"This way, this way please," Amir said, stooping through the tunnels and turning now and then to make sure the Professor was following. His friend Majid was bringing up the rear, holding a torch that flickered and sputtered in the darkness.
Between the two Iranians, the Professor remained silent, adjusting his hat now and then and scowling impatiently.
"We call for you as soon it happen, Professor," said Amir, sweating and smiling as he moved, "My friend Majid - he find it, not long, not long."
"East tunnel," Majid added, before a scowl from Amir made him lower his head again.
The trio continued down the tunnels, moving from the newer excavations to the deeper Persian vault. The other workers had been evacuated on the Professor's orders, taking with them the few clay pots and old bones they had found thus far.
Finally, in the eastern tunnels, Amir turned and bowed nervously, pointing to a hole in the ground. Majid held the torch and the Professor crouched slowly, lighting a second one and dropping it through the opening. The flame fell for a few seconds then struck something metal, lighting up a chamber below. Removing his hat, the Professor marvelled at the half-glimpsed sarcophagi and statues, shimmering in dark metal.
"This good find, yes?" Amir asked the Professor, standing beside his friend and smiling hopefully.
The Professor stood and turned to them. "Why yes," he said, his voice the finest German, "The find of the century." The luger roared like thunder, lighting up the tunnel as the two Iranians jerked and struck the wall. Blood sprayed and their cries were cut short. They slumped to the ground, leaving only silence.
Lifting Majid's torch, the light fell upon the blood-flecked face of the killer.
Colonel Seiler smiled devilishly and stepped over the bodies, gazing again into the tomb below.
The Fuhrer would be pleased... very pleased indeed.
MEANWHILE, IN ENGLAND
"What is it, Sir?"
Professor Stern held up the object, letting the dim light of the gentlemen's lounge catch on its silver casing.
"Well, Hobbs, unless I'm very much mistaken, what we're looking at here is the Heart of Zagros."
Hobbs's eyes went a little wider as the name was mentioned. He leaned over the Professor's armchair, almost falling over it as he peered at the locket. It was about the size of his hand, decorated to look like two angel wings overlapping at the clasp. The back was engraved with hieroglyphs, clearly Sumerian, but he was too awed to start interpreting them. For now the butler just stared, then looked down at his master in the armchair. "Good lord! Well it just can't be..."
"Well, Professor Harold certainly thinks so. The old boy sent it to me by courier - said he didn't trust anyone else to have it."
Hobbs frowned. "Professor Harold? Wasn't he in Florida?"
Stern set the locket on the table, half-wrapping it in his handkerchief. "Yes, still studying the Bermuda Triangle, if I remember."
"But the Heart of Zagros should be buried in the Iranian Desert! What on earth was it doing in the Atlantic Ocean?!"
"That, my dear Hobbs..." said the Professor as he lifted his sherry glass, "... is indeed the question."
The Hodsworth Gentlemen's Club was over a century old and nestled in a sidestreet just off Picadilly Circus.
The sounds of pedestrians and automobiles barely made it through the old walls and any that did were drowned by the grand piano that played from dawn till dusk.
This early in the morning there were only a few old gents in the lounge, some smoking while others read newspapers (which today were plastered with news of Bulgaria signing a treaty with the Axis forces).
Waiters in tuxedos floated between the customers, bearing cigars and brandy glasses.
"They're late," Hobbs muttered, checking his pocket watch as he hovered behind the professor's armchair with a tray of sherry glasses. "I told you the letters were a bad idea. They're probably all dead. Yes, captured by the Gestapo no doubt. I warned you."
"Nonsense, Hobbs," replied the Professor, sipping his sherry. "These chaps are the cream of the crop. They're probably having trouble with your directions."
"My direc--!" Hobbs frowned at the professor, almost spilling the rest of the sherry on him as he leant over his chair, "Sir, those letters we sent out were death warrants - death warrants I tell you! There's Nazi spies in every port! U-boats in the waters! I hear Hitler even has trained pigeons - PIGEONS, SIR! He sends them out to spy on the mail ships. And as for that silly code you made, well let me tell you, Sir - it won't delay the German codebreakers for long!"
Hobbs stared at the lounge door, straightening his bowtie as the sherry sloshed precariously on the tray. "Oh yes, I can see it now. They're all in some Gestapo prison somewhere, getting the thumbscrews, having their toenails pulled off. This whole operation is doomed. Doomed!"
"Stiff upper lip, Hobbs," said the Professor as he sipped his sherry. "Now's not the time to be panicking. We have a long expedition ahead of us, old sport. I need you in tip-top shape."
