The Rocky Start Affair
Originally published in the zine Declassified Affairs 1
If there were any place on this Earth more miserable than London mid-January, Napoleon Solo had yet to find it. Oh, to be fair, there were colder places. The arctic circle, China's Altyn Tagh Mountains, the Soviet Union's Siberian Wastelands and Minnesotan winters all had London beat as far as the thermometer went when it came to low temperatures, but for sheer human suffering, London won hands down. And Solo had first-hand experience with them all.
The incessant icy rains, the raging winds that seemed intent on ripping one's umbrella and all other protection away, the pervasive damp, not to mention the fogs...all combined to make an already unpleasant mission utterly unbearable.
Of all types of assignments, Solo hated internal investigations most. He'd rather take on one of the rare, outright termination jobs that occasionally came up in his line of business than do in-house policing. The fact that the latter normally led to the former didn't help matters at all. U.N.C.L.E. did not take kindly to turned agents. Once an operative made that kind of blunder, it was inevitably fatal one way or another. If THRUSH didn't eliminate the mole when he/she came under suspicion, U.N.C.L.E. made sure to do so once guilt was proven.
And there was the rub of it, proving guilt. To go into a branch, meet its staff, get to know them well enough to determine the guilty party before eliminating said party, in effect, to act as a fellow agent's accuser, judge, jury and executioner was a heavy burden that Solo carried close to his heart. The chance of being wrong, of terminating an innocent agent by mistake, always existed. It had never happened to Solo personally, but he knew Enforcers who had made that error in judgment at another operative's expense.
Therefore, the dapper enforcer always chose to play it safe, to wait until guilt was irrefutable before striking. When no further doubt of culpability remained, Solo swooped like an avenging angel, relentless and merciless in the kill...because the only time Enforcers of his caliber were sent in on this type of internal clean-up was when it was a Class A Situation, one in which an inside leak had cost U.N.C.L.E. lives. The mole in the London Office had claimed five agents to date, with the possibility of three more seemingly accidental losses still under investigation. That meant eight good men had died because of this turncoat's greed or cowardice. To Solo, the motivation behind the betrayal was irrelevant: avarice, blackmail, extortion. It was all the same to him. The only thing that mattered was avenging the dead agents, and preventing more of his brothers from ending up in body bags. Napoleon had buried one too many friends lost through leaks to have any mercy left in his heart for the betrayers. He was never cruel in his enforcement, but he was thorough. Frighteningly so.
Between the body count this London mole had accumulated and the beastly weather, Solo was determined to close this case at the first opportunity . This Kuryakin fellow had a lot to answer for, the least of which was the degree of disappointment the mole had caused the old man. Waverly had hand picked the young Russian defector for the U.N.C.L.E. organization, trained Kuryakin for top level responsibility, placed his protege in the London Office to learn the ropes...only to have Kuryakin sell out to THRUSH.
Once a defector, always a defector. The thought whispered through the American's mind as he pulled the brim of his gray fedora farther down on his forehead to shield his eyes from the driving deluge that ripped into him as he turned the comer onto Russell Square. He tried to squash the thought, knowing such unthinking prejudice was unworthy of an U.N.C.L.E. agent, but even with all his years of training, it was difficult. Russia and America just had too much of a history for any American to be too trusting of a Soviet. Although Solo had despised McCarthy and everything the man stood for, he'd lived through that paranoid era and been affected by it.
From the first, Napoleon hadn't comprehended Waverly's reasons for employing Kuryakin. Solo had never met the Russian, but the guy had seemed a bad risk from the start. Now, it appeared Solo's reservations had been proven correct.
Fortunately for Kuryakin, Solo was traveled enough to recognize certain prejudices as cultural conditioning, even when they occurred in himself. It seemed that everyone in the agency other than Waverly had already convicted Kuryakin. Although the case against the Russian seemed open and shut, there was still something about it that didn't sit right with the American. Probably its very neatness. Everything was just a little too pat, a little too easy. Kuryakin was the only common element in the three meetings that resulted in the three fatal ambushes, the Russian's complicity so apparent that even a blind man could see it.
But in his years of experience, the one thing Solo had painfully learned was that the mole was rarely the obvious suspect. Last time out, the enemy had turned out to be the very girl Napoleon had been relying on to feed him inside information on his suspects. The pretty femme fatal had taken a slice out of his back before he'd terminated her. Everybody in the London Branch was just a mite too eager to send Kuryakin up the river on this one for the case to sit easy on Solo's mind. Well, he'd get to the bottom of it, mop up the mess and be on the first trans-Atlantic flight out of this soggy hell, Napoleon determined as he entered the tailor shop across from the Russell Square tube station.
This U.N.C.L.E. headquarters was especially well chosen. Three blocks away from the British Museum and smack in the heart of London University, the neighborhood was rarely quiet. The eclectic flow of academics and businessmen on the streets ensured that the rather strange comings and goings at U.N.C.L.E.'s tailor shop front would remain unnoticed. Though, with the foul weather raging out there, it would be a very determined busy-body, indeed, who would notice anything amiss on a day such as this.
The warmth of the tailor shop enfolded him immediately, warming his windblown cheeks and starting an irritating drip in his sinuses at the abrupt change. Seeming to shake the water off himself, Solo took a precautionary pause in the doorway, as he always did upon entering new environments, to scope out possible threats. But the shop was no more than what it should appear to be from the outside a modest business establishment. The hanging suits, sewing machine and clothes press...all were utterly reassuring. Staring around the place, Napoleon thought he might just as well be back at Del Floria's familiar shop, so close was the duplication.
Perhaps the most frightening part of the replication was the gnomish, gray haired, be-spectacled individual behind the counter. With his rotund stomach and impassive features, this could very well be Del Floria himself. The old man gave Solo an uninterested nod as the American entered the changing room, no doubt fingering the button that would send Solo to his maker should he not pass inspection the entire time. Napoleon gave the clothes hook a pull, heard the subtle mechanical whir behind the wall as the machinery kicked into gear and the door swung open to admit him to the busy offices that lay hidden on the other side.
With the frequency of international transfers in the organization and prolonged assignments in foreign places, U.N.C.L.E. offices were designed to be exactly the same, world over. That way, an operative might stop at the Paris, Bangkok and Bogota offices on his mission and still be able to locate every department he might need.
London was no different. As Solo stepped in, he was struck with a reassuring sense of familiarity, of coming home. Chrome walls and floor, pretty girl at the reception desk, everything was the same as its American counterpart. No doubt, the pink cheeked lovely touching her blond hair back in place as she flustered under his smile also packed a gun like her New World cousin.
"Good morning," Solo grinned, pleased by her response. He hadn't even been trying. "I have an appointment with Mr. Grovner."
"Welcome, Mr. Solo," she replied as he bent to have his badge pinned on, "He's been expecting you. You'll find him at Level six, Alpha One."
Those were the directions she would have given him to Waverly's office back home. "Thank you." He couldn't help but notice the extraordinary green and gold specks in her mostly blue or hazel eyes.
"Shall I take your coat, sir?" Her middle class London accent was intriguing.
Beginning to think that there might be something worthwhile in this god-forsaken city, after all, Solo upped the voltage of his smile, perused her pleasing, full figure and nodded, "Yes, please. You're quite kind."
"I'm also forewarned, Mr. Solo," she grinned back, flashing her right hand with its blinding diamond ring before him as she took his coat and hat. "And also very engaged."
"Ah, but that's not quite the same as being very married, is it, my dear?" he purred back.
"Lisa didn't lie about you. You are incorrigible." The girl giggled, the movement doing wonderful things to her tight yellow sweater.
"He's worse than incorrigible," a friendly, male tenor with a slight touch of the upper class in its vowels remarked as the doors behind the receptionist opened. "He's lethal, Alice. So keep your distance, unless you want a broken heart."
"Charles," Solo moved forward to take the Brit's out-stretched hand, slapping his old friend on the back, "It's good to see you again. How are you, old man?"
"Not so much with the 'old', if you please." Grovner laughed, his bright blue eyes sparkling like sapphires in his round, friendly face.
"I'm afraid it fits you now, my friend," Solo smiled and gestured toward his training buddy's close cropped hair. In the three years since they'd seen each other, Grovner's hair had gone snow white.
"And you, you look as young as ever. Proof that there is no justice in this world." Grovner mourned.
"Just the fruits of living a clean and pure life, I'm afraid." Solo joked, sending even the girl, who barely knew him, into laughter at the outrageous statement.
"Well, we'd best be getting to that case before you're sued by Alice's beau for alienation of affection. Come along, man, there are plenty of uninvolved females waiting below to fall prey to your charm." Grovner said.
"Is it true that you'll be retiring next year?" Solo asked as they headed towards the lift's chrome doors, unable to believe that his old friend could really be that old.
"I'm afraid so, Napoleon. Miriam is quite insistent that we spend some time together before our grandchildren make us great-grandparents. Besides, it's high time I quit the business. We don't all have a portrait aging for us like you do, old boy." Charles chuckled.
As soon as Solo and Grovner were safely alone in the shiny silver elevator, all traces of humor left the London Chief's face. "It isn't common knowledge yet, but we lost another man this morning. This is bad, Napoleon, really bad."
"And there's no chance that this is anything other than an internal leak?" Solo quizzed. "What happened this time out?"
"A number of England's foremost scientists have...turned up missing in recent months. A thorough investigation has revealed only one link to the disappearances. Around the time of each, an itinerant circus visited the area. We put a man under three days ago. He turned up dead in a lion's cage this morning."
Solo grimaced, just thinking of the grisly death. "It sounds terrible, but...are you sure it wasn't an accident? A circus isn't exactly the easiest organization to infiltrate. They're a very closed society. Highly trained. A ringer would show up immediately."
"Which was why I sent Martelli in. He wasn't a ringer. He was the genuine article. He grew up on the Midway. His family has been in the business for generations."
"Even so, he could have slipped up. Lion training is a chancy business. It doesn't have to be a leak. It could still be a legitimate accident." Solo played Devil's advocate. "Big cats are notoriously unstable. They've been known to maul men who've worked and trained with them for years, let alone a newcomer."
"I'm aware of that. There's only one problem with the accident theory, old boy."
"What's that?" Solo asked.
"Martelli wasn't a lion tamer. He was a high wire act."
That effectively silenced any other objections Solo might have wished to make. After a moment, he questioned, "And Kuryakin was in on Martelli's briefmg?"
"He personally instructed Martelli in the use of a new tracer. It was a powder Kuryakin developed. It looked just like the stuff the trapeze men use, but it was slightly radioactive. Easy to trace." Grovner informed.
"Sounds useful." Solo said. Though inventive when his life was at stake, he'd never been one for research. But he recalled how ingenious Kuryakin's file made him out to be.
"I wouldn't know. Martelli didn't live long enough to test it." The repressed anger the U.N.C.L.E. chief had been hiding spilled over into his voice.
"And you're certain Kuryakin is behind the leak?" Solo questioned.
Grovner threw him a steely blue stare, "If I were, the rotter would be dead right now and we wouldn't be having this discussion. The evidence all points to Kuryakin. Because Kuryakin's in research, he doesn't attend the briefings often, only when his expertise is required. But he was at all the crucial meetings."
"Mr. Waverly was...surprised to find that Kuryakin was still in the lab. He'd hoped Kuryakin would be out in the field by this time. His training did show a remarkable aptitude towards field enforcement." Solo remarked.
"That's true enough. However, his personality isn't really suited for the field." Grovner said.
"He isn't especially the friendly type. The other men don't feel comfortable working with him. They don't trust him. With all that's been going on here lately, I can't really say that I blame them."
Detecting the trace of dislike in Grovner's voice, Solo asked, "What's your take on the man?" He'd known Grovner since he'd been in Survival School under him. The older man's instincts were usually faultless.
"Until my men started turning up dead, I'd've told you he was the best I had. Kuryakin's ruthlessly efficient at everything he does. He gets results." Grovner answered.
"And how do you feel about him personally?"
"The man's a cold fish." Coming from an Englishman, that was quite a statement. Though more outgoing than most of his countrymen, Grovner still had the classical British reserve. As his friend continued speaking, Solo could only imagine what this Kuryakin guy must be like if the Brits thought him standoffish. "I wouldn't want him as a partner on a mission. His scientific detachment is so...ingrained that you'd never be sure he'd come to the rescue, if it would further the case by not trying."
"It doesn't sound as though you like him much, Charles." Solo lightly observed. Nothing his old friend had related surprised him. Those observations were all in Kuryakin's file. But there was an undercurrent in Grovner's voice that made Solo more than a bit uneasy. In Solo's experience, hatred clouded one's judgment faster than any other emotion.
Grovner shrugged. "Kuryakin doesn't really give anyone the chance to like him. Ah," the head of the British Office exclaimed as the elevator doors swooshed open to reveal a tall, muscular brunet in a gray suit waiting for them. The man' s rugged features and dark, heavy browed eyes made him utterly inscrutable. "Napoleon, this is Bill Morris, head of our Enforcement Division. Bill, this is Napoleon Solo."
Solo and his British counterpart guardedly appraised each other. The American U.N.C.L.E. agent could see by the tight set of the other man's jaw that Morris was not pleased with his presence here. Not that Solo could really blame the man. The very fact that Solo had been called in to oversee the investigation spoke very badly for Morris' department. They'd had a firm suspect for over four weeks, and had yet to garner a shred of solid evidence on Kuryakin's culpability.
After a moment, Napoleon extended his hand. "Good to meet you, Mr. Morris."
Morris' grip was firm, if quick. "Mmmm, charmed, I'm sure," the other enforcer acknowledged, his response just this side of grudging. "So, what do you make of this mess, Solo?" Morris asked as they entered Grovner's office and settled around the big, round table.
Napoleon took a seat on the far end, so that he could watch both men's faces. Unfortunately, no one was above suspicion in this type of investigation. Even old friends. The mole could just as easily be Charles or this Morris fellow. Both had been present at the same briefings as Kuryakin, where the sensitive data discussed had later turned up in THRUSH's hands.
"I haven't formed any opinions yet, Mr. Morris." Solo carefully replied. "As Mr. Kuryakin doesn't seemed inclined towards flight, I'd like to study the problem for awhile."
