PART ONE: CHRISTMAS NIGHT'S FEVER
CHAPTER ONE: Not the best place to spend a Christmas Eve.
"Illya, your timing always was bad"
The cell was relatively spacious, probably designed for several detainees. There were only two: one dark-haired and the other blond, lying on the cement tiles.
There were no cots, but there were "conveniences," if a mere hole in the ground may be called a convenience.
If you could stand the view, you'd see a mound of excrement and nearby a pile of soiled papers stacked half way up the wall, ending a few inches below a small barred window, from which a dull shaft of light was leaking. There was no paper left any more.
The stench was unbearable and yet they'd had to bear it three days and three nights. They were caught, coughing and panting, just outside the compound; their local aids had fled.
They had both used the squalid hole: a case of necessity, each one holding the other lest he slipped and fell in the shit. It was humiliating and meant to be so...and yet for once they were not in their enemy's custody; it was a regular Uruguayan jail, the only prison of the small town, somewhere in the wilderness.
The State authorities had been properly briefed by U.N.C.L.E., though probably with the least possible sharing of information. The blowing up of a biological weapons stock pile in a chemical plant owned by a wealthy German immigrant (and suspected Nazi militant) being hardly to the Uruguayan President's conjecturable liking.
Captain Esteban Alvarez knew little about U.N.C.L.E. and had made it clear he didn't want to know more. Although the arrest, detention, and arguable harassment of two gringos, one of which was an American citizen, was not the best move he could think of to promote his career, he had boldly asserted his independence of mind by locking the two U.N.C.L.E. agents in the worst part of his little personal satrapy: the cell designed to break the will of political opponents.
The atmosphere was hot, wet, and suffocating inside the room. Napoleon Solo sighed and swallowed his saliva. There was nothing to do, other than wait patiently for their release; a forced escape would only lead to diplomatic complications.
Combined with the faint light from outside, the dim glow of a tiny lamp hanging from the ceiling was drawing long shadows along the diagonal of the rectangular room and up the greyish peeling walls. He stared idly at the deformed shape of his partner's outline, ludicrously lengthened, the head contour still recognizable: the square jaw, the hair bangs loosely drooping onto the slightly hawkish nose, the strong neck, a somehow comforting sight in a gloomy setting...
"A bad place to spend Christmas Eve", Napoleon repeated, sighing again.
"I was in worse," grumbled his partner in a croaky voice.
>From anybody else that might have passed for an opening to confidences, but Napoleon Solo knew better: Illya was not in the mood for confidence, if he ever was, and Napoleon himself was not at this moment very keen to hear a tale about "worse" occurrences in his partner's life. There were things he could easily guess and thought safer to leave unvoiced.
Besides, the man was hardly able to speak at all. Exposure to toxic smoke in the burning labs had affected his lungs and his vocal cords. Moreover he was obviously feeling uneasy about the whole affair's issue.
In a way Illya, for once, was partly responsible for the operation's offending conclusion. The mechanism was supposed to blow things up neatly, with a high peak of heat, not fail and start a slow fire. Though he was certainly beyond reproach for having come back to retrieve a panicked lab tech, trapped between two inner security doors and yelling, whom he had seen on the monitor screen in the security office near the entry. This delay had allowed the only present member of the plant's administrative staff to call for the local authorities. It wasn't his fault if the said authorities had freed the Uruguayan goons from their bonds and taken hold of the 'Gringos'...
And now they were detained for a non-specified and unpredictable number of days and nights in the foulest part of the two hemispheres, while -hopefully- the Old Fox was working his way through the diplomatic maze. Decidedly, it was not the place where he had expected to spend Christmas Eve,
As there was no family meeting planned this year (too many relatives of his being otherwise engaged), Napoleon had envisaged taking Illya home in order to demonstrate his culinary talents, which he liked to boast about but had very few opportunities to practice. To this day he had not dared to ask his partner of almost two years to spend the holidays with him. Strange how it was easier to share the plights and burdens of their professional duty than to allow oneself the least intrusion in the other's privacy...
And, speaking of privacy, at this very moment, he was beginning to feel a little worried about his partner's condition yet was trying not to show his concern. Since the morning, Illya had been still and withdrawn, abnormally so, even for his reserved self.
Napoleon kept on watching the other agent crouching weakly in the corner, a few feet from him, wrapped in a stained and rough horse blanket, no cleaner than the floor; it was all that was left from the missing cots. Observing more attentively, he noticed the slight tremor of the hands gripping the fringed edges of the blanket, the unhealthy glowing of his friend's face, his labored, slightly wheezing breath and his unusually slouching posture.
Until now Napoleon had no reason to worry too much. The heat from the fire that had singed his friend's shirt did no more harm than severe sunburn. The breathing difficulties had not appreciably worsened since they have been captured; so it was probable there was no serious lung damage...but now Illya was apparently running a fever and slowly drifting into a state of permanent drowsiness...and Napoleon Solo didn't like the look of it at all.
What about a Christmas tale to raise their spirits?
"Illya! Uh uh! Illya, are you still with me?"
A faint whisper: "Yes, of course, Napoleon, am I not always with you?"
"Fine, then prove it! Speak to me..."
"I have nothing to say. What do you want from me?" A slight irritation was piercing through the weariness of the tone...Good, good...
"Just want to hear the sound of your sweet voice, Tovarisch. Say something."
A sigh. "What?"
"Something...anything...For instance what did you mean by: 'I was in worse'?"
"Me? I was where? What's worse?"
"You're supposed to answer the question. Just a while ago I said, 'a bad place to spend Christmas Eve,' and you replied: 'I was in worse.' So, what are those awful places you happened to spend Christmas in?"
Another sigh. "It meant nothing."
"I beg your pardon, partner, but "meaninglessness" is not among your many flaws".
"Don't be foolish, Napoleon; I've already forgotten whatever crossed my mind. Maybe my staying in a submarine..."
"A Soviet submarine, worse than a Uruguayan jail? Your lack of national pride saddens me..."
A shrug. "Well, it was almost as stinky as here, the food was no better, our personal space much less and we had no hope of being released for six months."
"So, tell me about a Christmas party aboard a Soviet ship!"
Third (huge) sigh. "When you set yourself to be silly, Napoleon, you are really silly. You know Christmas is not celebrated in the Soviet Union; I don't remember any celebration of any holiday aboard and, sorry, but I've got a sore throat and I feel tired."
As if to underline this last remark he coughed and closed his eyes. He sounded tired indeed but a little more alive. That was the aim...
Alive! Napoleon's thoughts shifted slightly astray. Once again they had been lucky. Illya had been lucky to escape the fire when he returned to the lab to rescue the hapless technician; the destruction of the biological samples didn't work as planned, so maybe some test tubes or bottles could have been broken and their content disseminated in the air. The heat may have been not enough to kill the germs thoroughly...
A new, crazy idea was sneaking in Napoleon's mind: given the blatant stubbornness of Captain Alvarez and his hostile attitude towards foreigners as well as the presumable reluctance of the Uruguayan State to abide-other than formally-by the international rules, their release might be delayed for weeks...not a pleasant prospect.
But what if they both were seen as a mortal threat to their jailers?
He turned to his partner, who was coughing repeatedly. "Illya, my boy, how do you feel, exactly?"
Illya opened his eyes a crack and glared at him. "I've already told you, Napoleon." He shut his eyes again and pulled the dirty blanket around his shoulders, shivering, despite the heat. "And fortunately, I am not your boy," he added, gruffly.
He really did look sick. Napoleon hoped he could still manage to carry out the plan he had just conceived. He needed to get Illya out of here.
"I'd say I share the sentiment, but that's not the point. Would you mind being worse; that is, much, much worse? "
"I mean: could you manage to look really ill?" Napoleon encouraged.
Illya snorted: "I am ill."
Illya groaned, tragically. "Thanks!"
"Where has my smart Russian gone?" Napoleon wet his handkerchief in the bucket of tepid water he had at hand and passed it to his friend. "You are faster, usually..."
Illya took the proffered handkerchief and swiped it cursorily over his face. "Only when I'm not poisoned by toxic fumes and fetid exhalations."
Napoleon retrieved the now grubby piece of linen and pocketed it. "Well, that's precisely the idea. If you simply add to the picture a few deadly virulent germs, just escaped from a secret research center. From now on, you-and me as well-are no less than a mortal peril for this town and very soon for the whole country, beginning with Senor Alvarez and his aides."
"I see. You'll never let me forget, will you?"
"What do you mean?" asked Napoleon innocently, though he could easily explain the bitterness in his partner's voice.
"The failure of the lab's destruction, dammit! Why don't you accuse the fellows of section 8 who supplied us with the damned device?"
"You didn't check it?"
Illya turned away, his voice weary once more. "No, I didn't! For once I trusted them with deserving the money they earn from U.N.C.L.E." His shoulders hunched as he pulled the blanket around himself.
Napoleon tried to placate him. "I didn't accuse anybody until now. And you digress from the topic. I was just suggesting we could exploit this regrettable incident to our advantage. How powerful was this stuff exactly?"
His partner sighed. "That's the question our biologists could have answered, if the sample I picked up hadn't been lost while I was rescuing the lab tech."
Napoleon was instantly alert. "What happened?"
"It was broken. That stupid guy wouldn't stop waving his arms around, and I couldn't give it to you before I went back to the lab, because you were busy tying up the guards."
That was news indeed!
Napoleon choked and lost his breath for a few seconds. When he could speak again, he grabbed Illya by the shoulders and turned him around face to face. "Do you mean this bottle full of mortal germs was broken on you?"
Illya shook himself free and coughed convulsively. Napoleon passed him the handkerchief once more. At last, Illya replied, "Not on me, it fell at my feet. The jerk was clinging to my belt and the plastic pocket was unhooked and slipped. I heard the noise of shattered glass."
"Why didn't you tell me this earlier?"
His partner shrugged. "Why? What could you do?"
"Just what I am going to do now! Alert the authorities!" Napoleon started towards the door.
"May I remind you it was supposed to be a secret operation, Napoleon? At least regarding the biological research; we shouldn't have been caught, no more than we should have been witnessed, and I thought it better not to give it more publicity than strictly unavoidable."
Napoleon was furious, and not a little worried. "You thought it better to keep quiet! Admirable! Next time, would you be so kind as to ask your senior for advice? But will there be a next time?"
Illya glared at him with red-rimmed blue eyes. "Don't pull rank with me Napoleon. There was no point in alarming you since the danger was quite negligible."
"Negligible? How come?" Napoleon shook his head in disbelief.
Illya went into a paroxysm of coughing once again. Napoleon was instantly concerned. Suppose this illness was more than mere exhaustion and smoke irritation? He poured some of their water into the battered tin mug and put it to his friend's mouth when he recovered his breath.
"Tell me what happened, Tovarich."
Illya drank some of the water and handed back the cup. "We were running, remember. The outer container was waterproof and airtight. The fire was spreading very fast, so the probability of contamination was extremely low."
"Hope you're right," concluded Solo somberly. He stopped arguing. Illya was resting against the wall, head backward, looking exhausted from the talking and coughing; his voice had been no more than a hoarse whisper all along.
The first part of the plan was ridiculously easy. About half an hour later, their guard, a short-legged, round-faced Indian boy, unlocked the cell and came in without much caution, wearing his usual sullen, but not hostile, expression. His gun was in his waist sheath, his two hands occupied by a new bucket of water and a big pot full of a greasy red bean stew, as they had been on the two previous days.
"At least they don't intend to get rid of us by starvation," mused Napoleon.
The problem was they obviously didn't intend to get rid of them at all, not in the short term anyway, and not by trading them to U.N.C.L.E. The sloppiness of the guard was almost offensive. The least gifted of rookies, freshly issued from survival school, could have easily disarmed him single-handed. But any violence against officials was prohibited by U.N.C.L.E. in the course of such operations, which were theoretically launched with the approval of the host State. Very theoretically indeed. Napoleon had little doubt that, after his first impulse of nationalism, Captain Esteban Alvarez had informed his hierarchy about them and the part they had taken in the latest events in San Cristobal.
Having laid down his burdens on the floor, the boy stared in distress and perplexity at the blond foreigner, wrapped in both blankets and crouched in a corner, whose rigid limbs were sporadically agitated with bouts of convulsions. Napoleon had no difficulty convincing him the case was of prime importance and needed the big boss' intervention. The young man was visibly upset by the idea he could be held responsible for the prisoner's death. His gaze circled the room and stayed a while upon the ignominious "conveniences" before he departed - forgetting to lock the door.
Napoleon gritted his teeth in frustration. Not for the first time, he wondered whether the famous U.N.C.L.E. policy rules about diplomatic relations were always justified. Though forcing the main door and subjugating the other guards with neither tool nor weapon, then fleeing from a small town in the middle of Uruguay while wearing pajamas, without shoes, papers, money or a vehicle, and one of them in poor physical condition, was not the easiest of endeavors, they could have done it. They had done it before. They might have cheated the guards, robbed some wealthy passer by in the street (sorry, Sir, it's for the good of the cause!) and called for help from their contacts in the opposition movements...
He shook his head.
The young guard soon returned, without the big boss, but with such a load of impediments he almost disappeared under his gear. He bore, hanging across his shoulders, two light folding cots and two clean blankets plus, in his right hand, a huge empty bucket with a shovel inside. Ignoring Solo's requests for an explanation, he started unfolding the cot and spreading the blankets. Then, impassively, he set himself about roughly emptying and cleaning the hole.
When the boy had left the room with his load of human manure, Napoleon carried the cots to the corner where his friend was lying, and was surprised by Illya's renewed stillness. He had stopped convulsing and groaning but was still shaking and didn't seem willing to move.
"Illya, come on, settle here; if nothing else, our little scene has won us a bit more comfort for this Holy Night!" But still his invitation drew no reaction from his partner.
"Illya, this is not the time to play possum. It's not funny!"
But Illya was not playing any more; apparently the mere fact of feigning illness so convincingly had somehow broken the nervous defenses that had sustained him until then and triggered a physical collapse.
Napoleon soon realized that Illya was unable to stand up by himself, so he had to lift him by the shoulders and carry the now limp body to the cot. This imposed manhandling didn't stir any protest from the object of his solicitude, which was in itself a very bad sign. Touching his hand against burning skin, Napoleon felt the fever, previously moderate, had grown higher. Illya's shirt and pants were literally soaked in sweat and his breathing difficulties had worsened.
Napoleon slumped onto his own cot and shook his head.
"Oh Illya, Illya, your timing always was bad. But did you really have to spoil our Christmas party?"
The guard had not come back yet and the Prison Governor had not shown himself either. Solo became impatient. His clever plan had suddenly lost its amusing edge while becoming more urgent and necessary than ever. It was not simply about hastening their release any longer. Illya was ill, seriously ill; there was no need to pretend any more, and certainly he couldn't stand another day, another night in this rat hole. He had to be looked after in a modern hospital and examined by the U.N.C.L.E. specialists.
The possibility that Illya had been contaminated was not at all as "negligible" as he had so unwisely assumed. This idea made Napoleon's stomach clench. Millions of people were potentially at risk and he was the first of them.
But at that very moment, he had only one life in mind and it was not his own.
"You will be the hero who has saved the world"
As he paced to and fro in the cell, Napoleon Solo was doing a good imitation of the proverbial tiger in a cage. Not being able to act was more than boring. It was unbearable. Were it not for Illya, he would have attempted an escape, diplomatic rules be damned.
Unthinkingly, he cast a glance at his missing wristwatch. What time could it be? It was difficult to guess given the little light coming down into the basement through the high, narrow window. Was it late afternoon or early evening? According to their guard's visits, the latter was more likely. What if Senor Alvarez was already off duty, at home, snugly ensconced with his family in some cosy house in the town centre or a remote country estate? After all, it was Christmas Eve!
A rattle from the lock and the subsequent door opening gave Solo the desired answer. A few feet behind the guard (holding his gun in firing position this time) Senor Alvarez, in all his glory, was standing in the doorway, a good looking man of average height and weight, straight as a sword and stiff as a broom.
Solo turned to him slowly and waited. The governor took a few steps forward, frowned and hastily moved back. He pulled a fine embroidered handkerchief from his breast pocket and, for a while, a strong scent of lavender fought with the persistent stench of the cell.
"What is all this fuss about?" the man barked in a high-pitched voice.
Napoleon leaned against the wall, as nonchalantly as one may assume to look when one is wearing pyjama pants and standing barefoot on a soiled floor.
"Nothing really, just the prospect of a large-scale epidemic of an unknown and, as far as we know incurable, probably mortal disease".
