Steve had finally found restful sleep when the phone ring startled him awake. He scrunched his eyes and groaned at the deafening noise that kept beating against his eardrums. He gulped down a wave of nausea threatening to spurt out as it has often been the case last night. He lifted his weighty arm and extended it to the nightstand where he fumbled with the receiver.
“Hello,” he answered hoarsely.
“Steve, is that you?” Oscar asked. He was somewhat stumped by the throaty voice.
“Oscar?” Steve wedged open his leaden eyes a slit, straining them to see the digital clock beaming a bright red 10:50AM
“Yes. Did you forget the briefing?”
Steve drew in a deep breath to dam up the bile rising up to his throat. “ No. I, “ he gulped, “I had an awful night and forgot set the alarm.”
“Are you all right?”
“Yes. I Ate something that didn’t agree with me and it came back with a vengeance. Just give me an hour and I’ll be right over.”
Steve let the receiver drop onto his chest, too weak to hang it back onto the hook. He started drifting off when the strident dialing tone jerked him awake. He levered himself out of bed and shuffled along to the bathroom. He poured himself a glass of water to wash down the bilious taste in his mouth before he dragged himself into thew shower.
He arrived at the OSI headquarters feeling better than when he left. He still looked a trifle green around the gills but the nauseas were gone. He entered Oscar’s office to find him wrapping up a phone conversation. He beckoned Steve to take a seat in front of his desk. When he hung up the receiver, he took one look at Steve and with a frown, said, “You look terrible.”
“Gee thanks, Oscar. I feel wretched as it is without anyone commenting on my appearance.”
Steve planted his elbow on the arm of the chair and began massaging the dark circles under his eyes. “One thing I can assure you is that you won’t see me feasting on Chinese food for an entire year.” He breathed in and out, letting his hand drop to his chin to support his heavy head. “So what’s my next assignment?”
Oscar flicked open a file on his desk. “I will tell you once to Cassandra Miller gets here.”"
“Oh, Agent 35!” Steve exclaimed enthusiastically.
“Agent 35?” Oscar asked with a confused expression.
“It's a long story,” Steve admitted sheepishly.
“We have time.”
“Cassie might not appreciate my blurting out our little secret.”
“She's not here.”
“Yes I am!” I said, walking briskly into the office. I patted Steve on the shoulder. “Nice to see you 34.”
“34, 35?” You could read the glaring perplexity on our boss’s wrinkled brow.
“Oh look... look at face!” I pointed to Oscar. “I just love the crease in that forehead. The flustered look he flashes when he knows we know something he doesn’t know,” I teased.
“Not much of a poker face,” Steve pitched in on the same bantering tone.
“I got him off his stride again,” I shrieked with delight, wearing a Cheshire-cat grin on my face.
“ Is there something I should know here?” Oscar asked as he eyed us suspiciously.
" No and we would like to keep it that way, " I answered firmly, flashing a friendly warning glance at Steve who winked back at me. I frowned when I noted Steve’s sunken features. “Hey Steve, are you okay "
“Yeah. Just had a rough night.”
“Let me guess: Chinese food again?”
“Oh, you know me so well.”
“Warned you those spicy wontons we’re eventually going to drag you under.”
“I’m beginning to agree with you.”
“Can I continue?” Oscar asked with a tinge of annoyance.
“Go ahead, boss. Shoot!”
“Funny you should say that.”
“Uh-oh! a suicide mission.”
“Aren’t they all?” Steve snorted, looking up at me with an amused smile.
“You are going to Monaco,” Oscar continued, feigning interest in our friendly sarcasms. But I sensed it was jarring on his nerves.
“Monaco? Are you sure this is not a pleasure trip?” I continued to banter.
“I’m sure,” he replied with a scolding grin “You are going as an heiress: Miss Angela Van de Mille. Steve will be accompanying you, posing as your assistant and bodyguard.”
“Hum, bodyguard?” I purred with a mischievous grin as I playfully squeezed Steve’s left biceps. “I like that.”
“Ready, willing and able.” Steve replied, reciprocating the smirk.
“Are you quite through?” Oscar asked in a form of a request emphasized by an exasperated sigh.
