by Derrick Perkins
“Any minute now,” Thaddeus de Curieux said, glancing at his watch as the sun lazily slipped beneath the bay of Xlendi.
Across the hightop table, Joe Miller sighed as his Kinnie grew warm.
“Any minute until what?”
“Until contact, of course,” de Curieux said. “It was in the informational packet I gave you before we arrived. Don’t tell me you haven’t read it?”
Miller sighed again, louder this time. The two men had been sitting in the seaside bar of one of Xlendi’s seedier hotels for more than an hour now. They had been awake and moving or much of the previous twenty four. The sole entertainment consisted of watching a tourist couple from the States get slowly drunk a few tables away. They had reached the stage of noisily arguing about whether to tour a local winery tomorrow or go diving in the Mediterranean.
“Don’t make that sound again, friend,” de Curieux said, sipping on a gin and tonic. “It is unbefitting our present circumstances.”
“I thought you said we shouldn’t drink,” Miller said.
“I said you shouldn’t drink; now enjoy that Kinnie. This is your first excursion and it’s important to remain clear headed. You will have time to sample the local wine at tonight’s soiree.”
Miller straightened up in surprise. He was clad only in the faded trousers and black work shirt he had been wearing when de Curieux handed him a bulging manila envelope and hustled him off the ship the night before. The other man was dressed a bit more dapper--pressed pants, a breast-pocketed shirt with the sleeves rolled up and a Brooks Brothers tie--but neither of them were wearing the formal attire issued to the ship’s crew for such occasions.
“Certainly. We wouldn’t want to miss out on the local festival of Our Lady of Mount Caramel, would we,” de Curieux said. “It is vital to our mission. And quite fun, I am made to understand.”
“But I’m not, you’re not dressed for it…”
“Details. Details already accounted for.”
“I didn’t have time to pack--”
“--Ah, yes, right on time,” de Curieux said, getting up from his seat. Miller followed his gaze across the dimly lit bar to the entrance leading back into the hotel lobby. The door cracked open and in slipped a small, slender woman. Bathed in the sepia light of sunset, she flitted across the floor toward the pair, her feet seemingly never touching the ground.
“Demoiselle,” de Curieux said, taking her hand. “I would bow, but it would be…
“Noticeable,” she replied with a thin smile. “I thank you for your discretion and will let my lady know of your gentlemanly intent.”
“Assure her it would be a deep bow.”
“I would expect no less. She would expect no less.”
“My reputation precedes me?” de Curieux asked.
“As always, within some circles. There has been much talk about Aachen affair.”
“The prince-abbot is a bit more severe than I had been led to believe.”
“And yet you …”
“I did,” de Curieux said. “I assure you, it was mutually agreeable.”
“Of course. But he threatened to …
“He did not succeed,” de Curieux said with a smile.
“Well,” the woman said. “I know there are at least two hearts in Malta that will grow happy to hear that news. But to business.”
“Your words flatter me, but, yes, to business,” de Curieux said. “Our arrangements?”
“You will go to the cafe on Triq Il Qsajjem. Order two tonics--no gin. The bartender will know. A car then will be waiting to take you to the old chapel.”
“The guest list?”
“Your name has been provided. Your real name, as you requested. I do hope you know what you are doing.”
“Simple honesty can be more useful than the sharpest deceit, my dear,” de Curieux said.
“And your associate?”
“Col. de Curieux of The Renegade, Professor Emeritus of Classics of Miskatonic University, Honorary Knight of St. George, Chevalier of the Order of St. John … and guest,” he replied.
“As you please. The rest will be in your hands. My lady wishes to know nothing else about this matter until it is concluded.”
“And I wish to tell her no lies,” de Curieux said.
Miller stared at them as they released hands and the woman slid out of the room, his drink forgotten.
“What just happened?” he asked, finally.
“Not now, Mr. Miller. The game is begun and, like gentleman, by putting our names on that list we have conceded the first move to our adversaries.”
Miller tugged at the neck of the blue form-fitting and heavily tasseled uniform in the backseat of the Mercedes. Although official dress issued aboard The Renegade, it was most certainly not given to anyone outside of the Bold Hussars. If a photograph of him in it appeared online, buying the entire company a round of drinks would be the least awful punishment he could think of.
By contrast, de Curieux now sported a three-piece suit complete with a waistcoat. There was only a single piece of martial flair added, a small pin featuring a dagger-like cross emblazoned with the midday sun on the right breast. Miller could not offhandedly recall it coming from any of the world’s standing militaries.