"Oh no!" protested the butler, rolling his eyes, "That's what you said in Cairo when that camel sat on me. I'm not doing this again, Sir - not on your nelly! And besides, there's a war on now, don't you know? It's far too dangerous to be gallivanting around. Her Majesty will just have to find someone else to get killed for her!"
“I’m terribly sorry, madame, but it is strictly against our policy to admit--even if you do meet the dress code!” The doorman flustered, putting himself between the woman, wearing a simple, crisp suit and the entrance to the lounge.
"Ce n'est pas un probleme." Astrid sighed and reached into her coat pocket. "I received an invitation from the Professor.” A fine, snowy colored paper flashed before the doorman's eyes, just long enough for him to see the signature, before it fluttered back into her breast pocket. “I understand he has been a patron for some time. He can sort it out for you...” She repressed the shiver that threatened to trace its course down her spine as a hulking shadow engulfed them.
The doorman’s eyes widened a fraction and Astrid could see him swallow before he spoke. “Can I help you, sir?” With his attention diverted from her, Astrid sparred a quick glance over her shoulder, then stepped to the right, removing herself from the space between the grizzled Russian and the unfortunate doorman.“I hav’ come to answer en'vee'tay'tion of Professor Stern.” The man was a stone, slowly formed into human shape by the centuries of wind and water. “I vill speak to him now.” His voice was the click of a bullet being loaded into the chamber: infinite patience before the trigger squeeze. His manner was the stately dignity of a king amongst assassins.
Astrid recognized him instantly. Mikhail Baryshnikov. It was said that he only worked for the Russian government, but in their line of work, the term 'government' was a malleable concept. His line of work, in particular, consisted of combat specialization and explosives. The Americans in the first World War had nicknamed him Bary Boom. Astrid wondered what manner of job this was to require such a heavy-hitter like Baryshnikov. The tender hearted doorman didn’t stand a chance.
“Very good sir, however; I must inform you that our club has a very particular dress code...” The fires, stoked by his sense of order and policy, suddenly puttered off when he found himself caught in the crosshairs of Baryshnikov's stolid gaze.
Astrid looked to Baryshnikov then to the doorman.
“Er, well, yes, pardon me, but--wait! Madame! Madame!” It was too late, Astrid had already slipped past him while he was distracted. The French woman’s dark eyes narrowed to see through the dim light and curtain of heady cigar smoke. She recognized some of the gentlemen here, not by their faces, but by sapphires on stick pins, the glinting diamonds on rings, the pure jade animals that adorned the tops of walking canes. Snippets of chortling conversation filled her senses, along with the slosh of sherry, brandy, whiskey; the scent of cedar, oak and cherry. Astrid scanned them all, searching for the face of her latest patron, knowing well that Baryshnikov would not be far behind. The man was a mountain, but he moved silent and smooth as a ghost.
Astrid could not help but wonder if this was some form of test of her abilities. Did her potential employer think the Chor Chat, Europe’s most notorious jewel thief, could not breech a smokey gentleman’s club? She sincerely hoped not.
"I don't like this, sir. You saw the likes we've had to employ! A bunch of low-lives and thieves if you ask me--EEH!" The delicate glasses on Hobb's tray clattered, when the sudden appearance of a dark woman startled him. To his credit, not a drop of sherry was spilled.
The woman was smiling, a feline arch of lips that encompassed her whole face, wreathed by inky curls. “Bonjour," her attention was turned solely upon Professor Stern. "I was afraid that I was too late." She was Astrid, the half-tzigane jewel thief who had, until just two weeks ago, been the mysterious plague of the wealthy across the continent. "But I have come just in time."
The British government had finally apprehended her, after a string of robberies across London. It was hard to plead innocent when she was caught in the searchlight, halfway out a broken window, with the Akbar Shah diamond tucked under her arm. Astrid was sure to hang, when word arrived out that the Germans had discovered some sort of rare artifact and that her services were needed. The professor's invitation had saved her from the hangman's noose.
"You must be my mysterious benefactor, Professor Stern. I am Astrid, one the lowlifes." There was a hint of humor in her voice. There was no glint of jewelry from her, save for diamond cufflinks, which caught the light and reflected it in tiny motes, when the professor took her hand and kissed it. "Enchante'"
Hobbs made a noise of disapproval, before reaching up with his free hand to adjust necktie. The butler stiffened, a cold shudder ran down his spine, when a shadow loomed behind him. He turned to see a broad chest, covered by a plain shirt and an overcoat much too heavy for the season. Hobb's tilted his gaze upward and stared into the stone grey eyes of Mikhail Baryshnikov. "You are Professor Stern, da?"
"W-well, no, actually, I'm his manservant--" Before Hobb's could finish, the Russian had passed him.
