The Blowback Affair

by Linda Cornett

Her mother called with the news, breaking down in sobs halfway through. She got the basics anyway. Her Uncle Frank was dead. Jumped or fell – anyway, no note. Investigation. Funeral in California, arranged by the wife he'd divorced eight years earlier. Even as she sat at her desk, dutifully writing down the important information, Noralee was a child again, gazing up at the bottom of a bushy brown moustache, waiting for the big hands to grab her waist and toss her, shrieking, into the sky.

She'd bought her ticket and was finishing up some short pieces – the big story would have to wait – when two men walked up to her desk. The dark-haired man in front was limping and using a cane to help him navigate. "Noralee Jackson?" the dark-haired man asked. "I'm Napoleon Solo and this is my partner, Illya Kuryakin.”

He fished out a cheap-looking card and held it toward her. Skeletal globe, a little guy with a gun, text that looked like it had been typed on.

“We're from the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement. U.N.C.L.E. Are you familiar...?"

"We ran a story about you guys about five months ago," she said.

They exchanged a glance. "Really?" he said. "We usually try to discourage that kind of thing."

"You tried. It didn't work. Can I help you with something?"

"Ah, yes, we're here about your uncle, Frank Duff."

"He died two days ago," she said, careful to keep her voice strong. "Fell off the roof of his building or something. They're still trying to figure it out."

"He was murdered." It was the other man, the blond, wasting no time on finesse.

"Why would you say that?"

"Miss Jackson," Solo stepped in, "what do you know about your uncle's work?"

"He worked for G.E., electronics research of some sort. He'd been there, oh, 25 years or more."

"Almost a year ago, your uncle had a change of employment." It was the blond – Kuryakin. "His division was sold to another corporation that subcontracted it to another corporation that is a front for the largest criminal organization in the world. I don't believe you've run any stories about them." He stood there looking at her with cool blue eyes as though any of this made sense, as though this were the sort of thing people talked about when your favorite uncle died.

"Look, I don't know who you guys are or why you're interested in my uncle, but if you're implying he was involved with the Mafia or anything illegal, you're way out of line. He was a Boy Scout leader, for God's sake, even though he didn’t have any kids of his own. He tithed at his church. He practically supported my grandmother until she died. He gave blood, he played Santa at the G.E. Christmas parties. He yielded to pedestrians, he taught me and my brother Peter to fish. After my dad died…"

"Miss Jackson." Solo's voice cut through her litany. "We didn't mean to imply that your uncle was implicated in any illegal activity." He paused to glare at the blond, who shrugged. "And the organization we’re talking about makes the Mafia look like a neighborhood gang. In fact, we believe he was collecting evidence of a weapon they are developing, in hopes of stopping it's production."

"That's why he was murdered," the blond inserted.

"Right,” she said. “You know, this is all a little hard to swallow. My uncle, who couldn't serve in World War II because he had flat feet, is working for this huge, secret, unnamed organization that no one’s ever heard of and got killed because…”

“T.H.R.U.S.H.,” Solo cut in. “The organization’s name is T.H.R.U.S.H.”

“Thrush? Like the bird or the horse disease?”

He looked uncomfortable. “Um, actually it’s an acronym but given you’re skepticism, I’d rather not go into what it stands for. Listen, you know we exist, U.N.C.L.E. exists, right? You’ll just have to take our word for the rest. The fact is that your uncle, through no fault of his own, ended up in very peculiar circumstances. And, as we have found repeatedly in our work, very ordinary people can behave in very heroic ways when called upon to do so."

Yes, she thought, Uncle Frank would. "So, he called you guys?"

"Actually, he called the FBI, which is why we didn't get to him in time."

"The FBI," said Kuryakin with a hint of smugness, "made an error. Your uncle's information was misplaced. By the time it was unearthed and passed on to us, he was dead."

"We talked to his ex-wife yesterday and she showed us a letter she'd gotten from him," Solo took up the story. "He wrote that the item she was looking for was safe and that Skeeter would know where it was. You, we were informed, are Skeeter."

"He called me that when I was little. So, what's Ruth is looking for?"

"She has no idea what he was referring to," the blond said. "We assume he was directing us to some sort of record of what T.H.R.U.S.H. is up to. Do you know what he meant by a safe place?"

She was going to miss the funeral. Uncle Frank would approve; he’d never been much for organized grief. The rest of the family was another matter, but this was more important. If it was true that Uncle Frank had been murdered (and, oh, how she wanted to believe he had not taken that jump on his own through some unspoken despair), she owed it to him to help see that the gamble that cost him his life hadn’t been wasted.

