I looked down at my badge for what must have been the tenth time today. The familiar lines of it reassured me that I was a valued part of this organization. Some days I wasn't too sure of my place and my position in this steel-reinforced zoo we affectionately call, "The Home."
The younger agents gave it that name—I think it's a bit too on the mark for my tastes. "Cradle to Grave" springs to mind. I've been around long enough to see the good and the bad points in this place, and I also know that I can count the number of agents over thirty-five here on one hand.
That has a tendency to sober a man and make him begin to question the motives of the higher-ups when they hand out the assignments. When I was young and green, I would take anything they would throw me, like a baby bird waiting for a worm. Nowadays, I look at the task with a much more jaundiced, if not black and blue, eye.
Don't get me wrong; I love this place. I'd better since I've given it half my life already and most of my sanity as well. I can't lose sight of my ideals now so late in the game. I'm still fighting the good fight, still waging war on the enemy, that "other" secret organization that really isn't all that secret anymore.
I also have to remember that the "others" think they are right, too. That they fight against me as I rail against them. They are clever, these evildoers, clever enough that some days I feel that a dead draw is a victory. Each night I can drag my tired and battered body home to my tastefully decorated apartment means I'm one day closer to mandatory retirement. I have few illusions, though, and don't entirely expect to make it to retirement.
Still, I can smile at the end of the day and feel that I've accomplished something in the grand scheme of my boss' machinations. Do-gooders. I know that's what some people call us, but I'm too tired to care about that anymore. I suppose it's just a matter of perspective, anyway.
Like this new assignment I just pulled. Great, just terrific. I have to baby-sit one of my opposition's best operatives. My chief thinks something big is in the works and a little covert operation couldn't hurt.
Sure, he can say that. He's never had to tail Napoleon Solo all over New York City. I hate that guy...
See, it's the general attitude of Solo that really pisses me off. Spies are supposed to be low-key, unobtrusive, blend-in-to-the-walls kind of guys. That's how we stay alive and do our jobs. But, Solo? Oh, no, he might as well be wearing peacock feathers instead of the well-tailored Brooks Brothers' suit he's got on. The man's a menace to the profession. "Look at me!" he fairly screams to the world. This would be all right normally because it makes him such an easy target. But right now that target has a tail, and the tail is me...
Unfortunately, I am a man who follows orders, so today that means I'm lurking across the street from Del Floria's waiting to pick up Solo's trail. I have to admit that despite his flamboyance, he is a damned good agent, and I don't hold out much hope of dogging him unobserved for long. Especially if that Russian bastard is hard on his heels as usual. Ah, there he is...
Damn...the little blond is right there beside him, of all the luck. What, are they attached at the hip or something? There are rumors that these guys are more than partners, if you get my drift, but personally, I don't think so. I mean, the way Solo slavers after anything in a skirt he sure seems to be a one-track train to me. I've seen hound dogs with more restraint than this guy. Angelique and Serena have told some Solo stories at the water cooler that just couldn't be true. Not and remain true to the laws of physics, anyway. And I'm not jealous if that's what you're thinking.
Now I have to be doubly careful. That Illya Kuryakin is just the opposite of his American partner. Somber, cunning, ruthless; he backs Solo up quite well with his differences. And he's distressingly good at picking out tails. No pretty face with a well-turned heel is going to distract that guy. Hell, I don't think even Raquel Welch would get that slob's attention. Next to his pretty-boy partner, he looks like a bum. Dresses like one, too, but I see through the act. Many of my colleagues have under- estimated that guy and paid the price for their folly. Kuryakin's just shrewd enough to look like he doesn't care what he looks like. You get my drift?
So I hang back as far as I can and still keep them in sight. They're walking, so I guess they aren't going far. Probably going to get lunch or pick up another suit for Solo. I'd sure like to have that man's clothing allowance for just one month. Probably pay my rent and leave a lot to spare.
Kuryakin turns and looks across the street, but I know he's looking over his shoulder. It's an old trick, and that old KGB rat knows them all. That's okay, because I know them as well. I haven't lived this long as a Thrush agent because I'm stupid. He's using the glass in the store fronts as a mirror, so I duck into the nearest business like it was my intent all along. He hasn't made me yet. Solo is still smiling and nodding his head at every woman that walks by. Disgusting.