Baryshnikov spared Astrid a quick glance as she took her seat at one the small couches, before turning back to the man who currently held his contract. "Mikhail Baryshnikov." As if he needed an introduction. There was no mistaking what role he was to fill. His employers had already briefed him on his responsibilities to this expedition and paid him half up front. Unlike Astrid, there was no questions as to where his loyalties lay. "At your service, Professor." Then, to everyone's surprise, Mikhail let out a booming, boyish laugh, before producing a silver flask from somewhere within his overcoat.
The pianist in the corner played a wrong note as the Russian laughed. In its place came irate murmuring as the old gents about the lounge lowered their newspapers or dipped their cigars. The choral glares of peers, politicians, bankers and bureaucrats struck the fortified back of Baryshnikov, with the odd richochet hitting the Professor's twinkling smile.
It was almost enough to repel them. But then they noticed the woman. One of the old peers - a man with walrus-like moustache, waved over a waiter and started gesticulating. He obviously wanted something done about it.
"Well, lady and chaps, it seems our time is short," the Professor declared as Mikhail and Astrid took a seat. "I must assume that Mr Greyson, our third invitee, has declined the offer."
"Or been killed!" Hobbs muttered.
The Professor opened his hand, letting the Heart of Zagros dangle between his fingers.
"The reason we are gathered here is because of this." He let them gaze at the heavy locket for a moment, his voice going lower as he sat forward in his seat. "It was discovered by a colleague of mine, John Harold, a marine palaeontologist of some reknown. Last I heard of the fellow, he was studying ocean fossils as part of a deep sea dive off the coast of Bermuda. That this artefact should be found in the ocean, of all places, is both as puzzling and extraordinary as the fact that John sent it via a network of personal couriers to the very door of my estate last week."
He set it down on the drinks tray, which Hobbs had placed there after offering a glass of sherry to Astrid and being almost upset that she had taken it. "I've known John Harold since we were students at Oxford, and he's not the sort of man to let go of a find like this. Which means he's either very scared and very out of his depth. Pardon the pun."
Baryshnikov didn't get it. Astrid showed nothing either way.
"It's called The Heart of Zagros - and for almost four and half thousand years the archaeology circle have deemed it the stuff of fairytales. Zagros was the Sumerian capital of Uruk."
"Iraq," said Baryshnikov, savouring the word as he swigged from his hipflask.
"Yes. Quite." The Professor rested his hands, contemplatively, on his walking cane. "As the legends tell, the fifth king of Uruk was the hero Gilgamesh, who was blessed by the gods - and none more so than Ishtar, the goddess of fertility, war and love. Such was her obsession with the mortal Gilgamesh, that Ishtar constructed a tomb unlike any other upon his passing, and entrusted the key to that tomb within a silver tear that fell to earth."
He indicated the locket again, his chin coming to rest on his hands and the cane. "If this is, indeed, the Heart of Zagros, then what we have here is an artefact that unlock the treasures of a demigod. And what's more..."
The Professor trailed off as a young waiter appeared, moving briskly to the end of the sofa on which Astrid sat. "I beg your pardon, Miss, but you have a phonecall."
Hobbs glanced around the room, perplexed. Astrid looked up at the waiter. "Pour moi? But 'ow can zis be?"
The waiter almost scowled. "I was not privy to that information, Miss. He asked for the woman, and as you can see... Miss... you are the only candidate." There was another confused silence and the waiter lifted a gloved hand. "The telephone is in the office, Miss. He is holding for you."
"D'accord, d'accord..." Astrid muttered, raising her hands in surrender as she stood and followed the waiter. "Please continue, Professor. I shall return soon."
They moved across the lounge, between the gauntlet of hostile stares from the old barristers and other waiters. Some of them were smiling beneath their moustaches, convinced that she was finally being thrown out. But some of the smiles faltered as Astrid sauntered into the office at the other side of the lobby. It was nicely furnished, with an old mahogany desk and velvet curtains. The gold-plated phone was waiting, the receiver resting on the writing pad. With a sigh she circled the desk and reached for it, wondering who it could possibly b...
She froze. There was a man lying behind the desk, in vest and underpants, bleeding from the back of his head.
The office door closed. She turned to see the waiter, one hand holding a M1911 pistol, the other holding a finger to his lips.
"Don't say a word, Miss." The snooty voice was gone and replaced with an American accent. "The waiters aren't what they seem."
Astrid raised an eyebrow. "Clearly."
The man twitched. "The other waiters. I've been watching this place since yesterday. The serving staff have been replaced. This whole club is one giant trap and we're the mice, Lady."
He reached into his tuxedo pocket and drew a piece of yellow paper, tossing it onto the desk. It was an invitation, just like the one Astrid had received. "Someone else knew we were coming here. I'm gonna need your help getting the Professor out."
The invitation was addressed to one Thomas Greyson.