"Don't play the fool with me! You won't get off that easily. We are not, maybe, as wealthy and powerful as you are, you arrogant Americans, but we know how to deal with robbers and industrial spies when we catch them red-handed!"
"Industrial spies?" Napoleon was sincerely surprised. During their first, brief talk with the police chief, two hours after their arrest by his men, Alvarez didn't push their interrogation very hard, as if he already had all the information he needed through other sources. Napoleon and Illya had held to the official thesis of an U.N.C.L.E "enquiry" about Neo-Nazi connections in San Cristobal. The fire was presented as purely accidental.
"You know what I mean, don't pretend you don't. We have been aware for a long time that the know-how and botanical knowledge implemented by "Hartmann and Co." was coveted by the big world-wide chemical corporations, but if you think we will let them steal our national wealth with impunity, you are very wrong."
"Botanical knowledge?" echoed Napoleon again, feeling a little like a silly parrot.
A feeble, broken voice sounded behind him. Illya was trying to lift himself to sit on the cot but only managed to rest on his right elbow.
"Yes, Napoleon, that is Hartmann's cover; his factory produces drugs, as everybody knows, but he has spread the rumour that his secret research was aimed at finding new medical formulae..."
Illya's explanation was interrupted by a violent bout of coughing. He halted Napoleon's move by a sign of his hand and went on: ". . . new medical formulae based on still unknown wild herbs and plants from all the South American countries, but mainly Brazil and especially the Amazonian forests." As usual Illya had studied the technical documents related to the operation in more detail.
"Absolutely!" Alvarez's voice sounded triumphant. "And that's not a rumor. We were very fortunate to host this factory here in San Cristobal, when Senor Hartmann could have chosen a place much closer to his supplies."
"It's quite possible he runs this research as well," Illya added in a barely audible voice. "They probably represent a pretty nice income."
"And that provides him perfect justification for his constant trading and communicating with business partners whose presence and activities in certain areas in Brazil are very suspicious," concluded Solo with some irritation. he suddenly understood the clues, but they were wasting time. "Let us return to the real issues. Doktor Hartmann's main interest is not in exotic plants and botanicals but in the many natural resources of the whole Amazonian basin, all of them, whatever they are. Unfortunately for him, there are laws protecting the natives in Brazil, wherefrom his attempts to develop a biological weapon that could help him and his associates to get rid of the annoying Indian tribes who are still living free in the coveted territories..."
Senor Esteban Alvarez seemed to have lost his voice. "How...how do you dare to...to..."
"What's so surprising? Doktor Hartmann is better known for his scientific achievements in human physiology, not botany; after the war he just failed to get the protection he had negotiated with the US government. His links with the most infamous Nazi scientists were deemed excessively compromising, even by the C.I.A. That was why he asked for, and received, a safe haven in Uruguay".
Captain Alvarez was indignant: "That's completely gratuitous! You don't have the least evidence!"
Napoleon's face became sombre. "Our sources are well informed and very reliable but, if you don't trust me, look at my partner; he has been ill since he searched Hartmann's laboratory and his condition continues to deteriorate."
"And what were you doing there? Robbing and spying as I said previously..."
"The hell with you!" It was not an effort for Napoleon to appear angry. "We were searching for this material evidence you demand so imperiously, and we found it, regrettably. Now we're in mortal peril because of it. And so are you - not to mention the whole population of the region. If you don't contact U.N.C.L.E. H.Q. in New York and ask for help, since that is the only place where you will find the specialists and the means needed for this case, you'll be in deep trouble."
For the first time Alvarez looked vaguely hesitant. Solo assumed he was more shaken than he let show. As the Chief of Police, but also the second Deputy Mayor of the town, he was endowed with greater responsibilities than were attached to his office of prison governor; certainly he would be held accountable for the forecast calamity if by any chance his prisoner was correct. He had already trusted the young guard enough to come there in person and spend some time from his holiday in this filthy hutch. That was a good sign.
The man took a few steps forward, his movements carefully covered by the guard's weapon, and remained still half a minute. Frowning, he stared at Illya's shivering form under the double blankets, listening attentively to the rasps of his painful breathing (Napoleon hoped it was at least partly an act). He had retrieved the scented handkerchief and was pressing the cloth firmly against his nostrils like a middle ages "medicastre" confronting the black plague.
Their jailer seemed displeased by his observations but more perplexed than distraught; he retreated toward the door, followed by his backer, affected a solemn pose and pronounced his verdict:
"Nothing can be done today. I am expecting an answer to the enquiry I have already launched about you and your so-called mission. I would be surprised if the President's aides were available tomorrow; so, I repeat, all I can do is wait for the Christmas holidays to pass.
The snicking of the door lock sounded funereal.
As soon as they were alone, Napoleon went to his friend. He knelt at his side, to check his condition. The results of this careful examination were not at all reassuring: Illya was once more lying boneless on the cot, his left arm hanging outside the blankets with the back of his hand on the cement tiles. His face was pressed against the rough canvas, not the best position to help his painful breathing. He looked worse than ever. Apparently the effort he had to display during the governor's visit had exhausted him. Solo bent over the prostrate figure and gently patted his back.
"Illya, wake up, it's not bedtime yet, we have a long night to get through and the sun's not even at its lowest." He couldn't allow his friend to slip deeper into this withdrawal. He squeezed his shoulder slightly and racked his brains for inspiration. Nothing very bright came out.
"We have to find a way to make Senor Alvarez change his mind before he leaves this place for good. I was relying on your fertile imagination for that."
No answer, not the faintest move. Napoleon knew that desperation showed in his voice.
"Hold on, partner, I need you. Don't let me down.
This time, a sort of gurgling escaped Illya's mouth through dry lips. He couldn't remain in his uneasy posture much longer, but was obviously unable to sit up by himself or to keep sitting without some form of support. Napoleon got back to his feet and undertook to lift his friend by holding him under the armpits. Then he carefully sat on the cot and settled Illya more comfortably in his lap, facing him forward so that his head rested on Napoleon's chest.
This at least stirred a reaction from his partner, who tried to resist, shaking his head negatively and grumbling something indistinct. His back stiffened momentarily, then he gave up and slumped against Solo's chest.
I'm going to pay dearly for this later, thought Napoleon, although he was rather relieved by Illya's brief spurt of vitality. He leaned back against the wall and sighed, the weight of the muscular body against his own and the tickle of a stray lock of Illya's wet hair in the hollow of his neck was at the same time weirdly disturbing and comforting. But Illya still couldn't breathe freely, so Napoleon gently pulled some of the sweat-slick hair aside to free his face and nose.
After a minute or two of labored breath, Illya once more became at least lucid enough to growl menacingly, though weakly.
"Don't take advantage of the situation, Napoleon!"
"Advantage! What do you mean?" retorted the latter with mock outrage. "You're so bony and skinny that I'll get bruises on my thighs. I'm used to softer cushions..."
"You'd better not speak of cushions," groaned his partner. "I feel like I've been kicked by a pair of horseshoes." He tried to wriggle out of Napoleon's embrace but failed miserably and fell back on his welcome support.
Napoleon at once lost all interest in their interplay. He cupped Illya's chin, turning his head to the side so he could look into the faintly glazed eyes of the sick man.
"Seriously, Illya, how do you feel? Don't give me any crap. "
"Thirs...thirsty," croaked the Russian, swallowing his saliva with some difficulty.
Fortunately, the tumbler and the bowl of fresh water were at hand. Napoleon only had to bend a little to pick them up. He brought the full cup to his friend's mouth and Illya drank quickly, too quickly, for he suddenly gasped and seemed to choke, hardly able to articulate a warning.
Solo clamored to his feet, firmly holding Illya upright with his left arm around the other's waist and the right across his chest. They had just time to do one step forward before Illya started to gag and retch. He bent his head down and, violently shaking all over, threw up the full content of his stomach.
The fit lasted several long minutes, as successive spurts of acid streams were thrown up onto the ground. Soon, there were only gastric juices and bile, but the contractions went on undiminished.
Unable to stand on his own, Kuryakin sank like dead weight into his partner's arms. He was perspiring profusely and his face streamed with sweat and tears. Although this was merely a reflex physiological reaction, the weakness and feeling of total helplessness it implied was certainly a disgraceful and humiliating experience for the proud Russian. Napoleon wondered once more how many weeks of Siberian winter frost he would have to bear in return. Abruptly the thought struck him: would there still be weeks for them as partners, or only days, or maybe hours?
Napoleon resolutely pushed the idea aside. He couldn't allow himself to be incapacitated by anxiety, even the most legitimate worry for his friend. Such emotions had to be kept under control. That it was easier to say than to do was irrelevant...
At last the spasms abated and ceased. Before going back to the cot, a little detour by the familiar "conveniences" seemed a wise precaution. Many uses of the place within the 56 hours of their captivity had erased any feeling of embarrassment. It was less trying now the damned hole had been cleaned, however grossly; even the foul emanations had lessened, now outdone by the sour, acrid smell of vomit.
Napoleon was angry with himself. He ought to have been more assertive with Alvarez rather than trying to convince him by rationale. He could have disarmed the guard and taken the governor hostage until they were released and transferred to U.N.C.L.E. But no, although it was technically possible it was too hazardous. Given Illya's condition, they should have had to stay in the cell anyway; there would have been a huge mess involving local and national police, town hall and state administrations, diplomatic skirmishes...all in all, too many causes of delay. And the real issue was not, had never been, their release, but the timing of it.
Their isolation in the basement made it impossible to alert the guards if they were not in the vicinity. The narrow window opened onto a courtyard but was placed so high that climbing up to look through was an acrobatic exercise (and just above "The Hole").
In the course of his gloomy meditations, Napoleon was startled by a noise, the shutting of a small aperture in the door. He hadn't heard it open. So, they had been watched, maybe right from the beginning. This was probably a good thing, since it dismissed any doubt they could be playacting.
A few seconds later, the guard entered the room, his gun in its sheath again and a concerned look on his face. He was bringing more water, a new supply of rough toilet paper and two patched but clean bed sheets, with a single thin straw mattress. He cast a glance at Illya, lying with his face resting on his crossed arms. His gaze then fell on the soiled spot near the cot that Napoleon had already wiped off as best he could with a fragment of discarded cardboard. Without a word, he scattered sheets of old newspaper all around.
"My! This place will soon compete with the Ritz!" exclaimed Napoleon with more good humor than he felt.
"I wasn't able to find a pillow," replied the guard quite earnestly. Napoleon was almost certain they owed all those improvements to the young man's initiative. This was the moment to test his good will.
"Are you convinced now that my friend is seriously ill?" Napoleon waved his arm in the direction of the cot whereon Illya lay, his face shining with sweat and his breathing rapid and shallow. Nobody could reasonably doubt he was very sick. Napoleon pushed his advantage.
"You must understand that, according to all the evidence, we are confronted by a probably mortal, most likely incurable, and extremely contagious disease." He hated having to speak those words in Illya's presence and hoped his own fear didn't show in his voice. But he had to press still harder.
"I'm probably already contaminated and you may be as well..."
Confusion and embarrassment could be read on the lad's childlike features. "What can we do? Our fate is in God's hands".
Napoleon's voice sounded grave. "I like to think God uses human hands to do His work, in this case, the hands of the U.S. specialists who are with our organization." He stared at the guard.
The young man shrugged his shoulders. Napoleon continued: "Even if you're not afraid of death, think of your family, your friends and all those other innocent people. This could become a world wide pandemic if it's not stopped as quickly as possible."
"I know that." At least the lad seemed more willing to listen than his aristocratic master. "But Captain Alvarez doesn't know; he didn't believe your story."
"And you do?"
"At first no, but now, yes I do," replied the guard with a sigh.
"What changed your mind?" Napoleon was not really curious but sensed he had to show a personal interest. He schooled his expression to sympathetic understanding.
"There are already several other people affected."
This was interesting but disquieting also. "What do you mean? Who?"
"I heard two of Hartmann's guards are ill, the lab technician too, and also one of the policemen who arrested you. My colleagues told me; they all are very concerned."
Napoleon's tone was commanding. "You must call Captain Alvarez immediately and let him alert the proper authorities."
"I tried five minutes ago. I couldn't contact him."
"So, he's not here any more?" What could you expect on Christmas Eve?
"No. He is not in the Town Hall either; in fact there is nobody in the Town Hall, except the old warden, his wife, and the night watchman."
"Well, call him at home then!" cut in Napoleon, with some curtness.
"But there is no telephone in the Alvarez' Hacienda."
"What? No telephone?"
"No!" the young man was beginning to look annoyed. "You are not in Arkansas, remember. This is Uruguay..."
"Oh, yes," Napoleon made his smile open and friendly, "I see. Actually I'm not even sure there is a phone service everywhere in the middle of Arkansas. I just thought that a VIP might have been given priority. "
The boy bristled, defensively. "They will be connected when there are telephone lines outside the town's suburbs."
There were telephones in the compound, but, of course, Hartmann was Hartmann...
"Anyway, there is no time to waste, every extra hour makes the situation worse; it may soon get totally out of control. It's up to you to act!" urged Napoleon.
"Me?" The boy took a step backward, "What do you want me to do?"
"Nothing you can't do easily. Just call a number I'll give you."
"Who?" The guard frowned. His wariness and reluctance were visible, mixed with a touch of uncertainty.
"My boss, the Head of U.N.C.L.E. in New York. It's a special number; you'll get him in person." Napoleon smiled encouragingly: "Don't worry, he speaks Spanish better than I do."
The man's frown deepened. "I don't understand. What do you expect him to do? Your people know where you are."
"But they know nothing about the epidemic!" Turning his back on the sullen face, Napoleon bent over the cot where Illya was lying very still but shivering all over, and he pulled the blankets over the sick man's shoulders. Then, he swiveled round to confront his opponent.
"That is the important matter. If there is one argument that will hasten things, this is it. All the diplomatic fuss will stop at once," Napoleon insisted, with growing impatience that he was finding increasingly difficult to hide.
"The decision to launch a crisis medical intervention will be taken at the highest international level. If required, U.N.C.L.E. will be backed by the U.S. government and all the U.N.O. States, since they're all potentially threatened."
All the time he was speaking, Napoleon watched his partner attentively. He seemed to be using all his strength in a painful attempt to keep breathing.
"You have only one thing to do: sound the alarm! All the rest will ensue automatically."
"Fabulous! And what will happen to me?"
Hell, the battle wasn't won yet. "You'll be the hero who saved the World."
A strange noise that sounded like a short, strangled laugh escaped from under the blankets.
The man sneered. "I am pretty sure, one way or another, Captain Alvarez will end up being the hero and I'll be the disobedient servant who failed his duty!"
"After you've spoken to Alexander Waverly, you'll be under U.N.C.L.E.'s special protection."
The guard wasn't convinced. "I don't know your Alejandro Whatshisname, or your uncle, but I know Captain Alvarez and I know he will have my balls on a plate!" He shook his head in despair. "The least I risk is to lose my job."
"What you risk, for sure, is losing your life," retorted Napoleon briskly. "When you're in your coffin, your job will hold little meaning for you."
A bout of coughing from Illya punctuated his words with a sinister appropriateness; Napoleon turned once more to his partner. He positioned him on his side to give him more air and rubbed his back vigorously, eliciting a growl of protest. He resumed eye contact with the guard, and tried a new approach.
"...Furthermore, I can promise you won't regret your move. U.N.C.L.E. has got money enough to give you generous compensation... and even provide you with a new job."
The round face of the boy suddenly brightened, as if a sunbeam had struck it from behind a cloud. "A new job?" What? Might I become a mechanic?"
"Why not?" replied Napoleon, amused, "Have you studied mechanics?"
A sigh. "Yes, a little, by myself, not at school. That is too expensive, but I always wanted to be an engineer."
"What kind of engineer?" This time Napoleon's grin was quite sincere. He could sense the tide turning in their favor.
"The kind that flies. On planes, choppers, mainly choppers." The black eyes were positively radiating and the lad's tone was vivid with excitement.
Napoleon smiled. He was getting somewhere now. "You're ambitious, young man, but I don't see why you shouldn't if you have the capacity. In any case I can assure you U.N.C.L.E. has the means to finance your studies. Don't be afraid to ask for it in your call. My boss will try to oblige, I'm sure".
A shadow fell over the brown face. "I cannot make such a decision by myself. I am just a pawn here. I must report to my senior, in Alvarez' absence."
Napoleon felt the hair rising on his head. "What? Do you want him to win the bargain? To take all the credit? And if you can't persuade him, are you ready to watch thousands of people die, knowing you had the power to prevent it and did nothing?"