The two men from U.N.C.L.E. weren't any happier than the family, but had given in when she turned to her typewriter and started typing the information they'd given her into story form. So, she could go with them, show Kuryakin the way to hiding place – it had taken her about 30 seconds to realize, with certainty, what Uncle Frank had meant – and help him recover whatever was hidden there. Solo, who muttered something about being shot in the leg in an "of course" sort of tone, would go along for the ride, but would nurse his sore leg while they did the hiking.

She slid into a pair of old, soft jeans and a Red Rocks Community College sweatshirt she'd inherited from a former roommate. She pulled on thick socks and heavy hiking boots, crossing the laces in the fancy way Frank had taught her when she got her first pair of boots at the age of eight. As she stood to shrug into a courduroy jacket she heard Frank’s voice in her head – “You’ll be fine,” he said, his stock phrase of encouragement. “You were born lucky.”

A helicopter. They were going to ride there in a helicopter. The family had always hiked in before. A very long hike, as she recalled. Perhaps a helicopter wouldn't be so bad. It was a sleek silver four-seater with massively churning rotors blades that sent her hair in a dozen directions. They ducked low and ran to the open side door. She followed Kuryakin into the back and Solo limped into the co-pilot's seat. A handsome young man with dark eyes turned to smile at her. His lips moved but the sound was lost. She smiled back and nodded agreeably. Kuryakin handed her a set of earphones and motioned for her to buckle up and just like that they rose into the air and swooped away west, toward the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains.

She took deep breaths, consciously relaxing. This wasn't so bad. Fairly smooth, actually, and the view was fantastic. The physics of the thing still didn't make sense to her, yet here they were flying through the air, so something must be working right.

"So, this is the new toy?" Kuryakin's voice came through the earphones like he was talking from the bottom of a well.

"Yep," the pilot said without taking his eyes off the controls. "She's not a powerhouse, but very responsive and stable enough for rescue. And retrieval of the ones who don't make it." Chago turned around far enough for her to see his white teeth bared in a grin.

Solo fidgeted in his seat, finally doubling over to fumble on the floor. He popped up with a bottle in one hand and a wooden box in the other. "Ahah!" he said, his voice echoing in her earphones as he wagged the bottle. "Brandy. And…" He examined the box. "Cigars. Cuban? Chago, amigo, the commercial airlines could learn a thing or two from you about how to keep the passengers happy. Where are the glasses?"

"Napoleon, mi hermano," the young man said warningly, "do not get any ideas. Those are gifts for my future father-in-law. He lives in Boulder, so I'm going to stop by when we're done."

"'Future father-in-law'?" Napoleon repeated. "You're getting married? Rosada?"

"Rosada. If her father says I can ask her."

Napoleon gave him a quizzical look. "Chago, you are aware that the year is 1965?"

"Yes, yes. Free love and all that. But I want to do this right, amigo, and that means asking the father first."

"And plying him with expensive gifts. You must have a lot of atone for," Napoleon said.

"Oh, many things. When you decide to marry, Napoleon, I think you must give your future father-in-law a Cadillac, at least."

It took Noralee a moment to realize that the snort of amusement in her earphones came from Kuryakin, who was busily looking out the window. With a huff, Solo picked up the helicopter flight manual and studied it as they sped west.

About 40 minutes later, as they skimmed the jagged upthrust of the foothills, Chago pointed out a steep canyon. Their canyon, she realized, Black Mare Canyon, thickly wooded with pine and sheltering the tiny creek where her Uncle Frank had taught her the patience of a fisherman. The trees were thick and dark, giving the canyon an ominous shade that she didn't remember from her childhood.

They followed the canyon until suddenly she recognized the ridge ahead. The family had called it Sleeping Indian, because the contours resembled a man lying on his back. "There!" she shouted. "The cabin, right down there."

The pines had been busy while the family was absent, closing in around the cabin until only a portion of the roof was visible from the helicopter. Chago took one look and shook his head. He turned the helicopter around and traced back down the bottom of the canyon.

"I saw a fairly flat space on the top of a ridge we passed on the way in – that’s going to be about as close as I can get you," Chago said.

Kuryakin pulled off his earphones, unfastened his seatbelt and crawled past her to slide the door open. The wind of the blades rushed in.

