All things considered, he'd rather face torture at the hands of Thrush than his present assignment. Their destination was two hours out of the city. Illya had claimed the driver's seat, but traffic was too light today to require his full attention. The open road left his mind plenty of time to ruminate on the task at hand. Taking his eyes from the highway, Illya glanced at his partner. Napoleon seemed deep in thought, watching the brightly colored trees through the car window.
Kuryakin thought back to the morning. He had known something was wrong as soon as he arrived at headquarters. Del Floria was somber as Illya passed through the tailor shop. The receptionist looked like she was fighting back tears as she pinned on his badge. The building itself seemed blanketed by the kind of hushed whispering that too often meant they'd lost one of their own. It didn't take long to find out why.
Jack Donovan had been killed in Geneva.
Jack's loss felt like a punch in the gut. He'd been well-liked among both his fellow agents and U.N.C.L.E. support staff. An Irish-Catholic from Boston, he'd never lost his accent or his irreverent sense of humor. Jack had been approaching the age limit for section two agents. Another year and he'd have been out of the field, though according to Solo, Donovan would go stark staring mad behind a desk.
Napoleon entered their shared office a beat after Illya, his face stony with shock. Jack and Napoleon had been good friends, similar in approach to work, both of them charming and cunning. Kuryakin sometimes wondered why Solo had never become formal partners with Donovan. Maybe they had been too much alike. With their own partnership less than a year old, Illya was pretty sure his and Napoleon's remarkable success was due to their dissimilarities.
The normally reserved Kuryakin had been fond of Donovan. Jack had been one of the few agents to offer acceptance when Illya first came to New York. The Russian would never forget the first time they'd worked together, a nasty case in Phoenix. The U.N.C.L.E. team had prevailed, but only after two sleepless nights, several missed meals and more than a few bruises, mostly Illya's.
At the end of the affair, Illya wanted nothing more than room service, a hot shower, a towel filled with ice for his sore spots and ten hours of uninterrupted sleep in that order. Jack had insisted they unwind over dinner and what turned out to be a prodigious amount of alcohol. After months of isolation by his coworkers, Kuryakin had hardly known what to make of it. No one had ever included him in a post-mission gathering before; indeed, it would be the last one until his partnership with Solo.
They were called to Waverly's inner sanctum before they had even removed their suit jackets. Without a word between them, they proceeded to their superior's office. The old man looked like he'd aged ten years; the lines in his face eroded overnight into deep groves. Waverly had known Jack for many years, longer than anyone else at New York headquarters.
"Ghastly business," he said as they entered. "Dreadful." He seemed preoccupied with his pipe, knocking the remains of previous use into an ashtray. He carefully filled the bowl, tamping down the tobacco. Patting his pockets, he searched for a means to light it. Finding none, he absentmindedly put the unlit pipe in the ashtray.
"Gentlemen, I need your help."
They sat at the round table, a look passing between the partners. Alexander Waverly voiced his expectations, he gave orders and delivered instructions. This was expected. Waverly asking for their help was not.
The old man reached into his breast pocket and withdrew a snapshot. He placed it on the blotter before him and spun the table until the photograph was before his agents. Illya picked it up by the deckled edges and held it so both he and Solo could see. It showed a younger Jack Donovan, smiling into the sun, one arm around a pretty blonde woman and the other holding a small girl. To Illya's untrained eye the child appeared around three years old, wearing a little wool coat and bonnet. Judging from the styles they wore, the photo appeared to have been taken shortly after the war.
"Who are the woman and little girl?" Solo asked.
"The woman was Caroline Donovan. The child is Mary Clair. Jack and Caroline were married during the war.
He'd been sent from the states to work with MI5 during the war," Waverly said. He searched his pockets again, this time finding his elusive matches. "That's when I met him. Caroline was one of our secretaries. Lovely girl. She was a vicar's daughter from Sussex - a true English rose."
"I had no idea he was married, let alone had a child." Napoleon was obviously stunned. "I take it from your use of the past tense, that Mrs. Donovan is dead."
