The Parallel Lines Sometimes Meet Affair Pt. 2
Cantor Arts Museum, Stanford, California
Napoleon Solo sauntered up the steps of the museum, briefly admiring the silhouettes cast by the bronze Rodin replicas in the garden on his left. Solo's navy sports jacket and khaki slacks were relatively unwrinkled after hanging them up on the back of the bathroom door when he had showered. Traveling all the time for unexpected intervals, he had learned how to take care of his clothes on the road when he couldn't drop them off at del Floria's. Solo's San Francisco colleagues warned him against tuxedos if he wanted to avoid undue notice from the Northern Californians, who took the "casual" in "business casual" to heart.
Careful to keep his back covered by a stone pillar near the entrance doors, Solo noticed no visible security except for two twentysomething students checking in guests. Any guards would be inside, keeping an eye on the exhibits and guests who had too much to drink.
The two girls smiled as he approached. Neither of them were used to seeing a man younger than 35 who looked so at home in the polished surroundings; most of attendees were tech geeks who preferred to wear sneakers with their off-the-rack suits.
"Napoleon Solo for the Cantor Arts Museum fundraiser." He nonchalantly handed them his invitation, procured at the last minute courtesy of UNCLE San Francisco's string pulling.
"Thank you, Mr. Solo. Appetizers are being served in the front atrium. We hope you enjoy yourself this evening." The curvy blonde on the right pinned his nametag through the buttonhole of his left breast pocket, flirtatiously brushing off a nonexistent smudge. Her trim brunette companion, Jane Russell foiling Marilyn Monroe, shot her a dirty look that was smugly ignored.
Amused, Solo gave them a dazzling smile that would have made the UNCLE secretary pool more than envious. "Thank you, ladies; I'm sure I will."
Solo's smile lingered as he entered the museum; he could practically feel their gaze caressing his back even as the doors slowly shut behind him. Pity he didn't have the time to tell them about his javelin throwing days. Solo wondered how Illya managed to fend off the co-eds this time—how many times could he pull off the flimsy excuse of a familial history of insanity? Then again, Illya might have a scientist's rationalism but also a con artist's knack for flamboyantly credible lies.
Inside the front atrium milled about the local patricians who frequented the pages of The Wall Street Journal, Business Week and Wired. The crowd dressed less formally than one from the same social milieu in New York would for such an event, but the air of money and privilege was unmistakable. His fellow attendees looked younger and in better shape than he had expected, but then again, the appetizers were all vegetarian Indian and Mediterranean delicacies.
Not that Solo was complaining as he enjoyed his second samosa; he wondered how many his Russian partner had consumed. Kuryakin was substituting for one of the servers, so he had probably had the chance to liberate a tray for himself before the reception. Event planners always overestimated how many hors d'oeuvres to order, anyway. An agent never knew when he'd have his next meal, but Kuryakin was more keen than most to take advantage of food-related opportunities.
Solo kept unobtrusively weaving through the crowd, keeping an easy smile frozen on his lips while scanning the room for THRUSH and the Knights. He crossed the mosaic sun inlaid on the floor, still cracked from the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, and turned right into the Asian metalworks and furniture wing. Most of the attendees were focused on the silent auction items and bid sheets on the tables nestled in between the exhibits rather than the artifacts around them. Solo took a few moments to admire the intricately inlaid Buddhist prayer chests at the end of the exhibition hall before heading towards some delicate jade and cloisonn vases.
Solo soon spotted his primary target sipping a flute of Sauvignon Blanc by the foot of the spiral staircase leading from the Chinese ceramics wing to the Native and Central American pottery exhibit upstairs. Jonathan Knight looked exactly his distinguished 47 years, his dark mahogany hair graying ever so slightly at the temples but his emerald eyes sparkling with a youthful good nature. He moved with surprisingly agility for a techno geek, but then again, the same could be said of Illya Kuryakin. Still, the comparison wasn't quite accurate—Kuryakin's sleek grace underlied a tension that was so often released in a ballet of blood, bruises and broken bones.
But like Solo's partner, Knight looked vaguely uncomfortable in his tailored suit though he cut a striking figure. It struck Solo that Knight, for all of his years in the boardroom, never felt quite at ease in formalwear and preferred the casual Fridays of the R and D cubicle city.