Noralee watched out the window as the helicopter slid up a steep slope covered in short, brown brush. A line of craggy rocks followed the ridge of the mountain like spikes on a dinosaur’s back. She couldn’t see any place large enough for a picnic, let alone a helicopter, but Chago did. The helicopter dropped, buffeted by wind flowing up both slopes, and she felt the wheels bounce softly on something not quite level. Kuryakin hopped out and Noralee pulled on her own pack and scrambled awkwardly onto the uneven rocks.

With a jaunty wave, Solo pulled the door closed and the helicopter rose away.

Kuryakin was already heading down the slope. As she followed, Noralee realized why there were so few trees growing on the slope – it was so steep that snow and dirt slides probably swept away anything above waist height. She dug in her heels and concentrated on not tripping; that sort of an accident would only end when she reached Bottom Creek.

Finally, with aching hamstrings, she reached the relatively flat land at the bottom of the mountainside. Kuryakin gazed up at her with thinly concealed impatience. She glanced around, getting her bearings and led the way along the path that had nearly vanished in the years since they'd all been young and the cabin was where everyone went for vacation.

The trees, sparse at first, soon closed over them and they moved almost silently through a dim and quiet world that smelled of pine and earth.

They didn't talk, and the longer they didn't talk the more impossible and unwelcome talk became. The soft pad of their footsteps, the distant murmur of the drought-depleted creek, the call of a hawk or distant chatter of a pair of squirrels, everything muted and in harmony with everything else.

A couple of times, the stutter of the helicopter passed overhead, but they caught only a glimpse of it through the crowd of trees.

The heat of the July sun penetrated even the shade of the forest floor. When the path carried them close to the creek, she left the path and led the way through the trees, dropping onto a flat rock. Kuryakin followed her without comment and squatted by the edge of the stream, scooping water from the shallow trickle onto his face and neck.

Was this the spot where Frank had taught her the fine art of waiting for a fish to make up its mind? The rock certainly fit her rump well. Had he sat here, too, on his last trip to the cabin? It would have been like Frank to pack his pole all the way from California, carry it in on that last, lonely trip and take time to test the waters, sparse as they were. She hoped he had hooked a big one, that last time.

"Are you a fisherman?" she asked.

Kuryakin shook his head. "I went once, with an older cousin, but it was net fishing, from a boat in the Black Sea. What I remember most was being cold and a little seasick. Napoleon has tried a few times to get me to go fishing with him from his boat, but so far I've managed to avoid it."

"I'm sure it's not quite the thrills you're used to, in your line of work. I think Frank was better suited to fishing."

"A lot of fishermen are called on to do other things for the sake of the world." He smiled at her. "Fisherwomen, too."

"Well, I guess we'd better get back to it, then," she said, oddly pleased. She led the way back to the path and their footpads continued counting off their progress.

Finally, they were approaching. The Three Pines, the guidepost that marked the last curve in the path, still stood just as they always had, now dignified and thick around as three well-fed gentlemen, and surrounded by an impertinent crowd of thin, young pines.

She stopped and grabbed Kuryakin's arm to pull him close, which he did not particularly like. "Just over that rise," she whispered. A whisper fit the place, and besides, hadn't he warned her there might be bad guys in the area?

He nodded and passed her, crouching lower and lower as he neared the top of the rise. He scanned the area with a pair of binoculars pulled from somewhere, then motioned her to come on. She crawled up on her belly; how many times had she and Peter done this, Indians spying on the settlers, as they neared the place? In a moment, the door would open and her grandmother would stand on the front porch waving to them to hurry down. Dan and Lili, Dorothy's children, would race around from the back side of the cabin, whooping a welcome. The wind would shift and the sweet smell of woodsmoke and roasting chicken would waft over them, and her dad would swing her up onto his shoulder and race down the path with her mother calling caution in a voice full of laughter.

But, the door didn't open; Mom-mom's ashes had long since joined the thin soil of the mountain. Lili was teaching school in Charlotte, Peter was heading for a place called Vietnam to be a medic, Dan was struggling to make a living as a potter in Cleveland. Her father was 20 years dead and her mother remarried to Lloyd, who was in real estate in the San Fernando Valley.

In the lead again, she trudged down the hill with no reason at all to hurry.

The door was unlocked, as it had always been. That was Grampa's practicality – if you lock the door, whoever wants in will just break in. Might as well welcome them.

