Close to a Knockout

by Linda Cornett

(Appeared in Kuryakin File 14, reprinted in Innocent Eyes)

A little respect and the occasional big payoff – that's about all a private eye can hope for. The old guy who got me started in this business told me that, but he didn't get enough of either to keep him out of a bottle. I was beginning to wonder if I was going to end up the same way.

She wasn't the kind of good looking that would make you turn around on the street. You might walk right past her and not even notice, but if for some reason she got stuck in front of your eyes, all of a sudden you realized she was pretty close to a knockout.

I'd had plenty of time to get to that point, while she sat in the scarred wooden chair that I keep for extra visitors, when the padded chair's already taken. It wasn't taken now, but she'd chosen the wooden one anyway. That may have been because she was too flustered to pay attention or maybe because the wooden one was in a shaft of strong late afternoon sunlight that set off sparks in her auburn hair and showed up the smooth line of her cheek and the curve of her calf. She looked like the kind of woman who paid a lot of attention to where the best light was.

Whatever the reason, there she sat telling me her story, while I leaned forward on the oak teacher's desk I'd bought at a school district auction, taking notes and paying more attention to what the sunbeam was doing than I probably should have.

The story wasn't one that demanded a whole lot of my attention. People come to me thinking they've got some peculiar story to tell and never realize I heard the same story last week and the week before that and the week before that. You stick in this business long enough and your surprise threshold gets pretty high.

What she wanted was a man with enough sense to come home every night as though it was something to look forward to. What she said she wanted was to know whether the man she had was cheating on her.

I couldn't help her with the first, but the second was easy enough. A few hours hunkered down in the front seat of my old Chevy with a roll of film, and she'd be a free woman with maybe a little guilt income from the guy and the time to look for the kind of guy she wanted. Maybe even the marrying kind – she wasn't wearing a wedding ring, or even an engagement ring, on her perfect little hand, but she had the possessive air about this guy that said the finger was ready.

"Miss Lefler, I can do what you want, but I have to warn you, you may not be happy with what I find out. You need to be prepared for the possibility that what you suspect may actually be true. Sometimes it's a lot easier to live with a suspicion than a reality."

"I want to know," she said flatly and I got the idea there was some no-nonsense Midwest sensibility under the New York smooth. She reached for her purse. "Would $300 get you started on the case?"

Boy, would it. "It would be sufficient for a retainer," I said. Enough to make my occasional meetings with my landlord a lot more pleasant. Enough to get the Chevy into the shop. Enough for a steak dinner for two.

She was unself-conscious enough, or maybe self-conscious enough, to loan over the desk to write the check, far enough that it got me thinking about how much comforting she was going to need when I had the goods on that bum she was temporarily involved with. I wondered how she felt about steak dinners.

The sight of the check sliding under my nose distracted me. I cleared my throat. "Okay, Miss Lefler. I'll call you as soon as I know something."

There's no way that I know of to get through a stake-out without a couple cups of joe, but there's no way to drink a couple cups of joe without taking a break now and then. That was my problem right now, after two hours in the front seat of the Chevy that had learned over our long association to fit my rump pretty well. The coffee shop that had supplied the joe was just down the block, and I didn't see how they could ethically deny me use of the facilities, but I had an itch that said the guy was going to be stepping out of his apartment building any minute. So I sat back and thought about England.

The camera was next to me on the seat, on top of the pile of laundry I really needed to get to the cleaner's one of these days. It was a nice little piece of equipment, pricey and German, which wouldn't have been my choice since I'd lost my older brother to Adolf , but one thing you can say about the Krauts, they know how to make a machine. My only moment of doubt about the camera had come when I'd tried to use it when some of the remaining family got together in Queens. The pictures came out lousy. I finally figured out the problem was Uncle Steph and Aunt Rita were standing there smiling in the sunny little backyard instead of sneaking down an alley on a moonless night, which was where I'd gotten most of my photographic experience.

Show time! I'd seen the mug's face enough today while I was doing my homework, in photos in the Times business section – J. Arthur Kennedy, rapidly making his way to the top of the financial world and leaving behind a lot of guys with Kennedy's footprint on the top of their heads. The sign on his desk at Meecham and Merchant Bank said he was their international loan officer, but the business gossip columns hinted that J. Arthur Kennedy was a good deal more than that, an international banker with an estimated $200 million at his disposal and a reputation for using that reserve in daring and, so far, spectacularly profitable ways. The board that oversaw the bank's business had got in the habit of signing where J. Arthur Kennedy told them to sign. Some guy at the Times had even used the Kraut word – wunderkind – to describe J. Arthur.

He didn't look like much of a kid, either in the newspaper pictures or from my across-the-street perspective. What he looked like was a short guy with a belly even a $200 suit couldn't disguise and a head that was going to be getting sunburned in another five years if he didn't invest in some hats.

He must have had something, though. My client sure seemed to see it, and so did the flashy blonde who was hanging onto his arm like she thought it might be hers. She was smiling into his horn-rimmed glasses and with a funny lopsided kind of grin pulled herself close to whisper into his ear. I captured it all for posterity before a limo and a silver sports car stopped at the curb in front of them. J. Arthur Kennedy gave her a coy little wave before inserting his bulk into the back seat of the limo.

The blonde watched the limo slip away before gliding into the front seat of the silver convertible. The hop who'd fetched it closed the door like he was afraid he'd ruin a souffle and gave the car a longing glance.

The blonde seemed to like his arm, too, and hung onto it while she pulled a bill out of her purse. That redirected the longing gaze, and he stood there in the street watching the car and the woman vanish into traffic until a cabbie tapped out a threat on his horn.

Like I figured, my client wasn't exactly grateful. She was back in the bad chair in the good light flipping through my artwork with perfectly manicured fingers and an expression on her face that even the good light couldn't fix.

She slapped the pictures down on the desk. "Who is she?" she demanded. The purr had disappeared from her voice.

It wasn't part of our contract, but I had anticipated the question and tried to answer it, without much luck. Apparently, the blonde liked her privacy. No one at the apartment building knew anything about her, besides the obvious. The car was leased. I even showed a shot of her around to a few friends at the Times and on the force, and no bells went off.

"I did warn you, Miss Lefler," I began.

"The son of a bitch," she interrupted, and it was clear she wasn't in the mood for two-way conversation, so I shut up.

She said a few more unflattering things about J. Arthur Kennedy before she started in on the woman. I listened with all the sympathy $300 can buy.

I wasn't sure when it was over, but she was. She shut her mouth abruptly, shoved the pictures into her little purse and hopped up out of the chair like I'd had a spring installed in the seat. She was halfway to the door before I got myself up to say goodbye; the steak dinner seemed a remote possibility at the moment, so I didn't bring it up. I kind of hoped she might give me a little wave, like the one J. Arthur Kennedy had given the blonde, but apparently it didn't occur to her.

I put the skinny file I'd made for J. Arthur Kennedy in my file cabinet and gave some attention to my continuing search for a 64-year-old man who had decided a couple of months earlier he was ready to be single again and took off in the family station wagon.