The young guard shuffled from one foot to the other and absently stared at the ceiling. He abruptly turned to face Napoleon with a stern look:
"You win, I'll do it. Give me the phone number!"
"Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht"
After helping to make the bed and settle Illya on it, the guard left, promising to come back soon with news from U.N.C.L.E.
"Could you try to find a cushion or something? My friend needs to have his head raised to help his breathing," Napoleon called after him.
"I will do my best." All hesitation and wariness aside, the boy's face showed only eagerness and good will.
At least the agreement with the guard was set and working. Nothing could be better in their situation than a jailer who is not pleased with his job! "Thanks, it's really most important."
For the moment, Napoleon had resumed his position, sitting on the newly arranged cot with Illya's head and upper body resting in his lap. It wasn't comfortable for either of them and, after three nights lying on cement tiles, Napoleon badly needed a few hours of sleep on a decent mattress; even the straw one would do but there was only one and, of course, it had to be for his sick partner.
Illya looked a little better. He'd managed to drink several cups of water without throwing up and Napoleon was trying to feed him with small bits of the soft inside part of a freshly baked corn bread (God bless the compassionate soul of the young guard who had thought to replace the stodgy bean stew with something more digestible; maybe it was his own ration?).
The whole scene reminded him of a time in his early childhood when he undertook to save the life of a little fox cub, deprived of its mother; he had fervently wished to keep the cub but his grandparents didn't think much of tame foxes at home, despite it being a large country house in Ontario, and had firmly set out their position thereupon; the young animal had survived eventually and, with a few tears, Napoleon had accepted that he had to let it free. In a way, he realized, he had interpreted his sacrifice as the price due for the survival of his beloved pet.
This idea hit him painfully and he struggled with himself to cast it from his mind. It was superstitious bargaining, unworthy of a grown man, not to mention an enforcement agent. But, could it work? For less than a second, he wondered about exchanging their partnership for Illya's life. It made no sense; he had nothing to put in the bargain. As the young Indian had rightly pointed out, "Everything was in God's hands - or perhaps His surrogate's at Headquarters?"
Meanwhile, this rapid stream of consciousness left him deeply disturbed. Illya was a good friend and the best partner he'd had so far. They'd been working together less than two years and had some very narrow escapes, but that was the game, nothing that a bottle of old bourbon or the soft body of a willing woman couldn't clear. For the first time he was not completely the master of his fears and emotions and he didn't like it, didn't like it at all.
He was diverted from his thoughts by a slight jerk from Illya's right hip and shoulder, pressing almost painfully into his chest and thighs. The man was heavier than he looked and, for sure, had none of the voluptuous softness of the female curves he was accustomed to. Napoleon tried to raise and straighten up the stiff body of his friend and to shift his position in his lap, but it didn't seem to help much. Illya went on wriggling.
"Napoleon," he groaned, "were you ever told by any of your conquests that you are supremely uncomfortable?"
Somewhat relieved by this sudden revival, Napoleon managed to make his voice sound indignant:
"None of my conquests, as you call them, ever confused me with the furniture! I didn't give them an opportunity to complain," he smiled. "Except once, a delightful but rather demanding Austrian Countess who was no longer in the first flush of youth, protested my, huh, services, left her more aching and beaten than riding her favorite stallion...She was speaking of her champion racehorse, of course..."
"Of course" whispered Illya, already tired, "you compete only with champions."
"She didn't complain about the performance, though," asserted Napoleon firmly. "Neither did I. I have absolutely no qualms about a good riding session with a smart sportswoman." He chuckled. "Especially when the mount hasn't so much work to do for a change."
Illya had shut his eyes. Napoleon licked his lips. He should have remembered his partner didn't really appreciate this kind of joke. The light surge of energy provided by the intake of bread and water was quickly receding and there was little he could do, save for continuing to talk to keep his companion conscious. His previous longing for a good night's rest had vanished. He was now afraid of slumber as if it were a no return journey. The upcoming night was going to be long and trying.
Twenty minutes had passed, with the desperate slowness of waiting for a life or death sentence. Illya's fever was soaring anew. Napoleon could feel the scorching burn of his partner's body against his own skin. Because of the oppressive heat, he had removed his own shirt, and used it to mop up sweat and dirt from Illya's chest and face. He regularly soaked it in the bucket of cool water but the wet cloth seemed to dry up with a disquieting quickness.
Illya was now shaking violently and clinging to his partner's neck with unexpected force. His teeth chattered uncontrollably. Fighting his own feeling of suffocation, Napoleon pulled up the blankets around their shoulders. "Illya? It's very hot here, don't you think?"
"Yes...No...I feel cold." He went on, "I hate to be cold."
"And I thought all Russians liked cold." Napoleon's teasing was wasted. His friend's voice sounded serious, though curiously childish, with high pitched and plaintive inflexions that were perceivable despite of the permanent hoarseness and near whispering.
"Russians hate cold." He dropped his head so that his dripping nose rubbed Napoleon's collarbone. "Believe me, it's true." He shuddered. "I was so cold..." he uttered again miserably, "so cold."
Napoleon pricked up his ears. That was a first: Illya indulging in self pity! He realized his friend was not quite himself, perhaps even delirious. Solo felt he had to keep him conscious.
"What are you talking about? When were you so cold?"
"A long time ago, in Brest." Still this doleful intonation.
"Brest-Litovsk, in Byelorussia?" That was intriguing. "Didn't you live in Kiev when you were a child?"
Illya didn't answer for a while. He seemed to be striving to gather his memories. "It was the winter just after the end of the War. I was with the other children." He paused. "There were adults too, hundreds and hundreds."
Napoleon didn't understand. "But who were all those people?"
Illya shrugged slightly. "They were displaced people. That was what they call them: displaced people, you know..."
Napoleon did know, indeed, when you had relatives in diplomatic circles, and specifically in Moscow and Prague, you know who the "displaced people" were in the newly liberated territories: a broad and monstrous mix of heterogeneous groups: refugees, partisans, deportees, prisoners of war from both camps, local collaborators, even some German or French civilians. They had usually been parked temporarily in huge selection centers, in order to allow the allied armies' commands and intelligence services to check their identity and occupations during the war. Some of them would never see their homeland again.
Illya was drifting slowly in his inner world to another space and time. He stared at the opposite wall as if it were a screen: "There was not enough room for everyone, not enough food, no fuel, no coal any more." His shivering increased. "I had been given a sleeping bag I shared with another child, but a bigger boy stole it from us..."
Impulsively Napoleon clenched his hand on the blanket and wrapped it tighter around his friend's shoulders, hugging him closely. Illya didn't seem to mind.
Disturbing. Napoleon lifted the bent head, turning it slightly, so he could scan his partner's face; it was expressionless. His eyes were glazed and unfocused. As Solo had previously noticed, the fever's course was irregular, with bouts of intense heat and sudden drops in temperature. Now Illya was literally burning and his consciousness teetering between waking and sleeping, between past and present.
Napoleon fought an odd feeling of dispossession. The body in his arms was that of his friend, but the person who spoke with this plaintive, child-like tone was not the Illya he knew, and how much he yearned to have his partner back! It had never been easy for him to talk, really talk, with the dour Russian. There were any number of lesser friends, even mere acquaintances, with whom he could speak more freely of personal matters and yet, since their first encounter, he was convinced their shared silences and occasional banter carried more significance than others' speeches or intimate confidences. For the first time he was being offered the opportunity to catch a glimpse of Illya's past from Illya's mouth and he almost wished he hadn't.
The experience was upsetting. Besides, he couldn't let the fever climb higher without risking a bout of convulsions that this time wouldn't be faked. Once more, he dipped the twisted shirt in the bowl he kept at hand and, despite Illya's groans of protest, soaked his friend's head and chest thoroughly with such a profusion that they were both dripping with water. He repeated his ministrations until Illya cried for mercy. He let him rest quietly for a couple of minutes, attentively listening to the ragged, wheezing breath. The shaking has stopped, replaced by deep shudders. Solo fleetingly wondered what was taking the guard so long contacting New York.
"Don't tell me you're cold again, please," warned Napoleon. "This place is an oven and you're still burning with fever."
"Yes, I feel hot." Illya looked lost. "Did I say I was cold?"
"Just a few moments ago you told me you felt so cold, it reminded you of the time you were in this camp of displaced persons, near Brest-Litovsk, in Byelorussia..."
"Ah, yes... I remember now," Illya paused, absent-mindedly, and showed no intention of going on.
Napoleon was merciless: "How did you get there? Who took you?"
"The Germans." Through his mental haze, Illya's Soviet upbringing managed to surge. He corrected himself quickly, looking for a more politically acceptable answer. "I mean, the Nazis".
"Soldiers?" Napoleon was still incredulous. How old would Illya have been, six, seven? He couldn't be of any use for work and, if his personal file was accurate, he shouldn't have been deported on racial counts. That didn't mean he was in any way sheltered from harm of course. He might've been killed on the spot during an attack or a slaughter by the special forces, but why take a wee boy from Kiev to the Polish border of Byelorussia? It made no sense.
"No, not soldiers." It was hardly more than a whisper but a tad clearer than previously, "Doctors, a man and two women." Illya's grip on Napoleon's neck loosened. He was striving to regain his self control. "They took us to join the other children in a large house."
"No, in Mazuria."
This time Napoleon was completely lost. "But Mazuria is in Poland!"
"Yes," explained Illya, patiently, like a clever child trying to make himself understood by a peculiarly thick-minded adult. "The thousand lakes region." He nodded. "It was the year before."
"Before we were freed by the Soviet Army, of course." Illya sighed, "At least those who were left."
These words sounded sinister to Napoleon's ears but Illya's expression was more thoughtful than tragic. He was trying to concentrate. He remained silent a few moments, his breathing more even and peaceful. When he spoke, his voice had almost returned to its usual pitch and tone.
"We stayed there eight months, six in the big house and then two in the barracks, that is, those who had not been selected."
"Good Lord! What do you mean? Selected for what?"
Illya's smile was surprisingly genuine. He seemed sincerely amused and to have recovered some of his wits. "For the greatest honor you could possibly imagine..."
It's not that easy to assume a solemn and doctoral face when you are sitting half naked in your partner and senior officer's lap, but somehow Kuryakin achieved it. He uttered, in a mock expression of reverence: "Entering the Noble Race. Becoming a proud member of the Herren Volk. Being adopted by a German family of the Nazi inner circle."
He grimaced amusedly. "I was not selected"
Quite absurdly, Napoleon felt offended for his friend. "Why not?"
Illya shrugged. "Oh, I wasn't up to their standards. Blond, ok; Nordic type, ok; but, as for size and physical development I was deemed seriously lacking."
"I've already heard that," Napoleon chuckled, "in the training room, by some of your adversaries. But only before the fight."
"It was worse when I was eight, believe me; I was called "the little runt" or "the little shit."
It rang a bell for Napoleon. "Funny! I was called the same, and worse, during my first year in high school."
"You?" Incredulity tinged Illya's tone.
"Yes, me. Your surprise is flattering, but I was something of a late bloomer, if you know what I mean."
"But for me, it was thought there was no hope that I could catch up by growing, so I was left behind with the other scraps."
Was it his imagination or did he hear a hint of bitterness in those last words? It was unlikely Illya would have envied the fate of the "selected ones," so it sounded as if he was thinking of other rejections.
"We had to quit the big house to make room for the new ones, and settle in the barracks nearby."
Napoleon noticed Illya was now speaking almost normally and was slightly less hot; he also appeared vaguely embarrassed. But no way was Napoleon going to let him escape telling the end of the story. He pressed further: "What happened then? What did you expect? "
"We didn't know anything, and the most annoying thing was, the people in charge didn't seem to know any more, and there was less and less food."
Napoleon swallowed and went on awkwardly: "Were you afraid, I mean...Do you think they might have envisaged, uh, solving the problem by...?"
"By eliminating the causes of it?" Illya smirked and, Napoleon deemed, sounded more articulate than at any time before. "That was certainly a possibility, but whatever their intentions were, they had no time to fulfill them; Poland was liberated during the summer of 1944 and we were taken by the Russian soldiers to safer grounds with many other displaced people."
"To a triage camp in Byelorussia?"
"Yes. It was far behind the battle line, in a region already well controlled by the Soviet Armed Forces, and there was a very large military camp there."
"But not enough fuel and food supply I take it?"
"You have to consider the whole region was full of displaced people of every kind, the land was devastated, the fields ravaged, the roads and railways largely damaged."
And the result, Napoleon had no difficulty imagining, was disorder and dearth, maybe epidemics and starvation.
"Were you perhaps alluding to that time when you mentioned those "much worse" circumstances previously? " Napoleon felt a little ashamed at being so insistent, but he was convinced he had to keep his friend talking and already he sensed Illya's attention faltering.
"Yes, those times...were hard ... and that night was the worst." Illya spoke slowly, again staring at the opposite wall. "The boy, Sasha, he died that night."
"Sasha? You mean, the boy who shared the sleeping bag with you?"
"Yes, we slept together on the straw litter and when I awoke in the morning, he was gone." He added quickly: "He had been ill for some weeks already and the night was so cold..."
Napoleon hardly dared to ask: "Are you telling me he died on Christmas Eve?"
"Yes, it was Christmas, your Christmas, not ours; I remember the German prisoners, in another barracks not far from us, singing carols".
Illya shut his eyes and dropped his head back on Solo's shoulder, the fleeting moment of awareness and clear mindedness had passed and again he was shaken by fever, struggling for breath.
Napoleon remained silent and motionless for a while; in his head something or someone was singing again and again: "Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht..." with the clear voice of a little eight year old boy.
"Do you often chat with Archangels?"
"There! I've done it." The boy was glowing with excitement. He was back again and carrying his load of bedding and various new supplies that were almost enough to unbalance him: another corn leaf mattress, three big pillows made of the same stuff, two clean sheets and, still more precious, their shoes and clothes wrapped in a blanket. He looked so funny that Napoleon might have laughed had the situation been less serious.
"I couldn't retrieve your watches, wallets and pens, though. They are in Captain Alvarez' safe; but, as for the other things, it was quite easy. The senior officer in charge left sooner than scheduled and gave me the keys to the store room, all the keys in fact, except the ones for the main door. There are still two guards for the night shift, but I should be able to make a deal with them I think. We are alone in there right now, save for two drunkards and a madman; we used to have a bunch of leftist militants but they were taken to a larger town yesterday."
Solo opened his mouth two or three times during the speech but was unable to stop the joyful babbling. Meanwhile the young guard was untying the blanket, unrolling the thin mattress and making up the free bed. To lay the sick man on it, his head raised by two pillows, took less than a minute.
"I would not recommend you to escape now, even with my help. This poor man is much too ill."
Napoleon took a step forward and spoke sternly, "There'll be no need to escape if you succeeded in your attempt. Did you?"
The boy blinked mischievously. "What attempt?"
That was too much. "Calling the number I gave you, damn it! Waverly's special one. Did you talk to him?"
This earned him a grin. "Of course I did. I talked rather a long time with your uncle; he was most gracious."
Napoleon almost choked. "Gracious" was not an epithet he was accustomed to associate with Alexander Waverly. The sly fox would have played his best personification of "Grandfather of the Year".
"He's not my uncle, son, but the Head of the U.N.C.L.E, the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement."
"Whatever. He is still a very nice and charming old man, speaks excellent Spanish, you were right; very curious about the current situation in San Cristobal as in the official and non-official position of the local authorities. Wasn't so much interested in your present condition, though."
"What did you tell, for Christ's sake!"
"Oh, I described your accommodation here quite precisely and mentioned the illness of your friend; he is aware you are in trouble, but didn't seem very impressed, I must say."
Napoleon did not smile; this conversation echoed some of his own past worries and stirred uncomfortable thoughts in his mind. With the prospect of a biological weapon having been possibly activated, a global disaster was at stake and U.N.C.L.E.'s intervention would be certain. But if, for any reason, this threat wasn't taken seriously, would Alexander Waverly consider Illya's life worthy of a diplomatic brawl, particularly after the terrible bungling of their mission? He might decide to let matters take their course as a well-deserved lesson for his two unsuccessful agents.
Napoleon gathered himself and strove to recall his normally unfaltering trust in his boss. He would choose to rescue them anyway. After all, it wasn't easy to recruit and train a new top agent with Illya's qualifications. However, everything depended on the report from their messenger. Had he given thorough information?
The guard seemed to read Solo's mind and answered the unvoiced question.
"I explained to him everything. But only after he had promised to finance my studies in a good technical school."
