The Baden-Baden Switch-Switch Affair
The intercom on my desk sounded loud in the silence and I almost jumped. I'd been edgy
since getting back from Paris, and not in a good way. Edginess has saved my life—and
others—on several occasions, but right now it was simply draining my energy. The
unaccustomed guilt component didn't help either. Guilt was a wasted emotion as far as I
was concerned, and I wasn't used to it. I sighed and flipped the switch.
"Napoleon?" Lisa Rogers' impersonal efficiency could sound particularly cold when filtered through a mass of electronics. I knew better of course.
"Lisa, my dear," I said, as smoothly as I could. "How can I help?"
"Mr Waverly would like to see you in his office."
"Do I have time to...?"
Damn. That probably meant a mission briefing. Normally, after ten days of admin at HQ I'd have been avid for a mission. But Illya wasn't back yet from Amsterdam and lately solo missions had begun to grate on me. Any mission without my partner grated on me, and the knowledge that it was entirely my fault that he was absent for this particular one did nothing to help my mood.
"On my way," I said, and flipped the switch as I grabbed my suit jacket from the back of my chair.
Lisa glanced up then keyed her intercom as I approached. I smiled down at her and tucked a strand of wayward hair behind her ear. Waverly's voice interrupted whatever might have been.
"Yes, Miss Rogers?"
"Mr Solo is here, Sir," she said, batting my hand away.
"Send him in, please."
I made a regretful face at Lisa and headed into the Old Man's office.
"Sit down, Mr Solo," said Waverly, giving me a desultory glance as he spun a file towards me. I caught the rim of the circular desk, halting its motion as the file reached me. Waverly flipped through his own file. "The aerial photograph is of the Canadian Air Force base at Baden-Soellingen in Bavaria," he said. "Until this week it was an operational base for pilots and aircraft as part of the NATO front line, but its strategic importance was limited."
I got the drift. "Until the French tweaked the nose of NATO, you mean?"
The Old Man gave me a mildly critical look and harrumphed. "Quite so," he said. "France's demand to take control of all nuclear weapons on French soil was somewhat peremptory. It has provoked NATO to act rather precipitately, I'm afraid." He frowned and shook his head. "I don't think the Alliance gave due consideration to the security implications of moving their entire nuclear arsenal out of the country in one fell swoop."
"And the Canadians moved some of their weapons to Baden-Soellingen?"
Waverly nodded. "The location isn't the problem, however." He caught my questioning look and continued. "The second photograph in your file is of a Krytron switch."
I rummaged and came up with two further photographs, one of which looked like a radio valve. Since my partner wasn't here to blind us with science I did my best to look intelligent but I don't think Waverly was fooled.
"It's a trigger device for a nuclear weapon, Mr Solo," he said, and I could hear the exaggerated patience in his tone. "It would fit into your vest pocket..."
"And one has gone missing in transit...?" I cut in.
He gave me a grim look. "Two, actually," he said. "The young man in the other photograph is Flight Lieutenant William Ronson. He was found dead on the base with the empty switch-container two days ago."
"Do we think he was involved in the theft?"
"We don't know at this stage," said Waverly with a slight frown. "But we do know that this young woman," he spun another photograph round the table to me, "was seen around the base with him."
My jaw clenched at the image of the stunning honey-blonde that pouted up at me. "Isabelle Schenk?" I said.
Waverly nodded, watching me closely.
The previous spring, we'd almost apprehended her during her escape from a naval base with the prototype of a weapons' guidance device. I'd watched her summarily execute two US Marines. Clean shots to the back of the head as they knelt shoulder to shoulder. The third in the line had been Illya. Her pistol had jammed.
I couldn't quite suppress a shudder at the memory.
"So THRUSH is involved then?" I said, more evenly than I'd expected.
"That would be my deduction, Mr Solo. We think that whoever has the devices now is still in the area."
"Wait—are we saying that we think THRUSH is on the verge of nuclear capability?" I felt my stomach clench.
Waverly paused fractionally before answering. "It seems more likely that they have a potential buyer lined up. Our intelligence indicates a flurry of activity in the Black Forest area."
He riffled through the papers in front of him, selected one and sent it round to me. It was a list of a half dozen developing countries, each with a name beside it. "These—'fledgling nations'," he raised an eyebrow, "have all expressed an interest in acquiring nuclear capability. The raw materials are not impossible to come by, but the expertise—and the ignition mechanisms necessary for a functioning nuclear device—are more elusive."
I stared at the list. Some of the nations seemed to have been in existence for only five minutes; most were dictatorships; many were already in the grip of civil wars. All had Communist agendas. I recognised none of the men's names.
I looked up at the Old Man. "And these names...?"
"...are those of former Eastern bloc scientists who have taken up residence in those countries," said Waverly.
"Defectors?" I said, although I already suspected the answer and it chilled me.
Waverly shook his head slowly and gave me a long look. "We think that their presence is fully sanctioned by the Soviet," he said.
I blew out a breath.
"So you can see why it is of the utmost importance that we locate those devices, Mr Solo," said Waverly.
I frowned. This was my partner's field and I really needed him with me on this one.
"Sir, Mr Kuryakin..."
"Mr Kuryakin is already in Baden-Baden," said Waverly casually, although, knowing the Old Man, I'm sure the revelation was planned with surgical precision. "You are to join him there tomorrow."
A week-old knot of tension in my belly unravelled at the prospect of a reunion with Illya.