Apparently, no one had taken the offer. The place was dead, muted like a sepia-tone photograph. The blue plaid curtains she'd helped her grandmother make were sunbleached to a gray that matched the walls and the floor. Dust filled the dings and scratches that years of raucous reunions had put on the furniture. Dust motes swam in the shadowed sunlight.

Uncle Frank had left small signs of his visit: tracks of a chair pulled across the floor, footprints in the dust. An area of the table was swept clear; did he sit there a moment, remembering? His presence still echoed like a lingering whiff of his aftershave. Behind the door, a fishing pole leaned against the wall – brought, and left behind.

Kuryakin was all predatory intensity until he had convinced himself they were alone. He looked a little dismayed at the size of the place, and the jumble of old furniture that filled it, but there wouldn't be any need to search. She knew where it would be.

Illya and the woman shrank below them as Chago piloted the helicopter into the cloudless sky. The two figures reached the line of the trees and soon disappeared under the green blanket. "Anywhere special?" Chago asked through the headset, and Solo shook his head.

"We can circle around the general area, but I don't think we're going to be able to see much. Maybe I could get in a little practice before I lose my certification."

The pilot's sigh was audible through the earphones. "No hotdogging," he instructed, relenquishing control, and Solo obediently piloted the chopper along the ridge line in the aerial equivalent of his grandfather at the wheel of his 1942 Studebaker.

He flew a circling course over the mountainside. The sleek little helicopter as willing and pliable in his hands as...well, he could think of half a dozen names but a gentleman wouldn’t tell. At one point, he thought he caught sight of movement in the trees just below, but it might have been the wind blowing the treetops around.

"How about just a little more speed?" he finally suggested. After hesitation, Chago reluctantly nodded his head but shoved his thumb upwards, further from the mountainside. Solo drew the collective toward him smoothly and the helicopter rose into the blue.

"What the hell..." he blurted as a black helicopter mirrored their ascent from the other side of the ridge. At this distance, the stark white bird painted on the tail was easy to see.

The stick jerked out of his hand and Chago was banking sharply to the right and away, as sharp pings rattled along the gleaming silver flank of the U.N.C.L.E. helicopter. Chago cursed under his breath and pushed the little craft toward top speed.

Solo twisted in his seat to see the black helicopter following, slowly closing the gap. "We're not going to outrun them," he commented.

"Nope," Chago replied succinctly. He piloted them straight at a jagged ridge, so close that Solo unconsciously pressed his right foot firmly onto a phantom brake, and immediately wished that he hadn't when the wounded leg protested. Then they were whooshing up, skimming the steep slope, then over the top and abruptly down. Solo clutched the dash in front of him and squeezed his eyes closed.

His stomach told him that they had leveled but when he opened his eyes again it was to the unwelcome sight of pine trees whipping past about 10 feet below them, steep canyon walls rising on either side. He craned, searching for the other chopper. There, behind and high above them. Too far to bother with the machine gun, but still following, and who knew what other explosive toys were aboard.

The U.N.C.L.E. helicopter pitched right, then left as Chago followed the course of the stream that had carved this canyon. Napoleon ran through the list of the very limited fighting capabilities of the U.N.C.L.E. helicopter in his mind. A machine gun mounted to the undercarriage, but useless unless they turned for a head-on battle. Since that was clearly what the T.H.R.U.S.H. pilot wanted, it seemed like a bad idea. Ditto for the small grenade launcher. He could fire a burst of smoke from the tail, but that was useful only when an opponent was following close, overtaking. The U.N.C.L.E. chopper was fitted out for surveillance, transport and rescue, as Chago had summed up, but not much more.

He fingered the Special in its shoulder holster, but didn't draw it. It was maddening to sit, doing nothing, but it didn't look like he had much choice. He turned his energy to puzzling out what the T.H.R.U.S.H. chopper was doing here. How had they known where to come? The woman hadn’t even told the U.N.C.L.E. team exactly where they were coming. Of course, since the cabin was a family gathering place any one of the relatives gathered at her uncle’s funeral could have reached the same conclusion about where Frank Duff might have hidden something of value. A sympathetic stranger in black, claiming to be a friend or co-worker, wouldn’t have too much trouble leading the conversation.

He glanced at Chago. The muscles of the pilot's jaw were clenched, his eyes behind the sunglasses on the terrain ahead. "So," Solo couldn't resist asking, "what's our plan?"

"Stay ahead of them," Chago said grimly. "Draw them off."

Napoleon looked again for the black bird. Gone. It wasn't in the sky above or behind them, to the left or right.