"She was killed in '52," Waverly said. "The family was coming home from a holiday in Bournemouth when their car was forced off the road. The car rolled over and Caroline's neck was broken. Jack suffered a concussion. The child had been asleep in the back seat and was unharmed."
"Forced off the road," Illya repeated. "An attempt against Jack, I gather."
"Undoubtedly," Waverly confirmed, fingering the box of matches.
"Who was responsible for her death?" Solo asked.
Waverly struck a match. He held the flame to the bowl of the pipe, drawing deeply to ignite the tobacco. The smoke wreathed his head, filling the air with the scent of pipe tobacco.
"After the war, Jack had been instrumental in breaking up a massive smuggling operation--black market, you understand. He made some very bad enemies. The whole damn thing was as ironic as it was tragic. He and Caroline had separated not long after he joined U.N.C.L.E., and she had taken the child overseas to live in Sussex with the vicar. When the old man died, Jack went over to pay his respects and he and Caroline reconciled. He called me and requested transfer out of section two, said they were going to live as a family again and he couldn't put Caroline through the worry anymore. But after her death, he went back into the field. And wasted no time in exacting vengeance, I might add. "
"Where is the child?" Solo asked.
"Mary Clair is at a convent school in Connecticut, and that brings us to my request. Gentlemen, I need you to deliver the sad news while I make the, ah, necessary arrangements. You both knew her father—especially, Mr. Solo—and I hope hearing the news from his friends will soften the blow."
"Is there any other family, sir?"
"Sadly, no, Mr. Solo. When Caroline died, Jack asked me to serve as her guardian in the event of his demise. I will call the school and tell them to expect you."
Which brought the two agents to their present position, heading deep into the Litchfield hills, to Saint Boniface Convent and School.
Illya felt singularly ill-equipped for bereavement duty, both by temperament and training. That was usually left to senior personnel, to people with empathetic natures and free flowing words. The Russian was no stranger to receiving bad news, and he was quite sure he wouldn't want to hear it from someone like himself.
"I hate this," Napoleon muttered. Illya wondered if his partner had read his mind. "I still can't believe it."
"That Jack is dead?" Illya asked.
"No. That's too easily believed. What I can't get through my head is that he had a daughter, and that I didn't know it. Jack was a friend--he took me under his wing when I first joined. We must have had hundreds of conversations over the years and he never mentioned a kid. Now, I wonder if I ever really knew him," Napoleon said, shaking his head. "Hey, there aren't any little Kuryakins running around that you haven't told me about, are there?"
"None of which I'm aware," Illya replied, wryly. "I think this is the turnoff."
Some wealthy Catholic family must have bequeathed the old Gothic mansion to the Sisters of the Most Precious Blood as the sign at the gate identified the order. A tree lined lawn was blanketed by fallen leaves, stretching along the driveway up to the school.
They got out of the car and climbed the steps to the rust colored stone building and rang the bell. After a few minutes, a wimpled nun greeted them and guided them across a wide entry hall to the Mother Superior's office.
"Reverend Mother will see you now," the nun said as she escorted them into the office.
Sunlight slanted in through tall windows. When the building was a private home, the large room was probably ornately furnished, with landscapes and family portraits decorating the walls. In its present incarnation, it was Jesus and Pope John XXIII smiling down in benevolence. The furniture was as Spartan and unembellished as the woman seated behind the desk.
"Thank you for coming, gentlemen. I am Mother Elizabeth Grossner, headmistress of St. Boniface. This is such a tragedy for all concerned."
Appearing to be around 60 years old, her movements were fairly sprightly despite her heavy habit, as she rose to shake their hands. Her gentle voice belied the rather severe lines of her face. Realizing that the two men were still standing, she gestured for them to sit.
"Please, make yourselves comfortable." Easier said than done, Illya thought, as they sat opposite her desk on two very hard chairs.
Mother Grossner picked up the phone on her desk, pushed a button and spoke, "Sister, please ask Clair Donovan to come to my office."
"Yes, Reverend Mother," came the reply in a faint, tinny voice.
