Hindsight is a wonderful thing
"May I help you, sir?"
"I don't know. Can you bring back the dead?"
"Er... no, sir. I can't do that."
"So, man, I am afraid you can't help me."
"Nobody can do that!"
"You are right. Nobody."
He looked at the table, and sneered. It was a mess! He began to count, but it was difficult. Firstly, he counted twelve. Twelve? It was okay. But... what was it, after twelve? Thirteen... Thirteen? Yes, it must be thirteen. Secondly... were they really twelve? Because, you know, they moved. He saw one. Then, one second later, they were two. Then, one, again. And they moved treacherously. As long as you stared at them, nothing. But if you let them out of your sight...
He had to be more pragmatic. All he had to do was to take them, one at a time. What he saw was unreliable. He closed his eyes, concentrated himself, and opened them back. What he could grab would be undoubted... or not.
Those damned glasses were still moving. Now, they openly moved. But he would get them. He flashed a glance of hatred at them. They didn't seem to mind. Slowly, imperceptibly, he raised his right hand, and put his hand on the table. He was still staring at them, and those silly glasses didn't notice anything. Suddenly, quick as lightning, he swept them aside.
But the move unbalanced him. He awkwardly swayed for a while and heavily fell on the ground, his head hitting the table. He thought that it was a quite miserable and stupid death for an UNCLE agent.
The light woke him. A dazzling, hot, burning light. They had beaten him black and blue, kicked him. He could feel the blood gluing his eyes. But amazingly, he hadn't his hands tied. Perhaps they had thought that he was dead? No, they would never do such a mistake. They were peeping at him. At first, he had to know where he was. This time, nobody would come for him. He would have to manage.
He decided to turn his head, as naturally as he could. At the very first move, the said head exploded with pain. He held his right hand to his forehead, automatically. It was sticky with blood.
He had to clean his eyes. As he tried to get his left hand in his pocket, he felt several twinges, as if he had scratched it on broken glass. Not as if. He was scratching his hand on broken... glass. And then he remembered. Nobody would come for him. He would have to manage.
The sight was... distressing, heartbreaking. The apartment was a mess. The room was a mess. The table was a mess. Covered with glasses. With bottles. Empty. The smell was unbearable. Hard liquors... sweat... blood. He lied on the ground, flat on his stomach, his head turned on the right. A great gash from his cheekbone to his temple was bleeding. He needed help. But there was nothing he could do. Nobody he could wait for. He managed painfully to get down on all fours. He was making a fool of himself, he knew that, but nothing mattered much to him anymore.
"What the hell's going on, here, boy?"
He sat straight on the floor, and turned towards the familiar voice. Too quickly, and the walls were twirling.
"Oh... You... There is nothing to worry about, Mikey. About ... me, anyway."
"You are the master of understatement, Napoleon. But... he wouldn't like it."
The headache was unbearable, but his bladder refused any compromise. He slowly sat straight and stood up. As expected, the floor was pitching. He could have been aboard his boat... His headache was worsening, and suddenly his stomach started to run riot. Whatever the walls intended to do, he had to hurry... Or it would be a tragic mess... Someone grabbed his ram and helped him in the bathroom. What happened ... would probably become very unpleasant and very shameful memories. Just now, it was simple bliss.
When he woke up, an eternity or two later, he felt ... he didn't know how he felt. Lightheaded, weak, and worn out. Amazingly, it wasn't that unpleasant. The headache had lessened. But the memories came back. He blushed, his cheeks burning with... fever, probably, and ... shame.
"Are you better? Drink this. It's just water. Slowly."
Mikey had pulled the curtains and the room was bathed with a dim light. Solo drank, savoring the delicious feeling.
"He wouldn't like to see you like that."
Shame instantaneously turned into anger. Solo hissed.
"I don't give a damn about what he would think!"
Alexander Waverly and his preconceived ideas about Thrush...
There was nothing to worry about! The affair was ended.
"Our Thrush friends never tempt fate. They failed. Period. I am afraid that we'll meet him again, but not now."
Oh, yes, it was ended... But the enemy hadn't given up. And he had tempted fate.
Waverly had agreed that they needed rest. They had been on leave for two weeks. Time for Illya to move in his new apartment. Time for Napoleon to help him. Precious moments. Moving instants, when Illya put every book, every record, and every keepsake back where they belonged.
Illya's new apartment was closer to his own. Illya could have moved in in the same brownstone, but he didn't. Napoleon Solo hadn't argued about that.
Illya Kuryakin's usual ( and legendary...) self-restraint had been broken. He had warmly and insistently thanked his partner for saving his life. Napoleon had first brushed aside those thanks reminding Illya of their mutual agreement about that: "You save my life, I save yours... Let's stop counting." And then, he had realized the depth of his friend's gratitude. Illya had settled the score: he had saved his life, three times, at least. He had saved the day... Well, the New York headquarter, and his chief Alexander Waverly. Illya had smiled shyly and squeezed his hand. But he had stopped thanking...
After that, things had carried on as before. Almost as before. Many people had changed their mind about the Russian agent. Everybody seemed anxious to show him their new feelings. Napoleon had teased his friend, and made fun of his embarrassment. But he had noticed, too, that Illya had managed to be more open, more obviously concerned. Well. Very interesting times. Very pleasant ones. Very... short-lived.
Napoleon Solo realized that Mikey was speaking... when the fisherman stopped talking. He sheepishly looked at him, with inquiring eyes. Mikey frowned and repeated.
"I didn't think to Mr Waverly, Napoleon..."
The fisherman caught the glass on time.
"I don't give a damn, about what he would have thought, Mikey."
The fisherman shook his head. He spoke slowly, with the soft tone of a mother trying to soothe her child.
"You can bear a grudge against the whole world, Napoleon. But not against Illya."
"I can't ? And why couldn't I ? He... He..."
"He died ?"
Alexander Waverly looked at the two agents. He was amazingly relaxed, almost smiling. Very unusual, not really reassuring. He puffed away his pipe and pointed his finger to the two files, on the desk.
"An easy mission, young men. Very appropriate. Mr Solo..."
He pushed a file towards the older agent.
"Mr Solo, you'll fly to San Francisco, and contact our correspondent. An important ... and secret meeting is going to be held. We have been asked to check the security measures..."
Napoleon Solo was puzzled. Waverly puffed away his pipe again.
"Mr Kuryakin, you'll work with Mr. Solo, on this assignment, but before..."
He pushed the second file towards the young Russian.
"Before, you are expected at the Survival School. Jules Cutter would like you to give a little speech, or two, and ... well, er... a demonstration of your skills... His young men are quite eager to meet you, especially someone you know well..."
Illya Kuryakin couldn't help chuckling, while Solo smiled wryly. This assignment in San Francisco was ... ordinary. Uninteresting. A mission for some rookie agents. At least, he wouldn't have to play the fool for Cutter's recruits. But Napoleon Solo noticed that unexpectedly, Illya looked quite satisfied with that. Much good may it do you, my friend, he thought.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing...
He had been blamed, of course. He should have reported Simmons' incompetence. He should have taken the affair over. He should have...
The man had listened. Obediently. Respectfully. Then, they had stopped speaking. Then, he had talked. He had argued.
Firstly about Simmons and his self-importance. He couldn't do anything... For Simmons didn't tell him anything!
Secondly... about the complete confidence Thrush had put in him... They blamed him? Who did choose Simmons to run this mission ?
Attack was always the best form of defence.
At last, he had argued about his last decision. He couldn't have been of any use... He would have been killed... or seized.
He didn't tell them about Solo ...
They had frowned, grimaced, grumbled... and given up. He was to heave a sigh of relief, when someone said.
"We can't let them think that they won. You, you know all the sides of the affair... So you are "the right man in the right place", aren't you ? You'll have to manage to settle the score for us... Yes, I am aware that they have identified you, but don't we get our friend, in there ? I heard that they considered him as an hero... They know you, but they trust him..."
The man smiled brightly, swearing deep inside that this one would pay for that... He cursed his luck. He really should have shot Solo, when he had the opportunity to...
Hindsight was a wonderful thing...
"I don't like that..."
Amazed, Illya Kuryakin looked at his partner. The older agent went on, insistently.
"This assignment is boring. If only we were in charge of it... But no, we'll just have to check. Boring. A rookie agent's assignment... or an almost retired one's!"
The Russian chuckled, shaking his head with a mix of amusement and uncertainty...
"My friend, you are getting older, you know... You grumble, you mutter, you argue... That's an assignment, and at least, it's a safe one! By the way, San Francisco is a beautiful place."
Napoleon Solo sighed and immersed himself in his file. Ten seconds.
"And you are going to entertain Cutter's recruits! Are you really enjoying that?"
Illya Kuryakin's face was now serious.
"Jules Cutter helped me, Napoleon. I wouldn't have thought that he could do that for me, but he did. I owe him much. I'll be happy to see again Evan Stellon."
As Napoleon Solo was rolling his eyes, the Russian whispered devilishly.
"Perhaps you are jealous, Napoleon? You haven't been asked to give a demonstration of your skills... But if you want, I could..."
Napoleon Solo waved his pen.
"Kuryakin, you live dangerously!"
The young Russian tapped his arm, gently.
"Napoleon, it's an ill wind that blows nobody any good! San Francisco is an extraordinary place. I am sure that all the security measures will be okay, so we'll have some free time... and you..."
The smile was bright, the tone light. The eyes slightly sad.
"I guess you'll find one or two cute Californian ladies..."
The dark haired man replied ironically.
"Because you won't look for one or two cute ladies, among Cutter's recruits, my friend?"
"I... I am a serious man, Napoleon."
Napoleon Solo bit his lips. He shouldn't have said that, but it just slipped out. Illya didn't pay any attention. Apparently. Friends. They were friends. More, Illya Kuryakin had said, a few weeks ago. Words.
A beautiful town. A wonderful place, Illya was right. San Francisco was all that. But Napoleon Solo was a New Yorker... He had checked what he had to, and he was now waiting for both the beginning of the meeting and his partner's arrival. He had regularly reported to Waverly. The Old Man had listened, muttered and amazingly brushed aside Napoleon's questions about Illya and the Survival School. Amazingly? Not really. Waverly wasn't a talker. Efficiency first. Illya's achievements were none of his business.
"Is Illya doing a good job? Are Cutter's recruits fascinated?"
"Of course. Oh, Mr. Solo, you told me that... And what if...? Have you checked...?"
Napoleon Solo knew that his young guest had been amazed. Probably disappointed. Obviously offended, when he had left her in front of her door, with a very discreet kiss. She had expected more. She had heard of Napoleon Solo, but... he was a serious man. The UNCLE agent shook his head and leaned out the window gazing at the landscape. It was almost a living post card. Illya would enjoy it.
Lost in thought, he startled when he heard the beep. He got the communicator out of his pocket.
Of course... Who else? Waverly's tone was grim. Not that he was usually fond of a joke, but Napoleon Solo felt a growing discomfort.
"Mr. Solo... It's... I... We..."
Oh, Waverly couldn't find his words? Discomfort turned into fear. It had happened once. A few months ago...
Déjà vu. Solo asked harshly.
"What happens, sir?"
"We... we are in trouble, Mr. Solo."
Trouble? Say it, old fox. SAY IT!
Solo's voice, soft and strained, reflected his struggle to avoid yelling at his superior. Waverly's tone was as soft and strained.
"We have lost Mr. Kuryakin."
That was amazing, and Napoleon Solo couldn't help gulping.
"Lost... Illya? You have lost Illya at the Survival School? It's a naughty joke, sir."
"No, Mr. Solo, it isn't."
"On his way back? Have we any clues?"
Waverly kept silent.
"Sir? Illya isn't a rookie recruit! He must have left some traces! He'll manage to contact us... I come back immediately."
"Yes, you come back, but you don't understand, Mr. Solo. We have lost him. Really."
"Napoleon, he is dead."
Napoleon Solo couldn't remember the following moments. At first, he must have repeated the same sentence...
"Can't believe it..."
Then, he had come back to New York. Still incredulous, because they were survivors. Illya Kuryakin was a survivor. He was good at it. He had proved it so many times.
Against all the odds, Napoleon Solo couldn't believe it.
The whole New York UNCLE headquarter was abashed. Nobody dared look at him, speak to him. Step after step, his hope lessened.
A very old Waverly was sitting in his office. The old man himself didn't look at him.
Napoleon Solo took a deep breath and tried to control himself.
"What happened, sir?"
Alexander Waverly pursed his lips.
"Mr. Kuryakin is dead, Mr. Solo. I ... I thought that you had understood it. That's what happened."
Napoleon Solo foamed.
"When? Where? Why? How? Are you sure..."
"Unfortunately... there is no doubt, Mr. Solo..."
Unfortunately! Napoleon Solo rushed to the desk and hit the wooden top with his fist.
"He was at the Survival School. It's the safer place I know!"
Alexander Waverly kept silent, lost in thought. The UNCLE agent froze.
"Everything was okay, sir, you told me that. You told me the truth? What happened to Illya? When? Where? How?"
The very old man raised his eyes and looked at his agent. He wasn't impressed. He wasn't angry.
He was sad. Awfully sad.
"Sit down, Mr. Solo. It's a long..."
"The hell with your chair! Tell me. Now."
They exchanged a look. Eventually, Napoleon Solo gave up. He sat down, although ready to jump again. Alexander Waverly breathed deeply.
"It's a long story..."
He didn't want a long story. He wanted to know.
"Where is he, sir? If he is dead... I want to see his body. On my own."
"Well, Mr. Solo... what we have isn't exactly a body. But we have clues. Indubitable clues. And witnesses. There is no hope."
No more fury. Waverly's voice was dull.
"The... the odor alerted some wanderers. They found... they found what I could hardly call a body. Waves, rocks, seagulls, crabs... But we could identify Mr. Kuryakin."
He was begging.
"He ... Mr. Kuryakin had been beaten, and shot. Our medical examiner has removed... eleven bullets."
"Eleven bullets? And... Where?"
"In Penobscot bay, near Camden. In Maine."
Napoleon Solo didn't understand.
"Maine? But Illya was at the Survival School! It isn't... Sir? Mr. Waverly?"
The Old Man was staring at him.
"Well, er... Mr. Solo... Mr. Kuryakin didn't go to the Survival School."
"You play a dangerous game, Alexander. You could lose both of them..."
"I know that, Jules... But I have no choice."
"I'll do what you want, Alexander... But I am not condoning it."
"No, he didn't. It was... well. It was a trap, Mr. Solo. For the other mole. Simmons ... is dead, thanks to Mr. Kurt... Simmons is dead. But there is someone else, and we can't afford that. We needed bait. And Mr. Kuryakin... Illya agreed to be ... the bait."
Napoleon Solo choked with fury.
"I asked you, sir... and you told me that everything was okay. Everyday."
"And... you can look at me, eyes in eyes? When... when did that happened?"
"Probably... Probably the day you left for San Francisco. He disappeared on his way to the airport."
"And you did... what?"
Waverly shrugged his shoulders.
"As usual, Mr. Solo. We looked for him. Because it wasn't the plan, you know. We moved heaven and earth..."
"And... you didn't tell me? Why?"
"You had to be protected, Mr. Solo. Our enemies have two obvious targets... They have got one. Isn't it enough? Mr. Solo... Mr. Solo?"
The dark haired man stood up, and raced towards the door. He turned to his superior, hissing coldly.
"Shut up! You know that I have always obeyed you... I respect you more than any one else... except for my partner. But that is where I draw the line. You... betrayed my trust. I can't work here any longer."
"No! Oh, you know what? Eleven bullets... It's the old firing squad. Twelve soldiers. One with blank cartridge... They didn't want him. It was an execution! They mocked at us and you... helped them."
And he was gone.
"I had warned you, Alex."
"I had no choice, Jules."
"But we still don't know who the mole...is Will you sacrifice Mr. Solo, too?"
"He... he is expendable."
"What do you think, Mr. Kuryakin?"
The young agent composed his features in a neutral smile, but he didn't fool Alexander Waverly. Illya Kuryakin would obey orders. However, he was obviously halfhearted.
Waverly's tone was... unusual. What he said was, too."
"If I could, Mr. Kuryakin... I wouldn't ask you to do that, but..."
"But you have no choice, sir.
"I would like to..."
"But you have no choice. I understand, Mr. Waverly."
"I don't like it."
Eyes in eyes. Alexander Waverly knew well his Russian... and he was quite amazed when he saw him avert his gaze.
Illya Kuryakin didn't mind playing the bait. Alexander Waverly's plan was precise, skillfully woven. What bothered him was, firstly, that this plan included lies. A delusion. Napoleon Solo was to be kept at a distance, in all the meanings. The proper one: he would be sent in California... And the figurative one. Not a word. What bothered him, secondly, was Waverly's attitude. The Old Man could have doubts, he never showed them. He felt Waverly's look and shook his head.
"What we like, or not, sir... doesn't matter."
He sat cross-legged on the floor. His new apartment was a delight, with the huge picture windows. The sunset bathed the room in a firework of red, orange, yellow, purple and pink. Once more, Illya Kuryakin looked for the Rayon Vert. The green beam... When he had mentioned it to his partner, Napoleon had laughed. Then they had talked about Jules Verne's novel, and the meaning of the Rayon Vert... Napoleon had stopped laughing. They had stood, side by side... waiting for the so rare Rayon Vert... Vainly...
"Eventually, my friend, you are kind of a romantic..."
"Jules Verne's novels are often about science, and I..."
"Shhht, look at the stars."
The sky had darkened and Illya Kuryakin had stared at the stars... They were so rare. Napoleon had whispered something about that, and of course Illya had fallen... no, had jumped in the trap. He had started a patient speech about the city lights... and stopped when he had heard his friend chuckling. He had been teasing him. Of course, he knew...
The warm colors of the sunset were replaced by silver light: the said city lights, and soon, the moon.
The last weeks had been pleasant ones. But Waverly was right. They had to identify the mole. Simmons had been one. The first governor, in the jail, was... a poor fool man. His successor ... His successor would be a problem, sooner or later. But there was a third mole. It was extremely dangerous: they would risk a lot if they didn't react... And Illya Kuryakin shivered, although the warmth of this summer night.
He was, for weeks, now, going over and over an idea in his mind. A quite uncomfortable idea. More precisely, a frightening idea. He couldn't talk about it with Napoleon. There was no one... except for... except for one man. The only one who wasn't part of it. The Russian smiled wryly, stood up and took his phone.
Napoleon Solo sighed with relief. He had packed his case and his bag, and he had some time to have a thought.
He didn't like it.
The last weeks had been pleasant. What happened had cleaned the air, and many people had changed their mind about Illya. Most of them were sincere. Illya... Illya himself had changed his mind about them, and it was a good thing. The last few days, however, his self sufficient partner had looked thoughtful. Doubtful. Napoleon Solo was expecting him to tell about... Sometimes, Illya began a sentence and brushed aside, or changed the subject.
Worse. The one, who usually muttered, grumbled about boring assignment, would have foamed about going back to the Survival School in order to entertain the recruits... Illya Kuryakin was in an amazingly good mood, quite... enthusiastic. A so easy going partner...
Napoleon Solo didn't feel comfortable with that. What Illya Kuryakin had gone through had, in a way, stabilized him. It was a good thing.
But just now... It sounded hollow. Illya overacted. When he would join him, in San Francisco, they would have to talk, about that, about all.
Alexander Waverly was anxious, and he didn't like it.
What happened, for the last months, had worried him at the last degree. But his struggle had one precise objective: a target. He knew for sure that his Russian agent was innocent. In spite of all the difficulties, it was easy to do everything possible.
He had feared that they could fail.
He had feared that he could lose Illya Kuryakin and Napoleon Solo...
But he knew why and what he feared.
Now, everything was for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Illya Kuryakin and Napoleon Solo were quite recovered. Mark Slate was getting better, and the doctors were optimistic.
But Alexander Waverly frowned. He had seen the shadow of a doubt in some blue eyes.
Perhaps, he couldn't fool Illya Kuryakin anymore.
"Mikey? You were not asleep?"
"Illya, boy, I am an old man, not a crying baby!"
"Not that old, Mikey..."
Mikey's voice was reassuring. Illya Kuryakin remembered the word he had used about him: family. Yes, Mikey was... family. For the few days they lived side by side, the fisherman had broken through him, through his defenses. Deeper than anyone else. Deeper than Alexander Waverly. Even deeper than Napoleon. Illya Kuryakin could have felt uncomfortable with that. He had felt, every time Napoleon had found out one of his secrets. But Mikey was family. There was no stake. No judgment.
"Illya? You sound troubled, boy. Want to talk about? If you were here, we could drink a beer on the terrace, looking at the stars. It's a beautiful night!"
Typically Mikey. He didn't turn the conversation; he just made things less frightening. Stars, a beautiful night were important.
"The night is beautiful, here, too. Mikey, you are right; it would be good to be in Mousehole."
The fisherman kept silent.
"They knew where we were. What we were going to do. Always."
"I thought that you had got rid of your mole?"
"Yes, I shot Simmons. But the new governor escaped. We couldn't track him down, until now."
"You are in trouble."
"In trouble? No... Yes, we are in trouble. Among all that happened, there are some events that remained.... unexplained, and unexplainable."
The fisherman knew better than to ask about the said events.
"I am not sure, Mikey. To me, it's evidence. Neither Mr. Waverly, nor Napoleon seems to worry about it..."
"To worry about... about what, Illya?"
Jules Cutter looked through the window. Young men and young women were busying themselves, outside. Some of those recruits were valuable elements. He would work hard on them. The others... the others were trying.
You couldn't come there if you were not good. You couldn't stay there, if you were not among the best. You couldn't survive, as a Section 2 agent, if you were not the best.
Jules Cutter didn't like it. Probably because he was getting old. Older. Too old for the job?
In a way, it wasn't a good bargain. UNCLE agents often lost out on the deal.
An impious thought crossed his mind. Eventually, one could say that Thrush leaders were efficient. More efficient than men like Alexander Waverly. Of course, UNCLE agents were good. They were the best. They won battles, most of their fights. But they didn't win the war. And perhaps they never would.
Thrush relied on the sheer number of his agents. They didn't count them. Significant losses were nothing. When the UNCLE lost an agent... it always took a tragic turn. A human drama. An economic one.
Alexander Waverly repeated that agents were expendable... Were they? Was it worth the price? Jules Cutter shook his head, lecturing himself. Really, he was getting old, too old. An old fool.
"About... another mole, another traitor."
Illya Kuryakin took a deep breath.
"There were things that neither Simmons, neither the new governor could know. However, Thrush was obviously aware of them, on time. The way they have caught Napoleon and Jules Cutter, for example. There is another traitor. You, Mikey, you could be that mole. You could work for them."
"Well, yes, Illya, you are right. I could be your mole."
The fisherman had answered softly, knowing that it was what the young man expected..
"But you don't work for them. You are not a traitor. Of course, you are not. Napoleon could be the mole."
Mikey chuckled loudly.
"And he isn't. You, Illya, you could be. But you are not."
Illya Kuryakin went on.
"Even Stellon was a young guard. An honest man who has been involved in this affair."
"So, let's eliminate him. Illya, my friend, you are going to frighten me for good."
"I am frightened, Mikey. I am frightened, because if we eliminate Napoleon, Evan, you and me..."
"We have Mr. Cutter or Mr. Waverly."
"Jules Cutter, or Alexander Waverly."
"And that's impossible, boy."
Illya Kuryakin sneered. This new series promised to be quite amusing. The spy's life, in the movies, or in the T.V. Shows, was generally very... unconventional. But this one...
"Your mission, should you decide to accept it..." Really funny. Those agents had choice. They could apparently refuse the mission. Oh course, they would never do that. But as they could refuse it, they looked more heroic. More heroic than the poor Section 2 UNCLE agent who obeyed his chief's orders. Period. However, had he the choice, the said poor Section 2 UNCLE agent would never refuse a mission. So, this series was eventually realistic.
As he drove towards the airport, the Russian noticed a blue sedan just behind him. Nothing to worry about, but he kept an eye on it. The traffic was heavy, and he couldn't expect to shake it off. After all, he had "babysitters". Your "Illyasitters"... April's words.
Mac Reave cursed. Too many cars. Bad timing. They could see Kuryakin's car, but they were a bit too far from him. If anything happened, Waverly would hang them high... He hesitated. He could call Kuryakin and ask him to wait for them. He would see it, but he could just imagine the Russian's ironical grin. Okay, he was a good... a very good agent. A trustworthy one. But he was a Russian, and Mac Reave couldn't help having a little trouble with that. Illya Kuryakin disappeared on the street corner.
Illya Kuryakin sighed. The blue sedan was still there, but the "lllyasitters" were out of sight.
Antonelli and Pengliss were pacing up and down the airport lounge. They looked around. The place was crowded. Bad timing. If Thrush was up to no good, it would be the right place. At least, the guy they had to protect wasn't really an innocent. Of course, Illya Kuryakin would be able to manage... if he had to. But Waverly's orders were clear. And if something happened...
"... now ready for boarding" Pengliss startled. The Russian was to miss his flight. It was stupid! No, it wasn't. Illya Kuryakin wouldn't miss his flight. Amazing. Abnormal. He got his communicator.
"Mac Reave? Where the hell are you with Kuryakin? The boarding had been ..."
"He isn't at the airport? Pengliss, are you sure?"
"Of course, I am sure! Damned, you were supposed to baby-sit him on the way to the airport! What happened?"
"The traffic is... No use. I am going to call the Headquarter."
"Waverly will fire us..."
"Alexander? What happens?"
"Illya Kuryakin has disappeared."
"Are you joking, Alex?"
"He is missing. He disappeared, on the way to the airport."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Mac Reave and Connor were shaken off in the traffic. Antonelli and Pengliss never saw Mr. Kuryakin at the airport."
Jules Cutter pursed his lips, and barked angrily.
"Oh, fine... You should send me back those skillful drivers! And there is no trace of Mr. Kuryakin? The traffic was so heavy... he could be..."
"No, Jules. We found his car parked beside the pavement, in a close street."
"His case. His bag. No traces."
Jules Cutter didn't ask. But Alexander Waverly did
"Who knew about that, Jules?"
"I knew, you knew, Alexander..."
"Mr. Kuryakin, Mr. Solo knew."
"And our friend, the « governor », what's his name?"
"Bayle could have kept a watch on Illya Kuryakin."
Alexander Waverly sneered bitterly.
"Many people tried to tail Illya Kuryakin, Jules. You tried..."
Jules Cutter muttered. It wasn't a pleasant memory. The situation was tricky.
"You are not the mole. I am not the mole. Solo is not the mole. Kuryakin... is not the mole. But, Alexander, all my recruits knew that Mr. Kuryakin was about to come. And I guess that in your UNCLE Headquarter, many people knew that, too. It wasn't a secret..."
Waverly kept silent.
"Alexander... You... you would tell me, wouldn't you?"
"Tell you... what?"
"Illya Kuryakin was supposed to be «abducted »in the airport, in the boarding room..."
"Yes, you know that. Firstly, it would have puzzled Thrush. Secondly, he could have plaid the joker... The..."
Jules Cutter cut in flatly. Waverly's tone, Waverly's understatements were unpleasant.
"Yes, Alex. All I want to know is... you wouldn't have thought about another plan?"
"Just in case I could be the mole... Are you trying to fool me?"
"As you reminded me of, Illya Kuryakin is an experienced and efficient agent. I can hardly believe that someone could abduct him in his car, so quickly, without any trace... So, you might have bent the rules..."
The silence was heavy, and Alexander Waverly hissed softly.
"Jules, you undervalue me. I trust you, as you trust me."
"Did you call back Napoleon Solo?"
"Of course not. He must stay in San Francisco. I won't tell him anything..."
"He won't like it, Alex."
"What he likes or not doesn't matter."
Napoleon Solo threw his ID on the receptionist's desk. Furiously. And he stormed out. Outside... outside, the weather was fine. Desperately fine. Sun, warmth... Summer time. He went straight back home, slammed the door, and mechanically set the alarm.
The apartment was comfortable, warm, but with style. Napoleon Solo stared blankly at the fireplace. He wouldn't light the fire. He did, usually, even when it wasn't useful... because his friend liked it so much. Of course, it had been first a subject of astonishment. The young Russian agent, Illya Kuryakin, freshly partnered with the CEA, wasn't really impressed by his superior. Napoleon Solo had asked him for dinner, as he wanted to give him a warm welcome. The young man had looked around, raised an eyebrow, and studied the books, on the shelves. Then, he had turned towards the senior agent, with a shy... devilishly shy smile.
"You have a fireplace? In your apartment? But you have central heating... What use?"
"Oh, my friend, it's just American decadence. I have a fireplace, because I like to see the flames, to hear their crackling, in the hearth. Sometimes, I light the fire, in summer, just for my pleasure..."
Just a little challenging, he peeped at the Russian with a smirk... Illya Kuryakin ignored the teasing.
"Fireplace is the heart of a Russian home. Warmth, safety, light, family. It's useful, of course, and you have to fell timber. But it's so fascinating. I like fireplace. It reminds me home..."
An amazing speech. The older agent instinctively had known that he had to go on.
"Would do with drinking a Russian vodka in front of a decadent American fireplace?"
"A... Russian vodka?"
When Illya had moved in his new apartment, Napoleon Solo had chuckled, at the sight of ... the fireplace...
"Decadent, Illya, you are really decadent!"
"Would do with drinking an American whisky in front of a decadent Russian fireplace?"
"A... Scottish whisky?"
But that was the past. It would never happen again. Solo shivered, as he realized that he would probably be asked to sort Illya's properties. Again. As he had done, months ago. This time, it would be for good. No more hope. Waverly's tone, Waverly's features, Waverly's eyes didn't lie.
Illya wasn't a prisoner. He was... gone.
But he wouldn't. He couldn't.
Someone else would have to do it.
Which of Illya's friends...?
A face and a name crossed his mind.
The fisherman was in Atlantic Highlands, at his son's home, for a few weeks... They had his number... just in case...
When he hung up the phone, he realized how silent the apartment was. Mikey... Mikey had been taken aback. He had a liking for Napoleon. He really liked Illya... as a sort of son. After some long seconds, he had just said « I am coming, boy... »
Eventually, Napoleon Solo lit the fire. Then, methodically, he settled glasses and bottles on the wooden table. He had tried, at the beginning, to drink the young Russian under the table... He couldn't help sadly chuckling at this memory. This night, he would try again... To drink a ghost under the table.
When he regained consciousness, Illya Kuryakin knew instantaneously where he was... A very small space, moving, tossing him, at every bump. A car trunk. He felt sick, sick to his stomach. He was choking. He had very few air, a dusty, foul air. Stinking smell. Nauseous. He struggled against the sickness. If he vomited... A bounce made him roll, and his head violently hit something. He lost the fight. The car stopped. Someone opened the trunk.
"Tststs... Behave yourself, Mr. Kuryakin! You... you are a hell of a mess. Disgusting! Well, at least, you'll have some water to wash yourself. An ocean of water."