"He's a cheeky bastard. We've had round the clock surveillance on him for the past six weeks and, as far as we can tell, he hasn't varied his routine at all. Kuryakin's one cool customer, I'll give you that. Anyone else would have cleared out last month after that car bomb took out Edgars, Willoughby and Carson." Morris commented.
"Any guilty party would have cleared out." Solo corrected. "There is always the possibility that Mr. Kuryakin is innocent."
"And if you wait long enough on Christmas Eve, St. Nick will come down that chimney. No, sir, Kuryakin's guilty as sin." Morris replied.
"So what are your plans, Napoleon?" Charles asked into the uncomfortable quiet that followed Morris' assertion.
Solo was beginning to have some idea as to why this investigation wasn't progressing. It was clear that both Morris and Grovner were convinced of Kuryakin's guilt and had therefore stopped investigating other avenues. Though nowhere convinced himself that the Russian was innocent, Napoleon wasn't yet at the point of closing his mind to other possibilities.
But Solo couldn't say that outright. If Kuryakin weren't the mole, these two were still suspects a fact to which Napoleon would rather not alert them. So, instead of explaining his doubts, he covered with, "I'd like to look over the surveillance reports on Kuryakin. You two are very close to this situation. There might be something an outsider might see that someone familiar with the man might miss. Also, I'd like the minutes from the strategy meetings for the last three months. I'll also need the agents' field reports..."
"There are no field reports for those missions." Morris said. "The operatives were killed before they could report in."
"The operatives on four of our missions were killed." Solo corrected. "We have dozens of successfully completed assignments. I'll need those reports and all wrap-up reports."
"To what end?" Morris questioned with a puzzled look on his rocky face. "You're talking about tons of paperwork."
"I like to be thorough." Solo replied. "Will that be a problem?" He stared from one face to the other, judging reactions.
Grovner was handling this interview very much as Waverly would, letting his second in command do all the questioning while he himself assessed the overtones. Morris seemed legitimately confused by Solo's request.
Normally trouble-shooters did not waste their time pouring over reports. Interrogation and surveillance were standard operational procedure at this point in internal investigations. But the very fact that Kuryakin hadn't bolted, hadn't changed his lifestyle in the least made Solo think they might have the wrong man. In all other in-house cases, when Solo had gone through the reports he'd just requested, there was always some damning evidence that those too close to the suspect had overlooked: some seemingly innocent meeting with an unknown individual, a date with a new woman, or the frequenting of a new pub or store... Sometimes an outsider like himself would notice things like this.
Grovner shrugged. "I don't see why it should. I'll have my assistant fix you up with an office. The information will be waiting for you. You do realize that you'll be here for months trying to weed through that material."
"Hopefully, not that long." Solo smiled. Sensing that the chief enforcer was still disturbed by his request, he questioned, "You don't approve of my plan, Mr. Morris?"
"It sounds like a waste of time to me. We know who the Judas is." Morris insisted with the heat of a commander who'd just lost nine good men.
"No. We suspect the identity of the THRUSH informer. That is slightly different than knowing who the culprit is. With any luck, my little research project will seal Kuryakin's fate."
"Better your eyes than mine, mate." Morris shook his bearish head.
In less than an hour, the American found himself ensconced in a cozy little office down the hall from RECORDS. Five enormous boxes of reports virtually walled Solo behind his desk.
Napoleon wasn't sure precisely what he was looking for, but the transcripts seemed a reasonable place to start. The sheer bulk of paperwork was rather intimidating, but Napoleon Solo was nothing if not persistent. Reaching for the first of thousands of files, Solo took a sip of the milky tea that Grovner's slender red-headed assistant had forced upon him and began the job.
The next eight days were a blur of names, dates and incidentsboth lethal and ludicrous. There was the nuclear bomb THRUSH planted in Piccadilli that a rookie agent named Slate noticed on his way to work that morning and defused with five seconds to spare. That had been a close one.
On the other end of the scale, there were the twenty killer gerbils THRUSH planned to release up in Oxford. The unlikely heroes in that case were a badger and a fox, who got into the gerbil cage before the pernicious pets could be released to range the countryside.
Solo read through them all with varying degrees of interest, searching for a pattern or clue as to the identity of their turncoat, paying special attention to any of the cases where their prime suspect was in any way involved. But, although, the Russian actually supplied at least twenty operations with equipment Kuryakin had designed himself, it was only those four briefings after which problems occurred. The other sixteen missions all went off like clockwork. And some of those successful cases had been far more sensitive than the four disasters, dealing with information THRUSH would have killed to get their hands on.
Napoleon waded through the surveillance material on Kuryakin, absorbing the dozens of pages of following the Russian from U.N.C.L.E. headquarters to Kuryakin's home to the three jazz clubs the man frequented. Bookstores, green grocer's, music shop...nothing the least bit suspicious. As far as Solo could see, the man lived a quiet, totally inoffensive existence. The Russian didn't even seem to date.
Bored with the uneventful surveillance reports as he sat at his desk in his quiet little office, three boxes down, two to go, Solo rubbed a hand over his face. He was reaching for box number four when his little gold cigarette case began to buzz.
"Solo here," he identified after assembling the ear-piece.
"How is your investigation going, Mr. Solo?" Waverly's sleepy tone rumbled from the device's tiny speaker.
"Slowly, sir," he replied. Waverly had agreed that the paperwork was the best place to start.
"Mr. Grovner is quite anxious that you complete your assignment. We have an operation coming up in two weeks time that would be catastrophic should THRUSH get wind of it beforehand." Which meant that he only had less than a week to wrap this mess up, Solo translated as his boss continued, "What is your take on the situation, Mr. Solo? Is it as clear cut as Mr. Grovner suggests?"
"To all intents, Kuryakin does look guilty, sir...
"Your voice implies that you still harbor some doubts."
Solo was silent for a moment, wondering how best to phrase his suspicions. "This is a completely secure channel, sir?" he asked at last, looking to make sure that his chrome doors were firmly closed. "You are alone now?"
"Yes, Mr. Solo, to both questions. What have you uncovered?"
"Mr. Kuryakin does appear to be the most obvious suspect. He had opportunity. He is disliked by most, so he does have motive..."
"However?" Waverly's tinny voice prodded.
Solo looked down at the small gold box, wishing he was sitting across from his superior. There was something very comforting about Alexander Waverly, an Old World charm and steadfastness that made even the sort of treachery he was currently investigating seem...not so overwhelming. "I've been going through the transcripts of all the strategy meetings. We have four obvious transmissions of data, one probable..."
"And?" Waverly urged.
"Six cases where information given to us by a THRUSH informant didn't pan out. In all six cases, when we arrived, the operation had already closed down or the individual involved simply disappeared."
"I need not remind you that we often receive misinformation from THRUSH. Our sources are not always the most honorable of men."
"1 realize that, sir," Solo replied, looking around his claustrophobically small, file-strewn office as he tried to collect his thoughts. "Only, I think it's something more ominous than bad tips. Reading these reports, I get the distinct feeling that THRUSH closed up shop or removed the possible weak spot mere hours before our teams arrived."
"You're saying that they knew we were coming?" Waverly's usual rumble grew even deeper.
"Yes, sir. I think they knew exactly when we were due to arrive and made sure they were out of there in good time."
"Was Kuryakin in attendance at these meetings?" Waverly asked.
"Only two of them, sir. But he did supply equipment for one of the others, even though he wasn't in on the briefing..."
"And the other three might be the result of bad tips." Waverly said.
Solo took a deep breath and then voiced his reservations, "Or they could very well be instances where our mole was forced to act when his scapegoat wasn't present."
"His 'scapegoat', Mr. Solo?"
"Mr. Kuryakin is not well liked here, sir. He is a perfect target. Grovner, Morris, Filbert and Rafferty were present for all of the meetings in question, sir. Our mole could be anyone of the four...or even the stenographer, Miss Chase." Solo reported, although he hoped it wasn't the last. He'd grown quite fond of the biscuits the graceful redhead brought him each day at tea time, among other things.
"Or it could very well be Mr. Kuryakin."
"Yes, sir. It could still be Kuryakin." Napoleon agreed.
"But you don't think so?" Was that hope in the old man's voice?
"I don't know, sir. I've got six suspects now, instead of one."
There was a long silence, then Waverly's voice emerged from the innocuous looking cigarette case once again. "I'm sending in a squad from the Paris office. You will meet them at 2100 tonight at...what was the name of that club you've been frequenting?...oh, yes, the Cat's Box. You will assign an agent to surveil each of your additional suspects. These men will report only to you. You will coordinate their reports and keep me informed. Is that clear?"
"Yes, sir." the weight of responsibility settled upon him. Now he was responsible for at least seven lives, not just his own. "Sir?"
"Yes, Mr. Solo?"
"I'll need the best. We're going to be trailing our top men here, circumventing our own security, as it were." It was a sticky situation. If the Paris men succeeded, it would show that the London security was lax. And if the French team failed...if the mole wasn't Kuryakin, their man was going to know they were on to him. Cornered rats were always the most dangerous.
"I am aware of that." Waverly rumbled.
"Yes, of course. I'm going to initiate phase two and start the interviews. I believe I've learned as much from the records as time allows."
"Very well. Oh, and, Mr. Solo?"
"Do be careful."
Solo felt a shiver trickle down his spine. Waverly hardly ever gave that caution. But this was the worst type of situation. Working with their own, men with whom he'd trained and fought side by side, it was easy to grow complacent. And when searching for a mole, that could be fatal.
"Always, sir. Solo out. Closing Channel D."
The office seemed unnaturally quiet as the familiar voice faded from the air. Wishing this particular mission was over, Solo secured his files. Phase Two would be the trickiest part, interviewing his new suspects in such a way as to make each believe they were further incriminating Kuryakin.
And, who knew? Perhaps they were. As Sigmund Freud was fond of saying, sometimes a cigar was only a cigar. There might be no deeper plots here. Kuryakin could be as guilty as he seemed.
Most of the morning was spent in conversation. Already aware of Grovner and Morris' stand on the Russian's possible guilt, Solo began his investigation that day with Henry Filbert, Kuryakin's immediate superior in the lab.
Solo envied the scientist's looks from the moment Filbert invited him into his office. With his dark rimmed glasses, receding salt and pepper hair line and milquetoast bland features, Filbert would be overlooked in an empty room. In their line of work, they strove for anonymity. Solo had learned long ago that there was just no way that he himself would be overlooked in a crowd. Despite his best efforts to tone himself down, Napoleon Solo was a man people noticed. Therefore, he played to the opposite spectrum, was so flamboyant that no one would ever take him for a secret agent. But, had he been able to choose an image, mousy little Filbert would have been it. Filbert's potential was limited only by his own personality...which, unfortunately, tended to support his meek appearance.
"I suppose you know why I've come to chat with you," Solo began, his eyes taking in the array of scientific instruments, stray pieces of electronic wiring and circuitry, computer printout, text books and dirty tea cups that layered Filbert's overflowing desk. The junk was layered so high that Solo had to raise his head a little to meet the other man's owlish gray eyes over the mess.
"I assume it is in regard to our...plumbing problem?" Filbert replied, nervously cleaning his thick lenses on his stained lab coat. "You are here to...plug the leak, shall we say?"
"It may come to that." Solo evaded, "But right now, I am merely carrying out a preliminary investigation. Several of the leaks in question appear to have begun in this department. If you don't mind, I'd like to hear your opinion of the characters and work habits of your employees. As their boss, you'd know them better than anyone."
"I would hope so." Filbert said. "Where would you like to start?"
"How about Linda Grafton? What is she like? Did she have access to the sensitive data?" Solo began with his least likely suspect.
"Miss Grafton is an excellent worker. And all my co-workers have had access to the data in question."
"I see. What about Barnes?" One by one, Solo went through the ten lab technicians, slowly working his way up to the scientists like Filbert and Kuryakin. As he expected, Napoleon heard nothing but praise for the technicians. U.N.C.L.E. did not tolerate inefficient or unmotivated workers in any department, including the janitorial staff.
It was only when they reached their main suspect, Illya Kuryakin, that Filbert's monotonous tone took on any true animation. "Ah, that one. There you have a real tragedy."
"What do you mean, Dr. Filbert?" Solo asked, playing down his interest.
"The man is brilliant. He is as suited to this lab as a thoroughbred would be to a pigsty." The scientist explained.
"What?" Solo blinked, this not at all what he was expecting to hear.
"Kuryakin should have my job or better. If he wasn't so young and lacked the field experience, I'd say he could easily fill Grovner's shoes. I know this isn't what you want to hear, Mr. Solo, but these charges against my young associate are sheer nonsense. I admit that young Kuryakin isn't the most sociable of people, but what scientist is? His mind is sharp as a diamond edge and intuitive. He lacks...patience with those of lesser mettle. This does not make him a killer, merely rude."
"So you think we're barking up the wrong tree here?" Solo questioned, unable to miss Filbert's well concealed anger.
"I've said that from the start and will stick to it." Filbert insisted, some of the heat coming over into his voice.
"But your reports indicated...
Filbert broke into Solo's sentence. "Mr. Morris insisted that I detail occasions in which Mr. Kuryakin had access to the data that was leaked. I could have filled out a similar report on anyone in this lab, including myself. But that wasn't what Security was interested in."
"What are you suggesting?" Solo asked, although it seemed plain enough.
"I think we both know what I'm suggesting here, Mr. Solo. Most of my co-workers in the Enforcement and Security Departments have backgrounds in MI6 and similar agencies. They've spent their entire lives playing spy games with the Soviets. Mr. Kuryakin is...convenient."
"So, who do you think our leak is, if not Kuryakin?" Solo was genuinely interested. Filbert was the first person he'd spoken to who didn't view Kuryakin as the anti-Christ.
"I really couldn't say. I've never been much good at espionage, I'm afraid, only at inventing its tools."
"You like Kuryakin, then?" The American asked, making casual conversation as he processed the scientist's previous statements into his own view of the situation.
"I didn't say that." Filbert quickly countered.
"Hmmm?" Solo sat up a little straighter, feeling as though he'd missed a part of the conversation.
"The man is as prickly as a cactus bush. I'd gladly promote him anywhere, so long as it got him out of my lab. Like Kuryakin? No, I don't. But that doesn't mean I want to see him railroaded for a crime he didn't commit."
