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art by Steven R. Stewart

Barnaby: Or, As Luck Would Have It

K. G. Jewell lives and writes in Austin, Texas. He writes on his porch when the weather allows, and a local coffee shop when it doesn’t. In the hundred-degree Texas summers, he drinks a lot of coffee. His website, which is rarely updated, is lit.kgjewell.com.

22 September 1917
Dearest Janet--
I write to announce I have safely arrived in Paris, my zeppelin passing over the unfortunate disagreements in the Channel.
I have been well received at L'Hôtel des Vapeurs. I have had to tear myself from examining the most wonderful devices that run the establishment. My room is cleaned each day by an iron man--don't tell your Miss Margaret or she will worry needlessly about her position. When such machines arrive on our shores, I'm certain we will find some use for the lesser workers such as she.
But I digress. The antiquities auction is at hand. I go shortly to participate and hope to win the Abacus of Algernon for my (hopefully soon to be our) collection. We will need such a device to count the happiness in our days together.
I was disheartened that you were unable to see me off at the station, but I understand the importance of rest when dealing with the ill humors of the autumn. I hope they pass quickly and your cough settles soon.
Tell Miss Margaret to keep your tea as warm and sweet as your lovely temperament.
Your most humble suitor,
Barnaby Wilks
The door of the steam carriage swung open, cold rain splattering the thick glasses of young Barnaby Wilks. He wiped them clean and peered out at his destination. A hundred and fifty years ago, before the revolution, the building that housed the Institut Français d'Archéologie had served a god that was not science, and the ancient grey stones of the cathedral still lorded their long-lost consecration over the paving stones of the street.
The dismal afternoon filled the stained-glass windows with dark, gloomy reflections of the gargoyles perched over the eaves. Rain stained the stone in dark splotches, splotches that reminded Barnaby of the bloodstains on the handkerchiefs of his father's final months--ugly and ever-growing.
His driver stood in the rain, offering an unfurled umbrella. Barnaby accepted the device and stepped under its protection. He walked to the door, the rain pattering on the taut silk. He disliked carrying his own umbrella, but it was the price of égalité, and he understood: when in Paris, one must act as a Parisian.
An equally imposing doorman dressed in the uniform of the Directorate, complete with derringer and combat boots, blocked the imposing door of the cathedral. Barnaby juggled the umbrella to withdraw a letter of invitation from his satchel and hand it to the guard. The man examined it and then opened the door for Barnaby, keeping the letter in his hand.
Inside, Barnaby's glasses fogged. The room's smell, however, distracted him from the loss of sight. The musty air sent a shudder of desire through his being. The smell of artifacts, the smell of history, the smell of lives distilled by the press of time. This was why he had crossed the channel--to gather such distilled essences.
"Monsieur Wilks?"
Barnaby again wiped clean his glasses. Once they were returned to his nose, he saw the speaker was a short, wiry man, wearing what passed for formal on the continent--a tight jacket over an off-white shirt.
"Yes," Barnaby said.
Behind the man, gaslights burned along the walls of the sanctuary, illuminating tables placed where once would have stood an altar. He could see from here that they were filled with artifacts. He noted a measuring scale of the type used for trade by Romans of the first century. A prime specimen. He itched to examine it closer.
"Je suis Monsieur Broche. Nous sommes désolés."
Barnaby concentrated on translating the words. He had studied, of course, the language of science since he was a child, but unconscious fluency still escaped him. The man continued to speak as Barnaby caught up with the flow of words.
"We have been unable to verify the letter of credit provided with your application to this event. The war has delayed our correspondence with the Bank of England." The man raised his hands. "We will not be able to allow you to participate in the auction this afternoon."
Barnaby looked at the man again, more closely. Was a competitor attempting to lead him astray? "Who are you?" he asked.
"I am Monsieur Broche. I am the Director of Operations for the Institute. I'm terribly sorry about this. It is most unfortunate."
Barnaby saw his invitation in M. Broche's hand. "Surely there must be a way I can participate?" If the doorman had given M. Broche Barnaby's invitation, he must be a legitimate official of the institute.
"Do you have cash?"