I realised Waverly was speaking again.
"I don't need to tell you how important it is to prevent these devices falling into the wrong hands, Mr Solo," he said. "Miss Rogers has your flight details and a technical briefing file." A smile ghosted on the Old Man's lips. "A little light reading should help to keep you profitably occupied on the journey."
"Excellent. I suggest that you contact our Geneva office and implement the plan
immediately." Waverly's voice was only slightly distorted by the communicator. "You'll brief
Mr Solo when he arrives, of course?"
"Yes, Sir," I said. I would enjoy gloating a little at my partner's expense. I was still smarting from his duplicity in Paris that had sent me on a tedious mission to Amsterdam whilst he had a leisurely trip home.
"Very good, Mr Kuryakin. Waverly out."
I closed the communicator and flopped back on the bed. Napoleon's flight was due in at 16.00 and despite my exasperation, I found I was looking forward to seeing him. We still worked solo missions of course, but less often these days. Lately, when I was working without him, I'd begun to feel vaguely uneasy until the mission was completed; tense, as though something were stretched between us that couldn't wait to snap us back together again. Fanciful, I know. But I'd still feel better when he joined me.
I twisted the communicator cap. "Open channel D..."
I'd just closed the connection with the Geneva office when there was a rap at the door— Napoleon's familiar code. Collecting my weapon from the bedside table, I slipped off the safety as I moved towards the door.
"Who is it?" I called.
"Special delivery from THRUSH Central—ticking bomb to sign for."
I repressed a smile. "Thanks, but I already have one," I said, opening the door a fraction, weapon poised. Napoleon was leaning insouciantly against the frame holding a white cardboard box tied with fine blue ribbon.
"Boom," he said quietly.
I rolled my eyes and turned my back on him to walk into the room, hearing him close and lock the door behind us. I replaced the Walther on the bedside table and turned to face him with my best pissed-off expression. He dumped his suitcase in the corner and held out the box towards me.
"I told you, I already have one," I said, then paused. "And besides, it's defective. It isn't even ticking."
He continued to hold the box out towards me and I watched his eyes flicker across my face and then quickly scan me from top to bottom, checking me for damage. A slow smile spread across his face.
"Peace offering," he said and stepped closer.
I snorted out a breath. "Do not think you can bribe me with trifles after your despicable behaviour in Paris..."
"Actually, it isn't a trifle. It's kirschtorte," he said, raising his eyebrows and swinging the box slightly by its ribbon. He was grinning now. I was torn between matching his grin and knocking it off his face. "Come on," he said, wheedling. "You know it's your favourite."
I settled for scowling at him as I snagged the box from his hand and placed it carefully on the bedside table next to the pistol. When I turned round he was staring at me with his head on one side.
"What?" I said, struggling to keep the scowl in place.
He just smiled and shook his head and then flopped down on the bed with a sigh. "So," he said, toeing off his loafers and closing his eyes. "What's new with you?"
I indulged myself in simply watching him for a moment. He too seemed undamaged, if a tad jet-lagged, and I found I was able to relax a little. I caught myself idling and pulled my focus back to the mission.
"I've located the switches," I said abruptly.
His eyes shot open. "You have?" he said. "My, my, you have been a busy boy. Where are they?" He looked round the room as though he expected me to produce them like a rabbit out of a hat.
I pulled the street map of Baden-Baden from the drawer in the bedside table and sat down on the bed. Nudging Napoleon's legs out of the way, I spread the map out next to him and pointed.
"This is the Friedrichsbad spa. If you look out of that window," I said, nodding towards it, "you will see it, right across the street. The Geneva office has had it under surveillance for some time."
"Oh?" said Napoleon. "Why?"
"They suspect that the manager has been recruited by THRUSH. Whenever THRUSH has anything—or anyone—to trade, there seems to be a lot of activity at the spa. Yesterday I followed Isabelle Schenk there."
Napoleon fixed me with a contemplative look and sat up cross-legged on the bed. After a moment he spoke. "Waverly has her pegged for Ronson's murder."
I made a face and nodded. "From what I gathered at the base, our Flight Lieutenant acquired a rather mysterious girlfriend in Grostenquin just before they shipped out to Baden-Soellingen. No one seems to have actually met her, but I suspect the lovely Isabelle had him in her clutches even before they left France."
"So you think she had the switches with her yesterday?"
I nodded. "I'm certain of it." I turned the street map over to reveal the plan of the Friedrichsbad that I'd drawn on the other side. "Here is the reception area," I said, pointing. "She handed in a small package to the manager—one Otto Neubauer—for safe keeping whilst she used the spa facilities. She did not collect it on the way out."
"Could she have picked it up when you weren't looking?"
I shook my head. "She was never out of my sight the whole time."
Napoleon's eyebrows shot up. "The whole time...?"
"It was Tuesday," I explained with exaggerated tolerance. "Every station is mixed." I waited a moment for Napoleon to digest this before adding, "The soap and brush massage was most invigorating." I struggled to suppress a grin at the look on his face.
"I'm relieved to hear that you were enjoying yourself, tovarisch," he said. "My tax dollars are clearly being put to good use. What else did you find out during your arduous time at the spa?"
I pointed to the plan again. "This range houses the offices for the complex. Six months ago, Otto Neubauer had a pressure-sensor grid installed in the roof, with the exception of these two towers at either end. He also had a state-of-the-art safe fitted in this room." I indicated an office in the middle of the range. "The switches could be stored there until..."