Knight didn't seem to notice Solo's approach. The agent found himself rummaging for an appropriate introduction, almost wishing for a moment that he could've traded roles with Kuryakin whose expertise was better tailored to this assignment. Solo tried to recall some of the news profiles he had read in Knight's dossier. "Excuse me, you wouldn't happen to be the Jonathan Knight featured on the cover of the most recent issue of the MIT Tech Review? I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed that article." The man in question turned to meet Solo.
"Mister —" Knight's eyes almost imperceptibly darted to the other man's nametag, "Solo. Yes, I'm Jonathan. You have a sharp eye to spot me in this crowd. I hope you've been enjoying tonight's events." There was no hint of Knight's Brooklyn background in his pleasantly modulated baritone. Solo, feeling a little more at ease, unconsciously shifted his weight. Judging by the hesitation, Knight had not recognized or at least anticipated UNCLE's presence. The two men shook hands, their pressure of the grip comfortably matching each other. "Please, call me Napoleon."
Before the industrialist had a chance to respond, his wife walked over to introduce herself. "I'm Jonathan's wife, Catherine. Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. Solo." The lady spoke with the polished, professional tones befitting a BBC correspondent. Her diction was the product of a British boarding school education, common among those born into Hong Kong's elite. She radiated a quietly authoritative presence unhampered by her petite figure. Her naturally unlined skin gave no hint that she was only three days younger than her husband.
"The pleasure is mine, Catherine," the agent responded with genuine interest. "I'm not sure what's drawing the crowd here more—the silent auction, the excellent appetizers or your charming presence."
The corners of Knight's eyes crinkled in genuine amusement, and Yang revealed straight ivory teeth as she laughed. "Flattery won't get you anywhere, Mr. Solo, but please don't stop trying."
So much the better that they didn't seem interested in his work background; they were probably just relieved not to have another would-be start up founder deliver them yet another pitch. "It's encouraging to see so many donating their time and energy into making this event happen. I must admit, I had expected that keeping up with the steady stream of technological breakthroughs counts as a full-time job even when you're not officially in the office," the agent remarked.
"I'll confess that these events tend to be used as opportunities for informally checking out the competition. A number of the attendees tonight have initiated negotiations to buy versions of our newest project, although there are just as many dying to reverse engineer what we've done and release their own improved version of our prototype. I'm afraid I can't blame them," Knight responded, a glint of good humor in his eye.
Kuryakin suddenly brushed up behind them with a platter of dolmas, taking the opportunity to slip bugs on the industrialist couple. A small shred of grape leaf clung to the corner of Kuryakin's mouth, betraying to a sharp eye the reason why the tray was only half full. Solo resisted the temptation to break cover and brush it away.
Several feet away, John Drake looked up from his auction catalogue with great interest. His professional radar honed in on the dark-haired man talking to the Knights. Even with the artfully dim track lights overhead, Drake had picked up on the studied casualness of the man's approach to the couple. The steely appraising looks veiled by the rich sibilant voice suggested that he was probably a key competitor, perhaps some kind of industrial spy. The blond next to him was an accomplice—there was a subtle but unmistakable familiarity in the open body language between the two that could not be explained by ordinary friendliness.
Coming up from behind, Drake heartily clasped Solo's shoulder and felt the unmistakable form of a holster beneath the jacket. This man was definitely beyond the regular league of cutthroat business rivals. Was it his intent to take Knight out of commission tonight? If there were an assassination to be staged, Drake would've expected something along the lines of a drugged drink. Guns would attract too much attention, and this man was too much of a smooth operator to want publicity.
Time to break up the party before someone got hurt. Drake stole a quick glance at the dark-haired man's nametag and almost laughed. Perhaps he was wrong about a shooting—what undercover saboteur seriously called himself Napoleon? "Solo! Why didn't you tell me you were coming to California after we signed off on the Lampert deal two weeks ago? I don't know if you've heard the voicemail I left yesterday." Drake smiled wryly for a moment, sincerely hoping that the blond accomplice wasn't about to intervene. "Well, you wouldn't be here if you didn't. I hate to cut your conversation short, but I'm afraid there's a sudden hang-up on our end that we've got to deal with right now—" With an apologetic nod to the Knights, Drake subtly steered Solo away from the Knights.