Barnaby had funds on hand for travel but not the amount necessary for an event such as this.
"No, but my bid is backed by my family name." Which M. Broche should know.
"I'm afraid such things aren't negotiable under the rules of the institute. No letter, no cash, no bidding."
"That's ridiculous!" Sharp anger raised the volume of Barnaby's voice. "My family has been bidding in auctions for centuries and we have never once made an obligation that we have not kept."
"Such words may carry weight in England, but this is France. You may remain for the auction, but I must ask you not to interfere with the proceedings."
"But," Barnaby drew himself up to escalate his protest, but M. Broche walked away. How rude--Barnaby Wilks treated like a man without means!--that would never happen in London.
Barnaby turned to share his indignation with others, but realized he knew no one. The channel was a deep cultural divide, one his peers seldom crossed. Perhaps Barnaby shouldn't have, himself.
While he searched his mind for a way out of his predicament, Barnaby examined the artifact tables. The Roman measuring scale held his attention for a moment, a classic piece, but one too similar to a piece in his collection. He moved on to a broader review.
It was a superb offering. The Institut d'Archéologie was selling a few of its lesser pieces to fund an upcoming expedition to the Ottoman Empire, but the lesser pieces of France surpassed many of the greater pieces of Britain.
He soon found the object that had brought him to the event. An abacus from the Far East, said to have been used by Marco Polo's bookkeeper, Algernon, to calculate the fruits of Polo's trade. The wood frame was stained a dark red, the corners fastened with worked copper. But the beading was the most impressive facet of the piece: amethysts, emeralds, and onyxes threaded on taut copper wire.
Perfect. He had inherited the family's exquisite collection of mathematical devices, and this would be his generation's contribution to the patrimony. His father had contributed an original Oughtred slide rule, but this would rival even that.
That is, if he could get it. His chances had narrowed, but if it sold for a low enough price he might be able to arrange to re-purchase it from the winner. They would make a profit, and he would get the abacus.
The room filled. Some prospective buyers perused the tables, others headed directly to the wooden pews that filled the center of the sanctuary. Barnaby slid into the last row as M. Broche walked to the front of the room and the proceedings looked about to begin.
Each seat was equipped with a lever set into the back of the seat in front of it. He examined it with curiosity. The lever appeared set to trigger a spring-loaded white flag. He was careful not to set it off.
A tall, glass column filled with mercury rose between the pews and the artifact tables. Barnaby would have thought it a thermometer of extraordinary size, but beside the column was displayed an adjustable scale of francs rather than a fixed scale of degrees.
"Welcome to worship at the capitalist altar," the man next to Barnaby said. His French was influenced by the Russian tongue, as was his dress, a red handkerchief sprouting conspicuously from a breast pocket. His mustache and beard were also out of place anywhere but the Russian land.
"Barnaby Wilks." Barnaby extended a hand to his seatmate. His words were odd, but perhaps Barnaby could convince the man to make a proxy bid on the abacus for him.
"Pavel Ilyin." Pavel accepted Barnaby's handshake, his hand thick and meaty in Barnaby's.
"What is that?" Barnaby pointed at the glass column. The auctions of England used no such apparatus.
"That is the auction mechanism. The crypts have been filled with steam-driven devices of the most intricate type, mechanisms of French design. These levers control the event."
Before Barnaby could follow up, the proceedings began. M. Broche welcomed everyone and described how the Institute would auction each item in turn, the current price indicated by the column of mercury. The price would start high and fall. The first bidder to pull their lever would win the artifact at the displayed price.
The first item was a stone carving from the Polynesian isles, once used for currency. A ring of coarse stone, it went quickly, the mercury high in the column. A flag sprung from a pulled lever indicated that the winner was a heavyset American in the second row.
"A capitalist wasting the wealth that he has ripped from the souls of workers," Pavel said.
"Are you a registered bidder?" Barnaby asked.
"I registered to gain entrance to the event, but I will pass no money to this house of oppression."
Pavel didn't seem a good candidate to provide a proxy bid on the abacus. Barnaby looked around, but no one else sat near enough to entreat for such a favor.