"They're going to auction them, aren't they?" said my partner, his eyes narrowing.
I nodded slowly. "That would be my deduction."
"So the increased activity we've seen around the Black Forest is the vultures gathering to bid?"
I opened my mouth to answer just as my communicator warbled. I uncapped it. "Kuryakin."
"Herr Kuryakin," came a lightly accented voice. "This is Dieter Maier from the Geneva office."
"Yes, Herr Maier?"
"I have a delivery here from your uncle. May I bring it up?"
"Do you have a message for me from my uncle, by any chance?"
"Yes, Sir. It is kirschtorte."
Napoleon shook his head and rolled his eyes. I ignored him.
"Very well, Herr Maier. Come on up." I closed the connection and picked up my weapon, flipping off the safety and chambering a round. I looked at my partner who was still shaking his head. "What?" I said.
"Only you would think of that code word."
"Good. Then THRUSH will not."
Napoleon heaved himself off the bed and un-holstered his own automatic. He moved to the bathroom doorway and waited.
There was a knock at the door.
"Yes?" I called.
Maier's voice was slightly muffled by the door. "Delivery of kirschtorte for Herr Kuryakin from his uncle."
"It's your lucky night, IK," murmured Napoleon from the bathroom.
I resisted the temptation to slam the bathroom door and opened the room door, weapon at the ready. A tall young man with light-brown wavy hair stood with a large black sports duffel at his feet.
"Herr Kuryakin? I am Dieter Maier."
I motioned him inside and shut and locked the door as Napoleon emerged from the bathroom. "I am Illya Kuryakin," I said, turning. "And this is my partner, Napoleon Solo."
We shook hands and Maier heaved the duffel onto the bed, grunting slightly. "I trust we have provided all that you requested, Herr Kuryakin."
He unzipped the bag and stood aside to let me examine its contents: a small crossbow, lightweight cabling, harnesses, utility belts, backpack, flashlights, spare clips for the Walthers...
I frowned and looked up at Maier. "There seems..."
"Ah—pardon," he said, fumbling inside his jacket. He produced a small aluminium case, about the size of a cigarette pack. "I did not want them to be damaged in the duffel." He handed me the case. I opened it and Napoleon spoke over my shoulder.
"Hey aren't those....?"
"No they are not," I said, shutting the case with a snap.
"Herr Maier," I said, shaking his hand. "I am extremely grateful to you and to the Geneva office for providing this equipment so promptly."
The man looked from one to the other of us and gave a tentative smile as I released his hand. "You are most welcome, Herr Kuryakin," he said. "And may I say what an honour it is to meet you both. At Survival School Herr Cutter always set your scores as a benchmark to inspire us." The young man's smile broadened. "We never achieved them of course."
Napoleon raised his eyebrows at me. "Of course," he said.
My memories of Jules Cutter were less than favourable and I grimaced at the recollection of flayed hands, cracked ribs and a dislocated shoulder from running his assault course three times in succession as punishment for some minor infringement. The man was a sadist.
"Auf Wiedersehen, Herr Maier," I said, "And thank you again."
Napoleon saw him out and I placed the aluminium case on top of the duffel then flopped down next to it on the bed. My partner turned back from the door and made a face.
"And I hope the two of you will be very happy," he said with a nod to the duffel as he drew up a chair. He stretched out his legs and rested his feet next to mine on the bed. "OK, what gives with these switches?" he said, tapping the duffel with his toe and lounging back in the chair.
I reached for the aluminium case and opened it before handing it to him. He examined its contents and then looked at me. As I expected, his face was totally blank.
"So," he said. "If these aren't the switches—what are they?"
I took the case from him and removed one of the glass bulbs, holding it up to the light to examine it.
"This," I said, "is not a Krytron switch. It does, however, look exactly like one." I turned it in my hand. It was indeed a very good facsimile. "I asked the Geneva office to adapt a couple of switches to my spec. The trigger electrodes in these two are not wired into the circuit. You could pump current into the grid all day and nothing would happen." I glanced at my partner and saw the penny drop.
"We're going to—ah—switch the switches, then?" he said.
I nodded. "When the buyer gets one of these home and connects it to his nuclear device, it will prove to be a very damp squib." I glanced up at Napoleon and grinned. "He'll be extremely disappointed with THRUSH when he gets no bang for his bucks."
"Well I don't think they have a refund policy," Napoleon said, taking the switch from me and turning it against the light. "Whose devious idea was all this?"
When I didn't answer, he mugged astonishment at me. I tweaked the pseudo-switch from his hand and replaced it with its twin in the case. It was time to unwrap the peace offering. Retribution could wait. "Come on," I said. "I'm hungry and I was promised chocolate several hours ago."
As I reached for the box on the bedside table, I caught the light of something akin to approval in his eyes and felt curiously satisfied.
Illya unwrapped his gift like a kid at Christmas, no matter that this kid had just devised a THRUSH-whumping strategy that I'd have been proud to call my own. I shook my head in admiration and handed him the knife from my boot, enjoying the look of outrage on his face.
"Napoleon! You cannot use a precision instrument like that for culinary purposes."
I reached to take it back. "You're right, of course," I said with an exaggerated sigh. "We shall have to forego the cake—hey..." as the knife plunged through the whipped cream.