Solo threw a mystified glance at Kuryakin and then at the stranger's nametag—gone were the days when Thrush could be relied upon to use avian aliases. "Peter! Yes, we should discuss this matter in private." The American turned to Knight to hand him a business card but settled for a wave when he saw that Knight and his wife was now in the midst of a conversation with another couple. Solo could stop by Knight's headquarters later.
Somehow Drake and Solo managed to unobtrusively frog-march the other up the stairs and through the South, Central and North American Indigenous Peoples art galleries, both having the professional courtesy to keep the increasingly intoxicated civilians around them from being entangled into their business. They managed to duck inside a small, corded off exhibition room representing the admissions brochure prototype of the contemporary dorm room.
The two scuffled for a few moments in the artfully cluttered space, but Solo managed to succeed in pinning Drake's arms behind his back. Let him think he has the upper hand, Drake thought; lull him into a sense of security and he'll give away his game plan.
The stranger's current silence worried Solo. "Now, Mr. whoever you are, you have my undivided attention. Why were you so eager to get me alone?"
Drake wasn't quite feigning his discomfort about how far his arms felt like they were being shoved up his shoulder blades. "This is ridiculous, Mr. Solo; as professionals we have enough of violence as is. I can assure you that neither one of us will be able to leave this room against the other's will."
Slowly easing his grip, Solo's eyes never strayed from Drake. Kuryakin popped into the doorway, Special trained on the British agent.
"Whoever he is, he seems to be working alone. All the guests are moving into the rotating exhibits gallery for the live auction, and I didn't spot any backup coming upstairs on my way here," Kuryakin remarked. "Despite that pastiche he just tried to pass off as coming from Queens, he's definitely British."
Drake smiled wryly. "Irish, actually." He took his first good look at Kuryakin in decent light and suddenly matched the man in front of him with the memory of a photograph he once saw in a dossier. "Let me guess—you're a Cambridge man, though most Americans think of your accent as charmingly, generically European. You received extensive linguistic training, at least within the European domain, so that no one would ever suspect your foreign roots. Your old Russian military sponsors intended for you to receive more intensive training in quantum mechanics, presumably so you could help develop your government's nuclear capacities. That was before you were recruited into intelligence, where they needed more scientists. It's a pity they misprinted your name on the visa, Illya Nickovetch Kuryakin."
A lesser man that Kuryakin might've actually looked surprised; Solo's eyes registered a fleeting confusion. Kuryakin laughed, but his grip n the Special never wavered. "Which mole did you recruit to tell you that?"
"I've worked with Major Nicola Tarasova. Prior to meeting her, I infiltrated the officially unrecognized Hamden Colony Three that an extraordinarily paranoid faction of the Soviet government used as a training ground for moles. The major confirmed that your name was on the list of potential recruits before it was shut down."
"Tell me, how has the Major been since widowed after that affair in Haiti?"
Drake snorted. "Nicola's still happily single, says she never wants to learn to serve family-sized servings of piroshki."
Kuryakin lowered his weapon and walked over to Solo. "Major Tarasova was one of my Cambridge sponsors, but she currently acts as a liaison to M-9. We can assume he's with British intelligence."
Drake still had no idea who was the dark-haired man who had strong-armed him. "Forgive my personal reticence, but I still don't know who you work for."
"We're with UNCLE. You already seem to quite about me. My partner is —"
"Napoleon Solo." The CEA turned to shake hands with the British agent, grip evenly matching grip.
"Drake, John Drake."
"Well, Mr. Drake. I think we'd best pool together what we know somewhere more private and go from there." Solo eyed the fuzzy oversized cushions strewn around the room with distaste. "I'm afraid this affair is far more serious than pillow talk."
Drake quirked an eyebrow as they walked out of the room. "I'm obliged, gentlemen, for not blowing my brains out at the first opportunity. Shall we?"
The three descended the stairs and strolled away from the reception, their shadows melting into the night as they headed to the parking lot.