"And also to pay a decent reward to my family since I'll have no job anymore."
"And I obtained permission to study English as well. You see, you cannot do anything interesting if you can't speak English nowadays."
Maybe there had been two sly foxes in this encounter.
"Go on, please. What's the plan for the next few hours?"
The young guard dropped his half joking attitude. "Don't worry, everything will be fixed very soon, your boss assured me; he made no bones about it, he was mainly bothered by the lack of a real airfield in San Cristobal. That means the medical staff and the enforcement backing team will need to be transported from the capital by helicopters and will have to land on the fairground."
Solo calculated quickly. Sure, Waverly had the legal authority to decide by himself upon an emergency operation in such circumstances, but could hardly do it without the agreement of the Uruguayan government, which was probably bitterly resenting the fact they had been partially cheated at the beginning. Maybe it would be necessary to engage the persuasive pressure of the White House (something Waverly was not likely to enjoy), maybe even obtain military support from the States if, with the epidemic spreading, they needed to settle a quarantine zone and prevent popular unrest. Add the technical preparation and the flight, a part of which would have to be by chopper...If they had any chance of welcoming their rescuers before noon the next day they would be very lucky. Always assuming Illya was still alive when they arrived.
The same thought must have come to the other fellow's mind too, because both men turned around at the same time to contemplate the Russian's blond hair spilled over the cushions and the irregular heaving of his chest under the layers of sheet and blankets.
The young man's expression was friendly and serene. "He will make it through, I'm quite sure."
"And what makes you so confident? "
The copper-brown face flushed slightly. "Well, I asked my patron..."
"My Patron Saint, I mean." The boy was deadly serious. "San Miguel, that is. My Christian name is Miguel, like my grandfather's. All my family has great devotion to San Miguel Archangel; he is God's fighter, you know, His Army's Commander. He does what must be done so that Evil won't prevail. "
Oh boy! A mystic jailer! No wonder he doesn't like his job.
"Do you often chat with archangels?" Napoleon regretted his joke as soon as it was out, for the boy's face darkened and his gaze became defiant.
"You should not mock such things," he uttered severely, "I don't chat, I pray. "
"Sorry, I didn't mean..." Napoleon bit his lower lip and cursed himself for his lapse of control. Was he losing his nerve? How much more trying it was to wait and be dependent on external circumstances than to burst into action in the direst conditions!
"Pay no attention, I feel a little strung out, I'm afraid. What makes you so sure my friend is going to recover? "
Comforted by this humble answer, Miguel affected a superior and enigmatic look. "I noticed a few signs. Don't you believe in signs? "
Solo pondered; the profession he was in wasn't without some superstition. "Yes, I do. What did you notice? "
"I'll tell you later. I have to think more deeply and consult people wiser than I am." Miguel tapped his forehead. "I almost forgot; I brought you remedies." He searched his pockets and proffered three containers: a tube of aspirin, a small, round box, and a tiny bottle.
Napoleon unscrewed the lid of the tin box first and sniffed the contents. Nothing really exotic. It smelled strongly of eucalyptus, camphor and terebinth, reminding him of the warming paste his Canadian grandmother used to rub his chest with when he suffered bronchitis. "What is it?"
"Look at the lid, what do you read? Doctor Hartmann's Special Balm. You have here the best seller of the Hartmann's laboratories. Everybody uses it in this country."
"What for? To unblock noses?" Napoleon's sarcasm left the young man unfazed.
"Possibly, and for many other purposes: cold, flu, rheumatism, aches, bumps, muscle stiffness, sprains, cramps..."
"Is that all?" Such versatility didn't speak much of efficiency to Napoleon.
"No, pneumonia. It really can help clearing the secretions and easing the breathing, especially if you also take the elixir "
"The contents of this bottle, I suppose?" Without waiting for an answer Napoleon uncorked the flask, sniffed it as he had done with the balm, frowned, took a drop on the tip of his tongue and grimaced hideously.
The guard stared at him reprovingly. "That's not the way to use it; you have to pour it into a good quantity of water or milk, hot or cold, it doesn't matter. I can't provide you with hot water at this hour anyway, and still less milk."
Solo repressed a strong impulse to spit out the awful drug but had to swallow a sudden flood of saliva instead. "What's it made of?" he asked suspiciously.
"A concoction of various herbs, plants, roots and grains in alcohol; the second best seller of "Hartmann's Laboratories"! Very popular too, fights all bad germs and infections..."
"Viral or microbial? "
"I don't know what you mean, bad germs in general, bad influences."
"But viruses and microbes are not the same at all! " protested Napoleon.
The young man looked annoyed. "What do you want me to say? I'm not a medic! All I know is this is widely used to counter flu and children's diseases. "
No need to insist. The boy couldn't explain more, there was no other treatment available and at least a drug commonly used to cure childhood diseases was not likely to be harmful.
The guard eventually departed, duly and warmly thanked by Napoleon who advised him firmly to stay in the vicinity of a telephone.
Night had fallen at last and the awful daytime heat was decreasing slowly in the cell. The atmosphere was now almost bearable because of a light breeze coming down from the high window; the door had been left open and it was enough to create a ghost of a draught.
Illya was still drowsy but conscious, yet too exhausted to move without help. Napoleon kept on again and again wiping his face, chest and limbs with the same old shirt and handkerchief, soaked in water that wasn't cool any longer, if it had ever been. He hoped it was sufficient to prevent the fever from climbing to a dangerous level. The new bucket of fresh water was reserved for drinking and he regularly filled the tin mug he shared with Illya.
Incidentally, he was more and more surprised not to observe any symptoms of illness in himself, though all the conditions for rapid contagion were present. He felt uncomfortably hot, sweaty, bad smelling and itchy from a three-day growth of beard, but up to now, not sick. Strange.
Inducing Illya to take his medicine had not been easy. The drug from the bottle was atrociously bitter and aspirin didn't improve the taste. Fortunately the feverish man was too thirsty to refuse a cup of water more than twice and his self appointed nurse had been very persistent.
Considering the loss of body fluids caused by abundant and continuous sweating, Napoleon was especially attentive to the possible signs of dehydration; he had noticed his friend no longer needed to urinate. Maybe he ought to have asked for salt. Too late for regrets. In case of extreme necessity, he could still get out of the cell and look for Miguel, but he didn't like the idea of going far from his helpless partner.
At least the repeated application of "Doctor Hartmann's Special Balm" on the sick man's throat, back and upper chest seemed to have had a rapid soothing effect. His coughing had ceased and his breathing, though still hampered, was more even and quiet. Eventually Illya had fallen asleep and again his temperature had visibly dropped. Napoleon remained sitting on his own bed, unable to lie and rest while hope and fear were fighting fiercely to take control of his mind; as time passed without news from the outer world, fear was getting the upper hand.
The hours stretched with intolerable slowness. Napoleon tried to banish the dark thoughts that loomed upon his head, hovering menacingly in narrowing circles like birds of prey around a corpse.
There was the old and waning memory of his former wife, though the whole story was an unforgivable mistake. A mistake from both of them, to tell the truth. How pathetic and absurd it had all been! There was also in the background the red mane of Flo, waving like a flag in the wind. Florence, his girl friend at the time, with whom he had sincerely thought himself to be in love before the catastrophe had occurred; his fault, yes, his fault entirely.
Then he viewed himself bending over the dead body of Doug Henley who had never seen the next day's light above that Korean hill slope. Sweet Doug, who had shared so many chilling days and feverish nights... Waiting for rescue there in the rising dawn, he had vowed he would never again let himself become that close to another man.
Women were safe; easy to get, easy to drop. At least it was easy to pick up those who were, and to avoid those who weren't. You could always switch on / switch off, connect / disconnect. Nothing very serious at stake. Close relations with men were different, maybe less demanding in some regards but not to be taken lightly. Ordinary acquaintances were not an issue. He never had any difficulty coping with his many friends, no more than with his still more numerous enemies.
But a settled relationship with a partner was something very special. A partner is more intimate than a brother, more than the closest friend. You depend on him. You rely on him, not only for your safety but, well, in a sense, for your...salvation. Peace of mind, emotional balance, moral comfort; soul and body were equally involved...
In that respect his relationship with Illya was the most "special" he could think of and potentially the most dangerous. He sensed it without being able to rationalize his feelings. He had never wanted a permanent partner. As the most senior of all the operative agents, he had every right to choose whoever he wished to assist him in specific assignments. He'd done it many times since he'd been promoted, and even before, with the tacit agreement of Waverly and his own former senior officer. And then Illya had come along.
"Yes, partner, you arrived and I was lost." Napoleon smiled dreamily, lost in his memories and too crushed to realize he had thought aloud.
Alerted by the sound of his own voice, he swiftly glanced at his friend, whose innocent face and regular breathing were those of a man sound asleep. There was something slightly perverse and therefore strangely appealing in the idea of speaking aloud to an unconscious Kuryakin the thoughts he didn't know he had two minutes ago, and he let it go; he heard himself speaking very softly, as if from a far distance:
"I'm glad you can't hear me, Tovaritch; I'd hate you to know your grip on me. You can pride yourself for having robbed me of the thing I thought I held most precious." He hesitated before pronouncing the last, hardly audible words: "My damned independence."
A distinct sigh met his ears and he was startled. Suddenly brought back to reality, he realized his friend, though very quiet, was fully awake, maybe more awake than he was himself.
Illya half opened an eye and didn't bother to question how the topic had suddenly arisen. "Very sorry, Napoleon", he whispered weakly. "I never meant to spoil your lifestyle."
Blushing scarlet, Solo straightened and cleared his throat. Time to create a diversion.
"Hemm...Sorry, buddy, I was telling myself old stories to help pass the time; do you remember how we were partnered in the beginning?"
"I am sick, Napoleon, not senile."
"Maybe you don't know everything." Solo explained. "You were not exactly welcomed with flags and flowers at the time, if you remember. The "exchange experiment" with the Moscow Agency was felt by most of us to be more symbolic than real, and actually your American counterpart didn't last long there. All he gained eventually was a Russian wife, with all the political and bureaucratic turmoil that it implied."
"He was an ass."
"To take the job or to marry?"
"To fail in his task and to marry."
Napoleon grinned frankly. "Not a deal you'd ever risk," he pursued. "Anyway, you arrived with a label of success, since you had got through two posts in Western Europe; one of which was Berlin. Not the easiest. "
The Russian's mouth twisted into a quarter of a smile. "Not the worst either; in fact, after the boredom of London it was quite a perk."
" But New York Headquarters was quite another thing and more of a challenge. The time couldn't have been more ill-chosen for your arrival."
"You always did say my timing was bad."
"It wasn't even Waverly's decision, though he fully approved it. The "exchange experiment" was set at the highest level by the international board, in order to give some satisfaction to the Soviets who were complaining about being left out, while they had contributed to U.N.C.L.E. since the beginning. The Europeans supported them."
"I know all that," sighed Kuryakin, tiredly, "everybody in Headquarters knew that. It wasn't a secret, and being the official deputy of Moscow U.N.C.L.E. in the States didn't help me to integrate into an American team."
"That's an understatement."
"I wasn't surprised. International status and policy rules are what they are; they never had the power to sway national feelings."
"There were also a lot of reactions that were simply corporate. I remember when I joined myself, the agents coming from the CIA and those from Military Intelligence were at odds. Waverly had to intervene to restore order."
"Which he didn't do for me two years ago."
"No, he left the case entirely in my hands. Actually, if I wasn't able to solve the problem, he was seriously considering assigning you permanently to the labs, in spite of your previous record. He thought you made little effort to adapt. I was the last recourse."
For once, Illya looked genuinely wounded. "Thanks a lot! I owe you my career, is that what you mean?"
"At least at the start," Napoleon explained with a brief smile. "There was no shortage of single agents at the time; for various reasons we had a full baseball team of them, but none wanted to work with you. Half just loathed the "Reds" and the other half didn't think much being paired with a lab rat."
"I should be very grateful you bothered to take charge of such a burden!"
"Of course, you should. I wasn't so much wary as curious." Napoleon smiled again. "I'm sure you never guessed what induced me to have a try eventually."
"No, but you are going to tell me."
"It was all about linguistics."
Kuryakin looked baffled.
"Well, among the operative agents, I was the only one to speak some basic Russian, thanks to my grandparents' idea of what constituted a "proper" education. But unlike French and Italian, or even German, I had very few opportunities to practice this language and I was slowly losing the little I had learned. Very regrettable; that was Waverly's opinion and mine too."
"Did Waverly think of me as a language teacher?" Illya's tone was a touch acerbic.
"Oh, not exactly, but he was aware of your many talents and could figure the appeal a Slavic polyglot partner might have for me. But unfortunately the undertaking failed because you stubbornly refused to exchange a single Russian word with me."
"That wouldn't have been the best way for me to "adapt" in a foreign background!" exclaimed Illya indignantly, then he belatedly noticed a twinkle in Napoleon's eyes and groaned: "You're kidding."
"Completely, my friend, though I'd have been pleased to test my fluency with you...No, in fact the truth is I was enthralled by your arctic blue eyes, your elegant skinny figure, your enticing grumpiness, your admirable capacity for brooding all day long..."
If Solo had intended to lighten the tension that way, it was not a success. Illya was not in the mood for joking, obviously.
"Not too far, Napoleon. I won't always be an easy target for your playfulness." Illya's previous hoarse whisper had turned into a low and menacing growl.
Napoleon stopped to consider with concern his partner's attempt to lift his upper body almost to a sitting position and rest on his elbows, shaking with the effort. He wondered why he'd felt the need to turn the very reason for his instant and unreasonable affection for the restive Russian into sarcasm. He wished he could say: "I chose you because you are what you are and I am what I am," but he was fully awake now and those words didn't belong to the world of daylight.
"Your sense of humor tends to decline rapidly with the sun, my friend," laughed Napoleon. "I'm sorry to tell you this, but your physical condition looks better and better. I'll have to thank Herr Hartmann eventually. His atrocious mixture seems to have some curative properties after all."
"I feel a little better, yes", Illya's voice was blank. "I should be used to your stupid teasing. Why did you say: You arrived and I was lost?"
No escape now, he would not lie. "Simply that I lost a part of me; it was not the best, God knows, nothing I can be proud of, and what I gained in exchange was more than worth the loss."
"What did you get, then?" Illya shot him a defiant glance.
Napoleon spoke slowly: "A friend, my friend, for want of a better word."
His partner shrugged: "Well, there are several words for "friend" in Russian."
"You are fortunate."
"Very, we own almost 100,000 words, you know."
"For what I have in mind, a single one will do, moï droog."
PART TWO: GHOSTS HAVE A LONG LIFE
"Ghosts have a long life. Especially those who never died."
The rest of the night went on more quietly and even both men could sleep a few hours. The sick man's fever was still high but without its previous extreme peaks and his breathing a little less uneasy. Was it the effect of Hartmann's elixir or the result of a struggle won by Illya's robust organism? It was hard to guess but, to Napoleon's utmost relief, the crisis moment seemed to be over. Meanwhile, the tiny bottle was now empty and their provider had not reappeared.
Solo's sleep was not peaceful. Ghosts have a long life. Especially those who never died.
For the thousandth time he is back at the foot of the long winding slope that marks the outer line of the territory held by the British Forces. He has to join them before dawn. Already, a shade of a lighter blue is spreading fast from the east.
This zone is not secure, he knows that. But for a few days no hostile presence has been spotted in the perimeter. It's a sort of no man's land. Until now. The surrounding region, too, has been rather quiet lately. Until now. Their scouting trip was successful. Until now.
They had wormed into the enemy's positions. They had climbed up Mother Bear Hill, too steep to be occupied by any of the armies. They had gotten the shots no photographer could have taken from a plane. Excellent conditions, with a late afternoon oblique light and a powerful Hasselblad telescope. As suspected, the new Soviet-made rocket system was settled down there, half sheltered by tall rocks and thick vegetation, almost ready to be put into service. And the film was now in the buckle of his belt. Not a good hiding place. There was no good hiding place.
He has to reach the Brits' military camp very soon and doesn't know the surrounding area very well because they have recently moved to the east. Fortunately he has Douglas Henley as back-up. Doug is his usual contact, his liaison officer with the British Command and his occasional partner when on missions. Well, more than occasional. They've spent almost as much time together as separately these last months. They had to observe freight and troop transportation, arms systems, enemy incursions through the front line that would be soon the unofficial border. They had to check the presence of Soviet "advisers." How many days of patient watching, how many nights skulking like cats in the moonlight? And the too long, trying waits they spent huddled in a fox hole, speaking softly, joking, playing odd games to pass the time...