Three more items went for mixed prices to three different winners. The fifth piece was the abacus.
Barnaby watched closely to see who bid. The starting price was unreasonable, but the mercury soon fell to believable realms. He craned his neck to glimpse a bidder close the deal. No hand moved, no flag rose, and the fall continued.
When the mercury passed the price that Barnaby would have paid, he had an urge to pull the lever. He instead gripped his satchel in his lap, the leather seam of the handle biting into his palm. His bid would not be accepted.
His heart thumped in the silence of the room, and with each beat the price lowered further still. He scorned the bidders' ignorance in the face of beauty, but his heart rose. At these prices he could offer the winner double their bid. A few more minutes and Barnaby could even bid with his traveling funds. He might still take the abacus home.
A flag rose and the mercury stopped at a pitiful fraction of the artifact's value. A woman in the front row had pulled her lever.
"The Duchess," Pavel said.
She was tall and elderly. Even from the back, the fashionable flare of her clothing hinted that she was French.
"The Duchess?" Barnaby leaned towards Pavel and spoke in low tones, mindful of an auction's tradition of silence. "I thought the French had disposed of their royalty."
"And rightly so. No, the Duchess's royalty is a popular one, not a noble one. Some two decades ago, she was the only survivor of a devastating blaze at the Opera House. A week later she was the only survivor of a train-wreck, and La Gazette declared her The Duchess of Luck. The name has stuck, despite its detestable aristocratic connotations."
The next item was up, a Roman measuring rod from a similar era as the scale he had earlier admired. Barnaby returned his attention to the proceedings, but Pavel continued. He was a talker.
"I have a belief that her luck is unnatural. I have researched this, and I believe it is driven by the charm she wears around her neck: The Ward of Napoleon Bonaparte."
"The mathematician?"
"The one and the same. Before he apprenticed with Laplace and developed the theory of the probability of the improbable, he studied the occult. The ward is the penultimate product of his command of both worlds--the scientific and the non-scientific. Legend has it he took his own life when he finished it and he realized he would never create anything greater in his life.
"The Duchess uses such luck to gather material possessions for her collection, but, what that charm could do for the struggle of the workers in my homeland!" Pavel lifted his arms to the sky, his outburst earning him shushes from nearby pews.
Barnaby was intrigued. Imagine--a piece designed by Bonaparte himself! The father of the modern scientific age, the mathematician whose study of probability had guided the stumbling baby steps of the French revolution to true scientific enlightenment! Of course the occult twist was nonsense, but even such gossip might have value, adding color to the collection that contained it.
The rest of the auction passed quickly. The Duchess won two more pieces at prices that were, at least by Barnaby's measure, very favorable. When the auction was declared closed, he slipped away from Pavel.
The Duchess was talking to an elderly man in a black tie and tails. The man leaned heavily on a cane.
"Excuse me." Barnaby said.
The Duchess turned and faced him. The choker wound around her neck bore a triangular amulet with a sigil of a lower case Greek sigma. The Ward of Bonaparte. "Yes?" she said.
"I could not help but notice that you won the Abacus of Algernon. An administrative error prevented me from bidding on it, but I am willing to purchase it from you for twice what you paid."
She looked him up and down. "M. Broche mentioned the Englishman who appeared at his door with no credit to his name. Would that be you?"
"My credit will arrive shortly, I am sure. You can hold the abacus until it arrives, but I don't see why we could not agree to a transaction of mutual value now."
"No, I think I will keep the abacus. I fancy its stones."
"But you can sell it for more than it is worth to you!"
"Only I know its value to me." The Duchess's skin drew tight around her mouth.
"But your bid was so low!"
"I came here to buy, not to sell."
Pressure rose in his chest. She was being unreasonable. If she had valued it more, she would have bid more.
Unless . . . unless she was in conspiracy with M. Broche. M. Broche may have conveniently misplaced Barnaby's letter of credit to keep out a competitor of the Duchess. Barnaby had mentioned his interest in the Abacus in his request to the Institute for an invitation to the event, and the Duchess had done suspiciously well in all of her bids.
That was the only explanation. She was a cheater.