Next day, when I got back from lunch with a greasy hamburger and a piece of Murray's apple pie resting comfortably under my ribs, my office door was unlocked. It's not something I make a habit of, so I eased the door open and slid a hand toward the cold steel backup nestled against my side.

Both chairs were taken, and both of them were moved out of the light. That was okay, since both occupants were men and whatever their calves looked like, they were concealed by dark suit pants.

They were both staring back at me. The closest one, a brunet who looked like he'd stopped by on the way from a very good barber, nodded a greeting from the padded chair. It was a friendly gesture, considering this was my office.

"I hope you don't mind us coming in," he said. "The door wasn't locked." He had a plummy, nondescript voice, the kind they use on TV to convince you there's a better cereal than the one you're eating.

"Lucky I'm forgetful today," I said, sliding into my seat. "I'd hate for you gentlemen to have had to wait in the hallway."

I shifted my eyes to the other visitor. He sat pressed back into the shadows so mostly what I noticed was the pale, smooth face that displayed a little less emotion than the file cabinet behind him. There was a lot of light-colored hair above his high forehead, which was confusing because he didn't dress like a hippy and he didn't show enough feeling to be a pansy.

The dark-haired guy was showing me a badge, and for a minute I thought I was about to hear about my outstanding parking tickets. But, it wasn't like any cop badge I'd ever seen. I reached out to pull it close, but he snapped the case closed and tucked it inside the perfect cut of his jacket.

"We are enforcement agents for the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement," he rattled off. "U.N.C.L.E."

"Un-huh." I was trying to remember if I'd ever heard of the outfit. He didn't look like any kind of cop I'd ever seen, but it was pretty easy to picture him on the rowing team at Harvard seated next to the son of a senator.

"You were visited by a young woman on Friday and again Tuesday," he informed me. "A Miss Lara Lefler."

"Name's not familiar," I said, because on general principle I don't like to give away information.

"I'm sure it will come to you," he said.

"How do you know she was here?"

He shifted impatiently. "She wrote your name in her calendar. I would like to know what Miss Lefler discussed with you."

"What makes it your business?"

"We are working on a case for the U.N.C.L.E.; we believe she may be involved in a small way."

"So ask her."

He flicked a glance toward the blond, who still wasn't letting his feelings show. "She is dead," he told me flatly. "Her body was found in her apartment. A neighbor smelled the gas."

He stopped because my head was shaking. "She wasn't the suicide type. And she sure wasn't the gas type." I'd seen the body of a weary soul who decided gas was a good way to go, and it wasn't flattering.

"Why was she here?"

"She suspected her gentleman friend had transferred his affections. She wanted me to check it out."

"And had he?"

"Yeah." They always had, by the time the woman was suspicious enough to come to me, but I didn't bother sharing that with him.

"And your proof?"

"Pictures of them leaving his apartment together."

"What happened to the pictures?" He was leaning forward now, and there may have been just a crack of interest in the blond's stone face.

"I gave them to her. She put them in her purse. And before you ask, when she left here she wasn't wondering how to turn on the gas. Murder, maybe, but not suicide."

"The negatives." It was the blond speaking for the first time. Except for a slight accent, his voice might have done OK on TV, too, if they needed somebody to remind viewers that the world is a cold, hard place and they better keep their doors locked.

I shook my head again. "Sorry, gentlemen. I don't keep negatives once a case is closed. Makes the clients nervous. She took them with her."

"Describe the woman in the pictures." The Harvard man was back at the mike.

I shrugged. "Blonde, from a bottle. Mid-30s but trying for late-20s. Five-six, 130. Lots of glitter and fur. Crooked smile. The kind that likes to do a lot of staring and touching."

They exchanged another glance. Then Harvard was back to me. "Mr. Chandler, you have, quite innocently, I believe, gotten yourself into the middle of a rather delicate operation. We will handle the matter from here. Agreed?"

I leaned back and let them enjoy the music my chair plays every time I move past perpendicular.

I meant to give Harvard a hard gaze to let him know he wasn't dealing with a pushover, but my eyes kept wanting to go to the blond. He'd gotten hold of my letter opener somehow and was twirling it around in his fingers and looking at me like he was a surgeon and I had an organ that needed to come out.

"Not yet," I said and I gave it enough air that it sounded pretty confident. "I've monopolized the conversation so far. Now its your turn. What is this U.N.C.L.E. ? Who are you two. And what's the case?"

"The U.N.C.L.E. is an international peacekeeping organization. Our names ... really don't matter, do they? And, I'm afraid I can't tell you about our case. You'll simply have to take it on trust that while the case is important, the involvement of your late client is not. It would be best if you simply dropped the matter and forgot about our visit. Do you agree?"

When I didn't answer again, he sighed regretfully and got up. The blond stood up, too, but he didn't seem to have any regrets. He laid the letter opener on the corner of my desk and stepped back. Then, smooth and quick, he dipped a hand under his coat and pulled it out filled with gun. Before I could kick my way out from behind the desk, he pointed it at me and pulled the trigger.

I woke up with a stiff neck and a thick tongue and realized I was staring at the dead bugs in the overhead light. I levered myself upright, and my head expressed an opinion about any sudden movement. Thick, late afternoon sunlight slanted through the blinds. I pulled up an arm that weighed as much as my ex-sister-in-law and looked at my watch. 6:30. I'd been sitting there ruining my posture, with my mouth open for four hours. Ever since...

I patted frantically over my torso. No blood, no gaping wound, just a little feathered thing that stung when I pulled it out of my chest.

I spent a couple of minutes refining my feelings about the blond. It was a little satisfying, but it didn't do much for my headache.

Making sure to lock the door, I hauled my 90-pound head down the street to Quinn's where I discovered that gin was the antidote.

Whoever got impatient this time wasn't as neat about it. When I crawled up the stairs about 10 the next day, wondering if one of those little feathered things was an antidote for gin and how I could get the blond to shoot me again, I found the door gaping wide and hanging on by one hinge. I listened out in the hallway for a while, and didn't hear anything but the traffic three floors below and the blood gushing through the veins in my head.

There was a little less finesse inside, too. Not only was nobody sitting in the chairs, but they were both smashed. My desk was on its back, its legs waving in the air like an overturned Junebug. The file cabinet lay on its side and files were spread over everything.

I found the desk chair in the far comer, still in one piece and got it upright. It creaked a welcome like a dog that's been left with the neighbors who don't like dogs. I stared at the shambles long enough for a rage to heat up and then cool off into grim resolution. Kill my client, insult and then shoot me, tear up my office – any one of the three I might have been able to forgive, but not all three.

Deciding to leave the clean-up to the elves, I hauled myself out of the chair and headed for the midtown library. I had some things to do.

The public lobby of Meecham and Merchants wasn't much different from the bank where I deposited my pennies, when I had any. There was the usual hush, like money was something nice people didn't discuss aloud. The marble floors were a little scuffed from the morning's trade and one of the check-writing tables had a piece of crumpled paper lying on it. If I'd had an account here, and any money in it, I could have joined one of the lines in perfect comfort.

But, the higher I went up the wide marble stairs, the more I felt like I'd have to get a new suit just to sweep the floors.