He likes Doug Henley; he reminds him of his young half brother Louis. Same smoky gray eyes, same auburn hair, shorter because of the military rules, same nice, easygoing nature, always so quiet and good tempered. He likes to walk with Doug at his side. At the moment he is ahead, showing the way.
The night is clear, the moon is bright but the stars are fading eastward. The rocky banks of the path and the distant woods stand up each side like black walls barring pools of deep blue waters.
Then, he is here: the Enemy, the stalker, a dark figure out of a darker shadow.
Was he following them? No time to guess: He aims at Solo and fires. The bullet hits his knapsack and the shock has him unbalanced. He cannot return the shot and falls. It's Doug who fires back, while he himself rolls over, takes hold of his gun and shoots, too high. But the attacker is swaying, half hidden by the bushes. Then, Doug is between them, crouching and firing again. Two shots. Both men down. One, two seconds? Everything is happening in slow motion.
He jumps to his feet, runs to the bushes. The man is there, trying to lift his upper body onto his elbow. Not an Asian. His hair, freed from his uniform cap, is very blond, his type quite Nordic, his ice blue eyes glare at him with a fierce expression of defiance and scorn. Solo raises his gun and fires at arm length; the grimacing face explodes in bloody shreds of flesh and bones.
Now he is bending over the wounded man who's lying very still on the other side of the path, in the tall grass. He cannot see his features distinctly, only the big hole in his jacket and the dark stain slowly spreading all around. He groans. "Oh Doug, you can't do this to me, the game's not yet over, don't let me down, mate." The bloodied chest keeps on moving up and down ever so slightly, but the face remains blurred in a haze of uncertainty. Getting closer, he stares desperately at the black spot where the head should be. His vision clears suddenly. A frozen hand seizes his throat and clutches. The body in front of him is smaller than Doug's and more lightly built. A moon ray lights up a silver blond tuft of hair.
He screams: "ILLYA!!!"
His heartbeat slows down to normalcy. Is he awake? The sound of his cry still vibrates in his ears but nothing moves; there is only black around him. He can see nothing but he knows the cot near his is empty. Its user has gone.
A soft, plaintive voice is whispering now, coming from nowhere.
"Where is he? What did you do with him?"
He must not be awake then. His disorientation increases but he recognizes the voice. When did he hear it for the last time? So long ago: twelve years soon.
"I didn't do anything, Liz. What do you mean?"
The old scene anew, the same tone of reproach, the same weariness; he feels so tired. The voice's pitch rises to a peak.
"What did you do with my baby? Where is he?"
Where is Paul indeed?
"Don't ask me, Liz, I don't know where he is."
When was the last time he managed to actually meet him, to have both of them in the same room and speak with him face to face? Paul was not yet nine, perfectly raised; he called him "Sir", so politely.
The voice sounds angry now.
"You should know where your own son is, shouldn't you? Oh, Yes, I see, he was so small, you must have lost him."
Maybe she's right, he's lost him.
"How did you manage to lose the child I made for you? I made him with such care. He was so sweet. He had your eyes. You knew I made him just for you."
She phrases it like a silly lullaby. The sound of her whining chant is sickening.
"Did you tell me?" What did she say, actually? "We're in deep trouble, Napoleon. Hope you can convince my parents."
"Yes, sure I did, but you didn't believe me then, did you? "
No, he didn't believe her words alone. He believed that actions bear consequences, even for stupid drunken college boys.
"Of course, I believed you, I trusted you, I married you..."
"No, you never trusted me, Napoleon, you ran away, you lost my child; you let them take my babe from you."
He's sure there should be a sound reply but his thoughts are like fishes circling around in a muddy pool.
"You left first. I thought you were dead."
She cracks her bony knuckles with impatience. "I am dead, you fool, and I am alive since I'm speaking to you, but you don't answer. I call you all day. You never answer."
"I don't hear you, Liz, I swear."
"You don't listen to me, Napoleon. You never did."
A faint moan; a whoosh; he sighs; she is gone.
Solo had a few other visitations this night; some ghosts were welcome, some even blessed. His grandmother's comforting hands, Louis' sweet smile, Flo's defiant laugh. The sad little face of Paul made two brief appearances. He succeeded in pushing him back in the dark recess where he belonged. Even in dreams he ought to have this will power...
Several times he sat up on his couch and stared at the cot nearby. It was duly occupied by the expected slender form of his partner. He spent long minutes listening to the croaking rattles of his hampered breathing and they sounded to his ears like the harmonies of Heaven.
The morning light, sparingly leaking from the window above, awoke him just in time to see the guard entering the room with a jar of coffee, some bread and two pairs of boiled eggs (the first appearance of breakfast since their arrival) before hastily setting down the tray on the floor.
"Ten o'clock, guys, time to get up and be prepared." The boy's tone was stern, curt and busy. "I just got a phone call. Your fellows are on their way already; they will land on the fairground within two hours, maybe sooner. "He quickly filled up two mugs of coffee and peeled the eggs. "Everything went faster than I'd have thought possible. Your "Uncle" managed to get in touch with the President, eventually! In the middle of Christmas' Night. Can you imagine?"
Napoleon Solo imagined quite well. "Uncle" Alexander would no doubt have found some very private contacts. Along with more official ones.
"And anyway, I wondered how your Alexander Waverly got my first call. Was he spending the Christmas Eve waiting in his office? "
"Probably not. I expect the call was forwarded to his home. "
"Automatically?" The young guard was impressed.
Napoleon smiled. "We have very advanced communication technology, you know. "
"I see, I hope you have advanced technology in medical matters too because there are more and more sick people in town, I heard."
"Oh! That's bad news, really. Where did you hear it?" Napoleon was sincerely worried and couldn't help a sore feeling of guilt about the epidemic.
"From the Mayor's first deputy's assistant when he called me from the Town Hall, half an hour ago, to ask me about your present condition and give me official orders to fully cooperate with the U.N.C.L.E. Forces."
"So, if I understand you correctly, the local authorities are thoroughly informed now?" A rather lame question to ask in the context, but Napoleon was distracted by the smell of bread and coffee, and still more by the sight of his partner, apparently alive and awake, but unable or unwilling to open his eyes.
"Everybody is informed now, except Captain Alvarez." The lad smirked. "They thought it better to let him enjoy his vacation in peace...the same with the other guards. I am the one in charge here, at present."
"Good." Solo thought it was high time to regain the upper hand with the kid. "You just told me we've about two hours to wait; I want to have a shower and shave. My friend will have to do without, I fear. But he needs a complete set of clothes, since his old ones are soiled and singed by fire. As for me, I need clean underwear and socks, with a white shirt, if you can manage to find these articles."
The boy sobered, "No problem. I was on the point of proposing it. There are all sizes of garments in the ware room but, as for suits, I can only offer you uniforms."
"Doesn't matter if they are clean," or even if they are not, Napoleon added inwardly. In his present state, it wouldn't make much difference to Illya. "My partner loves disguises."
He drank the coffee and swallowed his share of bread and eggs at record speed. Illya opened a single eye and mumbled, "I want tea."
"This is really not the time to be picky." Napoleon propped the Russian up against the three stacked cushions.
"One can see you are not sick," Illya grumbled. "The smell of coffee makes me nauseous."
The guard cut in. "I could fix tea; there is plenty of it in the kitchen. I may also bring you cheese, if you cannot swallow hard boiled eggs."
Illya wrinkled his nose. "What sort of cheese?"
Miguel grinned. "The sort you like, you crazy Yankees, directly imported from the States for Captain Alvarez' cheeseburgers, guaranteed absolutely tasteless. Perfect for sick people..."
Solo didn't want to dignify the gibe with a comment. "We're wasting time. Lead me to the showers." He turned to his partner. "We'll be back within ten minutes with your food and some more necessary implements. Be good until then."
He hardly heard Illya's scornful snorting, for he was already in the corridor, quickly followed by his guide.
The plan was fulfilled in a little more than twenty minutes, but there was no hurry really and Miguel had come back sooner to the sick man with the tea pot and the clothes. Napoleon fully enjoyed the comfort of Senor Alvarez' private bathroom and indulged in a delicious tepid bath, shamelessly luxuriating in a thick, powerfully scented foam (Yardley English Lavender, made in the U.K.).
After a generous splash of the matching cologne, he put on the clean underwear and shirt with relief but frowned when he picked up his suit. It was rumpled and still smelling of smoke. He briefly envied the neat gray blue uniform awarded to his partner.
When he re-entered their cell, said partner was greedily licking a large spoon proffered by the young guard. The clever boy had had the bright idea to blend bread crumbs with melted cheese and egg yolks into the hot and strong tea and he was feeding, beakful by beakful, his deadly pet, like a child toying with a tamed eagle. What a picture! Napoleon shut his open mouth in amazement lest he say something he'd later regret as Illya glared at him fiercely.
Solo let a breath out slowly. "I am really doomed to pay for this later."
The sense of unreality he felt reached at its peak when he understood, in view of the toiletries' display on the bedding, that Illya had actually accepted to suffer (to enjoy?) a thorough sponge bath. Napoleon cringed inwardly and cast a not so friendly glance at the childlike and joyful face of their helper. What was this guy for creeping his way into his partner's privacy?
Though reluctantly, he was obliged to acknowledge the innocent charm and the odd animal grace emanating from the lad: he obviously owned this mysterious appeal that includes the power to tame wild cats, wicked dogs, grumpy old women and surly Russians.
And, over all, thought Napoleon with some discomfort, Illya's unusual good will was primarily due to his present state of utter exhaustion. Very worrying. In spite of a few brief episodic surges of renewed vitality and the dubious effect of Dr Hartmann's "heal all" popular drugs, the sick man's condition has not improved as a whole.
Kuryakin's muscular slackness and near lack of nervous control that impaired his ability to move seemed to have increased. The rattling and wheezing of his breathing was worse than ever. It didn't sound reassuring at all to Solo's ears. Although the fever had seemed to have noticeably abated during the last few hours, at this very moment, the shaking of his friend's shoulders against the cushions and the bright redness of his flushed face revealed his temperature was rising again.
He turned to Miguel with more hope than he felt. "Have you any more drugs like those you gave us last night?"
The young Indian shook his head. "No, there is nothing left in the medicine chest. I could have fetched some more in town but not today. It's Christmas, remember?"
He added with a little acrimony: "I used to be on friendly terms with one of Hartmann's guards whose lodging is nearby, but you burned the labs! He is in the hospital now."
"Yes," thought Napoleon bitterly, "Crime and Punishment."
Just a few minutes later, three Martians in space suits burst into the cell, guns in hands, and that was the last view Solo caught before losing consciousness.
"I caught lice, crabs, warts and the clap, but not the flu"
Napoleon was slowly, gently awakened by the silky purring of a plane's engines. They were nothing like the mighty roaring of helicopter rotors. So, he reasoned, the sleep dart's effect had been more lasting than usual on his exhausted body and he had missed the first part of the trip in the helicopter and the embarkation onto the plane at the airport. He had no doubt he was aboard a U.N.C.L.E. medical plane, apparently in a totally airtight, strictly aseptic compartment. He had been in one once and recognized the equipment, all white and shining, with various medical appliances, adapted to decontamination purposes and, as well, contamination safe. After a while, he noticed the faint, continuous wheezing of the ventilation system, distinct from the variable engine noise.
There were six glass cubicles in a space separated by thick glass walls. Just in front of him, on the other side of the passage, he saw Kuryakin lying on a bed higher than his own, surrounded by an impressive array of devices; he was on an IV drip, his face half covered by an oxygen mask, and his thin body, clad in a white hospital gown, was absolutely still.
Such a scene was nothing new to Solo and, in a way, it could signify progress in comparison with their former predicament, and a reason for hope. However it was also a reminder of the seriousness of Illya's condition, with the continuing threat of a mortal disease, against which all the scientific resources of U.N.C.L.E. might well be ineffective.
For a while, his gaze remained fixed on his partner's supine figure, looking quite frail in this heavily technological environment. His slender but athletic body seemed to have shrunk. Illya definitely appeared to have lost considerable weight, more than would have been expected by only three days' captivity, even in the hellhole where they had been kept.
At some point during his observation, Napoleon imagined he had seen a slight movement from Illya's right arm, which the doctors had left free from needle and IV line. Without thinking, he tried to get up and go to his partner, only to realize he was himself attached to an appliance he had not noticed earlier. His left arm was numb and stiff, as if lifeless. He shook it, angrily. Immediately he felt a light tapping on his right shoulder and jumped. There had been somebody behind him all the time, watching his awakening.
"Quiet, quiet, Mr. Solo. Where do you think you're going? "
The voice was muffled, probably by a mask, but he recognized the thick German accent of Dr Franz Hilberg, a senior member of U.N.C.L.E.'s medical staff. Napoleon relaxed a little.
"What are you doing behind my back?"
"I'm just sitting on a stool, taking notes. Not very easy with these gloves."
The man walked slowly alongside Napoleon's bed to face him. As expected, Napoleon saw the "Martian" in the white space suit, complete with helmet, boots and gloves. No oxygen bottles, however; they were probably replaced by powerful filters. The sight stirred his anger. "They didn't prevent you from shooting me!"
An invisible smile percolated the physician's tone. "It wasn't me but a Uruguayan agent. I would have done it too, though."
"And may I be permitted to know why?" Napoleon's tone was sour, even to his own ears.
"Do you have any idea how you appeared to us when we entered the cell?"
"Yes indeed. Three quite harmless occupants: the guard and two U.N.C.L.E. agents, one of them very ill and incapacitated..."
The Martian shook his head.
"Not quite. A prone man, yes, and two men in uniform standing over him. The young Indian guard, okay, his presence there was expected. But...another guy, unknown, seen from behind, leaning menacingly above the prostrate form of the helpless U.N.C.L.E. agent."
"What do you mean, menacingly?" protested Napoleon, "I was buttoning his shirt."
"From our viewpoint, you might well have been pointing a gun at him. There was no time to guess or ask questions."
Solo remained silent; in fact he had taken the point already and was arguing mainly for sport.
"Why were you wearing that uniform?" asked Franz.
Napoleon sighed. "It was meant for Illya, but he didn't want it because of the heat and, since my own suit was ruined..." Besides, the guard had anticipated Illya's refusal and also brought clean pajamas. Napoleon had put on the uniform hardly two minutes before their rescuers' dramatic entrance. It was not the first time his fastidiousness about his appearance had caused him trouble.
The older man had the good grace not to laugh.
"At least you had the opportunity to test the latest, improved, version of sleep darts."
"Improved?" Solo sounded dubious.
"Why yes, longer lasting and fewer side effects. How do you feel?"
"I am fine," he grumbled, "but I'd be better without this tube."
"I'll send Nelly to remove it. I don't know how she manages to work with these gloves, but the fact is she does."
"Why the heck do I need it?"
"For you, there was little to do: re-hydration, a supply of vitamins and mineral salts, mere caution."
"And for my partner?" Napoleon continued with apprehension, "What's his condition, exactly?"
"Those are two distinct questions. I cannot deny his condition is severe, without being able to be more precise before further investigations. The decisive examinations will be carried out later in HQ medical. For now, he had been given a strong dose of antibiotics, since he has certainly got a double bronchial-pneumonia. Regarding the possible viral infection, we have no indication. Nothing at the moment."
Napoleon hesitated, "What about "Doctor Hartmann's Elixir?" Did you speak with Miguel about it? It seemed to have a real effect on Illya, though not long lasting. Maybe a heavier dose would be durably effective."
"You mean effective against a virus? Really effective? That would be worthy of a Nobel prize. Well, I know nothing about this "elixir" and I had no chance to speak with the young guard. He's still unconscious."
Napoleon was puzzled. "Is he here?"
"Yes, in one of the booths. We had to shoot him with a sleep dart as well. He was quite upset and showed an inclination to fight."
"Too bad he missed the chopper part of the trip. He's a fan of helicopters. Who's in the fourth booth? Not Captain Alvarez, by any chance?"
"Don't bother about Captain Alvarez. As far as I know, he's as fresh as a daisy. We grabbed the lab tech and two of Hartmann's guards since they seem to have been the first victims of the epidemic, apart from Kuryakin, in order to compare their blood with your partner's. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to see to my other patients."
A while later, in came the lovely and efficient Nelly, who swiftly took out the IV line from Solo's arm. Too bad her mask and helmet hid her blond curls, peachy cheeks and rosy lips so mercilessly from Napoleon's interested gaze.