The two of them had changed in the restrooms of the cafe just minutes before, their tonics left untouched on the counter of the bar. Inside the cramped lavatory, Miller had found two neatly wrapped packages, one labelled for de Curieux and the other hastily scrawled with “And Guest.” Not for the first time, Miller had wondered what he was doing on this trip.
Less than a day ago he had been wrapping up his shift in the bowels of The Renegade. Although he had pictured himself piloting one of the parasite fighters or leaping down with the hussars when he joined the crew, Miller found himself training on the engine. It didn’t take long to fall in love inside the belly of the beast. When she shuddered to life, his heart skipped a beat, and when a mission ended it was he and his mates who patched her back up.
Their devotion to the inner workings meant they elicited respect from even the pilots, who--if inebriated enough--begrudgingly admitted that they would be out of a job without the mechanics. All the same, it was more than a little strange to find the military attache waiting impatiently by his door when he arrived back at his cabin.
De Curieux was an odd duck even on The Renegade. The man seemingly answered to no one beside Captain XO and even then it was rare to see the two of them together. Unlike the rest of the crew, de Curieux came and went with impunity. Miller spotted him more often in blurry photographs that filled the back pages of British tabloids than in any of the ship’s after action reports.
He spoke with a practiced authority and overran even the most pragmatic of oppositions with an icy stare. When a flabbergasted Miller tried to explain he was just a mechanic’s apprentice and on duty the next day and definitely out of leave after the Iceland trip, de Curieux produced new orders--signed by Captain XO. Stunned into silence, Miller did as he was told, cramming a few things into an overnight bag and falling in with the mysterious military attache.
Now he had a chance to ask a few questions, although admittedly it was difficult to divert attention away from the festivities going on all around them. Throngs of people wandered through the narrow streets as fireworks boomed overhead. It truly was quite fun, the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Caramel.
“Why you, I imagine.”
“What?” asked Miller, snapping away from the rolling party carrying on beyond the tinted windows.
“A simple mechanic’s apprentice, part of the crew only a few weeks now, barely got your air legs beneath you,” de Curieux said. “Now you’re in Malta, wearing a rather ill-fitting hussar uniform--I’ll have to speak to the tailor about that shipboard--and about to waltz into a soiree being thrown by one of the richest magnates in Bulgaria. Why you? It’s a question I would ask myself.”
“Well, why me?” Miller stammered.
“You tell me,” de Curieux replied with an eye roll. “It’s clear you did not read the packet I supplied you with so you have no idea of our cover story. Undoubtedly, you will be asked why you are attending the evening’s festivities. The Renegade, after all, is well away from this place.”
Miller sat, mouth agape.
“Wrong answer,” de Curieux said. “Try again.”
“I … um … am completing a regular rotation as a member of the hussars’ protective service unit and am providing that. Security, that is. For you. To you? No, for you.”
De Curieux regarded him for a moment.
“Passable. Pedestrian, but passable,” he said.
Miller let out the breath he forgot he had been holding.
“Not nearly as … interesting as the one I had written for you, but no matter. There’s no time to memorize the entire thing.”
“Right,” Miller said.
“You will also, though, want to include that you arranged this rotation in the hopes of wooing the magnate’s daughter--her name is Analyia Zlatkov and her father is Toma Zlatkov, you want to remember that--as you fell madly in love with her upon seeing her at a function in Moscow last winter.”
“You’re kidding,” Miller said.
“I am not. It’s very important. I may have let that tidbit slip to a few friends who will be in attendance. To spice things up.”
“Then you’re insane.”
“Possibly, but not likely,” de Curieux said. “What is her name?”
“Analyia,” Miller said. “But, seriously, why in the hell--”
“--And her father’s name?” de Curieux asked. “To stir a bit of gossip and create a scene if necessary. She is already engaged to a man she does not love--this is widely known--the third-born son of a Russian arms dealer.”
“Her father’s name is Toma,” Miller said. “How does any of this help us? And I don’t even know what we’re doing here anyway.”
“Obviously, it’s a case of a damsel in distress,” de Curieux said. “If you cause a scene, I can slip away. That saber by your side is not merely ornamental.”
“Not ornamental, but what would I use it for? Opening a champagne bottle?” Miller asked.
De Curieux waited until his eyes widened with understanding.
“What is their nationality?” he asked. “You can always challenge him to a duel, for which he will be ill-prepared, comparatively. I read in your file that you participated in the fencing club at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. You distinguished yourself. Might explain a few grades.”