J. Arthur Kennedy's office was on the top floor. A sharp-faced gatekeeper in a plain black dress and red hair that couldn't have been her own because it was so perfect glared at me from behind a dark green marble bulwark. I waded through the emerald green carpet until I was close enough to put my fingerprints on the marble, but I didn't.

"Good afternoon," I said, watching her reaction. We'd talked by phone about an hour earlier, and there was a chance she would remember my voice. But, I had put on an accent earlier, and I took it off now, and there wasn't any recognition in her face. There wasn't any welcome, either.

"l am Lionel Hess, from Mr. Tyler's office." I passed over the card I'd just had printed up by a guy I know who does fast work for a price. She took it, careful not to let our fingers touch, and pointed her pale green eyes at it.

"I believe Mr. Tyler's secretary spoke with you at," I glanced at a piece of folded paper I drew from my pocket, "at 1:15 to tell you I would be bringing over some papers Mr. Tyler would like Mr. Kennedy to take a look at."

Tyler, who owned a dozen golf courses around the country, was working a loan from Kennedy so he could provide expanses of green to the poor underprivileged sheiks of the Middle East. It was all in the Times business section.

"Yes," the gatekeeper agreed, without looking at all agreeable. "I will deliver the papers to Mr. Kennedy"

I shook my head firmly. "Mr. Tyler is most particular," I said primly (and he was - it was in his profile in Newsweek). "I believe his secretary explained to you that I am to deliver the papers to Mr. Kennedy directly."

The look she gave me said we were not going to be very good friends. She picked up a phone and made a connection viciously.

"Yes sir, a gentleman is here from Mr. Tyler's office with papers for you. He refuses to leave them with me." She listened for a second, said "Yes sir" another couple of times and hung up. "Walk this way," she told me, but I would have had to put on high heels to do it, so I just followed her.

The door to J. Arthur Kennedy's office must have weighed 500 pounds, but it slid silently open without any apparent effort on her part. She saw me in and shut it firmly behind my back.

Kennedy's office wasn't big enough for one of Tyler's golf courses, but it would have made a respectable Par 3 and the carpet was greener.

Kennedy was sitting behind a slab of cherry that would have made a nice dance floor at my favorite club. He held out his hand impatiently without greeting me and I got the distinct impression he wasn't holding it out for a handshake. I smiled to show I didn't take it personally, and hiked over to one of the black leather chairs lined up in front of his desk. It was like sinking into a vat of butter.

Kennedy's round face got red and his eyes got narrow and his mouth went open.

"Lara Lefler says 'Hi,'" I commented quietly.

He leaned back. "Who are you?"

"A friend of Lara's. She talked about you often so when I heard about her tragic death I thought I ought to stop by and offer my condolences."

"Chandler," he said, and I decided I didn't much like the way he pronounced my name.

"I take it she mentioned me when she showed you the pictures." He didn't like to be reminded of it.

"What do you want?" Kennedy demanded.

"A few minutes of your time," I said. "I've lost a client and I'm feeling distraught. And while I was grieving, someone messed up my office."

He tsked. "The city, it's becoming so violent. Unsafe. You should be careful, Mr. Chandler."

The way he said it, we might have been two old pals having a pleasant conversation, only we weren't. I nodded to let him know the message had reached me.

"I'm trying to imagine how Lara got past that dragon outside when she came to see you Tuesday," I said, changing the subject.

He raised an eyebrow. "What makes you think she came here?"

"She was steamed when she left my office," I said. "That was early afternoon. Her best chance to catch you would have been to come here and I think she came straight over. How am I doing?"

"I haven't seen Lara for several days," Kennedy said, smooth as the high-priced spread. "She was a disturbed and obsessive woman and, while I necessarily felt some responsibility toward her, it was frankly becoming difficult for me to see her. I only wish I had realized just how obsessive she was. It is a regret I will have to live with the rest of my life."

It was a great performance and I gave him the applause he deserved. He glared and thumbed a button on his phone. "Miss Snel, send a security guard to my office at once," he barked, releasing the button.

"I suggest, Mr. Chandler, that you concentrate on whatever ugly divorce cases remain on your plate. You and I will not meet again."

Behind me, the huge, quiet door opened with a sigh across the carpet and I decided it was time to go.

I was back in the coffee shop, loading my second cup of joe with sugar after getting my quarter's worth from the facilities, and trying not to think too much about how this could be a very big waste of time. From the looks of him, J. Arthur Kennedy didn't have the juice to juggle millions all day and entertain the blonde in the sports car every night. But, the security guard at Meecham and Merchant had made it clear the welcome mat had been pulled in and the doorman at Kennedy's apartment building took an instant dislike to me when I tried chatting with the staff and a couple of residents. I didn't know where else to go, so here I was again.

"Tea," said a voice from the counter behind me, "and strawberry jam." I would have noticed the order anyway, but there was something familiar about the voice.

I picked up my coffee and the bag of doughnuts I'd bought to keep me company and turned around.

A pair of cold blue eyes in a stone face were staring back at me. He stepped close to me, closer than either of us enjoyed. He was shorter than I remembered; a gun can add a couple of inches to a man's stature.

"Mr. Chandler," he murmured. "Go home. Stay there."

He wanted it discreet. "What are you going to do, shoot me again?" I demanded loud enough to turn every head in the shop.

The blue eyes flickered uneasily. "Will you be quiet." He gritted it out between small, white teeth. "You are making a spectacle of yourself. Anyone in this shop could be involved. Do you want to alert them?"

It made enough sense, so I shrugged and headed for the door. I would have waved coyly but my hands were full.

About five seconds later, he was next to me, carrying a paper cup and looking grim. "That was a remarkably stupid display," he said.

"It's nothing to the fuss I can kick up if you don't stay out of my way," I said. My head was still sore and I didn't feel like being polite.

He sighed deeply, a patient man pushed to his limits. I didn't buy it. I put the doughnuts on the roof of the Chevy while I jostled the door open and slid in. I slammed the door hard enough I spilled some of the hot joe on my leg, but it was worth it to see some expression on his face, even if it wasn't friendly. I rolled down the window. "Hand me those doughnuts, will you?" I asked.

I thought he might shove them in my face, and so did he, but after a moment's hesitation he handed me the bag. "Mr. Chandler, this is not one of your divorce cases. It is much more than that. Your interference complicates matters. Go home. Please."

Well that was more like it. "Get in the car," I invited. He narrowed his eyes at me. "You are making a spectacle of yourself," I quoted. "Do you want to alert them?"

He glanced toward the apartment building, then crossed around and opened the passenger side door. The laundry discouraged him, so I threw it in the back seat.

"If they come out, lean back," I instructed. "I'm going to shoot through that window."

He traced the line of sight from me to the front of the apartment building and nodded. He didn't ask what I was intending to shoot with; the Kraut camera was on the seat between us.

I sipped at the coffee. It was sweeter than I like, but I figured I needed the extra sugar for medicinal purposes. He was staring at the apartment building, a frown creasing the high forehead. "Mr. Chandler, I will confess I don't know how to deal with someone like you. I wish Napoleon were here; you seem to have an affinity. How can I convince you to leave this case alone?"

He turned to me with his mug shaped into what looked like sincerity, although it was hard to tell without the light on.