"I think they didn’t wait to be drawn off," he said.

"Meet Charlie," Noralee said, waving grandly to the dusty and somewhat tatty trout mounted to a board and hung above the fireplace. "My grandfather caught him with one of my grandmother's hairpins and a chocolate chip cookie. At least, that's the story he told us."

She gingerly climbed onto one of the dining chairs that wobbled on the uneven stones of the hearth. Refusing to think about spiders, she poked two fingers deep into Charlie's mouth. "When I was five, I decided to see what Charlie's insides looked like and poked a hole right into the belly. Uncle Frank walked in when I was still standing here, horrified. He said he didn't see any reason we needed to tell anyone about it and Charlie didn't get dusted enough for anyone to notice. Ahhhh." Carefully, she withdrew her fingers with a small metal canister caught between them.

Kuryakin took it and nodded with satisfaction. "Microfilm," he said, and tucked it possessively into one of the pockets on his pants. As an afterthought, he extended a hand to Noralee and helped her off the chair.

She dusted her hands on her jeans and glanced around. "It doesn't look like much now, but we had such good times here. Then Grampa died and Mom-mom had to move to a nursing home, and then she died. Every Christmas somebody writes how we ought to come back for a reunion the next summer, but I guess we always thought there would be time to do it later, until..."

"Until the time is gone," Kuryakin finished.

She studied his composed face. "Is your family all still back in...Russia?"

"Yes." Evidently he considered that topic completed.

"Don't you miss them?"

"Very much."

"So, do you ever go back for a visit?"

"They are all dead."

Oh. "Sorry."

He shrugged, as though it was inevitable. As though it was what happened. And probably it was, in the hazardous world he inhabited.

She was trying to think of something else to say when they heard a soft thud and a muffled grunt from out back. Kuryakin grabbed her jacket sleeve and pulled her to the floor silently. He led the way, duck-walking cautiously to the back side of the sagging couch. There they crouched, waiting.

A shadow darkened one of the windows. It shifted, making an arm gesture of some sort, so there were two of them, at least. They began to ease toward the open front door, but froze when the porch creaked under someone's feet. Kuryakin leaned close enough to kiss. "Out the front door after me, then into the trees as fast as you can run." She nodded and before she was ready he was charging through the front door, diving off the porch, rolling, and the gunfire started. She raced, leapt, pounded across uneven ground and into the nearby trees.

She skidded down a hollow and stopped in the dimness, pushing herself into the thick duff behind a rotting trunk. From her limited view of the cabin, there seemed to be three bad guys, all firing guns. She didn't see Illya any more, but they were shooting at something, so he must still be moving, somewhere.

She stifled a scream as he dropped to the ground next to her. The gunfire had stopped and she could hear the men working their way into the trees to their right. Time to get out of there. She started to rise, but Kuryakin pulled her down. "I want to even the odds a bit before we try to outrun them," he said, staring into the underbrush.

Overhead, a helicopter's roar sounded, quickly drawing close.

"Thank goodness. If we can get to the ridge, they can they pick us up," Noralee said hopefully.

"It's not ours," Kuryakin didn't bother to look.

Noralee spotted the black shape circling above the trees. "Uh-oh," she said.

"Exactly." Kuryakin punctuated the word with a quick succession of shots, grabbed her hand and dragged her down the hollow, toward the stream, toward the only way out of the canyon.

"There," Solo said, pointing out the black helicopter hovering under the Sleeping Indian. He hoped Illya and Noralee kept out of sight. The black bird looked like it was waiting for a sign of movement before attacking.

Suddenly, it rose, tilted and made a swooping run along the bottom of the canyon, strafing with its machine gun.

"Jesus!" Chago glanced worriedly at his passenger.

"They're OK," Solo said tightly, keeping his eyes on the helicopter. "Illya's not there. He's better at being 'not there' than anybody I know." He rested his right hand by his thigh and crossed the fingers, about the only form of prayer he allowed himself lately.

"Sure," the pilot agreed without conviction. "Still, it wouldn't hurt to give him something else to think about. Hang on, I'm going to go in fast and try to get on his backside before he's paying attention to us."

Solo freed the weapons controls as the little chopper leapt forward. At the last minute, the black helicopter began to swing ponderously around to meet them, but with a swooping turn, Chago flanked it. Solo was ready, finger on the firing button for the small grenade launcher. The explosion came to the left and behind the black helicopter.