"Your Mr. Waverly said that you both knew Mr. Donovan," she said to them with a weary sigh. "Even after five years with his daughter in my care, I must tell you, I cannot say I ever understood him."
Napoleon looked like he was going to say something. Illya wondered if he would defend Jack, or commiserate about not understanding him either. Before he could speak, there was a soft knock on the door.
"Come," Mother Grossner said. The heavy wooden door opened, and a girl entered.
"You asked to see me, Reverend Mother?" At the sight of the two men her eyes widened, perhaps as she sensed the gravity in the room. Thin and small in stature, she seemed younger than fifteen in her school girl pinafore dress. Hair the color of dark honey hung in long braids down her back. She stood before them like a lamb, and Kuryakin felt far too much as if he was holding the ax.
"Yes, dear," Mother Grossner said as she stood and gestured for the girl to enter. "These gentlemen work with your father. This is Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin."
Both men stood, turning as the girl came closer. She seemed to steel herself, anticipating the news. "Something has happened to him," she stated plainly. Her speech has a slight British cadence, evidence of formative years spent in England.
"I'm afraid so," Napoleon said. "Your father was killed last night. I'm so sorry."
The strength she had gathered deserted the girl and it looked as if her knees might buckle. Solo reacted first, guiding her to one of the straight-backed chairs.
"I understand this is hard news to hear from strangers," Solo said as he sat next to the girl. "I want you to know that Mr. Kuryakin and I knew and respected your father very much."
"How did it happen?" she asked, voice choked with emotion.
"It was in the line of duty." Napoleon said. "He was trying to stop some very bad people."
"I want to know what happened to him," she said, more forcefully this time. Tears welled up in her eyes. "Was he shot?"
"He was killed in an explosion," Illya said, as gently as he could. "It would have been very fast. He wouldn't have suffered." He hoped she wouldn't press for details, so he didn't have to tell her the condition of Jack's remains. That would have been too much for her to handle, but he felt she deserved the truth. It was what he would want in her place.
"Thank you," she said softly, seemingly satisfied with his explanation. As she met his gaze, Illya detected a sharpness in her eyes. Grief, yes, and something else—something elusive yet familiar. The face was young—pale smooth skin and wide gray eyes, but the gaze from those eyes seemed to come from a much older being.
"I want to convey the sympathy of our entire organization," Napoleon said. "Your dad will be greatly missed, Mary Clair."
"Just Clair," she said. At his confused look she gave him a little smile and continued. "This is a Catholic school, Mr. Solo. There are 23 Marys here, eight in my grade alone. I just go by Clair now—less confusion when attendance is taken."
Mother Grossner picked up her phone and spoke softly into it. After hanging up, she came around the desk and took the girl's hands. "Clair, I've asked Sister Francis to help you pack a bag. These gentlemen will escort you to New York for your father's services. Sister Francis will accompany you."
"Thank you, Reverend Mother," Clair said and she left the room, still looking a bit unsteady.
"You mentioned not understanding her father," Solo said once the door was closed.
Mother Grossner touched the heavy silver crucifix that hung around her neck. She seemed to be gathering her thoughts, wanting to speak carefully.
"Clair is a brilliant child, Mr. Solo. Certainly the brightest mind I've experienced in my career. She didn't belong at St. Boniface. Our mission is to prepare young women for Godly lives, some to marry and have children, others to work in the world. We are equipped to handle mainstream students, not those at the extreme ends of the spectrum. I advised Mr. Donovan that Clair would be better served at a school for the gifted. There are several appropriate schools in New York City. She could have lived at home, but Mr. Donovan wouldn't hear of it.
"Did he explain why he wanted her to remain here?" Solo asked.
"He said she was safe here. But we have no special security measures, other than stout locks on the doors. To be honest, I think it was easier for him not to have to deal with any child, much less one who had exceptional gifts." Frustration was evident in her voice. "There is more, gentlemen. I understand your superior is now her guardian. He needs to understand the situation. Clair completed our 12th grade curriculum in April of last year."
"She's only fifteen," Illya said. "What will happen with her education?"