“Go ahead, boss” I said, clearing my throat and affecting a composed poise.
“You both heard of Lucian McKellen?”
“Isn’t he the famous diamond smuggler?” Steve asked.
“The one that keeps giving the FBI the slip?” I specified.
“Yes. He’s now living in Monaco where he manages a successful art gallery. The exhibitions are attended by the upper class. You won’t find a painting for sale under five hundred thousand dollars.”
“Wow! At those prices, the frames better not gather dust.”
Steve chuckled and looked at me with a silly grin. “Always thinking practical.”
“I hate dusting,” I replied with a shrug before I crossed my arms against my chest.
Oscar threw me a friendly warning stare before he continued. “Two of our top agents, Eleanor McGregor and Evanda Craig, stationed in Monaco, visited his gallery on numerous occasions and were able to gather inside information on McKellen’s stragedy. He apparently conceals the diamonds inside the canvas and then sells the painting to the highest bidder, preferably Americans, or…”
“To rich heiresses like me, " I closed the sentence with a smug.
“Precisely. They later follow the buyers into their country and once they pass customs, our crooks spring into action by robbing the paintings and recovering the stolen diamonds after which they sell to their contacts”
“Very astute,” Steve remarked.
“But if you know how they operate why not arrest them?” I asked.
“Because we need to apprehend them on U.S. ground. Catch them in the act; otherwise we don’t hold any solid argument to prove any wrongdoing. McKellen makes sure to cover his tracks.” Oscar precised.
“I see. Sounds simple enough. Why does Steve have to tag along?”
“While you keep McKellen occupy, Steve will open the safe to retrieve a microfilm that lists their foreign organizations.”
“There's more than one?”
“We know of 10 already operating throughout Europe. We require that list with the locations that will enable us to dismantle their entire network. To cover all contingencies, Steve will be wearing a wig to conceal the film underneath after substituting the real with a bogus one so they won’t know it’s missing, and thus run the risk of them warning their agents.”
“Subtle! How d’you ever think of that?” I asked, somewhat impressed by the idea.
“I saw it in a movie,” Oscar said nonchalantly.
“And where do we find this safe?” I asked.
“At McKellen’s mansion. You will make the deal at the gallery but insist on going back to the mansion to deliver the money in private.”
“The gallery, it is opened for the general public or by invitation only?”
“The general public is allowed. Yes but we’ll make sure they notice the famous Miss Van de Mille's entrance. Plane leaves at 9:45. Your clothes, accessories tickets, passes and everything you need are all packed and ready waiting at the airport. You have time to throw a few personal belongings in a suitcase, grab a quick lunch before you rendezvous here at 7:30. Then the official car will drive to the airport. Oh, and ask Miss Watson to hand you the files containing all the information you need on your character’s background, the safe combination and such. Study those them carefully so you’ll be ready to assume your respective roles once you land in Monaco.
“Okey dokey,” I crossed to the door, then turned to Steve who was heaving himself out of his chair. “You want to go grab a bite, Steve?”
“No, I think I’ll skip lunch today.”
“All right. I’ll see you at seven thirty.”
Steve gestured a smoking gun at me. “ I’ll be waiting.”
I left the office to ask Callahan’s temp, Michelle Watson, for our files.
Steve gave Oscar a sincere handclasp. “Thanks Oscar.”
“For teaming me with Cassie.”
“My hunch was right right. There's something between you two.”
“Yes but it's definitely not what your mind appears to be imagining.” Steve threw Oscar an elfish wink, leaving him guessing its true meaning.
Steve walked out of the office. With a tilt of the head, he bade Michelle good day before exiting the reception area. Although absorbed in my reading, I did catch Michelle’s flushed expression in a sidelong glance.
“It appears our Colonel Austin has caught the eye of our Miss Watson?” I chaffed with my nose still buried in the file.
“I’m not the only one,” she defended.
“Don’t tell me you don’t find him irresistible?”
I lifted my eyes from the file and broke into a smile as I pondered the question. “I can’t say I ever thought of him as irresistible. He’s engaging, charismatic, chilvarous, has a great sense of humour.” I pursed my lips and squinted my eyes. “I regard him more as a brother.”
