written with Fara Y. Driver
(Appeared in Can You Get Channel D In a Yellow Submarine?)
7:45, and it was almost perfect.
Napoleon Solo grinned at himself in the bathroom mirror as he brushed his hair and congratulated himself on yet another well-executed plan. Despite the fact that his plane from Los Angeles had been delayed by four hours because of mechanical problems a situation that had put both himself and his partner on edge he had still managed to claim his luggage, get through the rush-hour traffic to the apartment, call in and receive a grocery order from the little market around the corner, start the fire, set the table, shower, and dress for his 8 o’clock date with Alicia, the stewardess he had met three days ago on the flight back from Toronto.
It was going to be a good evening after all.
He put his comb on the bathroom counter, then shrugged to settle the burgundy sweater on his shoulders before pulling the corners of the navy blue polo shirt into place. From habit, he straightened the towels as they hung on the racks, then turned out the light as he moved into the bedroom. His watch, ring and the silver pen communicator that he carried at almost all times were on the dresser. He glanced around the room as he put each in its proper place on his body before moving over to smooth the royal blue satin spread on the queen-sized bed. The suitcase was in the closet, his suits already left with the building's concierge Del would have the clothes ready first thing in the morning, in case of another mission.
His gun was tucked safely away in the drawer of his bedside table; unlike his partner, he didn't wear it at home. But he did keep it close, especially at night. Even in a protected building, a building owned and secured by the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement itself, one could never be too careful. He kept his gun under his pillow when he slept alone; hopefully, that wouldn't be the case tonight.
The smell of tomato sauce greeted him as he stepped into the short hallway to the kitchen. It was from a combination of cans of tomato, tomato paste, and a few chopped vegetables spies didn't have a lot of time to prepare proper meals. But he had learned a few tricks over the years, enough to give the meal his own unique touch. He would cook the pasta after Alicia arrived. It was important to get them al dente, and to serve them hot.
Which left the salad.
He opened the refrigerator and pulled out the mixed greens Carlo, the grocer, had provided. The salad would be simple but fresh. And, like the pasta sauce, he had a variation on a prepackaged dressing.
At 7:58, he put the bowl of vegetables back into the refrigerator and reached for the brown bag sitting on the corner of the counter. He frowned as he extracted the bottle of wine; it wasn't the one he had ordered. It was French, a claret that was more expensive than what he had paid the delivery boy for the entire order. Even with the tip.
But Solo didn't have time to worry about the mistake; Alicia was due any second. He made a mental note to pay Carlo the difference in the cost as he used a knife to cut away the foil wrap. He crumpled the thick foil into a ball and tossed it into the flames of the fireplace as he walked to the drawer to get the corkscrew. The fire burned with an edge of blue as he opened the bottle, allowing the wine to breathe. From habit, he balanced the cork across the top of the bottle as he set it on the small breakfast table before reaching to light the candles.
Then he added one more log to the soft blaze in the fireplace. It was one of his particular pleasures, this fireplace, for it opened through into both the kitchen and the living room. Tonight, the weather was perfect for a fire, a certain damp chill in the late spring air. He stood as the log caught, the soft crackle adding to the romantic setting.
Everything was ready.
At 8:01, his intercom buzzed. With a quick grin, he moved to the wall by the door and pressed the speaker button.
"You have a visitor, Napoleon," Gerrard, one of the night security men announced.
"Punctual," he responded. "Send the lady up."
"But it's not…"
The phone rang at that instant, the shrill sound interrupting Gerrard's statement. "It's all right," Solo said hurriedly, frowning in the direction of the louder noise. "Send her up."
Solo released the button before the security man had a chance to respond, hurrying to the phone.
"Solo here," he answered, glancing to the door. The last thing he needed was to be on the phone with one of his other dates when Alicia arrived.
"Napoleon? This is Alicia," a familiar sultry voice came from the other side of the line. The connection was poor; he could barely hear her over the background noises of people talking, moving, laughing and the periodic interruption of various voices calling flight information over a loud speaker system. "I'm afraid that I'm not going to make our date tonight oh dear, I just looked at my watch and realized the time difference. I'm so sorry, I was hoping to call you in time to catch you before you went to too much trouble."
"It's all right,' he said, feeling a sort of disappointment. More pressing, though, was the true curiosity who was going to be at his door shortly?
It was then that Gerrard's interrupted comment registered in his mind.
He felt the absence of his gun acutely, knowing that he would need to retrieve it before he answered the door.
"Can we reschedule?" Alicia asked from very far away.
"Of course," he smiled absently, even though the answer was automatic. "I'll call you tomorrow I take it the flight was delayed?"
"A mechanical problem. Fortunately, one of the service men spotted it before we took off," she confirmed. "We may be here for another hour or two they're calling for the flight crew now, to let us know whether we're canceled or not. I'll talk to you soon, and I'm sorry really."
"Not to worry. Bye."
He was heading for the bedroom even as the handset landed in the cradle.
The doorbell rang as he pulled his Walther from its holster and closed the drawer; the gun disappeared into the band of his pants, between his sweater and his shirt, easily accessible but hidden. It rested comfortably against his spine, a known companion, as he walked quickly back down the hall.
Solo peered through the door's eyehole, tense but professional. He didn't relax when he recognized the first of the two men; Gerrard could be a hostage.
He did drop his guard, though, when he turned his attention to Gerrard's companion. It took a few seconds, but the memory came with little prompting, drawn forth as much from the swaying stance as from the curly dark hair and craggy features.
Solo was grinning as he opened the door.
"Sorry, Napoleon," Gerrard nodded. "I know you said to let him come on up, but I didn't have the impression that you knew who it was. You said 'her'. And he is carrying a weapon."
"With a license and an FBI identification," the other man stated. But he, too, was smiling.
"You're right, Gerrard, Joe wasn't who I was expecting. But I’ll clear him now, and thanks for looking out for me."
The security man nodded. "Should we be expecting someone else?"
Solo shook his head. "No, she couldn't make it. Guess I'II just have to settle for this sort of company.”
"Sorry for interrupting your evening," Pelle said as they stepped into the apartment.
"You didn't," Solo answered, closing the door and resetting the security system. "She called a few minutes ago to cancel actually," he turned to his guest and gestured toward the kitchen, "your timing couldn't be better. I've got dinner cooked, the wine open, and now someone to eat with."
Pelle followed him into the kitchen and laughed, the sound rich. "Candles you have learned a lot over the years, haven't you. If you'd done this in Seoul, you might've gotten that nurse what was her name?"
Solo smiled at the memory, then blew out the candles. "Heinemann, I think Jackie or Sandy or something like that. One of the few who turned me down."
"One of the few who saw your true intentions," the other man retorted. "And your wallet."
Solo laughed with him, turning one of the burners on the stove to light. The water for the pasta was already in a pot, ready to be boiled.
"So what brings you to this neck of the woods?" Solo asked as the laughter died. “Ready to come to work for a respectable organization?”
"You know, I think that's what I miss about you most, Nappy, that sense of humor," the FBI man grinned, taking a seat at the table. "May I?" he asked, waving a hand toward the wine.
"Manners, Pelle?" Solo grinned back. "Things have changed, haven't they? Sure, and pour one for me."
As his guest put the cork on the table and lifted the wine bottle, Solo reached for the box of spaghetti.
"Nice," Pelle commented appreciatively, reading the label. "Maybe I should rethink this; they must be paying you guys well. Must be the compensatory pay, for working with your partner, right?"
Solo didn't let the needling bother him, not yet anyway. Unlike many of the FBI and CIA operatives they had to deal with, Joe was a friend, and had been for a long time. He had also saved Solo's life on several occasions, in Korea and a few times since then, when their paths crossed in their current professions.
But it didn't stop the FBI man from being a smart-ass whenever the opportunity arose.
"Actually, danger pay,” he answered smugly. "For when we got in the crossfire between your people and the CIA what was that rumor I heard about a screw-up in Bonn?"
Pelle shrugged as Solo glanced his way, the smile still on the FBI agent's face. But his attitude hardened just a bit, his back stiff as he poured wine into the two glasses. "Mistakes happen in this line of work, you know that. I hear they even happen in U.N.C.L.E." The tone was light, but there was a hint of a challenge in the words.
Solo took up the mood. "So what's on your mind?" he asked casually as he took one of the drinks.
The other man took a sip of the claret before answering, his words measured. "I need a favor, Napoleon. I need your help."
The U.N.C.L.E. agent kept his face neutral, knowing better than to show his surprise. Or to kid about this. Despite their long years of friendship, the two men had never been able to ask easily for help not because it wouldn't be given; rarely had either one of them turned the other down. It was more the type of men they were, two strong individualists who hated to have to ask for anything.
And now, given their chosen allegiances to two different intelligence organizations, any request almost always had to do with work work for two rather intolerant superiors.
"Darren Carter disappeared two days ago. He worked for Lockheed, one of the chief engineers in the Special Projects Department the classified, government-funded group. We had been watching him for several weeks, to see if he was passing information on several of the high-priority projects to the Soviets. We think he's defecting."
Solo waited, casually swirling the wine around in his glass.
"His last known contact was with a woman you may know, Carla Marron."
The U.N.C.L.E. agent nodded. "We've met. She may be Thrush maybe. We've never been able to prove it. She is, though, one of my better snitches. But not just for Thrush she's got her fingers in a number of pies, as it were."
"But you suspect that she's primarily Thrush." The statement was emphatic, almost sharp.
Solo shrugged. "Yes, but we can't, or haven't yet, proven it. She's too valuable as a source of information to lose. Why?"
"We think that your bad guys are helping Carter defect. We need your help to get him back."
Solo frowned, several thoughts competing for his attention. Despite himself, or maybe because of the edge of hostility between them, he decided to play it cautiously. "Why me?"
Pelle grimaced, his eyes narrowing. "What do you mean?"
"It's after hours, obviously not at the office, and it's you a friend coming to me. No official channels. If Hoover needs help, he usually goes directly to Waverly. Why me?"
Pelle held the other man's gaze, but the U.N.C.L.E. agent knew he had hit a nerve. This wasn't the approach Joe had expected, nor was it the subject he wanted to discuss.
"I tried catching you at the office earlier today, but you weren't in check with your secretary, if you want."
"All right. But that doesn't answer the question."
The FBI agent looked away, just for an instant. When he spoke, his voice held a trace of anger. But he answered honestly, Napoleon knew that from the set of his jaw. It was one of the first things he had learned about the other man, many years ago.
"I'm asking you as a friend. Because I need the help."
The admission wasn't easy.
Solo leaned back against the counter, not asking but not offering.
"Hoover's on my butt about this one," the FBI agent said after a while. "Carter shouldn't have gotten away; we had him, until Carla jumped in. He was gone in an instant, as if he'd vanished like we were amateurs. I was gone for two hours, to catch a nap, and two of my best men were on him. He was just gone. We think we know where they're hiding him, a warehouse in Long Island. A warehouse with a owner who is cross-referenced in our files as 'Thrush see U.N.C.L.E.' I can't afford to screw this up, Napoleon Hoover won't let me forget it. I've never dealt with Thrush before, I don't know what I'm up against. We're planning our assault for first thing in the morning. You know the kind of weapons these boys have, what their tactics are. I'd like you to help me out here, help me coordinate this assault."
The request was valid in some senses; Solo had been in more than his fair share of assaults against Thrush and its various leaders. And Pelle wouldn't ask if he truly didn't need the help.
But there were problematic questions that his friend hadn't yet answered.
"What proof do you have that it's Thrush other than Carla and the supposed ownership of the warehouse."
"Certain references Carter's made about a third organization he refers to them as the 'international intermediaries.'"
Pelle's dark eyes grew cold. "My intuition tells me it's Thrush. You know as well as I do that that's enough."
Solo sighed, understanding that particular truth. Unfortunately, he knew that his superior wouldn't. "If it were just me, Joe, it would be no problem. But it's not just me. Even off-duty, I'm still an U.N.C.L.E. agent, just like you're still one of Hoover's boys. And when it involves your particular employer, I have to be doubly wary. Hoover has no qualms about making things difficult for us whenever possible, and I can't afford to be caught in a bad situation. Especially if Thrush is not involved. U.N.C.L.E. can't take sides in the personal disputes between the governments…“
"He's really snowed you, hasn't he." The bitterness was cutting. "I told Hoover that you wouldn't turn, that having Kuryakin for a partner wouldn't compromise your loyalties, your sense of right and wrong. I guess I was wrong, huh?"
Once again, Solo felt his anger spark, his body stiffening as the other man rose. "Illya has nothing to do with this, Joe, this is…"
"Bullshit. This is bullshit, Napoleon." The violence was restrained, manifesting itself in the clattering of the dishes and the silverware as Pelle jolted the table with his hip. The FBI agent caught his glass as it tottered, and he steadied the bottle of wine. The cork was the only casualty, rolling off the table, over the seat of one chair, then dropping to the floor with a delicate bounce. It stopped at the edge of the brick stoop, just out of the way of Pelle's pacing steps. "At one time, you would have done this simply because I asked, because I needed you. Now, you talk about 'international relations' and the problems between my organization and yours. I'm asking you as a friend and you're throwing bureaucratic politics at me. Politics that protect your Commie partner hell, maybe he's even helping out. This is a KGB operation. He's one of their best, and he's worked with Carter in the past."
"That's enough." Solo found himself clutching his own wineglass tightly, and standing completely upright. "Illya is an U.N.C.L.E. agent; his loyalties are unquestioned."
"He's a Soviet spy, Napoleon, who has been allowed to live unhindered, unwatched, and unchallenged in this country for too long. Can you account for every minute of his day? Or, more importantly, his nights? Hell, our file on you is twice the size as the one on him."
"Joe, that's enough." Solo set his glass on the counter, taking one step forward. “This is not the time or the place to have this conversation." He kept his tone even but he left no question as to his mood.
Pelle turned back, his jaw tight. The light from the fire flickered across his face, making his eyes glitter and the wine in his glass glow. "No time ever will be, will it, Napoleon? Not until we catch him in the act. That's the only way you'll believe. I just hope you're not involved, my friend. I don't want to take you down, too." He lifted his glass, killing off the rest of the wine before setting the empty goblet on the mantle. "Sorry to have bothered you."
As Pelle turned away, Solo felt his anger dissipate. Joe didn't understand, and he never would. Not as long as he worked for Hoover, the master of nationalistic propaganda. And Joe was right too, in a way. He was asking as a friend, and Napoleon was turning him down.
"Watch out for moving floors and collapsing ceilings," he called.
Pelle didn't stop, but he did slow down. "Thanks," he said over one shoulder. "I will.”
"And wear gas masks. Thrush has a new paralyzing gas that they've been experimenting with it's nasty. If it doesn't kill you, they'll take you prisoner and test something else on you. Until I get there to save your ass."
The comment had the desired effect; the FBI agent stopped, his chuckle soft as he turned around to face the other man. "At least I can count on you for back-up, if I need it. If it's as bad as you say, I’ll even be glad to see your Commie partner if he's not there already."
"He won't be."
Pelle nodded. "All right. The assault's at 5:37, dawn. If you change your mind, we're coming in from the side street and the roof. I’ll be particularly careful about the ceiling."
Solo nodded. "Let me know how it goes."
The FBI agent also nodded, understanding. "Let me out?" He gestured toward the security system.
Solo took mere seconds to clear the alarms and to notify Gerrard that Pelle was on his way back down. Then they stood in the open doorway.
"Good luck," Solo said quietly, meeting his friend's gaze.
"To you as well," Pelle nodded. "And, Napoleon? I'm serious. Watch your back. I know you trust him, but he's not one of us. And you can't make him become one, it's bred into his soul. So deep that even he can't get to it. Even if he wanted to."
But as he closed the door and reset the lock, Solo felt a quick chill. He didn't distrust or even a doubt his partner's allegiance. He'd known Illya for too long, seen him in too many situations to ever doubt the Russian's loyalty, to him, if to no one else.
No, it was the situation. The distrust. U.N.C.L.E. was trying to bring the world together, to fight the common enemies of all the governments. But the biggest enemy he could see was mankind itself, this blind prejudice that struck even them.
The thought was sobering, depressing, and it seemed to grow as he re-entered the kitchen. The water was boiling now, and as he added the pasta, feeling the steam on his face, he wondered where Illya was.
If he knew his partner, the Russian was already settled in bed, a book in his hand and his infernal noise jazz, he called it playing on the phonograph.
The image made him smile, accompanied as it was by the frown of distaste he knew would be on his partner's face if he interrupted.
He stood before the fire, staring into the flames. Of course the FBI had a file on Illya, on all of them. They were espionage agents spies.
Most of the time, the word made him laugh, it seemed so melodramatic.
Now, though, the idea stuck in his throat, untouched by the wine that he drank. Spies who spied on each other. Spies who distrusted each other, no matter how common the goal was. Or how honorable.
But hadn't he just done the same thing? Hadn't he put the honor of his organization above the goal of the individual mission. No. No, there was no way to know if Thrush was involved. And U.N.C.L.E. didn't deal with defections, not those made by citizens who were free to choose. Carter was an American. He could do as he wished, the government was not forcing him to work on weapons against his will.
As he leaned down to pick up the cork, he wondered how someone could betray his country this country. Americans, indeed, most people of Western cultures, truly did not understand how good they had it. They had no appreciation for the right to choose.
Unconsciously, he tossed the cork into the fire, the motion appeasing some of the strange, growing frustration. He had done what he had to do. Joe would eventually forgive him, they would cross paths again one day and help each other out if they were able.
Now, he had the evening to himself, a warm fire, a good dinner, and a bottle of wine an open bottle of wine with no cork.
He sighed, but smiled. Maybe a night alone would be a good thing for him.
After stirring the pasta and the sauce, he searched out the television section of the paper.
Pelle let his shoulder rest heavily against the solid government-grey wall. Albright wouldn't like it, but it seemed a better alternative than falling down on the burgundy carpet dotted tastefully with the small, gold reproductions of the FBI seal. His legs were trembling. He tensed his tired muscles, locked his knees and waited.
Albright was pacing, gesturing angrily as he ticked off the balls-up the early morning mission had become. Like an untrustworthy stenographer, the chief's cigar wrote a smoky and impermanent record of his annoyance in the air.
"Three men dead," Albright was saying again, as though Pelle could forget the number. Or the faces. John Hyatt had shown him around headquarters when he was first hired on. Bryant had run beside him in the presidential motorcade in New York, joking all the way about stopping off at one of the bars along the route. Rice had just celebrated his daughter's fifth birthday. Pelle would remember those statistics for a long time.
