“Open Channel D,” Napoleon said quietly into his communicator.
“Channel D is open. Good morning, Napoleon,” Wanda trilled. “It is morning where you are, right?”
“Right. A sunny morning on the French Riviera.”
Wanda sighed. “Some people have all the luck.”
“I’ll try to bring some sunshine back with me as a souvenir. Put me through to Mr. Waverly now, please.”
The line clicked. “Ah, Mr. Solo. What progress have you made?”
Napoleon outlined the events of the previous day.
“So Regina and Miss Denise are spending the holidays with him. Very interesting.”
“Yes, that’s one way to put it.”
“It doesn’t alter your mission, however. Today you will go to Nice. You, Mr. Solo, will check in with our field office there. You remember its location, I trust.”
“Of course, sir.” He looked at Illya in puzzlement. Illya rolled his eyes and mouthed “antique store.”
“Good. Remember the timetable. You must firmly hook Depardieu with this second piece. Waverly out.”
After some fruitless wandering and a few directions from a servant, the agents found Depardieu alone in the breakfast room.
“Good morning, gentlemen. I hope you slept well. We have an important day ahead of us.”
“We’re fresh as daisies.” Napoleon examined the chafing dishes on the sideboard. “Will the ladies be joining us?”
“Regina breakfasted early and left to do some Christmas shopping.” Depardieu refilled his coffee from the silver pot on the table. “My daughter rarely starts her day before luncheon. I will be pleasantly surprised if she is ready to join us this morning.”
While they ate, Depardieu cataloged the Marie Antoinette pieces already in his possession and the lengths to which he had gone to acquire them.
“So, gentlemen,” Depardieu said as the agents finished eating, “where do we go today?”
“To Nice,” Napoleon answered.
“So close. Another artifact practically under my very nose.”
“I didn’t say the piece itself is there. Not necessarily. But that’s where we go to make our arrangements.”
While Napoleon deftly deflected Depardieu’s questions about payment, Illya excused himself. In the front hall, he found Denise descending the staircase. She wore a long-sleeved chemise dress of cream corduroy, with deep ruffles at the neck and wrists.
“You are up early,” Illya said.
She smiled. “I hope that’s the worst thing Father told you about me.”
Illya smiled in return. “He mostly told us of his current collection.” He met her at the bottom step and kissed her extended hand. “I prefer to discover things for myself.”
“As do I. Mother calls that learning the hard way.” She draped a silk scarf over her head and, turning her back to him, lifted her strawberry blonde hair away from her neck. “I call it getting my kicks.”
Illya tied the scarf securely, letting his fingertips brush her smooth skin. Her perfume smelled enticing and expensive. “What else do you do for kicks?”
“I’ll show you.”
She headed for the front entrance, pausing to check her appearance in a mirror as a servant opened the doors. They stepped out onto the terrace, into the bright winter sunshine of the Côte d’Azur.
Illya had arrived in the dark. Now he could better observe the surrounding magnificence. Water leapt from a marble fountain in the center of the drive. Carefully manicured hedges bordered the trimmed lawns. It did not look like a heavily armed compound, but he knew better than most that appearances were often deceiving.
An Aston Martin DB6 Vantage Volante, its top down, waited in the circular drive. Denise skipped lightly down the broad steps and hopped onto the hood.
Illya took the steps at a more sedate pace, his gaze sweeping over the landscape to rest appreciatively on the pretty girl perched on the high-priced car.
“Isn’t it smashing?” Denise said. The convertible was blue, like her eyes. “I fell in love with it in the showroom and bought it on the spot.”
“Are you always so impulsive?” Illya stood next to her, his leg touching her knee.
“I’m a girl who knows what she wants and usually gets it.”
“How fast will it go?”
She snapped her fingers. “150, like that. Maybe I’ll let you take me for a drive, when I know you better.”
“And the handling?”
“Oh, it’s a bit more work than an Italian model, especially around here.” She leaned toward him. “But I think you’ll find it’s worth the effort.”
Her perfume and temptingly parted lips drew him closer. The front doors opened, and Depardieu’s voice carried down the stairs. Illya stepped back.
Denise frowned a little. “Afraid of my father?”
“No.” His mouth curved in a half smile. “Business before pleasure.”
“I believe in mixing the two. Father says life is too short not to enjoy your work.”
“Does he enjoy his?”
A shadow passed over her eyes. “Of course,” she said, a little too brightly.