"I see. Well, thank you for your time, Doctor. If I have any further questions..."
"Feel free to come back." Filbert gave him a wide smile that made him almost visible in the room.
Offering his hand to the nondescript physicist, Solo left the cluttered office.
His interviews with the lab's techs proved nowhere near as edifying. Solo endeavored to catch them all at coffee or meal breaks, or in the privacy of a delayed elevator...times when they might be encouraged to speak off the record. To a man, they were all firmly convinced of their co-worker's guilt. Robert Rafferty, the head of armament division, was equally unforthcoming. The general consensus was that they had their man, and that it was now Solo's task to dispense justice.
Having left the most important interview until last, Napoleon finally tracked down his major suspect in the cafeteria, where Kuryakin was attacking a turkey platter that would easily have fed the entire table. But as the Russian was sitting alone at his table for six, there was no one to help him with the job.
Solo looked around the noisy, crowded room. There wasn't a single seat to be had in the place. At some of the tables there were actually eight or nine heads, with their trays banged up so close together that they could barely take a bite without spilling their neighbor's food. And there the Russian sat, isolated in an island of empty chairs. Observing his suspect, Napoleon couldn't help but wonder how the man could just sit there like that, a veritable outcast. Were their positions reversed, he couldn't have done it. He would have transferred out or...
"If you want one of the chairs, please feel free to take it." A deep, vaguely accented voice startled Solo out of his reverie.
"What?" he blinked, realizing that the object of eight days worth of investigation had just addressed him.
"There isn't another chair to be had. If you want one of these, feel free to take it." The blond looked up from the newspaper he held in his hand.
The American was impressed. Not everyone could look up from a sitting position, gazing through thick, horn rimmed glasses, and still come off as intimidating. Kuryakin managed it with ease.
There was something cold and forbidding in that icy blue stare that affected a man on the gut level. Even though Kuryakin had just offered him a courtesy, Solo's instincts were primed for combatthe way they were whenever he met another professional.
He stared down at the fine boned man before him for a moment, assessing. The dark, rumpled suit beneath the lab coat looked like someone's cast offs. Kuryakin's file proclaimed him to be eleven years Solo's junior. Every picture Napoleon had seen of the man made the Russian look like a bookish, high school kid. There was nothing either bookish or childlike about the man in the flesh. Staring into those frosty blue eyes, Solo was under no misconception. He'd just met another killer.
"If you wouldn't mind the company, I'd rather leave the chair right here. You mind?" Solo politely gestured at the seat across from the Russian.
The gaze sharpened on him, burning into his face like a vivid blue laser. "No, I've been expecting you. Please sit down." Those piercing eyes temporarily left Solo's face to scan the immediate vicinity.
Napoleon couldn't help but notice how silent the surrounding tables had become. Rather like Dodge City, he thought, just before two gun slingers started blasting away at each other. He wasn't surprised to see some of the other nearby diners pick up their half eaten meals and leave the possible combat arena.
"Thank you." Napoleon placed his own tray down. The lamb stew had looked large when he'd ordered it, but compared to Kuryakin's repast, it now seemed tiny. "What did you mean when you said you'd been expecting me?
"You've come to seal our leak. I take it that I am not under arrest yet," Kuryakin calmly commented as he took another bite of his food.
The man was cool. Too cool to be what he seemed, Solo wondered, beginning to understand why everyone was so certain of the Soviet's guilt. This was no simple lab tech or researcher sitting across the table from him. Only trained professionals had this kind of nerve. The blond wasn't even sweating, didn't look the least perturbed by the fact that his potential executioner was supping with him.
"Not yet," Solo replied, granting Kuryakin the respect he'd give his THRUSH counterparts.
"Ahh, I see." The Russian took another bite, silently watching Solo. "You are still gathering evidence, then?"
"Such as it is." Solo candidly replied. "What makes you so certain you're a suspect?"
The sound that greeted his question was as much snort as laugh. "My nationality makes me suspect. Besides that, I don't believe my colleagues in Security have been following me these past eight weeks just to keep in practice."
"You were aware of the surveillance?" Solo barely kept his voice level. So much for the accuracy of those records. If the man knew he was being tailed, he wouldn't be fool enough to incriminate himself. But, then, why would Kuryakin let him know that he was aware of the surveillance? Wouldn't it work in a guilty man's favor to keep such knowledge to himself?
"I, too, passed Survival School, Mr. Solo. I am aware of such things."
"You know who I am." Solo stated, unsurprised at this point.
"Everyone in U.N.C.L.E. knows of the great Napoleon Solo. You are legendary. Should I be honored that an operative of your caliber was chosen to take me down?" The question barely remained the polite side of sarcasm.
"Take you down, not in?" Solo questioned, feeling as though he were playing chess with a grand master.
"There are nine U.N.C.L.E. agents dead. Leniency is not an option."
"Nine, not six?" Solo felt his brow crinkle in puzzlement at both the number and Kuryakin's understated anger. The other three deaths had been released as accidental. Kuryakin should have said six.
"The breaks on that car failed at too convenient a time to be anything other than another casualty of our leak. Despite the official record, his kills number nine. And, before you ask, yes, I outfitted the three with equipment before they left."
Genuinely bewildered by the other's attitude, Solo asked, "If you knew you were suspect, why have you remained? Most would have run by now."
"To what end?" Kuryakin asked, sounding almost weary.
"If I flee, my guilt is proven. There will be no further investigations. Only a manhunt and my eventual demise. Whereas if I remain..."
"Yes?" Solo found himself encouraging.
Those startling blue eyes met his. In their depths, Solo could suddenly read the man's apprehension. "My fate depended upon what type of man was sent to sort it out. Most field agents have a seventy to eighty percent ratio of success. Yours is closer to ninety-three percent."
"And this means?"
If anything, that stare grew more intense. "That you are very good at finishing things. Depending on your character, this could work to my advantage."
Totally intrigued, Solo asked, "My character?"
"If you are genuinely devoted to the truth, there is a possibility that I may still be exonerated. If, on the other hand, your 93% success ratio merely indicates pronounced hubris, my fate is sealed. The fact that you are sitting here now, discussing my situation is encouraging."
"Hubris?" Solo repeated, mystified by the notion.
"To some agents, their record is of paramount concern. Not how a case is resolved, but simply that it be successfully concluded. A man with a ninety-three percent success rating might worry about such issues."
"In other words, you were wondering if I were some cowboy wanting another notch on my belt." The smile that earned Solo was surprising. For a fleeting second, the cynicism seemed to drop away from the Russian's pallid features, leaving only a lonely young man who didn't laugh nearly enough.
"It was a concern." Kuryakin admitted at last, his seriousness dropping back over him like a shroud.
"And now that you have met me?"
"I will withhold judgment for the present time." Kuryakin replied.
"So," Solo smiled after a quiet moment in which they simply appraised each other. He had to hand it to the Russian, the guy had style. Filbert was right. Kuryakin was as prickly as a cactus, but Napoleon found the man's bluntness rather refreshing. "If you were me, to whom would you be speaking?"
"You are speaking to the obvious suspect." Kuryakin reminded.
"Well, let's just suppose I hold you as my trump card in case I don't make that notch in my belt and go on from there. If not the obvious, then what about the not-so-obvious? Dr. Filbert had equal access to the data."
The mundane cafeteria fluorescent lights shimmered like sunshine over molten gold as the Russian shook his head in denial. "I think not. Dr. Filbert was on medical leave having a hernia repaired during the first lethal mission."
"You work here. You must have some idea who the culprit might be." Solo prodded.
After a brief hesitation, those cool blue eyes pinned him. "If I were the investigating agent on this case, I would be looking for someone whose time here is limited."
"Limited?" Solo repeated.
"The snares are closing around me, Mr. Solo. The true culprit can operate only so long as I am here to be blamed for his actions, but at this rate, I will not be here long. Were our mole just a normal agent, this would be a great dilemma for him. Now that they have their hooks into him, THRUSH would not allow such a lucrative resource to remain unharvested. Anyone leaking such sensitive material must know that it is only a matter of time until he'd be discovered. He must, therefore, be someone close to retirement or medical dischargesomeone in a position of authority who would be able to string the investigation along for months before actually calling in aid."
Solo's mind reeled under the implications of the accusation. His old friend Grovner was two months away from retirement. George Rafferty had a heart condition that had him on nitroglycerine tablets. And Filbert was a collection of chronic ailments. He was still spoiled for choices.
"What do you mean by 'string along the investigation for months'? It took three kills to confirm that this could be nothing other than an internal leak." Solo softly protested, grateful for the empty tables around them.
"Last June, I offered concrete proof that we'd been infiltrated. Dr. Filbert and I brought the evidence to Mr. Grovner and Morris, irrefutable proof that our security had been compromised. Nothing came of it."
"What sort of evidence?" Solo asked suspiciously, very aware of the fact that the guilty party would have every reason to incriminate two of U.N.C.L.E.'s finest.
"I designed a miniature transmitter, a microphone barely the size of a hat pin. To spare you the scientific detail," the implication of the haughty tone being that Solo would not understand such complexities, "the device operated at a very unusual frequency. A spectrum jammer should not have worked on it, not without very specific re-calibration. Yet, the first time we employed this device in the field, THRUSH was able to jam it. The only way they could have done so was by knowing the frequency beforehand."
"And the only place they could have gotten the frequency was here." Solo completed.
Kuryakin nodded, "Precisely."
"What was Grovner and Morris' excuse for not following up on this?" Solo asked uneasily. His old friend was almost Waverly's equal in the agency. The idea that such a high level player could be turned was...chilling. No, it was preposterous. The guilty party simply could not be Charles. Morris, however, was another matter entirely. Solo couldn't help but recall how eager London's top enforcer had been for Kuryakin's elimination.
"They said that it was sheer coincidence." As if realizing how damning his information was, Kuryakin added, "They are not scientists, Mr. Solo. Being told how impossible such a coincidence would be is quite different from understanding the whys of the situation first hand."
Considering the excuse, Solo couldn't help but recall how Waverly and he tended to believe the experts in such cases. Puzzled, Solo asked, "In laymen's terms, just how unlikely was this coincidence?"
"There was as likely a chance of THRUSH guessing that frequency as there is of your being hit with a meteor when you walk out the door tonight."
"I see. I will check into this." Solo promised.
"If either of those individuals is involved, such a probe could prove fatal. For both our sakes, be cautious.
"Both our sakes?" Napoleon enquired as he sampled his neglected stew. He found it quite tasty, if a bit cold.
"You are my last chance of exoneration." Kuryakin stated.
"Providing that you're not the super spy everyone thinks you are." Solo reminded.
"But, of course," Kuryakin surprised him by smiling again, his cynical edge razor sharp.
"May I ask a personal question?" Solo inquired after a few bites.
"Where I was on the dates of the four fatal missions?" The Russian smoothly suggested.
Beginning to see the other's sarcasm and emotional distance for the defensive screens they were, Solo shook his head. "No, as you know, I have the surveillance reports to check such details."
"Ah, yes. What, then, interests you?" If it were possible for someone to be both glib and remote, Kuryakin achieved it with ease.
"If you are not the guilty party and being paid handsomely for your services by THRUSH, why do you stay here?" he asked the question that had been burning through his thoughts since he'd started reading the surveillance reports on the Russian's solitary existence. Although everything in the Russian's file suggested that the man was a brilliant loner, this went far beyond that. The young man was all but ostracized in his work place, a virtual pariah.
Obviously taken off guard, Kuryakin froze mid chew, his defenses seeming to quiver a bit.
Solo paused, debating how best to phrase this. Finally, he decided on Kuryakin's approach of blunt honesty. "I'm new to the scene here, but it's apparent that you weren't well liked here even before all this came up. Why do you stay?"
For the first time since Solo sat down, that piercing gaze left his face. With a twinge of guilt, Napoleon watched his companion stare down at his plate for a silent moment. Solo pursed his lips, extremely uncomfortable. He hadn't intended to wound...
"I stay because...I believe in what U.N.C.L.E. does. I am a scientist. I understand the destructive capabilities of our technology. Nothing is more important than maintaining peace and order...for the sake of all nations and races." Kuryakin's words seemed to be directed at his gravy drenched mashed potatoes; almost as though the Russian expected more understanding from the vegetable on his plate then from the man sharing his table.
"But why remain here? Why not transfer out?"
"And to where would you suggest I transfer, Mr. Solo?" Kuryakin demanded, his angry blue eyes looking up to transfix Solo like a butterfly on a pin. His tone was as bitter, icy and furious as Siberia's brutal winters. "France? Timbuktu? Or perhaps the States? U.N.C.L.E. may be an international organization, but no amount of idealism can alter human nature. Just where do you think an expatriated Russian would find welcome?"
Taken aback by the subdued verbal blast, Solo rallied a protest. "There have to be more congenial places than this..."
Kuryakin shrugged, "To one such as I, one place is very much the same as another. Now, if you'll excuse me, Mr. Solo, I have work to which I must attend."
Stunned by the speed with which Kuryakin moved, Napoleon watched the other agent take his half-eaten tray and all but bolt from the table.
Damn, he hadn't meant to offend the man...at least, not on a personal level. Solo always took pride in his ability to keep things professional, impersonal, even in a kill. But in retrospect, he realized that his questions had been cruel.
"Mr. Kuryakin!" he called after the retreating figure, aware that all conversation had stopped in the cafeteria and that every eye was now on them.
The Russian froze, turning to wait for him with visible reluctance. "Americans are very fond of spectacle; aren't they?" Kuryakin asked in a savage whisper once they were within hearing range.
"Forgive me, I..."
"What? You wish to arrest me, after all? Or perhaps reprimand me for my ill manners?"
Solo took a deep breath, forcing himself not to react emotionally to the tone, "No, I want to apologize for my own. It was none of my business. I should not have pried."
Kuryakin's eyes, bluer than jet flames, narrowed as the shorter man frowned up at him. "You are an excellent actor, Mr. Solo, That sounded quite sincere."
Beginning to suspect how much crap the young foreigner put up with on a daily basis, Solo stepped right up to the smaller agent and placed a conciliatory hand on a tense forearm. He could feel the anger bristling through the wiry figure and wondered if it were the understandable fury of one unjustly accused. Solo could almost read the internal debate raging behind those eyes, could sense how much Kuryakin wanted to strike out.