“Whatever you say,”she said with a smudge of sarcasm that trickled off me like pearls of dew onto a feather. I closed the folder and tapped her on the shoulder, bending closer to her ear. “I’ll put in the good word for you.”
On the plane to Monaco, Steve was to my left, sitting quietly with his head resting against a small pillow and a serene smile plastered on his face. I was poring over my script when a murmurous sigh prompted me to peel my eyes off the sheet to turn to Steve.
He tilted his head towards me and smiled. “Just fine.”
“Of course. Why d’you ask?”
“I don’t know. You seem far away.”
He sank his head deeper into the pillow. “I’m happy,” he mused.
He placed his hand on my arm. “And I have you to thank for that, " he confided with a genuine appreciation glistening in his eyes.
I put my hand on top of his. “You would have done the same for me.”
“I hadn't realized how strong a hold my mother's death had on me until I reached bottom.”
“We were all deeply concerned. For a while, it seemed like you were sinking deeper and we couldn’t reach you.”
“The outside world bore too much pain, too many memories. I wanted to hide from it all” He turned to me with betwitching blue eyes. “Thanks for preventing me from falling into the abyss.”
“Hey, I was just there in case you stumbled.”
“You don’t know how many times I did fall. You were there to scoop me off the ground.”
“So that’s why my arms feel like lead?” I teased.
We both broke into a chuckle before our faces reshaped into a portentious expression.
“In all seriousness Steve, I’m just happy you’re getting there safe and sound.”
“I’m walking up the driveway slowly. I need a few more steps to reach the front porch and then I’ll be home free.”
“If you need a shove, you know where to turn.”
He smiled at me with heavy lidded eyes. “Thanks.” He then gave me a peck on the cheek and squeezed my arm.
“Now, how about we get some sleep?”
“Good idea.” He shifted into a comfortable position and closed his eyes. I sat, watching him drift off to sleep. My heart brimmed over with joy at the progress he’s made in the past year following his mother’s death, an accident that still to this day he blames himself for. I was there to help him muddle through the long arduous road back to mental health by providing a constant companionship, lending a sympathetic ear and a shoulder to cry on whenever the need arose.
We landed safely in Monaco the next morning and settled into our adjoining hotel rooms. Steve notified Oscar of our arrival while I changed into my frock for the afternoon visit to the art gallery. I was to make a grand entrance, escorted by my dashing assistant. The jewels were so sparkling they looked like the real McCoy. The opulent dress spoke of unmeasurable wealth. Yes, I was to make a killing.
As Steve hung up the phone, I flounced into his room, twirling and parading my long exquisite glittering dress. “How do I look?”
Steve's jaw dropped and his shoulders slumped. “Marry me,” he teased.
“Gladly, but don’t you think we should date first?” I teased back with a wink.
“I’d love to if you’d stop turning me down.”
“I’m doing you a favour. You couldn’t handle me.”
“You look ravishing. A true wealthy heiress.”
“ I need to look the part.”
“Give me thirty minutes to get ready.”
“Take your time”, I said, glancing at my fake diamond-studded watch. “We’re not scheduled to arrive for another three hours.”
Steve picked up his clothes on the bed and headed for the bathroom. Behind the door I could hear him hack his lungs out. I thought he’d swallowed down the wrong hole so I dismissed it and went to the mirror to fix my hair. When the coughing fit persisted, I walked over to the door where I clearly heard the retching. I rapped on the door. “Steve, are you all right in there?”
“Just fine,” he answered with a strained voice. " I accidently swallowed my chewing gum. "
I hadn’t noticed Steve had a gum in his mouth when we first came and. On the other hand he never chewed with his mouth open. He was always discreet about it. The coughing stopped and I heard the shower running.
Forty minutes later, he emerged from the bathroom a Clark-Gable lookalike. He was dashing in his posh marine business suit and charcoal hair that enhanced the deep ocean blue of his eyes.
“Oh Mister Gable, you take me breath away!” I emoted, faning my face with my hand.
“Frankly my dear, I DO give a damn,” he mimicked with just the right accent.
We burst out laughing, after which I stepped up to him to straighten his tie and give him a goodluck peck on the cheek. His eyes twinkled and lowered to hide what I do believe was a blush. I draped my arm over his and off we went.