Denise grinned at her father as he and Napoleon came down the steps.
Depardieu shook his head with a laugh. “I will drive,” he said.
Denise hopped off the hood. “Have you no confidence in me, dearest?”
“I have every confidence,” he said assuringly, “that you’ll send us over a cliff. I’ve ridden with you before.”
Denise laughed. “Then Illya and I will sit in back and enjoy the views. Will you take the lower road?”
Depardieu shook his head. “Perhaps on our return. At the moment, I am anxious to get on with our business.”
Illya opened the door and folded the seat down. Denise slid into the back and patted the leather beside her. “So am I.”
“Gorgeous weather,” Napoleon said. The sun had driven away the coolness of the previous night. “I can see why you choose to live here.”
“We hope to have a mild winter. But the forecast says it will turn cold later this week. We might even have snow by Christmas.”
“But I come to the Riviera to get away from the snow,” Denise said in mock complaint.
“Sorry, darling. So far, my attempts to control the weather have ended in failure.”
“Well, keep trying, Father dearest. I know what you’re capable of.”
“Perhaps that will be your Christmas present next year.”
Napoleon turned and met Illya’s eyes briefly.
Depardieu steered them around the fountain and down the drive. At the gatehouse, heavily armed security guards snapped to attention and activated the large barriers.
Outside the compound, Depardieu drove as fast as possible through the hills, careening around the hairpin turns at an alarming speed and making liberal use of the horn. He was a man eager to reach his destination who would not defer to others.
Denise slid next to Illya and pulled his arm around her shoulders. Depardieu observed her in the rearview mirror.
“Eyes on the road, Father, or you’ll be the one to drive us off a cliff,” Denise advised, raising her voice to be heard over the growl of the engine and the wind.
They burst out onto the Moyenne Corniche, well-trafficked even in the off-season. There was little conversation as Depardieu gave his full attention to driving, passing cars that slowed to take in the spectacular views. They sped along the narrow, winding road hewn from the hillside. Picturesque villages, tumbling creeks, rocky outcroppings all went by in a blur. Below them to the south lay walled gardens and orchards, still green in the mild climate, the citrus trees ripening. Beyond those, the blue sea sparkled in the low winter sun.
Denise brought her lips close to Illya’s ear as another village appeared around a curve and quickly fell behind them. “There’s a lovely little café there. We should go one night, just the two of us.”
She chuckled when he shrugged noncommittally. “Life is short, remember?” she purred.
With a jerk of the wheel, Depardieu swung them around another rubber-necking tourist, narrowly missing a collision with an oncoming Citroen. Denise gave a little shriek of excitement.
“How could I forget?” Illya said. He tightened his arm around her. As they descended toward the Bay of Angels, he allowed himself to take pleasure in the warn sunshine, the beautiful scenery, and the attractive girl in his embrace, while the corner of his mind that was permanently on duty planned for the mission ahead.
They skirted the bay alongside the Promenade de Anglais and parked near Old Nice.
Napoleon got out of the car and smoothed his windblown hair. “I have some calls to make.”
“I will come with you,” Depardieu said.
Napoleon held up a hand. “Sorry, but this is a delicate stage of the negotiations. It took me a long time to get this far. If I spring you on them without warning, it might upset the whole applecart.”
“I am not a patient man,” Depardieu said, frowning.
Napoleon smiled reassuringly. “Don’t worry. You’ll get your prize. This should only take a half hour, maybe an hour tops.” His eyes followed a group of fashionably dressed women, chattering in Italian, that passed by. “In the meantime, enjoy the amenities.” He gave a small salute and disappeared into the labyrinth of narrow streets.
“I don’t know about you two, but I’m hungry,” Denise announced.
Depardieu’s forbidding expression relaxed slightly. “Of course, you are. And I am certain I know what for.” He looked at his watch. “Don’t be too long.”
“You’re not coming with us?”
He shook his head. “I have just remembered some business I must attend to. Au revoir, darling.” He patted her cheek and with a nod to Illya, walked away.
Illya watched him stride purposefully down La Prom and frowned. He should keep Depardieu under observation, but could hardly abandon Denise. He hoped the man was not going to try to locate Napoleon.
He turned to Denise and found the shadow returned to her blue eyes.
“Is anything wrong?” he asked.
“He seems to be forgetting his own precept.” She sighed. “He never passes up champagne and oysters.”