"I am sorry about the misunderstanding. I overstepped my limits before. I'm here to investigate this situation, not conduct a witch hunt. I hope to prove that to you in time." Solo spoke low, so that only Kuryakin would hear him. He'd embarrassed the man enough today.
The first completely unmasked emotion played across the previously controlled faceconfusion.
The tense moment seemed unnaturally suspended. Solo could feel every eye digging into them, could almost feel their audience's ears straining to catch their subdued conversation.
At last, Kuryakin seemed to come to some kind of a decision. "The fault is not all yours. I reacted in a precipitous manner."
"Can we declare a truce?" Solo flashed his most winning smile.
"We are not at war, Mr. Solo, and, despite all evidence to the contrary, I am not the enemy."
Strangely enough, Napoleon found himself believing the quiet statement. He knew truth when he heard it. Either Kuryakin was innocent or the man was the most duplicitous mastermind Solo had ever encountered. His guts told him it couldn't be the latter. Kuryakin was too obnoxious by half. The super spy Solo was hunting would be smart enough to foster a pleasant exterior.
"In that case, would you care to join forces?" Solo heard himself rashly offer, his whisper carrying no farther than the man to whom it was directed.
Looking very much like a puzzled golden retriever, the blond cocked his head to one side as those crystal blue eyes evaluated him. After a moment, Kuryakin replied in a similar whisper, "This is not the place for such a discussion."
"You're right. Let's get out of here." Solo suggested. Side by side, they made their way out.
Once they had disposed of their trays and escaped the prying eyes of their audience by leaving the cafeteria, the two U.N.C.L.E. agents paused in the chrome tunnel outside the facility. The hall was empty. They were virtually alone, except for the security cameras.
"Precisely what did you have in mind?" Kuryakin asked guardedly, looking for all the world as if he suspected that he was walking into a trap.
"To begin with, I'd like to take a look at that transmitter of yours, and the reports on the mission failure in which it was employed."
"All right. If you'd care to accompany me back to the lab...?" Kuryakin led him to a small workshop down the corridor from Filbert's main lab. The crowded room was an amalgam of a chemistry lab and an electronics workshop. A Bunsen burner, microscope, confusing array of test tubes and apparatus occupied the long island counter in the center of the room. Work tables lined the room's four walls, their surfaces buried beneath a strata of mechanical do-dads and half completed machines.
"This is where you work?" Solo asked, at a loss as to what to say. The place looked like a junk room. The quiet had stretched too long for anything he said to be too well received. The growing tension seemed to accent their differences, highlighting how basically alien they were to each other.
"Yes," the terse reply was hardly encouraging.
Trying again, Solo continued, "Alone?"
Kuryakin shot him what could only be termed a quelling glare. "Fortunately, I prefer to work alone." The Russian took a small black box down from a shelf behind one of the work tables. "This is the transmitter. If you'll give me a moment, I'II retrieve my copies of the wrap up report."
"Sure." Curious, Solo opened the little box in his hand. The case was hardly bigger than a matchbook. Inside, he found a slender silver needle. If it worked, it was the smallest mike Solo had seen to date.
While the compact blond knelt beneath another work table in the back of the workshop to search one of the numerous boxes that passed for a storage system, Napoleon browsed around the grimy lab.
"What's this?" Solo asked, his attention caught by a silver conical device that was set off from the rest of the experiments. It was a fetching little device. Barely ten inches high. The bulk of its body was a highly reflective silver casing studded with colorful buttons that made it look like a jewel encrusted scepter. At the top there was a small black nozzle that appeared somewhat out of place on the otherwise elegant creation. Napoleon hadn't a clue as to what the device did, but it looked impressive.
"Press the black switch on the front." Kuryakin instructed, not even glancing up from the records. Obviously, the guy had eyes in the back of his headlike any well trained field operative.
"I don't think so." Solo denied, not trusting that dry tone. "Not until you tell me what it does."
"I assure you, it is perfectly harmless, Mr. Solo. Even if I were the infiltrator, I would hardly kill you right here in U.N.C.L.E.'s lab. That would be difficult for even a super spy such as myself to explain away; don't you agree?" Kuryakin snidely retorted.
"I suppose. If this ruins my suit, I will not be amused." Solo warned.
"Never fear. You will remain a shining example of satorial splendor." Kuryakin sassed back. "Throw the switch if you dare."
His courage now in question, Solo reached for the only plain button on the ornate device. As soon as he depressed the black switch, an irritating oscillating whine filled the air, then the colorful studs on the device's sides revealed themselves to be lights as they blinked to life. The black nozzle at the top of the cone began to spin madly, like a compass needle in an electro-magnetic field. After several seconds, the nozzle froze, pointing in the direction of the chemistry set.
Half expecting some kind of laser beam to emerge, Solo watched in amazement as the air between the workbench and island counter seemed to shimmer and solidify. Something amorphous formed in that space...an eerie blue light with glittery spots swirling throughout it like banks of London fog.
"What is it?" Napoleon asked in an unconsciously hushed tone.
Kuryakin snorted from his seat on the floor. "It is an exorbitantly expensive, noisy night light."
"What?" Solo glanced from the flickering blue web. Something about it made his skin crawl.
"I was attempting to invent a device that would circumvent the new infrared security systems that certain organizations have recently installed. As you know, these beams are totally invisible to the naked eye."
Solo nodded, "Yes, I've had the misfortune to trip a few of them. This machine negates them?"
"No. Theoretically, that web should have revealed the location of the beams, so that our men could work around them."
"It doesn't work?" Solo asked, detecting something off in Kuryakin's tone.
"As you can see, it works quite well. It does not, however, detect the infrared beams. One of my less successful experiments, I'm afraid." The blond lamented.
Solo watched the shimmering web, the grains of a plan germinating in the back of his mind. "Has anyone seen this?"
"No. My reputation around here is sullied enough without my wasting thousands of pounds on a noisy night light."
"You're absolutely certain that no one else has seen this?"
An exasperated sigh emerged from under the work bench. "I'm positive. It isn't as if I am overwhelmed with cronies here. You are the first person to so much as even ask what I've been doing in the past two months. Not even Dr. Filbert inquires anymore."
Realizing how lonely a statement that was, Solo was touched that this highly private individual would entrust him with even that much of a confidence. It hadn't taken very long in the Russian's company for Solo to see how Kuryakin affected a lack of emotions. Sensing that any acknowledgment of that trust would only shatter the fragile thread, Napoleon said, "That will work in our favor."
"What?" The Russian's head popped up from his diggings. Apparently, Kuryakin was not big on housekeeping, for, if his appearance were any indication, those boxes were coated in dust. There were huge, round dust motes speckling his fine, shiny hair and a smudge down the left side of his nose.
"Your invention is not an overpriced night light at all." Solo decisively announced.
"No, it's U.N.C.L.E.'s ultimate defense: a force field that deflects bullets." Solo explained.
"What?" Kuryakin squeaked. "Mr. Solo, it is a simple blue light with an annoying sound. As an experiment, it is a complete failure. This machine wouldn't even deflect mosquitoes."
"But only you and I know that; correct?" Solo quizzed.
"We need something to draw our mole out, force him to take a chance and show his hand. This machine of yours is it."
"I don't understand how this worthless device is going to..."
Solo interrupted, detailing his plan as fast as the thoughts hit him. "This afternoon you're going to tell Dr. Filbert of your new discovery. You'll tell him that you're ready to demonstrate the device. Filbert will have to bring this to Grovner and the others. We'll give the demo, then sit back and wait for our mole to make a grab for the deflector...What?" Kuryakin's perturbed face spoke volumes.
"There is only one flaw to your plan."
"Yes?" Solo prodded.
"As much as I wish it did, the device doesn't deflect bullets. We cannot give a successful demonstration."
"Oh, don't worry, we'll give them a demonstration that will knock their socks off." Solo promised.
"When you're giving your speech before Grovner, you will ask for a volunteer from the Sudanese. You're not exactly Mr. Popularity around here at the moment, so there probably won't be too many applicants for the job." Thinking fast, Solo eyed the device, "Can you design a remote to turn this thing off? Something dramatic, with smoke perhaps?"
"I suppose, but whatever for?"
"To demonstrate that the thing works, you will ask me for my weapon, that way, there can be no suspicion that the show is rigged. You will shoot a couple of cans to pieces to prove that the gun is loaded with live ammo. Then, I will place myself between you and your targets. We'll turn on your machine here...and wait for the fireworks. And, believe me, you'll see them. There isn't a security agency on the planet that wouldn't pay millions for a bullet deflector."
"Let me see if I understand you correctly," The Russian said slowly. "I am your prime suspect in this case. You intend to hand me your weapon and ask me to shoot you in front of a roomful of people?"
Struck by the humor of the situation, Solo grinned and nodded, "Basically, yes."
For a long moment, Kuryakin simply stared at him. Then, the serious mask the Russian had worn since they'd met was shattered by the first truly humorous smile, then by a chuckle and, finally, by an outright laugh. "You are a most unusual man, Mr. Solo."
"So I've been told," Solo replied, laughing himself, "And, since we're going to be working together, if only for a short period of time, you may as well call me Napoleon."
The blond sobered, appearing surprised. After a brief hesitation, Kuryakin offered. "I am Illya."
Eelya Solo paid careful attention to the pronunciation. "It's a pleasure to work with you, Illya."
"Likewise, Napoleon. I do, however, have one question."
"Only one?" Solo smiled, amused.
"What is the purpose of the remote?"
"Well, when we run out of blanks, we'll need a way to keep the others from killing each other with live ammo. Your field is a prototype, and finicky as most of them are. It's only going to be able to hold for a few moments before its circuitry burns out."
"I see," Kuryakin smiled again, seemingly legitimately taken with the plan. "You are quite good at subterfuge, Napoleon."
Deciding he liked Kuryakin with a smile, Solo nodded and pointed out, only half-joking, "Unless, of course, I've thrown in with the infiltrator."
To his surprise, the Russian's smile only broadened. "In which case, I will have to steal the device anywayif only to keep up appearances. It is a good plan."
"We'll see. Will you have time to rig the remote?"
Kuryakin nodded. "I'll get to work on it immediately. Then I'll relay my discovery to Dr. Filbert."
"Very good. I'll leave you to it, then." About to leave, Solo paused to add, "Oh, and, Illya?"
"For this to succeed, we must still seem strangers to each other."
The Illya Kuryakin he'd met an hour and a half ago would have made some snide observation along the line of 'But we are strangers to each other'. Yet, on some level, they must have clicked, some kind of trust having formed between them. For, instead of reminding him of the obvious, the Russian gave a thoughtful, "I understand."
"Good. We'll smoke him out, my friend." Solo wasn't certain what made him offer the encouragement or address his prime suspect as 'friend', but the surprised expression in those normally distant and cynical eyes made Solo glad he had.
"So I hope. Good-bye, Napoleon."
Grinning at the bemused air that clung to the formerly arrogant scientist, Solo took his leave of the lab.
Predictable as sunrise, a staff meeting was called for ten a.m. the following day to demonstrate the remarkable discovery. As Solo's main suspect was hosting the conference, the special investigator was invited to attend as a courtesy.
"Good morning, gentlemen, Miss Chase," Solo greeted as he entered the replica of Mr. Waverly's office, bestowing a blinding smile on Grovner's shapely, redheaded assistant. Grovner, Morris and Rafferty were already seated around the big round table, the lovely Miss Chase sitting at a small table to the side with her stenographer's pad and pen ready.
"Good morning, Napoleon," Charles Grovner's smile was bright and welcoming. "All set for the show?"
In his crisp blue suit, the white haired gentleman looked every part the commander. Just looking at those friendly, open features, Solo knew a moment's unease. Suspecting Charles was like suspecting Waverly. Maybe worse, because Mr. Waverly had never called him friend. Charles and he had hit it off from their very first meeting, forming a tight friendship despite the fact that Grovner had been Solo's instructor back then. The idea of investigating his old friend behind his back was more than slightly repulsive to him. He'd known this man seven years, dined with his family, played cricket with Charles' son when the boy had been a teenager...
But work was work. Nine men were dead. Until the culprit was found, Charles and everyone at this table was still a suspect.
Solo took a seat across from the London chief, a vantage point that offered him a clear view of the entire room. "Show?" he feigned ignorance, "Precisely, what are we here for?"
"Dr. Filbert called a meeting. Apparently, our pet mole has made some type of discovery. It sounds like the plot of a bad sci fi flick to me." Grovner laughed.
"Oh?" Napoleon politely inquired.
"Kuryakin claims to have built a bullet deflector. Some type of energy field, if you'd believe it." Charles explained.
Before Solo could frame a reply, a very angry Morris broke in with, "I don't believe it. A bullet deflector, my arse! The bugger is toying with us."
"Your language, Mr. Morris," Grovner reprimanded, casting an apologetic glance Miss Chase's way.
"I'm sorry, but this is preposterous. Solo, when are you going to deal with this problem?" The muscular security chief demanded. In his brown suit and tie, Morris looked very much like the grizzly bear his bristly attitude brought to mind.
"I'll move when Mr. Waverly gives me the go ahead." Solo calmly answered the accusative tone. "Right now the evidence is still a bit too circumstantial for Mr. Waverly's comfort."
Morris gave a contemptuous snort. "My men tell me you spent almost two hours with Kuryakin yesterday, even had lunch with the man. What the Devil was that in aid of?" Morris demanded, his color rising, "I've got six men dead, possibly nine, and my top investigator is taking the perpetrator to lunch!"
Straightening in his chair, Solo dropped the charm he used as a buffer in social situations and allowed the dark part of his soul to peek out. His voice dead calm, he said, "Mr. Morris, you know why I am here. I will fix the problem. Permanently. However, my mistakes cannot be undone. Justice will be served, but only when Mr. Waverly orders me to move."
The uncomfortable silence that fell after the American's response was broken by the timely entrance of Dr. Filbert and the object of their discussion.
"Hello, everyone," the wispy haired, bespectacled doctor greeted as all conversation stopped and every eye in the room settled on him and his associate. Solo could almost smell Filbert's nervousness, couldn't help but notice the physical distance the doctor was careful to keep between himself and Kuryakin. Obviously, the section head didn't want to be judged guilty by association.