"We have obtained materials from the University of Connecticut. Clair has been in independent study since the beginning of this school year. She's doing well academically, but I fear she is suffering socially. Clair has always been naturally reticent and thus somewhat apart from her schoolmates. No longer attending classes with the other girls only increases her isolation. "
"I'm sure it is still better for her than being thrown into a university setting at fifteen," Illya said.
"Agreed, which was why I didn't press the issue when Mr. Donovan resisted moving her to another school. But soon she will need far more than we can provide here."
Illya watched as his partner dipped his fingers in the marble basin of holy water and made the sign of the cross. It seemed odd that someone as secular as Napoleon Solo would perform such a religious act. Solo caught his partner's expression and whispered, "Hard to believe, but I used to be an altar boy."
Illya wanted to smile at the image of a young Solo wearing a surplice, but he kept his face neutral as they filed into a pew behind Waverly, Clair and Sister Francis. The girl seemed very small between the two adults. She turned as they moved behind her, looking up from under her black beret. Illya thought he detected gratitude in her eyes.
They were in St. Malachy's Church on Broadway, watching the procession of the priest and altar boys and the six agents bearing Jack's casket down the center aisle of the church.
The question of a location for the services was solved when Solo remembered Jack attended St. Malachy's from time to time. Masses were offered at odd hours to accommodate the theater schedule which suited Jack's own odd hours, and theater folk had a raffish lack of piety that made him feel right at home.
U.N.C.L.E. personnel were in attendance, or at least as many of them as could be spared from active duty. The only time the Russian entered a church was for funerals, and he attended far more of these than he liked. He did his best to remain respectful and stand when required, sitting forward a little in the pew when everyone around him kneeled. He noted with interest that his partner spoke the Latin responses from memory.
Catholic funerals were longer than some other denominations, but at least they dispensed with the eulogy. Those were usually delivered by a relative who knew next to nothing about the actual life of the subject whose true activities were known to only his fellow agents.
He watched as Clair and Sister Francis and some of the other attendees knelt at the altar rail to receive Holy Communion. Napoleon was not one of the communicants. Soon the priest said the final prayers over the casket, swinging the incense burner over it as smoke drifted up to the rafters of the church.
It was a long ride out to the cemetery. The burial was, as always, shockingly sudden. In what seemed like the span of a heartbeat, the casket was in the ground and the little knot of mourners left standing in the bright sunshine. Illya watched as Clair blinked back tears, hands thrust into the pockets of her wool coat. It was a relief when Mr. Waverly announced that they would be going back to headquarters for lunch and a meeting with the U.N.C.L.E. legal department.
The double takes by the staff were priceless as they entered the building. Illya wondered if it was the first time a Catholic nun had ever walked the halls of U.N.C.L.E headquarters. Sister Francis was fairly goggle-eyed as she took in the armed agents and secretaries bustling through the gray halls. Clair seemed rather nonplussed by headquarters. Illya wondered how much Jack had shared with her about his work.
They ate in the commissary. The room was unusually quiet though it was the busiest part of the lunch period. Illya wasn't sure if the other diners were keeping their voices low out of deference to the bereaved, or if they were simply inhibited in the presence of a nun. When lunch was finished, Waverly turned to Clair. "My dear, I've asked Mr. Lundy to meet us in my office. He has some information for you about your father's estate. I hope it eases any worries you have about the future."
"Sir, I have some reports I need to finish," Solo said as he rose from the table.
"Of course, Mr. Solo," Waverly said and Napoleon left.
Illya stood as well, planning to do some paperwork of his own. Clair caught his eye, an unspoken plea in her gaze. "Would you like me to come along?" he asked quietly. She nodded and it struck him that for some reason, Clair trusted him. Illya wanted to offer her whatever security he could.
George Lundy was the most deadpan individual Illya had ever met. He was a highly competent lawyer—U.N.C.L.E. did not employ people who were not good at what they did, but the lawyer was devoid of any detectable personality. Lundy removed a stack of legal papers from his briefcase and placed them on the desk. Speaking in a monotone, he outlined the provisions Jack had made for his daughter, flipping over each document as he finished his explanation of it.