"Is that the Ward of Bonaparte on your neck?" The Russian's tale had been intriguing.
The Duchess's hand went to her throat, and her gaze darted around the room. "Perhaps. Where did you hear of it?"
The silver of the sigil glinted, inset in dark green jade. A piece wrought by the hand of Napoleon.
"Is that for sale? Name your price." The request was a bit forward, but if the abacus complimented the family collection, this would complete it. It would not rival his father's contribution, it would surpass it.
"I would sell this piece to you if I could. Oh, how I wish I could sell it to you,"--the Duchess fingered the ward--"but I cannot."
"But why not? Is it the source of your famous luck?"
"I cannot say." She turned and walked away, accompanied by the old man. The old man moved slowly, grimacing in pain as he walked, his leg clearly lame. He glanced back and met Barnaby's eyes. A warning?
Barnaby was not done with the woman. She had spited him, refusing the sale of the Abacus of Algernon for twice her bid. And her unnatural luck at the auction must result from a conspiracy with M. Broche.
But if she broke the rules, so could he. This whole country had broken the rules. Whatever happened here was their own doing.
23 September 1917
Dearest Janet--
I have found no luck in my pursuit of the Abacus of Algernon, but the chase to augment my collection has just begun. I have identified a piece which would earn me an even more prominent place in the history of my family than the abacus.
The piece will be difficult to obtain. But as my father always said, if you want something, you must make your own luck. That I shall do.
I concur with your aunt that it is time for you to consult with a doctor regarding your health. I recommend the Doctor Bell of Baker Street. He does wonderful things with the new scientific medicines.
I miss your emerald eyes greatly, and lament the days until I look into them again.
Your most enthusiastic suitor,
Barnaby Wilks
Barnaby did not have experience with theft, but did not think it could be that difficult a thing. After all, it was frequently and successfully performed by even the most uneducated. He delicately posed some questions to the concierge of the hotel, and after some hand-wringing and a few conveniently misplaced francs, the concierge put him in touch with a sewerman named Xavier.
They met in a dark corner of the hotel bar; well after the respectable guests had gone to sleep. The bartender, an automated device hanging from tracks on the ceiling, topped off their drinks whenever they looked away. Barnaby thought his gin tasted a touch oily, but the flavor wasn't entirely unpleasant.
Xavier dressed in an odd suit of worked, blackened leather and waxed canvas, a protective mask hung around his neck. He smelled of the sewers--Barnaby had no doubt he was legitimate.
"Can you get me into her house?" Barnaby asked.
Xavier hemmed and hawed, but after Barnaby misplaced a few more francs and the bartender rumbled out to deliver a few more drinks, the sewerman decided it could be done.
"Tonight, before this deluge floods the catacombs. Be outside in two hours."
Barnaby bid him goodbye, but Xavier remained in the bar. As Barnaby left the room he almost bumped into Pavel Ilyin entering by the same door. They exchanged nods, but each kept silent.
Barnaby did not expect to sleep but set the levers of the alarm by his bed as a precaution. He was distracted for a few minutes by the device, which used the decimal time of France, but then set it aside and lay atop of the bedsheets to rest.
He thought of Janet and had merely blinked when the chimes reminded him of his task. He rose, dressed, and hurried to the street.
Xavier waited for him. The rain had stopped. They walked together some twenty minutes, passing only silent street lamps in the night.
"We enter the catacombs here." Xavier turned and disappeared down a set of stone steps squeezed covertly between two dark storefronts. Barnaby followed, grasping for handrails but finding none.
The steps descended into darkness, and Barnaby slowed, uncertain of his footing. A clicking noise emanated from the shadows below him, and the soft glow of a portable gas lamp grew into being beside Xavier.
"Stay close." Xavier unlocked a door at the bottom of the steps. They entered a corridor with a dirt floor and rough stone walls lined with alcoves. Gravel crunched and small sticks snapped underfoot.
As they passed a large alcove, Barnaby peered inside. A skeleton stared back, laughing with the lipless grin of the dead. Barnaby shivered, suddenly feeling the damp cold through his jacket. He focused on the lamp in Xavier's hand as they drew deeper into the earth.