Napoleon Solo admitted.
He peeked at the fisherman, expecting a burst of anger. Mikey was just there, silent, frowning, concerned.
There was nothing in his face that could allow him to guess Mikey's thought. That went on Solo's nerves. He was looking for a support: someone who would be as desperate as he was. Someone ... someone he would have to comfort... Someone, at least, to fight against. All he had was... a wall.
"I thought you liked him. But you look so emotionless. Why did you come here?"
The haunted look, in the dark haired agent's eyes was so unusual. Mikey kept silent. Napoleon Solo violently cursed and headed to the last bottle. A strong hand grabbed him, and pushed him back in the couch.
"That's enough! Are you such a coward? If you want to die, choose a less degrading way! You... you are furious with your superior, with me, with... Illya... And I think that you are mostly furious with yourself! Why?"
"He... Waverly gave him a secret assignment. A typical Waverly's plan. And they didn't say a word! We talked about San Francisco, about Cutter and the Survival School, and he didn't tell me anything. He died, but had he told me, I could have watched his back. So, yes, I am furious with him! Rightly!"
Solo looked at Mikey and frowned: the fisherman's face was amazed... strangely amazed. Solo's gaze burned through him, but it didn't impress Mikey much.
The fisherman rubbed his chin.
"He just wanted to protect you. As Mr. Waverly, I think."
"To protect me? Are you kidding? Am I a poor little innocent, unable to look after himself?"
Then, he realized.
"Mikey? You aren't guessing... you... you say it for certain..."
The fisherman deeply breathed. No way...
"Yes, Napoleon. I know it for sure."
Solo clenched his fists.
"Would you explain?"
Illya called me, the night before... his..."
"Before his death. Say it!"
"He worried about the assignment, Napoleon. He had to delude you, and it didn't please him."
"He had to delude me? How interesting!"
Mikey sighed. Napoleon Solo's anger remained.
"I thought that you were his closest friend? Illya had to obey Waverly's orders. But, for the first time, he had doubts."
"Illya? Doubts? About Waverly's orders?"
"About UNCLE. "
The dark haired man calmed down.
"Illya told me about what you call a mole. We talked about things that had happened in Mousehole."
Napoleon Solo shivered. He had noticed Illya's strange mood.
Napoleon Solo felt uneasy.
"Six names. Six possible traitors..."
"I was on the list..."
"Mikey, it's ridiculous."
"You were. Evan Stellon was. And Jules Cutter. And Alexander Waverly... And Illya, himself."
"It's stupid! None of us."
Napoleon Solo stopped talking, and looked at the fisherman with horror.
"None of us? Exactly Illya's conclusion."
"But Waverly's plan didn't go according to plan..."
The driver leaned over the trunk, and shook the limp body. He grumbled: the Russian was unconscious, soiled, and he would have to be carried out. The man came back to his seat and took an old blanket. He didn't intend to ruin his clothes. All he had to do was to grab the UNCLE agent, to kill him, and to throw him down the rocks. He got his gun, smiling as he thought that he was going to eliminate one of the most dangerous UNCLE agents. He sneered. The stupid Russian had made things simple: much to his surprise, he had seen him turn on the right, and go along a small street. At first he had thought that the man had noticed the tail. He had laid a bet, gone straight forward till the next street, turned and gone back up the way. The Russian stood beside his car, looking back. A child's play! Two sleep darts, and the stupid UNCLE agent was in the trunk. The others would be mad... The man stretched his arms, and watched at the beautiful landscape. Eventually, a nice place to die. His superior would be satisfied: some day, tomorrow, in one week, one month, some day, the sea would abandon Kuryakin's body somewhere on this rocky coast...
Really a beautiful place to die.
There was a hush when Alexander Waverly crossed the hall. Rumor had it that Napoleon Solo had lost his temper, and yelled at the Old Man. That he had resigned. Another rumor had it that the Old Man had sacked him. Waverly had his Sphinx-like face. He got to his office, nodded at his secretary, and shut the door behind him. Eventually, Thrush won the battle. Illya Kuryakin was dead, Napoleon Solo had left.
"Illya's plan? What do you mean, Illya's plan?"
The fisherman cleared his throat. Spy games.
"Illya trusts Mr. Waverl..."
"Illya... trusted Mr. Waverly. But he wanted to..."
"To be sure."
"He wanted to watch the mole. He thought that the man had to be close to ..."
"To one of us. You mistake, Napoleon. Illya trusts Mr. Waverly. For dear life. As he trusts you."
"He planned to obey Waverly's orders, in a roundabout way. He decided to disappear. As if he had been trapped. Really trapped."
"The very idea! He should have told me..."
"And you would have disagreed."
"And he would be alive."
To be a mole was always an exciting challenge. But in his case, it was more than that. For some years, he had dug his gallery. Obscure. Humble. Thrush had almost forgotten him. Until a few months before. Despite their efforts, the plot had failed. Simmons had been shot. Bayle... Bayle had survived, and taken advantage of what was now known as « Simmons' failure ». Bayle was ambitious. Opportunist. A manipulator. Someone who made use of you, when he needed. As long as he needed. Then... The mole smiled. He was the ace up to Bayle's sleeve, but he was powerful. More powerful than Bayle. He worked for... Thrush. Sometimes. For the UNCLE. Often. For ... himself. Always.
The young Russian stood a few steps aside, covered with various dressings. He didn't lower his blue eyes, his jaws clenched, his lips pursed. Alexander Waverly looked daggers at him, but he clearly didn't mind.
"You endangered the mission, Mr. Kuryakin."
Napoleon Solo tried to cut in.
"Illya brought back the device, sir. He succeeded..."
Waverly raised a warning hand.
"That's none of your business, Mr. Solo."
"But, sir, Mr. Kuryakin gave the mission priority. He didn't endang..."
The CEA bit his lips. If he went on, Waverly would ask him to get out.
"You...disobeyed our rules, Mr. Kuryakin."
The Russian replied softly.
"I fulfilled the assignment, sir."
"You did. And after that, you went back in the house. It was going to be blasted, but you went back."
"I had to."
"You had to? You had to risk your life?"
Illya Kuryakin smiled. A strange smile. Napoleon Solo couldn't help shivering. The Russian must be out of his mind.
"The child was in the house."
"Yes, sir. Feather's daughter."
"His men refused to go..."
"The Thrush leader's daughter was in the house. His men refused to look for her, so an UNCLE agent did the job? How interesting, Mr. Kuryakin!"
"She is seven years old."
"Mr. Kuryakin... UNCLE's investment in your training was important. If you see what I mean?"
"A seven years old child is an innocent, sir. Whoever is her father. Protecting the innocent is our duty."
This young blond Russian didn't give up. Waverly frowned severely, but Illya Kuryakin kept his ground.
"So, you would do it again?
"All other things being equal? Yes, sir, I would."
Napoleon Solo had closed his eyes, waiting for the apocalypse.
At this moment, Waverly had known for sure that he had been right. The Russian agent had a strong sense of values.
And he acted according them.
He had, first, fulfilled the mission.
He had risked his life, to save an innocent.
And he had got a helluva nerve. The Old Man sadly smiled: a few days later, he had called him in his office about his safe escape route...
This young man was dead. Waverly wasn't to be blamed, but it wasn't a consolation...
Waverly startled, hearing the beep of his communicator.
"Kuryakin, it's a pity you are unconscious."
But he wouldn't waste time waking him up. He caught the second gun and checked again. Six bullets in this one; five in the other. Bayle's idea. He wasn't sure of the meaning of all that stuff. According to him, one bullet was enough, but, well, orders were orders. He had to shoot eleven bullets. So, he would do. Thinking of a ritual, he had just asked about how, where he had to shoot the eleven bullets, one in the head, one in... Bayle had cut him out. "Just like a firing squad." The man sneered and shouted.
"And... eleven. Eleven bullets for one man, Mr. Kuryakin! Exactly eleven!"
He slid the guns in his belt and sighed. At first, the dirty job. He picked up the blanket, and turned to the sea.
This landscape was really beautiful, peaceful. Heaven, except for the smell. This disgusting smell... And his head exploded.
Alexander Waverly frowned. The voice was ... familiar, but the man spoke in a suppressed tone. The voice of some one who was trying to hide himself.
"Evan Stellon, sir."
Oh, yes, the young Stellon...
"Yes, Mr. Stellon, what happens?"
The young man, obviously shocked, couldn't help stammering.
"I... I... It's... Sir, something is wrong, here. It's really important, and..."
"Mr. Stellon? If anything is wrong, you must tell Mr. Cutter! He'll..."
"Oh, no, sir. I... I can't tell him anything. Sir, you know, I can't speak to him ab..."
"Mr. Stellon? Stellon? STELLON?"
Nothing. Nobody. The communicator was mute.
Alexander Waverly didn't hesitate. He immediately called the only man he could: Jules Cutter himself. No vain explanation. Just action. Jules Cutter had cursed.
Now, he was waiting for Cutter's report, feeling ill at ease; he hadn't told him about Stellon's strange words: "I can't tell him anything."
"Jules? Where is Mr. Stellon?"
"That's the point, Alex. Mr. Stellon... isn't here."
"What do you mean, Jules? "Mr. Stellon isn't here!" Of course, he is! He must be!"
Jules Cutter was fuming. Stellon had disappeared, no trace, except for a communicator, on the ground. No evidence of a fight.
Stellon had disappeared, as Illya Kuryakin did. With a slight difference... Illya Kuryakin had been abducted in New York... Apparently, Evan Stellon had been abducted in the safest place in the world: the Survival School.
It had happened once. And it wouldn't happen again. Jules Cutter's words.
But now, according to Cutter's report, Evan Stellon had disappeared from the out of the way island. The young, skilled, honest recruit Evan Stellon, abducted in the protected, observed Survival School. Nobody could come in. Nobody could come out...
According to Cutter's report... Alexander Waverly couldn't help shivering. Jules Cutter was a friend. More. A man he trusted for dear life. A man who told him what he had to. They had fought great battles. But now, all he could think was « according to Cutter's report ». Because Stellon had called him. Not Cutter. Because Stellon had said that he couldn't speak to Cutter about... About what? Why couldn't he tell about to Cutter? Where was Stellon?
Mikey was gone. Napoleon Solo was still angry, but his anger rightly aimed at his enemy. The enemy. Not at Illya. Not at Alexander Waverly. Not at... himself. He would have time, after, to mourn his friend. He would have time, after, to argue with Waverly. He would have time, after, to cope with his own regrets. What had happened in Mousehole... What had not happened, later. The amazing knot between them... Friendship? Yes, you could name it that way. However, it was too late. It was definitively too late... Revenge wasn't the usual policy for UNCLE agents. Alexander Waverly would never condone vengeance. What you don't know doesn't bother you... Napoleon Solo needed help. He knew that for sure. As he had needed Mickey's help. UNCLE was his only hope. Alexander Waverly was the only man he could count on. He would have to apologize.
Someone knocked at the door and Napoleon Solo jumped on his gun. The door was closed, the alarm set. Mikey had reproached him for his recklessness.
"People can just walk in, Napoleon!"
"If I hadn't done that, you would still be outside!"
The knock was more and more insistent. A familiar voice.
"Mr. Solo? Would you please open that door?"
Alexander Waverly himself? Napoleon Solo looked around: everything was okay. He unlocked the door carefully. The Old Man stood outside.
Waverly motioned his bodyguards to stay outside.
"Mr. Solo, we have to talk."
Napoleon Solo cleared his throat and began.
"Sir, I wanted to tell you that... I am really sorry about..."
"Don't waste time, Mr. Solo. You have recently made your position clear. Let's consider that the necessary apologize have been offered and accepted. Mr. Stellon has just disappeared."
Napoleon Solo stared at his superior. The Old Man heavily sat in the armchair, and his pale look went through his agent who kept silent, puzzled.
"Mr. Stellon called me from the Survival School, about... I don't know what, Mr. Solo. We have been interrupted. Mr. Stellon... has disappeared."
"That's impossible, sir. The Survival School is..."
"A safe place. However, according to Mr. Cutter's report, Mr. Stellon isn't in the island. So, I can say that he disappeared. What it means, Mr. Solo, is quite frightening: the enemy has abducted a young recruit, in the safest place I know."
"Nobody can get in the Survival School..."
"People could have said that nobody could get in my office, at the Headquarter... Simmons did. The other mole..."
"It's impossible, sir."
"It happened, Mr. Solo."
Nine... Ten... Eleven. He was exhausted. He had manhandled his unconscious victim, perhaps an already dead body. But he had to shoot his eleven bullets. Then, he would have to throw him down the rocks.
"Jules Cutter must be mad... What does he say about it?"
"What does Mr. Cutter say about it? It isn't very important, Mr. Solo. No, the problem, the real problem is..."
Alexander Waverly looked older. Napoleon Solo had already seen him like that. Twice... This thought made him wince.
"Evan Stellon wanted to tell me that something was wrong. Wrong at the Survival School. And that he couldn't speak to Jules Cutter. Obviously, he didn't want to talk to him, Mr. Solo."
"His own words, Mr. Solo. "I can't speak to Mr. Cutter about..." Then, silence."
Abashed. Taken aback. Open-mouthed, Napoleon Solo couldn't articulate a word.
"I take it that you understand the implications."
Still chocked, the agent shook his head with disbelief.
"No, sir, it's impossible. Whatever happened, I know for sure that Jules Cutter isn't part of it. Remember: he helped Illya. He risked his life. Recently, we went through so many... You can't imagine that, Mr. Waverly."
Waverly shrugged his shoulders: of course, he couldn't... he shouldn't..."
Napoleon Solo leaned forward.
"They... they are trying again, sir. They want you to have doubts about Jules Cutter. As they did with... Illya."
"Yes, Mr. Solo. It's a new example of their tricks. Probably."
I hope it is.
"Your friend, the fisherman, has to be protected. But I won't give any order. You, Mr. Solo, you'll choose men. You'll send them... and you won't tell me anything about that."
"But, why, sir?"
"Who knows, Mr. Solo ..."
Napoleon Solo pointed his finger to the door.
"Those men... Are they...?"
"Mr. Solo, there is a traitor, a mole. Only one. He is dangerous, powerful, because he is unknown. But UNCLE is still UNCLE. We can't suspect everybody. We mustn't. Those men are ordinary body guards, they are honest men. They won't say a word about my presence here, unless I ask them to do it. You have to come back, as our CEA. We need you... and you need us."
"I don't understand..."
"Nobody knows for sure what happened in my office, Mr. Solo. The rumor... is only a rumor. The Number One, Section One had a confidential meeting with his CEA. Period. I am going to come back to the Headquarter. You'll join us tomorrow, as usual. See at Mikey's safety, for the moment."
The limp body bounced off the rocks, and ended in the water. Illya Kuryakin felt on his knees, panting. He didn't pay attention to the sight, trying to concentrate on breathing, on building up his strength again. He had to reach the beach, to clean himself. Then, he would put on the man's clothes and make up his mind... He thoughtfully rubbed his naked finger. His ring was now somewhere, in the foaming water. So was his gold chain...
Napoleon Solo felt hollow. What had he been hoping? When Waverly had come in, he had just thought that perhaps, it was a new trick. That Illya was somewhere, alive.
But he wasn't. As he was leaving, Alexander Waverly had slid his hand in his pocket and handed an envelop.
"I... I think he would have liked you to have it."
Napoleon Solo looked at it at if it was a venomous snake. Waverly had left it on the table. Inside, the dark haired man had found a gold ring. A gold chain.
Though the sun was bright, Illya Kuryakin was shivering. His teeth were shattering. The water was cold, though, he let the waves wash him. Clean him of that dirt. Of that foul smell.
He had passed out, more or less. When the man had opened the trunk, he had felt the fresh air on his skin, blowing away the stink. Of course, he had remained absolutely still. Looking as dead as he could, and it hadn't been so difficult.
The man had gone back to the car, and the UNCLE agent had been able to take ravenous breathes. The Thrush man was a talker... The Russian had managed to get out the trunk, with a wheel brace. He had staggered, trying to stay against the wind. When the man had smelled him, he was already dead.
After, he had dressed him with his own dirty clothes. He had put his ring on the man's finger. His chain around his neck, the chain, but not the medal. He had stood, only dressed in his briefs. And he had started shivering. And he had shivered as he drove. Shivered on the beach. And he was shivering, as water and foam washed him.
UNCLE... rustled. As Napoleon Solo walked towards his office, he could hear this amazing sound: not really voices. No real words. Everybody apparently acted as if nothing had happened. But everybody peeped at the Old Man... and at him when they met. Expecting something. As soon as people thought they were beyond earshot, they began to rustle. To ... buzz. That was the noise: buzzzzz. It could have been funny. April was waiting for him, leaning back against the wall. When she saw him, she sighed with obvious relief.
"Napoleon? I am so happy to see you..."
Napoleon Solo looked at her inquiringly."
"April? I am glad to see you, to, but... Do you need some help?"
April Dancer frowned. She knew Napoleon Solo well. He wasn't playing fair. Something worried her, and she couldn't point it.
"We have to talk, I think."
"Yes, of course. Come in, April. How is Mark?"
"He is doing well, Napoleon. He asked about you. And about ... Illya. I don't dare tell him..."
"You'll have to. It's reality. We have to face it. Illya... is dead."
April Dancer winced. She was puzzled. Of course, the CEA couldn't openly break down and cry. However, they were alone. She knew the deepness of their friendship. And he was so evasive, so indifferent. « Illya... is dead. ». Period. She stared at him, tried to read something in his eyes. All emotions were shut down. He acted so casually. She burst out.
"Napoleon! What happens? Illya is... was your best friend. He is dead and you don't mind? You should be eager to find, to investigate..."
"As you said, April: Illya was my best friend, and he is dead. Of course, we are investigating. Of course, we are « eager » to find who shot him."
"I don't talk about "we", Napoleon. I talk about "you". You look emotionless, indifferent..."
Napoleon Solo sighed.
"April, all of us know that we risk our skin, every day. That's the job. You have to accept it. I... I acknowledged that. You have to."
April Dancer was puzzled. Napoleon Solo's tone, his words were so cold.
"And what about the clash between you and Waverly? Everybody talk about it. You... You slammed the door and..."
"And what? They talk! You tittle-tattle! Nothing happened. Just a draft..."
April looked daggers at him.
"A... draft? Are you kidding, Napoleon?"
Someone knocked, and came in straight. The Old Man...
"Mr. Solo? Oh, Miss Dancer, I heard that Mr. Slate was doing well. Mr. Solo, let's have lunch. Miss Dancer, excuse us for leaving you."
"See you later, April."
And the two men went out, leaving an open-mouthed April in the office.
A tricky situation. Alexander Waverly and Napoleon Solo were obviously on good terms... Obviously.
Life went on. With new assignments. With new enemies. Without Illya Kuryakin. Who cared? She cared.
Eidetic memory was an asset. As he parked the car behind the hedge, Illya Kuryakin smiled bitterly. He had left the beach, found where he was. UNCLE had some "safe houses", in various places... Illya Kuryakin had once watched the list. Just in case.
This one wasn't a big house, but it was fitted out. That meant hot shower, food, bed, clothes.. Time to rest. To recover. He knew that he should have got rid of the car, but he needed it. And he was still shivering.
Usually, when one worries about something, he can seek a relative's or a friend's advice. Concerning a Section two agent, he or... she could seek Waverly's advice. The CEA's advice. His or ... her partner's advice... But she couldn't. Not that she suspected Alexander Waverly or Napoleon Solo... Not really. They were just ... different. Unpredictable.
Illya Kuryakin lied on the bed, huddled up under the blankets, trying to warm up. He knew that it wasn't cold, but he was still shivering, cursing the damn Thrush drug. For the last days, he had just been able to sleep, to eat some soup. He had forced himself to go out by the sun. Today, it was rainy. No stroll. Time to think. Time to make his mind.
He was getting better.
The first night, nightmares had let him exhausted. He was in the cell. The white cell. With the dazzling light. Alone. Lost. His friends freed him. And he was again in the cell, and again... again... He didn't dare open his eyes. And he had heard the birds, outside. He wasn't in the white cell. The only light that bathed the room was the dawn.
He was alone. He was lost, in a way. But he was free, and a thought had insidiously crossed his mind. A temptation.
He was dead. Thrush would believe he was. UNCLE would, too. He could go away. He could put his life back. He could think up a new existence. He was resourceful. He knew all the tricks.
A real life. A normal life. Perhaps a family. Children.
He would draw a line under his past; turn his back on this world.
Safety. Happiness. Wonderland.
Regret. Remorse. Emptiness.
He wouldn't be able to cope with memories. His friend's face. His friend's voice.
His friend's safety. His... duty.
He was getting better. He felt warmer, less dizzy. He had to « go back home », as Napoleon would say. He slid his hand in his pocket, and got out his communicator.
"Miss Dancer looked quite angry, Mr. Solo... She won't let it go, you know that."
"I'll have to manage."
"You trust her, don't you? Mr. Solo?"
"Yes, I do..."
"She could help you. What about Mikey?"
"Everything is okay. He'll stay at his son's home. It's easier for us to make him safe there."
"That's enough, Mr. Solo."
"It's ridiculous, sir. You are not the mole, so..."
"Of course, I am not, Napoleon. But our enemy knows many things which he shouldn't. We don't know how. And he'll try again to arouse suspicion. "Divide et impera.". We have to work together. We have to be confident. You took care of Mikey? That's all I need to know."
As he was back home, Napoleon Solo sat down, lost in thought. Waverly's plan was ... waiting. Bayle and the mole would be forced to play first. The enemy was expecting reaction, investigation. They didn't really react. They didn't really investigate. He was waiting for the ball. They let it in the bag. He would have to come and to take it... It was clever, but frustrating. It let time to think. Time to remember. Time to mourn.
His communicator beeped.
"We have to talk, Napoleon. I... I am downstairs."
Of course, she wouldn't give up. Her tone was urging, and she didn't ask anything. She was there, period.
"Okay, April, I am waiting for you..."
The two agents stood, face to face. April Dancer looked both determined and unsure. Napoleon Solo motioned her to sit down.
"Do you want some tea? Coffee? Anything else?"
She shook her head.
"I am not really here for a tea party, Napoleon. I want ... What is this?"
The young woman took the ring and the chain which were left on the coffee table. Napoleon Solo pursed his lips, answering in a neutral tone.
"Illya's ring. And his chain."
He added, almost automatically, regretting it immediately.
"Waverly thought I had to get it..."
April Dancer was abashed. The dark haired man who was standing next to her had clenched his fists, though he spoke quietly.
"Of course, Napoleon! You have to! Illya would have liked ..."
"Enough sorry, April. I don't want to hear about what Illya would have liked or not. If ... If you wish, you can take them, as keepsakes."
She narrowed her eyes. He hesitated, but went on, ignoring her horrified look.
"They found the chain, not the medal..."
"Napoleon, you don't fool me: Illya and you... you were..."
He shrugged his shoulders. April was a friend, a good, faithful one, but he wanted her to go away, he wanted to be alone.
"Partners, April, as Mark and you. I have lost my partner, as you might have lost yours. Apparently, that's a lesson you'll have to..."
She slapped him ruthlessly, and grabbing the ring and the chain, she threw them at his face. Napoleon Solo didn't move. He was staring at her.
Illya Kuryakin woke up, as violent spasms and fits of coughing were shaking his body. He tried to wrap himself in the old blanket. He felt so cold. The dilapidated cabin was dank. It had been a safe house, a long, long time ago. It had been obviously abandoned. Left to hunters and fishermen, apparently. He had found old biscuits. There was water in a tank, outside.
He had been there for... days? He wasn't getting better. Far from it. His head felt like it was filled with water, with mud, and his brain wasn't processing. He had been dreaming, in his dream, he was going to do something important, but what? He couldn't remember.
All went according to plan. Kuryakin's death and Stellon's missing had aroused suspicion. However, one thing worried him a bit; his man hadn't reported. Of course, Kuryakin's body had been found. The next step was to get rid of Napoleon Solo. One way or another.
Napoleon Solo was staring at April Dancer. She turned and left, without a word. The door slammed. "She could help you..." No, she couldn't. He picked up the ring and the chain, and slid them in his pocket. He didn't need any keepsake. He had memories, and they were painful enough. He had said that he understood? It was wrong. He didn't. He knew Illya. No, he... he thought he knew him. The Illya he knew, the Illya he trusted would have told him about Waverly's plan. He would have told him!
Liar! A little voice whispered.You are a liar. If Waverly had asked you to do something, with the aim of protecting Illya, you would have done it. And you wouldn't have told him. Because he wouldn't have agreed... You can't bear him a grudge. He did exactly what you would have done. You know that.
Yes, he knew.
The Russian staggered towards the door. He had managed to get up. It was raining, and a strong wind shook the trees. There was no mirror, he didn't really know what he was looking like... But he could guess... Though he was still shivering, he felt sweat running down on his cheeks. Or tears? Sliding his hand in his pocket, looking for something like a handkerchief, he felt a small coin. It was a medal. Of course, his medal. He had left his ring, his chain, not the medal. He squeezed it, and slipped it back. There was something else, in the pocket. A pen. A pen?
Suddenly, Illya Kuryakin burst into bitter laughter, looking at the thing he held. The Thrush drug hadn't killed him. It had just made him look foolish... Fever, hallucination, and... silliness. Napoleon would mock at him for years with that. Napoleon... He must be back in New York... The Russian stared at the communicator. All he had to do was to call his partner. He could have call UNCLE sooner. He hadn't. Why? He didn't remember exactly, instinct, probably, instinct or that damned drug. Fits of coughing shook his body again.
If only things would stop turning and rolling around him. He leaned against the wooden wall, and slid along down to the ground. The wind blew the rain on him, but it didn't really matter. He tried to concentrate on the cylindrical object he held.
The communicator beeped again. Damned, April... Napoleon Solo grabbed it impatiently and barked.
There are moments like that, in old movies. Time slows down. Time stops.
Time stopped. Everything froze. A voice was whispering. So faintly. So weakly. A familiar, impossible voice.
"You'll...be... mad... at me... later... Napol...eon..."
Napoleon Solo spoke without thinking. He knew better. If he thought, he would have to acknowledge his insanity, he would have to wake up.
"I am not mad at you! Illya! Where are you? Illya? Illya, for God's sake! Answer me!"
Silence. Was it just some hallucination?
A horrified voice yelled.
"Oh, please, April, shut up!"
"You... are not... very ... civil... with a... lady... Napoleon."
"Where are you? Don't dare and pass out now, Illya! Tell me, that's an order!"
April Dancer stood at the entrance, open-mouthed. Napoleon Solo, the CEA, was shouting at his communicator and he clearly believed that he was talking to his partner, to his dead partner. She had been right. She knew that she couldn't leave him alone. The older agent was still speaking quickly, in an urging tone.
"Hold tight, Illya! Don't dare and give up, partner mine, or I'll fire you!"
The young woman took some steps forward, hesitating. Napoleon Solo held out the communicator to her. As she didn't move, he put it in her hand.
"Talk to him, April. I pack up some necessities."
April Dancer stared at the communicator. Napoleon, Napoleon Solo, Section 2 number 1, was out of his mind. He craned out the bedroom and repeated insistently.
"Talk to him!"
She hissed a shy "Illya?" in order to satisfy Napoleon, and nearly jumped out of her skin, as she heard an unexpected answer.
"April? I... am sor...ry. Napol...eon is a... boor.."
She was laughing and crying, altogether. She couldn't help babbling.
"Oh, yes, he is, Illya. And you'll have to teach him some manners! Illya... How are you doing?"
The Russian stood up awkwardly and came back in the cabin. He knew that he would have to wait, for hours. But his friends were on their way to take him back. They would fly to Portland, and then they'd drive towards him. Eventually, he was getting... better.
April Dancer had been lost in thought.
"We should call our correspondent, Napoleon. He would be sooner..."
"No, we can't do that. If Illya had been in mortal danger, we wouldn't have any choice. But, as he can wait for us..."
"Can he, really? Napoleon, he looked exhausted, so weak. He coughed, he..."
"I know, April, but he'll survive, and he is safer... Oh, don't look at me like that, we have to talk, you already told me that. You'll understand."
April Dancer turned to him.
He had known, he had known that Illya Kuryakin was alive. A part of him had known it.
Jules Cutter knew Alexander Waverly, and he acknowledged the man's sense of duty. He thought Waverly knew him, too.
"Alexander, no way. My duty is here. I can't leave the School now. If you remember, one of my recruits has been abducted. Right here. I'll stay."
"I am perfectly aware of that, Jules, but I want you to go to New York, immediately. I need you at the Headquarter, and don't argue."
"Don't argue?" Jules Cutter foamed. Waverly didn't impress him, and he could play his Section 1 Number one's part, Cutter's answer was: "how interesting!"
"No, Alexander, no."
"You don't have any choice. I think... I am sure that the Survival School will be safer, if you leave it."
"They... they have killed Illya Kuryakin. They have got Mr. Stellon. Mr. Solo could be the next. I could be. You could be. We don't know who our enemy is. We have to face him together. Do you hear of Horatius, Jules?"
"Spare me your mythological allusions! You won't..."
Alexander Waverly cut in.
"Horatius defeated his three enemies; he succeeded because he took advantage of their weakness, by separating them. Jules, you are going to join me."
"Okay, Alex. I'll come, as soon as possible. At first, I must..."
"No, Jules. You'll come immediately."
"When will you call Mr. Waverly, Napoleon? He has to be told about Illya. He cares a lot about him."
Napoleon Solo drove carefully on the narrow road. Darkness didn't make thing easy.
-Of course, we'll call him, but at first, let's find Illya. Speaking of that..."
Solo pointed his chin at the communicator.
"Illya? Illya? Answer, please. Illya!"
April Dancer shook her head."
"Illya! Do you hear me? Speak to me. ILLYA!"
The answer came, at last.
"Yes... I... hear you. Where are you?"
Napoleon Solo grabbed the communicator."
"Illya, we must be very close. Can you go out, and look around? You'll probably see our headlights soon. Illya?"
"I... understand... Wait..."
An eternity later, they heard something like a chuckle."
"I think ...I see you...Flash your headlights! ...Yes, here you are! Now... look.
Napoleon Solo and April Dancer saw headlights, in front of them.
"Yes, Illya, yes... We see you, too. "
Jules Cutter muttered. Alexander Waverly was right. However, he hadn't to like it. Since Stellon's disappearance, there was a bit of an atmosphere in the School. A mix of guilt and fear. Barely perceptible, but real. Waverly was right: he was probably a target. But what would his men, his recruits, think of him? The young Stellon was a nice guy, and he would be... have been? a good agent. Survival school was Cutter's thing.
"Look! He is there."
Napoleon jumped out the sedan and ran towards the other car, ignoring the pouring rain. His partner leaned back on the seat, eyes closed. The older agent thought his friend had passed out, but the blue eyes opened, and Illya Kuryakin smiled faintly.
"You were ...nearly ...late, my friend."