"Closer!" Solo shouted into the mike, but Chago was already easing them forward. The black helicopter swung around, almost lazily, the machine gun raking the air as it turned. Some of the bullets caught them, pinging off the metal skin. One connected with the lower corner of the windshield and a spiderweb crack fingered out. With an untranslatable curse, Chago sent them into an abrupt climb that left Solo's stomach behind.

Below them, the black helicopter turned suddenly and sped away, down the canyon. Solo watched it with a puzzled frown. It stopped and a stream of glowing light erupted from the underside of the carriage and reached down toward the treetops.

The glow seemed almost festive until they realized what it was. "Napalm," Chago breathed, as the trees burst into flame. The helicopter flew slowly back up the canyon, trailing fire behind it. The thin line of flames spread quickly in the crowd of tinder-dry trees.

"They've lost him," Solo said. "So they're going to let the fire take care of it."

“Putas,” Chago muttered and Solo understood his resentment of those who would turn the grace and agility of a helicopter into a tank designed to deliver destruction.

The black chopper came at them, still raining fire. Behind it, the forest blossomed into orange and yellow and red, like a magician's bouquet.

He looked again at the receiver built into the control panel, intensely relieved to see a tiny flashing light. "Illya’s behind us, just a little. But, we've got to stop him." Solo nodded grimly at the oncoming T.H.R.U.S.H. chopper.


How? Solo raced through their limited options.

"Hold them," he ordered. "Just…hold them. Do what you have to do."

The young pilot rose several notches in Solo's esteem when, without further question, he piloted the U.N.C.L.E. craft straight at the black bird in a deadly game of chicken. They closed, fast, neither helicopter wavering. The T.H.R.U.S.H. pilot made an abrupt turn to the left; Chago matched it with a swerve to the right. He anticipated the subsequent swerve in the opposite direction and was there to meet them. Solo stabbed his thumb on the button for the grenade launcher several times, without effect. Apparently the earlier fusilade from the T.H.R.U.S.H. guns had disabled the mechanism. The fire it had laid was now licking toward the tail of the T.H.R.U.S.H. helicopter. Desperate, the pilot took the craft into a steep climb. It barely cleared the rotor blades of the U.N.C.L.E. helicopter.

Chago pulled the helicopter in behind the black craft. Solo tried the machine gun, but the bullets had no discernible impact on the heavily reinforced T.H.R.U.S.H. helicopter. When it spun and returned fire, Chago swept them up and to the side, away from the guns. Apparently satisfied that the nuisance had been dealt with, the T.H.R.U.S.H. pilot turned again up the canyon and after a moment, the tongue of fire licked downward again.

"Is that us or them?" Noralee whispered, pointing upward to the helicopter sound overhead. They were crouched in a small circle of trees to catch their breath and bearings, and see if Kuryakin could pick off another of their pursuers.

"That's them," Kuryakin whispered back. "We are there." He pointed somewhere ahead and uphill from them. Straining, Noralee was able to pick out the sound of a second set of blades.

"What's that?" She pointed to the glow beginning to show through the trees ahead. But even as she said it, she smelled the first whiff of smoke. "Oh my God, fire."

"They must have decided that rather than risk losing us, they'll get rid of us."

"I don't think it's reached the clearing yet." Noralee consulted her mental map of the canyon.

"Then we'd best get there," Kuryakin said, and set out again at a pace that had her almost jogging to keep up.

"Shouldn't we call Napoleon and tell him to pick us up?" she wheezed out.

"My communicator is broadcasting our location," Kuryakin said over his shoulder. "They'll pick us up if we get to clear ground."

As Noralee was contemplating how little she liked his use of the word "if," there was a sudden whoomp from behind them. They spun in time to see the tops of a stand of Douglas fir ignite like birthday candles.

"They're burning behind us!" she shouted.

"Apparently, the party that was following us is expendable," Kuryakin said drily.

"But, they skipped this part of the canyon. Maybe they've decided they want us alive after all."

"Setting fire to the forest ahead and behind us isn't a very effective way to insure that," Kuryakin pointed out. "I think we can thank Napoleon and Chago for keeping this patch green. For the time being."

He was right, of course, the fire ahead was racing them to the clearing.

Sucking in another smoke-scented lungful of air, Noralee plunged on behind him.

Stationary, they watched as the T.H.R.U.S.H. copter spawned flame up the canyon.

Then, "Catch up," Solo ordered. "I want you to get right above them."