It was indeed very good kirschtorte and well worth the exorbitant price I'd paid at the little patisserie on the corner. I stopped after one piece, content to watch my partner devour a second; more than content, in fact. Watching Illya's enjoyment as he eats is always a pleasure. Watching him suck chocolate and cream from his fingers is a mixed blessing, however, and I took myself off to the bathroom for some respite and a washcloth. I looked myself in the eye in the mirror. Nope. Nothing to show for the inner turmoil. I sighed.
"Here," I said, returning and handing the washcloth to him, breathing under control once more. "If we're sharing this bed, I don't want your sticky fingers all over it."
He gave me an arch look and wiped his face and his fingers before handing me back the washcloth. "Perish the thought, Napoleon," he said quietly.
I took the washcloth back to the bathroom and rinsed it under the tap to give me a few more moments. "What's on the agenda for tomorrow?" I called. I heard him heave the duffel off the bed and a thud as he dumped it on the floor.
"I thought we might have a good look around the Friedrichsbad," he said as I came back into the room.
"I thought you'd already done that with the immaculate Fraulein Schenk."
He shrugged. "Extra preparation is never wasted. I need to calculate some distances and two heads are better than one," he said, and then arched an eyebrow. "Even if one of them is yours."
I gave him my best warning look.
"Besides," he continued. "I thought you might enjoy it."
"Very magnanimous," I said. "And you won't, I take it?"
"Hmm... What day is it tomorrow?"
"Thursday," I said, rolling my eyes.
He looked at me hard. "Yes," he said. "I will enjoy it. And I think you will too." With that he scooped up his towel and sponge bag. "Do you mind if I have the first shower?"
"I may be asleep by the time you're done."
"Well if you are, don't hog the bed," he said as he headed for the bathroom.
The jet-lag had ambushed me and there was indeed a very real risk of unplanned sleep if I didn't keep moving. I stretched and unpacked my case, then pottered around the room waiting for him to finish...
In the elegant locker-room I gave my suit a final smooth down on its hanger, placed my
wristwatch on the locker shelf, picked up my P38, and shut the locker door. I glanced
down at my nakedness then looked at the weapon in my hand, momentarily nonplussed
about where I was going to conceal it. A towel landed over my shoulder and I turned to
find Illya grinning at me. He too was stark naked with a towel artfully draped over his wrist
to conceal his own weapon. My eyes drifted south before I could discipline them.
Lax but long...
"Here," he said, and my eyes snapped upwards guiltily. "You'll need that to sit on in the steam rooms."
He turned towards the locker-room exit and I tried very, very hard not to watch his perfect backside as he ran up the steps towards the showers. I wasn't entirely successful. Thanking God it was a mixed spa, I took a deep breath and turned my thoughts towards the prospect of female distractions as I followed him up the steps at a safe distance...
We lay on our towels on the benches and I let my eyes drift over the heavily-glazed majolica tiles around us. I was sweating hard now, but not unpleasantly so. We were the only two in the hot-room and I risked a glance across to the next couch where Illya lay, eyes closed—the picture of hedonism. The bruises he'd got in Paris were yellowing now, the gash on his temple less livid. I let my eyes roam over the landscape of old scars, the silvery lines and puckers that were our badges of office. It was a battered body but still the most beautiful I'd seen. And it was getting harder for me to ignore the effect it had on me. But of course it wasn't just his body. It was him. All of him.
When he'd winched me up into the helicopter over rural France, it had taken a great deal of reserve for me not to examine him inch by inch and hug him senseless. As it was I'd been over-solicitous and, afraid that he might have picked up on it, had swung ruthlessly the other way, shopping him to Waverly in an attempt to cover my lapse. I chewed my lip and resolved that after this affair was over I'd make it up to him with more than kirschtorte.
I started and swore as an unguarded shift in position brought my naked thigh into contact with my P38 that lay on the bench next to me. Heated to 68°C it was hot enough to burn. I cast an embarrassed glance towards my partner, to find him sitting up with his own weapon trained in my direction. He lowered it with a roll of his eyes.
"Hey," I said, rubbing my thigh and nodding towards his Walther. "How come yours hasn't melted to your hand?"
He lifted the corner of a second towel from the bench and grinned as he replaced the weapon within its folds. "I'm careful. Come on," he said hopping from the couch and picking up the towel. "Let's go for a swim."
The sounds of splashing and conversation met us as we climbed the steps to the exercise pool, and I sighed in relief. I'd begun to wonder if we had the spa to ourselves. I dumped my towel next to Illya's, folding it to conceal my weapon, and turned in time to see him dive gracefully into the pool, with barely a ripple to disturb the other half-dozen bathers. The other half-dozen male bathers, two of whom eyed my partner discreetly but with evident relish as he surfaced and rolled lazily onto his back to watch me as I stood tightlipped by the pool ladder.
"Come on in, Napoleon," he called with a grin. "You need to close your pores."
I sat on the pool edge and let my legs dangle in the water. It felt icy and I grimaced. In two strokes Illya was at the pool side. Too late, I tried to pull my legs back. The next minute he'd pulled me under. I came up spluttering and gasping at the chill to find him laughing in delight, eyes sparkling with mirth as I coughed and choked.
"You're supposed to keep your mouth closed, you know," he said rubbing my back gently as I struggled to get my breathing under control.
I glanced at our fellow bathers who were no longer paying Illya the slightest attention. More men were drifting into the area and plunging into the water with hoots as the cold hit them.
"I'll bear that in mind," I panted. "I thought you said this was a mixed spa,"
"Only on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays," he said with a smirk.