Illya raised his brows. “Is that what we are going to eat?”
Denise took his hand. “It’s Christmas in France. What else?”
A Christmas market had been erected in the Place Masséna. Dozens of wooden stalls, like miniature chalets, enticed holiday shoppers with their wares. Denise steered them through the bustle of bargain hunters to a food stand and placed an order. She wielded her oyster knife with skilled confidence, opening all of her delicacies before him.
As they ate, they watched the children at play on the ice rink. “I hope, once Father has his trinket, he will no longer be in such a hurry. I’d like to buy another santon for our crèche. And it would be fun to go skating with you.” She looked at him over the rim of her glass. “You do skate, don’t you?”
Illya squeezed a lemon onto one of his oysters. “Yes, I skate. I skate very well.”
“I bet you do many things well,” she purred, lifting her chin invitingly.
Illya patted his lips with his napkin and kissed her.
She drew back with a triumphant smile. “I was right.”
Napoleon left the narrow street and entered the dark antique shop. The proprietor behind the counter raised his eyes from his newspaper but offered no response to the agent’s nod. Slowly he folded his paper and slid from his tool. He shambled over to an ancient cash register, and a little bell tinkled sharply as he rang up a sale.
Napoleon headed back into the depths of the shop to a massive wardrobe, hideously carved. The varnish was cracked and black with age. After a casual look around, Napoleon opened the wardrobe and stepped inside, pulling the door closed behind him. There was just enough light coming through the loose panels for him to see the hooks. As he twisted one, the back swung open, and he stepped into a tiny chrome and gunmetal anteroom.
“Bon jour, Monsieur Solo,” said a buxom blonde at the reception desk. “Welcome to Nice. We have been expecting you.” She clipped a badge to his jacket and activated the inner door. “Second office on the right.”
“Thank you.” Napoleon entered the short corridor and and turned to watch her with a smile as the door whispered shut. Then he found the office she indicated.
As Napoleon entered, a sandy haired man rose hastily, pulling a napkin from his collar. The remnants of a meal were spread across his desk, and the sofa against the wall appeared to have been slept on. “Pardon the mess.” He stuck out his hand. “Henri Bouchard.”
“Napoleon Solo.” He shook hands and sniffed the air. “Bouillabaisse?”
Bouchard screwed the lid back on the tall thermos. “Yes. My wife’s. We’ve been so busy since yesterday carrying out Mr. Waverly’s orders, that it slipped my mind. Gabrielle would be hurt if I did not finish it.”
“Well, it smells delicious. She must be a good cook.”
Bouchard smiled as he buttoned his collar. “I will tell her you said so.” He straightened his tie and donned the jacket that hung over the back of his chair. “Come, let us get what you are here for.”
They crossed the corridor into a long space that served as both workroom and laboratory. “We are only a small field office, but I think you will find our work more than satisfactory. Miss Gagne is very good at her job.” He gestured to the technician who sat at a drafting table.
“I’m sure she is.” Napoleon smiled at the mousy young woman in heavy-rimmed glasses, who started back at him unblinking.
Bouchard coughed. “Miss Gagne, the papers.”
She jumped, then blushed. “Oui.” She handed Napoleon an UNCLE portfolio.
Inside he found two folded sheets. The paper was thick and obviously expensive stock, but yellowed and foxed with age. “Villa Dillon” was embossed at the top of each page. The first was a letter, written with a fountain pen in a spidery hand, agreeing to receive Mr. Solo and Mr. Kuryakin to discuss the matter of the Marie Antoinette ring. The second was directions to the villa written in a bolder block print.
Napoleon looked the papers over carefully and nodded his approval. “Yes, these are perfect. They should completely convince Depardieu.” He folded them carefully and slipped them into his jacket. “Good work, Miss Gagne.”
The technician pushed her glasses up her nose. “Thank you, Monsieur Solo. It was an honor to make them for you and Mr. Kuryakin.” She blushed again and retreated to her drafting table.
Napoleon and Bouchard returned to the corridor. “Is everything all set at this Villa Dillon?”
“Yes, everything is ready.”
“I wish we know a little more about what to expect,” Napoleon hinted.
Bouchard shrugged. “Mr. Waverly said your part of the negotiations should be spontaneous. Depardieu is a shrewd man, and he might grow suspicious if things sound too rehearsed.”
