Going Postal: The Fire and Ice Affair
(An experiment. Uncle Charlie is channeling Napoleon, and Avery answers for Illya—at least, as much as anyone can answer for our stubborn Russian friend.)
I wanted to wait for the dust to die down before sending this along with the daily dispatches. The problem is that the dust never dies down here. When the Old Man said Timbuktu, I honestly thought he meant Timbuktu. This place is worse; it would have to trade up and actually import some degree of ennui to match the excitement of Timbuktu on a Saturday night.
Of course, I can’t actually say where I am, but it does remind me of a joke. A sailor wrote to his parents and told them he could tell them where he was, but last night he shot a polar bear. He wrote to them a week later and said that he still couldn’t tell them where he was, but last night he danced with a native girl. A week later he wrote again saying, he still couldn’t tell them where he was, but the doctors said he should have danced with the polar bear and shot the native girl. Either you’re rolling your eyes or very confused. If you are the latter, ask someone down in Medical to explain it to you.
I have to admit that putting a Level Four office in a hotel is brilliant. No one questions the foot traffic or the people coming and going. Still, if I see Dickerson, I think I will kill him, mental breakdown or no. I know the Old Man sees this as necessary training for my ascension into Section One, but I would rather make paperclip necklaces for the rest of my career.
God, I miss New York and, yes, if pushed to the wall, even you. The women here are either way too young, way too old or way too something else entirely. Please give Susan, Gail, Helen, Bette, Jess, Emma, and anyone else you can think of a hug for me. If nothing else, it will boost your popularity with the secretarial pool.
Yes, I am trying to be flippant and annoying. I don’t want you to get used to doing without me. Twice today I caught myself turning around to say something to you. It’s not fun having to think for myself, not after I’ve gotten used to you doing all the heavy lifting.
Don’t get too comfortable in that CEA position. I’ll be back before you know it… I hope.
Affectionately (and bored out of my mind enough to write you an actual letter)
Only you could complain about warm sun and balmy breezes. You should see where they have sent me.
There is nothing but snow here, as far as the eye can see; the mountain peaks in the distance are covered in blue ice. They remind me of savage rows of teeth preparing to devour the valley where I have lately taken up residence. The howling wind is relentless; it slices to the bone of me. I can feel it even through the thick thermal parka I must wear.
I am embedded with a group of Danish geologists, here to study the movement of the glaciers. The group is funded by Trøske Enterprises—perhaps you recall them from a few of our previous Affairs? My space consists of a small shed, about three meters across, with a cot and a Coleman lantern. I have been given a camp stove, which I use to melt ice for water, and there are sufficient supplies for the moment. I shall not starve, although I was astonished to discover that my store of vodka had frozen overnight.
There is a small village to the east of us, about four kilometers away. A bi-plane comes there once a week to deliver supplies, and to collect the mail. Other than that, there is not much to see: a small pub, a general store and a petrol station. The place is so far from the madding crowd that even Thomas Hardy would have trouble finding it.
I am reading To The Lighthouse for the third time since arriving here, and I like it even less than the first two times I read it. Nonetheless, it is all I have for recreation in this frozen wasteland, so I must make do.
I should mention that April is sitting in as CEA while you are away. She has promised to say hello to Susan, Gail, Helen, Betty, Jess and Emma for you.
It is good to be missed.
I would be failing in my position and responsibility as your partner and senior agent by two years if I didn't attempt to tap into that brain of yours.
The conference here has taken on the guise of some old lumbering creature that refuses to die. There was a three week discussion regarding the shape of the table, and then another three week discussion on who should sit with his back to the door. Dickerson got my vote. Even though he’s not here, that’s where I’d stick him. And then invite an interested third party to exercise his options. Yes, still feeling just a bit hostile towards him, but I’m working it out of my system.
I have put in a request to have more books shipped to you. I hope you like Gayot and Rabéarivelo. To give you even more of a challenge, these will be in French. Yes, I know that's not much of a challenge, but still, any port in the storm, eh. So, I’m also sending along some comic books and anything else I can get my hands on. They should arrive by next week.
And I give you this to ponder—
We arrived with very little fanfare, in small parties of one to four maximum. We have moved quietly through the community, never drawing any attention to ourselves. Or so we thought. Two nights ago, a huge yacht, the Sister Anne Marie, docked up to us, pierside (I should explain that the hotel is on the edge of a deep water channel and we actually get freighters passing through here.) Poor Watkins lost most of his audience when a freighter went cruising by our plate glass window. It was sad that a broken-down old freighter would draw more attention than his very thoughtful and diagrammed argument against painting the walls of UNCLE HQ Berlin gray—again.