Napoleon Solo knew better than to answer. He looked at the Russian with an air of dismay.
"Get out of this car and let's take shelter from the rain!"
Illya Kuryakin shook his head. The effort had left him drained of strength, and he wouldn't be able to stand up and walk on his own. Napoleon Solo slipped his arm under his friend's shoulder, helping him to the dilapidated cabin. April Dancer joined them with the bag. She hugged the Russian, still leaning on his partner for support.
"Illya, I knew it. I ... couldn't believe that you were dead."
"This... came very... close."
"Illya! You are shivering! Those clothes are drenched!"
She helped him to undress, and to put on a dry sweater. She was to throw away the soaked jacket, when the Russian hissed.
"No, please... April... In the pocket..."
Groping in the pocket, she got out the medal. Without a word, but ironically smiling, she slid it in her own pocket.
"We can't stay here. Illya needs..."
"I am fine..."
And the Russian was shaken again by a coughing fit.
The two others sighed simultaneously, Napoleon Solo rolling his eyes, April Dancer waving a hand.
"Just what we can see, partner! You are fine, scary face! Let's go. I... I know a place."
"What about the car, Illya? We'll leave it here and..."
"No!... we must... destroy ... it... If someone ... finds it... they'll know..."
He was right. Illya Kuryakin was officially dead, and they could take advantage of that.
Alexander Waverly read the reports, thoughtfully. His secretary knocked and came in.
"Mr. Waverly? We ... we'll have to organize something for Ill... Mr. Kuryakin, and..."
Waverly frowned and sighed. Yes, he had to look to that... He nodded at her.
"I'll see at it. Can you call Mr. Solo? I have to talk to him."
"But Mr. Solo isn't here, sir."
"What do you mean, "Mr. Solo isn't here."? He isn't on any assignment!"
"Er... I don't know, sir, but Mr. Solo didn't come to the HQ, this morning."
"Did he call?"
"Err... No, sir..."
Waverly motioned her to go out, and picked up his communicator. No answer.
"Napoleon... you should... answer."
"Later, my friend, later."
The car was now down the rocky slope. April get in the sedan, panting.
"And now, Napoleon? Where are we going? Oh, that's your communicator! You should answer!"
"But it must be Mr. Waverly!"
Napoleon Solo still bore a little grudge against his superior, but it wasn't a childish revenge. Of course, he would answer. The Old Man could wait one or two hours. Illya needed some rest, in a warm place, a comfortable bed.
A cold hand grabbed his wrist. His partner was lying on the seat, still shivering, despite of the heat. At least, the coughing fits had almost ceased. The hand squeezed his own.
"Napoleon? Why don't you..."
"Why? He... is just sulky, Illya!"
"Sulky? Napoleon? Why?"
Sulky... How interesting! Napoleon Solo kept on driving. He knew where he was going. The hand slipped along his arm, and fell down.
"Tell him, Napoleon."
"You are mad at him... because of what had happened?"
Napoleon Solo took a deep breath, and gave up. He couldn't cope with the two of them.
"I am not mad at ... Okay. I have been mad at him. And at you. Because you didn't tell me anything, you plotted. The Old Man announced your death. Yes, I was mad at him, and at you. And don't tell me that I behaved like a child!"
"Mikey and ... April already did!"
"Waverly wanted ... to protect you. So did I... He thought that you could be ... our mole's next target, ... and that he could take advantage ... of my "disappearance..."
Illya Kuryakin was speaking softly, carefully, struggling against the threatening coughing fits.
"I know that. I would have done the same, had he asked me..."
The communicator beeped again.
Napoleon Solo chuckled and gave up. He held it out to the Russian.
Alexander Waverly had an uneasy feeling. He tried again, but Napoleon Solo was still silent. He didn't really know if he had to worry. He asked his CEA to act on his own, just in case. .It was simply caution. The problem was... Had he reasons to fear?
He remembered the young agent, just coming from the Survival School. Amazingly relaxed. Self-confident. Rightly self-confident. Otherwise, Cutter would have fired him. Efficient. Brilliant. An extraordinary "social creature". Some could consider him as superficial. A skin-deep appearance. A part he perfectly played. A womanizer... but he didn't look for deep emotional bonds. A good fellow... but he didn't really like to work with a partner. Alexander Waverly knew why. Napoleon Solo didn't fear for his own life. But he refused to take the risk of losing someone he would care about. He had experienced it.
Waverly smiled bitterly: he had "teamed" him with his new Russian agent. Cutter had rolled his eyes with disbelief... Napoleon Solo had frowned. Illya Kuryakin had... acknowledged. Jules Cutter was on his way to the HQ. Illya Kuryakin...
He called again.
Jules Cutter grabbed his bag and raced towards the sedan. The driver was waiting, ready to go. Cutter got in the car which moved off immediately. A car, a driver... and probably some bodyguards. Waverly was really worried. Cutter looked around. In fact, two other cars were following them. He sighed.
Bayle couldn't help sneering. Alexander Waverly was helpful. Really helpful! Thanks to him, they got rid of the Russian. Now, he handed to them Jules Cutter on a plate, obligingly.
Bayle had regret. He wouldn't see Cutter's face... when he would realize who was driving him.
Illya Kuryakin coughed, and his partner stared at him, suspiciously. The face was pale; the features strained... he looked exhausted. He couldn't answer. Of course. Napoleon Solo took back the communicator.
"Yes, sir "
And he missed the faint smile on his friend's lips.
"Mr. Solo! What happens? Where are you?"
Waverly's voice betrayed his relief.
"It's a long story, sir."
"I don't ask for a bed story, Mr. Solo! Jules Cutter will be here soon, and I need you. Come back immediately."
"I am afraid... I can't do that, sir."
"I beg your pardon?"
Alexander Waverly was puzzled. Napoleon Solo's tone was... strange. It was respectful, with a spark of humor. The usual Napoleon Solo's tone. But this normal tone was ... abnormal: Napoleon Solo was mourning for his friend. He was angry. The last time he had spoken to him, his tone was dull, cold.
Napoleon Solo grinned at his partner, mischievously.
"Excuse me, sir. Someone... someone would like to greet you..."
Alexander Waverly's usually emotionless face expressed the greatest surprise, as he heard a familiar but unexpected voice.
"Goodnight, sir. I... I am pleased ... to hear you."
The Old Man gulped... took a deep breath. Then, he replied.
"Are... are you, Mr. Kuryakin? I want you to know that I am extremely pleased to hear you, too. We missed you."
"Where are we going, Napoleon?"
April whispered. Illya Kuryakin was more or less asleep.
"We are close, now. We ... are going... well. I could say that we are going ... home."
"My grandma left me a house... We'll be safe, and we'll care about Illya."
"Napoleon, you have refused to call our correspondent. Mr. Waverly have refused to know where we were, where we... Why? I don't understand. We lose time at the airport, we could have..."
"The mole, April."
"Mr. Waverly? We... we might have a problem."
Alexander Waverly sighed, still smiling. A twist again. Illya Kuryakin was alive, the enemy had failed again. A problem?
"Mr. Cutter's flight arrived as scheduled. But..."
Alexander Waverly insisted eagerly.
"We saw him get in the sedan, and they moved off, with the bodyguards. But..."
He closed his eyes.
"We've just found ... five bodies..."
"The driver, sir. And the four agents. Sleep darts, sir."
This bed was comfortable, and the pillow so smooth. So ... fresh, too. The room was silent. His friends were probably downstairs, and a pleasant smell made him smile. Coffee. When he opened his eyes, the dawn dimly lit the bedroom with an amazing pink tone. As pink as the flowers of the wallpaper.
For all he remembered, it was Napoleon's grandma's house. He rolled on his side, in the linen embroidered sheets. He noticed that he wore brand new pajamas, and chuckled. He knew that Napoleon had a collection of them, from his aunt... and apparently from his grandma. He carefully sat straight. His headache had almost passed off. He wasn't shivering, nor coughing. He would get up and join Napoleon and April, downstairs.
Jules Cutter apparently didn't pay any attention to his driver. He was reading a file, lost in thought. He didn't even notice their strange route...
April Dancer put the mugs on the table. She was impressed: she knew Napoleon Solo, as a fellow agent, as the CEA, for some years. He was efficient, of course. He would be Waverly's successor, of course. He was a faithful friend, of course. She remembered their fight to free, firstly, and then, to save Illya Kuryakin. The day before, she had met the human being. Angry. Furious. Sad. Bitter. Vindictive. And still ... faithful. And still efficient. As soon as he had heard Illya's voice, he had handled the situation. He had managed to call the woman in charge of the house... Just in case. So, when they had arrived at home, everything was okay: the house was warm, the beds made, the fridge and the cupboards stuffed. Impressive.
He was really better. Perhaps a little dizzy, but he could say why. He was hungry. Hungry wasn't the right word. He was ravenous. Coffee meant toasted bread, jam, eggs? He pushed the door and reached the staircase. He heard voices, downstairs. He went down, slowly, guided by the distant sound.
"Mr. Kuryakin, what a pleasure to see you ..."
The Russian startled. A man was standing in the hall, middle aged, plain dark suit, with a welcoming look. Two guards flanked him.
"Come, Mr. Kuryakin, we have to talk."
He knew for sure that this man wasn't an UNCLE agent. But he had no choice. Napoleon and April...
The man pointed to a door, without a word. Illya Kuryakin entered the room, a sitting room, with armchairs.
"Sit down, Mr. Kuryakin. Would you like some coffee? Some tea?"
The Russian didn't answer. He desperately tried to concentrate himself on the situation, but he couldn't help worrying about his friends.
"Mr. Kuryakin, you are an UNCLE agent..."
A kind voice, a polite tone, but Illya Kuryakin had no time to waste.
"Spare me that! Where are..."
"Oh? This house belongs to one of our executive. When we found you, you were... Mr. Kuryakin?"
Illya Kuryakin clenched his fists: «When we found you..." Napoleon and April were there. He remembered that. The man lied. He had seen them. Napoleon had helped him...
"Mr. Kuryakin? You were alone, in this cabin. Sick. Frozen. I could have left you; I chose to take you here. Your friends... your friends had abandoned you, Mr. Kuryakin. You called them, do you remember? And they didn't come for you"
Illya Kuryakin shook his head with disbelief. He knew. He remembered Napoleon, April... Or not. This drug... The man stared at him with a very unpleasant commiseration. Very unpleasant, because he looked ... genuine.
"I have an honest offer."
The Russian gulped.
"Ts ts ts, Mr. Kuryakin. You feel bitter, doubtful...I can understand it, but really, you should listen to me. You are in a tricky situation. UNCLE... UNCLE clearly mistrusts you; you can't go back home... in Russia, I mean. So..."
Illya Kuryakin couldn't believe it. An offer?
"You ... do you intend to offer me... to ...?"
The man burst into laughter.
"And why not? You are a scientist, and you could work in our labs. You wouldn't have to fight your... "friends", of course. You could live peacefully. You are officially dead. And ..."
The man's voice was turning into a soft hiss.
"You could have a family. All that UNCLE denies you. An ordinary life, Mr. Kuryakin. And you would like that, wouldn't you? A wife? Childr..."
The Russian rushed at the man, surprising the guards. For awhile. Something hard ruthlessly hit his head.
Bayle sighed. It was a pity that Simmons didn't manage to set up some device in Waverly's office. So arrogant... Although, he ought to be fair: for all that he could see, Simmons had to manage the affair on his own. Bayle was now going through the same experience: Thrush had agreed with his plan, entrusted him with the job... left it to him, more exactly. And he had to cope with the difficulties. Not enough men, qualified ones. Men able to tail Napoleon Solo, for instance. He had to get by as best as he could. If he failed, he would be the one to be blamed. He had the unpleasant feeling that some people were more or less expecting his failure. But he wouldn't fail, and those would have to pay. At least, the Survival School was under control.
This bed was comfortable, and the pillow so smooth. So ... fresh, too. The room was silent. His friends should be downstairs, and he smelled something pleasant smell. Coffee.
But it wasn't real.
When he opened his eyes, the dawn dimly lit the bedroom with an amazing pink tone. As pink... as the flowers of the wallpaper.
For all he remembered—and he didn't remember anything, it was Napoleon's grandma's house. He rolled on his side, in the linen embroidered sheets. He noticed that he wore brand new pajamas. He knew that Napoleon had a collection of them, from his aunt... and apparently from his grandma. He tried to sit straight, and felt giddy. He leaned back against the pillow. Everything twirled, and his headache had got worse. He wasn't shivering, nor coughing, but his vision was blurred... He couldn't get up and join Napoleon and April, downstairs. If they were there. He suddenly heard voices and closed his eyes.
When they had reached the house, Napoleon Solo had helped his partner to the bathroom, for a hot shower. From his friend's unusual compliance with that, he had guessed how exhausted he was. Then, he had settled him in bed, and April had brought a tray with three bowls of broth. A few minutes and two aspirins later, the Russian had fallen asleep. The shivering had ceased.
"He'll be fine, Napoleon. You should go to sleep, too. I'll stay with him for awhile."
Eventually he had managed to get up. He took dizzily one step after the other towards the door. He walked unsteadily down to the hall, cautious about making his way down the stairs: falling and tumbling wouldn't be very useful. He grabbed the banister with his left hand, and firmly squeezed it. A twinkle caught his attention... He stretched his fingers, incredulous: his ring was...
"What the hell do you think you are doing, Illya Kuryakin?"
There was someone, down below. A severe looking April. The softness in her eyes and the sweetness of her smile belied the frown and the harsh words.
"Don't I smell... breakfast?"
April chuckled, and joined him.
"Of course, you do! Go to bed, I'll..."
"No, April. I am fine. Where is Napoleon?"
"Here I am! Do you plan to eat breakfast there, sitting on the steps?"
The driver cursed: of course, there were road works in progress! He peeped at the rear-view mirror. Amazingly, Jules Cutter was still reading his file. He looked... absent-minded. Indifferent. It was quite unusual, not at all « Cutter ». The man sneered deep down inside. « Do what I say, not what I do. »
An agent has to be vigilant. Always.
An agent never relaxes.
An agent doesn't trust anyone.
The recruits were pissed off.
A careless mistake means your death, boys!
Of course, Mr. Cutter...
Alexander Waverly took a puff at his pipe absent-mindedly. The enemy ... had scored. Jules Cutter wasn't a rookie, although, and Waverly couldn't help hoping. Anyway, whatever had happened, the mole had mistaken. For the first time. Firstly, Illya Kuryakin was alive. Secondly, Cutter's abduction allowed him to eliminate some « suspects ». But in the third place, the Survival School wasn't a safe place, anymore. Everything pointed that way. He had called Napoleon Solo, and told him about Cutter.
"Did you read Agatha Christie's novel Ten Little Indians?"
Napoleon Solo and April Dancer looked at the Russian with amazement.
"Ten people, ten strangers on an island. An isolated island. One by one, they die. Murdered. They look for the murderer..."
"Oh, yes, and there is a song about it: every victim dies the same way that the song tells! It's a captivating story, but quite depressing, because, you know, all of them are guilty; they had killed somebody or were to be blamed for one's death."
Napoleon looked at them thoughtfully.
"I can't see the point, Illya."
The young man leaned forward, grabbed a paper bag. Mechanically, Napoleon Solo handed his pen.
"Alexander Waverly, Jules Cutter, Mark Slate, Evan Stellon, you, April, you Napoleon, Mikey and me."
The Russian wrote each name. The dark haired agent couldn't help teasing. His friend looked so serious...
"Eight little Indians... And, Illya?"
"Simmons and Bayle. Ten little Indians. Simmons is dead."
Illya Kuryakin crossed the name off.
"Bayle is probably the one at the back of it. And we know him. The traitor, the mole is one of the eight others."
The Russian spoke with a dull voice. April Dancer gulped. Napoleon Solo bit his lips: his partner's reasoning was outrageous. However, it was Waverly's reasoning, too.
And his own.
"What do you mean, Illya?"
April Dancer was deeply shocked.
"Shhhh, April. Easy. They abducted me... and the man had orders. He had to shoot me. Eleven bullets, as a firing squad."
"But he failed... and you are alive. We can eliminate you!"
Illya Kuryakin faintly smiled.
"Evan Stellon had disappeared at the Survival School."
"And Jules Cutter has been abducted at the airport."
April Dancer frowned. Napoleon Solo raised an eyebrow, and whispered.
"All we have left... are the Old Man, Mikey, April and ... me. It isn't a reassuring reasoning, my friend."
The Russian chuckled bitterly.
"Ten strangers on an isolated island. They die, one by one..."
"Are you suggesting that we should... wait and see?"
Napoleon Solo couldn't help joking, but April Dancer stared at the Russian, obviously horrified.
"Look at April, Napoleon. She has read the novel. She knows... "And then, there was one."» The last little Indian..."
"Is the murderer! The End! So we'll let him kill us, all of us? Brilliant!"
"No, Napoleon, the murderer is one of the others."And then, there was none...""
"A living dead? You are kidding!"
"No, a fake. In Agatha Christie's novel, the judge pretends to be dead."
Napoleon Solo sneered, tapping his partner on the shoulder.
"So, Stellon and Cutter could be the mole. At least, we know for sure that you are innocent, my friend!"
Napoleon Solo was getting irritated. His friend was going a bit too far.
"Please, Illya, your "story" is ... improbable. Jules Cutter can't be a mole! Evan Stellon is a nice guy and I hope he is okay. And you, you are playing the Sphinx..."
Illya Kuryakin kept silent. Jules Cutter couldn't be a traitor. Evan Stellon was just a young nice man.
The road works caused traffic jam. Hard luck... The cars didn't move anymore. Worse, the two others had been left behind. He couldn't see them. He sighed. At least, his passenger was still reading.
The Russian joined his partner on terrace. Napoleon Solo was looking at the landscape. He heard footsteps.
"You worried April, my friend."
Napoleon Solo turned towards his partner. Illya Kuryakin had put on clothes, and he leaned back against the wall, by the sunlight.
"I didn't intend to do that... I simply said the truth. We have to face it."
The dark haired agent gave a shrug of impatience.
"You must be out of your mind! What happens isn't easy to explain, but I know for sure that none of us is the mole!"
"The hell with your enigma, Illya!"
Illya Kuryakin walked towards his partner.
"He shot me with their sleep darts, Napoleon. I... I don't know... I am not sure that you... are really here..."
The driver was taken aback, as he peeped at the rearview one more time. His passenger was calmly getting out of the sedan, without a look at him. He went away, crossing the street. The man cursed. Jules Cutter didn't run! He walked. Where were the others? He had no time to waste; he got out of the car, and hesitated: he could run after Jules Cutter. On the contrary, he could make his own way out this trap.
Napoleon Solo pinched again his friend's arm, ruthlessly.
"Ouch! Stop it, Napoleon!"
The older agent chuckled.
"It hurts? Fine! So, you are not asleep, Illya! I am real! I am not a dream."
The Russian rubbed his arm, muttering something barely audible.
"What do you say, about "nightmare"?"
But at least he looked a bit relieved.
He wasn't really. Napoleon came back in the house, but the Russian sat down on the floor, by the sun. No, he wasn't relieved. He remembered the argument with this man, in his dream. He felt uncomfortable with this. He would never betray UNCLE, whatever the price. If any Trush operative had found him, in the cabin, he would have finished him off. This one had saved his life, and offered him... happiness! He sadly smiled. An amazing dream. Surrealistic. He had related it to Napoleon, who, of course, had burst into laughter. He clearly thought that his partner was making a fool of himself...
Alexander Waverly harrumphed.
"He asked... what?"
"The young man asked for his father, sir. Mikey, the fishe..."
"Yes, yes, Mikey, the fisherman. Where is he?"
"That's the point. His son doesn't know, and he worries. The last time he heard of him, he was here, in New York. He came to meet Mr. Solo..."
"But Mr. Solo ..."
Waverly stopped talking.
"I'll see at it."
Illya Kuryakin had disappeared. Evan Stellon had disappeared. Jules Cutter had been abducted. Illya Kuryakin had been found alive. And now, Mikey had disappeared. A tricky game...
Alexander Waverly took a sheet of paper, and a pen: Mikey, Cutter and he knew about Illya Kuryakin's mission. But he could have been tailed. Evan Stellon had been abducted... or killed, in the Survival School: Cutter? But Jules Cutter had been abducted, too. Who knew? Waverly himself... the School staff... Mikey had disappeared. Napoleon Solo himself had cared about him. He had reported to Waverly that the fisherman was back to his son's home. And he wasn't.
Napoleon Solo couldn't be a traitor.
Waverly knew men.
He knew his CEA. Napoleon Solo and April Dancer were somewhere, with Illya Kuryakin.
Napoleon Solo wasn't the mole.
"April? I am sorry... I..."
"Shhhh, Illya, it doesn't matter. I think that you are right. We have to be careful. Anyway, you have to know that I trust you and Napoleon for dear life..."
"So... so do I. Er... April?"
"My medal? Have you..."
The woman slapped her forehead.
"Oh, yes! Here it is. Napoleon has the chain..."
"Where is he?"
"He wanted to thank the lady who prepared the house for us, I think. Illya? Don't worry!"
"I... I have to talk with Mr. Waverly."
The Russian stood up and walked back in the house, leaving April quite puzzled.
The man had this falsely concerned look that Alexander Waverly knew so well. Simmons displayed it...
"Alexander, we are worrying, you know. We thought that you had put your organization to rights. So, what happens?"
Waverly smiled ironically.
"We are just suffering the consequences of Mr. Simmons..."
The other cut in, pursing his lips, almost pouting. The commission didn't like to be reminded of Simmons...
"Simmons is dead, Alexander! Will you blame him until the end of time?"
Alexander Waverly ignored the insinuation. He wouldn't grant him that satisfaction.
"We have been told that you have ... lost? Some of your agents. It makes quite a dreadful impression on the others agencies, Alexander."
Waverly's smile became more marked, but he kept silent. The other man frowned.
"We were sorry to hear about Mr. Kuryakin's death. What are you looking for, Alexander?"
Waverly's smile turned innocent. A new-born babe. He looked behind the man, conspicuously.
"The other commissioners, Vernon. You said "we" Where are the others?
—"You shouldn't try to make your show off, Waverly! You have lost Kuryakin, a young recruit, and Jules Cutter! Who is the next?"
Alexander Waverly had a very precise idea about it, and he offered up a silent prayer. He was still smiling. The other frowned.
"Be careful, Waverly! Make sure you..."
The Old Man raised an eyebrow.
"Is that ... a threat, Vernon? Oh, excuse me, someone is calling. Are you done?"
The man was fuming, and left the office without a word.
Napoleon Solo walked towards the house, taking time. He remembered his childhood, a happy one. And this place ... Memories were flooding: play, adventures, his grandma's stories, the garden, arguments about everything... and always, despite all opposition, his grandma's support. She believed in him, even when he behaved childishly. She teased, she blamed, she comforted... Her house had become a refuge. She would have loved Illya. And Illya would have loved her.
"Mr. Kuryakin? What happens?"
Illya Kuryakin was puzzled: Alexander Waverly was the phlegmatic one. When he raised his eyebrows, you knew that it was serious. Almost the end of the world... At the moment, his voice was tense, he spoke inquiringly. The Russian hesitated.
"Mr. Kuryakin, where are your friends?"
It was a strange question.
"Miss Dancer is outside. Napol... Mr. Solo ..."
"Where is he, Mr. Kuryakin?"
A harsh tone. The young agent took some steps forward and looked out of the window. He smiled. His partner was coming back, obviously musing.
"I see him, sir. He'll be there soon."
"Well, er... Mr. Kuryakin, Mr. Solo told me about your escape. Very clever, indeed. How are you doing?"
"It had been very close, sir. I am fine."
They kept silent for a few seconds.
"Sir, about Mr. Cutter?"
"Oh, we don't have a clue about him, at the moment."
"And Evan Stellon?"
"No, Mr. Kuryakin."
He had wanted to talk with Alexander Waverly about his doubts, but the Old Man's tone was so unusual.
"I am sorry, Mr. Kuryakin. Mikey... Mikey's son had asked us about him. Your friend didn't come back home. Mr. Kuryakin?"
The Russian hissed.
"Mr. Solo has met him, just after we found your bod... well, your assailant's body. Mr. Stellon disappeared, and I asked Mr. Solo to take care of Mikey. He... he told me that Mikey was back at his son's home..."
Illya Kuryakin was still looking out. Napoleon was reaching the wooden staircase. As the Russian kept silent, Alexander Waverly went on.
"The circle of suspects is smaller... Mr. Kuryakin, I would like you ..."
Waverly usually gave orders; he wasn't at ease with that. He gave up.
"Don't tell a word to Mr. Solo about Mickey's disappearance. I'll give him notice of it."
A soft but determined voice answered.
"I won't do ...that, sir."
Waverly heard the man panting.
"I don't suspect your partner, Illya; you can have it for sure. But..."
"Mr. Waverly, did you read ... Agatha Christie's novel, ...Ten Little Indians? And there were none?"
Jules Cutter was out of sight. The young man cursed and chose to run away. The drivers sounded the horn, the traffic police was coming He would leave the car.
Napoleon Solo pushed the door, entered the living room. He had enjoyed his stroll, and smiled at his friend. The smile was wiped off, as he saw him turning white, and passing out.
The street was deserted. Amazingly.
It was a nice afternoon.
The street was silent. Amazingly.
Every step he took sounded. As if he walked in a cathedral.
The street was dusty. Amazingly.
Every step he took raised a cloud of dust
The corridors were deserted.
It was a nice afternoon.
The corridors were silent.
Every step he took sounded. As if he walked in a cathedral.
The corridors were dusty.
Every step he took raised a cloud of dust.
The room was silent except for a distant rustle.
The room was deserted.
The room was dusty.
He called his name.
No one answered.
Every breath he took raised a cloud of dust.
He couldn't see anything.
Someone was running.
The floor was rough.
The floor was cold.
The floor was dusty.
Every word he said remained soundless.
"Illya! Illya! Wake up!"
"Napol... Don't wor... I'm fin..."
"No, you are not!"
"Stop talking, Illya. Try to breathe. Deeper. Slower."
Napoleon Solo looked at his partner. They had settled him on the couch and he looked better, but exhausted. April Dancer was helping him to drink. He saw his friend grabbing her hand. He was muttering something. The young woman turned to him.
"Napoleon, the communicator! Mr. Waverly!"
"Mr. Solo! Where is Mr. Kuryakin? We were talking, and..."
"He passed out, sir. Exhaustion, the Thrush drug and...deprivation. He should have stayed in bed, but you know him; he was "fine"! But he is better, sir: he just looks daggers at me..."
The fisherman sneered. All those agents knew a thing or two, but he was a shrewd one, too. They didn't fool him. His refuge was quite comfortable, and no one would get him there. He could imagine the panic... Alexander Waverly, Napoleon Solo would be mad. He had given himself a free hand.
"Sir? Illya is asleep. Why did you call us?
"I didn't, Mr. Solo. He did. He wanted... Well, he asked me... if I knew Ten Little Indians... And there were none."
"I did, Mr. Solo."
"What do you think?"
"It's a... possibility, Mr. Solo. Mr. Solo?"
-Mikey, the fisherman, has disappeared. You have to know that... he never came back to his son's home. Mr. Solo? Have you anything to tell me, about that?"
The floor was soft. It wasn't a floor...
It was warm.
A soothing hand was squeezing his own.
Water on his lips.
But they should have let him.
He would have recovered.
He would have run after the mole.
No matter the darkness.
No matter the dust.
They should have...
"No." Napoleon Solo's word. A simple answer. No explanation. Vernon the hyena would appreciate that... if he heard about it.
The Section 2 agents couldn't marry. The enemy could use a wife, a husband, and kids to put pressure on an UNCLE agent. Alexander Waverly had agreed with that, knowing however how hypocritical it was... Young men... and young women were trained to withstand pain, drugs. Cutter's first lesson was "Trust yourself!" Most of the Section 2 agents, around the world, were efficiently emotionless. No feeling for their own suffering, neither for the suffering of others. Except for the innocents, unless the success depended on it. Agents were expendable. Collateral damages were possible. Many of Alexander Waverly's fellow were comfortable with that.
He wasn't whatever he said.
He had instituted partnership as a rule. Of course, before, agents worked sometimes together. Alexander Waverly had created teams. Two agents working together, on a regular basis.
He remembered his arguments with Jules Cutter about that. Cutter considered friendship as a weakness. Firstly, an UNCLE agent had to rely on himself. Not on a partner. An UNCLE agent had not to be "pampered"! Secondly, an UNCLE agent had to mind his own business: an UNCLE agent was not a "partner sitter"! At last, a friend, a close friend, could be used as a bait by the enemy.
So, when Waverly had announced that he wanted to associate Napoleon Solo to Illya Kuryakin... Jules Cutter had come within a hair's breadth of a heart attack.
He sighed and crossed two names off.
Illya Kuryakin and Napoleon Solo would never betray UNCLE. Whatever the price.
They had proved it.
Jules Cutter... Alexander Waverly couldn't believe it. However Cutter's insistence on freeing Illya Kuryakin, considering his old prejudice against the Russian, had been a surprise. When Alexander Waverly had asked about it, Jules Cutter had stared at him with his "Pragmatism and Efficiency first" look. As Illya Kuryakin was innocent, and a valuable agent, he had to be helped. Period. But Waverly knew better.
Waverly crossed Cutter's name off.
He crossed April Dancer's name, too, and Mark Slate's.
And eventually, he crossed his own name.
Ten little Indians...
Two perfect suspects. Two comfortable suspects.
Evan Stellon stood up painfully and looked around. The room was « modest ». His host's own words. Modest. Dilapidated, yes. Damp walls, peeled off. All the man had left was a sandwich. And water. He had to stay there, and to wait, powerless. The windows were barred up. The room was... a cell.
"I must go to New York, April. To the Headquarter. You'll stay here with Illya, and..."
"Forget it, Napoleon!"
He had whispered; although his partner was now fully awake and not very pleased by what he heard.
"Illya, look at yourself, my friend. You... you are in no condition to come with me. You have to rest. When you'll be better, you'll be our ace in the hole."
The said ace in the hole stared at him straight in the eye. April Dancer stiffened, waiting for the storm. The blue eyes twinkled.
"You... I hate to say that, but... you are right."
The two agents were taken aback. Illya Kuryakin closed his eyes, sighed, and leaned limply back against the pillows. His breath was shallow, he looked miserable. Napoleon Solo came up to him and squeezed his friend's shoulder.
"Illya, I am going to help you to the bedroom."
The blue eyes opened, and the young agent shook his head.
"No, please... I am comfortable. And it ...will be easier, for... April..."
He was panting again, his face covered with sweat. Napoleon Solo clenched his fists, for he knew that his friend needed a doctor. But they were not in Mousehole, where people never interfered in other people's business...
"I'll be fine,...Napoleon, ...don't worry. You... take care of ...yourself, and..."
He grabbed his wrist.