“Bulgarian, and the fiance is Russian, and you read my file? I have a file? What does all this even accomplish?”
“Yes, I’ve read everyone’s file,” de Curieux said. “A distraction may be needed in order for me to accomplish my end of the mission.”
“Which is? I’d like to know what I’m getting cut up for.”
“To rescue the demoiselle en detresse and bring her safely back to The Renegade. The Captain XO has a vested interest in securing her,” de Curieux said. “Even if he doesn’t know it yet.”
“I don’t see how any of this works.”
“And I don’t tell you how to repair a catalytic converter,” de Curieux said.
Silence reigned over them for a moment.
“Does Captain XO even know about this?” Miller asked.
De Curieux gave him an odd smile.
The cathedral the car pulled up alongside looked unlike any church Miller had ever seen. It didn’t look like a holy site in any way. It didn’t look like much at all, even. Just a barren, windswept cliffside. Probably a very pretty view in the daylight, Miller thought.
“St. Domenica Chapel,” de Curieux said as the car came to a halt. “Built in the cliffs and profaned several hundred years ago. No doubt the challenge facing parishioners seeking absolution played some role in its closing.”
“No doubt,” Miller muttered. He was busy looking at the array of luxury vehicles parked seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Music wafted up from the honeycombed limestone.
Dutifully, Miller followed de Curieux out of the car and then down a long path that descended ever deeply into the cliffside. Torches illuminated the way haphazardly and Miller felt the saber at his side clatter more than once against the rock. De Curieux navigated the centuries old walkway effortlessly as if he had spent his childhood playing there. Finally, they arrived at an ornately decorated stone archway where a steward waited to announce their arrival.
“Col. Thaddeus de Curieux …” the man began after accepting de Curieux’s engraved invitation.
“... And guest,” he concluded after finishing rattling off de Curieux’s honorifics. Miller bit back a resigned sigh.
As his eyes adjusted to the vastly better illuminated interior, Miller noticed more than a few heads turn. But they were immediately swallowed up by the swirling array of wealth and power.
Miller did his best to stand stiffly at attention, as he had seen hussars do on formal occasions, as pairs in immaculate attire waltzed breezily around him. Several hundred people filled the former parish, including the orchestra. A banquet table overflowing with finger foods of all varieties lined one wall, plush seats intended for resting courtiers lined the far side. Those not dancing made small talk, clinking glasses and laughing uproariously. It reminded Miller very much of the events he had attended when he worked for a Cambridge-based catering company in college. Just on overdrive. How he wished he was back in the ship, working on a camshaft instead.
De Curieux fit in seamlessly. He seemed to vanish and then reappear, clasping arms with one man, kissing the hand of a woman. He knew them all by name or reputation, Miller realized. He took a sip of his champagne. And then another. Oh well, he thought, and drained it. A steward appeared to hand him another and then disappeared.
“Lieutenant Miller,” de Curieux called. Miller turned and saw the other man waving him over. Here we go, he thought.
De Curieux was flanked by a young hawkish-looking man, pale and stern in features as well as an older, even more severe appearing gentleman. He tried his best to act the part of a hussar and puffed out his chest.
“Toma Zlatkov and Iosif Blok, please meet my traveling companion, Lieutenant Miller of the Bold Air Hussars.”
The men bowed and Miller did his best to follow suit. At least the movement hid his nerves. A Bulgarian magnate and Russian arms dealer. De Curieux acted as if they were old friends and not tonight’s targets. The two men seemed to watch him intently. He swore the old man’s eyes narrowed. He felt very much exposed.
“So nice of you to attend, colonel,” Toma said with just a touch of an eastern accent. “Very bold as well. I understand several major powers consider you persona non grata, particularly after The Renegade’s recent successes.”
“We do tend to make a splash,” de Curieux offered with a smile.
“But Malta is safe for you?”
“The entire world is open to a gentleman of learning and in possession of the proper credentials,” de Curieux said.
“I believe there are a few high-ranking ministers in Moscow who would disagree,” Toma replied with a chuckle. “This isn’t 18th century Europe, after all. But regardless, it is good to have a few pirates in attendance. My apologies, privateers. And I am not well educated on international zeppelin policy nor the vagaries of air piracy.”
“It’s an acquired taste,” de Curieux said.
Everyone laughed except for Miller, who could feel the hand resting on his saber’s hilt growing clammy with sweat. Please, please, please, do not require a scene, he prayed.