Bouchard wished him good luck and returned to his bouillabaisse. The blonde in reception removed his badge and checked her monitor. “All clear.” She activated the door.
Napoleon went back into the wardrobe. Once the inner door was sealed, he was able to step out into the shop.
As he closed the wardrobe, a voice called, “Hello, Mr. Solo. Imagine seeing you here.”
He turned to find Regina Depardieu examining an ormolu clock. “Christmas shopping?” he asked, joining her.
“Yes. And you?” She wrinkled her nose at the hideous wardrobe. “For someone you dislike?”
Napoleon grinned. “Terrible, isn’t it? Like with a train wreck, it was hard not to take a closer look.”
Regina approached the wardrobe and ran her hand over the cracked varnish. “When Denise was a girl, she would spend hours in one of these, hoping to find Narnia.”
“The only thing you’re likely to find in that is beetles.”
Regina appeared not to have heard him. “I sometimes think that’s what drives Justin’s obsession. His collection is like a door to another world.”
“And here I come, adding more fuel to the fire.”
Regina smiled ruefully. “If not you, it would be someone else.” Her smile turned flirtatious. “Someone less handsome and charming.”
She kissed her finger and tapped the dent in his chin. “See you tonight,” she said huskily and left the store.
Napoleon watched her swaying exit with cocked head and appreciative smile. When the door closed behind her, his lips twisted into a grimace. He looked up at the wardrobe, knowing the blonde in reception had monitored everything. If Bouchard was as competent as he seemed, Regina Depardieu had just acquired a tail.
Depardieu steered the Aston Martin between the dense trees, and Denise moaned as her car struck every rut in the neglected lane. “Are you certain this is the way?” he asked.
“You saw the directions.” Napoleon held up the yellowed sheet. “Onward to glory.”
After a several more minutes of rough travel, Depardieu stopped the car. “I see something ahead. Is that a gate?”
Napoleon got out of the car to reconnoiter. A stone wall covered in moss and vines stretched out to either side, almost imperceptible from the undergrowth. A high, rusting gate blocked the lane.
“Hello,” Napoleon called. No one answered. He pushed at the gate. The hinges screamed in protest but the heavy portal swung slowly inward. When there was enough room for the Aston Martin to pass, he returned to the car, wiping his hands on his handkerchief.
They drove on and rounded a corner. The trees fell away, replaced by an overgrown lawn. At its center loomed a dilapidated villa, its once pristine stucco crumbling, its shutters hanging at weird angles.
“Creepy,” Denise breathed.
They parked the car and cautiously approached the front doors. Chips of peeling paint rained down as Napoleon worked the knocker. A scuttling noise came from inside the villa.
“Rats,” Denise squeaked and clung to Illya’s arm.
“I don’t think so,” Napoleon said. “Someone’s coming.”
The noise gradually grew louder until it stopped on the other side of the door, which slowly creaked open. An ancient butler, his back twisted into a stoop, canted his head to peer at them from beneath a fringe of white hair. “Yes,” he wheezed.
“We are here to see Madame Dillon,” Napoleon said.
“What?” the butler asked.
Napoleon leaned forward and repeated his pronouncement in a yell.
“Madame is not at home to anyone today,” the butler declared breathlessly and began to close the door.
“We have an invitation.” Napoleon thrust the paper under the old man’s nose.
“Can’t read it. Don’t have my glasses.”
Illya stepped forward. “Here. Try mine.” He fished his black-rimmed glasses from his jacket and pressed them into the old man’s hand.
After several shaky attempts, the butler managed to push Illya’s glasses onto his face. He held the invitation at arm’s length and mumbled to himself as he slowly read it. “Very well,” he grumbled, stepping back.
Illya caught his glasses as they slid from the butler’s downturned nose. They entered the foyer, and the door was shut noisily behind them.
“This way,” the butler rasped.
They followed his faded black livery down the hall. The interior suffered from the same neglect as the outside. Cracks and damp marred the walls, and bits of decayed plaster littered the floors.
He opened a door and wheezed, “Your guests, Madame.”
Denise gasped as they passed the threshold. It was as if they had stepped back in time. The small sitting room was well preserved. Ornate plasterwork decorated the walls and ceiling. Antique furniture gleamed in the flickering light of the candle sconces.
A small fire blazed in the hearth. On a chair beside it, protected by a screen, sat an elderly lady. She wore a long black dress with a fringed shawl wrapped around her shoulders. Silver curls, artfully arranged across her forehead, were held in place by a fine net. A cap of white Calais lace covered the rest of her hair.