Given the fact that we still had another hour to kill, our chauffeur and OSI undercover agent Vincent Favreau who was a native of these parts, took the scenic route, which allowed us to acquaint ourselves with the eighth wonder of this world. The scenery was positively breathtaking. Steve promised me that once mission accomplished, he’d take me sightseeing.
Vince pulled the limousine in front of the gallery entrance. Steve and I gave each other a quick once-over before stepping out in style. I affected a condescending stance as McKellen,flanked by his two bouncers Adrian and Hugh was walking down the stairs to greet us.
“Miss Van De Mille I presume?”
“You presume correctly,” I said, offering my hand that he cradled in his to kiss.
“My name is Lucian McKellen. Let me say what an honor it is for me to have you grace my art gallery with your presence.”
“Thank you. You are a most charming host, Mister McKellen.”
“Please, call me Lucian.”
“I prefer not, if you don’t mind.”
“As you wish,” he acknowledged with a bow of the head.
“This gentleman is my assistant, Mister Steve Perrine. He’s a great connoiseeur of fine arts and therefore, a trusted adviser.”
McKellen extended his arm to shake Steve’s hand. “How do you do, sir?”
“I’m very well, thank you.”
“I was told you were interested in some fine paintings?”
“Yes, I am. Your gallery came highly recommended.”
“We have valuable work-of-arts that I trust you will find to your liking,” he laid it on thick after which he offered me his arm. “If you’ll allow me?”
I tucked my arm into his and we climbed the stone steps with the two bouncers in tow. Steve lagged behind to make a sweep of the area.
McKellen drew my attention to the painting we were informed held the diamonds. He sang the praises of the artist who’s been hailed most promising, urging me to endorse him by purchasing his masterpiece. I hemmed and hawed, my gaze lingering on the painting, feigning interest, tilting my head sideways to give an impression of indecisiveness. I turned to Steve to pick his brains. He was staring catatonically at a group of aristocrats, sipping champagne. I gently tapped him on the shoulder to snap him out of his daze.
“What do you think of this painting, Mr. Perrine?” I asked snobbishly.
Steve looked at me with an air of surprise. “You are the buyer, Miss de Mille,” he said with a contrived smile.
“I value your opinion.”
“Yes, I strongly advise you to purchase it for the manor house.”
I flinched at his prompt reply. He was instructed to dally over the purchase, to haggle over a price before advising me to clench the deal. I didn’t like the way he acted. He was obviously preoccupied. He adverted his gaze from the painting to focus on the group that was visibly troubling him. Did he recognize someone who could blow our cover? I glanced in the same direction, trying to figure out what or who could have disturbed him to point of nearly stepping out of character.
“Shall we discuss a price?” McKellen’s question sprung me to attention.
“I’ll give you a million dollar for it,” I replied curtly, heedful not to lose my countenance.
“That’s very generous Miss Van de Mille,” McKellen suspired a bit flushed by the astronomical price that reached far beyond his expectations.
“This painter is very talented and when I like something I know how to be generous. I don’t like to fuss over a detail as insignificant as money.”
“I quite agree, Madam.”
“I’ll have the money for you tomorrow. I’d appreciate if we could meet somewhere less conspicious.”
“How about my mansion. It’ll be my pleasure to offer you a grand tour once we conclude the transaction. I, myself, am a great collector of ancient art and you might find other items to your liking.”
“Very nice of you Mr. McKellen. I accept your gracious invitation. My assistant and I will be at your house tomorrow morning at 10 :00 if that is convenient for you?”
“It is.” He rifled through his pocket to produce a business card that he handed over to me.
“Here is my home address. I will be waiting for you both.”
“Thank you.” I turned to Steve and held out my hand. “Mr Perrine?” Steve offered his arm and I draped mine over it.
He escorted me down the steps to the limousine ”Steve, what the hell’s the matter with you?” I snapped at him in a subdued voice so not to draw attention.
“Don’t give me that. You almost blew our cover back there. Now what’s wrong?”
We stepped into the car. He plopped down in the seat next to me and closed the door. I stared at him expectantly as he distractedly raised a fist to his mouth. “Well?”
