Operation Sycamore

A sycamore tree in full leaf stands against a blue sky
“Operation Sycamore”, 9in x 12 in, acrylic on canvas

We needed a code name for our operation — an assignment to retrieve a piece of equipment and some uranium ore samples that had been stolen from a research group. The right name should roll easily off the tongue, sound vaguely intriguing, and pique the interest of movie producers looking for their next action hit, in case they wanted to buy the rights to our story.

“How about Operation Redwood?” I suggested.

“This assignment has nothing to do with redwoods,” you said.

“Then it will fool the enemy.” Not really — they were already on to us, which we knew because the guards had caught us breaking in to the lab and subsequently locked us in a small cellar room. But I just liked the name redwood.

“Operation Escape is what we need,” you said.

A bit too literal, I thought, too obvious. “Sure,” I agreed. “This phase is Operation Escape. And maybe Operation Breakfast.” 

We had been left for eight hours without a peep from our captors. The only reason we hadn’t tried anything yet was that we both felt like getting a good night’s sleep — after hiking over a ridge, scrambling through the dense Kyrgyzstan forest, locating the hidden country house, cutting through the chain link fence, disabling the security system, running up to the fourth floor where the owner had set up a makeshift lab, then getting caught by the two guards, which was probably my fault.

Here’s how that happened.

First off, the house was old, built with a lot of stone — almost a chateau but without the charming style. It had been unoccupied for decades before the new owner came along and modernized it, adding a fourth floor with a lab and another room. He was — to put it bluntly — a criminal, but not on the level of evil genius. He had been hounded out of Russia and had recently gotten into the business of minerals and other geologic treasures, including oil extraction, precious gems, and uranium mining.

After we broke in to the house and found the lab at the top of the stairs, you knelt down with your lock-picking kit and went to work. Everyone was away for the weekend — as our contact had told us they’d be — except for two guards. My job was to watch for them.

I went to check the other room for signs of life and quietly opened the door a crack to look in. Difficult to tell in the midnight darkness, but it seemed to be a library, with a sliding glass door that opened onto a patio. I caught a whiff of stale cigarette smoke but couldn’t see anyone and I didn’t want to shine a light around, so I closed the door and went back to check the stairwell, tiptoeing down a few stairs and listening for movement below.

That’s when I heard the library door opening — and voices! 

The guards must have been on the patio for a smoke. I swore at myself for not looking there. In two seconds I was back up the stairs and you were putting away your tools. The guards came into the hall, saw us, and cornered us before we could slip away. They both had rifles and acted like they knew how to use them, so we acted like we knew how to be cooperative. 

There wasn’t any discussion — no yelling “hands up or we’ll shoot,” no interrogation — though we wouldn’t have understood them anyway. They treated us as if we were part of a drill or training exercise, so maybe that’s what they thought it was. They were efficient and polite — firm enough to impress the boss, but not abusive, in case we were someone he had hired to test them. They gave us a cursory search, marched us down to the cellar, and locked us in a windowless room that contained several sacks of grain and a few casks of wine.

We didn’t know their names, and spent at least a minute that night arguing over what to call them, so we’d have a shorthand way of referring to them. You liked the name Ivan for the taller one, maybe because he was blond and stoutly built, but I thought he looked more like a Dmitri. 

“We can call the other one Dmitri,” you said. 

“No, he’s more of an Alexey or maybe a Kostya.” Anyway, I said okay to calling the blond guard Ivan and that I’d give the other one some more thought. We made ourselves comfortable and got some sleep.

The next morning we were ready for action. And breakfast.

You initiated Operation Escape by examining the door and trying the knob. Still locked. On to Step Two, in which we gathered anything that might help us pick the lock or pry the door open. 

We had left our packs in a stand of trees just outside the fence and only carried a few necessary tools, most of which had been taken by the two guards, though they hadn’t search us too well, so you still had your ankle knife and I had my reversible belt, which could be flipped over to show either a brown side or a black side — not much use for escaping, but practical in a pinch if I had to suddenly change into more formal attire. I mention it only to provide a complete inventory of our available resources.