He got a puzzled look, but again Chago followed orders with precision. If the T.H.R.U.S.H. pilot was aware of their presence, he didn't seem to consider it much of a threat. He continued relentlessly up the canyon, taking it slow as the napalm trailed behind.

"Down," Solo ordered, pointing with his thumb. "As close as you can get.”

Down they went, until it seemed the runners of the U.N.C.L.E. helicopter must touch the spinning blades. Chago's full attention was on maintaining a slight distance as Solo lit up the first of the Cuban cigars, puffing it to a red glow. Chago must have smelled it, but he didn't react to the bizarre rites of his superior. Another two notches on the esteem meter. "I'm going to try my hand at T.H.R.U.S.H. flambe," Solo offered, ignoring Chago's raised eyebrow. Illya had given him a similar look when asked to land a helicopter on top of a moving truck, but they'd pulled that off successfully. He crossed his fingers again.

Solo slid open his side window and carefully dropped the bottle of brandy on the top of the big black helicopter. He caught a whiff of the sweet, sharp bouquet, took a last, long drag on the cigar and dropped it out the window. Nothing.

Solo quickly lit up another cigar and began puffing frantically.

"How fast can you run?"

They had made it to the grassy slope ahead of the fire. Barely. He was looking up the side of the canyon to the rocky ridge at the top.

0"You mean, up?"

"We can't go back. Our helicopter is apparently occupied elsewhere." He cast a worried glance toward a column of blacker smoke rising through the gray. "We can't stay here. There may be a chance if we can get to the ridge and over before the fires meet. The helicopter could pick us up from there, if they're able and if we make it to the top."

"Let's do it," she said, shaking off the repeated "if". She had a few more things to say, but her throat was too dry.

He shrugged out of his pack, unbuckled his heavy belt and let it fall to the ground, and she did the same. He pulled the tiny film canister from his pocket and, with some difficulty, swallowed it with a last long gulp from his canteen.

"Why?" she asked, economizing on the words.

"Retrieval. Just in case."

They started up.

It wasn't too bad at first, the slope gentler here near the bottom, and occasionally the wind would push a pocket of cool, clean air toward them. Soon, though, they were scrambling on all fours, digging in with the sides of their boots and grabbing at the dry grass to help haul them upward. She sucked greedily for air, and drew in thick ash. She paused long enough to stare up toward the ridge, but it seemed further away than ever. Surely it hadn’t been this far on the way down.

"Don't stop," he barked in a voice hoarse with smoke.

She was pretty sure she had never been this hot. She was sweating, had to be, but the heat and the wind sucked the moisture away immediately. She pictured her skin turning nicely brown and crisp like one of Mom-moms roasted chickens. Was the sound of it louder? She was afraid to look back. When the two walls of fire met, there wouldn't be anywhere for the flames to go but up, following them. She pictured it, chasing behind like a pitiless cat, finally snagging her heel and dragging her into its hot mouth.

Her throat was so dry. She tried to summon the spit to wet it, but had none. She thought of the canteens, abandoned at the bottom of the slope. Stupid to leave them behind. She really should go back, but she was headed uphill and the act of turning around was just too complicated to negotiate. She shook her head and kept climbing.

Kuryakin moved into her peripheral vision, ahead of her now, and to the right, still climbing fast. Would he leave her behind? He had the film, which was the important thing. He probably would leave her, to salvage the information. She'd probably leave him, if their roles were reversed. The fire was a threat that reached right down to the survival instincts at the cellular level. Well, dammit, she didn't need him. She'd get herself up this endless hill. She called on an extra burst of energy, but it simply wasn't there. Her arms wouldn't move any faster, her legs couldn't push any stronger. It wasn't enough. She knew that now because she could feel the hot breath of the fire coming up behind. Might as well just lie down now on the grass and wait, she thought, but her panicked body wasn't listening to her brain. It kept on – reach and grab, dig in and push, reach and grab…

Kuryakin had stopped, fumbling in his pockets. The film was already in his stomach, she wanted to remind him, but she had no breath and her throat was too dry for talk. He pulled out something else, a book of matches, she saw, and wanted to laugh. If it's a campfire you want, just wait a minute.

When she came even with him, he reached out and grabbed her arm. "Wait!" his lips said, although she realized she couldn't hear him over the approaching roar. He'd lost his mind. She should ignore him and keep on climbing, but once she had stopped she found it was impossible to start again. She lay back on the crackling grass and tried to breathe, watching him.