“I told you I’m fine. I was scanning the room for anyone suspicious. What’s wrong with that?”
“You were supposed to bargain, make it look like you were a connoisseur of fine art.”
“I saw no purpose in dallying.”
“I just hope he doesn’t get suspicious.”
“He won’t. The money is all that matters. He doesn’t really care who buys the painting as long as it’s a rich American who is sure to sneak the diamonds through customs.”
His explanation was plausible so I dropped the subject. Still a doubt lingered on the real reason for his sudden change of plans. It was unlike him to veer off track without consulting with his partners beforehand.
During the night, Steve awoke with acute abdominal twinges. He clutched his burning stomach, rolling onto his side to raise the knees up to his chest in hopes to quell the throbbing pain. He tried to regulate his breathing while gulping down the bile rising to his throat. He tossed and turned to find a palliative position, but the pain only intensified.
He leapt out of bed and dashed to the bathroom to empty the content of his stomach. He kecked and dryheaved before coughing out the last of the vomit, which, to his stark horror, was mixed with bright red drops of blood.
With the door to our adjoining rooms ajar, my room echoed with his coughing and retching. I flung the covers aside, donned my bathrobe and walked to Steve’s bedroom, where I saw a glimmering light streaking out from under the bathroom door.
He came out, looking deathly pallid, on the verge of collapse. He leaned against the doorway to catch his breath. I bolted to him just as his knees buckled, slidding my arms under his to support his weight. I slung his left arm around my shoulder and wrapped mine around his waist to assist him to the bed. I perched myself on the rim of the mattress and felt his forehead for any trace of a fever but to my relief, there was none. I picked up the phone and dialed the house physician.
“What are you doing?” he heaved out as he reached for my arm.
“I’m calling a doctor.”
“No!” He hooked my arm and drew in a deep breath. “I’ll be fine. It’s just indigestion. Nothing to worry about.”
I hung up the receiver and placed my hand on his. “Steve, you barely ate this evening.”
“I’ll be fine. Stop fussing, Mother Hen,” he said hoarsely, squeezing my arm reassuringly “Go back to sleep.”
“I’m calling the doctor.”
“No! Cassie you know why we can’t. He’ll take my pulse.”
“That’s right, but since the door is to the left of the bed, the man will automatically sit on this side and take your pulse on the left arm.”
“What if he checks my eyes?”
“I see no need since you’re conscious. Besides we’ll tell him it’s a glass eye.”
“No,” he whispered hoarsely, grabbing my arm.
“Steve, let go of my arm. You may be bionic but I’ve got a killer left that can knock you unconscious. So behave!” I warned with a glare.
“Please, let’s wait. Okay?” he pleaded.
I sighed heavily and smiled responsively. “Okay.”
As he closed his eyes, little did he know he’d failed miserably to convince me it was an inconsequential bellyache. As I recalled, it was the second episode in less than 48 hours. I feared it was far worse than he let on. I decided to sit with him for an hour in case the symptoms remerged. I settled into a cushiony armchair by the bed and watched him drift off to sleep.
My fears were founded when an hour later, he awoke at the grip of a powerful coughing bout. I jumped to my feet and sat on the bed next to him. His eyes were bulging out as he choked on his vomit. I rolled him onto his side and he spewed onto the floor. My heart throbbed at my throat when I noticed the frothy blood. I kept him in this position with one hand while I dialed for the doctor with the other. I stroked the side of his head, gently brushing the hair back in the back of his ear. I was utterly distraught, scared out of my wits. ‘What’s wrong with you, Steve?’ I whispered to myself, rubbing a soothing hand up and down his arm. I could see that he was in a semi-conscious state.
The doctor arrived within 10 minutes of my call. When he noticed the bloody vomit he asked if I’d received any kind of blow to the stomach. After taking his pulse, he gingerly rolled Steve onto his back.
“What did you eat this evening?” the doctor asked Steve as he applied his stethoscope on his chest to study his heartbeat.
“Is that all?”
Steve nodded feebly, licking his lips.