"What does Napoleon have to do with anything?" I asked.

"What ... ? Oh, Napoleon Solo, my partner."

"And you are... Alexander the Great?"

He cocked his head slightly, watching my reaction. "Illya Nikovetch Kuryakin."

I chewed on it for a minute before it would go down. "Russian?"

"Ukrainian," he said primly, like a school teacher who'd just about given up on teaching but keeps correcting his students out of habit.

"I'll be damned. Defector?"

The eyes narrowed again. " I was sent to the U.N.C.L.E. by the government of the Soviet Union."

I shrugged. "Doesn't matter to me, Ivan. International politics isn't my specialty. Are you a spy?"

He didn't answer.

"I guess that's the risk you run when you recruit from several dozen countries," I said casually. I glanced at him and saw I had his attention. "I did a little research this afternoon. Chartered by the U.N. after World War Two to see that there's not a Three. Divided into five units, each responsible for a section of the world; North America headquarters is right here in New York but the only address I could find was a P.O. box. Financed and staffed by contributions from the 69 member nations."

"Seventy-three member nations," he said. "Burundi dropped out recently because of an unpleasantness there but we gained five others. I am impressed by your diligence."

I nodded acceptance. It hadn't been easy. For a good guy, U.N.C.L.E. liked to keep itself quiet. Like Zorro. Or Superman. I looked at what I could see of Kuryakin on the far side of the Chevy – short, skinny. Not Superman, just a cop with an accent and a good suit.

"Doughnut?" I held out the universal cop bait. After a moment of thoughtful reflection, he took the jelly-filled one, my favorite. I was noble. I let him have it.

"What's with the jam?" The doughnut reminded me.

"It is the Ukrainian way of drinking tea," he said.

He finished the doughnut and licked a drip of jelly off his lip neat as a cat. I sighed and bit into the dry innards of the sugar-sprinkled I had drawn.

"Mr. Chandler, why are you being so persistent about this case? You have been paid, have you not?"

"I have been paid by a client who is now dead."

"Suicide. You can hardly blame yourself for that."

"It wasn't suicide and you know it."

After a moment he nodded. "Despite the evidence, I also believe she was killed. But that is not your affair, either."

"I had plans for the lady," I said, and he nodded, as though he had expected something like that. "Besides, at the risk of ruining our budding friendship, you did shoot me, and I'm still a little sore about it."

"l apologize. We felt at the time that it was necessary, to prevent your curiosity getting in our way. Not very effective, as it turns out."

"No," I agreed. "But what made up my mind was when my office got dismantled."

Either he was very good at putting the expression he wanted on the stone face or he hadn't known. "When?"

"Last night or this morning. I found it at 10 a.m."

"They were looking for the negatives," he said.

"Yeah, that's what I figured, too. Smashing the furniture was just for fun."

"What do you hope to accomplish by being here tonight? They will not repair your office no matter how many photographs you have."

"No, but it the guy who flipped my desk and my filing cabinet comes to me looking for negatives, I'd like to have something to give him. Besides, when the joke's on me, I like to know the punch line. If I have a picture of the blonde kitten maybe I can find out who she is and what's going on. I dug some before but I was using a trowel."

"We know who the woman is," he said. "She is not a kitten and you are likely to be very badly scratched if you don't leave her alone."

"What's her name?"

"No, Mr. Chandler." Granite was back.

"Well if you know who she is, what are you doing here?"

"We also need evidence of her involvement with Mr. Kennedy."

"You interested in buying a few pictures?"

He shook his head. "l have a camera, as well." He patted a very small bulge in one pocket. "But we will not have anything to photograph. The lady will not return."

"You take a peek at her engagement calendar, too?"

"They know she was photographed with him once. She will not make herself available for photographs again. She was foolish to do so in the first place, but she enjoys taking chances."

"If they took the pictures, why search my office for the negatives?"

"Exactly." He studied me like an entomologist waiting for a cricket to do something interesting.

"I don't have the negatives. I told you, she took them. Maybe she hid them somewhere."

"Perhaps." He sounded doubtful.

"If you're not here to catch them in the act, what are you doing?"

"Perhaps I came to keep you company."

"Perhaps you came to follow J. Arthur. What odds would you give me that our friend Napoleon is guarding the back door?"

He nodded. "At this point, there is little more we can do."

"And if he comes out the front, what are you going to do? Steal my car?"

"Napoleon will drive round with our car. It is rather," he sighed, "rather noticeable."

Apparently we'd run out of witty repartee. I shoved the keys into the ignition. "Music?" I offered like the good host, and found the easy listening station I like best. He winced, but didn't object.

We got to enjoy the golden tones for about five minutes when a limo pulled up in front of the red carpet where the unfriendly doorman spent his 40 hours. A minute later, the doorman swung the big brass door wide and the Great Man himself strolled through. If he was grieving for lovely Lara, he was still keeping it to himself.

I grabbed up the camera and Kuryakin pulled out his pen and started talking into it. I almost forgot to take pictures.

"Channel D," he snapped, then, "Napoleon, he's coming out now."

"Right." Harvard's voice came faintly from the tip of the pen. "The pumpkin is on the way, Cinderella."

Kuryakin shook his head and put the pen away. "It has been a pleasure, Mr. Chandler," he said. "Thank you for your hospitality." He opened the door and slid out. I reached for the ignition. No keys.

I stared stupidly for a minute before my brain got back to work. I hopped out of the Chevy intending to show him a new way to arrange his hair.

I didn't get to try it out because a gorilla who'd escaped from the Manhattan Zoo grabbed me around the neck and tried to remove my head. I wanted to explain that it didn't unscrew in that direction, but you need air to make noise and I didn't have any. I dug under my left armpit and came up empty; through the rising black tide behind my eyes I saw my gun and holster at home in the bedroom closet.

There was some muffled noise and suddenly I was taking my rest against the side of a building. The gorilla was on his back on the sidewalk next to me. I had time to notice a few things. He was wearing a suit that hadn't been cut with his shape in mind. His hair was red and thin and his face was red and fat and Kuryakin was perched on top of him with one bony knee shoved into the gorilla's stomach. He was examining the back of the guy's throat with the barrel of a gun.

There was a scuffing sound off to the side, and another escapee from the zoo – this one from the hyena family, was slamming something into the back of Kuryakin's head. He went down and the gorilla shook him off like an elephant shakes off a mouse.

The gorilla was upset, and let his size 13s tell Kuryakin about it while the other guy watched, shifting around nervously the way thin guys do.

I thought about getting up and trying some peacemaking, but my legs disagreed.

After a minute, Hyena stepped up and said something to Gorilla, who stopped kicking and settled for glaring. Kuryakin wasn't moving.

Hyena held out his hand. He hadn't forgotten his gun and he was pointing it at Kuryakin's head. It occurred to me this would really be a good time to do something, when there was a squeal of tires and a gray car shaped like a beetle slid to a stop next to us. A door opened upward like a gull lifting its wing for flight and Harvard was there with a gun of his own, long and black and noticeable. There was a phht, like a 10-year-old spitting off the balcony, and Hyena let out a howl and grabbed his hand. Without further discussion, the two escapees beat it.