He barely listened as the men continued to prattle. It was mostly pleasantries about the locale, which Miller had to admit was stunning. Through slits expertly carved into the rockwall, they could look out onto the wine dark Mediterranean, empty but for a few massive pleasure yachts. A stunning view to die in front of, Miller thought.
“Lieutenant,” the Russian said suddenly breaking Miller from his morbid train of thought. “What brings you to tonight’s festivities? An old rake like the colonel, we expect, but he usually travels alone.”
“Security detail,” Miller said automatically. He had been repeating the answer in his mind for a while now. “As an air hussar, it is my honorbound duty to protect The Renegade’s senior staff.”
Iosif chuckled darkly. He offered Miller a cruel smile.
“Even so, I am quite confident an expert blade like Colonel de Curieux can take care of himself--”
His sentence trailed off as a lithe, dark-haired beauty wrapped an arm around his waist. A smile as radiant as the setting sun just a few hours ago lit up her face.
“My darling Iosef,” she said. “You did not tell me the colonel was in attendance this evening.”
“My lady,” de Curieux said.
“It’s been too long,” she said. “And who might this be?”
De Curieux shot Miller a look. He tried not to break character.
“Lieutenant Miller of the Bold Air Hussars,” he said, bending a knee and dipping his head. He had had just about enough bowing for one night.
“A dashing young air officer, how nice,” she purred. “Yet you look so familiar, have we been introduced before?”
“I … uh,” Miller stammered, his collar feeling suddenly very tight around his neck. Her looks did not help matters. This was the damsel in distress?
“He joined me at a little matter in Moscow last year you may have attended,” de Curieux interrupted. “It’s hard to recall exactly. My schedule has become quite cluttered.”
“Ah, yes,” she said and nodded. “Something to do with a coal-powered aircraft carrier. Did we dance, Lieutenant?”
“I do not think so--”
“--Then we must at once,” she said, still smiling. It took Miller’s breath away. “I cannot pass up the opportunity with such a handsome specimen.”
“Analyia, perhaps this is not…”
She pouted, somehow an act as beautiful as her smile. Even with the playful frown her dark eyes danced. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad, after all, Miller thought.
“Iosef, it is only a dance. You can watch me the entire time,” she huffed.
“Appearances, my darling daughter,” Toma began, but Analyia waved him away.
“I am not a child, father,” she said. “I have sworn my life to Iosef, but that does not mean I like dancing any less. Is this party not thrown partially in my honor? To celebrate my engagement? This may well be my last waltz as an unmarried woman. I would like to spend it in the arms of a knight of the sky.”
Iosef frowned, but said nothing. Toma, after a moment, nodded.
“Daughters,” Miller heard him say as Analyia quickly pulled him away. “There is no denying them of their baubles.”
It suddenly occurred to him that they were on the dance floor. Around them other couples stepped in perfect synchronicity. When was the last time he had danced? Oh no, he thought.
“Relax,” Analyia whispered. “Just follow me and listen to what I say. You have danced before, no?”
He winced. “Yes. Not well, though.”
She giggled. “It will be fun.”
“Since it might be my last dance, too, I sure hope so,” he muttered and let her take the lead. It was taking most of his concentration not to step on her toes.
“Everyone is watching us,” she whispered, smiling again. “We have given them all so much to talk about.”
“Uh-huh,” Miller said. Although not particularly interested in anything other than making a fool of himself and surviving the evening, he glanced up and saw that she was correct. More and more eyes were on the pair. Did wealthy people really have so little to talk about?
“Iosef is such a jealous man,” she said. “A fool, too. Perhaps this will give your friend the colonel a chance to get up to his mischief.”
“What?” Miller asked.
“Yes,” she said, not listening to him. “He is already slipping away. He always was good at that.”
“Look, I’ll be honest with you,” Miller said, fighting the urge to look over his shoulder and try and find de Curieux. “I have just a very vague notion of what is going on here. I’m a mechanic, an engineer if I want to sound fancy, not an expert in intrigue. Can someone tell me what we’re doing?”
“Dancing, of course, silly,” she whispered and leaned into him, nuzzling him slightly on the neck. They turned and Miller found himself facing the opposite direction. Sure enough, Iosef was glowering at them from the edge of the dance floor. Toma had faded into conversation with a man wearing a fez near the buffet table and de Curieux was nowhere to be found.
“Now you see,” she said. “Iosef, for all his faults, is quite good at knowing when something is amiss. He learned quickly of your affection for me.”
“I just met you,” Miller said.