He followed the will-o'-wisp through the still air of the catacombs, across putrid gases from overflowing sewage canals, and finally into the warm humid air of the paths alongside the enormous steam pipes of the city. The pipes radiated heat and shuddered with distrustful hisses and clangs, reminders of the power that drove the famous City of Steam.
After an hour of confusing twists and turns, Xavier showed Barnaby a small crawlspace high in the wall off the maintenance-way.
"This is the address you want. I will stay here for one hour, no longer."
Barnaby shuddered at the thought of making his way back through the darkness alone. "I'll be back by then." He hoisted himself into the crawlspace.
It was tight and dark, the air warm and heavy. He crawled on hands and knees down the narrow passage, his head bent low. The wooden floor left splinters in his palms, and every few steps his glasses slipped to the end of his nose. He was forced to stop several times to push them back.
Barnaby wished he could have sent Xavier to do this task, but he did not trust the man. He had told Xavier only where he needed to go, not the treasure that he was going to retrieve. Barnaby's servants all remained in London, tending to the complexities of his father's estate. Without them, he had to do such things as this for himself.
The passageway ended. A pitch-black space lay beyond a cast-iron grating in the floor. Barnaby pulled up the grating and set it aside. He lowered himself slowly through the opening. His foot rested on what seemed to be a wall-shelf, but as he used the purchase to shift his grip, his foot slipped.
Barnaby fell to the floor, glasses tumbling from his head. His tailbone throbbed with pain, but as he examined himself, nothing seemed broken or bleeding.
Body accounted for, he felt around the room for his glasses. His explorations revealed the room to be a pantry lined with shelves of canned food. He was checking the shelves for the lost spectacles when he heard the crunch.
He reached down and found the twisted frame, both lenses shattered. Despair crashed over him, colder than winter waves against the Cornish coast. His luck had turned for the worse, once again.
A weaker man would turn to the occult myth put forth by the Russian for explanation, but he was not a weaker man. This was his fault--he should have worn goggles for an adventure such as this.
Barnaby placed the remains of his glasses in his pocket. He had come this far, he could not let a setback like this halt his plans. He felt his way forward, opening the pantry door. Fresh air flowed out from the next room.
He stepped into it. Between his blurry vision and the dark, he could only speculate he was in a kitchen. He continued forward.
Pain shot up his shin, concurrent with a loud metallic rattle--he had tripped over a stack of pans.
Barnaby froze. Time passed, his heart the loudest noise in the house. When no cry of alarm broke the silence, he continued through the room, finding a staircase set in the far wall.
Each step creaked, though Barnaby strove to minimize the noise, keeping his weight on the inside corner of each step. Reaching the top, he cracked open a door.
Here was more light. A gas lantern, or perhaps a candle, hung lit on the wall. He made out some chairs, and perhaps a table. Nothing moved. Barnaby stepped through the door.
He was getting closer. The Duchess's dressing room would be upstairs, and that was where she most likely stored her jewelry.
"You'll never find it this way," a deep voice declared.
Barnaby jumped. The voice came from one of the large leather chairs. Squinting, he could make out a sitting man dressed in dark sleeping clothes: the Duchess's companion.
"What?" Barnaby found his voice after a moment of silence. He searched his mind unsuccessfully for a reasonable excuse to be sneaking through the Duchess's house in the small hours of the night.
"The Ward. She wears it at all times, even to bed. She is not even home. She is at her villa until tomorrow." Without his spectacles, Barnaby couldn't see the expression on the speaker's face, but the tone was mocking.
"I don't know what you are talking about." Barnaby wondered if he could find an exit to the street while being chased by a man in a cane. Did the man hold a gun? He squinted but could not make out more than a pale blur of the man's body.
"Do you think you are the first? No, you are not. But the power of the ward is great. You were wise not to try to climb to her balcony. Many a hopeful thief has cracked open their skull on the stone below the Duchess's window. It is a slippery route for those with greed in their heart."
"Greed?" Something rang odd about the man's phrasing and the question escaped Barnaby's lips unbidden.