"Not to mention how it's going to look," Albright continued.
The door opened and the chief froze. "Good morning, sir," he said, snapping to an almost military attention, the cigar held at his side like a bayonet.
Pelle turned. Jesus. Hoover. He felt his own spine stiffening and resisted the urge to salute.
"You're damned right it's going to look bad," J. Edgar Hoover barked, striding over to stand in front of Pelle. "That son of a bitch Robert Kennedy is looking for just this sort of mess. What the hell happened this time?"
"Sir, I…" Albright started, but Hoover shushed him with an abrupt wave of his hand.
Pelle stared down into the bulldog face. "Sir, they out-gunned us," he answered. "They were ready. It would have taken another hundred men to make a difference. And when we did get in, the place was booby-trapped some kind of gas that got right through our masks. And the front hallway fell out from under the first half-dozen guys who went in. Four of them are in the hospital."
"And you lost three of my men."
Carter, the damned defector who was the cause of it all. Who was sure to have been there. But by the time Pelle and a handful of other agents had fought their way to the interior of the building, the bastard was gone. "Yes, sir. Carter, too."
"Who did you tell about this operation, Mr. Pelle," Hoover leaned close, his lips pulled back from small, even teeth.
"Do you have trouble with the English language, Pelle? I said, who did you tell?”
"No one, sir. Well, the ones you'd expect Mr. Albright. David Lerner, my partner on this job. Maybe five others who knew the pieces of the operation Turner in Munitions, Lacy in Transportation, people like that.”
And his friend Napoleon Solo.
The thought must have shown on his face.
"Who else?" Hoover demanded, the little, dark eyes boring into Pelle's.
The agent hesitated; Hoover wasn't going to like his answer. But the head of the FBI already suspected that something was up, so denial would only make this worse. "Napoleon Solo."
"Solo." Hoover shook his head in elaborate disbelief. He turned, strolled across the carpet, and settled into one of the red leather chairs in front of Albright's desk. His feet, Pelle noted in passing, just barely reached the floor. "Suppose you tell me what you were doing blabbing our business to one of Waverly's Ivy League faggots."
Pelle drew in a breath. "I…asked for his help. He knows the woman involved, Carla Marron. He knows her operation, and how Thrush operates. I thought he could provide assistance."
"Bullshit!" Hoover was on his feet again. "Bullshit, Pelle. You go whining around there, telling that collection of Commie lovers that we can't do our job?"
"Sir, I've known Napoleon Solo since we served together in Korea. I went to him personally, and I know he wouldn't pass anything along. Besides, I didn't give him any details about the operation itself."
“What'd he say, this good friend of yours?'
Pelle sighed. "He said no. He said that the U.N.C.L.E. couldn't become involved in the disputes of its member nations.'
Hoover straightened, his voice cold. "Well, he got involved. Mr. Pelle, you're good friend Solo rolled you over in the clover. What he does to you personally, I don't much care about right now. But nobody screws with my organization. I think it's time Mr. Alexander Goddamned Waverly and I had a little chat."
"Sir," Pelle started. But the door was already closing.
Pelle turned back to Albright in time to see a shower of ash from the cigar drop softly onto the carpet.
"Mr. Hoover, sit down!"
In the recording cubicle, Lisa Rogers winced and pulled the headset away from her ear. She made an adjustment to accommodate her boss' uncharacteristic volume.
On the other side of the thick, gray door, two aging warriors glared across the huge, round table. Then slowly, with an insolent nod of his head, Hoover sank into a chair.
"Thank you," Alexander Waverly said coldly. "Now, as to your ridiculous accusations do I have it correctly that you claim one of your men came to Mr. Solo asking for assistance, that Mr. Solo refused quite properly, in my opinion and then immediately informed someone in Thrush? Perhaps you have some theory as to why he might do such a thing?"
Hoover shrugged, a sort of sneer playing at his lips. "You know the man, I don't. Maybe he saw this as a way to pay back a favor owed without costing U.N.C.L.E. anything. Maybe your boy Solo's on the take. Maybe he told his Commie partner and he passed it on. All I know is that Solo's the only outsider who knew about this operation, and it was blown. Three of my men are dead and someone's going to pay."
"My sympathy, sir. I have been in your unenviable position too many times. But that does not mean that the fault lies with one of my agents. Your leak could just as easily have been internal."
"It was not."
Waverly sighed. "Mr. Hoover, this is fruitless. Clearly, you have a difficulty that must be resolved. Given the implication that one of my agents is somehow involved, I would be willing to assign some resources to assist you…"
"Keep it, Waverly," Hoover snapped, standing once more. "You are getting nowhere near my organization. The only 'assistance' the FBI wants from you is an apology and Solo's head. If you don't want to cooperate, I’ll deal with it in my own way."
“Threats, Mr. Hoover?" Waverly's voice was a dangerous purr. "I promise you, sir, that if you make any attempt to interfere with my organization or its agents, it will be your head at risk. I suggest that you direct your energies where they belong internally."
He flipped a switch on the elaborate control panel before him. "Miss Rogers, Mr. Hoover is leaving. Kindly send someone to escort him from this building. Immediately."
With a grin, Lisa Rogers jerked off the headset and hurried to find an escort. Immediately.
Hoover hardly noticed her as he stalked past her desk, flanked by two of U.N.C.L.E.'s largest agents. Lisa waited until he was past before grinning at his stiff back, then sliding into her chair.
She barely had time to get comfortable before her boss was back on the intercom.
"Miss Rogers, send Mr. Solo to my office. At once."
Napoleon arrived wearing his ready-to-flirt smile, but it quickly faded into uneasiness when he saw her face.
"Into the valley of death," Rogers murmured as he stepped through the door. It was satisfying to see the blink of confusion on his usually confident face.
"Mr. Solo. Sit."
Napoleon did so, quickly.
"I will be blunt," Waverly announced. "Recently, I have entertained Mr. Hoover of the FBI. He is of the firm belief that you passed on to Thrush or the KGB or some other organization information that led to a disastrous mission for his people this morning. Is he correct?"
Solo stared. "I, ah...no, sir. Absolutely not. What...?"
Waverly nodded. "I assured him that such was not the case, but you understand that I had to ask you directly. Apparently you were visited by an agent of the FBI last night?"
"Yes, sir. Joe Pelle. He's an old friend."
"And Mr. Pelle discussed this morning's mission with you? Asked for your assistance?"
"Yes, sir. I told him it was not the sort of thing U.N.C.L.E. could help with, and that, as an U.N.C.L.E. agent, I couldn't get involved either."
"Yes. Exactly right." Waverly nodded his approval. Then his geniality fled. "Why was I not informed of this visit?"
"Well, sir, I... ah…well, it was a personal visit. Just a conversation, really. It hardly seemed..."
"An agent of a national law enforcement organization tells you of a mission with possible Thrush involvement. He further asks you to involve this organization, in the person of yourself, in that mission. And you didn't think it worth mentioning?"
Solo winced. "Ah, well, when you put it like that, sir..." He shifted uncomfortably beneath the gimlet gaze that reached him from behind Waverly's glasses.
"I will expect a full report on my desk by five this afternoon.”
"I find it necessary to also ask this, Mr. Solo: did you discuss your conversation with Mr. Pelle with anyone else? Mr. Kuryakin, for instance?"
Solo's spine straightened. "Sir, are you implying that Illya had anything to do with this?"
"Did you tell him, or anyone else?"
Waverly nodded once more. "Your loyalty to your fellow agent is admirable, Mr. Solo. The question had to be asked. I wish I could say at this point that the matter can be forgotten, but I fear Mr. Hoover is not one to forget, and he is quite capable of making rather a nuisance of himself. Since, in Mr. Hoover's eyes, anyone in this organization is suspect, I think it would be only appropriate if you and Mr. Kuryakin were to investigate the matter on our behalf. Please clear your slate for the near future and get to work on this. And in the interim, have your apartment thoroughly swept for listening devices. One never knows what technology Thrush might have developed to trouble us."
"Yes, sir." Solo stood and moved away, dismissed. But as he reached the door, The Old Man's voice came once more.
"And Mr. Solo, watch your back. Warn Mr. Kuryakin to do as well, even though I doubt that he would do otherwise."
As the doors slid shut, Waverly leaned back against the leather of the chair that was his concession to luxury. Fingering a favorite pipe, he pondered. Solo and Kuryakin were in the clear; that was a given. The check for 'bugs', as the youngsters called them, was more routine than anything else. Solo's apartment underwent the same periodic sweep that kept the agents' private lives private. Therefore, the information had leaked from another source the FBI, this Pelle perhaps.
Waverly laid the pipe aside and reached again for the intercom switch. He would set Dancer on the scent. No need to go into the reasons why; the fewer within U.N.C.L.E. who knew about this mess, the less excuse there would be for that ham-handed Hoover to make his absurd charges. Besides Waverly allowed himself a rare smile a little ignorance was good for an agent's humility.
"It's about time," Solo snapped as his partner entered the office. "In case you've forgotten, you're an enforcement agent first, a mad scientist second."
He glared into the blue eyes he knew so well, not really surprised when they stared back frostily, with just a hint of amusement warming their depths.
"Let me guess," the Russian said calmly as he took the chair in front of Solo's desk, "your stewardess fell asleep halfway through your main course." He brushed his blond bangs from his high forehead and settled back, his face wearing its usual slightly bored expression.
As he threw out the next words, Solo was somewhat pleased to watch that practiced indifference change to discomfort. '”The FBI J. Edgar Hoover, to be more precise has decided that we, you and I personally, had something to do with botching a mission some of his men were on this morning. Mr. Waverly wants us to find out what happened and to clear our names and U.N.C.L.E.'s."
The Russian sighed. “The FBI. What happened?"
Briefly, Solo recounted the events of the previous evening and of the meeting with Waverly earlier.
Solo understood the question implicit in the word, and for an instant, he was angry. But given Pelle's feelings about Illya, it was only fair that the Russian should be wary.
“No, I don't think so. Granted, I don't know Joe as well now as I once did, but it's not in his nature. I suppose he might be willing under the right circumstances to deal with Thrush, but he wouldn't do anything that might benefit the Soviet Union. And he wouldn't hurt his own agents, he's too much a team player."
Kuryakin nodded, thoughtful. “Then someone else in that organization, I should think. Unless Thrush managed to bug your apartment."
"Mr. Waverly has already ordered Section 5 to go over it today, in minute detail.'
"You know the man?"
April Dancer raised her eyes from the photograph. "No, sir. I don't know many FBI agents. Why are we interested in him?"
"There is some suspicion that he may be entangled with Thrush. Mr. Pelle was involved in a failed FBI operation aimed at re-collecting Darren Carter.” He looked at her questioningly.
"Isn't he one of the physicists working for Lockheed in its top-secret government contract division?"
"Apparently less top-secret than it should be," Waverly commented dryly. "At any rate, Mr. Carter disappeared, leaving the FBI to assume that he was planning on defecting to the Soviets. His 'travel agent,' if you will, has known ties to Thrush that Carla Marron woman. Carter did in fact escape and is reportedly arriving in Vladivostok this morning. Because the FBI operation was so badly compromised from the start, there is a possibility that Mr. Pelle has also been recruited by Thrush. I would like for you to check him out and report as quickly as possible if that suspicion is correct."
“Yes, sir. But I'm right in the middle of.."
"That business with the South African arms dealer, yes. I'm confident that Mr. Slate can carry on in your absence. This has priority."
"I believe there is enough detail in Mr. Pelle's file to facilitate your first contact. Also fairly recent information on the security devices most likely to be installed in his apartment. You might want to take a look there when the opportunity presents itself. I have asked Mr. Trask in security to advise you on what sort of access might be possible to Mr. Pelle's office."
"His office, sir? You want me to snoop in FBI headquarters?"
"You object to that duty?"
"No, sir, not if it's necessary. It's just...I mean they're sort of on our side aren't they? It just seems sort of, I don't know, rude."
"It is sometimes necessary, in the course of saving civilization from itself, Miss Dancer, to be rude. The matter is delicate and Mr. Hoover is a volatile man; I believe it best if we handle this initial investigation. I trust you to be discreet, however. There is no need to discomfit our allies.”
"Yes, sir." Dancer tucked the photo away in the file and rose to leave.
"Oh, Miss Dancer? It would be best if Mr. Pelle did not know of your association with U.N.C.L.E. And this is not to be discussed with any of your colleagues here. Is that understood?"
"Yes, sir. Mum's the word."
"Thorough, aren't they?" Kuryakin stood in the center of his partner's living room, surveying chaos. Sofa cushions lay on the floor, wineglasses and crystal tumblers were piled on a counter top, books towered in stacks next to the empty bookcases. The room was garishly lit by bare bulbs, all of the lampshades perched on the back of the couch.
Solo sighed, sliding onto a stool at the counter between the living room and kitchen. "I've seen worse, I guess, when Mom was in one of her spring cleaning moods.' He motioned toward the vodka bottle amid the liquor bottles unceremoniously crowded onto the counter.
Kuryakin grimaced. "Warm? No thank you."
Solo shrugged and drew the Scotch close, pouring a generous dollop into one of the tumblers. "I'd offer you ice, but they dumped it all."
The Russian wandered through the apartment, finding the same disarray in every room. Realigning the mattress on the oversized bed, he called, "What did they find?"
"The car keys I lost three months ago, 37 cents in change, and a stocking. Black silk."
"But nothing…nefarious?" He plumped the pillows and straightened the midnight blue satin bedspread.
"Well, nothing that wasn't mine." The faint clink of a glass indicated that Napoleon was at work in the shambles of the living room.
"You're certain that Pelle didn't have it on him?" He scooped up a pair of pajamas from the floor, looked around vaguely and settled on tucking them neatly under a pillow on the left side of the bed.
Solo's voice was cold. "Joe is not under suspicion."
Kuryakin sighed and shook his head. The bathroom's large sink was filled with bottles and bandages and toiletries from the empty medicine cabinet. The Russian tsked over the mess and began replacing the items. "Well, if there was no bug here and Pelle didn't bring one, what does that leave in the way of possibilities?"
"Something electronic, from outside."
Solo's voice sounded muffled; he must be replacing the sofa cushions, Kuryakin decided, at the same time rejecting the idea of electronic eavesdropping. Like all agents' homes, Napoleon's apartment was fitted with a shield to prevent external snooping.
"Of course, there's that shield thing," came the muffled voice again. "I don't know, Illya. Maybe somebody planted something on Joe without him knowing it. Maybe there was something here and it was moved somehow. Ow!"
The light bulbs, Kuryakin mused, were likely to be hot. Here was something interesting; in the bottom of the sink was a cylindrical object, about the size of a flashlight handle, with a hole on one end. He glanced around. It apparently fit into that electrical charger on the back of the toilet that had puzzled him earlier. Four short toothbrushes also fit into the charger base. Fascinating. He slipped a green toothbrush into the handle and flipped the switch, jumping when the unit began to vibrate. "Did you do something different from your usual routine last night? Buy something new? See anyone besides Pelle?" He pressed the toothbrush against his palm, smiling at the small tickle.
There was a silence from the other room. Then, "Illya, what are you doing?" Solo asked, his voice tight.
Guiltily, Kuryakin jerked out the toothbrush, and restored the pieces where they fit. "Putting up your playthings,” he retorted.
"I’II take care of the stuff in the bedroom closet, okay?”
With raised eyebrows, the Russian turned to the mirrored doors of Napoleon's closet.
With a last curious glance at the concealing panels, Kuryakin returned to the living room, nodding satisfaction at the chaos set right. Solo was in the kitchen, closing opened containers and returning them to the shelves and refrigerator. He had started a new trash bag, which sat already half-full in the center of the floor.
“Lucky I didn't have much food on hand. Although I'm pretty sure I'm missing a can of Beluga and some crackers."
"Searching is hungry work," Kuryakin said, moving to the sink. A bottle of open wine stood in the clutter, half of it gone. Instinctively, he poured some of it into the nearest glass, a beer mug engraved with an elegant S. "And thirsty."
"That wine's probably bad," Solo mumbled, from inside a cabinet. "It's been open all night."
The Russian didn't even have to get it to his mouth to agree; the smell of vinegar assailed him as he lifted the mug. With a grimace, he emptied it into the sink, then followed suit with the rest of the bottle. "So what did you do differently last night?" he repeated over the sound of the tap running.
"We've been all over that," Solo said impatiently, backing out of the cabinet to reach for the dishes. "I was expecting a lady for dinner. She had to cancel. Joe showed up and we drank some wine which I was going to use for cooking." He glared at the empty bottle. "We talked, and he left."
"What did you cook for dinner?"
"There aren't any leftovers," Solo answered pointedly. "And it was spaghetti, with my own sauce. The kind I always make. Salad. Dressing, ditto. Bread from the corner bakery. Wine...”
He trailed off, and the Russian’s head jerked up. "What about it?"
"I ordered it from Carlo and had it delivered, just like always. But it wasn't what I ordered. A claret. Very nice as a matter of fact, it would have made a nice vinegar." For a moment, Solo looked stricken, hand on his stomach.
"If it was poisoned, I suspect you would be well dead by now," Kuryakin offered by way of comfort. His own attention was on the swirl of clear water that had washed away the remainder of the ruined wine.
"Thanks for your concern. Joe and I both had some, then I left the rest in the bottle you just emptied."
The Russian picked up the bottle, this time using his handkerchief. He looked closely at the label, quickly translating the French. Knowing little about wine, he wasn't sure whether to be impressed or not. "It didn't make a great vinegar," he stated. "But I will take it to headquarters and see if anything else comes of it."
"And you owe me a bottle of red wine vinegar," Napoleon said. "Two, if you just poured away our best lead."
"We will see, after the lab has had time to examine this." He moved out of the kitchen, heading for the door. "I will leave you now to your closet."
There was no comment as he closed the door.
Solo's garbage was spread across the gleaming surface of the lab table used tissues, an empty Brylcream tube, junk mail, tomato sauce can, a bread wrapper, lettuce and tomato scraps all awaiting dissection by the white-coated lab tech. Kuryakin set the bottle at the far end of the table and stuffed his handkerchief back into his jacket pocket.
As the glass connected with the metal surface, Javier Perez looked up sharply. "Careful where you put that. Has it been dusted yet?” The lab tech abandoned the Brylcream tube to join the Russian. "Is that from Solo's apartment? If so, we need to get started on it." His dark eyes scanned the bottle with a sort of lust the agent understood.