You started working on the door with your knife. It was secured with a heavy-duty doorknob opened by a key from the outside, with a deadbolt above it, also locked from the outside. The door was hung on cast iron hinges bolted into the solid wood. I fiddled with those, but had no luck.

We heard footsteps in the hallway and the sound of keys jangling, then the snick of the deadbolt. You slipped the knife back in its sheath and pulled your pant leg over it. We stepped back and acted nonchalant. The knob turned and the door was pushed open. It was Ivan.

He entered with a tray, balancing it on one hand and pointing at it with the other in a friendly gesture. It held two glasses of juice and two plates with eggs, rolls, and a greasy gray pile that may have been sausage. So Operation Breakfast was a success, without us having to do anything. Partial success, I should say — there was no coffee.

You glanced at the door, which Ivan had left wide open, then said to me, “Well, this is the key to a good morning.”

I looked and saw that he’d left his set of keys hanging in the doorknob. We didn’t know if he understood English. Operation Codewords was underway.

“Yes,” I said, tilting my head toward him, “the food looks tempting, almost seductive.” You gave me a puzzled look, then got the message.

Ivan stood in the middle of the room facing you. You had your back to the far wall, and I was off to his side and a little behind him, near the door. You smiled at him and flipped your hair back. He was ogling you, so you put a hand to your throat and gave a coquettish laugh to cover the sound of me ducking my head out the door to check the hallway. Empty. I gave you a sign.

“This is like a fancy vacation getaway,” you said. I nodded.

You directed Ivan to place the food in the farthest corner of the room, and playfully grabbed one of the rolls off the tray as you stepped out of his way. As he bent over to set it down, we both rushed out, shut the door and locked it. I pulled out the keys and we hurried up the corridor, ignoring the pounding behind us. We had no time for amateurs.

“Back to the lab?” I asked.

You tore the roll in half and handed me my share. “Mm-hmm,” you said, taking a bite. We headed for the stairs.

“Too bad this is all the breakfast we get.”

“You could have stayed in the cell and eaten with Ivan, while I went for the stuff.”

“I thought about it.”

Getting into the lab was a cinch now that we had Ivan’s keys, bless him. I had been expecting a slick, ultra-modern facility, but was disappointed to see it was little more than a dusty room with some workbenches and a few pieces of equipment — microscopes, table saw, geiger counters, hand-held UV light, field tools. The shelves were full of rocks, but looked like they’d just been dug up and dumped there without even being cleaned. Morning light streamed in through a large window that overlooked the forested hills.

“There it is,” you said, pointing to a stainless steel cylinder, about the size and shape of a six-liter coffee urn, with a few knobs and a small readout screen. “The detector.”

That’s what we called it, anyway. The researchers who developed the prototype device had given it a long technical name that I immediately forgot. Scientists and engineers are rarely good at naming their creations.

“What does it do?” we had asked them.

“It detects deep deposits of uranium ore more effectively than by looking for gamma radiation because we use a proprietary combination of high-frequency waves and…”

“A detector then.” 

We didn’t need to know how it worked, only what it looked like. It had already proven its worth by helping them collect some ore samples, which had also been stolen. We found those in a lead canister standing next to the detector on the workbench.

“Guess we can just grab these and go,” I said.

“What’s that over there?” You pointed to a table in the corner.

On it was a high-end microscope — the kind that costs as much as a Lamborghini — and a pile of diamonds, many still rough, some cut and polished, a few with pink or pale blue coloration, but each one about ten to twenty carats. We did some silent figuring — everything on the table would sell for enough to furnish a cadre of grad students with a hefty research budget for several years.

“It would be nice,” I said, “but…”

You shook your head. “That’s not what we came for. And we have to let this guy know that the only thing we came for was what he stole.”

“Maybe he stole these from somebody.”

“We can’t assume that. Come on.” You picked up the lead casing full of samples, hefted it, then handed it to me. I always get the heavy stuff.

“We don’t really need the container,” I said, “not for uranium ore.” Uranium has a long, long half-life, which means it decays slowly, with low levels of radiation — not enough to worry about for the time I’d be carrying it. 