Harvard was on the sidewalk next to Kuryakin, slapping his face. Considering the treatment he'd just gotten, it seemed sort of unfriendly so I pointed out, in a voice that sounded like Louis Armstrong with a sore throat, J. Arthur.'s limo disappearing around the far corner. Harvard looked torn so I told him I'd take over with the face slapping.

After a second's hesitation, while he examined me like I was the first sitter he'd left baby with, he hopped back into the noticeable car and roared off.

I lifted up Kuryakin's bloody face and explained the situation to him and invited him to leave before the gorilla remembered he needed to deliver a few more kicks, but he didn't show much interest. Finally I gave up and dragged him along the sidewalk to the Chevy and shoved him in the backseat where the pile of clothes would protect the upholstery. I found my keys in his jacket pocket.

By that time I was walking okay, but the cha-cha was definitely out.

The doorman, having executed his important duties involving doors, had decided to notice events across the street. He opened the brass door and hollered something into the lobby, probably a suggestion to involve New York's finest, so I crawled behind the wheel and took off.

The doorman at my apartment building had taken a few years off, so I had to open the door myself with Kuryakin draped over one arm like the load of laundry that needed the cleaner more now that ever.

The elevator operator was likewise on sabbatical, but one of my neighbors hopped in with us -- the pansy from the third floor returning from walking a dustmop that stared up at me with bright black eyes and emitted the sort of menacing growl a rat might make.

"Five, please," I whispered, like I didn't want to disturb my sleepy friend.

Third Floor gave us a good once-over from under his toupee and reached a conclusion. He licked his lips and gave me a conspiratorial smile and pushed the buttons.

Inside the apartment, I shoved newspapers off the couch and dumped the company. He looked like hell in the light from the overhead bulb, but when I lifted an eyelid a blue eye glared back at me and he mumbled something that sounded unfriendly. I pulled off his shoes and jacket and loosened his tie. There was a towel in the corner of the bathroom. I wet it and washed the blood off and he looked better, but a career in modeling was definitely out for the next few days. There was a large-sized mouse next to his left eye, with a jagged cut that had finished bleeding. His lip was split and there was a lump on the back of his head that shouldn't have been there. There were footprints on the front and back of his suit, but I didn't bother checking those out; I've seen bruises before.

I dumped some moldy bread onto the kitchen counter and filled the plastic bag with ice and flopped it over the lump on his head and left him lying cozy on the couch.

My own tie was feeling sort of tight, so I stood in front of the bathroom mirror and took it off and got a look at some more bruises. Judging from the size of the stripes curving around my neck, I figured the gorilla wouldn't have much luck finding gloves come winter. My throat felt tight, too, so I went back to the kitchen and poured out a shot glass of the universal cure I kept in a certain cabinet and dosed myself a couple of times.

By the time I had water boiling in a saucepan, my company was making noises. I fixed up a cup of tea just the way he liked and carried it in to the coffee table. He pushed himself upright and admired the decor for a minute before turning a squint toward me. "Your place?" he asked, and winced at the jaw movement.

I nodded. "A building fell on us," I reminded him. "Your pal took off after J. Arthur and we came here to recuperate."

He noticed the tea and raised it carefully to his mouth and downed a sip. He winced, swallowing it and gave me an accusing look. "What is this?"

"Tea with grape jelly. I didn't have any jam."

He opened his mouth to say something unkind but a thoughtful look came over his face. "Bathroom?" he asked in a hurry, like he was afraid he was going to miss a bus.

I nodded down the hall and he staggered out of the room.

He was still examining the facilities when his jacket started beeping. I heard a strangled sound from down the hallway but he didn't come out, so I put my skill and experience as an investigator to work. It was the pen, tucked into an inside pocket. I fiddled, turning this and pulling on that and suddenly Harvard's voice was there again.


"Down the hall."

"Chandler? Let me speak to Illya."

"Mr. Kuryakin is indisposed," I said. It was showing off, but he needed to understand that I knew some three-syllable words.

"How bad is it?"

"He'll live. So will I, thanks for your concern. And how is my friend J. Arthur?"

"Closeted with bad company. I'm going to have to stay here for a while."

"Fine. We won't wait up."

"All right. I'll come to your apartment as soon as I'm free."

We hung up, I think.

Kuryakin staggered back down the hall a few minutes later. Whatever he'd been doing hadn't improved his looks any.

"That was our friend Napoleon," I informed him. "He's busy and will be by later."

Kuryakin reached for his pen on the coffee table and almost toppled over. I shoved him back onto the couch. "I don't think you have much to offer in the way of help in your condition," I informed him.

With a sigh, he fished the bag of ice from under his hindquarters and held it against the back of his head where it would do more good.

"So, feeling better?" I inquired politely, to break the silence. He glared. "I hope it wasn't the tea."

"It was the head," he mumbled. "It is still the head. Have you any aspirin?"

Is the Pope Catholic? I brought him the bottle. He dry-swallowed four and leaned back on his ice pillow. The expression on his face discouraged conversation, so I fetched a blanket from the floor of my bedroom and a pillow from a chair and dropped them near the couch.

"Let me know if you reed anything," I said and headed back to get reacquainted with my bed.

He didn't look much better in the early morning when sounds from the kitchen roused me – there was more color in his face but most of it was purple.

"Jeez, that guy's got big feet," I commented by way of greeting the new day, pleased to sound more like myself. He was throttling a coffee cup and couldn't be disturbed for pleasant chit-chat.

He must have been accustomed to being a guest, because he had made himself right at home. A pot of coffee was staying hot on the stove and when I poured out a cup, I discovered he'd been very generous with my Chase & Sanborn.

A box of saltines was on the table and he released the cup long enough to transfer one to his mouth where he carefully turned it into a form that could be swallowed.

"I figured our friend would be here by now," I said.

"Mr. Kennedy made a late night of it," he said, "and he made a stop or two on the way home. Napoleon is on his way over here now."

Just like it happens in the movies, there was an almost immediate rap on the door.

Harvard did not look himself when I opened the door. There was a wrinkle in the suit, three or four of the fresh-cut hairs were out of place and a shadow of beard darkened his manly chin.

He nodded at me without a lot of enthusiasm and followed his nose to the coffee pot.

"Cups are in the right-hand cupboard," I said, and he helped himself.

"You look awful," he informed Kuryakin, sliding into one of the kitchen chairs.

Kuryakin ignored the comment. "Anything?"

"No. He went to the Chase Street entrance and I have photos of him going in, but it's not much in the way of proof. He was in there for just over three hours."

"Working out the final details," Kuryakin said sourly. "We are running out of time."

Solo nodded unhappily. "I managed to get a bug onto the limo, but Kennedy's not in the habit of talking to himself, or to the driver. He stopped at a liquor store for Glenlivet and then spent what I suspect was a very pleasant few hours celebrating with Miss Tracy Jenns, an underwear model, at her apartment at 1003 34th Ave. I followed him home and hung around for a while, but he was apparently through for the night. Doug's on him now."

"A pity you didn't get the bug on him before he went into the meeting," Kuryakin said in a tone that reminded me of my ex-wife. Solo looked at him like I used to look at her. At least I'd had the option of divorce.