"Don't dare and ... disappear... Waverly told me... that Mikey..."
"I know, Illya. He told me, too."
The room was deserted. But he could see some footprints in the dust.
The room was silent. But he could hear footsteps.
The room was dusty. But it would help to track him down.
If he could get up.
In two or three minutes.
"I don't like that, April. He ... he gave up without a fight."
"He isn't stupid! He knows that he is, as you said, in no condition to help you. He doesn't want to be a burden."
"Stupid? No... Just usually stubborn. No argument? No complain? That's not the Illya I know, and I worry about it. I asked my neighbor's son to drive me to Portland. You'll need the car."
Bayle foamed. He thundered forth. He thundered forth against the whole world. Especially against his incompetent fellow. Since he had to spy, to listen, to watch, to report, to set up some bugs, everything was okay. Ask him to act... an appalling failure. And the icing on the cake: the guy groused: he wasn't to be blamed. Of course. Disgraceful organization. Unsuitable equipment. In a word, Bayle's fault. At least, Cutter didn't recognize him. Did he? Cutter had escaped, but for all that Bayle knew, he didn't come back to UNCLE. Amazing. He could have called Waverly, or not. Bayle could foresee his superior's comments. He didn't like to work hastily... But he had no choice. He had settled Kuryakin's hash... He would personally take care of Napoleon Solo. Besides, speaking of him... Where was he?
April Dancer and Illya Kuryakin got along extremely well. Some other agents felt sometimes uneasy with the young Russian. She was impressed by his efficiency, his knowledge. By the deepness of his friendship with Napoleon Solo. She trusted him, and she knew that he trusted her. That he valued her. As a colleague. As a friend. When she came back to the living room, Illya Kuryakin was sitting on the couch.
"Illya, you shouldn't... Do you want me to help you to the bedroom? You'd be more comfortable."
The Russian stood up, shaking his head. He was still a little pale, but nimbler. With amazement, the young woman looked at him: he stretched, picked up his shoes and winked at her with a devilish smile. As she was understanding, she raised a hand.
"Illya Kuryakin... What the hell are you doing? Oh, no, boy, forget it! Napoleon would never forgive me!"
The mole foamed. He thundered forth. He thundered forth against the whole world. Especially against his incompetent superior. His superior... Was he, really? He gave orders, he planned, he moaned... But he did... nothing. He had an opportunity to get rid of Jules Cutter. It could have been easy. No, too easy! Mister Bayle wanted more panache! Eleven bullets for the Russian, and a useless show for Cutter's abduction. The mole was far more pragmatic: when you can shoot your man... shoot him. Period.
Napoleon Solo looked thoughtfully out the window. His flight was scheduled at 6 p.m... As soon as he would be in New York, he would call April. The situation was disconcerting, their enemy wanted clearly to tumble the New York UNCLE Headquarter. People disappeared, died. The atmosphere was laden with suspicion. Napoleon Solo sneered. No, it wasn't. The enemy had failed. He had undervalued their trust. Waverly would never suspect him, or Illya. The CEA and his partner would never suspect Alexander Waverly. April and Mark... April and Mark were beyond suspicion, too. Jules Cutter... No way. Two names remained: Evan Stellon, the young man who had so faithfully helped them, during the Mousehole affair. And... Mikey. Mikey? Mikey was... family. Mikey had saved Illya.
However, Evan Stellon and Mikey.
Two logical suspects.
"Illya, he'll kill us."
"Yes, probably. At first. And after that, he'll yell, fume, pester... and eventually admit that we were right, April."
"But he'll kill us, first! Well, er... he'll kill me! I had to take care of you, to pamper you..."
-Yes, mother! You pamper me: you drive!"
"You are no fun, Illya."
April startled as she felt a quick kiss on her cheek.
"We have to join Napoleon, April. They got me. They got Stellon... They got Jules Cutter... And, they might have got Mikey. Napoleon is on their list..."
"They... might... have got Mikey?"
April peeped at his friend. No, he wasn't panting again. He was just lost in thought.
"Mikey isn't an UNCLE agent, April. He doesn't reason like we do. His approach to our problems is ..."
"Oh, no. He is not naive. He is a man of sense. His approach is simple. Everything where it belongs. Waverly wanted Napoleon to look after his safety. Mikey could have thought that... he had to look after Napoleon's safety."
"Because you couldn't do it anymore, Illya?"
The fisherman left the book on the couch. Moby Dick... Now he had his own white whale to track.
"He likes you very much, Illya..."
"Yes, he does, I know. I like him, too, April. Mikey is... important."
April Dancer bit his lips. She didn't really talk about the fisherman, but she knew better, eventually, than to clear the misunderstanding.
The Russian was looking at her inquiringly, and she kept her eyes on the road.
"You talked about Mikey, didn't you?
She hesitated, but she didn't try to fool her friend. Illya Kuryakin was still looking at her. She took the plunge.
"Napoleon... He likes you very much, too."
A second of silence.
"Yes... He is my partner, and... my best friend."
"What happened taught me something. Napoleon is my closest friend."
He chuckled both softly and bitterly.
"But he is not my only one.
Nice clearance, she thought, as a hand gently caressed her shoulder. They were reaching the surroundings of Portland.
"However, Napoleon will skin me alive, when he'll see us!"
Years ago, Mikey's Janice died. An accident. The brilliant student who had abandoned the idea of teaching in some illustrious university, of getting married with a fellow teacher. It had been her idea, her family's idea. And she had chosen a young student who, eventually, didn't want anything else than to carry on his father's job. Janice had fought, ruthlessly fought against her parents. Mikey had been tolerated.
When she died, he went out of his mind. He forgot all. Even his little boy. Ben... Luckily, Janice's older brother, the black sheep of the family, warned him: if he went on raving, Janice's parents would be given the custody of the boy. He reacted.
A few months ago, he had met this young man. A young blond Russian. Desperate. Lost. He had immediately seen the affinity between them.
He had listened. He had talked. He had comforted. And he had shaken up.
Friendship. Kind of family.
Illya... and Napoleon.
He had felt it in his old bones.
But it was too late. And someone would have to pay for it. Illya's friend wanted to protect him, but he didn't need to be protected. The dark haired agent's enemy looked down on a fisherman...
"Vernon, you are kidding! Alexander Waverly isn't a traitor!"
"I didn't tell that. He is not a traitor. I'll grant you that. But in this affair, he is incompetent. Yes, he is! His reasoning is wrong. Whatever you say, he answers about Simmons. It's his way out, sir! Simmons and the mole! It sounds as a tale for children."
"Vernon, this is going a bit far!"
"Yes? He has lost Kuryakin, a recruit, Jules Cutter... And all that he says is: Simmons and the mole! I got from a reliable source that his relationship with his CEA, Napoleon Solo, is quite strained. And that's an understatement, sir."
"That's the point, Vernon. The "reliable source"! My own reliable source told me another story: Alexander Waverly has met Napoleon Solo at his home. Frankly, Vernon, you have to take it that everything is okay between them..."
Vernon hissed, trying to keep his voice under control.
"You are not objective, sir. Alexander Waverly is a friend of yours..."
"Yes, he is, Vernon. And I would like you to remember what could have happened, if his agents hadn't unmasked Simmons. Don't roll your eyes! Waverly and his men have got us out of a spot."
"It must be true, since you say so..."
The stooped old woman looked at his husband, over her glasses, with suspicion. She stared at him from head to foot. Then she sneered, and with a quavering voice, she whispered.
"When I married you, you were... prettier, old lad!"
The old man shook his head, and hissed, sneering."
"Gallantry prevents me from answering, my beauty."
"Silly old pirate!"
"Nasty old witch!"
The two old people entered the hall of the airport. As the receptionist gave them their ticket, she smiled at them with emotion. They were so cute... They reminded her of her grand parents. Just now, they were heading towards the boarding room, disputing, arguing... Really... so cute old people...
As he was boarding, Napoleon Solo peeked at the other passengers, to be quite sure. There was no risk, however. He knew that he would have to be careful when they would be in New York. The enemy... He gently let an old couple pass. The old lady hurried, but the old man quavered a "Thanks, boy".
April Dancer was still shivering, rolling her eyes.
"You... you are completely mad, Illya! We could wait! He... he is watching us! Why did you..."
"Tststs, old lady... He knows that he is safe, here. He doesn't suspect anything. And..."
"And you have to know that old people always arouse Napoleon's tender feelings..."
"You know what? You are a good boy... Luckily."
Their banter was reassuring, and April chuckled.
"Yes, Illya, you are a good boy, and I am a good girl."
As the Russian sighed, April Dancer frowned. Suddenly, he looked like to be lost in thought.
The "old man" turned to her. He was staring at her, and hesitated.
"I ... I am not sure, April. It's probably nothing more than a dream, but..."
Napoleon Solo couldn't help smiling, as he saw the two old people having a lively chat. The poor old guy ... He sat down.
"A dream, Illya?
He leaned back against the seat.
"I am in a street, deserted, silent and dusty. Then, in a corridor, as deserted, as dusty, but not silent. I can hear a distant rustle. I don't know what. At last, I am in a room. Deserted. With footprints in the dust. And I hear footsteps. Someone is running. I want to run after, but I can't. I am lying on the floor, weak, so weak. But I know, April, I know that if I could get up, and run after him, I would catch him up. And I would see his face."
" Him? His face? A man? How do you know that?"
"I... I know, April... That's all."
"Where does it take place?"
"The street looks like to be our street, with Del Floria's shop. It's old, deserted, dusty, almost dilapidated. Inside, it isn't our Headquarter. It could be..."
The Russian winced.
"It could be the jail. You didn't see this place. It was ... inhuman. Deserted, silent..."
"Oh, no, not dusty. White. Clean. Finally, it's just a dream. A nightmare..."
There was no relief in the voice.
"But it worries you. Why?"
"Because the dream goes on, April, as the episodes of a story. That's unpleasant, and frustrating. Well, some day, I'll catch up my man..."
April Dancer felt ill at ease. She pouted.
"It's a dream, Illya, but I think that you know something you don't know..."
The Russian looked at her with amazement.
"Would you explain, for those who don't speak the April Dancer's language?
April shook her fingers, with despair. It was difficult.
"You run after someone, a man. You are sure that it's a man. You must know something you don't remember."
Illya Kuryakin rubbed his forehead.
"—You are very... comforting, and you are an old witch!"
Going back home was usually a relief. Not a daily one, alas. Alexander Waverly got out of the sedan and nodded at his bodyguards. The obvious ones. The others were a model of discretion. He entered the house. His wife wasn't there. She was visiting her sister. Alexander Waverly lit up the living room, and froze.
"Welcome home, Alexander!"
The room was deserted.
The room was silent.
The room was dusty.
Eventually, he managed to get up.
He would track the man.
April Dancer peered at his friend. The old man was soundly asleep, but his features were strained. She should wake him up, but... she knew how exhausted he was. The nightmare might fade away.
The door was closed.
But it opened as he stretched out his hand.
The corridor was deserted.
The corridor was silent.
The corridor was...
He staggered. He tottered.
He stumbled and caught hold of the wall.
But there was no wall.
And he fell down on a dusty floor.
When he opened his eyes, he met April's concerned gaze. He smiled faintly.
"I couldn't catch him up... Not yet..."
"What are we going to do, when we'll be there?"
Lost in his own dream, he wasn't really aware of the person sitting beside him, until she tapped his arm.
"We are like snipers in a desert town, April. Each of us is waiting for the other to make the error."
She couldn't help rolling her eyes. He hadn't listened to her, though he was just answering... exactly.
"So, all we just have to be more... patient."
The Russian raised a finger and stated, in a learned manner.
"The "wait and see" policy. Waverly's choice, apparently."
It wasn't a question.
"As soon as we'll be in New York, Napoleon will be a target."
"Napoleon isn't a rook... Er, I..."
Illya Kuryakin couldn't help laughing, seeing April's trouble.
""I am sorry, Illya, I didn't mean..."
"I know. In a way, however... The man who shot me... I had picked a blue car, behind mine. But on the way to the airport, I didn't pay attention. I undervalued the risk. I won't make the same mistake again."
"You had no reason to suspect anything. And eventually, you had been more than a match to this man!"
"It was close. He could have killed me, you know. Luckily, he had to act upon a strange staging. If he hadn't..."
"The eleven bullets? A firing squad... Why?"
The Russian shrugged his shoulders.
"You shoot a criminal, a traitor. I think that it was just to make fun of me, of UNCLE."
"Who is the mole, Illya? How could they know?"
"They didn't need any mole, April. We have been careless. They had just to watch... The « wait and see » policy. They are good at it..."
"Are we going to use Napoleon as a sitting duck, Illya?
Napoleon Solo summed up what he had to do. First of all, he would call April. No. First of all, he would have to look around carefully: he wasn't paranoid. Those men had trapped Illya Kuryakin. And Jules Cutter. Luckily, their enemy had a fondness for theatrical staging. He wanted to make fun of them. Arrogance? Stupidity? Hatred? It didn't matter. Because, as arrogant, as stupid, as full of hatred he could be, he was efficient. Maliciously efficient. Illya could have been killed in the jail. He could have been shot in the street. Stellon and Mikey had been easy targets. Jules Cutter wasn't. Though, they have got him. The enemy knew them. He knew them so well. It looked like he could foresee ... all. So they would have to seek safety in being unpredictable. Loosen cannon...
Evan Stellon cursed. He couldn't stay there. He felt useless. The room was darker and darker. Of course, there was no light. He forced himself to think. An UNCLE agent, a Jules Cutter's student, couldn't give up so easily. He couldn't help sneering. His "host" had just locked him up. "For your own sake."
"Well done, Ben."
"I did what you asked, dad... but I don't condone... They were really worried, and..."
"Of course, they were, Ben. They have to be. Now, you'll have to call them on a regular basis, as a really worried son. Is Alan...?"
"Yes, he is on his way. He'll leave you the car. You'll drop him at the station. But... what are you doing? Those men ... are professional, dad. You could have been hurt, last month, so, I don't understand...
"Ben, I am a grown up. I won't take any chances. You can believe me."
The young man hung up. He had no faith in his father's last words, but he knew better than to argue.
Bayle had tried to brush aside the Thrush executive's instructions. Vainly. He had reported about Cutter's escape. At his surprise, the man he was speaking to had simply listened to him. No ironical comment. Just an amazing remark.
"You can't handle this on your own. You'll need help."
Help? Er, yes, of course, he needed help... He had sought their help. Well, mentally. Before... But now...
"You are now looking for Napoleon Solo? Apparently, he is not in New York. We'll keep an eye on his apartment; you'll look for the UNCLE Headquarter. Wait and see. Sooner or later, Mr. Solo will come back... Home, perhaps. To his headquarter, probably."
Bayle had argued: the UNCLE agents might pick him out.
"You are the one who caused trouble among them, Mr. Bayle. And they didn't pick you out. Thanks to you, we've got rid of Kuryakin, at last."
"About Jules Cutter..."
Here we are...
"You told me that he didn't come back to the UNCLE HQ. Amazing, isn't it? Are you that sure he didn't recognize our friend?"
"We could use him again."
Bayle frowned. He had other plans, about the mole. But the man went on.
"On the other hand, he is our ace in the hole... We'll see at it later."
Bayle foamed: he wouldn't take much more of being treated like that. This man had patronized him... But he would handle the situation and shut him up. Sooner or later. The sooner, the better.
Alexander Waverly was stunned with surprise.
"Those security measures of yours are pitiful, Alex. And those guards... If I was a Thrush agent..."
Waverly took a deep breath, making sure that his voice wouldn't tremble. He trusted Jules Cutter: one way or another, Cutter had escaped. He wasn't a traitor. The Section one, Number one wouldn't call for help.
"If you were a Thrush agent... Have I to take it that you are not?"
Cutter's gulp gratified Waverly's pride. The head master of the Survival School shrugged his shoulders, and sat down in the leather armchair. With a mischievous smile, Alexander Waverly pointed the bar. Cutter nodded.
"I thought you had been abducted, Jules. That you were perhaps already dead."
Jules Cutter stared at his glass, shaking the ice. He looked thoughtful.
"It was close, Alex..."
Alexander Waverly couldn't help smiling. He had heard that... Of course, Jules Cutter looked abashed.
"I am glad you enjoy it, Alex..."
"Jules... For some awful hours, I had lost one of my best agents... I had lost one ...well... one of my best friends. A young recruit, too. And ... Mikey, yes, our fisherman is missing."
Waverly's faint smile worried Cutter. He trusted the man. He trusted him with dear life, but Waverly was listing his loss. His human loss. And he was smiling.
"I am not out of my mind, my friend. You are alive, and you are going to tell me what happened. But before, I have good news."
Waverly bit his lips, shaking his head.
"No. You should know, Jules..."
Jules Cutter looked utterly perplexed.
"Our top agent's particular skill, Jules: don't you remember?"
A strange glow lit up Cutter's eyes. Yes, he remembered. But it was impossible. You can escape from a blasted jail. But ...
"Illya Kuryakin is alive. Alive, and free. He has been abducted, as you were. As you did, he has escaped."
-As you did, wisely, Mr. Kuryakin decided to delude our enemy. And as you said... it was close. However, I am sorry, but we don't know about Mr. Stellon, or about Mikey."
Jules Cutter drank, still thoughtful. He was relieved, of course.
"—When I got into the car, Alex, I felt uneasy. I can't really explain that the driver muttered something that could be a greeting. And he drove away. He didn't tell me about the security measures. The two other cars have been soon outdistanced. Even your incompetent bodyguards wouldn't do that! At last, there were some road works, and the driver got caught in the traffic. Unusual. Abnormal. He should have got us out... and he just stopped in the traffic jam. I chanced it."
"He looked at us, Illya."
"Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch'entrate..."
April Dancer peeked at her friend, taken aback.
"It isn't Dante Alighieri's Inferno, Illya. Just the hall of the airport."
The Russian pointed at the gents, and left April, without a word.
The two old people were still there. They were probably waiting for their kids. Napoleon Solo looked around. The place was a hive of activity, but quickly, men and women crossed the room, and hurried towards the way out. He had to merge into the crowd.
April Dancer mentally cursed. Napoleon Solo was making his way out, and the Russian wasn't back. She hesitated, but she had no real choice: they had to protect the CEA. She knew that Illya Kuryakin would never have admitted that he wasn't fine. She took some steps towards the gents... But Napoleon Solo was already out of sight. She changed her mind, and rushed after the CEA. Illya would have to manage...
Napoleon Solo could rent a car. He eventually headed towards the taxi stand. As he walked, a yellow car stopped along the sidewalk. Good. He wouldn't have to wait... The driver got out of the taxi, to open the trunk. Napoleon Solo brought his case. The driver was a small one, stooped. The dark haired man leaned forward to help. At the same time, he felt a twinge of pain in his neck, and heard a well known, but so harsh voice.
"You're getting old, my friend!"
All that April Dancer saw was Illya Kuryakin pushing his partner in the trunk of a taxi, locking it, and jumping in the car. As he drove away, he made an ironical sign to her.
Jules Cutter and Alexander Waverly were keeping silent, lost in thought. Cutter felt relieved, and, eventually, no so surprised. The Russian had survived. An ace in the hole... Or a pain in the neck. It depended... Some memories faded with time. Not this one.
"You intend to do ... what, Alexander?"
"I don't intend to do. I did."
"You must be kidding. We can't do it!"
"Yes, We... I can. I did. We are the UNCLE. U is for United, N for Network..."
"C for Command, L for Law and E for Enforcement. I think I know that. But you ... don't."
The Waverly's so innocent look, under the bushy brows, innocent but determined. Jules Cutter bent forward.
"Don't try and dare to play cat and mouse with me, Alex. Many countries, all over the world, are part of UNCLE. That's a necessity. I know that, it's our strength. But... that..., no, Alex! A Russian! They are our enemies. We fight them, and..."
The blue eyes hardened.
"No, Jules. We fight criminal organizations, we don't fight countries. We need to extend our sphere of influence. So, we'll welcome this Russian agent. He'll be one of us. And perhaps, others, after him. Anyway..."
"It's none of your business. I might be rude... but it's the truth. The Russian is a brilliant young agent. He came from the Russian Navy; he worked with the GRU and the KGB."
For once, Cutter was the one harrumphing.
"Quite reassuring! I feel much better, Alex. A Russian spy! Great."
"You won't have to meet him."
And Jules Cutter burst into anger. Alexander Waverly had recruited a Russian agent, and this damned... wouldn't have to attend the Survival School? Waverly could whistle for it!
"He is quite qualified, Jules. It would be a waste of time."
"Where is the problem? If he comes to the School, his ability won't be any longer in doubt, and..."
"And you are a devil with the other recruits, Jules. You'll just try to bump him off..."
Jules Cutter smiled, as the wolf who was about to eat the lamb. Russian lamb.
"The rule, Alex. The rule. Equity. All the new agents, whoever they are, have to attend the Survival School. Will your Russian be favored?"
"He is qualified, Jules..."
"Not a chance, Alex."
Jules Cutter almost choked, as he saw the said Russian. He had a quite caricatured vision of what a Russian looked like. Of what a KGB agent looked like. The mix, in his mind, was dreadful. Almost... disgusting. What he watched at was a sort of skinny, blond boy. Average height. Blond hair, long hair. Far too long. Childish blue eyes. A sort of lab boy, with—Cutter had read the file—a PhD in quantum mechanic... A PhD in quantum mechanic! The Russians were probably dying laughing at them. Waverly was waiting for a grown up agent. They gave him a shy boy. Around Cutter, everybody looked incredulously at the attraction.
Cutter sneered mercilessly at the little blond boy. And at Alexander Waverly.
"Jules? May I remind you of one amongst all your rules? Never undervalue your opponent!"
He all the more sneered. Then regretted it. Then, carefully avoided the subject.
The Russian was damned good, and efficient.
One or two fights against Waverly later... As an honest man, Cutter acknowledged defeat. He valued the Russian's efficiency. Then, his uprightness. At last, his faithfulness.
There were very few men Jules Cutter trusted. "Trust no one, trust yourself."...
Alexander had undertaken the responsibility of the Northwestern UNCLE headquarter years ago. He had got stuck in the work, and his wife sometimes moaned that he would die on harness. But he wanted the best. For his family. For UNCLE. He would need a successor, some day: Napoleon Solo was a possible choice. He had partnered him with the Russian, and this was an explosive mixture. For Thrush.
"You were right."
Alexander Waverly startled; did Jules Cutter read his thought?
"I disagreed with you, when you recruited Illya Kuryakin."
Waverly raised an eyebrow, and asked innocently.
"You... disagreed? Just... disagreed?"
Cutter smiled, shrugging his shoulders. Disagree was an understatement.
"Where are they? I mean... Mr. Kuryakin and Mr. Solo?"
Alexander Waverly was all too aware of Cutter's expectation.
"Miss Dancer is with them. They are... I can't tell you, Jules."
Jules Cutter stiffened, and frowned.
"Don't worry. I can't tell you... because I don't know. Really."
People in the street peeped at the strange woman. Dressed up like an old lady, she stood, open mouthed, on the sidewalk.
It was a mistake, a delusion.
Illya would rush out of the hall.
He would be mad at her for having left Napoleon Solo.
But she had seen the young man dressed up like a grandpa.
The taxi driver.
And his ironical sign...
She felt a hand on her shoulder.
The man looked at the photo and sighed. His life.
Mad? Perplexed? Puzzled? The man tossed and turned in the trunk, vainly. It smelled foul. He felt a twinge of pain when his head met something metallic, just where it had hit the hood. He cursed at himself: he had been taken in. He should have got to be on his guard. So, at first, for two seconds, he had been mad... at himself. Then, he had heard this voice. Those words. He was perplexed, puzzled: he had left his friend in such a state of exhaustion, feverish, barely conscious, with April, in his grandma's house. The said friend had just pushed him in the trunk of a taxi, here, in New York. Napoleon Solo stopped tossing and turning. He should be mad at Illya. Sure, he was. This... had tailed him to the airport; he had been in the plane. He was so good at going unnoticed... The problem was... why?
He realized that the car was slowing. He didn't really worry because Illya Kuryakin was his friend, his partner. He didn't run any risk. Did he?
The car eventually stopped, and as the trunk opened, Napoleon Solo contorted himself to get out, pushing aside the helpful hand. Then, he grabbed hold of the taxi driver and hissed.
"You'll be sorry for that, Illya.
Sweat was dripping down the Russian's forehead. It stung his eyes and made him blink. His vision was blurred, he felt exhausted. Too many efforts. He didn't resist.
"What are you doing? You are dressed up like..."
He stared at him, carefully, and a flash of understanding crossed his mind.
"Oh, no... The old man... and ... April...?"
Illya Kuryakin looked blankly over his shoulder. Napoleon Solo shook him. The Russian staggered, as if he was to pass out. The grip released and his friend helped him steady. So, April was part of the plot...
"Okay, Clyde... Where is your old Bonnie?"
The voice was less harsh. Not harsh at all... Illya Kuryakin smiled a real smile. He leaned a little on his partner arm.
"Perhaps we could talk about that some where else, Napoleon?"
"You have a suggestion?"
"Not very wise, my friend."
"The Village... And you drive."
Napoleon Solo was torn between some left anger and worry. He trusted his friend. Undoubtedly. Illya Kuryakin wasn't his enemy.
He was just... stubborn. Irritating... Aggravating... Infuriating.
In a way, he was himself again.
I do as I please.
I hit upon the idea of doing something.
Idée fixe. Bright idea.
Explanation... later. Perhaps.
The good old Illya. Not so old...
The "How interesting" Illya.
From before the jail.
Napoleon Solo pouted: he was the one to be blamed, because he knew the man.
The so easy-going Russian...
The weak, exhausted, Russian admitting his weakness, his exhaustion...
Illya's obedient resignation...
Illya and resignation: a contradiction in terms.
And he had been taken in...
As if he didn't know the man...
However, he peered at his partner: it wasn't all an act. Illya was more or less dozing; the shadows under his eyes were not make-up, and his forehead was sweaty.
He was completely out of breath.
The smoke made him choking.
But there was no smoke.
His chest tried to heave. Painfully.
Dust was filling his nose, his mouth.
But there was no dust.
His eyes stank.
His eyesight was blurred.
He couldn't help coughing.
And he heard someone sneering.
Far from him.
"Illya? We are there, partner mine. How are you doing?"
The Russian shook his head, and combed his hair with his hand.
"I... I am fine."
That was the Illya he knew.
"Just what I can see, as usual. Can you get out, and make it to the apartment? I'll park this taxi..."
"No. You can leave it here. Pavel... Pavel... will come later."
"Oh? Pavel? Who is... Pavel?"
The blue eyes twinkled.
April Dancer freed herself from the grip, and looked daggers at the young man.
"So...sorry, I thought you were... needed ..help."
And he sneaked away, obviously terrified. She sighed.
She had to inform Alexander Waverly. Simple to phrase. Not so simple to tell: Illya Kuryakin had abducted Napoleon Solo. Under my nose. Worse. I was his abettor.
Cool. The Old Man would appreciate.
Ten Little Indians...
A man above suspicion.
"Why did you leave April? She ..."
They have picked up the key, settled themselves in the apartment. Scanty furniture, but ... stuffed with the necessities. A safe place... Illya Kuryakin chuckled.
"She'll scratch my eyes out, but I needed a witness. She'll report to Mr. Waverly about your abduction. She has already, probably."
Napoleon Solo frowned.
"What's the matter? Neither Waverly nor April could believe that you are ... the mole, Illya! April stood up for you against everybody, against yourself, last year. The Old Man... well, you know that. Do you, Illya?"
"Trust no one, trust yourself"..."
The older agent felt uneasy; could the Thrush drug have affected his friend's mind, again?
"Cutter is wrong, my friend. Realize that, Illya! Cutter... Cutter himself stood up for you... He trusts you. Trust... is our strength."
"Our weakness, Napoleon. We are lacking in discernment."
Napoleon Solo drew his gun instantaneously, and aimed at his partner's head. Illya Kuryakin didn't move an eyelash.
"Okay: you are the mole. I'll shoot you. If you prefer: I am the mole, and I'll shoot you. Or... we are the moles, and we are going to shoot the whole world! You are making a fool of yourself, Illya. Stop it, now. You'll have a shower, and I'll call Waverly, and try to prevent April from skinning you alive!"
The Russian shrugged his shoulders: he stretched his hand and took hold of his partner's gun.
"You see, Napoleon? Our weakness. I can't believe you could kill me in cold blood. You can't believe I could kill you in cold blood. Our enemy knows us. He knows us perfectly well. Last year, he had experimented with a strategy: he failed. But he learned. Now, he obviously uses us. As a bait. He pushes. He stretches. He strains our confidence. Last year, there were facts. Obviousness. And you fought against evidence. This time, he tries ... insidious doubt, smoky suspicion."
"And precisely you help him, Illya! That's stupid!"
"I don't help, I refuse to wait and see. I just play his game. We have to stop being predictable, Napoleon. Let him enjoy some cracks... Some hollow cracks. "Firebreak". I am going to have a shower. And you'll call Waverly... later. April's worry has to sound true. And Waverly's, too."
Napoleon Solo sighed.
"I made a mistake: both of them will skin you alive... skin us alive. Illya, our enemies still believe that you're dead! You can't waste this opportunity! Anyway, they know, at least, that you are not one of them... They won't suspect a trick. They'll have for sure that it's a trick! And neither Waverly nor April will tell anyone about that, because none of them can believe it! I can't see..."
A powerless Napoleon Solo paused, out of breath.
"Of course, they'll suspect a trick. Of course they believe that I am dead. They won't understand. They won't know where they'll have to go... They'll have to play, groping their way along. Mr. Waverly and April are probably watched. Whatever they believe, they'll react. Our enemy will notice it. It could be enough. A mirror game. It's time for shower. See at something to eat?"
The Russian stood up and tottered toward the bathroom. He leaned against the door.
"And from now, Napoleon, whatever Waverly thinks and says, we won't keep anything from each others."
And he disappeared. Napoleon Solo took his gun back. Being unpredictable? It was his own reasoning. Cutter was wrong: trust no one... wasn't a good strategy. You just had to carefully choose the ones—the one?—you trusted. He sighed and headed towards the small kitchen.
And the alarm sounded. Discreetly. But it sounded
Alexander Waverly caught his communicator. Jules Cutter got up and walked towards the bar. He was pouring some whiskey when he heard Waverly's muffled curse.
He stood, looking at his friend. His face reflected his amazement. He was listening, and Jules Cutter saw amazement turning into anger. A cold anger. Waverly answered, dryly.
"In one hour, in my office, miss Dancer."
Cutter peered at Waverly inquiringly. The man looked older. With a dull voice, he gave his friend notice of the news.
"Mr. Solo has been abducted. Miss Dancer... Miss Dancer saw the abduction. She couldn't do anything, apparently."
Oh, Mr. Kuryakin ... Well, he's fine, Jules. For all that we know... Mr. Kuryakin is the one who abducted Mr. Solo...