"Oh yes. The Duchess does not speak of her necklace, but I have learned a thing or two from my time near it. It protects the wearer from theft with luck, but such protection acts against only those with greed in their hearts. One of pure intention could lift it from her neck."
"Why are you telling me this?" Barnaby looked at the nearest door. Did it lead further inside or out?
"Because she cannot. Now go back the way you came, before I get tired of this conversation." A metallic click--the distinct sound of a cock of a gunlock--punctuated the request.
Barnaby left. He returned through the kitchen to the pantry and climbed the shelves to re-enter the grate. He felt his way slowly down the passage through which he had arrived. Xavier still awaited but, of course, required additional payment to guide a blind man through the sewers. Still shaken by the night's turn, and without alternative recourse, Barnaby agreed.
By the time Barnaby returned to the hotel, light filtered over the horizon. He went to his room to plan his next step. The Duchess's companion's superstition was meaningless, but the man's suggestion of means had merit in its simplicity.
Barnaby self-consciously adjusted his new glasses on his nose. The concierge had obtained for him a new pair, but they were the thick burnished brass of the latest Parisian style, and he felt foppish.
His plan was straightforward. He would lift the Ward of Bonaparte from the Duchess's neck while she attended the opera. If this had been London, she would be in a private box and protected from such chicanery. But here, the Directorate had outlawed the trappings of social distinction. She would be seated in a common row with the masses.
Barnaby sat behind and three seats to the right of her. He had bribed the couple originally there to switch seats with a pair of tickets he had bought at the door, and now he sat closely studying the event program, using the booklet to hide his face from her view.
The light dimmed and the curtains rose. The performance, a revolutionary remake of "L'Elisir d'Amore," began.
It was Barnaby's intention to grab the Ward at the intermission. The pliers in his coat pocket would allow him to clip the chain and get the prize from her neck in the commotion of the break.
The performance was dreadful, but Barnaby was focused on the chain on the back of the Duchess's neck. It glimmered, almost glowed, softly in the dim theatre light. Imagine, that piece in his collection. . .
On stage, Nemorino lamented his plight and the curtains fell for the intermission.
Barnaby rose for the theft, his hand on the pliers. He squeezed past the stirring patrons to reach the space behind the Duchess.
He made it past two seats.
On the third, his foot caught a woman's leg jutting into the pathway, and he went tumbling forward. He raised his hands to protect his face, the pliers opened, he impacted the floor, and the metal tool tore open the skin of his palms. Pain and blood ran down his arm as he twisted and stumbled back to his feet. Concerned opera-goers produced handkerchiefs, clucking over his injuries and expressing confusion at the presence of a pair of pliers at the opera.
His glasses miraculously remained on his face, allowing him to see the Duchess. Unperturbed by the commotion behind her, she walked off towards the lavatories.
Barnaby returned to his hotel to bandage his hand and consider the possibility of an irrational and occult component to his miserable luck.
The next morning, Barnaby arose early, planning to walk along the Seine and ponder his next move. On his way out he ran into Pavel in the hotel lobby, standing next to a travel chest.
"You are leaving?" Barnaby asked, nodding at the luggage.
"Oh yes, my work here is done."
"What was your work?"
Pavel withdrew a small package wrapped in butcher-paper from his vest pocket. He unwrapped it, revealing the silver and jade of the Ward of Bonaparte.
Barnaby's mouth dropped. "How did you obtain that? The Duchess claimed it was not for sale, I heard it could not be obtained by mere thievery, at least not by those who act for greed?"
"I act for love of the workers of my country. I will take this home, and its luck will help the vanguard launch the final stage of Soviet ascendancy."
Barnaby stared at the ward. He wanted it. He accepted the greed he felt, for the piece was beautiful. The jade glowed in the soft morning light that filtered through the lobby window, the silver sigma implying a mystical power protected its wielder, a power he had experienced himself and now believed.
"Can I buy it from you?" His wealth had gotten him little on this trip, but it was a reflexive request learned from his life in England.
"No, the freedom of my people has no price. I leave in a moment for Petrograd via an express air courier of my allies." Pavel folded up the package and returned it to his vest pocket. "I wish you luck, but this luck I take with me."