For his part, the Russian didn't appear aware of either the thick silence or the stares he was garnering. Pausing close to the table, Kuryakin quietly said, "Thank you for agreeing to see us so readily, Mr. Grovner. I hope you will not be disappointed. With your permission, I will set up the deflector now?"
"Go right ahead, Mr. Kuryakin," Grovner allowed.
They all watched Kuryakin put down a small black brief case. With an economy of motion and physical grace that Solo was beginning to see as the Russian's trademarks, Kuryakin set up several empty soup cans on the empty table that had been set up at the far end of the room, against a plain wall. Without further pause, Kuryakin launched into his speech.
Once again, Solo was impressed by the Russian's style. Although all Kuryakin's arrival had received was a stony silence and hostile glares, he politely greeted his audience and offered them an informative introduction to the mythical device's abilities and potential. The man was a true showman and born teacher. At no time did he falter in his spiel. He had a convincingly convoluted scientific explanation for every question his suspicious listeners sent his way. By the time Kuryakin had fmished talking, even Napoleon was convinced that the blue light would deter bullets.
"At this point, I would ask for a member of the audience to assist me," Kuryakin said once he'd completed his talk.
"What is this, a magic act?" Morris grumbled, loud enough to be heard by all. Otherwise, the room remained dead silent.
As Solo had predicted, there was no concentrated rush for the demonstration area.
When the silence became intensely uncomfortable, Solo cleared his throat and stood up, "Well, I suppose I could give it a try. So long as you promise not to saw me in half." Solo broke the tension with a small joke, "What sort of assistance do you require?"
"Are you insane, Solo?" London's top enforcer stage-whispered.
"Nonsense, Morris. I'm sure it's perfectly safe. We are, after all, in the heart of U.N.C.L.E. What can I do to help, Mr. Kuryakin?" The American asked, crossing the room to where the Russian stood beside his pretty device.
The relief in the blond's expression did not seem entirely manufactured. Looking closely, Solo could see a slight sheen of sweat beading the brow beneath those shaggy blond bangs.
"Thank you, Mr. Solo. If you'd be so kind as to lend me your weapon for a moment?" The Russian inquired.
The entire room seemed to draw a collective breath at the request.
With just the slightest show of hesitation, Solo handed over his revolver.
"Thank you. Now, to prove that the ammunition is, indeed, live, I will shoot the two cans I have placed on the table." Kuryakin continued.
The gunshots exploded like a bazooka blast in the enclosed space, deafening them all, Kuryakin's shots neatly blasting a hole dead center of each target. Obviously, the Russian's marksmanship was as sharp as his tongue, Solo noted.
No sooner had the bullets gone off, then four armed security men came rushing into Grovner's office. Their weapons were cocked and ready before they cleared the door. All four instantly fixed on Kuryakin.
Sensing a disaster in the making, Solo gave the briefest thought as to why Security hadn't been forewarned as to the nature of the demonstration.
"It's all right," Napoleon assured, stepping quickly between the guards and their target. With feelings so high against the Russian, Solo feared the worst. Training only went so far. These guards had no reason to believe that Kuryakin was anything other than the murderer of their co-workers. "It's merely a demonstration."
"Mr. Grovner?" The guard in front questioned, his cold blue eyes hungry for a go at the traitor.
"Everything is all right, Mr. McKenny. There will be several more shots. It's nothing to worry about," Grovner assured.
His cool unbroken, Kuryakin continued as soon as the guards withdrew, "I will now replace the targets and turn on the deflector."
The Russian took two more empty cans from his briefcase and placed them on the table. Then, he flicked on the black switch of his device. The lights blinked to life on its sides, flashing like a miniature Christmas tree. Moments later, the black nozzle began to swirl. Eventually, the nozzle stopped, focusing in the direction of the tin cans. The nerve-grating oscillating noise whined through the room, then, like a magnetic fog, the eerie blue field took form, shimmering like a ghostly presence.
"As you can well imagine, the deflector takes a tremendous amount of power to maintain its field." Kuryakin spoke over the annoying whine. A second later, the Russian fired Solo's weapon at the cans, which remained intact this time.
When the last gun blast died, Illya turned off the machine. "As you can see, the targets remain untouched."
A surprised murmur filled the room before Morris' contemptuous tone cut through it. "Very impressive, with cans."
"The field will work just as effectively with a human target," Kuryakin frostily replied. "Perhaps you would care to volunteer for the job, Mr. Morris?"
"Not on your life, you little..."
"I'll act as guinea pig," Solo cut in before Morris devolved to street level. Crudity was the one thing he couldn't stand in a man. "What do you want me to do, Mr. Kuryakin?"
Sensing the anger raging beneath the Russian's tight control, Solo waited until the blond pulled his icy glare from Morris. As big as the security chief was, Napoleon didn't think that he'd back Morris in the fight that was brewing here. Kuryakin might be small, but the blond was frightening when angered.
Solo saw Illya take a deep breath, then request, "If you would simply stand in front of the targets, Mr. Solo?"
His nerves tingling with the astronomical increase in the tension of the room, Solo did as requested. As the field formed between him and the audience, Napoleon placed himself in front of the nearest target.
Even though Solo had loaded that gun himself and knew that only the first two blasts had been live, every nerve in his body rebelled and tightened up as Kuryakin pointed that gun at him. One hand gun looked very much like another. If he'd read the Russian wrong, misplaced his trust, he could still be a dead man. Kuryakin could have substituted weapons. After the successful demo, Solo's death could be dismissed as another unfortunate accident. Granted, Kuryakin probably wouldn't make it out of the room alive, but THRUSH had considered Solo's removal worthy of kamikaze strikes in the past. If he were wrong about Illya...
The Smith & Wesson's thunderous discharge interrupted his musings, the room once again exploding with sound.
The breath caught in Napoleon's chest for those crucial seconds that would determine whether he lived or died. A second shot followed fast on the heels of the first...and nothing touched him. Although, Kuryakin was aiming straight at his chest.
While the audience loudly reacted to the amazing demonstration, Napoleon's gaze sought out the Russian's. Kuryakin's sardonic expression revealed that he knew exactly what had been going through Solo's mind. A pale brow raised up towards the blond's bangs in a dryly inquiring gesture.
Somewhat giddy with relief, Solo flashed his co-conspirator a quick grin and wink.
Surprised by the silent, near-empathic communication going on between them, Napoleon saw the Russian's hand slip into the left pocket of his lab coatthe side that the rest of the room couldn't see because of the way Kuryakin was standing. Reading the question in those slightly widened blue eyes, Solo gave a nearly imperceptible nod.
Kuryakin must have thrown the remote then, for, quite abruptly, his gizmo hissed and sizzled in a shower of sparks. The force field flickered ominously before vanishing mid-air like the wraith it was.
Several disappointed gasps emerged from the round table.
"Don't be concerned," Kuryakin assured. "The deflector requires a great amount of power to sustain that field. It has merely blown a circuit. It will take but several hours to repair."
The hush that followed was absolute. In the sudden awkwardness, no one seemed to know how to react to the supposed traitor who'd just delivered a virtual miracle into their hands.
Finally, Grovner seemed to rally, "Dr. Filbert was right. This is a remarkable discovery, young man. You say this can be easily repaired?"
"Yes. sir. I can get to work on it immediately, if you'd like." Kuryakin offered.
"Please do," the London chief grinned. "And, thank you, Mr. Kuryakin, for a job well done."
"You 're welcome, sir. With your permission, I shall remove the deflector and begin repairs." Kuryakin replied.
Proud of his co-conspirator's acting job, Solo watched the compact scientist gather up his expensive night light and leave.
No sooner had the pneumonic doors closed behind Kuryakin, then the stunned room buzzed to life. Feeling like a spider at the center of its web, Solo joined in with the incredulous men's remarks and praise, searching the nuances of every exclamation for their traitor.
Solo's next move was slightly less public.
Now that he'd baited the trap, all he had to do was wait for their rat to come for the cheese.
Napoleon wished he could have stopped in to Kuryakin's lab to congratulate Illya on his masterful performance that morning, but he couldn't risk any suspicious involvement. After that demonstration, everyone was going to be watching the Russian. So, Solo had to content himself with observing his partner in crime from afar. And, frankly, there was little more to observe this day than on any other.
After the brilliant success of his demo, Kuryakin burrowed himself away in his cubbyhole of a laboratory, ostensibly hard at work repairing the bullet deflector. The Russian's work habits remained completely unaltered. The man started work at 7:30 that morning and left the tailor shop at 9 p.m. sharp.
At 8:30 p.m., Napoleon shut out the lights in his own office and locked his office door the same as he had every night since his arrival in London Section. The only difference was that tonight, he remained inside his office. For a long moment, he stood listening inside the door, waiting to see if Security would be by to inquire as to why he hadn't vacated the premises.
When no one barged in to ask any awkward questions, Solo lit his pen light. Clenching it between his teeth, he jumped up onto his desk and studied the ventilation duct above it. It was certainly big enough to accommodate him. Making a mental note to speak to Waverly about the possibilities of a mole using this method as a possible escape route, Solo pried the grill off and carefully lowered it to the floor.
Quieter than the proverbial mouse, Solo hauled himself up into the vent's narrow darkness...and promptly sneezed. The duct floor was lined with at least a half inch of dust, much to the fastidious agent's disgust.
Despairing of his suit, Solo avoided the accumulation of years as best he could and shimmied to the first junction. Every tiny, inadvertent noise that he made boomed louder than a timpani in the cramped metal tube. The narrow beam of his penlight was a poor beacon in the stygian dark.
Once he reached the electrical board at the first junction, Solo dug into his pocket for the tiny device he'd borrowed from his Paris squad when he'd briefed his men when he'd left the building for lunch this afternoon. It was a good thing U.N.C.L.E. hadn't been trailing him, Solo acknowledged, for, while their prime suspect's activities had been utterly routine, his investigator's were anything but.
The mechanism was a wonder of modem surveillance, a tiny television screen that sat comfortably in the palm of Solo's hand.
Two minute's work, and the American had sliced a wire into internal security's closed circuit surveillance system. Napoleon plugged the jack into the cigarette holder sized telly, resting his miniature surveillance post in the thick gray dust coating the vent before him.
As soon as he hit the power switch, a tiny black and white picture snapped to life on the monitor's three-inch screen. The picture showed a lovely Asian girl dressed in U.N.C.L.E.'s uniform, sitting at a desk, waving trench coated figures out the security entrance.
Wrong channel. Solo fiddled with the dial, which was little more than a pimple sized protuberance, switching circuits until he cut into the correct security camera's frequency. Relieved, he saw the hall outside of Kuryakin' s lab pop into view.
About twenty minutes into his vigil, Solo saw the door to Illya's work room open. Even on the grainy screen, Solo could see how the long, dark overcoat Kuryakin wore accented the paleness of his skin and shaggy hair. He watched Kuryakin carefully lock up his lab and leave.
After the elevator doors swallowed his co-conspirator, there was absolutely no movement in the corridor. Making himself as comfortable as he could in the cold, snug space, Solo settled into the darkness to await developments.
Two hours into his vigil, his cigarette case began to beep.
Solo quickly assembled the communicator by the light of the miniature monitor. "Open Channel L, Solo here."
"Mr. Solo, it's Dupres, sir," A deep worried voice with a thick Parisian accent emerged from the communicator.
"Yes, Dupres?" Napoleon's voice was smooth and calm, despite his sudden tensing. His squad had strict instructions to contact him outside of the proscribed times only in cases of dire emergency. Whatever this was, it wasn't good news. Dupres was the agent Solo had assigned to follow Rafferty, a resourceful, capable operative.
"Norton is down, sir," Dupres reported. Norton was Grovner's tail.
"Permanently?" Solo asked.
"I'm afraid so."
"Did they make him?" Solo voiced the all important question. The silence that followed was not encouraging.
"Unknown. A lorry jumped its lane. It plowed right into him, sir. It seems to be a simple traffic accident. The roads were icy, but..."
"The timing is too convenient for my liking," Solo finished, thinking fast. "How did you find out about this?"
"Mr. Rafferty lives in Mr. Grovner's neighborhood. I passed the accident by sheer coincidence and recognized Norton's car, sir."
"Where's Rafferty now?" Solo asked after Dupres' own assignment. Of all his candidates, the ailing Rafferty and Dr. Filbert were his least likely suspects. Unfortunately, Morris and Grovner were running neck and neck for the finish line. Right now, things were not looking especially bright for Solo's old friend Charles.
"Mr. Rafferty is at home, Mr. Solo. I believe he had retired for the night."
"And Mr. Grovner? Where is he now?" Solo questioned, knowing what the answer would be before Dupres even spoke.
"I don't know, sir. I lost his car in the confusion of emergency vehicles. When I rode by his house, only his wife's car was visible from the drive."
"Okay. I want you to contact Marcharet. Pull him off Filbert. Tell him to get over to Grovner's and ascertain his status. Talk to his wife, if he needs to. Then, I want you to..." Solo's voice trailed away as his vent was plunged into absolute pitch darkness as his monitor went black. Someone had just cut the power to the security cameras outside Kuryakin's lab. And Solo had a horrible suspicion as to whom that someone might be. "Dupres, I have a situation here. I'll be in touch. Solo out."
Napoleon pocketed his communicator and monitor, then scurried on knees and elbows back to the drop to his office desk.
Going to Kuryakin's lab at this point would be futile. Napoleon knew that he himself could have retrieved the device in the time it had taken him to get out of the vent. He assumed that their suspect would be just as good. Hell, if it were Charles, the man was better than good. He was the absolute best.
The infiltrator certainly wouldn't use the main entrance for his escape, which left only the roof and delivery entrances. The icy downpour and high winds raging outside ruled out an aerial escape, which left only the basement.
"Open Channel D," Solo panted into his still assembled communicator as he jogged towards the nearest stairwell. "Condition RED. Security Breach."
The blinking red lights and klaxons immediately blared to life. Solo took the stairs three at a time in the red tinged stairwell, running for all he was worth. Normally, he would have ordered a total lock down, but if he restricted clearance to the security level his two main suspects enjoyed, Solo himself would no longer be free to move through the building.