Cutter gulped: the story started again. He reckoned bitterly that he should have known better than to expect situation to sort itself out.
"It's a trick, Alex. They play it again!"
"No, Jules. Mr. Solo was on his way to New York. He wanted to talk with me. He left Miss Dancer and Mr. Kuryakin... where they were..."
Jules Cutter listened at Waverly's story. Nevertheless, he still couldn't believe it.
"Is she sure? Mr. Kuryakin could have been ..."
Waverly cut in.
"No, Jules, no. I would like it, you know that. But no. Illya Kuryakin has pushed his partner in the trunk of a taxi. Almost under miss Dancer's nose... And he has given her a mocking sign. I'll go back to headquarter. You... you can stay here, if you want."
Jules Cutter pouted.
"No, Alex. We need to present a united front. Of course, you don't believe that Illya Kuryakin is... a mole? That's impossible. He is beyond suspicion."
"As a consequence, he is the perfect mole ..."
Cutter's voice was slightly threatening.
"I don't believe that, Jules. Don't worry. If we are right, Mr. Solo and Mr. Kuryakin should call me soon... If they don't..."
"Not a chance. They'll call!"
He couldn't help sneering. So easy. April Dancer hadn't recognized him. She had looked at the young guy with surprise, and anger. No fear. She had just seen a laborer. And probably she was feeling guilty of her harshness. But he had sneaked away, as soon as he had fixed the bug on her coat.
What he had just heard was... amazing.
Bayle had eventually called him. He had to keep a close watch to the airport, and to report to his superior.
-Don't try to do anything. Just report if you see Solo. And remember to be careful!
Arrogant. Bayle was so arrogant.
As he was reaching the airport hall, he had seen April Dancer, standing on the sidewalk, abashed, open-mouthed. He had brought some devices. Who knew what could happen? Of course, he wouldn't report to Bayle. Would he? Napoleon Solo... Well, he hadn't seen him. Had he? He had no orders about Miss Dancer.
Concerning the greatest surprise, he was eager to give Bayle a taste of his own medicine. Bayle prided himself (and «priding » was an understatement!) of having got rid of Illya Kuryakin... His face when he would discover... His face when he would tell him... No, he wouldn't tell him. He just hoped that he would be there when Bayle's superior would give him notice of his pitiful failure... The mole felt like the cat that got the cream.
Bayle had taken advantage of Simmons's shortcomings. Time to pay, Mr. Bayle... Tit for tat...
However, what was Illya Kuryakin's purpose? It was a mystery. The Russian wasn't a Thrush agent. It was a trick, a delusion... Or Illya Kuryakin had gone mad at his partner, at his superior, at the whole UNCLE because they mistrusted him. Or... he had gone out of his mind, thanks to their drug. Each thing in its proper time. At first, he hoped that April Dancer would keep her coat with her, in Waverly's office.
Napoleon Solo got his gun out and silently slipped out the kitchen. His partner, a towel around his hips, holding his own gun, had sneaked out the bathroom. They heard noise outside, it was quite reassuring. Thrush agents were a little more silent and discreet. Someone was trying to enter: he muttered, he cursed, and the voice was familiar. Napoleon Solo frowned, startling as he peeked at his partner. Illya's face relaxed with a childish, delighted smile. The Russian put his gun on the old couch and headed towards the door. As he was to open, he hesitated; he had changed his mind. They could hear a clatter, some new curses. Illya Kuryakin's smile brightened and Napoleon Solo shook his head. Of course. The old pirate! The fisherman had deluded his babysitters. He hadn't been abducted. Napoleon Solo understood Illya's hesitation. Mikey thought that the young Russian was dead. It would be a shock. A happy one but...
Eventually Illya Kuryakin unlocked the door.
Mikey staggered, and took some steps in the living. He looked at Napoleon Solo with an obvious astonishment. The older agent smiled. He pointed his hand at the Russian. When Mikey turned his eyes, Napoleon Solo acknowledged the fisherman's self control. He shook his head, and stared at the young man from head to foot. And he smiled. Illya's delight was as obvious. Napoleon Solo noticed it with something he would deny in a torture chamber; With a hint of... jealousy.
"You should dry yourself, boy. You are... kind of dripping."
As he said that, the fisherman had taken some more steps forward and hugged the young man.
Mikey was... family.
Napoleon Solo knew Illya Kuryakin for years. Five.
Mikey knew him for less than six months.
Napoleon Solo was a partner.
A friend. The closest friend.
But the closest friend wasn't family.
Napoleon Solo teased himself. Illya considered Mikey as an uncle, a step-father. Mikey considered Illya as a nephew, a step son. For the very first second he had seen him, Napoleon Solo had known that for sure.
Would you like your partner to consider you as a relative?
Illya back in the bathroom, the fisherman sat down on the couch with an embarrassed look which didn't fool the older agent.
Mikey sheepishly asked—sheepishly, as you didn't notice the twinkle in his eyes.
"You... must be mad at me?"
"Firstly, I am relieved, Mikey. Secondly..." Napoleon Solo broke off. The fisherman kept silent. "Secondly, yes, I am mad at you. We worried about you. When Waverly told me that... Why, Mikey?"
The fisherman gave him a strange look.
" thought you could need some help, Napoleon. Your spy world is amazing. It's your world, you know it, and I am just a fisherman... But my point of view is different. You, Uncle agents, favor your missions. You favor innocent's life. You favor your partner's life. Incidentally, you take care of your own. Your enemy uses that against you. Illya and Mr. Waverly wanted to protect you, but Illya was the target. So, you wanted to protect me, but..."
Napoleon Solo stared at the fisherman with astonishment. His reasoning wasn't so far from their.
"You decided to watch my back ..."
"I beg your pardon?"
"You decided that you had to protect me...on Illya's behalf."
The fisherman smiled faintly.
"Illya ... What happened, Napoleon?"
"He'll tell you, Mikey. It's a long story..."
Mikey rubbed his chin. He looked thoughtful. He remembered the Russian's strain, when the jail had blasted. He remembered his determination. He remembered Napoleon Solo's anger... despair... when he had thought that his friend was dead...
"As you are chatting—should I say "chattering»?—like old buddies, I guess that the dinner is ready?"
April Dancer got out of the taxi, paid, and looked around the street. It was quite desert, and almost silent. She took some deep breathes. Alexander Waverly was waiting for her. He wasn't pleased, and he had some reasons. She stopped in front of Del Floria's shop.
"Excuse me, madam?"
A well trained agent, April Dancer twisted round, her gun in her hand. Too late. She knew it at the right moment she felt a twinge of pain in her neck.
The mole gulped. What...? April Dancer was to join Waverly and this was Bayle's voice. What the hell the damned fool ... Oh, no... This idiot...
Illya's plan had been to wait until morning, but he gave up. Mikey was free. There were only two lost Indians left... Jules Cutter and Evan Stellon. Waverly and April had to be informed.
"Time to call the Old Man, my friend..."
"Have I to take that I must call him? Why should I? It was your idea, tovarish...So..."
The blond agent slightly raised an eyebrow, tilted his head on the right, and declared respectfully.
"You are the CEA, Napoleon. You have to report to Alexander Waverly... That's your privilege."
Napoleon Solo grabbed his communicator, looking daggers at his so guileless partner, and muttering something about a Russian brat.
Alexander Waverly pointed his finger at his communicator. Jules Cutter grabbed it inquiringly. Waverly nodded.
Illya Kuryakin sipped his tea, peering at his partner, watching his face. Napoleon Solo's eye grew wide with surprise.
The two men, on the couch, frowned but soon relaxed as they heard the older agent chuckling.
"Yes, sir. Of course, sir. Yes, he is here... Oh, I told him that..."
The tone was amazing. The words were civil, but the voice... He wouldn't address Waverly so casually. Napoleon Solo handed the communicator towards his friend.
"Some one wants to talk to you..."
Alexander Waverly took a sheet of paper, and wrote a name. The situation had evolved. Finally, only one little Indian was missing. For the moment. Waverly smiled bitterly, for he reckoned he was growing optimistic...
-Evan Stellon is still missing, at the moment."
Waverly startled: it was getting a little on his nerve.
"You... You just phrased my thought, Jules."
Jules Cutter peeped at his watch.
"Isn't Miss Dancer late?"
Bayle felt uneasy. The situation had evolved, Cutter had escaped, thanks to his man's incompetence, but there wasn't any triumphal come back at the Headquarter. Why? Where was Cutter? Bayle sighed. Napoleon Solo? Stellon... wasn't a problem, any more. The thought of Kuryakin's death didn't even comfort him. Yes, Kuryakin had been shot, but firstly, it was his only success. Secondly, Bayle was worrying about his killer, not that his fate did really matter to him, of course, but he had disappeared. For the very first time, Bayle had doubts. Anyway, he locked the door. April Dancer... Why not? He just wanted to remind UNCLE of the threat... That could get Solo out of his retreat. Eventually, it was a stroke of luck.
"You could go back home, Mikey..."
The three men had settled themselves in the small apartment. Napoleon Solo was showering.
"No way, boy! You won't get rid of me. You wouldn't throw me in the lion's mouth, Illya, would you?"
The Russian bit his lip. Mikey was a man with ideals. Simple ideals, but high ones. Napoleon would call that stubbornness.
"You could, Mikey. Mousehole is a safe place. I am sure you don't run any risk."
Solo exclaimed loudly from the bathroom, and came back.
"What the hell are you babbling, Illya? Of course, he does!"
"No, he doesn't."
It was not an ordinary Thrush affair. Thrush operatives didn't care about innocents. Worse, they used them. Thrush operatives would have rushed up to the fisherman...
"What do you mean, Illya?"
The Russian sighed.
"What happened last year was a Thrush plan. Studied. Set. Build. With Thrush operatives..."
Napoleon Solo cut in, shaking his head with disbelief.
"And what happens now? Thrush almost killed you, my friend, they almost got Jules Cutter and they got Stellon. And you believe that Mikey can go back fishing?"
Illya Kuryakin's face gave away his exhaustion, but he kept his ground.
"The secret word is "almost", Napoleon... UNCLE fought against Thrush for years... Thrush often tried to defeat us."
"And they often "almost" succeeded. As you said, "almost" is the secret word."
The fisherman kept silent, listening to their argument.
"Almost, usually doesn't mean easily. This time, our enemy took us in very easily and..."
"Yes, we have to be more careful, all of us. "
Napoleon Solo had realized that his partner was probably feeling guilty.
"You don't understand."
Their enemy could have shot him in the street, as shooting him was the objective. They could achieve it. Simply. And they hadn't.
They could have killed Jules Cutter. As he was getting in the car. Such a victory, such a triumph...
Napoleon Solo pursed his lips, and Illya Kuryakin attempted a shy smile, rolling his eyes.
"You are sometimes a little... dense, my friend."
The fisherman leaned forward. His green eyes were icy.
"They could defeat you, straight. Mr. Cutter just got out of the car, in the traffic jam. And..."
Napoleon Solo cursed, suddenly and cut in.
"The man who abducted you wasted time in a hazy staging... Thanks to him."
"Thanks to his superior."
They had thought... He had thought, at first, that it was kind of a sequel to the last events. A new Thrush affair. They were... he was wrong. Bayle and his mole acted almost independently, as irregulars. They weren't exactly mercenary, being more or less supported by Thrush.
"Do you mean that Thrush gave them UNCLE to keep them occupied? We are just... a toy?"
Napoleon Solo's tone was obviously doubtful.
"Or Thrush gave us Bayle and his mole to keep us quiet. And ..."
They succeeded. The Quest for the Mole... Doubt. Suspicion. Secret. UNCLE agents were used to fight against Thrush. Whatever you could think about Thrush, their agents were usually efficient, but logical. Logically efficient. UNCLE agents were, too. More efficient. More logical.
This time... It gave him a shivery feeling.
"Bayle put on stage very complicate plans. He wants to create a stir. The greatest, the best. He monopolizes us. Our energy. Our minds."
"If Bayle and the mole are just toys..."
"Very dangerous toys..."
"If they are toys, we have to look for Thrush real plan."
"Plan? Not especially one plan, I think. When the cat's away, the mice will play. Bayle and the mole play their part. Thrush can sometimes help them. Just in case. If they can get rid if us..."
It gave him a shivery feeling, again. The end justifies the means. Usually.
Not for Bayle. He didn't seem to really mind about the end. On the contrary, the means...
"It gives me a shivery feeling..."
Napoleon Solo had whispered an unusual admission. Illya was right. For the last days, all of them had struggled against the enemy. They ...
"You phrased my thought, Napoleon. This affair ... is not really an affair: what happened..."
"Happened because we set it: we gave Bayle all the opportunities he needed and ..."
"And he managed to lead us to do what he wanted."
"A diabolic plan."
The fisherman looked at the two UNCLE agents. Amazing... They thought, they spoke as if they were one.
"And now, boys?
Napoleon Solo got up and answered, with his CEA's tone.
"Now, Mikey, we stop playing. Definitely. We'll go to the UNCLE headquarter. You'll come with us. Yes, you will!"
"—But... Illya's plan..."
The Russian shook his head.
"No longer a topical question, Mikey. We are fighting men. No more plot. No more tricks. They failed: Jules Cutter has escaped, I am alive. Thrush will never forgive them."
Illya Kuryakin stopped.
"And what about Mr. Stellon?"
When April Dancer recovered consciousness, she felt dizzy. As she tried to sit straight, she closed again her eyes for a moment. Someone was drumming in her head. She looked around her and she didn't see anything. The room was dark. The floor was cold, damp and obviously dirty. Gulping at the foul smell, she got down on all four until she found a wall. Damp, peeled, and a very small hint of light, from the top. She wasn't bounded. Was it a cellar? She cursed at herself. She had been so careless. At the airport, first, the young laborer could have been a Thrush man. He could have killed her. Then, just in front of the HQ, she had been so slow... Waverly would be mad at her. It was cold, and she was relieved that her coat had been left. Of course, her pockets were empty. She leaned back against the wall, trying to concentrate herself.
The situation had evolved. About Illya and Napoleon, Waverly had been quite calm. He thought obviously that it was just a Russian trick. He was right. He was, of course. Then, she heard a scratching. Oh, no, please—she couldn't help quivering ... not that. No rats! Okay, she admitted: she didn't fear Thrush birds, but she really, honestly, didn't like rats. She hated them. The scratching turned into tapping, and she frowned. Rats didn't tap. Rats... Rats... didn't use the Morse code. The hint of light was growing bright. She got up and walked away the wall. The light came from what was now obviously a window. She couldn't answer, she knew better than shout. She poked around and grabbed some gravel.
Evan Stellon sighed with relief. At least, there was someone, in there! He had been right. He scratched around the small window covered with wire mesh. And he started to tap. He was soon rewarded by the prisoner's answer: gravels were hitting the window. He had got it! He pushed on the window pane, carefully, until it began to move.
April Dancer realized that she had to go away: her rescuer was going to break the window. The pane fell and a head appeared.
"Whoever you are, are you okay?"
The man was speaking loudly. April Dancer came back in the spot of light and heard a curse.
"Oh... Miss Dancer... what... what are you doing there? Well, er... No, it doesn't matter. I have a rope. Do you think that you could manage to...?"
"Of course, I can! Who are you? I can't see you!"
A rope fell, a little too short, but she could grip it.
"I am Evan Stellon, miss Dancer. I don't know if you rememb..."
April Dancer almost dropped the rope.
"Evan Stellon? Of course, I know you... What the hell are you doing there?"
"I was at the Survival School. Then, I woke up in a cell. They gave me food and water, once a day. The guard was bringing it when we heard noise. I... I ... took advantage of him, and I was looking for a way out. But I... I saw ... Bayle. He was carrying a body. So..."
April Dancer crept through the small opening, and stared at her rescuer: dirty, a week's beard, disheveled... Sheepish.
She smiled at him.
"Let's go, now. Mr. Waverly will commend you, Mr. Stellon. You behaved yourself very well."
"Oh, thank you, miss Dancer. Er... Miss Dancer? Where are we, exactly?"
"Did you tell him?"
"Tell him... what, Mikey?"
Napoleon Solo was obviously at a loss. The fisherman pointed a finger at the glass and pushed it down. The dark haired man blushed and shook his head, genuinely. Footsteps gave him a start. Setting the glass upright, he stood up and headed towards the door. As the Russian went out of the bedroom, his blue eyes followed Napoleon Solo and came back to Mikey.
Neither did you, the fisherman thought.
"Where is your guard? He surely had a gun and..."
Evan Stellon handed the said gun to the young woman, with a childishly proud smile. To be so young...
"Nice, Evan, nice. Now..."
She hesitated: perhaps, they should investigate. Look for... For what? She didn't know. Napoleon Solo... and Illya, perhaps? But she saw reason: they had only one gun. Bayle could come back. They had to take advantage of the situation. Evan Stellon was waiting, obediently.
"Now, let's go. Of course, he took away my watch, and..."
She grabbed his wrist.
"And yours. I don't know the time, Evan, but I have for sure that I'll be late... Mr. Waverly hate late people."
As the young man opened his mouth, looking around, she added.
"Whatever the motive, Evan. You'll have to remember..."
"Alex, shouldn't you give notice of the situation? Our friends will be there, soon, and... some people could have a heart attack..."
Alexander Waverly devilishly smiled.
"Our people... are healthy. And, you... I would like to point out that you didn't really bother about MY heart... Did you?"
Jules Cutter chose to ignore.
"However, I don't want any guard of honor. Not some fireworks! But..."
Waverly's voice straightened. He frowned.
"But Miss Dancer is late. Unusually late. She didn't call... She doesn't answer..."
"What are the odds, Alexander? Miss Dancer wasn't really part of the late events. There are no reasons..."
"Fools always got reasons..."
Mikey drove. Period.
"This is Ben's car. I'll drive. Or, you'll walk, boys. Your choice."
Napoleon Solo gave up, sighed and settled himself in the back seat.
"Illya will show you the way. Not the shortest, just in case. Oh, Illya... Did you notice? Your ... Pavel... picked up his taxi, apparently."
"Yes, he did."
Okay, okay. One day, you'll tell me about ... your Pavel, my friend.
Napoleon Solo couldn't watch out, in this car. So, he closed his eyes, just to relax.
"This job of yours... You like it, Illya."
It wasn't a question.
"Yes, Mikey, I do."
"It's a very dangerous job, boy."
"Some have to make it."
"But you could do something else. You are a scientist. You could work in a lab..."
"Yes... I could. I could conceive some lethal weapons."
The fisherman sighed.
"You could be a teacher..."
"Is that a new Achab lecture, Mikey?"
"No, it's just that... it's a very dangerous job."
The fisherman peeped at the rear view.
"I guess that Napoleon ... has his own skills, apart from the spy job..."
It's an interesting question. What would I answer? And more interesting, what are you going to answer, tovarisch?
Napoleon Solo relaxed a little more, as if he was soundly asleep.
Illya Kuryakin chuckled softly. Napoleon's skills? That was an interesting question.
—"Napoleon... Oh, you'll like that, Mikey. Napoleon is a sailor, a good one. He owns a boat..."
Good, my friend, good. And?
The Russian hesitated. Napoleon Solo "slept" as soundly as he could, feeling his partner's uncertainty.
"He has a real gift for... clothing. Perhaps..."
"You can tell... he is asleep..."
"He could be a great dress designer."
Both of them chuckled discreetly.
Illya, my friend... you are walking on a soapy slope...
Illya Kuryakin was whispering. Napoleon Solo was all ears.
"At last, Napoleon could easily be a... an escort boy. Women, young... more or less... would all fight over him."
He swallowed the affront. Either he went on « sleeping ». Either he strangled straight his partner. He would pay for it.
"So, Napoleon is a womanizer... A Don Juan?"
"Oh, no, rather a Casanova..."
Laugh, boy, laugh...
But they weren't really laughing, and they stopped talking for a while, except for Illya's indications. Napoleon Solo opened his eyes. No use to « sleep » any longer. His gaze met Mikey's one in the rear view. Piercing gaze. Suddenly, the fisherman asked, in a suppressed voice.
"Do you mind, Illya?"
"Napoleon... being a womanizer."
"He is still soundly asleep. Tell me. Do you mind?"
As he spoke, the fisherman's eyes didn't take off Napoleon's ones.
"We'll be there in one or two minutes. Turn on the left."
"Answer me, boy."
"Here we are, Mikey."
"It's... it's none of my business, anyway. Park here."
The fisherman smiled at the rear view. An imperceptible smile.Man, you look like the cat that ate the canary... And I am not sure to know why...
April Dancer looked around her.
"A quarter of an hour to walk. This Bayle is really a damned villain, Evan. He kept us just close by our Headquarter."
"He wanted to make fun of us, Miss Dancer."
"Arrogant, he is arrogant. But... you know him, Evan! You worked for him, didn't you?"
"Er... yes, Miss Dancer..."
"April, please. So?
"He wasn't ... like that, Miss Dancer. He was quite an ordinary man. Even... pleasant. Nicer than the governor, with us."
They walked along the streets. April Dancer chose a roundabout way. Just in case.
When they entered the shop, using the rear entrance, Napoleon Solo hissed at his friend's ear.
"Ready for The Return of the Living Dead, tovarisch?"
"Mr. Waverly must have told them, Napoleon."
"I wouldn't bet on it. The Old Man, sometimes... Well, here we are. Let's go!"
The receptionist raised her head. Inquiringly and disapprovingly. The first look at the visitors. The "Who-are-you?" and "Are-you-sure-that you-have-a-good-reason-to-be-there?" look.
Then, she recognized Napoleon Solo, smiled warmly, and picked up the CEA's ID.
Then, her features melted.
Her breath taken away.
Her fingers dropping Solo's ID.
Napoleon Solo sighed.
"Some people claim that I am the seducer... Maggie, perhaps you could try to breathe, again. It could help. And give us our ID."
The receptionist stared fixedly at the Russian. Her hand mechanically grabbed Napoleon Solo's ID and handed it. Then, she rummaged blindly in a drawer and got out Illya's ID. She handed it. When the Russian's hand brushed against hers, she quivered but didn't let the ID go. She slowly got up, leaned forward, and fixed the ID on Illya's lapel.
Napoleon Solo tapped on Mikey's shoulder, whispering.
"You see? Who is the Casanova?"
Illya Kuryakin grabbed Maggie's hand, and kissed it, with a gentle smile. She blushed, gulped, her breath taken away again. Napoleon Solo sighed noisily.
"Thank you, Maggie."
Illya, my friend, you are just... purring...
"You... you are very ... welcome, Mr. Kuryakin. I am so happy, sir..."
She still stared at him. Napoleon Solo cleared his voice.
"Maggie, a visitor's ID, please, for our friend. Mr. Waverly is waiting for us."
The woman turned back into the competent receptionist, and handed him what he asked for.
Someone knocked at the door, and entered. Or... the contrary. Waverly's secretary. The efficient Lisa. She was wide-eyes, open-mouthed. She babbled something... blushed and took some deep breaths. Then, she slowly repeated.
"The receptionist, Maggie informed me that Mr. Solo was coming..."
She stopped and looked anxiously at Alexander Waverly. Did he know?
"And, sir... She told me that..."
The usually imperturbable woman desperately sought for words. Jules Cutter took pity on her.
"And Mr. Kuryakin is here, too. Yes, he is alive, we know that. It's a real surprise, and..."
-And a great satisfaction. Thank you, Lisa."
The news spread through the Headquarter faster than the three men. Sheer surprise. Astonishment. Incredulity. Hope. Relief. Satisfaction. Even... delight.
Alexander Waverly nodded at the fisherman, and looked at his two agents, with concern. However, he couldn't help smiling at their appearance. They were... well... casually dressed. Not so unusual, concerning Illya Kuryakin. But Napoleon Solo... The CEA didn't fail to see his superior's grin.
"Good evening, sir... I am afraid that as we were in a hurry... We should have dress more... conveniently."
Illya Kuryakin's sorry words. His embarrassed tone. The best of their kind. An example... Napoleon Solo rolled his eyes.
I'll put that on your check, tovarisch...
But deep inside, Illya's tease pleased him. That was his Russian partner: bantering, making a fool of him... He hadn't seen this Illya for a long time. However...
"And Miss Dancer, sir? Isn't she here? I am sure that Illya will be happy to see her..."
Solo's question had an ironical purpose. The two agents were puzzled at the sight of Alexander Waverly. Jules Cutter explained.
"Well, young men... we... concerning miss Dancer... we might have a problem."
Bayle was wide-eyed. Open-mouthed. His breath taken away. Solo, the old man, from Mousehole, he didn't remember his name, and... the damned blond Russian. Alive. Fully alive... Illya Kuryakin, himself.
And they were entering. Under his very nose. Not worried at all. Relaxed.
April Dancer took hold of her companion's arm. She was staring around. The young man understood and did the same. The street looked deserted. Deserted and silent. But not dusty, April Dancer thought.
"Yes, Miss Dancer?"
-I have something to tell you, about Illya. Mr. Kuryakin.
They headed straight for Del Floria's shop.
"A problem, sir?"
Cutter had toned down his words. Understatement wasn't usually Cutter's field.
Illya Kuryakin turned white. He repeated his partner's question.
"A problem, sir?"
"Miss Dancer is late. Very late."
Euphemism, again? Waverly cleared the point.
"She should be here, now, and she doesn't answer."
A silence. A heavy one.
Illya Kuryakin hissed a bitter statement with a grim voice.
"It's my fault."
-Your fault? And would please tell us, Mr. Kuryakin, why?"
Alexander Waverly asked, but he knew. He knew why. He knew what the young man blamed himself for. He knew that it was ridiculous, wrong. And eventually he knew that the Russian wouldn't easily admit it.
"You must face the fact, sir. I left her alone. My plan ...My so brilliant plan..."
"Yes, Mr. Kuryakin, you had a plan. It was a clever one, but the situation had evolved. You couldn't know it. Is that clear? You are not to be blamed. "
The Russian kept silent.
"Yes, sir. That's clear."
The Illya Kuryakin's "how interesting" tone. .. Jules Cutter cleared his throat.
"Mr. Kuryakin, Miss Dancer isn't a poor innocent lady. You are aware that she is a very competent Section 2 agent, aren't you? She didn't need any escort."
The answer came instantaneously.
"Apparently, she did."
Napoleon Solo met Mikey's eyes, reproving eyes. The CEA forced a chuckle, and came up to his friend.
"She'll scratch your eyes out for this comment, my friend."
Not even a ghost of a smile. Alexander Waverly cut in the vain argument.
-We have no clues, however. Miss Dancer is just late, and..."
"She is not late, sir. April... April is never late."
Waverly shook his head with impatience, but someone knocked at the door. Lisa craned forward.
"You asked me to tell you, sir. Miss Dancer is here."
Jules Cutter and Napoleon Solo sighed with relief. Waverly took notice, answering softly.
"Thank you, Lisa."
Illya Kuryakin whispered.
-Eventually, she was late? Just ... late?
Waverly's secretary was still standing in the doorway.
"Sir? Miss Dancer isn't alone. Mr. Stellon is with her."
Alexander Waverly's office was unusually crowded. Surprise. Satisfaction. Congratulations. Cheerfulness. Stellon's obvious delight.
All froze, except for two silhouettes. Walking along the street. Quickly, but carefully. Obviously on the alert. Bayle leaned his forehead against the window, and suddenly burst into laughter. A crazy, mad laughter. Hysterical. The icing on the cake... He had foreseen it. April Dancer. Free. Free and with...that Stellon. His knees gave way beneath him. How? Why? He couldn't think. He could take his gun, and shoot them. Both of them. It wouldn't be of any use. Just to make him feel better. But he saw reason: the situation had evolved... Had it really? Yes, Kuryakin was alive. Dancer had escaped... And Stellon. But, then, the mole... the mole was perhaps still there. Bayle knew that he had to go away. Dancer and Stellon were entering. They would tell and UNCLE agents would investigate and probably find his lair...
But he wouldn't give up. At least, he wasn't without resources. Thanks to Simmons...
Questions. Answers. Many questions, but not so many answers. Stellon had been shot with sleeping darts at the Survival School. He had waked up in New York. In a damp cell. He had fretted himself, tried to escape. Vainly. Until this evening. April Dancer had been abducted in the street. Near the Uncle headquarter. Almost in front of the entrance...
Waverly had got up and put an end to the meeting.
"Are you sure, Alex?
Mikey give them a sign and entered the hotel. Waverly turned to Jules Cutter inquiringly.
"Mikey will be safe..."
"Mikey isn't the problem."
"The young Stellon and Miss Dancer are at the Headquarter..."
"They could need medical examination, I know. Miss Dancer was quite pleased with this idea..."
"Mr. Solo and Mr. Kuryakin are back home, though I think that the doctor would have been happy to keep our young Russian."
"We are back to normal life, Jules."
Alexander Waverly looked out the light of the city.
"Bayle is just a man, Jules. Thrush leaders don't forgive failure. Bayle failed."
"But he almost..."
"Almost. We have been called to order. We have been taught some lessons. We'll be less ... confident. Agents are investigating around the head quarter. Bayle is going to lie low somewhere. He is cornered, Jules. We'll track him. Thrush will track him. He'd have better disappear."
"Someone told about fools, recently... Nevertheless, there is the mole."
"The mole... oh, yes, the mole."
"You suspected Stellon, didn't you?"
Waverly peeped at his friend. Yes, Stellon had been a « comfortable » suspect. He had been abducted. Or not. He could be the nasty little Indian. But he was back. He had helped April Dancer to escape.
"He was the ideal suspect. But, now, Jules, I have to think about tomorrow. I must inform Commissioner Vernon about the situation..."
"Vernon can't stomach Simmons's affair... He feels offended. He was not altogether displeased with Mr. Kuryakin's death, and with your abduction. He pestered me with that. He'll try to make trouble for us with some investigations, questionings, suspicion... His own little witch hunt... And we know the risks, Jules."
Illya Kuryakin closed the door and set the alarm. Back to normal life. He had showered, and went to sleep. He was lying still. Restless. Bayle was a disconcerting opponent, malicious, ambitious. He wasn't a Thrush agent or even a mercenary. It was an unpleasant thought. Bayle was a man who fought his own battle, with very little support from Thrush. A man whose boldness had no limits. A fool? Perhaps. A dangerous one. Waverly had dismissed them with some reassuring words. He was wrong: Bayle wasn't one to get to ground, to give up. And the mole... The Russian yawned and eventually fell asleep.