I huffed. "Then it's fortunate for you that Fraulein Schenk chose a Tuesday to deposit her ill-gotten gains." I shivered and Illya frowned.
"Come on," he said. "You really do need to swim otherwise you'll get a chill."
We set off round the pool together, but Illya easily lapped me. After my second circuit, and his third, I was warm and panting only slightly. We climbed out and retrieved our towels and our weapons and headed off to the next area.
If I'd thought the exercise pool was cold it was nothing to the bone-numbing iciness of the plunge pool. I struggled to take a breath. It felt as though I'd been punched in the solar plexus. Even my stoic Russian partner was unable to suppress a vicious expletive as the water closed over his shoulders. Thirty seconds was enough for me, and I heaved myself out of the water, almost running towards the pile of heated towels on the bench. Swathed in warmth, my teeth chattering I watched Illya wait in the pool until his lips began to turn blue before hauling himself out and almost throwing himself into the warm towel that I held out for him.
Hmm... lax but not so long now, I thought.
I chafed his arms and back with the thick terry cloth and we collected our weapons discreetly from our used towels before heading through the archway to the adjacent rest area. There, we were swathed in more warm towels and lay on soft couches to relax. It was remarkably energising, and far from dozing, as one or two of the other occupants of the lounge were, I felt more awake and vital than I had since I left New York. I turned to grin at Illya to find him scanning the walls and ceiling, eyes darting to and fro. He caught me watching him and smiled.
"Happy in your work?" I murmured.
He glanced at the ceiling once more and nodded in satisfaction. "I have everything I need," he said. "How did you enjoy your bath?"
"I've been branded by my own weapon, nearly drowned, and almost frozen," I said trying to look severe. "What's not to enjoy?"
His smile softened. "I'll make it up to you," he said, and warmth spread through me that had nothing to do with the towels. "We'll go to lunch next. My treat."
He never offers to pay and I recognised a peace-offering when I heard it. "Why, Mr Kuryakin," I said. "That's the best offer I've had all day."
He snorted. "It's the only one you'll be getting, so I suggest you make the most of it."
At 0230 Illya handed me the tin of camo makeup and sat on the edge of the bed, tilting his
face up for my attention. I thanked the fates that his aversion to balaclavas afforded me
this rare legitimate opportunity to touch his face. It didn't stop me from muttering
complaints at him. Just in case he was to get the idea that I was enjoying myself.
"Why can't you wear a balaclava like the rest of us?" I grumbled, smearing broad streaks of black over the high cheekbones and forehead. The skin was warm and pliant and I lingered self-indulgently.
He rolled his eyes, now startlingly bright in the darkened face. "Because I am going to be doing the lion's share of the grunt work. As usual," he said glaring at me pointedly. "And whilst I am hanging by a thread from the roof and wriggling through the skylight, I need to be able to breathe freely, not to mention hold things in my mouth."
Hold things in my mouth...
I sucked in a breath and daubed further streaks of black onto his nose and chin. "And you're sure they don't have pressure sensors in the office floor?"
He nodded, and I nearly poked him in the eye. He flinched. "Ow," he said, with a glare.
"Keep still, then," I said, rubbing black into the golden eyebrows. "Close your eyes." He did so grudgingly and I let my fingers glide gently over the delicate skin of his eyelids, trying to keep my breathing regular.
"With all the skylights, the roof's a vulnerable access point, so it makes sense to install extra protection there," he said. "The safe itself is clearly considered sufficient protection for its contents should anyone breach the office complex."
I stood back with my head on one side to review my handiwork. I couldn't resist a final mischievous dab to the end of his nose. He batted my hand away and snatched the tin from me as he stood.
"Your turn," he said, motioning me to sit on the bed.
I held up my balaclava. "But I'm..." He silenced me with a look and obediently I sat in the spot he'd just vacated between the duffel and the spread-out plan of the Friedrichsbad.
"Close your eyes," he said softly and I tried not to whimper as his thumbs swept slowly over the lids. He finished with a couple of broad strokes to my cheekbones. It was a moment before I realised he was no longer touching me. I opened my eyes in time for a none-too-gentle swipe down my nose.
He was grinning broadly at me as he handed back the tin.
"You'd better not do that when we're on the roof," I said screwing the lid, and my composure, back in place and tossing the tin into the duffel. "Otherwise we'll be visible across the whole of the Black Forest."
He snorted and reached into the duffel. "Here," he said, tossing me a utility belt. "Put this on. And try to get it the right way up."
He put on his own utility belt and shrugged into the straps of the laden backpack, finally pulling a dark woollen cap well down over his too-bright hair. The black turtle-neck and ski pants sculpted his hard-muscled form and my mind toyed with images of a panther. He radiated menace. I wouldn't have liked to meet him in the dark. Well, I would, obviously but...
"This will be your tower," he said, pointing to the plan of the Friedrichsbad for the final time. "It has a better view of the whole roof.
I dragged my focus back to the 'now' and nodded.
The sensor-free towers at the ends of the office range were our twin objectives. We were to anchor a cable between them, along which Illya would winch himself using a harness and power trapeze. He'd then access the office containing the safe via its skylight, without needing to touch the alarmed roof.
He was right. The lion's share of the work on this one would be his. His climbing skills were practically legend in U.N.C.L.E.—far better than mine—and he'd also be carrying the bulk of the equipment. My role, apart from securing one end of the cable, would be largely observational—as lookout and back-up. It wasn't my favourite, but I recognised that in this case it was what he needed me to be.