Where am I? Oh, hardware store; good. I'm a man; I can walk around here for a minute looking lost and no one will miss a beat. What's in this aisle? Lag screws—like I'd know what to do with one, anyway. Solo would know, the egotistical prick. Or that mealy-mouthed Russian would if his partner didn't. Okay, long enough to lose the suspicion could be long enough to lose the target. I drift out into the steady stream of pedestrians and gaze casually ahead of me. The street is busy enough for a lunch hour but not busy enough to be considered a crush. Good. That will work in my favor, too.
Solo is pointing to something in a window. He laughs and nudges the Russian with his elbow. If I were 'Ivan' I'd punch his smug little lights out. Aim right for the annoying cleft in his chin and lay the guy out right there in the street. But Kuryakin is a good little toady, always putting up with Solo's crap. Don't know why, he's a good enough agent to go solo. Solo...sometimes, I crack myself up...
They're walking slowly, almost strolling, and that has me worried. Agents do not stroll unless they have good reason. I suppose it could just be their lunch hour and they're out for some fresh air. I'm sure their command center gets just as stale and claustrophobic to them as my own does to me. Solo suddenly stops and puts a hand to the Russian's shoulder. He turns toward him and I quickly fish in my pocket for some change. I walk to the nearest newsstand and peruse the racks. I pick out the Times and pay the vendor, playing distracted businessman to the teeth.
The short hairs on the back of my neck are standing and I listen to them. I worry that Solo has spotted me. I continue to read the paper and make small talk with the squat elderly man at the stand. Solo and Kuryakin move again and turn right at the approaching corner. I wait one more beat and then stride off, muttering about the state of the economy to anyone who is listening. I keep the paper held out against me like a shield. Hey, I'll take anything I can get against these two...
Of all the things I could be doing today, I get this crappy job. A rookie assignment, a jerk-off job that quite frankly lost its appeal five blocks ago. Why I was wasting my time was beyond me. As I turned the corner I folded my paper and tucked it under my arm like any hurried businessman would. The bright blond head of Kuryakin bobbed down the street, unconcerned that he stood out like a beacon. I never understood why Solo didn't make him dye it. I mean, the guy was a liability standing out in a crowd like that. Would you want that thing for a partner?
I shook my head and watched Kuryakin as he weaved through the crowds easily, never touching anyone or letting them touch him. Any minute now he'd lean over and tell his pompous ass of a partner something quite witty and droll. And Solo would laugh and punch him in the shoulder in that nauseating way he has...shit!
Solo, where'd he go? He was right there...
"Looking for someone?" The purr of a familiarly deep voice came directly behind my right shoulder practically in my ear. It took everything I had not to jump. Good thing, because I felt the cage of Solo's U.N.C.L.E. issue press against my spine. It was no use bluffing. Solo knew me by sight. Damn the man to whatever personal hell he deserved to inhabit.
I felt the gun jab me once more and Solo punctuated the movement with words. "In there." I was pushed in the direction of the alley just ahead. I groaned under my breath. Blondie was strolling down the alley from the other side, hands in his pockets, supremely confident of himself and his partner. I raised my hands, knowing when I was defeated.
"Well, Illya, it looks like we have a fan club." Solo smiled his shark smile and I wondered what he'd look like with no front teeth. I smiled back.
Kuryakin looked me over quickly and dismissed me, just like that. "A rather small fan club." He stepped closer and asked quietly, "Where's your partner?" He didn't smile. I wondered what he'd look like with no head.
"Don't have one. Unlike the two of you, I don't need one." It wasn't much of a dig, but it was the best I could come up with under the circumstances.
Solo eyed Kuryakin and laughed. He faced me again, close enough that I could smell his aftershave. Hai Karate? You've got to be kidding...
"A partner might have come in handy today. Might have saved you a headache."
"What headache?" I asked uneasily.
"The one you're going to have in about twenty minutes."
I tried to move but Solo was faster. He fired the Special before I could even lower my arms and I felt the dart penetrate my suit just below my solar plexus. I fell back against the wall and used its solidity to hold me up. My vision was already graying out, but my hearing was good as ever.
As I slumped to the dirty alley floor I heard Solo's voice loud and clear.
"So are we doing Chinese or Indian for lunch?" I heard the two of them walking away from me, the heels of Solo's expensive Italian leather shoes slapping against the asphalt of the alley. I had time for one last thought before I went out like a light.
Napoleon Solo. I hate that guy...
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