From the look of things, this was the best lead so far.
“Why don't you start with it?” Kuryakin suggested. "I have a feeling it may save us all some time."
Closing a clamp around the bottle's neck, Perez dusted the new item with fingerprint powder. “The bottle looks like it got passed around a bit," he murmured, examining the silvered surface. "FBI should be able to give us some names in a week or so; quicker if I put a rush on it."
"I think it would be better to handle this in-house," Kuryakin said carefully.
The lab tech gave him a questioning look, then shrugged. "Okay, but the database is a lot smaller."
Setting the bottle aside, Perez rummaged in a well-stocked cabinet and pulled out a bulky camera. He photographed the bottle from all angles before setting the camera aside.
Out of a drawer came small sections of tape that he applied to the sprinkling of fingerprints, fastened to cards, and slipped into protective plastic sleeves. "I hear the FBI is working on a laser technology for reading prints," he muttered as he worked. "Wish they'd hurry it up.”
"There," Perez eventually announced, setting the bottle aside. He slipped papers containing the copied fingerprints into a pneumatic tube, which he then shoved into the opening in the wall. A few touches to the buttons on the nearby panel sent the container off to the computer room. "Shouldn't be long," he said, "considering how small our db is."
The Russian didn't rise to the bait.
Once more, the lab tech picked up the bottle with the clamp. Carrying it to a well-stocked chemistry lab, he turned it upsidedown, draining what little remained into a test tube. He set the bottle aside and went to work on the half-teaspoon of scarlet liquid.
As the lab tech worked, the Russian picked up the bottle, staring into the glass like a gypsy into a crystal ball. "Where's the cork?" he suddenly demanded.
"What?" Perez muttered, still busy with the chemical bottles and droppers.
"The cork. Wasn't there one in the garbage?"
Perez shrugged, more intent on the test tube he was holding. "Nope. You can check the invoice. No cork there.'
Kuryakin crossed to the lab phone, dialing the phone number he knew as well as his own.
The Russian ignored the brusqueness of the greeting. "What happened to the cork?"
"What are you…oh. Let me think. It fell on the floor and Joe almost stepped on it… Oh, I threw it in the fire. That's why the wine ruined."
Kuryakin sighed audibly.
"Well, I didn't know it was going to be important," Solo snapped in response. "It was just a cork." With a sigh of his own, he changed the subject. "In there something on the bottle?"
"Javier is checking. What of the delivery boy?"
There was a trace of humor in Solo's voice now. "I sent Denise to talk to him. I’m waiting for her report.”
The Russian, who was not much for waiting, said, "I'll check with her now."
Denise Stafford may have been recruited and hired for her physical attributes by the men who ran U.N.C.L.E., but she had, to their surprise, turned out to be a skillful agent who used her attractiveness like any other tool. When Stafford questioned an unsuspecting man, he kept very few secrets.
"His name's Peter Lawton, from Terre Haute, working his way through City College," she briskly reported. "He's been working for the Castrones for six months. He's made dozens of deliveries to Napoleon's apartment. He said this time a woman stopped him, said she wanted to surprise her friend Napoleon with a really fine bottle of wine and asked if he would trade with her. He was reluctant at first, but she knew a lot about Napoleon, and she was ‘just darned nice'. And she gave him a ten-buck tip. So he made the switch.'
"The woman?" Kuryakin asked.
"Mid-thirties, platinum blond, high heals, low neckline, faint accent, possibly European of some kind. Crooked smile. Wore some kind of fur wrap."
"Yeah, my thoughts exactly. Sounds like the lady who's a tramp."
"Thank you, Denise." He hung up, looking once more to Perez. "Anything in the remains from the fire?"
The lab tech shrugged, his attention again focused on the Brylcream tube. “The computer's are still running cross-checks, but basically, no. Some bits of metal apparently your partner has a habit of throwing all kinds of things in his fireplace. Does make for pretty colors in the flames, but they're a bitch to identify afterwards. Most of the metals are so common as to be of no significance, especially in the small sizes we found. Sounds like the bottle is the best bet."
The response from the computer room, arriving a few minutes later, confirmed their suspicions two of the prints on the bottle belonged to Angelique LaChien.
The dregs of the wine, although more acidic than might be expected from such a respected label, were otherwise clean. That was no surprise; as the disapproving Kuryakin frequently pointed out, the female Thrush agent enjoyed toying with Napoleon in deadly ways, but impersonal murder was not her style.
The Russian reached for the phone again and dialed the familiar number. This was going to be fun.
"Chateau du Vatour Sacre." Waverly set the bottle on the table before him then gave the table an expert spin. It stopped so that the empty container was in front of Solo.
The agent frowned, looking the green glass over carefully before touching it. “The one Illya took from my apartment," he commented, recognizing the label.
"One like it," Waverly corrected. "It would seem, Mr. Solo, that you are not the only person who has enjoyed this particular brand. This bottle was found in a rented apartment in the Soho district of London. It and several others bearing that label were, like yours, open and quite empty the contents consumed by the person who was renting the flat. Under an alias."
Solo glared across the table, hating that sound. It meant that he was the only one of the three of them who was still in the dark.
Kuryakin sat back in his chair, his lips turned down in disdain. "Sir Preston Smythe-Parker," he answered the unspoken question.
"He was found dressed in women's lingerie red, I believe, with matching high heels and black silk stockings."
"And they found the same wine bottles in the apartment that they found in mine," Solo said.
"A wine bottle given to you courtesy of Thrush," Waverly continued. He gestured toward the manila envelope in the center of the table, then he, too, sat back in his chair. "His voting record in the House of Lords for the past several years."
Solo reached for the file and scanned the pages quickly before tossing it to his partner. By that time, their superior was up and at his desk, rummaging through the drawers in frustration.
"Has anyone seen my pipe?" he asked. "I believe Miss Rogers has taken it upon herself to cure me of all my vices."
"On the desk, sir," Kuryakin answered. "Beside your glasses."
"Ah yes. Thank you, Mr. Kuryakin." Waverly picked up the pipe and glanced around the top of his desk. As he spotted the humidor at one corner, he asked, "So what do you make of it, Mr. Solo?"
Solo thought for a few seconds before answering, allowing his superior time to pack the bowl with tobacco. "It would seem that Lord Smythe-Parker had a change of heart over the years. He altered his votes on a number of issues."
"Yes, he did. But only on specific issues.'” Waverly was now searching for his matches, one hand patting over the pockets of his pants and his tweed jacket.
"Internal security, the police force,” Kuryakin spoke up, still reading through the file. "Military allocations and personnel deployment. Allocation of money for experimental weapons, and to the British Secret Service. Some of his votes were crucial to the passage of legislation wasn't he one of the key members of the British Defense Committee?"
"Quite so...there they are." Waverly picked up a small box of matches that had also been sitting next to his glasses. As he moved back to the table, he continued, "Unofficially, he was one of the most authoritative voices in the government on military and police affairs. His vote carried many others with it, particularly ones in the House of Commons." He placed his pipe and the matches on the table as he sat, folding his hands before him. "On the few times he was questioned about his record, he claimed to have had a change of heart. Speculation in Scotland Yard is that he was being blackmailed. That seems to be more likely the case, given the circumstances of his death."
"Was he murdered?" Solo asked, searching his memory for the latest things he had read in the newspapers.
"The coroner believes that he suffered a heart attack in the middle of a particularly intense moment," Waverly answered delicately. 'There were no traces of poison or any other unusual substances in the body, nor, as with your situation, in what little of the wine remained in the bottles themselves. You will find the laboratory analyses of the bottles in that file, as well," he pointed to the pages Kuryakin was still holding. "Lord Smythe-Parker died of overexertion, something I suggest you bear in mind, Mr. Solo.” He paused long enough to glance at the agent, emphasizing the last words. "The police think that there was another person present at the time, a young man of questionable repute. They are searching for him now, but more for explanations than for charges. It would seem that Lord Smythe-Parker made it a habit to be in the company of attractive young men, particularly blonds. I shouldn't be surprised if Thrush had used this particular temptation against him also."
"Too bad we didn't know of it earlier," Solo murmured. "We could have as well." He didn't have to see it to know that his partner was staring across the table at him.
"Yes," Waverly agreed, seemingly oblivious to the interplay of his two top agents, '”it is. But there's no use crying over spilt milk. Scotland Yard will handle the concerns of Lord Smythe-Parker's death with its usual grace and discretion. It is up to us, gentlemen, to find out the circumstances of his life. Or, more specifically, to look into the corners where Thrush might be hiding. If their method was effective on Lord Smythe-Parker, it's probable that it is being used elsewhere as well even on yourself, Mr. Solo."
"I might prefer blonds, sir," Solo defended himself with a smile, "but I hardly think that makes me a target for blackmail."
"No, but giving away the secrets of the FBI might," the older man chided, his bushy eyebrows rising as he admonished the agent.
Solo blinked, caught off-guard. But before he could say anything in his defense, their superior hurried on. "So far, the only thing these two came have in common is this bottle of wine. We know that a Thrush agent sent one to you and despite possible explanations to the contrary, we must assume that it was meant to be used against you. In the interests of clearing your name, and being done with this whole affair, I suggest that the two of you start in France." With a gentle tug, he turned the rotating surface once more.
A manila folder again stopped in front of Solo.
"The file on the winery,” Waverly announced. "Owned by Madam Marguerite Les Menotte, who inherited it from her father. The Le Foust family has owned it for generations, since the religious wars of the 1600's, one of the few of its lineage still producing wine. Madame Les Mennote and her husband took over the running of the business when her father died after the war. Monsieur Les Menotte died several years ago, of natural causes. She has not remarried, giving all of her attention to her winery. Her endeavors have succeeded; over the past decade, the quality of the various wines produced by Chateau du Vatour Sacre has risen steadily, as has the value of the business. To date, there has been no unusual influx of revenue and no rumor of any impropriety concerning either the family or the winery in short, no hint of Thrush. However, one should not infer from that that things are as they should be, as the two of you well know. Miss Rogers has your plane tickets and she had already contacted our agent in Saint-Emilion, Monsieur Louis des Chaines. You are to contact him when you arrive."
Solo nodded, closing the file. Kuryakin had done the same, and they both rose simultaneously.
Waverly wasn't quite finished, though. "The type of wine in the bottles under question is labeled 'Reserve Classic Cabernet Franc'. It does not appear on the list of wines that the Chateau regularly distributes for re-sale. While this is not common, it is also not illegal. It is, however, quite curious. I suggest that you pursue your investigation with that in mind."
Kuryakin frowned, then asked, "What of the corks, sir? The ones from Lord Smythe-Parker's bottles?"
Waverly shook his head. "None were found most curious, if you ask me. It's possible that the mysterious young man took them with him. Or that the wine was opened elsewhere and the corks left there. Whatever the case, as with Mr. Solo's bottle, they are not in evidence."
"Thank you, sir," Solo said, glancing at his partner. They started toward the door, but just before reaching it, the senior partner stopped and turned back. "By the way, sir, we seem to have picked up some FBI shadows. Can we do anything about that?"
Waverly looked up from the table, the craggy face momentarily confused. "Of course. Use them to your best advantage. I'm sure Mr. Kuryakin can help you with that." He dismissed them with a wave of his hand, turning his attention back to the task at hand once more trying to light his pipe.
"Don't say it," Solo muttered as they walked down the hallway, Waverly's doors closing behind them.
"Perhaps we can find a blonde to use to our advantage as well,” Kuryakin responded blandly. “Unless you have something hidden in your closet?"
Solo smiled. "I have many things hidden in my closets, my friend." With a wink and a grin and perfect timing he stepped in front of the door to Lisa Roger's office.
It was open and he was through it before Kuryakin had a chance to respond.
Their flight arrived at Bordeaux in mid-morning, giving them time for a leisurely drive to their destination, 20 or so miles away. Once out of the city, the view was actually quite pleasant; southern France, an area they saw much less often than Paris, was a land of cultivated fields and small villages, much of it as it had been for centuries.
Saint-Emilion seemed lost in time, the buildings medieval, the streets cobblestone. The people were even friendly, a commendable change from their northern counterparts.
"Ou est l'Hotel Des Espions, s'il vous plait?" Solo asked of a passer-by after his partner had driven them around the same block three times.
The woman stared at him blankly for a moment before she smiled and answered in English. “You are a tourist, yes, Monsieur?"
Solo smiled his most charming smile, ignoring the choke of laughter from the driver's side of the sedan. "How could you tell?"
The woman returned his grin, wrinkles gathering effectively at the corners of her dark eyes. “Your accent. It is …how you say?…rough. Uncultured. Do you speak la langue de la France for much years?"
"Perhaps not the language of France," Kuryakin answered for him.
"Ah," the woman nodded, knowingly. "Quebecois."
"Oui, bien sur," the Russian agreed.
"L'Hotel des Espions?" Solo asked again, not so charmingly.
“The next turn to the right," she answered. "It is the gray one."
"Merci, Madame. Bon matin," Kuryakin nodded as he pulled the car away from the curb.
"My French is flawless," Solo grumbled, rolling his window part of the way up. “And I've been speaking it all my life."
"Roughly," Kuryakin agreed.
The hotel was, indeed, gray, a dull color that blended it into the background. It took them two drives along the narrow street before Solo finally spotted it, nestled between two large, brightly painted businesses, one a restaurant, the other a boulangerie.
Kuryakin went to check them in, leaving his partner to contact the local office.
"Monsieur Solo, tres bon. I was beginning to worry for your arrival."
Solo shook his head, staring at his communicator. "Thank you for your concern, Louis, but everything is all right. Did you contact the winery?"
"Mais oui!" the Frenchman laughed pleasantly. "I have arranged a tour for you at three this afternoon. It is still a bit early in the season for tourists, but Madame Les Menottes was most agreeable, especially after I told her that you and Mr. Kuryakin represented one of the largest wine importers in the United States. She is most unhappy with the importer she currently has on that side of the ocean. Drive eastward along the Dordogne for about five kilometers; the vineyard will be on your left. I will be available, should you need me."
"Merci," Solo answered. "We'll be in touch."
"We are in the right place," Kuryakin announced as he returned to the car. "And I believe we have company. They've been with us since the airport." He nodded casually toward another vehicle parked several yards away in the hotel's tiny parking area.
"Great," Solo sighed, joining his partner at the trunk of their sedan. "I thought they couldn't bother us outside of the U.S."
Kuryakin shrugged. "You tell them. I doubt they'll be very receptive to that information coming from me."
Solo grimaced. "We have between now and three to lose them."
"Then we should start with lunch, and soon. Everything closes between noon and two, and it's 11:30 now."
Napoleon looked at the other man, knowing better than to ask if he was actually serious. With a glance to the suitcase still in the trunk, he suggested, "Why don't I run next door to the bread shop and pick up a few things for lunch? We can eat in the room and slip out a side door."
Kuryakin shrugged. "Whatever you wish. We're in room 2D, at the end of the hall. We have our own bathroom."
"Mr. Waverly will love that on the bill here, take my suitcase."
Kuryakin frowned, but accepted the offered luggage. "We can't very well justify endangering innocent lives while taking a shower, can we?"
Solo snorted. "Remember that argument for when we get back."
They started for the winery about two, giving themselves ample time to lose their FBI 'companions. It proved to be a wise measure; Hoover's agents were as good as the U.N.C.L.E. men, disappearing and reappearing just as Solo and Kuryakin felt safe.
They arrived at Chateau du Vatour Sacre with moments to spare. Elegant signs along the estate's cobblestone driveway directed them not to the house at the top of the gentle slope, but to a series of new buildings off to the right. The office was clearly marked at one end of the largest structure.
"Monsieur Solo?" A young man with wavy light-brown hair and a warn smile greeted them in English as they entered. "I am Guillaume Jabot, Madame Les Menotte's assistant. The Madame is quite honored that your company is considering imparting the wines of the Chateau to the United States. We understand that you have quite a large distribution network. Come, let me show you how we do things here.'
For the next hour or so, Solo learned more about wine than he ever wanted to know. It was a true effort to tear Kuryakin away from the various and sundry devices of the trade. particularly the crushers and the presses. The Russian asked questions about every phase of the process, from the couvasion to the yeast content to the process of chapitalization. By the time they were finished, they knew that the Chateau was ranked as a premier grand CCU class for both its merlots, which grew upon the slopes that surrounded the chateau itself, and for its cabernet sauvignons, which grew on the farthest end of the estate in the area called the graves. They knew that the Chateau marketed a variety of wines under its name, from the distinguished cabernets and merlots themselves, to the blended mixes of the lesser growths labeled as Bordeame, or non-specific clarets. They even knew that Madame Lee Menotte made all of the bottling decisions herself, from which wines would be aged in which of the various types of wooden barriques the barrels that would color the flavor of the wine to what size bottle they would be put in for distribution.
The only thing they didn't know at the end of the tour was the information about the cabernet franc that was central to the affair.
"The Madame will be most happy to speak with you," Guillaume assured Solo as they returned to the office. "One moment."
As their guide disappeared into the inner office, Solo turned to his partner.
The Russian nodded even before he spoke. "I’II look around again, and meet you at the car."
The door closed behind him as Guillaume returned.
"Monsieur Solo, this is Madame Les Menotte."
Solo wasn't quite sure what he'd been expecting, but it wasn't the woman who stood before him now. She was tall, perhaps several inches more than he, and well-rounded, not plump but not slender, either. Muscular, he thought, a woman familiar with every aspect of her business. Her hair was dark, and graying in small streaks that gave it an overall brightness. She wore it pulled away from her face, caught in a tie that let it fall between her shoulder blades and down her back.
Her features were aristocratic, as he had assumed from her heritage, and she carried herself with the air of one who was accustomed to being in control. But she smiled easily, and there was a grace about it that spoke of congeniality and a general belief in harmony. She was dressed casually, dark blue jeans of heavy cotton, a navy-and-white pinstripe oxford under an open blue sweater, and light work boots tightly laced.
Her handshake was strong. "Monsieur," she tilted her head to one side, her voice resonant, her accent almost sensual. "I thought you had a companion."
"He wasn't feeling very well," Solo lied smoothly, '”too much fresh air. I sent him to the car."
Her dark eyebrows rose in a genuine concern. "If there's anything we can do…"
"No, no," Solo waved it off, "a nap will be the best thing. He doesn't travel well.”