A carriage arrived on the street. Pavel lifted his luggage and walked out to meet it.
Barnaby stood in the lobby until the carriage drove off, the perfect piece for the Wilks collection within.
26 September 1917
Dearest Janet--
I was most saddened to receive your recent letter and learn of the diagnosis of your condition. We must hold hope--consumption kills many, but the lucky few survive. My love for you is great, and I pledge to do whatever is necessary to help you.
I believe I can obtain the luck you need. Tomorrow I will begin the long journey to St. Petersburg (or Petrograd, as they insist on calling it these days) in pursuit of the Ward of Bonaparte. This charm can create the extraordinary luck you need to survive this trial, and my love for you will put it within grasp.
This trip will take several months and cause me to miss the holidays at your mother's house. But I cannot bear to see you suffer as my father did--if I can do anything to protect you from this affliction, I must.
Please pass my condolences to your family for your illness. I hope the New Year will bring better news to you and yours.
Your dedicated suitor,
Barnaby Wilks
The papers in Oslo had made much of the October uprising in Petrograd, but the conflict was not evident in the street. Nevertheless, Barnaby patted the derringer he had bought in Paris as he walked along the city's canal. Revolution brought out troublemakers.
Much like the market streets of all of Europe this winter, Nevsky Prospect had been full of thinly clad people waiting to purchase a scrap of bread or a scoop of sugar, but those with meager dress avoided the cold afternoon winds off the canal. He had the sidewalk to himself. He passed only the red flags of the Committee snapping in the wind and paddle-boats puffing down the canal.
It had taken him three months, and almost all of his savings, to circumnavigate the German front. Commercial travel was significantly disrupted throughout the continent. He had eventually settled for a water ship to Oslo, a zeppelin to Helsinki, and then a train to Petrograd.
Despite his ignorance of the Russian tongue, he had located Pavel. The Russian was a noted member of the group responsible for the recent uprising, and his whereabouts were well known.
The Committee, as the group was called, met in what had once been a women's college. Barnaby turned from the canal when he saw the soldiers sitting at the gate of the college. The soldiers wore the uniform of the Tsar's army, but red armbands marked them as Tsarists no more. They gave his foreign dress only the slightest flicker of interest. Their rifles remained by their sides.
He was finally mastering the ways of crime. The key, Barnaby decided, was to carry yourself as if you knew where you were going. He might not look like he belonged, but he looked like he was expected.
He reached the building proper and passed under the brick arches and ionic columns of the building entrance. The interior was an open arcade, a long three-story building with open floors overlooking the central hall. Several soldiers milled about. One smoked a cigarette and loitered near the wall.
Mindful he couldn't afford to look misplaced, he walked up to the smoker and uttered Pavel's name, projecting the confidence of someone who was in the right place.
It worked. The man pointed with his cigarette at a door on the second floor and grunted.
Barnaby found a staircase and climbed to the second story. He reflected that if luck was working against him, that solider would have shot him on sight as an intruder. As he was still standing, his confidence grew. His love for Janet was true.
The door that the man had indicated was cracked open. Barnaby did not knock. He drew the derringer and entered the room.
Dim sunlight filtered through a thin curtain over the window. A figure slumped silently at the desk. Perhaps he had arrived too late--another had come and shot Pavel and stolen the ward. But as Barnaby approached the desk, he heard a snore from Pavel, and then saw the ward. It had been fashioned onto a bracelet, a bracelet which hung loosely on Pavel's arm, almost free for the taking.
Barnaby stepped quietly forward, holding the gun at ready and drew the bracelet off of the sleeping Pavel. He snorted, but remained asleep.
The jade was brighter than Barnaby remembered, almost glowing in the dark room. The silver sigil was cold to his touch. He slid it on his arm and a shiver ran through his body. He wore luck.
Barnaby jumped, and Pavel started. A message had arrived in the pneumatic tube on Pavel's desk. Barnaby stepped back but was too late. Pavel saw him. Barnaby leveled the pistol at him. He did not want to use it but would if he needed to.