As soon as he was released, Solo went to his partner's side. Kuryakin was asleep, maybe on tranquillizers. He listened attentively but couldn't hear the previous frightening rattle. The oxygen ventilation seemed to be helpful. Napoleon sat down on a nearby chair and thoughtfully watched his friend rest until he himself dozed off.
Fire glow, fire smell. Not fire, but soot and ashes. Acrid and stinging, overwhelming. His lungs burn, his throat aches. Where's Illya now? In this furnace? Why did he allow him to go back? To rescue a man who shouldn't have been there in the first place? Is there any reason on earth to jeopardize the best agent U.N.C.L.E. ever had just to save the life of a neo-Nazi criminal's aide and accomplice? Yes, there probably is one, but nothing for which he cared much at the moment.
The corridor in front of him will soon be in flames. He takes in a big breath of air before rushing inside.
Suddenly they are here, through a wall of smoke and steam: his partner with the injured man doubled up over his shoulders in a fireman's lift. Illya shoves him aside and keeps walking at a brisk pace. He doesn't stop till he reaches the way out and drops his load on the ground outside. He straightens up and rests his back on the door, gasping like a fish out of water.
Napoleon gets close and grips his friend by the shoulders. Illya's body shakes convulsively from repeated bouts of coughing. He tries to stifle them with a wet cloth that hangs around his neck like a bib. At last he calms down. His face is filthy. His eyes are red and weeping, black streaks of soot on his cheeks like war-paint. A faint smile floats on dry lips, pretty elusive but more gratifying than the richest Christmas present.
Fire's glow, fire's smell. Flames and sparks. The merry cracklings of fragrant branches. Barefoot on the tiles, eyes wide, he stares at the tall fir that, for a couple of days, has been standing proudly in the middle of the hall. The big tree is ablaze. Toby barks furiously and rolls about on the floor to get free from a string of lights he drags along with him. A last jerk. The little terrier jumps and runs away, wagging his singed tail victoriously. Save for that, he doesn't look harmed at all.
Napoleon contemplates the disaster with interest. Given its location, near the solemn, double winged marble staircase but far from anything else, the fire can hardly spread any further. But the Christmas presents, displayed under and around the tree, will be badly spoiled. Mommy will be very cross.
Then Mommy and Daddy arrive with Grandma, and Grandpa, and all the guests. Daddy grabs his hand and takes him off to the dining room and inspects him thoroughly. He is fine. All this fuss is annoying. Mommy interrogates him with a stern voice. He starts to explain he tried to salvage some of the packets, from under the branches, at least those of the outer range. Surely a few of them must be OK. She doesn't listen. "Why did you leave your bedroom in the middle of the night? What came over you meddling with the lights?"
He doesn't want to tell on Toby. Mommy is very, very angry. But she doesn't touch him. She never touches him, except on Sundays, after mass, when she gives him a brief peck on each cheek, with a short blessing and a big piece of wafer. No, she's going to put the whole affair in Nanny's hands. That's good. Nanny's spanking feels better than Mommy's pecks.
Now there are Grandpa and Grandma bending over him. They seem worried. He is worried too. He met them two days ago for the first time. Mommy insisted he should behave, be very quiet, very polite. "You can be a charming boy when you want to, I've been told. Well, this is the moment to use your hidden talents. It's important for all of us."
Napoleon is usually a good boy, except when Helen decides to give him a haircut or Victoria undertakes to ride him and kicks him in the loins. Why didn't he have a brother instead of two sisters?
Grandpa and Grandma Maynard don't look too terrible. It won't be such an endeavor to "charm" them; certainly easier than "charming" Lena and Vicky. Not to mention "charming" Mommy. This would be a lost enterprise from the start: Mommy is charm-proof and immune to seduction.
Napoleon was startled and disturbed to realize he was remembering rather than dreaming. His neck was stiff and his back ached. Illya was still asleep. Napoleon was unable to hear his breathing, muffled by the mask and overcome by the ventilator's noise. However, the needle that plotted the line of his heartbeats along a slowly unwinding roll of paper was drawing a fast but regular sinusoid.
Napoleon placed his fingers on his friend's jugular. Then he rested his palm on the sweaty brow. Hot, very hot indeed.
There was nothing he could do to help. He walked back to his bed where he resumed his solitary fight against his ghostly foes.
The rest of the flight was uneventful. At the time of the landing, Napoleon had been curious to see how the "contamination safe" conditions they were in could be maintained throughout the conveyance. He was quite impressed. The whole airtight compartment was extracted from the side of the plane and inserted by a powerful lifting apparatus into a specially adapted vehicle. It would be later introduced into a much wider room, equally aseptic, of the U.N.C.L.E. Main Hospital (not inside Headquarters, in the center of New York, but in the nearest rural area).
This complex system had been designed some years ago, despite Waverly's skepticism, but with the support of the International Board, by the former chief of the Research Department, whose favorite obsession was the threat of biological weapons. Until then, nothing of the sort had materialized, at least not on a large scale. However the big hospital had proved to be quite valuable as a secret research and cure center, available to all the U.N.C.L.E. agencies around the world. This prestigious but ruinous enterprise had notoriously played a great part in Waverly's growing parsimony.
By courtesy of Dr. Hilberg, who deemed it unnecessary to keep him in isolation, Napoleon was spared the most unpleasant medical procedures. After a few tests, showing no trace of viral or microbial contamination whatsoever, he was led through an airlock to his bedroom in the normal area, while Illya stayed in the examination room.
He was hardly settled, when his communicator bleeped. Rather expectedly, it was Waverly, not so much curious about past events than, apparently, anxious to appraise his senior agent's frame of mind. For obvious reasons a thorough debriefing had to be delayed until Kuryakin was able to take full part in it. Napoleon got more information than he could give himself.
There were already several teams from several countries busy studying the ruins of the labs and searching Hartmann's archives. Nothing very suspect or unknown had been found until then. The epidemics didn't appear to spread as fast as feared. The first dozens of sick people had been put in quarantine. No "space suits" for the Uruguayans, no airtight compartments. It wasn't physically possible. There was only the hope that the unknown disease would be eventually put under control. A small town in a remote region of South America could be, though not easily, cut off from its surroundings for a few weeks, but if the deadly virus had reached New York, there would have been no means to help it from invading the rest of the world.
Twenty four hours later, an unusually edgy and aggravated Napoleon was waiting for Dr Hilberg's daily visit. He had not been allowed to see his partner since their arrival, and had only been awarded scant news about his physical state. He was as tense as a bow string. When Hilberg's tall figure appeared in the door-frame, Solo jumped up and confronted the older man.
"How is Illya? Have you completed all those damn tests on him? Will he live? What's going on?"
Dr Hilberg lifted a cautious eyebrow,
"As far as we know, it's exactly what I told you on the plane: double bronchial-pneumonia. A secondary infection by peculiarly resistant germs has attacked his lungs, which were previously damaged by exposure to burning steam and toxic smoke."
Napoleon blinked, waiting.
"I know that, but what about the viral infection? What did you find out about it?"
Dr Hilberg cleared his throat emphatically, visibly pleased to produce his little effect. "If I am right, a very nasty case of Asian flu."
The old physician was not disappointed. Eyes wide, mouth open, Napoleon Solo couldn't have looked more dumbfounded. For a few seconds he almost forgot to rejoice.
"Are you sure there's nothing else? No unknown germ? Viruses are quite elusive, so I'm told..."
Hilberg frowned. "Do you intend to teach me my own job by any chance, Mr. Solo?"
Napoleon sobered. "Of course not. I just wondered. Maybe some kind of virus was able to escape our search."
"We have the best, most reliable equipment in the world-not to mention the most expensive, as Mr. Waverly could attest. Besides, nothing escapes the power range of an electronic microscope. There was nothing unknown." He paused.
"However, I said nothing unknown; not nothing unexpected. The strain of the virus isolated is thirteen years old and has never been observed in this part of the world. It's the active factor of the current epidemic, no doubt. We found the same in the blood samples of the two Hartmann guards and the lab technician as well."
"So, you think the disease in San Cristobal is simply flu?"
Napoleon felt a strong pang of relief, and not only for his partner. It was good to think he was not at the source of a medical disaster. His joy was short lived.
"Yes, I'm waiting for the results of the last tests, but it's highly probable. However, we must not underestimate the situation. This strain of flu is one of the most virulent and the population of South America has no immunity against it. It may kill thousands among the weakest and the poorest: old people, infants, sick or ill fed people."
Napoleon sighed inwardly. There was no way he could evade his responsibility.
"What about my partner? How's he doing?"
"Not so bad, on the whole; flu is not the real danger for him. He would have overcome it easily, had not it been for the additional microbial infection. A double bronchial-pneumonia is not a joke. He seems to be reacting to the antibiotics positively. But I cannot forecast the outcome yet."
"I want to see him."
"Why not? Now all the examinations are done, you won't be much of a disturbance."
"Thank you! How come I wasn't affected?"
"Very likely you have immunity. The disease struck widely in the States thirteen years ago,"
"And not in Russia?"
"Oh yes, it did."
"So, why not Illya?"
"Probably he just wasn't in contact with the virus; that's not something systematic."
"And why not Miguel? He's a native of Uruguay."
"He may still develop the disease. But I don't think so. He must be a case of natural resistance. The boy radiates health and vigor."
Solo smiled. "I'd like to thank him once my partner's out of danger."
However, when the opportunity occurred, he discovered he wasn't feeling so grateful after all.
He still had to wait the entire afternoon for Illya to be transferred from the secured zone to the normal area of the hospital. There was nothing he wished for more than a quiet, private talk with his friend, but when he was allowed to visit, he couldn't help a sting of disappointment. The first sight he caught, the moment he opened the door, was the young guard, sprawled in the only seat in the room, chatting leisurely with his partner, while said partner, relieved of his ventilation mask, was complacently listening to the idle babbling, a silly smile plastered on his lips.
Solo stumped into the room. Two pairs of eyes swiftly swung toward him, spotting his displeasure before he could school his face into his usual urbane and casual expression. Miguel was able to read a proprietary look when he saw one. With a knowing nod, he jumped from his seat, offering it to Napoleon and...settled himself at the head of the bed, an arm on the pillow, his slim brown legs hanging graciously from the edge of the high couch.
The room temperature fell several degrees.
"Did I interrupt something?" inquired Napoleon in a high pitched tone he hated at once.
"Nothing important," replied the boy, "we were chatting."
"So, I noticed. Would it be indiscreet to ask about the topic?"
"Not at all." He heard Illya's voice for the first time since they'd left their cell, still croaky and weak, but steady. "We were debating".
"Yes," Illya raised innocent eyes. "Some minor points of theology."
After a few more minutes of idle chit chat, the young brat left at last. Napoleon took the time to observe his friend's appearance attentively. It wasn't so bad, better than he'd expected from Hilberg's cautious forecast. Eventually the ventilator had been removed, along with the device used to drain Illya's lungs and bronchial tubes of mucus and phlegm. As a result, Illya was able to speak again, though reduced to a whisper. His chest was shaken spasmodically by the need to expectorate an abundant flow of slimy, yellowish-greenish secretions.
Rather a good sign, Napoleon thought hopefully, since it meant the sick man's body was striving to get clear of its infection. At least that was the optimistic interpretation he wanted to award the nauseating process.
Napoleon had used the delay to update his partner's information about the situation in San Cristobal. Illya didn't look surprised in the least by the turn of events: flu instead of an unknown and mortal disease?
"I told you so," Kuryakin grunted. "I was sure the contents of the sample bottle weren't spilled in open air." He hawked and spat, then closely inspected the curious egg yolk in the centre of his handkerchief.
"Besides," he added, "I know the symptoms of a violent flu coupled with pneumonia only too well. I've already experienced it."
"Hilberg thinks you weren't exposed to the virus."
"The virus in question, certainly not."
"How can you be so affirmative?"
"Didn't you say the previous epidemic related to the current virus' stock was thirteen years ago?
"That was the conclusion of the search, yes."
"Well, thirteen years ago, I spent six months about a thousand feet underwater, just off your Alaskan coastline."
"You mean you were in your goddamned Soviet submarine at the time?"
"Precisely, yes, and I caught lice, crabs, warts and the clap, but not the flu."
Napoleon laughed wholeheartedly. Okay, I won't ask you how you happened to get crabs and the clap while in all male company."
"Indeed you should not, for I won't tell you."
"I assume having to share a bunk hardly more than two feet wide had something to do with it."
"Don't assume too much," the Russian commented between gritted teeth, so indistinctly that Solo had an excuse for feigning deafness. Time for a change of topic.
"By the way, what was all that about a theological dispute?"
"Oh, that." Illya's gaze was floating somewhere above Napoleon's head and the silly smile was back. "The boy was asking me if I believed in signs."
"You too? He has an obsession."
"In a way, yes: he told me he was dreaming of me."
"What!" Napoleon positively squeaked.
"Dreaming of me as an archangel..." Illya seemed to relish the idea. "Nobody ever looked at me that way since my grandmother's demise."
"God bless your grandmother's simple soul. She took her delusions to the grave."
"That's not kind of you," mumbled Illya with an affected tone of reproach.
"Who, apart from your holy grandmother, could possibly take you for a heavenly being?"
"Well, our Miguel did. He dreamt he was in his parish church and saw the big statue of his patron saint bowing to bless him, a friendly look on its plaster face. And - um . . ."
". . . the face was yours." Napoleon grinned. "So he was well disposed toward us subsequently. I think I really owe a giant candle to St. Michael in my own parish church."
"Shall we rejoice for the help we gave to the Progress of Science?"
Later in the evening, Illya was served his first meal at last. Not exactly the sort he expected though.
"What's this?" Illya sniffed the thick creamy substance in the glass with suspicion. It smelled faintly of vanilla and was a long way from the roast chicken and mashed potatoes he had been dreaming of for the past two days.
"It's your dinner. Eat it up like a good boy." Napoleon took a mouthful of the huge club sandwich he had been served. "It has eggs and vitamins and all the good stuff," he added, with his mouth full, "quite healthy, I assure you."
"Synthetic vitamins, I guess, and synthetic flavors as well." He sipped a spoonful, tentatively. The substance was sickeningly sweet. He grimaced and for a moment disgust struggled with hunger. Hunger won. He forgot his former expectations of a decent meal and swallowed the bland mixture, washing it down with a glass of orange juice.
In front of him Napoleon blissfully stretched in the deep armchair. He was chewing with relish his king sized sandwich which, to Illya's hungry eye, looked filled with everything desirable. At the same time he picked shrimps and bits of pineapple slices from a colorful salad bowl. Moreover, on his tray, to Kuryakin's fury, was a full bottle of a good red wine.
Solo took notice of his partner's glare and raised his glass. "Na zdarovye, Tovaritch!"
"The hell with you! How did you manage to find a bottle of wine in a hospital?"
"Mere luck, my friend. Yesterday was one of Nelly's friends' birthday. What I have here is just some leftovers from the party."
"Are you saying you were at a party in the hospital?"
"Sure I was. Last night. Then I shared lunch with the ladies in the nurses' staffroom earlier today."
"I cannot believe it, you're not yet cleared officially and you managed to get yourself invited to a party by the nurses!"
"Well, you either have the knack or you haven't, don't you think?"
"It's downright irregular!"
"To tell the truth, I didn't ask for the invite. I just happened to pop into the room and was greeted by waves and cheers. The nice ladies were already, how shall I put it? ...in a rather playful mood."
"You mean, drunk as thrushes in a vineyard."
"Bad choice of words, partner. Do you intend to bring me bad luck?"
"Is such a thing possible?"
"You're simply jealous. My charming hostesses were barely tipsy. But you ought to have seen the table: all sorts of "zakuskis", "parmeggiano prosciutto" with melon and figs, Hawaiian salad, giant prawns, stuffed quails, oysters, smoked salmon, "paté de foie gras"...to say nothing of the beverages.
The low, threatening growl that met his words stirred a benevolent smile from Napoleon.
"Shush shush, you're going to hurt your throat again and Doctor Hilberg will not let you out for New Year, as planned."
"If you don't shut your big mouth you won't be let out either!"
"What language, Illya, and to think I intended to keep half this fine bottle of claret to share with you on New Year's Day."
Napoleon swiveled briskly and dashed through the door, bottle in hand, before Illya found anything to launch at him that wouldn't damage the hospital property. A plastic dish crashed onto the edge of the glass door, just where his head had been a split second earlier.
The next morning, Solo, at last released by Hilberg, was more than ready to get back home. Kuryakin had been cleared of all suspicion of contagion and was eager to follow him but was still considered too weak to leave; he had to wait a couple more days under medical supervision. Moreover the boss' visit was announced.