She acquiesced politely and led him into her office. Like her, it was tidy and comfortable, overstuffed chairs before a neat but laden desk. A nearby table held, not surprisingly, several carafes of wine and matching crystal glasses. "I would be negligent if I didn't take the opportunity to ply you with my wares," she smiled, pouring a deep red wine from one of the containers into two of the long-stemmed glasses.
Solo instinctively returned the flirtation. "And I would be remiss if I didn't let you try."
It was dry but very smooth, with a sort of woody aftertaste that Solo couldn't identify.
"Our seven-year-old cabernet has been aged in the oak barriques from your country the United States. I had difficulty getting the right oak." She settled behind her desk, holding her glass by its stem.
"Nice," the agent commented after another sip. "You have quite a list of wines, Madame."
"Please," she smiled, "call me Marguerite. It is much less formal."
"To you, then, Marguerite," he lifted his glass in a sort of salute. "And please, call me Napoleon."
"So, Napoleon, which of my wines are you most interested in? I will, of course, provide you a complete list of what we have for distribution to your country, but you must have some idea at this point as to what you can most successfully market."
It was a perfect opportunity, and he took it.
"All of your wines are excellent, but I must admit, there is one in particular that has caught our attention. The Chateau's Reserve Classic Cabernet Franc."
It caught her by surprise, he could tell by the widening of her eyes. After a few seconds, she said, "I'm afraid you are mistaken. We do not market a cabernet franc."
He feigned surprise of his own. "But you must," he said. "I have had it and it is quite commendable. Surprisingly so."
"Yes, it would be," she agreed, sitting forward. "Very few vineyards would market that particular grape alone; it is difficult to grow it with enough independent character to give it an individual label. Surely, you must have had it in one of our merlots. The franc is used quite often to round out the flavor of that grape."
"So I understand," he responded. Carefully, he set his glass on the table beside his chair and reached into his jacket. Illya had had the foresight to have the label copied, for just this circumstance.
With a slight flourish, he pulled the paper from his inner pocket and handed it across the desk to her. "I received this as a gift, and we were so impressed with it that we came here immediately to find it. Surely you're not going to tell me that this isn't one of the Chateau's."
She opened the page and glanced at the replica of the label, but it was just that, a glance. She sighed as she set the paper aside and reached once more for her own glass.
"You misunderstand me, Monsieur Solo," she started. He disliked the use of his last name. "I did not say that the Chateau did not produce a cabernet franc obviously, we do. What I said is that we do not market one."
Solo watched her closely, trying to gauge her honesty. "Something of that caliber why would you not market it?"
Marguerite was silent for almost half a minute, intently studying the desktop before her. Finally, she said, "You must have some very special friends. That wine is not one easily acquired. Did you receive an invitation with it?"
"Should I have?" he countered quickly.
Too quickly; she looked up sharply, and he knew he had made her wary.
"From whom did you get it?" she demanded, her tone cool.
"To be honest, I am not at liberty to say. It was a gift between…intimates, shall we say?' It was closer to the truth than he wanted to admit.
It wasn't enough, though.
She rose. "I apologize for wasting your time, Monsieur, but the cabernet franc is not available for distribution. Should you be interested in any of our other vintages, I will gladly negotiate with you. But I am a busy woman, and I do not have time or patience for this conversation."
He also rose. As he did, though, he reached once more into his jacket pocket, this time extracting his gold U.N.C.L.E. identification card. He handed it to her with much less flair.
She read it, looked at him, then read it again. With a sigh, she returned it to him and sat back down. "Where did you find it?” she asked.
"I wasn't lying about that, it was a gift. But it was also found in the apartment of Lord Smythe-Parker, in Soho." He sat back down, too.
She shook her head. "Lord Smythe-Parker? I do not know that name."
"He was a distinguished member of Britain's House of Lords and on the Defense Committee. He was also given to certain interests that left him open to blackmail. Scotland Yard is looking into that now.'
"And he had the cabernet franc that means nothing."
Solo shrugged but smiled. "True, but it might something. Especially as one of those bottles was also present at another occasion, one in which an agent of the FBI was compromised. It might be coincidence, but at the moment, it's all we've got to go on." It was also as much of the truth as he wanted to give her.
She frowned, her features hardening once more. "So, then, if I do not cooperate with you, I will eventually have to deal with your American police this FBI -- and the British police. Because my wine was found in the wrong places. It hardly seems threatening unless...was the wine poisoned?"
Solo shook his head. "No, the only thing we could find out of the ordinary was that it was a bit more acidic than normal. But that doesn't mean that the person delivering the wine is innocent particularly if the wine is so difficult to acquire. Tell me, Marguerite," he continued smoothly, "if you don't market the vintage, how did it come to be at the scene of two unusual circumstances?"
She sat silently across from him glaring in a way he was sure that she usually used to her benefit. But he didn't surrender, choosing instead to take his wine glass once more in hand. It truly was a good wine, he thought in passing. He would have to be sure to buy several bottles before they left the country.
"Very well, I will tell you a little, to clear the name of my winery. We do not need this sort of attention. At the end of the last century, there were a number of French estates producing wine, the world's finest, even then. The British, however, dominated the world, sticking their noses into things that were none of their business. There was a trend among their aristocracy to purchase interests in many French estates, for the purpose of controlling the wines.
"A small group of French vintners started an organization, the purpose of which was to protect the better of the French estates from falling under the control of the British. With time, and the two world wars, the purpose of the organization broadened, not just to protect the wineries, but to encourage the production of new varieties of wine. Over the past several decades, this has become even more important, with the competition from America and other countries that have entered the market. Winery owners comprise a very small percentage of the membership, but a very important percentage. We produce special types of wines, and ones that we promise not to distribute for sale to the public for at least a decade, long enough to determine the true worth of the wine. During that time, the wine can be bought only by club members. They can, however, buy as much as they would like or as much as we have on hand."
"So anyone who is a member of this organization could buy your wine."
She nodded. "Yes."
"May I see the list of members?"
She smiled slightly, with a sort of satisfaction. "I doubt it. As I said, the club is very private. Only the board members know the full list of members, and they are sworn to secrecy. Even the orders for the wine are placed through the officers, never by the members. So you see, Monsieur, there is really very little that I can do for you. I have no idea how those bottles came to be in the places they were in. Lord Smythe-Parker could have been a member of the club or he could have received them as gifts from someone. I have no way to know." She smiled again, but her eyes were cold.
The U.N.C.L.E. agent also smiled. "But one of the officers knows. May I…"
"Out of the question." She stood once more. “On my honor as a club member and as a vintner, I have sworn never to give out that information. I have already told you far more than I should have. I'm afraid you will have to find some other way to acquire your information, sir.'
"Or a court order?” he suggested, rising.
"I will be in touch with my own lawyers. If the officers choose to get in touch with you, it is their decision. But there is nothing more that I can, or will, tell you."
With that, she moved from behind the desk and to the door, opening it with a sharp yank.
Solo took the hint, not wanting to truly anger her. But he stopped in front of her, not wanting to leave on a bad note. "Thank you for your time, Madame, and your candidness. And I was telling the truth about the wine; it is quite nice."
She softened a bit, her posture not quite so stiff. "I am sorry we had to meet under these circumstances. Perhaps another time, I can show you the other wines the estate produces.”
He tilted his head to one side, sliding his hand into his pockets. "I’d like that. I'm staying at L’Hotel des Espions, in Saint-Emilion."
"I'll remember that. Bon apres-midi."
"Et vous, aussi, Madame."
He let his eyes linger on her a little longer than usual, the flirt unquestionable.
Jabot frowned, his freckled nose wrinkling with irritation as he watched Kuryakin prowl about the presses.
Perhaps the man was searching in all innocence; he had demonstrated a strange fascination with the devices earlier, during the tour.
But Marton had warned him that someone might come, someone wanting to destroy the winery, and, through it, the Club. Someone willing to use the Madame atrociously.
Jabot clenched his jaw and stepped back into the shadows as Kuryakin turned away from his inspection of the presses and glided quietly toward the crushers. His inspection here was even more thorough, but quick, efficient.
He was looking for something, of that Jabot had no doubt.
But what to do?
Confrontation seemed unwise at this point, and he was sure that the man would deny what he was doing. And the Madame was with the other one, Solo. He couldn't take the chance of endangering her.
While Jabot debated, Kuryakin satisfied his curiosity and moved on, following their earlier steps toward the storage rooms. For an instant, the assistant thought to follow him, to make sure that he did no damage. Then he remembered that the storage rooms were locked now, as they always were after a tour. The blond would get nowhere.
No, better to do as Marton had instructed him. Didn't the older man know best? He hadn't become treasurer of the Club without learning how to deal with these sorts of men.
Yes, Jabot decided, slipping quietly back into his own office, he would call Marton on the private number the man had given him for just this sort of situation.
And this way, the Madame would never have to know of the danger.
"Trouble, darling?" Angelique LaChien smiled innocently at the man on the other side of the large desk. She crossed her legs at the knee, appreciating the sound of the silk stockings rubbing together. Victor would too, she knew.
But this time, the Thrush leader ignored the seduction. “I warned you they would come. Alexander is no fool, Angelique, and neither are those two young men. Kuryakin is snooping around the Chateau du Vatour Sacre while Solo is charming the secrets of the Club out of Madame Les Menottes and that is no mean feat, I assure you. The woman is made of iron."
"And I assure you, Victor, dear, that not every woman is subject to Napoleon's charms. If you couldn't woo the lady, I'm certain that Napoleon won't succeed. He lacks your finesse."
It was a lie, but only a little one.
Marton, though, wasn't dissuaded from saying the words she had been expecting.
"I knew this was a bad plan, I should never have let you talk me into it," he grumbled. "I've been a member of this club for 25 years, it's one of the few true pleasures of my life. And now I've let it become part of my work." He sighed, sitting back in his chair. "I should never have let you talk me into this."
Angelique waited a short time for him to calm, then said, "Everything will be all right, darling. It was a risk we had to take."
Marton's thin face darkened, his mustache twitching in annoyance. "You can only say that because it succeeded as you expected. Had it been anyone other than you, my dear, I would never have believed that Pelle would go to Solo with the information we needed. Or that Solo would actually open the wine so that we could eavesdrop on their conversation. And certainly, having Hoover and Waverly at each other's throats is a coup of no little achievement. But I'm not happy with the price, and I'm not speaking simply of compromising my standing in the Club. Do you know how much it cost to have that plane delayed so that girl wouldn't get back in time for her date with Solo? Had that little scheme not worked, you would be paying for it."
"But it did, Victor, and Pelle did just as our FBI friend said he would he went to Napoleon with the information we needed. Carter is safely in the hands of Thrush, telling us everything we need to know about the U.S. military secrets. The Soviet Union will pay very highly for them, or someone else will. In the meantime, all we have to do is convince Napoleon and his annoying little friend that the presence of the wine bottles was a coincidence it does happen."
She smiled her most disarming smile, tilting her head to one side.
Marton smiled back. "Kill them."
"That's hardly necessary, and it would certainly draw Waverly's attention back to us, wouldn't it? Let me handle this. A simple misdirection should work, and when it comes to Napoleon, I think I manage that quite well."
"I'm sure you do," the older man concurred, sitting up. "But remember, my dear, it's not just Solo that you're dealing with.'
Angelique smiled again, but this time, it was with pleasure. "A compromise, then. I’II eliminate Kuryakin and distract Napoleon. And you'll still have your little club protected, I promise."
She rose, letting her stiletto heels click rhythmically as she walked the short distance around the desk. She made sure that, as she leaned over, he got a very good view of her cleavage.
"Everything will be fine," she said just before she kissed him on the forehead. "And we need the club for other things, n’est-ce pas?"
But he still sighed as she left the office.
And as usual, she ignored him.
Solo kicked off his shoes and sat back on the bed closest to the door to the hallway. And the one closest to the door to the tiny bathroom, also, he noted as the shower started. One day, he was going to learn not to let his partner get to the room first; Illya always took the bed farthest from, well, everything.
"Open Channel R," he said into the communicator he was holding.
It took a few seconds for someone to answer. "Channel R open," came the breathless response. "des Chaines."
"Everything all right?" Solo asked, his muscles tensing in anticipation.
"Fine, Monsieur Solo. You caught me leaving the office, that is all. It is after five," the last was said with a little more sharpness.
“Yes, it is," Solo agreed, equally as sharp. "I need some information if you have the time."
This time, the Frenchman laughed. "Mais oui, bien sur. I apologize. I forget that you are not accustomed to life in this part of the world. What is it that I can do for you?"
Solo relented also; Louis des Chaines and the U.N.C.L.E. offices in this part of the country probably saw little to no activity. The man wasn't so much an agent as a recruiter. “I need some information," he repeated. Then he told the Frenchman what he had learned from Madame Les Menottes.
When he finished, there was a short silence on the other end. "A wine club," Louis said slowly. "I have heard rumors of such a thing for many years. Mon pere was a chef in Paris before the war. He often spoke of the special wines that many of his customers would build their meals around wines that were not for sale. I will speak with some friends who may know a thing or two."
"Let me know if you find out anything," Solo said. "We’ll be in touch." He closed the pen communicator and leaned back against the headboard, letting his thoughts swirl. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't come up with many options at this point. Certainly not many that were quick.
Neither, apparently, could his partner.
"Did you notice a safe?" the Russian asked when he stepped from the bathroom.
"Not in the open, no. But there were several large paintings on the walls of the office."
Kuryakin nodded as he towel-dried his hair. "And she would keep the information about The Club in a safe, not in her desk?"
Solo thought for a second, giving Kuryakin time to drape the wet towel over one of the chairs at the room's small table.
“I think so. Definitely somewhere where it won't be easily found. If all of the members are as determined as she is, we're never going to find out anything else about this organization."
"There is always a way," the Russian said as he plundered through his suitcase. "We just have to find it. And the first step is to return to the scene."
Solo watched as his partner pulled out a black turtleneck sweater and slipped it on over his white T-shirt. Both garments were then tucked into the band of the black slacks he was already wearing, and the ensemble was completed by black socks. With the black shoes, black belt, and black suit coat, Kuryakin was not only ready to burgle Madame Les Menottes' office, he was also ready for
Solo sighed, but he straightened his tie and slipped on his own shoes. "Don't you ever get tired of eating?'
"We are in France. One should never waste that sort of opportunity."
"No, I suppose not."
They made it out of the room and almost to the staircase before they tripped over their first shadow.
"Tsk, tsk," Solo murmured, just loud enough for the FBI agent to hear them.
"Careless," Kuryakin concurred at the same level. "Good help is so hard to find these days."
A voice from behind stopped them as they reached the stairs.
"Why don't you make it easy on all of us and just admit that you screwed Pelle over, Solo?"
Solo recognized the voice. "Well, well, Ken Martinson. I thought you retired after that screw-up in L.A. what? Several years ago?"
Martinson kept his cool, only his eyes narrowing. "I was exonerated of that, as you should know. The screw-up had more to do with the CIA your friends, I believe."
The U.N.C.L.E. agent raised his hands and shrugged. "Whatever. So what brings you to France? I'm certain that you're not here in any official capacity."
Martinson smiled, looking smug. "Of course not. My friends and I had some time off coming Mr. Hoover is a great guy to work for. He protects his own. And we return the favor," the other man answered calmly. "It's purely coincidence that we're here in the same hotel you and your friend are in. No, we're not here in any official capacity. But we're certainly keeping our eyes out for anything suspicious. Anything that might help out Joe Pelle. He's a good guy, Solo, even if he did trust you. You screwed him over and we're going make sure you pay. Even if it's on our own time.”
Beside him, Kuryakin stood quietly, letting Solo control the situation. "I didn't sell out Joe; he's a friend of mine, also. And we're not here to debate politics with you," the senior U.N.C.L.E. agent said, smiling. "So why don't we all just go about our business?"
"Sure," Martinson agreed, also smiling. “Why don't we?"
Solo took a deep breath. "Good. If you’ll excuse us, we're on our way down to dinner."
"Well, then, why don't we just join you?” The FBI agent stepped closer, and Solo knew that the man now behind them had done the same. “You don't mind, do you?"
"Actually," Kuryakin spoke up, "I'm not feeling very well at the moment. Perhaps we should return to the room, Napoleon. I wouldn't want to contaminate your friends."
Solo acquiesced, understanding. Illya didn't want to be in the open with these two, not when he needed to slip away later. With a feigned sigh, he shook his head. "Maybe next time."
"And maybe you better think twice about trying to sneak off," Martinson sneered. "We're watching you, Solo, both of you. And sooner or later, you're going to screw up."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence. Enjoy your vacation."
Solo followed his partner back into the room, waiting until the door was safely closed before he swore.
"It is the way the game is played," Kuryakin announced, slipping out of his suit coat and draping it over the foot of his bed. "Where did you leave the room service menu?"
Two hours later, Solo felt better. Not that he would ever admit it to his partner, but the food had helped.
Now they sat in companionable silence, Solo reading the paper while the Russian checked his lock picks.
The ring of the phone shattered the relaxed mood.
"Expecting anyone?” Kuryakin asked, rising.
Solo stood also, his hands unconsciously flexing. "Maybe our FBI friends? Or Madame Les Menottes?"
"Oui," the Russian said as he answered the phone. Then, without answering the person on the other end, he extended his arm. "For you. I think I will pass on dessert, my appetite is ruined."
Solo smiled as he took the phone. "Solo here."
"Darling." The word alone was enough to confirm his suspicions, spoken with the twist of her accent. "Still in the company of that depressing man?”
"He's helping me build my character," Solo responded, ignoring his partner's glare. "What can I do for you?"
Her chuckle was sultry, familiar. "I was going to drop by for a visit, but you seem to have an entourage. Have you been a bad little boy?"
"I'm just very popular these days. Where are you?"
"I'm two floors above you, darling, in one of the hotel's three suites. Four A. I thought perhaps we could share a bottle of wine, talk of our common interests. Have you had dinner?”
“Just finished, thanks. But I could be talked into…dessert."
Across the room, Kuryakin snorted, reaching for his jacket.
"I'll be waiting for you, darling. Oh, and Napoleon? Try not to bring other guests. I don't feel like entertaining a party."
He grinned as he hung up the phone.
"You're a fool," Kuryakin announced. "But this will provide an adequate distraction for our shadows."
"My thoughts exactly," Solo agreed, straightening his tie.
“Of course," the other man said dryly. "All in the line of duty."
"Nothing more." He slipped into his shoes and pulled on his own coat. "Shall I go first?"
"Let us go together. They will be forced to split their team."
“I’II let you know what's in her closet," Solo said as he opened the door, letting the other man go first.