Considering how uninvolved Jack had apparently been in his child's life, his final bequests had been meticulously handled, undoubtedly influenced by the U.N.C.L.E. legal department. All agents had wills on file but it was vanishingly rare for a section two agent to have dependents.
"A substantial trust fund has been set up for you, Miss Donovan, accessible on your 21st birthday. Until that time Mr. Waverly and I will oversee the fund and disperse an allowance for your needs. Further, your education is very well funded. Your father had investments and savings, not to mention his life insurance with the organization. Additionally, he owned an apartment in a very good building here in midtown. The rental income from that property will be quite substantial. "
Clair listened intently, an amazing feat considering the incredibly dull presentation. More evidence that she was not a typical fifteen year old. "May I look at these?" she asked, indicating the papers.
"Certainly," Lundy said, with a hint of surprise. It was possibly the only emotion the man had ever displayed. The lawyer straightened the paperwork, tapping the edges on the table and handed them to Clair. She paged through them carefully, taking her time. After a few minutes, she handed them back and thanked him.
Illya excused himself as the meeting broke up and returned to the office. In shirtsleeves, Solo had his feet up on his desk, arms folded over his chest. If reports had been worked on, they were no longer in evidence as the desk was bare.
"Isn't taking a break contingent on having worked?" Kuryakin asked as he tossed his suit jacket onto an empty chair.
"We can't all have your work ethic," Solo replied with a grin. "Someone has to do the sitting around and thinking."
"Good to see you have that well in hand."
"How did it go with legal?" Napoleon asked as he lowered his feet to the floor.
"Jack left her well set, at least financially. Doesn't alter the fact that she is alone in the world, but I suppose it is better than worrying about your next meal or where you're going to sleep."
"I keep thinking that I'd like to throttle Jack. Kid loses her grandfather, loses her mother and has nobody left but Jack. So, what does he do? Puts her in boarding school and goes back to work. But, you know, I have to ask myself what I'd do in his place. If I had a child and there was no one but me to take care of her, could I walk away from the work? Do you think you could do it?"
Before Kuryakin could respond, Waverly's secretary, Sarah Johnson rapped on their open door and leaned into the room. "Have you seen Clair?"
"Not since I left her and Sister Francis in Waverly's office," Illya said. "I believe they were planning on going back to their hotel."
"Well, Clair has disappeared. She said she was going to the ladies room and no one has seen her since. Sister Francis is beside herself."
They proceeded to Waverly's office where they found their superior standing over the nun, handing her a glass of water.
"Security was able to track Clair through the building," Waverly said. "She left through the employee entrance half an hour ago. No one thought to stop her."
"She left her coat. She must be freezing out there." Sister Francis gulped some water. "Reverend Mother is going to be very upset with me, but it never occurred to me that she might go off on her own that way. Clair has always been very reliable. "
"Gentlemen, needless to say, we must find her. I'm putting you two in charge of the search."
"Yes, sir," Napoleon said. "We'll get right on it."
As they left the office, Illya turned to his partner. "I think I know where she might be."
The door to Jack's apartment was ajar. Illya reached for his weapon in an automatic reaction to an unsecured location. With conscious effort he lowered his arm, leaving the gun in its holster, and quietly pushed open the door.
Clair stood in the middle of the living room, hands clenched at her sides. She wore a navy dress trimmed with black, a black headband holding her long hair away from her face. She looked like Alice in Wonderland in mourning.
"Clair," Illya said softly. She wheeled around, startled, her cheeks pink from the cold and wind. She must have walked the sixteen blocks from headquarters. "I didn't mean to frighten you. Headquarters is in quite an uproar. Very impressive, actually."
"Oh my goodness," she said, realization dawning on her. "Sister Francis must be very angry."
"More frightened than angry, I would say."
"How...how did you find me?"
"Let's just say, I understand the how orphans think. I was surprised when you asked to look through the legal papers—rather unusual behavior for a teenaged girl—until I figured out that you were looking for this address. I had a feeling you'd want to see where your father lived. It's what I would have wanted to do."