Alexander Waverly had decided he couldn't delay the debriefing much longer, particularly for Kuryakin, who had been the last to inspect the labs. He needed to compare his agents' observations with the admissions made by Hartmann's clerks and technicians.
The subsequent interview revealed nothing new. The Russian had taken the flask bearing the coding number their informers had indicated, found in the expected place, and was quite sure the small bottle, though broken as they were running away, had not let its content leak in the open air. The germ of the current epidemic in San Cristobal was the virus of an earlier Asian flu and not the African hemorrhagic fever they were expecting.
More disturbing however, was the fact that later, Waverly came up with some serious reasons to doubt the evidence upon which he had first based his decision to search and eventually destroy Hartmann's labs. It was a testimony of his perplexity that he bothered to discuss the matter with his agents, for he was not prone to give information they didn't need to know in the line of action.
There had been, in the beginning, a convincing confluence of testimonies from apparently trustworthy witnesses, including information from two lab technicians with connections to the left wing opposition, and an investigation carried out by a well known Nazi hunter, all of them known as perfectly honorable citizens.
However, a second and more punctilious inquiry had revealed that one of the technicians, the most politically committed, who had been the main source of the Nazi hunter, wasn't actually working in the research center while the other, his first informer, had suspicious links with two of Hartmann's associates who, a few months ago, had a conflict of interests with the Uruguayan businessman.
The most curious aspect in this affair was the cause of the clash. Hartmann-whose dubious investments included, although difficult to prove, cocaine trading and emerald smuggling from Columbia- had harshly and righteously refused to finance the exploitation of precious wood varieties in the Amazonian forest, arguing it would alter the natives' traditional conditions of life too much!
Obviously this highly commendable position was in stark contradiction with the project, previously supposed to be his research purpose, of elaborating a biological weapon directed at the Amazonian population. So, Alexander Waverly was slowly led to the unpleasant conclusion that he had been on the receiving end of a conspiracy between political and financial interests which had nothing to do with U.N.C.L.E.'s mission. And that maybe Hartmann's company was nothing other than it claimed to be. Disturbing indeed.
Alexander Waverly was unconsciously nibbling the side piece of his spectacles in annoyance, vaguely regretting he had left his pipe in the glove compartment of his car.
"Some people didn't do their job in the Intelligence department, it seems." Illya's voice was sour. The idea that this jerk Captain Alvarez could be right after all was hard to swallow.
Napoleon protested, since the lady in charge of this intelligence gathering was one of his friends. "Hannah Wechsel is about the most competent of our analysts and she has a wide knowledge of the post war Nazi networks. Moreover, she's personally interested in the question."
"Too much maybe," replied Kuryakin thoughtfully. "She clearly favored the neo-Nazi hypothesis set out by the first informers."
"That's only too natural; she lost several members of her family in Germany during the Third Reich."
"I didn't say it's not natural, just that it may have put us on the wrong track. Her professional judgment was biased by her personal feelings."
Napoleon cast him a reproving glance and didn't reply; sometimes his partner's cold-blooded mind was too much for him.
Mr. Waverly tapped the frame of his spectacles on the table edge.
"In that case, my judgment was biased too. I read the file, checked and counter checked its content and made the decision on my own; if it was wrong, the fault is mine."
The admission was rare enough to reduce his stunned agents to silence.
"I wouldn't admit at this point that we are on a wrong track anyway. All we know comes to this: there is no evidence of any biological weapon in the making and if there was one, we might reasonably assume it is not aimed at the destruction of the Amazonian natives. However the links between Hartmann and his old wartime acquaintances are certain. Though, lately, they seem to have become mainly financial. There is a tight knot of German expatriates in the Consortium, all coming from the same Nazi stock, and some of their activities look very dubious."
Napoleon frowned. "I can't explain Hartmann's stand in the Amazonian question. What we have here is a convinced Nazi, still involved with his peers in an active network, who suddenly turns out as a devoted defender of the natives?"
Illya shrugged. "Nearly twenty years have passed; defeat and exile may be enough to change the mind and perspective of most people."
"But we're not speaking of the ordinary citizen or veteran, who's become sick of war memories and propaganda, even if he was a party member long ago for whatever reason," objected Napoleon with some heat, "but a staunch militant, an activist. According to his file, he belonged to an esoteric "Aryanist" sect: the "Ahnen Erbe." He was one of the few qualified scientists among this bunch of weirdos."
"Yes," snapped Illya, "I read the file too; I was simply reminding you that ideology is a disease of youth."
"Are you speaking from experience?" Napoleon retorted with a smirk. "Beware, Tovaritch - politically, you are on a slippery slope."
Waverly cut the debate with a definitive knock of spectacles on the table.
"We're going astray, I think. The inner feelings of Herr Hartmann are of little interest to me; either he's connected, directly or indirectly, to a peace-threatening, subversive organization, whatever its aims, and it's U.N.C.L.E.'s job to counter it, or he's just what he appears to be: a greedy, unscrupulous businessman, and his illegal activities, if he really has any, will be referred to the competent authorities."
The old man rose, not too easily, from the low armchair and stood up stiffly, a steadying hand on his hip. He retrieved his hat from Illya's bedpost and his coat from the hook.
"Well, Gentlemen, it's time to honor Doctor Hilberg's kind invitation to admire his new equipment. Given the money it cost us, I only hope it's worth the journey...and the expense. Where are my glasses?"
Napoleon stretched out his arm and proffered his boss the required article without a word. Waverly swallowed a curse; they were broken. His thoughts were clearly written on his pursed lips, however. "That's the last time I forsake my pipe."
"Gentlemen, may I introduce you to Doctor Hartmann?"
The steel doors whooshed shut behind Solo. He couldn't help staring at the middle aged man who was standing very straight, in front of Waverly, in a classic military stance. Tall, gaunt, with a high, balding brow, the stranger presented a weird resemblance to Sherlock Holmes in the Sidney Paget's drawings for the "Strand Magazine."
"Mister Solo, Mister Kuryakin. Doctor Hartmann, I think you've already heard about these two young fellows from Captain Alvarez?"
The pale grey eyes swept swiftly over the two agents and lingered slightly on Illya's features.
"They tried to blow up my research center, didn't they?" The voice was a pleasant baritone, with a cultured British accent.
"No, only a single section of the labs - and we failed," replied Napoleon sharply. He cast a glance at his partner and noticed his stony face and tight lips.
"That was fortunate, because we're going to need the facilities very soon if we want to counter this epidemic you started so unwisely." The scientist had relaxed his posture and was smiling benevolently. Napoleon stiffened. The man's easy manners and condescending tone were quickly getting up his nose.
"With the germs you produced yourself in the first place!"
The irritating smile broadened. "No, not at all, but Mr. Waverly will explain the whole situation to you later; I wished to see you privately and personally to tell you I have consented to withdraw my complaint against you both."
"Of course, against whom else? We acknowledge the U.N.C.L.E. authorities were never compromised in these criminal facts; their intervention was properly requested by the Uruguayan Government in order to help with the epidemic containment and to prevent popular unrest in the isolated areas."
Napoleon turned towards his boss with a leer. "So, that is the official version."
Waverly coughed behind his pipe. "Don't forget you were sent to San Cristobal, with the Uruguayan Government's approval, to investigate a regular inquiry about a suspected neo-Nazi network."
Hartmann bowed slightly to the older man. "Be assured I never doubted U.N.C.L.E.'s impartiality and perfect abiding of the International Law."
"Yes, Doctor Hartmann, I'm glad we eventually reached a ... hemm... gentlemen's agreement about this distasteful affair."
"Distasteful, indeed..." Solo spat the words with all the scorn he felt, "and what part do we play exactly, my partner and I, in this farce?"
The tall man looked down at him, sternly. "There's no room here for sarcasm, my dear boy. I can understand you bitterly resent your failure, but see...It's not the first time two brash, idealistic young men found themselves involved in a political scheme." He sighed and explained with infuriating patience, "Uruguay is a peaceful, democratic country but we have our leftist militants and Marxist organizations, as anywhere else, and we know you had contact with them, at the beginning of your operation, whether they were informants or helpers. Our government is legitimately annoyed. All these allegations of Nazi networks enjoying secret protection in high places could seriously damage its international reputation."
"And, of course, there's nothing of the sort," whispered Napoleon with a smirk.
Hartmann sighed again. "Absolutely nothing, but we don't wish the question to be discussed publicly. You know the harm the most unfounded rumor can do." He pulled an immaculate handkerchief from his breast pocket (strongly reminding Napoleon of Senor Esteban Alvarez) and dabbed his mouth delicately. "That's the reason why we decided to renounce any legal pursuit."
Napoleon noticed the use of the "we," for the third time. "I see, and what's the reward?"
Waverly cut in: "That's enough, Mr. Solo, there is no reward but, like in any gentlemen's agreement, there are mutual concessions."
"Yes, that's the proper term," Hartmann nodded. " Mr. Waverly graciously offered to rebuild the labs, with some necessary improvements of course, and we offered to give our drugs freely to the needy population-something we would have done anyway. Fortunately, the fabrication units were not damaged, and a large part of the labs demands nothing more than deep cleaning and sterilization."
He replaced his handkerchief, carefully folded, in the convenient pocket of his perfectly tailored suit. "Somehow, these sad events have brought with them as many good as bad consequences. It was like a wide range experiment. I am proud to announce that my elixir has proved its effectiveness as a powerful antiviral agent against the flu, several different strains of flu virus and, hopefully, perhaps even other types of dangerous viruses. Its action seems to be rather general."
"Congratulations." It was the first time Kuryakin had uttered a word.
"Thank you. I am very anxious to boost the production, enough to cover all needs. I feel especially worried about the forest Indians who have even less immunity than the Spanish and mixed blood people."
Napoleon couldn't help himself from mocking, though aware it was childish. " Uh, uh...So, we have here in you our South American Dr. Schweitzer, devoted to the ailing Indians of the Amazonian tribes. Are you sure these "untermenschen" are worth your commitment?"
The ex-Nazi doctor looked completely unfazed. "You are smart, young man, but you speak of things you don't know anything about and cannot understand."
Waverly harrumphed impatiently but Solo was on a roll.
"Isn't that the doctrine you taught and propagated in your esoteric circles, like the Ahnen Erbe to which you belonged, not so long ago? What did you call the "primitives" then?"
Hartmann didn't answer for a while and when he did, his gaze was thoughtful.
"It was the doctrine I was taught, that's true...Oh yes, I can say I was a true believer then."
Illya's smile was indecipherable. Waverly knocked his pipe on the round table, happy it was not his spectacles. "Well, this interview was quite useful, I think. We'll meet again before your departure, Doctor."
"Not before the 4th of January, if I may suggest. I still have an appointment with the "Food and Drug Administration" and another one with the UN Secretary, but we still have a few points to clear up."
Waverly cringed slightly.
Hartmann smiled genially. "I'm very confident our future cooperation will be fruitful."
The steel doors whooshed open and the high figure of the German doctor slipped through. Before leaving, he let his gaze rest a second on Illya's cold stare and rigid stance. Then the door closed. No hand shake.
A patently belligerent Napoleon Solo confronted Alexander Waverly.
"A future cooperation and a gentlemen's agreement, indeed! Is that all that will come out of this sensitive and ultra-secret operation? Since when is an ex-Nazi propagandist-if not worse-and a suspected drug dealer and smuggler considered a "Gentleman?"
Waverly frowned so deeply that, for a moment, he looked strangely like an old bloodhound: all lines, creases and folded skin. He didn't even try to hide his displeasure and embarrassment.
"That's a most unnecessary comment, Mr. Solo. I'd expect better from your good manners and sense of propriety".
Since his agent remained silent, he went on, "You should have guessed I had no choice. Two days ago, the Uruguayan government conferred diplomatic immunity to Doctor Hartmann as its ambassador's deputy before the UN council and threatened to protest officially about U.N.C.L.E.'s illegal intrusion on its territory and the destruction of a pharmaceutical facility."
He chewed ferociously on his pipe and glared at the two men through narrowed eyes:
"Of course, I could have denied any other intrusion than the first regular investigation for which we had permission and can prove it." Pause. "That would have meant I'd have to dump you into the Uruguayan Courts and legal procedures."
He recovered his usual impassivity. "I've thought about it." Pause. "But your replacement would be still more onerous than the refection of Hartmann's laboratories." Pause. "And much less necessary, because, if Hartmann's past and personality are murky, the efficacy of his antiviral is clearly established, according to Hilberg and other U.N.C.L.E. scientists. It needs improvement though. And Hartmann is the only one able to achieve it..."
Illya emerged from his frozen state. "I thought the epidemic was slowing down."
"Not quite. In the beginning, it didn't spread as quickly and widely as it was feared, because of the early and drastic measures of containment. However nothing can effectively stop a flu contagion and this one's starting anew with a vengeance." Waverly looked genuinely worried at the thought. "It mainly strikes old people and young children; for the elderly ones, there is nothing to do. The required dose of the drug would damage their liver and kidneys and in the end have more bad than good effects. But it appears that children do react quite positively to tiny doses."
The Russian was thoughtful. "I see. That was why the famous elixir was commonly used to cure childhood diseases."
"Exactly." Waverly sighed. "And, given the fact I have got the proof there's currently no active Nazi network, at least none that involves Doctor Hartmann personally and, since his financial partners' dubious investments are not U.N.C.L.E.'s business, well...I'm willing to give preference to the living children of the present over the ghosts of the past."
He bit his pipe with conviction. "I don't know what's lurking in Hartmann's memory and conscience, and to be frank, I don't want to know but, what I'm pretty sure of is that the man is more needed in his laboratory than in jail."
Illya nodded: "I think you're right, sir."
His boss grunted: "I don't recall asking for your blessing, young man." He rose.
"That will be all. Mr. Kuryakin, You are still on medical leave for a full week. Mr. Solo, I want you in my office on the 3rd of January, at nine. Dismissed."
For a few moments, they walked silently along the deserted corridors. Napoleon was still visibly disturbed: "There was no explanation about the presence in the labs of lethal germs, of the Asian flu, of the African hemorrhagic fever, maybe of others..."
Illya smiled. "It's obvious you have not the least notion about medical research, Napoleon. How do you think Hartmann was able to try the effects of his drugs? That reminds me... I didn't see any rat lab. So, he hadn't even reached the animal testing stage for his new formula; he was still working with test tubes only. For him the current epidemic's like a large scale live experiment."
Napoleon grimaced. "So he said. Shall we rejoice for the help we gave to the Progress of Science?"
"I'd give preference to the living children of today over the ghosts of the past. "
Later that evening, the two men were comfortably settled in Solo's living room, Illya lying on the couch and Napoleon sunk in his best armchair. The third guest of the party, standing between them on the coffee table, was a costly bottle of pure single malt scotch. It was New Year's Eve after all. Neither of them felt like having dinner out among boozers and merry bands of youth.
Illya had not declined the invitation for once. His one-roomed flat in the Village was damp and chilly after two weeks of absence. So much so, that he had to spend the previous night in U.N.C.L.E. Headquarters. His fridge showed only a desolate emptiness. Napoleon's apartment, on the other hand, had all the desirable modern conveniences. The kitchen cupboards, though, didn't provide much in the way of supplies and, since the local takeaways were apparently overwhelmed by late calls, Napoleon had to rely on his meager resources; it was a challenge to his cooking creativity.
The result, though not quite what one could expect of a New Year celebration, had been eaten with appetite nonetheless: (canned) tomato soup, thickened with pieces of dry bread, a salad made with the heart of a surviving Chinese cabbage and (canned) shrimps, an omelet with (canned) mushrooms, slices of corned beef with various pickles, and four halves of pears in syrup.
Napoleon poured a second generous refill of scotch into Illya's glass and pondered his words. Something had bothered him since they'd left Waverly's office.
"Have you ever met Hartmann before today?"
To his partner's searching eyes, Illya looked somehow defensive. "What makes you think I might have?"
Napoleon sipped a small draught of his own drink.
"Your staring at him the whole time, for instance."
Illya frowned: "I never knew a Doctor Hartmann previously."
Napoleon decided to be patient. "Have you ever met anybody like him? Does he remind you of someone you knew in the past?"
"He reminds me of the first Sherlock Holmes short stories I read when I started to study English: the illustrations were drawn from the original Sydney Paget's, as I remember. The likeness is striking."
Solo sighed. "I noticed too. But I don't think it's enough to explain your attitude."
"What about my attitude?"
"You looked like a man who's seen a ghost."