The doctor prodded and poked for any fractured ribs. Then his hands traveled down to Steve’s abdomen. “You tell me if this hurts,” he asked, pressing his hands against the liver. Steve shook his head with a squint. The doctor continued down to the appendix. Again, no pain. When the hands pressed against the stomach, Steve let out a painful yelp as his body bucked. “Yeah, right there.”
“Hum. How long have you had these pains?”
Steve glanced up at me with a pained expression that tore me apart. I could tell he was holding back for fear to worry me. “About a week,” he finally breathed out.
“Steve why didn’t you tell me this before?” I rebuked severely.
“I figured these were just indigestions. Didn’t think much of them.”
“When did you first notice the blood?”
“This has all the signs of an ulcer.”
“Ulcer?” I exclaimed in shock.
“I need to admit him to a hospital for an endoscopy to determine whether it’s gastric or duodenal.”
“No! No hospital.” Steve was most adamant.
“But Steve, if…
“No Cassie!” Steve cuffed me in half sentence as he cast me a scorching look. His wide-opened eyes motioned to his right arm, reminding me of his special nature. “Can’t you give me something for the pain until I see my regular doctor?” Steve asked pleadingly.
“Yes, I will prescribe a proton-pump inhibitor to reduce the acid secretion, but you must promise me to consult with your physician first thing tomorrow.”
“His doctor’s back in America. We’re tourists,” I explained.
“Can you reach him and URGE him to come within 48 hours?”
“Euh..I’m…I’m sure I can,” I hemmed and hawed, startled by the emphasis on the word ‘urge’. “How serious is it, Doctor?”
“The presence of tarry stools in the vomit is clear indication that the ulcer has eroded into a blood vessel. It can subsequently lead to perforation of the stomach or duodenum wall where the acid can spill into the abdominal cavity.”
“If we’re lucky.” He took out a prescription pad and scribbled down the name of an acide reducer drug. He tore off the sheet and handed it over to me. “Here’s a prescription for Omeprazole. You can have it filled at the drugstore across the street. They’re open 24 hours. Follow the posology and it should have a palliative effect on the pain until his doctor can admit him for an endoscopy.”
“Thank you, Doctor.”
He stood from the bed and I walked him to the door. “One more thing, Miss. He is not to leave this bed for any reason other than to go to the bathroom.”
“I’ll make sure he doesn’t.”
“If he should be subjected to severe abdominal pain or experience unrelenting bleeding, call me at once.”
Once the doctor left, I resumed my seat on the bed. “How are you feeling?”
He nodded with his eyes closed.
“I’ll go down to the drugstore to have the prescription filled out. Will you be all right?”
Again, he nodded and reached for my hand. “I’m fine. Just a bit tired. It’ll all be a bad dream in the morning.”
“Maybe, but you’re still being confined to this bed until Rudy gets here.”
“You need me with you.”
“I don’t need a sick man tagging along. You’ll cramp my style,” I teased.
He cracked a lopsided smile and looked at me with his eyes half-mast. “Who’s going to open the safe while you keep McKellen busy?”
“That can wait. I’ll just make the transaction and do a quick sweep of the house and then I’m out of there. When you feel better, I’ll take him up on his offer to tour the house while you switch the microfilms.”
“I can’t let you go by yourself. It’s too dangerous.”
“McKellen is no fool, Steve. He needs me to sneak his precious diamonds into the States. No harm can come to me as long as I’m still on this side of the continent.
I leaned in and whispered in his ears ‘I will’ before I brushed a kiss on his forehead. He smiled and gave my hand a light squeeze before he drifted off.
I sat, gazing at him, my mind in a complete turmoil. I was concerned not for the mission but for his health. I made a mental note to question him about his peculiar behavior today at the gallery. Something or someone had pricked his curiosity. I figured he would have shared his concern had it bore a significant relevance to our objective.
I cast those worries aside, putting them on hold long enough to get dressed and march down to the drugstore, after which I called Rudy to fill him in on Steve’s condition. I asked that he not bother telling Oscar for the mission was going to proceed accordingly. As mush as I hated to do it, I nudged Steve awake to give him his medication: doctor’s orders. Thankfully he fell like a log the minute his head hit the pillow. I decided to keep a vigil at his bedside for the remainder of the night.