
They began the next day with a hearty (American style) breakfast from Mrs Wong. Then they were introduced to Abernathy's two sons, Errol, and his possum dæmon, and Kent, with his stoat dæmon.
Introductions made, Illya promptly followed Kent down to the weight room to spend two hours training with him, and Napoleon decamped to the social room to begin his inventory of the bar supplies. They left listening devices everywhere they went, though Napoleon had to be surreptitious in planting his. Errol spent much of his morning using the phone in the room where Napoleon worked, in the corner opposite the bar, doing various business deals, while his possum dæmon occupied herself with grooming and throwing suspicious glances in Napoleon's direction from time to time.
After lunch, Napoleon and Illya were put to work washing the windows—a task possibly intended as some sort of hazing, but which pleased the two agents no end. They'd wanted very much to place a bug in Abernathy's office but had no idea of how they would manage it. Now they could use some of their newest and best listening tech—a parabolic microphone that captured all the sounds in a room from the vibrations in a window pane.
The next day was Friday, one day before the Abernathys' soiree, so Illya and Napoleon spent the day vacuuming carpets and cleaning the bathrooms, which represented yet more opportunities to plant bugs in various strategic locations. Napoleon also got a look at the wine cellar door while vacuuming in the game room.
Their plans to investigate it that night were curtailed by a screaming row between Kent and his girlfriend, Ginny, which ranged over the whole house and lasted well into the early morning hours. George and Mrs Wong explained to them the next morning, as they sat, underslept and bleary-eyed around the kitchen table, that these were a semi regular occurrence, and that nothing would be said about it the next day.
"Aunty thinks it's something to do with the moon," George said. "I'm just afraid that one of these days one of them will kill the other and I'll be sent to clean up the blood and hide the body." Napoleon and Illya, and their dæmons, exchanged significant glances.
"Well, let's hope the party remains free of that kind of fireworks," Napoleon said. "I really prefer bartending to more civil clientele."