"I take it there are no routine patrols?" I asked.
He frowned slightly. "None that I've been able to determine," he said with a shrug. "But with all the extra activity in the area for the auction, anything's possible." He flashed me a grin. "That's why I have you along. To watch my back."
The sharp retort died on my lips. "Always, tovarisch," I said seriously and reached out reflexively to grasp his shoulder.
He looked at the hand then back at me and his eyes softened as he covered my hand briefly with his.
"Ready?" he said.
I nodded and he flipped off the room light.
We crossed to the window and I drew the curtains and the blind. He opened the window and swung a leg over the sill onto the fire escape. With a final tweak of my balaclava, I followed him, closing the window behind us.
Apart from the small penumbra of a streetlight, our journey across to the Friedrichsbad was accomplished in deep shadow. At the corner of the far tower we paused and Illya reached into a small pouch on his belt. He drew out a handful of resin that he rubbed into his hands and the toes of his black sneakers, as his eyes scanned up the tower's ornate edifice.
I bent low and stirrupped my hands to boost him past the ring of spikes designed to dissuade the half-hearted. He stepped up onto my back and I oofed out a breath. His soft shoes didn't hurt but he's heavier than he looks, particularly with all that kit.
The next moment his weight was gone and I rose to see him climbing the drainpipe as though it were a ladder. I lost him in the shadows of the second storey, but it seemed barely a moment later that a rope snaked down in front of me and I knew he'd reached the parapet.
My own ascent, in contrast, seemed to take forever. Even clipped securely to the rope and with Illya guiding me, I was blowing when I hauled myself onto the roof with his help. I glanced up to see a flash of white as he grinned broadly at me.
"I warned you about that," I panted, shaking a finger at him.
"I consider myself duly admonished," he whispered whilst his hands flew over my harness, disconnecting me from the rope. He flicked the rope once before slipping it through the carabiners of his own harness and throwing a leg over the parapet. He cocked his head to one side.
"Do try to stay out of the way of the cable when it comes across, Napoleon," he whispered. "I should hate to have to explain to Waverly how you were clumsy enough to be shot with a crossbow."
He settled the pack more comfortably on his back and pushed off, abseiling down the tower in seconds. I lost sight of him in the deep shadow as he crossed to the foot of second tower.
After several anxious moments, a brief flash of light from its roof signalled his arrival there. Seconds later two flashes told me he was about to fire the end of the cable across to me. Remembering his warning, I smiled and ducked down behind the parapet, and almost immediately heard the whisper of the bolt trailing the leader cord pass above my head. It took me only moments to secure the end of the cable to the parapet and flash my torch to let Illya know it was done. That task completed, I sighed and set about attaching the extended stock and silencer to my U.N.C.L.E. special.
Now all I had to do was watch and wait.
Satisfied that it wasn't alarmed I opened the skylight carefully and slipped a small can of aerosol from my belt. Hauling the trapeze along the cable into position had been easier than I'd anticipated and I was barely out of breath. I sprayed aerosol into the opening and was relieved to find it unprotected by photoelectric cells. With a quick glance to where I knew Napoleon would be watching, I flipped the switch that would power the servos and began to lower myself through the gap.
Once through, I halted my descent and did an electronic sweep for cameras, microphones and any manner of other electronics beloved of THRUSH. Clean. Better than I'd dared hope. Maybe Napoleon's luck was rubbing off on me. I lowered myself to the floor and headed for the safe.
The Geneva office had provided me with their latest decoder for magnetic locks. It was one we'd trialled successfully in New York and it made short work of the safe locks. Swinging the door open, I sagged a little in relief.
There, in front of me on the shelf, sat the box containing the Krytron switches.
Rummaging in my pack, I found the replacement facsimiles. It took me only a few seconds to make the exchange. I checked my watch. Barely six minutes since I'd begun my descent through the skylight. I could afford a little leisure. I poked about in the other papers there and took a couple of photos of things I thought might be interesting. At that moment, my communicator sounded and I almost dropped the camera.
"What?" I hissed when I'd managed to fumble the cap into place.
"Illya," Napoleon's voice was low and clipped. "There's some activity on the far side of the building. I can't see what it is from where I am, but I think you need to get out of there— now."
"OK," I said, quickly re-ordering the papers. Satisfied I'd left no trace of my presence, I closed the door of the safe, hearing the locks click into place. "Keep the channel open."
Replacing the open communicator in my pocket, I headed back to the trapeze and clipped myself in. With a final check of the room, I hit the control and began the ascent.
I peered through the night-sight, sweeping the roof for hostiles. Nothing. What I really needed to see was the other end of the building where I'd heard voices and doors opening and closing. Unfortunately, the night-sight was no help for that. The area wasn't visible from the tower.
"Clear," I whispered into the communicator and watched as Illya appeared through the skylight.
"What did you see, Napoleon?" His voice was slightly distorted by the communicator. I watched him secure the skylight.
"Nothing, so far," I said. "But I can hear activity on the far side of the building that isn't exactly consistent with a spa at 3.00am."
"OK," he said pulling himself swiftly along the cable to the far tower. "I'll take a look."
He clambered over the low parapet onto the tower and paused to unclip the harness.
That was when I heard it. The faint electronic whine of a THRUSH night-scope.
On my own tower, I drew breath for the warning at the same moment that I saw him jerk wildly and stagger, arms flailing.