Kuryakin looked over his shoulder as he passed, his face bland. "With the way your luck is going at the moment, it will be you."
They were in the hallway then, giving Solo no time to respond.
"Darling. I was beginning to worry." Angelique stood in the doorway, posed to look her most seductive.
And, as always, she succeeded, Solo observed, taking the time to look her over appreciatively.
The red silk strapless dress hugged her body in all the right places. Her bare shoulders and long neck were defined by the choker of diamonds set in gold. A matching bracelet dangled on her right wrist, and a jeweled watch complimented on the left. Her legs were sheathed in stockings so shear that he noticed them only when she moved, the golden threads woven decoratively through the material gleaming in even the softest light. The heels were high and matched the dress, and large-carat earrings glittered through the platinum of her hair.
"Did you have trouble finding your way alone?" One side of her lips twitched upwards, teasingly.
"You know how easily I lose my way," he returned, following her in warily. Angelique was not someone he trusted, despite what Illya thought.
She ignored his caution, sauntering gracefully over to a small couch. This really was a suite, this room smaller than the bedroom the two U.N.C.L.E. agents shared, but furnished with tasteful sitting room furniture. Angelique sat, crossing her legs at the knees, and smiled up at him.
"So what brings you to this part of France, darling? Business, I suspect."
"With you, also?" he countered, his eyes still wandering over the room. They narrowed, though, as he spied the bottle of wine sitting on the short endtable beside his hostess. It bore the label he knew so well.
"A short vacation, really," she answered. "A very close friend of mine lives locally. And I wanted to investigate some of the local businesses; I'm thinking of investing. Wine?" She reached for the bottle and the corkscrew that lay conveniently beside it.
"I meant to thank you for the bottle you sent me, in New York." Solo settled in the chair across from her, watching as she carefully handled the bottle. "An excellent vintage."
Angelique laughed lightly, glancing to him. “I was rather hoping to share it with you. But something came up. You know how frustrating work can be." She used the sharp point of the corkscrew to cut the heavy foil covering the top and the neck of the bottle.
"Don't I, though," he agreed. "But the wine was excellent a type I've never had before. I understand that the winery doesn't market it to the public."
She pulled the foil covering away and discarded it on the table beside her. "Another reason why I thought you might appreciate my little present. The Club goes to great lengths to protect its privacy, and its exclusivity." She hesitated, appearing to debate the placement of the corkscrew to the top of the cork itself.
May I be of assistance?" Solo reached to take the bottle.
The Thrush agent responded quickly. 'Oh, no, darling," she said as she recoiled, drawing the bottle well clear of his grasp. "I need to practice this. I've become far too dependent on servants to handle the little details of my life."
"So, are you a member of this wine club?" He sat back in his chair once more and unbuttoned his suit coat.
"Of course, darling," she answered distractedly. "In the circles I move in, one must cultivate the finest contacts.'
"Such as Preston Smythe-Parker?”
Angelique finished turning the twisted metal rod into the cork. "Yes, I knew Preston. Such a dear person. And he had wonderful taste, especially in wine." She tugged at the handle of the corkscrew unsuccessfully. "Is that why you're here? To investigate Preston's death?"
"One could say that, yes. Are you sure I can’t help?”
"Napoleon, you're such a gentleman, she leaned forward, uncrossed her legs, and put the wine bottle between her insoles. "But truly, I can do this." Holding the bottle tightly with her feet and one hand, she tugged at the handle of the corkscrew, slowly but steadily pulling the cork from the bottle.
Solo almost argued with her, but the view of her cleavage momentarily silenced him. By the time he got his fill of the eight, The bottle was open, the echo of the “pop” still ringing.
"So who are those men keeping you company? I would know if they were with my organization."
Solo watched her pour the wine into the two glasses as he answered, "Just some people equally interested in wine. Thank you."
"To a fine wine," Angelique toasted, letting her glass touch his as she put the bottle on the coffee table between them.
"And beautiful women," he added.
She arched one eyebrow as she sipped.
"Nice," Solo commented, letting the wine touch his lips then feigning a swallow. Better to play it safe for the moment; Angelique hadn't yet declared this to be a truce.
Casually, he set his glass on the coffee table then picked up the bottle. Peripherally, he noted that she watched him closely, her eyes narrowing. "What does one have to do to become a member of this club?"
Angelique crossed her legs again, also setting her glass down. "One has to be recommended by a current member. If you'd like, I’d be happy to put your name forth." Her hand slipped to the corkscrew. Seeming unaware of what she was doing, the Thrush agent started turning the cork, this time drawing it from the crooked metal spike. "It would be pleasant to attend functions with you that were…not business."
"Like now?" He studied the bottle closely, running his fingers carefully over the label. Nothing was wrong, though; other than the fact that it had wine in it, the bottle didn't differ from the one that had been in his apartment.
She smiled at him, setting the corkscrew aside as she once more uncrossed her legs. This time, she stood. "Yes, darling, like now. You're here investigating the death of a friend of mine. I'm here looking for businesses in which to invest. I don't think we're working at cross-purposes, do you?" Angelique stepped around the coffee table to his chair, then bent down. "Truce?"
He didn't resist the touch of her lips on his, nor did he struggle as she took the bottle from his hands, setting it carefully on the table behind her.
He did remember, though, as the kiss lengthened, that she still held the cork.
The one item that had been missing from his own bottle. And from the open bottles in Smythe-Parker's Soho apartment.
As they broke apart, he reached out, taking one of her wrists and drawing her toward his lap. "I've missed you,” he murmured, letting his hand slide down into her palm. It was empty; the cork must be in the other one.
"You're so kind," she whispered back, letting her other arm circle his neck as she parched on his thighs. "And I've missed you, darling."
As their lips met again, he used his left hand to hold her in place, appreciating the feel of the cool satin and the hard lines of her hipbone under it. His right hand, though, reached up to where her closed hand rested on his shoulder.
His left hand moved up her body, slowly caressing. Simultaneously, he let two of the fingers of his right hand drift teasingly along her right wrist, meandering toward her palm. Ever so slightly, her muscles began to relax, her fingers began to uncurl, to surrender the cork
The knock at the door startled them both.
Like the professionals they were, both fluidly came to their feet, their guns coming from their hiding places.
"Qui est?” Angelique demanded, stepping closer to the door but to one side.
"Le maitre de la salle, Mademoiselle. Sont-vous fini avec votre repast?"
She smiled, turning to Solo. "This will only take a moment, darling." But she didn't put her gun away as she opened the door, hiding it instead behind the curve of her hip.
The U.N.C.L.E. agent followed suit, putting his hands behind his back, his fingers still coiled around the handle of his Walther.
The waiter moved to the rolling table just inside the entrance. As he pushed it back toward the door, he nodded to Angelique. "Bon soir, Mademoiselle."
"Un moment, merci," the Thrush woman smiled, holding up a finger.
She reached for her nearby purse, hiding the small revolver within it.
"Merci" she repeated as she handed the waiter several folded bills.
He smiled, accepting the tip graciously and bowing just a bit.
She started to close the door, then stopped, as if remembering something else. "Monsieur?" she called.
The waiter was instantly attentive.
"Et cet, merci." With an elegant wave of her hand, she handed him the cork.
For an instant, Solo was tempted to go after it.
But the look on Angelique's face as she turned back, closing the door, stopped him.
"I thought you wanted to keep that," he said instead, watching as she set her purse back on the chair beside the door. He tensed instinctively as she drew her gun back with her.
"I think we should finish the bottle tonight, darling," she answered, lifting one side of her dress almost to her waist. Delicately, she returned the small weapon to the holster that fit snugly against her right thigh.
"That could make it a very long night," he responded, his Walther finding its ow way back into his holster. In the same movement, he took off his coat, then loosened his tie. All the while, his eyes were on her legs. And anything else she was willing to show.
"That's what I was hoping." She glided toward him, her empty hands warm as they curved over his shoulders.
It was some time later when he went to the bathroom, managing a quick call to his partner. The Russian’s chill thawed a bit when he received the information about the cork, but not enough to prevent the inevitable warning about the dangers of sleeping with black widow spiders.
The warning didn't stop Solo from following his hostess into the bedroom a short time later.
It did, though, help him remember to put the empty wine bottle outside the bedroom door before closing it for the night.
The engine of the rental car wasn't badly tuned, but it echoed with dismaying volume in the quiet of the countryside. Kuryakin guided the car into a copse of trees about half a mile from the tastefully discreet sign marking the entrance to the Chateau du Vatour Sacre. He would be safer proceeding on foot.
It was pleasant to stretch his legs after the long hours in the plane and in the car, to quietly follow the ribbon of the country road. The quarter moon provided just enough light to see by, but it was dim enough that his black clothing and cap made him a discreet shadow against the darker trees. The wind hissed through the treetops and Kuryakin echoed it with a satisfied sigh.
He had once overheard Napoleon explaining to an attractive lab technician, “Illya enjoys his kind of night work. And I enjoy mine."
He had decided not to be offended by his partner's comments; it was the truth, after all.
He moved more cautiously here, near the Chateau gate. All looked peaceful, but if there was some Thrush involvement at this winery, that black widow back at the hotel would have anticipated his visit and alerted her colleagues. Better altogether to enter before he reached the gate.
Dropping to his belly, he abandoned the cover of the trees and slid across the road to the metal fence surrounding the Chateau property. Wired, which seemed a rather extreme security for vineyards.
A small device from one of the many pockets on his pants neatly dealt with the problem a clip on the wire here, another there, and a snip between.
The wire cutters from another pocket were a bit small for the job and it took longer than he liked, but finally he managed to open a Kuryakin-sized hole. He squirmed through and slithered to the cover of the nearest row of staked grapevines.
A hunched run brought him to the end of the row and about 50 feet from the building that he and Napoleon had visited earlier in the day. A crunch of gravel froze him. A guard, strolling almost casually across the parking lot toward the field and the shadow cast by the corner of the office. Kuryakin tried very hard to look like a staked grapevine.
The man was stopping now, staring into the field, fumbling at his clothing. In a moment, the agent heard the sound of water splashing on packed earth and the bitter tang of urine reached his none. Eventually, the sound trailed away, the guard readjusted his clothing and scanned the field once more before turning back to the courtyard.
Kuryakin slowly eased his muscles. Mentally marking the spot to avoid, he slid on his belly across the expanse of grass to the office window.
Slipping on infrared goggles, Kuryakin examined the window. Another wire to be bypassed but, as Napoleon had assured him, no bars. The window was locked: a deadbolt. He was prepared for that attach the suction handle, cut a hand-sized circle in the glass and lift it out, select the right tool from the flat packet of lockpicks. Actually picking the lock was a bit difficult; the window was set high in the wall and he had to strain on his tiptoes to see the lock. Finally, a snick.
Holding his breath, he eased the window up. It slid noiselessly, noiselessly.
All of Madame Les Menottes' concern for security had apparently gone to the outer fence and the window; the office safe was ridiculously easy to open once he located it under the trap door beneath Madame's desk chair.
It was a commodious space, and well-filled. With a sigh, he settled in cross-legged on the floor and began to search. Propagation records; a lease for 100 acres of adjacent land; sketches of proposed label designs; a book, its pages yellowing and filled with the cramped writing of Madame Les Menottes' father the secrets of a master vintner passed on to his daughter.
A packet of hand-written letters tied with a gold cord. "Mon Amore, Mon amore deliceaux…” Kuryakin's eyebrows rose up his camouflage-blackened forehead. He looked at the last page. "Victor" was the bold signature. According to the routine field information Kuryakin had committed to his accurate memory, Madame Les Menottes' late husband was named Armand. With a shrug, he laid the letters aside.
Finally, there it was, a folder labeled simply "le plus." By-laws, minutes of the periodic directors' meetings, records of the wines distributed each season and copies of the unsigned responses of club members. The officers' list. He didn’t bother to read it, just laid the pages out and quickly snapped shots of each page. The flash was a worry, but there was no way around it.
Done. Everything back in the safe. Return the tumblers to their previous position. Place the chair just so.
He could leave now, and probably he should; he had been lucky so far, and Illya Kuryakin did not believe in luck.
But. The processing facility was so close, The bottles lined up just down the hallway and around the corner, and there was that intriguing business with the corks.
He unlocked the office door as quietly as possible, carefully checked the dark hallway and slipped out. Considering how much time he had spent tonight on the ground, he would do best not to hug the wall, so he tiptoed down the center of the wide hallway, feeling exposed and vulnerable.
Light spilled from around the corner ahead. He let his eyes gradually adjust. He heard noises, but distant and muffled. He peeped around the corner-another empty hallway, a short one emptying into the cavernous bottling room.
At the end of the short hallway, he paused again. No one visible, but the harsh overhead lights left no room for a black-clad, camouflage-smudged intruder to hide. This would have to be quick. Three bottles, one from the front of the first rack, another from the middle of the second, the third from the back. Clutching his acquisitions carefully, he darted back to the relative shelter of the hallway.
Voices! Coming from the long hall. He peeked around the corner. Empty. Someone coming down the hallway paralleling the one he was hiding in. A cleaning crew, he guessed, from the clank of metal and the sound of squeaky wheels rotating slowly on the linoleum floor.
He mentally measured off the distance to the office door, gauged the speed and position of the voices. Maybe…
He sprinted down the dark hall, almost dropping the bottles as the overhead light was suddenly, blindingly in his eyes. The door? There! Through it, shut it, lock it.
Leaning against the inside of the door, he listened for the sounds of alarm. Just the murmur of voices, the continuing squeak.
He took only moments to cross the room, check that all was as before, slip outside.
He laid the wine on the grass, closed the window. He had already decided it would be worth the risk to relock it. This was a sensitive business, and the burglary of a well-respected winery would bring more attention than they wanted.
An eternity passed before the lock snicked into place. He spliced the alarm wire and removed the bypass.
Picking up the circle of glass from the grass, he swiped it carefully with a clean handkerchief and applied a thin band of clear goo the latest miracle product to come from the U.N.C.L.E. lab around the edge. Eased back into place, the circle fit snugly; the lab boys bragged that, within minutes, the cut would be virtually invisible. He carefully released the handle, collected the wine bottles and headed for the vineyards.
There wasn't much he could do about the fence, just remove the second bypass and bend the metal back into place and hope the grass would hide the cuts for a while.
Back across the road and in the shadow of the trees, he shivered as the night wind struck his sweat-damp clothing. An alert guard might have seen the flash of a smile in the darkness. Yes, he did like this type of night work.
Solo listened to the shower for a moment before leaning out of the bed and snagging his communicator from his jacket pocket.
"Kuryakin here," Illya's voice barked at him.
Solo settled back against the padded headboard with a grin. "Well, good morning to you, too, Sunshine," he drawled. "Dare I ask how it went last night?”
"Do you know what time it is?"
Solo squinted at the sunlight streaming through the gauzy curtains. "Umm... 9:30 or so?"
"It is 10:10. We have work to do. Where are you?"
There was a pause. "Alone?"
"For the moment. So, how did your little excursion go?"
"I have the list. And three bottles of wine."
"Illya, petty theft? Your gypsy blood must be coming out again."
"I took the bottles to Louis, along with the film, last night."
"Ah. I bet he was in a fine humor about being called out in the middle of the night,"
"He is an agent-in-residence. It is his job," Kuryakin said acerbically. "Besides, there is a baby teething and he said that he was glad to get away from the house."
"In the corks, no. On the list-a name. De La Forge."
"De La Forge. The last time we came across that name, Victor Marton was borrowing it."
"Nice work, Sherlock. Anything on the cork from Angelique's room?"
"By the time I returned to the hotel, it was long gone. Into the trash."
"Not to the dump, I hope."
"No, but have you any idea how much wine is consumed in a French hotel? I spent three hours going through the garbage containers before a gendarme threatened to arrest me for littering."
"Mmmmm. I imagine that you smell divine."
"I have showered and breakfasted. Have you any accomplishments to report?"
"None I care to share. I’ll meet you in the room in 10 minutes." He paused as the hum of the shower abruptly stopped. "Better make that 45 minutes," he said before breaking the connection.
It was, in fact, just short of an hour before he opened the door to their room. Illya glared at him from the room's small table where he had spread the early edition of La Sol.
“The day is half gone," he growled.
Solo looked at him critically and 'tsked'. "You need a nap." He rummaged a clean shirt and underwear from the drawer Kuryakin had allotted him when they were unpacking, and began stripping out of his clothes.
"I do not need a nap. I need a partner."
"Well, here I am. What is it that we need to do so desperately?"
Solo paused in the middle of buttoning the crisp shirt, meeting his partner's stubborn gaze. "All right," he nodded, and noted with satisfaction the flash of surprise on the Russian's face. "As a matter of fact, I've made it easy for us. I took the liberty of planting a locator on her."
“I hesitate to ask where.”
"Someplace unobtrusive." He zipped and buttoned his trousers, buckled his belt.
"We will also need to dispose of the tail."
Solo shrugged into his jacket, smoothing the lapels. "Yes, they were roaming the hallway growling when I came down. Perhaps we should throw them a bone."
"I assume you mean me."
"Illya, you wound me. No, since there seems to be two of them on duty, I suggest we each take a receiver and split up. Since we'll both be following the lady, we should end up in the same place without the tails at some point."
Without commenting, Kuryakin rummaged in the bottom of the three drawers he had allocated for himself and emerged with two cigarette packs. He tossed one to Solo and adjusted a discreet dial on the one he held, staring at the garish label on its side. "Fifteen degrees north," he said, and Solo, consulting his own pack, nodded agreement.
"See you in Paris," Solo said, tucking the pack into his jacket pocket and stepping into the hallway.
Kuryakin shrugged on his jacket and was out the door himself in another minute.
Napoleon Solo led his FBI tail out of the hotel and away from the relative quiet of the side street into the bustle of the commercial district. "Walking the dog," he muttered ruefully as he spotted the reflection of his shadow carefully adjusting a thinning patch of lank brown hair in a store window across the street, and no doubt watching Solo's reflection.
In the few blocks they had been keeping company, of a sort, Solo had judged the man's tailing capabilities as adequate enough to be troublesome. This could go on all day, he decided, and turned to dart across the street, the curses of an outraged pastry truck driver raining on his head.
The FBI agent glanced around quickly, considering how to avoid the meeting, then turned to Solo with a resigned expression.
"It occurred to me if we're going to be spending time together, what with you being on your vacation, that maybe we ought to introduce ourselves," Solo said cheerily.