Napoleon Solo cursed. Waverly's instructions were: back to normal life. Normal life? What was an Uncle agent's normal life? He had dropped his partner, and headed to his own apartment. There were so many questions, some answerable, the others... Bayle... was Bayle: dangerous, clever, efficient, and foolishly daring. As you knew it, you could handle. The mole... Solo had suspected Stellon. Yes, the boy had been quite nice, in Mousehole. But... And a sharp little voice hissed, the honesty's voice. "You suspected him because he was a very convenient suspect." He did. Stellon, however, was apparently innocent. The sharp voice hissed again. Okay. Stellon was innocent. He had helped April to escape. Alexander Waverly had got back his Little Indians. Napoleon Solo was thinking about the strange situation: who had betrayed them? Of course, the little voice kept silent. Back to normal life... The CEA braked suddenly. What would they have done, in "normal life"? Illya Kuryakin was perfectly capable of coping with enemy on his own. As he was. But in normal life, they were partners. In normal life, they would have had dinner together. Illya had refused: he wasn't hungry, he was just exhausted. Normal life? Wise or not, Napoleon Solo made a U turn.
It was silent.
It was deserted.
It was dusty. No, not dusty. Sandy.
A strange light. Growing brighter.
Wreckage. All around him, now.
He staggered towards a dilapidated wall, and leaned against it.
Silent, deserted, dusty staircase.
He had to go down.
He knew that place.
He knew that corridor.
A hand. Bruised. Scratched. Bloodied.
Rocks, gravel, dust all around him.
And just a hand hanging out.
He pulled, he pushed, he lifted, and he tore.
Hairs. Dark hairs.
A face. Bruised, scratched, bloodied.
Someone sneering at his ears.
"You didn't make it."
Some hands grabbing him ruthlessly.
Some hands shaking him.
"Mr. Kuryakin, wake up, immediately! Mr. Kuryakin!"
He knew this voice. He had heard it, once. And it wasn't a friendly voice, no matter how soft its tone was. His hand slid under the pillow, vainly.
"Tststs, Mr. Kuryakin... Open your eyes. You are fully awake, don't try to fool me!"
The Russian blinked. The man had put on the light. It was still the night. It was his bedroom. He was... at home. The man stood beside him, playing with his gun. He knew this man. Middle aged, plain dark suit. A welcoming look. He was alone. Illya Kuryakin muttered.
"You... You are not real!"
The man grabbed a glass and threw it on the floor. It smashed into pieces.
"Did you think about my proposal? Safety. Peace. Happiness. Your Commission will investigate again, and... well, the Russian could be their favorite suspect. You know I am right. You experienced their jails, didn't you?"
The man stared at him with a very unpleasant commiseration. Illya Kuryakin remembered that gaze. And it was still very unpleasant, because the man looked genuine.
"You are not..."
The man took some steps forwards and aimed at the young man's head.
The voice was still soft, but cold. Soulless. This man wasn't real. It was a dream, a nightmare. It was, the first time he had seen him, in Napoleon's house. So, it was, again. The middle-aged man sneered.
-The problem, Mr. Kuryakin is a philosophical one: what is dream? What is reality? You have some facts for sure. And what will happen, if they are just... delusions? You hesitate? You are right."
The man put down the gun. He looked so relaxed, ingratiating, so self-confident. He was almost twenty years older then the Russian. Everything but an athlete. He was alone. Apparently no guards, this time. No fear, however. No wariness.
"As an example, Mr. Kuryakin, you believe that you have saved your partner's like, don't you? In the jail, just after the explosion. Are you really sure you did? What were the odds, Mr. Kuryakin? You are not stupid. And you are a scientist. You have gone through hell to bring him out. You have found him in a labyrinth. He was buried under various wreckages, but still alive. You, wounded, panting, choking, blind with darkness, smoke, dust, you, Mr. Kuryakin, by a miracle, you have lifted the steel door, and taken back your friend to the living. A beautiful story. A beautiful tale."
The man watched him. Still looking compassionate. But Illya Kuryakin refused to listen. Yes. By a miracle. A sort of miracle. A miracle he could name: confidence, trust, luck, hope, friendship. And, yes, Napoleon Solo was alive. He had saved him. The other shook his head.
"You didn't make it, Mr. Kuryakin. I am sorry to tell you. Your friends found you, almost dying, next to his body."
"Yes. You don't want to remember, but that's the truth."
Illya Kuryakin sat straight on the bed. The man didn't move. He didn't recoil. He just chuckled, when he saw the Russian wincing.
"You should ease up, young man."
He felt dizzy: he wanted to hit this man, with all his heart, but his strength amazingly deserted him. The man threw the gun aside, grabbed him by his shoulders, and started to shake him. Ruthlessly.
"You didn't make it. He is dead."
Illya Kuryakin heaved, his breath taken away. As if he was drowning.
At the very moment he entered the apartment, Napoleon Solo knew that something was wrong. He had rung the bell, in vain. But he had heard shocks. Cries. Damned Waverly and his optimism... He unlocked the door and rushed into the bedroom.
He held his gun, but the room was deserted, except for his partner, rolling and tossing on the bed. There were splinters of glass on the floor. Illya's gun, too. Napoleon Solo looked around one more time before coming up to his friend. He had first to ease him, then, to wake him up.
He grabbed Illya's arms and flattened him on the bed. It was amazingly easy. He released the pressure on the limp body.
"Illya. Illya, wake up. Open your eyes. Illya! You'll be fine!"
The Russian was dripping with sweat, but as Napoleon Solo checked it, he wasn't feverish. When he looked again at his partner's face, his eyes met wide open blue eyes. He read incredulity. Anxiety. And... suspicion. He smiled as reassuringly as he could and combed his hand through the disheveled and damp hair, waiting for a protest.
"It's me, Illya. Everything is okay. You made a nightmare. But now, you'll be fine."
Napoleon Solo didn't worry. His partner needed just time, a few minutes, a few seconds to get back his right mind. He would relax and...
"What are you doing here?"
Anxiety. Suspicion. The older agent put his hand on his friend's shoulder.
"Let go of my arm. Don't... don't touch me!"
"Illya, it's me. Napoleon. Illya, please."
The Russian wrenched himself free and sat back with his legs tucked under him.
"I know who you are. Leave me alone. Sorry for the trouble."
His partner spoke flatly. Napoleon Solo ignored the words, and headed to the bathroom.
"Where the hell are you going?" "I am looking for a towel, and perhaps some aspirin."
"I am fine. Leave me alone."
-You say... But you don't look like it, Illya. And, no, I won't leave you alone."
Suspicion. Anger, now.
Suddenly, the young man jumped out of the bed and staggered towards the bathroom. Green. His hand clamped over his mouth. He would probably have tried to slam the door in his partner's face, but the older agent followed close on his heels. Illya Kuryakin bent over the pan and threw up. Desperately retching. His partner wrapped his arm around his chest to support him, and whispered reassuring words. Words... didn't mind. The voice, the tone. A sort of mantra. At last, the young agent sat back and collapsed against his friend's chest. Gasping for air. Napoleon Solo grabbed a towel and gently rubbed his face. He waited for Illya to get his breath back.
"You could do with some water, okay?"
He helped him to the basin and gave him a glass of water. The Russian took it, rinsed his mouth and whispered.
"I am fine now. Please, leave me alone."
Napoleon Solo forced banter.
"Illya, partner mine, you drivel! Let's go back to your bedroom. Are you okay? Do you want some more water?"
No answer. Of course. He took hold of his arm.
"Illya, let's go, now. We can't stay here all the night."
Illya Kuryakin resisted at first but eventually gave up. Napoleon Solo dragged him into the bedroom and settled him on the pillows. His partner didn't look at him. The blue eyes were devoid of all feeling, now, with a faraway look. The older agent sat beside and turned his friend's face towards him. No opposition. No more suspicion. No more anxiety. Just... indifference.
"Illya... tell me. What happened?"
Napoleon Solo overacted an offended sigh.
"No, Illya. I already told y..."
"Definitely, no, Illya. Now, you are going to sleep, as a good little boy. Tomorrow..."
April Dancer looked daggers at the doctor. He had just told her that she was fine. Yes, she knew. She knew that she could be at her home. But Waverly's orders were clear: she had to stay there, at the Headquarter. Thank you, sir! Of course, the "young men" had been dismissed. They were peacefully at their home. She didn't ask about Stellon. He was a grown up. She suspected that Waverly wanted her to baby-sit the guy. She shrugged her shoulders and stormed out of the Medical, heading towards one of the "bedrooms"...
He helped you. No, be honest: he rescued you. If not, you would still be in that damp cell. She sighed and made a U-turn in the corridor.
Bayle carefully closed the door behind him. The apartment was very small but well stuffed. Simmons had a mind for organization. Sometimes. The real problem: what could he do? Firstly, he should report to Thrush. Or not. If he did, things were simple. He wouldn't be blamed. Thrush rarely blamed you, if you failed. No. Thrush fired you. Not in the figurative meaning.
If he didn't... He would get a little time. Oh, Thrush would know, anyway. Later. It might be sufficient. Secondly... he had to get in touch with... the mole.
"Are you... are you alive?"
Napoleon Solo was taken aback. The question was amazing. His partner's face was disconcerting. Blue eyes pierced him. The older agent raised his hands, and took hold of his friend's ones.
"I am alive, Illya. You can feel it."
The Russian squeezed the hands shyly.
"Yes, I can. But he... he told me..."
Napoleon Solo frowned. The apartment was deserted and safe.
"Who told you?"
"He told me that ... I hadn't made it. That... I hadn't saved you. That... they had found me next to your body, in the prison. And you were dead."
Illya Kuryakin released his grip and lay back on the pillows.
"But... you are not."
All but convinced. Napoleon Solo rubbed his chin. He pretended not to be worried at all. But he was. Illya Kuryakin acted as he had done, in Mousehole, when they had found him. He was distant and the worst: unsure. Unsure about his friend. Unsure about himself. Thrush drug, again? Perhaps. He hoped so. They had to fix it. Illya's future as a section 2 agent... as an UNCLE agent depended upon it.
He took a deep breath.
"Illya, listen to me: you risked your life foolishly and you saved me. By a miracle, you saved me. You made it and I am alive. We are. Both. Is that clear?"
"Trust. Luck, hope and friendship."
The Russian was out of his mind ... Napoleon Solo hesitated. His partner shook his head.
"Not a miracle, Napoleon. That's what I wanted to tell him: our trust, your luck, my hope and our friendship saved us."
"Illya, you were alone in your apartment..."
Napoleon Solo bit his lip. He should have known better. The faint smile on his friend's face disappeared.
"It frightens me, Napoleon. It was the same man I saw in your grandma's house. The same man who wore the same suit, and he made the same offer. This time, he was so angry. No, so urging. He saw that I didn't want to believe him. I repeated that he wasn't real, but..."
"And he wasn't, my friend. You were right. You knew it."
"He grabbed me, Napoleon. As you did.
"He is just a nightmare, Illya. Nothing more than a nightmare. It's the Thrush drug... You seem to be extremely sensitive. You react badly to it. That's all."
Napoleon Solo chuckled softly. Illya Kuryakin peered at him with surprise.
"You know... I never saw you fear anything in your life as an UNCLE agent... You can't fear a dream!"
Illya Kuryakin looked at him thoughtfully.
I don't fear anything... but to lose you, my friend. But he didn't phrase it.
"Now, as I already told you, you are going to be a good boy, and sleep, Illya. You need some rest. We need some rest."
Evan Stellon was reading. Sullen. April Dancer came up to him, sheepish.
"Evan, are you okay? Do you want some coffee? Some tea?"
"No, thank you, miss Dancer."
"April, please. I wanted to thank you, Evan. You rescued me and you behaved yourself extremely well. Jules Cutter can be very proud."
Strange answer. Was the young man sulking? No, he looked really puzzled. Oh... she understood.
"Evan, you are not to be blamed. Illya has been abducted; Cutter himself has been abducted... I have been... There was nothing you could do. Jules Cutter values you, really."
Evan Stellon put his book on the table, obviously worried.
"I could have... I should have done something, miss Dancer. But ... I didn't dare."
"For the last time, APRIL. What should have you done?"
"I should have reported to Mr. Waverly sooner."
Napoleon Solo pulled the sheet on his friend's body, and switched off the light. Then he settled himself in the armchair, but the moonlight bathed the room, and he got up silently, to draw the curtains.
He stopped and looked back at his friend.
"I'll draw the curtains. Do you need anything? Are you thirsty? You should really try to sleep."
Silence, again. His partner lay on his back, eyes wide opened, staring at the shadows moving on the ceiling. He was fully awake, but at least, he didn't ask him to leave.
"I was buried under this steel door, and other wreckage. I couldn't move, Illya. I could hardly breathe. There was smoke, dust, heat, and..."
No reaction. Not the slightest mark of interest.
"And I knew that the walls, around me, would collapse, sooner or later."
Still nothing. The same shallow breath. The same faraway look.
"All I had was this amazing challenge: I could guess how I would die. I knew that I was about to die. Either of suffocation. Either crushed. I knew that it was absolutely hopeless, that no one would come to save me, this time. And you know what, my friend?"
"No one would come, and I didn't want any rescue."
A move. His friend's face turned towards him.
"Because if someone came, Illya, I had for sure that it would be you. And that you would probably die with me."
Napoleon Solo walked towards the window and looked out, his back to the bedroom.
"I felt powerless. There was nothing I could do, except... breathe. I would breathe, as deeply as I could. T would breathe, swallow smoke and dust, and suffocate. And eventually I would die. On my own. Willingly. I made up my mind to do that, Illya. Just before you entered and found me."
Silence again. The dark haired man clenched his fists.
"You are talking nonsense. You are a fighter. You never give up. You wouldn't have."
Napoleon Solo couldn't help sighing with relief. His friend had recovered his speech.
"You are right."
Napoleon Solo swung around.
"Something would have held me back, at the very last moment. Hope, Illya. An absurd hope. You would come. It was a preposterous certainty. Logically, I didn't want you to come, because we would probably die. But a little voice still hissed that you would come, and save me. And..."
"And the little voice told me that you would be mad at me, if I gave up."
Illya Kuryakin was looking at him.
"You scolded me! You yelled..."
"I asked you to leave me alone. I gave you an order. And, of course, as usual, you didn't pay attention. I'll remember that forever: you... you sat down, next to me, you grabbed my hand, and you declared calmly, peacefully that we would wait together until ... the end."
"I... I couldn't have made it back alone, Napoleon."
"Why did you tell me about?"
The voice was strained, again.
"You saved me, Illya. You saved both of us. You were not late. That is reality."
"Is it? I don't know."
Napoleon Solo cursed.
"The hell with that, Illya. We'll cope with Bayle, the mole... and the nightmares!"
The Russian kept silent.
Napoleon Solo wasn't worried anymore. He was frightened. Illya looked as if he was somewhere else. Worse. He was someone else. Honestly, the older agent had to admit it. His friend was the mere shadow of his former self. A convincing shadow, convincing enough, according to the UNCLE doctors. But what had happened had obviously pushed him over the edge. Those dreams, those nightmares, this man who offered him just... a normal life, were perhaps the outward sign of his own wishes. A normal life. A family.
Mikey... Mikey was right. Illya was a scientist. A brilliant one. He could easily work in a lab, teach. He could leave the UNCLE.
"I can't keep on doing that."
Napoleon Solo frowned.
"What the hell are you talking about, Illya?"
The Russian sat straight on the bed. The dark haired agent stood against the faint light. He could see his friend's face. So serious. So resigned.
"I can't do it anymore. The job. I can't be an agent any longer, Napoleon. You can't rely on me. I am not even able to tell reality from dream."
"I'll resign, Napoleon. There is nothing else I can do."
Napoleon Solo burst into a violent anger. He feigned it, more or less.
"You won't resign, my Russian friend: you'll quit. Say it, partner mine. Should I say "ex-partner"? After all these years, I thought I knew you. But, no. You fear nightmares! And you run away, like a whining child. You are a quitter! A coward!"
No one could tell that to Illya Kuryakin and survive. Napoleon Solo stiffened, waiting his partner's reaction.
"So, go away. Leave me alone."
"Everybody admired you... Now, Alex, you are definitely their hero. A legend!"
A legend! Oh, he could do without that! He didn't deserve any greeting. Whatever happened... happened, and he didn't play a part in it. He tossed and turned in his bed.
They were delighted. Thrilled. But what thrilled them was worrying him. He was careful, very careful about miracles. All that was amazing. Jules Cutter's story... Evan Stellon's story... Jules Cutter slept in the next bedroom. Jules Cutter was beyond suspicion. About the young Evan, April Dancer wasn't pleased with his order, but he knew that she would take time to talk with the young man.
Back to normal life? Come on...
Despite his own words, Alexander Waverly was still doubtful. Suspicious. This affair involved people he trusted; Evan Stellon would have been a quite satisfying culprit. He was not. Probably. Jules Cutter valued the young Stellon. Jules Cutter knew men. And Illya Kuryakin...obviously relieved, delighted to see April Dancer and Evan Stellon alive.
"You should have ... what, Evan?"
The young man looked around.
"We are alone. And this is the UNCLE headquarter. The safest place in the world!"
He peered at the door, behind her. April Dancer sighed and closed it. He was troubled.
"I am not sure I can tell you, Miss Dancer."
Illya Kuryakin got up, and headed to the door. He had spoken softly, but his face betrayed one feeling: sadness.
"Illya, please, I..."
"—I didn't mean it. What I said, was just to bully you."
"But I meant what I said. Leave me alone."
The two men stood, face to face. Napoleon Solo took some steps aside, so that he wouldn't be against the light. He wanted his friend to see his face.
"You won't resign, Illya. No, listen to me: you won't leave UNCLE, because you love that job."
The Russian startled, ready to deny, but the older agent shook his head.
"No, listen! Of course, you, my friend, you could do many things else: research, teaching... Not as the poor me: dress designer... or..."
Napoleon Solo postured conceitedly.
The Russian bit his lip but he couldn't help smiling. It was a ghost of a smile... but a smile.
"Oh, yes, thank you! You forgot it! I could be an actor!"
Illya Kuryakin raised his eyebrows.
"You were not asleep... I suspected it. But as you didn't react to the dress designer...
Silence again. Napoleon Solo broke it.
"Illya, my friend, there is nothing to be done and said: you can't resign. Anyway..."
He came up to him.
"Anyway... you can't do that now. We have to get rid of Bayle. I need my partner, Illya. So you are going to forget your melancholic Slav way of thinking for awhile. I told you: we'll cope with that. Together. Remember Waverly's words: back to normal life."
"Arrogant, self-assured American."
"You forgot: optimistic, my gloomy Russian. So, Illya?"
The said gloomy Russian headed to the window and looked out.
"And if I am unable to fix it, Napoleon?"
He walked towards his friend, and stood behind him. He carefully laid a hand on Illya Kuryakin's shoulder.
"Everything will be okay. Trust me."
He heard his partner sighing, and felt his body relaxing.
April Dancer smiled and nudged the young man.
"Evan... I trust you, and I trusted you in this house. You could have been..."
Evan Stellon's voice turned harsh. Instantaneously, he clamped his hand on his mouth and blushed.
"I ... am sorry, Miss Dancer. I didn't want to yell, but..."
He peeked at her with a miserable look.
-I am not stupid. I thought about it. I... I am sure that you, all of you... you suspect me to be the mole. Except, perhaps..."
April Dancer dragged Evan Stellon to the table, and motioned him to sit down. He kept silent, his lips clenched. She ended his phrase.
"Except for ... Illya? Illya Kuryakin?"
The young man nodded. April Dancer filled two mugs with coffee and sat down in front of him. She had to be honest. "You are right, Evan. Whichever way we turned, and we came to the same conclusion: there was a mole, and unfortunately, the mole was probably one of us."
"Why not ... the guy from Mousehole?"
Evan Stellon spoke with a bitter voice, now.
"You... you were the most satisfying suspect, Evan. But it was quite unfair. And you are right again: Illya... Illya values you.
They sipped their coffee, and kept silent. An uncomfortable silence, and April Dancer felt uneasy. The young man pursed his lips.
"Evan, we were wrong. You rescued me, and we know that you are innocent. We trust you. We'll have to think about what happened, but you have to be sure of that: we trust you."
Evan Stellon, at last, smiled at her with obvious relief. Then, he frowned.
"I don't know..."
"You give me the cold shoulder. I can understand, but..."
Evan Stellon took a deep breath.
"It happened at the Survival School, miss Dancer. I saw a man. Twice. I knew him, well, er... his face. I had already met him. At the jail. With Mr. Bayle."
April Dancer sighed impatiently and replied flatly.
"All you had to do was to report to Jules Cutter, Evan!"
The young man shook his head, sheepish.
"That... That, miss Dancer, I couldn't..."
The young woman stared at him with a complete lack of understanding. Evan Stellon went on, whispering.
"The man... I saw him twice... He was talking with Mr. Cutter."
Napoleon Solo just squeezed the shoulder and they remained motionless for a long time. Imperceptibly, Illya Kuryakin leaned against his partner's body. The older agent chuckled and gently whispered, as he noticed the eyes closed.
"Illya, my friend, indulge me, let's go to bed. I know that you are able to fell asleep anywhere... including standing up against a wall... or apparently against me... But your bed will be more comfortable."
Evan Stellon watched his mug relentlessly. He had said what he had to say. He didn't really expect April Dancer to believe him. But he had no choice. He felt her look on him.
He concentrated himself on the white mug, rubbing the earthenware, as to wipe a mark.
"Evan, do you realize what you are suggesting?"
He raised his head, meeting April Dancer's piercing look. He clenched his fists, breathed, and answered, defiantly.
"I don't suggest anything, miss Dancer. You asked. I told."
April Dancer was disturbed. She stared at the young man, thoughtfully. He didn't avert his eyes...
"Evan... Jules Cutter moved heaven and earth in order to help Illya. I think you remember that. He went to see him, in the jail. He could have made contact with some people, there, and..."
Evan Stellon cut in, ruthlessly.
"You don't understand, miss. This man didn't work there. When he came, he was a visitor, as Mr. Cutter. He met either the governor, or Mr. Bayle."
"What's his name?"
He rolled his eyes.
"I don't know, miss Dancer. I was just a guard... I worked mostly at the entrance. I saw people, but they didn't pay attention, and they didn't talk to me. I worked in the Security wing for one week, when I have been asked to take Mr. Kuryakin to the governor's office, because he was going to be freed. Then, I ..."
"Did you see Jules Cutter and this man at the same time, there?"
"I told you, miss. When I worked outside, I just saw people entering, going away. Sometimes, I led them to the governor's office. Or to Mr. Bayle's... No, I had never seen Mr. Cutter and this man together, in the jail. But ... it could have happened."
April Dancer felt more and more uneasy. Stellon's story was based on "I saw..." She frowned.
"Evan, what happened, yet, at the Survival School? You say you saw the same man? Are you sure? What were you doing next to Cutter's office?"
She stared at him, looking for some trouble. She saw some embarrassment.
"The first time... We had been told that ... Mr. Kuryakin... had been shot. I... I wanted to ask ... if I could attend... well... Mr. Kuryakin's funeral."
The young man whispered, and ended as if he was out of breath. So obviously confused... So obviously genuine. April Dancer softened her tone.
"Evan, what happened?"
"I saw the man, miss Dancer. He was talking with Mr. Cutter. They walked towards the office. I... sheltered myself behind a bush. Then, I saw him twice, with Mr. Cutter."
""Then"? So, were you watching at Cutter?"
He muttered, sheepishly, blushing with confusion.
"Yes, miss. And eventually, I decided to report to Mr. Waverly. I managed to call him but..."
April Dancer drummed her fingers impatiently. She thanked again the Old Man for the gift.
"Mr. Cutter can't be a traitor, miss. It's... Mr. Cutter! When we entered Mr. Waverly's office, Mr. Cutter was really surprised, and he was glad to see me."
The young woman was abashed. Evan Stellon was so genuinely naive. She realized that he didn't want to accuse Jules Cutter. He just wanted to be... reassured.
"You are right. Jules Cutter was glad to see you. They were. Tomorrow, you'll talk with Mr. Waverly about that. Don't worry."
She forced a gentle smile at the young man, who looked relieved. She wasn't. She remembered Jules Cutter's face, when he had seen Evan Stellon. Surprise, yes. Doubt... distrust... and something like... trouble. In a blink of an eye. Later, satisfaction, cheer...
A debt. He owed a part of his life to this man. No, he owed him his whole life, and it was uncomfortable. In his world, gratitude wasn't the rule. It was a debt of honor. He had told the man he would remember. He knew that the man didn't expect such a promise to be kept, and he had surely forgotten it. But this was about ... conscience. Conscience wasn't the rule, either. He sighed with a guilty relief. Someone had said that one's debt died with him. It was about the debtor. Anyway, if the creditor died, it wasn't so bad.
"I am not sleeping, Napoleon...
"Yes, you are, my friend. You are exhausted. Come on."
The Russian let his friend drag him towards the bed, but he just sat down.
"You said that everything was okay, but you don't believe a word of it, do you?"
Napoleon Solo sat beside him and turned in frustration to his partner. But Illya Kuryakin's face was just... concerned.
"What do you mean, Illya?"
"Back to normal life. Nothing happened: I came back, Jules Cutter came back, Mickey came back, April came back and..."
The Russian stopped, obviously waiting for his partner to end the list.
"Evan Stellon came back."
Blue eyes stared at Solo's, insistently. The older agent averted his look, cursing the moonlight.
"Evan Stellon, Napoleon... was such a convenient suspect. I know that, and... I know why, but..."
"But you couldn't believe it."
Illya Kuryakin sighed.
"This place was inhuman, Napoleon."
The older agent couldn't help startling.
"You can't guess it, my friend. I ... I had been abducted, locked in dreadful places. I had been beaten, tortured. I can tell you. The worst of our enemies, Napoleon, is more pitiful than that place."
Napoleon Solo froze. He listened wordlessly. It was the first time that his partner spoke about the jail so... genuinely, and so painfully.
"Thrush torturers, executioners are enemies. They hate us. They push us. We can resist, we can fight. There..."
The Russian hesitated, and reluctantly went on.
"Napoleon, I didn't exist. Oh, they didn't harm me. Physically. Never. Nothing. No one you could fight against. They were always... at an arm's length. They ignored me."
"And that light..."
"Illya, I saw it. Evan ... Evan showed me the cell. He told me."
Illya Kuryakin shook his head. He had to tell it.
-They never talked to me. But they watched me, Napoleon. They watched me. Night and day. All the time. Whatever I did, they watched me. When I ate. When I showered. When... I ... had to..."
The Russian's voice faltered. Napoleon Solo felt powerless. However, he whispered.
"Don't, Illya. Don't. I saw the cell... I understand."
"You don't. You can't."
Illya Kuryakin took a deep breath.
"I should have fought them. But I gave up. I..."
"They would have shot you, Illya. You couldn't escape."
"I could have begged them to kill me, Napoleon. But I was ... elsewhere. Everything seemed so useless to me. And I knew that I deserved my fate: I was a murderer. A traitor."
Napoleon Solo yelled.
"No, you were not!"
"I believed I was, Napoleon. Jules Cutter came for me, but I couldn't tell him anything. Evan Stellon... He said my name. Just my name. Then, he talked to me. He was polite, gentle. Without motivation. It was no use to him. He told you about Mikey and Mousehole. He couldn't be the mole."
Illya Kuryakin tried to stand upright but felt himself restrained by his partner.
"I am grateful towards him, Illya, for all he did for you."
"He was a so convenient, so comfortable suspect. I know why, Napoleon. I... I have been, too. You suspected him, and.... you still do. I can read you so well, Napoleon. You can't try and fool me."
"You don't read suspicion, you read uncertainty."
The phone rang and it jolted Bayle back to his senses. He hesitated, but eventually chose to answer: it could be the mole. It could be his Trush correspondent.
"So, Mr. Bayle... you wouldn't, by any chance, have anything to tell us?"
The voice was harsh, harsh... and urgent. The man was obviously upset. So ... he already knew.
"Mr. Bayle? Are you still there? Didn't I hear, recently, about Mr. Kuryakin's death? So, could you explain how the said dead Mr. Kuryakin could be back to the UNCLE HQ? Fully alive? No, apparently... you can't."
Bayle cleared his throat.
"A combination of circumstances, sir. But I'll handle the situation, myself. I'll.."
"Oh, no, no, you won't, Bayle. Listen carefully: you know and I know what happened. You failed. We hate failure. But I'll be indulgent with you. You are going to... disappear. Really. This affair, well, we'll say: end game."
Bayle was taken aback.
"End game, Mr. Bayle. Definitely."
Illya Kuryakin was sitting cross-legged on the bed, leaning against the wall. Napoleon Solo didn't move, with the back to his friend. They kept silent. None of them was dozing.
"Evan Stellon was there for you. So was Mikey."
Lost in thought, Illya Kuryakin startled. The voice was amazingly absent-minded. Ther was no more warmth in his friend's tone.
"They helped you. All of them. Stellon, Mikey, Cutter, April... and Waverly, of course."
The Russian was at a loss for words. Napoleon Solo was just phrasing. He talked to himself. Suddenly, the older agent turned to him.
"It's late, Illya. You were right. I'll leave you alone and go back home."
And his friend saw him walking towards the door, picking up his jacket.
"Napoleon, what the hell are you doing?"
Napoleon Solo stopped, and answered, still the back to his partner. At least, he had stopped.
"I am just doing what you asked me to do for two hours, Illya."
The voice was now strangely strained. He wasn't angry, no, he sounded bitter. Illya Kuryakin came up to him, next to the door, and took hold of his arm. Napoleon Solo stiffened, but didn't turn towards his partner.
"Look at me. What's wrong?"
—"Let me go, Illya. Everything is all right. I am fine, just a little tired. The day has been long."
Illya Kuryakin released his grip, but let his hand on the arm. He could feel his tension. "They helped you. All of them. Stellon, Mikey, Cutter, April... and Waverly.". Of course, he should have guessed it.
"Look at me. Please. Yes, they helped me. All of them. I know it. So did you. As you have done, this night. As... you always did, as you always do."
Napoleon Solo took a deep breath, gently pulling away his friend's hand. At last, he turned to him.
"I saw the prison, the awful cell. If I had been locked in this jail..."
The Russian shook his head, and the blond hair flew in the silver light of the moon.
"Oh, please, no, Napoleon! You already told me that, it's stupid!"
"No chance. You would have found a way to ..."
"No, no, no, Napoleon. I wouldn't. You did so much... More than you had to. You saved my life, you saved my ... existence! You..."
"Yousaved my life, Illya."
Illya Kuryakin sighed.
"As usual, my friend. I am so good at it..."
The Russian gave a meaningful smile.
"It's late, Napoleon. Too late for arguing. I have a spare room. This way, my friend."
Napoleon Solo hesitated.
"No, I can't..."
Illya Kuryakin's countenance was surprisingly calm. He smiled gently, but his voice didn't allow any discussion.
Alexander Waverly woke up. He felt dizzy, as you feel when you sleep soundly, and then, suddenly awake. The house was silent, but the Section one, Number one pulled out his gun. You could be out of the field... As long as you worked for UNCLE, you had your gun under your pillow. It made his wife mad. It wasn't very romantic, but habit was a second nature. He got up, grabbed his flashlight and walked out of the bedroom. He didn't know exactly what happened. Probably nothing. Probably, he was going to make a fool of himself, if he woke up Jules Cutter. Footsteps? Voices? He had heard something... or he was getting too old for those games. He slowly went down to the living room. Eventually, he lit up. The house was silent; he was obviously the only one wandering along. He sighed and sat down on his armchair. Too old for the job... Retirement...