He struck a match and set the grass aflame, over and over, until a 20-foot-wide swath of grass and brush was blazing ahead of them. She dared now to look down and was stunned by how close the flames had come. They shouted at her. She couldn't take her eyes from the gold and scarlet of the flames, an ancient fascination transfixing her. They writhed, 100, 200 feet into the air in shapes like all the tortured monsters of a bad childhood. They passed her on the left, crowning from tree to tree in a jubilant sprint toward a rocky finish line.

Now Kuryakin's jolly little fire cut off their only hope of escape. Maybe that was his plan, to get it over with. Maybe that was best.

She closed her eyes and waited.

Then he was dragging at her, whispering hoarsely in her ear. "Get up, come on! Hurry!"

With a choked growl she rolled over and followed him on hands and knees as he crawled onto the hot black grass. Glowing cinders burned her palms, a preview of pain. Kuryakin's grip was strong and unrelenting. In the middle of the burned patch, he stopped and dug his fingers deep into the blackened duff. When she felt the fire wind tugging at her, she did the same, stretching out on her belly and digging hollows with the toes of her boots to brace against. The ash under her cheek was soft as a pillow, warm as her mother's embrace.

Suddenly, the fire was on them, shrieking and booming with victory. The bright light of flames filled her vision on either side. Blackened air buffeted her from a dozen directions. The force of it lifted her body, turned her shirttail into a snapping flag, billowed ash all around her. Sucked the air from her lungs. She dug deep and held on for an eternity.

Something was tapping at her hand. A bird? Surely all the birds had fled high and fast, or ended up cinders. She opened her eyes. Kuryakin, sitting up and staring at her from red-rimmed blue eyes set in a face the color of ebony. Cautiously, she raised her head. The fire was moving on ahead of them, racing for the ridge. All around them was black. The trees that dotted the hillside flamed like torches, already dead and giving up the last of their juice to the fire.

"We made it?" she croaked. "We're alive?"

"Apparently," he wheezed and grinned, revealing teeth turned gray by soot.

"We made it!" She wanted to bellow, but wasn't able to put any breath behind it. She got to her feet and jumped into the air, body language. Her boots slipped on the ash and she landed hard on her butt and laughed until she vomited up black phlegm.

Then it was back, the roar and the buffeting wind, coming back on them from the top of the ridge. Frozen, she stared up and saw a helicopter rising above the rocks. For a moment, they stayed still, black shapes in the black landscape, invisible to enemies. Then Kuryakin was up on his knees, waving his arms, and she joined in. The helicopter hovered above them, raising a swirling cloud of gray, then led the way to the top of the ridge where it set down delicately on the flat rock. Noralee followed Kuryakin up the steep, slippery slope to the top. The rocks were still hot from the storm of the fire, but the flames had retreated to the trees on either side.

Standing in the open side of the helicopter, Solo looked them over with a worried gaze and then smiled. "I'll offer you a ride, if you promise not to get anything on the upholstery," he shouted over the noise of the blades, gazing pointedly at Kuryakin's black clothes and skin.

"We appreciate your concern." Kuryakin managed to convey a dry tone. He frowned, looking at the helicopter. “Where’s the door?”

“Well, uh…”

“He tried to flambe the T.H.R.U.S.H. chopper with my future father-in-law’s brandy and cigars,” Chago shouted from inside.

Kuryakin looked skeptical. “That wouldn’t work. There’s nothing to…”

“I know, I know,” Solo cut in. “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

“Waste of good brandy and expensive cigars,” Chago complained.

“So then you, what? Detatched the door and dropped it on them? Napoleon, do you have any idea what a replacement is going to cost?”

“Hey, I was trying to save your ungrateful hide. Say, speaking of saving your hide, how did you…?” He gestured down at the black slope.

“It will be in the report,” Kuryakin rasped.

“Were you able to retrieve anything from the cabin?" Solo asked.

Kuryakin held up his index finger – one moment. He stumbled behind a small rock and bent over. The retching sounds were barely audible. He gingerly picked something up from the ground, swiped it roughly against his trousers, walked back and dropped it in Solo's palm.

"Thanks." Solo stared distastefully at the canister for a moment before slipping it into his jacket pocket. He looked up at Noralee. "And you, Miss Jackson – how are you doing?"

Noralee lifted her face into a gentle breeze blowing uphill from the stream with the scent of cool, dark places and wily trout and maybe a faint hint of aftershave wafting like a benediction beneath the smell of smoke. "I’m fine," she said. "Just born lucky, I guess.”

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