"There are a lot of 'pities' in this case," Solo said, and Kuryakin conceded the point.

"I'd like to make a suggestion," I interrupted. "Why don't we try sharing information?"

"You have no information that we want," Kuryakin said bluntly. Considering that I'd just put him up for the night, it seemed rude.

"You want the negatives, don't you?"

It brought both their heads up, like a couple of hunting dogs who've just heard a momma pheasant calling the kids. "You have them?" Solo demanded.

I shrugged. "I'd like to hear your story before we discuss it further. What have you got to lose? It doesn't sound like you're doing so hot, anyway."

He glanced ruefully at Kuryakin who was trying to x-ray my head with narrowed eyes.

"There is a multinational organization that calls itself Thrush," Solo began what sounded like one of the fairytales my Uncle Vince told me before I got too big for his knee.

"Napoleon..." Kuryakin growled, but we both ignored him.

"Their charter reads like something out of 'Mein Kampf'," Uncle Solo continued. "Basically, they'd like to own everything, run everything and keep the rest of us around to do the tidying up. Their latest little brainstorm to make that happen is an orbiting weapon that not only could fire, from space, on any location on Earth, but could repel any attempt to retaliate."

The expression on my face stopped him.

"I know, it sounds like Jules Verne," he continued, "but it is more than theoretically possible. They have assembled the team of scientists who could make it happen, within two years if they're lucky. But, world domination is an expensive project and while it has many investors, Thrush finds itself a little short of ready cash just now – they're still paying the bills for that nuclear reactor explosion in Idaho Falls. So, like any enterprising business, they look for a loan to tide them over."

"And J. Arthur is going to make a loan to a group of global thugs?" I let my skepticism show.

"They can afford to be generous to their friends," Solo summed up and I wondered for the first time how long Kennedy had been getting around in a chauffeured limo.

"So, Lara Lefler came to you, too?"

"No. We arrived at Mr. Kennedy's doorstep from the Thrush side, following one of their agents named Angelique LaChienne, who apparently initiated the discussions with Kennedy."

"The kitten?"

Solo snorted. "Mr. Chandler, you couldn't be more mistaken..."

"I already told him," Kuryakin interrupted.

"Ah. Well, unfortunately, the agent following Angelique lost her before she met with Kennedy. We didn't make the connection until later. Your photographs would have been very helpful; we are having a good deal of trouble convincing the Meecham and Merchants board of directors that their golden boy is about to get them into bed with the devil. The loan is listed to a dummy corporation, Hubert-Allen, purportedly for the development of housing complexes across the United States, but Angelique's reputation is well-established enough that seeing Kennedy in her company should get their attention, at least."

"How did you find Lara?"

"Kennedy called her number Tuesday afternoon. When we got there to talk to her, she was already dead."

"And you peeked in her appointment book."

"And made your acquaintance." Solo smiled pleasantly at me until he took a sip of the coffee. He set the cup down like it was going to stay down.

"The negatives," Kuryakin reminded me.

I shrugged. "Sorry, I gave them to the lady."

It hurt their feelings. "Games," Kuryakin said and looked like he'd just had another sip of the tea and jelly.

"Mr. Chandler," Solo said in his cereal-selling voice, "if you do have information to share, this would be a good time to do so."

I turned It around in my head a few times and couldn't see any reason to disagree with him. "I went to see J. Arthur yesterday," I began.

Kuryakin sighed into his cup and Solo shook his head. "That was foolish of you," Solo said. "Kennedy may not be particularly dangerous on his own, but the people he's doing business with are. It's a wonder they weren't waiting here for you last night."

"The apartment's not in my name," I informed him. "I like my privacy. Anyway, I went to see him and asked a few questions that he didn't like. He claimed he hadn't seen Lara for a long time and that she was off the tracks, both of which are lies. She stopped at his office the afternoon before she was killed."

"He admitted that?" Solos eyebrows looked skeptical.

"He didn't admit the sun was shining. But I read him. I've been in this business a while, and if there's one thing I can do it's read people like you could read a phonebook. She was there."

The eyebrow seemed to be convinced. "So, she came to your office and picked up the photos."

"And the negatives," I added.

"Ummm. She left..?"

"Around 1:30. My theory is she went directly to the bank. Either he was there and she saw him then or he was out to lunch and she killed a couple hours and went back. But she was there; I'd stake my license on it."

"Which gets us nowhere," Kuryakin threw in glumly.

"Maybe he has the negatives," I suggested.

"No," Solo said. "if Kennedy had the negatives, why was your office searched? And if he had both photographs and negatives why would he have bothered calling her that afternoon?"

"Maybe J. Arthur's holding out on his partners. Insurance." It sounded lame, even to me.

Solo agreed. "Once Thrush has the money, a photograph isn't going to mean anything. At that point, they won't even need Kennedy. It would not surprise me if he had an accident shortly after the transaction is completed. No, the negatives are not with Kennedy."

"Someone checked her apartment, I suppose?"

Solos eyes flicked to Kuryakin, who was glumly reading the future in the bottom of his coffee cup. "The negatives were not in her apartment," he said without looking up. "Nor was anything else of interest."

We sat there in silence for a few minutes, until Solo volunteered to go down to the bakery on the corner for doughnuts. Kuryakin and I both told him jelly-filled, so that's all he bought.

Fortified with grease and sugar and coffee the consistency of paint-stripper, we decided to take a jaunt over to my office. I didn't see the sense of it, since I hadn't had anything to begin with and the guys who rearranged my furniture would have taken it if I had, but Solo was still looking skeptical. It seemed easier to let him satisfy his itch.

Kuryakin swallowed another handful of aspirin and I pulled my gun from the closet and Solo fixed the three or four errant hairs and we were off.

The elves hadn't showed up yet, but the landlord had. He had left a note taped to my askew door suggesting we talk. I decided it could wait.

Kuryakin tsked critically as he stepped into the room.

"Yeah, that's what I said," I told him.

"What did you have on Kennedy?" Solo asked.

"A file folder with his name on it. There were just some notes from what Lara told me and the bill. When I get the canceled check back from the bank, that'll go in there, too."

"Is the file still here?"

"I didn't bother to look," I answered, getting testy. "I know there aren't any negatives in it."

Solo started nudging the files around with the toe of his shoe without much enthusiasm. Kuryakin was regarding the desk. "No doubt the same gentlemen we met last night," he commented, and I agreed.

The stereo beeps startled me. Both of them pulled pens from their jackets. Kuryakin nodded to Solo to take it.

"Napoleon?" came a guy's voice. "He's on the move. I'm on him."

"Right, Doug. Thanks," Solo said.

"Angelique?" Kuryakin asked.

Solo tucked away the pen. "Cosper's outside the Chase Street entrance, but she hasn't left. None of them have. I expect they'll stay put until the deal's done."

"We could try talking to the bank board again," Kuryakin said. "We've got Chandler as a witness."

They both looked at me and decided to drop it.

Between the three of us, we got the filing cabinet upright again and they started pawing through the files before handing them over for me to put away.