The agent glared back silently.
"Well, I'll start then," Solo said. "Napoleon Solo. No relation." He opened his jacket and carefully tugged a card folder from an inside pocket with two fingers. "My I.D.," he said, flipping the small booklet open and holding it toward the agent's face. The gas released was colorless and odorless and, in the larger scheme of things, harmless. For the next half hour, though, his tail would enjoy a debilitating 'high'. For the several hours to follow, he would pay with a massive headache.
As the man staggered forward, an expression of foolish concentration on his face, Solo clasped an arm around the man's waist and guided him down the sidewalk, carrying on a cheery and drunken patter. He steered the agent into a seat at an empty table at a sidewalk café, patted him solicitously on the shoulder, and strolled on his way.
There was no attempt at pretense when Kuryakin left the hotel room five minutes after his partner. He exchanged glares with the ruddy, red-haired FBI agent waiting in the hallway. They rode down in the elevator together in stony silence.
Kuryakin set a brisk pace along the sidewalk; the FBI agent scarcely a stride behind him. Aggressive, inexperienced, determined to make a point, Kuryakin analyzed.
They were in the business district now. Kuryakin slid smoothly between other pedestrians crowding the sidewalk; his shadow simply shoved them aside. At a red light, Kuryakin dutifully stopped at the curb, feeling the agent's presence close behind him and waiting for the right moment. There! He stepped back, grinding his heels onto the other man’s toes. There was a startled squawk. Kuryakin sprinted into the street and swung himself up onto the rear bumper of the passing news truck he had selected. The FBI agent made a hobbling attempt at running after the truck, then gave up and sent Kuryakin on his way with an obscene gesture.
After a ride of several blocks, Kuryakin hopped off the truck when it slowed for a comer, and connected with his partner at a small bistro.
The next several hours confirmed Solo's suspicion that a woman as well turned-out as Angelique had to put no small amount of effort into the effect. It confirmed Kuryakin's suspicion that Angelique was a vain and self-absorbed clothes horse with more money than she could have come by ethically.
The city's supply of sidewalk cafes came in handy as they waited outside dress shops and shoe stores, a beauty parlor and a perfume shop.
After the third perfumery and another sneezing attack on Kuryakin's part he decided he had suffered enough. The tracer was obviously functioning well, it hadn't misled them yet. And one of them needed to check in with Waverly.
"I'm going to Louis' office," Kuryakin announced. The analyses on the wine bottles that I took from the Chateau should be complete by now, and I want to know the results. Contact me if she shows any signs of intelligence." He rose from the cafe's chair, ignoring his partner's smile.
"Intimidated by a woman in her natural element?" Solo asked, turning a page of Le Monde.
"There is nothing natural about this woman. You should have realized that after the beauty parlor.'
"Give my regards to Louis," Solo returned, his eyes falling back to the newspaper. "And to Mr. Waverly."
"I'm certain he’ll want a full report of our morning's work, especially yours.” He walked away before Solo had time to answer.
Dancer stopped just inside the door of the small restaurant, composing herself. This was getting her nowhere, a point that Mr. Waverly had mentioned just a few hours ago. So far, the worst she could find out about Joe Pelle was that he didn't like Communists, he was fiercely loyal to his friends, he was devoted to his work, and he was a good dancer. And a good kisser. Very good.
Fortunately, he hadn't asked her back to his place which she had already searched to no avail and she hadn't asked him to hers. They met on neutral territory, like this restaurant or the movie theaters or a bar, had a great time, then parted, both coming up with feigned reasons for getting home alone.
It was growing more difficult, though. For one thing, she was finding out nothing of any interest to her superior. If Joe Pelle was selling out to Thrush, he was giving her no indication. And more importantly to her, he didn't seem the type. He wasn't vain or shallow or interested in money the way that most targets of Thrush were.
Which brought her to the second thing she was seriously beginning to like this man. He reminded her of the other important men in her life. He had Mark's sense of humor and slightly roguish approach to life. He had Napoleon's charm and ease, always seeming to know what to say at the right time. And he had Illya's intensity and alertness, an awareness of what was going on around him even when he was giving her all his attention. She was truly beginning to think that Mr. Waverly was wrong on this one. Pelle wasn't the type to surrender his loyalties, not intentionally.
She moved into the restaurant, looking into the areas that she herself would have chosen to sit. As she expected, he was in a far corner, his chair positioned so that his back was to the wall. He smiled as she neared, rising gracefully to help her remove her jacket and get seated.
"So, how was your day?" she asked, brushing her bangs out of her face.
"Better," he answered as he reseated himself and waved to the waiter. "I ordered wine is that all right?"
"Of course, what else does one have with Italian food?" She scanned the menu before her as their waiter poured wine from the half carafe into their glasses. Ordering wasn't difficult and within minutes, she was once more the center of her companion's attention.
"I think my boss has forgiven me," he said, sitting forward and leaning on the tabletop. "I've got a case in the morning."
"That's great!” she smiled sincerely. She wondered what had happened. "Did he come to his senses and realize that the firm can't run efficiently without you?"
Pelle laughed, but he also blushed slightly. It was one of his more endearing qualities. "I'm not actually sure what happened, to be honest. From what I understand, he thinks he's caught the real…rat, at least caught him circumstantially. I actually feel rather sorry for the guy; he's someone I like. And respect. But I'm glad to be off the list of suspects. My boss isn1 someone you want as an enemy."
"So I gather from what I've heard you say." She sipped her wine, still smiling to herself.
"Of course, it also means that it's going to be harder for us to see each other," Pelle continued. "I'm going to be doing a lot of traveling again."
"Oh." It wasn't difficult to sound disappointed. It was, though, a relief. "Well, we’ll do what we can. Where are you off to first?"
The rest of the evening passed quickly, and she enjoyed herself more than she had before. As he kissed her goodnight, promising to call as soon as he could, she evaluated the merits of taking him home.
But it somehow didn't feel right. This way, there were no feelings to hurt later, no more lies to have to tell. If Waverly still wanted her to stay on top of him, that door was open. In the interim, he was on Hoover's leash.
"It's about time."
Solo closed the door to the rental car, then took his time straightening his tie and smoothing his jacket before turning to his partner. "I wanted to be sure that we weren't going to be followed," he smiled, ignoring Kuryakin's irritation.
"Couldn't lose them, huh," the Russian translated. With a sigh, he pushed himself off the tree he had been leaning on and stood up. His arms were still crossed over his chest, though. "You were careless. Napoleon, they should never have picked you up again.'
"You get here on that?" Solo asked, changing the subject as he pointed to the motorbike resting not to far away. "It looks like a remainder from the last war."
"It is," Kuryakin acknowledged with a certain satisfaction. "They don't make them like that anymore.”
"Thank God. Where'd you get it?"
"Louis, of course. I had to get here somehow, after you took the car."
"The keys were on the dresser, fair game. If you had been with me, instead of off playing in the office, you could have followed her back to the hotel, where she picked up her car." Solo smiled smugly before he looked back to the other man.
"And you picked up the FBI. Again." Kuryakin’s smile was equally as smug.
Touche. "What were the results from your excursion last night?"
Kuryakin shook his head, his frustration visible. "The wine bottles show nothing so far. Nor do the corks. I do not understand. They are the Estate Reserve.'
Solo shrugged. "Perhaps you managed to find the one stash that was legitimate. After all, we are talking about Thrush, and Madame Les Menottes is a true vintner. Something could be happening to the bottles after they leave her control." It was a pleasant thought; he didn't want to think the woman he had met yesterday was on the side of U.N.C.L.E.'s enemy.
"It is possible," Kuryakin sighed reluctantly.
"So, what's going on here?"
Kuryakin relaxed his arms, dropping his hands into his pockets. "About a quarter mile ahead of us is a turn-off, leading to a warehouse area. It's not very large, about five buildings, all on the river. Louis says that a number of the wineries and distributors use the warehouses for storage prior to transportation. The river is a tributary to the Dordogne, not very big, but large enough for barges and transport boats. Apparently it's safer and quicker than using the railways."
"Given the strikes I keep hearing about, I’d have to agree." Solo glanced upwards, feeling the first hint of sweat. "Rather warm for an excursion, don't you think?"
"Not for those who have been ‘snug abed’ most of the morning, I should think," the Russian retorted. "The exercise should do you good. It's not a bad little stroll."
Solo frowned. "You've already been there?"
Kuryakin arched one eyebrow. "How else would I know what was there? Besides, I had to do something to entertain myself while I was waiting. I’d already finished the book I brought along."
“Not a bad little stroll” had Solo struggling to keep up. It wasn’t so much the woods they were walking through; for the most part, the underbrush and the foliage were easy to avoid or move around. It was the soft soil that was irritating, comprised of sand that seemed to seep directly through the stitching of Solo's best Italian loafers. By the time they arrived at the point where the woods gave way to the compound for the warehouses, he was sure he was carrying enough dirt to make a colony of ants very happy.
"That one," Kuryakin pointed with his chin toward the closest building, his eyes and hand too busy with the cigarette-pack receiver to do otherwise. "She's been in there for over an hour, in that same location the far left corner an office of some sort. There are two men walking the perimeter, and I assume there are more inside."
"How do we get in?"
Kuryakin shook his head. “The largest doors are on the other side, but they are closed. Apparently Thrush is not expecting any sort of pick-up or delivery today. On the left is a smaller door, close to the area where Angelique is now."
Solo surveyed that side of the warehouse, recognizing a car that he knew must be Angelique's. It was a two-door, convertible Alpha Romeo, silver, almost the color of her hair.
Her taste was one of his favorite things about her.
"So we go in that way," the senior U.N.C.L.E. agent commented.
"Louis says there is probably a screened grill on the floor level somewhere on this side for ventilation. I suggest we look for it."
Solo turned to look at the other man. '”That means crawling on the ground, doesn't it."
Kuryakin shrugged, returning his receiver to his jacket pocket. "Unless you want to walk up and ask Angelique what's going on, yes. I, personally, would rather crawl than ask her for anything."
"She, personally, would probably rather see you do that."
If he hadn't known better, Solo would have sworn that his partner picked a path that would lead them directly through the one mud puddle in the area.
Low shrubs bordered the forest side of the warehouses, so they had a natural shelter once they reached the building. The two Thrush guards on the outside didn't seem to be too enthusiastic about walking their posts, and Solo couldn't really blame them; as the afternoon progressed, it seemed to get hotter and hotter. While it was very uncomfortable to two agents in full suits trying to slip undetected into a warehouse, it did prove to their advantage. They made it into the shrub border without incident, other than the hole ripped into Solo's pants' leg.
The screened grill had not been used for a while. Kuryakin applied his pocket screwdriver to the metal prongs holding it in place and brought it away without too much noise.
The inner door, however, proved more bothersome.
"I need a lubricant," the Russian whispered as he used the tip of his pocketknife to pry at the door. "I don't suppose you have anything with you, do you?"
Solo had a quick retort on his tongue, refusing to waste this opportunity to comment on the need to always be prepared.
Until he realized that he wasn't. Anything he might have had was sitting on the dresser in Angelique's room, where he had emptied his pockets the night before.
"Never mind," Kuryakin muttered, his gaze cool. "I'll use the rest of my vial of oil and hope we don't need it for anything else."
It was delicate and time-consuming work. Eventually, though, the hinges were greased, the door no longer stuck to the frame, and they were ready to go in.
There seem to be several large crates just in front of this," Kuryakin whispered. He was lying on his back, his head in the dirt as he peered through the tiny opening he had created. "I’ll go first. Try not to slam the door when you come in."
Solo glared, an effect that was wasted as the slender blond pushed the door gently inward. For a second, they both tensed as a slight squeak issued from the rusty metal. Then the oil oozed farther into the resisting hinge and the door gave way quietly. Illya was able to push it open just enough to slide through before it touched the closest crate.
Solo waited until his partner's black shoes disappeared before following.
Or attempting to.
As he edged over the lip of the doorway and onto the cement floor, he realized that he was a little bit wider than the Russian. The space between the crate and the wall was just barely large enough for his frame.
Wiggling was difficult, but he managed to make it into the warehouse with a minimum of pain. He even thought that his difficulty might go unnoticed, until the side of his trousers caught on the corner of the door. The tell-tale sound of a rip seemed louder than he knew it was, especially as he lost control of the door at the very same instant, catching it with his knee just before it banged shut.
The pain he could ignore.
Kuryakin's hiss of irritation proved more difficult.
It did tell Solo, though, where his partner was. It was a relief to join him a few seconds later in the shadows behind a large column of crates.
Kuryakin motioned him to silence, gesturing with his chin toward the right. In the distance, the U.N.C.L.E. agents could hear voices, unrecognizable at first, until a throaty burst of laughter identified Angelique.
Guns already in hand, they edged forward, keeping in the protective shielding of the cartons and boxes housed in the large, open room.
As they drew closer, the conversation between Angelique and her companions grew more clear.
"...after the cutting. It is very difficult to get the tiny transmitters into the"
"Yes, Malreaux, Monsieur Marton is aware of the difficulties you face." Angelique sounded perfectly bored. "You will be paid as we discussed. Just leave the box on the table by the door. I'll get it on my way out."
The U.N.C.L.E. agents were close to the office now, and the door was open. They watched as a short, stocky man ambled from the room and to the right. Soon after he was out of sight, a door closed with a clang.
The voices in the office continued.
"Ma chere," came another male voice. It was deeper and much more informal. "Must you leave so soon?"
Angelique chuckled, a sound Solo knew too well. He frowned, trying not to think of the last time he had heard it as he was leaving her room that morning.
“As always, duty calls, darling." Her heels clicked on the floor, then she appeared in the doorway. Her friend was close behind, carrying her lightweight coat. "It's been fun, Andreas, you're always most entertaining." She stopped and turned to him, letting him help her on with the jacket.
Solo ignored the familiarity with which Andreas touched her, his hands smoothing the creases from her shoulders. Then her arms.
She kissed him lightly on the cheek, playful. But her tone was all business. "Make sure the corks are delivered tonight to our contact inside the winery. We can't afford any mistakes, and Napoleon and his irritating little friend are too close to us now."
She turned as the door slammed again, then they heard Malreaux say, "It is here, as you said. Bon apres midi."
"Et vous," Angelique answered.
"I'll walk you out," Andreas said as the door closed yet again.
"You just want another look at my car," she teased, but she put one arm through his as allowed herself to be escorted away.
Kuryakin waited until after the door closed to say softly, "I'll get the box. Cover me."
It was a simple plan, and effective. The box wasn't large, the Russian could carry it on one hip. It also wasn't heavy it was filled with cork.
But they couldn't get out the trapdoor, not without moving the crates in front of it.
“The big doors," Solo suggested reluctantly.
"If we must."
The doors were on the same wall as the office, and facing the river. They were also operated by machinery, so there would be no way to sneak out quietly.
But there might be a way to surprise the Thrush guards.
As the doors rose, the chains pulling them clanking loudly over the hum of the lift machine itself, there was a short interval when nothing happened.
Then, as Solo and Kuryakin expected, the two Thrush guards rushed in, their rifles pointed and ready, only to be caught in a crossfire between the two U.N.C.L.E. agents, one on either side of the door.
With the two guards unconscious from the U.N.C.L.E. sleep darts, Solo and Kuryakin had expected to rush out and to the left, around the back of the warehouse and into the woods, setting a steady pace back to their vehicles.
They hadn't expected it to be time for a Thrush shift change.
The agents were already out the door, Solo in the lead and turning to the left when the Thrush back-up team rounded the corner of the building the very corner they were aiming for.
Survival instinct demanded a new course, and Solo found one straight ahead.
"Come on," he called to his partner, who was still carrying the box.
"The river," Kuryakin reminded him as they ran along.
"Andreas," Solo returned, looking to the right and past his partner. "Duck."
They zigzagged across the asphalt loading area, staying a mere few steps ahead of their pursuers. As they neared the docks, their options diminished; the Thrush men were closing in, their aim getting better. Solo felt the burn of metal as one bullet cut into his sleeve.
He was more aware, though, of the lone boat on the water ahead of them the only boat he had seen so far.
"You've got to be joking," Kuryakin sighted it at the same time. But his arguments ceased as wooden splinters from the planks at his feet shot upward, another close call.
"Keep going," Solo ordered, even as he whirled, dropped and fired. It bought them little time, but enough to get Illya to the boat, boarded, and the docking rope cut.
The small vessel rocked precariously as Solo jumped aboard and pushed it off, all in one motion. "Paddles?"
"Hurry," Kuryakin said, looking over his shoulder. "They're almost here."
They worked well as a team; before the Thrush men reached the end of the dock, they were moving away from it rather quickly, rowing strongly. Several shots shattered the dry wood of the tiny boat, motivating them even more; when they reached the center of the river, the current helped them along, taking them almost out of range.
The bullet caught Solo just across the temple, a graze. The irritation wasn't that he was shot, it was that he lost his balance. And just at the peak of the arc of the oar, as all of his weight was straining against the heavy apathy of the water.
He hated swimming. That thought came to him as he realized he was submerged in the icy wash of late- spring rain, the extra run-off helping the swell the river and increase the current.
Even worse, he hated sinking, and he had the vague sense of other things descending around him.
Consciousness faded in and out. Instinctively, he reached out, trying to push his way upwards, but his arms were uncooperative, his body still caught in the shock of the blow to his head. His movements were feeble, slow, and certainly no match for the drift that carried him deeper. Without a thought, he answered the demand of his body to breathe, realizing his mistake only as his nose and mouth were filled with the taste of the river.
Just as he was beginning to feel the first jolt of panic, something latched onto his collar, jerking him from his downward path. Then slowly but with gaining speed, he was pulled upward and toward the surface. His lungs ached for air, but he held out, waiting until, with a loud splash he was yanked into a world he could more easily define.
"Easy," a familiar voice murmured in his ear as he coughed, spitting up the water he had swallowed. "Be still."
Then his lungs were working and he was taking in oxygen.
Awareness slowly returned, and he recognized the far-away sound of guns going off. His head ached, and it hurt worse when he opened his eyes. Then he realized that he was floating, his arms and legs resting just below the surface of the water.
"Illya?" It came out more as a croak, and the attempt to say it produced another fit of coughing.
But when it cleared, his partner answered, "Yes, we got away. The current swept us out of their reach faster than I expected."