The whump of a suppressed rifle shot reached me as Illya arced backwards into space over the edge of the parapet...
On the building's iconic central dome to my left, a THRUSH guard appeared, rifle still raised towards the void where Illya had been only seconds before. I was unaware of sighting my own weapon, only of emptying a full magazine into him. His body jolted with the impact of each round, although I suspect the first one killed him.
Breath hitching painfully in my chest, I stumbled towards the edge of the tower...
I have no recollection of how I got down, only that I was running the length of the building,
my heart pounding in my chest and my breath sobbing from me at every step. I turned the
final corner and paused to allow my eyes to become accustomed to the shadow.
In an inky patch near the bushes I picked out a glimmer of gold. His cap must have come off in the fall.
I was briefly aware of stuffing my fist against my mouth to stifle a wail. I tottered unsteadily towards him and sank to my knees, looking for the blood I knew would be spreading from the broken body. Terrified to touch him and barely able to breathe, I felt the hot tears coursing down my cheeks as I leaned over him...
When he sat up, I almost shrieked.
He groaned, pushing himself a little groggily to his knees. "Come on, we have to move," he muttered indistinctly. "They'll be..." He looked at me then, and raised a hand slowly to my face, his fingertips brushing the wetness on my cheek. "Napoleon...?"
"I thought..." I gasped, unable to move. We stared at each other open-mouthed then he snatched me into a fierce embrace. It lasted no longer than a heartbeat, then he dragged me to my feet and we set off, a little shakily, across the alley to the hotel.
Once back in our room, I did a quick electronic sweep whilst he secured the window, drew the blind and curtains, and flipped on the lamp. When I turned from my task, he'd dumped the backpack and was standing stock still at the foot of the bed staring at me with an unreadable expression. I gulped, trying to swallow around the fear that still clogged my throat.
"I'm sorry..." he murmured eventually, barely a whisper.
His arms twitched almost imperceptibly at his sides in a gesture that might have been apology or invitation.
I may have made a sound—I really don't remember—but the next minute I'd closed the gap between us, rocketing into his embrace. The momentum carried us both onto the bed where we landed in a tangle and bounced. My mouth found his and, between the clashing of teeth, I plunged my tongue hard into the wet heat. His own tongue fought back and I welcomed it. God, he was like a furnace. The heat pooled in my groin. I was almost painfully hard. His own erection was poking into my hip, and with a gasp, I began to rub against him.
Even when my brain caught up with what we were doing, I didn't stop.
"Napoleon..." he moaned into my mouth and then his hands were on me, dragging at my clothing, pulling my zipper down and sliding inside. He found my erection, squeezing and exploring its length. His other hand was fumbling at his own zip and I batted it away, making short work of the fastening and skimming the tight ski-pants down his thighs.
I pulled off my sweater and pants, then his and then it was my turn to moan as our cocks met for the first time. "Illya..."
He adjusted us to make the most of the friction, then started to move imperiously against me, those large hands of his holding me firmly in place. My fingers clutched at unyielding biceps as I tried to meet him thrust for thrust. He made little noises of pleasure every few strokes and it made me ache with longing. In moments, the pace became frantic then unsustainable and finally I arched backwards and came with a choked off sound, my heart hammering in my chest.
He was breathing like a steam engine now, hurtling towards his own completion. As I collapsed forward onto his chest I felt him go rigid as he too came in wet pulses, his semen and mine slicking our bellies.
We lay sweatily entangled as our breathing gradually returned to normal. I buried my face in the root of his neck and mouthed the soft skin there, feeling the pulse bounding beneath my lips.
His arms slid round me and he nuzzled my ear whilst I continued to nibble gently at his throat, not quite ready yet to abandon the security of his scent and the feeling of him all around me. I knew he was alive, but my brain seemed determined to replay the image of his fall in a continuous loop. I shuddered and he lifted a hand to stroke my hair.
After several moments, he spoke. "I hadn't unclipped the harness," he said, his voice calm and measured in my ear. "I was just about to when I was hit."
I went completely still, and his arm tightened around me almost fiercely.
"It hit the backpack," he said, brushing a kiss against the soft skin behind my ear. "Not me." He chuffed a soft laugh. "THRUSH really should encourage its agents to spend more time on the range.
"It did knock me off balance, though," he continued more soberly. "Then the parapet caught me behind the knees and..." he shifted a little beneath me. "I bounced off the wall a few times on the way down," he said with a sigh. "Another set of bruises to add to the collection."
We lay like that for a while until the stickiness drying between us began to itch. He continued to stroke my hair. Eventually, I found I could let go of my mental movie loop.
"I'm sorry," he murmured.
"Sorry...?" Feeling alarm flicker momentarily in my chest, I tried to keep my breathing even.
He coaxed my head up and scanned my face. The fear must have been lurking there because he sighed. Taking my face in his hands, he kissed me softly on the mouth.
"Blockhead," he murmured, our lips still in contact so that I felt the tickle of each syllable. "I meant I'm sorry you had to see me fall from the roof." He paused and I felt a slight tremor run through him. "I know what it would have done to me had our positions been reversed."
I dropped my mouth to his, then, and kissed him as thoroughly as I knew how. An unaccustomed sense of contentment was spreading through me that was only a distant relative of post-coital satiety.