Wouldn't you know it, just when you start tidying up company comes calling. The hyena had no trouble slipping in, but the gorilla got stuck and ended up wrenching the door the rest of the way off and tossing it aside. The gat in hyena's hand discouraged us from giving them much of a greeting.

Gorilla's little eyes fixed with satisfaction on Kuryakin's bruised face.

"Your guns, over here," Hyena ordered in a thin voice. He didn't sound like he was kidding, so we pulled out our guns and slid them across the floor to him. Gorilla picked them up and distributed them to his pockets.

"Gentlemen, we're looking for something," Hyena continued. "It would save all of us a lot of bother if you would hand it over now."

"Sorry," Solo said. "We can't help you."

"You're not even trying. But you will," Hyena promised. Behind him, Gorilla cracked his knuckles; it was crude, but it worked for me.

"The negatives are not here," I said. It came out loud, but I was feeling frustrated. "I gave them to Lara Lefler. You ought to be working on where she put them. They aren't here; you know that from when you searched before."

"We decided we might have missed something," Hyena said. "And I they're not here, what are you looking for?"

Well, he had us there.

Gorilla smiled and took some steps toward Kuryakin, who backed up fast, holding out one hand and dipping the other toward his jacket pocket.

"Hold it!" Hyena barked and Gorilla froze. Hyena held out his free hand. "Let's see It," he demanded. "Easy."

Kuryakin drew an envelope from his inside pocket, a long, clear envelope with negatives inside. I stared at him and I expect my mouth was hanging open, but I didn't care.

Hyena nodded with satisfaction. "Hand it over." The gorilla held out his hand and I noticed I'd been right about the winter gloves. Flicking his eyes toward Solo, who was looking a little white around the nostrils, Kuryakin dropped the envelope into the huge hand with a shrug.

Gorilla backed away to stand beside his partner. "Check them," Hyena said, and Gorilla dug his big fingers into the envelope. He let out a deep yelp when a white gas started pouring from inside.

Hyena stared at it in surprise for a couple of seconds before folding into a smallish pile on the floor. Gorilla dropped it and got as far as the doorway before he went down into a very large pile.

Kuryakin and Solo headed for the window and each grabbed one of my arms as they passed by. I had sucked in a breath of something that tasted like cotton soaked in cleaning fluid and couldn't get my mouth to tell them what I knew - that the window hadn't opened in nine years and wasn't likely to open now.

When they figured that out for themselves, Kuryakin pulled off his jacket and wrapped it around the fist he shoved through two of the window panes. I wondered mildly how the landlord would feel about that, while they held my face into the exhaust-scented breeze from outside.

They left me sitting under the window and went to deal with the company. They pulled little strips of white plastic from somewhere and used it to truss up our visitors' wrists and ankles. After a moment's reflection, Kuryakin put a double wrap on the gorilla. He recovered our guns, tucking his away in the black leather holster he wore over his white shirt, handing another to Solo. He walked over to me with my old 45, and tucked it away for me carefully

He looked curiously into my face. "How do you feel?" he asked and I felt like courtesy demanded a response but I wasn't sure what it was.

He grabbed one of my arms and hauled me upright. He and Solo walked me back and forth across the room like I needed a lesson in moving my feet, and I guess I did. We'd made some progress in that regard when there was a thump from the hallway. Some guy in uniform. It took me a little while to realize it was the mailman and the thump had been his bag hitting the floor. He was staring into my office with buggy eyes. With a start, he dropped a handful of envelopes and ran off down the hallway.

Kuryakin sighed. "This approaches farce," he said.

"Do we want to talk to the police now or later?" Solo added.


Kuryakin jerked on his jacket and they steered me briskly toward the door, skirting around the trussed-up litter on the floor.

I pulled free in the hallway. There was an envelope I wanted. I'd seen that handwriting before, on a check for $300.

It was addressed to me, so I ripped it open. There was a note wrapped around a key. "Mr. Chandler, I hope you won't mind helping me out one more time. I have something in safe-keeping and would like to leave the key with you. I'll come by in a day or so to pick it up from you. Thank you."

There was a check for another $100. She had signed it with a loopy scrawl, like she was in a hurry.

It was a funny looking key, vaguely familiar. I held it up and the next thing I knew it was in Kuryakin's hand. "Hey!" I tried to grab it back but he was sure he wanted to keep it and I didn't have the juice to change his mind.

"Let's get out of here," he hissed. "We'll talk about possession later."

We tiptoed down the back stairs and along the alley just as a cop car pulled up out front.

There was a coffee shop right around the corner and a couple of blocks down. We sat in a vinyl booth with coffee steaming in front of me and Solo. Kuryakin was having milk. As the middle-aged waitress set it down, she frowned at the sight of his face in the light from the window. "You want some ice, honey?" she asked but he didn't.

"The negatives were a good touch," Solo said companionably and Kuryakin nodded acknowledgment.

"Why?" was all I could manage in the way of conversation, but he understood.

"Everyone is looking for negatives. It seemed logical that eventually we might end up face-to-f ace with the opposition," Kuryakin said. "You said it yourself, I wanted to have something to give them." He looked fairly pleased with himself and I guess he deserved it.

The twin beeping started again before we could have more conversation. The waitress looked over from behind the counter with a curious frown on her face. They both made some adjustment that shut up the noise and Solo headed for the gents.

"Must be kind of a liability for a spy," I whispered, and Kuryakin looked sour.

Solo was back a few seconds later. "Kennedy's at his office," he informed us glumly. "He has a meeting with the board of directors. Guess what's on the agenda."

Kuryakin laid the key on the table in front of him. "Well, we've got the key. Now, where's the lock?"

And just like that, I had it. Solo saw it on my face, and I made a mental note not to play poker with him. "What?" he demanded.

"In the past three days I've lost a client, my office has been broken into twice, I've been shot with a dart, beaten up and gassed. I think I've got a stake in this. You agree?"

They looked at each other, and nodded.

"Come on." I slid out of the booth, glad to find I had remembered how to walk alone.

I was still making it on my own as we stepped into the quiet expanses of Meecham and Merchants. I started deflating a little at that point. "They're not going to let us open it without a signature," I said.

"They'll let us open it," Solo said, like he meant it. The three of us turned around and stepped outside. "There," Kuryakin said, pointing to a taxi parked at the curb with its "Out of Service" sign out.

We slid into the back seat and the cabbie turned a round and grinning face on us. "Come to take over?" he asked in a chatty tone.

"No, thanks," Solo said. "We just came to use the facilities." He pulled out his pen and talked to someone named Mr. Waverly who he seemed to believe could get us the immediate cooperation of Meecham and Merchants, at least as far as getting into the safe deposit box Lara Lefler had filled on her way to see her boyfriend upstairs.

"Thanks, Doug. You may get home early today," Solo said and we left.

A spiffy young banker with hair as blond as Kuryakin's but a lot thinner and a lot shorter met us at the vault. "Gentlemen," he said, looking pointedly at Kuryakin's bruised face and the cut in his jacket from the window, at my bruised neck and unsteady gait and at Solos unshaven chin.

Solo flipped open his i.d. wallet. "We have a key to a box here rented by a Miss Lara Lefler. We need to examine the contents. Immediately."