Napoleon barreled through the garage doors, gun drawn and ready. The alarms echoed like an enraged pterodactyl in the cavernous basement. But the garage appeared deserted. There was no getaway vehicle running, no sound of hurrying feet, nothing but parked cars.
Solo took a single cautious, cat-like step out of the shelter provided by the open door.
The stirring of air behind him heralded his mistake. There was no time to turn and confront the culprit, no time at all.
The only thing in Solo's universe was pain as something far more solid than human flesh coshed him on the back of the head. Briefly, a thousand silver stars flashed before his closing eyes, then the scene went as black as the security camera had earlier.
"This complicates things terribly, Grovner," was the first thing Solo heard as consciousness slowly filtered back in. His head was pounding like a three hundred pound football player was kicking at it. He suppressed the instinctive moan of pain that sought to escape his dry lips and listened. Years of training kept him completely still. Assessing his status, Solo continued to play dead.
The first thing to spring immediately to Solo's attention was the fact that he was bound hand and foot. The second was that the speaker was a complete stranger to him.
"I've known the man seven years," An all-too-familiar voice declared, so strained with emotion that Solo barely recognized it as his old comrade's. "He's a friend. I couldn't simply kill him."
"Then why didn't you leave him? Why bring him here at all?" The first voice demanded.
"I was sure he'd seen me enter the stairwell." Grovner defended.
"Nerves aren't what they used to be; are they, Charles, old boy?" Solo said, sitting up with as much dignity as he could muster in his embarrassing position.
His gaze fixed on the dark suited stranger standing beside Grovner. The man was imposing: at least 6'2" in stature, slate gray hair, dark eyes, brows so thick and wide they seemed a single entity, and shoulders that were wider across than most sports cars. Just looking at the guy, Solo knew how difficult it would be to take him down.
They appeared to be in a basement of some kind of newspaper office. The huge, shadowy machinery bulking throughout the room looked like printing presses and the air reeked of ink. There wasn't a window in sight. The only door appeared to be a heavy iron one at the far end of the basement behind all those hulking machines.
Taking full measure of his circumstances, Solo looked up. There was a confusing web work of pipes cat cradling the ceiling. They could be useful. If he worked his ropes free and managed to subdue the two men in front of him. If the four blue uniformed, watchful THRUSH guards hovering in the background with their machine guns at the ready allowed him to do so. There were just too many ifs in this situation for Solo to feel entirely optimistic.
This wasn't the worst scenario that Napoleon Solo had found himself in over the years, but the odds certainly weren't in his favor here.
"Mr. Solo, I presume," the THRUSH leader smiled. It was not a pleasant sight, rather like a lion beaming at his dinner.
"You have me at a disadvantage, I'm afraid," Solo politely replied, falling back on the comforting familiarity of social amenities as he often did in such stressful situations.
"Yes, we do; don't we?" The huge man seemed abnormally pleased with himself.
"I meant that we haven't been properly introduced," Solo corrected in a tone he knew was sure to get up his captor's nose. It might be sheer stubbornness, but Solo was unwilling to concede even such a small point to his adversaries so soon in the game.
The Thrush leader's grin faltered a little. Now, merely at a diabolical level, the man replied, "Pardon my poor manners. I was merely overwhelmed by hosting a guest of your stature."
"You must forgive me if I find your hospitality somewhat lacking, Mr....?"
"Collins. And, don't worry. your discomfort will be short lived." Collins chuckled. "No pun intended. But, on to business. Where is the deflector, Charles?"
Feeling his expression and gaze harden, Solo glared at Grovner, "Why, Charles? I know it's not the money. Why would you...?"
Grovner's face turned nearly as white as his hair as he blanched and looked away.
Collins answered for the obviously guilt-stricken London Chief. "An unfortunate set of pictures, I'm afraid."
"Pictures?" Solo repeated, disbelieving. Like Waverly, Charles Grovner was almost a stereotype of a proper British gentleman. In the seven years Solo had known the man, he'd never heard Charles so much as curse. The man lived for his family and work. What kind of compromising photographs could THRUSH possibly have on his straight-laced friend? "Charles, nine men have died."
"I never thought it would come to this, Napoleon," Grovner swore, looking cornered. "At first, it was just little things. Nothing life threatening, nothing important..."
"Nothing important?" Solo spat. "Charles, you are the London Section Head. This is THRUSH you're dealing with here, not some nickel and dime extortionist. How could you be stupid enough to compromise your position like this?"
"Not me, Napoleon. I never...it was Allister, you see," Grovner practically pleaded for understanding.
"Who is Allister?" Solo ran over the names of the murdered operatives and came up blank. He couldn't place an Allister in Grovner's entire Section...
"Mr. Grovner's only child," Collins cheerfully supplied. "Charles here is far too much of the gentleman to ever compromise himself, but, unfortunately, the apple fell rather far from the tree in Allister's case. To Mr. Grovner's great misfortune, young Allister has an unnatural regard for members of his own gender. Once we discovered this weakness, it was only a matter of time."
"Charles..." Solo whispered, unable to believe what he was hearing. Grovner had sacrificed nine of his men because his kid got caught with his pants down in the wrong person's boudoir? It was inconceivable to him. True enough, in the British upper society Grovner inhabited, such a disclosure would be a major scandal, but other families had survived such traumas without selling out their men and country. That this man he respected so much would crumble with so little cause was...disheartening.
"Those pictures would have killed Miriam, Napoleon," Charles nervously explained, his voice strained to the breaking point. "You know how weak her heart is..."
"Those photographs killed nine good men, Charles. You killed nine good men. Your own men," Solo clearly defined the extent of his friend's treason, sick at heart. Nothing had ever mattered more to Grovner than U.N.C.L.E. and his family, and now Charles had lost them both.
"Enough of this," Collins interrupted. "Amusing as this exchange is, I have a plane to catch. The bullet deflector, if you please, Charles?"
Grovner's unsteady right hand reached into the pocket of his long dark overcoat to remove Kuryakin's shiny gizmo. The useless device shimmered like the crown jewels in the murky lighting of the basement.
"Thank you," Collins took possession of the device, transferred it to his own suit pocket, then reached under his left lapel. "I fear that you have outlived your usefulness to us, Mr. Grovner. Your retirement has been moved up...and made permanent."
For some reason, Grovner actually appeared surprised when the bullet caught him between the eyes.
The retort of the shot thundered through the cavernous basement, echoing off the printing presses and stone walls as it would in a cave.
With a vague sense of pity, Solo watched his old friend's forehead shatter, a fountain of blood and less identifiable matter spraying the immediate area. Head shots were definitely not pretty to watch.
"Mr. Solo," Collins continued, "you, too, have become an unwelcome guest. I regret that we did not have time to get to know each other. I am sure that there is much I could have learned from you..." The gun raised. Collin's finger moved to the trigger...
And all the bound American could do was stare at his death. Of all the ignominious, stupid ways to die...
The room seemed to explode with gunfire. Solo counted at least four rapid fire shots. Braced for immolation, his tense body waited for impact. One one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand...something wasn't right. He shouldn't still be alive. Collins was less than ten feet away. Nobody was that poor a shot.
Utterly bewildered, Solo saw his would-be-executioner stare down at his own chest. In seconds, a large red stain blossomed through the crisp white shirt Collins wore beneath his Saville Row suit. Collins' mouth gaped open, but only a drowning gurgle and a bloody bubble emerged. The gun dropped from the THRUSH leader's suddenly lax fingers as the behemoth toppled forward, still wearing that confused expression.
Three other thuds followed in fast progression. Wide eyed, Solo stared over to where the THRUSH guards now lay in an ominously silent jumble of limbs, machine guns and misplaced caps.
Feeling as bewildered as Collins had looked, Solo stared about the gloomy basement. All he could see were the hulking shadows of the printing presses. Then, a dark silhouette moved across one of the largest bulks at the far end of the murky basement. Even in the uncertain light, Solo could see the outline of the weapon clutched in his shadow-savior's right hand. Lithe as a cat, the unknown shooter dropped to the floor. At first, Solo thought that it might be Dupres, but the shadow was too short to be the Frenchman.
"I trust that you are uninjured, Napoleon," a familiar, deep accented voice declared as a glint of light picked out the near-white aureole of blond hair.
"Illya?" Solo questioned as the compact Russian stepped fully into the dim light.
In his baggy navy suit, rumpled white button down and mismatched brown tie, the other U.N.C.L.E. agent looked as if he'd just stepped out of his lab for a coffee break. Like most pros, there was no sign of remorse for the four men he'd just dispatched with such chilling efficiency. For all the emotion Kuryakin displayed, the Russian might merely have swatted a fly.
"What are you doing here, Illya?"
Solo watched Kuryakin fastidiously step around the blood pooled around Grovner's shattered skull.
The blond gave him a dry smile. "It is a little late for such concerns; don't you think? At any rate, I came to keep an eye on my overpriced night light. I fear that Mr. Collins may have permanently damaged it."
"But how did you...?"
"When I installed the remote you requested, I took the liberty of inserting my transmitter, as well. THRUSH was not expecting the bullet detector to be bugged, so they didn't bother jamming it. The transmitter worked quite well, no?"
Unable to believe how calm Kuryakin was in dealing with all this, Solo nodded and agreed, "Splendidly." Too aware of his embarrassing state, the American shifted on the cold, hard cement. "Could I trouble you to untie me?"
"But of course. I will..." Kuryakin's words trailed away as his head tilted to the side, a distracted expression crossing his features.
As one, Solo and Kuryakin's attention turned towards a door at the far end of the basement as both agents detected the nearly inaudible sounds of stealthy movement.
"Perhaps cover would be a better idea," Kuryakin recommended, his weapon trained on the area from which the subtle noises had emerged as he bent towards the American to remove Solo's leg restraints.
The next few minutes seemed to pass in a blur of action and noise for Napoleon.
With a resounding boom, the heavy metal door flew off its hinges and clattered to the cement floor like the tower of Babel toppling to its doom. A squad of armed, dark suited men rushed the basement to take up strategic positions. Solo relaxed a bit as he recognized Morris at the center of the invaders.
"Freeze, you double crossing bastard!" The London Security Chief shouted at Kuryakin. "Drop the gun, now!"
Kuryakin's hand reached out, as if to follow orders and divest himself of the gun, but then, quite suddenly, Illya's slender form froze.
Puzzled, Napoleon watched the compact body turn to stone. Trailing Kuryakin's gaze, Solo saw what had halted the Russian, what Morris and his men couldn't see from their present positions.
There, on top of the very machine from which Kuryakin had dropped, was a blue uniformed THRUSH guard. The enemy was to the left and slightly behind Morris, completely invisible to the security chief.
Napoleon immediately grasped the problem that had frozen the resourceful Russian. Kuryakin was the only one in position to take out the THRUSH operative, who seemed to be getting a mark on Morris, were the direction of his machine gun any indication. Yet, were Illya to cock his weapon, there was no way for Morris and his men to know that their suspected traitor was acting in their defense. It was a moral dilemma, the scale of which Solo had never faced. If Kuryakin did the right thing and protected their own, he'd die...by U.N.C.L.E.'s own hand. And, if he didn't...
"Morris," Solo shouted, "There's a THRUSH guard hiding..."
His words were drowned out as the world exploded around him.
The deafening barrage of rapid fire thundered through the cavernous basement, echoing off the cement walls and floors like divine judgment.
Kuryakin had made his choice. The Russian's bullet flew true. Impressed by the marksmanship in such poor lighting, Solo saw the hidden THRUSH guard slump forward onto the top of the press and lie still...at almost the same instant Kuryakin threw himself to the ground and rolled for coveraway from the trussed up American.
The nano-second it had taken Kuryakin to make that choice of directionto consciously decide to save Solo from harmcost him dearly.
His throat choking up with horror, Solo watched the rolling Russian jerk spasmodically as no less than three separate bullets penetrated his curled up form. Kuryakin's rollout came to an unmeditated halt as his damaged body refused to cooperate. The young foreigner whom everyone in the London Section had suspected and ostracized from the start lay ominously still, a growing pool of blood spreading from his chest... shot by his own co-workers.
Dead men don't bleed, Solo kept telling himself as he watched the gruesome puddle by Kuryakin's chest continue to expand.
"Got him, sir," A proud, young agent announced as his muscular form rose from a military man's double handed shooting position.
"Good work, Lewis," Morris approved, hurrying towards Solo and the fallen Russian. Illya hadn't moved at all...
If Solo had had a gun in his hand, he probably would have shot both Morris and the over-eager rookie. He'd never experienced outrage this...murderous, not towards any enemy, not towards the drunk driver who'd mowed down his young wife ten years ago...and these were his own people.
"Get me up from here," Solo ordered as the curly haired, baby faced Enforcer who'd taken out Kuryakin approached.
"Yes, Mr. Solo, right away, sir." Lewis grinned. "Bet you're glad to see us. That Ruskie was about to..."
"Hurry, you damn fool!" he hissed at the rookie.
The kid produced a six inch Bowie knife from a concealed shoulder holster and proceeded to cleanly slice open the American's ropes.
The agony of returning circulation was phenomenal. But Solo ignored it. Once freed, he roIled to his feet, wobbling as he attained the vertical. His throbbing head spinning, arms and legs screaming at the movement, but...he had to get to Illya.
"Morris," Solo called out as he moved. He was much more his diplomatic self again, even though he dared not look at his British counterpart for fear of what he'd do to the man, "Call an ambulance."
"An ambulance? We don't need it, I'm afraid. Poor Mr. Grovner is..." Morris lamented, his voice thick with emotion.
"Grovner was the mole, you fool. Call an ambulance, Now!" Solo snapped, losing patience with them all as he knelt beside the motionless Russian. The younger man looked like a broken doll lying there, all balled up, his baby-fine, feathered hair glutted near his ear with the scarlet gore that had seeped to where his head lay. There was just so much blood...
Napoleon forced his smarting, cramp-wracked hand to reach for the Russian's throat, knowing in his bones that it was already too late. Three bullets, straight to the chest cavity...heart, lungs, God knew what else...
To his utter shock, Solo felt the faintest flutter of a pulse beneath his fingertips. It was frighteningly weak and increasingly unsteady, but it was there all the same. Quickly, Solo pressed his right hand down onto the worst chest wound, applying pressure to reduce the blood loss. "Get that ambulance now!"