Illya held his gaze. The contraction of his jaw and lips was almost imperceptible, but didn't pass unnoticed by the senior agent. When he spoke, his voice was even and steady.
"I don't believe in ghosts, Napoleon."
"That's not an answer!"
"I'm not obliged to answer you."
A slight irritation could be heard in Solo's tone: "It depends. Maybe as a friend, you're not obliged, though I always thought such a relationship would imply some level of trust and honesty, but as my partner and second, you may have to justify your behavior if it's such as to lay any doubt about your psychological condition."
Bad move. Pulling rank was never a good idea when dealing with a rebellious Illya. The Russian's face clammed up as flagrantly as if iron curtains had been pulled down forcibly with a loud noise.
"If you have any doubt about my mental condition, Napoleon, your duty is to refer it to Waverly as soon as possible."
Napoleon sighed theatrically. "Do you really believe he'd ever have recruited us for this job if he thought we were perfectly sound and balanced?"
"Then, I don't understand your problem. What have you in mind, exactly?"
"You just refused to answer a direct question, remember?"
"I'm tired, Napoleon, and I don't see where you are leading."
"I was trying to explain my thoughts, but you don't make it easy, do you?"
"I've never seen you at a loss for words until now; put it as you like and let's be done with this topic. I want to go to bed early, if you don't mind."
"In that case, I'll make it short and plain: I had the strong impression you recognized Hartmann this morning, but we know he left Europe in 1946 and that you were never in Uruguay previously. So, it's only logical I made a connection with the story you told me when we were in jail."
"I told you a story when we were in jail?" Illya seemed genuinely puzzled, but Napoleon had too much experience of his partner's acting talent to allow himself to be deluded.
"You can't have forgotten. The big house in Mazuria? The children who weren't selected? The "displaced persons" in Byelorussia?"
Illya positively smirked. "You have to revisit your geography, Napoleon; Mazuria was not in Byelorussia the last time I checked on the map."
Napoleon took a deep breath and counted to ten.
"Have you also forgotten Sasha, the young boy who died at your side in the refugee camp?"
A fleeting shadow blurred the Russian's blue gaze for an instant.
"I knew many "Sashas" in my life, and several of them are dead."
"Okay, I see you really don't want to talk. Of course you never heard of these "children with a Nordic type" who were kidnapped by Nazis in the occupied countries of East Europe and abducted in a "race selection center" in order to be adopted by German families?"
Illya's schooled expression showed no more than a mild interest, "Certainly I heard of that. I even read a book about it. Am I supposed to be concerned?"
Solo gave up. "You should be. I am myself. I thought that those children, dead or lost in the past, deserved more than oblivion."
After a few seconds of silence, Illya spoke slowly:
"I'm with Waverly. Like him I'd give preference to the living children of today over the ghosts of the past."
As he'd announced, Illya went to bed early in the spare bedroom, which Napoleon mainly used as a dressing room, and which a couple of times these last two years had already harbored his partner. Napoleon let him cope alone with the bedding. He felt morose, displeased with Illya and with himself. To change the stream of his thoughts, he decided to check his waiting mail.
First he opened the envelopes on which the writing was familiar to him. Helen-she's been married for ten years and settled in England and, from her address and style, in a rapid process of gentrification. Victoria-sweet, naughty Vicky was in Great Britain too, attending a high level course in fencing and horse riding. It didn't seem the two sisters were much in touch despite their geographic proximity. Mom, well, former Mrs. Solo, former Mrs. Burke and now Mrs. Gresham, was at this hour in Melbourne, Australia, for her honeymoon with a certain Mr. Andrew Gresham, a wealthy and elderly wine producer of fake Burgundy. Napoleon wondered, with a detached insight, if the third husband would survive longer than the second. Thanks to his military training, his own father had resisted almost twenty years.
Under a layer of various advertisements and bills, there was a large, green envelope, savagely scribbled with a well known handwriting: Flo! He smiled unthinkingly; Florence Aramburu always had the capacity of brighten him up. She was at the same time a remote cousin, a childhood buddy, his sister Vicky's best friend, an old teenage crush of his, and the shrewdest female he knew. He was also still grateful to her for having tried to help Liz to get through her depression when things had gone wrong between them (but were they ever right?), though she was almost the perfect opposite of Liz: outdoorsy, not unlike Vicky, fond of all sports, assertive...Hmmm, to tell the truth, a little too assertive for his taste. She was trying and tiring. But once or twice a year, he was able to bear her invasive presence and even enjoy her bursts of wild energy while trekking in a National Park or sailing offshore for the duration of a long weekend.
Florence had asked him to dinner at her favorite sea-food restaurant in New Jersey. Of course the date was past. To the reader, the proposal sounded more of a convocation than an invitation: "My dear Lee, you'd better be there if you can, and still more if you can't, for the opportunity won't occur a second time."
Napoleon's thoughts traveled back to a time when he was a shy fourteen year old in Ontario and cousin Flo, two years younger, had boldly suggested they could "play doctor" while they were alone. "You'd better decide quickly, darling, because I won't proposition you twice." For a moment he mused about the boy he had been, whom nasty little girls wished so eagerly to play with, and the man he had become, who had managed to reverse the deal.
He continued reading. "This year I have the kids, for a change." He smiled. Flo and her husband had long gone their separate ways, in the friendliest manner: Jim to the Amazonian forest and his research in ethno-linguistics, Flo to East Africa, the Omo valley and her palaeontological digs. Neither was very keen about family ties and offspring-raising. Once he'd asked her why she'd abandoned her children in favor of "old bones." She'd been indignant: "I didn't abandon them; I left them in my mother's care."
That's not the same" Napoleon had virtuously replied
"Oh?" Flo was visibly perplexed; "You know, my mother is a very professional mother." Typical Flo.
Suddenly he had a foreboding and hesitated to turn the page. The first sentence was innocent enough. "The twins were afraid of being bored, you see. Two weeks in a New York suburb with old friends of mine they don't know." The next one was no more threatening: "They asked me to invite a friend. The Morrisons were quite obliging; they had hoped to have their own grandchildren for Christmas and eventually it wasn't possible." But the third... "So, we have a guest with us. I thought you might be interested." What, what, what? "I'll tell you more when we meet at "The Fisher's Table." He paused, arrested by a sense of danger. "But I know you; if you really, really cannot free yourself in time, you can contact me at (...), followed a telephone number in a small town in New Jersey. "I'll stay there till the 7th of January." The fast handwriting was imperious and had scratched the paper. "If you don't answer, you'll regret it; you don't deserve the favor I mean to award you, but I
deem I owe that to the memory of a dear friend." Cat and mouse game, like in the old days. "Does she think I am so dense? Why doesn't she speak openly, if not to torment me?" He breathed deeply. He had often wondered if she had kept in touch with Liz's family but never dared to ask. "What's all this fuss about? They never were close friends, too different, as opposite as day and night, fire and water. She wanted me; I know that, I always knew that."
His fear increased, near to panic: "Paul's with them. No! I won't go. This is a trap, a deadly trap. Paul's the past. They took him from me. What do they want now? No place for him, not any more."
He felt weak, unable to think soundly. Better go to bed and postpone any decision to the morning. Will the night bring council? He didn't want to sleep; there was no peace or comfort in darkness; he was only too aware his bed was not a safe haven against memories; some half forgotten verses were floating in his troubled mind: "Don't free the freaks, don't let out the mad dogs of the night".
Grey, the sky is grey, a dark blue grey westward; the ground is grey too, a muddy sort of grey, the water of the pond's the same color...The barracks at a distance are dirty grey. The sun must be already a large red orb just above the flatness of the plain, far, far away on the horizon line, but he cannot see the sun because of the high palisades all around. It's dawn. And it's chilly. His feet are soaked in their thin, cheap material. The ground is soaked too, between the scarce spots of short grey-green grass; each step stirs a disgusting "slurch" sound from the mud with a puff of peaty smell.
He goes on very slowly; they are all in line along the barriers, moving very slowly towards the huge tent settled in a corner of the camp. Just before the tent there are three large tables and the women in white uniforms behind the tables are checking something in their big black books. They call them by numbers. Their voices are precise, even, still: voices and words of professionals. They ask questions he doesn't know the answer; he doesn't know his own name. He has forgotten long ago. He doesn't know what he is doing here, why he is here, what is here. Some of the children are taken from the group and led to a truck behind the barriers; the others keep in line and enter, each by each, in the white tent. He just knows, under the canvas, there are doctors. So they have been told. They are all meant to have a shot, vaccination, except the children who are in the truck...He doesn't want to be shot. He doesn't trust the women at the tables. There is something creepy about th
e large white tent which opens its big mouth to swallow the line of blond heads; something fearful, more fearful than the truck...He does not want to enter the tent...He won't enter the tent!
In the grey sky above his head, above the tent, above the palisades, there is a bird hovering, peacefully, its wings motionless; he stares at the bird, the white bird, the wild bird, and suddenly he is in the sky, soaring through the outer space, to the light, to Safety, to Freedom, to Life!!!
The two men met at the bathroom door. Napoleon was wearily wiping the residual wetness off his face and hair with his robe sleeve. His partner cast him a searching glance.
"What the hell was that shriek?
"You heard me shriek?"
"You made me jump out of my bed!"
"I may howl, I don't shriek."
"You did." Illya frowned. "Are you prone to nightmares?"
"Not usually." Napoleon sighed. "Though I must admit, since our last holiday in jail, I've had more than my share of them."
"Oh?" Illya looked perplexed. "We've been through much worse..."
"Sure, but I wasn't dreaming about this affair, no..." He hesitated, "Some old wrecks resurfacing from deep waters. That's what happens when you've nothing else to do other than think for six days in a row".
Illya lifted a severe eyebrow. "When I'm lucky enough to have six days free for thinking all to myself, I don't waste them in ruminating about old wrecks." He pointed his chin up in defiance: "And I manage not to keep old wrecks around."
"Not even from Mazuria?"
"Gawd! What's't about Mazuria with you? This is turning into an obsession! Beware, my friend, you're going to haunt the damned country in your dreams if you go on this way."
Napoleon smirked: "I'm afraid the process is already well underway. But you, did you ever happen to go there?"
"Yes, a couple of times, as a teenager, in a summer youth camp and once, in the course of military training; why?"
"Is there a wide, flat plain with damp fields in some part of it, with scarce, short, grey vegetation and, a strong smell of peat all over?"
Illya was thoughtful: "The entire North of Eurasia is one wide, flat plain, Napoleon, and Mazuria, like most of Poland, is a piece of it. It's called "The land of a thousand lakes." There are some nice vacation resorts and a lot of industrial plants but, yes, a large part of the country is like you described: a succession of swamps and waste lands." He looked at his partner with curiosity. "I didn't know U.N.C.L.E. New York had had an opportunity to work with the Polish branch."
"Only in my dreams, my friend, only in my dreams."
Illya chose not to dig deeper in this insecure ground. Better to leave the ghosts in the dimness where they belonged. It was almost 5 a.m. and he felt thirsty.
"Shall we have a cup of tea?"
"I'd prefer a strong coffee, but there must be some tea left. I've no jam though."
The two men spent a moment in the lounge silently, each sipping his favourite beverage. Eventually Napoleon couldn't help asking: "Aren't you wondering how come I dreamt of a land I've never seen and which you just happen to know well?"
Illya just shrugged. "Your description could fit many other places in the world and you'll excuse me if I don't take the idea of thought transmission very seriously."
"Your countrymen do, though. I've been told there are currently several research projects on that very topic in the Soviet Union."
"But until now, there have been no decisive results, as far as I know." Illya smiled. "We have shared a lot of things, Napoleon, and some rather unpleasant ones, but to share nightmares would be too much, don't you think?"
Solo's tone was almost triumphant; "So, you admit you could have nightmares about the place I described: the landscape, the smell, the line of children waiting to enter the big tent..."
For a couple of seconds, the young Russian looked startled but he recovered his wits almost at once.
"I never admitted such a thing. You really do have a wild imagination, Napoleon, and it's playing tricks with your mind. I'm getting worried about your mental sanity, my friend; maybe I ought to make an appointment for you with the medic?"
"Don't even think of it if you like the shape of your nose!" Napoleon was disgusted; he could get nothing from Illya while he was in this mood. "My mental sanity just needs enough sleep and I'm trying to catch up with it in my bed. Now."
Two days later, at ten to nine exactly, Napoleon was waiting in the corridor near Waverly's door and chatting idly with a girl from Documentation when he saw his partner coming toward him from the boss' office.
"What are you doing here, Illya? You were supposed to be on medical leave till the end of the week."
"I was." The laconic answer was in tune with the scowl displayed on Illya's grim face. The girl slipped away like a cloud pushed by a winter wind.
"And what happened? Hilberg won't be pleased".
Illya sneered. "Hilberg will have plenty of opportunity to express his views to me very soon: I have an appointment with him at ten..." And before Napoleon had time to voice his concern, he added flatly: "And we've both to meet with Hartmann at eleven."
Solo was dumbfounded. "With Hartmann? What the hell..."
"Yes, there are still some points to fix about our future "fruitful" cooperation with Hartmann Company, and Herr Doktor has insisted that I should take part in the talks before he leaves."
"And you agreed?" Incredulity and shame showed on Napoleon's face and sounded bitterly in his voice."
"Of course I did! We've no choice, remember. Waverly's statement..."
"I know, I know: the ghosts of the past versus the children of today; our responsibility and all that."
"It's no joke, Napoleon; the virus has mutated into a more dangerous form, the epidemic is spreading fast and the new drug is only partly effective. We must progress and quickly. We're ready to set up a wide collaboration with several American and European laboratories."
"OK, then; it's not the first venomous snake we've had to swallow and it won't be the last. Bon appetit, partner!"
He made a move to the door, stopped and turned around to face his friend again.
"Oh! By the way, speaking of appetite, why don't we try the new Italian restaurant, in the next block? It looks quite nice. Not the usual pizza and pasta - they have fine Tuscan specialties..."
A little surprised not to get a prompt answer from his usually ravenous partner, he went on with an inviting smile and a "grand seigneur" gesture: "My treat, for...uh... celebrating your good and quick recovery."
Illya was not fooled. "Recovering from the flu is hardly a motive for celebration. I remember you had a date weeks ago with "what's her name" from Documentation and postponed it three times, did she dump you in return, by any chance?"
Napoleon flushed slightly; "Well, uh...Actually I invited her for dinner just now, but she's not free this evening."
"Neither am I"
"I'm not free this evening."
Napoleon opened his mouth and forgot to shut it. Illya frowned.
"Is it so unbelievable that I'm getting out? I have some interesting prospects for the afternoon too if Hartmann releases us in time."
"Ah, I see, you're to spend the day working with Hilberg and he invited you out as compensation."
"What do you mean, Hilberg?" Illya's voice sounded indignant. "Do you think I fancy touring the town and going to a party with Hilberg!"
"You're going to a party..." Bemusement just didn't describe Solo's state of mind.
"Yes, there's a show, with supper and concert at "The House of Brazil." The dancers and musicians are quite good, I've been told, for those who like the folklore stuff; it's not exactly my favourite genre, but it'll please my companion, I hope."
"Well, she would be very picky, if not..."
Illya shook his head impatiently: "Wrong again, it's not a she, but a he."
"I was trying to tell you I'm going out with Miguel."
Napoleon's eyebrows shot up comically.
"Miguel Dos Santos; you can't have forgotten him already?"
"Of course not, but what came over you to invite him to a party?"
"Why not? You think he doesn't deserve it?"
"I wouldn't say that but...well, it's not that usual to take young boys to supper."
"You have a wicked mind," stated Illya, severely. "I promised to show him New York by night before his departure for his new polytechnic school. And I intend to spend the rest of the week helping him with basic mathematics and physics."
Napoleon was recovering slowly. "A week's too short to catch up with years of missing school."
"The boy's very smart. Anyway I'll take all the time needed as long as he remains in this city."
"If Waverly allows you to do so."
"Waverly asked me to do so."
The office door slid open with the familiar "woosh." Before entering, Napoleon turned towards his retiring partner.
"I wish you success...in all your projects. Have a lot of fun!"
Solo spent the evening at home, alone and meditating, something he had had no leisure to do for ages. In spite of his will to discard them, the words uttered by his friend quoting Waverly kept on reverberating in his head. For him, the child of the past and the child of the present were one and the same. And there was no way he could evade his responsibilities any longer.
Eventually, he picked up the green envelope and its content on the coffee table, near the telephone and sat heavily on the couch. With slightly shaking fingers, he dialed the number.