The banker was already shaking his head. "I'm afraid that is quite impossible without a court order. I'm sure you can understand our obligation to protect the privacy of our clients. A card such as you have shown me could easily have been..."

"Answer your phone," Solo interrupted. With a frown of annoyance, the banker did so. He listened, he spluttered a couple of protests, he gave a couple of nods which were completely lost on the party on the other end of the phone line, he said "All right" once and hung up.

"This way," he told us, rather stiffly, and led the way into the vault. From a locked cabinet there he pulled a ledger and ran a manicured finger down the list of names until he found Lara's loopy script. "Number 1602," he informed us and produced a key ring that might have suited the gorilla but looked ridiculous in his small, white hand.

He led the way to a box near the corner of the vault and slid in his key. I admit it, I held my breath a little while Kuryakin slipped ours in beside it, but it was the right key.

There was a lot of stuff in the box - some government bonds, the kind school kids bought for a dime a week; a birth certificate for a girl baby born 32 years ago and named Mildred Mary Lefler by her proud parents; a marriage certificate and divorce decree, dated just a few months apart; a short string of small pearls; an old pocket watch; and a white envelope with no writing on the outside.

Solo opened it and shook out a long, clear envelope filled with negatives. He pulled out a strip and held it to the desk light on the cabinet. "Bingo," he breathed. He restuffed the box and left it to the banker to lock away again.

We headed up the stairs at a trot. I had no idea where the board would be meeting, but we ended up on J. Arthur's floor in a stare-down with the cold green-eyed woman who was wearing another plain black dress. Kuryakin flipped open his i.d.. She was not impressed and started making objections, but we shoved on past her.

Solo led the way, past J. Arthur's big door and down a dimly lit hallway with green carpet and dark green walls that made me feel like we were swimming underwater. When Solo reached another huge door he didn't stop to knock. We crowded into the room and were facing a tableful of suits who stared back with expressions ranging from surprise to irritation to outrage.

"Gentlemen," Solo was our mouthpiece because this was his kind of crowd. "Pardon the interruption but we have some information that may change your mind about an item on your agenda."

J. Arthur was on his feet and hollering, "Miss Snel, call security. Now!"

"Yes sir," she said from just behind my left shoulder, which surprised me because I'm usually pretty good at keeping track of my back. She trotted off to call the dogs.

Solo ignored the interruption. He pulled out the envelope. "Photographs," he said. "Taken by Mr. Chandler on Sunday night. If you hold them to the light you might be able to make out Mr. Kennedy with a woman. Her name is Angelique LaChienne and her associations to Thrush we have already documented for you. I repeat our previous assertion, gentlemen - Mr. Kennedy has knowingly arranged a substantial loan from this bank to an international terrorist organization."

He handed the negatives to the suit at the head of the table, an old bird who looked like he'd been attending meetings at this table for half a century at least. He took them in a liver-spotted hand and gave Solo a sharp glance from pale blue eyes that hadn't dimmed much over the years. "Negatives, Mr. Solo? Wouldn't prints have been more useful?"

"The prints from those negatives were given to a close friend of Mr. Kennedy's," Solo said. "The woman was killed and the prints taken. No doubt they were destroyed. The negatives were also missing and discovered only minutes ago."

He looked at Kennedy and added, "In Miss Lefler's safe deposit box in the vault of this bank."

Kennedy had gone from red to white. He made a noise of some sort and pulled a gun from his pocket. His new friends must have given it to him, because he didn't have any idea how to handle it. He waved it in an arc that took in the three of us. I felt Kuryakin ease away from my left side and Solo from my right side. The arc widened. "Stay still!" Kennedy barked.

But when the gun was on Solo, Kuryakin moved, throwing himself under the table and snagging for his gun. Solo was doing the same and I decided to join him just as the gunshot cracked.

There was a lot of activity after that. Kennedy had missed me completely, I discovered after a quick pat-down, but he'd winged the suit just to my right. The suit was holding onto his left arm and gasping like a fish in the bottom of a boat. The rest of the suits had moved, some under the table, some against the walls, a couple through the door. I saw Solo trying to crawl out from under two panicked suits, but there was no sign of Kennedy or Kuryakin.

I pushed myself up cautiously and met the blue eyes across the expanse of table. Kuryakin was kneeling where Kennedy had been standing. He pushed himself up, laying the snub-nosed gat Kennedy had been holding on the table.

Solo was up now, too and looking curious.

"He's dead," Kuryakin said, and I figured him for the shooter until he held up Kennedy's gun and showed us the second barrel that also fired a shot backwards when the trigger was pulled.

It took a while to sort that mess out, and the room got crowded with bank security and then police and then more U.N.C.L.E. agents and an ambulance crew for the winged suit and a meat wagon crew for Kennedy. Solo and Kuryakin were in the middle of it, answering questions and giving orders.

I got asked a few questions, too, but there wasn't anybody likely to follow any orders I gave, so I decided to leave. When I turned toward the door the redhead was standing there with her manicured nails against her lips and her pale green eyes wide with horror and excitement. "Who's running the switchboard?" I asked her, but she looked at me like I was speaking French, which I don't speak, so I walked on by.

It was the middle of the next week and I was still getting the feel of the new leather desk chair my kindly UNCLE had provided, along with matching armchairs and a new filing cabinet. They looked a little out of place next to the old teacher's desk, but there was nothing wrong with the desk so I said I'd keep it.

The window panes were replaced, and the door was back on its hinges.

It swung open silently and Solo and Kuryakin stepped through. Solo was back on the rowing team and Kuryakin looked better, although there were still a few faint green spots on his face.

They tried out the new armchairs and seemed pleased.

"So," I greeted them, "what have you two been up to?"

"Tidying," Kuryakin said.

Solo, as usual, had more to say. "The loan, needless to say, did not go through and it is unlikely that Thrush will find financing easy to obtain for this particular project. Score one for the good guys. And how are you, Mr. Chandler?"

"Never better," I said. "Spent the weekend recovering from our acquaintance. Your Mr. Waverly got a few things taken care of around here." I waved my arm grandly, encompassing my improved estate. "Went to Lara Lefler's funeral Saturday and met her cousin who is coming by to satisfy her curiosity about what happened."

They exchanged a glance. "Um, we would appreciate it if you could be somewhat discreet in discussing the affair with anyone," Solo said.

I didn't answer.

"Please," Kuryakin added.

I smiled. A little respect and the occasional big case, that's all a private eye needs.

Then Solo pulled a piece of paper from his pocket. It was made out to me and signed by somebody whose penmanship wasn't great, but the $1,000 written on it more than made up for that. I frowned and started to ask.

"For services rendered," Solo said. "I'd take it if I were you; you've earned it and he isn't often in a generous mood." I took it because who's going to turn down a big score?

We shook hands like friends and they headed for the door. It opened and they stepped back to let Lara's cousin Denise into the office. The auburn hair ran in the family and the afternoon sun was at just the right angle through the new panes. Solo stared after her until Kuryakin nudged him and led the way out of the door.

She wasn't the kind of good looking that would make you turn around on the street. You might walk right past her and not even notice, but if for some reason she got stuck in front of your eyes, all of a sudden you realized she was pretty close to a knockout.

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