I unscrewed the container cap and dumped out the samples. They were sort of pretty rose-colored rocks with black and green speckles. Not as pretty as the diamonds though. I found a small canvas bag to put the rocks in and tied it to my waist so I’d have my hands free. You tucked the detector under your arm.

We were about to leave when we heard the guard trying the door, which we had locked when we entered the room. We didn’t know if he was looking for us or just making his rounds. We don’t think he had found Ivan in the cellar, or they’d both be there banging on the door.

“Let’s try another way,” you said.

We crawled out the window and onto a ledge, then made our way around to the rooftop patio that was accessed from the library. Our options were limited. We couldn’t go through the library, because that would take us back into the house where the guard was.

“All right,” I said. “This is where we call our sidekick to come get us off the roof with the helicopter.”

“We don’t have a sidekick, or a helicopter.”

“We need a bigger budget.” I made a mental note.

Beyond the far end of the patio we could see the top of a sycamore tree, four stories high and just within reach. “Let’s see what’s over there,” you said.

We went to the railing and looked down into the courtyard. There was no movement below.

“Here.” You handed me the detector. I was about to ask why, when you hopped up on the railing, stood for a second, then leapt into the tree. You turned around to face me, balancing on slender branches that sagged and bobbed under your weight. 

“What are you doing?” I said, surprised by your move.

“Operation Sycamore.”

“Oh. Well, then… that makes it okay.”

You held out your hands and I tossed you the detector, a little high maybe, but you managed to grab it, then shuffled back to give me room. I got up on the railing and leaned forward, getting ready to jump. That’s when the tree went berserk.

It started thrashing about as if in a windstorm, though the morning was calm. Then it made a high-pitched creaking noise like the sound effects in a haunted house movie, which may have been its version of a warning siren.

“I think the tree is on to us!” You were struggling to hold on.

“It must have been trained to detect intruders. It knows we don’t belong here.”

There was no way I could jump onto the frantic tree now. But I looked back and saw that the guard was inside the library, armed with his rifle. Then I remembered I hadn’t come up with a name for him, so I decided on Alexey. He hadn’t noticed me yet, but he was heading toward the sliding glass door and would be outside any second now.

The sycamore took a swipe at me with a leafy branch and almost knocked me off my perch. You had already started to shimmy down the swaying trunk. 

We couldn’t let Alexey know we had come out this way, or he’d just run down and catch us in the courtyard. I had to get onto that tree. When I heard the sliding door open, I let my simian instincts take over — my leg muscles exploded, my hands shot out, and I found myself in a tangle of twigs and leaves, scrambling to get some kind of grip. A prehensile tail would have been handy just then. 

This wasn’t the first time we’d had to climb down a tree doing its best to get rid of us — for example, that murderous oak in Romania — so we were old pros at this. Not that there weren’t some scrapes and bruises, just that the experience was no longer novel or worth recounting in detail.

You were already on the ground brushing off your hands when I made it to the lowest branch, swung down, and landed on the flagstones with a thump. The sycamore stopped creaking and flailing about, then showered us with a cluster of leaves out of spite.

“What should we call this one?” I asked, thinking it should get a name like the guards did.

“Sashenka. It means she who defends.”

I don’t know how you knew that, but as long as we could call it something, I was satisfied.

Two days later we met with our contact and the rest of his team to deliver the detector and the samples. They were thrilled that we managed to get everything back. We were given handshakes, hugs, and an envelope full of cash.

We mentioned the diamonds we had seen in the lab, and how we’d left them there. The group went silent, then everyone looked away and mumbled excuses about having to get back to work. Our contact took us aside.

“You know those were stolen too? Along with an expensive microscope?”

“It did cross my mind—” 

You shushed me. “From whom? Do you know?” 

“Yeah. This rich dude who deals in precious stones and such. He hires us for consulting and doing tests sometimes.”

“Does he want those diamonds back?”

“Yeah. I mean, they’re worth a lot. A lot.”

“So he’d pay someone to get them back?”

“I can give you his number.”

You looked at me. I frowned, then asked: “Do you think Ivan would be happy to see us again?”

“Let’s find out. I miss him already.”