"Sir," the rookie who'd shot Kuryakin came to hover beside the unlikely pair, "what did you mean when you said that Mr. Grovner was the mole?"
Solo spared a second to glare up at the shooter. The young man's pasty face stilled some of his fury. The kid hadn't known...how could he? This was just another of those tragic mistakes that happen when emotions were running high and gun-toting avengers were looking for a target instead of justice.
Solo cursed himself for al1owing it to go this far. He should have told Morris that he'd taken the Russian into his confidence, but at the time, Solo hadn't been any more certain of Morris' innocence than he had of Grovner's. Trust had been a commodity he could ill afford. It was funny where he'd ended up placing his faith, though, Solo thought as he looked down at the dying man, who, from all indications, should have been their traitor.
"I meant that Mr. Grovner was the one who'd sold us out," Solo said softly, glancing over his shoulder, allowing his steady gaze to drive home just what the young man had done.
The young agent's round, freckled face turned positively green. "But...but we were following Kuryakin, sir. He...he led us straight here." The shooter feebly protested.
"And Mr. Kuryakin was following a transmitter he'd implanted in his device. The device which Grovner stole, I might add."
"You can't be serious, Solo," Morris sneered as he approached. "We saw the bugger standing over you and poor Grovner's body with a gun drawn. The traitor turned, fired on us..."
"He didn't fire on you. If he had, you'd be dead. Kuryakin was aiming at the concealed THRUSH agent who was about to kill you."
"What THRUSH agent?" Morris demanded, trying to keep his self-righteous front, but Solo could read the uneasy shadow lurking in the back of his eyes.
"The dead one on top of that press." Solo answered, his patience barely restraining him.
"Go check it out, Lewis," Morris ordered, asking less certainly when the young agent had left, "Is Kuryakin alive?"
"Barely. That ambulance?" Solo pressed.
"It should be here any minute." The Security Chief assured.
Trying to get a better pressure point on the wound that had been oozing warm blood all over his hand throughout the entire conversation, Solo carefully shifted the wounded blond onto his back.
"Aaaooww..." Kuryakin moaned, his wheat-pale eyelashes fluttering open. "Schto?"
Solo didn't know much Russian, but he recognized the word for 'what'. "Ssssh, Illya. Lie still. You're going to be all right," Solo soothed, "Help is on the way."
The glazed eyes focused on his with obvious difficulty. "Na...Napoleon?"
"I'm right here," he assured, surprised that the man had even recognized him in his condition.
"Hu-hurts..." The blond muttered fretfully, attempting to move.
"I know it hurts, Illya. But you've got to stay still for a while. If you move, the bleeding will get worse..."
"Bleeding? What..." The question ended on another moan, then Kuryakin' s eyes sank shut again.
"Is he...?" Morris sounded nearly fearful.
And well he should, Solo uncharitably acknowledged, still too angry with his British counterpart to be more than civil. "He's passed out again."
The muscle-bound Lewis rushed back to them, appearing both breathless and nauseated. "It's just as Mr. Solo said, Mr. Morris. There's a dead THRUSH guard on top of that big machine back there. We never even saw him..."
To his credit, Morris went white and muttered, "Oh, my God," then, getting hold of himself, he questioned, "Why didn't he drop the gun when ordered? Why did he...?"
"Would it have made any difference if Illya had dropped that gun?" Solo demanded, too much innocent blood on his hands and suit to be inclined towards mercy. "You got what you wanted from the start, Morris. I yelled to you that there was a THRUSH agent behind you..."
"I didn't hear you," Morris appeared stricken. "I was too..."
"Hot for the kill?" Solo suggested, relentless.
The man gave a mute nod. "Solo, if I could take those bullets back, I swear to God, I would."
Solo looked at the pale, guilt-ridden man standing over him, then down to the broken body whose life blood he could feel draining away with every heartbeat. "In our line of work we don't have such options. We can't afford to make these kinds of mistakes."
Then Morris asked the question that Solo knew had to be coming, "What are you going to tell Mr. Waverly?"
Sick to the bone, Solo glared at the broken man before him. "What do you think I'm going to tell him? The truth, the same as always."
"My career is over if you do that." Morris said unnecessarily.
Looking up as two white uniformed med techs finally came rushing through the door with the long-awaited stretcher, Solo sighed. "Your career was over the moment you stopped searching for the true culprit and made up your mind who'd done it on the basis of personal prejudice rather than empirical facts. It took me less than 24 hours with the evidence to start doubting your air-tight case. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a wounded U.N.C.L.E. agent to see to." With that, Solo helped the paramedics move the unconscious Russian onto the hand carried stretcher and left the whole sorry squad behind him as he followed his wounded co-conspirator to what he couldn't help but think of as Illya' s death bed.
The corridor was long and empty, reeking of antiseptics, underlaid with that smell of death that no amount of cleaning could ever completely eradicate. Napoleon Solo was intimately familiar with that latter scent. Unfortunately, it was part and parcel of his trade.
Sighing, the American left off his pointless pacing and returned to the hard plastic chairs in the waiting room. In the three and a half hours that he'd been sitting in this deserted room, he'd memorized every scuff on the green linoleum and every speck of dirt on the bright white walls.
He supposed that it was a good sign that it was taking this long. If the surgeons were still working on him, then Illya must still be amongst the living, as unlikely as that seemed to Napoleon who still held in his mind the image of the younger man's bloodless, unconscious face as they'd taken Kuryakin away from him. He hated the waiting. He wasn't good at it at the best of times, and these circumstances could hardly be classified as such.
There were no more distractions. For the last forty minutes his communicator had been silent. Solo had reported in to Waverly and coordinated the final clean up from the waiting room here. There were no more details to be handled. Grovner and the THRUSH corpses had been removed and the battle scene cleared of all evidence. Napoleon had dictated his wrap up report to Wanda over the line. Basically, there was nothing left to do now but wait, to see if Grovner's mistake would claim yet another innocent victim.
Charles...Napoleon thought of his old friend. The man would be buried in disgrace. Poor Miriam. She'd deserved better than this. Solo considered going to her, to offer some words of comfort, if any existed. Only...Miriam Grovner had her son to share her pain.
If Solo left this room now, there'd be no one waiting on the news of Kuryakin's status. And somehow, after all the wrongs that had been done to the man, it was very important to Napoleon that there be someone here for him when Kuryakin regained consciousness. Even if it were only the man who'd been sent to kill him.
Solo heard a door open down the corridor, the swinging doors at the far end that led to the operating theaters.
Napoleon was on his feet and waiting when the white-garbed, gray-haired doctor looked into the waiting area. The surgeon had obviously come straight from the operating room. Although his rubber gloves, mask and cap had been removed, he still wore his gown. There was so much blood on the draping garment that it looked as though the weary man had been slaughtering livestock all night.
"Excuse me, are you here for Mr. Kuryakin?" The doctor inquired in a light, upper class accent.
"Dr. Engels." The surgeon supplied, reaching out to shake Solo's proffered hand. "And you are?"
"Are you a relative of Mr. Kuryakin?" The doctor asked, his weary brown eyes seeming to make a mental comparison of Solo's dark hair and gaze to his blond, blue eyed patient.
Highly aware of how visiting rights were restricted to immediate family only, Solo gave an earnest nod and said, "Yes, I'm Illya's Uncle. I'm afraid there are no closer relatives. He was a war orphan." That much, at least, was true.
All suspicion immediately left the doctor's countenance. Doubtless, the surgeon was old enough to remember the horror of that insane period of history, the horror that Napoleon Solo worked daily to keep from repeating.
"How is he doing, doctor?" Solo asked, unable to read anything from the man's stolid features. Engels should have been a player. He had the control for it, if not the calling.
"It was touch and go for a while. We lost him once, but...your nephew has a surprisingly strong constitution. Although I wouldn't have given you odds on it when I first saw him, I believe he's going to pull through." Engels' smile was bright and sincere.
"Thank God," Solo whispered, a tremendous weight lifting from his spirit. They hadn't killed him, then. "When can I see him?"
"He's going to be in recovery for the rest of the night. If you come by in the morning, he should be in a room by then."
"I'd like to wait, if you wouldn't mind." Solo said.
"I don't mind, but...
"But?" Solo prompted.
"You are not going to be able to see him before morning. When he awakens he is going to be disoriented, in a great deal of pain. Do you really want to scare him at such a time?" The doctor gently asked.
"Scare him?" Solo echoed, mystified.
"Mr. Solo, look at yourself. You are covered with blood, weary to the bone. Don't you think it would be much better for your nephew if you went home and cleaned up, came back in the morning a little rested?"
Stunned, Solo looked down on the dried bloodstains browning his shirt, trousers and suit jacket. How could he have forgotten about them, he wondered, completely bewildered. No longer was he confused as to why the few people who'd also been waiting had glanced into this small room and then quickly moved on to the larger waiting area in the main concourse. He looked like Jack the Ripper on a good night.
"Yes, of course," Solo muttered. "I had forgotten. You're right. I'll go home and change. At what time will I be allowed to see him?"
The doctor smiled. "I would think that nine a.m. would be a reasonable hour. Have a good night, Mr. Solo."
"You, too, Dr. Engels...and thank you."
At seven-forty-five, Napoleon was back haunting St. Pancras Hospital's halls. A combination of charm and stealth saw him up on Kuryakin's floor a full hour before visiting hours officially started. A little sweet-talking to a young nurse's aid, and he was covertly admitted to the sick room, with the strictest cautions not to excite or disturb his nephew.
There was little chance of either. From all appearances, Kuryakin had yet to awaken. Taking a chair beside the bed, Solo stared at the compact figure that was buried beneath sheets and IV drips. Illya's flesh was as pale as the bed linen, so bloodless that his full lips didn't even seem to have any color. The only hint of variation from dull white was Kuryakin's hair. But even the pale gold showed the effect of the night's hardships. The shaggy length was tangled, still glutted in places with dried blood. Looking at the Russian, Solo couldn't help but think that the man had been left more dead than alive.
It was nonsense, of course. Napoleon knew that everyone always looked their worst after a major surgery. In a few days, Kuryakin would doubtless be up and about, eating the hospital out of house and home, Solo fondly thought, remembering the overloaded plate Kuryakin had had at their shared lunch. But it was hard to see Illya like this, hard knowing that it was an U.N.C.L.E. agent who'd put Kuryakin here.
Which brought up another bone of contention. Waverly had not dismissed Morris out of hand. Solo had been ready to give the man his walking papers at three a.m., but Waverly had told him to wait...until Kuryakin was recovered. Waverly was leaving Morris' fate up to his principal victim. It was up to Kuryakin whether legal charges would be filed, or Morris dismissed or...nothing at all. Although Napoleon could see that it was fair to allow Illya the satisfaction of dismissing Morris himself, Solo would have much preferred to offer the gift to Kuryakin as a fait accompli' upon awakening. But this was Mr. Waverly's call. Solo knew himself to be too personally involved at the moment to think clearly.
At eleven-twenty-six, Illya's eyelids flickered, then slowly opened.
Reading the alarm that was struggling to replace the lingering grogginess of anesthesia, Solo reached out to grip Kuryakin's square, capable hand. As he did so, Napoleon was careful not to jostle the limb too much, for fear of dislodging either the board they had taped to the Russian's wrist or the IV connection itself.
"It's all right, Illya," he softly assured, giving the too- cold hand a gentle squeeze. "You're safe now. You're in the hospital. The doctors say you're going to be just fine."
The blond drew in a raspy breath, then focused on Solo's features with obvious difficulty. "Na...Napoleon?" Kuryakin questioned, as if unsure of his identity.
"Yes, it's me," he smiled.
"I'm...thirsty..." Kuryakin croaked, still seeming half-asleep.
Releasing Kuryakin's hand, Solo instantly reached for the crushed ice on the side table. "You're not allowed to drink, just yet," Napoleon explained as he spooned a little of the ice into Illya's waiting mouth, "but the nurse said you could have a little of this when you woke up."
"Thank you." Kuryakin said, once the ice had melted in his dry mouth.
As much as Solo would have liked to take hold of the injured man's hand again, something in that imposing, pain-filled gaze restrained him.
After a few moments of silently regarding him, the groggy blond asked, "Wha...what are you doing here?"
"Waiting for you to wake up. I was beginning to wonder if you ever would."
"It...felt...good to sleep." The blond whispered, his husky voice making it plain what an effort speech was at the present time.
"I bet it did." It was funny, but all Napoleon seemed able to do was smile. It was so damn good to see those intelligent eyes open and alert.
"Do...do you need to debrief me?"
Not understanding the meaning of the hoarse whisper or the puzzled air that seemed to overshadow even the Russian's pain, Solo inquired, "Hmrnmm?"
"You have been waiting here a...a long time...There must be a reason."
The strained rasp and the content of the words stabbed right to Solo's heart. At first he thought it was a sarcastic jab, but, reading the absolute incomprehension in those drawn features, Napoleon realized that the other man truly had no clue as to what he was doing here. Was simple human kindness so far beyond this young man's experience that Illya didn't recognize it, Solo wondered, his throat choking up with unexpected emotion.
When he'd been investigating Kuryakin as his prime suspect, Solo had practically memorized the Russian's personnel file. Now he looked back on those cold facts as something more than background information. A war orphan from age six, raised by the state, Kuryakin had never had a real home or, from what Solo could tell, a true friend. Any passions the ascetic blond might have were solitary in nature. The young man had spent his entire life isolating himself from his fellow humans. What Kuryakin hadn't accomplished by intent, his co-workers' ostracism had finished for him. For all intents and purposes, Illya was totally alone in the world.
After the ill treatment he'd endured, culminating in being shot by his own associates, was it truly any wonder that Kuryakin didn't understand why Solo was keeping vigil at his bedside?
Needing to make his reasons clear up front, Solo softly explained as soon as he could trust his voice, "I'm here because I was worried about you, Illya."
"You were?" Kuryakin questioned, sounding very much like the hurt child he so resembled at the moment.
Those pain fogged blue eyes seemed to dig into Solo's face, as if searching for deception. After a moment, the blond gulped and croaked, "Thank you."
"It is I who owe you the thanks, Illya," Solo corrected, reading the confusion, he reminded, "You saved my life last night. Twice."