Back to the Sister Anne Marie. She has docked, but we have not seen a single person disembark or embark—most curious. I have placed one of the Section Three agents on it as a precaution. Something is bothering me about this setup. I wish you were here to commiserate with me. Talking to my fellow conference members is akin to engaging wildflowers in a discussion regarding the Battle of Agincourt.
Have you found anything else to distract you? Possibly, trying to find two snowflakes that are alike? Counting your toes to make sure they are all there?
Books! Your news is as welcome as The Second Coming to a Christian! (Well, you are ascending to the top chair eventually, are you not?) I shall await your package with barely contained glee. The Gayot in particular will provide its own sweet torment—I can read about all the wonderful foods that are not freeze-dried and smelling of kerosene. Is there a recipe for beef jerky in a nice beurre blanc sauce, do you suppose? Or Toes Marsala?
My sympathies on having to attend another Grey Paint Symposium. Such events are a ridiculous waste of time and manpower—as though the fate of the world hinged upon the decision of what color to paint the walls. Ah well, not with a bang but a whimper... Incidentally, I had occasion to view Watkins' medical file some months back. Did you know he is color blind?
Have you checked the registry on the Sister Anne Marie? It may provide a clue to its ownership, and thereby, its purpose. One thing is certain: the presence of a state-of-the-art vessel in such a remote, backwater port, so close to an UNCLE conference, is no accident. You are right to be concerned, my friend.
All is not as it seems here, either. The geologists—all twelve of them—are up each morning before dawn, chattering in Danish among themselves. Since they believe me to be a rather dull-witted Polish cook, I dole out beatific smiles and puzzled looks and pretend not to understand. I prepare their breakfast, and they set off for the glacial shelf, where they spend long hours ostensibly taking measurements of the glacier's thickness and rate of movement.
All this would seem entirely normal, but for the fact that I can hear explosive charges being set off at half-hour intervals. What purpose can be served by blowing up portions of the glacier, I do not know, but several large chunks have already calved off. I saw them floating in the bay last evening. I plan to hike up to the glacier tonight after the others have gone to sleep, and see if I cannot discover what these ersatz geologists are really doing up there.
A word of caution: I suspect that communications here are being monitored, and security around the camp seems to have been stepped up as well. I hope they are merely being prudent, but perhaps my cover story was not as convincing as I thought. I had to slip my letter into the mail bag at the last moment in order to be sure it was not intercepted by our feathered Trøske friends.
Tread carefully, Napoleon; something about your situation screams of danger. I urge you to be on your guard, especially since I am not there to rescue you. Naturally, my concern for you is entirely selfish—who will send me books if you are gone?
On a positive note, you will be happy to hear that, after careful examination, I did manage to find two identical snowflakes. I have enclosed them with this letter. After all, it is the thought that counts.
P.S. The current color of our walls is called “gunmetal,” not “Berlin.”
Things are definitely not what they appear. The Sister Anne Marie remains tied up at our dock. I’ve had Research checking her out for the last three weeks, to no avail. There is nothing out of the ordinary about her. Her master is a well respected businessman from the city; in this case I am guessing San Francisco, due to its proximity. He simply likes this area. I have met and ‘talked shop’ with him. There were no alarms, no uneasy feelings. His wife, Trophy Wife Number Three, has eyes only for him.
Last week, they invited me onto their boat and I couldn't find one belaying pin or well-tied knot out of place.
We sailed deep into the delta—I swear I heard banjos at one point—to this place touting itself as “The Crawfish King.” They claim to serve better crawfish than New Orleans—they don’t—but the food was a nice change from the usual fare at the hotel. I wish I could send you along some of their prime rib au jus. It's very good. They also do an excellent chicken cordon bleu (they coat the chicken with Ritz crackers of all things!) and their wine list is decent.
But I digress. The meal was tolerable, the company less so—have I mentioned just how much I miss your company and level of conversation? I got back to my room and, Illya, I swear someone had been in it. True, there was nothing out of place but, Partner, it felt wrong. The only thing that I could find out of place was my book. I would stand up in front of a room full of nuns and swear I left it open on Page 78, but when I picked up it, it was on Page 76. Perhaps I misread the page number, but I don’t think so.
We have also had two cases of food poisoning, and a near drowning—Hennessey decided to take a little swim after drinking a bottle of very robust burgundy. Watkins fell down a flight of stairs and broke his leg—he’s since been replaced by a small mouse of a Section One agent from Naples. A mouse with the roar of a lion. Battleship gray, it is!