Amazingly, there were rules, concerning the agents. Not really concerning the Section one Number one. Alexander Waverly shrugged bitterly his shoulders. Apparently, people relied on the leader's own judgment. Barely logical. Hardly wise. «The Old Man »... Waverly sneered at himself. He knew that they called him « the Old Man ». A sign? No, the name went with the job... «The Old Man» could be 40 years old... And perhaps, some day... it could be ... a woman. Waverly shook his head. It was late, and he needed to sleep. His communicator's beep caused him to jerk. He caught it.
"Mr. Waverly? Is everything okay, sir?"
Of course... they had seen the light... they checked. He sighed.
"Yes, yes, everything is okay."
"So, that's fine, sir. I am sorry the noise disturbed you."
"Yes, Mr. Cutter had to go back to the Survival School, but he didn't want to wake you up."
"What do you say?"
Alexander Waverly was foaming. He looked daggers at the poor guards sheepishly standing in front of him. So, Jules Cutter had left the house. Apparently, he had been called back to the School. And those stupid... had just helped him! He forced himself to calm down. Of course, those men knew Jules Cutter. They ... they had no reason to suspect him. The governor of the Survival School. One of the Old Man's closest friends... He was the one to be blamed. He dismissed the guards, with a softer tone.
Cutter's face, when he had seen Evan Stellon... Surprise. Doubt. Trouble, Then, smile, satisfaction, cheer. It could have been because they had lost the most convenient suspect. It could be something else. Cutter had probably his communicator... Of course, he had. Of course, he could be on his way to the School. He didn't answer.
They wouldn't know what Napoleon Solo was about to say. His communicator beeped.
Automatically, Illya Kuryakin went back to the bedroom, in order to dress up. If Alexander Waverly called in the middle of the night—Well... he looked at his watch. A little after the middle of the night, it was rarely to ask you if you slept well, or to wish you a good night. Napoleon Solo followed him, still listening at Waverly.
"Did you call the airport? The School, sir?"
"Of course not, Mr. Solo. I don't want to create one more buzz... I'll call them tomorrow. I want you to pick up Mr. Kuryakin. You'll check the airport."
"Jules Cutter is probably on his way to the Survival School. His communicator could be out of order. If I call... and if he is not... We have to be discreet, Mr. Solo, and careful. Our friends from the Commission would like that..."
"Oh, yes, sir. We are leaving immediately."
Illya Kuryakin was waiting for Solo's explanations. The older agent gave him notice of Waverly's worry, while they left the apartment and picked up the car.
"Yes, I know."
April Dancer had to choose one way or another. She could wait. Evan Stellon would talk to Waverly a few hours later. She could do something. Right now. She could report. Immediately. In the other hand, she wasn't eager to call Alexander Waverly in the middle of the night. Stellon's story was disturbing, yes... But it was also hazy. Logically, she had one option, she could contact the CEA. Or she could call Illya... But she wasn't one to bear a grudge.
They kept silent. April was now reporting to the Old Man. Illya Kuryakin drove, and his partner stared at the strained profile. The Russian looked straight on. He felt Napoleon Solo's gaze, but concentrated himself on the road.
"Jules Cutter doesn't answer, Napoleon. We are wasting time."
"What do you mean?"
Illya Kuryakin rubbed his forehead.
"What I mean? If Jules Cutter was on his way to the School, he would answer. He has his communicator. No doubt. If he doesn't answer..."
"If he doesn't..."
"—He must be in trouble."
"Or we... could be in trouble, Illya."
No comment. Just a pout.
Waverly. They were wasting time. After April Dancer's report, the Old Man had called the airport. Jules Cutter wasn't there. They had to come back to the Headquarter. Illya Kuryakin made a U-turn without a word.
They were all in Waverly's office, again, exhausted. Evan Stellon sat beside the sketcher, and depicted the man he had seen. Waverly puffed at his empty pipe. April Dancer and Napoleon Solo sipped their coffee. Illya Kuryakin leaned against the wall, with a faraway look.
Disappear. "I'll be indulgent with you..." Bayle could hardly breathe. Indulgent? No. Stupid. No, not stupid. The shock had hit him like a punch in the stomach. But now, he could think again. This man should have been mad at him. He should have threatened him. He should have ... And he hadn't. He had scolded him, as if Bayle was a naughty child. It was not a logical Thrush habit. The man wasn't really angry. He sounded bothered. Bothered with—Bayle was almost sure of it—with a hint of relief. This man had his own secrets. At least, Bayle was safe, for the moment. He had been given a free hand. End game? How interesting! But he wanted to play. Again. And he would win.
The sketcher put the sheet of paper on the desk. Evan Stellon leaned forward.
"Yes, sir. That's him."
Napoleon Solo picked up the drawing, peeped at it, and handed it to Alexander Waverly. The Old Man stared at it, and then gave it back to his CEA. The Russian was still lost in thought.
"Mr. Solo? Check our files, with Mr. Kuryakin."
Napoleon Solo nodded, and they went out of the office. At least, the computer would help them to consult all the files.
"Illya? Are you okay? You look terrible..."
"I am sorry to tell you, but so do you, Napoleon. Show me this paper. Thanks to the computer, we..."
Napoleon Solo looked at his partner with surprise. What he saw made him froze. The young man had bleached, his hands shook, and he dropped the paper. He staggered back to the wall. Out of breath. On the edge to pass out.
"I know this man, Napoleon. I know him. It's the man I saw in my dream. It's him."
"Do you understand? He ... he is real. He exists. It's him!"
And he burst into laughter. Napoleon Solo shivered... All that was enough to drive anyone mad. He came up to his friend and hugged him tightly. He couldn't see anything else to do. The Russian didn't struggle, and eventually calmed down, though still panting. Napoleon Solo didn't release the hug.
A suppressed voice hissed.
"Ease up, Illya, my friend..."
"No, you don't understand, Napoleon. I dreamt about this man, and he seemed to me so real. He talked to me, he knew things about me, and he touched me. And... he wasn't real. I thought... I thought I was going crazy. So did you, my friend. But..."
Illya Kuryakin pushed his partner away, and picked up the drawing.
-But this is my man, Napoleon. He exists. He is real. Oh, don't look at me like that. Evan saw him, in the jail. You know, it might have happened that I met him there. I don't remember, but he came back in my dreams. Napoleon, believe me.
He paused to breathe.
"I don't remember his face. But... his voice... No. His tone. His delivery. His diction. I feel kind of familiar with them."
The older agent ran his fingers through his dark hair. He looked unusually undecided. Evan Stellon had precisely depicted the man he had seen, at first in the jail, then at the Survival School. Stellon's story was hazy. It could be a trick. Evan Stellon could be the mole, and the mole Stellon could have planned it to compromise Cutter. At least, to sow suspicion. No, Illya recognized the man. He sure did, and Napoleon Solo trusted his friend. So Evan Stellon was an honest man, Illya wasn't going mad and Jules Cutter... The dark haired agent frowned.
His partner looked at him warily.
"We have to tell Mr. Waverly, Illya."
Jules Cutter sighed. On a brief moment, he wondered whether he was right or wrong. It was pure gamble. But this time, he couldn't afford to lose. Stellon... Stellon was the problem. Stellon's story. What he wanted to say to Waverly, when he had been abducted, Cutter didn't know what it was about. But he knew that he wouldn't like it. He needed time. Little time. And free hands.
Evan Stellon and April Dancer were studying files. Waverly had ordered them to replace the two agents, under the pretext that it was logical: after all, Stellon was the one who had seen, the one who knew the man's face.
In the office, the Old Man was silent. The atmosphere was tense. Waverly stared at the two agents.
"And when, Mr. Kuryakin, did you intend to tell me about those strange... dreams?"
The voice was harsh and the question sharp. The man was angry, rightly angry, Napoleon Solo thought. However, he wouldn't let his friend fend for himself. He knew, too, and he could have reported...
Waverly looked daggers at him.
"Mr. Solo, please! If you really wish to stay in this room..."
The threat was clear. Napoleon Solo gave up.
Waverly turned towards his Russian agent.
"So, Mr. Kuryakin?
The young man smiled faintly at his partner. Then, he took a deep breath.
"At first, sir... I thought that it was just a nightmare.
Those silent places. Deserted. Dusty. Illya Kuryakin spoke with a dull voice. As unconcerned. Lifeless, soulless. The street. Del Floria's shop. The Headquarter. And later, the island. The jail. Deserted, silent, except for the footsteps. And the voice.
In spite of his obvious intention of being as detached as possible, the Russian's delivery betrayed his feelings. Alexander Waverly listened. Impassive. He wouldn't help.
"... and he was dead, sir. Napoleon was dead. I had been late. The voice told me that... I hadn't made it and... It was my fault... and..."
Waverly cut in harshly.
-That's what you rightly called a nightmare, Mr. Kuryakin. As you can see, Mr. Solo is here, and apparently alive. What about the man Mr. Stellon depicted?"
Illya Kuryakin sighed.
"Another dream. Another... nightmare, sir."
Waverly impatiently shook his fingers.
The man, middle aged. So kind, so likeable, the first time. And his extraordinary offer. So ruthless, a few hours ago. Threatening. But still the same offer. A normal life.
Alexander Waverly listened. Wordlessly. Impassive. The young Russian spoke and never averted his eyes. He was obviously unflinching in his desire to tell the facts. Precisely. Whatever the risk. Whatever the price. Waverly noticed Napoleon Solo's trouble. He went back to his desk, got his pipe, and stared at it. Again, a heavy silence. Then, the Old Man spoke softly.
"Our doctors told me that you were fine, Mr. Kuryakin. That you could be back on full duty. In the field. I hesitated, Mr. Kuryakin. And eventually, I decided to trust them."
Alexander Waverly turned towards his agent.
"And to trust you..."
The same lifeless, white voice and the same fathomless blue eyes. Napoleon Solo quivered.
"I have already told Napoleon that I would resign, sir. You rightly expect me to leave, and..."
Alexander Waverly was calmly filling his pipe, but he cut in.
"Is that what you want, Mr. Kuryakin? Really? So, eventually, our enemy knows you well."
He lit the pipe and puffed it.
"So, Mr. Kuryakin, I ask you: is that what you want? A normal life?"
Illya Kuryakin was puzzled. Waverly's reaction was disconcerting. No more anger.
"I told you that once, sir. What I want, what I like... doesn't matter, does it? You can't rely on me. You can't trust me. When I left the jail, I wanted to disappear, then, I wanted to resign. I should have..."
-You are hiding behind vain assertions, Mr. Kuryakin. That's very unusual. What do you want, really? This normal life this man offered you? We can offer you the same, young man. You know that. Or..."
Alexander Waverly paused to stare at his dumbfounded agent. Napoleon Solo didn't even dare to breathe.
"Or... you can go on doing your job, Mr. Kuryakin. It means that you could actually try to trust your friends. And your superior. So?"
Illya Kuryakin was at a loss for... all.
"You are an excellent agent, Mr. Kuryakin. I won't enumerate your skills. But you have some shortcomings, too, and the worst of them, the most dangerous, Illya... is your inability to ask for help. It recently almost destroyed you. So?"
The Russian hesitated and shook his head, causing Waverly and Napoleon Solo to frown.
"I can't believe that Jules Cutter is a traitor, sir."
Alexander Waverly sighed, and pointed at the drawing.
"You met this man, Mr. Kuryakin. He is familiar to you. And amazingly rather helpful. You didn't meet him as an enemy."
"I have a good memory, sir. An eidetic memory. But I really don't remember his face. I am afraid that April and Evan won't find anything about him in our files. Perhaps... perhaps, he is not a Thrush agent..."
Napoleon Solo rolled his eyes.
"Of course, he is a Thrush agent, Illya. I know that you often work on the computer files. However, you can't remember all the faces... I am sure that April and the young Stellon..."
"Jules Cutter is not a traitor."
And you are an UNCLE agent, my friend! Sneaky Waverly...
Jules Cutter settled himself in the car, and watched at the deserted street. Deserted... for the moment. He was sure that the man would go out, and he intended to follow him.
A discouraged Evan Stellon moaned.
"Nothing, miss Dancer. I don't find him."
"Neither do I, Evan. Let's report to Mr. Waverly."
Jules Cutter sneered: April Dancer, Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin were leaving the Headquarter, quite careless. He pulled out his gun and aimed at them. He could shoot them, straight right. He sighed, putting the gun on the seat.
Bayle took a deep breath. He felt... satisfied. Satisfied was the word. He knew now what he would do. Simmons had been arrogant. He had confronted the UNCLE agents, leaving them the territorial advantage. It was a fateful mistake. One he wouldn't make. The funniest was that they gave him the idea. The greatest weakness of all the UNCLE agents: they cared about innocents. Unknown innocents. So, when the innocent was a friend... and a close friend...
"Oh, no, boys. I am exhausted. You'll drop me at home. I am a big girl, now, and I can live on my own. And you should sleep, too. You look terrible. Both of you."
"Good night!" Not very wise. The night... Good dawn, rather. Waverly ordered them to rest, a few hours. They were scheduled at 1O a.m., unless something would happen. As they went out, he had taken hold of Napoleon Solo's arm, and just peeked at the young Russian. The message was clear. Napoleon Solo had to take care of his partner. The older agent chuckled. Of course, he would. He always did.
Illya Kuryakin whispered.
"The Old Man is wrong, Napoleon. I... I trust my friends."
"But not your superior..."
"Of course, I trust him!"
"But you hate to depend upon other people..."
"I... I rely on you, Napoleon. As you rely on me."
"Yes, you do. But you don't like it."
"Neither do you, my friend. You know, I think that Mikey is a bad influence... He read me so easily... and now, Waverly does."
"And I do."
"You always did. I suppose you won't leave me alone? I have seen Waverly's look, you know?"
"So, let's go at your home. It's closer, and I guess you'll have something to eat..."
Illya Kuryakin was dozing. He wouldn't sleep, he knew it. Not really. He feared to sleep, because he feared to dream.
"You are not courageous, if you are not afraid. You are just unaware of the danger"
The old Vassili had phrased it. Sententiously. All the young men, around him had agreed. Vassili had looked around, obviously listening at them, staring at them. His eyes had fallen on the young blond boy, with a piercing look. "What do you think?" Illya Kuryakin remembered his answer. You didn't lie to Vassili. "When you fight for your life, fear is a waste of time you can't afford." Vassili's comment had been sharp. "You are a character, Kuryakin." and the others had sneered.
But he was right. His opinion had been proven to be true.
Being aware of the danger. Evaluating it. Acting.
It was an efficient strategy.
Firstly, when you feared for someone else. Someone you cared about. Your partner. Your friend.
Secondly, when you couldn't evaluate the danger. Because, perhaps, there was no danger. Because, perhaps, there were no enemy. And you were betrayed. Abducted. Almost killed.
Illya Kuryakin sighed. In every society, people dedicated themselves... (or sometimes... were dedicated) to various arts of fight. You made the most of your skills. You had to be ready. Ready to kill, to be killed. You tried to compensate your shortcomings. Vassili... "Trust no one. Trust yourself." Cutter...
Napoleon Solo stood in the doorway.
"I can hear you thinking from my bed, tovarish."
"I've been feeling a little strange, lately, Napoleon."
Jules Cutter blinked. This moment was the special one. No longer the night. Not yet the day. The moment you fell asleep while watching. The moment the enemy could take advantage of it. The moment you were shot. The moment you gave up. The moment you died. He rubbed his neck energetically, suddenly fully awaken. His prey had just appeared, as careless as the three others. This one, at least tried to leave the Headquarter, as discreetly as he could. Jules Cutter prepared to tail the guy. He was good at it.
Remembering... Remembering was the worst. He had left the US for three years. He had changed his look. His face. He had buried his memories. His promise. So far, so long. Last year, he had come back. He had to work with ... Simmons. A brilliant agent, who infiltrated UNCLE. More precisely, the Commission. Simmons was a brilliant agent, his plan very malicious. He might have succeeded. The man had not any guilt feeling about the Commissioner's failure. Whatever he could have ordered... had only one purpose. An opportunity to honor his promise, vainly.
Then, the UNCLE agents had defeated Simmons. He had thought eventually that he had even things up. And... no. Bayle... Bayle had taken over from Simmons. Simmons was ambitious, an individualist. Bayle wasn't ambitious. He was arrogant, and, above all... crazy. Mad. Extremely dangerous. He wouldn't give up. He wouldn't disappear. The man knew for sure that Bayle was already on the warpath. Again. Luckily, he could still rely on his friend.
Jules Cutter knew the district like the back of his hand. The taxi driver was soundly asleep in Cutter's car. Jules Cutter drove the yellow cab. A prowling taxi could go unnoticed. He turned. Turned again. His prey walked at a brisk pace. He passed him... and cursed. The man was hailing him... Cutter grabbed the driver's cap, on the seat. He ought to seize the opportunity.
Napoleon Solo frowned.
"Are you okay? Do you need something?"
Certainties, Illya Kuryakin thought. What could he answer? He felt grateful, of course, for his friend's concern, but...
"You fear to sleep..."
The Russian shivered.
"Because you fear to dream. I know you, Illya."
Illya Kuryakin sighed.
"Yes. Fear. I am afraid."
Napoleon Solo came up to the bed, and sat down. His friend's features betrayed his feelings. Surprise, guilt. And shame.
"You saved my life, in Mikey's home. One of the Trush men shot you. Do you remember that?"
"You mocked at me, about my inability to survive without you to watch my back. Then... you passed out."
"Mikey called a doctor. He took care of you. I kept vigil over you, for hours. You were feverish; you tossed and turned in that bed. Then, you eventually fell asleep. I thought... I left you...one minute. When I came back, you were leaning back against the wall, clutching at the bookshelves. Eyes closed. Pale, Illya, so pale. So ..."
Illya Kuryakin has hissed the word, with a venomous tone.
"Brave. You were fighting doubts, drugs, pain..."
Napoleon Solo chose to ignore.
"I called you, but you didn't react. I helped you to the bed."
"I gave you water. I ... pampered you and you didn't complain about it but you kept your eyes closed. You didn't sleep. You were not unconscious. You... clenched your eyelids, as firmly as you could. I saw that. You didn't want to open your eyes. And you eventually told me..."
"Thank you... And you answered that I was welcome."
"And you opened your eyes."
And I saw you, Illya Kuryakin thought. Instead of what, he asked flatly.
"Why are you reminding me of that?"
"Then you asked me to stay with you. So, now, I'll stay there. And you'll sleep. And you won't dream. Because you'll know that I am here. Alive. Shhhh! You have no choice. We need some rest. Both of us."
And the older agent laid beside his partner, waiting for a struggle, some protests. He just heard a sad whispering.
-You mother the poor little boy who is afraid of the dark..."
"I help, I support my closest friend, the way he did for me so many times... Indulge me, Illya. Okay?"
The boy looked troubled. He didn't pay any attention to the driver, looking back, as if he feared to be followed. Cutter hesitated: he could easily overcome the young man, bring him back to the Headquarter and definitely clear the air. It was reasonable, but ineffective. He could stake his all on that. He could track down the guy's chief. Not reasonable, but effective. Effective and... satisfying. The boy was still looking back. They were reaching their destination. Cutter slowed down and parked the car, waiting for the fare. The boy leaned forward, handing a bill. And for the first time, Cutter's eyes met Stellon's in the rear-view. The boy didn't look troubled anymore. Just ... amused. The mischievous smile of a man who just played a rotten trick on you. And Cutter blacked out.
When he became conscious, he was almost comfortably settled in an armchair. Comfortably, except for the bounds restraining him. Stellon wasn't there. He fidgeted, testing the bounds.
"You won't make it, Mr. Cutter. You'd have better to ease yourself."
A middle aged man, whose tone pointed an obvious authority, came up to Jules Cutter.
"Who are you?"
The man sneered.
"The typical UNCLE agent's arrogance. Do you think you are in a position to ask anything, Mr. Cutter? Anyway, I'll be happy to indulge you. You can call me... John Doe. Don't look daggers at me, it doesn't upset me, you know."
Jules Cutter was angry. He was mad, mad at himself. He had been careless.
"Don't worry, Mr. Cutter. You tried something, and it didn't work. That's life."
"Enough! What do you want? Where is this...?"
"Shhhhh... Mr. Stellon ... Mr. Stellon is carrying out my orders. And that, Mr. Cutter, is none of your business. All I want is to talk with you!"
Jules Cutter harrumphed with despise. The said Doe shook his head. He looked irritated. Good news... The man was worried, peeping at his watch. He wasn't so confident... He would pull it off. Cutter would try to take advantage of that. If time was so important...
"Stop sneering, Mr. Cutter. We have to talk."
"How interesting! I don't have anything to tell you, Mister... Doe."
The man took a chair and sat down.
"Still arrogant, Mr. Cutter. You assume that I want you to tell me something? You are wrong. By your fault, Evan had to improvise. When he came out the Head quarter, he knew you would be there. Your friends are divided on the question: are you a traitor? Are you a victim? As a traitor, you must hide. As a victim, you are a prisoner. Evan knew that you were neither a mole, nor a victim. So, consequently, you would probably try to tail him. We can't afford the time to argue. As you are here, you are going to help us."
Jules Cutter gulped, choked. He burst in a mix of laughter and anger.
"Are... are you... kidding?"
"No, Mr. Cutter. I am the one who have something to tell you. And you are going to listen. Attentively."
The sunrise stung the sky and the top of the buildings with various shades. Bayle entered the hotel. A few minutes later, he knocked at a door. He heard footsteps. Someone unbolted, and opened. Carelessly. The fisherman, dressed up, obviously ready to leave, looked at him inquiringly. Bayle smiled and greeted him. Mikey returned the greeting, and passed out.
Jules Cutter remained silent. He was abashed, and uncomfortably uncertain. The other man inclined his head, and then raised it. He looked at him.
"Do you really think I can believe such a story, Mr. "Doe"?" He insisted rudely on the "Doe". "You are a Thrush executive. Be honest. Well... If you were given the opportunity to get rid of your worst enemies, so, you wouldn't take it? You expect me to believe that? Frankly, man..."
"Strictly speaking, Mr. Cutter, you are right. That's logical. However, I told you my true story."
Cutter sneered. Provocative.
"A debt of... honor? You? A Thrush man? That's far beyond my ability to comprehend. And, anyway, it's hard to swallow, man. If your Bayle gets a chance to succeed..."
The man cut in again, ruthlessly.
"He isn't my Bayle. He isn't even Thrush's Bayle, you know? Simmons worked for us, but Bayle cracked up. He could have supported Simmons; they could perhaps have defeated your New York UNCLE HQ. He chose to go away. He is clearly under delusions of grandeur. Bayle works... for Bayle's sake. Thrush... we don't support him. Now, Mr. Cutter, you can choose. You are the one who can help us. Help us to save your friends. Of course, if you prefer, you can stay here."
The tension had increased. Jules Cutter knew for sure that this man tried to delude him. This story was quite unbelievable, ridiculous. There was a trick, one more trap. But...
But part of it was true. It had happened. Cutter remembered it. He remembered his own anger against Alexander Waverly. Waverly and his... leniency towards his ... protégé.
He shook his head, and collected his thoughts.
"And Stellon? Who is he? Your mole? A Thrush mole?"
"Doe" leaned forward, staring at Cutter.
"Stellon... Stellon isn't his name. His first name, however, is Evan."
He hesitated, obviously, looking eventually amused.
"You are prying, Mr. Cutter. You are prying. But I'll tell you, as a mark of... willingness. Evan... Evan is my nephew."
Cutter couldn't help staring wide-eyed. He hissed ironically.
"Something like a family affair?"
"Yes. So, Mr. Cutter, your choice?"
His partner curled up like a cat with his back to him, along the opposite edge of the bed. As far as possible. Napoleon Solo had no intention of giving up. Of abandoning his friend. But he was ill at ease. Where was their mutual confidence? Their mutual trust? No. Where was Illya's confidence?
Illya Kuryakin put all his strength into looking motionless. He was just breathing. Calmly. Regularly. But he knew that he didn't fool his partner. Napoleon was staring at his back. He could feel his gaze. Napoleon was listening, and he held his own breath.
A hand tentatively brushed his back and began to stroke it. Imperceptibly. It could have been an illusion. And it wasn't. The fingers touched him. It wasn't a massage. Just a contact. Soothing.
He remembered perfectly well... Mousehole, how his friend had hugged him, caring about his wounded arm, and how he had almost rocked him, until he had fallen soundly asleep. And... it had been so pleasant...
The deft hand stroked his back, his shoulders, and his neck. It was lulling him. His breath became calmer, and more even. The older agent felt the tension alleviating and smiled proudly.
The dazzling light burnt him.
Suddenly, it softened. He could feel it through his eyelids. But whatever was the physical relief, it was... frightening.
"Is he... conscious?"
He knew this voice.
"Yes, I think so, but..."
"I want you to take care of him."
"I know, but it's difficult. I can't..."
"His friends move heaven and earth in order to free him. They'll succeed. I want you to take care of this man until he'll be freed."
"That's an order, Evan."
Napoleon Solo was dozing, his hand still on his friend's shoulder. He felt him jerk and heard him yell. He was immediately fully awake. The room bathed in the morning light. Illya Kuryakin sat straight in the bed, looking around, and wrapped his arms around his knees. Solo's hand slid down the shoulder, and he squeezed his wrist.
The young Russian stared at his friend.
"He came, Napoleon. He went to the jail. I remember him."
"So, Mr. Cutter? Evan is back. You have a few minutes to make up your mind."
The man went out. Jules Cutter was appalled. That was a very poor story. A very poor lie. A very pitiful hoax.
Or... it was true.
Napoleon Solo bit his lips. A new dream. At least, Illya Kuryakin looked troubled not terrified.
"Are you sure, Illya?"
Illya Kuryakin looked down, his face hidden by the blond locks. Then, he raised his head. The blue eyes were sad and serene. Amazingly sad and serene. The Russian freed his wrist and grabbed his partner's hand.
"Napoleon, listen to me. That's important. It wasn't really a dream, you know. It was a memory."
"I believe you, tovarish. So, that's why his voice was familiar to you..."
Illya Kuryakin didn't reply for a moment.
"I don't know, Napoleon. That's... still confused. I heard him in my cell. I should have opened my eyes, and looked at him, but... When I heard him... his voice was already familiar to me. That means... I knew him before, Napoleon. I should have looked at him."
"You could have, Illya, but, remember... anyway, you don't recognize his face. Perhaps you just know his voice. And, he was talking with... Evan?"
Illya Kuryakin sighed.
"Yes. Eventually, Evan... Evan is the mole."
"This man had asked him to take care of you, Illya. And... he did."
-But... but, in the other hand, he is the one who told the Thrush killers where we were..."
"Perhaps... perhaps, Illya, he had no choice."
The Russian smiled grimly.
"You should call the head quarter, Napoleon. Evan... He is still there."
This drug was really fascinating. The fisherman could "walk", leaning on Bayle's shoulder. An old man, sick, a little drunk. However, they didn't meet anyone, except for a young night watchman... but Bayle had handled the problem. He settled his prisoner in the car. The fisherman rolled his eyes, powerless. Bayle moved off.
"Mikey, er? I know that you are Mr. Kuryakin's friend... He'll be sorry for you. He won't abandon you, don't worry. I am sure he'll do his best to find you..."
The fisherman's green eyes tried to look daggers at Bayle. Mikey was mad at himself. He had been stupid.
Considering what had happened the previous night, Illya Kuryakin was amazingly calm. His eyes met his partner's.
"I assume that Evan Stellon had left the Headquarter?"
Napoleon Solo nodded.
"At least, it means that Jules Cutter is innocent."
Bayle stood on the terrace. Here, he felt safe. He had left some traces. They would first find out that their precious fisherman had been abducted. Then, they would track them down. And of course... found them. At last, he would kill them. Kuryakin, Solo... Perhaps Cutter. Concerning Stellon, this little ... He sipped his whiskey and threw the glass on the floor. He didn't know what Stellon was up to. Had he turned his coat?
Jules Cutter had made his mind. He couldn't stay there. They would free him, and he would assess the situation. The man went back coming up to him. He looked grim.
"Something wrong, Mr. "Doe"?"
"I don't know. Bayle is gone. So, what's your choice, Mr. Cutter? I won't waste time to give you notice of the latest events, if you choose to stay here."
Jules Cutter frowned, but the man was right. He nodded his agreement.
Napoleon Solo took hold of his communicator. He had to report to Alexander Waverly. At this precise moment, the phone rang. The Russian picked it up, and the older agent went away, towards the kitchen.
Alexander Waverly wasn't even surprised. Despite all opposition, recently, Napoleon Solo couldn't believe that Illya Kuryakin was a traitor... Just now, Waverly couldn't believe that Jules Cutter was a Thrush mole.
When Napoleon Solo entered the living room, his friend stood in the light of the morning sun, with his back to him.
"We are still scheduled at 10 a.m., Illya. The Old Man wants us to be careful."
The Russian turned towards him, and answered bleakly.
"What we'll be mainly concerned with... won't be our own safety, Napoleon."
The voice was tense.
"In all likelihood, Mikey has been abducted, earlier, this morning. I am afraid we'll be late, Napoleon. Mr. Waverly will have to wait."
The young night watchman sighed with relief. He felt ill at ease, but this man had offered him money. Much money. He had followed the instructions. He had called the first number. No answer. As he had been told, he had called the second number. Now, someone would come. He would take him to the old man's bedroom, and let him investigate.
"The night watchman... he saw Mikey leaving the hotel. He looked a little dizzy... drunk. He was supported by another man. The guy came up to ask, but apparently Mikey shook his head to tell him not to move. Mikey managed to drop a sheet of paper, with our numbers, Napoleon. The man called us. We have to go there. Now. Perhaps... there are some traces."
"No, I think... that it was Bayle."
Jules Cutter foamed. He cursed, abused, insulted... Vainly. « Doe » and Stellon went out, leaving him with what he needed to free himself... at the expense of some efforts.
"I'll keep your communicator, Mr. Cutter. In a few minutes, you'll be free, and you'll go to your headquarter. You'll tell Waverly about what happened. Illya Kuryakin and consequently Napoleon Solo are Bayle's preys. You'll look for them. I'll go back to my office. We'll look for Bayle. Be careful, this man is... dangerous. He went wild, but he is very clever. We'll keep each other informed, won't we?"
Alexander Waverly rubbed his chin, thoughtfully. Jules Cutter stood in front of him, unshaven, tired, upset and... angry.
"It's a very amazing story, my friend... and I am not sure..."
Jules Cutter cut in.
"What should be established at the very outset, Alex, is that we are dealing with insanity. Bayle ... is a mad man. And the other, I can't swallow that. A Thrush executive? An important one? He would compromise himself, and his own organization? That's a trick."