"Twice?" A thoughtful furrow appeared between the fair brows as Kuryakin considered Solo's words.
"First, when you took out Collins before he could kill me, and later, when you chose to roll away from where I was tied up. In either case, I would have died had you acted differently."
"I was just doing my job, Napoleon, " Kuryakin dismissed, seeming uneasy.
"Perhaps, but thank you any way, my friend."
A long pause followed before the blond gulped and whispered, "You're welcome. You...you will be returning to the States now?"
"Eventually, I'm on leave at the present time. I'm going to be spending it here in London. I thought I'd stick close, keep an eye on your progress."
"You don't have to do that, Napoleon," the Russian finnly insisted.
"I know that I don't have to. I'd like to, if you wouldn't mind?" he flashed his most winning smile, saw the same air of befuddlement settle over the drugged man that the women he turned it on usually wore before they folded.
"No, I...I do not mind. But it is unnecessary."
To Solo's way of thinking, nothing had ever been more important. That a man this brave, this honorable had no one waiting at his side to see if he lived or died after such a feat of heroic self-sacrifice was unconscionable. "I know it's not necessary. But humor me, all right?"
"All right." The smile Kuryakin forced turned into a wince, a helpless moan of pain escaping his tight clenched lips.
"Hang on," Solo soothed, "I'll get the nurse."
Solo pressed the nearby buzzer then hurried to the door to call, "Sister?"
Within two minutes one of the hospital's nursing sisters rushed in to administer a pain killer. Solo was so concerned with his stoic companion's plight that he never even noticed what the woman looked like behind her crisp white uniform. All he saw was the uniform and the relief of that needle.
It only took a few moments for the injection to take effect. When it did, Solo could see how hard Kuryakin was fighting to keep his eyes open.
"You need to rest now," Napoleon gently ordered. Repossessing the cold hand, he gave it an encouraging squeeze.
"I'll be here when you wake up. Promise." Relieved, Napoleon saw the heavy eyelids reluctantly sink shut.
True to his word, Solo was there when the Russian regained consciousness six hours later.
For the next week, Napoleon became a fixture in Kuryakin's sick room.
Although Illya never spoke of it, Napoleon could sense that the events that had led to his shooting were weighing heavily on the recuperating man's mind. To distract his new companion from the depressing thoughts, Solo brought in books, flowers, candy and the odd smuggled meal or two, anything that would ease that heavy weight.
It was almost heartbreaking how touched the younger man seemed by what were basically very common gifts. Illya reacted to each with a childlike enthusiasm that made Solo wonder if anyone had ever troubled to do such simple things for the Russian before. Although at no time did Solo ever lose sight of the fact that this man was a professional, as hard-honed and deadly as himself, Kuryakin's innocent joy got behind his guards somehow. Napoleon discovered that he wanted to see this normally dour man relax and smile, and found himself working almost constantly to achieve that goal. What was perhaps even more puzzling, was the fact that making Illya smile did not feel like work to him. The role fell easily upon him, like something Napoleon had simply forgotten rather than just discovered. He felt...oddly protective of the younger man, for reasons that went beyond simple gratitude.
It had been such a long time since Solo himself had had such a completely uncomplicated friendship that it was as much of a learning experience to the charming American as it was to his solitary counter-part. Napoleon had bushels of girlfriends, scores of acquaintances, but very few male friends. Normally, other guys were leery of the suave agent. Solo dressed too well, was too slick and too adventurous for most men to feel at ease in his presence. Somehow, Solo's just being who and what he was threatened their masculinity . No matter how hard Solo tried, his relationships with other men always ended up more as competitions than friendships.
But it wasn't like that with Illya. The reserved Russian didn't seem in any way compelled to compete with Napoleon, even over the attentions of his own nurses.
When Solo would start to flirt with the sisters, Illya would just smile and let him have at it, then calmly remind Solo of whatever topic had been on the table when the woman left the room. It was refreshing and downright puzzling, but Napoleon loved nothing so much as a mystery. At least, the kind of mystery that wasn't likely to get him blown to pieces. Those he could live without.
On the sixth day of his leave, Solo entered Kuryakin's hospital room somewhat later than normal, his heart surprisingly troubled by the knowledge that today was to be their last day together.
"Hello, Napoleon," Illya cheerfully greeted, pushing his meal tray aside.
Solo couldn't help but smile. He'd passed the carts in the hall. Most everyone else had sent the rubber scrambled eggs and scorched toast back uneaten. Kuryakin hadn't left enough on his plate to feed a fly.
"Hi, there. How are you feeling today?" Napoleon smiled. He really didn't have to ask. Though still way too pale and too thin, the light was back in Kuryakin's gaze. His hair was a fresh washed golden nimbus around his head as it caught the morning sunshine that was streaming in through the nearby window.
"Much better, thank you. I had another visitor this morning."
"You did?" Solo tried to keep the surprise out of his tone. In the six days he'd sat here, no one else had showed.
"Dr. Filbert was by earlier."
"Oh?" Solo lightly inquired as he placed his coat in the nearby closet. There was something in the other man's voice that he didn't completely trust, a note of suppressed amusement.
"Yes. He was most upset."
"Over what?" Solo took his customary chair at the bedside, unable to keep a smile in as he met those dancing blue eyes. Whatever it was, Kuryakin was practically exploding with mirth.
"He was sorry that he hadn't been in to see me sooner, but he wanted to be able to tell me that he'd repaired my bullet deflector when he visited. Dr. Filbert has spent the last six days struggling to replace the broken circuits in my device. He was nearly distraught, Napoleon. He said that all he was able to do was make the blue field appear, that nothing he replaced would make the machine deflect bullets."
Meeting those mischievous blue eyes, Solo's own laughter exploded, "I knew there was something I'd forgotten," he said as soon as they calmed. "Was Dr. Filbert terribly disappointed?"
The laughter dimmed a little, but didn't die completely, "He was outraged that a scientist such as myself would perpetrate such a fraud, but he did bow to its necessity."
"He brought more candy. Would you like a piece?"
Napoleon shook his head with an affectionate smile. He knew how his friend hoarded his chocolates. The offer was tantamount to someone else buying him a car. "No, thank you. Your teeth are going to rot if you keep that up."
"I'll keep that in mind," Kuryakin said as he bit into a chocolate covered cherry.
Sobering a little as he watched the Russian savor the sweet as another man might savor sex, Napoleon softly confided, "I spoke to Mr. Waverly this morning. I tried to get my leave extended, but he needs me back in New York tomorrow."
The blond stopped chewing and swallowed the sweet whole. "I see."
It was amazing how quick those barriers could descend. One second, Solo was sitting there, those laughing blue eyes an open door to the other's mind and thoughts, then, slam...everything was closed off, like Illya's smile had never existed.
"There are a couple of things we need to talk about, to work out before I go. We, ah...have put a lot off, but some things can't wait any longer." Solo said.
"Such as?" That icy killer was back, looking as though he expected Solo to betray him at any turn.
"First off, Mr. Waverly wanted to know if you'd still be willing to work for U.N.C.L.E., after what happened to you."
"Security followed me to a THRUSH satrap. They found me standing over their murdered boss with a smoking gun in hand. They drew the only conclusion possible in such circumstances. U.N.C.L.E. cannot be held accountable for the unfortunate error." Kuryakin said softly.
"You've got a very generous nature. I don't know that I could be so forgiving." Solo said, genuinely surprised.
"It's not forgiving; it's logic."
"Does that mean you'd be willing to stay on?" Solo asked, keeping the hope out of his voice.
"If U.N.C.L.E. still wants me." The blond replied.
"Waverly has always wanted you on his team." Solo assured.
"Then I shall be pleased to stay."
"Good. Mr. Waverly felt that since you were the person injured most by Mr. Morris' stupidity, that you should be the one to decide his fate."
"The man conducted a witch hunt, with you as his target. I wanted Waverly to fire Morris out of hand and charge him for attempted murder, but Mr. Waverly felt that such decisions should be yours to make, as the injured party. Do you want Morris canned or charged or both?" Solo questioned, his tone making it plain which of the three he was hungry for.
"Is there another alternative?" Kuryakin asked after a long moment of quiet.
"I was the obvious suspect, Napoleon. Mr. Morris lost nine men because of the infiltrator. He is not entirely to blame for the events that transpired that night."
"The man shot you three times." Solo reminded, unable to believe what he was hearing.
"He believed he was taking out the traitor. I will not ruin the man's career simply for the sake of vengeance. Too many good men have been sacrificed in this case already."
"So what are you saying? The man's too blinded by prejudice to stay in his current position..." Solo argued.
"Couldn't Morris simply be transferred to another section, one with less pressing responsibilities? The man is just four years short of retirement, Napoleon. If he is dishonorably discharged from U.N.C.L.E., he will never get another job."
Stunned, Solo stared at the amazing individual in front of him. He could never have been this concerned about the welfare of the man who'd hospitalized him. "Is that what you want?"
Kuryakin shrugged, "It is the only honorable course."
"I'll speak to Mr. Waverly about a transfer, then." Solo grudgingly promised, aware that he was as guilty as Morris when it came to wanting revenge.
"You are not happy with my decision," Illya said at last.
"I...understand it, but..." he admitted with difficulty, "I felt your life blood pulsing away beneath my hands while the man whose life you'd just saved, the man who'd shot you down like a mad dog, stood over you and smiled. I wanted to kill him, then. Still do on some level."
"You are very loyal." Kuryakin smiled at him, with the same sweet expression he used when he received a gift of candy.
"Is there something else on your mind, Napoleon?" Kuryakin asked when a few minutes had passed, the silence filling the room with tension.
"Actually, yes, there is. Illya, do you like London?" Napoleon asked carefully, completely uncertain as to how his new friend would respond to what he was about to ask.
"It is very much like any other city, I suppose. Why do you ask?"
"I...I don't want you going back to that damn office. Those fools don't deserve you." Solo said, angry at the mere thought of the treatment Kuryakin had received here.
"This office is very much like any other, Napoleon. As I explained the first day we met, there isn't a place on this planet where I would be greeted with welcome. People are suspicious of my homeland. There is nothing I can do to change that, nowhere where I will not encounter such attitudes..."
"What about New York?" Solo interrupted. "Would you consider asking for a transfer to Section Two?"
For a minute, Illya just stared at him. "You must know that Americans have even less regard for my people than the British do, Napoleon. Such problems would be even more prevalent..."
"Look, I can't promise you that the entire city is going to welcome you with open arms. But Manhattan's a big place, with many different people living together. A single Russian could get lost very easily in that mixing pot, not stand out as much as he would here. I know what it's like for you here, the crap you put up with at work on a daily basis. No one should have to tolerate such nonsense. I can't guarantee the whole city, but...I can promise you that if you transfer to Section Two, you'll find things are a lot different at work."
Illya gulped and looked towards the sun washed window, his features strained with some unnamed, contained emotion, "How could you possibly guarantee such a thing? People are people, they will behave..."
"They will behave in a civilized, polite manner within the walls of U.N.C.L.E. or they will seek employment elsewhere." Solo defined.
"How could you guarantee..."
"Illya, I am the head of Enforcement in Section Two. Anybody mistreats my partner, and they will answer to me personally." Solo promised, unable to keep the darkness that wanted to swallow Morris whole out of his tone or features.
"Your partner?" Illya questioned, his gaze snapping back in Solo's direction, his face stunned.
"Mr. Waverly has been pressuring me for some time now to accept a partner. Until I worked with you, there was no one to whom I'd trust my back on a full time basis. If you want the position, it's yours." Solo tried not to sound open and vulnerable, but he felt more exposed at the present moment than when he' d asked Katie to marry him all those years ago.
Illya seemed unable to believe what he was hearing. "You are serious? You want me...as your partner?"
"Totally serious. Why do you find that so hard to believe?" After the last week, he'd thought they were friends, if nothing else.
"It's just...I am Russian. You are American..."
"You're the best I've come across, and I think we'd make a good team. But I won't force you in this," Solo said softly, hiding his disappointment...or so he'd thought.
Kuryakin reached out to grab his arm, his expression almost desperate, "Napoleon, there's no question of force. You have offered me a position that every U.N.C.L.E. operative would give his right arm to fill...the role of the legendary Napoleon Solo's partner. I just...cannot understand why you would choose me. I have little to no field experience..."
"You handled Collins' mob like a pro." Solo said, "And..."
"And?" Illya prompted, seeming totally mystified.
"I watched you choose U.N.C.L.E. over your own life. I want that kind of honor and integrity backing me up, that kind of courage. So, what do you say? Will you give Section Two a chance?" Solo all but pleaded.
"I...I would be honored. The doctors have said it will take me some time to recover..."
"I know. I spoke to them this morning, then conferred with Mr. Waverly. The doctors say you'll be on light duties for the next three or four months. What Mr. Waverly and I would like is, as soon as you're fit to travel, for you to come over. I'll come back help you pack up your stuff, see to its shipment, you won't have to lift a finger. We'll find you a place close to work, get you doctors over there to oversee your recuperation...and when you're ready, we'd like you to head up the New York lab until you're cleared for active field service..."
"Head up the New York lab?" Kuryakin repeated, seeming overwhelmed.
"Dr. Matuba is due to retire in a month or so, just about the time you're due back."
"You...you really have thought this all out; haven't you?" Kuryakin marveled.
"I've been thinking of nothing else for the past week." Solo grinned at the normally composed Russian's flustered look. "So what do you think?"
"That I will have a most resourceful partner." The blond smiled, but then seemed to sober, "But...you are sure this is what you want, Napoleon?"
Feeling strangely calm inside, Solo quietly confessed, "I've never been more sure of anything in my life, my friend. Do we have a deal, partner?" he asked, offering his hand.
With the bemused air of one who fears to awake from a dream, the Russian took his offered hand and shook on it, "Deal, partner. I believe this calls for a celebration. What shall I make yourschocolate covered cherry or caramel nugget?"
Choking on his laughter, Solo replied, "How about root canal?"
"As you wish," Kuryakin smiled and handed him the nugget.
Giddy as a school boy on holiday, Solo grinned and took a bite of the candy, thinking that there might be something that made even the beastly London winters bearable, after all. He'd come here looking for a saboteur and left a friend and partner richer.