“Come closer, please,” Madame Dillon said in a reedy voice that matched her handwriting.
They crossed the Aubusson carpet that lay atop the polished floor. Napoleon gave a slight bow and performed the introductions. “Thank you for seeing us, Madame.”
She inclined her head regally and indicated the settees with a small wave of her gnarled fingers.
They lowered themselves carefully onto delicate sofas upholstered in striped silk. Silence ensued. The small room grew uncomfortably warm. Depardieu discretely blotted his forehead with a handkerchief, while Denise stifled a yawn. Madame Dillon’s chin dropped slowly to her chest.
Napoleon coughed. As Madame raised her head, he asked, “May we see the ring?”
“Marcellus, the box,” she commanded.
The butler left his station by the door. He shuffled to a cabinet decorated with exquisite marquetry and gilt bronze mounts and removed a tiny box. In obedience to another wave of Madame’s hand, he presented it to Napoleon.
Beside him, Depardieu stiffened, and his breath came in shallow gasps. His hand reached out mechanically.
Napoleon let him take the box. “You should have the honors.”
Slowly and reverently, Depardieu undid the clasp and opened the lid. A small cry escaped his lips. He began to murmur in French, like a man at prayer.
Napoleon leaned over for a better look. A gold ring, rather plain, was nestled in the satin lining. Within the bezel, pale hair, woven into an intricate pattern, lay beneath a crystal, surmounted by the initials MA.
“Her Majesty presented this ring to my ancestress, her lady in waiting, and we have cherished her gift for nearly two centuries.” Madame sighed. “I, however, am the last of our line. When I am gone, there will be no one to protect this precious relic. It may be disgraced on the hand of a cinema actress or dismantled by scholars.”
“Never,” Depardieu exclaimed passionately. “I will protect it.”
“Will you?” Madame demanded. “Will you defend this ring as if it were the queen herself? Do you swear it?”
“I swear,” Depardieu growled, his eyes wild. “I would kill for her. I would give my life for her.”
On the opposing settee, Denise shrank back and clasped Illya’s hand tightly.
Madame Dillon smiled in satisfaction. “Then you may have it.”
Something like a sob burst from Depardieu. He dropped his head, tears falling onto his lap.
Napoleon quickly suppressed a grimace at Depardieu’s display. “The payment arrangements are satisfactory?” he asked Madame Dillon.
Her fingers waved aside such mundane concerns. “Yes, yes. You will take care of that with my man of business.”
Marcellus opened the door and made emphysemic noises. Sensing their dismissal, Napoleon, Illya, and Denise rose. Depardieu remained seated, lost in adoration.
“Father,” Denise pleaded sharply.
He looked up at his daughter, not seeming to recognize her.
“It’s time to leave, dearest,” she said more gently, a catch in her voice.
Depardieu shook his head. “Yes, of course.” He shut the box and tucked it inside his jacket, near his heart. He rose from the settee, then bowed to Madame Dillon. “Thank you.”
At her regal nod, they turned and departed.
Denise insisted on driving, and her father did not object. After putting the top up, she eased her vehicle down the villa’s rutted drive, then opened up the engine and took the motorway home at high speed.
Oblivious to their reckless progress, Depardieu turned in the front passenger seat to address the agents. His voice was calm and deadly.
“You gentlemen are now in my employ. All my vast resources are at your disposal for the sole purpose of acquiring these artifacts. If you value your lives, you will not fail me.”
Inside the villa, Marcellus straightened from his stoop. “Ow, my back. I couldn’t keep that up—or down—for much longer.”
“I know what you mean, darling.” April pulled off her silver wig and waved it in front of her face. “This room is stifling.”
The communicator in Mark’s pocket sounded. “Slate here,” he said into the transceiver.
“My man confirms they have left the property,” Henri Bouchard said. “A clean-up crew is on the way. You and Miss Dancer are to return to Nice immediately to be briefed on tomorrow’s plan.”
“Right-o,” Slate said and closed the communicator.
“I still don’t like it, Mark,” April said as they headed for the back entrance. “Why are Napoleon and Illya being kept in the dark about us and about…well, almost everything?”
“Don’t like it much myself,” Mark admitted. “But Mr. Waverly has his reasons, I’m sure. We just have to trust him.”