Alexander Waverly grabbed his pipe. Cutter hissed impatiently.
"Oh, no, stop it with that!"
The Old Man raised an eyebrow and went on, filling the pipe, lighting it, and puffing. Cutter rolled his eyes with exasperation, but Waverly looked like he was taking a mischievous delight in doing this. At last, he stared at his friend.
"Jules, my friend, concerning Bayle, I agree with you. Concerning the other man, another way of looking at the question is to consider ... As you know, I am married. and I have children."
Jules Cutter frowned, opened his mouth, but Waverly went on.
"I have children. Paradoxical though it may seem... I think I can understand."
"What are you doing, Napoleon?"
The older agent paused. He raised his hand and showed the communicator.
"I have to report to Waverly, and..."
"No, we can't waste time, Napoleon. We have to go to Mikey's hotel, now. Then, you'll call Mr. Waverly."
Napoleon Solo knew better than to argue. Alexander Waverly would order them to come back to the HQ, and he would some other agents to Mikey's hotel.
Mikey's bedroom was tidy. His case, on the table, was closed. There were no traces of a fight.
The older agent unlocked the case, and cursed. An envelope had been left there. Carefully. On the envelope, their names. In the envelope, a sheet of paper, an address, and very precise instructions...
But they wouldn't obey.
"Mr. Solo? Mr. Solo! I forbid... Mr. Solo!"
Alexander Waverly banged on his desk, obviously furious. The communicator rolled down.
"It's a trick, Jules, and they are charging in, blindly! Bayle's plan..."
"Is very clever, as usual."
Jules Cutter sounded almost admiring. Bayle had schemed Mikey's disappearance. He knew that Illya Kuryakin wouldn't abandon his friend. He knew that Napoleon Solo wouldn't leave his partner alone... Alexander Waverly was still foaming.
"I couldn't even tell them about the man, and Stellon!"
"Speaking of that..."
Jules Cutter took hold of Waverly's communicator. He looked at it, then at Waverly, inquiringly.
"I don't know, Jules. I don't know whether to be horrified... or hopeful. If I let you call him, it's a sort of collaboration with the enemy. The commissioner Vernon will be delighted."
"And he will fire us. All of us."
"If you don't call..."
"We could deprive the two young men of an invaluable help..."
Illya Kuryakin was dozing in the car. Apparently. He knew that it wasn't a nightmare.
Bayle wasn't an ordinary opponent. He had organized everything. The Russian agent expected the worst. And Evan Stellon, the nice, the kind Evan Stellon was part of it.
Bayle had abducted Mikey. He was taking advantage of that. He used Mikey as bait... A quite usual Thrush strategy.
But it was a trick. An obvious trick. A really rotten trick.
The man didn't even bother to hide.
Whatever he asked them to do, he obviously didn't mind about.
"Don't tell anyone..."
Of course, they had called the Headquarter.
Of course, Waverly would manage to help them, and send them some reinforcements...
Bayle acted strangely. Stupidly? Madly?
Illya Kuryakin didn't undervalue the man. He wasn't stupid. Mad? In a way...
But he wanted something. He wanted to defeat UNCLE. to hold them up to ridicule. He liked stir.
They had already experienced his skills.
Illya Kuryakin shivered. The clearest possible evidence.
"Stop! Stop now."
Napoleon Solo jammed on the brakes. The Russian had got his communicator.
"Oh, Mr. Kuryakin! Would you tell me, young man...?"
The Russian cut in; he spoke with an unusually harsh voice.
"Sir, please, listen to me. Don't send any reinforcements to the address Napoleon gave you. It's a trap, sir. Remember what happened in the jail. A trap. A booby-trap. Bayle likes stir. He likes bombs. If we bolt in..."
"So, Mr. Kuryakin, what are you going to do? And, where is Mr. Solo?"
"Napoleon is just here. We look for a good observation post. We'll check and report to you, as soon as possible."
Alexander Waverly sighed.
"Good, Mr. Kuryakin. Reinforcements are on their way. Tell me where you are. If anything happens, let me know. Oh, Mr. Kur.."
"You didn't tell them, Alex..."
Waverly had already considered it. Complicated. Long. He shrugged his shoulders.
Bayle felt ... great. The boat rocked him gently but it wasn't unpleasant. He picked up the binoculars and watched at the house. Such a beautiful terrace. Still. Peaceful. A perfect scenery... He glanced over his shoulder. The fisherman, bound hand and foot, lay, absolutely powerless. He was fully awake, nevertheless, and obviously fuming.
"A beautiful house, isn't it? It's a pity, really, but, well, we'll call that a collateral damage. Inevitable."
The fisherman cursed, mad at himself. Bait. Poor, stupid bait. Whatever happens, he would deserve his fate. But people could die. Because... of his stupidity. Of his stubbornness. Illya. He cursed again.
"Ts ts ts, man! You are beginning to annoy me. You complain, you moan, you sulk... I should throw you overboard..."
"Oh, yes, you should!"
Bayle took hold of his binoculars and sneered.
"But, old man, I care about the innocents... For the moment."
He looked at the house. Nothing. He turned to his prisoner, staring thoughtfully at him. Then, he grabbed him, and ruthlessly dragged him towards the deck. Then, he leaned him against the cabin.
"The show is about to begin..."
The two UNCLE agents walked along a narrow path. They were not so far from NY city, but that looked like Mousehole. They found themselves at the end of the path, facing a dry stone wall. Illya Kuryakin heaved himself up onto the wall, looking around. Napoleon Solo sighed, and joined his partner. The Russian pointed his finger.
"This house, with the terrace."
"It looks deserted..."
Illya Kuryakin took a deep breath. He had to go, to go alone. He had to convince his partner. One way or another...
"Are you kidding? We'll go together and..."
"No, Napoleon. Bayle isn't there. It's a trap, remember. But he waits. He looks... He knows that we are on our way. I won't disappoint him. I'll "creep" into the house, and you'll watch. He is somewhere."
"That's clever, Illya, really clever. You throw yourself into the lion's jaws. And I... watch. And what if he just blows up the house, my friend?"
"Remember... he went to tease you, in the jail. He likes that. He wants to savor his triumph. He'll see me, and he'll react. You'll have your chance to spot him."
Napoleon Solo shook his head, frowning again. No way.
The blond man sighed. Napoleon wouldn't be happy.
Illya Kuryakin observed the fence closely. He cut it, and pulled it wide enough for him to climb through. Then he slipped inside the bushes, making his way towards the terrace, just above him. Soon, the enemy would spot him. Bayle had to be convinced that he was winning. So, the Russian was conspicuously careful. He conspicuously looked around, up, down. He hugged the wall, and cautiously hauled himself onto the terrace. As a well trained UNCLE agent, he got out his gun, crept forward, moving into the corner, and leaning his back against the wall. He didn't really overact. It was just amazing, because he had to think about it. Usually, that was a sort of unconscious routine. This time, he wanted to be seen. He conspicuously crouched to the ground, obviously listening for some noise from the inside.
Napoleon Solo rose, rubbing his chin. He would skin his partner alive for that! However, he had no choice. He craned forward and looked around. Nothing. Nobody. He watched again. Of course, he couldn't see his friend. The sea, some cabins. Boats. A flash of light. The house. The terrace. The sea. The cabins. And this flash of light, again... twinkled. It came from a boat. Binoculars.
Sneaky Russian. He got his communicator and called his partner.
"Illya? We'll have to talk, later. However, you were right. Someone is watching you from a boat, down below. Come back, we'll..."
"No, Napoleon. You care about the boat. I look for Mikey."
"Your Russian friend is ensnared, old man. I won't keep him waiting. I guess his partner is somewhere... looking for me."
Mikey was dumbfounded: Bayle hung the binoculars by the sun, and shook them.
"Butterflies like light, you knew that? Light is a perfect trap for butterflies."
This Bayle was completely crazy. Why was he talking about butterflies?
"There is a butterfly called butterfly Emperor... Isn't it a very convenient trap for a ... Napoleon?"
"Shhhh, Mikey! So, good bye. Well... Farewell! I am sure that Mr. Solo will appreciate my little gift.
The fisherman couldn't see what he was doing. He just heard him rummaging. Then, Bayle went out, shook his fingers at him, and slipped in the water.
Napoleon Solo crawled through the bushes and the rocks towards the small harbor. Regularly, he craned forward. Bayle was obviously still watching the house.
Illya Kuryakin cautiously opened the huge French windows, and stepped into the house. The place was dark. He indulged himself and paused to breathe.
The room was deserted. Silent. Dusty. He crossed it, counting four doors. One larger than the three others. He tried it first, and pushed it carefully. He took a step forward. Another room. Deserted, Silent, and dusty.
He checked the room. And he checked the two others. Deserted, silent and dusty. The third was locked. It could be trapped, but Illya Kuryakin knew that he couldn't waste time. It was. a bet. Maybe a lethal one, but Bayle liked more spectacular exhibitions. The Russian gave the door a kick, and it slammed against the wall. He breathed a sigh of relief, entering the room. Obviously the entrance hall. Silent, deserted, dusty.
Illya Kuryakin froze.
He suddenly heard something.
The dust flied.
Footsteps again. Closer
Napoleon Solo flattened himself against the wooden cabin, his very last shelter. The boat alongside the quay. The quay... no place to hide. Except for—and he pulled a wry face—except for ... water. As Bayle was obviously watching the house, Napoleon Solo could swim to the boat, quite safely.
Illya Kuryakin was listening. The footsteps got closer.
It could be ... some reinforcements. Waverly, eventually...
It could be ... an innocent. The owner... A neighbor...
It could be... a dream.
It wasn't a dream.
It wasn't a nightmare.
It was reality: he could hear seagulls, breeze.
The footsteps got closer.
"What a lovely surprise, Mr. Kuryakin...
A sugary tone. Honeyed words. Illya Kuryakin turned to the voice and aimed his gun.
A man entered the room. The Russian had probably met him in the jail, but he didn't remember his face. He had seen photos. Bayle. Aiming a gun at him, of course.
The man snickered.
"You look better, Mr. Kuryakin. Freedom suits you."
Without taking his eyes from him, Bayle walked towards the French windows. He looked calm. Relaxed. Steady on his legs. Almost casual. He was smiling. A queer fellow. Illya Kuryakin kept silent. Bayle's eyes told another story: they were piercing, The eyes of a man who just waits and sees. The Russian's silence obviously surprised him. Better: it got on his nerves
"Are you tongue-tied, Mr. Kuryakin? Shyness? Astonishment? or... fright?"
Illya Kuryakin forced an apologetic smile, belied by the hardness in his eyes. But still kept silent.
Bayle clenched his jaws, sneering. The light-haired boy wanted to play. But he had already lost. He just didn't know it, yet. Bayle's heart was swelling with pride. He sighed and slowly backed out of the living room. Illya Kuryakin had no choice but to follow him.
With a gesture, Bayle showed the sea, still aiming at the Russian with his right hand.
"A really beautiful sight, Mr. Kuryakin!"
He frowned. This Russian was quite rude. Or... tragically absent-minded. The smile faded. The tone hardened.
"You made life... complicated, for me, recently, Mr. Kuryakin. I staged such a spectacular death for you, and you... you spoiled my pleasure. Really, you deserve punishment."
The voice was cutting, but Illya Kuryakin still didn't show any reaction.
Bayle took some steps back, carefully, keeping his eyes on the Russian.
"You didn't ask me about your old friend, Mr. Kuryakin. That's not very nice, as he worried a lot about you. And I guess he still worries... for the moment. Because he knows."
He didn't move the gun. He didn't even look at it. Nevertheless, the threat was clear. Bayle savored of self-satisfaction.
"But, as I said, you deserve punishment. Of course, I'll kill you. Whatever you plan, I'll kill you. But before..."
Bayle paused. He raised an eyebrow with an affected astonishment, and looked around.
"Oh... and your partner, Mr. Kuryakin? Where is he? Where is Mr. Solo?"
It was amazing. Bayle didn't ask. It was a rhetorical question. A way to take up a new topic. Illya Kuryakin couldn't help blinking. The man was obviously delighted. The cat that ate the canary.
"Do you like fireworks, Mr. Kuryakin?"
Napoleon Solo silently cursed as he was climbing up the hull. He gripped the planks, and craned forward. The way was clear. He hauled himself onto the desk, getting his breath back. Breeze, seagulls. The boat was gently rocking, and Napoleon Solo grinned. Luckily, he wasn't seasick...
He took some careful steps towards the bows. He didn't hear anything. Suddenly a seagull alighted on the planks. The bird was obviously calm. Fearless of the man with the binoculars. Very fearless. Too fearless. The dark haired agent got his gun, and crept along. Eventually, he rushed forward, aiming at his prey.
"Predictably enough, Alexander... You should keep your agents on a shorter leash... You let them holding the reins, and..."
Alexander Waverly harrumphed.
"Clear off with your metaphorical statements!"
"All the same... they went their own way. The reinforcements found their car but where are they? And we couldn't even call them, just in case."
Waverly sighed, but replied flatly.
"Who teaches recruits about using their own initiative?"
Napoleon Solo rolled, and lithely got on his feet. The binoculars swung, ironically. No Bayle. A grunt gave him a start. He turned round, and gulped. On the floor, leaned back against the cabin, Mikey. A bounded Mikey, hand and foot. A gagged Mikey. But his eyes spoke. No anger, no impatience. Just... and that was so unusual, raw panic.
The young Russian took two steps forward. Bayle pointed at the sea.
"Come closer, Mr. Kuryakin, so as to enjoy the show..."
He didn't point at the sea. He pointed at the boat. In a blink of an eye, Illya Kuryakin got out his communicator with his left hand. Almost simultaneously, he heard a shot and a blast. A twinge of pain. A sharp pain through his shoulder. He dropped the gun. And the communicator.
"Oh, no, you won't pass out, Mr. Kuryakin, not now!"
Someone was dragging him to the edge of the terrace, ruthlessly, and kept his head straight. He felt dizzy. His vision was blurred. But he saw.
Some black wisps of smoke. Pitifully ridiculous.
"What? An explosion? Go there immediately, and let me know."
Alexander Waverly explained with a dull voice. The reinforcements had just heard a blast. As Jules Cutter gulped, the Old Man shook his head. It wasn't the house. It was... a boat.
Bayle dropped the Russian down, walked towards the communicator and crushed it.
"I think you know, Mr. Kuryakin? Your friends were on the boat, of course. Your fisherman and your partner. They died... Oh, don't worry; you are not to be blamed. Well... just partly."
Bayle strutted about. His enemy lay, barely conscious, bleeding, and... defeated. Now, the final show.
Illya Kuryakin went through hell. It hurt. Pain. Physical pain. Suffering. Despair.
The loss. An aching void.
And ... hatred. Overwhelming hatred.
Bayle noticed the blue eyes, now so pale, almost limpid. The eyes of a dying man? But it wasn't time! No fun!
The hand covered with blood slid down the wounded shoulder, and felt on the Russian's leg. Bayle cursed.
"Mr. Kuryakin! Show must go on! Look at me: be ready for the final display..."
He held a little case.
"I'll program that, and, well, I'll leave you. But you'll have a ringside seat..."
Illya Kuryakin moaned, and struggled to get up.
"Tststs, Mr. Kuryakin. I'll ease you. Indulge me."
He came up to the Russian, and bent over him. The blond man's eyes were silvery white. Piercing. Alive. Lethal. But Bayle didn't realize it before stepping back, staggering, the Russian's knife in his chest. He touched it, looked at his bloody hand with astonishment. And he understood. Illya Kuryakin hissed.
"A rotten game, Bayle. There is no winner..."
Bayle raised a shaking hand. He still held the case. Illya Kuryakin knew what he was going to do. And... why not? What else?
"Some wreckage floating, sir. No. No traces of them."
Jules Cutter bit his lips, thoughtfully.
"It might be... good news, Alex."
Illya Kuryakin and Bayle stared at each other. Time froze.
Bayle tottered for awhile, undulated and eventually fell down, heavily.
An insane hope had occurred to Illya Kuryakin's blurred mind.
He tried to fight his hazy vision. Vainly. Gentle hands grabbed him, carefully, and helped him to get up. A voice whispered.
"Don't worry, Mr. Kuryakin, you'll be fine. We have to leave this house, just in case. Let me help you. I'll take you in a safe place."
A voice. He knew this voice. Not his voice.
A compassionate voice. Concerned.
Evan Stellon's voice.
Natural skills. Years of training and practice. Instinct... Napoleon Solo grabbed the bounded fisherman, lifted him up and threw themselves overboard. And the boat exploded.
The voice, again. Soothing, but urging. Illya Kuryakin wrenched himself free. Well, he tried to. He looked blearily at the young man. He knew that Stellon was the mole. At least, that he wasn't an ordinary recruit. That he was probably an enemy. But memories were persistent. Whoever Stellon was, the Russian couldn't erase those moments, in the jail.
"Mr. Kuryakin... Trust me. Let me help you."
Stellon dragged him gently towards the house, then to his car. He helped him in the passenger seat, and got in the driver's seat.
"Take this, and press it on your shoulder. Please !Trus..."
"Trust... you ? You are... kidding!"
Though, Illya Kuryakin pressed the handkerchief on his wound. He felt really dazed. Evan Stellon moved off.
The Russian leaned his head back on the seat and closed his eyes.
"Take me to the harbor."
"I can't do that, Mr. Kuryakin."
"You ask me to trust you! Your friend blasted the boat, and..."
"Bayle wasn't my friend, Mr. Kuryakin."
"—Mikey was there... And Nap... Mr. Solo, too."
"I am sorry, Mr. Kuryakin."
"Take me to the harbor! They could have made it."
"I am sorry, Mr. Kuryakin. I can't. You need medical care, and someone wants to see you."
Illya Kuryakin sat up. He intended to... He tried, but sank back onto his seat.
Napoleon Solo heaved up the fisherman onto the quay. He removed Mikey's gag, and untied the bonds. Then, they coughed, spitted, and eventually got their breath back.
"Well done, man."
The fisherman was still panting. Napoleon Solo stood up, looking around. He helped the other man to get up.
"You'll sit here and wait. Our reinforcements will come soon."
Mikey grabbed Solo's arm.
"And where are you going?"
Napoleon Solo pointed his finger up to the house.
"Illya is there, Mikey."
The fisherman frowned. He remembered the man's eyes.
"It was your Bayle, Napoleon. Do you think...?"
"Yes, Mikey. So, stay here and..."
"You're kidding, boy! Of course I'll go with you! And don't dare and try..."
Napoleon Solo stared at him, and gave up. The fisherman was clearly resolute. The two men went on their way.
Napoleon Solo worried. They thought that Bayle wanted to trap them in the house, and that he would blast it, looking at the show from his boat. He understood now that Bayle's plan was far nastier. He wanted them to witness the destruction of the boat... Then, he would blast the house. Useless. Complicate. Nasty. For his own pleasure. Efficiency wasn't the purpose. Step after step, Napoleon Solo expected the blast.
The bed wasn't very comfortable. The pillow was too soft. A searing pain flashed through his shoulder, and took his breath away. He opened his eyes, his vision still blurred. It was a bedroom, dimly lit. He was alone. Something had happened. He was wounded. But this... wasn't Mikey's...
Mickey. He remembered.
Mickey and Napoleon.
He struggled to get up. He wore his pants and what looked like a clean shirt. Shoes... He staggered towards the door, barefoot. The place was silent. He pushed the door, carefully, and craned forward. A corridor. Staircase. Daylight... He gripped the banister, and clung to it. It was ... vertiginous. Breathtaking. He went down. Step after step. Still tightly clutching the banister. He realized, suddenly, that he probably wouldn't make it.
"And what the hell do you think you are doing, Mr. Kuryakin? Evan, help him down!"
Illya Kuryakin blinked. Downstairs, a man stood. A hazy silhouette. But though his vision was still blurred, he could depict him: middle -aged. Plain dark suit. Stellon slid his arm round the Russian's waist.
Napoleon Solo motioned the fisherman to wait, and hauled himself up the terrace. Mikey, hearing a curse, followed the UNCLE agent. The dark haired man pointed at a body. The fisherman frowned, then relaxed. Bayle. Bayle was dead. When he turned to Napoleon Solo, he froze. The man's face was strained. He stared at... The fisherman turned his head, and saw... blood. On the ground. And some drops... which led to the house.
-Come, Mr. Kuryakin... As you are awake, we have to talk. Anyway, it's time."
Illya Kuryakin frowned. Déjà-vu... Time?
They entered a room poorly furnished. He wrenched himself free from Stellon's grip, and tottered to the wall.
"Would you please sit down, Mr. Kuryakin? You'll be more comfortable. A doctor took care of your shoulder. Luckily, the bullet went through. But you would be more comfortable."
The man was extremely polite. Inexplicably courteous.
The Russian shook his head. Instantaneously, the walls began to whirl round.
"Mr. Kuryakin? Please."
Illya Kuryakin gave up and took some faltering steps towards a chair.
—"Would you like some tea? Some coffee?"
"Who are you? What do you want?"
He didn't recognize his own voice. Hoarse. Tense. The other man rubbed his chin. He looked hesitant.
"We already met, Mr. Kuryakin..."
"In my cell? I remember your voice. Ev.. Stellon was there, too. You are... Thrush agents, aren't you?"
"Yes, Mr. Kuryakin. What do you remember, exactly?"
The pain was dull, but persistent. Illya Kuryakin smiled, faintly, and kept silent. He didn't understand the point, but he wouldn't give him satisfaction. The other man sighed.
"I am not your enemy, Mr. Kuryakin. Evan told me that Bayle had killed your friends. I am sorry."
The Russian couldn't help sneering. This man had a brass neck. He took a deep breath and hissed, ironically.
"You are sorry? You are worrying about Napoleon Solo's death? Stellon, your old friend must be out of his mind ..."
"Solo's death will please many people. Your death would have pleased them, too."
Illya Kuryakin felt beads of sweat on his forehead.
"You ... you asked Ev... Stellon to take care of me. Why?"
"Yes, I did. Do you remember anything else?"
"I came twice, Mr. Kuryakin. The first time, you were almost elsewhere. The second time, you looked conscious and I offered you something. Do you remember?"
So... it wasn't a dream...
"You... offered me... a normal life."
"Yes, Mr. Kuryakin, I did. You didn't answer. I thought that you didn't hear me. That, perhaps... we had lost you. But your friends succeeded..."
The pain was increasing. He replied ironically.
"And... of course..., it pleased you... Simmons's failure... pleased you?"
"No, Mr. Kuryakin. Do you remember anything else?"
Alexander Waverly sighed. His CEA was alive, the innocent fisherman, Mikey, was alive. Illya Kuryakin was missing... for the moment. However, he had shot Bayle. According to Napoleon Solo, he was probably injured. But as they didn't find his body... Jules Cutter cleared his throat.
"Stellon, Alex. Stellon and... Feather. Bayle has been knifed... and shot. Shot in the back of the head. Illya Kuryakin is a devil with a knife... But I think that someone else shot Bayle. Why ...?"
"But Feather... he told you that wanted to save Kuryakin's life! It's inconsistent, Jules. Why would he abduct him, now?"
"Eventually, Thrush is Thrush, Alex. Feather got rid of Bayle. He might have changed his mind about Kuryakin."
Alexander Waverly pouted, doubtful.
Illya Kuryakin blinked. The pain was overwhelming. Someone handed him a glass and some pills.
He shook his head.
"Pain killers, Mr. Kuryakin... Do you remember anything else?"
The Russian gave up and swallowed the pills.
"I ... I don't know your face. I don't know your name. But I know your voice. Who are you? And... What do you want?"
The man stood up and walked towards the window.
"A beautiful day, Mr. Kuryakin."
He came back to his chair.
"You are right, Mr. Kuryakin. We met... before the jail. Once time. Years ago. One of your first missions, I think. Mr. Solo and you thwarted us in our plans... You had to get back something and to destroy our laboratory."
The man's voice was soft.
"The house was to be blasted. You had succeeded. Our agents—the surviving ones...—had run away. And you went back; you rushed to the house, because you had heard a child crying. I was racing towards the laboratory, but I'd have been late..."
Illya Kuryakin opened his mouth, and whispered a name.
"Yes, Mr. Kuryakin. I am Feather. And I remember. A damned UNCLE agent risking his life to save a little girl, a Thrush executive's daughter. My daughter, Mr. Kuryakin. You carried her out of the house. A few seconds before the blast. You... protected her from the wreckage. You were... injured, and I got her back. And... we escaped. But I made you a promise... Do you remember?"
Illya Kuryakin remembered the child. A seven years old little girl. He remembered her father's face.
He remembered his voice. Not his words.
"No... I think you... thanked me?"
The man chuckled.
"No, Mr. Kuryakin. I promised you that ... as you had saved my daughter's life, I would... all other things being equal, protect yours. Then, I had to leave the US. I changed my face. And when I came back, I had to oversee Simmons and his plan. Unfortunately, you were part of it. All other things being equal, Mr. Kuryakin. I asked Evan to take care of you, but he had to play his own part, for his own sake. Then, all hell broke lose However, Evan was at the Survival School. The perfect mole. But Bayle went wild."
Feather peeked at his watch.
"Now... now I have paid my debt. I owed you a life. We are all square. We'll leave you here. Waverly and Cutter will take care of you. I just wanted you to know... Oh... about Evan. Evan is my nephew. And believe it... or not, I am really sorry about Mr. Solo. It was... unfair. Bayle... Bayle paid off the balance.
The man's voice was harsher.
"From now, Mr. Kuryakin... get out of my way."
"Yes, Mr. Solo. Feather. He ... apparently, he considered that he had a debt... He has just called us. Mr. Kuryakin is injured, but alive. I'll give you the address."
Illya Kuryakin was dumbfounded. Abashed. The jigsaw was reconstructed. Finally... Except for... two pieces. Mikey...
Napoleon. Expendable. Back to "normal life"? No... Alexander Waverly would sympathize, and then assign to him a new partner. The Russian smiled bitterly. Worse. He was Section 2, number 2... Logically... the Old Man would designate him as the new CEA.
He wouldn't wait for them. All he had to do was to get up, to leave this place, and to disappear. That, he could do. Could he?
Injured. Weakened by the loss of blood. And the painkiller.
Barefoot. A challenge...
All he had to do was to get up... but it was too late. Voices, footsteps. Nevertheless, he struggled to stand up, and staggered towards the window.
"He is here! Illya, what the hell are you doing?"
Back to normal life... Not really.
Jules Cutter was back to the Survival School.
Mikey was back to Mousehole.
April Dancer and Mark Slate were on an assignment... Somewhere.
The Commissioner Vernon had asked, pouted, muttered and eventually given up.
Alexander Waverly was... Alexander Waverly.
The Section 2, number 1 the CEA, Napoleon Solo, was attending a congress in Toronto.
The Section 2, number 2, Napoleon Solo's partner was... on leave.
Officially. Was he?
Tongues started wagging.
Rumors had it that the Russian agent had resigned... would resign...
No one would ask the Old Man.
No one would ask the CEA.
Should that arise...? Who would become Solo's partner?
It was anyone's bet.
Should that arise, of course. Nevertheless, Illya Kuryakin was still missing.
Napoleon Solo sighed. It was a boring congress... He lectured himself for his bad faith. The congress wasn't that boring. He was expected to succeed Alexander Waverly. The Old Man wanted him to get used to the various sides of the job. But Napoleon Solo stood his ground: he was a field agent. He... liked that. He wouldn't give up now. There was no question of that.
When he had found his partner, he had seen his surprise, his relief, his delight. And then, his face had turned almost expressionless. Back to the HQ, Illya Kuryakin had been taken to the Medicals. Unusually ... docile.
"He looks like to be in a daze, doctor."
"Well... he isn't at death's door, Mr. Solo, but he'll need rest, obviously. You have to be aware that he might have difficulty pulling himself together... for awhile."
Then, Illya had left the HQ.
"Where is he, sir?"
"Mr. Kuryakin is on leave and..."
"Yes, sir, but where is he? He is my partner, and..."
"Did he tell you about it?"
"So, let's consider that it's none of your business."
His partner. Napoleon Solo remembered all what happened ... One year ago, he had a partner, efficient, stubborn, prickly... brave, faithful, trustworthy. A partner and a friend. The closest friend.
And all hell broke loose. The jail... Simmons. And Bayle... Of course, they had defeated the enemies. Napoleon Solo had really believed that they would be able to work together again. As a team. That they would perhaps talk... Would it be?
Illya Kuryakin sat down on the wooden floor. Mikey's house and his terrace were peaceful. The landscape—some things didn't change—was extraordinary. Blue, green, purple. White. All clean, pure. A place where he could live. A normal life. But that... he couldn't do. He wouldn't.
Illya Kuryakin couldn't help smiling, bitterly. Months ago, he was there. Desperate. Lost. Quite sure that he would never come back to UNCLE. Achab. Mikey had pestered him.
A sweet, delicious smell... So familiar. He raised his head, and a mug appeared. Mikey sat down beside him.
"So, Illya? How are you doing?"
The young Russian quivered. He knew this tone.
"Oh, no, Mikey, please, no Achab lecture this morning."
The fisherman frowned wittingly.
"What do you think, boy? Perhaps you need one..."
Mikey paused and sipped his coffee.
"Who preached at me about a normal life, as a teacher or a scientist, Mikey?"
The fisherman rolled his eyes.
"You look sometimes very young, my friend. Very vulnerable. You are young, and you have your own weaknesses. You would be a great scientist. And probably a great teacher... But you belong to your job. You told me about a jigsaw, do you remember? A jigsaw where there was no place for you? That was a mistake. You are part of the jigsaw. The UNCLE jigsaw. My home is your home, boy but your own home isn't there. You know that."
The fisherman paused for a few seconds.
"You are part of another jigsaw, Illya. A very simple one. Two pieces, only."
Illya Kuryakin didn't answer. What could he say? He could come back to UNCLE. He would come back. His partner... his friend needed somebody to watch his back. The Russian had to live with that fear. The fear that he could fail. The fear that Napoleon could die. Feather had saved his life. One life for one life. A kind of parenthesis. Hindsight...
The fisherman had left the terrace.
One life for one life? It was an honest deal.
Napoleon had saved him. And he had saved Napoleon.
They never kept the books of it...
A debt of honor.
A debt of friendship. More.
Mikey tapped him on the shoulder, and showed him the living room.
"Mr. Waverly is calling..."
"Mr. Kuryakin? Well... Mr. Solo is in Toronto. He attends a congress, and we have been told that Thrush might make trouble I know that you are still on leave. However..."
Sneaky old fox...
Napoleon Solo heard the familiar noise and threw himself down, sheltering behind a car. Waverly and his "perfectly calm" congress! In the other hand, it wasn't boring, any more. The dark haired agent got out his gun. First, he had to spot his opponents. He crept towards the sidewalk, taking advantage of the darkness.
"Could do with some help, Napoleon?"
Napoleon Solo chuckled.
"Just on time, as usual, tovarish..."
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