This place is so quiet, I can hear the blood move through my veins and yet, my friend, I am concerned. The days are growing longer and the arguments more heated about more mundane things. The only excitement we have to speak of is the arrival of the daily freighter. Today, it was cement from Vladivostok. Two days ago, it was nuts from Brazil. Maybe I'm the one going nuts.
Dieu, vous me manqué,
How nice for you, dining out on crawfish and prime rib au jus, while lounging on the deck of a rich man's yacht.
For dinner tonight, I had a slightly dented tin of Norwegian sardines I purchased at the general store in town, a four-kilometer trek on snowshoes. And by a remarkable coincidence, I too dined on Ritz Crackers, only mine were stale as cardboard, and came from a battered box that was several years past its expiration date. Of course, the proprietor had no problem selling it to me anyway. Did I mention that my vodka is still frozen?
Forgive my dark mood, Napoleon. I am too long in this place—too long playing the fool for these fiends of little conscience. It has jaded me. To make matters worse, a cold front moved in nearly a week ago, pounding the camp with gale-force winds and driving snow. All work on the glacier had to be stopped, with the result that the geologists have been billeted in their quarters for the past five days. They are in the foulest of moods. Or perhaps I should say the “fowl-est.” In any event, due to their continued presence at camp, I have been unable to sneak away to explore the glacier without arousing suspicion. I will try again tonight.
On a more mundane note, I have finished memorizing To the Lighthouse.
You describe Trophy Wife Number Three as having eyes only for her husband—this, despite having spent the evening in your charming company. And this did not set off alarm bells for you?? Really, Napoleon, it is time to put aside any false modesty. Your effect on the female sex is the stuff of legend. If the woman truly loved her husband, she might not have pursued you, might not even have touched, but she most certainly would have looked. That she did not do any of those things confirms that she is an actress playing a part, and you are in the THRUSHbird's nest.
I am concerned for your safety, Napoleon. Your room has been searched, and four people have been injured thus far, at a conference where the most controversial decision is the color of the paint. Something is very wrong indeed. Please take care not to become their next target.
P.S. If you ever stood up in a roomful of nuns, you would corrupt the nuns.
I’m sending this with the highest level of security that UNCLE can muster. I'm not even sure it will get to you, or whether or you'll be able to make sense of it.
I’m damned sure something is afoot here. We’ve had two more injuries and now, our first death. It was Bromlet out of Canada. Apparently, no one was aware of his bad heart, and he decided to sunbathe out on his deck. He passed out from the heat and suffered a stroke. No one checked on him until the next day, when he was missing from the roll call.
Nearly everyone at the conference has come down with food poisoning. Testing proved that the water has been contaminated with some type of bacteria. I seem to have been the only one excluded from this, thus proving that drinking your Scotch neat is wise. I have placed the hotel into lockdown, with only vetted UNCLE staff permitted inside. I am also awaiting Waverly’s decision as to whether or not to continue with the conference.
Of course, you realize that the debate over paint color is merely window dressing for the much more serious topic of October fifth. It is imperative that we resolve this issue or the whole of UNCLE structure might be at risk. For this reason alone, I feel THRUSH has become involved, but how is still a mystery.
The Sister Anne Marie has sailed. If they were the culprits behind the water contamination, I can’t tell. The well is off-site and protected. The feeling that this is an inside job is becoming more and more intense, yet there is nothing to suggest dissension in the ranks.
Rest assured, my friend, I am being very cautious. I've initiated my own security devices and thus far, my room has not been breached. Either I imagined the earlier incident, or they have secured what they wanted from me. Yet, I have no coded documents, no bits of info that would invite inspection, and nothing is permitted to leave the meeting room, ala our finest File Forty methods. Even the napkins are treated with a special chemical designed to erase any sensitive information inadvertently jotted down on them.
As for your problem, could the scientists be preparing to utilize the icebergs as navigational roadblocks? If THRUSH could direct icebergs into major shipping lanes at will, it would be shades of the Titanic all over again, and not merely in the North Atlantic this time. Shipping channels would be open or closed, subject to their will. Food, raw materials, medical supplies—all would be held hostage to THRUSH's demands. Entire economies could collapse.
Another thought—what would happen if an entire glacial shelf broke apart? What effect would that have on sea levels throughout the world? Waterfront cities would be flooded, including our home sweet home, New York.
I’m at my wit’s end, Illya. I watched the freighter sail away, and my spirit yearns to sail with them. Yet, until we can conclude these discussions or the Old Man opts to move the site, here I remain, land locked and drydocked. L'aide, les suggestions, les idées?