“Well, that is not the rumour I heard the wives chattering about yesterday. I am told one look from me stole your breath and turned your heart to fire. I am told you have not spent another moment thinking of anyone else since that day in Moscow. Most of all, I am told the world has grown dim in your eyes in my absence, that even the sun shines less brilliantly.”
Miller shook his head. De Curieux was good at his work.
“Now spin me once and we are finished,” Analyia whispered, still pressed up against his chest. “Hopefully, your accomplice will have returned by then. He is taking his time.”
Miller did as he was told and suddenly, blessedly, the music came to an end. The dance floor erupted into applause as couples split apart. Miller realized his hands were shaking.
“You did your part,” Analyia said. “And quite well. Although, I recommend taking a class or two before your next escapade.”
“Sure. Top of my to-do list,” Miller mumbled as she dragged him off of the dance floor. They had made it only a few steps when Toma appeared.
“Did you enjoy waltzing with my daughter?” he asked wickedly. “You must have. You have completely misplaced your charge.”
“My charge? Oh, I am sure …” Miller looked around desperately. Where was de Curieux?
“A slippery one, that colonel,” said Iosef. “I did not know that his skills included pickpocketing. I truly hope that he was not foolish enough to be behind the very coincidental disappearance of mine and Mr. Zlatkov’s mobile devices.”
“Very coincidental,” Toma echoed.
He made a snapping gesture with his right hand and a very well-dressed, very-heavily armed man appeared. Guards? There were guards? Miller thought. Of course, there were. Why hadn’t he noticed them before? Because he wasn’t an international spy or a thief or a saboteur, that’s why. He was a damn motorhead.
“Put out the word that Colonel de Curieux has gone missing and is feared dead. A bit much to drink, perhaps. Leaned too far out one of the openings for a glimpse of the moon. It is a long ways down,” Toma said.
The guard grunted and spoke into a small microphone. He turned on his heels and began working his way through the crowd. Around the room other similarly built and armed men, their sides bulging with half-hidden handguns, sprung into motion.
“As for you,” Toma said, fixing his gaze again on Miller.
“A duel,” Miller interrupted, weakly.
Toma squinted. “What did you say?”
“A duel,” Miller said, drawing a deep breath and this time shouting it. The background chatter cut off as sharply as if someone had pulled the plug on a stereo system. The guards froze in place as all attention focused on the quartet.
He pointed directly at Iosef. “A duel for Analyia’s favor. You know of my love for her. I would die before losing her to you. A duel for her hand in marriage. I challenge you to a duel.”
Silence hung between them. Miller realized he felt very sick. He hadn’t just said all of that, had he? He had. He shouted it, even. Oh no.
Then Toma and Iosef burst out laughing. What was left of Miller’s quick flash of bravado dissipated. This wasn’t going to end well. If he lived, de Curieux owed him a rather large favor.
“A duel, a duel,” Iosef said, wiping his brow. “Of all things, a duel. Yes, yes, this will be most fun. I have never defeated a hussar in armed combat. It sounds so Edwardian London or Hapsburg Vienna.”
Oh no, oh no, oh no, Miller thought.
“A saber,” Iosef called out. “Any blade will do, but can someone loan a saber?”
An elderly man dressed in a khaki uniform stepped forward and bowed. He unsheathed the saber at his side and presented it hilt forward to Iosef.
“May you regain your woman’s honor,” he said.
Miller uttered a few curse words. Of course, a party like this would include a foreign legionnaire. His hand went to his saber and he pulled the oiled blade free without fanfare. As the crowd formed a semi-circle around the men, he adopted a fighting stance with his feet spread about a meter apart.
“The good thing about killing a pirate,” Iosef said, examining the weight of his blade, “is that no one much cares.”
Then he struck with the swiftness of a tornado, his saber slashing inches from Miller’s face. The mechanic-turned-hussar-turned-duelist parried, and then parried again. The force of Iosef’s blows stunned him. The gaunt man was apparently full of strength.
Carefully, Miller retreated, moving with his back foot first. The attack--more vicious than anything in a fencing tournament--continued ceaselessly. Parry, parry, block, Miller looked for any chance at a riposte, but none appeared.
Iosef bore in and finally drove home. The blade stuck Miller shallowly just beneath the shoulder. He howled in pain and frustration, but kept the grip on his saber and spun sideways. Rather than return the flurry of blows, he swung for Iosef’s legs. Though he missed, it forced the other man back and gave Miller a chance to catch his breath. And notice he was bleeding quite profusely.