With effort, Solo turned his head. In the distance, he could fuzzily make out the dock, the Thrush guards still standing on it and shooting in their general direction. Every so often, a fountain of water would erupt, but it was never really close to them. Something large floated in the water, and it was surrounded by lots of little, bobbing buoys. Solo was vaguely aware that he should know what they were, and that he should be disturbed by seeing them there. But at the moment, his head hurt too much to care.
Then he was jolted to a stop, and Kuryakin's arm caught him across the chest. "We're at the shore. Can you stand?"
It was an effort, and it made him sick to his stomach. But with his partner's help, he managed to pull himself onto dry land and into a nearby copse of trees.
"They won't be long trying to find us," Kuryakin warned, helping Solo to a sitting position at the base of a large oak.
"Give me a minute," Solo mumbled, reaching for his head. He winced as he touched it, then winced again as he looked at his fingers to find them covered with blood.
"Here." The handkerchief was wet, but it was cool and soothing to the painful wound. Then strong fingers probed at the injury, and Solo heard himself groan.
"It's not too bad, but you'll hurt for a while. It doesn't seem to have penetrated that thick skull of yours, though," the Russian commented. "We need to get a lift."
Solo closed his eyes, knowing without knowing that his partner was reaching for his communicator, opening it, and twisting it. "Open Channel R."
The conversation didn't take long at least, Solo didn't think it did. He couldn't remember most of it later. But when he opened his eyes, he found the Russian putting his communicator away. The blue eyes met his, satisfied. "Louis will be here soon. He knows where we are."
"Corks." The word snapped to his mind and it took a second to remember why. "We lost them."
"Most of them, yes. I couldn't get the box and you at the same time.
"Thanks for choosing me. It might have been easier, though, to get a couple of the corks. Easier to explain to Waverly."
"Yes," the Russian agreed. "But I managed to get the box open before I came looking for you, so it wasn’t a complete loss." After pushing his wet hair from his eyes, Kuryakin tugged at the cuff of the left sleeve of his turtleneck. Three corks fell to the ground before him.
"Smart Russian," Solo grinned until the world started to reel.
"I assumed Mr. Waverly would prefer that we come back with something besides another medical bill and a new wardrobe for you.'
Solo started to respond, but it suddenly seemed too much of an effort. In fact, almost everything did.
Except closing his eyes.
"It was too easy."
Solo watched his partner pace the length of their hotel room once again, then closed his eyes. While his headache wasn't as bad as it had been a while ago, the Russian's constant, restless movements were starting to make his head pound again. "My head disagrees with you," he said.
"It doesn't feel right, Napoleon."
Solo settled farther back against the headboard of his bed and reached yet again to his head. The bandage that covered the wound was irritating, the tape pulling every time he frowned. And he was frowning a lot right now, every time Illya voiced his unease. "The transmitters were real, they were in the corks. Even as we speak, Section Two in Paris is checking out the company that imports the corks and is raiding their warehouses, to find out where the transmitters are being fitted. We now know how Thrush found out about the FBI raid, and how they controlled Smythe-Parker. It was, as you figured out, the corks."
"Then why didn't we find a transmitter in your fireplace?" the Russian asked. "Or in the bottles that I took from the Chateau?"
He sighed. "Section Three is working on that now, but my guess, as uneducated as it is, is that the transmitters are too small think how tiny it would have to be. Almost the size of one of those tiny microchip things they're designing for computers. And to remind you, we did find bits of metal in my fireplace. Metal that even you said was too small and too melted to completely analyze. Besides, they may not have put transmitters in every bottle of wine. Some of them had to be legitimate. Come on, Illya, let it go. We found what we came to find, the mystery is solved, yet another Thrush plot ended. All we have to do now is report it all to the French police and let them put an end to the wine club, or find Marton. I rather doubt that will happen, he's probably long gone by now. But keeping an eye out for him will give Louis something to do other than create more children." He winced at the thought, remembering the toys scattered throughout the car that Louis had driven to pick them up.
"I don't think it's that easily finished. Marton is too sneaky to have no back-up!”
He was interrupted by a knock on the door.
Reacting instinctively, Solo was up, his hand closing over his Walther, eyes open and focused as he nodded to his partner.
"Comment?" the Russian called, taking position to the left of the door while Solo took a spot to the right. Both men had their guns at the ready.
"It's Angelique," responded a sultry voice on the other side. "I've come to see Napoleon. Truce, darling. I heard you were injured in that last little…adventure."
“He’s fine," Kuryakin called, his fingers clenching tighter on the grip of his gun.
"Napoleon, darling," she called, her voice taking on a sing-song lilt. “I promise, no tricks. May I come in?”
Solo sighed, more because of the look of murderous intent on his partner's face. "It's all right, Illya," he said, "I'll handle this. Besides, it might put your mind at rest."
"Only when she's at rest,” the other man spat. He stepped away from the door, but he didn't put his gun away.
"Are you alone?" Solo called, his left hand hovering over the doorknob. He, too, still held his weapon at the ready.
"Of course, darling. It wouldn't be terribly wise for me to come calling with my associates, not at the moment. My employers aren't too happy with the fact that I led you to our little operation. Really, Napoleon, how ungentlemanly of you, putting a transmitter on me."
Before he opened the door, he still looked through the eyehole. Angelique was, indeed, alone.
Other than the FBI shadow that was virtually invisible.
As if on cue, Illya said sarcastically, "I'm sure Hoover will understand this visit. A sympathy call from a Thrush viper."
Angelique smiled coldly as she entered the room, two very familiar bottles cradled in her left arm. "His love for me is greatly overshadowed by his affection for you, dearest,” she purred to Illya. "Still dressing for your funeral, I see. I'm so sorry we couldn't accommodate you. I profess, I did my best this afternoon. Unfortunately, my darling Napoleon intercepted the message I addressed to you this afternoon. It's a mistake I'll never forgive myself for."
Kuryakin met her gaze, equally as chilly. "I'm certain you won't."
"To what do I owe this visit?" Solo asked, staring pointedly at the bottles. The pain in his head was again prominent, no longer subdued by the adrenaline in his system.
Angelique turned back to him, her mood softer. "I was worried about you, darling. I knew that you had been hit, but I didn't know how badly. The last we heard was that your little friend was dragging you onto the shore, then you vanished into the trees. By the time I could send help, you were already gone."
“Fortunately," Kuryakin muttered, leaning back against the wall and crossing his arms over his chest. His gun was pointed at her back, right between her shoulder blades.
'Well, as you can see, I'm just a little the worse for wear. I did ruin a new suit, though." He smiled, appreciating her composure.
"I feel terrible about that," she pouted. Elegantly, she lifted one hand to his head, delicately touching the bandage. “And about that. As this is France and none of us are currently needed by our respective employers, perhaps I can make it up to you in some small way. Dinner, perhaps? We can have it here, in your room. I've even brought the wine."
"Do you need protection?" Kuryakin asked sharply. "I would wager that your superiors are not too happy with you now. And they tend to move much faster than the French police."
Her voice was testy as she answered, but she didn't look at him, her eyes still on Solo's face, which she caressed tenderly. "If I were to need protection, dearest, Napoleon is certainly the man I would come to. And while I may need to lay low for a while, my status is hardly in question."
Kuryakin snorted, and Solo himself smiled. That was as close to a yes as they would get from her.
"Join us?" Solo asked his partner as he took the woman's hand in one of his. He lightly kissed it on the red painted fingernails before relinquishing it.
"You're not serious," Kuryakin challenged, straightening. "Napoleon?"
"It is free meal," Solo grinned as he returned his gun to its holster.
"No meal with her is ever free," the Russian responded.
"Well, perhaps I enjoy paying the price," he returned, his eyes on Angelique. She smiled in return. "Are you sure you won't join us?" he asked again, reaching for the room service menu. "There are some truly delightful house specialties."
When the Russian didn't answer, Solo looked up to find the other man staring at him, the blue eyes neutral.
It was unsettling; Illya usually reserved that look for things under his microscope.
Then Kuryakin looked away, reaching for the black jacket on the back of a nearby chair.
"I have some things to do," he said shortly, shrugging into the coat as he moved to the door.
"Remember, we have a plane to catch in the morning," Solo said lightly.
There was no response, just the slamming of the door.
"Such a dour young man," Angelique commented. "Honestly, darling, I simply do not understand how you put up with him."
Solo stared at the closed door, frowning. "Sometimes, neither do I," he mumbled, thinking again of the expression on his partner's face, and the fact that Illya had never put away his gun.
He sat in the bar, moodily sipping a glass of imported stout, and repelling the interest of a middle-aged woman who purred at him in wine-scented breath, asking for the time, a light for her cigarette, for directions to the restroom. Eventually, his surliness penetrated her alcohol haze and she sulkily moved several seats away and asked a bearded young man for the time.
Left alone, Kuryakin spent about five minutes attempting to analyze Napoleon’s fascination with the female spider. With an impatient shake of his head, he abandoned that train of thought he had spent far too much time worrying at that mystery already. Much more efficient to consider the issue of corks, and his own uneasiness. Napoleon was right, it did seem that the trail had led them directly here, to that warehouse, to the conclusion that the corks were the source of Thrush eavesdropping. Even now, a team brought in from Paris was contacting vintners on the "Ies plus" list and Madame Les Menottes was leading the angry charge to purge the organization of "undesirable elements." Thrush was, for the present, free to continue manufacturing the suspect corks, but their markets, forewarned, were disappearing.
They had won. More importantly, Angelique had lost. Cause for celebration, surely. And yet… It had been too easy. He could hear Napoleon's voice “Sometimes, Illya, the easy answer is the right one.”
But why had Angelique brought those bottles of the damned wine? An appropriate acknowledgment that her scheme had failed? Or a subtle snide message that the game was not yet over?
He sighed and drained his glass, gesturing for another. Movement caught his eye. The middle-aged woman walking out, clutching the arm of the young man. She tossed a look of triumph at him over her shoulder.
"Too bad. She looks like she could be accommodating." The American voice came over his shoulder, disconcertingly close. He turned to find his own FBI tail sliding onto the stool beside him. "Whiskey," the man called to the bartender.
"So," he continued, leaning close so his bulky shoulder pressed against Kuryakin's arm, "your pal Solo's up in your room with what's her name? The one who supplied him with the bug to screw Pelle. And you had to clear out. Know how you feel, been there myself Well, not since college. Hell of a deal you do all the work and he gets the girl."
The man closed a thick fist around the shot glass and raised it in mock salute to Kuryakin. It was tempting to contemplate shoving the glass down the man's throat, but he settled for spilling his drink over the thick thighs as he tossed payment onto the bar and walked out.
In the lobby, he glanced at his watch. An hour and a half. Surely that was long enough for whatever Napoleon had planned. In the relative privacy of a phone booth, he pulled out his communicator.
"Solo here." There had been no delay in the response.
"Where is 'here’?"
"We have retired to the lady's room."
He closed the communicator then sat in the booth for a bit, waiting for the angry FBI agent in the stained trousers to pick him out. Kuryakin stepped from the booth, passed by the elevator, and started up the stairs at a trot. He took some satisfaction from the sound of panting and heavy footsteps behind him.
The remains of dinner were scattered over the room's small table and the cart left by the waiter. Poking through the remains, Kuryakin picked up a grilled red potato and began chewing on it. A costly meal by the look of it, and half of it wasted. He ‘tsked' and tore off a piece of the scarcely touched loaf of crusty French bread. Even the wine, that damned familiar label on a bottle still half full. And the cork? He pawed with new purpose through the dishes and napkins, under steam covers and found it, crumbled into small, harmless bits. He could too easily picture Angelique's newly manicured, perfect nails shredding the soft material to demonstrate to his partner that there was no danger. No danger at all. The cork from the other bottle was no doubt suffering the same fate up in Angelique's room.
Grabbing the wine bottle by its neck, he slumped in the room's most comfortable chair. Between chewy bread and incautious and hearty slugs from the bottle, he made his dinner. Physically satisfied and mentally not, he sat glaring balefully around the room, at the signs of Napoleon and Angelique's presence, and their departure.
He seethed for a few seconds, then decided it was pointless. There were other things to be concerned about, he observed as he killed off the wine.
It had been too easy.
With a growl of frustration, he flung the empty bottle toward the table. It shattered with surprising ease, and he winced guiltily at the shards of glass and dribble of wine on the beige rug.
What peculiar shards they were. He leaned forward to see better in the subdued lighting. Very peculiar. He slid off the chair and crawled close, reaching carefully for a longish piece, regular in proportions as if cut by a skilled glass cutter.
Pulling a penlight and magnifying glass from a hidden pocket, he examined the shard closely. The breaks followed a tiny line of bubbles in the glass. Was that a wire running through the glass, so fine it could scarcely be seen even with the magnifying glass? With growing excitement, he checked piece after piece. Not the corks the bottles! Some sort of transmitter built directly into the glass, and the acidic wine providing the power. And the corks, so cleverly tossed in their way, like a trail of crumbs left by a manipulative witch to lead them to her doorstep. He smiled at the twisted analogy, and smiled more broadly in satisfaction. It had been too easy, and he couldn't wait to tell Napoleon all about it.
He leaned the borrowed motorbike against the north side of a largish pine at the edge of the woods, leaving it visible enough so that Solo would have no trouble spotting it but hidden from those inside the brick building in the industrial park just across the field of Kuryakin grimaced grape vines.
Pulling a tiny set of binoculars from one of his many pockets, he focused on the building from the shelter of the undergrowth. He could make out the shape of the aged structure, lights from a row of windows picking out the weathered bricks and the metal roof glinting dully in the moonlight. Steam rose in luxurious clouds from several chimneys.
An old and innocuous glass factory, Louis had reported, barely suppressing a 'tsk’ of disapproval and impatience with this continued fretting over a case that had already been solved so satisfactorily.
But the old and innocuous factory had gained a new owner two years earlier L’Industries des Grives. The name had meant nothing to him or Louis, but the U.N.C.L.E. computer in New York had recognized it, and linked it circuitously to Victor Marton.
So, here he was again, contemplating an excursion into a Thrush enterprise, and Napoleon was…Kuryakin sighed.
He could probably should wait a bit longer for his partner to arrive, but it galled him to crouch here in what, with his luck, would probably prove to be the French equivalent of poison ivy, while Napoleon was still entangled in the web of the black widow.
With a snort of annoyance, Kuryakin tucked away the binoculars, pulled out his gun, and set off through the field, darting from the scant shelter of one staked vine to another.
He was close now, and moving slower, scanning the darkness for any sign he had been spotted. There, on the roof a flicker in the moonlight on the barrel of a gun. At the comer, another. He crouched, studying the pattern of the overlapping patrol. Suddenly, one of the guns was swinging his way, pointing down, and there was a shout of excitement. He scrambled backwards, losing his footing, as the rifle cracked. Two rows away, a rabbit sprang into the air and exploded in fur and viscera.
The marksman was laughing and pointing out his skill, but the pale moon of his partner's face was turned just to the side, and that rifle was sweeping the field. When the red dot of the laser focus was on his belly, Kuryakin rose slowly, holding out his gun, and walked forward to meet the armed figures erupting from the building.
Solo turned off the car and let it glide silently into the shelter of the copse of trees. He braked only as it neared the bike his partner had driven, the vehicle once more borrowed from Louis.
This time, though, Solo felt no satisfaction at the thought of disturbing the agent-in-residence. This time, Illya had been right, it had been too easy.
The senior agent sighed as he got out of the car and looked around. He had come as soon as he could, but extricating himself from Angelique without causing suspicion had taken longer than he wanted. He hadn1 had to lie about the headache, though; after Illya's cryptic call, he had had one. It had grown worse since he returned to the empty hotel room only to hear through Louis where his partner was and what was going on.
He wasn't surprised that Illya wasn't here to greet him. Knowing the Russian, he expected that Kuryakin had gone off on his own, under the guise of reconnaissance, to check out the buildings he could see across the cultivated fields the glass-making factory.
L’Industries des Grives owned by one Victor Marton.
He hated it when Illya was right.
Sighing again, he looked to the well-lit buildings in the distance. At least he was better dressed for a hike this time. He had already acquired the nondescript clothing of the local workers; to slip away from his FBI tail, he had stopped at a bar on the outskirts of Saint-Emilion. A drunk vineyard worker in the small restroom had accepted his money and his suit in exchange for the worn and sweaty clothing and beret that had allowed the agent to slip away from his shadow. The boots were a little too big, but they would make it to the glass factory. And the beret covered the bandage he was wearing, making him a little less conspicuous.
The moon had been bright earlier, but now it was sheltered behind some clouds. In some ways, that was to his advantage; it would be harder for the guards on the roof to see him. But it made slipping through the grape vines harder. Fortunately, the guards patrolling the fence surrounding the factory would have a hard time seeing him in the darkness. And, with his usual luck, the plant ran on three shifts, one of which was changing as he neared the perimeter.
Tugging his beret lower, he slipped from the ditch that bordered the small employee parking lot and tried to blend in with the muttering groups of men that were getting out of cars and moving toward the employee gate.
The factory was small, and the third shift was composed of about 50 men by Solo’s estimation. There were two guards at the gate, both wearing uniforms that were variations on the tan jumpsuit the agent was accustomed to seeing on Thrush personnel. If he had had any doubts about his partner's new theories, they were gone when he recognized the emblem of the bird on the stocks of the rifles the guards carried.
Timing would be important; the guards were checking the I.D.'s of the men going in. It was nothing more than a glance at a piece of paper the men carried in their wallets, but it was something that Solo didn't have. As he neared the gate, he noticed that the guard on the left was paying less attention than the one on the right.
And the one on the left was easily distracted by the men going out, the second shift workers who were leaving. If he could slow down enough for the next group coming from the building…
He pulled out his wallet, opening it to his international driver's license that seemed to be the closest to the I.D.'s he could see in the wallets of the men around him. At least it was the same size and color. Acting nonchalant, he strolled along casually, his timing perfect. The men coming out jostled him as he neared the guard, then one of them spoke directly to the guard, a casual good night that drew the man's attention. Solo lifted his wallet as he walked through the gate. For an instant, he thought the guard was going to call him back, and he hold his breath. But as he kept moving, not meeting the man’s eyes, he saw peripherally that the guard hesitated, then shrugged. Someone else called out, and the Thrush's attention was off Solo.
He was in. Now all he had to do was find his partner.
"You seem restless, Mr. Kuryakin."
Kuryakin stopped his struggles at the drawled words and looked up into the face of an old enemy. "Just excited to see you again," he said.
Marton smiled, displaying large, perfect teeth. "And I, you. May I say, and I mean this in the most positive terms possible, that you are a damnably troublesome young man. I must admit that I was tempted just to have you chucked into the furnace. But, as Central had a team on its way here anyway, they insisted on speaking with you."