Frustré et ennuyé,
You have a mole. There is no question in my mind about this.
We must assume that THRUSH has been reading our correspondence—perhaps that is why they wanted access to your room. Who knows what information they may have gleaned from our letters, and how they will choose to use it. We must be circumspect from here on out.
I am sorry to hear about Bromlet. He was a good man. It was not common knowledge, but he suffered from Besnier-Boeck's Disease, a condition which is exacerbated by prolonged exposure to sunlight. He would never have chosen to sunbathe, on his deck or anywhere else. So—not a death, but a murder.
Your reference to October fifth puzzles me. Those arrangements will not be finalized for several months yet, so anything THRUSH does now cannot possibly make a difference. If they are choosing to show their hand, they have done so too early to be effective.
The weather has cleared, and I was finally able to sneak away from camp last night. The moon being full, visibility did not present a problem. I “borrowed” crampons and other necessary climbing gear, and rappelled my way up the North face of the glacial shelf. What I tell you next may shock you, Napoleon; it certainly surprised me.
Deep within a massive and virtually inaccessible crevasse, I discovered two bodies dressed in flight gear, circa the 1930's. There was no evidence of an aircraft, so it is likely that the plane came down somewhere else, and the pilots walked to this point before falling into the crevasse, thereby meeting their tragic end.
The bodies were in astonishingly good condition despite being covered by what must be several tons of ice. The skeletons are still fully articulated, with considerable flesh and hair preserved on the corpses. Their flight suits were also intact and, though one appeared to be badly mauled and bloodied—perhaps an animal attack prior to death—the other was in near-perfect condition, down to the pilot's name above the left-hand pocket. Jacob Flannery. Yes, that Jacob Flannery, the one responsible for the notorious Copenhagen Diamond Heist in 1937. The thieves were never apprehended, and the uncut diamonds, worth close to fifty million dollars in today's currency, were never recovered.
The pride of the collection, you will recall, was a six-hundred carat cut yellow-gold diamond known as The Amber Room Star. It was discovered a century ago in Transvaal, and was Mogul-cut by Marcel Tolkowsky for the Tsarina Alexandra. The stone is exceptionally pure and flawless, making it one of the most valuable gemstones in the world. A courier smuggled the diamond out of Russia mere days before the Revolution and, following instructions from his mistress, hid it among the other uncut stones in a Danish bank vault, where it languished, forgotten, for two decades. Until Jacob Flannery and his partner stole it.
Napoleon, what if the diamonds are here, buried deep within the ice at the bottom of the crevasse! Flannery and his partner might have been carrying them with them when they died. Or if not, perhaps they have left a clue to their whereabouts. Imagine what THRUSH could do with fifty million dollars! They must be prevented from obtaining the gems at any cost.
Heavy equipment will be necessary to reach the bodies, as they are frozen deep inside the glacial ice. The Trøske geologists mean to blast their way down, a decision I feel may have repercussions they do not anticipate.
Now the bad news. I think I was spotted by one of the Trøske security guards upon my return from the glacier. He may have assumed I was on my way back from the latrines, but I cannot be sure. In any case, it is time for me to depart this ship of fools. I am leaving camp immediately, and will try to catch a ride with the mail plane. Since my communicator does not function in these frigid temperatures, I must wait until I reach civilization to notify HQ of my discovery.
Napoleon, if, for some reason, I should not make it out, it falls to you to notify Waverly about the diamonds. Time is short, I fear. Know that my thoughts are of you.
I’m not sure if you’ll get this, but I’ve written it in case I don’t make it out. You’ll need to take this forward to Waverly with all due haste.
The Sister Anne Marie was nothing more than a red herring; I’m sure of it now. She was sent to distract us, and to draw attention away from the one other constant in this area—the freighters.
The ships have been coming up the deep water channel and dropping off their loads just like normal, except that the cargo is far from typical. The newspaper here tells us what their payloads are, but last night I staked out one of the warehouse silos, and found that the cargo was very different from what was listed on the ship's manifest.
What I saw was long-range missiles being off-loaded. Some investigating and a near-capture told me that THRUSH is hoping to close down the hotel so that they can operate freely. They seem to think something is going on at the hotel, but I'm not sure if they are aware that it's an UNCLE facility, only that we are having a conference of some importance there.
The poisoning of the water—we think it was by installing a contaminated water filter—was an attempt to force us to leave. Now that we are in lockdown, I suspect that they are contemplating a less subtle assault soon.