Pavel frowned. "Ah . . . Vous. I would have never expected it would be you. Your greed stopped you in Paris. Have you grown past that?"
"I have obtained this for the love of my life."
"That is right, you knew one of the secrets of the ward, the only one I knew when I stole it. But I have since discovered more, secrets that cannot be said by one who holds the ward. But now that you have stolen it, I can share them with you."
Pavel must be trying to stall, to trap him on the grounds so another soldier could arrive.
"You are coming with me." Barnaby motioned with the pistol. With Pavel aware of the theft, he would have to walk out with Pavel as a silent hostage. It would be dangerous, but if he was lucky, it could work.
And this time, luck was on his arm.
Pavel did not argue. He stood and slowly walked towards the door, hands at his side. Barnaby walked behind him.
Pavel was silent in the corridor but spoke quietly as they walked down the staircase.
"Luck is a slippery thing. I see that now. The success of the uprising was lucky for me and my party, but the vehemence of the purge bodes poorly for the future of the country I love."
Barnaby's eyes scanned the hall at the base of the staircase. A dozen soldiers leaned against the wall and watched with interest as they descended.
"Quiet," he said under his breath.
Pavel nodded. "Of course." He gave a friendly salute to the soldiers. They accepted that as a dismissal of their attention and turned back to their distant thoughts.
Barnaby and Pavel walked to the canal, following the embankment out of sight of the guards.
"This is where we say goodbye," Barnaby said, stopping beside a flagpole. Above him, the red flag snapped in the breeze. No one seemed to be chasing him nor care about his robbery.
"I have something to give you," said Pavel. "I am going to reach slowly into my pocket. I am not armed. I have a letter from the Duchess for you. And I know you do not expect to hear this, but let me thank you for what you are doing."
Barnaby--still pointing the gun at him--nodded, confused. Pavel pulled out a letter and handed it to Barnaby, waved goodbye, and walked away.
A paddle-boat steamed up the canal, its wake breaking against the embankment. Barnaby opened the letter.
M. Ilyin--
I have learned through associates that you have obtained the Ward of Napoleon. Now free of its curse, I can tell you what you have truly won.
You think the ward brings luck. You are correct, but I think you are mistaken in what that means.
Napoleon strove to use the Ward to concentrate the power of luck in someone pure of heart. But his creation had a flaw: in focusing the probabilities on itself, it sucks luck out of the surrounding world.
As a result, the luck of the ward is less good luck for the bearer than misfortune for those that surround the bearer. I survived the Opera fire, but my husband did not. I survived the train-wreck, but my daughter did not. This luck is not the type to be sought, but the type to be escaped.
That escape is not easy, for the power of the Ward works against it. It cannot be given away nor destroyed nor sold by your free will. It cannot be stolen by the greedy or those in the pursuit of power, and while under its influence, you will find you cannot warn others of its curse.
It can only change hands if it is taken by one with pure intent, one who wishes to help another. That is the most evil face of Bonaparte's Ward: It curses those around the bearer, but can only be obtained by one who would care for those hurt by this power.
Thank you for freeing me of its curse.
The signature was illegible.
Barnaby tried to take off the bracelet and throw it in the canal, but could not bring himself to do so. No matter how he directed his hand, it would not remove the ward from his arm to destroy it. The curse overruled his will.
In Petrograd, young Barnaby Wilks walked along the canal and thought of his Janet, warm tears splattering his thick glasses.
28 December 1917
Dearest Janet--
I will not be returning home.
I cannot tell you why, but trust that I love you and I do it for you.
Pass my regrets to my family and yours.
Pledging My Eternal Love,
Barnaby Wilks
The End
This story was first published on Friday, July 1st, 2011

Author Comments

For those who are interested in such things, the mercury auction in this story is a variant of a "descending clock auction." This auction format has been used historically in Dutch flower and Japanese vegetable markets. In Barnaby's world, the Institut might choose a descending clock auction (in the spirit of post-revolution Fraternité) because it minimizes the "snob premium" from beating other bidders to win a unique object. In a descending clock auction, the winner can't be certain anyone else was interested in bidding on the object at all.

- K.G. Jewell
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