Less than an hour ago I'd watched my world shatter and now it was remaking itself. Different—very different—from the world I'd woken up to that morning. I glanced down ruefully. Sticky, sweaty and smeared with camouflage make-up for one thing. I met Illya's gaze and opened my mouth to suggest that we should do some remedial work in the nearest shower.
What came out was, "I love you..."
I felt him catch his breath and then he gave me one of those lopsided smiles that tend to turn my legs to jelly if I'm not paying attention. "I know," he said, eyes sparkling. "But I suspect you might love me more after a shower." He rolled out of the bed and held out his hand. "Come on," he said.
I raised my eyebrows and he shrugged.
"I have never made love in a shower," he said.
I grasped his hand and swallowed. Not 'had sex'. Not 'fucked'. I lived for him. I'd die for him. I might never hear him say it, but I'd know that he felt what I felt.
"Then we need to remedy that appalling lack in your education," I said, giving his hand a squeeze. "Lead on."
We spent a half-hour in the steamy warmth, exploring intimate areas with fingers and tongues and stroking each other to a soapy second climax. Illya almost purred as I rinsed the shampoo bubbles from his hair, and that would have started me off again if it hadn't been for the muted interruption of our communicators from the bedroom.
"Damn," I muttered and kissed him quickly. "It's OK. I'll go."
I snagged a couple of towels on my way out of the shower and headed into the bedroom. Two piles of clothes warbled in counterpoint in the centre of the room. I made for the nearest, hoping it was mine, and unearthed the communicator from its depths. Assembling it, I sat down on the edge of the bed.
"Solo here," I said.
"Mr Solo?" Waverly's voice was sharp. "Where is Mr Kuryakin?"
Illya walked into the room then, towelling his hair as the muffled sound of the other device - clearly mine—ceased abruptly. "Ah, he's here, Sir," I said, handing my partner his communicator. He sat down next to me, deliberately crowding me.
"Kuryakin here, Sir," he said with a wink. I grinned and leaned into him.
"Mr Kuryakin? I was beginning to think the mission had been less than straightforward. Your report, please."
Less than straightforward indeed, I thought.
"The switches have been replaced with the facsimiles, Sir," said Illya. I nibbled on his shoulder.
"Very good," said Waverly. "I trust you encountered no difficulties with our feathered friends?"
I reached across and drew the communicator nearer. "We encountered one guard, Sir, but I—er—eliminated him."
Waverly tsked. "It is unfortunate that you were disturbed, Mr Solo. I should have preferred that your presence at the facility had remained undetected."
I locked eyes with Illya. "Quite so, Sir," I said evenly.
"Hmmph. Well—can't be helped, I suppose. Mr Kuryakin, have you arranged for the equipment you borrowed to be returned to the Geneva office?"
Illya gave me a helpless look. "I—er..."
"Do it smartly, please. We don't want any delay. Can't have them invoicing us for it you know."
"Sir," Illya said with a grimace at me. "I'm afraid that the equipment is still in situ on the roof of the spa."
There was a pause and we waited for the explosion. In the end it was ice rather than fire.
"I see," said Waverly, his voice clipped in the way that told us he was emphatically not pleased. "I hadn't thought I would need to remind you, Mr Kuryakin, that the success of this mission hinges on our presence there remaining clandestine. Perhaps you were hoping, gentlemen, that THRUSH would fail to detect a dead guard and several hundred dollars-worth of U.N.C.L.E. equipment on their roof."
"Sir," said Illya. "I left no evidence of intrusion in either the office or the safe when I replaced the switches. None." He glanced at me and continued rapidly. "Whatever is discovered on the roof could as easily suggest we were disturbed on the way in to the facility. They will expect any intrusion to be an attempt to steal the switches, and when they find the facsimiles secure in the safe they will assume the attempt to have failed." He paused. "It could, in fact, strengthen our position."
There was a long silence.
"Very well, gentlemen," said Waverly eventually. "Your brief is to remain covert and to monitor the situation there for the next few days. Intelligence suggests that the auction will take place sometime this week. The Geneva office will supply back-up if you require it. Who knows," he added. "They might yet have an opportunity to salvage their equipment."
"Yes, Sir," we muttered in unison, and I mimed relief at my partner.
"Oh, and please make sure the genuine switches are returned to the Canadian Air Force base as soon as possible." Waverly harrumphed. "The cost of replacing those would ruin us. I expect daily reports from you, gentlemen. Waverly out."
Illya capped the communicator and let out a long sigh. I grinned at him and clapped him on the shoulder. "Another bullet dodged, tovarisch," I said.
He shook his head at me then stood and went to rummage in his backpack. "Nevertheless," he said. "I shall feel more comfortable when these switches have been returned."
He pulled the aluminium case from the pack triumphantly. There was a rattle. His face fell and he gave me an anguished look, turning the case over. Its topside was deeply gouged, all but destroyed by the impact of the THRUSH rifle round.
"Gavno!" he muttered as he opened the distorted lid.
Inside, the two switches had been reduced to glass shards and fragments of wire.
He poked them with a finger and then his head drooped and his shoulders began to shake. I leaned forward uneasily, but before I could move to him he looked up and I realised he was gasping with suppressed laughter. He held the box out towards me.
"Are you planning to report me to Waverly again?" he said, eyes twinkling.
A thrill licked along my spine.
"That depends," I said, leaning back on my elbows.
"Oh," he said, tossing the box back into the pack and quirking an eyebrow. "Does it?"
I nodded slowly.
"On your powers of—ah—persuasion."
He licked his lips and advanced slowly towards me...