For that reason, I am initiating a strike of the warehouses tonight. I have several dozen agents coming in from nearby areas, along with a dozen Section Threes of my own. I would trade them all to have you at my back. Going in without you seems like a fool’s errand.
The courier is here, and I just had a call from Farraquey, that little Section One mouse I mentioned earlier.
Think good thoughts for me, my friend. There’s someone at the door, Farraquey, no doubt, ready to bend my ear about the impossible odds.
Godspeed for us both,
Missiles—but what is the target? Or does THRUSH plan to sell them to the highest bidder, perhaps stoking the fires of a conflict somewhere in the world?
It is a good thing that I left when I did, as the Trøske crew had become suspicious of me. I was tracked across the permafrost by several rather persistent THRUSH snipers. Unfortunately for them, I am a better shot.
I managed to secure a seat on the mail plane, and have now made my way to a fishing village on the edge of the Uummannaq Fjord. HQ has been notified of the situation at the Trøske camp, so the next step is up to them. Meanwhile, I have found lodging at a local guesthouse, where I intend to take the hottest, longest shower in recorded history, followed by a hot meal, a liter of vodka, and sleep. I am being sent south tomorrow—I do not care where, as long as it is warm. I will notify you upon arrival.
I would trade everything I own to be by your side right now.
P.S. The books finally came.
The doctor says that writing is good therapy. Sorry that it’s messy, but my motor skills aren’t up to snuff just yet.
Where to start? First, remember that I told you about the replacement UNCLE sent for Watkins? Nope. Come to find out, UNCLE never sent a replacement. UNCLE didn’t know anything about a replacement. Farraquey, the little bastard, was our mole. The day I sent you the letter, he tried to shoot me—in my own hotel room! How many ways is that just wrong?
Guess he didn’t get the memo from THRUSH Central about how cranky I get when someone tries to do that. Suffice it to say that he has gone to the big birdcage in the sky—or down below. Either way, at least he's out of my hair.
I’m not sure how secure this avenue of communication is, so I won't delve into details. You'll be able to pick those up by reading the reports that were filed. There is something to be said for surgery and being in a coma. I’d recommend it, but it’s a little tough on the body.
I commend you for recognizing Jacob Flannery and uncovering that little money-making scheme. Waverly tells me that you cost THRUSH millions. You’ll do anything to kick me out of THRUSH’s most wanted slot, won’t you?
You wanted to know where the long range missiles were aimed. They were going to back door you, my friend. Those missiles were aimed at Moscow and the US had no idea they were even there. A nuclear strike, originating on the West Coast—I don’t have to tell you what the result would have been.
And to think, if they had just left us alone and let us have our conference without kicking up all this dust, we would never have been the wiser. I swear there are times when I think THRUSH’s worst enemy is itself.
So, tell me, where did you end up?
Your handwriting has always been appalling. However, I must tell you that no chicken scratch has ever looked so good to my eyes.
I am relieved to hear that you escaped Farraquey's treachery with no lasting damage. New partners are so difficult to train. As to the missiles—thwarting nuclear Armageddon is no small feat, so I believe your position at the top of THRUSH's Most Wanted list remains unchallenged. A grateful nation thanks you—mine.
You should be receiving a gift basket in the next few days; it will contain a small flask of very excellent scotch, as well as some water crackers and a tin of caviar. The gifts are from me—the least I could do for one so tragically incapacitated—so please do not pour water on it, attempt to disarm it or flush it down the commode. These small tokens should help to revive your spirits after Medical has sucked you dry of blood.
As to my current location, I can only say that I should have quit while I was ahead. It has rained non-stop here for the past seven days, and temperatures are hovering near 38 degrees Celsius. I can see the steam rising from the trees. As I write this, I am wallowing in ankle-deep mud and covered in creosote—my only defense against the various biting insects attempting claim my blood supply. The monkeys howl incessantly, which I can well understand, given the hellhole that they must call home. It almost makes me long for a bed in Medical.
Did I mention the hostile native population?
I must go now, to wring out a few pages of the Rabéarivelo before they rot away. Sleep well, Cher Napoleon, and think of me.
Je vais maintenant soldat,
I think Waverly has forgotten that we're supposed to be partners.
I'm out of the hospital as of this morning, and headed back to New York on the next flight. Maybe I can talk The Old Man into sending Dickerson to take your place. I hear Borneo is lovely at this time of year. Frankly, nothing would give me greater pleasure than to see that pompous ass fending off mosquitoes with a fly swatter while you and I dine on steaks and caviar. Cross your fingers, and hope that I'm as clever as I think I am.