"To pick up the bottles?"
Marton frowned in confusion. "I beg your pardon?"
"The team that is on its way,” Kuryakin said slowly, "is it coming to pick up the bottles?"
"Their purpose is of no importance to you. I suggest that you worry about yourself," Marton said rather haughtily.
So, they were coming after the bottles. Absent-mindedly twisting at the ropes that tied him, Kuryakin considered. Either it was a regularly scheduled pick-up, or Thrush had been spooked and was moving the operation. Best to assume the worst, he decided. If Thrush was ready to move on, this operation needed to be shut down. Immediately. Who knew what mischief they would get up to in a new location massage oil bottles, perfume atomizers, salad dressing, beer or soda bottles he thought with alarm of the orange juice that he kept in his own refrigerator. This had to be stopped, now, or no conversation would be private.
Marton sat at a table with an open suitcase. With obvious ostentation, he turned a dial or two inside the case. Then came muffled noise, too indistinct to make out what was happening.
Marton frowned. His demonstration was not going as planned.
“A few bugs still to be worked out," Kuryakin offered mildly.
"On the contrary, Mr. Kuryakin. We get excellent reception. Mr. Solo's voice carries particularly well." Marton indicated the suitcase. "Self-contained and a respectable range of reception. Quite an innovation. We've just perfected it, and I have the only model. Perhaps you recognize the suitcase? I kept it for sentimental reasons."
Marton started at a loud click from the receiver. There was a magnified rustling sound, then, "Marton?" Angelique's voice. "Victor, I know you are listening, you or one of your toadies. He is long gone. I am going to take a bath, so you can just turn this damned thing off. Better yet, you take a bath." There were footsteps, a sudden and decisive plop, and the receiver went dead.
His face red with anger, or embarrassment, Marton switched off the unit.
"Interesting technology," Kuryakin said. "Pity you haven't managed to install a camera, as well."
Marton glared at him and sank behind his desk to wait for the team from Thrush Central.
Exploring the factory had been easier than Solo thought. Now, though, that worried him.
After getting in, he had moved with the other workers into the bottom floor of the factory itself, taking the opportunity to study the layout of the place. From what he could tell, it was, indeed, a glass factory. Most of the workers worked on the ground floor, in one of the various positions that produced, shaped, cooled or packaged the green bottles that were produced almost in an assembly-line fashion. It hadn't taken the agent long to figure out that any illicit operations were not being carried out here.
That left the second floor.
Getting there had been a little more difficult. While there were no uniformed Thrush personnel guarding the doors in the building, they did wander about proprietarily. Ultimately, Solo resorted to one of his least favorite tricks he hefted a box of bottles onto one shoulder and acted as though he knew what he was doing. No one stopped or questioned him as he pushed open the door to the stairway and started up.
The second floor was much different from the first, comprised of a series of smaller rooms. The two at one end were larger than all the others, and they contained smaller versions of the furnaces on the ground floor that were used for keeping the glass liquid. While neither room was occupied at the moment, they had been used recently; heat still radiated from the ceramic furnaces, and several of the tables were littered with tools, paper cups and other signs of habitation.
And with slender, wire filaments, so thin as to be virtually invisible. Had the beam from his small flashlight not glittered off one of the strands, he would not have seen them at all.
Tucking it into his pocket, he headed back to the door, taking care to leave it as he had found it locked.
Most of the doors on this level we also secured, and he wondered if Illya were trapped behind one of them. Several times he felt the urge to reach for his communicator, but each time he worried that his partner was in the same position he was, sneaking stealthily about, hiding in corners or deep shadows. At times like that, the sound of the two-tone signal could mean capture or death.
Instead, the senior agent moved silently along the corridor toward the opposite end, checking every door, peering in any window that was available, and generally trying to get a feel for the place.
As he neared the far end, he heard the voice that he had been hoping for. Unfortunately. Kuryakin was in the company of another unmistakable voice.
"…excellent reception. Mr. Solo's voice carries particularly well. Self-contained, and a respectable range of reception. Quite an innovation. Perhaps you recognize the suitcase? I kept it for sentimental reasons."
The sound of other voices forced Solo out of the corridor and into a darkened alcove. He had his gun ready as the newcomers, two Thrush guards, from the sound of it, approached, and he crouched and tensed to fire.
But they stopped at the door he had just abandoned, knocked once, then entered. The door closed firmly behind them, giving Solo an opportunity he couldn't afford to lose.
Getting back into the rooms with the filaments wasn't difficult, he was now practiced in picking those particular locks. Finding a way to destroy the production facilities was somewhat harder. As luck would have it, there were several empty bottles lying about, as well as a variety of cleaning substances. If his basic chemistry was correct, he could create a few volatile little devices.
And if his timing and luck held, he thought with a smile, the explosions would occur just when he needed for them to. All he had to do was place his delicate mixtures in the right places on the furnaces themselves, then turn them back on. Hopefully, no one would find them before his little bombs had time to reach critical mass.
Which would give him time to get back to his partner.
The door to Marton's room was open when he returned, leaving him to assume that the two Thrush guards had left. The only voices he heard from the inside were those of the Thrush leader and Kuryakin, and after a few seconds, he decided he didn't have time to spare. Bracing himself and with his gun ready, he slipped inside the door, closing it behind him.
His entry interrupted Marton in mid-sentence. The Frenchman recovered quickly, though, a sign of his experience. "Welcome, Mr. Solo. You're a bit earlier than I anticipated. Angelique normally demands more attention."
Solo smiled, his eyes not leaving the other man even as he moved toward the chair where Illya was tied. "She was patient with me tonight," he agreed. “You all right?" The last was directed toward the Russian, but Marton answered.
"Of course he is," the Thrush leader smiled. He sat back in his chair and his hands came together, his fingers steepling in front of his face. "We were having a delightful chat about my latest invention. I daresay, Solo, that if it weren't for your young friend's annoying persistence, this particular situation would have ended this afternoon."
"Yes," Solo agreed even as he reached into his pants' pocket with his left hand to retrieve his knife, "Illya's persistence is often quite annoying, especially because it tends to be correct." It took several attempts to cut the ropes around his partner's wrists, the task made difficult because Solo refused to look away from Marton.
"You do not honestly believe that you can escape," the Frenchman commented. "I have guards throughout the complex, and most of them are now looking for you, personally. You won't get"
"I think they will soon be busy with other things," Solo interrupted. For the first time, he glanced at his partner as Kuryakin stood up, pulling the hemp from his wrists and shaking his arms to get the blood circulating once more.
"Such as?" Marton arched one eyebrow, his expression still smug.
The first explosion answered him, shaking the whole floor. The second explosion was equally as effective, but the ones after that, occurring together and so quickly that they were indistinguishable, created chaos. Before the deafening rumbles ceased, alarms started, making it almost impossible to hear. Dust from the ceiling tiles and smoke coming from the air ducts quickly filled the room, making it difficult to breathe. And the shaking of the floor had driven the two U.N.C.L.E. agents to their knees.
Then the door burst open, admitting several conscientious Thrush guards.
The firefight was brief, Solo managing to hit one of the men even as the U.N.C.L.E. agent himself was rolling to a safer position behind the nearby couch. By the time he felt secure enough to go for the second one, the man was gone, and Victor Marton with him.
Solo rose slowly to his feet, still ready for a surprise attack even as he sought out Kuryakin.
"Over here," the Russian announced after a few seconds. "What sort of explosives were you using plastique?" He was grabbing at papers on Marton's desk and shoving them under his sweater.
"Just some stuff I found lying around," Solo answered. "I would suggest that we get out of here, though. I doubt that the fire will contain itself for long."
"Just one more thing," Kuryakin called as he moved from behind the desk. From a nearby table, he grabbed a few more papers, then turned his attention to some sort of portable mechanical device that sat open on the tabletop. After examining it for a few seconds longer than Solo liked, he touched several knobs on the operating panel, then closed the device as though it were a suitcase. "Mr. Waverly will want this."
The next explosion shook the whole building, and Solo had no doubt that the fire had spread to the floor beneath them, the cleaning chemicals probably dripping through new cracks in the floor and onto the larger furnaces downstairs. That had been his plan, anyway.
"Come on,” he yelled over the din.
Kuryakin nodded, started after him, then turned back. Solo was at the door when he noticed his friend was back at the desk. But this time, he understood why; the Russian was retrieving his gun and communicator from the top drawer, where Marton had placed them.
Escaping was difficult, not so much because of Thrush but because of the spreading smoke and flames. It was a relief to get out of the building, the cool air rejuvenating. As they reached the parking lot, a long, silver Mercedes charged toward them, sending them in different directions. Gunfire rang out, and Solo heard the “plunk” of bullets hitting the ground near him, but the car continued onward and away. Marton had escaped them.
Solo watched the sedan vanish into the darkness down the road, pocketing his gun only as he noticed people beginning to look at him and Kuryakin. The Russian joined him soon thereafter, suitcase still in hand, and, without a glance backward at the burning building, they started back to their vehicles.
"You were right," Solo said conversationally as they strolled across the field.
"It happens," the Russian acknowledged.
"Quite often, as a matter of fact," Solo agreed. "One day, you're going to make someone a good spy."
He hadn't really expected her to be there. but for the sake of form, he had to make sure. He smiled as he picked up the envelope addressed to him from its place on the pillows of the large bed. Her handwriting, of course, the lettering demonstrating a sort of calligraphy, another of Angelique's many talents.
"Darling, it's been fun, but I'm afraid our truce must end for the moment. I’II miss you, but I’II look forward to next time. And tell your grim friend to watch his step. Certainly we don't want anything to happen to him, do we?"
Solo shook his head, make the requisite search of the room and found nothing, then returned to the room he shared with his partner.
"You're back," the Russian stated flatly. "She's gone."
"Like a gypsy in the night," Solo agreed.
"Please, do not insult the gypsies that way. Compared to her, they are a highly ethical people."
Solo laughed lightly, settling on his bed as he watched the other man pack. With a glance at his watch, he yawned. "Three hours until the plane leaves. That's hardly time for a nap.”
"No, but it is time for breakfast," Kuryakin reminded him. "And you're buying."
"Why me?" Solo demanded. But his tone was playful.
"Because I saved you from an embarrassing public scene that could have meant the end of your career."
Solo snorted. "We threw the cork out the window, Illya, and the bottle stayed in this room, as you well know."
The Russian arched one eyebrow, almost smiling. "I meant with Mr. Waverly, when you had to explain why, after we found out about the corks, the blackmail continued."
"Oh." But he smiled. "All right, I guess I can pay for breakfast. How much can you eat?"
He regretted that question even as he asked it.
A stocky Negro took Alexander Waverly's hat and led him down a wide hallway, its oak floor gleaming warmly, and into a spacious den. A fire crackled in an elegant tile hearth and the sweet scent from an enormous bouquet of roses filled the room. Hoover, formal even in his home, was standing in front of the fire in a suit and tie.
He motioned Waverly into the room. "My assistant, Clyde Tolson," Hoover said as a tall, lean man unfolded himself from the couch and held out a large hand.
"I, hmm, have heard of him," Waverly responded, returning the handshake and the man's stony gaze.
"So," Hoover said, "you have something to tell me?"
He hadn't been asked, but Waverly took the time to settle himself comfortably into one of the wing-backed chairs flanking the fireplace. "My agents have returned from their mission, successfully. The mischief, as I suspected, lay with Thrush."
'Thrush." Hoover shook his head. "You're starting to sound like Kennedy, always ranting about the Mafia. Now we get this Thrush to blame for everything."
"They are a reality," Waverly said firmly. "And, in this case, they were, indeed, 'to blame.' Their researchers had developed a rather ingenious system for using ordinary glass as a radio transmitter. Initially, their vessel was a wine bottle, but no doubt it would not have been long before they were expanding the technology. My agents," he emphasized the possessive slightly, "were able to destroy the manufacturing facility and capture the technology."
"Your agent,” Hoover emphasized the possessive, "lured my agent into a conversation over one of those transmitters, I believe."
“Unknown to Mr. Solo, one of the transmitters was in his apartment on the evening your man came asking for help, yes."
Hoover's bulldog jaw worked for a minute. Tolson stood on braced legs and glared. Leaning back, Waverly casually crossed his legs and let his gaze travel around the room with its heavy, antique furniture. The room held rather too much in the way of floral prints for Waverly's somewhat austere tastes. His gaze stopped on a mahogany sideboard that was doing duty as a liquor cabinet. If his eyes could be trusted and they had proved remarkably keen so far the familiar label was attached to not one, but an ostentatious row of five wine bottles on the top shelf.
Carefully controlling his expression, the U.N.C.L.E. chief pondered the situation. It made sense, of course. Hoover would be the perfect target for such a scheme. And, if widely circulated rumors were true, there would be quite a bit of useful conversation to pick up from this house. It would be appropriate, of course, to point out the bottles to Hoover. But, he reminded himself, it no longer really mattered, since the receiver was locked safely in the U.N.C.L.E. labs. Better, perhaps, to let the matter rest; no point wasting a perfectly good wine if, indeed, Hoover would even believe him. The man had an annoying habit of twisting everything one said in the worst possible way.
Hoover was talking again, blurting something about not being satisfied still, about taking the matter up with the President and suggesting that U.N.C.L.E. may not be the best investment for the country's tax dollars.
Waverly tore his eyes away from the wine and rose decisively. "Nonsense, Mr. Hoover. You will do nothing of the kind," he said. "We were both the victims of a superior technology. The technology has now been nullified and may eventually be put to some beneficial use. You have not been wronged by my organization; rather, it is I who have a complaint to lodge because of the harassment of my agents by yours in a foreign nation. But such bickering only distracts us from our parallel missions. I intend to get back to my tasks and I suggest that you do the same."
He stalked from the room and allowed himself a smile as he picked up his hat at the door. It really had been rather a good exit, he thought. And, if Hoover should carry through his threats to be troublesome, well, there was the possibility a distasteful one, to be sure, but still a possibility that the Thrush receiver might be put to good use.
Pelle wasn't in the habit of standing when men entered the room other than for Hoover and the President, of course but when he saw Solo weaving his way through the crowded restaurant, he found himself on his feet, his hand thrust out. Solo paused, looking Pelle over carefully, before smiling broadly and extending his own hand. With mutual and matching sighs of relief, they sat.
"So," Solo said, motioning the waiter over, where'd you go on your vacation?"
Pelle grimaced. “Vacation? I was on suspension, remember?"
The waiter hovered. "Wine, Joe?" Solo asked, grinning.
"Scotch," Pelle said firmly, and Solo made it two.
"Well, what did you do with yourself?" Solo prodded.
"Cleaned my apartment, played tennis, caught up on reading. Met a girl."
Predictably, the last comment sparked Solo's interest. "More," he demanded.
Pelle shrugged. "It didn't last. We both had other commitments."
Solo looked at him through narrowed eyes. "You okay about it?"
"Sure. Fine. I'm not ready to settle down, either. It was fun while it lasted, and now I'm back on the job, so the timing worked out just about perfect. What have you been up to lately?"
"You know, the old grind. Working for my U.N.C.L.E." He glanced across the room and then back. "I hope you don't mind; I invited someone to join us."
Pelle sighed. He wasn't fine enough that he wanted to be a third wheel while Solo squired one of his women.
It wasn't a woman. It was Kuryakin. Pelle recognized the angular face from photographs circulated around headquarters, but the Russian was shorter than he expected. And the photos did nothing to capture the glacial intensity of the blue eyes.
Solo was encouraging the Russian toward the seat across from Pelle. "Illya Kuryakin, Joe Pelle," Solo said. Kuryakin stood and glared. Pelle sat and glared. "Shake hands, gentlemen," Solo said firmly.
Kuryakin slowly extended a hand. Pelle met it. The Russian's grasp was cool and firm. Just like Solo's. Just like his own, Pelle suspected. He shook his head slightly. It wasn't that simple. Superficial physical similarities meant nothing when one considered the political chasm that separated them.
Kuryakin was speaking, his accent more British than Russian. "I am here at Napoleon's insistence, Mr. Pelle," he was saying. "He has the somewhat romantic notion that dining together can somehow resolve our differences. I disagree."
"I was thinking the same thing," Pelle said, feeling uncomfortably that his mind was being read.
"There," Solo said with a hearty satisfaction. "I knew you two would have something in common."
The waiter was back with the Scotch. "Wodka," Kuryakin ordered, deliberately thickening his accent.
"And tell Marcel that we'll have three orders of whatever's best tonight," Solo added, handing over the menu. When Kuryakin started to protest, he raised his hand. "Marcel has never disappointed me," he said. "And don't tell me you can't afford it because I’m buying.”
Two pairs of eyebrows raised. "Call it a celebration," Solo continued. "We're back in one piece, the job's done, Joe's back at work, all is forgiven. Life is good. All right, Joe, let's hear more about this lady."
He turned to Kuryakin and explained, "Joe spent the past week in the arms of a beautiful…" he turned questioningly to Pelle, who nodded, ". . . a beautiful woman. "
"That's interesting," Kuryakin said dryly. “So did Napoleon."
"The black widow?" Pelle asked.
"You've met Angelique?" Kuryakin studied the FBI agent with new interest.
"In passing. She struck me as a very dangerous companion."
"So I keep telling Napoleon." Two pairs of eyes turned censoriously on Solo, who shrugged.
“They have a history?" Pelle asked.
"Quite a long one, I'm afraid. Only his luck and, I must say, my intervention have kept him alive so far."
"Tsk. Well, I can't say I'm surprised. Korea was the same way. Barmaids and farmer's daughters and ladies of the evening, and every one of them a recipe for disaster of one kind or another. I can't tell you how many times I had to save him myself."
"Gentlemen. Solo tried to intervene, and was ignored.
"Tragically, he has learned little in the intervening years," Kuryakin said. "Angelique is merely the worst of a hazardous lot. You know of Serena?"
"Can't say I do, but I can imagine the type." Pelle sketched a curvaceous shape in the air. “Flashy dresser, well-padded bank account, fast car, dark intentions…"
Kuryakin nodded. "Exactly. The last time they were together, she turned him over to her Thrush superiors and arranged for a double to take his place. I had no end of trouble rescuing him."
"Hey, I escaped on my own that time," Solo began, but no one was listening. "See," he muttered, his eyes falling on the redhead smiling at him from behind Kuryakin's left shoulder, "I knew you two would have something in common."