"Your parents died?" she asked and he nodded. "How old were you?"
"Younger than you are. My father was a soldier and died when I was very young. I don't remember much of him. I was eleven when I lost my mother."
"How did she die?"
"I was told that she died of pneumonia."
"I'm so sorry," she said. Tears slipped down her cheeks and she swiped at them with the back of her hand. Illya pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and pressed it into her hand.
"I survived," he said, gently. "I understand, you know—the anger. I saw it in your eyes when you heard the news. I wasn't able to place it right away, but then it all came back to me—that feeling of abandonment."
"I know it's wrong," she said with a bitter laugh. "It wasn't his fault that he died."
"It doesn't have to be rational," Illya said. "It's normal. I was angry with my mother, thinking that she didn't fight hard enough to stay alive. And I remember wanting to figure out who my parents were, especially my father, since I knew so little of him." She nodded in recognition.
"I thought if I could see where he lived, I could understand him," she said. "But there's nothing of him here—it's like a dentist's waiting room. The bedroom looks like no one lives there. "
Illya looked around and smiled. Jack's place was as generic and impersonal as his own, albeit with better furniture. Illya wondered what Clair would say if she could see his own barren flat.
"It's a nice apartment," Illya offered.
"Look around," she said, bitterness in her voice. "There isn't one picture of me. None of the dumb ashtrays I made in art class, or the Father's Day presents I gave him. It's like I never existed. And you know what? I think to him, I never did!"
She was sobbing now, angry and trembling. Kuryakin was out of his element. Napoleon would know how to comfort her, but emotion was one language in which Illya was not fluent. But watching Clair in pain was making something hurt in his own heart and he had to do something about it. He stepped forward and put his arms around her. "I don't believe that," he said, his chin brushing the top of her head.
"You had no idea he even had a daughter," she said. Her voice was muffled against his chest. "Neither did Mr. Solo, and he knew my father for years. What does that tell you?" She pushed away from him, her eyes flashing with anger.
"That he wanted to keep you safe. Our lives are in danger all the time. We have to be very careful that it doesn't spill over to the people we care about."
"I always hoped that someday I'd get some answers from him. The thing that makes me angriest is that I'll never know. I can't ask him now and I'll never know."
"What did you want to know?" he asked, though he could well imagine the question in his own orphan heart. "What would you ask if you could?"
"I'd ask why he sent me away from him? Why didn't he keep any of my stupid little gifts? Why am I not here, anywhere?" Her voice cracked on the last question as she gestured at the room. The next one was a whisper. "Did he love me?"
Ah, the question asked by all orphaned children. There was no easy answer he could give her. She deserved more than easy assurances. Clair watched him struggle to find something to say, a little smile flickering across her face.
"It's okay," she said. "You can consider that a rhetorical question."
He ducked his head in relief. He was unused to emotional displays and felt depleted. "I don't know about you, but I'm starving."
"Now that you mention it, I am pretty hungry."
"I know exactly where we can go. Why don't you wash your face while I call headquarters and let them know you're safe."
He'd offered to hail a taxicab, but she wanted to walk. Figuring she needed to burn off some of her anger, Illya agreed and they walked back to headquarters, Clair bundled up in one of Jack's sweaters.
"We only need to go a block or two out of our way for this place," he said, pointing in the right direction. It was chilly with the sun blocked by the buildings. Clair pulled the gray wool closer around her.
"I remember this restaurant!" she said as they approached the Times Square Horn and Hardart. He ushered her into the restaurant. She turned in a circle, taking in the shiny surfaces, the art deco signs announcing the offerings and the little windows below. "What can we have?" she asked.
"Whatever you want," Illya said as he handed the change lady a five dollar bill. "My treat." He poured a handful of nickels into her cupped palms, which Clair had delightedly put in the coin slots. She withdrew ham sandwiches and slices of pumpkin pie from the little doors, handing them to Illya to put on their tray. More nickels got them glasses of milk. He carried the full tray to an empty table.
"I don't want to give you the impression that my father completely neglected me," she said between bites of sandwich. "He called me once a week. We spent two weeks together every summer and he never missed a Christmas."
"What did you do together," Illya asked.
"We went to Cape Cod sometimes or to a dude ranch. One year we went to Disneyland. I liked that. And we usually went skiing over Christmas. But one year, Dad said he wanted me to see Christmas in New York because it was so special. That was the first time I came to the Automat."
"What else?" He liked hearing her talk of happier times.
"Oh, we did all the tourist things: we saw the Rockettes and the Nutcracker. Went skating at Rockefeller Center. Looked in the store windows on Fifth Avenue. He didn't bring me to his apartment, though. We stayed at the Plaza Hotel. It felt special at the time, magical. I realize now that he was keeping me apart from the rest of his life."
"Try to just remember that it felt special."
Illya Kuryakin held an archive type cardboard box under one arm while he knocked on the hotel room door.
"Good Morning," he said as the door opened to reveal Clair, hairbrush in hand, her hair a long glossy swath over her shoulder.
"Mr. Kuryakin," she said. "I didn't expect to see you today."
"Please call me Illya. I'm here to drive you and Sister Francis back to school."
"Illya," she said, trying it out. "Come in. Sorry you got stuck with chauffeur duty. You must have lots more important things to do."
"Actually, I volunteered," he said entering the living room area. Waverly had spared no expense, booking them a suite. The remains of a room service breakfast were evident on the dining table by a picture window. He could hear movement behind the closed bedroom door.
"Sister Francis is still getting dressed. She should be ready soon," Clair said. Filled with curiosity, her eyes were on the brown cardboard box in his hands.
"I have something for you," he said placing the box on the coffee table. Clearly puzzled, she sat on the sofa and raised the lid.
"Holy smoke," she whispered as she reached in and lifted out a dark green, slightly lopsided ceramic ashtray. "He kept it. I made it for him when I was in the 5th grade. How did you find this?"
"Ever since Jack died, Napoleon and I have been trying to understand the man we thought we knew. Finally, I came to the conclusion that the man who wanted to show you New York at Christmas would not discard your gifts. But that begged the question, where would such a man hide things that meant a lot to him if he had to keep them secret."
"So where did such a man put them?" she asked, voice choked with something between tears and laughter.
"They were in a locked desk drawer in his office. I figured he would want them close by, or he would have kept them in a safe deposit box. The most secure place he could keep them and still have access was the office."
"I can't believe you went to all this trouble for me."
It was worth any effort on his part to see the look on Clair's face as she withdrew each item, tenderly holding it in the palm of her hand. A leather key fob, hand-stitched at summer camp, a pair of white satin baby shoes, a handmade card showing a small bright blue handprint, each carefully unpacked and placed on the coffee table.
At the bottom of the box was an envelope of photographs. "Most of these are from our vacations," she said, flipping through them so he could see. There were pictures of Clair on the beach and on the ski slopes, one with her on her backside in the snow. Clair laughed at that one, and it was a good thing to hear.
"Was that at the dude ranch?" Illya asked as she held up a picture of a very small Clair atop a very big horse. The look on her face in the photo was one of terrified excitement.
"Here's the two of us at Disneyland." A smiling Jack and Clair were seated in a big teacup. Clair was wearing a mouse-earred beanie and Jack's arm was around her shoulders. "I seem to remember Peter Pan taking this picture."
"Look at the pictures, Clair" Illya said, taking them from her hands. "See here and here--the edges are worn and bent. There are fingerprints on some of the corners. Jack looked at these often."
"Thank you for this. It means a lot to me," Clair said as she packed away the pictures and trinkets. She sighed. "I just wish I knew I mattered to him while he was alive."
"I don't know why your father made the choices he did. This job is...well, it's not a normal job and you can't do it and live a normal life. It's somewhere between a religious vocation and drug addiction," Illya said with a laugh. "But I believe your father loved you as much as he was able. Maybe it wasn't enough, but I think it was the best he had to give."
"Thank you, Illya," she said, replacing the lid on the box. "This was the best gift anyone has ever given me."
"It was my pleasure," he said. "Something from one orphan to another."